"Coming your way, Peter!" Ray's exuberant call barely preceded the howling ghost around the corner of the small frame house. Gibbering and gnashing its viciously uneven teeth, it was an ugly sight even in the clear late afternoon sunlight. It was late enough in the year that twilight fell rather quickly once it started, and they had been lucky to flush this ghost in time to make the capture before it got dark. None of them had been looking forward to stumbling around an unfamiliar and poorly lit town chasing the local spudlife.
"Gooper at twelve o'clock!" Winston's warning was nearly as cheerful as Ray's and Peter threw a suspicious sideways glance at him while managing at the same time to draw a bead on the flying mass of ectoplasm, catching it neatly in his beam. The twisting lash of particles from Winston's thrower joined his a second later and the ghost's wailing rose in pitch as it struggled vainly to escape.
"Trap out!" Even Egon sounded elated, and he tossed the trap forward with a decorative flip of his wrist that landed the mechanism neatly under the pinned ghost. In short order the trap snapped shut, trailing wisps of smoke and blinking status light indicating a successful capture.
"What is it with you guys?" Peter demanded as he powered down his thrower. "We've bagged at least a half dozen of these little slimeballs since noon, why the sudden party atmosphere?" They'd been through what seemed like a zillion small towns and busted so many local ectoplasmic annoyances over the last week that he couldn't remember how many they'd been scheduled to catch today. For that matter, he wasn't even terribly sure how many towns they'd been in since morning. After the first day, they had all looked the same to him.
Ray grinned. "And how many of them were there in Zieglerville to start with?" "Three," Peter answered cautiously, as if humoring someone who might become dangerous without warning.
Winston nodded sagely. "And which one was this?"
"The last one?" Peter said hopefully, the light beginning to dawn. "You mean...?"
"We can go home now!" Ray and Winston chorused, surrounding him. They each bowed slightly and offered him their bent elbows.
"All right!" He slipped his arms through theirs and they headed for the car as he intoned, "You've just spent eight days on the road busting spooks for every two-bit hamlet in three states. Every trap you brought is full and you're sick of hotel food. Now, it's - "
"Billing time." Egon fell in step with them and accepted Winston's gestured offer to link up with the marching line. Four abreast, they were swinging their legs in wide matched arcs by the time they reached Ecto-1, grinning inanely and singing "We're off to see the wizard" in several keys. Even the more reserved (in public, at least) physicist added his deep voice to the chorus, as glad as the rest of them that they were finally able to head home.
When they got to the car they broke apart with a lot of laughter and a little friendly shoving. Ray and Winston stowed the gear in back while Peter filled out the invoice and Egon made a reassuring speech to the town council, apparently unintentionally managing to make the three obnoxious but relatively innocuous entities which had plagued the town sound intimidating enough that when Peter handed over the bill with a flourish, a check for the full amount was immediately made out.
"Great technique, Egon," Peter enthused as they piled into Ecto. "Are we a team or what?"
"Usually, 'or what,'" was the dry response.
"Decision time, guys," Ray said as he started the engine.
"I knew there was a catch somewhere," Winston groused without malice.
"Do we head straight back tonight, or find some place to get a shower, crash, and take it easy getting in tomorrow?" Since there was at least another hour until dark, he'd taken it for granted they wouldn't be overnighting in Zeiglerville and was already pulling out on the highway that passed through the center of town. "It's about seven hours back, so it'll be a long night if we try straight through."
Egon muttered indistinctly about wanting some data for his latest research project, but Peter overruled him on more practical grounds. "If I have to spend another night on an overpriced, lumpy mattress fighting Egon for the covers and listening to the trucks gear down off the turnpike and then get up at an hour when any sane person would just be heading home to bed, only to face a sullen waitress plopping runny eggs and burnt toast in front of me in some horribly tacky greasy spoon cafe, I promise to make you all regret it for the rest of your lives. I say we shoot for the house tonight."
"Second that one, man," came Winston's heartfelt agreement. "If you get too tired, Ray, I'll spell you on the driving."
Accelerating rapidly, Ray piloted the big car down the straight road eastward with as much enthusiasm as if he were responding to an emergency call. "All right! Next stop, home!"
"More likely a gas station," observed Egon, after a glance over Ray's shoulder took in the low fuel level indicated by the gauge.
Peter rolled his eyes. "Aw, couldn't you have thought of that before we left?"
Four hours later the gaiety had abated somewhat. Unable to find a radio station he could stand to listen to which the others didn't hoot down, Peter had eventually given up on the tuner, then vetoed Ray's suggested sing- along in retaliation. "I hate road trips," the psychologist observed, slumped in the front passenger seat. "All this sitting around is ruining my figure."
"And the scenery sucks," agreed Winston. The windows of the converted hearse looked out on the pitch black depths of a moonless country night as seen from a minor and traffic-free two-lane highway.
"Well, this is New Jersey," Ray pointed out before Peter could. "At least, I think we're in New Jersey. It's been a while since I saw a sign." He peered through the bug-spattered windshield hoping to see some hint of where they might be, but the area beyond the roadway and a small portion of the road's shoulder illuminated by their own headlights was impenetrably dark. Shrugging to himself he continued to drive onward, thankful that at least the weather was clear.
"You're awfully quiet, Egon," Peter said, craning his neck to look over his shoulder into the back seat. "Something bothering you? Other than the fact we're in New Jersey, of course."
"Hmmmm?" Looking up distractedly from the instrument he had been studying, he poked at his glasses with one finger and inquired, "What was that, Peter?"
"Never mind," Venkman sighed.
"What are you doing?" Winston leaned across and peered at the device Egon was holding. The tiny illuminated meter cast a faint yellowish light across his features. "You've been staring at that doohickey this whole trip. I'm surprised you're not carsick."
"A minor theory of mine, which this journey has given me an opportunity to investigate," the physicist began lecturing in an easy, natural tone. "Ghosts tend to be most common in inhabited areas, for obvious reasons. It's probable that now-abandoned centers of population will have a higher residual ectoplasmic activity than places which have never been built up. By taking readings with this amplifying meter and plotting isograms on a map, it should be possible to locate archaeological sites by their lingering psionic traces even though there are no visible indications of building left."
Peter asked innocently, "Wouldn't it be easier to do this if we had a clue where we were when you took these readings?"
"Naturally," Egon replied, refusing the bait. "But this detour does give me the chance to determine if the sensitivity of this meter is sufficient for discrimination of low-level background readings."
"How can you be sure you're not just seeing random noise at the limit of detection?" Ray asked, fascination plain in his voice. Paying more attention to the back of the car than what was in front on the empty highway, he didn't notice the ominously swirling green mist beginning to creep across the surface of the road they cruised along.
