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This story is the sequel to "Brothers in Limbo."
He felt it when it happened, not something he could describe, but there was little enough that he could express as it was—hunger, joy, fear, anger, those basic emotions pushed the limit of the average ghost's capabilities. He was no different.
But he felt it all the same. Didn't understand it, of course, but it rippled through him like a shockwave, stretched him thin and snapped him whole again. No one was there to witness the event, and the ghost lacked the reasoning capabilities to connect that with the loss. He understood the loss, though, because he was told—he had learned how to listen, how to hear words and remember the meaning they held. He had to keep reminding himself; every time he went to look for his friend, what he had been told would come back and he would cry great ectoplasmic tears. They cried, too, but softly, and their tears were saltwater and soon wiped away.
He went to the sturdy one—he knew their names, but never thought them. In his approximation of a mind, they were linked with speech, so when he spoke he knew to say them, and when they called his own name he responded, conditioned like Pavlov's dog, salivating in anticipation of food or attention. And he knew them each as individuals, but in his thoughts, they were never names but faces and actions, colors and shapes. He would go to his dark-skinned friend because he would be willing to hug, not as open as his best friend, but he would put his arms around him if he cried. So would his chatty friend, though she was quiet now; she still allowed him to cry on her, and patted him with her small hands. He loved their touch, warm human touch, and never understood why they disliked his cool wet one.
He tried to go to the tallest one, but that friend never looked to him, bent over his table with his tools and devices and his long fingers working, always working. Behind his glasses his face was still and did not smile, and he suggested nothing for him to do, though the ghost asked helpfully. Night and morning his friend was in the laboratory, busy and silent. Not happy as he usually was when there, and ignoring him.
And his other friend, the teasing one, the one who hated and then didn't—he had had this explained to him, by his best friend, "Peter doesn't really mean it, Slimer." He didn't grasp that, but experience taught him that his friend would not hurt him, or would not be allowed to if he tried, and would feed him and smile at him once in a while in private. He did his best, all he could, to be liked, when the others all liked his friend so much.
But he wouldn't approach this friend now. He didn't know what he had done, but the anger in his friend's voice now was different. Before it had been threat, spoken but not acted upon. No longer now; the threat was gone, and only certainty left, determined truth. And his best friend was not here to protect him, or tell him how he was only joking. His best friend was gone.
When it happened a second time, he remembered, and understood then, a bizarre comprehension of the folding, twisting sensation. A rift, a tear, an opening, not death stealing spirits from the waking world, but a different transformation, close by, in the building. He thought it was his best friend returning; what else could it be? He rocketed up to the lab, that was where strangeness always happened. Ignoring walls and floors in his joyful dash, he exploded into the room with a shriek, seeking his friend.
But he wasn't there. In the doorway his brown-haired friend grasped the frame and pulled himself up, green eyes wide, lips moving but wrongly, without sound. When voice came it was a scream. Not a ghost scream, worse than any ghost's, a purely human cry, "No!"
Fleeing, he circled around the house, through doors and walls, searching in ever more erratic loops, wailing his own call. There was one friend in the lab, and one running to his side, but no others, no red-haired best friend returned, no blond friend. His other friend came when they called her, but she didn't bring either of them.
Time passes differently for a ghost than for living beings, but he became aware of days now, nights, each one stretching on without his best friend or his serious friend, and the others were quiet. If they paid him any attention, it was absent-mindedly, a brief pat if he passed under their hands. Occasionally, she would hug him, but it felt different, though he couldn't tell how.
More tears, some noisy, mostly soft, in darkness and alone, stopped if he approached. Then they were loud, but never laughter, always angry voices. His dark friend's voice raised; and her voice went high and sharp.
His other friend's tone never seemed to change, always the same, and that was different. He no longer yelled if the ghost touched him or ate the food in the refrigerator, and never used that threatening, teasing voice, not with him, not with any of them. His friend's eyes had been green, but now they were black, and never quite focused when he spoke.
The furniture was white, all white, covered with sheets. It didn't matter if he went through it, or if he lay on the beds upstairs. None of his friends slept there anymore. She tried to tell him why this was, but he didn't understand.
One night his dark friend drove away and didn't come back. He cried the harder for that until he realized he could find him, his friend's trace still present in the city.
A little while later, she, too, left, and not to be alone, he followed her. When she reached her own little apartment, she sat on her couch, put her face in her hands and cried. He floated up to her and stroked her hair, as he had seen his other friend do once, his missing friend, the smart one.
She shivered at his touch, then squinted at him, eyes red and plain without her glasses. He didn't know what words to use and so he bubbled his question without them. She shook her head, understanding even when he did not.
"Slimer, what are we gonna do? They're gone, Egon's—Egon—" Reaching out, she squeezed him tightly, and he made himself solid so her hands wouldn't go through him. He liked to be held; it didn't hurt.
He didn't know tears could be so hot, though, falling on him. After a little while she let him go; he hovered close to her, uncertain. She shook her hands, made a face, "Yuck," as she often did after touching him, but usually her voice had more energy. With a long sigh, she slumped back, rubbing off her hands on her skirt. "All right. Pull yourself together, Melnitz." Another shuddering breath, held and released. "I should call him, you know that, Slimer? I should call Dr. V. up and give that son of a..." New water glittering in her eyes; she squeezed them shut. "Oh, God, he's hurting so bad..."
He understood that, at least. "Petah sad?"
She coughed, mouth wiggling as if she were trying to smile. "Yeah, Slimer. Real sad. We're all sad." Sitting up, she leaned forward, stared into his orange eyes. Her voice was so serious he knew he had to listen. "Do you understand what happened? It's over, we've closed the Ghostbusters. There aren't any Ghostbusters now."
"Nooo!" He had known, she had told him before, and so had his sturdy friend, but he didn't like it; such wrongness couldn't last, couldn't be real. Things didn't end, they just changed, they never stopped altogether.
But she was nodding. "Yes." Swallowing but not looking away, "You understand why, don't you? You know—Ray, Egon...they're gone. They're not coming back, Slimer. Winston and I, we have to do other things now. And Peter—" Suddenly, she grabbed him, not flinching, fingers digging into the pliant substance of his lumpy body. "Don't go near Peter, Slimer. Do you understand?"
Of course he didn't. "Petah sad!"
"Don't go near him," she repeated. "Not unless you want to end up in the containment unit. He's not joking anymore. Don't go back to the firehouse, just... I don't know. I'm sorry, Slimer, I can't feed you."
"Ray?" he bubbled hopefully; his best friend could feed him.
"Ray is dead!" she shouted, loudly enough that he shot backwards in fright. Hunching over again, she spoke through her hands, "He's dead. Egon—Egon's dead, they're gone—"
"Comin' back!" he assured her. They had left; they would return. They always did. They would go to frightening places, the spirit worlds outside this world, but they always came back. They hadn't died, he knew, no matter what they told him.
"They're not," she whispered. "They're gone..."
The solution came to him, so swift and brightly he couldn't wrap his limited English around it, other than the one word, "Find!" Swooping over her head, he brushed through her hair, heard her dismayed exclamation as she tried to explain to him how they couldn't be found, how they were gone for always and forever—and it wasn't true, but she wasn't listening when he gibbered that to her. At last he resorted to the one word he could make sense, "Find find find—"
"Fine!" she snapped abruptly, lurching to her feet, small hands clenched into fists. "Good, look for them, it'll give you something to do! Just try to find them!"
So he did. He left before he saw her shake her head, fall spent on the sofa and return to her tears, alone in her apartment.
First he glided around the city, up and down streets, through buildings, offices and stores and homes. When people saw him, they usually cried out, and sometimes they called the Ghostbusters, but no one answered that number now. He saw his friends occasionally, and even if he didn't always recall her warning about Peter, he knew better than to go to them. They were busy now, doing things he didn't understand. Not what they used to do, and not like they used to, either. They didn't smile so much, or laugh with their friends. He watched from a distance, wishing they would. He heard her giggle a couple times as he listened from his distance, and he heard his dark friend chuckle at a movie. But his brown-haired friend with his eyes now black, he never laughed, no matter how long the ghost watched.
Sometimes he saw other ghosts, but he never went to them, either. He didn't like their coldness and their hatred and jealousy of life, didn't like how they scared people or even hurt them. But no one stopped them now; no one could. And he didn't know how.
They weren't anywhere in the city, he finally understood, and so he left. Beyond the skyscrapers there were fields and forests and more cities, as he had known but forgotten. He preferred to be where people were, but he had to find them, and so he looked everywhere.
He didn't always remember what he was seeking, but he knew he had to find it; they had told him to, his friends. And that would remind him, and he'd start the search again with renewed determination. The further he went from the city, the more startled people were by him, until he took to hiding to avoid their frightened screams. He ate sometimes, when he forgot his mission; then he would remember his friends feeding him and would call out for them, realize their absence and search all the harder.
After a while he began to despair, not an emotion he knew or could understand, except as a darkness weighing him down even when he didn't remember, a hunger always inside, but eating never helped it. Sad, sad, and in a dim corner of his mind, he understood his friends, what they had felt, why they had cried and why they hadn't and why his green-eyed friend wouldn't laugh. He kept looking because he had no reason not to, and no way to find his way back again, and they were gone even if he could. He couldn't quite remember them anymore, but he knew they were still missing, and he knew he needed to find them.
He reached the end of people, of earth, of everything but a great wide expanse of water, bluer than the sky and spreading further than he could see no matter how high he rose. There were no ghosts here, and no people; only gulls and seals and surf thrashing the rocks.
On this beach he felt it, distant, but he recognized it tugging at him. Another tear, another going or they returning, though he didn't dare think that. He flipped around and upside down, nothing in sight. It was so very far away, but he knew it and headed toward it. Not knowing what he might find, but knowing he had to find it all the same.
It took him a long while to reach the place. The city was smaller than the one he had come from, but the largest he had encountered in some time, metal and glass skyscrapers reaching up, people and vehicles filling the streets, loud and smelly and exciting. It thrilled him, but he didn't forget why he had come.
For days, he found nothing, not even a trace of the passing that had brought him here. He might have left, had he not by chance crossed their path. Two men walking down the street, and on the smaller one, he found the slightest taste of what he sought, a scent familiar and painful at once, the fading touch of the otherness that had taken them. And something more, when he approached...the other man turned, looked at the wall he had concealed himself within. Scared, he drew back.
But he had sensed it from that distance. A ghost does not have the same perceptions as a living being; they are both less and more attuned to life. The details escape them often enough, but more general feelings and associations are as clear to them as they are invisible to the living. This sensation he knew, with growing certainty remembered not only his search but the reasons for it, for whom he searched. His friends. This man knew his friends.
He followed them, knowing he should stay away, but he missed his friends, missed human contact. Now he recalled what he had forgotten, how good it was to be fed and liked and known. They went to their work and then they went home and he watched through their window. When they left again that evening, he drifted in, suddenly remembering what it was like inside houses, all the wonderful things that couldn't be found outside, away from people. With reminders all around him, and no one present to stop him, and knowing his friends were related to this somehow, he couldn't help but enjoy himself.
Blair noticed the moment they reached their hall. His partner stiffened even before the elevator. Lowering his voice, he inquired, "What is it?"
