A/N: Been a while. I've been writing miles and miles of fics, but I haven't been posting. They're all Merlin anyway. But this is Danny. Might be my last Danny. Who knows. Anyway, Happy Valentine's Day. :)
EDIT 3/27/16: Definitely not my last Danny. Fixed some grammar and poor word choice.
Summary: Danny takes a dare that's got him in over his head. First person.* Fluff, teenager angst, and gray ghost (Danny/Valerie); complete. *To prove I could pull it off.
A Date Without a Kiss…
Isn't a Date
I'm not exactly someone who complained about Valentine's Day because I was single. I always had this impression that Valentine's Day was a reason for old couples to remember that they were supposed to give each other spontaneous gifts, to take them out on romantic dates and remind their other halves that while they've been busy with the throws of normal life they haven't forgotten about the other. It's a reminder, I think, for my dad to get out a cookbook and bake that ugly chocolate cake he burns every year; and then he'll pull out tickets to the drive-in's latest special showing to prove he's still worth at least something. The tickets will be freshly printed from Jazz's computer and slipped under the table after mom makes a face that says dad used too much baking soda and forgot about sugar.
They won't get home until after midnight. I didn't used to know that until my life decided it wasn't going to be normal anymore and I was going to be woken up at odd hours of the night. I never know what they've been doing, but in the morning the fridge will have a couple of unfinished frozen yogurts and a half empty pizza box. I actually used to like Valentine's Day; it was the day everyone in school gave me cards and Sam would sign her name by turning the 'a' into a little black-ink heart. But, then again, that was before high school. That was before my life decided to get weird.
Years ago, an accident changed my genes. And I'm not spelling that wrong, I don't mean I went from denim to black because I was undergoing rebellion and blue jeans just weren't angsty enough for this neon-bright family. I mean my actual, double-helix chromosome-stuffed genetic code. Jazz says it was an accidental suicide mixed into a cocktail of afterlife and real life; I'm an impossible margarita of oil and water that continue to stay mixed no matter how much time you let it sit.
I just think it's another creative way to say zombie. Or the undead. I've always put it like I was one of those hospitalized vegetables except my body's the thing that's not working and my brain is. I don't necessarily mind being dead or half dead or a ghost and a human, it was interesting once I got the hang of it. But becoming this thing turned me into a whole new species, and I've gotta tell say, the other half of my people – the dead half – isn't easy to cope with. Their very nature is based in emotion, and those who are based in vengeance, anger, misery; I'm in their way. Or I have to stand in their way. Obligation. A hero's burden.
Humans are food. I must be very confusing for them; I am my own food, technically, so I don't feel the need to get my energy out of living things. I think a lot of them think I can't understand them - I'm not ghost enough for the ghosts. We have emotions and they are emotion; we're like their tequila, and I'm the guy checking their ID cards to see if they're underage. (I'm referring to humans as "us" because I'm as much "us" with a human as I am with a ghost; I'm not half and half, I am one and one, I am both.) Anyway, if there's one thing ghosts love, it's when humans have a reason to be emotional.
Take Valentine's Day. Officially, my most hated holiday. There's nothing else like it. There is no other holiday based on emotion like Valentine's Day. Halloween? Please. Drunk parties and children aren't scary enough. Christmas? If not for the anti-attack truce, it might be a different story. However, Christmas is the safest day of the year (not sure how they even respect religions, being the antithesis of religion, but I haven't asked). Now, Valentine's Day? Hello, welcome to hormones and drama central. Single people who are unhappy, couples who are busy mooning. It's delicious. They love it. It makes Amity a target. I have not gone a single Valentine's Day since my change – and inadvertent opening of a permanent portal for all the darkness to seep through – that was peaceful. First it was invasion of the flying ghost rats (plus dragons). Then it was criminals in tattered suits with a grudge against nightclubs (plus biker gangs). And last year it was every female with glowing hair that I've ever met throwing themselves at undergraduates upstate (Ember, genuinely, felt cheated out of the college experience and decided to get it; she asked me to be designated guardian, and I cannot say I had a good time).
This year, I've locked the portal down – not just locked it down, I've shut it down. The crack between the worlds won't stay closed forever (the veil is too unstable to keep closed; it'll tear the house apart and half the town if it's forced inactive for too long) and I find myself having an actually peaceful morning. I'm warmed by the way my parents are flirting over breakfast rather than getting that usual stomach-pit feeling of unease that always accompanied the thought of my parents, well. Who says I even need to mention that bit.
However, Murphy's Law and I have a bet that I always lose. If it's going right, it's wrong. And I discover that I've lost another gamble when I get to school. It's not a ghost, it's not a mind controlling psychopath, it's not even Sam's gross descriptions of how to dissect people without staining your clothes (she's taken to reading her gothic magazines out loud again). Nope. It's not even the way Paulina pretends my "hello's" don't exist. …It's actually the star-white embossed DP on her pink chest. And the balloons in the shape of my face. And the gross conception that you can somehow turn a green ectoblast into a teddy bear that holds a box of my very own Danny-Phantom love note hearts. Or at least I think it's supposed to be an ectoblast because it couldn't possibly be a teddy bear intentionally colored to look like snot.
It's not like I haven't heard the rumors that there was a shop on 13th Street (of all places) opening up that was going to be selling "an assortment of ghost memorabilia" because all of my friends and even my sister have taken a keen interest in showing me fliers, posters, and signing me up for news emails. I've just been too busy making sure I didn't look to realize it'd be opening so soon. And selling…there's a packet of Skulker shaped gummies taped to my locker and I know Tucker's intent on making my life miserable. Everyone, couples and all, are holding something from that store and not a single thing resembles any other ghost than my alter-ego.
The Skulker gummies are oddly out of place as I stuff them into my pocket and get down to the task of jimmying my locker combination. The lock's been smashed so many times you'd think it'd just fall off and let everything tumble out; just the opposite, actually. It's become nearly impossible to get open and I have to be ninja accurate with the code. I'm so focused on landing just left of 7 that I don't notice my best friend sidle up to me until he speaks. "School's being invaded by ghosts!" He announces comically, but it's like something screeching and I jump – the lock lands on six. I hiss and start over.
Tucker chuckles, "Well, one ghost. Well, technically, you—" I shove my elbow into his gut and he replaces speech with a sudden need to breathe. I know he's being a jerk and enjoying it, but I can't help reflecting over how much money I'm not making from the people who are selling the rights to my face. I'm sure that today's profits could buy me a new car. Or a house. I could be one of those rich guys on cribs with four girlfriends and a funny robot that makes me orange juice with grilled cheese sandwiches. "Does it not hurt you that virtually every girl in the school is fawning over me right now?" I bite, trying to wound his ego before he digs deeper into mine.
"Does it not hurt you?" Right on time the girl standing next to me gets a card with my face on it from her boyfriend. He doesn't even flinch at the fact that she kisses my face because a second later she's kissing his. I roll my eyes, "I swear to God, Tucker, Phantom could get any girl in this school to go out with him. But Fenton? I don't have a snowball's chance in Hell."
Tucker waggled his eyebrows at a passing freshman (dear God, he's gone after the younger ones) but she has the sense to know what a lost cause looks like and picks up her pace. Somewhere down the hall, a tall girl with broad shoulders and a pixie haircut wraps an arm over her shoulder and we both share a look like another one bites the dust and sigh. "I don't think so, though." Tucker pops a little heart candy in his mouth and offers me a bite. It's pink and reads not a chance, slimy! which is neither romantic or one of my best comebacks.
"You think a snowball has a chance in Hell?" The code is undone but now it's up to elbow work to scrape my locker into an open position. There are only three books inside and I've been standing here for five minutes to retrieve a history book that's under dad's embroidery set.
Tucker's got a face that suggests he's about to spit out the candy or is somehow enjoying the marriage of lemon and cayenne pepper. I can't be sure which so I pop the heart in my mouth to find out; it's the former. "I mean Phantom can't get any girl he wants." Tucker clarified. I rolled my eyes; of course Sam didn't count so I told him as much.
He shakes his head and wears the grin that suggests he knows everything there is to know about the world. This is a facial expression that used to make me feel immature and small, but that was before I learned that Tucker was so good at being wrong he could make a career out of it. "You think Phantom couldn't?" I ask and lift an eyebrow, because we're surrounded by plastic pink evidence that begs to differ.
"I bet Phantom couldn't."
Now, any sensible person bets twenty dollars and then never shows the money. Because we're students and we're broke and that's what we do. Betting is the slang of our universe but it never holds any weight; except here. I'm dead and I need distractions. If there's no stakes, there's no fun and therefore no point. So I slam my locker shut and lean against it, "How much?"
"Homework." He's instantly speaking my language, Tucker's lost enough bets he's become an expert at my handwriting. Most of our classes are exactly the same so he just takes the quality of his work down a peg when he does my work for me. I'm normally too busy not getting skinned by monsters to bother with school, and homework is my favorite bet to take. "And if I lose…?"
"You possess Katie Fry's parents into letting her go on a date with me." I frown. Katie Fry, the only girl who actually laughs when Tucker makes a joke and admits that game design and programming are "the coolest things on the planet." Tucker's had a thing for her since the beginning of last year when she admitted she'd go to the movies with him if her parents wouldn't ground her until the end of eternity. She hasn't had much to do with him since, but it's all Tucker's been talking about for a decade. I sigh, "Tuck, you know I can't just—"
"Until the end of the year." I blink and Tucker pushes up his glasses and puffs up his chest, "If I lose I'll do all of your homework until the end of the year."
