Co-written between Tangerine Catnip and NebulousMistress

Vlad poured the tea. Fine china teacups clinked on the table on the balcony overlooking the town. An array of cookies and tea cakes sat on silver serving platters in the middle of the table. Sparrows were singing in the garden. The sounds of the city were muffled by distance and by the hedge on the edge of the property. Secluded, quiet, pretty, even pastoral. Vlad usually enjoyed having tea out here on the balcony, especially on those days when he had nothing else to do. But this time it was different. This time he shared it with the pouting boy tied to the chair next to his. "I invited you properly," Vlad said. "It's not my fault you decided to be late."

"I wasn't intending to show up at all," Danny grumbled. It hadn't even been a week since the 'incident' and if Vlad thought he was just going to walk into his fortress of doom after that little mishap… But of course Vlad hadn't been expecting him to come, that's why he'd been shot with a paralysis dart and dragged here instead. Now he was tied to the chair across from Vlad with the fruitloop acting as though this was completely normal. As though he always had tea with a teenager bound across the chest.

Why Vlad would even want to look him in the eye after what had happened was beyond Danny. He would have been perfectly happy if Vlad fell off the face of the earth, then they never would have had to deal with what happened. He still didn't understand what it was. Honestly he wasn't sure he wanted to know. All he knew was that Vlad had messed with something he shouldn't have and then he ran away like a little bitch. Just like with Vortex.

Danny took a deep breath to calm himself. He had no idea why he was still mad about Vlad running away; it had saved the two of them from acting out the awful things they promised. Surely that was a good thing?

"Tsk, tsk," Vlad admonished. "And after making such a big deal about this whole truce idea of yours. Sugar?" He offered Danny the sugar bowl, tiny silver tongs holding a cube aloft.

Danny crossed his arms. "My truce idea went down the tubes two weeks ago," he drawled flatly. He wondered who's fault that was. He had been the one to kiss Vlad but if anything about this situation was clear it was that accountability was a vague thing, at least when Vlad was involved.

Vlad sweetened his own tea with a cube of sugar before picking up the tiny pot of cream. "Really?" Vlad asked. "You should have informed me then. I could have spent today making evil plans. Cream?"

Danny rolled his eyes. He grabbed the sugar bowl and tipped a pile of cubes into his teacup. He'd play along for now, though saving the truce at this point would be at best a hollow victory. "I'm not going to play games anymore, Vlad," he warned. "Are you seriously considering this or are you just trying to jerk me around?"

There wasn't a civilized bone in the boy's body, Vlad figured. He put the cream pot down and sat back with his own cup of lightly sweetened tea. "Of course I'm seriously considering your offer," he said. "Oh, it'll take some time to get used to it but everything new does. I guess I'll just have to retrain myself not to immediately begin forming evil plans whenever I get bored. Unless you're the one having second thoughts..."

Danny shook his head. "No, no, I..." He sighed, grabbing his cup of tea and taking a long sip. The raw sugar helped him stall for the time he needed to pull his thoughts together. "I guess there's no reason we can't still have a truce." Despite his words he knew of at least two good ones.

"And of course there's the little fact of motivation," Vlad said amicably. "You were the one to suggest we attempt to develop some sort of friendship. I suppose the first step is to schedule time together. How do you propose we go about this? After all, I have the feeling my ideas would leave your teenaged mind somewhat bored after a few scant weeks."

Danny nearly choked on his tea. He had completely forgotten about that part. He put the cup down, staring at Vlad like the elder had just grown a third arm. "Vlad, that's not... you can't really be..." He paused, trying to figure out how to say this without upsetting Vlad. Perhaps he could try 'we should see other people'. "I don't know if that part of the deal is still on the table," Danny allowed. "There are… factors that have come to light that make spending time alone together a very bad idea."

Vlad looked contemplative for a moment, almost as though he'd completely forgotten about the events Daniel referred to. And then he gave the boy a knowing smirk. "I don't think it'll be a problem," he purred before taking a sip of his tea. "After all, I know what's going on."

Danny tensed, his anger rising in his chest. He sorely wanted to punch Vlad right in his smug grin. "Oh you do. Well isn't that comforting. Tell me, did you figure it all out before or after you ran away screaming!"