Jim shook his head, throwing off the momentary shiver that had gripped him. "Nothing," he said shortly. "I don't hear anyone in the loft."
"In the loft?" Blair hurried to catch up with Ellison's longer stride. "Okay, hold on, time out, man." Planting himself between his friend and their door, "Why would somebody be in our loft? Don't tell me you've ticked off another psycho. You didn't run over somebody's pet poodle, did you? Or forget Simon's birthday?"
Again Jim indicated a sharp negative. Exasperated, Blair folded his arms and stared up at him.
"Okay, then. What's up? This is the third time today you've gone jumpy." He counted off, "Once this afternoon, after lunch, when we were walking back to the station. Then this evening, before we went out to eat, you couldn't sit still to watch that dumb cop show. And don't try to tell me you found the explosions that exciting—I saw you looking out the window. And just now; that's three. I'm waiting. Talk to me."
Jim rolled his eyes, began warningly, "Sandburg..."
"Ellison..." Blair mimicked his tone precisely. "If we're gonna be jumped when we open the door, I'd like to know about it. Or if somebody's ripped apart our sofa cushions looking for an egg salad recipe or my grail diary—you weren't given state secrets or something, were you? I know, there's a cat-burglar who's heard that my Kung ritual mask is a priceless artifact—"
Jim unceremoniously pushed him to one side, unlocked the door, and swung it open with unnecessary force. After a glance inside, he gestured dramatically, announcing, "It's safe. And that damned ugly mask of yours is still here, too."
"It's a cultural relic," Blair informed him with dignity, stepping inside with only the briefest hesitation and heading to the kitchen to store the doggy bags from their dinner. He returned to the dining room with two beers in one hand and a Tupperware bowl in the other. Handing one of the bottles to his partner, he held up the container. "Slacking off here, Jim. I thought you were the one who yelled if I put empty things back in the fridge."
Jim frowned. "That's yours."
"Yeah, but I didn't finish it."
"I definitely didn't," Jim told him. "You know I don't touch your crazy rations, Sandburg."
"Curried chicken's not exactly unheard-of cuisine. Thought maybe you were branching out. Oh, well...maybe the cat-burglar got it. Looks like he even washed the dish." Blair pitched it underhanded into the kitchen sink, twisting the cap off his beer as he settled on the sofa arm. "So."
Jim took a seat on the couch, eyed his partner suspiciously. "So?"
"Today, man." Blair spoke with a mixture of patience and insistence, a tone he had mastered through four years of guiding a Sentinel. "What'd you pick up?"
Over time, Jim had learned what he could and couldn't squirm out of. This was the latter. He gave in. "I'm...not sure, Sandburg, that's the truth. I've been working through my senses like you've advised me to do when something's bugging me subconsciously, but nothing comes up."
"So, what's it like?" Blair asked, slipping effortlessly from determined questioning to a smoother, more persuasive voice. "Even if you can't identify it, what are you feeling?"
"Cold." Jim didn't shiver but narrowed his eyes. "Not exactly, but sort of...goose bumps, you know? Not like I'm scared or need a jacket, just kind of...cold. Inside. And I keep thinking—it's like there's something in the corner of my eye, or just out of the range of my hearing, but when I try to listen or look at it, it's gone." He glanced over at his partner. "Any ideas?"
Blair's eyes were snapping. "Oh, yeah. You'll love this. Remember last month—"
Jim groaned, throwing an arm over his face. "No. No, Sandburg, dammit, I knew that was gonna be the first thing you thought of—"
"Why not?" Blair shrugged. "It fits, right? That cold sensation, something not quite visible or audible, not fully there...like, say, a ghost..."
"No," his partner said flatly.
"Jim, you saw them, we both did. They're real—"
"Real or not, they're not in Cascade. We've checked." Jim sighed. "I know, it sort of sounds the same, but it's probably nothing. Maybe I'm coming down with something..."
"Yeah, like a haunting! A good case of possession—"
"Don't." The glare Jim shot his partner was not to be argued. "Don't joke about that. Even if that whole leaping thing wasn't really possession—"
"Sorry, man," Blair accepted the check with gravity. "I know...it wasn't a picnic for me, either. All the same, you gotta admit, it sounds awfully similar. They're back in business; we could at least give them a call."
"We'd be the laughingstock of the force!" Back in business and back in the media; the Ghostbusters had returned to front pages with a vengeance. While the New York Times had nothing but praise, papers in Washington were somewhat more skeptical. By mutual agreement, Simon, Jim and Blair had played down their part in the comeback. It was too unbelievable to explain as it was. Simon seemed to be doing his best to forget about it; Blair couldn't have managed that even if he had wanted to, but for his friends' sake, kept quiet.
"They don't have to come," he protested. "We could get some pointers, at least."
"Chief, we don't know that it is a ghost," Jim said firmly. "We don't have any proof, or even anything to tell them. If we get some sign that it might be supernatural, then we can call them, I guess."
"Call them over here, we don't know anything about getting ghosts!"
"Call them on the phone," Jim clarified. "But not tonight. It's too late in New York, anyway. And not until we have some evidence to give them."
Blair agreed, with reservations. Most of which had to do with his protest—they didn't know how to handle ghosts. There had been that one in the old apartment, the murdered woman Jim had seen, but she had been harmless, imperceptible to nearly everyone, unable to affect the physical world. The ghosts they had encountered in New York on that one bust had been of a different nature. The police wouldn't appreciate specters like that haunting Cascade's streets; they'd have little choice but to call the Ghostbusters in if too many of those turned up.
Jim would understand the necessity if it came to that. If or until then, he had a point; it wouldn't do to bother them when it might be nothing. Or some other factor affecting Jim's senses. He couldn't allow an unproven theory to cloud his judgment. As he prepared for bed, Blair thought over the described sensations. Cold, flickers in vision, could be the start of an illness, or a somatic reaction to the season...
All his half-formed hypotheses scattered when he flopped down onto his mattress and dropped his head onto his pillow. With a startled squawk, he jerked up again, grabbed the pillow and marched upstairs. Jim was seated on his own bed, pulling off his socks.
"You were saying about evidence?" Blair asked, and threw his pillow at him.
Jim caught it with a wet squish. Brow wrinkling, he squeezed it, translucent goo oozing from the cushion onto his hands. "What the—"
"I don't drool that much," Blair said. "And I do remember what ectoplasm feels like. How early do you think we can call them?"
"When we go to work—" Jim began, then broke off suddenly. Blinking rapidly, "We better hope their calendar's clear."
"Thought you just wanted to ask for advice," Blair started to say, then realized that his partner's gaze had switched from him to a point somewhere behind, by the door. The prickling of the back of his neck told him he was still being watched, however. Slowly, carefully, he turned around.
It was smaller than the ones in New York, but no less solid—more; its glistening green body was almost entirely opaque. In shape it resembled a fat slug with arms and a goofy, toothy smile. Its orange eyes were about a foot away from Blair's own.
He swallowed, made an effort to return the smile, and, relying on years of anthropologic experience encountering unusual peoples under odd circumstances, said the first thing that popped into his head. "Uh...hi!"
When the phone rang at half past one, Peter Venkman was, unsurprisingly, awake to answer it.
His three coworkers had retired a couple hours before. The day's bust hadn't been difficult per se, but several hours chasing obnoxious little class four specters up and down the stairs of the high-rise was exhausting work. Egon, Winston and Ray were all snoring, in various ranges, dead to the world.
Peter supposed he should be asleep with them. He hadn't even tried tonight, too keyed up to bother. It wasn't that his body wasn't tired, but his mind wasn't ready for sleep. This had been the case for the past month; he hadn't had insomnia this bad since college. Then he had covered by partying all night and studying in the wee hours of the morning when the rest of the frat was in varying states of unconsciousness.
He could do the same now; there were enough all-night clubs in New York, certainly, and he knew the best ones. But he hadn't dropped in on any of them in a while. Not that he hadn't felt up to it; he simply hadn't been inclined to, more content to sit up in the firehouse. Watch a movie or surf the net or even, if he was feeling particularly ambitious, pull out some psych journals and play the professional for a bit. He had a few articles he wanted to complete.
Egon had come downstairs last week, observed him at five in the morning flipping through the latest issue of Psychological Bulletin and scribbling notes on a clipboard. The physicist had said nothing, only smiled and made coffee for two. Peter teased about well-trained housewives and then they had discussed his research proposal until Ray and Winston arose. He wouldn't have traded that morning for a million dollars and a date with Winona Ryder.
Peter didn't think any of them realized that was the norm for him now. Usually, he made a point of going to bed when they did, tossing and turning for an hour or so before getting up again, and if they noticed he was usually the first one awake they hadn't said anything. Occasionally, when he really needed it, he would doze off. He had had the indulgence of sleeping in a couple of times, and the even greater pleasure of having Ray dump a glass of water on his head to finally rouse him.
Strange how one's values can change, almost overnight as it were. Just one day, it had taken, for his life to go from nothing to everything again. Twenty-four hours wasn't enough now to do all he wanted; he guessed that was the reason for his sleeplessness. It hadn't affected his performance on the job, he was as awake during the day as through the night. And enjoying nearly every minute of it.
So when the phone rang, he flicked the late late show to mute and grabbed the receiver. "Ghostbuster Central, how may we be of service?" with a bright receptionist's tone that would've done Janine proud. Which was saying something, considering the vibrancy with which she had returned to her duties. No doubt her substantially increased paycheck, he had suggested aloud, but of course they all knew better. The real reasons glowed to life in her eyes every time she so much as caught a glimpse of Egon. Not that he blamed her; he knew exactly how she felt.
"Uh, hello—Dr. Venkman?"
Somewhat familiar, the voice on the other end. He frowned, trying to place it. "Yeah, it's me. What's up, uh—"
"This is Blair Sandburg," the voice supplied. "We—"
"Blair! Hey!" Peter sat up on the couch. The broad grin stretching unavoidably across his face was probably audible as well, but what the heck; couldn't hurt to sound cheerful, even if Blair's tone didn't match. "How are you and Jim? What's rocking Cascade?"
"Not Cascade, exactly," Blair said, "just our apartment. We're, that is, uh... We're haunted," he finally admitted. "I don't know how bad—"
"That's our business," Peter told him seriously. Hauntings could be dangerous. "We can come by tomorrow. You should get out, if you're still there—"
"I don't... There's a problem leaving. The ghost has Jim sort of...cornered."
"How?" he demanded. "Is there any way past it? What is it doing exactly?"
"It's flying in circles in front of him. He keeps having to duck to keep from getting slimed. I think it's trying to give him a kiss."
Peter paused. "What?"
"Well, that's what it did to me," Blair explained. "All over my face. Like a puppy, except the slobber's a lot gooier. At least not much got in my hair this time, but Jim hates slime even worse. He's...sensitive to ghosts. So he's avoiding it, but he can't get around it. It's ignoring me for the moment, and I'm not leaving until Jim—go left! No, your left—good try, Jim—well, it was!" He interrupted his explanation to shout encouragement to his roommate, then went on, "Sorry, anyway, we were wondering if you could give us some advice. It doesn't seem harmful, so I don't know if you want to fly out here just to—"
"What does it look like?" When Blair made a questioning sound, Peter rubbed his temples and repeated, "The ghost, what does it look like?"
