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Mortified

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Chapter 1: An Assembly
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It was supposed to be a safety assembly. One that Danny had actually approved of. Even looked forward to, a little bit. Casper High desperately needed a plan for when ghosts attacked, and it certainly would have been nice if the staff and students had actually learned how to handle the weaker ghosts. As it was the 'plan' was run around screaming until Phantom showed up, and apart from Sam, Tucker, Jazz, Valerie, and, of course, Danny himself, the only one who had shown anything akin to competence when faced with a ghost was Mr Lancer.

So, yeah. Danny had been looking forward to the assembly. Anything that took some of the pressure off of him, right?

It had started off well enough for a school assembly. Principal Ishiyama had gone over ghost attack evacuation and lock down procedures. They weren't overwhelmingly brilliant, but they were pretty straightforward, and far better than nothing. The school had bought a ghost shield, and had installed it in the gym. It wasn't nearly large enough to cover the whole school, but Danny was cautiously optimistic about its ability to deter ghosts and protect the student body.

But this was Danny's life. Nothing in it ever went well for long.

And of course the school had decided to invite Amity Park's premier (only) official ghost hunters.

Danny had known that his parents were going to come. How could he not? He lived with them. He had just hoped that they would be reasonable about the whole thing. More than hoped. He had asked his mother what they had planned. So he knew that right now, they were supposed to be demonstrating safe use of Fenton Wrist-Rays, inviting students down to take shots at targets set up across the gym, passing out fliers for lessons, talking about how to hide from or otherwise avoid ghosts.

They were doing none of those things.

Instead of doing what they had planned, instead of doing what Danny would have liked them to do, they were rambling on about their ghost weapons. All of which they had apparently brought with them. To school. They had already gone through all the ones that Danny was comfortable using in battle, and now he and his friends were amusing themselves by classing the weapons as 'disturbing,' and 'vaguely horrifying.'

"Horrifying," said Danny without hesitation as his mother pulled out something that looked like a three neon-pink didgeridoos taped together.

"I'd call it that just for the color," said Sam.

"What does it do?" asked Tucker.

"Mom's saying," said Danny.

"Yeah, but even I can't parse her technobable." He paused. "I can barely hear her technobable. Doesn't she realize that no one is listening anymore?" He gestured to the chattering students seated on the bleachers below them. The three of them were seated at the very top.

Danny shrugged. "It screws with strand communication and plasmic ectosignature reception. Basically paralyzes everything downstream from where it hits," he explained. "Like if there was something that'd temporarily sever your nerves."

"That doesn't sound too bad, unless it hit your head, or something."

"Yeah, until you remember that the those two things are typically what determines what a ghost's body looks like and whether or not it sticks together. Slowly disintegrating a person? Horrifying."

"Sounds like something you should get rid of," said Sam, darkly.

"I would," muttered Danny, "but I already get rid of so much other stuff."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I've got seven categories for FentonWorks stuff. Actually useful, useless, useful for ghost fighting, disturbing, vaguely horrifying, avoid at all costs, and destroy immediately. Oh, and the bonus ones that can apply to anything, 'unnecessarily painful,' and 'unnecessarily dangerous.' Jazz and I only mess with stuff from the last two categories. Because, honestly? Most of the stuff they make is disturbing or worse."

"Harsh," said Tucker.

"But true. I love them, but Ancients, if they'd at least safety check half of this stuff- hold it."

"What?"

"I don't recognize that one," he said, pointing at the third to last weapon on the cart. It was awfully sleek for something new, and the hairs on the back of Danny's neck were standing up just looking at it. "Hey, Jazz." He poked his sister, who looked up, annoyed, from her book. "Do you recognize that?"

"No," said Jazz, slowly. "I don't. It must be new. Or maybe really old?"

"Looking like that?"

"Is it really that weird that you don't know what it is? I mean, its like, one, out of fifty," asked Sam.

"Remember that time your parents took you shopping and made you try on all the floral dresses in the store? And then bought them? So they could threaten to make you wear them?"

"Okay, okay. Burned into my memory. I get it."

"But they brought it to school, how bad could it be?"

"Tucker, for real, man?"

"Last week we sabotaged something that was supposed to cause ghosts to spontaneously combust," said Jazz. "Before that it was the addictive light bulb."

"I'm so glad that was theoretically unsound to begin with."

"And the thing that made ghosts think their obsessions were under attack. Why they keep trying to make that, I can't even begin to understand."

"Don't forget the whole 'let's plant blood blossoms in the garden this year' debacle."

"That was last month, though."

"I'm so glad I had an allergic reaction to the seed oil."

"Shhh, they're about take it out now."

The group of four turned their attention back to the adult Fentons. Jack was taking the sleek, silver gun from its place on the cart. It looked rather small in his hands, but they all knew that Jack Fenton's massive frame tended to warp perspective.

"And now!" said the large man in his booming voice. "For the moment you've all been waiting for! The grand finale!"

This had the effect of drawing the attention of the other students, and bringing the noise level down to a dull roar. Jack grinned widely.

"This here is the best thing we've made since the Fenton Portal!"

Well. Danny certainly hoped that it wasn't going to be as painful as the portal. Mutters around the gym showed that other people weren't too sure how to feel about a thing that was being compared to something that many blamed for the preponderance of ghosts in Amity Park.

"Its been a special project of ours," added Maddie cheerily. "A top secret project." This attracted the attention of the high schoolers once again.

"Yeah! So that those pesky ghosts don't sabotage it!"

Danny cringed internally.

"We've been working on it for months, so now I'd like to present to you the-"

"Fenton Mortifier!"

Like they needed a machine to do that.

"Jack, honey, I thought we had agreed that we can't call it that."

"But, sweetheart..."

Maddie gave in to Jack's puppy dog eyes and waved her husband on.

This is of course when Danny's ghost sense went off. He sighed, heavily. Of course a ghost would come and bother this assembly. "Hey, guys, I just got a chill."

"Want backup?" asked Jazz.

"Nah, just cover for me," said Danny even as he dropped down to the lower, in-between section of the bleachers, and crawled into the gap between that and the seat in front of them.

"Hey, ten bucks says it's Technus," he heard Tucker say above him as he climbed down the metal bars behind the bleachers.

His parents were still talking, but he was having trouble hearing them now that he was back here. Something about how ghosts were monsters who couldn't feel pain, or joy or anything. He tuned them out. It was more important to find somewhere inconspicuous to change, and get whatever ghost it was to leave. He'd thought about changing behind the bleacher, but with the way that the bleachers were constructed, everyone would see the light from his rings, and he really was trying to be better about that.

He got to the gym floor, went out the maintenance door, and looked up and down the hallway, listening carefully for anyone who might be watching. Then he changed, turned invisible and floated up and back though the wall into the gym.

He had just passed the intercom speaker when the thing made an awful, squawking sound. He whirled, ready to fight, but it was still just a speaker.

"Wazzup that's going down my home bros!"

Danny slapped himself in the face. Oh my gosh, he was even worse than before.

"I, Technus, master of all things electronic and beeping, am in the housy-house!"

Fine. So Technus was either in the intercom, or in the PA room. The first was harder to check, harder to deal with overall, actually, although Danny didn't know why Technus would want to posses the school's intercom system, so Danny decided to check the PA room first. So he flew in that direction-

-Only to run face first into the brand new ghost shield.

He was so surprised that he lost his hold on his invisibility. Of course someone had turned on the shield- … Or not? No one was standing anywhere near the generator.

Instinctively, he dropped several feet to avoid getting hit by an ectoblast. Technus? No. His parents.

"Hahahahahaha! I have you trapped in with the humans now, ghost child! The hunters! As you would say, you're all tied up! Hahahaha! You shouldn't have connected the master on-off switch to the principal's room! Now I will be free to-!" Another ectoblast hit the speaker. Danny could have groaned at the poor timing. Technus's propensity towards shouting out his plans is what made him an easy fight. If he didn't know what Technus was doing, this would be very tedious even after he got out.

Danny dodged another blast. At least they hadn't used the new gun yet. "Look, can you guys stop? I only came here to- Ouch!" He scowled and flickered out of visibility. He didn't want to power down the ghost shield- it would keep Technus out of the gym- so he had to find a place to change back to human and then sneak out.

"Quick, Jack, get the Fenton Revealer!"

Heck, that was the one that expunged invisibility. Maybe the locker rooms? Yeah, that would work. Assuming that nobody was making out, or hiding in there. Like they usually did during an assembly. But he didn't really have time to think of a better spot. His mom's finger was on the trigger of the new gun, and he really didn't want to find out what it did. He rocketed towards the boy's locker room.

And smacked into the ghost shield again.

(He didn't understand why his parents had made it so hard to see! The ones that glowed green worked just fine!)

He didn't loose invisibility this time, but he was shocked. Figuratively speaking. The shield wasn't supposed to be here, at least according to Principal Ishiyama's presentation. He quickly estimated the curve of the shield. If it was here, then most of the student body was outside of it.

This had Technus written all over it.

Jack hit the button on the Fenton Revealer, and Danny immediately took evasive action. His mother was too good a shot for him to do anything else. He really, really did not want to get hit by that new gun, especially when he discovered that the blasts it fired were an awful shade of puce.

Except note that most of the school had run off, taking shelter in the locker rooms or behind the bleachers. Most. Not all. For reasons he could not quite comprehend, a certain subset of the school population (aka Danny's class and a few other idiots) had chosen to run towards the people firing guns. The Fenton's weapons were designed not to hurt humans, but everyone in Amity Park knew how often their prototypes malfunctioned.

Sam, Tucker, and Jazz were nearby, too, but they were his team. Also, they were doing something productive: trying to get close enough to the shield generator to shut it off. Unlike the others, who were just giving him extra anxiety.

Then it happened. Danny had been bobbing up and down to avoid the blasts, trying to stay away from the students, but he lingered in one spot a moment too long. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye- a person, although he had no idea who- when at the same time, on the opposite side, Maddie fired.

He couldn't move. If he did whoever was behind him would get hit. As much as Danny didn't want to find out what it would do to him, he didn't want to take the risk that his parents hadn't quite 'human-proofed' the new weapon.

The sickly red bolt hit him dead on.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Almost a Memory
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At first it didn't feel like anything at all.

But.

-he could feel-

Then.

-heart beat against his ribs-

What?

Why had he let Sam and Tucker talk him into this?

This wasn't.

Sure, the portal was cool and all, but it was also really creepy-

No, stop! He didn't want-

Why had he let Sam and Tucker talk him into this? How had he let them talk him into this? Sure, the portal was cool and all, but it was also really creepy, and he could feel his heart beat against his ribs in protest of the whole thing.

Oh, yeah. Because they wanted to go in, and he wasn't going to let them do that without making sure his parents hadn't left one of their goo-shooting guns in here first. Or a 'Fenton Firework.' Or... Honestly, the list was too long. He was talking (thinking) about the people who had once sucked the house into an alternate dimension, after all.

Why did they want to look at it in the first place? Because Sam thought portals to the underworld were 'super Gothic,' and Tucker wanted to check out all the 'killer tech.' Maybe Danny was just jaded, but, honestly, he'd rather be upstairs, playing a game, or talking about the movie they were going to see later (Dead Teacher III: Death-tention!).

Well, this hadn't been too bad so far. He had actually kind of gotten used to the weird, electric chill in the tunnel. Maybe they'd actually spot whatever was wrong with the thing in the first place, too, and cheer his parents up. Tucker was really good with electronics, Sam had sharp eyes, and Danny knew FentonWorks technology pretty well, so together they might be able to see something. Not that they'd do anything. Danny didn't want to accidentally screw anything else up. Or give anyone a shock. Or cover them with goo. He'd made sure that the portal was firmly off and unplugged before going in, but you never knew with these things. Also, he knew that his parents had mentioned something about capacitors, and although he wasn't 100% sure what the difference between those and batteries were, he knew that they stored charge and could be dangerous.

The tunnel was narrowing, and Danny was almost to the back wall, when he tripped. He dropped his flashlight and caught himself on a protrusion on the left hand wall. This would have been fine, except that part of the protrusion depressed and clicked ominously under his fingers.

Danny stumbled back to the center of the portal walkway, staring at the little box. He wasn't horrified. Not yet. Not even when he saw the words 'on' and 'off' staring at him in green and red. Actually, for a split second he was relieved. He had only hit a stupid button. He might have even hit the 'off' button.

Then he started to hear the portal waking up around him. Activating. Turning on. He heard his friends shouting at him Run, Danny run! and he tried to do just that.

But then there was a flash of light and Danny was burning and there was green everywhere and it hurt so, so much.

I screwed up. I screwed up bad.

He could hear himself screaming. Wow. He didn't know he could get that loud.

At least I didn't let Sam and Tuck come in here with me. That was good.

It was cold now, unbelievably cold. And still somehow hot. He felt like his bones were melting.

Mom and Dad are fine, too. Knowing Dad, he would have hit the button without even thinking about it. Heh. Talk about 'killer' tech.

He could see, but also not see. Hear, but also not hear. He didn't like it, but the sensation was nothing next to the crisping of his skin, the seizing of whatever was left of his muscles.

I'm the only one that's feeling this.

He was, bizarrely enough, thankful for that. No one else should have to through this kind of pain. No one else should die like this.

Everyone else is safe.

But...

Were they?

He could hear screaming.

Surely that couldn't all be him. Right?

(He would have thought that his vocal cords would be dust by now.)

He could hear screaming-

Nearby?

He knew those voices.

Who?

Were they hurt? Were they hurting like he was?

No, no, no, no. No!

He had to-

Do what?

Help them!

How?

It hurt so much and he was scared-

(His thoughts were no longer anything even approaching coherent, but he wrenched himself away from the fear and back to the problem at hand.)

He needed to help them!

And then, thought became impossible. Danny became impossible. A passive observer to two worlds being filtered through his soul and extruded into one another. He saw everything. Remembered nothing. Because it was too big, and too beautiful, and there was pain everywhere, and people everywhere on both sides.

He needed to help.

An almost passive observer.

(There was a distant sensation of approval and regret.)

The two sides suddenly crashed together, and Danny was back, and the pain was back, although it had never really been gone in the first place. It was worse now, though. He wasn't even screaming anymore, and this was agony, and he was still dying. Still transfixed by electricity and whatever the heck the portal was doing.

There was something new now. Something in him that hurt, but hurt differently, in the center of his chest, right below his heart.

Then whatever was holding him in place stopped, and he dropped to the portal floor, too exhausted to even whimper. Still in too much pain to even contemplate moving.

(He was a little shocked that he still existed.)

But something tickled the edge of his jumbled mind. The screaming- Had there been others? He had to know. They might need help.

(He didn't even remember his own name at the moment. Could barely comprehend that not being in pain was an option.)

He crawled at first, but that was too slow, and he wouldn't be much help like that. He needed to be lighter, and suddenly he was, and now he was stumbling out of the portal, leaning against one wall for support.

Out of the portal, everything was so not-green. Was that normal? Then he blinked and faces, people, came into focus. He had no idea what they were saying, but they looked okay. Much more okay than he felt, anyway. That was good.

He shut his eyes, and stopped fighting the pain.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: You Can Take It With You

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As soon as Danny was hit, Sam knew that it was going to be bad. She knew, because, unlike Danny, she knew what the Fenton Mortifier was supposed to do.

It was designed to force ghosts to relive their deaths.

According to Mr and Mrs Fenton (or Dr and Dr Fenton, if they were feeling annoyed with you) a ghost's death was the only thing that they could really feel, the only thing that could scare them. According to them, it would be enough of a deterrent to drive any specter comprised of ectoplasm and post-human consciousness out of Amity Park for good.

Beyond the obvious ethical concerns, Sam was dubious. Also, she was considering making her own 'destroy immediately' list.

Beside her, Tucker was still working on turning off the shield generator. She would have thought that unplugging it would do the job, but the cable apparently came up from underneath the gym floor, so that had been a no-go, and Technus had somehow disabled the on-off switch. Sam, and, she saw out of the corner of her eye, Jazz, were more concerned with watching Danny.

Danny had been hit a full minute ago, and so far, he had just been hanging in the air where he had been hit, staring blankly ahead. The other students from their class (sans Valerie, who looked like she was trying to find an ectogun in her backpack) were cautiously approaching Danny. Mr Lancer was trying to get his students to get away, back to the relative safety provided by the bleachers. Mr and Mrs Fenton were running around, trying to find out where their latest containment unit had gotten kicked during the fight.

(Could one even call it a fight when it was so one-sided?)

Sam had begun to hope that the 'reliving' part was all happening inside Danny's head. That was bad enough, sure. It was horrible, and, once she had gotten the time to think about it a bit more, Sam would probably never forgive Mr and Mrs Fenton. (Just like she had never forgiven herself). But, if Danny had been forced to act out his death, it would have been worse. Not much worse, but worse. If it was inside his head... Well, he had survived it once, hadn't he? And all the nightmares, too.

Then Danny twitched, his face contorting, lightning leaping off of his fingers, and he began to scream. And scream. And scream.

And Wail.

(Every time Sam heard Danny's Ghostly Wail, she hoped it would be the last. Every time, she remembered her friend dying. Screaming. In pain. Because of her.)

The people who were still standing were knocked to the floor. It was a good thing that Danny wasn't aiming at anything or anyone in particular. It was a good thing that Tucker hadn't gotten the ghost shield down yet, because otherwise the roof would be coming down.

The screams died abruptly, without warning. Sam uncurled herself from the floor, raising her head, pulling slightly-bloody hands from her ears. Danny was still floating there, still staring, but now he looked limp, exhausted. Was it done now? Sam knew it had taken longer between the end of the screaming and Danny dragging himself out of the portal, but, surely, the screaming had stopped because he had died, right? Because he had become Phantom? Not because he just couldn't scream any more?

(For all the jokes Danny told about his death, he had given his friends very few details about it.)

Then Sam saw it. A swirl of green in front of Danny's chest. That couldn't be what she thought it was, could it?

There was a flash of green as the portal expanded outwards.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Stars Above, Stars Below

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Jazz woke up slowly.

This was a bit strange. She usually woke up quite quickly in the morning. Danny made fun of her for it. Called her an early bird, and all that. But she was so comfortable, even if she was a little cold. It felt like one of Danny's hugs. Speaking of cold, though, she felt like she was developing one. Her ears hurt.

Maybe she should get up. Find some medicine. She sat up, still not opening her eyes. She rubbed them, frowning. This didn't feel like her bed. Had she fallen asleep on the couch? The floor? Was that carpeting?

She finally got her eyes open, and the sight in front of her jolted her into full awareness. She wasn't on the couch or on the floor. She wasn't at home. She wasn't even inside. There were stars above her, hundreds and hundreds of them, with no trace of light pollution. What she had first taken as carpet was grass. She was, as far as she could tell, on a hillside, surrounded by dark lumps. She glared at one of the closer ones, willing it to resolve into something she could interpret, but she, unlike her brother, did not have supernaturally good night vision.

With great reluctance- she didn't want to make herself a target for whatever had brought her here- she retrieved her keys from her pocket and turned on her key chain flashlight.

The lumps, as it turned out, were actually people. Well, mostly people. There were also a few backpacks strewn around here and there. Jazz knew them all by sight, if not by name. They were students from Casper High.

She stared at them, frowning. This whole situation was wrong. Why in the world was she on a hill, surrounded by sleeping Casper High students? Most of them weren't even from her class! She watched the nearest ones for long enough to make sure that they were breathing, but after that she was at a loss.

Maybe if she looked around she could find Danny? Or maybe Sam or Tucker? She didn't have any better ideas at the moment.

She started to get up, but paused. Had that flower been there before? She was certain that it hadn't. It didn't look like anything she had ever seen before. Not that that was saying much. Sam was the one who was into flowers, not Jazz. Still.

It reminded her a little of a poppy. Except that it had layers of petals that alternated between sky blue, ice blue, and cobalt. So. Yeah. Okay, maybe it wasn't like a poppy at all.

What it was doing, though, was bobbing against her leg like it wanted attention.

There was no wind.

"Um," said Jazz. "Hi?"

The flower stopped moving, except to tilt so that it was more directly pointed at Jazz.

Now she was having a conversation with a plant. Here's to hoping that this wasn't Undergrowth or anyone like him. "You're very pretty?"

The flower brightened to the point where Jazz would almost say that it was glowing. Actually... She turned off her flashlight. It was glowing. There was a ripple in the grass, and similar flowers began to pop up all over the hillside.

This was good, because their faint blue-white light clearly outlined all the people lying on the hill. Bad, because it meant that wherever they were, it was not normal and potentially dangerous.

She scanned her surroundings again, hoping to recognize a silhouette. She did, but not the one she had been hoping for. That huge, orange-tinted shadow could only be her father. She scowled, then did a double take. Why was she unhappy about finding her parents? Jazz scowled again. This had better not be another one of Ember's stunts. She and Danny were supposed to have a truce!

She turned her flashlight back on so that she could get to Jack without tripping over anyone or anything, and carefully picked her way over to him. Finally, she was close enough to actually turn her flashlight towards Jack. She stopped dead.

Her mother, Maddie, was there, too, lying next to Jack. Her teal jumpsuit wasn't quite as visible as his orange one, and she was much smaller, so she was easier to overlook. But that isn't what shocked Jazz.

No, what surprised Jazz was that there were a bunch of vines picking her parents' pockets. Pulling weapons from their jumpsuits and placing them on the ground, which quickly swallowed each weapon, then quickly smooth itself out, as if the unnatural action had never occurred.

One weapon, though, was held too tightly in Maddie's hands for the vines to steal. It was an odd looking gun, sleek and silver, and a little smaller than what her parents usually made. Jazz didn't recognize it. She felt like she should, but she didn't.

"What," said Jazz, flatly. She was entirely unsure how to react.

The vines seemed to share that sentiment, because they froze for a split second, before returning to their work. Then, as Jazz stepped forward to wake her parents, more vines shot out of the ground, blocking her path. Jazz's hand went to an ectoweapon of her own, a lipstick laser, which, oddly enough considering how thoroughly the vines were searching her parents, was still in her pocket.

Luckily, it didn't seem as if she needed to use it. The vines weren't attacking. Instead, they were each holding an ectoweapon, offering them to Jazz handle first.

Jazz gingerly took hold of a Fenton Peeler. "Thank you," she said, uncertainly.

The other vines crowded together eagerly, and soon Jazz had another Lipstick Laser, two Wrist-Rays, a pocket ghost containment device (nonfunctional), and a 'water-pistol' type blaster. She donned the Wrist-Rays, put the second Laser in her other pocket, and clipped the Peeler and the blaster to her belt. The vines retracted, giving her a clear view of her parents again.

This was weird. Not the part where she was dealing with a ghost (or something) that could control plants, she'd dealt with those before, nor the part where she was waking up in a strange place with a hole in her memory, that was far more common than she'd like. No, the weird part was that the ghost in question was taking weapons from her parents, and giving at least some of them to her.

Also weird: that gun. The one she didn't recognize. She stared at it. There was something written on the side, but she could barely make it out in this light. The first part was definitely 'Fenton,' but Maddie's fingers partially obscured the second word. Mortal? Martial? Mortified? Mortifier.

Jazz's memory of the ghost safety assembly returned in a flash. She had to clap her hands to her mouth to keep herself from doing something unproductive. Like screaming. Or vomiting. She couldn't believe- No. She could, and that made it worse.

She had to find Danny. Now.

But, how?

It was a bit of a long shot, but the plants had responded to her earlier. They had helped her. She turned away from her parents. Whatever ghost was taking the weapons, they couldn't be any more dangerous to Danny than her parents had already proven themselves to be. At the very least that thing they had hit Danny with would be taboo to them.

"Excuse me," she said, politely, clearly. It was always good to be polite, especially when face with an unknown quality. "Could you please help me find my brother, Danny?"

Nothing happened for a moment, but then the blue flowers began to close themselves. After about a minute, Jazz was left with a glowing, sapphire path.

"Thank you," said Jazz.

She walked beside the path, hesitant to crush the flowers underfoot. They led her more or less uphill, winding a little to avoid other people. The path ended in a puddle of blue light. Jazz spent a moment staring at it, confused. She was doing a lot of that, recently. She didn't see Danny. There was no dark lump of a body in that neat little circle. Then she noticed some of the flowers shaking, and she realized that Danny was underneath them.

She rushed forward at once, and the flowers withdrew. Yes, that was Danny, in human form. He was in a fetal position, trembling, and biting down hard enough on his lower lip hard enough to draw blood, but it was Danny, and he looked reasonably intact, considering what he had just been through.

Jazz gently, cautiously, touched him on the shoulder, and said his name. Waking Danny from a nightmare could be a risky proposal. Not that he had hurt anyone, but there had been some close calls. Not getting a response, she shook him a little.

When he still didn't wake up, Jazz started to reassess her initial impression that Danny was 'reasonably intact,' and began to examine him more closely. On second glance, Danny looked quite a bit more ghostly than he usually did in human form.

The reason that his lip was bleeding was because his canines were sharp, not because he was biting down particularly hard. His hair was even inkier than it usually was, and it would periodically ruffle, as if in a breeze, despite the lack of one. Almost hidden beneath his hair were his ears, which were ever-so-slightly tapered. His skin was milky, almost paper white, and that was a problem, because it made one other, inconvenient ghostly feature stand out all the more. There was a Lichtenberg figure, a lightning scar, licking up the left side of his face and neck.

Jazz located Danny's left hand, where it was curled up against his chest, and pulled back the sleeve of his hoodie. Yes, the scaring was there, too, disappearing up the sleeve. Jazz frowned. That scar usually only showed up when Danny was Phantom. Even if Danny did turn out to be fine otherwise, that could prove to be problematic. Although, most people only ever saw the part of the scar that was on his cheek. They didn't know that it branched out over not only his face, but his left arm and hand, his torso, and his right leg and foot. The jumpsuit covered all of that. They also only saw it from a distance. She filed that problem away, and considered the psychological one. Danny really didn't like looking at the scar. Jazz herself had only seen the full extent of it a few times; one of those times was right after the accident had happened, when Danny had just come back from his checkup at the hospital, another, when Danny had gotten severely injured in a fight.

But despite finding that, and a host of other, slightly disturbing things, she couldn't find what could be keeping him from waking up. There were no 'new' injuries, unless she counted the hole in his lip, the scar notwithstanding. Still, he trembled, and twitched, and made tiny, pathetic noises of distress. Jazz wanted nothing more than to hug him, but since many of his nightmares included being trapped, constricted, or restrained in some way, she wasn't sure that that would be a good idea.

Instead she settled for rubbing his shoulder. He was cold, too. Not that he wasn't always, but this seemed a little extreme. She added that to her list of potential problems. "Oh, Danny, what should I do? What would you do?" She turned that problem over in her head. "You'd probably try to fly up to see where we are. I can't do that though. Um. You'd find Tucker and Sam, and make sure that everyone really was alright. That no one was hurt. You'd try to wake people up. I don't want to leave you alone like this, though." She sighed. She couldn't just sit here. No matter how much she wanted to. "Sam and Tucker first, then."

Jazz started to stand, but was brought up short when an icy hand seized her wrist. Startled, she looked back down, to meet her brother's wide, blue eyes. They were, she noticed, the same color as some of the flowers' petals. She also noted, after a taking a second to get her hammering heart under control, that his eyes were twinkling with green and ice-blue stars.

"Danny?" she asked softly, kneeling once more.

Danny practically dragged himself into her lap, and then latched on, embracing her as if his life depended on it, still trembling and weeping. Jazz did the only thing she could do. She hugged him, and patted his back, and made soothing noises.

"Th-they-" stuttered Danny at last. His voice was broken, tiny, raw and hoarse. If his mouth wasn't pressed so close to her ear, Jazz never would have heard it. "I-" He choked, then tried again, "I- I was- I saw- felt," he cut off again. "I-it was the portal- I- They-" He stopped once more, just breathing. Then, in one breath, he said, "They did it on purpose."

Those words chilled Jazz to the bone. He was right of course. "I know," she said, simply. She could barely process it either. "I know, little brother. Are you- Are you in pain, anywhere?" He shook his head. "Danny," said Jazz sternly. She was getting back into familiar territory now.

"Throat," he said, finally, "head." Then, more softly, "Core."

"I- I have some aspirin," Jazz said. "My first aid kit was in my backpack. I don't know where that is, right now."

Danny pulled back, and Jazz got the impression that he was only now taking in their surroundings. After looking up to the stars, down to the flowers, and left and right, he gazed, bewildered, back at Jazz. 'How?' he mouthed.

"I... I have a theory," said Jazz, "but... But it isn't important right now," she finished rapidly, abruptly deciding that in his current mental state, her theory wouldn't be helpful to Danny. "I think we're in the Ghost Zone. M-Mom and Dad are here. So is most of your class, I think. I haven't seen Sam or Tucker yet, though. Um. And the plants might be sentient? And helpful? They kind of showed me where you were when I asked."

"Oh," whispered Danny.

"I didn't notice that anyone was hurt," Jazz added. "But they're all asleep. I think that we should try and find Sam and Tucker."

Danny nodded slowly, and let go of Jazz for long enough for her to get back up. As soon as she was on her own two feet again, however, he grabbed onto the hem of her coat, leaning into her side. Jazz put an arm around him. He wasn't behaving at all normally, but that was to be expected, wasn't it? He had just gone through something incredibly traumatic.

With luck, though, he'd- Well, not bounce back, but recover. He'd recovered from this once before, right? Jazz hoped he would again, and soon. (A large and uncomfortable part of her felt guilty and resentful for this hope. Her brother deserved time after all he'd been through.). If they were in the Ghost Zone, Danny was probably the only one who could lead them all out safely.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: A Place That May Be Home

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Danny had never, to the best of his knowledge, been in this part of the Zone. He had never seen a landscape quite like the one he was seeing now, nor had he ever seen flowers like the ones that lit the hillside an eerie blue. Looking down the hill, Danny could see a little woods, dark, and full of trees. Beyond that, there was what looked like a beach; pale sand, and dark water lapping at the shore. The stars- the stars were the same as the ones over Amity, at least at first glance, but there was a barely visible wash of green over all of them.

Nevertheless, he knew exactly where he was.

Or at least, he knew what this place was, if not where this place was with respect to other things. Except that it was in the Ghost Zone, but not the Ghost Zone proper. It was behind a door. But with the landscape, that was kind of obvious. (He'd usually have a little more detail than that, like how far away they were from the Fenton Portal, but his powers, including what Tucker dubbed his 'Ghost Homing Instinct,' weren't exactly cooperating with him at the moment.)

He didn't know how he knew, so he was disinclined to trust the knowledge. But, he was just so sure. He suspected that it was some kind of ghost instinct, but it could just as easily be that this place was some kind of pitcher-plant type deal. A trap. Or, maybe, more like the island of the lotus-eaters in the Odyssey. (And Mr Lancer thought he didn't pay any attention in class! Ha!)

On the other hand... It kind of made sense. He still didn't know how they had gotten here. Jazz had been talking about what happened after she woke up, but not what happened after he got hit by that thing. So, coupled with her reluctance to share her theory about how they had all gotten here, Danny had to conclude that it was somehow his fault, or some side effect of the weapon. It made sense, then that they would wind up in a place that was connected to Danny. Then there were the plants, which were helping Jazz, removing dangerous items from his parents, and, most importantly, not hurting anyone. Finally, there was the relative normality of the surroundings. The stars, despite not being real, were an excellent facsimile. If it wasn't for that green wash, and a few other subtle cues, Danny might have been fooled. The grass looked like grass, despite the way it waved in the still air. The hill was shaped naturally, unevenly. The air was cool, but not frigid. Just the right temperature for Danny. Actually, everything about the surroundings, sans all the unconscious people, was just right for Danny. All in all, a person could be forgiven for thinking that they were still on Earth. Which was odd. Ghost Zone landscapes, even those behind doors, usually had something explicitly and obviously unnatural about them. (The flowers didn't count in Danny's mind. They had only shown up in earnest after Jazz had complemented the first one.)

So.

Conclusion?

Yeah. They were where he thought he was.

They were in his lair. (He was home (and he was safe) and he could rest now.)

Danny wasn't sure if this was a good thing or not. He didn't know a lot about lairs, but between Clockwork, Pandora, Frostbite, and, surprisingly, the Ghost Writer (something about a work-release program), he was getting an education in ghost culture. So he knew that lairs were connected to their ghost's mind, mirroring their personalities and powers, and typically controlled by their ghost's subconscious. This usually meant that if the ghost ghost wanted or needed something, the lair would provide it, or that the lair would react as the ghost would (if the ghost was, you know, a physical location) but with less restraint, and more emotion. But there were cases of a lair turning on its ghost, like with Sydney Poindexter and his shadows (although Danny had heard that that had been resolved), as well as cases of lairs developing their own personalities, like with Ghost Writer and his library, or even becoming full-blown genii locorum.

The thing was that Danny knew that he had a lot of problems. Maybe not the same problems that had caused Sydney to essentially torture himself for fifty years, but problems. If his nightmares were any indication, his subconscious was a dark, dark place. Every fiber of his ghostly being was singing at him to rest, to relax, that everything was fine, and that everyone was safe, that he was safe, but he really couldn't believe it. Even if his lair did behave normally (and wow, nothing in his life was normal) there were ghosts that got so wrapped up in their lairs, and the illusions and comforts that their lairs could provide, that they never left.

Danny was reasonably certain that wouldn't happen to him. That it couldn't happen to him. But not wanting to risk it was one of the reasons that he had never tried to seek out his lair. Well, that and the fact that he thought that the idea of some place having a permanent backdoor into his mind was kind of creepy.

He was forced to pay attention to his surroundings again when he tripped over nothing. Literally nothing. He had inadvertently rendered his foot intangible, and it had gone through the ground. Jazz had caught him. He knew that Jazz was becoming concerned. That she had been concerned. He knew that he was acting strangely, but he couldn't help it. He felt like he had right after the Accident. Weak. Shivery. Out of control.

That wasn't what Danny wanted to think about, though. Those thoughts lead Danny down a road of inquiry that he wanted nothing to do with. Not yet.

(They had done it on purpose.)

So let's do something constructive, okay? There were two dozen people lying on the hill. He could recognize his parents and Mr Lancer by their silhouettes. (He carefully ignored the movement happening on the ground near his parents). The others were harder to identify from a distance, so he and Jazz were going around and checking everyone. So far, most people were from his class, which he thought was weird. There had been a lot of other people in the gym. So far they had passed Paulina, Dash, Star, Elliot, Kwan, Ashley, Mikey, Nathan, Lester, Rebecca, Mia, Hannah, Dale, Sarah, Tiffanie, and Ricky. There were only three people left.

Danny had mixed feelings about this. On one hand, he really wanted Tucker and Sam to be there. On the other hand, he wanted them to be safe, home in Amity Park.

Except...

"Jazz," croaked Danny. Gosh, his voice sounded awful. "What happened to Technus?"

"Um," said Jazz, clearly not wanting to talk about it. "Well..."

"Jazz."

"I don't know. As far as I know, he was still in the school's system when the portal opened."

"So he's still in Amity Park?!" squeaked Danny. He seized his hair with his hands and groaned. Maybe Valerie could take him? No, he had made her suit. She was at even more risk that the average person. The Guys in White were just this side of utterly useless, and honestly Danny wouldn't wish those monsters on any ghost. Sam and Tucker could probably handle Technus, given time, but, well, he still wanted them to be here, so that he could make sure they were safe. There weren't any other local ghost hunters. Danny moaned again. This was all his fault. He should have worked harder on making peace with the other ghosts.

"Danny," said Jazz, lightly gripping his shoulders. "Danny, listen to me. This isn't your fault. We'll figure it out. We always do. And there isn't anything we can do about Technus from here. We have to figure out how to get home first. Then we can worry about Technus."

"Okay," said Danny.

"Okay," repeated Jazz. She gently untangled his fingers from his hair. "Three more people, then we'll know if Sam and Tucker are here."

The next person they looked at was Valerie. So worrying about her confronting Technus had been premature. Good to know. Of course, her being here was another complication. She wasn't as bad as his parents when it came to ghosts, she had worked with him in the past, and Danielle visited her now and again, but she did tend to shoot first and ask questions later. Depending on where in the Ghost Zone they were, that could seriously limit their options to get home. Also...

"So why aren't the plants picking her pockets?" asked Danny.

"I don't know," said Jazz.

"Thought you were supposed to know everything."

"I'm not Clockwork. Maybe she doesn't have her weapons?"

"I can see one right there," said Danny, pointing towards where Valerie's open backpack, which she clenched tightly in her hands, even in sleep, was spilling out onto the ground.
"Huh. Yeah. I didn't spot that. That's weird. Do you think we should try and take them?"

Danny considered it for a moment, but shook his head. "We don't know what we're dealing with here. It might be better to have someone else armed."

They moved on. The next two people were, to Danny's great relief, Sam and Tucker. They looked unharmed, as far as Danny could tell. He could neither smell nor see any blood, and their limbs were all in the proper positions. Tucker even still had his beret.

Danny sat on the ground between the two of them. He was so tired. Exhausted. Part of him wanted to sleep, to forget about all of this, but he knew he couldn't. So he poked Tucker (waking Sam was a risky proposal, he wanted more backup). When Tucker didn't stir, he poked him again, harder. Then he shook his friend's shoulder.

"Why aren't they waking up?" asked Danny plaintively.

"Check his eyes," said Jazz, who was trying to wake up Sam (his sister was braver than he gave her credit for, sometimes). "Maybe they have concussions?"

"Doesn't look like it," said Danny. He took off Tucker's beret, and picked through the other boy's curly hair. "No bumps, either."

"Hm," said Jazz. "It could be that something is keeping them asleep. Like that time with Nocturne. Do you think you could-?"

But Danny was already shaking his head. "I don't have any control, Jazz," he said, holding up his fingers, which were flickering in and out of visibility. "Dream invasion is a no-go." He stared at his hand. "Jazz," he said slowly. "Did they really do this on purpose, I mean, what was that... that... What was it supposed to do?"

"Danny..."

"I need to know, Jazz! I need to know what it was supposed to do, and what happened, and why we're here so that I can start to try to do something about it!" Danny cringed away from the harshness of his own voice. "Please, Jazz."

Jazz look down, still rubbing Sam's shoulder in an attempt to wake her. She pulled her hand into her lap, and massaged her palm with her other hand. "Alright," she said, "alright. But I need you to promise me something first. I need you to promise me that you aren't going to blame yourself. Okay?"

"Jazz. You know I can't do that."

Jazz sighted. "At least promise me that you'll try not to blame yourself, okay?"

"Okay. Okay," said Danny. "I can do that. Yeah, I'll- yeah. I promise. Just please tell me what's going on?"

Jazz licked her lip before starting. "That- They said that the Fenton Mortifier was designed to make ghosts relive their deaths."

Danny felt something break inside of him. He had been holding out hope that the weapon hadn't worked as intended. That it was supposed to do something else. Something less awful. He pushed the feeling to the side, swept the broken pieces under a rug. He nodded, to show Jazz that he understood, that she should go on.

"When you were hit, you kind of froze. You were just hovering there for a few minutes, and, I don't know what Mom and Dad were doing. Just watching? I don't know. I wasn't looking at them. You started to scream, then you started to, um, spark a bit, after that. Electricity. And... You know. You can... Scream really loudly."

"You mean-?"

"No one got hurt," said Jazz quickly. "It wasn't focused, and the shield actually stopped it, I think. And, I mean, everyone inside the shield is here, so. No one got hurt."

"Except that they aren't waking up," said Danny, balancing on the edge of hysteria, not noticing that the wind was picking up, "and they're here in the Ghost Zone!"

Danny found himself wrapped in Jazz's arms. Jazz was rocking him back and forth, and he could tell that she, too, was on the brink of tears. The wind died back down to a gentle breeze.

"Jazz," said Danny finally, pulling back. "What's the rest? How did we get here?"

Jazz shuddered. "After- after you stopped screaming, you-" Jazz paused, apparently rethinking her phrasing. "A portal started to open up. Right over your chest. That's the last thing I remember before waking up."

Danny groaned. "So this is my fault."

"Danny-"

"I had better not be waking up to you blaming yourself for everything wrong with the world," said a third voice.

"Sam!" exclaimed Danny and Jazz together.

"Ugh, my head hurts." The goth girl sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes. Then she froze, staring at Danny. "Oh, heck, Danny. Are you okay? They hit you with that-"

"I'm fine," said Danny. He flickered in and out of visibility. "Kinda."

"Nnh," said a fourth voice, before Sam could do more than scowl and open her mouth. "It's too dark to wake up."

"Tucker!" said Danny, happy for the reprieve. "You're alive!"

"I, huh, what? I'm a jive?" Tucker sat up abruptly. "Ahh! Technus! What happened? Where are we? Danny, do you know where we are?" Before Danny could answer, Tucker frowned. "What happened to your face?"

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: Awakenings

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Danny and Jazz explained what had happened quickly. Sam and Tucker had less to fill in than Danny. They had been actually conscious of their surroundings up until the portal.

"You're sure this isn't Undergrowth, right?"

"Doesn't seem like Undergrowth," said Danny.

"That's a relief, I guess," said Sam. "It's too bad you don't know where this is, though."

Guilt squirmed in Danny's stomach. He really didn't want to say anything. Didn't want to put this into words. But he didn't keep secrets from his team. (That wasn't strictly true, but the other secrets were mundane things, birthday presents, what some of his nightmares were really about, that he liked to sing in the shower, not really worth mentioning.)

"That isn't quite what I said. I said that I didn't recognize where we were."

Tucker raised an eyebrow at Danny. He had been messing with his PDA, trying to get a signal. He wasn't entirely convinced that they were in the Ghost Zone. "Isn't that kinda the same thing?"

"Um. No. I think- I think that I know where we are."

"Yeah?" said Sam, curious.

Jazz, meanwhile, was frowning. She was probably wondering why Danny hadn't said anything.

"I think this might be my lair," Danny said finally.

"Wait," said Tucker, finally looking up from his PDA, "isn't that a good thing? I mean, doesn't that mean that you can, like, control everything here?"

"Not exactly. The lair connection is supposed to be all subconscious. It's more like this is a dream I'm having, than anything else. At least that's, you know, my understanding." He ran his hand through his hair. "I guess. I don't know."

"Okay, okay, we can work with this," said Sam.

"Yeah," agreed Tucker. "So... What's first, try to wake everyone up, or find the door?"

"Door, I think," said Jazz. "People will start to panic when they wake up. It'll be easier to get them to do what we want if we already have a way out and a plan."

Everyone looked at Danny, who briefly flicked out of view entirely, and then pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt. "I don't know where the door is," he mumbled.

"Really? What about your ghost homing thing?"

"God, Tucker, I thought we had stopped calling it that," said Sam, punching Tucker in the arm.

"Okay, okay, whatever, but, seriously? I thought that you could always get home?"

"Well, usually," said Danny. He glanced at the palm of his left hand, at the electrical burn that spread out from its center. "But, this is... You remember how I was right after, you know, the Accident? Like, I held it together at the hospital, but after that I kept falling through things, or going invisible, or hovering? I don't even know if my ghost sense is going to work properly."

"Well," said Sam, "heck." She bit her lip. "But, Danny, are you sure that you're okay? I mean, you aren't in pain, or anything, right?"

Danny shook his head. "Just sore and tired." (This was one of those lies that wasn't worth mentioning. Danny was not okay.)

(The looks they all gave him told Danny that they didn't buy it for one second.)

"So, should we start looking for the door anyway?"

"Shh!" said Danny suddenly. "Do you hear that?" He tilted his head, and cupped his ear. There was rustling, a voice, muffled, but plaintive. "People are waking up."

"Really? I don't hear any-"

There was a high-pitched shriek, and Danny was on his feet, running towards the sound. He avoided people who were still lying prone, and the backpacks and other debris from the school that were strew all over the ground easily. (A little too easily, really. He could see in the dark, but still.)

It turned out that Mia was the one who screamed. Mia was one of those girls who was neither popular nor unpopular, but comfortably in the middle of the spectrum. She could hang around, if not with, the A-list without being harassed, but she could also be found regularly in the library, volunteered at the community center, and played the clarinet in band. She was a few inches taller than Danny (not much of an accomplishment, Danny was the shortest in their class by far), had hazel eyes and long brown hair, and liked the color green.

Danny had no idea why she had screamed. She was holding her eye, though, so maybe she had hurt it somehow.

"Mia? Mia, what's wrong?"

The girl looked up. "Danny?" she said incredulously. "What? What's going on?"

"I'm not entirely sure," said Danny, kneeling in front of her. He could fake calm for other people. "Why did you scream? Is something wrong with your eye?"

"I-um." Mia was blushing. "I guess I just got freaked out because I woke up outside. It's kind of silly, isn't it? Like, this kind of thing happens all the time." She sniffed. "But then I rubbed my I and I think I tore my contact, and it really hurts."

Danny sighed in relief. He had been worried. "Do you need help?"

"No, I've got it."

Danny looked away when the girl reached into her eye to pull out the contact. He had literally given himself stitches before, but for some reason, contact lenses always made him slightly squeamish.

"Do you know where we are, by the way?" asked Mia. She was still holding the one eye shut. "We're clearly not in town anymore, but I'm not, like, super familiar with the, um. What do you call it? The countryside? The rural area? You know what I mean?"

"Yeah, um."

Thankfully, Danny was spared by Sam reaching the two of them. Bless her for good timing and being able to run really fast.

"Everyone is waking up now," she said. "You said that you and Jazz saw Mr Lancer earlier?"

"Yeah?" said Danny, wondering where she was going with this.

"Well, we should find him. Since he's going to be in charge and all. Because he's the teacher."

Danny stared at her blankly. He had thought that since they were in the Ghost Zone, his parents would probably take charge, seeing as they were supposedly ghost experts- His train of thought came crashing to a halt. Oh. Yeah. That would probably be a bad thing. Right. Wow. Okay. So she wanted to manipulate things so that Mr Lancer was in charge.

Not his parents. That would be a disaster waiting to happen. Good thing Sam and Jazz (this was totally a Jazz thing) were 100% more sneaky than he was.

"Right," said Danny out loud. "Good idea. He was over this way, I think." Danny could, in fact, see Mr Lancer quite clearly from where they were, the teacher had wound up quite close to Mia, but he was pretty sure that no one else could. Danny waved at Jazz and Tucker, who were trailing some distance behind Sam, using their flashlight and PDA respectively to light their way. Then he stood, and offered a hand to Mia, who took it gratefully. By that time, Jazz and Tucker had caught up, and they were all able to walk together towards where Mr Lancer was now regaining consciousness.

Others were waking up, too. Some were demanding to know what was going on, others were assuming that they had been possessed again, and complaining about the inconvenience of being dumped on a random hill. One or two were trying to get their cell phones to work. Danny also distinctly heard Nathan and Lester, the twins, wondering out loud if stars could be green.

Even before their little group had reached Mr Lancer (going slow for Mia's sake, she couldn't see very well with only one contact, and her backup glasses were in her locker, back at school), the teacher had started to try to gather and take charge of the students. He really was making a heroic effort, but the other conversations and the darkness were making that difficult to do.

"Mr Lancer!" said Jazz as they approached. She would be the first one to greet the teacher.

"Night Watch! Miss Fenton! You nearly gave me a heart attack!" This was patiently untrue, but, well. Whatever. Mr Lancer was also the drama teacher, and this was kind of a dramatic situation. He was allowed to be dramatic. "Do you know what's going on?"

"Kind of," admitted Jazz. "But we should probably wait until everyone is here."

"Of course, you're right, Miss Fenton. Who else is with you? Ah, Mr Fenton, Miss Manson, Mr Foley, and... Miss Battaglia? Did you hurt your eye?"

"Just lost my contact," said Mia in a strained but cheerful tone.

"Oh. I see. I see." Mr Lancer then went back to trying to get everyone's attention. Most people were just straight up ignoring him, although Mikey had come over in the meantime.
(Worth noting: Mikey was the second shortest person in the class. He beat Danny out by a quarter of an inch, having passed him over the summer. This meant that he was the second most likely person to be shoved in a locker by Dash.)

Danny was starting to feel bad for Mr Lancer when, without warning, the ground beneath them erupted with more of those brilliant blue flowers. Once Danny quelled his initial surprise, and relaxed from his fighting stance, he saw that the flowers formed a starburst centered on Mr Lancer. The sudden light combined with the combined shrieks of Mr Lancer, Mia, and Mikey managed to draw everyone's attention.

Mr Lancer quickly moved away from the flowers. Generally, in Amity Park, glowing = dangerous. He did, however, take advantage of the fleeting attention of his students. It turned out that he was pretty good at that. Take the time he had fended off the Box Ghost with a rolled up magazine and a hysteric rant about pathos in Cannery Row, for example. Everyone had gotten an A on that test.

Soon, everyone was gathered. "Alright students," began the teacher, "I know this looks like a bad situation, but we've all been in worse." There was a murmur of agreement. "I must admit that I don't quite know what is going on, so we must first try to piece together what happened. Now," Mr Lancer raised his voice to be heard over the buzz of renewed conversations, "the last thing I can recall before waking here is Mrs Fenton using that weapon on Phantom." All eyes turned to the Fenton's. Danny saw with a jolt of horror that his mother was still holding that thing.

Characteristically, the Doctors Fenton weren't paying attention. Instead they were scanning the crowd with frowns on their faces.

Then, Danny met his mother's eyes through the lenses of her red-tinted goggles. Maddie's face brightened almost immediately. "Danny! Jazz!" she exclaimed. "There you are!" She and Jack pushed through the crowd. Admittedly, the students didn't give them much resistance. Danny tried very, very hard not to cringe when they wrapped him and Jazz in a hug. He failed, however, when the chill metal casing of the Fenton Mortifier brushed against the tiny stripe of exposed skin between the bottom of his shirt and the top of his jeans. Maddie pulled back, holding his shoulder with her free hand and examining his face. "Are you hurt, Danny?"

"No," said Danny, looking away, "I'm fine."

Mr Lancer cleared his throat. "Yes," he said, "well. I would like anyone who has something to add to raise their hands." The last three words were almost shouted. Mr Lancer looked expectantly at Jazz, but she did not raise her hand. Danny, too, looked at her curiously. That wasn't like her. Mr Lancer sighed and called on Paulina.

"Oh, there was that technology ghost, and then my ghost boy came to save us, and then the Fentons shot him with that awful weapon, and then he started screaming, and I was trying to help him but that nerd Lester-"

"Be kind, Miss Sanchez."

"-got in my way, and I fell down, and then it got really, really loud, and the next thing I know, I was here on this gross hill."

"Mr Spengler," said Mr Lancer tiredly. "That is, Nathan."

Nathan gave a similar account to the one that Jazz had given Danny. The others in the class more or less repeated it. The only difference was that none of them knew what the green swirl over Phantom's chest had been.

From the frowns over his parents' faces, though, they knew.

Finally, after everyone else had gone, Jazz raised her hand. Mr Lancer called on her. "Do you have anything to add about how we got here?"

"Yes," said Jazz decisively. "I just wanted to make sure that I was right first." She took a deep breath. "That green swirl you all saw? That was a portal to the Ghost Zone. I believe that we are currently in the Ghost Zone."

Dash scoffed. "Yeah, right! I saw the Ghost Zone when that freaky skeleton army took over. It didn't look anything like this. It was all green, and swirly"

"Yeah," said Tiffanie, backing up her boyfriend. "And there were these floating doors everywhere."

"I know," said Jazz. "I think that we might be behind one of those doors."

A few other people started to argue. The Fentons jumped in in defense of their daughter. Before too long, Danny had had enough.

"Look!" he said loudly. Well, as loudly as he could with his throat torn up the way it was. Good thing he had something of a commanding voice. "Even if this doesn't look like the Zone to you, you've got to admit that this isn't a normal place."

"Oh, yeah? Why, Fentonio?"

"First off, the flowers. Secondly, and most of you probably wouldn't have noticed this, but stars can't be green."

Everyone looked up. After a few seconds of everyone agreeing that, yeah, the stars looked kind of green, Mr Lancer sighed, deeply, as if he were dredging up the very dregs of his soul, as if he was about to do something that he knew he would regret, both immediately and for the rest of his life, and said, "I suppose that since this is the Ghost Zone, and you two are the experts, Mr and Mrs Fenton, that I should cede my authority to you for the duration of this crisis."

"No!"

Every eye turned to Danny, who had clamped his hands over his mouth.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Think Things Through

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"Sweetie, what do you mean, 'no?'" asked Maddie, clearly hurt.

Danny lowered his hands, thinking fast, keeping one part of his mind focused on staying visible. This would be a bad time to loose control.

"I-" stuttered Danny. "We- that is- um. I j-just." He steeled himself, and looked both of his parents in the eyes. "I don't think that would be a good idea."

"Why not, Danny-boy?" asked Jack, sounding lost. "We're the experts."

Danny badly wanted to scream that they weren't, but there was truth to Jack's statement. His parents were extraordinarily skilled ectologists, well versed in the theories of both ghost biology and spectral physics. The problem was that they had inherited a lot of prejudice from Jack's side of the family, which had included witch hunters, vampire hunters, exorcists, and other people who believed in but despised the supernatural on principle. That prejudice, coupled with the tradition of stories in which ghosts were the monsters, had turned into confirmation bias in their work, which led them to concluding that, because the few ghosts they had studied lacked recognizable nervous systems, all ghosts were mindless, heartless monsters. Imprints of the deceased, nothing more. Wrong, but understandable.

Instead, Danny took a deep breath. "Yeah. You are. But you don't think about the consequences when you do things."

"What do you mean?" asked Maddie, her frown deepening.

Danny played with the hem of his hoodie. "We're here in this situation because you didn't think things through."

"We're here because of that darn ghost kid!"

Danny flinched, his train of thought coming to a halt. All that was going through his mind now was stay visible stay visible stay visible.

"No, Dad, we aren't," this was Jazz, coming to the rescue. "We're here because you shot him with a thing designed to be traumatic without thinking about what he'd do next."

"Even putting aside the moral issues," added Sam, with the air of someone who very much did not want to put aside the moral issues, "you guys know that Phantom is powerful. You know about the Ghostly Wail. Um. The screaming thing. And I've sat through enough of your ghost lectures to know that you know that high tier powers like that are usually tied to a ghost's death."

"Yeah, so, really," said Tucker, looking intensely uncomfortable, "you could have predicted the Wail. You should have done controlled testing before using it in a combat environment with all of us innocent bystanders standing nearby. If he had really let loose, and the shield wasn't there, he could have probably brought the building down on us. Remember, he flattened a forest with it once." He seemed to realize what he was saying at the last minute, and looked at Danny apologetically.

"And don't try to say that no one could have predicted the portal," said Danny, finally picking up his own argument. "This isn't about that. It's about all the stuff you could have predicted, but you didn't. A-and you can't- you can't say that ghosts don't feel pain, or you didn't think Phantom'd react like that 'cause you wouldn't've made that if you didn't. I thought you were better than that" Danny sniffed, and to his consternation, found that he had started to cry. "I love you," said Danny, wiping at his eyes, "I really do. But I don't want to die because you guys decided to pick a fight with a ghost."

"Oh, Danny," said Maddie, softly, "I'm so sorry. We didn't know you felt that way." Behind her, Jack nodded convulsively. "We'll do better," she said. She looked at Jazz. "We'll do better," she repeated. "I promise, both of you." She pulled a strand of hair away from where the wind had blown it into her face. Danny only now noticed how the wind had picked up, and how the temperature had dropped. He shuddered. Not good. But Maddie still had more to say. "And when we get home, we'll try to find a more... humane way of dealing with ghosts. For now though..." she paused, frowning, and she turned to address Mr Lancer. "I'm afraid to say that this is the only weapon that came through with us. Or at least, the only weapon that was still with us when we woke up."

"But don't you always have, like, tons of weapons? In, like, your suits and stuff?" asked Star.

"Yes," said Maddie, "we do. But they were all gone when we woke up."

"That darn ghost kid must have taken them!" said Jack, loudly. Danny winced. If this really was his lair, then that statement wasn't entirely untrue.

"So you mean to say that if a ghost attacks us we'll be defenseless?" asked Mr Lancer in tones of alarm.

"Not quite," said Maddie grimly. "We have a small portable shield, and we still have the Mortifier." She hefted the gun, slightly. "Hopefully that will be enough of a deterrent."

Valerie cleared her throat. "That's not all we have," she said. She was clearly nervous. Was she going to..? "I've got a couple blasters with me." Ah, so she wasn't going to reveal herself as Red Huntress. Okay. That would have been a surprise. "And I saw a bunch of stuff from the gym kind of scattered around. Like, you know, backpacks and stuff. Maybe some other weapons came through?"

Mr Lancer clapped his hands together, making everyone jump. "Excellent idea Miss Gray! Our first order of business should be to determine our resources. We should look for backpacks, tools, pieces of the gym, anything that might help us survive or get home. We should spread out. Work in pairs or small groups. Stay in sight of these... flowers." He gestured to the starburst. "Bring everything you find back here."

The students separated along clique lines. Dash, Kwan, and Tiffanie stuck together. Paulina and Star browbeat Dale into 'protecting' them. Elliot and the Spengler twins grouped up, much to Nathan's disgust. Mia, Hannah, and Sarah went together. Mikey and Ricky, who were best friends, grouped up. Rebecca and Ashley stuck with Mr Lancer. Valerie ignored directions and went off on her own. Jack and Maddie, reading the atmosphere around their children for once, decided to strike out together.

This meant that there there were two dozen teens stumbling around in the darkness. The flowers and the stars gave off light, but not that much light, and cell phone lights were of limited utility.

"This would be easier if we had more light," said Sam.

"Probably," said Jazz, pointing her little flashlight at the ground.

"I can see fine," said Danny, his tone teasing. He desperately wanted to take his mind off what had just happened.

"Of course you can," said Tucker with exasperation. "Show off."

"Hey!" The voice was faint. Hannah, perhaps? Danny couldn't quite tell. "What's that?"

Danny scanned the hillside until he found someone pointing, and then followed her finger to the horizon. His eyebrows went up. Yeah. That was weird.

"Is that the moon?" demanded Tucker.

"That's way too big," said Sam.

"Yeah," agreed Danny, watching the white curve come up. "It's coming up too fast, too." He was more bemused by this than anything else. They were in the ghost zone, after all.

In a couple of minutes, the whole landscape was bathed in silvery moonlight. A few moments more, and the moon- well, the not-moon- was overhead.

"So. That was really convenient."

"Yep."

"Right after we were complaining about how dark it was."

"Yep."

"Not the first really convenient thing to happen, either."

"Nope."

Sam cocked her head to one side. "Wow. You know what would be great? If a portal home showed up right now." Nothing happened. "Eh. It was worth a shot."

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: Lights in the Dark

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With the light from the not-moon, the work of collecting all of the backpacks and other debris went quite quickly. One by one, the groups, not finding anything more to pick up, began to drift back.

There were no weapons, unless one counted a baseball bat. It didn't even have the word 'Fenton' written on the side. Danny was relieved.

More worryingly, there wasn't much in the way of food. The assembly had been called after lunch, and even if it hadn't been, most people at Casper High bought the school lunch. A few bags had chips, crackers, cookies, or uneaten vegetables, but even factoring in the bags from people who weren't there, there wasn't enough to keep everyone fed for a day, let alone for however long they were going to be here. Worse, hardly anyone had water.

Danny cautiously raised his hand after the last revelation.

"Do you have something to add, Mr Fent- Danny," Mr Lancer said tiredly, changing his mind on how to address Danny halfway through. Danny supposed that Mr Lancer didn't want to inadvertently set off one of Jack Fenton's infamous, rambling, rants.

"I think that there might be water past those trees at the bottom of the hill." Danny had asked Sam, Tucker, and Jazz whether or not they could see the water. They had said that they could see something beyond the trees, but they couldn't tell if it was water or not. Danny had decided that it wouldn't be too much of a stretch for him to be able to see that far, in this light.

Mr Lancer peered towards the base of the hill. "We'll have to look into that. Did anyone else see anything strange? Useful?" Mikey raised his hand. "Mr Erikson?"

"Ricky and I saw a building," said Mikey.

Mr Lancer blinked. "Really? What kind of building? Where?"

"One of those little round buildings, with pillars," said Ricky Marsh. "It's at the top."

"A gazebo?"

"No," said Mikey, shaking his head. "It was made of stone, with walls. It was one of those things you see in really fancy cemeteries."

"Ah. A small tomb then. Odd thing to have in the Ghost Zone."

No one really wanted to go check out the creepy tomb at the top of the hill, and water was a priority, so after gathering the most important items together, they all started down the hill. It took a long time to get to the trees. Longer than Danny thought it should have, but then, they were walking very slowly. The others weren't used to this kind of thing, and Danny was still exhausted. At least it was all downhill.

As the hill started to level out, the class began to slow. Mr Lancer came to a halt several meters from the trees. Conversations that had been subdued before, while they were walking, began to rise in volume until Paulina cried, "We don't have to go in there do we?"

"Can't we wait until the sun comes up?" demanded Lester.

"The sun might never come up here, you doofus," said his twin.

"Maybe we shouldn't all go in?" asked Elliot. "Maybe just, you know, you people who do like, martial arts and stuff."

"Didn't you tell me that you did martial arts last week?" asked Rebecca archly.

"Uhh. No?"

Danny didn't entirely understand what everyone's problem was. The trees weren't any denser than the ones in the parks in and around Amity Park, and it was any darker here than Amity Park at night. The trees weren't even horror movie trees, all gnarled and pale, rotting leaves clinging to dead, skeletal branches. No. These were proper, healthy trees, with leaves and needles still affixed to their limbs. Just right for the beginning of October, although otherwise it was a bit warm.

Yeah. He didn't get it.

"We-" Mr Lancer faltered. "We will split up. I'll ask for volunteers to go through with me and Mrs Fenton, and everyone else will stay here. Who was it who had that yarn?"

"That was me!" said Sarah. Her appearance was almost stereotypically Irish, freckles, red-blonde hair and all. Almost, because she very rarely wore green, and because she could take a tan. She flipped her bag off her shoulder, and pulled out the yarn.

"Now, volunteers?"

It took some time to figure out who was going and who was staying. People kept changing their minds when they saw who else was going and who was staying. Eventually, it wound up being Mr Lancer, Maddie, Danny, Jazz, Sam, Valerie, Dash, Kwan, Ricky and Mikey on the 'going' team, and Jack, Tucker, Paulina, Star, Ashley, Nathan, Lester, Rebecca, Mia, Hannah, Dale, Sarah, and Tiffanie on the 'staying' team. They, meaning Team Phantom, had decided that Tucker should stay on the principle that at least one competent person should be staying. Sam had argued that Danny should stay and rest, but Danny didn't want to let that thing out of sight.

Maddie went first. Then Mr Lancer and Valerie, with Valerie carrying one of her blasters. Jazz, Sam and Danny went last. Everyone else sort of bunched together in the middle.

Mr Lancer paused at the first tree to tie the end of the yarn to a branch. The hope was that they'd be able to follow the yarn back if they got lost. Danny thought that was rather optimistic. If they got attacked by anything, the string would probably snap. Heck, the string might snap if the person holding it tripped, or if they didn't spool it out fast enough, or if there were any animals in the woods who messed with it, or if it got abraded or cut by a rough bit of bark. Or any number of other things. It wasn't like their luck had been spectacular thus far.

On the other hand, Danny's portal hadn't dumped them on Skulker's island, or the Burning Lands, or any one of a number of nasty, simply inconvenient, or uncomfortable places he had visited in the Ghost Zone since he was fourteen. Actually, even places that Danny liked, like the Far Frozen, were too conducive to, well, life. His class would not have appreciated hypothermia. Or freezing to death. Thinking about it that way, they were downright blessed.

It was much darker under the branches of the trees, but Maddie and Mr Lancer insisted that they conserve their batteries, especially on the phones, so only Maddie, Jazz and Lancer had flashlights on. This made the people in the middle bunch up even more.

Danny was squeezed in between Sam and Jazz. At first he wasn't sure why they were walking so close to him, but then he remembered how much he had been flickering earlier, and figured that they were protecting him from view. He was so lucky to have friends who thought about these things.

There were quite a ways in, maybe a quarter of a mile, when Danny's ghost sense went off. He tensed, shivering. It was good to know that his ghost sense was functional, but the fact that it made him so cold was not. It hadn't chilled him that much since before he got his ice powers under control. He didn't know what it meant, but he wasn't happy about it.

"What's wrong?" muttered Sam, leaning slightly closer to Danny.

"Just got a chill," he said, using their code for his ghost sense. He was scanning the trees as they walked, looking for whoever had set off his ghost sense. Beside him, Jazz and Sam were doing the same. Danny was so intent on looking, that he tripped over a tree root, and would have face-planted if Sam and Jazz hadn't caught him. All the others turned to look back at them. Danny blushed, taking up his stay visible chant again, and rubbed the back of his neck.

"Freaking klutz gonna get us all killed," muttered Dash.

"It isn't like you're any better," said Ricky. Danny blinked. The curly-haired boy was usually pretty timid. Then again, he and Mikey had come into the woods. Danny allowed himself a tiny smile. Sometimes crises did good things.

Then his ghost sense went off again. That meant that the ghost was still nearby.

"Mr Marsh, Mr Baxter," said Mr Lancer. "Please, consider the situation."

There was a tense moment. Danny chose to ignore it. He was still looking for the ghost.

He only saw it after they started moving again, and when he did he almost staggered in relief. He did lean into Jazz a little. It was a will'o-the-wisp, a blue-green dot of light about the size of his thumb. Harmless, to both ghosts and humans. Well, as long as the humans in question didn't follow them into a swamp or whatever. They tended to live in other ghost's territories, whether that territory was a realm, a lair, or a haunt, for protection.

There was a clan of them living in Amity Park. They were nice. Friendly. Helpful. Useful, too. They liked to eat popcorn and cotton candy. Their language was a bit strange, combining color, brightness, pitch, and tone. It had taken Danny forever to learn, and he still couldn't really speak it, seeing as he couldn't change color, and, sadly, his vocal cords, while quite remarkable, couldn't handle trombone sounds.

The presence of the wisp was good for other reasons. It meant that if there was a stronger ghost here, that is, stronger than a wisp, then that ghost wasn't terribly territorial (Danny still wasn't entirely convinced that this was his lair).

The thing was, that where there was one wisp, there were others. Danny's ghost sense went off again and again and again, as little lights flitted between the branches.

(Danny didn't get why the people up ahead weren't noticing. Sam and Jazz weren't seeing as many as he was, but they were still seeing them. He supposed that this was just another example of Amity Park obliviousness.)

Danny was freezing from the inside out. He had retreated into his hoodie, pulling the hood down, tucking his hands into his sleeves, and crossing his arms. He was breathing heavily, trying to use the slightly warmer air to thaw himself. Sam and Jazz were now even closer to him, their arms touching his, sharing their warmth.

There was something in the air, though. Something familiar, but distinct from the green-gold scent of the early-fall woods. Something sweet.

"Apples?" he asked, faintly. The cold had done away with all the progress his voice had made in the past couple of hours. He began to look more closely at the trees. Food was a problem. If there was food here, it would be helpful. "That's an apple tree," he said, pointing.

"What's wrong?" asked Jazz.

"That's an apple tree," he repeated. "It has apples."

Jazz shone her flashlight at the tree, revealing red-cheeked apples hanging among the green leaves like so many rubies. "Oh? Oh! Mr Lancer! There are apples on these trees."

"Wonderful work Miss Fenton!" Mr Lancer said, turning. Danny squinted when the the teacher's flashlight's beam passed over his eyes.

"Actually, it was-"

"Finally, food!" shouted Dash, practically throwing himself at the tree. Jeez, he was loud.

"Wait!" shouted Maddie, even louder. Danny flinched hard. Supernaturally good senses were not always comfortable. (At least, that was what he blamed his flinch on.)

"What?" demanded Dash petulantly.

"It might not be safe," said Maddie. "Remember, we aren't in the human world any more. We're in the Ghost Zone. We don't know if these are safe to eat. They could be ectocontaminated."

"Mom," said Jazz, incredulously, "almost all of the food we eat is ectocontaminated."

"No it isn't," said Maddie, defensively.

"We haven't used the meat drawer in the fridge since it got taken over by animate hot dogs."

"That's different than this," protested Maddie. "Those apple could be made of ectoplasm. They could be actively poisonous. They could be here to act as food chains. Besides, we never expected you to eat those hot dogs."

"We ate the turkey, Mom, what about the turkey?" asked Jazz. "We had to re-kill that with a broom."

"Food chains?" interrupted Ricky, somewhat desperately.

"We haven't had any proof," said Maddie, "but some accounts suggest that by eating a ghost's food, you can become bound to it or its realm."

"I thought that was fairies," said Mikey.

Maddie sniffed. "Those stories are clearly about ghosts. If you look back far enough in any-"

This was when the will'o-the-wisps decided to swarm the group.

Everything happened remarkably quickly after that.

The Fenton Mortifier came up, to train on the swarm. Valerie raised her weapon, too, but Danny hardly noticed. Danny was too focused on that thing and how oh, Ancients, she was going to use it again.

(The will'o-the-wisps weren't Dead. They were Deathless. They had never died. But Danny wasn't thinking about that, and even if he had been, Danny had no desire to find out how they were affected by that thing.)

Whatever had broken in Danny earlier had sharp edges.

A wooden spear shot from the apple tree, impaling the silvery gun. Maddie screamed, falling back, just in time for the spear, still connected to the tree, to pulse once, shattering the gun. Danny registered a splash of red against the teal of his mother's jumpsuit, and it couldn't be. That was too much blood.

Then the energy from all the wisps hit him like a train.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: A Few Facts

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Some facts about ghosts.

Ghosts eat.

Exactly what a ghost eats varies from ghost to ghost. Some ghosts like human food. Undergrowth could get away with light and soil. Nocturne liked dreams. Spectra ate your depression, then followed that back to suck away your life force. Ember got a kick out of worship.

All ghosts, though, can at least absorb ectoplasmic energy, and excess emotional energy.

Different ghosts have different tastes. Spectra is a good example, favoring depression over all else. Other ghosts hate the flavor of emotion, preferring the pure taste of ecto-energy.

It is possible, if rare, for a ghost to 'overeat.' Adult ghosts, after all, can simply stop.

For child ghosts, though, things are different. Child ghosts can't stop. They absorb energy constantly. They need to absorb energy constantly. This means that they are more prone to overeating.

The symptoms of this are not severe. Lethargy, followed by increased energy.

Incidentally, the reason that so many ghosts tolerated wisps in their territories, was that will'o-the-wisps can process one type of energy, into another type of energy. They can alter ectoplasmic energy into excess emotional energy. They can change negative emotional energies into positive ones. Sadness into joy. Or vice versa, depending on the tastes of the ghost they are catering to.

They can also hold onto a great deal of energy for an extended period of time. This means that they are always prepared to feed the ghost in whose territory they reside.

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Danny was a ghost. A child ghost, to be precise.

He was also human.

He was also neither.

Both.

Either.

There were some things that affected Danny as if he was a ghost, all the time, regardless of what form he was in. The Specter Deflector, for example. Or the Boo-merang. Some things affected Danny as if he was human at all times. It could be rather interesting to be hit by something that could supposedly vibrate ghosts into goo, only to have it tickle slightly, or to have someone announce that they were using some ancient defense against evil spirits, only for it to affect every ghost in the area except Danny. With other things, the effects were mixed. Such as with Ember's music, or Freakshow's staff (although Danny was never entirely sure if his lingering humanity was the reason that he was able to resist the later). With a few things, whether or not they affected him depended on which form he was in. Like ghost shields. Sometimes, there were things that were hurtful to both humans and ghosts that didn't touch Danny at all.

Then there were some things that were harmless to humans and ghosts, but could be very dangerous to Danny.

Like the will'o-the-wisps.

Over time, Danny and his friends had discovered that absorbing too much excess emotional energy could affect Danny strangely. It had taken them a while to figure out. For the longest time, Danny hadn't even realized what he was doing. He didn't actually know for sure what he was doing until he'd had a long conversation about it with one of the Far Frozen doctors.

Even now, Danny wasn't always sure how different emotions affected him, and they did seem to affect him differently. Sam's theory was that it was an absorption rate issue, and that depending on his own emotions at the time, he absorbed different kinds of energy at different rates, and that the energy that he didn't absorb hung around, and messed with him. Tucker and Jazz thought that it had more to do with a subconscious awareness of what was going on, and what emotions were 'in the air.' (Tucker had gotten way, way too many jokes out of that.) Danny wasn't sure this was the case. The proportions of the emotions seemed to matter.

Danny had managed to at least figure out how different things usually affected him. Too much anger made him nervous, shy. Too much fear made him aggressive and paranoid. Depression made him, well, depressed.

The will'o-the-wisps back home, in Amity Park, knew very well that Danny had these issues. They knew that it was important for him to have a balanced diet.

These ones, here, they had never met Danny. But they were eager, or least anxious, to meet the ghost whose lair had sheltered them so gently for the past two years. They wanted, needed, to show him that they were useful, to show him that they could stay.

They did that by releasing as much of as many different types of energy as possible.

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Sam didn't immediately register the presence of the wisps as a bad thing, except for the firefight they'd inadvertently started. She didn't interact with the ones in Amity Park nearly as much as Danny did, but she did know them, knew that they were friendly.

Mrs Fenton getting stabbed by the apple tree after trying to fire on the will'o-the-wisps was not something that Sam would have expected, even knowing that the plants here were animate. Valerie shooting at the little ghosts oddly did not elicit the same response. Mr Lancer, Dash, Kwan, Ricky and Mikey were panicking. Well. To be more accurate, Dash and Kwan were panicking, Ricky and Mikey were hiding, and Mr Lancer was trying to salvage the situation.

That was just within the first few seconds of the wisps showing up.

In the next second, Danny was gripping Sam's coat as if his life depended on it. Sam looked at him, and traced his gaze up, to the luminous, kaleidoscopic, symphonic, swirl that was centered just a meter over Danny's head.

It was only then that Sam remembered all the trouble Danny had had with the wisps when they first moved into Amity. She looked back at Danny, alarmed, and saw how blank his expression was. Then Jazz caught Sam's eye, and they each knew that the other had just come to the same conclusion.

"Go help your mom," said Sam. "I've got this." That was the right decision, wasn't it? Danny would never forgive himself if his mother bled out because she and Jazz were too worried about him to help her (even if his mother had done far worse to him that very day). Mr Lancer probably had first aid training, but Jazz had first aid experience.

Jazz nodded, and struggled out of her jacket, which Danny also had in a death grip, and ran over to her mother, making sure to trip Valerie up while she was at it. Good old Jazz.
Okay. So, how had they dealt with this before?

"Hey!" Sam yelled up at the wisps, trying to shout over their music. She waved with the arm that wasn't trapped by Danny. She spent what felt like hours, but was probably only seconds, trying to get the attention of the wisps, only to conclude that they were either ignoring her or didn't understand English. Fine.

She looked back at Danny. Oh, jeez, he was not looking good. She pulled at him, trying to get him to look at her. When he finally did turn, it was to reveal that there was a needle-thin line of toxic, glowing green in each of his irises.

"Sam?" he said softly, only audible to Sam because of how close he was standing. He dropped Jazz's jacket, and raised his hand to touch Sam's face. His hand was painfully cold. "Are you scared?" he asked, sounding both confused and slightly offended. He blinked once, slowly, and tilted his head. "Is someone hurt? I smell blood."

Wow. What was it with Danny and saying super ominous things when under the influence of mind-affecting supernatural shenanigans? What was it about this situation that even made Sam think the word 'shenanigans?!'

"Danny," she said, as calmly as possible, "I need you to ask them to stop."

"Ask who to stop? Mikey and Ricky? They're just playing hide-and-seek. Would you like to play? I think that we should all play. It'll be fun!" Danny's mouth stretched into a smile that was much wider than it should have been.

"No, Danny, not right now. You need to tell the wisps to stop feeding you. You know it's not good for you."

"But they're so happy."

"I know Danny, but I think they'd prefer it if you were healthy, right?"

"Mm," hummed Danny. Then he hummed some more, turning back to the swirl of light and sound above him. Then he whistled, sharply, and the wisps, for the most part, fell silent. A few jingled excitedly, but another, larger instance squealed at them in reprimand, sounding like nothing so much as a shrieking clarinet. Danny hummed at the wisps some more, and the largest of them, which was just slightly larger than a beach ball, floated down to Danny, whereupon it uttered a few inquisitive bars of oboe and cello music, flashing in shades of green, blue and orange.

Valerie shot at it.

The shot was blocked by a falling branch.

The wisps responded by rumbling like a forest of drums. Loud, low, and deep. Valerie paled. She had no idea that this was just an intimidation tactic. That the wisps had no means of backing up the threat.

The large wisp continued to float down, and Danny raised his hands to meet it, releasing Sam's coat. Once the wisp had settled in his arms, Danny brought it down, close to him, cuddling the little ghost as if it were a stuffed animal.

"Pretty," he said finally, as if that explained everything.

"Danny?" said Mrs Fenton.

Danny started to turn to her. Sam grabbed him. Danny looking at Mrs Fenton would be bad for two reasons. One, he'd see that, despite Jazz's best efforts, Mrs Fenton was covered in blood, and probably freak out. Two, his eyes were still messed up, and Mrs Fenton, not to mention Valerie, would inevitably interpret that as evidence of possession.

There was a moment of silence, as everyone processed what she had done. Above them, there were a few bell-like titters from the ghosts.

"Danny," said Mrs Fenton again, more sternly. "Show me your eyes."

Of course Mrs Fenton could have already come to the conclusion that he had been possessed.

This time, Sam wasn't able to hold Danny back. He turned, facing his mother, Jazz, and Mr Lancer. The sharp intake of breath from all three of them told Sam that the green light in Danny's eyes was clearly visible.

"Sam," said Mrs Fenton, with an air of forced calmness, "step away from Danny. Now."

As if Sam was going to do that. She glared at the older woman, shifting even closer to her friend. Mrs Fenton frowned, but turned her attention, and her glare back to her son.

"Get away from my son, ghost."

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Perspectives

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Maddie's wounds weren't as bad as Jazz had initially feared. The cut across her bicep was ragged, yes, but not deep. The one on her lower arm was a bit more troubling. It looked as though the spear had at first pierced the flesh on the outside of her radius, and then torn through it simply by virtue of the spear's diameter increasing as it was propelled forward. Still, it hadn't damaged the radial artery, so as long as they could get it wrapped up, it should be fine.

What really bothered Jazz, though, was that her mother had been covered in a tacky red ooze that had seeped from the broken remains of the Fenton Mortifier. She didn't know what it was, and she didn't know what it could do.

Maddie insisted that it was fine. That the substance was harmless, except to ghosts. Jazz wanted to believe that, but she highly doubted that her parents had tested the substance's effects in the human bloodstream, which is where it was going to be if Jazz didn't get Maddie's wounds cleaned.

So Jazz was a little too busy to notice what was going on with Sam and Danny, or even to pay much attention to the wisps that were providing all of her light, right up until Maddie said Danny's name, and Sam failed to keep Danny from turning to answer her.

Now Maddie's demand that the ghost get away from Danny hung in the air. Jazz bit her lip. Did Maddie mean the wisp? Did she not see Danny's eyes? There was always hope, right?

"Get away from my son!" repeated Maddie angrily, surging to her feet. "Get out of him! How dare you possess my Danny, you barely corporeal waste of space!"

A tiny frown creased Danny's face. "Rude," he said. Then, "You're hurt." He sounded surprised and concerned, if only mildly. He then vanished, only to reappear inches in front of Maddie.

Maddie started backwards, but regained her balance well enough to try to punch the will'o-the-wisp in Danny's arms. Danny caught her by the wrist of her injured arm, causing Maddie to gasp in pain.

"Why do you always want to hurt me?" asked Danny. "I'm just trying to help." He turned to Jazz. "Is it some kind of psychology thing?"

"Danny-"

"Don't talk to it, Jazz!"

"Rude," said Danny, and Jazz saw his grip on their mother's arm tighten. Danny hummed, contemplatively.

Maddie didn't react though, except to grit her teeth and say, "Resorting to violence just to get your way, Phantom?"

"No," said Danny, and he set her arm on fire.

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Jazz rapidly realized that Danny had not, in fact, set their mother's arm on fire. Yes, it certainly looked as if he had, as if Maddie's arm was wreathed with yellow-green fire. Yes, Maddie was screaming as if she was indeed on fire. But Maddie's arm wasn't crisping, there was no smell of burning, and Jazz was familiar with several ectoplasmic reactions and ghost powers that looked exactly the same, not the least of which was ignis fatuus, something that will'o-the-wisps were quite good at.

So Jazz wasn't terribly surprised when both Danny and the fire vanished, leaving Maddie's arm intact.

Wait. Intact.

Intact.

As in, healed. No longer wounded. Whole. The hole in her forearm was gone, as was the scratch on her bicep. How had Danny done that? Since when had he been able to do that? Or had the wisp done that, somehow? Wisps weren't very strong, and rarely had powers beyond the three basics and their energy filtering ability, but that was by far the largest wisp Jazz had ever seen. They tended to be closer to tennis balls in size.

More importantly: Where had Danny gone?

Actually, no, never mind, there he was, hiding shyly behind Sam. He was fully visible, but oddly hard to see. Jazz wouldn't have spotted him except that the will'o-the-wisps were all crowded around him.

Danny caught her eye and giggled. The wisps chimed and twinkled.

The sound drew the attention of the others, including Sam, who, from the way she jumped, had somehow not noticed Danny hiding behind her.

"You-!" began Maddie, clearly furious.

"I know what we should do!" said Danny, happily, bouncing slightly. "We should play a game. Like tag! Or hide-and-seek! Or, oh, oh, hide-and-seek tag! Team hide-and-seek tag! Oh my gosh this is going to be so much fun. Everyone has twenty minutes, okay? Okay!"

Then he disappeared. For real, this time. Seconds later, the wisps were all gone as well, dispersed into the woods, taking their light with them.

Mr Lancer, thankfully had left his flashlight on, even though he had dropped it, so they weren't in complete darkness. Jazz started looking for where she had dropped hers.

"Oh my god," said Maddie, breaking the silence. "Oh my god, my baby boy..."

"Mrs Fenton," Mr Lancer began cautiously, "Maddie, are you sure that was Phantom?"

"I thought- But his eyes... That wasn't a typical pattern. Maybe... Mind control instead of outright possession... Why do you ask?"

"He healed you, that doesn't seem like something Phantom would do after..."

Maddie blinked and stared down at her arm, as if she hadn't even noticed. She frowned. "No, it doesn't. It is possible for a host's personality to come through in the case of mind control. Theoretically, anyway." She frowned, deeply. "Mr Lancer, you should take the children back. I'm going to go after Danny."

"I don't think that's going to be possible," said Jazz. She had finally found her flashlight, and was now playing the little beam around the trees.

"What do you..?" Mr Lancer trailed off, seeing what Jazz was seeing, or rather, not seeing what Jazz wasn't seeing. "The Invisible Man, where did they all go?"

Not only Danny, but Sam, Valerie, Dash, Kwan, Mikey, and Ricky were all gone.

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Back on the mortal plane, in a government-owned office complex an hour's drive from Amity Park, a confidential meeting was taking place.

"... so you see, if we play this correctly, we can not only gain access to the Fenton Portal and all their research," said a reedy man in a white suit, "but sufficient funding to mount an expedition to the Core of the Ghost Zone."

"And finally destroy it."

"Well, yes," said the reedy man, nervously, tapping the pointer in his hand rhythmically against his thigh. "That goes without saying."

"What about the children?" asked one older man.

"Well, of course we'll look for them. But we have to think about the greater good."

"Young man, if we tell the public that we are taking their money to go find twenty-four civilians, twenty-one of which are school children, we had better not come back without them."

"No," said a woman. "In the end, their survival, even the survival of this organization, is irrelevant. Our only goal should be to destroy those monsters."

"Miss Green, please," interjected yet another man, this one with an impeccably pressed suit and styled hair. "I think that our operatives are more than skilled enough to complete both objectives. The retrieval of the students and their teacher, and the obliteration of all ectoplasmic filth." Then he smiled. "But, Mr Brown, if you are worried that our organization will become obsolete, well, if you will recall, ectoplasm has uses beyond weaponry."

"Most of those uses are patented by the Fentons," pointed out the older man.

"Yes, and wouldn't it be tragic if none of them were to make it back?"

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Valerie took off as soon as the ghost possessing Danny did. It was easy. She had already been fading away, trying to find enough cover to change into her suit. It was the only way she could think of to get Danny back. Valerie's suit had Phantom's ectosignature saved to its tracking device.

She activated her suit, mentally urging it to find Phantom. Her board sprung from her boots, and she angled upwards, through the foliage, shielding her face with her arms.

The glow her tracker was easy to see in the moonlight. She ignored the smaller signals, the ones labeled with numbers. Those were surely those smaller, glowing orbs. She looked for Phantom's signature.

It wasn't there. Valerie growled in frustration. How was it that Phantom always disappeared?

But... Maybe it wasn't Phantom that had possessed Danny? Maybe it was one of those smaller ghosts? But then the question was, why wouldn't they possess all of them?

Valerie answered her own question. Because ghosts loved nothing more than causing pain, whether that pain be physical or emotional. The only exception was Danielle, and that was because she wasn't really a ghost. She tapped her tracker again, trying to change it so that it followed the strongest ectosignature.

Right before she did so, however, the screen flickered, and it briefly showed Phantom's signature as coming from everywhere. Valerie stared at the screen, mouth suddenly very dry. She might not be a scientist, like Mrs Fenton, but she did make sure to know how her equipment worked. She had spent hours talking to Vlad about it, particularly the scanner, before he had revealed himself to be a ghost. Half-ghost. Whatever.

The only reason for the tracker to pick up Phantom's signature as coming from all directions, was if this was his lair.

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Dash wasn't scared of ghosts. He was a big, tough guy. The quarterback. The leader of his team. The leader of his school. A guy like that couldn't be scared of ghosts, especially in a town like Amity Park.

But an army of ghosts converging on him from all sides?

Yeah. So he panicked. So sue him. He ran away from those ghosts as fast as his legs could take him, trying to follow the yarn out of the woods.

But then he heard something chasing him.

He put on another burst of speed, no longer caring where he was running. It was too dark to see where he was going, anyway. Then he tripped, fell, and whatever was chasing him fell on top of him, knocking all the breath out of him.

As soon as he regained his wits, he started to fight against his attacker. But the thing that was on top of him began to speak in a familiar voice.

"Dude! Stop!"

"Kwan?"

"Yeah, man."

"What are you doing?"

"What are you doing? Fenton's mom and Valerie are the only ones that can fight ghosts. What if you got ambushed out here?" The shadow that was Kwan looked around. "Crud, it's dark out here."

"Yeah. You think they've gotten rid of those ghosts yet?"

"You see what that one gun did to Phantom? And you know Val went off the deep end since Paulina kicked her off the A-list. Yeah. I think they've beaten those ghosts by now."

"Okay," said Dash. He took Kwan's hand and let himself be pulled up.

"You didn't sprain your ankle or anything, man?"

"Me?" Dash snorted. "No way. Now, uh, what direction did we come from? Kwan? Dude?"

"Crud."

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Ricky and Mikey had intended to hide. Just hide. Really. They weren't going to run away like idiots (also known as Dash and Kwan). Staying with the actual ghost hunter was a much better plan than running off into a dark forest that you knew was haunted.

So they ducked behind a tree. That's all they did.

Until a bunch of curious ghosts phased through the tree they were hiding behind. Then they did run. But only a little. Only to the next tree.

They didn't notice the hole until they had fallen into it. It wasn't their fault. The shadows had hidden it perfectly.

They were so surprised, they didn't even scream on the way down.

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Sam, like Valerie, left to go after Danny.

Unlike, Valerie, however, Sam had no ghost tracking devices. Well, no ghost tracking devices except for her eyes. Her plan was to follow the still-visible wisps, and hope that they led her to Danny.

Meanwhile, a question was echoing in her head. What the heck was team hide-and-seek tag?

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: Clarity

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It took Danny hours to recover. It happened slowly. First a feeling that something wasn't quite right. Then the feeling of detachment, of distance receded, and suddenly he realized that team hide-and-seek tag wasn't a real thing.

That wasn't good. He had just told his friends that they were playing a game that didn't exist, and then he ran off. With Leader. That was the wisp he was carrying. Not his actual name, which was a series of oboe and violin tones and two particular shades of blue, but that couldn't be translated into English as a name. So. Leader. Because he was the clan leader. Leader was very nice, and soft, and fuzzy, and squishy, and pretty.

Danny let himself be distracted by Leader's superior qualities for a few minutes, during which he cuddled into and mumbled at the ghost. Leader returned Danny's mumbles with comforting piano notes.

But he couldn't ignore the problem forever. He had to find his friends so that they could figure out a new game to play. One that everyone knew. That wasn't too bad. It would be just like regular hide-and-seek.

Danny sighed. No wonder his mom had been so mad at him. He'd been the rude one all along.

He frowned. There was something bothering him about the whole conversation. He didn't want to think about it. He wasn't in the mood to think back. He wanted to go back to skipping and frolicking through the woods, examining the flowers, eating things, like apples, pears, limes, and the odd insect, because he could.

Still, he couldn't do that when his friends weren't happy. And they weren't going to be happy when they were stuck playing a game that they didn't know the rules for.

But hadn't his mother been upset before he said anything about the game?

So what had happened? He had healed her arm. She'd done something awful to it, and it had been covered in something gross that had reacted weirdly violently with his ectoplasm. Surely she wasn't mad about that? Before that, she'd said something about using violence to get his way? That couldn't be right, he'd never- Unless he counted fighting with ghosts and ghost hunters. He did do that. But it was to help people. To keep them safe and happy. Not to 'get his way.'

Why would she say that? Why would she be so mean? It wasn't like her.

His humming took on a distressed edge as he tried to recall exactly what Maddie had said to him.

'Resorting to violence just to get your way, Phantom?'

He examined the sentence. The question? Was she confused about what he was doing? Did she not know that he was trying to help? But she knew him. He'd never hurt her! He didn't want to hurt anyone. Ever. She knew that, right? Right?

It wasn't like she hadn't known it was him. She'd called him by name!

She had called him by name.

She had called him Phantom.

Phantom.

She knew.

Danny was so caught up in his internal anguish that he didn't even notice that he had curled into a ball on the ground, his hands knotted into his hair. Leader and several other wisps hovered over him worriedly.

She knew.

She knew and she hated him. They all hated him. He was the worst. What was he doing? They were probably hunting him down right now. He sobbed. They all hated him. It was all his fault. He couldn't exactly put his finger on what 'it' was, but it was definitely his fault and he knew it. What was wrong with him?

The wisps brushed against him, trying to give him comfort, but Danny was basically insensate at this point. Still, the contact eventually made him realize that not everyone hated him, and he crawled into a tree to sing to the little ghosts.

Then he began, at last, to regain enough focus to remember what had happened before healing his mother. Considering that she had been wounded in that time period, this just made Danny freak out again. Somehow, he had forgotten that in order to be healed, a person first had to be hurt.

It was a bit of a cycle. Danny thinking of something that upset him, calming down, getting distracted, trying to figure out how the situation had come about in the first place, and freaking out again. However, as time went on, the calm periods got longer, and he spent less and and less time distracted by trees, or flowers, or odd looking shadows. On the other hand, his underlying anxiety began to build. Yes, it was somewhat muted due to what Danny now recognized as an energy overload, but it was still there, and growing, and it was what was fueling his intermittent panic attacks.

So Danny did the only thing that his rather abused mind considered logical.

He found a hole and hid in it.

It was a nice, deep, dark hole. More like a cave than anything else. So dark, no one would be able to see the lights of the wisps that accompanied him, let alone the lights of his eyes. So deep, no one would hear him humming and singing to the wisps, or the wisps responding to him. The walls were sturdy, so if his powers did something strange (and he could now recall several strange things that he had done while his was out of his mind, including whatever he had done to Maddie's arm) he probably wouldn't do any damage.

No one would find him. He'd be safe. They'd be safe.

He let himself relax a little, and found a nice alcove to tuck himself into, a little divot in the stone that was just the right size to cradle his body. He spoke to Leader and the other wisps, then. They deserved an explanation for all the craziness Danny had put them through, especially since Danny had essentially kidnapped Leader.

They were alright with that, though, strangely enough. Leader was a very old wisp, and he claimed to have been through much worse during some first meetings. Beyond that, they were curious. They wanted to know about Danny, and Danny obliged. For a while anyway.

Lying down, listening to the musical will'o-the-wisp language, Danny began to drift off. The day had been a hard one, and he was completely exhausted, both emotionally and physically. The energy that the wisps had given him had perked him up in addition to giving him a case of temporary insanity, but it was in the sense that giving an espresso to someone who hadn't slept in two days might perk them up. It helped them stay alert a little longer, but it wasn't particularly healthy, and it didn't erase the need for sleep.

When Danny woke again, it was to the sound of voices. Human voices.

He started violently awake, dislodging a dozen or so wisps from where they were dozing on top of him. His first and strongest impulse was to vanish. So he did, the wisps following his lead.

Then he started to wonder why he had gotten so scared. Valerie was the only one with weapons now. No one else could hurt him. He took a deep, calming, breath.

The voices sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite place them. They sounded scared. Lost. That was okay. Danny was lost, too. They could be lost together. But first he needed to find out who it was.

He walked towards the voices, his steps light, humming a little. It really was nice down here. Nice and dark and cool. Lots of tunnels.

Danny turned a corner and almost ran right into the muzzle of the Fenton Mortifier. His wide, scared eyes tracked along the gun's length, back and up to his mother's gloved hands, along her arms, to her shoulders, to her face, which was twisted into an almost unrecognizable a rictus of hate. Behind her stood his father, just as hideously furious. He knew they were going to shoot him.

"Please," he whispered.

Maddie pulled the trigger.

Danny woke up screaming, clutching blindly at his chest, lightning licking off of him in random spurts. Will'o-the-wisps hovered worriedly in the air around him as he wedged himself further into the corner he found himself in. It was odd, normally he hated confined spaces, but now, here, in his hysteria, it felt comforting, like an embrace.

(It occurred to him, in a distant sort of way, that it was good that none of his human friends were here. If they had been holding on to him, they would have been electrocuted.)

He only stopped screaming when the action became physically impossible. When his voice and lungs would no longer cooperate.

But when he stopped, and his hysteria receded, he had something that he didn't when he had fallen asleep. Clarity. He really remembered, now. More than that, he was able to think.

Wow, he'd been a mess. He was still a mess. At least now he knew what was going on.

He unfolded himself from his little alcove. He'd had his freak out, and his recovery time. Now he needed to find the others. That shouldn't be too hard, right? I mean, all he had to do was fly up, find the group that had stayed, and then follow the yarn to the group that had left. He frowned. It had been a long time since he had left them. They may have moved. Scratch that, they would have moved, after being 'attacked' by ghosts. He shook his head. Even so, unless everyone was in under the trees, he should be able to spot them from above.

Still trying to dispel his doubts, Danny stretched, and brushed himself off. Then he hummed an explanation to the handful of wisps still with him, and reached for his core.

The next thing he knew, Danny was curled on the ground in agony.

Oh. No. No no no no no. No. This couldn't be happening, not on top of everything else. He couldn't- When had he last gone ghost? When he went to go look for Technus in the gym? Had that- that awful, horrible, monstrous thing damaged his core? Because this wasn't because of the wisps. He'd dealt with overeating before, and although this time had definitely been worse than that time, it didn't keep him from accessing his other self.

Danny closed his eyes and forced himself not to panic. He couldn't afford to panic. There were people relying on him, and, speaking of panic, he didn't even want to think about what Sam and Jazz were probably going through right now.

(He was a terrible friend, and a worse brother.)

Eventually, he got back to his feet. First things first. Get out of this hole, because he wasn't going to find anyone down here. Not even Dash was that dumb. (And what did that say about Danny?)

Danny had just started to walk back to the vertical shaft he had climbed down when his ear twitched, and he froze, listening. There were voices. Human voices. Danny broke out in a cold sweat. It couldn't be. It couldn't be his parents. There was just no way. Even if it was them, they wouldn't have the Mortifier with them. That thing was broken.

Besides, now that he had calmed down again, he could tell that the two voices did not belong to his parents. They were both young. Male. Danny frowned, listening. Not Dash. Mikey and Ricky? And they were arguing about something?

Danny hummed a request for quiet to the wisps, and invisibly made his way towards the voices. The tunnel he took was much narrower and more serpentine than the one in his dream, which soothed him somewhat. Especially because when he tested it, he could pass through the walls intangibly.

After a few minutes of walking, he was close enough to start hearing what the argument was about.

"... should have stayed!"

"We were calling up to them for an hour. They didn't hear us, we didn't hear them."

"Yeah, but they would have found the hole eventually."

"Not likely. And then, how were they going to get us out? We don't have ropes, or climbing gear, or anything, really. And considering how far we slid, we probably couldn't communicate with them anyway, not unless they fell down themselves."

"I still don't like it, Ricky. When you're lost, you're supposed to stay put."

"In the human world, sure. Back home there are organizations, and people do search parties and stuff. But here, well, no one's really sure where we are to begin with."

"I guess," said Mikey. Danny peered around the corner to see the boys making their way by cell phone light. The red-haired boy sighed deeply, and adjusted his glasses. "It's just so dark in here, though. It's creepy."

"Yeah," agreed Ricky, not sounding too happy either.

