Chapter 1: Delete Forever
Always down when I'm not up
Guess it's just my rotten luck
To fill my time with permanent blue
But I can't see above it
Guess I fucking love it
But, oh, I didn't mean to
Danny jerked awake, his leg cramping in an extremely painful way. He blinked, trying to get his eyes to adjust to the bright light. Something was scratching on his face. He felt around, still half-blinded and half-asleep. His hand pushed aside empty plastic bottles, old clothes, loose papers, and eventually grasped onto his phone. Squinting, he stared at the screen. 5:17 pm.
Danny groaned and tossed the phone away, not caring where it landed. It clattered against...something. He should have been in class three hours ago. Technically, I should have been in class three weeks ago, Danny thought humorlessly.
Groaning, he sat up and looked around. Ah, he thought absently, rubbing the imprint of the carpet from his cheek, I fell asleep on the floor again… Gingerly, he stood, his cramped leg flaring again. He grunted, and sat back down again, trying to massage the spasm away. After a moment, he tried standing again, and was relieved when his leg held his weight. He looked around his dorm room and, after finding a sweatshirt that at least looked clean, he pulled it on and stepped out into the hall.
Two people pushed past him, and Danny pulled the hood down over his face and shuffled towards an elevator, riding it down from the seventh floor to the first. He stepped around a group of people getting on, not looking anyone in the eye. Reaching into the pocket of his sweatshirt, he pulled out a beaten pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He pushed open a glass door with his elbow, and lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply. He held the breath for a moment, then let it out with a puff of smoke. Then he sat down on the stone steps outside the door and leaned against the glass wall, hoping that nobody from campus security would see him and tell him to put it out.
Keeping an eye out for one of those annoying uniforms, he watched groups of students walk by in the distance. He hoped that nobody would see him. This particular stoop was Danny’s favourite place to sit and smoke. Technically, this was a service bay for the supply trucks that stocked the small “shop” and “restaurant” connected to his dorm building, so the door Danny had just exited was rarely used by students. He leaned back, the sharp steps digging into his spine.
He glared at the sky. It was cloudy. Light breeze. Rather warm. Definitely spring, he thought.
Sighing, Danny took another drag and stubbed out the cigarette. He briefly considered going back inside, back to his trashed room, and emailing yet another dubious excuse for why he missed class to a professor he had never met. He considered, more briefly, actually cleaning the room, actually attending a class, but the thought made him ache. Instead, he pulled out another cigarette and lit it. The feeling of something tearing inside him returned again, and Danny closed his eyes tightly. If he focused just right, he could almost see the hole, the rip, the tear, the void that had started eating away at him.
“I didn’t mean for it to get this bad,” he said softly to nobody in particular. “I just...wasn’t ready. And now it’s too late.” He felt the hot streak of something wet leak from his eye and down his cheek. He clenched his jaw. No, he thought, I wasn’t ready for this.
When Danny had left for college, he had been so excited. He was going to study astrophysics and he didn’t care that there wasn’t anything he could really do with a degree like that, but the venture excited him just the same. All Jazz could talk about for the two years before that was how great college was. How many friends he would make; how much fun Danny would have. And she was so proud of him for going, for getting accepted, for following his dreams. She had even helped him pack!
Sure, it fucking sucked that he, Sam, and Tuck had all been accepted to different schools. But they had made it work in the way that only best friends could. It was genuinely fun at first to see their dorm rooms, their campuses, their new friends , but as time went on, Danny found himself less and less interested in their new lives. As time went on, he found himself longing more and more for the old days. The easy days. He didn’t want to play third wheel to Sam and her girlfriend on their dates. He didn’t want to go with Tuck to the engineering building to see his projects. He didn’t...want. That was when he first felt the hole rip open inside of himself.
After his first year of college, he withdrew. He didn’t go out with his friends much anymore, didn’t talk to them much anymore. It was hard to be around them when, in comparison, Danny hadn’t done anything new or made new friends. It was so much easier to stay in his single dorm room, re-watching old movies, re-listening to old music. So why bother? He had seen their lives. He had literally witnessed them moving on with their lives. The ghost thing had been wickedly fun in high school, but with the trio spread out all over the state, it was pretty much impossible for “Team Phantom” to function like it used to. If he was being honest, they’d probably never go ghost hunting together again. And if they did, Danny knew it would be different. If he was being honest, he doubted they would want to do it again. Upon this realization, Danny felt that feeling again, that ripping and tearing that left him feeling empty inside.
After his second year of college, Danny had started skipping classes. Not on purpose, of course. Not at the start. The first time was an accident. Danny had been up late the night before, curled into a ball on the floor, staring at his laptop with stinging eyes. He had been waiting for a message from one of his friends, his brain stuck in a loop of memories. They were always so close, so in sync, and Danny knew that one of them had to know he was feeling this way. This terrible, painful, empty way. They have to know, Danny had sobbed, they have to know.
Next thing he knew, he was waking up to his laptop making some sort of noise and desperately, he clawed at it. He scanned his messages over and over again, his eyes burning and his mouth twisting into a grimace. There was nothing. It had just been his professor, emailing him to ask why he wasn’t in class. Danny blinked and rubbed the tears from his eyes, typing a quick reply. Something about being sick, promising it wouldn’t become a habit.
It did, and the void opened wider and wider inside him each time.
His third year of college was going poorly, and Danny hadn’t expected anything different. He had taken up smoking years ago, trying to calm his nerves and, only at the start, to try make himself appear “cooler.” Now it was just another shitty habit, like avoiding the classes he never planned to attend in the first place, his family who never called, and his friends who hadn’t reached out in months.
Is it me? he had thought countless times. Did I do something wrong?
Danny stubbed out the second cigarette next to the first and stood, wiping his hands on the thighs of his pants. He turned and went back inside.
Vlad Masters had kept himself busy the last few years. Playing mayor and CEO at the same time was more work than he thought it was worth. Not to mention the damned ghosts. With Danny gone, it was up to him to shoo the occasional pest away from Amity Park. It was a tedious, thankless job, but one he took pride in.
Vlad laughed to himself. Sure, he smirked, pride. He had been out later than he would have liked after such a long day, chasing off a rather annoying ghost that spoke of nothing but boxes for fuck’s sake.
Growling, Vlad floated down through the roof, directly to his bathroom, and immediately transformed. Sighing, he leaned forward and examined his face in the mirror. He had very recently turned 47 and was looking for any signs of...of what? He frowned at his reflection. Signs of old age? He shuddered at the thought.
Vlad shook his head and turned to the shower instead. It had been an already rough day, and the godforsaken ‘Box Ghost’ had only made it worse. Disrobing, he stepped into the cool water and sighed again.
Danny’s heart sank lower than it had for a while, and that was saying something. He hands shook, as he scrolled up on his laptop to read the email again.
Academic probation. Failure to attend classes. Impending expulsion.
He felt the void threaten to tear open and swallow him whole. He had to get out of here, leave, before it actually did. Before the university did what it was threatening to do. Danny glanced around his room, panicked. He...had a bookbag at one point, he was pretty sure. Yes, there it was, under a heap of...Danny didn’t even know. Clothing in need of washing. Trash in need of tossing. Forgotten textbooks he had meant to return last semester, or were those from two semesters ago?
Danny was breathing hard. He couldn't just leave, what was he thinking!? I...I have to fix this. This is my fault. I did this. I did this to myself. It’s my fault. He looked around the room again. What was he looking for?
And where would I even go ? he whined to himself, chewing on a fingernail. I can’t go home , they’d start asking questions again. I can’t go see them , we haven’t spoken in so long, it’d just...make things worse.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to Danny. It was a longshot but...it was probably the least problematic place to go in his current state. He stood still for another moment, surveying the damage he had done to the room. No, it’s...it’s too much, he thought, his foot tapping frantically. He had to leave
He dug out the bag, and started packing.
After his shower, Vlad had dressed in a pair of silk pajama pants. He drifted lazily to the kitchen of his Amity Park mansion and poured himself a glass of something strong . He quickly downed the glas, refilled it, and set it on a marble counter. Then he teleported himself to his library, snatched a book from the desk, and then back to the kitchen. It was a rather domestic use of the power, he knew that. But damn was it convenient.
He raised the glass and took a sip, floating to his favourite armchair, and settled in with his book. He tried to read a few lines, but his general frustration kept distracting him, and by the time he realized he had just been reading the same sentence over and over again, he groaned and leaned his head back.
He had just nodded off when a sharp noise jerked him from sleep. Blinking sleepily, he looked around the room. There it was again. At his door, there was another knock.
Chapter 2: A Map, a String, a Light
My instinct was to flee from home
Closure, I will find you in due time
The knock on his door had startled Vlad, and shakily, he lowered his glass to the table and laid his book on his chair as he stood. Brushing his hands off on the thighs of his silk pajama pants, he tried to remember if he was expecting company or not. His eyes narrowed as he contemplated transforming and tearing out the throat of whoever the fuck was disturbing him at - he glanced at his watch and hissed - 11:38 pm. It was a Tuesday for fuck’s sake!
Vlad took a steadying breath and held it for a few moments before letting it out slowly. He had an appearance to maintain. An appearance he cared about maintaining.
Calmly, he made his way to the door and opened it. His mouth was open, ready to politely tell this unwanted guest to fucking scram, but his words stuck in his throat. He closed his mouth. Then opened it. Then closed it again. This was...unexpected.
Danny had been standing, waiting, for what he felt was an uncomfortable amount of time. He toyed with the idea of turning himself intangible and simply walking through the door, but that wouldn’t put him in anyone’s good graces. He considered leaving, just crashing for the night in his childhood bedroom and praying that nobody would find him and start asking the kind of questions that made that hole inside him open up wider.
So he continued to wait.
Is he even home..? Danny wondered. He gnawed on his lower lip and tried to remind himself why he had come here to this specific place . But his thoughts wouldn’t stop once he started thinking them. Did I go to the wrong house? Should I have tried Wisconsin first? Oh god, his heart beat harder in his chest. Oh god, oh no, it’s happening again. Why is it happening again. Oh god, I have to go, I have to-
A sound distracted him, and his brain stopped fussing. The door had opened, and Danny could have cried with relief. He’s here. Oh god, oh thank god, he’s here. He let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, and then he waited while Vlad Masters, his long-ago enemy and current, eh, acquaintance simply stared. It was clear he was trying to figure something out, but couldn't figure anything out. After a painful moment, he spoke.
“Hey…” Danny said, one hand sheepishly scratching the back of his head, the other holding an overstuffed bookbag. “I...need your help.” He tried to laugh, an attempt to break the already suffocating tension, but the sound that came out of his mouth was more like a sad cough. He smiled weakly.
Vlad appeared to be frozen and for an instant, Danny worried what god awful energy his core had released. A heartbeat before Danny could move to shake Vlad’s shoulder, Vlad blinked.
“I...what?” he asked, charming as ever.
“I need your help,” Danny repeated, and, oh, there it was. That familiar feeling of being eaten up by the emptiness, the anxiety, the everything. That familiar tearing and ripping and swallowing up of his general person. He felt like he was drowning, and over the sounds of his own terribly loud thoughts, he heard himself say, “I fucked up. Vlad, I really fucked up.”
“O...kay..?” Vlad asked. Danny watched him attempt to regain his usual composure once, then again, and finally Vlad’s hands stopped fussing with his shirt and fell to his sides. He took a step forward and narrowed his eyes at Danny before continuing, “Help how?”
“It’s...a long story…” Danny said, hoping that would be enough to at least convince Vlad to invite him inside. He shuffled his feet nervously, and fought to keep control of himself, the cacophony of his thoughts, that aching, permanent void inside him.
“Okay,” Vlad said, crossing his arms. He was still staring, no, glaring at Danny. “Give me the short version, and then I’ll decide whether or not I should call the police or blast you off my doorstep myself.”
Danny winced, and even though he knew Vlad was right in saying that, it still hurt. He dropped his bag on the ground next to his feet. He gestured around, trying to find the right words, and eventually settled on two words, “I...failed…”
“Failed what, Daniel?” Vlad practically spat. Danny shrank in on himself.
“I...it...everything. God, I fucked it all up so bad , Vlad, please. I…” he was panicking again. Danny could feel the tears threatening to spill over and give away just how bad he was, and he quickly wiped them away.
“Jesus fucking christ,” Vlad muttered, “fine.” He stepped aside and gestured for Danny to come inside. Danny scooped up his bag and all but ran through the door. Vlad followed, closing the door behind him. “Now what is so important that you had to come to my house in the middle of the night ?” he asked, impatience making his voice much, much harsher than usual. Danny winced.
“I...don’t really know where to start…” he began, but the uncertainty and the empty ache made it hard to continue. “I’m just...I’m really freaking out.”
“Okay, again I ask you, Daniel,” Vlad said, pushing Danny towards the sitting room he had just been about to fall asleep in, “ what is so important?”
“I can’t...I’m...I’m sorry,” Danny said, running his hands through his hair. “Just...okay. Let me show you.” He sat down on an uncomfortable leather couch and began pulling things out of his bag until he uncovered his laptop. Quickly, he opened it, and handed it clumsily to Vlad. Then he leaned forward, his head in his hands.
Vlad took the laptop and skimmed the email Danny had pulled up on the screen. He frowned.
Yes, yes, I remember those days, he grimaced. He looked down at Daniel, who was...was he crying? Oh lord, he thought, handing the laptop back.
“So when you said you needed help,” Vlad began, stepping back to sit in his armchair. “Did you mean...what? What am I supposed to be doing here, Daniel?”
“I don’t know!” he snapped. “I don’t know, okay! I just...I don’t know what to do now! I fucked up so bad and I don’t know what to do!”
“And I’m supposed to know?” Vlad snapped right back. God damn, he was too tired for this. “You should be asking your parents about this, not me! I am not in the mood to do this, Daniel.”
“I can’t,” Danny said, with a little less force. “I can’t, they won’t understand.” Vlad rolled his eyes.
“Fine, then why not go to your infuriating little friends with this? Surely they wouldn’t have let this happen.” Vlad watched Danny shake his head, and his face twisted in a way that was painful for Vlad to witness.
“No,” Danny said, a harsh laugh escaping, “no, I haven’t spoken to them in almost a year. They have no idea it’s this bad.” Vlad felt something pull inside him. He remembered those days, too.
“And why’s that?” Vlad asked, leaning his head back and closing his eyes, though he suspected he already knew the answer. He was running out of steam.
“I don’t know, I...it just happened I guess. That first year I tried, I really tried to make sure things stayed the same. But they just...they didn’t...they…” Danny trailed off. “It was just so hard, you know? Sam and Tuck, they...they moved on.” Vlad groaned internally and felt that bitter pull again. This was not something he wanted to deal with.
“Okay, Daniel. Here’s what’s going to happen,” Vlad said, standing and stopping Danny from continuing. “You’re going to sleep here tonight and, and in the morning, you’re going to pull yourself together, go back to your own home, and let Jack and Maddie deal with this. I can’t-” he stopped, then tried again, “I’m not doing this. Goodnight, Daniel.”
Before Danny could protest, Vlad teleported himself directly into his bed and closed his eyes.
That fucking kid, Vlad thought, scowling into the darkness.
Chapter 3: Care
It's been a while since I've talked about it
Maybe it's time to co-operate
I need some help to forget about it
I don't want your sympathy
Stop sayin' you give a shit
Because you don't really care
Oh, by the way I'm still the same
But are you the same?
When Vlad finally pried his eyes open the next morning, he felt a twinge of anxiety that he couldn't quite place. Smoothing back his long hair, he stood, then decided against it, and hovered. Still sleep-drunk, he floated vaguely in the direction of the bathroom while simultaneously dispatching a duplicate to begin making calls and answering messages. Of course, nobody really cared whether or not he was in the office; that was to be expected from somebody as powerful and respected as Vlad Masters. He listened through the duplicate’s ear as a secretary whose name he had never learned reminded him of some meeting later in the week.
With a small poof of black smoke, he was suddenly in the kitchen and thanking god for the invention of the automatic coffee maker. He poured himself a cup and drifted to the kitchen sink to look out the large picture window. All morning, his core has been acting...well, acting the same, but he still felt uneasy . Vlad leaned against the sink, letting his bare feet touch down on the tiled floor. He frowned.
“What the absolute fuck has he done,” Vlad growled, pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers. The previous night’s events came rushing back to him. Danny at his door, disturbing his sleep. Not that sleeping in that chair would have done me any good, he thought. Danny complaining. The email from his college. Danny complaining some more.
Vlad took a sip of his coffee, half-wishing he had just kicked Danny out. Or better yet, refused him entry in the first place. But something about Danny’s words, his plea for help, his frantic gestures, it had all reminded Vlad of, well, himself. And he had to admit, it was nice to see Danny after a few years, though he wished it had been on better terms.
Danny had been a difficult child, always getting under his feet and thwarting his “evil plans.” Vlad rolled his eyes at that thought. But after Danny had left for college, he almost missed their antics. His current position as mayor had severely limited his free time, and Vlad found that after a few years, he almost preferred the monotony of this line of work compared to the hysteria of attempting world domination. It was possible he was just getting older.
Vlad had only taken a few steps away from the sink before his feet slipped and his hurriedly-intangible ass fell through the floor. He pulled himself back up and inspected the floor. The tiles were slick with ice. There were several smaller patches, just barely touched with frost that were scattered around the kitchen. Were they shaped like…
Oh lord, Vlad thought, feeling 90% annoyed and 10% amused.
After a moment’s deliberation, he followed the trail of frost prints from the floor of the kitchen, out the back door, and found Danny hunched over the railing of the back deck. Silently, he padded closer.
“Daniel, are you...smoking?”
Danny whipped around, hands clasped behind his back. Vlad could see the sheen of ice spread from Danny’s bare feet across the wooden deck; he could hear it cracking.
“No!” he said.
Vlad rolled his eyes. He stepped closer, taking care to avoid slipping again , and held out his hand expectantly. After a few heartbeats of trying to feign innocence, Danny finally relented, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his sweatshirt pocket and handed one to Vlad. Danny had also pulled out a lighter, which Vlad turned down with a wave of his hand, instead pulling a small flame from his core to light it. He inhaled deeply before turning to Danny.
“These are fucking terrible.”
“Yeah, I know,” Danny said. "Sorry..." They stood in silence.
I need more coffee, Vlad thought, stifling a yawn. He leaned his back against the railing and let his head fall back, stretching his neck.
“God, I’m so sorry about this,” Danny sighed, lighting another cigarette. “I’m not usually that bad. It’s not usually that bad.” Danny grimaced, and Vlad eyed him warily.
“Well, I can’t say I appreciated the way you so suddenly intruded on my evening. But," he gestured, as if that finished the sentence. "How long has it been?” Vlad asked.
“Oh, I dunno, a couple years, I guess,” Danny shrugged. “I don’t think we’ve had a fight fight since I started college.” Vlad snorted.
“I’m aware ,” he said, attempting to keep his voice even, “of the current status of our rivalry. I meant this,” and he gestured at Danny. “When did it start?”
“ Oh, uhm…” Danny thought for a moment, scratching absently at the stubble on his chin. “Since I left home, I guess. It’s...hard to say.”
Vlad nodded. It had been the same for him, he supposed. Something that was always there, something inside him that had always been empty. It had only gotten bad after the accident.
“Hey,” Danny said quietly, pulling Vlad away from his thoughts, “why are you being so...not shitty about this?” He was looking away, off into the distance. It took Vlad a moment to pick his words carefully.
“As I’m sure you know,” he began, steeling himself before continuing, “college was not particularly kind to me, either. For different reasons, of course, but still. I guess I see a bit of myself in you, and despite your opinion of me, I’m not a complete ass. Well, most of the time.”
“Yeah, I know,” Danny replied softly, turning to look at Vlad. “You’re, like, a total fruitloop, but you’re not all bad. If you were actually evil, I couldn't have left you here alone. You’re…” and Danny thought for a moment, “you’re just complicated.”
Vlad was about to respond, when Danny cut him off.
“I just wanted to know why you haven’t blasted me off your property yet, and if I need to keep an eye out for Plasmius. I think we’re due for a rematch one of these days.” One corner of Danny’s mouth pulled up into a crooked smile. Vlad sighed and looked away, stubbing out his cigarette on the railing.
“I need more coffee.”
Danny was on edge as he followed Vlad back into the house. He had tried to make a joke, but his sense of humor as of late was rather...hollow. The joke hadn't landed. Like usual. He ran a shaking hand clumsily through his hair, and shut the door behind him.
Despite Vlad telling him to sleep the night before, Danny found it impossible to settle, and instead had spent at least five hours pacing around Vlad’s Amity Park home, looking in various drawers and poking his head through locked doors. Danny had been here once or twice years ago, and the house had been mostly empty then. It was obviously just a front for Vlad while he played mayor, but now… Danny found that all the rooms were filled and even appeared to be used regularly.
And there weren’t nearly as many of them as Danny thought there’d be. He found a room dedicated entirely to Packers memorabilia - No surprise there, Danny thought with a short laugh. Another room was actually set up as a guest room - Who’s Vlad got sleeping over? Danny thought. How scandalous. He peeked into a few other rooms, but didn’t find anything particularly interesting. No master bedroom, though...heh...more like Masters bedroom. The little joke made Danny smile for real. He kept looking around.
The library had been the most impressive room so far, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on all four walls. Danny briefly wondered how Vlad could read in here with no light since the bookshelves clearly covered the windows, but didn’t really think any more of it. His thoughts were jumping around like mad, trying to avoid thinking about the reason he had come here in the first place.
But once that thought crossed his mind, he couldn't stop it. The guilt. The overwhelming sense of failure and mess and ruin. The feeling that came with knowing that he had done this to himself. He leaned back against a door he had yet to open and felt the tearing in his core. It was all too much. He gasped with the pain of it and brought his hand to his chest.
It was then that he stumbled intangibly through Vlad’s bedroom door, promptly nope-ing the fuck out of there. Danny stood outside the door and crewed on his bottom lip. He held a hand to his eyes and phased back through. He had already seen the bed, and used his hand to block it off. He did, however, look everywhere else.
It wasn’t a particularly impressive room in terms of size. It was dark and moody and very Vlad, with all the red drapery and black curtains. Danny, still shielding half the room, took a few more steps into the room. There was a tall wardrobe and matching dresser that Danny guessed matched the bed, not that he was interested in confirming that theory. But there wasn’t really much else to investigate. Danny was almost disappointed. He had half-expected the bedroom of a billionaire to be more...ostentatious. This was just a bedroom. Nice, Danny grinned to himself, that’s a five-dollar word. Vlad would be proud. After snooping around the room a little more, looking for hidden passageways or anything interesting, Danny gave up and quietly phased back through the door.
After that, though, he was out of things to do. He checked his phone - roughly five in the morning - and decided to make a cup of coffee, only to cry out of desperation when the damn machine just wouldn’t fucking work.
That’s when he started pacing back and forth through Vlad’s kitchen. The tiles under his feet were cool and calming, and the thoughts, the feelings, it all seemed to...freeze. Danny took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He let the breath out slowly, feeling the pressure on his core release, and he opened his eyes.
Oh shit, he thought, looking down. The tiles under his feet glistened in the dim morning light. Vlad’s gonna kill me..!
He had retreated outside then, waiting. Waiting for Vlad to wake up and tell him to leave. Waiting for his parents to call after receiving the letter the university had undoubtedly sent them. Waiting for the hole that had opened up inside him to swallow him whole.
But...Vlad hadn’t been mad. And he hadn’t told Danny to leave, either. He was handing Danny a mug of coffee and Danny wanted to cry. He was so tired. He sipped it carefully, then downed the whole thing in several desperate gulps.
“Thank you,” Danny said breathlessly. “Oh god, thank you. I needed that.”
Vlad was eyeing him cautiously, leaning forward on the marble countertop across from him. He had a laptop open in front of him and was looking from the screen to Danny.
“Daniel, did you hear my question?”
“Uhm, no?” Danny’s heart beat faster. There it was. There was that feeling. There was that ripping -
“I asked what you wanted to do?”
“Uh, about what?” Danny asked, bringing a hand to his mouth to gnaw at a fingernail. Vlad spun the laptop around and Danny realized it was his own. Wait, how did he-
“What do you want to do about this, Daniel.”
Chapter 4: Ambrosia
Ambrosia's turning me honest
Sweet as they come but
I'm not the one that they miss
A vision covered in cool whip
Nothin' is simple just cause you wish that it is
Danny groaned, letting his forehead smack down on the counter. “I don’t know…” he said into the marble, pulling his arms around his head. “I don’t… What do you think I should do?” He heard Vlad sigh, then the sound of more coffee being poured. Then the feeling of another warm mug being pushed against his arm. He buried his face in the sleeves of his sweatshirt and tensed.
“Do you want my honest opinion, Daniel?”
“Sure,” he said. He really didn’t.
“I think you should go home. Tell Jack and Maddie, I don’t know, something . You’re creative. Blame it on a ghost for all I care. But you can’t just…” Vlad sounded frustrated, and Danny braced himself for Vlad to start yelling. “You need to go home, Daniel.”
“No, I-I can’t,” Danny said, turning his head to lay his cheek on the cool surface of the counter. “They wouldn’t...get it. That’s why I…” Danny pulled one arm away and looked up at Vlad. “That’s why I came here.”
“Oh lord,” Vlad muttered, bringing a hand up to press two fingers to his temple. “Daniel, I do not have the patience for this right now. Just tell me what it is you want from me so you can go.” Danny felt his cheeks grow hot and he looked away.
“I just need help,” he said softly, “please. I don’t know how to fix this and I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“What about your allies in the Zone?” Vlad asked. “You seem to have made plenty of friends there over the years. I’m sure one of them could help you with this.” Danny winced, picturing one of Clockwork’s faces.
