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Shadow of a Doubt

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Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.

― Arthur Miller 

 

"The doctors have decided to go ahead with the surgery as scheduled," Florrie said. The nurse flipped a page on her clipboard, settling into the bedside chair with a creak of starched scrubs and leather upholstery. "After ten o'clock tonight, we want you to fast and avoid drinking anything."

Danny stared at a scratch on her name tag, barely listening. If he listened, that meant he had to think about it. If he thought about it, then it was really going to happen. If it really happened… His good hand curled around the bandaged one, a habit that he found himself doing more and more lately.

Sometimes he half-imagined that it was still a sawn-off stump―but then his fingers would jerk and twist on their own, and he'd feel relieved by the sudden jab of pain.

"It's not a dangerous surgery, but it does involve opening the area, and you must be very careful with the wound afterward. No more stair escapades, okay sweetie?"

A pause. He glanced up, and found her peering at him with mock sternness over the silver rims of her reading glasses.

"Yes'm," he mumbled.

"The surgery goals are to repair the major tendons in your hand and forearm, and to relieve some of the pressure from the inflammation of your joint by removing fluid buildup…"

The words blended into the buzzy exhaustion in his head, turning into so much white noise. His eyes wandered to the little silver cube tucked away under the bedside table. Its green light blinked back at him steadily. The Fenton First Alarm―a device that sent out an alert if any ecto-energy spiked within fifty yards.

"We'll keep you here for a day or two post-op, just to observe the healing process and monitor your general health, make sure there's no lingering issues from your ordeal. After that you can be released to your parents. We'll connect you with one of our physical therapists and they'll get to work on your strength and mobility."

Tuck had hacked the software, calibrating it to ignore Danny’s ecto-signature. Instead of a blaring alarm, it sent a text to Sam and Tucker's phones. If a ghost so much as sneezed near the hospital, one of them would be there in minutes. That and the empty thermos stashed under the pile of pillows in Danny's bed had been the compromise. It had taken him twenty minutes to convince them that staking out the hospital around the clock was a bad idea.

He didn't want them watching too closely. Their anxious gazes rubbed him raw. Especially after the thing with Skulker. He felt suffocated; this place left him no space to think, let alone breathe. Danny had to hide everything, and he found himself resenting it. What did he really feel? It all just felt like a tangled mass of wrong.

"You will lose some muscle mass during the recovery period. Nerves take longer to heal, so it's possible you may feel some numbness for as long as a year from now. The stitches will be out in a week, and―"

"What if I just didn't have the surgery?" The thought spilled out of his mouth before he'd really formed it.

Florrie blinked at him, her over-plucked eyebrows arched even higher than usual.

Danny flushed, regretting it immediately; that sounded like a scared five year old who didn't want to face reality. Real brave, hero. Real grown up.

Florrie nodded slowly. "You… could do that, dear. It will heal on its own, but there will be pain and scarring. Your dominant hand needs to do such complex movements. It's already been put off much longer than it should, because your condition was too…"

She hesitated in a way that made Danny feel queasy. He knew his "condition" even under normal circumstances wasn't entirely human.

"Too unstable," she finished firmly. "The longer we wait, the more scar tissue builds around it, and the harder any repairs Dr. Stein could make would be. Without surgery you might never write with that hand again. Are you prepared to live with that kind of disability?"

"I guess not," Danny said, staring down at his knees.

The nurse put her soft hand on his arm. Her perfume, vaguely floral but mixed with antiseptic, wafted around him. "I know it's a hard thing to think about. Surgery scares even tough guys. You're in expert hands, and we'll take excellent care of you through everything. This really is for the best."

"I know. Thanks." Being reassured made him feel even more like kid.

She patted his knee. "Get some sleep now. You've had a stressful day. Everything will look better after some shut-eye." Florrie smiled. "I'm sure you're sick of this place. Just a few more days, and we'll send you home."

Home.

