Okay, this is it. The Epilogue. The sequel, if you like. The thing that ties it all up.
I'm warning you here and now, it's intense. There are some pretty dark things in here. I don't want to spoil it by specifying what exactly, but think of the damage done to characters in this story so far, and turn it up a notch or two.
There, warning officially over.
Enjoy the end, my friends.
…Allow me to remark
That ghosts have just as good a right,
In every way, to fear the light,
As men to fear the dark.
Firelight painted wisps of shadow across the walls and shelves of the library, backlighting a figure that dripped rainwater onto the lovely Persian rug. Even with his face thrown into sharp shadows by the slowly dying fire in the hearth, that ragged haircut that had always been done at home with the kitchen scissors was unmistakeable.
Vlad stared as this uninvited guest placed a couple of bags on the floor. "How the hell did you get past the shield?" he demanded.
Danny shrugged noncommittally, phasing himself dry. Water pooled onto the surface of the rug, a dark stain seeping away from the younger man in all directions. "I always could," he said. "Y'know, teleportation."
The impromptu host curled his fingers around the arms of his chair, desperately forcing himself to ignore the aroma of Chinese food that wafted from one of the bags. "I set it up to keep you out," he growled.
Danny kicked off his shoes and crouched down, rummaging through the shopping bags. "I'm done, Vlad. It's enough." He produced two cardboard cartons from the depths of a bag, handing one to Vlad along with a set of disposable chopsticks. Vlad accepted the food silently, swallowing drily as the warmth of the box's contents seeped into his hands.
Setting his own carton on the floor, Danny pulled out a bottle of dark glass that reflected the spluttering flames. "I wasn't really sure what to get since Dad's never been one to drink fancy wines or anything," he said, "but I remember that you seemed to really like the red stuff."
Vlad watched unblinkingly as Danny produced a corkscrew and proceeded to uncork the bottle. After a few experimental twists, his head slumped and the young man held out the beverage. "Here," he grumbled, "you open it."
The crippled halfa reached forwards, tenderly removing the bottle from his guest's grasp. The label was from a company that he didn't recognise, and a pang of loss twisted in his chest as Vlad wondered how many things had changed during his time cooped up in this mouldering mansion. It had been many years since his basement cabinets of liquor had been depleted, and the familiar weight of the bottle was almost enough to break his resolve then and there.
It would not do to give in. Not after so long.
The truth was that the outside world had no need for Vladimir Masters, and he in turn tried to tell himself that he had no need for the outside world. He had been doing such a good job of it as well, until Daniel materialised like the ghost of Christmas Past with food and drink that made Vlad's chicken coop and vegetable patch entirely lose their appeal as sources of food.
With a few careful twists of his wrist, Vlad popped the cork from the neck of the bottle.
"Wine's not particularly pleasant when warm," he said as nonchalantly as the situation would allow, passing the beverage back to his unusual guest.
Danny drew two wineglasses out of one of the bags. They were entirely the wrong shape – delicate and fluted for champagne instead of the round, bell-like containers better suited to what the two men were to partake of. Still, Danny had certainly made an effort, and Vlad found himself smiling as they were filled to just below the brim. The man on the floor placed a fingertip against the side of a glass and sent a pulse of blue light rippling through its contents before handing the suddenly-chilled drink to his host.
Vlad settled back into his armchair, motioning for the younger man to take the seat beside him. Danny did so, holding out his glass. "Here's to your quarter-century of moping," he proclaimed. "May the next twenty-five years be better for both of us."
Vlad inclined his head and took a sip of his own drink, suppressing a shiver of delight as the half-forgotten taste and aroma of a fruity red wine sunk itself into his stunned brain. For a precious moment, the past twenty-five years could have been nothing more than a horrible dream from which he had finally woken.
The snap of Danny breaking apart his disposable chopsticks jolted Vlad back to the present, and the recluse placed his glass on the small table piled with books that sat between their chairs. Unfolding the top of his noodle carton, Vlad snapped apart his own chopsticks, breathing deeply through his nose. It took all of the man's composure to stop himself from upending the container and pouring its contents directly down his gullet; as it was, Vlad's first mouthful was much larger than strictly polite.
Wonderful, spicy, greasy noodles slid down his throat, and Vlad forgot about everything except the food in front of him. Damn that boy, tempting him with his favourite guilty pleasure after so many years of abstinence!
The food was gone in mere moments and Vlad settled back into his chair, relishing the burn of chilli that set his mouth tingling. Danny ate at a slower pace, leaning forwards and staring at the fireplace as he chewed. The dark room was comfortable with warmth, and as the minutes trickled past, sleep became increasingly inviting; the simple pleasures of company and foreign food were exceedingly exhausting after so long alone. Vlad watched the boy through half-lidded eyes, struggling to maintain suspicion as the calorie-rich meal settled heavily in his stomach.
"Why are you here?"
Danny heaved a sigh, dropping his head so that messy bangs fell into his eyes and shadowed his expression. "I've missed you, Vlad," the halfa said, twisting the half-empty flute of wine between his hands.
"But why?" Vlad pressed. "You could have come in here any time you wanted, so why did you sit back until now and leave me alone?"
A tremor passed through Danny's shoulders. "I didn't leave you alone," he said quietly. "I've been paying your electricity bills and whatnot since the day your companies were dissolved. And you already said it yourself – you put up the shield to keep me out, and I'd wager that that's why you blew up your portal as well."
Vlad didn't dignify those assumptions – no matter how true they may be – with any sort of response. Sitting in silence, he waved his empty glass towards his guest. Vlad was still far too sober for this conversation, the evening far too young and his thoughts far too guarded. Danny dutifully poured another generous drink, chilling the beverage before returning it to him.
They sat together as the flames finally died, leaving the room illuminated by naught but glowing embers. Once, arched windows set high in every wall would have provided ample opportunity for moonlight to reach fingers across the dusty bookshelves, but after Vlad's outburst on that horrible day, he had broken any window in the mansion that remained intact and boarded up every single one. He told himself that it was better that way – the sheets of gyprock were a far kinder option than panes of glass that showcased a world sliding ever onwards and slowly leaving Vlad behind.
Eventually, Danny tired of the silence.
"I'm staying here," he said. When Vlad still made no further move than to sip some more wine, the halfa licked his lips and continued. "Enough is enough, and there are some things I want to do. Just… not tonight." He stood, arching broad shoulders back until something audibly clicked. Vlad watched with a mixture of fascination and pity – the boy's body was still that of somebody in his early twenties, the passage of time halted when his core hit maturity. It had been bad enough observing the changes (or lack thereof) in his own human body over the decades, but seeing this echoed in the boy before him brought about a new, exquisite level of pain.
How cruel a thing fate was. Most men desperately struggled to avoid theirs, postponing the inevitable end of their mortal existences for as long as possible.
Humans are programmed to die.
Halfas, on the other hand…
Vlad carefully set his glass back on the table before it could shatter in his tightening grasp.
Danny placed the near-empty bottle of wine next to it. "I've brought a sleeping bag," he said, "so I think I'll go grab a shower and settle down for the night." He faltered, running a hand through that ridiculous mop of hair with a strangled noise. "Look," he sighed, hunkering down beside the fireplace and throwing a couple of split logs onto the embers, "I really… Um, I'll get this burning again for you."
Danny jabbed at the smouldering logs with a poker, flipping them amongst the embers with a flurry of sparks. They still didn't catch, and the halfa swore lowly before engulfing the end of one with a stream of emerald flame that burst from his fingertip. Several long seconds passed before the flow of energy halted, leaving the wood well on its way to sustaining its own fire.
What a wonderful thing it was to have a core that actually functioned, Vlad mused.
The tip of the log had blackened, a little flame slowly starting to spread. Danny nodded in satisfaction and straightened up, hoisting a duffel bag that undoubtedly contained his aforementioned sleeping bag off the floor.
"Well, I guess I'll see you in the morning." He sent Vlad a look that brooked no argument. "Just so we're clear, if you decide to make a break for it, you won't get far before I drag your sorry butt back here."
Vlad still didn't move or respond in any way as his guest stood there – some small part of him glowed with satisfaction at Daniel's exasperation as the boy gave up waiting, sighed, and stalked out of the room.
Reclaiming his glass, Vlad sipped leisurely at the liquid within as the logs in the fireplace slowly turned to ash.
It takes almost six months for his wounds to heal after the portal explosion. Vlad keeps himself wrapped in a thick layer of bandages and self-pity as the world turns around him, and doesn't dare look at his reflection for fear of the mutilated face he knows will be staring right back at him. In order to ensure this restriction, he smashes every window and mirror, filling the gaping holes left behind with gyprock ordered from the local hardware store. The work is difficult and aggravates his injuries, but Vlad is grateful for the distraction that it provides. It's the first time that he has ever turned his stereo system louder than a quarter of its capacity, but Vlad decides that he needs something played at full blast that is a bit more mind-numbing than the usual operas.
He purchases as many different albums as he possibly can on iTunes without crashing the program, slowly working through them and figuring out which bands help numb his pain the most effectively. It turns out that the Dumpty Humpty crew that Daniel is so fond of does the job spectacularly well, as do others who speak of death and decaying in darkness, the vocal artists in equal parts crooning and screaming. The sound is overpowering with the volume up loud, the bass reverberating through the walls and floor as Vlad steadily works to block out any way for sunlight to enter his home. The overwhelming sound somehow pushes away all thoughts of before, leaving only the comforting darkness of now and tomorrow and forevermore.
He is surprised when the electricity and water companies do not shut off the castle's facilities. The internet remains at its usual speed with unlimited downloads, and a couple of gas guys even have the audacity to swing by and refill his heating system when the months begin to cool! Vlad is fixing a hole in the outer tiling of the roof one blustery afternoon when their van parks on the kerb. He retreats indoors before they see him, but turns off the shield so that they can access the outdoor system without having to walk through its unnerving green surface. He prefers fires over turning on the ducted heating, but hasn't had the strength to cut any wood over the past months, so is begrudgingly grateful to whoever thought to send them.
When the men slide some maintenance instructions under the door and take their leave, Vlad decides to turn on the pilot light. He fiddles with the shield until it is restored to a shimmering green dome around the property, and once he's sure that he is alone, he steps out the front door.
Daniel was there. Perhaps he still is.
Vlad stares at the carefully arranged pile of gardening clothing, utensils, and seeds for every vegetable imaginable that sits on the front steps. The boy has also left a miniature portal with ectofilter attached – it is so small that not even a finger could pass through the hole that the portal will tear through dimensions, but the attached filter is more than enough for Vlad to realise its purpose.
With this, he can collect ectoplasm.
Perhaps his core may be useless, but it still settles deep within his body, beating with an ache so intense that it sometimes feels like he'll tear apart if he doesn't binge drink until passing out. Consuming ectoplasm would fix that torment, and would hopefully heal his horrendously burned flesh as well.
Vlad fixes his pilot light and moves everything inside before scanning the premises with a spectral detector powerful enough to identify even a halfa in human form. Its radar returns with a single small blip indicative of his own crippled core, and Vlad sighs.
The boy is gone.
He is alone again, but Vlad can't decide which emotion is greater: anguish, or relief?
The delivery has obviously been personal, with a note attached in the teen's familiar scrawl that promises a delivery of chickens in the spring; apparently he has to convince his parents that Vlad will actually take care of the animals before the all-clear is given. In addition, bills and groceries will be taken care of, the latter delivered every Monday afternoon and left by the mailbox. Any requests for specific items should be left in an envelope taped to the exterior of said box.
Vlad turns on the heater and sets the gardening equipment just inside the front door. He takes the ectoplasm-collecting device to the kitchen, setting it beside the coffee maker and flipping the on switch.
It lights up with an achingly familiar green-and-yellow swirl, and Vlad staggers, clutching himself as his core twists and knots within him. He ends up lying on the floor, curled up and trembling as that ruined vessel of power writhes around his organs. The pain is exquisite, and Vlad howls, thrashing on the freezing tiles as his heart beats a rapid SOS against his sternum.
He wants it to stop, please just stop hurting he can't take it anymore and damn how could he have ever considered doing this to the boy?
His cries quiet as his core eventually settles back into its proper position and Vlad finally sits up, wiping snot and tears from his face with the sleeve of the jumper that he has been wearing for at least a week.
Standing up, he forces himself to glare at the miniature portal that hums innocently in its casing. A few drops of ectoplasm have begun to squeeze through the filter and into its containment unit, and Vlad has to grip the edges of the bench as hard as he can as he forces his core to wait, because a couple of meagre drops will only make this inner fire burn hotter.
He decides to get clean. A hot shower will pass the time until a glassful can be produced, and it's high time to change his clothing anyway. As Vlad passes through his empty mansion the back of his neck tickles, and he has to remind himself that he is alone; Daniel could not have fooled the scanner, and is long gone by now. Nothing with a core can get through the shield, either.
That cold spot on the staircase is just his imagination.
