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“You can’t do this!” the phantom exclaimed as it strained against its bonds. Its struggle was pointless, of course. She’d tweaked the composition of the net’s coating herself, and not even ice would be able to break it now. Between that and the Fenton Cuffs, the ghost wouldn’t escape before she got it back to the lab. “Please! You don’t understand!”

Maddie understood perfectly. She and Jack had studied the paranormal for years, and despite the setback that had turned Vlad’s interests to more socially acceptable things, she hadn’t regretted dedicating her life to it. She might not have been born a Fenton, but she had always shared their family’s passion for the supernatural, and she had enough grit and ingenuity of her own to be more than a match for Jack.

And certainly more than a match than the ghost in front of her.

Maddie cast one last discerning eye over the back of the Fenton Family Ghost Assault Vehicle before deciding that, yes, there was nothing the ghost could use to get its way. She tossed it inside, ignoring its squawk of protest as it landed and the Fenton Containment Unit automatically activated. It shifted to look at her, wheezing out another pathetic please, and she slammed the door shut on its pleading green eyes.

Ghosts lied.

Ghosts didn’t feel pain.

Ghosts were master manipulators, using their skills to get their way or feed on the human emotions they lacked to sustain themselves in the human realm.

None of her research had ever proven otherwise, no matter what Jazz insisted.

The trip home was a short one. She found herself missing Jack as she manhandled the phantom down the stairs and into the lab—it took considerable effort to get the squirming ghost in position for the automatic straps to activate and hold it spread-eagled on the examination table—but he had taken the kids out in the Ops Centre to make sure they knew how to use it should it come to that. She regretted punishing Danny the first time he had used it—in retrospect, the situation did appear to have called for it—and this was one of the things they were doing to try to make it up for him. She wasn’t sure he had ever heard their apology, but actions spoke louder than words.

It was a sentiment the ghost in front of her would never understand. Apologizing would have become a foreign concept to it after death; ghosts always believed they were in the right, something which made their defense of their territories even more terrifying. If capturing this particular ghost meant she could help put an end to the territorial disputes that had erupted over Amity Park, then all the better.

Jack would be sorry he had missed it, but she couldn’t afford to wait for him.

The phantom whimpered and writhed, but she had managed to contain more than its ability to phase; it wasn’t able to do anything from build up a ghost ray to a block of ice, and Jack’s invention should have taken away the power in its voice. Considering it wasn’t trying to do anything but plead with her and mislead her, she had no reason to think it hadn’t worked. It certainly didn’t have the physical strength beyond what she would expect of a child, and considering how easily she had wrest it into place and strapped it down, it wasn’t old enough to have learned to evade attacks without using its powers.

“How can you be so heartless?” the ghost cried. “Just think about what you’re doing! Would you really do this to another human being?”

It might have been human once, perhaps even recently compared to the other ghosts that haunted their town, but it certainly wasn’t human anymore.

But perhaps Jazz was right to maintain that the reason some ghosts looked more human than others was because they were younger. Newer, Maddie had tried to correct, but Jazz insisted on humanizing the ghosts. She was happy to take on anything she didn’t see as human, and quite well, too, but she still hadn’t realized how much the humanoid ghosts were taking advantage of her mercy. But, as Jazz had pointed out, Jack and Maddie had no proof that the older ghosts could change their appearances even when they weren’t known shapeshifters. They had no proof that ghosts could alter their appearance to look more innocuous until they chose to show their true colours. Nothing definitive. Nothing Jazz would accept.

It was a good thing Jazz and Danny weren’t here now, with their conviction that Danny Phantom was the town’s hero instead of a manipulative menace in disguise who had only let its façade slip a few times.

“Please! We can talk this through,” insisted the ghost. “Talking’s good, right? You can hear my side, I can hear yours….”

Maddie sighed and decided to indulge the phantom, despite knowing she’d likely regret it. “You seem to be under the impression that I have something to say to you. I don’t. You are a ghost, and that’s all that matters.”

“But I’m not just a ghost!”

She considered reaching for a roll of duct tape so she could have some peace and quiet while she worked and then decided she didn’t want to give the ghost an opportunity to control anything. Ghosts didn’t really have saliva, but ectoplasm could come in different forms, and they could utilize liquid ectoplasm to expand their power over inanimate objects. There was no guarantee a piece of tape she put over the ghost’s mouth wouldn’t end up rammed down her throat.

Maddie picked up a pair of scissors instead. A heightened note of panic—the illusion of such, anyway—punctuated the ghost’s voice as it begged her to wait, to stop, to listen.

She sliced through the familiar DP logo in its suit anyway, nicking its skin as it tried to squirm away and eliciting fresh cries of pain as ectoplasm began to seep out of the cuts.

