Maddie's stomach churned as she pulled out of the driveway. She didn't like keeping things from her kids, especially things she knew full well was going to upset them, but she needed this. Her kids were there for her, they loved her and they looked after her, but she needed the company of someone who wasn't a constant reminder of how badly she was failing as a mother. She needed someone on the outside that she could escape to, someone who could take her words away at the end of the day instead of bringing them back into her home.
She needed a friend.
Maddie didn't realise how few friends she truly had. Most of the people she'd met in college dropped out of contact, some had simply become different people she could no longer relate to, and many had given the Fentons a wide berth after they discovered that their ghost studies weren't just some odd joke.
Tucker's mother had come to give her sympathies and a hearty serving of stew after the funeral. She'd given Maddie a warm hug and a gentle offer to let her know if she needed anything, anything at all.
But Maddie didn't feel right imposing her problems on a woman she could only call an acquaintance, it just didn't seem fair. Sure, they'd known each other for years, but they only ever talked about their kids. Mrs Foley was a truly lovely woman, but she wasn't someone Maddie felt she could open up to.
She had always had Jack for that. As long as he was there, she never felt like she needed anyone else.
But now he was gone, and she had no one.
Or, she thought she had no one. Where in the past a phone call from Vlad filled her with disgust and trepidation, now she couldn't help but feel that deep sense of relief of having someone else to talk to. Someone who understood what she was going through, someone who she could open up to about anything because even though he had made mistakes in the past, he was still an old friend, and they were both in pain.
They used to be so close back in college. She, Jack and Vlad would go everywhere together, as inseparable as Danny and his friends.
It was those times, the good times, that Vlad reminded her of, and it was those times they lost themselves in when she arrived at the little café.
"Oh, do you remember when Jack tried doing a keg stand for the first time, and it all came out of his nose?" Maddie giggled.
"Oh goodness," Vlad laughed, "I believe we were all quite a mess by the end of that night. If I recall correctly, I think I ended up carrying your shoes back to your dorm for you?"
"Oh god, those things." Maddie took a sip of her lemonade, it was a fancy affair with a slice of fruit on the rim and a little umbrella that she'd promptly removed after it poked her in the eye. "They were SUCH a fad back then, I could barely walk in them sober let alone post-frat party."
"Oh but just you watch, platform shoes will be back in fashion soon enough, it all comes full circle." Vlad took a dainty sip of his tea, it had a sort of sweet, fruity aroma. "Why just this week, three of my branch company's CEOs have started wearing shoulder pads."
"Oh no." Maddie put a hand to her mouth in horror. "Next thing you know I'll be back in the hairdressers getting another perm."
"I thought you looked rather charming with a perm."
"Vlad don't tease, it was awful and you know it, I looked like a tabby cat who lost a fight with a power cable."
Vlad spluttered slightly as he laughed mid sip, quickly bringing a napkin to his mouth to cover his blunder.
"Alright I admit it, it was quite awful, but not as awful as that terrible mullet that I decided for some god forsaken reason was a good idea at the time."
"Oh no, oh that was terrible." Maddie laughed as she picked up the little umbrella and placed it over Vlad's ear. "I think this look suits you much better."
"Ah yes, thank you my dear. Should we have a spot of rain, my left ear will remain suitably dry." He grinned, raising his tea cup to his lips.
He looked well, better than Maddie would have guessed from the last time she saw him, but the evidence of that night was still there.
There was a significant amount of bruising around his eyes, though it had faded to a yellowish colour. A thin scab evidenced a split in his lip that had probably torn itself open repeatedly over the week before finally beginning to heal, and one of his cheeks still appeared just the slightest bit swollen.
She was amazed to hear there had been no fractures, though she suspected he might have been keeping the worst of it from her, his nose did look slightly more crooked than she remembered.
"Do you remember that time on the roof of the bowling alley?" Vlad asked, almost hesitantly.
"It was a beautiful night." said Maddie, propping her chin up in her hand as she spun her straw around in her drink, watching the little pieces of lemon pulp dance. "It was a shame Jack didn't see it."
"Ah. Yes." Vlad's lowered his tea. "It was only the two of us wasn't it? I'd almost forgotten."
Maddie wasn't sure she believed that.
"I think we lost him during the party, we were looking for somewhere quiet that he might have gone to recharge... my god we went to so many parties, what happened to us Vlad? When did we get so old?"
Maddie missed those days, she missed making friends with other drunks girls in the bathroom, she missed dancing until her feet hurt and she had to walk home barefoot.
And she missed Jack. By god did she miss Jack's arms around her, spinning her around and throwing her into a dip she probably couldn't handle anymore with her middle-aged back.
Vlad must have noticed her mood shift towards the dower, as he laid a hand on top of hers and gave a gentle squeeze.
"It all just... feels so different now." he said, almost murmuring to himself, his usually sharp eyes were distant, and Maddie felt as though she were glimpsing something that wasn't meant to be seen.
Maddie wasn't a fool, she knew that Vlad had a more complicated relationship with Jack than he would admit. That night in the rockies had very clearly shown her that. She wasn't sure how long Vlad had been harbouring those feelings for her, but she knew that it had given him a resentment toward her husband, one that had probably been building for a long time.