Vlad's personal quarters boasted several adjoining rooms outfitted in shades of green and cream. Complete with hundreds of books, a computer, and a lavish bathroom large enough to contain a fully functional minibar and three terraces of spa baths, the recluse did not have to leave these rooms unless he wished to. Indeed, he had whiled away years at a time cooped up inside, venturing downstairs or outside only to tend to his plants and animals and to collect the shopping when it was dropped off.
The crippled halfa had left the library during the stillness of the witching hour, retreating to these quarters in order to draw a hot bath. The spa on the uppermost terrace was the smallest, and the most practical for a one-man soak. Vlad programmed the faucet to the perfect temperature by tapping a panel set into the wall, and frothing water tinted green with mineral salts thundered into the tub.
Disrobing, he stepped into the spa with a moan of appreciation. Something about a hot, fragrant bath always soothed Vlad, temporarily rinsing away the pain of wasted, lonely decades. Although the smallest of his tubs, this was large enough for the man to float spread-eagled on his back with hands and feet still at least a ruler's length from the edges.
Once upon a time, people had been entertained in this bathroom. Six or seven guests at once would climb into each of the three spas, sipping from glasses of sparkling liquid as others still danced out in the adjoining bedroom that had originally been built as a dancefloor. Once, back when Vlad had been a teenager and his parents rich in their own right, he had thrown wild parties and spent all of his free time with Jack Fenton and other friends and his social life actually resembled something that was relatively normal. Of course, that was before the accident. It seemed like everything in his life could be mapped out with the accident as a dividing barrier; before, there were parties and laughter and friendships, but as soon as he got hit by that proto-portal, all of that had snuffed out to be replaced by things that were far less fulfilling.
The contrast brought a chuckle to his lips even as something hollow twisted beneath his sternum, and Vlad leaned back, submerging his head along with the rest of his body. Everything fell away, leaving nothing but a cocoon of warmth and a thundering pressure against Vlad's ears as the tap continued to pour. Here, surrounded by hot water and steam and the bathroom's bright halogen lights, everything seemed a lot better than it actually was. If he could just lose himself in the sensation, maybe Vlad could forget for a minute all about his loneliness and the constant ache in his crippled core and the uninvited guest sleeping down the hall.
He stayed in the tub until his mind went blank, drawing more hot water whenever the bath began to cool. It was soothing to lie in the still warmth, the mineral salts fragrant and relaxing. Eventually, Vlad dozed off with his head resting against the edge and the water lapping at his collarbone.
He woke in a cold bath to a smell that should be familiar but remained just outside his recognition.
Climbing stiffly out of the water and pulling the plug, Vlad wrapped himself in a soft white towel and padded through the bedroom to his massive wardrobe. Large enough to fit a car if he so wished, the walls were lined with all of the clothing that Vlad was fond of wearing. He took a lazy tour of the hanging garments, running his fingers over them until finally settling on a button-up shirt, woollen slacks, and a soft knitted jumper. Once dressed, Vlad appraised himself in a floor-to-ceiling mirror; the outfit was casual enough for a day spent indoors, but still formal to a level far beyond what Danny would be wearing. It wouldn't do to appear too casual when the younger man's intentions were still unknown, although Vlad could wager that the other was most likely here to convince him to re-enter society or some such nonsense.
Well, he'd just have to nip that idea in the bud.
Stretching his hands towards the ceiling, Vlad groaned as his spine smarted. Spending hours asleep in the bathtub hadn't exactly done wonders for his muscles, and he briefly entertained the thought of convincing Danny to give him a massage. Out of all of the things that he had given up to become a hermit, shiatsu massages were one of the things that Vlad missed desperately. Still, there would be no point in requesting such treatment from his guest – Danny would likely have no clue how to administer what Vlad wanted, and both would come away from the experience with no small level of frustration.
What was that smell?
Vlad ventured down the stairs, trying not to inhale too deeply. His chest ached with longing at the scent, maddening in its tantalising familiarity. He entered the kitchen, crumbling into a chair at the already-set table at the sight of Danny frying tomatoes, eggs, sausages, and bacon.
The younger man grinned, flipping one of the tomatoes and sprinkling it with a fresh layer of dried herbs. "Morning," he greeted, pouring a glass of ectoplasm and placing it on the table in front of his host.
Vlad took a gulp of his drink and finally managed to get his tongue back in working order, trying to ignore that wonderful sizzling that sent his salivary glands into overdrive. "I didn't know that you could cook," he blurted.
Danny shrugged. "Well, both Mum and Dad are awful at it, so I actually learned from Tucker during the summer after high school." He smiled into the frypan. "I figured that if I'm gunna live forever, I may as well eat some good food. You sort of taught me that, remember?"
"I thought you weren't overly fond of the caviar I gave you," Vlad said between sips. Over the years, his daily meals had become more habit than pleasure, and the man simply ate similar food every day, easy to prepare and clean up from. After all, he decided that it took far too much effort to cook a gourmet meal when he was the only one eating.
This elicited a chuckle from the cook. "Yeah," he said, "that stuff sucks, but you got me thinking that maybe it'd be a good idea to try foods from all over the world. Everything new that I liked, I learned how to cook. I could even make you a traditional Indian feast for dinner tonight if you'd like!"
Vlad felt as though he was going to explode of happiness right there at his kitchen table. Unbidden, the echo of a taste sprang to his tongue, the phantom spices making his mouth water in anticipation.
He had owned a high-end Indian restaurant before the incident with the gun, along with lavish Italian and Vietnamese places located in Paris. Food had been his only true pleasure, and Vlad had taken great care over the years to collect and modify as many recipes as he could.
Of course, all of that had changed after he retreated to an isolated life inside this crumbling castle. Over the last quarter of a century, Vlad had no doubt that his restaurants had followed in similar footsteps to his companies; liquidated once blackmailing the competition became too difficult, or passed from ownership to ownership until the resulting businesses were naught but shadows of their former glory. He didn't know for certain, as he avoided any news online apart from world headlines, but Vlad was certain that should he decide to venture back out into society, he would have to start again from scratch. It was not an appealing option.
As his companies supposedly withered and eventually died, Vlad had remained indoors, living off basic groceries, his vegetable garden, and a coop full of chooks. Simple foods helped him to forget about everything that he had lost, so Vlad never bothered to request so much as a jar of laksa from whoever delivered the shopping.
It was simpler that way, and slowly, the ache had become easier to ignore.
Danny placed a heaped plate of food in the middle of the small kitchen table, seating himself across from Vlad. Serving himself a generous plateful, the young man dug into his meal with obvious relish.
Vlad stared at the gently steaming food. He swallowed in anticipation, transferring a piece of toast and one of each food item onto his own plate. Salt and pepper were applied slowly, Vlad shooting glances at his guest. Danny continued to shove food into his mouth, oblivious to the internal struggle of the man sitting across from him.
Vlad wanted so badly to eat the food. Just one bite, and he was certain that he would eat everything that Danny didn't. It had been so long, too long, since he had eaten anything so spectacular, and food had always been one of Vlad's greatest pleasures.
But what was Danny getting out of this?
Why was he here?
What the hell did he expect Vlad to do?
Just because he waltzed in here with wine and takeaway and a gorgeous breakfast meant nothing. This didn't make Vlad indebted to Danny in any way.
For a moment a thought prodded at Vlad's mind, sending him the image of a very different ghost boy sitting in front of him. A Daniel whose core had been stripped of all power back down in the lab was hunched over the table, staring glassily at the gourmet food. His hands rested on the tablecloth, clenching and unclenching as though trying to summon even the wisp of an ectoblast. He was thin, sickly pale, eyes lifeless and defeated.
Vlad would have done anything to make those eyes sparkle again.
Wrenching his thoughts away from that awful possibility, Vlad sighed. Throughout his isolation, he had realised that had Danny been shot with that gun, the boy would have died inside. And the more Vlad thought about it, the more he realised that he was somewhat thankful that it had been him rather than the boy.
Danny would always come to rescue Vlad, but Vlad didn't think that he would have been able to rescue Danny had their positions been reversed.
Finally picking up his knife and fork, Vlad cut a piece off his bacon, chewing it deliberately slowly so as to prolong the sweet relief of eating something other than cereal for breakfast. Between bites, he contemplated that maybe it was time for Danny to save him.
Whatever the reason for the younger man's unexpected visit, Vlad was glad – he had been getting tired of being alone.
The first time it snows, Vlad locks himself in the kitchen. He has moved the chickens into the adjoining laundry, packing this temporary coop with extra straw and some old blankets that probably should have been thrown out years ago. He keeps the fire in the woodfire pizza oven constantly burning, replacing the table with a futon from upstairs draped with several thick quilts.
It's overkill, Vlad knows, but he can't stand the snow. Back when his core actually functioned, such weather had been simply infuriating. Now, the sparkling white flakes drag one person in particular to the forefront of Vlad's mind, and all he can do is think about how this is Daniel's favourite weather and how before their truce had fallen apart, the boy filled Vlad's garden with ice statues during a heat wave that took days to melt.
He would take refuge from the cold in a hot bath if not for the memory of when Daniel had agreed to take a dip with Vlad; the younger halfa had managed to accidentally freeze the water, trapping them inside a block of ice that made Vlad's core ache for weeks.
The bath is entirely out of the question, thank you very much. Instead, Vlad huddles in the kitchen, leaving its warmth only to let the chickens into the courtyard during fine daytime weather for an hour or so at a time.
The groceries still come every week, but instead of being left out at the mailbox, they are delivered on the doorstep, sheltered from drifts of snow by the recessed front door. Vlad is thankful, and even goes so far as to turn off the intimidating ghost shield every Monday and shovel the driveway to make access easier for the delivery boy.
Occasionally, he finds steaming apple pies or hot fudge brownies in a basket when he lets the chooks out. Vlad takes the gifts without comment, retreating to the kitchen to savour these treats away from the bright, cold snow.
If Daniel stays to watch, he doesn't make his presence known. Vlad always turns the shield back on after the groceries have been delivered, and scans the castle for spectral intruders. The radar never shows the boy, and Vlad constantly finds himself torn between grief and fury. How dare Daniel simply waltz in and deliver pies as though nothing has changed since they were… dare he think it? …friends?
He eats the food and tries to forget where it came from. When one day there is a delicate gingerbread house covered in lacy patterns of white icing and bright chocolate buttons, he throws it into the fire. The kitchen stinks of burnt gingerbread for a couple of days, and Vlad eventually relents, opening the doors to air out the room and retreating to a fragrant bath in the hope of washing the smell from his skin and hair.
When Vlad emerges from his vigorous scrubbing, he finds a box wrapped in red and topped with a green bow. For a moment he debates throwing the whole thing back into the snow, but his fingers have already torn away the wrapping before he can fully make the decision. Inside is a Christmas card and a gorgeously soft mink blanket. Vlad burns Daniel's card without bothering to read it, but keeps the blanket.
Inside the kitchen it is warm and dark, and Vlad shuts all the doors again; in here, he will wrap himself in his fluffy new blanket and sleep and read and while away the winter.
It took over a week for Danny to convince Vlad to leave the castle grounds. They ventured out into the winter cold on foot, the recluse bundled up in enough winter clothing to make his companion laugh uproariously. It was so good to hear that laugh after so many years that Vlad didn't even mind Danny's teasing.
The two immortals strolled into town, Vlad in too many layers of clothing and Danny in too few. It had yet to snow this season, but dark clouds crouched on the horizon and a bitter wind whipped at Vlad's coats and scarf. Leaves swirled across the pavement as a bright, brittle vestige of autumn, and people hurried to and fro, bundled into their own coats and scarves.
The shop windows were trimmed with tinsel and blinking lights, half-forgotten and achingly familiar music wafting through the air whenever a door opened. Danny led Vlad through the middle of the shopping mall, passing dozens of shopfronts.
Vlad recognised nothing beyond the lights and sounds. In a quarter of a century, this local strip of shops had changed so much that he doubted that any of the stores he had once frequented were still in business.
He had go back home right now and never come outside again.
The press of unfamiliar crowds in a place that had changed so drastically it wasn't even his hometown anymore sent Vlad's heart fluttering. It was loud and claustrophobic, too much too soon after a quarter-century of solitude in the vast, open spaces of a crumbling castle. Everywhere he looked just made the panic worse, and Vlad had stopped following Danny and was now breathing heavily and folded into a corner with a couple of bike racks in a desperate attempt to pull away from the source of his distress. His back pressed flat against the wall, eyes darting from shopfront to shopfront in the hope of finding something, anything familiar to anchor himself.
His gaze met the restaurant's sign, and something within the man crumbled. That was it, the first business he had ever owned, inherited from Vlad's own father – it was still there, staring at him from across the mall as though gazing through the abyss of time. That damned Indian restaurant that had started Vlad's business career. The longer he looked at its familiar façade, the worse his stomach churned.
Just as Vlad felt like he was going to throw up there on the cobblestones, Danny's head popped around the corner. "There you are!" he exclaimed, hair windswept and cheeks whipped rosy red by the cold. "I was worried… Vlad, are you okay?"
The man took a deep breath, holding it for five seconds before breathing out again. "I'm fine," he snapped, trying his hardest not to look at the restaurant.
