Maddie looked over at Jack, steeling herself. Her husband met her gaze and nodded, once, resolute.
They didn’t want to do this. Didn’t want to risk their baby. But they had to. The alternative was far worse.
“Danny,” she said, summoning a shaky smile. She hoped he wouldn’t see through it. Had counted on it, in fact. “Could you come with us, please?”
“Uh… Sure?” He looked confused, but got up anyway. He didn’t seem suspicious.
“What’s this about?” he asked as they entered the stairway down to the lab. “Why are we going to the lab?”
“We just need you to lend us a hand.” She looked at him over her shoulder, hoping that he would take the bait. Phantom was always a sucker for helping people. She wasn’t sure if that was genuine, or an act, but she hoped that he would fall for it all the same.
Danny scoffed. “Can’t Jazz help you?”
But despite his protests, he didn’t stop following them. Trailed after her into the lab, Jack staying behind Danny. Just in case he made a run for it.
Well, they wouldn’t be able to stop him if he fled in a non-human direction, but still. There were limits to what they could prepare for, and a ghost’s intangibility was one of those limits. At least Jack’s Specter Deflector would stop Phantom if he tried to phase past them.
The three of them stopped in the center of the lab, a mostly-clear spot in the chaos that covered the rest of the room.
She and Jack had cleared it for this exact purpose. The chaos surrounding them would hopefully distract Phantom so he wouldn’t notice the Ghost Catcher, assuming that he knew what it did. They didn’t know how long he had been there, overshadowing Danny. They had no idea what they had told him, unknowingly.
They had no idea how long they had been talking to a ghost instead of their own son. How long Phantom’s possession had gone unnoticed.
“So, uh… What did you need my help with?” the ghost asked with her son’s voice. With her son’s face.
“Just step over here,” Jack instructed, pointing at a seemingly random spot. While Phantom was distracted, Maddie shifted closer to the Ghost Catcher, hoping to keep it out of his sight until he could no longer dodge it.
“Alright…” He sounded reluctant, but followed their commands nonetheless. Maddie wondered if it was Phantom, trying hard to blend in, or Danny, who was exerting all the power he could, trying to help them save him.
She hoped it was Danny. She feared it was Phantom.
She hated that she couldn’t tell.
Her hands wrapped around the rod of the Ghost Catcher. She met Jack’s eyes, and he nodded, sharply.
Danny, having apparently seen Jack look at her, turned to look as well. His eyes, the crystalline blue she loved so much, grew wide.
“Mom, no—” was all he managed to say before she swung the Ghost Catcher at him, the net passing through Danny’s body harmlessly.
He stumbled, the ectoplasm clinging to him so tightly that he was tugged along a little. But the Catcher finished its sweep, drawing out all ectoplasm that Danny’s body contained.
The ghost regained his normal appearance—stark black and white coloration, vivid green eyes—as he fought the cables of the Ghost Catcher. It would serve him no good. They had replaced the normal netting with a new one, designed just for this occasion; sticky enough to hold a fully matured ghost.
Phantom flailed, growling like a trapped animal, his hands lighting up green. That was all the proof Maddie needed. Phantom was too dangerous to restrain, to trap.
They couldn’t risk him escaping. Having him take revenge on them, or, far worse, having him take revenge on Danny.
She shifted her hands down, flipping the safety off of their second new feature.
Jack stepped forward to hold onto the Ghost Catcher as well, and met her eyes. Inclined his head once.
Thus agreed, she pushed the button.
Phantom screamed. The sound was high and cutting, so loud Maddie was almost certain she could see the waves his voice created. His hands grasped wildly, unable to reach anything to hold onto, then tightened onto themselves. Had he been human, his knuckles surely would’ve gone white.
Danny watched the proceedings, wide-eyed, hunched in on himself. Poor boy. Phantom’s almost constant overshadowing must’ve been hell on him, on his mind. She made a mental note to herself to check in on Danny after she was sure Phantom was neutralized, make sure he wasn’t overly traumatized. Make sure he got therapy if he needed it.
Finally, after a few eternally long moments, Phantom started to lose his shape. His extremities grew softer, melting down as they lost their structural integrity. Color draining away to leave them a sharp green.
Unlike Danny, he had his eyes closed, still yelling terribly. At least the sound was petering out now, as he lost power.
