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Jack hadn’t questioned it at first. Not more than usual, anyway. Most of his inventions were prototypes, constantly undergoing revisions as preliminary testing revealed potential improvements. He expected problems. Bugs. That was normal.

But somehow, none of those potential improvements ever dealt with a problem he’d had from the beginning: the way all his ghost hunting equipment malfunctioned around Danny.

Exclusively around Danny.

The first time he’d mentioned it to Maddie, the first time he’d really noticed it, she’d simply told him to double check that he had everything in the proper order—no wires crossed, no incorrect balance of internal chemicals, no improperly calibrated sensors, that sort of thing.

The second time he brought it up, she’d suggested ecto-contamination. Danny hadn’t worn his HAZMAT suit in years—they didn’t even know where it was anymore—and Jazz would at least don one of Maddie’s when she thought the situation was desperate enough to warrant it.

But no amount of tweaking had helped, and Danny had started spending as little time in the lab as possible. He shouldn’t have built up enough contamination to be so consistently pinpointed by their weapons—especially when those weapons had no trouble differentiating between their samples of ectoplasm and a semi-sentient ghost blob.

Jack hadn’t bothered bringing it up a third time to Maddie. She was busy, and while this was important, he knew she hadn’t forgotten about it. He suspected that she was looking into it on her own time. He’d decided it was best if he did the same. For Danny’s sake. If they couldn’t solve this problem by putting their heads together, maybe they’d get further if they went at it separately for a while, coming at it from different angles instead of convincing each other of a promising but ultimately wrong viewpoint. As long as they solved the problem in the end, it wouldn’t matter how they got there.

Really, it was a safety issue at this point. Their weapons wouldn’t do any lasting harm to humans if handled properly, but accidents happened, and a blast from an ecto-gun was still a blast from an ecto-gun. It would still hurt, at least in the moment, and a sustained blast would burn.

And, honestly, the fear of one of their weapons accidentally locking on to Danny kept Jack from developing things he was interested in, like missiles keyed to the particular ecto-signatures of ghosts which repeatedly attacked Amity Park. He knew it was possible. He already had the technology in the Fenton Booo-merang. Adding it to an explosive that would go off on contact wouldn’t be terribly difficult.

But he hadn’t yet solved the problem of why the Booo-merang was attracted to Danny, and he’d rather not send explosives meant for ghosts after his son.

It was the Booo-merang that Jack had in pieces in front of him again. The kids were at school and Maddie was out most of the day running errands, so he’d moved from the lab to the kitchen table. Interference from their samples in the lab shouldn’t be a problem, but he’d run out of ideas when it came to what actually could be the problem, so he was trying very hard not to rule anything out, however unlikely.

Unfortunately, the Booo-merang had been built exactly as it should have been. By this point, it had been rebuilt—with both old parts and new—no fewer than six times. He’d done the math again. Had Maddie do the math again. Their calculations weren’t wrong.

He could get the Booo-merang to home in on different ecto-samples, could successfully switch between them, but he had a sinking feeling that the moment he set it to seek out the strongest ghost within range, it would find its way back to Danny again.

Like it always had before.

Jack hadn’t had any success correcting the Fenton Finder, either. It would point to Danny. No matter what he did to it. It would still register other ghosts, however weak, but Danny’s blip invariably showed up stronger than all of them. If the reason for all this had been ecto-contamination—somehow—Danny’s dot shouldn’t be displayed as brightly, not now that Jack had revamped the interface so that the brightest dots represented the strongest ghosts. He’d meant for it to be a way to find the likely leader or the strongest opponent, should they face multiple ghosts at once, but he wasn’t convinced his efforts had paid off. If the Fenton Finder persisted in finding Danny, he should have been barely there.

It never should have marked him as the greatest threat.

The Ghost Gabber was no different. No matter what Jack did to it, it would always ‘translate’ Danny’s words. He’d adjusted its sensitivity to the point that it wouldn’t even register the incoherent garbles of an ectopus, but the moment Danny said something….