The word made up such a complex knot of happiness and dread and disappointment in Danny's mind. When he'd stumbled over the threshold a couple of weeks ago, a huge sense of relief and peace had washed over him. He had spent every ounce of energy he had just to make it there. There had been no doubt in his mind that everything would be okay once he got home. He'd even kept his secret, from the GIW and his parents. Everything was back to normal.

Except it hadn't turned out like that at all.

Nothing was like it had been before. Everyone treated him like… like a ghost. Not real ghosts, but the ghosts in stories, the ones you couldn't touch. Like something that wasn't totally real anymore. As if he might disappear at any moment. He picked at the gauze covering his new scrapes and bruises. Maybe in a way he already had.

Danny watched as the nurse dimmed the lights and slipped out, leaving him in twilight. The Fenton First Alarm kept watch with its mechanical green eye. His eyes fell on a dim shape on the bedside table. the puzzle Sam had left for him last week. Someone had fitted the bright geometric pieces together perfectly.

Probably Mom. She'd been fiddling with it yesterday. It figured that she'd put it together when he'd completely failed for the past week and a half. Danny reached for it. As he leaned forward, pain shot through his arm. He flinched, fingers colliding with the puzzle; the pieces scattered to the floor.

Sudden, irrational dread coursed through his veins.

One piece remained on the table, a blue triangle. His fingers curled around it. For some reason he couldn't put into words, he needed it.

Exhaustion folded over Danny. He rolled onto his side. The hand with the puzzle piece slipped under the pillows to brush the cool, reassuring metal of the thermos. He deposited it there with a soft click of plastic against metal.

Maybe Florrie was right. Things would look better when he woke up.

 


 

The coffee in their forgotten mugs had long gone cold as Maddie and Jack studied in the lab. They worked together seamlessly, coordinated from years of practice, methodically processing every fragment of data the medical staff had given them.

It might have felt like an ordinary day, if not for the labels that read FENTON, DANIEL J.

Maddie was glad for Jack's preoccupied silence. It gave an excuse for her own, as every discovery confirmed her suspicions. Piece by piece it built them up, slotting all the little fragments into place, creating a complete, horrifying picture. Maddie might as well have been referencing the notes she had taken so meticulously in the now-distant government facility.

It was there. Everywhere she looked, it was there.

The parallels she had expected because of Phantom's borrowed physiological profile were, of course, glaringly obvious to her now. The boys shared traits, even down to the rhythm of the EKG in parallel to Phantom's ectosignature. But it went deeper than that.

Phantom had shown mineral traces in his ectoplasm; Danny's blood was laced with ectoplasmic elements. The fingernail they'd put through the chemical analysis device proved to be a blend… part keratin, part ectoplasm. There was a certain… potency, for lack of a better word, in the electromagnetic readings intended to monitor Danny's brain and heart activity. The signals read too strongly, for a human… but matched perfectly the profile of a weak ectosignature. One with oddly complex, human traits.

Only one ghost Maddie knew of fit that description.

The wounds… Maddie shut the thick folder with its photographs and x-rays, pushing it away across the cool steel tabletop. They accused her with their stark reality. All the evidence pointed to one thing. These weren't just similarities. This was Phantom. Phantom's blood. His injuries. His unique physiological earmarks. Which meant…

He'd been lying to her all this time. Or perhaps she'd lied to herself, to keep from facing it. That wasn't an option, not anymore. Maddie stared, unseeing, at the heavy black and yellow-striped blast doors that hid the portal. The sense of betrayal stung more deeply than she'd expected.

How had he hidden this for so long? How could he look so human? What did it mean for Danny? For her son?

She realized vaguely that her hands were shaking. Reaching for her coffee mug, she clasped it, sipping the tepid brown liquid mechanically. She couldn't… wouldn't tell Jack. Not just yet. Not until she knew for sure what awaited them back the hospital. What, exactly, had happened to their child.

"You were right, Maddie," Jack spoke up, still peering through a microscope. "There's definitely some kind of ectoplasmic taint to Danny's blood." He pushed up his goggles and scratched his head. "I'm having the darnedest time trying to isolate the ectoplasmic qualities from the human cells. This ecto-disease, or whatever it is, it's a nasty little bugger. It's like it was made to fit Danny perfectly."