"I don't recall screaming," Vlad said. "On the other hand, I seem to recall you had some choice words." He sat back in his chair, hands steepled in front of him like a villain with a scheme. "I needed to be sure that's what was happening. Unfortunately it's not really something that can be tested on oneself. At least, not while expecting the same results. Your reaction was... quite conclusive, I must say."

Danny took a deep breath. He should have seen this coming. He wasn't going to let Vlad hand-wave this away by trying to embarrass him. He leaned forward as best he could while being tied to the seat, not even aware of the faint blush on his cheeks. "It doesn't matter one bit how conclusive your results were. You couldn't stop it. This… whatever it is. I know I can't control it and I have serious doubts that you can." He pointed to the ropes around his chest. "What if when it happens again I'm not tied down? "

"Well, it does take considerable effort from at least one of us in order for it to get anywhere near as bad as it did last time," Vlad allowed. "I, for one, was exhausted by the effort it took to drive you that far. Perhaps until you learn to control yourself we should limit physical contact."

Danny sat back again, considering. He hardly remembered the buildup. His memories were all flashes, ice, electricity, illicit words... But it had taken a while, it must have. The hugs that had started this all weren't like that. "We'd better make that a strict limit." Come on Danny, you were the one that wanted this. Just suck it up. Everything will be fine, you don't want to touch Vlad and he doesn't want to touch you. You'll keep the town safe and maybe fix the fruitloop. "Okay then, do you have a preferred day of the week?"

Vlad contemplated Danny's question. He'd rather have the boy for more than an hour or two so the weekdays were out. Saturdays the boy likely spent with his little friends. That left Sunday. He had nothing to do on Sundays, hadn't since his accident so many years ago. "Perhaps Sundays work for you," he suggested.

Danny nodded. He usually spent the last day of the week procrastinating on his homework anyway. "All right, fine," he agreed. "We should also make a system for who decides what we get to do, otherwise we'll just end up fighting about it. How about we alternate? I pick something then you pick something."

"Fair enough," Vlad said. "However, let's try to be mature about this. I don't want you to consider this some sort of excuse to make our meetings into a competition to see which one of us can think of the most compromising, demeaning, or embarrassing ordeal for the other to suffer through. I promise you, Daniel, that is not a competition you would win."

"Of course not," Danny said, shaking his head. "Believe me, I would rather jump off several cliffs than have to go through that again." Danny's gaze drifted to the table; those sweets were starting to look yummy. He reached for one as casually as possible and popped the chocolate into his mouth. "Mmmm... Don't forget the idea is to become friends, Vlad," he said, talking with his mouth full. "Why would I defeat the whole point by trying to make you miserable?"

"I have to make sure," Vlad said. "I'd rather be prepared for such possibilities rather than being blindsided by them." He plucked a cookie off of the tray before pushing the tray toward Daniel, just enough to encourage him.

"If only your plans had been this airtight a few other times it would have saved me a lot of grief," Danny muttered. He took advantage of the offered tray as he looked over the table at Vlad. Not for the first time he wondered if this was a good idea.

The only way to know for sure was to try.

Danny hadn't told anyone he was going to visit Vlad. He'd told Sam and Tucker that the whole plan failed miserably. If Danny admitted it hadn't then they would want to know why he'd said it had and then what happened and then... He couldn't tell them. He didn't even understand what had happened, how would they? No, that was a secret he intended to take to his grave.

He arrived on Vlad's doorstep precisely when he said he would in case Vlad had any more snipers with darts. One of his parent's ghost-radiation proof satchels hung over one shoulder. Now he needed to make it to Vlad's laboratory. He had told Vlad to let him look for it but the elder didn't like him poking around for hidden switches and so spoiled it by leaving the 'secret' door wide open. Danny hopped down the stairs, hoping he would find the ghost portal rather than the room he had been tied up in. Fortunately, wide open doors pointed him to the weapons development lab and then to the huge double doors of Vlad's ghost portal. It was nearly three times the size of the one in Fentonworks. The size was probably for show unless Vlad had plans to back a semi-truck into the Ghost Zone or something.

Vlad waited in his lab. He was finishing up a few little projects, tinkering with something simple that he wouldn't mind terribly if it were lost. Truce or no, old habits die hard. The exceptionally clear path to his portal was the result of one such habit.

Danny took off his backpack and transformed, shooting Vlad a grin. "You and I are going to go find a fish," he proclaimed proudly.

