Danny's heart leapt into his throat as the floor gave way without warning. Tucker and Sam, on either side of him, shrieked in surprise. Danny didn't have the energy to cry out, at least until they hit the ground, and he landed hard on his right side, and a raging fire tore through his body so hot and fast he blacked out for a moment.
He came to on his back, Sam and Tucker hovering over him, concern filling their gazes. They were scraped and bruised, but otherwise fine. He, on the other hand, was so far from fine. His entire right side felt like it was on fire, hot embers scorching his insides.
"Walker... sucks." Danny wheezed, gently probing his side. He found the spot that hurt the most, just below his rib cage, and grimaced at the blood he felt.
"Pretty sure one of the goons got you, actually. Sorry, man," Tucker said.
"Nobody tells Skulker, I'll never live it down," Danny said.
Sam peeled up the torn edges of the jumpsuit, peering at Danny's wound. She frowned. "This is a bad one, Danny. How are you feeling?"
"A little damp, but that might just be the blood," Danny said. Sam and Tucker rolled their eyes. "Hey, wait. Actually, please tell Skulker. Maybe he'll think the ghost that wounded the great, rare halfa, would be more worth his time."
"I'll do that next time I see him," Sam said dryly. "Let me clean you up, you heal faster when I do."
Danny didn't protest. He had no idea what Walker's goon managed to hit him with, but dear god it hurt. He lay back, staring up at the ceiling as Tucker passed Sam a water bottle and a couple clean rags he kept in his pockets during their ghostly adventures.
They had fallen into a cavern. Black stone surrounded them, oddly smooth, barely a blemish in sight. The walls curved up and in, possibly into a dome, but the stone was so dark Danny couldn't tell if the ceiling rose high out of sight, shrouded in shadows, or if it was only a dozen yards above him.
Crystals jutted out from the floor. They all carried the same hexagonal shape, with a pointed top, but they varied in size. Some stood alone, others in clusters. Some were taller than Danny's dad, others wouldn't even pass Danny's ankle if he stood. They emitted soft light for him to see by, blue, pink, and purple. The light felt nice on his skin, warm where he was cold, cool where he was hot.
One of the largest crystals loomed behind Danny's head. Unlike the others, this crystal was dark, almost as black as the floor.
He reached up, flinching when his side burned anew, hissing in pain.
Inside the crystal, a light pulsed.
"Don't move," Sam told him, drawing his attention. Her hands pressed against his side, putting pressure on the wound.
At this point, it was standard procedure. Whenever Danny got an injury they couldn’t just slap a band-aid over, Sam or Tucker would help him clean it up, stop the bleeding, then let his natural healing take over. One of the perks of being a halfa, his body could take a lot more damage, and heal a lot faster. Good thing, too, or else he'd have to deal with questions he wasn't prepared to answer.
"Hey," Tucker said, drawing Danny and Sam's attention. He tilted his head back, peering up at the ceiling. "Where's the hole?"
"We only fell for a few seconds," Sam said, following Tucker's gaze. "The ceiling shouldn't be that high."
"Is it?" Tucker squinted.
"It doesn't matter," Danny said. "Give me half an hour, I'll be good to go, and I can find a way out of here."
"As long as Walker doesn't find us first," Sam muttered.
Danny closed his eyes, sighing. They got lucky, stumbling across this place. After taking the hit from Walker's goon, Danny thought they were done for. The Speeder, totalled. His strength fading by the second. Walker closing in. They took a gamble, diving into the nearest door, a mad scramble from portal to portal, gateway to gateway, their only goal to get as far from Walker as possible. And then, suddenly, they were falling.
The longer he stared up at the ceiling, the surer Danny was the hole had closed behind them. The fall had been rather short. His hip throbbed from the rough landing, amongst his other aches and pains. But they were safe. Trapped, but safe.
He scanned the walls, looking for a doorway, a tunnel, any marking at all that showed there was more to this place. He found nothing. Just smooth stone and colourful crystals.
He was about to turn away when something shifted in the corner of his eye. His focus snapped to a cluster of crystals halfway between him and the wall. Squinting hard, he sought out the source of the movement. He couldn't see anything. The longer he stared, the more everything started to blur together.