"About two feet, er, tall, shaped like a tuber," the anthropologist described. "Kind of a gruesome shade of green, not quite opaque—"
"Orange eyes and skinny little arms," Peter finished for him.
"Yeah!" With growing confidence, "You know what kind of ghost it is?"
"Not exactly. I think I know what ghost it is, though," he replied with a sigh. "Try something for me—shout, 'Slimer, pizza!'"
After a moment of perplexed hesitation, he heard Blair lower the phone and call out the suggested phrase, followed by a startled yelp. He sounded slightly out of breath when he spoke again. "That got its attention, at least. Now, how do I get rid of it?"
Peter glanced at the closed den door, hoped it would muffle the sound in the bedroom above, then raised his voice and yelled into the receiver, "Slimer, heel!"
Confused events on the other end, and then Blair returned. "Wow, man, I am impressed! You give lessons on how to do that to ghosts? It's in the corner now, not moving. I think it's...saluting?"
"I was afraid of that," Peter muttered, and made an appointment for later that day. This problem was definitely their responsibility. Blair sounded far more relieved when he hung up, and Peter was smiling when he turned the television back on.
He ended up dozing off on the couch. Winston awoke him the next morning.
"Hey, Pete, grub's on." Watching him stretch, Zeddemore added, "You know, your back would feel better with a real mattress. My snoring can't be that loud."
"You try falling asleep to it sometime," Peter retorted, grinning to show that no offense was meant and following his friend to the kitchen. At breakfast, he brought up last night's call. ???"Heard from Blair last night. They've got a haunting that we're obliged to handle. Slimer just showed in Cascade."
That got the expected response of delighted surprise, Egon and Winston tending more toward surprise while Ray expressed his delight—he'd probably pull a cheek muscle if he smiled any wider. "Really?"
Nodding, Peter gave the gory details. "Like I said, this one's our mess—"
The other three responded simultaneously. "The weather's gotta be better in Washington—" Winston began.
"He must miss us, he'll be thrilled to see us!" Ray enthused.
"A vacation would be beneficial—" Egon started to say.
Peter interrupted them all. "Hey, guys, I don't think we need to invade en masse." When they all looked to him, he added, "I told Blair I'd come today. I can fly over, pick up Slimer, and catch the first flight back tomorrow morning. No sweat. We don't need to cancel today's appointment, or blow cash on plane tickets for all of us—" They were all watching him with unnatural quiet. "What?"
Quick glances flew between them before Egon spoke for all. "Peter, are you sure..."
"Spengs, we already have an appointment today we can't cancel. Our bank account isn't quite what it was, and we have the mortgage on the firehouse—"
"Not the issue, Pete," Winston murmured.
Peter raised his eyebrows at them. "Meaning..? You guys don't trust me on this one? I swear, I'll bring a thrower and a trap just in case, but I'm not going to use it on the spud. Who asked Egon here to work on that summoning whatsit, just to get him back? Okay, I'm not looking forward to the sliming part, but he is...our mascot, I guess. Besides, I'm getting tired of clients asking where our pet ghost is. Trust me to handle this."
"We do. We just—" Ray hesitated, then finally said simply, "Be nice to him."
"Yeah," Winston added. "Remember, the last time you saw him..."
"I'll be careful. I'll even apologize." He seemed to be doing that a lot of late. He didn't mind, generally. It might grate a bit to say one to the spud, but it wasn't as if Slimer wouldn't forgive him. "You guys be careful on today's bust."
"From the report it's only a single class three," Egon reassured him.
"I know. Just watch your backs." With that cleared up, he called the airport and reserved a ticket, leaving an hour later to catch his plane.
Sitting in the terminal, single bag slung over his shoulder and ticket in hand, Peter found himself uneasy. It wasn't the vague anxiety of premonition, nor reaction to the sheer ugliness of the plastic-and-metal busyness that was JFK. More undefined, and less... He had to physically stop himself from going to the payphone in front of him and dialing the guys. His plane was due any minute and they'd be on the bust now, anyway. He knew they'd be fine; a standard class three hardly constituted a threat. It wasn't that he didn't think they could handle it. He just wanted to be there, helping bring it down. He enjoyed busts, the action, the momentary heroic high, whatever audience they would have. This was his job; this was what he loved to do as well, slime and all. He had never fully forgotten how much he missed it before.
Beyond that, though... Seated in the hard plastic bench, he was acutely aware of being on his own, alone despite the hundreds of people milling around him. Not like his late nights, in an empty room, but aware of his friends safe above him. It wasn't that he was worried they would be in danger with him away. They might be, you never know. But even if he were there, he might not be of any good. Fortune swung in unpredictable ways. Anyone could die tomorrow, from a brain aneurysm or a runaway bus, random shooting or heart attack.
He was conscious of time now in a way he never had been before. Once his awareness had been of his own person aging, a future both fascinating and frightening. And then...then they had vanished, and his life had stopped. Age hadn't mattered in that void,
only the slow pointless passing of each hour. Now, though, now it wouldn't slow down. A month gone by, and every hour with his friends, doing what he loved to do, still felt like something precious. Special, not to be squandered. He did, of course, with teasing, jokes, enjoying himself. All the same, he was too conscious now of the minutes ticking by, and he alone with only these thoughts...
Which he should stop right now. If everything went according to plan, this wouldn't even be two days. He could handle forty-eight hours. He'd be busy, and back before he knew it. Besides, he'd have Jim and Blair for company...and Slimer, of course, but he tried not to think of that.
He wanted to call them.
Before he could decide one way or another, the loudspeaker announced that his flight was boarding. Hefting his bag and pushing himself to his feet, he headed for the gate. Two days.
With his attention so occupied, he almost thought it was his imagination when he heard the shout behind him, "Hey, Pete! Wait up!"
Turning, he saw three Ghostbusters in full uniform charging in his direction, laden with proton packs and a suitcase apiece. They skidded to a halt an instant before crashing into him, and he blinked, asked, "What about the bust?"
"It proved somewhat simpler than we were expecting," Egon began.
"Your kind of job, Pete," Winston grinned. "We walked in, threw out the trap, and it went without a fight. It was scared to death—uh, scared silly of us. The guy wrote a check and we were out in fifteen minutes flat."
"Which gave us enough time to grab our bags and meet you here," Ray finished breathlessly. "There's enough seats left on the plane—"
"We've asked Janine to postpone the next few days' appointments," Egon said. "We've been working daily for several weeks now. We have been in need of a break, and this is as good an excuse as any."
Peter rolled his eyes. "Guys, I told you I could handle it. Don't tell me you don't trust me to bust Slimer!"
"Of course we do," Winston assured him. "This has nothing to do with it. We're just taking a vacation. Can't imagine you'd object to that." When Peter looked at him, he held up the hand not burdened with his suitcase. "Hey, m'man, I've got relatives out there."
Ray's hazel eyes meeting his were wide and guileless. "Peter, honestly, you wouldn't know one green class five apparition from another. What if it's not Slimer?"
He raised his eyebrows last at Egon. The physicist stared back placidly and offered, "I would like another opportunity to scan Jim and Blair, considering the readings I obtained last time. And I have been saying we needed a vacation."
Usually, Peter didn't like it when people lied to save face, and detested his friends fibbing to him. But in this case it was his face they were saving, and he had no choice but to be grateful. For what they weren't saying, and why. Aloud, though, he only conceded, "Come on, we don't want to miss the flight," and followed his colleagues to the boarding ramp.
Major Crimes Detectives Rafe and Brown were at the Cascade airport when Jim and Blair arrived that afternoon. "You got put on this duty, too?" Rafe inquired doubtfully as they approached.
Blair shook his head. "No, we're here to pick up a friend. What—"
"Crowd control." Brown waved at the small cluster of people gathered before them with a sigh. "With that big DARE event today, they're understaffed, and since we've got no pressing cases, Captain Banks sent us over. Some minor celebrities are due in any minute now."
"The Ghostbusters," Rafe replied with a hint of enthusiasm, squelched when he saw his partner giving him the evil eye.
Blair and Jim looked at one another. "Really."
"Uh-huh. Don't know why they're coming, but someone got wind that they are and apparently they've got fans even out here."
Any further comments Brown might have made were cut off by an excited squeal from the wannabe-crowd, "There they are!" The small mass of humanity surged toward the four men emerging from the gate. Three were instantly recognizable from their uniforms, in particular the distinctive no-ghost patch on their right sleeve.
Peter Venkman was dressed casually in jeans and a light cotton shirt. While their fans descended on his friends, he made a bee-line for the detectives, pounded Jim on the back and shook Blair's hand energetically.
The Sentinel returned the hug and his grin. "Welcome to Cascade! How's it going?"
"Can't complain," Peter laughed, glancing back at his coworkers, "but they might. I better provide a distraction. Can't let them steal all the glory! We'll be with you in a sec," and he hurried back, calling out, "Hold onto your hats, Dr. Venkman's here!" He did succeed in drawing at least half of the crowd to him, offering autographs with unabashed enthusiasm.
Blair caught Rafe's slight squeak. The detective's mouth was hanging open as he stared at him and Jim. "You know the—"
"Obviously," Brown groaned. "Jim..?"
"We met last month," Ellison shrugged. "Helped each other out of a...situation."
"But they've only been back in business for a month—" Rafe started.
"Quite correct." Dr. Spengler had extracted himself from the gathering to join the detectives leaning against the wall. "For which we owe Detective Ellison and Mr. Sandburg. We've come to Cascade at their request— Excuse me, I didn't mean to be rude. I'm Dr. Egon Spengler." He extended his hand.
Brown took it, seemed slightly surprised by the strength of his grip. "Henri Brown, detective sergeant. Fanboy here is my partner, Detective Rafe."
Rafe shook as well, with a brief glare at Brown. "I'm sorry, just a little surprised. Jim and Blair never mentioned you guys."
"Yeah, Hairboy, I'm surprised, too." Brown nudged Blair. "What gives? Didn't know you could keep your mouth shut about something like this."
"Oh, so maybe he's the one who leaked our arrival," remarked Winston as he joined them, smirking as Blair muttered about his much-maligned reputation. Egon made introductions, tactfully making no mention of Zeddemore's relation to the detectives' captain, but adding, "Detective Rafe apparently is a fan."
The detective's glare at his partner intensified, though his voice remained pleasant. "Not really a fan, but I know your work. I wouldn't object to an autograph, if you have the time. For the kids—"
"You don't have kids," Brown reminded him in a stage-whisper.
The fire in Rafe's eyes went up another notch, as did the color in his cheeks. "My sister's kids."
Winston chuckled. "Pete won't mind, I know. And I don't, either."
"I'm okay with it!" offered a new voice as Ray dodged over, hugging Blair and pumping Jim's hand enthusiastically. After the obligatory round of introductions, Rafe opened his mouth to quiz his coworkers, only to be interrupted by Peter's approach after he bid the last fan, a buxom blonde, a wistful farewell.
"Don't mean to be rude, but we did come for a reason," Venkman said after meeting the other two detectives. "Maybe we can come by the station later, see if there's anything around here we can help out with."
"I don't think—" Brown began, but his partner cut him off.
