“She’s here. I can feel it,” he says to Sam and Tucker as they step through the blackened doorway. He feels the weight of her presence turn on him the minute he steps through, like seeing all the heads in a room swivel at you.
“Yeah, this definitely looks like the kind of place where you’d find a ghost,” Tucker says, hands going to his arms as he visibly shivers. “Structurally unstable, virtually bombed-out, burned to hell and back. Great. Love it.”
“The black upholstery is very Goth,” Sam says with a nervous smile. “I think I feel right at home.” Sam only jokes around like that when she’s anxious. Danny doesn’t blame her. He said he felt the spirit, but that’s a bad way of putting it. The restlessness is so thick it’s practically a taste, here. Once upon a time, he would’ve felt the anxiety that Sam and Tucker are feeling.
Now all he feels is anticipation for impending relief. He’s so close. She needs to come home with him. She needs to rest.
His wrist flexes. Sam notices.
“Getting antsy?” she says, eyeing the staff that wasn’t (was always) there in Danny’s hand. The glowing stars tied around it chime in calming (non)-harmony, a sound that isn’t a sound. It eases some of the supernatural anxiety around them.
“Yeah,” he says as they advance the sagging, damaged stairs carefully. The sky above, peeking through exposed tile, is dark with the promise of rain. He hopes they can make it back before it pours. “Sorry I was dragging you both around all week, trying to find her. I just… yeah.”
Yeah doesn’t really cut it. All week, he’s been surrounded by her influence, her restlessness. She was everywhere at school, her not-sound haunting him everywhere he goes. He’s been buzzing with the need to bring her home, following her trail the best he could when she did her level best to be everywhere. He knows she can’t help it, but he couldn’t help but be a bit miffed before, making him drag Sam and Tucker all around town just to find her. And apologetic.
Now, though? Purpose fills him. The Other Side is a swelling, soundless buzz in his chest. An ending is coming. A resolution. Direction.
“Dude, no, it’s fine. We get it,” Tucker says. “You need to fulfill your duties, we come and help you. That’s the deal. We were the ones that dragged you into this mess to begin with.”
“Hey.” Danny frowns. “I said you guys could stop apologizing. It’s… I won’t say it’s not hard work, but…” How does he put the blue calm of the Other Side he feels into words?
“I can’t say I’m unhappy,” is what he settles on. He gives Tucker a careful noogie after confirming they’re on solid ground. “So stop apologizing. I’m okay with it. Really.”
He’s gotten used to making peace with things, now, anyways. His lips upturn at the small inside joke.
Danny stops to examine the second level. He mentally marks the places where he can feel the wood is ready to crumble and die and where nails are on their last rusted legs. The walls that are not there whisper with the ghosts of family photos that once hung there. It’s all there, knowledge pressing in from the Other Side like a pillow around his ears.
His eyes finally land on the twisted, melted remains of an object. It burns with restlessness, with exhaustion. Chains that lead back to a bedroom. To manacles, at their other end. He follows the taste of pain, walking carefully on the still-solid parts of the house, Sam and Tucker following his footsteps. The restlessness is so thick here, it’s hard to find the epicenter. The remains of the electric guitar are necessary. Ariadne, following a thread. Charon, following after.
The door handle is melted, slag sealing off the door. He brings back the phantom heat of the house fire for just a moment, borrowing it from the Other Side. The metal glows and lets him press the wood of the door open, careful to not let the borrowed fire char at it.
He opens the door.
And she is there.
She sits cross-legged on the edge of a bed that doesn’t exist anymore, strumming a guitar that isn’t in her hands. Her hair flickers in an ephemeral dance of fire. Her clothes are a sharp fantasy of mourning blacks that blink into an outfit that is cool, no, cooler than the last with every snap of his eyelids. She plays expertly, flawlessly, but the sound tugs and pains at his gut. She’s been practicing for so long. Too long. Endlessly. Restlessly.
Her head is turned away from him, but he knows she sees him. Malice attempts to thread thick fingers into his mind. It’s the ghost’s attempt at hiding under the covers at night. It’s her way of praying that if she just doesn’t look at him, that Danny will go away.
But she is so tired, and the Other Side is eternally patient. Death will always take its due.