"It's freezing," the man retorted. "Now is there a reason you brought me out here in the cold, or are we just having a leisurely wander while I freeze to death?"
Danny grinned. "Yeah, you're gunna love it. Come on!"
This time, the ghost boy held loosely onto the end of Vlad's scarf as he jumped back into the throng of Christmas shoppers. It wasn't really much of a choice for Vlad – either follow willingly, or be strangled by the scarf.
They ducked around the corner into a little café, and Vlad's eyes widened at the long line and shortage of available seats. Before he could ask Danny why they were in such a small, crowded space, a staff member with a manager's badge bustled across the busy room, smoothing her uniform and planting herself in front of the two men.
Danny sent her one of his winning smiles. "Hi, Sasha," he said.
The somewhat dumpy woman smiled back, and Vlad found himself relaxing slightly at the warmth that she exuded. "Mr Fenton, I wasn't aware that you were in town!"
The ghost boy waved an airy hand. "Sorry if I startled you, but I'm not here to bother you. My friend and I were in the neighbourhood and decided to come and get something to warm up."
Sasha bobbed her head, eyes flitting to Vlad before returning to Danny. "Of course! I'll get you two the next available table," she promised.
"There's no rush," Danny assured her, motioning to the counter. "You all keep doing your thing like I'm not even here, and we'll just wait."
Bobbing her head again, Sasha mumbled a quick thank you before rushing back to her duties, speaking quietly to other staff members as they passed by her.
Danny joined the queue, still not releasing the end of Vlad's scarf.
"I thought that you were a teacher at Casper High," he said quietly.
The young man nodded, his gaze moving slowly around the café. "Yeah, I am."
"She was pretty formal."
Danny glanced at his companion as though trying to gauge what exactly Vlad was trying to say. He rubbed the tassels of the older man's scarf between his fingers silently before finally dropping the fabric, moving to rub at the back of his neck instead. "I come here a bit," he confessed.
Vlad simply looked at him, conveying as much disbelief as he could with a raised eyebrow and tilted head. "From the way she's working right now, I do not believe that Sasha is the type of woman to be so formal with regular customers. The rest of the staff seem unsettled as well."
Danny gave a breathless laugh. "Well, I'll explain later, okay?"
Vlad grumbled inwardly but allowed the subject to drop.
A wooden advent calendar consisting of numbered cubes sat on the counter, and Vlad watched in fascination as a child aimlessly flipped the numbers around as his mother paid for their order. Upon noticing the behaviour of her offspring, the woman apologised to the slight girl serving her before placing the numbers back into their correct positions.
Thirteen days until Christmas.
If Danny didn't seem so insistent on this little coffee break, Vlad would have dragged the ghost boy back to his mansion as fast as possible. The carols playing from the radio grated against the recluse's nerves like sandpaper, and Vlad made sure to stand on the side of Danny that was furthest from a miniature Christmas tree that was set up in one corner. The combined cheer and companionship that filled the little café was rather overwhelming, and Vlad found himself nibbling at his lower lip and shooting increasingly frequent glances at the slightly-less-crowded and open-to-the-sky spaces outside.
The woman with the little boy finally finished collecting her order, and the line inched closer to the counter.
As they passed Danny and Vlad, the boy stopped, bouncing in excitement and staring at the former as though confronted with somebody as wonderful as Santa Claus.
"Phantom," he said in awe, resisting when his mother tried to pull him towards the door.
Vlad stared as Danny knelt beside the kid. "Hi, buddy," he said, holding out a hand for the child to shake.
Foregoing the handshake entirely, the boy tackled Danny in a massive hug. "Phantom!" he shrieked amidst giggles. "Mummy, it's Danny Phantom!"
Danny laughed, ruffling the boy's hair affectionately before agreeing to sign an autograph on his t-shirt.
Vlad stood in the middle of the crowded, noisy café, staring at Danny like it was the first time he had ever seen the boy.
How the hell could he have missed Daniel's secret being revealed? Sure, Vlad had generally avoided the local and business news articles, but he still made sure to read the world news every six months or so! He had figured that skimming over the main changes worldwide on a bi-annual basis would be enough to keep up with everything major without giving himself the opportunity to convince himself to re-join society, but it looked like something of far greater impact to Vlad than the current ocean levels or the latest progression of politics had slipped completely under the radar.
For a moment everything that had transpired over the last quarter-century fell away, leaving Vlad with one simple truth: The world knew Danny's secret, and Vlad hadn't been there to help the boy when he needed it.
Once the child had left, beaming and promising to show his shirt to everyone at school, Danny happily signed autographs for a few other people, moving between the tables with the ease of somebody born to the spotlight. He paused to speak to some of the other customers who Vlad could only guess were regulars that Danny had met before, enquiring about their children and grandchildren and how their businesses were going with such genuine interest that Vlad found himself aching to talk to this open, honest, happy young man instead of the tense, somewhat brooding halfa that had turned up at his castle nine days ago.
Danny finished his circuit of the café just as Vlad reached the counter.
"What may I get for you?" the girl at the register asked, tugging her apron so that it sat straight.
"I'll have my usual," Danny said, and the teen nodded.
"Would you like one of our complimentary gingerbread cookies with your hot chocolate?" she queried, looking at a spot beyond Danny's ear instead of meeting his eyes.
"Why not?" the halfa said before turning to Vlad. "You having that black coffee stuff?"
The man gave a defeated nod, standing to the side as Danny paid and grabbed a number to put on their table. Maybe some coffee would make him feel better, he conceded inwardly as Danny lead the way to a table that had just been vacated.
Outside, the clouds had blotted out all sunlight. They hung heavy and dark over the mall, and Vlad sincerely hoped that Danny would teleport them home.
They settled into their seats, and Vlad removed his two coats and unwound the scarf before daring to look at his companion.
Danny fiddled with the hem of his t-shirt.
Patience, Vlad told himself. Danny would break the silence when he was ready to.
"I didn't mean for anyone to find out," the hero said, beginning to trace a knot in the table's grain with his fingernail. Vlad looked up as soon as he spoke, unsure whether he actually wanted to know what had happened. What if it had been something horrible? What if Vlad's allegiance could have prevented it? "Mum and Dad helped to hunt the ghosts so I could finish school and get my degree, and then they agreed to hunt while I was working at Casper High, and I'd deal with the ghosts early in the morning and during the evening and night. Val helped as well."
He heaved a deep breath, finger moving to a different whorl and gaze never leaving the table. "Well, most of the attacks were new ghosts by then – all the regulars like Skulker and Ember had sort of agreed to leave the town alone so long as I let them visit every now and then to enjoy human things like movies and food. I fight them in Ghost Zone tournaments every few months for a bit of fun, but we're kind of friends now. I still have new enemies showing up all the time, but a lot of them are hotshot idiots who only want to fight me because I'm so well-known in the Ghost Zone. They all know not to hurt anyone though, since I almost ripped apart Walker because he put someone in a wheelchair during an invasion attempt.
"About five years after I started teaching, a ghost attacked the school. It was just another new guy testing my strength, but one of the unspoken rules about fighting me is to never target living people. Anyway, my ghost sense went off near the beginning of class, and a student outside started screaming. I… I sort of lost it, I guess. Transformed then and there and pummelled that stupid ghost into the ground, threatening him within an inch of his afterlife for daring to touch one of my students.
"I sort of had to come clean with the town after that, and then all those superheroes in New York and whatnot called me up for some help with some ghost trouble a few months later. People here and there knew who I was, but it wasn't until one massive superhero and villain fight in Los Angeles that I got completely ousted. Things went a bit wrong, and the world found out when I took a shot for Spider-man and ended up turning human in front of an entire camera crew."
Danny sighed, his fingers finally ceasing their movements across the table. "I thought you would have known, since you have the internet and all," he said, finally looking at Vlad.
Vlad shook his head numbly as Sasha stopped at their table with a mug of coffee for him and a massive hot chocolate complete with a mountain of whipped cream and a couple of gingerbread cookies in the shape of reindeer for Danny. The boy's sweet tooth obviously hadn't diminished over the decades, Vlad noted. After ensuring that the two of them were taken care of, she bustled back to her duties, leaving them alone.
Vlad cradled the cup in his hands, blowing on the rising steam after nearly burning his tongue. The thought of Danny teaming up with S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't at all surprising, nor was the manner of his worldwide revelation. No, what had fury simmering in Vlad's gut was Danny's revelation to Amity Park.
It was an unspoken rule throughout the Ghost Zone that a halfa's secret was their own to tell, and no ghost had ever dared reveal either Phantom of Plasmius. Sure, they would drop as many hints as they could, but the spectres never caused fights that got Danny found out. Something like that would be interfering with the process of the halfa's 'death', and was thus off-limits. Most ghosts wouldn't even consider intervening with the complicated process of dying, since even for a halfa the mental transition was incredibly delicate. If anything took a nasty turn, from the actual death scene to the social impact amongst family and friends, a malevolent ghost usually formed. Halfas were no exception, and while Vlad was living evidence that spectral malevolence can be overcome through time, no ghost wanted to risk somebody as powerful as Phantom becoming evil.
For a ghost to attack the school while Danny was working pretty much broke every rule in the book. If the town had taken the news of Danny's condition poorly, it could have had a serious negative impact on the halfa's psyche, and if the Guys in White had decided to cause trouble… Vlad suppressed a shudder. The thought of an evil Phantom was even worse than the thought of a crippled, broken one.
There was no way that the halfa could have left his classroom during a time of emergency without losing his job if he didn't reveal his secret. For a ghost to know this and still attack the school, targeting an innocent student no less, would have been pretty high on the list of Danny's worst nightmares.
Watching Danny bite the head off one of his cookies, Vlad ground his teeth. "Did someone lock him up?"
"What, the guy who shot me?" Danny asked, dipping the decapitated reindeer into his monstrosity of a drink. "Sort of, since they ended up sending them back to where-"
"The ghost who revealed you in Amity," Vlad clarified, glaring at the table. If his core had still worked, the unfortunate furniture would have most likely burst into flames by now due to the level of Vlad's fury.
The hero shook his head, twirling a finger through the cinnamon-dusted cream. "He got away," he said, "but I'd beaten him up pretty badly. I guess he crawled back to whatever corner of the Ghost Zone he came from. He hasn't had the guts to come back, and if he does, Walker'll imprison him for a few thousand years for interfering with my death."
Vlad took a sip of his coffee, barely even registering its taste thanks to his burned tongue. Outside, it had started to snow heavily, and people were rushing out of the shop to get to their cars before the weather got too bad. Neither halfa moved or spoke until the rush settled again, leaving the shop half-empty.
"I've missed you, Vlad." Danny decapitated another cookie, chewing thoughtfully on the reindeer's head. "It's been… Without you around to stir up trouble and to teach me new things, I've been a bit lonely," he confessed, "and it was really hard to just sit back and watch you shut yourself off in that castle."
"What about your family and friends?" Vlad asked, struggling to keep a bitter note from his voice.
Inside, his heart was singing.
Danny shrugged. "Well, Sam and Tuck and Jazz have all moved on," he said. "They all stayed human and went to uni and got married and are living their dreams. Tucker's actually working with me for S.H.I.E.L.D., and Jazz is some leading expert in psychology, and Sam's off in Italy on her honeymoon, so I guess you could say that they're all doing really well."
Danny took a sip of his drink, leaving space for his companion to comment if he so wished. Vlad stayed quiet, waiting for Danny to continue.
Setting his cup back onto the table, the halfa sighed. "Mum and Dad are going great with their hunting and inventing and whatnot. They like having me around to tinker and help cook and clean, but I don't want to be stuck living with them forever, you know? I want to move on, move out, and find some new adventures and dreams. I might look like I'm not yet twenty-five, but I'm gunna look like this forever, so there's really no point in sitting around and waiting for something to change."
The older man dropped his gaze, heat rushing across his cheeks in shame.
"I've really missed you," Danny repeated, "and I wish you'd come back to Amity Park. We can be friends again."
"I can't just pick up where I left off," Vlad countered. "All my businesses will have been destroyed by now, and… I can't…" His forehead crinkled, and Vlad took another sip of coffee.
Twenty-five years alone had ruined him, and there was no going back to the man he had once been.
"Then why did you leave everything to me in your will?" Danny asked. Vlad's head shot up at that question, and he gaped at the boy. Sure, he had made a will, but for an immortal it had seemed like such a trivial necessity. The creation of such a seemingly-redundant document had been amusing, but some small part of Vlad had once revelled in the thought of forcing Daniel to be his heir. "They called me once they couldn't contact you, and your assistant or secretary or something helped me to get through the whole legal thing. Apparently they put you down as mentally disabled after hitting your head in a ghost fight, and everything was suddenly mine to take care of." Danny gave a bark of a laugh, running a finger around and around and around the rim of his mug like a planet following its orbit. "I was seventeen. Why the hell would you give me something like that?"
Vlad's hands were clenched tightly around his empty coffee cup. "What happened?" he asked, trying to keep his voice as level as possible, not really sure whether he should feel terrified, elated, or severely disappointed.