Jack sighed, pushed the dismantled mechanics away, and stood to get some water. He was missing something fundamental, something dreadfully important, however small or basic it seemed. The reaction was consistent. Repeatable. As far as his equipment was concerned, there was no mistake. If it reliably sought out Danny, there must be some reason for it.

Trouble was, since it didn’t seem to be a flaw in the equipment, and earlier trials had shown that it wasn’t an oddly high level of ecto-contamination, Jack had no idea what that reason could be. Really, Jack had doused himself in ectoplasm by mistake once and hadn’t even registered as a blip on the Fenton Finder. It knew the difference between the activated ectoplasm ghosts controlled and the ectoplasmic remnants those ghosts left behind.

It would be different if it weren’t only Danny, if it weren’t always Danny, or even if it weren’t every invention.

After all, experiments with repeatable results were more likely to be true. Particularly when the conditions of the experiment varied. When the environment changed. When the parameters were tweaked. Jack’s inventions always pointed to the same thing, no matter the circumstances.

But the result had to be wrong. Danny wasn’t a ghost. How many times had he jumped to that conclusion with Jazz and it had turned out to be nothing? Maddie would have his hide if he kept doing that, and Jazz would give him another lecture about how he was ruining Danny’s childhood, and he only wanted what was best for his family.

But if his inventions weren’t wrong, and if Danny wasn’t a ghost, what was left?

Jack drained his glass of water and made up his mind. He scooped the pieces of the Booo-merang into a box, cleaned the grease-stained newspaper off the table, and dropped the box off in the lab. He’d reassemble the Booo-merang later. Right now, he wanted to go for a walk. To clear his head. And maybe to get some answers.

Maddie had the GAV, but that was just as well. It was harder to sneak up on a ghost in that, even if they were easier to chase when he wasn’t on foot. Still, for what he wanted, the Fenton Finder would do the trick.

Jack checked the weapons supply in his suit one last time before heading out the door, Fenton Finder in hand. There were no ghosts nearby, so he fiddled with the settings and expanded its range. It was less precise the farther it stretched, but it was easy enough to shrink the range and increase its accuracy as he got closer to a ghost.

Following the Fenton Finder’s instructions to a pair of ghosts was easy enough, and Jack wasn’t entirely surprised to find himself spitting distance from Casper High. He caught the tail end of Phantom’s fight with Technus, and while the ghost was gloating to himself over capturing the technology ghost, Jack fired a net-gun at him.

Phantom squawked and tucked to protect the thermos as he dropped. Jack approached cautiously, not remotely surprised by the suspicion in Phantom’s eyes—or by the slight coating of ice that was forming over the net. He’d seen Phantom pull that trick before.

Jack held up the net-gun and an ecto-gun and very visibly put them on the ground where Phantom could see them. “I didn’t come here to fight,” he said. “I just want to talk, and I needed to make sure you stayed here long enough for me to ask if you will.”

Phantom frowned. “Release me, then.”

The net was now completely coated in a thin layer of ice. Phantom could get free on his own with one good ectoblast, but Jack took the offering for what it was and untangled the net. Phantom floated up to his eye level but didn’t leave—or release his hold on his stolen Fenton Thermos. Jack wasn’t overly happy about Phantom’s theft, but it was good advertising for FentonWorks, so he’d long ago decided to let it slide as long as Phantom stopped stealing from them. (The Fenton Ecto-Skeleton might have been used well by Phantom, but he’d also destroyed it, and Jack was only willing to lose so many prototypes.)

“What do you want?” Phantom asked. He was watching Jack’s hands as much as his face, and Jack wondered if Phantom knew he hadn’t surrendered all his weapons.

