Sickly green light spills across the rain-damp street out of the alleyway next to Baskin-Robbins. Danny spares himself time to sigh, sluicing the chill blue mist of his ghost sense through his teeth. Alleyways. Alleyway fights always end up with him face-first in a dumpster and no matter what he’s tried, there’s just no good way to phase the smell of rotten bananas out.
Oh well. He rolls his shoulders, mentally preps for a brawl before swooping down around the corner. He’s fully expecting another ghost wolf, since he’d chased one back through the Ghost Portal not half an hour ago. He’d learned the hard way that they tend to run in packs, same as Earth wolves. He expects huge white fangs lunging for his throat. He doesn’t expect a glowing plastic bag bulging with snapped glow sticks.
“Uh,” he says, letting the green-white energy hissing at his fingertips peter out. Is this a prank? Did a couple of kids seriously just prank him? He nudges the bag with the toe of his boot and a handful of sticks clatter out. There’s no ominous ticking or snarling. There’s just a bag of friggin’ glow sticks.
“Very funny,” he calls out, figuring whoever did this is close enough to record the infamous Danny Phantom scowling down at thirty bucks wasted at Party City. “You got me, guys. But there’s actually a ghost nearby, so unless you wanna get caught in the crossfire I suggest clearing ou—”
Something slams into the side of his skull. He hits the pavement with a loose-limbed thud, his whole world spinning. He blinks away stars, manages to get onto his elbows before a sharp-nailed hand grabs him by his hair and beats his face against the ground—thud. thud. thud. thurckh.
Well, there went his nose and there went his patience. He reaches one hand up, gets a fistful of fabric, and pulls. Whoever is trying to cave his face in goes flying—literally. There’s the ghost he’d sensed, and it’s not unfamiliar. He’d recognize that billowing red cloak anywhere.
“Lydia?” he splutters through a mouthful of ectoplasm.
She doesn’t reply, no surprise there. His time spent controlled by Freakshow isn’t much more than a red haze but he remembers that much. If she even can talk, she never wasted the effort around him. She lands tidily, standing rigid as a steel beam, and eases her cowl off her liberty spikes.
“What are you doing here?” Danny asks, even knowing he won’t get a response. If she’s here, that can only be bad news. Freakshow couldn’t be far behind, but how did he get out of prison?
Her eyes narrow. That’s his only warning before she’s got him by the throat, pinned up against the brick wall behind him. She bares her teeth like she’s gonna take a chunk out of him, but then she seems to think better of it. He feels her powers wash over him before he falls through the wall, surprised for just one second too long by her ferocity to put up a proper fight. He hits the ground again but this time manages to get a hand between them, so he palms her bare stomach and fires off a burst of energy. She grunts and falls back, and he takes the time to pop to his feet, wiping his mouth with the back of one glove. A quick look around puts them in the storefront of Baskin-Robbins. The girl at the register looks like she’s about to wet herself, but there’s a couple of yards and a big glass counter between them and her. She’ll be fine.
He turns his attention back to Lydia. “I get you’ve got a grudge against me for getting your boss locked up, but you just ruined my Danny’s Nose Doesn’t Get Broken in a Fight all-time record and that is seriously uncool.” He fires a few more bursts off, testing her mentality more than anything. One burns her hood, but the other two only scorch the wall behind her.
She’s pissed yeah, but she’s still as fast as ever. She throws one hand out and three tattoos peel off her skin, hurtling face-wards. Danny gets a glimpse of leathery wings before he’s smothered. He burns them off quick—but not quick enough. She gets his throat again, drags him down to the floor, digs a knee into his gut hard enough to knock the breath out of him. One of his arms smacks against a table leg. He hears a napkin dispenser go clattering.
“What’re you—doing—” he grunts, but of course there’s no answer. He claws at her hand, trying to keep her from collapsing his throat as much as he’s trying to push her off. He tries to phase out of her grip but she forces him solid with another wash of power strong enough to knock the back of his head against the tile. Her free hand slips out of sight but comes back before he can recover. He catches a glimpse of something pinched between her fingertips, glinting red and glassy in the harsh fluorescents, before she buries it in his left eye.
A scream rips itself out of his mouth. He grips her wrist so hard he feels something snap under his fingers, but it’s no good. She doesn’t move, doesn’t loosen her grip even a little, and—whatever it is—it—it isn’t just a piece of glass. It’s not just a hollow needle. It’s a weapon. A—a way to blind him, but. He can feel it. There’s something gathering in—in his—the back of his head. Like an IV, dripping—it’s a trick. It’s. It’s doing. He can’t….
His thoughts slip and scatter away from him, become meaningless syllables and white noise. He’s aware of the thing sticking out between his clenched eyelids, but as the seconds tick by he can’t bring himself to care.
Lydia, clinically professional, slaps his hand away when he tries weakly to push her off. The girl behind the register is screaming something, something shrill, something maybe like a name, but Danny can’t make it out. His hands flop, his legs kick air. His body twitches uselessly as she bends down over him. Her face could be a painted mask as she fishes another glass needle out of her belt. Her hard nails dig into his cheek, hard enough to cut. She forces his unhurt eye wide and this time takes careful aim. This close, he can see a plume of smoke curling inside the red needle, just like… he’s seen this before. It’s just—red glass?—swirling light…his thoughts a red haze…it’s just like—like Freakshow’s staff—
“NO!” he screams, finding the energy to thrash, to fire bolts of power from his hands. But it’s pointless. Lydia grips him tighter, dodges his poorly aimed rays with ease.
The needle slides home without resistance and Danny—
When Danny comes to, he’s blind. Blind. He knows it’s not a blindfold and he knows he’s not someplace pitch-black. He knows, a hindbrain exclamation point of terror, knows it so immediately and so intimately he barely registers the sharp stab of a two-pronged headache settled behind his eyes.
He remembers. Lydia in the alleyway, Lydia pinning him to a tile floor, Lydia sticking—sticking shards of glass into his—
He staggers to his knees and presses his fingertips—his hands are still gloved, he’s still a ghost—to his face. His nose is broken; ectoplasm half-dried and sticky down his chin. There’s only the slightest ache of swelling, so he can’t have been out long. He gropes carefully up his face and finds what he hoped wouldn’t be there. There are things stuck between his pinched eyelids. Even the slightest touch makes him hiss through his teeth. There are needles in his eyes. His eyes.
The pain must have knocked him out. No way he’s gonna try and take them out himself here—wherever here is. He’ll have to fumble his way home and hope Jazz’s hands are steady enough for this. Tucker’d be better for something like this. Danny’s not sure why but Tuck’s got hands tailor-made for delicate and precise movements. He doesn’t have an A in sewing class for no reason. The rest of Tucker could be shaking like a leaf but his hands be still as a statue’s. Too bad Tucker is out of town. Too bad Tucker is—
Right. He. He was distracting himself. He had to stop that. Stop thinking about friends. Start thinking about finding his way home. He had to get home.
“And here do you think you’re going?”
Danny drops low on instinct, swivels his head to face the voice of the man he’dreally been hoping to avoid. “Freakshow,” he sneers, “I was wondering when you’d show your greasy face.”
“What’s this? A broken little ghost trying to insult someone he can’t even see?” And there’s that braying, smugly self-satisfied laugh. It had taken weeks for Danny to get that awful noise out of his head, and now the guy was back to rub it in his face.
“What’d you do to me?” Danny snarls, easing himself into a loosely defensive stance. If Freakshow was going to make a move, he would have done it by now. Scrawny little guy like him relied on creepy magic and theatrical surprise, and he’d already used up his dynamic entry.