“No, I don’t...I don’t go there anymore.”
“And why not?” Vlad asked, leaning down, his arms crossed on the counter. Danny buried his face in his arms again.
“What’s the point? Nobody has any sense of time there. I could disappear for months, and nobody would notice. I did disappear for months, and...” Danny grimaced. This was thought territory he avoided for a reason. It hurt whenever he accidentally remembered that fact, his disappearance, and he tried desperately to hold himself together. He pulled his arms down and grasped at his sides, squeezing his eyes shut. He tried to make it stop, but it was true. He had disappeared and nobody had noticed. He had avoided his friends, his family, his classes, his powers, himself, all of it for so long and nobody had noticed . He heard a soft sound escape from his mouth.
“Daniel, are you alright?” Vlad asked as Danny rocked softly back and forth.
No, he thought, I’m not. I haven’t been alright in so long and the only person who can see it is the guy who used to beat the shit out of me when I was a teenager. How fucked up is that? How sad and pathetic is that? His thoughts were spiraling down, down, down into that void, that rip, that dark place inside him. The pressure of it on his core was suffocating him. He heard the sound of ceramic cracking, but he couldn't open his eyes. There was something hot on his face, and he was dimly aware that he was crying.
Why am I like this? He was losing control, thoughts whirling. Why am I so terrible? Why didn’t I try harder? Why did I have to ruin everything? And why can’t I just fix it? God, I’ve messed everything up and now I’m here and it’s still a mess and...and...why isn’t Vlad doing anything? He should have thrown me through a fucking wall by now! I know I deserve it! Just...just hit me! Just-
“I’m not going to hit you, Daniel,” Vlad sighed, frustrated, and Danny flinched.
He opened his eyes and saw wedges of a ceramic mug scattered in front of him. He reached forward with a shaking hand to touch one, noticing the webbing of frost that coated it.
“Oh god, I’m- I’m so sorry, I-”
“Daniel . Stop. It’s a cup .” Vlad said, sweeping them away with a dish towel. “Do you think I can’t afford another one?”
“No, I just- I’m-”
“ Daniel. ” Vlad snapped.
Oh god, I...I can’t… Danny thought. His chest was aching, the pressure on his core tightening and constricting inside him. His knees buckled and he was on the floor, his calf spasming again.
“Daniel, are you listening to me? Can you hear me?” Danny’s head snapped up as he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Can you at least stand?” Vlad asked.
Danny shook his head, and Vlad stepped closer, pulling one of Danny’s arms over his own shoulders and lifting him up, a hand on Danny’s side. Danny’s feet felt unsteady under him, and he was momentarily thankful for the support before Vlad began walking, dragging Danny along with him.
“Where are we..? What are you..?” Danny tried to say, but exhaustion pulled at him and made his mouth clumsy.
“Stop talking, Daniel. I’m going to show you to the guest room, and then you’re going to sleep. I’ll decide what to do with you once you wake up.”
“Oh yeah, guest room… I found that earlier when I was, uhm, not snooping...” Danny mumbled. He thought he saw the corners of Vlad’s mouth lift into a small smile, but his eyes weren’t focusing properly, and just the thought of a clean bed was enough to let the drowsiness he had been fighting all night and all morning spring forward. “Sorry,” said as he yawned.
Vlad just shook his head and turned them down the hall.
Danny was lighter than Vlad thought he would be, and he briefly wondered if he was eating properly. Ugh, of course he isn’t. Just look at him.
Vlad glanced down at Danny and took in the sharp features of his face, the thin fingers gripping at his shoulders, the feeling of ribs beneath his hand on Danny’s side. He frowned and looked away. He kept walking.
Vlad had furnished the small bedroom during one of his more...self-destructive periods. A self-inflicted reminder of his solitude, his loneliness. His desire for company. His frown was now a scowl.
Vlad shouldered the door open and pulled his arm from Danny’s side, gesturing to the bed.
“Now sleep .” Vlad said, a touch more aggressive than he had meant to sound. Danny just nodded and shuffled into the room.
“I’m sorry,” Danny said once he was laying down. He was on his side, curled into a tight ball. If Vlad didn’t know he was in his twenties, he would have that Danny still looked like a child.
“Don’t be,” Vlad replied, sitting down on the foot of the bed. He glanced at his watch - 11:07 am. “Just sleep, Daniel. I promise, you’ll feel better once you’ve had some rest.” Danny didn’t respond, and Vlad sighed, hoping Danny had taken his advice. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, pinching the bridge of his nose. He tried to ignore the headache threatening to take shape. Vlad stood slowly, trying not to disturb Danny’s sleep. He took a few careful steps to the door.
“Vlad?” Danny’s soft voice cut through the silence. Vlad turned, and saw Danny looking back at him.
“Why are you doing this?” His eyes were rimmed with red and he looked...tired. Vlad ran a hand through his hair. Maybe that was why. He remembered that tiredness, the type that ate you up from the inside out and made the mere task of existing a challenge.
“What do you mean?”
“This just isn’t like you,” Danny said, looking away to stare at the corner of the room. Vlad sighed. They were quiet for a moment while Vlad considered how much of his psyche he could comfortably get away with sharing.
“I’m an old man, Daniel. I just got tired of it all,” he finally said, tucking a stray hair behind his ear. “After so many years,” after you left, “I just...lost interest. It wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t see the point.”
“Yeah,” Danny whispered. “I know what you mean.”
They were quiet again.
“Just sleep, little badger. Please,” Vlad said. He pulled the door closed behind him and leaned against it.
Chapter 5: Marfa
You were seeing
Soft pale moons
Closing their eyelids
The conversation with Danny had left Vlad feeling...conflicted. Confused. And possibly - Vlad shuddered - concerned. He stalked back down the hall to the kitchen and struggled to resist the temptation to rip down all the frames from the wall. He indelicately snatched Danny’s laptop from the counter and was suddenly sitting in an armchair, waving away black smoke. With a few key taps, he was glaring down at the email Danny had shown him the night before. He took a few not-so-calming breaths, and read it again.
April 19, 2019
This letter is to inform you that you are on academic probation as outlined in the Academic Standing Policy of the Chicago State University Catalog. According to our records, your cumulative grade point average at the conclusion of the Fall 2018 semester is below a 2.000. Academic probation is not a penalty, but a warning that the quality of your academic performance must improve.
In order to remove yourself from probation and avoid academic dismissal, you must achieve a grade point average of 2.000 or above for each term of enrollment until you are removed from academic probation.
Students on academic probation:
-May not register for more than 15 credit hours during a fall or spring term and may not register for more than 12 hours during the summer term
-May not register for courses under the pass/fail option
-May not secure approval to take courses at another university as a transient student
If you are currently registered for more hours than you are allowed or if you are utilizing the pass/fail option, you must adjust your schedule immediately.
We want to make sure that you remain committed to timely graduation and completion of your academic studies. Meeting with your academic advisor to establish goals and an academic success plan is your best way to improve your academic standing. You can also take advantage of the many academic support resources available to students on your campus.
If you have any questions and/or need clarifying information regarding this letter, please speak with your assigned academic advisor.
Dr. Melody Tankersley
Vlad groaned, remembering a similar letter he had received after the accident. He had been furious; how insensitive could they be to send him that while he was in the hospital? It was obvious, considering he hadn’t been to class in months.
“It’s fine ,” Vlad growled under his breath, pushing away the storm of emotions that memory stirred up. “That ship has sailed.” He opened a new window on Danny’s laptop and began typing. He struggled to recall how he had responded to this, what, twenty five years ago? Twenty six?
He choked down a laugh, remembering something about a fire. “Something tells me Daniel wouldn’t appreciate me setting fire to his school,” he chuckled. “Not that his opinion has swayed me before.”
Hasn’t it, though? a small voice in the back of his mind asked as Vlad continued typing. You can’t deny his influence, especially now, after years of separation. Aren’t you the one defending his haunt?
“No,” Vlad replied, his voice firm with indignation. “This city is mine now.”
You know it’s not, the voice whispered.
“ Yes, it is. ”
It’s not, it repeated, and as Vlad wrestled for the right words to shut down its argument, the voice continued. You’re defending him right now.
“Well, it’s not like I have much choice, do I?” Vlad asked, his fingers pausing on the keyboard. “I can’t get him to leave, and he has a fucking breakdown every time I suggest he goes home!”
Then let him stay, the voice suggested.
“Oh lord, no, that’s not happening,” Vlad growled. “Why would I subject myself to more of this torment?”
Because it’s what you wanted, back when you were him. You’ve seen the destination his suffering will lead him to, and you don’t want that for him.
We both know you’re going to let him stay. And we both know it will help.
Vlad was silent; the voice was right, and the unspoken You want to help made him frown. He considered continuing the argument for argument’s sake, but what was the point? He had been alone after the accident and alone for years after that, isolating himself until the only thing that drove him out of bed in the morning was the prospect of world domination. Vlad rolled his eyes and smoothed back his hair. Even if he had the inclination to continue with that fruitless desire, he’d still be alone in the end. He ran another hand through his hair.
I won’t let that happen to Daniel, he thought, determined, moving his hands back to the keyboard to continue typing.
It was dark when Vlad opened his eyes again. The yellow light shining from the small lamp on the table next to his chair reflected off the black screen of Danny’s laptop, somehow still resting on his legs. He squinted at his watch, stifling a yawn with the back of hand - 6:28 pm. He felt a warm breeze on the back of his neck as he stretched his arms above his head. Turning to look over his shoulder, he saw the door from the kitchen wide open and Danny standing on the deck. Setting the laptop on the table, he stood.
He took a cautious step into the kitchen, wary of more ice. But the tiles were cool and dry. Quickly, he padded out onto the deck and stood beside Danny, his hand out expectantly.
“So,” Vlad said as Danny passed him another terribly cheap cigarette, “here’s the deal. You can stay here, for now, but-”
“Yes, but I have some conditions.”
“Okay..?” Danny asked, his excitement fading fast. “What kind of conditions? You’re not gonna make me do anything...anything weird, are you?”
“ Jesus, Daniel, no. I’m not-” Vlad shook his head, then continued. “All I ask is you either continue your education, or find a job. You can stay here rent free, I understand your circumstances, and I know of an opening or two at a one of my companies here in-”
“That one,” Danny said quickly. “I’ll do that one. I can’t...I can’t do the college thing anymore, not after I...you know…”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Vlad said, waving a hand dismissively. “I spent the better part of my day emailing back and forth with that ‘Melody’ woman until she understood just how...beneficial your continued enrollment would be.”
“No,” Danny whined, “you didn’t, did you?”
“ I’m sorry, Daniel, I thought you wanted my help?”
“Well, yeah, but not…” Danny trailed off, squeezing his eyes shut. He took a deep breath before he continued. “You’re right, thank you. I’m sorry, I...I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“It’s fine, Daniel. Believe me, I understand how you feel.”
“How did…” Danny said quietly, “How did you make it stop?”
Vlad was silent, leaning forward on the railing. He felt the warm April breeze blow across his face.
“I didn’t,” he said at last. It was difficult to admit to anyone that he had never fully recovered, but Danny deserved to know.
“Oh…” Danny whispered, hunching his shoulders. “So I’ll just...be like this forever then..?”
Vlad reached forward and put a hand on Danny’s shoulder. It was sharp.
“Daniel, when’s the last time you ate?”
“I had something before I left to come here, I...I think.”
“Okay,” Vlad said carefully. “Well, I’m usually arriving home at this time, and I would appreciate an extra set of hands in the kitchen, if you don’t mind.” He avoided looking at Danny and turned to the door.
Danny was still for a long moment, but finally he stubbed out his cigarette on the railing where Vlad had done the same that morning and followed Vlad inside.
Chapter 6: Sorry
And it hurts me
That you could be the one that deserved this, even more
But you stayed in the same dark place that I adore
But you stayed for more
I guess that's what happens to the best of us
Danny was never really a fan of cooking. Bumping elbows at the kitchen sink with Vlad while wrist-deep in lobster was not helping to change his opinion.
“Okay, Daniel,” Vlad was saying, “Now just follow that cut you made when we were opening the shell all the way down the meat. We’re going to peel it back in a moment.”
“Why are we doing this?” Danny asked, picking up a knife.
“Presentation matters just as much as taste, Daniel.”
“No, I meant why are we doing this. Don’t you have, I dunno, a private chef or something? You’re still rich, right?”
Danny watched Vlad sigh, his eyes closed and hands still.
“Will you preheat the oven for me? Four fifty should do it,” Vlad said. His voice was strained. Danny shrugged and stepped to the side, fiddling with the dial. The machine was simpler than he thought it would be. As he turned back, he saw Vlad leaning over the counter, gently placing a portion of the meat onto the shell he had halved earlier.
“What now?” Danny asked flatly. He tried to keep his voice calm, but his mangled sleep schedule was catching up to him once again, and he wanted to lay down.
“That’s all for now, thank you,” Vlad muttered absently, reaching back into the sink.
“Sure thing,” he said, returning to the sitting room where he had found Vlad asleep an hour ago. He grabbed his laptop and sat on the hard leather couch, propping his feet up on the coffee table.
Vlad had left himself signed in to an email account, and Danny blushed as he read through Vlad’s exchanges with the university. Vlad had offered them a lot of money to clear him from academic probation. Yup, Danny thought, still rich. Quickly glancing over his shoulder to make sure Vlad was still preoccupied in the kitchen, he skimmed through some of Vlad’s other emails. He was looking for anything that seemed suspicious out of habit. But all Danny could find were emails about management meetings, credit card statements, a museum newsletter, and one about an ongoing sale at an expensive clothing store.
He listened for a moment, and heard the sound of Vlad mixing something in what was probably a glass bowl. Danny chewed on his bottom lip and clicked over to the deleted emails. He read over a few of them, and found a delivery confirmation, more emails about meetings Vlad had probably already attended, and receipts from a downtown coffee shop.
“Find anything interesting, Daniel?” Vlad asked, leaning over Danny’s shoulder. Danny yelped in surprise, quickly slamming his laptop closed.
“I’m sorry!” he shouted, jumping to his feet. “I didn’t- I mean, I just- I’m sorry!” There was a shimmering at the edge of Vlad’s form which was leaning forward over the back of the couch and grinning triumphantly. “Oh for fuck’s sake, Vlad!”
“Whatever do you mean by that, Daniel?” the Vlad in front of him and the one in the kitchen said.
“Dude, what the fuck !” Danny yelled. One Vlad was hunched over the back of the couch, shaking with laughter. The other walked out of the kitchen with two fingers on his chin. He was smiling. “You scared the shit outta me!”
“Forgive me, Daniel. I simply couldn't resist,” Vlad said, waving away the duplicate. “I may not be evil, as you once assumed, but I do enjoy a bit of mischief from time to time.”
Danny clutched his chest, and attempted to slow his heartbeat back to a normal rhythm.
“So, did you?” Vlad asked, leaning against the door frame leading to the kitchen.
“O-oh, I was just… Okay, well, I was just going to...and then it was...and I...yeah,” Danny stuttered slowly while Vlad just stared at him, drying his hands with a dish towel. “Did I...what?”
“Find anything interesting,” Vlad smirked.
“I’m sorry, I was just going to- Well, you see, it was open, and I-”
Vlad cut him off with a laugh.
“Please, Daniel. It’s fine. Like I told you before,” he said, tossing the towel over his shoulder. “I don’t have the patience for anything nefarious these days. And besides,” he smiled, then winked, “it’s not like they have email in the Zone.”
Danny tried to answer, but Vlad was already walking back into the kitchen.
“Come set the table!” he called.
“This is…damn, this is good!” Danny said, taking another bite. “Oh man, thank you!” The lobster had turned out better than he expected it to, and he was thankful for Vlad’s apparent skills in the kitchen.
“Don’t give me all the credit,” Vlad said, pointing his fork at Danny across the table. “You helped.”
“Please, all I did was run a knife through some weird crabs.”
Vlad snorted. “Yes, well, it was less work I had to do, so thank you for your help, Daniel.”
“Sure,” Danny shrugged. He took another bite and chewed it slowly. He heard Vlad sigh, and Danny made a questioning sound in response. Vlad held a finger to his mouth as he chewed.
“Just lamenting my ruined sleep schedule,” he said after a heartbeat. “Not your fault, of course, I’m just trying to decide if I’m tired enough to sleep or not.”
“Are you doing anything…” Danny tried to find the right word, “anything demanding tomorrow? That’s usually how I decide if I should sleep or not.” He usually wasn't, so he usually didn’t sleep.
“Well,” Vlad said, glancing at his watch, “I should probably actually go to work tomorrow, provided you can handle a day here by yourself.”
Danny shrugged in response. He took a tentative sip from the wine glass and coughed.
“Oh god, this is terrible, Vlad. How do you drink this stuff?”
Vlad frowned. “I think it complements the lobster perfectly. I typically cook with the wine in mind, and I was looking forward to this meal.”
“Ah. That’s not…” Danny winced. “I just mean I don’t really...drink...wine...so I wouldn’t know.” He took another sip and tried not to make a face.
Vlad waved a hand at him, but didn’t speak. That guy sure loves gesturing around, Danny thought. He’s probably not used to talking this mu- Danny froze. Oh god, I’m an idiot. Of course he isn’t. The guy’s lived alone for what, twenty-something years? God, fuck me.
Danny looked up, and Vlad was standing with an empty plate in one hand and an empty wine glass in the other.
“I asked if you were finished.”
“Oh. Yeah, here, lemme help,” Danny said, standing. He grabbed his own dishes and set them in the sink next to Vlad’s. “Are we..?”
“I’ll get them in the morning,” Vlad said, waving a hand at the sink. Again…
He stepped around Danny and was already halfway to the hall before Danny realized where he was going. Danny followed him out of the kitchen.
“Wait, Vlad!” Danny called, and Vlad turned. “I...I don’t know how to thank you for this…” Danny wrapped his arms around himself and closed his eyes. “I know I can be...just such a pain in the ass, and I-I’m so sorry for making you do this.”
“Daniel, please. You’re not making me do anythi-”
“But I am!” Danny shouted. God, I sound like such a fucking child… “You shouldn’t have to do anything for me and I’m just...I’m…”
Danny’s chest was aching again with that familiar pressure on his core. He grimaced.
“Daniel..?” he heard Vlad ask. He opened his mouth to respond, then decided against it.
I can’t, there's...what’s the point? I just keep repeating myself, and every time I try to explain it, I just...I sound so stupid and childish!
His head was pounding, and he wanted to grab it. He tried to move his hands to his ears, to block out the uproar in his head, but he couldn't move them from his sides; they were holding him together as he felt himself rip, rip, rip.
He heard the floor creak, and then two arms wrapped around his shoulders.
The emptiness throbbed in his chest and he felt like he was going to break. “God, I’m so fucking pathetic. This so stupid, I don’t know why I’m like this. I’m so sor-”
“Hush,” Vlad said, but Danny continued.
“This is all just so fucking stupid. How can I feel like this when it’s all my fault? I’m the one who did this, I’m-”
“Breathe, Daniel. It’s fine.”
“I just don’t know how you deal with this! You’ve got your own life and your own problems and I know you probably hate me and if anything, this just proves how fucking pathetic I am.”
“Daniel, you’re not breathing. Take a breath. It’s okay; you’re okay.”
“No! I can’t- I can’t breath, it hurts so fucking bad.”
“What hurts? Where on your body does it hurt?”
“M-my core,” Danny whined. “It feels like it’s going to burst. And every time this happens, something...I just...I always…”
“Just let it out,” Vlad said. “You’ll feel better once you do.”
“No, I...I’m not gonna…”
“I’ll be fine, if that’s what you’re worried about. Trust me, you’re not going to hurt me,” Vlad said. Danny thought he could hear uncertainty in Vlad’s voice.
“I mean, i-if you’re sure…”
“Fine,” Danny groaned, and he let go.
Vlad hissed, but he stayed. He felt Vlad’s arms tighten around him as he breathed. The relief was immediate. The compression on his core was released and all he felt in its absence was..cold.
“Better, Daniel?” Vlad asked, his voice strained.
“Yeah, I...it’s easier to breathe now, I guess.”
“Good. I’m going to let go now. Are you okay?” Vlad asked as he stepped back. He let out a long, strained breath, and Danny could see steam rising from Vlad’s shoulders.
“Wow, weird,” Danny heard himself say. Vlad rolled his eyes, but his expression was still soft.
“Yes, well, at least you won’t set my house on fire,” he said, and Danny raised an eyebrow.
“You’ve...Have you actually done that?”
Vlad smiled, then frowned. “...unfortunately…” he muttered.
Danny couldn't stop the small laugh that bubbled up.
“Wow, I’m...wow. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to freeze it, I guess. Wow.”
Vlad sighed. It looked like he was going to say something else, but he just reached forward and ruffled Danny’s hair.
“Goodnight, little badger,” he said before turning and walking down the hall.
Chapter 7: Motion Sickness
I have emotional motion sickness
I try to stay clean and live without
And I want to know what would happen
If I surrender to the sound
Vlad’s hand flopped around on the nightstand before finally landing on the alarm clock. He opened one eye and squinted at the analog clock face - 5:50 am. He groaned and dragged himself up to lean his back against the headboard.
“Jesus christ, I hate getting old,” he muttered and stifled a yawn with the back of his hand.
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood, cracking his back with his hands on his hips. Blearily, he shuffled down the hall to the kitchen; the coffee maker was waiting for him.
Vlad yawned again as he reached for a mug. He filled it half way, then downed it before filling it nearly to the brim.
He glanced out the picture window above the sink and saw Danny standing on the deck. Shrugging, Vlad plucked another mug from the cabinet and poured a second cup. Carefully, he stepped around the counter and conjured a duplicate to open the door for him.
“Well, good morning, Daniel. I didn’t expect to see you up this early.”
“Eh, I couldn't really sleep,” Danny said, squinting over the treeline at the rising sun. Vlad held the second mug out to Danny who immediately grabbed it, taking two large sips. With his free hand, Danny reached into the pocket of his sweatshirt and held out a half-empty pack of cigarettes. Vlad took one, gratefully, and lit it with a small, pink flame.
“This is a terrible habit,” he said, shaking his head. “I thought I’d kicked this years ago, but...here we are.”
“Sorry,” Danny mumbled.
“Don’t be. It’s fine, just…” Vlad let out a smoky breath. “You have got to develop better taste, Daniel. Really, this is...” he took another drag, “this is just shameful . ”
“Yeah?” Danny snorted. “And what did you smoke back in the day? I wasn’t aware Neanderthals had tobacco!”
Vlad pressed the palm of his free hand over one eye and glared at Danny with the other.
“If you must know...Pall Malls…” he groaned.
“Oh man, what?” Danny laughed. “Dude, gross!”
“I was young, Daniel. Please forgive me; my palate was not quite so...refined at that point.” They shared a quiet laugh. “Any plans for the day, Daniel?” Vlad asked, leaning over the railing.
“I don’t know,” Danny said, taking another sip of his coffee. “I’ll probably just mope around your house all day.” He looked up at Vlad with a crooked smile.
“Well, just make sure you’re thinking over what I told you last night. School or work; you have to pick one if you’re going to stay here.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I’ll think about it, okay?” Danny sighed. “It’s just hard.”
“I know,” Vlad said, reaching a hand out to ruffle Danny’s hair. “Since I’m apparently going to work today, I suppose I should change. I doubt the mayoral dress code allows silk pants.”
Danny had earnestly tried to avoid moping around Vlad’s house all day, but an hour after Vlad was gone, Danny found himself spiraling.
He was laying upside down in Vlad’s armchair, tears streaming down his forehead, when he decided to distract himself with some more not snooping.
It took two uninspiring closets before Danny’s curiosity got the better of him, and he found himself once again standing in Vlad’s bedroom. Yup, he thought, all the furniture matches.
Without his hand blocking an entire wall of the room, Danny spotted a door he had missed earlier. Checking over both shoulders, he stepped through it.
Danny blinked in surprise; he hadn’t been expecting the clawfoot tub. I don’t even want to know… he thought, turning to the sink. The counter was made from black marble, and it felt cool on his skin as he ran his fingertips over the surface of it. There wasn't much actually on the counter, aside from a toothbrush. Looking up into a mirror, he stared at his reflection, turning his head from side to side.
It had been a while since Danny had really looked at himself. His initial impression was rough, and the red-rimmed eyes and hollow cheeks didn't help. Danny frowned. His hair was longer than he’d let it grow in years. He ran his fingers through it, and considered tracking down a pair of scissors to cut it. Instead, he looked away.
“Fuck it,” Danny said aloud as he turned two of the knobs on the tub. While he waited for it to fill, Danny commandeered a fresh razor from under the sink and cleaned up the stubble he’d been neglecting. When he was satisfied, he smiled at his reflection.
Climbing into the tub, he closed his eyes and didn’t open them until he heard the sounds of Vlad returning home.
“Wow, this is…” Danny shook his head, smiling. “I never expected to see Vlad Masters grilling like this.”
“What? Is something the matter, Daniel?” Vlad asked, feigning surprise.
“Dude. You’re wearing an apron that says ‘The Grill father.’ Where did you even get that?”
“Internet,” Vlad said with an indignant sniff.
“I just...dude, why?” Danny was grinning, leaning up against the railing of the deck.
“Just bring me a plate, please. I don’t have the patience required for this conversation.”
Danny laughed again, then stubbed out his cigarette. He handed Vlad the plate he had been holding under his arm. Vlad picked up one cut of beef with what Danny hoped was an ironic set of football-shaped tongs.
“Thank you. Now, could you-”
“Set the table?” Danny guessed. Vlad smiled in response.
“Yes, thank you.”
“So, have you thought about what you want to do?” Vlad asked, setting down his wine glass.