"A... fish..." Vlad repeated. "And what sort of fish would this be? Don't tell me we're going to be using worms."

"The magical wishing kind," Danny explained. He pulled his pack back on now that it wouldn't get warped away with his human clothes. "There's a fountain the heart of the Ghost Zone where it lives. I've heard rumors about it but I've never been able to get there. I usually get lost or attacked by one of my enemies before I can reach it." He leaned over and stretched out his legs, limbering up just in case. "So we are going on a road trip to go visit the fish and get our wishes granted, or destiny revealed or darkest secrets exposed. I'm not quite clear on what the fish does exactly."

Vlad had heard of this so-called 'mystic fish' and the Fountain of Yearning or whatever the thing was called. Supposedly it required an offering and then it would grant the seeker's deepest desires or show them the path to righteousness or whatever. Vlad didn't believe in those legends. But... If the boy wanted to spend the day meandering the Ghost Zone in search of something that didn't exist, well, that was his choice.

"In that case, I need to fetch something for the, ah, fish,"Vlad said. He left Danny standing in the lab while he went in search of something he could toss away as an 'offering' to a story that didn't exist. He took ghost form to speed his hunt. Something a legend would accept... Many legends tended toward precious metals... Coinage... Ah yes... Vlad flew down into a curio vault and picked a silver coin he'd lifted several years prior from a museum display. Some sort of pirate hoard or something. This would do.

Meanwhile, Danny poked around eyeballing some of the projects Vlad was working on. They looked pretty complicated and he hoped none of them were anything dangerous. He wanted to go over to get a better look but something told him that was a bad idea. He distracted himself with the portal instead, touching his fingers to the divide between worlds. Maybe he should have picked something normal for their first meeting but the idea had been stuck in head and he wasn't going to waste this chance. He had been wanting to go, had been trying to go for years and he always got turned around for various reasons. But this time... there was no way he would miss out again, not with Vlad at his side.

Vlad returned, phasing through the ceiling and Danny nodded to him. It looked like they were ready to leave. Danny stepped through the milky green wall and into the Zone.

Vlad followed the boy through the event horizon, feeling the pull of dimensions as reality inverted. Always somewhat disconcerting. No matter, this was Daniel's plan for the day. He deferred to the boy. "So where is this fountain, do you think?" he asked.

Danny reached into the pocket of his bag and drew a well-used piece of paper. "I almost made it last time before Spectra and I crossed paths," he said. He shivered and shook his head, she was always the worst to run into when doing something that might go wrong. "Anyway, I marked the spot on my map." He unfolded the map, revealing cartoonish drawings and dotted line pathways drawn in colored pencils. "So right now we're between the Valley of Screams and Doom Mountain. So we need to go... northeast?"

Vlad squinted at Daniel's rough little map. He tilted it a bit, making sure the landmarks lined up correctly. "East, z-minus 45 degrees," he corrected. "The Mountain of Doom and Doom Mountain are two different landmarks. You need a better map, my boy, something that takes three dimensions into account. That or the ghosts need more imaginative names for their lairs."

Danny shrugged. "Tucker was working on it but I don't know if his PDA has the power to run a program like that. Besides, you've been a ghost for twenty years. You must have some sense of this place."

"I've never sought the Fountain of Yearning," Vlad admitted. He flew off in the likely direction, trusting Danny to follow him. "Or, at least that's the name it had when I first heard of it. Prophecy was never something I put a whole lot of stock into. I've always made my own destiny. Even when I had to steal it."

"And that's a fact then?" Danny asked, dodging around some floating doors. "What about when you told the infimap to take you to your destiny? If you knew what you wanted why didn't you ask it for that instead?"

"And you think I didn't make my own destiny each time the map unceremoniously dropped me adrift in time and space?" Vlad asked. "I worked for what I had. Every time. Consider, Daniel, how long does it take to become fluent in any given language? I had to learn Latin through immersion. Rome wasn't conquered in a day." He flew easily through the Ghost Zone at a lazy pace. His cape rippled behind him like great bat wings gently flapping in the gloomy atmosphere.

"So you don't believe in fate at all? What about your powers? Do you really think you were just unlucky? That there wasn't a reason behind it?"