Jack opened his mouth and found himself hesitating. He knew what he wanted to ask, more or less, but he wasn’t sure how to ask it in a way that made sense—much less in a way that made sense to a ghost. It was just as well that he’d found Phantom. Of all the ghosts that plagued this town, Phantom was the one who was most likely to give him something approximating an honest answer. Jack wasn’t sure what he’d have to promise in return, but the ghost wasn’t above cutting deals—and he tended to honour them, as far as Jack had seen.

“Do you just want to meet me later?” Phantom offered. “I’ve, uh, got someplace I should really be getting back to, and—”

“You know my kids, right?” The question had tumbled from Jack’s mouth without his permission, but at least it was a starting point.

Phantom blinked at him and looked slightly uncomfortable. “Um. Yeah? Jazz and Danny, right? They both go to Casper High. I’m, ah, there a lot. As you can tell.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the school.

Jack nodded. “Yes. They’re often targeted, being our kids.”

“Right.” Phantom nodded, though Jack had no idea if he actually agreed or if he was merely trying to keep Jack happy. “That makes sense.”

“And Maddie and I know they support you,” Jack said slowly, “despite everything we’ve taught them.”

Phantom winced. “I swear I’m not brainwashing them or anything like that,” he muttered. “They just know that not all ghosts are evil.”

“Not all ghosts believe they are evil,” corrected Jack. Phantom’s frown deepened, but he held his tongue this time. “In fact, few truly accept that they are. They’re so caught up in their own beliefs and perceptions of the world that they can’t see how horrible their actions truly are.”

“Right.” Phantom’s voice was flat now, as if he remembered enough of what his life had once been to approximate human emotions. “I promise not to attack your kids. Was that all you wanted to talk about? I can go without you shooting me in the back again?”

“No, I…I want to make you a deal.”

Phantom’s eyebrows shot up. “A deal? After saying that? You just told me you think I’m evil but I can’t recognize my own evilness! What kind of deal do you want to make with someone you think is evil?”

It wasn’t worth correcting Phantom now. He wasn’t in the mood to argue over semantics, and he had never been very good at that, anyway. “I’ll replace that battered Fenton Thermos of yours if you help me with a problem I have.”

Phantom crossed his arms. “How about promising that you won’t keep trying to catch me and tear me apart molecule by molecule?”

He wasn’t jumping at the chance to replace his Fenton weaponry, so either he was comfortable with breaking into their place or Maddie’s suspicions were correct and one or both kids was helping him.

And if the kids were helping him, it was even more likely he’d know the answer to Jack’s question.

“You’d have to help me with more than one thing before I’d agree to that,” Jack said dryly. “I can appreciate your twisted sense of self-preservation, Phantom, but sometimes sacrifices must be made for science.”

Phantom glowered at him. “You’re just making me want to help you way less. You know that, right? My sense of self-preservation isn’t twisted, especially when you’re a ghost hunter. I’m willing to work with you guys on keeping this town safe, but only if we call a truce. I don’t want you to shoot me the moment the opportunity arises.”

He wasn’t going to make any wild promises without consulting Maddie. If they were going to strike up any sort of long-term alliance with Phantom, her input would be invaluable. She was a better negotiator than he. Besides, at this point, he didn’t trust the ghost enough. Trust had to be earned. He knew it went both ways, but Phantom was never defenseless unless they managed to suppress his powers—and he could disarm them more easily than they could do that. “I can give you one week. If you can help me. Beyond that, I’d have to discuss it with my wife.”

To Jack’s surprise, Phantom smiled. “Really?” There was something…hopeful in his voice. “Okay, yeah. I’ll help you if you don’t hunt me for a week. What’s this thing you need help with? Do you want a tour guide for the Ghost Zone?”

The idea wasn’t a terrible one. He’d have to bring it up with Maddie later, maybe when he broke the news that they couldn’t hunt Phantom for a full seven days. He was sure she’d understand once he explained that this was for Danny. She knew how much he was willing to sacrifice for their family. “No. I need to know why my inventions target you.”