“I mean, I have, but I...I don’t know,” Danny said, pushing around a piece of meat. “What would...the job be? If I took it, I mean.”
“Nothing difficult, I assure you. I know of one company looking for someone to answer phone calls, another looking for someone to file paperwork, but…” Vlad leaned forward over the table, his elbows resting on either side of his plate. “But if you’d like, I could find something for you at my current station as an...intern of sorts.”
“Oh man, Vlad. Really? A 21-year-old errand boy?” Danny laughed.
“I’m just saying, it would be easy money. Honestly,” Vlad took a sip of wine, “you probably wouldn’t have to do anything more than just...show up. And I can give you a ride, of course.”
“Okay,” Danny said slowly. “Do you think I’d be able to finish my classes...online? At the same time? Just part time, I don’t...I feel bad about just...giving up, you know?”
Vlad was staring at him, eyebrows raised. He traced a finger around the rim of his glass thoughtfully for a moment.
“Hm...that’s actually not a bad idea, Daniel.”
“Thanks, they do come to me every once in a while.”
“No, no,” Vlad said, waving a hand, “I mean it. That’s, well, very respectable.”
“You don’t think it’ll be too much for me, do you?” Danny winced.
“It could be,” Vlad shrugged. “But I’ll help where I can. I can’t promise I’ll be able to do much, though.”
“Oh, thanks,” Danny said, smiling. He hurried to finish the last few bites as he watched Vlad stand. Like the previous night, Vlad carried his dishes to the sink and set them down before he poured himself another glass of wine.
“Hang on,” Danny said, standing. He hurried to stand next to Vlad. “Need help?” he asked, hands hovering over the sink. “Or are we leaving these for tomorrow?”
“No, let’s just take care of these now,” Vlad said, rolling up his sleeves. He slipped his watch off and set it on the counter, stepping closer to Danny. “I’ll wash, you dry?”
“Sure,” Danny smiled and picked up a dish towel.
There wasn’t a lot of work - they’d only used enough dishes for two - and Danny busied himself with hunting through Vlad’s cabinets to find homes for the wine glasses. Vlad had retrieved a bottle of red wine from the basement for dinner earlier, and Danny wondered if he drank an entire bottle every night. I wouldn’t blame him, Danny thought to himself.
Danny glanced over at Vlad as he tucked a lock of silver hair behind his ear and Danny reflexively touched his own hair. He’d examined it earlier in the bathroom, but had decided against cutting it.
“Hey, does that ever, you know, get in the way?” Danny asked.
“Hm? I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Oh,” Vlad said, absently pulling back his hair. “No, not really. It’s usually,” he gestured, “tied back. Why? Are you growing yours out to match?”
“Dude, what?” Danny laughed, quickly turning away to hide his reddening face. “You wish!”
“It wouldn’t be a bad look for you,” Vlad said thoughtfully. “Right now, though, it’s looking a little...80s.”
Danny tried to think of an argument, but couldn't come up with anything especially witty.
“Okay, fine. You got me there,” he said. “I just don’t know how to make it better. I was considering just wearing a hat until it grew out.”
Vlad grimaced. “I’ll… Oh, I don’t even know. I’ll take a look at it tomorrow night. For now,” he said, switching off the light above the sink, “I need to sleep. I have an asinine number of meetings tomorrow.”
“Sure, thanks,” Danny said, following Vlad out of the kitchen. They turned the corner and silently padded down the hall.
"Good night, Daniel," Vlad called over his shoulder as they passed the guest room Danny had claimed.
He paused, gripping the doorknob in his hand. He eased it open and stared at the floor as Vlad continued down the hall. Danny took a breath, then groaned.
“Yes, Daniel? What is i-”
Danny had rushed forward, wrapping his arms around Vlad’s shoulders before he could finish speaking. They both stood still as Danny took a few shaky breaths.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
Vlad’s arms stayed at his sides as he spoke. “Daniel, I’m sorry, I'm...not much of a…”
“I know,” Danny said into Vlad’s shoulder, “I’m sorry.”
Vlad didn’t move, but he didn’t pull away, so Danny continued.
“Really, I just...thank you. For everything. I can’t...I feel so bad for this, all of this so...I just-”
“Stop,” Vlad said, his voice soft. He sighed, and Danny felt two warm hands on his back. “Don’t apologize. I understand, so please. Stop apologizing.”
“I-I can’t help it,” Danny whispered, his fingers clutching the back of Vlad’s shirt. “I’m sorry, I just wanted to say thank you.”
“Yes, well, you’re welcome,” Vlad mumbled, stepping back. He smoothed his hands over the front of his shirt and looked away awkwardly. “Is there anything else I can do for you, Daniel?”
“No, but thanks” Danny said. “G'night.” He smiled, then quickly turned back to the open door of the guest room.
Chapter 8: Seven
Please picture me in the weeds
Before I learned civility
I used to scream ferociously
Any time I wanted
The instant Vlad left on Friday morning, Danny was back in the clawfoot tub. The room filled with steam as he turned the water hotter and hotter.
Carefully, he lowered himself into the tub. Stretching out, his joints cracked like ice in the hot water.
The water seared his skin bright red, but he didn’t move. He sucked in a breath and dipped under the water. Squinting, he opened his eyes. The water stung, but he held them open, staring up at the light over the tub.
Slowly, Danny let himself drift until he was half-floating in the water, half-sitting on the bottom of the tub. He held perfectly still until the water had turned cold, but even then he remained in the tub. He closed his eyes and let the chill weave its way through him, directly to his core. The tips of his fingers felt numb, and he held his hands to his chest.
Danny didn’t move until he heard the muffled sound of the front door opening through the near-frozen water. He sat up quickly, and looked around for a towel. Standing up, he found one and wrapped it around himself before stepping out of the tub.
Danny caught his reflection in the mirror as he dried himself and gasped. His lips were a deep, purplish blue and his skin was paler than usual. He rubbed at his mouth, trying to make the blood flow, but had to give up when he heard Vlad call his name.
Pulling a sweatshirt over his head, he prayed the - yikes - ice would melt soon.
Vlad sat him down in a kitchen chair after dinner that night. He turned Danny’s head from side to side for a few minutes, occasionally lifting a pair of scissors to his hair before changing his mind. Finally, he sat down in a chair next to Danny. Vlad sighed and crossed his arm, resting his head on the back of the chair.
“Daniel, I…” he began, looking over at Danny. “...I don’t think I have the expertise required to fix this.”
“It’s fine, I guess. I didn’t really want to fuck it up either.”
“Just give it a few...years…” Vlad said, grimacing.
“Oh man, that bad?” Danny asked, running a hand through his still-wet hair.
“No worse than mine was at your age,” Vlad shrugged.
“Ouch,” Danny grinned. “I’ve seen you at my age. That was bad.”
“It was the early 90s, Daniel. Frosted tips were in.”
Danny laughed, leaning back in the chair. “Okay, I’ll give it a shot. You sure this won’t go against some dress code I’m unaware of?”
Vlad gestured at his own hair in response, and Danny laughed again.
“Hey, how many days would I have to work, anyway? I know you said you’d, you know, drive me or whatever. But I’m just curious.”
“Honestly, as long as I’m there for meetings, they could care less if I’m there the rest of the week.”
“So really, I just...have to go with you whenever you feel like going? And what, bring you coffee every few hours?” Danny joked.
“If you want,” Vlad said. “Otherwise, you can just do classwork and ‘hang out,’ as the kids say.”
“Wow,” Danny laughed. “That was bad, even for you.”
“I try,” Vlad said with a small smile.
“Hey, so,” Danny said over breakfast the next morning. “Do you think I’ll have to, like, re- register for classes?”
“Probably,” Vlad replied, not looking up from the book in his hands. “Do you want to do that now?”
“Let’s just get it out of the way,” Danny groaned as Vlad slowly closed his book and stood. He followed Vlad out of the kitchen and down the hall to one of the more nondescript rooms he’d explored before. The only outstanding pieces of furniture in the room were a large wooden desk with an outdated computer and a plant in the corner that Danny strongly suspected was plastic. Vlad sat down at the desk and pressed a few keys to bring the computer back to life. Danny stood behind him and watched.
“So,” Vlad said, tapping out the password. Danny looked away. “Did you want to continue with one of the classes you’re still technically enrolled in? Or did you want to try something else?”
“I mean, I’m already halfway through the semester, so maybe this...maybe this isn’t such a good idea…”
“Nonsense,” Vlad said, smiling. “That woman we were talking to before mentioned a few online classes you could take that only run for a few weeks.”
“That sounds like a better idea…”
“Do you have a list of classes you still need to take?”
“Oh, sure,” Danny said, leaning down and pulling the keyboard and mouse into reach. He typed a few words, clicked a few links, then typed some more. “Here it is.”
Vlad leaned forward and skimmed a few of the course subjects and numbers, then clicked over to his email exchange with the university.
“Okay, here’s a chemistry class the university recommends for that major,” he said, pointing at the screen.
“Sure,” Danny shrugged and Vlad resumed typing. After sending the email, he looked up at Danny.
“I really do think you should let Jack and Maddie know what’s going on,” Vlad said, frowning.
“What would I even tell them?” Danny groaned. “That I almost failed out of college and now I’m basically living with you?”
“That’s the truth, isn’t it?”
“Okay, but I can’t just say that! What’re they gonna think?”
Vlad pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I guess I could...talk to them…” he groaned.
“Can you?” Danny asked, wincing. “Please?”
“Of course, Daniel,” he sighed. “What should I tell them about you,” he gestured around the room, “moving here. I assume you’re no longer living at home.”
“Yeah, I was living in the… Oh shit,” Danny said, the palm of his hand slapping against his forehead. “My dorm room…”
“Okay,” Vlad said, tapping out another email, “I can have the university take care of that as well.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I’ll take care of that tomorrow, I...kinda trashed it…”
Vlad was silent as he finished typing. His finger hovered over the [enter] key, and he glanced over at Danny. “I can at least give you a ride there.”
“Oh, no, you don’t have to do that. It’s only, like, an hour flight.”
“Right, but I’m assuming you have more than just what you brought with you last week to clear out.”
“Yeah, but I have a car.”
That seemed to surprise Vlad. He reached for a notepad and scribbled something down before tearing the sheet from the pad and handing it to Danny.
“That’s my phone number. If you need any help tomorrow, just let me know.”
“Oh,” Danny said. “Sure. Thanks.”
“Of course, Daniel.”
“I really shouldn’t need any help, though. You’ve done so much for me already and I...would feel bad about asking for more.”
“It’s no trouble at all, I promise.”
The house was quiet without Danny. While laying in bed the night before, Vlad had been looking forward to spending the day alone; he’d been living by himself for so long, and having another person taking up space so suddenly had been a bit of a shock. But as he stood at the kitchen sink, staring out the window and sipping his coffee, Vlad felt...restless.
So much of the last week had been defined by his interactions with Danny. Was Danny okay? Was Danny eating? Was Danny sleeping? Was there anything he could do for Danny? Was he doing enough for Danny?
“How domestic,” Vlad said to his cup of coffee.
You were wrong, that familiar voice chirped from the back of his mind.
“Oh?” he said aloud. “And what was I wrong about?”
You thought that particular obsession had passed.
“That’s because it has,” he growled, pouring the rest of his coffee down the drain.
He tried to calm his apprehension with a book, but instead found himself nodding off, legs curled beneath him in the armchair.
The sound of his phone ringing made him jump, and he laughed to himself for the boyish reaction. The number wasn’t one he recognized, and he briefly considered ignoring the call before he remembered that he had given Danny his number the day before. He accepted the call.
“Vlad? Hey! Hey, it’s Danny! I just wanted to let you know I’m on my way!”
“Oh,” Vlad said, surprised. “Okay, thank you for letting me know. Do you need any help?”
“Nah, I just have the three hour drive. I might need help unloading the car once I get there, though. There’s...there's a lot more than I thought there’d be and I kinda had to cram a lot of stuff in here.” Vlad heard Danny laugh and he breathed a sigh of relief.
“Not a problem,” Vlad said into the phone. He inspected a fingernail and continued. “Are we just moving everything into the same room?”
“Yeah, if you don’t mind,” Danny said. Vlad could hear the engine start and music blared through the phone. “Shit, sorry, sorry,” Danny said as the music cut off. “It’s been a while since I’ve driven this thing.”
“Do you have enough money for the tolls?”
“Oh, no,” Danny said. Vlad heard the engine rev as Danny presumably began driving. “I’m just taking I-94 west. It’s a little longer but...”
“Well, drive safe,” Vlad said absently. Danny laughed.
“I’m honestly considering just flying the car at this point. I know Civics are supposed to be indestructible, but this thing is probably as old as me at this point.”
“Hm. And how long has it been since you’ve exerted yourself that much?”
“A while…” Danny said, defeated. “Okay, okay, fine. I’m driving. But I’m gonna have to let you go, I need my phone for GPS. Hey, what’s your address again?”
Danny repeated the address back and assured Vlad he’d be back at the house for dinner before hanging up. Vlad checked his watch, then set his book on the small side table and stood. He dialed a familiar phone number and held the phone to his ear.
You were wrong, said a quiet, amused voice as Vlad listened to the hum of the call connection. He closed his eyes in frustration.
“Hello?” a cheerful voice answered after a moment.
“Maddie. It’s Vlad.”
Chapter 9: The Younger Years
Hear the sound of the alarm
Another 6 am start to the day just like all the rest
Living on a train
Absent back and forth through all the places that consume you
Danny wasn’t lying when he said it had been a while since the last time he’d driven.
“Okay Fenton, just remember to double pump the clutch from a stop,” he growled to himself, jerking the key back into the ignition and waving to the angry driver behind him. Shakily, he pulled past the stop sign, wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead.
He leaned forward, squinting at his phone where it slid back and forth in front of the speedometer. “So the highway will be on the...left...and then it’s- shit!”
The car jerked to a halt as the engine stalled. “Gah! Double pump the clutch, double pump the clutch!” He twisted the key in the ignition again, his left leg shaking with effort.
When the light he was stopped at turned green, he rushed onto the on-ramp, laughing as he sped up. Merging onto the highway, he threw the transmission into fifth gear and relaxed.
“Okay,” Danny said, glancing down at his phone, “only two hours and fifty minutes to go.”
Danny was in an unusually good mood. It had been easier than he thought it would be to un-fuck his dorm room. He took more trips to the dumpster than he would care to admit, but as he began packing, Danny felt lighter.
After he had loaded the last plastic tote into the front seat of his Civic, he felt a small wave of panic. Am I supposed to check out? Wait, no, it’s not a hotel… Should I tell someone I’m leaving? Did Vlad already tell them? Are they going to come looking for me? he’d thought in a rush. He practically sprinted around the car and slammed the door shut as he sat behind the wheel. Danny had tried to catch his breath and stared down at his phone.
“I can just call and ask,” Danny had told himself, punching out Vlad’s phone number. He held the phone to his ear and heard it ring, but after a heartbeat he changed his mind. I’m just being stupid again.
But before he could hang up, he heard Vlad’s “Yes?” and his stomach sank.
“Vlad? Hey! Hey, it’s Danny! I just wanted to let you know I’m on my way!” Danny winced.
God, I wish I wasn’t such an idiot, Danny thought, shaking his head to clear the memory. Let’s just focus on getting back in one piece.
When Danny returned, Vlad was waiting outside for him.
Danny pulled up to the door and shut off the car. He stepped out and waved.
“Hey, I’m back!”
“I see!” Vlad waved back. “Come inside; dinner’s ready.”
Danny jogged up to the door and gestured with his thumb at the car. “What about all my shit?” he asked. Vlad shrugged.
“We'll take care of it later, don’t worry.”
“Sounds good!” Danny said, following Vlad inside.
The table had already been set and Danny felt a little bad for not being back sooner.
“Sorry it took so long,” Danny said, sitting down as Vlad poured their drinks. Then he joined Danny at the table.
“Nonsense,” Vlad said. He looked up for a moment, his gaze absent, before turning back to smile at Danny. “Okay, that should be everything.”
“I just sent a handful of duplicates to take care of it for me,” Vlad waved dismissively.
“Well I could have helped,” Danny frowned, embarrassed.
“Too late now,” Vlad joked. He cleared his throat, then continued. “So, I spoke to your parents,” he said with a casual tone. “It went well.”
“Oh god, did it really? Please tell me you’re not lying just to make me feel better,” Danny groaned.
“Eh...it didn’t go badly, ” Vlad admitted. “It certainly could have gone much worse.”
“That’s still not great! God, what did they say?”
Vlad took a long sip of wine before he spoke. “I think they were mainly just...confused.”
“About why you didn’t go to them for help.”
Danny groaned, covering his face with his hands. “And what did you tell them?” he muttered.
“Well...they knew me in college...I mean, I lived with your father, so of course they understood when I told them your symptoms.”
“Oh god, you told them I’m depressed?”
“...are you not?” Vlad asked, and Danny frowned.
“I...guess I just thought this was a...ghost thing?” he said apprehensively.
“Oh?” was all Vlad said in response.
“Yeah, I just...you know…” Danny made a face at his plate. Yikes, dude.
“No, I...don’t think I do,” Vlad smirked.
“I just mean,” Danny groaned, “I thought that all this happened when I left because of...ghost stuff. Haunts. Obsessions. That kind of stuff.”
“And you couldn't have just told Jack and Maddie that?”
“No, they...they don't know…”
“Daniel, I’m fairly certain they would understand the-”
“No, I mean they don’t. Know.”
Vlad blinked. “You mean you never..?”
“Nope. No clue.”
“ Still? ”
Danny just shrugged.
“Well,” Vlad said slowly, “that’s quite...unfortunate. I’m sorry, Daniel. I assumed they knew.”
“Oh my god, you didn’t tell them, did you?” Danny gasped.
“ No! ” Vlad shook his head. “I was, and am, still assuming this was...something else. But I won’t push it. You know yourself better than I do.”
“Thanks,” Danny sighed.
“Of course, Daniel.”
The smell of coffee roused Danny from sleep the next morning. He yawned, pulling on a pair of jeans he’d found while packing and hoped Vlad wouldn’t tell him to change. Danny had no idea whether or not there was some dress code he was supposed to be following at ‘work.’
He walked into the kitchen and found Vlad standing at the sink, staring out the window. Vlad was sipping coffee from a chipped mug and Danny padded up to him, hands outstretched.
“Coffee. Now. Please,” Danny groaned. Vlad turned around, surprised.
“Oh, good morning, Daniel. I didn’t hear you get up.”
“Uh huh, yup. Coffee, please.”
Vlad raised an eyebrow at him, but complied. Danny watched him take a second battered mug from a cupboard and fill it.
“I was under the impression you were a morning person,” Vlad said as he handed the mug to Danny.
“Not even remotely,” Danny grumbled, taking an eager sip. “You’ve only seen me after I’ve been up for a while.”
“Oh lord,” Vlad smirked, “I can’t even begin to understand how you function.”
“Me neither,” Danny agreed. “When do we leave?”
Vlad looked at his watch - Does he ever take that off? Must be an old guy thing… - and frowned.
“We should actually leave now if I plan on showing you to your office.”
“Oh shit!” Danny snorted. “I get my own office? ”
It turned out Vlad’s idea of ‘leave now’ actually meant now. He hurried Danny out the door, checking then double checking that Danny had his computer.
“You’re going to have to at least look busy,” Vlad had told him. “Even if you’re not actually doing anything. I can get away with a lot, but I’d rather not push it too hard.”
Once they were in the car and Vlad had pulled onto the street, Danny reached forward and hit a button on the radio. “Oh my god, is this smooth jazz?” he cackled.
Good mornin’ Illinois, a soft, baritone voice spoke from the car speakers as the music faded out, You’re listenin’ to 95.5, the Windy City's home for smooth jazz favorites; the perfect way to start your day. You were just jammin’ to ‘Expedition’ by Skinny Hightower. Up next is one of my personal favs; ‘Static in the Attic’ from Chris Stranding.
Danny laughed as an almost industrial beat, punctuated by an effortless guitar riff began playing. He peeked at Vlad from the corner of his eye, and watched him cover his face with one hand.
“I...forgot about that…” Vlad muttered.
“This is fantastic. Wow. Smooth jazz,” Danny laughed.
“Change it if you want,” Vlad said with a dismissive wave at the radio.
“No, no, this is great,” Danny grinned. “Wow. You know, I always wondered what the ‘esteemed’ Vlad Masters listened to on his way to world domination, and now I know!” He watched Vlad grip the steering wheel tighter and frown at the road.
“What has my life become?” Vlad muttered, and Danny laughed again.
The longer they drove, the more the music grew on Danny. Not that I’d, like, seek it out, but… he thought, closing his eyes, this is nice. After a moment, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Daniel, we’re here,” Vlad said quietly.
“Oh wow, already?” Danny yawned. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
“I’m not sure you did,” Vlad smiled. “I don’t think there was enough time; Amity Park isn’t that big, you know.”
“Right,” Danny groaned. He opened the car door and stepped out, swinging his bag over his shoulder.
The office Vlad had mentioned reminded Danny more of a repurposed supply closet. But it was tucked away in a corner of the top floor, and Danny appreciated the small amount of privacy it provided him.
After Vlad sped away to his own office, Danny wandered around for a bit, making a mental note of where the bathroom and coffee maker were. When he was bored of that, he returned to the ‘office,’ and sat down at the desk. And after he managed to psyche himself enough to open his laptop, he began reading through the CHEM 112 syllabus.
And then he fell asleep.
“Daniel,” a voice said, and Danny jumped, his feet sliding off the desk. He slammed his laptop shut as Vlad appeared.
“Fucking hell,” Danny gasped, clutching his chest. “Y-yeah..?” He watched Vlad try and fail to hold back a laugh. “Dude. What?”
“Just follow me,” Vlad laughed. “Take a break.”
“O...kay?” Danny said, standing. He pulled his sweatshirt from the back of the chair and followed Vlad around the corner to his office. Vlad stepped forward and held the door open for him. Danny peeked inside and saw...Vlad sitting at his desk? Danny turned back to the one who had opened the door for him, and watched its giggling form shimmer away.
“...why are they like that?” Danny asked, glancing over his shoulder.
“ Believe me, if I knew, I’d make it stop,” Vlad said, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“See, this is why I’m glad I never got that power,” Danny grinned.
“I sometimes wish I hadn’t either,” Vlad sighed, standing. “Are you hungry?”
“Not really, but I’d kill for a cigarette right now.”
“Me too,” Vlad said.
Danny followed him down a twisting stairwell then past offices full of people who watched them as they walked. Danny’s skin started to crawl, and he was about to say something when Vlad pushed open a door and Danny was blinded by sunlight. They stepped out into a small courtyard Danny had no idea was there. A few people turned and stared at them.
“Wow, this is…”
“Actually, I was gonna say ‘pretty shitty,’ but yeah, I’m surprised,” Danny laughed.
“Oh, I know,” Vlad sighed. “I never come out here anymore, so I had no idea it was this bad.”
He gave a pointed stare at the people watching them, and they made a hasty retreat back inside.
“So how’s your class going so far?” Vlad asked once they were alone.
“It’s fine,” Danny shrugged.
“Do you know what book or books you’ll need?”
“Yeah, I already ordered one of them, and the other is available for free online, so, yay .”
“Oh, good,” Vlad said. Danny thought he almost sounded disappointed.
“I hope it’s okay I used your address,” Danny said. “I don’t know if you have, like, a PO box or something…”
“No, the house is fine, but thank you for the heads up.”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Danny sighed.
“Is something wrong, Daniel?”
“I...think people are talking about me,” Danny said slowly. Vlad looked at him for a moment.
“What makes you think that?” he asked.
“I can just tell,” Danny shrugged.
“Do you know who they were? If you’d like, I can have a word with their supervisors and-”
“Oh god, no!” Danny laughed nervously. “Like, I appreciate it, but no. I really don’t want to be that guy.”
“Okay, okay,” Vlad said, holding his hands up in mock surrender. “I was just offering.”
“Thanks, seriously, but...wow, no,” Danny laughed again.
Vlad opened his mouth to respond, but a ringing from his pocket distracted them both. He pulled out a cellphone and frowned at it.
“Well, Daniel...looks like that’s our time.”
“Any thoughts on dinner?” Vlad asked, starting the car. The day had flown by faster than Danny expected it to, although he wasn’t going to advertise the fact that he had fallen asleep more than once at his desk.
“Something I don’t have to cook?” Danny said sheepishly. He stifled a laugh as the radio announced the next song as ‘Velvet Groove’ by Eric Valentine, ya dig? Vlad was quiet, looking over his shoulder to back out of a parking space.
“I can take care of the cooking by myself tonight then, if you’d rather do something else with your evening,” he said, turning slightly to look at Danny.
“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant!”
“It’s no trouble. I’m sure today was more hectic than what you’re used to.”
“No, I’m...just feeling lazy, I guess. Sorry,” Danny sighed, sinking back into the seat. Vlad was quiet.
“Me too,” he said after a moment.
“Rough day?” Danny asked.
“Well, what happened?” he asked, and Vlad gave him a look.
“Just...struggling with the aftermath of the meeting last week. Some new city ordinances I have to deal with. Nothing exciting, I’m afraid.”
“Can I help?”
Vlad laughed in response. It was surprisingly pleasant and not mocking, like Danny would have thought it’d be.
“Not unless you know anything about the new zoning restrictions we agreed on last quarter,” Vlad smiled.
“Yeah, big surprise, I actually don’t, so...sorry.”
“It’s alright, I didn’t expect you would,” Vlad said. “But I appreciate the offer for help.”
“Hey, anytime!” Danny laughed.
“This was a good day,” Danny heard himself say over dinner.