“What I should have done the first time you managed to shrug off my control.” Danny hears a shoe scuff against—dirt? Where are they?—and fires a shot in the direction it came from. It misses, just whistles off into the distance. Outside then, though the breeze should have clued him in on that. A miss, but Freakshow’s startled gasp makes him grin.
“And that means what, blinding me? Sorry dude, but you’re gonna have to try harder than this. I’ll be fine in like a day. Two, max.” How he’s gonna explain sudden, unexplainable blindness to his parents that will—probably—cure itself in a matter of days is a hurdle he’s firmly not thinking about until he has to jump over it.
“Ah, but that implies I’ll be letting you take those out of your eyes anytime soon, doesn’t it?”
“Letting me?” Danny, eyes squeezed shut to minimize the tiny movements of his eyelids, laughs. “Dude, I broke your stupid mind control staff ages ago. You don’t have anything on me.”
“Don’t I?” Freakshow asks lightly, and snaps his fingers.
The needles in Danny’s eyes burn. He screams, inhales and chokes on smoke, opens his mouth to scream again—
Danny falls to his knees, gulping down the pain gathered behind his clenched teeth.
“There. That’s better, isn’t it?” Freakshow asks, and Danny doesn’t need his eyes to know the creep is grinning from ear to ear.
“What?” Danny gasps—
He bites his tongue and tastes burnt limes.
He hears Freakshow’s boots, grinding dirt underfoot as he walks closer. He hears one of Freakshow’s knees pop as he crouches down beside him. He hears Freakshow’s heavy coat drag and drape in the dirt near his face. One cool hand touches his face and he pulls back—
He stiffens, muscles straining beneath a pressure that is all in his head. He shakes and shakes and can’t move an inch when Freakshow pats his cheek. “Haven’t you heard, boy? There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Or, as the case may be, more than one way to control a ghost!” Freakshow brays laughter again, and Danny wants more than anything to punch the man right in his yellow teeth but he can’t move so much as a finger.
“Nn-nnn-no….”Can’t move, he can’t move. But if he can open his mouth just a little, just enough to call for—
He stops. He stops breathing, a shout tangled up in his lungs he can’t let loose. He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe—
Above him, Freakshow makes a thoughtful little sound. “What a funny creature you are, Danny Phantom,” he says. “Ah well, not for much longer if I have any say in it. And I do!”
No no no nonono nononONONO—
The Ringmaster says (crawl), so he presses his belly to the ground and drags himself through the stinking mud until his limbs shake and his ectoplasm burns, a ghostly recreation of muscle failure. The Ringmaster throws his head back and laughs, which means he’s done well.
It’s good when he makes the Ringmaster laugh. He might get to keep his eyes a little longer today, and then there won’t be darkness and pain until the Ringmaster goes to sleep again. The pain doesn’t bother him as much as it used to. The Ringmaster still orders him (still) every night so he can’t claw at his face, but he’s learned quickly to treat the pain as a distraction.
He hates the dark more than anything.
Something’s gone wrong with his insides, but he can’t say anything because the Ringmaster ordered him (quiet) before they boarded the train. There’s a steady, sharp pang between his hips that makes it hard to walk or even sit comfortably. It’s familiar, not in memory but in its physical feeling. He just can’t put a name to it. He curls his toes and drags his naked hands up and down his thighs, trying not to think about it.
He misses his jumpsuit, and he misses the lock of shiny white hair that used to hang in his face. Both are gone now; the suit burned and his head shaved, and his red eyes hidden by reflective sunglasses. Lydia wears a pair of sunglasses too, and she’s shaped her heavy cloak into a big hooded jacket and jeans, still red. He couldn’t change his jumpsuit so Lydia bought him clothes, expensive but durable. He couldn’t change his hair so Lydia bought a razor. It’s what the Ringmaster wanted.
He tries not to think about the stabbing in his gut and focuses all his attention on the fabric of his jeans, his heavy sweater and scarf, his unlaced boots, his thick wool socks. He doesn’t know where they are but it’s someplace cold, cold enough that if he and Lydia didn’t pretend to be cold too they would stand out as unnatural, inhuman. He can’t even shape his clothes; he’s lucky he’s a ghost with a human complexion. Lydia’s been pouting since this morning, when the Ringmaster told them they were going to be going by train. He thinks she looks good with human-colored skin and her spiked hair drawn back into a ponytail, but he isn’t allowed to say as much. He’s not allowed to talk much at all.
They’re alone in this train car, and he thinks he had something to do with it. The Ringmaster can take his eyes and make his body do things while he’s stuck in the dark and the hurt, and his fingernails are dirty and his palms are warm, like he fired a bunch of ghost rays not too long ago. He doesn’t know, he can’t remember, and he can’t ask. He clenches his teeth, breathes in and out even though the Ringmaster scoffs and says there’s no point in a ghost breathing.
All at once Lydia jumps up, silently points at him with disgust marring her normally stoic face. He feels a warmth streaming between his legs. He looks, and there’s wetness soaking his new jeans, darkening the seat cushion. He’s pissed himself, like a human baby would. How? How? The pain in his gut’s gone, but he barely notices that. He heaves a terrified glance at the Ringmaster, at Lydia, and curls up in his mess and waits for a punishment he doesn’t dare run from.
“What?” asks the Ringmaster.
The dark and the hurt come soon after, but he remembers that one word, spoken softly. Like the Ringmaster had been just as stunned as he’d been.
He learns how special a ghost he is in fits and starts. “Adaptable,” the Ringmaster calls him with pride, and he preens under the attention. He’s better at passing for human than Lydia is, after a while, with his shorn hair dark and not even a hint of green in his face. His eyes stay red, but of course they do. The Ringmaster took his eyes because he can’t be trusted, not yet. One day, maybe, he’ll earn the same trust the Ringmaster has in Lydia. Her eyes are red too, but they’re just like that. He thinks his eyes have always been red, but maybe once he can call them his own again he can change them too, so he doesn’t have to feel self-conscious wearing big sunglasses everywhere.
The downside to his wonderful adaptability is that to play at human he must acthuman. If he doesn’t eat, he gets weak and thin. If he doesn’t have water he gets dehydrated and overheated. If he doesn’t get a few hours of sleep each week he gets delirious. If he doesn’t use the bathroom every so often—well. He makes sure there’s never a repeat of the train. The need for the rare shower is a surprise for all of them. But they learn together that a teenage ghost can smell just as bad as a teenage boy.
They manage his oddities, and soon they’ve left America behind. They come eventually to a country where none of the signs are in English and the people narrow their eyes at his accent. But the Ringmaster seems right at home, so it must be fine.
They join a circus, and something about this rubs him all wrong. When he sleeps he dreams, which is new and frightening to him. He can’t remember ever dreaming before. He dreams of heights, and of falling, and of a fear that rattles him like the ceaseless clack-clack-clack of a speeding train. He wakes and says nothing, because the Ringmaster doesn’t know he dreams and so doesn’t think to order him to (talk).
When he’s sent into the dark and hurting, he remembers the falling, and his lost white gloves stretching out to catch—
He can’t remember.
The Ringmaster is not the true ringmaster of this circus. They’re here, in this circus, in this country, as practice. Practice for him, maybe. Practice for all of them, maybe. The Ringmaster talks to himself a lot, or at Lydia and him without expecting a response. He knows things went bad for the Ringmaster in America, and that it was his fault. Somehow. The Ringmaster nearly told him once, but then grew red-faced and furious and cast him into the dark and hurting for over a day.
