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I have to admit—it’s kind of weird how Danny Phantom disappeared the day that Danny Fenton died.

No sooner had Dash typed the words did he look up and around, the anxiety of actually making the words real prickling down his neck like a cold wind over wet skin. He’d been thinking them for months, ever since the day Fenton had died, but it was the first time he’d ever actually said them. Even if it was only his blog.

A private entry at that; no matter how stupid he acted Dash wasn’t unintelligent. He often said to himself as he got ready in the morning that sometimes being smart wasn’t using his brain all day long. Sure, football was good for now, and maybe one day he wouldn’t be playing anymore. But that was no reason to make high school any more difficult than it had to be.

At least until Fenton had died.

I wasn’t there for it. No one was except for Manson and Foley. They’re the only ones who actually know what happened, and they haven’t said a word. But sometimes I think I have an idea. It’s complicated, and I can’t explain it. I mean, Fenton’s parents would have known it if it were true. But it’s the only thing that really makes sense.

Manson was in his computer lab. Sam, he reminded himself. Neither of them deserved the censure that they’d been treated with since the incident. It wasn’t that anyone really went out of their way to harass her or Fol—Tucker. It was more that no one really associated with them anymore. Like when Fenton, Danny, had died, so had the only person willing to be their friend.

Sometimes Dash was sure that it was the other way around, too. The one time anyone from outside of that odd trio had tried it had… Not backfired. But Valerie had never managed to do anything more than be friends, and a distant friend as the years wore on.

Dash sat back and rubbed his eyes for a moment before glancing at the desk just in front of the teacher. Sam was sitting there, her eyes were open but seemed glazed. If he hadn’t known better Dash would have insisted that she was sleeping. But he knew that she wasn’t; every so often her eyes would flicker to the empty chair at the other side of the row.

The chair where Danny had sat.

I mean, if Fenton were really Phantom, then it would all make sense. I know I used to beat on him pretty bad, but I never left marks like what he came to school with. And, as much as I hate to admit it, I was the only one really beating on him. I declared him my own personal punching bag when middle school started. No one, not even Kwan, would have taken a shot at him without my okay.

God, I was such an asshole.

Face it. There’re too many coincidences that add up. They were never, ever, seen in the same place. Fenton was always disappearing and getting out of his locker without help. I know that Sam and Tucker didn’t help every single time I stuffed him in. He was always tired, his grades sucked. I know he was smart—he pulled straight A’s without thinking until just after the start of freshman year. When Danny Phantom showed up.

And… he always seemed worried about ghosts. He knew way more than he ever meant to let on. The same way I am with anything but girls and football.

I’ve been thinking it for four months. But it’s hard to look at what I’ve typed here on this screen and know that I spent the last three years beating up the guy who was saving the town on a regular basis.

Dash sighed very softly. He didn’t want anyone to suddenly decide to come and see what he’d written that had made him so melancholy. It would be a disaster, to say the least. And he owed Fenton—Danny—and his friends so much more than telling anyone about his suspicions. Without a second thought Dash pressed the delete button. Once, twice, and then he held it down until the screen was blank again, nothing but thousands of white pixels before closing the window all together.

Beneath it was a screen filled with words, innocuous and entirely boring. A book report for Lancer’s class, and something that no one would think odd to be on the screen of his computer during lab. It was only halfway done; Dash knew that he should be working on it. He only had a few more days to finish it. Of course, that meant that he had to finish reading the book, something he didn’t particularly want to do. That’s what Cliff’s Notes were for.

Besides, there were only ten more minutes left in class. He couldn’t do anything worthwhile for the report in ten minutes. But he could watch Sam and wonder what she and Foley knew, what they had seen. What had happened the day that Danny had died, and Phantom had disappeared. Whatever it had been, it had been terrible. Dash hadn’t gone to the funeral. Most of the student body had, but Dash hadn’t. Somehow it had felt wrong to go.

He thought that it might have been the fact that the day after Fenton had died, Phantom had first been noticed gone. It might have been the first faint stirrings of understanding and realization. It had also been the knowledge that he didn’t want to see Tucker Foley or Sam Manson. The rumors had already perforated Amity Park by the next morning and the stories of their grief weren’t unbelievable.

They’d changed, something that Dash Baxter had never thought to see happen.

There was something terribly wrong with the changes. Dash wondered though, if anyone would have noticed if the pair hadn’t been out of school for weeks. If they had just come back after a few days, would anyone have seen the pain that shadowed their eyes? The circles smudged under them that seemed to be ever present? Would anyone have noticed the way their eyes would slide to where Danny Fenton should be, was supposed to be, pause, and then move on with lashes fluttering rapidly in an effort to keep tears at bay?

