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Dancing Around the Truth

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Paulina smiled at the mirror when the weak fluorescent lights flickered out, plunging the girls’ restroom into icy darkness.  The blue ecto-powered emergency lights soon winked to life, confirming the presence of ghosts - and hopefully the ghost she most wanted to see.  Unfortunately, in the brief moment of darkness, she’d managed to smudge her lipstick.  A tiny pink smear blotted her chin.

As she set down the lipstick and reached to rip off a paper towel, someone crashed through the door.  Paulina casually glanced up at the hot mess of a girl who’d burst in.

“Valerie?  If you’re here to fix your hair, it’s a bit late for that.”  The insult rolled too easily off of her tongue.  Valerie might have been her friend once, but that was so long ago it could have been a different lifetime.  Sometimes Paulina missed the other girl’s boldness - something most girls at this school lacked - but not enough to try to mend old wounds.  Not when she was always so… like this now.  The eerie lighting cast dark shadows under the other girl’s eyes.  Unless that was just a case of highly misapplied eyeshadow.

“Paulina, you do know there’s a ghost attack going on, right?”  Valerie said, jabbing a finger towards the blue lights.  

Of course she knew that.  She’d kept track of the ghost attack patterns over the past month; third period had the highest percentage of attacks besides lunch.  Why else would she bother reapplying her makeup so early in the day?

Paulina wetted the paper towel and dabbed it at her chin.  Her foundation would be smudged, but better that than having a pink smear down her face.

“Which means I need to look my best for Phantom, obviously.”  Her stomach fluttered just saying his name. It was an unusual feeling for her, but one that only made her more determined to talk to him again.

Valerie huffed, spinning on her heel.  “I don’t have time for this.”

She slammed open a stall door and threw the lock shut behind her.

Paulina would have wondered what had gotten her panties in a twist, but frankly, she didn’t have the time either.  Phantom would be here any second, and this time she was going to ask him the question she’d had in mind for the past month.

She took one last glance at her reflection - flawlessly plucked eyebrows, immaculate contouring, a tight green shirt that would match Phantom’s eyes - before strutting out the door.

The blue ecto-powered lighting filtered through the hallway, but other than that, there was no sign of any spectral activity.  No rogue ghosts, and more importantly, no Phantom.  The attack must be on the other side of the school.  Ugh, she might break a heel trying to run that far before Phantom disappeared again.  Would it be worth it, or should she wait for the next attack?  They came so regularly the school didn’t bother evacuating anymore; there might be another chance before the week was out.  But if there wasn’t, then she only had one week left to ask him…

She’d just have to risk the broken heels.  She was about to run towards the east wing when she remembered something: in her distraction, she’d left her lipstick in the bathroom.  If the extra seconds it took to grab it made her miss Phantom, Valerie was going to pay.

She spun and pushed open the bathroom door - only for it to stop short as it smacked into something solid.  From the muffled stream of curses, she could guess who it was.

“Ooh.  Sorry Val,” she said.  She might not be her friend anymore, but she didn’t deserve a door to the face.  Paulina slipped through the doorway, torn between checking on the other girl and just grabbing the lipstick.  But Phantom wouldn’t just leave someone after slamming a door on them.  Sighing, Paulina peeked around it and into the corner of the bathroom.

“Hey - stay back-!”

What was the deal with Valerie’s voice?  Had she really hit her that hard?  The girl had always been tougher than even the football team, she highly doubted she -

Paulina gasped when she looked behind the door.

“The Red Huntress?”  Ghosts might not surprise Paulina, but this ghost hunter did.  She usually only came out for the bigger fights, or to chase Phantom.

Phantom.  That must be why she was here - and if Paulina could stall her, well, that was one step closer into the ghost boy’s good graces.

“It just had to be you again,” the Huntress muttered, rubbing the front of her helmet, then moved to shove Paulina aside.  Glaring for all she was worth - and she was worth a lot - Paulina stepped back and barred the doorway with her arms.

“Nuh-uh, chica.  If you want to get to Phantom, you’re gonna have to go through me.”

She couldn’t see the Huntress’ reaction through her tinted mask, but the low growl gave away her anger.  She was just a ghost hunter… she wouldn’t be willing to hurt a human to get at a ghost… right?

Suddenly Paulina wasn’t so sure.  But she had to try.  Even if Phantom wouldn’t know it was her, she couldn’t let this ghost hunter get to him.  He’d saved her life before, and she fully intended for him to survive to do it again.

The Red Huntress hadn’t responded, and for a moment Paulina wondered if there actually was a person under that suit.  Until she dived for Paulina’s waist to throw her to the ground.

“Hey!”  She shouted, squirming in the Huntress’s grip even as she was pinned to the disgusting bathroom floor.  “You can’t come into the school and do this!  You’ll get arrested, I don’t care who you are!”