Sam and Tucker know what to do. They step through first and then step out of the way, like twin stone lions at the entrance of the door. The ghost doesn’t look at them. Doesn’t even notice them under the tension of Danny’s presence as they trail their hands across the room. They aren’t quite like him, but the pact stipulates the sharing of duties. Once they finish circling the room and slide on the amulets his parents designed, they give him steady twin nods.
The minute he steps through the threshold, she snaps her head around to stare at him with a pair of eyes that shine brighter than neutron stars.
“No,” she snarls in a voice that is like a bell and that is not like a bell.
This is the hard part. “I’m sorry,” he says, and he really is, “but you know—”
The torched, ruined bedroom is suddenly absent of cold. Shadows of fire lick at the walls, the blackened posters. A conspicuous outline of a body remains unspoiled.
“It’s time to go,” he says steadily, wielding his staff.
Her mouth twists with bitter rebellion. “Make me, babypop.”
He can feel how desperately the Other Side is pressing around the reality of this ghost, how much she struggles to relieve the pain of the chains manacling her to this realm. It wants to embrace her, soothe her, swaddle her like a blanket and balm her wounds. She needs to rest. He needs to help her rest. He has to. The Other Side is waiting, arms open.
“We’re not going to make you,” he says. “We’re not here to hurt you—”
The ghost’s form spikes as she shrieks in disbelieving protest. A burn skitters across his cheek as she lashes out, claws extended. The pain is muted by the blue calm of the Other Side, letting him open his eyes, but he still feels a bead of ichor trail down his face.
“Leave me alone!” she howls. “You’re lying. You can’t make them forget me. You can’t make them forget me! I won’t LET YOU!” The dissonant frequencies keening at the edge of his hearing sharpen, amplify, and resolve into a negative space rather than a sound. He can feel the not-guitar riff in the marrow of his teeth; the not-melody dizzies his head. He… what was he doing?
“Danny!” Sam says, sharply. Her voice cuts straight through the vibrations. The spirit turns and hisses at her, not-fire streaking out towards her like a wound in the world.
Danny strikes the ground with his staff. Cold, calm green subsumes the erratic, distressed attack and encircles the spirit. She hisses in response, the plume of her hair flaring in defiance. He can feel it in his mind, like tonguing like a loose tooth. Her manacles are ones that he needs the key for.
“I won’t hurt you,” he says as a reminder. She skitters backwards as he advances and tries to send another siren call his way. Tucker’s voice, this time, calls for him.
“No! Stop. I’m staying. Leave me alone ! Don’t let them FORGET ME!”
“I won’t let them forget you,” he says, and she pauses. He darts forward, viper fast, and finally manages to touch the spirit—
—fire a raging fire a panic a terror there is no one coming there is no one to hear you everyone left everyone left EVERYONE LEFT it burns so harshly it is agony utter agony where is your mother your father your sister your fucking boyfriend they all left you there is no one in this house but you burning alive alive alive alive alive ALIVE THEY DON’T REMEMBER—
He plucks a single thing out of the memories, a red-hot coal that hurts to touch, and wrenches himself out as she flails and claws at his arm.
“Amber,” he says around the pain and ichor.
The ghost immediately stills. Even her flickering, burning hair freezes like someone pressed paused on reality. She cocks her head very slowly. Listening.
“Amber,” he says again. “Your name was Amber McLain.”
“Yes,” she says, slowly. Hollowly.
“You want to be remembered?”
“Yes.” Suddenly desperate, she says, “Yes, yes, I do, I—” The phantasmal colour flickers out, leaving her more human. Leaving her tired. “I—yeah.”
He inclines his head, a cue to keep speaking.
The tips of her toes touch the ground first, then her heels.
“I… I’m so scared. Of going. And not being remembered.”
Her sharp fantasy outfit, the impression of rock and superstar and loud, it all drains away like a stain being washed out.
“I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be known. And then I—” Tears begin to flow down her ruined face as she brings her blackened, burned hands up to sob.
“They forgot about me,” she whispers. “They forgot. So I can’t go. Not yet. I need them to… remember me… or I’m gone… like in the fire.” She looks up at Danny. Desperate. Pleading. “I can’t go. I’m so scared. They forgot. They need to remember me. They need to—” She weakly snarls again, hair flickering white-hot in the space between blinks.
