Danny grimaced at the sight of his parents. They didn't typically hunt ghosts this late at night, and yet there they were, looking right at him.
Out on the streets of Amity Park, they stood beneath him as he hovered in the air. Jack was fiddling with some sort of new weapon Danny saw him working on earlier that morning at breakfast. Maddie stared up at him and reached for something on her belt. Danny curiously watched her. Jack stopped what he was doing and looked at Maddie with a frown.
Maddie turned on him with a fierce scowl. Jack flinched and shrugged and returned to tinkering with his gun. With a loud sigh, Maddie snatched the weapon away and began working to fix it herself.
Jack watched Maddie for a moment before glaring up at Danny. Danny cocked a brow before turning his attention back to the spider ghost he had been fighting, which was quickly scurrying away behind a building. He had to stop it before it hurt anyone or destroyed anything. His parents were only a threat to him. The ghost was a threat to the town. He had to put that before his own safety.
And besides, he was way faster than his parents were. They could never catch him.
He flew away at top speed, ignoring a yell from Maddie behind him. He searched the streets, but there was no sign of the spider ghost. He wished Sam and Tucker were around to help him, but it was the middle of the night, and he didn't feel it was necessary to wake them for, in his opinion, a minor threat.
But he knew they'd gladly offer their help if he asked for it no matter what time of night. Their loyalty was astounding to him, especially since he wasn't even sure he deserved it. He felt he was asking more and more of them while having little to offer in return.
So the least he could do was let them sleep.
After a basic overlook of the streets, he decided to do a more thorough search, carefully looking behind and around buildings and landmarks.
Sighing in frustration, he wondered how long he actually cared to look. If he couldn't find the ghost, his parents probably could. Perhaps he could just call it a night, get some much needed sleep.
No. He couldn't do that. He had an obligation to protect this town. It was his fault this spider ghost was even here in the first place, and he couldn't just give up because he was "tired" or "not up to it." If he had wanted to get enough sleep every night and not be so sore every morning, well, he should've thought about that before he switched on his parents' ghost portal and gave these haunts an easy way to invade their town.
He lowered his eyes. Why couldn't these ghosts just leave his town alone? Was this what the rest of his life would be like?
A rustle from an alley caught his attention. He looked at it warily, adrenaline bristling his spine. After a further moment of hesitation, he headed down the passage, figuring the worst that could happen was he'd have to fight another ghost. Just part of the routine he had locked himself into.
He cautiously scanned the alley as he flew down it, ready to dodge at any moment. He reached the end where a tall gate and two silver trash cans stood before him. He landed on the ground and looked around in confusion.
Another rustling sound, a louder one. Danny turned his attention to one of the trash cans and peered inside to find a rat frantically scurrying along the walls in a futile effort to escape.
Danny watched the rat struggle in its metal prison, wondering how it had even managed to get in there in the first place. Had it fallen in somehow? Had someone thrown it in there? Regardless, here it was. No way for it to move through the barrier surrounding it. No way for it to escape anyone who might happen to find it and decide to do it harm.
He gripped the sides of the otherwise empty can and turned it intangible. The rat squeaked and ran off, ran away from its savior. Danny watched it scamper into the darkness.
It didn't seem to matter who or what he rescued. No one would ever trust him or even thank him.
But he would never abandon the people of this town. He'd fight for them until the end.
He held his arms and looked in the direction in which the rat had run off with silent contemplation.
A sudden sharp stinging sensation broke just below the base of his neck.
Danny yelped and immediately pulled out the dart that had struck him. He stared at it in his trembling hand. Was it a tranquilizer or something that would temporarily paralyze him?
He started to turn around, wondering if Skulker was after him once again.
A familiar voice shouted at him instead, "Hold it there, ghost!"
His hand lost its grip on the dart as it clattered to the ground.
He heard the charged-up whir of an ecto-gun and figured his father was less than twenty feet away. Whatever he had just been shot with did not have a noticeable effect on him. Perhaps he could turn invisible and fly away before Jack could get any closer.
"You've just been injected with the Fenton Ghost Solidifier," said Jack proudly. "It won't let you change your molecules in any way for a while. You won't be able to become invisible or intangible." He paused, his tone falling. "My wife's creation."
