The revelation shook Amity Park to its core.
Fenton? Really? That Fenton?
The scrawny one?
The kid of those nut-job parents?
The one that got picked on?
I heard he’s a loner. Super quiet.
It was always the quiet ones…
Isn’t he failing school? Maybe that’s why. Maybe it’s because he’s a ghost. Aren’t ghosts less intelligent than humans?
Teresa told me he ditches class all the time. Probably because of his Obsession.
That’s so creepy.
Fenton was...Phantom. Danny was Phantom. It was simply indisputable. Of course some conspiracy theorists were probably screaming about photoshop and CGI, but when Dash saw the transformation happen on television, there was no other way he could make sense of it.
Fenton was Phantom.
The Guys in White had figured it out, evidently. According to their spokesperson, they had been analyzing Phantom’s ectoplasm samples left from a ghost fight when they found human DNA infused into the ectoplasm. Scans showed that it belonged to Danny Fenton.
When the GiW collected more samples from various ghost fights, all the results were the same.
Fenton was Phantom.
So they developed a gun. And when Phantom was distracted with a ghost fight they denied planting (but they must have, there was no possible way they could have captured him otherwise), they hit him with it.
And he transformed right there in front of everyone.
Fenton was Phantom.
And Dash had spent years ruining his life.
Dash collapsed on his couch, his glassy eyes fixated on the still image of Fenton’s horrified face. His hair was wild, his eyes even more so. In the background, he was surrounded by men in white suits, all armed to the teeth with guns. Above him, helicopters soared.
Fenton was trapped.
There was no way out of it.
Dash had spent the better part of his life bullying the boy who would become his hero, and now he would never be able to apologize.
Well, maybe Dash spoke too soon.
By some miracle, Fenton was released from the government’s clutches.
Dash didn’t understand the science behind it, but apparently Fenton wasn’t dead. He was...almost dead? But not quite. He was just alive enough to have a pulse, just alive enough to have a heartbeat, just alive enough to be considered human in the eyes of the law.
Dash didn’t want to acknowledge just how relieved he was at this revelation. And if he were a good person, his relief would have come from the part where that meant his classmate was actually alive.
But he wasn’t a good person. What good person spends their downtime picking on the weak kids at school? What good person takes out their aggression on those who don’t fight back?
Dash wasn’t kind, he wasn’t nice, he wasn’t selfless. And that’s why he was relieved.
Because all of his relief came from the fact that if Fenton was alive, then Dash didn’t have to live with the guilt that he’d tormented a dead person. He didn’t have to lie awake at night wondering if he was the one to push Fenton past his breaking point, if he were responsible for Fenton’s death.
Because Fenton wasn’t dead. So what if he was almost dead? So what if he probably did die—if only for a moment—before his body was kickstarted back to life? Fenton wasn’t dead, so Dash didn’t have to think about it.
Dash could get away with it all scot free.
Just like always.
Fenton was allowed to come to school.
If Dash were honest, he was surprised by this. He didn’t think the PTA would have caved to the students, who had demanded that Fenton be allowed to return to school. But apparently they relented.
Under certain conditions.
Conditions which the government was more than happy to collaborate with.
It was Fenton’s first day back, and yet he didn’t look all there. He was pale, sickly, his hair too long and voice nonexistent.
But his eyes, those scared Dash the most.
His eyes were dead.
It was as if someone had taken all the light that was Danny and replaced it with a puppet. There was nothing in there. Nothing inside of his skin. It was...dead.
What did they do to him?
The teachers didn’t try to make him engage with their lessons. They only looked at Danny with pity in their eyes when they would walk by. And Danny wouldn’t acknowledge them because he was just empty.
Dash wanted to approach him. Talk to him. He had a whole speech prepared, and he knew Kwan did too. But the speech had all but died on his lips when he saw Fenton that morning. He knew—he knew— that nothing was going to get through to him.