The halfa shrugged. "I couldn't deal with DALV and VLADCO and all those big things," he said, "so your assistant lady and your lawyer helped me to sell them, but I kept all three restaurants. The restaurant employees were more than happy for me to take over from you so long as I let them manage themselves until I turned twenty-one. Then your head chef from the place in Paris sort of turned up on my doorstep one day and insisted I take a world food tour with him over the Summer before he agreed to work for me, so I guess you can thank him for educating me in the culinary delights of the world, and since then I've used some of the revenue from selling your big companies to set up two new restaurants in Paris…" Danny's babbling trailed off as he stared at Vlad. "What?"
Vlad clasped trembling hands in his lap, unable to keep the grin off his face. "Thank you," he said, filling that simple statement with as much feeling as he could.
Danny shrugged, taking another sip of his drink as his cheeks tinged pink. "Yeah, well, I figured you wouldn't really mind. This café's mine as well, by the way. It started to go bankrupt a few years ago, so I bought it and remodelled it after all those quirky little ones in New York City that Tucker likes to show me."
Vlad raised an eyebrow, looking around the shop with new interest. Now that Danny mentioned it, the place was certainly quaint, and its display of cakes beside the counter looked incredible. Just from appearance alone, the man wagered that people all over the city would pay a fortune for such fancy confections.
He looked back at Danny to find the man staring at him expectantly. "Do you like it?"
Vlad smiled as genuinely as he could. "Of course I do," he said, leaning back in the wicker chair with a sudden degree of comfort that had not been there moments ago.
Danny beamed at him before downing the rest of his drink. "Anyway," the halfa said, "how about we get a bit of shopping done? I need to get some warmer clothes and more ingredients for tonight's dinner."
Vlad glanced out the windows at the driving snow. "So long as you phase me through that horrid weather," he responded, pushing the chair back from the table with far greater enthusiasm than he actually had.
Danny was smiling, and even went so far as to hum along with a carol that played in the background as Vlad wrapped himself firmly back into his scarf and several coats.
Vlad is startled from his dinner by a commotion outdoors. He races over the damp lawn, freezing water making his toes go numb within seconds, as the chickens flutter and scream within their coop. Vlad's heart feels like it's going to hammer its way out of his chest, and he picks up the pace.
He sees the hole in the wire immediately, wrenching the lid off with a strangled curse.
Inside the coop there's a flurry of noise and movement, and the startled fox is back through the hole and streaking across the lawn and into the trees before Vlad can even register what he's looking at. He stares at the spot where it disappeared, mentally fixing it in his mind, before turning to the coop of frightened fowl.
One bird is lying limp and still, eyes as empty and lifeless as blown light bulbs.
That simple sight hits him like a sledgehammer to the sternum, and all of a sudden Vlad's struggling for breath. He lifts her from the coop and gently replaces the lid, sinking to sit in nothing but his pyjamas on the cold ground. Water seeps into the seat of his pants, but Vlad pays it no heed as he cradles the rapidly cooling body against his chest.
"Damn it," he breathes, closing his eyes against the sting of tears.
The movement inside the coop begins to settle, soft clucking occasionally filling the gaps between Vlad's violent sobbing. He rocks backwards and forwards, holding the dead hen tightly as the stars begin to turn.
Why did Vlad ever think that he could be responsible for life? The corpse in his arms is simple proof that he destroys everything he cares about, and the man howls his grief to the sky. He does this to everybody – Jack, Maddie, Daniel… Everybody he has ever cared for, driven away by Vlad's own hand. He has only ever wanted their company, their loyalty, their love, but Vladimir Masters has always lost what he cares about most.
Over the decades, he has often entertained various fantasies, indulging in what could have been. Daniel and Madeline at his side, loving and caring and a family. Now, with the lifeless body of a creature that had been entrusted to his care clasped against his chest, Vlad wonders what things would be like if he had succeeded.
All he sees is Daniel, powerless and broken. The boy barely leaves his room, preferring to sleep away the days and months and years as depression slowly gnaws at his crippled interior. The child has nothing to live for in that situation, but is kept from death by his immortal body.
Unresponsive, quiet, withdrawn.
This Daniel is more of a ghost than he ever was as Phantom.
The mere thought of this future, one that had come so close to being a reality, sends shudders through Vlad's frame that have nothing to do with the cold. Grief and shame coalesce in the man's chest, a heavy weight that makes him gasp for air between sobs.
Despite yearning for Daniel's affection, Vlad has never even bothered with the common courtesy of using boy's preferred nickname.
Contrary to what Danny had said that night in the lab, Vlad doesn't deserve him. Vlad doesn't deserve anyone. He can't even take care of a bunch of chickens, for goodness' sake! Whether he wants it or not, Vlad is the boy's villain, and he sits and stares at the moon and wonders if things could have been different.
Vlad's muscles are every bit as stiff and cold as the corpse in his arms when he finally moves.
The first thing he does is fix the hole in the coop, reinforcing the entire enclosure with a double layer of chicken wire. He digs a grave in the rose garden as the sun rises and sits by the hole for hours and hours, clutching the cloth-wrapped corpse and trying to stop the tears.
She was a good hen, he reminds himself. She's had a good life, roaming his garden with the others, scratching at the lawn and growing fat on feed.
Everybody deserves to have a good life.
Vlad has to stop several times during the process of filling in the hole, waiting for his tears to slow enough for him to see clearly again.
The Fentons deserve good lives. Just because Vlad has destroyed his own – how clearly can he see it now! – does not mean that he ever had the right to damage theirs.
With the grave finally filled in, Vlad checks the coop again to ensure that there are no more weak points before heading inside.
Curling up in bed in his muddy, torn pyjamas, Vlad cries his grieving soul to sleep, and dreams of a better him.
Vlad made up his mind to get to know the strange, confident young man that had seemed so much at ease talking to the patrons of the coffee shop. The recluse helped with the cooking and even went shopping with Danny a couple more times, and when the schoolteacher suggested that they fix the castle's windows and clean up the wings of locked, abandoned rooms, Vlad threw himself into the task wholeheartedly.
If Danny was surprised by this development, he didn't show it.
As Vlad's home was slowly returned to its former glory, the man found himself wondering what the point of the past twenty-five years had been. He had shut Danny out, shut the world out, as though a locked door and flimsy ghost shield could keep his problems at bay. Cleaning and renovating might have been difficult work, but it certainly freed Vlad's mind, giving him far too much time to think as Danny blasted music from the loudspeakers and chatted away about whatever he wanted.
Vlad occasionally contributed to the conversation, but mostly just watched his companion, listening to Danny's comments and anecdotes with intense interest. The emergence of this side of Vlad, the passionate, driven part of his psyche, surprised him at first; he thought it had withered and died while he rotted in depression and solitude. Vlad welcomed its awakening wholeheartedly, reasoning that maybe something of his old life could still be salvaged.
The budding friendship that he had once enjoyed with the boy was returning. During his teens, Danny had been nothing more than an annoyance, useful only in his possible future as Vlad's pupil and ally. However, as the boy grew, Vlad had found himself pulled in the direction of something far more socially acceptable than the whole 'stealing Jack's son and making him his own' thing – for the first time since he had become a halfa, Vlad found himself in the company of a friend.
Of course, that had all been dashed by Vlad's behaviour when Maddie became a halfa. He had realised that years ago, depression pushing him past the point of despair as Vlad contemplated all of the things that he had inadvertently abandoned in his quest for vengeance.
Suicide was only ever attempted a few times during his self-isolation – it was kind of difficult to succeed in killing oneself when said person is immortal. Besides, the clean-up afterwards was a horrendous job, depending on Vlad's chosen method of self-mutilation. Even when he stuck a gun beneath his jaw and blew off the top of his head, Vlad regenerated, and was left with a grisly coating of dried gore to scrub off the bathroom tiles during his next spurt of motivation. There were still marks in the white paint of the ceiling that wouldn't come out, and now had to be painted over.
Vlad's thoughts snapped back to the present as Danny began to mix a freshly-opened can of paint. "You couldn't think of a more creative colour than Eggshell White?" the younger man scoffed.
Vlad pulled the drop sheet so that it reached all the way to the wall. "When you have your own home, you can choose the paint colour, and I won't complain."
Danny rolled his eyes, setting aside the mixing tool and pouring some of the paint into a tray. Vlad picked up two rollers, handing one to Danny as the halfa got to his feet. Danny scratched his paint-streaked face, flicking hair back out of his eyes. The black strands also bore signs of their hard day of work, sections sticky with white clumps of drying paint.
Danny dipped his roller into the tray, working paint evenly through his tool before beginning to coat one of the freshly-sanded walls. "Y'know," he grunted as he worked, "I haven't painted a room since Jazz decided to turn her walls Hawaiian Pink. Stupid colour, and she changed it back to Pale Sky only a year later. That was when I was recovering from having my head cut off when Dad tried to calibrate one of his new weapons to ignore my ectosignature, so I didn't have to help her paint her walls back to their original blue."
Vlad swept his own roller down the adjacent wall. "How did adjusting to ghost powers in the house go?" he ventured.
Danny shrugged. "As well as they could, I guess. We all had to make allowances and be as honest as we could about things. At first there were a lot of injuries, what with the weapons targeting us automatically, but those died down as we went through the vault and got rid of anything that we couldn't recalibrate."
Vlad sighed, glancing sideways at his friend. "Is that why you have so many more scars than when I last saw you?"
Danny's roller dipped to the floor as he turned away from the wall, and Vlad could only be glad for the drop sheet as white was splotched onto its waterproof fabric. "Why?"
Vlad's mouth worked at this unexpected question, but he couldn't think of anything to say.
"Why do you care so much, Vlad?" Danny pressed, stepping closer to him. "You never had a problem hurting me in the past, but since I've come here, and especially since we went out that first time, you've been really… different. You're not the Vlad I left in that lab."
"You're not the Danny that left me," Vlad retorted. "As for my increased interest in you… I care now. Before, I only ever thought about what I wanted, and what each person could offer to me. I messed up a lot of things, and I realised that about fifteen years ago." He took a deep breath before continuing, startled by his sudden honesty. "I want to fix the things I ruined. Do you think we could give this friendship thing a genuine attempt?"
The teacher sighed, running a hand through his paint-stiffened hair. "Is that why you've started using my nickname?" His mouth curved into that delightfully bright grin. "You goofball."
Before Vlad could respond, Danny had hefted his roller upright and ran it across the man's face, effectively covering it in paint.
Vlad spluttered as the halfa howled with laughter, blindly lunging with his own roller and managing to catch Danny on the ear. The younger yelped, skipping out of the way and dipping his roller into the tray before flicking it so that paint splattered across Vlad's overalls.
By the time they finished their battle, the tin of paint was empty and both men were covered in Eggshell White. Danny phased them both clean before teleporting back into the town's hardware store to buy more paint.
Vlad set about using his roller to even out the splatters that dripped from the walls and ceiling, grinning so hard that he felt like his face might be stuck in a smile forever.
Dandelions sway in the breeze when Vlad goes outside to let out the chooks one morning. The pleasant weather has him standing straight, head back to breathe in deeply. By the looks of things, it's going to be an exceptionally beautiful day.
For the first time in over twenty years, Vlad doesn't want to go back inside.
The chickens spread out across the yard, and a rabbit twitches in the shade of the flowering wisteria. The breeze ruffles his loose hair again, and Vlad's curiosity pushes him to turn towards the shed – the only building with a window left intact on the entire property. Since he had smashed every window and mirror in the mansion, Vlad hadn't once seen his reflection except for fleeting glimpses distorted in puddles or the back of a spoon.
The man staring back at him from the shed window looks more like a ghost than anything Vlad has ever encountered. Pale, sickly, with wild hair hanging loose halfway down his back. When did he last cut it? A year ago? Five?
Vlad grabs a set of scissors from inside the shed and goes about giving himself a haircut. He does it much shorter than he has ever worn it before, hacking the strands and knots and clumps until it sticks up in small, unwashed tufts.
Those are cut off just as quickly, leaving Vlad with a messy, uneven hack job. He drops the scissors, spinning in a circle as the wind plays across his neck and shoulders. He feels so much lighter, freer than he's felt in a long time. The last time he felt this good was the first time he went flying…
His gaze catches his hands as he holds them above his head, and Vlad's mouth twists into a frown as he glances back at his reflection. Gosh, he's so filthy.
Tossing his head, Vlad eyes the pond. It was always one of his favourite additions to the property – a self-sustaining pond filled with crystal clear water, filtered by the carefully selected plants along one side. All appearances suggest it to be nothing more than a water feature, but the pond is actually a perfectly-constructed natural swimming pool.
His clothes are off and Vlad barely remembers to check the water for any submerged snags or other hazards that could have appeared since last year's maintenance before leaping in. Despite the warmth of the early spring day, the water is still bitingly cold. Vlad's jump propels him to the bottom and he remains there as long as he can, giddy with joy even as his lungs begin to burn.
He resurfaces and takes a huge gulp of air before ducking under again, scrubbing his fingers through his filthy hair. The cold is exhilarating, and Vlad resurfaces with breathless laughter. He feels so alive!