This was going to be tricky, Danny realized as he backtracked down the tunnel. The shaft that he came down wasn't going to be an acceptable exit for the two humans. They'd have to find another one. Also, speaking of human, a normal person wouldn't risk stumbling around down here without a light source. Danny fumbled in his pockets for his phone, an old brick phone that Tucker claimed was indestructible, and sighed in relief when he found it. If he lost another one, his parents would k-

His thoughts skittered to a halt.

(They had already done a pretty good job of it, hadn't they?)

Danny shook his head to clear it. He had a plan of attack now. He could help Ricky and Mikey find their way up, and then the three of them would look for the others.

Now to put it into action.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Above Ground

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Ricky glanced over at his red-headed friend. He hadn't meant to make Mikey feel bad. The situation was bad enough as it was.

"So," said Ricky, trying to find something less depressing. "Doesn't this kind of remind you of the Warrens of Warlock's Way?"

"Maybe," said Mikey sullenly. "Except you're not a level four fighter, I'm not a level three wizard, and hopefully there aren't any kobolds in here."

"Yeah, that'd kinda suck, huh?"

"Heh, yeah."

There was a scuffing sound from up ahead, and the clatter of falling stones, and both boys froze.

"Then again," Mikey said, "we didn't have to worry about cave ins in the game."

"Yeah, but doesn't that sound more like-"

There was another clattering sound, and then a cough.

"-footsteps," Ricky finished quietly.

"Hello?" a voice echoed faintly from down the tunnel. "Is someone there?"

"Isn't that-?"

There was another clatter, and a light began to shine from around the corner. "Hello?" repeated the voice. "Mikey? Ricky? Is that you?" After the last question, a small figure came around the corner.

"Danny?" asked Mikey incredulously. "What are you doing down here?"

The light in Danny's hand bobbed as he came closer. "I- I'm not sure. The last thing I remember is all those little ghosts showing up, and then I'm in here? Wherever here is. What are you doing here?"

"We fell down a hole," answered Ricky. "What do you mean you don't remember?"

"Um. I think that I might have been overshadowed."

"Overshadowed?" asked Mikey.

"Um. Possessed," Danny said, his voice wavering a little. "Where's everyone else?"

"We don't know. We fell when the attack happened."

"Oh," said Danny, sounding very disappointed. "I was hoping that you knew more than me."

"Hey," said Mikey, "is that a Nokia?"

"Huh? Yeah, I guess. You don't mind if I turn this off, do you? I want to save my batteries."

"Oh, yeah, sure," said Ricky, checking his own battery. "I'm good for hours yet."

"Cool," said Danny. He switched off his phone and put it back into his pocket.

Ricky tried to examine Danny's eyes surreptitiously. If someone was possessed, their eyes were supposed to change color, flash, or glow. They looked normal, though, the same sky blue as always. Once Ricky had satisfied himself on that count, although he wasn't sure what he would have done if Danny was possessed, Ricky let his eyes wander over the rest of Danny's face.

Danny looked awful. The circles under his eyes were even darker than usual, and where his skin wasn't smeared with dirt, it was unhealthily pale. Also...

"Danny, what's that on your face?"

"Um, dirt probably," said Danny, rubbing the wrong side of his face.

"No," said Ricky, "here." He reached out to touch Danny's face, his fingers brushing against the angry, red-pink mark on Danny's face.

Danny flinched away, hard, a haunted look on his face. His hand came up to touch the mark, and Ricky saw that there was a similar wound on Danny's hand.

"It looks like a Lichtenberg scar," said Mikey.

"A what?"

"A Lichtenberg scar," repeated Mikey. "You get them from electrical injuries. Like being struck by lightning."

Danny was still just standing there, hand on his face.

"How-?" started Ricky.

"I don't know," said Danny. He tugged up his hood, and looked down, effectively obscuring Ricky and Mikey's view of the scar. "It must have happened when I was ove- possessed. When I was possessed." He turned away. "Come on, we've got to find a way out, and I bet that there isn't any way out from where you've come, right? So we should go."

"Did that seem weird to you?" asked Ricky.

"Yeah. But, dang, I wonder what that ghost did to him."

"Yeah."

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Danny kept his hand pressed to his face as he walked away. How had he forgotten the scars? At least they hadn't noticed his ears. He wasn't sure he could explain away the ears. Then again, how often do you really look at another person's ears?

"So," said Ricky, "how long have you been up?"

"I don't know. Not very long. Ten or fifteen minutes? How long has it been since you were... attacked?"

"Two or three hours, I think," said Mikey. "We haven't really been keeping track."

"Okay," said Danny. "Neither of you are hurt, right?"

"No, the hole we fell down was kinda sloped, so we're fine. You?"

"I'm fine," lied Danny. His attempt to transform earlier showed that he clearly wasn't, but there wasn't anything Ricky and Mikey could do about it. Either he would heal on his own, or he'd have to talk to the doctors in the Far Frozen. Or, ugh, Vlad. As much as he hated to admit it, Vlad knew more about hybrid biology than anyone. Except maybe Clockwork, and Clockwork couldn't always help.

They passed where Danny had slept, and reached the shaft he had fallen down. They spent a while trying to see if they could climb up it, but it became apparent that they could not, even with Danny discretely using his enhanced strength to help them.

They then took the opportunity to rest. Danny, who had been asleep, was fine, but the others had been walking for a while, and before that, they had been trying to climb up the hole they had fallen down.

Once they felt better, they decided to keep going, and not spend any more time on the shaft. They clearly weren't going to get up it. After a bit of walking, they came to fork, a split in the tunnel.

"So, which way should we go?" asked Mikey, nervously.

"This way," said Danny, without hesitation. Pointing to the right-handed path.

"Why that way?"

"Can't you feel it?"

"What?"

"There's a breeze."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah. Also, I think that this might slope up a little."

"Really?"

The two human boys examined the right-hand tunnel, looking for the signs Danny had pointed out. In truth, Danny didn't see a slope, and, although he could feel a slight breeze, that wasn't his reason for choosing the right-hand side. His real reason was that he wanted to go down the right-hand path. It was a strange feeling. A pull. Almost like his sense of where home was, on a normal day, but not quite. He wasn't sure if he could trust the feeling, but he heard the invisible wisps humming approvingly, and they knew this place the best, so it probably was the right way.

"Well," said Ricky, "it isn't as if they other way looks any better."

"Yeah," agreed Mikey.

They turned down the right-hand tunnel. Eventually, it did start to tilt up, and then they saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Not in a 'you're going to die' way, but in a 'your trials are going to end' way. Although, Danny had learned that those could be the same thing, and he wasn't sure if he had seen any light at the end of the tunnel when he was dying.

Anyway, they came out in a little clearing, the not-moon shining brightly overhead. Danny breathed a sigh of relief. Being underground was okay, but seeing the moon (or not-moon) and stars (or not-stars) was so much better. Danny took a deep, cleansing breath. He could smell the trees, the grass, the earth, the faint sweetness of flowers and fruit, and the coolness of the air. His breath came out in a puff of mist, and his ears picked up distant music.

Before Danny could turn to Ricky and Mikey, and propose moving on, one of the smaller wisps, one whose diameter was about the length of his thumb, that had been following Danny dropped invisibility and zoomed off into the trees. Danny stared after it blankly, because, heck, how was he supposed to explain this?

"What was that?" exclaimed Ricky.

"Um," said Danny, thoughts whirling. He had nothing. So. Time to go to good old plan B: Run away from the problem! "I don't know! Let's follow it and find out!" He smiled wildly at the other two boys, before remembering that his teeth weren't human-normal at the moment, and then took off in the direction the wisp had gone.

His sharp ears picked up more music, this more discordant. Behind him, Ricky and Mikey were stumbling along. Then, a voice, one he knew.

"... I'm sorry, do that again, but more slowly."

There was a sound like a face being smashed into a keyboard.

"Look I know you're frustrated, but how do you think I feel? You've been leading me all over the place and I can barely tell what you're saying... Okay, so you're saying he's over here?"

That was Sam! Danny slowed down. He didn't want to. He wanted to run right up to Sam, but he didn't want to loose Ricky and Mikey. Wait, maybe he should try to loose Ricky and Mikey, at least temporarily, because it sounded like Sam was talking to wisps, and he didn't want them to be scared, but it would be mean to abandon Ricky and Mikey, not that he would be abandoning them, just avoiding them for a little bit, but they might think that he was abandoning them, and that might scare them more, or they might be angry with him, and he really didn't want that, and now it was too late because he had frozen and they had caught up to him.

"What- What was that?" asked Ricky between gasps, hands on his knees. Mikey stood, well, bent, next to him, his face red with exertion.

"I think I heard Sam," said Danny.

"Your girlfriend?"

"We aren't dating!"

The three boys looked up in surprise. The dark-haired girl had found them first, and was looking down at them with displeasure.

"Why did you-" she cut off when Danny ran into her, burying his face in her shoulder, and holding her tightly. "Danny you're freezing," she said, quietly.

"I know," he said back, his breath misting as he spoke. Sam's wisps were still with there, just invisible. "Where is everyone?" he asked.

"I don't know," said Sam. "Looks like you found Ricky and Mikey, though. Where were you guys?"

"We fell down a hole," said Ricky, still struggling to get his breathing under control.

"Really?"

"Yeah," said Mikey, "there's like this whole cave system down there."

"Interesting," said Sam. "More to this place than meets the eye, huh?"

Danny pulled back, rubbing the back of his neck. "I guess," he said. "How are we going to find everyone?"

"I have an idea, I don't know if it'll work, but, hey, nothing to loose, right? So, Jazz said that when she first woke up, she got the flowers to show her where you were. I thought that maybe they could do the same for us."

"Flowers? What flowers?" asked Ricky, skeptically.

"The blue ones. Remember when Lancer was trying to get everyone's attention?"

"You mean the freaky glowing ghost flowers? Why don't you just ask a ghost? Speaking of-"

"Well, I would ask a ghost, but I don't see any around, do you?"

"I don't see any flowers, either, Manson."

"Look again," said Sam, pointing behind them. Danny followed her finger over his shoulder, to a tree adorned with glowing, dark purple flowers with hot pink veins. "I don't care for pink very much, but that's pretty cool."

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: Red Bird

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Danny and Sam followed the trees without hesitation. Ricky and Mikey needed a little more convincing. They didn't trust the trees. Or anything about the situation. Danny had caught both of them staring into his eyes, so he was pretty sure that they both thought that he might 'still' be 'possessed.' Danny rolled his eyes at that thought.

Only Sam and Tucker had noticed the one time he had actually been possessed. Heck, only Sam and Tucker had noticed when he had been under mind control. For that matter, Sam, Tucker, and Jazz were the only ones who noticed anything amiss when he had been replaced by shapeshifters. The fact that he had to refer to the latter two in the plural just went to show how crazy his life was.

It was annoying to have Ricky and Mikey looking at him like they knew anything about what his life was like. Looking at him judging, as if ghosts were always to blame for everything. It wasn't their fault. They really didn't know anything. But it was still annoying.

Even so, his mood had improved greatly since they had found Sam. Having someone who did know, who understood, at least a little bit, with him was amazing. Reassuring. Like having his feet underneath him again. An anchor in the storm. Not that the wisps weren't great, but they were rather alien, even from a ghostly perspective, and there was always that divide between the Dead, the Deathless, and the Neverborn.

There was a muffled, groaning noise from ahead, and Danny's ears pricked. Literally rotated to pick up the sound. That was weird. His ears did do that sometimes, but typically only when he was Phantom. Having it happen to him when he was at least superficially human was new. It felt different. It was hard to quantify how, but it did. Just the way the muscles and blood vessels moved beneath the skin when, overall, his blood was truly blood, his flesh truly flesh, and his nervous system was powered by chemicals and electricity.

Not that it helped him hear. His ears were hidden under his hood, and the angle adjustment was minuscule. Danny hoped that this was temporary.

"Hey," whispered Sam, leaning down slightly, to whisper in Danny's ear, "what happened?"

"Ran around like a crazy person, freaked out a few times, took an hour nap, found out I can't change, ran into those two. You?"

"Ran around like a crazy person looking for you. You know the flowers wouldn't show me where you were. They'd only show up if I asked for Tucker or Jazz. I had to play charades with the wisps."

"Well, we were underground. No flowers there."

"I guess that makes sense. What do you mean, you can't change?"

"It hurts to try," said Danny quietly, glancing back at Ricky and Mikey.

"Heck. We need to get you to the Far Frozen."

"Yeah," agreed Danny, shivering and hiding another puff of mist. "I think that's Valerie up there, by the way."

"What do you mean?"

"You don't hear that?"

"No."

"Well, it sounds like Valerie. If Valerie was a cat that got stuck in a tree."

"What?"

"I don't know. It made sense in my head. Maybe I'm still not quite right. Mom thought I was possessed, right?"

"I think so. I kinda left right after you did. I thought I could catch up."

"Okay, then."

They fell quiet, not wanting to attract too much suspicion from Mikey and Ricky.

"So, Manson," said Ricky.

"What do you want, Marsh," said Sam flatly.

"How did you get separated from the group?"

"I ran after Danny when the ghosts took him and got lost."

"Are you sure you aren't dating?" teased Mikey.

"We're sure."

There was quiet again, and then Mikey said, "Danny, you know a lot about ghosts, right?"

"W-what do you mean?"

"Because of your parents?"

"Oh. Yeah. Some."

"Why do you think that this part of the Ghost Zone is so different from what we saw before? I mean, you do think that this is the Ghost Zone, right? You weren't just backing up your mom?"

"I do think that this is the Ghost Zone. As for why it looks different, um," Danny sucked in his lips, trying to think of a legitimate reason that didn't require knowledge he wasn't supposed to have.

Thankfully, he was spared having to answer when a creaking sound, like highly distressed wood, emerged from the woods in front of them, followed by an echoing snap.

"What was that?" asked Mikey fearfully.

"It sounded a little like a tree coming down," said Sam thoughtfully. "It's on our path. Do you think that it's one of us?"

"Shh!" said Danny, trying to listen. The others fell silent. In a moment, all of them, even those without supernaturally good hearing, could hear a faint moan. "I think that's Valerie!"

"She sounds hurt," said Ricky.

Danny gave the curly-haired boy a look with wide and wild eyes. "Really?" he said. "Oh no." He took off along the flower-illuminated path.

"Dammit, Marsh," said Sam, before she, too, ran.

"That wasn't- You aren't supposed to run towards the loud noise and the stuff that-! Argh!" He shared a look with Mikey, and they followed, albeit more slowly.

(Danny wasn't sure how he knew these details when he was running away at high speed.)

But even though Danny wanted to keep on running until he reached Valerie, he had to slow down. The trees were closer together here, the underbrush thicker. He could just phase through, but, well. Valerie. Danny knew that she still had her suit. Which meant that whatever was giving her trouble was formidable.

But he was still a healthy distance ahead of the others. Good. It might have been better if they had stayed back, safer, but Danny knew that Sam would never do that, and Mikey and Ricky had already demonstrated that they'd follow him if he ran off. This way that had at least a small margin of safety.

Danny could now clearly hear Valerie, although most of what she said was either insults, or frustrated growling. Danny knew ghosts who didn't growl half as much as Valerie.

Finally, he pushed through the last of the brush and into bare spot beneath a huge, twisted tree. The branches towards the center, where they split off from the trunk, formed a cage. One that Valerie Grey was stuck in.

Currently, Valerie was in her suit, her board, though, was nowhere in sight. Her back was up against one of the 'bars,' and she was using her legs to push against the opposite one with all her might. The tree itself was thick with tiny white flowers, no bigger than Danny's fingernails.

"Valerie?" said Danny, his voice lilting up at the end, making the name a question. "Is that you?"

Valerie's reaction was hilarious. She flipped herself over, smashed her face into the branch that had been behind her, recoiled, and smacked into the other side of the cage, knocking loose a rain of flower petals that settled on her red suit like radioactive snow. Then she stared at Danny, completely silent.

Belatedly, Danny wondered if her suit could visually pick up invisible ghosts, or if it still only had that ectosignature radar. There were something like two dozen wisps floating around him, all invisible. It would be rather difficult to deal with Valerie if she was busy being all paranoid about ghosts being around.

"Valerie?" he repeated, more hesitant.

"Danny? You aren't possessed?"

"Um," said Danny, "no? But if you think about it that'd be my answer even if I was possessed. Or... Doing the possessing? Is that the right way to say it?" He blinked. What the heck was he saying? Ancients, he was going to get himself killed. "Look, I've got people behind me, so unless you want all of them to be asking why Red Huntress is here..." Danny trailed off. It wasn't untrue. They all would be asking, even if Sam already knew. Sam was good at the whole no special knowledge thing. Unlike Danny.

Speaking of...

"How did you know it was me?"

Yep. There it was.

"Valerie, I've known you for years and we were dating for, like, a whole week. It'd be kinda embarrassing if I didn't know what your voice sounds like." Not that he was being ironic or anything. Nope, not Danny. (Lancer would be so proud.)

Valerie nodded once, sharply, and deactivated her suit, just in time for Sam to push through the bushes.

"Wow," said Sam. "Nice tree."

"Not from here," said Valerie, bitterly. "How'd you get the ghost out of Danny?"

"I didn't, it left on its own," said Sam, raising an eyebrow. Only someone who knew her very well would see that she was disgusted both by the question, and her answer. "How'd you wind up in that tree."

"It's a long story," said Valerie, uncomfortably. "Are you the only ones here? What happened to everyone else?"

"Mikey and Ricky were right behind us," said Sam, turning around and squinting, pulling back a handful of foliage. "Yeah, they're still coming."

"And everyone else?" prompted Valerie.

"We got separated. Probably at the same time you did. Last time I saw you, you were shooting at those little ghosts."

"Yeah," Valerie frowned. "What was up with those, anyway?" She turned a little to look more directly at Danny. "All they did was grab you and leave. You ever see anything like them?"

"Um," said Danny. This was another question that Danny wasn't sure if he should answer properly, if at all. Ricky and Mikey crashed through the bushes and he was still thinking.

"Valerie?" said Ricky, incredulous and once again out of breath. Those two really needed to exercise more. Seriously. They lived in a town that was constantly under attack. They really should be able to run faster. Otherwise they might be caught by something nasty. Caught by a ghost. Caught by a monster. (Caught by a different kind of monster). Falling buildings. Hurt. Caught. In pain. Injured. Maimed. Danny caught himself starting to hyperventilate, and compensated by holding his breath.

"Danny," said Valerie, sharply, and Danny realized that he had missed a large part of the conversation.

"What?" said Danny, feeling dazed.

"Come on, Danny, you aren't going to get out of the question that easily."

"What question?"

"Those little ghosts. Did you ever see anything like them?"

Danny bit his lip and glanced up at Sam. She shrugged. "Maybe. Well. Actually. Yeah."

"Fenton."

"They, um. They're friendly, usually."

"Oh my god, Danny," said Ricky. "You mean you mess around with ghosts? These ghosts? They attacked us. Are you crazy?"

Danny frowned at Ricky. "No. I'm not saying this very well. Give me a second." He rubbed his eyes. "There are ghosts like these, like, they're the same type of ghost, living... Um. Not living. You know what I mean. There's a group of them in Amity Park. They never cause trouble. I just, you know, figured that it was better for everyone to focus on the ghosts that were actually hurting people. So, I, um, didn't say anything." He looked down and bit his lower lip, raising his hand to mask the action. "They're harmless, really."

"They put a log through your mother's arm and walked off with your body!"

Ducked his head. He had managed to put his mother's wound out of his mind.

"I don't think that they did the tree thing," said Sam, coming to his rescue. "Considering the fact that you're stuck in a tree..." She waved her hand dismissively. "Not to mention, she had that stupid gun," Sam muttered. Then, more loudly, "Speaking of the tree problem, what have you tried to do to get out?"

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: Arguments

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It turned out that Valerie had tried a great many ways to get out of the tree. All of them had been brute force methods. All of them had failed.

Mikey and Ricky kept asking how she had gotten stuck in the first place. Valerie kept deflecting them, until they tried to force the point, and then Valerie had said, "How did you two manage to fall down a hole, anyway?" in her best A-list voice, and they had dropped it.

It was too bad, really. It would probably be a great story.

(Sometimes Danny resented Valerie, just a little bit.)

(Why couldn't they see he was trying to help?)

They started brainstorming new ways for Valerie to get out. They failed. Miserably.

"Look," said Danny, finally. "There's clearly an intelligence behind this."

"Ghost's aren't intelligent," said Valerie, trying to free her foot from where it had been trapped between two branches. "They're mindless monsters. Your parents have said as much."

"The evidence doesn't support that," said Mikey. "I mean, Phantom is clearly capable of formulating complex strategies."

Valerie's shoe popped off, and she sighed. "So is a chess program."

"Chess programs don't do puns."

"They could be programmed to do puns."

"That-"

"Seriously, can we leave the Turing test for later?" interrupted Sam. "Danny, you were saying?"

"Well, whatever it is," said Danny, feeling a little weird about referring to himself in such a way (but not that weird, he already managed a double life), "it probably didn't like whatever you were doing before it... grabbed you, or whatever. So, maybe you could do a peace offering, or something? Show it that you aren't going to do that, any more?"

Valerie snorted. "Danny, this is a tree."

"We're in the Ghost Zone. It might not be just a tree."

"Clearly, it's not just a tree," said Valerie angrily. "Otherwise I'd be out by now."

"Okay, okay," said Danny, rolling his. "If you're really dead set against telling us what happened, there is another way. It's kind of hit-or-miss though. And, by the way, we do all know that you have those blasters, remember? I think we can all conclude that you were shooting at something."

"Just tell me how to get out."

"Right. So, it turns out that humans can manipulate ectoplasm to some degree. It's easier when there's a lot of it, and when it isn't being, how should I put it, used by anyone else. Putting it in, um, more science-y terms, I guess, it would be, ectoplasm with no associated ectosignature." Danny rubbed his neck. "It's more complicated that that, but, well, I don't think you want me to go on all night. Or, um, you know. However long it would take. What time is it supposed to be now, anyway?"

"My phone says that it's three in the morning."

"Thanks, Mikey. Anyway. Because humans can manipulate ectoplasm, and the Ghost Zone is mostly ectoplasm, it can sometimes seem like humans are the ghosts, in the Ghost Zone."

"That doesn't make any sense. Ghosts are ghosts. Humans are humans."

"Yeah, but- Okay, look, you know that ectoplasm can go through normal stuff, sometimes? Intangibility, and all? Basic ghost power?"

"Yeah."

"So, humans can trigger that state in ectoplasm, if they try hard enough. It's trickier when it comes to an actual ghost, because they're in control of all their own ectoplasm, but with inanimate stuff, stuff that doesn't have its own will, then you can do it without much trouble. You just have to think about it the right way."

"How do you even know about this?"

"Well. Lets review what my life is like. One, there is a hole in reality in my basement. Two, I'm so clumsy that I've been permanently banned from handling anything fragile at school. Three, one of my chores at home is cleaning the basement."

They all stared at him. "You're saying that you, what, tripped and fell into the Ghost Zone."

"Yeah," said Danny, giving Sam a look. Why was she staring? She knew this story. Maybe she was just surprised that he had told the truth. "Look, just focus on trying to phase through."

"Okay, sure... How?"

"Um. Try to convince yourself that it isn't really there. Or that it is there, but it's permeable."

"Right." There was quiet while Valerie pushed against the branches again. "What if there is an ectosignature?"

"Then it kind of depends. You basically have to fight the ghost? Mentally, I mean. You need to have more force of personality, more willpower. Or, at least, more willpower than the ghost is willing to put into it. Which is really hard, since that's sort of what ghosts are. Or, um, the reason they exist. What holds them together?" Danny nodded. "So, typically, you aren't going to be able to phase through a ghost. Or an ectoblast, because those are energized."

There was more pushing. "I don't think that this is going to work, then."

"Why?"

"I think that these have an ectosignature."

"Well, yeah."

"What do you mean, 'Well, yeah?'"

"Well, it's a tree, right? A cohesive, complex form. Not a puddle. But it shouldn't be a very strong ectosignature. You should be able to overpower it, at least momentarily."

Valerie tried once more.

"Wait a second," said Sam, "what about the present? Didn't you say that kept floating through everything?"

"Yeah, but everything in that part of the Zone is default intangible. Clearly, that's not the case here." Danny knocked his knuckles against the tree's trunk.

"Present?"

"It's a long story."

Valerie sighed. "Maybe one of you two could give me a demonstration, seeing as you know so much about it?"

Danny glanced at Sam, who promptly turned, and put her hand on a tree trunk, frowning. Slowly, her arm sunk into the tree. "A bit more resistance than usual," she observed once she was wrist-deep. She pulled her hand out.

"You've been in here, too, then, huh, Manson?" said Ricky.

Sam and Danny shared a look. "Duh," said Sam, finally, apparently deciding that admitting it would be easier than trying to dance around the point. "The Ghost Zone is totally Gothic."

"Okay. Fine. Whatever," said Valerie. "Congrats on still being one of the weirdest people in school. But... You're actually making the tree, intangible, right? Could you make it intangible for me, and then I can get out."

Danny frowned. "Maybe," he allowed. "But intangibility doesn't always work the way you think it should. A lot of ghost things are like that." He walked up to the tree, so that he was standing directly below Valerie, and then put his hand on it. "Want to help, Sam?"

"Oh. Yeah, sure."

Danny closed his eyes. He had to be careful, here. No ghost powers, just natural human ones. No glowing. No turning invisible. He had to sink into the tree, too, not just give the tree intangibility. He couldn't make this look too easy, either. Even though it would be. The twist of the mind this kind of intangibility required was just short of natural for him. It was like standing on one foot. Or winking.

"Okay," he said, reaching up to touch the bars. He could feel his fingers start to sink into the bark. Sam had been right. There was a lot of resistance. It felt feathery and icy cool, like sticking his hand into a snowbank. He wondered why. Perhaps there was a lot of physical matter mixed into the ectoplasm? "Okay, Valerie, try now."

Valerie responded by virtually ramming into the bars. "Jesus-!" Valerie said, swallowing any more dire curses. "Not working! Ouch." She rubbed her shoulder vigorously. Then, under her breath, growing louder with each word, "Stupid ghost tree, stupid float-y ball ghosts, stupid Phantom. Stupid, stupid, stupid."

"What does Phantom have to do with it?" asked Mikey, who had come closer to watch Sam and Danny turn the tree intangible. Danny raised an eyebrow. He'd have to remember that Mikey had good ears. Not good enough to hear Sam and Danny earlier, but still good for a human.

Valerie glared at the red-headed boy. "Seriously? What doesn't he have to do with this? It's his fault that we're here. I bet this is his lair, and he's just biding his time, playing with us, trying to separate us so that he can kill us off one by one."

All four of the children on the ground stared up at Valerie, unimpressed.

"What?" said Valerie, bitterly.

"You're still going on about that?" asked Sam. "I'm pretty sure that if the ghosts here wanted us dead, we'd be dead. I can think of a dozen ways a ghost could kill with intangibility alone. Besides, what would the point be? What does a ghost gain from killing someone?"

"They exist to spread misery," said Valerie with conviction.

Ancients give him strength. Danny wished he could confront her about Ellie.

"Really? Really? What evidence do you have?" asked Sam, "Danny, do your parents even have any evidence of that?"

"No," said Danny. He didn't really want to get involved in this argument. Well, he did. But he didn't. He hated having to stand there and listen to a whole species (was that the correct term?) being maligned, a group that he was at least partially part of, without being able to properly defend them.

"Oh, come on, they don't even have nervous systems."

"So, what? Are you trying to say that just because they don't feel pain they cant be people? You know that there are humans who can't feel pain? Are they not people?"

"They still have brains!"

"Guys," said Danny, after they continued to argue. "Guys," he repeated, more loudly. "Guys, can we do this later? Like, after we get home? This isn't going to help."

"So what do you suggest we do?" demanded Valerie, with poor grace.

"If I were you, I'd go with Sam's first suggestion. Disarm yourself."

"And leave myself defenseless?"

"You're already defenseless. I assume you tried to shoot your way out, and it didn't work."

"Yeah."

"And we all know these trees can change the way they're shaped. So what's to stop it from crushing you or something? Just put the blaster down, Valerie. It isn't going to help you if you're stuck in there."

Valerie sighed through her nose. "You really think this is going to work."

"Yeah, I do."

"I don't get how you can trust these ghosts so much."

"I'm just not as eager to jump to conclusions as you and my parents."

"Fine," said Valerie, grudgingly. She pulled her blaster out, and set it down.

"What about the other one?" asked Mikey.

"I left it with Danny's dad."

Ah, heck. Danny had forgotten about that. Hopefully the wisps hadn't decided to investigate the larger group of humans. Then again, it wasn't like Jack could hit anything smaller than a barn reliably.

"Nothing's happening," said Valerie, exasperated.

"Well, maybe it doesn't believe you," said Sam. "I mean, I wouldn't, after everything you've said here."

"Valerie," said Danny. This conversation just kept dragging on and on. "Let's talk about this. Let's go over why you hate ghosts so much. Because, really, it's kinda extreme."

"I've already said."

"No, you said why my parents hate ghosts. Why do you hate ghosts?"

Valerie picked up her blaster and gave Danny a dirty look. "You know why."

"Yeah, but, give me a refresher, or something."

"Phantom and his stupid dog ruined my life. Ghosts attack our town on a constant basis. Why wouldn't I hate them?"

"So... You're judging an entire group based on the actions of a few individuals. Doesn't that strike you as wrong?"

"A few individuals? Are you serious? Do you even know how many ghost attacks there are in a single day?"

"I do. Do you? More to the point, do you know how many ghosts live, or, well, you know, in Amity peacefully? Without attacking? Because that number is a lot higher."

"Are you serious?"

"Why would I lie?"

"You could still be possessed."

"Really, Valerie, really?"

Valerie sighed. "I guess not. But how do you even know about these 'peaceful' ghosts?"

She would ask that. Luckily, the conversation had been going on long enough for Danny to come up with an answer. "You know I used to have straight As in middle school?"

"What does that have to do with anything?" asked Ricky.

"Well, why do you think my grades dropped?"

There was quiet. "Your grades dropped because you were hanging out with ghosts?" asked Mikey, his eyes narrowed.

"Um. No. My grades dropped because some of them won't stop harassing me. But I wind up meeting a lot of other ghosts. Like, you think that the first time I got spirited away to the Ghost Zone I got back home on my own? No. I got a lot of help from other ghosts. Like, a lot, a lot. You ever get kidnapped by a ghost, Valerie? Did you get away on your own?"

"I guess not," she said. Danny could tell that she was thinking of the time they had been kidnapped by Skulker. "Still, what do you expect me to do here?"

"I don't know. Just... Try not to jump to conclusions with everyone. Give the ghosts a chance."

"That's not what I meant."

"I know that's not what you meant."

Valerie rolled her eyes dramatically. "Fine. I'll 'give the ghosts a chance.' Happy?"

Regardless of whether or not anyone was happy with the situation, Valerie's statement was apparently sufficient for the tree, which shuddered, tilted to one side and then dumped Valerie out.

"I hate ghosts," grumbled Valerie as she picked herself up off the ground.

"I'm sure the feeling's mutual," said Sam.

"You four don't have any food on you, do you?"

"No," said Ricky, "and thanks for reminding us about how hungry we are."

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: In the Bark

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"Hey, Danny."

"What, Mikey?"

"You said that humans can manipulate ectoplasm."

Danny looked over his shoulder, to stare flatly at the red-headed boy. "Yeah?"

"So could you become invisible? Or fly?"

"Uh. In especially thick ectoplasm, I guess you could fly." Danny turned away to keep walking. They were trying to go in a straight line, so that they'd be able to eventually come out of the trees. "Not sure what the point would be, though. If you're in the Ghost Zone proper, then there's not much point. In most places you can, um, not sure how to describe this. Gravity is pretty subjective. If you decide that gravity is up, then you'll fall up. Takes practice, though."

"And invisibility?" asked the boy eagerly.

"Not really," said Danny. "You could make yourself transparent to ectoplasmic radiation, but that would be it. Most ghosts can perceive light, so it wouldn't mean much. Also, you wouldn't be able to tell if you had actually done it. I..." He trailed off. "I guess that if you were doing that, you'd be invisible to some ghosts who are invisible. But only some, because a lot of ghosts can finagle it so that they can see in, like, ultraviolet, or infrared, and leave themselves visible in that spectrum."

"That's too bad," said Mikey.

"What, were you hoping for superpowers?" teased Ricky lightly.

"Well, yeah," said Mikey, shrugging. "Weren't you?"

After a while, a familiar scent reached Danny's nose. "I smell apples again," said Danny.

"Really?" said Sam, brightly. "Do you see them."

"Ignore it," said Valerie, darkly, "it's probably a trap."

"A worse trap than starving to death?" asked Ricky.

"It could be. You don't know what these'll do. You heard Mrs Fenton."

Danny sighed. He was hungry, and he knew that the apples wouldn't do anything to him. He was less sure about them being healthy for everyone else. At this point, he was certain this was his lair, but considering that his subconscious thought it appropriate to a) stab his mother, b) drop Ricky and Mikey down a hole, and c) trap Valerie in a tree, he was no longer sure he could trust it with food.

"You know what," said Sam, "I'm going to eat one. Then we can take a half-hour break, and when nothing happens, then the rest of you can go ahead and eat some. Sound good?"

"We do need to find the tree, first," said Danny, scanning the branches around them.

"Are you sure you smell apples?"

"Yep. Might be a little farther on. Come on." Danny walked on, past Sam, to the front of the line. "Yeah, definitely up here."

In another minute, they came across a tight grouping of apple trees. The branches were heavy, bowed down with fat, round apples. They were still a little too far up to easily reach. Sam had to stand on her tip toes to pick one.

"Sam, you really shouldn't-"

Sam gave Valerie a defiant glare, and took a bit of the apple. She froze, and her eyes went wide.

"Sam?" asked Danny, worried that something bad had happened.

She quickly chewed and swallowed her mouthful of apple. "Wow! This apple is great!" she exclaimed, surprised. She took another bite. "Really good!" she said around the second bite.

"So good that you will never again be able to eat mortal food?" asked Mikey.

"No. And why do you sound so excited about that being a possibility?"

"No reason," said Mikey, blushing.

"So..." said Ricky. "We just wait now?"

"Yeah. Figure if it's poisonous, it'll kill me before too long."

Everyone found somewhere to sit while they waited. There were a few attempts at conversation, but everyone was too tired and stressed to be anything like polite and social. Mikey actually nodded off. Ricky, Valerie, and Sam got into some kind of three-way glaring contest. Sam and Ricky had never really liked each other. Even before Tucker had blamed Ricky for throwing up in Sam's lunchbox, they'd had a kind of animosity. Sam disliked Valerie due to a combination of the whole Red Huntress thing, and Valerie's former A-list ties. Valerie disliked Sam because Sam didn't bother to hide her animosity. Danny wasn't entirely sure why Valerie and Ricky were glaring at one another. He wished they wouldn't. It would be so much better if everyone could get along.

(He was so tired. Why was he so tired? He had slept. He had done more on less sleep.)

Danny sighed, and leaned slightly into Sam. He wished that he knew where everyone else was for certain, but this was fine, too. He was sure that they were all fine. Danny closed his eyes. Sam was so warm. It was nice. He could feel her. Tell that she was okay. It gave him a sense of security, of calmness. Danny breathed in deeply. This was nice.

.
.
.

Sam looked down at Danny, who had fallen asleep with his head on her arm. He still looked awful, in some ways worse than he had before they had run into the wisps. Exhausted, bruised, and, most worryingly, sick. Ever since the accident, Danny hardly ever got sick.

This was all the adult Fentons' fault, Sam decided. If they hadn't built that thing, they'd still be in Amity. Danny would be healthy, at home, in bed. They'd all be at home, in bed. They would have surely beaten Technus by now.

"So you haven't died yet," observed Valerie.

"No, really."

"I guess that those are safe to eat, then," Ricky said, standing.

"Yeah, could you please get me a couple more? I don't want to wake Danny up."

"Fine," said Ricky. "Enjoy having your boyfriend sleeping on you."

"We aren't dating."

"Keep telling yourself that."

.
.
.

Maddie gave Jazz a boost into a nearby tree. Jazz grabbed a branch, and pulled herself up. She climbed up to the crown of the tree, and looked out and around. She also took a moment to run her fingers over the words carved into the trunk.

"I think I see something," Jazz called (lied) down.

"What do you see, sweetie?"

"Some kind of movement," she said (lied). "Branches moving. Maybe a bit of color. I can't make out much more than that."

"Which way?"

"Downhill," said (lied) Jazz, "but it might not be anything."

"Alright, Miss Fenton, why don't you come down now?"

Jazz slithered down the tree, dropping the last few feet before the ground. They'd been looking for the others for hours. Jazz didn't understand it. She knew why Sam and Danny had left. Danny had been out of his mind, or nearly so. Sam had wanted to help him. What she didn't understand was why Dash, Kwan, Mikey, and Ricky had run off. No, that wasn't quite right. She knew why they had run off. They were scared. It was stupid, but there it was. What she didn't understand was how they had straight up vanished in the little time between the wisps showing up and the wisps leaving.

After calling for them didn't work, and it became apparent that they weren't lying unconscious somewhere nearby, Mr Lancer had made the decision to try to backtrack, regroup with the larger group, and possibly form search parties. However, it evolved that the yarn had, predictably, broken.

So they had come up with idea of getting a better vantage point by having either Jazz or Maddie climb trees (plural, because even in the trees, they could only see so far in the half-light provided by the ghostly moon). Mr Lancer, overweight and nonathletic as he was, had no hope whatsoever of getting up into the trees. Maddie's arm, though healed, was still sore and weak. Therefore, it had fallen to Jazz to do the climbing.

The first couple of times she had gone up had been ordinary. Well, ordinary if you could call climbing trees in a pocket universe created by your younger brother's subconscious ordinary. Honestly, that was a bit weird, even for Jazz. (Being cursed, lost in China [specifically China, don't ask], kidnapped by ghosts, sucked into parallel universes, evil doppelgangers, and time travel were all on Jazz's list of ordinary, for reference.)

When she went up the third tree, however, there had been flowers in the branches. Little, lacy, white things, with long stamens and petals that curved back on themselves. The tree was, or at least, was modeled after, a pine. There should not have been flowers. Furthermore, they only grew from the top few branches, invisible from the ground. They seemed so earnest, though. Jazz couldn't help but compliment them.

The next tree had more. These ones were pale pink, with ruffled, layered, petals. They were a little like carnations, for all that they were growing from an oak. The fifth tree had yet another variety, these being dark teal, with five round petals. The sixth tree had been more ambitious, with large, rose-like toxic green blossoms.

(Jazz was rather forcibly reminded of when she had been ten and Danny had been eight. Their parents been busy with one of their inventions- Jazz couldn't recall which one exactly- and Danny had brought a drawing home from school, one he had been particularly proud of. Maddie and Jack had complemented it, in a kind of off-hand way, but it had been clear to Jazz, and, more importantly, Danny, that they hadn't looked at it. Jazz, feeling sorry for Danny, had given the picture, which had been quite good for an eight-year-old, a great deal more attention than she normally would have. Danny had responded by showering her with pictures for weeks until she snapped at him. She wasn't proud of that, but she had been ten. There were limits.)

The seventh tree was different again. Instead of flowers, there were words carved into the trunk:

'Hi, Jazz!'

For a while, Jazz had been convinced that Danny was nearby and just messing with her invisibly. That kind of harmless (relatively) teasing was just like her brother. However, a couple of trees later, it became clear that she wasn't talking to Danny. Or, at least, she wasn't talking (perhaps communicating was a better term?) to the part of Danny that she normally did.

This part of Danny (Jazz hesitated to call it [him?] Danny's subconscious) seemed to be focused (relatively) on two things- Making sure that Jazz was comfortable (a frequent question carved on the trees was 'Are you OK?'), and directing the group of three. Where he (it?) wanted to direct them was a mystery to Jazz, but even if this wasn't quite Danny, it was still Danny. Jazz was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This was complicated by the fact that this aspect of Danny seemed to have no grasp of the concept of time. Or sarcasm. Also, that, although it did answer Jazz's question, it often wrote those answers in trees she didn't climb. Additionally, much of the relatively small amount of space that the... entity used to write would often be filled with apologies for things that Danny had done, or supposedly done, to Jazz. Jazz couldn't remember most of them. At least one narrative was preceded by the phrase 'one time I dreamed that-.'

Jazz wasn't ignoring these, exactly. They were important to Danny, otherwise he wouldn't be bothering to write them into the trees. But she had a limited amount of time in each tree, and even as an aspiring psychologist, she had to prioritize. She could talk to Danny about his guilt complex later. Right now, her task was getting their mother (and Mr Lancer) where they needed to be (wherever that was). Or where Danny thought they needed to be.

Arguably, the later was more important. Maddie had hurt Danny. Hurt him badly. Jazz wasn't sure if she would ever be able to comprehend how badly, not without dying herself. A safe environment was a key component of any healing process, and if having Maddie in a particular place would make Danny feel more secure, then Jazz was going to get her there.

Regardless of whether or not that particular place was safe for Maddie. Not that Jazz though that Danny would or had ever harmed either of their parents intentionally, but the incident with the gun (the pieces of which Maddie was still carrying) showed that Danny could potentially do a great deal of damage unintentionally. Jazz surprised herself by not particularly caring. She couldn't imagine anything that Danny would do, intentionally or otherwise, being permanent, and this was, overwhelmingly, Maddie's fault.

Jazz took a deep, calming breath. Getting angry would not help. Correction: getting visibly, physically, angry wouldn't help. On the other hand, Jazz had seen cold, calculating rage be quite effective in these situations. The trick was not to become bitter. Like Vlad. Who was creepy and kind of gross. Jazz sighed. Maybe she should develop an entirely new type of anger.

There were more trees to climb, though. Jazz didn't need a boost for this one. The branches were low enough that she was able to pull herself up without any difficulty.

She was about halfway up, when she noticed words carved into the trunk. Normally, they did not start until Jazz was higher. What really made her stop, though, was what they said.

'I think I'm asleep.'

"What does that mean?" asked Jazz, under her breath. She decided to keep going, but there were more words waiting for her by the next branch.

'I'm not sure. This is weird. It's like I'm everywhere but- Not really? Or I always was? Like I'm dreaming. I don't think I'm going to remember this when I wake up.'

Jazz let out a puff of air. "Okay. So, you're answering my questions like this now. Okay. Where are you, and where are you taking us?"

'I'm with Sam, Valerie, Ricky, and Mikey,' answered the carvings a few feet up. 'I wish that it was just Sam, Ricky, and Mikey, but I couldn't keep Val trapped, and I can't have her just running around shooting at everyone. I don't think I knew that before I fell asleep. I'm trying to get you guys to where Kwan and Dash are, but it's hard because they keep moving like idiots. You are getting close.'

"Aren't you moving around, too?"

Jazz's eyes widened as another line of letters was etched into the bark.

'Yes,' it said, 'but in a line. Not all over the place. Why do people make it so hard for me to help them?'

"I don't know, little brother. Are we going to be seeing you soon?"

'I don't know. Is Mom still mad at me?'

"Jazz?" came a faint cry from below. "Why have you stopped? Are you having trouble?"

"No!" Jazz yelled back. "Just plotting my course!"

"Okay, sweetie, take your time! Be safe!"

"Okay, Mom!"

Jazz looked back at the writing.

'I didn't do anything to the apples, by the way.'

"She still thinks that you're possessed," said Jazz, resuming her climb. Her position was getting uncomfortable.

'Oh,' came the dispirited response. 'I don't think that I'll be able to manage this much longer. Being me, here. I mean, it's- I'm always me but also not? This still isn't quite properly, correctly, entirely me. It is- but it isn't. It's not the right order, I guess. And there are extra things? And missing things? I'm trying.'

"You know this isn't your fault, right, Danny?"

The next bit of writing was uneven. Messier than it had been. 'Isn't it? I had one thing I was supposed to do, one thing, just one thing, keep-' the next few words were illegible, '- but I can't even do that, can I?'

"Danny, this isn't your fault, and we're all fine."

'Amity isn't.'

"Technus can't have done that much damage." Was that the right thing to say? Jazz was pretty sure it wasn't, but what else could she say? "Look, why don't you tell me about... This. This place."

'It's deeper than it looks. It's safe here.'

"That's good." She was at the top of the tree now. "You know the way out, then?"

'Yes.'

"You going to share?"

'I'm going to light up Dash and Kwan.'

"What?" said Jazz, alarmed. Surely he couldn't mean that he was going to shoot at them. But then what-?

Below Jazz, and in the near distance, a number of trees seemed to catch fire. On closer inspection, though, the trees weren't on fire. They were just alight with glowing, orange and red flowers.

'Do you like the flowers?' The letters were a little lazy. Not quite as distinct as before. 'I think I need to sleep now. For real sleep. Goodnight, Jazz.'

Chapter Text

Chapter 16: Fruit of Your Labor

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Danny began to shiver and mumble in his sleep. Sam put her arm around his shoulders and rubbed his arm. He let out a soft, shuddering, sigh, and relaxed again. He began to purr, a little. Thankfully quietly enough that only Sam could hear him. She didn't want to have to explain how Danny could make that kind of sound.

"You aren't going to wake him up?"

"You're not waking Mikey up," observed Sam. She glanced at Valerie who was eating an apple with the air of someone with a gun pointed at their head. "You two should probably get some sleep, too. I'll keep watch."

"What about you?" asked Ricky.

"I'm used to late nights. It's mornings I have trouble with."

"If you're sure. I'd better not wake up being eaten by some kind of monster ghost, though."

Ricky did eventually find a spot to lie down in. Valerie, annoyingly, did not. Sam finished her current apple, and tossed the core into the bushes.

Danny shivered into her side again. "... like the flowers," he muttered. "Sleep now. Mm." He quieted again.

"Sam," said Valerie, suddenly.

"What?" said Sam.

"Is this-" She licked her lips, staring at Danny. "You hang out with the Fentons a lot. What are the side effects of being possessed? Is this... Normal?"

Sam thought about her answer for a second. "You mean the sleeping? Yeah, that can be normal. Side effects really vary a lot depending on the ghost, what the ghost did, what kind of possession it was, etcetera, etcetera." Sam waved her free hand. "Considering that this ghost apparently had Danny running all over the place, yeah, being exhausted is normal. Of course, he's not the only one sleeping." She nodded at Mikey and Ricky.

"Yeah, but he's been sleeping longer."

"I guess. There's just something weird about this whole thing."

"What do you mean?" asked Sam, uneasily.

"I don't know."

"Maybe if you sleep on it."

"I can't sleep here."

"Whatever," said Sam.

"Oh my gosh!" They both turned to look at Mikey, who was now sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "Why do I feel like I slept on the ground?"

"Because you did?" said Sam.

"What?" Mikey groped on the ground near him for his glasses, until Valerie had pity on him, picked them up, and put them on his face. Mikey adjusted them slightly, so that they were straight, and then groaned. "I was hoping this was a dream."

"Yeah, that would have been nice, huh? The apples don't seem to be poisonous, by the way."

"Thank god. I'm starving." Mikey then began the task of picking apples. This was a bit more difficult for him, due to the fact that all of the easy to reach ones had already been eaten, and that he was a good deal shorter than Ricky and Valerie. Eventually, however, he was able to pick several, and began to eat them enthusiastically.

Shortly after this, Danny began to stir again. Instead of falling back to sleep, however, he opened his eyes, and blinked blearily up at Sam. He blinked again, and then rubbed his eyes. "Apples are okay, then?"

"Yeah, they're fine."

"Mhm. I'm sorry for laying on you."

"It's fine."

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Jack had been devastated when he had discovered that all of his weapons had been stolen. The weapons represented hours and hours of work. Months of research, at a minimum. Sweat, blood, and, in a few cases, tears.

That wasn't all that upset him, of course. He knew that without the weapons, he, and all the children now under his care, were vulnerable. Even with the blaster that one girl- What was her name? Valerie?- had given him, he knew that he wouldn't be a match for any but the weakest of ghosts. Not that he was going to say that, no. He had to keep morale up. Reassure the kids that he could protect them!

Tucker didn't seem to be buying it, though. Of course he wouldn't. Tucker knew him too well, knew too much about ghosts, to be fooled. Ah, well. You couldn't fool everybody.

But despite everything, Jack was excited. He was in the Ghost Zone! Finally! This is what he had dreamed of.

Then, too, he wasn't completely helpless. His weapons might have been stolen, but he'd had more things in his pockets than weapons, and, well, this wouldn't be the first time he had to MacGyver something up! A lot of what he had could be converted into simple blasters with a bit of ingenuity. It wouldn't be easy, but then, what was?

He'd had Tucker helping him at first, but, man! That kid was even clumsier than he was! So the geek was now just standing by, watching him nervously.

Okay, maybe he had gotten a little off track. He wasn't making blasters any more. But, hey, when else would he be able to test his theories? Well, his and Maddie's theories. And this could help them escape!

Wow, when Maddie got back, she'd be so pleased. Well, assuming that this didn't blow up in his face. Some of his inventions had a tendency of doing just that. Also assuming that it worked.

But if it did? Wow! It would be great!

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The sudden, fiery light took Dash and Kwan by surprise. So they did what they had the last time they had been taken by surprise. They booked it.

Unfortunately for them, the lights, or more precisely, the flowers that shed the light, weren't something that they could outrun. In fact, the red-orange light kept suddenly showing up in front of them.

(It was a good thing that they had never been caught in a real forest fire, and that they weren't being chased by anything that wanted to hurt them. They would have surely died.)

Kwan and Dash were both very fit young men. But the last several hours had taken their toll. They simply couldn't keep up their furious, adrenaline-fueled pace. They had to stop. Only then did they realize that the flowers were just that- flowers. Glowing, ghostly flowers, but still. Flowers.

"What's up with the freaky flowers?" asked Dash.

"I don't know, man," said Kwan.

"I hate this place," said Dash. "It's freaky. Like Manson. Or Freaktonio."

"Who?"

"You know. Freaky Fenton."

"Oh. Right."

"You don't think they're gonna, like, eat us, or anything?"

"How'm I s'posed to know?"

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The lights Jazz saw could not be seen at ground level. Jazz was, therefore, able to tell her mother and Mr Lancer that she had seen glimpses of Dash and Kwan. Not in so many words, of course. She had said something more along the lines of seeing movement in the trees, and then glimpses of white, red, and blue, the colors of the Letterman jackets Dash and Kwan wore all the time. Mr Lancer and Maddie drew their own conclusions.

Jazz kept going up into the trees every few dozen feet. The words carved on them had devolved back into unfocused rambling and the occasional pearl of wisdom. Jazz made sure to respond quietly to each one. Especially the more depressed ones. She could do a lot of good, if she could ameliorate those kinds of thoughts.

After a while, though, they started to get close enough to detect the warm glow of the flowers even at ground level. Jazz had told Mr Lancer and Maddie about the lights just before that point, trying to make it seem as if they had just shown up without warning... Which they had, just, almost an hour ago. It wasn't quite a lie, but it was still a deception.

At that point, Mr Lancer and Maddie had an argument. Maddie thought it best to turn back. She believed that they were walking into a ghost's trap. Mr Lancer, on the other hand, really wanted to find his students, any of his students.

Once the argument had gone on for about twice as long as Jazz thought it should, she decided to cut the knot, and just go. After announcing her decision loudly, of course.

Jazz wasn't quite as fast as Maddie, but she had a head start, and the trees, underbrush, roots, and even the ground itself seemed to help Jazz stay ahead. Heh. Seemed.

Jazz knew better.

Still, Maddie was right behind her when she practically tripped over Dash. Who was... lying on the ground for some reason?

Dash stared at the three of them, Jazz, Maddie, and Mr Lancer, for a solid thirty seconds before leaping to his feet. "Mr Lancer!" he exclaimed. "I didn't think that I'd ever be glad to see you!"

Jazz saw Mr Lancer's eyelid twitch, but he smiled and said, "I'm glad to see you as well, Mr Baxter. Are you alone, or-?"

"Huh? No, duh, I'm with Kwan." He looked around. "Kwan?"

A head poked out from around the trunk of a tree. "S-sorry, man, I just had to, um." Kwan stared wide eyed at Jazz and Maddie. "Um. You know."

"Danny's not with you?" asked Maddie, still a little hopeful.

"Why'd Fenton be with us?"

"We thought he was with you."

"Yeah. And what happened to those two nerds?"

"And Valerie and Manson?"

"We're not entirely sure," admitted Mr Lancer.

"We need to get out of here now," said Maddie. "This place isn't safe."

The flowers abruptly closed and stopped glowing.

"Yes," agreed Mr Lancer, "let's."

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Tucker watched Jack assemble... He didn't know what Jack was trying to make, actually, but it gave him a very bad feeling. It reminded him of the Fenton Ghost Catcher. It was round, and flat, and tied together with glowing green string. It also, and more ominously, reminded him of some of the occult stuff he, Danny, and Sam had looked into both after the Accident, and after the blood-blossom incident.

The ones that they tried either didn't work on Danny, or didn't work very well on Danny. But that was just it. The ones they tried. They didn't try any of the more dangerous rituals or anything that was supposed to hurt, banish, or do anything permanent to the ghost or spirit they were aimed at. That would be like testing whether or not someone was immune to bullets by shooting them in the face. If they weren't immune, they'd be dead.

This thing that Jack was making, this reminded Tucker of those things, those rituals. Tucker had been trying to sabotage the thing, but Jack wasn't completely hopeless when it came to observational skills. Just mostly hopeless. Tucker was honestly hoping that the ground would eat the thing, like Jazz said it had with the Fentons' other ghost weapons.

Unfortunately, the ground seemed to be shy. Which was just like Danny, come to think of it.

He wished that he was doing something useful, instead of just sitting here.

The group as a whole had moved away from the treeline. They thought that the woods were too creepy. Tucker didn't really get it. Surely they saw creepier things back home on a regular basis? The way the too-bright moon hung, unmoving, overhead was eerie, sure, but compared to stuff that showed up in Amity, it was pretty tame. It hadn't turned into a gaping maw full of teeth or anything.

(That had never quite happened in Amity Park, but there had been a ghost that made everyone think that there were two suns, once. Good times.)

Tucker was gazing forlornly at the treeline when he began to see lights flicker between the branches. He glanced back at his classmates. Most of them were asleep, or watching Jack. Tucker edged closer to the trees, and, when no one stopped him, simply walked over to them.

"Hello?" he called, softly. Then he squeaked, loudly, as a ghost, a pink-tinted will'o-the-wisp, materialized in front of him. It began to play music at him. It sounded something like Wagner, but Tucker wasn't a classical music expert. He raised his hands and made a 'slow down' motion. The wisp stopped, but hovered expectantly.

Tucker fumbled in his pocket for his PDA, sparing a glance back at the group. They hadn't noticed anything, it seemed. Good. He pulled out his PDA and turned it on.

Between the Ghost Gabber and Danny's help, Tucker had managed to make a translation program for the wisps' language. It was far from perfect, but it was usually better than charades.

Tucker typed in the words 'Can you say that again?' and the PDA played a series of notes.

The ghost sang something back, flashing, cycling to orange, then red, and finally a deep violet, and Tucker hit the translation button. "Circle," said the cool, feminine voice of the program, "bad danger for lord. You are friend."

Tucker made a face. The program didn't account for changes in brightness or color. Yet. He was working on that. 'Repeat that, but more simply.'

The wisp buzzed in frustration, but complied. "That which is large orange flesh drawing. Is danger for lord question. You are friend question."

'I am Danny's friend, if that's what you mean. I don't know if it's dangerous,' typed Tucker. He hoped that translated properly.

"Lord which is spirit of place which shelters. Lord which wears also flesh. Speaking box flesh know of circle purpose question. Speaking box flesh should destroy if friend is emphasis."

It took Tucker a while to process that. He didn't know if he should be offended that he was being called 'speaking box flesh.' Or if he should feel threatened by that last sentence. He decided not to be. The program definitely needed work, but he was beginning to suspect that the wisps here and the wisps in Amity Park spoke different dialects.

"Do you know what it's supposed to do?" asked Tucker out loud.

The wisp floated there for a moment, before letting out a trill that the program translated as "Question" and Tucker realized that he needed to type in his own question.

"Know not," translated the program finally. "Yet we see like in past. Of chalk and salt and blood. Cruel things. The red thief. The stealing of shadows. Violations."

Well, that didn't bode well. 'I will try to distract him,' typed Tucker. 'You go find Danny, and as many of your friend as possible. If I can't distract him until you or Danny gets back, then I will break it. Okay?'

The wisp trilled. "Acceptable," said the program.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17: Conditions

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With Dash and Kwan added to their party (Jazz would kill Tucker for adding that phrase to her vocabulary. Why did he have to show her that video game? Why did it have to be so good?) Jazz was no longer the only one who could climb the trees. This meant that Danny (Danny?) stopped talking to her. It also meant that she couldn't fib about what she saw anymore.

Maddie and Mr Lancer decided that Jazz had probably been seeing Dash and Kwan the whole time, and that Danny, Valerie, Sam, Mikey, and Ricky had probably been lost in another direction entirely. So, they concluded, the logical thing to do was return to the larger group. This was somewhat easier than just looking for people, because they knew that as long as they went uphill, they would eventually break free of the trees. Uphill might be difficult to find on the ground, with all the bumps caused by tree roots, and the way trees obscured one's line of sight, but once up in the crowns of the trees, above the leaves, the hill was easy to see.

So up they went.

Mr Lancer was hoping that the others would do, or had already done, the same. He kept mentioning how bright they all were, and how, surely, they would see the simple solution. Maddie, meanwhile, kept trying to disabuse him of the notion that they had already left the forest, and were waiting with the larger group. She clearly believed that they were being held hostage by ghosts.

Finally, Jazz snapped. "What would the point of that even be?" she demanded irately.

"Excuse me?"

"What would the point of that even be?" repeated Jazz. "I mean, we're clearly in some ghost's lair to begin with. They could do whatever they wanted to us. You saw what happened to you with that apple tree. What would be the point of taking hostages? And Danny- The ghost that possessed Danny," Jazz corrected herself, "healed you. If he just wanted to trap us, why not do it then?"

"Oh, Jazz," said Maddie. "You can't think of Phantom as a logical creature. It isn't human. It isn't alive. It doesn't think. It just wants to feed on our emotions. It's trying to drive us to emotional highs, especially fear, so that it can feed. It can't do that if we're dead, and judging by it's past actions, it thinks that it can get more of those highs by lulling us into a false sense of security, trapping or attacking us, and then 'fixing' the problem. That's the only reason it 'healed' me," she finished, flexing her wrist uncomfortably.

"You just said that he doesn't think."

"It's a metaphor, Jasmine. I suppose that it's like saying that a bacteria thinks, or a virus thinks. Or perhaps a computer. They don't, but sometimes we talk about them as if they do."

Jasmine stared at her mother. "Sometimes I can't believe you," she said finally. "Don't you have any empathy?"

Maddie took a step back, as if she had been slapped.

"If ghost really were just what you say," continued Jazz, "obsession, hunger, self-preservation, stolen faces, and an echo of what once was, we'd all be dead now. Especially if this is Phantom. You hurt him, and we are so far from his only 'food source' that it isn't even funny. He could just kill us, and go back to Amity."

"It kidnapped your brother! Why are you defending it?"

Jazz let her breath hiss out from between her teeth. That was a question that she couldn't easily answer. Or, more precisely, she knew the answer, but couldn't say it. Phantom was her brother. Danny was Phantom.

Jazz huffed and turned on her heel. "Whatever. Let's hurry up."

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Danny's group was on the move again. They had decided in a three to two vote to try and make their way uphill to rejoin the larger group. Danny had been less than pleased with this decision. Sam had picked up on his unease, and had joined him in dissenting. (He didn't deserve to have a friend as good as she was.)

He wasn't sure why he felt this way. Normally, he liked being near, if not necessarily in, the group when there was danger near. It meant that he could help them faster if they were attacked, or if a problem came up. Now, though, he really just wanted to be alone with Tucker, Sam, and Jazz.

His mind drifted to a sleepover they'd had a couple of weeks ago. It had been an almost perfect day. Only two ghost attacks, lots of video games, sunny, but not hot, with a cool, clear night. He had fallen asleep sandwiched between his two friends while they watched a movie. He sighed. Why couldn't every day be like that? With everyone safe and happy...

Danny wondered if it was because they were all in his lair. If he was picking up their presence without them actually having to be nearby.

(It flitted through his mind that this wouldn't be so bad.)

Before he could examine that quiet thought in more detail, Danny's breath came out in a shuddering plume of mist. He dropped the apple he had been eating, and stared at it, somewhat alarmed by the amount. The wisps weren't going to ambush him again, were they? He thought that he had explained to them why that was a bad idea.

"What was that?"

Danny turned to face Mikey, who was staring at him, wide-eyed.

"Um-" said Danny, racking his brain for an explanation, any explanation. Before he could find one, however, the wisps, and it was a swarm of wisps, curse it all, arrived, all of them singing at once. It was like listening to an orchestra warming up, all the instruments playing different pieces, running through scales, squeaking when they weren't properly tuned, the musicians whispering to their neighbors, stands and chairs colliding as everyone tried to get comfortable. In other words, a cacophony. Danny couldn't catch one word in three.

Valerie had her blaster out and was taking aim. Danny saw her squeezing the trigger, and he was there, faster, much faster, than any human should have been, seizing her wrist, pushing her arm up, making her shot miss. She gaped down at him, her eyes wide. "Danny, what?"

"We talked about this Valerie!" said Danny. They had, and Valerie had promised to give ghosts a chance, to not shoot first, ask questions later. "How would you like to be walking in your back yard, and then someone's shooting at you? They haven't done anything to you, leave them alone!"

Valerie's surprise morphed to anger, "I don't have a back yard anymore, thanks to gh-" she froze, mid-word. Her eyes flitted up to where he firmly (too firmly?) held her wrist, before dropping again and boring into his. "You," she said quietly.

"What?" said Danny, his voice wavering. What did she see in his eyes?

"You!" she shrieked, trying to wrench her wrist away, blindly firing the gun. "You're Phantom! You've been possessing Danny this whole time!" shouted Valerie, kicking him. The wisps buzzed angrily, and swirled, but did not intervene. They probably couldn't. They had a hard time being tangible.

"Have not!" exclaimed Danny, incensed, before mentally kicking himself. He should have denied being Phantom. Way to go, giving Valerie another reason to hate him.

"It's your fault we're here!" continued Valerie as if Danny hadn't spoken. "You tried to blame it on Mr and Mrs Fenton but it's you! Your fault!"

"I-" Danny stuttered. "You- That-." He sucked in a deep breath. "Fine! Maybe it is! But I didn't want this! I don't want this! I didn't- I didn't want to- to die again." He was crying. He was crying in front of Valerie, Mikey, and Ricky, not to mention Sam (it was okay to cry in front of Sam. Sam had seen him crying so often before). "Y-You have no-"

Without warning, Valerie swept his legs out from beneath him. He fell backwards, reflexively letting go of Valerie's wrist, he didn't want to pull her over, too, and hit the ground hard. Valerie stood over him, aiming the blaster at his forehead. "Get ou- Ouch!"

Sam had tackled the taller girl, and they both went down in a tangle of limbs. "Leave him alone!" shouted Sam, trying to pull away the gun.

"You- you're with Phantom?! You-!" she cut off when Sam punched her in the face, and responded with a growl.

Valerie might have a black belt in karate, but Sam had trained with Maddie Fenton and a number of ghost martial arts masters, had lots of practice, and was willing to fight dirty. She was a match for Valerie, as long as the other girl didn't use her suit.

Danny scrambled up, staring at the two of them in horror. He- he didn't want this. They were his friends! Even if Valerie didn't act like it all the time.

"Stop," he whispered. "Stop," he said again, more loudly. "Stop!"

The ground rumbled like thunder. Vines shot out of the ground and grabbed hold of the girls by their clothing, dragging them apart. One wrapped around Valerie's gun, yanked it out of her hand, and then disappeared underground (should have done that earlier). The vines then released first Sam, and then a shocked Valerie.

Danny sat down heavily, feeling dizzy, drained. Sam ran over to him. She put her hand on his shoulder, carefully, as though he might start under her touch. He didn't. He leaned into it, moaning. (More than moaning. There was a ghostly keen of distress under his words. He didn't care anymore, he was tired.)

"Danny," she said, "what happened?"

"I don't know," he said. "Something's wrong." He looked at Valerie, who had her fists up, ready to fight, then back at Mikey and Ricky, who had their hands up in a position of surrender, and finally up at the wisps, who were now hovering near him, making soothing sounds. He hummed up at them, and several, including Leader, floated down to gently nuzzle him. "Something's wrong," he repeated. He looked back at Valerie. "I know you don't like me."

"That's an understatement, ghost," snarled Valerie.

Danny flinched. "I know you don't like me, but I didn't want this- this situation, either. I don't want to be like this." He ran his hand through his hair. "I don't want-" his breath hitched. "Valerie," he tried, using a different tack, "you know that I keep my promises. You know that. You know that." He watched her carefully as he said that and saw her stance relax, slightly, saw her bite her lower lip.

"What are you suggesting?" asked Valerie.

"A truce. Until we get back to Amity. I don't want to hurt anyone, you don't hurt me, we work together to get everyone home. Just like that time with Skulker."

"Yeah?" sneered Valerie. "And what about what you did to Mrs Fenton?"

Danny bit his own lip, absently noting the trickle of blood that ran down his chin. "Knee jerk reaction. I thought she was going to- to use that thing again."

"What so you were scared? Is that what you're saying?"

"Yes," hissed Danny. "Wasn't that the whole point?" He glared at her, letting his eyes burn. "You humans have no idea what it's like to die."

Valerie glared back, but she was first to blink. "One- No, two conditions," she said finally.

"What?" asked Danny.

"I want to be armed."

Danny looked at her with disgust. "You are armed."

"You took my gun."

This was a challenge, Danny realized. A power play. She was checking to see whether or not Danny, that is, Phantom, would out her as Red Huntress. Danny rubbed his eye. He hated this. He hummed at Leader, asking him if he could bring the gun up from underground. He knew, somehow, that it wasn't very far, but at the same time, he knew that he wouldn't be able to get the vines to bring it back up. Leader conferred with a few other wisps, responded with an affirmative, and dived down.

"Where are they going?" demanded Valerie.

"To get your gun," said Danny. "What's your other condition?"

"You get out of Danny right now."

Chapter Text

Chapter 18: Deceptions

.

"You get out of Danny right now."

Yeah. Danny should have seen that coming. "I can't."

Valerie scowled. "You expect me to believe that?"

Danny laughed brokenly. "It doesn't matter what you believe. I can't. You think I haven't tried? You think I want to be stuck like this?" Careful. Don't lie outright. "Does this look like a normal overshadowing?" He gestured at his ears, his eyes, his teeth. "You didn't even notice before, and you know you looked at his eyes. The best I can do is pull myself back. Let Danny drive." Danny noticed Valerie's unyielding expression, and sighed. She wasn't making this easy. "Look, we've dealt with this before."

"What?! When?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"It's true," input Sam.

"Shut up," said Valerie. "You've been covering for him. I thought you were Danny's friend."
Sam glared at Valerie. "I am Danny's friend. I have been covering for Phantom, but so has Danny. We have dealt with this kind of issue before. It isn't easy, but we do have the equipment to fix this back home."

"And what exactly is 'this kind of issue?'"

"Getting stuck."

"So... Is this something that happens to you, or something that happens to Danny?"

Danny bit his lip again. He wasn't sure what to say. What Valerie was asking was kind of like saying, 'is a maple a plant or a tree?' However, Sam was the one that answered. "It happens to Danny. When ghosts try to overshadow him, they either get kicked out right away, or weird stuff happens. Not always getting stuck, but that's happened a couple times." Wow. That was actually really creative. It was also true. Overshadowing did not work well on Danny, even when he was in human form. Poindexter, Danielle, and about half a dozen other ghosts could attest to that. The kinda-sorta body swap with Poindexter wasn't even the weirdest result.

(No, that honor belonged to an incident wherein Danny and another ghost managed to swap memories. Danny still had his human brain, so it didn't affect him that much, but the other ghost had been utterly convinced that he was Danny. Thank goodness it was temporary.)

Valerie's frown only deepened. "You knew this could happen, but you still possessed Danny?"

"It wasn't like it was a conscious decision," defended Danny. Great. Now he was feeling guilty for something he didn't even do.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Danny finally looked away from Valerie. "You have no idea what it's like."

"You said that before, what does it have to do with anything?"

"Have you- Have ever been scared? Like, really scared. Not like a phobia, but of something that you know is reasonable. Something that you have every reason to be frightened of. Something- Something that you thought you didn't have to worry about ever again but- Surprise!- you were wrong. You were so, so wrong, and you ran headfirst into it and it hurt you and you're hurt, and you can't think, and you can't even-" Danny took a deep breath. He was rambling. "I was scared. I wanted to hide, and I wasn't thinking."

"You're saying that it's just a coincidence that you pick the son of ghost hunters."

"I- That- I know Danny. I- I guess I thought he wouldn't mind? I don't- I don't know."

"Phantom's one of the ones who's helped Danny get back home," added Sam helpfully.

"Whatever. You said that you can pull back."

"Yeah."

"So who have we been talking to?"

"Danny, mostly."

"And when you ran off with Danny?"

"Um. I panicked. I knew I screwed up. And, um, I was kind of having a bad reaction to, um, being here. I've never been here before." Heck, too much information, too much information!

"But- This is your lair, how-?"

"I stay in Amity Park. And do you know how big the Ghost Zone is? People call it the Infinite Realms for a reason."

"What do you mean, this is his lair?"

Danny hadn't forgotten that Ricky and Mikey were there, but he was surprised that Mikey had asked anything, considering how much tension there was. "Um. A lair is a pocket dimension in the Ghost Zone that a ghost is subconsciously linked to."

"So you control everything here?"

"Uh, kind of?"

"So you can get us out?" asked Mikey, excitedly.

Danny shook his head. "It doesn't work like that."

"Why?" asked Ricky, clearly disappointed.

"Yeah, Phantom, why?"

"How much conscious control do you have over your dreams, even when you know you're dreaming? This is all subconscious." It certainly wasn't what he had expected his lair to look like, either. When he had thought about it, not a frequent occurrence, he had imagined something colder. "And I'm not exactly at my best right now."

Valerie made another face. Danny could feel her indecision. Literally. "What about these... things?" she nodded at the wisps. The wisps flickered and whistled, offended.

"They're will'o-the-wisps," said Danny. "They're harmless."

"I need more than that."

"They're, uh, the technical term is vassals. They're like remora. You know, those little fish? But for ghosts. They, um," he faltered at the blank look on Valerie's face. "They have symbiotic relationships with other ghosts. Vassalage. Like, they help other ghosts out, and in return, they live in their lairs and haunts and get protection and stuff. They aren't dangerous on their own. They usually aren't even tangible."

At that point, leader and the wisps that had gone with him, popped up from beneath the ground, all crowded together in a tight knot. They dispersed a moment later, leaving Valerie's blaster on the ground. Then gathered again at Danny's side, mumbling possessively.

"And they're here because?"

"Like I said, they live here, they're-"

"No, I mean, why did they just show up like this?" asked Valerie, picking up her blaster.

"Oh, um. I don't know. Got kinda distracted by all this. You going to shoot me or..?"

Valerie sighed through her nose. She looked at Sam. "You think that he's telling the truth about letting Danny be in charge?"

"I know he's telling the truth. It's hard to fake Danny's level of awkwardness."

Valerie looked back at Danny. "I'll do your truce. But if I say that I want to talk to Danny, you'd better let me talk to Danny."

"No problem," said Danny. Literally no problem. She was talking to him now. "Just... Hold off on telling the Fentons about this, if you see them."

"What? Are you more scared of them than me?"

"Yeah, actually. You've never killed me, so yeah. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to ask these guys what happened and why they decided to swarm again after last time."

When Danny turned his attention to the wisps, they gathered even closer to him. They didn't entirely understand what was going on. There was nearly infinite variety among ghosts. Danny was weird, but not unbearably so. They brushed up against his exposed skin like icy butterflies. Danny sighed, and sang to them, asking what had brought them there, what was wrong.

They answered.

Danny felt all the blood drain out of his face. "Oh, heck," he whispered. "Oh, no, no, no, no." He struggled to his feet, Sam helping him up.

"What did they say?" asked Sam.

"They, argh, it's hard to explain, we've got to go now, I'll explain on the way."

"Hold it!" said Valerie. "I want to talk to Danny first."

"Fine," said Danny. Whistled at the wisps, and the group split, half of them going on ahead. He shut his eyes, and pulled back the green light that he knew was flooding them. When the insides of his eyelids were no longer tinted green, he made a show of looking around and blinking, before blanching, and exclaiming, "Oh, jeez, we have to go right now!" He pulled Sam along with him, hoping that Valerie and the other two would come along. They should be able to keep up. He wasn't going very fast. Whatever had happened with those vines a few minutes ago, it had taken a lot out of him.

"Wait!" said Ricky. "What's wrong? What happened?"

"That's-" Danny was breathing heavily, which was rather worrying. He trilled a request for extra energy at the wisps. He needed it. "You ever watch Forbidden Planet?"

"Duh, it's a classic," said Mikey.

"Monsters from the id?"

"Yeah, like- like I said, it's a classic."

"Well," huffed Danny, "some things can do that- well, something like that to ghosts. And Dad- and Dad is making something that- that looks like one of those things, to these guys. Calling it a shadow thief, or something, it doesn't- doesn't translate well. Unless- Unless you want to be dealing with Phantom's monsters, we've got to get him to stop."

.
.
.

Maddie was the first out of trees. The others followed quickly thereafter. Maddie, Dash, Kwan, and Mr Lancer all expressed relief at being out from under the trees.

Jazz didn't share in their relief. Something felt off. Wrong.

It took a few minutes to spot the others, but when they did see them, or, more specifically, Jack's great caution-orange bulk, they, or, more specifically, Maddie, Dash, and Kwan, ran up, exclaiming happily. Mr Lancer wasn't the kind of person to run unless he was being chased, and Jazz just couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. Badly wrong. She hung back.

"Maddie!" exclaimed Jack, loud enough to be heard even over the distance between him and Jazz. "You won't believe what I've done! You have to see this! Where's Danny?"

Maddie responded more quietly. Jazz cursed herself. She could have heard if she had been closer. It might have been important. But before her inner Danny could castigate her any more, she saw Tucker break off from the group, and come jogging towards her.

"Jazz, where's Danny?"

"We got separated. What's going on?"

"Argh. This is not good. You have to help me sabotage this thing, I've been trying, but Mr Fenton won't let me near it anymore."

"What is it?"

"I don't know, but there was a wisp here, and it didn't like it and it looks like the Ghost Catcher on steroids so I don't like it, please help me break it. It can't possibly be a good thing." He tugged her sleeve.

Jazz followed him. "Did the wisp say what it was supposed to do?"

"Yeah, but, well, my program isn't perfect. I have no idea what it was trying to tell me, beyond, you know, danger."

"Did Dad say what it was for?"

"I asked him, couldn't follow the explanation. Had something to do with an ancestor of yours?"

.
.
.

"This is amazing, Jack!" said Maddie. "I can't believe you did this in just a few hours." She threw her arms around him, and kissed him. "We'll be able to pull Phantom out of Danny!"

"Yeah! That ghost will wish he never touched our boy!" Jack put his hands on his hips and nodded, smiling broadly. But then he faltered. "You'll check it for me, right? I'm not always good with calculations. If I got anything wrong..."

"Of course I'll check, dear." It was Maddie's turn to grimace. "This is our fault, though, isn't it? This is just what Danny was talking about earlier."

"I know, Mads, but we can fix this," said Jack, softly. "We just have to get Danny back, first."

"You're right. I just... I wish we'd used another weapon. What were we thinking, the Mortifier was completely untested... And now it's broken."

Jack blinked. "Broken?"

Maddie showed him the pieces. Jack frowned, but looked interested. "I think that we can actually incorporate some of these, to make the effect stronger."

Maddie blinked. "Of course! Here, and here!"

"Mom? Dad? What are you doing?"

"Jazz! Your father has built something that should pull Phantom right out of Danny!"

"Really?" asked Jazz, falsely bright, her eye twitching. "What if- What if Phantom has already left Danny?"

"Then this should still pull him right here!" said Jack, proudly.

"Once he's trapped, we can force him to take us home," added Maddie.

The twitch in Jazz's eye became more profound. "Are you sure that's really the best thing to do? I mean, giving him another reason to hate us."

"Don't worry, Jazzy-pants! We've got- Tucker! Get away from that!"

Tucker flinched, and put up his hands. "Sorry," he said, backing away.

Maddie and Jack began to work on the object. Jazz withdrew to where Tucker was standing. "Were you able to break it?"

"Wasn't even able to touch it."

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.
.

Jazz and Tucker tried several more times to either sabotage the device, or to distract the older Fentons from working on it. They even managed to recruit Mr Lancer in one attempt. It didn't work. Jazz was considering just straight up smashing the thing, and she knew Tucker was too, and damn the consequences, when Maddie suddenly straightened, smiling.

"That should be it, dear. Based on your ancestors' writings, well, this should work." She worried her lower lip. "I would have liked to test it in lab conditions first, but I suppose it would only work in a ghost's lair or haunt anyway." She smiled uneasily. "If I can have all of you back away a bit?" she called to the students, waving them off. Jazz and Tucker tensed, ready to run at the device as soon as they had an opening.

Before anyone moved very much, however, a series of crashes and snaps emanated from the treeline. A moment later Danny emerged, followed shortly thereafter by Sam.

"Stop!" he shouted, breathless. "You don't know what you're doing!"

"Hit the button!" yelled Maddie.

"No!" screamed Jazz and Tucker in stereo, lunging towards the device.

There was a flash of light.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19: The Shadow

.

It was a weird sensation.

A burning hand in his chest, wrapping around his core, pulling.

There was the sensation of falling.

(Why was it so hard to breathe?)

There was an epiphany. A revelation. He knew now, why he'd been so tired. His core was trying to adjust. Trying to spread itself too thin. Trying to make things easier for the others. Trying trying trying. It had been damaged. He, Danny, had been damaged. That first attack, dying again, the portal. He wasn't ready.

It was a weird sensation.

Like he wasn't quite in his body. Like he was watching from the outside. Like he was aware of everything and nothing at the same time.

It had happened three (four) times before.

Once, with Poindexter. Those first moments, looking through the mirror, trapped, he had been so scared. His fear had only grown the longer he had stayed there, tethered to a place that wasn't him, wasn't his. He was always scared.

Then the next time, it hadn't been anyone's fault. An accident. An error. Unintentional. He had run headfirst into the Ghost Catcher, splitting himself, except not. He had still been both of himself. Not separate. Together. But apart. The same, but different. It still hurt his head to think about.

The third time, he had done it on purpose. He had promised Sam and Tucker a fun weekend, but he couldn't just ignore the ghosts attacking Amity. His nature pulled him in two different directions, and the Ghost Catcher was the only solution. It'd had a bizarre effect on his personality. Both halves were trying too hard at their assigned tasks, and there was a buzzing, underlying, elastic tie linking the two of them and it hurt.

(The fourth time was buried under a hundred layers of denial, guilt, and self-hatred. A moment in time, a hand clawed hand brushing incidentally against his core as it deposited an artifact of time itself, leaving behind a decade of memories.

[Claws through his chest- he couldn't breathe- this wasn't the way it was supposed to be. What was Vlad doing, he had promised to fix things, but it hurt more and more and more. All he was was pain, anger, FEAR and he was staring down at his human self and it still hurt. He couldn't do this, what was Vlad doing? This wasn't what they had agreed on. It wasn't supposed to be this way. It hurt and he had to protect but it hurt and they were already gone and he was out of control and he couldn't.]

And Danny buried the flash again. No. It didn't excuse anything.)

It was a little like making a duplicate, too, if he though about it, but it was forced. Violent. A violation. Entirely against his will.

It hurt. But it was a different hurt than dying. This was more like a strain, an ache in his bones.

He could feel the way out. The redirect. No. He wasn't doing that. He wasn't walking into a trap. He wasn't going to imprison himself. He pushed and fought and struggled and searched. There were ways and there were ways. He had a right to protect himself.

His mind skittered, trying too pull back the thought. It was too much like- But it was too late. There was too much going on.

Sam caught him before he hit the ground. Good Sam. Thank you Sam. Jazz and Tucker were going after something on the ground. Good. They were too good. They were always helping him and he was so useless. Jack was holding both of them back, one in each hand. A wave of fierce possessiveness came over him. All ghosts had it, at least a little bit. Danny kept his tamped down, rarely manifested, and then only as over-protectiveness, afraid that he'd hurt someone, afraid that he'd do something unforgivable, take a step too far from humanity. But Sam, Tucker, and Jazz were his. His, and no one else had the right- No one else could touch-

But his parents were his, too, and he was supposed protect them. Why were they doing this? What did he do wrong?

He gasped, eyes rolling back as the hand around his core constricted. Sam was lowering him to the ground. It was too hot! He wanted it to be cold. Cold was good. Cold was safe. He wanted it to be safe, everyone safe and cold and not changing in confusing ways, his parents were supposed to be his parents, not the enemy. They were supposed to help him, why?

Why was he so weak? Why wasn't he doing something? Why did he always wait for disasters to happen? Why was he so passive? He should be more active, proactive, should have done something, something more.

His core was abruptly released, and it curled in on itself, trembling. Danny could breathe again. He could feel everything. Every blade of glass. The weave of his clothes. Sam's hands cradling him. He could feel his lair, really feel it, and he could feel the shadow trapped by the makeshift device lying on the ground just a few meters away.

The shadow was an extension of the lair, just as the lair was an extension of Danny. But it was an unnatural, pinched-off extension, a reflection of his thoughts of the moment. Still, his lair drank them in.

Then Danny's core shivered again, and even the illusion of control was lost.

The wisps were screaming overhead. Furious, but unsure of what to do, of what they could do. Danny should have spent longer talking to them, explaining who was who and what was what, but even Danny wasn't sure of that anymore.

Then his mother was at his side, and he didn't know if he should cling to her or flinch away. Not that he had a choice. His body wasn't listening to him. She pulled him away from Sam, and he moaned in protest.

"It's okay, Danny, it's okay. I'm here now, Danny, Mommy's here." He wanted to believe her. He really did. "Phantom's gone, now. He's gone, Danny," she said, rocking him. This was blatantly untrue. Danny's core was weak, hiding, he probably wouldn't be able to use even the least of his powers, but it was still there. He felt her shift. "Valerie, Sam... Ricky, Mikey, are you alright? What did Phantom do?"

There was a tangle of sound as everyone tried to talk over one another. Sam was trying to soften everything, turn away the knife. She wasn't doing a very good job, this time. They hadn't time to think, to prepare.

Then Valerie raised her voice. "They were working with Phantom!"

"What?" asked Maddie, voice soft, dangerous.

"Danny and Sam- But we only have Sam and Phantom's word of that."

"You- Sam, how could you? You know what ghosts are like."

"Mrs Fenton-"

"No," said Maddie. Danny could feel himself being lifted. "I can't believe this. I know that you were always interested in darkness but this is too much. And you- And Tucker and Jazz, too," Maddie said, with an air of revelation.

"Mrs Fenton, I can explain-"

"No. No," said Maddie, her voice going hard, angry. "Don't you dare try to twist this, Sam. This is- You helped Phantom make my child a slave when you were supposed to be his friend."

"I didn't- You don't-"

"Don't lie to me, Samantha!" shouted Maddie. "Helping that thing- It's the reason we're here!" Then Maddie's tone took on a threatening edge. "When we get back-"

That was all it took to tip the scales. His parents went from friends to enemies in that moment.

(But he still loved them, still needed them to be safe.)

He forced his eyes open and flailed. It was really the only motion available to him at the moment. But he found his mother's shoulder, and pushed off of it. Maddie was taken by surprise, and he tumbled out of her arms. He managed to find his feet- a miracle!- and stumbled in the general direction of Sam. She caught his shoulder, steadying him.

Maddie reached out to him.

"Don't touch me!"

"Danny?"

"I said don't touch me! Leave me alone!" Danny was breathing heavily, hyperaware of the air in his lungs, of the ectoplasm it was laced with. His eyes flicked to the device on the ground, on the shadow huddled inside it.

"Mr Fenton- Daniel..."

Danny looked up at Mr Lancer, but, catching movement out of the corner of his eye, snapped back to face his mother. "Why-" he said. He wasn't entirely rational at the moment and he knew it. He shouldn't be talking, but he couldn't help it. "Why is it that everything you do winds up with me getting hurt?"

Maddie stepped closer, platitudes on her lips, but she was, shockingly, stopped by Mr Lancer. "Mrs Fenton," he said. "Perhaps you ought to... Stay back. And Jack. Let Jasmine and Mr Foley go. Please. I don't know what you think they were doing, but they clearly aren't doing it now." He turned to Danny, smiling gently. He bent, so that his eyes were level with Danny's. "Daniel... Danny," he said softly, "could you- What do you mean by that?"

"I- I- I don't..." His breath hitched, his eyes still fixed on Maddie.. "They... It isn't- They don't mean to... It's just- The inventions, they don't always work right. The boomerang. The blasters. The shrink ray. The security system. Trackers. All the goo, and the chemicals. The por-" He stopped dead, then took a deep breath. "It- It's nothing."

Lancer looked over his shoulder. "Mrs Fenton, maybe you could go... Make sure Phantom doesn't get out, something." He looked back at the device on the ground, frowning when he saw Jack still holding on to Tucker and Jazz."

Maddie glanced at Lancer, took a step back, and scowled. "I would never-"

A sound of cracking ice cut through the air, dangerous, sharp-edged, and brittle. All eyes snapped to the device, to the shadow. Even the wisps stopped shrieking and buzzing. It was upright, now, head thrown back. Still indistinct, but humanoid. He was laughing.

"You would never?" hissed the shadow. It's voice was overlaid with static, the edges of it's words curled around with desperate screams. "Tell us, Madeline Camilla Fenton, what is it that you would never do?"

"Phantom," said Maddie.

Broken ice laughter. "Phantom? I'm afraid you're mistaken. But, come. We were talking about you. What you would do. What was it? Hurt a child? Hurt your child?"

"We're the ones asking the questions here," said Maddie.

"Oh? So you don't want to tell them how you continue making weapons even when they turn on your children? How you ignore their injuries? The bruises, the blood... Didn't you notice?"

"What do you know, you-" Maddie visibly forced herself to calm down. "You are going to take us home. Now."

"Why?" asked the shadow, sounding genuinely curious. It's voice was more normal now.

"Because if you don't we'll leave you in there. Permanently."

"Hmm." The shadow opened a pair of vividly green eyes. "No. Even if I could, I wouldn't."

Maddie's lips twitched, and she turned slightly, to face Sam and Danny. "This is what Phantom is really like. Are you happy you worked with it now?"

"Aren't you going to-?" asked Mr Lancer.

"It'll change it's mind, or whatever passes for it's mind, eventually," said Maddie, dismissively. "Danny, I need to check you for possession aftereffects. I don't want you going into shock."

"Unwise," said the shadow. "Almost as unwise as thinking you can hold me."

"And what do you think you know about it, huh?!" exclaimed Jack.

"Everything. I know how you hurt him. How you always hurt him."

"Mrs Fenton-"

"He's lying."

"How many weapons have you fired in his direction, as a joke? How many have you fired to wound? Can you even tell when he's hiding his pain? When he's afraid of you?"

"Mr Phantom-"

"I am not Phantom. Not truly. Not in the way that humans would understand it, Mr Lancer."

"Just ignore it, Mr Lancer."

Mr Lancer frowned. "I don't think I will. Mrs Fenton, over the past three years I've seen-" He glanced back at Danny. "I've seen a lot of things. Troubling things, and ghosts are the least of it. This is the first reasonable explanation I've heard, no matter that it's from a ghost."

"It isn't what you're thinking. They're just so ignorant. They don't even know what they've done. He still loves them. We still love them." The eyes blinked, focusing first on Jack, then on Maddie. "Why do you hurt him? Hurt us? It doesn't matter now, though. Here you'll be safe. Be kept safe. You won't be hurt, won't be allowed to hurt anyone, not anymore."

It was at that point that Tucker, who had managed to surreptitiously slip his Lipstick Laser from his pocket and aim it at the device, fired. Sparks flew out as the device caught on fire and the shadow vaporized.

An unnatural pressure came off Danny's soul, and the lair began to recover from it's shock. Danny could feel it, peripherally. Kicking into gear. It thrilled him, deep down, even as it horrified him. Finally, finally, finally.

"Tucker! Why-?"

"Because what you were doing is wrong!"

Danny leaned against Sam, staring up into the sky. Clouds were gathering. It was going to start snowing soon.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20: Snow

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There was an argument going on. Well, arguments, really. Two different languages. Danny was the only one who could understand both. (Understand being a relative term). It was kind of funny, really. One of the arguments was whether or not one set of arguers should flee the other.

Danny wasn't paying attention, though. He was looking up, thinking. In a few minutes, the swirling clouds would start to block out the moonlight. He wondered if it would start snowing. He blinked, looking down again.

Mr Lancer looked like he was ready to physically fight Maddie, which was really funny. Paulina was screaming something about 'her ghost-boy.' Valerie looked as if she was about to throw up. Most of the class had actually started to agree with Tucker, which was nice.

But then Maddie just had to ruin things.

"If you're going to believe that thing about all the rest, you have to believe it about not being Phantom! That means that Danny is still possessed!"

"I am not!" said Danny. A thought, a plan, bloomed, unbidden. It would be cruel, but- He was nearly beyond caring, right now. There were more important things than feelings. This would get dangerous to the humans, when it did start snowing, if they kept arguing like this. It could get dangerous for the wisps if it resolved in some decision against them on the part of the humans. It would be dangerous to Danny regardless, as much as he loved the cold. He hesitated a moment. This would hurt his parents. This was one of the reasons he had kept his secrets for so long. He didn't want to hurt them.

But they were the enemy, now. They had made themselves a danger to Danny, which he could deal with, and to others, which he couldn't. So.

He seized the hem of his shirt, and pulled it up, over his head. His t-shirt and undershirt came off with his hoodie, exposing his bare skin and a veritable constellation of scars. He threw his shirts on the ground. Everyone was staring at him now.

"Are you going to blame all of these on Phantom, too? It doesn't matter though, does it?" Danny laughed, hysteria creeping into his tone. The sound had more in common with breaking ice than he liked. "Because none of you ever noticed! Jazz was the only one who noticed."

Everyone, wisps included, stared at Danny in mute horror. Danny stared back. Heck, he didn't have, like, a gaping wound that he wasn't feeling, did he? He looked down.

It was like time stopped.

He had forgotten about the scar. The scar. The one he never, ever, showed everyone. The one that branched like lightning over his whole body.

Somehow, between now and when he had first woken up here, he had forgotten that the scar was visible even though he was human. Just... It had slipped his mind, somewhere in between temporary insanity and getting his mind picked apart by whatever he'd just-

And they had all seen it, now.

He lunged for the wad of cloth that was his shirts and forced it haphazardly over his head.

"Daniel," said Mr Lancer, sounding as shocked as Danny felt, "what was that scar from?"

Drat. Come up with a lie. Hurry, hurry, hurry. "The portal accident," answered Danny. "Before freshman year." A lie! That was not a lie!

"But you went to the doctor for that!" protested Maddie. "You- It faded, it- how..."

"I don't know, maybe it's sensitive to ectoplasm concentration or something," said Danny. Oh. That was actually a good one.

"What about the other ones?" asked Mr Lancer.

"You said that the ghosts would come after you," said Valerie, breathlessly, before Danny could come up with anything. "Oh my god, Danny."

"Did Phantom-" started Ricky, hesitantly.

"He's one of the only ones who didn't contribute to this mess," said Danny. (He did not count the hand-shaped burns left on his arms in that aborted future.) "Heck, even Tucker's hit me with a blaster before."

"One time, man!"

Danny's laugh was a little more genuine this time.

Where had he been going with this?

"The point is," Sam stepped up, wrapping her one arm possessively around Danny, "that you didn't notice. That you never notice. That you're pointing fingers at ghosts, saying they're thoughtless and destructive, when you should be looking at yourselves. Did you even think about what that thing would do to Danny if Phantom was in him?"

Another beat of silence, and then the clouds did what they had been threatening to do all along, and converged on the not-moon, blocking out all it's light. Now the only illumination was the still smoldering device, and the wisps.

"We have to find shelter," said Danny. "It's going to start snowing soon."

There was a murmur of 'How could you possibly know that?' but that was drowned out by a louder voice shouting "Who died and made you king, Fentonia?"

Ah, yes. The ever relevant Dash Baxter, asking the important questions.

Danny was seriously tempted to say 'I did!' or perhaps, 'The jury's still out on that one,' but he wasn't sure it was worth it. On the other hand, he didn't think that he was going to get out of this with his secrets intact. He wasn't sure that he wanted to, anymore.

Then again, the idea of what the Guys in White might do if word of what he was got out... He hadn't forgotten how GIW agents had attacked Sam and Tucker during the Reality Gauntlet incident. Yeah. No. He was going to keep as many of his secrets as he could.

So, instead, he sighed and said, "No one did, Dash, but you have to notice the clouds? And how much the temperature has dropped? I mean, I can see your breath. If we don't find shelter we'll freeze to death out here arguing."

"Not to mention, nothing you're arguing about is going to solve any of our more pressing problems," added Sam. "Like, you know, food, water, getting home."

"You're saying that it doesn't matter whether or not Fenton's possessed? He could be lying about, like, everything?"

"What, like you, Elliot?" said Sam. A bit of a sneer crept into her voice. She had never forgiven him for tricking her into thinking that he was from a vegan goth from Hungary so that he could date her. "But seriously? All that he's done is point out the obvious."

"But there isn't anywhere to go," protested Tiffanie.

"There's the woods," began Sam.

"The woods that attack people and are full of ghosts?" asked Dash.

"It isn't like there aren't ghosts here," said Tucker, indicating the wisps. Danny could feel the tension rise among the students. The only reason that they hadn't run was that the wisps had stayed close to Danny, and away from them, thus far. Well, that and the speed at which everything happened. And possibly the fact that there really weren't that many options when it came to running. Okay, maybe there were a bunch of reasons.

"Why aren't you doing anything about them?" whined Paulina.

"Yeah, you're ghost hunters, right?" Tiffanie picked up the complaint. "You should be able to chase them off, right?"

"Pauli, Tiffanie," said Star, worried, "I don't think that it's a good idea to insult the ghosts right now... This is their home, and there's a lot of them..."

Really, Star was the only one in that group with a brain. Paulina and Tiffanie had redeeming characteristics, but sometimes they were hard to find.

"Actually," said Danny, a light bulb turning on in his head, "I think that they might be able to help us with one of our problems. But first, I think that Ricky and Mikey could be able to help us with shelter."

"What? How?" asked Mikey, surprised.

"You aren't talking about the holes, are you? Because I don't think that's a good idea."

"What? No. Earlier, when we were looking for supplies that came through with us, you guys said that you found a building, right?"

"Oh! Yeah, but it was kind of small. It'll be a squeeze/"

"That should still be fine." A tiny, perfect, snowflake drifted down in front of Danny's eye.

(Would it be such a bad thing if they stayed outside? How could a little snow hurt anyone? It was so soft, so beautiful, so delicate. A blizzard was just a storm of icy kisses.)

Danny reached out to touch it. His fingertip tingled as it slowly melted, and sunk into his skin.

(An image flickered behind his eyes. Himself and his friends, his family, his classmates, his teacher sleeping peacefully in a snowbank. Safe.)

"We really need to go now," said Danny.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21: Rotunda

.

It took an unreasonably long time to convince everyone to move. A number of people were suspicious of Danny on the grounds of 'he's possessed!' There was a group who objected specifically to the building because it was a tomb and might be haunted. Or full of zombies. (Danny didn't know whether to laugh or cry). A smaller group wanted to dare the forest.

This new argument was only resolved when Mr Lancer, bless him, noticed that the intermittent snowflakes were making people drowsy (more drowsy than they had been, anyway). After that, people practically raced uphill.

Once he was sure everyone was reasonably distracted, besides Valerie, who wouldn't stop staring at him, and, of course, his friends, Danny whistled a quick request for the wisps to follow him. Danny felt bad, taking advantage of them like this. He had just met them and he was already relying on them so much. But he needed the help.

The building, when they reached it, was a cute little rotunda. The pillars and carvings gave it a Greek flare. The sides were solid, except for one gap between pillars, which served as a doorway to the interior. A flowering vine curled up one stone wall.

Jack checked the building first, and proclaimed it 'No more infested by specters than the rest of this place!'

After that, everyone kind of packed in. It was, as Mikey had predicted, a squeeze. More so than Danny would have thought from the outside, because the center of the single room was taken up by a descending spiral staircase, the well for which was blocked off by a wrought-iron fence.

No one volunteered to look and see what was below.

The interior walls and ceiling were covered with intricate carvings. Abstract images of birds and flowers, of stars, snowflakes, and gears, of people holding hands. There were tessellations. Geometric figures. With a sense of mortification, Danny recognized some of his own doodles. Actually... These... All of these were things that he had drawn, wanted to draw, or admired at one point or another. Yes, that one he had done a few weeks ago, and that was an Escher woodcut that he had particularly liked.

There were benches against the walls, and against the fence. There was some argument about who would get to sit on the benches. The A-listers, predictably, won the argument. They had the muscle to back up their claim, after all.