Danny steps forward, hands appeasing. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. Amber. I’ll remember you,” he says.
“You will?” she asks. The tilt and blur of reality around her shifts, resolves.
Calms, like a lake.
“I promise,” he says, and shows her his staff. Twined around it, the string of pearly planetoids in miniature make a soft, shining sound. The heat of the room dissipates as the world recalls that it’s a cool, rainy October day. “I remember every one that I help. Every single one. I’ll make sure they remember you. I’ll never forget your name.”
The tears that fall from her face are clean, clear, and cascading. They overflow, pouring down her arms, spilling into the ruined floorboards. They wash away her burns like they’re nothing but errant stains. She looks into Danny’s eyes, whole again.
He smiles. He can feel the Other Side, patient, yearning. He offers his hand.
She takes it.
In the space between blinking, they find themselves ankle-deep in water, hands clasped. The stars above are spilled diamonds, the sky a blue that fills the lungs. He feels it, feels the inexorable pull to the Polaris that points him to the Portal. To home.
Home, to Danny, is a transient. A moment. A passage. A liminality.
It’s time for a visit.
Their feet step quietly through the water. Home looms ahead, shining. He smiles at Amber, who smiles back, slow like the dawn. Here, she is radiant. Her soul is the colour of a note that makes you smile when you sing it. It’s shaped like laugh lines and crow’s feet, warm lines and knobbly knees and band-aids from sneaking out with friends. It’s scarred with the steel of loneliness, shows the signs of a metamorphosis into something hard like a diamond star. She is beautiful, like every soul, and beautiful like no other soul. A contradiction. A truth. Danny would know.
Their feet brush at the shining veil of the Portal before he knows it. He squeezes Amber’s hand once, briefly. She looks at him, eyes shining with stars, and then breaks into a laugh.
“I was already gone, wasn’t I? I was being dumb.”
“A little,” he laughs. “But that’s okay. We all are, sometimes.” They stay like that for a bit, feet tickling the Other Side while they savour the taste of the joke. When the moment ends, Amber looks at him with her diamond eyes, and then hugs him, tight, around the shoulders.
He knew this was coming. The ember-memories in his mind, handed from her to him, flare like the tears threatening to spill over. She was a girl with star-studded dreams who loved dogs and her grandmother’s apple pie and electric guitar and the way rain feels on bare feet.
He’ll miss her. Like he does with each one.
He holds her close and does his best to hug back.
She lets go first. He always makes sure that they’re the ones to let go at the end.
“Don’t forget,” she tells him as they step into his threshold.
His home is the doorway. For a small infinity, she is his guest.
When he comes to, Sam and Tucker have his head pillowed neatly between cushions on the bombed-out floor.
“Coin,” he rasps, and Sam slots a cool obol into his mouth. He chews, and swallows. His wounds, still sticky with drying ichor, are no longer present. Tucker presses a water bottle to his lips. He drinks gladly.
“Rough one?” Sam asks, like always.
“Not at all. She was great, going in.” He blinks, slowly, and eases himself up. It’s always in the moments right after that he can almost forget that he isn’t human anymore. The Other Side is very nearly silent. It is fed. Content. Passage delivered, and passage paid.
He breathes in, out. His wrist flexes.
A new star twinkles at the end of his staff. It’s the colour of a note that makes you smile when you sing it. It’s shaped like laugh lines and crow’s feet, and scarred with the steel of loneliness. It is beautiful.
He touches it. “She was great,” he says a little hoarsely. Sam and Tucker both press themselves in a hug around him. Even as a reaper, grief remains the price for love. A life for a death, and a love for a grief. The eternal trade.
Eventually, he moves to stand. They only let go once he does.
“Uh, Danny?” Tucker asks, breaking the solemn atmosphere.
“Huh?” He turns.
“You… might want to look at your shirt.”
He looks down.
“Aw, fuck,” he says at his ash-stained chest, “Mom’s gonna kill me when I get home.”
Sam and Tucker’s laughter is just as light as his soul as they make their way out of the quiet house.