Maddie's blood ran cold, but she simply nodded. "That matches up," she said quietly. "I'm going to check on him."

"Sure thing, baby!" Jack had already burrowed into a pile of readouts. "I'll call you if I make a breakthrough."

On her way out of the lab, Maddie slipped an ectogun from a bin under the table. Just in case.

 


 

Visiting hours were long over. Maddie slipped past the nurse's station to reach Danny's room unattended. She could have just told the staff she was coming to spend the night with her son, but she didn't want to explain why she carried an ectogun with her.

She opened the door to his room; it was quiet, the lights dimmed. The blanket that Jack had used from his stay the night before had been thrown carelessly across the foot of the couch at the end of the room. Two chairs stood next to the bed, silent attendants to its lone occupant.

The top half of the bed housed a small mountain of pillows, most raided from the Fentons' living room. Comfortable fat teal bolsters shared space with dozens of embroidered cushions produced by Jack's quieter hobby. Little ghosts and ghouls danced over them in brightly-colored thread. A black silk cushion nestled behind the faded plushy rocket that Danny had never gotten around to growing out of. In the midst of it all, sleeping quietly, lay Daniel Fenton.

Or what should have been him.

She studied the boy; how the shadows seemed softer on his young face, the way he'd tucked his bandaged hand under his chin as if protecting it. Sadness settled into her, leeching away the hot anger that had coursed through her veins on the drive here. He looked so peaceful. It seemed so long since she had seen him–either of them–really at ease.

Ever so softly she eased off her glove and set the ectogun in the chair. She lay her hand on his cool forehead and brushed back the clean, shaggy black hair. He was long overdue for a haircut. Danny sighed and nestled closer into the pillows. His breath tickled her exposed wrist, and to her it seemed unnaturally cold.

Maddie drew back; the peace was an illusion. One that she must remedy. She owed it to her son, her real son. She pulled on her glove, then reclaimed the ectogun and sat down. Taking a deep breath, she raised the weapon and turned it on.

The distinct whine of power cells charging woke him. The boy jolted upright, looking half ready to leap into the air and fly away. He saw her, froze, then very carefully and slowly finished sitting up, resting his empty hands in his lap. His eyes were glued the barrel of her fully-charged weapon.

"Uh…Mom? What's going on?"

"I think you know," Maddie said quietly. "Because it's not my son I'm talking to, is it? Phantom."

The reaction was telling; his eyes went wide, then dropped to his lap. His body seemed to shrink into itself. No surprise. Just sudden dread, and… exhaustion. "Oh."

Maddie shook her head, keeping her voice low and tightly controlled. "I should have seen it sooner. All the signs were there. I knew what… who your obsession was."

Instead of seeing her son in Phantom, the ghost's personality played itself out on her Danny's face. A subtle difference, but it was there, strange and frightening. That faint but familiar wry smile crept onto his lips, and he shrugged. "World peace? A good night's sleep?"

Her eyes narrowed. Did he find this funny? "I should never have let you go."

The smile vanished and he looked at her with haunted eyes. "Do you really mean that?"

"I…"

She thought of that cold, sterile facility. The disembodied screams that echoed in the halls, and the clinical, distant way the other scientists had spoken about their 'projects.' The thought of leaving Phantom to the GIW's nonexistent mercies filled her with dread. No, she wouldn't have wanted that. Not even now.

"Not that I'm any use here," Phantom said, rubbing hard at his eyes. "Some hero, huh? Stuck in this place, basically helpless. I should have stayed vanished."

The dull despair in his tone surprised her; it wasn't like him. "Don't talk like that."

"You brought it up, not me."

"You're mad at me." Maddie sighed, lowering the gun but not putting it away. "Of course you are."

Phantom shrugged. "You helped me get out. Not that it makes the other things better, but…or I guess it does, somehow, though hacking off limbs is…" He gestured vaguely in the air, then gave up, hand dropping into his lap.

