Ghosts in the Closet

Paulina: Part I

Three years after the accident
Age 17

"I am so dead. Totally and completely dead." Danny looked at Tucker, hoping for some help, but his friend merely shrugged.

"Yeah, dude. You're dead."

"Thanks for your support." He leaned forward, letting his head bang down onto the tabletop in front of him. "How did this happen?"

"How does anything happen to you? A ghost attacks someone, and you beat it up."

Danny sighed. It really had been that simple. Sort of.

It had started on what had to be the hottest day of the summer, so when Sam's parents had made the unexpected—and unprecedented—offer for Sam and her friends to spend the day lounging at the Amity Country Club pool, of course Danny and Tucker jumped at the chance. (Valerie was in Chicago visiting her grandparents.) And it was no surprise that Paulina would be there, not that he'd made a point of noticing. Paulina hadn't really been on his radar much since freshman year. He might have taken a moment or two to appreciate how she looked in her pink two-piece bathing suit, which contrasted nicely with her bronze skin and long, sleek brown hair, but then his attention was back on Sam and the really intriguing black corset-looking swimsuit she was wearing under her long, bat-cape cover-up. He was too absorbed in trying to coax her out of the latter so he could get a better view of the former to give Paulina a second thought.

Until the ghost attacked.

He didn't know why it went for Paulina, and he didn't really think much about it at the time. He just found a private place to go ghost, went after the big and somewhat slobbery blob of green ectoplasm until he'd managed to suck it into a ghost-trapping Fenton Thermos, and then he was back in human form, horsing around with Sam and Tucker in the shallow end.

The second ghost forty-five minutes later was a little more suspicious. Sam swore up and down it wasn't her. "I've stricken the word 'wish' from my vocabulary after the last time."

After the third ghost, Paulina's father got involved. A mountain of a man with arms bigger than Danny's thighs, he grabbed Danny's arm while he was still ghost form, screwing the cap onto yet another Thermos. "You're Danny Phantom. The ghost kid that saved the world from that asteroid last summer."

"Uh… yeah. That's me."

"You know why these ghosts keep coming after my baby girl?"

"No, sir, but I intend to find out."

"Good. And in the meantime, I want you to stay by my daughter's side and keep her safe."

"I… wait. What?"

He leaned in closer. "You have a hearing problem, ghost? I want you to stay by my daughter's side, day and night. But not too close, if you catch my drift. You just keep her safe until you figure out why these ghosts keep attacking her. I'll pay you, of course."

"You'll what?"

"I'll pay you. Double your going rate."

"My going rate? Er… I don't take money to help people."

He smiled, although it looked a little more like an animal baring its teeth. "Good. Then you'll protect her for free."

Then, Paulina came up from behind, slipping an arm into Danny's. "Of course he will, Papá. He's a hero!"

"I… I mean… of course I'll protect you, but…"

"Good." Her father nodded. "Then it's settled. Baby, go change your clothes, and then the Ghost Boy can take you home."

"Yes, Papá." She winked at Danny. "I need to shower first, so give me half an hour, and then you can meet me in the main lobby."

That had been five minutes ago, and now Danny, back in human form, was sitting at one of the poolside tables with Tucker, trying to figure out how he was going to explain to Sam that he would be staying at Paulina's side—day and night.

"You do realize the irony here?" Tucker shook his head. "You would've killed for this three years ago."

"And now I'm gonna be killed instead."

"You're kidding, right?" Sam was back, and Danny's head shot up. She was returning from the snack bar with two fudgesicles and a cherry popsicle. She handed the fudgesicles to the boys. "You can't possibly mean those lame excuses for ghosts that have been attacking all day."

"Uh… not exactly." Danny looked at Tucker, who merely shrugged in sympathy.

Sam looked back and forth between the two of them. "What?"

"Uh… well… the thing is, Sam…" And then he dove right in and told her the whole story.

He hadn't really known what to expect. Sam's temper was volatile and somewhat unpredictable. But nothing could have prepared him for the reaction he got.

She started laughing.

And not just a little titter of amusement, either. She nearly stopped breathing and fell out of her chair, she was laughing so hard.

"You think this is funny?"

She managed to get herself under enough control to take a breath and climb back into her seat. "Well, yeah."

"You do understand what I'm saying, don't you? I have to spend the next however many hours with Paulina. Day and night, her father said."

"And you don't see the amusement? She's still totally crushing on Danny Phantom."

"I know! Which is kinda why I thought you'd be mad."

"Mad? Why would I be mad?"

Tucker and Danny both arched their eyebrows at her, and she gave them an innocent look. "What?"

"Sam." Tucker leaned forward. "You punched a locker and broke a mailbox when they went out that time Kitty was overshadowing her."

