A fluorescent green gaze pierced through him from the rearview mirror. As much as the eye contact sent chills down Dale's spine, he didn't want to look away. Some primal part of his brain was much more comfortable keeping his eyes firmly planted on the predator in the back seat of the police car.
"Why won't he leave?" Dale whispered to his partner, the woman grit her teeth.
"I don't know, but I'm not the idiot who decided to fucking arrest him." spat Whitney.
"I didn't think it would work!" Dale hissed. They were trying to be quiet, but he was certain the ghost boy could hear them clear as day, especially with the quiet of the late night streets. "I was just following protocol. We're not supposed to ignore criminal activity."
"The protocol," Whitney's knuckles tightened on the steering wheel as she circled the block for the third time. "Is to not fuck with the ghosts Dale. Especially that one."
She jerked her head roughly to the boy in the back seat, he was looking around the car and humming to himself, he didn't appear to be paying attention, but that didn't mean he wasn't listening.
"Look I just... we need to at least keep up appearances. We can't just let people think we aren't even trying."
"Yes! Yes we can!" Whitney snapped her mouth shut as her volume started to rise with frustration, she glanced nervously into the mirror and took a deep breath before continuing in a low tone. "We aren't paid to deal with this kind of bullshit, we radio it in and let a Fenton or a Guy in White deal with it."
"Okay I get it!" Dale ran a hand through his thinning hair. "I just... I feel so pathetic doing nothing when ghosts are just running around destroying public property-"
"Oh yeah no that's fine Dale that's a great reason to go and put handcuffs on the most powerful ghost in the fucking city." Whitney took the next turn a little too sharply, Dale felt himself lurch sideways, but the boy in the back hardly moved. It wasn't especially surprising given his usual disregard for the laws of physics.
As well as all the other laws that Officer Dale was supposed to be enforcing.
"I told you I didn't think he would actually come willingly." Dale whispered harshly, his voice containing just the barest hint of hysteria. "I just wanted to show him that we aren't total pushovers, I didn't expect it to go this far."
They circled the block once more as Dale checked the rearview mirror again. Phantom was playing with his handcuffs, jiggling the chain and twisting his hands around them. It was almost like he was trying wriggle his way out of them, Dale knew perfectly well that they were just ordinary handcuffs, and he could phase through them at any moment. Phantom had to know that too.
Whitney flicked her eyes between the mirror and the road.
"Asshole," the word was barely audible, Dale would have missed it had he not seen her lips move. "He's just doing this to fuck with us."
"Of course he is." Dale rubbed at his face tiredly. "He's probably got nothing better to do, maybe he'll leave if another ghost shows up?"
"And exactly how long do you expect us to go around in circles waiting for that to happen?" Whitney asked through gritted teeth. "This is getting fucking embarrassing."
"Maybe we should just take him in," Dale sighed in defeat. Whitney took another corner way too hard, jostling him roughly in his seat.
"I am NOT taking Phantom back for processing. They will NEVER let us live this down, and I am NOT becoming the joke of the precinct because YOU decided to be a god damn moron and arrest a fucking ghost."
Another sharp turn and the entrance to the city park flew by their windows again, Dale had lost count how many times they'd circled the block, but somehow he was certain that Phantom hadn't.
The little shit was enjoying this, why couldn't he just sneak into a movie theatre to get his kicks like a normal teenager?
Whitney growled and pulled the car into a complete stop, the wheels screeched and Dale let out a loud WHUFF as the inertia jerked him hard against his seatbelt.
His partner violently wrenched the door open and pulled herself out of the car, slamming the door shut behind her with far more force than was necessary.
Dale followed suit and looked over the roof of the car as Whitney pulled open the back passenger door and whistled sharply, pointing up and out into the sky.
"Go on, get. Ride's over, you've had your fun."
"Awww come oooon," Phantom whined, "I didn't even get to hear you use the siren!"
"Don't care, we're the police, not baby sitters. Go find some ghost cops to bother."
"The ghost cops aren't as fun," Phantom moaned, but he did as he was told and stepped out of the car. "You know, you guys shouldn't swear so much around minors, you're corrupting the youth!"
"I'll corrupt my foot up your ass if you don't get going." said Whitney, flatly. She put her hand out and Phantom effortlessly dropped the cuffs from his wrists and tossed them at her.
He pulled a face at her as she fumbled with the handcuffs, sticking out a very green tongue.
"I saw that young man!" Dale pointed at him from the other side of the car. "Don't let us catch you disrespecting an officer of the law again! Next time you won't get off with just a warning-"
"Dale! For the love of all that is holy shut your damn fool mouth!"
Phantom hopped backwards from the irate woman, his last few steps landing on empty air. He floated gently upwards with a shit eating grin on his face.
"Well this has been fun but I gotta head off, but thanks for the company! We should do it again some time, see you around!" He waved a casual salute and swung around, legs stretching out into a long swirling tail as he sped off into the sky.
Dale felt his knees shaking as he slipped back into the car. Whitney settled into her seat, hands steady as a rock as she belted herself up and started the car.
"That was terrifying." He gasped.
"And yet you still had to keep playing bad cop."
"I'm sorry it just slipped out! He's no different to any of the other punks we deal with around here. A wiseass with no respect for authority." Dale huffed and folded his arms, crossly.
"...He probably wasn't any different, before he died." Whitney said, quietly.
Dale didn't respond, letting the statement sit heavily between them as the car pulled away from the curb.
"I forget that sometimes, you know." said Dale. "This is the first time I've ever seen him up close and he... he really does just look like some kid. How do you think he... how do you think it happened?"
Whitney let out a deep breath as they completed their final lap around the block and headed in toward the city centre.
"I have no idea, and I'm pretty sure that's the kinda thing you can't ask." she paused for a moment, before continuing with a quiet pain in her voice. "He's so young."
"I wonder if his parents know," Dale mused sombrely, "That he's, you know, still around?"
A car cut them off suddenly at an intersection.
"That was a red light." Dale announced.
The police car's lights flashed as the siren echoed through the empty streets, and Whitney slammed her foot down to catch up with the offending vehicle.
The conversation was over, but neither cop forgot about the incident, and neither could look at their city's hero and menace quite the same. Dale had gotten quite good at seeing ghosts as merely 'creatures', or 'monsters', things that were entirely Strange and Other. Being up close and personal with one had been a much needed reminder of what a ghost truly was.
And that ghost, the one messing around in the back of his car, was a boy. Just a boy. A boy who had a family, a boy who had a life, a boy who had died.
When Dale got home in the early hours of the morning, he hovered by his kids' bedroom, carefully easing the door open to look at their little sleeping faces. Just to make sure they were still there, right where he left them. Still breathing, still alive.
He knew there was a family out there somewhere, parents who had looked through their son's bedroom door and seen only cold, empty sheets.
Dale stepped very carefully over the spilt lego pieces on the floor, and gave his girls both a long, heartfelt kiss on their little heads, before going back to his own room to lay by his sleeping wife's side.
No, no he truly couldn't look at Phantom quite the same way, not anymore.