Phantom’s smile fell off his face. “What?”

“What exactly is it about you that my inventions find? Why do they work?”

“You…. Why are you asking me that? How should I know? You invented them!”

“My science isn’t perfect.” Jack hated to admit it, hated to admit folly or fault to a ghost. “Until we can break a ghost down to its components, until we can figure out what triggers its cohesion or the composition of its ecto-signature, we’re guessing.”

“And you think I can tell you all that? I’m not a scientist! Go talk to Plasmius.”

Jack frowned. He didn’t like the Wisconsin Ghost, not after he had tried to attack Jack’s family. “I trust him less than I trust you.”

“Yeah, but he knows more about all of that stuff than I do. I’ve never studied it. I can’t tell you anything about that. I still don’t even understand how I exist like this, and he’s tried to explain it to me.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “You died, Phantom. There are a number of reasons ghosts form—”

“That’s not what I— You know what? Never mind. If this is what you wanted help with, I can’t actually help you. So why don’t you just let me go this once, and we can go back to normal next time you see me? I should really be going anyway—”

“That’s not the only thing I need help with.”

Phantom sighed. “Are you sure? Because if it’s science-y, and it sounds like it probably will be, you’re better off talking to Plasmius. I mean, believe me, I hate that idea, and he’ll hate that idea, and I can’t guarantee he’ll help, but he’ll at least understand what you’re talking about. I don’t.”

“No.” Jack had known even before he set out that he wouldn’t ask help of Plasmius. Phantom, aggravating though he was, was preferable to Plasmius. He had never seen Phantom directly harm his family, and Plasmius had tried that right in front of him. “I…. This is about my son.”

Phantom froze. “Your…son?”

He looked scared now, which was interesting. Maybe it was Danny who was helping Phantom after all. Maybe Phantom was the reason all their weapons— But Phantom had no reason to lie to him about this when it would mean he wouldn’t have to worry about the town’s best ghost hunters tracking him down. Jack highly doubted he’d tell the whole truth, but if Phantom knew anything, however insignificant, he could have given it to them—even if he knew whatever he told them wouldn’t help.

“There’s something about Danny,” Jack admitted quietly, “that sets off our weapons. I can’t figure out what it is. Maddie can’t figure out what it is. Our weapons are designed for ghosts, not humans, but something that would destroy you could still hurt him.”

Phantom’s eyes were wide. “Comforting,” he squeaked. If it was an attempt at humour, Phantom had no idea of his ill timing. Then again, Jack wouldn’t expect anything else from a ghost.

“This is serious, Phantom. My son’s life is in danger. If something goes wrong with one of our inventions…. Accidents happen, but I want to prevent the ones I can. And finding out why our weapons target him and stopping it will go a long way toward that.”

Phantom stared at the ground and said nothing.

“Help me figure this out. If we’re successful, Maddie and I will discuss the possibility of a long-term truce.”

“I…I don’t think….”

“Please.” It was easier to get the word past his lips than he’d expected. “Please. For my son. You claim to be a hero, to want to protect this town, don’t you? Help me protect my Danny-boy.”

“I’m going to regret this,” Phantom muttered. Louder, he said, “This involves Danny. You should talk to him, too. I’ll, um, come by sometime after school—or at this rate, detention—is over.”

Jack frowned. “Why not help me now? Then, whenever Danny gets home, we’ll be ready for him.” He was tempted to ask why Phantom thought Danny might get detention when he hadn’t all week, but Jack was unfortunately aware that Danny got detention as often as he didn’t, if not more. He shouldn’t condemn the ghost for acknowledging that fact, not when he needed Phantom’s help. Not when he was asking for Phantom’s help.

Phantom gave him a goofy grin. “Because I have someplace to be right now. And you have to tell Maddie she can’t shoot me when I show up.” He offered a mock salute and vanished.