Danny blinked and rubbed his eyes, clearing his vision. It didn't help much. He felt odd. Dazed. Confused. His side still burned, but his fingers and toes were numb. He felt light-headed.
Something about this place seemed familiar, but not the normal way. Not in the way that he’d been here before. More like he had heard someone talk for hours about a place like this, going on and on for so long and in such detail that it felt like an intimate, known place he was returning to after many years of absence, his second-hand memories of it hazy and half-formed, but still strong enough to niggle at his brain.
It takes him much longer than it should have to remember.
"Ghost graveyard," Danny said.
Tucker and Sam stilled, their eyes snapping down to him.
"What?" Tucker asked.
"It's a ghost graveyard," Danny repeated.
Tucker raised an eyebrow and looked around, the soft lights glinting off his glasses. "But ghosts are already dead."
"Tucker! Don't be insensitive!" Sam berated him, her words accompanied by a sharp glare. Until confusion flickered across her face and she frowned. "But you've got a point. How can ghosts have a graveyard?"
"Clockwork told me," Danny started, laying his head back. "Sometimes, ghosts fade. For a lot of reasons. Their dead ectoplasm... or, um, double dead? Just. Yeah, dead. Their dead ectoplasm can't be reabsorbed by the Ghost Zone, except in stuff like this."
Danny pointed to the crystal behind him. A small green light shone inside it, one that wasn’t there before.
"That's... cool. I guess," Tucker said, looking wary. "There can't be ghosts of ghosts, right?"
"Very cool," Danny murmured, entranced by the light. It was beautiful, and daunting. Like Sam at her most macabre, wearing her darkest clothes, her sharpest makeup, her soft shadow eating up all the harsh light in the world. Danny loved it when she looked like that.
Or like Tucker, any time he went on a techno rampage, hacking away at firewalls and online defenses with a devilish grin, the blue computer light washing over his face in a sulfuric glow.
Danny smiled, thinking of those moments, when his girlfriend and boyfriend looked ready to take on the world. Call him sappy, but he just loved something about someone who would burn the world for you. He'd do the same for them.
The pressure on his side alleviated. Sam's breath hitched. Danny lifted his head, looking up at her. Her hands were soaked in blood.
"It's not stopping," she said.
Tucker paled, his shadow falling over Danny as he leaned over to inspect the wound. He reached out, maybe to touch Danny's side, or peel back the bloody jumpsuit, or maybe grab Sam's hand and comfort her. Danny would never find out which one, because Tucker's hand stilled the moment Danny was seized by a harsh coughing fit.
Brutal, hacking coughs ripped through his body, a jagged knife driven deep into his wounds, twisted sharply. They tore at his dry throat, Danny's head thumping back against the ground. He raised a hand to cup his mouth, but aborted the movement halfway, instead clutching his side.
Shit. Everything hurt.
When the coughing stopped, Danny groaned, a hoarse wheeze. His lips felt wet. Licking them, he tasted blood. A few speckles stained Tucker's glasses, who had shuffled up to Danny's shoulder, his hand under Danny's head to keep it off the hard ground.
Huh. When did that happen?
"Oh," Danny said. It came out as a croak rather than the breathy sigh he meant it to be. It hurt. Breathing hurt. Thinking hurt. "Sam, I think my lungs are bleeding. Ow."
"No, they aren't," she said, her voice wavering. She tore off her backpack, tossing it to Tucker. She didn't even look up to see if he caught it, pressing her hands against Danny's side once more. "You've had worse than this. We'll just... we'll patch you up, and you'll be fine. Tucker–"
"I know," Tucker said, upending Sam's backpack and shaking it until a red canvas bag fell out. He snatched up the bag and tore it open, gauze pads, medical tape, and disinfectant spray bursting out, scattering across the floor.
"Okay," Danny said tonelessly. It wasn't that Danny didn't believe her. Somehow, he knew she was right. He would be fine. But a little itch in the back of his head told him they had two very different versions of fine.
He didn't watch Sam and Tucker work, a practiced routine of Tucker handing Sam what she needed, when she needed it, while Danny tried not to move too much. He went back to observing the cave. There were only so many times he could look it over—admittedly, once was more than enough—but he had nothing else to do. He was hurt. He was tired. He was so damn bored.
His head flopped to the side. Two little pink eyes stared at him from amidst the crystals. Danny froze. The eyes—ghost—blinked. He blinked back. Neither moved.