He's serious. He's dead serious. I know it when Tucker's determined and I know it when he's being a fool; right now he's both. He just dangled a chance to actually graduate this year and weighed it against a bet that would break my moral standard and invade someone's body for personal gain. …But it's not like the stakes of me loosing are all that high. Phantom really could get any girl in this school, boyfriend or no boyfriend, anywhere on the spectrum. Because I'm Edward Cullen and they're the twelve-year-old Twilight fanbase. "…Conditions?" I ask.
He's victorious and he knows it, because I never ask conditions unless I'm in. "I pick the girl, and it can only be her—"
"No Sam." I cut in sharply.
He deflates and it's me who's victorious this time. "Fine. Condition two; you have to go on a full date. And it doesn't count if it doesn't end in a kiss."
"That's ridiculous," I argue because at this point I'm one hundred percent sure he's going to pick the butch girl with the red-lipstick girlfriend and somehow I can't picture kissing her no matter how much of an interest a superstar ghost could be. "I'm not going to kiss some stranger, Tuck. That's just not right." She could be a freshman.
"It has to be willingly on her side." Tucker clarified, like he was thinking I would force it. I scowl and he mirrors the upside-down to my frown. "And I am offering a whole year of homework…"
Graduation sticks in my mind again like goo. "Fine." I grit through my teeth. I studiously lick my hand and hold it out to him; the technique is old school and elementary, and I know Tucker's developed a germaphobic personality so I watch him squirm for a minute before his spits on his own palm and takes up mine and in a firm grasp. "We have a deal." At the end of those words, I have no idea why they unnerve me; like I've just signed a contract with a demon at a crossroads and the cost is my soul.
I sit back against my locker and watch a pair of letterman jackets pass me. They're the ones Sam's always commenting on because they always flirt with the satellites but never end up with one. I don't know how she becomes aware of this type of gossip but give Sam a gaydar and she turns it into a hunt. The idea is so seared into my mind I always wonder as I watch them if you can see anything vibrant between the two, but there's nothing. I'm "hopelessly blind" with relationships. Sam would tell you there's invisible electricity between their not-touching hands; I would tell you there's a physical electricity when those hands punch you in the face. I should know.
Tucker's eating more of the bitter-sweet but more bitter than sweet heart candies. "I hope this hurts." He reads aloud. I don't think there's a possible way I can say that line ever again without turning beat red and glare at Tucker for ruining it for me. He pretends to be smug and slides it between his teeth, speaking through candy and turning his voice into a gargoyle's rusty movie drama. "I have made my choice." He grumbles like he's grating two rough stones together.
I roll my eyes and try to remember what her name is, the girl with the pixie hair and football jerseys that are too big for her. I want to remember it before Tucker says it, and I'm focusing so hard I actually don't hear him. But I'm certain that the name wasn't the one I was trying to think of. "What?" I ask.
He picks something out of his teeth and pulls out his pinky finger for inspection. Satisfied, he wipes the remains of saliva on his shirt and casually repeats the very last name I thought I'd hear. "Valerie Grey."
My jaw slackens and I stare at him wide-eyed. He flashes me a grin and the bell rings, so he bolts off in the direction of Felucia's dust-smelling classroom. I'm left dumb, standing in the hallway as students carrying DP-embossed chocolate hearts and stomach acid green teddy bears parade by me and don't even notice that a rug has been yanked from underneath my feet. How, I wonder, did I forget to put her on my list of girls that don't count?
If there's anyone in this school that would rather be skinned alive than go on a date with the elusive Danny Phantom, it's Valerie Grey. Because she's not Valerie grey, at least not in the time between school and a job at any fast food restaurant that can handle her vanishing acts and unsteady hours. To me, well to Phantom she's the Red Huntress—and the most bloodthirsty enemy of all ghost kind.
No matter where the rest of the world stands, to the Red Huntress Phantom will always be public enemy number one.
In short, I'm screwed. The bell rings again, and I'm also late for class.
Sam's nose-deep in her gothic magazines again. Or maybe it's one of those really gory graphic novels with the people who get their arms and legs cut off and they make really detailed drawings of blood pooling everywhere and bits of bone sticking out. She ignores me sitting down next to her and I assume it's because if she looks up her eyes will be assaulted by a nauseating amount of pink. I don't think this school has ever had a Valentine's Day with so many participants. The horribly timed advent of Phantom merch on the market has super-inflated the holiday.
I wonder vaguely exactly how cheap this stuff is. There's only so much dough you can convince students to fork over before they realize they don't have enough gas money to last the week; somehow I think this month is going to gain an overload of kids who need public transportation. Sam slides a home-packed lunch my direction without turning her eyes away. The moment she gets her fingers off it she relaxes and I smile secretly. Twenty says this sandwich has actual meat in it. I open up the bag and am not disappointed by a store-bought wrapped item, the Scholen Grocers label informing me of Ham and Turkey with Swiss cheese on white bread. I happily tear off the sticky plastic wrap.
There was a day when I realized that between my downright hazardous kitchen that could magically re-animate a Thanksgiving feast and the equally infected mystery meat slop the cafeteria fed us, I was utterly lost when it came to getting a decent lunch. When Sam noticed that I was skipping the meal altogether, she insisted that I of all people shouldn't have hunger on my list of things to worry about. She took to packing a lunch for me, but a guy can only eat so much tofu before he gets sick. So she buys me things, and I'm more than thankful that she's decided to leave her vegetarian opinion out of it.
I keep promising myself I'm going to pay her back if I ever get a real job. I think that if Valerie can somehow balance ghost hunting and job keeping, then I should be able to too.
I set the sandwich down and tap my fingers impatiently just as Tucker sits across from us. He's still wearing that victorious smirk he's had all day. "Katie lives somewhere uptown." He tells me slyly, "I'm not exactly sure where but you're a big boy, you can have the honor of following her home."
"I'm surprised you haven't done that already." I comment dryly, taking a bite of my sandwich so I have an excuse not to talk; it's been smeared with a thick coat of mayonnaise and dribbles a little bit of vinegar. I reflect on how food seems to be the only thing left in today that can make me smile and I'm not really sure what that says about me. Suddenly I'm thinking in terms of Fast Food Nation.
"Why is Tucker telling you to stalk Katie Fry?" Sam's question pulls me back to reality; her face is in the inky confines of her book. "I thought you two didn't bet people."
"We don't, I'm not." I reply, "Tucker's doing my homework till the end of the year."
I shoot him a glare and he responds with a smug flip of his hand. Sam's amethyst eyes appear over the edge of a shining black cover with a white raven embossed in the center, its long claws entangled in a bloody massacre that can only be a human heart. "That's a big one, Tuck. What's got you so convinced he'll lose it?" I seldom lost, and her metal ringed eyebrow rose to reflect the lights overhead.
I made a frantic motion to shush him, but Tucker has an evil, evil heart. He held his arms out wide like he could fit the entire world inside his grasp, "Danny Phantom's gotta get a date with the trigger-happy goddess of angst."
She dropped the book. It landed with a clatter on her small tupperware of mashed potatoes and green beans. "Danny." Oh, how that voice demanded I lift my eyes from the table to look at her; but I couldn't bring myself to so much as flinch. "Do not tell me he means Valerie." Her name was like a curse.
"I mean Valerie." Tucker clarified. I could feel the smugness from here.
Two pointy fingernails dug into my arm in an iron-hard pinch. I yelped and jerked away, in my surprise accidentally looking up to see her eyes turn into sharp daggers and carve holes into me. "I was tricked into it!" I defended sharply, but my argument was weak next to her fury. Sam could flip a switch from zero to screaming in under 2.3 seconds, an event I seldom enjoyed and wanted to sink down all the way into a puddle in my sneakers. "I – Sam, don't look at me like that. It's not what you think."
"It's not what I think?" She growled, "You know what I think? Valerie will kill you the moment she's got the chance. What're you thinking, huh? Waltzing up to her and asking her out, because you're just so smooth and confident that she'll be swept up off her feet? Think it's a cute little Valentine joke?"
I could picture it very well. Phantom shimmers into view, walks up to Val while she's putting things in her locker. A little alarm will go off on her wrist and alert her to my presence, she'll turn around with a gun to put a hole through my chest. Everyone would watch me fall, mouth open... "Yes." I say suddenly, an idea fermenting, "That's actually…a great idea, Sam."
"What?" It's a hiss. Or a bark. Or both. Sam's a snake with beady red eyes and a tongue that lashes out like fire. I give her my best fake smile, it's the one I use for my parents when they think they see a bruise or notice that the stain on my shirt might not be ketchup. "Samantha, my darling," I wink broadly at her, "You must have faith in my smoothness and confidence. What Tucker doesn't get," I lean in really secretly but whisper loud enough for him to hear, "Is that I never take a bet I won't win."
When she storms off I think she knows I'm lying.
It's amazing how the day after Valentine's Day is so normal. Bouquets of balloons that bobbed across the ceiling, teddy bears the size of fat children, boxes of candy hearts, and couples cooing down the hallway holding hands…they all vanish into memories. They're ghosts, the figurative kind. Even the red paper hearts our leadership club spent tireless hours taping to every available wall surface have gone, leaving only the occasional area where the tape carried a chip of yellow paint away.