Jack didn’t know if he’d done the right thing. Alliances with ghosts made him…uneasy. Even when they were for his family. Even with a ghost like Phantom, who thought himself good. There was never a guarantee with ghosts, not in matters like this. Phantom could go back on his word. If this venture endangered his family….

He’d make sure it wouldn’t happen. He’d take every precaution he could. When Phantom came, he’d be ready.

And, hopefully, by the end of this, Danny would be safe.

-|-

Maddie looked over the lab and bit her lip. “I don’t like this,” she admitted. “Lowering our defenses risks the whole family, and—”

“—and it’s only for a week. We can be extra vigilant for a week,” Jack pointed out. “And if Phantom attacks us, then we get to tear him apart molecule by molecule!”

Maddie smiled. “You’re right. You agreed not to hunt him for a week, but if he attacks first, then it’s self-defence.” She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “Good thinking, sweetums.”

She was still nervous. He could see that in every line of her body. She didn’t like this. But he’d trusted Phantom before, made a deal with Phantom before, and the ghost had kept his word. Jack wanted to believe he’d do so again. “This is for Danny,” he reminded her.

“I know. I’ll abide by your terms. For Danny.” She checked her watch. “I’ll make a fresh batch of cookies. If Phantom is going to be under our roof and unrestrained, we can at least learn what we can from him while he’s here.”

“Double the recipe?” Jack asked hopefully. He loved Maddie’s cookies—the entire family did—and if it turned out Phantom could and would eat, Jack wanted to make sure there were enough.

Maddie leaned closer and whispered, “I’m going to quadruple it,” before pulling back with a laugh. Halfway up the stairs, she added, “They never seem to last long enough anyway. Just don’t anger Phantom before we at least get that data!”

“I’ll do my best, sugar plum,” Jack promised, but Maddie was already back upstairs, and he was left waiting.

-|-

Danny came into the lab some time later—late enough that Jack knew he must have gotten detention for one reason or another—and he looked almost as nervous as Jack had ever seen him. “Your mom told you what we want to do, right, Danny-boy?”

Danny rubbed the back of his neck. “Kinda. I got the gist from Phantom, too. After school. He’s, uh, gonna be late. The Box Ghost showed up again.”

“The Box Ghost doesn’t usually give him much trouble.”

“He, um, had a lot of boxes.”

Jack nodded slowly. He didn’t know if Phantom hadn’t told Danny the details or if he hadn’t been truthful about any of it, but it didn’t matter in the end. He wasn’t here now, and if he didn’t show up by the end of the day, then that meant he didn’t intend to uphold his end of the deal—and that Jack and Maddie had no reason to keep theirs.

Danny grabbed the rolling desk chair by the computer and sat down. “Do you need me for long? I have homework.”

Jack sighed and leaned against the examination table. “What I need, Danny-boy, is for you to tell me the truth.”

Danny stilled, the fingers drumming on his knee freezing mid-beat. He looked…wary. Tense. Scared. “What do you mean?” Now that Jack was listening and looking for it, he could hear the falsehood in his son’s voice, the forced nonchalance that was betrayed by his body. “What do I have to lie about?”

He was a teenager. Likely as not, he thought he had a lot to lie about, even though he was wrong about that. “Danny,” Jack said instead, “this is important. You need to realize that. Our weapons could still hurt you, and your mom and I don’t want that to happen. That’s why we’re doing this. But we can’t help you if we don’t understand what happened.”

“I never said anything happened!”

“It could have been something small,” Jack said, though he didn’t really believe that. Whatever it had been, the effects were significant. “Something that you didn’t notice right away. Just think. You’ve spent a lot of time in the lab over the years. Has anything unexpected ever happened?”

“No.” The response came quickly. Too quickly. “I mean, you guys take a lot of safety precautions.”

“Mads and I do,” acknowledged Jack, “but when was the last time you or Jazzy-pants wore a HAZMAT suit while you worked down here?”

Danny winced.