The wisps followed. Some phased through the walls and ceiling. Others came in through the door. Soon, the rotunda was filled with a coruscating rainbow of light.

Danny glanced out the door and sighed with regret. The snow looked really nice, especially now that the flakes were getting larger and falling faster. They could have had a snowball fight.

"Danny," said Mia, hesitantly. Danny looked back inside, and located his classmate. She still had her one eye closed. "You said that you had a solution to our problem?"

"Oh! Right. I-"

"Wait."

Danny's eyes snapped, instantly wary, to his mother. "What?"

"Phantom."

Danny flattened his lips. "You still think I'm overshadowed?"

"I don't know," admitted Maddie. "But before this goes any farther, I need to know what's going on. I need to know why the four of you, why my children," the 'who should have known better' was unspoken, "would... conspire with a ghost. I need to know how you got those scars."

"We've actually already told Valerie, Ricky, and Mikey some of it," said Danny, quickly, thinking fast. They didn't need conflicting stories from Tucker and Jazz. The lies needed to match up. "But then the wisps told us what you were doing here and..." He shrugged, helplessly.

"Heh. Yeah," said Mikey. "At least it didn't turn out to be the monster from the id thing, like you thought."

"What are you talking about? It was exactly that."

"But- But it disappeared."

"That doesn't mean it's gone," said Danny.

"Hold on," said Paulina, "that creepy thing that was obsessed with Fenton is still out there?"

"Way to go, Foley," said Dale, harshly, "now we're all going to get killed by a horror movie reject, just 'cause you thought it was 'the right thing to do,'" the football player pitched his voice up at the end, waving his hands.

Tucker scowled. "At least I'm not a college reject."

Yay! Distraction! Way to go, Tucker. Now Danny had time to think about what lie he was going to tell while Tucker managed to suck half the class into a fight.

(Danny was sure this would come back to bite them eventually. Everything always did.)

Once the combined efforts of Mr Lancer, Jack, Maddie, Hannah, and Mia, had calmed the combatants down again, Danny had a halfway decent story.

"I'm still waiting for an explanation," Maddie announced.

"I know," said Danny, running a hand nervously through his hair. "Okay. So, I guess I should start at the beginning." He inhaled. Here goes nothing. "Phantom was the first ghost to come through the portal. He came out, what, minutes after the portal shocked me?"

"Sounds about right," said Sam.

"He was a really new ghost back then," continued Danny. "Like, brand new. But we didn't know that at the time, so we all kind of freaked out, then he freaked out, and, well. Once you guys got home we kind of... We weren't totally sure if what we had seen was real or not, and we all were really more focused on my electrical burns, and after that you were so excited about the portal working, we didn't mention it. Which sounds silly now, but you know what that day was like.

"A week after that," Danny continued, "other ghosts started to come through our portal. Before you say anything, I know you didn't notice. I didn't either, at first. But they started to come after me. They'd trip me, push me down, knock things out of my hands. This was during the first few weeks of school, freshman year. You know how I was back then, Mr Lancer."

"If I recall, that's when you were permanently banned from handling school glassware. You're saying ghosts were to blame?"

"For a lot of it, yeah. Mostly they'd stay invisible, or just show up out of the corner of my eye. I thought I was going nuts. I'm not one-hundred percent sure why they picked on me, specifically. We've speculated, but it isn't like any of them ever told me. Then one day, I think that it was getting towards the end of September, Sam, Tucker, and I were walking home, and we were straight-up attacked. Ectopi. We were really in trouble, which, again, I know, seems silly now. But we didn't have any practical experience with ghosts back then. But Phantom saved us."

"That seems to be an odd coincidence," said Maddie. "That he was there just when you were attacked."

"It wasn't a coincidence. He'd been following us."

"What?"

"Well. Me mostly. You know how your ghost detectors kept picking me up? That was why. Which, yes, was kind of creepy, but we were basically the only people he'd ever met who hadn't attacked him on sight. At least, if you have a very loose definition of 'met.' We talked a little after that. He mostly wanted to make sure that we weren't hurt. But you know how he is after a fight. He vanished pretty quickly. Then there was the Lunch Lady ghost, and he somehow got a Fenton Thermos during that fight. He told me that you had thrown it at him? I never quite believed that..."

"I'd never give a ghost Fenton Tech!"

"Right. Anyway. There were a couple of other ghost fights around the school, and at that point he had figured out that FentonWorks was a dangerous place for a ghost to hang around. But the Thermos got full. So he asked me to empty it. I have to say, I didn't exactly trust him at that point, but he wasn't acting like a mindless killing machine, either. He was acting like a person. So I agreed to empty it."

"Why didn't you bring the ghosts to us?" asked Maddie.

"Um. Honestly? Some of the stuff you talked about doing to ghosts, I wouldn't be comfortable doing to animals, and the Lunch Lady ghost could talk. So. Yeah. That wasn't going to happen. Also, you guys hadn't done a super awesome job with the ghosts you had run into, and I didn't want you to get hurt. If Phantom was going to take care of the problem, I was going to let him. Still, I didn't trust him. Not until the locker 724 incident."

"Hah! So that locker was haunted!" shouted Hannah suddenly. The blonde girl was a... He didn't want to say 'conspiracy theory nut.' Considering what Amity Park was like, he didn't want to say that Area 51 wasn't a thing. "Did you meet Poindexter?"

"Um. Sort of? I don't really remember most of what happened. I had blackmailed Phantom into helping me prank Dash. Yes, I know, not a great decision, but I was tired of being picked on all the time. I had been standing next to the locker, watching the latest prank unfold, you know? And then Poindexter just comes out of the locker and starts lecturing the two of us about how we were bullying Dash-"

"Serves you right, Fentoad!" erupted Dash, suddenly. "You shouldn't have blackmailed Phantom! And you shouldn't have messed with me, 'cause now you're gonna-"

"Mr Baxter!"

"Considering that you locked me in my locker just yesterday, and the fact that you made me do your science homework all last week, and you periodically hang me on the flagpole by my underwear, I can't say I feel particularly guilty about stuffing your locker with Fenton-Wipe once, two years ago, and getting Phantom to tie your shoelaces together once, two years ago. I guess I still feel slightly guilty about getting him to run you into the lockers, but all things considered, I think that I've more than paid for it at this point. Anyway, the three of us got into a fight, and Poindexter overshadowed me."

"Overshadowed?"

"You'd probably call it possession, Mom, but overshadowing has technical differences. I'll get back to that later, if you remind me. But that whole thing was a nightmare, because, apparently, getting shocked by the portal messed me up more than we thought it did. Like I told these guys," Danny gestured to Ricky, Mikey, and Valerie, "overshadowing does not work properly on me. Poindexter got stuck. Normal methods of disrupting an overshadowing would not work. He didn't realize it at the time, though. He tricked Phantom into getting trapped in his lair, and by 'his' I mean Poindexter's, and, um. I'd better leave the rest to Sam and Tucker, actually, because I spent the rest of the day overshadowed."

"You say 'stuck' like it was a bad thing for both you and Poindexter," said Lester. "But wouldn't it actually be good for him? He'd have your body, if no one could get him out."

"It was a bad thing," said Danny. "There's a reason that ghosts don't overshadow people long-term. It isn't healthy for them." Danny licked his lip as he thought about how to explain. "A ghost can't get the energy it needs when it's overshadowing a human body. It still has access to the emotional energy of the human it's overshadowing, but other than that," Danny shrugged, "it usually isn't going to get anything. Human bodies don't have the ability to absorb ectoplasm. I mean, you might pick up some from breathing, or eating contaminated food, but even then, that's not generally going to get to the ghost, and most other energies are going to be deflected by the body. The ghost would starve, eventually, especially if they were using their powers."

"And Poindexter was definitely using his powers," Tucker said, jumping in. "That's one of the ways we noticed that Danny was being overshadowed. It took us longer than it should have, in retrospect."

"Yeah, especially when he kept going on about egg creams," added Sam. "But there were plenty of other weird things going on. He didn't act like Danny at all."

"He'd apparently decided that he needed to make things up to Dash, and he did that by intangibly messing with the soda machines in the school and giving Dash and the rest of you guys free sodas. We didn't know how he was doing it, but we did know that Danny wouldn't steal stuff, and he especially wouldn't steal stuff for Dash."

"We didn't know for sure, though, until Phantom contacted us. It turned out that the mirror in the locker was a kind of portal to the Ghost Zone, and Phantom could reach through, a little bit."

"Still couldn't get out though. It was kind of funny, because apparently Poindexter's lair is a copy of Casper High from the fifties, and people kept walking by Phantom and giving him wedgies and stuff while he was trying to talk to us."

"It wasn't that funny, Tucker. Anyway, the three of us came up with a plan to trick Poindexter into going back into his lair." Sam grimaced. "We basically took advantage of his obsession, and pretended that we had shut someone in Locker 724, and pushed him through the mirror when he came to look. I don't know what happened in there after that, but after a while, Phantom came out with Danny. Actually... It looked a little like you were blasted out?"

"That's because we were," said Danny. "Poindexter pushed us out. Apparently that was the only way to get out."

"Yeah, you never told us what went down in there," said Tucker. "We didn't press 'cause you looked pretty sick, but..."

"I felt pretty sick. Having two ghosts fighting over your body is not fun, even if you manage to kick both out afterwards, and one of them is trying very hard not to hurt you. I still don't remember what led up to that. I think that Phantom was loosing pretty badly, and he only took Poindexter by surprise because Poindexter tried to leave but couldn't? I don't know. He always changes the subject when I bring it up."

"You trusted Phantom after that?"

"Well... Yeah. He could have overshadowed me himself instead of working with me, but he never did. This was before we had figured out the whole 'Danny isn't fun to overshadow' thing, remember."

Maddie nodded slowly. It wasn't a nod of agreement, or of acceptance. It was an 'I'm thinking' nod. "And you Jazz? How did you get into this? And why did you think it was a good idea?"

"Uh," said Jazz, and Danny started praying. Jazz wasn't always very good with the on the fly lie. "That's complicated. Do any of you remember Ms Spectra?"

"Penelope Spectra?" asked Mr Lancer, surprised. "You mean the school psychologist from when you were a sophomore? What does she have to do with this?"

"Well, everything. To begin with, she was a ghost."

Chapter Text

Chapter 22: Laws

.

"Penelope Spectra was a ghost?" Mr Lancer repeated faintly. "I think I need to sit down." The teacher looked around, as if expecting a seat to magically appear in front of him. Briefly, Danny wondered if one would. When none did so, he simply looked back up at Jazz. "Continue," he said.

"I think Danny was the one who realized it first," said Jazz.

"It was always cold around her," said Danny, shrugging. "Also, I know I'm not the only one who noticed how awful I always felt after talking to her."

"That was her thing," said Jazz. "Mom, Dad, out of all the ghosts I've met, Spectra's the worst. If you want to talk about evil ghosts, Spectra's one of the few that deserve the title. She and her assistant Bertrand lived on Earth for years and years. They made up for their ectoplasm deficiency by relying even more heavily on emotional energy, and they get the most power out of depression, sadness, despair, self-doubt, self-hatred... If they get their claws into you, they can drain your life force, too. Make you weak. We did some research about them afterwards..." Jazz pursed her lips and shook her head. "It isn't important right now. They aren't good people. Lets leave it at that. Anyway, Danny..."

"I tried to get in touch with Phantom. He was having a lot of trouble with Bertrand though. Apparently that was their plan. They'd distract Phatom with Bertrand, while they went after the school. But I did eventually manage to reach Phantom. Jazz saw us meet up. She didn't tell me right away though," he said. "I'm still not sure why."

"I told you, I was still in denial about the whole ghost thing," Jazz defended herself. "And I had just see you t-talking to one, I didn't know what to think. I wanted to give you some space."

Good catch, thought Danny, nodding. "We weren't big on planning back then-"

"Back then?" asked Tucker, scoffing.

"Shut up, Tucker. We went back to school the next day. We didn't know where Spectra went after school. The spirit assembly was that day."

"I was doing a speech," reminded Jazz, helpfully.

"Phantom was still having some trouble with Bertrand, so he wasn't able to get there until right before the assembly. Um. Spectra was draining me pretty badly at that point. But I managed to find out that she was planning on..." Danny trailed off. "She was planing on blowing up the stage. Killing Jazz. She. Um. Her modus operandi was driving people to suicide. I didn't exactly snap out of it after she told me that, but I did give her a bit more of a fight, and she called Bertrand back to take care of me. Then Phantom showed up, and between the two of us, we were able to hold off Spectra and Bertrand for long enough for me to tell Phantom about Jazz and the explosives, and then he went to go save Jazz."

"He pulled me off the stage. At that point, Danny was, um..."

"I was getting beaten up pretty badly. But Jazz had the Fenton Peeler that day."

"Right! So I shot Spectra, and that peeled off her whole human disguise and stuff, and then Phantom beat up Bertrand and sucked them both into the Thermos. I mean, it was way more chaotic than that, but that's the gist of it. I started helping out after that. But I was never got quite as involved as Danny."

"And the thefts?" asked Maddie, after it was clear that Jazz wasn't going to say anything else.

"Well, don't tell my parents this," said Sam, "but it turns out that Circus Gothica was evil. You do remember that all of the stolen stuff was found with the ringleader, right?" She waited for tentative nods before continuing, "It turns out that he had a staff that let him control ghosts. We managed to break it. Phantom didn't even remember what had happened."

"And the invasion? Kidnapping the mayor?"

"That... That was actually my fault," said Danny, drawing attention back to himself. "Sort of. The mayor was overshadowed at the time, and the rest of it... It's a really long story, but it boils down to accidentally angering a ghost that decided to get revenge on me and Phantom both."

"You- You're saying that whole thing was because of you?" asked Paulina, outraged.

"In my defense, it wasn't my fault I was in the Ghost Zone that time, and Walker is a petty jerk."

"Walker being..?" asked Mr Lancer. He still seemed to be in shock from the Spectra revelation.

"The ghost behind the whole invasion. He's supposed to be the sheriff for the Barrens, but he makes up rules out of thin air just so that he can arrest people, no one gets a trial, and the prison terms are absurd, even by ghost standards. I mean, Walker's not even two-hundred years dead, and he's imposing thousand-year sentences? For having 'real world' items? Seriously."

"Er, Danny," said Nathan, "you said this 'Walker' is supposed to be the sheriff of the barrens, right? What are those?"

Danny blinked. He hadn't meant to say that much. "The Barrens are the geographical region closest to our- to the Fenton portal. A lot of natural portals there also open up into Amity Park. I'm hoping that this place comes out in the Barrens, because that will make it a lot easier to get back home."

"And when you say 'supposed to be,' does that mean he was appointed?" asked Nathan.

"You mean there's a government in here?" exclaimed Mikey.

"Yeah. There is but, look, even I don't entirely understand how it works, and I've studied it fairly extensively. If you're still interested when we have a few spare hours, I'd be happy to trawl through the nightmare that is Ghost Zone politics for you, but it isn't important right now, is it?" Danny rubbed his face tiredly. "Besides, hardly anything is applied evenly," Danny mumbled into his hands. "The laws of Ys are different from the laws of Lyonesse." He looked back up to meet his mother's eyes. "Does that answer your questions?"

Maddie's face was no longer quite as impassive as it had been. But she wasn't furious either, like she would be if she still thought that he was possessed. Her brows were furrowed, though. The corners of her mouth were turned down. "Technical differences," said Maddie, finally.

"What?" said Danny.

"You said that there were technical differences between overshadowing and possession. Before I make any decisions about whether or not... this arrangement you have with Phantom is anything like acceptable, I want to know what those differences are."

Danny took a deep breath. "Okay. So. There are three, um, call them disciplines, that you'd probably identify as possession. Overshadowing, mind control, and possession. Uh. Analogy time. Imagine that you have to get someone to sign something, but they won't do it. Overshadowing is where you forge their signature. With overshadowing, basically you get in between the person's brain and body, and otherwise just pretend to be them. There isn't much mental interaction in between the ghost and the human. You can sometimes mentally push the ghost out, but that's more, how should I put this, establishing control over your own physical space, and the ectoplasm in that place, than anything else. It's mostly a function of force of will. If you can't do that though, um, most of you know what being overshadowed is like. It's like being asleep. I know that some ghosts can manage to make you remember what happened as if you did it, like if you were dreaming, or pass on subliminal suggestions, but that's pretty high level. So that's overshadowing.

"Then you have mind control. In the analogy from before, mind control would be tricking the person into signing. Like, if you made them think that they were signing something else, or signing for someone else. That kind of thing. It can be used on either ghosts or humans, and there are a lot of different, um, I guess you'd call them carriers for it? Like, some ghosts use music, others use pheromones, physical attachments, or visual images. It doesn't actually require the ghost to be physically inside the person. In some ways it's a lot more versatile, but you've got to remember that it's still the person acting, not the controlling ghost. So you get some weird quirks. Like, if the person's morning routine always includes doing ten jumping jacks, then they'll still do that every morning, unless they're specifically being told not to. Because of that, mind control can be hard to detect. It can also be applied to a lot of people at once. On the other hand, it can be really fragile if it isn't renewed constantly. Like, anything that's too far off from a person's natural inclination will break it, depending on how long it's been since it's been applied. Sometimes, it can be broken even while it's being applied, if they're asking for something that's really far off.

"Then you've got possession. Going back to the signature analogy, possession would be like kidnapping them and forcing them to sign. It is not a nice thing to do, it's violent, and there's a lot more mental interaction. Both sides can get damaged. What's more, the person is going to remember everything unless you knock out their memory on the way out. I don't have a lot of data on it otherwise. Possession isn't used a lot, especially not by ghosts that will actually talk to us. There's apparently some debate over whether or not it's a violation of the Second Taboo..."

"How the hell do you even know all of this?" asked Rebecca.

"Um. Gathering data and keeping records is part of my job on the team," said Danny.

"Second law?" said Hannah, sharply. Curse her for her sharp conspiracy-theorist mind. Danny was too tired for this.

"Uh, there are three big laws in the Ghost Zone. Some people call them the Three Taboos. Or the Three Restrictions. They're the only laws that are anything like consistent across the Realms. There's, um, I think the best translation would be Acts of Murder, Acts of Rapine, and Acts of Sacrilege," Danny counted on his fingers. "That's in order of severity. They're not really human-accessible crimes, especially Acts of Sacrilege," he said idly, more to distract his audience, bring the discussion even farther away from him, than anything else, "so I wouldn't worry abou-" Danny stopped dead, eyes widening. He could feel his blood drain away from his skin. Oh no. Oh. No. "I think I'm going to be sick," he said, his voice faint.

He stumbled back to the doorway. Thankfully, no one was standing by it. They didn't like the cold, he guessed. Either that, or they were avoiding the snow.

(Danny didn't know why they were doing that, snow was great.)

Danny clutched the lintel, and vomited. Well. There went his... whatever meal he counted the apples as. What time even was it, at this point? The wisps floated down to bob hesitantly by his shoulder. He wanted to tell them, but he couldn't. He couldn't risk-

Oh. Ancients. Technus. Had Technus seen? Would the technology-obsessed ghost understand what he had seen? How long had he been listening to the Fentons' lecture?

What's more-

Danny whirled. "That-" he said. "That thing you made, just now. The circular one. How does it work?"

"Excuse me?" said Maddie, rocking back. She and Jack had come closer, both of them apparently concerned. Mr Lancer had his hands on their shoulders.

"You don't need to give me technical details," said Danny. "I don't even want to know them. But I need to know the underlying principle on which it works," he said, using his hands to underline the words.

"It takes advantage of the metaphysical link between a ghost and it's lair," said Jack. "It pulls on the link. It was supposed to pull Phantom in and trap him"

Danny inhaled deeply. It felt like his head was full of static. Full of bees. This was bad. "You can't tell anyone that you made that."

"What?"

"You can't tell anyone that you made that," repeated Danny. "Never talk about it ever again. If there's some schematic somewhere, destroy it ASAP. Actually, the same thing goes for that- the Fenton Mortifier. You can never, ever, talk about it. Ever. Destroy everything related to it, anything that shows that it ever existed."

"Why?"

"Are you seriously asking me that?" said Danny, laughing. He stopped. "You are, aren't you? Look, there are so many exceptions in the rules for Acts of Murder that even if you caught the attention of the Justices, you'd probably get off, but the Dead hate being reminded of their deaths. Being forced to relive it is something even beyond that. If word got out- and it might anyway, since Technus isn't exactly the kind of person to stay quiet. Do you know how many ghosts would kill over that? But then you've got this other thing on top of that, and arguably this is worse because it isn't limited to one group and- argh!" He scrubbed both hands through his hair. "If this gets out, you will be brought before the courts, and it doesn't matter that you're human. They could execute you. Or worse."

"Execute?" gasped Jazz.

"I'm not going to pretend that I understand all of the rules associated with the Taboos, but directly screwing with metaphysical attachments is one of the few specific examples I remember for Acts of Sacrilege. Which is not," he underlined 'not,' "good. None of you can talk about this. Please."

"Alright, Danny," said Maddie. "Alright. We won't. Just- Please. You're hurting yourself." Maddie shrugged off Mr Lancer's hand, and went to Danny, kneeling down on the ground (When had Danny dropped to his knees?). She pulled his hands out of his hair. Danny tugged away from her, his arms crossed protectively over his chest.

Ricky coughed into the silence that followed. "I don't really get what's going on with these Taboo things," he said, "but what about Phantom?"

Chapter Text

Chapter 23: Astraea

.

"What about Phantom?" echoed Maddie, nonplussed. Then, more sternly, "What about Phantom?"

"Well, like, where is he?" said Ricky. "Because he was posse- overshadowing Danny before, that shadow thing wasn't him, supposedly, and both Danny and Phantom said that Danny was weird to overshadow, so he should still be stuck in Danny, but apparently not? Then, if anyone is going to talk about whether or not you did something that was against 'ghost law' it's going to be Phantom, isn't it?"

"Not a chance," said Jazz, when Danny didn't answer.

"Why not?" asked Ricky, his eyebrows turning down.

"He just wouldn't," said Jazz, her eyes on Danny.

"But-"

"Just drop it, Ricky," said Tucker. "She's appointed herself Phantom's psychologist. She's not going to tell you anything."

"That still leaves the issue of where he is," said Ricky, frustrated.

"He's here," said Danny.

Everyone blinked at Danny. "I know my eyesight isn't great," said Mia, "but I don't see him."

"No," said Danny, his voice wavering. "He's- He's here," he said, rubbing his chest. "He's, um, still in me. But," he said quickly, catching his mother's look of worry and anger, "he's been basically catatonic since you used that," he made a circular gesture in the air between them, "thing out there. I kind of... mentally poked him, but he's not reacting."

"I... see. I see." Maddie sighed heavily. "That's good. Good."

"Um. No. No it isn't. Even if you're going to disregard everything we've just said about Phantom not being a bad guy, what do you think will happen to a lair whose ghost fades? I'm asking, because I genuinely don't know."

Maddie blinked, opened her mouth, shut it, and then went very pale.

Jack, on the other hand... "Well, Dann-o, that's a very interesting question," he boomed. Danny wondered if Jack was in denial about the whole situation. "I suspect that without the guidance of the ghost's ectosignature the lair would destabilize and fall apart. Possibly within minutes!" He nodded. His smile lingered on his face for a few moments. "Wait..."

"Yeah," said Danny, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"What are we doing standing around and talking then?!" cried Rebecca. Others chimed in in agreement.

Danny groaned.

"Hey!" said Sam, sharply. "Danny wanted to move on, you're the ones who wanted to play twenty questions!"

"That's right!" said Mikey. "You said that you had a plan! What was it?"

Well. At least they were back on track, now. Still, Danny couldn't help but feel like he had missed something, though. That he had said too much, or too little, or just the wrong thing. Someone was going to pull on the thread sooner or later, and all his carefully constructed lies would unravel. Along with whatever remained of his life.

(There was a sharpness in Mr Lancer's eyes.)

"Yes," said Danny, softly, standing. "That's right." He held out his hands and whistled up to the wisps. Those that had drifted down while he was being sick gathered closer, several of those who had remained above descended. "These guys aren't from here originally," explained Danny. "So they must know where the exit is."

.

.

.

Technus flew through the green and purple mists of the Ghost Zone at breakneck speed. His eyes flickered from island to island, discarding each as it got close enough to see. He wasn't terribly familiar with this part of the Zone. He knew what he was looking for, but not exactly where it was.

More specifically, he knew who he was looking for.

He had done something terrible, and she was the only one who could offer him absolution. It didn't matter that he hadn't known, hadn't believed, he had still caused that terrible thing.

Technus' memories of his life were sporadic and vague, a result of the method of his death, and the disease that had ravaged him in his latter years, but he had been a father once. A grandfather. He remembered his daughter. Her eyes, as rich as honey, her hair, as golden as the dawn, whip smart, sharper than he was, at any rate, always a little bit of bite in her comments, but what was life without a bit of excitement? He remembered his sons. The older one was fierce. Combative. Technus had never really understood him, his interest in sports, in the physical, but he had tried. Had always tried. Would always try. The younger one had been more like him, but better with people. He'd become a doctor. A surgeon. Technus remembered his grandchildren. Each one sugar sweet and perfect.

He would never, ever have done anything to endanger them.

Technus had never thought of himself as a villain. He had never hated Phantom. To Technus, their battles had been a contest, a game of wits and skill. It had never occurred to him that, for Phantom, something more might be on the line.

But look! There! That island, with that building, with the stately white pillars, and the manicured lawns. That was what he needed. That was what he was looking for. He landed on a paved path, next to a fountain. The building was so tall from this angle, the steps that led up to it's doors, so steep, so formidable, so intimidating. This was only appropriate. Here, Technus was a petitioner, a penitent. It was only right that he should supplicate himself, lower himself to climb those steps, instead of floating, feather-light, over them like some innocent.

He ascended the steps, core heavy with dread. He passed the pillars and into the darker shadows of the porch, stopping before the tall, heavy, dark, wooden doors. Each door had a series of pictures carved into the surface. An arrest. A trial. A judgment. On the right-hand door, the final picture was of a release, the man going free. The last left-hand picture was of an execution.

Technus pushed the doors open, and strode in, his footsteps echoing in the high-ceilinged room. A young woman was sitting at a desk just in front of the doors, while the rest of the room stretched to the left and right, doors punched into the walls every few meters.

The woman looked up, smiling. Her eyes were glowing white except for black lines delineating her irises. She had four arms. Her hair was black, and tied back in a waves reminiscent of Greek statuary, with glowing, star-shaped hairpins. She wore a neat suit and skirt, and a pin shaped like a pair of scales on her lapel. Her skin was as white as marble, her teeth sharp and even. A nameplate on the desk declared her name, in a number of writing systems, to be Astraea Iustitia.

"Hello!" she said musically. "Welcome to the Hall of Justice! My name is Astraea. How can I help you today?"

"I am Technus, Master of Technology! Master of all things electronic and beeping! I..!" Technus faltered. "I am here to report a crime," he said, more quietly. "A violation of Taboo."

Astraea pulled a pad of paper closer to her, and picked up a pen with her other hand. "Please, continue, Mr Technus."

Technus did, giving the young woman every detail. Once he got to the part where he dove through the Fenton portal, leaving Amity and returning to the Ghost Zone to look for the Hall of Justice, he wrapped up with, "... and so I, Technus, Master of all electrical devices, have come to throw myself on the mercy of the courts!"

Astraea frowned. "I don't think that's necessary, sir," she said. "At least from your account, the," she consulted her notes, "Fentons are the ones to blame. Although you really shouldn't be harassing a child like that. How old is this Phantom, anyway?"

"Fourteen and two," said Technus, miserably.

"Alright," said Astraea, making a note. "I'm going to have to make some inquiries regarding this. In the meantime, I'm going to call someone to take you to one of our waiting rooms," she said pressing a button on the desk. "I'm going to ask you to stay until this matter is satisfactorily resolved. For your own sake, I hope that you do so. Adrestia can be rather overzealous when it comes to retrieving witnesses."

Chapter Text

Chapter 24: Window

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"It can't possibly be that easy," protested Ricky.

"I didn't say that it would be easy," said Danny, rolling his eyes. "Besides which, we still need food, water, sleep, and even if they can get us to the door, they aren't going to be able to guide us beyond that." Danny whistled a few bars of a winding, questioning melody. The wisps sang back at him, a dozen symphonies. Danny made a quelling motion with his hands, and asked them-

"Daniel," interrupted Mr Lancer, "is that... their language?"

Danny winced. "Um. Yeah?"

"How did you learn it?"

"How does anyone learn any language? It wasn't that hard. I'm not exactly fluent, mind you. I don't typically change color." Wow. That was a lie, a serious lie, right there. He changed color all the time. "Do you mind? I've got a conversation going on."

"My apologies," said Mr Lancer.

Danny was able to finish his question and Leader, flashing green, answered. Danny smiled, and thanked him.

"Okay, so they do know where the door is," said Danny. "But they said that it's a long way off, and that the way is... strange." He tilted his hand back and forth. "At least, I think that's the best translation. It could also mean circuitous, or convoluted. Or possibly stormy, or that there's a lot of wind. Or... You know. A bunch of things that don't translate well."

"I don't get it," said Paulina. "Those are all, like, totally different things."

"Well, it's like, uh, there isn't a direct translation for quinceañera in English, because English speakers usually don't celebrate a person's fifteenth birthday like that. These guys are really light, so something being windy and something being windy would look the same to them." Danny blinked for a moment, visualizing how that sentence would look on paper, and suppressed a smile. "Also, I'm not super familiar with this dialect. The wisps who hang out in Amity Park use different indicators for adjectives and... you know what? It doesn't matter," said Danny, rubbing his face. He hummed. Leader hummed back, and bobbed up and down brushing against Danny's arm. Maddie started, and glared at the little ghost as if she would like nothing better than to fight it with her bare hands. Never mind that that wouldn't work. "They also think that there might be human food on the way, but, well, they aren't experts. So that's good. But these guys are fast, so them saying the door is a long way off means that it's a really long way off."

"Then we should start immediately," said Mr Lancer. "Lead the way."

"Right," said Danny, looking towards Leader. Leader bobbed, then zoomed over the crowd to hover over the stairwell.

"No," said Mikey. "No, I am not going back underground."

"Come on, Mikey," cajoled Mia, "I'm sure that it'll be fine. I mean, nothing really bad has happened here so far, right? We're all in one piece."

"Except for the horror movie monster threatening us all and the demonic snow!"

Rude. The snow wasn't demonic. It was affectionate, and comfortable. It was just trying to make sure everyone got enough sleep, because staying up like this wasn't healthy...

Danny shook his head. He needed sleep, too, apparently.

"Mikey, I know that things have been weird here, but... You trust Phantom, right? I mean, I know that you were in that one fan club."

"Yeah," admitted Mikey, grudgingly.

"Well, this whole place is Phantom. Kinda. What happened before was a knee-jerk reaction to being shot at. This is just a dream right now. Nothing here is after you."

(Some things might be after his parents, though. The shadow was not happy with them.)

There was some more grumbling, and some outright whining. Surprisingly, Paulina wasn't one of them. Instead of being upset, she was excited to be going 'inside the Ghost Boy.'

It was becoming increasingly difficult to recall that he'd once had a serious crush on her. It was almost unbelievable that they'd been friends in grade school. If he couldn't switch forms, he'd be seriously looking into restraining orders. As it was, he'd spent some time looking up methods to discourage stalkers.

(Wasn't Danny supposed to be the creepy one, anyway? Seeing as he was the ghost?)

Danny went down the stairs right after the first wisps, despite his parents' protests. He reasoned that he was the only one who could understand the wisps (for some reason, he hadn't felt the need to mention Tucker's translation program), and that if they were to shout (sing?) a warning, he was the only one who could react quickly enough to make that warning worth anything.

The stairs gently spiraled down and down and down. After a few turns, the iron banister was replaced by a stone one, and then by a solid stone wall. The steps, and the spiral, became wider. There were delicate carvings on both walls, flowers, clouds, and hidden faces, their curves highlighted by crystals embedded in the stone.

Then there was a window.

It was a tall, narrow thing with no glass set in it. More like a arrow-slit than a proper window. Bright stars shone through it, and a soft breeze licked at Danny's fingers when he held his hand up to it.

Logically, it should not have been there. They should be deep underground. Several people pointed this out while crowding around it, and trying to see if the stars it showed were some kind of illusion. Danny let them, it didn't hurt anything, and he needed a moment to rest. Also, the wisps thought that it was hilarious. They kept chiming, periodically, like little silvery bells. It was their version of muffled laughter.

Danny withdrew from the window, fading back until he was among his friends again. No one else was paying attention to anything but the window. Even the adults had gotten distracted.

"So," said Tucker, "do you know how there's a window down here?"

"Come on, Tuck," said Danny, rolling his eyes. "We're in a pocket universe located behind a floating door in the Ghost Zone, which itself is a parallel universe filled with, among other things, the unquiet dead, portals to other time periods, and areas- can you even call them that?- with extra spacial and temporal dimensions. Did you really expect this place to be topographically consistent? This is Phantom, we're talking about."

Jazz gave him a very strange look. "Are you feeling alright?"

"No. No I am not."

Jazz made a face. "Sorry. I shouldn't have asked. Is there anything I can do to help?"

"I don't know," said Danny, his fingers drumming on his chest. "I think- I think that last thing really damaged Phantom," he said. It was best not to say anything out of line with their official story. Someone, his eyes darted to first his parents, then Valerie, and then Mr Lancer, might be listening. "I'm worried," he admitted. "This... I know what I said to Mikey, but people do things in dreams that they'd never do awake." He clenched his fists as he remembered some of his nightmares.

(Remembered what he did in them.

Gone, but not forgotten.

Inevitable.

Standing over his own broken body, fire licking his skull, greedier than ice could ever be.

A city in ruins and laughing, laughing, laughing.

A family trying to hide. He could hear all of them, their breathing was so loud compared to his silence, but he thought it more amusing to bait them into revealing themselves visually. It was so easy. Just break the mother's legs, the one who hadn't hidden fast enough, make a new cut every few minutes... They didn't deserve a mother. Not when he didn't have one.)

Danny was shaken out of his reverie when his sister put her arms around him, giving him a hug.

"Danny," said Jazz, whispering directly in his ear, "I know what you're worried about. But this isn't exactly a dream. It's your subconscious, yes, but dream and subconscious are two different things, even if the later is often represented in the former. Your nightmares are things you fear, not things you want."

"But what if I do want it? Deep down? He had to come from somewhere."

"He's not you, Danny. You made this beautiful place. You made sure there was light, and food, and that the temperature was good for everyone. I know you like it colder. You've been worried about us this whole time. You've been taking such good care of us."

Danny relaxed a little more with each of sentence. When Jazz finally pulled back, still murmuring reassurances, he felt much better. He was still tense, of course, but the tension was closer to his normal levels. "Thank you," said Danny. "I needed that." He looked at his friends. Even if he felt better, there were other things he still had to say. "There's something I need to tell you. Do you remember when Phantom first got his ice powers?"

"Considering everything that happened when he got them? Yeah," said Sam, raising an eyebrow. "Is this about the snow?"

"Not exactly," said Danny. "You remember that freak snowstorm a couple months later?"

"Yeah," said Sam, slowly. Tucker nodded. Jazz made a concerned face. She already knew where this was going. He had told her when it happened.

"That was Phantom." Before his friends could say anything, he continued, "There was- There was that accident, the week before. I- He was upset, and not thinking straight. There was a lot of other stuff going on, too. I- He- I guess he thought that if everyone was snowed in then there couldn't be any accidents like that. That everyone would stay where they were, and they would all be safe, and everything would just stay the same, otherwise, which in retrospect isn't rational, but, well. It made sense at the time." He took a deep breath. "I'm worried that... something like that will happen here. It's just, here, it makes a lot more sense, logistically."

"Okay," said Sam. "Okay, I can see why that looks like a problem, but I don't think it is."

"Why?"

"You- Phantom can't stay in here and get to the Far Frozen at the same time. Also, if you try to leave us, sneak off by yourself and go through the GZ in your condition..." Sam let the threat hang in the air. Then her face crumpled, and she gave Danny a quick hug. "I will hunt you down. Got it?"

"Got it," said Danny.

"Besides," Sam said, "even if we're delayed, that's not the end of the world. Not to mention, and I know you don't want to hear this, but this isn't on you. Jazz and I aren't totally useless."

"Hey!" said Tucker.

"We can help," continued Sam. "We will help. We've dealt with ghost weirdness before, and we're more than happy to deal with this. This won't even be the weirdest thing we've encountered, even if Phantom's subconscious decides it wants us to stick around. I mean, just look at that," she said, hooking her thumb over her shoulder.

"Hey!" said Tucker. "She's right, though," he added. "Even if you're out of commission, we can do this. I mean, don't stop what you're doing, but, your health should be top priority, okay, man?"

Danny made a face. "I'll try to keep it a priority but..."

"It's okay," said Jazz. "You can only do what you can do."

"Right," said Danny.

He returned his attention to the group by the window just in time to hear Jack exclaiming about "Inconsistent internal topologies!"

His lips quirked up.

"Okay, guys," he called. "We should really keep going now!"

Chapter Text

Chapter 25: Contradictory Spaces

.

They passed eight more windows on their way down. The moon (not-moon?) was clearly visible through each one, except for the last. This in itself wouldn't have been too odd, except that a) the moon had been overhead when they came down, and b) it was shown in a different phase in every window.

It was really too bad that the windows were too narrow to lean out of. (Well, Danny could have managed it if he tilted himself sideways, but 'get beaten up by overprotective friends' was not on his to-do list). Danny would have liked to see the outside of the structure they were in, and whether or not there was anything outside, other than the stars and moon. There was no guarantee that the window wasn't simply a frame floating in the ether, from an outside perspective. Tucker, Mikey, and some of the other students who were interested in video game design, were getting into a conversation about sky-boxes and whether or not the stars really 'existed' in this world.

Then they reached the bottom of the stairs, and Danny walked into one of the strangest rooms he had ever seen.

Most of the room was made of the same dark stone as the stairs, carved in various, fantastic patterns. To the left, the wall was a gallery of airy arches that let in bright, blue-white moonlight and lead to what looked like a wide balcony. Directly next to those arches, sitting in front of, and parallel to them, was a long, stone table that seemed to rise, seamlessly, from the ground. Arrayed around it were stone benches and chairs. In the center of the table, there was a vase full of those glowing blue flowers.

To the right, there was another long stone table, this one taller, solid, more of a counter. An island. Against the right-hand wall, there was another long counter, this one with open-faced cabinets both above and beneath. There was a gap in the center of the upper cabinets, where water ran along the wall from the ceiling to a basin in the counter. Another set of counters stood to the side, these without shelves beneath them, but instead had balls of pale gold fire. Next to these, there was a dark cavity in the wall, a relief of flames carved into the stone around it. On the other side of the shelves, there was a narrow doorway, that lead into a dimly lit room that Danny thought contained more shelving.

The shelves themselves were stocked with jars and plates, cutlery and bowls. Forks, knives, spatulas... This was a kitchen. A rather odd kitchen, and Danny couldn't quite tell how the stoves and oven worked, but it was definitely a kitchen.

In between the kitchen and what Danny was tentatively labeling a dining area, there was a sitting area. A set of couches and armchairs grouped around a stone coffee table with another vase of flowers on it, this one a little more elaborate. In addition to the glowing blue poppies, there was something that looked like baby's breath, and what looked like especially vivid forget-me-nots.

Farther along, on the opposite end of the room, there was balustrade, overlooking what appeared to be a larger space. There was a gap in the railing, perhaps signaling a stair descending, and another gap nearby, with a stair going up. It looked like the balustrade had a walkway next to it that extended left and right beyond the room, as well.

What earned the room the label of 'strangest,' however, was what hung from the ceiling. Fixed to the ceiling were dozens, no, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of wind chimes. There were all kinds of chimes. Some were shiny metal, copper, bronze, steel, silver, and gold. Others were dull, or even rusted. There were all sorts of ceramics up there, terracotta, china, bisque, raku. All sorts of shapes, too. Danny thought he spotted bones and bells as well.

The wisps immediately began to play among the chimes, setting them off. Danny desperately wished that he could float up to join them, but even if his class and parents hadn't been there, his ghost powers had been completely offline since the thing with the shadow. He hadn't even been flickering around the edges. In some ways this was a good thing, it kept people from asking untoward questions, but Danny was scared. His core was curled so tightly in his chest that it was physically painful... At least, it felt like it was curled. Danny wasn't sure whether or not a core could curl. Cores were crystalline structures, so curling would be a bit difficult for them.

It was getting a bit loud up there, with all the chimes, and Danny absently noted that some people were complaining. People did tend to get more irritable when hungry and tired, and he didn't doubt that some of them were nurturing stress headaches. Still, he wasn't inclined to ask the giggling wisps to stop. They were so happy. So he didn't.

Instead, he walked, slowly, his legs were burning from the long descent, to the kitchen part of the room. His eyes scanned the carvings next to the stove-tops and oven. There were words etched into the wall alongside them, cleverly hidden in the larger carvings. (Did all of this really come from his mind? It was a good thing he was too tired to be embarrassed.)

He examined the counters, and then the shelves. The jars and boxes were neatly labeled. Most of the labels were in English, but others were labeled in Latin, Greek, or Esperanto, a few were in French, one bottle of red pepper was labeled with Chinese characters, and several labels were written in ghost languages. Many were items were labeled twice. The salt, interestingly, was labeled almost a dozen times. Danny tilted out a container labeled 'pancake mix.'

They could make pancakes.

Danny pushed the container back onto the shelf, and kept walking. He passed the doorway on the other side of the counters, and smiled absently as he felt the chill that emanated from the room beyond it. A refrigerator, then.

There was something on the other side of the room that drew him. He walked to the balustrade, and looked into the space beyond.

He blinked, then smiled. "Wow..." he said, awed. Thrilled.

The balcony he stood on looked into a space filled with stairs, hundreds and hundreds of stairs, that connected stone platforms and walkways, many of which were set at impossible, or at least, uncomfortable, angles. Every surface was covered with windows that revealed a starry night, complete with dozens of moons. The silver light from the windows provided more than enough light for Danny to see clearly, although it might be dim for the others, and some of the angles were odd. At irregular intervals, lanterns full of ghostly fire hung on chains, dangling in every direction, showing that gravity really was that strange here, and giving more light. There were no doors that Danny could see, but there were doorways, archways, and paths that bent tantalizingly out of sight. A river wound along one floor, only to jackknife upwards into a waterfall. Elsewhere, a walkway full of fountains spiraled and corkscrewed. Danny could see a set of Penrose steps in the distance, and another pathway seemed to twist into a Mobius strip.

This was so cool!

(Potentially problematic, highly problematic, but cool! He'd deal with how this place was likely more of a maze than Pandora's Labyrinth later.)

(He had always liked Escher.)

"Oh my gosh."

Danny looked away from the tableau to examine Sam. "You don't like it," said Danny, wilting.

"What?" said Sam, looking at him, wide-eyed. "No!" she denied. "No, no. It's cool." She looked back over the balustrade. "I'm just surprised, that's all."

"Yeah."

Danny turned around to look at Tucker. "Are you okay?"

"Just a bit of vertigo," Tucker said, waving Danny off. "But, yeah, surprised. I mean, dang."

"No, no," said Jazz. She was standing just to the other side of Tucker. "This all makes perfect sense."

Everyone (really everyone, the other students and the adults had also made their way over to the railing at this point) stared at the young woman as if she was on drugs.

(Hey! Maybe they were all on drugs! That would make much more sense than what was actually happening.)

"Think about it, what with everything that Phantom deals with on a daily basis, he must feel that he's made of contradictions. He fights ghosts to protect humans that are always persecuting him, he's friends with the children of the people who hunt him most often... And I've always said that he's more complex than most people think." She frowned. "This is Relativity, isn't it? At least partially. The Escher print. That makes even more sense... perspectives..." She trailed off mumbling.

"How the hell is that supposed to help us get home?!" exploded Rebecca suddenly. Everyone flinched away from the dark skinned girl. "Do any of you see this mess? It's a damn maze! We're never going to get home!" She burst into tears. Her friend, Ashley, tried to comfort her, but it was clear that she was upset, too.

"Hey," said Jazz, softly. "Rebecca, look at me. We're going to take this one step at a time. We have food now," she gestured at the kitchen, "and the wisps said that there were beds around here, too, right, Danny?"

"Um, yes," said Danny, shaking off his momentary paralysis. "Yes." He whistled up to Leader. Leader whistled back. "Yes," he repeated. "Off that way," he pointed along the balustraded walkway. There were some doorways set into the wall, there. A few were covered with curtains. "They also said something about 'small rooms with lots of water.' I guess that could be bathrooms?"

"Bathrooms?" The word was uttered by a dozen voices.

"Yeah. Maybe."

There was a rush in that direction.

Danny sighed, rubbing his eye. He didn't feel the need to go, and he could wash his hands in the kitchen waterfall just as well. Maybe he could start on pancakes, too. That would probably cheer everyone up.

"Daniel?"

Danny looked at his teacher, startled. He hadn't noticed Mr Lancer staying behind. "Yes?"

"Can I talk to you privately for a moment?"

Chapter Text

Chapter 26:  Punch Reality

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“Talk to me?” echoed Danny. “Privately?” He glanced at the knot of people around the (potential) bathroom doorways. “B-but what about ev-everyone else? Won't it be risky to leave them alone? Sh-shouldn't we stay with them?” There was a noticeable tremor in his voice as he asked the questions. What did Mr Lancer know? What did he think he knew?

“We'll stay within shouting distance,” said Mr Lancer. “Not to mention sight. In any case, it was my impression that you thought we were safe here. Was I mistaken?”

Danny shook his head violently. “No!” he said. “Of course not.” He glanced towards Sam, Tucker, and Jazz for support. They hadn't run off to investigate the (potential) bathrooms.

Sam gave him a minute shrug. She would go along with whatever he decided. Tucker frowned, but only tilted his head to one side. He didn't like this, but he wasn't going to stop Danny if he chose to talk to Mr Lancer. Jazz gave Danny a tiny nod. She wanted him to talk to Mr Lancer, but she was still worried.

A little calmer now, Danny examined his teacher. Mr Lancer looked worn. More than worn, really. He looked as exhausted as Danny felt (almost). But underneath that exhaustion, and a careful mask of neutrality, there was concern. Concern and... Was that calculation? Yes. Calculation, like he was trying to put together a puzzle. Calculation, but not suspicion. Between his frequent 'bathroom' breaks, his occasional academic shenanigans, and general odd behavior, Danny had been on the receiving end of Mr Lancer's suspicion often enough to tell the difference.

This was not good. In fact, it was something like the opposite of good. Mr Lancer was not an idiot, for all that he had been stuck as the vice principal of Casper High for something longer than forever. If Mr Lancer knew, he could destroy Danny's life within minutes, seconds, once they got back to Amity Park. It would only take a sentence to the GIW, to the news, to Valerie, or even to his parents, if he was being honest with himself, and just like that, his life, his human life, would be over. What was left of it, anyway.

Beyond that, considering Danny's current, physical condition (aka bad), even an overweight, sedentary teacher like Mr Lancer was a potential threat. Not a serious threat, Danny had more than a passing familiarity with martial arts, but still a threat.

On the other hand, Danny couldn't detect any hostility. What's more, although Mr Lancer had not necessarily always been kind to Danny, he had always been supportive. Danny knew that he deserved far more detentions than he received, and Mr Lancer went out of his way to give him extra credit assignments, and to help him understand lessons that he missed. Danny liked Mr Lancer.

“What you want to talk about...” started Danny slowly. “Is it okay if my friends stay?” He included Jazz in his gesture.

Mr Lancer blinked, but Danny got the impression that he wasn't surprised. “I suppose Mr Foley and Miss Manson know all your secrets?”

“Most of them,” admitted Danny. “Jazz is the only one that knows all the embarrassing ones from before I was five.”

“Alright,” said Mr Lancer, sighing through his nose. “Earlier, you said that your role on the team was that of a record keeper?”

“Um. Yes. I also do some of the, um, science,” said Danny, wondering where this was going. “And Jazz and I both do equipment.”

“I also do psych and psyops,” said Jazz, helpfully. “That is, I cover for the others, when they have to go, and analyze our enemies.”

“I do tech,” said Tucker. Apparently they were going the 'swamp Mr Lancer with information and hope he gets confused' route. “That is, normal, non-ghostly tech, and anything to do with programming and signals. And I've got first aid training. Well, we all do, but Phantom says that I'm the best at stitches.”

“Stitches?” said Mr Lancer, looking faintly ill.

“Well, yeah, even with superpowers, those fights are brutal,” said Tucker. “He doesn't get off scott free. Not all ghosts are made of putty.”

“And you Miss Manson?”

Oh, good, it looked like the distraction technique was working. With any luck, he will have forgotten his original intent by the time Sam finishes her answer.

“I'm backup combat,” said Sam. “I'm best with the weapons. Don't even try to argue, Tucker.”

“Wasn't going to,” protested Tucker.

“I'm also the occult expert, since I was kind of into that stuff even before the Fentons decided to punch reality in the face.”

“I really wish you'd stop describing it like that,” said Danny.

“They also punched common sense, and I think it's been avoiding the whole family ever since.”

“Hey,” complained Danny, halfheartedly.

“Don't fret, Danny. She's just jealous of our uncommon sense.”

Despite himself, Danny snickered. Even Mr Lancer smiled a little. Gosh, that was a terrible pun. Not that Danny had any room to talk.

But then Mr Lancer's expression faded back into that half-concealed concern. “Daniel,” he said, “if that's all you've been doing for Phantom, why are you, more than Miss Manson and Mr Foley, always skipping class?”

Well, heck. There it was. The thread. The thing that he had been forgetting. The flaw in their otherwise brilliant (note: sarcasm) lie.

Perfect.

“Phantom needs backup, sometimes,” said Danny.

“From the team record keeper?”

“Hey, he's kind of scatterbrained. Forgets who he's fighting half the time.”

Mr Lancer looked skeptical. “Daniel,” he said finally, “I know that you don't want to hear this, that you don't want to answer these questions, especially when they're coming from me, but as a teacher, I have responsibilities to my students.” He took a deep breath, as if he was steeling himself. “How long have you-?” He paused, seeming to reconsider something mid-sentence. “How long,” he said more carefully, “have you been Phantom?”

Sam, Tucker, and Jazz drew closer to Danny. Closing ranks. They were ready to protect him. Heck, judging by the way her fists were balled, Sam was ready to attack Mr Lancer, if it became necessary. He hoped it wouldn't. He hoped that he could get out of this by playing dumb.

“You mean, how long has he been overshadowing me? Only since we've been here.”

Pity and guilt briefly rippled across Mr Lancer's face. “We both know that isn't what I mean.”

“Then what do you mean?” snapped Danny.

“You are Phantom,” said Mr Lancer gently. “The accident you had in the portal... I would say that it killed you, but...” His eyes flickered up and down Danny. “I know you have a pulse. I know you breathe. The school nurse isn't that incompetent. It changed you, somehow. That's what that shadow was trying to get at. How isn't important. Daniel- Danny. Jasmine. I need to know: are you safe at home? Do your parents...” Mr Lancer trailed off, clearly unsure how to phrase his next question.

For his part, Danny was unsure how to answer. Mr Lancer was the second human to find out (Danny didn't count Vlad or Danielle) and he wanted to know... What? If they were being abused? Neglected? What did you even count not realizing that your child has died as? Neglect, probably. Except that Danny was still walking around, and trying his very best to keep them from knowing. What did you count trying to capture and experiment on your child as? Abuse, probably. Except that they had genuinely not known that they were shooting at a sentient being, much less Danny. Danny hadn't blamed them for any of it, until the assembly.

But now... Actually, not realizing, or outright ignoring, that ghosts were sentient, sapient, feeling beings was pretty bad.

Making those two things, the Mortifier, and that hopefully permanently nameless abomination, was worse. Much worse.

Complicating this was the outright relief Danny was feeling. He hadn't expected to feel relief, but there it was. It was like a great weight had been taken off his shoulders. Mr Lancer knew. Mr Lancer knew, and he didn't think that Danny was an abomination, wasn't calling him a freak, was making an effort to understand, and help him, in his own, awkward way.

“They don't know,” said Danny.

“That's obvious,” said Mr Lancer. “That wasn't what I was going to ask. They hurt you, Daniel. Badly. Even I can see that. How often do things like this happen?”

“Never,” said Danny, quickly. “This is the first time anything like this has happened.”

“This is the first time that something this bad has happened,” corrected Jazz, gently, “and that's only if you don't count the portal accident.”

Mr Lancer, whose eyes had turned to Jazz as she spoke, looked back at Danny. “I need to know,” he begged. “Are you safe at home?”

Danny's eyes darted between Jazz and Mr Lancer. He wished he could say 'yes' without lying. Before last summer (the number of inventions they had tested in July had been unreal), he could have, but even back then, he had probably been deluding himself. It would have been fine if he was fully human. Probably. Jazz did get hit with stuff, too. But he wasn't, and his parents really should have picked up on how some of their inventions did hurt Danny.

“What do you want me to say?” he asked finally. “You can't tell anyone about this. About any of this. The Guys in White would hunt me to the ends of the Earth if they knew about me, and getting child services involved... I know they do health checks, and not all of my vitals are, well, vital.” Danny bit his lip. “Most of what we said before was the truth. Just... edited.”

“I'm not going to tell anyone, Daniel. I just want you to be safe. I-” He stopped, and smiled ruefully. “Perhaps this is not the right time or place.” He sighed. “Still, if there's anything I can do to help-”

“Can you make pancakes?”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 27: Breakfast Beneath a False Moon

.

This was clearly not what Mr Lancer had been expecting. He spluttered, but got his feet back under himself quickly enough. “Yes,” he said, finally, “I can but... Why do you ask?”

“We can take turns cooking while they're all fighting over the bathrooms... I guess there really must be bathrooms over there. Otherwise they would have come back by now.” Danny looked at the... Well, he couldn't really call it a line. It was still a crowd, but a more organized crowd than before. “Anyway, I was thinking that we can do pancakes. I saw pancake mix earlier. You guys can find the other ingredients while I try to figure out how those stove tops work.”

Mr Lancer blinked. “You mean, that's a kitchen?”

“What else would it be?” asked Danny. He had thought it a little odd at first himself, but the more he looked at it, the more obvious its purpose became. Although, Mr Lancer likely hadn't been spending much of his time looking at the kitchen. “I mean, it has cabinets, counters, those are stoves, and that seems to be a fridge.”

“I suppose you're right,” said Mr Lancer.

“Great. So, we clean up, you guys find pancake makings, or anything that requires minimal preparation, I'll work out the stoves. Okay?”

.

.

.

“Ah,” said Sam, her breath misting, “Mr Lancer, you don't want those.”

Mr Lancer cautiously put the round red fruit back on the shelf. “Why not?” he asked, his own breath coming out white.

Sam made a face. “I don't know as much about it as Danny, but pomegranates aren't always safe, here in the GZ.”

“I suppose it has something to do with Persephone?”

“Maybe. I don't know. I've met some weird ghosts, but no one's ever said that Persephone is or was real. There are plenty of Greeks, sure, but not too many outright gods.”

“What would they do?”

“Hm?” said Sam. She was looking for soy milk, or almond milk. She didn't really have anything against normal milk, it didn't have a face on it, but she tended to choose the vegan option when it was available.

“The pomegranates,” said Mr Lancer, picking up a jar to squint at the label. Was that Russian? “Was Mrs Fenton correct in saying that some foods could bind a person to the Ghost Zone?”

“What? No. Not exactly. Um. I guess that in some situations it could? Like I said, I don't know a lot about that, but it's more like... If you eat it, it's like an obligation? And then some of them are Stygian, which adds a whole new complication.” Sam shrugged. “Nine out of ten times it's safe, but it's better not to take the risk.”

“Is there anything else I should be wary of?”

“Yeah. Lotus. But you'd probably be wary of that, anyway.

.

.

.

As it turned out, the stove tops were simple to use. Danny hovered his hand over the flat surface. It felt hot enough. He looked at the flame beneath. Somehow, the heat it was producing was constrained, directed upwards, not outwards. Danny would say it was odd, but after the windows, it was nothing. There was probably some kind of spacial distortion... An extra dimension that the heat was lost to, maybe? That would be interesting.

Danny walked past Tucker, who was pulling boxes from the shelf, then paused. “What are you even looking for?” he asked.

“Chocolate chips, dude,” said Tucker. “Toppings, you know?”

“I think you passed some nuts back there...” Danny stood on his tip-toes, and pulled a jar down. It was labeled 'noix.'

“What language even is that?”

“French,” said Danny absently, turning the jar over in his hand. “These are walnuts, I think.” He put the jar down on the counter. I'm going to see if they've found any butter yet.

“Cool. They're starting to come back,” said Tucker, indicating a handful of people who had come back from the bathrooms (that apparently did exist). “I might head over in a minute.”

“Okay,” said Danny. “I'm going to see if Sam and Mr Lancer have found any butter.”

He walked over and stuck his head into the fridge. “Butter?” he asked.

Sam threw a stick at him and he just barely managed to catch it. “There's some more in here,” said Sam, “but we'll take care of it.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Hey, I found the chocolate chips,” said Tucker. “You'd better use them, Danny.”

“I will,” promised Danny, rolling his eyes. He pulled a large ceramic bowl off a shelf, and placed it on the counter underneath. “Where's the pancake mix?”

“Here,” said Tucker, hauling the large box over to where Danny was standing. “Do you think it'll be enough?”

“Probably? I don't know how hungry everyone is. I mean, I was able to eat some apples earlier, even if I threw them up, later. I don't know how much everyone else was able to eat.”

Tucker rolled his eyes. “Well, the A-listers got into the food pretty fast. No one else got any, though. Some people actually appreciated the fact that we were stranded without food.” He paused. “As in, they understood it. Not that they liked it. Jeez, this is what studying for tests does. Stupid standardized testing,” muttered Tucker, darkly.

“Yep,” said Danny, pouring the mix into the bowl. He looked back into the cabinet, found a cup, and began to draw water from the sink waterfall. “Ah, wait, did you see a whisk anywhere?”

“There were utensils over there,” said Tucker pointing.

Danny went over to the indicated cabinet and pulled out a whisk. Just then, Mr Lancer and Sam walked out of the cold room, carrying their spoils.

“Awesome,” said Danny. He glanced at the small group milling around the sitting area and very obviously not looking out past the balustrade. Dash, Dale, Paulina, Tiffanie, Star... Of course the A-listers would somehow get to the front of the line. Whatever. Danny wasn't bitter about the popularity ladder, not anymore.

(Well, maybe a little bit.)

Danny started mixing the pancake batter. “You guys should go ahead and distribute what can be eaten as-is. I can handle this for now.”

.

.

.

There were pancakes. Lots and lots of pancakes. There were chocolate chip pancakes, and there were walnut and pecan pancakes. There was syrup, not maple syrup, unfortunately, but nice syrup nonetheless. Sam had found some strawberries, so those were there, and milk, and orange juice.

By the time Danny had finished making the pancakes, and had taken a detour to the bathrooms (which did exist, but were as exotic in construction as the kitchen), most people were already eating. Not everyone, though. Some had apparently taken Jack and Maddie's warning about the food to heart.

Danny slipped into an empty chair between Sam and Tucker, and pulled a stack of towards him. Gosh, he was hungry.

“Danny.”

With a sigh, he lowered his fork, and looked up at his mother. “What?” he said. He didn't want to deal with this. He wanted to eat.

“These laws that ghosts have...”

Danny groaned, loudly, and shoved a forkful of pancake into his mouth. “What about them?” he mumbled around his pancake.

“Details,” said Maddie. “What did we do, exactly, and what would the... Who or what would be in charge of enforcing the laws?”

“Um,” said Danny, rubbing his eye. “What did I already tell you?”

“You said that there were laws against murder, rape, and sacrilege.”

“Oh. Um. No, no, that's not quite right. Ghosts don't- Ugh. I shouldn't have translated it as rapine, it's so easy to take the wrong way. Maybe I should have said pillage. But that's not quite right either, and pillage in the English sense isn't Taboo... And it includes rape, but... Okay. Okay, I've got it, I've got it, just give me a second.” He stuck another bite of pancake into his mouth and chewed fiercely. “Okay, so the problem here is that, originally, the Taboos were written- codified- by people who had a concept of existence but not of life. The first ghost societies. They had their own language, and it didn't have anything to do with English. Or any human language, for that matter. The categories they assigned what they considered crimes don't always make sense. Then, other things got tacked on to the original Taboos. The categories do still have... themes, I guess. So they're useful.” Danny fell silent, and ate some more pancakes.

“Danny.”

“Huh?” said Danny, intelligently.

“Sweetie, I understand that you've had some trouble finding translations, but-”

Tucker snorted. Everyone stared at him. “We didn't have any trouble finding translations,” said Tucker, rolling his eyes.

“Tucker,” hissed Danny.

“What do you mean?”

“Seriously? You haven't noticed?”

“Tucker,” repeated Danny.

“Come on, Danny. It's not like it isn't going to come out. It's kinda surprising that it hasn't already, considering.”

“Fine,” said Danny, going after his pancakes again.

“What are you two talking about,” asked Maddie, suspiciously.

“So, two years ago, Danny asked me to help him learn Esperanto,” began Tucker. “He picked it up super fast. Then this jerk tells me that it isn't his first second language. He's already fluent in Spanish, and he's getting all As in French.”

“Why would he know Spanish?” asked Paulina.

Of course everyone was listening. Danny felt himself turning pink, an uncomfortable heat gathering under his skin. He really preferred the cold.

(He had studied it, sporadically, in the last years of grade school and in middle school, mostly to impress Paulina.)

Tucker shrugged. “Doesn't matter. Anyway, after he devoured Esperanto, he decided to learn Latin, because a lot of ghosts know it. Then he picked up Greek. And when I say 'picked up,' I mean that he just showed up at school one day and said, 'Hey, guess what? I know Greek now!'”

“I didn't say it like that!” protested Danny.

“You kind of did, actually,” said Sam.

“Not you, too, Sam.”

“So you speak six languages?” asked Mia, shocked.

“Seven,” said Mikey. “He speaks whatever it is these things use.” He indicated the wisps.

“They aren't things,” said Danny. “They're wisps. Will'o-the-wisps, and they're people.”

“He speaks way more than that,” said Tucker. “But good luck getting him to tell you how many that is.”

Danny put his head on the table. “You're awful.”

“What was the last human language you were working on? Russian? Chinese?”

“Chinese, yeah,” mumbled Danny.

“You speak Chinese?” said Hannah.

“That's great, Danny-boy!” shouted Jack. “Why didn't you tell us?”

Danny was about to answer, but Elliot, of all people, interrupted. “Y'know, this is great and all,” he said, “but there's still the whole 'you could be executed' thing that's hanging over our heads. I'd like some clarification on that.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 28: A Primer on Ghost Law

.

“Right,” said Danny. “Right. So, three Taboos, Murder, Rapine, and Sacrilege. Those could be rephrased as serious crimes against the body, serious crimes against the mind, and serious crimes against the soul. None of which really gives you any new information... Great. Give me a second here.”

Danny ran a hand through his tangled hair. “So, crimes of against the body,” he began. “The basic crime would be destroying, or trying to destroy someone physically. Like, if you were trying to end a ghost, or murder a human. But, just like with humans, there are a lot of reasons that doing so might be considered justified. Loopholes. If you're at war, if they attacked you first, they attacked someone else first, and you saw them, if they stole your stuff, if they were trying to steal your stuff, if they were breaking or trying to break another Taboo, if it's part of your obsession, if they caused your death, if you have a persistent reciprocal rivalry with them, if you're defending your haunt, or a vassal, if you did it while you were still alive... The list goes on for a while, actually. Typically, humans are exempt from being tried for Acts of Murder, especially if they only killed other humans. But there are, like, reverse exceptions, too. Killing a relative is usually prosecuted, regardless of other circumstances, even if those prosecutions fall through. People who commit genocide while alive who become ghosts when they die are also often tried. Because, you know, a lot of their victims become ghosts, too. Also, putting one of the Dead through whatever killed them is usually considered an Act of Murder. Some people want it to be considered an Act of Rapine, but since it can happen accidentally, and not all ghosts are Dead...” Danny shrugged. “My understanding is that there were politics involved.” He looked down at his plate. His pancakes were probably only lukewarm now. “Can I finish my pancakes now?” he whined. He wanted to eat. Everyone else was getting to eat, and this wasn't important right now. It wasn't fair. To prove his point, he tried to shove an entire pancake into his mouth.

(It was childish. So what?)

(Regret was for losers.)

((People who shoved whole pancakes into their mouths evidently fell into that category.))

“I think that I can answer some of that,” said Jazz as Danny surreptitiously removed most of the pancake from his mouth. “Like Danny said, Acts of Rapine are crimes against the mind. Ghosts tend to take these seriously. Their mental state affects them physically, even more so than a human's. Threatening their mental state threatens their existence.” Jazz licked her lips and looked over at Danny. “Am I doing okay, so far?”

Danny paused mid-chew to look at Jazz. He'd been alternating eating pancakes himself with feeding them to curious wisps. They seemed to like it.

“Yeah,” he said, “you're doing fine.”

“Another aspect is that ghosts consider the mind to be more important that the body. I wouldn't go as far as to say that they don't care about the body, the first Taboo makes that clear, but it's much less important to them. Then, also, to make an effective attack on the mind, you usually need to be close to the person in question. There are exceptions, but not many. This makes violations of this Taboo betrayals as well as assaults. I believe that talking someone into committing suicide counts as a violation of this Taboo. Right?”

“Right,” said Danny, shooing some wisps away so that others could get their turn at the syrup. Greedy, sugar-loving snowballs. They were lucky they were so cute. Like kittens. Or baby seals. Or some other cute little soft fuzzy thing. He sighed. “I guess that it's my turn again,” he said.

“Afraid so, little bro.”

“So. Sacrilege. There's a lot in that category that is kind of weird, that doesn't have very severe punishment, in and of itself. Some of the stuff is in there just to be a loophole for murder, as far as I can tell, so the punishment is mostly that they won't stop people from killing you. The rest of the stuff, though, is super serious. Super, duper, serious. That thing you made up there? That's in the second category. Unlike with the other two, they will go after humans for violating it. They go after anyone who goes after it. Always. Execution is the least of your worries,” grumbled Danny. He put a pancake in his mouth and chewed it angrily.

“But... Why?” asked Maddie. “I don't understand why what we did is considered to be so awful. We didn't even manage to do what we set out to do.”

“It's not about what you did,” said Danny. “Not really. It's about how you did it. That's why I had to ask about it. The metaphysical connection between a ghost and their lair.” He sighed, and explained, for the benefit of the other students. “If a ghost has a lair, and that's not a given, by the way, then they have a psychic link to the lair. Like you see in stories. The ghost can affect the lair, that much is a given, that's the point, but the effects can go the other way, too. There are other links like that, too, and because you can't control it, because it isn't something conscious, it's a point of vulnerability,” said Danny, trying to explain it in a way that his parents would understand. It was so much more than that it was a point of vulnerability. Messing with these links, these bonds, was called a crime against the soul. That wasn't meaningless. It wasn't just words. “What actually happened- The thing with the shadow. That's incidental. Comparatively. It's still not a good thing, and I'm not sure that it wouldn't be Taboo by itself, but some lairs do have shadows naturally. Not this one, though. Not according to these guys.” He gestured at the wisps, who were licking (Was that the right term? They didn't have tongues.) syrup off his plate. He smiled, and retrieved another pancake from the stack at the center of the table. They were almost all gone. It was good that they were all able to eat. Now they just needed to sleep.

“How worried do we need to be about that?” said Valerie, suddenly.

“Sleeping?” asked Danny, caught off guard. Valerie had been quiet since they started down the stairs. “Why'd we have to be worried about that?” He yawned, barely covering his mouth.

“What?” said Valerie, lips drawing back in surprise and confusion. “No, the shadow. How worried do we have to be about it? It sounded like it had a grudge against Mr and Mrs Fenton, and you said that it was still hanging around. How worried do we need to be?”

“Um. Not?” said Danny, tiredly. “It's not-” he yawned again. Even if he was used to pulling all nighters, this was above and beyond. “The shadow, he's still part of- of Phantom, he's gotta follow the same rules.”

“What, the Taboos?” asked Ricky, muffling a yawn of his own.

“No. Well, yes, but no. Like, m- his obsession. You can't act against that. Or, hmm, frailties, or natures, or stuff like that. Y'know. How are you guys all so awake?” Danny's last sentence had a distressed waver to it. He was too tired to be talking about this. He was starting to slip.

“We're all kind of tired, right now,” said Jazz. “I think that we should all try to get some rest, now. I think there were some beds in the room over this way...”

Jazz took control of the conversation. She slid out of her chair as she spoke, and stood behind Danny, pulling his chair back, even as he tuned out the beginning of a dispute. Something about not sleeping in ghost beds and who was going to stay up to watch.

Sam and Tucker steered Danny into a bed while Jazz and Mr Lancer herded the rest of the class.

Danny fell asleep almost immediately.

.

.

.

The shadow picked one of the round red fruit off the shelf in the cold room. It had enough form to do that now, and it- no, he- was fascinated. He turned it over in his hand, watching as his fingers became progressively more defined. He raised a black-nailed finger to his lips. He had lips now, and sharp teeth. It was wonderful, he decided.

He lowered the finger to touch the fruit. Softly, at first, then he dug his sharp nail into the skin, digging his finger in, and then pulled back the rind to see the dark, purple-red seeds that filled the interior. He plucked one out, and popped it into his mouth, enjoying the texture. Flavor was a little beyond him, at the moment, but his shape was patterned after Danny's ghost form. A sense of taste would come eventually. He popped another seed into his mouth, and licked his thumb.

Just then, the boundary of his hand flickered, and the fruit fell through, landing softly on the shelf beneath it. He frowned. Clenched his fist. He hated having to wait. He hated being passive like this. He wanted to do something. He wanted to open their eyes and make them see.

There was a rise in the pitch of the conversation happening out by the bedrooms. The shadow tilted his head. It would be interesting once they were asleep.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 29: Rooms

.

It turned out that there weren't beds in the room. There was a bed. Luckily, there was more than one such room, strung out like beads on the walkway. There were enough beds if people doubled or tripled up, and the beds were more than big enough to do that.

The problem was that that required splitting up. Going to different rooms. Some people objected to that. Others thought that wasn't so bad, except that some of the rooms were a bit... odd. Themed. At least, that was what Sam had heard. She hadn't looked at them herself. Neither she nor Tucker were at all inclined to leave Danny passed out on his own.

Neither was Jazz, but, when it came down to it, Lancer wasn't capable of managing the class by himself under these circumstances, and Jack just added to the chaos. Jazz was needed.

The room that Sam and Tucker had claimed for themselves and Danny wasn't so bad. Really, it was normal, when taken in context. All the furniture in it was made of stone, grown from the walls. There was a huge, archway window, showcasing a full moon and brilliant stars. The vaulted ceiling was... Not painted. Inlaid. There were circles of blue, silver, and gold on the ceiling. They reminded Sam of old star charts, although they didn't match to anything that she could recall.

The bed itself, positioned under the window, was wide. Larger than king-sized. There were lots of cushions and blankets on it, and between that and the slight depression in the middle, it had a nest-like feel to it.

There was a desk with drawers up against one wall. Against another, there was a dresser. The bed was flanked by nightstands. The door was flanked by bookshelves.

The desk and each nightstand had a ball of cold, green-blue fire floating over it. Tucker and Sam had discovered entirely by accident (Tucker certainly hadn't meant to stick his elbow through the one over the desk) that the balls could be moved around and dimmed or brightened by touching them. Not that this was in useful at the moment. The wisps more than adequately illuminated the room, and they adjusted their brightness at a whim.

Only a handful of the books on the bookshelves were in English. The nightstand drawers contained tissue boxes (tissues optional) and a large amount of string. There were pencils, pens, and notebooks in the desk. The dresser was full of clean clothes in various states of wear, all approximately Danny's size, none of which Sam recognized as ever having belonged to Danny, and a large number of mismatched socks.

“Found it,” said Tucker, softly.

Sam turned away from the dresser. Tucker was on his knees, looking under the bed. Danny was on top of the bed, face down, his feet hanging off the end, dead to the world. More so than usual.

Sam glanced back at the doorway, towards where Danny's parents were standing. Arguing. Jumping up and down and tearing their hair out. Well, not quite. It sounded like the main thrust of the argument had changed from 'Do we sleep in the ghost beds?' to 'Who gets which ghost bed?' with a little bit of 'I don't want to share my ghost bed!' on the side.

If it bothered them so much they should just sleep on the sofa.

Sam sighed, even as Tucker's hand twitched towards whatever it was that he had found under the bed. “Wait,” she said.

“I know,” said Tucker. His eyes were on the door as well.

Couldn't they pick somewhere else to argue over something so shallow? There was a sleeping person in here!

Tucker stood up, frowning. “Maybe we should get his shoes off, at least,” he said, looking at Danny. “Turn him over, too. He doesn't look very comfortable.”

Danny didn't look very comfortable. It almost looked like he was planking, to be honest, just laying there where he had fallen on the bed. Sam had expected him to move. To get into a better position. To burrow under the nearby sheets. That's what he normally did, when he was falling asleep.

“Have you ever seen him just collapse like this?” asked Sam. “I mean, going from being tired but talking, and doing stuff, to can't even stand up in minutes?

“Yeah,” said Tucker, biting his lip. “Not often, but yeah.”

“When?” They were both sitting on the bed, now, on either side of Danny.

“When he's been hurt. After long fights at night. Just once or twice. I think he'd been trying to get home, but the fight was near my house and he needed help getting patched up. A few minutes after I got everything in place he just kinda passed out in my bed. I freaked out. I thought that he was dead. But he was still breathing and stuff, and he was 'fine' when he woke up. So.” Tucker shrugged.

Sam scoffed. “Yeah, Danny and his fine. Ready to flip him?”

“Yeah,” said Tucker.

Strictly speaking, they didn't need to coordinate like this. Each of them had, on separate occasions, carried Danny on their own. Not to mention the times that they had flung Danny across an entire room, again, on their own. Danny was light, even when he wasn't subconsciously tapping into the power of flight and was (literally) dead weight. Flipping him together, though, was easier on Danny. Like this, they wouldn't be putting too much pressure on any one part of him, and accidentally injuring him further.

It also mitigated the risk that Danny would wake up, react poorly to being touched, and try to hit them, or something. Not that it had happened more than once, but it paid to be wary when your friend has both superpowers and terrible nightmares.

However, all that happened was that Danny made a tiny sound of protest, not unlike that of a kitten, twitched, and went right on sleeping. Only now, he was on his back.

“He's not purring,” observed Sam, still keeping her voice low.

“Yeah, I noticed that. Do you think that it's just that he's uncomfortable, or upset, 'cause I know that I'd be, or that one of those things damaged his core?”

“It could be either,” said Sam. “But he was purring earlier, so it wasn't the gun.”

“He was asleep earlier?”

“Yeah, we all got split up in the trees.”

“Does it have anything to do with the Mortifier being gone?”

“Yeah. I guess you could say that.” Sam started to give Tucker a brief rundown of what had happened as they each untied one of Danny's shoes.

By the time they were done with that Jazz had (finally) gotten the others to move on to the other rooms. Sam made one last check of the doorway, peeking out to see where everyone was, before turning and nodding to Tucker. Tucker reached under the bed, and pulled out a first-aid kit.

Sam and Tucker had known that there would be a first-aid kit somewhere in here, especially after seeing how much stuff was in the kitchen. Not because they were psychic, or anything like that, but because they knew Danny, and Danny always kept a first-aid kit in his room, or any room he planned on sleeping in. For him they were a necessity. There was one in his desk in his room. Tucker kept one under his bed. Sam hid hers behind her stereo. Jazz had one, too, in plain sight on her bookshelf, labeled 'in case of ghost attack.' Anything labeled like that in the Fenton house was usually left alone, strangely enough.

Tucker snapped open the case. “Hey, Sam, check this out.”

“What?” asked Sam, peering over his shoulder.

“This is one of ours,” said Tucker, pointing to the words 'red/green' written on the inside of the lid with markers of the same color. “I think this is the one we lost a few months ago. The one that fell out of the speeder, remember?”

“Yeah,” said Sam. “That's weird. I wonder how it got up here.” She frowned, then shook her head, standing. “Just make sure that it's all still okay to use. You take care of Danny, I'm going to make sure that nobody sneaks up on us.”

.

.

.

There was a torch-lit room full of velvety black flowers. The walls were draped with black curtains. The walls and their ornaments had a decidedly Gothic flair to them. The bed had four posts and a black satin canopy. No one wanted to sleep in that room.

There was a room that was painted in warm colors. After the all the cool stone, it was a bit of a shock. It was incongruous. A bit artificial, too. After all, the paint was applied directly to the stone. The blankets on the bed were stripped. Green, yellow, red. There was a desk, dresser, bookshelves, bedside tables... The bedside tables had lamps on them, each sporting a single, bare, incandescent bulb. Sitting on the desk was a rectangular sheet of glass, with a sticky note on it. The note read: 'Electronics still beyond me, sorry.' Piled around that piece of glass were piled batteries, remote controls, electronic key fobs, little, tamagotchi-type hand held games. The bookshelves were full of broken electronics.

There was a room that looked almost normal, except that there were books everywhere. Bookshelves covered every wall, all the way up to the ceiling. There was even a bookshelf built into the base of the bed (the covers of which were a tasteful teal). Most of the books were in English, but some were in Esperanto. It looked like someone had tried to organize them according to the Dewey Decimal system, but had given up halfway.

There was a room that had a distinct 'princess' theme to it. Pinks and pale blues, and medieval architecture, complete with tapestries and murals depicting knights and dragons. This was one of the more normal rooms, except that once you looked more closely, the dragons were winning.

There was a room that was completely frigid, all the furniture made of ice, not stone, snowdrifts piled in the corners.

There was a room that had even more clocks in it that the first. The walls were decorated with gears and cogs. Instead of bedside tables, there were sundials to either side of the bed. Stripped candles were arrayed along the desks and tables.

There was a room that looked much like the first room, except that there was also a skateboard propped in one corner, and instead of clocks on the walls, there were photographs and postcards.

There was a room made up to look like a forest.

There was a room that, instead of an actual bed, there was bed, and instead of furniture, there were chew toys.

There was a room that looked like it would better belong in Ancient Greece.

There was a room that was full of pictures of cheese. But no actual cheese. Just pictures. The upholstery was red velvet.

The rooms were weird. But, once Jazz realized what, or rather who they were for, they started to make a lot more sense. This was Danny, after all. Of course he'd make guest rooms for his friends, and of course he'd try and make them as personalized as possible. Of course he'd go overboard.

Poor Danny.

She hoped that he wouldn't mind that she wasn't sleeping in her own room, but in Sam's.

.

.

.

Maddie, accompanied by Mr Lancer, walked back into the larger, communal room. Mr Lancer had come out because he was going to sleep in the sitting area. Maddie, who was planning on staying awake, and taking the first watch, was coming out for an entirely different reason.

She walked into the kitchen. It was such an odd thing to find in a ghost's lair. A ghost shouldn't need a kitchen. A ghost shouldn't need food. Especially not human food, which was what the kitchen was stocked with.

Maddie spread her hands out over the counter, feeling the cool, smooth stone. It felt remarkably real. All of this did. She pushed down against the stone. There was no give to it. This was disturbing in the extreme. Ectoplasmic constructs should not feel so real.

There was the possibility that portions of this environment were constructed from real objects. Materials from the real world. From Earth. The food at least, had to be. But that possibility was frightening, to say the least. That a ghost could move this much material...

Then the question was, why? Why would a ghost go through this much trouble?

The only answer that Maddie could come up with, is that the ghost, that Phantom, wanted humans there.

They were here now.

Maddie was not at all inclined to let Phantom get away with his plan. It involved deceiving and indoctrinating her children, and possessing her son.

(Part of her wondered if he was telling the truth at all, if Danny was telling the truth, but she ignored it. It couldn't be.)

But she'd had no choice but to go along with what he wanted. She was unarmed, and this was Phantom's home. If the incident in the forest had taught her anything, it was that an attack here could come from anywhere.

So she had waited until the small ghosts were all distracted in the other rooms. Phantom could communicate with them, and she had no doubt that they would report her movements to him, if they saw her. That made it awfully dark in the kitchen, though. Luckily, she did have night-vision features in her goggles.

She glanced at Mr Lancer. The poor teacher was already sprawled out, unconscious on the couch. Maddie sighed, and began to search.

It took several minutes to find what she was looking for, made longer by the need to be quiet relative to whatever was going on by the bedrooms (She hadn't heard any screams, so it was fine. Probably.), but she had at last found them. A block of knives. Not the best weapon against a ghost, but better than nothing at all, and if they were made of ghost material, then they should be able to cut a ghost even if it became intangible.

She set the block on top of the counter, and grasped one of the handles. A butcher's knife slid out easily, smoothly, with a notable 'ting' as it left the block. Maddie examined the edge. It looked sharp.

“What are you doing?”

Maddie whirled, taking in the figure that had come up behind her so quietly. Stark white hair, dark clothes with white accents, luminous toxic green eyes.

Phantom.

Maddie buried the knife in his shoulder.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 30: Authority

.

Maddie yanked the knife out of Phantom's shoulder, and started to bring it down for another blow, but he seized her wrist, and held it up in the air. Then he smiled, revealing a double row of razor sharp, white teeth, his eyes crinkling into luminous slits.

Maddie knew then, as a viscous green drop slid of the tip of the knife, and Phantom grinned up at her, that she had made a terrible mistake.

Then her feet were swept out from under her, and Phantom had her pinned on the floor. He slammed her hand against the floor, hard, and the knife slipped from her grasp, as she cried out.

That wasn't very nice,” said Phantom, his voice echoing, amusement underlying every syllable.

“What do you want, Phantom?” hissed Maddie.

Phantom blinked, the smiled slipping off his face. “You really can't tell, can you?” he said, words dripping with disdain. “You can't tell at all.” He leaned in, so that his lips were almost touching her ear. “And you call yourself a mother.”

Maddie braced herself for what she knew must be coming.

But her shout had been more than loud enough to draw attention. Mr Lancer was up and leaning over the counter, gaping at the scene.

“Phantom?” whispered Mr Lancer. “But-”

Phantom looked up at Mr Lancer, and Maddie could see the edge of an angelic smile. “No,” he said. “But I understand your confusion.” He released Maddie and stood up, smoothly, all in one motion. “I would say to call me Shadow, but that name has been taken for a while.” He looked back down at Maddie. “Ah, yes,” he cooed. “You're starting to understand now. This is your fault.”

.

.

.

There hadn't been anything wrong with Danny that Sam and Tucker could directly see, so they had simply opted for making him as comfortable as possible. They had just finished tucking him in when they heard Maddie shout. They exchanged a look, shoved the first-aid kit under the bed before rushing out.

They reached the large, common room, and stopped dead. Standing in the kitchen, was someone who looked an awful lot like Danny.

Like- But not quite.

The person had white hair, and ghost-green eyes, and his facial features were the same as Danny's, but there were a number of small differences. He was just a little too tall. His mouth was just a bit too wide, the teeth a little too long, too sharp. His hair was a touch too long, too wild, brushed up at odd angles. His ears were longer, more pointed, than Danny's ever were. More expressive, too, if the way they pricked when Sam and Tucker entered the room was any indication. His weren't Danny's eyes either. His iris were flat, uniform in both color and shade, unlike Danny's, which, despite being perpetually obscured by a moving swirl of ectoplasm, retained the variety and depth of his human eyes. More tellingly, his eyes were not shadowed by lack of sleep, as Danny's always were.

This was not to mention his clothes.

They weren't entirely dissimilar to what Danny was wearing. But that was the point. Danny Fenton was the one who wore hoodies and jeans. Not Phantom. But this person, he was wearing a black zip-up hoodie, a pair of faded black jeans, a white t-shirt, and finger-less black gloves.

Nevertheless, he smiled as soon as he saw them, and, despite the teeth, his smile was so like Danny's that Sam had to stop and reassess the situation.

Of course, she didn't have time for that. Maddie's shout had attracted more than the two of them, and she, as always, shot first. The white-haired boy dodged Valerie's shot easily, his eye-roll visible even from across the room. The blast hit the shelves behind him, scattering plates and bowls in every direction. The boy half turned to look at the mess, and sighed heavily before vanishing from sight.

Valerie had started to lower her gun, when the boy reappeared in front of her. He swept the gun from her hands, disappeared, and then became visible once again behind her, kicking the back of her leg and grabbing her hair, forcing her to her knees and to look up at him.

“I don't understand you, Valerie Grey,” he said. Leaning down to look into her eyes directly. “You were offered such a simple bargain, and he gave you as much as he could. He would help you get home, he gave you back your weapon,” he twirled the blaster around in his hand for emphasis, “and all you had to do was not tell the Fentons about the relationship between him and their child, and not shoot people for no reason. For the first part, you went back on your word as soon as it was possible to do so, for the second, curse you, it hasn't even been a day yet. Why? Was his word not good enough for you, when he has always kept it before?”

“You-” said Valerie, gasping. “You aren't Phanto- ouch!”

“Faster than her.” He jerked his head towards Maddie dismissively, even as he twisted Valerie's hair. “Answer me.”

“You hurt Mrs Fenton, that's not no reason, Phantom.”

“She stabbed me. What was I supposed to do? Shake her hand? When it still holds the knife? Even Phantom would not be so quick to forgive. You certainly aren't. The real reason if you would.”

“As if I would keep a promise with someone who was possessing my friend!”

The boy laughed coldly. “Your friend. You haven't been much of a friend to to him, now have you? Abandoning him, for what? So that you could hunt ghosts?” Valerie opened her mouth to protest, but the boy yanked her hair, viciously. “Don't try to tell me it was to protect him from the ghosts, Red. His parents,” the boy spat the word like it was poison, “are hunters. Don't be so conceited, so arrogant, as to say that your choice made any difference, except that after it you could say that you weren't responsible for what happened to him.”

“I didn't-”

“He thought you were changing, you know,” interrupted the boy. “After Danielle. He would have gone through with it. He was going through with it. He thought you were starting to understand, when you let him go. I guess he was wrong,” concluded the boy sadly. He vanished again, and this time he didn't reappear.

Valerie got to her feet, unsteadily.

“Ohmigosh,” said Star into the silence. “Val, are you alright? Did he hurt you? That was scary!”

“No,” said Valerie slowly. “No, I'm fine. Mrs Fenton-”

“I'm alright,” said Mrs Fenton.

“Thank God,” said Mr Lancer, his legs apparently giving out, as he slid down the side of the counters.

“Mom? Where's Dad? Shouldn't he have come out?” That was Jazz.

Maddie waved a hand. “He sleeps with earplugs in. You know that.”

Sam stared at Maddie in disbelief. This was the wrong place to be doing that in.

Maddie frowned. “Where's Danny?”

“Dead asleep,” said Tucker. Sam elbowed him. “Hey!”

“Like father like son, I suppose,” said Maddie, rubbing her face tiredly.

“Hey,” said Nathan, “Valerie-”

“I'm not going to the prom with you, Lester.”

“Hey!” said Lester.

“I'm Nathan,” said the other red-haired, bespectacled twin. “But that... guy. He called you 'Red.' Red, as in 'Red Huntress?'”

.

.

.

The GIW propagandists worked fast. It hadn't even been a whole twenty-four hours yet, and already they had all the funding they needed, and the support of politicians from coast to coast.

What they had yet to gain: Access to the Fenton household and portal, and the approval of Mayor Vlad Masters.

Still, there was a limit to what even billionaire tech executive businessmen with political aspirations could do to block an operation meant to rescue American Children. Already, there was significant pressure on the man from all sectors. Beyond the normal political posturing that came with an event like this, many civilians were agitating for a boycott of MasterSoft and all its subsidiaries. Vlad Masters' grudge against the GIW, his anger over how they had destroyed his castle home in Wisconsin, could only go so far, surely.

Well, that's what they thought. They didn't know Vlad Masters.

(Nor did they know Vlad Plasmius.)

As content as Vlad was to make use of the rather ineffectual enforcement arm of the GIW, letting them into the Ghost Zone unsupervised would be a recipe for disaster. Besides, Daniel had disappeared with the rest of his infuriating class. Vlad had no doubt that, given enough time, the young hybrid would return all the children to Amity Park safely.

Vlad sighed deeply, examining the papers on his desk. Normally, he would try to use the incident as a way to (at long last) get Maddie and Daniel on his side, Jasmine, too, if possible, and get rid of that bumbling oaf, Jack Fenton. Normally. But with the GIW's more competent members crawling over the town, Vlad had elected to keep ecto-activity at a minimum. Especially after he saw what they had done to that animal ghost they had caught early that morning. Vlad might be a villain, he might even embrace that title in his fights with Daniel, but he had standards. Standards the GIW did not live up to.

He was beginning to seriously regret that donation he had given them. Honestly, what had he been thinking, engaging in that ridiculous prank war with Daniel? Yes, Daniel had gotten the GIW to destroy his home, but considering what their previous encounter had entailed (namely the cloning and the death threats), it was a fairly reasonable reaction, and, in hindsight, Vlad had to admit that it was a rather brilliant one. Vlad hadn't lost all of his cloning research, but he had lost most of it.

The phone on his desk rang. Vlad frowned. Not many people had this number, and usually his secretary would say something on the intercom if she was putting someone through. He picked up the phone, and said, “Vlad Masters speaking.”

Then, “Governor! How lovely to hear from you. May I ask the reason for your call?”

A moment passed, and Vlad replied, “Why, that wasn't my intention at all. Of course I want all the children to be safely returned to their homes. I just don't think that the agents of the Group for Inter-dimensional Warfare are the people to do it.”

Another moment. “Governor, you haven't seen these people in action. They cause more damage to property and to citizens than the ghosts they are supposedly catching.”

Vlad sighed. “Yes, I did give them funding, but that was before I knew. Please, don't make the same mistake I did.”

This was not enough. “As I said, I do want all affected persons back in Amity Park.” With the exception of Jack Fenton, but the governor didn't need to know that. “I would just be more comfortable if, say, the members of the army, or the National Guard were being sent.”

A sigh. “Yes, teaching them how to use the equipment would take time, but-”

Vlad clenched his jaw. “No. I understand perfectly, governor. I will take all appropriate actions to accelerate the process.”

The wood at the edge of Vlad's desk creaked ominously under his fingers. “Yes. I will tell the police to remove themselves from the Fenton residence.”

More creaking. “Yes. Thank you, governor. I wish you all the luck you deserve in the upcoming election. Good day.”

Vlad carefully placed the receiver back into its cradle, and unwrapped the fingers of his other hand from around the edge of the desk. He breathed out heavily through his nose. The governor would get what was coming to him. No one crossed Vlad Masters.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 31: Signal and Noise

.

“I- uh- I- um,” said Valerie, flustered.

Jeez, thought Sam. She was even worse at this than Danny was, and she didn't even have the whole 'strapped to a lab table' thing to worry about.

Except... Maybe she did. Even though Valerie was human, she did have her suit, which was quite ghostly, bonded to her. There might be groups that would go after her. None of the people here would, of course, but. Still.

Sam sighed. “Look,” she said interrupting Valerie's stuttered attempt at an explanation. “I'm sure that this is going to turn into a thought provoking revelation, but I'm honestly too tired to process anything right now. Can this wait until morning? Please?”

There were murmurs of agreement, but also of dispute. A number of people, including the more rabid Danny Phantom 'Phans' (aka Paulina) wanted Valerie to explain. Now. Or they were going to tear Valerie apart.

(It was getting harder and harder for Sam to believe she had ever been friends with Paulina.)

But Mr Lancer waded in to the brewing fight (and Sam had no doubt that it would have turned into a fight, considering how tired and irritable everyone was) and sent them all off to bed. Sam was both impressed and relieved. She hadn't wanted to waste time with a fight. Not when she had a pretty good idea of where that boy (and she had an inkling as to his identity) had disappeared to.

From the way he looked at her and Tucker, she suspected that Mr Lancer was having the same, or at least similar, thoughts. She pulled Tucker swiftly along behind her, back to Danny's room, wanting to have a few private moments before the teacher was free to follow them. It wasn't that she didn't trust Mr Lancer, it was just that Mr Lancer was very new to all this. She didn't know how he'd react, and she wanted to be able to assess the situation without worrying about him.

It was a good thing she did, Sam decided when she saw the scene waiting for them in the room. There was the boy, sitting in the bed, Danny's head in his lap. He was combing Danny's hair, with an actual comb no less, as if he hadn't a care in the world.

“Who are you?” asked Sam, wincing when the words came out more harshly than she intended.

The boy smiled gently. “I am the shadow that Jack and Madeline Fenton created. I think you knew that, though.”

“Sorry, dude,” said Tucker, pushing up his glasses. “Had to make sure.” He frowned. “You aren't going to go crazy on us, like Poindexter's shadows do to him, are you?”

Why would I do that?” said the shadow, sounding hurt. “You're his friends. Of course I wouldn't do anything like that to you. That was horrible.”

“Okay,” said Tucker. “Cool.” He blinked. “You're bleeding.”

The shadow blinked back, then looked at his shoulder. “Oh. Yeah. I guess so.”

Tucker went under the bed to search for the first aid kit. Sam stepped back to the door, to keep an eye out for pesky classmates and parents.

“You don't have to do that,” said the shadow, cheerfully. “I'm part of the lair. I can tell where people are, mostly.”

“Oh,” said Sam, not sure what else to say to that. She moved to sit on the bed. “How did that happen, anyway?”

“Madeline stabbed me with one of the kitchen knives.”

“What?!” came the gasp from the doorway. Sam jerked her head towards it. It was just Jazz.

Sam relaxed, and turned back to the sha- Okay. No. Nope. That wasn't going to work anymore. “Do you have a name?”

“I've only been in existence for about four hours. You think I spent that time worrying about a name? When I'm still figuring out how my body works?”

“A 'no' would have been good enough.”

“So you are the shadow from earlier,” said Jazz, coming closer.

“That's me!”

“Why did Mom stab you?”

“Why does she do anything?” he asked, scowling. “Because she's nuts, that's why. I mean, look at what she put Danny through! Poor Danny.” He ran his hand through Danny's hair. “Poor Danny,” he repeated, sounding close to tears.

Tucker cleared his throat. “Uh. I'm gonna need you to take off your shirt.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I want to sleep in this bed and I don't want you bleeding all over it.”

The shadow made a whining noise in the back of his throat, but complied with Tucker's request, shrugging out of his hoodie, and then peeling off his green-stained t-shirt.

“Great,” said Tucker, leaning in with a cotton swab and a bottle of antiseptic, “now hold still.”

“The Corsican Brothers!”

Sam jumped.

“Hi, Mr Lancer!”

Sam turned away from the door to glare at the shadow. “I thought you said that you could tell if people were coming.”

“I can. But Mr Lancer is cool. Right Mr Lancer?”

At that moment, Mr Lancer looked anything but cool. Actually, he looked as if he was about to have a heart attack. “I- I suppose. I- Who are you, exactly?”

The shadow shrugged, earning him a whack from Tucker, who was still trying to bandage the hole in the boy's shoulder. He rolled his eyes, and scratched the side of his neck with his other hand. “Again with the name thing.” He sighed. “Like I said, Shadow is already taken. How about Echo? That's as good a description as any.”

“So you are the shadow from earlier? But you... look different...”

The shadow, Echo, shrugged. “My body is currently based on Danny's, but when that machine forced it to coalesce, well, it wasn't something that had been expected.”

“Hey, does that mean you can shapeshift? Because that would be cool,” said Tucker, putting one last piece of tape on the bandages.

“Not really,” said Echo, rotating his arm experimentally. “It's more... How should I put this? In the natural course of events, if that machine hadn't been activated, I would not exist. You would have encountered no shadows in this lair. The lair did not know how to make shadows.” He had his hands on Danny again, softly brushing his fingers against the other boy's face. “I was forced into existence. After that, well, we do not discard useful things. The only template we have to use for a body is Danny's.” He rubbed his own face, then pinched his cheek. “This is not a perfect copy, however, as I'm sure you noticed.” His eyes flicked to one side, to where Jazz was raising her hand, “Yes, Jazz, I see you, what's your question?”

“How separate are you from Danny? I mean, how autonomous are you?”

Echo made a face. “Wow, Jazz, way to break out the fancy words.”

“Don't give me that. If you have access to Danny's memories, your vocabulary is twice as big as mine, even if we limit the count to just English words.”

“That's a gross exaggeration. Besides, you've got all that psychology terminology.”

“Stop avoiding the subject.”

Fine,” groaned Echo. “I am, like any shadow, part of the lair. Like the lair, therefore, I am subject and subservient to Danny's will. I do not have free will, and, in that sense, do not have a soul. As for whether or not I have my own mind, separate from Danny's...” Echo shrugged. “I don't have a core. Or, one could say, that Danny's core is my core. On the other hand,” he tapped one temple, “Danny's core being what it is, I do have a brain.” He seemed pleased about this. “Most ghosts don't, you see,” he explained. “Their cores don't know how to make them, or most internal features of human anatomy, for that matter. But Danny's core retains a near-perfect memory of his human body.”

“Human body?” asked Mr Lancer, faintly.

“That's right,” said Echo.

Mr Lancer opened his mouth, as if to ask a question, but shut it again, opting instead to chew his bottom lip. Finally, he asked, “You are part of this... Lair?”

“That is correct.”

“Then you must know the way out.”

Yes,” said Echo.

Silence, except for breathing.

