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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.

Chapter Text

Valerie hovered over Amity Park, her board catching beams of moonlight that filtered through the December clouds.  The winter formal was next weekend; that didn’t give her much time.  That was assuming Paulina would even give her until then, which wasn’t likely considering how the witch had seemed bent on tracking her down today.  Her phone had been blown up with texts asking - demanding, really - that Valerie bring her along on her next Phantom hunt.  Well, she’d just pretend her phone died.  As much as she disliked the other girl, she wasn’t about to drag Paulina into the line of fire.  Hunting Phantom was dangerous enough on her own.

If she was honest, she didn’t even know if she could capture Phantom.  For all her efforts, she’d only done it once, and then… the whole Danielle fiasco happened.

She winced just thinking about it, even though it had been almost two months ago.  Her actions had almost killed a human - a half-human, technically, but that was human enough for her.  Between that and what she’d learned about Vlad… for all that she’d discovered, she’d been left with more questions than ever.

And there was only one person - or ghost - who could give her the answers.

“I know you’re out there, Phantom,” she whispered, as if the ghost would hear her.  She was a floating target, up here in the open.  If he was down there, he’d be able to see her, but there was no guarantee he’d pick a fight.  Other ghosts were always his first targets, but she didn’t have time to wait for an attack to draw him out.

As it turned out, she didn’t have to.  Green flashes of light illuminated the warehouse by the river.

That box ghost again.  She rolled her eyes.  No matter how badly she or Phantom kicked his butt, he always showed up again.  Twice in one day was unusual, though; he must really be in the mood for some pain.

Valerie angled her board into a steep dive, relishing the feeling of the wind through her fingers.  The helmet protected her face, but the rest of the suit was so breathable she could hardly tell she was wearing it.  Somehow it still protected her from the early winter chill.

In seconds she was hovering over the corrugated steel roof of the warehouse, which vibrated in time with the flashes of light inside.

“C’mon, Boxy, we already did this today!  Wasn’t making me fail that Algebra quiz enough fun for you?”

“Bah!  The Box Ghost does not care for your puny human quizzes!  It’s time to face your neatly-packaged doom!”

The voices faded under the sounds of crates crashing against the walls.  Valerie knew she should head in to take out both the ghosts, but she couldn’t deny she was curious.  Algebra?  Quizzes?  What were they talking about?  There weren’t schools in the ghost zone, were there?  No, that ghost had said - human quizzes.  That made even less sense.

There was so much about Phantom - and about other ghosts - that she didn’t know.  Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to listen in on the two ghosts for a bit, rather than barging in with guns blazing.  It certainly would have helped her avoid trouble with Danielle.

“How did you get out of the thermos so fast, anyway?”

“The Box Ghost controls all packaging materials!  I cannot be contained in your cylindrical box of doom!”

“Ugh, so now he thinks the thermos is a box?  That explains a lot…”

“Hey!  I can hear you!”

“Yeah?  Well, hear this!”

More blasts.  Nothing like how they’d been speaking before.  Maybe that idea was worthless after all; it wasn’t like Phantom would just spill his secrets in the middle of a fight.

She heard the familiar woooooosh of a ghost being sucked into a Fenton Thermos, and then an echoing sigh.

“Guess that takes care of that… for now.”  Another sigh.  “Better take him home before he manages to break out again.  That would ruin my night for sure…”

Valerie cursed.  He was about to leave, and there was nowhere to hide on the roof. Guess she’d have to switch back to plan A after all.  She summoned a blaster from the top of her hand - only to jump at the sound of a very loud and obnoxious ringtone.  Instinctively she looked towards her pocket even though it wasn’t her phone’s usual quiet trill.

“Hey, I’m on my way - yeah, I know, I know - I meant to be there, but the Box Ghost… yeah, that’s what I said… No, don’t worry, I just finished up.  See ya in a few.  … Love you too.”

Valerie was so busy processing the words - love you too? - that Phantom’s actual appearance nearly gave her a heart attack.  The ghost looked just as startled when he phased through the roof and found her staring at him.

“Crap,” he said, green eyes wide as he solidified into physical form.  “Crap crap crap… uhhh, you wouldn’t be willing to reschedule this fight for tomorrow, would you?”

She was about to snap something witty back, followed with a shot from her gauntlet - but then she saw what he held in his hand.  A cell phone.  Of course, she’d heard the ringtone, heard him talking to someone, but - she recognized that phone.  It would be impossible not to, with its clunky brick shape and the Fentonworks logo emblazoned across the back.  As far as she knew, only one boy had a phone that tacky.  One boy who’d had a quiz today… and had reported being absent for the ghost attack… and now that she looked for it, had an eerily similar face to the ghost hovering before her.

No, that’s crazy… he couldn’t be… She was paranoid.  It was a hazard of the profession, but being more paranoid around Paulina might have saved her a lot of trouble earlier.  She wasn’t about to ignore a theory like this, as crazy as it might sound.

Her voice came out in barely a whisper.

“Danny?”

He winced.  She knew that wince - it was the same one she’d tried to hide from Paulina earlier today.

“I can explain!”  He said quickly, holding up his hands nonthreateningly while still clutching the phone.  “I just had to borrow his phone - I’ll give it right back, I promise.”

At eleven p.m.?  From the son of known ghost hunters?  Not likely.  Not combined with everything else he’d said, and everything she’d recently learned about half-ghosts.  

She should be shocked.  She was shocked, she just… it made too much sense, now that she thought about it.  His frequent absences and “bathroom breaks,” the tired rings under his eyes… the fear that he’d had at seeing her today.  She had to hide another wince of her own, but she kept her voice hard.  Just in case she happened to be wrong.

“If you’ve kept this a secret so long, I’d think you could come up with a better excuse than that.”

He flinched again - he really was a horrible liar.  But she supposed no one else knew enough to ask the right questions.

“It’s not an excuse,” he said with a stubborn frown.  “Danny just… helps me out sometimes.  He’s a pretty cool dude, for coming from a family of ghost hunters.”

She crossed her arms, effectively hiding the ectogun on her gauntlet, but still keeping it ready to use.  Just because she wanted answers didn’t mean she could let her guard down.

“That one was a little better.  If that’s the truth, though, you wouldn’t mind taking me to see Danny, would you?”  She called his bluff.  His eyes darted back and forth.

“I…”  He looked ready to bolt for a moment, and she wondered if she’d have to use her blaster after all.  But then he rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand and sighed.  “I can’t.”

“You can’t,” she deadpanned.  “Of course you can’t, because everything you just said was complete bullcrap.”

His aura flickered fitfully, casting strange patterns across the metal roof.  He bit his lip as he reigned it back in, but Valerie knew she’d caught him.

“What do you want me to say?”  He asked, testing the waters.  He didn’t know how much she’d guessed.  And as confident as she felt, that was all she had: guesses.  Could she really believe that Danny Fenton had been moonlighting as a superhero for two years?

 “How about the truth?”  She said, though she didn’t expect a straight answer out of him.  Still, the fact that he wasn’t running or fighting was a good sign.  Then again, why wasn’t he?  He had every right to... if she was right, then she’d…

It suddenly hit her.  The things she’d done to him.  The things she’d planned to do to him.  Strapped to a wall in the storage shed she’d rented, begging her to let Danielle go, that she was half human, while all this time he was - he was -

“...Red?”  He asked softly, stepping closer.  “You don’t look so good.”

She wanted to dissolve her helmet and wipe her eyes, but instead blinked the salty water away. Getting caught crying in front of Phantom or Danny was out of the question.

“Just tell me.”

He looked away, grip still tight on Danny’s - his? - phone.  His knuckles had to be bone-white beneath his gloves.

“Or don’t.”  She sighed.  She’d just have to come out and say it herself.  

“You’re half-ghost.”

His eyes immediately snapped back to hers, glowing bright green.  She took a step back.  Phantom was dangerous, she couldn’t forget that, even if he really was Danny, she couldn’t just ignore - but the fire faded as suddenly as it had appeared.  He didn’t seem to notice what he’d done.

“...Should’ve known you’d figure it out.  You’re too smart for your own good… Valerie.”  He smirked, that face that was so Phantom it was hard to picture on Danny. As much as she liked Danny, he couldn’t project that kind of smug confidence… except, apparently, he could.

“You handed me pretty much everything I needed to know.”  She shrugged, hiding her conflicted emotions.  Whatever front he was putting up, this was Danny.  The spray of freckles across his nose glowed green in the moonlight; she’d never been close enough to Phantom to notice them before.  She’d always thought they were so cute on Danny...

She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath.  Phantom could’ve been anyone else, but he just had to be… had to be… him.

Phantom had been Danny the whole time.  All this time she’d been trying to… trying to destroy   him.  How could he even look at her after that?

“It was a risk I had to take.  I couldn’t let you hurt Danielle.  But I didn’t think…” He sighed, shaking his head.  “I thought I’d have a few more months, at least.  To figure out how to tell you myself.”

She blinked.  “Wait - you were going to tell me?  Even though I-”

“What, tried to kill me?”  He shrugged.  “Pretty used to it, honestly.  If you ever got really close, I would’ve told you.”

If she ever got close?  She’d had him chained to a wall, and all he’d done was try to protect Danielle!  Unless he’d been closer to death than that before - well, he was dead - half dead? - but -

“Why wait that long?”  She demanded.  “I could’ve jumped you, you might not have had a chance to talk.”

“Hey, I never claimed to be the smartest ghost kid.”  He smiled sheepishly.  “But, uh - so you don’t want to kill me now?”

“What - no!”  She dissolved her ectogun back into metallic particles, hoping he wouldn’t notice.  “I didn’t hurt Danielle; I would never hurt you!  ...Well, not now, anyway.”

He frowned at her wince.  “Really, it’s okay.  I hurt you too, Val.”

“Yeah.  You did,” she mumbled, torn between forgiving him and finally laying into him for the trouble he’d caused her in the past two years.  But he’d have just as much he could blame her for, and… if he really was Danny, she didn’t want to hurt him any more than she already had.

“I’m sorry,” he said sincerely.  She met his green eyes, looking for traces of Danny in them.

“Me too.”  She rubbed her hand and looked away.  The weak apology wasn’t enough to ease her guilt, but what could she say?  Words couldn’t make up for trying to shoot someone on a near-daily basis.

“So… friends?”  He asked, holding out a hand.  

“Just like that?”  She asked skeptically.  She’d held a grudge for two years now, and he was willing to just - forgive her?  He rubbed the back of his neck.

“Sorry.  I guess it’s dumb to think… nevermind.”

She was about to rephrase her words, but then his phone rang again.  He answered quickly, cutting off the annoying EDM tone.

“Sorry, I know I said I was coming - I am coming - yeah, something else came up…” A long pause, where she heard a girl’s voice speaking quickly.  “Thanks, Jazz.  I promise, I’m coming now.  Love you.”

A few seconds later he hung up.  If Valerie hadn’t been convinced Phantom was Danny before, she definitely was now.  The realization kept coming in waves, pulling the floor from her feet each time.

“I thought your sister was away at college?”  She asked, focusing on the small detail to keep herself grounded.

“She finished finals already.  Her semester starts earlier and gets out earlier than ours.”  He slid the phone into a pocket in his suit’s belt.  “I told her I’d watch a stupid Hallmark movie with her tonight.  I didn’t expect… well, this.”

“Sorry.  I can’t say I was expecting this either.”  She rubbed her arm.  “Well.  Guess you’d better get going.”

“Yeah.  Valerie - I really am sorry,” he repeated.  Unable to meet his eyes, she settled for gazing at the small snowflakes beginning to fall in the distance.

“It’s fine, ghost boy,” she tried to say lightly, but mostly it came out tired.  It wasn’t fine, not yet.  There was a lot to unpack here.  “We’ll figure this out.”

He wilted at that reply, his aura dimming, but then nodded.  “We will.  I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

With that, he took to the sky, his legs smearing out into a ghostly tail.  He was still a ghost… and still Danny.  The Danny she’d almost-dated, and then fought, and… and that Paulina wanted to go out with!

Valerie cursed, smacking the front of her helmet.  She’d completely forgotten about their deal in the aftermath of learning Danny’s secret.

But on the plus side, her job might have just gotten a lot easier.

XXX

“So did Mr. Falluca let you make up the quiz?”

“Yeah, for once.  The storage closet’s close enough that - oh hey Valerie.”  Danny wore the same almost-frightened smile that he’d worn yesterday.  Her heart twinged.  Did he still worry she might hurt him? 

She reluctantly supposed that her searching stare might have something to do with it.  She flashed a smile - one that she hoped looked less nervous than his - and hovered over the chair next to Sam, since Danny and Tucker were on the same side of the lunch table today.  The other girl glared daggers through her.  If she knew about Danny’s secret, which seemed more likely than not, then she had every right to.

“We need to - can we talk?”  She asked rather than demanding the way she was used to.  Old habits died hard.

Danny shared a luck with Sam and Tucker.  Tucker raised an eyebrow; Sam just rolled her eyes.  Maybe it was a good thing she’d broken up with Danny before they’d ever really dated.  Those three stuck together like glue; there was no room for her between them.

“Sure,” Danny finally replied, standing up and closing the cap on his thermos of soup - one that looked suspiciously like a Fenton Thermos.  That had to get confusing.  Knowing the Fentons, though, there probably wasn’t a regular-looking thermos in their house. 

In silence they headed out to the courtyard.  A few other students had braved the fresh snow to eat outside, but a space under the tree was clear of prying eyes and ears.  If anything, it felt too quiet.  She was painfully aware of the snow crunching under her boots with every step.

She leaned against the tree and looked up at Danny, but didn’t speak.  Their conversation last night felt a lifetime away.  Talking with Phantom about this was one thing, but it was still difficult to see the two of them as the same person.

“So… what’s this about?”  Danny finally asked.  Why was this so difficult?  She’d been so willing to accuse Phantom of being Danny, but now, in broad daylight, it sounded so ridiculous, like she’d dreamed the whole thing up.

“We didn’t get the chance to talk much last night,” she said lamely.  They’d talked plenty, just not… not the right words.  Everything had come out wrong.  He shouldn’t feel like he had to make anything up to her, not when she’d been the one hunting him.

“What are you talking about?”  He asked, blinking innocently.  Warning bells went off in her mind.  Had - had Phantom played her?  She hadn’t actually seen him change, what if he really had stolen Danny’s phone-?

