"Peter!" Egon's voice was insistent as he tried for the fifth time to awaken his friend. "We have a job to do."
After a minute the psychologist rolled over, cracking an eye open to glare up at him in annoyance. "What time is it?" he muttered.
"Almost nine thirty."
At that Venkman groaned and rolled back over.
"Peter!" No answer. "This bust must be attended to posthaste. Our client was most insistent." Still no response. The blond man sighed. "How late were you up last night?"
"No later than four...thirty?" Peter mumbled.
Egon shook his head. "I suppose Ray, Winston and I can handle it ourselves. It's only a few Class Two's, after all." The suggestion of his teammates going off on their own usually would rouse him.
This time, however, it didn't work. "Good for you, Spengs. I have the utmost confidence in you guys," was all Peter said before closing his eyes, dead to the world.
"All right, stay home," Egon yielded with a sigh. "If you're here, I can leave the ectoderivative experiment running. I need you to monitor it. At noon, lower the heat under the flask, and if the pressure is reading over four hundred PSI, take it off. Do not remove the cork, however. Will you do that?"
Yawning, Peter mumbled a promise and pulled the covers closer. With a satisfied nod, Egon left the bedroom and set out with the other two Ghostbusters.
Peter didn't open his eyes again for two hours. Glancing at the clock, he was momentarily surprised that the others had let him sleep so late, but as he became more alert he remembered the bust.
After lazing in bed for another few minutes, he finally arose, heading for the shower. The water helped to bring him fully awake. As he leisurely went through his morning rituals he grinned at the silence of the firehouse. Usually Peter preferred to be with people, but the quiet was enjoyable for the moment and it was nice not to have the guys hassling him about sleeping in, relaxing just to be alone for a bit. Janine had the day off, and even Slimer seemed to have found something else to occupy his time.
Heating up the leftover breakfast pancakes, he ate slowly, savoring every bite. After the meal he went to his office, spent a few minutes flipping through this or that, but he wasn't really in the mood to work so he went to the living room and switched on the television. Checking his watch he wondered how far away the bust was, considering how long it was taking them. He dismissed the slight worry that something might have gone wrong, immersed himself in an old monster movie for lack of anything better on.
It was past two by the time the others got home. Peter was dozing on the couch, the TV droning about the deal of the century. The three angry slams of Ecto-1's doors awakened him.
Rising, he went to join his teammates, glad that they were finally home. The sight that greeted his eyes stopped him dead in his tracks. All three Ghostbusters were covered head to toe in slime. Besides that, Egon and Winston were soaked, muck mixing with the ectoplasm, and the three of them reeked as well. Peter would have quipped about tracking mud on the clean floor, but their expressions gave him a pause. Winston looked plain mad, while Egon wore his classic 'fed up with the situation' look. Even Ray's normal cheerful smile was missing. As Peter reached the bottom step, three heads turned in his direction. The air of annoyance emanating from all three glares made him take an involuntary step backwards. "So...uh...I guess the bust didn't go so well?"
Winton's disgusted look and Egon's snort were all the answers he needed. "You wouldn't have to ask that...but somebody decided to play hooky this morning," Winston growled before he pushed past, calling first dibs on the shower.
Peter watched him go, then turned back to the others. "What happened?" he asked, hoping they would forgive his escape from this mess easier than Winston.
No such luck. "The ghosts were being difficult," was all Egon said.
"We got them, though in the end," Ray added, trying to put some enthusiasm in his voice. "After four hours, we got them."
Peter winced at the younger man's sour tone. "Look, I—" he started, but Egon cut him off.
"Just forget it, Peter." Turning to Ray he handed him one of the PKE meters. "Here, why don't you run this up to the lab. We can check it out tonight and find out why it short circuited." Nodding, Ray grabbed the device and retreated from the room.
"What happened to the meter?" Peter inquired, hoping to get Egon going on a distracting scientific matter.
"It was odd." The physicist warmed to his topic as he explained, and Peter, with a silent sigh of relief, made a show of listening. "We had been chasing the pair of Class Two's for about an hour, while they made their way to the warehouse districts on the north side. We had finally had them cornered, and one of them was even trapped in the beam, when out of nowhere there was an electrical surge, which disrupted the beams and caused the PKE meter to go dead. We trapped both, but before the meter shorted out I picked up a third one, Class Two or possibly Class Three, so we're going to have to go back and finish the job—"
Peter was about to respond when a loud explosion overhead interrupted him. "What was that?"
"It came from the lab," Egon answered automatically. After another second they both looked at each other, simultaneously crying, "Ray!"
Peter was only a second behind his friend as they dashed up the stairs, concern plain on both their faces. By virtue of a longer stride Egon made it to the lab first.
Winston poked his head out of the bathroom as they passed. "What happened?"
"The lab—Ray!" Peter gasped over his shoulder. Eyes widening, Winston grabbed a towel and followed, half-dressed and still covered in slime. Peter observed him only peripherally, freezing at the laboratory doorway, not sure if he wanted to look inside, what would he see—that crash had shaken the windows downstairs, what might it have done—
He took a deep breath, peeked inside. Immediately berated himself, Venkman, you idiot, bigger worrier than a paranoid grandmother. Consciously discarding his fears he drew himself up, strode in. "Ray, what was with that whole 'boom' thing?"
Ray was on the floor, rubbing his head and wincing, but obviously uninjured. Crouching beside him Egon examined his skull, not intently enough to be worrying. "It wasn't his fault," the physicist said. "My ectoderivative was not taken off the heat before reaching critical—when it did it exploded, as can only be expected."
"Yeah? So why'd you let it do that?" Winston challenged.
"It wasn't my intent." Egon straightened, gave Ray a hand up. "I asked Peter to take it off for me. Apparently he didn't."
Peter was all too aware of the three pairs of eyes suddenly on him again. "Uh, really sorry about that," he apologized fast. "I kind of overslept—"
"You could've attended to it hours ago," Egon remarked in a too-calm tone. Spengler could be a lot like his experiments—quietly boil and then blow up spectacularly, given the right conditions.
Peter stepped carefully. "I'm sorry, it slipped my mind. I mean, it was just a little thing, and no one got hurt—"
"Egon's experiment—" Ray began, but the physicist cut him off.
"If he had been closer, if the glass had shattered differently, he might have been struck by more than the cork," Egon stated. "We were extremely lucky."
"Way to go, homeboy," Winston muttered sarcastically in Peter's direction, then added, "Glad you still got both eyeballs, Ray," before stalking back to the shower.
There was a twisting in his stomach and Peter felt his ears get hot, not with anger, but because Egon was right, after all. "Look, Ray, I—I'm really sorry, what more can I say, right? I didn't mean to screw up your experiment, I'm sorry the bust went so badly, I'll be on the ball next time. Doctor Venkman won't mess up again," and he essayed a sincere smile.
"Promise?" As always Ray was the first to forgive—it had only been his life, after all.
Egon was more recalcitrant. "Peter," and the word was not intoned in the patient, lecturing tone Peter had been hoping for, "this experiment was the final step of a series I have been preparing for over three weeks. Any data I might have collected is lost, because everything I was studying either boiled away or is scattered around this room. More importantly, someone might have been seriously—"
"Spengs, we covered this—"
"Peter, you can't just write this one off—just because you do none of your own research doesn't mean you can heedlessly destroy other's work, and just because you aren't pulling your weight on this team doesn't mean you should put us all in jeopardy as well—"
"Egon!" Ray whispered urgently, eyes wide, and the physicist closed his mouth with a snap, but Peter wasn't paying attention.
"Me not pulling my weight?" he snapped. "You think this team would even exist without me—half the time you researchers are too wrapped up in whatever idiot theory's got your brain muddled for the day to do anything, and who's left holding the bag then? Everyone needs a break once in a while—I thought I deserved one, but you need somebody to do the real work, right? Fine! I'll go see what needs doing—get back to me if you ever feel like taking some time off, so I can personally tell you to go to hell!"
Peter slammed the lab door hard enough to rattle the windows, blocking anything Egon or Ray might have said. Storming downstairs, he grabbed his proton pack and a spare trap as an afterthought, and strode outside, then took a deep breath before hailing a cab.
"Where to?" the cabbie droned, then turned back to get a better look, "hey, aren't you one of the—"
"Yup." Peter flashed his best celebrity smile. "Doctor Peter Venkman, head of the Ghostbusters."
"Cool! I should get your autograph—for the kids. But don't you guys have your own car? And aren't there more of you?"
"This is a minor bust," Peter assured him. "No problem." He gave his destination, leaned back against the seat. "Got a pen?" He grinned as the cabbie fumbled for one as he pulled into the street, signed the receipt with a flourish.
This was what he needed—a little attention of the positive sort, minor distraction, let the vacation last a bit longer. Everyone needed a break now and then. He needed to give them a chance to cool down. Egon had been angry, all right; Ray wasn't too happy with him; even Winston wouldn't want to make or accept any apologies until after he had showered, at least. Take a little time, relax himself....
They had had a point. He couldn't deny that, unfortunately. You messed up this one good, Venkman; can't do much right—Peter slammed the door on those thoughts. He didn't need self-recrimination at the moment. No one had been hurt, it wasn't exactly his fault, hadn't been intentional anyway. But the guys were steamed, with reason.
It would help to have a peace offering. And what better to offer some tired Ghostbusters than a captured ghost, gift-wrapped in a sealed trap? They had said there had been three, and only two had been caught—it wouldn't be too difficult to get the third. It was only a Class Two, and he was Peter Venkman, after all; how many years had he been doing this? No problem.
And by the time he got back, they'd have taken their showers, washed off the slime and mud, cleaned the lab.... He winced; he should've at least helped sweep up glass, but it was too late for that now. But they'd be calmer, and he'd be covered in slime—well, not if he could help it, but considering his luck it was likely, and he was fully aware of how pitiful he could look with his hair dripping ectoplasm—that would even the scales. Egon would probably be cranky with him for going off alone, but he'd get over it, and the city would be safe from another menacing supernatural entity.
He wondered how much they could charge for disposing of the third one, when they had only been hired for the two. Fingering his particle thrower he mentally hurried the cab along. With luck this would be over by dinner time—it was Winston's turn to cook, he didn't want to miss it. It felt little strange to be going on a bust alone, but he could handle it. He had gotten himself into this, after all. What good was he if he couldn't get out of it?
Ray and Egon looked at each other for a long moment after the door slammed. "That didn't go well," Ray observed at last.
"No," Egon wearily agreed. "I...." Most of what he had said he hadn't meant, and certainly he hadn't intended for it to come out so viciously. "I was worried, and impatient...."
"Peter knows," Ray assured him, nodding sagely. "Don't worry, Egon. He'll be back in a few hours, after he cools down and comes up with something to redeem himself. He knows he screwed up—that's what's got him mad."
"He can be very trying at times," the physicist sighed.
"And we love him for it." Ray grinned. "You gotta wonder about us."
Winston entered, looking much improved in clean jeans and a t-shirt. "What happened?" he inquired. "I heard the door bang and when I looked out the window Pete was getting into a taxi."
"We...argued," Egon admitted flatly.
"Ah. So, is he going to be coming back with a fiendish plan for revenge or gifts for all of us?"
"Gifts, I think, this time," said Ray. "He was pretty upset, and not mad until Egon...."
"You scared him, homeboy," Winston remarked. "If you hadn't been here when Egon's thing blew...but you were, and now it's gotten to him. I just hope he knows what he's doing."
The other two looked at him. Winston shrugged. "He had his proton pack with him. I was wondering if he planned to do a little personal 'busting, mano a mano with the spook we missed before, maybe."
Egon relaxed. "A Class Two could hardly pose a threat. Though he might be a while tracking it down."
"And when he comes back, it'll be with a filled ghost-trap in hand, and we get a cheerful, helpful, eager-to-please Doc Venkman for a bit...how long, do you think?"
"About twenty minutes, if we play it right."
"Be fair, Ray," Egon corrected, "it could be as much as half an hour, if we withhold absolution." Not that they could, of course. In spite and because of everything, Peter was the best friend they had, and they couldn't hold a grudge for very long. Or at all, really. And Peter would be on his best behavior for while following this—he had been scared; it had been plain on his face. That was the only reason he had gotten mad...and Egon had lost his temper for the same reason. It was easier to be angry than worried.
Venkman was a psychologist, and a good one—he'd have unraveled this already. As soon as he got back he'd take a moment to make sure everything was smoothed over, and the captured ghost would be the final patch to mend everything.
Not that he needed to prove anything. Egon already looked forward to apologizing as much as receiving an apology—he hadn't meant it. Of course Peter knew it; no one knew as well as Peter Venkman how important he was to the Ghostbusters. But he had missed the bust today, and needed this to reaffirm that truth...so be it. Egon wished his friend luck, and joined Winston and Ray in taking bets over when Peter would return, precisely how much slime he would have on him, and the degree to which he would use that slime to play on their sympathies.
The formerly living Mitchell J. Strout floated about the abandoned warehouse, muttering curses on the thrice damned Ghostbusters who had thrown a wrench into his plans. "It was not supposed to go like this. Those two were not supposed to be caught, not yet!" Whipping around he glared at one of the few remaining light bulbs. It promptly exploded, showering sparks everywhere.
The warehouse the ghost inhabited was severely run down. Half of the high windows were boarded over, the other half shattered, shards of glass littering the floor below. The wooden planks covering the small basement had nearly rotted through. In a pile under a broken crate was a collection of assorted knives and a gun, leavings of the gang which had beat a hasty retreat when he had decided he wanted the place. He kept the weaponry accessible in case someone came snooping who wasn't so easily scared off.
The ghost paused in his aerial pacing, detecting a body crossing the perimeter of detection he had set around his domain. Mentally sighing at the interruption, he headed to the area. Just another of the bums who wandered around the district, he hoped. He was not in the mood to expend the energy it would take to scare off someone determined to enter the warehouse.
Going almost completely transparent, he came near enough to see that it was a man, apparently searching for something. Planning to sneak up and scare him off, he was surprised when the man whipped around, the device he held in his hand beeping madly.
"Gotcha!" the man cried, aiming his particle thrower and firing. Strout barely ducked out of the beam.
"Just what I needed, more Ghostbusters," the specter muttered as he rushed back to the warehouse, the living man not far behind. Annoyingly bright of him to have tracked Strout back to his hideout—he must have left some sort of psychic trail. He must watch for that. It hadn't taken him long to learn to exploit the abilities he did have now; surely it wouldn't be too great a feat to control any emissions he might be leaking.
That is, if these most irritating and obnoxious individuals didn't catch him first. Before he had died he had assumed they were a hoax; now he was finding out how real they were, as genuine as his condition. Damn them for it.