That made the Huntress pause - just long enough for Paulina to jerk her hips, tossing the Huntress off balance.  She may not be strong, but Dash and Kwan had helped her learn to escape holds after an incident with her last boyfriend.  She’d never thought she would use that knowledge like this.

She squirmed the rest of the way free and quickly stood.  From this angle, the Huntress looked much less threatening, but she wouldn’t stay down long.  Paulina had to distract her.

“What did you do with Valerie?”  She demanded as the ghost hunter sprung to her feet.  “Valerie!  If you’re in there I could really use some - help!”

The Huntress swept a leg out to trip Paulina.  Her feet went flying, but she caught herself on the bathroom door handle and managed to get her legs back under her.

“You didn’t hurt her, did you?”  She demanded, refusing to be swept aside so easily.  “Not that I think you could, you sorry excuse for a-“

An ectogun suddenly sprouted from the Huntress’ shoulder.  Paulina’s pupils shrunk to points.

“You - you wouldn’t.  I’m not a ghost.  I’m a human!  There are security cameras!”  They were in the bathroom, so there probably weren’t cameras in here, but hopefully the Huntress wouldn’t know that.  “You won’t get away with this! You’ll go to jail and my Papa will sue you until you-“

The ectogun vanished back into the suit, but the Huntress’ muscles were still tight cords under the strange metallic fabric.

“Could you just shut up for once?”  She snapped.  Paulina blinked rapidly.  She knew that tone, that voice.

“You’re the one who started it, Valerie!”

“Yeah, well I wouldn’t have if you’d-!”  The Huntress’ voice choked off, and she stepped back as if shot.  Paulina was almost as stunned herself.  She’d recognized the voice, but seeing the reaction - this really was Valerie.  She should have guessed from the girl’s figure, though she was difficult to recognize without her long, wavy hair.  How had she fit it all into that tiny helmet?

“What - what did you just call me?”  The Huntress - Valerie - demanded, but Paulina wasn’t fooled.  Valerie had loathed ghosts for years, to a degree that was almost frightening.  That had been as much a factor in Paulina keeping her distance as the other girls’ social status.  And if anyone she knew had the guts and ability to fight ghosts on a regular basis, it was Valerie.

“Uh, your name.”

The two girls stared each other down - or rather, Paulina stared at the blue light reflecting on Valerie’s helmet.  She swore she could feel the heat of her stare in return, in spite of the ghostly chill hanging in the air.  But Valerie still broke first.

“Look, Sanchez, I don’t expect you to understand, but there’s ghosts out there that I need to take care of.”

“Phantom can handle it,” she replied coolly.  “Unless he’s the ghost you were going to ‘take care of’?”  She made air quotes with her fingers while still glaring down her classmate.  Normally she would be able to see every tell on Valerie’s face, but that mask was interfering with her superior people-reading skills.  Valerie only gave herself away with her silence.

“Uh-huh,” Paulina said.  “We all know you’ve got it out for him.”  What she didn’t get was why.  Most of the students at Casper High idolized Phantom, or at least respected him for saving the school on a weekly basis.  What could he have done to get on Valerie’s bad side?  Or was it just her blanket hatred of all ghosts?  Maybe if she’d kept in better touch, she’d know, but she’d burned that bridge long ago.

“You don’t know anything, Sanchez.”

Before Paulina could reply, the regular fluorescent lights flickered back on.  There was a moment where the ectolights blended with the normal yellow lighting, painting the bathroom an eerie green.  Then the emergency lights powered back down.  Everything was left as it was before.

Except for the red-and-black suited figure in front of her, of course.

Valerie sighed, and then somehow the suit retracted around her, tiny metallic scales sliding down her skin and compressing into the soles of her shoes.  Paulina audibly gasped at that.

“You know anywhere I can get clothes like that?”  She asked, attempting to break through the irritation now clearly present on Valerie’s face.  The other girl snorted.

“Try getting possessed by a tech ghost.”

“Hmm.  Could be worth it.”  She’d been possessed a couple of times before.  Her memories of it were fuzzy of course, but Phantom had been there to save her each time.

That comment brought Valerie’s anger back in full force.  “You really don’t get it, do you?  This isn’t a game, Sanchez!  Our school, our home - our lives are at stake!  So you,” she stabbed a finger at Paulina’s chest, “had better stay out of my way, if you care about that at all.”

“Excuse me?”  Paulina raised an eyebrow.  “You’re not the only one protecting us. Phantom’s here too, and he cares about us just as much as you do.”

“You don’t know that,” she snapped.  “You’re blinded by your stupid crush on him.”

Paulina leaned in close, not missing a beat.

“Am I?  Or are you just blinded by how much you hate him?”