The impromptu staring contest broke when Sam dabbed a wad of gauze soaked in disinfectant against Danny's side. He hissed, jerking away from her hand, squeezing his eyes shut. When he opened them, it was to the sight of Tucker's cargo pants, inches from his nose.
Shuffling over, he pressed his cheek against Tucker's leg, his laboured breaths filling the cavern. A moment later, he felt Tucker's fingers running through his hair and leaned into the touch, closing his eyes again. Tucker's hand slipped under Danny's head and raised it up. The sound of scraping and shuffling echoed for a second, and then Tucker lowered Danny's head onto his lap.
If Danny were a little less hurt, a little more lucid, he might have been embarrassed about what he did next, snuggling against Tucker's legs.
"S-sorry about your glasses," Danny said, thinking of the flecks of blood that still dotted the lenses.
"Shut up, don't be stupid," Tucker said.
"I'm not stupid, you're stu—art."
Tucker snorted, his hands stilling. Danny whined and he resumed petting. "I'm Stuart?"
Danny groaned. "Nooo. You're not stupid. You're smart. Stupid smart."
"He's something," Sam said. She tried to smile, but her voice was strained.
Tucker rolled his eyes. "As if you don't love me."
Sam stuck out her tongue.
Danny chuckled, but quickly broke off into another round of coughs. This time, he managed to cover his mouth, preventing more of his blood from splattering against Tucker.
"Sorry," he mumbled between coughs. Tucker didn't respond, but Danny felt his fingers tense, the petting pausing for a moment, before it resumed. Danny ducked his head, nuzzling Tucker's knee, and wiping his hand on the front of his jumpsuit once the coughing stopped.
All he wanted to do was curl up and go to sleep. Tucker's hand running through his hair definitely didn't help. The steady rhythm was so relaxing. He didn't even notice Sam stopped working until she touched his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.
"Sorry, Danny. Can you roll onto your side?" she asked.
He groaned, prompting another soft apology from Sam, and complied, holding his weight on his elbow and knees, raising his hips off the floor so she could loop the bandages around his waist. Once, twice, three times, holding the gauze pads in place.
Danny's toes curled and he clenched his fists, gritting his teeth as Sam yanked on the bandages, make sure they were tight. Something warm and fuzzy—not soft, but like TV static—brushed against his fingers. Danny gasped, his eyes flying open, and zeroed in on the small, glowing form wriggling its way between his fingers, forcing his fist open.
Small, round, no bigger than a baseball, a pale blue ghost with bright pink eyes flopped onto his palm.
"Hola!" the ghost chirped.
"Son of a–!" Tucker jerked at the sudden noise, nearly dislodging Danny as he twisted around, searching for the source.
The ghost tittered.
"Holy shit that scared me," he said.
"Really? I didn't notice," Sam drawled. She tapped Danny's shoulder, signalling she was done.
Danny, panting from that little effort, slumped. He probed the bandage, picking at the edges with his nails. When he pressed down, he could feel the dampness of the blood. Moving carefully, he draped his arm over the bandage, hoping Sam and Tucker wouldn't notice.
"So, uh. Who's this little guy?" Tucker asked.
"Me llamo Luz!"
"Oh my god. Tucker, I know you failed Spanish, but how can't you know what that means?" Sam rolled her eyes, reaching over Danny to dig her knuckles into Tucker's shoulder.
"We don't have Spanish class! You don't know Spanish!"
"I know what that means."
"So, what if–"
"Her name is Luz," Danny interrupted. He didn't feel like listening to Sam and Tucker argue, not right now. He was sleepy, and exhausted, and he just wanted this to be over with, one way or another. He closed his eyes with a sigh.
"Wait, no, dude, don't." Panic filled Tucker's voice. "Don't fall asleep, that's bad."
But it felt nice.
He didn't want to.
"Tell us more about the graveyard," Sam said. She squeezed Danny's shoulder again, jostling him a little. She didn't stop until Danny slowly, reluctantly, opened his eyes. Everything was blurry, Sam and her dark attire melting into the black stone around them, Tucker's bright colours blending with the crystals.