Carefully keeping in the shadows he observed his hunter. He wasn't one of the three that had come after them before. How many of these bastards could there be? And what could he do about them...?
Zipping to the far corner, he reached for the weapons, grabbing the gun with careful psychic fingers. This had been so much easier when he had been living flesh and blood, but he was learning to manage. Given enough time he'd have it all back together, just like it had been, before that stupid idiot of a con-man had screwed it up. All he had left to do was deal with these so-called Ghostbusters.
Perhaps a ghost brandishing a real weapon would dissuade this one. And if not...well, he did owe them for capturing his servants. Patiently he waited for his foe to approach.
"Here ghostie, ghostie," the Ghostbuster was calling softly. Strout almost laughed; if this man actually thought he would come like some trained poodle...maybe it wouldn't be so hard to scare away a fool like that. Though—he frowned. That voice would have raised his hackles, had he had any remaining. It grated on him, terribly familiar somehow. He didn't know that face, he'd remember that over-confident smirk. But the voice....
"Here, ghost," murmured the man. "Be a nice little gooper, come to Doctor Venkman..."
If it could have, his heart would have skipped a beat at the name. "Venkman?" he cried, rising from the shadows. Unable to keep his anger in check and without another thought his mental fingers raised the gun barrel and pulled the trigger.
The expense of too much energy caused a loss of control, and he faded entirely before he had the pleasure of seeing Venkman's look of surprise change to pain as the bullet caught him square in the shoulder.
With a clatter, the PKE meter slipped from his hand and dropped to the floor. Venkman wasn't far behind it.
The other three Ghostbusters didn't start to worry until it got dark. At seven Ray began to pace from the kitchen to the living room while Winston started dinner.
"Hey, homeboy, take it easy. I'm sure he's fine," Zeddemore soothed, trying to calm his agitated friend as he put water on to boil.
"But why would it take this long? He's been gone for hours!"
"It took us even longer," Winston pointed out. "Besides, you know how easily Pete can be distracted. Maybe he caught the ghost and a reporter showed up. He could be giving an interview right now."
"Or recounting his heroic capture to a curious pretty face," Egon's dry voice put in.
Ray gave a shaky laugh. "Yeah, I guess you're right," he mumbled, but in a moment he had returned to pacing. Winston requested that he set the table a couple minutes later, more to redirect the younger man's nervous energy than to complete the chore.
An hour after the food was ready, they finally sat down to eat. Though trying hard not to show it, Egon was also beginning to worry. Peter made a point of being home on the nights Winston cooked.
Dinner was silent, each man deep in his own thoughts. They quickly cleared the dishes away and retreated into the living room. Winston grabbed the mystery he'd been reading; Egon took up one of the scientific journals he had been studying earlier.
Ray sank into the sofa, but after a minute he was circling the room again, peering out the window as each car passed. After half an hour of this, Egon turned on the television, suggesting, "Why don't you watch something? It'll pass the time..."
Ray complied, though he continued to shift restlessly. Half past eleven, when they both began to yawn, Egon decided it was time for sleep. Winston had already turned in a half an hour before. "Come on, Ray. We should getting off to bed."
Egon sighed. "Ray, I'm sure he's fine. You know how late he stays out. Most likely he impressed a girl and they went out for a drink."
"Wouldn't he have called?"
The physicist shook his head. "If you were Peter, sitting across from a lovely woman captivated by your every word, would you think to call?"
After a moment Ray reluctantly agreed, "I guess not."
Egon clapped his friend on the shoulder. "I'm sure he's fine. But you're tired; you should sleep." The younger man nodded, getting up with another yawn. "And Ray, just think, tomorrow we can call him on this. Maybe we'll get an hour of compliance out of him, instead of that predicted twenty minutes." He feigned a smile he didn't feel.
Ray nodded, but lines of worry were still clear on his face. Without another word he headed up to the bedroom.
Egon sighed and sat back down on the couch, letting the anxiety he'd kept inside for Ray's sake come pouring out. As much as he had reassured his friend, he knew Peter would have called if he'd been held up for any reason. But considering how he had left...the dark thought rose up inside before he could prevent it, and he nearly shuddered. What if he'd hurt Peter more with his harsh words than he had believed? What if Peter wasn't here because he didn't want to come back?
Shaking his head sharply, he pushed those thoughts away, not wanting to even consider it, knowing Venkman better than that. He's just staying out late, having a night on the town. He did that often enough; it was common, normal. Egon repeated that to himself as he settled more comfortably on the couch, deciding to wait there for his friend's return.
It took Peter a few minutes to remember where he was, and why he was lying on a cold floor instead of in his warm bed when it was dark outside the cracked skylight overhead. Why was he staring up at it—
Trying to move reminded him, as the agony from his shoulder nearly forced out consciousness again. Ah yes, he'd been shot. Smooth move, Venkman. Pay a little more attention next time—when the ghost gets hold of a firearm, duck. Only he hadn't even seen it until it had risen before him, wavering, lousy aim, his own dumb luck working against him as always. Once, just once, couldn't fortune see it his way? Had he been cursed and not noticed?
Never mind that, just lie here, the guys probably already have the ambulance on the way—no, wait. Damn. The guys weren't here. That was why Ray wasn't hovering over him anxiously, and Egon didn't have that super-calm 'I am not overly concerned' look that meant that of course he was, and Winston wasn't applying the appropriate first aid—he was on his own, bleeding all over a cold warehouse floor and no one even knew it.
Something had to be done. It wouldn't do for New York's leading parapsychologist to bite the bullet, literally as the case might be. Get help, that's why he had a cellphone, after all. For emergencies. Reaching into his pocket...that was easier said than done. He bit his lip hard enough to taste blood, as if he wasn't losing enough; he could feel it under him, cooling on the cement. His jumpsuit was going to need serious stain treatment after this. Okay. The phone. Reach into the pocket, careful there, close your fingers around it. He didn't think it was a good thing that he couldn't feel it. But they wouldn't tighten any further so he withdrew his hand.
Bingo. Way to go, Peter, now just open it up, that's it, hit the autodial and summon the cavalry. Experimentally he worked his throat, hoped that the croak which emerged could approximate speech.
That hissing sound...was that in his ear? No, it was the phone. But it couldn't be, they were in range. There had to be a tower around here somewhere, this was New York, for pity's sake. Hoarsely he gasped, "Help me?"
The phone buzzed quietly, or maybe that was in his head. He must have gotten through, this was his only chance. "Guys? Ray? Wi-Winston? Egon?" They weren't answering. "Guys?" he pleaded. Come on, Doctor V's in a jam, could use some timely assistance here. This ghost wasn't half as easy as you let on, no way a Class Two—Damn, where was the ghost, he'd forgotten the ghost. It didn't seem to be here now, though, small favors and all that. "G-guys?"
You'd think one of them would at least bother to talk back but they were silent, even Ray, even Ray must still be mad at him, that was why they weren't there, of course. They weren't answering the phone because they knew it was him and they didn't want to speak with him, they didn't know he was in trouble, they didn't know he needed them. "Egon? please..." He dropped the phone, tried to pick it up but he couldn't feel it in his fingers. And his teeth were chattering, making it difficult to speak. "G-guys, I c-could...use a li'l...help..."
All silence, no response on the other end, and everything went black before he could try again.
Strout took his time pulling himself together. The longer he spent amassing his energies, he had learned, the longer they would endure and the stronger he would be. And besides, as he saw when he regained his vision, it wasn't as if Venkman would be going anywhere.
The man was sprawled on his back in the middle of the warehouse floor. He had apparently lost consciousness dragging himself toward the door, a smear of blood marking his progress. He wasn't bleeding all that much; the bullet unfortunately had missed his heart by a good deal. He was unconscious but still breathing, if not raggedly enough for the ghost's tastes.
He didn't think he could manage to reload the gun—that would be more trouble than it was worth. Sooner or later he'd die, though it couldn't happen fast enough, considering who this was...
Floating over, Strout frowned down at the pale, still face. No, he hadn't been mistaken, it wasn't that old con. Too young, too much hair—but he had said Venkman, clearly enough, and the voice was unmistakable. Doctor Venkman...wait. Venkman had had a son, hadn't he? Always talking about his boy, some hotshot college professor. He hadn't mentioned the Ghostbusters, but that had been years ago; it had taken a while for his life to go completely to hell, after all; Venkman had simply catalyzed the process. Con the cons; it would have been such a brilliant plan, if Venkman hadn't stumbled across the truth. A mere fluke, random happenstance, and ten years later the only solution Strout had come up with was a revolver to the temple.
But the wheel spins both ways, and he had a chance to try it again, but better this time. No generators were needed now—he could produce his own energy, as much as he needed, to do whatever he needed. If no one screwed it up again. It would have been terribly ironic if the younger Venkman had finished off what his father had started. But Strout had the upper hand now....
He did, didn't he, and what good was that if he didn't use it? Venkman's offspring and a Ghostbuster, two birds with one stone—it couldn't be more perfect. A terrible thing, to waste this greatest of opportunities. "Wakey, wakey," he whispered, swooping low to brush cold tendrils of ectoplasm over the unconscious man's forehead. "Wake up, little stone...."
At the ghostly touch Venkman's eyes snapped open, green and glassy in the dim light. "Wh—who's there?" He didn't sound entirely with it; that was only to be expected, the ghost supposed.
"You're Venkman junior, aren't you?" he hissed, staying out of range of those darting eyes. "You're Charlie Venkman's son."
"I'm Pe—Peter Venkman," the words were forced over a thick tongue. "'m more than just his son."
Strout knew that tone, ah, he knew that tone so well. It came back to him, gradually, but it was there. The defensiveness—he remembered this man's father, Charlie, all depressed because his son had hung up on him, wouldn't fly out and join his old man. That was before Venkman had found out, when he actually thought Strout was some kind of friend. Drinking with him at the hotel bar, talking about how he had treated his boy badly, how sad and apologetic he was that he couldn't go back and be with him more when he was growing up, how he was afraid he had never been there for poor little Peter....
Strout had secretly laughed at it all. Trite worries; of course if you weren't around your kid would be bitter with you; there was a reason Strout had never spoken to his own father once in the thirty years between leaving home and blowing his brains out. Big deal. But he had heard every word, and what he heard he remembered. Just as he remembered that Peter Venkman had come after all, flown out the moment he learned his dad might be in real trouble. That was after Strout had been arrested, but he had still heard about it. So Peter had a soft spot for his old man after all.
One thing about soft spots—they were vulnerable to all manner of attacks. Among the first tricks he had picked up was imitation—so simple and so elegant at the same time. Molding phantom lips into a new shape, he spoke in Charlie Venkman's grating tones. "You're my son, what else could you be?"
Peter Venkman's head jerked up at that, trying to focus. "Wha—Dad?"
"Of course, boy. Trying to figure out what you're doing here." Strout relaxed when it became clear the deception was working, then threw himself into the role. "Pity you couldn't find something better to do with your time, but they can't all be winners, right? Wish you had turned out better, but I never expected it—knew you were a born loser the moment I saw you born."
"What?" His tone was sharper, and the hazy green eyes were narrowed. "Can't...can't see you. You aren't my dad."
"Think again." It took some effort, and the image would be wavery—but then, he believed, so was Venkman's vision. Cloaked in the illusion of Charlie Venkman he stepped into sight. "I'm right here, wondering if I should bother doing anything."
Peter's eyes widened; for a long moment he only stared, then shut them tight and shook his head. "No—no, you can't...you're in China."
"I came back for this," Strout informed him gleefully. "My idiot son, dying on some stupid game, or whatever you call this 'business'. At least my plans have a measure of dignity. I would have included you in them, if I had thought you capable—but I knew you weren't."
"What are you...talking about?" The suspicion in Peter's voice was crumbling, replaced by a growing desperation.
"You, boy, what else?" Strout asked airily. "The sad and sorry fact that as little as I might be, my son is that much less. I guess I should find that comforting, if I hadn't wanted more. Why do you think I was away so much? I couldn't stand being around you, boy, watching you grow into a nothing. Everything I'd dreamed was destroyed when I saw what a worthless man you were to become. No good to anyone—it's an awful thing, when a man has to admit that about his own son."
"No!" Peter cried, with such vehemence that Strout took an automatic step back, for all that the man was prostrate on the warehouse floor. "I'm not; I'm Peter Venkman, I'm a Ghostbuster, 'm the hero!" His lids were clenched shut as he turned his head against the cement. "You aren't my father, get outa here, leave m'alone...."
"Don't turn away from me when I'm speaking, boy!" Strout shouted. He grabbed Venkman's chin, forcing his head around roughly.
The Ghostuster's eyes involuntarily snapped open at the movement. "You're a ghost—you're not my father," he ground out, though there was a quiver in his voice.
"Perhaps not," Strout admitted, seeing that dazed as Venkman might be he couldn't be fooled completely. "But it's exactly what your father believes. How could a father ever be proud of you?"
The man groaned and once more squeezed his eyes shut, not wanting to hear it, or believe it. But doubt would be seeping through his confused mind, the tiniest voice asking if it were in fact bitter honesty, could that be why his father had stayed away, the faintest hint of truth in the declaration...
Strout interrupted those thoughts with a hard blow to Venkman's cheek, before they progressed beyond emotion into rational denial. The man glanced up at the ghost, but of course he hadn't moved. Strout smiled inwardly. He wasn't sure how hard the psychic slap had been; it hadn't taken much of his energy, but by the way Venkman had jerked it must have hurt.
Shifting to his true appearance now that he had Venkman's attention, he sank down close to the injured man. "No, I'm not your father. But I knew him. He used to talk about you all the time, about how much of a disappointment you were to him. How much of a disappointment you were to your mother, to everyone around you."
Peter was shaking his head feebly back and forth again. "You can't deny it; you know it's true," Strout continued, grinning inwardly. Considering how much Venkman loved his son, the man would be devastated by this loss. But he had other uses for his boy first. "No one could care about you; they're too disgusted with your many shortcomings." Though the truth was probably the opposite of what he said. That would only made the younger Venkman's redone beliefs all the more satisfying.
He had stopped moving—giving up? No, only fading out of consciousness. Irritated, Strout flicked his cheek with a freezing ectoplasmic finger.
Venkman flinched, eyelids closed. "Shut up," he gasped. "Go 'way."
"Why? When I'm your only company?" Strout made an effort to inject false sympathy in his tone. "Surely you don't want to die all alone—"
"Not gonna die!" That opened those emerald eyes. "They'll—they're comin', they'll find me...."
"Who?" He made a show of looking around. "I see no one. Who's going to come here?"