“You don’t understand,” whimpered the phantom. “I’m human, too.”

It was human, in a way, but its humanity only went skin deep. Maddie prodded its skin; it reminded her of raw meat. Cool, but not cold; flexible and forgiving, but dense. Solid. It cut cleanly where she’d grazed it with the scissors, but until she reached for the scalpel, she wouldn’t know how far the density would carry.

Would it be solid through and through, or would there be an abundance of liquid at its core? How deep would she have to dig before she sufficiently disrupted its electromagnetic field and it began to lose its form? How localized would that lack of cohesion be? If she cut deeply at the navel, would its outer limbs still have form or would they begin to bubble and melt into ectoplasm at the same time, at the same rate?

The ghost had its eyes screwed shut, its hands clenched into fists, and it trembled with the effort of keeping still. It winced as Maddie’s fingers pulled away the cloth of its suit, but the fabric didn’t come apart as she eased it away from the ghost. It was as strong as she had suspected.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” she murmured. She had not expected the ghost’s flesh to be quite so detailed beneath the confines of the suit. Memory, imprints—she had not thought they would be so strong for hidden features. Perhaps this ghost was as new as it appeared, though that hypothesis belied its ghostly strength. No ghost so new should be as strong as it appeared to be.

Maddie’s fingers danced up its ribcage—what would have once been its ribcage—and the ghost flinched. “I’m not an experiment,” it whispered. It repeated itself, over and over, as if it were trying to reassure itself as much as convince Maddie.

She was more interested in the fact that its chest began to heave with increased frequency, as if it not only needed breath but was genuinely panicking and finding that breath hard to catch.

She had expected an expert manipulator but not an expert mimicker, let alone one whose mastery of life-like details could nearly convince someone as learned as she.

This phantom no doubt put its human-like features to good use when not in Amity Park, fooling people into thinking it was human. She wouldn’t be surprised if it had succeeded, despite its shock of white hair and unusually bright green eyes. She was still convinced that a good number of Amity Park’s teenagers wouldn’t be so enamoured with Danny Phantom if it were a less human-looking ghost, but it had even coaxed Jazz and Danny to its side, and they knew the more grotesque truths ghosts preferred to keep hidden until the most opportune moment.

“You are very good at what you do, aren’t you?” Maddie mused as the ghost shook with each shuddering breath. She rested her hands on the table, confirming its vibration; the effort this ghost was putting forth for its façade was considerable. She might have cut off its access to its usual powers, in great part due to her husband’s genius, but the forcible containment of its current form was strongest at its bonds—necessary so the ghost did not merely slip through them—and weaker farther from the focus point so that they could generate more accurate results for their tests.

If the ghost so desired, it could have kept still and saved its strength.

Instead, it had chosen to waste it on this show of weakness.

How interesting.

It couldn’t hope to convince her. It should know that. She knew better than to be fooled by a ghost, and despite its pleas, she didn’t have a bleeding heart for a creature that made a nightmarish mockery of the natural order of the world.

Some ghosts might once have been human, but they never would be again, and once a ghost, they lost everything truly admirable about those they had once been.

“Please,” whispered the ghost between shivering breaths. “Please.”

This phantom was certainly no exception.

“Please let me go.”

Exceptions weren’t possible.

“Please. I’m human.”

As someone who had studied so much of what many purported to be impossible, she knew that better than anyone—except perhaps her husband.

“You’re a ghost,” she corrected, though she didn’t know why she wasted her breath. The ghost was looking at her now, wide green eyes brimming with a facsimile of tears, its chest still heaving. Those eyes tracked her movement as she reached for a scalpel. A small cut at first, deeper than the first grazes she’d made which were already in the process of repairing themselves. That was how she would begin. She’d take a piece out, set it aside while she did a series of swabs and observed the regeneration process, and then do a test or two on her subsample to determine its integrity.

Once she knew its limits, she could be more thorough.

“If…if I show you,” the ghost breathed as she lit the Bunsen burner, “will you stop?”

She didn’t wish to let her guard down, and entertaining such ideas from a ghost would surely do that. Maddie flicked the scalpel blade in the flame, turning to catch both sides. Their tools should all be sterile, but despite their best efforts, there was a ridiculous risk of cross-contamination, and she wanted a pure sample. Ethanol still worked on ectoplasm, but fire—fire was faster. It burned away ectoplasmic residue more quickly than any alcohol could, including Alicia’s moonshine.

The ghost screamed as she made the first incision—midriff, what would be soft flesh on a human—and began howling all sorts of nonsense, empty promises mixed in with pleas and threats and lies. She paid it no mind, instead using her forceps to deposit her sample in the centrifuge tube. Were it to completely liquefy, she would be able to see if it had the same density as ectoplasm collected from other ghosts.

