Summary: Maddie had always thought she was a good person. She had known it, with solid conviction. She loved her family, she loved her kids, and she protected the town from ghosts.
A/N: I read a fic today, where Maddie and Jack admitted "we were wrong" to Phantom. It was a good fic, pretty sweet, but it got me thinking, about how hard it is to actually say "I was wrong", especially when it is something as terrible and monumentous as, well, seeing another species as being insapient and evil, and attacking them for it. It's hard to admit that to yourself, because it changes how you see yourself as a person. So that's what inspired this fic. Wanted to fairly represent everyone's perspective and highlight some complexity and nuance about... I guess judgement, blindness, and empathy in general. I hope you enjoy it.
Maddie had always thought that she was a good person.
Her and Jack, they were always rushing to protect the town. They fought off every ghost with fervor, always trying their best to save their neighbors and community from the vicious ghost attacks. And oh, they were vicious. Sidewalks destroyed, billboard demolished, store shop-windows shattered. She was amazed, and grateful, that no one had yet seriously gotten hurt.
She didn't know what she would do with that guilt. She and Jack had been the ones who had opened the portal, she couldn't lie to herself about that. They had been the ones to open attack on Amity Park from ectoplasmic ghosts.
But they had dealt with it the best they could. They couldn't shut down the portal, so they built phase-proof doors to seal away the ghosts. They couldn't stop the attacks from happening, so they began to fight back.
Jack had been the one to counsel her, late in the night, when the kids were asleep, and thoughts were running restless, rampant through her tired mind. He had said, "We're doing our best, Mads. We're trying to make up for it."
Maddie had also always fancied herself a good parent.
She loved her kids, her precious Danny and Jazz. She loved their precious bickering, the way Danny would always stare up at the stars in wonder and how Jazz seemed so importantly glued to her books and psychology.
And Maddie was always the more reasonable one of the couple, never let Jack lock up the kids in - oh, what was it? - the Fenton Stockades. She knew he would never do it, not for real. She loved that childishness inside of him too, it made her heart swell with fondness and let her feel real, feel comfortable and loved in her own skin. She could toss back a childish joke or two, too, and smile at the sensation of freedom.
Yes, she loved her family dearly. Them, and her passion for her research - new, undiscovered worlds! - is what kept her going strong. It was what kept her going to protect her community and family with burning passion, bright eyes, hazmat goggles, ectogun in hand. What kept her strong during the late nights in the lab, designing and testing another weapon. Jack had the same feeling too, she knew it, that core of strength from them being together, their cause of protection, and their mutual passion. It was what allowed them to have inhuman rates of production, turning out one new invention after another.
Maddie Fenton was a good person. Or else she wouldn't be doing this all. She knew it, and took strength from it.
She only wished this piece of ectoplasmic scum would stop telling her otherwise.
"How could you, Mrs. F!?" the diminutive ghost shouted. "How could you hurt her?"
It was late at night. Maddie was alone. She had just been taking an midnight stroll, trying to clear her head and get some air, when her ghost scanner had pinged.
She had of course followed the signal, worried that someone was getting hurt.
She fired another blast at the ghost. The ghost that resembled a girl. White hair, green eyes, jumpsuit, her resemblance to Phantom was unmistakable.
"Why don't you resPOND!" the ghost growled, dodging the blast, firing one of her own in response that went wildly amiss. Maddie, tiredly, thought of the property damage the blast would have caused, the cracks on the sidewalk. Hadn't ghosts damaged this town enough?
"I don't know what you want from me," she bit out, finally, unable to keep it in. Despite their tricks, despite the fact that she knew how inhuman they were, she couldn't help but respond. They looked too human, acted too human, not to.
The ghosts green eyes flared, her entire body heaving midair. Maddie tensed for an attack.
"What I want from you? I just want you to leave us alone!"
Surprisingly, the ghost did not fire.
"Why did you have to shoot her?" the ghost said, and it sounded like she was on the verge of crying, a mix of frustration, anger, and helplessness. "She was just, god, she'd never even been in the human world before. It took me so long to convince her to come with me, to show her how good and fun the world can be. We were just going to fly out, leave everyone here alone. And... and you shot her. You, Mrs. F."
And her voice, when she said the last words, sounded almost disbelieving.
If this was a game played to hit at Maddie's weakest points, well, this ghost girl was doing it right.