He hasn’t been told and he’s been ordered to ask (no questions), but he thinks the Ringmaster is searching for something here in this country too. The Ringmaster speaks the native language easily, without a hint of an American accent, and knows the cities they travel through as if the Ringmaster had grown up in all of them. There are lots of things he doesn’t know—isn’t allowed to know—but he’s smarter than the Ringmaster gives him credit for. He listens carefully as he cleans out the animal cages, picks up new words in desperate fistfuls. “Adaptable,” the Ringmaster had praised, and if he can change the color of his hair he can change the language in his head.
He learns the word for ghost, and he learns the word for magic, and he learns the word for power. The next time he dreams there is a thin staff, topped by a red glass orb, and it’s in his hand and then it’s falling. When he wakes, curled up in a bed of dirty hay, he wonders how many times he has done this before.
The Ringmaster comes to him one night after a show. The Ringmaster’s smile is wide and gleeful, and he shivers, wonders what could possibly make the Ringmaster so happy. Before he can ask he is ordered to (hide), to (corner), to (bite). Then the Ringmaster takes his eyes with a bark of laughter, and then he is in the dark and the hurting, and he has to wait to find out what his body does all on its own without him.
When he’s given his eyes back his face is tacky with blood and there is now a third ghost. She looks at him with fear in her red eyes, hiding her throat with a tightly-wound scarf. Her name is Kamila, and yesterday she was a dancer and today she is dead. He licks his teeth clean and thinks they might be sharper than they were before. Adaptable. Well, if this is what the Ringmaster wants, he’ll grow fangs to give a lion pause.
They leave the circus after that, and hide up in the mountains until the Ringmaster deems it safe to travel openly again. They take new names. Kamila becomes Katarina, Lydia becomes Lyudmilla, he becomes Denes. It doesn’t take a genius to realize his real name must begin with a D. Trouble is, there are just so manynames in this world. The Ringmaster casts him into the dark and hurting when he asks what his real name is. He’s afraid to ask again.
Privately he calls himself Dee, and paints a picture of a dark-haired boy in his mind, human and unharried by blood or magic or an exhaustion he can’t shrug off. He tries to give this human image eyes of its own, but he can’t imagine looking into a mirror and not seeing red. He gives up, sets aside this game of what-might-have-been, and (dances) for the entertainment of humans he’ll never get a chance to know.
They travel, taking odd jobs and thieving to survive. Three ghosts become four, four ghosts become six, and in a few short months there’s a full troupe of ghosts under the Ringmaster’s control. There’s money enough for the Ringmaster to live comfortably, and even some left over for new clothes and extra food for him. Sometimes his belly groans, and he isn’t sure if his cheekbones have always been so sharp, but he’s second in strength and speed only to Lydia and so he never says a word. The Ringmaster is more important than he is, and human besides.
He’s only a ghost very good at playing pretend.
They join a circus that travels through countries that speak English in lilting accents, and he is allowed to perform ever more astonishing tricks for dull-minded audiences. He must always keep his face hidden by masks or paint or hoods when he performs, but he doesn’t mind. The tightrope and the lion’s mouth are where he feels wholly himself, feels as close to free as he can imagine. His eyes don’t belong to him and can be taken with the slightest (word) from the Ringmaster, but he can rely without fear on the strength of his limbs and the fire in his palms.
The Ringmaster only gives him the scarcest orders when he performs, because an order is one-dimensional. An order is (run), not twist and flip and dodge andcatch. He fell, he failed, the first time the Ringmaster tried to order him along an acrobatic act. If he had been human, he would have died. But luckily for him he’s already dead, and ectoplasm stains are not so hard to get out.
After that, the Ringmaster orders him to (learn), and he takes to that order with an energy he never knew he possessed. Every night he performs until he shakes all over, breathless and giddy with freedom, and the one night of sleep he gets each week he dreams again. Of falling, of fearing, of reaching his hands out to catch—not the staff, as he’d once thought, but a person. A human who wasn’t the Ringmaster.
He dreams of a name on the tip of his tongue, and of saving someone he cared about very much, but he always wakes up before he can remember.
Summer comes, and with the warm weather and bigger crowds comes an ease the troupe hasn’t experienced before. The Ringmaster is all loud laughter and unrestrained glee, and he’s even caught stern-faced Lydia smiling once or twice. There’s plenty of work and plenty of fun, the bags under his eyes aren’t so dark nor his hands so bony, and even the strange dreams of falling and fear leave him alone for awhile.
Life is good. He can’t remember a time when he’d ever been this happy, this at ease. Sure, every night before the Ringmaster goes to sleep he’s still thrown into the dark and hurting, but he takes it in stride. The Ringmaster doesn’t do it out spite; he simply can’t be trusted to be left on his own. The way the Ringmaster talks about the past, about the ghost he was before, it’s always with a venom and acidity that makes his ectoplasm churn with guilt and shame. The ghost he used to be must have been a monster, to want to hurt the RIngmaster. He’s terrified of the dark, but he deserves to be smothered.
But one night the Ringmaster forgets.
Nearing autumn now, they’re someplace between one city and another, someplace made up of thick piney forests and rolling green hills, and they wind the caravan around a grassy knoll for the night. There’s a celebration for something, he doesn’t know what, and in a matter of hours the humans have built huge bonfires to drive away the darkness and are all drunk and giggling into each others necks. Even the Ringmaster is in the thick of it, red-faced and slurring his words, a nearly empty cup spilling from his fingers as he wanders off someplace with one of the contortionists. Anya, he thinks is her name, though it won’t matter unless the Ringmaster wants to keep her around. More than one ghost in the troupe has shared a night or more with the Ringmaster. More than one ghost in the troupe woke up human for the last time to find him in the Ringmaster’s place with an order to (kill) and (keep).
Lydia frowns at the Ringmaster as he slips out of the firelight, but as always she says nothing. Instead she stands, makes a curt gesture for the others to follow her, and heads for the far side of the caravan. He follows after out of habit, wringing his hands and gnawing his lip until he tastes the burnt-citrus of ectoplasm. He licks it clean before anyone can notice the glow. None of the ghosts are as good as he is at playing human, but he still hasn’t figured out the trick of bleeding red. He’ll figure it out one day. He’s proud. He’s adaptable. He’s afraid.
There in the dark the ghosts all shed their disguises with quiet sighs. They don’t bother with a fire of their own, only curl up in a rough circle to share a time apart from humanity and the Ringmaster’s orders. Lydia nods quietly at him, hovering nervously in a shadow, and he joins the circle.
Kamilla, still in her tightly-wound scarf, spares him an equally tight smile. The ghosts all nod or wave or wink greetings to him, calm and collected and every inch controlled to the core even as the Ringmaster forgets them for a night. Lydia touches his knee, her expression curiously soft, and he smiles. Relief washes over him. The ghost he was was surely a monster, but even without direct orders the others will make sure he doesn’t do anything he’ll regret.
They sit together, the lot of them, and wait for dawn.
They join circuses and sideshows and leave circuses and sideshows. Some ghosts go out on orders from the Ringmaster and never come back. That’s okay. It’s easy for the Ringmaster to make more ghosts.
Time passes, seasons change, and soon there are more ghosts than humans no matter the curiosities they join. All of them are as red-eyed as he is, but they aren’t like him, not really. The Ringmaster takes his eyes when he’s bad or when there’s dirty work to be done, but the Ringmaster never does the same to them. They aren’t like Lydia either, who follows the Ringmaster freely, even with her red eyes. He’s not stupid; he can put two and two together. In his dreams there’s a red-topped staff that isn’t here now.
“More than one way to skin a cat,” he mumbles to himself, half-asleep and curled up in his seat on a train going from one place to another.
“What did you say?” the Ringmaster asks, but he doesn’t answer questions, only orders.
He falls asleep.