"The guys. The other...other 'busters. Winston. Ray. Egon!" At the last he rocked back his head, shouted the name as loud as his damaged lungs could manage. "Help!"
The attempt exhausted him; his head fell to the side as he gasped for air. Strout did nothing, except to take the precaution of nulling the sound waves before they could leave the warehouse. The effort left him mentally out of breath as well but it wouldn't do for anyone who might be around to hear. He wasn't finished with this. "It doesn't seem that anyone's out there. Or if they are, they don't care to investigate for your sake."
"They'll find me," Venkman muttered stubbornly, closing his eyes again. And yet there was the tiniest hint of fear in the obstinate tone. He wasn't so sure as he wished Strout to believe.
"Why should they?" Strout pressed. "Even if they are looking, what guarantee do you have that they'll be successful? For that matter—why should they look? What are you to them?"
"I'm...part of the team," panted Venkman. "They won'...give up."
"Because of a simple business association?" the ghost asked skeptically. "What stake do they have in you beyond that? Even as far as that goes—how big a role can you really play? This morning you weren't even with them."
"Just...a fluke," Venkman mumbled. "We're t'gether...usually..."
"Really?" Strout had to fight his grin. "I was watching, you know. They managed quite well, I assure you—you can be proud of them. They had no trouble securing my associates—had I not fled they would have captured me as well. In fact, I hadn't realized there was a fourth member; they worked so smoothly together I assumed they were a natural trio."
"Need t'see...the four of us...in action." Venkman glared up at Strout. "When we bust...your ass."
"I'm not planning on letting that happen," Strout assured him. "One of you wasn't so hard...but then, you are the easy one, aren't you? The weak link. I know to step carefully around the others. As for you, well...I'm sorry, we'll just have to wait and see." He settled lower to the floor, closer to Venkman, gazing at the pale face thoughtfully. "So, why weren't you with them this morning, hm? A fight, or laziness on your part—or both!" He gleefully saw the truth before the man could control his expression. "Which is why you went to find me, I suppose...well, that didn't work out." Cocking his head, he remarked, "It's for the best, if you want to look on the brighter side of things. They work well enough without you—probably better, though that's just informed speculation."
"No!" Venkman almost choked on the word. "They need me...part of the team..."
Bending low, Strout hissed cool air into his ear. "They...don't... need...you. Believe me. I saw how good they are. And from that one must wonder why they would want you. Think logically, Doctor. Is there reason they should care, beyond your wish that they do? Your need—but what of theirs? Are you more a help or a hindrance? Your friends they may be, but does that give you reason to burden them—and why should they care enough to search? They don't know you're dying. They would have the decency to save your life, perhaps, but why would they make the effort when they don't even know?"
Venkman twisted his head away from the frigid draft, clamped his jaw shut as if to hold in something fighting to escape. A protest, perhaps, a denial, but he refused to give Strout another opening. Very well. He had said enough for the moment; give him time to think it over. While the cold leached into his dying body the words would circle through his mind; he wouldn't forget them easily. They'd follow him into unconsciousness and make his delirious dreams all the more intriguing.
For the moment Strout could afford to wait and see where this would go. An interesting experiment in its own right, even if he didn't have any further stake in it. Well worth the effort to keep Venkman alive a little longer—he was fairly certain a judicious infusion of energy would do the trick. For the time being, at least. Long enough to play out this game in full, and still recover what he had lost. He would have his associates back. And he would have the Ghostbusters guarantee his freedom.
And then...then he would take the life of Charlie Venkman's son. Even his future successes, he mused with delicious anticipation, would never top the satisfaction of that revenge.
Egon awoke to Winston's soft touch on his shoulder. "Hey, Egon."
As he became aware of his surroundings, he was surprised to find himself stretched out on the living room couch. Upon seeing the worried crease in Winston's forehead he recalled the events of the previous day, sat up abruptly to ask, "Peter?"
The other man sighed. "He hasn't shown. When Ray woke up to him still gone, he got jittery. He's getting dressed now, wants to go looking for him right away. "
Glancing at the clock the physicist saw it was barely past five AM. About to protest that Ray was overreacting, he instead found himself trying to fight down a lump of worry in his throat. Ray was right—something was wrong. Though Venkman often stayed out all night, he usually would call, not wanting to upset the guys unnecessarily. And after yesterday he would have been especially careful.
With a sigh to hide a shiver, the blond man rose to his feet. "I agree; something may be wrong. Let's go find our missing man." With a grim nod, Winston followed Egon out of the room.
In ten minutes they were suited up, Ecto-1 loaded and ready to go. Winston took the wheel as they pulled out of the firehouse, not trusting Ray to drive, given how he was fidgeting with nervous energy. "Come on, Winston, go faster. We gotta find him," the team's youngest member encouraged from the back seat.
Zeddemore sighed. "I would if I knew where we were headed." Looking over at Egon riding shotgun, he raised an eyebrow. "Any ideas?"
Strout felt them encroaching on the edge of his expanded perimeters. So soon? Of course he had known they would come, but it wasn't an hour past dawn. He spared a glance at Venkman's limp form—the man hadn't moved for at least three hours, hadn't woken when Strout had guided a light current through him, though his body had shuddered and his pulse had picked up a bit, hopefully enough. The ghost decided he could afford to leave Venkman, and went to check personally.
It was indeed the Ghostbusters, all three, wearing the same loose jumpsuits and power packs on their backs, with singularly grim expressions to a man. The tallest, glasses and blond hair twisted in a ridiculously complex style, wielded a strange instrument. Strout recognized it; a match to the one Venkman had used, some sort of tracking device. He dampened his own energies as much as he dared; the field around his hideout was not ghostly but electric. That would make a difference, he hoped.
They conferred for a moment, then produced another of the devices. He dared not get close enough to hear what they were saying, but from the muted tones that reached him through the clear morning air, none of the three were very happy. They didn't seem to know where to go, however; apparently their trackers couldn't pick up living men, or perhaps the field blocked their readings. At any rate they weren't about to discover their missing associate, not right away at least. But then they split up, each heading toward a nearby building, obviously planning on covering as much ground as they could.
He had better see that they found nothing. Slipping past them, Strout headed back to his own warehouse. It wouldn't do for them to discover his guest, not yet. Not before he was ready. Swooping inside, he composed himself. This would take a lot out of him, and he didn't have the time to make a mess of it. First he cajoled a tarp out of a corner, sliding it along the floor to cover the blood and the equipment Venkman had abandoned. Then, readying his energies, he wrapped psychic threads around the man's body.
The man groaned at the ectoplasmic touch. Strout hoped he wouldn't get any louder; if Venkman were to shout again he didn't have the power free to block it. With a mighty heave he jerked the man up, yanked his body into the air and swung him toward the corner, where a trapdoor lead to the basement room. Venkman crashed through it, louder than the ghost would have preferred, and thudded to the cement floor below. There was a faint crack of breaking bone; Strout had no time to attend to that, using the very last of his energies to shove the trapdoor back into place before he faded out entirely. But he had succeeded. If Venkman didn't ruin it by waking up and alerting his team to his presence, everything would be fine.
The door was unlocked, and Ray entered the warehouse cautiously, pausing to allow his eyes to adjust to the dimness. The windows were boarded over; the single unbroken lightbulb on the ceiling created shadows of the wrecked crates and junk scattered across the wide floor.
Odd that the abandoned warehouse would still have power. Odder still how the PKE meter in his hand reacted, whirring and then falling silent, registering no psychic trace, though only a moment before the needle had jumped. It was as if a ghost had come and then vanished. Well, that was possible; some ghosts could entirely de-materialize to the point that they didn't exist until they reformed. Usually that meant they weren't dangerous, since they could only be sporadically present, though it did make busting them a pain. If the third ghost had such abilities, it would explain why they hadn't found it.
No sign of Peter's biorhythms, though. Ray sighed. None of them had picked up even the faintest trace of his presence; he was beginning to doubt their friend had ever been this way. Egon had suggested a ghost hunt here as the most likely possibility, considering Peter rarely went to clubs or on dates with a proton pack, but maybe he had had someone in particular to show off his prowess to....
Every time Ray tried to convince himself of that a cold knot in his stomach told him it wasn't the case. He knew he was a natural worrier when it came to his friends; the guys teased him about it occasionally, and generally he ignored his unsubstantiated fears. But neither Egon or Winston had protested coming out here, despite the early hour, and that told him he wasn't the only one concerned.
Peter could get himself into trouble, but he was also good at getting himself out of it. And he wasn't afraid to call for help when he needed it. If something had gone wrong on his attempted bust he surely would have let them know; he wouldn't let them forget it. "You let me go out, all by myself, against New York's leading phantom terror!" He could almost hear Peter's complaint, accompanied by his teasing grin to let them know he didn't really mean it.
But Peter wasn't here, and neither was the ghost he might have been hunting. Ray made a cursory inspection of the warehouse, not too anxious to see what might be in every dark corner, and headed back to the door. The floorboards creaked alarmingly in one spot, and he hurried over them to the safer concrete floor. As he left he felt a slight tingle, and realized the hairs on his arms had been standing on end. The building had a slight static charge—could there be a generator inside? Was that why the lightbulb had been shining?
He could check it out later. It probably was nothing; there weren't even signs of habitation. And no hint of Peter. Crossing his fingers, Ray proceeded to the next warehouse. Hopefully his friend wasn't around here at all, but somewhere safe. He'd laugh when he found out how worried they had been, and then he'd apologize, and so would Ray and Egon, and everything would be fine.
Ray kept telling himself that, and continued to search.
Strout returned as quickly as was spectrally possible, forcing himself back to cohesive form. He materialized in time to hear the Ghostbuster's footsteps echoing across the floor as he strode out of the warehouse.
He wasn't the only one to return to consciousness. Venkman awoke enough to hear them as well, gulped and rasped, "No...help! Please..." He didn't even have to muffle the plea; it was too low to be heard outside the confines of the basement. "Ray..." Venkman panted nonetheless, "Come back..." trailing off as he realized the chance had been lost.
"Sorry." Strout smiled at him. "They aren't looking very hard, are they?" He passed a phantom hand through the man, examining his charge. His pulse was slow and uneven, but the blood had stopped flowing from the wound—it must have reopened when Strout had moved him, though; there were fresh stains on the brown jumpsuit. How much blood could the human body lose and still live—not much more, he suspected. He would have to be careful with him for the moment. In addition one arm was twisted under his body at an odd angle; broken in the fall, most likely. His face was a ghastly mottled gray, the lips slightly blue and black swatches darkening like bruises under the eyes, and his breath rattled in his throat.
He looked a more frightening sight than most ghosts Strout had encountered, and he'd most likely become one unless something was done. With an inaudible sigh he gathered his energies and fed a little into the limp body. Venkman convulsed once and then was so still Strout feared he had overdone it, but then the man gasped, heart thumping more regularly in his chest. His eyes rolled open again, too clouded to fix on anything and almost black in the glow of the single bare bulb overhead.
He was mouthing something, not quite breathing it aloud—"Help," that single plea, over and over. Not yet fully aware, unable to grasp that there was no chance, his friend had already left—
It occurred to him quite suddenly, the opportunity afforded here, and while he hadn't been entirely successful before ,Venkman was in a more vulnerable state now. Strout hadn't heard much of the voices of Venkman's teammates but it should be enough; he had been a talented mimic even in life. This would hardly be a challenge, considering the man's state. Shaping ectoplasmic vocal chords, he intoned in his closest approximation of the blond scientist's bass, "Why bother with this?"
Venkman jerked, forced his head up to peer blearily around. "Egon?" he whispered.
Switch to the other scientist, the shorter, younger one. Not one but all of them here, except they wouldn't be saying what Venkman would want to hear. "I don't know, why are we looking?"
"Ray?" The man almost sobbed it, but his tone was gaining strength. "I'm here...help—"
"I've been saying we should forget it," Strout said in the voice of the black man, coldly, as he made them all sound. "If Peter wants to leave, let him. We certainly wouldn't have any problems with it."
"I agree," Strout said, using the bass again, over Venkman's desperate, "Please...'m here...need you..."
"That's a good point. We did all right without him." He balanced enthusiasm and diffidence in the young man's tone.
Then as the black man, driving the point home, "We'll do even better without him to worry about. He was the last man we ever needed on this team." Let's see, if the younger Venkman at all resembled his father there might even be some truth to the fabricated accusations. Enough that he'd buy it? "There isn't anything he could do that any of us couldn't do better, and he causes more trouble than his help is worth. Not that there's much he does that's helpful."
Peter's own words were not even a whisper. "No, Winston...please...help me...."
"So let him go," Strout said in Ray's voice. Hammer the nails in Venkman's coffin, one by one, and watch how each one tore his soul. The changes in the man's expression and tone were small but so obvious when Strout watched for them, every supposed condemnation from his friends cutting him deeper than any bullet or knife. Truth or fiction, it didn't matter; Venkman was beyond the point where reality held any meaning. It was only faith he clung to now, and with deft and simple phrases Strout was tearing that last bastion down.
Killing Venkman's body hadn't been much of a trick; there was nothing special in murder. But to destroy his spirit, make him even less than what Strout now was—he saw the last light fading in those dark eyes, and thrilled at the emptiness he was creating. He continued in the red-headed Ghostbuster's voice. "He can work alone if he wants to, not like he'll be a big success—and we can bust ghosts without him getting in the way or ruining things."
He added as Winston, "That's the best decision for all of us. Just forget about him."
"...no..." Spoken so faintly even Strout could hardly hear it.
Finally, using Egon's deep cadence, a logical, scientific tone, undeniable in its reason, he intoned, "So we'll leave Venkman wherever he is, and get on with our work without him. I must say, it will be a relief."
The ghost stopped before he could laugh aloud, not risking spoiling it. It was enough, subtle perhaps, but Venkman had heard every word, and wouldn't forget any of it in the short time he had left. Water glittered on his white cheeks in the harsh light, as if he hadn't lost enough fluid through the hole in his chest. He no longer whispered for help that wouldn't come. Were it not for the beating of his heart and the painful catches in his breath, he would have been as still as a corpse.
Not yet, not yet. Perhaps in a little while they could discuss this most tragic turn of events. Right now Strout knew he wouldn't be able to speak without cracking up. Instead he hovered in silence, contemplating his vengeance as it played out so beautifully, enjoying every moment of his victim's pain.
They reconvened in an hour as planned; all shook their heads and held up their empty hands in a universal signal. Everything had come up blank. No sign of Peter or the ghost. Egon tried to point to the bright side of this. "All right, so he isn't here—it's more than likely he either caught the ghost and went elsewhere to celebrate his victory, or he never came here at all, or gave up if he did. In either event, we would probably be best to simply return—"
Winston must have seen the look on Ray's face. "Why don't we check out his favorite haunts, just in case?" he suggested. "I know most of the clubs he hangs at; somebody might have seen him, at least. Don't know if Pete would like us snooping around...."