I wish my life could turn back to normal as quickly as this empty hallway. I'm making my way to Spanish class without any homework – without even a backpack, because my unfortunate route to school got interrupted and the old backpack dad dug out of the garage for me last month got incinerated. I'm going to have to buck up and ask Sam to help me buy a new one, which is humiliating – but it's less humiliating than bringing my homework to school in a plastic grocery bag.
It's not like my family is so poor we can't afford it – the influx of ghosts that plague the city are income enough to keep us afloat, and my parents even severed the support of government grants a couple of years ago. "If we can afford to buy our own equipment," my dad explained to me, "Then we don't need to waste someone else's taxes." They really stopped because the GIW were monitoring what they were buying and replicating Fenton weapons after that information. But it's good for dad to play American Patriot sometimes; even with his save-the-world attitude, though, I don't think he can justify constantly buying me new backpacks without asking why the others were disappearing.
There's an actual limit to my excuses. I can only say bullies, ghosts ate it, and I lost it while I was in the mall so many times. I don't want to push my luck this close to the end of high school, so Sam it is. I turn the corner and I'm almost to class when I run directly into a wall. Well, bouncing off of it like water, I realize the wall is a Beatles T-shirt with a spaceship flying through the middle of their familiar faces. My gaze scales the length of the grey shirt and all the way up to Dash's spiky bleached hair. "Fenton." He growls.
"Baxter." I reply, equally unamused. The only difference between my humor and his was that I was probably going to be the one stuck inside of a locker for my cheek. He's got a bathroom pass in his hands and I assume he's taking a nice break from being in class, which does not bode well for me. I'm the distraction. He can go back to virtually any teacher thirty minutes after this and say, I saw Fenton leaving campus so I caught him and took him to the disciplinary office. When in actuality I'm getting my arm twisted and shoved in a dumpster until he decides it's time to drag me up three flights of stairs and then back down them, and then plant me in a chair next to the front office claiming I'm a heroin addict who needs serious help.
I'm tempted to knock his lights out. Today's not one of those days where I feel like playing victim. "You gonna let me by? Kinda late." I step to the side but so does he. Wonderful. Not exciting. I sigh, because I might as well admit that I'm never going to learn Spanish anyway. "I didn't realize we had a date planned," I deadpan, "If you pick the movie, can I pick dinner?"
At least I get to brace myself for the strike that slams into my jaw and tosses me off my feet. Lucky for me, I've learned how to take a hit. I've learned how to tighten my jaw so that my teeth don't slam together. I've learned the best ways to turn and how to tense up my muscles so they're like rocks when somebody decides to kick with steel-toed boots. I've learned how to handle someone stomping on an arm like it's a twig. But most importantly, I've learned how to not cry.
I don't cry now. Dash is cautious – he stops abruptly and walks away quickly, as if realizing an exposed hallway isn't the best place to beat someone to a pulp. I'm still on the ground when the bell rings to let everyone out of class, but I have the sense to make myself invisible. They walk through me like I am nothing more than the air in their lungs.
I sort of think that maybe that's all I really am.
I just want to make it clear that I am not schizophrenic. I don't have two personalities that war with each other while I'm sleeping, and they don't trade places under my skin whenever I change. I change, my genetics do this weird little fizzy dance and my DNA goes all ballerina and unwinds into a whole new shape, but my personality is intact. My hair is the color of snow, my face becomes more hollow, my eyes are glowing and my clothes are replaced by a familiar old uniform. But I am still me. Still Danny. Fenton or Phantom.
I stare into the mirror to try and find the bruise that has been making the bottom half of my face look like a spoiled tomato. There is a faint shadow under my alarmingly pale skin, but it's nearly a trick of the light. Nonexistent. I crack a smile, and the stranger that grins back at me is someone who is confident and powerful. "Honey you know it." I tell the mirror and wink suggestively.
Unlike Fenton, Phantom can melt hearts. I've slipped into the skin of a movie star and I can feel my self esteem climbing up the cliff it just jumped off of. There's nothing as intoxicating as the raw energy of a purely emotional being after a really bad day. …So long as the emotion was a good one. And I was determined to put myself in a wonderful mood. The next period was ending for a lunch break in two minutes, and I was in the girl's bathroom directly across the hall from the locker I would need to be at. The major obstacle I have to worry about is the fact that this room is right next to the cafeteria, and this area is going to be buzzing with people – but that's all part of the plan.
Phantom can part people like Moses parted the seas. It should be easy. Between my hands I twiddle with a long white rose that I stole from a satellite's bouquet yesterday and hid inside of my locker. The petals were a little bit wilted but after putting the stem inside some water it's managed to perk up just enough. The cold touch of my hands send the stem a simple command, an extension of me that slips over the rose like an old cloak and I can still feel the long, knobbed stem, but the flower is gone.
The clock above me ticks – I set it a long time ago to fall directly on the hour mark at the exact same time that the bell would. (It's amazing how school clocks are always off by so many seconds.) I like this bathroom, it's my under the radar hideout. Everything inside is set to my needs, and I don't pay any attention to the destroyed bathroom stalls the school couldn't convince any insurance company to cover. I pay careful attention to keep my shoes from touching the floor or the walls; they're coated with an anti-ghost serum courtesy of FentonWorks. After the caution tape went up on the door two summers ago I painted the room with three coats.
I should make a very important note that I'm not a masochist. I don't enjoy being zapped every time I brush up against a wall. But anti-ecto paint has as many weaknesses as it does strengths, and it blocks my signature from hunters. In this little box, I can be the other half of me without fear that somewhere out there, Valerie's got a wrist watch that's going crazy. She has this thing about shooting anything that glows, and unlike in gym class she doesn't follow the no-headshots rule.
"Homework for a year." I tell myself with a forced grin, the image of Valerie pulling the miniature pistol from her purse looping over and over in my mind. I'm protected, I remind myself. The Huntress will not expose herself in front of a crowd of people; she's kept this secret too long for that. I'm the king of secrets and I know how this works; the longer it's kept the harder it is to even hint that there's a truth to be had. And four years is a very long time to be keeping secrets of that magnitude.
God help me if she finds me alone. After a stunt like this every encounter with her will be a narrow escape. But I can't help the tingle of excitement that coils in my stomach when the bell rings. Despite our challenges, I've always had a thing for Valerie. She was one of the exceptional few who paid attention to Fenton and didn't care about Phantom. Well, sure, she wanted to kill Phantom but she really liked Fenton, and that made all the difference for me.
I count for about a minute, which is all the time she'll need to navigate from the biology classroom upstairs to her locker downstairs. Hoping my timing is right, I let myself slip into invisibility and squeeze the door handle – it zaps my skin but I ignore it. I swing the door open and I slide through the caution tape that blocked off the bathroom.
Just as I close the door behind me, the familiar beep of a ghost alarm chirps.
I wouldn't have heard it if I wasn't listening for it, not over the sound of regular gossip, and by the time I found Valerie's messy tangle of curly hair she was yanking her backpack out of her locker (presumably having just put it there) and slamming the metal door shut. She was about to do one of her disappearing acts into this very same bathroom. No time to lose.
The blonde triplets who moved here from Wisconsin are standing right next to me when I let go of my invisibility. The two who don't have their back turned take my appearance calmly – for about a half a second. And then they scream in unison, grabbing their sister and ripping her away. A sophomore boy with curly red hair runs into me, surprised by my sudden appearance. He starts to apologize and then freezes. Tumbling like dominoes, they all freeze. Even Valerie.
She is stunned by my arrival, I see it in her face. It's not my style and I can see the gears turning; soon she'll restart, soon she'll duck into a dark corner and come out the Red Huntress. I can't let that happen, so I slap on a silly grin before she has time to remember what her legs are supposed to do, "Valerie Grey." I greet her like I'm talking to a friend.
From my perspective, I am.
Half of the shocked eyes around me zero in on Valerie and she shifts uncomfortably, realizing the focus is on her. The students are not running; Phantom is a rock star. He is not a threat. Why is he talking to Valerie? They start to whisper and I know they're going to start shouting, so I take a step forward. I think I have a smile on my face but I can't be sure. "I have something for you." The rose materializes, as if it's made of magic, inside of my hands. I set it in the crook of her arm between her t-shirt and her binder. Our gazes meet and I have to make sure I do not dive away – that gaze is so full of hate that I'm sure she's going to pull out that pistol and shoot me.
But she doesn't move. She glares and promises me without words that she is going to flay my skin over a bonfire. I return her venom with a sweet smile, because I have nothing else to give. "Valerie," I say her name like it is honey, because it is. I know under all that armor what she's like when she's kind, when she doesn't think I'm evil – and we are friends. We have favorite movies in common and she can name more constellations than my mother. "I wanted to know…" I touch her hand and she flinches, like she is being burned and forced to endure it. "If you wanted to catch a movie?"
She is going to hit me. I think she's going to make it more painful than my encounter with Dash earlier today and I brace myself; but the hushed silence around us, the crowd waits for an answer like this is the final episode of The Bachelor and nothing happens. I remind myself to breathe, and her eyes are searching mine. Her chin begins to wobble and I prepare myself for the verbal attack. But her eyes that were full of hate are filling up with tears, and she turns heel and forces her way through the crowd.
They part for her, the red sea. She runs from me as fast as her feet can carry her and the long-stemmed white rose falls to the floor.
It's really scary how good I am at pretending nothing's wrong. When I was a kid, I used to be the worst liar in my grade. I cheated off a spelling test in the first grade, even though I knew exactly how to spell the word wind but I just wanted to know what it was like to be a cheater. When the teacher walked by me I grabbed her blue plaid skirt and broke down about what horrible a person I was– I even told her that the night before I stole a one of Jazz's My Little Pony's and blamed it on a ghost but it wasn't a ghost it was me.