The meter in Egon's hands gave a strangled beep as the dial pegged and the acrid smell of burnt electronics filled the back seat. He sighed. "The larger problem is how to keep so sensitive an instrument from burning out at the slightest manifestation. This one had a scale low enough to register Slimer at a half-mile but I haven't been able to build a model with adequate sensitivity and simultaneously shield it from sudden surges."
"Uh, guys," Peter interjected, "I don't think it was our favorite floating freeloader that fried your gizmo." He brightened. "Hey, spontaneous alliteration! I love it."
"Wow!" Ray breathed ecstatically, allowing Ecto-1 to slow to a crawl. "What does the normal scale PKE meter show?" Around them the mist was slowly rising and thickening, making visibility so limited they would soon have to stop completely.
"Plus eight and a high valence, localizing at nine and still climbing directly ahead," Egon reported, scanning rapidly through the ranges the standard meter was capable of. "We have a major entity materializing here." Even stepped up to the highest range, the meter was beeping continuously and the flashing of the indicator lights blurred into the appearance of a static 'on' condition. "Demigod at least, quite possibly archdemon or minor deity."
"I hate it when you say that," Peter muttered. "It's not bad enough we're lost in New Jersey in the middle of the night, I'll probably get slimed again and we're miles from the nearest shower."
Anticipating the next likely request, Winston was already rummaging through the box of handy stuff they'd brought along.
"Winston, would you hand me -"
"Tobin's Guide," Winston announced, handing it over and earning an appreciative lift of the eyebrows from Egon.
The mist was now so thick that Ray couldn't see past the hood ornament and he braked the car to a full stop. While his intention was to leave it running and in gear in case they needed some quick mobility, Ecto for once did not cooperate. The engine coughed and died, the lights dimming rapidly when he tried cranking the starter. Before the battery drained completely, he gave up and turned the key off. The lights failed of their own accord before he could hit the switch.
"This is not good," Peter said into the resulting silence.
With a small penlight, Egon was scanning the index of Tobin's, but quickly decided he didn't yet have enough data to cross-reference and reach a conclusion. "It could be extremely bad."
"If he means we're probably in deep doowop again and we should power up, why doesn't he say so?" Peter rather querulously asked of no one in particular.
"He just did," Ray pointed out reasonably as he twisted around in the seat to pull the proton pack forward from Winston's grip. For the next few minutes the otherwise ominously peaceful quiet was filled with various rustlings, mutterings, and grunts as the four of them struggled into their packs while remaining in the car. By unspoken mutual agreement they weren't leaving the marginal haven the vehicle offered until they either had an idea what was waiting outside in the dark, or they were fully prepared to make it a lot less dark out there.
As the last buckles snapped into place Winston asked, "Anybody got any really bad feelings about this?" The other three nodded in unison.
In the peppy tones of a cheerleader, Peter said encouragingly, "And what are we going to do about it?"
Ray grinned. "Kick some ectoplasm! Let's do it!"
Piling out of the car simultaneously, they peered in four different directions, all seeing the same thing. An eerily glowing circular blue wall surrounded them, with a diameter of perhaps a hundred feet and Ecto at its center. Above them the curved walls met in a dome, the unmarked, flickering, translucent surface betraying no hint of where it was coming from. Beyond it could be seen the faint outlines of the countryside they had been driving through, and even the stars shone faintly through overhead, though their number was considerably diminished by the wall's own uneven light.
Peter raised his thrower, obviously intending to blast the barrier, but Egon moved faster, reaching out to push the barrel downward before Venkman could hit the activation switch.
"If that force field is impervious to our proton streams, it could bounce the beam right back at you," the physicist explained. "I don't believe it would be wise to fire at it until we have more information, or it becomes a last resort." He turned slowly, surveying the confines of their prison, then followed Peter toward the front of the car where they joined the other two.
"You're calling this one," Peter said to Egon, swinging the thrower back to hook onto his pack with an easy movement. "So what do we do now?"
Whatever plan Egon might have suggested was left unvoiced when Ray backed into him, eyes wide as he cleared his throat and interrupted, "Uh... guys?"
Swinging around to see what Ray was looking at with such trepidation, the four of them found themselves facing a twenty-foot tall solid manifestation standing on the other side of the barrier. It studied them with a predatory look and they shifted uncomfortably under that coldly calculating gaze.
The apparition had the basic form of a human body surmounted with an animal's head, but the kind of animal was not anything they had seen before. Short black fur covered a long, narrow snout with sharp, pointed teeth showing under the curled lip, and above glowing yellow eyes the ears stood straight up in a proud arc, cropped flat across their tops. By its narrowly pleated skirt and the elaborate winged pectoral flashing gold highlights in the irregular light, it was plainly something from the Egyptian pantheon. Ray's forehead creased in concentration as he chased an elusive feeling of recognition, but he didn't have time to pursue his idea.
"You have intruded on my domain..." the creature thundered without introduction.
"What, New Jersey?" Peter asked incredulously, ignoring the frantic "sshhh!" noises the others were making as they automatically drew throwers and shifted to present a single armed front to the new arrival. "Hey, you can have it to yourself for all we care, honest. Just point us in the right direction and we're history." Any further observations he might have felt compelled to make were lost in a strangled "geep!" as his throat closed at a gesture from the huge being. Fortunately, the invisible stranglehold was fleeting, though the cavalier way it had been administered sobered Venkman slightly.
The creature's lips rippled unpleasantly over its jagged teeth and the strange ears tilted forward hungrily. "The price of trespass is your lives."
"That's our cue, guys. Power up!" Peter called, thumbing the switch. Instead of the solidly gratifying sound of a nuclear accelerator humming to speed, there was only a dead silence. "Uh oh... Egon? Ray? Any juice?"
"No power!" Ray answered, quickly echoed by Winston's confirmation.
"The acceleration process is being damped," Egon growled after a fast appraising look at the telltales on Ray's pack. "Power levels show no drain but the nuclear sources aren't initiating the cycle." There was a flat click as he shut off his useless thrower.
"It's not going to work? Egon, you kidder, tell me you're trying to be funny. You haven't quite got the concept yet, but we can discuss that later."
"No joke, Pete," Ray said. "He's right, there's no proton feed and it's not an equipment failure."
The huge shape in front of them had watched with undisguised contempt, and now showed gleaming fangs in an ugly travesty of humor. "I do not choose to allow your resistance."
"I'm afraid to ask what he does allow," Winston muttered under his breath.
Ray glanced to the side at him and mumbled, "I don't think I want to know."
Egon nodded. "I'm entirely certain I don't want to know."
"So just what is it you DO allow?" Peter demanded loudly.
"I allow you to die," it said simply, and it curled both hands in front of its chest as if gathering up handfuls of air. The four ghostbusters didn't have time to even cry out before they were each completely immersed in blinding, exhausting agony. The energy was ripped from every fiber of their being, wrenching life from them in a physically tangible drain whose sheer disabling force left no doubt it would be quickly lethal.