"That'd be great!"
With future arrangements thus secured, the two detectives departed, while Blair and Jim headed with the Ghostbusters to the rental car desk. Proceeding outside to their chosen vehicle, they took a moment to discuss the change in plans with the detectives.
"Didn't think all of you were coming," Jim commented. "Anything we should know about this ghost at our place?"
"No," Peter assured him, "they came for a vacation. He's harmless."
"Where is he?" Ray asked eagerly.
"The ghost's back at the loft," Blair answered. "I, uh—I asked it to stay there, since I thought it might have freaked people if it followed us here. It seemed to understand." That had surprised him a bit. Just talking with a ghost had been something of a startling experience—not exactly a meaningful dialogue, but the spook had seemed to comprehend most of what he told it, nodding and burbling agreement. It liked being patted on the head, too. Just like a bright puppy—a green, orange-eyed puppy who happened to stay airborne most of the time, and went through walls like they were holographs.
He had begun to like the ghost, actually, even with the slime—well-named critter, if it were indeed the Ghostbusters' pet. Despite that, if Peter hadn't volunteered their services, he would have had an irresistible urge to ask Jim the classic question, 'It followed me home. Can I keep it?'
But it already had a home, apparently. Nevertheless, the Ghostbusters were taking no chances, readying their particle throwers on the elevator ride up to the loft.
"You're not going to blast it?" Blair asked with a touch of anxiety.
"Well..." Peter began.
"Not if it's Slimer," Ray said firmly over him. "Just in case it isn't, we have to be ready."
It made for a nice bit of suspense as Jim unlocked their door, stepped aside while they filed in. Once the four of them were arranged strategically around the living room, Blair raised his voice and called, "Slimer, we're home, and we've brought your friends, like I said—"
All suspicions were laid to rest as the little ghost sailed through his bedroom door and headed for Ray, shrieking and blubbering wildly. Catching him like a football, the Ghostbuster squeezed the bulbous green form tightly to his chest, oblivious to the ectoplasm streaking his tan jumpsuit. Eyes closed and smiling enormously, Ray looked happier than a kid with a new toy. Both Winston and Egon were grinning, and Peter's mouth twisted as if he were fighting a smile. He lost and beamed fondly—at his friend more than the ghost, judging by where his gaze fell, but his contentment was unmistakable.
After thoroughly saturating Ray's uniform, Slimer floated out of his friend's arms, spotted Winston, and repeated the process with only slightly less enthusiasm on the part of the Ghostbuster. The ghost then proceeded to Egon, who, while not complaining about the slime on his jumpsuit, neither returned the hug. Slimer compromised by giving him an enormous sloppy kiss and backing away. The physicist removed his glasses and wiped off the lenses on a clean corner of his sleeve, but he was smiling as he shook his head.
"Hey, what about me, spud?" Peter murmured quietly. Blair didn't miss how the other three Ghostbusters' eyes immediately turned to him, as well as Slimer's wide orange ones. They all looked vaguely surprised. The ghost's expression was harder to read, but it screeched, almost intelligibly, "Peeeeeteerrr!" and shot forward to slam into him with a wet smack.
Off-balanced by the impact, the psychologist rocked back on his heels and grabbed the ghost for support. Slimer immediately settled into the impromptu embrace, wrapping skinny damp arms around his friend's neck with an unquestionably happy sigh.
With a less than ecstatic sigh of his own, Peter accepted the hold and went so far as to pat the shapeless torso, wrinkling his nose at the slime. He didn't push the ghost away, however, allowing it to sob ectoplasmic tears on his jumpsuit until it decided to release him of its own accord.
It circled the room once and then floated to Ray, gibbering unintelligibly. At least as far as Blair could tell. The Ghostbuster appeared to have no trouble understanding the babble. He shook his head, said, "No, Slimer, Janine's back in New York. She's our secretary again—we're working again. Do you want to come back with us?"
The ghost nodded, not just its head, but its entire body bobbing up and down in the air. Ray broke into a relieved grin, and Winston's was almost as wide. Egon all but rubbed his hands together in anticipation, remarking aloud, "Excellent. There are several experiments with which I require your assistance. A sample of slime would greatly improve my current—"
Peter regarded him with amusement. "You sure know how to make someone feel useful, Spengs."
Slimer, however, gave every sign of being thrilled by the opportunity, planting another slobbery kiss on the physicist's cheek. Egon's consequent expression of bemused disgust was comical enough to set them all laughing.
Blair, grinning along with his partner, couldn't help but marvel at the change. Quite a difference a month could make...it had taken years off of all four Ghostbusters. They seemed younger and quite a bit less serious—untroubled, cheerful, and just watching them, he sensed that even if they weren't in their home city, they were exactly where they belonged. Blair might have been jealous of that absolute contentment, had he not known first-hand just how they felt.
And the ghost was part of that, somehow, an element of the life they were putting back together. He didn't begrudge them their pet, though he couldn't help the slightly wistful note in his voice as he asked, "You'll take him back tomorrow?"
Jim groaned at his partner.
"Yeah," Winston confirmed, "not tomorrow, though. I want to visit with Simon. We didn't get much chance last time, and I haven't seen Daryl since he was learning to read—"
"You guys wouldn't mind guiding a few tourists, would you?" Peter imposed with a winning smile. "Next time you're in the Big Apple we'll return the favor. I know all the best spots most visitors never see."
"Or would want to," Egon murmured, just loudly enough to be heard.
Peter ignored him to continue, "We'll take Slimer back when we go...though he does seem pretty happy here. Don't suppose you have any interest in a pet ghost, mostly house-trained—"
"Peter!" Ray objected.
"It was worth a shot," the psychologist shrugged, looking at Ray obliquely. Both seemed to be struggling against laughter again, sharing an inside joke to which the others were privy but escaped Blair.
"Thanks, but no thanks," Jim said. "We can keep him for a couple of days, since I think all the hotels in town have codes against, uh, pets, but when you go, he goes with." He crossed his arms purposefully.
This resolve was lost on Slimer. The ghost only realized he was the subject of conversation, and took the moment of distraction to duck around Blair and gift Jim with a big wet smooch square on the lips, incidentally covering most of the rest of his face.
The Sentinel was so shocked that for a moment he stood completely paralyzed, ectoplasmic goo dripping off his chin and soaking his collar. Slimer, pleased by the lack of a negative reaction, ruffled his hair for good measure and zipped back to Ray's side, justifiably proud of his daring.
"Uh...Jim?" Blair asked experimentally, when thirty seconds passed with no discernible motion from his partner. He couldn't zone on the feel of ectoplasm, could he?
Slowly, Ellison raised his hand, smoothed his hair. It slicked back nicely; slime made excellent mousse. Flicking off his fingers, he proceeded to wipe his eyes, opened them and shot a look of pure malice at either Blair or more likely, the ghost behind him, words failing him.
Peter was not so afflicted. "So," he said brightly, "you're sure we can't interest you in a new pet?" and ducked when Ray lobbed a glob of ectoplasm at him.
Because the Ghostbusters were taking their pest, or pet, or whatever the hell the thing was, off their hands, Jim was willing to play tour guide along with his partner while the four men were in Cascade. Washington could be a beautiful state, and he took pride in his city. Blair teased him about his possessive nature, but it was his home, and he would have felt that way even if he didn't have a genetic imperative to protect the place and the people within it.
That duty took first priority, of course. The Ghostbusters were understanding, but nevertheless they showed up at the station less than an hour after Jim and Blair arrived the next morning. Winston wanted to surprise his cousin; the others tagged along for their own reasons, most likely boredom. In street clothes, they might have gone unrecognized, had not Rafe exclaimed as they walked through the door, "It's the Ghostbusters!"
That got the attention of everyone in the bullpen quickly enough. When Captain Banks emerged from his office to discover the cause of the commotion, the interest was heightened by Winston's cheerful, "Hey, cuz! How's it going?"
Simon hugged him and started to say, "Didn't know if it was just a rumor you were coming—" before he realized the eyes of every one of his people were on them. Folding his arms, he glared down at them all and intoned, "You do have jobs to do?"
Ducking their heads, they returned to their desks, glancing up surreptitiously as their captain led Winston to his office, discussing Daryl's difficulties in choosing college over the academy.
Brown obediently reseated himself at his desk, but Rafe stayed with the other three Ghostbusters in Jim and Blair's corner. "So," he inquired, "you guys take care of Ellison and Sandburg's problem—what was it, anyhow?"
"You don't want to know," Jim told him shortly, before his partner could open his mouth. "You wouldn't believe it, anyway."
"Was it a ghost?" Rafe's eyes were sparkling, with either interest or amusement. "That's what you guys do, right, bust ghosts?"
"Yeah!" Ray confirmed eagerly. "Not only ghosts, though, we've taken on demons, vampires, goblins—"
"Demi-gods," Peter added, interrupting his flirtation with the captain's secretary. "Don't forget the demi-gods. They're the worst," he confided, turning from Rhonda to address all of them. "Mean suckers if you get them mad. We haven't come across any since we started up again, but we might have one due."
"The PKE readings in New York have been steadily increasing," Egon agreed with a nod. "It is quite likely that—"
Rafe was blinking. "You guys are serious, aren't you?"
Blair raised his hands. "Told you to keep an open mind. You should have seen what we saw in New York. Actually, if you come by the loft right now—"
The detective's eyes were enormous. "You mean..."
From several feet away, they heard Brown's groan, "Rafe, don't tell me you're buying this." Leaving his paperwork with something less than regret, he joined them. "I know you guys are hot stuff in New York, but they'll believe anything out there. That city's almost as nuts as L.A. No offense."
"Hey, I grew up there," grinned Peter. "I know."
"We're a little less gullible here," Brown stated. "I haven't seen any ghosts and I don't think I'm gonna any time soon. Even if you are here to bust them."
"Probably not," Egon began, "considering the readings we took last night. This city has unusually low levels of—"
"Way to convince 'em, Spengs," Peter remarked, grinning disarmingly at the detective's skepticism. "I never bought it, either, until we did finally see one. Anyway, we're not on duty." He looked back to his friends. "This is supposed to be a vacation. So you told me. Vacations mean no work. Of course they also mean sun, warm beaches and bikinis, but I'll take what I can get."
"But, Peter," Ray protested, "if there are any ghosts in Cascade causing trouble, this would be the best chance to—"
"I wonder if that woman had anything to her story," Rafe mused aloud, much to Brown's dismay. Ignoring his partner's sigh, he went on. "H, you remember Mrs. McCarthy? She must've called in six times last week. They finally had us check out her place. We didn't find anything."
"Kids killed her Chihuahua," Brown muttered. "Juvie delinquents, not a ghost."
"Doesn't explain how it ended up on her second story window sill," Rafe retorted. "Or those weird noises she heard at night."
"A ghost might have killed something?" Ray asked, eyes wide.
"I told you, kids killed that dog," said Brown. "Probably yelled 'boo' and it dropped dead."
None of them were listening. Ray and Egon were in urgent conference, muttering about psychic barriers and the energy constraints of malicious intent against the spectral field. Jim could hear every word they said and didn't understand most of them.