To say that I've done a complete 180 is an understatement. I've got a mask that can fool a lie detector into thinking I'm telling the truth; I could name four different alibis for I where I was last night and be able to present substantial evidence on all of them. So when I'm asked where exactly the bruise on my jaw came from, my shoulders instantly slope and the lie slides between my teeth like grease. "Dash." I say, and then realize that this is actually the truth and the thing I'm usually covering up isn't even part of the subject matter. Huh.
I gesture for her to take the seat across from me that Sam usually occupies; she's stormed out on me during lunch after hearing what exactly everyone was buzzing about Phantom. Tucker I managed to narrowly escape by telling him that my dad was going to borrow me to help him with lab tests today and he vanished like vapor. I came to the Nasty Burger, ordered a bunch of fries, and sat at our favorite table alone. I suppose a piece of me knew Val would come to sit with me when her shift ended. "How're you holding up?"
Of course I've "heard" about what happened to her today. The whole school knows. Hell, the whole town knows. For all I can think of she'll probably be with a reporter on sixty minutes tonight to talk about her harrowing encounter with the dangerous ghost-hunting teen and they'll strike up yet another juicy discussion; Danny Phantom, hero or villain? I can almost hear Valerie's seething tone "All ghosts are evil." She'll tell the reporter, "And Phantom's the most dangerous of them all."
"I'm…" Val trails off and shakes her head. I'm dangerous because they trust me, she'll warn them just as my parents warn them. She'll say that trusting Phantom is just exactly what he wants, that letting our guard down will give him the perfect opportunity to strike. All ghosts are evil, therefore Phantom must be evil. …Neither of those theories are true, but I'm the son of the city ghost hunters. I'm supposed to believe in these dark philosophies. I go out on a limb, "I think he's trying to get your attention."
"You think?" She growls and steals a handful of my fries. They're a little cold, but she doesn't notice. "I'm going to kill him. He approached me at school, he singled me out and there was – nothing, nothing I could do!" She huffed, "That evil bastard. To think I believed he at least had the decency to keep his fights as far away from campus as possible."
I do, actually, do my best to draw the ghosts away from the school. But high school is an emotional battleground and they're drawn to it like flies to honey; in the past, when we're fighting something too big to worry about each other, the Red Huntress and I would even work together to draw the ghost away from Casper High. She'll still shoot a little friendly fire in my direction to remind me we're still enemies, but over the years Red and I have hit a sort of common ground. When there's another ghost present, fight that and get it out of the way. Phantom's not a threat right now.
I think today I've burned down that carefully constructed bridge. Maybe Fenton has the power to do something about it, "Val," I say, "I think he did it because he can't talk to you any other way." She pins me down with a hateful glare, but I'm comfortable because it's not nearly as severe as the one she regularly gives my alter ego. "Think about it. Red Huntress shoots first and asks questions never. How else do you expect him to get a word in?"
"There isn't anything to say!" She shoots back at me, fury binding up her fists and crushing the remains of a greasy fry. Over the years, Val has kept the knowledge that my friends and I know her secret as an aloof kind of I-don't-care attitude. Unless if it's just her and me; because I've discovered that, apparently, I'm the only person on the planet she can vent her real problems to. I wonder how painful she'll make my death if she ever finds out I am her "real" problems. "He's the enemy, Danny. And now he's – he's not being fair."
"I think you're the one who started to play dirty first." Neuron bombs. Trackers that have to be carved out of my legs with a hunting knife. High-frequency sound attacks that make my ears bleed. This girl is so lucky I don't fight back. "Besides, most girls think a date with Phantom's like a date with Johnny Depp. You'll be famous."
"I'll be Paulina." She comments dryly and she's able to turn that name into as much of a curse as Sam does. I don't really get how my two female best friends can turn the idea of being popular and pretty into the world's greatest nightmare. Especially Valerie, who used to be one of the plastic cut-out satellites that orbited Planet Paulina and followed her around like a Peter Pan's lost boy since middle school. But I suppose I know more than anybody that sacrificing your identity to become a hunter changes you more than just physically. "You know he's evil." She says under her breath.
I shrug. "All I know is that one day, you came up to me and told me Phantom just saved your life. And you weren't sure what to think. …But that's the day I decided not all ghosts are evil." Our eyes meet across the table and I'm a lovesick kid again, lost in her strange shade of teal eyes. I imagine all the days we could have had together if she didn't think ghosts put me in danger, if she thought I could handle them…if she knew I was Phantom, and accepted it.
In a moment our eye contact is broken and the feeling leaves me aching and hurt. It was never my decision to break it off…I don't really think it was hers, either. The two of us are torn by responsibility. "I wish things could go back to the way they were." She whispers, and I know she's talking about a day that never happened, a day when she wasn't burdened by a need for popularity or a thirst for blood; a day where she could be free to do as she wishes.
Valerie is strong. She's learned how to take a blow. She's learned how to hide her secrets so deep under her skin you have to peel back the bone to find them. She's learned how to keep her emotions in check so that nobody sees the volcano seething deep inside. But most importantly, she's learned how to not cry.
She doesn't cry now. But I can feel it in the desperate way she searches my face like she's looking for something to hold on to. I know that deep down, we're the same; we're both trapped by the ghosts of our past, and we have the sense not to believe in something as childish as hope.
I wonder if we ever will.
- Valerie -
Fireflies are my favorite bugs. When my mom was still alive, we used to be able to afford little vacations down to a small town tucked in the Midwest with a nice cabin that smelled like dew and coffee in the mornings, that would transform into a mixture of wood smoke and cherry pie in the evenings. I used to sit outside on the porch in my dad's lap; that was my favorite place to eat pie. We'd watch the fireflies sparkle in the twilight, jumping in and out of existence every time they glowed. He used to give me an old mason jar with a streak of red finger paint on it and said that if I can catch any, he promises I can take them home and make a nightlight.
I spent hours running around in the darkness, trapping the lid over an unsuspecting bug. Once I got what was enough to be a suitable nightlight, dad gave me his Swiss Army knife and told me to cut holes in the top of the lid so that the bugs could breathe. I took that knife and I stabbed perfect circles into the top of that jar. When I came back to him to victoriously show him my prize, he laughed out loud. "The bugs are gone!" he teased.
I was shocked to find I was holding an empty jar. "They can walk through walls!" I exclaimed.
"No, baby," Dad chuckled. "You just made the holes big enough for them to escape through."
I've grown up now, that old cabin reeks too much of my mother that dad no longer has any heart to visit it. Not like we have the money to anymore anyway, and it's just another place where memories can haunt us. But I like to think about those peaceful nights sometimes, wishing I could go back to that time when I was innocent. When I had no idea what was coming.
I still have the old jar, stained with a thumb print of red, dusty and cracked. I don't know why I've kept it all this time, but it's got a special value for me. Sometimes when I've stayed up far too late to be thinking clearly I get out that jar and sit under my lamp, inspecting it. Phantom is my new firefly. He appears and vanishes like the lights of their tails, gone just as quickly as they existed and not even my best tracking systems can find him once he's decided to disappear.
And no matter what, everytime I manage to catch him, he slips through the holes I've carved in the top. I've long convinced myself that hunting Phantom is the most impossible task on the planet – most every other hunter has agreed with me. We never talk about it, never mention it, but Phantom's a ghost that really doesn't exist because he slips through your fingers like cupping water. There's no trap that can hold him.
I never stop trying, of course; if I did that would end the game and I can't afford to admit defeat. None of us can, not the Fenton's, not the GIW, not even Masters and his shadow-game he plays against Phantom like a chessboard. I don't know when my stance on him shifted, when I stopped focusing on him and started to focus on the reason he showed up. Phantom only ever shows up when there's another ghost, he only ever fights them and never his own hunters. I am reluctantly on the same side as him; the enemy of my enemy is my temporary ally.
But he is dangerous. He is powerful. And I know that he can turn like a switch is being flipped. I don't even think he believes in his own abilities, but if Phantom really wanted to attack…Amity Park wouldn't stand a chance. That's why we fight. That's why when he smiles at me for shooting a giant eight legged glowing tarantula off of him I make sure to shoot for the space between his eyes so he knows it's not okay to think us friends. It's not okay to believe we're on the same page. Deep down under that cocky demeanor, he's got darkness. On the day it rears its ugly head, I'm going to be ready.
This has been our balance, the careful walk across a tightrope that can't stand to support an ounce more weight. Yesterday, Phantom took a pair of scissors and cut the rope into tiny pieces, throwing me into a freefall. I have no idea how far down the ground is, but I know there is no safety net below to catch me when I hit. A walk through the crowded hallways of Casper High falls into silence, they stare at me and all I want to do is get to class and hide my face behind a mountain of busywork. Why did he do it? To humiliate me, that's the obvious answer. I stop by my locker and yank it open, my head is ducked. I almost don't notice the notes that have been slipped through the top. Curious, I pick up the first little piece of paper; folded pink stationery. I flip it open and I'd recognize Paulina's perfect loopy handwriting anywhere. In the sixth grade I tried for weeks to replicate her saucy little s's.
I crinkle it up in disgust, the next note is not even folded but it's a whole lot longer. I realize what it is instantly, those pretty perfectly round a's that Star used to sign birthday cards with. Half of the words I didn't even know were in her vocabulary and she must be the daughter of a sailor because they're so filthy. I yank my English notebook from underneath them and a stack of shifty papers spill to the floor, calling me names I didn't know existed.