Vlad had ended up using a duplicate to cook so that he could sit in his armchair and read, a feat that thoroughly confused Danny. If he was going to cook anyway, why even...oh, whatever.
Danny had meant to do more reading for his class, but fell asleep on the hard leather couch.
“I’m really glad to hear that,” Vlad said.
“And I really appreciate everything you’re doing for me. I know I’ve been saying that a lot, I just...thank you.” Danny looked away, embarrassed.
“I’m happy to help, Daniel. I know what you’re going through,” Vlad smiled.
“I never could have expected this kind of reaction when I came here. I really thought...man, what happened to you?”
“I’m not sure how to answer that, Daniel,” Vlad sighed. He took a sip from his wine glass and looked at Danny. “I thought I had explained it already; so many years of devoting myself to my plans, my powers, it wore me down. I…” He looked away. “I looked at myself in the mirror one day and realized that my work...the illusion I had created of Vlad Masters; billionaire CEO and mayor of Amity Park...it brought me more, well, not joy, but more peace than trying to ‘conquer the world.’ More satisfaction than being Plasmius did.”
“Right…” Danny started, “but I thought all that ‘world domination’ stuff was, like, your capitol-o obsession? And I know first hand just how hard it is when you can’t fulfil that obsession!”
“Obsessions can change,” Vlad shrugged despite Danny’s heated tone. “We’re half- human as well as half-ghost. And isn’t that human nature? To change?”
“That’s...it’s just not fair,” Danny said, looking down. “It’s not fair that you can just...just...give up on your obsession and be perfectly fine but I have to…”
“I didn’t ‘give it up,’ I just grew past it.”
“I don’t give a shit about you, it’s not fair for me! ” Danny snapped. He clapped a hand over his mouth, cheeks burning with embarrassment. He squeezed his eyes shut and heard Vlad stand. “I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it.”
“Daniel,” Vlad said, his voice soft, “it’s been a long day. Why don’t you go get some sleep.”
Danny opened his mouth to respond, but he couldn't shape the words he wanted to say. Instead, he shook his head.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.” Vlad put a hand on Danny’s shoulder. “I just want to help.”
“I know,” Danny whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“I understand; it’s okay.”
“No, I...I’m really sorry,” he breathed.
“You should get some rest,” Vlad sighed, pulling his hand away. Danny stood, refusing to meet Vlad’s eyes. He moved to turn away, but Vlad’s arms around him caught him before he could flee.
“You’re under a lot of stress,” Vlad said, pulling him in tighter. “I’m trying to do everything I can, but if there’s more you need, if I’m not doing enough, you have to tell me, Daniel. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I don’t want you to do anything,” Danny whined into Vlad’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t have to do anything.”
“But I want to.” Vlad’s voice was firm. “I want to help you.”
“Why?” Danny whispered.
“Because you’re in pain, Daniel! And there was nobody around to help me when I was hurting! So please, let me help you!” He was gripping the back of Danny’s sweatshirt. Cautiously, Danny slid his hands to rest between Vlad’s shoulder blades.
“Okay,” he breathed. “Okay.”
Chapter 10: Talk To Me
You don’t have to be a hero to save the world
It doesn’t make you a narcissist to love yourself
It feels like nothing is easy, it’ll never be
That’s alright, let it out, talk to me
Vlad sighed and rolled over onto his back. He stared up at a dark ceiling, eyes burning from lack of sleep.
“Just close your eyes,” he growled to himself. “Stop thinking, close your eyes, and go to sleep.”
He looked to his left and squinted at the clock - 4:05am.
Groaning, he sat up, rubbing his eyes.
“Let’s just get this over with,” he spat, throwing off the blankets. “If he’s up, he’s up. And I’ll just have to deal with it.”
Vlad crept to the kitchen and, not spotting Danny, rushed to the coffee maker. He punched a few buttons to speed up the process and after a moment, he gripped a warm mug tightly to his chest. He edged toward the sink and peered out the window. There was still no sign of Danny. He sighed, though he couldn't tell if it was from relief or disappointment.
They hadn’t talked much aside from necessary conversations in the car and during meals. Vlad wanted to say more, but he was wary of how Danny might respond. Instead, he tried to give Danny as much space as he could, which became more of a chore as the days passed.
If he’s just embarrassed, Vlad would think to himself on a daily basis, he needs to know it’s fine… But how?
Close to the end of the workday on Friday, Vlad found himself absently Googling ‘What do 20 year olds do for fun?’ at his desk.
“Oh lord,” he groaned. “This is ridiculous. We’re both adults. He had an outburst, it’s not like he physically attacked me.” He raised a hand to cover his eyes and sighed. Then he peeked through his fingers and clicked through the first article.
“Road trip with friends,” he read aloud, squinting at the screen. “No, that wouldn’t work. I don’t know the last time he spoke to them, and I sure as hell won’t do it for him. Let’s see, what else…”
He read through a few more agonizing suggestions, scoffing at things like ‘Be happy with yourself!’ and ‘Scrapbook!’
The thought of Danny scrapbooking at the kitchen table was hard to resist laughing at.
“A trip isn’t too terrible an idea, though…” he sighed. He considered just asking where Danny might like to go, but that left the option of him saying no wide open. “So where?” he asked the empty office. He drummed his fingers on the desk in thought.
“A trip to the Ghost Zone wouldn’t be awful, ” he said, pulling up a copy of the map he’d created years ago. Quickly, he scanned through various territories until one caught his eye.
“This might be our best choice,” he mused. “I can’t imagine Daniel turning this one down.”
Like every night that week, Vlad stood alone in the kitchen. It was quiet, save for the sound of boiling water.
He was pulled away from his thoughtless staring out the window by the sizzle of water on the surface of the stove.
“Oh, dammit,” Vlad sighed, reaching to turn down the heat. He froze, staring at the dials, trying to find the right one, but they were all off. “Oh, dammit! ” he cried. He threw up his hands in defeat, then rummaged through a cabinet until he found a package of dried pasta. He poured it into the pot then braced himself on the counter, trying not to make more of a mess.
As Vlad set the table, Danny appeared in the doorway of the kitchen and watched him. When Vlad stepped away, Danny sat.
“So,” Vlad began, looking away from Danny as they ate, “I was thinking about something.”
“If, by some chance, all this is ‘just some ghost thing’ like you previously stated, perhaps a...a trip through the Ghost Zone to visit your, ah, physician would help.”
He stared at Danny and watched him absently trail the fingers of one hand around the rim of his glass.
“Oh?” Danny said, still not looking up. Vlad groaned internally.
“So I suppose I was wondering if you’d want to make the trip? I know a few shortcuts to the Far Frozen that would significantly reduce the travel time.”
“I’ll...think about it,” Danny said. Vlad watched Danny stand and carry his dishes to the sink. And with a wave over his shoulder, Danny retreated down the hall. Vlad sighed and rubbed an eye with the heel of his palm.
Vlad’s suggestion of taking a trip to the Zone made Danny feel equal parts excited and terrified. Danny knew it was a good idea; even if Frostbite couldn't help him, a reunion with him was long overdue.
Danny had stayed up until the sunrise began filtering in through the curtains on Saturday morning. He had gone back and forth with himself for hours, debating the pros and cons of making the trip. At one point, just past 3am, Danny had fished out an old spiral bound notebook from one of the totes and began making a physical list.
“Okay, pros, I’ll get to see Frostbite again. Cons...I’ll actually have to leave and go do something.”
He scribbled down the points.
“Pros...this could actually help me stop acting so fucked up all the time. Cons, it might make me worse.”
Danny frowned and wrote those down, too.
“Pros,” he sighed, “if I agree to go, Vlad might stop being mad at me. Cons...I’ll probably fuck it up somehow and make everything worse.”
He fell back on a pile of pillows, tossing the notebook to the floor. Danny sighed and closed his eyes, willing sleep to come, and giving up when it didn’t.
After the sun had risen higher, he found Vlad outside, reclining in a chair on the deck, basking in the warm spring breeze, a book laid across his chest.
“Hey,” he said slowly, “are you busy?”
“Not at all,” Vlad said, opening his eyes. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I was thinking about what you said last night and...and yeah. I think it’s a good idea. Let’s do it.”
“Great,” Vlad said, sitting up a bit in the chair. “When would you like to go?”
“Uh, today, maybe?”
Danny watched Vlad run a hand through his hair, thinking.
“I don’t see why not,” he said after a moment. “When would you like to leave?”
“Like, now, maybe..?” Danny grimaced.
Vlad’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded. “Sure, sure, just give me a bit to get ready.”
It only took them twenty minutes to prepare. Danny tossed a handful of belongings into his bag and hurried downstairs to wait in front of the portal. Vlad appeared moments later, packing just as light.
“Shall we?” he asked with a small smile.
“Sure,” Danny shrugged, smiling back. He watched an aura of brilliant black flare around Vlad, and Danny had to raise a hand to shield his eyes.
“Wow, that’s more intense than I remember it being,” Danny tried to laugh. His stomach dropped, and he felt the palms of his hands begin to tingle. It’s fine, I can do it. I remember how, right? Yeah, I got this.
“Are you alright, Daniel?” Vlad asked as the glare died down.
“Yeah, yeah,” Danny blinked.
“Are you ready?”
“Sure,” Danny said, his jaw clenching. He stepped forward, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. He reached for that cold center inside himself, gently encouraging the energy out. He exhaled, feeling the familiar chill spread out through him.
There was a flash as it flared out and around him, and he braced himself.
He wasn’t expecting the snap of it all returning at once, and his knees buckled. Pain shot out in sharp bursts from the center of his chest. He groaned, reaching inside again, then hissed when the pain flashed through him stronger than before.
“I...I can’t…” Danny panted, staring at the floor. “I can’t...do it…” He blinked, watching two wayward tears splatter on the tiles beneath him. “Why...why can’t I..?”
A shiver passed through his body, and one of Danny’s hands slipped out from under him. He smacked his chin on the now-iced floor. Groaning, he pulled himself back up.
“Shit, I’m...I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay,” he heard Vlad say. “You’re okay. It’s okay. Everything is okay.” Danny felt two hands on his shoulders, and blearily, he looked up.
“I’m sorry, Daniel. I’m so sorry. This is all my fault,” Vlad whispered. Danny stared at his face, his mouth, his eyes. Vlad looked afraid.
“Why do you…look like that..?” Danny heard himself ask. “Did I...hurt you?”
“Wha- No, no I’m fine. It’s okay.” Vlad shook his head, and pulled Danny forward into a hug. “It’s okay.”
“’m sorry ‘bout the floor,” Danny mumbled.
“Don’t worry about it,” Vlad said, looking around the room. “Can...can you stand?”
“I don’t know, I’m…”
“Alright, then. Let me help you up,” he said, looping an arm around Danny. With a grunt, he hoisted Danny up onto his feet again.
Gradually, silently, Vlad navigated them both back up the stairs and down the hall to the room Danny was staying in.
Danny stared at the stack of plastic totes he’d pushed to the corner of the room last week and hadn’t touched since, embarrassment making him choke. He opened his mouth to apologize for the mess, but Vlad wasn’t looking at him.
“Daniel,” Vlad said, turning to face him. “You should...get some rest. We can try again tomorrow, if you’re...feeling up for it.”
“No,” Danny said flatly. He took a few steps forward and sat on the edge of the bed. Carefully, he eased himself into the center of the bed and drew his knees up, wrapping his arms around his legs.
“Okay, there’s no rush,” Vlad soothed, stepping up to the bed and awkwardly crossing his arms. “I shouldn’t have pushed you like that. I’m sorry.”
“‘s fine,” Danny said, looking away. “I should have known better, I guess.”
“Please don’t be like that, Daniel,” Vlad sighed. “This whole thing was my idea, and I didn’t know you...that it had been so long for you.”
Danny shrugged, resting his bruised chin on his knees. After a long moment, Vlad sat on the edge of the bed.
“Are you okay?” Vlad asked gently, reaching out to place a hand on Danny’s shoulder. Danny shook his head, blinking back more tears.
“No, I think I… I think I broke something and...and it just hurts so bad,” he choked.
Vlad shifted slightly on the bed and pulled Danny into him. Danny was cold, and Vlad was so, so warm , and Danny pressed against him desperately.
“It’s okay, Daniel. Please. Don’t cry,” Vlad murmured.
“I’m not,” Danny lied.
“You know it’s okay if you are.”
Danny just nodded, resting his forehead on Vlad’s shoulder.
“What am I going to do?” Danny whispered.
“What do you mean, little badger?”
“A-about this, what just happened. What am I going to do now?”
“Well...you should rest, and then tomorrow we can talk about-”
“No, I mean who am I? ” Danny choked. “Who am I if I don’t have Phantom? ”
“You’re still you,” Vlad said softly. “I promise, you’re still you. Nothing has changed, you might just...need more practice.”
“But how can I be? It’s all I was for so many years and now that it’s gone, I…”
“It’s not gone, I promise. It’s okay.”
“Why do you keep saying that?” Danny whined, burying his face in Vlad’s shoulder. “It’s not okay…”
“I know,” Vlad sighed. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have brought this up in the first place. I can...I can go, if you want.”
“No, please stay,” Danny cried. “I’m sorry, I just…”
“I’m here, I’m here,” Vlad said, settling closer to Danny.
Vlad glanced at the clock again. Danny hadn’t said anything for half an hour, and Vlad’s knees were cramping, but he just sighed and stayed where he was, awkwardly sitting on the bed, Danny leaning against his chest. He traced vague patterns and symbols on Danny’s back and tried not to look at the clock. Again.
When Vlad felt himself begin to nod off, he decided it was time to go.
Slowly, he eased Danny back so that he was laying down. Then, as gently as he could, he tried to stand.
A cold hand on his wrist made him freeze. He looked down; Danny had held him back. He waited for him to say something, but his eyes stayed closed. Vlad settled back on the bed with a sigh and placed his hand over Danny’s.
Chapter 11: Trouble
I’ve seen your eyes
And I can see death’s disguise
Hangin’ on me
I’m beat, I’m torn
Shattered and tossed and worn
Too shocking to see
The first sensation Vlad was aware of was cold. He sat up in a rush, his breath puffing out in big, white clouds. Blinking, he turned his head frantically, looking around the room.
“I’m not… Where am I..?” he gasped. His eyes found Danny. “Oh god, oh god, Daniel are you…” Vlad’s eyes searched him, finding blue lips, blue fingernails, blue veins visible beneath pale skin. With a shaking hand, he reached forward to touch the smooth skin of Danny’s wrist. It felt like ice.
Vlad jerked his hand back and held it to his chest.
“Okay, that’s not good,” he whispered. He stifled a yawn and blinked, looking for a clock. There was a small digital clock on the side table reading 8:19am.
“Daniel,” he said, leaning over and grabbing one of Danny’s shoulders. “Daniel, wake up. I think there’s something wrong with you.” He thought for a moment, then groaned. “Okay, no, there’s not something wrong with you, you’re just...very blue. And you’re not moving or breathing, and I’m just a little...concerned for your health is all.”
You’re losing it, an amused voice chimed in. Vlad tried to ignore it, instead focusing on Danny’s chest. It was rising imperceptibly slow, if it was actually moving at all.
“Of course I’m losing it,” Vlad breathed. “Daniel is...unwell, and all I can think about is what I’ll do if I don’t have him here with me.” He brought a trembling hand to his mouth, chewing on his thumbnail.
He pressed two fingers into the side of Danny’s neck and closed his eyes. It’s not...wait. Okay. There it is. He slid his hand down to rest on Danny’s chest. He pressed his palm against Danny’s sweatshirt, trying to feel for what was wrong, but hissed as a pulse of stinging cold bit into his hand. He jerked away.
Vlad conjured a duplicate to stand behind him. It leaned over Vlad’s shoulder and reached out a finger to touch Danny’s forehead.
“What’s wrong with him?” it asked.
“I’m...not sure,” Vlad said. “I woke up and I...I thought he was dead.”
“Wait, he’s not dead?” it asked.
“No,” Vlad shook his head. “I think there must be something wrong with his core.”
“I’m not sure yet. I’ve seen his core energy flare out in a similar way due to stress, but it’s never been like this...”
“So what do we do?”
“I...don’t know,” Vlad said, biting his lip. “It looks like hypothermia, but I don’t know why that would...would happen.”
“Won’t it just wear off?” the duplicate asked, standing back up.
“Didn’t you see the time? ” Vlad hissed.
“Well, yeah, but-”
“Then you saw how long he was asleep like this!”
“You don’t know-”
“Just shut up!” he snapped, turning back to Danny. “Daniel...Danny...I don’t know if you can hear me, but...I’m going to pick you up now,” Vlad said softly. Carefully, he looped one arm around Danny’s back, and the other behind his knees. He pulled Danny close to his chest and slowly, he stood.
“Wow, so romantic,” the duplicate grinned. Vlad rolled his eyes and took a few experimental steps forward.
“Bathroom,” he ordered. “Go fill the tub with cold water.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to warm them in hot water, genius.”
“Yes, that’s why I said cold water!” Vlad growled. He glanced down at Danny, but his eyes remained closed, faint lines of purple-blue veins scattered over his eyelids. Vlad couldn't help staring. “I’m going to heat it myself.”
The duplicate laughed in response. “Wow! Okay, really? That’s your grand solution? Not even going to test it first?”
“Test it how? ” Vlad snapped. “What is there to test? ”
“I just meant-”
“I don’t care what you meant!” he hissed. “Just go! ”
The duplicate gave him another skeptical glance, then vanished in a cloud of black smoke. And Vlad was alone again with Danny.
“I’m sorry about that, Daniel,” he murmured, phasing them both through the door. “I’m usually much better at watching my temper, but I know you’re not the biggest fan of them, either.”
Vlad took a few more steps in silence.
I hope that doesn’t mean he feels the same way about me…
He stopped and just looked at Danny. “You don’t, do you? You don’t feel that way?”
When Danny didn’t respond - unsurprising - Vlad shook his head and continued walking. He phased them again through another door, and Vlad padded quickly through his own room.
“There,” the duplicate said, stepping away from the large clawfoot tub and crossing its arms. Vlad nodded to it, and it vanished, leaving a few wisps of black smoke. Awkwardly, Vlad half-knelt and lowered Danny into the tub. Then he plunged his hands in the freezing water.
I am thinking slow, warm thoughts. I will not boil Daniel. I am thinking slow, warm thoughts, he repeated, panting. The strain of filtering the ripple of searing energy from his core into a thin, constant stream was draining him more than he’d initially thought it would.
“I won’t hurt you,” he promised. Again. He ventured a glance up at Danny. He adjusted himself and leaned forward, watching Danny’s face. Danny still wasn’t moving, though it looked like his breathing had sped up. Carefully, Vlad moved closer, and gently, he brushed his lips against the cold skin of Danny’s forehead.
There was the sound of someone clearing their throat behind him, and Vlad jumped back, hissing in surprise.
“You don’t have to censor yourself around me, you know. I am you, after all. This is nothing new.”
“Force of habit, I suppose,” Vlad groaned. Embarrassment was an uncommon and irritating feeling.
“Right, so how long is this gonna take?” the duplicate asked, leaning against the door frame.
“I don’t know,” Vlad sighed.
“Why don’t we just, I dunno, leave him?”
Vlad shot the duplicate a look over his shoulder. “Because I don’t know how long his body will last like this. Look at him; he’s still human.”
“Yeah, but…” The duplicate made a vague gesture at Danny. “Remind me again how this is our problem?”
“It’s my fault this happened,” Vlad said, looking away, back at Danny. “I did this to him.”
“ We didn’t do anything. If he’s having a breakdown because he’s out of practice, that isn’t our fault.”
“You’re right,” Vlad said, shaking his head to dismiss the duplicate, “it’s just my fault.”
It’s funny, isn’t it? the small voice laughed in his head. Despite all the progress you’ve made, you’re still trying to change.
“I have to change,” Vlad murmured. His hands were falling asleep, elbows hitched over the edge of the tub.
Who are you changing for? Him or yourself?
“Does it matter?” he asked, stretching his fingers to encourage the blood to flow. It wasn’t working very well.
It might, the voice said slowly. Just keep this in mind...he already knows who you are. He knew who you were when he came here, and he knew who you were when he decided to stay.
“I...hadn’t thought of that,” Vlad said. He stared down at the water. Would he be able to tell from just looking at it if it was too hot? Perhaps when it started steaming it would be warm enough, but then again, Danny’s skin had been like ice, so steam would be an unreliable indicator.
He reached for Danny’s hand, a shiver passing through him as he grabbed hold. His hand slid up further under the water so that he could wrap his fingers around Danny’s wrist.
Is it true? he thought, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Do you really think he chose this despite everything that’s happened between us? Danny’s skin was still cold, but it was considerably warmer than before.
“Please, Danny,” Vlad whispered, closing his eyes. He pressed his forehead to the edge of the tub and sighed. “Just please be okay.”
His eyes snapped open, and he saw Danny sitting up in the tub. His clothes were dark with wet, and he was shivering.
“Daniel, you’re… Oh thank god ,” Vlad gasped and collapsed over the edge of the tub. “Oh, thank you, thank you,” he panted.
“W-why am I...in the tub..?” Danny asked. He looked down and wrapped his arms around himself.
“You...I…” Vlad shook his head and pulled his hands out of the water. Because I woke up this morning and I thought you were dead, so naturally I conjured up a mindless version of myself to keep me company while I tried not to drown or boil you. Don’t worry, I talk to myself all the time, so despite what it looks like, I’m not crazy!
Vlad frowned. “I’ll...get you some dry clothes,” he said instead, standing. He dried his hands on the thighs of his pants and looked down at Danny. “And I’ll explain once you’re warm enough. Is there anything else you need right now?”
“My bag, maybe,” Danny mumbled, “it’s...still in the basement, I think…” he winced.
“Of course. I’ll be right back. Just...stay put,” Vlad smiled. Danny shrugged, and Vlad stepped away. He shut the door behind him and leaned against it, catching his breath. Hastily, he waved his hand and called up another duplicate.
“Don’t,” Vlad snapped at it as it waggled its eyebrows. “Just go, now. ”
It snickered, then vanished.
When it returned after a few heartbeats, Vlad waved it away with a hand. He knocked lightly on the door, then pushed it open slowly, averting his eyes. But Danny was still sitting in the tub, still shivering.
“Here you go,” Vlad said, setting down Danny’s bag and the clothes his duplicate had retrieved from Danny’s room.
Danny just stared at him. His lips were still tinged with blue, and his eyes were so wide and so...sad. Vlad felt a pulling in his core, and it was hard to resist the desire to move closer to Danny.
“I’ll be in the kitchen,” he said, turning away before the urge overtook him. “Take your time.”
Vlad walked slowly to the kitchen, paging through his mental catalog of recipes to distract himself. There was a particularly hardy soup he had most of the ingredients for, minus the carrots. He set to work, mechanically pulling out a large pot and cutting board. At one point, Vlad lost track of a plate of potatoes he had cubed, finding them in the cabinet that housed most of his spices.
It’s fine, he assured himself, pulling it down. It’s okay. Everything’s okay.
It wasn’t until he heard Danny make a small sound from the doorway of the kitchen that Vlad realized he had been crying.
“O-oh, Daniel, I didn’t see you there,” Vlad said, feigning calm. He turned further away and swept his hands across his cheeks.
“Sorry, I didn’t...I can just go…”
“No, no! I’m sorry, this has just...nevermind. I’m almost finished with, uhm,” he glanced around for a clock, “well, lunch, I guess. Are you hungry?” He turned back and smiled at Danny, pretending he wasn't acting like a total mess.
“I guess,” Danny mumbled, moving to stand next to Vlad. He looked meaningfully at the coffee maker, and Vlad reached into a cabinet above them to fish around for a mug. “So what happened..?” Danny asked, leaning on the counter as Vlad poured a cup of coffee and handed it to him.
Vlad sighed and thought carefully about what to say.
“I...found you this morning, and you were very...cold. At first, I really...well, I could tell something was wrong. You weren’t responding when I tried to wake you, so I decided to try warming you up. Which is why you were in the tub when you did wake up.”
“Oh,” was all Danny said. He took a long sip from the mug.
“I figured something had happened with your...with your core. So I drew from mine in an attempt to counteract it. I can’t say for sure if it worked, or if you just woke up on your own but… Daniel, has that ever happened before?”
“Not that I know of,” Danny shrugged. And then he shivered. “‘m not usually this cold, though.”
“Okay,” Vlad said, placing a hand on Danny’s shoulder. “Go. Sit. I’ll be finished here in a bit.”
Danny nodded, and looked like he was going to say more, but instead, he turned and walked away, clutching the mug to his chest.
Vlad turned back to the pot he’d left simmering on the stove and gave it a final stir before ladling the soup into a pair of chipped bowls.
He carried them both out of the kitchen and found Danny sitting on one end of the couch, wrapped in the blanket from his bed.
“How are you feeling?” Vlad asked, passing one warm bowl to Danny. He held it to his chest and took a few deep breaths.
“I dunno,” Danny said after a moment. “My brain still feels really foggy.”
“Well, tell me what you remember,” Vlad said softly, sitting down beside Danny. He reached out to take Danny’s hand, but instantly realized that was a bad idea. Instead he ran the hand through his hair. He hadn’t gotten the chance to look at himself properly, and was momentarily concerned with whether or not he looked put together enough for this conversation.
“I remember,” Danny said, pulling Vlad away from his thoughts, “trying to change.”
“Right, then what?” Vlad urged, leaning closer.
“I...remember you helping me upstairs - thanks for that, by the way - and then I remember...dreaming.” Danny looked down as he spoke.
“That’s interesting,” Vlad said quietly. “And that could help us figure out what happened. Do you remember what you dreamed about?”
Danny shook his head, and Vlad reached forward to put a hand on his shoulder.