"He won't mind," Ray said, sounding grateful. "He likes to know we care, sometimes. Even if he complains about it." He was relieved to have a reasonable explanation.
Egon wished he found his own logic so convincing. Instead of relaxing him, he found his stomach clenching a notch tighter with every phrase they uttered. Deliberately keeping his voice cool so as not to betray his irrational instincts, he verified, "Just to be certain, neither of you found anything? I registered no traces."
"Nope, me neither," Winston confirmed.
Ray hesitated. "I got a flicker," he admitted, "not Peter's biorhythms, but it might have been the ghost's. From that one," and he pointed at the warehouse a block away. "Maybe..."
Winston sighed, obviously not happy with the tension that had returned to Ray's voice. Egon calmly proposed, "Why don't you two check into Peter's usual places, while I look into this, on the off chance it does have some bearing?"
That earned Winston's thankful nod, at least. Ray wavered but finally agreed. "Call us if you find the ghost, though, Egon," he requested, and when Egon promised he willingly got into Ecto-1's passenger seat. Winston drove them off, and Egon adjusted his proton pack and headed toward the warehouse. He was unsure of what he would find—a puzzle to take his mind off this problem, perhaps. Ray and Winston were more than likely to discover their absent member. Maybe they could come and bust this ghost all together—yesterday had felt wrong, with only three of them, and had Peter been with them they would have almost certainly ended it then. He wouldn't have let them leave without bringing down the third. With his help, it wouldn't be much trouble to get it now. Unless he had beaten them to it.
Either way, the job would be done. And Peter better have turned up by then—Come on, Dr. Venkman, Egon thought, a small smile crossing his lips as he made his mental voice light. We need you here to write up the bill. And for everything else, of course, but that was already understood.
He felt himself slipping; the abyss yawning before him was deeper and darker than any he could imagine, and he was sliding toward it. Desperately he tried to hold on, fingers scrabbling weakly against the tilting cement floor, freezing if only he could feel it. One hand was entirely numb, better than the fire which had raged from it before, but he didn't think it moved at all when he tried to lift it. He couldn't see; the light overhead was blinding and his eyes wouldn't focus.
So this is what it feels like—no, couldn't be, he couldn't be, surely it would feel like nothing at all, like when you're falling asleep you're never aware of the final moments awake, can never remember them. He still was thinking, his brain spinning around and around in circles, as the room was. Something had better be done soon, though, because he didn't think he had that much time left. Hurry it up, guys, please, hurry...
No. They wouldn't be, they weren't coming. Or was that only a nightmare—it had been real. He had heard their voices above him, even if they hadn't heard him. Didn't know where he was. Didn't care.
Why should they?
Because it's me, Peter, Doctor Venkman, your friend, your teammate—that was it, they didn't want him on the team, all right, fine, he could live with that if they would just allow him to live.
But they weren't looking, they didn't want to find him, even if he wanted them to so desperately, even if they wouldn't let him back, and God, he wanted to be back. This was his team, had to be, he was a part of it, they had to give him a chance, just one more. Just one more chance to prove himself, he was worthy, he deserved to be part of them, he had to be. Even if he had no reason—there must be something, some way to prove his value—
You tried, his mind informed him bitterly, remember? That's why you're here, dying on this cold floor. Lot of good you did, what did you accomplish, maybe they're right. No. He couldn't believe that.
Please, guys. Please. Even if you don't ever want to see me again, just this once, one last time, please...I was your friend. Wasn't I?
They didn't want to find him. None of them, not Winston, even after all those baseball games and chess games and busts. Not Ray, even after all those years in college and that whole insane ghostbusting idea. Not Egon, even after all those crazy theories tossed back and forth and midnight discussions over cocoa. He didn't know which rejection was the most painful.
No, he knew, it was all of them, speaking in one voice, the team deciding he wasn't needed, wasn't required, wasn't wanted. That hurt more than his numb fractured arm, far more than the distant agony of his shoulder.
One more chance. I can do it.
Please. Find me. Before I lose that chance.
They weren't even looking.
Please. Help me.
No one came, of course.
Egon entered the warehouse cautiously, PKE meter in hand. No change in readings, no sign of Venkman's biorhythms, but—something, a split-second flash, here and gone again. Carefully he twisted the dial, fine-tuning—there it was again, definite psychometric activity. It was being distorted, however. He frowned. Energy was energy; energies could affect other energies. Electricity, for instance; an electric field wouldn't register on the meter, but it might obscure psychokinetic forces. Block a reading of a ghost, for instance...or a living human being's....
Keeping his voice steady he called, "Peter?" No response; what had he expected? The meter whirred again—there was something here, if not his friend. The ghost, perhaps, the one that had escaped them before. He fiddled with the meter, adjusting it to pick up that faint trace. Definitely a specter, Class Three. He turned toward the indicated direction. It immediately moved out of the scope and he tracked it, stealthily reaching for his particle thrower.
He was aiming, following the PKE readings, when the ghost in question materialized, only a few feet away and heading toward him at near the speed of sound. He stumbled back, not fast enough; its surprisingly solid form slammed into him, throwing him down against the rotting floor. With a sharp crack of breaking boards, he was falling, not too far, but enough to knock the wind out of him.
For a moment he lay still, evaluating his condition. Nothing seemed damaged, but when he moved he felt a sharp pain shooting up his left leg. Not broken, probably sprained. The PKE meter still in hand had apparently survived intact; the proton pack was another matter. He shrugged out of it before the sparks could ignite his jumpsuit, deactivating it hurriedly. All right. The ghost was nowhere in sight, no longer registering on the meter.
Glancing up, he saw the broken floor about eight feet over his head. No exit there, but in one corner a sturdy ladder led up to a trapdoor. If the ghost were indeed gone it wouldn't be too difficult to climb out, even given the condition of his ankle. Carefully he pushed himself to his knees, then to his feet, hissing with the pain—
Maybe he heard a rustle, or a groan, or maybe it was nothing at all, but something made him turn. In the corner, beneath the angular shadows of a dim lightbulb, a crumpled form looking more like a pile of rags than a living figure—he saw brown hair, a brown jumpsuit. "Oh God."
He tried to say Peter's name but it caught in his throat, and then he was running to his friend's side, oblivious to the protest of his ankle. Venkman was supine on the cold floor, one hand outstretched as if he were reaching for something, the other curled awkwardly under him. Dark stains covered the front of his uniform, face deathly white against that wet blackness. His chest wasn't moving.
For an instant everything stopped; Egon couldn't breathe himself. Hesitantly he reached out, so slowly, not sure he wanted to know, almost positive he didn't. He pressed his fingers to the chill throat—it was there, faint, uneven, but a definite pulse, the heart still beating in the cold chest. He felt his own start beating again as well.
Gently, very gently, he gathered Peter into his arms, lifting him off the freezing floor, trying to keep him as still as possible. Carefully he eased the bent arm free, wincing when he saw the impossible angle of the wrist. Peter made the faintest of moans at the movement, and Egon instantly looked to his friend's pale face. "Peter?" Fighting to keep his voice calm, "Peter, can you hear me?"
There came another weak groan, more definite now, and Egon forced himself not to hold him too tightly. "Come on, Peter. Wake up." Please. "It's Egon, Peter. Can you speak?"
Dark lashes fluttered in the dim light. "E—Egon?" It was the quietest of breaths, not even a whisper.
"Yes, it's Egon, Peter. I'm here. You—" He swallowed. "You're going to be all right."
Peter shook his head, feebly denying, "No...can't be...."
"It is," Egon assured him, "I'm here, you'll be fine." He groped for the cellular in his pocket with one hand while the other supported his friend's head; he flipped the phone open without his eyes ever leaving Peter's face.
"Can't be...you..." Peter whispered, and Egon stopped dialing to glance sharply back at him. "Aren't...coming...can't be...you...."
"What?" Certain he had misunderstood, Egon asked, "What was that, Peter?" Should he keep Peter talking or should he be resting; what would be best—
True to form, Peter went on speaking, "Heard them...leave...aren't coming...you're...the ghost!" His eyes were suddenly wide open, emerald faded to clouded gray. Weakly he tried to shove Egon back, gasping at even that exertion.
"Peter!" Egon held him still, frightened by how frail Peter felt, by how little strength he struggled with for all the horror in his voice. He was frightened by that horror, by what it suggested. "Peter, I'm here, it's Egon, I'm not the ghost—" Peter had to know, didn't he, he couldn't mistake a living form for ectoplasm, no matter how delirious he might be. "Peter, I'm real." Gripping Peter's good hand, squeezing the cold fingers, Egon said, "Feel that, can you feel that? I'm real, I'm here..."
"No...heard you..." At least Peter was calming down, no longer trying to fight. Or maybe he had no strength left to even make the attempt. "Feels—feels alive..." he slurred, "Warm...."
"I'm alive," Egon whispered. "I'm right here—I need to bring the others." With great effort he kept his tone level and dialed again. The phone buzzed static. Electric disturbance—too much interference. But he had to get through. Peter needed medical attention, for the broken arm, for hypothermia, shock, blood loss...the darkest stains were on his shoulder; when Egon looked closer he realized it was a bullet wound. "Peter—Peter, what happened to you? The ghost—" Ghosts weren't known for their marksmanship, but someone had shot him...
Peter was beyond hearing. Trying to focus his eyes he gasped, "Why...why'd you come back?"
Come back? "Peter, we've been searching for you all morning." Ray and Winston would still be looking; when Egon didn't contact them or when they couldn't reach him they'd come here—soon, he prayed. "We would have—we didn't know anything was wrong until this morning, I'm sorry—" How long had Peter been here, how many hours, blood pouring onto the cement floor...there didn't seem to be that much here, but he was so pale. Egon didn't dare leave him, not in this state, and not with the ghost possibly still around, but Peter needed help.
"You...left," Peter was saying, and there was the hint of bitter accusation in the faint words. "Were here...but you...went 'way...didn't want me...."
Egon's breath caught in his throat and his stomach somersaulted. "What?" He seemed to be asking that a lot, but he didn't understand, nothing made sense, not Peter's condition, not what he was saying—the ghost. What had the ghost done, could a single specter..? "Peter, that wasn't us, we would never, you know we would never—" But Peter had thought they had..."Maybe it was the ghost, Peter. I don't know what it told you, but it wasn't true. I'm here, we all were looking for you..." Egon had found him in time, he had to have. "They're coming, we'll get you out of here. You're going to be all right." Vaguely Egon wondered who he was trying to convince.
Peter was limp in his arms, a dead weight—no, not that. He was still breathing, if so faintly, and he was stronger than any of this—too strong to believe any insane ghost's raving, too strong to lose now. His eyes closed again as he slipped into unconsciousness, but he was no longer fighting, seeming to accept what he was told. "You'll be fine," Egon repeated.
Peter was struggling to say something else; Egon leaned down to hear, the words barely escaping his friend's colorless lips. "Egon...go...the ghost...coming back...go...."
"No," Egon said flatly, and was even more disturbed when Peter didn't argue, head falling back against his arm. He jostled him as much he dared, but Peter didn't move, his face if possible paler, and he made no response when Egon called his name. At least he still was breathing, though his faint shallow panting was hardly reassuring.
He had sounded quite certain about the ghost. Egon couldn't leave, not when it might return. He knelt there, holding him, waiting for Winston and Ray. Waiting for the ghost, the monster that had done this to his friend. It wouldn't hurt Peter again. Egon wouldn't allow it.
Strout hadn't wanted to reveal himself, but when the Ghostbuster had aimed his energy weapon directly at his invisible form he hadn't had much choice. The beam would disrupt him further and he couldn't afford that, so instead he sacrificed a few minutes to throw the man down into the basement. Hopefully the fall would incapacitate him enough that he wouldn't be a threat—not too badly, though; Strout needed him to deliver the ransom demands. His two compatriots for Venkman's life—not that Strout intended to surrender it, of course, but there was no need to tell them that.
It worked beautifully. When he recollected himself Strout immediately saw that Egon had discovered his friend, cradling his broken body as tenderly as a mother with a newborn. How sweet. Sickening, how gently he brushed the hair from his eyes, watching the other man intently, attending to his every faint wheeze. His face twisted with a variety of emotions, grief, anger, fear—it was the anger that most intrigued him, a violence unbecoming to the angular features, unfitting the cool scientist's persona.
He had reason, Strout supposed, smiling invisibly. The proton pack lay forgotten in the opposite corner of the basement; his energy reader was beside him but ignored. He had no idea Strout was observing, which pleased the ghost. It gave him time to assume an appropriate form, close to his shape in life, nearly human, reasonable. Not someone with whom to fight but to bargain. And he had all the cards.
Floating forward, he fully materialized to stand before the two, staring down at them. Venkman was too far gone to respond but the blond scientist's head jerked up, light eyes fixing on him, burning with that terrible, unusual rage. He didn't move, however, for fear of disturbing his friend, and his voice was as cold as his gaze was fiery. "What did you do to him?"
"No matter." Strout repressed a laugh but couldn't prevent a smirk. "I'm done for now—tell me, do you want him back?"
"Of course. We'll take him soon. And we'll make you pay—"
He did chuckle at that. "My dear Doctor—you are a doctor, yes?—my dear Doctor Egon, I fail to see how you're in any position to do that. Seeing that your weapon is over there, and your friend is here in such...dire straits? I could kill him, you know."
Egon hunched over Venkman, putting his body between his friend and the ghost. "I won't let you," he stated clearly.
"There's nothing you can do to stop me," and the tremor that ran through the doctor's shoulders indicated he understood all too well. One well-timed burst of energy at this point could easily destroy that fading life force. And even if he didn't act, time would soon do the deed for Strout. Not too much longer, and he would be beyond any help his friends might bring.
He waited, but the scientist said nothing. A logical man. "There is one thing," Strout murmured, and the blue eyes flashed behind the glasses. The Ghostbuster made no verbal reply, and Strout went on, "One thing I would accept, for his life. I want my two associates. The two ghosts you captured yesterday."
"No, we can't—"
"Then I'll take his life now," and the ghost moved the slightest degree toward them.
He stopped when Egon threw out one hand. "No, wait..." He glanced down at his friend's white face, then back up at the ghost, desperation warring with rage. Despair won. "We may...be able to work something out." His other hand tightened over Venkman's shoulder.
"Then," Strout said, "I suggest you go and bring back your associates. And mine."