He looked tired, Maddie realized. She wondered how much effort he put into this little charade. How long he'd thought it could go on, especially in his fragile state. Part of her wanted to tell him to go to sleep, that they'd figure out everything in the morning. But this couldn't wait. Her Danny had waited long enough.

Phantom looked up at her. "I can't believe you still want to shoot me."

"I can't believe you possessed my son."

He scowled. "I didn't possess anybody."

"Don't lie to me!" They both flinched at the sudden sharpness of her voice. Maddie took a long, slow breath, smoothed her fingertip along the trigger guard, and tried again. "Not with this, Phantom. It's too important."

He pushed aside the covers and drew his knees up to his chin, tucking his bandaged arm in his lap and wrapping the other tightly around his legs. His bare ankles poked lanky and oversized out of the bottoms of his old pajamas. They were official NASA merchandise, and Danny had refused to get rid of them even when he'd long outgrown the fraying hems.

That little, stupid detail made her voice hitch in her throat. "Can't you see how difficult—how painful this is for me?"

Guilt flickered over his features. He looked away.

"I've been mourning the wrong child all this time. I was so worried for you; I thought you were dead, but… I thought, too, that my Danny was safe. Now I don't know what to think. He's my son, Phantom. My child. I have to know. So please, don't lie. Just explain it to me. I need the truth. That's all I'm asking."

"I'll… yeah. I guess it's…" He swallowed hard, fingers clenching briefly, then nodded. "Okay."

"Where's Danny? My Danny."

The boy shrugged, looking down at himself. "He's here."

Maddie studied him, then nodded. She had to lick her lips before the next question would form. "Alive?"

"Yeah." Another wry smile. "Last time I checked, anyway."

Maddie could have collapsed with relief, but she wasn't done yet. "Alright. That's… that's good." She leaned forward, finger curling around the trigger. "Now. Get out of him." When the boy began to shake his head, Maddie raised her gun a little higher in warning. "My Danny's still sick. You've got to go."

He scowled, and she saw a flash of his old, obstinate teenage personality. "I'm fine."

Fear prickled up the back of her neck. He thought of it as his body. That was dangerous. Even if he hadn't meant harm to begin with, Phantom was struggling to differentiate himself from the human he'd possessed. Soon he wouldn't be able to let go, and he would violently resist any attempts at extraction. If it wasn't already to that point.

The surgery on Monday flickered through Maddie's mind. If Phantom interfered with Danny's physiology, it could endanger his life. She flicked the safety off. If she had to shoot him out, she would do it. "I don't want to hurt you Phantom, but if it's between you and him, I'm going to pick Danny."

Phantom pulled back. "You can't choose like that! You shoot me, you shoot your son."

Ectoblasts shouldn't hurt a hosting human, but... something was different this time. There was an odd synchronicity to the bond that didn't make sense. She hesitated.

“He'll be fine,” she said, but doubt made her hand waver.

"What if you're wrong?” He stared at her, blue eyes flickering green. “If you shoot, and you're wrong, you couldn't live with yourself. I'm not going to let you do that."

Maddie bit her lip; she wanted the ghost away from her son. She wanted her Danny back, the real Danny, more than anything. Still, Phantom was right. She couldn't risk it; she might end up destroying both of them together.

"So…" Phantom ventured, and Maddie realized she'd been staring at him in silence. "What now?"

Maddie sighed; this would take time, and careful maneuvering. She had to get him to understand the horror of what he was doing, the kind of damage he'd inflicted on his host already. "I want you to tell me how you found Danny. Why you possessed him."

"You seem to know everything," he said with a trace of bitterness. "You tell me."

"I think...” No, it was more than a theory now. “The two of you are connected. In more than just similarities. Maybe it's a psycho-electric link, maybe something about parallel magnetism… So you found him, out there. Then…" she closed her eyes briefly, pushed back the hot flare of anger. "You couldn't resist your obsession. Or maybe you were too weak to survive on your own. So you possessed him. The resonance between the two of you inflicted your own wounds on Danny."