“That’s okay,” he said, smiling slightly. Are you feeling any better now?”
Danny nodded. “Thank you,” he said softly. “Again. For everything.”
“Of course,” Vlad smiled. I would do anything for you, don’t you know that?
“And I’m really sorry if I worried you. I don’t...I really don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Danny winced. He took an apprehensive bite, eyes widening. “Oh, this is really good!”
“Don’t worry about it. I…” Vlad set down the bowl he’d been holding and looked at Danny. “I’m only worried that I may have overreacted.” He waved a hand vaguely. “I do that sometimes, which you probably already knew.”
Danny smiled weakly, swallowing another spoonful. “Yeah, I guess you can be a little over dramatic sometimes.”
“Daniel, is that sarcasm I hear?”
“Maybe,” Danny smiled marginally wider. And then Vlad watched as his smile dropped.
“I’m just…” Danny’s shoulders shook, and Vlad watched two tears stream down his cheeks. “Oh god, what’s wrong with me?”
Vlad gently took the bowl from Danny’s hands and set it on the table next to his own. Then he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Danny’s shoulders, pulling him against his chest.
“I don’t know,” Vlad murmured, pressing his cheek against the top of Danny’s head.
“Why am I like this?” Danny choked, grasping at the back of Vlad’s shirt. “What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing,” Vlad assured him. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
But Danny didn’t seem to hear him. “And why am I so cold? I’m never cold anymore but lately I just...I can’t… What’s wrong with me?”
“Here, Danny, let me help,” Vlad breathed, and let that pulling take control. He held his breath, holding Danny tighter, letting the warmth flow from his core.
“...okay,” Danny said, gasping.
“Is that...better?” Vlad asked softly. He felt Danny nod against his shoulder.
“...warmer…” Danny breathed.
And Vlad refused to let go.
Chapter 12: Generator ^ Second Floor
And now the smell of these wood frames
Is the only sense I've left
So as you pull me from the bed
Tell me I look stunning and cadaverous
Don't fix my smile, life is long enough
We will put this flesh into the ground again
Danny was falling, though he couldn't remember where he was falling from. Lights and sounds streamed past him and he blinked rapidly, trying to clear away the tears the wind was burning into his eyes. Squinting, he saw a tall building stretching up and down with no discernable start or stop. It was close enough to touch, and as Danny looked closer, he realized it was the source of the noise. He leaned closer, trying to look inside one of the windows, but he was falling too fast to see.
He looked up, trying to find the top of the building so he could judge how long he had been falling for. Danny blinked, squinting, but all he could see aside from the lights coming from the windows was darkness. Groaning, he turned, looking down instead, and found more darkness.
“ Hello? ” he screamed into the wind. “ Please, is anybody there? ”
There was a small flash of bright green below him and Danny reached out for it desperately. As Danny came closer to the light, the brightness burned his eyes, and he shut them, hoping he’d still reach it.
His hands smacked into something soft and cold and when he peeked open an eye, he saw a boy he guessed would be about thirteen. The boy stared at him, and Danny stared back.
“Hey, I...know you. Don’t I?” Danny shouted over the roar of the wind.
The white-haired boy shrugged. His green eyes were stretched wide with fear.
“Yeah, you’re...you’re Danny Phantom!” Danny laughed. “Oh man, this is so weird! What are you doing here?”
The boy mouthed something Danny couldn't hear.
“What’s wrong? Can’t you fly?” Danny shouted.
The boy shook his head.
“That’s okay,” Danny smiled. He glanced down, looking for the ground, but he couldn't see past the darkness. “I think we have some time until, well, never mind. But I’d really like to stop falling, how ‘bout you?”
The boy nodded as best he could, wind blowing up around his head.
“Same here. I think we could, I dunno, smash through one of those windows if we had enough force. It might hurt, though. Do you want to try it?”
The boy mouthed something Danny guessed was, “ Okay. ”
“Okay,” Danny said, wrapping one arm around the boy and holding the other in front of his face. “I’m gonna...try to get us closer then, I guess!”
He angled himself down towards the building and braced himself for the impact of glass or brick or whatever it was made out of. He pulled the boy, the Phantom, closer to him; maybe he could try to catch him when they finally landed?
He was distracted from the thought when his back met with something hard, and all the breath was knocked out of him. He felt the boy slip out of his arms and he tried to reach for him, wheezing. Lights danced in his eyes, and he groaned.
“Are you,” he coughed, “are you okay?” He rolled over onto his stomach, still coughing. The back of his head throbbed where it had impacted. He tried to take a deep breath, but a stabbing in his side told him it was possible he’d broken a rib.
He heard the sound of someone crying and, despite the pain, he twisted around to see the boy curled in a ball a few feet away.
“Hey,” Danny said softly. “Hey, it’s okay.” He groaned, pulling himself up onto his knees. “Look, we’re okay!”
“No we’re not!” the boy cried. His voice was high and frightened, and there were big, green tears falling from his eyes. “I hurt my wrist, and y-you’re bleeding! ”
“No, no, I’m okay! Don’t worry!” Danny forced a smile. “And we’re not falling anymore! That’s good!”
“I guess,” the boy wined. “But what do we do now?”
“Uhm,” Danny looked around the room. It was dark, but there was a muted light coming from the doorway. There was a potted plant in one corner, and next to it was a short bookshelf. The book titles were in a language Danny couldn't read, but one that seemed...familiar. There were two framed photos on the wall. One was a photo of what looked like a snowy backyard, and the other was a portrait of what Danny assumed was a husband and wife, though both their faces had been cut out of the photograph. Clutching his side, he stood.
“I think our best bet would be to find a way out of this building,” Danny said, reaching out to the boy.
“Okay,” he said, taking Danny’s hand.
They walked slowly to the doorway, and Danny stuck his head out of the room. There was a long hallway in front of him with more doors than he was able to count. They were all closed, and all different.
“I guess we start walking, huh?” Danny said, looking down at the boy. He shrugged back up at Danny and stepped forward. Now that they were standing in the light, Danny could see just how...young he looked.
“Hey, how old are you?” Danny asked.
“Fourteen,” the boy said over his shoulder, opening the first door. It was made of a rich, black wood.
“I’m not in my bed… Where am I?” a frightened voice spoke from the room. Danny looked inside. There was a man with long silver hair sitting on a low bed with a green quilt pulled up around him.
“Sorry, sir!” Danny said, and then he shut the door. He looked down at the boy. “Maybe we should knock first?” he said, and the boy smiled mischievously back at him.
“Oops,” he grinned, and Danny shook his head in mock disappointment. It reminded Danny of himself at that age.
“So, fourteen, huh? Isn’t that a little young to be doing the whole superhero thing?” Danny asked as they approached another door.
“Didn’t really have a choice,” the boy replied, shrugging. He knocked on the door, then cracked it open.
“Oh god, oh god , Daniel, are you still with me?” a desperate voice cried from inside.
“I’m here!” Danny called, pushing open the door so hard it bounced off the wall behind it. His voice echoed off the walls of the room. “I’m here!” he repeated, taking a step inside.
“Okay, that’s not good,” the boy said, following Danny into the room. Danny turned and saw him pointing at something.
“Daniel… Daniel, wake up. I think there’s something wrong with you. Okay, no, there’s not something wrong with you, you’re just...very blue. And you’re not moving or breathing, and I’m just a little...concerned for your health is all,” the voice spoke again. There was that man again, on the same bed. Danny rushed out of the room, back to the first door, and when he opened it, the room was empty.
“You’re losing it,” a voice whispered in Danny’s ear. He whipped around, but the hallway behind him was empty.
“Hello?” Danny called, but there was no answer. He returned to the second room, unease making his stomach turn circles. The boy was sitting on the bed next to the man, saying something too quiet for Danny to hear.
“Of course I’m losing it,” the man said. “Daniel is...unwell, and all I can think about is what I’ll do if I don’t have him here with me.”
“Hey,” Danny said. The boy turned to face him, but the man stayed still. “Let’s keep moving.” The boy nodded, climbing off the bed. Danny reached out to him, and he took Danny’s hand.
When they were back in the hallway, Danny stopped.
“What was that guy talking about?” he asked the boy.
“I think his friend is sick,” the boy said, reaching for the next door. “It’s not...wait. Okay. There it is,” he grinned, turning the knob.
“Sick how?” Danny asked.
“Dunno, but that guy's, like, really sad about it.”
“Oh,” Danny said as they stepped into the room. “Now I kinda feel bad about leaving him.”
“You’re in luck then,” the boy said, and Danny realized immediately what he meant. The room was bare and clinical, and in the center stood the man. He faced an upright mirror that was suspended in midair. As Danny stepped closer, he saw that the reflection’s face was cut out, like the photograph in the room he’d crashed into.
“What’s wrong with him?” the boy asked. He moved closer, placing his hand on the man’s arm. “A-are you okay?”
“I’m...not sure,” the man said, still staring at his faceless reflection.
“Pha-” Danny tried to speak the boy’s name, but it was stuck in his throat and his mouth wouldn’t make the rest of the word. He shook his head and started again. “ He said you were worried about your friend...do you remember what happened?”
“I woke up and I...I thought he was dead,” the man said.
“Wait, he’s not dead?” the boy asked.
“No. I think there must be something wrong with his core.”
“Like what?” Danny heard himself ask. He’d heard that word before. He knew it meant something important, but the back of his head throbbed painfully when he tried to remember exactly what a core was.
“I’m not sure yet. I’ve seen his core energy flare out in a similar way due to stress, but it’s never been like this before.”
“So what do we do?” the boy asked.
“I...don’t know. It looks like hypothermia, but I don’t know why that would...would happen.”
“It sounds like his body isn’t producing heat,” Danny said. The boy turned and gave him a puzzled look. “I just mean...well, that’s what causes hypothermia. Like...your body loses heat faster than it can make it. What do you think?” Danny asked the man, but again, he didn’t respond. “Okay, let’s just go,” he sighed, taking the boy’s hand.
“Won’t it just wear off?” the boy asked, looking back over his shoulder. Danny shrugged, pulling the door closed behind them.
“How are you feeling?” Danny asked as they made their way to the next door.
“I don’t know. I can’t stop thinking about that man and his friend...that sounds scary. ”
“I know,” Danny frowned, pushing open a tall, thin metal door. The door swung open with a creak.
Inside, the room was hot. As they entered, twin fireplaces roared to life, illuminating the black stones that made up the floor, walls, and ceiling.
“Didn’t you see the time? ” roared one flame. Danny immediately dropped down, wrapping his arms around the boy to shield him from the blast of heat.
“Well, yeah, but what does that matter?” howled the other.
“Then you saw how long he was asleep like this!”
“You don’t know that he’s been like this all night, though!”
“Just shut up! Daniel...Danny...I don’t know if you can hear me, but...I’m going to pick you up now,” rumbled the first flame.
Danny shrieked as it reared up and tumbled out of the fireplace. He scooped up the boy in his arms and ran as fast as he could out of the stone-and-fire room.
“Wow, so romantic,” he heard the second flame scoff as he slammed the door shut behind him.
“What did it mean by romantic? ” Danny yelped, setting down the boy who responded with laughter. It took more than a few heartbeats for Danny to catch his breath, leaning against the hot metal door. When he was finally able to breathe properly, ignoring the pain in his side, he took the boy’s hand and pulled him toward the next door.
The boy ran his hand over the pale stone of the door and looked up at Danny.
“I think this is the last one,” he said solemnly.
“What makes you think that?” Danny asked, looking down the hallway. There were still so many doors... The boy just shrugged and pushed it open.
The last room - if it even was the last - was filled with fog. Danny waved his hand around in front of his face.
“Bathroom,” the boy said. “Go fill the tub with cold water.”
“What tub?” Danny asked. The boy pointed in one direction, and Danny followed his finger, watching as a clawfoot tub appeared out of the fog. “Oh. That tub. Why am I filling it?” he asked, looking back to the boy, but he’d vanished in the fog.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to warm them in hot water, genius,” he heard the boy say.
“Yes, that’s why I said cold water! I’m going to heat it myself.” That was the man’s voice.
“Wow! Okay, really? That’s your grand solution? Not even going to test it first?” Danny scrambled around in the fog, trying to find the boy.
“Test it how? What is there to test? ”
“Stop!” Danny shouted. “Please stop fighting!” He held his arms out in front of him, grasping blindly until his hands found the boy’s shoulders. As he blinked, the man appeared in front of him.
“I just meant you don’t know what that’ll do to him!” the boy yelled.
“I don’t care what you meant! Just go! ” the man shouted. The boy vanished from under Danny’s hands. “I’m sorry about that, Daniel,” the man said. “I’m usually much better at watching my temper, but I know you’re not the biggest fan of them , either.”
“I’m really sorry, but I don’t...I just want to go home. Please, do you know the way out of here?” Danny asked, stepping closer to the man.
“I hope that doesn’t mean he feels the same way about me… You don’t, do you? You don’t feel that way?” the man asked.
“I-I don’t know,” Danny stammered. “You really seem to care about your friend but you’re also...terrifying.” He glanced around for the boy, but it seemed like he was gone for good. “I think I want to like you, but I just don’t know!”
“There,” the man said, pointing back to the tub. His face was sad and scared, and he led Danny over to it. The man kneeled in front of it, dipping his hands in the water.
“What are you doing?” Danny asked.
“I am thinking slow, warm thoughts. I will not boil Daniel. I am thinking slow, warm thoughts,” the man said, his words echoing through the fog. “I won’t hurt you again.” The man leaned forward over the water, and when he sat back, Danny saw the man’s faceless reflection emerge from the water and float on the surface.
“You don’t have to censor yourself around me, you know. I am you, after all. This is nothing new,” said the reflection.
“Force of habit, I suppose,” the man sighed.
“Right, so how long is the gonna take?” the faceless man asked, swirling his fingertips through the water.
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t we just, I dunno, leave him?”
“Because I don’t know how long his body will last like this. Look at him; he’s still human.”
Danny stared at the reflection, but couldn't understand what the man meant. How could he tell the faceless man was human? He had no face!
“Yeah but… Remind me again how this is our problem?”
“It’s my fault this happened. I did this to him.”
“You did this?” Danny asked, interrupting them.
“ We didn’t do anything. If he’s having a breakdown because he’s out of practice, that isn’t our fault,” the faceless man said, not-looking at Danny. Danny had to turn away, suddenly feeling very sick.
“You’re right, it’s just my fault,” the man said. The reflection dissolved into fog, and reappeared with shaggy black hair and blue lips.
“It’s funny, isn’t it? Despite all the progress you’ve made, you’re still trying to change,” said the Danny in the tub.
“I have to change,” said both Danny and the man at the same time. Danny slapped a hand over his mouth. It had been talking on its own too often since he crashed into the building.
“Who are you changing for? Him or yourself?”
“Does it matter?” the man asked.
“It might. Just keep this in mind...he already knows who you are. He knew who you were when he came here, and he knew who you were when he decided to stay.”
“I...hadn’t thought of that,” the man said softly. “Is it true? Do you really think he chose this despite everything that’s happened between us?” The man turned away from the reflection and looked at Danny.
All Danny could do was shrug, and the man started to cry.
“Please, Danny. Just please be okay,” he said. And then he, too, faded away, leaving Danny alone with his reflection.
“What now?” Danny asked.
“Get in,” the reflection said.
“Like, with you?”
The reflection nodded, and Danny climbed in beside it. The water was hot, and the heat felt glorious. Danny sighed with relief, sinking lower into the water. When he was finally comfortable, the reflection cleared its throat.
“And now we wait.”
Chapter 13: Icicles
I remain soft and accessible in the face of my own ending
So I will try to be discreet
Through my full-blown implosion
I'll stay golden and retreat into my sweetest fantasy
Danny hadn’t really meant to lie about the dream. He was still trying to make sense of it on his own.
After Vlad left him alone with his clothing and his bag, he scrambled out of the tub, peeling out of his wet clothes and wrapping himself in a towel. Then he sat down on the tiled floor and pulled the spiral bound notebook from his bag, quickly flipping to a clean page.
At first, Danny could only remember flashes of the dream. There was a boy with white hair and a man with silver hair. Those were easy to interpret. There was a hallway with doors, and that was a little harder to find meaning in.
“It feels vaguely...ghosty,” Danny muttered around the pen cap clenched between his teeth, writing that down. “Ghost-adjacent, at the least.” He tried to remember what was behind the doors, but that made the back of his head throb. The dream was coming back to him at an agonizingly slow pace.
Groaning, he stood, using the side of the tub to haul himself up. There was a stabbing in his side, and Danny almost slipped.
“Dammit,” Danny hissed. He clutched his side as he bent down, grabbing a shirt from the pile of clothing Vlad brought. He stared at it for a moment, then held the ball of worn fabric to his chest. Grinning, despite the pain in his side, he pulled the shirt on over his head. Then he tugged up a pair of loose-fitting sweatpants and padded over to the mirror.
“I thought I lost this years ago,” he smiled, running his hands down the front of his shirt. The fabric was thin and soft and Danny had missed it dearly. The design had faded significantly, but Danny could still make out the shape of the NASA logo. He tried to smooth down his hair where it had started drying in awkward spikes, frowning at the blue tinge that remained on his lips and nails. Growling, he tossed the notebook back in his bag, and stepped out of the bathroom.
He stopped in the room he’d been staying in, dropping his bag to the floor. Danny turned to leave, but something made him pause. He glanced around the room, trying to find what had caught his eye and...there. On the bed. A green quilt. Danny grabbed it from the bed and wrapped it around himself like a cloak. It felt important to have it with him.
Danny wanted to ask Vlad where he’d found the shirt - he really had been trying to find it for years - but his footsteps slowed as he approached the kitchen. Danny stood in the doorway and watched Vlad moving frantically around the kitchen, occasionally stopping to cover his face with his hands. Danny opened his mouth to say something, then decided against it.
Oh god, he’s...he’s crying..!
“O-oh, Daniel, I didn’t see you there,” Vlad said, his voice strained, making Danny jump. He turned further away, and Danny watched him sweep his hands across his cheeks.
“Sorry, I didn’t...I can just go…” Danny said quietly. His heart was thumping painfully in his chest.
“No, no! I’m sorry, this has just...nevermind. I’m almost finished with, uhm,” he paused, and Danny watched him turn around in a circle before continuing, “well, lunch, I guess. Are you hungry?” He turned around once more and smiled.
Damn, what happened? Danny thought, his stomach twisting. “I guess,” he said absently, moving to stand next to Vlad. He seemed so out of it, and Danny wanted to reach out and touch him as he reached into a cabinet above them to fish around for a mug. Instead, he moved a bit closer and asked, “So what happened..?” He leaned on the counter as Vlad poured a cup of coffee and handed it to him.
Vlad sighed and Danny watched him chew on a fingernail for a long moment.
“I...found you this morning, and you were very...cold. At first, I really...well, I could tell something was wrong. You weren’t responding when I tried to wake you, so I decided to try warming you up. Which is why you were in the tub when you did wake up,” he said, not looking at Danny.
It felt like there was more Vlad wanted to say, but he stayed silent. “Oh,” Danny said, trying to urge him on. He took a long sip from the mug and stared at Vlad, waiting.
“I figured something had happened with your...with your core. So I drew from mine in an attempt to counteract it. I can’t say for sure if it worked, or if you just woke up on your own but… Daniel, has that ever happened before?”
“Not that I know of,” Danny shrugged. Wait, something wrong with a core...I think I remember that from my dream, he thought, shivering. “‘m not usually this cold, though,” he heard himself say. He almost wanted to take it back, but since he’d woken up, he hadn’t been able to shake the ever-present chill that stained his lips and fingernails blue.
“Okay.” Vlad placed a warm hand on Danny’s shoulder, and Danny leaned into it. “Go. Sit. I’ll be finished here in a bit.”
Danny nodded and pulled away. Vlad was smiling, but his face still just as worried as he’d seen it in the dream.
Something really bad must have happened, Danny thought, clutching the hot mug and pressing it to the center of his chest. But why won’t he tell me about it?
He shuffled out of the kitchen and over to the couch. Hopefully he’d be able to get Vlad to talk once they were eating. Danny had no idea what time it was, but looking out the window, he saw the sun high in the sky. He guessed it had been a full day since he had asked Vlad to leave.
Oh god, Danny thought, sighing. He dropped onto the couch and pulled the green quilt up around himself. What was I thinking? He tried to remember what went wrong when he tried to change. Vlad’s transformation had always seemed so effortless, so natural, and despite the fact that he had almost two decades experience on Danny, it had reassured Danny that it would be as instinctual for him as it was for Vlad. But the harder he tried to remember what he must have done wrong, the worse the pain throbbing at the back of his head and inside his chest became.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, trying to will the pain away, until he heard Vlad approach. He held out a steaming bowl, and Danny took it gratefully, replacing the now-cold coffee mug with the bowl.
“How are you feeling?” Vlad asked as he sat next to Danny. There was a familiar heat radiating from him that made Danny want to set aside the bowl and crawl closer, though Danny was too embarrassed to follow through.
“I dunno,” Danny said instead. “My brain still feels really foggy.”
“Well, tell me what you remember,” Vlad said softly, leaning closer. His face was still twisted with worry.
“I remember trying to change,” Danny frowned.
“Right, then what?” Vlad urged him on, and Danny closed his eyes. He bit his lip, trying to ignore the pain.
“I...remember you helping me upstairs - thanks for that, by the way - and then I remember...dreaming.”
“That’s interesting,” Vlad said quietly, his voice sounding closer. “And that could help us figure out what happened. Do you remember what you dreamed about?”
Danny shook his head, trying not to feel guilty about lying. The dream was still coming back to him, and he didn’t want Vlad to read anything from it without knowing the full story. He felt a warm hand on his shoulder, and he opened his eyes. Vlad was smiling in a reassuring way, but Danny knew it was forced, and he felt even worse for taking advantage of Vlad’s trust that way.
“That’s okay,” Vlad said through his smile. “Are you feeling any better now?”
“Thank you,” he nodded. “Again. For everything,” Danny said, as if that made up for the fact that he was just making everything worse.
“Of course,” Vlad smiled, and again, Danny had the feeling he wanted to say more.
“And I’m really sorry if I worried you. I don’t...I really don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Danny winced, looking down at the bowl pressed against his chest. He took an apprehensive bite, eyes widening. “Oh, this is really good!”
“Don’t worry about it. I…” Vlad set down the bowl he’d been holding and looked at Danny. “I’m only worried that I may have overreacted.” He waved a hand vaguely. “I do that sometimes, which you probably already knew.”
Danny smiled weakly, swallowing another spoonful. “Yeah, I guess you can be a little over dramatic sometimes.”
“Daniel, is that sarcasm I hear?”
“Maybe,” Danny smiled, but he couldn't keep it up. The terrible feeling inside him just kept growing and growing and growing.
“I’m just… What’s wrong with me?” Danny asked desperately, squeezing his eyes shut. He tried to stop the tears welling up from spilling over, but fuck, he just felt so terrible. No matter what happens, I just keep fucking everything up, he thought, feeling two tears streak down his cheek. I’m trying so fucking hard, but I just...can’t…
He felt the bowl being taken from his hands, away from his chest, and he whined until he was pulled forward and that small ceramic heat was replaced with a larger, stronger one.
“I don’t know,” Vlad murmured.
“Why am I like this?” Danny choked. He grasped at the back of Vlad’s shirt, clinging to the warmth, trying to pull him closer. “What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Oh god, Danny thought, drowning. He’s just lying to make me feel better and it’s not working and...and…
“And why am I so cold? I’m never cold anymore but lately I just...I can’t… What’s wrong with me?”
“Here, Danny, let me help,” Vlad breathed, and Danny felt a devouring heat wrap around his core.
“...okay,” Danny gasped at the pressure. He tensed for a moment, expecting pain, but relaxed as he breathed. It was like...the bath from his dream.
“Is that...better?” Vlad asked softly, and Danny nodded.
“...warmer…” he breathed, his core humming.
He felt Vlad pull away slightly, and Danny had to bite his lip to keep from crying out in protest. Was that all he got? But Vlad just shifted one of his legs, and then he was pulling Danny’s weight against him again, and Danny felt embarrassment colour his cheeks at his desire to be held like this. To be treated like such a child. He groaned, trying to hide his face as Vlad ran a hand down his back.
‘ He knew who you were when he came here, and he knew who you were when he decided to stay, ’ Danny remembered suddenly. He chewed on his lip and buried his face in Vlad’s shoulder. Yeah, that’s true. I came here expecting a fight, and I stayed when I realized how...different he was. I don’t...I don’t deserve this.
“You think you don’t deserve kindness?” Vlad asked, and Danny felt him still.
“I…” Danny didn’t realize he’d been speaking out loud, and hoped Vlad hadn’t heard more. “I don’t know,” he whispered.
“Why?” Vlad asked quietly, very close to Danny’s ear. The timbre of his voice sent a shiver down Danny’s spine. “How could you possibly think that?”
“I haven’t done anything to deserve it,” Danny breathed.
“You’ve done more than I have.” Vlad’s voice was low as his hand slid up Danny’s back.
“Not recently,” Danny retorted, surprising himself. Vlad grabbed his shoulder and pushed him gently back so their foreheads were just millimeters from touching. Vlad was staring at him so intensely that Danny wanted to crawl away, but even being separated this much required him to fight the chill that ran through him. “W-what I mean is-”
“Daniel, listen to me.” Vlad’s voice was low and for a moment, Danny was able to see the old, terrifying Vlad that had tormented him for years.
But this Vlad was different, Danny reminded himself. This was the Vlad who had taken him in, given him a job, cooked for him, held him like this. Sure, he was still intimidating and overconfident, but he was also patient and kind and so, so warm. Danny swallowed.