"She was breaking into that store," she said roughly, ectogun still raised at the ghost, finger still loosely on the trigger. "Who knows what she'd - it'd steal."
"She doesn't even know what a clothing store is. She was just looking!" The ghost girl threw her hands up, in frustrated exasperation, then angled her head away to hide her face.
Maddie swallowed. Was that a calculated show of vulnerability, to trick her into believing this ghost was telling the truth? To make her believe in her humanity?
Yes, it must have been, her cold, logical mind told her. If she waited every time to question a ghost before they acted, before they moved to destroy someone's life, she would hesitate. Hesitation could cost lives. Hesitation would allow the ghosts to win.
That was why Phantom and this girl were so insistent on proving their ghostly morality. It was all to make them hesitate. A terrible, cruel game.
She hadn't realized she had let her gun lower. Eyes hardening, she raised it, finger squeezing the trigger, firing it straight at the girl. Her hand shook, she was tired, and perturbed, so her usually unerring aim only grazed the ghost's arm.
It was enough. The girl swirled, recoiling, green eyes widening in a look of surprise, betrayal, pain. It was a look that would remain frozen in Maddie's mind for a long, long time.
"You - you monster," she spat, clutching at her arms, eyes wild, flitting from her injury to Maddie. To her alarm, tears, real tears, were springing into the ghosts eyes. "I really thought - You don't even care, do you? You, you…."
"You're a ghost," Maddie said, but her words were uncertain in the face of this stale, night air, and the sight of those tears. "You're the one that doesn't care. Ghosts can't…"
She trailed off at the look on the girl's face. She couldn't describe it, but it made her heart thud with horror.
Ghosts can't feel, she finished mentally, lamely.
"You must not be a ghost," Maddie said urgently. "You - you can't be. You must be an exception. Something else."
The look the girl shot her then was pure venom. She cradled her arm closer to her.
"I'm not an exception. How long will it take you to realize that you're just wrong?"
The ghost shook her head, sniffed her tears away, puffed out her chest.
"I'm outta here. I, I got better things to do."
Maddie's ectogun had at some point gone limp in her hands, hanging loosely by her side. When the ghost pivoted away, began flying off, Maddie reached out with her other hand, with a cry of "Wait!" on her lips, but it was far too late. The ghost, the creature, the girl, she was gone.
"Wait," she said, uselessly, staring down at the gun in her hands. For a second, she almost angrily tossed it to the hard sidewalk, wanting to destroy it. Then she thought better of it, rationality returning. She would need it, if another ghost attacked.
If another ghost attacked.
A sick, bubbling feeling rose in her chest, and she laughed, alone, in the dark, in the streets of the most haunted city in America.
It took her a long time to recover her wits and walk home.
The sight of that ghost girl had shaken her, had made her doubt. It was an ugly, undesirable thing, a thick, putrid worm snaked around and into her heart. She doubted.
"Mads, what's wrong?" Jack asked, when she walked through the door. He looked tired, dark rings under his eyes that were visible only at night when his joyful exuberance turned into something more quiet, something more solemn.
She felt tired, too. She collapsed into a chair at the dinner table, throwing her ectogun carelessly onto the surface. She pressed her fingers into her eyelids, rubbing them exhaustedly, hoping the motion would somehow return her energy and her feelings of strong certainty.
Slowly, haltingly, she told him the entire story.
Jack listened, eyes somber, a frown growing the more she told.
"Jack?" she burst. "Jack, what if we were wrong?"
Her husband was silent for a long moment. His gaze floated upwards, to the ceiling. He said,
"This girl, she looked a lot like Phantom, didn't she?"
Maddie was startled.
"Well, yes. You think it's related too?"
"Maybe." His frown was heavy, and she hated seeing it on his face like this. But he wouldn't be human if it didn't bother him too. "I've had the same feelings about him, always acting so human. I even teamed up with him once, you know? Against that Wisconsin ghost? He was always joking, but looked sincere, so human. It made me angry when I thought he was just pretending, made me chase after him harder. But…" He hefted a big sigh.
"But now you're thinking he might have not been pretending after all."
He met her eyes in a wordless reply.
Maddie looked away.
What an ugly thing, she thought, this doubt. Twisting and squirming, making her innards feel sick and wrong.
"We were protecting the town," she said.