Peter was clearer about the matter. "If it might be a ghost, and it killed something, then we should investigate it. One day it's after dumb little rat-dogs, next thing you know, it's taking out people—cops, even. Is the lady still in her house?"
"I—I think so," Detective Rafe said. "Should I—?"
"Call her, tell her we're on our way. And we'll need the address," Peter requested, then strode over and knocked on Captain Banks' door, stuck his head into the office before he got a response. "Sorry, Zed, we've got business. Captain, you don't object to a little busting in town, do you? If necessary?"
Simon pressed his fingers to his temples. "Do I want to know?"
Winston shrugged at his cousin. "Probably not. Is it urgent? I thought Egon said something about Cascade being ghost-free."
"This might be an exception," Peter said. "We should find out." At his cousin's urging, Simon reluctantly gave them permission to go ahead with whatever they had planned, stipulating that Ellison and Sandburg accompany them. Jim wondered briefly if his captain had the right to authorize any of it, but observing the Ghostbusters mobilize, he concluded that it wouldn't matter if he didn't. They were men with a mission and not to be denied by petty affairs like legalities and chain of command. He also noted that Peter didn't drop any further comments about the reasons for vacations.
After returning to the Ghostbusters' hotel to pick up the proton packs and don their uniforms, they headed to the address Rafe had given. Familiar with the city, Jim led the way, Blair riding shotgun in the truck while the Ghostbusters followed in their rental. It wasn't quite as flashy as their regular vehicle, but at least the Volvo didn't have Ecto-1's sirens. The only thing Jim could recall quite so irritating as that wail was an alarm clock he had ended up throwing out in less than a week.
Mrs. McCarthy proved to be an elderly widow, a former schoolteacher, living alone in a townhouse on the outskirts of the city. She was taken aback by the appearance of six men, four in jumpsuits with proton packs and all with serious expressions, standing on her porch. Jim was about to display his badge to reassure her when Peter stepped forward, "Ma'am? I'm Dr. Peter Venkman; we're the Ghostbusters."
She peered at them through the screen door. "I can see. The detective told me you were coming, but I don't know..."
"We were told you had some problems last week...with your dog? I'm very sorry to bring it up, but from what we heard..." Peter's voice was low, soothing and surprisingly trustworthy. Jim glanced over and saw his expression matched his tone, no hint of sarcasm or that sharp wit, his green gaze intense but gentle.
"Yes," Mrs. McCarthy whispered, "I've been hearing the most awful sounds for the past two weeks, like there's someone rattling outside my bedroom window. I called the police, but they didn't find any signs that anybody had climbed up there. There's no way they could without a ladder. That's what they said, and there wasn't any sign of a ladder, but I know what I'm hearing. Those detectives came finally, but they didn't find anything. And then the next night I opened up my window and Peaches was stretched out on the ledge. I had put her in the kitchen only that night, and there she was, dead, horrible and swollen..." She began to cry quietly.
Peter slipped through the partly-opened door and put his arms around her. Rather than disapprove of the familiarity, she melted into it, allowing him to help her to her sofa with a solicitousness Jim found almost unnerving. There was a dark look in the psychologist's eye, as serious as he'd seen since the Ghostbusters had come to Cascade.
"Ma'am?" Ray asked gently. No surprise to hear his kindness; that tendency shone through every word Jim had heard from him. "I'm sorry, but have you been hearing these noises still? Or did they stop?"
She shook her head, leaning on Peter's arm. "No, they're still there. They sound different, though, since...since I found Peaches. It's not just rattling, now it sounds fiercer, like it's trying to get in. And sometimes I almost hear voices..."
She shivered. Venkman squeezed her shoulder comfortingly. "It's going to be fine, Mrs. McCarthy," he assured her. "We'll get it, whatever it is. Spengs?" and he looked to the physicist.
Egon was examining the premises with the aid of one of his gadgets, a PKE meter, Jim recalled. The antennae were whirling about and blinking and the small screen flashed figures he could make out from the short distance across the living room floor. Idly, the detective wondered how much of the device was functional and how much for show—it looked like it was doing something, and that probably helped convince skeptical clients. Not that Mrs. McCarthy was of that persuasion, but not everyone would be willing to believe everything they saw or heard.
"I'm registering something," Spengler reported. "The readings are not exact, but they indicate a class six or seven entity." Raising his head from the meter, he said quietly, "It would be advisable for you to go, ma'am, while we investigate."
She put her hand over her mouth. "You mean...there is something..?"
"Definitely," Egon said.
"Maybe," Peter reassured. "We'll find out for sure. The detectives can take you to wait outside; this probably won't take too long. Jim, Blair?" He looked to them hopefully.
With a heartfelt smile, Blair extended his hand to help her up. "Hello, I'm Blair Sandburg, Mrs. McCarthy, and this is my partner, Jim Ellison. We're with the police, and we're friends of the Ghostbusters, if you were wondering. It's probably a good idea to do what they say. They're professionals."
She accepted his assistance with an answering smile, sensing a similarity in him to Peter's charm. Or perhaps it was the honest care in their eyes that inspired trust. From his partner Jim was accustomed to it, but from the psychologist it seemed a break from his usual self. His current character, at any rate. Jim was reminded more of the man he had met initially. Not so loud, and more vulnerable because he was more open. But there was a light in his gaze now that had been absent before.
They took Mrs. McCarthy out to their truck. She had no interest in going anywhere, which suited Jim, because he was still monitoring the bust from outside, listening to their low discussion and catching glimpses through the window.
"So, what've you got, Egon?" Winston inquired.
"Not squirrels on the roof, I'm guessing," Venkman added.
Egon's response came after a brief pause, as if his attention were elsewhere—still on the meter, Jim guessed. "No squirrels, Peter. This is a nonlocalized phenomenon. I can't get an exact fix, but it's definitely present. It seems to be concentrated around this house—"
"It probably doesn't want to be here," Ray interrupted. "The readings we've taken indicate that Cascade is psychically barricaded—something generally keeps spirits away. Like bug repellent, only for ghosts. This one might've come in at a time when the barricade was down, started to set up housekeeping, and then when the repeller went up again, it was too stubborn or too stupid to leave. So it's really uncomfortable now, and not too strong, though it sounds like it's growing."
"What's this repellent thing you're talking about?" demanded Winston.
Another slight hesitation before the physicist said, "We're not sure of its exact nature, but we've theorized it's related to Jim and Blair—"
"We'll fill you in later, Zed," Peter told him. "Right now we have to deal with this. So it moved in while they were in New York, that's what you're saying? Why'd it come at all?"
"Unclear," Egon answered promptly, "but from the readings, it's possibly phobophagic—a fear-eater, similar to the Boogieman, but a true ghost and less powerful. If this is the case, then it targets different victims as well, not children—maybe the elderly, or people living alone—"
"Ghosts that terrorize little old ladies are about the bottom of the barrel," Peter growled. "Especially ones that do it on purpose just 'cause they're out for a snack. We're not leaving Cascade without this one, guys. You said it's non-localized, Egon; is there any place it's particularly non-localized at?"
Egon started to launch into a more complete definition of the term in question, but Ray cut him off. "It's in the vicinity, anyway. If we get close enough, we might be able to get a fix on it."
"Yeah, but we gotta be careful," Winston reminded them. "It killed that dog, remember. We don't know what else it could do, particularly if we attack it."
"Correct," Egon agreed. "It would be logical to split up to search, but if you sense any sign of its presence call out immediately."
"So let's do it," Peter said, and they proceeded to spread out, examining the rooms of the first floor and the yard.
That was the plan they discussed, at any rate. While Egon circled the living room, Winston braved the kitchen and Ray explored the small backyard, Jim heard Peter's distinctive step on the stairs. It might have meant nothing, an agreed-upon change in plans, but he stepped lightly, with a furtive caution that raised the detective's suspicions. What was Venkman doing?
He reached the second floor, proceeded down the hall. Jim had practiced tracking people audibly and had reached the point that he could form a rough mental map of an area by sounds bouncing off the walls, like a bat's echolocation. Peter paused in approximately the center of the corridor, distinctive creak of unoiled hinges as he opened a door—her bedroom? Well, that was where she had seen the ghost. On the second floor, they had said—so he was going straight to the source. Logical, but why hadn't he brought the others with him?
Jim couldn't see through walls and so had no way of observing directly what might be happening, but he heard through them a faint rattle, glass panes shaken in their frames. He heard as well Venkman's whisper, "There you are..."
Call for assistance, that was what they had agreed upon. The Sentinel lowered his hearing a notch, anticipating Peter's shout.
Instead he heard the distinctive whine and crackle of the energy of a proton stream, and a faint raspy growl, too low and uncentered to be an animal or a person. He couldn't locate it in the room, but he heard the stream's buzz change frequencies, and Peter's voice coming through gritted teeth. "Hold still, you little—"
Then a sharp gasp and the distinctive thud of a body falling against a wooden floor. The proton stream cut suddenly—they couldn't hear it, he realized; nothing was loud enough for normal ears to make out, even inside the house. Jim snapped out of his near-zone, hearing dropping as all his senses came back into focus. His legs already carrying him across the street, he spotted one of the Ghostbusters on the front lawn, meter in hand. Shouting as he ran, "Ray!"
When the auburn-haired man looked up, Jim gestured above them, in the general direction of the bedroom. "Peter's got the ghost upstairs! He might need help—" No need to say anything more. By the time he reached the yard, Ray had already dashed through the front door, hollering for the other two.
Jim paused on the porch. He could hear them charging up the stairs at a dead run and a proton stream hissing to life, joined by a second, then a third. The ghost wailed, louder now, fury in its inhuman scream.
A voice called, "Trap out!" and he was relieved to recognize Venkman's tenor. Something clattered against the wooden floor. The note in the ghost's cry changed from anger to fear, abruptly silenced by a crackle of energy and a click as the trap's lid slammed shut.
Jim would have headed upstairs, but was stopped by a hand on his arm that made him jump, snapping his attention back to the porch. His partner's anxious blue eyes were on him.
"Man, what was that? You almost gave poor Mrs. McCarthy a heart attack, bursting out like that. Not to mention—"
"Shh, Sandburg," Jim silenced him peremptorily. "It's all right, I think they got the ghost."
He tuned back in to the voices upstairs in time to hear Peter's, "—fine. Just stunned. It took me off-guard, rushing me like that."
"Good." Zeddemore speaking. "Then you can tell us—what the hell was that?" The ire in his tone almost matched the ghost's.
"That," Peter told him, "was a phobophagic class six entity. That was a phobophagic class six entity getting busted. Any questions?"
Winston was not amused. "Yeah, Pete—what the hell were you doing running up here and not saying a damn thing, even when it jumped you, when we agreed to go after it together?"
"Yeah, but we guessed the gooper might be after people alone, right? I figured if I came up here by myself, gave it a new target, it might come out to investigate. Looks like I was right." Peter sounded positively smug.
His teammates were not impressed.
"Once it had revealed itself, you should have called us," Egon berated him. "We knew it was dangerous."
"I thought I could handle it. It was just a low-level kinetic, I'm guessing. All it could do was rattle windows and knock me on my butt. If the dog hadn't been so small, it might've been fine. Probably broke its neck or something."
"We don't know that for sure," the physicist stated flatly. "It was a dangerous risk, and it wasn't one you needed to have taken."