Every night he sleeps now he dreams of falling, and reaching, and of being so afraid he would not fall fast enough to catch—
A girl? A boy? Both flicker beneath his outstretched glove, a white girl all in black and a black boy in yellow and red. Human and alive and falling to certain death. Were they real? Were they still alive? Who had they been?
He can’t remember.
They’re going back to the States. To America. Something in him crows delight at this, not that he can show it. The Ringmaster has ordered him to be (quiet) and to (follow) and to (carry). But luggage isn’t heavy, and he dances on tiptoe through customs, homesickness and happiness tangled up in his chest.
Homesickness. It’s a funny thing for a ghost to feel. But he must have had a home when he was alive; he’d died so young, after all. When he plays at human he’s a teenage boy with sharp features and sharper teeth, gangly and long-limbed and tall—wasn’t he shorter than the Ringmaster once? Eh, if he doesn’t remember than it isn’t important. What matters is that they’re all one more step towards the “Big Top,” as the Ringmaster calls it. He thinks it means a circus they can call their own, and enough money and infamy to have the Ringmaster’s face plastered anywhere he pleases.
He directs the others to load the trucks and thinks of nothing else at all.
The RIngmaster squints at him carefully one day, and says, “You’ve changed."
He smiles, pleased and proud, and says, “I know.”
He rarely has the chance to inspect himself. It’s not like the Ringmaster orders him to go (look) in a mirror every morning. Apart from when there’s a house of mirrors to set up, he only ever catches his reflection in window panes and the rare gas station bathroom he dashes into between shows. He’s not the kind of ghost to take daily stock in his appearance, but he knows he’s different. He’s faster, stronger, fiercer. He grew rows of triangular fangs sharp enough to bite through solid timber beams. He sharpened his fingertips until he could leave claw marks in steel struts. He reshaped his ears to hear better even than the owls and the bats they come across on late-night heists. To make his human disguise even more separated from his ghostly self, he changed the color of his skin—not a match to Lydia and some of the others, but his own, special green. His red eyes look very striking now, and he’s scared more than one stupid human in his way by flaring them like headlights.
He’s everything the Ringmaster needs him to be, and that’s enough for him. Sometimes, it’s true, he wonders who he was. Why did he betray the Ringmaster once before? He gets no answer either from the Ringmaster or Lydia, although Lydia’s eyes always tighten strangely when he asks her. The Ringmaster’s face turns ugly when he asks, and more than once he’s thrown into the dark and hurting for asking about the past.
He should know better, but sometimes he can’t help but be curious. The other ghosts remember their human lives, their real names and all the people they left behind. He… he doesn’t have any of that, and he feels empty for it. He wassomeone before the Ringmaster… wasn’t he?
Still, he remembers the early days, when the Ringmaster had to beat him like a dog and he made a mess of everything he touched. Shame burns his ectoplasm when he thinks of himself, shivering with fear in a puddle of his own urine. Shame drives him to erase that ghost from existence, no matter how much it hurts to reshape his bones. A ghost is measured by its usefulness, and he plans to outstrip all of the Ringmaster’s grandest plans.
He’s not the ghost he used to be. He couldn’t be gladder.
They head farther and farther west, until soon each day is hot and dry as the heart of a furnace and all the ghosts are damp and weak-limbed. Ectoplasm isn’t meant for desert heatwaves, but the Ringmaster drives them on and on, grinning all the while.
They join a dusty, run-down circus clearly on its last legs. If the Ringmaster hadn’t taken pity on the poor troupe they would have folded up before the month was out. But the Ringmaster is clever and knows how to really wow a crowd, and even the weakest ghost can out-perform a human any given day.
The circus stops in a thirsty suburban county, set up in a fairground that’s all tumbleweeds and brambles. Thanks to a minor accident during unload he’s assigned to ticket duty until his knee can take his weight again. He doesn’t mind much. Talking to patrons keeps him sharp, reminds him what normal, living people are like. After all, there’s no sense in playing human if he can’t be convincing.
Even with the little battery-powered fan in the ticket booth he’s sweating green and glad it’s too bright outside for anyone to notice. The line stretches out into the parking lot in clusters of families big and small, teenagers all a-thrill with going someplace without parental supervision, couples of all ages, and plenty of older folk with a nostalgic glint to their eyes. The locations and languages change, but the patrons always stay the same.
He exchanges money and a few lines of smalltalk for tickets and bland smiles, and he thinks it’s going to be another slow day until one of the humans gives a breathless little shriek right in his face and drops her purse. He blinks behind his sunglasses, focusing on the person versus the mind-numbing actions. She’s young, his age at most, hispanic by the brown skin and waist-length black hair, and she’s staring at him like—well, like she’s seen a ghost.
“Something wrong?” he asks politely.
“Danny?” the girl asks weakly.
One of the girls behind her touches her arm and asks something in rapid-fire Spanish, too quick for him to follow though the meaning’s easy enough to parse. The girl swallows, shrugging her friend’s hand off. “Danny?” she asks again. “Is it really you?”
“Sorry, miss,” he says, offering her a harmless smile made up of perfectly human teeth. “As far as I know, that’s not my name.” He taps the name sewn into his striped vest, a lie in capital white curlicues. He’s Dylan this time round, and he was Darius last week, and Dustin before that. He’s never been called Danny.
Her cheeks darken and one hand jumps to her mouth. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry! It’s just—you look just like this boy I used to know.”
“Don’t worry, happens all the time.” He shrugs. “One of those faces, y’know?”
He gives the girl and her friends their tickets, and his core thumps and rattles in the memory of a pounding heart. He’s never been called Danny, but it’s the first name he’s been called that sounded right.
As soon as he can, he pawns off ticket detail onto Samara, a lean ghost who can breathe fire with the best of them, then limps behind the row of port-o-potties to turn invisible and fly after the girl. He doesn’t know her—no, that’s wrong. He doesn’t remember her. He’s never seen her in his dreams but that doesn’t mean anything. He’s never even seen his parents or his sister in his dreams either, but that doesn’t mean he never—
He shivers, rubs the ache out of his eyes, and waits patiently for a chance to corner the girl.
“So tell me about this Danny kid.”
She shrieks and drops her purse just like before, then playfully scoffs when he steps into sight. “Oh, you again. You scared me!”
He chuckles, bends down to pick up her purse and dust it off. “We have to stop meeting like this.”
Maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say. She’s gone back to that sad and frightened expression again, her eyes all tight at the corners and her mouth a little pink ‘o.’ He holds her purse, putting on a friendlier smile. “Sorry for scaring you. You just got me curious.”
“About—what, the boy I mistook you for?” she hooks her purse back over her shoulder without even a thank you. “I thought you said you got that a lot.”
He shrugs. “I might have been lying to move the line along. C’mon, who was he, your boyfriend?”
That earns him another scoff. “Hardly. I may have let him take me to prom our freshman year as a joke, but I was totally out of his league.”
“But…?” He prompts, rocking on his heels.
“But he was kinda cute,” she concedes, and she rolls her eyes when he grins wolfishly. “Don’t let that get to your head, circus boy.”
“Perish the thought! What happened to him?”
“Nobody knows.” She looks away, caught in the middle distance of memory. “He just vanished one day a couple years ago.”
He swallows. “Spooky.”
She folds her arms over her chest, shivers as the audience above roars its delight. “Phantom went missing around the same time Danny did.”
“Phantom?” he asks incredulously. “You went to school with a kid namedPhantom?”
She giggles. It’s cute, for a human. “No, of course not! He was a ghost.”
His eyes ache. “A what?”