“Kidding, kidding!”  He held up his hands, apparently noticing the murderous look in her eyes.  She smacked his arm.

“You’re walking on thin ice, Fenton,” she growled.  He grinned sheepishly.

“Jeez, I was just trying to lighten things up.  You looked so serious.”

“Well excuse me for acting serious when I find out my friend is-” she lowered her rapidly rising voice, “a freaking ghost.”

The grin didn’t leave his face.  “So, we are friends?”

She wiped a hand down her face.  This wasn’t going how she’d imagined at all.  Maybe that was for the best, though.  Her imagination involved a lot of groveling apologies on both sides.  If Danny was willing to make light of everything they’d been through… well, maybe that would be easier on both of them.

“Depends.  Do I have to join the Phantom Phan Club first?”  She smirked.  He gaped in horror.

“Oh heck no.  Do you have any idea how weird those guys are?  I lost a bet once, Sam and Tuck made me go.  Worst day of my life.”  He gagged.

“What, you don’t like everyone practically worshipping you?”  She asked.  Funny, she remembered his desperate bids for popularity their freshman year.  Why had he never used the fact he was Phantom?

Same reason I don’t want anyone to know my secret, I guess.  The consequences might be even worse for him than being grounded, though; he could end up some kind of lab rat if anyone knew.  The GIW would probably kill to get their hands on a half-ghost. 

“Uh, no,” he deadpanned.  “Most of them hate me as Danny.  What they say about Phantom is weird, and - well, gross, frankly.”  He stuck out his tongue, and she fought not to laugh.

“Don’t worry, I won’t ask.”  She figured it had to be better than what they said about the Red Huntress, though.  She was practically a villain to all the self-proclaimed “Phans.”  Though knowing the truth now, it was hard not to feel like she deserved it.  

“That’s not what I wanted to talk about, though,” she said, shaking off her guilt.  “Or actually, maybe it is.  Paulina’s in the Phan Club, isn’t she?”

Danny’s brows drew together.  “She’s not just in it, she’s their ringleader.  Why?”

Valerie rubbed her arm.  This was going to be the hard part.  Better just rip it off like a bandaid.

“Well, she… kind of… figured out my secret yesterday.”

Danny’s eyes widened.  For a moment she swore they even flickered green.

“She what?”  

“You heard me.  And it gets better.”

He groaned, rubbing his forehead.  “Please tell me this doesn’t involve me.  Please.”

She couldn’t help an amused snort from escaping her nose.

“She wants me to set her up on a date with you.  Phantom you.”

If Danny had been drinking anything, he would have spat it out.  “Please, please tell me that this is some sick practical joke for ruining your life.”

“You didn’t ruin my life.”  She might have thought that once, but she was comfortable being the Red Huntress now; she could hardly imagine anything different.  “And you said it yourself, I’m too serious.”

“Ugh, you’re right.  You wouldn’t be able to come up with a joke that awful.”

“I’m a little lost though,” she admitted.  “Most guys in this school would die to go on a date with Paulina - no pun intended.”

“Heh, that one wasn’t half bad.”  He chuckled.  “But yeah, no.  I was in that boat freshman year, and I let it sail far, far away.  Grew up.  Moved on.”  His hand mimed a boat sailing away, then sinking with a hiss of air.  She chuckled.

“Sore subject, huh?”  She wondered if he’d moved on so well from their own almost-relationship.  Considering he was talking to her like they were old friends, it couldn’t have been this bad.

“I dated her while she was possessed by a ghost.  I didn’t know at the time, but once I did and got the ghost out of her, she had no memory of the whole thing.  Blew me off in front of the whole school - literally ghosted me.”  He chuckled at his own joke, but it rang hollow.  “It doesn’t get a lot sorer than that.”

Her brow furrowed apologetically.  “Makes sense.”

“You’re gonna have to tell her no, Val.  Maybe it’s stupid, but I won’t go on another date with her.  Besides, Phantom can’t be seen dating anyone.  The ghosts would go after her, and I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

“Fair enough, but… she threatened to tell my secret if you don’t at least let her ask you out herself.”  She drew her sweater closer against the cold.  She shouldn’t have dragged Danny into this - she wouldn’t have, if she’d known his secret in the first place.  But it was too late for that now.

“Oh.”  He bit his lip.  “That’s… significantly not good.”

“You’re telling me.”  He’d never even asked her not to spill his secret; he seemed to trust her completely, in spite of everything.  Of course, he knew her secret too - and had even revealed it once, to her dad of all people.  That had taken months to clean up, and months longer to convince him that her new suit belonged to someone other than herself.  But that reveal had been to keep her from fighting Pariah Dark - which Danny had gone and done himself, when it could’ve killed him.

Either he’s the bravest person I know, or he’s got a second death wish.  She almost laughed to relieve her tension, and at the ridiculousness of it all.  He’d fought the King of Ghosts, and now they were worried about a girl like Paulina.

“So… you got any better plans?”  She finally asked, and he tapped his chin.

“Hmm… you think she’d believe Phantom already has a girlfriend?”  

“With your lying skills?”  She raised an eyebrow.  He sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck.

“Yeah, you’d think after two years of keeping a secret identity I’d be a little better at it.”  He sighed.  “You think I’ve just gotta turn her down flat, then?”

She nodded.  “I know girls like Paulina.  You try to let them down slow, and they’ll think you’re leaving an opening.”

“Great,” he muttered, and his breath fogged in the cold air.  He gasped as if that weren’t the most normal thing to happen in December.  “Gotta go.  Uh - maybe you should too.  Don’t know who it’ll be this time.”

“Wait, you mean-?”  She started, but then she heard the screams.  Ghost attack.  Somehow, he’d sensed it before it had happened.

“I’ll explain later.  Just have Paulina meet me at your secret place tonight - I’ll text you when I’m free.”  He said it all in one breath, then pressed himself against the far side of the tree.  A flash of white light was her only warning.  Then Phantom was flying off towards the cafeteria.

Valerie was left gaping.  Danny was Phantom, she knew that mentally, but seeing him change - that was something else.  Did he always do that with such little secrecy?  No one in the courtyard had seemed to notice, but -

More screaming.  Ghost attack, right.  She’d have time to interrogate Danny about his powers later.

Assuming Paulina left him in one piece, that was.

 

Chapter Text

Danny paced the small floor of Valerie’s shed, growing more nervous by the moment.  Maybe he shouldn’t have picked this place.  For all she said about not hunting him anymore, she hadn’t been back to clean out the torture chamber setup.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the main source of his worries.

It’s just Paulina, he told himself, trying to calm his core, which had insisted on dropping the already-freezing air several degrees.  It’s not like I’m going up against a ghost or… who am I kidding, I’d way rather be dealing with ghosts than this.

His face burned in spite of the cold.  It was just Paulina.  Just the girl he’d had a crush on all of freshman year, until his brain had finally caught up with puberty.  In hindsight, he could see just how stupid he’d been to actually try going out with her.  He’d embarrassed himself because of her more times than he could count.

But that was two years ago.  He liked to think he was smarter than that now - even if his grades didn’t show it.  Still, he couldn’t help worrying that she’d manage to get in his head again.  When Paulina wanted something, she usually got it.

And what she wants is a date with me.  Well, half of me anyway.  He laughed and ran a hand through his hair, which was accumulating frost at the tips.  If it had been his human half Paulina was interested in, maybe things would have been different.  Or maybe not.  She was way too high-maintenance to add on top of his already hectic ghost-fighting schedule.

After what felt like an eternity, the shed door finally slid open - Valerie had rigged it so it worked more like a garage door, allowing her to fly in without dismounting her board.  He forced himself not to react at the sight of the girl clinging to Valerie’s waist for dear life.

“See?  There’s your ghost.  Happy?”  Valerie said, simultaneously retracting her board and closing the shed door.  Paulina yelped but managed to keep her footing in - were those stilettos? That couldn’t be comfortable - as she dropped to the ground.

“You could give a girl a warning,” she muttered, but then her full attention was on Danny.  “Phantom!  You actually came to see me!”

He forced a grin onto his face.  “Well, technically you came to see me.”

She sauntered up to him, quickening his core’s frequency in spite of himself.  The past year had been good to her.  Her hair was as long and glossy as ever, and her emerald green sweater clung to her waist.  At least she’d given up the crop tops for the winter.

He took an involuntary step back as she got close.  Too close already.  Her bold, flowery perfume strangled him, intensified by his ghost form’s heightened senses.  Both Sam and Valerie always had more subtle, gentle scents.  He should thank them for that.

“I see you, you see me, the important thing is we’re seeing each other.”  Paulina smiled.  “I didn’t think the Red Huntress could do it.  How did she finally manage to catch you?”  She asked, talking like they were old friends.  Or old… something more than that.  Which they definitely weren’t.

“Uh, she didn’t.”  He cast a glance towards Valerie, as if she could bail him out.  She relaxed against the wall with her arms casually crossed.  He couldn’t make out her face through her mask, but couldn’t help feeling like she was laughing at him.  Maybe she hadn’t let the whole fiasco with Cujo and her dad’s job go after all.

“She just asked me to come, that’s all,” he said, eyes still hovering over Valerie, because that was easier than looking at Paulina.  Not that Valerie didn’t look good too, but - that was another path he didn’t have the attention for now.  He cleared his throat.  “She said you had something important to ask me.”

“Oh.  Yes.  I…” Suddenly she looked nervous.  Paulina, nervous?  Around him?  The thought was so shocking that he almost missed her next words.  “I wanted to ask you to the Casper High Winter Formal.”

She stared up at him through long eyelashes, her hands clasped down by her waist.  He blinked stupidly.

“Winter formal?”  He echoed.  Valerie hadn’t provided that detail.  Not that it mattered, he guessed; a date was a date, but the school dance?  There were a million reasons that he couldn’t make that happen.  That didn’t stop her from quickly continuing on.

“Yes, I even asked Vice Principal Lancer if you’d be allowed to come, and he said if you signed the out-of-school forms-”

Danny gaped.

“Wait, you talked to Lancer about asking me out?”  On one hand, he almost wished he could’ve seen his teacher’s reaction.  On the other, she’d clearly thought this out for too long.  She raised an eyebrow.

“What, do you know him or something?  Anyway, he said it would be fine, and then you can even protect the dance from the inside.  You know how Casper High dances tend to attract ghosts.”  She flipped her hair, flashing him another smile.  He did know.  It was his fault the dance freshman year got wrecked.  Well, mostly his fault, and a little bit of Sam and Paulina’s too.  He shook off the memory.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he blurted before she could try to convince him further.  The wide-eyed shock on her face, he’d expected - no one told Paulina no.  What he didn’t expect was the downcast despondency that swept over her the next moment.  

“What I mean is, I - I’m gonna be busy that night,” he covered, then wanted to smack himself.  Stupid!  Val told you you’ve gotta let her down hard!  Maybe he should’ve asked her for tips.  After all, she’d been the one to let him down.  He’d never turned down a girl in his life, not that he’d had any throwing themselves at him like this before.  It was distinctly less pleasant than he’d imagined.

“Oh,” she said, straightening her shoulders and composing herself.  “I’m sure you’re very busy, being a hero and all… what exactly do you have plans to do?  If you don’t mind me asking.  I mean, you can’t know when exactly the ghosts are going to attack our helpless town.”

Crap.  Word traps.  He hated those.  Ghosts, he could simply punch his way through, but he couldn’t exactly do that to his classmate.  Not that he wanted to punch Paulina!  Gah, he just needed to focus, think his way out of this -

He glanced over at Valerie, hoping for some kind of reassurance.  To his surprise, she’d removed the faceplate of her mask to mouth something at him.  What, he couldn’t tell; he was no good at reading lips.  All he could catch was the word “ghost,” which could’ve meant anything.

Paulina noticed his distraction and looked behind her, and Valerie abruptly shut her mouth.  For some reason Paulina still did a double take, her eyes flashing from him, to Valerie, and back as her mouth slowly opened.

“You - wait a second - you know who she is? Without the mask?”  Paulina asked.  Demanded, more like, with the fire in her eyes.  The question caught him completely by surprise, but of course she’d ask that.  No one else knew that Phantom and the Red Huntress were friends yet.

“Uhh… yeah?”  He admitted.  After all, Valerie was right.  His lying sucked.  Especially when it came to lying to pretty girls.

“And you still let her hunt you?  You could have, like, found her and stolen all her equipment, couldn’t you?”  Her hands braced against her hips, like his mom would do before grounding him from video games for a week.

“Well - yeah, I guess I could’ve, but she was hunting the bad ghosts, too.  Besides, we’re all good now,” he said, hoping to deflect the attention away from Valerie as quickly as possible.  She flashed him a grateful smile, which he returned.

“No way.  She was just trying to kill you yesterday!  How can you just be-!”  Paulina’s outburst cut off as quickly as it began.  She took a deep breath, forcing a placid smile back onto her face.  “Of course, I’m sure it wasn’t hard for a handsome ghost like you to charm her.”

What?”  Valerie exclaimed.  Danny nearly choked before his cheeks swelled with laughter.

“You think I charmed - wait, you really think I’m handsome?”  A light green blush stained his cheeks.  Maybe he wasn’t going to date Paulina, but was there any way he could get that in writing?

“Oh, quit preening,” Valerie snapped, stalking over to them.  “Phantom couldn’t charm his way out of a paper bag.”

“Hey,” he pouted, falling into the familiar banter.  It helped to distract him from his ex-crush still standing too close.  “I’ve charmed my way out of a number of paper bags, thank you very much.”

She rolled her eyes but directed her attention back to Paulina.  “The point is, Phantom told you no.  Time to leave.”

“You promised me a fair chance, Huntress.”  Paulina placed her hands on her hips.  To her credit, she didn’t use Valerie’s name, even when it looked obvious that he knew it.  “I think a fair chance would involve me talking to Phantom alone, don’t you?”

Danny’s eyes widened.  “Uh, I don’t think-”

“No,” Valerie shut her down simply, crossing her arms.  “My place, my rules.  I’m not leaving.”

“Well, then maybe Phantom could take me for a little flight?”  She batted her eyes at him.  If he’d had a heartbeat, it would have been racing.  As it was, his core was fluctuating, frosting over the concrete beneath his boots.  Paulina didn’t seem to notice the chill.

