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Buds After the Frost

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The doors opened for Maddie Fenton with a pneumatic hiss. Pressurized nitrogen released, splitting open the vacuum seal on the door as its twin halves slid apart, slotting into the wall-mounted sleeves. The nitrogen misted out, cold and dry, air currents catching in swirls around Maddie Fenton’s lab coat. Her feet thocked against hollow metal, amplified by the coldness and the vastness of the containment room beyond.

She paused short of the specimen’s cell, mindful attention drawn to the panel of controls nested rightmost against the wall. The monitor read out stats, tracked metrics of the specimen’s heartrate and blood oxygenation and blood pressure. Dials beneath the screens offered her means of interaction, manipulating the cage’s environment without needing to tamper with it by hand. She ignored these, as she had been ignoring them the entire time, and paid mind only to the single switch which would seal shut the doors behind her.

She pressed it. Another pneumatic hiss followed, locking out the world behind her. Her breath curled, cold. She and the specimen were alone.

“No coffee this morning?” he asked.

Maddie sat down at the control panel, elbow leaning against the dashboard for support. She turned to the cage. “No. One of the interns broke the pot last night. New one should be delivered today.”

Phantom let out a huff of air. “You mean in this whole gigantic mega-hyper-futuristic government lab, there’s nothing that can stand in as a coffee pot?”

“I wouldn’t stay employed long if I tried using equipment to brew coffee.”

“Use one of the big ectoplasm beakers. Ectoplasm washes out with soap and water. Just suds it up and throw it in the coffee maker. I’m an expert about these things.”

“It’s more about protocol.”

Phantom waved her off. “’Protocol.’ Bureaucracy is standing between you and a delicious cup of ectoplasmic coffee, Dr. Fenton.”

Maddie looked forward now, taking him in. He’d hovered to the front of the cell, translucent reinforced glass separating him from the rest of the lab. Green eyes shined above a cheeky smile, a dusting of loose white hairs falling over his eyes, the rest of his bangs swept slightly to the side. His tailed flickered, his aura pulsed, his vital readings blipped out steady, normal, healthy.

“Phantom?”

“Yeah?”

Maddie paused.

“Why are you still here?”

The ghost boy let out a small guffaw. He motioned his arms around him, hands waving. “I dunno. Maybe the big ghost-proof box I’m in has something to do with it?”

“The shield is down, Phantom,” Maddie answered quietly. She set her eyes to Phantom, investigating. “…I put it down last night. It’s down now. You knew this.”

Phantom took just a moment too long to react, eyebrows arching up. “Oh, huh! Nope I didn’t notice. I mean it’s not like I’m constantly throwing myself at the barrier to electrocute myself so no I just didn’t try getting past it last night so I didn’t notice.”

“Phantom,” Maddie said again, voice measured, words stern. “You saw me crank down the dial that controls the shield.”

“Well I don’t know what all those buttons and dials do.”

“Yes you do. You’ve been observing me since day 1. You knew.”

Phantom kicked back in the air, floating a fraction back and higher. “Well maybe I thought it was a trap, I dunno. Or maybe I just like to get in your head, you know? What unpredictable thing will Phantom do next! Gotta write another 200 equations about ghost theory to figure that one out, Dr. Fenton.”

“Phantom.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you not want to leave?”

“Oh I wanna leave.”

“Then why aren’t you?”

“We’re having a conversation. That’d be rude.”

“Will you leave as soon as I exit the room?”

“Who knows?”

“Phantom.”

“Yeah?”

Maddie stood. She left her chair and the control panel behind. She walked up to the specimen cage instead. It was cubic, a skeleton of metal bar ribbings with a metal mesh that plastered the glass sides like a membrane. The top anchored to the ceiling, the bottom—raised by about a foot—anchored to a pedestal on the floor. Maddie stared through the mesh into Phantom’s eyes.

“Is there anyone who realizes you’re missing?” she asked.

Phantom chewed on the question. “Nah. Well um, trick question, actually. Probably not. Assuming I do this right, then no one has even realized I’m gone.”