The ghost started to melt away entirely, globs of ectoplasm smearing down the netting of the Ghost Catcher, unable to fall off entirely. The sight apparently spurred life back into Danny, as he gasped and set a single step forwards, towards Phantom.
She reached out and stopped him easily.
“No,” Danny keened, like he was in pain. “No, you can’t! Stop!”
“Shh, honey,” she shushed, pulling him against herself in a hug. She ran a hand through his hair, comfortingly. “Shh, he’ll be gone soon. He won’t hurt you anymore.”
“No!” Danny wriggled in her arms, like he was trying to get out. But it was weak, and pointless. This was just an after-effect from Phantom’s overshadowing. She would protect Danny until he was alright again. “No, you can’t! Stop! Stop!”
Maddie tucked Danny against herself, locking him in her embrace. “It’ll be okay, honey. It’ll all be over soon.”
Danny whined, a wordless cry of pain, and Maddie felt her heart clench with empathy. Her poor boy. How long had he been Phantom’s puppet? How long had they missed the obvious?
How long had he been watching a ghost take his place?
Jack grimaced where he stood, clearly itching to get closer, to comfort Danny as well. But he couldn’t. He was the only person holding on to the Ghost Catcher, and they couldn’t risk it malfunctioning. They had to wait until it was certain that Phantom was no longer a threat.
The ghost blubbered, a noise that might have been intended as a cry of pain. She wasn’t sure why—shouldn’t the ghost be too occupied with its disintegration to play pretend?—but it was a clear sign of its decay, at least. Almost all color had gone from him, body more liquid than solid. Phantom wriggled in the cables, but it was weak.
Finally, they had him. If only they’d been quicker, had noticed sooner.
Danny made another pained noise in her arms, and she shushed him. Her eyes were settled on Phantom, watching him dissolve. Cruelly, she wished the ghost could feel pain, that she could make it suffer for what it inflicted upon Danny.
With her son crying in her arms, and her husband grimly staring back, she watched Phantom fall apart. They stood still, stiff and tensed, until there was nothing left but a puddle of sticky ectoplasm.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Danny, ruffling one hand through his hair. “We should’ve noticed sooner, honey, I’m so sorry.”
Danny sniffled as she released him from her tight hold. His eyes were locked on the remains of Phantom; they’d dripped to the floor when Jack had turned off the Ghost Catcher.
“Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “Right.”
She stepped closer again, one hand up to offer comfort. But Danny flinched back, eyes finally ripped away and towards her.
They’re wide and blue, but cold, so cold. Fear and— and so much more.
“Danny,” Jack tried, voice far quieter than usually. “It’s okay, kiddo. Come on, let’s go up.”
Danny’s eyes wandered back over to the ectoplasm.
“I… would rather be alone,” he finally settled on, and before either of them could think of a reply, he wandered to the stairs.
It felt like a lump of ice had settled in her chest, replacing her heart. Did he blame them for not noticing sooner? He would be right, yes, but she didn’t think… didn’t expect…
“Jack,” she turned towards him, trying to swallow past the blockage in her throat, “Why do I feel like we’ve just done something terrible?”
“It’s just an after effect.” He didn’t sound like he really believed it either. “It’ll wear off. He’ll get better. He has to.”
But Danny did not get better. Maddie watched him, constantly, every moment she could, and he never seemed to get any better.
No, quite the opposite. His condition seemed to worsen by the day. By the hour.
Danny’s eyes grew dull and lifeless, his hair lost its shine, grew brittle. He became weak, sickly, in just a few days.
It didn’t make sense. The long-term exposure of ectoplasm should’ve been making him sick, but it didn’t. No, removing the contaminant—and the overshadowing ghost—seemed to be the cause of his sickness.
Even if it defied all science, everything Maddie knew…
She couldn’t deny it. Not when her son’s health—and his life, even—was on the line.
Still, Danny refused to talk to her or Jack. He avoided them when possible, and was silent and sullen otherwise. It hurt her to see him like this, slowly withering away, and unable to talk to him.
Somehow, the destruction of Phantom had hurt Danny, and she couldn’t even apologize. Couldn’t even ask him how he was feeling, how they could help.
Had the Ghost Catcher malfunctioned? Had Phantom’s grip on Danny been so strong that removing him had hurt her son in the process?
She didn’t know, and neither did Jack. And they couldn’t ask Danny, because he didn’t talk to them.