Janine Melnitz toweled off her short hair, humming to herself, luxuriating in the freedom of a weekend. No ghosts or Ghostbusters, just peace and quiet—
Of course the phone had to ring. Well, at least they had waited until after her shower. Or maybe it was a friend with exciting evening plans. "Hello?"
No such luck. "Hello, Ray, what do you want?"
"We need your help—"
Big surprise there. "Oh, no you don't—you promised me three days off, and even if my sister had to cancel I'm still on vacation until Monday. Three days, I got your sworn oath, tell Doctor Venkman I'm not coming in—"
"That's—that's the problem, Janine. Peter's missing."
"What do you mean, 'missing'?" Ray didn't answer right away, and she didn't like that. Not at all. Especially because she had heard that too-quiet, calm voice from him before, and it never meant anything good. "What happened?"
"We sort of had a fight, and he stormed out," Ray explained.
"So?" Not exactly news—okay, storming out was a bit extreme, but then so was Peter.
"That was yesterday afternoon. We think—we think he might have tried to bust a ghost, but we haven't heard anything from him since he left."
Janine frowned. That wasn't like Doctor V.; he wouldn't worry the guys like that. On the other hand he was a big boy. "I'm sure he's fine, Ray."
He didn't believe it any more than she did. "He may be, but we need to know—Winston and I are searching in Ecto-1, we want you at the firehouse in case he comes back there...."
And in case anything was wrong when he did. "All right," she instantly agreed, and then made a quick count and came up one short, "but if you and Winston are looking around town, and you need me at the firehall, where's Egon?"
"Uh—he's been looking around the warehouses where Peter might have gone. We're sort of heading there to find him now—we haven't heard from him in a while and our calls aren't going through—I'm sure it's nothing. We'll get back to you. Thanks, Janine."
She shouted into the receiver, "Ray? Ray! What was that?" But of course he had hung up. She could call him, of course, and if he didn't report back pretty quick on the state of her chosen physicist there would be hell to pay, but for the moment she had to get dressed and get to Ghostbuster Central. For all she knew Doctor Venkman would be waiting for her with that annoying smirk, demanding the whereabouts of the guys and gleefully revoking her vacation time, since she had forfeited it by coming in of her own free will.
Janine doubted that would be the case, however. No matter how she might wish it to be.
The ghost was right. It was logical. That didn't stop Egon from glaring up at him, mentally cursing his spectral aspect with every illogical, irrational invective he could recall from his college days and beyond. He'd scream them aloud but it wouldn't do any good; the ghost would ignore it, and Peter wasn't aware to admire his effort.
Egon glanced down once more at his friend's still form, touched his cheek lightly and asked again, "Peter?" All but begging, "Please wake up, Peter." But the green eyes stayed closed, pinched with pain, and Peter made no sound beyond the rasp of his labored breaths.
It couldn't be helped. Egon could only hope he would hear, somehow, from whatever distance his mind was now. "Peter, I have to go, but I will be back, I'll bring help. I promise. You'll be all right, we'll be right here...."
He didn't have a choice. It burned that the ghost understood that every bit as well as he did—he couldn't use the cellular with the interference, and he couldn't wait for them any longer; Peter didn't have the time. But there was a hard knot in his stomach that said if he left his friend now it would be for the final time; he wouldn't get another chance with him. No. He refused to believe it. "You hang on, do you hear me, Venkman?" No sign that he did. But he had no choice, "I'm leaving, but you're going to wait for me, Peter, you're going to wait for all of us to come back here and help you."
Carefully he eased his arm out from under his friend, as gently as he could set the still head down, ignoring the terrible images flashing before his mind's eye of corpses laid out for funerals, the decorum of the dead—No. His hand lingered over Peter's heart, faint, but still beating, still alive. There was hope yet. Reluctantly he withdrew and picked up his fallen PKE meter, clutching it as if to a lifeline. Using the wall as a brace he slowly stood, favoring his injured ankle.
He paused, standing over Peter, spared one last glance to assure himself that his friend's chest was moving, even shallowly, and then lifted his head to pin the ghost with his glare. "I have your word he will be safe?"
"You have no such promise," the phantom hissed. "But if you do not go and return, you have my word he will be dead. By my hand or his injuries; it doesn't matter to me. Bring my associates—all three of you; I do not want to have to watch for attacks behind my back. And do not bring your weapons, or you will not see him alive again."
Egon nodded, maintaining composure only with monumental effort, forcing himself to focus on the ladder ahead of him and not on the motionless figure at his feet. Drawing a deep breath he took a cautious step forward, then another when his leg hurt less than it might have, and then he limped as quickly as he could manage to the ladder, pulled himself up it and through the trapdoor into the warehouse. He never looked back, knowing if he did he wouldn't be able to go on. Instead he headed to the door, one leg dragging, wincing with every step, but he ignored that sharp twinge. Outside, into the morning air—he realized how cold it was in the basement when the warm breeze wafted across his cheeks.
Pulling out his phone he tried to make the call; it buzzed, but five feet further the connection went through. Ray answered after a single ring; before he could get beyond hello Egon said tersely, "We have a problem."
"What? What is it? Did you find him? Is he—"
"He's alive." Ray must have noticed how tight his voice was, because he didn't respond, not even an 'oh' of acknowledgment. "I'm at the warehouses. Get here, fast." He gave his address, disconnected before he could be asked anything more. He couldn't answer their questions over the phone; it had to be in person. He needed their support to face what he had seen.
Leaning against the wall of the adjacent warehouse, he waited. In a surprisingly short time, for all that the seconds felt like hours, he heard the familiar irritating wail of Ecto-1's sirens. The vehicle screeched up, Winston sticking his head out of the window. "Where's Peter?"
"In trouble. We have to get back to the firehouse; I'll explain on the way." Egon climbed into the back seat and they roared off, sirens shrieking. He tried not to think of how far it was taking them from their friend as he rapidly summarized the situation for the others.
Janine rushed up the moment they pulled in. "Egon! You're okay!" But she spared him her usual attention to glare around and demand, "So where's Peter?"
"A ghost has him," Ray said. "A mean one." His voice held none of the enthusiasm he usually displayed for such affairs.
"Pete's being held hostage," Winston clarified, "and the ghost's gonna kill him if he doesn't get what he wants."
"Oh no!" Janine clapped her hands over her mouth, asked in a small voice, "But he's okay?" She swallowed when they all shook their heads in a distinct negative.
"He's been badly injured," Egon told her, sparing her the details—even Ray and Winston hadn't heard all of them; there was no point in worrying them beyond what they could do anything about. "We need a plan—I'm not sure how much time the ghost has given us." Nor was he sure how much longer Peter had.
"He wants his two friends, right?" Ray asked. "So why don't we just give them to him?"
"Not that simple," Egon replied, for all he wished it were. "We've already put them into the containment unit; getting them out again won't be easy."
"Besides," Winston pointed out, "we give in once and another one might try it—I know," and he held up his hands when his friends all glared at him, "Pete's worth that chance, but it's a big risk, and all of us would be in danger. We gotta bust this ghost."
"We will," Egon stated, and only realized how emphatic his tone had been when the others turned to him in surprise. Collecting himself, he said, "But Winston is right; even if we could get them out, it's dangerous to accede to such demands. And as it is," he drew a breath, "we have no guarantee that the ghost won't kill Peter once he gets what he wants."
"And that we can't risk," Winston murmured.
"Hold it," Ray said. "Who says we gotta give him what he wants? What if it only seems like we are? We have the readings of those ghosts—I bet we could rig up a trap that would look like it was carrying them. Then maybe we could open it up right under him and wham, suck him down—"
Egon shook his head. "For a ghost, he's very cunning. I don't think he'd allow us to open a trap so close. He insisted that all three of us be present, without our proton packs."
Ray's face fell. "That means one of us can't sneak in behind, then."
"Damn, I hate the smart ones," Winston muttered.
"Guys—" Janine said.
"No," Egon sighed with Ray, "though we might be able to rig a trap as you suggested."
"Guys," Janine repeated.
"Yeah, but it won't do any good unless one of us can get close enough to get him."
"Hey, guys!" Janine yelled at near the top of her lungs. They all winced and turned to her.
"Yes?" Egon said patiently.
Janine folded her arms and stared up at the three men. "He wants you three Ghostbusters there, right? Did he say anything about me?"
"No, of course not, he doesn't know—" Egon began, and stopped.
"Janine," Ray protested, "this is a dangerous—"
"Are you willing to risk it?" Egon asked her seriously.
She thrust out her chin. "Hey, I'm part of this whole Ghostbusting thing, right? I know how to use a trap and a particle thrower—yeah, I'll do it. Besides, who's going to sign my paychecks if Doctor V.'s not here?"
Not that Peter was especially fond of that duty—but both he and Janine were chary to admit how much more they cared for one another beyond such ulterior concerns. She might have her cap set for a certain physicist, but she was part of the whole team, their family, and she'd fight alongside them with every bit as much determination, knowing Peter's life was on the line.
"Egon, are you sure we can allow this?" Ray tried a final time. "It really is dangerous—"
"I know." And if something happened to her because of it he knew he'd never forgive himself. "But we don't have a choice. Peter's running out of time." And he could never forgive himself that loss, either.
Which Janine most certainly knew, and probably could read it on his face now, because she met his eyes and said, "Thank you, Egon," with a gravity rarely present in her voice. She nodded to them and then strode to the lockers to prep one of the proton packs and pull a jumpsuit over her petite figure. Ray shot upstairs to work on the trap, changing its frequencies to match those of yesterday's capture.
Egon started to follow him, stumbled and bit his lip when his leg gave out. Winston caught him with a frown, "Hey, m'man, you didn't mention this—what happened?"
"I—fell," Egon said shortly.
Winston promptly pushed him into a chair and removed his boot to examine the injury. "Yeah, you twisted this good—not broken, but it's a pretty bad sprain. What'd you do, sit on it?"
"A little," Egon admitted as shortly as possible.
"A doctor should look at this—we could stop by the emergency room—"
"No!" Egon snapped with more force than he intended. More calmly, he said, "We can't; I know I keep saying it, but we have no time to waste."
"Yeah." Winston nodded, stood and crossing his arms, frowned down at him. "You do keep saying that—what aren't you saying?" Lowering his voice, "Just how bad is Pete?"
"Bad." Egon swallowed, focused steadily in front of him to avoid meeting his friend's searching gaze. "When I found him he was...almost gone."
"Oh man." Winston leaned against the desk, closing his eyes briefly. "But he is still...?"
"When I left, he was still alive." Egon looked up, folding his hands in his lap and concentrating on the feeling of his fingers, pressed so tightly together they blocked the blood flow through his veins. "He's been shot, lost far too much blood, his arm is broken, and I suspect there is more I couldn't discern. In addition...." He trailed off, and wouldn't have been able to continue but Winston's hand fell on his shoulder, a silent plea for the whole truth. With a shuddering breath, Egon went on, "The ghost, the damned ghost was playing with us—playing with him. I don't know what he did, what he said, but Peter...he was confused. He thought we weren't coming, I don't know why...he didn't believe it was me. He didn't believe I'd find him—he didn't even think we were looking."
"What?" It wasn't a question so much as denial. Winston was shaking his head, "Egon, that's crazy..." When Egon didn't answer he bent down, gripped both shoulders firmly and stared into his eyes, "Egon, my man, you know that's nuts. Pete wouldn't believe that, no matter what that monster might've said—this is Peter Venkman we're talking about! He'd never buy that anyone could forget about him. He must've been way out of it—"
"He was," Egon acknowledged.
Winston nodded sharply, and though there was fear in the back of his eyes he was reining it in admirably. "We're gonna get him back, Egon, and if he pulls any shit like that after he's better, I'll drop-kick him to Morrisville. You have my word. We just have to see about getting him now—and let's fix up that ankle, it'd be bad for business to have two of us down for the next couple weeks." He fetched the first-aid kit and set about bandaging the sprain, but he didn't make another suggestion about going to the hospital, and though he worked with care Egon couldn't recall having seen any doctor's hands moving so quickly.
Again Strout inspected his hostage. Venkman's pulse had been slowing in the past half hour, his breaths coming with more and more effort. Grudgingly the ghost laid a psychic hand across the still chest, and channeled a small surge of power into his body. The heartrate picked up a bit, but there was no conscious response.
One way or another his fun would shortly be over. Anxious to enjoy the minutes he had left, Strout stroked a freezing ectoplasmic finger across Venkman's cheek, pinching the flaccid skin until his eyes fluttered open. A faint groan came from the blue lips, "E...Egon?"
"He left," Strout whispered into the man's ear, slowly so that no syllable would be misunderstood. "He saw there was no point in staying, and so he left you to die."
"Why should he have stayed?" the ghost inquired. "Did you think he cared? He wasn't so cruel to abandon a dying man when he was aware, but once you were unconscious...." Lowering his voice that much more, "I'm terribly sorry...."
Weakly Venkman turned his head away from the cold words. Even that tiny effort seemed to exhaust him. "You're...lying...wouldn't...go...."
"Why would I lie?" Strout stepped over Venkman and into his line of sight again, making a show of looking around. "It's obvious he's not here. If he did care, would he have left you? I assure you, you're a sight to inspire pity in the hardest of hearts." Hearts that still beat, of course. Strout couldn't find any in pity himself, looking at the miserable, dying creature. Venkman was barely holding onto life, and he'd soon enough relinquish that weak grip. His eyes had already closed again. Not much longer now, and the ghost would have his vengeance. He wished he could connive some way to see Charlie Venkman's face when he heard the news about his boy.
At least he'd be able to watch the other Ghostbusters, mourning over the body of their fallen friend. And with his two associates back—maybe he could see about exacting still more complete retribution from them. They'd be defenseless, without their weapons as he'd commanded, and the shock of grief might give him the edge to defeat them once and for all. Yes, with them gone it would be far easier to accomplish his plans. Everything was going so well. He could hardly wait for them to arrive, even if it would put an end to this most amusing entertainment.
They stopped a block away from the warehouse to let Janine out. "Remember," Egon cautioned her one final time, "do your best not to be seen or heard by anyone. We don't know how but the ghost seems able to sense us from a distance. He can also turn nearly invisible so you might not know he's there. Get in through the back, and wait until we throw the trap down. When we hit the trigger, nail him with full energy."
"I got it, Egon," she assured him. "I got it the first time—I'm not an idiot!"
"I know. But we can't risk something going wrong. Peter...."
Nodding, she stepped out of Ecto-1 and adjusted the straps of the proton pack one more time. "This is going to work. Don't worry."
"Janine, be careful," Egon said as she began to walk away.
She turned back, nodded again. "As long as you guys are." And she continued down the alley between the buildings.