“I’m listening,” he whispered.
“I know it’s hard for you to see it right now, but you do deserve it. You deserve more kindness than I have in me to give.”
“I...are you telling me to...to go?” Danny asked, confusion bringing tears to his eyes. He tried to blink them away. “Do you...want me to leave..?”
“Oh god, no, ” Vlad said, and he pulled Danny back into him. “No, not at all.”
Danny sighed with relief, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his palm. He leaned against Vlad, trying to claim a little more of that warmth. Vlad didn’t say anything, just nodded and held him closer. Danny rested his head on Vlad’s shoulder and closed his eyes.
He was aware of the flat of Vlad’s hand running slowly up and down his back. He breathed with it until he was sure he’d fall asleep. Then it changed, and it was the tip of Vlad’s finger tracing a pattern along his spine. Danny made a small noise, and Vlad stopped for a moment, then continued when Danny stayed silent.
Danny followed the pattern in his mind, trying to work out the shapes. They reminded him of letters.
Because they are! he realized, smiling. He kept his eyes closed, so the shapes would stay sharp. That’s one of the written ghost languages I learned ages ago! Okay, let’s see… he grinned, following the new pattern Vlad was tracing.
Right-down-left, down-right, left-down-right-dot, up-down-dot, up-right, left-down-right-dot again...that would be please. Up-right, right-down, up-down-dot, right-up-dot...stay.
Yes, I can do that, Danny thought, heart pounding so loud he was shocked Vlad hadn’t commented on it. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself enough to remember the shapes of the letters he needed.
With a shaky hand, he traced them out in the center of Vlad’s back.
Down-right-up-dot, left-down-right-dot, right-down-left-dot, left-down-right-dot. He paused, waiting for Vlad to say something, but if he noticed what Danny was doing, he didn’t show it. Danny continued with down-right, left-down-right, left-right-dot, left-down-right-dot. He paused again, shorter this time, then finished with right-down, down-right-up-dot, left-down-right, left-down.
Here like this.
Chapter 14: To S.
What about life on the ground
Makes you feel so strange
Without the blues you're tethered to
I'm sure you’d float away
"I had a dream and you were in it"
Is all you had to say
Vlad had tried writing back several phrases, and when Danny didn’t respond, Vlad worried that he’d gone too far. But Danny had started snoring softly then, and Vlad felt a wave of childish relief. He considered carrying Danny to bed, but the thought of waking up next to him like that again filled him with a fear he hadn’t felt in years. Then there was the problem of Danny’s message. If he wanted to stay like this, who was Vlad to deny him that?
He compromised, pulling the ball Danny had curled into closer so that he was in Vlad’s lap. Then he stretched out his legs, knees cracking gratefully, and leaned back against the armrest of the couch. The way Danny clung to him made the heat in his chest flare uncomfortably, and he had to force himself to remain calm. Danny made a small sound and again, Vlad worried he’d done something wrong, but Danny didn’t wake, just moved closer to rest his cheek on Vlad’s chest.
Vlad thought he might cry from the obscure emotion stoking the flame of his core. He tried in vain to assign a name to it so that he could quash it like usual, but this was something for Danny and he didn’t dare harm it.
Instead, he closed his eyes and listened to it, trying to work out what it meant as it danced around his core. It told him things he already knew, about his impractical desire to cater to each and every one of Danny’s whims, about the fierce way he wanted to protect Danny from harm. Then it told him things he hadn’t allowed himself to know, about how much taller Danny had grown, about how the pale skin and dark hair that made him look sick as a child instead made him look coy and intriguing as an adult.
And when it told him that if he just leaned forward a bit, he’d be more than able to kiss him, Vlad’s eyes snapped open and he brought a hand to his mouth.
Oh nonononono, he thought desperately. Oh no, not that, anything but that. Danny started to stir, and Vlad dropped his hand to run his fingers through Danny’s hair, hoping that would soothe him so Vlad would have a few more warm moments to consider the quickest way to end himself. He briefly considered plunging an intangible hand into his chest, plucking out the red hot marble that made up his core, but even that would hurt less than not indulging Danny’s request to simply remain here . And besides, it wouldn’t work. He’d tried it already.
Danny’s hair was softer than he’d let himself notice before, and he bit a lip to keep from laughing at the childish desire to braid it. Vlad raised a hand to look at his watch, and wondered how much longer Danny would sleep.
I won’t push it, he resolved, his hand dropping back to Danny’s hair. I have to be the bigger person. I can’t let anything happen that would take this from me.
Maybe Danny was right, he thought, eyelids closing again. Maybe I was right. Maybe everyone was right, and even if I’m so different, so changed, maybe obsessions don’t change.
He pulled Danny closer as he fell asleep, thinking of family and of love.
Every time Danny woke up after an episode, it felt like he had sloughed off a younger version of himself and emerged from sleep a new man. For example, two or three Danny s ago, waking up to find himself splayed across Vlad’s chest while he read aloud from an old, boring book would have made Danny shriek and run for cover. This Danny on the other hand woke slowly, happily, and feeling well-rested. Five or six Danny s ago, the idea of Vlad reading some nonsense to him would have made him sick. This Danny however, though he couldn't make sense of the words just yet, could have shivered with delight if not for the heat pouring from Vlad’s chest.
Danny sat up carefully, swallowing a yawn. Vlad chuckled, slipping a finger into the book to mark his place as he closed it. Danny blinked sleep from his eyes, waiting for the embarrassment to settle in. But even after the few moments he spent watching Vlad watch him, it never came.
“Good morning,” he said cautiously, glancing outside. The sky was dark, and morning felt like a safe assumption.
“Good morning, little badger,” Vlad smiled. “How did you sleep? Are you hungry?”
“A little,” Danny said, running a hand through his hair. “And I slept really well, actually. It’s been so long since-” His hand caught on something in his hair and he fingered delicately. “Is this...did you braid my hair?”
Vlad looked away, blushing faintly. “Well, you were asleep so long, and there’s only so much one can do to entertain themself when one can’t move,” he muttered. “I can take it out for you, if you’d like,” he sighed, and Danny quickly shook his head.
“No! I...I like it!” he said, leaning back. He touched the braid again. It was unconventional, even for Vlad, but he did kind of like it. It made him feel mysterious. And if it helped tame the wild way his hair was growing out, he wanted to keep it. “Thank you,” he added quickly.
“Of course, little badger,” Vlad smiled, opening his book and continuing his reading, silently this time. Danny almost considered asking him to read aloud again, but decided against it.
“Hey, what time - oh, sorry - uhm, what time is it?” Danny asked, wincing. Vlad lowered the book and glanced at his watch.
“Are you sure you want to know?” he asked with a small smile.
“I mean, I have no sleep schedule so sure. Lay it on me.”
Vlad sighed, looking from his watch back to Danny before giving in.
“It’s about a quarter past four in the morning.”
“Yikes,” Danny groaned. “Sorry, I feel like I’ve murdered your circadian rhythm.”
“Please, it was plenty dead before you stumbled into my life,” Vlad said, waving a hand dismissively. Something in his tone made Danny shiver. “Are you cold?” Vlad asked.
“Just a little,” Danny admitted, trying not to give away just how desperately he wanted to be able to lay his head on Vlad’s chest again.
After a length of time that almost prompted Danny to outright ask, Vlad finally lifted the book and made a gesture that couldn't be interpreted as anything other than an invitation.
“Would you like me to continue reading to you?” he asked softly, his free hand threading into Danny’s hair so easily that Danny had to bring a hand to his face to cover how red his cheeks were.
“Oh, sure,” Danny said, feigning disinterest. “If you want.”
Vlad cleared his throat, then continued, his voice low, “I wanted to ask him. Unable to, I stopped him. I seized his arm. But he shook his head, pointed to the mountain's topmost peak, and seemed to tell me: ‘Come on! Come with me! Come higher!’ I followed him with one last burst of energy, and in a few minutes I had scaled the peak, which crowned the whole rocky mass by some ten meters. ”
“What is that?” Danny asked, stifling a yawn.
“Jules Verne,” Vlad said, closing the book again, and Danny felt guilty for interrupting him. “ Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. I prefer it in the original French, but this translation gets the job done.”
“You speak French?” Danny asked, hiding his smile behind his hand.
“Not well,” Vlad smiled. “But I can read it alright.”
“Sounds like me with most languages. They’re easy to figure out on paper or whatever, but as soon as I have to come up with the words on my own,” Danny trailed off, laughing.
Vlad hummed an agreement, then continued reading, and Danny closed his eyes so he could listen to the way Vlad’s voice thrummed in his chest. Danny had read plenty of old science fiction novels in high school, but no story had captivated him this completely before. It was a fight to stay awake, even with the near-day of sleep he’d just woken up from. But Vlad was warm, and his voice was deep, and Danny’s eyes were already closed, and sleep claimed him mercilessly.
Danny was consumed with the desire to be both as close to Vlad as possible and as far away from him as he could manage in their interwoven lives. He’d come to the conclusion that he was reacting the same way he did when anyone unrelated to him treated him with basic dignity: by developing an immediate and debilitating crush on them.
So he hoped that, by avoiding Vlad whenever possible, it would go away on its own. And it wasn’t that Vlad was making it purposely hard to do so, but he definitely wasn’t making it easy, what with all living in his own house he was doing. And because Danny knew he was trying to hide it, he never brought up the fact that he knew Vlad had been checking on him throughout the night. Every night.
On more than one occasion, he’d almost worked up enough courage to ask Vlad to stay. But each time Danny felt him approach, his nerves got the best of him, the threat of rejection too much to handle. And each time Vlad left his room - it still felt strange calling it that - he would sit up, clutching his chest, gasping for air until he could lay back down under the heap of blankets he’d accumulated, shivering until he’d start to nod off. Then the cycle would repeat, his core pricking as Vlad advanced on him, and Danny would suck shallow breaths in through the nose, out through the mouth, and then Vlad would leave and Danny would try not to be sick.
At the end of the week, standing next to Vlad in the kitchen as they silently washed-dried-put away the dishes, Danny felt like he was going to drop dead, right there on the freshly mopped tiles of Vlad’s kitchen.
“Daniel,” Vlad said suddenly, and Danny had to scramble to catch the plate he’d nearly dropped.
“Uh, yeah?” he said, heart pounding. “Wha’s up?” He winced internally, adrenaline making his tongue clumsy in his mouth.
“Are you okay?” Vlad asked. He was leaning against the marble counter, his sleeves rolled up and hair disheveled in a way that seemed intentional. It made Danny regret being born with eyes.
“Yeah, of course,” he said, setting down the plate and crossing his arms in a way that he hoped was casual. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Vlad said. He ran a hand through his hair and gave Danny a serious look. “You’ve just seemed a little...off. And while I want to give you as much space as you need after...all that,” he paused to wave a hand around, “I can’t help but worry that something is wrong.”
“Nope, all good!” Danny lied.
“And are you sleeping alright? Are the blankets helping?”
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Danny nodded. The look Vlad gave him screamed that he knew Danny was lying, but thankfully Vlad didn’t push it.
“Okay, Daniel,” he sighed, pushing away from the counter. “If you need anything, I’m here.”
“Yeah, I know,” Danny said, forcing a smile. “Thanks.”
“Of course.” Vlad reached forward, ruffling Danny’s hair. Then he turned and walked away.
When Vlad was out of sight, Danny nearly collapsed, holding himself up on the edge of the sink. He quickly smoothed out his hair, checking that the small braid Vlad had woven into it was still secure.
Oh, I’m just a child, aren't I? Danny thought, frantically trying to calm himself as he watched the water droplets in the sink begin to crystalize. I’m acting like a fucking teenager and no matter what I do, I’m just going to ruin this. Life is good! Everything is great! And here I am fucking it all up by getting a crush on arguably the worst possible person to do that with right now!
He wanted to scream and yell and smash the fucking plate he almost dropped over his own fucking head, but that would only make him feel more childish. Instead, he stalked out of the kitchen, intending to go straight to his room - still weird - but stopped when he saw Vlad sitting in the armchair, a paperback book in one hand and a glass in the other. Vlad turned and smiled at him.
“Everything okay, Daniel?”
“No! Yes! I don’t know!” he practically shouted, throwing his hands in the air. Vlad folded the book closed and his smile faded.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“ God no,” Danny said, unable to stop himself from making what he imagined was a truly horrible face.
“Okay,” Vlad said, setting the glass on the table. “I can read to you some more, if you’d like. I just started Frankenstein last night.”
“Yeah, I...I guess,” Danny sighed. How could he possibly turn him dow? He stepped awkwardly around Vlad and tumbled onto the hard leather couch, hiding his face in the armrest.
“Do you want me to start over from the beginning?” Vlad asked, and Danny heard the sound of worn pages being turned.
“No, no, don’t worry about it. I’ve read it before,” he mumbled.
“Okay,” Vlad said, and Danny heard him turn more pages before he began reading. Danny guessed he was less than halfway through the book, though it had been a long time since he’d last read it.
He was pulled briefly from sleep by a hand running gently through his hair, drowsiness making it near-impossible for him to be embarrassed. It was nice, and Danny didn’t want him to stop, so he tried to listen for as long as he could, but he didn’t have the strength to open his eyes.
“ For a short space of time I remained at the window watching the pallid lightnings that played above Mont Blanc and listening to the rushing of the Arve, which pursued its noisy way beneath. The same lulling sounds acted as a lullaby to my too keen sensations; when I placed my head upon my pillow, sleep crept over me; I felt it as it came and blessed the giver of oblivion. ”
Chapter 15: The Missing Road
But I never could forget your face
It finds me in my sleep
And I’d like to tell you about those dreams
But talk is always cheap
Vlad continued reading for a few more pages, waiting for Danny to wake, but he remained asleep, and Vlad allowed himself to enjoy the quiet moment for just a bit longer. He dropped his hands to his lap and let the book close. Danny was snoring softly, his head resting awkwardly on the arm of the couch, and Vlad was tempted to leave him there just to avoid the chance of waking him. Eventually, though, he conceded. Danny would wake up at some point, and in that position, there was no way to avoid waking to a stiff neck.
Setting the book on the table, he stood. He slipped a hand behind Danny’s knees and another around his shoulders, hefting him up into his chest. Danny was still disturbingly light in his arms, but Vlad was pleased at the bit of extra weight he felt. He flipped through the mental list of meals he knew Danny liked best as he carried him slowly down the hall and toward his room.
He cursed himself as he awkwardly reached for the door knob. It would have been easier to just teleport into the room; he had always used his abilities in trivial ways like that. But as he approached Danny’s bed, he silently thanked himself for being able to spend just a little more time with Danny pressed up against him.
This is dangerous, he thought, trying not to frown in case Danny were to wake. It had been obvious throughout the week that Danny had been avoiding him. And while the realization had stung, Vlad silently agreed it was probably for the best. Sure, there had been plenty of moments where he would have loved to grab Danny by the shoulders and shake him until he wised up and left before anything actually happened. But Vlad knew he wouldn't be able to handle it if he did leave. There was a familiar comfort to the particular brand of loneliness he indulged himself in, but even after a few weeks, it couldn't compare to the comfort of sharing his life in any capacity with Danny.
And that’s why this is so dangerous, he thought. Gently, he placed a knee on the bed. He lowered Danny down, away from him, and watched him shiver slightly. This was dangerous, too. Vlad tried to remember if it had ever been this bad for him, but couldn't uncover any comparable memories. There was never any lingering heat the way the cold hung onto Danny.
Vlad’s head was swarming with thoughts. I have to keep him here, one said. I have to fix him, said another. I need him, one said. I can help, said another. Vlad pulled the green quilt up over Danny and settled down onto the bed, burying his face in his hands.
Danny moved beside him, a hand poking out from under the blanket. Vlad just stared at it. He wanted to grab it, to hold it, to kiss it. But one thought pounded its way to the front of his mind: If I do anything wrong, anything at all, he’s going to leave me.
Sighing, Vlad stood and walked out of Danny’s room. He leaned against the door for a few heartbeats, then, waving away a plume of black smoke, he dropped himself onto his own bed.
As the rest of the week continued, each day seemed to pass slower and slower. The first night, Vlad had been wracked with captivating dreams of Danny that left him unhinged in the morning.
He speculated that the best remedy to that would be to avoid sleep altogether, and attempted to stay awake the following night. He woke the next morning sprawled out on the couch with an ache in his back that made him hiss every time he stood up or sat down. But for the most part, it seemed to work.
By the time the following Friday arrived, Vlad found himself clutching two bottles he’d carried up from a hidden corner of the basement. Danny had squirreled himself away in his room hours ago after declining to listen to a few chapters of an old novel Vlad had chosen at random from his library. And why wouldn’t he! Vlad thought bitterly, snatching a short glass from a cabinet, a precursive lack of sleep fueling his resentful mood. The boy is twenty one for god’s sake, he doesn’t want to be read to!
Scowling, Vlad dropped into the armchair and took a lengthy swig from one of the bottles before filling the glass.
Danny groaned, sitting up in bed. His hand flopped worthlessly around the blankets, trying to find his phone. After a moment, he found it stuffed up under a pillow, and he squinted at it - Saturday. Just shy of 5am. He tossed it to the foot of the bed and rubbed his eyes. He’d really meant to sleep in after the absolute wreck of a week he’d had.
It was getting easier to be around Vlad, but Danny still found himself avoiding him whenever possible. It was painful, and the chills that plagued him when he was alone made Danny question his motives. But it was equally painful to be around him, knowing he couldn't do anything.
“God, what would I even do?” he whined, throwing off the blankets. He stood, hands on his hips, stretching his back until it popped. It was late enough in the day - Danny laughed - that the coffee machine would be finished with whatever confusing cycles it ran through each morning, and a fresh cup was just a trip to the kitchen away.
Yawning, he poked his head out of his room and listened, trying to gauge whether or not Vlad was already awake. It didn’t sound like it, but there was a light shining from the end of the hall.
Danny comically tip-toed toward it, trying not to laugh at himself. He heard the sound of movement and froze for a moment before continuing.
At the end of the hall, he stopped, embarrassed.
Vlad was sitting in his customary armchair, head slightly turned to squint at Danny in confusion. Beside him on the floor was a knee-high stack of novels, and on the table were two empty bottles of alcohol that Danny immediately remembered drinking in college, though the memories of what happened after were very, very fuzzy. Which had been the point. Danny took a cautious step into the room, his embarrassment fading away and leaving behind concern.
“Daniel..? What are you doing up this late?” Vlad asked, his voice flat.
“Oh, I just woke up. It’s...are you okay?” Danny asked, frowning.
“Of course,” Vlad said, waving a hand dismissively. Danny took a few apprehensive steps forward, deliberately looking away from the empty bottles.
“Are you...sure?” Danny asked, coming to a stop in front of Vlad. From this side, he could see he’d been right to be worried.
Vlad was curled into an unwieldy ball in the chair, his legs both jutting out and folded under him in a way that made Danny’s knees ache just looking at him. His eyes were red like he’d been crying, and he brought a hand up to cover them like he knew what Danny was thinking.
“Yes, Daniel, I’m fine, ” he groaned, curling further into himself.
“Really? Because you look like the opposite of ‘fine,’ ” Danny retorted, then regretted it. “Fuck, no, I’m sorry, I don’t… Is there anything I can do? Can I help?” he asked, settling down on his knees in front of the chair.
“No, I...I’m sorry. I’ve apparently been up all night and I’m just...very tired is all,” Vlad said, still hiding his face.
“Do you...want some coffee?” Danny offered. Vlad gestured at him again, but didn’t say anything else. “Okay,” Danny said, standing, “coffee it is.”
He walked quickly to the kitchen and juggled two mugs out of a cabinet. He poured two cups of coffee and paused for a moment before stepping away from the machine to take a few much needed sips from his own cup. When he finally spun around, he nearly dropped them both.
Vlad was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, his arms crossed in front of him.
“One small black coffee for Vlad,” Danny said, unable to think of anything a normal person would say in that moment. He held out the mug. Vlad stared at him, unblinking, then finally, the corner of his mouth twitched upward, and he laughed.
“I don’t know what to say. Keep the change, I suppose,” he smiled, and Danny laughed, too. Vlad took a few steps toward him, and Danny passed the mug into his hands.
Vlad tossed his head back, drinking as much of the coffee as he could before handing the mug back to Danny. Danny shrugged and refilled it before handing it back.
“Thank you,” Vlad said, taking slower sips. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me this morning.”
“Eh, I can guess,” Danny said, jerking his head in the direction of the sitting room.
“Right,” Vlad groaned. He took another sip of coffee, then gestured at the door. “I...think I need some fresh air. Care to join me?”
“Sure,” Danny shrugged and followed Vlad outside. The sun was just barely peeking over the treeline, bathing the deck in pale light. Danny leaned against the railing, clenching his teeth to keep from shivering in the cool morning air. He took another sip from the mug, but the coffee turned to ice in his stomach.
“Are you cold?” Vlad asked, smiling down at Danny.
“A little,” Danny said, his chest tightening uncomfortably. He closed his eyes and tried to will it away, but the ritual chill had already started clawing at his core. He opened his eyes and stared, defeated, over the treeline and waited for the slowly rising sun to pour some warmth into him.
“Alright, come here,” Vlad said, lifting an arm. He was still smiling, and despite his apprehension, Danny shuffled closer. Vlad chuckled softly in a way that made Danny fear he’d freeze them both solid. Danny carefully leaned against the railing again, and Vlad lowered his arm, effectively trapping him between them.
“Thanks,” Danny mumbled. God, how embarrassing, he thought, grimacing. He took a loud sip from the mug, to avoid having to say anything else.
“Of course,” Vlad said, leaning closer until his chest was pressed against Danny’s back. “And...I’m sorry. I didn’t realize what time it was. I think you may have woken me up.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Danny shrugged, setting his mug on the railing. “I’m sure dealing with me is much worse. I know how difficult I am.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Vlad said, and Danny could hear the smile in his voice.
“Oh yeah? How would you put it then?” Danny half-laughed.
“I would just call it...life. Living with you. Nothing difficult about it.”
Danny just shrugged again, unable to think of a competent response. I like that, he thought as he tried to choke down a smile. He looked around, trying to avoid moving too much in Vlad’s arms until he finally just looked down. I wonder if… his thoughts trailed off, heart pounding painfully.
Danny bit his lip and stared at the back of Vlad’s hand until he was certain it would either burst into flames or freeze solid. And when that didn’t happen, he started to worry about what would actually happen if he did what he was thinking of doing. There was no way it would work, and even if it did, what would he do ? This was Vlad, and it was unquestionable that his standards would be higher than an underweight twenty-something who was prone to manic outbursts and frequent, irritating depressive episodes. Not to mention the fact that he had just stumbled upon Vlad probably having an episode of his own, even if he wanted to deny it.
But on the off chance that his standards were that maddeningly low, and with Danny's confidence at an okay-ish level, he didn’t want to risk losing an opportunity like this. He lifted a shaking hand.
Right-down-left, down-right, left-down-right-dot, up-down-dot, left-down, left-down-right-dot he traced on the back of Vlad's hand. He felt Vlad still, but when he didn’t immediately tell Danny to stop, Danny continued, feeling his pulse pound in the tip of his finger.
Left-right-dot, left-down-right, left-down, left-down, then a quick pause, and up-right-down-dot, left-down-
“Daniel,” Vlad said, his voice low and agonizingly close to Danny’s ear, making him jump.
“Y-yes..?” he breathed as Vlad turned his hand palm-up, wrapping his fingers loosely around Danny’s.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he asked, impossibly soft.
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” Danny choked, relieved that Vlad was still behind him. He brought his free hand up to his face, trying to further hide how badly he was blushing. “I-I’m sorry, maybe it is. I don’t know what I was thinking, I can just-”
“Danny,” Vlad whispered, amusement tinting his tone. “Look at me.”
Trembling, he turned, his hand slipping out of Vlad’s grasp. Vlad took a small step forward and Danny felt the railing dig into his back as he tried to maintain the microscopic distance between them. Mortified, he managed to drag his eyes up to meet Vlad’s, the soft sunrise light making his blue eyes glow.
“Are you sure?” Vlad asked again, taking another step forward and leaning closer.
Danny wanted to say something clever, but his brain wouldn’t fashion letters into words anymore. So he nodded blankly instead and hoped that would get the point across. Vlad smirked, removing one hand from the railing and delicately cupped Danny’s cheek, angling his face slightly up.
Danny fought to stay tangible, to stay visible, to stay still, to not immediately flee. He wanted so badly to escape this moment and fall through the deck and make a mad dash for the woods and create a new life as one of those weird bohemian tree people and-
He had the feeling of soft and warm and out of habit, he tried in vain to form some sort of snarky response, but then Danny remembered that he had quite literally asked for this. He felt himself being forcibly pulled away from his racing thoughts as Vlad’s lips pressed softly against his own.
It was different in a spectacular way. He’d kissed people before, mainly girls, but they’d all had the same amount of experience as he did. Danny absently wondered why he hadn’t expected Vlad’s self-assured confidence to spill over into all the things he did.
Danny sucked in a quick breath, suddenly very self-conscious, but Vlad’s other hand fell from the railing to grasp at his hip, and Danny thought he would combust.
He lifted a hand and warily gripped Vlad’s shoulder. With his eyes closed, he could almost see the heat emanating from Vlad. It could have been frightening with the way it probed at Danny’s core, but the moment he felt it finally reach him, wrapping thick tendrils of warmth around that tiny, frozen marble, all he could feel was relief, though it was hard to tell whose relief it was.
He had the impression that Vlad was about to pull away and thoughtlessly, Danny pushed himself forward. For a heartbeat, it seemed like Vlad would withdraw from him further, and Danny wondered if he’d been too forward. But then Vlad’s hand on his waist gripped him harder, and a tiny huff of breath escaped as he was pushed not-unkindly back against the railing.