“A ghost. You must think I’m crazy, but I’m from Amity Park. It’s the—”
“—most haunted town in America,” he says faintly. “Yeah. I—I know.” He’s never heard of the place until right this second, but he knows.
“Yeah, and Phantom beat up the other ghosts to protect us, at least until he vanished too. There were all these crazy rumors that their disappearances were connected somehow, but after a few months we all mostly forgot about them both.” She smiles again, an echo of that initial shock tugging at her eyes.
“I… I’m sorry,” he says. Exhaustion pulls him in every direction. “But I’m not him.”
She laughs. “My name.”
He manages another bland smile. “Well, thank you for answering my questions, Paulina. I should probably let you catch up with your friends, huh?”
“Yeah. But—” She pulls her cell phone out. “Can I get a pic of you first?”
He recoils out of habit, hisses pain when he puts too much pressure on his bad knee. “Ahh—! Uh, why?”
“I wanna show Danny’s old friends his crazy circus boy lookalike. Their expressions would be so worth talking to that creep Foley again!”
She blinks. “What?”
Tucker, Tucker Foley, TF for Too Fine and wasn’t that just the worst pickup line a freshman could possibly come up with?
His eyes pulse. He falls to his knees, palms pressed so hard against his sunglasses the frames snap. The girl, Paulina, is calling his fake name. He doesn’t care. He can’t care. His head’s all eaten up with memories of a boy in a red beret and cargo pants and glasses thick enough to actually warrant the nickname Four-Eyes. He remembers.
Tucker, who worked enthusiastically at any chore he could wheedle another twenty bucks out of his parents for, because he was always paying off the latest in hand-held tech. But Tucker went through a half dozen PDAs in a semester because ghosts kept trashing them or he kept accidentally trashing them, and that—that wasn’t the same thing.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him, we were just talking and he fell down—”
“Step aside, girl.”
Tucker, who had the stillest hands of anybody around, and even though he went gray at the sight of a papercut he still insisted he do the stitchings after patrols gone wrong because Sam was too impatient and he was usually the one leaving red and green smears all over the sheets—
He remembers his dreams of falling and fear, and at last, at last he remembers who he was trying to catch. There’d been a train, and a bridge spanning a canyon that yawned wide and deep with a thin little stream and jutting rocks like teeth far below. He remember’s the Ringmaster’s—Freakshow’s—magic staff slipping from his hands so he could catch Sam, Sam Manson, Sam with a vendetta and a vehement speech for anything and everything, Sam all in black who shaved half her hair off in junior high just to spite her parents, Sam who ate tofu dogs and topsoil, Sam who would die if he didn’t fall fast enough because Sam was human, Sam was alive.
“Stop that, stop thinking! You’re not supposed to remember anything—”
Sam and Tucker were human, and they had been his friends. His best friends. The Ring—Freakshow—had gotten to him before, the staff messed with his head and it was like now, weaker. He’d still been himself under the red haze, and he could fight for control as long as Sam was there. Sam had begged him to stand on his own. Sam had swept away the red haze in time for him to save her, and she in turn had saved him.
He had been a ghost still, when he knew them, but they didn’t run and they didn’t try to control him like Freakshow did—does. They helped him fight other ghosts, helped him lie to his family—
His parents. His sister. He had a family. He remembers them as if he’d seen them only yesterday. Orange and teal jumpsuits, stacks and stacks of psychology books and heavy ghost hunting equipment. The basement laboratory. His house. His room. He still had a family—
He was a ghost, but he was more than that. He had been… he had been alive.
He remembers Sam calling his name through the haze, over and over, and it’s like coming home. “I remember.”
“My name is Da—”
Pain-pain. Pain-pain. Pain-pain.
Eyes gone wrong. Can’t see. Only hurt. Make noise. Hands reach through cold-burning-metal cage. Bite. Hands leave.
Pain-pain. Pain-pain. Pain-pain. Steady hurt. Constant hurt. Doesn’t like it. Getting used to it. Legs go numb. Slide away. Touches bars. Burns. Cry out. Curl up. Eyes not so bad as cold-burning-metal cage.
Smells food. Hungry. So hungry. Bite-snarl-snap. Food in cage. Eat eat eat. Bowl empty. Still hungry.
Tired now. Sleep.
“Wretched little animal!”
Ringmaster close. Hands bang metal bars. Press belly to dirty smelly hay and whine. More banging. Yelp and snap teeth. Sniff air. Ringmaster angry-scared-cornered. Why?
“What’s to be done with you now? Losing your mind at the slightest memory of home! The most powerful ghost I’ve ever ensnared and here you are, a rabid dog that ought to be taken out back and shot. Useless!”
Whine. Pain-pain. Pain-pain. Pain-pain. Eyes hurt worse when Ringmaster close. Ringmaster’s fault eyes hurt. No. His fault eyes hurt. Was bad. Now punished. His fault. Whine.
Cold mouth. Ghost close. Lydia good-scary-strong. Lydia help.
Ringmaster walks away, boots click-click-clicking. Cold mouth fades. Lydia follows Ringmaster. Alone? Whine, growl, noise noise noise. Nobody comes. Alone. Alone with pain-pain, pain-pain, pain-pain beating in his eyes.
Sleep. Sleep again.
No pain. Sight. He—he can see.
In a cage. Knew that. In a train car. Knew that too. Start-stop squealing metal wheels kept rocking him against biting-burning metal bars. Bitter smell of gasoline and animals. Ringmaster is here, looks at him, smells full of caution-fear-anger. Ringmaster looks tired.
“Are you in there?” Ringmaster asks.
Throat dry. So thirsty. “Hrrr.”
“Good. Good, good. Tell me, what’s your name?”
Stupid question. Don’t want questions. Want water and food and freedom. Maybe Ringmaster will let him out if he answers. “Dnn—Dan—eee.”
Ringmaster screams. No words, just noise and hate-fear-desperate. He flinches away, belly low. Ringmaster likes it when he crawls. “Ow—out?” He tries. “Let. Let me out.”
“Not on your afterlife!” Ringmaster kicks the cage, spins on his heel and leaves the car. Ringing metal noise, rocked against bars. Burn. Yelp. Smell of smoke, hissing skin. Burning metal… iron. Iron. Iron hurts ghosts. He is a ghost.
He is called Danny. He is a ghost. But. But he is not only a ghost. He remembers.
Girl from circus. Long hair, pretty voice. Paulina. Liked her once, before Ringmaster took his eyes. Turned into a dragon once. Or—no, Paulina did, but Sam did too.
Sam. Tucker. Friends.
He remembers, tiny pieces, tiny words. He is Danny, but Ringmaster took more than his eyes this time. He is not himself. He is less than he was. He is more than he was. He is—
Pain-pain. Pain-pain. Pain-pain.
Ringmaster took his eyes again. Hurt again. Dark again. No food, no water. Sleep though.
There is always sleep.
Rattling metal. Cage open. Free.
He freezes. Curled up, hunched up. Can’t see. Claws gouge wood. A whine in his mouth, cold mist slipping through his teeth. Ghost nearby. Ghosts? Yes, ghosts. Three ghosts.
“Watch him carefully.” Ringmaster, on his left.
Blink and he can see, no pain or dark. Ringmaster, Lydia, Guillermo, Magda. Tall ghosts. Strong ghosts. He crouches on all fours and bares his teeth.
He looks at Ringmaster. Tilts his ears. Waits for orders.
Standing means feet. He grows heels and soles, wiggles out ten hooked toes for balance. Easy.
Human face, human limbs. Harder than it was. Too hard. Whine out frustration. Stuck. Stuck. White fire and barbed fingers and too many teeth for easy words. “Ca’ahhnt.”