"Could we talk about this?" Peter gasped out with his next breath, and was as surprised as the rest of them when the encompassing pain let up. The being's words were nearly lost in the heavy breathing as the guys tried to recoup from the brief but debilitating experience.
"There is one other course," it told them, sounding almost reluctant to admit an option.
"What? We'll do it!" Venkman enthused weakly between gulps of air. "Work with me here, we're willing to be reasonable."
Waving one clawed hand negligently, the Egyptian indicated a sword which flickered into existence on the ground in front of the four men. "If that blade drinks the lifeblood of one of you by a friend's hand, I shall allow the ones left living to go free."
"In your face, man!" A chorus of outraged responses greeted the offer, and with a massive, uncaring shrug the entity wrapped them all in the killing agony again. Eating inward like boiling acid, it fired every nerve in their bodies so that they each felt as if they'd been threaded with thousands of white-hot wires.
"Wait!" Peter managed, stifling a scream and barely transmuting it into coherent speech spaced with huge gasps. "Let us - think about it - at least."
Once again the hold on them eased and the relief was like being dipped into icy water. "One hour," rumbled the gravelly voice, its speech oddly accented but perfectly clear. "I will have the lifeblood of one of you, or the deaths of you all. And I will not be so kind about it for having to wait, either."
"Swear it by the Name of the Sun," Ray rasped, standing up as straight as he could and facing their tormentor. Turning toward him in surprise, the others raised questioning eyebrows at each other but didn't interrupt. "Swear you will take only the one and let the rest go free without hindrance or harm, on the One who is Rehui with you."
"So, little one, you are not so unwise." The evil chuckle confirmed everything Ray had suspected about the demonic god's intent. "Very well then, by Ra Harahkti, I shall claim only the one chosen and it will be as I have promised you." With a loud crack of thunder and a fast-dissipating cloud of thick smoke he disappeared, but the glowing dome that surrounded them remained in place.
Cautiously they relaxed, but there was an unmistakable impression of tension left in the way they moved as they stretched out the kinks and cramps the being's attacks had left behind. Gathering back into a circular council, they kept their voices pitched low at first as if unconsciously aware they might be overheard by the enemy.
Peter took a mock swing at Ray's arm, then grappled him in a loose sideways hammerlock, shaking him with playful affection as he struggled ineffectually. "Can this guy call them or what? I mean, did you see that big geek just steam when ole Ray here read him the contract? I'm sure glad he's on our side!" Giving him one last shake, he let go, skillfully avoiding the return grab Ray made at him as he retreated. "So how did you know which name to make him swear on? Who was that bozo, any way?"
"I recognized the ears," Ray explained cryptically. Egon was already paging quickly through the retrieved copy of Tobin's. "Look under Set, the Egyptian lord of darkness."
"I thought that was Anubis," Peter ventured, oddly pleased when Ray beamed happily at him. Ray's easy nature had already forgiven the indignity of Peter's treatment of him moments ago.
"Close, but not right. Anubis was lord of the afterlife, judger of souls, but not evil. Set was the evil one, the enemy of the sun."
Egon's face darkened as he finished the entry on Set in the book he held. He had to squint in the faint light, but the dome glowed strongly enough to allow him to read for a short period of time before the eyestrain became unbearable. "One of his trademarks was a large knife, symbol of death."
Ray's expression was compounded of disgust and the honestly puzzled revulsion of someone who doesn't understand why such things exist. "His followers practiced human sacrifice by dismemberment, and the cult was outlawed through most of Egypt's history."
Peter shuddered theatrically. "Well, he's got consistency going for him, I'll give him that." Turning utterly pragmatic in the next second, he scanned the walls of their prison. "OK, we need out. Any suggestions?"
Nodding as he shrugged out of his pack, Egon said in clipped tones, "Ray and I will work on the equipment. You and Winston investigate the edges of the force field. If we can get through it I believe we'll find that our packs are functional on the outside. There's a good chance that if we can get our beams on him, we can contain him, although it will take all the power we can generate."
Ray looked doubtful. "He's a demigod, Egon, I'm not sure a standard trap would hold him even if we could boost the power of the proton streams high enough to pin him."
"A standard trap wouldn't. We'll have to modify several to work in tandem to have a chance. However, I recommend we concentrate first on the basic problem of getting the packs working."
"Ahhh... have you forgotten we don't have a single empty trap left? What are we gonna contain him in, one of those envelopes Peter's been swiping from every hotel we stayed at?" Already out of his pack, Winston grinned and ducked Venkman's playful swing without effort.
"We could always let out a couple of the class threes we got," Ray mused. "They're not really dangerous and having traps for Set is worth getting slimed again."
"Speak for yourself," Peter grumbled. "How are we gonna know which traps to open? I don't recall labeling them over the last few days and a couple of those nasties are not my idea of a good date."
"I sort of stacked them in order in the back," Winston offered. "At least I'm pretty sure the ones on top are from Zieglerville and they were small-time. As ugly, bad-tempered, heavily armed ghosts go, at least."
This did not reassure Peter. "Can we hold off letting a bunch of pissed off goopers loose in a confined space with us until the last minute, at least?"
Screwdriver clenched between his teeth, Egon was already pulling a cable loose from the back of one of the packs spread around him. "Naturally," he mumbled indistinctly.
"Come on, Winston, let's go see if there's a hole in the fence." On the way to the barrier, Peter swung away from the pavement and pulled a long brome grass stem out by the roots, stripping the leaves off as he approached the glowing force field.
"What are you going to do with that?" Up close, the wall had an odd texture that made their eyes hurt when they tried to focus on its surface.
"Old farm trick for testing electric fences." Holding the stem out like a foil, left hand curled back and over his head en garde, Peter cautiously poked the end of it into the glowing area. A sharp sizzling noise started immediately and he dropped the stem with an exclamation. In the pale light they could see it smoking, shriveling and turning black where it had touched the barrier. "Make a note: don't be touching the force field," he said shakily.
"Maybe we can dig under it," Winston suggested. Moving to the side, he walked along the curve of it, stomping the ground to test its softness. Finding a low spot that squished promisingly, he stooped and prodded the dirt. "Let's try here. Hey, I put the winter stuff in last week, go get the snow shovel out of Ecto. It beats using our hands."
"Yes, master." Peter lisped, drawing one shoulder up to hunch his back and squinting sideways, but he jogged over to the car and back anyway. Providing what he seemed to think was a form of entertainment while Winston took the first shift at digging, Peter complained mightily about the degradation of someone with two doctorates being forced to do manual labor. However, when Winston tired and handed the shovel over with a glare, he shut up and took his turn willingly at scooping the soft earth away from the edge of the wall. By the time the ground began caving away from the surface of the barrier and falling forward into their hole, they had gotten slightly over three feet down. Water was seeping in faster than they could clear the heavy mud away, and they hadn't found any end to the wall. It disappeared into the ground in a smooth, unbroken span.