"Well, yeah, but that was almost three years ago, and Danny liked her then. It's totally different now. I mean, come on! What part of her trotting out all her best tricks only to be repeatedly rejected would I not find entertaining? And you will be rejecting her." It wasn't a statement so much as a directive.

"Well, duh."

"Then there's no problem."

"Right. No problem."

"Ugh." Sam was now looking at her hand. "This popsicle is melting all over me. I'm gonna go get a napkin."

As soon as she got up, Danny grabbed Tucker by the shirt. "You have got to help me! Find out why those ghosts are after her and get me out of this nightmare!"

Tucker pushed Danny off of him and shook his head. "Yeah, spending all that time with one of the hottest girls in the school who just happens to have a crush on your alter ego. Poor you."

"Just find out what's going on."

Three more ghost attacks and about seventy-nine text messages with Tucker later, and he still didn't know why Paulina was under attack. But he did know that if he had to spend one more minute listening to her whine about the Specter Deflector he'd made her wear—or reminding her yet again not to touch him while wearing it because she was zapping him into oblivion with the thing—he was going to strangle her himself and save the attacking blobs the trouble.

They were holed up in her attic game room, which was almost as tricked out as Sam's basement, so it wasn't like they were lacking for entertainment. But she'd insisted on putting some stupid chick flick on the plasma screen TV and was trying to get him to sit next to her on the overstuffed pink loveseat. "Why don't you just sit down and relax," she purred, patting the spot next to her. "Don't you think you can protect me better if you're right by my side?"

"Uh, no." He crossed his arms, keeping a safe distance by floating in the air near the ceiling.

"Why not?"

"'Cause one: the Specter Deflector will shock me. Again. And I can't protect you if I'm dead."

"You're a ghost. Aren't you already dead?"

He clenched his teeth to keep from grunting in irritation. "Okay, I can't protect you if I'm unconscious, then. And two: if your dad catches me within ten feet of you doing anything other than fending off one of those snot balls, the Specter Deflector will be the least of my worries."

She snorted and waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, don't worry about Papá. Come on, just sit down and relax."

"I'm perfectly comfortable up here."

She crossed her arms and slumped back in her seat, pouting, and for the life of him, he couldn't remember why he'd once liked her so much. Well, okay, that low-cut pink tank top and denim short-shorts she was wearing went a long way towards reminding him, but still. Hotness only went so far. And even putting aside how self-absorbed and high-maintenance she was, her flawless, magazine-cover look seemed so… commonplace next to Sam. She was like a carbon copy of every other girl in school, wearing the same clothes and the same hairstyles and the same expensive makeup from the same department store. Sam was beautiful in a way that wasn't like anyone else he knew, and he hadn't realized until just now how much he loved that about her.

After a moment, Paulina clicked off the movie and looked up at him, the pouting expression gone. Instead she looked more… real. "Would you just tell me one thing? What's wrong with me?"

He frowned. "What do you mean what's wrong with you? Nothing's wrong with you."

"Right. That's why you're floating on the ceiling like I have a contagious disease."

He sighed, letting himself drift down to the couch to settle on the arm. "Nothing's wrong with you. You're a gorgeous girl. Pretty much any guy in your school would kill himself to get a shot with you."

"Any guy except you."

"I'm already a ghost, remember?"

She gave him a look that actually seemed hurt. "I'm serious."

He let out another sigh. "Nothing's wrong with you, okay? You just… come on a little strong, that's all. You seriously could have just about any guy at school, so why waste your time chasing ghosts?"

"Because I don't want just any guy at school. They're all so… ugh. They're so ordinary. Not like you."

"Well, I'm really not looking to get involved with anyone."

She gave him a sad smile. "Oh, I get it. You have a girlfriend." He didn't answer, and she scowled. "Is it that Ghost Hunter girl?"

Chewing his lip, he considered how best to answer that. There'd already been rumors of him dating various girls around Amity Park, and he liked to discourage them as best he could. The rumor about him and Sam had been disastrous, seeing as she was supposed to be dating Danny Fenton, and the one about him and his own sister was too gross to even think about, at least not without a barf bag handy. The current flavor of the month tended towards linking him with "the Ghost Hunter Girl," which wasn't the worst thing in the world, since he and Valerie both knew exactly where they really stood. Still, he preferred to keep the speculation about his love life to a minimum.

Trying to nudge her onto a different track, he asked, "What makes you think that if I were dating, I'd date a human? Why wouldn't it be a ghost, like me?"

"You fight the other ghosts. I always assumed you liked humans better."

"I like some ghosts just fine. I just don't like when ghosts mess with people just because they can. Or when people mess with people just because they can, for that matter."