Valerie squinted, matching her glare eye to eye.  Paulina wished her heels were a little taller, but she still had about an inch on the other girl.

“Face it, Gray.  You never could admit when you were wrong.”

“And you could never admit you were a-“

The sound of the door banging open against the wall interrupted whatever insult Valerie was about to fling at her.  Some blonde-ponytailed freshman strolled through the doorway, then looked up from her phone and jumped at the sight of the two glaring juniors.

“Um, I’ll just… I’m gonna go.” She backed cautiously out of the bathroom.  But the girl’s brief appearance had done enough.  A look had passed over Valerie’s face, one Paulina had never seen on her before: fear.

“We’ll continue this later,” Valerie said.

“Hmm, actually, I think we’ll continue this now.”  Paulina smiled acidicly.  “Unless you’d like the whole school to know you’ve been playing vigilante.”

A hardened expression slammed over Valerie’s face.  Now that was the kind of look she could imagine on the Red Huntress.

“I’m surprised you even know that word,” she stalled.

“I know a lot of things that would surprise you.”  Paulina rested her hands on her hips.  “So, how about we make a little deal?”

Valerie raised an eyebrow.  “Is it a deal where you shut up and I don’t have to deck your face?”

“Pretty close, actually.”  She made a show of examining her fingernails, like the threat of violence didn’t bother her.  Which it didn’t.  Valerie may be a loose cannon - literally - but she wouldn’t be dumb enough to get herself expelled.  Grades mattered too much to her now that she’d need scholarships to afford college.

“Fine.  I’m listening.”

“Let’s say I, what did you say?  ‘Shut up’ about this whole little… thing.”  She gestured a hand through the air.  “But in return, you do a little something for me.”

“Just get to your point, Sanchez,” Valerie said through gritted teeth.  Paulina smirked - riling up the other girl was just too easy.

“You stop hunting Phantom.  And,” she continued before Valerie could protest, “you help me get him as a date to the winter formal.”

Valerie’s fist unclenched; her eyes widened in shock.

“You want me to - are you crazy!?  Nevermind, I already know the answer to that, but that’s just - you can’t take a ghost to a school dance!”

Paulina didn’t bat an eye at the outburst.

“Why not?  Sure, he’ll have to sign an out-of-school release form, but that’s not a big deal.”  Truth be told, she didn’t know the school’s policy about bringing ghosts as dates, but it was Phantom.  If he wanted to come, the school had to let him.  If it weren’t for him, the school wouldn’t be standing at all.

Valerie’s jaw flapped, attempting to form words and failing.

“You don’t have much of a choice, you know,” Paulina reminded her.

“What if he doesn’t want to go with you?  You can’t pin it on me if he’s not interested.”

Paulina smiled; Valerie had chosen to argue the date point, not against her other important demand: that she stop hunting Phantom.  In so doing, she’d practically made the deal already.

“You’ll at least give me the chance to ask him,” Paulina pressed.  After all, it was Valerie’s fault she hadn’t gotten to ask Phantom today.  Regardless of the blackmail, she owed her.  Not that Valerie saw it that way, if the dumbfounded look on her face was any clue.

“So wait a minute, you want me, a ghost hunter, to take you to see a ghost… so you can ask him on a date.”

Paulina shrugged.  “Sounds like a pretty easy deal to keep your little secret, don’t you think?”

Emotions warred over Valerie’s face, but frustration finally gave way to resignation, and she sighed.

“Fine.  I’ve got to hunt Phantom one last time if you wanna go through with this, though.  That’s the only way I’ll be able to get you to him.”

“Fair enough,” Paulina conceded, victory already tugging her lips upward.  “But you aren’t going to hurt him.”

“Fine, fine.  I’ll keep that ectoplasmic creep in one piece for you.”  Valerie finally succeeded in pushing past her, and was halfway out the door before Paulina could cement any more details about their deal.  She only paused for a moment to throw one last glare over her shoulder.

“But I promise, you’re going to wish I hadn’t.”

XXX

Paulina.  Of all of the people to figure out her secret, why did it have to be her?  Valerie knew she would follow through with the blackmail if she didn’t hold up her end of the deal.  It wouldn’t be the first time Paulina had trapped someone with a web of secrets.  There was a reason so many students flocked around her, and it wasn’t just for her looks.

Too bad I don’t have any dirt on her, she thought.  Finding out Paulina’s secrets would be even more difficult than catching Phantom, though.  She needed a better plan than that.

She tried to find a quiet place to sit and brainstorm during lunch, but excited chatter filtered all through the air.  Tests, Christmas break, and that stupid winter formal were on everyone’s lips.  Didn’t they have better things to worry about?  She hardly heard any details about the ghost attack earlier that day.  In fact, the only one she heard mention it was…

“The Box Ghost again, huh?”  Tucker said, chomping down on a hamburger as she passed by the trio’s signature table.  Danny sighed.