Vlad trailed kisses across the line of his jaw and down his neck, and Danny could barely contain the whine that threatened to escape from his throat.
“Still think that was a good idea?” Vlad murmured against the skin of Danny’s neck, and Danny shivered.
Danny made some unrelated word-sounds in response, and he could practically hear Vlad smirking. He pulled away slowly, placing one last kiss on the corner of Danny’s jaw.
He grinned down at Danny for a moment, then Danny watched as he seemed to realize what exactly had just happened. His mouth twisted into a frown. Vlad brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose and he groaned.
“Oh, god dammit!”
Chapter 16: To R.
Buddy, what's wrong? Like the angel of death
Stopped by to ask about the extra room you rent
It's not like you, tell him to leave
Did you really have to ask him in? Sing him to sleep
And are you really so surprised
At just what a lost man's love looks like?
“I’m sorry!” Danny cried. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking! I’m-”
Vlad whipped around and threw open the door, slamming it behind him. Danny’s chest throbbed painfully and he realized he wasn’t breathing. He sucked in a desperate breath, and the rush of oxygen made him dizzy. He grasped at the railing, trying to hold himself up, but that familiar jerking of the muscles in his calf made his knees buckle, and his foot slipped on the now-iced planks of the deck.
Danny cursed as he landed awkwardly on an elbow, catching himself as he fell. He clutched his leg and gnawed at his bottom lip.
“God fucking hell fucking shit! ” he shouted. “God dammit! ” He pounded a fist against his leg and hissed as he turned his arm over, examining the already-healing scape to his elbow.
He hauled himself up with a hand on the railing and the mug he’d balanced on it toppled over, smashing to a pile of ceramic on the deck. Danny just stared at it. He tried to find something like remorse inside himself, but his core felt cracked and it ached so painfully it was hard to feel anything else.
He waited for the yawning void to open up and swallow him whole for what he’d done. The mug. The kiss. The feelings . The moving in. The coming here in the first place. The failed classes. The decision to go to college. The hero act. The accident. The everything that had led up to this one momentary lapse.
Wow, had he really thought it was bad before? Danny thought he should laugh at that, so he did, and his voice sounded hollow and washed out in his ears. He stopped laughing and continued waiting. The sun rose higher and higher and Danny kept waiting and waiting. Staring at the ice. The mug.
There was a sensation in his stomach that made him frown. Was this it? No, the part of his brain that was still capable of thinking told him. You’re fucking hungry. All you’ve had today is half a cup of fucking coffee, you useless fucking idiot. Danny nodded. He stared and waited.
His feet started walking on their own, and he let them lead the way. There was the door, he noticed. There was the counter. There was a bowl. There was cereal. There was milk. There was a spoon. There was a chair. There was a table. This made sense. This wasn’t so hard. He knew how to do this. There was his hand. There was his mouth.
The sound of a door slamming closed made him jump. He waited. When nothing happened, he looked back down. There was ice, he noticed. Danny thought he should laugh at that, too. But he didn’t like the way his laugh sounded anymore, and so he stayed quiet. There was the sink. There was water. There was more ice.
His feet carried him out of the kitchen, down the hall, to his room, to his bed. His hands piled blankets around his shoulders and over his lap. It’s not so bad, he thought, leaning against the headboard. It’s not so bad. There was something warm on his face. Then something cold. His fingers touched the tear on his cheek, brushing away the small, frozen speck. It’s not so bad, he told himself again.
The thought echoed around in his head. The sink. It’s not so bad. The mug. It’s not so bad. The kiss. It’s not so bad. The feelings. It’s not so bad. The moving in. It’s not so bad. The coming here in the first place. It’s not so bad. The failed classes. It’s not so bad. The decision to go to college. It’s not so bad. The hero act. It’s not so bad. The accident . It’s not so bad.
Oh. The accident, he thought, his nails cutting crescent shapes into his palms as he clenched his fists. That was a memory he was very good at forgetting. He pulled his hands into his lap and tried to remember how to breathe. He looked down at them, his eyes tracing the webbing of the Lichtenberg scar that traveled up from the palm of his left hand. He didn’t look at it much anymore; seven years was a long time to get used to a scar.
Danny let his head thump back against the headboard. He didn’t want to think about scars or accidents or kisses. He tried to push the memories down, back into the little box he kept in the abandoned corner of his mind so he didn’t have to think about them anymore.
Then he moved so that he was laying down, the blankets bunched up around him. His leg was still throbbing and his core was still cracking and he was still crying and It’s not so bad, he tried to remind himself, squeezing his eyes shut.
When sleeping seemed impossible, Danny was good at waiting.
Vlad was aware that Danny had apologized. He was aware that his reaction - slamming the door in Danny’s face - was unnecessary. His brain had registered all of it. But the harder he tried to react in a way that felt dignified and appropriate, the hotter the room became.
He was pacing, his bare feet slapping against the tiles of the bathroom floor.
“How dare you,” he growled. He stopped in front of the mirror and scowled at his reflection. “How dare you!” he spat at it.
He raised a fist to strike the mirror, to shatter the red-eyed bastard staring back at him. But despite how much he wanted it to, that wouldn’t undo what he’d just done. It wasn’t his reflection who had too much to drink, who tried to stay awake until he physically couldn't just to avoid having some superficial dream that didn’t mean anything.
But Vlad wouldn’t let himself think about that. He stormed over to the tub and turned a knob, filling it with cold water. While he watched the water rise, he cast out aimlessly, looking for Danny. He followed the feeling in his core to a frigid swell, just outside the house. So Danny was...still on the deck.
Vlad stared down at the sloshing water. How dare you? he asked himself disparagingly. What part of you thought that would possibly end well? He waited for a reply, tapping his foot impatiently. But of course there was no response. The part of himself he typically enjoyed arguing with was silent. Smug.
Isn’t this what he’d been waiting for? For Danny to make the difficult decision for him? Shouldn’t he be out there right now, thanking him for this thrilling opportunity to prove just how changed he was? How kind and caring and attentive he taught himself to be? Vlad blinked and realized he had pushed open the bedroom door and was about to make a mad dash outside.
But what was the point? He’d already shown Danny how he felt when he absconded to his dark corner of the house to pout like a child. How would he react if Vlad were to show up now? What could he possibly say that would justify his initial reaction? There wasn’t anything he could say. That was the problem.
Snarling, Vlad slammed the door closed. It was a childish reaction and he knew it. But in the moment he really didn’t care. The outburst was satisfying in a way he forgot his anger could be. He paused for a moment. That was a frightening thought. It had taken a lot of self-reflection to unlearn that feeling.
“I have to be more careful,” he mumbled, turning from the door to the tub. It was mostly full, and he braced himself before stepping into it. The cold clawed at his skin and, predictably, steam poured from water around him. “Why am I like this?” he groaned, lowering himself into the tub.
He sucked in a sharp breath as water seared at his skin. He forced it out through his nose, trying to wrangle his lungs into submission so he could relax before the room overflowed with condensation. It took a few more agonizing breaths before he felt the tightness in his muscles start to diminish.
Vlad settled back in the tub and closed his eyes. He tried to steady himself enough to keep the water from fucking boiling, but the thoughts and feelings and memories and desires were ceasless and unending.
Some distant part of his brain, the part unoccupied with self-flagellation, was trying desperately to tell him that this was a fixable situation; all he had to do was just explain himself to Danny.
But he fought against the suggestion, and with a substantial amount of force, he was able to keep himself securely submerged in the tub.
He listened with his eyes closed to the clock tick, tick, ticking away. There was an occasional drip from the faucet that echoed around the room.
When enough time had passed that he could no longer sit still, Vlad stood. His brain tried constructing different solutions, tried to formulate a plan, but he quickly pushed those thoughts away, the sound of his own words too loud inside his head.
He was very good at compartmentalizing.
He dressed quickly, avoiding his reflection in the mirror. That was another thought for another box for another day. He wanted to cast out with the excess energy lingering around his core, wanted to find Danny, but that was another thought. Another box.
It felt like he was strangling a piece of himself to death.
But he was very good at compartmentalizing.
No bothering to wave away the plume of black smoke that blossomed around him, he willed himself into the kitchen and set to making dinner. He worked through the motions, finding a small amount of comfort in the repetitive movements.
When he was finished, he stared down at the two plates in his hands. He carried them over to the table, setting one at either end. He felt less lonely like that, and in a way, the action made him feel even more alone. Vlad sighed, pulled out a chair, and sat down to eat.
Danny woke up on Sunday morning and felt terrible. Or maybe he didn’t wake up, just became aware that it was Sunday morning.
He’d been up all night, waiting. He waited for Vlad to tell him that he had to leave. That he needed to pack his things immediately and go. Most of his things were still in the plastic totes from his dorm room, and while it had been distressing at first to have so many unpacked boxes, he was thanking himself for it now.
But Vlad never even came near him. Danny was used to getting a certain vibe whenever they were physically close, but now that he was actively, hopelessly trying to keep tabs on him, he had to dip into his fractured core to feel around for where Vlad was. It reminded him of college.
He’d tried so hard to avoid being near anyone when things were at their worst. And invisibility only went so far when you avoided using it for almost three years. When you avoided using any of your powers for almost three years. Danny wondered why it had surprised him when he collapsed in front of Vlad’s portal.
He sat up, drawing his knees to his chest. It’s not so bad, he reminded himself. Vlad hadn’t kicked him out - yet - so that gave him at least one positive thing to focus on. Danny groaned and let his head smack down onto his knees. There was still that ‘yet’ he had to brace himself for.
“What was I thinking?” he croaked, smacking his head against his knees again. “ Why did I do that? God, why did I have to fuck this up so bad? ” It felt like his stomach was trying to claw its way to freedom via his throat. His core felt like it had splintered into tiny, jagged wedges that pierced and jabbed at the inside of his chest.
And again he waited. He stared at the clock, watching the seconds tick by into minutes tick by into hours, and then he stopped when his eyes would no longer focus. He held a pillow in his hands and screamed into it, then stopped when no more sound would come out.
And still he waited. How typical. How unsurprising. How predictable.
How could I have expected anything different? Danny mouthed. His voice wasn’t working anymore, and he was grateful, the sound of his own ghastly voice unbearable in his ears. He didn’t want to hear himself asking these kinds of questions, knowing that he’d have to speak the answers. That would make what happened more real.
Maybe if he was just still, if he just didn’t move or think or do anything, this whole problem would work itself out and go away on its own. That method had never really worked before, and in fact had always tended to make things worse, but maybe this time would be different.
He blinked as his vision started to blur. He didn’t want to cry. Crying wasn’t going to fix anything. Nothing was going to fix this. What could he possibly say or do that would make this go away?
Danny froze for a moment. No. No. He’d been down that path before, and would not be going down it again.
He tried to focus instead on what would happen tomorrow. What would Vlad expect him to do? Should he set an alarm, just in case?
A wave of exhaustion rushed over him. Why bother? He opened his mouth to scream or cry or anything really, but there was still no sound.
He shivered, and reached to the foot of the bed for another blanket to wrap around his shoulders. Danny knew he shouldn’t be this cold. He knew that there was probably something wrong with him, something worse than what was already wrong with him. He tried to find an emotion like anxiety to feel, but there was nothing.
Then he tried to find the yawn of that void, and still. Nothing. He searched around inside himself for it, tried to encourage it, because why not? What else was left?
He knew he felt cold, and that was it.
The sudden feeling of empty made him think he should probably cry. It was supposed to be cathartic, wasn’t it?
He hunched himself forward and felt his shoulders shake, his face warm, then cold, then warm again. He brought a hand up to wipe at his cheeks, something catching his eye.
Danny stared at the blue fingernails. He knew there was some reaction to this deterioration he was supposed to be feeling.
But still. Nothing.
It was liberating in an extremely depressing way, knowing that, at least for now, he wasn’t required to feel anything. There were no more expectations. There was just a bed covered in blankets which warmed him more in spirit than they did physically, and there were blue fingernails on his hands that meant he was finally, actually breaking down in a real, observable way.
In that moment, Danny missed his parents. He missed Jazz. He missed his friends. He missed having more than just himself to rely on. He briefly wondered how they would react to seeing him like this. Would they let him back into their lives, even after he pushed them away so carelessly?
Danny tried to imagine what he would do in their place, but the thought made him feel inconceivably worse. Of course they wouldn’t let him come back.
He remembered then why he had come here, to this house.
Who else but Vlad would treat him the way he deserved?
Vlad woke up to a face full of worn stone. He dragged himself up into a sitting position, hissing at the way his head throbbed. He blinked a few times, trying to clear the dirt from his eyes.
When he could finally see a bit clearer, he glanced around the room with a groan. He was in the basement. Of course. He was wearing, well, at least he was wearing something. Cinching the robe tighter around his waist, he stood, a bit unsteady on his feet, and tried to recall when or why he’d come down here in the first place.
There was a clattering of glass at his feet and he looked down, groaning. Of course. He’d come down to grab a bottle. One bottle. And apparently at some point in the night, he’d thrown that plan out the fucking window and downed three . He shuffled his feet forward, and there was the clashing of more glass. Okay. Make that five.
After his accident, hangovers had become a thing of the past, the excess heat produced by his core effectively burning off any remaining alcohol overnight. Vlad crouched, scooping the bottles in his arms and cursed himself for turning into such a lush.
He tried to remember what he’d done after drinking so much as he carried the bottles upstairs into the kitchen. He glanced around, trying to find a clock. The display on the oven informed him that it was a little past 4pm. Ah. So he had drank himself into a stupor and done nothing. That was a small relief.
He let the bottles crack against each other as he dumped them in the sink. No use letting them go to waste, he thought absently, making a mental note to wash them sometime in the future when his brain was working properly. Then he turned a knob on the sink and briefly rinsed his hands in cool water before smoothing them over his face. He glanced out the window over the sink at the unoccupied deck.
Danny was...inside. Vlad nodded, once. That was good.
No, it’s not, he hissed at himself. I don’t care what he’s doing. I shouldn’t care. I don’t have the right to care.
He turned away from the sink, the water on his hands sizzling away. He focused on that sensation, trying to ground himself.
It was unbearable to think that he wouldn't be able to even care anymore. Vlad didn’t pride himself on being the caring type. A bit passionate, overzealous sometimes, maybe, but caring? No. That wasn’t the person Vlad had spent years turning himself into.
But that thought, that little scrap of a concept, it seared at him from the inside out.
How had he screwed himself over so, so badly? There was only one, singular person who gave a fuck about him, and that was Vlad fucking Masters, and now he’d gone and ruined his whole fucking life. His rhythm, his routine, his everything had been thrown off-kilter ever since Danny had showed up.
“And you loved every second of it, didn’t you, you fucking bastard?” he groaned, his face buried in his hands. Shame bellowed around his core, and he quickly plunged his hands back into the cool stream of water still running from the faucet. Because of course he had loved it.
He wanted so badly to blame Danny for...for what? For making him feel valuable and significant and worst of all desired? He didn’t need that from Danny, he could find that anywhere for fuck’s sake.
Vlad felt some small piece click into place.
That was it.
He was right, he didn’t need any of that from Danny. Hell, he didn’t need that from anyone, he had practically engineered himself to be entirely self-sufficient.
No, the problem was that he wanted that from Danny. He wanted it so desperately it made the ridiculous marble in his chest spark in a way that genuinely frightened him. It made him feel things with an intensity he had never really experienced before and it was completely and utterly terrifying.
Oh god, if that weren’t disturbing enough, why did it have to be Danny? Really? Of all people, Daniel fucking Fenton was doing this? Seriously? This was where his life was at now? Was this some sort of midlife crisis?
That was a tempting thought. Vlad drummed his fingers on his chin. Yes, that could be the answer he’d been looking for.
A part of him wished he could have just gotten weirdly into motorcycles or gardening. Maybe get a tattoo.
That idea appealed to him a little too much.
He turned away from the sink and with a small pop, he was sitting in front of the old computer in the library. He pressed a few keys and the sudden light from the monitor momentarily blinded him.
He stared at the screen until his eyes burned, sifting through forums that talked about things like foot controls and handlebars and ennui.
Danny woke with a start on Monday morning. There had been a loud noise, some sort of bang or slam, and Danny threw off the pile of blankets, turning briefly intangible to run through his bedroom door. He stopped at the end of the hall, panting.
“Hello?” he called out, hearing his voice echo back. There was no reply. Warily, he padded around the front of the house.
He could see a car pulling out of the driveway and onto the street through the massive picture windows that framed the door. Vlad’s car. Danny felt some feeling prick at his core, but he brushed it off in a hurry and made his way to the kitchen. He filled a plastic cup with coffee and sat at the table.
It’s not so bad, he assured himself. It’s not personal. He didn’t mean it that way. Danny almost laughed at that. Of course Vlad meant it that way. Vlad always had petty shit like that in mind. Did Danny really convince himself Vlad had changed? Was he really that fucking stupid?
He tried to push away the thoughts, but they refused to stop their swarming. Shaking his head, he stood, downing the rest of his coffee, and retreated back to the safety of the pile of blankets he’d fallen asleep in. He pulled his laptop from the side table and opened it.
There was some sort of presentation he was supposed to be watching for his class. That was easy. He could do that. He knew how to do that, to sit and watch and listen. That wouldn’t exhaust his already-limited brainpower and, with any luck, it would serve as a welcome distraction.
Danny laid back against the headboard and closed his eyes, trying to focus on the sounds his laptop was making, but the more he tried to force himself to concentrate, the more his mind started wandering. His eyes snapped open again when he heard a door slam. He looked down, the screen of his laptop black.
His heart hammered at his throat, and for a moment, he thought he might be sick. There was a rush of adrenaline that made his hands burn with frost, and he clutched them to his chest.
“Please,” he whispered to himself. “Please, please don’t do this, you’re just going to make everything worse. ”
Danny tried to keep his breathing as even as he could, soothing his shivering core with a hand rubbing gentle circles over his sternum. He heard Vlad stomping around the house, and Danny held his breath each time he heard him come near. Vlad wouldn’t really tell him to leave, would he?
He heard those footsteps make their way down the hall, and Danny braced himself. They paused just outside the door. This is it, Danny thought, two tears escaping as he squeezed his eyes shut. His chest was painfully tight, and he had to hold back a cry of pain as the muscles in his leg constricted.
But there was no knock. And there was no sound of the door opening.
And after an excruciatingly long minute, the footsteps receded. Danny gasped with relief, his heart continuing to pound.
Still, he waited until the surging he felt in his core faded away, and he knew that nobody was coming back.
He flexed his hands, breaking apart the thin spread of ice across his skin. That probably wasn’t healthy. A small, scared part of him wanted to tell Vlad; he could help. He would help.
But Danny didn’t trust that part of himself anymore. Instead, he burrowed under the mess of blankets and cupped his hands together, trying to breathe hot warm air into them. It helped, but only for a moment. He shivered, and tried not to think about regret.
Vlad had made an executive decision; there was absolutely no way in hell he was going to be alone with Danny again. No way. Absolutely not. Out of the question.
Which meant he was going to work.
He drove in silence, the radio tainted with the kind of memories that made him feel some forbidden way.
Vlad sped into a parking space and cursed. What was the point of driving? Had he really done something so petty as to slam the door on his way out and drive slow enough that Danny would see him? Was that really the place he was in right now? Was that really who he wanted to be?
He experienced one of the many emotions he was no longer allowed to feel and stepped out of the car, slamming the door. This was not his first trip to this particular rodeo, and everyone who would have typically bothered him on a Monday morning steered clear. And while Vlad wasn’t proud of the fact that virtually every person working under him had dealt with this the specific brand of rage he dispensed, he was still grateful for the space they provided him.
He clicked through dozens of meaningless emails. There was some meeting at the end of the week he should probably attend, and he added it to the small calendar on the desk. There were some other events happening during the week, but knowing he wouldn’t be missed, he deleted the notices.
Around midday, Vlad conjured up a duplicate, intending to send it off to run a few errands so he didn’t technically have to interact with anyone. But when it appeared in a poor imitation of The Fonz of all people, shooting off finger guns and giving him an infuriating smile, Vlad waved it away just as fast.
“God, why are they like that?” he groaned, letting his forehead smack onto the desk.
He missed Danny, no matter how hard he tried to deny it or make excuses for it. It was ridiculous. All he had to do was go home and swallow his pride. Admit he was wrong. Apologize for ‘freaking out,’ as Danny was likely to refer to his little tantrum. Was that really so hard?
He frowned. Of course it was. He made a habit of forcing things to be harder than they needed to be. It was the Vlad Masters way.
But this was fucking agonizing. He didn’t want it to be this way. He didn’t want Danny to be hard, he wanted it to be easy, and he knew it could be. Danny was making it easy. He was the one acting like it had to be hard.
When he finally arrived home at the end of the day, all he could think about was talking to Danny. There were so many things he wanted to say, and it was impossible to narrow it down to only the most coherent sentences. He hoped that by simply speaking to him, he’d be able to convey what he wanted Danny to know.
He stood at the door, hand poised to knock, when a sharp sensation pierced at his chest. He lowered his hand and pressed his ear to the door for only a second before recoiling.
I did that to him , he thought, his stomach dropping. I made him like this.
There was an awful sound coming out of Danny’s phone. He swatted at it uselessly until it stopped, his head thumping back onto a pillow. He blinked a few times, trying to keep his heavy eyes open.
With any luck, he’d be able to catch Vlad before he left for work.
He pulled on a pair of jeans, almost tripping over his feet, and jerked a sweatshirt over his head. He cast out with his core as he padded into the kitchen and found that Vlad was still in the house, probably in his room, definitely awake. Quickly pouring a cup of coffee, he tried to think of what he wanted to say.
I should probably start with an apology, Danny decided, sitting down at the table. He rapped his knuckles against the warm plastic cup. There’s a good chance he didn’t hear me the first time. He leaned forward and took a noisy sip from the too-full cup. Hopefully the coffee wouldn’t put him any more on edge than he already was.
He tried to work through what else he would be expected to say. Maybe throw something about ‘hormones’ in there, everyone older than him loved that excuse. Maybe he should just offer to leave, rather than wait for Vlad to tell him to go. Danny frowned and took another sip.
Danny leaned forward and let his head thump against the table. That felt stupid. All of it felt stupid. He was trying to be an adult about this, wasn’t he? He attempted to piece together what the adult reaction to any of this would be. Talking about it sounded logical, if stressful.
It just felt so...unfair. Why did he have to try to be the adult? Sure, his advances had been somewhat middle school note passing-y, but what was he supposed to do? Just come out and say what he meant?
Danny made a face into the table that he thought would be funny for an outside party to look at.
He left his head on the table. The wood was warm, compared to what had become his new ‘ normal ’ body temperature, and Danny was grateful for any assistance. He reached blindly for the cup of coffee he’d poured and pressed it to the crown of his head. Please, he asked his core, not knowing if it could understand him, just please be warmer.
Vlad heard Danny’s alarm. How could he not? He had slept again, which meant he had dreamed again, which meant he wasn’t going to sleep ever again.
Sure, the lack of sleep - among other things, he thought - had most likely caused this...disturbance. But nevermind all that! Vlad wasn’t going to dwell on it, even if his subconscious wanted to shove it in his face every time he closed his eyes.
He listened as Danny traipsed from his room to the kitchen. A cup of coffee would be perfect right now, but the thought of having to interact with Danny made his blood boil. Vlad assured himself that he just needed more time. If he could just settle on what he wanted to say, then he could just say it.
An apology seemed like the best start. And then an emphatic explanation that he had had too much to drink, and combined with a lack of sleep, he had simply experienced a momentary lapse in judgement. Then wrap up the report with an assurance that it would not happen again.
Vlad rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in a pillow, groaning. Right. Never again. Because of course it couldn't happen again. Not even if he really, really wanted it to.
“I don’t remember it being this difficult, ” he mumbled into the pillow. He felt a swell of heat from deep in his chest and hurried to smother it.
Yes, he was aware of how childish he was being, thank you very much. But somehow the immaturity felt easier than the emotional honesty the situation demanded, and Vlad was not known for his sincere nature as much as he was known for his penchant towards the dramatic.
“But I worked so hard on it,” he groaned, voice still muffled by the pillow.
With each minute that ticked by, he felt that calculated self control slipping away. How could it only be Tuesday? How could only two days have passed? How much longer could he possibly carry on like this?
That thought scared him more than he would admit, even to just himself.
God, he missed Danny. It felt stupider thinking it again for the second day in a row.
He wanted to blame Danny. To curse him for coming here and making him feel things. Vlad Masters didn’t have feelings outside of contempt and disinterest. He had made himself that way for a reason which he had somehow managed to forget but now remembered all too well.
This was something he avoided because it was fucking hell. The idea of wanting another person? Vlad laughed, short and strangled. As if. Only a universe that would allow an accident like the one he’d had in college would also allow him to be in this much pain now.
Danny was getting good at this. He barely had to dip into his core to sense that Vlad was not in the kitchen, so it was safe to approach the coffee maker.
Yawning, he padded into the kitchen and felt around in a cabinet until he grasped the largest mug he could find, trying to make as little noise as possible. He filled it, took a few grateful gulps, then filled it again.
He turned to retreat back to his room and froze, his core alerting him too late. Vlad was standing in the doorway, blocking his path. Danny’s vision wobbled for a moment, then straightened out. From where he was standing, he could see around the corner over Vlad’s shoulder. He took a few careful steps toward Vlad.
Danny was careful to avoid meeting Vlad’s gaze. He would not attempt to decipher his expression. He heard a faint fracturing sound, but refused to check whether it was caused by ice clogging up the mug, or if it was from the mug itself splintering in his hands. This is just like him, Danny thought bitterly.