Danny's eye twitched. He began to turn.
"Don't move," snarled Jack.
Danny thinned his lips and made no further movement. He stood with his back facing Jack, his mind racing over how to get out of this one. He indeed could not become invisible; his molecules completely ignored his mental commands. He glanced up at the open sky, but he could not possibly fly away with Jack's gun so close and trained on him.
He heard the older man walking closer to him.
"Put your hands up where I can see them," his father ordered.
"Now, Phantom. Don't make me shoot you."
Looking at the wall straight ahead, Danny raised his hands with open palms. "Like this?"
"Shut up, ghost. Don't speak unless I tell you to."
Danny exhaled hard through his nose.
"But yes," said Jack a little awkwardly. "Like that."
Danny smirked and kept his hands up near his head. He knew he was being forced into a position of submission, but he could never take his father's clumsy mannerisms and muddled authority too seriously.
He waited quietly for Jack to call for his mother, to give him another order, to do something, but nothing happened. His eyes wandered as he tried to concoct a way out of this.
A couple minutes passed. He could still hear the humming of Jack's weapon. He turned his head slightly, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was going on behind him.
"Keep looking forward, ghost," hissed Jack.
Danny obeyed with an irritated sigh. "How long are you going to keep me like this? My arms are getting tired."
"Do you really think I care about your arms?"
"Are you going to capture me or not? Because I feel like you would've captured me by now if you were going to."
"What did I tell you about speaking?"
Danny was set to retort when his mother's voice suddenly came in over a radio device.
"Jack? Jack! Come in, Jack."
Jack paused before answering. "Yes, Maddie?"
"Did you find Phantom?"
Another pause. Danny maintained his forward stare as he waited for Jack's response.
"No," said Jack. "Not yet."
Danny creased his brow.
"All right," said Maddie wistfully. "Let me know the moment you find him."
Danny frowned and tried to make sense of Jack's blatant lie to his mother. He tensed when he felt the older man drawing closer to him.
But then Jack stopped and did nothing more.
A minute passed.
"What are you waiting for?" asked Danny with surly unease.
A low growl from Jack. Danny narrowed his eyes.
"My wife wants to be the one to capture you," said Jack at last. "But maybe I should just shoot you instead."
The whirring of his ecto-gun intensified as it was raised right to Danny's head. Danny flinched only slightly before regaining his composure.
"Shooting you might be better," said Jack in a low voice.
Danny gazed up at the sky, wondering if he could find an opportunity to fly away. His father was not too difficult to distract, after all. "Shooting me. What do you mean? Like shooting to kill?"
"Yes, like shooting to kill. What do you think?" barked Jack.
"And then what?"
"And then I'll take you back to our lab and rip you apart."
"Like dissect me? Wouldn't you rather me be alive for that?"
"My wife would prefer you be alive." Jack's tone was suddenly bitter.
Danny pouted, his confusion deepening, his arms growing heavier. "So you don't care if I'm alive or not for your experiments?"
"All I care about is getting you out of the picture."
Danny unconsciously lowered his arms as he tried to make sense of the implication being made with this choice of words.
"Keep those hands up, Phantom."
Danny immediately raised his arms again. "Look, Jack, um, can I call you Jack?"
"All right, well... What do you mean by 'out of the picture'? I mean, what picture am I in exactly?"
Danny shut his mouth obediently. But Jack remained motionless and silent behind him.
"Seriously, what are you waiting for?" asked Danny.
"I said don't speak."
"Or what? If you were going to shoot me, you would've done it. And I'm not just going to stand here in silence," spat Danny, staring straight ahead, his hands still up. "So why don't you tell me what you want from me already? Or at least tell me what your problem with me is."
Jack gave a disgruntled groan, low and sustained. Danny kept his gaze forward and said nothing for the time being, sensing that his father was thinking deeply.
"I was so excited the first time I saw you," said Jack quietly. "Do you know you're the first ghost I ever saw?"
Danny glanced up briefly in recollection but said nothing.
"I was all set to renounce ghosts. After years and years of what seemed like wasted effort and drained bank accounts, I was finally ready to give up on this venture. Ghosts. I had never seen one. My wife had never seen one. Our kids thought we were insane, especially our daughter. And I started to believe it."