“Do what ‘right’?”

“You know that thing about Clockwork I explained?”

“You said he’s the ghost that controls time and reality.”

“Yeah. SUPER powerful.”

“And you said you …were from one of those other realities.”

Phantom nodded. “Maybe I touched some things in Clockwork’s lair I wasn’t actually allowed to touch. Jury’s still out on whether I’m in trouble for that or not. I’ve been a little too ‘stuck in this reality’ to know if Clockwork is pissed. But yeah, I got um, bopped into your reality instead of mine. So technically my reality is lacking me right now, and yeah there’s people there who’d know I’m missing.”

Phantom flipped upside-down, as though laying on his back. He rested his palms beneath his head, elbows out, suspended in an invisible hammock, head tilted far back so that he still stared at Maddie. “Especially since it’s been, what, a month that I’ve been gone?”

“2 weeks.”

“What? No way. I’ve been here absolutely forever it has to have been at least a month.”

“This is day 14 of your observation, Phantom.”

Phantom blew a strand of hair out of his face. “Anyway. Two weeks is still long enough to have a search party out on my butt. But whether or not that’s happened is up to – it’s kind of a Schrodinger thing. Because here’s my strategy. Assuming Clockwork hasn’t banned me from reality-hopping forever, I can just get him to send me back to my own reality at the precise moment in time I vanished. And then bam, no one ever knows I was gone. And it makes no difference whether I do that today, or next week, or next month. So assuming you eventually let me go, then I’m all set there.”

“You say that almost like you don’t care when it happens.”

“I dunno, more like I’m just not losing sleep over it. It’s not like I have a say in the matter. You do. I don’t.”

“Is the time you spend here just meaningless, to you?”

“I wouldn’t say meaningless. I’m still aging goddammit.”

“You’re a ghost.”

“I’m complex.” Phantom flipped right-side-up again. “If I start growing facial hair, send me back. I’m gonna have some awkward questions to answer if I show up again with a ghost beard suddenly.”

“…And what if I never send you back?” Maddie asked, careful with her words. “How does your plan work if you stay here forever? If I destroy you first?”

“Um. …It doesn’t, I guess.” Phantom set a hand to his chin, thinking. “Yeah um, please don’t do that. I don’t wanna worry my whole family like that.”

“Do you really mean that?”

“What part?”

“That you have a family.”

“I mean. I think that came up in Interrogation Session #3. Consult your notes.”

“I just have a hard time believing you.”

“Because I’m a ghost?”

“Yes.”

“I’m a complex ghost.”

“I know. You keep saying that.”

“It’s true.”

Silence filtered in between them.

“…What is your family like, Phantom?”

Phantom stiffened a fraction, his eyes finding Maddie’s and shifting away. “Oh, you know, family.”

“Do they exist here too?”

“Huh?”

“You’re from another reality, at least you’re claiming you are.”

“I gotta be. The me from this reality died 6 months ago, didn’t he?”

“The you from most realities is dead, Phantom. You’re a ghost.”

“A complex ghost.”

“The you from this reality was destroyed 6 months ago.”

“Which you validated with your own sciencey equipment, right? You said so! So you know I’m not lying. Unless you think I recombobulated myself from being a protoplasmic smear on the sidewalk.” Phantom caught himself, registering the flinch in Maddie’s body. He deflated a bit, eyes averted. “S-sorry. Inconsiderate phrasing.”

“Why?” Maddie asked, tone flat, blunt.

Phantom’s eyes shifted back. “Um. Just. You know. That accident was. There were um, you know—”

“Human causalities.”

Phantom squirmed. “We don’t have to talk about that, you know? No one wants to talk about that. Okay as a ghost I guess ‘talking about how I died’ is sort of a bit more normal, but this is weird yeah, ‘talking about how an alternate-me died permanently’? That’s morbid. No one wants to talk about that.”

“Okay then. You can go back to answering my previous question.”

“Um. I forget.”

“Does your family exist in this reality?”

