In Sam’s greenhouse, something moves, explodes with a fine red powder that sticks, clings to everything it touches. Danny is the only one near enough to be covered, near enough to breathe that sickly sweet smell in. He balks, chokes, panics. Blue light bursts from his hands, and ice coats three flower boxes teeming with vibrant shades of green.
“Danny!” Sam shrieks, drops her backpack, rushes over to the shrapnel-sharp ice in which hundreds of dollars’ worth of exotic plants are dying, withering, turning frightening shades of black.
But Danny is too buy coughing to apologize. He’s covered in soft red spores, he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe--
Tucker claps him on the back, and that startles him into intangibility. The spores vanish, and he sucks in humid, clean air. “I’m sorry,” he rasps, “Sam, oh man, I’m sorry--”
“No, I should be the one apologizing.” She palms his elbow, grips his opposite shoulder. “I didn’t know that one did anything like that. C’mon, we need to get you to the hospital.”
Sam rolls her eyes. “Uh, because you just breathed in spore from a mushroom that could very well be toxic? I think it’s a local species, but I haven’t been able to track down any info on it.”
He slips out of her grip, holds up his empty hands. “No, no. C’mon, we all know hospitals are a bad idea for half ghosts.” He vanishes his hands pointedly, but a fit of coughing ruins the effect. “I’m fine, I’m fine. I phased that gunk out of me. I just need some water.”
Tucker’s the only one who eyes the fungus warily. Even nearly dead, its color is shocking, stark through the dirty ice. A creepy pallid green, densely clustered, with long, thin stems ending in pockmarked clubs rather than a cap like any other mushroom he’s ever seen. The pockmarks are the same blood red as the spores dusting the ground, looking uncannily like open wounds. He makes a point to avoid paying much attention to anything Sam considers to be foodstuffs, but he doesn’t think mushrooms ought to be so… big. “Ok, but shouldn’t you do something about this mess?” he asks.
Sam glances down, nearly replies, but Danny interrupts her with a gasp. Thin blue mist spills from his mouth. Collectively, they sigh.
“Later,” Sam says, and off they run.
Tucker asks, “Dude, you sure you ok?”
Danny’s right hand twists. His fingers drag, drag, drag across his palm. “Yeah,” he says, “Of course I am. Why?”
“You...?” Tucker shakes his head. “Never mind.”
Danny goes through a 24-pack of water bottles, eats so much at dinner even his dad is left speechless. “I’m just really hungry today,” he shrugs. Under the table, his right hand grinds, grinds, grinds against his knee. “May I be excused?”
Danny takes to chewing on his fingers in class. He slept every chance he got over the weekend but he’s still exhausted, and he doesn’t know why. Chewing his fingers keeps his awake. Sam and Tucker share worried glances, but whenever they ask Danny if he’s okay, he smiles.
The Box Ghost takes one look at Phantom and freezes mid-boast. “Oh man,” he says, eyes bulging, “Okay, okay. Let’s take it easy here, alright? Stay away from me.”
“What, has it finally sunk in that I kick your butt every time I fight you?” Danny’s left hands glows green-white with energy, but his right arm dangles at his side, fingers squirming.
But the Box Ghost doesn’t reply, just puts his hands up, backs away slowly.
“Oh, c’mon!” Danny’s feet touch down on the damp concrete outside the post office. Across the street, the fire hydrant continues to gush freely, and all Danny wants to do is drench himself. Weird. He shoves the urge aside. “Since when are you smart enough to beware me?”
“Please,” the Box Ghost says weakly. “I’ll go back to the Ghost Zone myself, just stay away. Please.”
“Uh.” Danny lets his ray fizzle out. “Sure? I guess?”
The Box Ghost turns and bolts into the sky without another word. Even still, he looks terrified.
“Mr. Fenton? If I could have a moment?”
Mr. Lancer waves Danny over as the other students rush out the door to their next periods. “Uh,” Danny starts once they’re alone, “if this is about that last essay, I swear I didn’t copy off of Sam again--”
“No,” Mr. Lancer says wryly. “While your overall attendance and grade for my class has been abysmal these past few months, your essay was acceptable. However--” A frown gathers his eyebrows together. “I asked you to stay behind because--Well to be frank, I’m worried about you.”
Here, Mr. Lancer knits his fingers together, looks at Danny pointedly. “You haven’t been... yourself this week. Even Mr. Foley and Ms. Manson have seemed concerned. Is everything alright?”
Danny looks at him, hides the scabby scratch marks on his right arm behind his back. If the scabs happen to be patchwork red-and-green, he isn’t worried. It’s just a rash or something. Probably. “I’m fine.”