Ringmaster swears, snarls, clutches something hidden in that long black coat. “Useless now, he’s useless!”
“Fah-hight,” he rasps. “Steheeel. Seheeecrets.”
“What do you—?” Ringmaster stills. Anger-fear-despair go away. Ringmaster is all smiles. “Of course. Clever little monster, aren’t you? My best minion’s a shadow of his former self and yet still so desperate to follow orders.”
He nods, grins, bunches up low and let’s Ringmaster be taller than him. Of course, of course. His head’s all full of pieces, fragments, shrapnel. Nothing makes sense. But the Ringmaster’s been there for always, the Ringmaster gives orders and orders don’t break. Orders are good. He’s good when he can follow orders. Maybe more orders will fix his head.
Sam and Tucker aren’t here now. He can’t rely on them to save him.
Guillermo and Magda have no expressions on their green faces. Of course not. They belong to the Ringmaster, almost as much as he does. But Lydia looks right at him. Lydia, free and cold Lydia with tattoos all down her skin, she looks, and she looks afraid.
Ringmaster gives him back his eyes some nights. Some nights he follows other ghosts up and out into the sky. Cold air, even when the sun still stains the west. Time passes on without him, stuck in that iron cage while his brain put itself back together.
Every theft helps sorts out his head, brings back the coherency and intelligence he had. Gas stations. Jewelry stores. Banks. Museums. Security systems don’t matter to ghosts. If there are humans in the way, he kills them. It’s easy. His piecemeal memory tells him it wouldn’t have been, once, but that was then. He is here now, loping on all fours with blood down his chest, happy only to be out of his cage.
Mostly, he’s kept in that cage, curled tightly away from the cold bars. Iron hurts. He thought that was fairy tale stuff, but maybe he’d never had a run-in with pure iron before this. He eats scraps from a plastic bowl, bits of fried fair food and sickly sweet candy and always wishes there was more. They bring him water every few hours, and the cage is just tall enough for him to relieve himself into a bucket set in one corner. He misses before, when his head wasn’t broken and he could still look human. Humans get beds. Monsters like him get cages.
He sleeps the long hours between freedom and theft away, and every evening when he wakes up Lydia is there. Quiet. Calm. Watching. Her sharp hands clench into fists, her pierced eyebrows knotted with worry.
Every night he tries his best to say, “Hello, Lydia.” After awhile it even starts to sound like words. She never says anything, but he never expects her to. It’s nice, almost having company. Reminds him of before. Sam and Tucker, his friends. Jazz, his sister. Jack and Maddie, his parents. Names, bits of color, bits of words. Never enough memory to satisfy.
Shouting wakes him up. His eyes are still gone, his head pounding steadily. He hears the Ringmaster and a voice he doesn’t recognize. A woman’s. His mouth is cold, so she’s a dead woman. That narrows it down. But it can’t be Lydia shouting… can it?
“—can’t keep doing this to him.”
“Oh, but I can and I will!”
“If your plan is to destroy him just do it. What you’re doing now is—”
“Don’t tell me you’re feeling concern for that thing now. Ha HA! And they call meFreakshow!”
“You twisted him into that shape. There’s vengeance and then there’s cruelty,Frederich.”
“Don’t take that tone with me!”
“I don’t obey you like the others.”
“Ah, but a ghost is a ghost, my dear.”
“You—! You wouldn’t dare! I—”
Pressure washes over him, a wordless throb of control. The woman’s cry cuts off as cleanly as if the Ringmaster takes an axe to her throat. Something crashes to floor. He hears her ragged breathing, hissing through clenched teeth.
The Ringmaster chuckles, quiet and proud. “Don’t make that face at me, darling. And quit fretting over the boy. I know what I’m doing.”
The next time he has his eyes, Lydia isn’t there. “Ww—wurz Lehdeeah?”
The Ringmaster smiles distantly. “Hmm? Oh, don’t worry about her. She’ll come back. Always does.”
One day his cage door rattles open. He blinks his sleepiness away, surprised to see and twice as surprised to see sunlight spilling in through the train car’s slats. It’s been—well, he doesn’t know how long it’s been since he’s seen sunlight. A long time, maybe.
Lydia’s here, back again at last. She opened his cage. He pads out on all fours, stretching out stiff limbs with a pleased yawn. He arches his neck, flexes his claws, sighing with every pop. He understands why the Ringmaster keeps him in a cage, but he wishes it were bigger.
Lydia kneels down beside him, hesitates before touching his shoulder. He tilts his head, staring. He’s never seen her look so sad before. “Leh—Leideeha, wha—”
She pins him to the dirty floor before he can blink, straddling his waist with her hard fingers wrapped around his wrists so tight he hears something pop. Hesnarls, tries to phase away but she forces him solid, her power washing over him with enough force to knock the back of his head against the wood. He tries instead to pitch her off; he’s stronger than she is, he knows. But her tattoos trickle off her body, sink their tiny fangs and tiny claws into his skin, pin him in place like an insect until he can only wriggle his fingers uselessly.
Her hands touch his face, trace his cheekbones and settle at his temples so her thumbs rest under his eyes. She looks so tired, so sad. “I’m sorry,” she says, and drives her nails into his eye sockets.
He hears two wet pops, smells blood and smoke, and his world goes dark. He screams, but the pain is secondary. It always has been. He hates the dark, he hates the dark more than—
Danny feels Lydia draw the hollow glass needles from bloody tissue, the needles she placed there herself years ago. Danny feels the control over him snap in his bones, in his core, and all at once he can breathe again.
Danny remembers who he was, all the pieces in his head clicking together with a clarity that leaves him shaking and terrified and wondering. Danny had never been the monster the Ri—Freakshow—had said he’d been. He’d been a hero. He’d been fourteen years old when an accident in his parents’ lab had given him his powers. He’d been fourteen years old when a maniac stole him from his home and made him do—made him a—
Danny swallows enough teeth to speak clearly, never mind the wetness slipping down his cheeks. “Where is he.”
She doesn’t answer at first, only pulls her tattoos from his body, slides off his hips to sit beside his twitching body. Then, “We’ve stopped for supplies. He’s just outside.”
That’s all Danny needs. Freakshow never has a chance.
Outside his train car, Danny hears that awful bray of laughter and hones in on it at top speed. He hears Freakshow scream, he hears humans scream around them. He doesn’t care. Let them.
“Wait!” Freakshow shrieks. “Stop, stop! I order you to stop!”
Let Freakshow wave his hands and project his orders all he wants, Danny is freeand this time—this time, he’ll make sure it stays that way.
Danny rears his head back to scream the man’s name, but something elsebubbles out of his throat instead. A wordless and crushing wail of power; vast, echoing, terrible. He feels all his strength drain out from him like he’s going to scream himself to death and he can’t stop it, he can’t stop it.
The whole black world shakes at the awful sound, ringing on and on and on, and perhaps it’s the pain or perhaps it’s the wreckage of his eyes doing their best to do their job with all that’s left, but the darkness warps into shades of green. He clings to Freakshow’s lapels and he can nearly make out the shape of the man, even the uneven terrain of the grass wet at his knees. He wails on, helplessly, until he hears a hideous wet crack and the greens staining his vision fade again to total blackness. Freakshow’s body goes limp in his hands as at last the wail runs out of power to draw from, and Danny—
When Danny comes to, he’s blind. Blind. He knows it’s not a blindfold and he knows he’s not someplace pitch-black. He knows, a hindbrain exclamation point of terror, knows it so immediately and so intimately he barely registers the sharp stab of a two-pronged headache settled behind his eyes.
This… this is not the surprise it would have been, once.
“Oh, you’re awake.”