Jack just nodded. “Now, your mom and I don’t think this is just a case of contamination. Everything reacts so strongly to you, and the effect just seems to be getting worse over time.”

“Of course it does,” Danny muttered. He’d no doubt been hoping this entire mess would just go away on its own. Truthfully, Jack had, too, but he and Maddie had known better than to do nothing and wait in vain.

Jack handed him the Fenton Finder. “You never stuck around long enough for me to explain my changes, Danny-boy, but if you turn that on, you’ll see how bright your dot is….” Jack trailed off. Danny had obeyed him, but the screen was blank.

“Hey, it doesn’t think I’m a ghost anymore!” Danny looked thrilled. “Awesome, Dad! What did you do?”

Jack just stared at the screen, half-expecting the dot representing his son—which had always appeared so faithfully—to belatedly pop up.

He hadn’t done a thing to the Fenton Finder that should affect Danny.

Wordlessly, he reached for the recently-reassembled Booo-merang, turned it on, and tossed it. Danny ducked, but all it did was crash into the drying rack and shatter half a dozen test tubes, a couple of beakers, and a graduated cylinder. No matter how many times Jack had built and rebuilt it before, it had invariably locked onto Danny. Now, it was like there wasn’t even a ghost in the vicinity.

Danny reached for the Ghost Gabber before he could. “My name is Danny Fenton,” he said into its microphone, and this time—for the first time in Jack’s memory—it didn’t repeat his words.

The next thing Jack knew, Danny had his arms around his middle. “Thanks, Dad!” He sounded so relieved. It was almost painful to hear that, to hear how much of a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, a weight his own parents had placed there. “I don’t know what you did, but I don’t care because it worked. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Danny gave him another squeeze before releasing him and bounding for the stairs. “I’m gonna tell Mom and Sam and Tucker and Jazz!”

Jack just stared after him, knowing he should call out to stop him but not knowing what to say.

Danny should still be targeted. He should still be identified as a ghost. Jack hadn’t…. Nothing he’d done would have affected that. Should have affected that.

Jack wasn’t sure how long he sat there, going over everything he’d done in his head, before he began double checking his instruments. He did know that if Phantom hadn’t coughed, very pointedly, Jack would have never noticed him.

That, above all else, told him how much this had shaken him.

“I’m assuming you talked to Danny,” Phantom said from where he floated a foot and a half off the floor, well away from the examination table and any of their weapons that would reach out and grab him at a touch of a button. “So what do you need me to do? How can I help?”

Jack had never turned the Fenton Ghost Gabber off, and despite what he’d done, he now expected it to still repeat Phantom’s words.

It didn’t.

Which meant Jack hadn’t gotten things wrong. Not that way, anyway. He hadn’t…hadn’t…. “The Fenton Finder,” he croaked, making a vague gesture towards it. “Do you still show up?” He had to be sure. He thought he was, but Maddie would want more proof than a gut feeling when he talked to her.

Phantom didn’t ask why, like Jack had expected, though he was appropriately wary as he flew over to pick up the device and turn it on.

Jack wasn’t surprised to find that Phantom knew exactly which one the Fenton Finder was or how it worked.

“No,” Phantom said, turning the screen in Jack’s direction so that he could see it was still blank.

“That’s what I was afraid of,” Jack whispered. This was the result he had expected, but not after getting the same result for Danny. He shouldn’t have gotten the same result for Danny. Not if…if….

“Why? What’d you do?”

“We have your ecto-signature on file,” Jack said slowly. “It was easy enough to get, and we can get it again if you try to sabotage our data.”

Phantom rolled his eyes. “I’m not planning on breaking into your vault to destroy your precious data. Even if most of it is wrong. Besides, the thing’s phase-proof, isn’t it?”

Jack might have once been surprised that Phantom knew so much, but not anymore.

“I promised not to hunt you for a week,” Jack continued, ignoring Phantom’s remarks for now. “If you were able to help me, I wanted to be sure I could keep my end of the bargain.”