“Yeah, and right in the middle of the algebra quiz I - oh, hey Valerie.”  He grinned up at her, but with the dark circles rimming his eyes and the tightness in his jaw, she couldn’t believe it was sincere.  She raised an eyebrow when Tucker grinned in a way that was somehow even more suspicious.  Sam, who’d probably never forgiven her for almost-dating her friend, just scowled and took a vicious bite of her veggie wrap.

“Hey.”  She smiled back politely, even at Sam.  Just because the other girl held a grudge didn’t mean she had to return it.  She didn’t need any more enemies right now.  “You mind if I sit here?”

“Well-”

“Sure,” Danny cut Sam off, gesturing to the seat across from him and next to Tucker.  She sat down carefully, not missing how Sam’s eyes tracked her every move.  Even Danny and Tucker looked on edge, when she looked more closely.  How long had it been since she’d sat with them?  Sure, Danny wasn’t as close a friend as… as he had been, but they’d broken up almost a year ago, and not on bad terms.  Then again, she didn’t know how for sure how he’d taken it.  She hadn’t paid enough attention to him since ghost fighting and her job had cut so deep into her time.  

Just one more sacrifice I had to make, she thought, crushing the twinge of regret.  Maybe she and Danny weren’t exactly friends anymore, but she wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to get information.

“You guys were talking about the ghost attack?”  She tried to sound casual while she unpacked her sack lunch.  “What freak was it this time?”

Sam opened her mouth, but Danny beat her to it again.

“Just the, uh, that one that’s obsessed with boxes.  At least, that’s what I heard.  I was in the bathroom the whole time.”

Of course, that box ghost.  No wonder Phantom had taken care of it so quickly.  Another thought occurred to her though - the boys’ restroom was right next to the girls’.  And if he was in there during the ghost attack… of course, he could have been in the east wing bathroom instead, but she wouldn’t trust her luck today.

“You didn’t see or hear anything, I don’t know, weird, did you?”  She asked, hoping her nervousness didn’t show.

“This is Casper High.  It’s always weird,” Sam answered, violet eyes narrowed.  “Why?”

Dang, that look was almost as bad as Paulina’s glare.  Did everyone in this school have it out for her today?

“Unlike some people, I just care about our safety,” she deadpanned, tired of all the intimidation tactics.  “All anyone else is talking about is vacation or the winter formal.”

Sam snorted.  “Tell me about it.”  Then she blinked, as if just realizing she’d agreed with Valerie about something.

“What’s so bad about winter formal?”  Tucker asked.  “We’re all going together this year.”

They were?  Not that she had time for school gossip, but she’d heard that Danny and Sam were dating, as of a month or two ago.  She’d just assumed they’d be together all the way through high school at least.  

Then again, she’d hoped the same thing for him and herself, and look how long that had lasted.

“Yeah, no more of that worrying about getting dates stuff.”  Danny smiled at Sam, but it quickly gave way to concern.  “Unless you wanted to get a date-”

“Danny, we talked about this.”  Sam sighed, then shot Valerie a side-eyed glance.  “I’m more than happy to go with both of you.  It’s just my mom, you know, the usual…”

They slowly slipped back into their own conversation, leaving Valerie feeling like as much of an outsider as if she were a table away.  Not that she should have expected any different.  She wasn’t their friend, even if she almost was once.  Those stupid ghosts had ruined any chance of that.  She unwrapped her peanut butter and honey sandwich and nibbled on it for the sake of sustenance.

“What about you, Valerie?”  Danny finally asked, still sounding a bit awkward, but less scared than he’d been before.

Scared.  That was the emotion she’d seen in his eyes, though she hadn’t picked it out at the time.  But why would he be scared of her?  Again he pushed down the worry that he’d somehow learned her identity.  It was probably just her intimidating resting face or something.

“Uh, what about me?”  She asked.

“Are you going to the dance with anyone?”

She blinked.  That was the last question she expected to hear, especially from him.

“...I’ve got plans,” she eventually answered.  Lied.  It wasn’t like he’d been about to ask her; he’d already said he was going with Sam and Tucker.

“Oh.”  His gaze fell, and he chuckled lowly.  He might have been about to say something else, but at that moment someone called from across the cafeteria.

“Valerie!”  Dang it.  Paulina.  Her heels clicked obnoxiously with every step she took towards them.  Tucker whistled quietly, earning him a slap from Sam.  

“Gotta go,” Valerie said gruffly, dropping the half-eaten sandwich back into her bag and shoving back her chair.  Whatever the witch wanted now, she wasn’t going to stick around and find out.

So much for coming finding time to plan.