“No,” Valerie answered for him again.  As pathetic as it made him seem, he was glad.  He was going to have her teach him how to turn people down.

“What are you, his girlfriend?”  Paulina scowled.  “Let him speak for himself.”

“Um… actually…”  He stepped back and tugged at the jumpsuit around his neck.  

“Well you sure aren’t!”  Valerie snapped, clenching a fist.

“I could be.”  Paulina cocked her hip.  “What, are you jealous?”

“I’m not-!”

Danny’s eyes flickered between the two girls, wishing he could just fly out of here.  He should be at home doing Algebra homework, not dealing with… dealing with… this!

Stop!”  He finally shouted, voice vibrating with the beginnings of a ghostly wail.  He wouldn’t let it go that far, but the power in it startled the two girls from their argument.

“I’m not going to the dance with you, Paulina,” he said, channeling the bravery that he normally saved for ghost fights.

“Why not?”  She had the audacity to ask back.  Almost like she truly couldn’t believe someone would tell her no.  Well, he guessed no one had before, but the response still threw him off guard.

“He doesn’t have to-” Valerie began, but he was already blurting the first reply that came to mind.

“I’m dating Valerie.”

Both sets of eyes fixed to his.  One wide with shock, another narrowed in disbelief.  He wanted to put his fist in his mouth.  Stupid, of all the lies he could’ve tried, that was the one he had to spout?  He could have made an excuse about being dead.  Or literally anything else.  Whatever, no choice but to run with it and hope Val would forgive him.

“Uh, what I meant was, I was going to ask Valerie.  Now that she’s not trying to kill me.”  He grinned nervously, trying to read her expression.  The shock had faded, leaving a look that he could only compare to a Blue Screen of Death.

“You - you want to go out with her?”  Paulina pointed at the other girl.  “But… but you just said she tried to kill you!  And - you could go out with me!”

“Lots of people try to kill me.  Val’s the best out of all of them.”  Wait, that came out wrong.  “I mean, the best person.  Not the best at killing me.  I’m still alive.  Well, halfway.”  He chuckled.

“Don’t tempt me to finish the job,” Valerie said dangerously.  Paulina’s hands shook, looking ready to snap something in half.

“See?  She’s not going to go out with you anyway,” she said, reaching for his arm, which he tugged back.  “I’m just asking for one date.  Please.  Phantom, I - you’re the first boy I’ve had a real crush on!”

She covered her mouth, as if surprised she’d let that slip.  As flattering as it was, Danny couldn’t let it change his mind.  Though he supposed he could let it change his tone.

“I’m sorry, Paulina.”  He hesitantly placed a hand on her shoulder.  That was more touch than he should’ve risked, but his mind was set now.  “It’s too late.  I’m sure you’ll meet a nice, alive boy you can go out with.”

“Too late?”  She frowned.  “What do you mean, if I’d asked before Valerie stopped hunting you, you’d go out with me?”

“No, no, it’s not that,” he backtracked quickly, raising his hands.  “I just… uh…”  What could he say?  That he’d had a crush on her years ago?  At least his tongue didn’t betray him that badly.  He could only imagine how she’d react to that.

“Nevermind,” she said bitterly, hunching and turning her back on him.  “You’re not the hero I thought you were, anyway.  Just… take me home.”

Her shoulders drooped.  For once, her voice actually sounded defeated.  The words cut deeper than he’d expected.  Like he was getting rejected by her back in the ninth grade all over again.

“I’ll take you,” Valerie said, her tone surprisingly kind.  She jumped, and her board sprouted from her feet; she extended a hand to help Paulina up.  The girl pointedly avoided looking towards Danny as they rose into the air.

“We’re going to have a talk about this later, Phantom,” Valerie added with one of her signature intense stares.  Danny tried not to flinch back from it.

Great.  Just when he’d started to repair their friendship, he’d had to go and ruin it with a stupid lie.  He never meant to ask Valerie out… or well, maybe he did, eventually.  She’d only broken up with him because of ghost fighting, and now that they were on good terms… only he’d probably gone and ruined that tonight.

So much for charming your way out of a paper bag.  He’d managed to cut romantic ties with not just one but three girls in the past month.  Paulina was obvious; that had never been a possibility.  He and Sam had dated for a few weeks before it just felt too awkward.  They’d thought they liked each other romantically, but actually dating felt like walking on eggshells for both of them, never knowing how to interact anymore.  Almost like neither of them were really themselves.  Breaking up had been mutual, and had somehow left them closer than before, as weird as it sounded.  There weren’t any more secret feelings between them.  They’d always have each other, no matter what happened, and that was what mattered.

But Valerie… maybe his feelings for her weren’t quite as visceral as what he felt around Paulina, but he did like her.  A lot.  Especially after how she’d finally quit working with Vlad, and she’d helped Danielle… her heart was always in the right place.

“I do not need to be worrying about this,” he muttered up at the ceiling before turning intangible and flying out.

He’d deal with his conflicted feelings later.  Right now he had algebra homework to finish.

XXX

As she glided through the night sky, Valerie tried to ignore the faint sniffles coming from the girl clinging to her waist.  Though her helmet filtered out the sound of rushing wind, the faint crying was somehow loud enough to hear.  Or maybe she was just imagining the sound because she could feel Paulina shaking behind her.

She’s probably just cold, she reasoned.  Paulina wouldn’t really be this distraught over Danny, would she?

“You’re the first boy I’ve had a real crush on!”  Was that true?  She’d dated plenty of other guys before but… she’d seemed too embarrassed to be lying.

Valerie frowned as sympathy fluttered in her chest.  She shouldn’t feel bad for Paulina.  Danny didn’t owe her anything.  Still, as Paulina’s oversized house came into sight below them, the pitiful feeling in Valerie’s chest grew.  She wanted to chalk it up to the sheer awkwardness of seeing Paulina lose her composure, but had a feeling it went deeper than that.  It was hard not to relate to another girl getting her heart broken, no matter how much she probably deserved it.

“Hey,” she said carefully, slowing her board to a halt above the sloped roof.  “You good?”

“Just peachy,” Paulina snapped, but it didn’t have the same effect while she was still hugging Valerie’s waist.

“Sorry,” she muttered.  It had been too long since she’d comforted anyone, and she’d never been great at it in the first place.  “Phantom’s right, you know.  There’ll be other guys.  Alive guys.”

“Easy for you to say,” she sniffed.  “Apparently he wants to date you!  What did you do to him, Val?”

Her cheeks flushed.  That topic was something she’d rather deal with later.  What had possessed Danny to blurt that?  Of all the stupid excuses he could’ve made… But the real problem was, she couldn’t be entirely sure it was a stupid excuse.  Or if she wanted it to be.

Things were just… just too complicated right now.

“I don’t know,” she replied, shaking her head.  She hardly even knew what he’d done to her.  For all her comment that he couldn’t charm his way out of a paper bag, his neon green blush as he’d asked her out remained imprinted in her mind.  It should’ve been just one more sign of Danny’s ghost side, one that she would’ve likely found creepy two days ago, but now…

She sighed.  Complicated wasn’t the half of it.

“Come on, you don’t just go from enemies to looking at each other like that overnight.  Something happened.”  Paulina let go of Valerie and swayed for a bit before getting her balance on her own.  It would be safer to put her down on the balcony, but it would be better to keep this conversation on Valerie’s turf, especially now that Paulina was regaining her composure.

“That’s between me and him,” she said definitively, though her mind was divided.  Looking at each other like what?  Like they were keeping secrets?  Because they were, but that had nothing to do with Danny liking her.  

“Fine,” Paulina snorted.  “But I’ll find out eventually, Gray.”

“I highly doubt that.”  Unless Danny decided to tell her his secret, it wasn’t one anyone was going to guess on a whim.  “I kept my end of the deal.  You promised you’d get off my back.”

“I promised I’d keep my mouth shut,” she replied, raising a finger.  Valerie grit her teeth.

“Close enough.  You really don’t want to get caught up in my life, anyway.  I’m a social outcast, remember?  Wouldn’t want to drag you down a few rungs.”

Paulina shrugged.  “To get closer to Phantom?  I might.”

“Get real, Sanchez.  He turned you down.  I almost felt sorry for you about that, but I don’t now.”

Anger flashed behind her eyes.  “He didn’t - he just… as soon as you break his heart, he’ll come back to me.  You’ll see.”

“Right.  Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?”

For once, Paulina looked away.  Discreetly she tried to wipe her eye, only succeeding in smearing mascara across her hand.

“...You don’t have to rub it in,” she finally replied.  “I don’t expect you to get it though.”

“What?  Being rejected?  Yeah, I can.”  Valerie crossed her arms.  Did Paulina not remember what she’d done to her?  Maybe it wasn’t the same as being rejected by a crush, but she’d been punted out of her only friend group.  “Maybe it’s about time someone taught you what that feels like.”

Paulina glared.  “I’m not asking for your sympathy.  I’m just - I’m going to bed.  Put me down.”

Valerie frowned but lowered her board to the balcony, grabbing Paulina’s arm when she lost her balance.  She quickly snatched it away and hopped off the board.

“Wait, Paulina…” Valerie found herself saying.  The other girl stiffened, her hands clenched to fists at her sides.

“Just shut up, Gray.  Just shut up.”

She swallowed the apology that had been forming in her throat.  If Paulina didn’t want to play nice, that was her problem.

She spun her board around and jetted into the night.

Chapter Text

Today 4:27 AM

I’m sorry

That text hadn’t left Valerie’s mind since she’d read it upon waking up this morning.  Just two words from Danny, no context.  Of course, it wasn’t that hard to guess; he had to be apologizing for lying about dating her.  But 4:27 AM?  He should’ve been asleep, not worrying about something as dumb as that.  It didn’t matter if Paulina thought that Phantom wanted to date her, so long as she didn’t connect him to Danny.

She hiked her backpack up higher on her shoulder as she stepped off the bus and headed towards the courtyard.  It was always tempting to take her board instead of the smelly, packed deathtrap, but she only risked that when she was running seriously late.  After this whole fiasco with Paulina, she might not even be able to do it then.

If she’d flown here though, she might’ve had more time to talk to Danny before first period.  If he was even here yet… which he wasn’t, she realized after a quick scan of the area.  Sam leaned against a tree and chatted with Tucker, but there was no sign of their other friend.  Alarm bells went off.  What if Danny hadn’t been apologizing for what he’d said?  What if he’d gotten caught in a ghost fight and he’d gotten hurt, or –

Or I’m completely overreacting, she thought, mentally rolling her eyes at herself.  She might not be used to Danny Fenton throwing himself into danger, but she knew Phantom was tough.  He wasn’t going to get himself hurt that easily.

She nearly jumped out of her skin when an incorporeal hand tapped her on the shoulder.  She spun, ready to summon her suit and blast whatever ghost had snuck up on her – when the wispy outline of Phantom faded into view.

“Sorry,” he said quickly.  “Can you cover me?”

It took a few seconds for her shocked system to recover enough to answer.

“I –  uh, sure.”

He grinned, an eerie look when his teeth somehow seemed more solid than the rest of him.  Then he touched down and stood behind her.  White rings split from his middle, leaving behind a perfectly human-looking Danny Fenton.  She gasped faintly.  She’d seen half-ghosts transform before, but never so close.  She could physically feel Phantom’s cold aura disappear as he changed back into the form of her friend.

She frowned as a thought occurred to her.

“Do you do that often?  Change in public like that?”

“Well, yeah, I guess.” He shrugged, far too nonchalant for someone whose secret identity could’ve just been blown.  “Only when no one’s looking, though.”

She scanned the courtyard.  It was true; everyone was busy chatting with their friends, but still.  She’d never risk her secret like that.

“You should still be careful,” she admonished.  “Especially around me.  I don’t think Paulina’s going to just let me go now that she thinks you like me.”

“Oh.”  His cheeks reddened as he rubbed his neck.  “I really didn’t think that one through.”

She couldn’t argue with that.  She couldn’t blame him either, though; Paulina probably wouldn’t have left him alone for anything less.  The other girl had hardly let him go even after that.

“It’s fine.  I can handle her.”  She shrugged, trying to keep her voice casual as she asked, “So, that’s all it was?  Not thinking?”

“No!”  He said quickly, holding out his hands.  “I mean – yes, but – agh.  I’m really sorry, Val.  I didn’t mean to ask you like that.”

Her heart sped up.  Embarrassment still stained his face pink, but she cracked a smile.

“So how did you mean to ask me?”

His eyes widened.  “I didn’t – wait, did you want me to?”

Did she?  On one hand, her situation was too complicated for a dating life.  On the other hand, she had really liked Danny.  If it hadn’t been for the ghost hunting, she would’ve gone out with him forever ago.  She’d thought that was too dangerous to drag him into.  How ironic, she almost snorted.

“Nevermind,” he answered, kicking at the snow with the toe of his sneaker.  “It’s fine.  I shouldn’t have – you just barely found out who I am.  It wasn’t right to ask now.”

In spite of his words, she could see the light drain from his blue eyes as his shoulders drooped.  He really wore his heart on his sleeve – unlike with the A-listers, she’d never have to worry about where she stood with him.

“...I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she finally said with a small smile.  He looked up, lips pursed and eyebrows drawn together.

“What do you mean–?”

She lightly smacked his arm.  “Lighten up.  You’re not supposed to be the serious one.”

She could see the memory hit him, bringing a grin back to his face.

“So–”

“Shh, you didn’t even let me answer.”  She raised a finger and tried to hide the tight nervousness in her chest.  “One date, Fenton.”

His grin filled his whole face.  “Really?”

Like she could’ve said no to that face.  She hadn’t realized just how much she’d missed it.

“Yeah, really.  Just not to the dance, I wouldn’t want Paulina to–”

“You wouldn’t want me to what?”

Valerie saw Danny jump before she fully processed the voice. Of course.  Paulina just had to show up right behind her.  She turned slowly, not about to show weakness.

“Uh…” Danny’s face went redder than it had already been.  

“None of your business,” Valerie curtly told the other girl, before Danny could make up a lie that would get them both in even deeper trouble.

