Preface

Familiar
Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at http://archiveofourown.org/works/44332507.

Rating:
Explicit
Archive Warnings:
Underage, Graphic Depictions Of Violence
Category:
M/M
Fandom:
Danny Phantom
Relationship:
Danny Fenton/Vlad Masters
Characters:
Danny Fenton, Vlad Masters
Additional Tags:
Alternate Universe - Canon Divergence, Alternate Universe - No Time Travel, Episode: s02e08-09 The Ultimate Enemy, Not Canon Compliant, Not A Fix-It, Canonical Character Death, Orphan Danny Fenton, Runaway Danny Fenton, Angst, Teenagers, Grief/Mourning, Billionaire Vlad Masters, Vlad Masters Isn't Evil But He Isn't Good Either, Hurt/Comfort, Mystery, Complicated Relationships, Sexual Tension, Mad Science, Sharing a Bed, Ghost Biology (Danny Phantom), Sensuality, Healing, Slow Burn, Emotional Manipulation, Vlad Masters Is A Pathological Liar, Ghost Cores (Danny Phantom), Developing Relationship, Worldbuilding, Far Frozen (Danny Phantom), Survivor Guilt, Blood and Gore, Other Additional Tags to Be Added
Language:
English
Stats:
Published: 2023-01-16 Updated: 2024-07-12 Words: 74,423 Chapters: 18/?

Familiar

Summary

With his family and friends dead and his life spiraling into darkness, Danny Fenton runs to the only person who could possibly understand his situation:

Vlad Masters, his worst enemy.

Arrival

He was in foster care for two months before he ran away.

Robert and Linda were good people, but that was part of the problem. They were too nice. They cared too much, tried too hard to understand him. Only they couldn’t understand, not really. Not everything. So Danny packed his backpack with a few meager possessions, filched seventy-six dollars from Linda’s purse, and flew one thousand and forty-three miles to Aspen.

Not in a plane.

The journey took him eight days. He slept in parks and under bridges, used the showers at truck stops, ate too much cheap fast food, didn’t drink enough water. He flew over interstates and cities and farmland and a million acres of wilderness. Got turned around four times. Cried so hard he couldn’t see. Tried to make his money last so he wouldn’t have to resort to stealing or phasing and entering. Did both anyway when the money ran out.

He landed on the portico of Vlad Masters’s winter retreat, exhausted and filthy, with two crumpled dollar bills in his pocket from a tip jar at a Denver Subway. Shivering in his damp Casper Ravens hoodie, he pressed the ringer and waited with the same kind of resigned patience seen in the homeless or terminally ill.

Vlad himself opened the door. He froze, staring into fifteen year-old Daniel Fenton’s pleading eyes, before slowly stepping aside. “Come in.”

No questions. No scorn. No animosity whatsoever.

Gulping down a sob of relief, Danny entered.

Dark wood, stone floors, wine-colored walls. Rustic architecture. The foyer smelled like leather and some kind of berry spice potpourri, rich and enchanting. He followed Vlad to an elevator tucked beneath the staircase, his grimy sneakers sinking into the plush rug. The air inside the car was clean and fragrant. Danny’s face glowed with shame. The pristine surroundings only italicized his recent lack of hygiene. He felt like a piece of rotting week-old garbage.

“You may stay in the guest suite on the second floor,” Vlad said as the elevator ascended with a smooth purr. If he could smell Danny—and Danny knew he could because he could smell himself, the thick, sour odor of armpits and unwashed hair—he was uncharacteristically tactful about it.

It felt bizarre, the lack of insults and haughty, rambling remarks. Like everything had suddenly changed between them. Well, why not? Everything else in Danny’s life had. His arch nemesis doing a one-eighty and welcoming him into his home without so much as a question was really the least crazy thing that had happened lately.

“I guess you heard, huh?” Danny said.

Vlad gave the smallest of nods. “Yes. Tragic.”

That was it. One word. The deepest expression of sympathy he could offer, and he didn’t even sound that sorry. A torrent of anger surged through Danny’s veins, making his eyes flash ecto-green.

“I thought you loved my mom.”

“I did. Once.”

A soft ding. The car stopped and the doors slid open. Danny took a tentative step out.

“Second door on the left,” Vlad said. “There’s an en suite bath with everything you’ll need. I’ll have the staff bring some clothes up for you.”

A lump formed in Danny’s throat even as his cheeks burned with embarrassment.

Maybe it was a mistake coming here. He didn’t want charity. He didn’t even really want sympathy. He wanted something familiar. He wanted to hear the taunting edge in Vlad’s voice, to see the arrogant sneer of perfect white teeth and the vicious, long-simmering spite blazing in his eyes. He wanted heat. He craved conflict, discord, violence, the color red. Because as long as he had an adversary to fight, he didn’t have to think about the pain that was eating him alive.

Vlad, however, refused to play his part. “Dinner is served at six,” he said. “I believe it’s lamb tonight. But if you prefer something different…?”

“Lamb’s fine.” Danny had never eaten lamb in his life. He wondered if he’d be able to. Sam said—used to say—that anyone who ate baby animals was a cruel, heartless, sadistic monster.

“All right,” Vlad said. “See you at six.”


The bathroom in the guest suite was bigger than the Fenton family living room.

Danny stripped off his reeking clothes and stepped into the most luxurious shower he’d ever taken. Purified, pH-balanced water rained gently onto his shoulders from a parasol-sized shower head, one of five set into the terrazzo walls. The hypoallergenic, artisan-crafted goat milk soap formed a creamy lather between his hands, and the salon brand shampoo and conditioner infused his hair with fantastic scents. There was even a real sea sponge mounted to a long handle for scrubbing hard-to-reach places. Gloriously fluffy towels, white as virgin snow, lay on a warming rack for him when he got out. He didn’t know it was possible for fabric to be that white.

The parade of affluence didn’t end there. The sinks and faucets were of the highest quality, sleek and modern, yet somehow complementing the manor’s old world European chic. There was even a full-body drying system built into the floor. Danny went through the cabinets and found there was indeed everything he needed, and then some: deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash, an entire fleet of shaving supplies, combs, hair brushes, lotion, powder, half a dozen other grooming appliances, all high-end, all new. Danny wondered how it would feel to live like this every day.

He emerged from the bathroom wearing a one-hundred percent Egyptian cotton terry robe and smelling like a Swedish spa. The staff had stocked his dresser with socks, boxer shorts and tees, all crisp white. A pair of drawstring khaki trousers with a dress shirt and a pair of fleece-lined house slippers lay on his bed. A note sat atop them.

Mr. Masters regrets the lack of wardrobe options for his most recent guest. Proper accommodations will be made shortly.

Proper accommodations. As if being asked to make do with one-hundred-dollar Banana Republic cargo pants was a hardship.

Danny shrugged off his robe and got dressed.


The dining room glowed with the same kind of soft, dim ambience of a soap opera—what few Danny had suffered through, anyway. A chandelier of antlers hung from the ceiling, bathing the room with demure golden light. A fire crackled in the hearth. The table was a single slab of wood hewn from a massive tree. Probably something rare and endangered, Danny suspected.

Vlad waited for him at the head of the table, his silhouette backlit by fire. Danny took a seat at the empty place setting to his right and kept his eyes to himself.

Two servers materialized out of the shadows and laid out the first course, some kind of salad with crumbly cheese and fruit—who put fruit on salad?—and vegetables he didn’t recognize. A third server appeared at Danny’s elbow and poured milk from a frosty pitcher into a crystal goblet. Vlad received wine of such a scarlet hue that it resembled blood. He held the glass under his nose and swirled the contents before taking a sip.

“I should have asked this question sooner,” he said, “but are you allergic to anything? Shellfish? Gluten? Tree nuts, perhaps?”

“Why?” Danny muttered. “So you can use that information to kill me later?”

The barest of smiles curled Vlad’s lips. “If I must kill you, dear boy, I’d prefer not to do it with peanuts.”

The hair rose on the back of Danny’s neck. He gulped. “No. No allergies.”

“Good,” Vlad said. “Miserable way to die, anaphylaxis. Slow. Painful. Clawing for air, completely terrified.”

Danny closed his eyes and clenched his teeth.

“Though I think the worst part would be the awareness of what’s happening and knowing you’re utterly powerless to stop it. The torment would be unimaginable. Trapped in your own body, the very conduit of life, which has suddenly decided to kill itself—”

“Yeah!” Danny erupted. “It makes being blown up into a million pieces seem so much better!”

His voice ricocheted off the ceiling rafters before diminishing into silence. Vlad sat motionless. The fire popped and snapped behind him, consuming its meal of wood.

Face crumpling, Danny pressed his hand over his mouth to stifle his sob.

“There are many ways to die, Daniel,” Vlad said after a time. “Most of them are horrific. What happened to your family and friends was a mercy, all things considered.”

“So, what, I should be grateful?” Danny spat.

“Yes. To be alive.” Vlad made a grand gesture with his wine glass. “And to be here, with me.”

“Ha.” Danny sucked back his tears with a congested slurp. “Yeah, I dunno about that.”

“Oh? Then why did you come here, hm?”

The plate of fancy salad turned into a hot, blurry smudge as tears saturated Danny’s eyes. With one blink, they spilled over.

“I’ll tell you why,” Vlad said. “Because I am the only person left on this planet who could possibly hope to understand your situation—and I do. More than your naïve little mind could even comprehend.” His voice softened. “Daniel. Look at me.”

Danny did. Vlad stared back at him with the same intensity he recognized from their many confrontations, except his face wasn’t contorted with rage or cackling with diabolical glee. He was calm, confident, certain. But of course he would be. He was in control of everything now. He held all the cards—cards that Danny had handed over to him without a second thought. His grief had made him stupid. He’d been so desperate for any kind of comfort that he had run to his enemy like a sobbing child, blindly believing he’d be taken care of.

And there was nothing he could do about it. His life was in Vlad’s hands now.

His stomach gave a nauseating twist. Trembling set in, slight but uncontrollable. Vlad set down his glass and pushed his chair back from the table. Danny registered the hand on his shoulder, the warm presence at his left. There was comfort there. Offering, understanding. A place to shed his tears, even if it came from the worst person he knew.

He buried his face into Vlad’s brocade waistcoat and wept.

Vlad didn’t say a word. He patted Danny’s head and let the boy cry himself out for a full five minutes. When Danny finally lifted his face, Vlad passed him a handkerchief. It was crimson and fancy and beautiful, like everything else he owned. His initials were embroidered on it in scrolling cursive letters: VAM. Danny blew his nose and wondered what the A stood for.

“Drink some water,” Vlad said.

Danny took a sip from his water glass. It was neither too cold nor too warm. It tasted like relief. His body yearned for more. He took a gulp, another, and another, until the glass was empty. He set it down with a grateful sigh.

“Better?” Vlad asked, squeezing his shoulder.

A nod.

“Good.” He returned to his seat, spread his napkin in his lap, and began to eat. Daintily. Silver utensils clicking politely on the fine china.

For two seconds Danny was gripped by the hysterical urge to laugh. He had just boo-hoo-hooed all over his worst enemy, the man who had antagonized him ever since they’d first met—and who had just tenderly soothed him while he leaked snot all over his expensive vest. And now? Now…

Inhaling deeply, Danny tucked the damp handkerchief out of sight, picked up his fork, and dug into his salad.

Dessert

Chapter Notes

“I don’t expect you have room for dessert, do you?”

Danny raised his head like a deer in headlights.

“I jest,” Vlad chuckled. “Of course you have room. Boys your age are bottomless pits.” He signaled to one of the servers, and a few minutes later a small dish of custard, garnished with three perfect raspberries, slid in front of Danny.

The salad had been all right. So had the soup, even if he couldn’t pronounce its name. But the lamb had floored him. Roasted to perfection, seasoned with fresh herbs, served with scalloped potatoes and a sauce as light and delicate as springtime. Danny had tried not to think of Sam as he’d sunk his teeth into the tender, flavorful meat.

“What’s this?” Danny asked, peering down at the dish.

“Crème brûlée, a French delicacy. Custard with a caramelized sugar topping.” Vlad leaned back in his chair with his legs crossed and his hands steepled. “Bon appétit.”

Danny had heard of crème brûlée but never tasted it. Tentatively, he tapped his spoon against the sugary shell until it cracked—a delightful sensation. The first spoonful was the most decadent thing he’d ever put in his mouth. The rich, silky texture spread over his tongue like a satin sheet, teasing his taste buds with its mildly sweet, milky flavor. His eyes rolled back and he heaved a wistful sigh.

“You like it?” Vlad asked through the cage of his fingers.

Like it? I could eat a whole bucket of this stuff.”

“Oh, I doubt that. You see, it’s poisoned.”

The spoon froze halfway to Danny’s mouth.

“Yes, quite poisoned. I’m afraid you’ll be dead in just a few short minutes, so enjoy.” Pause. “Well, go on. Eat up.”

Danny glowered. “That’s not funny.”

“No? I think it’s hilarious.” Vlad threw back his head and laughed.

It wasn’t his typical deranged cackle, but it was familiar enough that it caused a strange feeling to wash over Danny, dousing the coals of his anger. Then it clicked into place.

“Wait. You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” he asked, and Vlad stopped laughing.

“Why do you ask, little badger?”

It had been a while since Danny had last heard that patronizing nickname. Strangely, he didn’t mind it at all now.

“It’s like—like you’re trying to act normal. I mean, normal as in how you used to be, all creepy evil villain and stuff. Uh, n-no offense.”

“None taken. Though I’m curious, why do you think I might behave this way, hm?”

“I—I dunno. To make me feel better?” Danny floundered, suddenly feeling the same kind of grasping, helpless desperation as when he was flunking a lit quiz, one of those hard ones where he had to list three reasons to describe how and why he had arrived at a certain conclusion. “To give me a sense of… normalcy? Of what I’m used to?”

A smile crept to Vlad’s lips. “Clever boy. Maybe you’re not so naïve after all.”

For a brief moment Danny’s face warmed with pride; then a scowl knitted his eyebrows together. “It’s still a sick and twisted thing to say to someone. No normal person makes jokes like that.”

“So? Who’s going to stop me? You? Emily Post? The SPCC?” Vlad chortled. “I’m a billionaire, Daniel, and being a billionaire means getting away with things that would land most ‘normal people’ in psychiatric care. Or prison. The wealthy don’t play by conventional rules. Surely you must have learned this by now.” His expression shifted. “However, given the circumstances”—he placed his hand to his breast and dipped his head—“mea culpa.”

Danny scrunched up his face. “Huh?”

Vlad rolled his eyes. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, boy, say excuse me or beg your pardon—at the very least come again. Not a monosyllabic grunt. Grunting is for pigs. You’re not a pig, are you, Daniel?”

A flush rose to Danny’s cheeks. “No.”

“Good. They’re filthy, greedy, rutting beasts, and I won’t tolerate them under my roof. Animal or human.” He lifted his nose in disdain—another familiar image from Danny’s mental library.

“Okay,” Danny mumbled. “What does ‘mea culpa’ mean?”

“It’s Latin for ‘my fault’. A rather fancy way of apologizing, though I believe the colloquial equivalent among your age demographic would be”—Vlad curled his fingers into quotations and said with excessive dryness—“my bad.”

Danny blinked. “Wait. Did you just—apologize to me? Like, sincerely?”

“Eat your crème brûlée, Daniel.”

“Don’t you mean my poison?”

A grin pulled at the corner of Vlad’s mouth. “Indeed.”

It was good poison, and it didn’t last long. Danny was tempted to lick the dish to get every last trace of creamy, custardy goodness, but he knew Vlad would probably glare at him like he was a barbarian, or worse, give him another lecture.

Not that getting lectures from Vlad was anything new. The man adored talking, especially when the purpose was to enlighten the poor plebeian wretches beneath him. That was what Danny guessed, anyway. Jazz was always better at understanding people’s motivations and behaviors. Thinking about her made his heart ache with a special kind of pain.

Draining the last of his wine, Vlad dropped his napkin on the table and stood.

“Well, it’s been an interesting evening, Daniel, but I’m afraid I have some work I must attend to. If you’re looking for ways to pass the time, there’s an entertainment suite upstairs, or you may make yourself at home in the downstairs den. You’ll find a large selection of DVDs there, or you may choose from any of the network channels. The kitchen is not a twenty-four hour buffet; however, you are welcome to any drinks in the refrigerator. Stay out of my study and the liquor cabinet, and if you visit the library, return the books to their proper places. Behave yourself, and perhaps I won’t regret taking you in.”

The last sentence punched through Danny’s heart like a hot knife. He didn’t know why. Maybe because it sounded like a threat. Maybe because it was an unpleasant reminder of his tenuous situation under Vlad’s roof. How he was beholden to him. How Vlad could toss him out at any time, for any reason, and Danny would be on his own again, alone and hurting.

“Okay,” he mumbled, all of the minuscule comforts he’d accumulated that evening vanishing in a single stroke.

Vlad left Danny sitting at the dining table. The waitstaff appeared and began to clear away the dishes.

Danny got up and wandered around the first floor. He didn’t want to go to his room. He didn’t feel like playing with whatever was up in the entertainment suite. He was tired, but he didn’t want to go to sleep just yet. He didn’t want to watch TV or movies. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind to veg out in front of a family sitcom. It didn’t seem right. Not this soon.

Company was what he wanted. Another person. Someone who understood him. He wasn’t looking for conversation or a pair of arms to hug him and hold him and tell him everything was going to be okay. He just wanted to be near somebody, even if that somebody was Vlad Masters.

Curling his hands into fists, Danny went ghost.


It didn’t take him long to find the laboratory. He phased through the ceiling and spotted Vlad at one of the many workstations that occupied the sprawling basement. A portal stood against the far wall, sealed by a pair of thick metal doors. Vlad had just arrived after an apparent detour; he held a snifter of white liquid and wore a thoughtful frown on his face.

He strode across the floor, shoes tapping on the concrete, and stopped before a dated but impressive-looking stereo system, something from the 70s or 80s, Danny guessed. After flicking a few switches and popping in a CD, synthesized layers of rhythm and vocals poured out of the speakers.

“Gonna take my time
I have all the time in the world
To make you mine
It is written in the stars above…”

Danny’s eyebrows performed an impressive range of gymnastics. Depeche Mode? Really? Somehow he imagined Vlad conducted all of his nefarious research while wearing a cape and rocking out to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. His ghost half certainly gave off those vibes—and did wear a cape. It was surprising to learn that the man enjoyed mainstream music.

Danny only knew about Depeche Mode because of Sam. Proto-goth pioneers, she’d called them. Grandfathers of synthpop, EBM and industrial electronic. Danny had no idea what any of that meant. Green Day and Blink 182 were more his speed.

“The gods decree
You’ll be right here by my side
Right next to me
You can run but you cannot hide…”

Rolling up his sleeves, Vlad went to a flat file cabinet across the room and proceeded to rifle through one drawer after another until he found what he was searching for. Danny peered down from his lofty position as Vlad laid the blueprints on his work bench. He paged through the bundle, sipping his drink. Curious, Danny floated down to see what he was brooding over.

He wasn’t that good at reading schematics, but it appeared to be a bulky metal glove—gauntlet, he remembered from history class—with all sorts of integrated ghost tech. Probably some kind of weapon. Or maybe it was for harnessing intangible ectoplasmic energy. A few of the insets seemed to indicate that was its purpose. It wouldn’t explain the retractable claws, though, unless those were for getting a better grip. Danny leaned in with his lips pursed, intrigued.

“Couldn’t find anything to watch on TV?”

He jolted back with a silent gasp. Vlad hadn’t moved his eyes from the plans.

“Yes, Daniel, I know you’re there. I can feel you. Your spectral signature is quite unique. It’s all right, you can show yourself. I won’t be angry.”

Sighing, Danny touched down on the floor and transformed.

Vlad glared at him. “Only annoyed.”

“Sorry.” Danny hunched his shoulders. “It’s just. I didn’t wanna be alone.”

The irritated expression on Vlad’s face smoothed out. He turned back to the plans, sighing.

“I haven’t worked on these for several months,” he said, almost to himself. “They’re still in the draft phase, nowhere near a prototype yet. I haven’t even begun the process of applying my calculations to a mechanical model. Still, I ought to give them a name, even if just to make the plans easier to find.”

“Them? You’re planning on making more than one?”

“Naturally. One for each hand, a pair. They are gloves, you know.”

“Oh.” Danny cringed. So much for being clever. “What’re they supposed to do?”

“Seize and extract,” Vlad answered. “Specifically, they’re for removing ectoplasmic energy from humans and other real-world objects. You were the inspiration, you know.”

“Me? Really?” Danny’s eyes widened. “How?”

“The first time we met. The reunion at my Wisconsin residence. I’d never encountered another hybrid like myself. I was rather put out when you rejected my offer to join me, so I drew up plans for a device that would, in layman’s terms, allow me to rip out your ghost. Not just a simple separation of spectral matter from corporeal matter, mind you, but total and permanent removal.”

For the second time that evening, Danny’s hair stood on end. He took a cautious step back. “Wh—why?”

“Why not?” Vlad shrugged. “Why did man invent the telescope, or launch himself into space? Because he wanted to see what was out there. And I wanted to see what was in you, Daniel.”

He loomed over the boy, his gaze piercing. Danny inched back another step. Vlad blinked and seemed to return to himself. He emptied his glass in a single gulp before turning back to the workbench.

“And spite is a powerful motivator,” he finished roughly.

It’s No Good faded out. Soft Cell’s Tainted Love took its place.

Sometimes I feel I’ve got to
Run away, I’ve got to
Get away from the pain you drive into the heart of me…

Danny stood, thoughts racing, unable to parse what had just happened and clueless as to what to say—if he even should say something. Before he could stop himself, his mouth fell open and the words started spilling out in a nervous rush:

“Is—is it even possible to remove a halfa’s ghost?”

Halfa,” Vlad snorted. “Leave it to entities with the parabiological equivalent of snot for brains to coin such a sophisticated term.” He rolled his eyes. “But to answer your question, yes, theoretically. The process would function on the same principle as any ectoplasmic neutralizer. Your parents created several devices employing that feature. The only difference is that this one would operate on neurological frequencies as well as spectral ones. Frequencies that are responsible for certain wavelength patterns in the brain. Delta waves for restorative sleep. Beta waves for learning. Not only would these gauntlets remove the ectoplasmic entity, it would also remove the resonant electromagnetic frequencies associated with the entity’s spectral signature. In essence, the entire ghost.”

Danny stared.

For the first time since that fateful road trip to Wisconsin, he realized just how smart Vlad Masters actually was. Probably smarter than his own parents. His knowledge of ghosts certainly eclipsed their own, for obvious reasons. Danny’s brain felt like three pounds of raw ground beef spoiling in his skull.

“Of course, all that has changed now,” Vlad added. “I was never able to formulate the correct stoichiometric coefficient to prevent the host body from being stripped of its humanity, such as it were. So I shelved the project.”

That anyone on Earth had the mathematical and scientific wherewithal to even construct such complex equations blew Danny’s mind. But there was one part of all that technobabble he did understand—he thought.

“What do you mean, humanity?”

“Oh, that? It’s quite simple, really,” Vlad said with a wave of his hand. “Humanity is the term I use when referring to the sum of all biochemical responses experienced by the host body during the ghost’s occupation. All the joy, anger, fear, sorrow—”

He stopped, the light in his eyes shifting. “Well, you get the idea. As I said, it’s only a draft.”

He scooped up the blueprints and returned them to the drawer. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”

“Can I stay down here?” Danny blurted. “I promise I won’t touch anything. Or get in your way.”

Vlad hesitated, his brows drawing together.

Danny sensed his window of opportunity shrinking. “Please,” he said in a small voice. “You won’t even know I’m here. I won’t make a peep, promise.”

After a long consideration, Vlad nodded. “All right. I think I prefer having you where I can keep an eye on you, anyway. Sit over there and be quiet.”

Danny walked across the lab and took a seat at a tidy chemistry station.

Take my tears and that’s not nearly all
Oh, tainted love.

Chapter End Notes

It's No Good | Depeche Mode
Tainted Love | Soft Cell

Flux

For the next three hours, Danny doodled stars and planets on a Vladco Industries notepad while listening to electropop hits of the 80s and 90s.

His eyes followed Vlad from project to project as he tinkered with this and made adjustments to that, muttering to himself, scratching equations onto a huge blackboard with chalk. Very old school, Danny thought. Literally. He hadn’t seen a blackboard since he was in elementary.

Vlad worked like a man possessed, imbued with a mysterious energy that bordered on mania. The guy had to be in his late forties, Danny figured, about the same age as his parents. The silver hair made him look older, but he moved like a man many years younger. Bending, squatting, stretching, lifting boxes, rolling large pieces of equipment across the floor, climbing up and down ladders—and he made it look effortless. Danny didn’t notice any spectral glow when he exerted himself, so he wasn’t using his ghost powers. Maybe he worked out, did yoga or something.

It was strangely humanizing, thinking of Vlad huffing and puffing on a treadmill, or grimacing as he bent himself into complex poses. Maybe he wore a sweat band on his head when he exercised, like some kind of over-caffeinated aerobics girl from the 80s, complete with neon pink leg warmers and spandex. The image provoked a chuckle.

Vlad was within earshot and turned to give him a glare. Danny tried to straighten his face, failed, and finally managed to compose himself.

Unexpectedly, Vlad smiled. “Only obnoxious noises are prohibited,” he said, and returned to his work.

Danny didn’t know why his heart felt lighter all of a sudden.

At ten o’clock Vlad killed the music and shut down the lab for the night. Danny followed him up the stairs, anxiety building with every step.

He didn’t want to go to his room. The thought of spending another night alone in the dark, subject to the relentless torments of his own brain, was enough to make him break into a cold sweat.

He needed Vlad. The more he was around him, the less he wanted to be away from him. Egotistical maniac or not, he was the last remaining patch of solid ground in a world that had turned to quicksand, and Danny was too desperate to keep a hold on him to even be bothered by the implications, psychological or otherwise.

He expected Vlad to say something when they emerged onto the first floor, “Goodnight,” or a warning not to snoop around, maybe let him know when he should be up for breakfast. But there was nothing. Maybe he was tired after exerting himself in the lab and didn’t feel like talking. He did look kind of tired, Danny thought. Or maybe he was grappling with this new situation, too. Being nice to people probably didn’t come naturally to him.

Well, if Vlad wasn’t going to say anything, Danny supposed he was going to have to step up and be the better man.

“Thanks,” he said. “For giving me a place to stay.”

Vlad looked at him, nodded vaguely, and walked away. Not even a derisive, back-handed “You’re welcome”. Danny stared after him, confusion and irritation churning a maelstrom in his heart.

And fear. Desperate, clawing fear.

“Vlad!”

Halfway down the corridor, Vlad stopped in his tracks.

Danny stepped forward. “Please. I…” He couldn’t believe himself. He didn’t want to say the words. But he had to. Being alone was far worse. “Can I stay with you tonight?”

His cheeks burned with shame. He struggled to breathe normally, his heart pounding so hard that his whole head throbbed.

“I—I’ll sleep on the floor. It’s nothing new. I’m used to it. I’ve been sleeping on floors for, like, the past week. Bus shelters, train stations, you name it. You don’t even have to—”

“No.”

Danny’s mouth shut with a click of teeth. A familiar hot pressure blossomed in his throat, his sinuses, his eyes.

Vlad turned to him. “Not on the floor.”

The flood of tears retreated, leaving Danny consumed with relief. Then he realized where he would be sleeping, and a cloud of butterflies exploded in his stomach.

Why was he so shocked? This was exactly what he’d wanted. He wanted to sleep in Vlad’s bed—not in a perverted way. He just wanted to be close to someone, to feel the warmth of another body beside him, all night long, reminding him that he wasn’t alone. It wouldn’t be a permanent thing. Just—until he got through this. Until he was himself again. Then he would sleep in his own bed and everything would go back to normal. Or whatever. He didn’t care.

“Okay,” he said softly.

Vlad gestured down the corridor. “Come.”

The master bedroom lay at the end of the main corridor, beyond the library, the study, the den.

Danny followed Vlad through the door and was met by dark walls, dark rugs, and dark furniture. Ebony wood, black walnut. Burgundy reds and hunter greens, midnight blues. Same European hunting lodge style. Mixed textures. Serenely cool. Scents of lavender and that spicy berry he’d first detected in the foyer, but stronger. He inhaled deeply.

Slim windows stretched up toward the ceiling, their translucent curtains grazing the floor. A stone fireplace stood against one wall, its hearth cold. The bed was a massive four-post behemoth, incredibly inviting: a fluffy comforter wrapped in a satin duvet, fresh white sheets, a bank of pillows piled against an ornate headboard. It looked like something out of a fairy tale. Danny wanted to dive into it and sleep for a week.

“No clothes in the bed,” Vlad said as he moved toward a walk-in closet, unbuttoning his waistcoat. “Pajamas only.”

“Boxers and a tee okay?” Danny asked.

“Naturally.”

Danny heaved a sigh. At least he wouldn’t have to sleep naked. He hoped Vlad wouldn’t, either. If he did…

Well, it was too late to back out now.

He removed his white button-down and slid his cargo pants off. He didn’t know where to put them, so he folded them loosely and laid them on the velvet-upholstered bench at the foot of the bed. Normally it took an act of God for Danny to be this tidy, but this wasn’t his home, and these weren’t his clothes. Humility engendered good manners.

Vlad emerged from the closet wearing, instead of a five-hundred-dollar monogrammed pajama set from a European fashion designer, like Danny expected, a plain white tank top and a cheap pair of fleece pajama bottoms. The logo of the Green Bay Packers peppered the fabric. Danny was pretty sure he’d seen something similar at the Wal-Mart in Amity Park.

Right on cue, his mouth went off before his brain had a chance to intervene. “Nice peejays. Didn’t think you wore the same rags as us peasants.” His face promptly drained of color, his eyes widening into mortified saucers.

But Vlad simply smiled. “Anyone can enjoy a good team, king or peasant.” And he disappeared into the bathroom.

Danny dropped onto the bench, sagging into a boneless heap.

This was going to take some getting used to.

After several minutes of faucets running and drawers opening and closing, Vlad emerged from the bathroom and clicked off the light. Danny lifted his head, and his breath hitched in his throat.

Vlad’s hair was freed from its usual neat ponytail. It looked freshly brushed. The white strands that typically formed a vivid stripe down the middle of his head now framed his face. The gray ends swept his shoulders as he pulled back the covers and crawled into bed.

A single word lanced through Danny’s brain, burning like napalm. He recoiled with a shake of his head.

No. He wasn’t thinking right. He was tired, he’d had a rough week, and all he wanted to do was—

“Are you waiting for a written invitation?” Vlad lifted his head, scowling. “Or have you changed your mind?”

Danny gulped. “N-no, I was just—”

“Then get in. Some of us have to get up early in the morning.” He lay down with a huff.

Danny slipped under the covers and curled up as close to the edge as he could get. The lights automatically dimmed after a minute, eventually going out.

As Danny’s eyes adjusted, he saw the black outline of the forest through the windows and the backdrop of the starry night sky beyond. It was a small comfort of how little the world had changed and a painful reminder of how much his life had changed. The same stars he had gazed at through his bedroom window in Amity Park were the same ones staring back at him now. They were steady, constant, unchanging. They felt nothing.

Danny envied them.

He repositioned his head on the pillow and became aware of a strange sensation inside him. It wasn’t his stomach; dinner had agreed with him well enough. A muscle, maybe? It felt like an invisible string tied between his navel and his spine. It vibrated as if plucked. It didn’t hurt, but it felt weird.

He rolled over onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. The thrumming was even more pronounced in this position. He rolled over again and stared into the deep, grainy shadows on the other side of the room. He shut his eyes. When he opened them again, they glowed green. He saw the back of Vlad’s head in perfect clarity now, his hair cascading across his pillow, his bicep peeking out from the covers, how it rose and fell as he breathed.

Breath. Life. Warmth.

The vibrations in Danny’s stomach flared to a powerful crescendo, the waves resonating deep into some untouched void in his soul. They ached worse than all the despair and bruises he had endured in his fifteen years of life.

A soft grunt rose from Vlad’s side of the bed. He shifted, and the grunt became a growl. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” Danny insisted.

Vlad rolled over and met the boy’s worried face. “Your spectral frequency is jumping around like a seismograph. I can practically hear it. Rein in your nexus.”

“Rain? In my what?”

“Not rain, rein, as in—” He balked. “You don’t even know what your nexus is?”

“No. Should I?”

With a frustrated hiss, Vlad threw back the covers. “Amateur,” he muttered. “Absolute infant. Come here.”

Danny froze.

“Come here, Daniel. Unless you want to start sweating ectoplasm and phasing through the bed in a few moments, which will not please me.”

Breaking from his paralysis, Danny scooted across a half acre of bed until he was within arm’s reach. The vibrating inside him worsened even as his heart relished the proximity of a familiar person. A flush of heat spread up his shoulders and his neck and settled on his face. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead. Nausea crashed over him like a wave.

“Vlad, I—I don’t feel so good.”

“Of course you don’t. Your emotions are out of control and your ghost powers are trying to compensate, resulting in a spectral flux.”

“Wh—spectral flux? What is that? H-how do you know all this?”

Because I’ve been studying ghosts longer than you’ve been on this planet, Daniel, that’s why!

Danny winced.

“Now drop the covers and lift up your shirt,” Vlad huffed. “I need to see what I’m doing.”

Quivering with anxiety but at the same time too queasy to care anymore, Danny pulled up the bottom of his t-shirt to reveal the pale skin of his chest and stomach. Vlad leaned over him with hands poised, eyes darting all around, as if he were studying a map. Without warning he made his right hand intangible and sank it into Danny’s abdomen.

“No!” Danny screamed, jerking instinctively.

“Don’t move!” Vlad snarled. His eyes flashed red.

Danny went utterly still, his white-knuckled fists clutching the hem of his tee.

Vlad was inside him. Wrist deep. Danny felt the ghost of his hand—literally—gliding through his muscles and organs. The sensation of heat followed his movements. Other ghosts had passed through Danny before, or overshadowed him, but their energies were nothing like Vlad’s.

This actually felt good.

“Breathe, Daniel,” Vlad muttered.

With a perplexed blink, Danny released the breath he’d been holding. He looked down at his belly, at the white glow outlining Vlad’s ghostly blue forearm. Spectral tendons flexed as he moved, searching, feeling around. Danny tried not to think about how weirdly erotic it was, having Vlad’s hand inside him, touching things that had never been touched before.

He pinched his lips between his teeth and stole a glance at Vlad’s face. The man was wholly focused on his task, his long hair draped over his shoulders, his brow furrowed in concentration. Permanent frown lines were carved between his eyebrows. He had deepening wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. Long eyelashes. The wiry hair peeking out from the neck of his tank top was mostly dark, like his eyebrows, but sprinkled with white. He smelled like minty toothpaste and some kind of nice lotion.

As if suddenly aware he was being observed, Vlad tilted his head up and met Danny’s gaze. Danny’s eyes skittered away, his heart performing a nervous pirouette.

“How do you feel?” Vlad asked.

Confused was the first word that popped into Danny’s mind. At least the nausea was fading and the thrumming sensation in his midsection was beginning to ebb. He managed a shaky nod. “Okay, I guess. Better than before. What—what’re you doing, exactly?”

Vlad shifted his weight to stretch out beside Danny, keeping his hand steady. “I’m soothing your erratic spectral frequencies with my own. If you stay calm, we’ll fall into sync shortly.”

Danny’s cheeks warmed.

In sync. It sounded so entwined. So sensual. So—

He shut his eyes tightly. The word he’d banished earlier came roaring back to him in full Dolby Surround Sound, and it brought friends.

Sexy. Penetrating. Soothing. Sync. Inside. Warmth. Breath. Control

“What’s wrong, Daniel?” Vlad’s voice cut through the invasive stream. “The flux is getting worse. Your nexus is becoming agitated again.”

“I’m sorry,” Danny stammered. “I don’t—I can’t stop—sorry, I’m just so nervous!”

“Why are you nervous?”

“I don’t know!”

“Surely you must. Your thoughts are intrinsically tied to—”

“I don’t, I swear! It’s just—you’re—I’m not—”

With a muttered curse, Vlad rolled onto Danny, pinning him to the mattress with his own body.

Three months ago, Danny would have reacted with swift and blinding violence. He would have thrown Vlad off of him and planted him six inches into the opposite wall—and prayed it knocked him unconscious so Plasmius wouldn’t rise to retaliate.

But tonight, the weight and the warmth of Vlad Masters was a poultice on Danny’s lacerated heart. The thrumming inside him subsided. The discordant vibrations ceased. Stillness and peace reigned—and then came a harmonious pulsing. The tumultuous tempo in Danny’s ghost slowed, gradually aligning to another beat he hadn’t detected until now.

“What is that?” Danny whispered into a tangle of gray hair.

“It’s me,” Vlad said, and Danny felt the rumble of the man’s deep voice in his chest. “It’s my spectral signature. Focus on it.”

Danny shut his eyes. He found Vlad’s signature in a black gulf somewhere between consciousness and coma, a throbbing magenta glow. He swam to it, latched on to it with his whole being.

He heard a soft gasp in his ear, and Vlad shivered against him. Before Danny realized what he was doing, he wrapped his arms around Vlad’s shoulders and bent his knees to cradle the man’s legs.

They lay clasped together in the shadows, waiting, breathing, rebalancing. Every atom in Danny’s mortal flesh sang with relief. All tension left his body. His muscles relaxed, his respiration slowed. His heart beat in unison with Vlad’s, separated by only a few inches of blood and bone. An overwhelming serenity descended over him, and in that moment he knew everything was going to be okay.

He was going to be okay.

With slow, careful effort, Vlad pushed himself up. His face was pale, thoughtful. He let out a frosty white breath and shuddered.

“Get some sleep now, Daniel.”

He rolled off of the boy and lay down on his side, pulled the covers back up. As if nothing had happened. Danny stared at him, the glow of their shared frequencies fading like an infrared handprint on cool metal.

He missed it already. The physical contact. The spectral connection. For just a few short minutes, everything had felt right. He’d been at peace. The man responsible for so much torment and terror had done for him what no one else had managed to do. He’d succeeded where they all failed. Robert and Linda, the Amity Park PD, the social workers, the grief counselors. Danny didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know what to feel. He didn’t know anything, really.

Turning away from the windows, he reached across Vlad’s pillow to touch a lock of his hair.

He fell asleep with it wrapped around his finger, and dreamed of a lifesaving flame burning on a cold winter night.

Meat

When Danny woke, he was alone.

He knew it before he blinked open his eyes. The warm presence that had lain beside him all night was gone. No soothing red pulse, no mollifying frequency throbbing on the edge of his consciousness. Nothing but a flat line now.

Bright daylight glowed around the edges of the curtains. He lay in the king-size bed and gazed at the empty space Vlad had occupied, the events of last night slowly percolating through his brain. Nexus. Flux. Sync. Vlad’s heavy body on top of him, quelling the violent dissonance between his two halves. It’s me. It’s my spectral signature. Focus on it.

Sighing, Danny rolled onto his back and was surprised by a familiar ache between his legs. He lifted the covers and peered down the length of his body.

It had been a while since he’d last woken with an erection. In fact, he hadn’t had one at all in six whole days—at least none that he remembered. He had one now, a real throbber, rising to form a stiff peak in his boxers. Maybe syncing his spectral frequency with Vlad’s had done something to him. Or maybe it was just the first decent sleep he’d had in over a month and his body was beginning to shift out of trauma mode.

Biting his lip, he pushed his shorts down around his thighs, grasped himself, and began to pump.

He should go to the bathroom, but the bed was warm and soft and full of nice smells. He closed his eyes and chased his pleasure beneath the sheets. A short while later, he grunted and ejaculated into his cupped hand.

Now he did need to go to the bathroom.

Vlad’s personal accommodations were modest compared to Danny’s guest suite, but only in terms of scale. The bathroom was smaller, fewer cabinets and drawers, only a single sink. Everything was opulent, right down to the soap dispenser and monogrammed towels.

Danny used the toilet and washed his hands under the weird, ultra-modern tap. His reflection in the sparkling clean mirror looked better than it had in weeks. The dark circles under his eyes were lighter. The acne on his forehead had practically cleared up overnight, leaving just two discolored spots. He didn’t feel any new zits coming up, either, thank God. There must be magic in that goat milk soap. Or maybe syncing his spectral frequency—

He shook the thought from his head before it had a chance to complete itself.

No, not now. Breakfast first. Then—whatever.

Forgoing the dress shirt, he pulled on his cargo pants, slipped into his loafers, and timidly opened the bedroom door. No one in the corridor. He crept out and made his way toward the kitchen. As he passed the study, he heard a voice behind the door. He paused, holding his breath.

“—be too much trouble, of course. Yes, they’re on their way to you as we speak. DHL overnight.” Pause. “I should have the obit nailed down by the close of business today. How’s the paperwork coming?” Pause. “Today, if possible. I understand this is very short notice, so I’ve sent an extra ten your way, just to show my appreciation.” Pause. A laugh. “Oh, think nothing of it. After all, what are friends for?” Pause. “Yes, same shipping address. I’ll have someone there to sign for it.”

Danny grimaced. How anyone could stand doing business with Vlad Masters was mind-boggling. The man was more smarm than charm. Condescension practically oozed between his every word. And then there was the shadiness factor, the obvious palm-greasing. What was an obet? Code for some kind of black market auction? Or had he said “obid”? Obin? Whatever he was talking about, it was obviously something illegal. Or unethical. Knowing Vlad, probably both.

Fragments of last night’s dinner conversation bobbed to the surface in Danny’s mind like dead fish.

I’m a billionaire, Daniel, and being a billionaire means getting away with things that would land most ‘normal people’ into psychiatric care. Or prison.

With a disgusted shake of his head, Danny stepped away. There was nothing he could do about it. This wasn’t his bag. Busting corporate sleazeballs was for the Feds—or whoever did that sort of thing.

Besides, he could be wrong. Vlad might be totally innocent.

For the first time in a long while, Danny chuckled. It felt good to laugh again, even if it was because of the appalling business practices of a crazed-up fruit loop.

Speaking of fruit loops…


The kitchen, like everything else in the house, was fancy, tidy, and straightforward. Sink, oven, refrigerator, pantry. Wine cooler. Bowl of fruit on the counter. Danny grabbed a banana and went to the fridge.

The contents consisted almost entirely of dairy products. Jugs of cow and goat milk of varying fat content. Half and half, whipping cream, regular cream. Greek yogurt, regular yogurt, plain yogurt, fruity yogurt, yogurt cups, something called kefir in no fewer than six different flavors. Fancy foreign grassfed butters. Drawers and shelves packed with more varieties of cheese than Danny had ever seen in his life, with names he couldn’t even pronounce. Cottage cheese, cream cheese, goat cheese, cheese logs, cheese wheels with rinds.

“Guy’s definitely not lactose intolerant,” he muttered around a mouthful of banana.

There were eggs and a few green things to break up the predominantly white palette. Shiny red strawberries, plump blueberries. Fresh orange juice, unopened. Danny grabbed the juice and shut the door.

Ten minutes later, he sat at the kitchen island and watched Looney Tunes on the small flat screen TV mounted in the corner, munching his way through a bowl of Kashi.

It was the most normal he’d felt in months.

He shook more cereal into his empty bowl and got up to get a second helping of milk. As he returned with the carton, he wondered why Vlad stocked so much dairy. Maybe he was on a special diet, health issues or something. There had to be a medical explanation. Danny didn’t believe anyone could love cheese that much.

The thought had barely left his mind when he caught sight of something on the other side of the kitchen. Its dimensions were similar to an extra large refrigerator, only it was covered in a shell of wood and stained to blend in with the cabinets.

A secret fridge?

Setting his spoon down, Danny walked to the mystery box, grasped the handle, and opened the door.

Meat. Shelf upon shelf of red, raw meat, some of it wrapped, most of it not. A faintly coppery odor entered his nostrils.

A butcher’s fridge? Danny guessed that was normal for rich people. All the typical stuff was there. Ground beef, ribs, a roast or two. But the longer he stared, the worse it got.

First, there was the heart. A whole heart, sitting on a plate, gleaming red and crowned with hard white curds of fat. He could still see the aorta and spindly threads of blood vessels spreading over the surface. Then there was the liver, or what he thought was a liver, a huge, shiny brown mass with a faintly bluish tint. A glass dish of kidneys. Something phallic and bristly. Things Danny couldn’t even identify.

But it was the brain that made his blood go cold.

Stored almost reverently on the top shelf, on a fancy glass pedestal. Pale pink, sitting in a thin pool of blood. Ribbons of scarlet set deep in the fissures of wrinkled gray matter. But the worst part, the part that made Danny’s gorge rise and his knees quiver, was the size.

Small. Like a child’s.

He threw the door shut and stepped back, stomach churning.

Cow. It had to be cow. Or a calf. Maybe pig. Pig organs looked human. That was why they dissected fetal pigs in freshman biology, right? To study them. Because they were so similar. It was all animal. Nothing but animal. Vlad wouldn’t—

Footsteps.

Danny barreled back to his chair and planted himself just as Vlad strode into the kitchen, dressed in tailored navy slacks and a white shirt, the sleeves rolled to the elbows. No tie. Very casual.

And very easy on the eyes.

“Ah, good afternoon, Daniel,” he announced. “It looks like last night’s poisoning attempt did fail after all. I suppose this means you’re stuck with me now.”

Danny stared as Vlad filled an electric kettle from the tap, whistling cheerfully.

“I see you’re finding your way around,” he said over his shoulder.

“Uh.” Danny swallowed. “Yeah.”

“Good. Any questions?”

“Um. N-no.”

“Really? Not even one?”

Danny twitched. No fewer than a hundred questions boiled inside him: What kind of meat was that in that fridge? Where had it come from? What was with all the milk products? What was a nexus? What was an obet? Which circle of hell had he walked into?

But all that came out was a meek, crackly, “Nope.”

Vlad frowned. “I really thought you’d be more inquisitive, Daniel. It’s a sign of intelligence, you know. Curiosity. Hm. Well, I’m sure that will be remedied in time. You’re still young. There might be hope for you yet.”

A muscle under Danny’s left eye twitched. “Do you treat everyone this way, or do you actually have any friends?”

After a startled pause, Vlad laughed. “Why, Daniel, I thought you didn’t have any questions.”

“Sorry. Must’ve been overwhelmed by your awesome presence.”

A vicious smile came to Vlad’s lips. “Cheeky little badger. If you insist upon flirting with me, you’ll have to be more subtle. Flattery is so gauche.”

Danny tensed.

Vlad had always struck him as rather flamboyant, but this was the first time he ever had reason to suspect the man might be playing for the other team. Or both of them. If that was the case, he and Vlad had more in common than just half-ghost DNA.

“Oh, goodness, now I’ve gone and embarrassed you,” Vlad said, clicking his tongue. “Your cheeks are all red, isn’t that precious. Well, let this be a lesson, Daniel. Don’t dish what you can’t take.”

Unable to think of a single retort and too afraid to utter another word, Danny buttoned his lips and watched Vlad prepare a cup of tea. A litany of obnoxious commercials rambled in the background, filling what would have been an unbearably awkward silence. A few minutes later, Vlad departed with his tea and a supercilious tap to his temple.

“Don’t watch too much TV. You’ll turn your brain to porridge.”

Danny pushed his bowl away, appetite gone.


The rest of the day passed in a surreal haze where time didn’t seem to exist.

After dumping his dishes in the sink, Danny wandered upstairs to his room and discovered it had been cleaned and vacuumed. The filthy clothes he’d arrived in were gone. He brushed his teeth for no reason other than to feel normal and ran a comb through his hair. He went downstairs. He pored over Vlad’s DVD collection; lots of 80s slasher movies and slapstick comedies. He went outside and walked around the perimeter, breathing the fresh mountain air. He explored the house and found nothing else out of the ordinary. There was a piano in the living room. He lifted the cover and plinked a few keys.