“Mr. Fenton--Danny. I understand that most teenagers regard teachers as the ‘enemy,’ but I’m not looking for an excuse to call your parents. If you don’t want to divulge whatever’s the matter with me, at least assure me that you’ll talk to your friends.”
Hungry, thirsty, tired, dizzy all the time. Six ghosts since the Box Ghost and not a one of them stuck around for a fight, just gave him one terrified look and fled back to Portal like their afterlives depended on it. Under the scabs, Danny imagines there is something wonderful growing, and that’s why he keeps scratching through the hurt. “I said I’m fine.”
Mr. Lancer sighs. “Very well. I’ll write you a pass to your next class.”
Sam says, “Danny, c’mere a sec,” so he does. She frowns, gently cups his jaw, looks at him like he’s a puzzle she can’t quite solve. “Green,” she says finally.
She lets go. “Your eyes have been green, like, all afternoon. Ghost green. You ok?”
“Would you guys quit asking me that? I feel fine.” He rubs his eye, self-conscious. “C’mon, I want to at finish our math homework before patrol.”
There hasn’t been a ghost sighting in days. In the Ghost Zone, everything’s cleared out from around the Fenton Portal nearly a hundred yards in all directions. It’s just empty green space, naked of anything. Tiny ghosts, the kind not even worth firing a single ray at when they slip out into the human world, eye Danny warily from where the strange and unsettling shapes pick up again. Watching him. Keeping tabs on him?
He doesn’t care, floating a few feet away from the Portal’s swirling lights. He’s been feeling so down lately, aching and worn-out, so tired even though he’s been getting uninterrupted sleep for the first time in months. But here, here in the Ghost Zone, he feels wonderful. Like warm afternoon sunlight, like the smell after a summer rain, he feels strong. He feels clean. He turns his face toward the brightest orbs of ectoplasm, tiny stars in the vast, twinkling luminescence of the Ghost Zone, and energy hums inside him. The sore he’s torn open on his jaw from constant scratching cools, finally stop itching for the first time in he doesn’t know how long. If that feels good, then….
Carefully, he pulls his gloves off, expose the ugly mess of his right arm and the long dark scratches along his left. Instantly the ugly heat in his forearms calms. Sighing, helpless with relief, he holds his arms above his head to be, bathes his hurts in the light of wild ectoplasm.
He stays there for hours.
Jazz says, “Hey, what are you doing up here?”
Jazz says, “Danny?”
Jazz says, “Danny, are you ok?”
Jazz says, “Danny!”
He startles out of his reverie, and it’s only Jazz’s quick reflexes that save him from falling off the roof of FentonWorks. She hauls him off the edge, then yelps and lets go as if she’s been burned. “Danny!” She looks at her hand, bug-eyed, then back at him. “What the heck were you doing?”
“I dunno. Just kinda lost in thought, I guess.”
“You know it’s not a good idea to stick around the house in ghost mode.”
“It feels good.”
“The Sun.” He turns to face the morning light again, closing his eyes, stretching his scabby, gloveless hands up high. “Mom and Dad are in the lab so I can’t go through the Portal. But the Sun feels good too.”
Jazz stares. “Danny, you’re kind of weirding me out. Are--are you ok?”
He sighs, glares at her narrow-eyed over his shoulder. “What do you want, Jazz?”
“What’s wrong with you? You’re not yourself lately, Danny! Sam and Tucker just called the house phone because you weren’t answering your cell. They said you haven’t talked to them in days!”
“So? I’ve been busy.”
“No, you haven’t!” She gestures all around them, all around Amity Park. “There hasn’t been a ghost for almost two weeks, and I know you haven’t been doing your homework! What are you doing that’s keeping you so busy you won’t talk to your best friends?”
In an eye-blink he’s hovering over her, face twisted in an ugly snarl. “Why do you care so much? I’m fine! I’m sick of people asking me that! Nothing’s wrong, now leave me alone!”
He falls through the rooftop, leaves his sister there to shiver.
His eyes. How had she not noticed? His eyes--they’d been all wrong. Green, yes, and that was fine. But the glow was gone, his pupils had been gone, like cataracts had grown over them. How could he even see? And his arm, under those awful scabs he refused to explain--when she had grabbed him--
Something in his arm had moved.
Carefully, carefully, Danny washes away the red-green mess of blood and ectoplasm. Carefully, carefully, he peels the slits wider, hissing between his teeth. It hurts. It hurts a lot. But they--what’s underneath, what’s inside him--they’re growing all wrong, growing too slow to fight his body’s quick healing. So he digs his fingers into the holes, bathes the growths in water and sunlight. He can do this on his arms, his chest, his thighs, but he can’t reach his back and it itches, itchesall the time. It’s driving him crazy, all that pressure and life squirming under his skin and he can’t do anything about it. He can’t open up his face either, because it’ll draw attention, and he’s already drawn too much of that. If everyone would just leave him alone, things would be fine. Things would be wonderful.