"You know, we haven't gotten deep enough to tell for sure but I'd almost swear it's starting to curve back underneath us." Pausing in his shift on the shovel, Winston wiped the sweat off his forehead, then ruefully regarded the rising blister on his palm. "Shit, I've gotten soft. Dad would have a fit if he knew it took this little real work to give me blisters."
"Maybe we just haven't gotten deep enough." The blisters on Peter's hands had already broken and the second layer of skin was coming up.
"Maybe the thing is fixed to always go a foot deeper down than any hole we can dig."
"Thank you ever so much for pointing that out." Taking the implement of destruction, Peter attacked the hole again, widening it at first before digging deeper. By the time he had to rest again, he had only succeeded in baring a wider area of glowing blue that showed no sign of fading or stopping. "OK, so maybe you're right. We're not making a lot of progress here, unless you count frustration and damage to ourselves." Never meant for heavier work than shifting a little snow from a driveway, the shovel's wide blade was twisted and bent nearly to the point of uselessness. "I vote we go see how the brains side of the house is doing."
Unfortunately, Ray and Egon had not had any better luck. Two of the packs were nearly completely disassembled, spread around them in an array of cables, circuit boards, and shielded parts. They were working in a competent haste, exchanging only ideas and suggestions, and somehow managing not to get in each other's way as they swapped tools and equipment back and forth.
"How's it going, guys?"
There was no answer at first. Intent on the results of their latest experimental adjustment, they ignored the question until, at some result which neither Peter nor Winston could see, they both sighed in obvious disappointment and relaxed out of their tense preoccupation.
"What was that, Peter?" Ray asked, standing and stretching the kinks out of his back.
"Never mind, I think I can tell."
"Hey, did you find a way out?" Looking eagerly from one to the other, Ray's face fell at their discouraged air. "Never mind, I can tell too."
Egon stood and stepped carefully over the technological litter. Arms crossed on his chest, he slowly studied first the wall all around them, then the unhelpful mess on the ground. "We are going to have to take Set's bargain. There's no other way out."
"Forget it," Peter said, turning his back on them. "I can't believe we're even considering it."
"Our options are pretty limited here," Winston pointed out. "We can't get out, and big ugly is coming back soon. Without working weapons, we don't stand any kind of chance."
"Definitely. We are between Scylla and Charybdis, but I advocate we consider the alternative as still preferable to total group annihilation." Egon used his most rational voice, but his tone was far more ambivalent than his words.
It took a few seconds, but Peter eventually had to turn back around to face them again. "Say what?"
Ray's eyes were already haunted. "I agree with Egon. Given the only choices we have, we have to do it. It's my fault we're here, I volunteer."
"Oh, no you don't," Winston spoke up immediately. "If anybody gets this duty, I'll do it."
"As the primary advocate of this action, I take full responsibility and will not countenance anyone usurping my place," Egon stated.
"Usurp this, big guy," Peter interrupted him. "I got us into this mess, I'll get us out."
Egon's eyes narrowed, glinting dangerously in the weird, sourceless light. "I said, it's my responsibility. Period." Without overt movement he shifted his posture, and the indetectable shift resulted in a definite change of carriage from his normal confidently assertive stance to an uncharacteristically aggressive bearing.
"Wait," Ray interjected, "I already admitted it was my fault. Peter, Egon, you don't have to fight over it."
Winston crossed his arms and shook his head emphatically. "You just don't get it, do you? Ain't no way I'm letting any of you in on this one. So just back off now, guys."
Peter's fists clenched and he took a step toward Egon, completely ignoring both Winston and Ray. "Don't make me prove I can take you," he said in a low, threatening tone.
"You and what starfleet?" Egon replied, his voice equally cold.
"Shut up, the both of you!" Winston shouted. "I said it's settled!" He shouldered his way between the two, pushing them apart and eyeing each in turn as if trying to decide who he would call out first.
For a moment the three of them stood glaring at each other, challenge in every stance, until Ray broke the tension. "One for all, eh?" he said softly.
"And all for one," Egon affirmed, relaxing, his lips quirking upward slightly. He glanced around curiously, betraying his surprise at finding himself in the odd position of threatening his dearest friends.
Even Winston smiled, sharing a fond glance with Peter, who said in wide-eyed wonder, "So that's how that goes! Well, now that we've cleared that up, how about busting outa this joint? I wanna go home." Everyone's smiles disappeared. "Hey, what'd I say?"
"Only one way out," Winston growled. "And we have to pick who buys the ticket. I hate this." He looked almost desperately around at the small area of ground within the glowing barrier. "So what are we gonna do, draw straws?"
"No way. Every time we draw straws I end up with the short one," Peter objected. "I can't believe-"
"We're even considering it," Zeddemore finished wearily with him. "Like my man Egon said, we don't have a lot of other choices. I'll find some twigs or something." With a gloomy determination he moved off, ostensibly checking the ground for something that could be used in a drawing of lots.
"Yeah," Peter muttered, "You do that." He moved off in the opposite direction, shoulders hunched in resentment at his inability to change the situation.
Ray watched him move off, a very troubled look on his face. He started when Egon's hand landed gently on his shoulder. "What's wrong?" the physicist asked, a brief amusement flickering in his eyes as he pushed his glasses back into place and added, "aside from the obvious."
The younger man looked briefly into his friend's eyes, then away, clearing his throat with an uncommon reticence. "From what I've read, the term 'lifeblood' has a very specific meaning to creatures of this nature. To fulfill the contract for three of our lives, that sword," he nodded toward where it lay, given a wide berth by all of them, "must go through the heart of the person chosen." He paused, swallowed, and continued with real horror in his voice, "Egon, even if we agree one of us will die, he can't do it alone, not and be sure of the angle of entry. That means that one of us will have to help to do it right. One of us has to push that thing through somebody's heart. That's murder! How can we..." As Egon's hand tightened on his shoulder he quieted, not aware until then how violently he had been trembling.
"I know. I suspect we all do. Try to remember it is not murder, it's technically assisted suicide since the victim consciously volunteers and participates willingly." No matter how smoothly the words of reason came to him, he hoped with all his heart that Ray would not be called to serve either part. Still, hearing his own thoughts spoken aloud brought a more immediate horror to the concepts than he had consciously allowed himself to feel before.
Ray shivered as if a chill wind had passed, and his voice was so low it was barely audible. "What will become of those who are left? Can life at that cost be worth it?"
"It will have to be, or the sacrifice is pointless." Not that it would be easy at all, for any of them. Sighing, the tall blond forcibly brought himself out of his reverie, quashing the doubts Ray's questions aroused and glancing around. "Looks like Peter's doing the perimeter a couple more times. Let's give the proton packs and Ecto-mounted equipment one more try, we only have twenty minutes left. If we could just get the proton canon working we might have a chance at punching a hole through the force field."
But the results were no better this time than they had been before and, after attempting several ingenious methods of hooking the power supplies in series and parallel to a single thrower, the two had to admit defeat.