But he did talk to Jazz. Often they fell quiet when they saw her, breaking apart or drawing away into their rooms, locking the door behind them. But it was enough for her to notice them talking, near-silent whispers.
Jazz knew what was going on. Her sharp glare, as fiery as her hair, all but confirmed it. Danny had told her what was going on, when he wouldn’t trust his parents with the same knowledge. Even though they would be able to fix it, while Jazz couldn’t.
And despite all this, Jazz didn’t confide in her or Jack either. They all saw Danny grow sicker and sicker, and still Jazz did not come to tell them how to help, how to fix Danny.
Had they really hurt him so badly, that he would rather suffer through this than come to them for help?
Well, she wouldn’t stand for it any longer. Couldn’t stand for it any longer.
The sound of her knocking on Jazz’ door was absurdly loud in the quiet hallway. Next to her, Jack shuffled uncertainly.
Jazz opened the door, her eyes immediately narrowing when she saw it was them, not Danny. “What do you want?”
“To talk,” Maddie told her, honestly, almost pleadingly. “Danny is sick, Jazz. We all know it. Please let us help. He won’t talk to us.”
She snorted, a vicious sound. “Of course he won’t, not after what you two did.” But Jazz shook her head and opened the door to let them in.
“We tried to help,” Maddie protested, even as she stepped inside, Jack right behind her.
“You could’ve tried talking first, instead of immediately going for the violent approach.” Her voice was sharp, bitter. Relentlessly disapproving. “Hell, you could’ve talked to me, if you didn’t trust Danny. But you didn’t.”
Maddie felt her heart skip a beat. “You knew? About Phantom overshadowing him?”
“It wasn’t overshadowing,” Jazz said, nonsensically. “But, yes. I knew about Phantom.”
“It had to be overshadowing,” Jack countered, his voice quiet and strained. “Phantom was a fully formed ghost influencing Danny.”
Jazz shook her head, dismissive. “Phantom wasn’t a full ghost, although he was fully matured, or so I’ve been told. He was only half ghost.”
Only half ghost. The other half, what, human?
“Are you saying that Danny and Phantom were one and the same?” Maddie asked, sharply.
It was supposed to be impossible. One can’t be alive and dead at the same time, ghost and human. But removing the contamination from Danny’s body was killing him, wasn't it?
And they had always frowned at how much Phantom looked like Danny. The same haircut, although in white instead of black, and the shape of his face… The jumpsuit, so much like theirs. Colors inverted from the one they’d made for Danny.
Jazz nodded, her mouth flat and thin. “You’re seeing it now, aren’t you? Finally connecting all the dots?”
“Oh, what have we done?” Maddie turned to Jack, his expression heavy and despairing as well. “It was our fault, wasn’t it? That he was Phantom in the first place? And all we did was threaten him for it, for something we did to him.”
“You didn’t just threaten him,” Jazz pointed out. It felt like knives stabbing into Maddie. “You have hurt him, shooting at Phantom or spitting vitriol. Not to mention the incident a week ago.”
“We just tried to help.” But they hadn’t. They had made everything worse, just because they had skipped talking and went straight for their weapons. “We thought Phantom was overshadowing Danny, so we separated them.”
“But that wasn’t the only thing you did, was it?” Jazz prodded, folding her arms. “Just separating them wasn’t enough, was it?”
No, it hadn’t been.
“Phantom was struggling too much, too violent,” Jack admitted, lowly. “We destabilized him, to make sure he wouldn’t hurt anybody anymore.”
Their own son. They had torn out half of him and destroyed it.
“That’s what did it, I think.” Jazz’s expression had softened somewhat, growing thoughtful. “He’s been separated before, but never for a long time, and never quite this perfectly. Phantom was always a little human, and Danny always a little ghost.”
“So that’s why he’s sick?” Maddie asked, frowning. “Because we forcibly tore away part of him? Part of his soul?”
“I don’t think that it’s that,” Jazz denied. “I don’t think he lost any part of him, of his soul or whatever. I think it was the ectoplasm, specifically. Danny had a terrible accident with the Portal, which could’ve—maybe even should’ve—killed him. But it made him half-ghost instead.”
The Portal? They had known that Danny had been in an accident with it, but… it had been downplayed, apparently. He’d said he hadn’t been hurt, not really. Just a little zap.
It could’ve killed him. It did kill him, in some awful way.
And they hadn’t even noticed.