“Um, well who really knows, you know? I had like a grand total of 20 minutes of freedom in this reality before you captured me, so, don’t ask me like I’m any kind of expert about your reality. What’s it matter?”

“I want to know if there’s anyone in this reality who’s mourning you.”

Phantom’s face schismed with surprise. His front dropped, and the first look of genuine emotion sank into his glowing eyes. “Woah… That’s um, weirdly nice, of you, I guess. Why do you… want to know?”

Maddie said nothing.

“I. Um. I think the answer is no? So don’t um. Worry about that. If you were worried? Which is weird. I’m the enemy, aren’t I? Evil spooky ghost to be studied?”

“I’m not so sure what you are…” Maddie answered. “I heard you got destroyed trying to save them.”

“The um… the human casualties?”

“Yes.”

“I said we don’t have to talk about that.”

“Phantom.”

“What?”

“Do you know who they were?”

“The… casualties?”

“Yes.”

“Come on we’re on a different topic now.”

“Do you know who they were?”

“I don’t—how’m I supposed to know? I don’t know how I died here, you know? You think I’ve got some kind of like… parallel-universe death vision?”

“So you don’t know?”

“N-no.”

“I have a different question, then.”

“Okay, good, because I haven’t been liking these previous ones.”

“Are you staying just to keep me company?”

Phantom faltered. He looked left, then right, hand scratching at his chin. “I’m staying because I’m in a ghost-proof box.”

“It’s not ghost-proof anymore. The shields are down.”

“I feel like you’re circling around some accusation I’m not smart enough to follow. This feels like entrapment.”

“Then I’ll be more direct.”

“Oh no there is an accusation.”

“I think you do know how you were destroyed in this universe, Phantom.” Maddie took a step forward, and she let her left hand touch the glass, eyes focused on her fingers. “I think you know what happened at the Nasty Burger.”

“That’s—um—the human food… consumption… location… that the local human adolescents meet at, yes?”

Maddie looked up, and she locked Phantom with her stare. He squirmed, and he relented.

“I um…” he continued. “I—yeah—yeah, okay? I know about the Nasty Burger accident. It was supposed to happen to me too in my reality but I—Clockwork—stopped it from happening in my reality.” Phantom glanced left, right, as if staring beyond the confines of his cage. “When I first got knocked into this reality, I went to go find the Fenton portal so I could try to refind Clockwork and fix this and… Well it wasn’t there. And I tried to find some people I know and… I checked out the library in case the Fentons just lived somewhere else and. I um. I found the articles.” His eyes focused on hers again. “They all say you were the only survivor, yeah…?”

“I was sick, that day. It was just a cold. My husband Jack went without me.”

“I’m sorry…”

“It took my daughter and my son too.”

“I’m so sorry…”

“And it destroyed you.”

Phantom opened his mouth, but no words followed.

Maddie looked up.

“You knew this. You’ve known this ever since I captured you.” Maddie let her hand slide away from the glass. “Did you let me capture you?”

“Why would I let you capture me?”

“Because you feel sorry for me.”

Phantom’s eyes flickered about, unwilling to meet hers. “…Nah. Nah. I don’t—come on ‘sorry’? I’m a ghost you know? Bane of humanity! We’re enemies. You were just too skilled a hunter and you captured me.”

“And yet you won’t leave.”

Phantom lapsed silent.

“I um… I wasn’t happy to read about—to know the, the thing at the Nasty Burger happened here, okay? That’s something that I kinda didn’t want to believe existed in any reality anymore, but I guess… And if you were still alive. I was… maybe just kind of happy to see you? That you were okay. And still hunting. That was kind of, like a small relief.” Phantom glanced away, back again. “I wasn’t evil, you know. In my reality or this one. I care about what happened to the Fentons…”

“You let me capture you. …And you did it because you thought it would be a nice thing for you to do for me.”

“I Just—I thought maybe, um… I mean when you phrase it like that. I mean what else could cheer up renowned ghost hunter Maddie Fenton quite like a ghost subject to study? Me, especially? The ghost boy or public enemy #1 or whatever. I’m fun, aren’t I?”