Fenton was Phantom, but Fenton wasn’t even there.
And in his place was nothing but bones wrapped in skin held together by metal contraptions on his wrists, ankles, and neck.
Dash shivered. The one on his neck was blinking. It was a warning, Dash realized. A warning that Danny was dangerous. He was inhuman. He was Phantom.
The students avoided him. Even the ones who had advocated for his safe return. Dash didn’t blame them, either. No one could have predicted that this would be coming back to their class.
Even so, Manson and Foley stuck by him. Dash watched them guide him to each class, carrying his books and trying their best to include him in the conversation. Sometimes he would even lock eyes with them, sometimes his lips would twitch upward and his eyes would brighten as if he were following along with Manson and Foley’s antics.
Those moments were rare though. Fleeting.
Because in the end, the modicum of emotion would always vaporize from Fenton’s face and they’d be left with the blank, faraway glazed expression that he always seemed to wear now. The duo would be left talking between themselves, and Dash was left looking at them from the sidelines waiting for Fenton to open his mouth and just respond.
Gone were the days of the snarky comments and muttered undertones. Gone were Fenton’s stupid comments that Dash spent years beating him up over.
It was funny. A year ago Dash was all but praying for Fenton to shut up, but now he would do anything to hear him speak.
No one knew what happened to Fenton during his stay with the government. No one knew what they did to him. Because, as far as Dash knew, Fenton hadn’t said a word since he returned home. Dash wasn’t sure if it was because Danny couldn’t respond, or if he just wouldn’t.
He didn’t know which one was worse.
It had been one month since Fenton returned to school. Anyone with a pair of eyes could see that he wasn’t doing well.
He drifted from class to class like he was in a dream, often not even bothering to put his notebook on his desk as he sat in each class staring at the wall with the same dead expression.
Fenton didn’t take his tests or quizzes with the class anymore. He was in the same math class as Dash and only lasted one exam before Mr. Falluca started proctoring his exams separately. Rumor had it they were trying to get him extra help, but the PTA didn’t want him integrated with Casper High’s most vulnerable students.
Dash thought that was a load of crap, personally. Dash had a few teammates who got extra help from the school’s learning center and they could handle themselves just fine.
Regardless, at this rate, Fenton was going to fail out of school.
Which was why it was of no surprise to Dash when he and Kwan were called down to Mr. Lancer’s office one day with a request to tutor Fenton.
“I know this is a lot of responsibility, and I know you haven’t always seen ways with Mr. Fenton in the past,” Mr. Lancer said, his fingers steepled in front of his chin. “But I can’t ask just anyone to do this. You two are leaders in your class, and you have some high marks to boot. Mr. Lee, you have consistently scored in the top ten percent of the class in your English and history courses, and Mr. Baxter, this past year you’ve done remarkably well in your math course.”
Dash had been regarded as many different things. Athletic, social, hotheaded, cocky, brave—but never smart. He was always known as the high school jock stereotype, he never did well in school.
But Mr. Lancer always knew he was more than just a stereotype, and when he called Dash and his parents after school one day with the recommendation that Dash get tested for ADD, suddenly everything clicked.
It was amazing how a small pill each morning could turn Dash from a C student to a rising A student in the matter of a few months.
“And because I know how much I’m asking of you two, I have spoken to your teachers and they are willing to give you extra credit on your final exams as compensation.”
Dash cleared his throat. “Mr, Lancer,” he started, his voice scratchy. “With all due respect, why have us tutor him? Why not have the teachers do it?”
“I have been working with Mr. Fenton, and I’ll continue to through the school year. But he needs that peer to peer connection, he needs the support of those around him. I’m sure you’ve noticed the shift in your class, the growing uneasiness of those around you?”
Dash nodded. He would have had to have been blind to not see how everyone seemed to skirt around Fenton in the hallways, how nobody except Manson and Foley said so much as a “hello” to him.
“I understand,” said Dash.