"Yes," he agreed. "We were."
"They could still be an exception. Somehow, more, I don't know, alive than the other ghosts."
"Yes," he agreed again. "But would it matter?"
That drew her short.
"If they feel, like us, and they so strongly feel that other ghosts matter too, that they have feelings -" He was struggling with the words, hands flailing out, making gestures, but his face was uncharacteristically pensive.
"I know what you mean," Maddie whispered. "I just don't know if I can do it."
They were both silent for a long time.
"Jack, she called me monster."
"You're not a monster, Mads."
"But I must be, if we were wrong." The words tasted sour on her lips. "Shooting first without thinking. There are laws against that. Some of these ghosts were, were children. Or at least looked like it."
She then said, "How can I even be human if I can shoot children?"
Jack looked at her, expression pained.
"Mads, I did the same thing."
That drew her short. Again.
"Maybe we're both monsters," she breathed, then immediately wished she hadn't. The expression of stark pain on Jack's face made her heart clench.
"Maybe we are," he said finally, neutrally.
They both looked down, unable to meet each other's gaze now. Maddie suddenly found the detailed grains of the table fascinating. A patch of hazy blue, next to a patch of gray, then a smaller path of white, like patterned pebbles. It was scarcely enough to distract her mind.
"Maybe they are just ectoplasmic scum," the venom, the heat, in her voice surprised her. "Maybe this is all just a cruel trick. A lie. Maybe they are still the monsters."
"I can't believe it. They must have tricked us, somehow. I can't… They can't…."
She rested her head in her hands, eyes wild, heart beating fast.
His steady voice made her look up at him.
"We didn't know, Mads. We couldn't have known - it's against everything we've ever researched. And we'll… we'll try to make up for it."
We're doing our best, Mads, his previous words echoed in her head. We're trying to make up for it.
"And if that's another lie?" If her words had felt sour before, now they felt like ash.
"Mads." His voice was stern now. "Listen to yourself."
She did, and felt revulsion, regret.
She sighed, pulling herself up from the table. Took a moment to make herself a little more dignified, square up her shoulders. "You're right, Jack. I can't just run away from this." She looked at him, feeling pained. "We can't run away from this."
Seeing agreement in his eyes, she continued, mind turning practical. She forced herself to think of it as a puzzle to solve, a course to chart.
"We have to keep protecting the town, but now…" She swallowed, her emotions were still too turbulent. "Now we will ask first. Never shoot until we know we're facing an enemy." Her mind was whirling. "Increase defensive measures, like the shield. Less offensive, inhumane measures." Her face paled. "The ecto-converter."
"It was destroyed."
"I know, but, god, if we had used it, say on that girl…"
Her stomach felt sick.
"Jack, what did we almost do?"
"Keep going," he said. "What else do we need to do?"
"Well…" she hesitated. The image of the Phantom-girl flashed into her mind, then the image of her friend's startled expression when she was shot, the incident that started the night. "I want to apologize to that girl, and her friend."
Jack nodded. "And to Phantom."
They looked at each other.
"Who else?" Jack asked.
"I'm quite certain we don't need to apologize to the Wisconsin ghost, at least," Maddie said wryly. She was starting to feel more like herself again.
Jack grinned, almost viciously. "Definitely not."
They talked for some time after that, regaining some good humor as their plan of action came to them, gave them conviction and strength to fight against their wrongs and see them for what they were.
It was hard to be wrong, to have done something so terribly wrong, but Maddie was now determined. They would make up for it. They had a plan. They would redeem themselves.
But late at night, when they were both in bed, Maddie found herself unable to sleep.
Maddie had always thought she was a good person. She had known it, with solid conviction. She loved her family, she loved her kids, and she protected the town. And she always strove to make amends for her mistakes.
But now she wondered. A thick, wriggling seed of doubt had planted itself into her heart.
She kept thinking, could it be fake, could it be fake?
Then, what if it really isn't?
And she knew suddenly, from her thoughts, that she really must be a monster to keep trying to deny the truth. For what? An attempt to preserve her self-image? To prevent herself from the pain of guilt and self-recrimination? Was she really so selfish?
Sorry, Jack, she thought, staring at her husband's face, tracing his joyous laugh lines, the way his body heaved as he snored peacefully.
She could finally admit it to herself.
I am not a good person.
But she would try.