(Disclaimer: The Management would like to hereby deny any allegations of ownership of the characters hereby portrayed. The Management acknowledges that Butch Hartman was the genius behind their creation. The Management also acknowledges that no profit was made from this story other than personal satisfaction. The Management would also like to recommend that "Playground Philosophy" be read prior to starting this fic since, well, it is the sequel to that story.
The Management would also like to have John Crichton deliver her some chocolate, raspberry cheesecake while dressed in black leather. The Management acknowledges that he is from an entirely different fandom, but The Management is over 30 and not about to cradle-rob by asking for Danny Phantom to be delivery-boy even in her twisted fantasies. And, finally, the Management would like to thank Green Turquoise for excellent beta-reading services.)
"Darn it! Where does she keep the stuff?"
Jack was making like the proverbial bull in a china shop down in the Fenton's kitchen. Maddie was on her way home, and he intended to have coffee hot and ready for her when she hit the door. But not the regular Folgers coffee. No siree. Jack may have had all the common sense and survival instincts of a rutabaga, but he had managed to pick up a few things…particularly where his marriage was concerned.
"Dad? What are you doing?"
Jack pulled his head (well, actually the entire upper half of his body) out of the cabinet and grinned at his daughter. Jazz was standing in the kitchen doorway with a look of apprehension on her face. She always seemed to have that expression when she found him in the kitchen unsupervised. He had no clue why. Just because his last attempt at making brownies resulted in a self-motile sludge with a craving for hairstyling products…
"Jazzy! Just the person I need to see. Where does you mother keep the really good coffee?"
"The Kona blend?" Jazz asked with a puzzled blink. "Third shelf of the pantry behind the pasta."
"Behind the pasta?" Jack threw open the pantry door and started rummaging. "Why on earth would anyone put coffee with pasta? Ah!" He pulled out the bag and held it triumphantly over his head. "There it is. Thanks, Jazzy-pants."
"Ummmm…Dad?" the redhead asked. "It's almost ten. Why are you making a pot of Mom's special coffee right now?"
Coffee found, Jack now busied himself with hunting down the filters. "Oh, she said on the phone we needed to discuss something when she gets home."
Jazz's eyes widened, then narrowed. "Discuss something. Dad, what did you do?"
"Nothing!" Jack protested. Then he smiled, sheepishly running a hand through his graying hair. "At least, I don't think I did. Your mom didn't sound upset…"
Buuuut better safe than sorry, he thought, turning back to the coffee pot and loading the hopper with the grounds. His daughter was not convinced.
"I know it's not your anniversary. That's not for another five months." She shot him a glare. "You didn't forget anyone's birthday, did you?"
"No, no, Jazzy," he replied. "Don't worry. I'm sure it's nothing catastrophic." He grinned. "Maybe she stumbled across a new kind of ghost on the way home!"
Jazz quirked an eyebrow at him. "Riiiiight. Whatever it is, Dad, try staying focused while you're discussing. Last thing we need is Mom running off to Arkansas again."
Jack sighed and rolled his eyes as the girl retreated upstairs. It couldn't be anything that bad…could it?
The coffee was brewed and sending a delightful aroma through Fenton Works when Maddie got home. Jack had waiting for her when she got to the kitchen and mentally congratulated himself on his forethought when she accepted it with a smile.
"The Kona?" she asked, unnecessarily.
"Figured we'd need the caffeine if this was gonna be a long talk," Jack said with a confident grin…one that almost covered up the hint of "I hope like hell I'm not in trouble this time" in his voice. Maddie chuckled and leaned over to give her husband a one-armed hug.
"It's not that kind of talk, Jack," she said reassuringly. "More of a business type of discussion…or maybe scientific…"
"Well, let's get to it!" Jack exclaimed, relief surging though him as he got himself a cup of the brew and dropped into one of the chairs surrounding the kitchen table. Maddie settled herself across from him and took another long, indulgent sip of her coffee before putting it down and folding her hands together.
"I guess I should start with explaining why I was so late tonight," she began. "On the way home, I spotted Danny Phantom in the park…"
"The ghost kid!" Jack broke in. "You didn't call me?" Maddie sighed and gave him a rueful, apologetic smile.