Moreover, she’d be able to easily see if it had the same density as the innermost ectoplasm she collected. It made no difference on lesser ghosts, the shapeless sort who were little more than blobs with eyes, but she suspected that might be different with a complex ghost who typically held one form above all others.

The ghost’s movements were limited, but it thrashed and strained against its bonds. She didn’t want to risk injecting it with any sort of paralysis agent, but neither did she worry if her cuts were ragged rather than clean. For now, she merely needed a sample. The more difficult the ghost tried to make it for her, the more it tried to convince her of its words, the more damage it received.

Her first sample was roughly one cubic inch, the densely-packed ectoplasm beneath its outer layer reminding her of muscle and fat. Once she opened the ghost up, she intended to take larger samples.

Better to take more now than to regret not having enough for tests later.

She heated her scalpel again before pressing it into the ghost’s breastbone, using her left arm to bear down on its core in an effort to keep it still as she sliced a line towards its navel. When she felt more give in the ectoplasm, she let the scalpel cut deeper, heedless of the green welling up from the wound. Once she got her hands in there and could really examine—

Something sparked. She jumped back, the scalpel clattering to the floor. The sound rang loud in her ears despite the dull roar of the Bunsen burner and the breathy cries of the phantom.

“What was that?” she asked quietly. She tried to sound serious. Dangerous, for she was the one who was in control.

Instead, even she could hear the edge of fear in her voice.

Because she wasn’t in control.

She hadn’t expected that, whatever that truly was.

She hadn’t ever come across such a thing, not even any mechanism that would lead to that.

If she was certain of one thing, it was that she had only glimpsed a spark of something larger. Exactly how much larger, she didn’t know. Nor could she guess how powerful it would be, nor how dangerous.

She waited for an answer, but the phantom didn’t pay her any mind. It looked barely conscious, slumped on the table with its eyes closed and hardly breathing, but she couldn’t trust a visual assessment like that. Not with ghosts.

She glanced at the rack holding her first sample, assured herself that it was still intact, and then blinked and looked again.

The sample itself still appeared to be solid ectoplasm, a duller green than usual but easily recognisable.

But the liquid gathering in the bottom of the tube was no longer the bright, pulsing green of fresh liquid ectoplasm.

It was dark red.

Maddie stared.

The phantom whimpered wordlessly.

She glanced at her gloves, half expecting their stains to mirror the shift in colour, but green still glistened under the harsh fluorescent lights of the lab.

There was a thump upstairs, then the familiar thuds of footsteps rushing down the stairs and sweeping into the kitchen. “Mads? You home?”

Jack. What would he make of this? They’d never seen the like.

Please. I’m human.

Ghosts lie, but….

If I show you, will you stop?

“Mom?” She heard the basement door open; she’d made sure to close it behind her, as the house beyond wasn’t quite as ghost-proof as the lab. “Are you down here?”

Footsteps on the stairs, slowly at first—the lights usually were on, so that was no indication of her presence—and then in a rush. The sharp inhalation told her the concern wasn’t for her, but she turned to meet terrified blue eyes anyway.

They stared past her, fixed on what could be seen of the figure behind her. “Mom,” Danny whispered, “what have you done?”

And then he flew past, feet hardly touching the ground as he pushed her aside and leaned over the ghost, whispering things she couldn’t quite comprehend.

Maddie, who found that her eyes had been drawn back to the bloodied ectoplasm sample, turned to her son. He was covered in the phantom’s ectoplasm, beyond caring about the dangers of extended exposure to bare skin. “Danny,” she said quietly as he tried to pull together the jagged gash across the ghost’s chest, no doubt hoping to trigger its regeneration process, “it’s just a ghost.”

“She’s a girl,” he shot back with a fierceness she hadn’t heard in his voice before. “Her name is Danielle. She goes by Dani.”

Maddie circled the table to look at him, turning off the Bunsen burner on her way. “It’s a ghost, and you know ghosts don’t feel pain.”

She saw his fingers dig into the ghost’s flesh. “They feel pain,” he hissed. “She feels pain.” He bent closer to the ghost again. “Dani,” she heard him say, “I’m sorry, but you have to stay this way until you start to heal. You can’t change. It’ll carry through if you do, and—”

Maddie reached out one hand to pull Danny’s hands away, but he cut off and flinched back. “If you’ve killed her,” he growled, raising his head to look her in the eye, “I’ll never forgive you.”

Maddie wanted to reprimand her son, to remind him that one can’t kill something that is already dead, but the words died on her tongue.

I’m not just a ghost.

Narrowed green eyes burned into her, stealing away her breath as easily as her sense.

I’m human, too.