Someone approaches the bed—the bed!!—he’s lying on. The springs squeak as she sits down. “Hey, Kamilla,” he rasps.
“How are you feeling?”
He thinks about it. “Like shit. Where are we?”
“Lydia found an abandoned house we could hide in. We’ve been here two days now.”
Missing time. Well, that’s by no means new either. He slips a hand from the blanket and touches his face. He feels bandages, thick and scratchy, and his throat clicks when he swallows. “They’re gone, aren’t they?” He doesn’t specify. He doesn’t need to.
Kamilla gently pulls his hand away, cupping it in her slim fingers. “She says it was the only way to free you.”
Lydia, cold and stern and fierce in her silence, wouldn’t lie about this. “What about you? And everybody else?”
“Free.” Her hands squeeze his. “When you killed him, you broke the amulet he used to control us all too.”
“Amulet? What amulet?”
“He made sure you never saw it, or that we would say a word of it. I don’t know why.”
He knows why, but can’t find the energy to recount his first time as Freakshow’s mindslave. He slips his hand free from hers to touch the bandages again.
“Dylan, you mustn’t—”
Kamilla makes a dismayed little sound, flinching away.
Danny echoes her, sitting up even though the effort makes his ears roar and his head pound twice as hard. “Kamilla, wait, I’m sorry—”
Somewhere beyond whatever little room he’s in a door bangs open; he hears familiar voices arguing loudly over the crackle of paper bags.
“Oh, Samara and Cormac are back,” Kamilla says quickly, stepping out of reach of his grasping fingers. “They’ll have bought supplies. Do you want anything to eat? Drink?”
Danny opens his mouth, clicks it closed. He lets it be. “I wouldn’t say no to a bottle of water.”
She leaves, and he lies back down. Reflexively he tries to open and shut his eyes, trying to blink away the ache. Bad idea. He hisses pain through his teeth and presses the flat of his palms to the holes under his bandages.
Blind for keeps this time. And here he is, absolutely terrified of the dark.
“Human,” Danny repeats patiently. He can sit up now, as long as he rests against what must be every pillow in the house they found/stole. It makes it easier for his bandages to be changed, though no less unpleasant for everybody involved. Now seems as good a time as any to explain why he suddenly leaks red. “Well, sort of. I’m like, halvsies. I can change at will between human and ghost.”
Guillermo’s built like a truck and bear had a baby that grew up to be a champion bodybuilder, but he ran circles around the med tent he’d worked at when he’d still been alive. He has a thorough, if gruff, bedside manner. “This makes no sense to me. How can a person be both alive and dead? You look little changed from your human disguise.”
Danny huffs. “Look, I’m not gonna get into the how. I can’t even claim tounderstand the how anyway. I’m human, I’m ghost. It’s totally a thing.”
“It certainly does explain a few things,” Brian says thoughtfully, and Danny doesn’t need eyes to know there’s a shit-eating grin being beamed his way.
“Put that away, you weirdo,” he laughs, but winces when his headache comes roaring back. “Nngh. Right, laughter is still a no-go for this freak of nature.”
He hears sharp heels click at the doorway. Reflex makes him swivel his head to face Lydia. “Yeah, I am,” Danny says, carefully. This is the first time she’s approached him since—well, since.
“Why have you never changed before now?” she asks.
He shrugs. “I don’t think Freakshow ever figured it out? Otherwise he would have exploited it every chance he got, right? And while he didn’t know, I couldn’t know either.”
“…I think I liked it better when you didn’t talk to me.”
She doesn’t laugh, not the he expected her to. “Am I wrong?”
He makes a face. “No, you’re not wrong. Even if I changed back now I’d be in no shape for a casual stroll through the park. Living off of table scraps for a coupleyears hasn’t really done me any favors.”
“All the grievous bodily harm probably didn’t help either, eh?” Brian asks, and there’s that million-watt grin in his voice again.
“I figured that was kind of obvious, but yeah. Speaking of, anybody know why my ankle clicks when I rotate it?” He demonstrates. It’s a satisfying yet gristly noise.
“You were bitten by a zebra in Belgium,” Isabel says.
Even though it hurts, Danny can’t help but laugh. “Oh, of course I was.”
Time passes. Danny graduates from the bed to a chair by the window. The wind’s turned cold but in the afternoons the sun hits his room just right and his whole body hums with content. He spent too long in that cage. Even this house feels too small when there’s a whole wide world out there he’ll never see again. Small steps, small breaths.
Magda joins him. He hears a plate clatter on the little table at his elbow, takes a deep breath and smells bacon. “Oh Magda, I could kiss you,” he says fervently, and she laughs. He only fumbles once before his fingers find a greasy strip. Adaptable, Freakshow had called him. Well, the creepy bastard hadn’t been wrong.
“You’re recovering quick,” she says. “Gui’s been thinking himself into pretzels trying to figure your physiology out.”
“Him and me both.” Danny doesn’t chew the scrambled eggs so much as slurp them down. “I heal quick. Even grew a couple teeth back, once.”
“Aye? Then what’s with the miserable voice? You sound like you’re on your way to your own funeral, and I should know.”
She did. Lydia had been the one to kill her, driving her tame bears insane with a whirlwind of tattoos. When Magda had tried to stop them from attacking the crowd, they’d mauled her to death instead, and Freakshow had gleefully scooped up her ghost at the wake. Back then it had seemed so routine. Now, Danny wishes he hadn’t eaten quite so quickly.
He sets his fork down, tries to find the words to the half-baked hope that’s been chewing up his throat since he woke up and touched gauze instead of skin. “I—I’ve been—I hoped my eyes might grow back too.”
Magda sighs, her chair creaking. He can picture her; two hundred plus pounds of muscle, three striped scars she’d had as a human still running down her cheek, her big forearms crossed as she gives him a pitying stare. “I’m sorry, Danny. I don’t think you’ll be that lucky.”
It’s like salt in a wound to hear it from somebody else. It’s all he can do to keep his voice steady. “I know.”
“Ah, don’t make that face! You’ll ruin Gui’s lovely bandage-work and no one wants to hear him grouch, eh? And besides, a boy clever as you? You’ll find a way to make this work in your favor.”
“In my favor?” He echoes scornfully. “I’m finally free to go back to my family and I’ll never get to see them again. How is that fair?”
“There’s nothing fair about any of this, Danny,” Magda retorts in the same tone. “I didn’t ask to die same as you didn’t ask for whatever happened to make you the way y’are. But I’d say freedom’s worth the price you’ve paid, seeing as you’ve gota family to go back to.”
Danny flinches. Okay, he’d deserved that. “I’m sorry,” he says, rubbing at the edges of his bandages. “It’s just….”
Her hand covers his. “I know, lad. I know.”
Time passes. The weakness seeps from his limbs and soon he can walk again, knocking his outstretched fingers against doorways and countertops, laughing along with Jack and Vera when he tumbles off the porch into the prickly grass. He can’t see, he’ll probably never see again, but he has the others, the ghosts he helped make and the ghosts he stood idly by as others made them. They each have every right to hate him, or at least abandon him for the monster he’s turned out to be, but they don’t. They stay, and care for him and each other in their own odd ways, and they learn who they are, what sort of ghosts they are, without Freakshow around.
One afternoon Yasmine and Danny sit in the front yard together, invisible and whispering softly so passers-by can’t notice them. He soaks in the sunlight like a cat on a windowsill, stretched out with his head in her lap. She scratches his scalp, running her cool fingers through his hair.
"You need a trim," she comments."You look like a stray dog."
He waves one hand lazily, too content and sleepy to snark.
"Danny, I have a question."