"I'm sorry, Jack. There wasn't time…or at least I thought there wasn't."
As swiftly as it had vanished, Jack's enthusiasm returned. "It's okay, honey. Did you get him! How big of a fight did he give you before he went down? Are there any bits left to study? Oh! And which ghost was he fighting this time?"
Maddie looked uncomfortable. "No…I didn't get him," she said, taking another sip of coffee. "In fact, we didn't end up fighting at all."
"What?" Jack's voice was a mix of confusion and indignation. How could Maddie let a chance to take down a high-powered ghost slip through her fingers like that? She put up her hands to placate him.
"Let me explain. First of all, we have to trash our theory about Phantom's obsession. He wasn't fighting anything in the park. He was just playing around, just like any teenaged kid would. Well, one that didn't think he was too grown-up for swing sets, that is." Jack was stunned to silence. Maddie smiled weakly and continued. "Yes, that was my reaction, too. I'm afraid we're going to have to re-examine most of our theories on the behavior and nature of ghosts. You see…Phantom and I actually sat down and talked for a while." She glanced up at the clock. "Quite a while, actually. From the things he told me, we're astronomically off-target."
She stared down into her coffee, almost as if she was trying to divine the future in the distorted reflections on its surface, as the silence stretched out between them. Finally, Jack asked, "Off-target on what?" He kept his voice level and quiet, but it was the kind of quiet that comes when a man realizes that someone or something he loves has been threatened. What had happened out there? Just what had that despicable chunk of ectoplasm done to his wife?
"That they are unfeeling, for one thing," she said. "And that they are sub-sentient or barely sentient at best." She looked up at her husband levelly. "That they are all…evil."
He stared at her, dumbstruck. Maddie knew as well as he did the nature of ghosts. They had both studied all available research extensively! How could this fiery ghost-hunter who had been on the frontline against the forces of darkness be seriously considering this? It was impossible!
Jack Fenton's eyes narrowed. So that's your game, ghost-kid, he thought darkly. He knew what he had to do. Maddie caught his change of expression and drew back a bit. "Jack?" she asked uncertainly.
The Fenton Anti-Ghost Cuffs were in the next room. Given Maddie's natural speed, it would have taken too long to get them. His only chance was a bull-rush. He seized the edge of the kitchen table and hurled it to the side, lunging forward and throwing his wife over his shoulder before she could react.
"Jack! What are you doing?" she screamed, struggling in his grip. But getting out of a fireman's carry once you're trapped in one is difficult even for a sixth degree black-belt.
"Keep fighting him, Maddie!" Jack roared as he charged out of the kitchen. "No ghost is getting a way with turning my family into meat puppets!"
"What?" Maddie went still in his arms…then groaned. "Oh, hell! It's not like that!"
"Dad! What's going on?"
"What are you doing to Mom!"
Fenton ignored the distressed shouts of his children as he raced into the cluttered, basement lab. It was the only possible explanation. Maddie had to be overshadowed. There was no other way she'd be even considering that ghosts were anything but evil. Footsteps clattered on the stairs behind him as Danny and Jazz raced to catch up. Apparently, they'd decided that getting a straight answer out of Jack was going to be too much trouble.
"Mom? What happened?" Danny asked, a note of panic in his voice. Jack felt Maddie thump him in the back with her fist, but it wasn't hard. Nowhere near as hard as she could hit. Strange…why wasn't the ghost trying harder to get free?
"Nothing much, Danny. Your father seems to think I'm possessed," she answered. "Apparently I can't change my mind about something without being overshadowed." Jack felt his rage flare at how exactly the ghost managed to imitate his wife's irked tone.
"Jazz!" he ordered as he set Maddie down on the exam table. "Get the Fenton Ghost Extractor. We've got to get that ghost out of your mother before it sinks its claws in any deeper. I'll get the Ghost Gauntlets."
"The heck I will!" Jazz snapped, crossing her arms and looking very much like a smaller version of her mother. "Everyone has the right to change an opinion! Automatic assumption that it's due to malign influence, be it mental illness or spirit possession, is a degradation of that personal privilege!"