“The...ghost inhibitor thing isn’t helping, either,” Kwan added. “I’ve never seen that kind of technology used on any ghost. And you have to admit, Danny’s been acting really strange lately. Like he’s not even here. Mr. Lancer, if you don’t mind me asking, is it...are they…?”
The unsaid question hung in the air, and Mr. Lancer’s eyes darkened. “There’s only so much I’m allowed to say on this matter. But I would say your suspicions about the devices are likely to be true. Although, it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly how much they’re affecting Mr. Fenton. He’s been through a lot.”
Dash felt lightheaded. So the rumors about the devices were true. At least, somewhat true.
If there was one thing both Fenton and Phantom were, it was resilient. Sure, the Guys in White could knock him down, but to change him this much? To give him so much baggage he couldn’t even speak?
It screamed foul play.
“That’s terrible,” Kwan said. “It’s sick knowing that they’d do that to him.”
“Indeed. Which is why I’m asking you both to step up as leaders of your class and help your fellow peer through this difficult time. If we can help Mr. Fenton become more integrated with his classmates, we may have a case to allow him to remove the inhibitors and get him real help.”
Dash could feel Kwan’s eyes on him, and he knew why. Dash and Fenton had history, and that made this complicated. There was so much unfinished business between the two.
Was Dash ready to take this step? Was he really ready to be the selfless, altruistic hero like Phantom instead of the bully he had always been?
“Again, I know the school is asking so much of you both, and I am willing to personally help if need be. If, for whatever reason, you feel as though you can’t do it, there will be no judgement from me or any of your other teachers. This is entirely up to you.”
If Dash said no, Kwan would follow. If Dash wasn’t ready, Kwan wouldn’t force him into that position. It was exactly why Dash and Kwan were such good friends: Dash got his way, and he always knew Kwan would have his back.
But that wasn’t healthy. And it didn’t lead to good outcomes in the long term.
Now was the time for Dash to take that step.
He needed to be the leader instead of the coward he always was.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
If Fenton was confused as to why his two former childhood bullies were now his after school homework buddies all of the sudden, he didn’t say it.
In fact, he didn’t say anything at all.
But Dash knew this would happen going into it. He knew it would be difficult to tell if Fenton’s head was in the clouds or if he was truly in the present. And he knew Fenton would just go along with whatever they threw at him anyway.
Because he was Fenton. He could never let Dash have the last metaphorical word, even if he was being suppressed by the physical manifestation of the United States government on his wrist, ankles, and neck.
He was annoying like that.
“See, this is what goes into the equation. F of x has its own definition, and g of x has its own definition. So in this problem we’re just replacing f of x and g of x with what’s written here. You see?” Dash asked, circling the functions and drawing arrows with his multicolored pens.
Fenton just stared down at his paper.
“Here, we can do it together,” Dash said. He took Fenton’s paper and wrote out the equation, going through the problem step by step with his neatest handwriting. Following Kwan’s lead from earlier, he talked through every minute detail about the equation, pausing in between lines to allow the information to sink in, and to give Fenton the opportunity to interrupt if he was lost.
Even though it was obvious that Fenton wasn’t going to interrupt.
And he didn’t. He sat there, staring dully at the paper like he was watching cement dry. And at the end, once Dash put his pencil down, Fenton just ran his finger across the problem, his brow furrowed like he couldn’t figure out how Dash’s writing had ended up on his paper.
And maybe he truly couldn’t figure it out. Maybe he didn’t understand what was happening. Maybe he had no idea that Dash was tutoring him.
Dash wasn’t a mind reader. He didn’t know what was going on in Fenton’s head.
“That makes sense, Dash!” Kwan supplied from across them, his voice bright and cheery.
Even though they were technically just tutoring Fenton, framing the group as a small, informal study group seemed more appropriate in Dash’s eyes.
“I think I understand this a little better now. What do you think, Danny?”
Fenton blinked slowly, his head raising to face Kwan.