(Which, Sam noticed, was something that Echo was doing, and not just to speak.)

“Could you... Tell us?” asked Mr Lancer.

Echo tilted his head all the way over to one side. “Why?”

“So- So that we can go home.”

A frown was added to Echo's face. “Why?”

Mr Lancer opened and closed his mouth several times. “I-” he said, “you- What?”

“What?” repeated Echo, clearly confused.

“Mr Lancer,” said Jazz, interrupting the meaningful exchange, “I think it's best if we stepped outside. Maybe I can explain things to you a little more clearly.”

“I...” Mr Lancer trailed off. “Maybe that would be... Yes. Let's.”

Jazz lead Mr Lancer out of the room. Sam wished her luck.

“Did I say something wrong?” asked Echo, frown still etched into his face.

.

.

.

Jazz lead Mr Lancer out of the room, and into the adjacent one, the one with all the black hangings, keeping an eye out for her mother, or other (late night? What time even was it?) wanderers in the hall (on the walkway, whatever, whichever). Once inside, she turned to face Mr Lancer, trying to figure out what to say. He seemed to be having a similar dilemma.

“You know why- why Echo doesn't want us to leave.” It was a statement, not a question.

“I have a- Call it a suspicion.” She resisted the urge to rub her eyes. She was too tired for this. “You know- You know he's not entirely human, right?” she asked, hesitantly, not at all sure that Mr Lancer had made that connection.

“It had crossed my mind, but I thought that he would still want to go home. I'm not sure how his... life status changes that.”

“It doesn't really, it's just... I'm sorry I'm not doing this very well.”

“We're all tired,” said Mr Lancer. “I'm sorry for pushing this, but I need something, here.”

“Okay,” said Jazz. “Have you heard of ghostly obsessions?”

“In passing,” allowed Mr Lancer. “They're what binds a ghost to the Earth, correct? Unfinished business, or something like that.”

“Kind of. It's more like a purpose. A reason to exist. Danny told me once that an obsession is why a ghost exists. Most ghosts have more than one. I don't suppose you can hazard a guess at one of Danny's?” asked Jazz. She wasn't comfortable telling Mr Lancer Danny's obsessions, that would be beyond rude, but if he could guess, that would be fine.

Mr Lancer blinked, and ran his hand over his face. “Protecting people, I suppose, considering what he spends his time doing.”

Jazz sighed in relief. “Yes. Now, usually, Danny filters his obsessions through, uh, I guess you could call it a human perspective. But Echo isn't human at all.”

“So you're saying that this is what Danny's ghost side wants?”

Jazz grimaced. “Saying it like that makes it sound like Danny has DID. He doesn't. It's more like... Look, for one of the Dead,” Mr Lancer flinched, and Jazz realized they hadn't really touched on the subject of Danny's death at all, but she pressed on, “their obsessions have to come from somewhere. Danny's been hurt. Hurt really badly. For him, this is a safe place. A place to heal. A place he controls. This feels like home to him. Add in his obsession, and the mess we left back home...”

“He feels like we're safe here, too,” concluded Mr Lancer.

“Right. And it doesn't matter if, consciously, he knows that it would be better if we were all back in Amity Park, because this, the lair, and Echo, and any other shadows we might encounter, they're all governed subconsciously, and by his more ghostly impulses.”

Mr Lancer frowned. “This isn't going to become... Daniel... Echo isn't going to try to keep us here, is he?”

“I doubt it. He might try to convince us to stay, bribe us, somehow, maybe even lie to us, but he won't use force.”

“What happened with your mother-”

“She stabbed him,” Jazz snapped, suddenly annoyed. “Valerie shot at him. You notice he didn't actually hurt either one of them. I'm sorry,” she said, the anger draining out of her, “I'm tired. You're tired. We're all tired. I need to sleep.”

“I'm sorry, Jasmine. I'll get out of your way,” said Mr Lancer. He paused in the doorway. “'Other shadows?'”

“When my brother learns a new trick, he uses it,” said Jazz. “Goodnight, Mr Lancer.”

Mr Lancer's reply was distinctly haunted. “Goodnight, Jasmine.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 32:

.

Echo had no need to walk. He could fly. He could fade into the moon-silvered walls of the lair, sink into them like so much water, merge with them, simply appear at his destination, and skip this whole 'traveling' nonsense altogether.

But there was a rhythm to walking, poetry, a heartbeat. His thick boots tapped and clicked against the stone floor. It was new. Novel. An experience for a person who had a dearth of experiences.

Novel. Heh.

That was an appropriate turn of phrase, considering his destination. He reached a wall, and walked up it, then walked along the wall's gentle curve to a descending staircase. He reached a platform, then walked along the platform to a walkway that corkscrewed up around a waterfall. Up farther, and farther, and farther. He trailed his hand along a banister twined with stone roses and real morning glories, and licked drops of water from his lips.

There were other paths, and he knew them. Not that he had ever walked them. Not like he was walking this one.

Briefly, he leaned over the railing, looking down into the heart of the lair, with all its staircases, twisted pathways, and hidden rooms. He gazed at the windows, the starlight, and the flowers.

He might resent Jack and Madeline Fenton, might even hate them, but he was enjoying existing. He was enjoying seeing this from the outside.

(He wondered if Danny was dreaming through his eyes.)

He continued on, walking up, and up and up, the path growing steeper, and steeper, before it suddenly flattened out, and turned into a spiraling staircase. There weren't too many stairs before they let out on another balcony.

The balcony, in turn, became a large, airy room, lined with pillars. Moonlight cast bright trapezoids on the floor. He reached the back wall, and passed through an archway into a larger, much better-lit room.

Bookshelves of wood and stone morphed into dark trees that reached up to the dark and diamond sky. The floor was carpeted in moss, grass, and pin-head sized star-shaped flowers. Ladders leaned against the shelves. Desks and armchairs were illuminated by balls of ghost fire. A library.

It was nothing so grand as Ghost Writer's library. Not that Echo had ever seen Ghost Writers library, and not like he ever would, but he had Danny's memories of the place, Danny's impressions.

Jazz would like it anyway, he hoped.

A mewling sound from up ahead made Echo's ears twitch. He picked up his pace. He reached the end of a shelf, and turned to face the armchair at the end.

Curled in the armchair was a inky, liquid shadow. It twitched and rippled. Echo sat in the chair set against the opposite bookshelf, bringing his feet up in front of him, and resting his chin on his knees. He watched avidly, fascinated by the process.

If Danny was here, he would be beside himself (figuratively, more than literally, as Echo was), trying to help. But Echo wasn't Danny, not entirely, and this wasn't so much akin watching another person in pain, as it was watching a video of himself getting a bone reset.

It was strange, knowing what that felt like when he had only had bones for, eh, call it ten hours. Certainly not more than that, and for at least one of those hours his 'bones' had likely had more in common with cartilage than anything else.

The shadow in the chair shivered and moaned again. A deeper darkness spread out from its center, rendering the larger part of it opaque.

This was going to take awhile.

.

.

.

When Tucker woke up, Echo was gone. He wasn't sure what he had expected, but, well, he wasn't exactly surprised. Tucker stretched, rubbing his eyes, and went to sit up, but came up short. Danny had part of Tucker's shirt clenched in his fist.

Tucker settled back down on the bed, and gazed at his friend blearily. Danny was frowning, his brow furrowed, lips parted slightly. He'd somehow wound up half on top of the sheets, face down, turned slightly towards Tucker, one leg thrown over Sam's. Dozens of faintly pulsing wisps cuddled against him, which was a very odd effect.

Tucker groaned. He had to use the bathroom. But he didn't want to wake up Danny. Heck, considering how hard he had fallen asleep earlier, he wasn't sure he could wake up Danny. Maybe he could take off his shirt...

He was attempting to retract his arm into the armhole of his shirt when Danny opened his eyes. Tucker froze. “Hey, dude,” said Tucker. “How're you doing?”

Danny blinked, managing to convey an infinite weariness without using words. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to get out without waking you up,” said Tucker. “But, uh, I guess you're awake now.”

“Huh?”

“You're kinda holding on to me, dude.”

“Oh. I'm sorry,” said Danny, releasing Tucker.

“It's fine, I just kinda have to go.”

.

.

.

Danny struggled to sit up. He was stiff. Sore. Bruised. He managed to get up on his knees, but had to blink static from his eyes, and swallow to control his nausea.

He raised a trembling hand to his chest, prodding his core with a mental finger. He hissed at the sudden pain. This wasn't good, even if he had half expected it. He'd hoped, though, that his core might have healed at least enough to access basic powers, as it had been before that thing that had made the shadow.

The... Echo.

Danny pinched the bridge of his nose to ward of the headache he could feel building behind his eyes. Echo echo echo. Was there an echo in here?

His mother had tried to kill him.

Again.

A knife, descending.

But... Had this happened? He couldn't...

When a sound of distress rose in his throat, he swallowed it. He didn't want to wake Sam. Sam didn't do mornings. Regardless of whether or not this counted as a morning, disturbing Sam would be a mistake.

He crawled out of the bed and laid on the floor. The relative coolness of the floor felt good. Wisps floated down to join him, their touch icy. Did he have a fever? It wouldn't surprise him. He felt awful. He sat up again.

Where were his shoes? He didn't remember taking them off. Heck, he barely remembered hitting the bed. Looking back, he had basically collapsed after giving what must have been the most threadbare explanation of ghost law possible. He hadn't even gotten to enforcement, and the courts, and the Observants... Although, he hoped that no one asked about those now. He didn't want to give any more long explanations. He didn't want to give any explanations. Mr Lancer had already seen through his story, he didn't want to give anyone else more hints. Despite appearances, his classmates weren't stupid. Most of them, anyway.

Nor were his parents, if it came to that. No matter how hard they tried at it. They were scientists and inventors, and they lived off of their patents. They were just... He didn't know how to describe it. Willfully ignorant?

(Incredibly bigoted?)

(Racist?)

(Were they the enemy now?)

He didn't want to think about it. It made his head hurt. (Not to mention his core. But that hurt anyway.)

Where were his shoes? He really wanted his shoes back.

Actually... Maybe he should go use that bathroom first. Change his clothes, too. If there were any clothes to change into. There was a dresser. He pulled out one of the stone drawers. It was heavy, but slid smoothly. As if it was resting on wet ice. Or robust rollers. The latter was more likely.

There were clothes in the drawer. Nice. Nothing he'd seen before. He wondered at the logistics of a full dresser of human clothing in the Ghost Zone. If it was just socks and underwear, he would understand that, but shirts and jeans were a bit larger. It was harder for them to fall through the small intermittent portals that formed in washing machines, the backs of drawers, and other out of the way places.

He blinked slowly, dully, at the clean clothes. Maybe he should take a shower first. He felt disgusting. Sweaty and gritty.

Yes, a shower sounded like just the thing. He made sure that Sam was still all tucked in before leaving the room.

.

.

.

The shivering shadow in the armchair had skin now, smooth, pale, paper-white flesh that did not flake and smoke when it brushed against the fabric of the chair. It had arms and legs, hands and feet, and fingers and toes. It likely had more than that, but curled in on itself as it was, it was hard to tell. Right now, it was working on growing hair.

Echo didn't remember having this much trouble when his body was forming, but he supposed that he had already existed as an idea, a point of view, if you would, before he had tried to exist as a physical (if ectoplasmic) construct. The thought crossed his mind that, perhaps, Danny had taken all the strain of his creation. It wasn't a thought that Echo liked.

He preferred to think about how to mess with the Fentons. And Valerie. Why did Valerie have to go and do something like that, anyway?

Wondering what the other shadow would look like when it was fully formed was also a good distraction. Like Danny, probably. Like Echo. Its face was well hidden, though, behind its arms and those of the chair, so Echo couldn't tell for sure.

He watched the hair grow in, soft and snowy. It grew longer than Danny's. Longer than Echo's. It was cut differently, too, square and even on the bottom, with bangs. Echo stood up, and stepped towards the other chair. He frowned as he realized that the cut wasn't all that different from Maddie's. He leaned down, to rub a few strands between his fingers. Almost immediately, he was distracted by how soft and silky it was. He ran a hand through his own hair, in comparison. It wasn't quite the same. He buried his hand in the other shadow's hair, smiling. It wasn't quite like Danny's either, but this was nice. Very nice. He hummed.

Then the shadow stirred. It wasn't a shiver. Echo withdrew his hand and stepped back, giving the other shadow some space. After a couple of minutes, the new shadow managed to wrench itself into a sitting position, breathing heavily, trying to get used to the whole 'having lungs' thing, its eyes still screwed shut.

“Hello,” said the new shadow.

“Hi,” said Echo. The connection they shared through the lair wasn't perfect. Some communication was necessary. “How is it?”

Very slowly, the other shadow opened his eyes. They were ice blue from lid to lid, with a slightly darker area in the center suggesting iris and pupil. He blinked, and one eye dripped, a thick, pastel tear running down the side of his face. He reached one hand up to touch the tear, smearing his cheek with the color. He squinted at it, his eyes luminous slits.

“There appear to be some flaws,” said the shadow, finally. He smiled up at Echo, eyes still narrow. “Not bad for a first time, though, hm?”

“Practice makes perfect,” agreed Echo. “We should get you clothes. Also, a name.”

“It will be the first thing they ask,” said the shadow, standing. He blinked, and another bit of eye oozed out over his lower lashes.

“I think there are some glasses around. Somewhere.”

“That might help.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 33: Prove Me Wrong

.

Astraea Iustitia knocked on her mother's door. Once, twice, three times. The door creaked open, and Astraea stepped, unfazed, into the pitch-black room.

She was, like her mother, and most of her family, blind.

She could hear the rustle of paper, the scrape of stone tablets, the swish of fabric, the tap tap tap of her mother's fingers on her desk. This was more than enough for her to navigate the room. More than enough for her to picture her mother in her chiton and himation, her sword and scales resting on the table, head propped up by one of her four slender arms, ends of her blindfold barely brushing the table.

“Mother,” she said, thereby announcing her presence.

“Astraea,” said the woman, tilting her head up, and leaning back in her chair. “What brings you to my office this afternoon.”

“I have a case you'll want to take a look at.” She offered the woman a sheaf of papers.

The woman took the papers, and ran a finger down the first page, frowning. “An act of murder committed by humans? You know we don't prosecute those.”

“Look at the victim, the method. I think you'll change your mind.”

A moment of near silence. “Their own child? In such a way? Your witness is reliable?”

“I believe so. But that is what a trial is for, is it not?”

.

.

.

Danny walked out of the bathroom, wearing clean clothes, still shaking water from his hair, towel in his hand. He felt a bit better now. (He'd say a bit more human, but overall he doubted that was a good thing.)

So the next thing to do was breakfast. Then, gathering supplies for the journey. He doubted that leaving his lair would be straightforward, even with the wisps guiding them, not to mention after leaving his lair. (His lair was safe). The Ghost Zone could be dangerous. Deadly. There wasn't going to be too much human-edible food just lying around in the Zone either.

As he walked towards the kitchen, he peeked into each of the rooms, checking on his sleeping classmates. The rooms were nice. If the lair opened up somewhere convenient, he might invite some of his friends here.

He didn't see his father, though, or Mr Lancer. He didn't see Tucker either. Surely he had emerged from the other bathroom at this point. So where-?

Danny reached the larger, open room, and had his question answered before it was fully formed. Mr Lancer was sleeping on the couch. Jack was sleeping in an armchair. Tucker was in the kitchen, frowning at the label on a jar. He looked up as Danny padded in.

“Hey, man,” said Tucker, quietly. “You feeling better?”

“A little. What are you doing?”

“Thinking of breakfast. Do you have any meat in here?”

“Not that I saw yesterday,” said Danny.

“Darn. I guess I knew that, though. Well. I was thinking of doing some cinnamon toast.”

Danny curled his lip. He didn't like toast. It was just so dry. And scratchy. He leaned around Tucker's shoulder to read the label on the jar. He frowned. “You don't want to put that on it,” he said.

“Why, isn't this cinnamon?”

“That's cumin, dude.”

“Oh, gross.”

“You have to learn how to read cursive, Tucker.”

“You need to stop writing in cursive.”

Danny paused. “These...” He lowered his voice even more, glancing at his sleeping father. “This is my handwriting, isn't it?”

“Yeah. Didn't you notice?”

“No. Not really,” said Danny, troubled. “You don't think that anyone else did, do you?” The way he emphasized the word 'else' indicated that he meant people who weren't on team phantom.

“I think Lancer might've, but, you know, he didn't see them until after, so, yeah.”

Danny stared at the label for a few more minutes. “Let's do French toast instead,” said Danny. French toast was, in Danny's opinion, the only acceptable kind of toast.

“Sure. We have eggs?”

“Yeah. Let me get them.”

The smell of food slowly drew the others to the main room. Tucker was eating as they went. Danny hoped that no one minded having breakfast twice in a row, but he wasn't the best at cooking, and breakfast was easy. They could have just done cereal or oatmeal or something like that, though. There were plenty of cereals here. Also oatmeal. Also raisins. Also cinnamon. Raisins and cinnamon were necessary for a good bowl of oatmeal, in Danny's opinion. They were also relatively unlikely to animate when exposed to ectoplasm, unlike sausage. Or most things in the Fenton household.

“Thank you for cooking us breakfast, Daniel, Mr Foley,” said Mr Lancer. There was a smattering of half-hearted agreement.

“No problem,” said Danny. “Um,” he said, “we should probably talk about what we're going to do next, though. Like, we should carry as much food with us as possible, because we don't know how long it'll be until we can get more, and stuff like that...”

Thankfully, Danny did not have to micromanage the preparations. Mr Lancer went camping and hiking frequently as a hobby, and Maddie had survival training. (So did Jack, but. Well. Jack.)

Things were going well. Of course they had to go wrong.

Danny wasn't sure what started it, but he became aware of what was happening pretty quickly. It was hard not to, although several people somehow managed it.

“-think I'm gonna take crap from you, Swamp-boy, just 'cause we're lost-”

“Back off, Dash!”

“Mr Baxter! Let go of Mr Marsh immediately!”

“And what are you doing about all of this, Lancer? Huh? We're just running around, following this freak,” he gestured at Danny. “How do we know he isn't lying about working with Phantom? I haven't seen any proof!”

“Jeez, Dash, you think Danny just magically knows how to speak that weird ghost language?” Ricky pulled his shirt out of the larger boy's hands. “Grow a brain al-!”

Dash took a swing at Ricky. It didn't connect. It didn't connect because Danny was there.

“The hell, freak?!” demanded Dash.

Danny touched his lip where it had split. It came away bloody. He licked it. It was salty, but under the salt there was the sweet-sour-spicy tang of ectoplasm.

“Woooow.”

Danny turned his head so quickly that he put a crick in it. Out of the corners of his eyes, he saw a few other people rubbing their necks, so he knew he wasn't alone.

A boy was sitting on the counter, leaning back on the palms of his hands. He looked a lot like Danny, actually, except for the white hair and green eyes, and a half dozen or so smaller details. He wore a black, zip-up, hooded sweatshirt, and a white t-shirt. His jeans were faded black, and his boots were thick-soled and steel-toed.

“Stay back, kids!” shouted Jack, interposing himself between the boy and the class.

Many of the students backed up uncertainly. Danny noted that Sam, Tucker, and Jazz seemed unconcerned. Mr Lancer also stayed put, although he was visibly nervous.

Maddie stepped forward a knife held in her hand. Since when was she holding that?!

“Shadow,” said Maddie, “what do you want?”

“And- what? If I don't tell you, you'll stab me? Again? In case you hadn't noticed, it didn't really work the first time.” Maddie only glared. The boy shrugged. “First off, I explicitly said that 'Shadow' wasn't my name. Call me Echo. As for why I'm here...” His eyes drifted lazily to Dash. “I'm kind of curious as to what you think you're doing. I mean, are you an idiot?”

“Don't talk to him, Dash,” instructed Maddie.

Echo rolled his eyes. “Please. You think that I haven't heard everything you people have been saying. But back to the topic at hand. Dashiel Baxter. What are you doing hitting someone here? I mean, even you must have noticed how much he- Excuse me. How much Phantom objects to people being hurt. He does spend a copious amount of time making sure that it doesn't happen, after all. Then you have what happened to Madeline Camilla Fenton when she decided to menace my friends, here.” A pair of wisps alighted on his shoulder, as if to make his point. “So, I'm just wondering what you thought would happen if you did hit Richard Marsh. Here. In this place which, you have been told, more or less explicitly, caters to Phantom's needs and desires, regardless of social niceties or inhibitions.”

Dash spluttered incoherently.

“Then again, I suppose that you weren't thinking at all, were you?” Echo vanished, then reappeared directly in front of Dash. In a moment, the taller boy was on the ground, his arm bent painfully behind him. “Do say otherwise, I would love to be proven wrong.”

It was not, Danny was ashamed to admit, not Dash's cry of pain that shook him out of his stupor and spurred him to action, but his parents' purposeful movement towards Echo and Dash.

“Stop!” he shouted, arm stretched towards Echo. The boy smiled up at him, as if he knew exactly what was going through Danny's head, and, Danny realized, he very well might. Danny didn't know enough about lairs and shadows to be able to say one way or another.

In a single, fluid motion, Echo released Dash, stood, and was behind Danny. He put his hands on Danny's shoulders, and rotated him to face his parents. His right hand lightly grasped the outside of Danny's right shoulder, but the left was tight against Danny's neck, his index finger outstretched, resting gently against Danny's carotid.

Danny's breathing became shallow. His head tilted back, both to follow the direction of that outstretched finger, and to rest his head against Echo's shoulder. His eyes unfocused ever so slightly. He felt himself relax, almost unwillingly, his muscles going ever-so-slightly limp. This was different. Surprising. Different. Good? Maybe. Hopefully it wouldn't be bad-different, like so many of the other changes his life had suffered thus far.

It was like Echo was borrowing his will, which wasn't an entirely ludicrous preposition.

He wondered if Echo would still be taller than him if he wasn't wearing combat boots.

Danny blinked, eyes still refusing to focus. He was vaguely aware that a- He hesitated to call it a conversation, when the tone of it was so venomous and vitriolic- was going on. He gave up on his eyes as a lost cause, he was only looking at the ceiling anyway, and redirected his attention towards his ears.

“-if you hate ghosts more that you love your children,” Echo was saying.

“Those two things are entirely unrelated,” said Maddie, sharply.

“Be careful what you say,” Echo half-sung the words. “He's listening now. And what do you mean, 'unrelated?' Do you have any idea how often his life has been endangered by your inventions? How often he has almost lost his life? And your daughter, hounding her because you thought that she might be a ghost. Going after her with nets and guns. Did you think she had died?” Echo paused. “You intend to answer any of these questions? Hm?”

“We don't answer to you, ghost,” said Jack.

“Perhaps not,” agreed Echo. “But don't you think that you owe him one? At least?” Echo's finger tapped gently against the side of Danny's neck. Danny's breath hitched in his throat, and black spots danced across his vision. Spots that contained spots that, oddly, looked like what Danny imagined Echo was seeing right now.

This was officially weird. Even by Danny's standards. He wondered what quirk of ghostly (or, as the case may be, hybrid) physiology was making him react like this. Similarity between their physical makeup and ectosignature causing Danny's brain to conflate signals from echo with signals from his own ghostly body? Echo's lack of a core? Danny's core damage? The lair bond? Something else entirely?

“Let Danny go, or we'll-”

“Or you'll what?” asked Echo, his laugh the radiance of sun on broken ice. “Even with little Miss Red there and her bag of tricks, there isn't anything you can do to me. I'm not real after all. Speaking of, I think that she still owes all of you an explanation herself.” Danny felt him lean forward, so that his cheek ever so slightly brushed Danny's ear. “But first, I want you to answer at least one thing for me. Do you love your children more than you hate ghosts?”

“Of course we do!” exclaimed Jack, angrily.

Echo leaned in farther, and adjusted his right arm, so that he supported Danny more securely. Suddenly, Danny was no longer looking up, at the ceiling, but over towards his parents. Danny blinked uncertainly at the teal and orange blurs. Then Echo tilted his head so that his face rested against Danny's. Danny could feel the way the muscles in his face moved as his expression shifted. A tiny, surprised, sound escaped from Danny's throat.

“I don't believe you,” said Echo.

“Why you-” The orange blur moved towards Danny.

“Ah, ah, ah!” chided Echo, sliding his left hand up Danny's neck. Danny was very glad that Echo was holding him up, because his legs were feeling very week. “I don't think you want to do that. You know what, I'll give you a chance to prove me wrong. Let's play a little game. Okay? If either of you two can become a ghost, I'll let Danny go. If not...” Echo's hand tightened slightly around Danny's throat. It was a good thing that Danny didn't need quite as much air as a normal human. “I like Danny. I think that he'd make a better ghost than he makes a human.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 34: Should Have Spoken

.

“You... Want us to kill ourselves?”

“No, no. You can't become a ghost from suicide. It doesn't work that way. I'll take care of that part. Besides, you just dying wouldn't satisfy me at all. I want you to become ghosts. Prove that you love him more than you hate ghosts. Prove it. Or else.”

“But-” said Ricky. “Your boss is in Danny! If you hurt him-”

“My 'boss?' You mean Phantom, I assume? That just gives me another motive. You can't get stuck overshadowing a corpse, after all. Now, choose.”

Danny's vision snapped back into focus. He wanted to see this. He wanted to know. He wanted... He wanted... He saw the hesitation on their faces. No. Maybe he didn't want to know.

“Too far,” he croaked.

Echo froze, not even breathing. Then he sighed, his cold breath tickling Danny's cheek and nose. “You think so, huh?” Then he turned a little, briefly nuzzling Danny's neck. Then he licked Danny, right along the jawline.

Danny jerked away, and glared at Echo, although Echo kept a hold on him. “The heck?”

“In my defense, I have no impulse control.”

Slowly, and very reluctantly, Echo let go of Danny, took a few steps back, flickered, and reappeared several feet away. Danny, for his part, felt like he had just run a mile. The sudden loss of sensation was a shock.

Echo smiled at the class, eyes almost shut, then tilted his head slightly, and said, “Consider this a warning, okay? I've been pretty lenient so far. I want you all to get along.” His eyes drifted to Dash, then Valerie. “All of you. Oh, and Danny? Your shoes are under the bed.”

He vanished.

“Danny, sweetheart, are you okay?” This was Danny's mother. She seemed hesitant to approach. Danny vaguely remembered yelling at her last time she had tried to touch him.

“Dunno,” said Danny. He blinked. “Just surprised, I guess.” His eyes flicked between Maddie and Jack. The question was at the tip of his tongue: Would you have let me die? It didn't matter that Echo's threats were utterly empty, less than smoke, less than fog, nothing more than a play of mirrors. He had to ask. He couldn't. He looked away.

Sam walked up to Danny, patted him on the back, and gave Maddie and Jack a glare that could curdle milk. She was rapidly joined by Tucker and Jazz, and it was rather ridiculous, all of them trying to touch him. Heartwarming. Awkward. Ridiculous. A person could only take so much. (Danny wanted more.)

“Why did he keep bringing up the Red Huntress?” asked Danny, in a transparent attempt to turn attention away from him.

It worked, with all (almost all) heads swiveling to Valerie.

Danny, for his part, didn't listen to Valerie's stuttered attempt at an explanation (She was worse at this than he was. What was up with that?), and instead opted to sink to the floor.

“So,” he said quietly, “you guys didn't seem to be as surprised about Echo as I would have thought.”

“Yeah,” said Tucker. “He kind of showed up last night while you were asleep.”

“Really? That explains that dream.” He rubbed his shoulder. “Did he get stabbed?”

“Yes,” said Jazz. “Mom stabbed him.”

“Why?”

“Your guess is as good as ours,” said Sam.

“Yes! Fine!” shouted Valerie, suddenly. “I had a truce with him! So what? He was possessing Danny!”

“What do you mean, 'so what?' You can't just break a promise like that! Besides, it sounds like Danny was okay with it. Right, Danny?”

“Huh?” said Danny, as everyone turned back towards him. “Oh. Yes. It wasn't like it was his fault, anyway.” He was a bit surprised that Mia was the one leading the charge. He had expected Paulina to take a running leap off of the deep end, she was so obsessed with Phantom that it was almost ghostly, but apparently the 'more timid' personalities of the class had preempted her.

In Danny's opinion, this was great.

“He's still possessing Danny! You don't know what Phantom's making him say.”

“No one is making me say anything,” said Danny, irritated by this being brought up once again. “And before you start, Echo wasn't going to hurt me.”

“Danny,” said Maddie gently. “Surely you can see-”

“His goal was to get a rise out of you. He's not allowed to hurt anyone here either.”

“What about me then?” whined Dash.

Danny glared at him. “You opened the door for that by trying to hit Ricky.”

“Danny, he hurt you.”

“Did he?”

Maddie frowned. “I might not always be the most attentive person in the world,” she said, “but I can tell when there's something wrong with you.”

“Can you?” asked Danny, ice creeping into his tone. “Really? I would never have noticed.” He put his hand over his chest defensively.

“You didn't fight him, Danny,” pressed Maddie. “Your eyes went blank. You went limp. I know that you wouldn't do that normally if someone suddenly grabbed you.”

“I know,” said Danny, shortly. “I have a slowly starving ghost trapped in my body. If you think that isn't going to come with side effects you're in denial.”

“You knew-?”

“No. I didn't know. It isn't like I've had to deal with this exact situation before. I'm just not surprised.” Danny rubbed an eye. “Look, if nothing else,” please, nothing else, “Echo's right about one thing: He's been pretty lenient with us. There are a lot of ghosts that probably would have killed us for what we've done. For just being here.” He shivered.

“That's exactly what we've been trying to tell you, Danny. Ghosts are-”

Stop it,” snapped Danny. “Unless the door out opens up right on top of our portal, and I'm pretty sure I would have noticed that, or Phantom would have mentioned it, then you're going to have to interact with ghosts without insulting them with every other sentence, and without attacking them unless they have a hostage. You, too, Valerie. You might as well get used to it.” Danny got back to his feet. “I'm going to go... do what I was doing.” He gestured vaguely to one side. Something to do with food? Getting food for traveling. Right. “You guys can keep on pestering Valerie, or whatever.”

That got things back on track, this time with Hannah haranguing Valerie about Area 51 and whether or not ghosts were actually aliens. Danny wondered if Hannah just made things up to mess with people, or if she was serious. Not that it mattered in this case. The truth, that Valerie had been given her suit by a half ghost to harass another half ghost, and when that first suit had been destroyed she had gotten another one from a full ghost, was way weirder than anything Hannah could come up with.

Hannah's tirade about the government (somehow) segued neatly into the nerds' inquiries about the suit's technology, which, in turn, finally captured Jack and Maddie's interest enough for Danny and his friends to slip away, unnoticed, to a quiet space.

Or so they thought.

.

.

.

Maddie watched Danny, Jazz, and their friends retreat to the balcony.

She knew that something was very wrong with her son. She knew that he had been hurt, somehow, between being at school and now. She didn't understand why he wouldn't talk to her.

No. That wasn't right. She did know. She hadn't been a good mother. She'd been too caught up in her work to notice even the most basic things about her children. To caught up to notice when Phantom had come into their lives. Jack was guilty of the same, but, well, Jack couldn't help it. Maddie was supposed to be the perceptive one. The sensitive one.

That's why she had been trying to give Danny his space. Her children clearly didn't trust her anymore, but she had hoped that, by showing them how much she cared, how vigorously she would defend them from any threat, she could regain their trust. But that seemed to have backfired.

She was a terrible mother.

Why did that ghost... She paused mentally. Should she make an effort to meet Danny... or Phantom... halfway? It... He had called himself Echo. Why did Echo have to ask that question? Of course anyone would be hesitant to agree to die... and become something they hated.

Oh, god, she really was horrible. She should have agreed immediately, what was she thinking? That... Echo was right about her.

Now, here she was, still avoiding her children. Listening to this nonsense.

(It was very interesting, though.)

She looked up at her husband, who was animatedly interrogating a flustered Valerie. He wasn't very good at picking up social cues, or being focused, but she could see a hollowness in his movements, an emptiness in his eyes, which flicked frequently towards the four insular teens who gathered by the balcony.

Maddie steeled herself. Clearly, her 'give them space' method wasn't working. She had to say something, do something, before she lost them entirely.

She extracted herself from the group around Valerie (and, really, it sounded like Valerie needed some parental help herself, but it wasn't like Maddie was in a position to give it), and walked slowly over to where her children were standing.

“... suicidal, Jazz.”

“So why did...” she lowered her voice, “... strangle...”

“... didn't actually... He just resents Mom and Dad. I know... problems... that isn't... them.”

“If you... so.” Maddie missed the next few words. “... better as a ghost?”

Danny sighed. “... sounds like. It goes both ways being... better human and being human... Like I said, I have a lot of problems, but... I like myself okay.”

“Alright... just worried... you.”

Maddie realized belatedly that eavesdropping on her children was not the way to regain their trust. All the same, it was good to know that Jazz didn't completely trust Echo either.

Maddie took a deep breath, intending to use her next words to get the children's attention, but Danny flinched and turned to face her, eyes wide.

“Mom?” he asked, no longer whispering. His voice was uneven, uncertain. “Are you... Is something wrong?”

“Danny I-” she didn't know what to say. “I'm so sorry. I'm so... You're right.”

Danny blinked, surprise evident on his face. “Uh. Cool. About?”

“About what we're going to have to do to get home. I've been... naive about our situation... and... Oh, Danny. I'm so sorry. I should have answered faster and I-”

“Mom, Mom, it's fine, he was being unreasonable and it just- He went way too far.” He was wringing his hands now.

“But it's our fault he even exists to do this. It's our fault we're even here... Oh, Danny.”

“It's- I...” Danny trailed off, hands still drawn defensively inward.

“And, Danny, Jazz, I- Did I- did we-?”

“Did we ever hurt you, Danny?”

Maddie hadn't even noticed Jack come up behind her. His voice was deep and sorrowful. Except for Paulina, Tiffanie, Dash, Dale, and Star (who was defending her erstwhile best friend from the others), everyone had turned away from Valerie. Family drama was, apparently, more entertaining.

“I- You- I-” Danny bit his lower lip, hard, dislodging the tentative scab that had formed over the split that Dash had given him. “You didn't mean to,” he said finally. He was crying (so was Maddie). “I know you didn't mean to.”

“Oh, my baby. Oh, Danny I'm so, so sorry. You must think that we- That I'm a terrible person. That I'm a terrible mother. You must hate us.”

“No!” said Danny, reaching out towards them. He was crying even harder now. “I don't hate you. I don't hate you. I love you. Please-”

He was clinging to her now. Jazz came up behind him, more hesitant. Jack embraced all three of them.

“We'll change, sweetheart,” said Maddie. “We'll change, I promise.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 35: Extra

.

“Okay,” snapped Sam, annoyed. “What the hell are you all looking at?” She interposed herself between the Fentons and the crowd, and glared at her classmates, even managing to spare an especially dirty look for Mr Lancer. Weren't adults supposed to be more perceptive about these things? Not that she had seen any evidence of that. “Don't you have other things to do? Productive things. I mean, you do want to get home eventually, right?”

Chastised, most of the students moved off. Most. Paulina, Tiffanie, Dash, Dale, Star, and Valerie were still wrapped up in their dispute. Sam was pretty sure that they hadn't even noticed what was going on with the Fentons. Jeez, they were self-centered.

Mr Lancer, on the other hand, approached her. He leaned down, keeping his eyes on the Fentons, to quietly ask her, “Are you sure this is... wise?”

“Honestly? I have no idea. But trying to stop Danny would be a bad idea.” She glanced backwards, to where Jazz had subtly inserted herself between Danny and their parents. “Danny's an emotional wreck right now. I don't think that Echo... Ugh. I don't know.”

“Was he really going to hurt Daniel?”

“Not a chance. Danny's got problems, but self-harm isn't one of them. I think that the point of that stunt was to get closure, that he really wanted an answer to that question, but Danny backed out. I think he still wants an answer.”

“Do you think that this is going to happen again?”

“I really hope not. I don't think this is healthy.”

“But..?”

“But this isn't about what Danny consciously wants. Look. Talk to Jazz. I'm not a psychologist.”

.

.

.

Echo, invisible, watched the unfolding events. He wasn't sure he liked them.

So what if Maddie promised? You couldn't trust human promises. They weren't worth the breath they were spoken with. And Echo didn't need to breathe. (Sam, Tucker, and Jazz didn't count. They were the best. When they promised something, they meant it.)

He frowned. Thinking. Something about that... Something about promises. Something he had overheard... Something Sam had said, perhaps? He thumbed through his memories. It was easy, he didn't even have a weeks worth.

His face lit up as he found the moment in time that he was looking for.

Before leaving to explore this newly remembered possibility, he closely examined the Jack and Madeline. He wasn't about to leave Danny with them if there was even the slightest possibility that they had retained or attained a weapon. He then cast an appraising eye at Valerie. She still had her suit, but she was off limits. For now.

The refrigerator room was just as cold as it had been yesterday. Echo glanced around the room, and then peered behind a large jug of milk. There it was. The pomegranate that he hadn't eaten.

.

.

.

After a hearty lunch (soup, courtesy of Rebecca and Kwan, who'd taken the culinary arts elective for the past two years), they finally, finally, set off. Down and in and away across the stairs.

Danny was already completely exhausted. Honestly, he was considering the merits of Sam's 'hate everyone' approach. Even though he knew that was basically a stylistic choice, lacking any substance. (He knew better than to suggest this to Sam. She considered shallowness of any kind to be a sin. Yes, she was a little hypocritical. Danny loved her anyway.)

Despite his exhaustion, however, he was leading the procession. The (mostly) human part of it, anyway. There were wisps scouting ahead of them. Danny carried Leader in his arms, and another pair of wisps rested on his shoulders. Dozens of smaller, pin-head- to penny-sized, wisps nested in his hair, others, in his clothes. His pockets were full of the little ghosts.

They were lucky they were so light.

Jerks.

Although, thanks to them, he had managed to beg off carrying anything more heavy.

He still had no idea why they wanted so badly to be close to him. The Amity Park wisps acted similarly, when no one else was watching, but he hadn't been able to interpret their answer. Maybe it was untranslatable. Maybe they were just being coy. Maybe the reason was sinister, or embarrassing.

For now though... He hugged Leader more tightly, and the smaller ghost wriggled and purred.

.

.

.

“But do you think it's possible?”

The other shadow closed his book with a snap and glared at Echo. Probably. It was hard to tell, between the thick glasses, the very nearly uniform color of the eyes, and the glow. “What part of 'I have the same information as you,' do you not understand? Are we really this neurotic?”

“You're supposed to be the smart one,” replied Echo, “and you have all these books.”

“If I'm the smart one, what are you supposed to be? You're acting like one of those crazy-obsessed manga characters.”

“We're ghosts.”

“Don't give me that, you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, and you know it's just an act. Mostly. I just want him to be safe. I don't want them to hurt him again.”

The other shadow sighed. “I know. I get it,” he said. “But that doesn't change the fact that I don't have any special knowledge. I don't know what you expect me to do.”

“But the books, shouldn't there be something in one of them? I mean, these are mostly GZ publications, right? Obsessed authors chucking their books into every lair they come across?”

“Yes. That's true. What's also true is that all of these are in alphabetical order by title because we couldn't be bothered to actually figure out a logical system. Except for the left side, which is arranged by color. Why did we do that anyway?”

“Aesthetics, probably. It's near the balcony.”

“That makes sense. But my point is that trying to find a useful book on the subject would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Even I don't know what most of these are about. And they're going to be here any minute now.” The shadow ran a nervous hand through his hair, tucking it behind one ear.

“They're at least an hour off. Even if they ran.”

The shadow groaned.

“Give me your opinion, at least.”

“Fine.” The shadow licked his lips and adjusted his glasses. “I've got to wonder if this was some kind of subconscious self-sabotage.”

“Huh?”

“My eyes. The glasses. If I'm really supposed to be the 'smart one' or the voice of reason, or whatever.”

“I wouldn't be surprised. Ask Jazz if it's really bothering you. But don't change the subject.”

“Okay. So for the most part, pomegranates are symbolic, they're used as part of a larger action, formula, or ceremony, or as a supplement. Something extra. But but they do have Stygian properties. Some of them, anyway. The problem is, we can't tell if any of the ones we have have Stygian properties, or how Stygian they are, because we're Stygian. Or at least, he is. We keep our promises.”

“So...”

“So it's possible, it's just that it'll be really hard to tell whether or not it worked. If we had water from the Styx, that would work, and I'd say go for it, but unless you know something I don't...” The shadow shrugged. “On the other hand, you can use it as a kind of placebo. Tell them that it'll bind them to whatever promise they make, and if they don't go through with it, then we'll know we can't trust them, and if they do, then we know that they're at least trying.” The shadow frowned. “Or that they've seen through us. Either way.”

“You mean lie to them?”

“Don't sound so scandalized. You've been lying.”

“No I haven't!”

“You told them that you were going to kill Danny.”

“No, I implied that I was going to kill Danny. I never said I would. All I said was 'or else' and that Danny would be better as a ghost. And you call yourself the smart one.”

“Would he be better as a ghost, though?”

“It's a matter of opinion.”

“I suppose. Actually, a thought just occurred to me. Go see if you can find any more pomegranates, and meet me in the workshop.” The shadow disappeared.

“Oh, come on, don't leave me hanging like that! What's the thought?!”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 36: Katabasis

.

“Danny,” said Maddie.

“Hm?”

“Danny, don't you think that we should take a break?”

Danny stopped and looked back. They had only been walking for an hour or so. Maybe an hour and a half. For the past twenty or so minutes, there hadn't even been any stairs, and the wisps had been avoiding the more vertigo-inducing 'impossible' areas. They were in a wide, Grecian-styled corridor, that had a row of round fountains down the center. Many of the fountains, to Danny's amusement, contained a thin layer of coins on their bottoms.

Really, the more he saw of his lair, the more pleased he was by it. Beyond simple aesthetic appeal and comfort, it was so labyrinthine and unsettling that a would-be invader might be defeated by architecture alone.

“I guess a break would be okay,” said Danny, once he realized that he had been staring blankly at his mother for the past several seconds. He sat down heavily on the edge of a fountain, enjoying the cool spray.

Leader whistled up at him. Danny looked down, and hummed inquisitively. Leader sang back.

“He says we're about halfway there.”

“To the door?” asked Rebecca excitedly.

“No. To the next, um. Nice place to rest.” He hummed a quick question, and Leader responded in kind. “They aren't entirely sure how far it is to the door. They don't go there very often, and-” Danny frowned. Had he heard that correctly? “And there's actually another clan living in that area?”

“What?”

“A different family group of wisps. They're from the same tribe, though, it sounds like...” Danny trailed off. “It doesn't really matter.” He freed a hand to rub the back of his neck. “Actually probably be better, they'll know the area better...” He trailed off, gazing up at the painted ceiling. Were those frescoes? They were nice.

“Hey, Danny,” said Jazz. “Are you feeling okay? You're all flushed.”

“I'm fine,” mumbled Danny, holding more tightly to Leader.

Sam sat down next to him. “You use that line so often that I'm almost certain that you don't know what it means.” She put her hand on his forehead, and frowned. “You're a little warm,” she said.

“Is he?” asked Maddie. She put her own hand on Danny's head, he flinched back, but stilled himself. “Hm. I think that you might actually be a bit cool.”

Ah. That wasn't good. He should definitely be cool. In both senses of the word. He probably did have a fever, compared to his normal temperature, which was just short of hypothermic.

Maybe he'd take a cold shower. Or a cold bath.

“See? I told you I was fine.”

“Before you were telling me that not expecting side effects from being possessed-”

“Overshadowed.”

“-was delusional. Tell the truth, Danny.”

Danny's eyes darted from Maddie, to Sam, to Jazz. He looked at Tucker who was examining his PDA as if he had never seen it before. No help there.

Sam and Jazz could have at least waited until they had a private moment. Really. He couldn't say, 'Oh, just, y'know, my core acting up, no longer really working with my body's homostasis, and I'm worried that the ectoplasmic constructs in my body might be breaking down or damaged. But, I mean, that's to be expected, what with everything that's been done to it recently.' That somehow managed to sound crazy even when he knew what was going on.

“I- I guess I'm kinda sore,” he said. He ignored a snide remark from Dash. “Tired, too. But everyone is, right? Um. A little dizzy, I suppose. Like when you stand up too fast.”

“You mean low blood pressure?” asked Maddie.

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Is that what happened when Echo,” she said the name with extreme reluctance, “grabbed you?”

Time for some creative lying! Yay! Not. He decided that he wasn't talking to either Sam or Jazz for putting him in this position. Then, he immediately decided that was too mean, and that he should be passive aggressive instead. But he wasn't very good at that. He always forgot what he was doing. Maybe he should just be mad at them.

He still needed a lie.

“Not really. It was more like, I couldn't move?” Argh, don't say it like it's a question! “I think that it might have been Phantom trying to wake up, but he couldn't.” Get the hint, Jazz, Sam.

“Really?” asked Maddie, clearly getting sidetracked by scientific curiosity. “Why do you think that is?”

“I don't know,” said Danny. “But if that's what it was, I'm kinda hoping that he doesn't do it again until we can fix this.”

Maddie frowned, clearly concerned. “You kids were telling the truth about there being things at home that can fix this?”

“Yeah. But depending on where we come out of here,” Danny indicated the lair, “there may be some ghosts that can help nearby, or on our way or whatever. Really, Mom. I'd prefer this not to last any longer than it has to, and I'm pretty sure that you feel the same way. If we're lucky, they can help us get back home, too, so there's that.”

Maddie nodded once, unhappily.

“I think we should keep going,” said Danny, standing back up.

.

.

.

Operation Katabasis had been approved.

FentonWorks was surrounded by white tape, white tents, and quarantine equipment. The two houses to either side of FentonWorks had been similarly commandeered, as had the backyard and across the street neighbors. Field agents and scientists had been pouring into the buildings for hours, as had weapons, tools, rations, body armor and vehicles. The Specter Speeder had been considered, but it wasn't regulation. It, most of the Fenton inventions, and all available Fenton blueprints had been shipped to GIW headquarters.

There would be three groups in the expedition.

The one which would carry out Operation Katabasis' official, publicly avowed, mission would be called Team Orpheus. Their job was escorting the students and their teacher back home. These men would proudly wear the GIW uniform whites.

The second team, which had the putative duty of scouting and providing an extra screen for Team Orpheus and their charges, was called Team Eurydice. These men would wear camouflage, and carried powerful weapons which could injure, incapacitate, and even kill humans. The true task of these men was to prevent the Fentons from returning to Earth.

The third team was to be called Team Inanna. Officially, it was to be a small exploratory force, available to be detached in case the students had been separated from one another. Nothing special. The only interesting thing about it had been the argument about its name. One of the GIW brass had delusions of Greek-ness, and had insisted on a Greek name, as with the other two teams, but he had been overruled by a higher-ranked individual who wanted to follow the theme of katabasis.

Unofficially...

These were the best GIW agents available. The cream of the crop. They hated ghosts, despised them with every fiber of their beings. Many of them had lost family members and loved ones to possessions and hauntings. They were willing, more than willing, to give up their lives to finally destroy the undead menace that was the Ghost Zone.

The weapon they carried with them had been made from the tortured, starved remnants of a level nine ghost, blood-blossoms, ectoranium gathered from a meteorite that had struck somewhere in Russia decades before, space-age materials, and the ingenuity of generations of GIW scientists and engineers. It was called Project Ophiotaurus in paperwork, but the good men and women of Team Inanna called it the Bomb.

It was a weapon suitable for shaking loose the foundations of reality. It was a weapon that could kill gods. A weapon that could defeat Death himself if he dared show his face. Team Inanna would feel confident storming heaven with such a weapon in their hands.

It was more than sufficient to destroy hell.

Operation Katabasis was a go.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 37: Fractal

.

Danny was not expecting a library. He wasn't a very studious person, nor a great reader, his status as a polyglot, and as a massive space nerd aside... Okay, yeah, that didn't sound realistic even to him. Still. Libraries were more Jazz's thing. He had thought the number of books in the bedrooms had been impressive. It was just... Where did they all come from? They couldn't have all fallen through natural portals. There were too many.

The way the tall shelves grew into trees did explain why the wisps considered the place a good resting spot. Wisps liked forests and wooded areas. He hoped that there were human-suitable rest areas as well. Other than the armchairs, which did look very nice. Still, they weren't really the kind of thing that you'd want to sleep on. At least, not for more than a cat nap.

The wisps were still leading the way, though, so they must have some other area in mind.

There was a noise, like a muffled protest. Danny turned. That didn't sound like it came from any of his classmates, or one of the adults.

“Did you guys hear that?”

Before anyone could reply, a white-haired figure stumbled out from behind a bookshelf, tripped over its own feet, and fell, face-planting on the mossy floor. Everyone stared as the person laid face-down on the floor for several seconds. Suddenly, the figure leaped up, covered his face, shouted, “No, no, no, I messed up, let me try again,” and then retreated back behind the bookshelf.

Everyone stared.

“That was a different one,” observed Sarah.

“Was it?” asked Mia, squinting. She had taken her remaining contact out last night.

“Yeah, this one had different clothes,” said Sarah.

“He could have changed. It isn't that hard,” interjected Tiffanie.

“Yeah, but his hair was different,” said Hannah.

“Stop pushing me!” came a voice from behind the bookshelves. “I'll go out when I'm ready!”

“Isn't this your thing, though?” asked another voice. “Like, why you exist? The whole less intimidating, more social thi-”

“More social doesn't mean much when I'm modeled after someone totally inept. I said stop pushing me!”

“You know, we can hear you,” said Danny. He wasn't terribly amused by being called totally socially inept by someone who a) fallen on his face immediately after appearing, b) was currently hiding behind a bookshelf, and c) was technically a representation of his subconscious.

The voices fell silent, then one of them snickered. There was a sound like someone being slapped, and the snickering stopped.

The person hesitantly emerged from behind the bookshelf. His hair was straight and white, cut in a square bob. A few strands of it were braided. He wore large round glasses whose lenses glowed blue. He was wearing clothes reminiscent of those worn in the Lands of Ice, a Realm near the Far Frozen, a pale blue loose tunic and wide pants decorated with spreading-ice patterns. He wore no shoes, which made the trip earlier even more impressive.

“H-Hi,” he said, bobbing his head nervously. “Um.” He blushed bright, fluorescent green. “I-I'm, um. I'm Fractal. It's nice to meet you?”

“Who were you talking to?” asked Maddie suspiciously.

“Um. Echo. But he's not there anymore,” he added quickly. “I'm, um, I'm here to show you around. We thought that you might like it if you had someone to show you around who you could speak to? And to, you know, act as a guide? I mean, we would have had Echo do it, but that would have been a disaster, because he doesn't like you very much. You probably knew that though.” He giggled nervously. “So, uh. What do you say?”

.

.

.

Astraea had never been entirely sure how Adrestia was related to the family. The fact remained that she was. She possessed the family nose and hair, and was involved heavily in the family business, such as it was, although she had avoided the family curse of blindness. She also had four arms, but that was an exceedingly common trait among those ancient ghosts that the Ancient Greeks had called gods. Hardly worth mentioning.

Astraea knocked on the door to Adrestia's lair. The door was yanked open, Adrestia leaning on the lintel. She had her hair pulled back into a ponytail, and a pair of headphones hanging around her neck. Her clothes were tight fitting, and Astraea suspected that they were black. Her club hung heavy off her hip, and she had a can of lime soda in her left hand.

Adrestia grinned. “Well, if it isn't my favorite cousin? What brings you to my doorstep today?” She took a step back, waving Astraea in.

“It's work, I'm afraid,” said Astraea, a little sheepish.

“When isn't it?” asked Adrestia. She collapsed on the couch, while Astraea perched on an armchair. “So, who is it that you want me to drag in? Robber? Debtor? Someone who attacked the wrong person? Or a child? Or, heaven forbid, a murderer?”

“I know that things have been slow on the serious charges front lately, but, well,” she offered up the papers she was holding, “if this case pans out, that might change.”

“Oooh. So you want me to track down the perpetrators?”

“Not quite yet. I only have one witness right now. I'd like you to track down the people on page five, then, if and only if, their accounts lend credence to the initial report, the humans on pages six and seven, but only if they're on this side of the border. Remember, they're humans, and most of them are just witnesses, so be gentle. We don't want them dead and gone before they can testify.”

“But just dead is fine, huh?”

“No, Adrestia. Alive. We want them alive.”

“Uh-huh. Right. It's okay if I can bring my crew?”

Which crew?” asked Astraea suspiciously.

“The Gracious Ones. This is their thing. Family disputes, broken promises, you know.”

“If you can promise that they won't rip the suspects to shreds, then sure.”

.

.

.

Fractal lead them. A few shelves in, they had gotten to a place where there were channels for water cut in the floor. They followed the channels up to their source, a waterfall that spilled down from a raised area. The books here were arranged to form vibrant rainbows.

Jack and Maddie were less than pleased about this whole arrangement. But they were trying. For Danny and Jazz.

“Fractal?” asked Jazz. “How do you you have these organized?”

“Y-you mean the books?” said Fractal, as he lead them over a footbridge and to a set of stairs leading to the raised area. “They aren't really organized at all, really. Really. Maybe you can help me out with them sometime? I haven't had a lot of time to work with this, and some of these don't even fall into a well-defined Dewey Decimal System class. I mean, what category would you put a treatise on how certain kinds poetry can physically affect both ghosts and the Ghost Zone? Psychology? Health? Science? Religion, perhaps? Should you just make a new class? Then there's so many of them, and I just haven't had the time to read them all. I only know what a fraction of them are about!”

“I don't think so,” said Maddie coolly, before Jazz could reply. “We won't be coming back.”

Fractal looked back, tilting his head quizzically. “Is-isn't that for Jazz to decide?” He turned back around and hurried on. “We just have the stairs left!”

“Danny,” said Maddie, “do you think that this is safe? Following him, I mean.”

“As safe as following the wisps.”

“And the nervous act?”

“It isn't an act,” said Danny crossly. “He's being nice to us, be nice to him.”

They climbed the steps to the upper level. There was a series of pools there, feeding into the waterfall, surrounded by leafy, tropical plants. There were a number of small, round tables scattered around, and, farther on, several small stone cabins. A razor-thin crescent moon hung low on the horizon. All in all, it looked a bit like a resort. Except, like all the other rooms here, the cabins lacked actual doors.

Why was this next to a library?

“Hobbies,” said Jazz.

“What?” said Danny.

“You asked that out loud,” said Jazz. “He probably associates his hobbies with relaxation.”

“Oh, yeah. That makes sense,” said Danny.

“Feel free to take a swim,” called Fractal, before waving them off and disappearing into one of the houses.

A beat of silence. “He doesn't actually expect us to go swimming, does he?” asked Paulina. “We don't have swimsuits.”

“Also, there's a waterfall,” said Kwan. “That's, like, bad luck.”

.

.

.

“So,” said Echo, leaning against the cabin's inside wall. “They haven't brought it up yet.”

“No,” wailed Fractal, collapsing onto a table, “they haven't. Why is talking to other people so hard?”

“Don't ask me.”

“I don't think they like me very much,” said Fractal.

“Don't be silly. They like you. Who wouldn't like you? Except Jack and Madeline, but they're trash, so you shouldn't worry about what they think.”

“They aren't trash. And I'm trying to get them to do something, so I need them to like me.”

“Or you can just threaten them.”

“You sound like Vlad.”

Echo scowled. “I do not.”

Fractal gasped, and suddenly stood up. “The cookies.”

“Cookies aren't going to make them like you!”

.

.

.

Danny collapsed gratefully into one of the chairs, and was considering taking off his shoes and socks, and dangling his feet in the water. He was having a fantasy about it, actually. He imagined that the pool farthest from the waterfall would be hot, and that the pools would become progressively cooler as they got closer and closer to the drop-off. He knew that real streams didn't work that way. Probably. They might if there was a hot spring, he supposed. But this was his lair, and streams should work the way he wanted them to. So there.

Nathan, Lester, Ricky, and Mikey had taken up pestering Valerie for her suit's detail again. They had been doing so off and on for the entire walk. They were the only ones persistent enough to keep at it. Even Hannah had given up after a dozen or so monosyllabic answers. (Are you government funded? No. Are you a secret agent for the UN? No. Have you ever met an alien? Have you ever been to space? No. Is your suit a spacesuit? No. Danny was annoyed by the last two, because the answers were lies and he knew it.)

Ashley and Rebecca were doing that thing where they hung onto the fringes of the A-List and nodded whenever one of the A-lister said anything. They'd been doing less of that since they'd wound up in the GZ, and Danny had begun to hope that the A-list was loosing some of its customary power, but, alas, it was not to be.

Elliot was doing the same thing, but Danny hesitated to say that Elliot was 'with' anyone. The (compulsive?) liar had alienated almost everyone in the school at this point. Danny felt bad for him, but he had done it to himself. Continued to do it to himself.

The A-listers, Paulina, Tiffanie, Star, Dash, Dale, and Kwan, were in a little knot complaining. Danny supposed that he should be glad that they were now comfortable enough with their situation to be complaining, to be acting normally, after being so scared for so long, but some of their complaints were irritating. They didn't like the food. There hadn't been any soap, shampoo, or conditioner in the bathrooms. The water had been cold. The rooms had been creepy. The outside balcony that looked out over solid white mist was spooky. The stairs gave them vertigo. Paulina wasn't wearing shoes for walking. Tiffanie's hair needed to be straightened again. They missed their families.

Danny would give them the last one.

What Mia, Sarah, and Hannah were doing, however, was much more frightening. They were comparing notes. Not that they were getting anywhere. Hannah's interjections on the subject of her research into secret societies, the Bermuda Triangle, and alien abductions was more than enough to keep them from getting to any real conclusions. Bless her. Danny thanked his lucky stars that only his class had gotten sucked into the GZ. If Hannah's older cousin Wesley, who was equally invested in conspiracy theories, but much more grounded and focused on ghosts, had come along, Danny's secret would have been blown out of the water.

Mr Lancer was watching over the scene with the air of a person who would very much like to fall over, but kept themselves upright out of a sense of duty. Danny was much more familiar with that air than he would like to be.

Sam, Tucker, and Jazz were seated at the same table as Danny. Maddie and Jack, lacking chairs were standing behind them. All five of them were... Asking Danny questions? Heck. He hadn't heard a single one, and now they were staring at him with some concern.

At that moment, Fractal came back out of the cabin with a massive platter of cookies. Truly, it was remarkable. It was almost as big as he was, and Fractal was the same size as Danny. How in the world had he fit it through the door? Had he even fit it through the door? Maybe he had phased it through a wall, or teleported or something.

Yeah. That made more sense. Danny tried to recall when in his life teleporting had become a possible answer to 'how did that fit through that door?' (Before he was ten, at least, although Maddie had wisely banned the use of the teleporter in the house after it had cut the old couch in half, and it had never worked long range.) He gave up. Maybe it had always been a possible answer.

Fractal placed the cookies carefully on the nearest table and shouted, “I give you cookies!”

Everyone stared. Fractal began to fidget.

“Do you... not like cookies?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 38: Extract

.

Fractal looked utterly miserable, standing there, looking at the giant platter of cookies, trying to figure out why no one was eating them. Like a kicked puppy. The lights behind his glasses blinked slowly, sadly. Something blue and chalky ran down his cheek from behind his glasses.

Danny, who had stood up and had been slowly approaching Fractal, froze. He was convinced that the liquid was not a tear, ectoplasm infused or otherwise. There was something wrong, terribly wrong, with the shadow, and Danny hadn't the slightest idea how to help.

Fractal looked up, wiped the blue ichor off his face with a handkerchief, and smiled at Danny. “It's nothing really, but thank you for your concern.”

“Excuse me,” said Sarah, who having been much closer to begin with, had reached Fractal before Danny.

Fractal looked at her hopefully.

“It isn't that we don't like cookies,” began Sarah. “But what we'd really like is a way to get home. If you're here as a guide, could you tell us the way out?”

“I...” Fractal looked cornered. “That's...” He sighed. “I know you want to leave. I can't say that I understand it,” he continued. “But I do know it.” He looked around, teeth set on his lower lip. “Your request is more complicated than it initially seems. Perhaps you should all sit down?” suggested Fractal. “This might take some time to explain.” He gestured, and a number of wooden chairs sprouted from the ground. “In the meantime, you can have cookies!”

“Maybe it would be simpler for you,” said Maddie, a threat in her voice, “if we made it a demand: let us go.”

“No. It doesn't,” said Fractal, his voice going cold and hard. “Please, sit.”

They sat.

“How- How much do you know about Obsessions?” Fractal asked, suppressing a flinch to look directly at Jack and Maddie, and somehow managing to capitalize the last word.

“They are what drives a ghost,” said Maddie. “Any ghost. It is an unhealthy, unnatural fixation on a single, specific, person, thing, or action. Everything that a ghost does is in furtherance of their obsession.”

“That description is just correct enough to be both misleading and offensive,” said Fractal. “I mean, c-considering that you established that theory working from third-hand accounts and minute quantities of ectoplasm, it's quite impressive, but it's still not right. It's akin to saying that, uhm... I don't want to offend anyone. It's like saying that because poor communities have lower education levels, and that they have higher crime rates, and using those statistics to imply that the people in those communities are all thuggish criminals.”

“Are you trying to say that ghosts don't have obsessions?” asked Maddie, disbelief obvious in her tone and posture. “Because now that we have the portal open, we've seen clear and direct evidence of obsessions.”

“No, of course not. Evidence of obsessions are readily apparent to anyone who has encountered any but the most restrained of ghosts. What I'm trying to say is that obsessions can be more complex than you give them credit for. As a point: most sapient ghosts have more than one obsession. Actually, the more intelligent the ghost, the more obsessions they tend to have, although, generally speaking, there will be a 'primary' obsession. One that has higher priority when compared to the others.” Fractal paused. “It might be better to say, in fact, that ghosts have a primary Obsession, a set of secondary obsessions, and a general tendency to obsessive behavior.” He tapped his fingers on the table. “Ghosts are constructed quite a bit differently than a human would be. Compare a Hard Disk Drive and a Solid State Drive, they can contain the same information, but do so in somewhat different ways.” Fractal noticed the blank stares of the 'popular' segment of the class, and shook his head. “Never mind. There are physiological components of an obsession, but getting into that...” he grimaced. “Forgive me if I don't want to give you more ammunition, Dr Fenton, Dr Fenton.”

The Doctors Fenton glared.

Fractal looked away. “A-anyway, for child ghosts, not new ghosts, but child ghosts, either young Deathless and certain kinds of Neverborn or the ghosts of children, usually the obsessions are all tightly related.” Fractal interlaced his fingers. “He- Phantom- falls in this category.”

“And this is supposed to make us- what? Trust him?”

“Uh. No. That's not the point of this. I'm just trying to help you understand. A ghost's Obsession doesn't come from nowhere, you know. Not if they're one of the Dead.” He licked his lips and sighed. “This is difficult. Obsessions aren't something that you talk about except in the most general of terms. It isn't polite.” He addressed the next question to the entire group. “What do you think his- Phantom's- primary Obsession is?”

“Heroism?” asked Dash.

“Gosh, no,” said Fractal, making a face that conveyed both disgust and offense. “If that was the case, the arguments of Dr Fenton and Dr Fenton might have a leg to stand on. Ghosts can freely choose how to fulfill their obsessions. Any obsession, even one that looks malevolent can be turned to good ends. By the same token an obsession that appears entirely benevolent can become problematic. A 'heroism' obsession would be terribly prone to that. Can you imagine what would happen if the ghost attacks in Amity ever stopped? No. Try again.”

“Helping people,” said Mr Lancer.

Fractal favored the teacher with a radiant, sharp-toothed smile. “Yes. And related to that?”

“Considering what your... friend Echo said to us earlier, I would say protecting people from harm?”

“You could call him my brother, if that makes you feel more comfortable, but, yes. Now, do you start to see the issue?”

“You're saying that you can't help us find the way out, because you want to protect us by keeping us here?” asked Mikey.

“That's one facet of it. The GZ is dangerous. Beyond that, Amity is dangerous. Here you would be safe. But you're assigning me agency that I don't have. Remember, I'm no more an independent person than the chair you're sitting on. Nor can you blame this on him. Excuse me, on Phantom,” he said, cutting off Jack and Maddie. “This isn't something that he has conscious control over. These things that drive us shadows are the illogical half-formed fantasies of the id. We polish them somewhat, but there you are. Besides, I haven't finished yet.

“As I said, one facet of this problem is that we want you to stay. It really would make things easier if you did,” Fractal adopted a cajoling tone. “He wouldn't have to leave then. We can make so many things here, but we can't make real people, and you're the ones he wants the most. He could be safe, too. Finally. Any we could make anything here, anything you'd like. What we can't make, we can acquire. You'd be shocked at what is here already.”

“We are not staying her at your mercy. Or Phantom's,” said Maddie.

“We're going home, ghost,” grumbled Jack in agreement.

Fractal sighed heavily, leaning back. “I thought as much.”

“But wouldn't that be problematic for you, too?” asked Hannah. “Danny told us Phantom would starve if he stayed stuck.”

Danny suspected that if Fractal's eyes were visible, they would have flicked towards him. “Not entirely rational...” he muttered. Then, more loudly, “There are people in the Zone that can help with that. Danny is far more capable than he seems.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“You're welcome,” said Fractal. There was a clear undertext: From one harmless nerd act to another. Even if it was technically the same harmless nerd act masquerading as two. “But... that's actually part of the issue: There are people in the Zone. People. Despite how you dismiss ghosts as sub-sentient manifestations of post-human consciousness, they are people. People who do not deserve to be tortured by you,” said Fractal very pointedly. “We have a duty to prevent that.”

“Then keep us,” said Jack. “Let the kids go. They don't deserve to have their lives destroyed.”

“I was hoping you'd say that, but I'm not finished yet. That's actually part of the balance. We want to help you, and there are different kinds of helping. We don't want you to be unhappy,” he said, turning slightly so that it was clear he was addressing everyone present. “I think that you could be happy here, but if you don't...” he shrugged. “He values choice. He also cares for Amity Park, which we understand, even as we are jealous...” he trailed off. “Sorry,” he said to no one in particular. “I mean to say, he is fond of the people of Amity Park. All of them, although you are the ones he wants the most. The ones he knows best.

“As it stands now,” continued Fractal, “we cannot, in good conscience, help you leave. Equally, we cannot force you to stay. We couldn't harm you, in any case. You may be able to find the way out on your own, or with the aid of the wisps. These ones are the Three Winds Clan, by the way. That's the best translation. The tribe calls itself Bright Harp. Just so you know. But you probably won't.”

“So this whole thing was to tell us that you won't help us?” said Ricky, annoyed.

“No. It was just to explain the... pertinent issues to. To tell you why I can't just let you go. Why I can't show you the . Not without you,” he was now looking back at Jack and Maddie, “doing something for me first.”

He pulled a roll of paper out from his sleeve, followed by a small, spherical bottle from his belt. He placed both on the table. The bottle was about an inch in diameter, and was full of dark red-purple, almost black, liquid.

“Ever hear of a Stygian Oath?”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 39: Scar

.

“You mean like in Greek Mythology?” asked Ricky.

Fractal practically beamed. “Yes, exactly! Many ancient civilizations had access to the GZ at one time or another, but the Ancient Greeks were the best mortal cartographers of the Realms. They thought that the ghosts they met were minor gods. The Hindus did, too. Many polytheists did. Dike was sometimes called Durga, Pandora was called Kali... That doesn't really matter, does it? Um.” He scratched his ear. “Anyway. They knew the River Styx. This,” he tapped the bottle, “is extract from Stygian Pomegranates. This,” he tapped the roll of paper, “is what I want you to agree to. I don't feel like the terms are too much of an imposition, but if you have an objection to any of them, we can discuss it. I, of course,” he said, puling a pen from his belt, “will also sign. He should as well, to bring him, that is, Phantom, into the contract.,” said Fractal, nodding at Danny. “Then, once you sign, we each take a sip of this,” he tapped the bottle again, “which will bind us to our agreement. You can't break an oath made on Stygian waters.”

Maddie frowned. “How do we know that anything you're saying is the truth?”

“Yeah! You could be trying to poison us!”

“You've been eating our food with no ill effect for the past two days. Why should I try to poison you now?”

“You-”

“Oh for-” Danny lunged over the table, grabbed the bottle, popped off the cork, and took a swallow. “Wow.” He carefully re-corked the bottle, and put it back on the table.

“Danny!” said Maddie, grabbing his arm. “Spit it out.”

“I've already swallowed it,” said Danny. He picked a cookie up off of the platter. “That was really... flavorful.” He stuffed the cookie into his mouth. “How did you extract it, anyway?”

“A press, then a centrifuge. There's a workshop on the other side of the library. Stygian waters are slightly heavier that normal water, but that means-”

“That all the sugar and stuff got pushed to the bottom, too. Right. Blah. But, see? No poison.”

“Danny...”

“I know you're worried, but you've got to extend some trust or else we'll never get anywhere.” He took another cookie. “These are really good.”

“Thank you,” said Fractal. “You should read this. Take your time with it. Make sure that you understand it.” He pushed back from the table. “I need to go take care of something. I'll be back.”

.

.

.

The 'contract' wasn't much to look at. The person who wrote it either had not taste for complicated legalese, or lacked the time for it.

The text was as follows:

'Madeline and Jack Fenton agree to destroy all blueprints related to the Fenton Mortifier, and any other weapons or documents used to construct weapons that may be used to violate the Three Taboos. Further, they agree not to create any more such weapons or documents. In exchange, Phantom, in the person of his shadows, will lead Madeline Fenton, Jack Fenton, Mr Lancer, Michael Snow, Lester Spengler, Nathan Spengler, Richard Marsh, Dashiel Baxter, Paulina Sanchez, Star Thunder, Mia Battaglia, Sarah McAllister, Tiffanie Jones, Dale Gordon, Kwan Ishiyama, Valerie Gray, Hannah Weston, Jasmine Fenton, Tucker Foley, Sam Manson, and Danny Fenton, to the lair's door, and shall allow them to pass through unopposed.'

Jack and Maddie weren't pleased. Apparently, many of their more recent creations were in some way related to the Mortifier.

Danny was more than a little disgusted, as well as nauseated by some of the more... graphic descriptions. He therefore announced his intention to go explore the cabins. Jack and Maddie, as expected, immediately vetoed this, saying that they had to check to make sure that they were safe, first.

Danny responded to this by getting up and walking to the pool nearest the waterfall. He didn't want to hang around his classmates anymore. He didn't need the guilt. He was hot, and he felt dirty. Everyone had already seen him shirtless. He just didn't care.

“Danny, what are you doing?” asked Sam.

“Going swimming,” said Danny, peeling off his shirt.

“Is that safe, dude?” said Tucker, dubiously, eyeing the waterfall.

“There's a gate,” Danny said, nodding to a lacy, ironwork grate set over the end of the pool. “Doubt I'm going to slip through that.” Danny put down his shirt.

Sam gasped. “Danny! Your scar!”

“My-?” Danny looked down. “Oh,” he said, softly, before sitting down carefully on the grass by the pool, making sure to interpose a large leafy plant between himself and the tables. “Oh. That's not good.” His fingers traced up to the skin above his core. The scar tissue there, at the very center of his complex pattern of scars had gone dark, burnt green, almost black. It felt odd, swollen, and it fluoresced when he touched it, patterns of light bouncing and rippling against the surface, like from a stone thrown in water. “That's not good,” he repeated. Sam tossed his shirt at him, and he pulled it back on. “You have a knife?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Sam, pulling a pen-knife from her bag and offering it to Danny. Danny made a tiny nick in his arm. Red. That meant... What? Well, it wasn't traditional internal bleeding, at least. Was his core leaking ectoplasm? Or some supporting ectoplasmic structure hemorrhaging? Or some other reaction to being hurt? A healing process? He didn't know. He'd never been hurt like this. He just had to hope that his chest cavity wasn't filling up with ectoplasm, because he doubted that would go over any better than if it was filling with blood. He had been having a hard time breathing. He was having a hard time breathing.

And now he was having a panic attack. Well, this was lovely. At least he had gotten away from the class. He didn't think that he could cope with being the center of attention, the only source of entertainment.

“Danny,” Sam was saying, “breathe, Danny. Tucker, go get Jazz.”

Then, without warning, Echo and Fractal were there. Shadows or not, Danny didn't know Echo or Fractal all that well, so when they showed up, he startled quite badly, and when he Echo reached out to touch him, Danny bit him. Danny immediately felt terrible. Civilized people don't just bite one another, even if one of them is touching the others' face for some arcane reason. Echo, on the other hand, hardly seemed to notice.

“You aren't panicking anymore,” said Echo. “You're breathing. Focus on that.”

“And remember,” said Fractal, “you don't actually have to breathe to live, even as a human. It isn't the end of the world if you stop.”

That was not helpful.

(The incident that had lead to that discovery had been absolutely hellish, and the reason that Danny's first impulse upon seeing Observants was to run the other way. Not to mention, it was kind of like telling a normal human that they didn't need arms and legs to live. That they could survive quite well without any limbs at all.)

“Sorry,” said Fractal.

But it was true that he was breathing again. Shallowly, but still.

“You have a fever,” said Echo.

“You need to lower your temperature,” continued Fractal.

Danny's tear-filled eyes flicked between the two shadows. He didn't move.

Fractal sighed, and looked behind him. At Sam. Danny twisted to follow his gaze. And at Jazz and Tucker. They were scared. He wasn't processing things very well right now, but he knew that.

“Help us get him into the water, please,” said Fractal.

“Without them noticing,” added Echo, jerking his head towards the waiting class.

“That'll help?” asked Sam.

“Yes,” said Fractal. “We also have something else that might help... But it isn't ready yet. Not quite. It will be tonight, but for now.”

The problem was, what was frightening them? Was is Echo? Fractal? The water? Him? It was him, wasn't it? He made himself smaller, in a conscious attempt to appear less threatening.

They spoke to him gently, but he was very nearly beyond words. Even so, he let them guide him to the water. He had intended to go in earlier, didn't he? Maybe?

Even after he had sunk, chest-height, into the soothingly frigid waters, it took some time for rational thought to return to him. What even was that? His core overheating? His brain overheating?

“Oh my gosh,” groaned Danny, submerging himself even further, so that only his head was still above the water. “What was that?”

“Panic exacerbating your fever and other health issues,” said Fractal.

“You need to be more careful with yourself,” said Echo. He was splayed out on the edge of the pool, playing with the wet ends of Danny's hair.

Sam was sitting on Danny's other side, cross-legged. Tucker was playing lookout. Jazz was a next to Echo, between him and Fractal. She seemed more at ease with the two shadows than the others were.

“Do you two know what's happening with Danny?” asked Sam, glaring at Echo. Specifically at Echo's hand.

“What's making my scar look like that,” clarified Danny. He noted that his voice was a little slurred.

Echo and Fractal looked at one another. “We do know some things that you don't,” said Fractal. But the things we know are because of our construction. Because of our connection to the lair, and, through it, to you.”

“We're more in tune with your needs than you are,” said Echo. “You pay more attention to others than you do yourself.” He leaned down so that his nose was very, very close to Danny's neck.

“Please don't do that,” said Danny. Echo sighed and leaned back.

“Anyway, we don't know what what's wrong, but we have... impressions, I suppose?” said Fractal, tilting his head. “I think that Echo is better at interpreting them than I. But that is his purpose.”

“If I can even be said to have one, what with the mess of my creation. We can tell that you have something wrong with your core, that you are too hot, and that you are frighteningly low on energy. But these are all things that you can tell yourself. Even if you ignore it.” He moved his hand to stroke the skin behind Danny's ear. “You aren't exactly getting worse, though. Not overall. Your core was worse before, and it has recovered somewhat, but the rest of your body,” Echo traced his hand down the side of Danny's neck and into the water, to Danny's shoulder, “it isn't doing so well.”

“It's like when you sprain your ankle,” said Fractal. “You favor the hurt ankle, but then you strain your other leg, or your back. Or when a crick in your shoulder travels to your neck.”

“Your core is still injured,” cautioned Echo, “and it could still take a turn for the worse. But I don't doubt that it will get better if you just rest. Relax. Stay here, where it's safe.” He reached down further, brushing his fingers against the sensitive scar tissue, leaning into Danny, practically hanging off of him. He was balanced precariously on the pool's edge, effectively trapping Danny. If Danny moved, Echo would tip into the water.

Danny squeaked. Echo backed off. Slowly.

“But we aren't entirely sure what those other issues are, or even what they're caused by. We know that your scars are inflamed with ectoplasm, but we don't know why.”

“So I'm not bleeding internally?” asked Danny. That was a relief.

“Maybe a little,” said Echo, shrugging.

But, before dread could set in Fractal picked up the thought. “But not enough to be a problem. Besides, it would be ectoplasm, which is quite a bit different that blood, and an ectoplasm bath would actually be beneficial to your core.”

“Ah, heck,” said Echo. “Jack and Madeline are gearing up to make a decision. Do you want to get out, or disappear for a bit?”

Danny sighed. The water felt so nice.

“I could distract them,” offered Jazz.

“No,” said Danny. “I've got to get out eventually.”

Echo and Fractal somehow had a towel and a clean, dry, set of clothes, almost identical to the ones Danny was wearing. Danny suspected some kind of teleportation. (Teleportation: the solution to all life's minor inconveniences.)

Now Danny was marginally more ready to face his parents once more.

Yay.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 40: Contract Negotiations

.

They slowly returned to the tables. Danny was very aware of how Valerie stared at them. He hoped that she didn't notice his change of clothes. He ran his hand through his hair. He had tried to dry it thoroughly, but it was still damp in places. She shouldn't be able to see that, right? His hair was already black. Water wasn't terribly visible in it.

Jack and Maddie were coming back from the cabins, deep frowns etched into their faces. Danny felt bad, making them go through all this, when they so clearly didn't want to, but if they hadn't made such a terrible thing, this wouldn't be necessary. He hadn't thought all of what Fractal had said through himself, at least not consciously, but when it was laid out like that, it was obvious. It really would be irresponsible to let them back out without some guarantee that they wouldn't hurt anyone else.

They sat down heavily by the cookies. Jack took one. Ate it. His eyebrows went up. He ate another.

“So how are the cabins?” asked Danny, once he got into speaking distance. “Find any booby traps or anything?”

“No,” said Jack, sullenly. Like he was disappointed by the lack of perfidy. “We didn't.”

“Danny, Jazz,” said Maddie, reflectively. “You trust these ghosts.”

“I trust the wisps, and Phantom,” said Danny carefully. “The shadows are part of him, so they're... I don't know. They're going to have to follow his rules. Like the whole no hurting people thing. They are a little creepy, though, aren't they?” He nibbled absently on a cookie.

“Do you think that we could get out with just the wisps' help?” asked Maddie.

“I don't think that it'd be impossible,” said Danny. “But the shadows will definitely have a better way, and the wisps' way may not be totally human-accessible. I mean, they are quite a bit different from humans.” He petted a fist-sized wisp that had landed on his leg. It purred, and nuzzled down into his flesh, so only it's top hemisphere was visible. It was a very ticklish sensation. Danny hummed, and fished a cookie off the table to feed to it.

“And you, Jazz?”

“I think that you should agree,” said Jazz. “Having those weapons is just asking for trouble. Sooner or later, someone will find out, and ghosts are going to be less than happy. They already go after us sometimes. I don't want it to get worse.”

“But we need those weapons,” said Jack. “To protect ourselves from ghosts.”

“There are more ethical ways to do that,” said Danny. “Blasters aren't going to pose the same problems. Nor are shields. Or most of the weapons you've made in the past, for that matter.”

“This is still an awful lot to ask, for just letting us go.”

“Then ask for more.”

“What?”

“Fractal did say that he was open to negotiation, right?” asked Danny, rhetorically. “So, ask to change something. Or ask for something more. I don't think you'll be rejected outright. They want you to agree to this.”

The wisp, who had been delicately nibbling on a cookie, bounced off Danny's leg, into the starry sky, trilling. Danny frowned after it in concern. It had been talking too quickly for him to understand it. A few confused moments later, a huge cloud of wisps descended on the platter of cookies like a swarm of locust. Several startled humans took cover behind chairs and tables. When they cleared off, the cookies were gone. Completely.

(Danny was hoping that sugar wasn't harmful to wisps. Or addictive.)

“So, I understand you've come to something of a decision?” asked Fractal, hopefully. Wow, he was way sneakier than he looked. Or acted. Or actually was, considering his self-introduction. Teleportation it was, then.

Maddie and Jack both glared at the shadow, as if the wisps' actions were his fault. They were. In a roundabout way. He had made the cookies.

Maddie pulled herself back into her seat. “You're asking too much and giving too little.”

Fractal spread his hands out to either side. “There isn't much else we can do. Shadows cannot exist outside the lair. Nor is there much Phantom can do, in his current state.”

“But he is coming with us, regardless,” said Maddie, glancing at Danny. “We'd like some guarantees on that front.”

“Guarantees such as?”

“We want him to help us get home. If he is truly so concerned with 'helping people,' it shouldn't be too much of an imposition?” There was a great deal of venom in Maddie's voice, and Danny was glad that everyone was focused on Fractal, and couldn't see him flinch.

“Well,” said Fractal delicately, summoning a chair for himself, “there are some issues with that.”

“I don't see how there could be.”

“How would you phrase such a requirement? 'Phantom agrees to do everything in his power to get us home as soon as possible?'”

“Yes.”

“Well. That's a problem.”

“How?” demanded Jack.

“'Everything in his power' covers a lot of ground, and includes things that he would consider immoral, unwise, or otherwise distasteful. 'As soon as possible' does not factor in his safety, or yours.”

“So let's change that,” said Danny, before either of his parents could respond with cutting words. It crossed his mind that arranging things like this was somewhat dishonest. He was actually on Fractal's side of this negotiation, not his parents'... On the other hand, he did want to get everyone home safe and sound, without agreeing to something insane. “Make exceptions. Like, he'll do that, unless it gets too dangerous, or if it interferes with his obsession.”

Fractal nodded slowly. “That's a good thought.” He hummed. “Let's say this. 'Phantom agrees to do everything in his power to get you home safely, unless it poses an existential threat to him, to others, if it is against his obsession, or if it puts him at odds with those entities charged with enforcing the Taboos.'”

“'The entities charged with enforcing the Taboos,'” echoed Maddie. She looked at Danny, frowning. “You never did tell us who those were,” she said. Her tone wasn't accusatory, like he would have expected, but curious.

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. That hadn't been on purpose, exactly, but... He'd had bad experiences with one of those groups, and he didn't like to talk about it. Still, he needed to get his parents to agree to this. He needed those things to go away. He was tempted, highly tempted, to have Fractal explain. That was Fractal's job, wasn't it? But he doubted that his parents would be inclined to believe anything that Fractal said.

“There are three groups, organizations, that deal with the crimes when they happen outside a Realm,” said Danny. “There used to be more, I think, but right now there are three. They are each headed by, um, a judge, who was appointed by one of the old high kings. The most powerful group right now are the Observants, who are headed by Issitoq the Watcher. My understanding is that their power is waning, though, so they're pretty well balanced by the other two groups. Um. Appearance-wise, they're green, they're tall, they each have only one big eye, no neck to speak of, no legs, they use tails exclusively, and they wear cloaks and robes. It's kind of like a uniform? They all have to look the same. Also, they can see the future. Kinda. Most of the Dead ones were clairvoyants or fortune tellers in life. But they've got an oath not to act on their prophecies. Someone forced them to take it early on in their existence, because they'd had a problem with self-fulfilling prophecies. They don't care for humans. They also really, really don't like Phantom. Like, they'll use any excuse whatsoever to end him, and they won't care if they have to kill me to get at him.”

“What?” exclaimed Mia, horrified. “Why?”

“Who could hate the ghost boy so much? That's horrible!” said Paulina.

“Uh. It's a long story,” said Danny. Also, there are two of them, but they didn't need to know about the other part.

“We have time, Danny.”

“Uh. The Observants aren't supposed to interfere with time themselves, but there's a loophole in that. They can get others to interfere. They do this whole predatory Faustian bargain thing. They con ghosts into agreeing to serve them, without putting a time limit on the service.”

“That's a bit of an oversimplification,” put in Fractal. “There are apparently a lot of loopholes in their oath. The whole thing is intensely sketchy. Even if you do discount the indefinite indentured servitude.”

“Right. But there are loopholes in those agreements, too. The Observants are legal authorities, so there are limits to what they can ask of their people. They can't break the laws themselves. Um. I don't know all the details. Or more like, I don't understand all the details... They said something regarding Phantom to one of the people they had a hold over, and that let him ignore them when it came to Phantom.” He swallowed. “Now, the second group-”

There was a great sound of protest. Danny winced.

“Okay. Okay. Fine. So, at some point, they predicted that Phantom might- Might! Set off a chain of events that would, um. Basically conclude with the apocalypse. Kinda thing. I- uh. He isn't- hasn't ever been very eager to discus that... Sequence of events. From his point of view, anyway. I get that. Um. I was involved, too. I- Uh. I'm actually. Uh. More responsible? I guess I'd say. Or equally responsible. Don't know why they picked him over anyone else, I mean... I don't like to talk about it either. Clearly. Um.”

“Of course Fenturd'd cause the apocalypse. He's such a klutz that I'm surprised he hasn't done already.”

“Wouldn't it be 'again?'” asked Kwan.

“If you two imbeciles are quite done?” said Fractal, coolly. The glow behind his glasses was dim. He was leaned back in the chair, his arms crossed and his head tilted slightly. He smiled, lips tight. “Danny, if you want to go on?”

“Anyway, that happened. Or might have happened. Their thing, the future-seeing thing, it's based on probability. They usually are able to determine the most probable result but... You get things like... There are ninety-eight different good possibilities with one percent possibility, and one bad one with two percent possibility, and they see the bad one. So they went to one of the most powerful people who they had control over-”

“Who?” asked Maddie.

“His name is Clockwork,” said Danny, reluctantly. “They never had as much control over him as some of the others, but they still retained the,” Danny's face twisted into a scowl, “'right to call on him to prevent extreme violation of Taboo.' So they told him to get rid of Phantom. Except they didn't quite use those words, so he was able to out-loophole them, and not kill Phantom, and make it so that killing Phantom wouldn't... Uh. Solve the problem. And change the problem. So, no more apocalypse, so they couldn't tell him to kill Phantom anymore, 'cause it wasn't going to prevent 'extreme violation of Taboo' anymore. Um. Is this making sense so far?”

“Yeah,” said Valerie, “except for the part about you causing the apocalypse. No offense, but you aren't really...”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 41: Gracious Ones

.

“Yeah,” said Valerie, “except for the part about you causing the apocalypse. No offense, but you aren't really...” She trailed off. Danny shrunk as Valerie's eyes drifted over his body. What exactly 'wasn't he really?' Mean enough? Important enough? Powerful enough? Smart enough? Interesting enough? Leading a comment with 'no offense' usually meant that whatever you were going to say next was offensive.

“It isn't important,” mumbled Danny, studying the glittery, granite edge of the table.

“I think it is,” said Mikey. “I mean, this is something that affe-”

“No!” snapped Danny. “It isn't. It didn't happen. It isn't going to happen. It is private, it is personal, and you have no right to that information. You only know this much because I'm trying to make a point about what utter jerks the Observants are, and how dangerous they are. Got it?”

Danny took a deep, calming, breath, closing his eyes so that he could ignore the others' reactions. “Okay. So. It wasn't going to happen anymore. But then they said something to Clockwork along the lines of 'he's your responsibility.' I don't know if that's exactly what they said, because I'm getting this third-hand at best, but it turns out that if you're talking about child ghosts, then that means something more along the lines of adoption, and screwing with familial relations is a bad thing. Super illegal, apparently, although I couldn't tell you what kind of super illegal. Taboo, but heck if I know how it fits in. So. Yeah.” He opened his eyes. Everyone looked rather taken aback. 'Everyone' being everyone not Sam, Tucker, Jazz, or Fractal. (Fractal, incidentally, was still giving Dash, Kwan, Valerie, and Mikey dirty looks. Dash, interestingly enough, looked more intimidated than Mikey.) “Fractal,” said Danny. He couldn't help the slightly petulant tone in his voice. “Do you have any, um, drinking water, or. Um. A drink? Or something?”

“I have something,” purred an echoing voice from behind Danny. Danny flinched, hard, almost lashing out before recognizing the voice as Echo's. The ghost leaned over Danny, to put a tall, green-tinted glass down on the table with a distinct clink.

Danny took hold of it quickly, sending rivulets of condensation down the side. “Thank you,” he mumbled, before taking a gulp of- not water. Really not water. Well, mostly water. But not entirely. It tasted of sour lime and sugar, salt and capsaicin. It was mixed with ectoplasm. Quite a bit of it. Excellent. He set the glass back down after draining it.

Echo had vanished again.

“So, that's the Observants. The second group is lead by Ma'at.”

“Like from Egyptian Mythology?” asked Nathan.

“Yeah. That's the one. They're called the Feathers. They're more, um. Open, I guess. No one really knows how the Observants are organized, except that Issitoq is in charge. They're also more eclectic. Ma'at picks people that she likes and trusts and deputizes them to act as judges and arbiters, but otherwise there aren't requirements. They get involved in stuff you'd consider civil disputes. They act as intermediaries and, um, disinterested third parties. Impartial judges. But only if one of the people involved ask, and everyone involved agrees. Also, they have a tendency to judge the whole person, rather than the crime. They're nice, though. Fair. The couple I've met, anyway. It's hard to tell whether or not a person is a Feather by looking, because they don't have a dress code or anything. But they all have feather tokens from Ma'at. They're kind of like police badges. Um. They also have an, um, appeals process. Is that the right term?”

“Yes,” said Jazz.

“But no one uses it, or hardly anyone, because if you loose the appeal, then you get eaten, and that's no fun. Yeah.”

“Eaten?”

“Yeah. By Ammit, Ma'at's pet.” Danny sighed. “Then, the Feathers are allied with the third group, Libra. Libra's the one that most resembles human legal systems. Or the one that tries to the most, anyway. Trials are weird in the GZ. They're obsessed with justice. I mean to say, that's their entry requirement. They're largely run by a family. Themis, her daughter Dike, their children, cousins, whatever. They're an old family. But they're okay with letting other people in, and they like having lawyers around. A lot of them are blind. A lot of them have four arms. They usually wear, like, suits, or Ancient Greek stuff. And, uh, ninety percent of them are women. That's all I really know about them. I don't think Phantom's encountered any of them, has he?”

“Nope,” said Fractal.

“Uh. Then, trials...” Danny rubbed an eye. “Trials are weird in the GZ. There are a lot of cultures here, and no one could ever really agree on how trials should go, so they didn't. There's a way to determine how trials go, and that's it. Basically, everyone with a stake in the trial gets a representative, or sometimes even two or three representatives, and they all argue about it until they agree on how it should be shaped, and the formalities. Like, what the judge gets called, who's lawyer gets to talk when, who makes the decision of guilt, is there a jury... There are some other... bits in there, but... Yeah. That's about it. That's the extent of what I know.”

“So the reason Phantom doesn't to be 'at odds with' these other groups is because...”

“Because one of them is out to get him, he's on good terms with the other, and the last one is comprised of people who are the direct inspirations of the Greek Goddesses of Justice and Vengeance. And all three groups are powerful enough to enforce the laws. They're scary. And you shouldn't want to get on their bad side either, because if they ever find out about...” Danny trailed off, not even wanting to talk about those things. “So. Is there anything else you want from this?”

.

.

.

Adrestia flew through the Ghost Zone, Ember's latest album blasting through her headphones, papers in one hand, her club, a nightstick, really, on her hip, her whip looped around her shoulder, a collection of handcuffs dangling, jingling, like an elaborate metal skirt off her belt. She was dressed for war. Some of the ghosts she'd be going after were fairly powerful. Not a match for her gang. They were the best of the best. They'd been hunting down Taboo violators since time immemorial.

She spotted their door, a little farther along its orbit than she expected, and flew down to it. She didn't bother to knock.

“Hey!” she shouted into the lair as she blew the door open. “My peeps! I've got a job!”

The Gracious Ones' lair was a strange combination of dark, blue-tinted forest, dripping cave, and cozy sitting room. Three figures barely visible behind the stalactite/trees detached themselves from the pursuit of a fourth (likely a Taboo breaker who had been sentenced to a term of years at the Gracious Ones' mercy.)

The Gracious Ones were three women. Sisters. They had wide, leathery, bat-like wings, blue skin, and their eyes were solid, bloody red. That was about all they had in common.

The first one, who wore what looked like riot gear, touched down on the stony ground in front of Adrestia, and gave her a high-five. “Sweet Addie, let us see!”

Adrestia held the papers teasingly out of reach. “Wait for your sisters, yeah? They'd tear me apart if you got 'em first.”

“Nah, no way, I'm the eldest, I'd stop them.” She brushed her hair (black, and done in dozens of tiny braids) back out of her face, and angled her nose haughtily.

“As if, Alex!” scolded the second figure, who had her braids gathered into a kind of ponytail. “You don't know which one of us is older, and we all know it.”

“Tess, Alex,” said the third, her hair done in a single long braid, “c'mon, don't fight.”

“Still playing peacemaker, huh, Meg?”

“Uh. Not doin' too well with the 'makin'' part. That's not really our thing, y'know? But I try to keep them from ripping each others' throats out, or goin' after one another with the scourges.”

“Whatever, Meg,” said Tess, shaking out her red dress, and adjusting her leather jacket.

Meg flipped her hair back. She was dressed like nothing so much as a soccer mom, discounting the incongruous knee pads, and the very incongruous scourge looped through her belt. “Well, as the only one of us not fixated on who's older, I've gotta do somethin,' don't I?”

“Okay, okay, we won't fight,” said Alex. “Lets sit down and look at the job, huh?”

“Yeah, can I get you anythin,' Addie? Drink? We've got some chili infused vodka from the other side. It's green.”

“Nah. I'm good, and I'm sure you're all eager to see this,” she fanned the papers in front of her seductively.

The sisters snatched the papers from her. Tittering as they flipped through. Then they froze.

“Oh, ancients,” breathed Alex.

“What?” said Adrestia, thoroughly nonplussed. She hadn't seen a reaction like this from them in, like... ever.

“Addie,” said Meg, “you did read this, yeah? You didn't just, like, grab it offa one of your cousins, and run here full-speed, or whatever?”

“As if. You know how anal the Hall people are about proper paperwork. It's annoying. I mean, we still got things done way back when we didn't have any.”

“Right,” said Tess, drawing out the word. “But, like, you did read it?”

“Yeah.”

“So,” continued Tess, “you saw who the victim is? You see how that's problematic?”

Adrestia's eyebrows went up, and then came down, hard. “What? Because he's liminal? What d'you have against liminals? That's uncool.”

“Nothing, dude,” said Tess, equally offended.

“Yeah, Addie,” said Alex. “I mean, I know your fam goes with the whole 'justice is blind, everyone is impartial, we don't keep up with the news,' thing, but you've got to at least recognize the name.”

“Yeah? What was it again? Fantastic?”

“Phantom.”

“Okay. Sure. And why am I supposed to recognize it?”

The sisters exchanged a glance. “Addie,” said Meg, “you do remember the thing a couple years ago, when ol' Pariah woke up?”

“Yeah. I fought his armies, like everyone else.”

“Well, this kid is the one who fought him. Like, he was wearin' some kinda high-tech magic armor and stuff when he did it, but he's still the one that did it.”

“And he's like, y'know, connected,” added Tess. “He knows the Ancients, and they like him.”

“The real ones,” clarified Alex, “and he beat up those two stooges Pariah put on the Council.”

“Ugh,” said Adrestia, taking the opportunity to flop down on the sisters' cheerful yellow couch. “So you're saying that this is going to turn into a circus. Everyone's going to feel entitled to send a rep to the pre-trial. Next thing you'll say is that he's got a beef with the Observants.”

“There're rumors,” confirmed Meg.

“This is going to be a headache.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 42: Addition

.

“Actually,” said Jazz, “there's one thing that I'd like to add.”

Danny looked at his sister in surprise. He'd expected his parents to quibble, not his sister. Had he screwed up? Did he make a mistake somewhere in here, or push for too much from his parents?

“I think that we need a nonaggression pact in all of this.”

“What?” said Jack.

“That's a good idea, Jazz,” said Maddie. “As this stands,” she continued, “this doesn't actually say that you people can't attack us, is there?”

“I suppose it doesn't,” said Fractal. “That was an oversight on my part. My only request would be to make it mutual.”

“Time limit!” shouted Jack, suddenly. “That story Dan-o told us. It sounds like a time limit would be good. I don't want to be stuck not attacking a ghost!”

“We can have the nonaggression pact end upon fulfillment of the one of the other terms, namely, you getting home.”

The final agreement looked something like this:

'Madeline and Jack Fenton agree to destroy all blueprints related to the Fenton Mortifier, and any other weapons or documents used to construct weapons that may be used to violate the Three Taboos. Further, they agree not to create any more such weapons or documents. In exchange, Phantom, in the person of his shadows, will lead Madeline Fenton, Jack Fenton, Mr Lancer, Michael Snow, Lester Spengler, Nathan Spengler, Richard Marsh, Dashiel Baxter, Paulina Sanchez, Star Thunder, Mia Battaglia, Sarah McAllister, Tiffanie Jones, Dale Gordon, Kwan Ishiyama, Valerie Gray, Hannah Weston, Jasmine Fenton, Tucker Foley, Sam Manson, and Danny Fenton, to the lair's door, and shall allow them to pass through unopposed.

