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Phantom of Truth

Chapter Text

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end.

- C. S. Lewis

He hadn't wanted to go.

Maddie sat at the table in her own lab, absently fiddling with some random device. She couldn't even remember if she was assembling or disassembling it.

Danny had scraped by in every class this year except PE. The teacher, Ms. Teslaff, had offered him an extra credit chance to save his failing grade by attending the annual boot camp held for the football team. It would take a month out of his summer, but Danny would be able to graduate and move on, instead of being held back a year. He'd hated the idea from the start, but for her and Jack, the choice was obvious. They'd seen him off just a couple of days before she got the call from the GIW.

Maddie remembered her amusement at Danny's disgruntled slouch, which he'd stubbornly maintained for the entire ride to school even with Jack's physics-defying driving habits. She'd hoped the fudge she'd slipped into his jacket pocket would cheer him up later.

According to the camp staff he'd been there less than a day. There had been some last-minute option to take the return bus, and he'd been on the list. Except no one remembered seeing him on that bus. No one remembered whether he got off in Amity Park. No one had bothered to make sure he got home.

A delicate circuit board snapped under her fingers. Disassembling, then.

Jack, when he'd discovered the error, had been beside himself. The school board was in an uproar. The camp staff had fallen under scrutiny for criminal neglect. Teslaff had resigned. The other boys were being questioned.

As for the GIW, according to their apologetic public relations manager none of them could be bothered to keep up with Amity Park's non-paranormal news. The number they'd given her to leave with Jack as an emergency contact had proved next to useless. The ghost research facility was officially nonexistent. All the stupid, useless bureaucratic secrecy that surrounded the GIW agency had made tracking her down impossible. They'd just run him in circles, transferring his call from branch to branch. It was only when Danny's plight had made national television, five days into the search, that anyone with authority took notice. Even after that it had taken days to extract her from the red tape.

Maddie didn't care who was to blame. Today, nine agonizing days since she'd returned, made it six weeks that her Danny had been lost.

The device in her hands was now nothing but mangled metal and plastic. Maddie sighed and tossed it in the scrap bin. Her gaze fell on the battered remains of the BOOmerang jutting out of the broken odds and ends. She'd had half a thought—more of a wish, really—to go looking for Phantom. That had been their only long-distance tracking device keyed into the ghost's ectosignature.

The battery light blinked weakly in the broken device. Jack must have worn it out long before Phantom's escape. With the electromagnetic field in place, the GIW facility would have disrupted its homing properties, rendering it useless. Even if she did manage to fix it... .

Maddie snatched up another invention and a screwdriver, prying at the outer paneling with a vengeance. She had to face reality. The GIW facility was a long day's drive from Amity Park. That was all. A ghost at its weakest should have been able to make that journey in a week. It had been nine days. There was no sign of the halfa, not even a rumor. She'd failed to save him after all. No, it was worse; he would have lived longer if she'd just left him. He would have been in the hands of the GIW, yes. But he could have survived, instead of...

The screwdriver slipped and gouged a deep scratch into the stainless steel tabletop. She pushed away the device and rested her forehead on the cold metal surface, tugging her hands through her hair.

Phantom, white hair dulled with dust, bright eyes hollowed out and dark, flesh and bones flaking away into dust. Her Danny, bloody, broken and still in the depths of some nameless ravine.

She squeezed her eyes shut, but the images wouldn't leave her.

What kind of sick irony was this, that she had to lose them both? Was it punishment for her earlier blindness, some way to hammer home just how much she had failed to see? With Phantom there was at least some sense in it, in her twisted, old way of thinking where he was "just a ghost." Her Danny? For that she could blame nothing but miserable, cruel luck.

She heard the front door shut, then cabinets banging in the kitchen upstairs. Jazz must be home.

Maddie sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose to ward off an oncoming headache. She wasn't ready to face her daughter again just yet. Jazz had taken all of this so hard. Not that it was easy for any of them, but her daughter's mood swung from weepy clinginess to snippy condemnation to black despair without warning.