“Do you think you get the first problem?” Dash asked.
Fenton’s gaze flickered over to Dash, and the confused expression on his face deepened. He cocked his head slightly, as if he was just seeing Dash for the first time.
A beat of silence stretched around the table, and Dash held his breath, waiting for something to happen. But after a moment too long, Fenton just turned his attention back to the paper, staring at it motionless.
Dash couldn’t help but send a quick ‘help’ glance over at Kwan. He had never tutored anyone in his life, much less a teen who was seemingly incapable of responding.
Maybe...maybe this was a mistake. Maybe he was wrong to think he could do this.
But fortunately, before he could get too deep in his own insecurities, Kwan came to the rescue. “Dash, can we do one more together before trying a problem on our own? Number two looks a little different than number one, and I don’t really understand how to set up the equation!”
Dash sent a mental thank you Kwan’s way before plucking a purple pen off the table. “Sure!” He turned to Danny’s paper. “Okay, this is f of x. Looking at the equation, we know that it goes here. And this—” He swapped to a green pen “—is g of x. Where do you think this one goes?”
He sat patiently, as if he were waiting for Fenton to respond.
But Dash knew that he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He was wasting his time with this pause, even if he was only doing it to be polite.
Truth be told, he didn’t even think Fenton was listening to him. Fenton probably was incapable of that. Hell, he probably didn’t even remember where he was or how he got here.
But, just as Dash was about to go ahead and answer his own question for Fenton, the small teen shifted beside him. Dash’s eyes snapped onto Fenton, watching as the boy lifted his arm off his lap and pointed to the paper.
Dash’s eyes trailed down to the worksheet, down to Fenton’s hand, and froze.
Fenton was pointing to the correct part of the equation.
He had been listening to Dash. He, somehow, was able to understand Dash.
Dash looked over to Kwan, who too was resembling a fish with his open mouth stare at the duo. His eyes met Dash’s, and a smile overtook his expression. He shot Dash a thumbs up, a clear encouragement to continue on.
“Yeah,” Dash breathed, turning his attention back to Fenton. “Yeah, that’s it.”
Fenton’s hand dropped back to his lap.
“Good, now let’s solve this together.”
As the days turned to weeks, slowly tutoring Fenton got a little easier. Though it was still impossible for Dash and Kwan to know just how much Fenton was absorbing with their sessions, they were starting to be able to decipher small behavioral quirks in Fenton’s body language to help guide them through the haze.
An eyebrow twitch here, a tiny jerk of his pupils there. His movements were small, but telling. And when he was truly spaced out, when their questions would yield not even the faintest twitch from him, a gentle tap on his arm seemed to pull him back to reality.
Tutoring Fenton could be difficult—some days it felt like nothing they said was committing to his fleeting memory—but it wasn’t impossible. Because under that dense fog clouding his mind was still the annoying, snarky teen they had grown up with.
And some days, they could still see glimpses of that snarky teen in him.
“Yeah so the coach is having us an extra gym routine tomorrow,” Dash said, closing his notebook and leaning back in his chair. “So I’ll probably be a half hour late picking you up. Sound good?”
Fenton didn’t respond.
Not that Dash was expecting him to.
“I hear we’re gonna have a wall-sit contest,” Kwan said. “Dale crushed us all last time, but I’ll have my revenge this time around!”
Fenton’s eyes flickered up to Dash. He tapped his thigh, the corner of his lips twitching up.
Fenton paused, seemingly mulling something over, before loosely pointing to Dash’s legs with a subtle smirk.
Dash sat up, realization dawning on him. “Are you…are you calling my legs weak?”
Judging by the ghost of an impish grin on Fenton’s features, Dash was right.
“Really? You too?”
Fenton grinned and tapped his legs again.
“Oh, like you’re one to talk!” Dash crossed his arms. “I could kick your scrawny ass to next year if I wanted to!”
Fenton raised his brows ever so slightly.