Silently, Maddie pushed away from Phantom’s cage. She moved to the control panel, stiff movements and numb fingers. She entered the release code into the console, and unslung the key from her neck to twist into the override, and she threw down each successive lever in the row of four lining the top of the mechanisms.

The scrape of glass sliding away sounded behind her. All four walls of Phantom’s enclosure dropped away, metal mesh sliding away piece-meal. Phantom stared at her, blinking, floating in place.

“You’re free to go, Phantom.”

“I—uh—well hang on, I don’t think the Guys In White would be too happy about that. You can’t just let me—”

“Go, Phantom.”

“They could like, fire you.”

“I don’t care about this job.”

“I—come on, you still wanna study me, don’t you? Chat with me? If you feel bad maybe just get me a couch and some video games for my cage then I’ll be—”

“Phantom.”

“What?”

“Go home to your family.”

The half-hearted smile dropped from Phantom’s face.

“Come on. You can’t just evict me on such short notice. I’m not ready for Clockwork to kick my ass so soon.”

“Go home.”

“I’m not in any rush! I like talking to you. Don’t you—don’t you like talking to me too? In like a scientific way?”

Maddie lowered herself into the chair by the control panel. She leaned forward, arms pooled in her lap, eyes to the floor. “You have a family to get back to, Phantom.”

“It’s—there’s time travel shenanigans! Like I said they don’t even know I’m gone.”

“Every single day, Phantom,” Maddie looked up, eyes stern, “…I wish every single day that my own family would just come back home. I won’t do the same to you. I won’t do the same to your family.”

Phantom said nothing. A somber acceptance sunk into his eyes.

“They’re… alive, you know. In my dimension.”

Maddie dropped her head, and she blinked away the wetness in her eyes.

“I actually… in my dimension I’m kind of closer to the Fentons than I think the, the Phantom in this dimension was. It’s… complex.”

Maddie said nothing. Silence built between them.

“Jazz is um… Jazz is applying for colleges, y-you know. She got in early-acceptance to Yale but um, we all—they all—visited Columbia last month and I think that’s what she wants the most. I can see Jazz in New York City. I think she’d rock it.”

Maddie blinked again. Tears plicked into her lap.

“…Should I stop?”

“Jack… Tell me about Jack.”

“Oh. Yeah he um… big and goofy as ever. He’s got some kind of eight-armed-octogun he’s working on. I know because I was his target practice, involuntarily by the way. He keeps trying to merge “Fenton” and “octopus” together with mixed results. We—Mo-addie—you… are still trying to talk him out of ‘Fentoctopus’.”

Maddie’s ribcage shuddered, a repressed sob, a repressed laugh.

“And Danny?”

“Danny… um… Danny is…” Phantom’s shoulders fell a little bit. He looked away, and then back at Maddie. “He loves you. I know that.”

Maddie blinked, and blinked again, and her eyes wouldn’t clear.

“And are they happy?”

“They’re happy.”

“Am happy…?”

“You’re…” Phantom’s tail bounced. “You’re happy, I think. I like to think so. I think you’re very happy. You have a great family.”

Maddie nodded.

“Now go.”

“But I still—”

Maddie reached forward, and she grabbed the ecto-gun propped against the control panel. She lifted it into her shoulder, and flicked the safety, and the charge built along the rising whine.

“Go.”

Phantom balked. He blinked. He kicked away from his wall-less cage. “Not forever. I’ll be back. You won’t be alone here forever.”

He was gone.

And Maddie was alone again.

Clockwork surveyed the boy in front of him whose head was bowed nearly to the floor, white bangs trailing along cobblestone, hands clasped, apologies repeated, begging case made.

Clockwork ran a hand along his beard, which unfurled, drew back, undid itself with the shifting of his form to a simple child.

“So let’s see. You have the audacity to break my rules and beg me to meddle on your behalf in the time stream, all in the same breath? Apologies don’t usually come with additional requests for favors.”

“I know,” Danny’s head dipped lower. “You can punish me however you want for touching the restricted timelines but you have to help it, or let me help this one timeline. Please, please just send me back to the Nasty Burger incident so I can save it.”