"I don't like the idea of some higher power dictating my actions," Vlad said. "I haven't since the accident. And yes, that's what it was. An accident caused by your father's stupidity and inability to look at where's he's pointing a device. A simple pause and a 'stand back' would have allowed me to keep my humanity. There was no mysterious 'reason' behind my transformation. Nor yours. The fact that we're both half ghost, that we know each other, that we have similar powers, it all has more to do with the swathe of destruction that follows your father than anything resembling 'fate'."

Danny flipped over onto his back, arms outstretched as he flew. That answered his question then. He was tempted to argue but he didn't think it would help. "You know, I can never tell if you hate or love your powers sometimes," he mused. "One moment it's 'look at all the power and money I have isn't my life wonderful' then the next it's 'Jack ruined my life and stole Maddie, everything is his fault'."

"I don't love them," Vlad admitted. "I never have. I use them. At best I tolerate them. They're a daily reminder of what happened to me. It's..." Vlad sighed and flew ahead. He didn't want to get into this. It might cause the boy to want to hug him again and that hadn't gone well the last time.

Danny frowned. He didn't know why he kept going right for the hard questions when it came to Vlad. Maybe he was just too curious about the other hybrid for his own good. He wanted to know what made Vlad tick, to see the little cogs that formed his ideas and thoughts and drove him to do evil. Wanted to see why he hated himself and why he surrounded himself with money and things, maybe even find the truth behind his inability to connect with other people.

Danny hadn't wanted to know before. He hadn't cared to. But now... Vlad was the only example of his own kind he had and there was so much he didn't understand. Just two weeks ago it had backfired on both of them and Danny felt something that he was sure no human could feel. He could probably never get anyone to understand whatever that was... but Vlad had instantly. What if they were just scratching the surface to the secrets of their existence? He didn't want to have to be alone in his plight. Vlad was proof enough that the loneliness was more lethal that any portal accident.

They flew in uncomfortable silence, Vlad leading and Danny flying silently behind. Danny's curiosity wouldn't stay quiet, though, and he found himself breaking that silence. "You know I've just realized," he said, flying faster so he could elbow Vlad in the ribs. "You've never tried to rule over the Ghost Zone even though it's arguably the more powerful place."

Vlad looked around them, at the vast fields of green aether undulating with the currents of reality. Physics had different constants here, forces different meaning. Even after twenty four years this wasn't his dimension. It didn't feel right. The initial sense of wrongness he'd felt here so long ago had never gone away. He worked through here, used it, toyed with its inhabitants, but he never considered ruling it. It wasn't... real. "Why? Should I attempt to rule this realm?" he asked.

"I dunno," Danny said, shrugging his shoulders. "It worked fine for Pariah and you have better luck convincing ghosts to do your bidding than he did. And if you had the power of the Ghost Zone behind you, Earth would be a piece of cake." He winced as he realized what he'd just said. "Not that you should actually do that because that would be evil."

"Careful, Daniel, you might give me ideas," Vlad mocked. But they were all ideas he'd already had and dismissed. The idea of ruling the Ghost Zone did not sit well with him. It would feel too much like abandoning everything he'd worked for in the human realm, like abandoning all his work toward regaining some measure of his humanity. If he won the Ghost Zone... it would mean he'd lost. "I can be evil in plenty of other ways, don't you worry about that," he said.

Danny rolled his eyes. "As long as you don't hurt anyone you can be as evil as you like." He flew ahead and rolled onto his back. The best thing about flying in the Zone was the long stretches of nothing, no worries about slamming into anything. "Okay, it's your turn to ask a question."

Vlad watched the boy drifting through the currents, lazing about as though their dizzying speed was nothing more than an afternoon swim through a gentle stream. He didn't seem to have a care in the world and unlike him it didn't feel like a mask. It felt... real. "How do you do it?" Vlad asked.

"Do what?" Danny asked. "Fly? Because that's pretty easy. You jump off a building and hope for the best. Having ghost powers helps."

"Not that," Vlad snapped. He wasn't even sure why he asked, what he was hoping to accomplish. Just... He needed to know. And he might never get the chance again. "How do you do it? How do you be like this and not..." He trailed off. He shouldn't have asked.

Danny bit his lip. He wasn't quite sure what Vlad wanted from him. "Well, Jazz always says you have to be happy with yourself before you can truly connect with others," he said. "No matter how much you love someone they can't always be with you. The only person who's going to be there for every second of your life is you."