"What's up with you, Pete?" Winston's anger hadn't diminished in the face of Venkman's explanation. "Last week you tried to face down that goblin on your own, and then there were those spooks in Queens—"
"And the class seven on the Brooklyn Bridge," Egon added, "which very nearly might have—"
"Yeah, but it didn't," Peter reminded him. "We're all fine. We haven't been to the hospital once since we restarted, right? Everything's worked out—"
"Pure dumb luck," Winston snapped, "and the 'dumb' is on your side, Pete. You're not a one-man Ghostbusting squad; we're a team. Supposedly, anyway, but I think you forgot that, and you better remember soon or—"
"Guys." Ray spoke up for the first time, quietly but the others paused to listen. "Peter's right, it did work out, and we are a team—"
"Yeah, and I want us to act like it again."
Venkman, when he responded, sounded neither subdued nor offended. "Sorry, guys, next time I'll holler. I didn't think I'd have any problems with it, and I didn't want to explain the whole plan out when it might be listening. Besides, you did come. We are a team, Winston, what do you call that? Great teamwork!"
"We wouldn't have known if Jim hadn't told me you were up here," Ray said softly.
"But you came, we got it. I would've called you if it had looked like it was really dangerous. Come on, you don't think I would've tried to take down something really nasty on my own, do you? There's heroic and then there's stupid, and only one gets the ladies!"
"Figuring out which you are, that's the hard part," Winston muttered, but it was more a joke than an actual insult.
Peter sounded as if he was grinning when he answered, "I'll leave that to the experts to decide. And speaking of ladies, we better let Mrs. McCarthy know her pest problem's taken care of. With all of us intact." The others voiced agreement and they marched out of the room.
Jim wondered if they would be so quick to dismiss it if they could hear what he could. Venkman's tone had sounded light, assured, and utterly convincing; his face most likely matched. But his heartbeat had told a different story—whatever explanations he had given for his behavior, they had been flat-out lies. Maybe superficially it was true. It had been a reasonable strategy, after all, and undeniably successful. But it wasn't the whole story, not by a long shot.
He and Blair met the four Ghostbusters as they came down the stairs, inquired how the bust had gone—Blair with honest curiosity, Jim to avoid them catching on. Ray in turn wished to know how Jim had known of Peter's situation, but the Sentinel side-stepped the question by reminding them of Mrs. McCarthy, across the street watching her home nervously.
They proceeded outside and the Ghostbusters assured her that there would be no more late-night hauntings. They led her back into her house, showing her the ghost safely imprisoned in the blinking trap. She all but wept again, with gratitude.
"How can I thank you? How—how much do you charge—"
"This was a freebie." Venkman winked at her. "You're in luck—we're on vacation. If anything unnatural bothers you again, just call." He handed her their card with a flourish. "Otherwise, sleep soundly, and we're glad to have been of service!"
Once they were outside again, Blair cocked his head at Peter. "You know, man, if this is what you do on vacation, what has your work been like lately?"
The four men groaned as one.
"Don't ask," Winston said. "Let's just say I was looking forward to some time off from busting for these couple days. Not that I minded," he hastened to add. "It's our duty and I like to help folks, but we really could use a break." He was, Jim noted, looking directly at Peter as he spoke.
With this in mind, the Ghostbusters opted not to return to the station. As Blair had business at Rainier, he hitched a ride with the group while Jim went to the bullpen alone. They reunited when his shift ended to go together to the loft, where Slimer greeted them with enthusiasm and slimy kisses for all.
He had also, they found, entirely emptied the refrigerator in their absence. The lids were still on all the containers, but nothing was inside them. Ray guiltily volunteered to grocery shop for what they had lost. Jim and Blair refused, but the Ghostbusters did insist on treating them to dinner at one of the more expensive restaurants in town. Judging by the dishes the four men ordered, any stress they were under was due more to the activity of the business than monetary concerns.
Sandburg, master of the art of subtlety only when he thought it absolutely necessary, asked about this outright. After a brief hesitation, they fell to describing their recent busts, regaling the partners with real-life ghost stories, each more fantastic than the last. The only reason Jim and Blair could believe any of it was because of what they had experienced themselves. All the same, the Ghostbusters inhabited a world slightly outside the norm, a reality other than theirs, it almost seemed, wild and exciting and a bit frightening. A nice place to visit, but Jim wouldn't want to live there, unlike the four, who all seemed to revel in it, each in his own way. Ray's excitement was unmistakable—his eyes lit up whenever he described some bizarre specter or phantasmal terror—but Egon's scientific fascination was almost as obvious, and Winston had a blunt acceptance of the weird which lent itself to his chosen line of work. Peter not only took everything in stride, he walked all over it, and clearly enjoyed himself.
By the time they finished dessert and paid the bill, it was well past ten. Bidding one another good night, they headed out. Blair watched the Ghostbusters' rental pull away and remarked, "They're going back tomorrow. Their secretary—you remember Janine, right? She called today, when I was with Ray and Egon. There's something tearing up a bank or whatever, and they've been scheduled to bust it day after tomorrow morning."
Jim nodded. "Sounds like business is booming."
"Yeah." Blair leaned back against the bench seat of the truck. "They've got tickets for a flight tomorrow afternoon. I thought that since we're going to be busy then with that convention, maybe you'd like to go out with Peter tonight, visit a bit before he goes."
"We just did, Chief," Jim pointed out.
"I meant alone, get a chance to talk, you know, man to man." He shrugged, pulled the tie off his pony tail and shook out his curls. "Ah, heck, here's the thing. Ray and Egon, when I was with them today, we did get a chance to talk. And they asked me to ask you to talk to Peter. If you were willing. There's some things that need to be discussed with him, but they're having some trouble broaching them."
"They're having trouble, or he's not talking?"
Blair shrugged again. "They didn't make it clear. But they gave me an idea—they're worried about him, Jim. Apparently, he's been pushing pretty hard when they're on busts. We saw a little of that today. This isn't the first time he's tried something like that, gone off on his own and almost gotten in trouble.
"Ray said Peter was always like that—the one in front when they go in and the last man out. Reminded me of someone else," with a sidelong glance at his partner. "But it's different now. He's been taking 'unnecessary risks,' Egon said. He sounded angry, but I had the impression he was more worried—and Ray didn't try to hide that any. They're scared something's going to go wrong, sometime soon, if he keeps it up."
"So what do I have to do with it?" Jim inquired.
Sandburg braced his arms on the dashboard as they turned the corner. "Ray and Egon thought he'd be more inclined to talk with you, I guess. If they try to bring it up... Well, I think you heard Winston arguing with him. I did, anyway, even if I couldn't make out the words. It's not the first time, either, but Peter keeps ignoring that, too. Which they're also worried about. I had the impression that...before, he used to joke a lot and all, but it usually was to defuse situations, bring down the tension. He's using it differently now, he's hiding behind humor."
He hadn't been when Jim had first encountered him, certainly. Defensive, all right, but not with teasing so much as twisted bitterness. "Sounds like it could be worse. He went through hell, Chief. They should be cutting him some slack."
"They are." Blair nodded vigorously. "But they're concerned—and they do understand. Egon said it outright, he told me he knows a year and a half went by, even if they don't remember it, and he didn't expect everything to be the same after it. But I think they want it to be...and Peter does too, I'll bet. But none of them are sure how to go about it. They're hoping you can help. You connected with him, man. I know you only were there a couple of days, but you had to work closely together to get us all back, and you were...going through something similar. The same kind of hell. It brought you together. I know what it's like, because I feel kind of the same. Ray and Egon and I, we haven't spent that much time together, but I feel close to them. We shared something, wasn't fun, but there isn't anyone else who could really understand what it was like."
Jim knew exactly what he meant, in spite of himself. He had felt it before, in the army: go on a tough mission with a man and always afterwards there's a bond, a brotherhood of shared trials. It didn't matter if you had nothing else in common, if normally you wouldn't have had three words to say to the other. An experience that changes you, links you together. Blair had his finger right on it, as usual.
"Why don't you talk to him, Sandburg? You're the one with the psych credits. You're pretty good at reading me, anyway."
"I'm your partner," Blair replied, as if that explained everything. "But he's your friend—you talk to him. Try to draw him out. You don't need to be Freud here, I don't think they're expecting psychoanalysis, but they think you can get through in a way they can't, and I think they're right. Can't hurt to try, right?"
"Okay," Jim sighed. "I'll try." It wasn't that he didn't want to help; he did. But he honestly didn't know what he could do or say or offer that Peter's teammates couldn't. He hadn't seen them together much, but that was enough to tell him that you couldn't create a more solidly matched group if you spent a century choosing the members. Diverse as they might be individually, they were closer than the tightest squad he had seen in his military days, and they worked with corresponding efficiency. Quick discussions, instant decisions, so in synch they all but read each other's minds. Minus Venkman's antics, about which Jim fully sympathized with Winston's outrage. If any under his command had tried something like that, he'd have taken them to task so fast they'd have had whiplash.
Maybe that was what Peter needed, someone to force him into line. The Ghostbusters didn't operate under any kind of hierarchy that Jim was familiar with, but the psychologist was the leader, the one the others tended to turn to automatically for advice and confirmation. Small wonder they had trouble calling him to order. What he needed was someone outside the team to advise him objectively, point out his errors without undermining that unconscious command. Jim could do that much, at least.
"I'll pull him aside tomorrow and see if I can knock a little sense in him, okay?"
Blair shook his head. "You might not get a chance, especially with the others around. Why don't you drop me off at the loft and go over to the hotel? Take him to a bar or something, whatever you'd do with an old army buddy."
"Sandburg, it's pretty late. Today was a long day—"
"And I know how little sleep you need. It's not like Peter's going to be getting any."
Jim glanced away from the road to his partner and frowned a query. Blair gestured, "His eyes? And here I thought Sentinels had superior observational skills. Sure, he's bright and cheery, but you could pack a wardrobe in the bags under his eyes. He's peaked; I bet he hasn't slept a full night in a week—you really didn't notice?"
"No," Jim admitted. When his partner subjected him to a incredulous stare, he sighed, "I wasn't watching for it, okay? Believe me, no matter what he looks like now, it's about a thousand times better than he looked a month ago. Seeing that kind of change, you miss the details. I know you didn't get much chance with him then, but honestly, Chief—if it weren't for his haircut I wouldn't recognize him as the same man. And as far as I can see, it's all for the better."
Sandburg was quiet for a long moment. Jim looked over to him as he pulled up in front of the loft. "I'll try to talk to him. No promises, but I'll give it a shot."
"That's all they want," Blair said, hopping out of the passenger seat. Slamming the door, he spoke through the window, knowing Jim would have no trouble making out his words, "Have a good time. Ray and Egon said he can be the life of the party if he's in the mood. Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"
"Sandburg, I'd be worse off doing what you would!" Jim retorted through his own window. Blair rolled his eyes, jumped back as the truck pulled away from the curb and waved. Jim watched through the rearview mirror to make sure his partner made it inside before he turned the corner. One could never underestimate Sandburg's propensity for drawing trouble.