The pervasive quiet made him restless. He needed sound, voices, music, some sign of life. Back home in Amity Park, there had always been some kind of activity going on. Television spewing noise, phone ringing, Mom and Dad working in the basement, Jazz blasting Mozart and Bach in an effort to mitigate the chaos. Even the constant rumble of traffic out on the street—neighborhood dogs barking, the distant wail of sirens. There was always something to be heard.

He returned to the den and fell asleep on the couch in front of the Discovery Channel. At five forty-five he was woken by a hand on his shoulder.

“Dinner is in fifteen minutes,” Vlad said. “Go get cleaned up.”

Grogginess made him compliant; Danny went to his room and washed his face, combed his hair, and put on his button-down shirt from last night, which had somehow found its way upstairs and into his closet. Maids, perhaps. Someone was obviously taking care of the laundry here.

The smell of seared meat and sautéed onions greeted him when he came back down. He wondered what was for dinner. It smelled good enough. Hopefully it wouldn’t be anything from Dr. Frankenstein’s fridge of nightmares.

Through the west-facing windows, the sun sank behind the Colorado Rockies, tinting the sky purple-pink. A gorgeous view. Probably worth the millions Vlad had paid for it.

Like the previous night, Vlad was already seated at the head of the long dining table, a fire burning behind him, when Danny arrived. He took his place at Vlad’s right hand, and the servers appeared. Dinner was some kind of deliciously creamy and tender meat with a crispy crust and caramelized onions, wild rice pilaf, and spinach and apple salad. It tasted great, but Danny didn’t enjoy it as much as he should have. He couldn’t, not with so many questions desperately clawing the inside of his skull.

Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore. “What’s a nexus?” he blurted.

Vlad wiped his mouth with his napkin and made a dismissive gesture to the waitstaff. They quietly filed out of the dining room.

“The nexus,” he said after a sip of wine, “is the spectral equivalent of the central nervous system. All ghosts have one. You and I have one. But being hybrids, we also have the human one we were born with. The two exist side by side with each other. Sometimes these two systems become unbalanced, especially in times of emotional or psychological distress. I call this state of imbalance spectral flux.”

“How do I stop it from happening?”

“Time and practice, dear boy.” Vlad carefully cut the meat on his plate. “I don’t think you realize just how lucky you are to have me here to guide you. When I was turned into a ghost hybrid, I had no one to help me. No mentor, no father, no gracious benefactor to take me in. Not even any friends. I had to figure it all out on my own. It took me years to learn all that I know, and now here I am, teaching it to you.”

He forked the meat into his mouth and smiled at Danny as he chewed.

Danny sat in his chair and said nothing.

“Oh, that reminds me.” Vlad dabbed his lips with the napkin and slid a plain white envelope out from under his placemat. He handed it to Danny.

With a cautious quirk of an eyebrow, Danny took it. “What’s this?” he asked.

“Your acceptance letter to Mountain View Academy. You start on Monday. Congratulations.”

“Academy?” he echoed. “You’re sending me to a military school?”

“It’s a private school, Daniel,” Vlad said. “A very exclusive one. I thought it best to get you back into a classroom as quickly as possible. You’re a full semester behind, you know.”

Hands shaking, Danny opened the envelope and unfolded the letter. It was an email printout. He didn’t make it past the opening greeting.

Mountain View Academy of Aspen welcomes you, Daniel Masters, to our elite student body.

“You’re kidding, right?” Danny said.

“What do you mean?” Vlad asked over his wineglass.

“Daniel Masters? Is this some kind of a sick joke?”

“Well, I couldn’t very well send Daniel Fenton, currently listed on the register of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to an Ivy League prep school without raising a few eyebrows, now, could I?”

“So you gave me your name?” Danny’s head throbbed. “You could have just made one up!”

“The association will work to your benefit, trust me. It looks better on paper. And in case you’re wondering, you happen to be the grandson of my dear, estranged, and quite fictitious Uncle Victor, which I believe would make us first cousins once removed—”

“I don’t want your name!”

Vlad gazed at him coolly. “I’m afraid that’s too bad. It’s yours now—legally and permanently. In approximately two days, a fishing boat is going to pull the remains of Danny Fenton from the bottom of Lake Michigan, and the missing persons case will be closed.”

“That’s insane. You—you can’t do that!”

“I assure you, dear boy, I can. In fact, I already have. The board is set, all the pieces are in motion, and nothing can be done to stop it. Your old clothes are on their way to Chicago—I hope you weren’t too fond of them—and your new identification documents should be here by tomorrow morning. Birth certificate, passport—oh, and your learner’s permit. All in all, a nice, easy transition. Not bad for a morning spent on the phone, if I do say so myself.”

Danny’s mind spun so fast he could barely snatch a singular thought from the blustering whirlwind. “But—my teeth. Dental records. M-my DNA!” He jabbed his finger triumphantly at Vlad. “They’ll test all that stuff and see that it doesn’t match!”

“Yes,” Vlad admitted, “that would be a problem. But the specialist who will be handling your case is a friend of mine, you see. I have connections with the forensics department where the samples will be sent. Any material lifted from the corpse will be discarded and replaced with yours.”

A sickening pause, and then it finally clicked. “Corpse?” Danny repeated. “What corpse? Whose corpse?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Vlad said. “It shouldn’t be difficult to find a boy who looks like you. Of course, partially dissolving the body in acid will take care of any identifiable physical features, so the only important thing is finding a young Caucasian male of roughly the same height.”

Danny’s eyes went green. A halo flashed over him, turning his hair white and his clothes black.

Vlad laughed. “Oh, this is going to hurt so much.”

With a scream of rage, Danny launched himself over the table and struck Vlad in his center mass. The chair splintered as Vlad went through the back of it, Danny’s momentum carrying them both into the fireplace. Danny went intangible to protect himself—

And pain exploded inside him.

Aaauuuggghhh!

He hurled himself out of the fire with a piercing howl and crashed into the table. Dishes rattled, glasses tumbled over. He clawed at his chest, where a biting, burning, freezing sensation, like knives of ice dipped in battery acid, were attempting to stab their way out of him.

The sound of laughter reached his ears. Weakly, he raised his head to see Vlad Masters sitting among the glowing coals and leaping flames, his eyes a hellish red. Flames licked the clothes from his body, peeling away the layers to reveal bare, untouched skin. Even his hair was unharmed. The tie binding his ponytail was consumed, and the heat currents caused his long hair to billow freely around his face.

“I told you it was going to hurt,” he said.

He rose to his feet, naked and unbothered. Danny scrambled backward. His eyes were wide with terror, his cheeks ablaze with embarrassment. The pain inside him went from blinding to exquisite. He spasmed and began to scream.

In a blur of motion too fast for the human eye to follow, Vlad had Danny by the throat. He dragged him off the floor and brought him down onto the table with a tremendous crash.

“Change back!” he roared.

Danny scrabbled at the fingers around his neck. Vlad lifted him up with both hands and slammed him down again.

Change back now or die!

The threat sliced through Danny’s pain and panic, and he relinquished his ghost. A flash of spectral energy swept over him, returning him to his human form. His skin was ashen white, his lips blue. The flesh around his eyes was such a dark shade of purple that it looked almost black. He could barely breathe. A frigid darkness bloomed on the edges of his vision.

The red glow in Vlad’s eyes went out. “Idiot. What have you done?”

The last thing Danny remembered was Vlad pulling him against his naked body and the image that flickered through his dimming consciousness:

His heart on a plate, pumping air through its severed arteries like a gasping fish.

Then everything went black.

Ice

When Danny was nine, his father took him ice fishing, which was really just sitting in a canoe in the middle of an ice-clogged lake and shivering in the damp air for hours and hours. Danny would rather have been at home, snuggled up in front of the TV with his cartoons and Pop Tarts. Not threading half-frozen worms onto a hook and sitting in two inches of brown, fishy bilge.

The worst part of the trip came toward the end. As they paddled up to shore with just three fish in their cooler, the canoe’s belly scraped the bottom and became stuck. Jack hopped out to haul it the rest of the way, and Danny, who was already standing up in anticipation of rejoining terra firma as soon as possible, lost his balance and toppled into the icy water.

It was shallow, no more than a foot deep, but he fell hard and landed flat on his back. Sharp rocks jabbed into his shoulders and hips, but what hurt most was the cold. It was shocking, breathtaking. He gasped reflexively and inhaled a double lungful of water.

Before the portal accident that would befall him five years later, this was the closest to dying he had ever come.

Everything was foggy after that. He vaguely remembered getting dragged out of the water by his father and pounded on the back. Hard. He was pretty sure he’d thrown up. On the trip home he sat shivering in his wet underwear in the passenger seat, wrapped in a beach towel, while the heater blasted on high and a sullen Jack Fenton dug around on the radio for some cheerful tunes.

Danny would give anything to sit in a car with his dad one more time.

He swam up from the black depths of coma with the memory of that fishing trip following him like a stream of bubbles. His eyelids bobbed open, blinked, focused.

He was on his back in a bathtub full of ice—a dead fish in a cooler—staring up at a cream-colored ceiling. He raised his arm and pawed at the edge of the tub. His cold-stiffened fingers eventually found their grip, and he pulled himself up with a grunt. Ice crunched and crackled and rolled off his chest.

For several minutes he sat in his cradle of ice, butt and thighs completely numb, staring blankly down at the wet boxers plastered to his crotch, the hair on his corpse-pale legs, his bony knees and toes.

Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes, sang his third grade music class at Amity Park Elementary. Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toe-oe-oes…

He rotated his head, gristle crackling in his neck.

A few feet away, Vlad was wedged in the corner between the wall and the sink vanity, eyes closed. His hair was loose. Waves of silver and white spilled onto his shoulders—like a cold ocean, Danny thought. He could almost hear the gulls and smell the salt water. The t-shirt and black jeans he wore were still crisp and creased, as if pulled on only a short time ago. He wore no shoes, no socks.

Danny tilted his head. He’d never seen Vlad’s bare feet before. They were nice. Long and slim, neatly groomed nails, no calluses or cracked heels or misshapen toes.

“Knees and toe-oe-oes,” he murmured.

With a sharp intake of breath, Vlad woke. His eyes met Danny’s. A second later he was on his feet, ripping a towel from a nearby rack. “Come, Daniel,” he said. “Out of the tub. Now. You need to get warm.”

“S’okay, ’m not cold,” Danny said. “’M fine.” And he was. If he were cold, he’d be shivering, and he wasn’t shivering. Everything was fine. He was happy. He was a fish at the market, nestled in his little bed of crushed ice.

“That’s the hypothermia speaking,” Vlad said. “Stand up.”

“But I’ll fall out again. It happened last time. I fell into the wa—”

Moving swiftly, Vlad bent down, thrust his hands into Danny’s armpits, and hauled him up. Ice spilled across the tile floor, twinkling like grains of broken glass. A wave of vertigo knocked Danny’s internal gyroscope off its axis, and he promptly collapsed. Vlad caught him and drew the towel around his shoulders.

“Step out on three,” he commanded. “One, two, three.”

Danny stepped out. His foot touched the bath mat—and then his leg buckled. With an exasperated snort, Vlad wrapped one arm around his waist and dragged him out of the tub.

As Danny wobbled on the mat, supported entirely by Vlad’s mercy and muscles, tears began to pour from his eyes. “I wanna go home,” he wept. “I just wanna go home, Dad, please, take me home.”

The scowl on Vlad’s face relaxed into something both tender and confused. He stared at Danny for a handful of seconds, then, in one smooth motion, ducked down and scooped the boy into his arms. Danny shut his eyes as the vertigo returned, bringing nausea with it this time. He wrapped his arms around Vlad’s neck and dug his fingers into his shirt.

Land. Solid. Safe.

He was carried to the adjoining room—the master bedroom—and placed on the rug in front of the fireplace. A fire crackled in the hearth, small but hot. Vlad kneeled and began to vigorously dry him off. Danny winced as he was jerked and jarred, his hair tousled, his skin rubbed raw. Sensation gradually returned to him. He felt the fire’s heat. It made his flesh prickle and sting.

“Ngh,” he whined. “Hurts.”

Vlad tossed the towel aside and grabbed a nearby blanket, tucking it around Danny. “Look at me,” he said, and Danny turned his head. He lifted Danny’s eyelid with his thumb and studied his pupil. A large black circle bordered by a slim ring of blue. Muttering a curse, he slipped his hand around the back of Danny’s neck.

“You’re probably not going to like this,” he said, “but it’s the only way.” He shut his eyes and inhaled slowly, deeply. His chest swelled and a radiant red glow bloomed under his shirt. He took another deep breath, tilted his head, and pressed his mouth to Danny’s.

A primitive part of Danny’s brain was shocked out of its hypothermic stupor. His stomach lurched. Falling. Water. Cold. He gasped, inadvertently sucking the breath from Vlad’s mouth.

It was like swallowing a summer day. Heat, sunshine, life. A checkered cloth spread on a sea of green grass. Face tilted toward the sun, warm breeze in his hair. The shade of red only seen on the backs of eyelids. Flowers. Freckles. Light and warmth. It sank down Danny’s throat and spread into his chest, his belly, his—

He surged against Vlad like a breaking wave and grabbed him with desperate hands, almost bowling him over backward. Vlad planted one hand on the rug to steady himself. The other settled on Danny’s hip.

Greedily and mindlessly, Danny drank the glowing magenta energy he was given. His body craved it, and not just for the warmth; it felt right and good. Satisfying. Like two lost puzzle pieces clicking together to form a larger picture. He swallowed, sighed, and sucked more of that irresistible light into him.

Vlad broke away to catch his breath. He inhaled fresh oxygen, and the spectral glow in his chest blazed like stoked coals. He leaned into Danny and met his hungry mouth again, feeding him like a bird feeding its chick. A whimper rose in Danny’s throat, terminating as a soft moan. His questing hands found Vlad’s head and buried themselves in his hair.

They settled into a rhythm, two silhouettes clinging to one another, panting and gasping, mouths open, a white halo of spectral energy radiating from their bodies. Gradually, like the spring sun melting daffodils from their cocoons of ice, Danny’s brain began to thaw its way back to full cognizance. He took one last sip from Vlad’s mouth and pulled away, drowsily opening his eyes.

The glowing crimson of Vlad’s irises faded to their normal human blue. He stared at Danny, dazed and breathless, almost drunk.

Danny blinked, and his ghostly radiance disappeared. He recoiled, eyes huge.

Vlad raised his hand. “Daniel, don’t be—”

But Danny was already scrambling to his feet, quivering with agitation. “What—what were you doing? Were you—k-kissing me? You perverted creep!”

“It’s called oral resuscitation,” Vlad said, standing up. “I brought your core temperature back to normal. You’re welcome.”

Danny’s face scrunched into a bewildered, frightened grimace. He was hot all over, lightheaded, his heart throbbing in his ears…

His wet boxers clinging to his straining erection.

He clapped a hand over himself, but Vlad’s gaze had already drifted downward. “That’s a perfectly normal reaction. Increased blood flow, the sudden dilation of constricted vess—”

Flinging the blanket off his shoulders, Danny bolted for the nearest escape, which happened to be the bathroom. Vlad sprang after him and managed to catch the closing door with his hand. Danny planted his feet and pushed his back against the door with his full weight, grunting with effort.

“Daniel, stop!” Vlad barked. “You experienced a catastrophic flux and it almost killed you! You’re not in any condition to—”

But Danny wasn’t listening. He surveyed the bathroom with total clarity, seeing what his half-frozen brain hadn’t registered before: the medical case on the floor; ice in the tub, the sink; steel surgical equipment laid out neatly on a tray.

The cooler on the floor.

His knees turned to pudding. The door gave two inches. His vision became obscured by tears.

“They’re real,” he bawled. “You killed them and you were gonna kill me, too. You—you’re a monster!”

“Daniel, what on earth are you blathering about?”

“The people in your fridge!” he shrieked. “The meat! The organs! You’re butchering people and harvesting their org—”

The door exploded open, and Danny went sprawling across the floor on his hands and knees. Vlad stepped into the bathroom, hands balled into fists, his face dark with anger.

“Have you completely lost your mind?”

Danny scuttled backward until he thudded into the glass door of the shower stall. His hand bumped the tray of surgical tools, rattling them. He grabbed the first instrument he touched—a scalpel—and brandished it in front of him like a sword.

“Y-you were gonna cut out my organs!” he shouted, crawling to his feet. “What are you doing, selling them? Eating them? You’re eating them, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Vlad said.

The blunt response took Danny by surprise. A helpless mewl fled his lips. Vlad took a cautious step forward and Danny slashed the air with his weapon.

“Stay back! Get away from me!”

“They’re all animal sources, Daniel,” Vlad said coolly, showing his hands as he inched closer. “Lamb. Veal. Calf brains. Beef heart. Humanely harvested. I’m not a—”

“Shut up!”

Another swipe. Vlad leaned back, scowling. “Daniel, need I remind you that I could end this little standoff in less than three seconds? I am showing astounding restraint. Put down the scalpel. Let’s talk.”

Tears rolled down Danny’s stricken face. “You were gonna harvest my organs if I died. That’s why I was on ice.”

“I put you on ice because your nexus thought you were on fire,” Vlad said. “It was the only way to stop it from freezing you from the inside out.”

“Wh—but—th-then why all this surgery stuff?”

“In case I needed it.” Vlad pointed to the cooler. “Adrenaline. Saline. Plasma. Morphine. Sedatives. I didn’t know what to expect, so I brought everything. I wasn’t going to kill you, Daniel, I was trying to save you. Any way that I possibly could.”

For a brief moment Danny looked as if he might believe him. He blinked rapidly, trying to use a brain that, up until a few minutes ago, had been powering down to its final cycle, synapses spitting hallucinations and memories of near-death experiences. And maybe still was. He couldn’t be sure. The scalpel clutched in his clammy fist felt real, at least.

“But you’re gonna murder a boy who looks like me,” he croaked. “So you can fake my death. So I can never”—his voice cracked, fresh tears spilling from his puffy pink eyes—“so I can never go back!”

“It was a joke, Daniel,” Vlad said. “I was never planning to kill anyone. I was just”—a shrug and a meek smile—“having a little fun.”

Fun?” Danny spat. “You call that fun? Saying you’re—you’re gonna dunk someone who looks like me in acid so the police won’t be able to identify the corpse? What is wrong with you!”

“What’s wrong with me? Dear boy, I’m not the one slinging accusations of cannibalism while threatening someone with a blade designed to lacerate human flesh. For the last time, put the scalpel down.”

“Why? I don’t have any reason to trust you. Not after you—”

In the blink of an eye, Vlad lashed out and struck Danny’s arm. The scalpel hit the floor with a metallic ding and went spinning. He lunged, trapping Danny in a full bodylock. A brief but violent struggle ensued. Danny fought back for all he was worth, but he was no match for Vlad’s strength.

At least in human form.

“I’m going ghost!” he bellowed, summoning his spectral powers—

Nothing happened.

“I said, I’m going—”

“Nowhere,” Vlad interrupted. “I gave you a little jab with my spectral neutralizer. First thing I did after you blacked out. I thought it would stop your nexus from—”

Danny screamed at the top of his lungs. He thrashed, kicking his legs, tossing his head, trying vainly to assault Vlad any way he could. They collapsed to the floor in a writhing heap, Vlad grappling Danny from behind. Danny resisted until what little energy his panic had lent him finally drained away. Sobbing for breath, he went still.

“Are you quite done?” Vlad asked.

Danny nodded.

“Good. Now, for the last time, I’m not going to hur—”

In one last show of defiance, Danny threw his head back. His skull connected with Vlad’s face. There was a crack, a pop, a snarl, and something warm dribbled down the side of his neck.

“You,” Vlad gritted out, “are making this very difficult for me.”

“Good,” Danny shot back. “You don’t deserve to have it easy. You sick, revolting freak.”

“Yes, I am, aren’t I? And you’ve shown remarkable stupidity by pissing me off.” Flecks of blood sailed past Danny’s periphery, and the arms around him tightened—and then came a heavy sigh. “Which is why we’re going to sit here, you and I, sick, revolting freak and stupid, ignorant child, until we both calm down and our urge to tear one another limb from limb has passed. Agreed?”

There was no point in arguing.

Defeated and utterly exhausted, Danny went limp, dropping his head onto Vlad’s shoulder. A heartbeat thumped against his naked back, a strong, steady rhythm. Vlad’s arms were warm, even if his grip was too tight for comfort. Danny shivered. The combination of wet boxers and tile floor made him long for the fire in the next room.

“Cold?” Vlad asked.

Danny nodded. The arms around him loosened, and a pair of large, warm hands glided up his biceps, his shoulders, dipped to his clavicle, and made their way down again. Goosebumps broke out on his skin. He heard a pathetic squeak and realized it had come from him. He winced, a blush spreading across his cheeks.

“You need to stay warm,” Vlad said in a low, rumbly voice. “But not too warm. You’re in a delicate condition. You must remain calm. No more outbursts, no more excitement. Understood?”

Danny thought of making a retort, but Vlad’s heat-stimulating massage took a detour up through his hair. His eyes rolled back. He didn’t just relax; he melted.

“What’s happening?” he muttered. “What’re you doing to me?”

“Nothing.”

But Danny felt it, his heartbeat slowing to match Vlad’s, the same soothing peace and tranquility he’d felt last night as he lay underneath him.

“We’re falling into sync again,” he said.

“That’s a good thing,” Vlad murmured. “Let it happen.”

Danny closed his eyes and sighed through his nose. He listened to Vlad breathe in his ear, soaked up the warmth his body offered. He wondered how this could be the same man who’d broken down the bathroom door a few minutes ago.

Or maybe, Danny realized with a pang of dreadful insight, he was the problem. Every outburst between him and Vlad, every disagreement, every offense, had been his doing. His reactions were the cause of this friction—whether or not he was justified in them, regardless if he’d been provoked. He still thought of Vlad as his enemy. Vlad, however, had changed. He was showing astounding restraint, especially compared to how he used to be. Plasmius had no qualms about pummeling a teenager unconscious or siccing his ghostly minions on him. But Vlad Masters…

Danny’s eyebrows twitched.

Vlad Masters was not a good man. He was corrupt and dishonest. He used his powers for personal gain. He had a dark, twisted sense of humor. He made inappropriate comments and did questionable things—morally and professionally. His behavior was appalling, and his bedside manner needed serious work. But he hadn’t hurt Danny. Not yet. And Danny didn’t want to give him a reason to.

He’d only seen glimpses, but he liked this new version of Vlad. The soft-spoken, gentle Vlad who brought peace to his warring halves. This weird, mysterious Vlad who had a fridge full of milk products and another fridge full of meat that he insisted wasn’t human. This adamant, protective Vlad who was determined to do what was best for Danny, whether he agreed with him or not. This enemy who was no longer his enemy, who had, in fact, just saved his life.

And who had probably just had his nose broken.

Moving slowly to convey his peaceful intentions, Danny sat up and turned halfway to look at Vlad’s face.

Blood painted a thick red line from Vlad’s right nostril, down his bearded chin, and stained the collar of his white tee. His hair was a disheveled mess. He looked tired, almost sad.

“I’m sorry,” Danny blurted. He meant it.

Vlad licked his swollen lips and smiled, showing off bloodstained teeth. “You fight dirty, little badger.”

“Dirty works.”

“This time. Tricks have a lifespan. You need skills and strategy if you wish to fight successfully.” His eyes wandered over Danny’s face, lingering on his mouth. “But that’s a conversation for another day.” He rose to his feet and held out his hand. “Right now, we need to talk about other things. And get you out of those wet clothes.”

After a moment’s reflection, Danny reached out, clasped the offered hand, and allowed it to pull him up.

Fire

Danny sat on the rug in front of the fireplace, wearing an oversized bathrobe with a red V embroidered on the breast. It was fluffy and thick and had a nice smell to it. He took careful sips from a mug of hot chocolate—the sweetest, richest, smoothest hot chocolate he’d ever tasted—and stared pensively into the fire.

“What do you remember?” Vlad asked.

Inhaling slowly, Danny rewound the cassette tape of his recent memory. It was damaged in places, wrinkled, chewed up.

“I remember the fireplace in the dining room,” he said after a pause. “I remember pushing you into it. And then… you. On fire.” He lifted his head, his eyes large and bewildered. “But you weren’t burning up. You weren’t in your ghost form, either. You were human and the flames weren’t hurting you. How?”

Vlad smirked lopsidedly and bowed his head. A lock of silver hair slid free from behind his ear to hang in front of his face. There was barely any indication that he’d had his nose recently broken. No swelling, no redness, no misaligned bones. He’d traded his bloodied shirt for a clean one and his jeans for a pair of cotton pajama pants, and now he sat with a mug of dark liquid balanced on his thigh. It didn’t smell like coffee or tea.

“Mastery over my nexus,” he said. “And the added benefit of having fire powers.”

Casually, as if no more extraordinary than dipping his hand into water, he reached into the fire. Danny watched, mesmerized, as the flames leaped harmlessly around his hand. Vlad bent his fingers into a cage and pulled his hand back, a mass of flickering fire trapped inside. It burned for a few moments, then he shook it out. The odor of something spectral lingered in the air, faintly electric.

“Fire powers?” Danny repeated. “What are you, some kind of dragon?”

Vlad squinted at him. “You really don’t know very much about ghosts, do you?”

“I’m learning,” Danny said, bristling slightly. “I haven’t had twenty-whatever years’ experience, like you.”

A haughty snort. “Yes, well, you won’t have to worry about that anymore. I’ll be happy to teach you everything I know—pro bono this time, of course. No need to renounce anyone.” Vlad grinned, but the joke fell flat. He sighed.

“The ability to manipulate natural elements is a part of spectral physiology,” he explained. “All ghosts have basic core powers. Some are intrinsic. Some can be learned, depending upon one’s proclivities. Every ectoplasmic entity has at least one element-based specialty when they first come into being. Usually that power is electricity.”

He shrugged one shoulder and a pink thread of static electricity crackled down his arm, vanishing at his fingertips. “I suspect that’s why paranormal beings manifest in the real world as electric or electromagnetic phenomena.”

Danny swallowed. “So—what about me? What kind am I? Do you know?”

“I’d like to run some tests,” Vlad said, “but all the evidence seems to indicate that you have an ice or water core—which is why you nearly died when you went into the fire with me.”

“But—” Danny blinked, struggling to make sense of it all. “But I was in my ghost form when that happened. It shouldn’t have affected my human half… right?”

“You were in a state of emotional distress,” Vlad muttered. “A flux. Your ghost half and your human half didn’t know what was going on.”

“But you did.”

Vlad calmly lifted his mug. Danny noticed a red tint on his lips before it was licked away. His frown deepened.

“You said, ‘I told you it would hurt’. You knew I was an ice type—or whatever.”

“I suspected.”

“How? When?”

“The night before, when I calmed your spectral frequency. I came into contact with your nexus; it was cold.”

“And you still let me push you into the fire,” Danny said sharply. “You knew it would hurt me, and you let it happen anyway.”

“I didn’t know anything, Daniel. I only suspected at that point. To be quite honest, I was curious what would happen.” He smiled. “And now we know. It was a very educational experience for both of us, wouldn’t you say?”

Danny glowered. “I almost died.”

“But you didn’t. And now you’re stronger for it. Cheers.” Vlad raised his mug.

“What is that, anyway?” Danny snapped as he watched him take a large gulp. “It looks gross.”

“A vegetable slurry,” he said, carefully wiping his lips.

“What’s in it?”

“Beets, mostly. And greens, carrots, etcetera.”

Right. And Danny was born yesterday. “Can I try it?” he asked.

“Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ll hate it, and I’m rather fond of this rug.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Danny settled into a sulk and nursed his hot chocolate, thinking back to roughly half an hour ago, when he’d returned to his senses after being in a hypothermic torpor. He blushed at the memory.

Part of him desperately wanted to ask Vlad about that thing he’d done with his mouth—what it was, how it had worked—but another part of him, a much larger part, would rather die than ever speak of it again.

“How are you feeling?” Vlad asked suddenly.

“Um, okay,” Danny said. “Why?”

“Your face is red. I think you should move away from the fire. We don’t want an encore of tonight’s performance.” He gently plucked Danny’s empty mug from his hands. “Get in the bed. I’ll be back shortly.”

“You”—Danny had to force the words out of his stammering mouth—“you’re letting me sleep here again?”

“I would prefer to keep you close so I can monitor you overnight, just in case you suffer any further complications.” Vlad arched an eyebrow. “If that’s agreeable to you, of course.”

“Uh. Y-yeah.” Danny nodded, ducking his head, hoping his hair hid his flaming cheeks. “Good idea.”

With a tight smile, Vlad left the room.

Danny stood on rubbery legs and plodded toward the bed, every ounce of that evening’s experience resting heavy on his bones. He lifted back the covers and paused.

He didn’t want to sleep in a bathrobe. Maybe Vlad had some boxers he could borrow? On second thought, no. Underwear was a personal thing, too personal, and sharing them would be gross. Vlad’s boxers probably wouldn’t fit him, anyway. Vlad wasn’t a huge guy, but he was certainly bigger than Danny.

The memory of the man, naked, surrounded by fire, rose in Danny’s brain.

He was bigger there, too.

Danny shook away the intrusive thought, a flash of warmth spreading through him.

Maybe Vlad had been right about moving away from the fire.

“Stupid spectral flux,” Danny muttered, untying his belt. The robe landed on the floor in a crumpled heap, and he slipped under the covers. The cotton sheets were cool and soft against his skin, creamy smooth. He moved his legs back and forth like he was treading water, enjoying the slinky, luxurious feeling.

Vlad returned a few minutes later, noticed the bathrobe on the floor, and stopped in his tracks. He studied Danny for a few awkward seconds before continuing on his way. Danny shriveled into a ball under the covers and hoped he wouldn’t say anything. Things were already weird enough between them.

To Danny’s relief, Vlad didn’t speak at all. After performing his nightly ablutions, he crawled into bed and settled without a word.

The fire across the room burned low, snapping through the rest of its fuel, eating its way toward a cool, quiet death. Danny watched the shadows dance on the ceiling, thinking, remembering. A restless itch stirred under his skin. There were things he wanted to say, questions he needed to ask. Finally, unable to contain himself, his anxious whisper floated on top of the silence:

“I had a dream last night.” He paused, waiting for acknowledgement.

Vlad sighed through his nostrils and rolled onto his back, listening.

“About fire,” Danny continued. “A fire, really. It was in a cold place—like, some kind of snowy tundra at night. I was all alone, looking at the fire from a long ways off. I started walking toward it, but I just couldn’t seem to get close. It was like I was walking backwards on one of those moving sidewalk thingies, just staying in the same place no matter how hard I tried. So finally I just gave up and watched it burn from a distance. It was really cold out, snow falling and wind blowing and everything, and I wanted to be near it. It looked so warm, but it also looked—I dunno. Frail. Like it was gonna burn out if no one was there to take care of it. I felt like… if I could just get close enough, it could save me, and I could save it.”

A few heartbeats passed. “It’s just a dream,” Vlad murmured. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

“But all this stuff going on with my nexus—”

“Subconscious thought. Simple coincidence. The smallest suggestion may find its way into one’s dreams. It means nothing. It’s just your brain performing routine maintenance, nothing more.”

Danny compressed his lips. He wanted his dream to mean something. It felt like it did. Something was there, buried in the images. Like code. Tucker would know. He wrote—used to write—all kinds of code for his websites. Sam would have been able to help, too. She collected books on dream interpretation. Not the clinical, psychology-based stuff, like what Jazz preferred, but more along the lines of crystals and Tarot cards. Fun things to pass the time on Friday evenings.

A lump rose in Danny’s throat.

He missed his friends. He missed his family. He missed human contact, emotional connection. Physical closeness. He gazed across the bed at Vlad, his unique profile, the steady rise and fall of his chest.

This was all that he had now.

“Can I”—he swallowed thickly—“can my ice powers hurt you? Since you’re a fire type?”

“Daniel, you couldn’t hurt me if you attacked me with everything you’ve got,” Vlad sighed.

“Why? Is it because fire’s stronger than ice?”

“It’s because you haven’t got the skills, knowledge or experience necessary to defeat an opponent of my caliber.” Vlad propped himself up on one elbow, his face half obscured by a wave of gray hair. “You’re weak. You barely have any control over your nexus, certainly none over your core powers. Instead of cavorting all over the Ghost Realm and pretending to be a superhero for the past year, you should have been learning about yourself.”

“I was learning.”

Vlad rolled his eyes. “Please. You don’t have to be honest with me, but you should at least be honest with yourself. I’ll bet the moment you gained your powers you were flying around and playing with them like a child with a shiny new toy. Right?”

“I was helping people, too,” Danny insisted. “I saved lives. I kept bad ghosts from destroying my school and Amity Park and—”

“Why?” Vlad interrupted. “Did anyone ask for your help? Were you obligated to act in their best interests? Was it your job, your duty? Did you owe those people anything? No. You took it upon yourself to be a hero, and it was the wrong choice. You should have been focusing on developing your powers, seeking knowledge, learning to be disciplined and responsible.”

Sticking out his jaw in a petulant pout, Danny sat up. The covers pooled around his bare waist. Vlad’s gaze touched there, lightly and briefly, before flicking back to his face.

“I did it because it was the right thing to do,” Danny snapped. “But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? All you care about is yourself.”

“Yes,” Vlad snapped right back. “And it saved my life—so that one day I could save yours.”

Danny’s mouth snapped shut. He shrank into the covers, thoroughly rebutted. The conversation lapsed into silence for several tense seconds before Vlad sighed, raking a hand through his hair.

“There’s a saying, Daniel,” he began. “‘Help yourself before you help others.’ If you neglect your own needs and keep putting others first, you’ll be of no use to anyone, especially the people you wish to help. You’ve probably inflicted more damage in the name of good intentions than if you’d just minded your own business. Is that true?”

Reluctantly, Danny thought back to all the times he’d screwed up, how many times he’d lost control of a situation. The collateral damage. Nothing too bad; some cars and windows may have gotten busted up and a few people probably had a few years scared off their lives, but no one had died.

No, he realized with a fresh surge of grief. People had died. The people closest to him. His family. His friends. Maybe they’d still be alive if he’d known how to…

“Daniel?”

It was too much. Between the tender tone and that final brick of self-criticism notching into place, Danny couldn’t hold himself together. He burst into tears.

Vlad moved toward him, and it took every ounce of Danny’s willpower to resist throwing himself onto the man’s chest. He gently folded himself into Vlad’s open arms and soaked up the abundant comfort he found there. Warmth. Balance. Stability. He wept without a sound, shaking and shuddering.

“There, there,” Vlad murmured, patting his shoulders. “Better a lesson learned late than never at all. I was a grown man before I acquired that particular pearl of wisdom. In this regard, you’re already far ahead of me. And just think of what more you could learn, hm?”

Sniffing, Danny pulled back and blinked his eyes clear.

Vlad gave him a patient smile. “I propose a truce. I’ll teach you everything I know, and we’ll both learn as we go. It’s never too late to start over. That’s exactly what I did at twenty-five. I was just like you. I had nothing, no family, no friends, no home, no hope. And now—well, just look around.” He gestured to the room. “This is only a tiny portion of what I have to offer you, and it goes far beyond the material. I have resources. Time, years of knowledge and experience. This is a second chance, Daniel. A new start. Will you accept it?” His voice softened. “Accept me?”

Danny nodded, his breath hitching. “Y-yes.”

Vlad beamed. “Wonderful. Splendid. You don’t know how much that pleases me.” He gave Danny a reassuring squeeze before he opened his arms, freeing him. “Now, get some sleep. You’ve had quite a night.”

Understatement of the century, Danny thought. Having experienced a severe flux, coma, hypothermia, a physical altercation where he’d actually drawn blood, and emotional trauma all in the span of a few short hours, he felt like he wasn’t that far from becoming a full ghost. He laid himself down on the soft pillows, and Vlad helpfully pulled the covers up to his shoulders.

“Thanks,” Danny murmured, struggling to hold his eyes open.

“Anything for you, dear boy.”

He caught a glimpse of a shadow and felt the brush of Vlad’s fingers in his hair, the comforting pulse of his spectral frequency. He shut his eyes and sighed.

He was asleep in a matter of minutes.


The patter of rain roused Danny the next morning. When he opened his eyes and looked to the windows, sunlight glowed around the edges of the curtains. The sound was coming from behind the bathroom door. Vlad was in the shower.

A worryingly familiar feeling blossomed in Danny’s belly.

It was weird waking up naked in a grown man’s bed. Even weirder hearing said grown man moving around in the shower. It felt so morning after. Not that Danny had any experience with that, but he could imagine. Vividly. Vlad standing under the spray, his long silver hair plastered to his head, runnels streaming down his body. Last night he’d stood naked in fire; this morning he stood naked in water. Poetic vocabulary cycled through Danny’s head, supplementing visuals that blurred the line between academic curiosity and undiluted eroticism. He didn’t realize he was touching himself until his fingers encountered something slick and wet.

“Oh, crap,” he muttered, carefully wiping the moisture on his thigh. He pushed back the covers, wincing at the state of himself, and hurriedly scooped his—Vlad’s—bathrobe from the floor, shrugging it on and tiptoeing from the bedroom.

The house was quiet. It felt smaller now, more familiar, not nearly as scary as when he’d first arrived. Morning light streamed through the windows, effecting a warm, pleasant atmosphere. Danny wondered if it was Saturday. It felt like a Saturday.

He made his way upstairs to his bedroom—the guest suite—and into the bathroom. Mindful of his sensitive core powers, he took a not-too-hot shower and devoted the better part of a half hour to his sexual needs.

It was for his nerves, he told himself. To calm the raging libido that had suddenly reawakened after weeks of depressive hibernation. He had to get himself under control again. He didn’t ever want to pop a boner in front of Vlad Masters again.

That’s a perfectly normal reaction. Increased blood flow…

Danny bit his lip and pumped harder.

When at last he came, he came powerfully—and profusely, a groan of ecstasy warbling from his lips. The last traces of milky white semen still clung to the shower floor by the time he opened his eyes. It felt like he’d been coming for a solid minute.

Rinsing himself and the stall clean, he stepped out of the shower and conducted the rest of his grooming ritual. He stared at his reflection as he brushed his teeth, feeling strangely optimistic, almost cheerful. Vlad was a weirdo with a questionable diet, but he hadn’t let Danny die last night. And he’d been patient, helpful, kind—in his own way. Danny wasn’t ready to call him a friend yet, but at least he knew he had an ally.

Speaking of allies, he shouldn’t forget who his real ones were. He hadn’t been able to fit much in his backpack—the Fenton family photo albums, his wallet with his school ID, some BFF trinkets he’d shared with Sam and Tucker, vacation souvenirs, his dad’s watch, Jazz’s favorite headband that still smelled like her hair, a few other knickknacks—but it was time to unpack them, give this bland room a few personal touches. Danny had the feeling he might be staying here for a while.

Funny how he didn’t seem to mind that at all.

He finished getting dressed and went to the place where he’d last set his backpack—only it wasn’t there. He scanned the room, telling himself to remain calm. There had to be a reasonable explanation. The maids or butlers or somebody must have moved it when they were cleaning yesterday. Danny searched the cavernous walk-in closet and found nothing. He looked under the bed, in every corner and crevice, with the same result. His heart rate rose to a casual stampede.

There was no value in any of that stuff, not even Jack Fenton’s watch. There was no reason it should be missing—unless the house staff decided to wash his backpack. But surely they would have left his stuff somewhere, right? Danny rifled through drawers and dug through all the cabinets in his bathroom, but there was nothing to be found. Adrenaline and cortisol spiked his bloodstream.

Vlad would know. He probably had all of Danny’s stuff in his library. Maybe he needed his school ID so he could—

A freezing sensation enveloped Danny’s stomach.

No. No, he wouldn’t dare. Nobody could be that cruel.

Head spinning, Danny bolted into the hallway.

The smell of breakfast reached his nose when he was halfway down the stairs, becoming richer as he stormed across the living room. They were happy Saturday morning scents: bacon, citrus, coffee, something bready and buttery. They clashed with the distilled rage coursing through his veins.

He burst into the kitchen and found Vlad standing at the stove, wearing a white chef’s apron and pouring batter onto a hot skillet. He looked up at Danny and smiled. “Perfect timing. Want some pancakes? I made blueberry and—”

“Where’s my backpack?”

The cheer drained from Vlad’s face like light leaving a dusky sky. He sucked his teeth against his lips, bowed his head, and snapped off the burner. “It went with your clothes,” he said after a moment.

“And the things in it?” Danny pressed, blinking back tears. His heart pounded so hard that every beat felt like an earthquake. “There were photo albums, a watch, a bunch of figurines and other important—”

“It’s gone, Daniel.”

An abyss opened up under Danny’s feet. Everything solid disappeared, and now he was tumbling end over end into darkness.

Just as he’d feared.

“Wh-what?” he squeaked, not recognizing his own voice.

“It’s gone,” Vlad repeated. “Your backpack. Everything inside it. All the things you arrived with, clothes, possessions. It all had to go.”

Danny stood, his mouth hanging open mutely. “Where are—why did—who—”

“It was necessary,” Vlad insisted. “The personal effects will reinforce the identity of the dead body that will be found in the next—”

That was all I had left!

His shriek echoed harshly in the kitchen. Vlad shut his mouth and lowered his eyes, not moving a muscle.

Danny quivered, consumed with incapacitating grief. “You stole them,” he croaked. “You stole my family from me.”

“No, a freak accident stole your family.”

“You stole my memories, then!”

“Your memories are in your head, Daniel.” Vlad tapped his temple. “Not in those photos, not in any gifts or keepsakes. You don’t need an object to remember someone.”

“I still want them!” Danny cried, voice splitting. “They were mine!”

“I understand,” Vlad said patiently. “But they’re gone. There’s nothing I can do.”

Danny’s eyes flashed green. Vlad slid his foot back, bracing himself for impact.

It never came.

With something between a snarl and a heartbroken sob, Danny turned and ran.

Vlad raised his hand, opened his mouth to call out to him, but the words stalled in his throat. A door slammed somewhere in the house.

Silence.

Vlad placed his hands on the counter and leaned over, hanging his head. The half-cooked pancakes bubbled on their cooling skillet. In a sudden burst of motion, he brought his fist down on the granite surface. The rock cracked like an eggshell, fragments shooting into the sink and onto the floor. Once the dust settled, he lifted his hand and surveyed the damage—not to himself.

Sighing heavily, he picked up his cell phone, punched in a number with his thumb, and waited for someone to answer.

Aspen

Chapter Notes

It should have been thundering. Overcast, at least. Gray and rainy and melancholy. But the early September morning shone sunny and beautiful, like something out of a travel brochure. Snow-capped mountaintops crowned the horizon in every direction. Birds chirped in the pines, the sky was a clear sapphire blue, and Danny sat on the manicured grass of the little side yard on the south end of the property, surrounded by beds of well-tended flowers and shrubs, crying his eyes out.

It was as if his family had been taken from him all over again.

He didn’t remain alone for long. Vlad appeared on the back patio, hands in his pockets. After a sigh, he made his way across the yard, his gleaming Louboutin oxfords leaving impressions on the grass. He stopped a few paces away from the weeping boy and stood with his shoulders slumped, listening to the sniffling and hiccuping.

“I suppose it’s pointless to ask for your forgiveness,” he finally said.

Danny looked over his shoulder, glaring with swollen red eyes. “You’re goddamn right it is,” he croaked.

Vlad pursed his lips, bowed his head.

“You lied to me,” Danny said, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

“I lie to everyone, Daniel. You’re not special.”

“You said you weren’t gonna kill anybody.”

“I’m not.”

No,” Danny corrected, “you’re gonna plant my backpack on a dead body. And what do you have to do to get a dead body?”

“Steal an unclaimed cadaver from a hospital morgue,” Vlad said flatly.

Danny blinked. A rack of creases formed above his eyebrows.

Vlad tilted his head. “You honestly thought I’d go through the trouble of targeting, acquiring, and putting a hit out on a teenage boy who resembles you, just to have compelling evidence?” He laughed. “Do you have any idea what a nightmare contract killing is these days? The logistics, the paperwork? No, I suppose you don’t. You’re too much of a goody-goody. Trust me when I say it’s less trouble to find a corpse than make one.” He stepped closer. “Please understand, Daniel, I’m trying to graft our lives together as smoothly and easily as—”

“No, you understand!” Danny exploded, the cords in his neck standing out. “I don’t want your life, I want my life! My name! My family, my memories! You’re trying to erase all of it, my past, my whole life—”

“What life?” Vlad retorted. “You had no life, Daniel, that’s why you came to me. Because you thought I could give you a new one. And here I am, trying my best to do exactly that, and you have the audacity to be angry with me.”

Fresh tears brimmed in Danny’s eyes. He turned back around, too furious to even look at him. But Vlad wasn’t finished.

“You show up on my doorstep and expect me to rearrange my entire life to accommodate you, without even the slightest consideration as to how difficult that might be, to speak nothing of the massive inconvenience,” he said. “One cannot simply take in an orphaned child, especially a runaway. My plan is the quickest and best solution to our little dilemma—unless, of course, you want to spend the next year in foster care, waiting on a cadre of lawyers to—”

“You could have sent me away,” Danny said.

“Could I?” Vlad echoed. When there was no response, he squatted down beside the boy. “This might come as a shock to you, Daniel,” he said softly, “but I’m not completely heartless. You wanted help, and I agreed to help you. But certain things needed to be sacrificed in order for that to happen.”

Impotent, useless rage boiled in Danny’s veins. He clenched his fists, blinking away another salty deluge. Vlad noticed, his eyes darting between the boy’s face and hands.

“Would you like to hit me?” he asked.

Danny gave a jolt, twisting around. “Wh-what?”

“Hit me, if it’ll make you feel better,” Vlad said. “Go on.”

After a bewildered beat, Danny smiled anemically. “Ha. Yeah, right. What was it you said last night? I couldn’t hurt you if I hit you with everything I had?”

“True,” Vlad said. “But this isn’t about inflicting pain. This is about doing whatever it takes to move forward—because there is no going back, Daniel. Not for either of us. We must find a way to make this work, and if rearranging my face with your fist will put us back on even ground, then for God’s sake, just do it.”

Danny gulped. He was tempted—sorely tempted. But he knew better than to take the bait.

“It won’t solve anything,” he said, reciting the mantra that had been drilled into him ever since the first day he’d come home from school with bruises on his arm.

“No,” Vlad admitted. “But it will relieve the anger you feel towards me. You’re hurting because of something I’ve done, and you want to hurt me in retaliation. That’s natural.”

“No, it isn’t,” Danny said. “It’s wrong. It’s what makes people evil.”

“Evil? Really? You still believe in that?” Vlad chuckled. “Do you believe in Santa Claus, too, or did you grow out of that when you realized the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real, either?”

The words were barely out of his mouth when Danny swung, catching him in the jaw. Vlad made a startled sound and tumbled backward onto the grass, and then Danny was on top of him, gripping his shirt collar, slugging away.

Vlad shut his eyes and did nothing to fight back. He didn’t use his ghost powers, didn’t shift form, didn’t even put up his arms to shield himself. He lay on the grass and let Danny beat his way back toward inner peace. An aria of snarls and sobs filled the pleasant morning, punctuated by the quiet impact of flesh on flesh. At the height of his frenzy, Danny dropped down and sank his teeth into the meaty part of Vlad’s shoulder.

There was a bark of pain in his ear, and Danny felt fabric and skin give way with a dull pop. He tasted copper. Surprised and disgusted, he pulled back, his lips stained red with blood.

