He’s wears a suit of silver armor, and his head is crowned with toxic fire. An army of skeletons stretches far, far behind him, and all who would stop him have been cut down. He stands before the Ghost Portal, sword slick with green. His smile is wide and cruel, and it does not reach his eyes.
So hungry. He is so hungry. But he stands firm--he won’t harm another ghost. But he is so hungry. He's bitten his fingers to the bone and still he chews--
His human remains hang limply in its bonds. Smoke rises from the crown of blood blossoms set on his head. His face is a wreckage. The rest of him has fared no better.
Black ectoplasm oozes from his eyes and nose. Men with shotguns burst through the door, take aim, and he opens his mouth to scream but they are faster--
The Observants have cornered him. It is the only option, they tell him urgently. There is no choice. To stop the horde, he must be crowned.
Where his eyes were there are now only green holes, bleeding freely. His skin smokes and burns and melts, and his laughter is a twisted, awful noise--
He lies in pieces, screaming--
His head makes an awful sound when it hits the concrete, and he looks down at his human self with slow, dawning horror--
He huddles in a spreading pool of ectoplasm. His friends rush towards him, but he'll be dead before they get there.
His death was violent, awful, lonely. He hasn't been himself for a long time, but then, no poltergeist ever is.
The Ghost Portal malfunctions. He's the only fatality.
He bleeds ectoplasm from a dozen terrible wounds, and only a shredded hole remains where his mouth used to be--
He writhes, twists, contorts. Blood blossoms smolder in a neat circle around him, and his friends have no idea he’s in trouble, no one is coming to save him--
Unconscious, deliberately placed in a chemically-induced stupor so he can’t escape again. There are needles at his wrists and elbows, plastic tubes draped across the edges of the operating table. There are stiches down his chest, still damp with ectoplasm. It is perfectly legal, after all, to study ghosts.
His arm is missing. The eye will be next.
His throat has been torn out by another ghost.
He died so long ago there is no one left to remember him, and there is no one left to open the Portal. He's trapped, inert, forever.
He wears the Crown and the Ring well, despite his youth. No one dares stand against him, after what he did to Pariah Dark.
He’s melting, and his joints have gone all rubbery, and no matter how hard he tries he can’t change back--
His archenemy is the one who brings his body home. It wasn’t my fault, the man says. Over and over, It wasn’t my fault--
His head is gone, green smoke curling from his neck, but his body continues to lurch toward them--
The bullet gets him neatly between the eyes.
He’s hunched atop a pile of rubble, thick wires dangling down his back. He does not recognize his mother, but he remembers the purpose of a gun.
He has stolen one of your medallions and traveled to the past. His younger self looks up at him from his bed as he tries to explain--Humans, they die.
Red eyes sunken in a gaunt face. He hasn’t eaten in weeks, hasn’t slept in days. He can’t break free. Ghosts don’t have friends, ghosts don’t have family. He knows only that he must obey the man with the red orb.
His wounds bleed, and his wounds smoke. His friends look at him with horror twisting their faces. I can’t change back, he rasps.
He’s got two fistfuls of his intestines, but his left arm won’t work right because the scientists peeled most of the muscle there away for further study.
Would it be so bad, he thinks, if he tried just a taste? Just a small taste. No one would know. No one could know this used to be a person, so how would anyone know any of it was missing?
Now he knows what the Peeler feels like.
They've had him in containment for weeks, but still he fights. He isn't a very cooperative test subject, but he remains too interesting a study to melt down.
Go to bed, Jazz, his parents say brightly over him. Everything’s fine. We’re just doing a quick experiment. His mother has his kidneys in a jar. His father holds the scalpel.
Red eyes and a tattered cloak. He holds a long, thin blade in his hands. It’s more fun this way, he says. Hold still.
They say the old Fenton place is haunted.
He’s broken out of his bonds. The hole in his chest is only half-sewn shut but he doesn’t care, he just wants to see them dead--
His best friend is the one who kills him. Everyone is so grateful; they put a new statue up where that monster’s used to be, just outside city hall.
They have kept him in stasis for years, but he hasn’t aged a day. The night shift avoids him, swears that sometimes he opens his eyes. Completely brain dead, sure, but still, it’s like he’s looking right at you.
The timeline shudders to a halt, and you pinch the bridge of your nose with a frustrated sigh. Death or madness, and too often both. The future remains an ugly place for Danny Fenton. You have walked a thousand potentials, a thousand will-bes, and they all end badly for your young charge.
You are tired.
One of your wristwatches chimes as a reminder to return to the linear present. The Christmas Truce is today and you will have a visitor soon. The present requires your attention, and yet…
You float between young scientists in lab coats, frozen in the midst of mundane activities. There is a woman going over yesterday’s data print outs, there are two men laughing over coffee. These people are not villains. They weren't the ones who deemed Danny Fenton, alias Phantom, “too dangerous” to walk free. They were not the ones to rule Danny in need of extensive study, nor were they the ones first tasked to conduct experiment after experiment after experiment. Fifteen years since he was taken from his home, four years since the wires buried in his brain registered any activity. They never bothered with life support; after all, what use is that to a ghost?
Danny has spent over half his life in the hands of this American agency, unreachable by human or ghost--well, nearly every ghost. The you of now has his reasons for not interfering, and you will learn them in detail, later. But you are yourself from the past, where Danny Fenton is still young and free and untouched by evil or madness or death.