It felt like a divine punishment, in a way. Her actions passed on to her son. She couldn't blame Phantom, not for that. That irresistible attraction to Danny was in his nature, built into the very ectoplasm that formed him. Maddie looked at him sadly. "You might have physiological differences, but you're still a ghost."

The ghost scowled with Danny's face, dark brows knitting into a line. "That's where you're wrong. You have to stop thinking I'm a real ghost, because I'm not."

"Then what are you?" Frustration tinged her tone. "You can't tell me, can you? You don't even know yourself."

If he hadn't possessed her Danny, that left what alternative? A shapeshifter? A cleverly disguised corpse? Phantom alone, somehow imitating a human convincingly enough to fool a hospital full of doctors, while the real boy lay rotting in the wilderness? She shuddered. No, it couldn't be. Phantom wouldn't lie about that. Danny was here. Alive. Ghost or not, she trusted him that far.

"Actually I do know," he said softly, bringing her thoughts to a standstill.

"Then tell me," she pressed.

"I can't." His fingers twisted in the sheets. "It scares me," he whispered. "It's stupid, maybe even stupider to think it wouldn't come out, but... I don't know if I can do this. What you'll do. What I'll… I just don't know." Terror hung raw and thick behind his tone.

Maddie couldn't help but soften. "I won't hurt you, Phantom. I'll help you in any way I can." Phantom hadn't asked for this. He'd already been through so much, to her shame. Now she, of all people, was asking him to expose himself. "I just want my son to be safe. That, and I want the truth. The whole truth."

Phantom rested his forehead on his knees; the line of his shoulders was taut beneath his t-shirt. "What if the truth is the worst possible thing? What if it'll hurt more than anything?"

Maddie shivered with foreboding, but she kept her voice calm and reassuring. "Then we'll deal with it."

"What if you don't believe me?" The searching look he gave her was far too jaded for the teenage face that wore it.

"I will."

“The thing is..." He sat up straight, folding his knees under himself and leaning onto his hands. He stared at her with a desperate kind of intensity. "I'm Danny."

Maddie stared back, unable to answer the pleading in his eyes. She didn't understand. "What are you saying?"

He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, fingers tapping on the blankets."You know I'm not all ghost. You were wrong, though. I wasn't―I'm still not dead. I never was a cadaver or a lab experiment. I just walked into the portal, and… when it came on... This is me. My…artifact, or whatever you called it. It wasn't a dead body the ectoplasm fused to. It was me."

Not dead? She tried to wrap her mind around it. A fusion of ectoplasm and a living being? "That's absurd."

"Maybe, but it happened. Ask Jazz―or Sam and Tuck, they were there. It's the truth. I'm not pretending to be Danny Fenton. Why would I obsess over something I already am?"

A living being? No. A living being wouldn't have needed an imprint. Wouldn't have needed her Danny. The original human would have provided his own electrical pattern for the ghost to form around.

Maddie stared blankly, gazing in her mind's eye at the data that sat in neat stacks in their basement lab. The human samples with their bewildering, ectoplasmic qualities. Phantom's data, that made a perfect mirror image.

"Look. I…I'll show you." He squeezed his eyes shut, sweat beading on his brow. From Danny's chest sprang that same bright white glow Maddie remembered so vividly. It was supposed to mark the recession of Phantom's ghost half, his impending dissolution.

…but that didn't make any sense. He had told her before that the light meant meant losing his ghost half. He could voluntarily trigger the change?

She watched, mesmerized, as it grew and thickened. The lines wavered and shimmered in and out, faint as heat waves then bright and hot as neon fire. It sputtered, and for a moment she thought it would go out. The light encircling Danny's body surged one last time, splitting like a curtain being pulled two ways.

Maddie caught a glimpse―just a glimpse― of a black jumpsuit with a familiar logo. Then the white light blinked out, leaving Phantom in Danny's body slumping back against the pillows, panting as though he'd run a marathon.

That… didn't make sense.

He was supposed to lose his ghost half, not expose it. Even while possessing someone, it should have revealed the cadaver beneath. A corpse. Not the ghost.