“Uh, when you’re talking about me it is my business.”  Paulina put her hands on her hips.  The bell rang for them to go to class, but she didn’t show any sign of budging.  In the distance, Sam and Tucker sent the three of them a worried glance, but Danny subtly nodded at them to go inside.  Valerie wondered what lengths those two would go to get Paulina off Danny’s back, if necessary.

Must be nice, she thought.  Having friends you can count on.

Well, now Danny was counting on her.  Unfortunately, her mind was just as blank as his.  

“I was just, uh, wondering if anyone had asked you to the dance,” Danny ended up saying before she could come up with anything.  To his credit, it was a believable enough story.  There were a million other boys at school who must be asking the same question.

Paulina’s face instantly hardened.  “That’s none of your business, loser.”

“Hey,” Valerie said.  “You don’t have to talk to him like that.”

“And I don’t have to talk to you at all, Gray.  Unless you want me to let slip something you’ll regret.”  Her voice barely tremored, betraying that she wasn’t as put together as she appeared.  Danny’s comment had hit her harder than Valerie had realized.  Either she was still bitter about being rejected in general, or she really had liked Phantom that much.  It was even weirder to consider now that she knew who Phantom was.

“Calm down, Paulina,” she said.  She couldn’t blame her for still being upset.  She could blame her for taking it out on her, but that wouldn't help right now.  “Let’s just get to class.”

She stood stiffly for a moment like she might argue, but finally spun on her heel and stalked off towards the school.

“That was… weird,” Danny said softly, in case Paulina could still hear them.  “I’ve never seen her so…”

“Upset?”  Valerie volunteered when he fished for the word.

“I was going to say mean, but… I really hurt her, didn’t I.”  He sighed.  “You’d think I’d feel better after how many times she turned me down, but it still sucks.”

“You can’t make everyone happy.  I’m sure she’ll get over it soon.”  She hoisted her backpack higher up on her shoulders.  “Come on, neither of us can afford to be late to Tetslaff’s class again.”

He smiled a little.  “Race ya?”

She snorted.  “What are we, five?”

“You’re wasting time, Val!”  He said as he ran off towards the school, his purple backpack barely slowing him down.  She just laughed and raced behind.

XXX

It didn’t make sense.  None of it did.  But she hadn’t misheard — Valerie had agreed to go on a date with Fenton.  And she’d tried to cover it up, both of them had.  Maybe she shouldn’t have confronted them about it, but she was just so —

“Ugh!”  She squeezed her makeup brush so hard it almost snapped.  She’d resorted to hiding out in a storage closet and doing her makeup by her hand mirror and the flashlight of her phone; the bathroom was too risky right now.  She didn’t want to run into Valerie or even Star, not like… not like this.  But with enough work, she could cover up the redness around her eyes.  The redness that was rapidly returning as she fought to hold the water back.

She hadn’t meant to cry.  She didn’t cry; she’d trained herself better than that.  Even if Phantom was the only boy she’d ever liked, what did it matter?  Her papa would eventually have her marry some more prestigious man anyway, whether she wanted to or not.  Even if it meant sleeping with a man she would never, could never be attracted to.  Because — and only now would she finally admit it to herself — she wasn’t attracted to anyone.

But that wouldn’t have mattered to Phantom.  He was a ghost; he couldn’t, wouldn’t want her for her body, right?  So they could have been together forever and he never would have done what her last boyfriend had tried to do, what she was so afraid would happen again —

Stupid, useless gasping sounds leaked from her lips.  Tears smeared her half-done makeup down her face.  Useless.  She shouldn’t be skipping first period anyway, but at this rate she’d have to skip second too before she could pull herself back together.  And all over a stupid — a stupid boy!  She was the one who was supposed to have this effect on people, not the other way around.

But it wasn’t just the rejection that had gotten to her.  Valerie was going to turn down Phantom — and to go out with Fenton, of all people.  That meant she had another chance, right?  Phantom would be crushed, and then…

...That wasn’t what Paulina wanted.

She wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve, for once forgetting about the mascara and foundation that would end up smeared there.  She’d never expected to feel like this… to feel sorry.  She’d done to Phantom what so many boys had tried to do to her: push and push until she finally relented.  She’d tried first to persuade and then to force herself into Phantom’s good graces.  But it didn’t work.

“I’m just a loser too now, huh?”  She whispered to herself, smiling a little as she sniffed.  

It was then that the door slammed open, flooding the storage closet with blue light.  The significance of that didn’t register; she was too preoccupied with the girl standing in the doorway.  Shock morphed into panic.

Get out!”  Paulina practically snarled at Valerie.

“How was I supposed to know this closet was taken?”  She snapped back, shoving the door shut.  “I just need a place to change and I’ll be out of your hair.”

Valerie jumped into the air, her hoverboard sprouting from the soles of her shoes.  Despite her anger at the girl, she couldn’t help gasping in amazement as the suit slid over her.  If only Paulina had a suit like that, she could hide her puffy eyes with no problem.

“Wait a sec — did the ghost already come through here?”  Valerie asked.  Paulina hadn’t even realized there was a ghost attack, though that explained the blue light outside.  The dark storage closet lacked the warning lights on the inside, apparently.

“Just get out, Gray,” Paulina repeated, hating the way her voice snagged.

“You’re… not planning to corner Phantom in here, are you?”  She asked dubiously.  Paulina let out a barking laugh, one she would’ve hated if she’d had the energy to care.

“What, you think he’s going to come looking for me?  After that?  And you think I want to see me like this?”  Paulina gestured to herself vaguely.  “You’re supposed to be the bright one, Val.”

Besides, even if she’d wanted to, how would she get him to come into a storage closet of all places?  The accusation didn’t even make sense.

“Then, why are you…?  Are you alright?”

Paulina sniffed; of all the people to see her like this, why did it have to be her?

“Doesn’t matter.  Go fight your stupid ghost, Gray.”

“I…” There was a long pause, and then Valerie’s board powered down, her suit retracting as she landed gracefully on the tile floor.  “I think I’ll let Phantom take care of it.”

This day just kept getting better and better.

“Oh, great.  Now you’d rather take out your anger on me than on the ghosts, huh? Is that it?”  Paulina scowled.  The phone flashlight barely illuminated Valerie’s face, but she didn’t seem to be scowling back… for once.

“No, I was just… worried about you, actually.”  Valerie took a seat on the ground next to Paulina.  “You took yesterday harder than I thought.”

“I’m over it,” she lied.  Valerie raised her eyebrows, but Paulina didn’t have to back down.  What could Valerie do, make her talk about it? ...Then again, Valerie was the only one she could talk to about this.  She was the only one who knew about her rejection.  If Valerie wanted to listen… would it hurt?  Paulina still knew her secret; Valerie couldn’t use anything Paulina told her against her.

“Paulina, I haven’t seen anyone cry this much since Dash lost the championship game last year,” Valerie said in that half-joking, half-deadpan tone Paulina hadn’t heard in so long.  It had been the perfect way to make fun of the boys without them catching on, and it had also been Valerie’s go-to method to cheer Paulina up.  In spite of everything, she hadn’t forgotten.  It was enough to make Paulina laugh just a little.

“He totally didn’t think we would notice, too.”  Paulina smiled.  “He tried to pass it off as ‘manly face sweat,’ remember?”

“Like I could forget that.”  Valerie chuckled; it echoed in the small space.  “This must sound rich coming from me, but… you don’t have to be like Dash.  It’s okay to cry.”

“You’re right.  You wouldn’t cry if you were me,” she said lowly, the moment of reminiscence broken.  “You’d be out there punching that boy in the face if he hurt you.  I guess you’ll probably end up punching him anyway, since you turned him down to go out with Fenton.”

Valerie’s dark eyes widened.  “You — you heard that?”

“Please, Val, I’m not stupid.  You two weren’t exactly being subtle.”

Valerie frowned at that, looking away.  “Well, I wasn’t exactly expecting eavesdroppers either.  You’re making it really hard for me to like you, you know that?”

“Then why are you trying?”  Paulina asked, not sure if she meant it sarcastically or sincerely.  Valerie held grudges; that was common knowledge.  By the time Paulina had realized the damage she’d done to the other girl, it had been too late to save their tenuous friendship.  Or at least, that’s what she’d assumed.

Valerie folded her legs under her, deliberately picking specks of dust off of her skirt.

“I guess because… I’ve ruined enough friendships by jumping to conclusions about people,” she admitted.  “I always thought you were just into Phantom because he was strong and pretty.”

“Handsome,” Paulina corrected; Valerie rolled her eyes, though her cheeks seemed a bit brighter in the dim light.

“Fine, handsome.  Anyway, I guess I didn’t realize you… actually cared.  Do you actually care?”

That was the last question Paulina expected to get called out on.  If it was about any other boy, it would’ve been easy to answer.

“...I did,” she admitted quietly, rolling her makeup brush between her fingers.  “I just… didn’t show it in the right way.  I acted like the entitled brat everyone thinks I am.”

Valerie nodded.  Paulina hadn’t wanted the girl to agree with her, but what could she expect?  

“Maybe that’s what it’s like to be in love.” She sighed.  “I guess I could handle not feeling that again.”

“It’s not like Phantom was your only shot at love, Paulina,” Valerie pointed out.  “You’re only seventeen.”

Paulina shook her head.  “Easy for you to say, Gray.  I’m… not like most other girls.  And not just because I’m unfairly beautiful.”

Valerie rolled her eyes.  “Then what is it?”

She debated whether or not it was worth sharing.  It would be a big risk, a potential disaster if her secret got out.  If all the boys found out she was off the menu, she could kiss the A-List goodbye.

But Valerie had already lived through that. Partly due to her unsettling vendetta against ghosts – but, in large part because of Paulina pushing her aside.  Maybe… if Valerie was willing, now was as good a time as any to start rebuilding their bridge.

“I don’t… I don’t really like boys,” Paulina mumbled.

Valerie blinked.  “Really?  So you’re like–”

“I’m not a lesbian,” Paulina grumbled, though she should’ve expected that.  “I don’t like anyone.  I meant it when I said the ghost boy was the only one I’d had a crush on.”

Valerie was silent for a while.  Too long.  Paulina was used to keeping others waiting, not the other way around.

“You can’t tell anyone, Gray,” she warned when the silence dragged on.  “Or your secret is as good as out.”

“Wha– why would I do that?  It’s none of my business if you like anyone or not.  I was just thinking about how it explained a lot.”

“Really?”  Paulina’s brow furrowed.  “Is it that obvious?”

“No, just – you never really seemed to understand why boys followed you around all the time.  You only talked about boys when someone else brought it up first, or if you wanted something out of them.  And Star and I were usually pretty sure you were lying about who you had crushes on when we were younger.”

“You – wait, you knew?”  Paulina gaped.  All this time, she’d been trying to cover it up, and –

“I didn’t know.  I probably wouldn’t have even guessed, honestly.”  Valerie stretched her legs back out.  “I don’t go sticking my nose into other people’s business.”

“Uh-huh.  Like you didn’t just come in here to bother me?”

“I was just trying to help,” Valerie held up her palms.  “But if you want, I can go now.  I’m still curious how you ended up getting a crush on Phantom considering all that, but that’s up to you if you want to talk or not.  I just want you to know that we don’t have to fight anymore.  I’m tired of holding grudges, especially over something like this.”

Valerie… didn’t care.  Not in a bad way, she just – she wasn’t like the gossipping A-Listers anymore.  It didn’t matter to her who Paulina liked or didn’t like.  It was such a foreign concept to Paulina, finding out a secret and not even considering using it.

“I guess we both have better things to do, huh?”  Paulina smiled sincerely.  “I can’t explain entirely how I ended up crushing on Phantom… I think it’s because I knew he wouldn’t use me for my body, you know?  Since he’s dead and all.  I don’t think ghosts can do that, you know, physically.”  She shrugged.  “I didn’t expect to fall for him so hard.  I… wasn’t really thinking straight.  Especially when I was with you two last night, Val, I’m – sorry.”

“Huh.  So you do have a heart somewhere in there.”  Valerie punched her shoulder lightly.  She wasn’t one to be super sappy; that was enough for Paulina to know she was forgiven.  “We all make mistakes, Paulina.  Trust me on that one.”

“Is that your way of saying you’re sorry too?”

“I guess you could say that.”  She chuckled.  “I think we’ll both be sorry if we don’t haul our butts back to class soon, though.”

“Yeah–”

But before either of them could stand from the closet floor, a translucent figure came flying through the wall.

Phantom?”  Paulina gasped.  Regardless of what she’d said, she couldn’t help her heart speeding up.  He was here, he was back, was he here to see her–?

“Paulina?”  He gaped back, his green eyes lighting up the room.  “Valerie?  What are you two– nevermind, sorry, I’m just gonna find a different closet.”

He was gone as quickly as he’d come, leaving Paulina blinking in confusion.

“Closet?  Why would Phantom be looking for a closet?”  She asked Valerie, who shrugged and dodged her eyes.

“Beats me.  Maybe he needed a mop to clean up some of the damage from the ghost fight, who knows.”

“Huh…”

Paulina followed Valerie’s lead in sneaking back out of the storage closet, forgetting that she hadn’t finished reapplying her make-up.  Whatever, she now had a bigger issue to deal with.

The last thing Valerie had told her had been a blatant lie.

 

Chapter Text

 

By the next week, Paulina was pretty tired of hiding out in storage closets.  No, “hiding” was the wrong word — she was waiting.  Forget the fact that if Valerie discovered her, she wouldn’t hesitate to call Paulina out, despite their slowly regrowing friendship.  

But that was the point.  Why would Valerie care if she hung around in storage closets?  It wasn’t Paulina’s style, for sure, but that wasn’t what Valerie was concerned with.  There was something secret going on, something Val still wouldn’t tell her.  Something to do with these closets... and something to do with the ghost boy.

She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t still interested in him.  That wasn’t why she was doing this, though.  If she could find him again, and talk to him alone… she wanted to apologize.  She should have known better; she shouldn’t have been so insistent.  And then to insult his heroism when he turned her down?  Her face burned in embarrassment at the memory.  If she could just talk to him one more time, maybe she could get over it.

So far her efforts had been in vain, though.  There hadn’t been a ghost attack all week.  She could always wait until the winter formal — there was always some ghost or another at school activities — but for obvious reasons, she wasn’t looking forward to the dance.  Unless Star insisted, she probably wouldn’t go at all.