You don’t know why the you from now has chosen to stand idly by. The least you can do is apologize for it, as you have done a thousand times before.
There is no answer, of course. His body and mind wore out long ago, and what’s left of his ghost has squirreled away someplace deep within himself where no one can reach. This is not the worst it could have been for him. You know. You have seen the worst.
You put your palm against the curved glass of the stasis tube. The synthetic ectoplasm he floats loose-limbed in is thick with sedatives; even with time frozen, you don’t dare risk phasing through it to touch his hand. He is bleached of his human complexions, green veins stark where his skin thins. His eyes are heavy-lidded, his backlit green eyes glassy. No one is home.
Your wristwatch chimes again, in insistent reminder that you are needed elsewhen. “So many bad ends, Danny Fenton,” you mutter to yourself. “The world is a heavy burden.”
In your linear present, the Truce began not quite an hour ago. Your visitor will arrive in mere moments.
The Truce is the quietest night of the year in the Ghost Zone, but you always have your hands full with tasks thrust upon you by the Observants, and you have your studies, and your own hard-won promises, and so it's as any other night to you. You are Clockwork, and you keep your own counsel.
When your guest flies in through the upper arches, you’re quite literally up to your elbows in a particularly nasty paradox tangle involving one monstrous salamander, sixteen copies of a popular children’s book, and a length of lead pipe.
“Uh.” Danny floats a nervous half-circle around you, keeping a generous distance from the sparkling hole in reality you’re wrestling. “Is this a bad time?”
You spare a second to narrow your eyes at him. “Don’t tell me--you’ve managed to ensnare yourself in yet another temporal dilemma, leaving you no choice but to beg for my help so that you can stop your grandmother from purchasing an ancient dragon amulet in an antique shop?”
“What? No!” He blinks. “Wait, do I even have a grandmother who bought an ancient dragon amulet at an antique shop?”
He chuckles. “Very funny, Clockwork.”
“I do my best.” The hole in reality makes a noise like a fistful of squeezed bubble wrap before winking out of existence. That’s one more task to check off your to-do list. You take a moment to look at him properly. “So Danny, is the hat a permanent addition to the costume or are we just feeling particularly merry this year?”
With a sheepish grin he flicks the tail of his Santa Claus hat out of his face. “Well, y’know. Last Christmas got pretty nuts, so I figured a little precaution couldn’t hurt.”
There’s a snide joke to be made here, but you are tired. Instead you say, “If you aren’t here to take advantage of my hospitality, what is it that you want?”
Danny flinches and looks away. Ah. You must sound harsher than you mean to. “Forgive me,” you amend. “The Observants have tightened their leash since the ‘incident’ with your future self. I'm distracted, tonight.”
“I’m sorry,” he says with a sympathetic smile.
“I’m not,” you reply, matching his. Softer, you ask, “What is it that you want?”
“I--“ He laughs, tries again. “Would you like to come to Christmas dinner?”
You raise your eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“I know, I know, it’s kind of a weird thing to ask, what with you being a ghost and my parents being ghost hunters, but I made them promise no weapons at the table and only minimal questions. Heh,” he shrugs. “Best I could do, and I can’t guarantee they won’t try and take samples or readings or whatever, but--“
You close the distance between you and the boy you cheated Time for. “Christmas is a time for family and friends, not old ghosts. Why would you invite me at all?”
He looks up at you--you are stretched tall and thin with age, but that will pass in a moment--and grins. “What, you saving me and everybody I’m close to twice doesn’t constitute a friendship?”
You pause. This isn’t how you remember this conversation going. Or perhaps it always went this way, and you’ve simply spent too much time metaphorically knee-deep in bad endings to remember. Perhaps--perhaps you have been neglecting your own present.
“You don’t have to accept, y’know. I mean, if you’d rather stay cooped up in here being the Observants’ lackey--“
“I am no one’s ‘lackey,’” You reply waspishly. “Just because they hold the leash doesn’t mean I’m obligated to wear it.”
He grins. "Still cheating then?”
Always, you think but don’t dare say. Instead you smile, waving your hand to summon your staff from where you’d set it aside. “When would be an acceptable time to arrive?”
“Seriously? You’ll come? Awesome! Mom said any time after two would be fine.” He bounces into the air, grinning widely. “Oh, and if it makes you feel any better I invited Frostbite too, but he turned me down.”
“I’m not surprised. The Far Frozen have their own celebrations this time of year.”
“Yeah, that’s what he said, after like a hundred apologies for “declining a personal invitation into the Human World from the Great Savior himself.’” He rolls his eyes. “I tried to find Wulf too, but he’s a hard ghost to find. If you happen to see him around, do you think you could pass along the invite?”
“I already have.” You haven’t, but the look on Danny’s face is worth a little white lie. You’re the Master of Time; you are right to be a little smug sometimes.
“Uh, thanks? Anyway, I should probably head home now. See you tomorrow, Clockwork.”
“Good night, Danny.” You watch him fly out the same arch he entered through, and it is only then you allow yourself to slouch.
You are tired. You’re tired of looking at the bad and the bloody and the broken, but you’ve set out to keep young Danny Fenton safe. Every twist and turn in the parade of his life, and so many end in misery. That is the way of heroes, however. They forget themselves, they forget their own limits. It’s up to his friends to keep him in check in the present, and you will guide him towards a future without bloodshed or madness or loneliness. A difficult task, to be sure, but worth it.
Still. It's nice to know the boy considers you his friend.