Huddled up on the top floor of the tallest building in Amity Park, drenched in afternoon light when he should be at school, he realizes what he has to do, where he has to go, if he wants to be happy, if he wants to stop hurting.
Sunlight isn’t enough. Sunlight isn’t what they need, and what they need matters so much.
No one has seen Danny for three days.
In the Specter Speeder, her voice trembling with barely-controlled anger, Maddie says, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?”
Tucker says, “It was his secret, Mrs. Fenton.”
“He was protecting Amity Park,” Sam adds defensively.
“He was putting himself in danger!” Maddie snaps. “One boy should not feel obligated to protect an entire city from dangerous ghosts!”
Jazz leans forward in her seat. “He wasn’t alone!” she says. “He’s had Sam and Tucker since the beginning, and I’ve been helping him too ever since I found out.”
“That doesn’t excuse any of this!” Maddie sighs, spares a worn glance at the three of them in the back seats. “I’m glad to hear Danny told somebody about his accident, but who knows what sort of effects the Portal activation caused? He should have known better than to keep this a secret from us!”
“Mom, you and Dad have been threatening to take Phantom apart ‘molecule by molecule’ since practically the very first time you saw him!” Jazz scowls. “You can yell at him for lying later. Can we just find him? Now?”
“Are we even sure he’s here though?” Tucker asks. “I mean, ghosts have been avoiding him pretty hard lately. Why would he wanna go to the Ghost Zone?”
“It’s just a hunch,” Jazz says, tugging self-consciously on her seatbelt. “But I don’t--I don’t think whatever’s wrong with him is his ghost powers.”
“Well that’s a relief,” Sam says, “But what else could it be?”
Jazz shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
Jack is back on Earth, handling the search with the police. He thinks of how many times Danny’s come home after curfew, how unhappy he looked down in the lab whenever he and Mads were testing new equipment. He thinks of these last few weeks, of Danny’s odd smiles and the constant, eerie motions of his hands. How he’d stand in the middle of a room, staring at nothing, wearing an expression that blurred between worried and scared.
Now Jack knows why his son has strange bruises, why his grades have slipped so much, why he causes a reaction in all of their ghost hunting gear. Jack wants nothing more than to take Danny up in his arms and beg his forgiveness. If they’d only known….
But he thinks of that strange, lost expression of these last few weeks, the scabs eating up his arms. They were usually so quick to question strange behavior in their children, but he and Maddie had gotten so… caught up studying the sudden absence of ghosts in Amity Park. They’d let Danny slip through their fingers.
So many people considered Danny Phantom a hero, and here his own family hadn’t even noticed how sick he’d been getting.
“Stop!” Sam arches out of her seat, jabbing at the glass. “There, look!”
Where she points, there’s an emptiness in the Ghost Zone. Not a hole, not like the pocket realities hidden behind the thousands of floating doors or any of the carnivorous cave systems they’d accidentally slipped into in the past. It’s almost looks as if the Ghost Zone has... recoiled from something within it, tore a hole in itself just to avoid touching something toxic.
It’s only when they get closer do they realize the hole is framed by a vast ring of blood blossoms.
In the center of that ring are hundreds--no, thousands of strange mushrooms. Pallid green, densely clustered growths covered in brilliant red wounds. The floating island they landed on is stained that same unsettling, saturated red. Maddie takes the lead, delicately picking out a path through the mushroom forest. All four of them wear jumpsuits and tightly secured gas masks, have their ectoguns primed, just in case. Around them, the forest of mushroom rises and falls in waves. Some growths are only an inch high, while others are tall as trees.
Something crunches, snarls under Jazz’s boot. She looks down, bounces back with a frightened shriek when a broken jaw bone, teeth cracked and scattered about, squirms like a living thing deeper into the undergrowth. A foot away, a pair of dim red lights glare from a skull eaten up by mycelium.
Now that they’re paying attention, it’s easy to pick out the skeletal, twitching remains of dozens--no, hundreds--of ghosts.
“Human. Well, humanoid at least,” Maddie concludes grimly as she dusts her knees off. “It seems these mushrooms feed off of humanoid ghosts.” She makes a face. “Their behavior is strikingly similar to a genus found on Earth, but as far as I know, those only attack insects. None of you have ever been to this place before?”
Tucker and Jazz shake their heads, but Sam claps her hands over her mask. “Oh my god.”
“I thought these looked familiar. There was one of these things growing in my greenhouse weeks ago. Danny--when it released its spores, he got covered in them.”