As Jim drove to the hotel, it occurred to him that he had left his partner to fend off Slimer's tender—and soggy—ministrations on his own, while he went to beard the lion in its den, or maybe rock the night away. Life of the party? Didn't fit the Peter Venkman he had first encountered, but maybe the Ghostbuster calling his fans in the airport...and then there was the man the Sentinel had overheard arguing with his friends, who had been fully aware of the risk to his life and had laughed it off.
Jim was having trouble reconciling all the different angles he had seen of Venkman. And were any the true man, or were they all faces he put on over his real self? He had no idea, and wondered if even Peter's teammates did. Was that the reason for their worries, beyond the obvious fear for his safety?
He parked in the hotel lot. The manager gave him their room numbers when he showed his badge. He could have called, but this was easier. Taking the elevator up, he rapped on the first door. Ray answered, in loose pajamas and looking all of ten years old.
"Is that room—oh, hi, Jim!" and ushered the detective inside. His three teammates were on the couch and floor, playing cards—poker, judging from the piles of small change before each of them.
Jim nodded to them. "I was just in the area, wondered if any of you were up to something tonight? Blair told me you're going back tomorrow. He's got an eight o'clock class, but I don't have to be at the station until after nine."
Peter jumped up from the floor, stretched. He was still fully dressed, while the others were in nightclothes. "Sure, I'm losing, anyway. How about it, guys, want to check out Cascade's nightlife?"
Winston made a show of yawning. "I'm ready to turn in, Pete, but have fun."
"Nightlife is your area of expertise," Egon added, "but I'm sure you'll give us a full report tomorrow." Over his glasses, he regarded Jim. The peculiar intensity of his gaze made the Sentinel uneasy; Spengler always seemed to be observing a little more than he let on.
"Fine, fine—be boring. Go to sleep. Don't let Ray cheat you out of any more pennies." Peter expertly fielded the pillow Stantz threw at him. "Hey, what am I supposed to think? You never used to beat me before. How much did you practice your poker face in limbo? Or did Egon show you how to palm an ace?" He ducked a second pillow, this one from the physicist, grabbed Jim's arm and remarked, "That's our exit cue. G'night, guys!"
They made it to the hall and downstairs without further incident. Jim frowned as he pondered the interaction—the casual reference to limbo, which he and Blair hadn't brought up once in the past month. Peter whistled tunelessly. He spread his arms as they walked outside and lifted his face to the stars, mostly obscured by smog and light pollution, but the brightest shone through. A taxi honked noisily in the street and Peter smirked, "The music of the night. So, Jim, what's the most swinging joint in town?"
Somehow Ellison didn't think he wanted to see Venkman in a place like Club Doom. "Can't say. I'm a cop, remember? But I know a nice place." He drove them there, maneuvering through the streets to the little corner blues bar. It wasn't big, or flashy, but it had atmosphere, and Peter was grinning as they approached the muted strains of R&B guitar.
"Ah, a man who appreciates the finer things!"
Jim smiled. "Glad you approve. Sandburg wasn't so thrilled when I took him here."
Blair had rolled his eyes, complained about the smoke, and escaped at the first opportunity—then brought him back for his birthday and presented him with a Muddy Waters collection, with the stipulation that the CDs would not be played when he was around. Considering his house rules, Jim thought it only fair, and put them on whenever Blair went out. His partner never said a word if he came back early, though, and Jim had caught him humming a few signature riffs. He was bringing the kid around.
Peter, on the other hand, had no need to be convinced. He followed Jim to the bar, eyes closing as he relaxed into the music. When Jim ordered a couple beers, they opened into green slits, and he smiled at the attractive barmaid. Leaning across the bar, he murmured something to her. Jim had lowered his hearing to normal levels and missed it, but the woman giggled and would have blushed had her dark skin allowed it.
The detective tapped Venkman on the shoulder. "Come on, Romeo, we want to grab a table before the place fills up. It's getting toward midnight."
Nodding obediently and winking at their waitress, drawing another giggle, Peter headed after Jim, turning his head to admire the dark decor. The faint cigarette haze irritated the Sentinel's nose, but he suppressed the sneeze, and it did add to the look. They slid into an available booth, and Peter leaned back against the stained wood with an peaceful sigh.
"How'd you find this place? I've looked, but the ones in New York that aren't selling crack under the tables are all trying too hard to capture...this." He gestured at the surrounding ambiance.
Jim's smile widened. "When you're in town for longer, we'll have to drive up to Seacouver. If you like this, you'd love Joe's."
"It's a date." Peter rapped his fingers against the table contemplatively, then stilled his hand, eyes sweeping the bar's patrons. "So, seen hide or hair of Sam lately?"
Jim shook his head. "No. You?"
"Nope." Venkman shifted in his seat. "I keep finding myself looking at people in crowds, wondering if any of them aren't who they seem to be. Egon says the odds are pretty high against him coming back any time soon, given the time-traveling part of his theory, but you never know."
Nodding understanding, Jim lowered his voice to reply. The Ghostbuster didn't seem to care who might overhear, but the detective didn't want any of this madness to leak back to the station. "I don't know if even I would see him. I didn't at first. But it does make you wonder..."
"...How many more folks are out there leaping around?" Peter's eyes were bright. "I tell you, we've seen some strange stuff, but this leaping still has Egon rattled. And it's not just 'cause of what they went through. The science is almost beyond him. Which is good, he needs something outside his scope—other than women, Spengs has yet to figure that one out—but all the same, it's weird. We're used to him knowing everything."
The waitress arrived then with the beers, apologizing for the delay. In the last few minutes, the place had rapidly filled with people, men and women in a surprisingly wide variety of colors, ages and outfits. The band stopped for a short break and was ardently cheered, Jim and Peter adding their hands to the applause.
Venkman remarked, "It's this packed on a Thursday night—love to see it tomorrow!"
Jim shrugged. He wouldn't willingly subject himself to that many people in such a small space if he could avoid it. This was as much noise and as many odors as he could handle without concentrated effort, and their booth was far enough from the stage that they could talk without shouting. He looked over at his companion, who was tapping the table in time with the beat, emerald eyes almost glowing in the dim light. Jim followed his line of sight, ran into the waitress and shook his head. As bad as Sandburg—worse, even.
They had come here for a reason; at least Jim had. He had forgotten neither his partner's earnest appeal nor Spengler's pointed look. Not one to beat around the bush, he took a sip of his beer—one of the best ales in town, another advantage of the place—and said, "Hey, Peter."
Venkman's gaze snapped right to him inquiringly, hearing the seriousness in his tone. Jim might have been uneasy had not years of interrogating subjects—not to mention dealing with Blair's questions—mostly immunized him to such searching looks. "About today, the bust—what happened?"
Peter frowned, not as if he were trying to dodge the query, but with honest confusion. "We went in and got the spook. About as straightforward as they go."
"And you going upstairs after it, on your own—that's normal policy?"
"No, that was patented Doc Venkman strategy, designed to bring 'em down quick and easy." Flashing a grin, "Whatever works, right?"
Jim shook his head. "Not with the police. You'd make a lousy cop."
"Good thing I don't want to be one, then. You, on the other hand, would make a pretty fine Ghostbuster, I think. How'd you know about the bust?" His tone might have been easy-going, but his gaze was sharp enough to draw blood.
Jim wasn't going to be sidetracked. Pigheadedness could be a virtue. Things would be simpler if Venkman didn't share the trait, but that couldn't be helped. "Don't think I'd want to be one, not if it means you have to have a death wish."
"Because that's sure the hell what it looked like to me, charging after a ghost proven lethal without waiting for your team. One thing you learn fast as a city cop; you're only as good as the guys backing you up."
Peter narrowed his eyes, stared down into the amber depths of his drink as if seeking inspiration in the bubbles. When he spoke, Jim almost had to raise his hearing to make out the words. "What if you can't risk it?"
"Can't risk what?"
Jerking his head up, he met Jim's gaze, and for a split second the Sentinel saw something in his face, a darkness he remembered from before. His voice was cool; not that icy, brittle tone, however. "Don't try to play that game," he advised. "I got a degree in insightful rhetorical questions when you were jumping through academy hoops. Now, granted, I've never seen you and your partner in action, but I've seen the way you are together, and I've seen enough of you," he stabbed a finger in Jim's direction, "to know how seriously you take your duties. Blair's a civilian—you're telling me you wouldn't throw yourself in the path of a bullet meant for him? Your life for his?"
"Of course," Jim replied instantly; no need to think that one through. "But the situation's different. He is a civilian; as a cop I'm supposed to protect him. But you're all equals on your team. At least that's what you act like. You all know the risks and you all agree to take them.
"Besides, civilian or not, Blair is my partner—my backup. If I didn't have him watching my back, I'd be dead about six times over. Sometimes that does put him in danger. I don't like it, but it's necessary. And it's his choice. He's a grown man and it's his decision to put it on the line. Same decision I made when I went into the army, and when I joined the police. I think you made that choice, too—all of you."
Peter sighed. "And maybe we're all nuts, as Winston occasionally reminds us—about three times a day. If I had known how dangerous this was... Well, I might've signed on. Always wanted to be a hero—they get the cheers, and the special guest actresses. But the trouble is, if you're a hero, you have to act like one."
"Which doesn't include pulling suicide stunts," Jim said, not growling with effort. "Who are you trying to impress?"
Venkman opened his mouth, closed it with a snap and shook his head at the detective. "Tsk, tsk. What did I say about laying it on? Don't ask questions you already know the answers to, that's for us psychologists. I'll shrink my own head, thanks. Didn't we come here to take in the blues?" He waved his glass toward the band playing to the attentive, if rambunctious, audience.
Jim ignored him. "You're not impressing your team, anyway. They've about had it with your stunts. And they probably think you are out to off yourself. I know it looks like that from my side, anyway."
That got his attention. "I told you," Peter snapped, "and I'll swear it on whatever holy book you like, I've got no desire to check out any time soon. Conscious, subconscious, unconscious, or otherwise. We bust ghosts. I don't mean to become one myself, not if I can help it."
"So, why throw yourself in the line of fire?" Jim asked bluntly.
Peter froze, mouth parted without breath, a statue. Then he was animate again, alive, leaning away from the table lamp. The shadows cast over his face darkened the hollows of his eyes. Blair was right: under all his energy and the lively attitude he was exhausted. "I have to," he murmured. Had to risk himself, though he wanted his life...
Through the dimness, his eyes sparked. "Because I'd rather die than live with them dead."
"I know," Jim told him. No less than he would have expected. "And I understand—"
"No, you don't." He said it entirely without rancor. "Maybe you have an idea, maybe you can imagine. I know what you went through. I sympathized, because you had a taste of it. But you didn't live through it and you don't know. Over a year and a half, and there was nothing I could do...I tried it. It wasn't fun. And I'm not going through it again, not if there's anything I can do about it."
"And if you get killed," the Sentinel quietly asked, "how are Ray, and Egon, and Winston going to take it? Or are you figuring they deserve a chance to try what it's like, too?"
Peter inclined his head sharply, met Jim's gaze. A long minute passed before he spoke. "For an honest cop, you sure play a dirty game of pool, Ellison."
"Only when the other player is cheating. But thanks."
