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Originally published in the zine Just the Four of Us 3.
"I hate haunted houses." It had always been true, actually; even when he was a kid he hadn't enjoyed them. Scary when he was little, dumb when he was older. But now, when he was a grown man—right at this moment, considering his situation—now it was taking on an entirely new meaning.
Winston Zeddemore dug at the rubble, not pausing to mop away the sweat dripping into his eyes, didn't have time for that, but through clenched teeth he repeated his mantra, "I hate haunted houses."
Technically this one wasn't haunted anymore, he supposed. In the corner one of the traps was blinking steadily, miraculously undamaged. Peter had had the other; hopefully he had made it away with it. No chance to check, not with the flames flickering around all sides and the fallen wood and mortar to claw his way through.
He shoved back a chunk of ceiling tile and spotted the blue sleeve, long-fingered hand dangling limp from the pink cuff. Lunging forward he grabbed the wrist, wasted a quarter of a second pressing his fingers to it. A pulse, weak but present, and he tripled his efforts, frantically throwing aside fragments of beams and plaster until he had uncovered his head and body. Egon coughed as the last sizable chunk was lifted from his chest. Still breathing, at least. Winston would have smiled but he didn't have the strength. Dropping down beside him, panting for breath, he examined his friend closely.
One of his legs was trapped by a ceiling timber Winston wouldn't have been able to move on his best day ten years ago. The physicist was far paler than normal, though that might have been an effect of the golden firelight, or the fine plaster powder covering everything. His blond hair was gray with dust and his uniform streaked with the stuff. Winston probably didn't look any better, for that matter—worse; the sweat pouring off him was turning it all to muddy paste.
Of greater concern was the cut on Egon's forehead, oozing thickly, the fire's glow making the blood look black. Winston swore and tore open his jumpsuit, ripped out a patch of clean lining and wiped off his friend's brow before wrapping a makeshift tourniquet around the wound. Didn't seem that deep but his eyes were closed and he had yet to speak.
Winston cleared his throat, hoarsely asked, "Egon?" Patted his cheek when that brought no reaction and Spengler's eyes blinked open. They didn't seem able to focus, but was that due to the injury or simply because his glasses were buried under half a ton of ceiling?
His throat worked a couple times before anything emerged, "W—Winston?"
At least he recognized his teammate. "Right here, m'man," Winston assured him, squeezing his shoulder. "How are you feeling?" Start with the basics and work up.
Egon closed his eyes, took an assessment of his physical condition before opening them again. Somehow he managed to draw himself up despite his prone position and reported, "My head is pounding and I believe my right leg is broken, possibly my right arm as well. I—" Sudden awareness flashing in his gaze and he tried to push himself upright, "Where is Ray? Did Peter—where is Peter?"
Firmly Winston grabbed his shoulders, forced him flat. "Don't move."
He struggled against the hold. "Where are they, what happened?" Abruptly ceasing his resistance, he stared up at his teammate. "Winston, are you all right? Did they—where is Ray—"
"I'm fine. And I think Pete got Ray out before everything came down," Winston told him. He didn't add any encouragements, no 'I'm sure he's fine,' because he didn't know and knew he wouldn't sound convincing. Not to Egon; foggy though his vision might be at the moment that brilliant mind would see right through him. The last glimpse Winston had caught, Peter more dragging than supporting Ray as the roof started to cave in...it was far from comforting. And truth be told, he didn't even know if they had made it away.
Don't dwell on that. They're out there, you have to believe that. For Egon's sake, at least, because his logic is going to tell him how hopeless this is as soon as he gets his bearings, and you can't let him give up. Pete's gonna find us, gonna get us out of here. We only have to hang on until the cavalry arrives.
Egon nearly smiled when he repeated that aloud, the expression shifting to a grimace of pain before he could prevent it. Winston tried to continue as if he hadn't noticed, building his own confidence as much as distracting Spengler. As he spoke he stared at the flames surrounding them, wondering how long it would take Egon to notice the temperature and the orange light and figure out just how bad things were.
Ray felt as if he were swimming through glue, or maybe a puddle of temporal inhibition—everything was going far too slowly, he couldn't move because by the time his muscles decided to contract the signal from the nerves had died. His mind was racing, but only in circles, around and around, and everything was dark—
He opened his eyes and the bright light piercing his pupils blinded him. Quiet moan and maybe it was from his own throat, couldn't tell, but if it was then he could speak, which was good, because he had to speak, had to ask, had to know...It was slipping, everything was, spinning by him in the cosmic merry-go-round of life, and he was stuck in the center and didn't dare move out or the centrifugal force would throw him off.
They had been at the haunted house, a real one, too. Three class sixes, poltergeists of the worst nature. They liked to throw things, kitchen appliances, expensive vases, and then they had figured out that together they could hurl even bigger objects, like sofas and washing machines. Had been a novel experience, crouched in the doorway trying to get a bead on one of the crazy creatures, while chairs were flying overhead and the ghosts themselves zipped around at insane speeds, giggling wildly.
Peter had kept up a running counterpoint to their cackling, punctuated by his voice rising in volume and pitch when he ducked, "I told you this wouldn't be fun, I told you that haunted houses are best left to carnivals but does anybody listen? No! Next time we just tell the folks to move and start selling tickets, forget this whole—I got one!" His tone went strident as he set his stance and upped the power of the proton stream, the poltergeist fighting it all the way.
"Good shot, Peter!" Ray had cheered, and tossed out one of the traps, yanking the ghost down into the brilliance. He crouched, ready to dodge again, but to his surprise saw nothing hurtling toward him.
The other three also straightened, frowning at the sudden silence. "Hey," Winston said uneasily, "is it just me or is it a little—"
"—Too quiet," Ray and Peter spoke in synch with him.
Egon was preoccupied with his PKE meter. "Guys, we may have a problem," he announced calmly. "The ghosts have not left—they have instead imbued their essence into the framework of this house."
Ray realized instantly what he meant, but Winston frowned, puzzling it out, "They went into the woodwork? Like Slimer hides in walls? What's the problem?"
"Not precisely like Slimer," Egon began to explain, "because rather than simply dematerializing they have intermingled their ectoplasmic substance with the matter—" Before he could confuse the issue further the floor creaked alarmingly under their feet and the ceiling shook, hard enough to flake plaster down around them.
Winston frowned upward, "What the—"
"They've got control over the building!" Ray shouted, exhilarated by the theory's confirmation. Full psychokinetic influence over an inanimate structure—incredible! "It's literally a haunted house!"
"You mean a possessed one!" Peter cried over his shout and the ominous rumble overhead. "Guys, I've already seen The Shining, don't need to experience it personally—what's the plan, Ray?"
Ray tore himself away from this unbelievably fascinating concept to concentrate on more mundane affairs, like getting rid it—"Well, the ghosts must be spread pretty thin; if we can find their cores we should be able to trap them. Egon?"
The physicist scanned the meter, then pointed, "They're right above us!" As if to verify this the floor buckled and the walls tilted inward, bulged out again. Ray grinned, raised his thrower—
"Hold it," Winston protested, "you'll bring the roof down on us!"
"They're doing that anyway," Peter pointed out, lifting his thrower to parallel Ray's. "All right, everybody, get ready to move, got the trap, Egon? When I reach one, toss it out; Ray, you and I hit it; Winston, cover us in case one gets loose. And as soon as we have 'em, make a break for it! Clear?" It had seemed to be, and they all braced themselves as Peter counted down, "Three, two—"
And then everything went crazy. He was triggering the proton beam when he heard Egon's shout, "Wait, there's only one—" but it was too late, the particle stream flashed out, Peter's alongside it, and something writhed within its crackling confines, but only a single entity. Egon was still trying to explain so it was Winston who tossed out the trap, but as the ghost was sucked in there came a shriek of rage that literally rocked the house on its foundations. The third one, and Ray spotted it, coalescing out of the walls like a gathering swarm of bees. He aimed his thrower, tracking its swoop across the room—
When it hurled the object he fired automatically, too late recognized the trap arcing toward him. The proton stream met it midair and a flash rippled across the room.
Everything was confused, the thrower burning but he couldn't release it, as if it were fused to his hand, and he might have cried out but he could hear nothing. There was a brilliant glow over him and then gone, and maybe Peter was bending over him, shaking him, "Ray, we haveta vacate," or maybe he wasn't there, and he couldn't tell if he were hearing or dreaming Winston's shout, "I got it!" and Egon's warning, "Get out!"
The ground was shaking and he was trying to stand, half-pushed, half-dragged along. Peter's voice almost in his ear, "Guys, move!" and then there was reddish light, the sunset blinding him as he stumbled on the steps down to the street—
Another flash, far brighter, and another rumble, far louder, and he was flying through the air, lifted by the force behind him. A blackness rushing toward him and in a burst of pain darkness swallowed him whole. Or maybe he was still in the air or maybe he was still in the house or maybe he was in his bed at home and this was a nightmare. Only he couldn't move, and no one was there, they had all been in the house, and the house had exploded.
Maybe he was crying, couldn't feel tears on his cheeks but he couldn't feel his cheeks at all. He wasn't sure his mouth was moving any more than the rest of him, but he had to know, had to ask. Must have lifted his head because something pushed it down again, he couldn't see what, too bright and his eyes hurt, every part of him hurt. He couldn't hear if he were speaking, but from a great distance he heard a calm unfamiliar voice, clear for all it was so far away, "Lie still, don't move, Dr. Stantz—"
The voice didn't know him, he couldn't lie still, not if they were still in the house, not if that had been real. If they were there he had to find them, join them. He tried to get up but which way was up, and then a shadow fell over his vision and he saw emerald green, eyes close to his. Something might have touched his face, warm hands holding his head still.
Peter's voice, so familiar, pronouncing every word with care, "Ray, I'm okay, the—they're okay, Winston and Egon are fine. Lie still and don't move, Ray, so the doctors can help you."
If they were here he couldn't hear them, but Peter said they were and he could believe Peter. He would have told him he couldn't move as it was, but he didn't know how to make his tongue say it. And then everything spun away again, even Peter's hands on his face, even the doctors he had said were helping him. He didn't feel them lift him onto the stretcher and slide him into the ambulance.
He could relax, though. When he awoke, they would all be there. With that thought as comfort he slipped into oblivion.
For a long moment Peter stared after the ambulance, even after the strobes had vanished down the suburban street and the sirens had faded into the evening air. He took a single step in its direction, toward the hospital. They'd take care of Ray there. He would be all right, he had to be; it couldn't have been that bad, backlash from a thrower, had happened to them all, maybe concussion from being blasted against the pavement but they had experience with that as well and Ray had a hard head. He'd be okay, might take a while, he'd be okay, though.
They were fine, that's what he had told him, when Ray wouldn't calm down and the paramedics had glanced at one another with nervous wan faces. Not good, obviously; he had to lie still, couldn't damage himself further, so Peter told him what would calm him, and it had. The trust there, before those hazel eyes closed...felt like running over a puppy, but there hadn't been a choice.
"Dr. Venkman?" His name, someone calling him.
Respond. "Yeah?" and he turned toward the man, but as he spun around the flames caught his eye and he was mesmerized by their dancing orange, raging over the house. Big green firetruck parked before it—weren't they supposed to be red? This one was sickly yellow-green, though, and the firefighters tumbling off it were garbed to match. The water shooting out of their snaking hoses was white and blue where it reflected the police flashers.
"Dr. Venkman?" Same voice and he looked over to a younger man, standing there in a cop's uniform.
Behind him in the street were other officers, mixing with a growing civilian crowd. He saw a tall man in a navy jacket jumping up and down, barricaded by two policemen, shouting something as he shook his fists. Recognized him, the client, their client, had been, anyway. Doubtful he'd hire them again, or pay them; even Peter would have a hard time finagling their fee out of him after this disaster.
That was so amusing a thought that he almost laughed aloud, swallowed it fast. Start laughing and he wouldn't stop until the tears came, and once he was crying that would never stop, not until he was drained of all the water in his body, and you can't live after that. Need water to live, need it to put out the fire; this was too big a fire, though, and it would burn until it had burned everything inside, burned it all to ash, nothing but ash, that was all they would find, ash...
They're fine, Ray.
"Dr. Venkman?" the cop said a third time. Astonishing how patient he was, hadn't it been hours? No, more like minutes, not even that. Only your life has stopped, Venkman; time goes on as usual. "Sir, if you'll give me your keys, I'll drive you to the hospital in your vehicle. Or you can come with me in a cruiser if you'd like."
He stared at him until the words made sense. Then shook his head, "No, I have to stay here, if they find them—"
"The firemen will report to us immediately," the policeman said, "and I'll tell you right away. You have a minor concussion, Dr. Venkman, the paramedics advised you to go to the hospital. Your friend is there."
One friend, two others here, he could handle that math. "I have to stay—"
"Sir, please come with me," authoritative yet mild, and the hand on his arm was gentle as it steered him toward the police cruiser.