As he stepped closer, he heard Vlad make a small sound, like he was going to say something, and tightening his grip on the mug, Danny allowed himself to become intangible and stepped through him. He continued down the hall, refusing to turn back. The door to his room was just a few steps away and, as if to make a point, Danny turned the knob and pulled the door slowly open before stepping inside and closing it behind him.
As the door clicked shut, Danny braced himself against it, torn. It had felt so good to give Vlad a taste of his own medicine, but fuck, that would have been the perfect opportunity to say something to him.
God dammit, Danny thought, the palm of his hand smacking against his forehead.
It felt so ridiculous to be playing this game with Vlad. He’d always been so infuriatingly passive aggressive, and Danny had always fucking hated it. But even as a kid, there had always been something so insincere about it. This on the other hand felt conscious and calculated and it made Danny irate with indignation.
He tried to make himself blame Vlad for the mess they were in. It made sense to part of himself that still at least attempted to think logically. Technically speaking, Vlad had... well, either way, Danny still knew he had started it himself. And Vlad more or less indicated he was only letting Danny stay out of a sense of duty or something, so...
Is that why he did it? Danny asked himself. It was a terrible thought that made his grasp on the mug slip and he scrambled to catch it, thanking his reflexes for developing so well in high school. He stared down into it, his own warped reflection looking back. Yes, it seemed to say, that has to be why.
Vlad stood speechless. He felt one of his hands start to reach out and quickly snatched it back against his chest. There was some emotion stirring there, a familiar but forgotten feeling that he refused to acknowledge. He felt the flame of his core swell and combust, and he had to brace himself against the doorway as he tried to calm himself.
Of course Danny had walked past him - well, through him - but what was he expecting? A tearful reunion? He’d been avoiding Danny as much as Danny was avoiding him. But he hadn’t expected that...that look Danny had on his face. Vlad had seen it on his own face years ago.
His core tried to feel one of those godforsaken emotions, and Vlad stuffed it down as viciously as possible. Guilt, it oh so helpfully informed him. You’re feeling guilty. Right. It had been a long time since he last felt genuine guilt. Perhaps he never had, and this was the first time he felt he was actually in the wrong.
“Like I could have done anything different,” he scowled, stomping through the kitchen. Had it really been so terrible to indulge Danny in his request? Hadn’t he spent the better part of a month doing just that? Vlad frowned at himself, snatching a mug from the cabinet, and smacked it onto the counter so hard he thought it might shatter.
None of that mattered anymore. Danny had made it clear that didn’t matter.
“Not that I blame him,” Vlad muttered, filling the mug and carrying it to the door. He hesitated, his hand on the doorknob. The memories tried to wriggle their way into his mind, but when he pushed open the door and stepped out onto the deck, they receded.
The sun was still relatively low in the sky, but it did its best to warm him. He took a step forward, moving for the railing out of habit, but caught himself and instead pulled a chair from the shade and into the sun. The morning air was still cool, and Vlad settled into the chair, waiting for the heat.
Danny rhythmically tapped a pen against his notebook. He was staring at a blank page, trying out different words in his head.
He didn’t even remember what he’d pulled the notebook out for. There was something he wanted to write or say or read or something, but his already-spotty memory was just getting worse the more he stared at the blank page. He flipped back to the first page. Slowly, he skimmed through each page, finding mostly class notes, unfinished to-do lists, and reminders for things he’d ultimately forgotten about.
He read through checklists, brainstorming lists, and bucket lists he’d made when things had gotten truly desperate. It stirred up a bit of nostalgia for when he had first left for college. Was it really possible to change so much in such a short amount of time? He turned the page.
Okay, Danny thought. I could try to figure out what I want to do, I guess. He stared at the page. That required figuring out what it is he wanted, though. He drew a few dots at the top of the page and connected them into a constellation. Maybe he could start with what he didn’t want first, and narrow it down from there. He drew a ragged line down the center of the page.
I don’t want to leave, Danny thought, and he wrote that in the first column. But I don’t want to make things worse by staying. He frowned, unsure of where or what to write that thought. He wished he’d just gone back to sleep that morning and just avoided this altogether. He turned the page.
‘ Hallway, ’ he read, then ‘ doors? ’ There was a small, sloppy sketch that Danny remembered seeing in a dream. Had he really forgotten about it? He felt a pang of guilt. A lifetime ago, Vlad had suggested it could be important. But Danny’s memory was shaky at best, and remembering dreams - when he actually dreamed - had never been easy.
He leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes, trying to bring that picture of the hallway into focus. But it had been so long already, and all he could picture was that kid - himself - standing beside him. It was difficult thinking of himself looking that young and small. Even for a dream, that had felt...weird.
But there was something about the dream that had felt important. He knew that he’d apparently had some sort of episode while he was asleep, something to do with cold.
Hypothermic, Danny remembered suddenly. He’d been hypothermic. That’s what he’d told the Vlad in his dream, at least.
Still, it felt like there was more to it than just a strange dream. Danny opened his eyes and stared at the notebook.
He turned the page.
Vlad stared up at the sheer black curtains draped over his bed.
“How pretentious,” he muttered. “Fucking chiffon. ” He briefly toyed with the idea of just setting them ablaze.
He took a deep breath and held it until the urge subsided a bit. He wanted to close his eyes and sleep it off, but with all the practice he was getting at not sleeping, he didn’t want to ruin his streak. Part of his barely-functioning brain tried to recall just how many hours a person could go without sleeping, but as Vlad kindly pointed out each night, he wasn’t a person, so it didn’t really matter whether or not he slept. Technically, he didn’t need to breathe, either. So there. Take that, brain.
Vlad lifted a hand to swipe away the strands of hair sticking to his forehead. The room was hot . He was sweating . Vlad considered submerging himself in another ice bath, but with his lack of sleep mixing with his subsequent loss of control over his core, he didn’t particularly enjoy the idea of flooding the bathroom with steam. Again.
He half-glanced at the clock, not really caring to know the time. The hands pointed at the sort of numbers that indicated an alarm would be going off in less than an hour. There was...something happening today. Something that demanded his attention, but he couldn't remember what it was, so clearly, it was unimportant.
He tried to maintain his mediocre composure, staring straight ahead, waiting. When the alarm rang, he quickly silenced it. Through force of habit, his body tried to tell him to get up and start going through the motions of the day. But fucking hell, everything felt so damn heavy and slow.
Vlad tried to continue fighting it, but after a certain point, he gave in. His feet threw themselves over the edge of the bed and he stood, following them around the house. He watched himself at the bathroom mirror, in the kitchen drinking coffee, at the door holding his keys, and with a private, embarrassed smile he realized that he was going to work.
Sure, he thought, the lack of decent sleep making it seem more amusing than it really was, let’s go to work.
Danny opened his eyes slowly. He didn’t have to reach for it; Vlad was gone. Again. He sat up in bed and sighed.
He tried not to assume Vlad was doing this on purpose. He couldn't really be that petty, could he? Danny had the feeling like he should laugh, but by now, he was good at ignoring it. What was he thinking? Of course Vlad was that petty. Danny waited to feel hurt, and when the feeling didn’t come, he finally crawled out of bed.
He moved slowly around the house, unable to sit still for more than a few moments before the anxiety clawed at him to get up and do something.
It’s not so bad, he tried to assure himself for the umpteenth time that week. He technically still had a place to live, which soothed one of his main concerns. But god, there was no way he could keep living here if it was going to be like this from now on.
He sat on top of the pile of blankets, shivering. His laptop was spewing out some lecture he’d tried to listen to earlier in the week, but Danny couldn't make his brain process any of the words. His pen tapped out irrelevant patterns on the open page of his notebook.
As the week progressed, things had gotten increasingly worse. Of course they had. Danny felt every missed opportunity and petty jab swell together in his memories. He flinched, grasping at his head and then his chest.
“ Fuck! ” he yelled at the empty house. There was a pressure building up inside him - that had been building up inside him all week - and he desperately wanted Vlad to be home if only to kick his fucking ass for making him feel this way.
Danny slammed his laptop shut and stood, his hands clenching into tight fists. The tips of his fingers started to tingle in the same way the usually did when he really wanted to beat the the fuck out of someone. It had been a long time since he’d felt so much of anything, the force of the feeling almost making him stagger on his feet.
He couldn't take any more of this - no - he refused to take any more of this. If Vlad wanted him gone, Danny would make him say so himself. No more of this passive aggressive game they played, avoiding each other, not speaking.
He started pacing again, this time with a bit more energy. He’d been on guard all week, but not anymore. The words he’d been subconsciously looking for finally came to him. He wouldn’t be leaving without a fight.
And isn’t that what he’d been looking for when he first came here? The thrill of it sent a shiver up his spine. Yes, fighting was something Danny was very good at.
He waited, walking circles around the front of the house, listening for the sound of a car in the driveway.
When Danny finally heard him, the car, the stairs, the door, his chest tightened painfully but he didn’t let it hold him down. He watched the door slowly push open as Vlad stepped inside. Danny cleared his throat, and felt a jolt of satisfaction as Vlad jumped in surprise.
“We need to talk.”
Vlad blinked once, twice, and then shook his head. Danny was still staring at him, waiting.
“Okay,” he said, guarded. “Talk.”
Danny rolled his eyes and took an aggressive step forward.
“Do you want me to leave?” Danny asked plainly. Vlad tried to read his expression, but Danny’s face was a frozen, pale mask.
“I…” Vlad trailed off, not quite knowing how to answer. Was there even an answer? “That’s a...complicated question.”
“No, it really isn’t.”
Yes, it really is, Vlad thought, frowning. “There’s no ‘right’ answer to that, Daniel,” he said instead. Danny’s resounding laugh was harsh, and despite how desperately Vlad wanted to react, he forced himself to remain calm as Danny spoke.
“There is a ‘right’ answer. Just tell me what you want from me,” Danny jeered, his facade beginning to crack.
Vlad swallowed the ‘You, I want you!’ that threatened to slip out of his mouth and cleared his throat.
“Well, clearly this, ” he paused to gesture around, indicating the two of them, the house, the situation, “isn’t working. So take a guess at what I want.”
“ Yes, it is working!” Danny shouted. “It only sucks now because you won’t fucking talk to me!”
“Really, Daniel? You’re going to yell at me? Don’t be so childish. ” Vlad seethed. He knew it was a cheap shot, but he couldn't find it in himself to care.
“Really, Vlad? You’re going to act like the world’s biggest asshole just to fucking bait me? ” Danny retorted.
“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Vlad glared.
“I said I’m sorry, okay? If you want to keep pouting about it, then go ahead! Since I’m the fucking adult here, I’m just going to fucking say it!” Danny’s eyes flared bright green. “ I am allowed to want things! ” he yelled, jabbing a finger at his own chest. “But I don’t need you to give them to me!” At that, he jabbed a finger at Vlad. “I don’t need your fucking pity! ”
“Oh, please, Daniel. You think I pity you? You? ” Vlad barked.
“Clearly!” Danny threw his hands in the air. “Why else would you be doing all this! Why else would you have fucking kissed me?”
“I am allowed to want things, too!” Vlad heard himself yell. The small part of his brain that was still thinking rationally wanted to take it back, but Vlad pushed the thought away while grabbing Danny by the shoulders and pushing his back against the wall.
“All you want is to be sad and alone, ” Danny said, unphased. He glared up at Vlad, breathing hard.
“How astute, ” Vlad said, trying to inject as much malice into his voice as possible. “Look at you, Daniel Fenton, all grown up, making big boy observations. Did you work hard on that?”
“Fuck you,” Danny spat. “You think you know me? You’re just using me to feel better about yourself. ”
“Right,” Vlad sneered. “Because I’m feeling so great right now, can’t you tell?”
“Get off of me,” Danny growled, looking away. “Just let me go so I can pack my shit and get as far from you as possible.”
“No,” Vlad glared.
“Wow, okay. ” Danny’s tone was mocking. “Why the fuck not?’
“I told you,” Vlad snarled. “I’m allowed to want things, too.”
“Fucking hell, ” Danny groaned. “You have to know how fucking creepy you sound right now. I’m done, okay? I give up.”
“Oh, you give up?” Vlad retorted, his hands slipping off Danny’s shoulders to raise in mock surrender. “ I give up! I’m done . I can’t do this anymore!”
“Yeah, ‘cause your life is so hard, isn’t it?” Danny laughed, harshly.
“Don’t pretend to know me, Daniel,” Vlad warned, his eyes narrowing.
“Then fucking tell me! Please! I want to know!” Danny was shouting again.
Vlad opened his mouth to respond, but it refused to speak. The words were right there. It would be so easy to tell him exactly what he wanted to give up on. How desperately he wanted to be done with avoiding Danny, keeping his distance, refusing to submit to those wretched desires. His head felt like it was cleaved in two; one side clawing its way to the front, to his mouth, to try worthlessly to explain himself, to ask for Danny’s forgiveness; the other side screeching at him to walk away from this right now because things were very heated, and Vlad did not do well with heat.
Vlad wanted to laugh. Is this really what Danny wanted? He was asking for it, asking for it, asking for it. He wanted it. He’d made that perfectly clear, and for just a second, Vlad wondered if maybe he should have made the first move after all.
Danny opened his mouth to speak, and it was then that Vlad realized, half in horror, half in awe, that he was lunging for Danny.
Chapter 17: Glass Casket
I need you to see me
That's what makes this real
I got caught up in your affliction
If by chance I don't make it, bury me inside a glass casket
I'm so sorry for the delay! I was on vacation all last week, and it's just been so difficult getting back in the groove of writing! Anyway, please enjoy ♡
Vlad probably hadn’t meant to kiss Danny. Maybe. It was possible he had meant to strangle him, or at the very least just intimidate him with some show of force, but he absolutely had not intended to kiss him. Probably.
It was hard to tell through the haze of repressed feelings that were now cascading against his core.
He was aware that his hands were back on Danny’s shoulders, forcing him against the wall again. A slower, smarter part of his brain pointed out that this was probably maybe definitely a bad idea when he felt Danny’s hands on his chest, but then they were grabbing at his shirt and pulling him closer and that part of his brain promptly shut the fuck up.
Vlad ducked his head and reveled in Danny’s gasping as he kissed and bit at the cool skin of his neck. He could feel Danny’s pulse hammering away under his lips.
“Fuck you,” Danny breathed in his ear and Vlad bit at that frantic heartbeat in response, making Danny gasp again.
Vlad pulled away slowly and looked down; Danny’s hands were still gripping his shirt.
“Okay, wow, really?” Danny said. He was blushing bright red, breaths coming quick and short. “That was great and all, but answer the fucking question.”
“I- Which question?” Vlad asked, unable to focus on anything but the way Danny was biting at his bottom lip.
“Do you want me to leave?” Danny asked, softer this time, and Vlad felt something inside himself start to ache.
“I…” Vlad trailed off, the heat in his core rising up the back of his throat in a way that made it hard for him to speak. “I’m sorry. No, I- Please. No.”
Danny blinked and bit his lip again.
“Okay, so what do you want? Because this is… I… This has been awful, and you can’t just… I don’t…”
“I know, and I’m...sorry…” Vlad choked, even the thought of an apology leaving a bad taste in his mouth.
“Yeah, me too,” Danny sighed, one of his hands slipping from the front of Vlad’s shirt to cover his mouth. “Wow, this fucking sucks, huh?”
“Just a bit,” Vlad groaned.
“Okay, I have more, just...give me a second. I had, like, a whole thing planned, and this is...this is not what I was expecting, so just...hang on,” Danny said, looking away.
Vlad let his hands slip from Danny’s shoulders and move to rest on his waist, but Danny didn’t give any indication he’d noticed, too lost in thought. It felt as though something in him had snapped. He had given up after all, and it was liberating. Still, Vlad was trying to be careful.
The fire in his core burned with a smug satisfaction that made him feel like he should smile. So instead, he made himself frown. Danny’s head was still turned away, a far-off look on his face that made Vlad want to lean forward and kiss him again. It took more willpower than he remembered having to resit that urge.
Eventually, though, Danny cleared his throat, breaking the quiet spell. Vlad nimbly pulled his hands from Danny’s waist and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Okay,” Danny said, squeezing his eyes shut, one hand still clutching the front of Vlad’s shirt.
“Yes?” Vlad replied, careful not to rush him, uncertainty turning his frown genuine.
“I’m sorry, this is just… Okay, you have to admit this is weird, right?” Danny opened his eyes and half-grinned up at him. Vlad opened his mouth to respond, but Danny continued in a hurry. “I-I just mean, like, I really wasn’t expecting this. And it’s, like, okay, cool, great, wow, okay, but, like...why?”
“Why what?” Vlad asked, forcing his voice to sound calm. He hoped the arms crossed over his chest would block out the obvious sound of his frantic heartbeat. There was a storm of anxiety trying to make guesses at what question Danny might ask next, and Vlad was racing to think of answers to all of them.
Danny gave him a meaningful look. Right. Right. That. Vlad cleared his throat.
“I don’t know, Daniel,” he sighed. One of his hands tried to reach up reflexively to smooth itself over his hair, but he kept it firmly clutched to his side. “I...wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.” He looked down at Danny, waiting.
“Okay,” Danny nodded. “Okay, but, like...why?”
“I don’t think I know what you mean,” Vlad said, his hands curling into tight fists. Danny was not asking the kinds of questions he’d predicted. Danny groaned and let his head fall back to thump against the wall.
“I mean…” he trailed off, covering his face with his hands. “You didn’t do it ‘cause you...felt bad for me or something...right?” he asked, his voice soft and strained.
Vlad didn’t know what to say. He uncrossed his arms, but didn’t know where to put his hands after that. He wanted to put them on Danny’s shoulders again to shake that ridiculous thought out of him, but it was hard to judge whether or not that would make things worse. Danny was looking up at him through his fingers, his blue eyes big and sad and Vlad knew he had to do something to make that wretched look leave Danny’s face.
“No,” Vlad finally said, reaching forward to pull Danny’s hands away from his face. He held them tightly in his own and frowned internally at the chill that pierced at him from Danny’s fingertips. He tried to think of something more eloquent to say, and ended up just shaking his head as Danny looked away. “No,” he said again, “absolutely not.”
“O-okay, but why then?” Danny asked. It looked like he was trying not to cry. Vlad wasn’t particularly good with tears, but he didn’t let the uncertainty stop him from dropping Danny’s hands so he could wrap his arms around him instead. Even through layers of clothing, he could feel how cold Danny was, so he held on tighter.
“I told you before, didn’t I?” Vlad said, trying to keep his voice soft and even. “I... I’m allowed to want things.”
“And what? You want to kiss me?” Danny asked with a strangled laugh. He lifted his hands, then dropped them.
“ Yes, ” Vlad said before he could stop himself.
Danny stiffened in his arms, then his shoulders started to shake. Vlad stepped back slightly, just far enough to see Danny’s face. He was laughing.
“I just don’t get it,” Danny said, his face twisted up in a way that filled Vlad with dread. “If you want to… If you wanted… Then what the fuck was all this about?”
“I know,” Vlad groaned. “I’m sorry.”
“No, I mean it. What the fuck? ” Danny was scowling up at him. Vlad watched a single tear slip halfway down his cheek before crystalizing.
“I know, ” Vlad growled. “Do you think this is something I’m good at?”
“ Yes! ” Danny shouted, and Vlad stepped further back. What the fuck indeed. There had been a number of things he’d planned for a Friday night, and this was not one of them.
But...it did make more sense to him now. Vlad knew who he was, how he appeared, and it was only logical that Danny would see him that way too, even if it hurt a little to realize Danny couldn't see through the charade. He let the anger flare up inside him then die back down before he spoke.
“Well, I’m not,” he said, struggling to keep the indignation out of his voice. “And again, I’m sorry. None of this has gone how I wanted it too, and I didn’t mean for it to...affect you.”
“How did you want it to go, then?” Danny asked, his voice still showing his anger, and Vlad struggled not to take it personally, even though the whole situation was very personal.
“I don’t know,” Vlad sighed. “I don’t know what I expected.”
“Well I definitely didn’t expect this!” Danny said, his voice rising again. “If I would’ve known this would happen, I never would have asked you to fucking kiss me!”
Anxiety clutched at Vlad’s core. He was losing this fight and Vlad Masters didn’t lose at anything.
“What do you want me to do, Daniel?” he asked, exasperated. “Do you want me to take it back? Just pretend it never happened so we can move on with our lives, acting like there isn’t this...this tension? ”
“Oh god, what tension? ” Danny laughed, unamused. “There’s no tension, there’s just me, a fucking dumbass who somehow tricked you into feeling so fucking sorry for me that you actually fucking ki-”
He didn’t realize that he was kissing Danny - again - until it was too late; Vlad just couldn't take it anymore. He pulled away, and Danny’s cheeks were blushing bright red.
“What are you-”
Vlad kissed him again.
“C’mon, I know how pathetic I look, so you don’t have to-”
And again. He was wild with it, his hands against the wall on either side of Danny’s head. And when it finally seemed to click for Danny that Vlad wasn’t doing this out of pity - or so it seemed, so Vlad hoped - Danny kissed him back.
Danny’s lips were cool, and his hands reached out blindly, landing hesitantly on Vlad’s hips. Vlad bit back a groan and moved closer, one of Danny’s legs slipping between his own.
“You don’t...don’t have to…” Danny breathed during the moments his mouth was free.
“I know,” Vlad murmured, kissing him again. “I want to.”
He hoped Danny could hear or feel or see just how much he wanted to be doing this. He hoped that, somehow, he could impress into Danny just how badly he had been wanting to do this all week; the simple act of kissing threatening to send a shiver down his spine and reigniting that fire in his core.
And then there was Danny’s thigh pressed agonizingly between his own legs. It felt so juvenile, but it absolutely thrilled him. Vlad leaned into it and Danny’s grip on his hips tightened. His chest was pressed against Danny’s and he half-hoped that the heat of it wasn’t too telling while half-hoping it was.
He wanted Danny to know, wanted Danny to feel that all of this was borne from desire rather than duty. He let the tip of his tongue swipe against Danny’s bottom lip and begged him to know. If only Danny would understand that he wasn’t the one at fault; that Vlad had been the one who fought against this so vehemently.
And why was that? he wondered. Why had he been so adamant about avoiding Danny when this could have been the result? This, this feral obsession of lips and legs pressed together in such a crude way. He kissed Danny harder and hoped that would show just how desperate and childish he felt.
“I want to,” Vlad heard himself say again and again in despairing pants against Danny’s mouth and jaw and neck and anywhere else he could find skin to kiss.
“Me too,” he heard Danny reply once or twice with equally frenzied breaths in his ear. His hands were still on Vlad’s hips, then his back, then chest, and then it was too difficult to keep track of them.
He mouthed apologies and promises against cool, soft skin and hoped Danny could understand him; hoped Danny believed him. It was all parts liberating, unthinkable, terrifying, and again Vlad cursed his pride. He pulled away, wanting to explain as much to Danny, but as his lips left Danny’s neck, there was his mouth, quickly taking up that bit of space.
A whisper of regret pierced through him again, and Vlad wondered if Danny was thinking about the same things. He wanted to know if Danny was also coming to terms with the aching loneliness he’d managed to ignore for so many years. Then he remembered the circumstances of Danny’s arrival, and he moved closer, kissed him harder, as if there was any more space left between them.
Of course Danny knew this feeling; Vlad would be a fool to assume otherwise. He had been in Danny’s position before, he knew that fear and desperation and that endless, consuming sadness that weighed on Danny during their every interaction, and Vlad felt himself swallowed up with desire. He would do anything to keep Danny from feeling that way again.
He slid a hand from the wall, trailed it down Danny’s chest, and gripped at the bottom of his shirt. He was rewarded with a gasp from Danny, and in his frenzy, he jerked it up to slide a hand around the cool skin of Danny’s stomach to grip at his hips and bring him closer.
The angle of his hip felt perfect in Vlad’s hand, and when he pulled, Danny responded without hesitation. Vlad was enraptured with the way Danny moved against him, finding heaven in the way Danny’s hips rolled against his own. He’d never been what one could consider a ‘religious’ person, but pressing himself against Danny, kissing him like this, hearing him gasp at each new touch, it made Vlad want to believe.
He found Danny’s hands then, on his stomach, tugging up at the shirt he’d so meticulously tucked in that morning. He swallowed the growl threatening to slip out, a small bubble of shame rising up in his chest. It was reprehensible how much of an affect he allowed Danny to have over him.
But he couldn't fight it, even if he really wanted to; he was too busy grinding up against Danny’s thigh like some depraved high schooler. Not that he’d done much of this in high school, and it almost felt as though his body was making up for lost time. His frustration seemed to overflow, and he bit gently at Danny’s lower lip in a sort of retaliation.
That elicited a stronger response than he’d anticipated, and with another straining roll of Danny’s hips, Vlad felt like he was heartbeats away from doing something far more bold than he imagined he’d normally be able to, not with Danny. He worried again that he was being more forward than he needed to be.
But Danny was acting just as eager for this, if the sounds he was making against Vlad’s lips were anything to go by. It thrilled him, knowing that he was having as much an effect on Danny as Danny was for him. It made him want to push Danny further, made him desperate to know what else he could do to make Danny respond this way.
He moved his other hand from the wall and ran it blindly through Danny’s hair, gripping it in his hand at the base of Danny’s neck. Yes, there it was, that breathy whine, and he swallowed it whole, begging Danny for more. He made a mental note - sloppy and staggered - to try that again, and soon.
He kissed Danny once, twice, and then pulled away, hoping his cheeks weren’t as red and telling as Danny’s.
“I… Do you want to...want to continue..?” Vlad asked, breathless. Danny looked back at him, eyes wide and blushing fiercely. He was quiet for a moment, then nodded, and with a wave, they vanished into black smoke.