Except… Valerie had said something about the dance.  About there being a reason she didn’t want to go with Danny.  Something that had to do with Paulina… had Valerie told Danny about the embarrassment between her and Phantom?  But even if that in itself wasn’t a huge risk with Valerie’s secret, what did that have to do with the dance?  

Nothing added up.  Paulina could track which boys had crushes on which girls, who was seeing each other behind their girlfriend or boyfriend’s backs, even predict with near-perfect accuracy when a relationship would end.  With no time wasted on her own relationships anymore, she had plenty of time to keep track of everyone else’s.  Yet she hadn’t seen Valerie and Danny getting back together by a mile.

Paulina couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a connection, though she couldn’t guess what it could be.  Unless Valerie had thought that dating Danny would show Phantom that she really wasn’t interested — but Paulina wasn’t convinced that Valerie wasn’t interested.  Those fleeting glances she’d given Phantom couldn’t be faked so easily.  

She would know.  She’d practiced the art of faking it for years.

She sighed heavily and turned the page of Lancer’s latest assignment — To Kill a Mockingbird.  She’d barely skimmed the words in the light of her phone’s flashlight, but it was better than nothing.  All of this cutting class to wait for Phantom was going to put a dent in her grades, even with Star helping her out after school.  

Speaking of Star… Paulina was grateful for her trust.  She’d asked Paulina what was up, but hadn’t pressed her to tell when she’d glossed over the truth.  She’d tell her soon — besides, Star was way too smart to fool; she’d find out sooner or later.  About everything except Valerie’s secret identity, anyway.

It was going to take all her skills to keep that secret under wraps, Paulina thought as she skimmed another dingy page.  But the few sentences she read barely registered in her mind before her thoughts looped back to Valerie, and Danny, and Phantom.  

Phantom did tend to appear places where Danny had been; she’d noticed that as far back as her quinceanera over two years ago.  She hadn’t been willing to pursue that lead after Danny had somehow gotten the idea that he and her were dating.  That had been some kind of fiasco.

But, that had been right around the time she’d really gotten feelings for Phantom, as if she actually knew him...

She dropped her book, the pages crunching at odd angles as it hit the dirty tile floor.  That strange timing, combined with everything else she’d realized, couldn’t be a coincidence.

It was settled — she had to talk to Danny.  It might be awkward, considering the last time she’d really spoken to him was to “break up” with him.  She hoped he wasn’t as delusional as he’d been then.  Either way, she doubted he would be able to lie as well as Valerie.  And if Valerie had trusted him with anything she knew about Phantom, all the better.

They had fifth period together; Paulina planned to corner Danny there after class.  But five minutes before the bell rang, his hand shot up abruptly.

“Yes, mister Fenton?”  Lancer asked in his usual monotone; after three years of Danny’s excuses, Paulina didn’t know why he even bothered.

“I need to—”

“Just go.”  He sighed.  “Leave your assignment on my desk on your way out.”

“Yessirthankyousomuch,” he said in one breath, nearly knocking over Lancer’s favorite mug as he slapped down his homework and dashed out the door.

Where does he even go?  Paulina wondered.  She doubted she could catch up to him, even if she left now too.  She’d vaguely wondered what Danny did when he cut class — even if he was far down the popularity totem-pole, a mystery like that was always tempting.  If she had ever found out, it might have been a useful secret; she could’ve used it as collateral to make him leave her alone.  But she’d never had enough time to find any concrete answers.  Judging by the worried looks his friends sometimes gave each other after he left, he was probably doing drugs or having a panic attack or something.

But when the ghost alarm went off minutes later, it only added to her suspicions.  There had to be some kind of connection between Danny and Phantom.  She thought back to the other times ghosts had attacked during fifth period; had Danny been here during any of them?  Or was he always off in the bathroom or who-knew where?

She hid under her desk along with everyone else, but inside her thoughts whirled.

Danny was never here for ghost attacks.  Phantom would be out there any minute fighting the ghost of the week. Valerie was going on a date with Danny.  Phantom had just asked Valerie out.

Her eyes widened; suddenly it all seemed so obvious.  Completely impossible, but obvious.

Danny couldn’t be here during ghost attacks if he was the one fighting the ghosts.  And that would explain the deal with the storage closets — Danny would need a safe place to change forms, just like Valerie did.  And Valerie could date both Danny and Phantom because they were the same person.

It sounded like a conspiracy theory, but it made too much sense.  Danny’s parents were crazy about ghosts; maybe they’d turned their son into one for proof.  Or — or something.  That was a chilling train of thought, but Danny was fine, wasn’t he?

And then another thought hit her, a safer thought than the Fentons’ possible filicide.

If Danny and Phantom were the same person, then all this time she’d had a crush on the biggest loser in school.  Did she even want her theory to be right?

The alarms cut off; the blue lights dimmed to be replaced by the usual yellow.  The attack was over.  Which meant, on the thin chance she was right, Phantom could be changing back to Danny at any moment.

“What are you— hey!  Watch it!”  Sam yelled as Paulina shoved past her to run out of the room.

“Miss Sanchez!”  Lancer called, but she didn’t look back.

She didn’t remember to turn in her homework, either.

XXX

“Sorry, brand-new computer lab,” Danny said with a sigh, looking at the trashed remnants of technology surrounding him.  He should’ve seen it coming; a setup like this was too much of a temptation for Technus to resist.  He’d gotten here quickly though, fast enough to destroy the electronics before the electronic-loving ghost could possess them.  Not that Amity would see it that way.  Oh well, what was one more strike against his public record?  He had more important things to worry about.  Like getting all the ghosts back to the ghost zone before his date with Valerie this weekend.

Despite the destruction he’d caused, he smiled as he phased through the wall and flew back towards the closet.  He still couldn’t believe she’d actually said yes.  She didn’t hate him — heck, she might actually still like him.  Sam and Tucker were being supportive too, now that they knew Valerie wouldn’t shoot him on sight. Everything was going better than he could’ve hoped.

So really, he shouldn’t have been surprised when he ran into the person he least wanted to see in the storage closet.

“P-Paulina?”  He sputtered, hovering mere inches from her — it wasn’t like there was room to back up, unless he wanted to dissolve back into the wall.  That didn’t sound like such a bad idea, actually.  There were plenty of other closets that didn’t have crazy girls that used to have crushes on him, even if they were farther away from the classroom where he’d left his backpack.

“Wait, please!”  She called as he turned to flee.  Her hand reached out, but fell back to her side without touching him.  “I just want to talk.”

Paulina?  Saying please?  That had only happened once, when she’d admitted to having a crush on him.  But she didn’t look the same as she had then.  Illuminated by his ghostly aura, she looked… not crushed like she had before, but there was a different weight on her shoulders.  An unfamiliar hesitance in her voice.

“...What are you doing in here?”  His curiosity won out.

“I was, uh, well I was – waiting for you,” she reluctantly admitted.  Warning bells rang in Danny’s mind.

“What made you think I’d come to a smelly old closet?”  Phantom wouldn’t have any reason to, but – crud, he’d seen her in one of the school’s closets before, when she’d been with Valerie.  Of course she’d wait for him here if she hadn’t gotten over herself yet.  But Valerie had sounded so sure that she would stop bothering him.

“Because you need a place to change.  Just like Valerie,” her voice grew more confident.  He looked up and met his eyes.  “Isn’t that right, Danny Fenton?”

He choked.  Stupid; he was in ghost form, he shouldn’t even need to breathe, much less splutter like – like and idiot –

“Hahaha what are you talking about?”  He floated backwards, subconsciously phasing halfway into a shelf.  Cleaning supplies boxed his head in both sides.  “Who’s Danny?”

Who’s Danny?  Really? That’s the best you can come up with?

He didn’t know how he expected Paulina to react.  Smugly flaunt the fact that she’d figured out his secret? Threaten to blackmail him the way she had Valerie?  Force him to date her in exchange for keeping her mouth shut? Tell him how pathetic she thought he was now that she knew he wasn’t just a strong, cool superhero?

She laughed.  Actually laughed — it didn’t sound like her usual forced, mocking laugh, anyway.  He was so much of a joke that she couldn’t hold it in.  He wanted to sink down into the floor.

“Wow.  For someone who’s kept a dark personal secret for so long, you’re a really bad liar.”

His face blushed bright green.  

“I don’t need to lie.  Most people know that you can’t be dead and alive at the same time,” he said, voice sullen. She knew; no lies could sweep that back under the rug.  All he could do now was play damage control.

She shrugged.  “But you are, aren’t you?”

“...More or less,” he admitted.  His eyes shut tightly.  She knew.  How did she know?  This wasn’t like telling Valerie.  At least there’d benefit to Valerie knowing — namely, her not trying to shoot him on sight.  And Valerie couldn’t expose him without exposing herself too.  

But Paulina?  She had absolutely nothing to lose.  His life — and afterlife — might as well have flashed before his eyes.  He was dead.  Deader than dead.

And for some reason all he could think was that the school would now be billing Danny Fenton for those computer lab damages.

“Wow,” she breathed to herself.  “I really did have a crush on the biggest loser in school.” Pause.  “No offense.”

“None taken,” he replied dryly.  Annoying as it was, at least it was predictable.

“That’s… actually what I wanted to talk to you about,” she started cautiously, and he groaned.

“Geez, you still want to date me?  What happened to being a loser, huh?”  Irritation buzzed across his skin, sending his aura flaring.  “Well if you’re planning on blackmailing me to be with you, forget it.  I already played that game once.”  

He crossed his arms as a barrier between them, but she’d already stepped back.

“No, that’s not what I—! You already told me no, what kind of a jerk do you think I am?”

He raised an eyebrow, and his glow illuminated the faintest blush on her tan skin.  It seemed like Valerie’s lessons in turning people (read: pretty/intimidating girls) down had paid off.  He only felt a little bit guilty about it.

“Okay, fair.”  She looked away.  “Look, the only reason I’m here is to say sorry.  The way I talked to you when you turned me down was… messed up, to say the least.  I don’t want to be like that.”

The words hung in the air.  Had Paulina just… apologized? To him?

“That’s… that’s why you wanted to talk to me?”  He blinked.  “You didn’t want to blackmail me with my secret?”

“Weren’t you listening?”  She huffed a little in annoyance before softening again. “Sorry.  I guess you don’t have any reason to believe me.”

“...Yeah, not really,” he admitted, though she really did seem sorry.  Still, he couldn’t rule out the possibility that she was manipulating him somehow.  He’d fallen for that too many times.  Even if Valerie trusted her, she could be wrong.  Val had trusted Vlad before, after all.

“You’re just… taking this a little too well,” he told her.  

She shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I guess it makes it a little easier to get over you now that I know you’re a normal loser, you know?”

He frowned flatly.

“Old habits die hard.”  She sighed, looking like she wanted to roll her eyes.  “You’re not a loser, but you are normal.  You’re not a ghost, anyway.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  He gestured to himself.  “I can walk through walls, disappear and fly, but oh, I’m not good enough for you now that I’m just the loser Fenton, right?”

He didn’t know why he was saying it.  He should’ve just let it drop; it wasn’t like he wanted her attention.  But still, it hurt.  How many other people would feel the same way if they knew he wasn’t just a superhero?  Would Amity turn more hate towards him than it already had?

“That’s— ugh, that’s not what I meant.”  She groaned.  “You’re just like all the other… nevermind, that’s worse.  I’m not used to apologizing, you know.”

“Yeah, well I’m not used to getting my secret spilled either!”  He might as well get used to it, though.  Between Paulina and Valerie, it was only a matter of time before even more people found out.

“Calm down!  I’m not telling anyone who you are!”  She snapped back, fists on her hips.  He rolled his eyes.

“Oh yeah, because I’m supposed to believe that after you’ve done nothing but insult me and make my life suck.”

She blinked, flushing again.  “I guess I should be sorry for that too, shouldn’t I. But in my defense, you shouldn’t have told everyone we were dating when we weren’t!  Do you have any idea how much that made life suck for me?”

“It wasn’t my fault you got possessed by a ghost who wanted to date me to get back at her greasy ex-boyfriend!”

“Well — wait, what?”  The fire burned out of her, leaving only confusion.  He calmed down too, realizing his aura had been glowing a little too brightly.  Plus if he didn’t quiet down, there was a good chance someone would hear them, and then his secret would definitely be out.

“It’s a long story.  And we’ve both already skipped enough class.”

He sighed, floated out of the shelf, and reluctantly transformed.  The rings of light washed over him, taking his aura with them. Left behind was normal loser Danny Fenton.  

“Wow.  Flashy,” Paulina commented dryly.  He still didn’t understand why she’d wanted to apologize, or what she really thought about Fenton and Phantom being the same.  Or how she’d found out in the first place.

“No one else knows, right?”  He asked, sounding more desperate than he would’ve liked.  In the now-darker lighting of the closet, he could barely see her shake her head.  “How did you know?”

She shrugged.  “Phantom asked out Valerie, and the suddenly she’s going out with Fenton.  It wasn’t that hard.”

...There were about a hundred leaps of logic that would’ve made more sense than Danny and Phantom being the same person, but somehow she’d jumped to the right improbable conclusion anyway.  Just his luck.  If he’d known her evidence was that tenuous, he might’ve been able to lie a little better.  Her confidence had drawn the truth out of him more than anything else.

“And you swear you won’t tell anyone?”  His eyes instinctively flashed green, even though he knew he couldn’t intimidate her.  

She made an X over her heart.  “I know how to keep a secret, Danny.  I’m sure you’ve got your reasons.”

It surprised him that she didn’t demand to know what those reasons were.  It surprised him that she agreed at all.  But even if she hadn’t, there would be nothing he could do about it.

“In that case… thanks.”  He gave her a small smile.  She gave him one in return, one that months ago (okay, maybe even days ago) would have melted him on the spot.  It was good to know that he really was over that dumb crush.

“No problem.  It wouldn’t exactly make me look good if everyone knew I had a crush on… well, you know.”  She shrugged.  “I can’t really call you a loser anymore, can I.”

At this point, it would almost feel weird if she didn’t.  He didn’t want special treatment just because he was Phantom.  That would put his secret in more danger than anything else.

“Forget it.  Just pretend this whole thing never happened.”

But he watched her face as they finally snuck out of the closet, and he had a feeling she was going to be doing an awful lot of remembering.