He resisted and the cop released him, but where could he go? While he stood there indecisive the cruiser pulled up and he found two policemen beside him now, one on either side. They escorted him into the car before he could formulate a protest, and the new one stayed behind while the other drove. Peter regarded the man through slit lids—young guy, couldn't have been older than Ray. Similar face, too, a little thinner but round, made for smiling. He wasn't now, though, jaw set, and as he watched the officer swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing on his throat.
"Something wrong?" Peter asked automatically. Better than silence. Silence for too long and he'd lose himself in his thoughts; it was doubtful he'd find his way out again.
The cop was shaking his head. "No, Dr. Venkman, no, it's just—you guys, you've always been...I don't know. When I was little I wanted to be Superman; now I know there aren't any superheroes, but you're the closest thing we've got..."
Heroes weren't supposed to die, they were immortal, unslayable. Life eternal in ballad and song and story, wasn't that part of the definition? Shouldn't have happened, they had a story, they even had a song, they were supposed to go on forever. Wasn't that in the rules?
"They killed Superman," he said. "Nobody's safe these days." And no one is immortal, no matter what they do or who believes in them.
His thoughts flew ahead to their destination, the hospital. Ray would have arrived already; they would be attending to him now. He would survive this; and Peter would have to as well, to be there for him. To confess his lie. Not yet though, not for some time. When he was well enough to hear it.
When Peter could say it himself, and not fall apart or fall away or fall so deep into himself he would be lost. Not yet; now he couldn't even say it to himself, not even in his mind where no one could confirm or deny it. Winston, Egon...not yet. Soon, he would have to. But not yet.
The curt pronunciation of his name cut him off as effectively as a hand over his mouth. He winced. "Yeah, Egon?"
"I would like an honest evaluation of our situation. A complete one," stressing the word as if he knew Winston's expression, though his eyes were closed again. "I can't see beyond this rubble but I can make out the shadows; there's a fire near us, and unless you are toasting marshmallows I believe I need to know more. If we are to have a hope of escape I need to know all the variables we must negotiate."
Couldn't argue with his logic. Winston never even tried that game. Peter was about the only man he know who could win such a contest with the physicist, and that was usually through sheer bafflement rather than equivalent rationality. "All right. Full rundown." He licked his lips, glanced around. "We're in the middle of what used to be the basement, I think. There's a roof overhead, I don't think it's going to cave—cross your fingers, okay? All around us..." He hesitated. "Egon, my man, you don't have anything about fire, do you? You can't panic—"
"I'm not pyrophobic," Egon assured him. "Tell me."
"There's fire all around us. We're in the middle of a ring, about twenty feet wide. The outer wall of the house is burning—must have something in it; the fire hasn't done much damage since I've been watching. Hasn't spread to us yet, either, maybe because the floor's cement. One good gust of wind, though..."
"How long has it been?" Egon rasped.
"How long?" Winston frowned. "I don't think I was knocked out...maybe half an hour? Under an hour. It didn't take me too long to find you."
"And how am I?" The physicist's voice was calm, devoid of panic or worry. He might have been asking if a tie matched his suit.
Winston took strength from it. "Your leg is trapped under a ceiling beam; I can't move it. It's probably broken. I think your wrist is sprained. And you were hit on the head; the bleeding has pretty much stopped, but you have a concussion and you were unconscious when I found you. Twenty minutes, about." Long enough for his guts to wrap themselves in a stranglehold around his heart, anyway.
"Mm." Egon accepted the diagnosis with equanimity, peered up in Winston's general direction. Squinting a bit, as if even the dim firelight hurt his eyes. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," he answered. His heart was trying to pound out of his chest, but otherwise..."I got a little banged up but nothing serious."
"Good." Sharp relief in Spengler's voice. "Then you can explore this place and find a way out, if there is any."
"Egon," Winston said, "I've looked. There's no way out; the fire hasn't burned through the walls, and it's blocking off the windows and doors pretty effectively. I could climb out of here usually, but not with those flames—"
"You've ascertained—this all visually," the physicist stated, catching his breath mid-sentence with a painful hiss. "There may be a way you can't see. If you physically check it..."
"Egon, if I'm over there and the roof comes down—"
"If you are over here, you'll only get squashed," Egon retorted levelly.
He ignored that, "Even if I do find a way, I ain't going without you, homeboy. I'll just call over whoever's out there looking for us—"
"If you find an exit, you will leave immediately," his teammate ordered. "As you've mentioned, this roof could fall on us at any time—"
"Which is exactly why I'm not going. What do you think Peter and Ray would do, if I come waltzing out and then three tons of house drops on you?"
"Thank God that you at least made it," Egon returned quietly.
Another thing about Egon, he always got the last word in. Winston sighed, clapped him lightly on the shoulder and pushed himself to his feet. Bracing himself against the heat, he headed for the nearest wall, stopping only to glance back at his friend. The physicist was lying amid the wreckage, bandaged head propped against a chunk of wood and blue eyes open, peering blurrily after him.
For all his composure there was fear in that gaze, a fear Winston knew his own eyes mirrored. Not for them; they had been in dire straits before, they'd get out of this. He'd find a way somehow and help would come and they'd be fine.
But what if they got out and there was no one waiting for them, what if Ray had been hurt worse than it had looked, what if Peter hadn't been fast enough...what if they both were still here, buried under more rubble, or worse, trapped in those flames, corpses charring—
Swallowing the bile rising in his throat, he pushed back the images flashing up from the darker side of memory, the worst of what he had seen in Vietnam almost surfacing before he stopped it. Hadn't recalled any of that in years, not even in his nightmares anymore, but if he saw something comparable now, if he came across one of his friends twisted and blackened...no way he would be able to dam that back then.
He wouldn't. They made it out; they were looking for them now.
He looked back again and Egon was putting his good arm over his chest. From ten feet away Winston saw the tremor which shook his body. Shivering, in spite of the heat and his face shining with sweat. Shock setting in.
Winston made only a cursory inspection of the rest of the house and hurried back to his teammate's side, not sure of what he could do, but knowing that he must do something. He hadn't seen any sign of either an exit or Peter and Ray. They had made it out. It was the only logical conclusion—it had to be.
Hurry it up, guys. We're waiting for you. Just don't take too long.
Janine grazed a fender whipping into the single space in the parking lot. It was her own, though, and she didn't both checking the other car for damage before she slammed her door and raced into the hospital. The receptionist gave disorienting directions but she found the waiting room at last. Steeled herself before entering.
Dr. Venkman on the telephone had sounded...she couldn't even put it into words. She hadn't recognized him at first, his tone had been so flat, so dead. Mechanically asking for her to come to the hospital, nothing especially new there, but she had known something was wrong from the first phrase out of his mouth. None of his usual banter or annoying teasing—nothing. It might have been a computer programmed with Peter's voice.
And that meant something bad. All the worse because she knew him. He wasn't like Ray, to sob over a comic hero's demise, or Egon's stiffness at the oddest situations—whenever she made an overture, for instance. No, Peter whined and complained and occasionally blew his top, but the only thing that ever really got to him, the only thing that could slip past his near-invincible sarcasm, was something happening to the other guys. The fact that he had given no details whatsoever, and his taciturnity, even more unusual than his lack of barbs, gave her the terrible impression that she knew what had happened, or at least who it involved. She braced herself for what she might hear, how badly might Egon have been injured that Peter wouldn't even tell her why he was in the hospital—
She had been ready for something terrible, but she hadn't been prepared for this, Dr. Venkman alone in an empty waiting room, seated in the center of the plastic couch, shoulders hunched over, head in his hands.
None of the other guys in sight, and he not moving, statue of a grief so deep it couldn't be expressed through action or expression. Janine gasped as if she'd been punched in the stomach. Something bad. Something very bad.
The door closed behind her and his head jerked up, once-green eyes dark, narrowed at her. But his face was dry, thank god. She couldn't have taken the sight of tears in those black eyes. Their stony blankness was no more reassuring, however.
"P—Peter?" she stammered. Where were the other guys? Maybe they had been hurt on the bust—oh God, if they were in treatment here then it could mean one of them was—he might not even have been brought back—"Peter, what happened, who's in the hospital, where are they, is anybody dead? You're all in here, right, you're all just hurt—who's hurt, what happened? What happened—" She was screaming it and she couldn't stop, and he just stared at her with those hooded dark eyes. She couldn't read anything in his expression, no explanations, his face was as empty as his stare—
There was a man at her side in a white coat, a doctor, and he put an arm over her shoulders, lead her out of the room. A tall blond man, but not the one she wanted, not the doctor she needed to see. She almost shoved him back but he drew her into a corner, quietly answered her questions as best he could, "The Ghostbusters were in an accident—Dr. Stantz is in the ICU now. The other two were...I'm sorry, I don't have any details, but apparently there was a fire..."
She managed to thank him, stumbled back to the waiting room and fell into the closest chair. The doctor stayed at her side but she wasn't really aware of him; even when she looked directly at him it felt like he was in her peripheral vision. Her glasses were still on her nose but everything was fuzzy, tunneling, and there was a high squeal in her ears.
Dropping her head between her knees, she concentrated on breathing to the exclusion of everything, thought, action, nothing but inhale, exhale, in, out...
Warm hand on her shoulder again, not the doctor's. She glanced over, saw a brown sleeve, blurred white face beyond it. Peter's voice soft in her ear, "It's okay, Janine, it's okay."
At least he had quit his statue routine. Strange how he could be his normal self, all prickling and teasing and obnoxious, and then when someone needed him he was there suddenly, solid, you could lean on him. And now, when everything was stripped away, he had come back, he was here again, strong enough to bear her. Looking into his dark eyes she wondered if he needed to support her as much as she needed his support. With that necessity he could pull himself together.
Well, good. She needed him together. Tricky enough to keep herself in that mostly whole condition. "Peter, what are we going to do?" It was the wrong question, she could almost see the mask freezing his expression, but it needed to be asked. Reaching out her hand she took his, squeezed it. Colder than her own, for all that a guy's hands usually are warm.
Someone cleared his throat. She looked up to the second doctor standing by the first, this one shorter, Asian black hair and eyes. "We've stabilized Dr. Stantz," he told them without preamble, and Peter's fingers tightened around hers, painful but she didn't protest.
"Can we see him?" His voice was so calm, normal for all the anxious power of his grip; how could he manage that?
"I'm afraid not," the doctor sighed. "We're sedating him for another forty-eight hours to keep him as still as possible—between the concussion and the possible nerve damage from that power surge—what was it again?"
"High energy proton stream," Peter answered emotionlessly.
"Oh. Yes." The doctor shook his head. "At any rate, my colleagues and I have decided that this is the best course, if you'll sign this to grant your approval—"
Peter took the clipboard, scrawled his illegible autograph on the proper lines and handed it back without a word. Janine, watching worriedly, couldn't help but ask, "He'll be all right, when he wakes up, he'll be all right?"
The doctor hesitated, only momentarily but enough that her heart sunk. "We hope so," he said, and then he left to apply the treatment, his blond colleague accompanying him.
Alone in the room, Peter slumped back on the couch. "Two days," he murmured, to himself it sounded like. "Two days..."
"Two days until what, Dr. Venkman?"
"Until I have to tell him..." He closed his eyes, turned his head against the maroon vinyl in a half-hearted negative. "He—he doesn't know, about...what happened. The stream backlash bounced off the trap and hit him, he couldn't even walk, I had to haul him out of there, and then the house blew up. I don't think he realized what was going on. When I got up afterwards he was lying on the pavement, his breathing was wrong and he wouldn't wake up. I called the ambulance, someone else must have brought the police and the firemen. I tried, I tried to go back but it was too late, the whole house was on fire, it was so bright...
"When the EMTs came, Ray sort of came to, but he was struggling and he had to stay still and so to calm him down I told—I told him they were fine, I told him Winston and—and Egon were all right..." His breaths were coming in short gasps, not sobs but they broke up the monotone rhythm of his speech. Hyperventilating—awkwardly she rubbed his back, trying to soothe him; if it got any worse she would get a doctor but he needed to tell her this. "I lied to him, I'm gonna have to tell him that, I lied to him—"
"It sounds like you might have saved his life," Janine murmured, "if those doctors were right. If you had said anything else he might have tried to get up or something..." Tried to go after them, save them, even if it were hopeless; Ray didn't believe in hopelessness, wouldn't have stopped, even if it would have killed him. Peter had done the right thing, all the way. If he were thinking any clearer he'd know that, but at the moment she had to assure him it was so. "There's nothing else you could've done." And that too she knew with certainty, because if there had been something, anything, he could have done, for any of them, Peter would have. Even if it had risked his life, or killed him, he would have gone ahead without a second thought, if it might have saved them...