Somehow, he thought that no one would have missed it, even if they were slow to pick up on it.

They’d come back after three weeks. And Dash noticed.

Tucker’s change had been most pronounced, and it actually hurt sometimes to remember the person he’d been before. Tucker always had a smile for a girl, pretty or not. He’d just been someone who appreciated. Fanatic about his electronics, Tucker had earned his technogeek label a million times over. It had been something of an amusement for Dash on the days when he wasn’t actively antagonizing the boy—to see how many times he would pull his PDA out in a ten-minute period. Or how often he would caress it absently, much as he should have a lover.

Now Dash counted it as akin to a miracle if the boy pulled his PDA out once a day. More often than not he wasn’t seen touching it at all for most of the week.

Sam’s change hadn’t been as pronounced, not at first. But as time passed Dash began to understand exactly what had changed. It was difficult to see. The girl had been Goth and proud of it. Seeing her in black was a staple of a day at Casper High, a constant, something that would never change unless hell froze over and Paulina Sanchez suddenly became the Virgin Mary. (Dash crossed himself quickly and discretely at that thought—his mother would have his hide if she ever knew he’d compared the Madonna with Paulina.)

No, what Dash had noticed had nothing to do with the way she dressed, even if the black was entirely unadorned by any other color. The red that still rimmed her eyes wasn’t the hint; the circles like bruises, the shadows within weren’t the sign. The listless way she tended walk through the school from class to class didn’t tell him, nor did the fact that she hardly ever spoke anymore.

No, it was her smile. Dash could remember a time with Sam Manson smiled. It had irritated him a great deal, the smile looking so out of place on her face. She was Goth, she was supposed to be dark and depressed and looking like she’d rather be dead than alive.

He would never forgive himself for any of the times he’d thought that, now. She’d always been happy, for a Goth, and as irrational as it was he missed that. It was just so wrong for her to truly act the part now (though he knew that there was no acting, that the girl was absolutely grief-stricken.)

His eyes flickered to the clock behind the teacher’s desk out of long born habit. The ten-minute window had slid to little more than half a minute, and Dash sighed again as he saved the essay that he hadn’t touched and e-mailed it to himself for safe keeping. Out of habit, again long born, he cleared the history and browser before dumping the trash on the computer. It was as clean as he could make it without ripping the hard drive out and demolishing it along with the motherboard and, as far as he knew, there was no key stroke detection software on it.

Casper High wasn’t cutting extracurriculars because of its budget, but that didn’t mean it had the money to toss about for expensive tracking programs like that.

The tiny red hand had wound its way down to six seconds by the time Dash finished his clean up and grabbed his notebook and backpack. The bell was ringing and students were filing out as he gathered his notes and shoved them in a folder before forcing the whole stack into the bag. Papers crumpled and crinkled but Dash didn’t really pay attention. He was out the door before a few stragglers who’d actually been using the period to do something worthwhile. Probably even educational.

Dash didn’t think about it anymore than to acknowledge that there were still students in the classroom before finding his way to his locker. They had four minutes between each class to go about the business of depositing and collecting books and folders and navigating through Casper’s two stories. They did. Dash Baxter was the captain and quarterback of the football team; he had as much time as he needed. Today he needed a few extra minutes.

The bell had already rung by the time Dash finished poking about in his locker. The homework he’d considered turning in was still in there somewhere (he was pretty sure) but Dash didn’t have the patience to sort through the disaster that was his locker. With a shrug he dumped the handful of books he didn’t need into it and shouldered his backpack as the locker closed with a metal clang.

His footsteps were the only sound in the halls as he made his way to his next class.

Up the stairs and down the hall to turn right, and Dash came upon a sight unexpected: Sam Manson still at her locker, which wasn’t unusual since none of the teachers had felt it worth the trouble to give her or Tucker Foley detentions for tardies or skipping, and three of the guys on the first-string defense. Laurence was leaned up against the locker next to Sam and murmuring something to her, something that had Dash pissed off without even knowing what it was.

The dead look in her eyes as tears welled to cling to her lashes was enough for that. Casey and Allen were standing behind her, effectively boxing her in, and Dash scowled as he stopped dead on the tiles not three feet behind them. They hadn’t noticed that he was there, but once he was close enough to hear what was being said Dash could understand why they were so preoccupied. The misery of the fellow student was apparently intoxicating.

“Come on, Goth Girl, just admit it,” Laurence was saying with a twisted smile as he reached out to toy with her locker door. “You’re Goth, aren’t you? Having a dead boyfriend must be something you’re used to. It turns you on, right?”

