(Disclaimer: Sing with me, children! Butch Hartman owns Danny Phantom and all characters in this fic. Not me! Not me! Never me! No profit is made from this, so don't sue! Don't sue! Don't ever suuuuuue! Special thanks to Green Turquoise for beta-reading.)
A mother's work is never done, Maddie said to herself as she hung up her cellphone and turned her full attention back to the road in front of her. Jack had just called to say that Danny needed posterboard for a project, would she please get some? And did she remember his fudge?
As if I could ever forget that. She loved her husband dearly, but he was intolerable when going through chocolate withdrawal.
Yes, being a mother is a full-time job. Add onto that the careers of parapsychology and ghost hunting and it was not surprising that Maddie's plate was rather full. Between a research trip to the university and the supply run, she had missed supper with the family entirely and was only now heading back. She ran through her mental list one more time. No point in driving the Fenton Assault Vehicle all the way home only to have to go right back out again to pick up some essential item.
Okay, I've got the chicken and marinade and all the vegetables for the casserole tomorrow. I wonder if adding a new filter to the ectoplasmic cooker would get it to work without mutating the food. I've got those capacitors Jack wanted for the new tracking module. The fiber-optic cables are on backorder and won't be here until Monday. I've got that new adolescent psychology text Jazz wanted. I guess that just leaves the posterboard…
The sun had fully set by the time Maddie finished in the school supply store. She paused before getting back in the car to breathe deeply of the cool, spring air. The full moon was just peeking over the cliffs at the edge of town.
It would be a beautiful night for ghost hunting, she mused. It's not a school night, so we might even be able to persuade Danny and Jazz to tag along.
Her route home took her by the park. Moonlight glinted off the posts of the fence that surrounded it and silvered the young, fresh leaves the trees were still unfurling. The bright colors of the flowers planted in scattered beds were muted to shades of grey. A flash of white darted through the shadowed tree-branches.
Wait a minute!
She didn't slam on the breaks. If this was what she thought it was, Maddie didn't want to let it know she was onto it. Instead, she slowed the RV slightly and took a second look.
Just as I thought! The ghost kid. It would take too long to get Jack out here. It might get away...well, I guess I'm hunting solo tonight.
Maddie forced herself to drive smoothly around a corner before parking the RV and grabbing her Fenton Bazooka. She grinned ferally as she pulled her hood and goggles over her head. The heady surge of adrenaline that came from knowing she was about to go toe-to-toe with some heartless, ectoplasmic creep…she never got tired of it. The park was closed for the evening, but she vaulted over the fence with ease and slipped into the shadows. Danny Phantom was the most wily ghost she and Jack hunted, always slipping through their fingers at the last second. In this hunt, stealth mattered far more than sheer power.
Wonder what he's fighting this time, Maddie wondered as she crept through the darkness toward the distant flickering beyond the trees. She didn't want to attack until she knew. If it was a particularly powerful ghost, it might be the better part of wisdom to hold off until the ghost kid had disposed of it before launching her own attack.
Another shimmer of white and silver…but no green. Maddie frowned. No ectoblasts. Was this a simple hand-to-hand combat? There had to be another, hostile ghost present if their current theories were correct. Along with being their most wily foe, Phantom was also the most puzzling. After all, ghosts were obsessive entities. Obsession was what tied them to this plane, after all, but Danny Phantom seemed to have no such thing…at least at first. Then Maddie had realized that, nearly every time Phantom had been spotted, he had been locked in combat with another ghost. Ghost fighting had to be his obsession.
I wonder if he was somehow involved in parapsychology before he died. Oh, stop it, Maddie. You can't allow yourself to think of him that way. It would be a great thing to make you freeze up at just the wrong moment.
The trees thinned just ahead as the park opened out into a meadow surrounding the lake. A little ways from the shore was a gazebo used for local bands or political speeches and a playground. And soaring above them was her quarry. Amity Park's Spectral Public Enemy Number 1, Danny Phantom, dove through the posts of the gazebo, then under the slide and slalomed through some young trees that had been planted on the periphery. Maddie caught a glimpse of his face through her Bazooka's scope as he passed. The wind slicked his white hair against his skull and his eyes gleamed brightly. But the smile on his face was strangely relaxed for someone in pursuit of or being pursued by a ghost. Come to think of it, where was that ghostly foe? Maddie scanned the sky. It wasn't uncommon for ghosts to go invisible, but open combat was generally not one of those times. It required too much energy to do both at once. She turned her attention back to Phantom, hoping to divine the location of the other from his movements.