There hadn't been anything he could have done. Painful as that thought was for her, it must hurt him ten times worse, if he even believed it at all...and if not, there would be no way to measure the pain, what it might do to him.
Whatever Janine might have said was interrupted by a bright trill. She jumped; Peter reached into his jumpsuit pocket, withdrew his cellular and answered it, "Hello, Dr. Venkman here." Calm, his voice—again she fleetingly wondered how he managed it, all but crying to her, completely cool and ordinary with others, oscillating between that frightening stillness and an almost more frightening normalcy. Only neither state was anything like the Peter Venkman she knew, and she wondered if she would ever see him again.
"I see—yeah, it might be. I don't know how it would—yes, I'll see for myself. I don't know what I can do, but I'll come." He stared blankly at the phone; she heard the dial tone humming through the receiver. Touched his arm and he jerked to life, returned the cellular to his pocket and looked to her. "That was the fire department, they—"
"Did they—" Oh God, they had found a body, or both of them, weren't bringing them to the hospital which meant it must be too late—
But Peter was shaking his head. "No, they didn't find—find anything. They haven't been able to get into the house, it's still burning. That's why they called—they can't put it out." He rocked to his feet. "They think a Ghostbuster should check it out."
And he was the only one they had. She swallowed at that unbidden thought, pushed herself up as well. "I'll drive, Dr. V."
"Janine, you should—Ray—"
"Wouldn't know I'm here, even if they'd let me see him, which they won't. And you need my car." She wasn't going to take no but he didn't even try to give it to her, strode out without waiting to see if she followed.
She did. She had to see for herself, if she was ever going to be able to accept this, no matter how she might not want to. And there was no way she would allow him to return by himself. He might be the only Ghostbuster right now, but that didn't mean he had to be alone.
"Egon, what were you saying about the ghosts getting into the walls, you know, right before everything went to hell?" Winston asked, settling down next to him.
Egon frowned at him. "You should go—"
He shook his head. "Sorry, m'man, there's no way out of here. And I wouldn't be any safer by the walls and flames than I am here. Unless you really can't stand the sight of me—"
The physicist shook his head. "Can't see—you that well anyway," he remarked, with a hitch in his breath Winston didn't care for. Nor did he like how Egon clamped his jaw when he wasn't speaking—in pain, or to keep his teeth from chattering? His whole body was tense, fighting shivers.
Winston made certain his own voice stayed calm. "Then I'll stay right here. That fire—" he hesitated. "Egon, the ghost got into the walls, right, possessed the house? Could it still be there?"
"We trapped it," Egon replied.
"Yeah, but what about the one in the trap Ray hit—I thought it was blasted to kingdom come, but maybe it got into the walls again."
"Maybe," Spengler conceded. "The explosive power of the trap might have—disseminated rather than disintegrated a class six. Why—"
"We're still breathing, for one," Winston said. "And we aren't crispy critters, either. The fire's not spreading, though the ceiling should burn. Also, when I went over to it just now—I know fire acts alive sometimes, but it really did this time. It grabbed for me—I had to dodge flames."
Egon was nodding. Winston wasn't sure if this was a good or a bad sign, but at least he was alert and thinking despite his injuries. "It's possible that the ghost could be—in the walls. Or at least its ectoplasmic energy, which could in theory produce—the effects you're describing. If that is the case then the fire will not be easily extinguished."
"You mean it's not going to burn out?" He squinted up at the curtain of flame around them. "Damn." He had been afraid that might be the case, given that the walls hadn't seemed to lessen for all the time they had been ablaze. At least the roof wasn't liable to burn through and come crashing down on them. And they could breathe—he had been wondering why smoke inhalation hadn't gotten to them yet. The air seemed remarkably clear, actually, now that the dust had settled. Apparently just as magic ice didn't float, magic fire didn't require oxygen...which explained why it would be a devil to put out.
He winced at his mental phrasing. Hell metaphors were a little too apt at the moment. "It may burn indefinitely," Egon confirmed. "There are more—than a few legends of eternal flames. We may have—inadvertently created a new one."
In a New York suburb, turned a family residence into a permanent pyre. "Have to give us credit," Winston muttered. "We're original..." He could picture it, the flames of the house forever rising into the night—his eyes widened at the image as it abruptly occurred to him, "Do you think the roof's on fire, too? How bad does this look from the outside?"
"It's very likely that the roof is burning," Egon said shortly, and Winston saw that he understood, probably had deduced it immediately but not said anything. If the guys had made it out—they had, he reminded himself firmly—then they would see a burning building with only a minuscule chance that anyone could survive inside, and certainly not after this long...they wouldn't be looking. Eventually they might figure it out, but how long would it take them to get through those flames...
"Egon, my brother, we're in trouble," he breathed.
Despite the lines of pain across the physicist's face, he still managed to arch one eyebrow. "You just—noticed?"
The fire chief converged on them the moment Janine pulled up to the curb. Peter climbed from the car to face him, ignoring the faint catch of breath behind him as Janine got her first good look at the fire. Most of the crowd had broken up; the police had even convinced their clients to relocate, somehow. Just as well; he wasn't ready to face masses of people, angry, sympathetic, or otherwise.
"Dr. Venkman?" When he nodded the chief lead him over to the truck, where his men were gathered in a loose circle, frustrated confusion in their expressions and voices. He heard heels clicking behind him as Janine jogged over, pacing him. A few of the firefighters glanced at the redhead, saw the determined set of her jaw and wisely said nothing.
Tough girl, Melnitz. One could almost attribute the tears glittering behind her glasses to the smoke. It stung in his own and he blinked back the water. Business to attend to here. These men are counting on you.
They had been counting on you, too—
"What exactly has been going on?" he asked.
The firechief was a big swarthy man with a gravelly baritone. "Nothing, and that's the problem. That fire hasn't changed since we got here. We've tried water, CO2, several chemical extinguishers—nothing affects it. Hell, we dumped a load of earth on it and almost got roasted for our trouble. Flared right up over the dirt like it wasn't even there. Never seen anything like it. Couple of the guys suggest we try gasoline next and I'm beginning to think that's crazy enough to work."
You never know. "It hasn't been spreading?" Try to act like a professional, they're all watching you with such high regard, expecting answers. Questions were the next best thing. Look them in the eye and ask seriously; they'll trust you, and you won't have to look at the fire.
"No, thank God," the firechief replied. "That's the one good thing. It hasn't even touched the lawn, which is damn strange, but I'm not complaining."
Neither would Peter. He stared up the walkway at the house, a giant torch blazing into the night sky. Swallowed and asked thickly, "You're sure it's burning?"
"Pretty damn sure," the chief snorted. "Watch." He stooped to pry up one of the rocks from the flower garden by the street, hefted it in his hand. The stone was as big as his two fists, heavy, but he flung it like a pro pitcher, straight at the house.
It hit the burning wall, and before it could fall the flame wrapped around it. With a flare of white-hot flame the rock vanished. A curl of gray smoke trailed up into the night air, the only sign of its passing.
A couple of the firemen shook their heads, in doubt or amazement, it wasn't clear which. Peter blinked at the display. "See the problem?" the chief said grimly. "I'd hate to see what would happen to a human body in that—" He stopped at Janine's choked sob, "God, I'm sorry, ma'am, Dr. Venkman..."
Peter barely heard him. His eyes were tracking the smoke as the last of it drifted into the sky, a fading haze across the stars. Lowering his gaze he found himself staring at the house once more, flickering orange shadows twisting around the blackened walls and roof. Charred, but not eaten away like a fire should devour. And above the golden tips of the flame and ripples of heat, the stars shone clear and bright...
He looked higher, glanced back and forth to verify it. Drew a breath and clinically observed the pureness of the air over his tongue, no ashes catching in his throat. "It's not burning," he said, realized he had only mouthed it. Forcing his vocal chords to work, he repeated aloud, "It's not burning!"
They were staring at him, the chief and his men and Janine, all with wide bemused eyes. He waved his hands at the clear air, "There's no smoke! It's not burning!" In the walls, the ghost had gone into the walls, if it had returned—small wonder it couldn't be extinguished; it wasn't fire at all, something different, something that produced fire when contacted, perhaps, but it wasn't burning—
The roof hadn't caved in as it blazed, and the fire was using no oxygen, nor was it spreading. If the ghost had stayed in the walls—he couldn't articulate it, no time to explain what he barely consciously grasped. Following instinct more than reason he spun and pelted to Ecto-1, still parked against the curb. Slamming open the back he sifted through the accumulated junk, tossing aside equipment parts and discarded uniforms. Had to be another one, Egon never left home without a couple spares—
He found the PKE meter under the seat, snatched it up and lunged from the vehicle, charging up the hill toward the house. The firechief's mouth dropped as he dashed past, and he heard Janine scream his name, but he didn't stop until he was mere feet from the flames, close enough to feel the heat flowing over his skin in waves. Lifting the meter, he switched it on, with trembling hands adjusted the settings.
It whirred alarmingly at the proximity of the ghost-flames. Class six, he noted, same as the poltergeist, and then he twisted the knob away, altered the polarity so it wasn't scanning for ectoplasm but corporeal entities. Biorhythms, the unique signatures of every life, and though he couldn't read them all with the instant clarity of Egon or Ray there were four frequencies he knew as well as his phone number.
Meter crackling under his treatment; he tightened his fingers and delicately tuned it further, eyes glued to the display as the needle trembled, more and more erratically. Then it flashed, the numbers blinking to life as the screen sparked. A jolt of electricity arced through his hands and automatically he flung the device from him, into the fire, where it evaporated in a burst of flame. He threw up his arms to shield his face from the glow; when he lowered them nothing remained of the instrument but a wisp of smoke in the sky.
And his memory of what it had shown. He stared at his hands, palms angry red where the meter had shocked him but the color was already fading. Spengs is gonna kill you, his mind remarked. Remind me not to tease him next time he drops one of those things, we really ought to see about making them more user-friendly, not to mention lower voltage—
Egon. Winston. He felt his legs almost give way, staggered backwards, away from the fire. Don't fall into it, that would definitely be a bad idea, not fun at all—"Peter?" Janine grabbed his arm, drawing him off-balance and into her support. Normally he would have refused it but now he leaned on her gratefully, heard her tiny startled exclamation that he did.
"Dr. Venkman, I don't know what the hell you were doing—" The firechief, sounding out of breath and cross, arms folded as he glared down at them, "—but you shouldn't get so close—"
Peter ignored him completely, drew himself up and gripped Janine's arms, "They're in there, Janine! I only got a glimpse but their readings, set it for their biorhythms and it came up positive, or negative, negative valence is alive—"
"What?" she gasped, echoed by the chief's confused, "Huh?"
Deep breath of the smokeless air to calm down. He ordered his thoughts and tried to speak rationally, but when he opened his mouth everything tumbled out again, faster and faster as he strove to relate it all, "The fire isn't natural, it's not burning, it's not taking oxygen, and it was in the walls. They were in the house, not the doorway or anything, and the floor's not on fire. And they still can breathe, there's no fire, it's all on the outside, inside the house it's not burning, and they're there! Egon, Winston, I saw their readings, the fire's blocking them and the meter shorted out because I had to crank the sensitivity so high, but they're inside! They're alive, both of them, inside the house, they're alive!" This is what Christmas felt like to most kids; this is how hope can make life worth living. They're alive.
The firechief was shaking his head, brow wrinkled in confusion. Janine understood what he was saying, her mouth a round 'o' of disbelief. She'd come around. Couldn't destroy another meter to prove it but she would see the truth in what he said. "We have to get inside, get them out of there—"
"Go in there? Dr. Venkman, that's impossible," the chief stated in no uncertain terms. "You saw—"
"Minor setback," he assured the man, allowing the grin rising within him to flash across his face. "So it fries whatever touches it. We'll work around that." Turning on his heel he marched down the hill toward Etco-1, calling over his shoulder, "Janine!"
She caught up with him, leaving the firechief scratching his head. "Yeah, Dr. V.?" Cautiously, but there was a bounce to her step that had been absent when they arrived.
"Get back to the hospital. Stay with Ray. Please?" One of them needed to be there, in case anything happened—it wouldn't, it couldn't, not in this new light. Pessimism was his normal mindset but with Ray out for the moment the team needed an optimist, and there wasn't anybody else around to fill the role. It was a position he could learn to enjoy, even.
"Where are you going?" Janine asked warily. Unspoken agreement in the query, though.
He smiled. "Central, need to throw some stuff together. I have this odd hang-up about letting ghosts char-broil my buddies, and you know how Egon feels about barbecues." The flippancy rolled off his tongue with comforting ease.
"What are you planning? Peter?"