Danny inclined his head slightly, remembering how he had once been so ashamed of his parents, how he had tried to keep Career Day at school a secret but they somehow always found out and showed up. His classmates would tease him for weeks afterward.
"But then you appeared. Out of nowhere. This punk ghost kid single-handedly renewed my faith in our work. Your existence proved we were right all along. My wife and I were ecstatic." Jack paused. "And then more ghosts appeared, and we finally had real specimens to capture and work with, study."
"And vivisect," jibed Danny.
"Yes," affirmed Jack boldly. "We've torn so many apart, maybe even buddies of yours. Do you want the details, Phantom?"
Danny paled and made no reply.
"Then shut up," said Jack. "Nothing you say is going to get any sympathy from me."
Danny's fingers curled slightly, his gaze lowered.
Jack's radio crackled to life again.
"Jack? Come in, Jack."
Jack didn't respond for a moderately long moment. "I'm here, Maddie."
"Did you find Phantom?"
Vexed heavy exhalation. "No, Maddie. Not yet."
"Well, be sure to—"
"Yes, yes, I know," said Jack curtly. "I'll be sure to call you if I find him."
The radio sound faded. Danny raised his upper lip in baffled contemplation.
"We were both so fascinated by you," said Jack. "My wife and I. You were at the top of our list from day one. Our first ghost. And I wanted nothing more than to rip you apart, study each and every nerve and fiber as I tore them away."
Danny bit the inside of his lip but maintained his composure. This was nothing new. He had heard his father talk about him like this so many times. But it never didn't hurt.
"That's what I want to do. Study you." Jack paused. "But my wife…"
Danny's mouth fell open, his eyes darting as he tried to anticipate the rest of Jack's sentence.
"She wants to study you as well, of course. But lately...sometimes I wonder…"
Jack paused another long moment. Danny tensed and cringed with raised arms still draining.
"You're the only ghost she ever seems to think about anymore. Whenever we're operating on another specimen, she's always relating it back to you somehow. 'I wonder if Phantom would have this?' 'Do you think Phantom would react this way?' 'I bet Phantom is different.' And every new invention from her lately is created with you specifically in mind. She'd never admit it, but I know that's the case." Jack huffed. "Might as well call it the Phantom Solidifier. I know she created this solution just for you."
Jack pressed the barrel of his ecto-gun directly to Danny's head. Danny instinctively bent his head forward.
"And you wanna know why, Phantom? Why that inhibitor coursing through your veins was meant for you?"
Danny shut his eyes.
"Without it, ghosts have to be contained in special ways. Huge containers, bulky anti-ghost restraints. Makes dissection difficult a lot of the time. We often have to anesthetize them to prevent them from shape-shifting or becoming intangible or invisible. Or else we have to keep them in special restraints that neutralize their powers but then make it difficult to work on them. Also very expensive to keep running. You should see our power bill."
Danny had seen all of these devices himself in his parents' lab. He had studied them extensively, had seen them in use. He had even imagined himself confined and jailed within them. Never intentionally, but the nightmarish fantasies would sometimes creep into his subconscious or sleeping mind.
"My wife created that Solidifier so those cumbersome measures could be eliminated."
Jack moved the gun along the back of Danny's head, the strangest and most uncomfortable massage. Danny shivered and moved away, but the gun was right back on him just as quickly.
"And that way, you'll be completely vulnerable. A powerless ghost. And she'll be able to do whatever she wants to you without an excess of anti-ghost measures." Jack chuckled and shoved Danny's head forward with the gun. "Real close and real personal. Just as intimate as she wants to be with you."
Danny wanted to lie down. Or at least sit. But he kept his quivering legs rooted.
The radio buzzed again with Maddie's metallic voice. "Jack?"
Jack cursed under his breath. "What is it, Maddie?"
"Did you find—"
"No, Maddie. No, I did not find Phantom," snapped Jack. "And anyway, aren't we supposed to be looking for Danny? Wasn't that the whole point of us traipsing out here in the middle of the night?"
Danny's brow knit. Looking for him? Did they think he was missing?