They drove the rest of the way in silence, then parked in front of the ghost's warehouse. Ray shivered as they got out of the car. "Anyone else feel that? I noticed it before, but it didn't register on the PKE meter."
"An electric field," Egon explained. "I think the ghost is generating it, how I'm not sure."
"Great," Winston growled. He shifted his shoulders, grimacing at the absence of the proton pack's weight. "Man, I hate being defenseless. Especially if we don't even know what this spook can do."
"Peter does," Egon said quietly, and there was no to answer that.
Cautiously they entered the warehouse. Egon limped forward to the middle of the floor, shouted to the emptiness, "We're here! We came back, we have your friends!" He hoped Peter was listening as well as the ghost; hoped he was even alive to hear...he deliberately halted that train of thought.
Silence for a moment, and then a form materialized a few feet in front of him. Within the gathering mist Egon recognized the features of Peter's ghostly tormentor. In his peripheral vision he saw Ray and Winston step up to take a place on either side of him, but he focused on the ghost's hollow eyes. "We brought them," he repeated in a lower voice.
Ray held up the trap, its light blinking to indicate its occupancy. He swallowed as the ghost glided close to peer at it, reached one phantom hand toward it and drew back again, apparently satisfied. Egon hoped the ghost didn't notice Ray's sigh of relief. Evidently not, for he hissed, "Release them."
"Show us our friend," Egon demanded. "We want proof that he's still—that he's all right."
"He is where you left him, doctor," the ghost purred. "You, Egon, may verify his condition." He stepped aside to allow Egon to come forward and look down through the broken floorboards.
As the ghost had said, Peter lay where he had fallen. He did not seem to have moved; from this distance Egon couldn't tell if he even was breathing.
"You have seen him," the ghost said with a touch of impatience. "Now grant my request."
"We need to know he's all right," Egon demanded, straightening to face him. "Bring him up here—I know you have the power to do that. We brought you your friends—now bring us ours. Or there's no deal."
"Release my associates and I will let you take him," the ghost snapped.
"Not—not until you give us Peter," Ray joined in Egon's insistence.
"Give them to me or I'll kill him now!" howled the ghost.
Winston and Ray both started to protest that, but Egon shook his head, blood pounding in his ears. The ghost was so unwilling—there had to be a reason. He hadn't had much difficulty throwing Egon down, or fighting Peter, apparently—but he had vanished for a time, and he hadn't seemed so strong when he returned. He wasn't all that powerful a ghost, for all he had done—did he expend his energies in bursts? Weakened by psychokinetic activity...that could be just the edge they needed. But it was a dangerous game, if they pushed him too far—they needed an advantage.
Hopefully the ghost wasn't all that good at reading them. He hadn't noted Ray's subterfuge, at least. "If you kill him, we'll destroy your associates," Egon said clearly. "And then we'll take out this warehouse—the Mayor is a personal acquaintance." His Honor was well-acquainted with them, at any rate. "At our advisement this building can be destroyed, today, if necessary." Ray and Winston glanced at each other and then nodded sharply, backing him up, and if Winston was smiling slightly, hopefully the ghost wouldn't catch it.
"Bring us Peter," Egon commanded. "Now."
For a long minute the ghost glared at them coldly, and Egon held his breath. If he realized the deception...if he grew too impatient with them, and choose to end this whole affair.... Then his expression changed, a subtle uninterpretable emotion flitting across his phantom face. Perhaps—satisfaction? Amusement? As if he had realized a new aspect of the game....
In that instant Egon realized the ghost had no intention of allowing them to take Peter's living body from this place, no matter what they might threaten. Whether or not his associates were returned, no matter what they might do to him later—he had some score to settle, and he would extract his payment in Peter's blood.
Not if the Ghostbusters had any say in the matter.
The ghost nodded to them, then swooped down through the floor. Looking past him, Egon saw a flash of red hair as Janine took up position behind an empty crate, waiting for the right moment, watching everything that happened.
Egon's attention returned to the foreground as Peter rose up through the broken boards, the ghost an almost transparent shadow beneath him. He dropped their friend's body several feet in front of Egon, stood over him and glowered. He hadn't bothered to solidify, Egon noted.
"He is here, and living," the ghost hissed. "Give them to me."
Across the distance he could barely see Peter's chest move, and no other sign of life to confirm the ghost's words. Behind him he heard Winston's and Ray's breath catch as they saw their friend, thought he heard a third faint gasp—distant as Janine was, the drying blood covering Peter's jumpsuit and the whiteness of his face were all too clear.
Somehow Egon managed to tear his eyes from that sight to look up at the specter. "We'll give them to you," he said. "Ray—Ray, open the trap."
"Wait," rasped the ghost, and his voice too sounded weaker. "Throw it down, over there," and he pointed. "I won't be caught in it myself."
Ray nodded, fumbled and tossed it out in the chosen direction. Egon glanced at the distant crate, raised his voice slightly and announced, "All right, we're opening it—now!"
Ray stamped the foot pedal. Simultaneously a stream of charged protons shot out and struck the ghost square in the back, and Egon threw himself forward, catching himself with his arms over Peter's still form to shield him from the energy of both beam and phantom.
The spirit screamed horribly and Egon felt frigid insubstantial talons clawing his back, but Janine angled the particle thrower to lift the specter off of them into the air. Winston ducked down and kicked the trap in their direction, and Janine lowered the beam again, pushing the ghost down into the stream of light. Egon closed his eyes against the brilliance as the energies swirling around him and Peter.
With the ghost's final, furious screech the doors of the trap slammed shut, leaving them in silent dimness. Egon blinked, rocked back onto his knees and pressed his hand to Peter's neck, searching frantically until he found the thready pulse. Then he allowed himself to exhale. Three sets of rapid footsteps converged on them and he looked up at Ray, Winston, and Janine, panting and pale.
"Is he—" Winston dared ask.
Egon nodded. "Barely." He pushed himself up, accepting Ray and Janine's assistance. "We must call the paramedics—"
"I'll handle it." Winston dashed outside, pulling out his cellular as he ran out of range of the interference. Ray dropped to his knees and touched Peter's face, shivering at the coldness of his friend's skin. "Peter?" he whispered, but there was no response. Egon put a hand on his shoulder as he slid his own under Peter's still head, cradling it gently above the cold pavement.
Janine crouched by them, put her hands over Peter's chill fingers and his uninjured arm. "Peter, you better be okay. I'm gonna be really mad if I did all that for nothing." But her voice shook, spoiling the effect.
Egon picked up the trap that had fallen unnoticed from Ray's grasp. The light blinked notice of its occupancy. "It was successful," he confirmed, and wondered if there was a way to end this completely, to destroy the trap and damn the ghost inside to a more permanent hell than the containment unit's limbo. To let him taste some part of the torture he had put his friend through.... Egon forced his fingers to loosen, the corners of the trap leaving red lines in his hands where he had pressed too tightly. He took a breath and with effort banished the rage filling him—it could wait. There were more important concerns now.
Winston returned and knelt by Peter's other side opposite Janine. "The ambulance was on its way. I told it where," he reported. "Has he woken up or said anything..." About to touch Peter's arm, he blanched when he saw its unnatural bent, ran his fingers lightly over the break before he turned his attention to the shoulder wound. Biting his lip, he shook his head and muttered, "My God..." He left unsaid the obvious, that their friend should already be dead. Even though the blood had stopped flowing, enough of it must have been lost already...this would be close. If not already too late—but Peter still was alive. And Egon refused to have any doubts that he wouldn't stay that way. This was Peter Venkman, after all. They had won, and he wouldn't allow anything to spoil their victory.
After five hours Egon was getting exceedingly tired of the blank hospital wall across from him. It was a particularly annoying shade of off-white, unadorned by anything but a crack in the plaster, interrupted only by Winston's form periodically cutting off his line of sight as he paced back and forth. It was not an option open to him; his ankle had been fitted with a brace and no longer hurt, but it throbbed accompaniment to his growing headache.
He would have taken off his glasses but he didn't want to disturb Janine, asleep against his shoulder. They had said she could go home but of course she had flatly refused. Half an hour ago she had dozed off, and though he wouldn't have told anyone—except perhaps Peter—her warm presence against his side was a comfort. In the chair on his other side Ray was fidgeting as he flipped through one of the tattered waiting room magazines, not stopping on any article long enough to read more than the captions of the pictures.
They all paused as they heard footsteps outside the door, then started when instead of the steps passing by the door opened and a doctor entered. Egon nudged Janine awake and Ray sprang up to confront the man directly, Winston beside him. "How is he?"
The doctor looked at them all in turn; it was impossible to read his weary face. "Doctor Venkman is alive," he said quietly. Egon sagged back against his chair, Janine gripping his arm tightly; Winston and Ray both fell into their seats. "He lost a lot of blood," the doctor went on, "and there are internal injuries. The next twelve hours are critical. I'm not going to lie to you—he has a chance, but he's not out of the woods. He's young, in good health, but what he went through...he should have been dead long before he got here. At this point all we can do is wait and see how it turns out."
They nodded. "Can we see him?" Ray asked in a small voice.
The doctor shook his head, but stopped when he saw their faces. "For a few minutes," he relented. "He won't be aware of you, but...you look like you need it."
They followed him down the hall and filed into the room. The doctor withdrew to the door and waited while they all looked at their friend. A forest of equipment surrounded Peter, monitors beeping in muted tones and displays flashing their signals and graphs, all assurances that the man in the bed was indeed living. An IV stand by the head of the bed fed nutrients through the long clear tube inserted into one arm, the other bandaged and laying by his side.
Peter was so still, and his skin was so much paler than usual, whiter than the bedsheets, that he was barely recognizable, except for the familiar curl of brown hair falling across his forehead. Egon brushed it back, only to have it spring forward again, as if aware of its owner's stylistic choices whether or not he was conscious of them.
"I'm sorry, but you have to go," the doctor told them, not unkindly. "He needs no disturbances if he's to heal." He ushered them back to the waiting room.
As soon as he had closed the door and hurried off to other errands, Winston picked up a chair. Together they marched down the hall and planted the seat opposite Peter's door. A passing nurse noticed their activity, opened her mouth, then glanced at their faces and continued down the hall without a word. "I'll take the first watch," Egon volunteered, sitting down. He looked up at their secretary, "Janine, I...there is no way to thank you—Peter—"
Leaning over, she put a hand on top of his clasped ones. "You're welcome. Now I want to hear Dr. V. say it." She kissed his cheek, murmuring in his ear as she drew back, "He's going to be fine, Egon." Regarding them all, she remarked, "You guys all need rest. Why don't I watch—"
Egon took her hand before she could withdraw it, shaking his head. "You need sleep as well."
"Yeah," Winston seconded, putting his arm around her shoulders. "You did good, girl. Go home, sack out—we've got things covered here."
"We'll call you if Peter wakes up," Ray assured her earnestly.
Janine's sharp gaze swept over them. "You call me the moment you hear anything, one way or another, got it?"
When Egon convinced her they would be punctual in their reports, she reluctantly headed back to her apartment, after again reassuring them Dr. V. would be fine. Or else he would face her wrath. Despite her insistence, they all knew she would be sleeping with her phone tonight.
Once she was gone, Egon turned to his two teammates, "You should go back to the firehouse and sleep as well—"
Winston snorted; Ray only shook his head. They did return to the waiting room and stretch out on the remaining chairs, resting as well as they could, though Egon knew they would find it as difficult to sleep as he would when his turn came.
At least from his position by the door Egon would know instantly if anything did happen. And when Peter did awaken they would be right there for him, even if they weren't allowed to sit by his bed. He would need that reassurance, he suspected, remembering what Peter had said when Egon had first found him. He hoped he hadn't ever awoken to realize he was gone—Peter needed to know they were there for him, always. He did know, of course, he had to, but it couldn't hurt to make sure. Besides, the door was more interesting than the waiting room wall. At the least it was a different view.
Settling back, Egon folded his arms and waited for time to pass, silently willing his friend to rejoin the waking, living world.
When Peter opened his eyes at first all he saw was white, and between that and the fact that he was actually warm all over he was almost convinced that he had died after all, and had lived better than he had thought. The sudden pain shooting from his shoulder when he tried to move, and the tiles which swam into focus as his vision cleared, convinced him otherwise.
Not the warehouse, at least. It felt like he was on a bed, a firm mattress supporting him, white covers—a hospital. They had—
He swallowed, fought back the tears which tried to blur his vision—no, they hadn't found him, they had left, but someone had found him, at least. He was alive, he could breathe, and while he didn't think he was in top condition he would be healing. A doctor would be coming soon to tell him how long it would take, and eventually he be let out of here, and then what? Where would he go? Did he dare try to go back, beg? He didn't want to, but what else was there to do? There must be a way to convince them...not now, though, it would be impossible to prove to them he had any worth when he couldn't even move. But later, maybe somehow they would listen; if it had been long enough perhaps they would—
He heard the creak of a door opening, and he managed to turn his head toward it. That would be the doctor—the brief flash of a dark face he saw might have been Winston, no, couldn't be, except—then whoever it was pulled away, footsteps retreating. He almost thought he might have heard Winston's voice, calling out, "Come on, he's awake!" But that must have been his imagination—
The doctor re-entered, a tall black man, yes, but definitely not his teammate. The doctor smiled when his patient met his gaze. "So you are awake, Doctor Venkman—how do you feel?"
"Like..." That raspy croak couldn't possibly be his voice, could it? Swallowing, Peter tried again, managed to approximate his whisper, at least, "Like a squirrel in the middle of Fifth Avenue."
The doctor nodded. "Not surprising. You were pretty banged up, but you're doing better." He picked up the chart from the foot of the bed, scribbled some notations.
"How long...?" How big was the bill going to be for this, anyway?
"You were admitted the day before yesterday—about forty-eight hours ago." The doctor smiled again. "You're making a remarkably fast recovery, actually."
"How did I get here?" Peter asked, wondering who could have found him—and what about the ghost, what had happened to the ghost, anyway? And Egon...was there any chance that Egon could've at least called the hospital—but how did they get him away from the ghost? As his memory returned it became a matter of some urgency, that was a dangerous specter—
"I believe you were—" the doctor began, only to be interrupted by a loud demand outside.
"We will be going in there now."
He recognized the deep voice, there was no mistaking that bass, even if it did sound more agitated than normal. Trying to sit up—a painful and entirely unsuccessful attempt—he gasped, "Egon?"
He heard a nurse cry out in protest as the door opened. The doctor turned, objecting, "Excuse me, he isn't ready for visitors—" but was gently shoved to the side by Winston.
Ray ran over to his bedside, paused for a quarter of a second and then threw his arms around him, very carefully, with a happy cry. "Peter!"