"How trite," Vlad said. "No matter where you go there you are, hmm?" He huffed. "The only people who honestly believe such drivel are those who've never found reason to dislike themselves. Unlike your sheltered sister I've seen a mirror." Vlad flew off ahead, not wanting to let himself say any more. He'd already said too much.

The rest of the way there Danny stuck behind Vlad, internally kicking himself for picking such a heavy conversation topic. Thankfully it wasn't much longer before they started seeing indications they were approaching the pond. A huge rock platform drew closer with what seemed to be trees, flowers, grass growing out of it. The mismatched pair alighted on the edge of the rock.

Danny nearly gaped when he saw the small crowd of ghosts milling about the garden. He tensed, ready for battle, but none of them seemed interested in attacking. A small line formed a respectful distance from the small shallow pool and its little fountain as each ghost took a turn at the water's edge. No one spoke above a hushed whisper.

Vlad viewed the wide array of varied creatures with veiled disdain. Their demeanor reminded him of a cathedral. There were the true believers over there, there were the gawking tourists here simply to see and watch and claim they'd been here, there were the historians attempting to piece some sense of time from their surroundings, and there were the little posers trying to feed off of the seriousness all around them. And now he'd be forced into a role, dragged into a group and judged, silently judged by everyone around him. Vlad sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. He glanced toward Daniel. They were here because the boy suggested it so Vlad would defer. For now.

Danny watched the crowd for a few moments to try to see what the social protocols were. No one seemed interested in approaching the fish after the last ghost left. He slid his backpack off his shoulders and pressed the button on the side to depressurize the container. "I'm going to need a second to get my offering out, why don't you go ahead?" he asked as he fiddled with it.

Vlad hated dealings in the Ghost Zone, at least those done in person without proxies. Bystanders always took the opportunity to stare. And the majority of the ghosts here were staring at them, observing them, waiting to see what the two half-ghosts would do. He pushed ahead, taking his silver coin out of a pocket.

The fountain stood in the middle of a clearing, a pool of water gently marred by a splashing spring welling up from some rocks in the middle. Vlad stepped closer to get a better look. The pool was carpeted with shining metal coins. Silver, gold, copper, platinum, and some rarer and more interesting. Jewels and precious stones dotted the treasure within, treasure that almost seemed to climb over the rocks at the center. Treasure that looked to have been collected here over centuries, millennia. Longer. Vlad's own tarnished silver coin seemed almost unworthy.

And then he saw the fish. Any feelings of inadequacy fell away. It was a fat goldfish, its orange scales looking dull and mundane against the shining treasure it swam over. Long fins, a billowing tail, and bulging eyes did nothing to give it flair, instead made it look ragged and tired. This... was the legendary fish. Vlad felt almost disappointed.

The fish bubbled under the surface and looked up. The rippling water distorted the face of the new ghost who came to seek its advice. The face was familiar to the fish, as was everyone's, for it knew every ghost in the Zone including the two halfas. It could sense that this hybrid had not come here on his own free will. Those who didn't seek it out on their own were always doubtful of it's abilities. It disliked when that happened; being pushed to seek guidance often resulted in misinterpretation. Answers presented without a question tended to lead to confusion.

Vlad looked down at the fish. It looked back at him, it's mouth forming fishy gasps. Vlad looked back at Danny before sighing and accepting what he had to do. The coin was held out over the water and dropped.


And then the next step. Vlad reached down to the surface of the water and touched it.

The world changed. The fountain froze, the fish trapped in place. The ghosts around him all dissolved, even Daniel turning to dust and blowing away. Vlad reached out for him but he couldn't get there in time.

The world crumbled. Vlad stood alone on the stone island, adrift in a sea of ice. He looked back at the fountain, trying to figure out what was going on but instead of frozen water there was a spire. At the top of that spire... Vlad wanted it.

He jumped but his feet wouldn't leave the ground for long, falling back to the rock. So he couldn't fly then. Fine. He began to climb. The rock face was slippery, cold, numbing. Wind whipped at him, grabbing his cape and dragging at it, trying to pull him off of the spire. It slammed him into the rock, forcing him to unlatch the chain holding it on. A flash of red as his cape flew away into the storm, disappearing in driving snow.

Yet still he climbed. Alone, no one to help him but himself, no one to rely upon, no one to disappoint. No one to stop him as he reached the top of the spire and found it. Encased in ice, the key to his power, his happiness, his future, his destiny. A golden crown befitting the ruler of the world. He slammed his fist into the ice. He howled as his fingers broke. But the ice was unmarred. There had to be another way...