Now her husband was dead, and she wondered what kind of conflict Vlad had warring in his mind, did he feel guilt? Shame? Regret? She was giving him a chance to show her how much he truly cared, one she desperately hoped he would not abuse. She wanted her friend, she needed her friend, and so far Vlad had been nothing but.
Maybe all of that truly was in the past, she hoped for both their sakes that it was.
"I must confess Maddie, this whole ordeal has left me rather shaken." his hand remained still and steady over hers. "I'm... considering resigning as mayor."
Maddie let out a breath.
"If I'm being perfectly honest Vlad, I was hoping you would. It's just so much stress for one person, running a town alongside all these companies? I don't know where you find the time to do it all, you need a break."
"You are so right my dear, you are so right." Vlad smiled softly, his thumb very gently rubbed the back of Maddie's hand, she pulled it away and quickly took another sip of her drink.
"I have considered," Vlad started, casually moving his hand back without complaint. "Going abroad for a couple of weeks, somewhere tropical, and warm. Good for the blood pressure you know?"
"That sounds wonderful Vlad." Maddie beamed, "Where are you thinking, Hawaii maybe?"
"Well, I uh, pardon me if this is too forward," Vlad tugged at his collar awkwardly. "But I thought perhaps you and the children might like to come along. Just to get away from Amity Park for a while, it might be good for them."
"Oh Vlad that's very sweet but you know we can't." Maddie sagged back in her seat, rubbing a hand over her eyes. "I just can't get Danny to see reason, it's all still too fresh, he needs more time."
"Of course, my apologies. I didn't mean to rush you, I just," he took a deep breath and looked away. "I just didn't want to go alone and..."
He closed his eyes and swallowed a few times, trying to coax the words out.
"You and Jack were the only family I ever had, and I don't want to lose you too. What if the ghost comes for you next? Or the children? If I could take you all away somewhere safe I could-"
He choked up on his words, covering his display of vulnerability by dabbing at his eyes with a napkin, Maddie's heart ached for the man, she hadn't considered that her family were the only ones he'd ever felt close to, it seemed obvious in hindsight, he must have been so lonely.
But as much as she understood his desire to protect her and the kids, to keep them safe, she couldn't simply run away from her problems.
Her husband had been murdered, and the killer was still at large.
"Vlad," she said gently, "I'll do my best with the kids, I would love nothing more than to send them somewhere they'll be safe, but I have to stay here. I have a monster to hunt down, and tear to shreds."
She felt her her nails cut into her palm they were balled up so tight.
"I can't leave until I know he won't hurt anyone else Vlad, I have to do this, for Jack. I have to."
Vlad sat quietly for a moment, his tea growing cold.
"I understand, Maddie." he paused, thinking. "You know, if the Wisconsin Ghost hasn't shown his face around Amity Park in quite some time, perhaps he has returned to his old haunt?"
"You don't think he would go back to your mansion, do you?" Maddie tapped a hand to her chin thoughtfully.
"I can only speculate, but once I have resigned as mayor I shall be returning to Wisconsin. I could perhaps... keep an eye out?" Vlad offered, "I could let you know if he shows up again? It's certainly not unusual for a ghost to retrace its steps."
"Yes but the Wisconsin Ghost isn't a 'usual' ghost," Maddie argued, but she wasn't entirely unconvinced of the idea. "He's like Phantom, he's smarter, his actions often deviate from the norm or he bucks established behavioural trends. He would know that we might check the locations of his previous sightings."
"I will be cautious regardless, perhaps you could lend me one of your ghost-radars? And... maybe a gun or two." Vlad cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Our uh, last meeting was less than pleasant, I'd like to be prepared in future."
Maddie buried her face in her hands.
"Oh no, Vlad if you're afraid to go back you shouldn't have to go alone." she grit her teeth as she considered her options.
Vlad was clearly terrified of going back home alone, understandably, the ghost that had been haunting his house had forced him to kill his own best friend. He was traumatised enough, Maddie couldn't forgive herself if she let that ghost torment her friend any further.
But then... there was Danny. He would lose his mind if she left for Wisconsin, he could either refuse to go with, or insist on staying by her side, Maddie wasn't sure which one would be worse. He would be furious regardless, and she wanted nothing more than to avoid speaking with the cold and distant stranger he would become when that quiet rage reared its head.
But she couldn't let Vlad go alone, she couldn't lose somebody else, she would never forgive herself.
She took a deep shuddering breath, and straightened up in her chair.
"When you've finished wrapping up business here, let me know before you head off. I'll pack up some supplies and we can work through the mansion for any ghost activity together, I'm not leaving you there until I know it's safe."
Vlad placed a hand to his chest as he breathed a hefty sigh of relief.
"Oh thank you Maddie, I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I am. It has been quite a time since I've handled ecto-weaponry myself but I'm sure you can whip me into shape, hm? We'll make that ghost pay!"
He lifted his tea cup, and Maddie met it with her glass.
Finally, things were moving forward, she had a plan, she had a goal. She could only hope the Wisconsin Ghost would be there.
She could only hope she'd find a way to break the news to Danny.