"The barrier must act as some sort of dimensional containment," Ray said dispiritedly.
Egon rubbed his chin in thought, then nodded. "With slightly different physical laws acting inside, which would explain why our power supplies don't function. If I had the time I could adapt some of our meters sufficiently to determine the precise nature of the difference. It might be minimal enough that we could compensate for it."
"And then we could get our packs to work! Great!" Ray enthused. Then his face fell. "We don't have enough time for that, do we?"
Egon shook his head regretfully. "No. I would need at least four hours just to reconstruct the equipment, take the measurements, and calculate the governing equations."
Having wandered back from his fruitless search for a way through or around the barrier, Peter sat crosslegged on the road a few feet away and watched them. "It fits. If Egon's right about this being a zone of different physical laws that would explain why we couldn't find a lower limit to the wall. It's got to be a sphere to be stable."
"Egon's always right when it's bad news," Ray pointed out.
"I was trying to forget that, myself." Suddenly his face brightened and he asked, "You said this Set dude is the enemy of the sun, right?"
"Yes, that's right," Ray answered. "You've got an idea?" Behind him, Egon's expression chased rapidly through delight, thoughtfulness, frowning concentration, and disappointment.
"Yeah, I think so. Why don't we just make ourselves some sunlight and fry this lop-eared weirdo next time he shows up?"
"Won't work," Egon's negation interrupted Ray's budding speculation. "Even assuming we could get the proton packs to overload, which seems unlikely since the barrier has a damping effect on the reaction that we don't know how to overcome, they would not produce the same spectrum as sunlight and would also prove ineffectual at simple destruction as well, since Set remains outside the dome himself. Not to mention the slight difficulty we'd have of surviving the blast ourselves."
"That little concern's never stopped you before," Peter pointed out.
Egon tipped his head in acknowledgment. "True. When the goal is important enough, survival is a secondary priority." Ignoring Venkman's automatic pained look at that sentiment, his expression turned briefly inward as if something had occurred to him which he had not expected to be a factor. A peculiar combination of fear and elation flashed in his eyes, gone so quickly that Peter wasn't sure in the next instant he had really seen it, much less identified it correctly. When Egon continued his voice betrayed nothing but an increased determination to carry out Set's bargain. "But in this case, there is no imminent threat to the stability of the space-time continuum and we have the option of choosing to make a sacrifice that will allow the majority of the team to survive to find a way to defeat the creature at a later date."
"If you're saying we ought to go along with it just because there's nobody who'll lose but us if we don't, I think your reasoning really sucks." Peter stood, brushing at himself with increasingly unnecessary vigor as his temper visibly deteriorated. Striding across the short distance between them, he planted his hands on his hips and confronted Egon. "Besides, we're a team. We always were and we always will be. No one of us gets given up to some ugly monster to buy off the safety of the rest. What kind of scum do you think we are? I, for one, do not care to be known as the man who let one of his friends die just to save his own skin."
Egon was taken aback at Peter's sudden vehemence. "If any one of us was killed in the line of duty, would the rest automatically commit suicide?"
"Of course not. That's not even a close approximation of this situation and you know it."
"This is exactly the same, Peter. One of us dies in the course of fighting something bigger than we are, and the rest go on. It's that simple. No saving the world through heroic martyrdom, no ransoming a city with noble sacrifice; nothing here needs us all to die. One of us slips and the rest go on. The only distinguishing feature is that we choose who falls."
Peter shook his head stubbornly. "Nope. When you guys were all trapped inside Nexa, should I have considered it a cost of business and gone on? When that Zanz creep had us shilling for his Ghostworld park, why didn't you just leave well enough alone and carry on? When Winston fell into the dimension of lost things, I suppose we should have just waved goodbye from the edge of the hole? You'd rather we'd left you in the netherworld to rot in Tolay's dungeon? Come on, Spengler, the only reason we've lived as long as we have is we don't give up our own. We've always made it through by sticking together and I don't see any reason why we should quit now."
Egon shook his head, every bit as stubborn as Peter. "Your comparisons are invalid. In every one of those situations the 'lost' party was still alive and it required only the application of intelligence to effect a solution. This time we don't have that option. If you can remove the barrier or make the packs work or talk Set into leaving us all alone, I invite you to do so. But you have an extremely limited amount of time in which to bring about this change of status, and I hope you'll forgive a certain amount of skepticism on my part regarding your chances of success. Our only option now is to accept the offer to leave one of us behind."
"So long as that one isn't you, eh?" Acidly cruel, Peter's tone was pure distilled scorn. "Nice try, but I can count too. You die for sure, or you get a seventyfive percent chance at surviving. No wonder you don't think it's such a bad option. I'd buy a lottery ticket on those odds myself."
Color flamed on Egon's high cheekbones at that accusation and he hissed, "How dare you."
The utter contempt in his eyes was so intense that Peter backed off a halfstep, realizing he had gone too far. In all the years of their association he had never pushed the self-composed physicist so close to striking him in sheer outrage, and he was suddenly not so sure he could be confident of beating the taller man if it came to a purely physical contest. Egon was in the same excellent shape they all maintained, and when absolutely enraged his calm front no longer disguised the formidable opponent inside. Quite aside from that consideration, coming to blows with his oldest friend over such a thoughtless and preposterous insult had an ugly, final futility to it that Peter discovered he wanted desperately to avoid. Balanced lightly on his feet, he waited, poised to duck or even take the blow if it was necessary to make his surrender acceptable when the fury that boiled in Egon's eyes was translated into action.
With an effort that left his clenched jaw white with strain, Egon mastered himself, somehow able to keep his focus on the real matter between them though his voice was tight with anger. "If you can't remember the issue at stake, have the grace to leave the thinking to those better qualified than yourself."
Peter relaxed his balance without confessing its pacifistic intent and lifted his chin arrogantly, refusing to concede any more than that he had been wrong to accuse Egon of cowardice. "What thinking? You're telling us to give up and roll over," he said cuttingly. "Things get a little tough and you want to kiss off six years working together in this business like it didn't teach us anything. Some scientific method that is. Have you checked your brain lately? I think you're running a quart low."
"Sticking together this time means only the completely unnecessary loss of even more life than we are forced to give up. And I, for one, would not care to be known as the man who required his friends to accompany him into the grave for no better reason than misplaced pride."
The use of his own phrasing so aptly turned against him stung, and Peter snapped in return, "If anything here is misplaced, it's my belief that we all shared something special. I guess it never meant that much to you if you're willing to blow it off so quickly."
Recognizing that Peter's retreat to personal attack this time signaled he had run out of reasonable arguments and refused to admit it yet, Egon bit back a hot rejoinder and simply folded his arms, assuming the look of a man who knows he has won and has only to wait for the other side to realize it.