“Exquisite,” Vlad wheezed beneath him. “Gorgeous. Superb. Well done, Dan—”

Danny’s open palm slapped his name from his mouth, leaving behind a stinging red mark.

The grin on Vlad’s face faded, and he cautiously opened one eye. “Feel better?”

No, Danny didn’t. Somehow he felt even worse than before. He crawled off of Vlad and sat miserably on the grass, panting, knuckles bleeding and fingers aching. Then he buried his face in his hands and wept.

With a soft grunt, Vlad sat up and spat to the side. “I see. Well, that’s unfortunate. Has your rage been sated, at least?”

Danny managed a pathetic nod.

“Good.” Vlad pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to his bleeding eyebrow. “At least I wasn’t mauled by a teenager for nothing.”

A pair of songbirds flew across the sky, trilling joyously, oblivious to the complicated world beneath them.

“I feel like I’m losing my mind,” Danny said, his voice muffled by his hands. “What is happening to me?”

“Accumulated grief,” Vlad said. He swept bits of grass and dirt from his ripped sleeve. “You’re dealing with trauma the likes of which most people can’t even begin to comprehend, and you have an altered physiology that is exacerbating your condition because you don’t know how to control it. But I can show you how. I will show you how, if you let me.”

Danny finally turned to him, grimacing at the damage he saw. A split lip, a cut eyebrow. Both cheeks already a bruised magenta. An eye that will definitely be sprouting a purple mouse in a few hours. A torn shirt, a bloodstained shoulder trimmed with a crescent of teeth marks, like some kind of grotesque medal. He could still taste Vlad’s blood in his mouth.

“Oh, don’t look so guilty,” Vlad tutted. “This is an easy fix.”

He swept one hand over his face and his skin mended itself before Danny’s astonished eyes, leaving behind only the faintest evidence of the beating he’d taken.

“Accelerated healing,” he explained. “I’ll teach you this as well. It’s a crucial skill, especially if you plan to keep up your little”—he smirked, wiggling his fingers—“selfless half-ghost superhero career.”

A strange breed of guilt and resentment took root in Danny’s heart, and for two seconds he felt like he should apologize. Then he reminded himself that Vlad had thrown away the most important things in his life, the only things he had left. He wouldn’t forgive him for that, ever.

“I’m dead,” he murmured.

Vlad arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m dead. Danny Fenton is dead. You killed him.” He glared at Vlad. “Congratulations. You won. You finally have everything you want.”

Vlad didn’t smile. He reached out and clasped Danny’s shoulder. “Daniel…”

“Apologize.”

“What?”

Danny glared, face rigid. “Apologize to me.”

“Why?”

“Because you hurt me!” he burst out. “You’re supposed to apologize when you hurt people. That’s what family”—he cut himself off, rankled by the thought of Vlad being anywhere near that precious, cherished word—“that’s what normal people do.”

Vlad’s face softened, as if something profound had just occurred to him. “I have, haven’t I?” He stared off into the distance. “I’m sorry, Daniel.” The words were awkward, rusty from disuse. He turned to the boy. “Sincerely.”

Danny’s shoulders sagged. Now he felt better—lighter, hollowed out, like a snarl of old tires and mattresses and broken washing machines had been dredged from the bottom of his soul and hauled away. Perhaps triggered by the purging of that emotional litter, his stomach reminded him of its emptiness. Loudly.

“Hungry?” Vlad asked. “There’s breakfast inside.”

Danny pretended not to hear him. Or the disapproving huff that followed.

“You need to eat, Daniel. Hate me all you like, but don’t punish yourself. You’ve been through enough.” He paused, thinking. “And when you’re done, I think you should get out of the house for a while, stretch your legs. A little retail therapy, perhaps. You’re starting school on Monday and you’ll need some new clothes. What do you say?”

“Do I have a choice?” Danny muttered.

“Always. But it will be easier if you just listen to me.”

Danny sighed.

It wasn’t a completely unreasonable request. He listened to teachers and coaches and other adults all the time. It didn’t mean he trusted them.

“Fine,” he said.

He didn’t feel like fighting anymore, anyway.


Breakfast was, to Danny’s annoyance, one of the best he’d ever eaten in his life. Maybe because he was so drained after the events of last night and everything since then, all of that stress (accumulated grief) taking its toll. Or maybe Vlad was just that good a chef. Danny’s parents had rarely cooked. Family dinners weren’t a huge priority, and it was always a special occasion whenever Jack or Maddie took the time to prepare a real meal, something that hadn’t come out of a box that had the words FAMILY SIZE stamped on it. Danny knew his parents had been busy people. They’d done their best. That was good enough for him.

He finished his scrambled eggs and forked two more pancakes onto his plate. He hadn’t eaten a breakfast this awesome since that time he and Tucker had had brunch with Sam’s family at their country club. It was especially memorable since Sam had been forced to wear a flowery yellow and white frock. She’d looked like an angry Peep. Danny and Tucker had laughed about it for days.

Vlad, wearing a fresh shirt, poked his head into the little breakfast nook. “Everything palatable?”

Danny nodded, swallowed. “Yeah. Um, what about you?”

“What about me?”

“You made all this stuff. Aren’t you gonna eat it?”

“I’ve been up since five. I’ve already eaten.”

“Oh.” Danny stared at the butter-soaked, syrup-drenched blueberry pancakes on his plate. Vlad had made all this, just for him. And Danny had whaled on him not half an hour ago.

For getting rid of my backpack, he reminded himself again. For deliberately giving away the things most precious to him. Vlad deserved every punch he’d gotten—and besides, it hadn’t hurt him. He was fine. He’d healed himself. Everything was totally fine.

No, it wasn’t.

“Take your time,” Vlad said. “We’ll leave when you’re finished.”

“Where are we going, exactly?” Danny asked.

“Aspen.”


Vlad had four vehicles in his garage, not counting the two ATVs and motorcycle, and all of them appeared to be that year’s model: a Range Rover, a Hummer H2, a Bentley Arnage, and a midlife crisis mobile that looked like the automotive personification of a two-thousand-dollar-an-hour Las Vegas hooker. Danny didn’t even know what make it was, which meant it was probably something only the obscenely wealthy were familiar with.

They loaded into the Rover and left the property via a long private driveway, at least two miles from the nearest public road, and passed through an electric gate. Vlad pulled out onto the road and turned on the audio system. The Thompson Twins crooned from the speakers.

I have a picture pinned to my wall
An image of you and of me
And we’re laughing, we’re loving it all
—”

Clearing his throat, Vlad pressed a button on the steering wheel. The disc changed and The Smiths began to play.

Driving in your car
I never, never want to go home
Because I haven’t got one
Anymore…

He thumbed the button again, turning on the radio instead. Inoffensive, irrelevant, all-purpose classic rock. Songs about American girls and watchtowers and sweet homes in faraway states.

Danny stared out the window at the passing trees.

It was a thirty-minute drive to downtown Aspen. Vlad parked in a special rich-people-only parking zone and together they strolled down South Galena. To the rest of the world they might have been a man and his son out enjoying a Saturday in one of the wealthiest towns in America. Vlad wore darkly-tinted sunglasses and had swapped his typical three-piece suit for a pair of black jeans—possibly the same jeans he’d worn last night—and a fitted chalk blue shirt, the sleeves rolled to his elbows. Danny tried not to let his eyes linger.

They went to Ralph Lauren first, stocking up on essentials like tees, jeans and underwear. Danny spoke to Vlad as little as he could, answering with nods or monosyllabic mumbles. From there they embarked on a whirlwind spree through all the luxury retailers: Hermés, Gucci, Prada, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Valentino. Apparently Vlad was bosom friends with everyone behind the counter. The associates greeted him enthusiastically, fawned over Danny, called him names like “darling” and “handsome”, and whisked him off to the dressing rooms. He was measured, modeled, complimented and critiqued while Vlad observed from the side, sipping expensive imported coffee and ignoring his buzzing cell phone, always the final word in any decision.

“That jacket doesn’t suit him at all. Let’s see the next style.”

“What about the sateen trousers? They can be dressed down or up.”

“No, no, he looks ghastly in that color. Something with a little more blue.”

“Take in the seams about two inches and it’ll be perfect.”

The exposure to such noxious levels of wealth had a poisonous effect on Danny. He was physically nauseated by the amount of money being spent on him; he lost track of his mental tally somewhere around twenty grand.

And to think that three days earlier he’d been counting a grubby handful of nickels and dimes, hoping he had enough for a sixty-five-cent burrito.

Three hours and six stores later, Danny was approaching critical mass.

“Vlad, please,” he begged in the dressing room of Moncler, his head spinning and his mouth dry. “I can’t—I don’t need all this. It’s too much.”

“Nonsense. You’re a Masters now,” Vlad said sternly. “Your appearance is a reflection of my own. You need to look the part.”

“I know, but—”

“You’ll be joining me on international business trips and corporate parties, staying at five-star hotels, dining at the finest restaurants, attending red carpet events and prestigious schools. You may do as you please at home, but out here”—Vlad gestured to the world at large—“you are Daniel Masters, my ward, my heir.”

Home. Masters. Heir. Danny took a deep breath, swallowed, and tried not to think about how good it would feel to pass out right now.

Vlad stiffened. “Your spectral frequency has changed. Are you tired?”

The weary nod.

“All right. Just one more stop after this and then we’ll be done. This should be enough to get you through the next few weeks.”

One more stop. Danny camped on the words, absorbing them like a voracious starfish slowly eating its way through a mussel. An end in sight gave him something to focus on; he could make it if he hung on just a little bit longer.

They left Moncler about nine hundred dollars lighter, and Vlad steered Danny into a hair salon. Danny sat in a swivel chair, staring numbly at his reflection, while a very skilled, very not-straight man named Nickie trimmed half a year’s unkempt shag off his head. By the time the cape was whipped off and the chair spun around, Danny looked like he belonged on the cover of Tiger Beat magazine. Vlad rose to collect him and froze halfway out of his seat, staring. Danny bashfully lowered his eyes.

“Well,” Vlad stated, straightening up and coughing into his fist. “That’s certainly an improvement.”

Danny didn’t know how much Vlad tipped Nickie, but it was probably three figures.

With that final task struck from the to-do list, Vlad led Danny to a quiet outdoor bistro for a little refreshment. They sat on a private terrace and enjoyed a picturesque view of the snow-capped Colorado Rockies while sipping drinks and sharing a platter of sushi. For the third time that hour, Vlad’s cell phone went off. He muted the call, not even bothering to see who it was.

“Don’t you wanna answer that?” Danny asked, trying not to drop his California roll into the sauce dish.

“They can leave a message. I’m busy.”

Danny concentrated on holding his chopsticks and hoped his cheeks weren’t as red as they felt.

Vlad was making time for him, ignoring what were probably very important business calls, giving him his exclusive, undivided attention. And for what? A boring Saturday shopping trip. A lunch where they barely spoke to one another. Danny thought of all the times he’d gone to his parents needing something important, a favor, advice, help.

Not now, sweetie, your father and I are trying to troubleshoot this latest upgrade. Maybe after dinner.

Sure, kiddo! Just as soon as I finish recalibrating the Specter Deflector…

Empty words, broken promises. And there was no way to reconcile them now. Their speakers were dead; there would be no healing. Forever an open, bleeding wound.

The waiter returned, refilling Vlad’s empty teacup and topping off Danny’s fancy French lemonade. Danny watched, eyebrows raised, as Vlad poured a tremendous amount of cream into his tea. It was practically white by the time he finished stirring it, full to the brim. The smart aleck in Danny couldn’t resist the temptation.

“Want a little tea to go with your milk there, Dairy Queen?”

After a brief glower, Vlad’s expression relaxed. “You mean you haven’t figured it out by now?” he asked, lifting the cup to his lips.

“Figured what out?”

“Never mind, then. I’m sure it’ll come to you eventually.”

Danny ground his teeth, seething with curiosity. “You mean the reason why you’ve got an entire fridge full of milk? I’ve been trying to figure that out since I got here.”

“And?” Vlad prompted. “Any theories yet?”

He was really enjoying this, Danny realized. The pompous jerk.

“A couple. I’m thinking you’re on a special diet.”

“Why on earth would I need a special diet?”

“I dunno, because you have an allergy? Messed up guts or something? Lots of people do. Maybe you’re—” A glimmer of understanding passed over Danny’s face.

Vlad smiled over the rim of his cup. “Go on, badger, spit it out.”

“It—has something to do with your accident in college, doesn’t it? Dad said you had a bad case of ecto-acne.”

“That’s an idiotic way to say radiation poisoning, but yes. My condition does behave like acne.”

“And milk… helps it?” Danny ventured.

“Contrary to all dermatological plausibility,” Vlad said. “You see, after your father blasted me in the face with eight megatons of unfiltered ectoplasmic energy, I discovered that dairy was the only substance capable of suppressing the radiation flare-ups. Something about the chemical structure of lactose and how it interacts with ectoplasm mitigates the vesicatory effects on living tissue.”

Danny didn’t know what half of those words meant, but he got the basic idea.

“I’ve written four theses on it since the nineties,” Vlad went on. “All yet to be published, of course.”

“Why the wait?” Danny asked, genuinely curious. It was obvious that Vlad thrived on attention. Actively avoiding it made no sense.

“Because I don’t want to be regarded as a raving lunatic by the scientific community,” he drawled. “That’s something your father never seemed to comprehend. I told him time and time again that if we—if he wanted to be taken seriously, he had to be patient. Publish research strategically and through the correct outlets. Scientific journals, scholarly books and magazines. But he was never very good at that.”

As much as he loved his father, Danny had to agree. Patience was not one of Jack Fenton’s virtues.

“So,” Vlad sighed, “instead of accolades and research grants, we got tabloids, laughter, and ridicule from our peers. By our final year, we were the laughingstock of the entire university system. Fenton, Masters and Taylor: the spooks of the physics department at UW-Madison.”

A strange feeling rippled through Danny at the mention of his mother’s maiden name. He wondered how Vlad had felt when he heard about his parents’ deaths. If he’d mourned them at all. They’d been his friends; he’d known them for years. They had history—a lot of it bad, like that whole bizarre love triangle thing, but connections were connections. They’d even formed a tentative truce after the fiasco with Pariah Dark and the siege on Amity Park.

Vlad studied him keenly from across the table. “I’m surprised you haven’t experienced a radiation flare-up of your own yet, Daniel. Though I would assume your father managed to improve upon our old portal design. Heaven knows he’s had long enough to do it. If he hasn’t worked out all the bugs after twenty-five years, well…” He swallowed, and Danny noticed a gleam in his eyes before he blinked it away. “I don’t suppose it matters now. It is what it is, and you and I… are what we are.”

“Yeah,” Danny mumbled. Whatever that meant.

“Speaking of which,” Vlad said with a spate of new energy, “I’d like to run those tests on you as soon as possible.”

“Tests? What, the ones to find out what type of core power I have?”

“Precisely. You don’t know it yet, but eating for one’s spectral element is extremely important. Proper nutrition will help manage any fluxes or flare-ups you might experience. But before we put you on a specialized diet, we must first determine what your elemental alignment is.”

“How do you do that?”

“A simple blood test. Perhaps this evening?” Vlad said, eyebrows lifted hopefully.

“Just a blood test?” Danny asked cautiously. “Nothing weird?”

“Nothing that you wouldn’t experience during any other routine blood drawing. Completely standard procedure.”

Danny nibbled his lip. “How long will it take to find out?”

“Not long at all,” Vlad said. “I’ve streamlined the process—got it down to a science, if you’ll pardon the pun. I can have your results in less than an hour.”

“Would—are you still gonna be able to teach me ghost stuff if I’m a water type or whatever?”

“Without a problem,” Vlad said with a lazy smile. “In fact, it might make for some interesting sparring matches, being opposites.”

After a lengthy deliberation, Danny finally nodded. “Okay. Tonight—or this evening, whatever.”

“Excellent.” With a satisfied sigh, Vlad leaned back and sipped his tea, admiring the view. As if everything in his life was perfect. It probably was.

A flood of envy swept through Danny, leaving behind a silty layer of resentment.

Vlad had everything he could possibly want. Money, power, wisdom, experience—and now someone to share it with. An heir, a son. His dream had come true. And all it had taken was the utter destruction of Danny’s entire world.

Maybe, Danny thought, with all these resources Vlad was promising to share with him, he might be able to make his own dreams come true.

Just as soon as he figured out what they were.

Chapter End Notes

Hold Me Now | Thompson Twins
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out | The Smiths

Blood

Chapter Notes

There was one more place they had to stop before leaving town.

Vlad swung into the parking lot of First Aspen Bank & Trust and told Danny to wait there, he wouldn’t be long. Danny tuned the radio to the local alternative rock station and listened to Kurt Cobain mumble about heart-shaped boxes and eating cancers, watching as Vlad flashed some kind of identification card and disappeared through a pair of automatic security doors. True to his word, he returned before the song finished, a manila envelope tucked under his arm. He slid into the driver’s seat and passed the envelope to Danny.

“Welcome to the family.”

Frowning, Danny unfolded the metal clip and reached inside, pulling out a bundle of documents. A Social Security card, a US passport, affidavits concerning transfer of legal guardianship, a birth certificate, a Wisconsin learner’s permit with a photo that just barely resembled him, and a shiny new American Express credit card—all under the name Daniel Masters.

“Wait, I thought you couldn’t get a credit card until you’re eighteen,” Danny said.

Vlad guided the Range Rover back onto the street, steering with one hand. “It’s a joint account. Take a closer look. My name is on it, too.”

It was, Danny saw. Right above his own. “Oh. Yeah.”

“It has a fifty thousand limit, so try not to go hog wild with it.”

A rush of dizziness that had nothing to do with the altitude spun Danny’s head. “S-seriously?”

“I imagine you’re going to want other things. Most boys your age do. At least this way you won’t have to come begging to me every time you want to buy a pack of gum.”

Danny stared at the card. A “thank you” beat against his tightly-closed lips, but he just couldn’t bring himself to say it. Not after what Vlad had done. There wasn’t enough money in the world for him to buy his way out of that one, and if he thought he could fix everything by throwing money at Danny and showering him with gifts, he had another thing coming.

Shuffling back through the documents, Danny stopped when he reached his driving permit. He squinted at it.

“Wait a sec, this isn’t my birthday.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Vlad said. “There are enough coincidences as it is without you sharing the same birthdate as a dead boy.” He glanced at Danny. “You can keep the permit, passport and credit card. I’ll hold onto everything else.”

Danny studied the strata of papers in his lap. “How—how did you get all this? I’ve only been here, like, two days.”

“Everyone has a number, Daniel.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means, dear boy, that loyalty, truth, honor, and all that other fairy-tale nonsense you’ve been taught, is a lie. Each one of us has a price. And if you’ve got the means, the world and everyone in it will capitulate to your desires, whenever you desire. In other words, Daniel, money is power, and power is power. And I have a lot of both.”

He shifted gears and turned onto a mountain highway, the Rover’s V8, two hundred and eighty-two horsepower engine purring smoothly.

Pressing his lips into a thin line, Danny tucked everything except for what Vlad said he could keep back into the envelope.

On the radio, Jonathan Davis launched into a solo of grotesque, guttural gibberish. Vlad narrowed his eyes at the dashboard, his lip curling. “Daniel, what on earth are we listening to?”

“It’s Korn. Freak on a Leash.”

“On a leash? Sounds like he needs to be muzzled and put down. He’s clearly rabid.”

A bark of laughter exploded from Danny’s mouth. For the better part of a minute he sat in his seat, chuckling into his hand. It was the first real laugh he’d had in weeks. Vlad smiled at him. No venom, no sharpness. Just a smile of genuine gladness.

Danny noticed his audience and collected himself, shyly rubbing the back of his neck. “Um, you can change it if you want.”

“It’s fine. I think it’s growing on me.” Vlad tapped the wheel and bobbed his head along with the beat. He looked like he was being forced to drink a gallon of vinegar.

Despite his best efforts, Danny’s smile returned.

Something takes a part of me
Part of me
Part of me
Part of me.


When they arrived home, Vlad announced that he had important work to catch up on and promptly retreated into his study, leaving Danny with the task of carrying all the shopping in by himself.

The sheer thoughtlessness and discourtesy rankled him at first. Then it dawned on him that Vlad had been nothing but thoughtful and courteous all day: ignoring phone calls; treating him to a much-needed haircut; paying attention to him; even going so far as to give him the means to make his own purchasing decisions. Danny was financially independent now. Vlad had granted him a modicum of dignity and restored his pride. Carrying in twenty-five grand of luxury goods was really the least Danny could do.

Besides, he had his ghost powers. This would be a snap.

Shifting to his spectral form, Danny stretched his arms so he could carry all of the bags at once, then made himself and them intangible. He flew up, phasing through the second floor, and emerged into the hallway outside the guest suite. Piece of cake. He could scarcely believe he’d almost allowed himself to get mad at Vlad over something with such a simple solution.

He deposited the bags on his—the—bedroom floor, stole the Bose stereo from the entertainment lounge down the hall, and listened to the radio while he put his clothes away. Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice was nice to hear again, even though the lyrics made Danny’s heart ache.

As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends
.”

As he finished hanging another jacket, he caught a glimpse of himself in the full-length mirror at the back of his walk-in closet. He paused, ran a hand through his stylish new haircut, and decided that things could be a lot worse.

They could also be a lot better, a voice in the back of his head whispered. Don’t be a sucker. Stay strong. This isn’t love. It’s bribery. Don’t sell your heart so cheaply.

Danny recoiled.

Where the heck had that come from? The idea that Vlad wanted to be liked—to be loved—by the angry teenager who had beaten his face like a drum that morning was ridiculous. The man had everything; there was nothing Danny possessed that Vlad could possibly want.

For some morbid reason, the heart in the refrigerator flashed through Danny’s mind.

He wondered if it was still down there, if Vlad had eaten it yet. If it was indeed beef and not human. If Vlad had any nefarious designs on Danny’s organs. The thought was chilling, especially when Danny recalled his first night under Vlad’s roof, how he had put his hand inside him. He’d said it was to help calm Danny’s spectral frequency, but—

I lie to everyone, Daniel. You’re not special.

A shiver raced up Danny’s spine, bringing every hair on his body to attention. His hand unconsciously drifted down to his belly, where Vlad had been buried wrist-deep.

Maybe he’d been feeling around, trying to find out if Danny’s guts were healthy. Edible. He’d demonstrated his ability to soothe Danny’s spectral frequency just by being close to him, like what happened in the bathroom last night. Why had he put his hand inside him?

Shuddering, Danny glanced at the clock. Quarter to five. He gulped.

He didn’t want to know what was for dinner.


“Chicken cordon bleu,” Vlad announced, placing a steaming plate in front of Danny. “With cream sauce and roasted vegetables.”

It smelled incredible and looked like something seen only in commercials, it was that picture-perfect. Danny’s hunger kicked his caution out of the way and went barreling headlong toward gluttony.

Vlad sat down with his own plate, some kind of meat and mushroom dish with a small side salad, and spread his napkin in his lap. “Bon appétit.”

“What’s that?” Danny asked, cautiously eyeing Vlad’s meal.

“Rindernieren mit Rahmpilze,” Vlad answered.

“Come again?”

“Beef kidneys with mushrooms.”

Danny made a face. “You speak Russian?”

“That was German and, nyet, I don’t.”

“Oh. How many languages do you speak?”

“Two. Business and BS. How’s the chicken?”

Pouting, Danny picked up his knife and sliced a crispy, cheesy morsel off of the chicken breast and put it in his mouth. It was all he could do to keep his face from melting into the expression he usually made during private moments of ecstasy.

“Good?” Vlad probed.

Danny nodded, swallowed. “Yeah.” It was actually fantastic, but he wasn’t about to admit that. “Um, really good.”

Vlad smiled.

A medley of classical music floated through the dining room as they ate, providing a welcome reprieve from the obligation of maintaining conversation. Sunny strings accompanied by mellow brass wrapped themselves around a vaguely familiar tune. Danny supposed it was all right. He was used to watching TV or reading comic books while he ate his meals, but he knew rich people didn’t do that. They just sat there and talked. Kind of boring, really. As he made quick work of his chicken, his restless eyes wandered around the room.

There was no crackling fire tonight. All signs of last night’s altercation were gone. The rug was cleaned, the fireplace empty, and Vlad’s chair had been replaced. Only the faintest scent of woodsmoke lingered in the air.

“Where’s the waiters?” Danny asked. “Day off?”

“Mm,” Vlad hummed around his glass of Cabernet. “Saturdays and Sundays. I only need them during the business week.”

Danny blinked. “You mean you—you made all this yourself?”

“You sound shocked.”

“No, it’s just—” Danny clamped his mouth shut and gazed down at his plate.

For the second time that day, Vlad had cooked for him. Really good stuff, too. He could have cut his work in half and just fed Danny the same nasty guts-and-shrooms dish he was eating, but he hadn’t. He’d gone out of his way to make something different, something he thought Danny might like. And it wasn’t a bologna sandwich with Cheetos.

An irrational twinge of annoyance pinched Danny’s face into a frown. It didn’t seem fair. Vlad was already rich, famous, powerful, smart, and extremely handsome. He didn’t need to add gourmet chef to his list of accomp—

Danny froze.

Oh, God. He did not just think that.

Vlad raised an eyebrow. “Just…?”

“It’s, um, really nice, that’s all,” Danny rattled out. “I didn’t think you’d be such a kitchen wizard.”

Vlad preened. “Well, it’s hard to ruin chicken cordon bleu.”

I could.”

“Oh? Well, maybe in addition to ghost training, I could offer you a few cooking lessons. Schedule permitting, of course.”

It took a ludicrous amount of creativity for Danny to imagine baking cookies and cheerfully sampling marinara with the man who’d regularly terrorized him for the past year. Of course, he never expected he’d be sleeping in the same bed with that man, either. That extremely handsome man. Whom Danny had seen naked. Who had given him mouth-to-mouth. Who had a nice body and a—

Danny’s cheeks glowed. He hunched in his seat, fighting the urge to crawl under the table and die. “Uh, yeah, sounds fun. So, um, where did you learn to cook, anyway?”

Vlad’s smile faded. “Home. When I was a young man.”

Danny waited for more, but there was nothing. He got the feeling he might have touched a nerve and filed that information away for later. He had other, more pressing questions that needed answering.

“Uh, speaking of which,” he said, drawing the words out as casually as he could, “that veggie smoothie you were drinking last night. What was it really?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I know what veggie smoothies look like,” Danny said. “Sam was a vegan. She ate beets and that kind of stuff all the time. What you had wasn’t a veggie smoothie.” He bit his lip.

There. The line had been cast, the hook baited. If Vlad lied now, Danny swore he would never trust him again.

Vlad cocked his head, studying Danny’s earnest posture, his wide eyes, the white-knuckled grip he had on his fork. “You’re right,” he said suddenly. “It wasn’t.”

Danny’s eyebrows leaped to his hairline. “Oh,” he said quietly. “Uh. What—what was it, then?”

“Exactly what you think.”

“Blood?” Danny ventured.

“On the contrary,” Vlad said. “There aren’t many vitamins or minerals in blood itself. It’s a vehicle for nutrients, not a nutrient source. What I had was, to put it simply, an organ slurry.”

If Danny never heard those two words used in conjunction with one another again, he might be able to die in peace. But even his disgust wasn’t enough to slake his gruesome curiosity.

“What kinds of organs?” he asked in a hushed voice.

“Liver, heart, sweetbreads, brains.” Vlad shrugged one shoulder. “A little of everything.”

Danny didn’t know what sweetbreads were, but he was willing to bet they weren’t bread and they weren’t sweet. “At least tell me you cooked them first.”

Vlad didn’t reply. Only tucked his lips against his teeth in a look commonly seen on the faces of politicians caught red-handed in sex scandals.

Danny paled. “Oh, God. You ate—drank them raw? Why? Is it because of the ecto—the radiation flare-ups?”

“It’s because I have a fire in my belly, Daniel,” Vlad muttered. “A literal one. My elemental powers allow me to eat almost anything. Fire consumes indiscriminately, but it burns best when it has the right fuel.”

“Let me guess,” Danny said. “Your fuel is blood and guts?”

“Blood and guts,” Vlad echoed.

Danny lapsed into a moody silence. “Why didn’t you just tell me that in the first place?” he finally asked.

“Because you’d already been through enough,” Vlad said. “You’d just barely survived your own nexus attacking you, and the last thing you needed was to get yourself worked up over nothing.”

“It wasn’t nothing.” Under his breath Danny muttered, “I wish you’d stop lying to me.”

Vlad performed an especially dramatic eye roll. “Everyone lies, Daniel. Your parents, your friends, everyone you’ve ever met. It’s an essential part of being human. Not every lie is malicious, you know. Sometimes it’s for your own good.”

“Maybe, but it makes it hard for me to trust you.”

“That’s your problem, not mine.”

“It is not,” Danny snapped. “Just tell me the truth from now on! Don’t treat me like a dumb little kid. It’s really easy, I promise.”

Vlad’s eyebrows stitched together in a scowl. He put his fork down.

“All right, Daniel. Have it your way. If you think you can take the truth, I won’t hold back.” He pointed warningly. “But don’t expect me to coddle you every time you burst into tears because my words were too much for your tiny adolescent brain to handle.”

“So learn to speak better words,” Danny retorted. “Then you won’t have to do anything at all!”

Vlad’s eyes went red. He snorted, and the air that jetted from his nostrils shimmered like heatwaves over a baking stretch of Nevada highway. Danny drew back, his own eyes flaring bright green. Adrenaline shot into his veins, his body tensing for flight. The room seemed to darken. Then, abruptly, Vlad broke into a laugh and the heavy atmosphere lifted.

“Touché, Daniel. Very good.” He raised his wine glass. “To better words.”

Blinking his eyes back to their normal color, Danny lifted his water glass. His hand trembled slightly.

“And the guts to hear ’em,” he squeaked.

Vlad smiled a charming smile. “I couldn’t agree more.”

Clink.


After dessert—two small but decadent slices of cheesecake with fresh berries—they carried the dishes to the kitchen and loaded the dishwasher as a team effort, a routine so disturbingly familiar that Danny couldn’t stop glancing over at Vlad, who had his sleeves rolled up and was neatly placing the rinsed dishes into the rack. Jazz had always done that. The youngest rinsed, the eldest loaded. Somehow she always found a way to make everything fit, no matter how many dishes they had.

Looking at Vlad, Danny could almost pretend his sister was still alive. He swallowed the lump in his throat and handled the glassware with extra care.

With the dishwasher set and humming through its first cycle, Vlad led Danny down to his lab. The first thing he did, like the night before last, was go to the stereo and browse his music collection until he found what he was looking for. He selected a disc and fed it into the slot.

“You sure listen to music a lot,” Danny observed.

“It soothes the spirit,” Vlad answered. A moment later he added, “And fills the silence.”

A current of sympathy stirred in Danny’s heart. He wondered if Vlad had chosen to be this lonely.

A steady beat and soft, synthesized melody emerged from the stereo speakers.

“Depeche Mode?” Danny asked.

“The Cure.”

“Huh. It all sounds the same to me.”

Vlad muttered something that didn’t quite reach Danny’s ears and pointed to the stool beside his main workstation. “Sit down over there and roll up your sleeve.”

Danny obeyed. Propping his new Converse sneakers on the rungs, he watched Vlad gather a butterfly needle and empty vacutainer tubes from a nearby supply cabinet. A nervous sweat formed under his arms.

“Can’t you just poke my finger with a pin or something?” he asked.

“I need more than a drop to perform this test,” Vlad said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be sure to leave some behind.” He smirked. Danny didn’t.

A few minutes later, Danny sat with his fist clenched and a rubber tourniquet tied around his upper arm. Vlad leaned in close and sterilized the injection site. The smell of alcohol and nitrile gloves made Danny’s stomach twist. He squirmed in his seat.

“Vlad, I—I don’t think I can do this.”

“Of course you can,” Vlad said. His breath fell on the pale, veiny underside of Danny’s forearm. “Nothing to it.”

“Have you even done this before?”

“Many times. Now relax.” He brought the needle down.

Danny turned away, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Nervous?” Vlad asked.

“I don’t like needles.”

“Not many do.”

Slowly and gently, Vlad pressed the needle into Danny’s vein. Dark red blood flashed into the catheter. Danny whimpered. Vlad lifted his eyes briefly before refocusing on his task. Keeping the needle stable with his left hand, he used his right to skillfully insert the first of five vacutainer tubes on the other end of the line. As the tube began to fill, he reached up and tugged the tourniquet free.

“There,” he told Danny. “Worst part is over.”

“Don’t talk to me until the needle is out.”

“Talking will take your mind off of it.” He paused. A faraway look settled in his eyes. “Did you know that during my first few years as a hybrid I was on dialysis?”

Danny cracked one eye open and rotated his head slightly, just enough that he could see Vlad. “Really?”

A nod. “Weekly. My kidneys, liver, all my major organs, were on the brink of failure. I needed regular blood transfusions just to stay alive. It was hideously expensive.”

The first tube filled. Vlad released it from the adapter and clipped in another. His gloved hand was warm where it touched Danny’s skin.

“I was chronically anemic,” he went on. “Weak, tired. Nothing I did seemed to work. Diets, supplements, physical therapy. You see, with me not fully understanding my own physiology, the only way my ghost half could sustain itself was to draw upon my human body for its energy needs. My nexus was essentially a parasite, sucking the life out of me. Thankfully I figured out what the problem was before I completely wasted away.”

The second tube filled. He popped it out, laid it beside its companion, and inserted an empty one. Both were steamy on the inside, Danny noticed. Hot-blooded.

“After we find out what your core powers are, and you begin to feed your body what it needs, you’ll see what I mean.”

“Why? What’ll happen?”

Vlad raised his head and looked Danny in the eye. “You’ll blossom.”

Danny stared back at him. He’d never noticed what a dark shade of blue Vlad’s eyes were, or the threads of teal woven into his irises. He wondered what the name of that color was. Pacific blue, some hue seen in the far reaches of deep space. The color of nebulae. There was a warmth to them now, a softness; soil too sweet for lies to grow.

Over the speakers, Robert Smith somehow managed to sing and cry at the same time.

I want to keep this feeling
Deep inside of me
I want you always in my heart
You are everything.

A flush rose to Danny’s cheeks. He finally bolstered the courage to look down at his arm. It wasn’t as bad as he expected. Vlad’s steady hand held the butterfly needle in place, perfectly in line with his vein. There was a slight bulge where the needle penetrated his skin. He dared to peek at the third vacutainer tube Vlad was uncoupling. He slipped in the fourth with a gentle thump that Danny felt more than heard.

Calm. Steady. Sure. The feelings seemed to resonate from Vlad in rolling waves. Danny could almost sense them washing over his body like rays of invisible sunlight.

“Are you doing that on purpose?” he asked.

“Doing what?”

“Frequency… ing. Me.”

Vlad arched an eyebrow.

“S-sending out spectral frequencies,” Danny reiterated. “To calm me down. Like what you did last night.”

“Not consciously,” Vlad admitted. “Your nexus might be picking up on my spectral signature, tuning in to it.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re scared.” He inserted the final vacutainer tube. “And it’s looking for something familiar to stabilize it.”

Danny lowered his eyes.

The last tube of blood was drawn. Vlad carefully pulled the needle out of Danny’s arm and pressed a cotton pad onto the puncture site. “Hold that,” he said, and went to dispose of the medical refuse in a special biohazard bin. He returned a minute later with a Band-Aid.

“I’m all out of Sesame Street ones,” he said, peeling and pressing the putty-colored bandage over the pad. His fingers brushed Danny’s. “But I do have some lollipops since you were such a brave little soldier today.”

“Shut up,” Danny muttered, but he was trying not to smile.

Vlad was smiling and not concerned with hiding it. “It’ll take about thirty to forty minutes to get your results,” he said. “You can go upstairs if you like.”

“I’ll wait here. Can I, um… watch?”

“Of course.” Vlad tilted his head, inviting Danny to the other side of the lab.

Danny hopped off the stool. Darkness seemed to close in around him, and his knees buckled. He would have collapsed to the floor if Vlad hadn’t reached out and grabbed his arm.

“Careful,” he warned.

“Sorry.” Danny raised his head. His eyes focused inexplicably on Vlad’s ear. There was a small hole in his lobe. Pierced. Danny blinked and straightened up. “I’m fine now.”

But Vlad kept his hand on his shoulder until they’d reached the workbench.

It took several minutes to prepare a battery of nine ampoules containing Danny’s blood. Vlad narrated as he worked.

“Over the years, I’ve managed to obtain ectoplasmic material from ghosts of every spectral class. Fire, water, and electricity, the three primaries. Then the secondaries, ice, air, and carbon—also known as earth, if you’re into elemental alchemy. The tertiaries are rare and extremely powerful: chronos, psyche, and aether. I don’t think you’re one of them, but I’m testing anyway.”

He opened a heavy lead-lined case. Nine vials containing glowing substances of varying colors lay nestled inside. Carefully, using a fresh syringe for each one, Vlad withdrew half a CC from each bottle and added it to one of the nine blood samples. Then he locked each ampoule into a tabletop centrifuge—only this one had an ecto-filtrator hooked up to it.

“What is this thing?” Danny asked, peering at it from every angle.

“A spectral particle analyzer,” Vlad said, moving to a terminal and keying in a series of commands.

“How does it work?”

“Short answer or long answer?”

“Short. I went to public school.”

Vlad sighed. “Ectoplasm goes in. Machine spins really fast. Sample separates. Machine analyzes the separation, prints results.”

“How will I know which one I am?”

“By whichever one doesn’t separate,” Vlad said, studying the computer screen. “Your blood has already bonded with whatever matching spectral element is in these samples.” His fingers danced over the keyboard, each movement articulate and effortless. Vlad had nice hands with long, elegant fingers, Danny noticed. He watched, mesmerized. The piano in the living room came to mind. He could see Vlad playing it. Maybe someday he’d get to hear him.

“I’m inputting an algorithm to tell the machine how much force and ectoplasmic radiation to apply to induce separation,” Vlad explained. “There’s a sweet spot that occurs around thirty-five thousand RPMs, one-point-eight Ectojoules. In Newtons that’s roughly equivalent to—”

“Public school.”

“Ah. Right. Well, never mind, then.” Vlad pressed the ENTER key and shut the centrifuge’s lid. The machine began to hum. “That’s that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some other projects that need my attention. I trust you can keep yourself entertained in the meantime?”

Danny nodded. Vlad headed to another part of the lab and pulled on a welding mask. Moments later, he fired up a blowtorch.

“Maniac,” Danny whispered.

He sat down at a drafting table and spent the next half hour listening to The Cure’s B-Sides and Rarities while practicing writing his name—his new one—over and over on a yellow notepad.

Danny Masters
Daniel Masters
Danny M.
D. Masters
DM
Dan Masters
Mr. Daniel Masters

He practiced both print and cursive. The M was a lot easier to write than F, he found, and his initials looked… better, somehow. The only thing that came to his mind when he saw DF was Dumb—

He tore out the paper, wadded it up, and tossed it into a trash can.

He loved his family. He loved his name. His real one. Fenton forever. He knew who he was—and would always be.

Shoving his hands into his pockets, he got up and skulked around the lab, shoes chirping occasionally on the polished floor. He reached the far wall and stopped in front of the ghost portal mounted there. He cocked his head, studied it.

He’d seen Vlad’s portal before—or at least the one at his mansion in Wisconsin. Apart from a few aesthetic differences, it was almost exactly like the Fenton portal, right down to the EFU mounted on the side. Danny remembered how Vlad had accidentally destroyed his portal back in February. The explosion had taken out his mansion, too. He wondered how many portals Vlad actually had.

Slowly, he reached out and laid his palm on the cool gray metal. He closed his eyes. He could almost feel the energy behind it; the energy of another world, another dimension, full of strange and terrifying and amazing things.

“When was the last time you went there?”

Danny jolted and whipped around.

Vlad raised his hands. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s okay,” Danny lied. His heart jackhammered against his sternum. “Just—kinda zoned out for a second, I guess.”

Vlad stepped to his side, hands clasped behind his back. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Huh? Oh, that. Yeah.” Danny rubbed his arm. His hand skated over his Band-Aid. “I think it was when Technus—no. No, it was…” His eyes became distant.

The last time he’d been in the Ghost Zone, the very last moment he remembered, Plasmius was grinning at him as he lost consciousness.

“It was when I put Pariah Dark back in his sarcophagus,” he said softly. “You had the key to it. You locked it up and…”

And then Vlad had scooped up Danny’s senseless body and carried him home to his worried parents. An olive branch.

A grin rose to Vlad’s lips. “Ah, yes, how could I ever forget you and I putting aside our differences and working together as a team?”

I did all of the work,” Danny said sourly.

“I know. I saw it all.” His grin softened. “You duplicated yourself. How long had you been trying to master that technique?”

Embarrassment stained the tips of Danny’s ears red. “Since I first saw you do it.”

“Four duplicates.” Vlad pulled his mouth downward, affecting an expression of mild admiration. “Quite ambitious for a beginner. Were your powers quartered?”

“Exactly,” Danny sighed. “Twenty-five percent for each one.”

Vlad nodded sagely. “There’s a trick to prevent that. I’ll show it to you someday, and a way to duplicate real-world objects, as well.”

“What, like, any object? Seriously?”

“Indeed. Technically, it’s spectral energy manipulation, and it’s only temporary, but yes. Any object in this world can be duplicated. But that’s a lesson for after you’ve mastered the basics.”

The basics. Danny scoffed inside his head. As if he didn’t already know all that stuff. Was Vlad going to teach him how to fly and phase and do all the things he’d taught himself ages ag—

With a startled blink, Danny realized he was leaning toward the man, about to brush against him. He straightened up immediately, feigning a few stretches.

God, what was with him today? He suddenly wanted to be anywhere if it meant being away from Vlad Masters. And besides, he didn’t think he could stand listening to The Cure for much longer.

“I suggest we schedule a trip to the Ghost Realm as soon as possible,” Vlad said. “I suspect that’s another reason your nexus is on the fritz.”

Danny paused his exaggerated flexing. “Seriously?”

Vlad gave him a look. “We’re half-ghosts, Daniel. We belong to two worlds. If you wish to stay balanced, you must spend time in both of them. And considering it’s been, what, four months since your last visit? It’s no wonder you’re in such a state.”

“I—never made the connection.” Danny dragged his hand over his face. “You must think I’m so stupid.”

“You’re ignorant. There’s a difference.”

A chime went off from somewhere in the lab. Danny and Vlad turned their heads to each other at the same time.

“That would be your results,” Vlad said.

They made their way to the spectral particle analyzer, where a jumble of incomprehensible letters and numbers hung from the machine’s printer slot. Vlad ripped it free and held it with both hands, eyes moving rapidly back and forth. Danny waited, chewing his lip, hands sweating, heart beating. He hadn’t been this nervous since—

Since…

Since he got his hands on the answers to the Career Aptitude Test.

He swallowed thickly. The urge to throw up was suddenly overpowering. Then Vlad’s voice reeled him out of the darkness of his past and into the harsh fluorescent light of the laboratory.

“Congratulations, my boy. You’re an ice specter.”

It took a few seconds for Danny’s brain to unfreeze itself. His jaw came unhinged. He stood, stupefied.

“So I’m—I’ve got ice powers?”

“Indeed.”

“Wow. Is that… normal?”

Vlad’s eyebrows dropped. “For the average teenage boy? No. No, it’s far from normal, Daniel. It’s about as abnormal as you could possibly get. But for a ghost hybrid, well. It’s just peachy.” He handed him the strip of paper.

Danny numbly accepted it. “Wow,” he murmured. “So what happens now?”

“Now?” Vlad crossed his arms and leaned against the table. “Now we know what we’re dealing with, and we proceed accordingly.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means don’t worry about it. Everything is fine. Nothing has changed except our awareness.” He reached out and touched Danny’s shoulder. His hand was solid, reassuring. As much as Danny enjoyed the feeling, he stepped out from under it.

“Well, uh, thanks for—this. Helping me, that is.” He began to inch his way back toward the stairs. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just, uh, get outta your hair now and go up to my roo—I mean, the, uh, the guest—”

“No, no, it’s your room now.” Vlad forced a smile that didn’t quite succeed in lifting the melancholy from his face. “You may come and go as you please. You’re not a prisoner.”

“Um. Right.” Danny’s groping hand brushed the banister. He grasped it like a lifeline. An automatic good night rose in his throat; he quietly swallowed it down. That was something said to friends, family, people he liked. He wanted to say it. Desperately. But not yet. Maybe not ever.

Out of words and unable to bear another second of the crushing tension, he turned and jogged up the stairs.

Vlad watched him go. He waited until he heard footsteps on the floor above, then he slipped his hand into his pocket. It remained there for a few moments, his fist a visible lump through the black denim of his jeans, before he brought it out and opened it. Three of the vacutainers of Danny’s blood lay on the palm of his hand.

Object duplication. So useful.

He stared down at the samples, lips pursed. Using his thumb, he deftly flicked the stopper off of one, raised it to his lips, and drank it down.

A magenta glow ignited in his chest. He shut his eyes, rolling his tongue around in his mouth until the taste had been savored to its fullest. When he finally released his breath, a thin finger of frosty air trickled from his lips.

“Perfect,” he whispered.

Chapter End Notes

Freak on a Leash | Korn
Wake Me Up When September Ends | Green Day
Halo | The Cure

Nexus

Chapter Notes

Danny trudged up the staircase to the guest suite—his room—with a heap of sharp-edged questions tumbling around in his head. He didn’t want to think about them. He didn’t want to think at all. What he wanted was to get away from himself for a little while.

He entered his room and turned on the Bose, cranked the volume up until it drowned out his thoughts. Nothing in his skull now but the familiar riffs of Linkin Park.

Crawling in my skin
These wounds, they will not heal
Fear is how I fall
Confusing what is real…

He stood in the middle of the floor for a time, allowing the lyrics to soak through his skin and enter his bloodstream. An inoculation against unwanted thoughts. He waited until his favorite verse was sung before heading to the bathroom, shucking off his clothes as he went. He didn’t especially need a shower. It was early September in Colorado and the weather had been cool and pleasant all day. He’d barely broken a sweat. This was for his mind.

Under the warm spray, he peeled off his still-fresh Band-Aid and examined the tiny dot over his vein. A point of entry. A reminder that this was the second time Vlad had penetrated him.

“Ugh, shuttup, shuttup, shuttup,” Danny chanted. “Soap bubbles, hmm-hmm. Ice. I’m an ice specter, yay. Ice, ice, baby—” He babbled the lyrics to Vanilla Ice’s 1990 hit for no other reason than to keep his mind far away from Vlad Masters.

It actually worked.

He coasted through the rest of his cleaning ritual, brain on autopilot. Ice powers. The words ran laps through his head, a welcome distraction. Part of him was disappointed that he didn’t have awesome destructive powers like fire or lightning, or at least something that inspired more fear than hypothermia, but the shame blinked through him with the lifespan of a meteorite falling to earth. He began to imagine all the things he might be able to do with such skills. Make an ice sword? Freeze enemies solid? Ballistic snowballs? Avalanches on demand? Single-handedly end global warming?

He toweled off and pulled on his nightclothes: pajama pants, socks, tee. Strangely, the bedroom, which he had found so spacious before, now felt close, almost suffocating. Walls shrinking inward, furniture crowding around him, his molecules compacting into a dense ball. Like a black hole or a neutron star. A craving for fresh air possessed him. His eyes swept the room and settled on a pair of curtained doors. He crossed the floor in a few quick strides, unlocked the jamb, and threw them open. A refreshingly cold breeze poured in from the small balcony. He stepped out.