"I'll get back to you," he told her. Soon as he had something beyond a few vague ideas—he'd come up with a plan. Egon's lab had all sorts of nifty and inspiring gadgets, bound to be one he could use against this. "No worries, Janine, Dr. Venkman is on the job." He buckled himself into the driver's seat, slammed Ecto's door and waved at her through the window, "See you in a few—"
The firechief, face red with exertion, hustled up behind her to pant, "Doctor, don't try anything rash; the chance that anyone is alive in there—"
"Is about one hundred percent. You can go home now, the Ghostbusters are back in business!" He shifted gears and started the ignition. Janine and the firechief jumped back as the vehicle rumbled to life, veering onto the street.
As he hit the accelerator he heard the chief holler behind him, "That fire'll burn you alive!"
That was far too good an opportunity to pass up. The only regret was that the other guys weren't around to hear it, but it couldn't be helped. Sticking his head out the open window, Peter caroled, "Then I'll see you in Hell!" and careened on his way.
"Knight to Queen's Bishop five, check, and mate," Egon rasped.
Winston shook his head. "Wait a minute, man, where did I say the rook was—"
"King's Knight four," the physicist supplied, after too long a pause. "I think," he added in a faint tone that made Winston's stomach somersault. Egon's memory was as close to photographic as he'd ever encountered, at least when it came to matters like esoteric scientific formulas and chess games. More mundane things such as daily chores and Janine's birthday tended to slip his mind, but he was concentrating now, and still losing...
Winston forced his own voice to be bright and firm. "All right, I give up. Can't remember any more of the games from the book anyway. How are you feeling?"
"I've been—better," Egon allowed. "The pain in my arm and leg has receded. My head, however..." His eyes closed, opened with effort. "I am managing," he finished shortly.
"I know," Winston murmured with useless sympathy. "Just hang in there, okay." He shifted from kneeling to a cross-legged position, stretching his arms. "Peter and Ray are gonna be coming for us soon, homeboy, and you want to be up to see it."
"Winston." Egon's hoarse voice was reproachful. "The odds are good that—they are not coming. Your energy would be—better spent seeking escape. For yourself at least."
For what felt like the hundredth time he shook his head, reminded him, "No can do. I know you couldn't see it clearly but you saw enough to get what happened when I threw that hunk of plaster into the fire—it may not be burning oxygen but it's burning all right. I didn't join this team to become one of those French desserts."
Egon assimilated that, almost smiled. "A flambe."
"Yeah." He balanced his fists on his knees. "Wish I had some hot dogs, though. This thing would cook 'em faster than a microwave."
"Not marshmallows?" If he didn't know the physicist as well as he did he never would have caught the glint of humor in the back of his unfocused blue eyes.
"No, thank you. Do you know I still can't eat s'mores? I'm never gonna forgive Gozer for that—I used to love s'mores. I used to eat fluffernutters—"
"Fluffernutters?" When Egon eyed him doubtfully, "You know, marshmallow fluff and peanutbutter, like P&J but fluff instead of jelly...never mind. Guess your mom's more the healthfood type. Anyway, marshmallows just don't appeal to me anymore. Almost drowning in the stuff after its giant mascot wrecks half the city will do that to you, I guess."
"You should speak—to Peter about this phobia," Egon suggested, straight face marred only by the twinkle in his eyes. That too was obscured by a flash of pain he clenched his teeth against.
Winston waited for it to pass, one hand on his friend's shoulder, feeling the tense muscles tremble. He still was shivering despite the heat; Winston had draped his jumpsuit over him, not much else he could do. Couldn't risk holding him, with his injuries he had to lie flat.
When it was over he said, as if there hadn't been an interruption, "Don't know how much Pete can do about hating candy. It's bad for my teeth anyway—"
"Peter is a psychologist," Egon said, "and a good one, though he doesn't—often admit it."
"Oh yeah, that's Pete, the very soul of modesty." He smiled when Egon did. "But I've noticed that he doesn't bring it up. Guess he was teased about being a brain when he was little or something."
"Or something," Egon quietly agreed.
Not that he had thought about it often, but it only made sense. Winston hadn't gone through much of that himself, even if he had been a few teachers' pets; he had enjoyed his popularity enough to avoid crossing the line between being an acceptable student and being an excellent one. Brain, smarty, nerd; Winston wondered what kids were calling them today. He suspected his colleagues had heard it all when growing up, even Venkman, for all that he acted the partier and flirt. "I would forget, if Pete didn't tack that 'doctor' on his name all the time. He doesn't act like a shrink."
"He's not—a practicing psychologist," remarked Egon.
"Yeah, but you and Ray aren't—well." He guessed they were, actually, given the experiments and occasional explosions in the lab, not to mention their published papers and filed patents. "You guys are scientists, I don't forget that. You talk the jargon and everything—you especially," he teased, "though Ray can be worse if he really gets going. Pete's not so much the professional type, you know?"
"Peter is a scientist," Spengler insisted. "Even beyond the degree, he has—several publications to his name. The American Journal of—Psychology is considering an article."
"Of Pete's? Really?" Winston whistled low to make his appreciation clear. In truth he didn't know the journal in question, except a vague memory of seeing an issue on Peter's desk. He had, however, picked up enough about science publication titles to know that something so broadly named was big news. "Then we're all set."
"How do you mean?"
Winston gestured at their surroundings. "Because even if Ray's still down, Dr. Venkman is at work out there. And Pete's not gonna risk tarnishing his reputation by letting us roast. Just hold on, Egon, help is on the way."
It better be. He didn't like Egon's color, that pale shade was not a proper skin hue, even accounting for the firelight; equally upsetting were the nearly constant shivers he was experiencing.
Not to mention that given how dry his own mouth was, the physicist had to be about dying from thirst. Needs like that always felt worse when you were hurt. Winston hadn't said anything, of course, but they probably shouldn't be talking—they had to, though. Couldn't allow Egon to doze off, not with his pupils uneven diameters and the sleepiness nipping at the ragged edge of his voice.
Given the heat, though, dehydration was a serious problem. He couldn't remember how long the human body could last without water...longer than Egon had, he suspected with a sinking heart. Not that he was about to give up. Maintain that hope, make sure he stays awake, and worry about issues like survival later. "So, m'man, thought about what you're getting Janine for her birthday next month?"
Egon raised his eyebrows, but he wasn't going to drop off with that topic. The physicist launched into a description of a mineral ore and crystalline structure—a semi-precious gemstone, Winston soon deduced. Keep it up, Zeddemore, he encouraged himself. He talks long enough and by the time you get out of here you'll qualify for one of those fancy degrees, too...
Janine wasted half an hour arguing with nurses giving her the run-around before she even got hold of a doctor, and another half hour biting her tongue and trying to sound reasonable before he would tell her Ray's condition. Stable...well, it was something, at least. They wouldn't let her see him, no matter how she debated. She wasn't next of kin, nor could she sign for him—she'd have to have it out with the guys, when this was over. If all four of them were out of commission, they'd need somebody to handle affairs like treatment. She refused to be barred from their bedsides, not if they needed her.
She had the nagging suspicion that at the moment Dr. Venkman probably needed her more than Ray. Peter had sounded a bit too close to hysteria for her taste when he had taken off. While she knew it was pointless to hope that he didn't do anything reckless—reckless was Peter's middle name, especially when the guys were in trouble—she had seen that gleam in his eyes and determination in his stride only a few times before. And it always precluded trouble.
It occurred to her that her own eyes must be flashing pretty brightly when the doctor, the blond who had assisted her before, seated her in a chair and inquired, "Ms. Melnitz, can I get you anything? Coffee, water?"
She crossed her arms. "You can take me to Dr. Stantz—"
"I'm sorry," he refused. "You should go home, get some sleep." When she only shook her head he gently inquired, "Has there been...any word..?"
"Yeah." Impossible to get Peter's insistent intensity out of her mind. "We're working on rescuing them now."
"You mean..." He frowned. "I was told—"
"Yeah, well, you heard wrong." She saw his doubt and wondered about her own conviction, for nearly a quarter of a second. So the odds were pretty long—they had always beaten them before. Besides, she knew Dr. V.; the man might be annoying as anything, but he wasn't delusional, and he always came through in the end. She couldn't recall him ever really failing; run into snags, maybe, but he got done what he set out to do, one way or another. Part of what made him so obnoxious, but now she had reason to be grateful for it.
And Egon couldn't be dead, anyway. She'd feel it, she was sure. If he were really gone she'd know—ergo ipso facto he was still among the living, even if she hadn't gotten up the hill in time to see the biorhythms for herself. Egon and Winston were alive, Peter had said, and she believed him, because she desperately wanted to, because she didn't have a choice. They were going to be all right.
Peter, on the other hand...after two hours at the hospital she tried to call him, only to find that he had turned off his cell phone. The line to the firehall rang until the answering machine picked it up. Suppressing new fears—hadn't she gone through this enough in one night?—Janine hurried out of the hospital and drove to Ghostbuster Central.
Two stories above her and she still could hear the crashes from the top floor when she pulled into the building. Practically flying upstairs, she froze in the door of the lab. Oh yeah, Egon was gonna love this..."Dr. V., what are you doing?"
Glancing up from the disordered piles of wires, parts, and electronica strewn across the room, he stared at her as if she had grown another head. He didn't appear to recognize her at all in that split second; then he blinked a couple times, "Oh. Janine. Just getting it together," and turned again to the lab table. Back to her he asked, "How's Ray?"
When she didn't reply at once, distracted by the surrounding disaster, she saw him stiffen, shoulders hunch as if bracing for a blow. "Sorry," she said with a guilty start, "they wouldn't let me see him, but they say he's doing okay. Stable, whatever. The doctor said if he continues to improve they might wake him sooner."
Immediately he relaxed, head bobbing, "Good," before he focused his attention once more on the table.
She strode forward to get a better look at what he was working on, and a better look at him while she was at it. He was bent over the device before him, screwdriver in one hand, needle-nose pliers in the other, intent on wrapping the metal casing with wire. At least she thought that was his objective. "What is it? Peter..?" He jumped when she touched his hand, the pliers dropping with a nervous twitch of his fingers. Snatching them up again, he spared her a brief glare before squinting at his creation.
Looking into his bright eyes she had to fight the urge to check his forehead for fever. Bizarre to see him like this, almost trembling with repressed energy—Ray could be similarly quivery, and Egon showed such single-minded intensity when a project involved him, but both qualities embodied in a single person was more than one could handle. Especially when that person was Peter Venkman, usually the epitome of laid-back ennui. Of course that attitude was more pose than truth, but all the same she wasn't used to seeing him this driven.
Completing his undefined task he tossed the tools aside, bounded across the lab in two steps and retrieved another of Egon's instruments from a shelf mostly emptied. No, Dr. Spengler would not be pleased, particularly not by how casually Venkman cracked the cover with a sharp twist, plucked a chip from the innards, and deposited the shelled device on a bench while he added his prize to his growing whatever-it-was. Smaller than a breadbox... "What does it—"
"Janine, could you go downstairs and get a slicker?"
She was thrown even further off balance when he glanced up, eyebrows raised in polite surprise. "A slicker," he said, oh so reasonably, "you know, a raincoat? We have a few in the entryway closet, get the toughest one we have. I think we have a fireman's coat in there somewhere, would make sense, wouldn't it? Since this is a firehouse—I've been thinking how appropriate this is. We're Ghostbusters but we live in a firehouse, and now we're fighting a ghost fire—" She was staring at him. He frowned irritably, "Waiting for it to walk up here on its own or are you practicing telekinesis?"
Janine fled downstairs. Racking the closet she did find the coat he had suggested, took the fire helmet as well, and brought the bundle up to the lab. She almost slammed into Peter at the doorway, who stepped aside to allow her entrance without making a move to help her with her burden. "Over there," he instructed her curtly, then bellowed, "SLIMER! Yo, spud, pizza!"
Cruel trick maybe, but it worked; the green ghost popped out of the laboratory wall. Showing unusual restraint it did not instantly mob them for the imaginary food, instead hanging back to watch the humans hopefully.
Dr. Venkman frowned. "Get over here, spud. Heel." He had a glass flask in hand, presumably seeking fresh ectoplasm, why she couldn't imagine, but their resident specter had more than enough to spare.
To Janine's surprise, however, Slimer shook its neckless head, orange eyes wide. "Now, Slimer," Peter ordered in no uncertain terms, but the ghost refused just as vehemently, gibbering wordlessly. Now that was strange. Slimer loved Peter, for no reason that anyone could discern, especially Venkman himself. Usually it would come even when he expressly told it not to; that it stayed back now was highly suspect.
Before Peter lost it—she saw the growing ire in his glare—Janine spoke up in her most persuasive tones, "Come here, Slimer. We'll—we'll give you jelly doughnuts. With sprinkles."
"Nice, Janine, have you tried that with Egon?" Peter inquired in an undertone.
She elbowed him in the ribs and refrained from striking a target somewhat lower. But Slimer maintained its distance, though ectoplasm drooled from its mouth at the mention of the treats. "Slimer?" Janine asked. Much as she would have been perfectly content not to know, she had become familiar with the little ghost's moods, and this wasn't its usual silliness. Real fear filled those inhuman orange eyes. "Slimer, what's the matter? Don't you want food?"