"Jack, watch that tone. Of course we should be looking for Danny as well. But it's just that—"
"I know, Maddie. I know. We saw Phantom. We know he's out here. This could be our only chance. I get it. I promise I'll tell you if I find him, all right? You don't need to keep asking me."
A long pause. "Fine," said Maddie evenly.
Danny winced and rattled. Such tension between his parents. And was it really all because of him? Both as their ghost and as their son who they apparently noticed wasn't in his room well past curfew?
"It's you," murmured Jack. "It's only you. You're all she wants."
His volume was so hushed now, so treacherous.
"The more I've realized her intentions toward you, what she's really thinking about you, just how much you dominate her thoughts, the more I don't want her anywhere near you at all. You're a sickness. Her sickness." His gun whirred louder. "If I get rid of you, maybe she'll be cured."
The droning filtered into the half-ghost's chest, turbulence pumping through his valves and chambers.
With hands still raised, Danny spun around with a swift lower kick, gloved hands latching onto the gun, wrenching it at such an angle that his father was forced to let go, a beaming discharge racing past his head and crumbling part of the wall beside them. He leapt backwards with the gun in his hands and instinctively aimed it at Jack with shallow breaths.
Jack's eyes were wide and his jaw was slacked for only a moment before he clenched his fists and stood taller. Even with distance between them, Danny still had to look up at this mountainous man.
Jack leered at him. Danny faltered but held his mark.
"What are you going to do, Phantom? Are you going to shoot me?"
Danny let his gaze drop to the weapon in his trembling arms. He switched it off and tossed it behind him.
Jack laughed, a cruel sound. "Of course not. You always have to be a hero. You'd never hurt me because I'm not a threat to this town. You're compelled to protect even me. It's embedded in your composition. You can't disobey your obsession."
"We're not enemies," insisted Danny with a tremor of desperation.
"I hope you never stop thinking that," said Jack coldly. "That will continue to give me an advantage over you."
They stood apart in tensed suspension, their only weapons the strength of their stares. Danny could feel Jack's hateful glare breaking through his defenses.
There's no convincing you otherwise, is there?
"Jack!" another voice cried, the unmistakable voice of his mother. Only this time it was not coming over a radio.
Danny and Jack both turned to look at Maddie, who was standing at the beginning of the alley with a gun in her hands. Her stance indicated distress, but she straightened in shock. "Phantom! That's—" She growled and began angrily stomping up to them. "You promised you'd tell me if—why didn't you—"
The spider ghost Danny had been searching for earlier appeared behind Maddie, but she did not stop her march.
"Maddie!" hollered Jack.
The spider ghost advanced and grabbed Maddie with its front legs. She turned her gun on the ghost, but the shrieking arachnid knocked it out of her hands toward Jack. He immediately picked up the weapon and began firing.
Danny watched the battle with glassy concentration before taking off into the sky, leaving his parents to battle with the spider ghost on their own.
His molecules still refused to change. No cover of invisibility to conceal him. Within a thin veil of dewy clouds, he was defenseless and exposed and surely anyone and everyone could see him, could see through him, could see all his trespasses and fears.
He had to hide. Somewhere safe.
He could see his bedroom window. He increased his speed as he raced toward it.
An explosion of pain sent him sailing back. He dizzily observed the activated ghost shield surrounding his house.
Jazz opened his window and looked out at him. "Danny! Thank goodness. I've been trying to call you. Mom and Dad have been worried about you. Get in here, quick!"
Danny moaned and massaged his aching head. "Why is the ghost shield up?"
"You know how protective Mom and Dad are. Now come on, change already and get in here."
"I can't change back. Can you go turn it off?"
Jazz furrowed her brow. "You can't change back? What do you mean?"
"I'll explain inside."
Jazz stared at him for a short while before leaving. The ghost shield powered down, and Danny immediately entered in through his open window. He landed on the floor of his dark room and looked at his still gloved hands with dismay.
Jazz reappeared in his room. "Okay what happened? Why can't you change back?"
Danny glanced up at the ceiling with shrugged shoulders. "I don't really know—I mean, Dad, he—he was just there all of a—and he—" Danny gingerly touched the back of his neck where the dart had struck him. "He injected me with something. Some sort of—I have no idea—but it won't let me go invisible or intangible or even change back."