"Actually, I think I'm being remarkably fair, given the circumstances." Venkman shook his head, pushed himself to his feet. "Don't know about you, but I've had enough blues for the night. Besides, those girls are watching our table, and it's rude to refuse a lady a seat. All yours," he called in the direction of the female trio, without a hint of self-consciousness. They took the booth with gratitude and quick pecks on the cheek for both men. While Jim paid, Peter returned the kisses, eliciting giggles and blushes. They seemed to be his trademark with the female population, or maybe it was just the late hour.
The cool night air brushed their faces as they walked back to the truck. As they were buckling their seatbelts, Jim requested, "I want you to do something—not for me, for you."
Peter narrowed his eyes. "I won't—"
"I'm not asking you to stop fooling around on busts," the detective told him. "That's your own stupidity and I can't do anything about it. This is something different. When you get back to the hotel, I want you to get in your bed and stay there until all your teammates are up tomorrow morning. Doesn't matter if you sleep, just lie there and fake it if you have to. You're drained, man. One thing you learn in the army is that a good night's rest is one of those necessities of life. Bet psychologists know that, too."
"Yeah." Peter ran his hand through his hair. "We do."
"One more thing," Jim said. "Tomorrow morning, when you get up—after them, remember—go apologize to Winston. He's gonna take your head off next time you screw around, unless you take preemptive action."
"Something else you learn in the army, I take it," Venkman remarked. "All right, if I'm going to do this, I want something in return. Agreed?"
"Maybe," Jim said cautiously.
"Don't worry, I won't demand your first-born, or even those Jags season tickets Blair mentioned. Just a straight answer to a question." His tone was light and that made Jim all the more suspicious.
Risking a glance away from the road, he looked at the psychologist. "Yeah?"
Peter returned the look with green-eyed intensity. "How did you know where I was during the bust?" He waited a moment. "Do we have a deal?"
Jim weighed his options, how far he could trust this man against how much he already knew, against how much he guessed, dancing curiously in his emerald gaze. "Yeah," he said finally. "We have a deal. Hope you're comfortable, because this is going to take some explaining..."
Although in bed, Egon was awake, reading a Hawking essay collection by the bedstand lamp. He looked up when Peter entered their hotel room, quietly closed his book.
Peter raised his eyebrows at him. "So, Dad, did I make the curfew or am I grounded?"
Egon didn't even try to convince his friend that he wasn't waiting up for him; the psychologist wouldn't have bought it, anyway. "Did you have a good time with Jim?" he calmly inquired instead.
"You might say that. Went to a good bar, anyway. No guns, badges or sirens in sight. And he let me in on something. I'll tell you all tomorrow. Wonder if Ray knows any of the myths about Sentinels."
"Sentinels?" Egon echoed.
Peter nodded. "I think you'll be sufficiently scientifically stimulated. You were wondering about those readings you took of Jim and Blair? I told you they knew what it was about."
"Well?" the physicist encouraged when he didn't go on.
"Tomorrow, when the other guys are awake for it. Don't want to repeat myself." Under Egon's near glare, his grin was positively wicked. "Patience, Spengs, you must learn patience." He made a show of yawning. "Besides, part of the bargain was that if he told me, I'd go straight up to bed. My ma always taught me to keep my promises, 'specially when they're as simple as that."
Egon sighed the sigh of the long-suffering, knowing from experience that pushing Peter further would only gain him infuriating tidbits and hints without answering any of his questions. The psychologist was a master of the mental practical joke. Rather than give him another opening, Egon placed his book and glasses on the bedstand, said calmly, "Good night, Peter," and stretched out under the covers, rolling over to face away from the lamp.
Peter didn't head for his suitcase or the bathroom, though. Egon heard the springs creak as his friend sat on the other bed. "There was another part of the bargain," he said quietly, knowing Spengler was listening. "I have to apologize to Winston tomorrow. But I owe one to all of you, and I might as well get this one out of the way now."
When Egon rolled back over, his friend's eyes were on him, deep green through the blurred shadows. He reached for his glasses as Peter said, "Sorry about today. I didn't mean to scare you all like that. It was a pretty damn stupid stunt to pull. Even if it did work, I should've talked it out with you. We're a team, but I haven't been thinking much like a member of one, have I?"
Egon sat up again. "No," he agreed bluntly. "But I accept your apology."
"Thanks. I think." Standing, Peter took a step in the direction of his bag, stopped and met Egon's gaze again. "We did talk, Jim and I. He convinced me that we have something in common with the cops."
"Oh?" Now that was an unexpected admission, considering their history with the police.
Peter nodded. "In order to do our jobs right, we need backup."
"Ah." Regarding him, Egon wondered precisely how the detective had managed to drive that point home. "What did he do to convince you?"
"Looking for pointers?" Peter grinned. "Very little, actually—that was why it worked. No police brutality; he just got me thinking. Forced me to say out loud a few things I needed to hear. And reminded me that we have partners for a reason. I remembered we were a team, but it had slipped my mind just what that meant."
"Meaning..." Egon knew, of course, but he had to hear it.
"Meaning that next time I start to screw up and do something stupid, anything that might put the team in danger—any of us—you have Doctor Venkman's permission to tell me what a jerk I'm being. Do whatever it takes to beat it into my head."
"You have my word," Egon promised.
"You don't have to sound so excited about it," Peter protested in an aggrieved voice.
"But I am!" the physicist countered, all innocence.
"Nice to have friends you can count on to beat you," Venkman muttered, meaning it honestly for all his sarcastic tone. "Better get it in now, though, because I have a feeling Winston's gonna monopolize that right for a while, soon as I let him know about it tomorrow."
"He'll let Ray take a turn, though," Egon amended. "Ray may not be so quick to confront you, but we've discussed it."
"Yeah, I guessed that." Peter cocked his head at him. "So was it you or Ray who asked Jim to come over tonight?"
"Neither." In the face of his friend's skepticism, he guiltily admitted, "We both asked Blair to make the request."
"Thanks." He didn't sound ironic. Egon dared lift his eyes to Peter standing over him, arms folded, but his expression open and honest. "I mean it, Spengs. Good call. Like I said... it was stuff I needed to hear."
The physicist opened his mouth, but Venkman cut him off. "Of course, if you ever try something so sneaky as marshaling friends behind my back again, there will be retaliation. I'm not big on being handled. Don't make a habit out of it. But for this one...thank you."
The psychologist held his gaze until he nodded once jerkily, not trusting his voice. Then, impulsively, he pushed to his feet and put his arms around his friend. Peter returned the hug without reservation, his words warm breath in taller man's ear. "I'll be more careful, but don't expect me to stop watching out for you."
"Never," Egon assured him; they'd never ask for that. "Any more than you could expect the same of us."
He felt Peter's chuckle more than heard it; then the brown-haired man pulled back, giving him a little shove toward the bed. "Glad that's clear. Now get some sleep. I'm doing like I promised and going beddy-bye. Don't bother waking me until room service has brought up coffee and danishes."
Egon nodded. "Good night, Peter."
"G'night, Egon." He switched off the lamp, spent a few minutes in the bathroom brushing his teeth and then retreated to the other bed. Egon listened as he settled on the mattress, covers rustling as he pulled them around him. In a surprisingly short amount of time, his breathing evened out, slowing into soft snores.
Egon rose in the dark room, tiptoed to the window and made sure the shades were tightly drawn. No dawn's light to wake them. He crept back to his bed, listening to his friend's low exhalations in the other bed, a familiar rhythm absent for far too long. With that reassuring presence lulling him, he dropped off as soon as he lay down again. And in spite of the unfamiliar bed, and the traffic in the streets outside, and the Sentinel enigma taunting his thoughts, it was the deepest, most peaceful sleep he'd had since he and Ray had returned.
Jim let himself into the loft, not bothering to be too quiet about it as he could hear the television's buzz. Blair looked up from the couch, nodded acknowledgment of his presence and turned back to the Late Late Show. "So, how'd it go?"
"I don't know. He's got good taste in music, anyway," Jim began. Anything else he might have said was interrupted by a squeal, rising in pitch and modulated into an approximation of language.
Half a second later, a mass of semi-solid green ectoplasm was plastered to his chest, blinking up at him with big orange eyes. Blair switched off the tv, looking chagrined.
"Sorry, I thought he was in my room, but it's not like I can lock him in there and I guess ghosts don't sleep. Come here, Slimer." The ghost zipped over and he patted its ill-defined head with an apologetic look at his partner.
Gritting his teeth, Jim brushed at the slime staining his jacket. "This better come off."
"Splash a little hot water on it and it'll be fine." Blair continued to pat the ghost as he vouched, "I should know. I've already had to shower twice tonight."
"Sorry to abandon you to spooksitting."
"Not a problem," Blair shrugged it off. "I've gotten kind of fond of him. The slime's just his way of saying he likes you, Jim. Just pretend it's dog slobber. From a very large, green dog." He smirked at his partner's reaction before growing more serious. "But you and Peter—how'd that go over?"
"Well..." Jim hesitated only a moment. "I ended up telling him about the whole Sentinel thing."
Blair nodded, as if he had expected nothing less. "And?"
"And I think I'm glad they're leaving tomorrow, because otherwise Egon would strap me down for some tests that would make me beg for your worst. Peter said they'd theorized some of it already. He said they're pretty sure there's a strong psychic component to the whole thing, that they can detect, and it might be why there're so few ghosts in Cascade. Except for that one," with a baleful look in Slimer's direction, to which the little ghost was entirely oblivious.
As was Blair, his eyes unfocused as he murmured, "Yeah, they've got the PKE meters. And you register? Cool! Wonder if they'll let me borrow one to run some tests. No way they'd accept it on the diss, but, damn, it would be incredible to investigate—"
"I don't think so, Chief," Jim said. "Testing my senses is one thing, but as for that psychic energy stuff, Naomi can keep it."
"I'm not doing it. No. If we have ghost troubles, we know who to call. Meanwhile, this city's fairly spook-free, and I definitely prefer it that way. Up to and including that," and he pointed at Slimer.
"Aw, but, Jim, don't you think he's cute? In that pug-dog so-ugly-he's-adorable way, I mean. And he likes you!" Blair patted him again, the creature wriggling like a floating puppy.
"The feeling is not mutual," Jim said, rolling his eyes, but he couldn't help but smile at his partner, alternating stroking the green body and shaking the slime from his fingers. He didn't know how the Ghostbusters could put up with the thing greeting them so messily every day, but for a couple of nights he could live with the ectoplasm and the empty fridge. If only to see that look on Sandburg's face, his goofy grin an almost perfect match to the ghost's. He should get a camera; he'd have black-mail material for a year.
The ghost in question had no grasp of the thoughts passing between the two humans. All he was aware of was the soft touch against his false skin, and the warmth around him, not simply the heat from the building furnace. And tomorrow they were going home, his best friend had said. Back to the old city, the old building, with all of them. He had new friends here, but the old ones were the ones he had been seeking, and had at long last found. They wanted him back. Even his friend with his eyes green again—he wanted him to return.
And his friend had laughed, too. He had almost forgotten what it was to hear that. They had all laughed. There wasn't anything he liked more than that sound. Except maybe chocolate. And Rice Crispy treats, which his best friend had promised him when they got back.
They were going back. They were together again. And though he never could have put it into words, or judged it against his other pleasures, he liked that best of all.
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