The way Sam breathed in quickly, painfully was enough to make Dash’s hands ball into fists. He’d gone after Fenton, and Foley to an extent. But he’d never gone in for this kind of psychological torture. Hell, since Fenton had died and Dash had decided that he must be right, that Danny Fenton was Phantom, he hadn’t even gone in for much of anything. It was like bam—bullying days over. Just like that.

But this, what they were doing to her, it was sick. It made him sick, more sick as he realized that there was a time when he might have joined in no matter how distasteful it was, just so that there would be no fingers pointed at him behind his back and whispered voices saying that he had a soft spot, a weakness, for geeks and nerds and losers. And it made him mad.

Mad was useful, and it snapped out as Sam tried to close her locker door and walk away, tears still held in but closer to spilling, and Casey sticking his arm in front of her to bar her in as Allen knocked her books to the ground.

“Oops,” Laurence said in a singsong voice that Dash recognized easily. It was the tone he used when he was about to do a locker stuffing or a swirlie. It was the tone he used the time he’d broken the band kid’s nose when he tried to yank his tuba back from the linebacker.

“Yeah,” Casey echoed with a malicious smile. “Oops.”

Laurence smiled again, sick and twisted and making Dash’s stomach turn. “Maybe your dead boyfriend’s ghost will come carry your books for you, huh, Goth Girl?”

“Or maybe we could show you how much better a breathing boyfriend is, right Manson?” Allen chipped in as Laurence reached out to tug a strand of her hair.

“That’s enough.”

Dash’s voice was a growl as he shoved Casey and Allen to the side and grabbed Laurence by the arm, yanking him away from the lockers and the girl who was now actually crying, even if it was silent and nearly unnoticeable. Just tears slipping down her cheeks as she closed her eyes and leaned back into the lockers for a moment.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Dash asked as he shoved Laurence away, then shoved at the other two with a fierce scowl.

“Come on, Dash. We were just having a little fun.”

For a moment Dash couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was like Laurence’s lips were moving and utter twaddle was coming out. Without thinking he struck out leaving the other boy’s mouth bleeding and beginning to swell.

“You don’t talk to her like that. You don’t talk to her, or about her, or about Fenton like that,” he grated out. “You leave her alone. Walk away and don’t come near her again.”

For a long few minutes there was silence, heavy with anger and fury and rage and any number of a hundred different ways to say it. Dash wondered if he was actually going to brawl in the hallway with his teammates, but after he finally began tensing for the expected rush the tension seemed to see out. They walked away, backed up for several paces first, and then tuned and strolled down to the stairs and out of sight. Strolled. Dash nearly laughed. He’d seen the way their backs had been stiff, their legs carefully measuring the paces.

Just in case they had to break into a run because Dash decided to beat the hell out of them anyway.

He turned to look at Sam and blinked as he had to look down. She was on her knees on the floor, locker already shut and picking up the books that had been knocked from her arms. And she was crying. Oh yes, he missed the smile. Even if he’d hated her (or as close to hate as utter disdain could get) when she used to smile, he still missed that smile.

She sniffed as he dropped down to a crouch, gathering a book and several sheets of paper before extending them as a peace offering to her. “You’re helping me now?” she asked softly, her voice quiet and faintly scratchy from disuse.

He shrugged and felt her eyes on him, a weight that was heavy with tears and pain and quietly suppressed rage that Dash hadn’t realized was there before. “I was an ass. I’m sorry.”

A handful words, quietly and simply said, but it made him feel a little better to at least say them, even if he didn’t expect her to give a damn. No, she would spurn him, scorn the apology. And he wouldn’t blame her because it was completely and utterly inadequate after the hell he’d put her best friends through for three years. But he was a senior now, and it was time that he grew up and took responsibility for his actions. No matter how stupid and foolish and unforgivably cruel they were.

Soon he’d be out in the real world, and no matter what anyone said high school popularity just didn’t count for much. Lately he’d wondered why he’d ever thought it counted at all.

She was still crying as she tucked everything into the raggedy purple spider backpack she’d used since freshman year, and Dash bit back another sigh. Then she looked up at him and, despite the tears, even through them, she nodded.

He’d died in the winter, Fenton had, and Phantom too. Spring had hit Amity Park early, even if the warmth was false and would fade into nothingness and winter took back the toehold spring had gained. But in the hallway there, through the tears and the pain and the inexplicable anger, Sam Manson smiled at him.

Not big, not even truly happy or happy at all. But she had smiled.