"I have an answer?"
She huffs a little laugh and squeezes his shoulder. He fusses a bit just to make her laugh again, but sits up. His head only pounds a little this time, a shadow of his previous migraines. “Ask away.”
“When you killed Freakshow—” She hisses through her teeth, the only sign he has to know she’s mentally slapping herself. “I’m sorry—”
“It’s fine. Really, Yasmine.” He finds her hand and settles it between his, squeezing fondly. “C’mon, what’s up?”
She fidgets, then with careful pronunciation says, “You used a power then I had never seen before. It frightened even Lydia. Have you… always been capable of such a thing?”
“That ghostly wail?” He shrugs. “No, it’s news to me too. Why?”
She pulls his hand from his, traces her fingernail along the line of bandaging at his cheek. “Your eyes were gone then. There was ectoplasm streaming down your face. And you were—those months before, you had been, well—an animal—”
He leans away from her touch, grimacing. “Please get to the point.”
Yasmine tsks, but does as he asks. “I know you are upset with Lydia, though you do not say this to her. You are angry and afraid, but I do not think you should lose hope yet. When you—when you killed him, Danny, your wounds glowed. I do not know if you will ever heal your eyes, Danny, but perhaps seeing again is not out of the question.”
Danny hastily changes the subject, but that night and after, he lay in bed and wonders. He hadn’t needed his eyes to feel the damage his wail had caused. But maybe—maybe the green he’d seen hadn’t only been pain, or his ruined eyes having one last fit. Maybe… maybe there was something worth testing here.
Adaptable, Freakshow had called him. Well, here was his time to prove that.
Lydia presses a box into his hand, small with rounded edges and little hinges along one side. It feels… like a glasses case?
"…Is this a joke?" He asks dubiously. She huffs.
"You need glass prosthetics. So your eyelids don’t collapse. Guillermo says you can keep the bandages off tomorrow."
"How did you—?"
She rushes through her words, like she’s embarrassed by this gift, this act of unexpected kindness. “The man said he could not be sure they would fit comfortably as he couldn’t examine you personally, but I paid him well. Until you can go yourself, you’ll have something, at least.”
Danny opens the box, carefully passes his fingers along cool, round glass. His throat tightens. “Lydia, I—”
"I didn’t know your human eye color. They’re blue. I thought they’d look good on you. Is—is that okay?"
Danny nods weakly. He’s never heard her stutter before. “Yeah, that’s. That’s fine. I—my eyes were blue.”
He grasps her wrist gently, the one he’d broken trying to throw her off years ago. It still makes an ugly click when she rotates it. Lydia flinches and tries to pull away, but he grips a little harder and fervently says, “Thank you, Lydia.”
She’s no hugger, like Brian. She’s not for tiny signs of affection, like Yasmine. Lydia is every inch her own ghost, and she only huffs quietly again, relaxing her hand in his. “You’re welcome, Danny.”
Guillermo finally gives him a clean bill of health. “Well honestly, you’re still a right mess. But I’m sure you’re sick of listening to this rabble bicker day in and day out, and a proper home cooked meal will suit you better than that mush Isabel calls edible.”
"You are sorely overestimating the Fenton family’s culinary skills."
"That better not be a complaint I’m hearing."
Danny grins. “No, sir!”
Guillermo pats his knee fondly, laughing.
They travel as ghosts travel; high above clogged freeways, slaloming between cloud bunches, looking like birds to anyone who might bother looking all that way up. The others all take their turns guiding Danny, teasing and sincere in their own ways. Danny, his heart in his throat and tense down to his bones, does his best not to completely lose his head. He’s never been afraid of heights but there is something terrifying about being in absolute darkness with nothing but gravity to orient himself. If he grips a wrist in his ghost’s sharp claws too hard, they’re all too kind to say anything.
He distracts himself by clicking his tongue, whistling through all those teeth he hasn’t quite willed away yet, trying to find any way he can to repeat his ghostly wail on a smaller scale. He’s lucky once or twice, quick neon flashes of green that startle him fifty feet out of the sky. He takes each shock as progress, belting out laughter even as he falls.
It’s a long trip home. There’s time enough to practice.
They take him as far as the city line. Lydia won’t go further and won’t say why either. Danny’s tempted to ask, but decides it isn’t worth it. He’ll probably find out for himself soon enough.
They land someplace grassy, not far from a highway by the sound of all that rushing traffic. He smells gasoline, hears the throaty exhaust of buses. Oh good, they’d found the depot. He’d only been vaguely certain of its location.
Danny rubs the back of his neck, unsure what to say now that it was time to say goodbye. “Are you sure you guys don’t want a safe way to the Ghost Zone? I mean, my parents might flip at having all you guys go through at once, but we can pull a Gandalf and onesie-twosie it.”
Vera smothers a giggle on his right. “Maybe one day, Danny. I don’t think any of us are quite ready for that adventure.”
“Well, the offer’s always there. And don’t worry about calling ahead.” He sluices a wisp of his ghost sense through his teeth. “I’ll know you’re coming.”
“Can you manage the rest of the way on your own?” Brian asks.
“I’m a big boy,” Danny grins. It isn’t kind. “I can take care of myself.”
Danny hasn’t been alone in three years.
On a bus headed to the stop closest FentonWorks, he hunches in a hard plastic seat, a backpack full of ill-gotten money, clothes, and gifts from the others wedged between his ankles. He wrings his hands and hopes he hasn’t miscounted the stops. He can see-sense people staring as he clicks and pops his tongue, tiny wails inaudible to the human ear bouncing around the bus’ interior. He’s used to people staring; that isn’t what’s tying his stomach into knots.
The bus stops. People leave. People enter. The bus leaves. Repeat repeat repeat.
He licks his chapped lips, feels the notch left by the braces of an enthusiastic carnival worker with bad aim. He scratches his ear, feels the bit missing from the lobe where an earring had gotten caught on a nail. That had been his first piercing, he’s pretty sure. There’s five others in his ears now, and he doesn’t remember getting any of them. He has a sneaking suspicion Queen Body Mod had a hand in it, but she never breathed a word. Typical.
He shifts in his seat, feels his right hip tense uncomfortably. There’s a round circle of scar tissue there. It goes all the way through to his back and it aches when there’s rain. That one he blames Freakshow for, back when the bastard tried to control him step-by-step through a trapeze act. Danny hadn’t stuck the landing.
He’s got more scars besides those, and too many of them he simply can’t remember how they happened. The first joint missing from his pinkie. The chunk out of his thumb. The starburst of scar tissue that’s left his whole hand numb. That’s just his hands. He tries to imagine what his parents might say when they get a good look at him and the knot in his gut tightens even more. He wishes he hadn’t eaten breakfast.
The bus stops. One more til his.
Three years. That’s such a long time. He’s missed birthdays and holidays and who-knows how many ghost attacks. Sam and Tucker will be graduating next semester. What are their plans? What about Valerie? Is she still fighting ghosts? Is Jazz in the college she wanted to go to? What do his parents do in that big empty house? Will Paulina recognize him again? He’ll have to find her, tell her what she did for him. If she hadn’t recognized him at that dusty little ticket booth, there’s no doubt he’d still be Freakshow’s freaky little puppet. She deserves more than a thank you, but that’s all he has to give.
Paulina had said everyone had given him up for dead. That Amity Park had even given up on Phantom. That hurts, but he’s not surprised. Humans are fleeting, and ghosts are fickle. He’d just been some freshman failing most his classes. He’d just been some ghost kid terrorizing the town in a sad attempt at playing hero.
He’s not who he used to be. He’s not sure what that means anymore.
The bus stops.
It’s time to go home.