"Ummm…just what did you change your mind about?" Danny asked, hesitantly.
Maddie rolled her eyes, but made no move to get off the table even when Jack released her. "Let's just say I want to reconsider some fundamental assumptions we've made about ghosts."
"What are you doing just standing there?" Jack shouted as he rummaged for the devices. "That's not your mother talking."
Jazz shot Maddie a look of sympathy that had just the slightest hint of smugness in it. After all, she'd been in that identical position not too many months ago. "Sounds like her to me," she said. "What do you think, Danny?"
Danny, for his part, looked strangely guilty. "She…seems okay." Jazz gave her brother a sharp look, then took him by the arm and steered him upstairs.
"We'll be upstairs getting homework done," she announced. "And I suggest you start apologizing right now, Dad, before Mom throws you in the Fenton Stockade again."
Jack faltered a bit at the desertion of his children, but shrugged it off and turned back to Maddie…who was fiddling with a scanner. "Get away from that, ghost!"
"Jack Fenton!" Maddie said sternly. "Kindly stop jumping to conclusions and start looking at hard evidence!" She held up the device, sensor end pointed toward herself.
"No ghost detected," the Fenton Finder calmly notified all and sundry. Jack grabbed it from her and quickly checked it for tampering before pointing it toward her once more.
"Why are you even bothering?" the device said. "There are no ghosts anywhere near here."
"Ready to listen now?" Maddie asked, scowling. Jack looked from the Fenton Finder to his wife in disbelief.
"You…you actually believe…"
Maddie crossed her arms. "Actually, Jack, I'm not sure what to believe other than we need to do some very hard thinking and examination of the evidence we actually have regarding ghosts. Not what we've been told or simply read about. Now, be quiet and let me tell you what happened in the park."
In sharp, clipped tones, his wife related her conversation with Phantom, along with her assessment of how it related to what they had thought ghosts…and the gargantuan flaws that had been revealed in their own investigative process. Jack listened, but his jaw tightened with stubbornness as she reached her conclusion.
"So we're just going to take his word for it?" he asked. "He's probably lying."
"Yes, I'm aware of that possibility," Maddie shot back. "But that doesn't alter the fact that we've been trying to fit the data to the theory instead of the other way around. We need to follow the evidence…"
"By that argument, we should have given up ghost hunting and become accountants years ago!" Jack interrupted. "All those years, Maddie. All those years without hard evidence. All those people telling us we were off our rockers, but we were right! And, I tell you, we're right about this too! We just need…"
"Damn it, Jack!" she shouted. "Are we going to even pretend to be scientists!" Her eyes sparked with fury. "How do you expect anyone to take our work seriously if we just ignore the evidence because it doesn't fit with our tidy, little idea? And that's not even counting the moral problems."
"Moral problems?" He asked, taken by surprise. "What moral problems?"
Maddie matched him glare for glare. "The ones that come if ghosts really are thinking, feeling beings. Do you think I like the idea that I was this close to becoming a Dr. Mengele for parapsychology?" Some of the anger retreated to reveal the guilt and anguish in her eyes. "If we're going to ask these questions, for God's sake, let's ask them now. When I think how close we were sometimes to actually catching a ghost…to taking it down here to…" Her eyes squeezed shut and she took a deep breath to steady herself. "Yes, some ghosts are evil…just like some humans are. But, damn it, we can't afford to assume they all are! And I'm not going to. Not anymore. And I don't particularly care if that offends you!"
Jack sputtered a bit. How could she turn her back on all they had built their lives on? But he couldn't find a good argument to refute her and fell into a sullen silence. Maddie gave him a long look and sighed.
"I'm going upstairs," she said. "When you're ready to talk about this calmly and logically, come find me." With that, she turned and headed up the stairs, leaving her dumbfounded husband alone in the lab.
Jack, I love you, but, God, you can be dense sometimes!
Maddie paused at the top of the basement stairs. A muffled rustling from the second level made her wince. Of course Danny and Jazz had heard them. She'd learned long ago that, unless you were willing to do it in a completely different building, kids always knew when their parents were fighting. But she'd deal with that later. Right now, Maddie needed some fresh air.