Gentle dark greeted him, nature quietly detangling the claustrophobic density of the indoors. The forest raised its coniferous mantle beyond the manicured lawn. Behind the pines and firs loomed the jagged backbone of the Rocky Mountains. There was no traffic, no street lights. Danny tilted his face toward a sky unpolluted by man, and something in his restless soul was brought to heel. He leaned against the railing with a sigh.

So many stars. The last time he’d seen a sky this clear was when he and his mother had been duped into coming out here by Vlad. A fictitious science symposium; engine trouble on the private jet; a night spent mostly in the woods, pursued by predators, the rest of it spent in a creepy hunting lodge, pursued by a predator of a different kind.

Danny shook the memories from his head and studied the sky. Not tonight. Tonight he could see the Milky Way. There was Orion, Vega, Mercury; the Crab Nebula; Ursa Major and Minor; Cassiopeia. Familiar figures, their celestial bodies constant and predictable. This would be a great place to set up a telescope, he thought. Maybe he could talk Vlad into buying—

With a cogent gleam of understanding, Danny realized he wouldn’t have to. He had his own money. Sort of. His to spend, anyway. He could totally buy a telescope, a super nice one, too. A Celestron or a Sky-Watcher. And a desktop computer, maybe a laptop. No, he’d get a desktop and a laptop. He’d keep the desktop at home for gaming and research and use the laptop for school. And he’d buy some posters to decorate his walls, maybe pick up doing model kits again, get some new bed sheets that weren’t so boring. Really make this place his own.

The revelation of his liberty was intoxicating, and for a moment Danny felt like going ghost and shooting up into the night sky, a rocket of glorious abandon, hollering and cheering and doing backflips. He’d sail over the trees and mountains and find a moon-soaked cloud to perch on, and he’d lie there on his back and let it carry him across the sky while he stargazed for hours.

Some other night, he decided. He didn’t need silence tonight. He needed noise, images, distraction.

He returned to his room and closed the doors behind him, then made his way down to the entertainment lounge. In addition to ping pong and foosball tables, snack machines, and a mini-arcade, there was a gargantuan flat screen mounted in front of a crescent-shaped sofa capable of seating an entire baseball team. The perfect place to veg out.

After gathering up all of the pillows and blankets and creature comforts he desired, Danny settled in and spent the next fifteen minutes channel surfing. There were hundreds to choose from, including a raft of adult pay-per-views, all unrestricted. He almost selected one, just to see what it was, but ultimately decided against it. Vlad would certainly discover the truth when the bill came due, and the thought of receiving a lecture on the dangers of pornography addiction—or worse, Vlad’s own personal recommendations—was enough to make Danny want to be celibate for the rest of his life.

Well, maybe for a week.

He scrolled through the movie channels until he came across Deep Impact. It wasn’t as fun as Armageddon, but it got points for realism. And Elijah Wood.

Danny snuggled into his nest and watched with only half of his brain while the other half daydreamed about saving the world with Elijah Wood and the dramatic moment when he’d reveal his ghost powers to knock the comet off course and save the planet, and Elijah would be starstruck and totally cool with it, and he and Danny would laugh and kiss and go on to become the greatest astronomer/astronaut boyfriends in the world…

He nodded off before the credits rolled.

Around one in the morning, during the deepest stage of his sleep cycle, Danny went intangible. He sank through the couch, the floor, and came out through the living room ceiling. His body floated through walls, past the kitchen with its polished granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, and past the den. He melted through shelves of books in the library and paintings hanging in the study before finally emerging from the wall of Vlad’s bedroom. His translucent form drifted down to where Vlad lay sleeping in his huge four-poster bed. Danny disappeared into the mattress. The covers stirred and swelled, filling out into a human shape. His body became solid again, and he cuddled into his new surroundings with a drowsy mumble. A glittering white mist escaped his lips.

In his sleep, Vlad’s eyebrow twitched. He inhaled slowly and sighed. The air in front of his mouth shimmered with heatwaves. His arm unconsciously snaked out, feeling for the presence that had just joined him. His hand brushed Danny’s shoulder and he rolled toward him, never waking, shifting by increments until he was directly in front of him.

Danny murmured, homing in on the source of that familiar, soothing frequency, and scooted closer to it, until his forehead and nose touched Vlad’s.

The frown lines on Vlad’s face smoothed out. The rapid movement behind Danny’s eyelids stilled. He snuggled against Vlad’s chest, and Vlad instinctively curled himself around the boy.

Safe in each other’s arms, they slept.


“Daniel. Daniel.”

A whisper, urgent. At first Danny thought he was dreaming. If he was, he was dreaming of Vlad. That was his voice.

He drew in a breath, his situational awareness sharpening as he returned to the waking world. Something had changed. Things were different. Wrong. This didn’t feel like the couch. It didn’t even smell like the same room. He blinked his eyes open.

Vlad’s face hovered less than an inch from his own. “Whatever you do, don’t move,” he said. “Stay calm, don’t pan—”

Reflex. Danny jerked back, a startled cry wrenching from his throat. Two things happened then: a ray of light sliced through the darkness somewhere below his line of vision, and there came a sensation not unlike his spine being yanked through the wall of his abdomen. The pain was breathtaking.

Vlad seized his shoulders. “Daniel, don’t!” he said. “Be still!”

“Augh!” Danny cried, struggling. “Wh-what’s going on? What’re you doing!” He pushed Vlad’s chest with both hands. “Get offa me, you sick—”

“Stop pulling, Daniel, you’re going to—ah! Ough!” Vlad winced, lips peeling back from his teeth in an agonized sneer. The light swelled to a brilliant crescendo, and Danny looked down.

Between his waist and Vlad’s hung a dazzling mass of pure energy, crackling and spitting sparks like severed high-tension wires. From one side of the mass sprouted a plait of glimmering blue tendrils, which disappeared through Danny’s t-shirt and into his belly. On Vlad’s side, a similar braid, slightly thicker and glowing red, emerged from his abdomen and joined the fulgent knot that bound them together. The knot radiated silvery purple light, augmented with splashes of shifting color, like an aurora. The blue and red tendrils moved as if alive, tightening their clasp on one another. It brought to mind images of two deep-sea creatures locked in either coitus or combat; boneless, brainless organisms, nothing but a gnarl of nerve endings and rudimentary intellect. Patterns of light pulsed down the translucent coils. It was grotesque. It was beautiful. And Danny reacted like any other sane, well-adjusted person when confronted with such mortifying paranormal phenomena.

He went berserk.

Oh, my God, what is that!” he exploded, kicking, flailing, scrabbling at Vlad’s chest. “What’s happening! Get it outta me! Get it off! Oh, God, get away, get—”

A pair of strong arms locked around Danny and a hand clapped over his mouth. He went still and stared over Vlad’s knuckles with terrified, gleaming eyes.

“It’s your nexus,” Vlad said. “And mine. They’re locked together.”

Danny ripped the hand away. “Locked? What do you mean, locked? How did that happen? What did you do to me!”

“I didn’t do anything! I went to bed alone. You’re the one who snuck in here and crawled into my—”

“I fell asleep upstairs! I didn’t sneak in here! I don’t know how I got here!”

The anger trickled from Vlad’s features, leaving behind a pallid slackness. “Oh,” he said after a prolonged pause. “Well. This is an interesting development.”

Hysteria began to claw its way into Danny’s heart. “Interesting? Interesting? We’re stuck together and all you can say is—”

“Relax, Daniel. Panicking isn’t going to help us. What we need is to—”

“What if they’re fusing together? It could be permanent! What’s gonna happen to us?” He gulped air like a landed fish, his voice a shrill bleat riven with pubescent cracks. “Are we getting absorbed into each other? Are we gonna die? It can’t end like this, I’m not ready! There’s still things I wanna do! I haven’t—”

Vlad caught Danny’s face in one hand, fingers digging into pigeon-plump cheeks. “Daniel. Get a grip. We’re not going to die.”

“How do you know?” he blubbed through squished lips.

“Because it would have already happened.” Vlad squinted down at the mass between them, his face bathed in light. “Whatever this is, I don’t think it’s meant to harm us.”

“Are you kidding?” Danny shook himself loose. “It feels like my guts are being ripped out!”

“Then move toward me. Close the gap.”

“No way! Are you nuts? I’m not moving an inch until I know what the hell is—”

“Daniel, please,” Vlad said, his forehead rippled with pain. “There’s a tremendous amount of tension between us—”

“I’ll say there is!”

“Not that kind of tension, you dolt. I meant mechanical tension. The more we resist, the tighter it pulls. Like Chinese finger traps.”

“Chinese what?”

“Finger traps. It’s a game. Toy, really. You escape by relax—oh, never mind. I’ll explain later. Just—ngh, come closer, would you? Please?”

Cautiously, hesitantly, Danny scooted forward. The shimmering blue cable of his spectral core melted back through his t-shirt, and the ache in his stomach lifted. Vlad met him the rest of the way. Their bodies pressed together, burying the coruscating mass of their entwined cores. All pain subsided, leaving behind a heavy silence.

Danny blushed furiously. A penny couldn’t be squeezed between the two of them. Everything from his chest to his knees was glued to Vlad. He felt everything: the swell of Vlad’s pectoral muscles each time he breathed; the contours of his abdomen; the condensed heat of his crotch with its fleshy, unmistakable bulge; the rock-hard slabs of his thighs. Danny’s genitals were trapped somewhere in the vicinity of Vlad’s left hip bone, probably crammed into the furrow of his Adonis belt.

For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, Danny wanted to curl up and die.

“So now what?” he groused, his voice painfully high to his own ears. “Are we just supposed to lay here and wait until our ghost guts untangle themselves?”

“Actually, yes,” Vlad said. “That’s exactly what I propose we do.”

“We could be here for hours. Days, even!”

“Don’t be so melodramatic. I’m sure we’ll disengage shortly. We need only—”

“What if we go ghost? That might free us.”

“I’ve tried that already. I can’t turn. I suspect you can’t, either.”

“Okay, then. What about intangibility?”

“Negative. It seems any power associated with our spectral halves is out of service.”

“Then what can we do?”

“Not devolving into hysterics would be a start,” Vlad said. “Keep calm. Focus on my signature if you have to. And don’t move.”

Gulping hard, Danny turned his head so he wouldn’t be half an inch away from kissing Vlad on the mouth. His stomach throbbed, fluttered. Maybe it was butterflies. Maybe it was his nexus. Nothing he could do about it. He sighed. With nothing else to look at but the dark walls, his eyes gravitated to Vlad’s bare arm. A rolling horizon of deltoid and bicep muscles made for an attractive vista. Only a single flaw—a scabby ring of teeth marks stamped in the meat of his shoulder, lightly bruised—interrupted the perfect landscape. Danny stared at it, mesmerized.

Vlad followed his gaze. “I thought I’d let this one heal naturally.”

Before Danny could summon the nerve to ask why, Vlad dropped his head onto his pillow and sighed. “It never fails. I’ve been a half-ghost for two and a half decades, and I swear I learn something new every day.” He chuckled.

Danny glared. “You think this is funny?”

“You have to learn to laugh at life, Daniel. Sometimes it’s the best thing you can do. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can do.”

“How am I supposed to laugh? Our nexus—usses—nexias?”

“Nexuses.”

“Whatever! Our stupid ghost spinal cords are tangled up and I really, really want them to be untangled. Like, as soon as possible.”

“You think I’m enjoying this? Believe me, Daniel, this wasn’t how I intended to kick off my Sunday morning. I have more important things to do than lie here while our nexuses shake hands.” A light flickered behind his eyes. The muscles of his face loosened, his expression going blank.

Danny knew that look: realization. A million atoms of information conglomerating into a single kernel of knowledge, shocked to life by a Frankensteinian bolt of electricity. An answer had just been found. And it wasn’t always a good thing.

“What?” he pressed. “What is it?

“What’s what?” Vlad said.

“You know something. Tell me.”

“I assure you, I don’t.”

“Bullshit. You’re lying again.” Danny scowled. “Tell me. You promised, remember? At dinner last night. No more lies.”

After a withering glance, Vlad took a breath. “I was thinking of the word nexus. Ghosts have been using it for centuries to refer to their spectral energies. I always assumed they were using it in the way that meant center or core. But nexus, in the original Latin, also means to bind, the act of fastening or tying together.”

The blood drained from Danny’s face. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying there may be more than one definition to this word, Daniel. And I think it behooves us to find out what it is.”

The gravity in the room seemed to increase. The darkness deepened to abyssal blue, the weight of the unknown pressing heavy on the two half-humans pinned by its smothering bulk.

“How—how do we find out?” Danny whispered. “A ghost dictionary or something? Encyclopedia Ghostmatica?”

“Don’t be preposterous. We simply go to the Ghost Realm and talk to someone. I have a few contacts who might be willing to help us. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get the information we need. Ngh.” Vlad shifted his legs, adjusted his pillow.

Danny did the same, folding his arms, stretching them out, searching for a position where he would be touching as little of Vlad as possible, all while clinging to a pretense of nonchalance with white-knuckled tenacity. An ultimately futile effort. Vlad’s breath fell cool and steady on Danny’s face, scattering his dark hair, tickling his cheek. He inhaled Vlad—his scent, his carbon dioxide—into his lungs, while marinating helplessly in his body heat.

He remembered an incident last year when he’d been walking to school with Sam and Tucker on a rainy February morning. They had passed a junk-cluttered alleyway and seen two dogs, coats damp and muzzles dirty, standing beside a dumpster with their haunches pressed together. The dogs blinked at them. Didn’t run. Just stood there, staring stupidly.

“Hey, look at that,” Danny said. “What’re they doing? Is there something wrong with them?”

“I think they might be mating, dude,” Tucker said.

“Huh?”

“Oh, yeah, totally,” Sam said. “They’re locked in a mating tie. The male dog’s dick is stuck in the female. They’ll stay that way for a while. C’mon, let’s leave ’em alone.”

“Wait, stuck?” Danny said. “Is that normal? Shouldn’t we help them?”

“Yeah,” Tucker added. “Looks kinda painful. I wouldn’t want my ding-a-ling all twisted up like that. Damn. How do they even do it like that?”

“It’s just how they reproduce,” Sam said, rolling her eyes. “The male dog’s dick, like, swells up or something while he’s jizzing in the girl dog. Then it deflates and they can separate. Don’t you guys ever watch the Discovery Channel?”

With matching grins, Danny and Tucker launched into The Bloodhound Gang’s The Bad Touch. Sam had groaned, and the three had continued on their way.

You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals
So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel…

Danny’s blush deepened. Two dumb dogs, driven by a biological imperative, locked together, waiting for nature to take its course. That was how he felt with Vlad now. A terrible thought occurred to him: Were their nexuses mating? Was he going to get ghost-pregnant? Was it even possible? It had to be. He’d met Box Lunch. There was no question who her parents were. And if it was possible for full ghosts to reproduce, then it might also be possible for—

“Your heart is pounding,” Vlad said.

“Yeah, ’cause I’m scared,” Danny stammered. “If you had any sense, you’d be, too.”

“Intelligence and fear cannot coexist, badger. An abundance of one drives away the other. I have no use for fear myself… except when it comes to putting it into others, naturally.”

“So, what, you just choose to not be scared? Must be nice. Wish I could just turn off normal human emotions like I was some kind of psycho robot.”

“What are you afraid of, Daniel? Me?”

He could feel Vlad studying him. Analyzing, dissecting. He didn’t want to lift his head. Didn’t need to see those eyes boring into him like twin lasers, flaying him open to the bone, in search of a truth he was too ashamed to admit.

“I don’t know if I can trust you,” he said at last. “I don’t even really know who you are. And I don’t know anything about nexuses or fluxes or all that other ghost stuff. I mean, I thought I did, but…”

Vlad gave him a patient, almost tender smile. “I can fill the gaps in your knowledge, Daniel, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to figure out the rest for yourself.” A finger, long and elegant, made for caressing piano keys and stroking the bowls of wine glasses, drew a line across Danny’s forehead to sweep the hair from his eyes. “But I’ll tell you what I’m not, and that’s your enemy.”

Irresistibly, inexorably, Danny looked up. Vlad’s eyes traveled over his face, lightly touching lips and lashes and ears, mapping every freckle with a cartographer’s care. A knuckle grazed the fine hairs on Danny’s cheek—or maybe he was imagining it. And then words were tumbling out of his mouth, childish, shrunken with fear, a question he’d never intended to speak aloud: “Are you gonna eat me?”

A pair of well-groomed eyebrows pinched together. “Of course not. Never.”

“Then what”—Danny shut his eyes, broke the contact so he could gather his thoughts—“wh-why did you put your hand inside me that night?”

A deep breath. Danny felt the texture of the air rushing into Vlad’s lungs against his own flat chest. “How’s your anatomy?”

“Squashed, thanks for asking.”

“I meant your knowledge, smart aleck. Are you familiar with spinal structure?”

“Uh, yeah, just the basic stuff.”

“And you’re aware how our nexus exists alongside our human nervous system.”

A nod.

“Well, there are three main concentrations, or loci, of the nexus.” He touched Danny’s forehead. “The primary locus is in the head. Very powerful.” The finger went south, tapping Danny’s breastbone. “The second is near the heart. Also powerful. And the final one, the biggest but not necessarily the most important one”—he patted Danny’s waist, roughly where they were joined—“is somewhere between the T12 and L1 vertebrae. That’s the part I was stimulating when I put my hand inside you. And considering how erratic your spectral frequency was, I thought direct stimulation was the better option.”

“What was the other option?”

“Hugging you for an hour.”

Honestly, Danny didn’t know which he would have preferred. At least a prolonged embrace wouldn’t have been so invasive. Who knows, it might have even been nice.

“What about the other, um, loci? Why didn’t you stimulate them?”

The disarming smile returned, close-lipped and crinkle-eyed. Handsome lines formed in Vlad’s cheeks, parentheses framing some private amusement.

“I didn’t think you’d want me messing around inside your head. Or your heart.”

“Yeah, you’re right, I don’t.” Danny bit his lip. “But thanks for, um. Being considerate about that, I guess.”

“I am occasionally capable of being a decent man. But only occasionally.” Vlad pushed a laugh through his nose. Danny felt the air on his throat and became aware of another throb inside his body. Deeper, heavier than his heartbeat. Similar to the pulse of his spectral frequency when it was aligning with Vlad’s.

“You feel that?” he whispered.

“I feel it,” Vlad said, smile fading. “Do you hear that, or is it just me?”

Danny held his breath and listened. The faintest tone reached his ears. A pair, in harmony. It reminded him of a musician running their fingers along the rims of two wine glasses. A resonant, songlike timber.

“What is that?”

“I don’t know. I think we might be exchanging energy. Some kind of spectral”—Vlad groped for a word—“syntrophy, perhaps.”

“But why? What for?”

“I don’t know, Daniel, I don’t have all the answers all the time. Even I have to acquire—”

A tone chimed somewhere over his shoulder. It repeated, louder this time, at steady intervals.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding,” he grumbled. “Bear with me a moment, Daniel.”

Without further warning, he hooked his arm around Danny’s waist and rolled over onto his back. Danny sprawled on top of him with a surprised squawk, legs falling to either side of his body. Grunting, Vlad stretched out his arm and swatted the alarm clock on his nightstand. The insistent beeping ceased. Calm descended.

Danny squinted at the red numerals on the display. “You get up at five? Why? You’re a billionaire. You can sleep in as late as you want.”

“Yes, but the rest of the world doesn’t. Ergo, I assimilate.”

A hand settled on Danny’s back. He looked down. Vlad was gazing up at him, breathing gently and slowly, his face unreadable. He was warm beneath Danny, his body solid, sheltering.

Assimilate. Danny nursed the word like a piece of hard candy. He wondered if that was happening to them now. If their cores, pulsating inside them like jellyfish, were melding together, becoming some new creature. His fingers curled themselves into Vlad’s tank top.

Before he had a chance to be frightened, a spring of heat rose up from his belly and spread through his chest, his thighs, his arms and legs, lifting the hair on his scalp, coursing across his back like sea foam in a bath-warm ocean. Unable to stop himself and scarcely aware of his own body, a moan left his lips. His greedy nails dug into Vlad’s chest. The pulsing in his stomach intensified, tugging, needy. He turned his eyes to the man beneath him.

Vlad’s pupils had bloomed until only the barest ring of blue remained. He blinked slowly, dazedly, and parted his lips to breathe. Breathe. Yes, breathe. We should breathe. Shivering, Danny leaned down and sighed a sparkling blue mist that seemed to come from deep in his core. Vlad inhaled, sucking the frosty air down his throat. A magenta flame glowed to life in his chest. He gripped Danny’s hips.

“Daniel,” he uttered.

Heeding the plea, Danny dipped down, his eyes slipping shut, head tilting and lips parting—

And then something uncoupled inside them both.

Like a game of tug-o-war when the rope between the two straining opponents is suddenly cut, Danny and Vlad fell apart, Danny collapsing near the center of the bed while Vlad tumbled over the side, struck the nightstand, and sent every object on it clattering to the floor. A litany of bitten-off curses rose from below.

For several moments Danny lay on his back, wheezing for breath. The fog in his head began to clear, the spectral warmth that had been circulating inside him cooling to nothingness. He loathed its absence. His body ached—pleasantly, as if from vigorous exercise. Gathering his senses with one last lungful of air, he clawed his way to the edge of the bed and peered over the side.

Vlad lay in a tangled heap between the bed and the nightstand, limbs askew, hair draped over his face, recovering from a similar state of stupefaction. His eyes found Danny’s.

“Are you all right?” he asked shakily.

“Yeah, I—I think so,” Danny said.

Vlad nodded to himself. He looked like he’d just been jarred out of a deep sleep. Or a drunken nap. His pajama pants were twisted halfway around his hips, the fabric of one leg scrunched up to the knee and showing off his lily-white calf. His tank top had retreated upward, leaving behind a generous expanse of abdomen. Danny fixated on it, surprised by a tingling in his own belly, as if his flesh remembered where they had been joined just seconds ago.

After a few more clarifying blinks, Vlad picked himself up off the floor, smoothed his clothes into place, and started toward the bedroom door. Danny watched him step through and shut it behind him. Hard. Not quite a slam, but with enough force to intimate that he didn’t want to be followed. Any lingering connection was abruptly severed. Dead air. Finality. Not even a static hiss.

Danny sat in the dark for a little while, willing himself back into the state of semi-equilibrium he’d achieved shortly before he’d fallen asleep in front of Deep Impact. He pulled himself out of Vlad’s bed.

A new day had begun. Might as well rise to meet it.

Chapter End Notes

Crawling | Linkin Park
The Bad Touch | The Bloodhound Gang

Fjarfryst

Chapter Notes

6:43 AM

The sun peeked over the mountaintops and poured watery golden light through the kitchen windows. Danny sat at the bar with the TV on, dressed in jeans and a henley that, in his opinion, weren’t worth the three hundred dollars Vlad paid for them. He scarfed his way through a breakfast that could have fed a battalion. Cereal wasn’t on the menu this morning; he needed something that would stick to his ribs, which meant a certain amount of effort was required.

The kitchen was intuitive and easy to navigate, and though Danny didn’t know how to cook much apart from what he’d learned in freshman home economics, he was able to cobble together a meal of six scrambled eggs, a toasted bagel with cream cheese, eight strips of bacon, a bowl of cinnamon apple instant oatmeal, a cup of flavored yogurt, a banana, and all of the strawberries he could find. He was especially proud of himself for getting the bacon out of the meat fridge without puking. The heart had been gone. The brain, too, and a few other organs. He tried not to think about it.

As he was nearing the end of his smorgasbord, Vlad appeared in the kitchen, fragrant from a recent shower but not quite polished yet. His hair hung loose and damp, his shirttail draped over the waist of his trousers. His tie and cufflinks were mysteriously absent. Instead of his glossy leather Chelseas, a pair of green and gold house slippers noisily scraped the floor.

Tension ratcheted Danny’s spine into a stiff rod, and he swallowed his last bite with difficulty. The memories of last night were easier to bury when Vlad wasn’t around. Now they clawed their way out of their graves and performed a provocative dance through his brain: entangled cores and entwined limbs; touching, gazing, the shared breaths; pulsing beats, the magnetic attraction. He was almost certain he would have done something really stupid if he and Vlad hadn’t come unglued from one another.

He stole a bashful glance at the man, wondering. Imagining. He dragged his focus back to the TV, ears glowing pink.

No. Never. Not in a million years. Not in a billion years. It wouldn’t be right. He was fifteen and Vlad was—it didn’t matter because this was never going to happen. Period. The end. Case closed. Roll credits.

But the promises couldn’t stay afloat. They sank to the bottom of his heart, their iron hulls perforated like sieves, and corroded out of memory. He played with the strawberry butts on his plate and watched Vlad out of the corner of his eye.

Oblivious to any other presence, Vlad opened the refrigerator and pulled out the carton of eggs. He stood there blankly—dazed, perhaps, or lost in thought. Then he plucked out an egg, popped it into his mouth, and swallowed it whole. A bulge appeared in his throat. There came a muffled crunch. He went for another.

Danny sat at the bar, half horrified, half impressed, as one by one Vlad finished the rest of the eggs with serpentine efficiency. When he was done, he crossed to the cupboard and grabbed a bag of coffee and pawed a handful of whole beans into his mouth. They crunched between his teeth as he chewed. He washed them down with milk gulped straight from the carton. After belching softly into his fist, he wiped his mouth.

Before Danny could find his tongue, Vlad moved to the second fridge—the meat fridge—and opened the door.

Here we go, Danny thought, his stomach churning.

Though he couldn’t see anything from his angle, he heard soft wet sounds and knew that Vlad was eating. The hair on the back of his neck lifted. He imagined a lion gorging itself on a freshly-killed gazelle, sinew snapping, chunks of meat being gulped down a muscular gullet, viscera squelching in bloody curds between huge yellow fangs. It sounded grotesque. It sounded sexual. Flesh and teeth and tongue and saliva, consuming, and Danny imagined being the focus of that voracious appetite, of Vlad, naked and wild, devouring him, licking the gristle from his bones, eating his innards until he was nothing but a hollow shell—

Danny shut his eyes and pressed one hand over his mouth and the other in his lap, clamping down on the erection that was forming in his jeans.

He wondered if there was a clinical term for whatever the hell was wrong with him.

The refrigerator door swung shut. Danny took a sudden interest in a Fruit Gushers commercial on the TV while Vlad sank back against the counter, his mouth and cheeks smeared with blood, a faraway look in his eyes. Some time passed before he returned to himself. He straightened up with a deep breath and surveyed the mess in the kitchen—banana peels, bread crumbs, broken egg shells, food packaging, a greasy skillet, dishes strewn from one end of the counter to the other—before he settled on Danny.

Their eyes met. “Looks like I wasn’t the only one with an appetite this morning,” he said.

“Um. Yeah.” Danny hunched his shoulders. “I, uh, don’t normally eat like this.”

Vlad wiped his mouth with the side of his hand, which only created a larger smear. “Me neither.”

“Do you—think it has anything to do with—”

“Undoubtedly.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Yet. I’m still”—he made an absent, fluttering gesture beside his head—“processing.”

For the first time since they’d met, Danny completely related.

The television regurgitated an avalanche of cheerfully manic commercials in the lull.

“So, um”—Danny cleared his throat, compelled to keep talking, to maintain the safety net of conversation—“what happened to the counter top? I don’t remember it being busted up like that.”

Vlad blinked. His gaze landed on the fist-size crater about eighteen inches to the right of the sink. “Oh. That. I dropped something yesterday.”

“Like what, a grenade?” Danny punctuated the joke with a single breathy laugh—and waited. Prayed he hadn’t said too much.

To his relief, Vlad’s face relaxed. “I might have been a little heavy handed when I was tenderizing the chicken last night.”

“Oh. Tough bird, huh?”

“No match for me. I haven’t met a cock yet that I couldn’t beat into submission.”

Shock calcified Danny where he sat, neither blinking nor breathing.

The skin on Vlad’s face went taut. “Sorry. That was inappropriate.”

“Nah, it—it’s okay.”

“No. You’re just a boy. I should…” He shook his head. His jaw moved, chewing words that never gained breath.

Danny watched, lips parted. He felt it again. That urge to sigh, to suck air, to heave his lungs until they were empty and fill them again, fill his whole body with—with…

Vlad’s hands tightened on the edge of the countertop, knuckles white. “Daniel.”

Something tugged deep in Danny’s belly, right around his navel. It was a pleasant pull. Warm, wanted. His feet touched the floor as he stood.

“Yes?”

The television screen began to flicker. A blizzard of static distorted the image. The sound became garbled. And then two chunks of expensive granite broke off in Vlad’s hands. The sound was like gunshots.

Danny cried out and flinched. The shout, not the cracking rock, snapped Vlad out of his stupor. The interference on the TV disappeared. He dropped the rubble and looked at Danny, shoulders rolling with his heavy breaths.

“Lab. Fifteen minutes.”

Unable to tear his eyes away from the powdered granite clinging to Vlad’s bloody hands, Danny nodded and scrambled out of the kitchen.


Fifteen minutes was a narrow window, but Danny had managed with less.

He phased through the floor of his bedroom, ripped open his fly, and began stroking himself with rough, hurried motions.

This wasn’t how he normally masturbated, out in the open and fully clothed, no bedsheets to hide under, no shower to drown his breathy grunts. But pleasure wasn’t the goal here; he needed a reset, a system reboot. Get his brain back online so he could pretend to be normal for the next few hours. Or however long this trip to the Ghost Zone was going to take. He couldn’t face Vlad again until he did this.

As his hand moved rapidly, he thought of eggs and coffee, blood and milk. Being consumed. It’s because I have a fire in my belly, Daniel. Danny had a fire in his belly, too. A different kind, but just as hot and hungry. He climaxed less than thirty seconds later, groaning as he purged the weirdness from his system in three short spurts. A few seconds to catch his breath, then he blotted up his mess with a wad of Kleenex, splashed some water on his face, and headed for the laboratory.

He hoped he didn’t look as ashamed as he felt.

The portal was open, painting the lab in undulating shades of ecto-green. Danny floated through the ceiling. Vlad was waiting for him near the portal, dressed in a tidy black waistcoat and looking much more put-together. Danny glided to his side. Vlad turned to him, his expression shifting from blank to shocked.

“What?” Danny said, his paranoia rising. “What is it?”

“Have you looked at your ghost form since last night?”

“No. Why? Is something wrong?” He peered down at his body. Everything appeared normal. Same black and white ecto suit. No weird lumps or bumps.

Vlad stretched out his arm and touched Danny’s forehead. When he pulled back, the rime of frost he’d collected dissolved on his fingertips.

“Your skin. It’s sparkling. Some sort of ectoplasmic ice. It’s even in your hair.” He slipped his hand into Danny’s fluffy white mane and gave it a vigorous ruffle. A cloud of glittering frost filled the air. Vlad laughed. “Remarkable.”

A few months earlier, Danny would have punched the man for daring to touch him so amicably. The offense didn’t even register now. He flushed at the attention—and at Vlad’s smile.

“Is this a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Hard to tell just yet.” Vlad rested his hand on Danny’s shoulder. “How does your nexus feel? Are you in any sort of pain?”

Danny shook his head—and kept shaking it, mesmerized by the tiny crystals he was shedding. Like snowman dandruff.

“Then it’s probably a new development in your spectral maturity.”

“What, you mean like I’m going through ghost puberty or something?” Danny scrubbed his face and blew on his gloves, creating another frost plume.

“In a way.” Vlad tilted his head, his smile mellowing. “You’re growing up, Daniel. Every part of you, but especially your ghost powers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the process begins to accelerate now.”

“Why?” Almost immediately he knew the answer. “It’s because of what happened last night, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps. That’s why we need answers.”

A glowing black ring sprang from Vlad’s waist—approximately where the third locus of the nexus lay, Danny realized—and split into two, rolling over him as he transformed into Plasmius. Only not quite the same Plasmius Danny remembered. He was taller now, even more heavily muscled. His hair was wild, falling around his collar in spiky layers. His gloved fingers terminated in talons. There was more black to his clothing now, new seams and shapes. A thicker cape, heavier boots. His teal skin had a nacreous gleam to it. It was almost beautiful.

Plasmius examined his hands. Flexed them. “So I’ve changed as well,” he said in a voice that made Danny’s nexus vibrate. “I feel good. Stronger.” He curled his fists. Muscles swelled underneath his white suit, a reddish glow pulsing around him. He relaxed and the light faded. A grin split his face, revealing canines long enough to punch through a phone book. He lifted his head. “What about you?”

“Um.” Danny forced a smile. “Yeah, I’m good,” he lied. “Never better.”

Plasmius came close and laid a huge black-gloved hand on his shoulder. “You know, Daniel, I’ve dreamt of this moment. You and I, together. The only two of our kind, allied at last.” A gentle squeeze.

Danny stared into the pupil-less red eyes and became aware of how unbothered he felt. It wasn’t right. He ought to be scared, quaking with dread. The hand on his shoulder had the power to snap his spectral bones or force him to shift back to his human form. It could tear his arm off, rip his feeble mortal body into ribbons of gore. But the frequency radiating from this terrifying figure was familiar, a thing of comfort, and it lent Danny confidence.

With this formidable halfa at his side, he had nothing to fear.

“Yeah,” he agreed.

The hand slid around to cradle the back of his neck. Danny tensed. He couldn’t count how many times Plasmius had throttled him in the past. But this touch was gentle, the gloved nails pleasant against his skin. He relaxed, and Vlad—Plasmius—smiled. His spectral signature flared, raw, clear, and unfiltered. Danny detected the pulse of his nexus with no interference, as if their human flesh was merely an ugly, inadequate prison to dampen their radiant cores.

“I’m curious to see if our powers have been altered as well,” Plasmius said with a daring flick of an eyebrow. “Care to find out?”

“I’m not gonna fight you, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Fight? No. That would hardly be fair. I was thinking more of a game. Tag, perhaps?”

Danny folded his arms over his chest. “I thought we were supposed to be looking for someone who could help us.”

“We are. But nothing says we can’t squeeze in an exercise or two along the way, now, can we?”

A pensive frown.

“Come, Daniel, I promised that I would teach you everything I know, share all my secrets with you. All I ask is that you try. Meet me halfway. Can you do that?”

Dredging the trust from the bottom of his heart, Danny unfolded his arms and inhaled, nodding.

“Good.” Plasmius patted the slim bicep before delivering a mighty—but definitely pulled—punch.

“Ow!” Danny squawked. “What’d you do that f—”

“You’re it,” Plasmius declared, then took off, leaping through the swirling green portal and into the Ghost Zone.

With a challenging snarl, Danny flew after him.


They raced across the dark ectosphere like two comets, Danny in hot pursuit of Plasmius’s fading spectral light trail. It felt good to be back in the Zone, like shucking off his backpack at the end of a long school day and changing into his favorite sweatshirt and tatty lounge shorts. He opened the throttle on his powers, absorbing the familiar spectral frequencies all around him.

Four months. He’d really missed this place. The scattered array of portals, the shifting eddies of green light, the mysterious floating islands and replicas of real-world structures, some of which he had mapped with Sam and Tucker, others he had never seen before.

Though Plasmius far outmatched him in speed and agility, the elder hybrid slowed his pace so Danny wouldn’t lose him, occasionally duplicating or teleporting directly behind him to land a surprise strike in the middle of his back. The blows didn’t hurt, nor were they meant to. They were playful, instructive. A mighty predator teaching its offspring the skills necessary for survival. Danny’s heart beat an excited cadence in his chest every time he was ambushed. It wasn’t out of anger or frustration; this felt like happiness. Maybe he was just glad the danger wasn’t real this time and Plasmius seemed to be serious about keeping his promises.

“Pay attention to your blind spots,” he said as one of the duplicates swooped up from below and knocked Danny into a painless but dizzying barrel roll. “Concentrate on my spectral frequency. It’s not as strong in my duplicates. That’s how you can detect the real me.”

“Or I could just follow the gravitational pull your ego is exerting,” Danny quipped. “It’s like the equivalent of twelve supermassive black holes.”

Plasmius grinned. “Stellar compliment, Daniel. Perhaps you could do my horoscope once you’ve exhausted your big boy vocabulary.”

Danny aimed a ghost ray at him, missing his left shoulder by several inches. Laughing, Plasmius blazed over Danny’s head at full speed, a pink blur stretching across the dark firmament. Danny jetted after him. He didn’t realize he was grinning until the muscles in his cheeks began to hurt.

It had been a long time since he’d smiled like this.

After a while of chasing and sparring and trading jocular insults, they reached the edge of an ice-covered shelf floating in the blackness. The Ghost Zone was generally chilly, but it was much colder here, positively frigid. A land of glaciers and mountains and frozen lakes sprawled below them in shades of blue and white. But Danny’s attention was locked on Plasmius. He surged forward, summoning all of his ghost powers to achieve maximum speed, and caught him around the waist. But Plasmius, having anticipated such a move, turned intangible and allowed Danny to sink through him before nabbing the boy from behind, utterly foiling his attack—

—but not his trajectory. They plummeted toward the ground, powered by Danny’s momentum, and collided hard, sending up a spume of ice and snow and gouging a twenty-meter furrow in the surface. They slid to a halt, buried completely beneath the drift. The subzero wind clawed its way across the inhospitable landscape.

A pile of freshly-plowed snow trembled. Plamius’s laughter rumbled deeply in his chest as he raised his head, his shoulders cowled with ice.

“Well, that was fun.”

Danny poked his head up through the snow and glanced over his shoulder. Plasmius’s grin disappeared about the same time Danny realized they were spooning. He scrambled out of the warm embrace and busied himself with brushing the snow from his suit. Plasmius sat up with a grunt, shaking off clumps of ice like a dog.

“This reminds me, I need to call Aspen HVAC to come inspect the house before winter arrives.”

“What’s the matter? Can’t handle the cold?”

“On the contrary, I love it.”

Danny peered over his shoulder. “Really?”

“Is it so hard to believe a fire specter might enjoy winter?”

“I guess. So it doesn’t, like, make you weak or anything?”

“Not at all. I find it quite refreshing.” Plasmius drew a wholly demonstrative breath and exhaled steam through his nostrils. “There’s something peaceful about the cold. Purifying. Fire purifies, of course, but in a destructive way. Not like ice. There’s no violence, no fury. It preserves instead of destroys. It captures life”—he closed his gloved fist—“and holds it for as long as it needs, then gently releases it to live again. Renewed, reborn.” He opened his hand, freeing an invisible butterfly to the wintry air, before blinking himself out of his reverie.

Danny stared at him, wondering how such beautiful introspection could come from a man so utterly bereft of conscience. Something was there, he sensed. Buried in the words, the images—just like the dream he’d had that first night under Vlad’s roof, sleeping in his bed. A lonely fire burning in a place not unlike where they’d just landed, sputtering as the winter night closed in around it. How Danny had kept trying to reach it, desperate for its warmth, wanting to save that precious flame before it burnt out.

The metaphor that had been attempting to coalesce inside his brain for the last two days suddenly crystallized into high-definition clarity. Danny’s mind reeled.

No. It was just a dream. Meaningless. That’s what Vlad had told him. The smallest suggestion may find its way into one’s dreams. It means nothing. It’s just your brain performing routine maintenance, nothing more.

Danny didn’t believe a word of it. Not anymore. It had to mean something. He scanned their surroundings, as if he might actually spot that pitiful flame that may or may not represent Vlad Masters flickering in the near distance. But there was nothing. Only snow and ice and rock, the moaning wind the only sound to be heard.

“Where are we?”

“The inhabitants have their own name for it,” Plasmius said, “but it’s known in the Ghost Realm as the Far Frozen.”

“I think we should get outta here.”

“Actually, this is exactly where we’re supposed to be.”

“Yeah? Well, it looks pretty deserted to me. You sure there’s someone here who can help us?”

“Oh, indubitably, dear boy. But whether or not he will remains to be seen.”

Danny didn’t like the sound of that.

“Come,” Plasmius said, rising above the ground and taking off at a slow glide.

Danny fell in beside him.

They entered a rocky valley. Jagged peaks stabbed into the gray sky to their left and right, funneling them toward some unseen destination. Intuition tugged at Danny’s instincts as he glanced warily around, unable to shake the feeling of being watched.

“So what’s this ghost’s name?” he asked. “Why would he want to live in this frozen wasteland?” His eyes lit up. “Is he an ice specter, too?”

“His name and classification are irrelevant,” Plasmius said. “We’re only here to get information, not have a tea par—” An ectoplasmic energy blast half a meter wide shot down from one of the towering peaks and struck him in the chest, sending him careening to the ground.

“Get him!” bellowed a new voice. “Destroy the intruder!”

“Vlad!” Danny cried as a hail of ice spears sailed toward where Vlad had fallen. He streaked downward and landed protectively in front of him, raising a spectral energy shield around them both. The spear volley smashed harmlessly against it.

“I appreciate the concern, Daniel,” Plasmius grunted as he swept his cape back and stood, “but I have this situation quite under control, thank you.”

“Yeah, I’m sure getting shot out of the sky was totally a part of your plan.” Danny tensed, detecting movement on his periphery. “Heads up. We’ve got company.”

A circle of huge, shaggy creatures rose up around them. They looked like chimeras, living amalgamations of several different animals: wolves, bears, bison, lions. They were bipedal, heavy, possessing five-clawed hands. Thick tails tipped with horns swung behind their powerful bodies. Most of them clutched crude weapons. They advanced on the two intruders, growling, teeth bared and hackles raised.

Danny slid his right foot back. “I can’t keep the shield up and fight them at the same time. Can you hit them with an energy blast?”

“Once again, Daniel, you severely underestimate my abilities.” And before Danny knew it, his glowing green dome was eclipsed by a much larger magenta one. Bolts of red lighting shot out from the protective sphere, exploding against the surrounding land features and striking several of the creatures, sending them flying backward in smoking, howling agony.

“Hold!” someone bellowed, and the creatures halted their advance.

Plasmius ceased his attack but kept his arms aloft, gloved hands crackling with energy.

One of the creatures approached. It was larger than the others, dressed in a short cape fastened over one shoulder with a golden clasp. A jewel-studded belt encircled its waist, holding up the skirt that fell to its hairy knees. Their leader, apparently. The beast stared down at the two small half-humans, its yellow eyes moving between them. They settled on Danny and widened.

“It is you,” the creature rumbled. “The half-ghost boy who defeated Pariah Dark. You are Danny Phantom, the savior of the Ghost Realm!” He bent his knee, genuflecting. His people dropped their weapons and did the same.

Danny blinked, stunned.

Plasmius’s scowl lifted. “Well, isn’t this fortuitous.” He lowered his hands and the shield melted away.

“I am Frostbite,” the creature said. “Chieftain of Fjarfryst. It is an honor to meet you, Great One.” He bowed his shaggy, horned head.

“Oh. Wow, um,” Danny stuttered. “Thank you, uh, Mr. Frostbite, sir. But please, call me Danny. I’m not—”

“I’ll handle this, Daniel,” Plasmius cut in. “Greetings, Lord Frostbite! My protégé and I are in need of—”

Frostbite rose to his full height, lips rolling back over a positively frightening number of teeth. “You.” He snorted twin jets of steam and pointed with a massive clawed finger. “You slithering eel. Did I not promise that I would eviscerate you if you ever set foot in my domain again?”

“You did, but that was before this dear boy showed up on my doorstep.” Plasmius moved behind Danny and clasped his shoulders. “He’s lost his family, you see, and I’ve graciously—”

“Lost?”

“Yes, and unfortunately he—”

“Where did he lose them?”

“I beg your pardon?”

Frostbite stared keenly at Danny. “I can help you find your family, young one. My people have a”—he balked, glancing toward Plasmius—“er, ways of finding things that are lost.”

The glow from Plasmius’s red eyes intensified briefly.

“No, you don’t understand,” Danny said gently. “My family isn’t missing. They’re”—he swallowed thickly. Was this ever going to get easier?—“passed away.”

“Oh.” Frostbite’s broad shoulders drooped. “Oh, I am so sorry, my boy.”

“It’s okay. Vlad’s, um. I mean, I’m staying with Plasmius now.”

“Yes,” Plasmius cut in with a magnanimous smile. “And I’ve turned over a new leaf. The Plasmius of yesterday is no more. I am a new ghost, reformed, humbled, and I am here to beg your assistance, O Mighty Frostbite, on behalf of this innocent boy.” He bowed at the waist, arms spread, his cape draping forward from his shoulders.

Two seconds passed, then Frostbite’s warriors burst into raucous laughter. “Plasmius the Parasite, reformed? Ha-ha!”

“Thieving bloodsucker! You expect us to believe your lies?”

“The boy is your thrall, admit it!”

“And brainwashed! Why else would he be with you?”

“He is going to trick us again!”

“I say we destroy him right now.”

“Yes, rip the thief apart!”

Clenching his fists, Danny shouted over the jeering voices, “I’m not his thrull—throwel—whatever! And I’m not brainwashed. He’s my guardian, and he’s all I have now.”

The clamor quieted. All eyes fixed on him. He squirmed at the sudden attention.

“I, I went to him because I… because we’re the same. He was the only one who could help me. And he did.” He looked over his shoulder at Plasmius, who stared back at him with a gently stunned expression. “He still is.” Danny turned to Frostbite. “Look, we need your help. Our nexuses are… I don’t know how to explain it. There’s been some weird things happening to them and we don’t know what to do. Please, this isn’t a trick. We just want answers.”

Frostbite considered the plea, furry brows knitted. He sighed heavily. “Very well. You and your guardian may enter. But he must change to his human form, and wear this.” He waved and one of his warriors appeared at his side, carrying a small golden cuff. Strange symbols were etched onto its surface—ghost runes.

“What’s that?” Danny asked.

“A spectral energy neutralizer,” Plasmius muttered. “They intend to render me powerless.”

“Those are the stipulations,” Frostbite said. “Plasmius the Treacherous shall never set foot in my village, but the human man known as Vlad would be permitted.”

“But it’s cold,” Danny said. “He could freeze if he’s not in his ghost form.”

“We will give him proper attire.” Frostbite narrowed his eyes at Plasmius. “Unless he would rather wait outside the gate, caged and under armed guard.”

Plasmius glowered. “It seems I don’t have much of a choice.” A pair of black rings flashed, and the redoubtable half-ghost disappeared. In his place stood Vlad Masters, dressed in his terribly thin-looking waistcoat and trousers, a sour expression on his face. He tucked his hands into his armpits as the bone-chilling wind tossed his ponytail. “There. Now will you let us in?”

Frostbite nodded to his warrior, who stepped forward and snapped the cuff onto Vlad’s left wrist. The man gave a violent shudder as the spectral powers maintaining his core temperature were utterly extinguished. Danny moved to stand beside him.

“Are you gonna be okay?” he said under his breath.

“I’m fine.” Vlad flashed a smile. Steam curled off his exposed teeth. His skin blanched white as the blood vessels in his face constricted, trying to conserve heat. “R-remember, I like the c-cold.”

Danny frowned. Seeing Vlad this vulnerable was disturbing. Especially when he was doing it for Danny’s benefit. He raised his hand as if to clasp Vlad’s shoulder, but then thought better of it.

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” he promised.

Vlad uttered a contemptuous laugh that fell far short of its intended insult. “My h-hero.”

Danny looked up at Frostbite. “We need to get him someplace warm. Like, right now.”

“Of course.” The chieftain of Fjarfryst gestured with his huge clawed hand. “Follow me.”

Chapter End Notes

I'd like to thank everyone following this story for their patience as I was completing this chapter. I got on a pretty big drawing kick, which came in handy for this year's Pompep Week, the fruits of which you can view over on my blog. Cheers!

Syndis

Escorted by Frostbite’s company of warriors, Danny and Vlad entered the village through a heavy wooden gate guarded by two armed snow beasts. Three other gates, situated at the north, east, and south, provided passage through the formidable wall of jagged rock encompassing the village. Residents emerged from their snow huts, gawking. Murmurs caught fire through the gathering crowd.