"Apparently, ghosts sort of just find their way here when they start to fade? At least that's what Clockwork told me," Danny said. He couldn't remember most of that conversation. Whether that was because he didn't pay attention, or he just didn't have the energy to recall, he wasn't sure. Maybe both. He didn't pay attention to a lot of stuff.
He was kind of regretting that now.
"Sometimes they don't even realize it. But I think there's supposed to be a guardian or something?" Danny's thumb strokes Luz's back, making her purr. "They keep intruders out. This place is kind of sacred, so..."
Tucker chuckled. "I guess they aren't doing that good a job since we're here."
"Guess not." Danny held Luz close, staring into those button eyes. They looked a little vast for something so small. It was freaking him out a little. But at the same time, Luz's eyes held nothing but warmth.
"Clockwork didn't happen to mention how someone who gets stuck here can get out, did he?" Sam asked. She crawled forward, sitting beside Tucker at Danny's head, and took over ruffling Danny's hair. "I don't really want to wait for some dying ghost to come here so the door can open back up."
"I'm sorry," Danny said, ducking his head.
"It's okay if you can't remember," Sam assured him.
That wasn't what he apologized for, but he didn't bother correcting her.
Tucker watched the crystal behind slowly grow brighter. He didn’t notice at first, more concerned with Danny and their situation, but worrying so much got exhausting and tedious after so long.
Although, he had no idea how much time had passed. It was impossible to tell, but it felt like hours. Tucker's PDA was long dead. The Ghost Zone always drained the battery faster, and the clock never worked right in here anyway. All the ectoplasm and the weird twistiness of time and space inside the ghostly realm.
All he knew was that, at some point, the crystal behind them changed from black to pale green, the glow spreading from deep within.
Tucker ran his thumb back and forth across Danny's knuckles, who still lay curled on his uninjured side. Danny had taken to softly muttering in Spanish, having a quiet conversation with Luz. Tucker wished he knew what they were saying, but, ultimately, it didn't matter. As long as Danny was talking, he was awake. As long as he was awake, he was alive.
Tucker tried not to look at Danny's injury. Every time he did, he couldn't help but feel dread, like poison, seep through him. His stupid, idiot, well-meaning but very much the self-sacrificing jerk of a boyfriend was trying to hide it under the crook of his elbow, but Tucker could see.
The bandages were tinged pink. Soon enough, they'd be red. After that... Tucker didn't want to think about it.
Danny's muttering was the only thing putting Tucker at ease. Whenever Danny stopped, waiting for Luz to respond, Tucker's breath caught in his throat. Danny had a bad habit of holding himself perfectly still when he wasn't doing anything, looking almost like a statue. Sometimes, it was unnerving. Right now?
Right now, it made Tucker think that each time Danny stopped talking, he'd never talk again. He hated it. He hated this place. He hated Walker, and his goons, and that stupid, lucky shot, and Danny's frustrating inability to dodge at crucial moments.
Tucker shook his head. He wasn't mad at Danny. He just wanted Danny to be okay.
Sam was curled up against Tucker's side, holding Danny's free hand, her head on Tucker's shoulder. He glanced at her every once in a while, checking to see if she had fallen asleep. She hadn't. Although her eyes were closed, tension furrowed her brow and pinched her lips, her breathing uneven.
He tucked a strand of hair, slowly falling down her cheek, back behind her ear.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Tucker thought this was nice. His girlfriend cuddled against him, his boyfriend's head in his lap. He laughed softly, careful not to disturb either of them. The day they started dating stood fresh in his mind.
Danny asked Tucker and Sam out separately, to the same date, without telling either one about the other. When Tucker got to the movie theatre and saw Sam there, his heart nearly broke. He thought, for a moment, that he had misunderstood Danny's intentions. That Danny didn't feel the same way Tucker did.
When he noticed them holding hands, he nearly shattered into pieces. But then Danny saw him, beamed as brightly as the stars he loved to rave about, and held out his other hand for Tucker to take.
"Jazz told me to be spontaneous. So, uh... I kind of love you both and would you like to go out with me? Us? The three of us I mean. Together. Dating," Danny had said, his face burning red, gaze nervously darting from Sam to Tucker and back again.
As it turned out, Danny wasn't quite the clueless dweeb everyone thought he was. He just couldn't decide which best friend he wanted to date. So, he decided to date both of them.