“What, you think just because you’re Phantom that means you’re stronger than me?” Dash jammed his thumb to his chest. “Don’t forget who your gym buddy was Freshman year! Once those inhibitors come off, it’s you and me at the gym! I’d like to see you try to keep up with me, Fenton!”
Dash heard a snort from the other side of the table. His head whipped around to see Kwan with his hands cupping his mouth.
“What are you laughing at?”
With that, Kwan bursted out laughing and leaned back in his chair. “Dude!” He exclaimed, seemingly catching a breath. “You really think you can bench more than Phantom? Oh my god—I can’t breathe—that’s the funniest fucking thing!”
“Hey, have my back here!” Dash snapped. He glanced over to Danny, whose face had broken out into a full grin. “Yeah, laugh it up why don’t you!”
Danny just tapped his legs as a response.
Kwan roared in laughter and all but fell off of his chair.
“Oh, shut up!”
“We want in,” a voice said from above him.
Dash stuffed his notebook into his backpack, not even bothering to glance up at the speaker. “What are you talking about?”
“We know you’ve been doing homework with Danny after school, and we want to join.”
Dash sighed and threw his bag over his shoulder. He stood, facing Manson in all her glory. Though her outfit didn’t scream quite as goth as it had when they were Freshmen, she still had the same self-righteous stance that had always irritated Dash.
“Okay?” Dash responded. “And who is ‘we’?”
“Tucker and I. You know, Danny’s best friends? Have been since elementary school? The two people who have actually been there for him this whole time? Ring a bell?”
Dash rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m leaving. Study with him on your own time.”
He turned to walk away, but she grabbed his arm, pulling him back. “Wait. Sorry, just—” She paused, dropping her arm back to her side, and Dash watched as a myriad of emotions flickered through her expression. Her gaze dropped to the floor, and cracks of insecurity seeped through her features. “Sorry. Let me start over.”
He straightened back up. “I’m listening.”
She took a deep breath. When she started, her voice was quiet but steady. “I get why Lancer asked you and Kwan to work with him. I do, I get it. But Tucker and I are his best friends. And you know how he is right now. Those devices are...they’re messing with his head. I know they are.” Her gaze flickered up at Dash, and she looked scared. “It hurts seeing him like this, you know?”
“Yeah, I know,” Dash said. “But I don’t see what this has to do with our study sessions.”
“He just seems happier now since he started. He seems better.”
Dash blinked. Whatever he was expecting her to say, that definitely wasn’t it.
Manson hugged herself, her shoulders hunching. She looked...small. Fragile. As if the slightest breeze would topple her over.
This wasn’t like her.
“Whatever you guys have been doing, it’s working. He’s getting better. I don’t know, he just seems more present now. And...it hurts that I haven’t been there during this. You know, it’s been months since I’ve heard his voice. Not since before he got captured, since before those evil devices were forced on him. I know they’re preparing for a court case to get them removed, and I know there’s a chance he’ll get better again, but I just…”
“You miss him,” Dash said, surprising himself.
“Yeah. I do.”
Dash sighed. “I don’t know how I can help with this.”
“Just give us a chance? Please. Just let us tag along, even if it’s only for a few days a week. We won’t interfere with the tutoring, we just want to be there.”
He stared at her silently, studying her face under her bangs.
The past year had been hard on her, that much was obvious. And Dash, as unobservant and bullheaded as he was, could see the dark circles under her eyes, her blotchy skin, her chapped lips.
The way she stood there before him, a person who she would never have been caught dead being friendly with, defeated and all but begging for help.
Dash wasn’t selfless. He wasn’t altruistic.
He was just a dumb jock.
But in that moment, as he scrutinized the way her hands fidgeted and her lower lip wobbled, he couldn’t help but feel her sadness, her regret.
It was painful to watch.
“Okay.” He turned away. “We meet at Kwan’s at four. I’ll see you both there.”