The ghost burbled unhappily, finally articulated, "Petah mad?"
Yeah, that about covers it... Janine threw a cautious glance in her employer's direction. Definitely touched, at least. But Slimer was not one to pass judgment on another's sanity. "No, Peter's not mad, are you, Peter?" nudging his ribs again. "He won't be angry unless you don't come here, he needs your help."
"That's right, spud." Good thing the ghost wasn't that knowledgeable of human emotional states; the very slight tremor in Dr. Venkman's smooth voice would have sent a more perceptive being screaming for the hills. "Just come over here, this won't hurt a bit."
"Not gonna blow up?" Slimer asked hopefully.
It took Janine a moment to realize that the ghost wasn't speaking figuratively. Peter assured it calmly, "No, no blow up, not if you get your little green butt over here," but she heard the edge to the words and turned on him.
"Dr. Venkman, did you try to blow up Slimer?"
"No. Kinda. In a way. Well, yes," he admitted. "I needed to know what happened to that house, Janine. If we're gonna have any chance of getting the guys out of there we need to understand the nature of this fire. All I really know is that it's ectoplasmic, and that—" he pointed to Slimer—"is the only active ectoplasm we have around here. I didn't hurt him—he slimed the match anyway."
"So why do you want him now?" she said, not sure she wanted to know.
"For his slime—I'm about ready to go, just need him to do what he always does and ooze all over everything."
"Uh...why?" He didn't want to field that one; she pinned him with a sharp glare, "All right, Dr. V., what's the plan?"
Drawing a deep breath, he gave it to her in one long narration. "That box over there," gesturing toward his dubious creation, "is a modified trap and ecto-divider combination. I'm banking on the ghost in the walls being the one we had caught. When Ray hit the trap it exploded and the ghost got loose, but I think it never fully reintegrated. Instead it tried to join its buddies in the walls and ended up mixing with the structure of the house. The blast set it on fire like that, and it's not stopping the burn because it's not all together, it can't leave the house or the energy—you follow?"
She shook her head. Regardless he went on, "Now, it should be leaking out anyway, slowly—by a little after dawn it should be free. What I have here will speed up the process; it's a trap rigged to yank the ghost from the wall. The differentiator's pulse should separate the ectoplasm from regular matter, and then when the ghost reforms the trap will catch it. In theory, anyway."
"In theory..." It sounded like something Egon would say, or Ray; his explanation too was reminiscent of the scientists', minus the more complex vocabulary. She wasn't sure how much sense it made, and said as much.
He shrugged, unfazed by the revelation. "The gadget'll work. Only problem is setting it off, should be in the middle of the house, but it would just go up in smoke if I tried to throw it through a window. I might be able to get it inside, though—the ghost is in the walls and they're not burning, right? According to what properties I've calculated, the 'fire' won't affect ectoplasm, so hypothetically a good sliming would be the psychic equivalent of asbestos—"
"Which is why you need Slimer." She glanced at the ghost in question, still watching them with uncomprehending orange eyes. "Slime it and then throw it inside?"
Peter licked his lips. "I could, but there's another problem...if I've got this right, and I'm pretty sure I do, when the ghost goes bye-bye the energy stays behind in the wall. In other words, the fire starts blazing for real. You saw it, Janine—"
"Damn straight!" she gasped. "Peter—that roof is gonna cave, Egon and Winston will be cinders by the time the firemen put it out!"
"I know. So we have to get them out as we set off my trap."
"How are we gonna do that?" she cried. "We can't just walk in and—Dr. V.? Dr. Venkman!"
Striding past her he picked up the coat she had brought, shook it and called, "Hey, spud! Betcha can't find the candy bar hidden in this!"
Slimer quivered, desire for the treat conflicting with its sense of self-preservation, something Janine thought was rather dubious in a ghost as it was. She hesitated, then said, "Go get 'im, Slimer, I'll make sure he doesn't blow you up."
With a delighted squeal Slimer shot forward like a bulbous green torpedo, ravished the coat and came up empty-handed. Floating back it looked to her in mournful confusion. Janine sighed. "There's a bag of jelly beans in my desk drawer; you can have 'em if you come right back up here when you're done."
As the ghost departed Peter held the dripping coat up to the light. "As good as a Venkman ghost repeller," he grinned. It was not his father's con-man smirk; this smile was a bit less reassuring, and quite a lot less sane.
"You're not planning on going in there, are you?" she demanded, though of course she knew the answer. "You saw what it did to solid rock, you can't be serious—"
"Got any better ideas?" Peter stuffed the contaminated coat into a trashbag, absently shaking the goo off his fingers, added the helmet and a pair of their work gloves and boots. There was no doubt all would emerge thoroughly slimed. "Heavy-duty ecto-sunblock, don't go to the beach without it. I'll just make sure I'm well-covered. Once I get inside I'll find Winston and Egon, clear a way out, and then set off the trap. We should be able to get through the real fire before the roof falls in; we'll only be singed."
"Why don't you just take in enough slime—bring Slimer with you, even, cover them and leave when the flame's still ghostly—"
He was shaking his head. "I could, but if I've got this worked out properly they're better off facing the real fire. One touch and 'poof'—you saw what happened to the meter..."
She felt the blood drain from her face at even the thought, her mind supplying an unnecessarily vivid image of Egon going out like a snuffed candle. The connection didn't strike her for an instant, and then she knew she went white from the way her vision faded around the edges, "Peter, if you—maybe you should—"
"No, I shouldn't." He sounded oddly excited at the prospect, eyes snapping for all that his expression was deadly earnest. "There isn't any other way. I don't know how else to find them, I don't know where exactly they are inside. I can't just throw in the trap, because the fire'll kill before we get to them. I can't toss in some slime and hope they figure it out for themselves. And in case I didn't make it clear—we're on a deadline. That poltergeist is getting out on its own, by morning, probably. When it finally frees itself—I'm guessing two things could happen. The first is that the ghost happily flies away to try this again elsewhere and the house burns to the ground."
"And the second?" Dreading the answer.
Peter mimed an explosion. "Boom—it brings the house down as it goes. And probably still gets away. If it does our reputation is destroyed, you know; I really don't think the city will appreciate a pyromanic ghost winging around torching folks' homes. And we'd have helped give it the idea."
"And Egon and Winston—"
"Will be even less happy. For the two seconds they'll have, either way. So you see, there's not much point in discussing it."
She didn't try. They called back Slimer and collected several containers of ectoplasm, Peter complaining all the while about its future use and the joys of slime on skin. Janine would have retorted to the complaints had she been able; as it was she found it almost impossible to cap the bottles, occupied as she was with coming up with a simpler, safer, saner alternative. She couldn't find one.
Didn't mean it didn't exist, though, and she tried one final time before they left. "Peter, why don't you at least talk this over with Ray?"
"He's still under, you said," he pointed out, "will be for longer than we've got."
"I know, but this is an emergency. Maybe they can wake him—you wouldn't even have to tell him everything, just a little about the fire, he might have an idea." Putting her hands on her hips she glared up at him, "We're not going anywhere until you at least try. If this doesn't work, I'm gonna need some other ideas."
For all her inflexible stance, she waited with bated breath until he sighed acquiescence. "All right. The hospital's on the way; we can check it out. But if he can't help—you better not try to stop me, Janine."
"I won't, Dr. V." He knew she wouldn't. God help anyone who did; that emerald stare alone could kill them.
All the same there was probably a little voice in the back of his mind hoping that somebody or something would try; why else would he give in to her request so quickly? But he wasn't about to let that stop him, either. She didn't have a choice, other than to cross her fingers and get out of his way.
One of her employers was in the hospital, two more were trapped in a residential inferno, and the final one was determined to put himself in one place or the other. He'd be better off in mental ward. She was going to need a stay in one herself, after this was over. But as long as it came out all right no one would hear her complaining.
She prayed to God it would work out. Because without divine intervention, she didn't see how it possibly could.
"Egon." Winston hardened his voice, striving to keep it from cracking. His tongue felt like leather but it wasn't the rawness of his throat that threatened to break his voice. "Egon, look at me."
It took a couple second for the blue eyes to blink open, attempting to focus on the blurred face above him. Winston nodded encouragingly, couldn't bring himself to smile. "You gotta stay with me, my man. I know it's hard, but you gotta stay awake." He heard the exhausted tremor in his words but was too tired to prevent it. It must be well past midnight by now; they were all supposed to be back at the firehall, asleep in their beds after yet another successful bust...but they weren't, and they couldn't sleep now. If Egon dropped off he wouldn't awaken, Winston knew it with a dread deep inside. A dull unavoidable ache in his heart telling him that he was going to see one of his friends die and there was nothing he could do. "We gotta get you out of here."
"Winston—" the physicist began, hesitated. He had stopped shivering, but the words came slowly even without his teeth chattering, as if he had to grope for each syllable, "...you—should go—escape—"
He shook his head, not arguing anymore, tired of explaining how impossible it was so he cut to the basic truth, "Not without you, man."
"Then get—me out," Egon gasped in a twisted flash of humor.
Winston nearly smiled in spite of himself. "God, I wish...I tried, Egon, I can't free your leg."
"Cut—it off," the other man suggested, "Like—a fox—in a trap."
It was impossible to tell if he was joking, or if he were so far gone that the irrationality of that logic made sense to him. For all his brilliance Egon's hold on reality could be tenuous, even when he wasn't concussed and in shock. "Sorry, man," Winston said, "don't have the teeth to gnaw through it."
"...shame..." murmured Egon, and then his eyes rolled back and his head rocked to the side, body going limp.
"No you don't!" Winston protested, bending over him to pat the pale cheeks, "don't you dare, man, you are gonna stay right here—I didn't get into this gig and become buddies with you guys just to sit and watch one of you die. We're getting out of this damn house, Egon, both of us, you're comin' with me. Pete's on his way and you're gonna wait up for him."
There was no response, and his breathing was so shallow as to be inaudible over the crackling of the fire, discernible only by the slightest rise and fall of his chest. "Egon," Winston said warningly, "You ain't doin' this to me, man, I'm not allowing it." He shook him by the shoulders but the blond head only lolled to the other side. Winston fought to speak over the growing lump in his throat, "Egon, Spengs, don't fool like this, you can't check out now—you don't know how Ray's doin', he might still be hurt. He wakes up and you're gone, you know Ray, he'll find a way to blame himself for it—"
The slightest flutter of the pale lashes, a flicker of life in the dull blue eyes. Winston's breath exploded out of him in a gasp almost like a sob, "Yeah, that's it, just stay with me. I ain't gonna tell Ray that you went and died on me, and I'm sure as hell not gonna tell Peter—if Pete comes and you didn't hold on, you know what that's gonna do to him? If he's too late—you know how Pete hates screwing up, he won't get over this one, he wouldn't ever forget it."
Egon blinked, throat working in a weak swallow, mouthing words. Winston leaned close to hear, "...won't...I...can't..."
"Yes, you can. And you're going to," he informed his teammate fiercely. He probably should feel guilty about using such a ploy but if it was working he frankly didn't care. "We'd all be out of jobs without you, did you think of that? This team is four men, it ain't gonna last with three. We need your info and gizmos and theories, even if I don't understand any of 'em. And what about Janine, man? You think I could tell her I just watched—you think I'd survive? I'm not gonna do it. I can't."
The physicist's eyes were half-lidded but his dim gaze was angled toward him, listening, aware. Winston felt his heart drop to a more normal pace, the adrenaline fading to leave him all the more fatigued. He forced himself to keep talking, give Egon something to concentrate on, "You know I was in 'Nam, right, though I don't bring it up much. Don't like to think about it, I was crazy, joining the army like that, just a kid. I wasn't there for very long, only the end, but I saw—I had friends over there, and I saw a couple of them die, right in front of me, and I swore I'd never go through that again.
"Then I went and joined you guys; I still don't know why I answered that ad. Didn't believe any of it, didn't know what I was gettin' into. I should've quit as soon as I found out it was real. You guys are crazy, you know that? All of you, you're out of your minds—you charge after the ghost and it might be throwing things at you, slime or furniture or lightning bolts, or it could be thirty feet tall and tearing down buildings—and that stuff could kill you, any of us, all of us. I thought at first you didn't get that, and then after a couple of busts when I saw you did, and you charged out anyway—that's when I knew you guys really were nuts."
He stopped speaking to listen to Egon, read his lips more than actually heard the faint whisper, "....you stayed..."
"Yeah." He shrugged. "I must be crazy. Guess I fit in after all—" Egon nodded, a short, painful motion but undeniably emphatic. Winston smiled, even if it hurt his cheeks. "And I've gotten used to it. Even when we have to try that crazy shit, set the packs on overload or cross the streams—it's for a reason, you know? If we're gonna go out, it might as well be with a bang. Maybe I'm not like Pete, I don't live for the fans, but it's cool to be a hero. I know you like it too, even if you'll never admit it. And heroes gotta do what needs to be done, right?