The world fell away...

Danny saw Vlad freeze and go silent, staring into the cool water like he'd been hypnotized. He clutched the plastic container from his backpack tightly. A bad feeling began rising in his belly. Then Vlad moved, gasping for air like he'd forgotten how to breath. Danny started to rush towards him but someone laid a hand on his shoulder. He turned around to punch the ghost.

"Don't worry, dear, that's what's supposed to happen. He'll be just fine."

Danny felt sheepish. He'd been prepared to hit the ghost of a little old lady with a camera. He nodded and ducked under her arm, walking over to Vlad. "You okay?" he asked softly, offering a hand.

Vlad found himself taking Daniel's hand just to reassure himself that the boy was real. Once he was relatively sure Vlad pulled back and nodded. "I'm... fine," he said. Now that the rush was fading he was more confused than anything else. So the legends had some truth to them. But what did that vision mean? Was it prophecy? Was it mocking him? Was it some sort of warning?

Danny couldn't help but notice how absentminded Vlad was. He decided to give him time to think things over while he made his own offering. He opened the container he'd been holding and sat down by the grass near the pool. "Wow, you're a huge goldfish," he said, looking it over. "Not fat by the way… just huge." He laughed nervously and hoped the fish wasn't on a diet. He reached into the container and produced a sandwich. Not any old sandwich, this was his favorite: a mix of marshmallows and peanut butter, delicately balanced so the sugar didn't overwhelm the peanut. He only allowed himself this snack on special occasions and he was sure the fish would like it just as much as he did.

"Peanut butter and marshmallow," he told the fish proudly. "I figure you get hungry living in this small pond all day and breadcrumbs seemed too plain for a magic fish." The goldfish bubbled back at him. He dropped the sandwich into the water. To his surprise the bread didn't get soggy, rather it hung there in front of the fish, perfectly intact.

Danny shook his head and touched the water. His vision flashed bright white before he found himself alone in darkness.

Pain shot across his back. Cracks formed along the ground and the street. Danny was in Amity Park and there was something wrong, something horribly wrong. An inhuman roar shook the streets followed by waves of screams. A crowd of people were packed tightly together around him. Some were crying and clutching each other, others stared in shock like their whole world was falling apart. Around them all was a glowing green dome… a ghost shield? No, he was the source of it. He was holding this shield over them.

He couldn't fight. He'd tried. Now he was doing everything he could to keep them all safe. One last stand.

But that couldn't be it. These people trusted him. There had to be a way to save them, there had to be!

The ground shook at the darkness closed in, bringing with it blood red ghosts, a whole swarm of them too twisted to make out any definitive shapes. With large fangs and clawed feet they descended on his shield and began to rip and tear at it. Screams rose around him, the high voices of children begging their mothers to make it go away. Make it all go away...

Danny groaned, pouring all his strength into keeping these people safe. For a second he had hope and then his power began to fail. Like a candle lit at both ends he felt himself losing strength at an alarming rate. Teeth and claws ripped through his shield. Cracks began to form, holes opening up. Fanged maws and clawed paws stuck through and made swipes at the people inside.

No... NO! It wasn't going to end like this. Danny screamed in rage as his strength broke. The shield began to buckle; he couldn't shore it up as tears were rent through his energy. A ghost burst through but he couldn't stop it as it descended on the nearest humans. The horrible sound of flesh tearing and bones breaking drowned out the screams for one horrible second.

He couldn't look, he just couldn't. Tears streamed from his eyes and Danny shut them tightly as his shield shattered around him. His last drop of power failed him, forcing him out of his ghost form. Then he fell, the sea of murderous red ghosts surging to meet him. Danny screamed. And once again the world faded.

Time reversed. The word spun.

The screams came back. The shield was still above him, intact but buckling. It wasn't over yet. But he still couldn't stop them. Even with all his power and practice it wasn't going to be enough. These people didn't deserve this, he was meant to protect them. Danny lowered his head, his power slipping away as the monsters broke though. "I'm sorry," he stammered as tears flooded his eyes. "I'm so sorry." The weight of holding the shield disappeared and Danny braced himself for the sounds of death.

"Let go, Little Badger. I've got you."