Peter tried his best to return the hug; between his weakness and his surprise he didn't do a very good job of it but Ray didn't seem to mind. Winston joined them, putting a hand on Peter's arm. "'Bout time you're up, homeboy."
He blinked at both of them, and rather than trying to phrase any of the confusing questions whirling through his muddled brain he asked the simplest and most obvious one. "Where's Egon?"
"Right here," the physicist assured him, fending off the nurse outside the door to enter the room, where he was confronted by the doctor. He side-stepped the man and approached the bed, stared down at his friend with a peculiar expression of near-disbelief. "Peter, are you..?"
"He's improving," the doctor informed them in an exasperated tone, before Peter could answer. "He's very weak, however, and this disturbance is a severe risk to his health—you must leave. He needs rest if he is to recover."
"S'okay, doc," Peter rasped, and was pleased when all four men shut up to attend to him. Then he remembered hearing them overhead, talking about letting him be...they had changed their minds, but how fixed was their decision? When they realized he was all right, would they want him around? Or was this only duty to a former teammate?
He was startled when Egon ducked around the doctor to lay a hand on his arm. Bending close, the blond man murmured, "We'll be right outside the door, Peter."
Peter nodded, finding that he lacked the energy to verbalize his response. Egon's touch was only a distant pressure. He was slipping again, but the welcoming abyss this time was warm and bright, and it wouldn't be a permanent stay, only a visit. The last thing he heard as he fell into sleep was Egon's quiet reassurance, "We're all here for you." And then he remembered nothing.
Ray sat by Peter's bed, waiting for him to wake up. One or another of them had been holding such a vigil for the past three days. Peter never awoke for very long and between his injuries and the drugs they kept him on he was pretty out of it, but it was nice to have that confirmation of his living status. Ray still shuddered whenever he remembered his first glimpse of their friend's crumpled form, the ghost standing guard over him; Peter hadn't even looked like he was breathing....
The doctors put up with them primarily because they had soon realized Peter's heartrate skyrocketed if he woke up alone. So the guys—and Janine, usually accompanying Egon—had kept a steady watch in shifts. It gave the others time to get back to Central, grab a few hours rest in their own beds. In a few more days, when Peter was further along, they could go on a few of the busts they had scheduled, but for the time being everything was postponed for the more important task of caring for their incapacitated member.
Ray didn't mind; it gave him a chance to catch up on his reading, and more importantly Peter needed it—he'd deny it, of course, but the first thing he did when he opened his eyes was look over and see if any of them were there. Egon had told them...not everything, Ray suspected. But enough.
He couldn't believe what the ghost had done, or tried to—they had encountered evil before, in myriad shapes and colors and voices, but this one's brutal sadism shocked him in a way far different from the terrors of demons and demi-gods. Egon had briefly mentioned something about punishment, only a passing thought, but Ray wished he had pursued it. He wondered if he could help—he had some ideas that would probably surprise his friends, and surprised himself, but the monster deserved it. For once he had no desire to understand the specter or his motivations; Ray only wanted to see him pay for what he had tried to do, and had come far too close to succeeding.
In the end they had only put the ghost in the containment unit with the others. He wouldn't be able to hurt anyone else in there. And now they all had to deal with the aftermath of his attempt.
Peter's eyelids twitched open. Ray dropped his comic and leaned forward, touched his arm reassuringly. "Peter?"
Peter blinked, focused on Ray. "That you, Tex?" He was still hoarse, but his voice was finally regaining the cocky resonance Ray was accustomed to hearing in it.
Ray smiled encouragingly. "Right here. How are you doing?"
Peter groaned. "Lousy. I keep sleeping through all the visits from the nurses."
That sounded like vintage Venkman, at last. Ray grinned openly. "Too bad—there's this really cute blonde, but I heard her asking for Egon's number."
Peter groaned louder, closing his eyes and flopping his head back against the pillow. "Great. Janine won't give her the chance, though, so there's still hope..."
"If you can stay awake." Ray paused, wondering if Peter was ready to sleep again—he seemed more lucid than he had previously, but the doctors had warned them he needed rest more than anything.
Peter opened his eyes again and shook his head. "I think I can manage a little longer—tell 'em to cut back the meds, it's annoying, sleeping my life away..."
"And here I thought that was your goal in life!" Ray teased.
"In the hospital? Have you tried the food?" Not that Peter had had more than a few spoonfuls of Jello, but even that had fallen below the standards of his palate.
"The doctors say you can probably come home in a few days," Ray comforted him.
Peter nodded, but his expression closed suddenly, losing the joking mien. Shrugging it off he asked lightly, "How are things back at Central? You guys had any good busts lately?"
Ray shook his head. "We've been putting them off—we need to get you back on your feet first. We can handle the smaller ones now, maybe, but there's a couple we really need all four of us for."
He watched closely. Peter's gaze slid off him and fell to the bed, where he plucked at the white sheet with one limp hand. "Well, if you'll put up with a less-than-able man..."
"Of course, we'll just strap the proton pack to your wheelchair..." Ray trailed off when he saw his friend's emerald eyes flick up to his and away again. For all Peter's facetious tone there was something deadly serious in his expression. Ray leaned forward. "Peter, we want you back, if you're willing..." It hadn't occurred to him until that moment—what if he didn't want to return? Peter had never been big on physical danger, but he had never been frightened by it, either; he was the bravest man Ray had ever known—or the stupidest, Egon had been known to say. But everyone has limits, and after what he had gone through...it had terrified Ray, just seeing Peter like that; how much worse must it have been to experience it—
And then Peter whispered, "I want to come back, if you're willing," in a small faint voice that sounded nothing like him at all.
Ray stared. "Of course we want you back—" And he was shocked by the way Peter's eyes closed. It was only briefly, but it seemed almost a gesture of surprise. "Peter, why wouldn't we want you back?"
Peter turned his head away from Ray, said thickly, "Nothing."
That wasn't nearly enough. Mouth dry, Ray reached for his shoulder, demanded, "Why?" That there would be any reason....
Peter must have heard the fear in Ray's voice, because he rolled his head back and put his good hand over Ray's. "It's not important."
"Yes, it is." If it was bothering Peter this much—to the point that it would even cross his mind that he'd be unwanted, the most un-Peter like thought Ray could imagine—it most certainly was important. "Please. Tell me?"
For a moment Peter was silent; then his eyes dropped again to the bedsheets. When he spoke it was in a soft monotone. "While the ghost...had me, he spoke to me. The first time he used my father's voice—"
"Your father—" Ray exclaimed, then fell silent to allow Peter to continue.
"I don't know how he did it, how he even knew my father—he said he knew him, maybe before he died?" Peter frowned, considered this for a moment and then forced himself back on track. "Anyway, as...as my dad, he said...I don't know. Random stuff, that I was a lousy son, worthless—cheap psychological tricks, really, I saw through them...."
He might have, but that didn't mean they hadn't hurt. "Oh, Peter..."
Peter shrugged. "That's not all," he said flatly. "Later on...God. Ray, will you tell the other guys? I don't think I can say this twice."
Ray nodded immediately. "Of course." He held his breath, not sure if he wanted to know but listening anyway. If Peter was willing to tell him....
His hand clenched into a fist at his side, Peter said, "It was the ghost, it must have been the ghost—I was lying there on that cold floor, and I could feel, could feel my life slipping away—I was dying." Ray shuddered but Peter didn't notice, as if he were focused on some distant point far beyond the white expanse of his sheets. "I was falling, and I heard you—I heard you guys, overhead, talking with each other, and you were saying you didn't need me on the team, didn't want me on the team, how you were better off without me. I heard you decide to leave me to my fate, and then you left, and I knew you weren't coming back..." His voice grew quieter and quieter as he spoke, until by the end, he was barely whispering, "It was the ghost, it had to have been the ghost, but I heard you say it...."
For a long moment Ray couldn't say anything, he couldn't even move, mouth partly open as he struggled to breathe. At last he looked toward him, gasping his name, "Peter...!" But his friend's eyes were closed; he was too drained to stay awake after this revelation.
Ray stared at him for a long moment but Peter didn't stir, and then Ray turned and ran from the room. Almost knocking over the blonde nurse coming to check on Peter, he muttered something he hoped sounded like an apology and dashed down to the parking lot, desperate to get back to the others. They had to hear this, understand why Peter hadn't been himself, beyond the obvious physical injuries.
And once they knew, they could fix this, too, heal this wound along with the others. They had to.
Egon glanced up, surprised, as Ray burst into the firehouse. For a moment he didn't say anything, but his face was white. "Ray, what is it?" Egon asked, trying to remain calm.
Ray swallowed. "Janine," he said. The secretary was already watching him; she cocked her head, and he asked, "Can you go to the hospital, in case Peter wakes up again? I need to talk to the guys for now. One of us can spell you in an hour."
She hesitated, then saw something in his expression and only nodded, grabbing her purse from her desk and heading out to her car. Winston, coming downstairs, heard this and inquired, "What's up, Ray?" before Egon could ask again. "How's Peter—"
"He's...fine." He left too long a pause there, belying his words. "But he told me something...."
Egon knew with dark premonition what Ray had heard. He had mentioned it to Winston, and later to Ray at the hospital, but he had been hoping that when all was said and done it wouldn't have any long-term effects; Peter might not have remember any of it. He hadn't gone into any detail because he hoped there would be no point—but that wasn't the case. He saw it in Ray's haunted eyes.
"What'd he say?" Winston pressed.
Ray gulped, and then it all poured out, so rapidly and surely that the words must have been burned into his mind, his heart. Winston closed his eyes, shaking his head and swearing under his breath.
Egon numbly extended his hand, grabbed Janine's chair and dropped into it. "He...he said something of the sort, but I had hoped...I hadn't wanted to...." He hadn't been able to believe it, and had prayed that all would be forgotten when Peter awoke.
"Guys, what are we going to do?" Ray sounded half a step away from a sob.
"Hey, this is Peter we're talking about." Winston's attempted confidence was almost flawless. Almost. "Soon as he's on his feet he'll be back to normal. You can't keep him down."
Egon stirred, rising to his feet once more. "Usually I would agree, Winston, but this time...." Too clearly he could recall Peter's pitiful disbelief that they would even come, that Egon would ever have found him. It was so unlike Peter in every respect, that he would have lost faith, even for a moment, even when he was so vulnerable....
"But Egon," Ray's voice almost broke, "how do we convince him we need him? What if he doesn't want to come back?"
"The problem won't be convincing him to return," Egon whispered. "The problem will be convincing him that we want this—he knows we do, and yet at the same time he doubts it...." Egon needed Peter for this, needed his psychologist's insight and even surer instincts at reading another's heart. If it were any of them in this position, what would Peter do?
Whatever it took, of course. And they could only hope it would be enough.
"—and Egon stomped the trap, about a billionth of a second before Ray got the sliming of his life," Winston said, illustrating with his hands as he gave a blow-by-blow description of the afternoon's bust. "Be glad you missed it—that thing dripped so much goo it made Slimer look dry. By the way, he misses you; your pillow's going to be permanently damp, given how he's been sleeping on it every night."
Peter put his good hand over his face. "That spud—"
"He's been crying big, soggy tears on it, too," Winston added.
"That's it, when I get back, first thing, he goes straight into the containment unit—"
"Aw, Pete, you can't blame him." Winston smiled. "He just wishes you were home, like we all do."
For an instant it looked as if Peter were going to respond in his typical manner, maybe inquire if they too were sobbing all over his bed, but instead he closed his mouth and said nothing. Winston tried to continue as if he hadn't noticed, "Anyway, we sure could've used you on this bust today. If someone had been able to get the trap out before it got into the restaurant it would've been a lot easier for everybody. Especially Egon—spaghetti, meatballs, and slime is a weird 'do, even for him."
"Sorry," Peter mumbled, picking at invisible lint on the sheets, not even smiling at that mental image. "The docs say I'll be back on my feet in a couple weeks, but I'm going to have to take it easy...."
"Pete, don't sweat it." Winston patted his shoulder. "You just work on getting better, okay? We can handle things—which doesn't mean we aren't counting the minutes until you get back." Which, however true, was not something he ever would have admitted. Except that Peter wasn't saying it, and somebody had to—they didn't need the reminder, but he did.
Winston noticed his hands curling into fists, relaxed them and focused on keeping his voice light. He found himself wishing, as he did on occasion, that ghosts could be dealt with physically. He would've liked the chance to pound Peter's tormentor into the floor. They all would, but he doubted Ray, for instance, had such an exact conception of how good it would feel to give that bastard specter a taste of what he deserved.
Then again, Ray might. Both he and Egon had gotten an unusual glint in their eye the few times they had discussed the topic of late. Winston wasn't used to seeing rage in the two scientists, but he knew exactly where they were coming from in this case. Pity they had been so quick to dump the ghost into the unit; between their combined geniuses they probably could have come up with something fitting.
Vengeance wouldn't solve anything here and now, though. Winston wondered if the others might have a better idea how to handle this as well...they had known Venkman longer, had maneuvered through similar labyrinths of high education with him. But Peter was Winston's friend, too, and he'd be damned if he was just going to sit back and let him lie there so quiet and unnatural, injured or not.
He couldn't say any of that outright, however. Knowing Peter didn't want to talk about it, Winston didn't push him, not when they were as anxious as he to put it behind them. And now was as good a time as any to address another, less personal concern. "Pete, I know that ghost was a lot worse than any of us knew, and I know it's not your fault that you're in here, and I know how much you hate hospitals when you're not feeling well enough to flirt with the nurses, but so help me God, if you ever try to go busting on your own like that again, I'm gonna break both your legs."
Peter blinked at him. Winston nodded sharply. "I don't care if it's a Class One—" It occurred to him that they'd never busted a Class One, did they even exist?—but he pushed on. "I don't care if it's a foot tall, throws rose petals instead of slime, and is haunting a pillow factory—this is a team job. We should write up some permanent rules about a buddy system—"
"Like scuba divers?" Peter rolled his eyes.
"Yeah," Winston agreed firmly. "A good diver doesn't go out alone, even for a couple minutes, even if it's a shallow dive. And neither should we. There aren't enough of us that we can afford to lose somebody—seriously, Pete. Me and the other guys aren't going to let you be alone at all for a while, and you're going to have to live with that, because I'm not going to be able to help it and Ray and Egon won't even realize they're doing it. But we all have to watch out for one another. None of us want this to happen again. It was way too close." He shook his head. "Homeboy, if you ever scare me like that again...."
"Sorry," Peter repeated in a whisper, his gaze dropping, but he was almost smiling.