“The ectoplasm was keeping him alive,” Jack said, coming to the same realization as her. “And we took it away from him.”
“That’s what I thought, too.” Jazz nodded, a frown on her face. “He heals—healed—faster, especially if he was in ghost form. I think the ectoplasm healed his injuries quick enough for him to survive, but in turn, he can’t live without it.”
He was dying. He was dying because of them. No wonder that he refused to tell them.
“Oh, Danny… What have we done?”
“You need to fix this. We need to fix this.” Jazz sighed, one hand coming up to twirl her hair. A nervous tic. “I’ve been working on it, thinking of possible ways to fix it, but it comes down to the fact that we’ll need to reintroduce ectoplasm to his body without poisoning him.”
“We need to bond it to his body again,” Jack agreed, a thoughtful frown on his face as well. “But we took away all the preexisting systems his body had to accept it, and we can’t possibly make him go through the original accident again.”
She was running through options now. This was where she excelled; making the impossible possible with science. “More like Vlad’s accident, then? It was a low amount of contamination compared to Danny’s, and it made him sick, but Danny must be biologically wired to be more accepting of contamination…”
“Uh, if I can interrupt,” Jazz said, her voice breaking Maddie’s train of thought. “Vlad’s accident was probably a lot worse than you guys think, since he’s also half-ghost. And, uh, the whole ecto-acne thing.”
The silence that fell was so thorough that you could hear a pin drop. She wasn’t sure she could even hear Jack breath. Hell, Maddie was sure she’d stopped breathing herself.
“Excuse me?” she managed, after an eternity of silence.
Jazz blinked at them. “Vlad is also half-ghost, although he’s not as much in the spotlight as Danny was. He calls himself Vlad Plasmius. The vampire ghost?”
The vampire ghost. The Wisconsin ghost, the one that had attacked them during the reunion. Which had overshadowed Jack and attacked the guests, had attempted to kidnap her.
That was Vlad, their old college friend, as creepy as he’d become.
“Oh,” she said, turning to look at Jack. Jack, who seemed to be taking that revelation harshly.
Not that she could blame him.
“Maybe not that, then,” she said. As much as she wanted to linger on this, properly deal with it, it could wait. It had to wait. Her son’s health was more important.
“I think that the problem is that you purged all contamination from his body,” Jazz said, apparently also willing to dismiss the previous topic to focus on Danny. “We all have some contamination, just from living here, you know? And Danny was always very bad about wearing a jumpsuit while cleaning the lab.”
“He built up a natural defense against it.” Of course. It made perfect sense. Slow, gradual exposure to ectoplasm weakened the reaction. Made him more susceptible to it. “But how could we possibly replicate that quick enough?”
Before he died, she thought, but did not say.
Jazz made a face. “I’m not sure, to be honest. I’ve been encouraging him to eat some of the ecto-contaminated food we have in the house, slowly building up from the weaker stuff to the stronger, but it hasn’t been helping. Not enough, at least.”
“It might be building up his defenses, anyhow.” Maddie considered the plan. “It doesn’t have to contain enough ectoplasm to revert his condition, just enough to rebuild the acceptance. We can try diluted ectoplasm, but we need to make sure he can take it without poisoning him.”
“We’ll need some way to test for it,” Jack said, visibly shaking off the previous topic to refocus. “To make sure we don’t give him anything he’ll react badly to.”
“I’ll look into making more contaminated food as well.” She was good at making them accidentally, but on purpose? That was a whole new ballpark. “To make the transition gradual enough for him, and to bridge the gap between contaminated food and the diluted ectoplasm.”
“You realize that this won’t fix everything, right?” Jazz asked. “Even if you solve this, even if you help make him half-ghost again… It won’t be the same. It won’t undo everything you’ve done.”
She knew. One look at Jack confirmed that he did, too.
“That doesn’t matter,” Maddie said, shaking her head. “He’s our son, Jazz. We did this to him. Both the initial accident, and the purging afterwards. We’re fixing it, too. The rest is a problem for later. First, we need to make sure there will be a later.”
Jazz nodded, stepping aside, clearing the way to the door. “I’ll be watching. Making sure everything goes okay.”
“Of course, honey.” Maddie wrapped an arm around Jazz, pressing a kiss to her temple. “We couldn’t have done this without you.”
They were going to fix this. Danny was going to be okay.
Everything else was a problem for later.