Sitting on a submerged ledge, Vlad uses his hands to slowly rub away the layer of accumulated grime on his skin. How long has it been since he was clean?! He'll have a proper shower later, with soap and shampoo and a scrubbing brush, but for now this will be enough.
Laying back in the water, Vlad feels his short, chunky hair sway with its movement, and wonders why he suddenly feels so great. In a couple of months, he'll have been here for a quarter of a century.
He wonders what Danny's doing as he begins to shiver.
Climbing out of the pond, Vlad prods his filthy clothes with a toe before deciding to leave them on the ground. He spreads his arms wide, letting the warm breeze dry him off. It briefly occurs to him that he must appear ridiculous, but Vlad brushes off the thought – he lives alone in a rural mansion and is currently surrounded by trees and a ghost shield. He can walk around naked all he wants – nobody's going to see him and call the police or anything like that.
The thought sends a chuckle from his throat that startles him, and then he is laughing, big proper gales of the sound that force him to hunch over and brace himself on his knees.
He's an old mind in a younger man's body, and as Vlad's laugher peters out, he realises that the house hasn't aged as graciously as him.
The castle looks horrible. Staring at it while the wind slowly lifts the moisture from his skin, Vlad realises that it looks like something haunted out of a horror movie. Maybe he should fix that.
The thought surprises him, and Vlad finds himself wondering what other outrageous things he might think and do if he allows himself to follow the promptings of this joyful mood.
Scooping up the scissors and his dirty clothes, Vlad heads back around to the house, mind turning with plans.
Maybe Danny hates him, and maybe he has no place in the world anymore, but Vlad knows where he belongs – right here. He's tired of sulking away the decades in squalor. He'll fix the mansion. There are five months left until autumn sets in with its storms – Vlad can repair the exterior of the building in that time, then work on the inside during the cold. At least he's continued to maintain the gardens, so that doesn't have to take extra months.
His mind made up, Vlad rounds the edge of the house.
At the top of the front steps stands the delivery boy, placing the last couple of bags of Vlad's weekly groceries in front of the door before giving his habitual polite knock. Vlad has never answered the door, but the boy always does it anyway – probably half out of professionalism, and half hoping that one day the crazy hermit might actually open his front door.
Vlad stands frozen as the youth turns, and the kid's eyes widen as they land on the recluse.
The boy swallows, eyes darting to the scissors in one of Vlad's hands before shooting back to his face. "Um, Mr Masters?"
Vlad dimly realises that he must look insane, standing at the end of the garden path with wild, uneven hair, scissors in one hand, muddy clothes in the other, and stark blooming naked.
When he doesn't respond, the youth continues, red spreading across his cheeks and wide eyes fixed firmly somewhere above Vlad's head. "Sorry to bother you, sir. I'm just delverin' your groceries."
Vlad nods, shifting so that his clothes cover his crotch. "Thank you," he says, voice perfectly level after years of suppressing his emotions in business meetings. And then, spurred on by his wickedly good mood and a certain stab of mischief, "Nice weather we're having today, hm?"
The boy's blush spreads up over his unfortunately large ears, hands curling around the hem of his uniform as he edges down the stairs. "Um, yeah… You might wanna put these groceries away, though, or your meat'll go bad."
Vlad smiles as the boy's gaze darts in the direction of the gate before moving back to the naked man on the edge of the garden. "Go on," he says, tilting his head. "I bet you've got more deliveries to make."
The teen's shoulders drop as he seems to relax. He heads down the driveway at a trot, and it's not until Vlad hears a car door slam that he sinks to his knees, laughter bubbling from his gut in hysterical waves as the embarrassment and absurdity of the entire situation slams into him.
The wind continues to blow, warm gusts ruffling Vlad's hair as he wipes away tears and heads inside. Clothes are a good idea, and then he might order some building supplies before going outside again.
A walk around the grounds is an appealing thought, and Vlad moves upstairs with a spring in his step, wondering if moths have eaten his old exercise clothes yet or if they're still shoved in a drawer at the back of his wardrobe.
Settling down in his armchair, Vlad sipped at his glass of ectoplasm mixed with wine. Snow softly piled on the sills of the windows, any outside sound muffled by its gentle descent. The fire burned hot and high in the hearth, driving away the winter chill and enveloping Vlad in a cocoon of warmth. He was comfortable, a little tired, and fully prepared to while away the evening immersed in Dracula.
Vlad was thoroughly enjoying his re-visit of the classic, curling up tighter in the large chair as the horrors of the creature's castle were slowly revealed to the story's imprisoned protagonist. He would have to get Danny to read this sometime, to get the boy to experience true horror instead of that ridiculous Dead Teacher franchise that Vlad had been coerced into watching over the past few days. Leaning closer to his book, Vlad shivered involuntarily as Mr Harker's terrifying encounters continued to unfold.
Something appeared before the fireplace in a flash of light, and Vlad fell halfway out of his chair with a shriek. Danny, for of course it was him, cried out and dropped the items in his arms at Vlad's vocalisation, shifting into a fighting stance and igniting his hands with twin charges of ectoplasm. He looked around the room for the threat before finally finding Vlad, slumped over the edge of the chair and clutching at his chest.
The men stared at each other before Danny burst into laughter. The blasts around his fingers fizzled out, and the halfa clutched at his sides as he continued to howl with mirth.
"Oh, shut up," Vlad snapped, half-heartedly throwing the paperback that he had been reading in the boy's direction.
Danny sank to his knees, cackling. "I really scared you," he spluttered. "I-I… hahaha, I actually scared the crap outta you!"
"Shut up," Vlad said again, standing up and prodding the teacher with his foot.
"Dracula?" Danny asked between giggles. "Oh, man, you need some real horror. Remind me to get you to play Amnesia later."
Vlad decided that he didn't like the sound of that, and instead focused his attention on the items that Danny had dropped.
"You're not serious," he said, staring at the halfa's haul.
Still sitting on the floor, Danny was finally getting his laughter under control. "Dead serious," he said. "I'll buy you the game tonight… Pfft, dead serious…"
"Your ridiculous puns aside," Vlad muttered, "I'm not putting this up with you."
"Aww, Vladdie," Danny whined, standing up and slinging his arms around the elder's shoulders. "You can't expect me to put it up alone! It's Christmas Eve!"
"It's not going up," the man insisted. "And I thought that you didn't like Christmas."
Danny shrugged. "It's grown on me," he confessed. "I really like the feeling of the holiday, y'know? People all thinking of others and spending time with the ones who matter the most. It makes me really happy, because it's such a nice atmosphere."
"That's nice, but I'm not decorating," Vlad reiterated. "Besides, don't you have a Ghost Zone Christmas Party to attend?"
"Later," Danny said. "I told them I'd be there at about ten. That gives us plenty of time to put up the tree before we leave!"
Vlad' heart started a quick staccato tap dance against his ribs. Just the thought of all of those ghosts in one place, staring at him, judging him, whispering behind their hands as the crippled disgrace dares to intrude on their celebration, makes him feel lightheaded. "I'm not going," he said quickly. "Besides, I'm not a ghost."
"You still have a core," Danny pointed out, "and you're my guest. Nobody's going to mind."
Vlad shook his head, pulling away from his friend and moving back, edging towards the darkness of the library shelves and away from the boy's ridiculous Christmas decorations and even more ridiculous plans for the evening.
Danny sighed, running a hand through his snow-flecked hair. "At least help me put up the tree," he pleaded.
Despite his muscular physique and a height to rival Jack Fenton's, Danny looked very small standing alone next to the pine tree and red-and-green boxes of decorations.
The sight sent Vlad's mind back to all of the Christmases since he had lost his powers. Every single year, no matter what the weather, regardless of whether Vlad burned it or not, Danny had delivered a gingerbread house, along with other delicious foods, a brightly-coloured card, and some sort of luxurious gift. Every year, just as the cold and solitude began to weigh on Vlad's mind, Danny had driven away the loneliness.
Sighing, the crippled halfa shuffled back into the circle of firelight. "Alright," he said grudgingly, "I'll help you to put up the tree, but I'm not going to the party."
Danny beamed, kneeling to rummage through his shopping. "Awesome! I've got a tree stand here, and there are lights and baubles and tinsel and candy canes-!"
"What is that?" Vlad demanded, staring in horror at the item that Danny had just removed from a bag.
The ghost boy's smile turned wicked. "It's not Christmas without ugly sweaters!"
Vlad stared at the knitted monstrosity as Danny sent him a truly pathetic pout. The jumper was bright red, with a green Christmas tree covering half of the front and curving around the side to reach its spiky branches across the back as well. Gold and silver circles dotted the tree to represent baubles, and a gold star had been embroidered where the tree's apex curved over the shoulder of the garment.
If that had been the extent of the item's decoration, Vlad probably would have agreed to suffer through an evening of wearing the blasted thing.
Danny, still grinning in self-satisfaction, fiddled with something tucked under the hem of the jumper. In response, little lights – actual tiny red-and-gold lights – began to flash along the embroidered branches.
Oh, hell… "No."
"But I've got a matching one!" Danny exclaimed, setting Vlad's jumper aside to pull out another hideous garment, this one knitted with a massive reindeer face. A reindeer face with a bright red, flashing, light-bulb nose.
Suddenly the first sweater didn't look so bad.
Vlad grunts as he slips over the edge, fingers curling around the gutter as his body slams into the side of the castle. The wind tugs at his clothing, snapping his loose shirt to one side as his shoes scrabble uselessly against the wall. His fingers are burning, slipping in their grip on the gutter full of slimy leaves. Slowly, one by one, they begin to lose the battle against gravity.
The toolbox slides down the roof's slope, falling past Vlad and crashing onto the ground far below. Vlad tries to pull himself back onto the roof, muscles straining and feet kicking wildly as the wind continues its attempts to rip him into freefall.
The gutter creaks beneath his weight, and just as Vlad's foot manages to find purchase on the uneven stone wall, it tears from the roof with the shriek of rending metal.
Everything pulls away from him, and with the rush of air and sickening vertigo, the ground slams into Vlad's shoulder and hip and his head smacks against the bricks that border the flowerbed.
One of the things about being immortal is that even when your head splits like an overripe melon, you'll eventually return to consciousness. The first sensation Vlad notices is how cold he is. He's lying on something hard, his cheek pressed into dirt that's heavy with the scent of blood.
Bricks, his mind tells him. You fell and cracked your head open on the bricks.
He tries to open his eyes, but as soon as a sliver of light makes its way through the gap in his eyelids, pain stabs through Vlad's head. Okay, so maybe that's a bad idea right now.
Lying on the damp, cold ground, Vlad keeps his eyes closed as he wriggles his fingers and toes. They all seem to move okay, but the arm twisted beneath him hurts almost as badly as his throbbing skull.
The ground beneath his head is definitely sticky, and Vlad takes a deep breath, ignoring the twinge of pain from ribs that are badly bruised and possibly cracked. The next breath is no less painful, but comes a little easier. Vlad wonders how much blood he's lost – probably not all of it, since his heart would have stopped beating pretty quickly after that head wound – and how long it's been since he's breathed. If previous experience was anything to go by, he'll have to lie here for a while longer, let his body resume the general processes of being alive…
Vlad doesn't know how long it takes him to open his eyes. When he finally manages it, only one can actually open – the other eyelid is crusted closed, presumably with the fluid that has poured from his busted head. He sits up slowly, moving his good hand to gently rub away the filth that stops him from opening that second eye.
His fingers come away red. In fact, the whole area surrounding Vlad – the bricks, the dirt, his clothes – everything is rusty with blood. Chunks of something else cling to the bricks, and Vlad runs his fingers over the semi-dried bits of his splattered brain in morbid fascination.
The next thing he does is feel his head.
Fingers barely graze the squishy mess before Vlad pulls his hand away with a sob, entire body seizing with pain and vision momentarily going dark. He breathes in and out, in and out, waiting for the agony to ebb back into a more manageable throbbing. He looks up at the sky, at the clouds that hang dark and heavy overhead, while he waits for the nausea welling in his throat to pass.
Inside. He has to get inside before it starts to rain.
It takes several attempts for Vlad to lurch to his feet, but he finally manages to lean against the castle wall. His knees tremble beneath him, and his fingers leave smears of red on the rough stone surface, but he's up and standing and he can hobble weakly in the direction of the door.
It's a slow, agonising process, but Vlad makes it inside. There are no groceries on the doorstep, so he can't have been unconscious for more than a couple of days. If he had been found by the delivery boy, Vlad supposes that he would have woken up in the morgue, or maybe even a coffin.
Claustrophobia washes over him at the thought of being trapped in a wooden box, buried and unable to escape as he slowly suffocates. And then revives. And dies almost straight away from lack of air, stuck in a never ending cycle of asphyxiation and reawakening.
Would Danny come and save him once he realised what had happened, or would he leave Vlad there forever, trapped in a cycle of agony and oblivion?
Something inside him whispers that Danny would never leave him like that, and the injured man lurches in the direction of the kitchen. Ectoplasm. So long as he can get some ectoplasm into him, he won't pass out again.