"I don't mind us all going out, don't like it, but I can live with it. Die with it, whatever. But something like now, this is what I hate to think about—something happens to one of you, I don't want to see what it does to the other two. I know how close you guys are. And I won't take it myself—I swore I wasn't gonna watch any more of my friends die, and I know you guys better than anyone I knew over there. I've fought alongside you longer, we've been through more stuff together, we've been through more than I ever thought could happen. And we always come out okay, you noticed that? Only reason I can deal with any of it, because we always get out. I know why, too—because none of us will let the others go, we won't give up. I ain't giving up now. Neither is Pete, and neither is Ray, and that's why we gotta hold on until they get here. You get it, right—I ain't gonna let you let go. You hear me, my brother?"
Egon's head shifted in another weak nod, mouth moving with effort. Winston watched closely and made out, "...try...my best..."
"Fine," he said. "As long as you succeed, that's just fine." He kept one hand on his friend's shoulder, watching the firelight flicker across his pale face. Gauged the life left in those half-closed eyes, even while he tried not to think of it passing. "You know none of us would stand for it otherwise, not me, not Ray, not Pete—Peter is gonna give you hell for this, Egon, and I'm gonna let him if you scare me like that again, so don't." Don't die. Whatever you do, don't die—"I swore I wouldn't see it happen again, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna break that promise..."
The doctors were obstinate, which might have annoyed Peter, had he had the time, and had they not been arguing for the safety of his friend's life. They refused to do anything to awaken Dr. Stantz, and that was that.
They could not, however, refuse Peter's right to see him, and reluctantly took him to the ICU, leaving Janine alone in the waiting room. She looked surprisingly small standing there, arms wrapped about herself as if she were chilled, glaring at the solicitous doctors. He wondered if he should warn them about getting too close—but they could see her red hair and her flashing eyes; their own fault if they got bruised somewhere tender.
He knew exactly how she felt. It was all he could do not to run screaming down the hall, a constant voiceless murmur in the back of his mind wailing that they didn't have time for this, Winston and Egon didn't have the time—but Janine had insisted and he had agreed.
Ray's bed was in a curtained alcove in a corner of the ward. The nurse lead him there and left, giving them some semblance of privacy. Peter ran his fingers through his hair, took a breath and drew the curtain aside.
Laid out on the bed, Ray might have almost been a corpse, his skin pale and eyes sunken. The quiet beeps of the monitors strapped around him and plugged into him gave lie to the illusion of death, though, and his chest was moving when Peter looked closely, rising and falling with comforting regularity. Other than that tiny sign he was motionless, however, unnaturally still, in contrast to his normal exuberance.
He was hardly recognizable as Ray Stantz. Which was understandable, Peter supposed. He had gotten a glimpse in a mirror and at the moment he himself didn't look much like Peter Venkman. Needed a shower, a shave, a change of clothes, and for this night to be over. As long as it ended well. He needed that most of all.
Cautiously he touched Ray's hand. Cool, not cold, but the skin was flaccid, fingers unresponsive. "Ray?" Squeezing his hand, "You there, Ray? It's Peter."
He waited but nothing happened. The doctors had said he would be this far out for another twenty-four hours at least, probably more, but there had at least been a hope..."Ray, I know they've drugged you up pretty good, but I need your help..." He watched the closed eyes but the lashes never stirred.
"Okay," Peter sighed. "You rest—you just better be well when you wake up, you hear me? If you're getting all this nap time it better be worth it." He squeezed the limp fingers and withdrew.
Before he passed through the curtain something stopped him; he halted, returned to the bed. Had to clear his throat before the words would come, "I'm sorry about this, Ray. Don't know if I'm going to get another chance so I guess I have to say it now.
"I...I lied to you. Winston and Egon, they aren't okay. They're in trouble, Tex, big time. Nothing new, right, you know Egon, can't take him anywhere..." He swallowed, clasping the cool hand. "But it's gonna be all right. I'm getting them out—I've got it all planned, it should work.
"If it doesn't—me, wrong, couldn't be, could it? But...I'm sorry, Ray. If this doesn't work, I'm gonna be coming out on my shield. If they can get us out at all. Don't worry, though, we'll have a great pyre—" He bowed his head, not quite able to hear his own words over the blood pounding in his ears. "Ray, I have to do this. I have to try. If I am wrong—I'm sorry..."
There was no response from the motionless figure in the white bed, other than the slow breathing. Impulsively he leaned over, pressed his lips to Ray's forehead for an instant and drew back. His friend stirred at the kiss, the slightest twitch of his head in his direction. "Wish me luck," Peter whispered, and left.
He collected Janine on his way out, or rather she collected him, converging to him when she saw him stride past, jogging to keep up with his longer legs. She clung like a wet sheet and he didn't have the time to persuade her to stay put. Besides, it was conceivable he would need her assistance.
One of the firetrucks had left; the other was parked before the flaming house, barricading it from any curious onlookers who might try to get too close. The crowd had dispersed and the remaining firemen were all on the truck, playing cards and occasionally glancing the fire uncertainly. They nodded respectfully to Peter and Janine as Ecto-1 pulled up, allowed them to pass and approach the fire.
Twenty feet away and Peter could still feel its heat wafting over his skin, the orange glow too bright to stare into for long. He dropped the trashbag he was carrying, fetched one of the rocks from the garden, and coated it liberally with slime from the jar. The windup, then the pitch, straight at the house.
The rock plunged through the blaze, hit the blackened wall and fell to the ground, the flames lapping at it hungrily. But ineffectively, he saw upon squinting through the heat haze; the stone was still intact. Beside him Janine muttered an oath. He smirked at her, "What'd I tell you!" and removed the firecoat and helmet from the trashbag, pulled them on with a grimace. Drying ectoplasm, not his favorite body lotion—
Janine gasped. Knowing precisely what she had seen, he looked up in time to glimpse the garden stone flare and vanish in a puff of smoke. "You know, if we could figure out that instant disposal trick we could live off the royalties..."
She wasn't listening, eyes fixed on the burning house. He deliberately stepped in front of her line of sight, "Janine—anybody home?" When her eyes flicked to him he nodded approval, "Soon as I go in I need you to get the firemen, tell 'em they'll be earning their pay in a couple of minutes. You'll know when it starts burning, watch the sky for the big smoke signal. Got it?"
"Dr. V.—shouldn't we ask the firechief—" she began.
"No, no, and no. Not until I'm in—no way he'll let me go through with this." Which was what every nerve in his body was also insisting, but he steeled himself against the tremors. "Thought you wanted Egon back."
"I want you all back," Janine whispered, but so quietly he might have misheard. Blinking at the sight of him slathering the goo over his face, she said in a more familiar tone, "Well, at least I don't need to be embarrassed by my facials—it's really you, Peter. Pure slime."
Dumping the rest on his hands, he handed her the empty jar and smeared the ectoplasm on the edges of his gloves and boots—wouldn't do for a tongue of ghost flame to lick through the gaps and make him hot all over in a very uncomfortable way. At least it wouldn't last for long; he probably wouldn't feel a thing. With that poor excuse for hope he withdrew the final items in the sack, the bag with his makeshift poltergeist trap, which he hefted onto his shoulder; and a fireman's axe. All set...
Janine was watching him, tiny reflections of the fire dancing in her glasses. "You're a psychologist," she tried one final time, "you gotta know this is insane."
"Thank you, Janine. Please write that down so we have a record for your next salary review." He took a deep breath, "Guess this is it." After a single step toward the house, he turned back, struck a deliberately jaunty pose. "What, no good luck kiss?"
He meant it as a joke, was surprised when she rose on her toes and pecked him on the cheek, slime and all. "You get them out," she whispered, then folded her arms and stared up at him with a fierceness in her eyes that said it was an order, not a request.
"Yes, ma'am," he saluted, spun around and marched toward the fire without another look behind. His momentum carried him up the hill, close enough that the heat was almost a physical force shoving him back, the flames flaring white and orange before him. Squinting his eyes he stared into them. The porch had collapsed but this was its approximate location; hopefully some remnant of the entrance would still be intact. He doubted he could chop his way through the walls. There—through the flicking conflagration he made out the square corner of the door frame. Darkness beyond it, he thought. He hoped. Otherwise this was going to be one hell of an exercise in futility.
He inhaled one last breath and drew the slime-covered collar of the coat over his mouth, wrapped his gloved hands around the gooey handle of the axe. Then, ducking his head, he stepped into the blaze.
Before the roar of the flames drowned out all sound, he heard Janine's piercing yell over the murmur of lower voices. The firemen must have caught on to what they were up to. No chance to look back and see, not with the fire buffeting him from all sides, eyeballs scorched by the heat through the lids—something in front of him, blocking his way, and he brought the axe down and was pleased to feel the wood splinter beneath the blow. The fragments of the door fell away, and Peter pushed on through the heart of the inferno.
Winston had given up talking to Egon. The physicist's eyes were still half-open, but unresponsive when he snapped his fingers before them. If he were aware it was only distantly and he could not react, his breathing shallow, inaudible over the crackling of the fire. Winston's throat was dryer than the Sahara and his voice was so hoarse it wouldn't go above a whisper, but he kept speaking regardless. Not to Spengler now, but to God.
Not a prayer, exactly, but it couldn't hurt to make his peace with his maker. He didn't pay attention to what he was saying, exactly, too exhausted to manage that, but he tried to open his heart and hoped what spilled out would be worthy. It occurred to him that he hadn't gone to a mass since Easter, and Christmas before that; his mother had berated him for his negligence but it hadn't really hit him until now. None of the guys were the church-going sort, and he did so much with them that he felt a little awkward about going alone, but it looked like he wasn't going to get another chance. To make up for that, or to do anything else with the guys, or with his girlfriend, or with his family—this was it. For him, for Egon—at least Egon wouldn't feel it.
Overhead the roof creaked; he heard it over the flames and winced. Drawing a breath set him coughing; there was smoke in the air now, only a trace, but the fire was beginning to burn for real. "Egon?" Of course there was no reply, but the physicist probably knew what was going on. "Egon, is that ghost getting ready to leave?"
Leave them to their fate. His only hope now was that they wouldn't be greeted with flames when they crossed over to the other side. "I don't want to be a ghost, not after what I've seen of them, but I don't think I'd like it there much, either..." He had never believed in a vengeful God, even after all the horrors he had seen, in 'Nam, on this job. And while he hadn't really considered whether or not Hell might be a real place, he hadn't ever thought it would be the literal fire and brimstones; more like the Netherworld, maybe, rocky, murky, dismal and horrifying. But you never know; certainly this was about as close to the traditional realm of the damned as he had ever witnessed on Earth.
The roof shifted again with a sharp, ominous crack, and might have sunk a foot lower, or maybe that was a mirage of the heat. He automatically hunched over Egon, as if his body could possibly protect his friend from that burning mass when it finally gave way. Wouldn't be much longer now—
When Winston heard the first bang he thought it was one of the walls caving. At the second he jerked up his head, peered into the brilliant depths of the fire. At first he could make out nothing, but was there possibly a dark silhouette moving in the glowing core... Not the ghost, couldn't be the ghost, it was still in the walls, but what, then? He blinked, tried to make it out; definitely it was moving, through the fire, toward them.
He didn't believe it when he heard the voice, was convinced the swear was a hallucination, and then the figure stepped from the blaze and strode toward him. Winston stared, wondering if his eyes and mind could fail him so completely, or was this for real—
"There you are," the voice issued from the man, and there was no mistaking it, and no way he could ever imagine such a cocky, brash tone under these circumstances. Winston felt his mouth drop open as Peter Venkman went on, "Heard you were having a problem with your AC, can I be of service?"
His face was black with soot, and under the helmet pulled low over his brow Winston could see his hair plastered to his forehead with what looked like ectoplasm. Beneath the ash his coat and gloves appeared to be covered with more, congealing in dark patches. The axe in his hands glistened strangely in the firelight, as if it too were coated, and the bag under his arm had received the same treatment. He was all but unidentifiable under the carbon and slime; he looked like a chimney sweep damned to the lower circles of Dante's vision.