If anything, that infuriated Peter even further, because he had reached the end of his logical rope. What was worse, he had known from the start that Egon was right this time, but the stakes were so high he could not go along without making every objection possible. Tamely accepting the inevitable was not something he had ever been good at, and that was one of his greatest strengths.
But the next entry was made by Winston, who had returned and stood listening to the last exchange in the debate with growing disbelief. "And suppose we do go ahead with this?" he demanded of Egon. "What about your immortal soul, man? If nothing else will change your mind, think about that. Has it occurred to you that this sacrifice isn't going to be a one-man show if it goes down? The guy on the other end loses forever, worse than the one who dies. We'd all be better off dead than paying that kind of debt, or having helped one of us to take it on."
Egon shook his head again, this time with regret. "While I respect your beliefs, Winston, I do not share them. From what we've seen of ghosts, I tend to think only the soul's own innate guilt at its acts can keep it from passing on to the next realm. We have no evidence of judgment leading to a heaven or hell, only indications of a different dimension to which all spirits have access unless trapped here or in the netherworld." He raised one hand to forestall Zeddemore's protest. "Please, hear me out. I'm not saying you're not right in some sense, since a spirit's own belief in punishment appears to be sufficient to trap it until its wrongdoings can be righted. What I am saying is if that is the case, then this instance would be a completely voluntary act between two friends and should not serve to trap either the departing spirit now or the other later on. Nevertheless, in deference to your beliefs I would certainly not ask you to participate in something you found so abhorrent."
"Abhorrent?" Peter exclaimed. "You're talking about one of us killing one of his best friends like it was some agreement to trade chores! It's beyond abhorrent, it's the most cold-blooded thing I ever heard you say. Damn it, Egon, have you listened to yourself? Are you going to tell me you could stab Ray through the heart and not feel guilty, even if he begged you to do it? Or are you saying you'd stick that sword through me to save yourself and never think about it again?" Overriding Spengler's half-formed objection, he spat viciously, "Just what do you think friendship means?"
The tall blond bowed his head, then he reached out to take Peter's shoulders. Staring earnestly into Venkman's eyes, he said very quietly, "What I am saying is that I would rather have you put that blade through my chest than see you pointlessly killed and know I could have prevented it."
There was a strange fey look in Egon's eyes and cold washed over Peter as if he had been doused with icewater. "What do you know that I don't?" he whispered, and the cold congealed in his spine at the weirdly proud way Egon met his gaze.
"I think friendship means some things..." the physicist's grip tightened momentarily, "some people are worth dying for."
In Egon's unflinching look he saw not the fear or unfeeling calculation he had accused him of, but a deep, sincere affection as clear and heartfelt as his words. "You do know something," he said softly, knowing he would never get an answer if he was right. After studying that rare openness a few more seconds without being able to fathom the deeper level of awareness he sensed in it, he sighed and his shoulders drooped in admitted defeat. "Damn you, Egon."
Completely involved in their exchange, neither noticed Ray's stealthy withdrawal until Winston growled, "Oh, no you don't!" Dodging around the two of them, he made the short dash across the road and tackled Ray, knocking him to the ground before he reached the sword. Thrown to the side when Ray struggled violently, he made a grab for Ray's legs as the younger ghostbuster squirmed away, and latched onto one of his ankles. It barely slowed Stantz, who managed to drag the larger man another four feet across the slick grass before he was brought down again with his outstretched hands only arm's length short of the sword when Peter and Egon piled into him.
"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?" Peter demanded, twisting to use his weight expertly as Ray wriggled under him, fighting to get loose. Blocking another futile grab for Set's weapon, he held Ray's right arm down firmly while Egon pinned the left side.
"Let me, I got us into this," Ray panted, still struggling against the two of them. "Egon's right, and I ought to do it." Digging his feet into the turf, he managed to shove their combined mass another foot closer to the dully gleaming blade.
It was likely he could have gotten all the way to his goal, but for the abrupt addition of Winston's body across his legs. "You got some serious thighs on you, kid."
"Get... off..." he panted singlemindedly, and expended his last energy in a frantic surge of motion the three men holding him down were hard put to contain. When their determination proved no less than his own he finally subsided, his agitated glare softening to a pleading look he turned first on Peter, then Egon. "Please, guys. You agreed it had to be done. If we're all killed, nobody will be able to stop Set. This way the ones left will have enough time to figure out how to defeat him. I'm the most expendable -"
"Guess again, buckwheat." Peter brushed his disheveled hair into a semblance of order with one hand, though he didn't move his weight off Ray's arm. "You think you can sneak over here and off yourself for all our sakes? Not likely, pal. We're in this together and you're going to have to risk being a survivor just like the rest of us."
"No! Don't you see? I was driving, I let the car stop where he could get at us, and I didn't recognize him soon enough to do any good. It's my fault we're here. If one of us has to die, it should be me."
Egon sighed, and the pain that his conviction was costing him escaped his control briefly enough to color his voice. "You're wrong, actually." Peter threw a sharp glance at him, sensing again that strange note of premonition beneath the words but no more able to guess its source than he had been before.
"Way wrong," Winston agreed. "We had this fight, and nobody won that time either. We'll be here all night before we'd let any one of us volunteer for this alone."
"Damn right." Peter shifted cautiously, and poked their prisoner in the chest with an accusatory forefinger. "We're gonna do this fair and square if we do it at all. I don't like it, Winston doesn't like it, and Egon doesn't like it, so you don't have to like it either, but that's the only way it'll get done." His forceful tone gentled. "Now, will you promise us you won't do something terminally heroic so we can all get off the ground? I'm getting grass stains on my good uniform here."
Ray nodded, but it was obviously far from wholehearted agreement. In fact, there was something defiant and shifty about his look that neither Peter nor Egon could miss or misinterpret.
"Raymond. Please. Your word."
Blue eyes locked in contest with brown, the struggle of wills palpable in the increased tension of both men's bodies. To all of them it seemed like a long time before Ray finally capitulated, going limp with submission. "All right. You have my word I won't do anything on my own." There was still some small reserve of spirit left in him, but his promise was an honest one this time.
With assorted grunts, they disentangled themselves and got to their feet. Pulling a comb from his back pocket, Peter finished straightening his hair while the others looked on in mild amusement at his catlike vanity in even the most trying circumstances. "Okay," he said, the comb vanishing again, "Let's get this idiocy over with if we're really going through with it." A sudden thought struck him and he quirked a smile at Egon. "Hey, I really hate this plan, do you suppose that means it'll work?"
"I believe the odds are distinctly improved with such an endorsement," he answered solemnly. "Winston, you found something to draw lots with?"
"All I could find were grass stems." Reluctantly, Winston strode back to the spot the last argument had taken place. When he'd lunged after Ray he'd dropped the four matched brome grass stems, but they were easily retrieved. With his pocket knife he carefully trimmed them all evenly to about four inches length, then broke one in half. As the others surrounded him, he aligned the tops of the straws, rolled them briefly in his fist, and offered the choices for their inspection.