“Look, it is the ghost boy!”

“The Great One is here!”

“Who is that human man beside him?”

“No mortal has ever set foot in our village!”

Danny checked on Vlad for the twentieth time in five minutes. The color had left his face and his lips were blue as he marched, teeth chattering, through the snow, his designer trousers soaked to the knee.

A dire sense of urgency squeezed Danny’s heart. If he wasn’t so worried that touching Vlad would cause him to freeze faster, he would stretch out his spectral form and wrap himself around him like a blanket. If that would even work. His only other option was to revert back to his human form and try to warm Vlad with his body heat, but he didn’t know how effective that would be. Or if he could even tolerate the subzero temperatures.

“Are we almost there?” he asked Frostbite.

“Yes, young one. Our hall is just ahead.” Frostbite swung his shaggy arm toward an entrance ensconced in the side of a small mountain. As they approached, a pair of thick doors groaned open. They sounded a million years old.

The temperature inside the mountain wasn’t much warmer, but at least they were out of the wind. A hall like a rocky throat stretched deep into the mountain, illuminated by flickering blue torches.

The doors thudded shut behind them, sending deep echoes galloping away into the dark. Frostbite turned to his warriors.

“Kaldur, Snowfang, split forces and set up patrols at the entrance and perimeter. Eisvin, fetch a healing elixir and some warm clothes for our”—yellow eyes raked over Vlad—“guest.”

“You’re t-too ki-ind,” Vlad rattled through a half-frozen sneer.

Moved by a species of compassion he never thought he’d possess, Danny curled his arm around Vlad’s shoulders—only managing to reach his upper back due to their height disparity.

“I’m not making you colder, am I?” he whispered.

“Daniel, after b-being out there, I’d ha-appily take a plunge in the Northwest P-Passage. You’re a ray of su-sunshine, dear boy.”

Danny mirrored the crooked grin Vlad flashed him and tried to rub heat back into his arm.

Furry eyebrows crowded together in a puzzled hedge over Frostbite’s eyes. “Er, this way. The inner caves are warmer.”

They followed their host deeper into the hall, through chambers of stalagmites, past subterranean waterfalls that fed into pools rimmed with enormous clusters of quartz crystals, and finally up a yawning spiral stairwell carved into the mountain’s spine. The stairs opened on a massive conical room, the pewter-gray floor polished smooth. They strode over gigantic fossils Danny had never seen before: sea creatures; reptiles; extinct arthropods whose sizes were the stuff of nightmares. Arcane murals painted a cryptic history on walls glistening with mica. Yards of tapestries filled the spaces higher up while knotty woven rugs provided occasional soft treading underfoot. A shallow pit surrounded by benches sat in the center of the room, and in it burned a fire with flames of bright violet-blue. It filled the chamber with a strange kind of warmth that was felt from within more than without.

“This is Eldlift, the heart of the mountain,” Frostbite said.

Wonder and woe flooded Danny’s heart. Sam and Tucker would have loved this place.

The chieftain of Fjarfryst led them to a curved wooden table set before the fire, where the warrior Eisvin waited, a bundle of furs draped over her arm. A small crystal vessel stood on the table, its flanged mouth stopped with a cork.

“The furs you requested, my lord,” she said, “and the elixir.”

“Excellent, thank you. Now, Plasmius, get out of those wet clothes and take a seat. We have much to discuss.”

Vlad muttered something under his breath but obediently began to pluck the buttons on his waistcoat with stiff, bloodless fingers. For a full minute Danny watched him struggle to undo one button. The chunky spectral neutralizer on his wrist made it even harder for him to control his shaking digits. His breath went from wispy to heaving, hands juddering with the intensity of a triggered seismograph. Danny caught a glimpse of something in Vlad’s eyes—something wet and shimmery and hot. Before he knew what he was doing, he stepped close and began unbuttoning the waistcoat himself.

“I don’t ne-need your help,” Vlad muttered. His ice-cold fingers wrestled for dominance. They slipped once, twice, again.

“You’re half frozen. Just let me do it, okay?”

The buttons vanished under Danny’s gloves as Vlad tore himself away. “I’m not an invalid!

His shout rang through the cavern, the last word bouncing back in triplicate, taunting. Danny watched patches of splenetic pink bloom on Vlad’s face. Humiliation or fury, he couldn’t tell. But the tears hanging in his lashes had come from someplace deeper, a wellspring of trauma that had just been tapped.

“I know you’re not,” Danny said, inching close, meek; a child attempting to tame a wounded but dangerous animal. “I just want to help. That’s all. Please.” And when he gently pushed Vlad’s hands aside, they didn’t resist.

Tucking his lip between his teeth, Danny unfastened the buttons on the wet black waistcoat. Belatedly he realized he could have simply phased the clothes off of Vlad—or would that be worse than slowly undressing him? Instant nudity versus painstaking unpeeling? But if he phased the clothes off now, he might look exasperated. He didn’t want that.

But he didn’t want to look like he was savoring this either. He dragged his eyes upward.

Vlad was studying him with drowsy wonder, pale lips parted. Danny inhaled—involuntary, a reflex chased by a lurking memory of warmth and breath and connection, and when he finished with the waistcoat and reached up to unbutton Vlad’s shirt collar, his finger brushed the man’s throat. An Adam’s apple bobbed against Danny’s knuckles as Vlad swallowed, and Danny began to work as fast as he could, punching out one button and then the next, opening a sateen trench of bare skin. Pectorals, abdominals, knolls of muscle seeded with hair instead of grass, swept in various directions. His was a ruggedness like the Pacific northwest—ocean salted, volcano peppered, sculpted by the Ring of Fire. For a single moment Danny hated Vlad Masters and the effortless masculinity he exuded.

He met the man’s gaze and abruptly forgot his hatred. Vlad blinked at him, chest swelling as he inhaled, dipping as he exhaled.

Blushing worked differently for ghosts. Instead of heat, it expressed itself as a tingly, not altogether unpleasant sensation that flooded certain areas of spectral flesh with ectoplasm, causing it to darken much like blood would in a human body. A powerful ecto-flush tinted Danny’s cheeks, and he turned back to his task.

Frostbite and Eisvin exchanged a look.

Vlad shrugged stiffly, and the damp waistcoat clopped to the floor, followed by his shirt. Bare-chested, lethargic, Vlad fumbled with his belt buckle—with about as much success as he’d had with his buttons. Danny patiently moved to assist, slipping the patent leather strap out of trouser loops, feeding it backward through the buckle. A tug as he briefly tightened it around Vlad’s waist, unpinning it from the prong like a dead butterfly.

“I can m-manage from here.”

He clearly couldn’t, not as efficiently, but Danny stepped back anyway. He’d done enough. One button and one zipper left, and he wasn’t about to touch them. Eisvin materialized behind him and handed him the bundle of furs.

Trousers hit the floor, along with Danny’s stomach. He gulped and turned back. Fitted boxer-briefs, black. Thank God. He didn’t know what he’d have done if Vlad had decided to go commando today. Struggling to keep his eyes from straying into forbidden territory, Danny helped Vlad into the set of warm, loose-fitting leather coveralls, turned inside out so the fur captured his body heat while the outer skin kept it from escaping. In a matter of moments Vlad’s shuddering ebbed.

“Here,” Danny said, offering him the elixir.

“I don’t think so.”

“Huh? Why not?”

Vlad shot a vehement scowl at Frostbite. “I don’t trust our host not to poison me.”

“We would not do anything to jeopardize the boy’s safety,” Frostbite insisted. “You are his human guardian, and he needs you. We will respect his wishes—even if we cannot understand them.”

“How gracious of you. I’m sure you’d be simply devastated if I were to perish under suspicious circumstances and you had no choice but to adopt the boy who just so happens to be your beloved hero.”

“Not everyone is as conniving as you, Plasmius,” Eisvin snapped. “You might offer poison instead of medicine to someone in need, but the yetnar are not so wicked.”

“I’m not wicked. I merely think wickedly, and it’s kept me alive longer than if I were a naïve, trusting fool.” He scoffed. “It’s no wonder you simple-minded savages died out.”

A menacing growl ripped the air as Eisvin lunged forward. Frostbite’s arm swept out, blocking her path.

“Leave him. You know what happens to those who trust no one.”

“They live longer,” Vlad retorted.

“And die alone.”

An ivory click; Vlad’s teeth clipping together as he shut his mouth, giving the chieftain of Fjarfryst a look of pure contempt. But beneath his seething veneer was something cold and raw. Vulnerable.

Danny’s head swiveled back and forth. “Wait, what’s he talking about? Who died? And what’s a yetnar?”

Invisible weight settled on Frostbite’s shoulders. “That is the name of my people.” He lowered his heavy frame onto one of the benches, thick tail curling on the floor. “We had many names once. Thurs, risi, jötunn. We were forces of nature, earth spirits, guardians of the hidden places. We kept to ourselves, caring for the earth, weaving poems and magic.”

“Whoa, hang on a sec. You mean you’re from my world?”

“The Norwegians called them trolls,” Vlad muttered, waddling over to an adjacent bench and plopping down. “The Tibetans, yeti. Nearly every culture on earth has its own iteration. You can tell they’re not normal ghosts by the color of their spectral radiance.”

Danny blinked. Vlad was right. Instead of the typical white glow that human entities emitted, Frostbite and Eisvin glowed blue. Danny felt painfully stupid for not noticing it sooner.

“This is true,” Frostbite admitted. “We are not normal ghosts, for we were never living flesh.”

“So how does that work?” Danny slid into the vacant spot beside him. “How can something not living be killed off?”

“Our powers came from the earth, young one. From all living things. As time went on and humans progressed, the forests shrank. Animals retreated or disappeared altogether. Science and technology prevailed. Instead of living in harmony with nature, men and their machines soon dominated everything. We became few and weak. The magic that sustained us dwindled as centuries passed, and eventually we had no choice but to come here, the realm of ghosts, or face our own extinction.” He tilted his head back to stare up into the mountain’s dark crown. “It is not much of an existence, but it is better than fading away.”

“That’s… terrible,” Danny said.

“Yes,” Vlad grumbled. “A real pity. If Dances With Trolls is finished with his tragic backstory, perhaps we can discuss what we came here for, hm?”

“Very well,” Frostbite muttered, resting his paws on his hairy knees. “What seems to be the problem?”

“It’s a cluster of problems, actually, possibly comorbid with non-spectral—”

“I was addressing the boy. I wish to hear his account, not yours.”

“Uh,” Danny stuttered. “I don’t know if that’s such a good—”

“You cannot possibly expect him to articulate the situation properly,” Vlad said. “He knows less of spectral biology than most ghostlings.”

“Yeah, what he said,” Danny agreed.

“I trust he can make his words work in a way that we can understand,” Frostbite said. “Now. Danny. Tell me what has brought you here.”

“Okay. But can I, um, ask Vlad for, like—counsel, though? I mean, I literally just learned some of these words yesterday. And he is better at explaining things than me.”

“Thank you, Daniel. I appreciate your candor.”

Frostbite gave Vlad the stink eye. “Very well, young one. Whatever you think will help.”

“Thanks.” Danny sighed, preparing himself. “Okay, this might sound kinda weird, but…”

He explained the issue to the best of his abilities, describing his experiences in rambling, common language, interspersed with far too many filler words, turning to Vlad whenever he needed clarification. For once Vlad behaved himself, supplementing Danny’s narrative with vocabulary from his more erudite encyclopedia of knowledge. He detailed the events of his first night at Vlad’s house, the spectral flux he suffered, the fireplace incident the following night, waking up in a bathtub of ice, Vlad soothing him, their nexuses tying up the night after that. Frostbite listened, nodding occasionally and stroking his chin in a very human manner.

“And then we just—broke apart,” Danny finished. “And this morning we were both super hungry, like we hadn’t eaten in days, and then we noticed our ghost forms had changed. I had frost all over my skin and in my hair. Vlad said it might be a…”

“Permutation of your spectral development,” Vlad said.

“Yeah, that. And then we came here.” He shrugged and let his hands drop.

“I see,” Frostbite rumbled. “It sounds rather like syndis.”

Vlad frowned.

“Syndis?” Danny echoed. “What’s that?”

“Symbiotic energy distribution,” Frostbite said. “A mutual exchange of spectral energy through metaphysical connection.”

“Oh.” Pause. “I don’t mean to sound dumb or anything, but, uh… what does that mean?”

“Mean? It doesn’t mean anything, young one. Syndis simply is. As to why and how it happened, well”—he leveled a glare at Vlad—“I have a few questions about that myself.”

“I didn’t do anything to the boy,” Vlad said.

“The ironic thing about liars, Plasmius, is one can never tell when they are speaking the truth.”

“I’m not lying. I’ve done nothing but care for the boy since he stepped foot in—”

“Syndis doesn’t happen spontaneously,” Frostbite interrupted. “It requires an existing bond, some kind of physical connection.” Yellow eyes narrowed into slits. “Did you drink from him?”

The muscles in Vlad’s jaw tightened. “How dare you even suggest that.”

“Wait, what do you mean, drink?” Danny said nervously.

“Answer the question, Plasmius. Did you drink—”

“Absolutely not,” Vlad seethed. “I would never!”

“Vlad, what’s he talking about?”

“None of your concern, Daniel.”

“Actually, it is,” Frostbite said, facing Danny. “Have you ever wondered how Plasmius became so powerful in such a relatively short amount of time?”

What little color Vlad’s face had recouped abruptly bled out. “Don’t.” His voice was gravelly, threatening.

“By drinking the ectoplasm of other specters and absorbing their powers.”

Danny turned to stare. “Is that why they called you a parasite? You steal ghost powers?”

“I prefer the term portfolio diversification. And in my defense, I didn’t ask to be made this way. It is simply how my ghost half manifested.”

“Augmenting spectral powers through absorption is not unheard of,” Frostbite growled. “Yet you use your ability to commit terrible deeds. You drained Volkan the fire drake until he was a sickly little worm, then you cut off his head. That’s how you became a fire elemental.”

“A vile rumor,” Vlad said. “My elemental powers developed the same as any other ghost.”

“You sucked the afterlife out of Behemoth, guardian of the Skeleton Key, and you nearly killed Sleetwood in an attempt to steal our ice powers.”

“Those were all self defense! It’s not my fault that—”

“There is not a ghost in this realm whose skin you haven’t pierced. Tell me, Plasmius, when you learned the boy was an ice specter, did you drink his blood?”

“I’ve already told you, no,” Vlad lied. “And if I had, what does it matter? These baseless accusations are—”

“It matters because having the boy’s blood inside you would have been enough to trigger syndis. And now the bond has been established. Your nexuses are linked, perhaps indefinitely.”

Something cold and heavy dropped into Danny’s stomach.

Vlad snorted. “Absurd. Utterly ludicrous. You expect us to believe that a random nexus entanglement is enough to establish a permanent—”

“It was me.”

All eyes came to rest on Danny. He swallowed thickly.

“It’s my fault. I drank Vlad’s blood. When I—when we had our fight yesterday morning. Remember? I bit you. Some of your blood got in my mouth and I…” He turned pleading eyes to Frostbite. “What have I done?”

Frostbite opened his mouth to reply, but it was Vlad who answered, swiftly rising from his bench and hurrying over him.

“It’s all right, Daniel. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“But I’m the reason we—our nexuses got all tangled up and—”

“And no harm was done.” He kneeled to better see Danny’s downturned face. “We’re fine. A mere footnote in this wonderful hybrid life of ours, dear boy. There are worse things than exchanging a little spectral energy.”

Danny stared down at him, eyes soaked with guilt. “You mean you don’t feel it?” he creaked.

Vlad went still. “What do you—” His words came out strained, constricted. He cleared his throat. “What do you mean?”

Danny’s heart crumpled like a paper bag in the rain. But riding in the wake of his disappointment was a tiny flutter of relief.

It was only him. Vlad shared none of his clawing, desperate urges. Maybe he was dealing with a different set of symptoms, less severe, since he was older and his ghost was more developed. Danny alone was reaping the consequences of his actions, and someday, hopefully, they would fade. Just like his grief. Just like his name.

Dejectedly, he turned to Frostbite. “Is this syndis thing gonna happen again?”

“Not unless you want it to, young one. But considering what you’ve told me about the fluxes you’re experiencing”—furry white brows sank low—“perhaps you might benefit from engaging in syndis regularly with your guardian.”

It took everything Danny had to school himself into a portrait of insouciance. He gripped his hands tightly enough that his gloves squealed.

A prescription for ghost sex therapy. He squeezed his eyes shut and burned the thought from his brain.

“It’s not gonna hurt us, is it? I mean, me and Vlad, we’re total opposites.”

“Energy is energy,” Frostbite reassured. “How it expresses itself physically has no bearing on compatibility. A fire specter and a water specter may coexist in harmony, even benefit one another.”

“So syndis doesn’t, like, steal powers?”

“Not at all. It is a mutual recharging of powers. A union of equilibrium.”

Hesitantly, Danny pulled his attention back to Vlad. The man stared placidly up at him from where he crouched on one knee. Like he was about to propose. Danny looked the other way.

“Okay, so why would ghosts wanna… do syndis? Or is it just”—he tried not to think about recreational sex and failed—“for fun?”

“There are many reasons to engage in symbiotic energy distribution. If one partner is weak or injured, syndis will help them regain their strength. For lovers, it is a pleasurable way to share intimacy, and it is the only way new specters are formed.”

“You mean—ghost babies?” Panic spiked Danny’s ectoplasm. “Ghost babies are created through syndis?”

“Essentially, yes, although it is rather—”

“So syndis is ghost sex?”

“It, er…” Frostbite fidgeted. “It shares similarities to mortal copulation, yes, but it is far more comp—”

“Oh, my God, I knew it, I knew it.” Danny buried his face in his hands. “What if I’m—I’m—I mean, I could get—or I might already be—”

Frostbite placed a huge, gentle hand on Danny’s back. “Peace, young one. The creation of new specters is more involved than the ease at which living creatures breed. Just as with syndis, ghost children do not happen by accident, I assure you.”

Danny raised his head, tears spangling his lashes. “Yeah, well, I totally nailed that first part, didn’t I?” He raked both hands through his hair. “What are the symptoms?”

“Well, it depends upon one’s spectral class—”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, enough of this nonsense!” Vlad cried, shoving Frostbite aside so he could sit down beside Danny. “He’s not pregnant and you’re not helping him.”

“I am merely answering his question.”

“A question he has no business asking because it’s only going to make things worse!” Vlad drew a deep breath and spoke in a soft, sedate voice. “Daniel, listen to me. Everything is fine. Our human physiology would preclude any such insane notion as spectral reproduction. Neither of us is equipped for it.”

Frostbite raised a claw. “Actually—”

Shut up! We are half-ghosts, Daniel, not full ghosts. In many ways, we are freaks of nature. Genetic aberrations. Anomalies. Do you know what happens when nature encounters organisms whose DNA has been as fundamentally altered as ours?”

Danny blinked miserably. “Public school, remember?”

Exasperation slouched Vlad’s shoulders. “Didn’t they teach you basic biology? You have had sex education, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, but it’s not like we covered ghost—”

“Then you know about genes and recessivity and dominance and such things, yes?”

“A little, yeah. I mean, I passed with a C.”

“Fair enough. Are you familiar with the term hybrid sterility?”

Danny’s face went slack. He sat up straight, suddenly calmer. “I’ve heard of it.”

Vlad heaved a grateful sigh. “Reproductive isolation. It can happen a number of ways, through inheritance, an environmental agent… a lethal dose of radiation.”

“Wait.” Danny blinked. “Are you—you’re telling me that I’m—we’re infertile?”

“Yes. The ectoplasmic radiation exposure that mutated our DNA sterilized us as well, preventing any passage of what nature perceives to be faulty, damaged genes. So you see, Daniel, you have nothing to worry about.” But the smile with which he punctuated his argument quickly waned. “What is it?”

Danny rose from the bench. “You mean I can’t have kids? Ever?”

“An unfortunate side effect of being hybrids, I’m afraid.” Vlad stood. “Your sperm are no longer viable. Their very structure has been mutated into something that defies science, neither living nor dead, utterly incompatible with human ova.”

“How…” Danny’s brain worked slowly, thoughts oozing like sludge through a congested pipe. “How do you know this?”

“Because.” Vlad turned to the crackling blue flames. “I’ve run the tests in my own lab. Two thousand healthy eggs from over four hundred and fifty different donors. In vitro fertilization. All of them failed in the mitotic phase.” He glanced in Danny’s direction, eyes lowered, apologetic. “Better to find out now, while you’re still young and carefree.”

The bomb had dropped; now came the fallout, tiny crumbs of information absorbing into Danny’s bloodstream. The diagnosis, however, lost some of its impact when he considered the implications of Vlad’s experiments. Namely the desperate number of them.

“You wanted kids?”

Vlad gazed into the fire. “I wanted a family.”

For a long while no one spoke. The blue flames, fueled by an unseen source, snapped and snicked in their empty hearth. Outside, the subarctic wind howled, its echoes resonating through the cavern in a relentless moan. Frostbite shifted his hairy bulk as he sat back, humming thoughtfully.

“A boy who has lost his family and a man who always wanted one. Perhaps this syndis bond was not so accidental after all.”

Laughter broke through the somber atmosphere. All eyes turned to Vlad, who leaned against the table, shaking his head.

“Something you find humorous, Plasmius?”

“Only the bucolic wisdom of the yetnar, I assure you. Are you ready, Daniel?”

“Ready for what?”

“To leave. I believe we got what we came here for.”

“Now, do not be hasty,” Frostbite objected, raising a paw. “There is still much I have yet to—”

“Then perhaps we can arrange to visit some other time. Daniel and I would like to return home now. He begins school tomorrow, and he already has enough to worry about.”

“Is that what you want, Danny?” Frostbite asked.

“I… guess.” Danny didn’t know what to say. He’d almost forgotten tomorrow was Monday. His mind waded through a jungle of thoughts, trying to find a path. If only he could reach higher ground, look at things from a new perspective, he might be able to make sense of it all. “Is it okay if I come back?”

“Of course. You are welcome here anytime, Great One.” Then, ruefully: “Your guardian, too, as long as you accompany him.”

“Wonderful,” Vlad muttered. “I’ll be sure to pack a parka next time.” He thrust his arm out. “Now kindly remove this barbaric device and we’ll be on our way.”

Frostbite nodded to Eisvin. Grumbling, the female yeti approached Vlad and snapped open the cuff. Vlad rubbed his naked wrist and inhaled slowly. A white glow pulsed around him.

“Thank you. I sincerely hope that next time your hospitality will be a little more—wait. What did you do to me? My powers—I can’t transform!” He slung an accusing glare at Frostbite and Eisvin.

“It will take a few minutes for the effects to wear off,” Frostbite said. “You ought to be yourself by the time you reach the outskirts of Fjarfryst.”

“Unfortunately,” Eisvin added.

Shyly, Danny approached Vlad. “Guess this means I’m flying us both outta here.” He held out his hand.

A minuscule smile teased Vlad’s lips. He reached out and clasped the offered hand. Danny felt the pleasant warmth of his body heat soaking through his glove. He turned to Frostbite and Eisvin, craning his neck to look at their faces.

“Thanks for your help, Frostbite.”

“Any time, young one. We are glad to be at the service of the savior of the Ghost Realm.” He bowed at the waist. Eisvin did the same.

“We’ll be back again soon,” Danny promised. Tightening his grip on Vlad’s hand, he sprang upward. A startled oof punched its way out of Vlad’s mouth as he was jerked off his feet and high into the air. The cavern walls approached fast, and Danny turned them both intangible seconds before impact.

They were gone.

Frostbite stared after them, lips pursed meditatively, until a bitten-off curse from Eisvin startled him out of his thoughts. “What is the matter?”

“The healing elixir.” The female yeti turned to her chieftain, eyes glowing with rage. The table behind her was bare. “The parasite took it.”


The portal to Vlad’s Colorado chalet was marked by the mossy skull of a 12-point buck. The door itself was chunky, with gigantic Alpine-style wrought iron hinges. Together the two half-ghosts entered the swirling tunnel of light before being spat out into the world they now only partially belonged to.

Plasmius touched down on the floor of the lab and transformed back into Vlad Masters, still wearing the bulky suit of furs. He immediately began to wrestle his way out of it, grousing.

“It smells even worse in our world.”

A pair of white halos flashed over Danny as he reverted to his human form. He watched Vlad, whose nose was wrinkled in disdain, as he clumsily extracted one arm from the coat. His eyes fell upon the fading ring of teeth marks on Vlad’s bare shoulder.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Vlad raised his head, loose hairs dangling all around his face. “Tell you what?”

“About your powers. How you”—vampirize was the word he wanted to use, but his tongue refused to form it—“absorb elements.”

“Because there’s a time and a place for everything, Daniel, and it was neither yet the time nor the place.”

“Were you ever gonna tell me?”

“Eventually.” He paused, squinting. “What’s wrong, Daniel?”

Danny was really beginning to resent how easily Vlad could see through him. It was his brain, his heart, his feelings; why couldn’t he understand them? There was something wrong, of course, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Maybe it was too big for a finger. Or maybe it was many things, requiring ten hands’ worth of fingers. The weird syndis bond he’d unwittingly set in motion. The strange feelings taking root inside him. Vlad’s murderous, vampiric proclivities. The fact that his family tree was going to end with him. With the exception of Vlad’s secret, everything else was his fault.

But, if Danny were truly honest with himself, wasn’t everything his fault? All of it? From the very beginning?

And there it was again, that same claustrophobic clench he’d felt in his bedroom last night, the weight of two whole worlds crashing down on him, burying him. Caged in a prison of his own making. Chinese finger traps. The harder he pulled, the tighter they gripped.

“I dunno. I just—I think I need some air.” Danny hurried toward the stairs and trotted up, hair flapping.

Vlad watched him until he was out of sight. As an extra measure of caution, he waited a few more seconds before carefully sliding the bottle of elixir from the sleeve of the coat. A victorious leer spread across his face, inviting malevolent shadows to roost under his eyes.

Then his demeanor changed. Something cool washed over him, dousing the blaze of his triumph.

He lifted his heavy eyes to the stairwell before eventually lowering them to the bottle in his hand. With a soft sigh, he shuffled to a workstation and locked the elixir inside a storage safe marked with a hazardous materials sign, peeled himself out of the stifling furs, and took to the stairs after Danny.

Persistence

Chapter Notes

Content Warning

This chapter contains mention of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide.

Danny hurried through the kitchen, eager to get outside. A fleeting glance at the appliances revealed it was already eleven thirty, which stunned him until he recalled how many effortless hours he used to burn in the Ghost Zone with Sam and Tucker. Time flew when you were having fun.

Fun. Danny wondered if he was ever going to see it again.

He yanked the door open and fled the house, struggling to inflate his shrunken lungs.

Breathe. Breathe. Just breathe.

Mid-morning in September in the Colorado Rockies felt more like mid-afternoon. Something about the depth of the shadows and the hue of the sunlight, the orange patina heralding the beginning of autumn. The breeze blew cool and refreshing through Danny’s shirt, and he located the little dirt path he’d seen yesterday morning through the passenger window of the Range Rover. It led downhill from the side yard, through a copse of aspen and fir and cottonwood trees, and terminated at a long wooden dock. A glittering 50-acre lake lay beyond, nestled in the valley’s cradle, its waters a clear, cold malachite green.

Panting, Danny plopped onto the sun-warmed planks and stared across the open expanse, the toes of his sneakers dangling above the water. His heart hurt. His head hurt. He didn’t know why. He felt flayed and angry and scared and confused. And like some kind of cosmic joke, the world around him was, once again, beautiful beyond description. If he weren’t so cynical he might have thought the earth was trying to mollify him. He lifted his chin.

The sky was a cloudless sapphire blue, the mountains standing like sentinels. Arboreal fire crept into the trees across the lake. In another week or two the landscape would be a riot of fall colors, blazing reds and oranges and yellows.

How good it was to be alive.

The world slanted sideways in a hot wet smudge. Danny dragged his sleeve across his leaking eyes and wondered if he’d been naïve in assuming that his grief was ever going to fade, or that running to his former enemy was going to fix anything.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

He didn’t hear the footsteps until they were halfway down the dock, soft and shoeless. They stopped just behind him and waited. Danny closed his eyes, detecting the familiar pulse of Vlad’s spectral frequency. He sucked back his tears and gestured to the picturesque scenery in front of him.

“You own this, too?”

“Unfortunately, no.” Vlad lowered himself onto the dock beside Danny. He still wore his boxer-briefs—only his boxer-briefs—and smelled strongly of wet animal hide. His feet plunked carelessly into the water.

“It’s a municipal reservoir. The dam’s over there.” He pointed north. “But since I own the land that abuts it, I have riparian rights to use the water at my leisure.”

“Hm,” Danny mumbled. “Must be nice.”

“It is.”

Feathery waves lapped at the dock’s stanchions and Vlad’s ankles. Trees rustled their branches in the breeze, shedding a few golden leaves. A chevron of geese skirted over the lake, honking encouragements to one another. It was the very definition of tranquility.

“I’m sorry I did this to you,” Danny said. “The syndis thing, I mean. I had no idea it’d… that I could even do that.”

“Er, it’s all right.” A grimace teased Vlad’s facial muscles, and he scratched an imaginary itch at his sideburn. “Accidents happen.”

“It shouldn’t have. If I’d just listened to what my parents taught me, I wouldn’t have jumped you, and we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“It’s hardly a mess, Daniel.”

“It feels like it. Feels like everything’s my fault.”

“You had no idea. Innocence by ignorance. Stop blaming yourself.” Softly, he added, “Please.”

“It still doesn’t change anything. I thought…” Danny scrubbed a hand over his face. “Thought if I came here, things might be different. But they’re not. I’m still making mistakes and hurting the people around me. It’s like I’m cursed or something.”

“You’re having a bad day, Daniel. Don’t let it contaminate your entire life.”

Two hot tears skidded down Danny’s cheeks. He began to shake his head.

“It’s not that simple.”

“Life isn’t simple.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I don’t want it anymore. Not if it’s gonna be this hard.” Sniff. “Or hurt this much.”

Silence fell and festered. Vlad bowed his head.

“When they finally discharged me from the hospital, I had nothing,” he said. “No home, no friends or family, no money, no belongings except what was donated to me through hospital charity. I had no place to go and no way to continue my education. I couldn’t afford the medical treatments necessary to live without pain, and was essentially unemployable because of it.”

“Jeez,” Danny whispered. “What did you do?”

Vlad shrugged one shoulder. “I bounced between shelters for a while. It was bad. A bad time of year, winter in Wisconsin. The shelters were overcrowded and dangerous. I was better off on the streets. Or I thought I was. My first radiation flare-up occurred in May. I was in agony.”

“How did you get through it?”

A spindrift of leaves scattered across the lake’s surface, forming a botanical flotilla. Vlad traced the edge of his teeth with his tongue.

“I chained a cinder block around my ankle and jumped off a bridge into Lake Monona.”

Danny stared.

“Needless to say, I survived. My nexus took over, much like yours did in the fireplace the other night, and saved me. Even though I didn’t want to be saved. That was the first time I changed form. ‘Went ghost’, as you call it.

“What—” Danny shut his eyes, but the image of a twenty-something Vlad Masters, disfigured by weals of suppurating lesions, holding a cinder block in his arms and no hope in his eyes, refused to uproot itself from his brain. “What happened after that?”

“After that?” Vlad reclined on his palms. “I took my life back. To this day, whenever I feel overwhelmed, whenever the world becomes too much to bear, I locate the nearest body of water and toss myself into it. Let it envelope me. Wash everything away.”

“Does it work?” Danny asked, his voice frail.

“You mean, does it make your problems go away? No. But it takes the edge off, makes them a little more tolerable.”

A breeze swept off the lake, ruffling their hair, rich with the scent of pine and moss.

“The point is, Daniel, there is no way out for you and me. Not by our own hands. We cannot escape life. It is something we must contend with. Now, you can either lie back and let life happen to you, and suffer and be miserable and helpless the entire time, or you can pick up the hand you’ve been dealt and start trying to figure out how you can beat the game. That’s what I did. And so can you.”

The viridian water sparkled like a fish’s scales. Afternoon light gleamed gold in Danny’s wet eyes. He sniffed again and rubbed his hot, swollen face.

“What about the gloves?”

A frown creased Vlad’s forehead. “Gloves?”

“The ghost gauntlets. You showed them to me my first night here. You said they’re supposed to be able to rip out a halfa’s ghost. You made them to rip out my ghost.”

Vlad gave him a solemn look. “You don’t want that, Daniel.”

“Why not? Seems like it’d solve all my problems.”

“Not that way.”

The conversation frayed to an enervated silence.

With a heavy sigh, Vlad picked himself up and walked away, leaving Danny to stare at the water. Some moments passed before Danny was jarred to full alertness by the rapid thud of bare feet. He turned in time to see Vlad charging down the length of the dock. Uttering a cry, Danny threw his arms over his head. Vlad reached the last plank and leaped high into the air, curling himself into a ball. There came a terrific splash, and water erupted all over Danny. He lowered his arms and blinked at the churning spot where Vlad had disappeared. Vlad surfaced a few seconds later, silver hair plastered to his skull. He swung his head and sent a vane of droplets sparkling into the air.

“Ahh, refreshing.”

“Are you insane?” Danny bleated.

“Possibly. Jump in.”

What?”

“I said jump in. The water’s—well, it’s cold, but that’s hardly a problem for an ice specter.” When there was no response, he rolled his eyes. “Come on, Daniel. A little exercise won’t kill you.”

Fear, among a moil of other emotions, throttled Danny’s heart.

Ever since that disastrous fishing trip with his dad, he was cautious around water, never going beyond neck deep. He panicked if he couldn’t touch or see the bottom. Bathophobia, Jazz had called it. A fear of depths. For Danny, it was more the terror of drowning. There were a million ways to die in water, and all of them were horrible: becoming entangled in weeds; getting stuck in mud; a foot pinned between rocks; whirlpools; rip currents; not to mention all the hungry, hideous things that lived in the water. His phobia even extended to swimming pools. The fear of drains—hideous black mouths of lethal suction, just waiting to slurp him to the bottom—made swimming in concrete pools a delicate exercise in maintaining social equanimity.

It was silly now, being a half-ghost. Nothing in this world could kill him. But the animal fear born into every mortal still lingered.

“I—I’m not that good a swimmer,” he said lamely.

“You don’t have to be.” Vlad held a dripping hand out of the water: a gentleman offering to help a lady down from her coach. “Come.”

It wasn’t a command, nor was it a plea. It was a request. A gentle one. Vlad’s eyes fixed on him, eyebrows arched expectantly.

You can’t be afraid forever, sport, a voice, maybe his dad, told Danny.

Summoning a deep breath into his lungs, Danny set his jaw, popped to his feet, and phased his clothes off—everything except for his boxers. Then he leaped off the dock and into the water. The cold shocked him, ignited every nerve in his body. The lake closed over his head, painting his world dark green. Down, down, down he plunged.

His nexus flared to life, and suddenly the water felt amazing.

He surfaced beside Vlad, treading calmly, legs gliding back and forth underwater. It reminded him of how Vlad’s bed sheets had felt against his skin that first night, smooth and cool and clean. The sound of the water chuckling through his fingers was deliciously pure. He couldn’t feel the bottom, but it didn’t trouble him. Whatever lay in the deep dark silt underneath his bare feet couldn’t hurt him. He was a half-ghost. He had powers. He could fly if he wanted to. And Vlad was here. He wouldn’t let anything bad happen to him. He was his guardian.

“Wow,” Danny breathed, swiping his dripping hair off his forehead.

“Ah, there it is.”

“There’s what?” he asked worriedly, searching the water.

“Your frequency,” Vlad said. “It’s regulating. I haven’t felt it this calm in days.”

“Huh. Maybe my nexus likes the water.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it.” Vlad grappled with something under the surface, briefly sinking up to his nose. Moments later he tossed a wad of sopping black fabric through the air: his boxers. They landed on the dock with a soggy splat. “That’s better.”

Predictably, infuriatingly, Danny’s gaze drifted downward, following the pale smudge of Vlad’s nude form as it faded into the green depths. It took every ounce of his willpower to drag his attention back to his face.

“Skinny dipping? For real? What if someone sees you?”

After a blank look, Vlad turned his head to scan the deserted shoreline.

“I mean,” Danny stuttered, “just ’cause no one’s here now doesn’t mean they won’t show up later.”

“You and I can turn invisible, Daniel. Remember?”

Danny’s cheeks warmed. “Yeah, but—but what about fish? No, wait, snakes! There’s gotta be snakes in here. What if they… um…” He shaded his eyes with his hand. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”

Water sloshed. He felt a slight wake against his bare chest, then a large, warm hand grasped his wrist and pulled it down.

“You’ll swim better if there’s nothing holding you back,” Vlad murmured. “Clothes, shame, fear. Take them off, Daniel, and be free.” He moved back with a sweep of his legs, then stretched his arm over his head and launched into an impressive front crawl across the lake.

Danny watched him slice gracefully through the water and wished he had one atom of his gall.

You can’t be afraid forever, sport.

With a few clumsy splashes, Danny wrestled off his boxers, slung them onto the dock, and began to dog paddle after Vlad with as much dignity as he could muster.


He never imagined his first time skinny dipping would be in broad daylight, in a cold Colorado lake, with the man who had beaten him unconscious the first day they met. He never imagined that exercising would actually make him feel better, or that he’d end up engaged in the largest-scale game of water tag he’d ever played.

It was Vlad’s idea, posited after he had swum the breadth of the lake: no peeking, no speaking, no flying, no phasing. The object was to detect each other by spectral signature alone. A quick round of Rock-Paper-Scissors determined who was It. Danny was relieved to win the role. Being pursued, blind and naked, by his former arch enemy sounded a bit too creepy to be enjoyable.

And it was enjoyable. With his mind occupied by something other than the wretched status of his half-ghost life and the lingering vestiges of grief still gnawing his heart, he found the game as enjoyable as the little Tag session they’d played earlier in the Ghost Zone. He dove through the cold green water, pale and nimble as a fish, listening to his nexus and letting it guide him. It took him a while to narrow his search to the western corner of the lake, but once he locked on to Vlad’s frequency, it became the Hunt for Red October. Danny ended the game when he wrapped his straining fingers around Vlad’s sharp, bony ankle.

“I won, I won,” he sang, taking a victory lap around his defeated opponent. “Ha ha! In your face! L-O-S-E-R, take a guess, that’s what you are, a loser! Hey, hey, a loser!”

Vlad conceded, enduring the obnoxious gloating with decorum and a wry smile. “This time, badger. Only this time.”

He backstroked to the dock and pulled himself up the ladder. Danny’s smile dropped. He watched the water sluice off Vlad’s muscular back, rills streaming down his shapely buttocks and hairy thighs. A throb of excitement caused Danny to swell. Mortified, he whirled around, lip clamped between his teeth.

“Coming out?” Vlad asked, wringing his boxers as he stood in the bronze sunlight, skin glistening.

Danny came perilously close to breaking into a peal of hysteria-fueled laughter. He managed to gulp it down at the last second.

“Nah, I”—he winced as his voice cracked an octave higher—“think I’m gonna swim for just a little bit longer. If that’s okay.”

“As you wish.” Vlad strode confidently down the dock.

Danny stole a glance over his shoulder. It did him no favors. He sank underwater, his groan of embarrassment dissolving into a bubbly gargle.


He didn’t know what time it was when he finally hauled himself out, all white and wrinkly, but the sun was beginning to sink and the mountains threw their shadows across the lake, tinting the water a deep emerald-black. He felt good, his body drained of cortisol, his muscles well-used and mind rinsed. His lungs were full of clean mountain air. The sun warmed his flesh and ironed out the wrinkles in his hands and feet. The past and the future were burdens he would pick up again tomorrow, but right now, just in this moment, life wasn’t so bad.

He picked himself up, dressed, and walked up to the house.

The smell of food and the competing clamor of network television and 80s new wave greeted Danny as he opened the back door. He strode into the kitchen to find it a cheerful, noisy disaster. Chopping boards, onions, tomatoes, bell pepper butts, avocado pits, lettuce, and cilantro confetti littered the counter tops. At least four different types of cheeses were grated and sorted into festive bowls. A bag of tortilla chips disgorged its contents onto the bar, which had been set up as a temporary buffet for salsa, guacamole, and several queso dips. The crater beside the sink had been covered with painter’s plastic and neatly taped up. A sizzling cast iron skillet sat on the stove, attended by a much neater, drier Vlad. He was wearing dark jeans and a Brett Favre #4 Green Bay jersey. On the flat screen mounted high in the corner, three sportscasters bantered about the Detroit Lions’ first-quarter touchdown and how the Packers might be able to retaliate.

Don’t you tell me no, don’t you tell me no,” Vlad sang along as he tossed the pan of sizzling chicken. “Souuul, I hear you caaalling. Oh, baby pleeease, give a little respeeect tooo mee—oh. Daniel.” He ceased swaying. Andy Bell continued singing without him. “Welcome back. Enjoy your swim?”

Glaring, Danny folded his arms over his chest. “Is this why we left the Far Frozen in such a hurry? So you wouldn’t miss the game?”

“Of course not.”

The glare deepened to a scowl. Vlad bristled.

“I’m serious, Daniel. You smelled those furs they gave me. They’re barely one notch above roadkill. I think I’m going to give them a viking funeral. Burying them would only attract scavengers.” He tilted his head. “You like ceviche?”

“I don’t even know what that is,” Danny said, climbing onto a barstool.

“Lime-cured shrimp. Very good.” He picked up a festive ceramic bowl and set it before Danny. “Try it with a tortilla chip.”

Danny did. Saliva burst into his mouth at the tangy citrus and herb flavor, and he realized how absolutely ravenous he was. He swallowed and dug into the bag for another chip, peering suspiciously at Vlad’s aproned back.

A great cook. A surprisingly good singer. Smart, athletic. Grotesquely, outrageously wealthy. He could have any woman he wanted. Why was he still single?

“You know why.”

Danny balked mid-munch. “Why what?”

Vlad threw him a puzzled look. “You just asked me why I’m single.”

Oh, shit. Had he said that last part out loud? “Um. Yeah, well, I mean—you—it’s just that you’ve got a lot to offer. In terms of, uh… you know. Stuff. Material, um. Assets?”

After a loaded pause, Vlad turned his head. “The only woman I ever loved was your mother, Daniel. I mean that sincerely and literally.”

Danny narrowed his eyes. He got the feeling Vlad had just divulged something important, a deeply personal facet of his character, wrapped in that cryptic adumbration so effortlessly wielded by adults. But subtlety was not Danny’s forte. That was partly the reason his reading comprehension scores were so mediocre. He carved a furrow through the ceviche and crammed the loaded chip into his mouth, mulling as he chewed.

“Don’t fill up on appetizers,” Vlad warned. “I’ve got real food on the way.”

“Diff iff real food.”

“You know what I mean.”

Danny rolled his eyes but slowed his pace to a nibble. At the stove, Vlad took a swallow from a half-finished bottle of Negra Modelo. Danny watched him intently. The song playing on the expensive-looking portable speaker ended and another followed.

I saw your eyes
And you made me smile
For a little while
I was falling in love…

Feeling suddenly audacious, he asked, “Can I have a beer?”

Vlad regarded him for a moment, then moved to the refrigerator, retrieved a bottle of Dos Equis, and popped the cap. It clinked on the counter and went spinning. He handed the bottle to Danny, who was completely goggle-eyed.

“Um. Thanks.”

He raised the bottle to his nose. It smelled adult and exciting. He took a gulp. Ethyl pungence assaulted his taste buds, followed quickly by a fizzy texture and flavors of malt and corn. A beer aficionado would have sung its praises. A fifteen year-old boy whose only experience with alcohol was a three-ounce Dixie cup of syrupy-sweet Manischewitz nicked from Sam’s bubbe would wonder how anyone on earth could become addicted to it.

He swallowed. It wasn’t quite as bad as the Manischewitz, but it was bad enough to make him wish he’d just asked for a Coke. He forced himself not to grimace.

“How is it?” Vlad asked, peering at him intently. As if he knew.

“Good. Um. Refreshing.” Danny coughed and somehow made himself take another sip to show just how cool and mature and serious he was.

Vlad arched an eyebrow but asked no further questions. He plated the chicken and began assembling a platter of soft tacos and burritos stuffed with yellow rice and finely-diced tomatoes, somehow managing to keep one eye on the game and the other on his task. A generous dollop of sour cream complemented each entrée. He passed Danny an oven-warmed plate.

“Help yourself.”

No repetition was necessary; Danny piled his plate with food while twenty-two grown men in spandex clashed noisily for possession of a ball. The first bite was so good he swore he heard his nexus sing. He dug in.

Apart from the alcohol—and the company—this could have passed for any weekend celebration at Fenton Works. The noise, the warmth, the gamely atmosphere. Vlad sitting at the bar and eating with his fingers. The TV blasting. The comfort food that happened to be some of Danny’s favorite dishes. He ate like the king of pigs, drank his beer, and pretended he actually cared about football for a little while. He asked for another beer when the first quarter ended, and Vlad honored his request without reproof.

Alcohol was definitely an acquired taste, Danny decided. No one could ever be an alcoholic after the first drink. It was something you had to develop a tolerance for. Like living next to a landfill, or putting up with a lousy teacher if it meant being able to sit next to your crush in class.

At halftime, Vlad packed up the leftovers and together they moved into the den to finish watching the game. Danny, full and pleasantly buzzed, sprawled on one end of the couch while Vlad sat on the other. He struggled to keep his eyes open during the third quarter before eventually losing the battle. He dozed intermittently, disturbed only by Vlad’s sporadic outbursts whenever the coaches failed to telepathically heed his far superior game plan.

Danny roused during the fourth quarter and got up to pee. He returned, feeling a little more awake, to find Vlad slumped in the overstuffed cushions, brooding over the humiliating defeat his beloved team was facing. Danny collapsed onto the couch and blinked foggily at the screen.

“—unlikely the Packers will recover after Farve’s second turnover of the game, but the best they can hope for at this point is—”

“Why do you like the Packers so much anyway?” Danny asked.

Vlad disengaged himself from the screen for the first time in thirty minutes. The ebullience Danny had witnessed earlier was gone, and now he looked tired.

“My father was a fan. I inherited his enthusiasm. Except for a surname, I think it was the only thing we ever had in common.” He drained his beer and set the empty bottle on the coffee table.

“Oh,” Danny said softly. He picked up a velvet throw pillow and hugged it to his chest. “Speaking of names, what does the A stand for?”

“Pardon?”

“The A. In your initials.”

The rigid quality in Vlad’s facial muscles abruptly softened. “Alexandru.”

“Alex… Alex-on-drew?”

“Alexandru,” Vlad corrected, his tongue rolling the R in a single abbreviated trill.

Danny squinted. “What is that, Latin?”

“Romanian.”

The inebriated fog in his brain thinned suddenly. He sat up, blinking. “You’re Romanian?”

“My mother was.”

“Wow. I mean, that’s—cool. Is she still around?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Danny winced. “I’m sorry. Uh. What about your dad?”

“He died when I was seventeen.”

Danny pressed himself deeper into the cushions and didn’t speak for a time. “You got any brothers or sisters?” he finally, delicately asked.

“Why the sudden interest in my family, Daniel?”

“I dunno.” He clutched the pillow tighter. “I guess it’s just ’cause I don’t know anything about you. Your past and all. Your Wikipedia page is only, like, this big.” He held up his thumb and forefinger, an inch apart.

Vlad’s eyebrows lifted. “You looked me up?”

“After the college reunion, yeah. I wanted to know who I was dealing with. Know thine enemy, or whatever. But I couldn’t find much. Just stuff about the companies you own. Vladco, Mastersoft and all that.”