 

Chapter Text

 

“How do I look?”  Paulina turned a full 360, displaying her sparkling pink dress for Valerie.

“It suits you much better than the green, that’s for sure.”  The other girl snorted.  She was sporting a layered dress in a light teal that brought out her eyes.  “What’s it matter?  You’re not trying to impress anyone, are you?”

“No.  I’m not.”  Paulina smiled, turning back to the mirror to put the finishing touches on her mascara.

She wasn’t trying to impress anyone.  This was all for herself.

It felt good, knowing that.

“But you are,” she teased back at Valerie, who was fiddling with her bracelets.  The orange bangles clashed terribly, but Paulina hadn’t been able to convince her to ditch them.

“Shut up, Paulina,” she grumbled, but the smile ruined it.

“He’ll think you’re gorgeous no matter what,” Paulina said.  “You know he’s head over heels for you.”

Valerie quirked an eyebrow.  “This isn’t even a date.  He’s going with his friends and I’m going with you, remember?  Or did you plan on ditching me?”

“Uh-huh.  We’ll see who ditches who when we get there.”  

She said it as a joke, but Valerie must have been able to feel some of the truth there, because she stepped up and squeezed Paulina’s arm.

“I’m not ditching you, Paulina.  I’m glad you’re coming.”

In the end, it had been Valerie who’d convinced her.  Star was already going with some member of the basketball team, and Paulina hadn’t wanted to third wheel.  Valerie on the other hand—since Danny already promised to go to the dance with his friends—had the night free.  As indifferent as Paulina was towards boys, Val knew that she liked dancing to the fast music and soaking in the atmosphere, catching snippets of gossip and eating more desserts than her parents would approve of.  

It was going to be fun.  Valerie wouldn’t ditch her (on purpose, at least—if ghosts showed up, it would be a different story).  Paulina wouldn’t have to pretend to laugh at any guy’s stupid jokes.  Her reputation could handle one dateless dance—and if it couldn’t, well, maybe she didn’t have the school twisted around her finger after all.  

Maybe that didn’t matter.

Either way, they were going to have so much fun, Paulina would forget all about her embarrassing crush on Phantom—Danny—and she could finally just… breathe.

She didn’t need a romantic date to have fun.  That felt good to finally realize, too.

“Come on, Paulina, do you really need that much makeup?  We’re going to be late.”

“I’m never late, Val.”  She grinned, and her reflection beamed back at her.  “The party doesn’t start until we get there.”

XXX

“Dude, relax.”  Tucker clamped a hand on Danny’s shoulder, nearly startling him into his ghost form.

“What?  I’m relaxed.  I’m perfectly relaxed, no stress here.”  He forced a laugh and tugged at the noose of his tie.  The air was thick and humid with the breath of way too many high schoolers, and the bright flashing lights looked all too much like ectoblasts out of the corners of his eyes.

Okay, so he wasn’t relaxed at all.  But he didn’t expect to be, even after his and Valerie’s date-slash-ghost-roundup last night.  Some ghost might still manage to break out of the Zone to feed on hormonal teenage emotions, like they always did.  It was a miracle Caspar High hadn’t banned dances altogether, though they had started scaling them down, holding the events in the school gym rather than renting a venue.  Teachers manned each of the four double-doored exits (for moral support, Danny guessed, since ghosts didn’t need to use doors).  

Principal Ishiyama had even hired his parents for extra security.  As much as Danny hated the embarrassment—and the thought of them interfering if he had to go ghost—they could handle any smaller specters that might have evaded his and Val’s patrol.  He should be able to relax, at least a little bit.

But it wasn’t just his parents or ghosts that had him on edge.  His real worry could come sashaying through the doors at any moment.

“Danny, you don’t have to stay.” Sam squeezed his other arm, and held there by both of his friends, he felt grounded.  Safe.  “I know we always come to protect the dances from the inside, but we could let your parents take this one.”

He could.  It was an option—not a very good one, though, if any real threats showed up.

“Or we could chill outside until your ghost sense goes off,” Tucker suggested.  “I brought my DS.  You can help me get past Cyrus in Pearl.  His Weavile keeps knocking out my Torterra.”

Danny snorted; there was no way Tucker ever needed help with a video game, but the offer still brought a small smile to Danny’s face.  As long as he had his friends by his side, he could handle a little bit of stress.  

“Thanks, guys, but we can stay.  Really.”  He tried to loosen the tension in his shoulders, let go of the grip he kept on his core.  Transforming just because he got startled would make a bigger mess of things than even Paulina could.  “Besides, Val and I hauled like, twenty ghosts back to the Zone last night.  This is the first time we might be able to have a whole dance that doesn’t go up in flames.”

Sam and Tucker shared a knowing look.  Their “time to stop Danny from covering his emotions with jokes” look.

“Look, Danny…” Tucker began with an aimless gesture before Sam picked up.

“It’s not just ghosts you’re worried about, is it?”

Danny sighed.  Even when he wasn’t invisible, his friends could always see right through him.

“Fine. I’m still worried about Paulina.”  This time he didn’t try to hide how he scanned each entrance to the packed gym.  There was no way he’d be able to tell if Paulina showed up or not with all these people.  Or maybe he would know—the girl wasn’t usually subtle.  

Especially if she did have any plans on revealing his secret.

Sure, she’d said she wouldn’t, but this was Paulina he was talking about.  The girl had made him believe she liked him just to get under Sam’s skin before.  Danny liked to think he was less gullible now, but her lies were still so convincing, there was no way to be sure.

“Can’t blame you there.” Tucker shrugged. “But we’ve planned as much as we can.  If she tries telling anyone, it’s going to be her word against yours.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Danny mumbled.  

“Unless you can master duplication in both human and ghost mode tonight,” Tucker offered, as if that was easier than out-maneuvering Paulina.  ...Maybe it would be.  Too bad he didn’t have time to practice.

“Or unless you want us to rough her up a bit before she can spill anything.”  Sam punched a fist into her palm and grinned.

“Thanks for the offer, but no.”  He could barely hear himself over the blaring music, which had just switched to something with an even heavier bass.  He was surprised Lancer had allowed it.  Maybe it would be loud enough to cover up anything Paulina planned to say… yeah, that was a long shot.  “We can’t do anything about her.  That would just make me look more suspicious.  I think we’ll just have to ride it out and pretend she’s crazy.”

Sam snorted.  “Won’t take much effort there.”

The whole situation was still weird, though.  Paulina hadn’t tried to out him so far.  She’d kept her promise.  She hadn’t blackmailed him.  If anything had changed, it was that she no longer went out of her way to publicly humiliate him.  But she didn’t try to save him from Dash, or otherwise give any indication that she cared about him.  Of course she wouldn’t.  He was normal loser, Danny Fenton.  

Maybe he was overreacting, and she never would tell his secret, if only for her own selfish reasons… but on the other hand, she could just be biding her time.  He’d turned down her request to be her date to the dance, and no one turned down Paulina, ever.  If she wanted to get revenge, tonight would be the most fitting time to do it.

“Well if we’re not beating anyone up, I suggest we take a look at everyone dancing up there.”  Tucker pointed to the platform set up near the front of the gym.  “There’s bound to be some good blackmail material going on.”

Sam rolled her eyes.  “And what are you going to do with it?  Blackmail someone into dating you?”

He grinned his special just-trying-to-get-on-Sam’s-nerves grin.  “You think that would work?”

She pulled his ever-present beret down over his eyes, and Danny laughed.  Or at least, he started to.  

It choked off when he saw Paulina walk through the wide doors.

Her pink dress sparkled under the bright strobe lights, but to his credit his first instinct was to phase into the floor rather than letting the sight of her rekindle his stupid crush.  He didn’t go intangible, though, because he noticed who walked up and looped her arm through Paulina’s.

Valerie.

If Paulina was sparkling, Valerie was… wow.  He’d never seen her dressed up before; their few dates had been more casual than something like the Winter Formal.  Her layered teal dress wasn’t too tight—Val wouldn’t sacrifice mobility for fashion when she might have to fight tonight—but way it swayed as she strode in still made his mouth go dry.

“Danny?  Earth to Danny.”  Sam waved a hand in front of his face before realizing who he was staring at.  “Oh.”

“Is that a oh-crap-I’m-screwed stare or a wow-my-girlfriend’s-hot kind of stare?”  Tucker asked, rubbing his glasses uselessly against the inner lining of his tux.

“Definitely a wow-my-girlfriend’s-hot,” Sam noted before taking Tucker’s glasses and cleaning them against the softer fabric of her black dress.

Danny shook his head.  “Val’s not my girlfriend.”

Yet.”  Tucker took his glasses back and elbowed him.

“Shut up, Tucker,” Sam said in a resigned voice.  

Danny swallowed.  Sam had taken everything between him and Valerie really well, considering how recent their own breakup had been.  He didn’t want to push it by shoving his feelings for Val in Sam’s face.

“Hey look, I think Lancer’s trying to nae nae,” he said quickly, dragging both of his friends off to the opposite side of the gym.  Feelings for Valerie aside, he wanted to keep as much distance from Paulina as possible.

But what are they doing here—together?  Sure, Valerie had said she was getting along better with Paulina now, but coming to the dance?  Maybe she really did trust Paulina.  Maybe Danny didn’t have anything to worry about.

And if not, at least Val would be keeping an eye on her.  That was enough to help Danny relax a little.

XXX

For all the reservations she’d had about inviting Paulina to the dance, Valerie was having a surprisingly good time.  Dancing recklessly under the cheap neon lights, laughing at the uncoordinated (or buzzed) couples, stuffing their faces with sugary snacks—Valerie could almost relax.  Paulina’s good mood was contagious, and it was hard to worry about ghosts while her friend chattered about the rise and fall of popular dance moves. Of course, normally no distractions would get in the way of ghost hunting, but Valerie had another reason to relax.

She met Danny’s eyes across the gym floor, and he gave a quick grin-wave before running after Sam and Tucker (and almost tripping over his too-big dress shoes in the process). She snorted and shook her head; it was still crazy that her dorky friend had been the one terrorizing (protecting) the town for so long. But it meant she was no longer in the ghost-hunting business alone. Someone had her back—and she had his.

“So how long do you think we have?”  Paulina asked unexpectedly in the almost-silence between two upbeat songs.

“Before some ghost comes in and wrecks the place?” Valerie guessed. Even if she weren’t the Red Huntress, it would’ve been a reasonable question.  

Valerie checked her phone and saw that it was already nine thirty-three.  The dance officially ended at ten-thirty, which Principal Ishiyama thought might be early enough to avoid the ghosts, but several clumps of students were already leaving. There were always some who didn’t feel like taking their chances.  

Of course, that was the reason Valerie had to stay.

“There’s only an hour left.  Could be any time, really.”  She shrugged.

“And you’re not worried about it?”  Paulina raised an eyebrow.

“What, you think I should be?” 

She and Danny could kick any ghost’s butt any day of the week.  Ghosts should be more worried about them.

“No, it’s just not like you.  Even before I knew you were… you know. Hating ghosts was just your thing.”

Valerie sighed.  It wasn’t like she could argue with that.  

“He promised me yesterday that he’d find me if any ghosts showed up,” she said as quietly as she could while still being heard over the pounding music. Paulina would know who he was; it was best to avoid connecting Danny with ghosts in public. “He has a way of sensing them before they appear.”

“Huh.  That explains a lot.”  She tapped her chin before glancing back and forth and leaning in closer.  “I can’t believe no one else has found out about his secret.  I mean, now that I know, it seems so obvious.  And he’s such a bad liar.”

“He can’t be that bad,” she defended Danny on principle, even though Paulina had a point. “He kept it secret for two years. And he would’ve kept it longer if you hadn’t been so nosy.”

Paulina had the decency to blush at that.  “You found out before I did.”

Valerie opened her mouth to argue, but realized she was right.  Granted, Valerie was one of only four people who knew about the existence of halfas.  No one else should be able to make the connection… unless they were willing to consider what should be impossible.  

Unless there were more people like Paulina, who was willing to trust her own evidence and suspicions more than what should be.

“Alright, you have a point,” she admitted.  “But there’s nothing else we can do but be quiet about it.”

Paulina paused before offering,  “I could give him lessons in lying.”

Valerie’s eyes narrowed.  Paulina was an expert on lying—which was why even if they’d had a good time tonight, Valerie was reluctant to trust her around Danny.  Half of the reason Valerie had invited her here was to take her mind off her crush.

“You said you wouldn’t bother him anymore,” she said carefully.

“I won’t!”  Paulina’s arms went up in an uncharacteristic show of harmlessness.  “If he doesn’t want anything to do with me, fine.  I just thought I’d offer.  Even if he’s not who I thought he was, I still… I still care.”

The raw admission softened Valerie’s expression.  She put a hand on her friend’s shoulder.

“No one’s asking you not to care.  But it would still be better if you cared from a respectful distance.”

Paulina crossed her arms, but a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.  “Alright, fine.  You don’t have to be rude about it.”

Valerie grinned back.  She was about to drag her Paulina back onto the dance floor when the speakers suddenly flooded with static.  Kids covered their ears, grimacing against the sharp crackling sounds.  

Right before the blue emergency lights kicked in, an invisible hand squeezed her arm.  She caught the faint flash of a disembodied grin in the corner of her eye.

Little late on the warning, Danny.

“CHILDREN OF AMITY PARK!  I AM TECHNUS, MASTER OF ELECTRONICS AND SICK BEATS!  PREPARE TO BE—”

“That’s my cue,” she told Paulina, tuning out the ghost’s redundant monologue.  “Get out of here, I’ll call you when we’re done.”

She was already looking for a secluded place to tear off her outer layer of her dress and summon her suit—under the snack table could work—when Paulina grabbed her arm.  Thankfully the one Danny wasn’t holding.

“Be careful, okay?”  She said over the sound of the rising screams and grating dubstep.  

Valerie smiled.  “I always am.”

XXX

Danny had just thrown Technus back in the Zone earlier this week.  Hadn’t the computer lab incident been enough to wear him out for a while?  He wasn’t like the Box Ghost—okay, maybe he was just as ridiculously persistent, but he still didn’t usually bounce back this fast.

Maybe he was weaker from coming back so soon, though, because he didn’t make some kind of electronic Frankenstein this time.  Danny almost wished he did.  Instead, the ghost was ready to kill him with his horrible taste in music alone.  