If she caught even a hint of the irony, it didn't show. "So, is she pretty? Your girlfriend?"

"I didn't say I had a girlfriend."

"You didn't say you didn't." She flipped her hair over her shoulder in a patented Paulina move. "You sure you couldn't do better?"

He sighed. There was no way to answer that question without digging himself into a hole so deep he wouldn't even be able to fly himself back out. Instead, he tried changing tracks again. "Okay, let me ask you a question. Why do you like me? You don't even know me."

"Of course I know you! You're a hero! You've saved my life more times than I can count, and you've even saved the whole world."

"But that's just… an image. It's a bunch of stuff I can do that other people can't, so I do it. But it doesn't say anything about who I really am, or what I like or care about. If you actually knew me, you might think… I dunno. That I'm just some loser geek with loser friends that you wouldn't want to spend two seconds with."

She snorted. "I doubt that."

"You'd be surprised."

"Oh, come on. Look at you! That white hair, those incredible green eyes, and that body! You could never be a loser."

He shook his head. "But that's still just an image. It's all surface stuff that doesn't mean anything. I don't want to be just the hero guy with the cool hair, or some accessory that goes well with your wardrobe and would up your stock with the right crowd."

And then he realized exactly what he was saying, and he suddenly felt awful for the months he'd spent crushing on her without thinking of her as anything more than a picture to hang in his locker or have on his computer desktop. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees. "You know, I once had a crush on a girl. She was totally hot, and everyone wanted her, which is probably why she wouldn't give me the time of day."

"Are you for real? She must be blind!"

He grunted at the irony. "Let's just say, where I come from, I'm not exactly high up on the food chain. I'm more like the plankton that gets eaten by the little fish who get eaten by the big fish."

"I find that hard to believe."

"Well, believe it. But anyway, I always thought this girl was being really unfair to me, not giving me a shot without even taking the time to get to know me. But I just realized something. I was being unfair to her, too. I thought it was a compliment, crushing on her like that, but all it was was… reducing her to an image. I wasn't taking the time to get to know her any more than she was taking the time to get to know me. I just wanted something pretty to make everyone notice me, so that the big fish would think I could be a big fish, too. And that's just stupid and wrong."

"Why? What's wrong with wanting someone pretty?"

"Is that really what you want? Someone who only wants you 'cause you're pretty?"

"It's better than nobody wanting you at all."

"But it isn't real. It's nothing but a cheap knockoff, and you are so not the kind of person who would settle for a knockoff. You should hold out for someone who's really crazy about you."

"Like you are about whoever this mystery girl is?" She made a face like she'd tasted something disgusting.

"You deserve that much, don't you think?"

"Who is she?"

He crossed his arms.

"I promise I won't claw her eyes out or anything. Well, maybe a little."

He couldn't help but smile at the mental image that a catfight between Paulina and Sam brought to mind. But there was no question who would win. He'd seen Sam dispatch too many ghosts to doubt her ability to take down one human cheerleader. "Paulina, you—"

A cold, blue-tinged mist escaped from his mouth, and he was up off the couch in an instant. "Hold that thought. Or, actually, I'll hold that thought," he added, as another green slimeball phased in through the wall.

It took him about half a minute to get it into a Fenton Thermos. "What the heck are these things, and why do they keep attacking you?"

He waited until she went to the bathroom before checking his text messages again. Finally, there was the one he'd been waiting for, from Sam this time. She'd done some research online and had found the kind of ghost that had been targeting Paulina.

"They're called Thralls," he told Paulina when she got back from the bathroom. "They're kind of like slave ghosts, and are controlled by some kind of 'rune stone.' Control the stone, and you control the Thralls, and they have to do whatever you want."

"So who would want to use a bunch of ghosts to go after me?"

"You tell me. Who has a grudge against you?"

"How should I know? Half the girls at Casper High are jealous because their boyfriends have wandering eyes when I'm around. But it's summer vacation, so it's not like I'm seeing everyone like I do at school." Her eyes narrowed. "Oh! That goth geek! She was at the club today when the attacks started. She can't stand me, and she loves all this spooky stuff."

"It's not her. She's, like, organized protests against the anti-ecto laws. I don't think she'd be okay with enslaving ghosts. Or any creature."

"How can you be so sure? She and I did have it out last year when everyone thought she was cheating on that loser boyfriend of hers with you. As if!"

Danny crossed his arms. "It's not her. Moving on."

She scowled. "Well, I don't know who else would have it in for me in the middle of the summer. If it were Homecoming, or Prom, or—" She stopped, her eyes widening. "Cheerleading camp! It starts next week, and I'm a shoe-in for squad captain this year!"