And he also—
No, he wasn't about to tell her what else—
He wanted to kill him. Came so close to killing him.
And for what reason again? Something about his mother. Something about not wanting his mother anywhere near him. A reason that wasn't even his fault. He had no control over how his mother felt about his ghost form.
Would his father have cared when he realized later he had killed his own son?
Or did he really believe that it would be better to kill him, would not feel any remorse at all even if he did know who he really was?
Don't say, don't reveal. He was afraid to know.
Jazz coaxed him to his bed, pulled him to sit down with her. Danny leaned forward with elbows propped near his knees and head pressed into his palms.
"I think…" Danny stared down at the floor of his room lit by his ghostly glow. "I think Dad hates me." He drew in a shaking breath. "Like, hates me. Like actually seriously hates me."
From beside him, Jazz placed her hands on his shoulders. "Dad does not hate you. Not even a little."
Danny turned his head to look at her briefly before returning his gaze to the floor.
Jazz started rubbing his back. "So, if I heard right, Dad injected you with Mom's latest creation, right? I heard Mom talking about it a few days ago. It prevents ghostly molecules from changing."
"Right. I can't turn invisible or intangible...or even human." Danny groaned and sat up straight. "What were Mom and Dad even doing out at this hour?"
"Well, I was trying to call you to let you know! But you wouldn't answer your phone. I guess Mom came into your room and saw you were missing. She woke me up to say that she and Dad were going to go out looking for you." Jazz paused. "She was really worried about you because as far as she knows, you're not the type to sneak out in the middle of the night."
"I didn't use to be." The intended mirth stuck in Danny's throat. "Do you know how long this stuff is supposed to last? I mean, I really need to change back. Preferably before Mom and Dad return."
Jazz stood. "Wait here. I'll be back."
She left Danny alone in his room. He fell back on his bed with a sigh. It was over now. He was safe at this moment. Nothing was happening, nothing was threatening him.
And his dad didn't hate him.
His dad hated Phantom, not him. A common dichotomy he dealt with. No different coming from his father.
Jazz returned with a syringe and a bottle of clear liquid. "I looked through Mom's notes. The effects are apparently supposed to last for hours, but this should cancel them."
Danny propped himself up on his forearms and curled a displeased upper lip. "Are you kidding me? That thing is huge!"
Jazz glanced at the needle and shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, but it's a thick liquid." She sat down beside him. "It has to be this big."
Danny scowled and looked off to the side.
"Best to do it in your upper arm, I think."
"Yeah? How do you figure?"
"Well, that or your thigh." Jazz patted his leg teasingly. "Which we can totally do if you want. I mean, if you want to take off that much of your suit."
Danny huffed and unzipped his jumpsuit enough to expose his right upper arm. Jazz drew a precise amount of liquid from the bottle and inspected it for air bubbles, flicking it a couple times.
"You sure you know what you're doing?" asked Danny.
"Of course. Don't worry." She moved the needle to his arm. "And really, what other choice do you have, right?"
"You always know how to make me feel better."
He looked away to indicate he was ready and felt the needle poke through his skin. The pain was tolerable at first but sharpened as the liquid was pushed into him, agonizingly separating and stretching his skin. Danny bit the inside of his lip to stop himself from gasping.
"There." Jazz pulled the needle out. "Not too bad, I hope?"
"A spa treatment." Danny zipped up his suit. "How long does it take to work?"
"How long did it take when you were first injected?"
"It was quick."
"Then I imagine this will be quick, too."
Danny waited a moment more before willing his form to change. With a small crackle, the familiar lights appeared and revealed his human form. Danny looked down at his street clothes with relief.
Jazz hugged him. "There's my little brother." She moved back and sighed. "Well, now you have a new problem."
Danny eyed her warily.
"What are you going to tell Mom and Dad when they ask where you've been?"
Danny blew out air through nearly closed lips. "Well... I guess I could say I was with Tucker." He pulled out his cell phone. "Like playing a new game or something."
Jazz placed a hand on his shoulder. "You know that would get Tucker in trouble, too, right?"
"Tucker will do this for me," said Danny, writing out a coded message to his techie friend. "I can always count on him."