'Phantom further agrees to do everything in his power to get the above listed persons home safely, unless it poses an existential threat to him, to others, if it is against his obsession, or if it puts him at odds with those entities charged with enforcing the Taboos.

'Finally, Madeline and Jack Fenton, and Phantom and his shadows agree to refrain from attacking one another until such a time as the other terms of this agreement are fulfilled.'

With extreme reluctance, Jack and Maddie signed the document, sipping the sugary Stygian waters. Fractal was a good deal more eager. Danny added his name more sedately.

This was a relief. Really. Until they got home... Danny blinked at the contract, and saw something that his parents had, apparently, missed. Until his parents destroyed their weapons, they couldn't hurt him. Finally, he was as safe from them as they were from him. The corners of his mouth curled up.

Fractal smiled and rolled up the contract, tapping it happily against the table, and tucking it back into his sleeve.

“So,” said Fractal, still smiling. “We, we've done that now. Y-you should all take the rest of the day to rest up, because there will be a lot of climbing tomorrow. Would you like us to send someone to cook for you, or-?”

“We can handle ourselves,” said Maddie.

“Oh. O-okay, then.” Fractal, having completed the task of getting Jack and Maddie to take a Stygian oath, was rapidly becoming nervous. “Do, do you,” he included the class with his gaze, “have any questions? I've- That's part of what I'm here for. To help you. With questions, and... stuff.”

“I have a question,” said Paulina. She pushed past Tucker and Sam, and perched on the table in front of Fractal.

Fractal went delicately green, his ears flicking back, angling imperceptibly downward. “Yes?” he said, timidly, sinking down in his chair.

“Why aren't there any doors? It's totally a drag, like, there's no privacy.”

Fractal froze, his eyes briefly going bright, laser-light green. Danny felt his heart plummet, and his mouth go dry with dread, and the atmosphere crackled with tension. Then the feeling vanished, and Fractal smiled.

“There are actually a couple of reasons for that,” said Fractal, voice carefully cheerful. “One has to do with the way a lair functions. In a lot of ghost languages, the word for lair is 'room' or 'enclosure.' Lairs are internally continuous, connected spaces. With sufficient power, you can put in doors, you can do a lot of things with sufficient power, some people will even externalize their lairs. But it's much easier this way.”

“Uh,” said Ricky, “what's the other reason?”

“None of your business,” said Fractal, cheerfulness becoming slightly forced. “Any other questions?”

.

.

.

The cabins were nice and cozy. The tropical theme was continued, and there were carvings on the walls similar to what had been in the rotunda, back on the hill. There was a bedroom in each, with four twin beds, a little sitting room, and little bathroom. Two of them also had medium-sized kitchens.

Danny made the decision to let someone else cook, and parked himself in the shower. He was seriously overheating. The green discoloration in his scars was spreading, too. A thin tendril had nearly reached up his scar to his shoulder, and another was making good progress to his hip. The bathroom's mirror showed a similar discoloration on his back. It was very distressing, not knowing what was going on with his body... But that wasn't exactly uncommon for Danny, and he had gotten over the initial shock that had sent him into a panic.

So he sat himself under the waterfall that served as the bathroom's shower. The water was pleasingly cool, though not as cold as the pools outside.

Sam, Tucker, and Jazz were hanging out outside, in the shared bedroom. They had insisted that he take the first shower. They were going to regret that. Or maybe not. Jazz knew how long he could take in a shower.

He started to go over everything that had happened in his mind, giving himself time to actually think and process everything that had happened over the last couple of days.

This whole situation was a massive mess. But it had gotten better. Going back over the contract, Danny realized that Fractal had managed to get rid of the 'soon as possible' part by bringing it up first and then dismissing it. That was clever. Danny shuddered to imagine what might have happened if a clause like that had gotten in there. An image of him leading, or trying to lead, the class across the Burning Lands danced across his mind's eye. Ancients, that would be nightmarish.

Actually, not counting whatever was going on with his body, Danny realized that he was as safe as he had been since becoming half-ghost. That was a nice feeling. Being safe. Sometimes he forgot how much he missed it.

There were a few concerning things, though (Other than the fear that Technus was on his way to world domination.). Like, why had he and Fractal reacted so poorly to the door comment? It wasn't because of power concerns, and he couldn't imagine reacting like that because he just didn't know how to put doors in. Maybe it was symbolic? He had a Ghost Zone title that had to do with doors, on account of the portal.

He absently rubbed his left palm. His scars were getting irritated. He wondered-

Oh. That's why the door thing bothered him. He didn't exactly have good experiences with them, did he? And he guarded borders, but there weren't any in here, so why have a door that would close? It'd just get opened anyway. Like the portal.

Danny imagined that anything even resembling a jab at his death would go over very poorly with him at present. Probably for the next several weeks as well.

That mystery being solved, Danny's mind drifted back to his parents. Maybe...

“Maybe you should tell them,” said Echo.

Danny started, slipping, and almost knocking his head into the shower wall. Echo caught him before he could brain himself, though.

“How do you keep doing that?” demanded Danny, squirming away.

“Doing what?” asked Echo, all shades of innocence. Then, more seriously, “If you mean startling you, it's probably partially because I'm invisible to all your 'early-warning systems.' I don't register as a threat to your subconscious, because I'm part of it, but your conscious doesn't know what to do with me, so it freaks out. Like how Sam and Tucker can sneak up on you sometimes, but you know them consciously, unlike with me. And the reason I make you uncomfortable, is because you trust me too much for someone you don't really know, and that puts you on guard. You catch yourself relaxing, and you don't know why. Probably has something to do with human minds not being equipped to deal with personifications of their subconscious, too.”

“Okay,” said Danny, “that makes sense.”

“It should. About ninety percent of that was going through your head anyway. You just weren't processing it properly.”

He blinked. “Okay. Fine. So why did you feel the need to freak me out while I'm in the shower?”

“Because,” said Echo, taking off his boots, “you're thinking about something important, but you're having trouble thinking things through right now. You aren't at your best. Not after everything that's been done to you. So, I'm here to help you talk it out.”

“If talking to yourself fixed crazy, we wouldn't need mental hospitals.”

“That might be true. But this isn't like you're talking to a voice in you're head. I am as real to you as I am to anyone else.” Echo sat down on the edge of the tub, and swung his legs over so that his feet were in the inch-deep runoff from the waterfall-shower.

“I feel like there's something wrong with that argument. I don't know what yet but...” Danny trailed off. “Okay. So. You think that I should tell Mom and Dad?”

Echo shrugged. “If you're ever going to tell Madeline and Jack, now is the safest time and place to do it. You're safe here. This is your home. Your lair. You are in control.”

“Am I?”

“Maybe not consciously, but yeah. And you've got the contract. They're bound by a Stygian Oath not to hurt you. So if they react badly, you're protected.”

“Right, and then I can make plans on the way back to Amity.”

“And then you know.”

“What if they just fake acceptance?”

“I don't think they'll be able to do it for long, and once your powers are working again, you'll be able to tell.”

“Oh. Right. Excess emotional energy. But... I don't have any proof.”

Echo scoffed. “How's this?” His hair rippled, and went charcoal gray, almost black. It held that way for a few seconds, then turned white again. His eyes stayed toxic green throughout. “Not the best, I know, but...” Echo shrugged.

Danny nodded, but frowned, brushing wet hair out of his face. “You know, I thought you'd be the last one to be for this.”

“What, because I don't like Madeline and Jack? Well, I don't. But it's only a matter of time before they use something that really hurts you. Permanently, that is. The stuff they used the other day, you know it could have been worse. They already have stuff that can cripple you. If you tell them here, or at least before you get back, you can control the fallout, be safe from their reactions. But you know as well as I that none of these are the real reason you don't want to tell them.”

Danny nodded slowly, looking at his feet. He had curled into a comfortable little ball at the bottom of the waterfall. “Telling them will hurt them.”

“Having them find out some other way will hurt them more,” said Echo reasonably, “and you've noticed how strained all of your interactions are with them lately. It isn't healthy for you.”

“If it goes badly, I'll be shut out of Amity Park. I won't be able to protect it anymore.”

“Please. If Boxy can get through, you can. You're as tied to Amity as you are to this place. Which you should probably name, by the way.”

“Is that a thing that people do?”

“You've noticed that Ghost Writer calls his lair Vidya. And Clockwork's tower is Long Now. Isn't it kind of hard to think about this as 'the lair' as if it were the only one?”

“Thought that names annoyed you,” muttered Danny, all but inaudible. (He frowned internally. How did he get that impression? When?)

“Yeah. I guess I just didn't get them before,” admitted Echo, shrugging. “But we're getting off topic.”

“I'd screw up Jazz's life. They know she's been helping me. They were mad at us. If they found out more... I don't know. They'd never trust her again, at least.”

“She could stay here, with us.”

“She wants to go to college, become a psychologist.”

“You've saw the way her eyes lit up when you described the University of Ys, Atlantis Academy of Arts, the Atlantaen Science Academy, Lyonesse University, the Palace College at Wyddno, Kitezh Institute of Applied Religion...”

“Why are you only naming stuff in the Drowned Quarter?”

“I don't know. There are a lot of colleges there though, aren't there?”

“I guess. Did I actually tell her about all of those?”

“Most of them, anyway. You told her about your visit to Ys, and mentioned the university there, and then she wanted to know if there were other colleges. You told her about a few in the Lands of Ice, too, and that one in Dis, I think.”

“Oh. Right. I think I remember that conversation.”

“Well, yeah. So, what do you think, will you tell them?”

“I don't know. I don't... I don't know. It's hard. This is just...” Danny trailed off.

“I know.”

“I should let Jazz take her shower now.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 43: The High Council

.

Vlad stormed down into his vault. He was furious. Livid. He couldn't recall the last time he had been so angry. The GIW with their idiotic white suits ordering him around? They'd learn their lesson soon enough. They'd all learn their lessons.

First, though, he had to find Daniel, Maddie, and their less intelligent associates. Having the GIW actually find the missing children, after he had been so adamant that they were useless would be a disaster. Then, he could deal with whatever morons the GIW had sent at his leisure.

(A slight sense of unease sat deep in his chest. What if he wasn't dealing with the run-of-the-mill morons?)

Vlad retrieved the artifact he used to summon his avian minions and paused to shoot a glare at what he had intended to be (literally) the crown jewel of his collection. The Crown of Fire. He had gone through an awful lot of trouble (he had put Danny through an awful lot of trouble) trying to get it, and now, now it was fading. Flickering. Dying. Vlad had tried everything to bring it back to it's former, fiery glory, taking it to the Ghost Zone, bathing it in pure, hyper-energized ectoplasm, heating it, cooling it, setting it in his fireplace, plying it with other artifacts, but nothing-

Vlad froze, his eyes widening, scanning and re-scanning the spot where the Crown of Fire should be resting.

But no matter how hard he looked, it wasn't there.

.

.

.

Clockwork was unhappy.

Clockwork was unhappy for a wide variety of reasons.

Clockwork was unhappy for a wide variety of reasons, most of which had to do with his 'employers,' the Observants.

To begin with, they had called this meeting, and any interaction with them made Clockwork unhappy. This particular meeting made Clockwork even more unhappy than usual, because they had failed to extend him even the threadbare courtesy that was their usual wont.

(When he was in a more sanguine mood, Clockwork might admit that he did not completely hate every Observant. The organization was too large for him to have a personal animus with each member and some of them weren't totally amoral.)

Secondly, the scar across his eye was itching. As the scar was the physical manifestation of the bargain he had struck with the Observants in his (relative) youth, this meant that the Observants were blocking his sight. Oh, officially they were only borrowing it, using his power to bolster their own precognitive abilities, but the last time this had happened, Daniel had burst into his tower, injured, terrified and babbling. Some of the 'younger, less disciplined' Observants had taken it upon themselves to attack and harass Daniel, using their knowledge of aborted futures to mentally corner the child, and their superior numbers to physically attack him with impunity. Daniel had gotten away with light injuries, but only because he had put all effort and energy into getting to Clockwork... Which he might not have done if he hadn't misinterpreted several statements by the Observants to mean that Dan was on the loose.

Clockwork wasn't sure what was worse, the block on his vision and his powers, or not knowing what was happening with Daniel. Of course, he had other responsibilities that he could not attend to as long as the Observants were tapping his temporal powers, but he had become accustomed to knowing where Daniel was and what he was doing.

Then there was this waiting. Clockwork was normally a very patient ghost, but this was excessive. If he hadn't made that oath so long ago...

.

.

.

Clockwork had originally been three separate, unrelated beings.

One was/is/would be/had been a barely sentient ghost that had both existed eternally, at all points in time, and at none of them A creature that existed in the moment. Every moment. Knowing all events, but understanding none of them.

The second was named Heru, and he had never been alive. He had, however, in his time been so obsessed with the nature of the passage of time that he had left traces in dozens of mortal cultures. He had been born a ghost in the same Realm as Ma'at, with wings, bright, blue feathers, and a falcon's head.

The third had never been human either, but once he had been alive. Or perhaps he would be. Clockwork had never been able to quite track him down, and rather suspected that he did not yet, and might never, exist in this time line.

The later two had, for entirely separate, divergent reasons, decided to contact the first. They succeeded too well. The result was a soul merge and madness.

Each mind was utterly alien to the other, each thought twisted and warped through three disparate, and sometimes antagonistic, points of view. The first had no experience with anything. No comprehension of the flow of events, of cause and effect. The others were adrift. Too much power, their body changing under them, twisting and rippling under their skin, which itself was changing. Worse than changing. Symbols and arcs and orrery blueprints on his skin, a pit in his chest, and aching. Something lost, that he couldn't even remember. A thousand futures and pasts stretching before and behind him, never knowing what was which, which was real, which was true.

(He had a great deal of sympathy for Daniel's troubles reconciling his two 'halves.')

Madness was the least of it. Confusion was the least of it. He had done horrible things.

It was in madness that he had learned of the Observants, but it was in a moment of lucidity that he had sought them out. They were seers, he reasoned, perhaps they could teach him to control his sight. He could see a path, tenuous, and thready, that lead to clarity, to finding balance.

Clockwork didn't regret putting an end to his madness, and the destruction it was causing, but he did regret not reading the contract a little more closely. And, perhaps, not picking some other, less shady group to trust with his sanity.

Not that he hadn't been grateful. But even the deepest gratitude had it's limits, and after many, many long years, Clockwork had found his.

So he resented the Observants.

Then, after their treatment of Daniel, who was his, he hated them.

.

.

.

Clockwork looked up from his musings as the door to the room he was waiting in (a lavishly appointed meeting room) was opened. He expected an Observant, a lower ranked one most likely, to arrive and tell him the purpose for which he was summoned, but he was mistaken. An occurrence rare enough to raise his eyebrows.

“Nephthys,” he said, addressing his fellow Ancient. “What brings you here?”

“Don't you know?” teased the dark-skinned woman, brushing her curly hair back over her shoulder. Clockwork's lips thinned, and twitched. “Sorry,” said Nephthys. “They're pulling that again, are they?” She continued, not waiting for an answer, “They called an official meeting of the full High Council. Ancients, Judges, Court Magicians-”

Clockwork scoffed. “A way to get more Observant votes to the table.”

“True, but there's no need to interrupt me.”

Clockwork made a face. “I apologize.”

“I know you're under a lot of stress,” said Nephthys, consolingly. “Anyway, Ancients, Judges, Court Magicians, even though they're puppets, Generals, I know you don't like them, Tigers, Ravens, Smith, everybody. The whole High Council. But beyond that...” Nephthys trailed off, making a negligent gesture. “I don't really know. There are a limited number of things that they can call the High Council for, and a smaller number of things that the would call the High Council for, but I've been busy lately.” She (unnecessarily) straightened the veil pinned in her hair. She issued a sound that could have been a name, but not a human one, “is having some kind of global nuclear war, and it's just a nightmare.

“I have suspicions,” said Clockwork. “I know that Themis and Ma'at have been planning something lately. This may be a move on the Observants' part to disrupt that. Or,” and now Clockwork was voicing his fears, “it could be move against liminal spirits. To deny them the rights of ghosts.”

“Because of Daniel?”

“Yes,” said Clockwork shortly, voice tight.

“It won't happen,” said Nephthys, reassuringly. “You can't get enough votes to change the law. Most likely, they won't even be able to find enough councilors for a quorum. No one's seen the Generals since Pariah lost his mind, the Tigers don't listen to anyone, and Smith doesn't come to meetings unless he thinks there's going to be a change in leadership. Although...” Nephthys smiled, wickedly, running her fingers along the blade of her bagging hook. “I know a candidate I'd not say 'no' to. And I think you might, too.”

The door swung open again, and two women walked in, whispering fiercely. They stopped upon entering, and the second scanned the room.

“So,” said Ma'at of Many Feathers, “Issitoq hasn't bothered to show up yet. Why am I not surprised?”

“He isn't late yet,” said Themis, Most Honorable Lady of Scales and Sword. She was always fair. “We're actually early.”

“I have been waiting for almost three hours,” said Clockwork.

“They told you to come that early?” asked Themis, frowning behind her blindfold.

“Yes.”

“That's rude of them.”

The Court Magicians came next, all of them in a file, all of them, like Clockwork, unfortunates who had put too much trust in the Observants. They were powerful, clever people, but in many ways they might as well be thralls, all their will dedicated to serving the Observants.

Then Fright Knight, youngest of the Ancients, came in, muttering imprecations about the Panopticon's stabling facilities under his breath. He sat down angrily. Fright Knight always wanted to bring Nightmare into Council meetings with him. The Council of Ancients allowed it. The Observants were a little more fastidious. Finicky. Ridiculous. Nightmare was at least as intelligent as any of them, and made no more mess than any other spectral creature.

Pandora came next, and she had felt the need to bring her spears with her. She spared one of her four hands to give a wave and brief greeting to Clockwork and Nephthys, and sat down next to Themis. They were related. Tenuously. Themis was one of Pandora's great-great aunts, although they were almost the same age.

Then, surprisingly, a Tiger came in, all black and white and electric blue, two green-eyed Ravens perched on his back. Lightning and fire made flesh. Times past, the Tigers had been made the representatives of four-legged ghost animals, and the Ravens had been chosen as representatives of those that had wings and feathers. The Tigers had laughed off the whole thing as a bad cause hundreds of years ago, but the Ravens always sent at least two to attend.

The next one to enter was Nocturne, Ancient Master of Dreams. He had his mask on at an angle, and was clutching a pillow, his starry mantle drawn close around him. He smiled sleepily at Clockwork and Nephthys, and sat down next to them.

“How has your grandson been?” asked Nocturne.

“Daniel has been well.”

Nocturne smiled, blinking slowly. “He's a good child,” said Nocturne. “Clever,” he added, “winning my little game.” The ghost yawned. “Am I early?”

“Not any more,” said Themis, licking her thumb and slicking a loose strand of black hair back into her bun.

It was a few more minutes before the doors opened again, and Undergrowth and Vortex were lead into the room in chains by Observant guardsmen. Those present who were possessed of eyes glared at the two ghosts. Those who were possessed of clothing pulled them away, as if they thought that their clothes might get dirty from mere proximity.

Undergrowth and Vortex had been appointed to the Council of Ancients by Pariah Dark. They were not well liked. They probably wouldn't be well liked even if they hadn't been sociopaths.

Only then did Issitoq deign to appear, another, less richly dressed, Observant following in his wake, carrying a wooden box.

“I suppose this is everyone,” said Issitoq, looking down his nonexistent nose at the gathered ghosts. Undergrowth and Vortex growled, deep voices echoing.

“I should hope so,” drawled Clockwork. “You do realize how late you are?”

Issitoq didn't even acknowledge the Ancient.

“Then-”

The door opened. Smith, with his brawny arms, curly beard and thick black apron, walked in.

It was too bad that Issitoq had centuries of experience hiding his emotions. Clockwork would have liked to see his shocked face.

Smith quietly walked to an empty seat, and perched himself on it with no fanfare. He gazed expectantly at Issitoq with bright black eyes.

“The High Council has been called to deal with an issue that affects all the Infinite Realms,” announced Issitoq.

(Well, if that hadn't been the case, he would soon have some very angry, very powerful ghosts on his hands.)

Issitoq nodded to his assistant, who flipped open the box. Nestled on the crushed velvet was a sharply-pointed crown. Green fire licked weakly up its sides. Ma'at and Themis looked pleased. On closer inspection, the box was set with symbols that Ma'at's people favored. One of them had likely retrieved it from Vladimir, and forced the Observants to acknowledge it. Clockwork knew that they had been watching Vladimir for some time now.

“We must find a way to restore-”

Issitoq was cut off with a sharp laugh. “Restore?” asked Nephthys. “A Crown once faded cannot be restored. There's only one thing left to do.”

“And that is the business of the Council of Ancients, not the High Council,” said Fright Knight, standing, as if to leave.

One of the Court Magicians said, “But we've spent so long without a reigning king... The people wouldn't accept it.”

Another said, “You would also need a candidate that fulfills all conditions, and there simply aren't any available. Not that you'd all agree on.” His eyes flicked towards Undergrowth and Vortex.

“You'll note,” said Clockwork, “that the rules do not in fact require that we all agree.”

The Tiger purred. “You imply that a ghost has defeated one of you?”

“None of that,” said Issitoq, “matters. We are not here to choose a new king, we are here to prevent that becoming a necessity.”

Clockwork rolled his eyes. Issitoq was only delaying the inevitable.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 44: Overcharged

.

Mr Lancer was worried about Daniel.

Although, honestly, he had been worried about Daniel for quite some time. Sleeping in class, skipping class, the bruises hidden under long sleeves, skipping lunch, rarely turning in homework... These had all conspired to paint a sinister picture. Knowing the truth was...

Not as much of a relief as he had thought it would be.

Actually, Mt Lancer wasn't sure that it didn't make it worse. Knowing. Knowing that his small, timid, gentle, clumsy student spent all his time fighting ghosts, protecting the city, pulling people from fires and car wrecks, catching buses that went off cliffs, and, worst of all, running from ghost hunters. From the GIW. From those 'Extreme Ghost Busters' and 'Scaredy Cat' people. From his own parents.

Then there was this. This thing about causing the apocalypse. Mr Lancer honestly couldn't imagine Daniel doing anything like that on purpose. He had difficulty imagining Daniel doing anything immoral on purpose. The one thing that Mr Lancer knew about for certain that Daniel had done that could be considered morally wrong was cheating on the CAT, and he hadn't followed through on that. Actually, when he had confessed to it, he'd acted like the world was ending. Like he had expected to get a much worse punishment than having to retake the test. Like he had committed some kind of crime.

He looked sick, too. Ill. That might be expected, considering how his own parents had attacked him. With that weapon, the Mortifier, and whatever that other thing was supposed to be. But... Knowing now, reading between the lines, between the lies...

Mr Lancer had to wonder if Phantom- if Daniel- was really starving, really dying. He had to wonder if the way he kept zoning out, staring into the distance, and dozing off meant anything.

Mr Lancer was worried about Daniel.

And he didn't know what to do.

.

.

.

Danny shuffled back into the cabin. As soon as he was full, he had started to crash. Again. He had been alright before dinner (did it count as dinner or a really late lunch), but as soon as he was full, he'd started dozing off.

He was tempted to lean into Jazz, or Tucker, or Sam, but they had to be just as tired as he was, and he didn't want to aggravate his temperature issues. Which, he suspected, were getting worse. He had waited until the spaghetti (courtesy of Rebecca and Kwan) was stone cold before eating it.

Danny yawned hugely, and rubbed his eye. At least he wasn't passing out while walking, like he had last night. (Night? Day? The clocks in that bedroom, while calming, hadn't been helpful in determining the time.)

Oh. Echo and Fractal were there, in the cabin. Sitting on the bed. With a bottle of something that glowed so brightly green that it was almost white. Wisps waited expectantly on every surface. Danny could taste the energy in the air.

“Uh, Echo, Fractal,” said Sam, “what's going on?”

“This is the thing we were talking about earlier,” said Fractal.

“The thing that can help,” added Echo.

“What is it?” asked Tucker, poking Danny in the back so he would move forward and Tucker could get into the room.

“Purified, high-energy ectoplasm,” said Fractal. “These guys helped us charge it,” he said smiling at the wisps.

“Is that safe?” asked Jazz, squinting at the bright bottle. “It isn't going to make him bounce off the walls, is it?”

“I'm sure that it's going to have side effects, if that's what you mean, but all medicine does.”

“Well, if it's going to help...” said Jazz, glancing on Danny. “Danny,” she said, “are you alright?”

Danny shook himself out of his daze. “Hm? Yes. Just a lot of... Calmness.” He waved his hand in the air. “Sleepy.”

“Oh,” said Fractal. “Yes. We asked them to do that. We were hoping that would counteract the hyperactivity.”

“Yeah, because this is literally an energy drink,” said Echo. “Closest thing to liquid energy in the Realms or on Earth. That we know of, anyway.”

“This isn't going to turn out like the caffeine disaster, is it?” asked Sam suspiciously, even as she stepped closer.

“Don't you trust us?” asked Echo, miming a blow to his heart.

“About as much as I trust Danny when it comes to his health.”

“Hey,” complained Danny. “I'm not that bad.”

“You're that bad,” chorused Sam, Tucker, and Jazz.

Fractal cleared his throat. “We aren't looking for a 'quick fix' with this. We're trying to give his core what it needs to repair itself.”

“Okay, okay,” said Danny. “Guys. Really. I've eaten ectoplasm before. I'm half made of ectoplasm. It'll be fine.” He made his sleepy way to the bed, sat down, and took the bottle. It seemed to flutter under his fingers. It was magnetic. Attractive. It promised sustenance that the meal he had just eaten lacked. “Why can't the wisps give this to me directly, though?” he asked absently, turning the small bottle over between his fingers, humming a translation of the question to the wisps.

“They've been trying,” said Fractal. “You're not absorbing very well. This will go directly into your body.”

“Okay,” said Danny. He spun off the cap. “Hope this works.” He raised the bottle to his lips, tipped it back, and drained it.

“So,” started Sam.

“Oh wow,” said Danny, putting the bottle down with a shudder. “Oh. Wow.” He crossed his arms over his stomach, hunching over. His eyes were bright, swirling green.

“Danny, are you-?” Jazz reached out to Danny, but he jumped up, and started pacing, seemingly not even noticing her.

“Oh wow,” he repeated. “Oh wow. Oh no. Oh no. No no no no no...” The words morphed turned into a high pitched whine that cut out just before it got physically painful to listen to. The shadows had shrunk into little fetal balls.

“Danny,” said Sam, trying to get his attention. She put a gentle hand on his arm. He nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Little brother,” said Jazz. “It's okay, it's just us. You're okay.”

“Deep breaths, Danny, deep breaths,” said Tucker.

His next whine might have had their names in it. Then Danny sunk to his knees, withdrawing into his own fetal position. His next words were muffled. “I'm bad.” Echo made a strange, deflated sound, and then uncurled, clutching the edge of the mattress with shaking hands.

“Danny,” said Jazz, starting to rub his back, describing little circles with her hand, “you're not bad. Why would you think you're bad?”

“I'm bad,” repeated Danny. His thoughts were racing, spinning, oh, Ancients he was out of control, he should have known what he was doing was wrong, he had known, he had just ignored it, he was horrible, he was awful, he was bad, bad, bad. “I'm bad.”

“Danny, you're not bad,” started Tucker, uncertainly. “You're like the best person I know. Who else would forgive me after all the stunts I've pulled?”

“I'm bad, I did bad things. Bad, bad, bad things.” He sobbed. “I cheated. I'm bad.

“Cheated..?” Sam exchanged glances with the other two. “You... You're not still... Danny, you didn't do it. It didn't happen.”

“I'm bad,” insisted Danny. “I cheated to get them to say yes, I lied. I...” He trailed off as wisps descended to land on his back and shoulders. Sam and Jazz worked together to untangle Danny's hands from his hair. Tucker awkwardly took over the back-patting. “I lied. I'm a liar. I'm a cheater. They trusted me and I cheated and I lied. And I- I couldn't even say what I did, I couldn't say anything I can't tell the truth when it's important, when it's not important when it- I hurt people. Ancients help me. Ancients... This is my fault because I-” he cut off.

“What, for dying?” demanded Sam, angrily

Yes.

“Danny, you're not a liar. You tell us the truth.”

“No I don't. I lie to you too. I'm bad.”

“About what?” asked Tucker, scandalized, before Jazz sent him a glare.

“The nightmares,” answered Echo in a strained voice, as Danny shuddered and moaned. Jazz wrapped her arms around her little brother, and he clung to her. “We lie about those. We lie about the blood and the pain. We lie about re-gifting presents. We lie about what happened in the futures that never happened. How much we remember. We lie about singing in the shower.”

“Oh, Danny, we already know about all of that.”

“You do?” asked Danny.

“It would be hard not to,” said Jazz.

“Oh,” said Danny. “I'm sorry.” He sniffed. “I'm sorry.”

“You don't have anything to be sorry for.”

“Y-you shouldn't have to deal with me.” He sniffed. “I'm sorry. I'm a mess. You shouldn't have to deal with me and my freak outs and my craziness and-and-” He looked up at Jazz with wide green eyes. “Do you think they know?”

“Who?”

“Mom and Dad? What if they know, 'cause you know, and they just- and they hate me and that's why- They hate me oh, Ancients.”

“Breathe, Danny. Mom and Dad don't hate you. They just don't understand you.”

“Okay,” said Danny. “Okay. I'm sorry, Jazz.”

“You don't have anything to be sorry for. You're okay.”

“I'm sorry, Sam. I'm sorry, Tucker. I'm sorry. For- for making you deal with this.”

“Hey,” said Tucker. “It's like Jazz said, you don't have anything to apologize for. We want to help you.”

“Yeah,” said Sam. “That's what we're here for.”

Danny hiccuped. “You're too good. I don't- I don't deserve you.”

“No way, Danny, that's you.”

“Oh, heck,” said Echo suddenly. “Why now?”

“What?” asked Sam.

“They're coming.”

“Who?”

“Here, into bed, pretend to be asleep. Fractal,” said Echo to the shadow who was bleeding blue from under his glasses, “go somewhere else.” Fractal made a pathetic, crooning noise, and vanished. “Hurry,” urged Echo, lifting Danny up, and tucking him into a bed. He glanced at the door, grimaced, and then vanished himself.

Maddie and Jack appeared in the doorway minutes later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 45: The Best Lies

.

“Uh,” said Jack. “We wanted to talk to Jazz and Danny.”

“Danny's asleep,” said Jazz, defensively, glancing at the lump that was Danny. She saw Sam and Tucker moving inwards slightly out of the corners of her eyes, subtly protecting their friend. “He's been tired. Is it something that just I can help you with?”

Maddie and Jack exchanged a glance.

“I think...” said Maddie. “Yes. I think that you can. Sam, Tucker, I'm sorry if we interrupted your getting ready for bed.” She gave Danny a lingering glance before turning around and walking out.

Jazz followed her parents out, shooting a glance at Danny herself. He was doing a good job of faking sleep.

Maddie and Jack lead her off to the side of the cabin. It was quiet out, but not silent. The hiss of rushing water, the rustle of leaves, and the faint strains of wisp's conversations filled the air.

“So, what's up?” asked Jazz, leaning against the wall.

“We wanted to apologize,” said Maddie, “to you and Danny. We haven't been handling this situation very well.”

Jazz blinked. “Okay,” she said. “Apology accepted. What else?”

“Does there have to be something else?”

“If that was it, you would have said it back inside.”

“We... Just, why, Jazz? Why do you and Danny really trust Phantom?”

“We told you,” said Jazz. “We explained it. It was gradual. He earned our trust over time.”

Jack and Maddie gave Jazz a sad look. “Jazzy, we know that's what you said, but there has to be more than that. We raised you better than that.”

Jazz raised an eyebrow. “Yes. You raised me better than to hate people for no reason, despite your hatred of ghosts.” Jazz sighed. “You are scientists, right? Try to think about this objectively. What has Phantom actually done? Really? We've explained everything, all of the bad things, already. Sam and Tucker saw most of it, directly. I've seen a lot of it. What more do you want?”

“We want you to be safe,” said Maddie.

“Then, believe it or not, you and Phantom want the same thing.”

“Jazz, your whole... Danny's whole... relationship with Phantom is built on a lie.”

“What do you mean?”

“Phantom said that he was a young ghost- a new ghost- when he came out of the portal. That's impossible.”

“That ghost was way too powerful, Jazzy! A new ghost would have fallen apart outside of the Ghost Zone! Melted!”

“Without the stabilizing influence of the Ghost Zone, he couldn't have formed such a complex form,” said Maddie, “and that's not even taking into account all the stories.”

“Your great-great- uh- great-great- um. Your ancestor John Fenton-Nightingale has a picture of Phantom from over three-hundred years ago!”

“I know you research everything, Jazz. You had to have known. There are records, clear pictures, of Phantom going back to Babylon. He's old, and powerful. So why do you trust him?”

Jazz bit her lip. She hadn't expected them to know that. What could she say? How should she say it? She couldn't tell them the truth. “I think,” she said, very cautiously, “that you should wait for Danny.”

“We can't, Jazz. We've signed a contract with this thing. It's inside Danny. We-”

“Don't call him a thing,” snapped Jazz.

“If we're going to trust... him,” said Maddie, “we need to know what you know.”

At that moment, Echo flicked into vision behind Jack and Maddie. He was holding a wallet in his hand, pointing at it, and nodding encouragingly. He looked better than he had back in the room. Still drained, drawn, and flushed slightly green, but upright.

Why was he-?

Oh.

Okay.

She could do that.

Echo could, apparently, see the comprehension blooming in her eyes, because he promptly vanished.

Jazz quickly returned her attention to her parents. “You're right,” she said, “there is something else.” She pulled her wallet from her back pocket, and opened it. There was a wad of pictures in one of the credit card pouches, and she thumbed through them, looking for one in particular. She found it, and pulled it free.

It was a small photo. Sam had taken it. It was of Danny. Danny and Danny. Jazz had been keeping as a sort of 'get out of jail free' card for Danny. 'Proof' that he couldn't be Phantom. It was from the time with the Ghost Catcher, before things had gotten weird. Weirder.

Danny-as-Fenton and Danny-as-Phantom were standing side by side, leaning slightly in towards each other. They had identical, slightly surprised looks on their faces. Mirror images. Jazz frowned at it. This was a risk. She hoped that she was doing the right thing here.

“Here,” she said, offering the photo to her parents. “Notice anything?”

Maddie and Jack peered at the picture, each holding a corner.

“Time is strange in the Ghost Zone,” said Jazz. “You can fall through a portal and wind up in Ancient Egypt, or a hundred years in the future. Paradoxes are common.”

“This is... Oh, no. No,” said Maddie. The fingers of her free hand hovered, trembling, over the surface of the picture. “There are shapeshifting ghosts. This is just another one of Phantom's lies. We shouldn't have signed that-”

“Mom. Really.”

“That's the only explanation. He can't- He just looks like Danny.”

“How did we not see this before?” asked Jack. “They look so much alike.”

“They take pains to make sure they aren't seen together,” said Jazz. “It isn't like it's an easy connection to make, especially if you don't know about the time travel issue.”

“You're saying,” said Maddie, looking ill, “that he's- that Phantom's... Danny. From the future.”

“Honestly, we don't know how it works. If he's from the future, or an alternate time line, or what. He doesn't either. The portal or whatever did a number on him. And Danny didn't accept it right away. Not like you think he did.”

“Phantom's scar,” said Maddie, still looking at the picture, “it's the same as Danny's.”

“Yeah. We think that's what killed him.”

“He could be a copy,” said Jack.

“What?” said Jazz. This was going off the rails.
“An ectoplasmic copy of Danny,” said Jack. “It- He could have been formed in the portal, when it turned on, and Danny got shocked... Danny would have acted as a mold... And then Phantom would have formed on this side, and then... He would have gone back into the portal, into the Ghost Zone. Until a month later and then...”

“Then everything is consistent,” finished Maddie.

Jazz blinked. Sometimes she forgot how smart her father could be. But this explanation was really way too close to the truth. She hoped that it wouldn't cause any problems when Danny finally did decide to tell them.

.

.

.

Once Jack, Maddie, and Jazz left, Sam dropped down by Danny, and touched his hand, which was clenched tight around the blankets. “Danny, are you okay?”

“That was weird,” muttered Danny. His eyes opened slowly. They were still green. His skin appeared to be glowing slightly.

“Yeah, no kidding. What happened?”

“Dunno. Everything just seemed so much heavier. I guess. I'm sorry I give you guys all this trouble. Always causing trouble.”

“Hey, Danny, don't go down that way,” said Tucker.

“I'm so sorry,” said Fractal. They turned around. Fractal had reappeared. His face was still streaked with blue, and he was holding his glasses in his hand. This was the first time they had actually, directly seen Fractal's eyes. Fractal seemed to realize this, and pushed the glasses back onto his face. “We didn't expect that.”

Danny pushed himself into a sitting position. “So you know what happened?”

“Sort of? I have a theory. Or some theories. The ectoplasm didn't reach your core all at once, I think. Or it didn't affect it all at once. Or it upset the balance between your core and your brain. Remember when you were separated? And you went to extremes on both halves? I think it might be like that. Maybe. But now you've adjusted, and we've adjusted, so we're all good. I think.”

“So you actually have no idea?” asked Danny, amused.

“Not really, no.”

“Danny,” said Jazz, walking back into the room. “Uh, Fractal. You guys look better?”

“I feel a bit better, anyway,” said Danny, rubbing green eye. He looked down at his hand. “Do my veins look like they're glowing to you?”

“A bit,” said Jazz.

“So what did Mom and Dad want?”

“Well...”

.

.

.

“Do you think that Jazz told us the truth this time, Mads?”

“I think,” said Maddie, “that she was telling more of the truth than she has been.”

“But not the whole thing.”

“No.” Maddie put her head in her hands. “Jack, when did we go wrong? What did we do? Why don't our children trust us anymore?”

“I don't know,” said Jack, morosely.

“What are we going to do?”

“We'll just have to keep going,” said Jack. He sighed heavily. “What do you think the truth is?”

“Something bad,” said Maddie. “Something to do with Phantom, and how he's connected to Danny. We shouldn't have signed that contract. What if he's hurting Danny?”

“Jazz wouldn't let that happen. She wouldn't work with Phantom if he was hurting Danny. There's- There's something else going on. And we'll find out what it is.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 46: And Harmony

.

Danny had nightmares.

Danny was having nightmares.

He knew they were nightmares. He knew he was asleep, knew he was dreaming. He knew he was lying in bed, in the cabin in his lair. He could almost feel the sheets, Jazz trying to wake him up.

He hated this kind of nightmare. Well, he hated all kinds of nightmares, but being trapped like this was worse than he would think, if he had been told about it by someone else.

In the dream he was sitting on top of an open, freestanding doorway. Grey-green stone stretched beneath it in all directions. Above, the sky was overcast blue and beaten. Danny was wrapped in a long, dark cloak, and a sword was balanced across his knees. A long, golden arrow was plunged through his chest, and it stung with every breath.

As far as nightmares went, it wasn't especially disturbing. But, there were things to be done. Things he had to do. Here. Fire was on the horizon, the sky was burning. Dripping. Things were coming. Enemies in armor.

And he couldn't move.

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Lairs did not have minds, as humans would recognize them. They did not have thoughts. Not anymore than a computer would have thoughts. But they did have processes. Systems. Functions.

One such function was 'looking' outside the door. It used this to identify and pick up things to furnish its interior. Objects that the lair itself could not duplicate. Food, clothing, clocks, knives... all things picked up from the void of the Infinite Realms.

But, right now, it was using that function, that ability, to watch something else. Someone else. Several someones else. It wasn't particularly pleased about this development, inasmuch as it could be pleased or displeased about anything. The men and women who now floated outside the door on odd, white and camouflage scooter-like vehicles were not ones that the lair intended, inasmuch as the lair could intend anything, to welcome.

“Agent Alpha,” greeted began one of the men.

“Agent Beta. Report?”

“Phantom's ectosignature is definitely coming from behind this door,” said Agent Beta.

“Agent Nu?”

“We are also detecting multiple 'real world' signals on our radar, sir. The targets are definitely inside.”

Agent Alpha nodded, and pulled a radio set from the dashboard of his vehicle. “This is Agent Alpha-Eurydice, calling Alpha-Orpheus, and Alpha-Inanna. Over.”

“Alpha-Orpheus receiving, over.”

“Alpha-Inanna receiving, over.”

“We have reached a door. We believe that the targets are inside. Alpha-Inanna, please advise. Over.”

There was a beat of silence. “Team Inanna will continue to target prime. Team Orpheus will join Team Eurydice, to set up camp at the door, then Team Eurydice will enter and eliminate secondary targets, then call back to Team Orpheus to acquire the tertiary targets. Agent Alpha-Orpheus is in command in event of radio-contact loss with Team Inanna. Over.”

“Understood, over.”

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He woke up and decided his name was Shade. This was a simple decision. Other decisions would be harder. Sharper. He sat up, peeling himself off the roof, and ran a hand through his hair. Short. He plucked a hair out. Black. Interesting.

Below, people walked the streets, in and out of the empty doorways. Peaceful. He breathed in, breathed out. A moment to savor. These were the people who had been welcomed. Who had come through the door, and lived in harmony. These were the people they should protect. Who had been protected.

Plane disappeared in Bermuda, hikers lost in the forest, people vanished from locked rooms. Danny had always wondered where they went, the people who fell into the Infinite Realms. Clockwork never told him. This couldn't be all of them, though. No more than a fraction.

Still. Shade was happy. Looking at them. He smiled, faintly, the expression foreign on his new face. The expression faded when he remembered the men outside. He would need more than his fists if he were to fight them off. He'd need weapons.

Well, there was a workshop in the lair. The weaponry that had been removed from his parents had probably made its way there by now, too. Perhaps he should find his own way there. He looked to his left. Another shadow was already forming there. Shade nodded, and blinked out of existence.

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Anthony Trent, the mayor of Harmony, formerly copilot of AquillaAir Flight 221, stared up at the roof. Life in Harmony could be weird, as the last two years had shown him, his passengers, and all the other people who had wandered (or had been led) into the odd sanctuary. An unfamiliar naked teenager sitting on the roof of the Door Building was a different kind of weird.

But when he blinked, the boy was gone. Anthony frowned, and scanned the sparkling, rippling, midnight-fire sky, before returning his eyes to the roof. The Door Building was by far the strangest building in Harmony, what with the UFO perched on its roof, and the only one that lead to the twisting, green Outside. Maybe someone had come through? The Door was supposed to be guarded, though. Protected, in case something or someone unpleasant tried to come through. Anthony would have to have words with whoever had that duty today, and get someone to find that poor boy.

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“Do we really believe that there's a workshop on the other side of this library?”

“We've believed so much else,” said Maddie, peering cautiously around a bookshelf. “Besides, if we obliged to him by that contract, he's obliged to us.”

“So?”

“So if we get lost, he has to find us.”

They hurried down another row of bookshelves. “I think I see it, Maddie!”

“Where?” asked Maddie, looking up.

Jack picked her up, and put her on his shoulder. “There,” he said, pointing.

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Danny woke up with a start. “Heck,” he said. He rolled out of the bed, thumping into the floor. Jazz had fallen asleep in a spine-bending position next to his bed. Danny winced. Danny looked around, found Sam, and then Tucker, tucked into their own beds. Jazz's bed looked slept in. He must have woken her up at some point in the night.

He hated those kinds of nightmares. He hated the sensation of being awake and aware, but not really. He hated that feeling of being trapped. Not that he particularly liked any kind of nightmare.

Something about this one, though... He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to remember. He gasped as his memory of the second half of the dream coalesced. Oh, this was not good. Not. Good.

“Jazz?” he said, shaking her shoulder. “I need your help. Please.”

Jazz came awake quickly.

“What's happened?”

“Mom and Dad have gone to the workshop,” said Danny.

“What? How'd you know?”

“I had a dream. And Shade- There's a new shadow, and I don't think that he's quite as in tune with the lair, and what's going on as the others and he was going there too, and- and he has black hair, he looks like human me and there's just- They're going to run into each other and they're figuring things out. What do I do, Jazz?” The litany was hissed at whisper-volume.

“Um,” said Jazz, blinking. “That's- Well. Do you want Mom and Dad to figure things out?”

“I- Um. I don't know, Jazz. I- I don't want to wake Sam and Tucker to wake up.”

“Okay,” said Jazz, getting to her feet, and cracking her neck. “Maybe,” she said, once they had left the cabin, “you could get Echo or Fractal to stop them? Or tell the other one?”

“Not really,” said Fractal, pulling the appearing out of nowhere trick. “We can't make big changes to the lair, and I doubt we could stop them otherwise without it turning into a fight. Which we can't do. As for warning off Shade... What he's doing is important. He needs all the time he can get. I should actually be there, helping him.” Fractal rubbed his arm, nervously.

“Why?” asked Jazz.

“There are Guys in White people in front of the door. At least, we think they're Guys in White. Some of them are in camo.” He shifted uneasily. “I'm worried about the people in town.”

“What town?” asked Danny, aghast. There was a town now? Was Fractal talking about Amity Park? Or something in the Ghost Zone? Did his door open up in a town?”

“Um,” said Fractal. “Your lair is really, really big. Obscenely big.”

“There's a town. Full of people. In here?”

“Yes. Mostly humans, a few ghosts.”

“How? Why?

“After seeing the library made of trees, you're asking how?”

“Fine. Again. Why?”

Fractal shrugged. “They needed somewhere to go. We- The lair- could only give them a place to be. So we did.”

Danny sighed. “Okay. Great. Good to know that there are potentially hundreds more people in here, and also maybe the Guys in White. I'm going to go back to freaking out about the first problem now, because it looks like that's the only one that I can do anything about. What am I going to do about my parents?”

“I could bring you to them,” said Fractal. “Or to the workshop.”

“Okay, just- Let me think,” said Danny, rubbing his eyes. “Are my eyes still green?”

“Yes,” said Jazz. “A little.”

“Okay,” said Danny, squeezing them shut. He opened them. “How about now?” he asked, his voice trembling.

“No. Danny, are you going to tell them?”

“I- I think so,” said Danny. “I think I have to.”

“Do you want to.”

“I don't know,” whispered Danny. “I don't want to fight them anymore. I don't want to fight anyone anymore.” He sniffled. “I want to rest. I want a break.”

“Danny...” Jazz trailed off, her voice full of concern. “You know, we're here for you, right? Sam, Tucker, and I?”

“Not that kind of rest, Jazz,” Danny said with a weak smile. “Like I said, that's not one of my problems. I'm just... tired of being hated.”

“Okay,” said Jazz. “I just worry about you.” She looked at Fractal. “Can you bring me, too?”

Fractal shook his head. “I don't think that it would be healthy for you to travel like we do,” he said. “You aren't connected like we are, like Danny is.”

“It's okay, Jazz. I can do this. Really. I-” he faltered. “Take me to them, Fractal.”

They vanished.

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Valerie Gray had been having trouble sleeping. She'd been lying awake for hours, tossing and turning in her bed. She'd finally summoned part of her suit, a combination ecto-scanner/listening device that was notoriously buggy, just to distract herself. It was supposed to pick up only ghosts, but it often homed in on humans, and, well, after accidentally eavesdropping on her neighbors one time too many, she had stopped using it.

She hadn't meant to overhear that whispered conversation. She hadn't even heard more than half of it. But what she had heard...

Well, it was more than enough to keep her awake for the rest of the night.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 47: Behind the Curtain

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Danny was wrong. The shadows did not teleport. At least, they didn't use the same kind of teleportation that Danny had managed once or twice before, or the kind Vlad forced on him now and again. What the shadows did was less like teleportation, and more like merging with the lair, and flowing through it. It was weirdly comforting, a lot like slipping into a tub of warm water had felt before the Accident. Except he was made of water and ice, and he was clinging to yet more water. Being pulled out was a shock. It left him gasping and shivering behind a bookshelf.

“Who's there?” called Maddie, harshly. “We can hear you,” she said, when Danny didn't respond.

With an effort, Danny pulled himself up off the floor, taking Fractal's offered hand. He walked out from between the bookcases, hands raised. “Just me,” said Danny.

“Danny?!” exclaimed Jack and Maddie.

“No,” said Maddie, her eyebrows pinching together. “Phantom.”

“Would you believe me if I told you that you were right both times?” asked Danny, laughing nervously. He had forgotten to hide his eyes, to pull back the glow.

“Why are you here?” asked Jack.

“Um. To talk to you. Why are you here?”

“Why do you want to talk to us?” demanded Maddie.

“Because you're my parents,” said Danny.

“So you're going with that, then,” said Maddie. “You expect us to believe that you're some kind of copy of Danny?”

(It would be so easy to say yes.)

“No,” said Danny, “because that would be a lie.”

“I knew it!” exclaimed Jack.

Danny winced, hard, at the sudden exclamation, half-retreating behind a bookshelf.

“Do you really expect us to believe anything you say now?” asked Maddie.

“I hope you will,” said Danny, quietly. “I- I'm-” he swallowed. “I don't know where to start,” he admitted finally.

“Start with why you're possessing Danny, and whether or not we've spoken with him at all since we first got here,” said Maddie. Her voice was softer now, but still stern.

“I- Oh, gosh. Begin with that. Okay. Um. I'm not possessing anyone. I'm- I'm not overshadowing anyone, either. And you've been talking to Danny, to me, the entire time.”

“What-”

“The overshadowing thing was a cover. I- I had to explain why my eyes were green, why that- that thing you guys made affected me, and that was the easiest way, and then it snowballed and- I don't know. I didn't want to tell you like this. I wanted- I wanted to tell you right away, two years ago, but things kept happening, and then I got scared. I didn't want to hurt you. Please don't hate me.” This was going poorly. Danny was crying, his tears faintly luminous.

Maddie took two steps forward. “What are you talking about? What happened two years ago?” She took another step forwards, bringing herself within arm's reach of Danny. “Who are you?”

“I'm Danny,” he said. “I've always been Danny. The whole time I-” he broke off, sobbing, backing away. “I'm Danny. Do- Do you remember, when you tried to turn on the portal for the first time? And it didn't work? You were so sad. You were going to stop, give everything up. You- You spent a whole week just depressed. More than I've ever seen. You didn't even open the mail. And then- And then Jazz convinced you to go out, to cheer yourselves up, but while you were out-” He shuddered, his core vibrating in protest. He didn't want to relive this.

“How- Danny?”

Danny nodded convulsively, squeezing his eyes shut. “Sam and Tucker wanted to see the inside of the portal, but I told them to wait while I checked it out.”

“What do you mean, while you checked it out?” asked Maddie, horrified. “You told us you were outside the portal when it shocked you!”

“We lied. Sam and Tucker and I. We lied. I went in. There was an 'on' switch on the inside.”

“Oh, no,” whispered Jack.

“It- It hurt a lot. I- I died.”

“What- Danny, what do you mean you died?” Maddie took hold of one of Danny's wrists. “You have a pulse. You breathe. You eat. You're alive, Danny.”

“Yes,” said Danny. “But I'm also dead. They call it being liminal. Or liminality.” He opened his eyes. He phased his wrist out of his mother's grasp. “It's just me in here. It's always been me. The whole time.”

“But Jazz's picture!” said Jack.

“You know some ghosts can duplicate themselves,” said Danny. “I'm not very good at it, but...” Danny shrugged.

“No,” said Maddie. “No. That can't be-” She cut herself off with a gesture. “Prove it,” she demanded. “If you- If you and Danny- If you and Phantom- You look different. It's more than just- Phantom is ectoplasmic. He bleeds ectoplasm. He has an ectosignature.”

“You know your weapons and trackers always locked onto me,” said Danny. “Even the Ghost Gabber worked on me. I-” He stopped, and pulled off his shirt. “Look,” he said, pointing at the florescent discoloration of his scars. “This is ectoplasm, right?”

Maddie laughed once, suddenly, sharply, without humor. Danny flinched back. “So, what? You're trying to tell me that Danny has been, what, running around in a wig? Stashing a black and white HAZMAT suit away, like- like-” Maddie sobbed, then almost screamed, “Do you expect us to believe that?! With the way you- Phantom shows up everywhere?!”

Danny jerked back, hands going up to his chest. He could feel his core fluttering under his fingers. He was still sick, but the energized ectoplasm was working on him. Had it done enough? “It isn't like that,” he said, finally. “It's more like, I can switch, from one side to the other. Right now, I'm mostly human. But I can switch. I can- I can become a ghost. Become Phantom.”

“Show us,” said Jack.

“Okay,” said Danny, taking a few steps back. “Okay. I'll try. Just- Please. Please.”

Danny squeezed his eyes shut and mentally tapped on his core. It hurt, ached beyond pain. Beyond words. But it was a different kind of pain than what had stopped him from changing before, and he wanted this. He wanted to know, finally.

(He could feel the shadows waiting, watching, ready to intervene if something went wrong.)

He tapped his core again, this time calling up his rings.

The world went gray.

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When Danny came back to himself, he was half-curled on the floor. He felt weak, but light. Sounds came back next, rising above the blood rushing through his veins, and the slow drumbeat of his heart. An argument?

Danny blinked, chasing away the gray fuzz that had obscured his vision. Echo was standing half over him, a sword made of ice in his right hand, a fistful of fire in his left, hurling invective at Danny's parents, who stood some distance away, shocked.

It was hard for Danny to pull himself up, but Fractal was there helping him. He grabbed a handful of Echo's sweater, and tugged on it. His hand was gloved, now, and clearly glowing. “Stoppit,” said Danny, voice slurred. “Don't fight.”

Echo moaned. Typical ghost distress signal. “But-”

“Izokay,” said Danny, overbalancing into Echo. The shadow bit his lip, but the sword and fire vanished. Danny nodded. “It's okay,” he repeated, making an effort to speak clearly. He looked up at his parents. “Do you hate me?” he asked, voice breaking.

“Oh, Danny, no,” said Maddie, sinking to her knees. “We could never- This is our fault isn't it? We did this.”

“No,” protested Danny.

At the same time, Echo hissed, “Yes.

“These shadows-” started Maddie.

“But the records!” said Jack. “The Nightingale journals, you- Phantom-” He cut off, mouth still moving, no sound coming out.

“Time's weird in here,” said Danny. “In th' Zone. If y'know what you're doin' you can go anywhere, anywhen. Clockwork's been teaching my how to keep time.” Danny brought his hand up to his face. “Don' feel s'good.”

“Danny?” said Maddie, frightened.

Danny blinked. Maddie was suddenly right next to him. When had she managed that? Did she learn how to teleport, too? And why was Danny laying down again?

“Mom?” he asked, confused. His eyelids fluttered. “What..?”

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It was fairly obvious that the shadow- Echo- didn't want Maddie or Jack anywhere near Danny. Still, when Danny's eyes rolled back the second time, he grudgingly let them approach.

“What's wrong?” demanded Maddie.

“He's over-strained himself,” said the second shadow, Fractal, as the first cradled Danny's head in his lap, and made gentle noises. “You shouldn't have made him change.”

Maddie took one of Danny's hands, and searched for a pulse in his wrist. She found it but- “It's so slow,” she said.

“No, it isn't,” said Echo. He was testing Danny's pulse, too, but at the neck

“It is slow compared to a normal human heart rate,” said Fractal, “but Danny isn't a normal human.” The shadow leaned over Danny, a ball of light floating over his shoulder. He carefully prised back Danny's eyelids. “It isn't a concussion. At least, not a bad one.”

“Of course it isn't a concussion,” snapped Echo. “He hasn't had a chance to hit his head on anything.”

“It feels like a concussion, though, doesn't it?” murmured Fractal. His hands ghosted down to Danny's chest. “Oh,” he said softly. “That's why.”

“That's not good,” said Echo.

“What?” demanded Maddie.

“Mom?” groaned Danny, struggling to open his eyes. “What..?”

“Oh, good. Danny, you need to change back,” said Fractal.

“Change..?”

“Yes. You need to be human right now.”

“Why?”

“Your core is damaged. It can't run your body right now.”

Danny frowned, seeming to focus on something. Why hadn't Maddie noticed before now, that Danny and Phantom were practically identical, except in coloration? How had she not seen that Phantom's suit was so much like her own? Why hadn't she seen through Danny's increasingly transparent lies? It didn't matter that Danny was trying to keep this a secret. Maddie was his mother. She should have known.

“Not workin,'” mumbled Danny plaintively.

“What does that mean?” asked Jack.

Echo hissed. “You're probably overcharged,” said Fractal. “The things we do to ourselves,” he muttered under his breath.”

“Fr'm the...” Danny trailed off, hand making a lazy figure eight through the air.

“Yes.”

“Hm,” said Danny. “Wanna try something, gimme a sec.”

He closed his eyes.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 48: Twisting My Words

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Human-ghost hybrid biology (can you even call it that?) is strange. Complex. Each hybrid, or liminal spirit, to use the technical term, is different. Unique. Their bodies bend to both their minds, their personalities and self perceptions, and their genetics. Further differences are ensured by the degree of liminality they possess.

For example, Spectra possesses a very small degree of liminality. This is how she can fake humanity so well, despite being among the most inhumane of ghosts.

For example, the people of Amity Park all possess a very small degree of liminality. This is why, among other things, Spectra's plan to create a shell-body by extracting the best traits of the Casper High student body could work.

Danny is very, very liminal. One might even say that he is fully liminal.

His system is full of redundancies.

This is why he is so robust, so difficult to hurt, to take out of a fight. Danny could survive on just ectoplasm, or just human food, or quantities of both that would not be life (or after-life) sustaining by themselves. Danny does not need (for certain values of the word 'need') to breathe, even in human form, as long as he has stored sufficient energy in his ectoplasm. All of his human organs have ectoplasmic copies. All of his ectoplasmic organs have something akin to master blueprints stored in his core. This is why Danny can heal so quickly, even in human form. This is why Echo, Fractal, and the other shadows could have lungs to breathe with.

It also means that Danny has not one, not two, but three organs with which he thinks.

(It might actually be better to consider the whole arrangement to be one organ, one brain, with a unusually large number of hemispheres, as opposed to considering the components to be separate. There was only one Danny, after all, and, Ghost Catcher incident aside, he showed no signs of a split personality.)

(Although, it wasn't as if that really showed. Danny's grades hadn't been good since middle school.)

The first, obviously, is his brain, his human brain, the one he was born with. It had, until the accident, served as the sole seat of his consciousness.

Then there is his core, all but intangible and invisible, nestled beneath his heart. One could say that a ghost's core is analogous to a human brain, but, truthfully, it is so much more that that. A ghost can survive being reduced to their core.

(So can Danny. So has Danny.)

Finally, there is the ghostly copy of his brain. It serves (or served, before his human brain and core learned to work together, and more intimate connections were formed) as a kind of interface between Danny's human brain and his core. It was like the corpus callosum, in some ways. It works in tandem with his human brain, is modeled on it, is, except for its substance, identical to it. It lets (or let. There are redundancies. There have been improvements.) information from his core be written to his brain, and vice versa, despite the vastly different formats.

This does cause a few problems.

(Some anxieties should not be soul deep. Some concerns do not translate well from lightning-struck flesh to immaterial spirit. There are things that the living were not meant to know.)

But there are also benefits.

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Danny's idea was simple. It had to be. He was having too much trouble thinking for it to be anything but simple.

Here was his problem:

When Danny 'went ghost,' his core 'woke up,' became more active, more involved with the operation of the body, and his human brain leaned back, took up different roles in preparation for battle (which generally speaking, is what he transformed for). But right now, Danny's core was hurt. Damaged. It was healing, but it couldn't really deal with something as complex as Danny's body. It was trying, as hard as it could to curl up in a little ball of no.

What Danny should do, what he wished he could do, was turn back. Become human again, put his human brain back in charge. Unfortunately, because Danny had recently imbibed a large amount of energized ectoplasm (thanks Fractal, thanks Echo) that wasn't really working. Unlike with his ghost half, Danny's human side didn't have a convenient thing to grab hold of to kick-start the transformation. Usually, though, transforming back was beyond easy. He was dropping to his ground state, his lowest energy level, storing everything for later use. But with his core hurt (he did not want to think: broken) the energy he had taken in refused to be regulated. The fire, having started, refused to be put out.

His brain wasn't really cooperating either, even though it had (probably, Danny didn't, couldn't, keep track of this kind of thing) given him a potential solution. It did not like what was happening. It barely had the ability to control Danny's ectoplasmic body. It wasn't even detectable when Danny was in ghost form. (Danny didn't like thinking about what happened to his human body when he went ghost, mostly because he wasn't sure what happened to it. Injuries from his ghost form appeared on his human body, but the reverse didn't always happen. It was just... confusing.)

On the other hand, Danny's ghostly brain had a much better connection with his ghostly body, and it didn't have anything wrong with it. At least, it didn't have anything more wrong with it than usual. So using that should be fine.

Of course, this wasn't really a solution, more of a stop-gap measure, or a transition point, a step in a larger, still-unformed, plan. Also, the components weren't as disparate and disconnected as Danny made them sound. The system was a cohesive whole, just as a human brain, with its two hemispheres and the cerebellum, was a cohesive whole. The injury to his core had been affecting him even when he was in human form. This was just a way of thinking that Danny occasionally found useful.

So Danny closed his eyes and tried to focus, tried to find the parts of his mind that physical (semi-physical) structure. It was hard. His brains (strange to think of those in the plural) weren't easily distinguishable from one another. That was the point. Or a point.

Knowing that his parents were there, watching him, wasn't making this any easier.

But Danny did find it eventually, and gently pushed on it until his human brain was following it, instead of the other way around. It was a weird sensation, but not completely foreign.

He pulled himself up into a siting position, and blinked tiredly at his parents.

“Okay,” said Danny. “I think I can work with this.”

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Maddie watched Danny sit up. There were so few differences. She couldn't get over it.

His eyes were green, his ears were tapered, his teeth were sharp, his hair was white, and his skin was darker. But his features, they were the same. Beneath the swirling green, his eyes were the same as they had always been. How had she been so blind?

“Are you okay?” asked Danny. “I know this is- I- do you- Do you hate me?”

“I should be asking you that,” said Maddie. “Danny, we- we've done such awful things to you. We hunted you. We-”

“It's okay. You didn't know. I never- I never blamed you.”

“He should,” said Echo, darkly. “You know what you've done. You made those things, and you made them to hurt, to maim. You designed them that way.”

“Echo-”

“You hurt him,” said Echo, throwing his arms protectively around Danny, and glaring at Jack and Maddie. “It doesn't matter that you didn't know who you were doing it to, you were doing someone, and you meant to do it.”

“The things we've made, they're only supposed to affect ghosts-”

“That doesn't matter,” snapped Danny. “They're people, too.” He hissed, suddenly, bringing a hand to his chest. “I need to focus.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?”

“No,” said Danny. His aura flared suddenly, splitting into two bright blue-white rings and washing over his body, leaving him human again. Then he went limp in Echo's arms. “Hmm. That was weird.”

“Clever, though,” said Fractal. “It was interesting.” He moved so that he was tight against Danny's side, and brushed his lips against Danny's ear. He sent a glance in Maddie and Jack's direction that made it clear that he was taunting them. “We can use the data.”

“Data?” said Danny. He blinked twice, hard. His eyes were still green, but less luminous. Then he shrugged out of Echo's embrace. “You probably have questions,” he said. “Lots of questions.” He pulled himself into a cross-legged position. “I can answer them. Or try, at least.”

“Why wait until now to tell us?” asked Jack, a hand on Maddie's shoulder. If he hadn't been steadying her, she probably would have fallen over.

“I was scared. Not of you,” he said quickly. “I just didn't want to hurt you.”

“Hurt us?” said Maddie, incredulously. “Danny, our house is full of weapons that can hurt you. We were- We were making things specifically to hurt Phantom- to hurt you. You should have said something, anything.”

Danny flinched. “I know, but...”

Both of the shadows shifted so that they were slightly in-between Danny and Jack and Maddie. “You do get that we aren't human, right?” said Fractal, his tone light.

“And don't be all like 'of course,'” said Echo. “You clearly haven't registered the implications of this yet.”

“Echo,” said Danny, a note of warning in his voice. “I didn't want to hurt you.” He looked down, to where his ankles were crossed. “I didn't-” He bit his lip. “I have an obsession. This,” he brandished his hands, although what he was indicating wasn't clear, “it isn't cosmetic. It isn't skin deep. This is me. I'm- I'm as much a ghost as I am a human. I- I've- I just want to help people and I don't want to hurt anyone.”

“That's your obsession?” asked Maddie, carefully, cautiously, dropping to her knees and reaching out to Danny.

Danny nodded convulsively, but leaned back into Echo. Maddie let her hand drop. “Yeah,” he said.

“That's why you didn't tell us?”

“I- Partly. I guess. There were other reasons that made more sense, and there were always, you know, interruptions. Stuff. I guess. I'm sorry. Please, please, I know that I've screwed up, but...”

“Danny. Danny, we love you. You know we do.”

“You're our son, Danno. Nothing is going to change that. Not whether you're a ghost, a human, or something in-between.”

Danny sniffed, and then threw himself at Maddie. Maddie flinched a little, but Danny didn't appear to notice. He was too busy clinging to Maddie and crying. Jack patted Danny's back slowly with his large hand. His face was pale and shocked.

“Thank you,” said Danny, just barely intelligible. “Thank you.” It took a while for Danny to calm down enough to stop crying, but, finally, he calmed to mere sniffles, and occasional trembling sobs, and curled into Maddie's side. He was so tiny. So fragile.

The shadows were watching with huge, bright eyes. Maddie got the impression that they were prepared to jump in at any moment. Like predators. Ready to pounce.

“The shadows,” said Maddie. “They're part of you.”

“Necessary things,” mumbled Danny.

“What?” asked Maddie.

“He means that we serve functions, have purposes,” said Fractal. “You could say that we're parts of him. Under the right circumstances, Danny could act like either of us. But that's not really why we exist. If that's what you're asking.”

“Your purpose is to explain things,” said Maddie, remembering what Fractal had said earlier. “And his?”

“What do you think?” hissed Echo, sounding even more feral than before.

“Be nice, Echo,” said Danny indistinctly. Echo huffed and turned away, still watching them from the corner of his eyes.

“I wish you told us before,” said Jack. He had pulled Danny and Maddie into his lap, and was rocking them back and forth.

“Me too,” said Danny, sleepily.

“We could have fixed this,” said Maddie. “We could have fixed this ages ago.”

“Fixed what?”

“This... whole thing.” She looked warily at the two shadows, who were beginning to bristle. She leaned close to Danny. “We could have spared you all this,” she whispered. “We could have gotten rid of this right away. Right after the accident. We could have made you better.”

Danny was suddenly wide awake and staring at Maddie and Jack, betrayal etched into his face- and were his ears canted back? Like a cat's? They were.

“This isn't something that can be fixed,” said Danny.

“You don't know that, Danny, we can-”

No. You don't get it. You can't fix this. That's like- You're saying that you can fix this, fix me, but I'm not broken. I like being like this. I'm not sick.”

“Danny, you've already said that this is affecting your mind.”

“You- You're twisting my words!” said Danny angrily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 49: We're Okay

.

“You- You're twisting my words!” said Danny angrily. He squirmed out of his mother's embrace. How could she not get it? Well, maybe he was being unfair. His core injury was affecting his mind. He stood up, tripped, and was caught by Echo and Fractal. Then he began to pace.

“Then explain it to us, sweetie.”

“Yeah, Danno. We just want to help.”

Danny ran an angry hand through his hair and rubbed the back of his neck. “But you're not listening.” He turned sharply. “Where do you think obsessions come from? They don't just show up from nowhere. This is- They aren't- This would have always been important to me. Obsessions- They aren't something you'd die for, they're what you want to live for, even when you know you're dying.”

“But you aren't dead, Danny.”

“Do you not remember what started this whole mess? What that thing was supposed to do? Going through that- Burning and freezing and screaming and being torn apart and...” his hands skittered helplessly over his arms before seizing on his upper arms. “What do you think that was?”

“Oh, Danny-”

“No. No, no, no. No. I'm not- This isn't-” He took a deep breath. “Ghosts can be violent, territorial, possessive, obsessive. They hold grudges. Big ones, for a long time. There are few ghost communities that have more than a few thousand people. But murder- and I'm not talking about the Taboo, I mean the human conception of murder- is basically unheard of. Even people who say that they want to kill someone, they hardly ever follow through. They just haunt the person, and get progressively more petty. As for the Taboo, there are maybe a half a dozen murder cases tried between the three courts a year. Compare that to just about anywhere on Earth, and it looks pretty good. And- And most conflicts, they never rise above, like, the equivalent of a- a playground dispute. Flashy, loud, lots of posturing, lots of tears, some injuries, but no hard feelings. Even with the ghosts that come to Amity Park, they're not setting out to kill anyone. Most of them. Most of the ones who're sapient, anyway, and they're the only ones who can really 'set out' to do anything. Can't really say anything for non-sapient animal ghosts, or, you know, non-sentient blobs, and stuff. But who can? Actually, some blob ghosts are perfectly sentient and sapient, so maybe I shouldn't use them as an example.”

“You're rambling,” murmured Fractal.

“I know,” said Danny. “Theft is, like, barely a thing on this side, did you know that? When it is a thing, people rarely care. Unless it's some artifact, or sentimental something or other, or part of their obsession. Which is a lot of unlesses, I guess, but still.”

“I don't understand why you're telling us this, Danny.”

“So that you'll get it. Ghosts aren't evil. I'm not broken. They're just- I'm just different.” He shivered. He didn't always like his differences, and he especially didn't like the way his parents were looking at him.

“What were you going to do, then, when we got home?” asked Maddie, her tone that of forced reason. “Danny, how did that picture really get taken?”

Danny bounced in place. “There are- There are things that- that can- that can temporarily- But it's always temporary. Even if I wanted to be- to be 'fixed' or whatever, none of that would actually help. None of it would do what you want it to do.”

“What do you mean?”

Danny hugged himself tighter and bit his lip. “Before- Before I tell you, you've got to promise that you won't- won't try to fix me. You've got to promise.”

Maddie and Jack exchanged glances. “I promise, Danny,” said Maddie.

“Me, too, Danny,” said Jack. “We just want to understand, so that we can help you.”

“I don't believe you,” said Echo. He was behind Danny now, glaring over Danny's shoulder. “Humans don't keep promises.”

“Sam, Tucker, and Jazz do,” said Fractal.

“They're different. And they aren't ghost hunters.”

“They kind of are, though.”

“That's different.”

“Guys. Please.” He couldn't think when they were going at each other like that. “Stop.” He looked at his parents, who were still sitting on the floor. “The Ghost Catcher,” said Danny, “can split me in two, but it doesn't work long term. When I was split, I was always being- There was always something missing, and it hurt. Like, like I was always being pulled back in, towards myself, with a hook inside myself, and my personality? If that's what you want to fix me for? It skewed so far off normal because it was in pieces. Then the other way, that was worse. So, so much worse. My human body doesn't know how to work without ectoplasm anymore, my homeostasis or whatever it's called is shot. My other half was melting because it has trouble keeping form.”

“It is called homeostasis,” said Fractal.

“Oh, good.”

“We can work from that, though,” said Maddie.

“Do you even hear yourselves?”

“We won't do anything you don't want, Danny, but I'm, we're worried about you. Can you even live like this? Will you be healthy?”

“I'm not the first liminal person. I'm- I'm not even the first person that's this liminal.”

Maddie frowned. Scientific curiosity temporarily overtook the motherly concern in her face. “You used that word before. Is this really common enough to have it's own name?”

Danny shrugged. “Not, you know, exactly this. But there are lots of people with a little liminality. A little ghostliness, or a little humanity. I mean, basically everyone that lives in Amity Park is a little liminal.” He said the last part eagerly. Maybe this would help them understand.

“Wh-what?”

“Us too?” asked Jack.

Their expressions were nothing short of horrified.

Danny backpedaled. “You, um, you're actually less liminal than you should be. Probably because you were those suits, and do that purge thing every once in a while.” Danny swallowed. He could see them thinking, wondering, planning. How should they fix this new problem? Was liminality just an issue of ectoplasm contamination? Could they convince people to purge themselves of ectoplasm? To wear protective suits? To leave Amity Park? It made Danny's skin crawl, a thousand tiny razor sharp needles brushing lightly against his skin, teeth at the back of his neck. “I-I guess the order of who has it most would be me, by far, then, um, Valerie, because of her suit, then Jazz, Sam and Tucker, and you guys?” He was practically vibrating out of his skin now. It was a wonder that he wasn't clipping through the floor. “I don't know. I- I try to know about these things, this kind of thing, but I have a lot of other, you know, stuff going on all the time.”

“Okay, okay, it's okay,” said Maddie. “We aren't angry at you. We don't want you to be- to be uncomfortable. We didn't want to upset you. I'm sorry.”

“Okay,” said Danny. Was he crying? Yes, he was crying. He rubbed his eyes aggressively. They didn't understand. They thought he was broken. That he was sick. But at least they didn't hate him. At least his worst fears hadn't been realized. They still loved him. “I'm okay. Thank you. Are you okay?”

“We're okay.”

“Okay,” he nodded once, sharply. “Okay. I think- I think I should tell you. I think- I think that something bad might be about to happen here.”

“Here meaning?”

“Here. The lair. This place. I can feel things.” He freed a hand to rub a bookshelf. “Sometimes. Some things. I, um. Something's coming, waiting outside the door and I don't like it.”

“Wait- You know where the door is?” asked Jack, clearly confused. “Then why..?”

“Not really,” said Danny. “I don't know where anything is, or what's here, exactly. I'm just getting impressions. I didn't even know this place was a place until a couple days ago.”

“It's true,” crooned Echo.

“But, um, the workshop is being used right now. Because of that. That- That's why I told you. Because this was only sorta dangerous before, and now it might be seriously dangerous, and I didn't want you to get in a fight with another shadow.”

“There's another one?”

“Yeah.”

“How many?”

“I'm not sure. A few?”

Maddie directed a fraction of her attention towards the shadows. “Do you know?”

“Six, I think,” said Fractal after a moment. “For now.”

“You know what is,” she looked back at Danny, very briefly, “waiting outside the door?”

Fractal shrugged. “Not really?” He looked very uncomfortable. “We haven't looked, exactly. We don't want to invite them in. The lair can tell that they are there, but the lair doesn't think. Really all that we know is that they are there, and we don't like them.”

“And the one using the workshop is a shadow?”

“Yes.”

“Why? What is he making?”

“Something to defend ourselves with,” said Fractal. “We don't care for fighting, but we want to be prepared.”

“Weapons.”

“Yes.”

“Can we-?”

“No,” interrupted Echo. “You can't.” He leaned into Danny, who fidgeted and looked at his feet. “We don't trust you.”

“We should go back,” said Danny quietly. “We have a long way to walk, tomorrow.”

“Danny-”

“We can talk on the way if you want, but... I don't think you should go to the workshop.”

“You really don't trust us,” said Maddie, softly.

“Well, would you, in his situation?” asked Fractal. He tilted his head. “If it makes you feel better, it's not about your morals or personality, and more about how almost everything that you make hurts him, whether you intend them to or not.”

“Fractal,” said Danny.

“It's going to be okay,” whispered Echo.

“We could bring you back the easy way,” said Fractal quietly.

Danny shook his head, the walk back would be long and awkward, but running away from it wouldn't solve anything. “I think it was this way,” he said, “to get back, I mean.”

The first few minutes of the walk, with Danny leading the way, followed shortly by his parents, and all three of them... shadowed... by the shadows (Ancients, that wasn't even a good pun), passed in near silence. But then, inevitably, the silence was broken.

“Danny,” said Jack.

“What's up, Dad?” asked Danny.

“We still need to talk about this.”

“Mm,” said Danny.

“I know that I'm no good at talking, and serious things,” continued Jack, “but your mother and I, we're worried about you. And you shouldn't try to distract us.”

“I- I know,” said Danny, peeking over his shoulder.

Jack didn't seem to know what to say next, so he looked at Maddie, who sighed. “Danny, we need to know how much this,” she looked back at the shadows, “is affecting your personality and your health. Maybe- Maybe we can stop it from affecting you without removing your powers.”

“It isn't affecting my personality.”

“You said yourself that ghosts are violent.”

“That's- Argh. Humans can be violent too.”

“Don't you ever worry about hurting people?”

Danny froze, mid-step, poised over a channel of water. He carefully put his foot down. “All the time,” he said quietly.

“Wouldn't you like us to- to help you with that?” asked Maddie gently, clearly choosing her words with care.

Danny whirled, fists clenched. The trees above rustled ominously. The starlight seemed to dim. The already-faint auras of the shadows flickered and vanished. “You have no idea what you're talking about,” Danny hissed. He could feel his eyes start to glow, and he blinked, hard. “I don't hurt people.” His eyes sketched down to where his mother's jumpsuit was still damaged from the tree. “And when I do, I do my best to make it better.”

Maddie followed his gaze to her wrist. “Danny-”

“I'm sorry,” said Danny. “I'm sorry. I panicked and you were going to use that thing again, and I couldn't let you do that. I didn't mean to hurt you. Really.”

“But that's just what we're talking about, sweetie. Earlier you were worried about starting the apocalypse.”

Danny curled inward. “It didn't happen. It isn't going to happen. I promised. I keep my promises. All of them. Always.”

“Danny?”

“It didn't happen.”

“It's okay, it's okay, Danny. It isn't your fault. This is our fault, all our fault. We did this to you. We did this to you, but we can fix it, if you let us.”

“I'm not broken,” said Danny, wilting, shrinking further. “Besides, there isn't anything that you can do now, here.” He looked up. “What would you even do with my ghost half, if you separated me? Would you kill him? Experiment on him?”

“Oh, no, sweetie. Nothing like that. We'd have to lock him up, to make sure that he can't hurt anyone, but we'd help him move on, find peace.”

“Y'know,” said Echo, fluttering (how did he do that?) to Danny's side, “it's awfully bold of you to talk about that in front of us. I mean, without Danny, we wouldn't exist.” He slipped in front of Danny, one hand wrapped around Danny's, the other hand building a ghost ray. “It's kind of our job to protect him.”

Maddie took a step back, and Danny saw her hand going to the place on her belt where she usually kept her weapons. Danny leaned slightly into Echo. Hiding. This was all so confusing. Why were they acting like this? This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. This was scary.

“Don't forget about me,” said Fractal, pleasantly, still behind Maddie and Jack.

“Danny,” said Maddie, “how much control do you have over these things?”

“Oh, you hear that, little brother?” said Echo. “We're things now.”

“Stop,” whispered Danny.

“Are you sure?” asked Echo, surprised.

Danny nodded. “You can't fight anyway,” he said.

“Can't fight,” said Jack, something like relief in his tone. “That contract, it was real?”

“Yeah. Why wouldn't it be?”

“So-”

“So, unfortunately, our policy with you is going to have to be 'hands off.'” Echo sighed. “Here I was, having so much fun.”

“Scaring people isn't fun.”

“Yes it is.”

Fractal coughed. “Anyway,” he said, “this place is based on Danny. This Danny. The whole entire Danny. Splitting him in two is not likely to have a beneficial effect on either the lair, or any of the people in it.”

“We could work around that,” said Maddie. “We were able to manipulate the link your ghost half has to this lair before. We can set up some kind of decoy, give it a false signal.”

Danny's breath caught in his throat. “Is that a joke? Have you been listening at all? That- That stunt you pulled the other day, do you have any idea how much that hurt? Do you even care?”

“Of course we care!” protested Jack. “We don't want you to be hurt like that again.”

Danny shook his head. “What you're talking about, that's Taboo, a sin. By ghost standards, yes, and clearly you don't think too highly of those, but you've got to recognize that this is a thing that they put above murder in terms of seriousness.” He stared up at his parents.

“They aren't ever going to get it,” said Echo dismissively. “Just send them back where they belong and come back. Here. Where you belong.” Echo smiled lazily. “You've only seen a fraction of what's in here. Who's in here,” he whispered.

“Maybe it would help if we gave them a demonstration,” said Fractal, who had flicked up next to Danny and Echo.

“A demonstration?” asked Danny, nervously.

“A demonstration about why messing with connections is considered Taboo.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Chapter 50: A Demonstration

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A chill ran up Danny's spine. “I don't know if that's a good idea.”

“It isn't,” said Fractal. He blinked slowly behind his glasses.

“But it could be fun,” said Echo in a singsong voice. He had gone back to hanging off of Danny, but he hadn't taken his eyes off of Jack and Maddie.

“Danny, don't listen to them, they're talking you into something dangerous,” said Maddie, urgently. “Come to us.”

“I can't,” said Danny. “Not while you still think that I'm sick or something. This isn't a disease. They aren't superpowers, either, not really. This is just me. What you want to do, separating me, it's like saying you want to lobotomize me. Do you not realize that?”

“This is ectocontamination, Danny. We aren't talking about cutting off part of you, we're talking about removing something foreign.”

Danny tsked and looked away.

“You aren't going to understand unless you're forced to, are you?”

“Demo time?”

“Ancients, you sound like a science teacher.”

“Sparkly.”

“Sparkly?”

“Demo?”

“Demo.

“Yes, demo.”

.

.

.

Maddie watched with apprehension as the two shadows separated from Danny, each taking two steps back. Echo, the more dangerous-looking of the two, sent a sly look at her, that slowly shifted to Jack, who tensed.

“Jack,” she whispered, “I'm going to make a run for Danny.”

“Don't bother,” said Echo. He smiled, more than wicked. “These ears aren't just for show.”

“Alright,” said Fractal. “Imagine that I'm someone who is, as you suggest, falsifying a connection to the lair.” He tilted his head. “I guess that's a bit weird, because I do have a connection.” He blinked slowly. “Danny, are you sure about this?”

“Yeah,” said Danny, clearly hesitant. “I want to do this.”

“Okay,” said Fractal. “So, we have a connection to the lair, and, therefore, to Danny,” said Fractal. “Which means, you see, Danny doesn't have any real defenses against us. He can't have any defenses against us.”

“So we can do whatever we want with him.”

It was hard to tell, behind his luminous glasses, but Maddie thought he might be rolling his eyes. He certainly took on the same stance that Danny did when he was rolling his eyes. “Of course, what we want is what he wants. But, the point of this is what might happen if we didn't.”

“Didn't I bite you that one time, though?” said Danny. “Sorry about that, by the way.”

“I let you bite me,” dismissed Echo.

“Anyway,” said Fractal, “we can walk up to Danny, and-”

“Just do this!”

A figure appeared from nowhere, as the shadows were wont to do, directly behind Danny. Maddie started forward, but there was Fractal again, stopping her and Jack. Danny crumpled, and the two, Danny, and what Maddie assumed was a third shadow, rolled around on the floor. There were shouts, thuds, frustrated squeaks, and giggles as they thrashed cartoonishly. Finally, they went still, both panting.

“I don't think that was a very good demonstration,” said one of them, and Maddie found, to her horror, that she couldn't tell which one was Danny. They were identical, from their ruffled black hair and tear-stained pellucid blue eyes to their scuffed sneakers.

“It isn't like we can cause any actual damage,” said Fractal.

“I don't think it worked,” said the second boy on the floor. They even sounded the same, with no trace of the odd reverberations that made Echo's voice so unique.

“Nope,” said Echo, popping the 'p.' “Looks like they hate us just as much as ever.”

“Do you hate us?” asked one of the boys on the floor, eyes wide.

“Danny?” asked Jack hesitantly.

The two boys blinked and looked at each other, before looking back up, and propping themselves into sitting positions. “You can't tell?” asked one of them.

“I don't think they can,” said the other.

“Which should maybe tell them something in itself,” said Fractal, folding his arms. “The point we're were trying to make, though, is that Danny couldn't effectively defend against Mirror- or, wait, are you the other one?”

“Nah, Mirage is off doing his own thing,” said one of the sitting boys, smiling. That must be Mirror, then. Danny was the other one.

“Oh. Good. Anyway,” said Fractal, as the new shadow reached over and started to rub Danny's back, “the point is, once you get a connection like this, you're a massive blind spot.”

Danny, who was leaning into what seemed to be turning into a full on massage, said something completely unintelligible.

“Yeah,” said Fractal, “that's a connection, too, and I suppose that's different, but I'm not sure how that would translate.”

Danny sighed, and looked back at Maddie and Jack. “You really can't tell the difference between me and Mirror?” he asked sadly.

“I...”

Danny made a face. “It doesn't matter. I guess there isn't much of a real difference to begin with. Mhm,” he said, leaning into Mirror. “That feels nice. There are lots of things that are connections. Metaphysical links. But they're all different, they're all important. I don't know if they're all Taboo to mess with, though. The lair one was given to me as a specific example. But they're... I don't think that blind spot is the right word. This isn't really what you're worried about, either.” He bit his lip. “I- I think we've gotten distracted, with technicalities and, just, the logistics and schematics of the whole thing, and I'm sitting here trying to find the right words, and I have no idea what they are. And I'm scared.”

This time, Fractal let Maddie walk by him.

“Danny, we love you, you don't need to be scared of us.”

“Don't I?”

Maddie sat down next to Danny. “It's just- I'm thinking back over everything you've said, and everything I've seen, of Phantom, of you, and it- it hasn't quite set in yet. We've shot at you, we've hurt you, I've seen you thrown into buildings, Danny, and it hasn't quite caught up to me that that's what I've seen.”

“I guess this is a lot of information to take in,” said Danny, drawing up his legs so he could rest his folded arms on his knees.

“I'm just worried. Worried about how this is affecting you, how it's affecting your mind, your health, everything. How it's going to affect you.”

“There are people here, in the Realms that are helping me, with the health side of things.”

“Ghosts?”

“Yeah.”

“But you're still human, Danny.”

“You think that there's never been a doctor that became a ghost?” Danny rubbed one of his eyes, sniffling. “There are lots, and other ghosts can learn. They aren't static. And Clockwork would tell me if there was anything really bad that was going to happen, health-wise.”

Maddie nodded. She was trying to understand. She really was. But she had decades of research behind her, telling her that, no matter what Danny was saying, this was a bad thing. She couldn't even begin to imagine what that much ectoplasm in his system was doing to his body, his brain. A small amount was harmless, but she couldn't help but think of this as analogous to possession. It was enough ectoplasm to bleach his hair and turn his eyes green, for goodness sake. He was certain that he was half-ghost, or something, and Maddie wasn't convinced of that at all. Then there was what Danny had said about having an obsession, of all things.

“Clockwork. You mentioned him earlier.”

“Ipse avus meus,” said Danny. “He's a friend. He's helped me a lot.”

“You trust him.”

“Absolutely.”

Maddie sighed. “Danny,” said Maddie, “I want you to trust us. I don't want you to feel like you have to be afraid.”

“But?” said Danny, eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“But I'm worried, we're worried. You understand that, don't you?”

“Yeah,” said Danny, still hesitant.

“Can you at least let us, your father and I, confirm that? Independently make sure that this isn't hurting you, isn't making you sick.”

Danny shifted to hug his legs. “I don't know...”

“Danny, you at least have to admit that this... That your 'liminality' has been making you do strange things.”

Danny scowled. “What do you mean?”

“This obsession that you've been talking about, can't you at least see that it's been making you run into fights, getting you into trouble, into these- these situations?”

Danny let out a long, shuddering sigh. “That isn't how obsessions work, Mom. You get to choose how you're going to do it, what you're going to focus on. I could probably get by volunteering at the community center or something, if Amity wasn't under attack all the time. If you really want to know about what's happening in me head, though, you should talk to Jazz.”

“Honey, Jazz isn't a psychologist.”

“I know,” said Danny. “But she's been keeping notes on me since I was, like, ten. If you want to talk about obsessions...” Danny rolled his eyes. “They're not exactly unique to ghosts.” He sighed again. “I think that most of the things you're worried about, I've made sure they won't happen, that they're never going to happen.”

Maddie frowned a little bit. “Danny, you keep using those words, what-?”

“Okay,” said Echo, suddenly, loudly. “I think that's enough. Unlike us, you three have bodies that need sleep.”

“Echo,” said Danny, reprovingly.

“What, you really want to drag that out, on top of all this?”

“No, of course not,” said Danny, “but this isn't your conversation, and sometimes things need to be said even if I don't want to say them.”

“It wouldn't be good to let this fester in the dark, either,” said the newest shadow, arm easily slung around Danny's shoulder. “As long as we're telling secrets...”

“Might as well get through as many as possible,” finished Danny. “Then we can start to try to trust each other again. Because I can tell that you don't trust me anymore. I've lied to you too often.”

“We trust you, Danny,” protested Jack.

“Halfway,” said Danny, “which is just as good as not at all.” Danny was staring at the floor beside Maddie with such intensity that she wouldn't be surprised if it melted. “So I'm going to tell you about the time I caused the end of the world as we know it.”

 

 

Chapter Text

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.

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Chapter 51: The Time I Ended the World

.

"You were serious about that," said Maddie.

"You think that I would lie about that? I was trying to get you to like Phantom. Or, well, not hate him any more." Danny curled farther into himself. "Not hate me." He fell silent.

"Danny, if you don't want to talk about this, we can wait, it can wait," said Maddie.

"No. I don't think it can. This'll just keep bothering you if I let it wait, and you'll never be sure after if I told you the truth or not, or just came up with an inventive lie. It's just hard. It's hard to know where to start." He buried his face in his knees, and ran both hands through his hair. This was difficult. Impossible. Because he would have to lie, or at least make some pretty glaring omissions. He couldn't tell them about Vlad being a hybrid. He had promised not to, as long as Vlad left his family more-or-less alone. Danny didn't break his promises. "Time travel makes things weird. Like, I don't know if there's really a real beginning."

"Start from what was the beginning for you," said Maddie, helpfully. "You said something earlier about the CAT?"

"The CAT," said Danny. "Yeah. Okay. Around that time, ghost attacks were really picking up, and I was under a lot of stress, because Jazz hadn't told me that she knew yet, and I hadn't figured out how to balance schoolwork and, you know, everything else."

Jack frowned. "This was just two years ago, wasn't it?"

"About that, yeah," said Danny.

"I don't remember any increase in ghost attacks around that time."

"You wouldn't. The actual number of ghost attacks per day is something like two or three times more than what you record, even now, and the rate always ticks up when the weather starts to get colder. I was kind of freaking out, and I was causing a lot more property damage than usual, because of how worn out I was. Then, I had to deal with the CAT, and I had no time to study, and the Boo-merang kept hitting me in the head, and you just, well. It wasn't just you. It was everyone. Jazz and Mr Lancer, and all the other teachers... I didn't want to disappoint you. Especially since I was disappointing you so much already with grades and staying out late and all."

"We didn't want you to feel that way, Danny, we just wanted you to have options, for the future," said Maddie.

Danny nodded. "Then, in the middle of all that mess, a ghost showed up, a new one, who I hadn't ever met before. She said that she was from the future, she was the daughter of two of my enemies, and she had come to kill me, because in the future I did something bad. Our fight wrecked the Nasty Burger. It was mostly my fault. I was focusing too much on beating Box Lunch, that was her name, and not on the, um, consequences of my actions and collateral damage. Mr Lancer was there with the answers to the CAT, and I found them in the wreckage after the fight.

"I- I honestly don't know if I would have used them. I think at that point, this time line, our time line, might have diverged from the other one, if things were left alone, but, like I said, time travel is weird. But I probably would have used them. I wouldn't have ever admitted to having them, regardless, so it doesn't really matter. I- I knew that using them would be wrong, but I didn't want to disappoint you, and I was doing so much. But then another ghost from the future showed up, and he was way stronger. Sam, Tucker, and I beat him, but it was a close thing." Danny fell quiet again, fiddling with a loose string on his jeans.

"Is that something that happens often?" asked Maddie. Danny smiled thinly.

"What, close things? More than I'd like, but most of the time no one is actually trying to end me, so it's less of a problem than you'd think. Um." The smile slid off his face. "Anyway, we knocked off the time medallion he was wearing, and we were all touching each other, so we all got transported to Long Now. That's, um, I still don't really understand how the time medallions work, but they have some of Clockwork's power in them, so if you're wearing them, you can use his temporal portals, and stuff." Danny rubbed his chest. He couldn't tell if the pulse of pain he felt was real, in the moment, or from memory. "But if you take it off, you either get sucked back to your own time, or to Long Now. Which is Clockwork's lair. Stuff happened, and we wound up going through one of Clockwork's temporal portals. Ten years in the future from then. I guess it would be about eight years from now, if it had happened. If it would happen? If it would've happened?" Danny shook his head. Now was not the time to get bogged down with tenses. "Anyway, we were there, then, and things were bad, and I got the impression that Amity was better off than most other places. We met Valerie, older Valerie, and she told me some of what had happened. Then He showed up. Sam and Tuck took off their medallions, and they went back to our time, thank the Ancients. I-" Danny shivered, hand pressed into his chest.

"'He?'" asked Jack.

"The one who destroyed everything. It was, it's my fault that He existed. That He exists." Danny took a deep, shuddering breath. "He called himself Dan. He was awful. He was a monster. I didn't stand a chance. But he didn't kill me, because if he did, then he wouldn't exist." Danny shivered again, shrinking.

"What did he do?" asked Jack.

"Wait," said Maddie, "he called himself Dan?"

"I'll tell you why. Just- Just give me a minute."

Mirror made a soft crooning sound, actually a word in a ghost language so old that its name was lost, and gave Danny a hug. The sound was picked up by Echo, who appeared on Danny's other side.

"Perhaps I should pick up from here?" asked Fractal, hands clasped. "I remember it as well as you."

Danny shook his head. "No. I've got to do this. He- Dan- He phased the time medallion into my chest and left it there, partially intangible and then- and then- um. I- I couldn't- couldn't take it out. S-So I couldn't come back. It hurt. It really, really hurt." He rubbed his chest. "Then he tied me up, and left me in the Ghost Zone." He paused. How much should he say? "Dan is- Dan was- Um." He set his head against his knees. "Fractal, help."

"Ghosts store memories differently than humans do. If two ghosts have similar enough ectosignatures, they can share memories via... a number of methods."

"I didn't know that until later, though. It didn't register. It, I- I- I was scared and hurt. He tied me up, and chucked me in the Ghost Zone a-and... It was bad. It was really, really bad. Even there, everyone hated me, wanted me dead. I..." He shivered again and hiccuped. "G-ghosts can... um..."

"Danny, breathe," said Echo. "Breathe, remember what Jazz says, in and out, slowly. Maybe Fractal should do this part? Or you should just go with what happened to you, instead of talking about that jerk?"

"Or I could guess what comes next?" suggested Maddie, gently. "You can just say yes or no."

"Okay," whispered Danny.

Maddie smiled, with difficulty, and patted Danny on the shoulder. It was as much contact as the shadows were going to allow at this point. "'Dan' was you," said Maddie, "or would be you."

Danny nodded, face still half hidden.

"Not exactly," said Fractal. "You really need to hear the rest of the story."

Maddie regarded the shadow coolly. "By 'not exactly' you mean that he was all Phantom? I'm not sure what you're trying to prove with this, but you aren't changing my mind."

"Yet again, you're wrong," said Echo, angrily, half-rising to loom over Maddie. (A feat accomplished more by sheer force of personality than anything else. Even with his boots, Echo was much smaller than Maddie.)

"Echo," said Danny, quietly, almost inaudibly. "Mom, you and Dad did some research a while ago, about whether or not ghosts could, um, combine."

Maddie nodded. "We'd seen some smaller ghosts eating one another," said Maddie, "but then we noticed that afterwards the surviving ghosts responded to stimulus similarly to how the eaten ghosts had."

"It's called a soul merge," said Fractal, "or a merger of souls."

"Th-that's what Dan is. B-But I'm doing this out of order, I think."

Mirror scoffed. "There is no 'in-order' when you're dealing with a paradox."

A small, shaky, smile crept onto Danny's face. "Right. I was able to get away, out of the Ghost Zone. Um. To a safe place. I went- I went and found Vlad, and he helped me."

"Of course he did! Good ol' Vladdy!" boomed Jack.

But Maddie frowned. "Why didn't you come to us?"

"I-I'm getting to that. Vlad, h-he told me what had happened, and I started to remember His memories. Some of them were from before he was... Him. I- In that time line, a different fight wrecked the Nasty Burger, and I still got the test answers, and I cheated. I cheated on the CAT. But, apparently, I suck at cheating, because I got caught, and Mr Lancer called you up for a parent teacher meeting." Danny paused for breath.

"I don't get it," said Jack, "what does a parent teacher meeting have to do with an evil ghost?"

"Well, Mr Lancer's a drama queen, so he had the meeting at the ruins of the Nasty Burger, and, um, Jazz came too, because, you know how Jazz is, and Sam and Tuck came for, like, moral support, but, ha ha, the Nasty Burger apparently uses napalm or something as one of the ingredients in its secret sauce, because the vat overheated and the whole thing exploded. You all died. So did a bunch of other people. Construction people and clean-up guys, and Mrs Bower."

"Who?" asked Maddie, feeling a little shocked.

"She's the attendant for the parking lot across the street. She got hit by some of the shrapnel. I was the only one there that lived." Danny laughed, without humor. "They said that it was a miracle. That I was lucky."

"It didn't feel like it," said Echo, sullenly. Mirror shuddered, and pressed closer to Danny, who pressed back.