Unless… the phenomenon went both ways. If it was a change, not something lost, then… losing his ghost half would show the human body. So in the reverse case, where he lost his human half, it would reveal the other nature. The ghost. Like two sides of a coin.

Danny to Phantom. Changing, not destroying. Human half to ghost half. Human to ghost. Ghost to human. Phantom to…

She stared at the boy, who looked back at her with mingled hope and dread in his blue human eyes. Was it possible? That all this time… he was… she had…

 

"Mo―Maddie? What are you doing here?"

 

"You're lying," she said faintly. He had to be.

Phantom―Danny― drew back, his mouth falling open. "Mom, no, I―"

They both jumped as an ectoblast thudded into the wall. Maddie didn't even remember pulling the trigger. "Don't call me that!" Her hands shook; thank god, she'd missed by a mile. "You're not—"

All that useless searching for Danny, in the month before she'd returned, and of course they hadn't found him, because all that time he was— no. No.

"You're not Danny." Maddie croaked. It came out as more of a plea than a protest.

"Please, Mom! You said you'd believe me! It's the truth!"

"You've manipulated―"

"Oh, for―what's wrong with you?" Danny burst out. He jumped out of the bed to stand glaring at her, sending pillows scattering. "I'm not that bright, okay? I can't even talk my way out of detention―a-and now you're saying that I've spent the last two years leading on my friends―not to mention Jazz―pretending to be a useless, defective loser of a half ghost? I'm telling you the truth here, for once in my life. I'm a halfa! Human ghost hybrid! I'm Fenton and Phantom. I'm Danny."

Maddie pulled black, clutching the gun. It was the only thing that stood between her and Danny, between her and the truth.

He flinched, but refused to back down. "Mom, please. I'm Danny."

The door banged open, making way for Sam, half-dressed with a jacket slung over her black pajamas, the bottoms stuffed into her hastily tied combat boots. She brandished a Fenton Thermos in one hand and a small ectogun in the other.

"The ecto-alarm triggered, where's the―" her eyes took in the room and she noticed Maddie. "Mrs. Fenton?" The girl's eyes locked on Maddie's ecto-gun, still pointed directly at—her son…

Sam glanced back and forth between them, her violet eyes quick and calculating. It struck Maddie with a cold, hard clarity that the girl knew. Probably had known from the beginning.

Maddie found herself shaking her head. "It's not him. It can't be him. I would have known it was him." The words echoed hollow in her ears.

Sam turned white. "Oh my god, Danny. She was with them?!" Her eyes narrowed into slits, and the ectogun swung up to point at Maddie. "Don't you dare touch him," she hissed.

"Sam!" Danny's voice cracked. Sam flinched, hesitating, and he shook his head. "Don't, okay? Just… don't."

Something thundered down the hall outside. Jack barged in, sending Sam stumbling further into the room by his sheer bulk. The massive, intricate silver machinery that made up the Fenton Extractor balanced easily on one shoulder. He pointed it toward Danny.

Ecto-entity detected, the cool female computer device stated. On standby for manual extraction. It began to emit an ominous buzz.

"Don't worry Danny!" Jack barked out over the noise. "We'll yank that ghostly parasite right out of your nervous system."

"Are you insane?" Sam shrieked, and reached over to yank a cord free from the device. It powered down with an angry whine. "You're going to shred him!"

"The Extractor only hurts ghosts, Sammy," Jack said, fumbling for the loose cord. "I'm not gonna let my son be sucked dry by a ghost! Not on my watch."

"Danny, you can't let them do this! Tell him!"

"I tried." His eyes darted around the room; he looked trapped, terrified. Lost.

Maddie's mind told her to reach out to him, but it was as if her limbs were made of lead. Her tongue hung dead in her mouth. She could only stare, blank and glassy. Something wet rolled down her cheek.

He stumbled away from the bed, backing past her and away from the others, toward the window. "I can't do this. Sorry, I just―can't."

Sam dropped the thermos, hand stretching toward him. "Danny, wait!"

Too late. Danny vanished right before their eyes.

 

Ties that Bind: tbc…