“I pay good money to keep my personal information off the Internet.” He pressed his lips into a wistful line. “I’m an only child.”

“Hm. Lucky you.” Danny dredged up a hollow smile that didn’t last.

Vlad studied him, blue light glowing on one side of his face while the other was painted in shadow. Danny felt a spike in his spectral frequency—whether self-generated or sparked by an outside force, he didn’t know—but he wasn’t surprised or suspicious or even curious when Vlad began to reposition himself. Danny had sensed his response several seconds in advance, and he welcomed it. Just as Vlad was welcoming him now, with open arms and hands cupped to receive.

If you want, his eyes said.

Danny unfolded his legs and clambered over the cushions to tuck himself against Vlad’s side. They fit together like flesh and blood puzzle pieces. Peace washed over Danny, a tide of comfort rolling in to quench a thirst of which he was barely cognizant. He slung one arm over Vlad’s chest and burrowed the other behind his back, nestling deeper into his embrace. Vlad’s hand settled on his head, fingers sifting idly through Danny’s lakewater-softened hair.

“—with four minutes, thirteen seconds on the clock and Joey Harrington throwing a touchdown pass to rookie Mike Williams—”

Snorting with disgust, Vlad pawed for the remote control and began flipping through the channels.

“You don’t wanna finish watching the game?” Danny asked.

“There’s no way they can recover. Frankly, it’s too painful to watch. I’ll read up on the score tomorrow morning—in the obituaries.”

Danny smirked.

Channels continued to flicker past in rapid succession. The Science Channel flashed and Danny brightened, slapping Vlad’s stomach.

“Wait, wait, it’s Carl Sagan! This is his Cosmos series. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this episode yet.”

Sagan?” Vlad repeated. “You like Sagan?”

“Yeah. He’s cool.”

Onscreen, the dark-haired astronomer and astrophysicist regaled his viewers with his scientific insight from a position in the radio room of the sailing ship Regina Maris.

During this period, the whales evolved their extraordinary communications system. Some whales emit extremely loud sounds at a frequency of twenty hertz…

Vlad screwed his face into a baffled moue. “I remember this episode. It’s The Persistence of Memory.”

“Oh, you like this series, too?”

“I had to watch it in college—a quarter of a century ago.”

“So? It still holds up.”

“I’m not saying it doesn’t. I’m just saying at this point it has a dual application as a sleep aid.”

“Shh!”

Vlad sputtered indignantly but said no more.

The American biologist Roger Payne has calculated that there’s a deep sound channel in the ocean at these frequencies through which two whales could communicate with each other essentially anywhere in the world. One whale might be off the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica and communicate with another whale in the Aleutians, in Alaska. For most of their history, whales seem to have established a global communications network.

Setting aside the controller with a resigned sigh, Vlad propped his feet on the coffee table. Danny nestled against him, eyelids drooping as his spectral frequency slowed to match the steady pace of the heartbeat under his ear.

Carl Sagan smiled at the camera as he stood on the windswept deck. “What two whales might have to say to each other, separated by fifteen thousand kilometers, I haven’t the foggiest idea. But maybe it’s a love song, cast into the vastness of the deep…

Chapter End Notes

A Little Respect | Erasure
Space Age Love Song | A Flock of Seagulls

Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980) is available for free viewing at the Internet Archive.

Heart

Chapter Notes

He was motionless but moving. Pressure at his knees, his shoulders. His eyelids fluttered open and he saw a flash of Packers green and gold. A wine-colored wall moved beyond his knees. Vlad was carrying him.

I’m too old to be carried, Danny thought. And too big. But Vlad held him easily and effortlessly—just like Dad used to when Danny would fall asleep in front of the TV as a little kid. Big, loud, goofy Jack Fenton, strong yet gentle, his body an orange cocoon of love that could do no wrong in his young son’s eyes.

There would be no more days like that.

Danny turned his head and pressed his face into Vlad’s jersey, where slick fabric repelled the seep of tears. The gentle rocking motions soon lulled him back to sleep. Did he dream of Vlad carrying him up a snowy mountain in that brief moment of slumber? Maybe. Hard to tell the difference between a half-waking thought and a dream. The veil between the two was as delicate as frost.

At some point, possibly a minute to an hour later, Danny woke. He was in his bed, in his room upstairs at Vlad’s Colorado retreat, lying on his back. The lights were out but he could see the ceiling and walls, the dresser with its rows of drawers, the overstuffed blue chair and ottoman, the doors to the balcony—

—and Vlad, standing in the far corner, facing the wall. His head was down, his shoulders hunched. Wet sounds reached Danny’s ears. Smacking, squishing. A warning flashed bright yellow in his primitive brain. Danger. Run. Get out.

“Vlad?” he squeaked.

No response. An unusual odor wafted into Danny’s nostrils: rusty wet nails mixed with something sanguine and sulfurous. A warm, gutty smell. He began to sit up and abruptly stopped. His body felt wrong, off-balance. Skin and muscles weren’t responding as they should. He was glazed with an alien, sticky wetness. Hands trembling, he threw back the covers.

A gory red canyon carved its way from his pubic bone up to his throat. Blood painted the underside of the comforter glistening scarlet. He could see the strata of tissue comprising his lacerated flesh; layers of skin and subcutaneous fat peeled back to expose his ribcage and innards. Slats of yellow-ivory bone strung with red ribbons of connective tissue dressed his thoracic cage. His costal cartilage was cloven in a neat V-shape, his sternal plate removed. Danny looked down at the moist pink sacs of his lungs, inflating and deflating in panicky quivers, drowning in a soup of blood so dark and thick it was almost black. Coils of intestines jiggled in his abdominal cavity, still alive, still working. Things he should never see, that should never touch air.

Madness possessed him. His brain shut down. As he drew in a breath to shriek—lungs swelling, stomach crowning from its bloody swamp—Vlad turned. His face was smeared with blood, and in his hands he clutched Danny’s half-eaten heart.

“I’m sorry, Daniel,” he said. “I couldn’t help myself. You’re just…” He smiled frailly, tears glistening in his lashes. “You’re so sweet. Like I always knew you’d be.” He lifted the heart and sank his teeth into it. He gorged, sucking and slurping, dragging his lips over the shredded flesh in a vulgar imitation of a kiss. Blood squirted from the corners of his mouth and flecked the walls, dribbled down his bearded chin. His eyes rolled back in ecstasy.

“Exquisite,” he panted.

Danny’s face split into a scream so powerful and deafening it followed him into reality. He wrenched himself upright, gasping for air. His throat felt like a sleeve of shredded meat. Beneath him, Vlad came awake with a startled snort.

“Mm—hwut? What is it?”

Danny scrambled to the other end of the couch, clutching the cushions in one hand while the other performed a frantic reconnaissance of his chest and torso.

Whole, uncloven. Heart beating strong and healthily. Everything in its place.

“Daniel?” Vlad pinched the sleep from his blinking eyes. “What’s wrong? You’re white as a sheet.”

“N-nothing.” The maddening urge to laugh with relief and cry his eyes out at the same time torqued the blistered wires of Danny’s nerves. “Just—bad dream. What time is it?”

Vlad squinted at the television. “Quarter to nine. Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m—”

His beard, dripping red. I’m sorry, Daniel. I couldn’t help myself.

“I’m fine,” he finished, yanking himself out of the cushions and escaping into the hallway. His feet kept moving—somewhere, anywhere, he didn’t care—and brought him to the kitchen. He stood there, gulping the peppery-lime scents still lingering in the air while his shaking hand counted heartbeats at the base of his throat. Gradually his pulse slowed.

He heaved a sigh, shoulders sagging.

He’d had vivid dreams before, but none of them had been as real as this. No living person should know how it felt to be cut open and dissected like some kind of high school biology assignment. Maybe it was the beer. Beer and TV.

He inhaled deeply. When he opened his eyes again, the meat fridge stood in front of him, as if his gaze was drawn by its unusual gravity.

What would he find in there if he opened it now? More kidneys? Another brain? A heart? Whatever sweetbreads were? Maybe eyeballs, a great big bowl of them. Blue and green and brown and hazel, with the optic nerves still attached, eyes that still had the impressions of what they’d last seen preserved in their cells somewhere. Vlad would like eyeballs, Danny decided. He’d probably eat them like grapes. Or were they more like poached eggs? Danny pictured Vlad’s perfect incisors gnashing down on an eyeball until it burst, oozing the vitreous humor down his chin like an egg yolk.

Nausea threatened to crumple him; then came a bilious wash of anger. He straightened his back.

He’d fought and defeated the Fright Knight. He’d stood against Pariah Dark, the King of Ghosts, and beaten him back into his sarcophagus. He’d bested a dozen powerful foes—and here he was, Danny Phantom, savior of the Ghost Zone, scared of a little raw meat.

Danny marched to the fridge and grasped the handle. Hesitated. He stared at the twitching sinews and jade-green veins on the back of his hand, the knobs of his knuckles.

Pull it, he ordered himself. Just open it and be done with it. What are you waiting for?

And then one of his favorite Internet apothegms floated to the forefront of his mind:

What has been seen cannot be unseen.

He tightened his grip on the handle. Was he ready to see what was inside? It could be worse than before. Livers and brains, a grinning pig’s head, the final squeal carved into the wrinkles of its frozen snout. A human head, perhaps. Then again, it might be nothing. Ground beef, a few unusual cuts. For the first time in his life, Danny asked himself if the price of knowledge was worth the nightmares.

Yes, he decided. He not only wanted to know, he needed to know.

Just as he shifted his weight back on his heels, he heard footsteps. He wrenched his hand from the door as if it had burned him, turning just in time to see Vlad enter the kitchen. Vlad stopped on the other side of the island and cocked his head. His eyes swept over Danny like prison searchlights.

“You can’t possibly be hungry.”

“No, uh.” Danny stepped guiltily away from the fridge. “Thirsty. Where do you keep the cups?”

Vlad broke off with a blink and moved to one of the upper cabinets. He retrieved two glasses and plucked a carton of milk from the normal refrigerator. He filled his own glass, drained it, poured another, and chugged that, too. Danny stared at his bobbing throat and remembered how it felt against his knuckles earlier that day, when he’d been removing Vlad’s shirt. His face warmed.

“Poor form to start your first day of tenth grade with a hangover,” Vlad said. He filled the second glass with milk and held it aloft. A magenta glow encompassed his hand for several seconds, then the light faded and he passed the glass to Danny. It was warm.

“That ought to help you sleep,” he said, his mouth trying to smile. “It always does for me.”

“Thanks.” Danny held the glass mincingly. The thought of drinking warm milk repulsed him, but he tried to avoid making a face. “Um, speaking of which, I think I’ll sleep in my bed tonight.”

“Of course,” Vlad said, but Danny noticed the half-second pause and the way Vlad averted his eyes. “I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. Very different schedules, you and I.”

“Yeah, guess so.”

A thick silence settled over them. Danny was the first to buckle under its weight.

“Well, uh, thanks,” he cracked, and sped out of the kitchen as fast as he could.

The first syllable of a crumbly “Good night” left Vlad’s lips before the rest of the phrase aborted itself. He watched Danny disappear into the darkened living room. Sneakers thumped a hurried cadence on the stairs: one hundred and nineteen pounds of adolescent angst, beating a hasty retreat.

Vlad leaned against the counter, passed a weary hand over his face, and sighed.


The first thing Danny did was march to the en suite bathroom and pour the milk down the sink. Glorp, glug. He rinsed the glass and then tried—without luck—to gather his thoughts.

It was too early to go to bed, especially that bed, and while the shower wasn’t the place where he did his best thinking, it was certainly a place that refreshed him. In any case, he smelled like the lake, a green, reedy odor with just a hint of fish. He stripped off his clothes and left them in a pile on the bathroom floor.

In the shower, he washed his hair, soaped up, and masturbated with a kind of rote detachment whose function was more to give his neuroses outlet than relieve any simmering sexual tension. Afterward he slipped into his pajamas and wandered down the hall to the entertainment lounge. He turned on Adult Swim and reclined in front of the huge screen, eyes glazing over, until he felt he’d fully decompressed. At midnight he peeled himself up and returned to his own room, crawled into bed, and couldn’t sleep.

Something about the dark and silence made it easier for thoughts to crystallize, and they paraded through Danny’s restless mind like a viking horde, swinging swords and axes.

If he was in Vlad’s bed, he would have been asleep already.

Growling under his breath, Danny rolled over. The pillows were just as soft, the sheets just as creamy smooth as the ones in Vlad’s bed, and yet…

He turned onto his stomach. He stayed that way for less than a minute before he rolled onto his side again and stared at the opposite wall.

He never thought that sharing a bed with Vlad Masters would end up a habit. It was embarrassing. And weird. And wrong. But here he was, craving his closeness. He wished Jazz was here. She would be able to diagnose this whole mess, or at least offer some educated theories. She had a way of distilling information and bouncing it back to Danny in a language he understood. God, he missed her.

Then again, if Jazz were here, Danny wouldn’t be. If she had lived, if Mom and Dad and Sam and Tucker and Mr. Lancer were all still alive, he wouldn’t be lying here wishing he could go downstairs and slip into the bed of a man who might very well be a murderous cannibal and bask in his comforting proximity.

The bond has been established. Your nexuses are linked, perhaps indefinitely.

Linked with a lying, thieving, blood-sucking, heart-eating—

Danny kicked off the covers and climbed out of bed. He couldn’t sleep in the same place where he’d been disemboweled.

He unlocked his balcony doors and stepped out into the night. The cold nipped his skin, but it was a pleasant sensation. He shuddered and felt his nexus glow inside him. He gripped the cold iron rail and admired the trees, the sky, the stars. He breathed a double lungful of fresh air and sighed it out.

Does it make your problems go away? No. But it takes the edge off, makes them a little more tolerable.

As Danny meditated on Vlad’s words, he considered how silly it was to let a bad dream sour an otherwise good evening. Vlad had been nothing but kind and helpful to him for the nearly-four days he’d been living with him. So he ate gross stuff and drank ectoplasm and stole ghosts’ powers—no one was perfect. Danny didn’t come to Aspen looking for perfect. He came to Aspen because he had no other place to go. As long as Vlad didn’t try to suck his blood or eat his guts or beat him up on the regular, he would be okay. Everything would be fine.

He felt the vibrations in his core before the sound reached his ears. He lifted his head, straining to hear. It was coming from the woods. No, wait. Not the woods. It was inside the house. Somewhere downstairs? It sounded like—

Danny inhaled a small mouthful of air and turned. Going intangible, he sank through his bedroom floor.


The sound was louder when he shyly poked his head through the living room ceiling. When he saw the source, his jaw dropped.

Vlad, wearing pajamas and a cranberry red dressing gown, sat at the grand piano, facing the large floor-to-ceiling window that looked out on a dark vista of mountains and stars—the same view Danny had been enjoying moments before. He was playing a song. The lid was propped open, warm chords vibrating through the air in rich, full notes. It was a song Danny recognized. Lyrics automatically began to reel through his mind:

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

Mesmerized, Danny descended through the air and came to rest in a nearby chair, gently returning to his human form. He couldn’t see Vlad’s hands from where he sat, but every now and then one would dart out to press the high or low keys, fingers confident, moving with a kind of liquid beauty. His performance was immaculate. No wrong notes, no fumbles. Pauses just the right length.

A sweet, sad ache spread inside Danny’s chest.

He really is going to eat your heart someday, a voice inside him warned.

So what, Danny answered. It’s broken anyway. Maybe he’ll choke on the pieces.

Vlad played through the third and fourth verses. Chords boomed and strings thundered, the notes rising as the song reached its climax. The sounds filled Danny’s bones. He tucked his legs under himself and rested his head against a throw pillow designed more for looks than for comfort, but he barely registered the coarse fabric or the awkward angle of his neck. The music was like water. He closed his eyes and imagined it flowing through him, flushing out the ugly, toxic wads of garbage built up inside him. Emotional detritus. Accumulated grief. He saw the music in his mind, the shifting frequencies, the rise and fall of waves. He inhaled, exhaled. His nexus relaxed, aligning with the wavelengths of the music.

He was asleep before the final notes rang through the air.

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.


An alarm chimed. Danny rolled over and slapped the clock until the noise stopped. He lay still, tempted to fall back asleep. He was so warm and comfortable.

And alone. In his bed.

The memory of that terrible dream filtered through the fog of sleep’s blessed indolence, and Danny bolted up, throwing back the covers.

No blood. No entrails spilling from his excavated torso. Just his pajamas and the fluffy, clean sheets.

He collapsed onto the pillows. His mind slogged through the events of last night, trying to pan golden flecks of reality from the snarled sludge of dreams. Vlad must have carried him to bed. Danny turned to the clock.

7:34 AM. His first day of tenth grade and he was already running late. He dragged his hands down his face with a groan.

It was enough to make him want to run away all over again.

Three knocks on his bedroom door banished all thoughts of truancy.

“Daniel? Are you up?” Vlad.

“Uh—yeah,” Danny said, scrambling out of bed. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to oversleep. I’ll be right down!”

“You’re not late.”

Danny did a double take mid-sprint to his closet. “What?”

“School doesn’t start until nine o’clock.” Pause. “Breakfast is in the kitchen.”

“Uh, okay. I’ll, um. Be there in a sec.” He waited until Vlad’s footsteps moved away from his door before he entered his closet, this time with less adrenaline.

Roughly twenty minutes later he trotted down the stairs, dressed neatly in khakis, a white shirt, and a dark blue jacket with matching tie: the basic school uniform of Mountain View Academy. Breakfast was waiting for him under the lid of a large platter: steamy Belgian waffles with a complement of butter and syrup, fresh mixed fruit, and several slices of Canadian bacon rolled around mascarpone and chive filling. Beverages consisted of milk, orange juice, and tea. Danny would have rather had a can of soda, but the tea wasn’t bad, especially with enough sugar and cream. He ate alone at the table, wondering if the house staff had prepared the meal or if Vlad had done it himself. When he finished, he deposited his dishes in the sink and went to look for him.

He found Vlad down in the lab, wearing a chemical-resistant apron and holding a stoppered tube of glowing blue liquid up to the light. When he spied Danny, he quickly placed the tube in a rack and tucked the rack into a refrigerated case. A case that had a combination lock.

“Good morning,” he said, dredging up a smile.

He was dressed well; underneath the apron, he wore his signature outfit consisting of a double-breasted black suit, white shirt, red Western bow tie, and pointy boots. The only thing that marred his otherwise handsome appearance was the presence of dark purple crescents under his eyes. Danny frowned.

“Morning. Hey, um, did you…” He fidgeted, suddenly unsure.

Vlad tilted his head expectantly. “Did I…? What, Daniel?”

“Never mind. It’s not important.” Danny eyed the towering distillation apparatus on the workstation surface. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, just—you know.” Vlad waved his hand. “Studying a few samples, updating some notes. Getting back to routine after a weekend detour, courtesy of the unexpected delivery that arrived on my doorstep Thursday afternoon.” A disingenuous grin.

Danny squinted. “Did you spend the whole night down here?”

“Of course not.”

“You look tired.”

The fake cheer that Vlad had wrapped around him like a coat suddenly blew away. His shoulders dropped and his face relaxed. He looked old. “Restless night,” he said.

Invigorated by his veracity, Danny found the courage to ask his earlier question: “You didn’t carry me up to my room last night, did you?”

“You carried yourself to your room, as I recall.”

“No, I mean after the kitchen. In the living room, when you were playing the piano. Stairway to Heaven. It was really good.”

Thinning his lips, Vlad picked up a stack of papers and tidied them with entirely too much care. “Sometimes I play when I can’t sleep. The sound frequencies help to—”

“Soothe, yeah, I know. I felt it, too. It was like a lullaby, put me right to sleep. Guess this means I won’t be attending any of your concerts anytime soon.” Danny’s attempt at humor missed its mark. “So did you? Carry me, I mean.”

“No.”

“No?”

“I didn’t want to disturb you. You must have found your way to your bed on your own. Are you a somnambulant?”

“A what?”

“A sleepwalker.” Vlad removed his apron. “Your father was. Quite regularly. These things tend to be genetic.”

Danny had never sleepwalked in his life. But that wasn’t the point that puzzled him.

“How do you know my dad was a sleepwalker?”

Vlad carefully set the folded apron on his workbench. “You learn a lot about a person when you live with them for four years.” He checked his watch. “Time to leave. Wouldn’t want to be late for your first day, now, would we?”

No, Danny supposed not.


It was a thirty-minute drive to Mountain View Academy.

The Bentley Arnage hugged the hairpin turns through miles of evergreen forest and steep, sprawling valleys. Danny stared out the window, listening to 80s music on the Sirius satellite radio—Vlad’s preference. He broke the silence only when he recognized the song playing.

How does it feel
To treat me like you do
When you’ve laid your hands upon me
And told me who you are
?”

He squinted at the LED marquee. “New Order?”

“What about them?” Vlad asked.

“Nothing. I just—didn’t know they did this song first. I thought Orgy did.”

Whom?”

“Orgy. This version’s okay, but Orgy’s cover rocks way harder.”

“Sacrilege,” Vlad snorted. “Nothing can beat the original.”

“Wanna bet?”

“It’d be pointless, Daniel. You know I wouldn’t in a million years admit to being wrong.”

Laughter bubbled in Danny’s throat. It felt good. A smile chipped its way through Vlad’s tired countenance. He looked at Danny for a moment, their eyes met, and then he cleared his throat and focused on the road again.

Bernard Sumner sang in mechanical monotone for the next two and half minutes. The song ended and another took over, this one soft and sincere.

I need you like you need me,
Truly and completely,
Never be apart.
I think that you should tell me,
Come right out and tell me,
Just what’s in your heart.

Danny bit his lip and pretended to look for something in the backpack wedged between his feet. He made as much noise as possible to drown out the music, yanking zippers open and closed, shuffling crisp, virgin notebooks.

It didn’t help. Justin Hayward’s clear, melodic voice rose above the exaggerated rustling.

And if you think that it’s all right,
Let’s make a deal and work it out.
We’ll walk into the sunset, you and I,
With no more alibis
When we tell each other
No more—

Vlad stabbed a button, cutting off the song. “How comfortable are you with lying?”

Danny gave him a startled look.

“Because you’re going to be doing a lot of it from now on.” He glanced at him briefly, seriously.

“Um, okay, I guess,” Danny said. “I mean, my parents never found out about my ghost powers. Jazz never knew, either. So I guess that’s something.”

“Good. I ask because I know the thought of lying makes your heroic little heart simply wilt in dis—”

“You don’t have to be mean.”

Vlad swallowed the rest of his sentence. “You’re right. Mea culpa. I simply… I want you to understand that this is a matter of survival now, Daniel. For both of us. You must be very careful about the things you say. Guard your tongue, because we can’t afford to have the truth get out. Not if you wish to continue to stay with me. That means no ‘going ghost’ in public, no confiding your secret to classmates, not a word about my lab or anything related to my research. Understood?”

The slightest of tremors set in. Danny gulped. “Yes.”

They slowed at an intersection. Vlad turned the wheel. Danny’s eyes lingered on his hands, absorbing the flex of tendons, the fine silver hairs on his wrist, the expensive watch peeking from his left cuff. Vlad blinked and turned to look at Danny, who quickly snapped his eyes to the front.

“So, um, what’s my story anyway? I’m, what, the grandson of your Uncle Vincent?”

“Victor. Your parents are Stephen and Patricia Masters—or were, rather. They disappeared on a boating trip in the Maldives a year ago. You were born in Chicago, Illinois on November eleventh, 1989—be sure to memorize that date, as well as your social security number.”

“Okay.”

By the time they reached the school, Danny’s head was swimming with the tragic, fictional backstory of Daniel Stephen Masters.

“There’s no way I’m gonna be able to remember all this,” he said as Vlad cut the engine. “What if I forget something?”

“Blame it on your trauma. Use it like a tool. If you’re going to carry it with you for the rest of your life, you might as well put it to good use.” He stepped out, walked around the front of the Bentley, and opened Danny’s door for him.

“Are—you’re coming in with me?” Danny said.

“Yes. You and I have to meet with the principal.”

Danny’s heart turned into a block of ice. “I don’t wanna.”

“Excuse me?”

There was no way he could explain the sudden, gnawing fear in his stomach or the dread that twisted his innards at the sight of that brick façade looming behind Vlad’s shoulders. Vlad would never understand. He hadn’t been in school in decades. So Danny sat in the passenger seat, folded his arms around himself, and gave his benevolent “cousin” the most pathetic, pleading face he could muster. Please, Mom, let me stay home today.

“I—I don’t wanna go. I can’t. I’m not… it’s too soon.”

“Too soon for what?”

“Going back. I’m not ready.”

“Yes, you are. Now stop wheedling and get out. The principal is expecting us in five minutes.”

“No.” It came out a supplication rather than a contradiction. And Vlad was not having it.

“Are you going to make me drag you out of the car and into the school? Hm? Is that what you want? To make a scene on your first day? Let the other students see you crying in the hall? Tarnish your reputation here, too?”

Humiliated tears stung Danny’s eyes. “Why are you being so mean to me!”

“Mean? Mean?” Vlad bent down, glaring. “You haven’t seen me—” He stopped himself and took a calming breath. Massaged his eyes. After a few seconds he began to speak again, softly. “This is not easy, Daniel. I know. But it must be done. You can’t hide in my house for the rest of your life, just as I couldn’t hide in those homeless shelters anymore. I had to take that first step, reintegrate myself with society. It was terrifying. One of the most difficult things I’d ever done—a great deal more difficult than chaining that cinder block to my leg.”

Danny’s face cracked. “I’m scared,” he wept.

“I know. So was I.” Squatting down, Vlad touched the hot, clammy fist gripping the seat belt. “It gets better, Daniel. Much better. But it’s not going to come to you. You have to go out and get it. And it would be a terrible thing to waste all that potential.”

“What potential? I didn’t have anything above a C on my last report card. I haven’t made an A in math in my entire life. I’m stupid.”

“I disagree.”

That might have been the nicest thing Vlad had ever said to him. Danny sucked back fresh tears and wiped his face on his sleeve while Vlad peered earnestly at him.

“The worst is over, Daniel. You’ve survived the lowest point of your life. It can only improve from here. Any other setback you may face will pale in comparison to the hell you’ve just walked out of.”

“You really believe that? You’re not just saying that to make me feel better?”

“I believe it. And what’s more, I know it. Do you remember what I told you yesterday? It’s easier to walk forward if you’re not chained to the past. You have to take off this burden. Let it go.”

“Hmph. That’s real funny coming from a guy who’s been obsessed about getting revenge on my dad for the past twenty years, who still thought he had a chance with my mom.”

Vlad stiffened. “I’ve put all that behind me. The only thing I care about now is y—helping you.”

Danny stared into Vlad’s eyes and believed him. With one last snotty snuffle, he clicked open his seat belt and fed it back through the reel. Vlad stood to his feet as Danny got out, and shut the door for him. With his hand gently resting in the middle of Danny’s back, they climbed the leaf-scattered concrete steps to Mountain View Academy.

Chapter End Notes

Stairway to Heaven (Piano Arrangement) | Led Zeppelin
Blue Monday | New Order
No More Lies | The Moody Blues

Fall

Chapter Notes

Banks of fallen leaves lined both sides of the road, whipped up by passing cars. Beyond the grassy shoulders, the woods stood black and mossy, damp with autumn’s sleepy rot. Pine and hickory spiced the air. A sapphire blue sky soared over snow-dappled gray mountains and rolling hills thatched with green and yellow. Pumpkins sprouted on porches while their smaller facsimiles decorated front door wreaths and mailboxes.

October had settled in Aspen, Colorado.

A chunky Hummer H2 coasted into the loop in front of Mountain View Academy, and the group of teenagers huddled on the steps looked up from their iPods and mobile phones.

“Uup,” Marc announced. “Masters, your chariot awaits!”

Marcus Walton was a big boy, seventeen, red-haired, full of good humor. Too much humor, his teachers said. Left unchecked, his antics would have classrooms roaring with laughter, but that was the faculty’s only complaint. He was an affable golden retriever of a lad, gregarious, quick-witted, almost obnoxiously optimistic.

Danny narrowed his eyes against the cold October breeze. “Huh. He came in person today.”

“Ooh, lucky,” Audrey cooed. She squinted to see through the Hummer’s darkly-tinted windows. “You know, I’ve never seen your uncle up close. Is that white streak in his hair natural?”

“I too would like to know the answer to this totally normal and not weird question,” Marc said with a maniac grin.

Audrey rolled her eyes.

A junior at only fourteen, Audrey Prasad was one of the brightest students at Mountain View. She spoke three languages and was currently mastering her fourth. The math courses she took made Danny’s eyes water. Besides her academic accomplishments, there was a loveliness to her that girls like Paulina Sanchez and Star Sommerauer could only dream of achieving, for she possessed none of their vanity and twice their personality.

“You think you could get him to sign my Mastersoft Windows ME boot disk?” she asked.

“What, you mean like an autograph?” Danny said. “What for?”

“She’s got the hots for him,” Phil said, her glitter-painted thumbnails stabbing the T9 keypad of her flip phone. A bundle of cute charms danced to her tapping. “Rich old men make her weak in the kneeees.”

“Oh, my God, shut up,” Audrey laughed. “He’s not old!” She looked at Danny. “Is he?”

Danny shrugged.

“Well, in any case, I happen to be a programming major. This is purely an academic interest.”

“Oh, purely,” Phil smirked.

Philomena Colt was the resident anime geek, sci-fi fanatic, and bookworm, distantly related to the Barrymores of film legend. Her appearance was deceiving; beneath her baby pink pixie cut and cake scented lip gloss and heaps of costume jewelry beat the heart of a Klingon warrior who would not hesitate to peel the skin from her enemies while they yet lived.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Danny promised. The Hummer’s horn bleated impatiently. He shouldered his backpack. “See you guys Monday.”

Marc performed an extravagant salute. “Farewell, good sir! Until we meet again!”

Audrey cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “Don’t forget about next weekend!”

Danny waved an acknowledgement before climbing into the passenger seat and shutting the heavy door. The gas-guzzling behemoth roared away from the school. Danny set his backpack between his feet and buckled up, then reached over and tuned the radio to his favorite station. A Good Charlotte song was just kicking off. He sat back and tapped the armrest, singing along under his breath.

All they do is piss and moan
Inside the Rolling Stone
Talking about how hard life can be.
I’d like to see them spend a week
Living life out on the street
I don’t think they would survive…

Vlad peered coolly at him from behind a pair of Tom Fords. “How did it go today?”

“Good,” Danny said.

He meant it. Except for that nerve-wracking first day, he hadn’t had any bad days at Mountain View. He was flourishing. His grades were better than they’d been since kindergarten, and he didn’t wake up every morning with a stew of dread simmering in his stomach. It almost didn’t feel like school at all. The days were shorter, for one thing. Classes started at nine and ended at three. Students enjoyed an hour-long lunch. Rich people could afford to take their time, Danny learned. The food was excellent and included diverse cuisine. No soggy French bread pizza or a paltry serving of five frozen chicken nuggets. Meal trays came with actual silverware and cups. The daily salad bar was popular; no one brought lunch. The cafeteria workers were helpful and good-humored. There were no food fights, no overflowing garbage cans, no graffiti on the tables. All the petty, juvenile antics that teenagers got up to didn’t seem to exist at Mountain View.

But the main thing Danny attributed to his current academic success was the small, intimate classrooms. The teachers got to spend more one-on-one time with their students, and they weren’t burned out or underpaid. They were respected, many of them holding a master’s or doctorate degree. The penalty system also worked differently, as did the grading and out-of-class assignments. Homework was assigned no more than once a week. Leeway was granted for students depending upon their circumstances. Many of them traveled out of the country several times a year, accessories to their jet-setting parents.

Study hall was Danny’s second-favorite segment of the day, and it lasted an astonishing ninety minutes. A fleet of tutors was ready to deploy for any student who required special help. There was a really nice two-storey library in the same wing as the study hall, and Danny discovered a trove of sci-fi and astronomy books during his first week. He was actually excited about reading again.

The campus at Mountain View was also home to consummate athletic facilities, including an Olympic-size pool and tennis, basketball, and racquetball courts. Martial arts courses were offered as part of the phys ed curriculum. Locker rooms came equipped with saunas, steam rooms, and luxury showers. Not only did Danny look forward to gym, it had become his favorite class. He had signed up for the swim/racquetball rotation this semester; swimming because he liked it, racquetball because Vlad said it would help him hone his reflexes. And it was helping, if the thrice-weekly after-school training sessions in the Ghost Zone were any indication.

“Just good?” Vlad asked.

“Well, I did get a ninety on my Beowulf paper,” Danny said.

“Ninety. What’s that, B plus?”

“A minus, actually.”

“An A minus! Well, I’d say this calls for a celebration. Pit’s pizza and any movie you want.”

“Cool. How about The Crow? Since it’s getting close to Halloween and all.” It had also been one of Sam’s favorite movies. Though the pain of her absence was beginning to recede, Danny wasn’t about to let his first Halloween without her pass by without observing their annual tradition.

Vlad smiled. “Superb choice. Seminal nineties film.”

“Definitely.” Danny had no idea what “seminal” meant. “I mean, the soundtrack.”

“Legendary. The Cure, Burn. One of their greatest songs.”

“Says the fire specter.”

They shared a chuckle. Danny caught himself gazing a few seconds too long and turned to the passenger window. He watched his reflection bite the smile from his lips against a flickering green background of racing tree trunks.

Thirty-nine days had passed since they’d last slept beside each other. They maintained a cordial but distant relationship. Danny was fine with that. It was normal. It was the way things were supposed to be. He ignored the piano music that drifted through the floor of his bedroom nearly every night and the bags that had taken up permanent residence under Vlad’s eyes. The man was a workaholic. He had a lot of irons in the fire. Such was the billionaire way.

If money is such a problem
You’ve got so many problems
Think I can solve them…

While Vlad immersed himself in his dubitable business dealings and top-secret research, Danny was given room to find his new “normal”. Occasionally Vlad drove him to school and picked him up afterward, but most of the time Danny was ferried back and forth by taciturn chauffeurs who never spoke to him and only answered questions with monosyllabic replies. Eventually Danny stopped trying to engage them and sat in the backseat with his earbuds buried in his ears. Typical rich kid behavior.

He could have remade himself at Mountain View, been anyone he wanted to be. It hadn’t been necessary.

When Principal Schneider introduced him to his first class, there had been no snickering, no whispers, no fists slapping into sweaty jock palms and an unspoken promise to “whale the loser” after school. Polite smiles had lit a few faces, but otherwise the response was just as Danny had hoped for: complete and utter indifference.

Eventually he discovered that no social hierarchy existed at Mountain View. Not like at Casper—or any other public school. There was no bullying, no cruel nicknames, no territoriality, no petty theft or fistfights. It was because they had already won the game of life. They were part of the elite, their futures certain, prosperity and success guaranteed. An equality achieved by unanimous privilege. Danny was welcome at any table. No one was rude to him. Girls wiggled their fingers at him in the hallway and volunteered to do paired class activities with him. He wasn’t treated like a leper. Boys exchanged pleasantries at his locker between classes and invited him to their study groups and game tournaments in the student lounge. He was popular—finally. A loser’s dream come true.

Ironically, he couldn’t care less.

The song on the radio ended and the DJ provided an update about the ongoing Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Danny recalled hearing about the disaster, but only vaguely; he’d run away from his foster home two days after the storm made landfall. He wondered if Robert and Linda missed him.

“You should make a donation,” he said.

“I already have,” Vlad said.

“Really? How much?”

“That’s a boorish question, Daniel, but since you haven’t yet learned the finer points of high society: eleven million, a week before you showed up on my doorstep.”

Danny turned, staring at Vlad with nascent respect.

“I don’t suppose you saw it on TV. All the major news networks ran it. It was one of my better press conferences. Hard hat, sleeves rolled up. Great publicity. In any case, I’m expecting a very nice tax writeoff this year. Couldn’t have come at a better time.”

The warmth that had briefly kindled in Danny’s heart went cold. “People died,” he said sharply.

“I didn’t send the hurricane, Daniel.”

“But you’re glad it hit.”

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to donate a small portion of my wealth to help those who desperately needed it. And if I get a little something in return, well, what does it matter? It’s still a win-win for everyone.”

Danny folded his arms over his chest. “You wouldn’t have donated if you weren’t going to get anything back.”

After an incriminating pause, Vlad sighed. “There’s an old adage that people in power are fond of repeating, Daniel. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ You’ll understand when you’re older. Speaking of which, I want you to take a few business electives next semester. As my successor, you should learn a thing or two about the trade.”

“Why?” Danny muttered. “It’s not like you’re gonna die someday.”

“No, but retiring from the public eye would be ideal after another twenty-five, thirty years. You would inherit a percentage of my estate and become the new CEO of my conglomerate. A few finance classes would serve you well.”

“What if I don’t want to? You gonna make me?”

“Of course not. I’m only trying to equip you with everything you need to be a success. The more you know about corporate management, dear boy, the less likely you are to be a victim of it.”

Danny sank into a glowering silence. Then his phone chirped. It was Phil.

Oddrey says dont 4get oct 29

He mashed a quick “ok” and slipped his phone back into his pocket. “I’ve been invited to a party.”

“Oh? What kind?”

“A Halloween party. Next Saturday, the twenty-ninth. My friend Audrey’s hosting it.”

“Would that be Audrey Prasad? Parents Arun and Anita?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“The rich are very aware of each other, Daniel. It’s our business to know who’s who. In any case, I don’t like the idea of you partying at a teenage girl’s house, so I’m afraid—”

“It’s not at her house. It’s at The Ice Palace.”

“The indoor skating rink? Oh. Well, that’s a different matter. What time is this little soirée?”

“Seven to ten. In the evening.”

“I see.” Vlad mulled. “All right, very well. You may go if you wish.”

“Great.” Danny’s ebullience disappeared with a thoughtful frown. “I hope there’s other things to do there besides ice skating.”

“Why?”

“’Cause I don’t know how.”


The next morning, Danny was jarred out of a sound sleep by Vlad and herded through a morning routine typically reserved for weekdays. He mumbled questions between bites of a cream cheese and lox bagel, but Vlad refused to elaborate.

“All in good time, little badger.”

It had been a while since Vlad had called him that. Danny decided to interpret it as a good omen.

When the sign for The Ice Palace appeared through the Range Rover’s windshield, Danny snorted. “The party’s not till next week.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“Then why are we here?”

“Someone in this town needs to teach you how to ice skate so you don’t make a fool of yourself.”

“You forget, I’m an ice specter,” Danny said archly.

“That’s exactly what worries me.”

Vlad parked the car and unfastened his seatbelt, but didn’t move to get out. His left hand dipped to grasp something in the driver’s side door pocket. Suspicion knitted Danny’s eyebrows together.

“I know you’re restless, Daniel,” Vlad said gently. “You want to go out with your friends, sow your wild oats. But there’s a reason I’ve been keeping you on such a short leash this past month. You’re entirely too comfortable shifting in public, and it has to stop.”

“I haven’t shifted in public! Not in a while. The last time was, like, two weeks ago, and only because I had to.”

Vlad tucked his chin and raised an eyebrow. Danny withered.

“I was gonna be late for class! Look, my locker is in the sophomore hall and geometry is way over on the other side of the school. It’s the only way I can—”

“Has it ever occurred to you to explain your situation to your literature teacher? Hm? I’m sure Mr. Witkowski would be more than willing to release you from class a few minutes early so you’re not late for geometry.”

Danny narrowed his eyes. “How do you know my lit teacher is Mr. Witkowski?”

“It’s my business to know your classes and schedule, Daniel.”

“But he just transferred over last week. Mrs. Martin had to move back to Washington because her father has cancer.” Indignation simmered in his chest. “Are you spying on me?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m a very busy man, Daniel. You think I have the time and inclination to slink through the hallways of your school, following your every move? What purpose would that possibly serve?”

“Knowledge is power. You said so yourself.”

“So I did. But if you think I—”

“And you have minions. The vultures, Skulker, who knows.”

“All easily detected by you, surely.”

Danny shut his mouth. Vlad sighed.

“The point is, Daniel, you’re careless and cocky. This isn’t public school. These are children of very powerful people. No one can know our secret.”

“You are spying on me.”

“I am not.”

“And you don’t trust me.”

“You’re fifteen. You’re a teenage boy with supernatural powers. Of course I don’t trust you. What do I look like, an idiot?”

Danny narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t really about me, is it? You’re worried about this somehow getting back to you. This is all about you.”

“It’s about us, Daniel. I want to trust you, but I can’t. Not currently. So, unfortunately, I have to resort to this.” He moved fast—faster than Danny could comprehend. His brain barely registered the threat before the handheld spectral energy neutralizer’s crackling prongs made contact with his waist. Pain exploded in Danny’s nexus.

“Aughh!”

He bent double in his seat. Now came the awful, crawling ache. He felt his powers retreat inside him, condensing like matter sucked into a black hole, sap oozing backward into its mother tree. It was over in less than a minute. He shot Vlad a watery-eyed glare.

“B-bastard.”

“I rather wish I were, sometimes.” Pressing his lips together tightly, Vlad flipped the neutralizer and planted it into his own stomach. Danny watched, astonished, as he quivered and trembled and growled between clenched teeth. Somehow it looked twice as painful as what Danny had experienced. When the device finished its work, Vlad tossed it into the back seat.

“There,” he panted. “We’re even. Happy?”

“No. We could have done this at the house.”

“You would never have agreed to come. I had to catch you by surprise.”

“Why?”

Vlad rolled his head toward Danny, causing his ponytail to thump softly on the headrest. “Because you don’t know how to contain your powers yet. Not fully. You have to learn to get by without them, especially in a situation where you may get hurt. Just imagine: you slip and fall, your ghost powers phase you through the ice in front of several eyewitnesses, and then I have to start either paying people off or killing them, and between you and me, I’d much rather commit murder.”

Danny was quiet. Vlad hoisted his arm up to look at his watch.

“We have two hours and fifty-six minutes. Let’s go.”


Apart from a handful of staff, The Ice Palace was deserted. On the other side of the Plexiglas protector, a Zamboni trundled back to its lair to hibernate for the next few hours. Danny sat outside the skate rental, lacing up his skates. Behind him was the snack bar and coffee shop. Coffee and cinnamon and chocolate smells wafted through the air, mixing with lingering scents of popcorn and hotdogs. A giddy excitement stirred in his heart. He hadn’t felt like this since he was a kid.

“Why’s no one here?” he asked Vlad. “It’s a Saturday. This place should be packed.”

“I called the owner last night and rented the entire facility for a private session,” Vlad said, pulling on a pair of gloves. “Until noon, that is.” He had changed in the locker room and now wore a pair of snug black trousers, a short sleeve black shirt, and a pair of skates that didn’t look like they’d come from the rental. Danny watched the tendons in Vlad’s forearms ripple as he adjusted the fit of his gloves.

“No, no, no. What are you doing?”

He snapped out of his daydream as Vlad kneeled in front of him.

“You’re going to kill yourself if you don’t lace these correctly.” With breathtaking skill, Vlad ripped out Danny’s clumsy coils and re-threaded them through the eyelets, jerking them snug at several intervals. He secured the laces with a double knot, tucked them into the tops of the boot, and moved to the next one.

“There. How’s that feel? Good and tight?”

“Yeah,” Danny peeped. He could feel his ears burning.

Vlad went out onto the ice first, as graceful as a mature black swan. Danny toddled behind him like a newborn deer, slipping, shaking, clinging to the wall, his stomach in knots. Speakers nestled high up in the corners belted out the greatest hits of the 80s, 90s and today. Michael Stipe sang Imitation of Life:

That sugarcane that tasted good
That’s cinnamon, that’s Hollywood
Come on, come on, no one can see you try.

Vlad slid to a stop beside him, his blades throwing out fans of frost.

“Show-off,” Danny muttered.

“Let go of the wall.”

“I’ll fall.”

Vlad took both of Danny’s hands and pulled him away from his support.

“No, no, wait! Wait!” Danny cried, wobbling precariously.

“You have to learn how to balance on your own,” Vlad insisted.

“Let me get used to it first! What’s the big rush?”

“You have a lot to learn and not much time to do it.”

“Why are you so obsessed with me learning how to ice skate? It’s not like it was a requirement on the invitation.”

“The last thing you want is to be sitting on the sidelines, watching your new friends have fun without you. Being invited to a party means participating in it, Daniel, especially if you want to be invited to more in the future. Now lift your eyes and look at me.”

Danny did. The cold had nipped Vlad’s cheeks pink. Misty white mushrooms puffed through his parted lips.

“Relax. You can’t move if you’re stiff. Bend your legs.”

“I can’t. It throws me off. I feel like I’m gonna slip any second.”

“That’s what I’m here for. I’ve got you. Now gently push with your right foot. Keep your ankle straight…”

Skating did not come naturally to Danny, and he was keenly aware of it. Being deprived of his ghost powers meant there would be no safety net if he fell; if he did, it would be a wipe out. He might even sprain something. The ice was harder than concrete and ten times as slippery, and every pound of him, flesh and blood and guts and fragile, fragile bone, was balanced on two pieces of metal less than five millimeters thick.

“You move like Frankenstein’s monster,” Vlad muttered. He had turned Danny loose and now studied his creeping, inelegant progress from a distance. “You have to loosen up.”

“I told you, don’t rush me!” Danny said. “I can figure it out on my own if you just let me!” His knees trembled as he made his first actual push. Vlad observed, carving smooth, effortless circles around him like a vulture.

“Mind your toes. Don’t dig in.”

“I’m not—” The toothy front of his skate snagged on the ice, and Danny’s center of gravity slung unexpectedly forward. He lurched, arms pinwheeling, and by some miracle managed to right himself at the last moment. “I’m okay! I’m okay.” His jittery heart slammed adrenaline through his veins. “Hoo. I’m okay.”

Vlad narrowed his eyes. “I think I know how to fix this.”

He glided close and thrust out his leg, catching Danny behind the knees. Danny’s skates left the ice and he went airborne. He thought he screamed. Maybe he didn’t. Time slowed enough that he got a good look at the arena’s rafters before he slapped onto his back. The impact knocked the breath out of him. His teeth clacked together with such force he felt shockwaves blast through his skull. He sucked in air, his nerves blazing.

“You asshole!” he roared. His voice boomeranged back at him over the last refrain of The Cars’ Just What I Needed. “Why did you do that!”

“You were afraid of falling,” Vlad said. “It was all you could think about, wasn’t it? Well, now you know how it feels. Not as bad as you thought, was it?”

No, but Danny wasn’t about to admit that. He was furious. Apoplectic.

“I could have gotten hurt!”

“But you weren’t. You’re fine. Maybe a little bruised, but the worst that could happen has happened. Now get up and skate.”

Danny sat up and wiped his runny nose. “It’s a good thing you can’t have kids. You’d be a shitty father.”

The smug mask on Vlad’s face wavered for half a second, and Danny caught a glimpse of the real man. The corners of Vlad’s mouth sank. His brows relaxed. The mirth drained from his eyes, leaving behind a wounded, empty shadow. Then the mask went back on.

“You’re probably right,” he said quietly.

Danny knew he had messed up. Big time. There was no way to take it back, no words of apology he could utter. His tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth and his mind was too busy putting out the flames of his panic to form a cogent thought. The only faculty still capable of expressing itself was his heart, and he let it take control of his body.

His arm shot out, fingers stretching toward Vlad.

The DJ yammered over the opening notes of an REO Speedwagon song, stopping just as the first stanza began.

I can’t fight this feeling any longer
And yet I’m still afraid to let it flow
.”

Danny refused to lower his arm. He’d wait here all day if he had to. Vlad stared at him, gauging the remorse in his eyes. Then he reached out, clapped his hand into Danny’s, and pulled him up.