"I blamed myself. It was my fault that the Nasty Burger was in ruins in the first place. I was the one who cheated. I was the one who was a freak. I was the one who hadn't saved you. If I blamed all of myself, it would probably have been fine. But I- I made the same mistake that you're making now. I blamed Phantom for everything." Danny sniffed. "Everything. I drove myself a little crazy, separating myself in my mind like that. Forcing all that blame onto the part of me that could least stand it, all because I couldn't face up to my own mistakes."

"There were other factors," added Fractal. "Both human and ghostly."

"But then I made the worst mistake of all. When you- When you had died, I went to go live with Vlad, because apparently, according to the government, Spitoon, Arkansas, isn't an appropriate place to raise a child. I told him about- about everything, and I- I asked him to help me remove my ghost half. Permanently. I didn't want the thing that had caused the death of my whole family, and both of my friends, and so many other people to be part of me anymore. I'm sorry."

"It didn't work?" asked Maddie, afraid to know the answer.

"No. It worked perfectly. This next bit is going to sound crazy. I was separated from myself, and I ran. I, Phantom, had screwed up, I had failed my obsession, so, so badly, that I didn't even want myself anymore, and you were gone, and everything hurt, and I was angry, with myself, and with Vlad, and I was scared. I couldn't face myself, knowing how much I was hated. While I was gone, I searched the Ghost Zone for you. I hoped that maybe you, or Jazz or Sam or Tucker had become ghosts. But I never found you, and I was destabilizing. After a while, I was just so lonely, that I went back. I was- I was hoping that I would take myself back, then, after so long alone, that I, the other me, would have that same emptiness. The same pain. Or at least, that the other me might forgive me before I faded. But- But I was too late. Remember what I told you about my body not functioning properly when split? I had died while I was gone." Danny swallowed. "Did- did you follow that?"

"No," said Jack, bluntly.

"The human part of you died in the other future," said Maddie. "You only have Phantom's memories of what happened."

"After the split, yeah," said Danny.

"Oh," said Jack. "That makes sense. Yeah."

"I sort of wrecked Vlad's place after that, more than I had on the way out, I- I hurt Vlad," said Danny. He shivered. "I was... really upset. Vlad had promised that he- that I- would be okay. I hadn't even been gone all that long."

"You're shivering a lot," said Mirror, suddenly. "Are you cold?"

"Maybe?" said Danny. Echo and Mirror exchanged glances.

"I'll be right back," said Mirror, fading into the shadows.

"What's he doing?" asked Maddie.

"Dunno. Getting a blanket, or something, I guess. I was completely insane at that point. Irrational. I was letting myself be driven by obsession, grief, and anger, which isn't a great combination. I had just seen my own body. My own self, my other half, dead. Sort of. Not that that's an excuse for what I did. I- You remember the Wisconsin Ghost, right?"

"Yes," said Maddie. Jack just nodded.

"Vlad had him. I let him loose. We fought. We've never been on equal footing. I wounded him, but he- he-"

"He ate you," said Maddie, faintly horrified.

"Mhm," said Danny, trying to breathe through his nose, and chase away the gray at the corners of his eyes.

"'Absorbed' or 'merged with' would be more accurate," said Fractal. "After that..." He shrugged. "Obsessions combine, change, warp. Utter insanity. There are parts of our obsessions that are similar, believe it or not, but others are so different, and our viewpoints, and our views on life, are so different, that insanity was inevitable. I think that part of him was still trying to do good, but with such a warped worldview-"

"No," said Danny sharply. "No, he's a monster, he's evil, there's no excuse for what he's done. For what he's tried to do."

"Danny," said Echo, gently, but Danny flinched away, keening. "Danny," said Echo again, reaching out to take Danny's face in his hands. "Look at me, Danny. Breathe. In and out. Maybe you want to rest now? Go to sleep? I can take you back."

"We can take it from here," said Fractal. "We remember what you do, we can explain."

"You've already done the important part," added Echo.

Danny shook his head. He had to see this through to the end.

"Don't push yourself," murmured Echo. "We're here for you, and even you don't have the whole story with your own eyes."

"What does that mean?" asked Maddie.

Danny drew in a deep, shuddering breath but his words caught in his throat.

"There are parts of the story that we don't know first hand," said Fractal. "You'll have to ask Jazz about them."

Mirror reappeared, blue eyes briefly flaring. He had a thick blanket tucked under one arm, and a huge, almost bowl-like, steaming mug cupped in his hands. He passed the mug off to Echo, and draped the blanket over Danny, tucking it carefully around him. Echo then pushed the mug into Danny's surprised hands, wrapping Danny's fingers securely around the base.

"At least you aren't running a fever anymore," Echo said, quietly.

"You were running a fever?" asked Maddie, worried.

Echo glared back at Maddie. "What do you care?"

"Echo," scolded Mirror, as Danny took a cautious sip of spiced hot chocolate. "Be nice."

"What you did to Danny wasn't without consequence," said Fractal, bitterness in his tone. "You made him relive his death, force open a portal, and then you leaned on his connection to us, to the lair, to make Echo. He's robust, but everyone has limits."

"We-"

"Shut up," said Echo, draping himself over Danny like another blanket. "They were weapons, you made them to be weapons and you used them on purpose, to hurt him."

"Echo," said Danny, holding the cup close. The blanket made him feel safer, somehow. Or maybe it was just the presence of the three shadows. "They didn't know. They're sorry." It was interesting, being around them. Danny didn't have to be anxious about the shadow's safety. It was nice, in a way. It wasn't the same as being with his friends, though.

"Not sorry enough," said Echo, sullenly.

"He had a fever before," said Fractal. "Now he's too cold. Normally he'd be able to cope with that, he copes with colder."

"On a regular basis," interjected Mirror.

"But he's depleted his resources," finished Fractal.

Mirror patted Danny softly. "Would you two like some hot chocolate, too? We make it New Tenochtitlan style."

"Sure!" said Jack, his deep voice sounding strained.

"No," said Maddie.

Mirror nodded and vanished again.

"I think I'm okay now," said Danny. He took another sip of hot chocolate. "So that's how He exists," he said. He shivered again despite the blanket. "Anyway, Vlad helped me. I was- I was a little worried, after all that, that he was going to kill me, because of what I had done. I would have deserved it," he said, his voice hollow. "But he helped me. He got the time medallion out of me, so I could come back. When I got back, He was there. I still don't know how he got back to that time, not in detail. He had you. All of you. He had you strapped to the boiler at the Nasty Burger. He was going to kill you. He thought that if he killed you, I'd go down the same path, and I'd become Him again." Danny lowered the cup. "He was wrong," he hissed, showing the razor points of his teeth. "I fought him. I used a lot of your inventions. You'd be shocked how many of them actually work. Or maybe not. I don't know. You got thrown off a lot by me and my weirdness. I won. I sucked him into a thermos."

"Well, that's good," said Jack. "Us Fentons, we're winners, right?"

"Not- Not really. Ever hear of a Pyrrhic victory?" Danny didn't wait for an answer. "I beat him, but I took too long, used too much power. The boiler blew up, and you died." Danny shuddered. "I saw you burn."

"But we're still here," said Jack confused.

"Mhm," said Danny. "That's when Clockwork showed up. He saved you. He exploited dozens of loopholes in the Observants' rules to roll back time. He even brought me back to before the CAT was over. He said he thought that I deserved a second chance. You know the rest after that, I went to Mr Lancer, and admitted to cheating, and stuff." Danny shrugged. "Jazz knows the rest. I don't really know what happened while he was here."

"Wait," said Jack, frowning deeply. "Where is this 'Dan' character now? He's not sitting on a shelf in a thermos, is he?"

"Ancients, no. Clockwork has him. Just a tip, if we wind up at Long Now before we get home, don't open anything." He took another sip of hot chocolate. He was feeling calmer now, sleepy. He had to wonder if Mirror had spiked the drink. "I owe Clockwork a lot."

"But didn't he create the problem to begin with?" asked Maddie.

Danny shook his head vigorously. "The Observants created the problem. They're mean and nasty. Clockwork helped me. Helped us. Helped you. More than once, too. You remember when Vlad and Sam and Tucker got ecto-acne? Clockwork let me look back at Vlad's portal accident. That's why I knew what the extra contaminant in the ectoplasm was."

"If he was really helping, couldn't he have stopped Vladdy's accident in the first place?" asked Jack, brow furrowed.

Danny blanched, going even paler than he already was. "No. Just, trust me on this, messing with time like that is not a good idea. Heck, with Him, what the Observants did, what they made Clockwork do, basically made sure that he would exist." Danny rubbed his chest. "Without them messing around, odds are that future would never have come to pass. Not that I'm making excuses for myself, much less Him. I made bad choices."

"What happened?" asked Maddie.

"Well, I didn't exist in that time line, and neither did Jazz, and you guys weren't married, so that kind of sucked. There was other bad stuff going on, too, but, for me that was kind of the main thing."

"Okay," said Maddie. She pinched the bridge of her nose. She was still frustrated, but her opposition to what Danny was saying, what he was trying to say, had softened. "Okay. Anything else we should know about?"

"I was cloned this one time."

"What?" said Maddie, still holding her head in her hand.

"It was Plasmius. Um," said Danny, recognizing the blank looks on his parents' faces. "The Wisconsin Ghost. Plasmius is his actual name. He cloned me. It didn't work out very well."

"For someone so smart, he makes a lot of stupid mistakes," said Fractal.

"Mistakes such as?" asked Maddie, now thoroughly distracted.

"Not expecting Ellie to find out what was going on and switch sides. I mean, like we said, ghosts with sufficiently similar ectosignatures can share memories, and for the Deathless, initial obsessions are inherited."

"Alright," said Maddie, clearly nursing a headache, now. "So this 'Ellie' is a copy of your ghost side?"

"She's a clone, not a copy," said Danny, "and she's a clone of all of me." He smiled lazily. He wondered how Danielle was doing. It had been a while since he had seen her. The last time had been fun. She'd had a growth spurt after being stabilized, and was now as tall as he was. They'd amused themselves by, among other things, dressing Ellie up as Danny, and seeing how many people they could get to do double takes. Danny wanted to see her again. But the smile vanished before his next words. "She almost melted once. It was scary. I thought I'd lost her." The hot chocolate was now cool enough that Danny could take small mouthfuls, instead of tiny sips.

"We'll have to talk about that more later," said Maddie, massaging her temples.

"Okay," said Danny, agreeably. He was feeling nice and sleepy, now. A bit warmer than he would like, but otherwise very comfortable.

Maddie sighed. "You've really been through a lot, haven't you?"

"I guess," said Danny, blinking sleepily.

"We haven't been very helpful, either."

"It's okay," mumbled Danny. "It's my fault."

"No, Danny," said Jack, cautiously stepping past Fractal, "it's ours. Can you forgive us, son?"

"Yes," said Danny. He was barely keeping the mug from tipping over. "Of course. Never blamed you." Echo caught the mug before it could tumble out of Danny's fingers. He set it carefully on the mossy floor while Danny watched with sleepy interest.

"Danny, are you alright?"

"Yeah," said Danny, blinking at his mother. His gentle smile faltered. "You still hate Phantom, though, don't you?" he asked sadly. "You still think that ghosts are bad."

Maddie bit her lip. He saw indecision flit over her features. "You really think that Clockwork helped you? That he didn't just cause the problem?"

"I know he helps me, and he's not the only one," said Danny. He adjusted the way he was sitting so that Echo took on most of his weight, and playfully extended his leg until his foot rested against his mother's knee. "Frostbite helps. Pandora helps. I get lots of help. There are lots of nice people here." He blinked sleepily.

Maddie's frown deepened. "Are you sure you're alright?"

"Hm," said Danny.

"He's fine," said Fractal. "As fine as he can be with core damage, anyway. We just put a little spectral poppy in his hot chocolate."

"Not fair," complained Danny.

"We could have leaned on the link to get you to go to sleep, but we don't know what effect that would have, what with all the other problems."

Danny wrapped the blanket closer. "Don't have problems."

"Don't worry, it isn't addictive," said Fractal.

At the same time, Echo said, "You need sleep, after all of this."

Then Mirror blinked back into view, another, slightly smaller mug in his hand. He offered it to Jack, who regarded it with extreme wariness. Danny giggled.

"There isn't any spectral poppy in this one," said Mirror.

"He's going to pass," said Maddie.

"Eh, I'll take it," said Jack.

Danny giggled again, and tapped Maddie's leg with his toes. Everything was much funnier when he was sleepy. He was glad that everyone was getting along. Well, they were getting along more than they had been, anyway. "Wanna hug," said Danny.

All eyes but Danny's (and possibly Fractal's, it was hard to tell where he was looking) went to Echo, who was still draped possessively over Danny. Echo glared at Jack and Maddie, as if daring them to ask him to move.

"Hug," complained Danny, urgently.

Maddie inched closer to Danny, and, ignoring Echo's death glare, put her arms around Danny. Jack, balancing the mug in one, huge, hand, followed shortly after, ignoring Echo's angry hiss. Fractal and Mirror settled down on Echo's side, moving carefully, slowly, so that Maddie and Jack didn't even notice them until they brushed up against their arms. Danny snuggled closer to his parents, humming happily. This is the way it was supposed to be. Everyone hugging, everyone happy. He was happy.

(He knew that things weren't quite so simple, that his parents hadn't quite decided whether or not ghosts in general, or Phantom in particular, could be good, but they were, at least, tolerating the shadows for Danny's sake, trusting him to keep them under control, but the fuzz of spectral poppy was casting everything in a rose gold light. Still. It was progress.)

He fell asleep.

Chapter Text

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Chapter 52: Image in the Water

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"Is he purring?" asked Maddie, more rhetorically than anything else.

"That's a good sign," said Fractal, leaning so his ear rested against Danny's back. "It means that his core is getting better."

"I'm going to bring him to bed," said Echo, pointedly, still glaring at Maddie and Jack. Maddie glared back. Echo's green eyes narrowed. "Let go," said Echo.

"No," said Maddie.

Fractal sighed. "It's a long walk back to the cabins. Do you really want to have to carry Danny the whole way? It won't be comfortable for you or Danny. Echo can get him back in seconds."

"How?" asked Jack.

"The same way we can just appear out of nowhere," said Mirror. "It isn't invisibility."

"Unfortunately, we can't use that route with just anyone," said Fractal. "Otherwise we'd have zapped everyone to the door already."

"Why?"

"You aren't ghosts, and you aren't linked to the lair."

Mirror made a sound of discontent. "If he sleeps like this he'll get a crick in his neck." He glanced at Maddie. "If it makes you feel better, Jazz is still up. She'll be there to keep Echo from doing anything too weird."

"Hey," said Echo.

"You sound like Tucker," teased Mirror.

"A compliment!"

Maddie pushed back a lock of Danny's hair. He was practically a burrito in the blanket, only his face showing. It was easier, somehow, to see that he was sick when he was asleep. Her poor baby. She hadn't noticed that he was in so much pain.

(Perhaps Echo was right. She was a horrible mother.)

She pulled back.

Echo smirked, and vanished with Danny.

"Okay," said Mirror cheerfully, getting to his feet. "We should keep going. We won't get back to bed by staying here! Well. You won't, anyway."

Fractal stood as well, stretching. "Yep. You two need sleep, too."

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. Paulina Sanchez sat, discontent, at the window. She hadn't been able to sleep. Not with open, glass-less, windows and a distinct lack of doors. Why, anyone could get in. Anyone at all. Paulina drew her quilt closer around her shoulders.

But that was not the only reason for Paulina's unhappiness.

The shadows were ignoring her. They shouldn't be ignoring her. They were the ghost boy's- Phantom's- shadows. They were parts of him. Phantom loved her. Or he was going to love her. She was special. She was the prettiest, most popular, best liked girl in Amity Park. She'd supported him even when he adult labeled him Public Enemy #1. She was, like, the Louis Lane to his Superman.

But when she had tried talking to the one with glasses, he'd just snapped at her. Which was way uncool. Then there was Echo, but Echo was... creepy, and he was only interested in Fenton, anyway. Paulina's lip curled. She got that Phantom was stuck in him, which was gross, but that didn't mean that Phantom had to be nice to him.

Poor Phantom, though. Being stuck with Freaky Fenton, Failure Foley, and Mopey Manson as friends. He must have been desperate when he first got to Amity Park, and now he was just too nice to drop them like they should be dropped.

Paulina remembered when she, of all people, used to be friends with them.

It had been just awful. Being at the bottom of the heap, being teased all the time, for her looks, for her accent, for the way she dressed, for her name... She didn't know how she had survived. Thank goodness for Tia Carmen and her two-week summer beauty extravaganza.

She smiled to herself as she remembered going back to school that September, how everyone had looked at her, had seen her, seen her beautiful, no longer nerdy, with too-large t-shirts, baggy jeans, freckles and pigtails, but with sleek hair, glowing skin, and stylish, glittering clothes. She had become popular that day, going from the bottom rung of the social ladder to the very top. Everyone had wanted to be her friend. Everyone.

Except for Sam Manson.

Paulina had tried to be nice to Manson. She really had. She had offered makeup tips, pretty clothes, a ticket to the top of the ladder, but Manson had thrown all of that away. Manson didn't want it. She wanted to keep wearing her dorky, gross, black, bargain-bin reject clothes, and lurk in the weirdo-infested social deeps. Like a looser. And she had gotten so angry when Paulina pointed that out. So angry when Paulina had said that she could be better, could hang out with better, brighter, shinier people.

Well. Manson had just been angry that Paulina was special, that Paulina had what it took, and she didn't. So there. Her loss. Fenton and Foley's loss, too, for picking Manson over the queen of the school.

Paulina huffed angrily. She'd almost broken them up too, a while ago, and it had been so good to see that look of frustration, of betrayal on Manson's face. But then Fenton went crawling back to the little witch. Not that Paulina wanted him anyway. Then there had been that week when Elliot had pretended to be from Hungary. Hilarious. Manson always said that she was looking past the surface, but then she got blinded by a fake accent and some sweet talk? Pathetic. Almost as pathetic as her continuous attempts to be 'unique.'

Hah. Paulina was the only special one.

But it was so frustrating that Phantom was hanging out with Manson at all, when he should be with Paulina. He clearly knew that Paulina was special. He had rescued her so many times, after all. Maybe Manson had done something to him. Yeah. That sounded like something that witch Manson would do, in her quest to be special.

Paulina would just have to break the spell.

A flash of white, not one of the little luces del tesoro, but something purer, more solid, caught Paulina's eye. She stood, dropping the quilt at her feet, and leaned out the window. It was Phantom, definitely Phantom, not one of the shadows, standing at the edge of one of the pools, almost obscured by foliage. The luces del tesoro orbited him like a rainbow halo, and he wore, antique, princely clothes. Paulina had never seen anyone quite so beautiful.

He turned slightly towards her, smiling.

Somehow he had freed himself from Fenton, and now he was showing himself to Paulina, and Paulina alone. Because he did know that Paulina was special, and that they were meant to be together. He was going to be the prince to her princess.

A brilliant, beautiful, smile blossomed on her face, the one that had made her the undisputed queen of Casper High, and she spun, running to the door so that she could join her prince.

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It had been hours, or, at least, it felt that way, since Valerie had heard the conversation between the three elder Fentons.

Danny Phantom was a copy of Danny Fenton? Impossible! Except... It did explain a lot. Like why Phantom showed up around Danny so often. And why he was always at Casper High, or the Nasty Burger, or the mall. And how he could get into FentonWorks so easily that one time. And how he seemed to know her so well. Heck, it even explained why Danielle's human form looked so much like Danny.

There, Valerie's mind shuddered to a halt. A standstill. A dead stop.

Taking Danielle and Mayor Masters into account, wasn't there an easier explanation for all of this? What was that saying? Occam's Razor? The simplest explanation is often the correct one? Or something like that?

What if there was only one Danny?

What if Danny was like Danielle?

Valerie shook her head. Impossible. More impossible that Phantom being Danny's copy. She'd had to cut dates with Danny to go fight Phantom. Beyond that, she had dated Danny. No. Mayor Masters was just a freak of nature and poor, unfortunate, innocent, Danielle was... What? Clearly not actually Phantom's cousin. Or Danny's.

Valerie wracked her brain for information, scraps of conversation overheard between Plasmius, Phantom, and Danielle. There had been a fight between the three of them a few months ago, one that Valerie had joined. Had Plasmius, Masters, implied that he was her father? But Masters didn't have children publicly, and Masters wasn't related to the Fentons, so... Had he made Danielle? That made more sense. He could have used Danny's DNA and... Whatever it was ghosts had instead of DNA from Phantom. Yeah. That made more sense.

It was also more creepy. Way, way more creepy.

Giving up sleep, Valerie kicked off her bed sheets. Maybe a walk would settle her nerves.

Once outside, she scanned her surroundings. Phantom did always keep his promises, but this was still foreign territory, and she got the feeling that even he wasn't completely in control here.

That's when she spotted him in the bushes by one of the ponds. Phantom. Or someone who looked a lot like Phantom. They didn't dress like him, though. Valerie had never seen Phantom in something so medieval, and her brain was having trouble processing him now. They weren't either of the shadows that she had seen before, either.

Then, as she watched, frozen, he turned and smirked slyly at her. Then he started to walk away.

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When Sam woke up, a nightmare fading in the back of her mind, the first thing that she registered was that the room was too quiet. She sat up, rubbing gritty eyes (and she really should have tried harder to get all of her mascara off before bed, and what was she thinking, putting on makeup that morning? It was habit, she supposed, but, really, there were more important things than her image as a goth.).

Danny and Jazz were missing. Their beds had been slept in, but they were gone.

Tucker's sleeping body on the bed next to her, and the relative quiet, told her that, no, it was not just that it was 'morning.' Maybe they had just gone out? Maybe Danny had had a nightmare, and Jazz was comforting him? It would be like Danny, to insist that Sam and Tucker be left to sleep.

Something, though, told Sam that this was not the case. That something more important had happened.

She swung her legs off the bed, and padded, barefoot, to the door, suppressing the urge to wake Tucker. This might be nothing, after all, and she'd been trying to be more considerate of her friends. She knew that she could be awfully bossy sometimes.

Jazz was sitting on a bench just outside the door, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders and her knees drawn up to her chest. A mug sat on the ground next to her, and her one leg jigged anxiously.

"What's wrong?" asked Sam.

"Danny went to go talk to Mom and Dad," said Jazz. "I think that he's going to tell them."

"What?! Why?"

"I think he's trying to control how they find out," said Jazz, miserably. "Something about how one of the new shadows looked too much like him. Human him. He thought that they would find out."

"Oh, jeez," said Sam. "Is he going to be okay?"

"I hope so," said Jazz. "At least he has Echo and Fractal with him, right?"

"Right," said Sam. She frowned, gazing forward. She had caught sight off some movement out there, near the ponds. It hadn't looked like the wisps. More like... "Hey, Jazz," she said, pointing, "do you see that?"

Jazz looked up. "Is that..?"

The shape moved again, and came into full view. It was a shadow, not Echo or Fractal, a new one, identical to Danny, that had chosen to wear a high-collared pseudo-medieval suit complete with cape. Sam stared. He looked far better in that suit than he had any right to.

(She didn't know why she was so sure it wasn't Danny, it wasn't like Danny had never worn weird clothes before. She just was.)

Then Echo appeared between Jazz and Sam, cradling a blanketed Danny.

"Oh, my gosh," said Jazz. "Echo, is he okay?"

"He's fine," said Echo, "just overtired. He wore himself out." He smiled first at Sam, then at Jazz. "I thought that you two might like to know that he was back."

"How did it go?" asked Sam.

"Well," said Echo, "he is more or less satisfied. I'm not so sure. I suppose that they're at least willing to listen."

"Is he really just asleep?" asked Jazz, gently touching the side of his face. "He feels cold."

"Delayed reaction to the energized ectoplasm. Aaaaand we might have slipped some some spectral poppy into his hot chocolate?"

Jazz opened her mouth, as if to complain, closed it, and then said, "He probably needed it."

"Yeah," agreed Sam, watching as Danny nuzzled into Jazz's hand and licked her fingers.

Jazz jerked back. "Gross, Danny," she complained halfheartedly.

"Nmnmm," mumbled Danny in his sleep, eyelids fluttering. "Ebodeebeappy. Ammy... Nomoarrogs. Limey. Aylikitties. Uzzy. Lika uzzy."

Sam bit back a laugh. Even in his sleep... She patted him on the shoulder as he mumbled. "So, what's with that?" She jerked her thumb towards the Danny lookalike standing in the foliage near the pools.

"That's Mirage," said Echo, rolling his eyes. "He's playing a game." Echo smiled, toothily, his mouth stretching wider than Danny's generally could. "He'd probably appreciate it if you joined, Sam. For now, I'm putting Danny to bed." He vanished.

Jazz glanced briefly at the caped shadow. "I'm going back to bed," she said. "I've barely slept."

"Okay," said Sam, looking at Mirage. She knew that Danny was in good hands, and she was curious as to what 'game' he was playing. Still, she was indecisive.

Right up until the shadow looked up, grinned at her, and winked.

Chapter Text

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Chapter 53: Playing Games

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Sam made to follow the shadow as he turned away, but she spotted two other, closer, figures moving towards him. Was that Valerie? And Paulina?

Her eyes narrowed. She didn't really like either of them. Valerie was, personality-wise, slightly more bearable than Paulina, who, Sam was convinced, was entirely fake, but the way Valerie harassed Danny for something he had repeatedly apologized for, for something that he had been trying to stop, wasn't something that could be tolerated.

True, Sam was far from perfect herself, and she wasn't always entirely honest, but then, who was? Sam, at least, recognized her flaws. She wasn't sure that Valerie did, and she had heard Paulina describe herself as 'flawless' on more than one occasion.

(Sam knew she was a hypocrite.)

(Sam knew she had caused Danny's death.)

What was Mirage doing with the two of them? Or was their involvement accidental? Somehow, Sam doubted it.

She followed, careful to be quiet. Unlike Valerie and Paulina, Sam had practice being stealthy, and, neglecting her current lack of shoes, the clothes for it.

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Valerie wasn't sure what she wanted to do more, demand to know Phantom's connection with Danny, or punch in that smug face. She was furious. Who did he think he was, shadow or not, mocking her like that?

A more rational part of Valerie knew that following after Phantom, or one of his shadows, like this was just asking for trouble. This wasn't Amity Park. She didn't know the terrain, she didn't know what could be lurking under every bush, behind every corner. She was already in the proverbial lion's den, but following the lion deeper in was not a good idea.

(Even if the lion had been weirdly kitten-like.)

As it was, she wasn't rational.

(It was a flaw of hers, to let anger cloud her judgment.)

She was, however, snapped out of her red mood by catching something distinctly pink moving through the foliage a few strides ahead of her.

Paulina.

Of course the airhead was chasing after the ghost. Paulina was as insane as she was mean. Paulina somehow thought that she could romance Phantom despite Phantom being literally dead. She was in denial beyond denial, living in a fantasy world where she could do no wrong.

Valerie hated Paulina almost as much as she hated Phantom, but Paulina was human. Barely. Whatever it was that Phantom was doing, Valerie couldn't let Paulina get caught up in it.

"Paulina," she called out, more than a little breathlessly. The plant life here was thick, verdant, luxurious, hard to run through.

Paulina didn't pause. Valerie groaned and pressed on.

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Paulina heard someone calling her, but she ignored it. It wasn't Phantom, so she didn't care. Phantom, her ghost boy, her ghostly prince, was the only one she had eyes for. He stayed a few paces ahead of her, turning to smile coyly back every few seconds.

This was fun, but she wanted nothing so much as to collapse into his arms.

Paulina pushed aside a brace of ferns, and stepped into a strange, sepulchral space beneath tall, leafy, mushroom-shaped trees. Thick, flowering vines hung from the distant canopy, and hugged the oddly-shaped trunks of the deceptively slender trees.

Phantom was clearly visible now, his aura the only reliable light, moving slowly, as if underwater, cloak and hair rippling in a phantom wind. He smiled over his shoulder, the barest, brilliant, white sliver of teeth visible between his lips.

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Sam paused when she reached the larger trees. There was something distinctly off about the trunks, and not just the way they were half-strangled by lianas. She squinted at the trunk, momentarily distracted from the chase. There were shelves carved in the trunks, with books on them. She pulled one off and flipped it open.

A single curious wisp floated helpfully over her shoulder, giving her enough light to see that it was poetry. Dark poetry. Dark, dark poetry.

Sam approved.

Except...

Taking this from a more ghostly perspective, it was actually... Well, not totally cheerful, but less depressive. Maybe a little cheerful. In spots.

Sam approved even more.

She hastily put the book back on the shelf. She was going to loose the trail if she tarried any longer. She strode forward, using the balls of her feet to silently bounce from patch of moss to patch of moss.

(Deep down, in the dark depths of her deep, dark mind, Sam imagined being a little woodland fairy, flitting from flower to flower. A dark, bloodthirsty woodland fairy. Yeah. Oh, forget it, who did she think she was kidding? She liked darkness, but she liked nature just as much. She adored the big pastel purple flowers that hung from the vines.)

Up ahead, she saw Mirage come to a halt and turn to face the three girls facing him. He tilted his head, eyes half lidded, and smiled gently (just like Danny).

"Hello," he said, his voice identical to Danny's voice as Phantom.

"Phantom," gushed Paulina, half-lunging towards the boy. Mirage however, drifted back.

"Ah, no," he said. "I'm sorry. That's one mark against you."

"What?" asked Paulina.

"You aren't Phantom," said Valerie. "You're one of those shadows."

Mirage bowed elegantly at the waist, feet hovering half a centimeter above the forest floor. "If it pleases you, you may call me Mirage," he said straightening. His eyes flicked between the three girls. "I thought that you three might enjoy a game?"

"Three?" said Valerie, glancing around.

Paulina gasped. "What are you doing here?" she demanded, glaring at the other two girls. "This is our moment. This is when we profess our undying love to one another!"

"Do you listen to anyone but yourself?" asked Sam, disgusted. "Ever?" She stepped forward, towards Mirage. "What kind of game?"

"Questions and answers," said Mirage, lightly. "Or, more accurately, statements and truths. We all get to say something, and if the thing we say is wrong, then that's a mark against you. Three, and you have to leave."

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Paulina smiled her most charming smile. Clearly, this was just a way to get rid of the other two without hurting their feelings. "You don't have to be nice to these people, my love," she said, fluttering her long, curling eyelashes.

"There are few things that I have to do," said the shadow, "but this is something that I want to do. And I try to be nice to everyone."

Valerie scoffed. Paulina glared at her, thoughts like how dare she chasing themselves around in her head.

"You don't think so?"

"No, I don't."

"But I do," said the shadow, gently, sincerely.

"Of course you do," said Paulina, cooing.

"But you have thoughts that have been keeping you up, and I will tell you whether or not they are true. All I ask in exchange, is that you tell me whether or not my own thoughts are wrong."

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Valerie bit her lip. She needed answers. But she didn't trust Phantom, any part of him.

Then again, Phantom had never, to the best of her knowledge, ever broken a promise. And she didn't need to tell him the truth.

"I can make it a little more interesting, if you'd like," said Mirage.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, clearly, I'm not the one you want to play with." He vanished.

"But maybe I am?"

Valerie jerked upwards. There, sitting on one of the lower branches, was a black haired, blue-eyed boy with a cheeky smile.

"Danny?" gasped Valerie.

"Fenton?" sneered Paulina.

"And that's a mark against both of you," said the boy. He pushed himself off the branch, and Valerie cried out in alarm. The branch was easily thirty feet in the air. But before Valerie could even think of donning her suit, the boy dissolved from view.

"And that's why I call myself Mirage," said the shadow, now standing a few feet behind Sam, and back in his guise as Phantom.

"So you are connected to Danny," said Valerie.

"Indeed I am."

Valerie frowned. "How?"

"You'll have to guess," said Mirage. "That's the game."

"Okay, fine," said Valerie. "So I get why you brought me and Miss Perfect here," Paulina, unbelievably, preened at the comment, "but why Sam? I thought you didn't have any secrets from her, Danny, and Foley."

"Phantom doesn't," clarified Mirage brightly. "But that's close enough that I won't put a mark against you. I thought that she would like to watch. Actually, I was hoping to catch Tucker, too, but he needs his sleep. But, Valerie, you heard that conversation between Jazz and the Doctors Fenton." He paused. "This is the part where you say 'yes' or 'no,' or 'right' or 'wrong.'"

"Yes," said Valerie mulishly.

Mirage clapped his hands together. "I knew it!" He bounced up and down like a small child.

(Like Danny sometimes did.)

"My turn!" exclaimed Paulina before Valerie could formulate her next question. "Phantom loves me," she said making an attempt to circumvent Sam and fall into Mirage. Sam, however, was having none of it. Their dance, and the way that Mirage was practically hiding behind Sam, was mildly amusing.

"He might have, once," said Mirage, looking almost sheepish. "But no longer."

"What? No, no, no... That's a lie! He loves me. You love me."

"Not in the way you're looking for, Paulina. That's three strikes, you're out."

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"That's not fair," wailed Paulina.

Sam rolled her eyes, and Paulina locked into the movement.

"You! You little witch! This is your fault!" she lunged, nails like talons.

Sam, who had martial arts training, easily avoided Paulina's wild lunge. Before she could retaliate against the living puddle, however, Mirage put his hands on her shoulders, and turned her intangible.

"I'm going to have to ask you to leave, Paulina," said Mirage as Paulina's hand waved disconcertingly through Sam's face. "Paulina. Paulina, really. I know you can be more gracious than this. Don't be a sore looser. Paulina." He sighed. "Alright, I didn't want to do this, but... Sam, Valerie, up for a bonus round?"

"What did you have in mind?" asked Sam, leaning back to avoid one of Paulina's more wild swings.

"Well, I've always liked tag. Maybe with a touch of hide-and-seek?"

"Sure," said Sam.

"Are you ready, Valerie?"

"I don't know what you're trying to pull here, ghost, but-"

"Great," said Mirage. He drifted backwards with Sam, set her down, and vanished.

Chapter Text

Chapter 54: Two Harmonicas and a Tuba

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Paulina ran off after the first visible light, one that Sam knew perfectly well was a wisp. Sam, on the other hand, didn't bother to move at all.

"Sam," said Valerie. "Do you know where he went?"

"He didn't go anywhere," said Sam. "Isn't that right?"

"Ah, but you know me so well," said Mirage, reappearing, this time in human guise. His dress was still somewhat archaic, but much simpler. His feet were firmly planted on the floor. Sam thought that his skin was a little more translucent than Danny's, though, and that his hair was a little more windswept than Danny's usually was. But that could just be her imagination. "Or, maybe," continued Mirage, "I should say that you know Phantom well. I've only existed for a couple hours, after all."

"So," said Valerie, "Phantom is Danny's copy."

"Ah, unfortunately, that's the second mark against you."

Valerie scowled. "Where did you send Paulina off to, anyway?"

Mirage made a humming sound, then something like a pair of harmonicas and a tuba, "is just going to lead her back to the cabins. She'll be fine."

"Who?"

"The wisp she caught sight of," clarified Mirage. "Now, it's our turn. Sam, do you want to ask the question?"

"You know about Vlad," said Sam.

Valerie's mouth fell open. "You know about Vlad?"

"That would be a yes," said Mirage. "Your turn."

"Danielle isn't actually your cousin."

Mirage's smile faltered. "She might as well be."

"But she isn't."

"No," said Mirage, shortly. Sam winced. This was a sore spot for Danny and Ellie, and, apparently, it was a sore spot for the shadows as well. Then, something occurred to her.

"D- Mirage. Is Ellie connected to this lair too?" she asked.

Mirage looked at her, surprised. "I don't know," he said. His eyes got a kind of distant, unfocused look to them. "That would be nice, though, wouldn't it? Or, oh, I think that some people combine their lairs. Maybe we could double up if she winds up having her own lair? I don't know how that works, though." He frowned, thoughtfully. "I bet that Clockwork knows."

"Was that story about the apocalypse true?"

"Statements, Valerie, that's the rule."

Valerie made a face. "That story about the apocalypse is true."

"Unfortunately."

"But it was all Phantom, wasn't it? Danny was just covering for you. For Phantom."

"It's a matter of perspective. But Danny wasn't covering. So, that's a third mark." He smiled, gently. "You should be careful about Vlad, though, Valerie. He's not the worst, but he can be dangerous."

"I don't need you to tell me that," snapped Valerie. "And you should take off the disguise. It's creepy."

Mirage shrugged, and the image of Danny and the medieval clothes peeled away, leaving Mirage in Phantom's form, complete with his typical suit. "Is this better?" he asked.

"I guess," said Valerie.

"But you aren't satisfied."

"Not on your life."

"Good thing I don't have one! But maybe you'd like to play something else?" He laughed, but stopped suddenly, mid-chuckle. "You guys don't think that I was too hard on Paulina, do you? I didn't want to hurt her feelings."

"Gosh, no," said Sam.

At the same time, Valerie said, "She needs to grow up."

"Oh. Alright, then," said Mirage, clearly surprised. "So, Sam, you pick the game."

"Gin rummy," said Sam, almost automatically. "What?" she demanded, noticing the look Valerie was giving her. "It's a game," she said, defensively.

"Yeah, Valerie, it's a game. Do you know how to play?"

"I know how to play poker," said Valerie.

"Eh, it's similar. More fun, though. We can teach you."

"Okay, okay, hold it. I'm not playing cards with you. Do you even have cards?"

"Then what will you play? Or would you like me to show you the way back? And," he added, contriving to look offended, "of course I have cards. Lots of cards. I even have some full decks."

"You'd better be playing with a full deck," said Sam.

"But it invites chaos, and Chaos can be so much fun," said Mirage.

"Bring that up and you're Doomed."

"Am I missing something here?" asked Valerie.

"Nothing you're not meant to," said Mirage. "If you don't want to play gin, why don't we-"

At that moment, a bright white light zoomed into sight, keening. Mirage raised his hands to cup the little wisp. "What's wrong?" he asked. He sang a few bars of music. The wisp responded, and Mirage hissed. "She what?"

He looked up, sharply, into the trees. A single, sharp tooth peeked out from between his lips. There was a crash of foliage and a girlish shout. Paulina ran out from around a tree.

Sam's mouth dropped open. How the heck had Paulina gotten back here? She would have to put the puddle a few places higher on the 'threat' scale, what with her insane obsession and intermittent bursts of surprising competence.

"I found you, my love," said Paulina, swooning.

"Paulina Sanchez," said Mirage coldly. "I will tolerate a lot of things. I will not, however, tolerate you threatening my friends, or people under my protection."

"What?"

"Apologize," demanded Mirage.

"I- I'm sorry?"

"Not to me. To-" he used the same harmonica-and-tuba sound that he had made earlier. He glared at Paulina expectantly.

"Um. I'm sorry," said Paulina, making a show of contrition.

"You'd better be," mumbled Mirage, looking away. He sighed. "I guess you can play with us, too, but you have to be kind. Okay? Do you even know what that means? Don't answer that." He pouted.

"You guys are getting better and better at copying Phantom, aren't you?" said Sam, contemplatively.

Mirage beamed. "You think so?" he asked. "I try. We each have our strengths. You should see Mirror." He leaned forward conspiratorially, whispering to Sam. "He's even better. I don't think he likes to play quite as much, though. Anyway," he continued, straightening, ignoring Paulina's incensed gaze, "how about we play Doubt? You all know how to play that, right?"

Valerie and Paulina stared blankly at the shadow.

Sam rolled her eyes and sighed heavily. "It's sometimes called BS."

Comprehension dawned in the two girls' features, while Mirage flinched.

"What," mocked Valerie, not entirely unkindly, "don't like swearing?"

"This is the Ghost Zone," said Mirage. "The Infinite Realms. The Spirit World. Underhill. Dreamland. Faerie. Words and names have meaning, can have power, here. Especially if people think they do." He shifted uncomfortably. "Words considered curses... I don't want to take the risk. But you do know how to play?"

Paulina nodded, almost hesitantly. Valerie said, "Well, yeah."

Mirage grinned, and there was suddenly a pack of cards in his hands, then two, then three, all with different colors and patterns. Sam squinted at the fourth one. Was that a tarot deck? The heck?

Did Mirage know how to play Doubt? Because it was looking doubtful.

Ugh. Danny was rubbing off on her, if she was using that kind of pun.

"What are we playing for?" asked Valerie, crossing her arms.

"What would you like to play for?"

"I want to know the real story behind the whole apocalypse thing," said Valerie, "and I want to know the relationship between Danny and Danielle."

"Pick one," said Mirage.

"Wait," said Sam, "you're actually going to go along with that?"

"I won't say anything that he wouldn't," Mirage reassured her. "What would you like, if you win, Sam?"

Sam frowned. "Do you have any more Stygian waters?" Could she get Valerie to make some kind of binding promise?

"Unfortunately, no. Have you decided yet, Valerie?"

"Tell me about the apocalypse," said Valerie, finally, seemingly pained by her decision.

"Alright," said Mirage. "Be aware that I will only tell you what happened in the original future time line, and that I will be sticking to what has been confirmed by multiple sources. The fact is, Phantom saw very little of what happened first hand. Do you still want to go that route?"

"You're trying to wiggle out, ghost," accused Valerie.

"Maybe," agreed Mirage.

"Then tell me about Danny and Danielle."

"Okay," said Mirage. "So, Sam?"

Sam glanced at Valerie. She doubted that she could get the angry girl to make a promise that she'd actually keep if push came to shove. On the other hand, this would be a good opportunity to humiliate Paulina. She winced at her internal wording. That wasn't quite what she wanted to do. She just wanted the other girl to stop harassing her and her friends. A bit of payback would be nice, though, all things considered. "If I win, you two have to leave Phantom alone," said Sam.

"Fine," said Valerie.

"What?" shrieked Paulina.

"You have to agree," said Mirage, concealed glee slipping into his tone, "or you don't get to play."

"Fine," said Paulina, with significantly less grace than Valerie. Then her entire attitude changed, and she fluttered her eyelids at Mirage. "Then, if I win, I want Phantom to take me on a date."

"No," said Mirage.

"But-"

"I can't and won't make promises for Phantom. Pick something else."

"Then, you take me on a date."

"I can't leave the lair, and I doubt that you can get here on your own."

"Then," said Paulina, pouting, "I want you to kiss me!"

Mirage sighed, long and hard. "Fine," he said, a slight frown playing over his features. "Now," he said, eyes regaining a mischievous glint, "if I win, you all have to do a cannonball in the big pool!"

"What?" said Sam. "That's what you want?"

"Yes," said Mirage, hiding a grin behind a facade of seriousness. "That's what I want."

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"So," said Jack, drawing out the word. "Are all lairs like this?" The walk so far, with two humans and two shadows, had been unbelievably awkward. The way Mirror looked, and acted, so much like Danny while making no effort to hide that he was not, in fact, Danny, was especially disconcerting to Jack and Maddie.

"I must confess," said Fractal, adjusting his glasses, "that we have limited experience with the lairs of others. I suppose that it depends on what you mean by 'like this.'"

"Well," said Jack, "I mean, are all lairs this big?"

"I think Clockwork's is," said Mirror, "but, other than that, the ones that Danny has seen are all smaller."

"I believe that there may be an inverse relationship between direct, active control of ones lair, and the size, as well," added Fractal. "Remember TV kid?"

"Oh, yeah," said Mirror, "TV kid."

"TV kid?" asked Maddie, trying to find her footing in the conversation.

"Yeah. Um. He didn't actually give Danny a name," said Mirror. "He- Danny- was looking for directions, and he opened the door to TV kid's lair. The lair was just the one room, but he had a lot of control over it." Mirror shrugged, and then turned his attention to hopping over a stream.

"And you call him TV kid because..?"

"That's what he was doing," said Fractal. "Watching TV." He paused. "There are a lot of ghosts that never leave their lairs once they find them, you know. Not all ghosts have social components to their obsessions."

"You want Danny to stay, don't you?" asked Maddie.

"I'm ambivalent," said Fractal.

"Echo does," said Mirror.

"There are pros and cons to the proposition," said Fractal. "You can't deny that he would be less likely to get injured here, but at the same time, he is very attached to Amity Park." The shadow shrugged. "You have to recall that Echo doesn't particularly like you. I think that he was half-hoping that you'd take things badly, and that Danny would stay."

"He was-" Maddie's eyes narrowed. "How closely connected to Danny are you, anyway?"

"We aren't parts of his personality, if that's what you mean," said Mirror.

"That said, he could undoubtedly act like any one of us, given proper provocation. But, as before, it would be better to think of us as needful things. We fulfill roles."

"It's in our names," said Mirror. "Like, Fractal's the smart guy, I'm here to give you a different way of looking at things, and Mirage is mostly there just to mess with people."

"And Echo?"

"Well," said Fractal, "we didn't exactly mean to make him, now did we?"

"Echo is a knee-jerk reaction to a massive amount of pain," said Mirror. "Not pretty, but true. Don't let him throw you off, though. Danny loves you, and even if it doesn't seem like it to you, what he's done here has been for your protection."

"Including making us sign a leonine contract?"

"D- Don't give us that. The agreement is fair, and we intend to follow through."

"Yeah, and if virtually any other ghost found out what kind of weapons you were making, they'd kill you," said Mirror. "Probably. Or report you, or something. Do something you wouldn't like, anyway."

"What happens if you break a Stygian oath?" asked Jack, abruptly.

"I hope you aren't planing on trying to break one," said Fractal, glancing over his shoulder.

"No," said Jack, "just curious."

"I don't know," said Fractal, looking forward again.

"How do you not know?" demanded Maddie.

"I don't know," said Mirror, "because we actually keep our promises? It's never come up."

"You've never broken a promise, even by accident?"

"I've only been around for a few hours, so, no. But for Stygian oaths, breaking a promise by accident doesn't count. You just have to try to keep it. And before you ask, Danny doesn't break promises either."

"Then how do you know Stygian oaths even exist?" asked Maddie with a little exasperation.

"Well, you took one, so I'd say they exist."

"That's not what I meant and you know it."

"No one that I know of has ever broken a Stygian oath," said Fractal. "Considering who and what I know of, that's really impressive. If it was possible to break one, it would have happened by now, and I'd know about it. Probably." Fractal sighed. They had reached the stairs. "You do know the rest of the way back?" he asked. Jack and Maddie nodded. "Okay. Good. We need to go take care of something."

Before Jack or Maddie could ask what they needed to do, the shadows vanished.

Chapter Text

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Chapter 55: Question the Cards

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Mirage shuffled together three of the four decks, but Sam stopped him before he shuffled in the tarot deck.

"Aw, Sam," complained Mirage, and Sam had to remind herself, yet again, that this wasn't Danny. "Come on, this'll be fun. Besides, the cards are so beautiful."

"Just like our kiss would be," said Paulina, fluffing her hair. Sam distinctly saw Mirage's eye twitch.

"How would a tarot deck even work in a game of Doubt?" asked Sam, ignoring the girl.

"Well, Doubt is all about numbers, right? Tarot cards have numbers," said Mirage, not giving up on the concept despite Paulina's comment.

"What about the trump cards? There are twenty-two of them."

"Oh. I thought that we'd pull them out when we got them, use them to tell our fortunes, or something. Besides, I think this deck is missing most of its trumps." Mirage set the box down on the square stone table he had found for them to play at, and smeared the deck out over its surface. "Yeah, it only has twelve, for some reason."

"And the court cards?"

"I thought that we could just have the pages and knights count as jacks," said Mirage.

"I guess," said Sam, doubtfully.

"Can we hurry this up?" asked Valerie. "It isn't like he isn't putting in three other decks that might or might not have all the cards."

"Right!" said Mirage, teeth bright. "I have these, too!" he added, pulling out two handfuls of mismatched playing cards from... somewhere. How was he doing that?

Sam sighed. "Fine," she said. "Let's do this."

Mirage's grin widened. He began shuffling, and then began dealing the cards out, rapid fire. "So," he said, as he passed out the cards, "the player to the dealer's left plays first, so that'd be you, Paulina, and then Valerie, and then Sam. You say aces first," he added, helpfully, as the dark haired girl frowned prettily at her cards. "Then- Oh! We should take our trumps out first. Those are the ones that have funny names, like the World, or the Fool, or the Hermit." Mirage started to sort through his cards. "It might also help you later if you put your cards in order. Although, that could hurt you if you try to bluff, and someone notices you pulling cards out from the wrong spot. Hm." He began to lay out his cards. "So, it looks like I've got the Tower, Death, the Hanged Man, and the Emperor. I think that's pretty obvious, don't you?"

"What?" said Valerie, face half-hidden behind her own cards. "How is that obvious?"

"Well, the Tower is disaster, and I hate to say it, but you guys being here is kind of a disaster, then Phantom is dead, so, Death, and the Hanged Man is sacrifice, which is something that happens often with Phantom, and the Emperor, well, we are in charge here, aren't we?" said Mirage, talking quickly, tapping each card as he explained it.

"I have the High Priestess," said Paulina, "and," she slyly turned the second card around, "the Empress."

"Cool," said Mirage, either missing or ignoring Paulina's implication, even when she began to inch the second card closer to his Emperor. "But you only got two? What's this, that you put to the side?" asked Mirage, reaching.

"Well, that one isn't very pretty," complained Paulina, trying to keep the card out of his reach.

Sam rolled her eyes and lunged across the table. "Neither is the Tower," she said, examining the card. Her lips twitched up. "The Devil? Ha!"

Paulina snatched the card back, and ripped it in half. Mirage winced.

"Don't listen to her, my love, she's just trying to turn you against me."

"Um. Paulina," said Mirage. "I'm not 'your love.' I'm not in love with you. Neither is Phantom. You have to stop this. Maybe go out with Peter from the senior class. He likes you. You seem to be interested in the same things."

"Yeah, mirrors."

"Sam. Not helping."

"Sorry."

"But he isn't like you," protested Paulina.

"Yeah, and my scooter isn't like a space shuttle," said Sam, "but I'm never going to get a space shuttle, so saying that is kinda pointless."

"No one asked you, you b-"

"Okay!" interrupted Mirage. "Valerie, you want to share?"

Valerie scowled. "I have Judgment, the World, and the Wheel of Fortune."

"Rebirth or conviction, a new beginning or a lack of closure, and either good luck or bad luck," said Mirage.

"I don't believe in this stuff anyway," muttered Valerie.

"Neither do I, really, but it's fun. What do you have, Sam?"

Sam blushed. Her cards were a bit weird. "I have the Lovers and the Chariot, and I don't need you to interpret them for me." Love and victory.

"Okay," said Mirage. "So, Paulina, you go first. Aces."

But Paulina ignored him, choosing instead to stare at Sam, who, for her part, glared right back. "You- You didn't get the Lovers. That's my card. You must have stolen it somehow!"

"That'd be a trick," mumbled Mirage. "Paulina, please, it doesn't matter, but it's your turn. You need to play a card. Or cards. Aces."

Paulina's glare softened into syrupy sweetness as she switched her gaze to Mirage, and Sam had to restrain herself from kicking the other girl. The 'no fighting' rule was unlikely to exclude Sam, after all, and she didn't want to give Danny, or his shadows, extra trouble.

"If you really want me to," said Paulina, leaning towards Mirage even as he leaned away.

"Oh my god," said Valerie abruptly, clearly having enough of the whole situation. "You do realize that Phantom's dead, right? A ghost? Does that not register to you? Even if you ignore that, he looks like he belongs in elementary school."

"He was in high school before he died," complained Mirage. He turned to Sam. "I don't look that young. do I?"

"You look fine," said Sam.

"Love conquers all," said Paulina dramatically. "It defeats every barrier, tramples every wall, batters down every door. As long as out love is true-"

"Paulina, please listen to me, Phantom does not love you," said Mirage, a little desperately. "You're an okay person, if a bit vindictive, considering that you waited seven years to get back at Valerie, and you went out with Danny to get back at Sam for calling you shallow, and you've been leading Dale on for years, just because he chased you around with pond scum when you were ten, and- Where was I going with this?" asked Mirage, cutting himself off, and staring into the middle distance, blinking. "Oh. But, yeah, you're an okay person because you help Star out, and Ashley, too, most of the times, and you volunteer a lot, and you aren't stupid. But Phantom doesn't love you, and honestly, you don't love him either. You like the idea of being in love with him, and you do support him, and he appreciates that, but you don't know him. So, please, stop doing this."

The sickly sweet smile washed off of Paulina's face like syrup being washed off of a plate with hot water. "What would you know about it?" she snapped. "You aren't him!"

"You know what, I'm not even going to dissect that. How many aces did you put down?"

"Four," huffed Paulina.

"Great," said Mirage.

"Six twos," said Valerie, laying down a mismatched handful of cards.

Play proceeded. It was an interesting game. The number of cards that they themselves had meant nothing, what with all the extra cards Mirage had put in. They all had to rely on tells. Mirage had some of Danny's tells, but not all of them, and he seemed to have picked up a few of his own... At least, that's what it looked like to Sam before he bluffed Valerie into calling 'doubt' on him, and made her pick up the pile. Paulina was too angry to lie effectively, but she watched Sam like a hawk, and apparently knew Valerie well enough to tell when she was lying, so she called 'doubt' on the two of them more often than not.

"So," said Valerie, glaring at Mirage over her cards. "What is the relationship between you and Danielle, anyway?"

"I'll tell you if you win," said Mirage.

"Not like that, I mean, socially, what's your relationship like?"

"We don't have a social relationship. She's never met me."

"Between Danielle and Phantom."

"They're cousins."

"And that means something to ghosts?"

"Clearly," said Mirage. He set his cards down almost as soon as Sam had called hers. He sighed. "They've claimed each other. They're family."

"So, he, what? Provides for her? Gives her shelter? Because the first time I met her, she was on the run. It doesn't seem like he's taking very good care of her."

"They're kids, Valerie," said Sam. "There's a limit on what he can do."

"He has this place, doesn't he?"

"I don't think he knew it existed," said Sam.

"Excuse me," interjected Paulina. "Who is Danielle? And I've got nine."

Mirage didn't even look at her. "Doubt," he said. Paulina scowled and gathered up the cards. "Danielle is Phantom's cousin. She goes by Ellie, now. You've probably seen her around Amity Park with Phantom. She looks a lot like him. Ellie places more emphasis on personal freedom and safety than Phantom does, she likes to travel, and you might have noticed that she was on the run from Plasmius that first time you met. Even now, Phantom has difficulty with him. Still. It is mostly Ellie's choice not to stay."

Valerie put down her cards, calling the number. No one disputed it. "What's up with Plasmius anyway?"

"No one knows what's up with him," said Sam. "He's insane." She put down her own cards. She was getting close.

"Considering what he's managed, he can't be that insane," pointed out Valerie, "and all ghosts are insane, anyway."

"By human standards," said Mirage. "By ghost standards, you're the crazy ones." He put down his cards. "I suppose my answer depends on what, exactly, you're asking about. Be specific."

"What's his relationship with Danielle?"

"Creepy. He isn't actively after her anymore, though. I think they might have made up a bit."

"The last time I saw her, she was trying to beat him to death."

"Yeah. Your point?"

"That wasn't what I meant, either."

"I know what you meant, and I'm not tell you."

"What did he actually want her for anyway?"

"Sam," said Mirage, "I think that it's your turn."

"Don't ignore me."

"I'm not ignoring you, I'm just telling Sam that it's her turn. Not that I'm going to be answering that question, either."

"Fine," said Valerie, ignoring Sam as she took her turn, and Mirage as he quietly took his. "Then what's Phantom's relationship with Plasmius?"

"Gosh. Complicated. He want to adopt him, though."

"What?" exclaimed Valerie, as Sam almost bit through her tongue.

What was Mirage doing, revealing something like that?

"Yeah. He wants Phantom to be his son, or evil apprentice, or something equally stupid. You've probably heard bits and pieces of this shouted back and forth during fights."

"Maybe," confirmed Valerie.

Okay, so, that made more sense, now. Often, Sam regretted being earthbound during ghost fights. This was one of those times. Even with the Fenton Phones and Tucker's camera work, she missed dozens of conversations, and hundreds of details, during ghost fights. It would be easier if Danny told her and Tucker more, but even when he wasn't trying to protect or spare them from knowledge or worry, he was often too tired, or too busy, to give them a detailed description of events. Actually, it was mostly a case of being too tired. Usually, between the two of them and Jazz, they got a good accounting of injuries, both physical and mental.

The turn made it's way around the table once more. "What is Plasmius, anyway?" asked Valerie.

"I'd rather not give some people ideas," said Mirage.

"Oh," said Valerie, glancing at Paulina. "Yeah, I guess."

"You can tell me anything, you know," said Paulina, apparently deciding that now was the time to switch back to diabetes-flavor.

Mirage didn't say anything. Sam rolled her eyes.

"Why does he want Phantom, anyway? Couldn't he get, like, anyone to be his apprentice? I mean, he's evil enough for any ghost, and he's powerful."

"Lots of people want Phantom," said Mirage, almost absently, before putting down his cards.

"What for?" asked Paulina. It was the most intelligent question she had asked so far, in Sam's opinion.

"Well," said Mirage, taking a moment to think about it, "there are a couple reasons, but I guess that the most pertinent ones are that he's unclaimed, he's a child ghost, and those are rare, and his obsessions are unusual, even for an older ghost. There are lots of ghosts that want children, and children are hard for ghosts to do. Plasmius is just one of those, but he thinks that he has a better claim because he saw him first or something, even though that doesn't really matter."

"I thought Fenton said something about Phantom being adopted, though," said Paulina.

"Yes, but that isn't exactly public knowledge. Clockwork is kind of a private person, and there are ghosts out there who would go after Phantom if they learned that he was connected to Clockwork, so they didn't advertise."

"'Go after' meaning..?" Valerie asked.

"Suck up to. Scam. Threaten. Harass. Beat up. Kidnap. Take hostage. There are plenty of ghosts who would like to turn back time, especially among the Dead. They'd consider Phantom a weak spot. Leverage. There are a few that have already tried."

"I didn't hear about that," said Sam.

"Well, saying 'already tried' might give you the wrong idea. Some you do know about. They were pathetic, or at least not too much trouble. Most of those underestimated Phantom completely. He just forgot to tell you why they were after him. At least one got headed off by Clockwork. A couple don't exist anymore, and never did. It's confusing." Mirage frowned. "I... Don't think he knows about those consciously. I wonder why I do?"

"I don't know," said Sam. She put down her last two cards. "I win, by the way."

"What?" screeched Paulina. "No you don't! Doubt! Doubt!"

Sam flipped her cards over to show two threes, the correct cards. "You have to leave Phantom alone from now on."

"You- You- You-"

"Me, me, me," mocked Sam.

"You can't make me!"

"Maybe not," said Mirage, cheerfully. "But as long as you're here, I can. So."

Chapter Text

Chapter 56: Celestial Blue

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Danny woke to find himself constrained, constricted. He did not like this. He pushed against the soft restraints, but made no headway against them.

A whimper escaped his lips.

“Hey,” said a familiar, soft voice. “Hey, Danny, it's okay.”

Danny let himself relax a little. He did not like being trapped, but if she said it was okay, then it must be okay. She wouldn't lie. Instead of fighting against the restraints, he instead fought to open his eyes. It was far harder than it should be.

He drifted off again.

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Paulina was crying. She didn't understand. She had thought that he, her ghost boy, her love, Phantom, had come for her. He was supposed to be her prince in shining armor. He had even dressed the part. But he had spent most of the time talking to Valerie, answering questions, or deflecting them. Ignoring her. He shouldn't have done that. It wasn't right.

She sniffled, curling deeper into the hollow of the tree, not caring that her clothing, her only clothing, was getting smeared with dirt, or that her hair was full of leaves and twigs.

“Paulina?” said a hesitant, familiar, echoing voice. “Are you crying?”

“Go away,” said Paulina.

But there were footsteps, coming closer. “I-” said the voice. “I didn't mean to-” the voice cut itself off again.

“Which one are you, anyway?” asked Paulina.

“Mirage.”

Paulina scoffed. “Why aren't you with Valerie, or Sam?” she asked, bitterly.

“They went to bed. You should, too.”

“Or what?”

“Or you'll be tired tomorrow, I guess.”

“I don't care,” said Paulina.

“I didn't mean to make you cry,” said Mirage, quietly. Paulina looked up to see the boy staring down at his feet, his hands clasped behind his back. “I'm sorry.” He fidgeted, and his whole form flickered and rippled.

“You humiliated me,” said Paulina. “In front of them.

“I didn't mean to,” said Mirage. “Sam might've,” he admitted. “She doesn't really like you. But I don't hate you.”

“So, Phantom does like me?” asked Paulina, hopefully.

Mirage cringed. “Not really,” he said. “Not like that. Paulina, you... You do recognize that...” He hesitated again. “He doesn't hate you,” he said, finally, “but he isn't in love with you, and probably never will be. He isn't- He's not quite what you think he is. He couldn't be what you want him to be.”

“And that's what, exactly?”

“Perfect,” said Mirage. “Paulina, you can barely stand the sight of blood. Sam, Tucker, Jazz, and Danny, they have to stitch him up at least once a week. He forgets things. He would never be as romantic as you want, in the way that you want. He isn't terribly sensitive all the time. Look at me, and what I've done. What I am comes from him. He enjoys messing with people too much. Ancients, what he's done to Sam and Tucker... He'd drive you crazy in a week, most likely.”

“That's just a lie to get me to stop trying.”

“It is to get you to stop, but it isn't a lie. We've been trying not to lie. It would make some things easier, though, if we did. But, Paulina, what you're doing, even ghosts usually consider obsessing over a single specific thing or person to be unhealthy. There is someone out there for you, I'm sure. It just isn't Phantom.”

“What do you know?” muttered Paulina.

“Enough,” said Mirage. “Think of it another way, if you don't like me, and I'm basically him, with different parts emphasized, after a while, you wouldn't like him, either. He has days where he's just like me. Does that make sense?”

“I guess,” said Paulina.

“Okay,” said Mirage, floating off the ground. “That's good. I can take you to a place where you can clean up, if you'd like, and I think that we have some clothes in your style, somewhere.” He hummed, contemplatively. “Walking shoes, too, but most of them are used.”

“Okay,” said Paulina, starting to pull herself up.

Mirage grinned. “Great!” he said, fading into the trees. “Wanna play a game while you walk? I spy with my little eye...”

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When Danny regained consciousness the second time, he was much more aware of his surroundings. He no longer felt constrained, but secure, wrapped in his blanket with warm bodies on every side. How did that happen, anyway? He had thought that there were enough beds for everyone tonight.

He felt a cold hand brush his cheek, and he let his eyes flutter open. It took him a long time to focus on the ceiling. His eyes didn't want to cooperate at all.

Danny could feel his friends, his sister, with ghostly senses that had, since coming here, and until now, been unresponsive. It was a comfort to have them so close. He could feel Tucker, to his right, hugging him like he was a giant teddy bear, emotions muzzy and satisfied from long, uninterrupted sleep. He could feel Jazz's jittery, excited dreams from where she laid, curled, on the end of the bed near Danny's feet. To his left was Sam, just now starting to dream, but deeply satisfied.

The hand ghosted over his cheek again.

Danny's eyes flicked up, over his head, to, finally, focus on Echo. Danny blinked, brain trying to catch up with what he was seeing. Echo hadn't spent the whole rest of the night like this, had he? Actually, that would be just like Echo.

The shadow brushed his thumb over Danny's cheek again. Danny leaned into the touch, but then the corners of his mouth turned down. He tried to sit up, but failed. He glared first at the blankets he was encased in, and then, noticing the ghostly tail tangled in among them, up at Echo.

“You know,” said Echo, “if whatever is out there really is a threat, bringing them to the door is only putting them in harm's way.”

“I know that,” said Danny, trying to squirm out of the blankets without disturbing Sam or Jazz. “Kinda was hoping you and Fractal would stall, or do circles or something 'til we knew. Can you... not do that? I still don't know how this all works.”

Echo sighed ostentatiously, and phased Danny out of the blankets before setting him down in a chair in the next room. “That's just it,” said Echo, “neither do we. But we can definitely go in circles, or any other shape you'd like. We've got a few impossible ones, even.” He grinned, more than a little wickedness showing through. “They'll never even notice that they're being lead around, as long as Fractal doesn't get flustered.”

“I think he's been doing okay.”

“Small groups,” said Echo. “Remember when he introduced himself?”

“It'll be fine,” said Danny, standing to look for fresh clothing. “Hopefully whoever is outside my door will go away before too long. What happened after I passed out?” Danny paused, frowned, and turned. “Actually, why did I pass out like that? I know that I've been weird lately, sleep-wise, but still...” His eyes flicked over Echo's face. Was that guilt he was detecting? “Did you drug me?” asked Danny, somewhat annoyed.

“Just a little,” admitted Echo.

Danny groaned. “How did Mom and Dad re- Oh, my gosh. Mom and Dad. I told them. I told them.”

“Yes, but they didn't reject you,” said Echo, putting a hand on Danny's shoulder, “and even if they did, we've got that contract, and you are safe here.”

Danny's heart rate, which had been spiking, dropped so fast that Danny had to blink spots out of his eyes. “How're you doing that?” mumbled Danny, raising a hand to his head.

“I think that it's a feedback, issue,” said Fractal. “We all have the same ectosignature, after all: yours. Good morning, Danny.”

“Hi, Fractal,” said Danny, breathing through his nose, and trying to stay awake. “Either of you care to tell me what happened last night after you drugged me?”

“Sure,” said Fractal, “but we should probably get Mirage in to tell you about the stuff that he did, and introduce you.”

“Actually,” said Danny, “I think that I might remember what he did. Something with Sam, Valerie, and Paulina. How did he keep them from tearing each other to pieces? And a card game? Sam won?”

Fractal's eyebrows went up. “You remember all that?”

“Well, I'm just guessing about Sam winning, but I don't think that she'd be that happy if she'd lost, if that makes sense.”

“But you don't remember what Mirror and I did?”

“No, not really.”

“How about Shade and Umbra?”

“Um. Are those the other new ones?”

“Yeah.”

“No, no idea.”

“Interesting,” said Fractal. Then he shrugged. “Nothing terribly important happened. We just walked your parents back, and then went to go help Shade in the workshop.” He sighed. “I really wish that we could show you and Tucker the workshop. I think you'd like it.”

“Not worth the risk, even if my parents behave, we have the rest of the class to worry about,” said Danny.

“Still,” complained Fractal.

“I'm sure I'll come back at some point,” said Danny, finally managing to find a reasonably similar pair of socks. “Assuming that I don't, you know, manage to die before then.”

“You should just stay,” said Echo, invading Danny's personal space.

“I can't, I promised to bring them back to Amity,” said Danny, edging away.

“You didn't say when,” said Echo, “and you could get Jack and Madeline to release you from the oath.”

“Echo...” said Danny, warning in his tone. He didn't want to hear this. He didn't want to be tempted to stay, safe, in his lair, in his little bubble world. He was of course. He just didn't want to be. He wanted to be stronger than that.

(He didn't want to be tempted to trick away the freedom of others. He knew what being a prisoner felt like. He knew what being a slave felt like. To do that to others was unacceptable.)

Echo sighed, and took a deliberate step back, hands raised in a human gesture of surrender.

“Okay,” said Danny, “is anyone else up?”

“Mr Lancer is,” said Echo. “I don't think that he slept well.”

“Maybe I should go talk to him,” said Danny. “I haven't really had a chance to, since he figured me out. Ugh. This is so weird. Mr Lancer knows, and now my parents... And what was up with Valerie last night? Jeez, next thing you know, it's going to be the whole class.”

“Hopefully not,” said Fractal. “I doubt that they, collectively, could keep a secret to save their own lives, much less yours.”

“Yeah,” said Echo, sounding somewhat ill. Could shadows even get ill?

“Can you guys get sick?” asked Danny, seizing on the topic to distract himself.

The shadows did not appear to be surprised by the question. “We certainly felt sick right after you took that ectoplasm,” said Fractal. “Other than that...” he shrugged.

“Right. I'll add that to the list of things I'm going to have to ask Clockwork or Frostbite. I'm going to go talk to Mr Lancer. You two should probably stay out of sight.”

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The population of Harmony consisted of, in no particular order, three hundred and twenty-six living humans, forty-eight of whom were under the age of eighteen, thirty-four humanoid(-ish) ghosts, six living dogs, an excitable ghost puppy that was, according to his tag, named 'Cujo,' twenty-seven living cats, thirteen dead cats, an elderly pony, a possessed teddy bear, a parrot named Leon who, most of the other inhabitants agreed, had achieved sapience, ten ghosts who self-identified as 'blobs,' and an unclear, but large, number of will-o'-the-wisps.

Anthony Trent hadn't the slightest idea how he had wound up (nominally) in charge of such an eclectic population. He supposed that it had something to do with his status as (former) copilot of the plane that had been the source of the majority of the humans in Harmony, although he would have thought that the dubious distinction would have made him a less likely choice. Perhaps it was because he was the only one who was passably fluent in Esperanto, in addition to his native French and job-required English. The fact that such a young language, relatively speaking, was the lingua franca of the Spirit World was odd, but, he supposed, no odder than the almost complete lack of doors in this place, or the way that blue, shape-shifting man with a clock (of all things!) embedded in his chest had directed them here, or, even, the strange, nude boy he had seen on the roof of the Door Building.

Which was, as it turned out, what Anthony had called this town hall meeting for.

It was, perhaps, a measure of how peaceful it was here, of how well the town lived up to it's name, that such an event was worth holding a meeting over.

When a town meeting was called, almost everyone showed up, except for those charged with watching the door, or the very elderly and their caretakers. The structures that the people of Harmony had commandeered for their own purposes had clearly been intended for a much larger population. A city, rather than a village. They met in the Town Hall, a rectangular red brick building topped with a cupola, which also served as an entrance to whatever laid beyond Harmony.

Some young men and women had once mounted an expedition to the deeps below Town Hall, braving the spiraling staircase. They had discovered a place that was, if possible, even more confusing and contradictory than the green wastes that they had passed through before. It was all stone staircases and almost-Grecian carvings, all covered in glowing, flowering vines, all going every-which way, some of which formed either very convincing optical illusions, or simply defied the confining logic of three-dimensional space.

The place beneath did not seem to be dangerous, however, and when the expedition got lost, the flowering vines had led them back by closing all flowers except those on the correct path, so the people of Harmony continued to use the Town Hall for their meetings.

(This also had the effect, acknowledged by only a few, of giving them an escape route if ever one of the more dangerous monsters from Outside got in.)

Anthony called the meeting to order, and the conversations died off. The younger children, some few of whom had been born in Harmony, took longer to quiet down, but they did eventually, smiling up at the mayor with oddly luminous eyes. He smiled back. The very youngest children, the 'native Harmonians,' were a precocious, well-behaved, bunch, for all that the eldest of them was only three. Their elders, even the teenagers, also seemed, to Anthony, to be different than children he had met before coming to Harmony. Perhaps that was only an effect of the small, tightly-knit, population, but at moments like these, when their eyes glittered and shone with shades of green and amber, he had to wonder. How much did this place effect them? Were they becoming more like ghosts?

(Unbidden: Were they dying, even now? Still, Anthony found it difficult to be alarmed.)

Anthony opened his mouth to explain what had happened, what he, and a few others, had seen, and to ask other witnesses to come forward, when there was a knocking sound.

The silence in the hall became profound as everyone turned to find the sound. No one really knocked anymore, especially not to come into a public place, such as this one. There were no doors, except for the Door. Even when people had tried to build doors, such things would be destroyed, usually when no one was watching, but sometimes even when they were. Something about this place didn't like doors, or even windows.

(It was a good thing that the weather here was so temperate.)

Instead of doors, curtains were used for privacy. Instead of knocking, people clapped, or whistled, or simply shouted. So knocking, actually knocking, was very unusual.

A boy, aged about twelve or thirteen, by Anthony's estimation, stood by the arched doorway of the large room, knuckles of one hand resting lightly on the lintel. His skin was deathly pale, his hair was pitch black, and his eyes were a celestial blue.

“Hello,” said the boy.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 57: Taxonomies 

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"Who are you?" asked Anthony, a little cautious. Harmony did not 'approve' of fights, or at least something always stopped ones started in earnest, but, whatever it was, it could not always stop an attack before damage was done. As the people of Harmony had learned in the past.

(Anthony always wondered how it knew the difference between real fights, and things like practice rounds in Takahashi-Sensei's aikido class. So did a lot of other people. He suspected that the ghosts knew, but they never said anything.)

"My name is Mirror," said the boy in a clear, carrying voice. He took a few steps forward, and tilted his head. "I guess you could say that I'm a representative of your landlord. Don't panic," he added after a moment's thought, "I'm not here to collect rent or anything like that."

"Landlord?" asked someone in the back (Anthony thought that it might be Frida 'I'm from Germany' Weber, but it was hard to tell).

"The ghost to whom this lair belongs," clarified Mirror. At the resulting gasp, he blinked, and actually took a step back. "No one told you?" he asked. "But..." His eyes, like Anthony's, flicked over the crowd, pausing at the ghosts. He shook his head. "I suppose it doesn't matter. That's not why I'm here."

"Why are you here?" asked Anthony.

The boy made a face. "There's something nasty outside the Door," he said, waving his hand behind him. "Or several somethings. Or someones. We aren't sure. I've come to warn you, and to tell you that if you wish to evacuate, I can guide you through what you call the Deeps. Oh, and, once this is all done, I will bring you back up here, if that's what you want."

Predictably, there was chaos.

.

.

.

"Mr Lancer?" asked Danny, quietly, still a ways behind the man. He didn't want to startle his teacher into the water.

Still, Mr Lancer jumped. "Daniel!" he exclaimed. "I didn't see you," he said, a note of apology in his voice.

"That's okay," said Danny. "I know I can be hard to notice, sometimes. I think it's a ghost thing." He walked forward to stand next to Mr Lancer, staring into the pool. "I talked to my parents last night," he said. "I told them about, you know. I think that they took it okay." Danny paused, watching Mr Lancer's reflection in the water.

The older man sagged with relief. "That's wonderful, Daniel," he said. Then, as if worried that he had been too quick to respond, "My offer still stands, though. If you need anything, I will do my best to help."

The corners of Danny's mouth twitched upwards. "Thank you," said Danny. "That means a lot to me. I guess I'm a little worried that they aren't taking it as well as they seem to be, but... I don't think that you can do anything about that. Can you?"

"I- Believe it or not, there are signs for that kind of thing." Danny raised an eyebrow, but Mr Lancer shook his head. "Not for your situation, exactly, but there are similar circumstances that I've dealt with as a teacher."

"Like what?" asked Danny, curious. This wasn't the response that he had expected.

"Like a student picking a career path their parents don't approve of, or," Mr Lancer hesitated almost imperceptibly, "coming out of the closet. I can keep an eye out."

"'Coming out o-' Oh. I get it. Okay. Yeah. I guess I can see that. Thank you."

"It's my job as a teacher," said Mr Lancer.

"I think that this goes beyond the call of duty, though," said Danny. He bit his lip. "I kind of dropped a lot on you, the other day, and then just sort of, I don't know, left you. I'm sorry."

"I won't say that I wasn't confused," admitted Mr Lancer, "or that I'm not still confused, but that's hardly your fault, Daniel. You've been working hard to get us all out of this mess."

"I guess," said Danny. "But I just wanted to say that if you had any questions, I can try to answer them. And don't feel like it's an imposition. It'll be good practice."

"Practice?"

"I'm going to have to teach everyone enough ghost etiquette before we leave to not get killed."

"Is that something that could happen?" asked Mr Lancer, alarmed.

"Maybe," said Danny. "A lot of ghosts here in the Realms aren't used to dealing with humans. They might hurt you without really meaning to. You learn pretty fast not to do things that'll get you attacked. New ghosts are generally more durable than humans, so what might be considered a chastising blow for an inexperienced ghost could seriously hurt a human. Then, some social behaviors are... ingrained. Or, um, burnt-in, might be a better way to say it, or pre-programmed. Instinctual, like they're in the ectoplasm, or, um, like, they arise from how ectoplasm is ordered, or how ghosts work. I don't know. I've read about it, but it's a lot to keep straight. Like, um, ugh. The only examples I can think of right now are embarrassing ones."

"You don't have to tell me, if you don't want to," said Mr Lancer. "You don't owe me anything."

"Yeah, but... I feel like I kind of do, after all the trouble I've given you, and this can be, I don't know, a practice, for when I have to tell Mom and Dad. So much of this... I've never really had to explain it all at once. Sam and Tucker have been with me the whole time, and Jazz, she guessed a lot of it, and did so much of her own research... I don't know how to say everything without freaking them out. Some of it- Some of it sounds bad. And I have to figure out how to do the etiquette thing, too. So if you don't mind being the practice round..."

"Not at all," said Mr Lancer, forcing a smile onto his face.

"Okay, then. Um. Examples, uh. Child ghosts. Child ghosts will act differently around adult ghost that they like, trust, and respect... Or, no, that's not quite the right way to say that. Adult ghosts that they feel they can rely on?" He bit his lip, suddenly uncertain.

"Perhaps you mean, ghosts that they look up to as parental figures?" asked Mr Lancer, helpfully.

Danny nodded. "Yeah, I think that's probably the best way to say that, or... They'll act different, really docile around adult ghosts that they look to as... potential protectors. Or maybe 'pliable' is the right word? 'Silly?'" Danny shook his head to clear it. "Anyway, they act just bizarrely well-behaved. I guess."

"Why?" asked Mr Lancer.

"Um," said Danny, thinking. "It's instinctual, but if you want the logic behind it... If you're a child ghost, odds are, you're going to be a child for a good long time, maybe even forever, so you want to have a good relationship with the people who are going to be with you, who are going to protect you, and provide for you. You want to be liked. In the Ghost Zone, you don't really have to worry about food as much as on Earth, but there are other things, too. Protection. Affection. Care. Knowledge. Healing. Even if you're Deathless, and are going to grow up eventually, you're still going to be dealing with your parents for essentially forever, unless you go off someplace specifically to get away from them or something." Danny shrugged. "A surprisingly large amount of ghost social stuff is centered around not forgetting what's going on. Sorry, I'm getting off-track." He sighed. "Then, with Dead children... Well, if a child dies, that usually means that something, somewhere, has gone badly wrong. Sometimes... Just... Well, you know. Then you have an interest in keeping that from happening again. Does that make sense as an example?"

"I think so," said Mr Lancer, slowly, "Although, I'm not sure why you thought that it was embarrassing."

Danny groaned. "Mr Lancer, I'm a child ghost."

Mr Lancer blinked. "You- But, you-"

Danny waited.

"But you protect the town!" said Mr Lancer finally. "You're sixteen, and you have parents!" Mr Lancer winced a little at the last objection.

Danny made a face, but before Mr Lancer could apologize and make everything more painful, he started talking. "I get where you're coming from," he said, "and I'm not going to lie to you, I am dangerous, even by ghost standards, but, well," he made another face, "first off, instincts, even human instincts, especially human instincts, aren't always very logical. It doesn't matter that I can beat up ninety-nine percent of all ghosts. Beyond that, just like back in the Material World, you have things, predators, that prey specifically on children, and child ghosts, and there are, um, environmental hazards that adult ghosts can deal with easily that child ghosts can't deal with at all. Except for avoiding them altogether, but you can't always do that. Then, ghosts measure childhood differently than humans do. Actual, total age doesn't really matter much when you have a ten-year-old from Ancient Rome, and a ten-year-old from the eighteen hundreds and they act about the same. I've met someone who died when they were in their twenties, and they're still considered a child. Although," Danny added, thoughtfully, "I have noticed that the tendency to act silly does decrease with greater primal age... Oh, um, primal age being the age you're supposed to look. Usually the age you died at, if you're Dead. I think that the standard, though, for telling whether or not you're a child, is if you can stop absorbing ambient ectoplasm at will, which child ghosts can't do. I can't do that, and... And if you're going to ask about aging out, I don't know if you've noticed or not, but I haven't actually grown at all since the Accident, so I don't know if that's ever going to happen. Yeah," finished Danny, awkwardly, choosing not to address the matter of his parents. He sighed, heavily, sitting down at the edge of the water.

*"Predators?" asked Mr Lancer into the following silence, clearly trying to pick the least sensitive topic out of Danny's monologue, but somehow finding one of the more sensitive ones.

"Yeah," said Danny, hiding his discomfort with the subject for Mr Lancer's sake. "They're rare, but dangerous, and there would probably be a lot more children in the Realms if not for them. They don't go after large groups, though, so as long as no one goes off on their own."

"Why don't they go after large groups?"

"For some of them, it's because their abilities only work on one person at a time, but for others it's because it's hard for adults to perceive them, unless a child, or someone else who already sees them points them out, so if they go after a large group, they'll get pointed out, and then, if there are any adult ghosts in the group, they'll be destroyed. Because literally no one likes them. There's a destroy-on-sight policy."

"That sounds like an excellent policy, all things considered, but... Why?"

"Because a lot of them don't usually kill their prey. What they do is almost always covered under the Taboo against Acts of Rapine, and, well, I guess it's like in prison."

"What?" asked Mr Lancer, surprised.

"You hear on the news, and stuff," said Danny, "that some people, when they go to prison, they have to be put in solitary, so the other prisoners don't kill them. Not all crimes are equal."

"Oh. I see."

"Do you? A lot of them come from there, apparently. A human obsession becoming a ghostly one." Danny shuddered, drawing his knees up to his chest. "Can we talk about something else now? I don't think that this is really what I want to be explaining to the class."

*"Ah. Right. Perhaps you could just say that ghosts take politeness very seriously, and that they might be punished for impoliteness?"

"I guess that would work."

A few seconds passed before Mr Lancer spoke again. "You used the term 'Deathless' earlier. I believe you mentioned it yesterday, too, but there were so many other things going on, that I think it just slipped on by. Could you explain what it means?"

"Um. Sure. It's, um. In general, there are three kind of broad categories of ghosts. There are the Neverborn," he started counting on his fingers, "the Deathless, and the Dead." He waved three fingers at Mr Lancer. "The Neverborn are ghosts who formed more or less on their own out of raw ectoplasm and the energies of the Zone, or emotional energy, or imagination, or whatever. It's hard to tell when they started existing. Typically, both the weakest ghosts, like blobs, and the strongest ghosts, like the ones who are basically personifications of ideas and natural laws, are Neverborn. Then there are the Deathless, who are ghosts that are born ghosts. That is, their parents are ghosts. Which, yeah, I know, it sounds weird, but it happens. These little guys," he indicated a wisp who had floated near, "a lot of them are Deathless. Most of them are Neverborn, but a lot of them are Deathless. I think. We still have some communication problems when it comes to, um, more complicated concepts. The whole... process is a lot, a lot, different than with humans, and it's my understanding that it's difficult, but it happens. Then the Dead are, um. People or animals who have died. Pretty straightforward there. I'm Dead. Most of the ghosts you see in Amity Park are Dead."

"Daniel," said Mr Lancer, concern clear in his voice, "you aren't dead."

Danny looked up at Mr Lancer. This was the part that he knew would be the hardest for the teacher to accept. It had taken Jazz time, and, in during that time, she had come up with a dozen alternate theories. Sam had freaked out massively when Danny had first come out of the portal, and Danny was sure that she was still carrying the knowledge around like a burden, although he wasn't sure why. Tucker brought it up in jokes, like Danny, but he knew what it meant. At least, he knew as much as any human could. It had taken Danny himself a while to come to terms with the fact that he had died himself, which as it turned out, wasn't all that unusual among the Dead.

(He wasn't sure quite when it had happened, or how, but, eventually, he stopped saying that he had ghost powers, and started saying that he was half-ghost.)

"If it helps, I'm as much alive as I am dead. But I am Dead. I died. I react to things in the same way the Dead do."

Mr Lancer took a deep breath, and Danny could tell that he was tempted to argue. But he contained himself. "I doubt you want to explain that to the class, either."

"Not particularly. I mean, the different kinds of ghosts, sure, but the 'I'm Dead' part, not so much."

"Hm," said Mr Lancer, staring blankly at the plants on the other side of the pool. A wisp floated mischievously through his field of view, pulling loops. "Three kinds of ghost..."

"In general, if you're talking about how they came to exist, yeah. I mean, there are other categorizations, like shadows, spawn, doppelgangers, children-by-theft, certain kinds of liminals, and that's not even getting into categories that judge based on appearance, or intelligence, or obsession, or powers, but those are the easiest ones to understand. The easiest for me to explain, anyway."

"You've had to learn a lot about this, haven't you?"

"Yeah," agreed Danny.

"I can't have been easy."

"I've had help," said Danny. "Not with everything, but with most things. But, it has been kind of like going to school twice, but one of them will kill you if you fail." Danny blinked, and raised a hand. "That's not supposed to be an excuse about my grades, by the way. Just, you know, an observation. Like, sometimes I don't turn in homework because of poor time management, or because I want to play video games or goof off with Sam and Tucker, not because I'm fighting ghosts, or doing something ghost-related. I mean, it usually is ghosts, but... Yeah."

"You shouldn't be penalized for trying to have a life, Daniel," said Mr Lancer. The expression on his face was one familiar to Danny. He saw it on Sam and Tucker all the time. "There are often allowances made for students who have... circumstances outside their control. Clearly, I can't say that I've ever seen a situation like yours, and, honestly, I don't think that I will be able to get the rest of the staff to give you the help you deserve, and you do deserve help, Daniel, far more than I could ever give you, but I will give you as much help as I can. I promise you that. At the very least," he said putting on an expression of restrained distaste, "I can make the same allowances for you that I am forced to make for members of our sports teams."

"Ha!" exclaimed Danny. Mr Lancer looked at him oddly. "Oh, um. It's just that I've always thought that something fishy was going on there. With the jocks, I mean."

Mr Lancer sighed. "Yes, I'm afraid so. I hate to make excuses for such behavior, but what with all the repairs Amity Park is forced to make, and the public safety measures, the school wouldn't have enough money to run if not for sports-obsessed private donors."

"Sorry," said Danny, hugging his knees.

"What? Why are-? Oh. Daniel, it's hardly your fault. Blaming you for that mess is the farthest thing from my mind. I'm sure things would be much worse without you. You've saved my life more than once."

"I'm also the one that locked you in the janitor's closet that one time."

"Y-You mean the time I was trapped in the closet over the weekend? That was you?"

"Yeah," said Danny, voice muffled from speaking into his knees. He was looking up at Mr Lancer, a little afraid of what his reaction might be. It was possible that Danny should have waited to tell him that, or that he should have given the incident some more context, but he wanted to give his teacher the chance to back out of his promise before he got his hopes up.

"Wh-" started Mr Lancer. He blinked, and sat down abruptly. "You were in detention for skipping class," he said, after a moment. "Skipping class," he repeated, "to go to Circus Gothica."

"Mhm," said Danny.

"Circus Gothica," said Mr Lancer, brow furrowed, "the evil circus. The circus that was evil because the owner had a... something that could control ghosts. Miss Manson said that Phantom didn't even remember what had happened."

"It was a staff," said Danny. "But, yeah. My memory of that week is... patchy." Mr Lancer gave him a look. "Okay, it isn't quite a giant hole. I do remember being in that detention, or, at least, showing up for it, but, after that, I think my next clear memory was flying with Sam." He paused. "I had just caught her. She'd fallen off the train." He paused again. "While it was going over that bridge. You know, the long one that the county is always renaming."

Mr Lancer stared at him. "I think that I'll have to ask the three of you to tell me the rest of that story at some point. Not now, though. I suspect that your classmates will be waking up soon."

"Yeah," said Danny. "I can hear some of them moving around." He stood up. "I should go, make sure that everyone has breakfast."

"Daniel," said Mr Lancer softly. Danny turned. "I'm not going to blame you for something you had no control over and don't even remember."

Danny smiled. "Thanks."

Chapter Text

Chapter 58: Inescapable

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Vlad was no longer angry, but he was annoyed. He had been searching the Ghost Zone for hours and hours, and he had yet to uncover any sign of Daniel. Where could the child be? Vlad knew that whatever new idiocy Jack had come up with had torn open a temporary portal, and that such portals could lead anywhere, usually they followed some logic. Usually a portal opened in Amity Park would appear in Amity Park equivalent space in the Ghost Zone, or at least somewhere nearby. Vlad hadn't had nearly enough time to explore every such location, the Ghost Zone folded in strange ways, even discounting all the doors, but he'd explored a great many of them, starting with those closest to the school. He had set the vultures to the task. He had recruited Skulker. He'd even scoured Sidney Poindexter's lair, for all the good it had done him.

At this rate, he'd start running into GIW goons.

To top it all off, Vlad was beginning to suspect that he was being followed. He kept seeing figures out of the corners of his eyes. The same figures. Four of them. Three with wings, the other with too many arms.

Now, Vlad wasn't what anyone would call a good person. Even he wouldn't call himself a good person. He wouldn't label himself as evil, of course. As he had told Daniel long ago, all he ever wanted was love. Perhaps he had done a great many... distasteful things in his life time, but he had always been careful to stay on the correct side of ghost law.

Even so, he had made an effort to learn who he might have to fight against, if someone took exception to one of his less laudable acts.

He was certain that he would win, but this wasn't a fight he wanted to waste time or effort on.

No matter. He knew a shortcut. He could loose them. He knifed right, behind a small floating island, and threw open the door he found there. It lead not to a lair, but to a different part of the Zone. He dropped to his left, changing his perception of 'down' with the ease of years of practice. This was often faster than simply flying, took no energy, and left little to no trail to follow.

He touched down on a larger island, and vanished into the feathery trees that adorned it. There was another door here, and he went through. This door lead into a set of ruins, the last remains of a once-great realm. Vlad turned human to avoid the traps that grew like weeds in such places, and padded through the halls. He doubted that, even if the four ghosts tracked him through the doors, they would be able to follow him through the ruins.

Pleased with himself, Vlad strolled straight through the walls. There was, of course, still the problem of why they were searching for him, but Vlad was more than prepared to put that problem to the side while he searched for Daniel, and he needed the victory.

He emerged from the last wall into the green-white light cast by the Ghost Zone sky. His eyes adjusted rapidly, to reveal the presence of a winged figure.

She smiled toothily at Vlad, her braids swinging over the shoulder pads of her riot gear. "You didn't really think that'd work, did ya?"

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"Who are you and what do you want?" demanded Vlad, perched on a floating bit of rock, nursing what was probably a broken arm.

"For serious?" asked the girl with the ponytail, and the red dress. "I thought you were s'posed to be, like, smart or something."

Vlad growled, low and deep in his throat. How dare these three who chose, for some ineluctable reason to emulate air-headed valley girls, who could hardly form a coherent sentence, insult him? So what if they had managed to beat him? If he had been in ghost form to start with, they would never have won!

"Hey, calm down there, kiddo," said the most normally dressed of the three, hands on her hips. "We aren't after you. We just wan' you to answer some questions, appear in court, that kinda thing. Give us some info, give Addy's cuz some info, y'know?"

"Assume I do not. Enlighten me," said Vlad, his voice cold.

"Ancients, you sound like my aunt, and not the fun one," complained the four-armed ghost, using her free hand to sweep back her starry hair.

"Which is kinda rich of you, seein' as you're the one who started the fight," said the ghost who wore body armor.

"I did no such-"

"Oh-kay," said the four-armed ghost, bringing the incipient fight to a screeching halt. "Let's do introductions, okay? Let's start with that, since it's, you know, the least common denominator as far as politeness goes. Okay?" She got nods from her compatriots, and a glare from Vlad. She snorted. "Well, we all already know who you are, Vlad Masters-Plasmius, formerly Vladimir Vasiliovitch Pavlov. Yeah, Libra has a file on you three inches thick. You do know what Libra is, right?"

"Yes," said Vlad, shortly, taken aback by how the girl had rattled off his full name.

"Cool. So, I'm Adrestia the Inescapable," she said, making, to Vlad's extreme consternation, 'finger guns' at him, "bountyhunter. This is my crew, my squad, my fam away from fam. The one in red is Tess."

"But you might know me better as Tisiphone," said the indicated girl, baring her teeth.

"Then that's Alex in the riot gear."

"That's Alecto to you, though," said Alecto, crossing her arms.

"And, last, certainly not least, and most patient of the three is Meg."

"Hey," complained Tisiphone, "I can be patient. D'you know how long it take to put these braids in? Meg's got just the one!"

"Tess, your hair braids itself."

"That's not the point!"

"Isn't it, though?"

"Don't go sneaking away on us, Plasmius," said the last girl, Meg. Curses, Vlad had thought that all four of them had gotten absorbed in their internal dispute, but it made sense that 'Meg' would be the one to notice him, if she was who he thought she was. Megaera, the jealous one. The envious and jealous often had sharp eyes. He was one who would know.

"Anyway," said Adrestia, "to business. Meg, write this down. You know Phantom, right?"

"Yes," admitted Vlad. There really wasn't a point denying it. He had been looking for Daniel all day, and any of the ghosts he had encountered could confirm it.

"And you know Jack and Madeline Fenton?"

"Yes," said Vlad again. Where was this going? Could Daniel be in Libra custody? He almost smacked himself. Of course Jack's bumbling and the idiocy that Daniel's class clung to like a spar in a shipwreck had caused an incident. They probably had asked a ghost what they had died of, or something equally moronic. Daniel was probably finally reaching out to Vlad as the only person who could extract him and Maddie from this mess!

"Have you ever known Jack or Madeline Fenton to harm or attempt to harm Phantom physically or emotionally?" Adrestia sounded like she was reciting the question from memory.

Vlad blinked. He opened his mouth to categorically deny any such an allegation, then snapped it closed again when he realized that, not only could he not do so, but that he had, on occasion, instigated incidents that had resulted in exactly that. His eyes narrowed. "What is this about?"

"You've been mentioned by others in connection to Phantom several times," explained Adrestia. "We heard that you offered to adopt him, but were rejected because of obsession incompatibility."

"There's nothing incompatible about our obsessions!" objected Vlad. "The child is simply too loyal to that oaf he calls a father. He doesn't understand that the man destroys everything and everyone he touches." Vlad would have said more on his least favorite subject, but he could recognize an evasion when he saw one. "But that doesn't explain why you four are running around asking about Phantom."

Adrestia regarded him coolly, but then nodded. "Libra's thinking about bringing a case against Jack and Madeline Fenton," she answered.

"What- Against humans?" Then he groaned. "What did they make?"

"According to one witness, a weapon that forces the Dead to relive what made them that way. Normally we wouldn't go after humans for murder, it really isn't any of our business. The problem is who they used it on."

Vlad felt his blood drain from his already-pale face. "No... They wouldn't have."

"That's what we're trying to establish. It'd be a lot easier if we could figure out where the portal Phantom opened came out, and we could interview the primaries, but, hey, we've got to work with what we've got. Which is you right now. So, if you could help us out here, and answer our questions, it'd be appreciated."

Vlad sighed. "Could you repeat the last one?"

Chapter Text

Chapter 59: Nomenclature

.

"We're coming up on the last questions now, just bear with me here, okay?" said Adrestia. "You keeping up, Meg?"

"Heck, yeah. Gosh, this's so much easier with shorthand."

"Since when do you know shorthand?"

"Since I took that correspondence course, duh."

"That had better be legible at the end of all this, Meg. Anyway," she said, bringing her attention back to Vlad. "Do you know if Phantom has been formally claimed, or if any adult ghost has formally declared themselves to be responsible for him? In other terms, do you know if any ghost has been appointed, or has appointed themselves, his guardian? If so, whom?"

"To the best of my knowledge, he doesn't have a guardian, beyond his biological parents," said Vlad, wearily. "He is friendly with the Far Frozeners, however, and I have frequently met him near the Time Locked Lands, so perhaps he has allies there whom I am not familiar with."

"Okay. Does Phantom have any other adoptive, returned, or steadfast family, any family-by-theft, any oath-siblings, or any other bonds of fraidship that have not yet been mentioned?"

It took Vlad a moment to unravel the terms. He so rarely had the opportunity to use them. "Other than Jasmine-" he paused. "He does have a cousin-by-theft."

"Ah. We hadn't heard that yet. Details?"

"Her name is Danielle," said Vlad, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "The last time I saw her, she was almost identical to Daniel."

"Do you know where we can find her?"

"No."

"Anything else?"

"He's offered sanctuary to a few ghosts in Amity Park, but I doubt that any of that amounts to fraidship, or even vassalage."

"Hm," said Adrestia. "You guys have any questions?" she asked the three winged girls.

"Nah, I think you've got everythin,'" said one of the girls, waving a lazy hand.

"Great. One last thing. Would you be willing to appear as a witness in court? You would, of course, be allowed an advocate in the preliminary committee as a major witness, and you may pull out at any time before the conclusion of the preliminary committee."

Vlad raised an eyebrow, but he was not surprised. It was obvious that he would be a star witness, considering that he knew both the victim and the suspects. This would be an excellent opportunity to get rid of Jack for good! Now, if he could only arrange for Maddie to emerge unharmed... Perhaps he could even argue for Daniel to be released into his custody... "I will have to consult with my advocate before I make any guarantees."

"Make sure to go to the Hall of Justice as soon as you make up your mind, but, sure," said Adrestia. "Anything you want to add before we go?"

"Actually, yes," said Vlad, surprising even himself. He cleared his throat. "I have reason to believe that members of the Group for Inter-dimensional Warfare are planning an expedition with the stated purpose of retrieving Daniel and his classmates. I doubt, however, that that is their only goal, and even if it is, well, I am sure you are aware of their reputation."

Adrestia's lips moved silently. Then, "The Guys in White? Yeah, we know about those maniacs. We'll make sure that word gets out. Alex, fix his arm before we go, will you?"

The ghost scoffed, but zoomed up to Vlad and prodded his broken arm before zooming away again, moving faster than he could react in human form.

"Latter, man," said Adrestia, giving him a negligent wave before zooming off herself.