He doesn't even make it halfway across the foyer before his legs give way beneath him.
Vlad hits the floor with a shriek and curls up on his good side, blinking away tears and struggling to keep himself from throwing up. It takes several deep breaths before he can move, and Vlad crawls the rest of the way to the kitchen, feeling his way blindly across the flagstones as he grapples with consciousness.
Vlad cringed as Danny pushed him through the door, keeping his head down and trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. The flashing jumper made this a tad more difficult than it would have otherwise been, but heads didn't start to turn until the hero halfa entered the lair behind him.
Chatter died down in their immediate vicinity, and Vlad ground his teeth as Danny brushed against his side. Acting as though they didn't have a dozen ghosts staring unashamedly in their direction, Danny raised a hand that glowed with blue ectoplasm. The blast flickered for a moment before rising into the air, joining the hundreds of other energy orbs that floated above their heads.
Vlad's core ached at the mere sight of blue energy, so he dragged his gaze back to the floor and decided to pretend that the orbs weren't even there.
Having officially announced his presence, Danny finally moved out of the doorway, tugging on Vlad's sleeve so that the older halfa would follow him. Vlad briefly debated digging his heels into the floor and refusing to budge so much as an inch, but more ghosts were beginning to stare, and he heard something that sounded suspiciously like his name whispered below the hum of the party. Going with Danny suddenly didn't seem like such a bad idea, and Vlad grudgingly allowed himself to be dragged through the throng of revellers.
Festive music blasted from an impressive set of speakers, and lights and assorted decorations associated with several different yuletide holidays hung from the walls and rafters. He kept close to Danny as they skirted the dance floor, and Vlad's heart pounded as he recognised the robotic spectre that waltzed a damsel with flaming hair across that space with such vigour that the other dancers made sure to clear a path before they were mown down. More faces were recognisable as well; two dumpy ghosts, one in overalls and the other wearing an apron and hairnet, were intertwined beneath a sprig of mistletoe; a young spectre wearing a pirate outfit and with added Santa beard and hat led a gaggle of other youngsters through the crowd, screaming in delight as they chased a runaway cat; a bespectacled character typed frantically on his keyboard in between sips from a steaming mug, shouting the lines of his Christmas poem as he went.
The party was exactly like the ones that Vlad had attended in the past. Its familiarity, with the atmosphere of goodwill and the energy of hundreds of cores filling the building, had the cripple's heart fluttering wildly. Now, more than ever before, he wished that the past quarter of a century had been nothing but a nightmare.
Vlad cast his gaze about the room, eyes finally alighting upon Desiree, and his panic settled somewhat. The wishing ghost would surely grant his plea.
She floated near the apex of a massive Christmas tree on the opposite side of the dance floor, arms heaped with trailing tinsel. She was speaking to a woman who was currently fixing the star in its place, and Vlad's breath caught painfully in his chest as he recognised her.
The white hair was far longer than it had once been, trailing down her back in a braid decorated with holly. She didn't wear her uniform, and was instead swathed in a generic red Christmas dress trimmed with fluffy white at the skirt's hem. She actually had the womanly curves to fill out such a garment, and Vlad realised from just one look that she had continued to age where her original had not.
Desiree said something that was lost to the noise of the party, and Danielle threw back her head, mouth wide with laughter.
Vlad didn't realise that he had stopped moving until Danny gave his jumper an extra tug. "Hey, you okay?"
It was a ridiculous question considering the fact that Vlad had resisted attending the party since it had first been suggested, but any number of smart comments that he would have usually responded with seemed unable to squeeze their way out of his dry throat.
Danny didn't push for an answer, opting instead to guide Vlad towards a rough semicircle of armchairs that enclosed a fireplace. "Here, just like home," he chirped, leading the man to an empty seat. Vlad collapsed into it, fingers curling around the armrests tightly as waves of sound crashed over him.
Danny plopped into the seat beside him, waving a hand dismissively. "This isn't so bad, right?"
Vlad stared at the leaping green fire, focusing on breathing evenly and holding onto his chair for dear life. Everything here was exactly like all the previous Christmas parties he'd attended – noisy, busy, and filled with the smell of good food. He took another slow, deep breath, feeling some tension begin to bleed out of his shoulders.
"You're late," grumbled a voice from somewhere behind Vlad. He twisted at the sound, gaze alighting on a ghost sporting gleaming glasses and a garish scarf of what looked like knitted tinsel.
Danny didn't glance up from the fireplace. "It's not midnight yet," he responded, irritation evident in his voice.
"You missed my Christmas poem."
The halfa sighed. "I'll come round sometime next week and you can recite it for me again," he said.
"You said you'd be here by ten."
"Damn it, you know I've been busy!" Danny growled, finally turning to face the grinning Ghost Writer.
"Calm down, I was just kidding," the spectre said, clapping a hand to the ghost kid's shoulder. "Now, would you two halfas like something to drink?"
"I'm a teetotaller tonight," Danny said, "but some ectoplasm would be nice."
Ghost Writer rolled his eyes. "Do you really have to be so serious? Come on, it's Christmas!"
Danny shook his head stubbornly. "I have a delicate procedure to perform tomorrow," he explained. "I need to be sober."
Vlad turned a questioning gaze to his friend, but before he could ask what Danny was talking about, the writer's hand bumped his shoulder. "What about you, Plasmius?"
Vlad swallowed involuntarily, glancing at Danny. When the boy made no indication that Vlad shouldn't have a drink, he looked back to the Ghost Writer. It had been so long since he'd been here, surrounded by spectres, his core thrumming with the power that filled the room. It sent Vlad's heart fluttering wildly again, and he found himself smiling. "Surprise me."
The ghost raised his eyebrows before drifting in the direction of the bar, and Vlad turned back to the flames. "He's wrong, by the way," he said.
"About what?" Danny sighed, leaning back in his chair and stretching his hands above his head.
It hurt to say it. The words sent a bitter pang through his chest, and Vlad fisted his fingers in the hem of his horrible flashing jumper. "I'm not a halfa."
Danny shifted, and Vlad stiffened as a hand was pressed against his chest. "Functioning or not," the ghost child said with fierce intensity, "you have a core – I can feel it, right here. You drink ectoplasm, you understand the language of the dead, and you're immortal. Ghost powers or not, you're still a halfa." The boy glared at him with blue eyes that flashed momentarily green. "You belong here, with us, with me, so don't tell yourself otherwise."
Danny's hand was cold, even through the thick knitted jumper.
Vlad sighed, shrugging away from his friend's touch. "Fine," he grumbled, if only to get the schoolteacher to drop the subject.
Danny settled back into his own seat, frowning and obviously unconvinced. Vlad watched fairy lights draped around the fireplace slowly fade on and off, cycling from dark to bright to dark again every handful of seconds. The party's sounds swept around him, but he sat alone, as though trapped in the eye of the hurricane.
The writer returned and handed Vlad a glass of something purple that fizzed before turning his back on the man in favour of starting a conversation with Danny.
Vlad couldn't even muster up the energy to feel slighted; he slumped in his chair and sipped his drink, glaring at anyone who came too close.
A figure both large and orange leaped into view with a great deal of shouting, and Vlad recoiled as Jack bounded past him and swept Danny into an embrace that looked painful. "Danny-boy, I haven't seen you in ages!" he bellowed, lifting the unfortunate boy out of his seat and squeezing.
"Dad!" Danny gasped in pain, squirming before phasing out of his father's grasp. "You saw me a few weeks ago," he responded, sinking back into his chair whilst massaging bruised ribs. The Ghost Writer gave the newcomer a single, horrified glance and disappeared in a burst of dark green smoke, re-materialising across the room.
Jack was as obnoxiously orange as he'd always been, practically filling the entire space and demanding everyone's attention simply by being there. His presence seemed to swell, pressing down upon Vlad and sending his heart stuttering and leaping and threatening to choke him with its wild beating. He shrank back in the seat, fingers digging into its overstuffed armrests.
"You're late," Jack admonished his son.
"It's not midnight yet," Danny retorted, reclaiming his glass of ectoplasm from the coffee table. "I said I wouldn't get here until late, anyway."
"You said ten."
Jack righted the Santa Claus hat that perched precariously atop his broad brow. "It's quarter to twelve! Santa won't come if we're not all in bed soon!"
Danny's mouth twitched and Vlad grinned at the younger man's frustration. "Well," Danny said, "we got held up."
Vlad's grin disappeared at the inclusive word.
Jack glanced at him, something twisting his expression that Vlad couldn't quite place before he turned back to his son. "Well, Danny, I think I'm gunna go say goodbye to some folks, and then I'll take Mads and Elle back home. We can't stay up too late, after all!"
"You'll never get Mum out of here," Danny responded, running a finger across the rim of his empty glass to collect the decorative sugar crystals. "She's been trying to talk to Walker for ages about martial arts, and now that there's the Christmas Truce, she can chat without him having to run off and chase any criminals."
Jack plucked the cherry from the bottom of Danny's glass. Vlad scowled at the action, righteous fury flashing through him before he remembered that Danny hated them.
"I'll get your cousin first," the burly man decided, "and then she can get your mother."
Danny nodded. "Smart idea," he said. "By the way, I left some gifts in the bottom drawer of my dresser for you guys. You can have yours whenever you want, but go put the ones for Jazz and her kids under the tree. I'm not sure if I'll make it home for dinner tomorrow."
Jack glanced towards Vlad again with eyes that were darker than usual.
That's what the expression was – malice. Unusual for Jack to show such an emotion, but Vlad felt oddly refreshed as the man finally displayed something other than cloying, undeserved affection towards him.
"Try to make it," Jack advised. "Jazz and Jim are cooking it, and you know how upset Jazz'll be if you miss it."
"I don't think that she'll mind, actually," Danny said coolly, meeting his father's gaze evenly. "I have some things to do, and she knows that."
Again, Jack's gaze flitted towards Vlad. It was a welcome blow, and Vlad found that with every glare it was a little easier to breathe.
Finally, Jack was angry at him for what he'd done. Vlad deserved that anger, and embraced it wholeheartedly. Twenty-five years ago, he had sought to destroy this man and steal his family. Vlad had lived with the consequences of his attempt for a quarter of a century, and now that he had finally conquered his own self-loathing, he could handle any punishments that others might fling his way.
Danny sighed, getting to his feet and placing a hand on Vlad's arm. "Stay here," he said. "I just need to talk to my dad for a moment."
The two Fentons walked towards the bar, their conversation melding with the noise of the party. Jack squared his shoulders. Danny slashed a hand through the air. They stood toe-to-toe, eye-to-eye, man-to-man, and Vlad could only stare at the adult that Danny had become.
Jack abruptly turned away from his son, stalking in the direction of the Christmas tree.
Danny ran a hand through his hair in frustration, making his way back to Vlad, and Vlad sat there stunned. The boy was choosing him over family, over Christmas. It was everything that Vlad had ever wanted all in one lovely package, but it felt so wrong.
After all that he had done, Vlad realised that somewhere over his years of isolation, he had decided that he would never be worthy of Danny's attention.
The halfa plopped back down into his armchair, picking at the peeling skin around a fingernail.
"You don't have to skip Christmas to be with me." As soon as he said the words, Vlad wanted to reach out and tear them back inside himself.
Danny tilted his head in that maddening habit of his, mouth working its way back into a smile. "I know," he said, "but I want to. And who says that we're skipping anything?"
Vlad remembered the tree back in his library – how could he forget when pine needles still jutted from the weave of Danny's jumper? – and inwardly conceded that perhaps the boy was right.
"I am not putting cookies and milk out," he warned.
Danny cackled. "We only do that for Dad," he said, tossing his head in the general direction that Jack had disappeared. "He's convinced that Santa's a benevolent ghost or something that we haven't been able to catch. He's been putting up increasingly elaborate traps every year."
Vlad groaned. "He was the same in college – it drove me nuts. You'd think that he would have given up by now."
"He caught something one year," Danny confessed.
"Mhm." The halfa readjusted the sagging bulb on his jumper. "Of course, Dad sleeps through everything, even his ghost sense. I got up and went downstairs, full Phantom getup and all that, and sure enough there was some glowing guy in the cage in a magnificent green robe. Turns out that a bunch of ghosts of saints and the like are all Santa, and only leave the Ghost Zone every Christmas Eve."
Vlad stared at him. "You lie."
"I do not," Danny retorted. "Mum can vouch for me – she woke up as well. Of course, since then I've always sabotaged the traps."
Something bubbled inside Vlad's chest and he found himself laughing, the good, full-scale laughter that keeps going until your sides feel like they're going to shake apart.
Danny sighed, sinking deeper into his chair. "We should probably head off soon," he said. "I've got something to do tomorrow that I really need to sleep for."
Vlad nodded. "I've just got to talk to someone first," he said, glancing in the direction of the Christmas tree.
Danny moaned. "Are you kidding me? Even after all this, you're still gunna go find Desiree?"
Vlad stiffened. "I'm not –"
"Don't lie," Danny interrupted. "I already organised it with her anyway – she can't grant any of your wishes right now."
"You wished for that?" Vlad growled.
Danny glared at him.