“DISCORD, I’M HOWLING AT THE MOON—”

“Geez, he’s making me miss Ember,” Danny called over the remix.  Valerie nodded in agreement, though he couldn’t make out much of her expression through her suit.  Neon lights flashed off her visor—literally, Technus had hijacked the strobe lights to shoot lasers—and she somersaulted backwards in midair before righting her board. 

“Less complaining, more attacking!”  Her bazooka took out one of the speakers, and the earsplitting music glitched.

“Hey, I was enjoying that song!”  Tucker complained from below.  He was trying to break Technus’s hold on the sound system; meanwhile Sam was helping with the evacuation.  Danny wondered where his parents were.  Better for everyone that they stayed out right now; there was no telling what they’d think of Phantom and the Red Huntress working together.  Hopefully Sam could stall them if they tried to get in.

EVERY TIME WE TOUCH, I GET THIS FEELING, AND EVERY TIME WE KISS I SWEAR I COULD FLY—”

An off-key belt joined the music.  “Can you feel my heart beat fast, I want this to laaast—!

“Tucker!”  Danny called in frustration and barely dodged a laser before it could clip his tail.  A quick ectoblast exploded the strobe light that had shot it.  “Could we focus here?”

“I’m sorry!  You know I can’t resist the nightcore remixes!”

Danny would’ve smacked his face, but Technus’s shots were doing a good enough job of it already.  It took all his concentration to dodge and try to shoot back.

“AHAHAH!  MY GENIUS PLAN IS WORKING!  I HAVE FOUND THE TECHNO GEEK’S WEAKNESS!”

“Then I guess we’re gonna have to handle this the old-fashioned way,” Valerie said, taking aim at each of the giant speakers in turn.  

Unfortunately, as soon as each speaker was destroyed, their metallic remnants crackled with electricity and reformed taller, wider, and louder than ever.  The music shuffled at each shot, too.

“OCEAN MAN, TAKE ME BY THE HAND—”

“NEVER GONNA GIVE YOU UP, NEVER GONNA LET YOU DOWN—”

“someBODY ONCE TOLD ME—”

What had Technus done, hacked directly into Tucker’s PDA playlist? ...Actually, that would make a lot of sense.

“Val, stop!  We can’t keep blowing the speakers!”

She hissed.  “Then what are we supposed to do, genius?”

“YOU CAN GIVE IN TO THE AWESOMENESS OF MY GROOVING BEATS!”  Technus’s face flashed on the projector screen that lowered over the gym wall.  He grinned, and the music cut to… was that Darude Sandstorm?

“That’s it.”  Danny shot an ectoblast through the projector screen.  Technus’s image just shone through the smoking hole onto the back wall, and his laugh still echoed above the annoying electronic “music.”

“We’ve got to draw him out somehow,” Valerie said, dodging and weaving through another shower of laser beams.  The gym floor caught the brunt of the scorch marks, but a few still seared her suit.  

The suit that Technus had given her.

Danny really considered the implications of that before now.  As it was, he barely had time to gape as blue and white numbers flashed over Valerie’s visor.

Her scream cut through the music.

“Val!”  He called out, flying towards her.  He had to get her out of that suit; who knew what Technus could do to her from in there?

Her body stiffened.  Her grip adjusted on her ectogun.

“Danny, I can’t—I’m not—RUN!”

And then she shot him.

XXX

“Danny!”

It was some sick sort of irony.  Just when she’d finally stopped hunting Danny Phantom, she ended up hurting him anyway.

He crashed and skidded halfway across the gym floor.  His white hair hung limply over his eyes; purple static crackled around him.  What had Technus done to her blaster?  Her shots had never packed that much of a punch before.

“Ah, but you see, distracting the Techno Geek wasn’t the only part of my plan.” Technus’s disembodied voice was several decibels lower than before.  Which also meant it was hard to pick out over the Wii Shop Channel remix that was now playing, but considering she still couldn’t move, trying to listen was the only useful thing she could do.  

Technus’s rambling would give her a clue.  It always did.

“I heard that you and the ghost child started working together.  Skulker didn’t believe me.”  Technus laughed.  “He owes me an upgrade now!”

Valerie’s eyes scanned as much as she could from her frozen position, but it wasn’t much.  Technus still hadn’t come out of the speakers.  Tucker was still tapping away at his PDA and throwing worried glances at Danny every few seconds.  If Technus was busy monologuing though, it meant he wasn’t paying attention to either of the boys.

“I’m not working with Phantom,” she lied.  “We just both hate you.”

Technus’s tacky laugh sounded again.  “You can’t fool me, child!  Your emotions will be the death of you—literally!”

Her gun began charging again.  Her eyes widened—it was still pointing at Danny.

“Danny!  Get up!” 

Technus laughed.  Danny barely stirred.  

“Sayonara, ghost child!”

Valerie threw all her force into jerking her arm sideways.  The suit—and the gun in her hands—barely budged.  But it was enough to throw off the shot.  Instead of hitting Danny in the chest, it clipped the side of his hip.

He cried out.  Even though it wasn’t a direct hit, a shock like that would hurt.  

Apparently, it hurt enough to trigger his transformation.  The rings of white light split around him, leaving behind the black-haired Danny Fenton.  

Just Danny, a boy who wouldn’t be able to weather another hit from her ectogun.  This fight had officially gone from standard procedure to not great to potentially fatal.

“Hang on, Danny!”  Tucker screamed.  His fingers flew furiously over his PDA.  Valerie had never realized how much he helped Danny in ghost fights, but right now he seemed like their best hope.  If she couldn’t get out of this cursed suit, she wasn’t going to be any help at all.  She struggled to command the suit to power down, but it had disconnected from her mental commands, and her fingers wouldn’t release the gun so should pry the metal from her body.  She had been stupid to trust a suit made by ghosts, even if it had never let her down before.  Now she would have to watch uselessly while that idiot ghost blasted apart her friend, the boy she’d promised not to hurt, the boy she liked even more than she’d realized—

But her gun didn’t fire.  Technus wailed a loud “NOOOO!” as Tucker finally exorcised him from the sound system.  He came out in a shock of green sparks and glitched into his mulleted form.  The speakers finally blessed them with silence. 

“PUNY BUT TECHNOLOGICALLY COMPETENT CHILD!  YOU CAN’T—”

“Shut up, loser!”  Valerie called, regaining control of her suit.  She swung her blaster on Technus, who dodged out of the way right before her shot hit.  She cursed under her breath.  “Stay still so I can shoot you!”

Danny groaned from below, distracting her for a moment.  He rolled onto his hands and knees.

“We… really gotta work… on your banter.”

She wanted to laugh in relief—he was moving, he was going to be okaybut now wasn’t the time. She was already pulling a tight turn on her board and firing from the blasters affixed to its bottom.

“Stay down, Danny.  I’ll handle this freak!”

“Not if he hacks into your suit again,” he said, slowly pushing himself to his feet.  “Don’t worry about me.  I can… handle worse than this.”

“This is cute and all, but can we get some love for Tucker over here?  You know, the one who got Technus out in the first place?”

“Thanks, Tuck,” Danny added before transforming again.  

Technus was already trying to infiltrate the intercom, which would allow him to escape out a different wing of the school.  There was no time to waste.

Valerie fired from her board at the same time Danny launched an ectoblast.  With their combined power, Technus slammed into the gym wall.

“Nngh… using my own technology against me… very ungrateful, girl.”

By the time he righted himself, Valerie had already uncapped her Fenton Thermos.

“Save it for someone who cares.”

Technus swirled into the thermos, shouting the whole time.  It was a relief to cap the ghost-containing device and rest her eardrums.  More importantly, it was a relief that Danny hadn’t been hurt… too badly.

She disengaged her suit, leaving her in black leggings and the top half of her dress.  The clothes might be tattered, but it was better than staying trapped inside Technus’s gift.  Her suit was a problem she would have to solve later, though.  

For now she ran to Danny and threw her arms around him.  The force of her hug sent him floating back and her stumbling farther forward.

“Woah!  Uh, Val—I’m still kinda—you’re kinda crushing me...”  

She cursed and let go, and he floated back down to the floor.  His hand covered his side, but his palm wasn’t wide enough to obscure the charred mess of his jumpsuit.  The incorporeal flesh below was congealed with half-dried ectoplasm.  Another stream of curses escaped her mouth at the sight.

“I am so sorry Danny—are you—how do you fix that?”

It was a stupid question.  You couldn’t just fix injuries like that—but as she watched, the stretchy fabric of his suit slowly reknit over the wound.  

“You ever…” Danny grimaced, “watch X-Men?”

“What—what does that have to do with anything?”

“Healing factor,” he grunted.  That would explain a lot—there was no way Danny could have survived going to school when his daily life involved injuries like this.  There was no way he could’ve kept his secret, either.  What would happen to the wound when he transformed back?  Would his human form be able to handle it too, or did he have to stay a ghost until he got better?

She steadied him with an arm under his shoulders.  “Take it easy, Wolverine.  You just got shot.”

“Yeah.  Wasn’t expecting that one.”  His grimaced softened to an almost-grin, but she just closed her eyes and turned her face away.  

I would never hurt you, she’d said.  Yet one wrong move, and she’d become Technus’s own personal weapon.

“Val, I—you know it’s not your fault, right?”

His hand was on her face.  The cold of his glove shocked open her eyes.  Her arm was still holding him upright; she was suddenly aware of how close they were.  

“You did everything you could,” he said quietly.  “Beside, I’m going to be fine.  Please don’t blame yourself.  I know how that feels.”

He would know, being one of the town’s primary protectors.  He got it.  She hadn’t thought anyone else could understand the stress of keeping everyone safe—but he did.

Maybe it was that realization.  Maybe it was the warm glow of his green eyes, so different from his normal human ones, but with the same softness.  Maybe it was just reckless relief and adrenaline reacting in her veins.

Whatever excuse she wanted to use, her movement to bring her lips towards his was entirely her own.

“Get away from her, ectoplasmic scum!”  

Their heads jerked apart so fast her neck popped.  Her lips had only brushed his for half a second—but that was long enough for Madeline Fenton to see. 

And now she—Danny’s mom—was pointing an ectogun at them.  Jack Fenton filled the doorway beside her, almost eclipsing Sam and Paulina standing behind.

“Mrs. Fenton, please—” Sam was waving her arms, trying to get in front of her.  

Valerie was glad for the momentary distraction, since her own reflexes were painfully slow right now.  She had to get Danny out of here; he couldn’t fight his own parents!  But he couldn’t change back in front of them either.

Sam wasn’t the only one running interference; Paulina also tried to get Jack’s attention.  “Mr. Fenton, this is school property, you can’t just shoot—”  

“Eat plasma, ghost!”  Jack brushed Paulina aside and fired his bazooka.  

“Mr. Fenton, no!”  Valerie instinctively moved to shield Danny, but she wasn’t wearing her suit.  A blast from a Fenton Bazooka would hurt like hell—if she could even withstand it; she didn’t have a healing factor like Danny— 

But no pain came.  Instead a tingling cold overtook her, and everything went dark.  Were they—falling?  

What the—!

Gradually light bled back into her vision.  The blue glow of the ecto-powered lights illuminated… boxes of meat?

They also illuminated Danny still clinging to her, drifting them both gently to the ground.

“Sorry about that…” He groaned and held his side again.  The intangibility must have taken too much effort, healing factor or not.  “Tell Ishiyama never to hire my parents again.”

“Noted.”  Her dry voice shook, and not just from the shiver of standing in a meat freezer.

The Fentons really would shoot their own son.  It was no wonder Danny didn’t want his secret to get out.  Maybe their minds would change if they knew Phantom’s identity, but if not… well, she could see why Danny wouldn’t take that risk.

“Are you going to be okay?”  She asked.  Her breath puffed in the cold air.  “We should get you out before they track us down.”

Danny just grinned.  The rings of light split around him.  Where they touched Valerie, they felt even colder than the already-freezing air.  After they passed, Danny Fenton’s warmth bloomed beside her.

Fenton, Phantom.  It was almost funny to think that she’d once separated them.  Even if his Phantom persona still seemed more cocky and invincible, they were both the same dork she was fond of.

But Danny’s parents didn’t know that—and to them, she’d almost kissed Danny Phantom.  

“Val?  Are you okay?  Crap, I’m not still bleeding, am I?  The transformation usually holds that off...”  He glanced down at his tux, which was clean save for a small soda stain on the tie.  “Okay, I’m fine—did something else happen to you?”

She forced herself to breathe normally, if only so she didn’t freak him out.  “I just realized your parents saw...”

Danny just grinned cheekily.  “What did they see, exactly?”

She blushed but rolled her eyes.  If he could hide behind comfortable banter, so would she.  

“Wouldn’t you like to know, Ghost Boy.”

His grin faltered.  “I guess a meat freezer isn’t the most romantic place to continue… that.  Unless you were Tucker.”

She snorted in spite of herself.  “It’s not just about—look, Danny.  Look what I did to you.”  She gestured down at his side.  Which was—well it looked fine now, completely covered by his tux.  She could  tell from the way he held himself that it still hurt, though.  She was used to hiding bruises too, even if her suit kept her from suffering worse injuries.

“You talking about that stain?  Pretty sure Sam spilled Dr. Pepper there once,” he joked.  Why couldn’t he take this seriously?

Or maybe he just didn’t want her to worry.  Well, that wasn’t going to cut it.  She’d seen too many of his fights—caused too many of his injuries—not to worry.

“You know what I’m talking about!  What if Technus uses me again?”  

Whether or not it was her fault, she was still dangerous.  She’d broken up with Danny before to protect him—she could do it again.  

Even if it would be harder this time...

Danny stepped forward and laced his fingers with hers.  The warm touch was comforting, though she resisted the urge to relax.

“Tucker can fix that.  Trust me, he’s Technus-proofed all the electronics we own.  He’s an expert.”  

It was hard to believe Tucker was an expert at anything, but she’d seen his work tonight.  Maybe his skills at school only suffered because he spent so much time helping Danny with things like this.  Still, doubt picked at her.

“I just don’t want you to get hurt because of me,” she murmured.  