It’s the stark white of Danny’s hair that catches Tucker’s eye, otherwise they might have missed him completely. Three days missing, and he’s already unrecognizable.
Danny’s kneeling, suit unzipped to the waist and splayed across the spongy soil. He’s naked under that jumpsuit, but they can hardly tell under the faintly glowing mushrooms growing out of his skin, out of him. Green-white pearls squirm and push across his chest, grow long and straining toward the distant glow of ectoplasm out of his arms and neck. A massive trio of mushrooms, each as thick as his wrists and easily over a foot tall, bulge out of the developed muscles of his upper back. The way his hair ruffles leaves no question; there are even things growing there too.
“Danny!” Maddie drops beside him but at the last second hesitates. There’s no telling how reactive this fungus is, or of how much control it has over its hosts. But it’s not only that. She finds herself inexplicably torn. This is the ghost she’s been trying to capture and study for months, but it’s also her baby boy, so eaten up by alien fungi he might--he might not even be-- “Danny? Sweetie? Wake up, wake up, I’m here--”
Sam, Tucker, and Jazz circle him, dare to press their fingers between cluttered stems and find clean skin. He’s a frightening shade of green, glowing freckles stark as if they’ve been painted on. His open eyes are bulging and cloudy, like those of a dead fish left out in the sun. He gives no response that he’s aware of them at all.
“Danny, please, I’m so sorry,” Sam babbles. “I don’t even know where that stupid thing came from, it just started growing one day and I left it alone because it looked cool, I should have known something was up when I couldn’t find any information on it!”
“He refused to go to the hospital, Sam,” Tucker says, his voice cracking. “We all told him a hundred times that something was up with him, but he just kept brushing us off.”
“We should have made him go,” Sam replies fiercely, hand bumping ineffectively against her mask, unable to wipe the tears gathering in her eyes. “Especially once the ghosts started running from him. That should have been the final straw.”
Jazz has one hand on Danny’s thigh, the other warily brushing the growths at his elbow. “Mom?” she asks thickly. “Is there--can you help him?”
Maddie’s breath rattles through her mask. “I--I’ve never dealt with anything like this. I don’t even know if it’s safe to move him, Jazz.”
Carefully, carefully, Maddie presses a hand to his chest, cringing at the uneven give of a dozen mushrooms. The cold, clinical scientist in her is eager to study this fungus, pluck samples out of the ghost boy’s wounds and study its cellular structure, its weaknesses, its ideal growth conditions. Cordyceps Phasmatis, she thinks, and wants to slap herself, wants to laugh herself to tears. What is she thinking? This is Danny. This is her son. God--Is he even alive? What’s alive, for a boy who walked into a trans-dimensional hole in the fabric of reality and walked out again with ghost powers? What even are ghost powers? What is he capable of? How does he change between forms? Did it hurt? Does it hurt?
She has so many questions, and she might not ever hear her baby laugh again.
“Danny.” Her voice breaks, and she doesn’t care, couldn’t possibly care now. “Danny, please. Please, not like this. Anything--oh god, anything but this!”
Under her hand, under all that glowing, growing fungus, Danny’s chest hitches--falls, and rises again.
Gathering herself, Maddie barks, “Jazz! Tucker! Go back to the Speeder and get the lightweight stretcher, three water bottles, and the emergency ecto-medical kit, as fast as you can! Sam, I want you to stay here, help me lay him flat.”
“R-right away, Mrs. Fenton!”
As Jazz and Tucker carefully pick their way through the maze, she shouts, “Keep an eye out for sudden movements. We don’t know anything about this species. It might be capable of aggressive defense, and I don’t want to see what it might do to a human.”
“Got it!” Jazz pulls Tucker onward, and they vanish beyond a tall cluster of Phasmatis.
Maddie looks back at Danny, confirms his chest still moves. Is it her imagination, or have his eyes shifted since they arrived? It’ll be alright, she thinks. They’re here now. They can help him now.
“Mrs. Fenton,” Sam babbles, a sob caught in her throat, “I promise I had no idea, I don’t know how it got in my greenhouse, I didn’t know it was dangerous, I’m sorry--”
“Samantha.” Maddie says, her voice authoritative, sharp, motherly. She can’t possibly be angry at this girl, Danny’s age, shaking in her jumpsuit and unable to wipe her guilty tears away. Maddie’s just as guilty--no, more so. Danny is her son, and he was too afraid to tell her so much. They’re all guilty of failing Danny---the boy and the ghost. It’s not alright, not now. But it might be, if they move quickly. “Sam,” she says, softer. “I need you to focus now, alright? Can you help me?”
After a pause, Sam nods. “Y-yeah. Yes.”
“Good. Now come on, let’s get started.”