Jack had always been better at getting through to Jazz, despite—or maybe because of— the traits she shared with Maddie. He'd coaxed her into helping with the search. Abstracting it into a logic puzzle, figuring out search patterns and movement hypotheses seemed to calm Jazz, settling her grief into a focused kind of sadness. Maddie could tell that she didn't believe they would find Danny. After a month and a half in the wilderness, maybe Jazz was the one being realistic.

Maddie wasn't ready to accept that option. Not yet. He was lost. He'd be found.

But Phantom?

Maddie balled her hands into fists until she could feel the nails through her thick hazmat gloves. She had contributed—no, that was too kind. It was her direct actions that had orchestrated the death of Phantom.

She should never have pushed him so far; Maddie knew he was too weak to survive the harsh weather. She should have noticed his unique physiology sooner. She should have given the evidence to the GIW and convinced them to work with her to solve his deterioration. She should never have hurt him. She should never have left Jack behind. She should have been here for her family. She should never have left him. She should have coaxed one last goodbye out of Danny, even though he was sulking. He hadn't wanted to go.

Maddie didn't realize the phone had been ringing until it stopped abruptly. She snatched up the cell from the cluttered workspace, answering it before it could go to voicemail. It was Jack.

"Any news?" The words slipped out in one breath, a queasy combination of hope and terror.

"Nothing, Mads." Her usually energetic husband sounded tired. "We're gonna get on the helicopter, they're making another sweep of the woods."

Crushing disappointment swirled with sweet relief. She leaned back in the chair and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. They hadn't found him. No body. No Danny. Good news and bad news.

Jack was saying something about search routes and tree cover. Maddie grasped for something to say. "Tell them to check the river again. Danny's a smart boy. He'd look for water."

Maddie had never been so glad for their longtime friendship with Vlad as she was now, despite its rocky points; their old college friend had set up an open fund for the search, giving them access to the best search and rescue Amity Park had available.

"Nothing we haven't tried before, but... " Jack cleared his throat and spoke closer to his usual blustery tone. "We'll give it another shot."

"Okay." Maddie cradled the phone next to her ear, wishing she could put her arms around her husband. She should be the one comforting him; he'd been doing this for so long alone.

"Jazz says there's a chance we might have overlooked some of the smaller runoffs, so we're going to try a wider sweep this time."

"Jazz is with you? That's funny... " If both of her family members were at the ranger station, then who was upstairs? It could be one of Danny's friends, who let themselves in on a regular basis. Sam had been practically haunting the place until her mother had threatened to put her on a plane to Milwaukee unless she ate and got some sleep.

It could be an intruder. Or a ghost.

At the thought, she stiffened. Maddie gazed at the stairs leading up to the kitchen. That nauseous anticipation was back full force. Maybe even...

"Let me call you back."

She put down the phone and crept cautiously up the stairs, grabbing the Fenton Anti-Creep Stick on her way up, just in case. She peered around the corner of the stairwell.

The kitchen table was littered with slices of bread, an opened carton of orange juice, honey, and jam. It looked like someone had begun making a sandwich and given up halfway. There, sitting at the table, eating peanut butter by the spoonful straight out of the jar, was Danny.

She could see every bone in the hand that held the spoon. He was filthy, covered in grime, black hair hanging raggedly over his eyes. His other hand rested awkwardly on the table, wrapped in what looked like torn-up rags, spotted with dirt and blood. Dark, deep bags like bruises lined his eyes, and an angry, feverish blush stood out sharply on his pale cheeks.

Danny started and looked up as the anti-creep stick clanged down the stairs, fallen forgotten from her fingers. When he saw her face, he beamed.

"Hi Mom," he said. "I made it." Then he reached for a mug, looking hopeful. "Got any coffee?"

by Digestedhuman

Phantom of Truth, End.