As I practically run to class I see their stony faces tucked in the crowd, watching me and hating that I exist. I've done nothing to deserve this, and all I can think of is how slowly I will kill him. But as I sneak into English and Sam Manson breaks off half a snickers bar and hands it to me, her lax body not really caring that I'm here, I feel a warm sort of confidence return to me. I'm not sure what does it, but then I see her shoot a defensive glare at a few satellites and I realize that I am not alone.
If there's any perk to being the object of hate, it's having someone else to be an object of hate with you. Danny enters and slides into place a couple paces in front of me. He's oblivious to the bruise on his arm and a small cut under his ear that's still bleeding. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I'm surrounded by people I belong with.
I stoop down to pull out my homework, and in the corner of my eye Danny is doing the same thing. He's got a soft blue lunchbox that has a really old batman cartoon on the cover, and struggles open the beat-up zipper. Inside there are pencils and scraps of paper, like he has turned it into a makeshift backpack. He carefully slips a folded piece of pink stationery into the pouch where cold things are supposed to go and quickly zips it back up.
I spend the rest of the period wondering why he has collected Paulina's hate mail.
TGIF. Thank God It's Friday. I usually like to read it as if the whole thing is capitalized and someone is screaming THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY! That's the only thing I can think after lunch. People are staring at me, whispering as I pass. A lot of people are muttering things like "whore" loud enough for me to hear. I don't remember doing things like that when I was a in a clique, but I'm not new to jumping Paulina's bandwagon. When she campaigns something, everyone's campaigning it. If she thinks I'm a sneaky little cheat that somehow managed to catch the attention of the ghost she's been preening over for a third of her lifetime, then obviously I need to be called out on my crimes.
I try to arrange my current mess of curly hair and regret forgetting to put in a headband this morning. The humidity is worse than usual and my thick black curls decided to get frizzier. It keeps falling in my face and I keep pushing it away in a vain hope it won't bounce back. It's in this frustrating manor that I hear something beeping. I yank my fingers out of my tangles so that I can see the targeting monitor on my wrist blinking coordinates. 6f NE. Six feet Northeast.
The firefly has decided to start glowing again; no other ghost has ever been able to get so close without tripping my alarm before. I look up but the students in the hall are either paying attention to each other or paying attention to me, so I stare at the place where he must be standing and scowl. There's a bathroom directly behind him, and if I want to go change into my mask then that's the place I need to be. Before I take another step, though, he appears.
Phantom has always been…well, tough to look at. His skin is washed out pale and almost as see-through, it glows with an internal fire that makes him impossible to hide in a dark room. Casting an awkward shadow on his nose are his eyes that are bright mini suns, burning a brilliant green. The shadows they cast make his face look small and his ears look big; despite the weirdness, it's kind of handsome and almost…familiar. I always think that if I stare into his face for just a moment longer I'll figure something out about him that's always right on the tip of my tongue. "Valerie." He greets me by name and my skin prickles; Phantom's voice is a literal echo, like he's speaking beyond the void of who he once was and his words bounce through a massive cavern before it reaches the human plane.
This time he will hear my voice. "Phantom." I seethe and hope I've put enough fury into that word. He flinches, and I think good, he should. It's against his style to call me out in public and if he's going to reveal who I am – because he's an evil bastard – then I'm going to shoot him first. I dip my hand into my purse and let it rest on the ectopistol beneath my wallet. I'll go down swinging. He shakes his head and something materializes between his fingers. An envelope.
It floats into the air of its own accord and rests in front of my nose, the targeting monitor on my wristwatch beeps languidly, and I know it means he's moving away. When I pluck the letter out of the air, I'm surrounded by a ring of students but no Phantom. They're asking me questions, but I'm not listening – a latino clawed hand reaches out for the letter and I twist away from Paulina before she can swipe at anything. "Out of my way." I say to a band uniform, he jumps aside and I start to make slow progress to the exit.
Friday wasn't short enough. I'm going home early.
It's not until I'm driving on the outskirts between Amity and Elmerton that I pull up to a curb and turn off the engine. I pick up the stupid letter in my passenger seat and inspect it. The paper is shimmering, almost see-through like it's not quite here and I know it's not of this world; there is no name scrawled across the front to tell who it's for. My mind goes to a joke-can of peanuts that when opened spew out an angry pack of green snakes that've been wound up on little wire strings. I can only imagine the horrors of something worse when I stick my finger under the lip of the envelope and drag across the paper, ripping open the top and wondering what kind of snakes-on-springs they provide in the ghost world.
The snakes probably pop out and eat you in one bite. My fingers dip into the envelope and I pull out a folded piece of notebook paper. No snakes, no jars, not even ghost material. This is the same human-fiber stuff I use to doodle on and unlike the envelope, my name is scrawled on the outside of the folded up letter. This is how I learn that ghosts can, in fact, write.
I never thought the term "learn something new every day" would be so grim for me. I unfold the paper and lay it out in front of me and am a little bit disappointed. I guess I figured ghosts would have really neat, old school handwriting that's a loopy pretty cursive scrawl and impossible to read. But the text that faces me is beyond ordinary, a little bit messy, and doesn't dot any i's. It's also perfectly readable.
He's opened the letter casually and for the first time I wonder when and how Phantom died. It just occurs to me out of the blue, after all these years of obsessing over capturing him I never did wonder. Now that I think of it I just can't see somebody from the eighteenth century or even the 1950's writing so normally, and it just makes him feel more…recently disposed. Maybe he died right before his first appearance. And that hits me in a place where it hurts, because that would make us the same age on a literal level.
Somewhere out there, maybe there's a grieving family that recognizes the face of their dead son. I have to shake my head because I know that's impossible; ghosts are supposed to spend centuries building up the energy to have physical forms. It wouldn't make sense for Phantom to be a 21st century kid. …But I can't shake the feeling of doubt. If there's any ghost I've ever met that's utterly impossible it would be him.
I bet you want to kill me right about now. But, if I may go so far as to guess, I bet that pretty Latina with the long black hair wants to kill you more. She's had a thing for me since I pulled her out of the claws of a dragon about the size of a house. Little known fact about that day: her hair doubles in size when it gets in contact with ectoelectricity. In case you're ever out for revenge, I think that information might be useful.
I have small hyper-wires that I can plant and activate. They'll send an electric signal that can paralyze low-level ghosts once they enter its field. I try not to smile because Phantom is not allowed to make me smile and I vow that maybe I'll use them on him instead of her.
Red, I know we have our issues. You say everything I do is just a plot to smooth over my reputation with the public. But there are good ghosts out there, and I want to prove it to you. I would say something more that would try to prove myself further in your eyes, but I know you. You're going to accuse me of a plot to lure you to me so that you can "finally" be at my mercy. But have I ever attacked you? Why in the name of humanity would I start now? You're the one who doesn't follow the friendly no-headshots-because-sometimes-we-fight-together rule.
Meet me on the tallest hill in Oak Meadows Park. If you really just want to use the opportunity to sneak up on me then I'll be there at seven and I'll be facing the city. If by some miracle you'll listen to what I have to say, then I promise to have you home by midnight.
I tear the letter in half and toss it on the passenger seat. But the words burn behind my eyes.
Oak Meadows Park used to be pretty. It was a cluster of trees and open grass on the city's northern outskirts, and it was known for really great trails that wound through a "forest" experience and then would toss you out on the edge of sloping hills that overlooked the city. Coming here when I was a kid, I used to dance between the line of urban life and wilderness pretending I was Jane from Tarzan. Amity to me was a new civilization of apes that I was destined to discover if I survived my harrowing trek through the terrifying jungle.
My mom used to take up the role of the hunter Clayton, and she'd go breaking branches and calling out my name in the funniest deep voice. Whenever she caught me, she'd tickle me and then let go and I'd escape into the trees as fast as I could, laughing at the top of my lungs. We used to watch Tarzan on the couch together when I was sick, swaddled in a really fluffy blue blanket. When she died, I dug out our VHS copy and put it underneath the shadow of her headstone after they were done burying her. I told dad she'd like that more than pink flowers.
Today, the park's a wreck. There's a plaque out front that's brand new and glowing slightly, and I recognize the green embossed F in the bottom right corner that means it's protected by a FentonShield. Ghost material will bounce off of this sign like oil on water. Since I've never read it before, I come close and scan the embossed letters. Oak Meadows has become yet another tourist attraction with "the current record for the city's most ghost attacks in a park." Apparently incoming tourists don't know that Amity only has one other park and it's the size of a football field to the south. Ghost attacks hardly ever happen that far from the portal.
Rather than clean this place up for local enjoyment, downed trees lay in the middle of biking paths. There are craters that have become ponds, black skid marks on the pavement by my car. I actually think I recall those marks as being one of my misfires from a fight here last year. The plaque informs me that they keep the park "perfectly preserved" from previous "spectral attacks" and then it warns not to touch anything because a trace of spectral radiation clings to anything a ghost touches.
If this is true, then Casper High is a radiation cesspool. I should have six eyes and a mutated left thumb by now. I start to hike up the trail that has a bunch of purple-pink graffiti on the trees. Whoever vandalized them wasn't even a very good artist and I certainly hope they get more practice before he or she comes back. Graffiti really can prove itself to be a masterful art form when it's not wasted on dick pics.