Three hands collided in midair, but somehow each came away with one of the stems. There was a moment of immeasurable suspense.
"Me," Egon said quietly. His voice was totally devoid of surprise.
"No!" Ray immediately protested, barely ahead of the others' objections.
A small, bleakly satisfied smile playing about his lips, the blond shook his head. "We've already discussed and agreed on this. Let's not start over, there isn't much time as it is."
"Best two out of three?" Peter offered weakly, earning an exasperated glare from the rest of the team. "Just a suggestion," he muttered to himself. Despite his flip remarks, there was a desolate look settling on his face as if he were already feeling the extent of their coming loss.
"Gentlemen, it would be wise to consider the next necessary step, and choose the person who will have to help," Egon said relentlessly.
"You mean the person who will kill you," Winston accused. "I think I'm with Peter, I can't believe -
"- we're even considering this," all four chorused together.
"Nevertheless, it will have to be done. Winston, would you hand me your straw?" Calmly businesslike, Egon took Peter's grass stem as well, adding the short one he had drawn to them and adjusting the top ends until they were all even with each other. Rolling them carefully in his hand, he held them out to Peter first.
Grimacing, he drew one, deciding at the last second it would be in too poor taste to wipe his brow in barely exaggerated relief that he had not drawn the unlucky one. But his eyes widened with concern, then narrowed with an awful determination as Ray, the next to draw, pulled the short stem.
"Oh, Egon," Ray breathed, the look of sick terror on his face indescribable. Eyes wide and stricken, he forced himself to look up into Egon's face, only to see his dread mirrored there. Unable to bear the pain so close to the surface in Egon's clear blue eyes he tried to turn away but the hand on his arm stopped him and he turned back, practically throwing himself into the ready embrace.
Leaning his cheek against the fine auburn hair, Egon murmured, "You were the one I hoped it wouldn't be." Eyes closed, he stood lost in unhappy thought, arms wrapped around the shuddering frame of his young friend.
Without his deliberately consulting them, Peter's psychological training and insight kicked in and told him with sickening clarity what would happen to Ray Stantz after going through with this. It wasn't 'assisted suicide' or 'voluntary sacrifice' to him, what he plainly saw it as was simply the cold-blooded murder of one of his best friends. Unable to bear knowing what he had done, the gentle, loving man would inevitably suicide, the only real question being whether he would resort to one of the standard, overt methods or find some means unplanned but no less intentional. If he could be prevented from taking his own life, he would eventually withdraw into a depressed, essentially catatonic state that no drug yet invented could pull him out of. It might take a few days or a couple weeks, but they would lose him as surely as they were about to lose Egon.
"No way," Peter said firmly. Losing one dear friend hurt too much to stand already; he could not bear to see a second destroyed by the same act. He frowned at the inquiring glance he got from the physicist. "I'm not letting Ray do it. Period. If somebody has to go through with this, I will." He shrugged uncomfortably. "So I'm more used to guilt than he is, I can take it." His poorly feigned nonchalance fooled no one, and he knew from the look of gratitude Egon threw him that he had not been the only one to imagine what going through with killing his friend would do to their youngest partner.
Moving forward the few steps it took to reach them, he rested his hands on their shoulders. Looking first to Egon, he asked in a low voice, "Are you absolutely sure this is the only way?" The sober, committed look he received in reply was heartbreakingly certain, carrying the weight that no long dissertation on logic and cost-benefit trade-off could ever have. Meeting the look with all the strength he could muster, he slid closer and wrapped his arms around both of them, holding the two together with his own embrace outside theirs and leaning inward to lay his head against Egon's chest, nose-to-nose with Ray. From the other side Winston also encircled them and the four stood together in silent companionship, supported and surrounded by the love that bound them. Under his ear Egon's heart beat and Peter closed his eyes against the tears that rose suddenly, forcing them back as he tightened his hold for a moment. This is going to hurt me more than it does you, piped some twisted, sardonic part of his mind, choking him with a bitter urge to laugh at the macabre truth in the old lie. He didn't dare, for to release any part of the feelings under his tenuous, desperate control would surely break him wide open and let out the rest.
"No," Ray mumbled, without releasing Egon. "I drew, it's my duty."
The barren sense of inescapable fate that filled Ray's voice and eyes only confirmed everything Peter had surmised about the outcome of allowing him to attempt that duty. "Don't be stupid," he sighed, but there was only kindness in his voice. He shifted to draw the back of his hand across Ray's cheek, and it came away wet. "This one's not your bag, that's all."
Besides, he was certain he could handle it better. They had all faced death, and worse, a hundred times, and acknowledged it could take any one of them any time they went out on a call. While he'd never envisioned this particular twist of fate, Peter had always known there would come a time when winning would mean nothing more than taking the lowest possible losses. That was the way real life was, but the understanding didn't make it any easier when the time came to accept those losses as part of the price they paid for the job they did. His voice was sure and final, filled with a resolution that terrified him inside. "If it has to be done, I'll do it."
"All right." Barely audible, Ray sounded beaten in a way none of them had anticipated. In releasing his obligation to Peter, he had given himself up wholly to the now-inexorable course of events. What he could no longer stop or hope to change had already taken on a sort of unreality, as if he were watching it all happening to someone else rather than being a part of what went on. Distanced but not insulated from the horror, he felt more helpless than he had since the whole mess began, and his gaze had the dulled look of an animal caught in a trap it could not begin to understand or find escape from.
Sinking in his own dread of what he had agreed to, Peter did not see what his decision had done to Ray. Venkman's part was too active to allow him the same escape of withdrawal and each passing second was a sharp knife cutting at him, yet it was his irreverent wit that broke the increasingly depressed mood. Far from being unable to handle the closeness of their embrace, he regretted the necessity of ending it. His calculated intervention was timed to leave them all the memory of the intensity of their sharing without any overtones of embarrassment for its having gone on too long. Quashing all his internal screaming in an effort that shook him with one quick tremor, he cleared his throat and asked as casually as he ever had, "Guys, I could do this all night, really I could, but didn't some of you have other plans?" Backing away from the others, he felt as if he were tearing off part of his own soul. Looking into Egon's eyes, he knew that was exactly what he was doing.
Egon met his look with understanding and gratitude, then he pulled Ray closer for a moment before releasing him and turning to Winston for a similar brief, tight hug. Finally, he faced Peter alone and said formally, "I believe we have an arrangement which requires our attention."
Adopting the same attitude of professional calm, Peter nodded. "It's been a pleasure working with you, Dr. Spengler," he said, holding out his right hand almost shyly. If either of them dropped the calm facade at this point he knew they would never be able to go through with the ritual, and for a moment he considered that option.