Phantom frowned. “Were? What’s that supposed to mean? I haven’t tried to help yet.”

Jack made sure to look him in the eye. He needed to see Phantom’s reaction, needed to see that he was fitting the pieces together correctly and that he wasn’t still missing something. “I fed your most recent ecto-signature reading into our weapons and taught them to ignore it,” he said.

Phantom looked at him blankly for a long few seconds, and then his eyes widened in panic. “Oh, crud.”

“What happened?” Jack asked gently. He thought Maddie might know how to best address this, how to deal with this sort of thing better than him, but she wasn’t here, and he was, and…. And he just had to let Phantom know he wasn’t going to lunge for any weapons or active the Fenton Anti-Creep Mode or anything else. He had to let Phantom know he was willing to listen, that he was ready to listen, if Phantom was willing to tell him.

Phantom broke his gaze, guilt and discomfort written all over his features. He didn’t answer, but he didn’t try to fly away, either.

Slowly, he dropped until his feet were planted on the floor. He shifted his weight from foot to foot and crossed his arms, huddling in on himself, but Jack wasn’t going to give in. He wasn’t going to speak first, not unless Phantom tried to run and he had to catch him with the Fenton Fisher.

Phantom was still staring at his boots when he finally spoke, his voice barely audible. “It was an accident,” he breathed, and Jack could no longer be surprised.

All their (extensive) research pointed to the fact that each ghost’s ecto-signature was unique. Not static—ecto-signatures were influenced by a ghost’s experiences after death just as they were in the moment of their formation—but never the same for each ghost. It was impossible. Even ghosts skilled in mimicry wouldn’t be able to fully replicate another’s ecto-signature, as their own would still carry its own tell.

So if he had fed Phantom’s ecto-signature into his inventions and now they didn’t recognize Phantom or Danny?

“I’m sorry,” whispered Phantom. “I didn’t know how to tell you guys. And then I’d waited so long, too long, and I just…. It was easier to keep it a secret, I guess.” He was mumbling now. “I’m sorry. I…I don’t….”

Jack crossed the distance between them and scooped the ghost into his arms. “It’s okay, Danny-boy,” he murmured. “We know now. You just tell us what you need, okay? We want to help you.”

Phantom—Danny—was very still in his grip. “You believe me? You’re not…mad? Or thinking this is some kind of trick?”

Jack had no idea how this was possible, no idea what had happened or what Danny had been through since—the fact that Danny and Phantom were one and the same proved his ignorance on the subject—but he did know that he wasn’t mad. Besides, he didn’t know how a ghost could pull off a trick like this—or what would be gained by doing so, especially when it could be so easily disproven. Maddie might have some ideas on that front, but Jack was already sure that he was hearing the truth.

He just…knew it.

He didn’t even need to weigh Phantom’s actions against those of other ghosts, or scrutinize his verbal slips, or continue to assess his familiarity with their family and their technology.

“Accidents happen,” Jack repeated. He didn’t know how they were going to break the news to Maddie. She might be horrified, might blame herself—for not doing enough, for not noticing, for what she had done, what they had both done, in their ignorance—but he couldn’t let her. They needed to focus on what they still had, not on what had happened in the past—at least beyond preventing it from happening again. But he’d let Danny tell her, maybe over a plate of warm cookies once they were out of the oven. Cookies made everything better.

“Sometimes,” continued Jack quietly, “life’s lessons are expensive, and sometimes the cost can’t be paid with cash, but you’re still here. You’re still you. You’re still my son. You always will be, and I’ll always love you.”

Phantom twisted in Jack’s grip to throw his arms around him and hug him tightly, and then there was a brilliant flash of light and Jack was holding his son, his Danny-boy, and—

“I don’t think I realized how much I needed to hear that,” Danny murmured into his shoulder. “Thank you, Dad. I love you, too.”