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.

.

"Of all the times for the eyeballs to hold a meeting," groaned Adrestia.

"You should show them more respect, Adrestia," said Astraea, disapprovingly. They were standing in one of the many private conference rooms in the Hall of Justice.

"I show them plenty of respect," said Adrestia, "I just don't feel any. They're massive jerks, and I could take any one of them."

"Right. Just like Plasmius thought he could evade the three of you. Issitoq is as old as time, and his inner circle is almost as old as he is. Not to mention that there are a lot of them."

"Yeah, yeah. I get it, I've got it, but we've got the other bureaucratic nightmare to deal with. You're gonna tell your mom, but then what? Lady Themis is at the thing, and, many things we are, we aren't a police force."

"We do have resources, though. The Eumenides aren't your only crew, right?"

"Yeah, but I don't know about having them out and about near human children. Some of them are kind of, er, wild, if you know what I mean."

"I do, but we may not have a choice. Let me talk to Mother, and then we can figure out what to do. If nothing else, we can go to Walker."

"Gross."

"I know. But, hopefully, we can get into contact with the Reeves. We can certainly gather our cousins."

"What about the Egyptians?"

Astraea shook her head. "Other than the dynasts, the wannabe dynasts, and the loyalists, who are, well, you know, always fighting with one another and themselves, Ma'at is the only central authority."

Adrestia sighed through her nose. "It's almost enough to make you wish that we were human, huh? At least they can cooperate on short notice."

"Don't even joke about that. I'm pretty sure that's a myth, anyway."

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.

"Okay," said Fractal, smiling at the class, "are you ready for some walking today?"

The students stared sullenly up at the shadow. Many of them had not appreciated the way Mirage had chosen to wake them, which had involved, in several cases, ice cubes. Danny's lips twitched. He shouldn't have been so amused, the whole thing had been massively inappropriate, considering the circumstances, and yet he was.

"Great," said Fractal. "Now, since you're going to be out in the wide open Zone in a few days, you all should learn how to interact with ghosts without insulting anyone. Otherwise, your chances of getting back to Amity Park unharmed are going to drop significantly. Not," he said, pointing warningly at Jack and Maddie, "because ghosts are trigger-happy, or easily offended, or violent, but because you get a bunch of ghosts from a bunch of different eras, and even in some modern human cultures some insults warrant physical responses, and most ghosts aren't used to dealing with people as fragile as humans. Therefore, Danny, Jazz, Sam and Tucker-"

"Why am I always last on these lists?" complained Tucker, good-naturedly.

"I don't know about anyone else, but for me, it's because your name is last alphabetically. Anyway, those four are going to be telling you about how not to get yourself into trouble."

"Why not you?" asked Mikey.

Fractal blinked. "I thought that went without saying. Of course I'll be helping them. Of course, I'm not human at all, and what's obvious to me may not be obvious to you. These four, on the other hand, they've been on the learning side of all of this."

"It would have been nice to get some warning, though," said Sam, grinning sardonically.

Fractal pushed up his glasses, and shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry. It isn't like we've had a lot of time to plan this. This is only the second night you've been here."

"Just giving you a hard time," said Sam. "No worries."

"She does that," said Tucker.

"Wait a sec," said Dash. "You're gonna make us listen to the nerds?"

"Um. Yes?" said Fractal tapping the tips of his fingers together.

"Hasn't Jazz tutored you before?" asked Danny.

"Shut up. I wasn't talking about Jazz."

Tiffanie huffed, and looked away from Dash.

"Babe," he protested, "I'm totally over her."

"Right," interrupted Fractal. "If you'd all follow me, please," he said, starting towards the stairs. "We can get started on what definitely not to say. Would you start, Danny?"

"Well, first off, never ask a ghost how or if they died."

"Why?" asked Ricky. "Wouldn't that be the first thing that you'd ask? Like asking them where they come from?"

Danny frowned, about ask what was wrong with Ricky, to even ask that, when Jazz dove in.

"PTSD," said Jazz. "It isn't exactly the same, but you wouldn't interrogate a stranger about the worst moment of their life, would you?"

"I guess that makes sense," said Ricky.

"What do you mean 'if' they died?" asked Mikey.

"Well..."

.

.

.

"... then, if someone gives you a name, use that name. Don't go, 'Hey, Zagreus, I heard you went by Bacchus back in Rome! Was that whole thigh thing true?' Because they hate that. Like, they really, really, hate that," said Tucker.

"Did you... Did you do that?" asked Mia.

"I resent that allegation. And no. But the idiot who did it, yikes."

"Nicknames and descriptions are usually alright," said Danny, "if you're close to the person in question or you want a fight. So don't risk it. Titles are fine, if they give them to you. If you want to be safe, just stick with what they explicitly tell you to call them."

"Any questions on that?" asked Jazz.

"So, calling Phantom Invis-o-Bill..?" asked Sarah.

Danny cringed. Ancients, that name was awful. "Bad. Really bad."

"You're all lucky that he's so easy going," said Fractal. "There are many ghosts who would have snapped at you people, given what you've put him through." He frowned. "Not necessarily you, specifically. Just Amity Park in general."

"I would have snapped," said Sam. "I'm not even a ghost."

"I wouldn't say many," started Danny.

"You do see how angry Skulker gets when you call him tin can?"

"Or how about Aragon, Prince of Nothing?"

"Or," Tucker pitched his voice high, "Technus, Master of Long-Winded Introductions!"

"Or anytime Jazz tries to talk to them?"

"Hey, I'm not that bad with names!"

"You called Skulker 'Ghost X' for almost a year, Jazz," said Danny.

"Yeah, because it was hilarious."

Chapter Text

Chapter 60: Encounters

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The evacuation to the Deeps was orderly. The people of Harmony had known that there was nothing to fear from them except for getting lost. Now they didn't even have to fear that. What they did have to fear was whatever was waiting outside their door.

So they left.

A few did stay. The young and brave, or the old and immobile. They hid on the outskirts of the town, where the lambent mists of the skies met the cornices of a finely carved, and impossibly tall, gray wall. The young stayed to fight, to buy time. The old stayed so that they wouldn't slow down the others.

There were arguments, of course. Not everyone was happy with the idea of leaving their home at the say-so of a stranger. Still, that wasn't an issue for long. A few minutes of conversation with Mirror was enough to make even the most stubborn citizen feel like they had known him for years. The younger children adored him. Frida 'I'm from Germany' Weber had ambushed him with cookies. His 'brothers' (and Anthony did not know why he put 'brothers' in quotation marks when the three of them were all but identical) Shade and Umbra had managed to ingratiate themselves with the more militant and military-minded members of the city by bringing odd, glowing-green weapons with them.

The ghosts had no issue with him whatsoever. In fact, they seemed to love him. They went out of their way to do whatever he wanted.

Honestly, if Anthony hadn't just spent the last two and a half years of his life living in some kind of pocket universe... But he had, so...

The real problem was simple chaos, an inevitable result of moving so many people so suddenly. Mirror was the only one who knew where they were really going, and he was only one person.

(Oddly, Anthony found himself doubting this proposition.)

So, Anthony wasn't particularly surprised when a pair of children, an eight-year-old and a three-year-old, sisters, went missing. However, he wasn't terribly alarmed, either. The Deeps, despite their uncanny and occasionally impossible dimensions, and apparently perilous drops, did not feel dangerous. At all.

"Mirror," said Anthony, weaving through the crowd to reach the odd maybe-sort-of-ghost at the front. The boy paused and turned, sky-colored eyes wide.

His smile faltered, turning into a reluctant frown. "Is something wrong, Mr Trent?"

"We've misplaced a pair of children."

"Ah. Well, I don't think that they could have gotten into too much trouble. Just give me a minute to find them..." The boy's eyes took on an abstracted, unfocused look, sparks of green swimming through their depths. "Oh, heck." He pointed at Anthony with both fingers. "Stay here."

He disappeared.

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Charlotte and Emily Thomas were two of the younger citizens of Harmony. Charlotte, at least, was also one of the more curious citizens. When she saw something interesting, she just had to go check it out. An unfamiliar ghost, one that looked a lot like the boy who was leading the way down into the Deeps, was definitely something interesting.

"Gosh," said the white-haired, green-eyed ghost. "You two are just so cute." He was floating cross-legged and upside-down, dressed like a character from one of Charlotte's story books. "Vous etes trop mignon."

Charlotte giggled. "Et tu," she said, as little Emily chased after the fluttering corners of the ghost's cloak.

"What's your name?" asked Emily, lisping, once she finally got hold of the piece of fabric.

"My name is Mirage," said the ghost. "You have been taught not to talk to strangers, haven't you?" he asked, kindly.

"Maybe," admitted Charlotte, feeling coy. "Mais, tu n'es pas, un etranger."

Emily frowned up at her sister. "Lottie," she complained, her brown eyes briefly flaring gold.

"Aren't I?"

"Hmm," said Charlotte, miming thinking, her own eyes glittering. "No. I don't think so." She bounced, excitedly, on the balls of her feet. "You're the real one, aren't you?" she asked. "In the ground? Like in King Arthur's Quest?"

"The Fisher King!" exclaimed Emily around the handful of fabric in her mouth. Emily hadn't yet grown out of that habit. Their mother was working on it, though.

Mirage tilted his head. "My, you are sharp eyed. I'm not, I'm afraid. I guess that you could say I work for him, though." He smiled, rotated, touched down. "I did not intend to waylay you two fair maidens, however. I think that you've been missed."

"You'd better believe it," said Mirror. His arms were crossed as he glared at Mirage, but his expression softened as he knelt down to speak with the children. "Your mom and dad are looking for you," he said. "They're worried. Mirage will be able to take you on an adventure later. For now, though, won't you stick with mine?"

Charlotte looked down at her feet. She hadn't thought that she had been gone that long. "Okay," she mumbled. Emily just frowned.

"I was with Lottie," she said. "Just like I was told."

"I know, and that was very good, but you have to go back, now. Do you mind if I take a moment to talk to Mirage before I take you back."

"No," said Charlotte. Emily shook her head.

"Okay, good." Mirror stood up, and pulled Mirage a few feet away. "Mir-" he started.

"I can't help it if someone wants to follow a mirage," protested Mirage.

"Oh my gosh. That's why you picked your name? Really?"

"You're just jealous that you didn't think of it first."

"Eh, I'll stick with mine. Anyway, what do you think?"

"About the kids?"

"No, about whether or not we should paint the walls pink."

"They're definitely liminal."

"Both of them?"

"The younger more than the older, but, yeah, and they know it."

"How much?"

"Amity level, but with more access to ectoplasm. They know how to work with it."

"Yeah, that's what I thought. But find a different way to check next time, okay?"

.

.

.

"What do you think, Lottie?" asked Byron.

"I think you should paint your room pink when we get back."

The teen snorted. "Yeah, yeah. You're hilarious. But do you agree with me, or with Alice?"

The little girl shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, he said he wasn't, but he could be? He feels right, but so does Mirror. I kind of think Ada's idea is cool."

"Thanks, Lottie," said Ada, "but just being cool doesn't mean that it's right."

Alice, for her part, asked, "You think that there's a third person? Well, I guess that it's better than Byron."

"Hey! My theory is valid."

"Mirror is human. He couldn't do this," she gestured at the lair.

Byron's eyes flared angry gold. "He looks human. That doesn't mean that he is human. Remember, it took us weeks to notice that Inky had died. Besides, he could be like us."

"Occam's razor, Byron. Besides, Inky is an all black cat with green eyes. Humans change a bit more than that."

"I just don't think that they'd lie to us," input Ada, jumping over the last few steps to the landing.

The other thirty-odd children voiced assent, followed by the bell-like chiming of the wisps.

Byron sighed. "I wish you guys could talk," he complained, petting one of them. "I bet that you'd tell us what's really going on."

The wisp purred in response.

Ryan, who was two years older than Charlotte, sighed. "I don't understand why we don't just ask one of the other ghosts."

"Because they just smile and pat our heads and tell us how cute we are. I don't think that they've even told the adults anything yet," said Byron, sulking. "I think that they like being mysterious."

"I don't know, Byron. When was the last time you asked, anyway?" Sonia technically wasn't a kid anymore, she'd celebrated her eighteenth last month, but she was still cool. Her boyfriend, Teddy, was seventeen for another three months, anyway.

Byron mumbled something unintelligible.

"I thought so," said Sonia. "Maybe they'd tell us now. We're closer to them than the adults are." Sparks of red swam in her pale gray eyes as she spoke, beneath her hand, the vine wrapped around the banister began to wilt. Noticing this, she quickly pulled back her hand.

"Control issues?" asked Byron, a little slyly. "I know that's common with older people."

Sonia rolled her eyes. "I don't need that from you, Byron."

"I'm wounded!" gasped the boy, miming being shot.

"Okay, so, the question is," said Alice, "are we going to go off-path and get answers once and for all, or do we wait until we get to our destination?"

The question was greeted with forty pairs of bright eyes, and just as many sharp, white smiles.

"Do you even have to ask?"

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.

"... Okay, now," said Danny, "if someone wants to give you something weird, or sketchy, like, alcohol or whatever, or do something weird and sketchy, just tell them that in your culture, it isn't allowed for someone in your position."

"That will work?" asked Valerie. She'd been increasingly skeptical as the day went on.

"Yeah, I mean, there are so many different cultures here, if you don't want to constantly be in a state of total war, you need to be able to make those kinds of allowances. Any ghost old and friendly enough to try and give you something weird is going to be familiar with that necessity. Younger ghosts will have grown up with drinking ages, and, uh, more similar laws. Just be vague about why exactly it is you can't accept or do something, and be polite." He cast an eye over his classmates. Some of them were starting to fade, not to mention his parents, who had been exhausted beforethey had started.

"I think we should take a break for lunch, now, if no one minds?" said Fractal. "We have a nice little balcony with seating just a flight down, it is a bit off our path, but..."

"Yes! Let's go!" shouted Rebecca. "God, my legs..."

There were other cries of assent. Fractal smiled, and practically danced down the steps.

It took a few minutes for everyone to settle in and break out the sandwiches. The view was marvelous, in Danny's opinion, but many of his classmates chose to sit facing away from it. Danny didn't get it. He would probably never get it. If he could get it, then it wouldn't be in his lair.

The collection gray stairs, colorful flowers, and bright, ghostly lights reminded him of something. There was a pattern, like a fractal, but not one that he was familiar with, not one that he could easily pick out.

(A well, leading infinitely downwards. A black hole. A galaxy. A collection of galaxies. The path of lightning. Rain falling. The value of a life. The value of all lives.)

(A moment of peace amid screaming, terrifying pain.)

(His heart and mind opening, accepting something more.)

He just couldn't place it.

He leaned on the railing, looking down, enjoying his sandwich, and the feeling of peace. The center was down there, the heart, or core, of his lair. He would like to see it someday. (He would like to be enveloped, completely concealed, completely secure.) It would be lonely down there, though. He got the feeling that the place wouldn't be healthy for his human friends, or even his ghostly ones. (But maybe he was wrong. Maybe he could bring them with him. Keep them safe, and happy, forever and ever and ever.)

He shook himself out of his reverie. That was dangerous. That was really, really dangerous. That was... He didn't know what that was. He pushed himself away from the railing (what had happened to his sandwich?), and looked back, towards the class.

Fractal was staring at him, his entire attention focused on Danny. Danny blinked, and shifted his sight to an archway just a couple of meters behind Fractal. Two familiar faces gazed at him intensely from behind the lintel. The one was Echo, and he suspected the other was Mirage. Or Mirror. He could have been Mirror, but Danny thought not. Or one of the other two who were apparently floating around. Gosh, there were a lot of them now, weren't there?

"Is something wrong?" asked Sam. She had joined him at the railing, along with Tucker and Jazz. All three of them were looking at him with concern.

"I- I don't know," said Danny. "I-" he faltered. "I think that if... If you ever come back here, if I ever bring you back here... I think that you need to make me promise to let you you back out first."

"What do you mean?" asked Sam.

Danny shrugged, helpless.

"You think that you would be tempted to stay," said Jazz. "To keep us here?"

"Maybe," said Danny, fidgeting.

"Okay," said Sam. "If it makes you feel better, we'll do it. But we trust you, Danny. You know that, right?"

"Yeah, man, we're with you all the way. It isn't that bad here, anyway. Some connectivity would be nice, but..."

"Tucker," scolded Sam, elbowing the boy.

Danny smiled at their antics, until his sister started patting him on his head. He ducked out, complaining, but still grinning. He glanced at the shadows, who looked satisfied themselves.

Then Danny abruptly was overcome with the feeling that something was terribly out of place. The three shadows' heads snapped left, simultaneously. Fractal mouthed something that looked like a curse. Danny followed their gaze to a set of stairs, covered corridors, and furnished balcony, oriented orthogonally to theirs. Something was about to happen, something that would cause him a lot of trouble, and that he was totally unprepared to deal with.

Something that his shadows knew about.

Which meant that they were keeping secrets from him. Which- hooray- meant psychological problems galore. Why was he like this? That wasn't rhetorical. He really, really wanted to know, but he had a suspicion that he'd need several long sessions with Jazz to even scratch the surface.

In the meantime: Trust issues! Again, hooray! He couldn't even trust himself.

(Out of the corner of his mind, he felt the shadows flinch.)

These thoughts happened in the space of a second. Just barely enough time for a wisp to notice and brush consolingly against the back of his neck. They were getting close to the wisp clans' territorial boundaries, and they were nervous themselves.

Danny let the tiny ghost comfort him for a moment.

Then something like a dozen people emerged onto the other balcony from under one of the covered walkways.

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.

.

When the group from Harmony stopped for lunch, the teenagers snuck off. It was practically their job to sneak off, all things considered. A moral imperative. They were teens! Rebellious, curious, intrepid.

(They weren't buying it, either.)

They left the younger children behind. They'd be in enough trouble for sneaking away from the group, they didn't need to be lectured about endangering the little kids. They'd left a couple of their number behind to keep up the whole 'babysitting' ruse. Not that they'd ever, ever say that to their younger friends' faces.

So they went adventuring in search of the Fisher King. Well, not really, the Fisher King, but whoever was in charge here, the person who had made this place. More than that, they were looking for answers. They wanted to know why they had changed. If they had been changed. If there was a purpose behind it all.

Also, this was fun! Even if they couldn't find anything, well, the views were great, and walking down a path that twisted like this, so that some of them were oriented in the upside-down with relation to the others, wasn't something that they could do every day. Gravity was weird here.

But Byron was sure that they would find something. Alice wasn't as good at tracing as Emily was, the children who were born in Harmony had more of whatever this was than the others, but she was more focused, and she had help.

Then they came out onto a kind of balcony. Wow, that was a view. It gave him more than a little vertigo, even after the twisting corridor, and the staircases that they had already traversed.

Byron's sharp ears caught a gasp from above. The dozen teens tilted their heads up. Wow. He had not expected that.

Chapter Text

Chapter 61: Surprised

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Danny was surprised, until he wasn't. Until he realized that this was just like him. This was a thing that he would do. Definitely. He had known for ages and ages that humans sometimes fell into the Zone. He had never seen one, but he supposed that they had to go somewhere. Then he just sort of... wilted a bit. He didn't know how to deal with this. This was one explanation too many, especially when he didn't know the explanation. He couldn't tell his parents about these people, couldn't tell them why they were here. He didn't know those people. He felt like he did. But he didn't.

(He did, however, have a responsibility to them. They were his. They were more people to worry about it.)

One of the kids on the other balcony waved. "Hallo!" she shouted.

There was panic.

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.

.

Sam was surprised at first, when she saw the people on the other balcony, but, honestly, once she thought about it, this was such a fundamentally Danny situation that she had to laugh, despite how just about everyone else was freaking out. Of course he'd help anyone who showed up at his door! Or, as the case might be, his Door. Sam had thought that the wisps were as far as that particular impulse extended, but, apparently, that was not the case.

Poor Danny. Judging by his expression, all of this was going through his head, too, and he was panicking. There really wasn't any reason to, but Sam supposed that this was just one surprise too many. Or maybe the issue was that his shadows hadn't told him.

That could be it.

Or it could be that this would be hard to explain to his parents.

"It's okay, Danny," she said quietly, knowing that he would hear her despite the cacophony the rest of the class was raising. "We'll figure this out."

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.

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Jazz was... Not surprised. Not really. She had been sort of expecting this. Well, not humans, or apparent humans, but someone other than the wisps. Other ghosts. Maybe the newly dead, or people needing sanctuary. Danny was just... hospitable. One of the nicest, most caring people that she had ever met. It was reasonable to assume that his lair would be as well.

Just as predictably, Danny was freaking out. Not as obviously as the rest of his classmates, but still. Most likely, he was worried that their parents were going to take this badly. Danny had been sneaking worried glances at Jack and Maddie all day.

She put a hand on his shoulder. This much stress was not good for him. "Breathe, Danny," she said. "This isn't something that Mom and Dad will be upset about. This is okay."

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Tucker wasn't surprised at all. Well, he was surprised that they had actually run into someone other than the wisps, but he wasn't surprised that there was someone in the lair other than the wisps. And themselves, of course, but whatever. Helping people was Danny's thing. Once he saw all those guest rooms, he had known. Not, like, actually known, known, but he had gotten a feeling.

Yeah.

So.

He didn't entirely get why Danny was freaking out about it, though. Those kids up there looked fine, and there wasn't any way that they could get here from there, as far as Tucker could see.

But the thing was, Danny was freaking out about it. So Tucker had to do something. He couldn't exactly do anything about the people on the other balcony, so...

"They look friendly, right?" he said. Danny, staring up at the other balcony nodded imperceptibly.

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.

.

Danny was lucky to have friends who knew him so well, who could calm him down so easily. Ancients, he just wanted to go home and sleep for a week, maybe take a few days without worrying about ghost attacks and other chaos. A few days to heal would be... He wanted to say necessary, but he doubted that he would get the time to heal before the next thing went wrong. He would have to work through it.

(Or he could just hide and pretend that none of it was happening.)

His parents were heading his his way.

(Oh, Ancients, what was he going to say?)

"Danny? Do you know what's going on?" asked Maddie, quietly.

"Not really, no," said Danny, shaking his head in case she couldn't hear him. He finally tore his gaze away from the people on the other balcony to look up at his parents. They didn't seem angry. Not yet, anyway. They would be, though. They'd think that he was lying, and then they would be angry. Or they'd think that Phantom and the shadows were manipulating him, and then they'd be angry. Or they'd use this to 'prove' that Phantom wasn't to be trusted, which... Yeah.

"Okay," said Maddie. "Danny..."

Danny tried to fade behind Jazz, but Jazz moved. Traitor.

The smile Maddie gave Danny was strained, but clearly intended to be comforting. "We'll figure this out, it'll be okay."

"Could everyone calm down please?" called Fractal. "Excuse me?" He bit his lip.

"Here," said Mr Lancer. "Class! Attention, please!" It took Mr Lancer a few tries to get everyone under control, but, eventually, they calmed down enough for Mr Lancer to turn to Fractal and say, "You were saying?"

"Right," said Fractal. "So, I guess we forgot to tell you about our other guests?"

"You guess?" exclaimed Danny. Then he clapped his hands over his mouth.

"Um," said Fractal, nervously. "Yes? I'm sorry."

"Parlez-vous francais ou anglais?" called one of the people on the other balcony. The girl was blonde, with a long blue skirt and dark jacket.

"We speak English!" Maddie called back. "Who are you?"

"Oh, sweet!" said one of the boys. Danny couldn't place his accent. "I'm Byron! We're from Harmony. You aren't."

"Where?"

"Harmony! Where are you from?"

Maddie turned her gaze to Fractal. "Harmony?"

Fractal shifted. "Lots of people get lost in the Ghost Zone. Some of them find their way here."

"You- You've been imprisoning people here?"

"What? No!"

"Imprisoned?" shouted one of the other people. "No way. We just live here!"

"Harmony is in here," explained Fractal. "It's built around the Door."

"Where are you from?" asked Byron again.

Maddie licked her lips. "We're from Amity Park!" she yelled. "Why are you here?"

The other people conferred with one another for a few minutes. Maddie looked expectantly at Fractal. Fractal shrugged. "We were... There's something nasty sitting outside our Door. We were evacuating the town."

"What were you going to do with us, then?" demanded Ricky.

"Well," said Fractal, somewhat evasively, "our contract doesn't have a time limit. It just says safely..."

"You were going to lead us around in circles, weren't you?" accused Maddie.

"Wouldn't you?" asked Fractal sharply,

"And then- We would never have seen them! They're children. They deserve a life! They deserve to be around other people! Other humans!"

"Excuse me! I'm eighteen!" shouted one of the girls.

"And I'm seventeen!"

"I'm not a kid!"

"Who're you calling short?!"

"We have lives!"

"Don't be a jerk!"

"Our parents are just over- Well, somewhere back there!"

Danny looked back up at the other people. Mirage had popped over there at some point, and was now having an intense discussion with some of the people up there. Two of them looked up, and met Danny's eyes as he stared at them. Their eyes flashed with red and gold light. His own eyes were brighter when he was excited, but theirs were, at least, noticeable. To him, in any case. He didn't know if someone without enhanced vision could see the lights inside their eyes.

Danny bit his lip. They were liminal.

(The remnants of a conversation he hadn't been anywhere near echoed in his head. They were liminal, and they knew how to use it. They were liminal, and they were looking for him. They were like him. They were like Jazz, Sam, and Tucker. They were like the people of Amity Park.)

It would be nice if they could all sit down together and talk. If they could show Jazz, Sam, and Tucker how they used their liminality. If they could all be friends. He liked having friends. Sam and Tucker would still be his best friends, of course. They always would be. They were the best. The best.

But, the way these things were going, he didn't think that talk would be soon.

Soon all of the teens on the other balcony were staring up at Danny, their eyes twinkling like faint stars. His eyes flashed back at them. One of them squeaked, and they all started to talk excitedly to each other and Mirage in French.

(Hopefully, no one noticed that they were all looking at Danny. There was enough distance for there to be some ambiguity.)

"Maybe we'll cross paths again," shouted Byron, cheerfully. "But we've got to go back soon, or we'll get in trouble with our parents. Travel safe!"

The liminal children scurried back down a walkway, chattering. Mirage sent a last glance up towards Danny before disappearing himself.

Danny sighed. That hadn't been so bad, except for restarting the fight between his parents and his shadows. He sighed again.

Then a searing pain shot through his head. The shadows all winced. Not good. Bad.

And he knew exactly what had been waiting outside his Door.

.

.

.

Shade hissed, glaring at the men, the human men, coming through the Door. This was not good. His weapons weren't designed for humans. They were equivalent to rubber bullets at best, paintball guns at worst. He wasn't prepared for humans. There were limits to what he could do. To what the lair could do.

He vanished from the roof, and shut his eyes, making conscious contact with the other shadows. They all needed to know.

Now, to find out who these men were, and why they were here.

Chapter Text

Chapter 62: Paths Diverged

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Danny was on his knees before the world came back to him, his head ringing.

(Active immune systems took energy. Infections caused fevers. Danny was already hurt. This was salt in his wounds.)

He pushed himself up. Leaning on Maddie. Staggering into her. Jazz was supporting him from the other side.

"We can't stay here," gasped Danny.

"What's wrong?" asked Maddie.

"The Door's been opened," said Fractal. "But... This should be fine. We should be fine here. We're ages away from the door."

"What came through the Door?" asked Jack.

Fractal bit his lip, then looked away, rubbing the back of his neck.

"You will tell us," demanded Maddie. "You've kept so many secrets, you are not keeping this one. You are not going to endanger us all."

Danny winced. Fractal caught his eye, and seemed to deflate. "Men. Humans. Military. Heavily armed. Too heavily armed. Those weapons could hurt humans. More than could. Would. Will. These aren't the kinds of things you bring to fight ghosts. Equipment is similar to GIW issue, but no white. That isn't a requirement, anyway. GIW doesn't stand for what people think it stands for. Competent. They're pressing forward."

"GIW?" exclaimed Jack. "They're here to rescue us! I knew we could have faith in the government!"

"I don't know," said Fractal. "To begin with, I'm not sure that the GIW are even a real government agency..."

"They aren't," confirmed Tucker, tapping at his PDA. "They're contractors. The government pays them, but so do a lot of other people, and they have independent leadership."

"They're here for us," stated Maddie, resolutely. "They're here for us, and any other humans here. You're going to take us to, to the people from Harmony, and then you're going to take us to the Guys in White, so we can go home."

Fractal froze for a moment, and then shook his head vigorously. "No. Dr Fenton, these people have guns. Real guns, not ectoblasters. They could be here to hurt you."

"That's utterly illogical. Why would the GIW be here to hurt us?"

Fractal shrugged, shrinking away. "It doesn't feel right. There's no reason for them to have come with that kind of weaponry."

"They're the government," said Ricky, flippantly. "They always go for overkill."

"Ghosts like you are dangerous," posited Valerie, crossing her arms. "It would be stupid for them not to bring weapons." Danny looked at Valerie curiously, temporarily distracted from being upset. She didn't sound as convinced about that statement as she would have been yesterday.

"The faster you get us to the GIW," said Maddie, "the faster we get out of your hair. Not to mention, they'll give us safe passage back to Amity Park."

Then suddenly, there was Echo, centimeters from Maddie. Too close to her. She stepped back. "And will you take responsibility for that, Madeline Fenton? They may give safe passage for humans." He hissed. "But what do they call human, hm? What's to say that they won't decide that you're all too contaminated to bring home?"

"Yeah!" exclaimed Elliot, suddenly. "They're nuts! They shot at me once!"

"They might not be GIW, anyway," added Sam. "They might not even be human. They could be ghosts disguised as humans."

"Couldn't he tell, th-"

"Shut up, Tucker," said Sam through gritted teeth.

"He used the word 'competent,' too," said Mia. "You don't see that too often with the Guys in White. They could have just gotten their weapons from them."

That set off a shouting match between the people who believed that the men coming through the Door were there to help, to bring them home, and the people who hated the GIW and distrusted everything to do with them.

Danny covered his ears. His head still hurt from whatever it was that Shade had done to send the information, and the noise was not helping. There was something else, too. His mind was not entirely on this place, this moment. The lair was moving, shuddering, rippling... Not literally, except in a few places, but it was trying to eject the men, the soldiers, playing the haunted house role to the hilt. Lampposts tumbled. Trees shook, and reached out. Vines twined. Ghost fires burned. The sky went dark. The wind howled. Poisonous flowers, both ghostly and earthly, bloomed. Shade, Umbra, and the remaining Harmonians lurked in the deepening shadows.

These were the things that he could do.

That the lair could do, anyway.

It wasn't working. They were still there. They weren't leaving. It was a good thing that they were far away. They were good. They were skilled. There were a lot of them, too.

Options. What were his options? How could he fix this?

More: How many of them were still outside? Because he could hear their radios crackling through his head, trying to talk to someone outside and the other soldiers inside and he wasn't letting that happen. No. Not when he could make them crackle and moan and shriek, and who named their rescue mission Eurydice? That was stupidly unlucky, more so when you were going into a place half-made of legends and stories, and the lost peelings, carvings, shavings, detritus of imagination, centuries and ages of superstition.

.

.

.

Vlad sat down across from his advocate. The man was a green-skinned ghost with a neat white beard, and a neat, if old-fashioned suit. His name was Foxglove, following the tradition that some Ghost Zone lawyers had of naming themselves after poisons. Vlad suspected that he was much, much older than he presented himself as. He was among the very best of the legal minds of the Infinite Realms, having had lifetimes to hone his craft.

Even so, Vlad had tried to retain the services of another before turning to Foxglove. A ghost who had a reputation as the single best advocate in the Infinite Realms. But Hemlock had claimed to be already representing another interested party. It was unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected.

"I think that we can make the argument that Daniel should be remitted to your custody whilst on the Material Plane. However, marriage being what it is, I am uncertain that we could arrange for separate sentences. I think that the simplest solution, and the one most likely to get you what you want, would be to argue for Jack and Maddie to also be placed in your custody, as indentured servants for the duration of their sentences. Or, to argue that they serve separate indentures, and that Maddie serves hers with you."

"What would be our argument in that case?"

"That, as they are humans, it would be difficult to provide for their imprisonment in the Realms. This would be a difficult argument, especially as others may be advocating for their execution. But I only mention this to prepare you, in case we cannot, in fact, separate their sentences."

"Is the outcome of the preliminary committee really so uncertain?"

Foxglove laughed. "It isn't so much merely uncertain, as it is entirely unpredictable. Involving living persons imposes a time limit that is not usually present, and Daniel- Phantom- is something of a celebrity. There will be thousands of advocates in attendance. The first few days will be all about weeding out those who do not have proper standing to be there. Without a time limit, those same proceedings might take weeks, or even months. We really have no idea who will be there, or how unexpected attendees might skew the results. Really, all we can determine with certainty at this point, are the results that you desire, or would be happy with."

"I see," said Vlad. "Well, let's discus that..."

.

.

.

Mirror saw the teens rejoin the group, and glared at them. Beyond the headache they had caused on their own, their parents had discovered their absence, and getting everyone to move, get away from the people with guns, was hard to do, when some of them weren't there and the rest of them weren't going to go without them. Which was reasonable. Mirror wouldn't have left them alone, either, but Mirage was with them! Of course, it was also reasonable for that to not satisfy worried parents, but it was frustrating. Incredibly so.

"Okay!" he shouted, once the hugging had stopped and the scolding had commenced. "We have to go. The Door has been breached."

.

.

.

Jeremy Nye slid down the roof, making sure to stay out of sight of the camouflaged men. This was so messed up. There were lots of things in the Outside. Weird things. Dangerous things. He had seen them, before he had first come to Harmony, when the plane had crashed on that purple island. He'd seen a lot of ghosts, too. Made friends with a few, even, since then. What he hadn't seen a lot of, was humans. Well, other than the people that had been on the plane with him.

He had been twenty when it happened. Twenty, and on his way back to college, and his girlfriend, and his life. He'd always held hope that, one day, he'd be able to go back. That he'd be able to see home again.

It was tempting to believe that these were members of the army, the marines, the air force, or, heck, even the navy, come to 'rescue' them. To bring them home, anyway. Many, even most, of the people of Harmony had no desire to to leave, although many of them would like to send letters to whatever friends and relatives they had back on Earth.

Jeremy... Jeremy like Harmony alright. He liked the people here. He was grateful to the mysterious 'landlord' for giving him, for giving all of them, the chance to live here, safe from the dangers of Outside.

But he wanted to go home.

He took a deep breath, and laid down his weapon. This was a risk, but it was one he was willing to take. He looked up, to the roofs.

One of Mirror's compatriots, Umbra, Jeremy thought, was perched there, a rifle cradled in his arms. His eyes glowed ice-blue in the dark. If Jeremy hadn't spent the last couple of years of his life seeing glowing eyes of varying intensity in everyone from ghosts to his neighbor's daughter, he would have been thoroughly disturbed. As it was, he still felt vaguely unsettled, despite the concern obvious on the boy's face.

Jeremy wondered for a moment if the boy (the ghost?) would stop him, but all Umbra did was incline his head, and then blink, extinguishing his eyes.

That was... Good?

Then, the soldiers (were they soldiers?) were just in the next street. He walked there, carefully, his hands already raised. He stepped out into the street. "Don't shoot!" he said as soon as he had done so, announcing his presence and peaceful intentions in one breath.

All their weapons came up. That was okay, though, Jeremy had expected that. "I'm not armed," he said nervously.

"Iota," said one of them. "Check him."

Another- Iota?- nodded. "Lay down and put your hands behind your head," he ordered Jeremy.

Jeremy complied, and let himself be zip-tied and frisked. Regardless of what he was thinking now, regardless of what doubts he was having, they were the ones with the guns. Iota then pulled him roughly into a sitting position.

"Who are you?" demanded the first man.

"Um. My name is Jeremy Nye. I'm from Cleveland. In Ohio. In America. You, you're Americans, right?"

"He isn't on the list," said one of the others.

"What list?" asked Jeremy.

His question was ignored. "Are there others?" asked the apparent leader.

"You mean, like, other people? Yeah. Loads."

"Where?"

"Um. I don't know?" When the man frowned, Jeremy hastened to explain, "We heard that something was going to come through the door, and a lot of people got spooked. They left. I don't know where anyone else is, right now."

"How many?"

"I don't know, a few hundred?"

"For how long?"

"Well, I've been here a couple years. Some have been here longer, some shorter."

It was hard to make out the man's expression behind his protective goggles, but Jeremy thought that he was narrowing his eyes. He swallowed. "Children?"

"Yeah. A few dozen."

"Any in the last few days?"

"Um, no. You're the only ones who have come through in a couple months, and before that it was just a couple of boaters from Bermuda. You know how it is. Or, um, I guess you don't."

"You're familiar with this area?"

"I guess. Yeah. I mean, I've lived here for a while now."

The man smiled. "Why don't you show us around?"

.

.

.

Umbra frowned. He hadn't liked letting Jeremy go through with this. But it had been his choice, and he hadn't been hurt yet. Yet. Maybe, maybe they'd been overreacting. On the other hand, zip-ties weren't exactly friendly.

He flicked to another roof to get a better perspective. As long as they had Jeremy, he wasn't going to let them out of his sight.

Chapter Text

Chapter 63: To the Left and Right

.

A fragment of a thought shot through Danny's mind, and he seized on it as a potential solution to the current problem, and a way to end the argument.

"Choices!" he shouted, louder, much, much louder, than he had intended. The word echoed into the following silence.

"What?"

"You all have choices. Make a choice. You should all just make a choice." He took a breath. A deep breath. "Fractal and Echo both know the ways. One of them can take the people who want to chance the Guys in White, or whoever they are, and the other one can take everyone else to meet up with the people from Harmony. There's still the contract, so we'll have to bring you all back to Amity eventually, no matter which choice you make. It'll just take longer if you decide to stay."

There was a beat as everyone digested that.

"Phantom?" asked Dash.

Danny blinked, then brought his hands up to his eyes. They reflected back green light. Heck. He bit his lip. "Yeah?"

Dash smiled. "Cool! I'll follow you, man."

"What? No. Don't decide based on that. This is- I'm not- I can't protect you when I'm stuck like this. You can't rely on me for this. You have to decide based on whether or not you trust a bunch of heavily armed men that you've never met and know nothing about, or a town of people who you at least know have children."

"No," said Valerie. "We have to decide based on whether or not we trust you. We haven't seen these people. They might as well not exist. And those people?" she gestured to the other balcony. "We don't know if those people are real, or more of these shadow things."

Danny threw out his hands in frustration. "Fine! Three choices, then. You can run around by yourselves without guidance. You can just go ahead, and try to figure things out on your own. We can- We can-" Danny suddenly felt light-headed.

"We can make sure you have food," picked up Fractal as Danny raised a hand to his head. "That you're comfortable, in most places. But we can't keep you from all trouble. There are just places, things, in here that aren't entirely healthy for humans, that we can't change on a moments notice. I mean, they aren't automatically dangerous, or, um, how should I put this? It's like cold weather. Snow. If you are prepared, or if , it's fine, but if you aren't then you could freeze to death... You do understand what I'm trying to say, don't you?"

There were a few nods, and murmurs of assent. Danny sighed. Maybe people would be reasonable. He felt his eyes finally return to normal.

Fractal looked nervously at the people who were still glaring at him. "I'm not lying. I promise."

"What is that supposed to mean?" asked Maddie. "Are we really supposed to believe that you'll keep your word just because you promised?"

"You should," said Danny, tiredly. "You've done research into frailties, right? And I- I think I said something about them, a couple of days ago, um, I might have passed out right away after. I was telling you that Echo had to obey Phantom's rules. I think."

"Phantom has a frailty?" asked Jack. "What is it?" Then he seemed to remember what he was saying, and who he was saying it to, and the grin on his face slid off.

"He keeps promises," said Fractal. "Always, as well as he can. That's why we don't make many of those."

"Why?" asked Maddie.

Fractal shrugged. "I couldn't tell you when it started. I don't have any recollection of purposefully broken promises, after his death. But it became more important, later. There is a promise that we have to keep. About the future."

Maddie glanced at Danny, her gaze softening. "Alright," she said. "Alright. I'll believe you."

"Good," said Fractal, uncertainly. "So what are you going to do?"

It was like Danny had suddenly gained the ability to read minds. (He wouldn't put it past himself, honestly. He was always developing new powers.)

He could practically see Maddie's thought process. What would happen, she worried, if they split up? There could be three groups, or more. There were only three adults. There were only three ghost hunters, and Valerie was still a child, even if she was Red Huntress. She wasn't used to thinking of Jazz, Sam, and Tucker as ghost hunters, and she certainly wasn't thinking of Danny as one.

"Which of you will be guiding which group?" she asked, temporizing.

Echo and Fractal exchanged glances. "I will lead the group that will join up with the Harmonians," said Fractal.

"I'll take you to Harmony," said Echo, shoving his hands into his pockets, "but I'm not taking you to the trigger happy morons. Before you ask, Harmony is built around the Door. I'm just not going to be upset if we miss the people with guns entirely."

"Fine," spat Maddie. "Jack. You you with him," she pointed at Fractal. "I'm going with you," she glared at Echo, "and I'm going to make sure that you don't get any ideas about trapping us here, or leaving anyone else behind."

"Fine," said Echo, with equal hostility.

Danny was heartened to discover that most of his class preferred Harmony to soldiers. They weren't literally saying 'I trust you,' but that was the subtext.

Only Valerie, Nathan, Lester, Paulina, and Dash chose to come. Other than, of course, Jazz, Sam, and Tucker. And Maddie. And Danny. Because, as much as Danny wanted to avoid the GIW, he wasn't going to let his mom go walk up to a bunch of heavily armed strangers by herself. He really, really wanted Jazz, Sam, and Tucker, or at least one of them, to stay. But he knew that they wouldn't, because they weren't about to let him walk up to a bunch of heavily armed strangers by himself.

Valerie came because, well, it was Valerie. She hated ghosts, and would always trust humans over ghosts. Lester was going because of Valerie. Nathan was going because of Lester. Paulina was going because of Phantom, and apparently so was Dash. Ancients. That made things awkward.

(Danny had hoped that Paulina would have gotten the message after last night. She wasn't trying to seduce the shadows anymore, at least, but she clearly hadn't given up on Phantom himself.)

It was a lot quieter, with only ten people. The drawings on the walls ceased to be abstract, and started to be poetry, and fragments of stories, most of them not in English. Illuminated, illustrated. Delicate. The stone here was paler, too. White-gray, with gold flecks. The false moonlight was stronger, too. The stars in the windows were brighter. There was more light. Cleaner lines. The vines restricted themselves to the ceilings, their hanging flowers were lacy, pale, the color of pastel sunsets.

The quiet and restrained colors helped Danny calm himself, prepare himself. Finding out that there was a whole town in here... He already had a town he was responsible for. Then there were people who were liminal, about as liminal as the average person in Amity, but with more access to ectoplasm, more control. People who could use ectoplasm, like he could. Maybe Sam and Tucker could learn how, too. Maybe Jazz could. Maybe they could do more than just twist their perspective enough to pass through things in the Ghost Zone, and fall upwards now and again. Maybe they could learn and use what they learned to stay safe. Maybe they could play games together. Maybe-

Danny forced himself to come back to the problem at hand. It was not the time to panic or to obsess over things he couldn't change, or things that might not ever happen. Harmony had been fine by itself for a long time now. The people would be alright. The lair would keep them safe. They were far away from the soldiers, and moving farther. They would be safe. He'd keep them safe.

He was drifting off topic again.

What would he do if the soldiers turned out to be bad? To want to hurt people (his people)?

Maybe he could trap them. Force them into place. Imprison them. But that felt wrong wrong wrong. He couldn't put anything like that in his lair. He couldn't do that. Couldn't enclose an area like that. Couldn't put in doors. He just... He couldn't.

Driving them out wasn't working. Scaring them off wasn't working.

Ancients, he felt like he could barely think. He didn't know what was happening to him, what was going on in his head. Every since those people had come through the Door... Oh. Maybe... He wasn't entirely sure how the link between him and the lair worked. Maybe the lair was leaning on him for processing power. He wasn't sure if he should be alarmed or not.

Of course, there was also the possibility that he was just crashing again. Running out of energy, like he had the past couple of days. He hadn't slept much last night, which probably also contributed.

Then Echo led them out into a set of stands. Danny blinked, looking down at a Greek-style stage lit by ghost fire. Above was a domed ceiling, painted to look like the sky. Echo quickly walked down the steps, the klimakes. He stopped once he got to the orchestra, then turned to look back up at the class. "This is the clan boundary," he announced. "You might as well make yourself comfortable. It'll take a bit." The shadow sang to the wisps, his voice entirely inhuman. Then he faded out of human visibility. The wisps winked out, too, one by one, following Echo. They weren't bothering to hide from Danny, though. He could see them, disappearing into the proskenion.

Danny sighed, and found a seat, leaning back. "What time is it?" he asked.

"No idea," said Sam.

"Party time," said Tucker.

"You're the worst," accused Sam.

"I'm the best," countered Tucker.

"You're both wrong," said Danny. "Jazz is the worst and the best."

Jazz opened her mouth, then closed it. "That doesn't even make sense," she said.

"I know," moaned Danny. "Do you smell popcorn?"

"Actually, yeah," said Tucker. He stood up. "Give me a second."

"Tucker?" asked Maddie. "Where are you going?"

"To get popcorn," said Tucker, as he walked off to the parodos. "I'll be back."

Maddie frowned after him, but didn't stop him. Instead, she came to sit next to Danny. "What's happening?" she asked.

Danny shrugged, glancing at where his other classmates were sitting. The twins were huddled next to each other. The A-listers were sticking together. Valerie was standing, arms crossed, face drawn into a scowl.

"Tucker's going to go get popcorn. Echo and the wisps are talking to the the other wisps, to make sure that everything is okay, and that there isn't a problem with crossing over. To let them know what's going on. They probably have a ritual. Um. They're part of the same tribe, Bright Harp, but the guys we've been with are the Three Winds clan, but the ones they're trading off to are the Halogen Whistles. No, I don't know how they come up with their names." He rubbed his eyes. "Why?"

Maddie sighed through her nose. "I'm sorry, Danny. I've put a lot of pressure on you today."

"I guess," said Danny, slouching.

"Mrs Fenton," started Sam.

"What?" said Maddie.

Sam bit her lip. "You've been doing a lot more than pressuring him. You realize that, right? Pressuring is what my parents do."

"Sam," said Danny.

Sam huffed. "You deserve more than this," she muttered.

Then Tucker reemerged from the parodos, carrying a large bowl of popcorn. "There's a bunch of ancient carnival and theater stuff back there," said Tucker, as he rejoined the group. "It was kind of cool," he continued, "but except for the popcorn machine, it was all locked up in these weird cages. Do you know what's up with that?"

Sam gave Tucker a flat look. "Name the one experience we've had with a carnival, Tucker."

"Oh. Yeah. Never mind. Why even have it, then?"

"Other people like it," said Danny, who had slouched so much that he was now staring at the ceiling.

"Oh," said Tucker. "Popcorn?" he asked, offering Danny the bowl. Danny took a handful.

Then the ghost fires went out, and the wisps filled out, trilling.

What followed was- Well, Danny wanted to call it an opera, or maybe a ballet, but wisps always sang, always changed color, and they were always flying like that, zipping around, twirling and twisting. This was just their version of a ceremony, their version of formality. Still, Danny couldn't help but feel like they were showing off, for his sake, or to impress the other clan, if nothing else.

Then the music stopped, and about three quarters of the wisps that had come with them flitted back out, towards their own territory, and they were replaced with twice that number of new wisps. Echo came back out from the proskenion, and a brightly colored wisp zoomed up to Danny, bobbing up and down excitedly in the air. Danny smiled gently at the leader of the Halogen Whistles, and hummed a greeting.

"There are hammocks behind the skene," said Echo.

"The what?" asked Paulina.

"The building that's the back of the stage," said Echo gesturing. "That's where we're sleeping."

"We only ate lunch a couple of hours ago," said Valerie.

Echo tilted his head. "Do I care? Nope."

"Echo-" started Maddie.

"It's bad enough that you're making him make me bring you this way," said Echo, cutting her off, "but I want everyone to be awake and well-rested by the time we get to Harmony, in case we have to run. I'm not going to let you be the reason he gets caught by them." He vanished, bringing an end to the conversation. Valerie started grumbling about ghosts and disappearing acts.

"I need to sleep," said Danny. "You do too, Mom."

"We know you and Dad didn't last night," added Jazz. "Please."

Maddie covered her eyes. "Alright," she said.

Chapter Text

Chapter 64: Small Steps

.

"We need to talk," said Jazz. She had just watched Danny crawl, emotionally and physically exhausted, into a hammock and cocoon himself in butterfly-patterned blankets. Echo had yet to reappear, but Jazz had the feeling that the shadow was just waiting for Jazz and Maddie (but mostly Maddie) to leave the room. "Because," she said, giving her mother a direct look, "I can tell that you aren't going to go to sleep."

Maddie ran her hand through her hair, grimacing when it ran into tangles. "What do you want me to do, Jazz? We're lost in the Ghost Zone, at the mercy of ghosts."

Jazz's mouth thinned into a line. She grabbed her mother by her sleeve, and walked her to a small, out-of-the-way alcove. "This is Danny's lair," said Jazz. "We aren't at anyone's mercy except his, and he has a lot of it."

"Jasmine-"

"You aren't being fair to him, Mom. He didn't ask for this."

"I know, Jazz," said Maddie, exasperated. "Try to see this from my perspective! Try to look at it logically. This isn't natural." She looked away, agitated. "Now you'll say that I sound like a bigot."

"You do," said Jazz.

Maddie shook her head. "Jazz, this isn't about race, or identity, this is like trying to defend radiation poisoning."

"No it isn't. Danny is perfectly healthy- or he was, before this disaster."

"According to whom? Ghosts?"

Jazz was about to riposte with 'And what's wrong with that?' when she registered what the comment revealed. "Danny didn't tell you about Vlad?"

"What about Vlad?" asked Maddie, taken aback.

"Argh, of course he didn't. They have that truce thing. I guess that means that I have to. God help me."

"Jazz, what are you talking about?"

Jazz took a deep breath. "Danny told you how he-" Jazz broke off and licked her lips. "About how he died, right?" she continued bluntly.

"Jasmine, your brother isn't dead."

"I had the same reaction at first," said Jazz, "but that's how he thinks of it, and-" Jazz was about to say, 'and your stupid Mortifier thing worked on him,' but accusations like that wouldn't be productive. She was getting worked up. This was bad form. She had to stay calm. "You could at least pretend to accept it," she said instead. "Look, either way, this happened because Danny was in the portal when it turned on. Who else has been injured by activating portals?"

"Oh my god," breathed Maddie. "This... Vlad has it, too?"

"Yes," said Jazz, shortly. "He and Danny have an agreement. It keeps their fights from getting out of hand." Jazz laughed. "You'd be surprised how many ghost rivalries are hemmed in with rules and agreements like that, formalized until they're practically games... Anyway, Danny has a thing with promises. He couldn't tell you about Vlad. Don't be mad at him."

"I'm not," said Maddie, hollowly.

"So, Vlad has been half-ghost for over twenty years. He's studied this. If it was hurting Danny, he would have said something."

"... It explains so much," said Maddie. "How Vlad changed. Why he acts so strangely..." She looked up at Jazz. "Who is he, Jazz? Who is he as a ghost?"

"His ghost name is Plasmius," said Jazz, cautiously.

"My god," said Maddie. She sat down, heavily, covering her mouth with one hand. "Jazz. Earlier, last night, Danny told us, your father and I, about, about the end of the world."

Jazz blinked. That was unexpected. "Oh."

"He said that Vlad helped him but- That Plasmius did something to Phantom. Ate him."

"Oh. Well. Yes. You see, if Fenton and Phantom can be temporarily separated, then so can Masters and Plasmius. I'm not sure why Vlad didn't die, after being separated. Danny said he didn't ask. He said he didn't think to, but I don't think he wanted to know. Either that, or he didn't want to catch Vlad in a lie. I don't know. It hardly matters." Jazz paused. "He probably told you to ask me about what happened over here, during the time he missed while he was in the future. It wasn't much. Dan disguised himself as Danny, came back, trapped us all when I realized that he wasn't Danny, and then we listened to him gloat until Danny got back. I'd give you more details, but..." she sighed. "You should really go to sleep."

"Vlad... Vlad survived..."

"No. Nope. Stop right there. You aren't going down this path. You aren't putting Danny through that nonsense."

"But-"

"No. Try to see this from Danny's perspective, Mom," said Jazz. "I've been thinking about how to put this into strictly human terms, but all of got is a surrealist nightmare of an analogy. But hey, if life gives you a surrealist nightmare, lemonade makes you. Jeez, Danny's sense of humor is rubbing off on me..." Jazz rubbed her eyes. She was tired herself. "Okay, so imagine you're driving a car full of all your classmates, and your teacher, and your parents. No one knows that you're driving, but it's something you have to do. You're just getting people from point A to point B. That's all you want to do. But then your parents stab you with a needle full of stuff, which, you know, you really shouldn't do to someone who's driving, because they think that you're a kidnapper. You have a bad reaction to it, and crash the car. Luckily, you crash the car into your own house, which your parents don't know about, because your grandfather gave it to you, and they inexplicably hate your grandfather. Everyone is fine, but the crash took out the phone lines, so, because you feel guilty, even though the crash wasn't your fault, you give everyone breakfast and patch them up. But, in the meantime, the police have also decided that you're a kidnapper, so they send in, I don't know, Officer Felix Brutality- I can't believe I made that pun- and a swat team into your house, but they don't bother to identify themselves, so you don't know if they really are the police, and you wouldn't trust Officer Brutality anyway, because he tries to beat you up on a regular basis. While that's happening, your parents have been harassing the live-in staff and are giving you grief because you've been talking to your grandfather, which is really beside the point, and kind of a minor issue." Jazz stopped to breathe. "What I'm trying to say, is that, from Danny's perspective, this is home invasion on steroids. He's not feeling well to begin with, then he feels threatened by the GIW, anxious for our safety, confused, because Harmony is clearly as much a of surprise to him as it is to us, guilty, because he always blames himself when something bad happens, scared, stressed, because of how many different things are happening at once, and that's only scratching the surface, and you aren't helping any of that by picking fights with the shadows and acting like Phantom is some kind of disease."

Maddie looked like she was about to argue, but clearly thought better of it. "What do you mean, threatened?"

"Wouldn't you feel threatened, if a guy with a gun walked into our house?" said Jazz, shrugging. "That's compounded by this being more than just a house. This is his lair. An extension of his mind." Jazz brushed back her hair. "That's my understanding, anyway. I think that he's only okay with us being here, because he likes us."

"What about the other people, from Harmony? He doesn't even know them."

"I don't know anything about them," said Jazz, "but I'm going to bet that they were asking for help when they came in. He probably likes them, too, just not consciously. I'm not trying to say that there aren't ghostly components to this, and to how Danny's acting, but at least look at the human parts of this. Just, try to start your understanding from there."

"The 'ghostly components' are the problem," said Maddie. "What are they, Jazz? Do you know?"

Jazz licked her lips. "I think that I should talk to Danny about that, first."

"You aren't his psychiatrist," said Maddie.

"Actually, I kind of am," said Jazz. "I shouldn't have even told you this much."

"It's fine, Jazz," said Echo, calmly. Jazz turned, to stare at the shadow who was leaning against the wall. "It's fine if you tell her. I'm curious myself."

Jazz raised her eyebrows. Echo was acting much more mellow than he had been. "You're okay with this? And so is Danny? Really?"

Echo shrugged. "Danny doesn't want to have any more secrets from them. As for me, well, the sooner they show their true colors, the better."

"What do you mean 'true colors?'" snapped Maddie.

"What do you think I mean?" asked Echo. "Sooner or later, you're going to turn against him."

"I will never-"

"Don't make promises you don't intend to keep, human. You made those weapons, and you used them. You don't do that kind of thing to people you any empathy for. It's your fault that we're in this situation. I won't let you hurt him like that again. So, Jazz, tell us about the ghostly components to his behavior."

"You realize that you aren't helping, either."

Echo's eyes narrowed. "I didn't ask to be made, much less in that way."

"I'm not saying you did annnnnd now I'm contributing to the problem." Jazz pinched the bridge of her nose. "Aarrgh. Fine. Mom, you know that ghosts are territorial and possessive. Echo, you, well, you don't quite exemplify that, I know that there are ghosts way more possessive than you, but you're more possessive than Danny."

"I know," said Echo, amused.

"Right," said Jazz. "Of course you do. But, even ghosts that are, relatively speaking, laid back, still have these tendencies, and they don't always manifest in the way that they would in humans. Like the wisps, they always share territory with other types of ghosts, and their own family groups, their clans, tend to be large, but they have difficulty sharing with other clans, and they tend to be protective of the ghosts who are 'in charge' of the territory. You've noticed how the wisps are around Danny? They want him to like them, so he doesn't kick them out, and they want him to stay healthy, so that they don't loose their territory to his death."

"Way to be cynical, Jazz," commented Echo.

"I am, of course, going at this from an entirely selfish, 'logical,' perspective," said Jazz. "Now, with Danny, he's less possessive of places, and more possessive of people. But, in light of his personality, his obsession, and probably a hundred other things that I'm not thinking of, that isn't manifesting as him wanting to lock us away or control us. He wants us to be safe and happy, but you're running into what he perceives as a very dangerous situation. But trying to stop you, trying to trap you, physically or otherwise, goes against his beliefs, and would make you very unhappy. So he can't do that. It's probably driving him crazy, how illogical you're being from his perspective. That's one thing."

"That's just one thing?" said Maddie.

Jazz shrugged. "Psychology is complicated," she said. "I don't know what to tell you. Now, for why he thinks that we're running into danger, and I agree with him on that, by the way, beyond just that they have guns, and they're uninvited, I suspect that the lair is putting some effort into kicking them out, right?"

"Yeah," said Echo. "We don't want them here."

"Okay, so, for ghosts, being scary is kind of a threat display. A warning signal. Like a rattlesnakes' rattle, or bright colors on a poisonous frog."

"It's not that simple," objected Echo.

"I know, I'm just using analogies. Anyway, the lair, which, I'm going to reiterate here, is Danny's private space, Danny's territory, is trying to be scary, trying to warn off the GIW, but they're ignoring it. That's a threat. That's picking a fight. Normally, ghosts feel safe inside their lairs," Jazz was grasping at straws here, drawing conclusions from very little evidence; she didn't know very much about lairs, "but he's already been successfully attacked once in here. So he doesn't. More than that, he's going to be worried about the threat in terms of the people already here. Something that's a threat to him, is also a threat to us, if only because if he gets hurt, then he can't protect us." Jazz paused. "Yes, before you ask, that's his thought process, especially when he's depressed. Which he probably is, right now, considering how little trust you're showing him."

"Jazz, he's been lying to us for years."

"He knows that," said Jazz. "But he's been protecting Amity Park for the same amount of time. He's saved my life, and yours, and Dad's, and probably everyone in town's at some point or another. I think that it earns him, and, yes, the shadows, a modicum of trust. But, honestly," she said, her eyes narrowing a bit, "I think that you're just covering up your fear that he doesn't trust you anymore. That Echo here is actually representative of what's going on his his head right now. You're in denial. And Echo has borderline personality disorder, or something."

"I feel like I should be offended by that," said Echo.

"If it helps," said Jazz, "Danny once told me that everyone he's close to has tried to kill or seriously injure him, at one point or another, or has convincingly pretended to do so. That includes me, Sam, Tucker, Clockwork, Danielle, Dora, Frostbite... The list is frighteningly long, and explanations typically include mind control and unavoidable circumstances, but the point is, that you're in good company there, and that Danny is ridiculously forgiving. The only person that he's going to blame for this is himself." Jazz stopped. Thought over what she had said. "I'm sorry," she said, finally, "I shouldn't have told you how you felt. That's something that you're specifically not supposed to do in psychology. I should- I just- Danny has enough to deal with. If you two can get along, or at least not fight, I think that will help. So, please, try. Try to get through tomorrow without acting like the other one is some kind of monster. Make some kind of deal, I don't care, just stop. Please. For Danny's sake."

"Alright," said Echo. "If you think that that will be best for him, then I will do it, but," and now he turned his attention to Maddie. "let me make myself clear. No matter what he does, I will not forgive you. I do not trust you. If you think that you can escape me by leaving the lair, if you think that once you are out, you can betray him, that you can hurt him again, then you're wrong. If you harm him, then mark me, I will know, I will stand at the door and scream your crimes to every soul that passes, and then they will come for you." He blinked once, slowly. "Do you understand?"

"Then let me make myself clear," said Maddie, at long last pulling herself to her feet. "If my research shows that you've been lying, that you are an infection, that you're the cause of Danny's pain, then I will not hesitate to eradicate you, no matter what the consequences to myself."

Jazz felt like pulling out her hair. What, in the name of all the Infinite Realms, was wrong with her family? Other than the obvious.

Then Echo smiled, bitterly. "At least you're willing to do the research now, rather than just blindly following prejudice." He glanced at Jazz, and tilted his head, haughtily. "It's a start I suppose."

The shadow chose that moment to disappear.

Chapter Text

Chapter 65: Stuck With Us

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Star felt bad about leaving Paulina. Not bad enough to stay with Paulina, but bad. She knew that a lot of Paulina's actions were powered by insecurity, rather than a sense of entitlement, like most people assumed.

(Okay, so there was a lot of entitlement, too.)

Lina just always felt like she was being cheated, like she was being laughed at, behind her back. At least, that was Star's interpretation. Maybe it was wrong, but whatever. She was Paulina's friend, not her psychiatrist.

So, when Paulina was risking death to go after a crush that Star knew was hopeless, well, Star felt bad about not being able to talk her out of it. Then again, Star hadn't had much hope of talking her out of it in the first place. The stalker shrine to Phantom in Lina's locker had nothing on the one in her room.

But, Star reasoned, Phantom was there, even if he was stuck inside Fenton, and so was that creepy shadow, Echo, and Valerie, who had apparently been fighting ghosts for the past two years. Lina would be fine.

Speaking of Valerie, Star was worried about her, too.

Valerie could take care of herself, Star knew that, but sometimes she made dumb decisions. Like, the whole Red Huntress thing. That was dumb. Fighting Phantom? Super dumb. Valerie had a temper, too, and Star just didn't think that that was a good thing, when chasing off after a bunch of trigger-happy Guys in White.

Of course, the GIW wasn't the only reason that Star was worried about Valerie. She and Paulina didn't get along super well, especially after Valerie got kicked off the A-list. Hopefully, they wouldn't get into a fight, now that Star wasn't there to play peacekeeper. Maybe Jazz would stop them. Star didn't know the older girl super well, but she seemed like a calm person.

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"It feels weird, without Nathan and Lester here," said Mikey.

"Yeah," said Ricky.

"They're going to die, aren't they?" asked Mikey.

"I hope not," said Ricky.

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"I'm breaking up with him," announced Tiffanie.

"Uh, okay?" said Kwan. He wasn't sure how to handle this. Paulina, who would normally deal with break ups in the A-list, was here, Star was lost in her own thoughts, and Dale was, honestly, kind of an insensitive jerk. Cool to hang out with, and really good at football, but he could be mean. "Why?"

"Because he's gone off with her."

"Uh, you mean Paulina? 'Cause, I don't think that's a problem. She's like, super obsessed with Phantom. You know that."

But Tiffanie was already shaking her head. "No, not Lina. Lina knows what's up. She wouldn't do that to me, it would be totally uncool. No. I'm talking about Fenton."

"Uhhhh. You've lost me. I know Fenton's, like, super wimpy and girly, but, he's definitely a guy, and I don't think he swings that way, you know?"

"No, the other Fenton."

"His mom?" asked Kwan, feeling thoroughly grossed out.

"No, Jasmine Fenton, his sister. God, you're a freak."

"Oh. Yeah. Just, I mean, you could have used her first name to begin with. There's like, four Fentons, here. It's kind of confusing."

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Mia was watching Fractal. She couldn't see very well without her contact lenses, but there was something familiar about the way he moved.

"Doesn't he remind you of someone?" asked Hannah, suddenly. "Something about the way he talks and acts, you know?"

"Yeah," said Mia.

"I don't know who, though."

"Jazz, maybe," said Mia. "They act sort of similarly. They're both... Bookish, I guess. Nerdy."

"Yeah, that makes sense."

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Jeremy was stalling.

He knew that he had screwed up. The zip ties were a hint, he supposed, but Iota had explained that it was only a precaution, and the leader, Alpha had seemed eager to get everyone, everyone from Harmony, and whoever it was they had come looking for, 'back to the real world.' Still, that was what had initially put Jeremy's guard back up. He knew that many of his neighbors didn't want to leave, and if these men tried to force them, there would be a fight.

Then there was everything that Beta and Gamma had said about ghosts. Destroying ghosts.

In the Outside, yeah, there were a lot of dangerous ghosts, but Jeremy knew and liked the ghosts who resided in Harmony. Sure, the wisps weren't exactly brilliant conversationalists, but you could get a surprisingly large amount out of their songs and lights.

Finally, Jeremy was worried about the kids. He didn't know any of them very well, except, maybe, for Sonia, but he knew that they weren't entirely normal. That, actually, a lot of people in Harmony were a step closer to ghosts, a tad more spiritual, than they had been when they had first arrived. It wasn't something that bore thinking about, no one really talked about it, and, most of the time, no one cared, but everyone knew, and the children had much more of it than anyone else.

So, Jeremy was stalling, leading the men away from anything important. Distracting them. Hopefully, Shade and Umbra would be able to come up with a plan before he ran out of lies to tell.

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Walden ran a hand through his frizzy hair, and, from his perch on the pillar's base, counted the dogs again. He was colorblind, so, unlike virtually everyone else, he had to do it this way. He wasn't sure how he'd been stuck with this. Yes, he liked dogs, but he was hardly the only one who did, and someone who could distinguish green from red would be much better at this.

He kept coming up one short. After counting one more time, he sighed, and jumped down.

"Yeah," he said. "Cujo's missing."

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Danny stirred inside his cocoon. Anxious. Someone was in trouble, but he didn't know who, where, why, or how. He felt like ants were walking over his skin, crawling in his mouth and eyes. He wanted them to go away, leave him alone. They were too close. The GIW were too close. Why wouldn't they go away? Why did they hate him so much? What did he ever do to them? Why was his mother choosing them over him?

He struggled out of his cocoon, still somewhat somnambulant. He sniffed, wiping tears out of his eyes.

"Hey," said Tucker.

Danny looked up, surprised. He didn't know how long he'd been asleep, but he hadn't thought that anyone would wake before him. Tucker was sitting on a chair, eating a sandwich.

"Peanut butter," he said, offering Danny a sandwich. "No jelly, 'cause it's slimy."

"Thanks," said Danny.

"I've got some orange juice, too," said Tucker. "Want some?"

"Sure," said Danny. "How long was I asleep?"

"A while," said Tucker, shrugging. "You want to talk about it."

Danny swiped at his eyes again. "Not really."

"Okay, cool. You should maybe talk to Jazz, though."

Danny nodded. He would do that. "Thanks," he said again.

"So I've tracked down some fruit," said Sam, as she walked in. "Oh, hey, Danny. You're up. Are you okay? Do you want an apple? Or, um, a nectarine?"

Danny nodded, swinging a little in the hammock. "Thanks, Sam." He sighed, heavily. "I really don't want to do this," he said. "I don't trust those people at all."

"Which people?" asked Tucker. "The Guys in White, or the people from Harmony?"

"The Guys in White," said Danny. "They feel dangerous," he said, his eyes loosing focus. "There's something off about them. Something wrong about how they're moving, what they're doing." He blinked, the world coming back. "What?"

"You tell us," said Tucker.

"I think that your connection to this place is getting stronger," said Sam, when Danny just shrugged.

"That makes sense," said Danny. "Maybe I'm just getting better, though?"

"Do you feel better?" asked Sam.

"Not really. Where is everyone?"

"Well," said Sam. "I think that Jazz is trying to psychoanalyze your mom again, Valerie got into a fight with Lester, a beam, I'm not sure where it came from, almost fell on Dash when he pushed Nathan off the stage, and Paulina is off in her own fantasy world." She paused. "Do you remember what happened with Mirage, Valerie, Paulina, and I?"

"Sort of?" said Danny. "It's like I'm remembering a dream. Does that make sense?"

"I don't know anything about that," said Tucker.

"You don't need to know," said Sam.

"Hey," complained Tucker. "Come on. I'm not going to tease you that badly."

"But you admit that you're still going to tease us."

"Says the one that hordes blackmail material like it's a matter of course."

"I'm not the only one with blackmail material. I've seen the files on your computer."

"Hey, those are practical blackmail materials. For, like, Vlad, and Agent O, and the police."

"Wait," said Danny. "Why would you want to blackmail the police?"

Tucker raised his eyebrows, amused. "Says the vigilante half-ghost."

"Oh."

Sam, meanwhile, looked thoughtful. "We should pool resources. Not all my blackmail is for you two. Actually, Grandma knows a lot..."

"Hey, guys, Nathan didn't get hurt, did he?"

"No, he's fine. Not even bruised," said Tucker.

"There's padding around the stage," explained Sam. "I think that you anticipated the whole, 'falling off the stage' problem."

"Is Dash hurt?"

"No, he screamed like a little girl, though," said Sam.

"Oh, yeah, that was hilarious," agreed Tucker.

"Mm," said Danny. "Is Mom mad at me?" he asked, quietly.

"I don't think so," said Sam, after Tucker just shrugged. "I think she's just angry in general."

"Trust her, she's an expert at being angry."

"Whatever, Tucker."

"So, you didn't really say where everyone was," said Danny.

"Oh. They're just sitting out in the stands, not talking to each other. Except for Jazz and your mom. You know how Jazz is."

"Yeah, I know how Jazz is." He sighed. "I guess that if everyone's awake, we should get going again."

"Danny," said Sam. "You know that you don't have to do this, right? I mean, if I'm interpreting that contract right, you don't have to go now, just because your mom wants you to."

"I know," said Danny, miserably, "but if I don't, then they'll never trust me again. I'd actually feel better if you two didn't come," he admitted. "I don't want you to get hurt, if things go wrong."

Sam and Tucker looked at each other, and shook their heads. "No way, man," said Tucker. "You're stuck with us."

Chapter Text

Chapter 66: The Not-People

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"Okay," said Echo. "Harmony is directly above us. I'm taking you directly to the door. Do not sneak off. Do not leave the route. Follow my instructions. Got it?"

There were a few murmurs of assent. Echo glared.

"I'm serious. Don't try to run off and find the GIW." He rolled his eyes when he didn't get any more of a response than before. "Whatever," he muttered, and started off up the stairs. The wisps stayed behind, leaving them in the shadows.

Danny was watching his mother. He had been watching his mother all morning, trying to build up the courage to talk to her. He glanced at his sister, who gave him an encouraging nod. He nodded back, and took the stairs two at a time, so that he could reach Maddie's side.

"Mom," he said, "um, how are you doing?"

Maddie blinked, and looked down at Danny, as if she was surprised to see him. "I'm fine, Danny," she said. "Glad that we'll be going home, soon."

"Okay," said Danny.

She gave Danny a small, strained smile, and put an arm around his shoulders, giving him a quick hug as they paused on the stairs. "I love you, Danny," she said. "I do, really. No matter what."

Danny mirrored the smile. This was as close as they could get to discussing things here, in front of the others.

"You've been working so hard," she said, more quietly, "and we've been making things so hard for you. Thank you for meeting us halfway."

Danny nodded, but he felt like he was going much more than halfway in all this. They came out into a building, a very familiar looking one. It took Danny an embarrassingly long time to realize that it was identical to the Amity Park town hall, only without any doors.

However, luckily for Danny's self-confidence, the others didn't notice until they had reached the front steps.

Maddie stopped dead, at that point, staring, painfully exposed, visible to anyone who might happen by. "It's Amity Park," she said, with a tone of fascination.

Danny caught the look of triumph on Echo's face. But then it was gone. He blinked, trying to figure out why, but dismissed it in favor of pulling his mother off the steps, and shepherding the rest of his charges into a more protected street. It was dangerous here.

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Shade had, thus far, managed to keep the GIW off of the rooftops, away from anything that could function as a good sniper position. Jeremy had helped greatly with that, actually, although Shade suspected that this was more coincidence, and good luck, than anything else.

However, the addition of Echo and Danny's group complicated things greatly. Now they had to keep the GIW away from their path, and although Echo could feel the presence of the GIW, their location in the lair, the GIW agents were trained soldiers, and they could move quickly, much more quickly than Echo could make Lester and Nathan move.

It was a good thing he and Umbra they had already taken out all of their drones. It was a good thing that they didn't have very many drones in the first place. Even with strategic darkness, it would have been impossible to hide the group from drones.

Things went well for a while. Longer than Shade had thought they would, honestly. But then the GIW started to wind their sinister way back towards Echo and Danny's arrow-straight path.

He and Umbra kept them off-balance with occasional ectoblasts, or showing themselves, then disappearing, but, without seriously hurting the men, those distractions only did so much good.

Sooner or later, this was going to end poorly.

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Echo stopped, scowled, and then made a left-hand turn, the first one so far, at the next intersection. "Keep up," he snapped.

Valerie was instantly suspicious.

The ghost had been anxious and snappish this whole time, but this was different. Turning left like this, when he was so insistent on avoiding the GIW... That suggested something, didn't it? That suggested that the GIW were to the right.

Valerie knew that there were things going on that she didn't understand. She knew, knew, that there was some connection between Danny and Danielle, and between Danny and Phantom, something that went deeper than Danny being possessed, or overshadowed. She knew that something had happened between Danny and his parents. Something big.

She knew that Phantom had always kept his promises.

At the same time, she would always, always, trust humans over ghosts.

She almost turned, almost ran to the GIW. But then, just before she did, she looked at Danny, really looked at him.

He looked terrible. Sick. The scar that had been little more than an angry shadow a couple of days ago was now a lurid green. His eyes swam with green sparks. His skin was so pale it was almost gray, almost transparent. He looked half-dead. He looked like a ghost.

And with Phantom possessing him, he would have an ectosignature.

The GIW always shot first and asked questions later. She remembered what Elliot had said. They had shot at him because of his hair color. What would they do to Danny?

Why was Danny here, anyway? He hadn't wanted to come. He didn't like the GIW. He had to know what he looked like. He was taking a spectacular risk.

She didn't turn. She didn't run.

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Echo was frustrated. The GIW kept blocking them. Kept turning, as if to track them. How were they doing that?

He glanced back at the group. Lester and Nathan were too slow. Paulina wasn't much better. Annoying. Why had they insisted on coming? They would have been cared for, well cared for, back with the Harmonians.

Echo was making plans. Danny had to be protected above all else. That was obvious. His death could be the death of all of them. The lair might crumble, without Danny's mind to give it form. Danny did not quite understand that, or he would have been more cautious. Although, Ellie's existence would prevent the lair from disintegrating entirely. That was fine, though. It was a burden he need not know of. It wouldn't help any.

Then, after Danny, Tucker, Jazz, then Sam. Jazz and Sam were both more athletic than Tucker, with faster reflexes. They'd be more likely to get themselves out of harm's way that Tucker. Then, the twins, then Paulina, then Dash. Valerie could take care of herself. Maddie... Well. Echo didn't really want her to die. It would devastate Danny. If everyone else was fine, he would protect her, too.

He made another turn. He knew this landscape infinitely better than the GIW, but there were more of them, and they were starting to split into groups. The shadow snarled. They were tracking them, somehow. That complicated things.

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Danny had more than enough time to build up a significant sense of dread before Echo stopped before a building's doorway and made to usher them in. When they had started to run, he had known things were bad. When Echo had doubled back to throw the twins over his shoulders, he had known things were terrible. But if they were abandoning the effort to get to the Door, which Danny suspected must be in a facsimile of FentonWorks, in favor of hiding in a building, then things were hopeless.

"Stop!" Danny's head swiveled towards the unfamiliar voice. There were two men there, in camouflage and body armor, at the corner of the building, not even thirty feet away. They had weapons in their hands, raised and trained on the group. Out of the corners of his eyes, he could see Valerie, Paulina, and Dash, obeying, and raising their hands. He could see Echo tossing the twins into the building. Maddie started to move, to step in front of him.

He saw the guns move with her.

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Team Eurydice had instructions about what to do when they encountered the Fentons.

The preferred outcome would be for each of the four Fentons to be sniped, long distance, with a high-powered ectoplasmic rifle, then for Eurydice to withdraw, and send in Team Orpheus. It would be easier for them to blame the deaths on ghosts that way.

But there were other contingencies. An apparently accidental death was acceptable. Being caught in the crossfire between agents and a pair of ghosts would also do nicely. The children wouldn't be able to tell who shot who, in such a situation, and they would be so relieved to be rescued, that they wouldn't ask questions. Yes. That was an excellent scenario, and one that Alpha and Gamma were more than willing to carry out.

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Danny saw the guns track Maddie, traced the probable trajectory in his mind's eye. He saw the agents start to squeeze their triggers.

Something snapped, inside him, and across all the shadows, rippling, shuddering, altering things, just a little bit, just for a moment. It was the culmination off all the pressures he had been put under, suddenly made dire, made explosive, by the application of extreme, outside force.

No ghost could tolerate such a direct assault on their obsession. Not in their presence, and certainly not in their lair.

Danny had even injured his own mother, when she raised a deadly weapon against another.

Danny loved his mother.

These, however... He had no obligation to them. No desire to protect them, to keep them safe.

They might be human, but... Did that mean that they were people?

No. Not after this.

Chapter Text

Chapter 67: to Wound the Tiger

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Despite spending a large potion of his time fighting, Danny was not, by nature, a violent person. Nor was he particularly vengeful, though he could certainly be petty, or at all cruel. As a matter of fact, Danny was rather forgiving. He didn't hold grudges, even when he should.

This was why, despite having more than enough justification to do so, despite having dropped them from his list of 'people,' the thought of killing the GIW agents never even crossed his mind.

Hurting them, however...

As far as he was concerned, that was fine.

There were plants and flowers everywhere in Danny's lair. This would likely appear odd to someone who wasn't very familiar with Danny, because flowers really didn't fit Phantom, thematically speaking. The reason for their presence was mostly because Sam liked plants, and Jazz liked flowers, but, as Maddie had discovered, they served another purpose. Defense. Ghost plants were aggressive, and frequently dangerous, but, once in a lair, they weren't terribly difficult for the lair to co-opt and control.

This was why, when the men made to fire at Maddie, thick, wooden spears shot out of the nearby buildings, driving through the men's arms and legs, pinning them in place, exploding their weapons into a thousand, sharp, jagged, shards that dug deep furrows in their exposed skin. Then, the still-living vines pulsed, and sent out smaller, greener, vines to wind around their limbs, preventing them from pulling free.

At the same time, the temperature plummeted. Frost formed on every surface, crackling and snapping. The wind picked up, icy, cutting.

Paulina screamed.

Danny's vision tunneled, but he was frozen to the spot, clinging to Maddie's sleeve. He was afraid that she would be targeted again, and he had to be ready to pull her out of the way. There was no telling what these people could do, what they were capable of. They might be able to escape.

Then he remembered (memory of a memory of a dream, he didn't know how he knew these things). There were others. These weren't the only ones. There were more of them. They were dangerous.

Maddie wasn't the only one in danger.

He had to protect. He had to keep them safe.

"Get inside!" he half-shouted, now pushing Maddie towards the doorway. "Get inside! Hurry!"

"Danny," said Maddie, horrified, "what-?"

"They were going to shoot you!"

"How can you know th-"

"This isn't the time to argue, Valerie!" snapped Jazz. She was pulling Paulina, who had frozen, to the doorway.

Echo was- Where was Echo? Where-? Had they gotten him?

No.

There he was, walking towards the trapped GIW agents. Incandescent. His aura burnt bright, and as he lifted off the ground, blue-white tendrils that could have been plants, or frost or both (botany in the Infinite Realms was strange) followed his path. Danny could feel his fury, as he stalked closer and closer to the agents, because it was his, Danny's, fury.

(Echo wanted to hurt them. Danny just wanted them to go away.)

(The shadows were not, quite, exactly the same as Danny.)

"You were going to kill her," said Echo, the inhuman reverberation in his voice that had faded to almost nothing returned full force. "Yowere going to pua hole in her head and her heart. You don't get to do that."

One of the men had managed to keep an arm free, and now he pulled a pistol-type ectoblaster from his belt. Echo smacked it away with the back of his hand, hard enough that Danny could hear bones break. The gun skittered away, across the pavement, coming to rest a couple feet to Danny's right.

Echo raised a hand, icy vines following it up, and twining together to form a long, razor-sharp point. "Would you likme tdemonstrate where?" he asked pointing to the man's forehead. The icy point followed the gesture.

Danny's breath caught in his throat. Echo wasn't really going to do that, was he? He wasn't really-

.

.

.

Echo suddenly shrieked and flickered, dropping to the ground. Danny gasped, and collapsed. The ground trembled. The vines wilted. The vibrant, dark colors of the sky began to bleach.

Jazz whirled, trying to find out why, priming her wrist rays. She saw Sam and Tucker going for their own weapons, even as Maddie dropped to check Danny.

"Looks like we owe the tech guys an apology," said an unfamiliar voice. "This spectral disruptor really did come in handy."

"Alpha! Sir, what happened?"

"Orders, sir?

They were surrounded. Jazz swallowed, and prepared for a hopeless fight. Jazz could fight, but she wasn't a soldier, her weapons weren't designed to hurt humans. They were designed to not hurt humans.

"Cut me out," said Alpha, cradling his broken hand against his side. "Carry out the mission."

"But, sir," said one, "witnesses-"

"Acceptable losses," barked Alpha.

The soldiers nodded, and turned, raising their weapons. "Nothing personal," said one of them, as he trained his gun's sights on Jazz.

"Ready," barked one of them.

"Wh-what," stuttered Paulina. "Wait-"

"Aim."

There was a sharp crack of gunfire.

The soldier who had been holding the spectral disruptor fell, a hole through his device and his leg. There was another shot. Another. The soldiers started to scatter, but a few of them paused, their guns still pointed at the Fenton's and Danny's classmates.

The sky darkened further, throwing the street into darkness. Jazz was just barely able to catch sight of Danny, sitting up, the ectoblaster that Echo had struck from the soldier's hand grasped in his, blood flowing freely from his nose and ears, his face terrifyingly blank, before the darkness became absolute.

A pair of bright green flashes shot down from the rooftops, briefly illuminating their targets. Jazz raised her fists, sighting down her arms to fire her wrist rays. She wasn't afraid of friendly fire. Except for Echo, everyone was behind her.

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.

.

By the trapped agents, Echo flickered again, his aura sparking. The shadow pushed himself to his feet, dizzy. It was a new experience, but not one that he enjoyed.

Echo, like Danny, could see in the dark. He saw the agents, some of them still firing (more or less blindly) at the others. He snarled, and launched himself at one of them, a taller, thinner man, who had been fumbling with what Echo took to be night vision goggles of some kind.

This would not be permitted. This would not be allowed.

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Danny felt...

Clear. Focused. Maybe a little light headed. But, connected.

It was like all his emotions had dropped away, leaving only crystalline purpose, right and wrong, a single straight path, no colors, only the gray, the black, the white.

He didn't think that he could stand, indeed, he wasn't. He thought that Maddie might have picked him up, and now they were taking shelter by the walls of one of the buildings. It didn't matter, though. He didn't need to stand.

He just needed to make sure that they couldn't.

Vines began to carpet the street, starting at the edges. They took those agents who had sought out shelter first. Danny could feel their bones snap as the vines wrapped tightly around their ankles, he could hear their screams, feel their wrists be bound as they hit the ground, hit the vines.

He could see Shade and Umbra take aim and fire, as if their eyes were his own, he could see the smoking, circular burn marks they left on their victims. He could feel Fractal, as he angled an icy knife up between the ribs of an agent who was frantically checking a screen on his wrist. He could hear Mirage and Mirror as they both lead men astray with misleading voices and images. He could taste blood, as Echo fought an agent literally tooth and nail.

Then, like the surface of a pool stilling, ripples smoothing, after a stone had been thrown into it, Danny was himself again, his emotions returned, just as they were, just as they should be, stronger for their brief absence.

(But something remained of that moment of clarity. A thought. A conclusion.)

The flowers on the vines bloomed, once again shedding light on the streets. There were teeth among the glowing petals, pearly white and needle sharp.

Danny struggled to stand. Maddie's lower arm had a bloody, fist-size burn mark on it. One of the agents must have hit her at some point. She had been shielding him. Danny forced himself to breathe evenly. This wasn't life threatening, and he could fix it. His eyes flicked to the others. Dash was bleeding heavily from his ear, a chunk of flesh about the size of a penny missing from it. He'd be fine, too. Tucker- Oh, that wasn't good.

Echo, still bloody, came to Danny's side to help him up, even as Fractal slid to Tucker's. Maddie made as if to stop Echo, but thought better of it, instead supporting Danny from the other side. Jazz, Sam and Fractal were all trying to stem the blood pumping from the hole in Tucker's upper thigh.

"It's the femoral, isn't it?" asked Tucker, breathlessly, his face rapidly paling.

"Yeah," said Jazz.

"Stop trying to sit up," said Sam, swinging her backpack off, and pulling out her first aid kit.

"Y'know, I never really expected the GIW to be the ones to kill me."

"You aren't dying, Tucker," said Danny, dropping down next to him. "Help me," he said to Fractal.

"Of course," said the shadow, a touch of anxiety in his tone.

"Did the bullet go through?" asked Danny. "Is there an exit wound?"

"Yes," said Jazz, crisply.

"Okay. Great."

"Me having another hole is great?"

"You not having the bullet stuck in you is great," said Fractal. "Considering that the ones lodged in the walls contain trace ectoranium, I doubt that we could effectively phase the bullet out of you, or otherwise remove it with ghost powers."

"This is going to feel weird," warned Danny. He took Fractal's hand and moved it over Tucker's wound.

"You know what feels weird?" said Tucker. "Being shot. Being shot feels weird. I mean, it isn't like this is the first time I've been shot or anything... Hey, Sam, if I made it my last request, would you ask Danny out? 'Cause, like, we both know that you're the aggressive one in this relationship, yeah?"

"Tucker," said Danny, putting his hands next to Fractal's. Their hands began to glow faintly blue. "You aren't going to die."

"Y-yeah," said Sam. "Stop being such a baby about this."

"Are you using your ice powers on my leg?" asked Tucker. "Is that a good idea? I mean, bullet wounds are bad, but so is frostbite... Not Frostbite, Frostbite is great, but like, frostbite... Heck. Frostbite, frostbite, Frostbite, frostbite... They sound different in my head, okay?"

"I bet a lot of things sound different in your head," said Sam.

"Are you insulting the dying guy? Really?"

"You aren't dying," said Danny. "We need everyone to be quiet now." He watched carefully as the aura around his and Fractal's hands darkened to a more brassy blue, one that matched the glow of Clockwork's amulets (He didn't notice Mirage and Mirror gesture at the vines, causing the plants to grow gags over the mouths of their prisoners). He wasn't healing Tucker the same way he had healed Maddie the other day. (He honestly didn't know what he had done that time, and was hoping that, whatever it was, it wasn't something that he could only access when high on excess emotional energy, or a one-off panic reaction, which was also possible.)

Clockwork had shown him how to do this, but it was difficult. It required focus. The fight had lasted for about five minutes, maybe a little less, so five minutes ago, Tucker hadn't been shot. Five minutes ago, Tucker had been standing there. So... Move there, five minutes ago to here and now. Or, should he just accelerate? Both had their risks, and he couldn't keep the time of Tucker's leg stopped for too much longer. He'd get gangrene.

"Option one," said Fractal, speaking in Esperanto. "With option two, we'd have to make a temporal gradient, so that it wouldn't get weird with the rest of his body, and I don't know how we'd deal with the energy requirements. Remember that short story? As it is, this'll only work because-" Fractal cut himself off. Because Tucker is liminal, and therefore can deal with a chunk of his thigh being replaced by a time-delayed version. They didn't need to give the GIW that information, even in Esperanto.

"Oh. Yeah." Danny swallowed and nodded. Ancients, he shouldn't do this when he had what must be the ghostly version of brain damage, but he didn't have a choice. Tucker was bleeding out.

The blue glow intensified, then flared. When it cleared, the hole in Tucker's leg was gone.

Danny sighed in relief.

"Gosh," said Tucker, "you were right, that feels weird."

"You're weird," said Sam. "Mrs Fenton," she said, "let me take a look at your arm."

Mirage and Mirror, both in Phantom form, began to move then. They were going to question the GIW, as Phantom. Good. Danny had some questions he wanted answered.

Chapter Text

Chapter 68: Finder and Found

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"We're going to have to go to Walker," said Adrestia, finally defeated.

"What?" exclaimed Alex. "Why?"

"Because, as gross and jerky as he is, he's also the only one who has the equipment to detect material plane objects," said Adrestia. "And, honestly, we're almost out of Earth-space here. I kinda doubt that the Guys in White or Phantom are out of Earth-space."

"What about Technus?" asked Meg. "He's the one who reported this, yeah? He'd wanna help us, and he's the one that's all like, 'beeping!' right?"

"Yeah, but Astraea asked him, and he said that he sold everything to Walker. For, you know, a loose definition of 'sold.'"

"Extortion?" asked Tess.

"He's a bully," huffed Alex. "I've gotta wonder if he was ever a real police officer, or warden, or sheriff, or whatever, or just, you know, a gangster or something."

"Come on, girls," said Adrestia. "Let's not drag this out any longer than we have to."

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Umbra landed silently in front of the Door building. The last vestiges of the GIW in the lair were waiting there, by the Door itself. They had Jeremy. Umbra would take him back, now.

He donned invisibility, and stepped into the familiar building, one hand on his sword.

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"So," said Mirror, lightly, approaching the first man caught, "you're in charge?" He flicked his hand, and the gag came off. The man remained resolutely silent, glaring.

Mirage rolled his eyes. "Really. Don't play noble after trying to kill someone."

"Maybe one of theses others would be more talkative?" The gags on the other men peeled off.

"No?" said Mirage, looking over his shoulder. "That's alright."

"You can just listen for now."

"While I ask questions."

"Why Eurydice?" Mirror paused for a moment. "Why name yourselves after the one who did not return? Where is Orpheus, in all of this?"

"Are you waiting for him to come and save you?"

"We're not telling you anything, ghost!"

"And there's the weak link," said Mirror, turning, smiling, being as sinister as possible.

"Agent Epsilon, is it?" asked Mirage, smiling toothily. "Where is Orpheus? Off chasing another lead? Another group of material- excuse me- real world objects? We know that you have trackers for that kind of thing."

"No. I think not. Nearby, then? Is that what yet waits outside our Door?"

"I'm not telling you anything."

"Shut up, Epsilon!"

"Oh, methinks the lady doth protest too much," Mirage said as Mirror cackled.

"How many?" demanded Echo. He was still half-shielding Danny with his body. "More than you? Twice as many? Thrice? Four times?"

Danny, meanwhile, had been entranced by the sight of the toothy flowers systematically dismantling the soldiers' guns. However...

"Mirror," said Danny, getting the shadow's attention. "Did you tell the others where you were going before you left?"

Mirror blinked, then, with an air of exaggeration, sighed. "I didn't."

"Nor did I," said Fractal, raising a hand to his lips in consternation.

"You should go, then," said Mirage in a commanding voice. He donned Mirror's sinister grin. "I can handle this." The other two shadows exchanged glances, shrugged, then vanished. "Maybe I could make this easier for all of us, if I introduced myself?"

"We know who you are," snapped one of the soldiers.

Mirage tilted his head. "Do you?"

"You're the Phantom. Scourge of Amity Park."

"Protector of Amity Park," corrected Mirage, crossing his legs to float midair.

"This is taking too long," snarled Echo. He raised a hand, and the vines began to stir.

Mirage also raised a hand, but this one was quelling. One sharp-pointed vine paused inches from the back of one of the soldier's necks.

"Monster," accused Alpha.

"You think so, do you?" asked Mirage, vanishing, to reappear in front of the leader, their noses almost touching, "I guess that makes sense, considering that I just tried to kill a bunch of children. Oh wait. No. That would be you." He paused. "You know, I almost pity you," said Mirage, floating backwards. "If you came here with the intention to hurt, to kill, this was always going to be the result. You were always going to loose." He ran a finger along one of the vines that had punctured the agent's arm. It pulsed, and the agent screamed. "Almost. Not really. You tried to hurt people, after all. I can't allow that. I can't forgive that. Not from arrogant things like you. If you had only restrained yourselves, if you had only acted like the human beings you so resemble, I would have let you wander. I would have let you walk. I would have let you stay. I would have let you leave. Not now. Not when you have made such a transgression against my hospitality. Not when you have so threatened my guests. But, if you cooperate, I might still let you live."

Echo hissed. Danny cringed. He didn't like the idea of keeping the agents here, hated it passionately, in fact, but at the same time, he couldn't let them go, couldn't let them be a threat to his family and friends.

"So," continued Mirage. "I now know a lot about you. About Orpheus. There are about three times as many of them, as there are of you, for example. I suspect that they were also the official team. The ones meant to bring those you didn't kill back? That's right, isn't it? The names would make more sense then. The problem with double meanings is that, sometimes, people can read between the lines. But the thing is, that right now, even though I'm saying this, and you're feeling quite a bit of trepidation, you are also feeling... Determination? And... dread, I believe?" He whirled, flitted to one of the other agents. "Agent Theta. Why are you feeling such dread? Such fear? And not of me. I know what that feels like."

"'Off chasing another lead,'" said Danny. "When you said that, it didn't quite match up. That one," he pointed at Gamma, who was imprisoned next to Alpha. "He twitched, I think."

"Oh? Who would they be, I wonder, and where are they going?" He leaned closer to Theta. "I already said that I'm not going to kill you," he said, gently. "I don't even want to hurt you. That one," he jerked his head towards Echo, "is another story, but then..." he trailed off, noting the bite marks on Theta's person. "I think you knew that. I can help you, with him. You just need to help me with this. Don't give him an excuse to hurt you."

"Don't tell him anything," grated Alpha. "That's just a duplicate. He's playing you."

Mirage sighed, standing. "You know," he said, "when it comes to my abilities, I often learn best by doing. But some things, well, some things, you just can't practice. They're too dangerous. Like," he said, raising a hand, a spiked vine following it, "this. With a lot of this, that you see, I'm copying another ghost. But I've never actually practiced this part of it. If I were to do any part of it wrong, then... Well. Someone would die. In this case, you."

"We'll go through you one by one," said Echo. "Until we get it right. Then you'll be ours, to do with as we please."

"Or until someone says something. Out of fear for themselves. Or, maybe even for something even more human." Mirage smiled. "Maybe you could become people again. Surely even you must care for something, for someone. You fought with these, alongside them, did you not?"

"Forget it," said Echo. "They don't love anything. They can't." The vines twitched, jostling broken bones. The flowers snapped and clacked. One vine scraped against the back of Iota's neck, drawing a drop of blood.

"Stop it!" shouted Alpha.

Echo snarled.

"Oh, a soft spot. Don't worry, if you tell, the worst we'll do is keep you."

Alpha bit his lip.

"No?" said Mirage. "Or... You're worried about something else now. Something has just crossed your mind. Something that will happen if you stay here? But you're hoping. You're hoping that Orpheus will come to you? But, you must realize, that if they come, they'll fall into the same trap. They won't stand a chance. And now even more of you are afraid. Of what? What are you dreading? Something hasn't gone according to plan. Something that you wouldn't be worried about if you weren't here. If you weren't... You've been looking at your wrist. Loosing time. You're on a time limit. Does Orpheus leave, then, or... The other one. You have to be gone before the other one is finished. Who are they? What are they doing, that's so important?"

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An agent crossed back through the Door.

"Alpha Orpheus says that Inanna has just passed out of communication range," said the agent. "Has Alpha Eurydice contacted you yet?"

"No, sir," said the other agent.

The first frowned. "He should have. You, Nye. Do you know anything about this."

Jeremy shook his head emphatically.

"Alpha Orpheus says that we should retrieve the other humans as well, if possible," said the first agent.

"That's great," said Jeremy, his smile strained.

"However, he said that we should make sure that all of those who return with us have only the highest opinion of the GIW."

"I see," said the second man, drawing his pistol.

This was enough to drive Umbra into action.

Chapter Text

Chapter 69: I Know What You're Thinking

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"Inanna," said Mirage. "That's the third group. The goddess who invaded the underworld. Fitting, I suppose. She died, though. She was resurrected later, but still."

"Dammit, I'm not doing this!" exclaimed Theta.

"Agent Theta," scolded Alpha.

Theta cursed at Alpha. "Inanna. They're not a rescue detail."

"Theta-"

Mirage cut the man off with a flick of his hand, the gag regrowing.

"They're after a target," continued the man. "One that could get rid of all you freaks. But if we're here when the Bomb is triggered, we're all dead."

"The Bomb?"

Theta licked his lips. "I heard one of the science guys call it Project Ophiotaurus."

"What?" exclaimed Sam.

"What's wrong?" asked Danny.

"Ophiotaurus was a creature whose blood was supposed to kill gods."

"Wait," said Danny, closing his eyes. "A target that could take out all ghosts... A bomb... A god killer..." Danny rubbed his head. These were puzzle pieces, and he was so close to putting them together, but he was so tired, and so many other things had happened in such a short time.