Arms wrapped around his chest and Danny looked up to see the shield reformed. Pink ectoenergy filled the cracks, reinforcing the defenses. The drain on his strength slowed; it felt like someone was helping him hold a heavy object. This was easy, he could hold this up forever. Danny laughed, relief flooding him. He wanted to hug Vlad but the elder was already holding him tightly. He pressed his glowing hands to Vlad's, pink and green light mixing. He could feel Vlad's chin resting on his shoulder and he nuzzled back into Vlad's chest.

Danny felt his body shaking, the terror still fresh in his veins. "I, I thought everyone was going to die… I can't..." He was crying again, he couldn't help it.

Vlad hummed softly and rubbed the boy's back in soothing circles. "Hush, it's all right. Everything's going to be all right now." Vlad pulled his cape around Danny, wrapping him in its soft silk.

Danny whimpered softly, slowly calming down. At least until the sounds of explosions rocked the streets. He snapped his head up, eyes looking for the source of the sound. A low drone could be heard over the din; Danny recognized it as miniature jet engines and...

"Valerie!" Danny cried, nearly bolting from Vlad's arms. "What's she doing outside the shield?" The Red Huntress's hoverboard floated above the half circle of power, her bazooka loaded for another shot at the army of ghosts on her tail.

"It looks like she's doing fine on her own," Vlad said. "Your parents will be here soon to give her back-up."

Valerie lined up a shot, blowing no less than five of the things to ashes. "Mom and Dad are out there?" Danny whispered just before a second explosion rang out, this time from a much larger cannon. The Specter Speeder streaked across the sky, all seventeen of its weapons going full blast.

Vlad groaned and Danny snapped to attention. His concentration had drifted from holding the shield. He rested his head on Vlad's chest and poured his power back into keeping the people safe, hardly able to believe this nightmare might have a happy ending.

Danny's eyes met Vlad's blood-red ones. "Thank you," he murmured softly, pulling Vlad even closer as he leaned up, their lips almost touching as the world fell away...

A sandwich. The boy was going to toss a sandwich in for the fish. Worse, a sandwich made of disgusting non-food... things. Still, the fish took it. Maybe the fish was much less discriminating than legend claimed it to be.

Daniel touched the water and then went still. Vlad took a step forward but was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it off but didn't advance. And then the boy tensed, his face open in a silent scream. He began to fall backward.

The observers surged forward. Vlad shot in first, grabbing the boy before he could hit the ground. Oppressive hands, presences, voices surged closer, coming to drag him away. Vlad snarled, the sound echoing across the stone. The surge stopped as Vlad growled at them all, fangs bared. He would not let them steal him...

Wait, what was he thinking? He almost dropped the boy when cold hands fisted themselves in his tunic. Daniel pressed himself against Vlad, whimpering in the midst of his vision. Vlad held him close and lifted him off the ground; the boy seemed to take comfort in that. Daniel relaxed, melted into whatever vision that trapped him. He grew colder as he relaxed, as his closed eyes fluttered with the vision behind them.

The surge of presence around them pressed forward again. Cold lips pressed up toward his, seeking contact. Vlad's breath caught in his throat and he growled his displeasure. Not again, not now. He dropped the boy in a grand gesture before glaring out at the assembled.

Danny groaned as he sat up stiffly, looking from Vlad to the crowd of ghosts surrounding them. "Did anyone get the license plate of that truck?" he asked, chuckling softly. He covered his humor with a cough when it became apparent nobody found it funny. Everyone just kept staring at him. Danny gave them all a curious look. Besides the ache he felt just fine, a little woozy but fine, a little shaken as he tried to think about what he'd just seen but fine. "Did something happen while I was out?" he asked.

The murmurs began around them. Vlad caught snippets of their voices before they all ran together into a voiceless hum.

"Never seen anyone collapse like that during a-" "Did you see the way Plasmius acted?" "Maybe the fish didn't like Phantom's-" "He sounded like an animal." "Aren't they enemies? I thought-" "Was Phantom about to flare? In public? How disgustingly-"

"Nothing out of the ordinary," Vlad assured Danny, glaring at the assembled horde. "But perhaps we should not linger."

Danny nodded and got to his feet. He grabbed his backpack and followed Vlad off island.

Inside the pool the fish watched them with interest. It hoped they both understood what they had been taught. More than just their lives depended on them. Much more.