The moon had nearly set behind the buildings as Maddie came out to sit on the stoop. Granted, there would be few stars visible with the glare of Fenton Works' lights overhead, but it was calm out here. Practically no cars traveled this street at this hour. She could relax and clear her head.
Even this late in spring, the nights were rather cool in Amity Park. She shivered a little as a chill breeze swept by her and thought briefly about going in for a sweater.
"Maddie?" Her head jerked around at the familiar voice…but there was no one to be seen. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause a fight."
The chill did seem to emanate from the direction of the voice. "Phantom?" she asked cautiously.
"Yeah," he said with a weak laugh. "I hope you don't mind me staying invisible. I'd rather not give Jack anything else to get angry about if he looks out here."
One corner of Maddie's mouth quirked in a twisted, half smile. "No, I guess you wouldn't. How did you know we were fighting."
"Oh…I…" She heard a rustle like fingers going through hair and a scrape against the concrete step – likely from the ghost sitting down on it. "I stopped by to see if you wanted to talk some more. I saw Danny and…he told me about the argument…"
Maddie cocked her head to the side, puzzled. "It's not your fault," she said. "These things happen. It's not the end of the world."
"Or a marriage?" His voice was so low that Maddie could barely make out the question. It was strange, but she could almost see him there. In her mind's eye, she could picture him clearly, sitting on the step, legs folded up against his chest and arms wrapped around his knees. His expression would be one of apprehension and guilt…but why could she tell that just from his tone of voice.
"Or a marriage," she said firmly. "Jack and I have been through far worse, and we're still together." Curious, she reached out to where she thought his shoulder would be. He jumped slightly as her fingers met the target. "Though I have to admit, I'm not sure why you care."
"Hey, I was a normal kid once," Phantom replied after a long silence. "If anyone had screwed things up between my parents…"
Maddie sighed softly. This had to be the final nail in the coffin of the "ghosts are unfeeling, unthinking things" theory. "Danny was upset, wasn't he?"
"Don't worry about it. I'll go talk to him and let him know everything will be okay."
Silence again. Maddie frowned and reached out again to give the invisible shoulder a gentle shake. "It will be. Jack just needs time to process things." She chuckled. "I love him, but he's rather thick-skulled sometimes."
An amused snort came from the air beside her. "I think it runs in the family," the ghost said. Then there was another sudden rustle. "I think that's my cue to take off," he said. Maddie could just make out the sound of approaching footsteps. "I'll be in touch. Good luck."
With that, the chill spot vanished...just in time for the front door to open. Jack came out onto the front stoop and sat down on the spot Phantom had just vacated. He silently handed Maddie a fresh mug of the Kona coffee that had started the night's events.
"I'm sorry, Maddie," he said contritely. "Will you forgive me?"
Maddie smiled and leaned up to kiss his cheek. "Of course I do," she said, sipping the savory drink and gratefully snuggling against her husband's bulk as he put an arm around her shoulders.
"And you're right," he continued. "I'm being a thick-headed, closed-minded idiot."
"Now I wouldn't put it that harshly," Maddie objected, but Jack shook his head.
"No. If the shoe fits and all that…" He chuckled. "Ever wondered why I like old westerns so much?"
Maddie turned a little to look up at him. "The shooting and the crazy, horse stunts?"
"Well, I just thought I did because they're so darned fun to watch," he said, eyes twinkling a little. "But our daughter has a different opinion. Jazz thinks it's because everything's clear-cut. You don't have any problem telling the good guys from the bad guys. All need to see is what hats they're wearing." He heaved a massive sigh. "Maybe she's right. It would make life a whole lot easier if everything divided up so easily. If it wears a black hat, or isn't solid, it's a bad guy." He smiled down at her. "But I guess life never can be that simple. So…how do we contact the ghost kid?"
Maddie smiled and leaned her head back against her husband's shoulder. "I'm not sure. But we'll think of something."
(Author's notes: Thanks to everyone who gave me those wonderful reviews for "Playground Philosophy". I hope you found this one just as good. Before you ask, I might have an idea for another sequel…this one from Danny's POV. We'll just have to see if my Muse keeps getting slipped speed or something.)