“Vlad, I’m—”

“Don’t worry about it.” He adjusted his grip, moving slightly behind and to Danny’s left, his free hand settling on Danny’s waist. “Let’s try this again, in tandem. Move like I do.”

“But I can’t see you.”

“You’ll feel me. Watch your footwork, but keep your eyes up. Relax.”

Danny took a breath. “Okay.”

They eased forward, segueing into a slow glide. Danny’s rigid posture relaxed. A sense of calm washed over him, further loosening his muscles. The ice he’d collected from his fall flaked off his jacket and jeans. His legs powered him slowly across the ice, in time with Vlad’s stride.

“Much better,” Vlad said.

Danny smiled, hair ruffling as they picked up speed. Vlad guided him around a left curve, and Danny leaned into him. Kevin Cronin’s tenor echoed throughout the rink.

I tell myself that I can’t hold out forever,
I said there is no reason for my fear.
’Cause I feel so secure when we’re together,
You give my life direction, you make everything so clear.

“See?” Vlad said. “You’re doing so much better after falling. Now try it on your own.”

“Wait, I’m not—”

“You know the moves. You’ve been watching me for the last hour. You can do it.” He let go and allowed Danny to sail past him. Danny drifted aimlessly across the ice before he finally picked up his feet and pushed. His skates clacked, childish and clumsy, but didn’t thwart him. He leaned forward, gathering confidence and momentum. It was exhilarating. He leaned into a curve, breathing through his smiling mouth. He was doing it!

He looked over his shoulder at Vlad, who nodded encouragingly. Danny wobbled, losing his balance. Reacting with an almost prescient swiftness, Vlad beat his way across the ice and swooped to Danny’s side, grabbing him before he lost his footing. Danny caught hold of Vlad’s shoulders and dug in like a tick. When he looked up, he was staring directly into Vlad’s face. They were so close Danny could make out the faint dimple in his right earlobe and the individual hairs in his eyebrows and goatee.

And even as I wander, I’m keeping you in sight
You’re a candle in the window on a cold dark winter’s night,
And I’m getting closer than I ever thought I might
…”

Suddenly Vlad’s eyes shot open. He jerked back as a ball of piercing red light exploded from his chest to meet the roiling blue incandescence emerging from Danny’s. Their nexuses locked together, and the mortals attached to them collided against one another before crashing to the ice.

“Augh!”

“Shi—it!”

They slid to a rest in a tangle of arms and legs. Vlad sat up, dragging Danny with him. Their nexuses slithered and twisted between their bodies, clutching one other with greedy tendrils.

“Are you all right?” Vlad asked.

“No, I’m not!” Danny squawked. “What the hell is happening?”

“It’s syndis. I don’t know how, but we’re locked together again.”

“But it’s in the wrong place! It was in our stomachs last time.”

“That was the third locus. This is the second locus, near the heart. Remember?”

The memories trickled back. Danny paled. “But why did—”

A scraping sound, somewhere behind. Vlad’s eyes flicked over Danny’s shoulder. “Hug me,” he hissed. “Pretend to cry. Now!”

Shaking, Danny threw his arms around Vlad’s neck and whimpered. Their chests met, burying their entwined nexuses. Vlad scooped him into the V between his legs and embraced him.

“Louder,” he murmured.

Danny cut loose a wail.

“Not that much.”

Danny dialed it back until he arrived at an adequate medium somewhere between despair and anguish. Presently he discovered why: one of the assistant managers slid to a stop where they sat.

“Everything okay, Mr. Masters?” the young woman asked. The tag on her vest read “Liv” in blue glitter letters.

“Yes, I’m sorry. It’s just—my nephew.” Vlad pulled his face into an expression reflecting bone-deep exhaustion and abject embarrassment. A fabrication, but at least a convincing one. He rubbed Danny’s shuddering back. “He recently lost his parents. They loved to ice skate. I suppose the memories are still too fresh for him.”

“Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry,” Liv said. “Is there anything I can do?”

“A little privacy, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course. Take as long as you need.”

“Thank you, my dear.”

With a sympathetic nod, Liv skated away.

“You really have this lying thing down to an art,” Danny said when she was gone.

“Better than your acting, at least.”

Danny loosened his arms from around Vlad but made no move to pull away. “So now what? We just sit here until we come unstuck, like last time?”

“I’d rather not. My rear end is already freezing.”

The comment would have been funny if Danny weren’t so worried. “I thought the neutralizer was supposed to last three hours.”

“It does.”

“Then why did—”

“I don’t know, Daniel.”

They sat on the ice, letting the cold soak through their clothes and into their flesh, listening to Gary Richrath’s keening guitar solo. Danny shivered and pulled his sleeves over his bare hands.

“Can’t we just—I don’t know, scoot over to the benches?”

“Not without attracting a lot of negative attention.”

“Okay, fine. Do you think you can lift me?”

“I know I can lift you, Daniel. The question is can I stand up?” Vlad bent one leg. His skate dug into the ice. “I don’t think I can get on my feet from this position. Not unless you want to risk falling with me.”

The cold voice of reason told Danny not to turn his head. It would avail him nothing. He did it anyway. His cheek grazed Vlad’s nose, and he found himself so close that he could feel Vlad’s breath on his lips. Warmth bloomed through their joined nexuses.

“I’ll risk it.”

After a long moment, Vlad nodded tightly. “All right. Put your legs around me.”

Holding his lower lip between his teeth, Danny awkwardly maneuvered his legs around Vlad’s hips. He bit down hard, focusing on the pain, the cold, the music, anything other than the combined heat of their crotches.

“Hold tight,” Vlad said. “Just in case I lose you.”

Danny felt himself nod. He tightened his arms, hugging Vlad harder than he’d ever hugged anyone in his life.

Vlad exhaled, waited a heartbeat, and launched upright. His blades made contact. Chips of ice coughed into the air, then his left skate slipped. He compensated, swung backward dangerously, and finally stood straight. Danny’s fingers dug through his thin nylon shirt, his legs reflexively locking around Vlad’s waist.

“There,” Vlad puffed, sounding pleased. “That wasn’t so bad.”

“Just get us out of here,” Danny said, tasting blood.

Threading his hands under Danny’s bottom, Vlad hefted his burden and skated carefully toward the benches.

Chapter End Notes

Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous | Good Charlotte
Imitation of Life | REM
Just What I Needed | The Cars
Can't Fight This Feeling | REO Speedwagon

Hide

“It happened again.”

Frostbite turned from the ancient book he was studying to raise his eyebrows at his two unexpected guests. Eisvin stood nearby, looking deeply annoyed.

“Sorry to disturb you, my lord,” she said. “The Great One and his jester insisted upon seeing you immediately.”

“No problem at all.” He shut the tome and returned it to its lectern. “It’s an honor to be of service to the savior of the Ghost Realm. Exactly what happened again, young Danny?”

“Syndis,” Danny said.

“Spontaneously,” Vlad added. Though bundled in an expensive fur-lined white snowsuit and heavy boots, he shivered in Fjarfryst’s subarctic climate.

The trek to the Cave of Knowledge had been brutal. A snowstorm was currently ravaging the Far Frozen, lashing ice pellets horizontally across the terrain while howling gales buffeted dwellings and any yeti wandering out in the open—of which there were many. Apparently this was considered ideal weather.

Frostbite’s face turned serious. “Tell me everything.”

The nexus linkup had lasted nearly an hour, Danny explained, twice as long as last time. Vlad had carried him off the rink and to the men’s locker room under the guise of comforting his distraught “nephew”, then sat with him on a bench, waiting for their nexuses to release each other. An ecto-flush rose to Danny’s face as he relayed the experience. He omitted how gut-wrenchingly awkward that hour had been, glued to Vlad’s chest with an intimacy even the devoutest of lovers would eschew in public, how they were forced to keep their heads turned to avoid smashing their lips and noses together. When at last the bond loosened and they were able to separate, they drove home without speaking to one another and went straight to the portal.

“And it happened while your ghost halves were suppressed?” Frostbite murmured, stroking his hairy jaw. “Interesting.” He shifted his gaze to Vlad. “You are certain the device was working properly.”

“I calibrated it just this morning,” Vlad said. “It was working fine.”

“I see. Have you engaged in syndis at all since the last time we spoke?”

Danny and Vlad shared a furtive glance.

“Uh… no,” Danny muttered.

“Haven’t had the time,” Vlad said.

“You should consider making time.” Frostbite’s admonishment was gentle, almost fatherly. “Your bond is strong. If you do not allow your nexuses to engage in syndis every now and then, they may take it upon themselves to initiate the process without your consent.”

“But you said that couldn’t happen,” Danny blurted. “You said syndis never happens by accident.”

“Yes. But I was speaking only of what is common amongst normal ghosts. You and Plasmius are half-ghosts. Your situation is quite different.”

Danny’s shoulders sagged. Vlad tightened his fists into padded nylon balls, his jaw gnawing at words behind his closed lips.

“If you wish to avoid another public incident,” Frostbite said, “I would recommend you engage in syndis weekly at the very least, until your nexuses become less… needy.”

A tongue of frosty wind swirled into the cave, ruffling hair and clothing. Vlad lowered his head and muttered, “Fuck.” Danny recoiled.

In all the time he’d known him, he’d never heard Vlad swear so fervently. Even Frostbite was taken aback.

“What is the matter, Plasmius?”

“Nothing.” Vlad stole a glance at Danny before turning beseeching eyes to the yeti. “Isn’t there some other way we can prevent this?”

“Why? There is nothing wrong with sharing energies. Syndis is purely beneficial. There are no negative side effects.”

For some reason Vlad’s dark under-eyes flashed through Danny’s mind. And his appetite. Whole eggs vanishing down his throat. Coffee beans grinding between his teeth. Guzzled milk, blood smeared on his mouth.

“He is a boy, Frostbite,” Vlad said. “A teenager. I own shoes older than him, for heaven’s sake. Syndis is too intimate for him.”

A tide of gratitude rinsed Danny’s overheated nerves. Vlad had never been one to pull punches. He hit hard and mercilessly. Their first battle in the library at Vlad’s Wisconsin estate had been the worst beating Danny had yet received. Vlad treated him as if he were an adult while at the same time mocking his age and lack of experience, and now he was defending him for those very reasons. Danny wasn’t even offended. Vlad was right; he was too young for this weird ghost pseudo-sex stuff. He found himself nodding in agreement.

Frostbite sighed. “This is why living flesh was never meant to house a spectral core. It is an inadequate container beholden to the laws of the mortal world. But it is unfortunately your reality. You must find a way to live with it.”

“But—” Danny clawed for words. “There’s gotta be some way to cancel this out. I mean, ghosts who do syndis aren’t stuck together forever, are they?”

“No. It is possible for two spirits in syndis to break the bond,” Frostbite said carefully. “However, it requires them to be physically separated from one another. And considering that you are living with Plasmius and must continue to do so for the foreseeable future, I do not believe that is an option.”

What little hope Danny had managed to scoop from the dregs of that morning’s washout dissolved with those last eight words.

Vlad sighed, muttering something unintelligible. “Do you have any good news?”

“Actually, I think I might.” Frostbite raised his huge paw. “Come with me.”


They braved the snowstorm once again and followed Frostbite into the mountain stronghold, clomping through winding torchlit corridors until they arrived at a circular chamber somewhere in the upper regions. Narrow windows interrupted the wall on one side, revealing the turbulent gray sky beyond. Hewn from the same stone that composed the floor were three slabs on pedestals, surrounded by etchings of runes and concentric lines that resembled crop circles. The slabs stood side by side like primitive hospital beds, their edges studded with white quartz crystals. Frostbite lumbered to the central slab and carefully tapped one of the crystals with his paw. The other crystals glowed to life, each one a different color.

“Wow,” Danny breathed.

“This is what humans would call a hospital,” Frostbite said. “These are our orkutöflur, examination tables. They allow us to see inside a ghost to determine what might be ailing him.”

Vlad took a step back and collided with Eisvin’s chest. She glared down at him. He stepped away, delicately unsticking his ponytail from her wet, freezing armor.

“Does it hurt?” Danny asked.

“Not even a little. Hop on and you will see.”

Vlad sputtered. “Now wait just a minute—” But Danny had already flown over and lain down on the exam table.

With a few taps, Frostbite input a command and a glowing light veiled Danny’s body. He twisted one large yellow crystal and the veil raised itself into the air above Danny, projecting a perfect hologram of his body. A few more taps and turns and the view shifted, displaying muscles, then viscera, then the venous system, followed by bones, and finally the glowing map of Danny’s spectral nervous system.

“And there you have it,” Frostbite said. “Your nexus. It appears to be healthy. Strong radiance, frequencies normal, energy flowing as it should. Ah, you see that symbol that just appeared? It is the rune for ice. It has picked up on your classification.”

“Wow, cool.”

Vlad spun on his heel and made for the exit. He was halted by Eisvin’s paw nabbing him by the hood of his snowsuit. She effortlessly hoisted him off his feet and planted him back where he’d been standing. He sent her a pathetic look. She sneered.

“What is the matter, thief? Do entrails make you queasy?”

“Well, it is an offal sight.”

Eisvin’s stony expression didn’t crack. Vlad shut his mouth and grimly turned back to the demonstration.

“This is really something,” Danny said, blinking up at the hologram. He saw all three of his nexus loci: the one in his head, the one in the center of his chest, and the third in his midsection, just like Vlad had told him. Twinkling little points of light circulated in counter-clockwise rotation. “Is this real-time?”

“Indeed,” Frostbite said jovially. “Those movements you see are energy being cycled through your nexus.”

“Just like blood.”

“An apt analogy, young one. If I enhance the image, like so, you can differentiate Plasmius’s energy from yours. The pink energy is his, I presume.”

Danny didn’t know how he felt about that. He gulped, cutting off the thought before it could germinate a bumper crop of anxiety—or something else he didn’t want broadcast to the entire room.

“Hey, Vlad, you should try this. I bet they could figure out how to fix your ecto-acne once and for all.”

“No, thank you, Daniel. I trust modern medicine more than this magical pagan troll nonsense.”

Despite the scathing critique of his culture, Frostbite’s expression was curious. “Is there something wrong with your nexus, Plasmius?”

“Nothing I can’t take care of on my own,” Vlad retorted.

Danny sat up. “But they might be able to cure you.”

“I don’t need a cure. I’m perfectly fine without—”

“All you’re doing is treating the symptoms,” Danny interrupted. “You haven’t fixed the root of the problem. It could get worse someday unless you find out what’s really wrong.”

A blank stare. Then a spring of nervous laughter trickled from Vlad’s slack mouth. “Thank you, Dr. Fenton, but I’ll be seeking a second opinion, if you don’t mind.”

“Vlad, this could help you.”

“We would be glad to offer it,” Frostbite assured. “If you are suffering any condit—”

“I’m not suffering,” Vlad snapped. “I’m fine. If you’re not going to help us find an alternative to our real problem, we’ll be leaving now.”

“Vlad—”

“I might be able to help you find a solution to your syndis situation,” Frostbite said, “but to do that, I need both you and Danny on these tables. Observing your nexuses together might determine if there is any irregularity causing these spontaneous unions.”

“I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”

Danny launched off the table. “What is wrong with you? These people are offering to help us, but you don’t even want to consider—”

“It’s a matter of privacy, Daniel. I’m not going to get on that thing and have my entire medical profile disclosed to every specter in the Ghost Realm.”

“Your information would not leave this room,” Frostbite said.

“Oh, yes,” Vlad spat. “I’m sure Icebox here can be counted upon to respect my privacy.” He jerked his thumb toward Eisvin. Her lips pulled back to unsheathe her fangs.

Danny lifted his hands, imploring. “It’ll only take a minute. We could get this whole syndis thing figured out for good.”

“The answer is no, Daniel.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because I’m not going to sacrifice my privacy for something that may only potentially offer a solution, that’s why. This discussion is now over.”

“Then I cannot help you.” Frostbite shut down the orkutöflur with a few calculated twists of crystalline dials. “I am sorry, Danny.”

“It’s okay. It’s not your fault.” Danny sighed before offering up a lackluster smile. “Thanks for trying.”

“I am happy to be at your service.” The yeti dipped his horned head.

“Well,” Vlad cut in, raising his hood once more, “since there’s nothing more you can offer us, I make a motion to adjourn.” His face was an unhappy marble cameo glaring through a halo of rabbit fur. “That means—”

“I know what ‘adjourn’ means,” Danny snipped. He turned to the chieftain of Fjarfryst with a gentler tone. “Sorry for another short visit, Frostbite.”

“No trouble, young one.” He patted Danny’s shoulder with one gigantic paw. “There will be time for longer visits in the future, perhaps when your guardian is in a better mood.”

“I doubt that,” Vlad and Danny said in unison. They looked at one another, startled, before a pair of simultaneous smirks cracked their scowling faces. The heavy atmosphere seemed to lift. Frostbite smiled, revealing massive conical teeth.

“I think you will both be fine,” he said kindly. “Just as long as you make time for syndis. Eisvin, you may take the neutralizer off of our guest now.”

The female yeti dutifully—but roughly—removed the cuff from Vlad’s wrist. Danny said his goodbyes, grasped Vlad’s hand, and phased through the wall and out into the storm. Frostbite kept his eye on them through the window until they disappeared in the blustering white murk.

“He is hiding something, my lord,” Eisvin said.

“Yes,” Frostbite agreed. “Though what, I cannot be sure. Danny does not seem to be aware of it, either.”

“Perhaps this will help.”

Frostbite turned, squinting at the apparent nothing Eisvin held in her huge furred fist. Then he saw it: a single long white hair.

“It was stuck to my armor. I know a sample like this will take longer to analyze, but it is better than nothing.” She passed the hair carefully to her chieftain. Frostbite studied it, then sighed.

“I am conflicted, Eisvin.”

“Conflicted? My lord, he is a thief and a liar. He could be endangering Danny’s life. Our lives. If he is hiding something, we must find out what it is.”

“I agree. But I am not certain I like the idea of testing this sample without his consent.”

Eisvin sputtered. “But—my lord, this is Plasmius the Parasite. Who cares if he consents or not?”

“Danny does.” Frostbite lifted his head. His amber eyes were large and serious. “And his opinion matters very much to me.”

Eisvin’s broad shoulders dropped. “Yes. And to me as well. I worry for him, living with that awful creature. Engaging in syndis with him. An act so sacred and beautiful—”

“I know. But it cannot be helped. They are the only two of their kind, and they are bonded.”

“It is abominable.”

“To us, perhaps. But to young Danny…” He shook his head. “I suppose all we can do is hope that he is able to get under Plasmius’s skin and change him for the better.”

“That might take a while. The leech has a thick hide.”

“All good things take time.” Frostbite held the hair aloft, watching it twirl in the imperceptible air currents. “I will begin the analysis. But we will not share the results with anyone, nor give Plasmius any reason to suspect we know anything about him. This matter is of the utmost confidentiality.”

Eisvin gave a crisp bow. “Understood, my lord.”


“That was a wasted trip,” Vlad grumbled, stepping through the portal.

Behind him came Danny, shifting back to his human form. “It wouldn’t have been if you’d just let them examine you.”

“Oh, the naïveté of youth.” Vlad smiled sardonically and threw back his hood, beginning the process of peeling off his snowsuit like a butterfly shedding its cocoon. “Try to look at it from my perspective, Daniel: Would you allow Technus access to your entire medical history? Pariah Dark, perhaps? Simply hand them the information they need to destroy you?”

Danny hated his answer: “No.”

“Then I rest my case.”

“Frostbite isn’t your enemy, Vlad. He wanted to help you.”

“No, he wanted to help you. The only reason he tolerates me is because I happen to be the guardian of the Savior of the Ghost Realm. If I had come to him on my own, he would have done everything in his power to destroy me.”

“That’s not true,” Danny said feebly, but in his heart he suspected the truth. “Maybe if you were nicer to Frostbite’s people to begin with, you’d have more friends.”

“Oh, so we’re blaming the victim now, are we? Marvelous tactic, Daniel. Have you considered a career in the legal field? I think you’d make a fine prosecutor.”

A month ago these words would have angered Danny, but now he saw them for what they were: an attempt to provoke and distract. Because if Danny was too busy being offended, he would forget everything that preceded the comment. He unclenched his teeth and loosened his fists.

“You can change,” he said softly. “You don’t always have to be the villain.”

“A lovely sentiment, Daniel, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way outside of fiction.”

It would have been easy to keep exchanging verbal blows, but by now Danny had recognized this particular tactic and its intended outcome. Vlad wanted to be left alone. Danny would allow him the victory of having the last word—this time. There would be other, more important hills to die on. He turned and headed toward the stairs.

“I’m starving. I’m gonna go finish off the rest of the pizza.”

“Have a salad with it, please.”

“That’s less room for pizza.”

“Eat the salad, Daniel. I don’t care if you smother it with dressing, just eat something green.”

“I eat green stuff all the time,” Danny complained, though he’d already decided to eat a salad. Vlad made a killer homemade ranch dressing. “The school lunches are half vegetables. My spectral class is gonna be chlorophyll if I keep this up.”

A grin came to Vlad’s lips as he wrestled off his boots. “That’s hardly the worst that could happen.” He raised his head. His cheeks were still pink from the chill. “Please? For your miserable old cousin Vlad?”

“All right, fine, God.” Danny paused, eyeing Vlad. “What about you? You gonna come up and eat?”

“In a minute. I need to hang this suit so it dries. You go on ahead.”

“Suit yourself.” Turning, Danny hopped up the stairs. Vlad rid himself of his last boot and paused, listening for the basement door to shut.

Squeak. Ka-clatch. Silence.

He sighed, a grimace creeping its way onto his face. He moved quickly. His socked feet made no sound on the floor as he strode to the area directly under the staircase. The stairs’ outer edges were flush with the concrete wall, and Vlad turned intangible to walk through it.

The hidden room beneath the staircase was small, occupying a space of approximately 4 x 12 feet, and lined on all sides with two solid inches of lead. Industrial shelves hung bolted to one wall, packed with an eclectic array of books and bizarre objects. The only light source came from a glowing green artifact sealed within a clear case: the Crown of Fire. Beside it nestled the Skeleton Key on a plump velvet pillow. Vlad ignored them and went to the compact, battery-powered refrigeration unit standing in the far corner. He paused with his hand on the door, breathing heavily in the viridescent darkness. Sweat beads twinkled on his brow. Finally, he opened the unit.

Vacuum-sealed bags. Dozens of them in varying sizes, stuffed with red and pink and purple-brown contents. Each item bore a label.

Liver 0.73kg h.2005-07-19 D:24F
Kidney 0.16kg h.2005-06-12 D:30M
Blood 473.10ml h.2005-08-28 D:29M
Heart 0.31kg h.2005-08-02 D:17F

Vlad ripped open a bag containing a single pink lung and tore into it with his teeth. He barely chewed, gulping down each mouthful with the voracity of a starving man. When he finished, he went for a lobe of liver, followed immediately by a spleen. He chased his repast with two pouches of blood, sucking each one dry. He incinerated the leftover packaging in his hand. Magenta flames leaped up, consuming the plastic.

He slumped against the wall, breathing slowly and carefully. After a while his quaking ceased. The perspiration dried on his skin. He shut his eyes and dragged a hand down his haggard face, smearing a pearl of blood at the corner of his mouth.

“Is that enough?” he muttered. “Are you satisfied?”

His stomach rumbled—a noise too long to be natural. The rumble turned into a growl, and he grimaced. His eyes glowed. A wisp of smoke slithered from his mouth. The noises within him quieted, and he heaved a ferrous sigh.


Danny wiped red tomato sauce from his lips.

The four slices of reheated pizza and giant bowl of salad disappeared quickly—a bad habit, he knew, but hard to break. Years of overcrowded school cafeterias and a window of only twenty-five minutes had conditioned him to eat fast and make way for the next wave of hungry students. Mountain View was gradually disabusing him of this tendency, but post-syndis munchies were an entirely new development. Danny made a mental note to ask Frostbite about his aberrant appetite the next time he saw him.

By the time he finished, Vlad still hadn’t come upstairs. Danny tucked his dishes in the dishwasher and retreated outdoors, eager to put some distance between himself and the source of his irritation. A cool breeze swept his hair across his forehead and rustled his shirt. He zipped up his jacket, tucked his hands into the pockets, and started down the path.

The lake that he and Vlad had swum in last month, Gray Wolf Reservoir, was lassoed by a meandering dirt trail, and Danny enjoyed following its loops on days when he felt like he had too much going on in his head. The trees, sparkling water, and fresh air usually helped put things in perspective. Today he was using them to burn off the oily film of anger still coating his brain.

Does it make your problems go away? No. But it takes the edge off, makes them a little more tolerable.

Striding among the golden trees with his hands in his pockets, Danny realized that he’d neglected to see the beauty of Aspen when he’d first flown over it. He’d been too tired, too desperate, searching for a familiar roof and shelter with the only person he thought could help him. A pretty town nestled in the molar creases of the Rocky Mountains was fortuitous. Had it been a slummy tenement in the worst part of Detroit, it still wouldn’t have mattered; Danny wanted to be where Vlad was. He still did, in spite of his annoyance.

And suspicion.

Saturdays were the days when every sportsman in Aspen came pouring out of the woodwork to lay his claim on the day, especially at the height of autumn. Several fishing boats drifted on the lake’s glassy mirror surface. Danny watched fishermen cast into the water, the filaments of their long rods invisible until they caught the light, flashing like spiders’ silk riding the breeze. There was something peaceful about them, he thought. He wondered if Vlad liked to fish.

As he neared the boat ramp on the southeast corner of the reservoir, he spotted a man struggling to move a fern-green kayak off the top of his Nissan Xterra. All the doors on the passenger’s side were open, and the hapless fellow bobbed from one to the other, trying to work the kayak down from its rack. Danny had nearly passed him when a spark of recognition caused him to swing in for a closer look. It was Mr. Witkowski, his literature teacher, dressed in a khaki vest and baseball cap.

Compared to most of the teachers at Mountain View Academy, Greg Witkowski was young and surprisingly fit. Danny guessed he was in his early thirties. He was of average height, blond, favored tweed and tartan, and wore wireframe glasses that constantly slipped down his nose or fell askew. He was a lot more energetic than Mrs. Martin, who had seemed older than her years. Probably the stress of dealing with a cancer-stricken father.

“Need a hand?” Danny asked, his shoes crunching on the gravel.

Witkowski looked over his shoulder and broke into a wide grin. “Hey, Dan! Sure, that’d be great. It’s not that heavy, it’s just—”

“Cumbersome.”

“Yes. Great word. Too bad I can’t give you extra credit for it.”

Danny grinned and stepped up to help. Four hands worked better than two, and Danny held the lightweight kayak over his head and followed his teacher down to the shore. The vessel’s narrow nose slid into the water like a knife, barely making a ripple. Witkowski straightened his back and pushed his glasses back into place.

“Thanks. I’d have probably dropped the darn thing and busted it.”

“That’d be a shame,” Danny said. “Looks brand new.”

“I just bought it last week. Part of my mission to get out and enjoy nature instead of being an academic recluse. I’m certainly in the right place to do it now.” He gave Danny’s shoulder a jaunty clap. “I was just lucky you happened to come by when you did. Do you live around here?”

“Yeah, I—” Danny almost pointed up the hill before thinking better of it. He tucked his hand back into his pocket. “I mean, not too far. I like to walk the trails and stuff when I have the time.”

“That’s good.” Witkowski nodded. “Good to get out and move. Aspen’s a pretty place. I know us city slickers gotta stick together, but just between you and me, I prefer mountains to skyscrapers. I’ve been meaning to ask, what part of Chi-town are you from?”

Danny froze. “Shy town?”

“Chicago.” Witkowski peered at him from under the shelf of his puzzled brows.

“Oh! Oh, right, yeah, Chi-town. Sorry,” Danny forced out a fluttery laugh. “I thought you said something else. Sometimes I can’t—uh—can’t—”

Blame it on your trauma. Use it like a tool.

“Sometimes it’s hard.” He feigned distress, rubbing his forehead. “Lots of, um, family memories, you know. Every time I think about home…” He trawled up memories of Amity Park to put a convincing shine in his eyes. Witkowski swallowed the bait like a hungry trout.

“Oh. Oh, that’s right. I’m so sorry, Dan. I completely forgot.”

“It’s okay.” Danny prayed it was.

Witkowski stretched his lips into a sympathetic line. “Ms. Schneider told me about your situation. I hope things are better for you here.”

Danny nodded. He didn’t know what else to do. The awkwardness thickened until Witkowski launched to another subject.

“Hey, you know of any good coffee shops around here?”

“Coffee shops? Uh… Pitkin Perk is nice.” It was a small lie; Danny’s only exposure to Aspen’s coffee scene had come via a passenger seat and whatever aroma he could whiff from an open window. He wasn’t allowed to go into town by himself. “It’s right off Hunter Street, like a block from the museum. They have a book club there.” He thought he had glimpsed a sign once.

Witkowski nodded. “I’ll check it out. Sounds like my kind of place.”

“Cool.” Danny took a step back, thumb over his shoulder. “Well, I better get going.”

“Ah, right. Yes. Well, thanks for helping me out, Dan. See you around.”

Flashing a perfunctory smile, Danny waved before turning and hurrying back to the trail, his pulse thudding in his ears.

Burn

Chapter Notes

Danny didn’t bother with the stairs when he returned home. He went intangible and flew through the floors, straight to his room. Returning to his human form, he flung off his jacket and dropped into his ergonomic gaming chair.

At the end of September he had ordered a customized desktop computer, an Alienware Aurora ALX, top of the line: liquid-cooled Intel Pentium 4 processor, two gigs of RAM, eighty gig hard drive, and cool LED lighting. Audrey had been helpful with technical recommendations while Phil and Marc offered their input on aesthetics and peripherals. He hadn’t gotten around to buying any games for it yet and used it mostly for school assignments, browsing the Internet, and chatting online with his friends.

Now he powered up the PC, grabbed the nearest notebook, and spent the next handful of hours down the rabbit hole, researching Chicago neighborhoods on the Web. His focus was laser-keen. He ignored his whining bladder and nagging thirst, promising himself that he’d take a break after one more link, one more article. The clock on his taskbar kept a faithful account as the afternoon burned away. His only reckoning of the passage of time were the number of albums in his MP3 queue and pages of hand-scrawled notes.

Purpose fueled his panic-stricken mania. He couldn’t afford to make another mistake like the one he’d made earlier. At some point the statute of limitations on his trauma would expire, and he needed a watertight backstory before then.

The only distraction came when Phil signed in to their group chat and started messaging Marc about the next episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Danny kept the messenger program open in the background despite ignoring the conversation. He took comfort knowing that someone was there.

Serj Tankian howled from the computer speakers while Danny scribbled, clicked, read, scribbled some more.

You, what do you own, the world?
How do you own disorder, disorder?
Now, somewhere between the sacred silence
Sacred silence and slee—

Daniel!”

A hundred and twenty volts of blistering adrenaline shocked Danny out of his trance. Pen and notebook scattered as he jerked, elbow knocking his keyboard and almost propelling his mouse into the wall. He thrust out his arm and turned down the music, then leveled a glare at Vlad, who was standing no fewer than four feet away. He was wincing, hunched, as if the music had been physically pressing his head into his shoulders.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that!” Danny said.

“I knocked three times and called your name,” Vlad said. “Perhaps if your music was turned down a few hundred decibels, you would have heard me.” He glanced at the computer screen. “What are you doing?”

Though Danny had nothing to hide, the habit was deeply ingrained: He stabbed the monitor’s power button and the screen blinked and went gray.

“Homework. What do you want?”

Vlad uncrossed his arms, revealing the front of a well-used lab apron. “Dinner’s ready.”


A stack of warm pancakes waited on the single placemat at the kitchen table. Danny eyed the lonely cast iron skillet sitting empty on the stove, then sent Vlad a puzzled look. A hundred questions jostled to escape his lips, but Vlad’s anxious expression subdued their clamor.

“There’s, er, fruit in the fridge and sausage links in the freezer, if you like.” His words wore the veneer of an apology. “I have important work I must continue. I require complete concentration.” Translation: Don’t bother me.

Danny gulped. “Okay.”

A tense pause, their eyes locked. Then Vlad relaxed, nodding at Danny’s plate. “Well. Enjoy.” He turned and left.

Danny sat down and examined his dinner. Words did not exist to describe how unexcited he was about eating pancakes. He tried anyway and gave up after two bites. All the butter and syrup in Colorado wouldn’t make this meal palatable. He wanted sushi. Or shrimp. Buttery, pan-fried shrimp on a bed of linguine alfredo with a side of wilted spinach and garlic bread. But there would be no such dinner tonight.

It was a bittersweet déjà vu—parents absorbed in their work, leaving their young children to fend for themselves; meals, laundry, responsibilities that shouldn’t have been sloughed off on an older sister. How quickly Danny had become spoiled.

The chair barked against the floor as he shoved it back and marched out of the kitchen. He ripped his cashmere peacoat from its hanger in the foyer closet and yanked it on, not even bothering to button it before phasing soundlessly through the door.

It wasn’t even seven o’clock but the sun had already retreated behind the mountains. Stars sparkled above the trees like jewels in a Cartier display case. Danny turned to the east, wistfully observing the glow of civilization that stained the atmosphere with pale yellow light. That was Aspen. There was shrimp there, and people, laughter, normality. His wallet bulged in his back pocket, containing Daniel Stephen Masters’s driving permit, credit card, student ID, Pitkin County Library Card, and three hundred dollars cash.

Take me out tonight,” Danny mumbled. His breath condensed in the cold air. “Take me anywhere, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.

He’d never thought he’d be into The Smiths, but he was discovering a lot of things about himself after coming to live with Vlad.

A white ring flashed from his waist and swept over him. He leaped off the front step and into the air, and flew toward the lights that never went out.


It was nearly 11:30 PM when Danny returned.

He walked through the front door, wearing the urban cologne of restaurants and coffee shops and movie theaters, and shut the door with insolent force. The glass rattled in the sidelites. He paused, listening.

No thundering footsteps, no angry squawking about the lateness of the hour or where he’d been. The house was as quiet as a cemetery. Somehow that was worse than if Vlad had been waiting for him. Danny didn’t relish the thought of being chewed out, but his act of teenage defiance was pointless if it went unnoticed. Maybe things had been too peaceful lately. Maybe he really did crave a fight. He released a trammeled breath and uncurled his fists.

He wished he knew why he was like this. Jazz would have been able to tell him.

Radiating an aura of disappointment, he returned his coat to the closet and wandered into the kitchen. His pancakes sat where he’d left them, the butter now cold and solidified, the syrup congealed to tacky maple glue. His chair jutted out from the table at that same violent angle. The lights still burned. The refrigerators hummed their usual soft, mechanical mantras.

“What the hell?” he whispered.

Without warning, the entire house began to shudder—soundlessly; a low, almost imperceptible rumble Danny felt in his bones more than his ears. He found himself automatically counting one second, two seconds, three seconds…

The quaking stopped.

Almost instantly he knew where it had come from. Alarm splashed through him, hot and bright. His eyes narrowed on the hallway. If he concentrated hard he could feel it, a faint but erratic frequency. No, not erratic—wild. Spikes stabbing, waves scribbling huge parabolas across his nexus. Something was terribly wrong. He called his ghost. White rings flashed out to glide over him, and he headed for the basement door.

Vlad had yet to find a physical material on earth capable of deterring spectral entities. Danny knew this because Vlad had told him during one of their after-school training lessons. At one point something had existed: a species of wild rose indigenous to North America. Unfortunately, it had gone extinct during the late seventeenth century. Religious paranoia coupled with a subsequent famine had led to the plant’s complete eradication. Incidentally, there was nothing Vlad could do to keep Danny from entering his lab, apart from shaming him into respecting his privacy. But now was not the time for respecting privacy, Danny ascertained. Not with a signal this disturbing.

He expected Vlad to detect his presence immediately, but when he poked his head through the heavily-reinforced door, there was no retaliation. Only a wall of sound slamming into him like a city bus.

Music. Blasting guitars and drums and vocals, ricocheting off steel and concrete, the amplification made worse by the lack of sound-dampening materials. It was inconceivable that anyone could concentrate in this cacophony. It was a hundred times louder than what Vlad had accused Danny of listening to earlier. There was something else, too. A smell. Hot, fetid. Like raw meat and the vomit of volcanoes, molten guts regurgitated by a nauseated planet.

Danny melted through the door and slowly, invisibly, floated down the stairs.

Oh, don’t talk of love, the shadows purr,
Murmuring me away from you…

He recognized the song. He’d heard it last night, coming through Vlad’s expensive surround-sound system as they’d shared pizza and watched Brandon Lee’s final film performance. The Cure, Burn.

Light exploded from an unseen source. There came the sound of wind in sails, followed by a suffocating wave of heat. The walls vibrated. Lab equipment jingled and jangled. Danny’s ghost form lacked a proper heart to pound, but his nexus did a fine job of fluttering with fear. He ducked behind a trolley of lab equipment and slunk from one hiding place to another, searching for the epicenter of those terrible vibrations.

Still every night I burn
Every night I scream your name.
Every night I burn
Every night the dream’s the same.

At the far end of the lab, Danny at last spied Vlad. Fear gave way to shock, then terror.

The man was utterly wrecked. His hair swept around his shoulders in damp hanks. His shirt, sweat-stained and scorched in places, flapped untucked from his belt, the sleeves rolled to his elbows. He stalked back and forth in front of a blackened wall, head down, nose wrinkled in a wolfish display of fury. He clutched a bottle of something. It looked like whisky.

“Come on, you fucker,” he snarled. “Melt!”

He took a pull from the bottle, drinking deeply. Then he reared back and bellowed. His mandible popped free of its joints and a column of blazing spectral fire erupted from his mouth, crashing against the wall like napalm. White, red, pink, black, gushing with the PSI of a million busted fire hydrants, ten thousand Niagara Falls. The roar drowned out the music, and the entire lab shook as if besieged by a small earthquake. Danny reflexively clapped his hands to his ears even though this wasn’t a sound perceived with ears. He writhed in agony at the subsonic frequency pummeling his spectral nervous system. Then it was over. The liquid fire dissolved fast in the real-world atmosphere, leaving only Robert Smith’s wailing and Vlad’s labored gasps.

“I know you can do it, worm,” he uttered. “Stop holding back. Come on.” He drained the bottle before throwing it down. It shattered into a dozen toothy shards on the floor. He planted his feet and brayed again, sending out another torrent of flame, this one larger.

Danny huddled in the shadows, eyes bulging. Never before had he witnessed such firepower. The only thing that could even come close to this magnitude of unbridled ferocity was Pariah Dark.

The flaming stream ceased with the abruptness of a spigot cutting off. Vlad coughed, staggered back, and collapsed against a work station, panting. And then Danny saw it: a small object, glowing with ecto-green energy, planted into the wall. He recognized it, though it was something he hadn’t seen since before the accident that claimed the lives of everyone he loved.

The Skeleton Key.

With the blinders of fear no longer impeding his sight, he began to take note of other things: the polished concrete chute under the Key, leading down to an open receptacle; splotches of blood on the floor, smeared in places by Vlad’s shoes; the workbench closest to the blast zone, bare but for a pair of metal gloves. Gloves? No. They were gauntlets. The gauntlets, the ones designed to separate spectral energy from living matter.

Puzzle pieces spun, collided, and took flight again in Danny’s brain, frantically trying to fit themselves together.

So this was what Vlad had been working on so tirelessly these past few weeks. Danny’s stomach twisted as he remembered their original purpose.

A device that would, in layman’s terms, allow me to rip out your ghost.

He dared to move closer, hoping that the ambient frequencies would help him escape detection. With his attention zeroed in on Vlad, he nearly missed the scraps of plastic packaging littering the floor until one stuck to his glove. He shook it off impatiently, paused, and gave it a second glance. They looked like the vacuum-seal bags his mom used when she made jerky. The pouches were empty, smeared with reddish-brown fluid. He spotted a label on one a few feet away and shimmied closer to read it.

Blood 473.12ml h.2005-09-27 D:19F

He crawled to another discarded pouch and turned it over with a trembling hand.

Pancreas 181g h.2005-08-01 D:22M

Danny stared, blinking. Then the pieces snapped into place.

Organ name. Weight. Harvest date. Donor age and sex. Oh, God, he’d been right. It was exactly as he’d suspected. Vlad Masters was a—

Metal banged, followed by the sound of a body hitting the floor. Danny raised his head to see Vlad collapse to his hands and knees. He made a grotesque gurgle, deep-gutted and wet, then arched his back and vomited. A gallon of blood heaved from his mouth and splashed all over the floor. The effluence was chunky, clotted with glossy lumps of flesh and sinewy cords of viscera. He let out a ferocious cough, sucked in a long draught of air, and vomited again. It was different this time, denser, darker. No way a human stomach could hold that volume of material.

He was puking his guts out.

Galvanized by horror, Danny burst from his hiding place.

“Oh, my God, Vlad, no—”

He slid to his knees at Vlad’s side and gripped his arm. The spectral frequency that had been clicking like a Geiger counter inside Danny’s nexus suddenly screeched. Danger. Critical. He recoiled, crying out.

“Augh! Vlad, what’s happening? You’re—you look like you’re—” He couldn’t say it. The thought was too terrible. Tears pricked his eyes.

Vlad coughed and slowly turned his head. His face was gray, lips and chin slashed with violent red daubs. He gazed at Danny with a disturbingly familiar and pathetic helplessness.

“What are you doing here?” His voice was thick and gloopy. Strings of blood drooled from his goatee. “I told you not to disturb me.”

The question momentarily threw Danny. “Forget that! Vlad, there’s something seriously wrong with your frequency. And you. We need to get you to—”

Faster than sound, Vlad’s hand shot out and seized Danny by the throat, squeezing hard. Danny’s airways collapsed. He exploded in a frenzy of arms and legs, clawing uselessly at impenetrable flesh.

Vlad’s head jerked to the side. “Let go,” he growled.

Hysterical confusion creased Danny’s face. He thrashed in Vlad’s grip.

“I said let go!” Vlad snarled. His eyes flared red.

“I—d-don’t—” Danny mouthed, unable to draw air. Had he been in his human form, he would already be dead, his cervical vertebrae dissevered from their joints, the spongy intervertebral discs crushed to a pulp, his spinal cord torn, esophagus and trachea mashed to shreds on splinters of bone. He stared into Plasmius’s burning red eyes—eyes that suddenly nictitated, revealing two slitted black pupils.

Fear, raw and primal, screamed in every atom in Danny’s body.

He didn’t know who this was, but it wasn’t Plasmius.

The horrible eyes blinked. The pupils disappeared and Vlad jerked again, convulsively. A scream gouged its way out of his throat, and he lunged forward and attacked his hand—the one around Danny’s throat—with his teeth.

It happened faster than Danny’s mind could register. Warm blood freckled his cheeks. There came the hideous sound of bone grinding against bone, tendons ripping, a wet squelching, and through it all, Vlad snarling and shrieking behind a mouthful of his own wrist.

The choking grip loosened, and Danny tore away. Vlad ceased his attack and collapsed, panting, into the soupy crimson puddle on the floor. He clutched the bony shreds of his mauled wrist. The hand flopped loosely, no longer tethered. Throbbing rivers of blood streamed between the fingers of his good hand. He lifted sickly eyes to Danny. His lips quivered, glistening. A pair of tears rolled down his cheeks.

“Are you… all right?”

Danny gawked at him. His tongue lay dead in his mouth, a useless pad of dry flesh. He managed a nod.

Vlad shut his eyes and folded himself into a shuddering fetal lump. “Leave now. It’s not safe here.”

“What? No.” Danny clambered through the slippery pool of blood and half-digested entrails to crouch beside Vlad’s hunched form. “Look at you. You’re all messed up.” The last word dissolved in a hot, hitching sob. He raked away his tears with his frosty black sleeve. “I’m taking you to Frostbite.”

But when he reached out to take hold of Vlad, his arms were swatted away. A vane of blood droplets followed the arc of Vlad’s uninjured hand. “No!

Danny flinched. “Vlad, please. You’re gonna bleed to death.”

“Not to death. Just”—he closed his eyes—“wrap it. Use my shirt.”

“That’s not gonna—”

“Just do it, Daniel!”

Danny grabbed two fistfuls of Vlad’s ruined white shirt and made it intangible before yanking it off. He shook the sleeves out to their full length and, starting at one cuff, wound the shirt around Vlad’s wrist. Soon the bloodstained swaddling enveloped all but the tips of his fingers. Danny swallowed his gorge and maneuvered Vlad into his arms. Vlad pushed away.

“Don’t—”

“Relax. I’m not taking you anywhere,” Danny said softly. He guided Vlad’s head to his chest and pressed it there. “Everything’s gonna be okay. I’m gonna try to form a syndis bond.”

Vlad bolted up, grunting. Danny struggled to hold him.

“Stop that. You won’t let me take you to Frostbite, so this is the next best thing. Better, actually.”

Vlad shook his head. “You can’t,” he wheezed. “It’s dangerous. You have no idea what you’re—” He gagged and turned to spit out a mouthful of blood. Danny watched it splat onto the floor, a thick red asterisk. Dread threatened to turn him into a weeping wreck.

He’s dying. I’m going to lose him and then I won’t have anyone. I’ll be alone. Alone for real. There’s no one else like us, no one I can go to. He’s all I have and he’s dying.

Danny clasped Vlad’s bare shoulders. “Syndis can’t hurt. It can only help. Remember?”

A shudder coursed through Vlad, but he stopped resisting. He allowed Danny to coax his head back down to his chest. He lay still, breathing shallowly and rapidly.

The eerie strains of Burn had at some point been replaced by the equally unsettling How Soon Is Now? Haunting harmonic licks trailed the end of each verse, amplifying the malaise of an already sideways situation.

You shut your mouth, how can you say I go about things the wrong way?” sang Steven Morrissey. “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.

Absently, Danny’s fingers began to stroke Vlad’s sweaty head. “It’ll be okay.” His whisper buried itself under the thunderous music. “Everything’s gonna be okay. Just be still. Stay with me. I’ll fix this.” He shut his eyes, rocking slightly as he breathed. “I can fix this.”

Vlad’s body went lax, and for one awful moment Danny thought he had died. But then he heard him breathe, a wet and raspy respiration. A second later Danny’s nexus flared inside him. A cool, peaceful wave rose up and washed outward. It met the inflamed heat of Vlad’s wild core and attached itself to it. Invisible tendrils of energy wove their spectral nervous systems together. Farther down, Danny’s third locus, the one in his belly, grasped hold of Vlad’s heart locus. Energy pulsated between them. Vlad gasped. Danny held him tighter.

“It’ll be okay.” He squeezed his leaking eyes shut. “It’s gonna be okay.”


Tremolo notes wafted through his mind, smoking remnants of an immolated beast that had been slain in a dream last night. I am the son and the heir…

Sun and air. Sun in air. Sun—sun somewhere.

Danny opened his eyes to a shaded room. The record in his head scratched. Silence reigned in the aftermath, absolute but for the muffled patter of water. The heavy window curtains on the adjacent wall snuffed out all but the barest glow attempting to blast through. He licked his lips and blearily pushed himself up.

At first he didn’t recognize his surroundings. Then he realized he was in Vlad’s bedroom.

It was a disaster area.

Dresser drawers hung open, their contents strewn on the floor. Rugs lay askew, crumpled and bearing dark, suspicious stains. Black soot like a blast zone extended several feet from the fireplace. The bed in which he lay was savaged, the mattress askew on the box spring, comforter shredded, scorch marks dappling the sheets and pillows. A light snow of down feathers dusted the floor and furniture. A burnt, acrid odor permeated the air, which was stale and tinged with old sweat and body odor. This wasn’t the result of one restless night.

Danny climbed off the bed, slightly puzzled to see he was still fully clothed. He raked his hair out of his eyes and pressed his hand to his forehead.