The ghost boy paused for a moment, then shot straight up into the sky. For a moment, Maddie thought he was trying to make an escape, but his ascent slowed at about two hundred feet. He hung there for a moment, the moon shining behind him, before gravity took control and he plummeted toward the lake. He dove like a stooping falcon, at the last second pulling out of his dive to skim just above the rippling surface at top speed. The ghost laughed with delight and plunged his hands into the water, slicing it into two, sparking fan-tails as he flew.
Maddie lowered the bazooka as it hit her. There was no spectral foe here tonight. Danny Phantom was simply…playing. But that was impossible! Ghosts don't play. Oh, they might toy with people as a part of feeding their particular obsession, but simple, innocent play! Suddenly her theories over the nature of the ghost kid (and ghosts in general) were on shaky ground…and she didn't like it. She watched in fascination as Danny Phantom pulled up and did a backflip into the lake itself. After a few seconds, he surfaced and floated calmly on the water, staring up at the moon.
Impossible, she thought numbly. A ghost's obsessive nature should not allow for such…well frivolity. Every moment is devoted to their "tie" to this world. If they lose that, they should move on.
But Phantom showed no signs of dispersal. After a moment, he floated out of the water (shaking his head and going intangible for a second to dry off) and flew over to the swing set. The sight of one of the most powerful ghosts to terrorize the mortal realm simply swinging on a perfectly mundane swing set was so incongruous that Maddie forgot herself for a moment. She took a single incautious step…and snapped a twig under her foot. Phantom's head snapped around at the sound, his glowing eyes widening as he spotted her under the shadows of the trees. Maddie cursed her clumsiness as she saw him tense for attack or flight. Although, now that she thought of it, the ghost child's reaction to humans was flight more often than not. That, along with her utter confusion about this entity's behavior, held her frozen in place.
Crickets chirped, uncaring, in the background as the two of them stared at each other. Finally, Phantom relaxed just slightly and gave her a weak grin. With a gentle nudge of his foot, he set himself swinging once more.
"You know," he said, the forced bravado not quite covering the quaver in his voice, "some grown-ups give up swings for good. Some of them will go play on one if no one's around to see."
He glanced at the empty swing beside him before turning back to her with an expression that was equal parts wistfulness, uncertainty and apprehension. "But I think you're the kind of grown-up who likes swings and doesn't give a care about what other people think."
Maddie frowned. Phantom was right. She had never outgrown swings. When she had taken her children to the park when they were younger, she had been right beside them on the playground equipment every time. This was a challenge. But why? And why this particular one?
Slowly, cautiously, she walked forward, every sense at full alert for a sign that this was a trap. Phantom tensed slightly as she passed close and he stopped rocking himself back-and-forth. With an obvious exertion of will, he relaxed his muscles and began to twist the swing around on its axis. By the time she settled into the sling of her swing and placed the Bazooka on the ground beside her, the chains were wound tight all the way to the top…and he let go, spinning around and around like a Saint Catherine's Wheel. Maddie kept one eye on him as she rocked herself back and forth gently. She didn't dare actually start swinging. It was too risky. Instead, she watched the entity, her frown deepening as she found herself unable to resolve the conundrum of his behavior.
Finally, the chains of Phantom's swing finished unwinding. He slammed his feet to the ground to keep his momentum from carrying him around in the other direction and looked at her…and winced.
"Okay, what did I do?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you're looking at me like…I don't know. Like I hit a baseball through your window or something." Phantom swung one leg over the swing so that he now straddled the seat. He locked his hands loosely around one chain and rocked it sideways. "I know we're not exactly on the best of terms, but if I've done something else to tick you off, I'd kinda like to know what it is so I can at least try to fix it."
Emotional sensitivity. Another thing ghosts couldn't possibly have, but that this one displayed…or at least could fake it pretty damn well. She gave the ground a shove with her foot, sending herself swinging with a little more vigor.
"You're making my life difficult," she said shortly. One corner of Phantom's mouth quirked.
"How? I'm just fooling around. Not bothering anyone tonight that I can see."
"That's precisely how you're doing it."