"Just don't do it again," Winston said, and meant it. He didn't want to ever go through this again—he didn't ever want to hear that tone in Peter's voice again, that quiet lost sound. He didn't want to imagine what it must have been like for Peter, and he didn't try—it was over now. And slowly Peter was returning to his own self; too slowly, as far as Winston was concerned, but at least he was. By the time he could bust again he'd be back to his old self. It couldn't happen soon enough...but now they all had to be patient. A body takes a while to heal, a spirit takes even longer; but their friend was worth the wait, a hundred times over.
A week later, two days after he had been released from the hospital, Peter sat alone at the kitchen table, picked up the phone, and dialed. It was answered after the third ring. "Hello?"
He swallowed. "Hi, Dad. It's me."
Ray had tracked down Charlie Venkman's current number, quietly presented it to Peter that afternoon. He had waited until he was sure his father would be up and awake—around midnight, Eastern Standard time. Conveniently, the other guys were sound asleep.
It wasn't that Peter minded their support...since he had been home, they had been hovering, ready to carry out his bidding, doing whatever he asked or wanted. If he had requested privacy they would have granted it in a flash—but he hadn't wanted to ask. He didn't know how they'd take it; they seemed to be listening to him so closely, attending to his every word with far more interest than they regularly displayed.
Normally Peter would have been flattered, reveling in the attention, using his invalid's status to obtain still more sympathy. Normally...he hadn't felt normal, not since he had come back to the firehall—come home. Not since he had woken up in the hospital, and for the briefest instant thought they wouldn't be there.
He hated that thought, that mistrust. Peter knew they were angry that he had ever doubted—not angry with him; the fury in their eyes was for the ghost, for what it had done. But every time he glimpsed that anger, for an instant he wondered if some small part was directed at him, that they might resent him for losing faith. Absurd; none of them would ever admit such a thing, even to themselves, but subconsciously, he wondered...he feared it.
It was for that fear that he chose not to press too hard, not to ask them to do what he could do for himself, and hesitated to ask even when he couldn't. And perhaps too it was a bit of subconscious reaction on his own part, proving that he could function as part of this team, that he did have a purpose... Last night he had found himself wondering exactly what his duty was, and that frightened him in its own right, because he couldn't recall ever thinking of it before. And when he did find reason it felt almost more like an excuse than real worth.
But they wanted him anyway. He clung to that faith and hoped it would be enough. In another week perhaps he could start going out on busts again; at least he could drive. Once he was actually doing something, he knew, some of this would pass. Until then...until then he had to put up with them wailing off in Ecto-1 without him, coming back slime-covered but successful. But they still needed a fourth man. He kept telling himself that.
In the meantime he stayed out of their way as best he could, considering they didn't want to leave him alone for a minute, and made sure Janine watched him when they did go out. That was partly at the doctors' orders; he definitely shouldn't be up alone now. He needed his sleep; they all had made that quite clear. And his body and pounding head agreed. But he needed this more, and thanked Ray for making it possible.
Charlie Venkman wasn't a big phone talker, but maybe he heard the unease in his son's voice because he stayed on longer than his usual, "Hello—here's my latest scam—goodbye," going into the gory details of his current endeavor.
Peter couldn't help but smile even as he shook his head, remarking disbelievingly, "You're in China to find a cheap supplier of rhino horn, to pawn off as a unicorn horn aphrodisiac here in the States, only instead you've found someone who makes imitation rhino horn out of bark. Dad, you're going to be selling a fake of a fake!" One thing about his father, he always made Peter himself feel mature and responsible by comparison.
After cheerfully defending his scheme, Charlie asked, "So how are you doing?"
"All right..." It was as good a time as any to broach it. "I'm out of the hospital."
Charlie took a few seconds to assimilate that. "...Son? What happened?"
The obvious worry in his father's voice gave Peter pause. "Nothing—nothing big," he lied. "Ran into some...trouble, with a ghost. I'm okay now." He took a breath. "I think he might have known you, Dad. When he was alive, I mean. He might have been a con-man too; he was one manipulative son of a...he didn't seem like the honest type. As a ghost he looked like a big guy, tall and wide, with a short gray beard and dark blue eyes. He died with the last few years, but you would have known him a while before that, I think...is this ringing any bells?"
Charlie hesitated. "I don't think so..."
"Oh yeah," Peter remembered, "he was good with electricity." Egon had noted that, remarking on the ghost's skill at manipulating energy and hypothesizing that it derived from experience gained as a living man. "If he had any scheme going it was probably with that, generating power or something..."
His father muttered something, then coughed and remarked, "This phonebill must be racking up the dimes."
"Dad, this is important."
"He's dead, isn't he? And you trapped his ghost—"
"We did," Peter agreed, but insisted, "I want to know who we caught. I need to know—it's kind of personal. Especially if it involved you—"
"Strout," Charlie muttered again, intelligibly now.
"What? Who's Strout?" Peter dragged it out of him.
"Mitchell J. Strout." Charlie sighed. "Remember, about ten years ago, in Detroit...the guy with the solar power scam. That was Strout."
Peter did remember; he had had to bail his father out when the scheme had exploded, literally as well as figuratively. He didn't know the details, but then no one had, except the spirit now in the containment unit. Charlie was one for leaping without looking, and not known for evaluating the merit of his associates and fellow conspirators.
Odd, though, to give name to the monster—to know that he had once been a real, living human being. It almost made it worse.
Charlie said goodbye and Peter replied in turn, then interrupted his farewell. He couldn't help it; he had to ask. "Dad? Have I—were you ever disappointed in me, you know, when I was younger, before I knew what I was going to do or anything—"
"My boy, you know I've never been anything but proud of you," Charlie said, puzzled.
"I—thanks, Dad. Good night." Peter hung up before he might say more, sighed and rubbed his temples. He knew he should get back to bed, though the climb up the stairs didn't appeal to him; maybe he could crash on the living room couch—no, the guys would be upset if they found him there next morning.
He had made himself some instant hot chocolate before he had called his father, but hadn't had the chance to drink it. Now it was cold; forget it. Picking up the mug, he stood, turned to the sink—he shouldn't have moved so quickly; the blood rushed from his head and left him dizzy. Leaning against the counter, he was dismayed when the mug slipped from his suddenly nerveless fingers and shattered against the floor. Cool cocoa spread out from the ceramic fragments.
Damn, remarked a distant part of his mind, while he hoped no one had been disturbed by the crash. He would have to clean that up, as soon as he regained his balance. He was ordering himself to lean over and pick up the pieces when he felt a warm hand on his shoulder.
Egon had awoken from an uncomfortable dream starring the ghost he was sure was haunting Peter's nightmares, rolled over and saw his friend's four-poster bed empty. Suppressing an automatic wave of panic, he reached for his glasses and headed out of the bedroom. The hall light downstairs was on, as was the kitchen's.
He approached quietly and stood in the doorway. While he didn't mean to eavesdrop, the psychologist didn't notice his presence, and he heard the last question he asked his father. Egon caught his breath at it—neither the words or the tone sounded anything like his friend's. Egon only could pray that Charlie Venkman answered correctly; the man might care for his son but he was far from the best of fathers.
Whatever Charlie said, Peter smiled at it, though that expression too was hardly a shadow of his regular self. Egon watched him replace the receiver on the hook, wondering if he should announce his presence—clearly Peter had wanted to be alone for this, and though he shouldn't be up it had been his decision. He had been unusually quiet of late, and Egon was wary of driving him further into that worrisome shell.
All his deliberations vanished when he saw his friend sag, the mug smashing on the floor. Automatically Egon stepped forward to support him, gently shoving him back onto the stool before grabbing paper towels to blot the spill.
Peter shook his head. "Egon, I can take care of it..." For all the exhaustion evident in his voice, he still tried to rise.
Egon raised an eyebrow—Peter Venkman, volunteering to do a chore?—and firmly bit back his own worries as he pushed his friend down again. "You will sit," he ordered. "I'll take care of it. You aren't even supposed to be up, Peter."
Peter only nodded at that. Growing only uneasier and more unhappy with how this was progressing—he might have been talking with a near stranger, not his best friend—Egon quietly cleaned the mess, dropped the fragments of the mug into the trash and threw the wadded paper towels after them. He rose, brushed off his hands and turned to Peter, about to suggest he return to bed.
Bright green eyes pinned him and he hesitated. "How much did you hear, Spengs?" Peter asked idly.
"Of your conversation with your father?" Peter nodded. "Only the end."
"He knew the ghost." Egon glanced at him sharply; Peter had looked away again, tapping his fingers against the counter. "From a while ago—he thinks it could have been this guy Strout, who he ran into trouble with, years back. Strout was an electrician or scientist or something. He tried to con my father and a bunch of others, and Dad found out, got him arrested, ruined his plan. That's probably why he was so angry...he hated me, Egon." Peter shivered, but not with cold. "When he spoke to me, no matter—no matter whose voice he was using, I could hear it, how much he hated me."
Even when using his teammates' voices—Peter had heard his closest friends, speaking with nothing but hatred and contempt for him. Egon tensed to prevent his own shudder. "Peter..."
"I know it wasn't you," Peter assured him, glancing up to meet Egon's gaze again. "I know, I'll forget about it eventually. It'll be okay. You just have to give me some time."
"Of course," Egon murmured, watching the brown-haired man steadily until his eyes dropped once more to the countertop. They would give him as much as he needed. But—"If there's anything any of us can do..."
"I." He closed his mouth over whatever he had been about to say.
It was yet another uncharacteristic act, and Egon knew Peter had to be drawn out of this somehow, and soon, before it went too far. "Peter, please—talk to me. I know I don't have the psychology degree, but I assure you, after a decade of attending the world's driest physics lectures, I can certainly listen."
That won a half-smile from his friend, at least. "Hope I'm more interesting than your professors, Spengs."
"Always." Cocking his head and smiling with effort, Egon added, "Well, almost." He grew serious once he had teased a second near-grin from his friend, then reached out and put his hand over Peter's. "Just talk to me, please. I'm afraid we haven't been listening to you closely enough—and you haven't been talking."
Peter took a deep breath, shaking his head slightly. "Sure you don't have a psych degree stashed somewhere?" he joked, but when Egon's steady gaze didn't let up he pulled back his hands, dropping his head into them as he propped his elbows on the counter. "All right." With another long exhalation, he raised his head to his friend. In the fluorescent light his face was pale but his voice was steady. "You want to know what I keep thinking of, when I...remember, what he said to me? I've been dreaming, and it's been coming back to me, everything he said.
"Egon, I believed it, when I heard you—him, I don't know why, I shouldn't have, but I was so cold and it was so dark there, and you hadn't come, I felt like I had been waiting forever...I believed it, somehow. And what...what I keep remembering, not just what he said, but how it felt. I remember hearing it, I thought it was you guys, and I—I should have been angry, right? I should have been furious that you were leaving me there, all alone—"
"Yes," Egon whispered, understanding, for all it twisted his stomach. Rage would have been only the least of his own emotions, facing that betrayal, and they hadn't been there. Peter had the right to be angry with them all, and worse.
But Peter shook his head. "No, Egon, that's just it—I wasn't. Not at all. I can't remember any anger—I didn't care about that. I didn't even care that I was...was dying. All I wanted was to be back, I wanted you guys to take me back, to want to take me back. It didn't matter if I died, as long as you would come..." He folded his arms around his body, squeezing his eyes shut, shrinking into himself as if he were hollow inside. "I wasn't angry—I only wanted you there..."
Egon didn't pause to consider, only reached out and wrapped his arms around his friend. He felt Peter tense, said nothing but tightened his hold, until at last he relaxed and leaned against him. Peter released a long shuddering breath which Egon echoed, closing his eyes and resting his cheek against the tangled dark hair.
Egon searched for something to say, some simple phrase that would convey everything they felt and everything Peter needed to hear, how very much they did want him, and needed him, and how the team would never be whole without him, and how they all wished that none of this had happened, that Peter had never had to doubt them. How very much they wanted their friend back, whole and complete, teasing and lazy and confident and strong, Peter with them again, part of them again, always.
"We did come," he said instead. "We always will." And nothing would stop them, if they knew he needed them. Any more than Peter would allow anything to stop him, should they need him.
He felt Peter's head move against his chest, a nod, though he didn't speak aloud. Egon drew back, gripped his shoulder and looked into the other's green eyes. "There is one more thing. Last week, before—before any of this happened, we had an argument—" Peter's gaze fell; he waited until he looked up again before going on, "I want to apologize, for everything I said."
"I—I'm sorry, Egon," Peter whispered in turn. "For all of that, it was my fault—"
Alarmed, Egon gave him a little shake. "Not what I said—that was inexcusable, and you are not to blame for it, I am. Do you forgive me?"
"Yes," Peter replied after a momentary pause. "Yeah, all is forgotten, as long as you forgive me, too."
"Of course." Egon nodded, satisfied. "Now I think you should go back to bed. You need your rest." He gave Peter a hand off the stool, then walked close by his side out of the kitchen and up the stairs, ready to support him the instant he stumbled.
Before they reached the bedroom Egon stopped him. "Peter, there is something else. If you remember our argument—"
"Thought it was forgotten," Peter muttered, though there might have been a touch of fear flaring in his emerald eyes, as if he thought he would yet be accused.
"Ray and I have discussed it," Egon told him. "And we have agreed upon what you said. While we weren't sure you should hear this, I believe it is important that you do."
"What was that?" Peter's whole body tensed, his mind racing as he tried to recall whatever he might have snapped in his anger. Obviously he came up blank as he looked worriedly at Egon.
Egon smiled slightly. "We agree that you are necessary—that this team would not exist without you, Doctor Venkman. And I sincerely hope it never has to—because I don't think it could. We need you, Peter. As much as you need us."
Peter grinned suddenly, and it was his true smile, lighting up his eyes. A mischievous spark gleamed there, and if it was an effort for him to produce, it still was real. Egon could have grinned with relief as Peter remarked, "You know, I also remember saying something about everyone needing a break now and then—does that still apply?"
"Peter, you haven't been working for the past week—"
He waved his cast in front of Egon's face, nearly clipping him on the nose. "No way, doesn't count if you have a broken arm, not to mention a gunshot wound!" When Egon would have reacted he didn't give him the chance, in classic Venkman fashion blasting onward, "I say, when I'm healed up, we all go on a real break. Like, Tahiti, you know, warm water, white beaches, skimpy bikinis. I was sleeping through the nurses' visits—you call that a break? The schedule hasn't been that busy, we could all afford—"
Smiling and shaking his head, ignoring the stream of chatter, Egon steered his friend into the bedroom. Despite the late hour he was glad to have to do it. Knowing that if his talk did awaken Ray and Winston it would only be for the best, reassuring them that after that most unenjoyable interlude everything was returning to normal. Peter Venkman was coming back. The team was once more whole.