I went through a phase when I was thirteen where I bought a bunch of spray paint cans from the surplus guy at dad's work. He didn't mind selling to a minor so long as I promised not to do that "funny stuff" with it and wore a mask. I actually just tied a scarf around my nose and went to the train yard with this boy I really liked. He wore all black and had this rebel attitude that cared about nothing and I was madly in love with the fact that he had a skull tattoo on his arm.
But when I showed up we didn't do any of that cool artwork he'd been doodling on his notebook for ages. He didn't even know how to use spray paint; he'd just dragged me all the way out there so he could try to kiss me. I gave him a bloody nose and left the paints behind; that's when I decided to hang out with Paulina. Because Goths were retarded and fake, just like his washable skull tattoo.
I'm late. My watch – my actual watch, I left the targeting monitor at home; I didn't want the beeping to alert anyone to my presence. I think how stupid it is that I traded knowing I'm about to be attacked for knowing that it's seven fifteen. But Phantom's a firefly, the boy who won't glow if he doesn't want to. So I side with it being a smart decision. As I reach the crescent of the hill, I pass another plaque. This is a very old and damaged one, and I know it's not part of the city's new tourist ring.
This bench is dedicated to Alfred Mott, a man who fought cancer by inspiring those around him to do better. Apparently in the end Alfred Mott's death inspired people to build a bench overlooking the city. Despite how miffed that makes me feel, the sun has already gone down and it really is breathtaking. Amity sprawls out, like a living thing, with its own heartbeat of lights and sound carved into the valley floor. I can name the taller buildings – The Smithson, Mason Industries, Hartman and Co. The Palace Theater and Opera House. This place is my home and I can feel it in my bones.
On the bench itself, still ten feet away, a crown of white hair glows against the night and blends comically into the round dome of the theater miles away. It provides an optical illusion that mixes his hair into the dome and makes him look like he's got a sideways afro growing out of his skull. Phantom is bent halfway over, his chin in his palm and in his other hand he's got the glowing face of a cell phone. Of all times for ghosts to start texting I don't think it's good to start when he's expecting me to come out of the bushes with guns blazing. It must be a ploy to throw me off.
…He's facing the city. As promised, he's provided me with an opportunity to sneak up on him with his back to me. I'm entirely disappointed by how much joy that takes out of the hunt. I pull the small gun out of my sweatshirt pocket. It's a new model that works like a taser and should paralyze him long enough for me to catch him. …Kind of like a Pokemon. And I can be Ash Ketchum.
I'm stupid. I know I'm utterly stupid because the idea that I'm some anime monster trainer makes my stomach get all knotted and I'm lowering my gun. "A-hem." I clear my throat and Phantom turns his head over his shoulder. He's surprised to see me, and I wonder why when he's the one who invited me here – "You're not wearing your gear." He's got a stupid grin on and I realize that's what surprises him. Then his eyes fall to my gun and the joy vanishes.
I decide I'm not stupid enough to return it to my pocket. "Yeah?" I say, "So?"
"I didn't expect you to be…well…" He got to his feet and rounded the bench, leaning against it and folding his arms. He looks me up and down quickly like he's expecting a trick. "I kind of thought you'd come swooping out of the skies, guns blazing, like an hour ago."
"I'm only fifteen minutes late." I argue. But I can easily imagine lying in wait to catch him. Maybe I would have too, if I hadn't decided to come here on a dime. If I hadn't been telling myself Hell No for seven hours only to turn on my car and speed across the city until I reach this spot. Maybe, if I had made the decision to come earlier, I would have thought it through. "Besides, someone complains that I don't follow the no-headshots-when-we-kinda-fight-on-the-same-side rule." I glare at him. "You know there aren't any actual rules, right?"
"Says you." Phantom slips the cell phone into a pocket and hops onto the bench's precarious shoulder. I'm perfectly aware that a normal human would fall over if they started swinging their legs like he is and for a moment I entertain the thought of what the world would be like if ghosts didn't have an innate sense of balance.
My job would be so much easier. "Why am I here?"
I sometimes wonder what Phantom would be like if he was human. His hair wouldn't be so white – maybe blonde, maybe his eyes would still be green but not shiny. Maybe he had darker skin. I imagine some Australian surfer caught up in a tidal wave, pulled under by the ocean's hard current and he struggles against a force so much more powerful than him, but the result is futile. He dies and a dark shade is all that is left behind. That same shade is trying to pick out the right words. "You're a hunter, Red."
"So are you." He claims to be one, anyway. But I don't add that bit in because Phantom knows that I stand in the ten percent of people left in Amity who still believe Phantom should be removed. There's no need to repeat it.
"Yeah. Exactly." He gestures to the city, "We protect this place from evil ghost madness invasions, like, 24/7." This "we" is a loose term. "But all you ever see are ghosts who would just as soon turn your skin inside out then talk to you, and I just think that you of all people need to see we have a good side." Phantom's got a cocky way of talking like everybody in the world cares about what he has to say. Except I'm the only one listening and I see right through his act. "I'm not playing this game." I interrupt, "You know I never bought that bull, Inviso-bill."
He flinches like he's been physically burned. Phantom hates that name more than anything and it's the only button I can push with him. "Then why are you here?" He snaps, "You're not even in uniform, Val. If you'd come to hunt me you wouldn't even be talking right now. So you know what I think?" He gives me an even glare and hops off the bench, stalking me like a lion would approach a downed zebra. "I think you want me to prove you wrong."
"I think I want to prove me right." I hiss back, even though I'm not sure. I came here because I was crazy, because I wanted to see if he'd actually show up, because I could trap him. I don't know. But I know that it's not because I want to be proved wrong, ghosts are evil. That's a fact of life. "You're evil," I growl, "And you know how I know you're evil? You came up to me at school and cornered me so that I didn't have anywhere to run. You made me the object of envy and hate of every girl in the school. You – you ruined my senior year."
Paulina's probably going to stand up and give a drunk-impromptu graduation speech wishing I was never born. It's his damn fault. "You destroy my home and my social life, and then four years later come back to do it again. Because once wasn't good enough."
"How else am I supposed to talk to you?" He paces right in front of me. If I reach out, my hand will touch his arm. "Maybe after we're done running from Skulker," The one ghost who makes it his life's ambition to get me and Phantom stuck in the same situation, squirming under his thumb, "We can sit down and have a nice chat over coffee? Oh wait. You're trying to trap me in my own thermos the moment we escape. Time to run, then, I suppose we'll talk later." He stops abruptly. "So what if one day it occurs to me you won't expose yourself in front of others? So what if I think, hey, maybe I can run this in a way that'll work in her favor? Maybe she can even play it in a way that makes her popular? So what if I want to ask her out on a date?"
"Popular's just a nice way to call someone a slut." I say, and the blood has drained from my face. "You were asking me out?"
He eyes me with the clear impression that I can't be serious. "…Yes." Phantom says softly, his peculiar skin shimmering with the motion that it takes to move his lips. He's like a reflecting pool that's constantly filtering moonlight, and every twitch of muscle makes ripples move sluggishly across the surface. "How did you not notice that?"
When I was a satellite, I always heard the girls talking about their nightmare dates. He asked me to go and see a film with a bunch of friends, but then they canceled! Star squealed, And it was a date the whole time! I didn't even know until he insisted on paying for dinner. And then, like, how am I supposed to tell him I'm not interested if he thinks we've just gone out? What was I supposed to say? Paulina always replied with a level head. Dump him. But she didn't. Star went out with James for two years. He made varsity on the basketball team. They became inseparable.
And then she dumped him, because no matter how long they put it off, satellites will always do what their planet tells them to. "I wasn't really listening to what you were saying." I was trying to figure out how to shoot him without anybody noticing it was my hand that fired. "Is…is this a date?" My voice is thick and I remember I'm still holding a gun; he won't be able to dodge at this distance.
Phantom chuckles, "That depends on if we follow the rules."
"There aren't any actual rules, Phantom." I sigh in exasperation.
So I'm just a little bit suicidal. So I let my curiosity get the best of me. So I've put my gun away and haven't replaced it with an armored suit of gear that'll tear Phantom up on command. So what. That does not mean that I am crazy enough to just jump in. "Well how did you expect me to prove anything to you?" Phantom's arguing. He says we're on a schedule. "You never believe me, so what's wrong with letting someone else tell you?"
"Phantom, I don't need more ghosts telling me they're little miss innocents who haven't got any grudges." I'm staring into the abyss that's opened up at the top of the hill (magically, apparently, but according to Phantom it's on a sort of timer). "One's annoying enough, don't you think?"
I've only ever seen one gate to the Ghost Zone, and that was in the Fenton Lab. Unlike that relatively calm opening of soft green light, this has hissing edges that disagree with the night air. The inner rings spin quickly and then slow down, bubbles of white energy fizz whenever they come in contact with a fiber of dust. If the idiotstupidevilghost is to be believed, natural portals open all on their own whenever and wherever they want. I asked him how he's supposed to know that one was going to open right in front of us, but he didn't answer me properly. "If this is a ruse—"
"It's not." He pushes his arm through the portal, which wraps around it and sends green sticky vines up to his elbow. He brings his arm back and the portal lets go, undamaged. "Well sure." I grumble. "You're ghost material. It likes you."
"You're human material." He pulls the cell phone out of his pocket. There's a Nokia label over the screen and he sticks the obvious Earth item into the green mists. When he brings it out, he turns it on to show me it's not damaged and points to the top of the screen. Full battery. "It likes your kind more. The Human World gives the Ghost Zone energy, and it likes to give some back."