Vlad pushed himself to his feet, glaring right back. "You had no right."
"Of course I didn't," Danny grumbled. "It's only the entire person that I am that you're going to erase if you wish for this to never have happened!"
"Don't be absurd," Vlad spat, "I only wanted –"
"To undo everything that's happened since that gun," Danny shouted, leaping to his own feet. Vlad stood his ground, resisting the urge to step back as the taller man stood directly in front of him. "If you do that, you're not just undoing your past, but mine as well! At least in this timeline my secret hasn't ended with me in a lab, or an evil overlord, or with my friends and family dead! I've seen so many futures for teenage me, and this is the only one where none of those things happen!"
The party had fallen quiet around them, everyone was staring, and Vlad stung like he'd been slapped in the face. When he didn't say anything, the younger let out a strangled sound before disappearing in a flash of light.
Vlad stood there as the silence pressed down on him. His heart was loud and fast and guilty, clenched fists hurting as fingernails dug into palms, breathing shaky and hitching.
He blinked, and tears slipped down his cheeks.
His head won't heal.
All those suicide attempts, all the times he's starved himself during a haze of depression, the clumsiness and general bad hygiene of almost twenty-five years, and Vlad's body has always regenerated from whatever he did to it.
It's been three weeks since he fell off the roof. There are no mirrors around, and he's far too weak to make it outside to the shed window, but Vlad knows from gentle touches that always send him to the floor in agony that he's not getting better.
He went outside only once, and it took nearly all day to move the chooks to their winter dwelling in the laundry. Now Vlad sleeps curled up on the kitchen floor in front of the stove, rousing only to let those birds in and out, and to drink ectoplasm.
Whenever he gets to his feet, he has to lean against the bench and breathe while he tries not to pass out. Half the time he faints anyway, only to wake later stiff and sore with blurry vision and a throbbing head with half of the brain gone.
His core twists and aches within him, and Vlad knows that he just isn't whole enough anymore to regenerate. He curses immortality, swears like he hasn't in decades, and decides that it's time to call in some help.
Vlad turns off the ghost shield and stops collecting the groceries, hoping that the delivery boy with the overlarge ears will get the hint and send a message to Danny.
Another week passes, and Vlad sleeps and moans and quivers with fever on the kitchen floor as the gaping crater of meat atop his head weeps pus and blood and sticky black fluid that smells like something dead.
He's awake when the front door slams, and Vlad almost sobs with relief at the sound of shoes on marble. He doesn't care who it is, so long as they find him and take him to Danny.
The intruder's footsteps grow quieter, moving towards the stairs and away from the kitchen, and panic flutters in Vlad's gut. He tries to call out, but his mouth is thick and sticky with fever, voice dying and rasping.
He forces himself to his hands and knees, vision swimming as the pain makes his body seize up. He's shivering with fever and exertion, fingers threatening to slip in the sticky mess of bodily fluid that has congealed over the tiles.
By the time Vlad can see clearly again, the footsteps are moving across the floor above him, and he can hear their owner going from room to room. Searching.
He tries again, this time making it to his feet with a lurch and a gargling sob. He leans against the counter, knees trembling, fingers twisted through the handles of overhead cupboards to keep him from sliding back onto the tiles.
Ah. The cupboards.
The wrenches one open, blinking away the lights that burst in his vision. Fluid runs down his brow in tiny streams, dark and awful, and manages to get in one of his eyes. Vlad screws both eyelids shut against it, grasping for the pots and frying pans stacked neatly on their shelf, and as his legs fail they crash to the floor around him.
The world goes black, and Vlad thinks that he screams as the kitchenware clatters to the tiles and his body hits the floor. His ears are ringing, everything hurts, and his sides heave but there's nothing to throw up, not even ectoplasm.
The person above him starts running.
Vlad curls in on himself, clutching his spasming stomach as the kitchen door flies open and bangs against the wall with a sound that sends needles shooting through his skull. Everything's hazy, taking a back seat to the pain, and Vlad feels himself slipping into unconsciousness again.
Something cold brushes his brow, sweeping away the nausea with a pulse of energy that makes his core ache terribly. Vlad gasps with each breath, and as the buzzing in his ears subsides he hears another set of ragged breathing that matches his own.
"What the hell have you done to yourself?" a wrenchingly familiar voice murmurs.
Vlad keeps his eyes closed and focuses on breathing as Danny's wonderfully icy hands flutter over his mangled head. Everywhere they touch, the pain recedes, and blue light shines through Vlad's eyelids. He can see his blood vessels clearly thanks to this illumination, a purple network burned into his eyes.
"It didn't heal," he rasps involuntarily, some small part of him hoping that maybe the boy would be able to fix it, to fix everything…
"I can see that," Danny snaps, and Vlad wants so desperately to open his eyes and see the child.
Of course, Danny won't be a child anymore. That simple thought, that the man currently cradling Vlad's broken skull in his hands is a complete stranger in both looks and personality, keeps Vlad's eyes shut.
Perhaps it was better to remain like this, with Danny in the past. Vlad's already caused enough damage, and with every passing moment, the tight dread crouching in his gut threatens to rise and choke the recluse.
"How did you do it?"
Vlad licks his lips, wondering if Danny would be kind enough to give him some ectoplasm. "I was fixing the roof," he confesses.
Danny groans, fingers pausing at Vlad's temples. "Well, I'm gunna have to put you to sleep for a bit so I can work on your brain."
Cold, soft like fresh snow, begins to fall through Vlad's thoughts.
He struggles through the haze, mouth working silently for a moment before managing to get it to form words. "I need a working core."
Everything continues to fade while Danny sighs, and as Vlad slips under, he could swear that he hears Danny whisper "I know".
There was no music – it had turned off sometime in the past hour, as spectres slowly cleared the lair. Vlad shifted on the barstool, sipping moodily at something so strong that it burned his throat. Christmas lights blinked in his peripheral vision, fading from bright to dark and back again.
His glass was empty.
Vlad raised a finger to the ghost behind the bar, motioning to his cup.
"Don't you think you should go home?" a deep voice enquired, Jack's bulk sliding into the space beside him.
Vlad grumbled something non-committal, accepting a fresh glass with a nod of thanks towards the bartender. His head pounded, sending spikes of pain into his temples and eyes. Maybe this next drink would be enough to tip Vlad over the edge into numbness…
Jack placed a hand over the rim of the glass before Vlad could raise it to his mouth. "Hey, V-man…"
Vlad shrugged away from the man's proximity, sloshing half of his drink onto the bar in the process. The music was gone, but his head still throbbed with a constant beat. The lights blinked slowly on and off, their reds and greens blurring together until Vlad could no longer distinguish the individual bulbs.
His hands were sticky, and there were no napkins nearby. Glancing down, Vlad appraised his horrible Christmas sweater for a moment. With a smirk, he wiped the liquor from his fingers and onto the garish knitted tree.
Why was he wearing something so monstrous?
Jack was still there. Had he been there long? Vlad wondered what he wanted.
"Come on," the big man sighed, taking Vlad's elbow. "Let's get you home."
Jack was such a good roommate. You never knew, when you went to a new college, what sort of person you'd be saddled with. What a good roommate, to look after Vlad at those wild college parties.
Vlad glanced up, frowning. Why could he see the fridge through the bartender's translucent green skin?
"Ghost," he mumbled. Jack had to know – he'd love this!
"Yeah," Jack grunted, "that's a ghost, V-man. C'mon."
Vlad allowed himself to be pulled away from the bar, but it was difficult to walk properly. His feet seemed too big, and if it weren't for Jack's supporting hand, he'd probably have fallen over by now, with all this tinsel and wrapping paper on the floor.
Was it Christmas? That'd explain the flashing sweater that he was wearing.
They began to cross a dance floor, and Vlad moaned. "'S the par'y finished?" he shouted. How disappointing – he'd always liked parties, especially at the family castle in Wisconsin. Jack would've loved the castle as well. Maybe Vlad should invite him during the next college break…
"Yes, the party's over," Jack grunted, and Vlad realised that his friend was half-carrying him.
"D'everyone have a good time?"
Jack nodded. "Yeah, man. It was a real blast."
Hm. Jack seemed down about something. "Aw, c'mon," Vlad drawled, "'s Christmas! Y'find any pretty girls?"
The burly man sighed. "Yeah, Vlad. I've found the prettiest one of all."
This time Jack smiled a little bit. "She has really nice hair, like a sunset."
Vlad sighed as they reached the opposite end of the dance floor. "Me too, man. Sounds like we've similar tastes. Wass'er name?" There were more flashing lights here, framing a door and making it difficult to focus on anything. They were so bright, they made Vlad's eyes hurt.
Vlad chuckled. "Nah, not my girl. Wha's your girl's name?"
They stopped walking, and Jack simply stared at him.
"Vlad," he said gently, "it's 2032. We're not in college anymore."
Vlad frowned, looking around the room with vision that swam. "Where're we, then?"
"We're taking you home," Jack said, his voice firm and commanding.
A tidbit of information swam to the surface of Vlad's muddled thoughts. "We're'n the Ghost Zone, aren't we?"
Jack nodded, shoulders slumping. "Yeah, V-man, we are."
With that tiny scrap of knowledge, everything fit together like a puzzle, and Vlad's world reeled. "You!" he screamed, staggering away from Jack and pointing a trembling finger at the man. "You ruined everything!"
Red energy shot from his finger in a jagged arc of lighting, and Jack blocked it with a casual wave of his own glowing hand. "You ruined it for yourself," he responded, eyes sadder than Vlad had ever seen them.
"No! I won't allow it! You stole Maddie, and you have Jazmine, and you and your stupid machines half-killed your own son! You don't deserve him!"
"No, I don't deserve him," Jack agreed, parrying another blow. Vlad grinned in satisfaction, opening his mouth to respond, but Jack spoke first. "But let me tell you right now, you deserve him even less than I do."
Anger, hot and powerful, burst from Vlad's core in a stream of fire. "SHUT UP!"
Why were his shots so slow?! Jack blocked every single one of them effortlessly, without even changing his stance.
"But for some reason," the big halfa continued, "he's still at your house, waiting for you. He cares more about you than I could ever fathom, even after all you've done."
"SHUT YOUR FAT PIEHOLE!" Vlad screamed, foregoing spectral attacks in favour of launching himself at the man. Instead of colliding, Vlad sailed through Jack's intangible body and hit the table behind him with enough force to split off two of its legs.
Everything tilted alarmingly, and Vlad lay in the wreckage of the table, panting. His body ached, his stomach hurt… Vlad rolled over, heaving bile onto the floor until there was nothing left to throw up, his vision going dark around the edges with the exertion.
A gentle hand held him clear of the mess, moving Vlad into a sitting position and pressing a cup of water against his mouth. "Rinse and spit," Jack ordered, and, just like back when they were teenagers, Vlad obeyed.
Vlad didn't remember how they got back to his castle. One moment he was sitting in the wreckage of the table, breathing in the smell of tinsel and vomit. The next thing he recalled was Jack dumping him unceremoniously on Vlad's bed before disappearing in a flash of light.
He woke to a head that screamed with every heartbeat. Vlad lay on his bed, squinting at the ceiling as beams of light shot through the gap in his curtains and burned his eyes with their intensity.
It was freezing, and Vlad groaned as his curtains stirred in a gentle breeze. His window was open, in the bloody middle of bloody winter. He dimply remembered leaving it open the previous day, when the sun had beat down on the snow-covered yard and Vlad had reasoned that he should air out his room a bit while the weather was still rather pleasant.
Oh, how he ached.
Levering himself to his feet, Vlad moaned as his head gave a particularly vicious throb. He shuffled towards the window with his eyes firmly closed, reaching out like a blind man until his fingers closed upon the windowsill. Shivering as they brushed against snow, Vlad pulled the window shut and latched it tightly before drawing the curtains closed and ambling back in the direction of his bed. Whatever time it was, whatever day it was, he didn't give a damn – it was far too early to be up with a hangover this nasty.
The pounding on his door was perfectly in sync with the pounding of his head. Vlad covered his ears with a cry, staggering away from the noise and crashing into his bookshelf.
The door swung open and Vlad cried out again at the light it allowed into the room, sliding to the floor as his hands moved to cover his eyes instead.
"Shhhh, not so loud," he whimpered.
Footsteps moved across the room, their carpet-muffled footfalls amplified to stomping by Vlad's throbbing skull. There was a rustle of cloth as Danny crouched beside him, and Vlad sighed as cool hands covered his own, the icy balm of Danny's healing seeping through his skin and sweeping away the hangover like old cobwebs. Vlad peeked through his fingers in time to see the soft blue sparks wash over his limbs, wiping them clean of their lingering ache.
Danny removed his hands, shifting to sit next to Vlad. "You must be freezing."
Vlad shrugged. "A bit," he confessed, glancing down at the jumper that still flashed weakly, its batteries almost spent. "Sorry about this," he offered, gesturing to the stains left by vomit and liquor.
The younger man sighed. "The fact that you even wore it is good enough for me."