Jazz nodded and pulled out her own phone. "I'm going to call Mom and tell her you're back, okay?"
Danny only listened as Jazz spoke to their mother. He could not hear Maddie's side very well, just shrill joyful chatter.
He wondered what his father was doing, what he was thinking, the expression he was wearing.
Was he still thinking about their encounter just less than half an hour ago?
Because Danny certainly was.
Jazz disconnected the call. "They're on their way back."
Danny sighed heavily. "I guess I have to talk to him." He paused, frowned. "I mean, her, too. Mom. Mom and Dad. Not just Dad." He blinked with a shake of his head.
"Well, truthfully, you'll probably mostly be talking to Mom. She was way more worried." Jazz stood and, with an arm around his shoulders, started leading the way out of his room. "In fact, Dad didn't really seem all that worried at all."
"Ah, see? I told you Dad hates me."
Jazz squeezed him. "No, he doesn't. Don't be ridiculous."
He smiled weakly. He had meant the comment in jest, but the words had felt quite astringent against his teeth.
The two teenagers headed downstairs. Jazz reactivated the ghost shield before joining Danny in the living room on the couch. Danny tried to practice his story, tried to rehearse the most convincing way to present his alibi.
But his adrenaline was spiking, tying and knotting his tongue.
He instead focused on the pain in his arm from the injection and the pain at the base of his neck from when his father originally shot him. Aching throbs radiating from the original puncture sites.
This physical pain was preferable for now.
At last, the front door swung open. Danny and Jazz both stood as their parents walked in.
"Danny!" Maddie ran and threw her arms around him. "I was worried sick."
Danny stood still in her embrace and glanced at his father. Jack's gaze was distant, moving right through him.
Maddie pulled back, her hands now on his shoulders. "Where have you been, young man?"
"Yes," said Jack with a tired tone, walking up beside her. "What was so important that you felt you had to leave the house in the middle of the night?"
Danny inwardly winced at the irritation in his father's tone. "Sorry. I was with Tucker."
Maddie cocked a brow. "Tucker?"
"Yeah, um... Well, we were just—"
"With Tucker? Like at his house?" asked Jack.
"Why didn't you answer your phone? Your mother was trying to call you, sent a ton of messages."
"Ah, well, I wasn't looking at my phone. I'm sorry."
"Well, it certainly would have saved us a lot of trouble. You know we actually went out to look for you, right?"
Jack's glare bore into him. Danny shrank back and averted his own gaze.
"Well, we're definitely going to have a talk with Tucker's parents tomorrow," said Maddie. "And we'll have to think of a suitable punishment for you, Danny." Her expression softened. "But I'm so relieved you're safe."
Danny raised his eyes, but his father's focus was now off to the side, looking at something no one else could see.
"Yes," said Danny quietly. "I am."
But he almost wasn't.
Almost wasn't because of—
Maddie studied him. "Are you okay, Danny?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm just...really sorry. And tired."
Maddie frowned. "You seem... I feel like something's wrong."
She ran her fingers through his hair, smoothed down his dark cowlicks in vain. Jack's vexed gaze snapped back to him.
—a hateful glare breaking through his defenses—
You're a sickness. If I get rid of you, maybe—
There's no convincing you—is there—?
Danny quickly turned his head away with a sharp inhale.
"Danny?" asked Maddie with alarm.
Danny forced an apologetic smile. "Sorry, I'm just tired. So, um, is it all right if I go to bed now, or do you still want to talk about this?"
Maddie glanced at Jack, who only shrugged.
"Yes," said Maddie. "Yes, we'll talk tomorrow."
She placed a tender kiss on his head. Danny sensed his father's glower but did not dare make eye contact.
When his mother at last released him, he briskly walked away and up the stairs. He could feel Jazz walking behind him. He could hear his parents conversing in low voices.
He entered his room and closed the door. He leaned his back against it for a moment, stared straight ahead.
His father didn't hate him. Not the version of him that mattered, anyway.
And if he hated Phantom, well, it's not like he was the only one.
So he could live with this. He could ignore it and pretend it never happened.
Everything could still be normal.
It was done. It was over.
Please just let it be over.