"You have a new text message." I fold my arms and try to give the portal my most death-defying glare. I'm already acting pretty insane, standing here next to Phantom, and I wonder how crazy it would be to willingly enter that thing. Probably not much worse. "Fine." I sigh. "Fine, you win. But if I die in there, I'm going to become a ghost and haunt you for eternity."
"Don't talk like that." He says, grabbing my arm and sticking the phone back into a vanishing pocket. "A ghost is the last thing you want to become." I don't get to ask why, because the next thing I know my body is surrounded by cold. I think it's the portal, whose bright green walls have temporarily blinded me, but as my feet sink into the new ground like quicksand I realize that the bone-shattering freeze isn't temporary.
"Careful," Phantom's voice is in my ear, "You need to think warm, or the Zone won't give it to you."
"Warm?" I chatter between shaking teeth. Like a rising steam in response to that word, I feel it in my abdomen; a seeping heat that travels up through my arms and down into my legs. Within seconds, I'm still cold, but I'm not freezing. My eyes pry themselves open, not knowing they were closed, and my breath is stolen from me.
We've transported ourselves into a winter wonderland. All I can see for miles is white expanses of snow and towers of arctic ice, glaciers that hug the earth all around us like skyscrapers. A snowdrift is the quicksand that my feet have been trapped in up to the middle of my calves and suddenly my toes are burning cold. "Keep thinking warm," Phantom says in response to my hiss, "You have to tell the environment what your temperature is or it'll assimilate you to this one."
"I'm thinking ninety-five degrees on a beach in Florida." I snap, "But that's not exactly happening."
"It takes practice." Phantom lifts his chin to inspect the sky. I do the same and discover the sky is pastel green; there are slow moving crumbles of rock imitating clouds overhead, islands drifting in an imaginary sea. One of them even has a structure on top of it and I point it out, "A mythical castle in the sky? What is this, Jack and the Bean Stock?"
He shrugs. "Welcome to the Ghost Zone."
We trek across a long tangle of rolling white hills and despite how hard I believe in fairies my feet aren't getting much warmer. "Some idea of a date." I growl, "Making a girl slug through the snow." Phantom doesn't reply. He's offered to "fly" three times now and I'm refusing. I'm still clinging to the thought that I can get the upper hand and get out of here if anything takes a turn for the worse, and flying with him is going to destroy that philosophy. "This friend of yours." I dig my foot out of a knee deep drift and try to wade my way back to the track I think is only ankle-deep. Phantom's been leading the way on the shallowest path, but I won't play by his rules. He could be leading me off a cliff or something. "He likes living in ice?"
"Think yeti crossed with an Eskimo crossed with a Viking."
No matter how hard I try, I cannot possibly bring myself to imagine what that looks like. "Phantom." We're hiking rather vigorously up yet another hill, "You do realize if I never agreed to it, it's not technically a date? I'm not interested."
"Then why are you here?"
"Why are you dead?" It's supposed to be a rhetorical question but I instantly want to bite my tongue and take it back. Not that I want to be nice to a ghost. It's just…elephant in the room. He stops walking and turns his face away; I feel like I've stepped on something I shouldn't have. "Why me?" I change the subject hastily. "What drove you to be suicidal enough to ask me out?"
Phantom reluctantly picks up his feet and starts to move again. He thinks better of it and floats into the air, resting on his back in the shape of an invisible hammock. "What drove you to be suicidal enough to come?"
Frustrating is a word that does not give him justice. "If you answer one more question with another question I am going to re-kill you. You can become a member of the un-undead." He sticks his hands behind his head and watches the sky, smiling lightly. "I mean it." But even I don't believe that's much of a threat worth backing up. "…Bastard."
"We're alike." He says suddenly. "You and me." I raise an eyebrow. We're absolutely nothing alike. "We're burdened by obligation. Nobody asked us, no one's forcing us, and yet we don't have a choice. I chose you because you're the only other person who knows what it feels like to give up everything for nothing."
"That whole protect the town thing is a lie, Phantom." I stick my hands in my pockets and they brush up on the cold metal of my ectopistol. I can still use it, I know, but something in me's lost the desire. Even the joy of pulling BS on Phantom is empty, because if I had one percent of doubt I'd…be willingly walking up an icy slope with him in the Ghost Zone. I wonder, another shock-realization that's never occurred to me before, about how desperate Phantom must be if he's considering his hunters over his own kind as a suitable match. And I think how, like me, he must be an outcast of his own kind; the suffocating burden of a hunter. Loneliness. "But hypothetically, if it weren't – why do you?"
He rolls over and his feet touch the ground. He gives me one long stare that searches down under my skin for a soul. I'm not sure if he'll find one. "We're here." He announces smoothly and we turn in unison; a city of ice sprawls out beneath us in crystalline beauty. I should be stunned by its glass beauty, but I'm too busy wondering how I got so lost in conversation I didn't even know we'd summited the hill.
- Danny -
There is nothing in the world that I despise more than being cold. Before my genetic meltdown/reconstruction, I used to be tolerant of winter. Cold didn't bug me too much because I had sweaters and gloves and a space heater by my desk; it was a time that promised hot cocoa and pumpkin bread on a regular basis. If Illinois was known for wind, then Amity was known for being weird enough to get none of it; we got a heap of snow each year that just meant more snowmen for building. Winter was actually a rather…pleasant season, for those who had a warm place to sleep.
However, I'm a half-ghost. I'm not just affected by cold on the outside anymore, but the inside as well; I literally have a heart of ice. This would not be a problem if I wasn't a ghost and a human, because a ghost would feel natural in their own temperate element. We'd blend to it, never even notice it, just a regular body temperature and anything above freezing is a fever.
My human body disagrees with my ghost body. It has needs, and primary amongst those needs are heat. If I don't release the ice that's constantly building up inside of me I can freeze to death on a hot summer's day. It's because of this knowledge that I am terrified of cold; I hate it. I nearly died from it, and if it weren't for Frostbite I would have died. Sure, ice is useful to me now. I can manipulate it to my will and I can change the temperature of a room on a whim, but I also despise it. I guess it's the human in me that knows I'm wrong, that I shouldn't be possible, and it hates the reminder that I need to freeze my coffee every morning or I'll suffer hypothermia.
I've never mentioned this feeling to Frostbite, but perhaps he can sense it. I guess that's part of the reason why he's made a huge effort in learning how to build a fire and then spent a full day trying to light it. Well, he says he spent a day – I can't trust it because time runs so differently in the Zone. Everything's based on estimate. I find myself explaining to Valerie that we could have been sitting here for five days or three minutes and we'd never know the difference when she interrupts.
I stop talking. The way her low, almond shaped eyes are surveying me I might as well be a specimen under a magnifying glass. The fire's reflection has changed the color of her hair to a black and orange mixture, like a bizarre kind of jungle cat; I wondered how exactly my pale skin and vibrant green eyes reacted with those auburn colors. I must look alien. "I'm sorry," I crack a wry smile, "Got a little off topic, didn't I?"
She rolls her eyes and then picks up the ice sculpted screwdriver and began to once again fiddle with the skeleton remains of her ectoweapon. "From reverse polarity of plasma-base power cells to the continuity of ghost-time. Oh no, that's not off topic at all." She set the makeshift ice screwdriver down, her fingers lingering on it and probably wondering how it didn't melt when met by body heat. The gun, however bare it is now that the metal skin has been peeled back, is still charged and aimed at me. Just in case. "So this component won't short me out?"
"You've scanned it like six times." I sighed. I made the mistake of telling Frostbite she was a hunter; he decided, as a gift to their visitor, to get her an assortment of hunting gear. Including several small crystalline weapon components that were meant to bring up the power level of her weapons without overheating them. Some kind of high level tech I was pretty sure my mom would drool over if she knew it existed.
Personally, I was not excited about giving Valerie newer ways to fight with me. I'm pretty sure Vlad covers that angle often enough. However, Valerie was actually relaxed as she worked on her gear; she explained to me that at one time she and no idea how any of it worked, but she took a couple summer jobs with the Fentons and other local hunting enforcement to learn her away around an ectopistol. I knew this already, the Fenton me was the first one to teach her how to take apart guns, but she gave me no credit whatsoever. Like the "Fenton" name is something I'll recognize but I'm too base-ectoplasmic to care about learning specifics about the family in question.
"You worked for Masters, I thought." She gave me a pointed glare and picked up a base metal, putting her gun back together again. "I haven't worked with him since sophomore year."
Funny. Vlad never mentioned he'd lost a pawn. "The end of…hold on. That's when we had that big invasion, isn't it?" When Valerie Grey discovered I was vulnerable near Plasmius; the day she baited me into getting into a fight with him that left me exhausted and weak. It was pure luck that I managed to escape the trap she laid for me after I'd been beaten down; actually, not so much luck as humiliation. Vlad intervened. On my behalf. I had to suppress a shiver at the memory of his quiet smirk.
"He's just a weapons dealer now." Valerie shrugged. "We decided our paths went in different directions."
Of course he decided that. I scowl but do my best not to look too frustrated; she has no idea that Vlad becoming mayor transformed our game into something that belonged to deep shadows. Come to think of it, I have no clue how much she knows about the relationship that Vlad and I carefully maintain; has she learned over her short time with him how deep his hatred for me is buried? Does she know the ugly truth about how far he's willing to go? …She probably hasn't connected something like "Vlad becomes mayor" to "Vlad becomes mayor specifically for Phantom's discomfort" but I'm sure she has some kind of picture. Just mentioning his name has her eyeing me with questions.