Tucker was nervous at first. Scared he might ruin things. He wasn't sure he could love Sam the same way he loved Danny. He had always liked her, but love?
Sam suddenly wrinkled her nose, snuggled further against Tucker's side, tucking her arms between them and sighing softly. Tucker smiled. Yeah, he loved her, and Danny. They were everything to him.
"What time is it?" Sam asked, cracking one eye open.
Tucker shook his head. "No idea. PDA's dead. But probably late enough our parents are wondering where we are."
"Are you kidding? My mom probably doesn't even know I'm gone. I bet Danny's parents think we're sleeping over at your place. And your parents..." Sam trailed off. "Yeah, okay. Your parents would notice."
She paused, taking a deep breath. "We'll be okay."
Tucker nodded. "We'll be okay."
"You'll be okay," Danny said.
Tucker paused, frowning. He opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. "What?"
"It's going to be okay," Danny said, turning slightly to look up at them.
Tucker didn't miss the careful wording, but decided not to comment on it. If he did... It was like thinking some great, big horror was lurking behind a closed door. And as long as Tucker didn't open the door, he could pretend there was nothing behind it at all.
He didn't want to open the door.
"Let me check if the bleeding's stopped," Sam said, pulling away from Tucker's. He immediately missed her warmth.
On her knees, one hand out to catch herself should she fall, fingertips brushing the hard stone, Sam leaned over Danny, brushing his arm aside. Her hair fell over her shoulder as she inched forward, blocking Tucker's view.
Apparently, he didn't need to see it. He could hear the wetness of the bandages as Sam peeled them back. The noise, not quite a squelch, but almost like a tearing sound, echoed throughout the cavern.
Tucker worriedly gnawed his lip. He shifted to the side, so he could see Danny's face better. His eyes looked glazed, his breathing short and ragged, sweat dotting his forehead. Blood speckled his lips. He looked faint, and gray, like all the colour was slowly seeping out of him.
His lips barely moved as he spoke, Luz sitting in his cupped hand, raised to his face. Tucker squinted. He could have sworn Luz was a lighter blue before, like ice. Now she was the colour of a cloudless sky.
"Sam?" Tucker looked up, desperate for some good news.
Sam shook her head.
"Hey, guys," Danny said. His voice was so weak, barely more than a whisper. Tucker wondered if it hurt too much to talk any louder. "Luz gave me some good news."
He laughed, weakly, breaking off into a groan and a grimace, one hand drifting to his wound.
Luz squeaked, a string of rapid, concerned words spilling from her mouth. Danny tapped Luz on the head and whispered something back. Tucker only recognized one word, "bien," which meant okay.
He didn't think this was okay.
"She told me something cool about this place," Danny continued, switching back to English. He jerked his head, motioning to the ceiling. "Apparently, ghosts are super private about fading, so the guardian closes the cavern to give them privacy. They're apparently super into keeping the ghost happy as they fade, go figure."
"But the door's gonna open pretty soon, and Luz can fly out and get some help."
Relief washed over Tucker. They were getting out. Luz could find Frostbite, or Clockwork, or any semi-friendly ghost that didn't always want to capture, kill, or maim Danny, and they could get him some real help.
He'd need a hospital, probably. There would be questions, and maybe a threat to Danny's secret, but that didn't matter at the moment. The only thing that mattered was Danny would be fine.
Tucker turned to Sam, beaming. His smile froze when he saw her frightened expression. "Sam?"
Her gaze, hard, but tear-filled, didn't waver. She asked, "Why. Why will the door open?"
Of course, Sam asked the important questions, she always did. Fierce, headstrong, and smart. Danny expected nothing less of her. And Tucker. Tucker was the hopeful one, the optimist. He saw the bright side in everything and never gave up. Those were the reasons Danny fell in love with them in the first place.
Danny could have told them what Luz told him, about how not all ghosts faded alone. How sometimes, the guardian made exceptions, let others be there for them, so they wouldn't pass surrounded only by soft light and solitude.
He could have told them. Maybe he should have. He didn't.
Instead, Danny reached out, taking Tucker and Sam's hands, and gave them a reassuring squeeze. He didn't say anything, just smiled. He couldn't give them the reassurances they needed. Nor could he bring himself to tell the truth. But he could smile. He could at least do that.