The ghost stilled his rocking as he gave her an incredulous look. "Oooookay. Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don't." He cocked his head to the side. "Granted, I'm no scientific genius, but how the heck does goofing off in an empty park make things difficult for you?"
Maddie realized how weird and irrational her last statement must have seemed to him and sighed. "I thought I had you figured out," she said. She was about to continue, but Phantom's snort cut her off.
"Good luck with that!" He smiled sheepishly at her glare and raised his hands in a placating gesture. "Sorry, sorry! Don't shoot, please!"
Maddie glanced down at the Bazooka. She was tempted, but, by the time she jumped from the swing and aimed it, the ghost kid would likely be long gone. Instead, she dropped her feet to slow the swing.
"You're the one, glaring exception to everything we know about ghosts," she said, frustration beginning to leak through. "I thought I had your obsession pegged – ghost fighting." Her mouth twisted. "But, if that was true, you'd be out looking for trouble, not…goofing off. Right?"
"Guess so," Phantom said casually as he swung his leg back over the sling to sit straight again. "Though…if you don't mind educating the clueless here, how exactly did you find out all this 'stuff you know about ghosts'? I mean, we spirit-types haven't really been hanging around much. Well, until now."
The ghost hunter slowed herself to a stop. "No, but there are huge amounts of research into the subject. That is one of the reasons Jack and I searched for ghosts and a way to look into the Ghost Zone for so long…we wanted to put it to the test..." Her voice faltered. Something about what she just said bothered her…she just couldn't quite put her finger on it. Danny smirked and set himself swinging again.
"So, you've been looking your whole lives for ghosts so you could test the theory that they were all purely evil, obsession-driven chunks of ectoplasm that should be destroyed for the good of all humanity, and you're ticked because I'm not proving that little theory for you? Well, excuuuuuse me."
It was an unpleasant shock to realize that Phantom had eloquently verbalized what had been bothering her. All her life, Maddie had prided herself on how she faced the world and everything it threw at her with a logical scientific perspective. Now, she was having the fact of her unconscious hypocrisy rubbed in her face.
The Scientific Method (the foundation of Western Science and all it has accomplished) is a simple process. First, you observe a phenomenon. Second, you formulate an explanation or hypothesis regarding that phenomenon. Third, you see if you can use the hypothesis to predict future events accurately. Lastly, you use rigorous experimentation to test the hypothesis. If it stands up to this, your hypothesis gains strength and may be considered a viable theory.
But she had gotten the whole process backwards! Instead of starting from observations of ghosts, she and Jack had taken old stories of ghost encounters and the theories others had created using third and fourth-hand information and attempted to prove them correct on the ghosts they had encountered. And, when they had failed in their accuracy toward this particular ghost, they had tried to find some way to make the data fit the theory instead of re-examining the theory itself. But…this was foolish!
"There are dozens of ghosts who fit the profile exactly," she countered stubbornly. "We fight them on a daily basis, Phantom. Why should we throw over all we know because of one aberration?"
Phantom rolled his eyes and jumped off his swing, twisting in midair to float in front of her. "No clue. I'm not a scientist, after all. But it sure seems to bother you. And I'm sorry to burst your bubble, Maddie, but I'm not the only exception to those Great Rules of Ghosts you're depending on," he said with determined glint in his eyes. "There's a whole lot of ghosts who don't want to cause any trouble at all. Yeah, something's holding them here, but they just want to be left alone."
Anger boiled up out of nowhere. "Oh, really," she said in icy tones. "And just where are all these fine, upstanding ghosts?"
"Staying as far away from you and Jack as possible," Phantom shot back, his tone as sharp as the lash of a whip. "I mean, the least little beep out of one of your scanners and it's all 'GHOST! GHOST! DESTROY IT!' If you wanted a quiet afterlife, would you get anywhere near that?" He nodded toward the Bazooka. "Who knows? You might find a few who would be willing to talk if you and Jack weren't so trigger-happy."
He turned away. Maddie instinctively moved toward the weapon…but froze as what he said sank in. The ghost was right…but he couldn't be…he…
Damn it, Maddie! You've just been shown how you're operating with bad science. Instead of trying to justify it, why don't you apply that logical mind you're so proud of to yourself?
So she simply watched as the ghost child floated over to the merry-go-round. Grabbing one of the bars, he flew around in a circle, spinning it faster and faster until it was a colorful blur. Then he dropped down to ride it, leaning back lazily against the post.
