Vlad isn’t used to being interrupted while working in his lab. Its walls are reinforced lead and its ceiling is buried twenty feet below basement level. The room is missing from the building plans, invisible to the code specs, and inaccessible to any snooping government agents. The Guys in White’s detection equipment has never found it. They would have better luck finding some hollowed out space by banging on the side of their own heads.
So when Vlad hears the clatter of tripped-over machine parts and light, breathy cursing from behind him, he knows no normal person has come to find him. This makes him crack a razor-fanged smile. Vlad lowers the welding torch he’d been using to stitch some metal parts together for a new portal hub. He raises the goggles from off his red eyes, and turns around in mock formality.
“Daniel you should have told me you were coming. I would have put some tea on for the both of us.”
Vlad is right—Danny is standing at the other end of the lab, but he doesn’t look how Vlad had pictured. No jumpsuit, no balled-up fists, no murderous green glinting eyes. Danny is entirely human, and he looks only a bit bothered, like he’s thinking too hard about what to say.
“Vlad,” Danny settles on.
Vlad’s smile doesn’t waver. He takes a few steps forward, boots clacking out hollow sonorous beats on the cavernous floor. Danny seeking him out is almost always a treat. It means he’s done something to annoy or frustrate or enrage Danny enough to be sought out without any effort on Vlad’s part. It’s already a victory of sorts for Vlad, and he’s eager to know what he’s done.
Vlad spreads his arms, as if to encompass the far wall of enormous floating monitors, the pink-swirling portal in the back left corner, the tables and shelves filled with cobbled-together metal gadgets. Vlad glances down. There are three empty toppled paint cans at Danny’s feet, clearly tripped over and just now settling.
“So, to what do I owe this delight? Have you come to hear about my specs for the new Maddie AI? Or maybe you’d like to hear about my recent cloning breakthroughs. Or—“ Vlad swoops in closer, circling Danny, delighting in the way Danny’s head whips about to follow his motions, “—is there something else even better you’d like to discuss?”
Vlad frowns just slightly. There’s no passion in Danny’s voice, rare for a kid motivated almost entirely by his unstable emotions. There’s no fire in his eyes either. No accusation or quick remark lashing from his tongue. Danny’s eyes are calm, and his tone is simply flat.
“What, then?” Vlad asks, and he loses the traction of their banter.
“I went on a college visit yesterday.”
Vlad pauses. He’s half-stooped over Danny, expecting more to be said. Vlad finds himself with nothing to go on. “…Okay,” he says.
“I like the place a lot. And people with my grades get in there all the time. Especially if I keep them up for the rest of junior year I stand a good chance.”
“Then why are you telling me.” Vlad slides away from Danny. His hope of being cursed out is fading, and his brow furrows. His face brightens at a sudden thought, “Did you feel the urge to tell me because I’ve simply become a sort of father figure to you?”
“I want to go there. It’s three hours away by car. One and a half by the Fenton RV, but that’s with my dad driving.” Danny’s voice has become clinical, like the very words are tedious, like he’s talking to a customer service representative and he’s bored. “And it’s an hour away if I fly.”
“Get to the point Daniel. I’m a busy man.”
“No you’re not. You just have a lot of creepy pet projects.” Danny motions stiffly to the pod-like vats that once contained Danny’s old clones. “My point is I can’t keep super-heroing if I go there.”
“Ah,” Vlad brightens again. He leans in. “A crisis then? A conflict of character, of morality, and you’ve come to me for advice? You’re desperate to know if you can hang up your cape to chase a dream so banal as a normal college life?”
“God—no—shut up just a minute. Not everything’s that dramatic.” Danny leans away, sizing Vlad up. “My angsty teenage phase has been over for like a year. And what are you, like, 40? Chill out for like five minutes, for once.”
Vlad deflates a little, frowning.