Danny was about to reply when the ghost lights winked out—they must have used up the ambient energy they’d absorbed from his Phantom form earlier. Since they were in a freezer in the basement, of all places, no normal yellow lights took their place.  All was dark until Danny conjured a glowing green orb in his free palm.  She hadn’t known he could do that in his human form.

“You can’t stop me from getting hurt, Val.  This,” he flared the ghostly energy a little, “means that I’ll always be a target.  Whether it’s from you, or my parents, or ghosts like Technus—I can handle it.  And I’d rather…”

He swallowed, but he met her eyes as he finished in a shy voice.

“I’d rather handle it with you than without you.”

It was impossible to fight a smile at his words. The combination of his dark hair and blue eyes reflecting the flickering green light… it reminded her that Danny was both: a kid and a ghost. A boy and a hero. Someone she wanted to protect, and someone who had spent years protecting himself. 

He would handle it, with or without her. He already had.

“I haven’t been giving you enough credit, Danny,” she finally said. “You can charm your way out of a paper bag.”

He cracked a grin, one that looked more like it belonged on his Phantom half in the pale green light. “Told ya.” 

“And I…” She looked away. It was just Danny; she knew she didn’t have to be nervous. But talking about feelings still didn’t come easy to her. “I’d like that too. Handling things with you.”

His face softened, his eyes glowing more from joy than from the ghostly light.

“So you’ll be the person I fight ghosts with?”

She bit her lip to hold in a laugh. “Is that what they’re calling girlfriends these days?”

“In my family, yeah.”  He moved to ruffle his hair, only to remember that he was holding their light.  And that ghostly energy probably wouldn’t mix well with human hair. “So, uh… is that a yes?  Because I really like you, uh, not just because I want to fight ghosts with you, I mean—”

As fun as his embarrassed stuttering was to watch, she figured he’d suffered enough today.

Yes, I’ll be your girlfriend,” she interrupted with a laugh.  

The ghostly light in his hand glowed as bright as his smile— 

Then flickered out when she leaned her weight onto the balls of her feet, pulled his face towards hers, and finished what they’d started.

XXX

“Hey, Danny! You in here?”

“Do you really think they’d be in a meat freezer?” Paulina shivered and glared at Tucker, who shrugged.

“Don’t doubt the allure of a secret stockpile of meat.  Even if, y’know, ghosts can’t eat it and all—”

“It doesn’t matter.  We’re checking the entire school until we find my son.” Mrs. Fenton brushed the two teenagers aside and stepped into the freezer.  The metal door shut behind the three of them with a solid thud.

Paulina’s phone flashlight was a pinprick compared to the practical streetlamp strapped to Mrs. Fenton’s gun. The difference only reminded her how out of her element she was.  But she couldn’t have stayed back—she had to watch out for Valerie.  Not because she worried about “Phantom” hurting her, but because she had no idea how Mrs. Fenton would react when she found them. 

She and her husband had seen Valerie almost kiss Phantom. Mr. Fenton had ranted about “that girl breaking his son’s heart” right before storming off to “tear that ghost apart molecule by molecule.” Sam had followed him to provide damage control, while Paulina and Tucker had taken Mrs. Fenton. It was clear that Danny’s two friends knew the truth—while his parents didn’t.  Each threat on Phantom’s afterlife only told Paulina how important keeping Danny’s secret was.

Tucker had already told the Fentons that Phantom had kidnapped Danny before taking Valerie. It wasn’t a half-bad story. Paulina could only hope that whenever and wherever they found the two of them, everyone would be able to sell the lie.

So even though Tucker glared at her like she was a particularly persistent stain, she kept following them.  If anyone knew about selling lies, it was her.

“Danny! Danny, sweetie, are you in here?” His mom called.  

“I hope not,” Paulina shivered, and clouds of mist puffed out of her mouth with each word.  Ugh, this place was so cold; the long gloves of her dress were too thin to protect her from it.  They didn’t really have to search such a ridiculous place, did they?

But she heard something from deeper in the freezer. The muffled but familiar sounds made her wince—so Danny and Valerie probably were here, after all.  Not that the two would notice his mom coming, since it sounded like they were… preoccupied.

“Mrs. Fenton, maybe we should check somewhere else. They would have heard us by now if they were here.” She raised her voice enough that it echoed in the spacious maze of meat.  Hopefully, Valerie would hear her, and she would stop making out with her old crush before his mom noticed them.

“Stay back, honey.  I hear something up ahead.” The woman deftly steered Paulina out of her way and disappeared around a corner of tall shelves. Paulina was pretty sure she hadn’t even processed her words.

“But—”

“There’s no stopping her when she gets like this,” Tucker said with another distrustful glance in Paulina’s direction.  “I’ll have to play damage control whenever we find out what Danny’s gotten into this time.”

“You?”  Paulina whispered, trying to skirt around him.  “I’m here too, you know.  I can help.”

At least she could, if he would get out of her way.  At this rate, Mrs. Fenton was going to see Danny and Valerie before Paulina could warn them.

“No offense, but I don’t trust you.”  Tucker adjusted his glasses, which glinted in the light of his own phone’s flashlight.  “You’ve hurt Danny too many times already.”

“I’m not proud of that.”  It felt wrong, admitting that to this nerd, but this whole week had taught her how to swallow her pride. “But that’s why I’m here.  You know I can lie.  I can help you keep Danny’s… you know.”

Tucker’s eyes narrowed, as if he could squint through the useless lighting and search for the truth in her words.  Whatever, it didn’t matter if he believed her.  She was here, and she was going to help in whatever way she could.

Except he’d stalled her for too long now.

Two startled shouts echoed from farther back in the freezer.  At least Paulina didn’t hear the sound of an ectogun firing—Danny must not be in his Phantom form then—but she did hear the start of Mrs. Fenton’s lecture.

“Daniel James Fenton!  What are you doing down here?  Under other circumstances I’d be happy to see you with a girl—

“Mom!”

“—But did you have any idea how worried we were?”

Paulina and Tucker dashed around the corner in time to see Danny’s mom scoop him into a crushing hug.

“Mom.  Mom.  Owww seriously I’m fine—”

“How did you find him?”  She suddenly released Danny to turn on Valerie, who went wide-eyed in the face of her gun.  Granted, the gun was mainly serving as a mount for the flashlight, but Paulina imagined staring down a barrel would be terrifying regardless.

“Get that out of my face first,” Valerie said, not one to be intimidated.  Or at least, not one to show it.

She pushed herself between Valerie and Mrs. Fenton before either could say something they would regret.

“Didn’t you see?  Phantom kidnapped Danny, and then he took Valerie, too.  It makes sense that he put them both in the same place,” Paulina said in a calm voice.

“Yeah,” Tucker added with a nod.  Paulina hadn’t expected him to go along after his comments earlier, but even he must have realized that she was best equipped to help in this situation.

Mrs. Fenton’s goggles flashed when she shouldered her flashlight-slash-gun.  “Then where’s Phantom now?”

Danny’s adams apple bobbed as he swallowed.  “I don’t know.  He just—”

Paulina wished she could slap a hand over his mouth.  Not knowing wasn’t a good enough excuse, not when there was no real reason for “Phantom” to leave Danny and Val alone together.

“He can’t be here now, Mrs. Fenton”  Paulina interrupted.  “The ghost lights are off.”

But why would he leave?  Think, make it convincing...

“Right… but he could still be hiding somewhere nearby.”  She scanned the surrounding boxes of steak and hamburger, as if Phantom would pop out at any moment.  “He might be using you to lure your father and I into a trap.” 

Of course.  The town’s most well-known ghost hunters without secret identities; it wasn’t a far-fetched guess that Danny could be targeted for his relation.  Even if it was still completely incorrect.

“Which still doesn’t explain her.”  Mrs. Fenton pursed her lips and stared at Valerie.  Her hand still hovered near the handle of her gun.

“What’s there to explain?”  Valerie challenged back.  “I didn’t ask to be—to be kidnapped!”

Her eyes flashed to Paulina, who nodded imperceptibly.  It wasn’t the most tactful approach, but at least she was playing along.

“Or did you?”  Mrs. Fenton asked thoughtfully.  “First you kiss the Ghost Boy, and now I find you doing the same with my son.”

Tucker winced.  “Yeah, that’s bad.”

“Mom!”  Danny gaped.  “You can’t just—!  I can explain—!”

Even without the light shining directly in Valerie’s face, it was impossible to miss her blush.  That would give her away as surely as anything.  The matching one on Danny’s face definitely didn’t help.  As much as Paulina wanted to deny it, it would be difficult—maybe even impossible—to cover up what Mrs. Fenton had already seen.

“I’m sorry, sweetie, but you can’t trust her,” Mrs. Fenton continued, pulling Danny by the shoulder away from Valerie.  “She could be distracting you while Phantom carries out another part of his plan.” 

Distraction.  Of course—if she couldn’t lie directly, at least she could divert Mrs. Fenton’s attention. 

“Valerie,” Paulina said in her most heartbroken voice.  It wasn’t difficult to fake, all things considered.  Her crush had just been making out with her friend.  “Is it true?  Do you… do you have a crush on the Ghost Boy?”

“What?”  Valerie burst.  “You know I—”  She blinked; her voice tripped for just a second.  Paulina only noticed because she was looking for it.  “You know I hate ghosts!  Ghosts ruined my life!  I’d never have a crush on one!”

The rest of her delivery was smooth, probably because it was peppered with truth.  Danny wilted slightly at her words—but he had to know this was all an act, right?  Paulina hoped he would play along, even if he didn’t like what they were saying.  Valerie could always apologize later, assuming Danny’s parents ever let them see each other again.

Paulina breathed a fake sigh of relief.  “Good.  I can’t even imagine how Danny would feel if his girlfriend was in love with a ghost.”

Danny almost said something, but Paulina kept going.

“That was your plan though, right, Valerie?  You had to use Phantom to find where he was hiding Danny.”  The fake scenario spun off her lips, as easily as if it had actually happened.  “You used your feminine charms to trick Phantom into thinking you liked him, and then once he brought you to Danny…”  

“...I, um, used a Fenton Lipstick to shoot him in the back.”  Valerie wasn’t too terrible at improvising herself.  “I think it was enough to scare him off for now.  Plus he was… uh, upset that I lied to him.”

Silence overtook the freezer for a moment, only interspersed with the hum of a cooler and Tucker’s chattering teeth.  Mrs. Fenton’s goggles seemed to stare through Valerie, then locked on Paulina herself.  Would she buy their story?  It wasn’t foolproof—Paulina doubted Val actually had a Fenton Lipstick on her, and even if she did, that was hardly a weapon designed to take down Phantom—but it was the best they had.  

Finally, Mrs. Fenton spoke.  “You tried to… seduce a ghost?”

“I think she succeeded, actually.”  Paulina couldn’t help smirking towards the blushing couple, though she quickly hid it in a frown.  “Which is awful!  I’ve been trying to get Phantom’s attention for months, and Valerie does it when she doesn’t even want him!”

That, as it turned out, was the kind of distraction she needed.  Mrs. Fenton let go of Danny’s shoulder and practically gaped at her.

“You’re one of those fools who think dating a ghost is a good idea?  Don’t you have any idea how dangerous Phantom is?”

“Oh, I know.”  She sighed dreamily, clasping her phone between her hands.  “I just find bad boys soooo attractive.”

Which couldn’t be further from the truth, but no one watching her would know that.  Valerie was fighting a laugh, but by this point Mrs. Fenton wasn’t facing her.  Tucker snuck her and Danny out from behind his mom’s back while she launched into a lecture on the inherently manipulative nature of ghosts, on how their feelings were only raw animal-like instincts, on how the biology wouldn’t possibly be compatible.  Paulina found herself wanting to laugh too, but she schooled her features to look appropriately frightened and ashamed in turn.  By the time Mrs. Fenton wrapped up, Danny, Valerie, and Tucker were long gone.

“What were they thinking?”  Mrs. Fenton exclaimed when she realized this.  “Phantom could still be nearby!  It isn’t safe!”

Phantom was nearby, and Paulina had never been safer, but she still followed Mrs. Fenton’s breakneck pace out of the freezer, up the stairs, and back to the slightly-singed-but-still-salvageable gym.  Since Mrs. Fenton wasn’t trying to run up stairs in heels, she reached Danny, Valerie, and Tucker before Paulina.  In spite of her earlier distraction, Mrs. Fenton must not have completely forgotten about her mistrust of Valerie, because she was grilling Danny in front of her as Paulina slipped through the doors.

“Was this young woman telling the truth?  Did your girlfriend really save you from Phantom?”

Yes,” he blurted, his face burning red.  “It’s all—it’s all true.  I was so scared but she—she got there just in time.”  He squeezed Valerie’s hand.

“Awww,” Tucker said, making Danny glare.  “Somebody’s in love—”

“Can we just go home now?”  He groaned.  “We’re all fine.  The ghosts are gone.”

“Of course, honey.  We’ll call your Father and Sam and get you home.  It must have been so frightening for you tonight, you have got to keep at least one ghost weapon on you—”

“I know, I know… and Sam drove us here, I’m not riding back in the RV...”

He rolled his eyes, like they’d had this conversation a million times.  Maybe they had.  Paulina couldn’t imagine.  She had her own worries about Papa finding out her secret, but Danny Fenton’s life was another story entirely.

“And thank you—Valerie, was it?” Mrs. Fenton belatedly said.  “For keeping my son safe.  I’m sorry I accused you.”

“I—it’s alright, Mrs. Fenton.  I understand what it looked like.”  Then she grinned a little.  “Danny didn’t take it very well at first either.”

“Hey—!”  

Paulina and Tucker laughed over the sound of Danny’s grumbling.  

As Mrs. Fenton stepped away to call her husband, Paulina caught Valerie’s eye.  There was a small smile still on her face; her fingers were still twined with Danny’s.

“Thank you,” Valerie mouthed silently.

Then, in spite of everything Paulina had done before, Danny flashed a smile at her, too.  It didn’t have the same effect as Phantom’s smile—her breath didn’t catch, her skin didn’t tingle, her heart didn’t stop.  But the gesture did warm her in a way she hadn’t expected.  It wasn’t a sign of forgiveness; Paulina wasn’t that naive.  But it could be a sign of good faith.

Paulina had helped her friend and her crush stay together.  She’d protected Danny Phantom’s secret.  And aside from that smile, she’d gotten nothing in return.

But for once, there wasn’t anything more she wanted.