He's just so…human, she thought. If I ignored the glow, I'd think it was some other mother's son playing out there. She felt the angry part of her rebel at that perspective. Okay, Maddie what's the problem with this? Why are you so resistant to the idea that you and Jack have been wrong all this time? What possible stake do you have in proving that ghosts are evil?
But this ghost was evil, wasn't he? After all, he'd held the mayor hostage…
And he's saved others. I can't justify or explain away all those rescues.
But how could she resolve the contradiction? It's not like he was a human with a human's complex psyche and drives.
He's clearly shown that he is far more complex than you thought, so leggo of that red herring. Now if you were dealing with a human's behavior, there would be no way to fully analyze it unless you were able to sit down…and talk to him.
Which was precisely what she and Jack and not done. Instead, they'd gone after the ghost kid with guns blazing, ignoring the entity's attempts to explain. The shell of anger cracked…and let out a little of what had been hidden behind it...
Maddie's eyes widened a bit as she realized this, then her shoulders slumped. Slowly, she got off of the swing and walked over to Phantom. The Fenton Bazooka lay abandoned on the ground behind her. By this time, the merry-go-round had slowed to a near crawl. The ghost looked up questioningly as the hunter sat down on the opposite side, and he absently waved away a moth which had been attracted by his glow.
"These other ghosts," she said hesitantly, pushing with her foot to speed the merry-go-round up again. "What are they like?"
Phantom blinked in surprise. Maddie chuckled. She'd seen almost the exact same look on her son's face when she'd managed to catch him off-guard. Yes, it was far too easy to begin to think of him as a person. "Come on," she chided him. "Like you said, they're probably not going to get anywhere within a five mile radius of me. How else am I supposed to find out?"
The ghost boy stared at her a moment…then began to smile. A slow smile but bright with joy and a hint of triumph bubbling behind it.
"Well…did you know that the old Wisconsin Dairy King still hangs out at his castle?"
Over the next hour, Phantom managed to give a brief summary on over a dozen good or neutral ghosts. They ranged from the exotic to the mundane, but each story only drove home their…well, humanity was the only way to put it. Were the differences enough to justify thinking of them as mere things? After all, humans could be ruled by obsession as well…just look at football fans.
But thinking of them as non-persons made things easier in some way. If they were merely unfeeling, non-thinking manifestations, you didn't have to worry about causing them pain. You could merrily dissect one to discover all its secrets without any moral qualms at all. Subconsciously, Maddie had resisted the idea that ghosts could feel…could actually be considered people instead of the mere residue of a person's life, because it would have meant changing her plans and limiting the scope of what she could do.
In the end, was she any better than Freak Show? Phantom's story about how he had been enslaved along with other spirits was particularly disturbing. When she didn't consider them as a threat, she had considered ghosts something to be used much like the Gothic ringmaster had.
"Now what did I do?"
Phantom's question jolted her out of her reverie. "What?"
The ghost rolled his eyes. "You've got that look again."
"Oh," Maddie chuckled ruefully. "It's not for you this time. I'm afraid…well, you've forced me to take a good look at myself. And I don't like what I see."
"Yeah," Phantom agreed, leaning back and crossing his arms behind his head. "Introspection can be a real pain in the neck sometimes." He winked impishly. "But it's something you can fix, right?"
"I think so. I guess…No, I am sorry."
Phantom grinned at her. Again, she was reminded of her son. He'd smile like that sometimes. "It's okay," he said. "You just needed a little more info. And I kinda…"
He was interrupted by her cell going off. Maddie gasped realized how late it was. "Oh, Lord! Jack must be frantic!" She fumbled around, trying to find the pocket she'd stashed the phone in.
"Yeah, it is kinda late," the ghost boy said, floating up. "You get home to your family. We'll talk again soon." With that, he waved and vanished into the night before she could even think to object. Finally, she got her phone out and flicked it open.
"Jack…no, Jack. I'm perfectly fine. Just got a little sidetracked is all." She said as she stood up, phone to her ear and walked over to retrieve her Bazooka. "I know. I'm sorry. I should be home in about fifteen minutes."
She turned to look over the playground one last time. "And, Jack? When I get home…we need to discuss something." She smiled fondly. "And I love you, too. See you soon, lover-boy."
Maddie sighed as she shouldered her weapon and made her way out of the park. Yes, it was going to be a long discussion. But it was necessary.