Vlad kept his gaze on the floor, the fight with Jack uncomfortably clear in his mind. "Why are you here?" he whispered, and for a moment they were back in the library, firelight throwing their faces into dark shadows as they sipped wine that desperately needed to breathe and ate spicy noodles from soggy boxes.
Danny's mouth quirked. "I've been waiting for you to ask that again," he answered just as softly. "Have a shower and come downstairs, and I'll show you."
Before Vlad could think of what to say, Danny stood, stretched his arms above his head with a groan, and ambled out of the room.
Vlad scrubbed himself thoroughly under a stream of unbelievably hot water before dressing in his warmest slacks and sweater and heading down to the ground floor.
Danny was waiting for him in the library, leaning easily against the fireplace. "Hey," he greeted, "Merry Christmas, Vlad."
Vlad swallowed, his throat tightening. Lights in their tree flashed, reflected in his friend's eyes. "About last night-"
"Forget it," Danny insisted, waving a hand. "We were both tense. I shouldn't have taken you to the party."
"No, I mean, yes, but I don't just want to apologise." Vlad struggled to find the words, flashes of red lightning bursting through his fuzzy memories. "I think… I fought your father last night, and I think I used ghost powers."
Danny nodded with a grin. "Yeah, Dad came and told me. It just confirms my hypothesis."
Well, this was certainly interesting. "What hypothesis would that be?" Vlad said.
"You're core's not ruined," Danny explained. "It's still full of power, but you can't consciously access it. Sure, your head didn't heal when you fell off the roof, but that's because your power can't be adapted to different tasks right now – it's just raw energy, like the blasts you were throwing last night."
Vlad leaned against the back of the couch, staring at his friend. Before he could find something to say, before Vlad could sort out exactly what he was even feeling, Danny moved towards the tinsel-covered abomination that was currently shedding needles all over the lovely Persian rug.
A box was sitting beneath the tree, wrapped in unassuming green paper and bound with a black velvet ribbon. "For you," Danny said, stooping to pick up the gift and handing it to Vlad. "I can only apologise because it took so long, but nothing like this has ever been done before, so I had to be sure that it was perfect."
Vlad took the box with numb fingers. "I don't have anything for you," he whispered, cheeks heating with embarrassment.
His friend laughed. "You've already given it to me," Danny said. "You've spent the past few weeks with me, after all. I couldn't be happier if you gave me the most expensive or extravagant thing you could think of."
Sitting in his armchair, Vlad rubbed the end of the ribbon between two of his fingers as he recalled the past few weeks. Now that he thought about it, they had been some of the happiest of his life.
The ribbon came away from the gift with a gentle tug, and Vlad pulled at the tape fastening the paper until it, too, pulled away.
That was all he had to do – pull away from the hatred of the past, and start fresh. He could do that, couldn't he? Give up the avarice of the past, and just enjoy the good things that came his way.
So long as he could spend his time cultivating his friendship with Danny, Vlad supposed that it wouldn't be so bad. He could even work towards running more restaurants! That would be nice. It would be good to finally contribute to society, to find something to occupy himself that didn't involve avarice or revenge.
The paper tore away in strips, and Vlad lifted the lid off the box to reveal two plain metal bands nestled in Styrofoam moulds.
"What are these?" he asked, holding one up to the light for inspection. It was silver in colour, with a visible clasp and hinge. "Bracelets?"
Danny's grin was so wide that it looked like he'd burst. "One for you and one for me," he announced, reaching into the box and clasping the other band around his own thin wrist. "The best thing is what they're for."
Vlad clipped on his own bracelet, getting to his feet. Energy tingled uncomfortably up his arm at contact with the strange gift. "Danny-"
"C'mon!" The halfa grabbed him, phasing them both through the carpet. Vlad stiffened as they descended into the lab, pulling away from his friend as soon as his feet touched the strangely dust-free floor.
"What are you doing?!" he shouted, turning frantically to take in the deserted room… that didn't look so deserted. There was no dust in sight. The portal, somehow up and running again, hummed behind phase-proof blast doors.
In the middle of the room stood two plain operating tables, linked by wires and tubes and with restraints for the arms and legs. Atop the ghastly ensemble was a massive black bow that matched the one that had been on the bracelets. Beside the tables were trays of surgical equipment, and Vlad felt like he'd been slapped in the face.
Danny spread his arms wide. "This is the real present," he announced. "You asked me why I'm here. When you split your head open, I realised that your core's losing stability. I can't let that happen."
Vlad shook his head, gaping at the machine. "It's impossible," he breathed.
"It is not," Danny interjected, taking Vlad by the elbow and leading him to one of the tables. "I got the idea from donating my heart to my mum." Danny made a show of pointing to one of the monitors, and when Vlad moved closer to look at it, the boy grabbed his hand and fastened it into a restraint. "If I can do it with my heart, then what about my core? You've already got the groundwork for it after all, so it's not like I'd be just throwing part of my core into you without anything for it to latch onto."
Panic, blind and suffocating, rose from Vlad's chest. His nightmare of the past couple of decades, with Danny powerless and hopelessly depressed, flashed through his thoughts. "No! Danny, you'll die! Let me go!"
"No, I won't." The boy held onto Vlad's free wrist. "Please, Vlad, I want to do this for you. Please get on the table."
Vlad shook his head frantically, trying to pull away from this insane person. There was no way it would work! Their cores had different frequencies, so a transplant would surely destroy them both. The donated core would warp Vlad's own, causing the type of death that you don't come back from. Danny's remaining core would also be affected by the signature given off by this, and he in turn would succumb thanks to post-surgical weakness.
Vlad couldn't let this happen.
"I know what you're thinking," Danny said. "That's what the bracelets are for – they're already working, changing our ectosignatures so that they match. In about ten more minutes, our power frequencies will be identical."
"Impossible," Vlad snapped.
Danny sighed. "Please, Vlad," he said. "I promise that if anything starts to go wrong, the doctors'll stop. This technique is tried and tested – first we used it on ghostly animals, and then by a stroke of bad luck Ember got her core burned beyond healing. Skulker knew about our research, and just burst in one night and demanded that we try it. You saw the results last night."
Vlad remembered seeing those two in the middle of the dance floor, filled with power and happiness. "We're not ghosts."
"No," Danny mused, "we're halfas. We're tougher than ghosts in more ways than you know."
Vlad left this uncontested. "Say that I decide to do this," he said, gently tugging to try to make Danny let go of his wrist. "Then what? You just go back to teaching and I stay here on my own?"
Danny shrugged. "We can work that out later," he offered. "I was thinking maybe building up some more restaurants or something. There are plenty of people in Amity Park who can protect it for the most part, and they'll call me if anything too big to handle turns up, so it's not like I need to stay there anymore.
"I'm sick of living at home, Vlad. Of doing the same thing over and over again."
Danny looked at Vlad with such desperation that the man found himself nodding. "We can sort something out," Vlad agreed.
The corners of Danny's mouth lifted ever so slightly. "You know, they're planning on having civilians live on Mars in the next seventy years. If we set up a portal to get back in times of emergencies, what would you say about moving there for a while?"
Vlad sighed. "Let's just get your head out of the clouds and back on Earth for a moment," he said. "Hurry up and do this thing before I back out."
Danny grinned. "Seriously?!"
Vlad nodded, laying down on the table before he could stop himself.
He wanted this. Wanted it so desperately that he didn't even care if it killed him – so long as there was a chance, no matter how small, that Danny's plans for the future would come true.
The boy latched some cords onto Vlad's bracelet before phasing off Vlad's clothing and replacing them with a plain hospital gown. "Now to call the surgeons," he muttered, slipping a phone from his pocket and dialling a number from memory.
"You'll need to open the portal," Vlad said as the phone dialled. His stomach was already fluttering with nervousness, and he wasn't sure how long it would be until the insanity of this entire situation caught up with him.
Danny moved towards the wall, pressing a button on the control pad. The blast doors slid back soundlessly. "We're ready for you, so come through Plasmius' portal now," he said into the phone before hanging up.
Vlad turned his head, heart beating wild and fast as glowing figures entered through the portal. They wore gowns and gloves, and headed directly for the tables.
Vlad swallowed as one of them checked his restraints. Danny stood to the side, stripping off his clothing and pulling a paper gown over his own head. Everything seemed strange, surreal, and Vlad felt the first flickers of real panic spark within him.
"Danny, wait," he started, only to gasp in pain as fire raced through his core – Danny had clipped the cords attached to Vlad's bracelet onto his own, connecting their wrists.
Danny hopped onto the other operating table, laying down and allowing his limbs to be strapped into the restraints. "It's alright," he soothed as Vlad began to struggle. "Everything's going to be okay."
A doctor leaned over Vlad, taking up most of his vision. The only skin visible on her entire body was a strip between her mask and hairnet. Her eyes were the colour of a sunrise, and glowed just as brightly. Their edges crinkled with warmth that betrayed her smile. "Merry Christmas, Plasmius," she said in a voice that echoed.
"No!" Vlad shouted, gripped with terror – terror that he would never see Danny again, terror that they would both die lying here helpless.
Terror that he would never get to properly thank the boy for saving him.
"Daniel!" Vlad screamed, fighting for all he was worth against his bonds as a clear mask was placed over his mouth and nose. Vlad tried to hold his breath, but his thoughts were already blurring, his vision fogging, and somebody was counting backwards from ten.
He was out before they got past seven.
Vlad rose from sleep slowly, like a diver rising from the depths. Rain beat against the roof above, but he was warm and the duvet weighed down his limbs with that heavy comfortableness that comes with lots of rest during a period of recovery.
Somebody lay next to him, their breathing slow and heavy. Vlad stirred, opening his eyes to the dim light of his bedroom. In the bed beside him was a boy with shadows under his eyes that matched his hair – voluminous and dark.
Danny blinked as Vlad looked at him. "Hey," the ghost child breathed.
"Hey," Vlad rasped in return. That one word sent an ache through his chest, deep-seated and dangerous. It was the sort of pain that accompanied serious injuries that hadn't finished healing yet but were definitely well on their way.
Danny's fingers were twisted within Vlad's, their bracelets touching. The cords connecting them brushed Vlad's arm. "Why are we still plugged into each other?" he whispered.
"To keep our cores in sync," Danny explained. "You've been asleep for almost a whole day – it's Boxing Day morning."
"So the surgery worked?" Vlad asked. He was so comfortable, so weary. Unless Danny told him to move, he decided that he was going to stay in bed.
The boy lying next to him smiled, and Vlad found himself mentally tracing that mouth, watching the way that Danny's eyes shone with happiness. If he could ever describe peace, it would be what he was feeling right now.
"Yeah," Danny said, "it worked. You're healing all on your own."
Vlad sighed contentedly, welcoming the pull of pain in his chest.
They hadn't died – they were both lying here, alive and filled with power and a new control over the future.
He could finally say it.
"Thank you," Vlad whispered.
"For what?" Danny asked, the corners of his eyebrows almost meeting in that ridiculous scowl.
Vlad chuckled despite the pain it caused – they were here, they were okay, and Danny still had no clue why he was so special to the people around him. "Thank you for saving me."
Danny's fingers tightened around his. "Thanks for letting me do it," he whispered back.
They lay there together, breathing perfectly in sync, as their cores throbbed and the rain beat steadily down.
"Do you still want to move to Mars?" Vlad murmured after a time, opening his eyes again to look at his friend.
"That's a pretty stupid question," Danny retorted with a smirk.
This time it was Vlad who tightened his grasp on Danny's hand. "There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers."
Danny sighed. "Let's sort out things on Earth first," he said. "Then we can move anywhere we want."
Vlad gave a small smile of his own.
"I'm glad you rescued me, Badger," he whispered as the rain grew harder and his core beat steadily within him, sending power through his limbs and clarity to his thoughts.
Danny's mouth quirked at the nickname. "It's good to have you back, Fruitloop."
That's it. The end.
Thank you all for reading this, and for sticking with me for so long!
Honestly, I never expected this story to be as long as it is. It was originally going to be five or six chapters, but as you can see, that plan didn't exactly work. A Gift of a Heart is one of the longest things that I've ever written. I took it as a challenge. I worked hard to keep the standard high, and I think I improved a lot through writing this story.
I still have a few other fanfictions to wrap up, but don't expect any more of this length from me. If I do produce any, I'll be greatly surprised.
I'm still going to write oneshots and some other little things like that, so keep an eye on my two oneshot collections, The Notebook and The Earth Kept Spinning. As always, my oneshots are up for adoption, so if you'd ever like to continue something that I write, let me know!
Mostly, I'm going to focus on new projects. I want to work on my own ideas, maybe write a book or two. I want to finish my university course. I want to move forwards with my other hobbies and interests.
I'll still be around, just maybe not with any more massive projects like this one. As always, feel free to message me, and I should respond fairly quickly.
Once again thanks for reading, and a massive thank you to Cordria for allowing me to continue her oneshot in the first place, and to Swaq and theghostof-sherlockholmes for being constantly excited and supportive.
As always, a thousand thanks for all of your reviews – they truly bring me joy and were sometimes the only thing that motivated me to write everything as quickly as I did.
Best wishes to you all!