He was, absolutely, the most beautiful sight Winston had ever seen. "My God—"
"Well, I wouldn't go that far." Peter hurried over to them, his eyes glittering darkly in the firelight. For all its lightness his voice was cracking, as hoarse as Winston's. "Fancy meeting you here, Zed—up and at 'em, Egon, Satan just granted you a pardon." He crouched by the physicist, and even through the soot Winston could see how drawn his face was. "What—"
"He's been fading in and out, it's only in the last few minutes—" Winston shook his head, "Man, Pete, I didn't—his leg's trapped, I can't get it off—"
Peter frowned at the beam, then flashed a white-toothed grin, startling in his blackened face. In one motion he rose, shifted his grip on the axe, and brought the blade down on the wood. It cracked and he chopped into it again; on the third blow it split and Winston heaved the lower half off Egon. Spengler groaned at the impact of the final blow, and once Winston had freed his leg he instantly attended to him, "M'man, Peter's here—"
Venkman was no longer at his side; having discarded the axe, he had dropped the bag he carried and now was rummaging through it—no, rather fooling with whatever was inside. Winston caught a glimpse of a piece of a equipment such as Egon might whip up, or Ray—"Pete, did Ray—is he—"
"He's fine," but his eyes slid to the side as he said it, refocused on Egon, "Ray's fine."
There was a firm confidence in his voice that Winston wasn't sure he trusted, but it brought a reaction from Egon. "Thank God," the physicist murmured, sinking back.
Winston hooked his arm under his shoulders and dragged him up to a sitting position, "Stay with us, m'man, we're gonna be leaving soon." Glancing at Venkman, "Least I'm figuring that's the plan."
"Got it in one." Peter did something to the device in the bag, stood and returned to them, "That should do it—we're gonna have to make a break for it, okay? This will get the ghost, but when it does this fire's going real, and that means if we don't get out quick we're char-broiled. Egon, can you—" He broke off, seeing the blond head sagging against Winston's shoulder. "Okay...he probably shouldn't be moved but we don't have a hell of a lot of choice." Joining Winston on Egon's other side, Peter slung his arms around his friend, and together they lifted him, took a couple of practice steps and found it satisfactory. Peter directed them to the flaming wall from which he had emerged, close enough that the tongues of fire snatched at them. Slitting his eyes against the heat and light, Winston could barely make out the doorway obscured by the blaze.
"You didn't bring another coat, did you?" he thought to ask.
Peter shook his head, "Had enough to carry. It's not that far—you might be toasted, but you'll make it. Ready?"
"As I'll ever be." Winston breathed deeply, coughed on the smoke he inhaled. Every instinct he possessed was screaming bloody murder at the proximity of the fire; the thought of willingly walking into it—but Peter had come through it, and if there were any other choice, any other way, he would have found it. Hearing the ceiling snap again, Winston knew they didn't have time to debate this—out of the frying pan, literally..."When do we move?"
Peter licked his lips, immediately spat out the ash he tasted. "Soon as it goes off." He craned his neck backwards, eyes fixed on the bag in the center of the basement.
An agonizingly long minute passed, with the fire roaring before them and Egon's unconscious weight growing heavier as they stood there. Then Peter blinked at him, rasped, "Zed, can you get Egon out?"
"Yeah," Winston said, shifting to balance the physicist's full weight as Peter withdrew. For all his exhaustion the adrenaline pumping through his veins made the burden bearable. "Pete, what—"
"Don't know, something's gone wrong—Spengs'll never let me live this down," and Venkman was heading back to the bag. Over the fire he shouted harshly, "On my signal, move!"
"Pete," Winston tried to protest, but Peter bent over the device, twisted something, and whacked it soundly. Zeddemore saw the flash out of the corner of his eye, heard an angry wail he recognized from years of trapping ghosts.
"Now!" Peter screamed—must have blown out the last of his voice with that call—and Winston moved. Half-carrying, half-dragging Egon, charging into the fire, which rushed around them, the flames seeming to part from their path. Something brushed past them but it was cold, not hot, an icy wind blowing over them. The ghost—
And then the fire flared worse than ever, gold and white and blood-red. He couldn't help but cry out with shock as it flickered over his skin, heard Egon's faint moan echo him, but he pressed on regardless, through the door he had barely glimpsed.
It was dark, suddenly, and cool, and he kept stumbling forward into the increasing void. Until something caught him, grabbed his arm and tugged him to a halt. He almost dropped Egon but he couldn't, not when the hand on his arm and the eager voice accompanying it belonged to Janine, "Winston? Egon—oh, Egon!"
He tried to smile at her, but she had turned away, shrieking, "Get those paramedics up here now!" A burly fireman lifted Egon from his arms like a rag doll, carrying him to the stretcher a pair of EMTs were bearing as they hurried up the hill.
Winston whirled, staring behind him, but there was no figure at his back, only the burning house, smoke billowing up as the firemen trained the water from their hoses on it. Just as he turned there came a terrible crash and he saw the roof cave in, the flames leaping up higher still and then falling as they lost their support. He took a stumbling step toward it, ignoring the firemen pushing him back and the paramedic trying to get him to lie down on another of the stretchers. Behind him he caught a glimpse of Janine's white face, and beyond her Egon had managed to prop himself up on his own stretcher, staring at the house with his bleary gaze. No need to hear his voice; even from this distance Winston could read his lips, the same word on his own, "Peter—"
There was no way, no possible chance that he might have survived that collapse; even Peter Venkman had limits to his luck, and it had at long last run out. Winston felt his legs give way, sank onto the stretcher without further urgings from the paramedic. His vision was blurred but it wasn't the heat or fatigue.
Through the fog he almost missed the movement, the dark shadow before the fire.
But he did see it, pushed off the stretcher and almost bowled over the ministering EMT in his mad dash toward that silhouette. The firemen were hollering but he didn't bother trying to make out their words, didn't stop until he reached him.
Peter had paused mere feet from the burning house, swaying uncertainly, his helmet in his hands and his matted hair standing out at peculiar angles. A pink line of flesh between his eyebrows and his widow's peak, formerly protected by the helmet, was the only spot of him not blackened with soot.
Winston couldn't help grinning like a fool, for all that his own legs were unsteady beneath him and they were altogether too close to the fire. "You look like hell!" he yelled over the roar.
Peter's eyes tracked to his and a hint of green sparked in them. "Think you're confused," he panted. "You were rescued from the burning house...I'm the dashing citizen of the year who did the rescuing."
"May be," Winston agreed, "but you still look like something the cat dragged in."
"Thanks," Peter said, added, "I'm waiting for my medal," and then his eyes rolled back and he pitched forward. Winston caught him before he hit the ground, might have fallen himself but the paramedics were there, directed by Janine, helping them onto stretchers to be carried down to the ambulance and whisked off to the hospital.
Winston would have dropped off on the ride, but despite his exhaustion sleep was impossible when the conditions of his friends were still unknown. He settled for accepting the EMTs ministrations, looking forward to morning, when this night would finally be over and the only fire in sight would be the rising sun.
Janine decided that she had spent entirely too much time in this waiting room in the last twelve hours. Her heart couldn't take it anymore, and every single one of the chairs was uncomfortable despite their vinyl padding. At least it didn't matter if she took off her glasses; over the past night she had memorized every one of the health-promoting posters adorning the off-white walls.
She would be pacing but she didn't want to disturb Winston. He had dozed off at long last, leaning his head back against the wall, his face lined with weariness even in repose. A long night, for all of them. He had showered at the hospital and changed into the clean clothes she had brought over from the firehouse, but he refused to go back himself or even stretch out on the couch until they had some word on the other guys. Ray was apparently doing all right, she had explained his treatment; but of Peter and Egon they had yet to hear a word since they had been spirited away in the emergency room. Winston had been given a cursory check-up to verify he had come through his experience intact, other than some minor bruises and burns. The doctor had prescribed a few days of R&R, but relaxation was something of an impossibility for both of them at the moment.
The handle of the door turned; before it even opened Winston jerked awake, blinking. A doctor entered, but not one they had been expecting; rather, one they had been hoping to see—"Dr. V.!"
"In the flesh," Peter grinned. "Such as it is." His voice was lower and raspier than normal, and while he too had cleaned up and changed, his face was streaked red as if badly sunburned, a bandage covering one cheek and clear ointment smeared over the rest. But his stance was firm as he folded his arms and looked down at them. "How are you doing, Winston?"
"I'm fine," Winston assured him, "but what about you?" Gesturing at the bandage and adding, "You were in there a while, we were getting worried..."
"I'm okay," Peter said. "It's mostly first degree burns, a few seconds but the docs say there won't be any scarring. No masks or a place under the opera house for Dr. Venkman. The smoke inhalation got to me a little, but they gave me oxygen and told me if I drink lots of fluids I'll be singing again by the weekend."
"So that's what you call that screeching," Janine muttered, but she couldn't help but smile, immeasurably relieved he had come through all right, even if she'd never admit it aloud.
"What's the word on Egon?" Peter asked, ignoring her to grow serious, his expression darkening further when they both shook their heads.
"Sorry, Pete, we haven't heard a thing," Winston told him.
Peter dropped into the chair next to them with a faint exhalation that gave lie to his projected energy. His voice stayed bright, however. "I wouldn't worry, Janine; Spengs knows better than to try to pull anything, after all we went through to get him out of there. He wouldn't be that ungrateful." But his emerald eyes sought out Winston's, begging for reassurance himself.
Janine saw Winston hesitate. He hadn't said much in the hour they had been waiting, but what he had mentioned of their time trapped together, not daring to believe rescue might come...Egon hadn't been doing well. They had gotten him out, though; he had been alive when they had placed him in the ambulance. He had even been awake, aware enough at least to realize Peter was not behind them. Dr. V. was right; after all their work they couldn't lose him now. She opened her mouth just as Winston did, both ready with the same agreement.
Neither got the chance to say it; the door opened again and another doctor entered, an unfamiliar MD this time. "You're the Ghostbusters? I'm Dr. Kilner, I just came from the ICU—your friend Dr. Spengler is going to be fine." He smiled broadly at their reactions. "He had a bad concussion but we're monitoring him and the worst has already passed. He's sleeping normally now; he'll have a terrible headache when he wakes up but nothing more traumatic, at least as far as his head goes. His leg was broken, but fairly cleanly considering the circumstances; we've set that and with time it will heal completely. We've also wrapped his sprained wrist—he really took a beating." Regarding them all oddly, "Is that common in your, uh, line of work?"
"No," Peter said, at the same time Janine and Winston replied, "Yes." They all glanced at one another, shrugged, and spoke as one, "Now and then."
"I see." Clearly the doctor was wondering why anyone would stick with such a dangerous profession.
Janine had pondered that same question more than once, especially during those long hours spent in this waiting room or others like it. Not knowing if one of the guys would make it out of surgery or the ICU, hoping for Lady Fortune to smile on them one more time.
Unbelievably, she always seemed to come through. The moment the doctor left the three of them sank back in their seats, releasing identical sighs of pent-up anxiety. Janine almost giggled, less at their synchronicity than out of the cheer bubbling up inside her despite her fatigue. Egon was alive, Egon would be fine, and on top of that, when he got back to the firehouse she's have the perfect chance to play nurse...not a favorite duty, unless the physicist was being the patient instead of a doctor, and then it was no chore at all. Far from. She smiled, caught herself but it was too late; the sappy smirk had already crossed her lips.
But Peter for once did not call her on it. His attention was on Winston as his teammate scrubbed his eyes with his palms, yawning as he tilted his head back against the wall again. "Long night, eh, Zed?" Quiet sympathy in his tone.
"Yeah. Oh man..." He shook his head, eyes still closed. "There was a moment there that I thought we were never getting out. And I was sure that Egon wasn't going to—" His eyes flew open again, met hers. "I mean, it didn't, I didn't know how bad he really was hurt, I was just worried—" Stumbling over the words.
Peter's hand on his arm stopped him. "We know, Winston. Janine, too," glancing at her.
She nodded, knowing her face must be pale but keeping her voice steady, "It's all right, Winston—he's fine. You did it. I—" She couldn't express her gratitude in words, instead leaned over to put her arms around his neck, squeezing hard. Winston hugged her back, a little hesitantly, as if concerned she would break. He should know her better than that, but now wasn't the time to push it.
When she released him he nodded to her gratefully, then turned to Peter. "Thank you."
Peter frowned with genuine confusion. "You're welcome, but for what?"
"For getting us out of there in one piece," Winston told him.
His confusion deepened. "Yeah, like you wouldn't have done the same if I'd been the one in there. It's kind of in the job description, you know—"
"Risking your life to save your buddies. Yeah, clause 2-C, paragraph three. Remind me to look over my contract again." Winston shook his head. "Pete, it doesn't matter if I would've done it for you, or you thought it was your duty—you saved my life, man, and Egon's. Thanks." He clasped his teammate's arm. "I know that doesn't begin to cover it, but it's the best I can do."
"In that case...you're welcome." For a moment Peter almost looked abashed, not swelling up as he usually did when praised, looking as he'd rather brush off the acknowledgment. It hadn't fully hit him, what he had done, Janine realized. He had been so focused on achieving his goal, on saving them, that the implications of his actions on his own self had never occurred him.
But Peter was hardly one to reject acclamation for long. Leaning back in the chair with catlike comfort, he winked at Winston, "Does this mean I'm out of garbage duty for the week? Can hardly have the hero of the hour—"
"Of the hour," Winston echoed, "meaning that tomorrow you can take out the trash, just like you're supposed to."