Danny clears his throat to continue. “I’m not ‘hanging up my cape’. I’m not making any rash decisions. I’m just going to college, because that’s what I want to do, for me. And I’m doing it. I’ve still got my own life to live. But that means I’m not around Amity to help with the ghost patrol.”
“You’d willfully leave them unprotected, hmm?”
“Please. Mom and Dad are still kicking ghost ass in the meantime. And I’m not that irresponsible. I’m hiring a replacement.”
Danny snorts. “Hell no. She’s got a full ride to some college out in Michigan for field hockey. She’s getting the hell out like I am.” Danny’s face sobers. “No, I’m hiring you, Vlad. You’re going to pick up whatever slack I leave behind, got it?”
Vlad’s face splits into a grin, and he barks a laugh. Then he throws his head back and roars, teeth glinting, eyes deeply red and alight. He regains his composure with a few rolling chuckles, and fixes Danny with a condescending smirk. “Oh, adorable. You think you can make me do what you want.”
“Yeah, I can.”
“Can,” Danny answers firmly. “Because if you refuse, then I’m going back home, and the second I get through that front door, I’m doing this.” Danny straightens his shoulders just a fraction, and a glimmering white ring splits at his midsection, enveloping him, repainting him as something sallow and yet bright, cold and yet flickering hot, dead and so monstrously alive. And in some ways, he looks exactly the same. “I realized I don’t care about keeping my secret anymore, really. Mom and Dad accept Phantom as a helper way more often than they ever try to shoot at him, and they’d accept me. And I don’t think it would really change much anymore. I’m not 14 anymore. I could handle letting them know.”
Vlad’s jaw is tight. “…So?”
“So that’s where we’re different, V-man.” Danny flashes a condescending smile to match the one Vlad had worn. “You can’t dare to let them know. The Wisconsin Ghost? You? God, it would end you. My parents, and the town, and the government—they’d all be at your throat in an instant. You’d lose everything.” Danny rocks back on his heels. “And I’ll out you in a heartbeat if you give me a reason to. Because you don’t hold any leverage against me anymore, Vlad. I’ve grown up, and I’m over it.”
“You don’t…mean that,” Vlad answers slowly, dumbly.
“I do.” Another flash, and the rings sweep past Danny to reveal the simple body of a human once more.
“…Just for college?” Vlad doesn’t like the edge in his voice, the quiet anxiety. “Four years?”
Danny shrugs. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back home after college if it turns out ghost hunting is the thing I wanna do with my life. Maybe I won’t.” Danny steps forward, encroaching on Vlad, suddenly taller and surer than Vlad had ever seen him. “I’ll be home during breaks—I’m sure I’ll happily pick up the ghost hunting then. But maybe I’ll get an internship somewhere? Maybe I’ll take a term abroad, you know? Maybe I’ll stay a whole lot of years more and get my PhD in astrophysics. ‘Dr. Fenton’, like my mom. It’s got a nice ring to it.”
“You wouldn’t…” Vlad mutters. “Who says I’ll keep doing it that long, hmm?”
“Go ahead. Break your promise whenever. But the second you do, I’m giving your identity to everyone I know. And besides. You’re not going anywhere anyway.” Danny takes a few steps back, and motions around him. “This? Your whole secret lair down here? You’ve tethered yourself to this place. You’ve got no family anywhere, and you’ve got no ambitions in your life that don’t involve me or my mom. You’re 40 and you’re sad and you’ve made your bed here and I know you don’t intend to go anywhere else, even with all your money, because what purpose would you even have anywhere else, Vlad? You could do this for the rest of your life, picking up my slack. You just might.”
Danny flashes to ghost form again, and kicks off into the air, and hovers up to the ceiling from which he entered.
“Me, Vlad? I’m young, and I’ve got my life ahead of me, and I can still do something with it. I’m everything you’re not.”
Vlad says nothing. He only stares. He hears only static in his ears.
“See you later, or maybe never again, Fruit Loop.”