She's not getting any answers to that particular puzzle. I bite my lip and gesture to the little fire Frostbite has built for us. "So, uhm…" I fight to find something to say, "What did you think of the Far Frozen Tribe? I didn't even know they had a hospital like that in here. Doesn't really scream "scheming evil ghosts," does it?"
She shoots me a glare that is intended to skewer me through the chest and I think my lighthearted question may have hit too many buttons. But what can I say? Valerie is a ticking time bomb and I'm bound to land on a mine eventually. I'm actually very surprised she hasn't attempted to kill me yet. Not even once. (Threats don't count.) "If you believe one set of yeti-Eskimos-Vikings are going to help me 'see the light' about supposed 'good' ghosts you're going to need more than a sparkly city and a rag-tag ghost hospital to convince me."
"What will it take, then?" I sigh in exasperation and make it obvious that I think she's the most frustrating person I've ever met.
She gives me this look. This totally lost, angry but stubborn look and I think I've lost some kind of battle. "I don't know!" She growls, shifting uncomfortably. Her cheeks grow hot red and I find it hard to believe I've embarrassed her. "…I don't even know what I'm doing." She admits quietly and averts her gaze. She must think she's acting insane, coming along with her enemy on an adventure through the Ghost Zone.
I know it sounds stupid, but I didn't put much thought into how uncomfortable this little escapade might make her. To be honest, I was more concerned about how she'd come at me guns blazing and try to steal my lunch money. And – I'm really just making it up as I go along. I only had time to talk to Frostbite; from this point on going further could border suicidal. I never expected to get this far. As far as winning bets with Tucker go, I've hit the jackpot. …That is, if I can manage to win. I haven't been doing much thinking about the bet either, and the terms are making me uneasy. It's a miracle I've gotten to where I have, and it'll take the apocalypse to get much further.
Besides, I don't want to play around with Tucker's bet. The more I think about it the heavier this weight on my chest grows; I like Valerie, I always have. This isn't how I pictured us being…but then again, I never pictured approaching anyone the way I did her. Phantom's an alter-ego for a reason; he's a face I wear that's confident and a good hunter. The real, sincere me doesn't like to have to peer through these piercing green eyes.
It's not helping that she looks cold and out of place here. Keeping her around for late conversations is just a drag on my fading luck. I let her finish repairing her pistol in silence while I think of what to do next. When she finally, awkwardly, tosses the ice screwdriver into the fire (where it refuses to melt) I get to my feet and hold my hand out to her. She ignores the hand and stands on her own. "Wanna catch a portal home?" I ask, allowing my arm to drop to my side. It dangles there like it's not where it's supposed to be.
She sizes me up and tucks the pistol into her sweatshirt.
- Valerie -
I'm in too deep and I don't know what I'm doing. One second I'm tired and not in the mood for talking anymore, and the next I'm getting to my feet and inspecting Phantom. His shoulders are sloped and his eyes have a strange new crinkle to them; uncertainty, I decide. It's an expression I have longed to see him with but have never actually witnessed. Phantom has always been a headstrong idiot who jumps into everything without thinking about it; if he's not fighting something, he's frustratingly avoiding my bullets and trying to tell me he hasn't got time to be shot at. Now that he's finally vulnerable, finally standing still, I can't bring myself to shoot him.
On Phantom, uncertainty becomes something deserving of pity, and for whatever reason I find myself falling into the trap his hopelessness is giving me. "Wanna catch a portal home?" He asks me, his voice matching his posture. I'll admit it; I want the old Phantom back. The arrogant one that I'm familiar with. Instead of getting what I want, I'm putting my pistol away and drawing a long sigh out of my lungs. "…Why don't you show me a proper date and just take me to dinner, Phantom?"
I glance at my watch. It's ten forty-five. Still an hour and fifteen before Phantom has "promised to bring me home." I return my attention to Phantom and lift an eyebrow; I've never seen a ghost blush before, either, but I assume that's what the bright green flooding his cheeks has to be. "You…still wanna hang out?" He breathes like he can't believe what he's hearing. Wonderful. I've just tossed the donkey his carrot.
What the Hell. Two carrots. "Or a movie. The drive-in should be starting its second feature about now." I offer him a smile and know I'm in trouble. Three carrots. I need a therapist.
There are basically three restaurants in the entire city that are still open at ten pm. For Amity's size, it's never been a twenty four hour city.
Or maybe it was, before ghosts came out at night. Phantom's got a surprising appetite for a dead guy, sitting on the roof of the Nasty Burger and throwing back french-fries at lightning speed. It occurs to me that maybe he never eats. Maybe ghosts have human food as a rare treat to remember what they once were…human.
Ghosts were once human.
I've known this from day one but somehow right now the thought makes me feel guilty. Who am I to say ghosts aren't emotional? That they're incapable of feeling; yet I've certainly witnessed their rage often enough. And Phantom…well I've seen Phantom worried before. I've seen him scared. I've seen him happy and I've seen him furious, all behind my mask. But right here, on a rooftop while he sits awkwardly beside me, the height not even troubling him as he swings his legs over the open side. I've got my back to the street, feet planted firmly on the roof, watching him from the corner of my eye while he talks about constellations.
If I ever become a ghost, and my thoughts and feelings are trapped within a small range of emotional control, how would I want to be treated? I obviously wouldn't want to be hunted; I might even continue doing the hunting. Kinda like…kinda like Phantom. Danny Invisobill Phantom. The lying, evil ghost who pretends to be good.
The lying evil ghost that might actually be good. The lying, evil, heart-wrenching ghost who's been spending years holding back; who went out on a limb today and risked his own hide to get my attention. The ghost that has saved my life more than once and who is actually…trusting me. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he's not…not all that bad. I catch his eye. He finds me staring at him. I can't help the forlorn mood that's taken over me, the guilt that mixes with a sadness I didn't know I was harboring. "Phantom." I whisper. My cold breath plumes in the night air, he watches it fade.
"Yeah?" Green eyes are pinned on me, glowing and deep, looking down into the windows of my soul. He's not an emotionless, evil creature. That's obvious. It's something I never exactly cared about before. It's something I've avoided seeing. I don't really know what to say, but silence settles between us, heavy. I need to speak. I need to say something. But I don't know how to articulate what I want to say and by the time I get my lips moving all I manage is, "Do ghosts get cold?"
He lifts his eyebrows. He expected that sentence as much as I did. "Erm." Phantom chews his bottom lip. I have no idea why I've never noticed that before. Does he usually? Do I ever see him doing something human and glaze over it, pretending it's not there? Looking but not seeing? "I know I get cold." He says slowly. "I'm not really sure about anyone else but, but for me I do and…I really hate it, actually." He holds out his palm to me, I expect him to be holding a french-fry or something but it's empty until a small blue mist rises from his palm.
It's a rising of white dust that collects on itself until a perfectly round crystal is formed. Ice. I blink down at it as the tiny globe falls softly to roll around in Phantom's palm, the size of a 25 cent gumball. "If I don't let out this ice." He says slowly, frowning at the tiny, beautiful thing. "It will consume me." He offers me the ice. I pick it up and hold it at eye-level; ghost ice is always instantly numbing and I give it back as quickly as I can. "My heart is really, really cold, in the literal way. If I don't release it, it'll take over and I'll…"
He shrugs. It's my turn to be surprised, "Can you die?"
"I really don't want to find out." Phantom shivers, which I find ironic given our cold conversation, "When Frostbite got to me I was nearly gone. If it weren't for his help when I first discovered my cryo-ability, if he hadn't helped me…I dunno. Maybe I would be dead. Or the new North Pole."
I roll my eyes. Phantom is always over-dramatic. But the death comment frightens me; if he thinks he can die does that mean he knows something about the mortality of ghosts? Are they really not as everlasting as we thought they were? If that's so, then an average ghost lifespan must be at least a thousand years old…probably more. "So…you can die." I begin to piece my findings together. The Fenton family would kill me for information like this. "And you can feel. I think. If this isn't all a grand trick," By now I just have to say that out of habit, "Then – you're really asking me out, aren't you?"
Trust a teenage girl who hasn't had a boyfriend since the seventh grade to blow a chance for scientific research in the name of a last-shot at high school drama. There goes my Pulitzer. Phantom's got the kind of facial expression one would associate with an irate Professor McGonagall. His lips are thinly pressed together. I think I ought to say something more here, like maybe I should interrogate Phantom as to why the Hell he would ever have a romantic inclination towards me but then all of a sudden he's laughing.
It's a hollow, echoing sound that somehow strikes me as joyful rather than creepy. And infectious, I join him, not sure why, but it feels good to laugh. "Shut up!" I shout between gasps. I don't even know why we're laughing. Everything's silly now, I guess. Phantom. Me. Hunter and hunter on a rooftop eating burgers as the midnight hour approaches. Enemies and not. Friends and not. I'm not exactly sure where this is going, but when we finally manage to get our eyes to meet, when I straighten and the sound of laughter dances off into the night, his warm gaze matches mine with a kind of openness that's familiar and new all at the same time.
He leans in. So do I. The kiss that touches my lips is chaste, cold, and fleeting; Phantom's blushing stringent green in an instant. But neither of us look away. I shoot him a scowl, maybe out of habit. "Don't get any ideas, Phantom. This is a one-time thing, alright?"
Phantom's mouth ticks in one of his most annoying smiles. "Says you."