"What about the dishes?" Peter inquired hopefully.
Winston sighed. "In case you're forgetting, Pete, there aren't gonna be many, with all of us in here. And we're the only ones on our feet now, so..."
"Point taken. Hey, I'll trade you dish duty for the next week, I'll do 'em now and you can do them—"
"When everyone's back and their appetites are, too—no deal!"
"Worth a try," Peter said with a shrug, and settled down in the chair as if preparing to doze off. He could use the rest, but Janine, drawing on past experience, doubted he'd get any, not until Egon had awoken, at least. And he wouldn't sleep soundly until Ray was up as well. For now, though, he stretched out in an approximation of repose and shut his eyes. Slitting them open again he glanced at Winston, then met Janine's gaze, and for an instant a smile crossed his lips, such total contentment that she couldn't help but reflect it. A green spark flashed below his lids at her, and she grinned as he shut them once more.
Twisting in her own seat she attempted to find a position of equal comfort, concluded it was impossible—there were times Dr. V. seemed positively spineless, considering his current relaxed contortions. She instead crossed over to the couch, stretched out and pillowed her head in her arms. But she watched and waited until Winston's chin dropped to his chest before she allowed herself to fall into much-needed slumber.
When Dr. Kilner returned several hours later he found them fast asleep. Two of them, at least; Peter opened his eyes as he opened the door, was on his feet to face him before the man had taken two steps in. "Yeah?" Trying to read the careworn face.
"Don't worry, it's not bad news," the doctor assured the psychologist. "Dr. Spengler is returning to consciousness, thought you'd like to know—"
"Can I see him? Where is he?" Whispering to avoid waking his friends, Peter followed Kilner down the hall to Egon's room. Thanking the doctor before entering, he walked in just as the physicist's eyes blinked open. They peered near-sightedly in his direction, then widened, and he lifted his head and croaked, "Peter?"
"Right here," Peter assured him, crossing the distance to the bed in three long steps. "Here, Janine brought over your spare pair, since the others got flattened." He handed Egon the spectacles, watched him settle them on his nose one-handed as he leaned back against the raised mattress.
Egon squinted at him fuzzily through the lenses. "She could have been spared the trip," he said ruefully. "I don't believe I need clearer double vision."
"Head hurts?" Peter inquired sympathetically, confirmed when Egon winced as he tried to nod. "The doctors say you'll have to put up with that for a few days, they'll give you something for it...could've been worse; your brains could have been boiled in your skull inside that house."
Egon winced again. "Thank you," he said, "my stomach appreciates the image." He drew a breath, "Peter—the house, I thought—" He closed his eyes, "I don't remember...I thought I was going to wake up there, if at all."
"What's the last thing you do remember?" asked Peter quietly. The doctor had said there hadn't been any permanent brain trauma, but minor amnesia was common after a head injury. Best to determine quickly how far it went.
Understanding this just as well, Egon squeezed his eyes shut in the effort to recall, "We were in...the house, Winston and I—and then you were there, and we were getting out—Winston dragged me out, you weren't—" His eyes snapped open, blurry vision or not seeking out Peter's own and locking onto them. "You weren't there, I thought you were still in the house."
"I was." Peter didn't see that he had much choice but to admit it, while silently damning the physicist's excellent memory, even after injury—hardest head on the planet, old Spengs had. "I was right behind you, but that meant I was in a bit longer...got a little grilled, no biggie."
Egon blinked at him, observing the bandage and his abnormally pink and shiny complexion—"Peter, how badly—"
"I'm fine. Hell, I'm pretty sure I look better than you," and he pointed at the casts on the physcist's arm and leg, then to the bandage swathing Egon's head. "Least I've still got my hair." He grinned when the physicist's hand shot up to investigate that damage. "Kidding—they had to shave a little for the stitches, but the way you wear it that won't even show."
"Peter, I—" he broke off again, twisted his head to scan the room, "Winston? He was beside me, he seemed—Ray—you said, I thought you said he was all right, I remember—" Sudden panic flared in his face as their absence registered.
"Ray is all right," Peter hastened to assure him. "He and Winston are both asleep...though Ray's deeper under. They've got him sedated, he'll be waking up tomorrow sometime. We'll see about getting us all in there, or maybe they can bring him here. Think he should see right away that we all made it."
"Did he—did he even know what happened?" Egon murmured.
Peter shook his head. "I...I kind of kept it from him, figured he didn't need it on top of everything else. You know Ray, he would've killed himself to get you guys out of there, he wouldn't have let them take care of him. I had to..." Vaguely he wondered who he was trying to convince.
Egon knew, and reassured him, "That sounds like the best choice." Realizing a certain note in his friend's tone, and recalling more of their experience, "Peter, you knew—when did you figure out what happened? And how did you..." Peter could see the growing realization in his eyes, as he began putting together what had happened from the fragments he remembered, "How did you rescue us? What did you do to capture the ghost—did you capture the ghost? Did—"
"Okay, that's enough for one breath," Peter told him. "To put your mind at ease, yes, I captured the ghost, and the firemen have put out the fire. Our client is pretty upset, can't blame him, but other folks' homes are safe. As to how I did it, and figured it out..." He knew he should be proud, tried to make the explanation a boast, but in the end he simply and straightforwardly told the physicist everything he had worked out, what he had thrown together. He tried to gloss over the extent to which he had cannibalized the lab's equipment but gave Egon the details of the device's construction.
"You know what the funny thing is?" he remarked when he was finished. "I did all that and I still don't understand exactly what those poltergeists were doing—you said before it all went down, something about them intermingling with the matter of the walls, but that didn't cover how they were able to do that oh-so-clever disintegration trick..."
Egon paused, then began to reply, "As I made no direct observations further testing is necessary, but I hypothesize that the explosion disseminated their ectoplasmic forces to the point that contacting normal matter initiated non-spontaneous combustion—" He broke off abruptly. When he began speaking again there was no trace of the scientist's composed lecturing tone, "That can wait—Peter, how could you have?"
Peter blinked. "You've lost me, Spengs; how could I have what?"
"When you didn't know—certainly you understood the risk; if you didn't fully grasp the nature of the haunting you would have had no way of knowing if anything you planned would be successful. Your device, let alone the ectoplasm shielding you—if it hadn't worked, if you had not been entirely protected—"
"But it did, and I was, and it's over now anyway," Peter reminded him before Egon could choke on his half-formed protests. "We got the ghost, put out the house, and saved your butts while we were at it—damn, I'm good." Trying to put into the words emotion he didn't feel.
And of course Egon heard. "You could have been killed, you could have quite literally gone up in—"
"Geez, Spengs!" he cut him off. "Do you practice spreading good cheer or does it just come naturally? You should take after Winston. He thanks me for saving his life, while you yell at me for it—does anyone else see a logic problem here?"
"I am grateful that you saved our lives," Egon told him softly. "That doesn't alter the risk you took. Which Winston doesn't fully understand, or he would've had something to say about it. The odds—" Before Peter could retreat he reached out and grabbed his wrist, held him in place. His grip was surprisingly strong, considering that he was having trouble lifting his head. "Peter, you may be impulsive, but you are far from stupid, and you are not given to dangerous acts of heroism...at least when there are no women watching," he added with forced humor.
Egon never was one to beat around the bush. "You asking if this is going to become a habit?" He ran his free hand through his hair, half-smiled. "Spengs, I wasn't trying to be a hero. Hell, I don't know if I was a hero—it wasn't anything spectacular. No superhuman tricks—I was just me, like always. All right, so I'm pretty spectacular as is," and he essayed a full smirk, felt it fade in the face of Egon's steady stare, "but last night...I wasn't a hero. I was just a guy who had something to do, and I did it, the only way I could figure out how. I didn't have Ray to help me make the trap, I didn't have you to give the odds—not that I would've wanted them anyway. But...
"Well, that's it, really. Don't you go telling everyone, now—this is strictly confidential. In the public eye Dr. Venkman is always the hero—we all are."
For a moment Egon did nothing; then he released his wrist and nodded, a slight, painful tip of his wrapped head. "About the trap," he said. "You actually made it yourself? But apparently your workmanship—"
"It worked well enough," Peter defended his device, more than happy with the change in topic. "Just not when it was supposed to—I put a timer on it but I ended up having to switch it on manually. Why didn't you tell me your inter-spectral unitizer's clock was busted?"
"Because I didn't think it mattered, given the nature of—" He broke off the automatic answer to blink at the psychologist fuzzily through his glasses. "Peter," in a dangerously calm voice, "what have you done with my unitizer?"
"There you go again," he muttered, "save a guy's life and you'll never hear the end of it..." And smiled for real at his friend's sharp admonishment, before he reluctantly gave in and confessed the fate of Egon's equipment.
He didn't know what he was aware of first, the distant throbbing of his head, or the dim reddish light filtering through his eyelids, or the increasing sensation of weight. As if gravity were slowly intensifying, tugging him down until he was pressed into the firm mattress, so heavy he could barely lift his hand or open his eyes.
"Hey, I saw that. No fair shutting them again, Tex," admonished a cheerful voice nearby.
His eyes popped open again, sought out the blurry form in front of him while he tried to convince his tongue to move, "...Peter?"
"In person—why does everyone keep asking me that?" he heard the psychologist demand. "Am I really that unrecognizable? Has my nose fallen off or something?"
"No, Dr. V., it's the hair," a sharp female voice informed him, "I don't think it's ever going to recover from that sliming."
Peter made a sound halfway between a growl and an anguished moan as Ray asked muzzily, "Janine?"
"Right here, Ray," she answered immediately, and he felt a cool hand on his arm.
"Your hair is fine," came a deep voice, presumably addressing Peter, "or at least, it looks no different than usual."
Ray widened his eyes, straining to bring the shadows into focus, "Egon?"
"Yes," the physicist confirmed, "how do you feel, Raymond?"
He considered this. "Okay...a little out of it." Wrestling with his murky thoughts, he tried to grasp why he had been surprised to hear Egon, why wouldn't he have been here...why was he here at all, a hospital, he guessed, but why—
As if he had opened a floodgate it rushed back to him, the ghosts and the house and the blast; and he hadn't heard all of them—"Winston? Is—"
"Here, homeboy." A warm hand, Winston's, came to rest on his other arm. "Look before you shoot, next time."
Before he shot—that was what had happened, the thrower backlash. He remembered now. It could have been bad, exploding the trap like that, but it must have worked out all right. Ray sank down into the mattress with a sigh. "I—I had a dream, that Peter was telling me..." he frowned, catching it as it slipped away, "he said you were in trouble, you and Egon..."
"Yeah." Ray almost didn't recognize Peter's voice, opened his eyes again to be sure. His vision was becoming clearer; he made out brown hair, pale face, green eyes intent on him as the psychologist said, "It wasn't exactly a dream, Ray."
"But..." He thought he remembered something else, earlier, Peter saying they were fine, that they were all right and he should rest. "You said..."
"I know." Peter's hand warm on his forehead, evoking a hazy memory of a softer touch. "Guess you shouldn't believe everything you hear, right?" He sounded light but it was that forced tone he got once in a while, when something was bothering him and he didn't want it to show. Ray had identified it some time ago, but it never did to call him on it outright. Maybe later, he could talk to Egon about it. When he felt sharper, because right now it felt like his brain had been replaced by cotton balls steeped in molasses.
He could figure out some basic things, though, the important ones. "They're okay now?"
"Yeah, they're okay now," Peter said, hesitating only slightly.
"We're okay," Egon affirmed, and there was no hesitation in his reply. Ray peered past Peter and saw the other bed with the physicist, the white bandages wrapped around him. Egon saw his gaze; when he spoke he sounded as if he might be smiling wryly, "I may need a few days' recuperation, but otherwise—"
"A few days?" Janine repeated disbelievingly. "Egon, you aren't gonna be walking out of here when you leave—"
"On the contrary, with crutches—"
"And a broken arm?"
"Sprained," Winston corrected, and then shut his mouth abruptly when Janine rounded on him.
"Hey, Ray," Peter whispered, so quietly only Ray would hear. He glanced to him and Peter grinned, angled his head toward the others. "Told you they were fine."
There wasn't much that could be said to that. Ray didn't try. He only smiled. Listening to the other three in urgent debate, and seeing Peter watching them all with a wicked gleam in his eye as he waited for the best moment to get the last word in, Ray thought he might be one of the luckiest guys in the world.
Then Peter said it, and the others paused mid-sentence to blink at him as he started to laugh, and Ray at that moment knew that he was. But he couldn't say that aloud, even in this muddled state. So he settled for sticking his tongue out at Peter, answering his challenge. And if he saw a similar revelation in his friend's emerald eyes, neither of them saw fit to mention it in the verbal free-for-all that followed.