“It’s already been saved.”

Danny faltered. He looked up.

“You died at the Nasty Burger incident that night,” Clockwork elaborated, form shifting older. “There is no you to ruin that future. That timeline is safe. It’s a very lucky timeline.”

Danny blinked. “N-no. No that’s not what I mean. Save it like you saved my timeline.”

“That did happen. You’re describing your own timeline.”

“I mean do it to THAT one.”

“You are misunderstanding timelines.”

Danny lapsed silent. Worry bled into his eyes, and Clockwork sighed.

“There is no undoing timelines, Danny. There is only forking them by meddling in the stream. All futures and pasts you witness exist, and do exist, and continue to exist,” Clockwork paused, “with the exception of realities I needed to cull, to prevent utter catastrophe.” His gaze fixed on Danny. “The futures that your evil self destroyed, I did have to cull. And culling a reality is not to be done lightly.”

Clockwork motioned with his staff. “There were a handful of surviving realities that I was able to save. That room you meddled in without my permission—they contain the realities off the main track where, for one reason or another, something else succeeded at destroying your future self. …Your own deaths, in fact. In every one of those realities, Danny, you are dead.”

“I don’t…” Danny shook his head. “So then just tell me how to save that one I was in, okay?”

“Oh, that’s easy.”

“How?”

“You don’t.”

Danny said nothing. Clockwork shifted young.

“You can let it live on in that room, or you could ask me to cull it, Danny. You could ask me to cull every reality in that room, so that the main branch, the one you’re from, is the only reality in existence. So you never have to worry about any existence where your family is unhappy. And it will be that way until you, or I, or someone else, meddles with the timestreams again, and more splits occur.”

Still, Danny said nothing. Clockwork continued.

“Sometimes, a mass culling of realities is healthy for the tree of time, like pruning a plant down to its stalk to survive an unforgiving winter, or a terrible disease. But I did that, just recently, to save all of time from the blight of your future self. It would feel cruel to snip off the first buds that have come after the frost.”

Danny lowered himself to the floor.

“Okay…”

“Okay?”

He nodded. “Okay. Just. I have a different question then.” He looked up, a young devastation wet in his eyes. “Can I still go back and visit that reality, sometimes?”

“No. I cannot give you permission to do that.”

“Please!”

Clockwork spun his staff. A portal swirled into being in the space between him and Danny. Washes of color formed patterns, shapes, objects, images. Like a mirror, it reflected Clockwork’s lair beyond its shimmering surface.

“This is a portal back into your own reality. It is set to the location and the time that you vanished. Go there, and leave through the Fenton portal, and nothing will be amiss.”

“No. No no I won’t. Clockwork you have to let me—”

“I am doing you a favor, Danny, getting you home after you caused more trouble. Do not make further demands of me.” Clockwork curled forward, old, sallow skin sagging, and he turned his back to Danny.

“You have to give me permission—”

“I am the only one who has permission to meddle in realities, Danny. This is an absolute.” Clockwork glanced over his shoulder. “And because this is an absolute, I have no reason to have a lock on the room housing those other realities.”

Danny blinked.

“I wonder if anyone might break my rules anyway. I wonder if anyone might be nosy, and enter that room anyway, and water the plants in that greenhouse without my permission.” Clockwork stared forward again.

“Clockwork…”

“Luckily I am the master of all time. I would be able to see this coming. And maybe plan for it. If ever such a person would come into my lair, and meddle in my timelines, and try to spread a bit of his own kindness to the realities he couldn’t quite save, I would be fully prepared to stop him.” Clockwork spoke into the green abyss beyond him. “Unless, maybe, I were to accidentally have my back turned.”

Silence trailed after Clockwork’s words. He kept his back to Danny, staring into the abyss of swirling green ether beyond.

“…Thank you,” Danny answered, quietly. “I’ll be back.”

“I imagine you will. Those realities may get lonely without you.”

When Clockwork glanced back over his shoulder, both Danny and the portal were gone.