What happened here?

Before he could plumb his memory for answers, he detected a familiar frequency. It was emanating from the en suite bathroom. He crept to the door and tried the handle. Unlocked. He opened the door and stepped into a hot, steamy room. The shower was running full blast, all faucets spraying. The stall was empty.

Years of ingrained environmental awareness—and parents who chastised him for driving up the water bill—compelled him across the room. He shut off the shower, soaking his arm in the process, and turned, scanning the seemingly deserted bathroom. The scent of expensive soap floated in the air atop a much darker, ferine odor. Discarded socks and shoes and trousers trailed across the floor to a blood-soaked shirt puddled beside the large spa tub. It was filled to the brim. Danny hesitantly approached and peered into it.

At the bottom lay Vlad Masters, curled on his side in a protective ball, hands tucked to his chest. His eyes were closed, his lashes long and dark against his pale skin, his hair suspended weightlessly around his face.

Dead, Danny’s brain screamed. He’s dead he’s dead he’s—

Wait. A slight movement.

Danny dropped to his knees and stared into the water. Vlad’s naked chest swelled, relaxed, and swelled again in gentle rhythm. The hair drifting near his nose billowed like threads of gray seaweed in an ocean current. He was breathing.

A fire specter, asleep in water? Danny clutched the lip of the tub.

He’d lost weight. His cheekbones were sharper, his arms thinner. The once-impressive muscles that had bolstered his body were now shrunken and stringy. Flesh hugged his ribs with each inhale. The padding of fat on his hips and thighs was gone, burned away by a mysterious ailment that Danny had deliberately ignored these many weeks. With evidence of his apathy now thrust in front of him—this deprived form that had been so healthy and handsome a month earlier—a cold knife of guilt plunged into Danny’s heart.

“Vlad?” His voice crackled. He wet his lips and repeated, louder this time, “Vlad? Can you hear me?”

Beneath the warm, amniotic water, Vlad’s eyelids batted open. He heaved a sigh—no air bubbles, just water—and slowly swept upward. Danny leaned back as a gray head emerged, followed by the hard angles of an upper body chiseled by a paucity of calories. With remarkable ease, Vlad quietly proceeded to empty his lungs of water. Hot streams poured from his nostrils and down his chin. When he was done, he sniffed and cleared his throat.

“Yes?”

Danny realized he was staring; he shook himself out of his stupor. “We need to talk.”

After a moment, Vlad nodded tiredly. “Yes. I suppose we do.”


The digital clocks on the oven and microwave read 11:56 AM.

Vlad sat at the kitchen table, half-dried and dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants, looking better now that the color had returned to his cheeks and he no longer resembled a desiccated cadaver. His hair was combed but not tied back. The fingers of his right hand drummed a mug of black coffee; his left arm lay against his chest, secured in a nylon sling: the reason behind his unkempt appearance. On the flat screen TV over his shoulder, a news anchor launched into the noon top stories. Danny sat opposite him at the table, polishing off his second bowl of cereal.

Vlad shifted his weight uneasily. “I suppose I should begin by saying thank—”

Danny’s hand flew up, index finger extended. He scowled around a mouthful of Honey Bunches of Oats.

“Uh-uh. You’re not taking control of this conversation.”

Vlad at least had the decency to not feign innocence. He conceded with a smile. “All right, little badger. Where would you like to begin?”

He was still doing it. And seemed to be aware of it, too. Danny pushed his bowl away and wiped his mouth.

“How about you start by apologizing to me.”

“What for?”

“Lying.”

“Lying? About what?”

“The organs. Human organs.”

“Ah.” Vlad gazed into his coffee. “Those.”

Danny’s glare was scalding. “You’re a cannibal.”

“I am not a cannibal.”

“Yeah? On what planet?”

“A cannibal kills his victims. All those organs are donated. I paid for them. It’s completely legal.”

“Those organs are meant for people who actually need them.”

I’m people, Daniel.”

“People with cancer. People who are gonna die if they don’t get them. You don’t need them to live.”

“To live well, I do.”

“Why? Aren’t the animal ones good enough?”

“Only to an extent. Human ones”—Vlad winced as if the words carried a bitter flavor—“are better fuel.”

Danny leaned back, flabbergasted. “Is that what you were doing? Fueling up so you could melt the Skeleton Key?”

“Oh. You noticed that.”

“Yeah. I’m not as blind and stupid as you think I am.”

“I never thought—”

“Sure you did. But that—that doesn’t matter.” He shut his eyes, wondering if all serious conversations with adults were this strenuous. “Why were you trying to melt the Skeleton Key? That’s what I wanna know.”

For a long time Vlad didn’t say anything. A commercial for allergy medication floated in the background.

“I’m sure you saw the gauntlets.”

“Yeah. You finished them. Pretty impressive.”

“Insomnia has its perks.”

“You sure it’s just insomnia?”

Vlad’s eyes narrowed into slits. “Why do you ask?”

“Your bedroom. It’s all…”

“A mess?”

“More like extra crispy. Have you been spontaneously combusting in your sleep or something?”

“I’m a fire specter, Daniel. When a fire specter suffers a spectral flux, things tend to get a little charred.”

Vlad had a flux?

Another awkward lull fell.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were going through all this?” Danny finally murmured.

“Because you didn’t need to know. You had just started school and…” Vlad raised his mug, drinking the rest of his sentence.

“And? Any idea what’s wrong?”

“I have an idea. Nothing you need to worry about, though. I can handle it just fine.”

“I could have helped you. You didn’t have to suffer.”

“You can’t help me, Daniel.”

“Syndis can. Like it did last night.” Danny’s eyes dropped to Vlad’s fingers, poking out of the sling. “How is it? Your hand, I mean.”

“Better. The bones have knitted, at least.”

“Can you move it?”

“Not much. In time I expect I’ll make a full recovery. Tendons and nerves… take a while to regenerate.”

Danny fingered the corner of his placemat and sighed. “Okay, so let me get this straight: You couldn’t sleep, so you decided to finish the gauntlets.”

“Correct.”

“And you were eating organs to fuel your fire powers.”

“Also correct.”

“And you were trying to melt the Skeleton Key.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Vlad exhaled forcefully. “To answer that question you must first understand how the Skeleton Key works. Its ectoplasmic structure oscillates on a range of harmonic frequencies that function within a system of spectral resonance—and you’re not understanding a single word of this, are you? Allow me to paraphrase—”

“Vlad, I don’t need to know exactly how it works. Just tell me why you were trying to melt it.”

Perhaps it was the gentleness of Danny’s voice or the tilt of his head, the worried expression on his face. Whatever it was, it utterly routed Vlad’s prattling obfuscations. His posture slouched in defeat.

“So I could infuse the gauntlets with the Key’s spectral resonance and use them to retrieve the Ring of Rage from Pariah Dark’s casket without waking the bastard up again.”

Danny’s jaw nearly collided with the table. He leaned forward, eyes huge. “What?”

“Please don’t ask me to repeat myself, Daniel, it’s terribly annoying.”

“You’re after the Ring of Rage again? Don’t tell me you’re still obsessed with becoming King of the Ghost Zone.”

Vlad set his empty mug down with a grimace. “Oh, please, Daniel, give me a little credit. I couldn’t care less about ruling that backwater dimension and the ectoplasmic idiots who dwell there. It’s the energy that concerns me. With the combined spectral power of the Crown of Fire and the Ring of Rage, I could—well. I could do almost anything.”

“Like rule the world?” Danny said sourly.

“Impossible to do effectively. No one loves a dictator.”

“More money, then?”

“Adjusted for investments and illiquid capital, I am the richest man on Earth. No, Daniel, it’s not financial or political power that interests me.”

For a few seconds Danny was speechless. The richest man on the planet, sitting across from him at the table? Money is power, and power is power. And I have a lot of both. He swallowed.

“Then what do you want?”

Vlad said nothing. Only studied Danny, his mouth tucked furtively to one side. That was when it hit Danny:

What would any terminally ill person want?

“A cure,” he whispered. “You’re trying to find a cure for your ecto-acne.”

“A cure.” Vlad nodded snappily. “Yes. Precisely. With that much energy at my disposal, I would never have to worry about another radiation flare-up again.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me that from the beginning?” Danny said. “Why didn’t you tell Frostbite?”

“Oh, yes, I’m sure Frostbite would trust the word of Plasmius the Parasite. Do you really think he would believe me if I said I wanted the Ring purely for medicinal purposes?”

No, Danny supposed not.

Vlad waved his empty mug. “Do I have your permission to get another cup before we continue this conversation?”

“Yeah, sure.” Danny kept a cautious eye on him as he rose and ambled over to the coffee press. There were a ton of questions he still planned to ask. He wasn’t about to let Vlad connive his way out of answering them. The guy was definitely hiding something. Danny couldn’t put his finger on what, but he knew there had to be more than what Vlad was telling him—or allowing him to know.

His gaze swept up and down Vlad’s lean profile, and that perforated feeling returned to his heart. “You need to eat something.”

Vlad turned from the electric kettle, one eyebrow raised. Danny fumbled.

“I mean, it’s not good for your stomach to just drink coffee. You need, like, actual food. Real stuff, not guts and eggshells.”

A hesitant smile tried Vlad’s lips. “I can make coffee with one hand. Breakfast, however…”

“I’ll do it.” Danny stood up. “What do you want? Nothing too fancy. I can do eggs and toast, waffles—bacon, if you don’t mind it microwaved.”

“Whatever you feel like making for me, little badger, I will eat.” Vlad executed a grandiose if off-balance flourish with his uninjured arm, bowed, and moved out of the way. He took a seat at the bar, grinning with private amusement as he oversaw Danny’s rudimentary culinary prowess.

The skillet had nearly reached the right temperature when a loud crack startled Danny from his mental checklist. He spun to see Vlad sitting motionless, coffee bleeding from the shattered remains of his mug, his eyes glued to the TV screen. Danny looked up, and his heart stopped.

His freshman photo smiled back at him on national television.

“—have finally identified the remains pulled from Lake Michigan earlier this month as fifteen-year-old Daniel Fenton, who has been missing since late August—”

Something exploded. A brilliant white light flashed, sweeping through the kitchen. The temperature suddenly plummeted. Vlad jerked away from the bar, uttering a cry of surprise as everything—floor, walls, cabinets, stove, counter tops, appliances, fruit bowls, even the remains of his broken coffee mug—was covered with a thick crust of ice.

Chapter End Notes

Toxicity | System of a Down
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out | The Smiths (lyrics quoted by Danny)
Burn | The Crow
How Soon Is Now? | The Smiths

Scoop

Chapter Notes

“We had an arrangement. Minimal press, local papers only, a side column at most. Not national fucking news.”

Danny leaned against the wall outside the study’s closed doors, listening to the smoldering rage in Vlad’s voice.

How? Because I just saw the entire thing on CNN, Lew, that’s how. They interviewed his classmates. It was a full feature. Now you listen to me very carefully, because this is what’s going to happen next: You’re going to get on the phone with your contact in Chicago and start unfucking this situation posthaste.”

Danny hugged himself.

Despite having only watched it once, choice cuts of the report were seared into his brain with a clarity that could only come from a place of deep, scalding shock.

A shot of the grave-faced female reporter standing in front of the blackened concrete square where the Tasty Burger once stood.

Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of a tale that would end in tragedy.

Sweeping aerial footage of Amity Park while a voiceover provided backstory. A vignette featuring the aging brownstone on the corner of 4th and Spengler—Fenton Works, his home, the place he’d spent his entire life—now denuded and plastered with “For Sale” signs. Photos of his mom and dad, his sister, his two dead best friends.

Eugene Lancer, teacher and alumnus at the local high school, was also killed in the gas leak.

A brief interview with Derrick “Dash” Baxter on location at Casper High School. He wore a grass-stained football uniform and had his helmet tucked jauntily under one arm, a pose that emphasized his meaty biceps. Danny recalled those biceps intimately, their mass, their cruel strength, the pungent odor of Baxter brand armpit, sticky turds of deodorant clinging to sweaty blond hairs, forced into his face at least once a week ever since eighth grade. The team scrimmaged on the practice field behind Dash, whistles blowing, coaches bawling. Familiar sounds that Danny would likely never hear again.

He was my best friend,” Dash professed, jabbing away invisible tears. “We did everything together. I was expecting him to just, like, walk back through the door any day. I can’t believe he’s really gone. The shock is just…” He shook his head, the rest of his sentence fading into pretense.

A clip of Robert and Linda McBailey scurrying from their car into the local police station. Balding, bearded Robert, his face gaunt with worry. Linda’s tear-ravaged eyes, her leaking nose, the flowery handkerchief she clutched to her bosom.

Danny Fenton was in the McBaileys’ care for approximately two months following the Tasty Burger accident and are alleged to be the last people to see him alive. They are cooperating with authorities and are not considered suspects at this time.

Nausea churned Danny’s guts. He felt like throwing up the cereal he’d just eaten.

Behind the door, Vlad seethed. “All of it. Every frame. Every copy. I want it scrubbed. I don’t care if you have to set the whole studio on fire, you get rid of this today. The last thing you want is for me to get personally involved. Is that understood?” Pause. “Good. See that you don’t.”

The sound of a handset slamming into its cradle, then a frustrated sigh. “You might as well come in, Daniel.”

Danny jumped. It took a few seconds for him to compose himself, then he meekly grasped the latch and eased the door open. Vlad sat behind his desk, wearing a sullen face. He motioned for Danny to sit down. Danny moved soundlessly over the rug and took a nervous seat in one of the two chairs placed before the sprawling rosewood desk. Four empty water bottles stood on one side. Vlad finished off the fifth, set it with the others, and leaned back in his chair. He gazed at Danny with heavy eyes.

“Is it bad?” Danny asked.

“It certainly isn’t good.”

Danny clasped his hands between his knees. His knuckles popped unexpectedly. “What’s gonna happen now?”

“Nothing. Hopefully. Although…” Vlad stroked his chin. “How do you feel about plastic surgery? Nothing drastic. Just enough to—”

“No way.” The suggestion ignited an indignant flame within Danny. Two years ago he would have jumped at the opportunity to change his appearance. He hated his upturned nose, his round face, his pointy chin and stick-out ears, his wide forehead. But now he saw his features for what they were: a legacy of the people who had made him, who had loved him. This was his mother’s nose, his father’s eyes. The least he could do was preserve these traits, especially since he wouldn’t be passing them on.

For the first time since learning of his sterility, Danny felt the sting of loss. It was unlike the dull, aching grief with which he was already familiar. This was sharp and precise, a mourning of the future, of missed opportunities, things that will never happen. It hurt more than he expected.

“What about contact lenses?” Vlad said. “Or glasses? A new hair color, perhaps?”

“I told you, no.”

“You’re not being very cooperative.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I don’t wanna change anything,” Danny said pugnaciously.

Vlad kneaded the skin between his eyebrows. “We must do something, Daniel. Unless you’d rather leave the country for a week. I think there’s a—”

“No!” Danny thrust himself to the edge of his seat. “I don’t wanna miss Audrey’s party.”

“A party. You’d more worried about a par—” Vlad spun his chair toward the wall with the windows. “This couldn’t have come at a worse time. Here I am, incapacitated and unable to—”

“It’s always about you, isn’t it?” Danny erupted. “What about me? What about my foster parents? The police think they had something to do with it.”

“Don’t worry. The lack of evidence will exonerate them.”

“But what if it doesn’t? You know how cops are.” Tears sprang to Danny’s eyes. “What if they get sent to prison? What if I’ve ruined their lives? They’re innocent!”

“You’re overreacting. Calm down.”

“Calm down? You telling me to cal—”

“Yes!” Vlad’s arm shot out of the sling and hammered the desk. Drawers rattled in their sockets. “Have you even given so much as a single, fleeting thought as to what would happen to me? If this situation deteriorates, I stand to lose a lot more than just my reputation.”

“Here we go again,” Danny said. “You, you, you. I’m real sorry you chose to help me.”

You came to me. What was I supposed to do, turn you away? You, the only other person like me? The son of the only friends I’d ever—” He shut his mouth.

Danny stared.

After reflecting, Vlad took a slow breath. “No, Daniel. I could not turn you away.” He winced, swallowed, and looked down at his mutilated hand.

“Are you okay?” Danny asked.

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine.”

“Just a few torn tendons.”

Danny held out his hand. “Let me see it.”

“You haven’t mastered healing yet,” Vlad said.

“And I’m never gonna if you don’t let me practice.”

“Healing others is different from healing yourself. It’s—”

“There’s a first time for everything.” Danny curled his fingers impatiently. “Come on. What can it hurt?”

After an appraising look, Vlad carefully stretched his arm across his desk, placing his mauled hand on Danny’s smooth, whole, healthy one. It was the first time Danny had gotten a good look at the damage. The sight made his legs weak.

Most of the flesh on Vlad’s wrist was gone. What remained were bits of skin clinging to a pink lasagna of bone and torn muscle. If he watched closely, he could see tiny filaments of sinew moving within the carnage, crawling toward each other like blind worms seeking mates. Once again Danny’s breakfast threatened to make an appearance. He looked away, swallowing hard.

“Why haven’t you wrapped this?” he said.

“I don’t want to interfere with the regrowth,” Vlad said. “A bandage can become enmeshed and cause deformations, and then I’d have to rip it out and start all over again.”

“I guess infections and blood loss aren’t a problem.”

A sardonic smile appeared on Vlad’s lips. “Not for people like us.”

Danny exhaled before turning back, his jaw squared. “Okay. Tell me how to do this.”

“Focus your regenerative powers,” Vlad said, “but outward instead of inward. An exosomatic process, not endosomatic.”

If Danny were in a better mood, he would have cracked a joke. Instead he took a deep breath, held Vlad’s hand, and concentrated on the hideous wound. He felt his powers condense inside him, a frosty and familiar coalescence of spectral energy that was the precursor of his self-healing process, but when he tried to direct the energy to Vlad’s hand, it seemed to collide and rebound against an invisible wall. Frowning, he tried again, visualizing his spectral powers flowing out of his nexus and into Vlad’s hand. Another minute passed, and a frustrated noise left his lips.

“Rrgh, I can’t get it out of me.”

“You’re relying too much on vision,” Vlad said. “The power isn’t in your eyes, Daniel. Close them. Feel my hand. Feel what it needs.”

Danny obediently closed his eyes and listened to the hum of Vlad’s spectral frequency. Soon an image materialized out of the blackness of his mind, one painted by his ghost sense. He became aware of the pulsing junctures of energy that made up the three loci of Vlad’s nexus. He directed his attention outward, to the little estuaries of particles flowing out and circling back.

And then he found it: unexpected jagged edges, interrupted flow. Vlad called them spectral lines, gaps in the ectoplasmic spectrum—broken bridges and cracked roads, metaphorical asphalt heaved open in great fissures on the quantum level. And the epicenter of this disarray rested on Danny’s open palm. He felt his own ghost energy throbbing in his whole, healthy fingers. If exosomatic healing was anything like shooting an ectoplasmic energy blast…

The energy leaped out of Danny like a diverted river and poured itself to Vlad’s hand. Vlad inhaled sharply.

“Am I doing it?” Danny asked, cracking open one eyelid.

“Yes. Yes, you—I think you’ve got it. Ah.”

Pride surged through Danny. He resisted grinning for modesty’s sake.

The next several minutes passed in smooth quietude. For Danny, it felt a lot like donating blood, but different from syndis in that he wasn’t aware of anything coming back to him. This was a one-way street. There was no mutual exchange. He was simply giving his healing energy to Vlad.

The events of the previous night turned over in Danny’s mind like unpolished gems in a tumbler. He watched the fibers of Vlad’s severed tendons weave themselves back together, faster now, and wondered if this would affect Vlad’s piano playing. He hoped not.

“Why did you attack yourself?” he asked gently.

“What choice did I have?” Vlad said. “It was either my hand or you.”

“Do you… would you have killed me? Or tried to?”

“Almost certainly. I had been powerloading for two hours prior. I was overstimulated and aggravated from repeated failures. The last thing I needed was a hapless target wandering into my lab.”

A current of shock went through Danny at the frank admission. Had he really been that close to dying? He licked his dry lips.

“You said powerloading. What—what is that?”

“It’s the channeling or building-up of spectral energy, accomplished by assimilating certain”—Vlad’s face winced fleetingly—“fuel. When you find out what substances amplify your powers, you’ll be able to do it, too. It’s the same principle as charging a battery. Charge it too much, however, and it might explode.”

“You must’ve been pretty close to exploding. Good thing I came along when I did.”

A reproachful look flashed across Vlad’s features. “Good thing? You could have been killed, Daniel. I explicitly told you to leave me alone.”

“The whole house was shaking,” Danny argued. “Your frequency was super messed-up. I could feel it all the way upstairs. What was I supposed to do, just turn up the TV and pretend it wasn’t happening?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what you were supposed to do.”

“Seriously? What if you had died down there, huh? You’d be a rotting pile of guts right now.”

“Never would have happened.”

“How do you know?”

“Because suicide doesn’t work on us, Daniel. You know this. But instead of listening to me, you decided to come down and put yourself in danger, and I had to take drastic measures to keep you from being hurt.” He gestured to his left hand. “And here we are.”

Danny’s ears burned. “So it’s all my fault. As usual.”

Vlad pinched the skin between his brows. “Instead of looking for reasons to get angry with me, Daniel, perhaps try believing me once in a while. Not everything I do is to offend you personally.”

“Give me a reason to believe you and I will.”

“And how do you suggest I do that, dear boy?”

Danny straightened his back. “You can start by telling me things. Like about you suffering all this time instead of asking for help, and why you need to eat human organs—which I still don’t agree with, by the way. But also, like, you telling me not to bother you without saying why. Just say it. Tell me, give me a reason. I mean, if you’d said something like, ‘Daniel, I’m going to be doing some crazy-dangerous shit down in the lab tonight, you may hear some things, but I promise I’ve got it all under control,’ that would have worked. I just… wanna know, you know?”

Vlad stared, soundly convicted by the inelegant honesty of a fifteen year-old boy. “You’re right,” he admitted softly. “I suppose I’m to blame as well. I haven’t done enough to earn your trust. Or your respect.” He dipped his head. “I will endeavor to work harder on that.”

Danny blinked, the shock gradually sinking in. Had Vlad actually just admitted he was wrong?

“And I’ll… I’ll try to listen better.”

A grin lightened one half of Vlad’s face before it fell serious again. “I was trying to say earlier, there’s a technology summit taking place in Berlin this week. I was going to call it in, but I see no reason why I can’t attend in person. You can come with me. It’ll be a horror trying to book accommodations this late, but needs must.”

“I don’t wanna miss Audrey’s party.”

“It’s only three days. However, I recommend we stay out of the States until Friday. We can fly back Saturday morning. That should give you more than enough time to still make your little soiree.”

Danny considered his options before finally shrugging. “Okay. Guess I have no choice.”

“Very well. I’ll begin making arrangements.”

“After I finish healing you first.”

“Of course. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to de-ice the kitchen.”

“Me? Dude, you’re the fire specter.”

“The fire specter is currently focusing all his energy on healing himself, dude,” Vlad said tartly. “Besides, it wasn’t his lack of control that turned the kitchen into a winter wonderland.”

“Look, I don’t know how I did that. I don’t even know if I can reverse it.”

Vlad gazed at him through half-closed eyes. “M2I Maneuver, Daniel.”

Oh. Right. Matter-match/intangibility. Danny’s ghost cringed.

“I know,” he stuttered. “It’s just—I’ve never done M2I with ice before.”

“It’ll be good practice then.”

Yes, Danny supposed it would. He settled into a chagrined silence. After a handful of minutes, he sensed his powers gradually relaxing, the stream of ectoplasmic energy slowing to a trickle. Eventually it ceased altogether. He looked down at their hands.

“Huh. I guess that’s all I’ve got. How do you feel?”

“Better than before.” Vlad tested his fingers. They moved stiffly, as if the tendons were cold and tight. “Scant in terms of physical repair, but the pain and swelling has improved. Not bad for your first time.”

“Thanks.” Danny warmed. “Um, maybe we can do syndis later, see if that completely heals it.”

“No time,” Vlad said. “We need to leave early in the morning to make the summit, and I have a lot of preparations to make. I must contact my pilot and arrange a flight plan, call my travel agent, call my associates and see how many can attend on this short notice, let the house staff know I’ll be gone for the week—”

“Okay, okay, I get it.”

Vlad carefully fed his arm back into the sling. “Email your teachers and let them know you’ll be absent. Get your assignments for the week, then start packing.” He gave Danny a pointed look. “Don’t dilly-dally. Tomorrow begins early. Pack light, move fast.”

“I know.” Danny rose from the chair. “I’ve flown before.”


To: [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Date: Sun, Oct 23, 2005 3:27 pm
Subject: hey

Uncle V had an accident at home today & hurt his hand. He’s ok but it’ll be awhile before he’s back to normal. Also (he just NOW told me about this & I’m pretty ticked) but I have to go with him to some tech summit in Berlin. We may be out of the country until Friday or so, but don’t worry, I swear I’ll be back in time for the party even if I have to swim back across the Atlantic by myself :P

- Danny

Chapter End Notes

Thank you all for your patience and kindness! I actually had to split this chapter into two parts—mostly out of a desire to get back to more "organic" chapter breaks instead of focusing on wordcount. The next chapter will be posted just as soon as I wrap up these last few paragraphs.

Berlin

Chapter Notes

It was raining when Vlad’s private jet—a black and silver 2004 Bombardier XRS, its tail emblazoned with the Vladco Industries logo—touched down at Berlin Schönefeld Airport.

Danny batted open his eyes and sat up with slothlike languor.

He had thoroughly made himself at home in the private aft quarters: school binders and textbooks strewn over the fold-out bed, Nintendo DS and game cartridges littering the table on the opposite side, other teenage detritus like empty snack food packaging, magazines, soda bottles, and gum wrappers. He slouched in the cushy leather seat while the jet taxied down the runway. Rubbing the stiffness from his neck, he gazed out the window at the gray clouds and hard, steady drizzle. On his iPod, Breaking Benjamin provided an apt accompaniment to the waning, gloomy day:

I don’t have a past
I just have a chance
Not a family or honest plea remains to say

Rain, rain, go away
Come again another day
All the world is waiting for the sun.

The jet eased to a halt. Passengers rose from their seats. Danny removed his earbuds, unbuckled himself, and stretched his arms over his head with a lazy whine.

He’d been up since four o’clock that morning, stumping down the front steps with one of Vlad’s homemade apple cinnamon muffins cupped in his hand, then bundled into a warm limo and carried through the dark to Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, Vlad on the phone the entire time. They arrived at the terminal around five a.m. and breezed through the TSA check. He managed to grab a few winks in the lounge while waiting for the jet to complete its pre-flight inspections. He was shaken awake a half hour later and a cursory introduction to Vlad’s business associates was conducted. Six passengers total. They made their way down to the apron at six o’clock. The sky was brightening to peach when Danny boarded with his carry-on items. Vlad directed him to the back of the jet, and that’s where he had been camped ever since.

The flight had been comfortable enough—consummate luxuries, doting flight attendants, plenty of time to complete most of his schoolwork and knock out a few chapters in his library book, and even take a long nap—but the nervous knot in his gut had yet to loosen. Seeing himself on TV yesterday, that face and that name, the clothes he remembered picking out for Picture Day, all those familiar places and memories, filled him with a caliber of dread that at last made him appreciate Vlad’s draconian prescripts on public appearances.

He should have been more careful. He’d had his fun Saturday night, exercised his inalienable adolescent right to rebel, but now regret chewed at him with terrier tenacity. He lived in fear of some stranger in the crowd stabbing a finger in his direction and bellowing, “Look, it’s him! It’s Danny Fenton! He’s alive!” Cameras, crowds, endless seas of gaping eyes.

He could only hope that the bruising grip of paranoia would relax given enough hours and miles.

A peal of laughter up front caught his attention. Four suited men stood in the forward area, the designated business section of the jet, engaged in obsequious Corporatese with Vlad, who still managed to look dignified even with his left arm in a navy blue sling and wrist brace that matched his three-piece Canali. With the exception of a few quick visits aft to see how Danny was doing—no doubt to demonstrate what a concerned, conscientious guardian he was—Vlad had spent the entire flight up front with his colleagues: his lawyer, the Vladco CFO, the vice president of Mastersoft, and the VP’s assistant. Danny couldn’t remember their names. They all sounded unremarkable, the kinds of names parents gave their children to ensure lifetimes of vaunting success or upper-class mediocrity. Jon, Brad, Tim, Mike—usually followed by a stodgy surname and a number indicating the man’s current place in the family series. Corporate appellations. They all bore an uncanny resemblance to one another. Same haircut, same vocal timber, matching vocabulary. Even the same smell, like they’d all come perfumed and pressed from the same factory. They had been nice enough to Danny, each shaking his hand in turn, expressing their pleasure to make his acquaintance and complimenting Vlad on what a fine young man he had under his wing. It soured Danny’s stomach faster than a whiff of his mom’s sprout casserole.

What jarred him the most, though, was Vlad’s casual proximity with normal people. Aside from chauffeurs and the unobtrusive presence of weekday house staff, no other person had yet captured Vlad’s complete attention. Danny found it offensive. He had enjoyed being the singular objet d’intérêt in Vlad’s life for the past month. To see him beaming and gregarious and socially normal made something green rise to a caustic simmer in his belly, and it wasn’t ectoplasm.

Stuffing his feelings into a bin labeled Not Now, Danny began gathering his things.

The Vladco entourage debarked into a cold, soggy Berlin afternoon and met with two laconic bodyguards at the bottom of the gangway. Under a glistening black canopy of umbrellas, the group moved en masse toward the terminal. The security check and immigration process were conducted with blazing efficiency afforded by their VIP status. Danny’s passport was stamped and then he was escorted out of the airport and toward a waiting limousine, Vlad’s black-gloved hand never leaving his shoulder.

“Collar up, head down,” Vlad murmured.

Danny was confused for a moment until he followed Vlad’s line of sight to a group of paparazzi milling on the sidewalk several yards away. Like predators attuned to the slightest change in their environment, they all raised their heads at the same time, spotted their quarry, and surged forward, cameras snapping like hungry vipers. Danny popped his coat collar, tucked his chin, and increased his stride to a trot. He dove into the safety of the limo. Vlad followed, carefully moving the tail of his overcoat out of the door’s way. His colleagues loaded into a second, smaller car, and together the vehicles made their way from the airport and into the throbbing veins of Berlin. Danny stared out the window, quietly astounded. He caught Vlad’s reflection smiling at him and turned a sheepish pink. He faced forward and pretended to be bored.

“First time in another country?” Vlad said kindly.

“No. Well, sorta. Mom and Dad took me to Toronto once, but it was only for a day and one night, and I was too young to remember.”

“Hm. Perhaps sometime this week we can visit the zoo. Weather permitting, of course. If not, there are plenty of museums I think will interest you.”

“Uh—sure.”

The Waldorf Astoria waited for them at the end of the ride. They strode down the long red entry rug and passed through a pair of tall glass doors. The two-storey lobby was thick with the scent of coffee and leather and high-end cleanliness that always seemed to perfume the places of the ultra rich. Elegant furniture complemented the gold and black marble motif. Immediately Vlad and Danny drew stunned looks, whispers, a few starstruck grins. Danny tucked himself deeper into his coat.

The woman at the front desk greeted Vlad with a wide, pearly smile. "Willkommen, Herr Masters. Pünktlich, wie gewöhnlich.”

“Ein wahres Wunder,” Vlad answered in perfect German as he signed the register. “Haben Sie das Wetter heute gesehen? Scheußliches. Ich hätte ein Ruder einpacken sollen.”

The woman laughed, and Danny’s face went through contortions. Another exchange of fluent German went over his head, then Vlad tucked his pen back into his breast pocket, grasped Danny’s shoulder, and steered him toward the elevators. They boarded a car. As it began to rise, Danny turned to face him.

“You told me you didn’t speak German.”

“Oh? When did I say that?”

“Sometime early on. I can’t remember when, but you definitely said it.”

“Hm. Perhaps.”

Danny glared. “What’s the point in lying about something like that?”

“I don’t recall. I was probably making a joke. Obviously, it flopped. I’m sorry.” He turned to Danny, his face solemn, eyes steady. “I will strive to be more honest when speaking to you.”

A broader oath would have been better, but Danny knew he should probably take whatever he could get. He accepted with a nod.

The car glided to a stop. A chime sounded, and the mirror doors opened onto a carpeted hallway, spotless and fresh.

“I wasn’t able to book a king or premiere suite,” Vlad said, leading the way to their room, “so I’m afraid we’ll have to settle for the junior.”

“As long as we don’t have to share a bed,” Danny quipped.

“We do, unfortunately.”

The smirk dropped off Danny’s face—and immediately found a new home on Vlad’s.

“Of course we’ll have separate beds. What do you think this is, Daniel, Motel 6?” He snickered while Danny turned varying degrees of red.

“You just got done saying you would be more honest!”

“Am I not allowed to make jokes anymore?”

“No. Just—don’t make me the butt of them, okay?”

Vlad sobered quickly. “You’re right. I beg your pardon.” He inserted the key card, opened the door, and motioned for Danny to enter. “After you.”

The junior suite at the Waldorf was nothing like Motel 6, or even the Marriott. Despite its compactness, it was, in Danny’s opinion, nicer than Vlad’s Aspen residence. The bedroom and living area were combined in an open layout; two beds stood side by side, the linens crisp and fresh. Sleek, stylish furniture populated the suite, complemented by artwork and décor of matching style. There was a well-stocked minibar, coffee machine, and large flat screen television on the wall opposite the beds. Their luggage had been waiting for them in the foyer when they arrived. Now they wheeled their suitcases over to the beds. Danny gravitated toward the one closest to the windows.

“That one is mine.”

He looked up at Vlad, pulling his luxury suitcase stamped with a repeating “VM” monogram.

“Why?” Danny said. “Are you claustrophobic?”

“Security.”

“Huh?”

“It’s a large entry point.” Vlad parked his suitcase beside the bed. “In the event of an attack, I’ll be between you and whatever threat comes through that window.”

It took a minute to filter through Danny’s skull. He pushed a laugh out of his nose.

“I don’t need your protection.”

“You’re my responsibility, so you’re getting it. End of discussion.”

Danny pouted and moved to the window. He pulled back the curtain and gazed over Berlin’s irregular rooftops. Night was beginning to nest in the alleys and eaves. The lights of the awakening city caught the pattern of clinging raindrops: glittering baubles of red, blue, yellow. It was beautiful. He leaned close enough to paint his breath on the glass.

“Ugly, isn’t it?” Vlad stepped up behind him, tugging at his necktie. “Traffic and concrete and the finest light pollution any European city can offer. Ah, well, that’s what you get when you—hnf—book late—ngh. Damn it—”

Danny turned from the window and shooed Vlad’s hand away, then proceeded to unknot the handsome silk tie with his superior dual-handed efficacy. Vlad glowered but made no move to intervene. Danny’s eyes settled on Vlad’s left arm, still resting in the sling.

“How much longer are you gonna wear that?”

“Until I no longer need it.”

“I know that. I mean, how long do you wanna wear it?”

Vlad regarded him keenly. “Speak plainly, Daniel.”

Danny folded the tie and set it on a nearby table, sighing. “Look, you know syndis can fix you faster than both our healing powers combined. This is like the hundredth time I’ve mentioned it, but you act like it’s—” His heart rate increased slightly, along with his body temperature. “I just—I don’t understand why you don’t want help. Tell me why, and tell the truth this time.”

“The truth?”

“Yeah.”

“The truth, Daniel, is that up until very recently you seemed to find the act of syndis utterly repugnant, and I’m attempting to relieve you of that obligation outside of the bare minimum required to keep us both healthy.”

“Healthy?” Danny squinted at him, almost laughing. “You’d rather walk around with your—your hand looking like something outta Tales from the Crypt and be super inconvenienced just so I won’t feel weirded out? That’s”—he was going to say “stupid”, or some other appropriate adjective, until clarity walked up and slapped the word out of his mouth—“um, really nice of you, actually. But you don’t have to be. Seriously, I can put up with… whatever, I just don’t wanna see you like this anymore. Like, what if I need you?”

The light on Vlad’s face shifted. Danny hastened to elaborate.

“I—I mean, what if we really were attacked? You’re weak. You’ve been using all your powers to try to heal yourself, and you’ve only got one arm. Hand, whatever. The sooner we fix it, the better off we’ll both be. See what I’m saying?”

For a while Vlad was silent. “You make a good point, little badger.” He turned and walked to his bed and stood with his back to Danny for several moments. He sighed. “All right. We’ll sit down later and… finish this.”

Danny inhaled—chest swelling, back straight, suddenly ten feet tall. He wasn’t sure why it felt like he’d just won a small victory.

Vlad took a seat on the edge of the bed. “I’ll be dining with my colleagues this evening. We have a few business matters to discuss before the first exposé tomorrow. You’re welcome to join us, unless you prefer to order room service.”

“Will I have to dress up?”

“No. But business casual is recommended. You are, after all, a Masters.”

Danny frowned. He didn’t feel like being alone, but he lacked both the stamina and the stomach to countenance Vlad’s bloviating business dealings for another hour. The previous ten had been enough. He assured himself it was that, and not the lack of attention, that dismayed him. He’d spent most of his adolescence being ignored and overlooked; at least this was temporary. In a few days the Jon-Brad-Tim-Mikes would be gone, and he’d have Vlad all to himself again.

Which is totally normal and not weird, he thought reproachfully.

“Yeah, I’ll eat with you.”

Vlad’s eyebrows soared. “All right. Table for six, then.”


Like the rest of the hotel, the ground-floor restaurant was stylish, immaculately clean, and staffed by excessively polite and attentive people, though Danny suspected their five-star service was due more to Vlad’s celebrity status rather than the staff’s sterling work ethic. They arrived early and were led to their table with only minimal gawking from the other diners. A high partition offered better privacy once they were seated. While Danny perused the menu, Vlad ordered drinks. The waiter returned with an exotic bottle of mineral water and a frosted goblet of bubbling soda that was the best Danny had ever tasted in his life. He drained half of it before noticing Vlad taking delicate sips from his stemmed glass.

“What, no wine tonight?” he said archly.

Vlad responded with a tame smile. “I believe I’ve had enough alcohol for a while.”

Danny quieted, contemplating the events of Saturday night. They felt so far away now, oceans ago. Thousands of miles of empty blue and brown, like passing from one life to the next. The transition was familiar; he’d felt the same sense of bewildering alterity when flying from his foster home to Colorado, hunting for sanctuary.

“Is that why you’ve been drinking so much water lately?” he asked.

“You noticed?”

“Kinda hard not to. You’ve been chugging it since yesterday morning.”

Vlad’s grin began to crumble. “Yes, well, over the years I’ve found that drinking water after a powerload helps me recover faster.”

“I would’ve thought throwing yourself in a fire would be better, fire specter and all that.”

“Water is a universal detoxifier. Have you decided on an appetizer yet?”

“Um. Yeah, the, uh—” Danny referred to his menu. “Eight-piece shrimp cocktail.”

“After the scampi you had Saturday night? Goodness, Daniel. If I’d known you liked shellfish so much, I’d have been selecting more seafood meals for you all this time.”

The color drained from Danny’s face. “H-how did—”

“I smelled it on you. And popcorn, and a hint of coffee. Let me guess: Frazetti’s, then Isis Theater, and lastly a mocha for the road?”

“Uh, caramel latte, actually.”

“Ah, close.”

“You can tell all that just from smell?”

“The nose knows.” Vlad tapped his own. “Olfactory memory is widely believed to be the strongest and deepest form of sensory recall.”

“So… you’re not mad at me?”

“I was at first, but it doesn’t matter now. Water under the bridge. I hope you had a good time. What movie did you see?”

For no reason, Danny felt suddenly, fiercely ashamed of himself. He slouched in his chair. “Um. Doom.”

“How was it?”

“Nh.” A half-shrug. “It was the only thing playing when I got there. I thought it was kinda lame, to be honest.”

“Oh? That’s too bad. Sneaking out is much better when you enjoy yourself. Ah, here comes the waiter.”

While Danny moldered in his guilt, Vlad ordered the appetizers and “a refill of the young man’s beverage”. Moments later the first half of the Jon-Brad-Tim-Mike quartet appeared. The men greeted Vlad, Danny received a few words of acknowledgement, and then he passed into the background. Danny didn’t mind. He was able to eat his shrimp cocktail in peace and amuse himself by studying his surroundings and imagining attack scenarios. The final two corporate mannequins arrived, and the informal dinner conference began. Danny ordered a gourmet burger and fries for his main course and tuned out the conversation. He thought about logging in to the forums after dinner and messaging Phil and Marc and Audrey, seeing what they were up to. He wondered what time it was back home—Aspen, he corrected himself. Aspen. Amity Park, that was his home.

He was halfway through his cheeseburger when he realized it was the first one he’d eaten since the accident. If only he’d known five months ago, sitting across from Sam and Tucker and laughing with a mouthful of cheap, greasy food in a restaurant with chipped tables and sticky floors and disgusting bathrooms, that that would be the last time he’d ever share a meal with his two best friends, he would have cherished the moment more deeply.

A dam of tears threatened to choke him, and he set his burger down. Vlad’s eyes darted over to him, narrowing with concern. Danny shook his head, gulped, and pushed his plate away. He didn’t notice Vlad’s signal to the waiter or the whispered exchange that followed.

After dinner, a steaming carafe of coffee was delivered to the center of the table. Everybody helped themselves—except Danny. He was winding up to make his escape when the waiter suddenly reappeared and slid a small dish in front of him: a custard capped with a brown caramelized glaze, garnished with fresh berries. Crème brûlée. He looked up at Vlad.

Vlad’s attention, lured away perhaps by instinct, snagged on Danny’s wide eyes. His lips stilled for a moment, then bent into a smile so slight and tender that it was nearly invisible. To Danny, it was as powerful as a thunderclap, as intimate as a naked embrace. Warmth rushed into his heart, dissolving the hard burl of his sorrow. He picked up his spoon, cracked the sugary crust, and dug in.

It was good, but it couldn’t compare to the first time he’d tasted it.

He doubted anything ever would.


It was almost ten o’clock by the time they returned to the suite. Vlad was showing visible signs of fatigue, his posture sagging and his speech crackly and terse, as if he’d exceeded his daily allowance of words. While Vlad browsed the minifridge in search of water, Danny retreated to the bathroom to shuck himself out of his preppy evening attire and change into something more comfortable. He emerged a little while later wearing a soft cotton tee and his favorite Ralph Lauren sweatpants, pausing after just a few steps.

Vlad stood facing the rain-streaked windows, jacket tossed on the bed behind him. He seemed preoccupied with something, maybe his shirt sleeve. On the bedside table sat his Bose Wave, a familiar sight. Vlad carried that thing with him everywhere he didn’t have access to a car radio or his big home audio system. Actually, Danny was pretty sure he had two or three of them. A real music fanatic. The song coming out of the speakers was soft, two male vocalists sharing clear, anodyne melodies.

I’ll never let you see
The way my broken heart is hurting me
I’ve got my pride and I know how to hide
All my sorrow and pain
I'll do my crying in the rain.

“Who’s this?” Danny asked, tiptoeing closer.

“A-ha,” Vlad said. “The band, not the interjection.”

“Wait, the same guys that did Take On Me?”

“Yes. Contrary to the impression you might get from the radio, they did write more than one song.”

Danny listened, his head cocked. He thought he could hear the resemblance now. Maybe.

“It’s nice,” he offered.

“Iff one’a my faveriff.”

He turned sharply toward Vlad and found him attempting to unbutton his right sleeve cuff with his teeth. He had the fabric between his teeth and a determined scowl on his face. Danny watched him struggle while the song played.

“You really don’t like asking for help, do you?” he said quietly, questioning, not condemning.

Vlad abandoned his efforts and let his shoulders slump. “I made a promise to myself long ago that I would never be helpless again. Up until this point, I’ve managed to keep that promise.”

A twinge of sympathy pricked Danny’s heart. He crossed the carpet on socked feet and stood in front of Vlad, who stared over the top of Danny’s head and refused to meet his eyes. Danny reached out and began undoing the buttons on his cuff. The fabric was damp with saliva. When he finished, he moved to the line of buttons marching down Vlad’s front. His fingers nimbly opened them, revealing a light gray fitted undershirt, sleeveless.

“How’d you even get dressed this morning?” he asked with a shaky half-grin. “Or get your hair pulled back? I thought all your power was tied up in healing.”

“It is. Was. I’ve been reserving a small portion for… ignominious tasks,” Vlad mumbled. “But it appears even that has been depleted now.”

Danny tilted his face, searching for Vlad’s eyes. At last the man looked at him, though it seemed a great effort.

“It’s okay. I don’t mind. You know that, right? You’ve done so much for me, I—”

“Daniel, I appreciate your wanting to help, but the last thing I need is your pity.”

“It’s not pity. You told me yourself, never feel sorry for a guy who owns a yacht. And I don’t. And it’s not just about helping you. I want us to… I wanna—” The skin on his forehead buckled, his mouth twisting vainly for the right words.

“Understand?” Vlad ventured.

Yes. Yes, that’s—I wanna understand you. That’s all. But I can’t. You’re all closed up and—even during syndis…”

“There’s a good reason for that, Daniel.”

“Okay, then what is it?”

“Because,” Vlad said, “if you understand me, you will hate me.”

“I already hate you,” Danny said jokingly, but his voice cracked on the last word. He thought of crème brûlée and tightened the muscles in his face to keep it from shattering. His eyes became hot brimming pools.

Vlad peered down at him. His pupils bloomed, turning his eyes the darkest shade of blue Danny had ever seen. He leaned forward, breathing softly through his mouth. Danny’s heart bashed against his ribs.

He wouldn’t. He—

Vlad’s good arm slid around Danny’s shoulders and pulled him close. Danny’s head found a comfortable home underneath Vlad’s jaw; he tucked himself against a warm, solid chest and absorbed the scents of Poivre Caron and Mediterranean sirloin, staring blankly at a vase of silk flowers across the room. When he blinked, he felt something hot trickle down both cheeks. Vlad’s hand tightened on his bicep, and he squeezed Danny a little bit closer.

“You’re closed, too,” he said.

“I know,” Danny said, even though he had only become aware in the past five seconds.

“You must allow yourself to grieve.”

“I have. I did. I’m done crying.”

“It isn’t about the number of tears, Daniel. You can’t bury this. You can’t flee it or drown it or burn it. It will follow you, and if you don’t make peace with it, one day it’s going to catch you and destroy you. And I—desperately do not want that.” His hand cradled the back of Danny’s skull, ruffled his hair.

“I’m more worried about you.” Danny’s face broke in half. “You almost died! I don’t wanna lose you. I can’t lose you! I don’t wanna be—”

“Alone. I know. I know. Shh, I know.” Slowly Vlad pulled away. “Come,” he whispered, and sat down on the bed. Arms open, eyes naked. “Come.”

Scraping away his tears, Danny crawled onto the bed and settled beside him, nestling face to face. Vlad angled his head to bring their crowns together. They lay pressed against one another, breathing each other’s moist exhaust. The stereo poured velvet harmonies into the room.

Someday when my crying’s done
I’m gonna wear a smile and walk in the sun
I may be a fool but ’til then, darling you’ll
Never see me complain
I’ll do my crying in the rain
.”

The thrumming that began as a pleasant buzz between Danny’s ears crescendoed to a brilliant cobalt wave, exploding from his forehead and pulling his mind with it.

In that final split second of clarity, Danny realized that this was syndis, his head locus was merging with Vlad’s, and then everything—the rain, the music, the roaring spectral tsunami—went silent.

Chapter End Notes

Rain | Breaking Benjamin
Crying in the Rain | a-ha

Afterword

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