"Cheerleading camp?" He gave her a skeptical look. "You don't really think someone would attack you over—"

She put her hands on her hips and gave him a look.

"Right. That's exactly the kind of thing someone would attack you over. Who's your biggest competition?"

"Amber Cross. That little shrew has been trying to take over since middle school."

"Maybe we should go have a little talk with Amber."

They were a block away from Amber's house when Danny exhaled another stream of mist into the air. This time, however, instead of a single blob-like Thrall ghost, an entire horde of them attacked from all directions. Danny put up a shield around Paulina, then dove into the mass. Some of them he was able to pick off easily with his ghost ray, but the sheer numbers made them difficult to fight. Three of them ganged up to hit him from behind, sending him crashing face-first into the sidewalk. He tasted the coppery tang of blood as his lip scraped along the sidewalk—funny how even though his blood turned ectoplasmic green when he was in ghost form, it still tasted like blood—but Paulina screamed, and he was back up to find a mass of ghosts swarming the shield that was protecting her.

"Sorry, guys, but I don't think the lady's into green slime. What do you think this is, a Nickelodeon show?"

He used a blast of ice to freeze them off of the shield, sucking a few more of them up into a Thermos before he got overrun once more. Another surge of ice, and he was free. But the shield around Paulina wouldn't last forever, and he realized the only way to stop the Thralls would be to get the rune stone away from Amber, if she really was the one controlling them. "Paulina, take off the Specter Deflector! I gotta get you out of here!"

"Finally!" With great joy, she yanked the belt off of her waist and threw it onto the ground.

He managed to clear another layer of snot-ghosts off the shield, then disengaged it so that he could grab Paulina. "Need a lift?" he asked, sweeping her up into his arms.

"I thought you'd never ask!" She clung to his neck, and he turned them both invisible as more Thralls came at them. He started to make a run for Amber's house, but behind him, the Thralls began terrorizing random people on the street now that their target had disappeared on them.

Cursing under his breath, he set Paulina down on the flat rooftop of Amber's row house. "I'll be right back." He formed another shield around her, then went back into the fray, putting himself between several of the ghosts and a couple that was screaming and covering their heads with their arms. The Thralls immediately redirected their attention to him, and he smirked at them. "Miss me, guys?" Then they were all over him once more, slamming him to the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him, but he blasted them back with another freeze ray. Now that he had their attention, he sped back to Paulina. They followed, but weren't as fast, and he was able to grab her, turn them both intangible, and take her straight down through the roof into the house, with the Thralls not far behind.

They went through three rooms before they found Amber in a bedroom decorated with Casper High Raven banners and cheerleading posters. She was sitting on her bed, clutching a black stone carved with something that looked like stick figures. Underneath the carvings, there was an image of the Thralls attacking, as if the thing were some sort of crystal ball. She was so surprised when Danny and Paulina materialized right in front of her, she dropped the stone, and Danny was able to kick it away from her. It went flying, and she dove after it, but before she could get to it, he blasted it into dust with his ghost ray. As soon as the stone was destroyed, the Thralls all disappeared.

He folded his arms across his chest and glared at Amber. "Didn't your mother ever tell you not to play with ancient, ghost-controlling rocks?"

Paulina seemed unusually subdued as he carried her back to her house and deposited her gently in the attic game room. "We've now reached our final destination. Thank you for flying Air Phantom."

She didn't so much as crack a smile, but instead reached out her hand to touch his lip. "You're hurt."

Reflexively, he jerked his head back. "It's nothing." He'd stop at Sam's before heading home. She was well-practiced at patching up his scrapes and bruises. "You shouldn't have trouble with those ghosts anymore. Although, I'd watch my back with Amber, if I were you."

"Right. So…" She looked down. "I suppose you'll be taking off."

"Well, yeah. You're safe now."

"My hero," she said, but there was an ironic edge to it. She sighed. "I guess you're pretty much everyone's hero, aren't you?"

He wasn't sure what to say to that. "I just want to use what I've been given to make a difference."

She looked back up at him. "But there must be people who stand out from the rest. People you'd do anything for, not just because you want to make a difference, but because they're important to you personally, right?"

He realized she was talking about their earlier conversation, hinting at the girlfriend she suspected but he would neither confirm nor deny. And she was right, but not just about Sam. He thought of Tucker, and Jazz. His parents. Valerie. Danielle. While it was true that he'd put his life on the line for anyone who was in danger, these were the people for whom no risk was too great. The ones he couldn't even contemplate losing because the hole they would leave in him would be too gaping. "Yeah, I suppose there are."

"But I'm not one of them, am I? That's what you were trying not to say before."

He didn't answer her, but he could see in her face that he didn't need to. She already knew.

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