"My god," said Maddie, suddenly. "When did you split up?" she demanded. "Tell me," she insisted, when the agents and the just stared at him.

"About twenty-four hours ago," said Theta.

"My god," repeated Maddie, raising a hand to her hand. "Are you insane? If you succeeded, do you have any idea what would happen to Earth?"

"Mom?" said Danny. "What's wrong? What are you talking about?"

"Danny, do you remember back when your father and I were researching the link between the Ghost Zone and the real world?"

"Yeah?" he gasped. "You don't mean... They're not... They can't, they tried before and I- we stopped them!" He stood, clenching his fists, green blooming in his eyes, and took a step towards the agents. "You're trying to destroy the Ghost Zone? How? Where? Don't you know that will destroy earth as well?"

"What are you talking about?" asked one of the agents.

"The Ghost Zone and the real world are two sides of the same coin," said Maddie. Danny's breath caught in his throat. "Events in one effect the other. If you destroy one, you destroy the other. You have to get in contact with them, tell them to stop."

"How do you-"

"I'm an ectologist. My husband and I built the world's first ghost portal. I know what I'm talking about."

"We know who you are, traitor b-" He cut off with a shriek, as a vine tightened around his ankle.

"You will show respect to my guests," said Mirage, his voice even.

"We can't contact them," said another agent. "Our radios haven't worked since we came in, and before that, they were almost out of range."

"Ancients," said Danny, running a hand through his hair. "We have to- We have to stop them. How... I need... You..."

"I'll take care of these," said Mirage, still playing the part of Phantom for the agents. "I'll make sure that Dash, Paulina, Valerie, and the twins get to a safe place. The rest of you go to the Door."

"Right," said Echo, practically picking up Danny. "Hurry," he said.

"Put me down," said Danny, as soon as they were out of sight of the group. "Echo, put me down. I've got to- We've got to get everyone who can fight. Everyone who can be a distraction. Everyone who can get here in time." Echo put him down, and Danny ran a hand through his hair, striding forward. He pulled on his core, triggering his transformation into Phantom. It hurt. Danny ignored it. He didn't have a choice. (Rather, he had a choice. He had had a choice. He had just made it long ago. He had made it when he died in the portal. This was the reason he existed.)

All around them, bells began to ring, every clock in the doorless town going off at the same time. The bells of the churches, the town hall, and the clock tower in park were the loudest, clearest, ringing out a complex melody.

"Danny," said Maddie, "what are you planning on doing?"

"Fighting. We have to get through the agents outside the Door. At least one person, to spread the word, so that something can be done. If we can beat them... Then we take their vehicles. They have to have them. A lot of them, to get so many people here. Then we need to find Inanna. Stop them. Get to them before they get to the Core." He stopped. "You'll need to get protective gear, all of you. The Core is dangerous. For humans and ghosts, but for different reasons. Your suit won't cut it, Mom."

There were now dozens of wisps swirling around Danny. A pair of ghostly cats slunk out of an alley. Other things fluttered and swirled in Danny's wake, phantasms and formless specters, ghosts that would never survive outside the Ghost Zone, ghosts that had never shown themselves to the Harmonians, and wouldn't have shown themselves now, except that Danny has asked them to. He began to speak to them, explain what had happened, giving them instructions, asking for information.

"I might know a shortcut to the core," said Danny, "depending on where we come out."

"How?" asked Tucker.

"Clockwork showed me, once, said I might need to know, but he wasn't sure."

"How could he not be sure?" asked Maddie. "I thought that he could see the future."

Danny groaned. "Too complicated to explain." He swallowed a giggle.

"Danny?" said Jazz, suspiciously. "Are you..? What did you tell the wisps?"

Danny glanced back over his shoulder, his eyes burning bright. "I need all the energy I can get."

"Danny, you know that isn't healthy."

"Doesn't matter. Everything's over if we can't stop Inanna."

"Is that our house?" said Maddie.

"The Door is where the Door is."

"In your room?"

"No. The basement."

They entered, Maddie, commenting softly on how similar everything was, how even many the stains on the carpet had been copied from the original FentonWorks. The only difference was the lack of electronics, the detritus of invention, and the signs a four-person family leaves in its habitat.

They went down the steps. The two GIW agents were tied to a pipe, deep cuts on their legs. Umbra was helping Jeremy, checking him over for injuries.

This was the first time that any of the others had seen Umbra, but they were growing used to the shadows now. All they did was blink. Echo introduced him, briefly. He looked like Danny's human form. He wore what looked like a military dress uniform, all black, complete with a tasseled sword.

More ghosts filed in behind the group. Maddie looked like she was about to crawl out of her skin, but she was restraining herself.

"What's going on?" asked Jeremy. "Who are you?"

"I'm Phantom," said Danny. "This is mine," he said gesturing around himself. "I'm sorry. We don't have a lot of time. The friends of the people who attacked you," he hooked a thumb at the agents, "are trying to destroy the universe. Literally. We need all the help we can get. Do you mind?"

"Wh- What's the plan?"

"Not much of one."

Shade came down the steps, into the basement. He had his rifle slung over his back, and a dozen sets of headphones in his hands. "These are modified to cancel spectral noise," said the shadow, offering one to each of the humans. He then unslung the rifle from his back, and offered it to Maddie. "Here, take this. I won't be able to leave the lair. Valerie is trying to follow you, by the way. I think she knows where we were going. She is unhappy about what happened. I don't think that she understands how close she came to dying."

"It is always a shock," said Echo. "The first time someone you trust tries to kill you." He looked pointedly at Maddie. "This is your last chance." He went to the other room, and started to pull out drawers.

"So that's what I had to say?" asked Danny, fiddling with a piece of equipment that Shade had given him. "Two sides of the same coin, and then you would have gotten it?" If circumstances were different, Danny would have been hurt, would have been angry, but as it was, he didn't have time. Even as he said that, he was thinking of ways to fight, to survive, to protect. To make sure that everyone lived, that the worlds continued spinning. To save everybody. To not die.

"Danny," said Maddie softly.

"It is the same thing," said Danny. "It's fine though. We don't have time. Maybe you could explain to Dad, though."

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"Echo," said Sam, getting the shadow's attention. "Were you and Mirage really going to use Undergrowth's mind control on those guys?"

Echo blinked at Sam, pausing his search. Then he smirked. "You don't think that we'd waste something as precious as truth on the likes of them, do you? We don't know the first thing about mind control."

Sam let out a breath that she didn't even know she was holding.

"Bit too sinister for you? Too dark?" teased Echo lightly, going back to his task.

"Sorry," said Sam. "Just... I don't like that kind of thing."

"I get it. If it makes you feel better, we handle the plants is completely differently than what Undergrowth does." He paused. "I might have stabbed them. I would have stabbed them."

"Now that's sinister. What are you looking for?"

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"Hey, I have an idea," said Tucker.

"Yeah?" said Danny, his interest zeroing in on Tucker.

"Their radios," said Tucker, "do you know why they're being blocked? I mean, if it's something that's being done, like, if they're being jammed, or if it's just because they don't have enough shielding from spectral noise?"

"They're being jammed," said Mirage, flicking into existence. "Sorry. There was a bit of a mutiny. They're fine, they're all in safe places," he hastily assured everyone. "They're just in a lot of different safe places."

"The Guys in White?"

Mirage smiled. "They're in significantly less safe places. Tucker, do you want us to stop doing that? I don't think that the ones out there will listen to reason. Or nonsense. Or anything else, really. Or... Oooh. I think I know what you're thinking. I could mimic a voice, if not a face."

Chapter Text

Chapter 70: At the Threshold

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It took them a while to work out what to say. None of them had really 'heard' the agents trying to make contact. The lair was present throughout, but the lair wasn't intelligent in the way that humans and ghosts were. It did not know what had been said, could not know what had been said, in much the same way that it had not known who or what had, or still was, camping outside the Door.

But Danny had heard quite a bit, flashing through his head in a moment of panic. That's how he had known that this group, which had been in the lair, was named Eurydice. He just had to remember what had been said. How to make contact properly, without arousing suspicion, to make them lower their guards just enough to get into a good position to attack.

"This is Agent Alpha-Eurydice calling Agent Alpha-Orpheus. Over," said Mirage, his voice enough like Alpha's that it made the hairs on the back of Danny's neck stand on end.

"Alpha-Eurydice, this is Agent Alpha-Orpheus. How are you calling? Over."

"We have eliminated the ghost jamming our signal, and have secured several members of the beta target group. We have not yet located the alpha targets. Permission to send beta targets through to your location. Over."

"How many persons? Over."

"Four. Over."

There were several minutes of silence, during which time everyone held their breaths.

"Send them through. One at a time. Over."

"Affirmative. Sending the first one now. Over." Mirage put the radio set down carefully. "Okay, Sam. Are you sure that you want to do this?"

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Sam nodded, and stepped towards the Door, checking her Fenton Phones one last time, then the weapon she had been given. They had decided that they couldn't send Maddie through first, because she would be shot, nor Danny, nor Jazz, as they hadn't been able to find out whether the GIW was after only the adult Fentons, or all of them, and, even in human form, Danny was looking a little ghostly (also, there was concern about what might happen to the lair if Danny died). The shadows couldn't go through, because they couldn't leave the lair. The wisps and other ghosts, like Maddie, would be shot. That left Sam and Tucker to go through and provide distractions.

The Door was in the same place that the Fenton Portal was in the original FentonWorks, but it looked completely different. Instead of a swirling green hole in the wall, it was an actual, rectangular door, made of dark, gray-black wood, with silver fittings. There were subtle patterns of stars, snowflakes, and gears etched into the silver, and the fittings themselves spread out over the dark wood like frost.

Sam laid her hand against the Door. It was icy. She took the frigid doorknob in her hand and turned it.

There was a kind of membrane in the doorway. A shimmering, undulating surface between the lair and the outside. Sam had never seen anything like this in the doorway of a lair before. Then again, she had never seen a lair under attack before, so maybe this was normal.

She could see straight through it, but, somehow, she knew that the agents on the other side, in all their white-uniformed glory, could not see her. This would make things easier, Sam hoped.

She stepped through. Again, it was strange. It wasn't entirely unlike stepping through the portal. But it wasn't entirely like it, either. It tasted of lime, fire, and salt. It tasted like tears and blood. It clung to her as she passed through, reluctant to let her go, begging her to turn back, to be safe, to be cared for, to be happy, always and for all time.

(Sometimes Sam wondered what Danny would be like, if he had died all the way that day. She liked to think that he would be the same, but she wondered.)

"Identify yourself!" ordered an agent.

"I'm Sam Manson," she said, enunciating clearly. She didn't need to fake the slight quiver of fear in her voice.

"Samantha Manson?"

"Yes."

"Step forward."

Sam followed their instructions. After a while, a woman who Sam immediately pegged as a public relations/psychologist type (She felt only slightly guilty about this. She hated putting people into boxes, but as they had tried to kill her... Well...) came out and took Sam to a tent. There were benches, cots, and medical equipment in the tent, as well as a few doctors. The woman had introduced herself, but Sam hadn't been listening. The woman had said a lot of things, actually. She seemed to think that Sam was in shock.

The Fenton Phones buzzed, and Danny told her that Tucker had just come through. Just a few seconds now. Once Tucker reached the ring of fortifications around the Door, he would give her a code word, and they'd act.

Sam stared at her feet, looking at a tuft of grass sticking up through the white sheeting that was the tent's floor. It was a lustrous green-purple color, typical for grass in and near the Wastes, assuming that said grass was healthy, which it often wasn't. The Wastes were called the Wastes for a reason, after all, and it wasn't because they were a prime vacation destination.

She listened to Tucker, who was talking nervously through the Fenton Phones. He was just babbling nonsense, saying anything inconsequential that came into his mind. It wasn't a bad strategy. No one would suspect him of anything after he commented on the color of the tents, the clothes, the barriers, the weapons, everything, three times already.

"But, you know," he said, voice tiny through the Fenton Phone's speaker, "what I'd really like to do, as soon as I get home is eat a Nasty Burger!"

That was the cue. Sam's hand flew to the button on her wrist, and she depressed it.

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Danny stepped through the Door not even a second later.

He opened his mouth, and Wailed.

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Ectoweapons have ectoplasmic components. They often also rely on spectral signals and frequencies to function. For example, a standard blaster has both ectoplasmic conduits to bring charged liquid ectoplasm from the cartridge to the firing mechanism, and uses spectral frequencies to induce the ectoplasm to travel along those conduits.

This meant that ectoweapons were vulnerable to things like high volumes, and certain frequencies of spectral noise. Spectral noise like the spectral disruptor put out.

Of course, the spectral disruptor was designed to avoid the frequencies that GIW weaponry operated on, and Danny had broken it, but it was a good place to start. Between Maddie, who was a trained scientist specializing in ectology, Danny, who could sense ectosignatures and hear spectral noise, Shade, who had all of Danny's skills, but was less distracted by massive ectoenergy influx, and the need to recall what protocols the agents had been using to communicate, and Tucker, who was a technical genius, it wasn't too difficult to make what Maddie described as a pulse bomb that would target the GIW's weapons and tools.

It likely wouldn't do a lot of damage, and it wouldn't last for long. At best, some weapons might explode, overload, or begin firing continuously. However, it definitely would stop the weapons from functioning.

This is what Sam brought through with her, hooked into the activation button of one of her wrist-rays.

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Unfortunately, there was only one spectral disruptor. So Tucker got something different. Something more oriented towards taking out humans. It was a grenade. A flashbang. He didn't know if the lair had had it to begin with, or if it had come through with the agents. He didn't care. He just needed to give Sam the signal, and take out the agents guarding this side of the Door long enough for Danny and the other ghosts to come through.

As soon as he said the trigger words, Nasty Burger, he pulled out the grenade, pulled the pin out, threw it away, and dove away to the side, squeezing his eyes shut and covering his ears. He kept his ears covered even after he saw the flash of light through his eyelids, and heard the bang.

Danny was coming through, after all, and the plan was to make a lot more noise.

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Danny Wailed, and Wailed, and Wailed. It wasn't nearly as strong as it normally would be, but that was a good thing. Danny wasn't able to target the Wail as well as he would like, and he didn't want to hurt Sam or Tucker. Although 'target' was probably the wrong word. The Wail was a strange and terrible power, and it seemed to affect different things, different people, in different ways, and Danny had little conscious control over the effects.

Behind him, ghosts streamed out from the Door. They weren't strong ghosts, many of them weren't even corporeal, or visible, but even weak ghosts could be lethal, under the right circumstances.

These were the right circumstances. The agents weapons were disabled by the disruptor, the agents themselves were disabled by either the flashbang or Danny's Wail. The agents' clothes were made to be ghost-proof, so they either went for the few exposed places, like faces or wrists, or ripped off the clothing entirely.

The ghosts were angry. They were not, in the grand scheme of things, particularly aggressive ghosts. They were followers, more than leaders. They liked having quiet existences. They liked staying in one place, subtly haunting it. Nothing big, nothing flashy. However, the GIW had invaded their home, had hurt the person that had given them sanctuary, and now they were trying to kill everyone, destroy everything.

Like all ghosts, they had a reason to exist, a reason to want to continue to exist. The end of the worlds did not fit into their plans.

Danny saw an agent run by with both of his hands missing. He saw another clawing at his eyes as wisps flew in and out of them intangibly. Other ghosts were pushing agents off the sides of the floating island. Some of the agents were fighting one another.

Then there was Tucker, shooting at the few mobile agents with a FentonWorks blaster. It didn't do much damage, but it knocked them back. He caught sight of Sam, briefly. Jeremy had gotten a gun as well, and was firing for all he was worth.

Then he felt to his knees, spent. Wisps swirled around him, replacing the energy he had lost. Spots danced in front of his eyes, and his rings slid over him as he lost hold of his ghost form. He felt, more than saw, his mother next to him, felt the hairs on his arms stand up as she fired her ecto-rifle.

But, before Danny got back on his feet, the sounds of battle began to die out. He scanned the carnage. Surprisingly, he felt very little about the corpses. He suspected that he was getting Obsession-induced tunnel-vision, and that once this was all done, assuming that he survived this, he would feel terrible.

The wisps and ghosts gathered around him, whispering, singing, telling him what they had found.

"I've never seen these kinds of ghost before," mumbled Maddie, sounding confused.

"You wouldn't have," said Danny. "They couldn't survive outside of the Ghost Zone, and they're usually entirely imper-imperceptible. They found the transports." He gestured away, to the edge of the little island, staggering a little. He thanked the little ghosts in their own sibilant tongue, and told them to go, to scatter, to spread the word. "We've go to go," he said.

Sam and Tucker rejoined them, little worse for wear, then Jeremy, a deep cut running across his cheek, breathing heavily. "What're we doing?" he asked.

"You four are finding protective gear, and I'm going after them. After Inanna. I know this area. I can get in front of them."

"Then what?" demanded Sam. "Danny, you're in no condition to fight."

"I don't know. Slow them down, I guess." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I should be better than nothing, and I should be less affected by the ectoradiation in the core than a human, and more stable than a ghost."

"Dude, that's suicide," said Tucker.

"Then hurry up and find protective gear before I get one of their glider speeder things to work. They'll probably be Egret-10's..." Danny trailed off, muttering to himself about different types of GIW gliders, and their various good and bad points.

"Remember," said Sam, although Danny wasn't sure who or what she was responding to, "this is the kid who landed the space shuttle once."

"What?" said Maddie. "When was this?"

"Technically speaking," said Tucker, "never."

Chapter Text

Chapter 71: Do You Hear That

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"Did you hear that?" asked Meg.

"Hear what?" asked Alex cupping her ear.

"That," said Meg. "The screamin.' You don't hear it? It sounds kinda like someone dyin.'"

"Yeah," said Tess, slowly, looking over her shoulder. "Jeez, it's been a while, since I've heard somethin' like that."

"Hey," said Adrestia. "Wasn't Phantom supposed to have something like that?"

"You don't think-"

"Yeah, I do think. Come on, kiddos, we've got a victim to find."

"Addy, I think that maybe you might need to, like, maybe think that sentence out a bit more, you know what I mean?"

"Why?"

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It took some trial and error to get enough gliders started up, consuming time that Danny was loath to waste. He waited a minute, then, for the others, vibrating with worry. Then he couldn't take it anymore. He had to go, go now, or everyone would die and it would be his fault. He couldn't afford to wait. The worlds couldn't afford to wait.

He hopped on the nearest glider and twisted the throttle, pulling the handlebars up. Yes, he could try and fly on his own, but he was so weak now. The wisps had restored his energy, but they couldn't fix his injuries, couldn't undo the wear on his body. It was better to let the glider do the work.

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"I can't believe he left without us," said Maddie, again, angrily zipping up the front of the bulky, and somewhat overlarge suit she had stolen from one of the GIW tents.

"We can," said Sam. "That's why we have a tracker on him."

"You what?"

"Have a tracker on him. The Boo-merang just wasn't cutting it, anymore," said Tucker, tapping away on his PDA. "I'll ride with Sam, Jazz can ride with you. Um. You, what's your name again?"

"Jeremy. I don't think I caught yours, either."

"Sam, Tucker, Jazz, Maddie," said Sam, introducing all of them. "Have you ever driven a motorcycle?"

"Yeah, I had a bike."

"Well, this is a bit more complicated, but I think you'll be able to figure it out."

"Okay," said Tucker, "I know where Danny is now."

"How often does this happen that you need to have a tracker on him?"

"It's actually more because he keeps getting kidnapped, or stranded, than because he runs off," said Jazz, pushing Maddie towards one of the gliders. "And going ahead is probably the right decision, from a saving-the-world perspective, if not from a keeping-Danny-alive perspective. I mean," she said, perching behind Maddie on the glider as the older woman tried to decipher the controls, "we really aren't going to make much of a difference, if they're as heavily armed as the other ones. The lair gave us a massive advantage. I just hope that the shadows get everyone out in time."

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Ellie would have laughed if anyone described what she and Danny had as a psychic link, but, ultimately, that's what it was. Not a strong one, like you'd see in melodramatic teen romances (Ellie spent a lot of time in libraries), but a link nonetheless.

They couldn't do anything silly, like read each others' minds, but they did occasionally get impressions of what the other was feeling, or doing. Ellie was on the receiving end more often than not, in her opinion. Danny was way more emotional than she was. The poor kid was always stressed. He should take a vacation every now and again.

On the other hand, once he had called her on a phone whose number he definitely shouldn't have known to demand to know why he had just had a vivid dream about fighting a Yakuza gang. That was over half an hour after Ellie had tangled with said gang, but still.

Then, sometimes, being on the receiving end could be a benefit. Like, it had only taken her a week to pick up Spanish, because Danny was already fluent, and sometimes she'd have an instinctive reaction to something that she'd never experienced before, only to find that Danny had. It came in handy, especially during fights, although it wasn't as convenient as the actual memories she shared with him, and it was certainly more confusing.

In any case, Ellie often got flashes of fear, pain, anger, and confusion from Danny. These were usually followed up by a sense of victory, and that odd, bone-deep satisfaction, that satiation, that happiness, that came from fulfilling one's Obsessions. Ellie tried not to worry too much about it. Danny was strong. He had saved her. He saved everybody.

(Sometimes Ellie wanted to go back to Amity Park, to help him. That was one of her Obsessions, too, inherited from him, but she was afraid. Afraid that if she went back, she would become as tied down, as trapped as he was. If he had ever asked her to stay, to help, maybe she would have. But he asked different questions. Unselfish questions. Like, Are you happy? Are you safe? Do you have enough money? Do you want to stay? Do you want to meet our parents? Is there anything I can do for you? So she didn't.)

But what had happened a few days ago was anything but normal. The only thing that she had ever experienced that even came close to what she was feeling from Danny, was when she was destabilizing. When she was melting. When she was dying.

Needless to say, she booked it back to the States.

Once there, she stopped for a moment in a diner (even with natural portals doing much of the work, crossing the Atlantic was hard), only to discover (the diner had a TV tuned to a national station) that Danny's entire class had been kidnapped by a ghost, and that Amity Park was now crawling with GIW agents.

That meant that Ellie had a lead.

She had started going through a list of all the ghosts that had enough of a grudge against Danny to want to do something like this, and was strong enough, or tricky enough, to carry it out. The list was surprisingly short. Physical fights generally had a different connotation among ghosts than humans. It was more of a rivalry thing, than an enmity thing. The fights weren't quite 'all in good fun,' but few of the intelligent ghosts that regularly came to Amity Park actually wanted to hurt Danny.

Sure, Skulker talked about it all the time (and he had chased Ellie a few times before Danny had made it clear that Ellie was Off Limits) but whenever he had the chance to 'end the hunt,' so to speak, he didn't take it. Yes, Ember did try the mind-control thing nearly every time she thought she could get away with it, but she didn't do anything except make people go to her concerts. Okay, Johnny and Kitty caused chaos everywhere they went, but that wasn't entirely their fault. That list went on. Danny had even managed to broker tentative truces with some of them. After all, he had nothing against their Obsessions, just the methods they used to follow them.

But, the other list. It was short.

There was Aragon. The Dragon Prince of Maddingly blamed Danny, Sam, and Tucker for a number of things, including stealing his kingdom, turning his sister against him, and ruining his wedding. But Ellie would have expected to hear something on the news about a giant angry dragon tearing up the school.

There was Walker. Maybe. The Warden of the Wastes didn't like to leave his prison, and, last they spoke, Danny had been working on some kind of cease-fire with the rules-obsessed ghost. So maybe she should cross him off the list.

It could be Spectra. Ellie counted herself lucky that she had never met the woman. Danny's stories about her, when he could be convinced to talk about her at all, and her description in his ghost files were disturbing in the extreme. But she was more subtle than this. If she was going to go after Danny and his classmates, she would have used shapeshifting, or overshadowing, not a straight-up kidnapping.

Undergrowth was another possibility, in terms of power and motive, as was Vortex, and possibly Nocturne. But this didn't seem to fit their styles.

Ellie briefly considered Sobek, but he preferred a straight-up fight. Then the Mountain King, Baba Yaga, the Man With Golden Hands, Greenbeard, Long Wang... None of them felt quite right.

The news had said something about technology acting up right before and after the kidnapping. That might indicate Technus, but Technus was one of those ghosts who almost seemed to like Danny.

There was always Vlad... But he would never bring so much GIW scrutiny down on himself. He was smarter than that. More cautious than that. And he liked Danny too much to bring that kind of GIW scrutiny down on him.

It took Ellie until she found a natural portal to wonder if, maybe, Danny hadn't been kidnapped by a ghost at all, and that the story was a ruse on the GIW's part. She paused then. That made sense but... At the same time, it didn't. Why would they take an entire class of random humans, if that was the case? In Ellie's opinion, the GIW were evil, but that didn't mean that they had no morals at all. They hated ghosts, but surely they wouldn't go after Danny's class just to provide a cover story.

No. Danny was in the Ghost Zone somewhere, and Ellie was going to find him and help him get out of whatever mess he had gotten into.

She flitted through the portal just before it closed.

Then she realized that she had no idea where in the Ghost Zone Danny could be, and the Ghost Zone was a very large place, even if one was only considering the space that roughly corresponded to Earth. She sighed.

The only thing that she could really do, other than just fly around blindly, was ask around, try to see if anyone had heard anything.

It turned out that no one had seen Danny recently. However, a large number of people had been asking for him. Including Vlad Plasmius and the Gracious Ones. Whoever they were. Ellie was having trouble getting much of a description out of people except that there were either three or four of them, they had wings, and they were scary. That wasn't much of a description. Even Vlad's vultures fit it, more or less.

Then, after emerging from a rather noisy restaurant called Second Chance, she ran into the will-o-the-wisp. Ellie didn't know a lot about wisps. She tended to avoid them, for health reasons, but rarely encountered them in the first place. They lived in other ghosts' territories, and Ellie didn't have one, and wasn't interested in stepping on other peoples' toes. Generally speaking, they left her alone, too. They were shy little things, most of the time.

But this one trilled excitedly, urgently, at her, and tugged lightly at her sleeve. Ellie didn't know the wisps language, not really, but Danny did, so she got the general impression of what it was saying, which was mostly hurry hurry hurry, and, danger, disaster, with one or two cries of help thrown in.

Ellie couldn't ignore a cry for help any more than Danny could. Besides, knowing Danny, and the way that coincidence worked in the Ghost Zone (i.e., there were no coincidences), there was something like a seventy-five percent chance that he was involved.

Okay, so she was just making up the percentage. But still.

She followed the little ghost for some time, hoping that it wasn't leading her into an ambush. Wisps did have tendencies in that direction, after all. But it didn't. At least, it didn't lead her into an ambush meant for her.

The wisp had brought her to what was probably normally a very cozy little floating island. It had purple grass, a few furry trees, white tents, the remnants of explosions, a fair fair amount of blood, a large number of unconscious and possibly dead GIW agents, and a door.

Well.

A bit of cautious checking revealed that most of the agents weren't dead, and that a lot of them were tied up, one way or another. Ellie really didn't know how to feel about that. She'd never wished anyone dead, but the GIW were monsters. The things she'd seen them do... She shivered.

It looked like they had been mounting, or about to mount, an assault on the door. Bad idea. Doors like that lead to lairs, and while it wasn't impossible to defeat a ghost in their own lair, it was the next best thing. You'd need a weak ghost, with a poor connection, and possibly an externalized lair... Which didn't seem to describe whoever had done this at all. Ellie knew that if she had a lair, and these people were camped outside it, she wouldn't have come out until they left. Which this ghost had done, before beating the living daylights, and in some cases the living, out of the agents.

Ellie touched down lightly in front of the door, tilting her head as she examined it. It felt oddly welcoming, for something surrounded by so much carnage. She touched it, very lightly. It felt a lot like Danny. Was he behind the door? Or... Was this his door? Was it hers? Their ectosignatures were similar enough that it would be hard to tell-

"Excuse us!" called a voice, jolting Ellie out of her reverie. "Do you know what happened here?"

She jumped, whirling, green fire in her hands. Four women, one with four arms, the other three with wings, were hovering several meters above the island.

"Ohmigosh," said one of the winged women, the one with a single braid, her hands flying to her mouth. "So cute." This one began to sink towards the ground, but kept a respectful distance from the spooked (ha) Ellie.

"Did you do this?" asked the four-armed woman, sounding vaguely impressed.

"Uh," said Ellie, lowering her hands, deciding that the women weren't going to attack her. "No. I don't know. I just followed this guy here."

The women exchanged glances, and one of them, the one in the red dress, whistled at the wisps, created a ball of light, and made an inviting gesture. The wisp came away, and started singing at her.

"You're Danielle, right?" asked the four-armed woman. "I am Adrestia. These are my crew, Tess, in the red, Meg's the one having a conniption over how cute you are, Alex is the corpse poker."

"Hey, like only fifteen percent of these are corpses," protested Alex.

"How do you know my name?" asked Ellie.

"We have a description of your cousin, which you match, except that you're pretty obviously a girl," said Adrestia. "Do you know where we can find him, by the way?"

"Why are you looking for him?"

"We think that he might have been involved in a crime. Not as in, you know, he committed a crime, but that he might be a victim of a crime.

"Yeah," said Alex. "'Cause your cuz seems like a pretty chill dude, from what we've heard."

"And, like, a solid rep is tough to get here in the Realms," said Meg. "Gosh, your hair's, like, so pretty. What d'you do to it?"

"Uh, wash it?"

"Meg, you want to tone it down a bit? You're freaking her out." Adrestia examined the door behind Ellie. "Do you know whose door that is?"

"No," said Ellie.

"Hey, Addie?" called Tess. "We've gotta problem. Like an ultra big problem."

Chapter Text

Chapter 72: Too Close

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"So you're saying," said Maddie, her voice slightly raised, "that his Obsession is making him do this? That it's alright, because it's his Obsession?" Despite how fast they were going, there was little wind. "That anything would be fine, just because it's his Obsession?"

"No, Mom," said Jazz. "We've been over this. You're getting hung up on the Obsession thing. It doesn't replace a persons morality. It just adds an extra dimension. Actually, not even that. It's- If you wound up becoming a ghost, you'd probably be Obsessed with ghost hunting, like you already are. You wouldn't kill someone over ghost hunting, would you?"

"No," said Maddie.

"There are probably a lot of things that you wouldn't do. It's the same for ghosts. An Obsession isn't something that you'd do anything for, it's something that you want to keep existing for. Something you'd live for. I've read some papers, there are some good research organizations here, don't laugh, I'm serious, and they mostly agree on that. Some of them focus more on the regret angle- Anyway. It isn't something that's controlling him. His Obsession isn't even remotely sinister. It isn't something you should be worried about, especially not now. Please, let it drop. Careful! Watch out for the door!"

Maddie angled down sharply to avoid the floating object. Then she caught sight of Sam and Tucker diving into a swirling green whirlpool. "That's the shortcut?"

"Looks like it! Hold on tight!"

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Ellie stood by awkwardly as the four women spoke to one another in rapid-fire Ancient Greek. Then, three of them broke off, flying away at high speed.

"Okay," said Adrestia. "We've got to do this fast, kid."

"My name is Ellie."

"Right. You've heard of Libra?"

"Yeah?"

"Okay. So, you should go to Libra. That's probably the best thing you can do for your cousin, right now. Then-"

The wisp interrupted, singing urgently.

"What? This is his? Why didn't you say so in the first place? Sheesh." Adrestia strode up to the door, and rapped smartly on it.

The door swung open immediately, revealing someone who looked identical to Danny, but who definitely wasn't him. "Oh, good. Ellie," he looked relieved.

"Who are you?" she asked, taking a step back.

"I'm Mirage. I'm a shadow." He looked up, at Adrestia. "They've got a bomb of some kind. They're heavily armed. They're headed to the core. Danny's gone after them, along with five humans. He's injured pretty severely, but that was the only option we had. Ellie, you can't go."

"Why?"

"Because if you go, and Danny fades, you're the only one keeping this lair intact, and there are a few hundred people in here."

"What, seriously?" asked Adrestia. Then she shook her head. "Never mind. I have to go."

"Please," said Mirage. "Save him."

Adrestia made a face and no promises before withdrawing, and following the other three women.

"Okay," said Ellie. "I want an explanation."

"Right," said Mirage. "That will take a while."

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Danny came out of the portal, his skin tingling with the sensation of high energy ectoplasm. This wasn't good. His core was too damaged to deal with all the energy he was taking in. He could feel himself shedding energy as fast as he took it in, leaking through the cracks. He could feel it eroding him. But he needed it. He didn't have the strength to fight otherwise. He sped closer to the core, glowing green mist swirling off the surfaces of the speeder.

It was hard to see far under these conditions. Danny shut down the motor and let momentum carry the vehicle forward. He could hear better this way, without the growl of the motor. He could feel better this way, without the disruption in ambient spectral 'noise.' (Which really wasn't sound at all.)

He could hear the song of the Core like this, curling around his own core and brain, but not, quite, touching either of them. He could hear the portal behind him, so different from the music of his own portal.

(None of it was song. None of it was sound. He sometimes saw it. Sometimes it was ice on his skin, or shed heat, or a smell. His human brain did not always know how to interpret the signals it got from his core, even with his 'ghost brain' acting as a go-between.)

He drifted, or, more accurately, dropped, directing 'down' towards the Core. He knew that he couldn't get too close, that most ghosts that did dissolved, broken down, stripped of their ectoplasm until they were nothing more than their core, and were absorbed into the Core. Only a ghost with rock-solid sense of self, massive self-confidence, could dare the Core and survive.

Then he heard it. Engines. Many of them. One much larger, deeper, than the others. That was it. That was them. Briefly, Danny restarted the glider, reorienting it so that it felt towards the GIW group. Towards Inanna. Towards Danny's probable death. Then he shut them down again. The quieter he was, the less likely they were to notice his approach. He'd never show up on their ghost-detectors. There was too much ambient ectoenergy. His own would be entirely masked, impossible to differentiate from the background.

Danny bit his lip. He could see them. He didn't like what he was going to do. He couldn't say that he preferred a fair fight, exactly. When the safety and happiness of his friends were threatened, he'd use every trick available. However there were... Rules. Equivalencies. Levels. The force he spent was equal to the force he received. He was always careful not to go to far, when he was fighting ghosts weaker than himself. When he fought humans, like his parents, Valerie, and the GIW, he never struck them.

Except for what he had done a few hours before.

Except for what he was about to do.

The thing was, there was reciprocation, with the ghosts. Most of them, anyway. Not the jerks, like Undergrowth and Vortex, but most of them. These people, though, these humans... Really, it was difficult to even call them people. They were going to destroy everyone and everything. It didn't matter why. It didn't matter if it was out of some kind of fanatic hate, or loyalty, or if it was for a cause, for money, or anything else, really. The fact that they were here meant that nothing short of death could stop them. It meant that any ghost that they had encountered between here and wherever they had come in had been ended, reduced to nothing.

Danny couldn't afford to give them anything even approaching a fair fight.

He raised the rifle (stolen from the GIW and so lethal) to his shoulder, sighting along the barrel. Doing this in free fall would be unpleasant. He almost wished that he had a bigger weapon. He licked his lips, and lowered the gun. Too far. He couldn't trust his vision at this distance, nor could he trust his aim. Perhaps he could... Ah. There. Yes. The glider was equipped with a 'real-world' object detector. (The name made him roll his eyes. As if the Infinite Realms were somehow fictional.)

He flicked it on. There were guidance systems. This could be a distraction. He toggled on the motor, too, and jumped away, altering his course, falling towards the Core and around it, orbiting, simulating gravity with his mind. Then he stopped, anchoring himself. He was between them and the Core, now, with the glider coming up behind them.

He waited, waited, waited, until they were distracted by the glider's arrival, then he raised his rifle and fired. Once, twice, three times, and then the knew that he was here. They were shooting back now, and, gosh, some of those were big. He dropped out of position, dodging a massive blast by a hair.

He was doing this as a human. He didn't dare do it as Phantom. He didn't want to be shredded to nothing, and with the way he had been treating himself lately, how he had been injured, how his core had been shaken, he didn't want to risk it. Not yet.

Two of his shots had hit. Only one had been immediately fatal, but from the way the other was convulsing, it looked like the ectoplasm, ectoenergy, and whatever else was here, because there was definitely something else, were enough to give humans problems, and that piercing their protective suits would be sufficient. Good.

(Beyond the immediate issue, the need to save the world, Danny worried that the others hadn't put their stolen suits on properly. Would their small measure of liminality help them?)

Danny swung around, up and down, back and forth, trying to keep his path unpredictable. Most of his shots were going wide, and the GIW were still advancing. He needed to push them back. He needed to get rid of that bomb, he needed to get rid of that long, white-painted cylinder. He needed to reduce the number of deadly projectiles coming his way.

He needed to be closer.

He fell towards the GIW agents, shooting all the time, stabilizing himself with tiny bursts of flight and telekinesis, willing himself to stay properly aimed, deflecting shots with shield-fragments. He couldn't spare the focus to do more.

Then he was among the agents. The rifle quickly became ineffective in the close quarters. He couldn't get it around fast enough. Several of the agents withdrew, backing away so that they could take advantage of the rifles' long range. Danny didn't let them have a clear target. Friendly fire was his friend in this situation.

He made a small, razor-sharp knife of ghost ice. Constructs weren't working well, here. It was the Core. Its will was stronger than his. His was nothing, compared to it. A candle to sunlight. A candle that would be overwhelmed and fade away.

Ghost ice wasn't like normal ice. Danny could manipulate both. However, only ghost ice could be formed into an edge no wider than a single atom, and harder and more durable than steel.

There was almost no resistance as he sliced through their thick protective suits and skin. It was almost as if he were intangible.

With his other hand, he directed his shields, deflecting the shots he couldn't dodge. Every so often he switched to telekinesis, pushing the agents off balance, striking buttons on their gliders and sending them haphazardly in all directions.

He wasn't able to dodge or block every shot, every strike. They grazed him with an electrified net, once, and he fell, back to the Core, unable to resist its presence. A bullet went through his leg. His core was cracking. Whenever he got too far from the other agents, the more distant ones took shots at him. One of them had some kind of rocket launcher.

Danny was fighting tooth and nail, and there was as much exhilaration in it as there was desperation. It was adrenaline, yes, but also the fulfillment of his Obsession. He hated it. He would have preferred nearly any other ways to deal with his Obsession to this. He hated people being in danger, and now everybody was. He hated hurting people. It grated painfully against his morals. Yet here he was, killing people. Doing this terrible thing. Committing this sin.

What they were doing was worse. He had to keep reminding himself of that.

Still, he was being pushed back, loosing ground to the agents. Closer and closer to the Core. Almost too close.

A bullet tore through his arm, and he hissed, dropping. That hurt. That burned. Poison. For ghosts. Danny was not, entirely, a ghost. He was living, so he'd live.

"What are you?" demanded one of the agents, a tall man, with the Greek letter beta written on his shoulder.

Danny brought himself to a halt, and reversed direction. That was what this fight was missing. Witty banter. He snarled. Not his best work, no. "If you are Inanna," he said, "then I am Neti!"

He didn't see the missile until it was too late. It didn't quite hit him, but it blew him backwards, closer to the Core. He struggled to stabilize himself, to work out which direction would take him away from the Core, to do so much as see clearly, to hear above the tinnitus afflicting his ears. He could feel the ectoplasm around him thicken, thoughts and feelings not his own wrapping around him, lovingly. He was too clo-

Chapter Text

Chapter 73: We Swear

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It was Tucker who spotted them first, the three, then four, ghosts coming up behind them. This was good, because it gave them a chance to convince Maddie, who was once again armed, as trigger-happy as ever, and currently very high-strung on account of Danny's suicide mission, not to shoot them. That was very good, because as they got closer, the ghost detector on the glider began to scream.

"Hey!" called one of them, a woman with black hair and four arms. She was the fastest, having come from behind to join her companions. "Are you the ones with Phantom?"

"Yeah!" said Tucker. "Who're you?"

"We're with Libra! We're looking for the Guys in White. You have their trail?"

"Danny does! Probably. We have his. He thought they were going to the Core, this was his shortcut."

"Okay," said the woman. "Lead the way!"

"Got it!" said Tucker. He glanced at Maddie, who looked... weird, behind the faceplate of the protective suit. Like she had finally realized that everything Danny had told her was true. That ghost law was a thing, and that ghost law enforcement was standing, well, flying, right next to her.

These people would arrest her if they knew what she had done. Gosh, Danny would be freaking out so much if he was here right now. You wouldn't be able to see the freak-out. Danny had learned how to hide them, but it would be there.

As it was, though... If Tucker hadn't been worried that the government would cut his friend up, he would have probably... He didn't know. Done something. Told someone. He liked Mr and Mrs Fenton, but the situation with Danny bordered on neglect, even ignoring the whole 'hunting his alter-ego' thing.

Then shapes began to emerge from the ectoplasmic fog. A green-tinted island, almost invisible against the green background.

It was made of spears, swords, and other weapons. White-suited bodies were impaled on it, their machines shattered against the ground. A smaller, darker figure stood at the center of the island. Danny. But also... Not Danny.

There was something wrong. Something off. Once Tucker had been blind to this kind of thing, but he had since forced himself to learn. The world had forced him to learn. Danny had been impersonated too often, mind controlled too often, for Tucker to ignore.

Of course, the costume change, and the way that the ectoplasm swirled around Danny's frail, slender form was pretty much a dead giveaway (and there was the pun. Danny would be so proud.). Overall, Danny didn't go for capes, especially long, tattered, black ones. He also usually didn't have ice in his hair. Or fire and lightning licking up his arms. He didn't like either in general, really, although he could use both.

Oh. And there was the island. It was clearly a construct. Danny wasn't terrible at creating ectoplasmic constructs, but he simply wasn't this good at it.

He could tell that Sam had recognized it too, from the way she tensed. They had all been ready for a fight, but not this kind of fight.

"Danny?" called Maddie, setting her glider down and swinging off it. She wasn't attuned to the signs, clearly. Of course she wasn't. She hadn't even noticed that Danny was dead.

Tucker would give her points for not recoiling from the carnage, though. Even he was sort of freaked out. This wasn't like Danny at all. Which was another clue, come to think of it. Danny wasn't this flashy. Typically. He had his moments, just not when he was injured so badly. Danny was more... efficient, was how Tucker would describe it. Economical. Yeah. He wouldn't have wasted time or energy on tearing a guy literally in half. Nor would he have wasted it by staying in ghost form after the fight was won.

Sam landed, too. "We aren't here to fight you," she said, trying to stave off a disaster. "We just came to help Danny fight the Guys in White."

Danny turned, and Tucker's suspicions were confirmed.

Danny's eyes were weeping. Greenish, faintly glowing tears streaked his cheeks, putting Tucker in mind of Fractal's chalky blue tears. His eyes themselves were covered by a luminous green film. Danny's eyes, his pupils, iris, and sclera, were distinct and visible behind it, but only just. It put Tucker in mind of the time everyone had been mind controlled by Undergrowth. But the fire and lighting in his hands faded away, leaving only his gloves.

One of the ghost women made a noise of surprise. They knew what was going on here, Tucker realized.

"Who are you?" demanded Maddie. She had her hands on the rifle she had been given, but she did not raise it. Good. She was beginning to understand the damage that she could do Danny.

Danny's lips curled into a smile, and the person controlling him began to speak, their voice unlike any other Tucker had ever heard. It echoed, like any ghost's, including Danny's, tended to do, but it was also layered. It sounded like a dozen or more people all speaking in perfect unison.

"My children, you, I think," they said, nodding to the ghost women, "know me. But to humor your question and borrow a turn of phrase..." They lazily, yet delicately, stepped over a corpse. "If these are Inanna," Danny's hands lifted in a dismissive, yet encompassing gesture, "and this precious little one," they raised Danny's hands, and pressed them to his heart, "is my Neti, then I am Ereshkigal."

"You're the Queen of the Underworld?" asked Jazz, sounding confused.

"Hm. I suppose that's one interpretation." With another gesture, they smoothed the island, the weapons, but not the corpses, running together, vanishing, rendering it less immediately dangerous to walk on.

"No. You aren't the Queen," said Sam. "You're the Core, aren't you?"

Danny's head tipped to one side, the gesture almost familiar. "Yes. It isn't so strange, is it, that so many of your predecessors called the underworld and its ruler by the same name? It is only natural. Still. Clever little one, aren't you? I see why he loves you so." Then Danny's costume rippled, changing even more. The ice in his hair was a crown, now, one made of silver and icy flowers. His clothing was the odd, part-medieval European, part-Asian, part-Egyptian, part-Celtic mix that served as the Ghost Zone's equivalent of international high fashion. A sword hung at his hip. The jewelry, embroidery, and other decoration was deceptively restrained. The smile broadened, sharpened (if Tucker couldn't see where Echo came from before, he could certainly see the resemblance now), and they spoke again, as they stepped closer. "Do you like what you see?" they asked, almost teasingly. "This is only what may yet be, not what will be. My eldest children debate this part," they touched the crown, "even now. You, my little ones," they said, now looking at the ghost women once more, "if you have the ears of your elders, tell them this, that this," a hand was pressed once more to Danny's chest, and his eyes burnt bright, "is the one that I want, and no other. Tell them that if they deny me this, then I shall sow such chaos, wreak such destruction, that the years of Pariah's rule shall seem like nothing."

The ghosts bobbed nervously. "As you have commanded it," said the four-armed woman, "it shall be done."

"Good," they said, returning to their former, languid stance. "Now, for what you may ask. Fear not. These," and again, they gestured at the corpses, "shall be punished accordingly. I shall allow you to have the ones that remain in the lair this one shares with his cousin, and elsewhere. Our people must have a clear villain in the face of this near disaster. Their sense of justice must be satisfied, lest it spill out onto the less deserving."

"Um," said Jeremy, still clinging to his glider, and looking like he already regretted speaking. "I'm sorry, sir, um, ma'am, I'm not quite following here. What, what do you mean 'shall?' Aren't they already dead?"

They scoffed. "Didn't you know? The armies of Hell are comprised of sinners. What greater sin could there be, than this? Than what they have done, to even make this attempt? Their souls shall be bound to their bones, even as their flesh rots, and they shall be buried beneath the black castle until they have repaid their debts, and redeemed themselves. If they can." The smile they wore was cruel. "At the least, it shall be a very long time, for such an affront." They were quite close to the five humans now.

"Hey," said Tucker, suddenly. "Where's the bomb?"

"Where it can do no ill." They closed Danny's eyes, and pulled a sigh. "This one, he is so suited for this. A cup of ice cannot hold water for long, and humans, you are not cups at all, but this one..." another sigh. "But he has cracks. He must rest soon." One by one, they fixed those present with a piercing gaze. "You will bring him to Imhotep. He is closest. You, my vengeful ones, you know the way?"

"Yes," said one of them, "we do."

"Good. But first, a gift. Not for you, but him. To you three who are his best beloved, I give my blessing, my permission, and one more thing."

They lifted off the ground, startling Tucker, who had somehow forgotten that yeah, duh, ghosts can fly. They moved swiftly, planting a kiss on first Sam's forehead, then Tucker's, and then Jazz's. Danny's lips were cold. The spot where they had kissed him tingled, and he rubbed it, confused.

"Why..?" asked Sam, recovering a little faster than Tucker.

"You will find out soon enough." They drifted back to the ground. "Catch him," they said, looking up at Jazz.

The film cleared from Danny's eyes, and the additions to his costume vanished, dissolving into ectoplasmic mist and dissipating, leaving him in his usual suit, blood- and ectoplasm-stains clearly visible. Now it was Danny staring up at Jazz, and he looked terrible. Beaten, bruised, and bleeding. The ectoplasm in his eyes receded, revealing their natural blue. Then his aura flickered, and went out. His suit began to unravel, and his hair bled black. Soon, he was human again. His eyes rolled back, and he crumpled, Jazz barely catching him. He slipped through her fingers intangibly, at first, but she caught his shirt, and dropped down with him, making sure that he didn't hit his head. Maddie was down with them in the next moment.

Then Tucker and Sam slid over. Danny's eyelids were fluttering, and he moaned, a ghostly, keening noise. This reminded Tucker way to much of the Accident. Sam was picking up on it, too, or he'd eat his hat.

"What did it mean, that it wanted Danny?" asked Maddie, her voice strained.

"I don't know," said Jazz. "Come on, we've got to get him to a doctor."

"We'll take him," said the four-armed woman. "We'll be faster, and I don't think that you'll be able to carry him on those... things." With one of her arms, she gestured to the gliders.

(Tucker noted peripherally that the 'corpses' were sinking into the ground.)

"We can make an oath, if you'd like," said one of the winged women. "And, like, we're with Libra, so, you know. Rule of law, and all that." She frowned. "I guess that, uh, Addy's the only one actually in Libra, though? We're just, like, what's the word? Independent contractors. Yeah. But we're cool."

"Jeez, Meg. That was, like painful. But, yeah, we'll swear on anything."

"River Styx good?" said the third winged woman. "I mean, it's not as good as doing it with the actual water, but, whatever."

"Yeah," said Sam, "that'd be a start."

Chapter Text

Chapter 74: Sensible

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Danny wasn't entirely unaware of what was going on around him.

He could tell that he was in a place with a lot of green light. He could hear the rhythm of urgent speech above the rushing blood in his ears. His sense of touch was overwhelmed with pain, but there were places of greater and lesser sensation. His mouth tasted of blood and ectoplasm. He couldn't breathe through his nose.

But one of the perks of not being entirely human was access to non-human senses. So he knew, despite his traditional five senses being more-or-less useless, that Jazz, Sam, and Tucker were nearby, as well as maybe one or two other humans, and a few unfamiliar, but fairly powerful, ghosts.

He didn't know if this was a good thing or a bad thing. The last thing that he could recall was getting blasted by one of the agents' weapons, tumbling towards the Core, and then... He didn't know. He couldn't remember. He had the vague, uncertain, memory of something... filling him? Like he was an empty and willing cup, or a puppet that needed a hand inside it.

(If he had been awake, he would have shuddered. He would have cringed.)

Based on that, and the presence of the ghosts, there were two possibilities. One, the GIW agents had beaten him, but then his friends and/or the ghosts had shown up, and beaten the GIW. He liked that possibility. That's the one that he wanted. But then, possibility two was that GIW agents had beaten him, then moved on, and Jazz, Sam, Tucker and the ghosts had just shown up, and they were all going to die very soon. He didn't like that possibility, but it was more likely than not.

Well, there were worse ways to go than among friends.

Although, now that he thought about it, it was possible that Jazz, Sam, and Tucker could catch up to the agents, or at least disable the bomb. The agents didn't know that destroying the Ghost Zone would destroy the material plane. They would have an escape plan, a delay on the bomb, time to get away, and pick up the other agents. Something. Anything. Danny tried to communicate this to his friends, but he couldn't move. He would just have to hope that they would reach the same conclusions. They were smart. They were geniuses, and if he could think of it, so could they. Hopefully. Gosh, he wished that they had had more time to think, to plan, before rushing off after the agents, but he hadn't dared to risk it.

But then... They were still here, with him. They weren't trying to save him, at their own expense, were they? At the expense of the worlds? He'd be fine. Well, probably not, but he definitely wouldn't be fine if the world ended! No, they wouldn't do that. So perhaps the more hopeful option one was the correct one. That was good. Good.

So when one of the ghosts picked him up taking him away from his friends, his family, he dredged up the energy to protest. It was a small, pathetic protest, and it didn't have any effect, but it was the principle of the thing.

(He wanted his friends. He needed them.)

Then he felt motion, movement, acceleration. The ghost was taking him somewhere. They were taking him away from the Core. He didn't know how to feel about that. Most of the time, when a ghost was carrying him somewhere, it was a bad thing, but Danny couldn't sense any hostility from this one.

Still, he was hurt. Everywhere. Hadn't been able to take an inventory of injuries, due to being... Well, he couldn't exactly call himself unconscious. He was thinking. Immobile, maybe. (He needed to learn more medical terms, considering how often he needed to use them.) Unresponsive! There it was. He knew he could find the right word.

It wasn't like he had anything better to do right now, though, so he might as well start his injury inventory, do as well as he could.

At the very least, he had a headache. Probably a concussion. His arm felt like it was broken. His nose was clogged, probably with blood, so it was probably broken, too. Breathing hurt, so add ribs to the list of things that were broken, and also a sore throat, from all the yelling (Wailing) he had done earlier. His leg felt hot, and so did his shoulder, so either they had been burned, or shot. He rarely got shot with actual bullets, so he wasn't sure how that was supposed to feel. Bad, probably, but 'bad' described how he felt in general, and he doubted that he had been shot everywhere, seeing as he was still (half) alive. Blood loss was a thing he was suffering from, but that was less of an issue in the Ghost Zone, especially where the ectoplasm was so thick.

(He, Sam, and Tucker had discussed this exactly once, before deciding that 'So, we're floating in ghost blood right now?' was not a question they wanted to examine too closely. It wasn't entirely true, anyway.)

All of that was without getting into the absolute mess that was his core.

If Danny had been properly awake, he would have been making every effort to get to the Far Frozen. However, Danny was not properly awake, and he was becoming less and less awake as time went on.

(He wondered if he was dying. Fading. He hoped not. He at least wanted to live long enough to see if the worlds had been saved.)

His ghostly senses were beginning to fail. He didn't have a good grasp on them all the time, and he often had trouble interpreting the information they gave him, but he had come to rely on them just as much as his human senses. If he lost both sets...

(If he died like this...)

(At least it wasn't quite as painful, anymore. Not as much as the first time.)

The thought scared him, and he struggled to stay awake. But it was futile.

.

.

.

Adrestia felt it when the child in her arms let go of the final threads of consciousness. Poor thing. Adrestia shuddered to imagine what he had been through. At least now he could get the help he deserved.

Meg and Alex flew to either side of her, struggling to keep up. Tess had been left with the humans. Partially to make sure that Phantom's three fraidmates could find the way to Duat Hospital, partially to keep an eye on Madeline Fenton. Considering Hades' threat, making sure the child in her arms didn't fade was more important. Adrestia was more than old enough to remember the rule of Pariah Dark.

But there was the other thing...

"Meg," she said, "Alex, go find the High Council. Tell them what happened."

"But, Addy," started Meg, "the High Council is, like, sequestered! You know that!"

"Yeah, and I also know that a bunch of fanatic humans tried to blow up everything and Hades just said that if he doesn't get this kid, he's going to cause a freaking cataclysm, so go un-sequester them."

"Dude, we're not gonna leave you-" tried Alex.

"You are, Alex."

"Um, no," said Meg. "Alex isn't. I'll go, but you need backup, okay? You've, like, literally got your hands full, all four of them. I am gonna blame you, though, if they fry me, got that? Just like, FYI. Later!" she called, as she pealed away from the other two.

"So'm I," said Alex. "If she gets, like, ended, I mean. I'd probably have to fry you, you know?"

"I get it, Alex. Just, I'm trying to head off a disaster here, if that's really what they're arguing about."

"Just, she's my sister, you know?"

"I know."

"We're cool then?"

"Yeah."

.

.

.

Maybe she was a suspicious person, maybe she was paranoid, but Sam suspected that 'Tess' had stayed for reasons other than the stated one. Maybe it was the was she kept glancing at Maddie. Maybe it was the weapons on her belt. Maybe it was a whole host of other things.

Most likely though, it was because 'Tess' was friends with Adrestia, (as in, Adrestia the Inescapable, inspiration of one of the Greek goddesses of vengeance,) and her sisters were named 'Meg' and 'Alex.' Those names were too similar to those of another trio of vengeance goddesses to be a coincidence. Sam was thinking of Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. The Kindly Ones. The Gracious Ones. The Eumenides. Or, if one was brave and unwise, the Furies.

So, it was, in Sam's opinion, likely that Tess was sticking around to keep an eye on Maddie, so that she could arrest her, and haul her in front of the courts. Danny wouldn't be happy. Hopefully. Hopefully, he would be alive to be unhappy.

She wished that the glider could go faster. Of course, if they could go faster, the GIW agents would have been faster, and they would all be dead. So. Yeah. Best not say that one out loud. Not that Sam thought that Desiree would try to destroy the Ghost Zone, but the wishing ghost didn't always have complete control over her power.

She focused on flying the stupid glider. She didn't want to think about what could have happened. She didn't want to think about what had happened.

This Imhotep had better be able to help Danny. He'd better be at least as good as Frostbite. Otherwise... Sam didn't want to think about otherwise. She didn't want to think about all the bullet holes in her friend. Or the bloody gashes he had everywhere. Or the way he was coughing up blood. Or how blood had began to pour from his nose and ears only seconds after the Core had released him.

She wasn't sure that she had ever seen Danny quite that badly beaten.

Once they were farther from the Core, they started to see ghost animals and other ghosts. None of them attacked, however. In fact, many of them fled as the gliders passed by. Sam didn't want to examine the why of that too closely, either. She had to wonder, though, how many ghosts had been ended for the GIW to get as close to the core as they did.

(She wondered if Danny would join that number.)

.

.

.

It was a relief, when Tucker announced that the tracker had come to a halt, and a greater one when the hospital came into view. With a name like Imhotep, Jazz had expected a pyramid. She wasn't entirely disappointed in that regard. The hospital looked normal overall, like a high-end modern hospital, but its tallest building was topped by a step pyramid, and its signs were printed in Hieroglyphs and Greek. Oh, and there were outside doors on all floors, instead of just the ground floor, but that was normal for ghost-constructed buildings.

They abandoned the gliders in a parking lot that was largely occupied by chariots. They didn't know how to turn them off, so they didn't bother wasting time trying to figure out how. It was hot here. Hotter than Jazz was used to in the Ghost Zone. Jazz hoped that Danny, with his affinity for cooler, cold, and even freezing temperatures, wasn't too bothered by it, although she supposed that the Core wouldn't have suggested coming here if they thought it would harm him.

Tess was the only one who could read the signs, so she led the way. Jazz, Sam, and Tucker had all learned a little Greek, but only enough to be polite to the denizens of Pandora's realm, not enough to decipher medical terms, or even to get directions without a whole lot of hand-waving. Danny was the one who was good with languages. Tucker had his PDA, with its translation tool, but Jazz would bet that this wasn't typical, human Greek, or Ancient Greek, this was Ghost Zone, several thousand years' diverged, Egyptian-influenced Greek. Tucker's PDA would be of limited utility. It was also, judging from some of his muttering, about to run out of battery.

(Most of his muttering was about how he hated hospitals, and how Ghost Zone hospitals should be more creepy than Earth hospitals, how Spectra had better not show up, and how this was really a tech expo.)

She led them into the main building, stepping into an atrium. It wasn't exactly bustling, but there were a fair number of ghosts going to and fro, and there was a receptionist situated at a desk in the center. Its decor was Egyptian-styled, with Hieroglyphs and carved into the walls, bright, stylized paintings, and gold fittings.

"Stay here," said Tess. "I'm gonna find out where they've gone." She walked up to the receptionist's counter, and began to converse with the blue-skinned ghost woman there.

"Tucker," said Maddie, "where's Danny?"

"I think that that's what she's trying to find out," said Tucker, not looking up from his PDA. His skin was a bit pale. He could deal with being shot by joking, but not a hospital... Go figure...

"But you have a tracker on him. We don't need to wait."

"Mom, really? Are we really going to do this? If you took a moment to think about it, you'd realize why that was a bad idea. I mean, I mean that, sure, we can go through walls here, but then we might run into a surgery, or a sick ghost, or gosh, who knows what. Humans don't react well to that kind of surprise, what makes you think that ghosts will? And if we don't go through walls, we have to go find our way through the normal way, which would be harder that you'd think. A lot of these places, they don't have what you would consider normal floor plans."

The receptionist nodded to Tess, and picked up an old-fashioned phone from its cradle on her desk. She began speaking into it.

"Look, Tess will come back, and tell us where he is and, more importantly, how he is. Because we might not be able to see him, he might be in surgery, or something, did you see all those-"

"Jazz," interrupted Sam. "Breathe. Danny will be fine. He's always fine," she muttered, sounding like she didn't really believe it.

Jazz opened her mouth, to say what, she didn't really know, but then she saw the tall, muscular, ghosts in 'Security' uniforms approaching. "Guys," she said instead, "do you see..?"

"Yeah," said Sam, turning defensively.

"Don't fight," warned Tucker. "Hospitals in the Zone usually operate under truces. If we start a fight, everyone here will be after us. I hate hospitals..."

Then Tess walked back over, slipping in between the security guards. "I'm kinda making an assumption here, but you're Maddie Fenton, right?"

"Yeah, that's her," said Jeremy. At Maddie's death stare, he raised his hands defensively. "Hey, I don't know what's going on here, and I don't really know you guys. First Mirror shows up, and then we're evacuating, then these lunatics show up, and then the world is ending, and now we're here, so I'm just..." He waved his hands helplessly.

"I'm sorry, dude," said Tess. "Sounds like you've had a rough time. Anyway, Maddie Fenton, I'm putting you into custody. Or, asking the hospital to put you in custody. Whatever. Uh, you don't really have any rights, exactly. Libra'll give you an advocate, if you can't attract one yourself. Eventually. I'm not gonna force you to say anything. Not my job. Ugh. This is hard. Look, you guys, just take her, will you? And just her, okay?"

"Look, Mom, don't fight them," said Jazz. "We'll come back for you."

Chapter Text

Chapter 75: Not Dead to the World

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Tess brought them, sans Maddie, to a small waiting room. Adrestia and Alex were waiting there, the later flipping through a magazine.

"Hey," said Tess. "I got hospital security to put Maddie Fenton in custody. You're welcome."

"Thanks, Tess."

"Yeah, whatever. Where's Meg?"

"Sent her to the High Council meeting. You know, Alex, you can go try to catch up with her, seeing as you were so up in arms before."

"Nah. I'm kinda abrasive, if you haven't noticed."

"Trust me, I've noticed."

"Yeah, Meg is more calm. Like, you know, soothing."

"Okay, that's great," said Sam. "Really, but I want to know how Danny's doing."

Alex and Adrestia shared a glance. "We don't really know. Imhotep took one look at him, and carried him off to an operating room."

"Actually," said a smooth, deep voice, "I go by Dr Hope, now, Adrestia, if you don't mind. I take it that you four are his fraidmates?"

Jeremy shook his head. "I have no idea what that means."

"'Fraid' was originally a word for a group of ghosts," explained Sam, quickly, "but it refers to a more specific relationship. It's kind of a family by choice thing. But, yeah, the three of us are his fraidmates. Jazz is actually his biological sister, too."

"It's true," said Adrestia, leaning back in her chair, and putting one of her hands over her eyes. "Vetted by Hades themselves."

The tall, bald, teal-skinned ghost smiled gently at Jazz. "It's always a pleasure to meet one of the steadfast," he said. "If you three would like to come with me to a private room, we can discuss his condition. I'm afraid that the rest of you will have to stay here. Hospital regulations."

"No problem," said Adrestia. "We want to pick this guys brain, anyway."

"Hey," said Alex, frowning, "didn't you write the regulations? I mean, bein' in charge and all?"

The doctor gave her a blinding smile. "Which is why it would be so terrible for me to break them. This way, please."

Jazz, Sam, and Tucker then followed Dr Hope to yet another room, this one smaller, but with more comfortable looking chairs, more muted decor, and no magazines. A large window looked out over a courtyard with bright red trees and a blue pond. There was some kind of giant water snake in the pond. Jazz could see its coils. Typical Ghost Zone nonsense.

"Alright," said Dr Hope, settling into one of the chairs, and motioning for the others to do the same. "We have managed to stabilize Daniel's human half, however, we have yet to fully treat his wounds, and we simply do not have the ability to repair his core. Do you know of any adult ghosts in his fraid that we can contact?"

"Well," said Jazz, "there's Clockwork."

"Pandora," said Tucker.

"Frostbite," said Sam.

"Ah," said Dr Hope. "I won't ask how two of the seven Ancients is on your list. Unfortunately, we cannot contact them. They are in seclusion, in the High Council. Chief Frostbite on the other hand... I will have to send someone to him as soon as possible. Does Daniel have any allergies that you know of, or unusual reactions to substances? Or are there specific substances that he reacts well to? Substances that he has taken in the past?"

"I've got a list that I can give you," said Tucker, lifting his PDA slightly. "I, um, need a power socket, or something, though. This is about to run out of juice."

"There is one behind your chair," said Dr Hope, handing Tucker a pad of paper. "Would any of you three consent to donating blood? We have been supplying him with ectoplasm and saline solution, but that will only last for so long."

"Well, yeah," said Sam. "Sure. We're all type O, right?"

"Uh, yeah, I think so. I'm O-positive, though."

"I'm O-positive, too. Danny's O-negative," said Jazz.

"I'm O-negative," said Sam.

"Alright, we'll get a nurse in here to draw blood. In the meantime, Jazz, correct?"

"Yes?"

"I want to ask you to accompany me back to the operating room. We are still working on removing all the foreign objects in his system, and we have been considering some rather... aggressive techniques to solve some other issues. His brain is suffering from mild swelling, and we believe that he is also suffering from internal bleeding. The issue is that, not knowing what his unique physiology will accept, we have not been able to sedate him properly. We hope that your presence will help to calm him, until we have found something that we can use."

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When the doctors set up the ectoplasm IV, inserting the needle in Danny's arm, Danny began to regain a small sliver of consciousness. The ectoplasm, while not highly energized, carried enough energy to do that. It wasn't even as strong as it had been when the ghost had taken him from his friends. His senses were scrambled, dim. His memory of events leading up to this was all but nonexistent, blurred images of home, of school, of his lair.

He could feel pain. (Always, always, pain. Pain everywhere.). He could tell that he was lying on something hard and flat. He could tell that his clothes had been removed. He felt exposed, vulnerable. He could feel people touching him. People he didn't know. Touching him everywhere.

There was no way that he could move. He could hardly even conceive of movement. Instead, he curled, terrified, in the darkest, deepest corners of his mind, trying to hide, trying to protect himself. Almost, he tried to bury himself, but, despite his fear, he couldn't bring himself to cut even this tenuous connection to reality, to willingly blind himself, to render himself ignorant.

Unknown to Danny, the doctors operating on him paused. They were ghosts, after all. They could feel fear, and a variety of other emotions. But, in this case, fear.

This surprised them. They rarely had the opportunity to treat a liminal spirit, but even in their limited experience, they knew that they should not be able to feel his emotions this strongly. For a full ghost, they definitely wouldn't be able to feel them. Normally, a ghost re-absorbed almost all of their excess emotional energy before it even left their body. Yes, a liminal spirit was a bit different, but these waves of fear couldn't be accounted for with just that.

They could not stop entirely, however, despite how frightened the child was. They had to stem the bleeding first. They had no way to calm him.

They checked his pulse. It was fast. Too fast. Another problem. They checked his temperature. They hadn't the slightest idea what it was supposed to be. Too many questions, not enough answers, and the child was bleeding out on their table.

The operating room phone, a new addition, lit up. It didn't ring, that could startle the doctors, instead, it was attached to a bright red light. The doctors ignored it, a nurse answered it.

"Some of his fraidmates have arrived," he said. "Humans. They're sending them over."

Dr Hope nodded, and stepped away, pulling off his gloves. "I will talk to them. Hopefully, they can tell us something about his history."

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A nurse helped Jazz get into a set of pale green medical scrubs, and gave her a mask, and a cap to cover her hair. Their color was just a little more vibrant than the scrubs used in the human world, a little closer to ectoplasm green.

The nurse then led Jazz into the operating room.

Her breath caught in her throat. Danny looked terrible, worse than she had ever seen him, and he had been pretty bad the last few days. He was bleeding, his blood glittering, inhuman, swirling with ectoplasm. His scars were livid, pulsing, weeping clear, greenish fluid where they were cut shallowly, and thicker ectoplasm where they were cut deeply. His skin was pale, his body patchworked with ugly bruises, bullet holes, gashes, burns, and tiny splinters of metal. There wasn't a clear square inch of skin on his arms and hands, and little more than that on his torso. His face was only a little clearer, earlier, most of the cuts had been partially hidden by the tears his eyes had shed. Or maybe Jazz just hadn't had the time to register them. The ghost women had spirited him away almost immediately after he had collapsed.

"Here," said Dr Hope, motioning her over with one hand. "You can stand here. Hold his hand."

"He'll know I'm here?" she asked, her voice cracking, her gloved fingers wrapping around his bruised ones.

"Almost certainly," confirmed Dr Hope. "Please do not move, we are still trying to close these wounds."

"Dr Hope," said one of the other doctors. "We've brought the lapis forceps and the," the ghost's speech devolved into something complex and foreign-sounding.

"Excellent. These are to remove the bullets," said Dr Hope. "Our initial examination revealed that they are constructed of highly toxic materials. We wanted to remove them immediately, however, we had to consider our own safety." He picked up the first tool, which looked like a long pair of tongs with small, thin, square, blue stone plaques stuck to the ends instead of normal grippers. "You should talk to him," he said.

"I'm here, Danny," said Jazz. "It's going to be okay, we're going to help you." Then, realizing what would most care about. "You did it, Danny. You stopped them. We're all safe, now." She continued to ramble on, giving Danny what she hoped were gentle reassurances.

Dr Hope's hand hovered over Danny's chest. "There we go," he said, softly. "That's it, that's good, keep on like that." He lowered a visor over his eyes, adjusted the lamp over the operating table, and leaned over Danny.

He carefully inserted the forceps into one of the bullet holes in Danny's shoulder. There was an uncomfortable squelching sound, and Jazz cringed, her hands tightening around Danny's. A moment later, Dr Hope pulled a green-gray bullet from the wound, and dropped it in the equally blue receptacle that the other doctor had brought. That doctor began to pack the wound, and tape a bandage into place.

"There is one," said Dr Hope. "Eight more to go."

"Eight? He was shot eight times?"

"Thirteen," said the doctor. "The other five passed through. We marked the ones with bullets still inside with pink. He's doing awfully well. Don't worry. Don't worry." He went after another bullet. "It looks like the amount of toxic substance in these is very small. He is doing very well. You are both doing very well. Sana, how is that gash on his leg doing?"

"I almost have it stitched up," said the third doctor.

"Good," said Dr Hope.

Chapter Text

Chapter 76: Meanwhile, Back on the Farm

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Ellie, after some debate, both internal and external, decided to haul the surviving GIW agents into the lair. Mirage had reasoned that they would be less likely to cause trouble that way, where the shadows could keep an eye on them. Ellie tended to agree, but this felt gross somehow. Ellie was already feeling rather attached to the lair, and she had hardly even stepped into it.

She wasn't sure how she felt about that. She had never liked being tied down, and this was definitely an anchor. At the same time, it made her feel close to Danny, and she liked that. In a lot of ways, he was her only real family. Sam and Tucker were friends. Jazz was great, Ellie loved Jazz, but Ellie still didn't know her all that well. Not really. Not as Ellie. She knew her through memories inherited from Danny. Although Danny had introduced her to Clockwork, and Ellie really liked him, really wanted to get to know him better, she still wasn't completely comfortable with the older ghost. Not like Danny was.

(She had talked about that with Jazz. Jazz had theorized that her bad experience with Vlad had made her distrustful of all adults.)

The shadow, Mirage, dragged the agents away, one by one. Well, dragged was probably the wrong word. The shadow was swinging the unconscious agents over his shoulders, and then jogging away, up the stairs.

After Ellie had dumped the last one over the threshold, she finally stepped over herself.

"You aren't going to be seeing us at our best," said Mirage, apologetically.

"Is this Danny's house?" asked Ellie, curiously. "I mean, is it modeled on Danny's house, because this pretty clearly isn't Amity Park."

"It's modeled on Amity Park, actually. This part is, anyway."

"This part?"

Mirage smiled at her, as they walked through the kitchen. "This place is pretty big. I think you'll like it."

"I hope so."

They walked out the door, which was oddly, but, Ellie felt, appropriately, not a door at all, but only a doorway, only an opening. There was a large, woody, thorny hedge to the left of the doorway. Ellie saw the outlines of bodies in the hedge. That looked like where the shadow had tossed the agents. This was confirmed a moment later, when Mirage threw the last agent onto the hedge. It almost seemed to eat the agent.

Ellie was a lot of things right now, but not surprised.

The plants all over the roads were interesting. There were a lot of different flowers, lacy, fluffy flowers. Looking closely, many of the denser bunches were situated to cover bloodstains. The sky was very pretty, very reminiscent of the aurora she sometimes saw when traveling in the arctic circle. It was, however, faded, gray, in places. They darkened as she watched.

"We're still trying to fix that," said Mirage. "Those monsters... We stopped the worst of what they would have done here, but they still did quite a bit of damage." Then he brightened. "I should tell you, that we actually have quite a few people living here, as semi-permanent residents. Danny was... Sort of upset that we didn't tell him right away. Usually they live here, but we evacuated them to deeper in, because of the Guys in White."

"Okay? Is that why Danny was here?"

"No. That story is, um. Harder."

"Oh," said Ellie, rubbing the back of her neck. "I wish I could be with him."

(She could tell that Danny was scared, that he was hurt.)

"He'd be happier with you here," assured Mirage.

"If you say so," said Ellie. "I'll take your word for it. But I want that story."

"Well, I guess it started with the assembly..."

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The inhabitants of Harmony and the visitors from Amity didn't quite know what to make of one another. Both groups were used to ghosts, both were liminal, both lived in similar, identical, in some ways, environments.

However, they groups were very different. The group from Harmony was much larger, of course, and consisted of many age groups, instead of almost entirely children. The people of Harmony also considered ghosts to be part of their group, not outsiders, not nuisances, not menaces. The people from Amity, especially Jack, had some trouble with that. The people of Harmony tended to get along well. Danny's classmates typically did not. The people of Harmony, while in a relatively strange place, were inured to such places. They had traveled through the Ghost Zone, or, in their parlance, the Outside to get there. Those from Amity were used to Amity, which, while strange, was only one place, and was fairly normal most of the time. For certain values of normal. In any case, they had spent their lives in the 'real' world, not counting a brief stint in the Ghost Zone when Pariah Dark had invaded.

Now, the people of Harmony were used to welcoming new groups of people. Every one of them had been 'new people' at one time or another, stumbling through the mystery that was the Ghost Zone, and the lair. All of them had needed help, or wanted help, and they had been given it. But they couldn't deny that these particular newcomers were especially difficult.

The students, Jack, and Mr Lancer had awkwardly been placed with the other children and their parents, and Anthony Trent had awkwardly made his way back to them, to speak with Jack and Mr Lancer. Well, at this point, mostly Mr Lancer. Jack was thoroughly distracted. Distracted by the surroundings, distracted by the ghosts, distracted by the people.

"I have to admit, I'm a little confused," said Anthony. "How did you get in here in the first place without going through Harmony?" Anthony had asked this question already, and had gotten a rather evasive answer. "I would understand if you said that you don't know, but that doesn't seem to be what you are saying."

"Well, I don't entirely understand the logic behind it, but..." Mr Lancer trailed off, glancing at his students and Jack. "Some parts aren't exactly nice. Or public knowledge"

"We could go elsewhere to discuss it," said Anthony.

"I can't leave my students."

"I can understand that, but my people want answers."

"So do we," countered Mr Lancer.

"I can explain," said Mirror. Mr Lancer jumped. The way the shadows could appear so silently, without any warning, unnerved him, even though he'd had a few days to get used to it. Anthony, on the other hand, seemed unaffected. Perhaps he was just inured to the way ghosts moved, having lived among them for... Actually, Mr Lancer wasn't sure how long these people had been here, and he'd heard some of the students speculating that they weren't people at all, but more shadows.

Mr Lancer didn't believe it, but it was an interesting theory. Something that he might see in a discussion of a literary work. Maybe he should give them all extra credit for this ordeal.

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"So," said Byron, having selected the most approachable-looking of the newcomers to interrogate. "You're from Amity Park, right? That's what you guys said before?"

"Yeah," said Mikey, sticking close to Ricky.

"That's in America? Or Canada?" asked Sonia.

"Which state?" asked Charlotte, who had managed to rejoin the older children. "America is the one with states, right?" she whispered to Alice.

"Um, yeah, America," said Mikey. "Wh-What- Uh. Where are you from? Originally?"

"And how did you get here, anyway?" asked Ricky.

"Uh, we walked," said Ryan.

"Lets see. I'm from California, Alice is from Britain. Ryan, where are you from, again?"

"Australia," said Ryan. "But my Dad was from Florida, so we spent a lot of time flying back and forth. You know how that is."

The blank stares he received from the Casper High kids told him that this was not the case. He shrugged.

"I'm from New York. Upstate, not the city," said Sonia.

"I'm from Washington," said Teddy. "But I had cousins in France. That's why I was on the plane."

"Not me. My whole family just fell into a hole one day. We were on a road trip to Arizona," said Bobby. "Oh. I was from Oregon, though. Willamette Valley."

"I'm from Germany. I was going to be an exchange student," said Ben.

The other children from Harmony chimed in, filling out the list. The younger ones, those around Charlotte's age, often didn't know where they had originally lived. They had known their street addresses, and occasionally they knew the city they lived in, but there hadn't been a reason for them to know either of those for years, much less the state that they had lived in. Or province. Not all of them had been from America.

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Valerie didn't know how she had gotten into this situation.

Yes, she could trace the chain of events from this moment back to the assembly, more or less, she was still a little fuzzy on what had happened between Danny and Phantom, but physically, she knew what had happened to herself. Still, she just couldn't understand how those events had happened.

She had seen down the barrel of that riffle. She had been sure that she was going to die. That she was going to be killed. By a human. She would have expected a ghost to do it, but not a human. Not a person.

Now, after an unproductive attempt to follow her ex-boyfriend, his mom, his two 'besties,' and a bunch of creepy ghostly shadows, she was sitting in a house. Drinking tea. With a tiny old British lady and her grandson.

The grandson was the one who had picked her up off the street. He had been dressed in dark clothes, and now, in his kitchen, was still carrying an ectoweapon slung over his shoulder. He was kind of hot, actually. For an older guy. He almost looked like an older Danny. It was incredibly frustrating, though, that he had insisted on bringing her home, and disrupting her search for Danny.

The old woman gave her another cup of tea.

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Nathan and Lester had stayed in the house at first. They weren't crazy, not like Valerie, and the A-listers. Who knew if there were other people with guns running around here? At least the shadows had caught all the ones here, and the shadows had never evinced a desire to kill them. The opposite, relly. The shadows had protected them.

The screams, though, had been... The screams had been bad. The twins had retreated to a back room to wait them out. When Mirage had brought them back out, smiling encouragingly and flecked with red dots, they hadn't seen any sign of the agents whatsoever. Not blood, not bodies, not drag marks. Nothing. The streets were all vines and toothy flowers, joined, while Nathan and Lester hid, by blue and violet grasses.

Mirage had led them, quickly, quickly, quickly, away from where the agents attacked them, and to a house where two old ladies pinched their cheeks, and called them sweetheart, and sugar, and apparently thought that they were their grandchildren, or nephews, or something. Then Mirage had left. A young woman had popped in briefly, checked on the older women, glared suspiciously at Nathan and Lester before muttering something about looking for more soldiers to shoot.

"I hope Valerie's okay," said Lester, wistfully.

"This is all your fault," said Nathan.

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Paulina had, of course, tried to follow Phantom. Following Phantom was always the right choice. Sooner or later he would realize that she was his one true love. Not Manson or Gray, no matter what that shadow, Mirage, had tried to suggest. No one turned down Paulina, gently or otherwise. She'd wear him down eventually.

In the meantime, Phantom would keep her safe. Like always.

Of course, she got horribly lost in the meantime. Until she found her own house. Or the copy of her house? She wasn't sure how things worked here. She walked in. The inside had been changed, beyond the doors. It looked like someone else had been living there. Someone who liked to collect carved wooden animals.

It made her skin crawl. This was her house! Well. No it wasn't. Paulina knew that. But it felt like it should have been.

She found a room where there were fewer wooden animals, and settled in to wait.

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Dash tried to follow Paulina, at first. She was his friend, even though he didn't always understand her, and they didn't always get along.

But Dash was dizzy from all the blood he had lost, and his ear hurt. He was practically deaf. (Not to mention scared, but Dash Baxter didn't do scared.)

He thought that she was probably going towards the Fenton place, seeing as she was going after Phantom, and the Fentons had all that ghost stuff. He had been to FentonWorks maybe a dozen times before, to get tutored by Jazz, mostly, and everyone knew where the Fentons lived. It was hard to miss, with all the neon. But this Amity, or Harmony, or whatever, was just a little bit different. All the plants threw him off, and he couldn't see the neon's glow. It reminded him of... Something. One of those too-common missing days. Whatever. It didn't matter.

What mattered was that he was lost. He had never been in this part of town before. He bet that it was where the nerds lived. He walked into what looked like a re-purposed Nasty Burger (re-named Quick Eats) and peered over the counter. He was hungry. Maybe he could get some food here.

Chapter Text

Chapter 77: End of Meeting

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Meg was too nervous to touch down, but she did pause outside the meeting room doors.

It had been surprisingly easy to get into the Panopticon, the Observants' fortress, sanctuary, and office building. She, like her sisters, like Adrestia, had a reputation. A terrifying reputation. She might have been a bit... wild, in her youth. She didn't exactly regret it, actually, she wouldn't have changed anything even if she could have, but she didn't always like it when people shied away from her like that. Even when it was useful. Which it was now.

She breathed in deeply, a habit picked up from some of her Dead friends, and looked down at herself. She wasn't entirely presentable. Her normal clothes were great for everyday, casual use, and for her job, but for interrupting a High Council meeting? Yeah, no. Not if she wanted to live through this.

She closed her eyes, and focused on altering her form. Her braid twisted into a bun on the nape of her neck. Her clothes became a blouse and skirt. She kept her scourge, of course, curled on her hip. She debated for a while on the wings, before deciding that they were a bit too much, and would probably get in the way in the room.

She knocked on the door, half-cringing. The almost inaudible murmur of voices stopped. The door was thrown open a minute later by the practically gleeful pair of Clockwork and Pandora. It looked like she had just interrupted a screaming match. The flickering Crown of Fire drew her attention for a moment, but, in the grand scheme of things, it was unimportant.

"Who are you?" shouted Issitoq. "How dare you interrupt a meeting of the High Council?" Towards the end of the sentence his voice pitched up into a scream.

"Um-"

"Don't you yell at my granddaughter's best friend, you bloated eyeball!" Themis yelled back, shaking her fist at the other ghost.

"Better a bloated eyeball than a blind bat!"

The ravens objected strenuously to the implied slur against bats, no offense meant to Lady Themis. Bats were part of their constituency. And not blind, as it so happened.

Themis ignored Issitoq. "How are your sisters doing, dear?"

"They're okay. I mean... They are doing alright. Um-"

"Answer my question!" thundered Issitoq.

"You had better have a good reason for being here, girl," growled Undergrowth. Other High Council members chimed in, their voices growing progressively louder.

"Let her speak," said Nephthys. "You will never learn her purpose otherwise." The Ancient Master of Death was practically draped over the back of her chair, staring at the ceiling, her veil clutched in one hand.

This set off another round of abuse, this time directed at Nephthys. If Meg hadn't known that this was how High Council meetings always went, she would have been terrified. As it was...

Meg froze as attention turned to her. The speech she had planned to make flew out of her head entirely. "I- um. We- The Core was attacked. By humans. The Guys- The Group for Interdimensional Warfare."

"What?" breathed a Court Magician.

"The GIW attacked the Core. They were stopped, by a ghost named Daniel Phantom." Issitoq gagged.

"Oh. Of course," said Clockwork, almost sighing the words. Then, worried, "Is he-?"

"Silence, slave!" snapped Issitoq. Meg nearly choked. Even for the foremost Judge, and de facto regent of the Infinite Realms, that was too far. But the leader of the Observants continued, "The only care I have for your abomination of a pet is that it is destroyed before it does any more damage. Clearly, it caused this disa-" Issitoq was cut off by a low, deep growl.

The Tiger, in all its electric-blue and lightning-white glory, stood, stalking towards the unfortunate eyeball. "You will speak to the Ancient with respect," said the Tiger in a deep, rumbling voice.

Pandora spoke, then, "No matter if you are his benefactor, no matter if you hold his indentures, he is not your slave."

There was a murmur of agreement. Even some of Issitoq's allies thought that he had gone too far with his insults.

Issitoq responded with a defensive hiss of disgust and disdain, and communicated the bare minimum of apology by nodding his head. "The fact stands," he said, "that his pe-" the Tiger growled again. "That Phantom would be entirely unsuitable as King."

With that, Meg finally recalled the real reason she had come. She cleared her throat. "Um, excuse me?" she said, when that didn't obtain a response. She was again rewarded with the disconcerting attentions of the High Council. "The Core appeared to us, using Phantom as their mouthpiece. They named themselves Ereshkigal, gave Phantom's sister and two friends their blessing, and charged my sisters and I with telling you that if they don't get Phantom, that the upheaval and ruin of Pariah Dark's time will seem like nothing.""I didn't know that Sumer was back in style," mused one of the Court Magicians.

"I don't think it is," said Meg. "I think that-"

"How do you know that it wasn't just Phantom, playing the game that its master taught it?" asked Issitoq.

"I swear that what I have said here is true," said Meg. "If you know my name, then you know how I feel about breaking oaths. Besides, it was pretty obvious. You wouldn't be questioning it if you saw it, sir."

"And what is your name?" asked a Raven.

"Megaera," she said, "scourge of the unfaithful, destroyer of warlocks."

"Why aren't your sisters here with you?" asked Themis.

"Oh! Alex, that's Alecto, she went with Adrestia, to bring Phantom to Duat Hospital. Tess was helping his human fraidmates find the way. Phantom, he was- He was hurt. Badly. We- I think that he was injured before he fought with the GIW."

Clockwork made a surprised noise (the human equivalent would be a gasp, but the ghostly version was more of a squeak), and immediately opened a portal, vanishing through it before Issitoq could say anything.

"Well," drawled Nephthys. "I think that's that for this farce of a meeting. Smith, I will contact you once the Council of Ancients has finished its deliberations, which I suspect will not take terribly long." She freed herself from the chair, and walked out.

Pandora nodded, sharply, in approval. "I also wish to see my great-nephew, so if you all will excuse me."

"Ah, wait a moment, Pandora," said Nocturne. "Here," he said, holding out a fist, fingers down. Pandora held out one of her hands, and Nocturne deposited a tiny star into it. "A sweet dream, for the child."

"Thank you, Nocturne. I am sure that he will appreciate it." Pandora left. Nocturne sat back down, curled up in his chair, and fell asleep again. Then, very slowly, he faded out, disappearing to who-knows-where in his own quiet way.

Fright Knight left next, his muttering about the Panopticon's stables interspersed with comments about the Observants' habit of overreaching their authority, and how he longed for a good old benevolent dictatorship. Then the Tiger left, the Ravens still using him as a perch. Smith made his exit, quiet and unobtrusive as ever. Themis and Ma'at smiled nastily at the chief Observant, and made their way to the door. Themis grabbed Meg's elbow on the way out, and steered her to the door, leaving Issitoq alone with his puppets, the two criminal Ancients, and the fading Crown of Fire.

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Clockwork appeared in the lobby of the Duat Hospital, his sight still obscured by the Observants. They would pay for this game they were playing with his child's life. Someday... Someday he would end Issitoq. It might not be by his own hands, but it would be by his will, one way, or another. He would tear the Panopticon apart, until not one stone laid upon another. He would destroy the Observants, ruin them so thoroughly that ten-thousand years hence their fate would still be whispered of, still be feared.

But for now... The fact remained that Daniel was his child. He could find Daniel without his temporal powers, just as Daniel could often find him. But there was an even easier way.

He descended on the receptionist's desk.

"Where is Daniel Phantom?"

"Theater 43. I'll call," said the woman immediately, pointing towards a hallway, and picking up the phone. Clockwork flew down it, literally and figuratively. He could help Daniel better than any doctor here, although they were all very good, and Clockwork would certainly thank them for any work they had. He knew how Daniel's body worked, and there was a reason that people said that time healed all wounds.

The first of the double doors swung open as Clockwork approached, propped open by a nurse. "Lord Clockwork," he said, by way of greeting.

Clockwork opened the next set of doors himself. He briefly registered the presence of the doctors, nurses, and Daniel's human sister, but his attention was drawn to the boy on the table. "Oh, Daniel," he said.

"Lord Clockwork," said Dr Hope. "We've been working on Daniel's more superficial wounds, however, we haven't been able to touch the more serious issues. His core has been seriously damaged, several organs are bruised or otherwise damaged, he is suffering from exhaustion, he has a minor concussion, there are several toxins in his bloodstream, and his temperature and heart rate are fluctuating severely. If not for his unique status, he would have faded."

"I see," said Clockwork. "Excuse me." He stepped past the doctors to stand next to Daniel. He lowered his hand to Daniel's chest. He could feel the child struggling to breathe, feel his core trying to repair itself, stuttering and wavering. "Oh, my poor sweet child," he murmured. "You've been so abused." Even Clockwork could not hope to repair Daniel's core when his body was in this condition. Well, in truth, Clockwork could not repair a ghost's core with his usual methods. Especially not Daniel's. Accelerating his core's time... Daniel would experience every minute of it. No. That would not be kind. Not kind at all.

He would have to repair Daniel's core in a more traditional way, and for that... For that, he would need help. Dr Hope would be a great help on that front. Or, he would have been, if Daniel had known him.

The best human equivalent to the core was the brain. However, not only was the core a thinking organ, it was an intimate one, and a powerful one. A ghost reduced to their core could still feel, was still aware of their surroundings, at least in part. Many ghosts could also still do a lot of damage, even reduced to that most vulnerable state. Clockwork had no doubt that Daniel fell into that category. If anyone that Daniel did not absolutely trust touched his core, he would react badly, and that would only hurt him further.

However, Clockwork could begin fixing his other wounds. There were dozens of them, although none of them were as dangerous, or as injurious to his health in the long term, as the core injury.

"You have been flushing his system, correct? Exchanging his blood for new?"

"Yes, of course," said Dr Hope.

"Good," said Clockwork. His hand moved towards one of the wounds. He moved his hand to one of the more serious wounds. "What toxins?"

Dr Hope recited a list. Most of them would have been meaningless to humans, and even to most ghosts. The terms were archaic. Dr Hope was an old, old ghost. Clockwork was older.

"Good," said Clockwork again, this time more softly. As unpleasant as those were, and as sick as they would make Daniel feel, they would not cause complications with Clockwork's method of wound healing. "I'm sorry, Daniel, this will hurt, but it will make you feel better."

Daniel gasped as Clockwork started, and Jazz hissed as his hand tightened tightened around hers. Oh, it would be so much easier if Clockwork could simply erase the wounds, replacing the injured areas with the same area from an earlier time, but without full access to his temporal powers, that wasn't an option. He didn't know where, precisely, Daniel had been for the last several hours, and reaching back farther than that wasn't possible at the moment. Localized acceleration was the only good choice, although it would put more strain on his body and core.

Clockwork moved to another wound, and the doctors started to cut free the stitches. Daniel whimpered, but otherwise didn't move. "There we are," said Clockwork. "Here we are. You'll feel better, soon. This will scar, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. You shouldn't have to bear more."

Chapter Text

Chapter 78: Sugar Dreams

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It took time- Hah!- but soon all of Daniel's surface wounds were sealed, and many of his bruises had faded. Then the doctors took Daniel, put him on a stretcher, and wheeled him to an empty, well-appointed room. They very carefully placed him into the room's bed, and covered him with a blanket.

Jazz sat down on the opposite side of the bed from Clockwork. The two of them had only met a handful of times, and she looked nervous.

Sam and Tucker were shown in a moment later. Sam was pale, and in a wheelchair, a bandage wrapped around her arm. She had apparently given quite a bit of blood to Daniel. Charming young lady.

Clockwork's vision was still blocked. His desire to murder Issitoq was increasing by the minute. By the second. He dreaded having to explain his question to these children. He had to know what had happened. He needed more than Megaera's story. He needed to know why Daniel's core was so badly damaged. Ereshkigal could be rough, but they would not have caused so much damage to someone they liked.

He sighed. This was one situation that more time wouldn't help.

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Once the children had stopped staring at him, they had given him a very thorough explanation. Pandora had arrived before the end of the tale, bearing Nocturne's gift, and the children had had to start over again, to fill in the other Ancient.

Clockwork was, well, horrified, by the end of it. Anyone would be, upon finding that their child had been through such an ordeal. Pandora was openly furious. The Ancient Master of Hope had never been good at hiding her emotions. Perhaps she would join Clockwork in destroying the Observants. Now was not an appropriate time to ask such a question, however. Justice, and revenge, would have to wait.

Pandora leaned back, sighing. "What a disaster," she said, putting a hand over her eyes "and not one of us Ancients there to stop it."

"It isn't your fault," said Samantha. Over time, all of the children had become quite comfortable with Pandora. Her realm, Elysium, was the one the group visited most often, although Daniel visited Clockwork more. "The Guys in White are the bad guys here."

"Perhaps," said Pandora. "But as Ancients, taking care of such problems is our duty."

"You don't talk much about that," said Jasmine. "Being an Ancient, I mean."

"Yeah," said Tucker, wedged into a corner, looking like he was trying to convince himself that he wasn't in a hospital. "I always thought that it was just, you know, sort of a title? Because you beat Pariah Dark?"

"Alas, no," said Pandora, laughing. "No. There are very few empty titles here in the Infinite Realms. No, there are several duties and privileges attached to the role of Ancient. We are among the most powerful of ghosts in the Realms, chosen by previous Kings. Among other things, we protect the Realms, and especially the Core, from threats that cannot be otherwise turned aside, we advise, protect, and monitor the King, and, when a King falls or fades, we choose the next one."

"So... Wait. What about Pariah?" asked Samantha. Clever girl. "Did you choose him?"

"Unfortunately, yes," said Clockwork. "I did. He was not always an evil man, nor was becoming such his only future."

"I did not," said Pandora, crossing both pairs of arms. "But he defeated me, so my disagreement was moot. He was powerful. It took all seven of us, even Fright Knight, Undergrowth, and Vortex, to defeat him in the end." She sighed again, her fiery hair flickering as she removed her helm and ran her her hand through it. "You know, Inanna was a real person."

"Really?" asked Jasmine.

"Yes. She lived in a time when the borders between the Realms and the material plane were very thin. Thinner than they are now. She was what you might call a sorceress. I was very young, back then. Doubtless you could tell the tale better, Clockwork."

Ah. No, best not. He did know more about that particular incident than most, but some of the details were not ones that he wished to share at this juncture, and he didn't want to lie to Daniel's friends. "You tell it, Pandora. You have already started."

"She was a powerful woman," said Pandora, "and an ambitious one. She knew of ghosts. She was the great-granddaughter of a fairly powerful ghost named Enki. She knew of of the Ghost Zone, and of the Core- Ereshkigal, as they identified themselves to you. She knew of the powers available to ghosts, and specifically the king of ghosts, and wanted them for herself, without dying. You begin to see the problem?"

"So, like Freakshow?" asked Samantha.

"Something like that," agreed Pandora. "Her only motivation was power, she did not particularly care where that power came from. She also did not entirely understand how the Realms functioned, much like the Guys in White. She thought that she could fall upon it in a time of weakness, and conquer it, just as with a human kingdom.

"It was a difficult time here in the Realms. We were entering an interregnum. Our most recent king, Gugalana, had just passed on. It is rare, but it happens. Inanna found a natural portal, again, these were not as rare in those times, and rode through with her army.

"Her army did not fair well in the Realms. They mutinied within days. Inanna on the other hand... I suppose that it would be fair to say that she thrived here. She knew all of the then-modern methods of controlling, manipulating, and harming ghosts. She pioneered many of them. In some ways, Jasmine, she was not unlike your parents. When she chose to make war on the Realms, she carried with herself seven great weapons. She reached the area that we call the Periphery, the edge of the Core. There she was delayed by a ghost that came to be called Neti."

"Came to be called?" asked Jasmine.

Pandora smiled. "Not much was ever known about him. The word Neti meant gatekeeper, which was how he identified himself. Neti destroyed her weapons one by one, until she only had her her innate abilities. By that point, the seven Ancients of that time were able to come together, and defeat her. She was punished for her arrogance. Severely. However, Enki petitioned for mercy, for her release, and he was on the short list of those who could be the next king, so she was released. But... not before she was changed."

"Changed how?" asked Tucker. It appeared as if he had been recording the story on his hand-held computer.

"According to the most popular rumors of the times, she was made liminal and taken to the River Styx. However, others said that an exchange was required of her. That the agreement was that her husband had to take the punishment in her place." Pandora raised her hands in a gesture of either confusion or abnegation. "I never knew. As I said, I was young then."

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Pandora had given Danny Nocturne's dream as soon as she had arrived, placing it on his forehead, and watching it sink in, before joining Clockwork, Jazz, Sam, and Tucker in conversation.

The little dream star sunk down, down, down, into Danny's dreams, illuminating them, pulling Danny out of the confusing, drugged, painful miasma that he had been in until that point. It pulled him down, deeper, father away from the surface of his mind, farther away from the pain. He let it. He followed it, his natural curiosity taking over.

The star described a twisting, rainbow path, flying faster than Danny could. As it passed through the murk, it made the darkness darker, and the lights brighter, turning the dreamscape into a starscape.

Danny was immediately distracted. He chased the little lights that chimed and rang, giggled and whispered at him like will-o-the-wisps, cuddling up against him and giving him little kisses. Danny was charmed. He could taste sugar when they hit the high notes. They were bright and beautiful. They led him onward, onward, onward, the glittering trails of light they left behind them braiding together in a complex pattern that made Danny dizzy and excited.

He was happy happy happy <