"I have enjoyed our association, Dr. Venkman," Egon answered warmly, taking the proffered handshake unhesitatingly, for he also recognized and accepted the defense of etiquette. It had stood them in good stead several times before. Over their clasped hands their eyes met, and the depth of affection exchanged in that look belied the formality of their words. That too had always been the case when they came to saying goodbye in the face of hopeless odds.
"Five minutes," Winston's voice broke in, tolling the passing of their time like a funeral knell.
Drawing away reluctantly, Egon straightened, squaring his shoulders and clearing his throat. "It will probably be easiest if I lay down," he said, lifting his glasses to rub briefly at his eyes. Resettling his glasses as if girding himself for battle, he strode purposefully over to the grassy edge of the road, chose a flat area, and stripped off his coveralls, revealing the lightweight cords and thin, lavender cotton shirt he had underneath. Folding his uniform neatly, he set it aside and sank gracefully to his knees, then undid the button at his throat.
Moving like a zombie, Peter walked to where the sword lay, untouched since Set had left it. He stood over it, the effort he needed to steel himself visible in the tension that knotted every single muscle in his back. His face closed and devoid of expression, he bent and grabbed the hilt. The blade was surprisingly heavy, its surface dull, pitted iron decorated only with the tracery characteristic of blood etching. There was a subliminal thrumming in it as if it were alive, a sensation at once both fascinating and revolting. Peter shuddered, certain his taking up the knife had performed the final sealing of a bargain that until then had only been a possible option.
By the time he had turned and walked the distance to rejoin the others, Egon was laying on his back, his head pillowed on his folded coveralls and his shirt pulled open over the left side of his chest. The cool night air raised goosebumps across the exposed flesh, lifting fine gold hairs straight up from the skin. Winston and Ray were also on the ground, sitting to either side of him. As Peter moved to stand over him, Egon spread his arms wide and grasped hands with Ray and Winston. They were so focused on him that they blocked Peter out of their attention, and he found that preferable by far to the alternative of having them watch his every gesture and expression as he faced his task.
The sword resting point-down at his side, Peter leaned over and placed the palm of his hand on Egon's chest, pressing hard enough to define the ribs under the taut musculature, probing lightly for the two he would have to pass between. Under his hand the powerful beat was rapid, betraying the anxiety Egon's face showed only in the dilated pupils of his eyes. "You don't have to do this," Venkman pleaded one last time, even though he was convinced it was no longer a choice any of them could change.
That same conclusion was mirrored in the silent look of reproach Egon gave him. There was no answer to it, and so he delayed only long enough to press his hand flat over Egon's heart while he sought and held his gaze. Whatever Peter had thought to say caught in his throat at what he saw there and he drew away, the words unspoken for the sake of his own control.
Moving with ritual gravity automatic under the circumstances, he lifted the blade and rested the tip lightly on Egon's chest, where the point dimpled the skin between the two ribs directly over his heart. It rose and fell slightly in his hands with each measured breath Egon took. Standing above his friend, knowing he would soon apply the pressure on that crosspiece and drive the point into the heart below to still its beating forever, his whole body vibrated invisibly with a frightening feeling he could not put a name to.
"One minute." Flat and uninflected, Winston's unwelcome announcement had all the finality of a slamming door.
Egon's bass was laced with a determination that only barely failed to cover the fear. "Do it." Gazing up from behind a thin veneer of imperturbable calm, he drew a last, deep breath and said quietly, "Please," and underneath the reserve was a supremely aware willingness.
Looking deep into wide, intensely blue eyes, denying none of the feelings he saw there, Peter whispered, "Forgive me," and leaned his weight on the hilt. A wordless cry of infinite despair was wrenched from him as he felt the sword press through the yeilding body, driving into the heart below with eager appetite.
Though Egon nearly bit through his lower lip to keep from crying out, a brief keening moan still escaped him. His grip on Winston's hand tightened to the point of crushing the bones, but it was returned with strength, unflinching from his hold. On the other side he could feel soft, wet splashes as Ray's tears slid from his eyes and tracked onto the hand he clutched to his cheek.
Concentrating, Egon focused his attention on the sensations in his hands, striving to emphasize them over the blinding agony centered in his chest. Eyes closed, he could feel Winston's strong, steady heartbeat transmitted through the enveloping pressure of their interleaved fingers, a rock to cling to. On the other side, the delicate touch of Ray's lips pressed a kiss to the back of his hand, wet from the tears that gathered in dark brown eyes and fell without lessening. With fading control, he tightened his grip briefly, letting the younger man know he was conscious of the gesture and reciprocated the emotion.
The blade was a pillar of flame pinning him to the ground, and he gasped, unable to stop the rising tears of pain as his heart spasmed one last time around its ruined self. Gentle hands removed his glasses and smoothed away the stinging saltwater, caressing his face and combing through his hair. He opened his eyes to see Venkman's sea-green gaze fixed on him from less than a foot away, clouded with self-loathing and grief. In a moment of total, encompassing clarity, Egon knew what absolution he had to give and made his last breath a benediction and an instruction.
"Love you," he whispered, and as his sight dimmed to blackness he saw the words register. His last sensation, more powerful even than the final contracting of his heart around the demon's sword, was the featherweight brush of Peter's lips sealing his into the next world.
Drawing back, Peter bowed his head, eyes closed. He'd felt the last breath escape Egon's lips, knew the final farewells had been said. Around them the glowing barrier dimmed and disappeared, and Ecto's headlights came slowly to life throwing a harshly angled light over the area. Lost in his own fugue, arms wrapped around himself in a vain effort to warm against the chill freezing him through from the inside out, Peter didn't see Egon's form waver and fade until Ray and Winston both exclaimed at once.
"No!" Ray's cry was sharp with pain and Peter opened his eyes, startled to find he could still react to anything at all. He understood immediately what had prompted Ray's distress, for his glance fell downward just soon enough to see the last lines of Egon's form fade into nothingness. There was nothing left but his folded uniform, slightly indented where it had pillowed his head. Not even a darkening pool of blood was left to indicate that any of what had happened had been reality. Both the sword and the body were gone as if they had never existed, but the look of hurt bewilderment on Ray's face and the hollow, empty awfulness inside himself were too sufficient proof it had all happened. His brow contracted and he glared around, seeking a target for his wrath.
"What the..?" Winston said, then cleared his throat as he wiped at his eyes and tried again. "What gives?"
"Set kept his promise. The barrier's gone," Ray noted without enthusiasm. Flat and inflectionless, his voice conveyed the impression there was no life inside him left to express.
"But what the hell did he take Egon for? We gave him what he wanted, this wasn't part of the deal." Tilting his head back, Peter roared at the black, star-filled sky, "God damn it, give him back, do you hear me? Give him back!" The only one looking upward, he was the only one to see the flare of crimson light that spread out from around the just-risen, darkened new moon like a corona, extending to cover nearly half the sky with its blood- colored luminance before it faded rapidly into invisibility. The display was coldly contemptuous of him and his desires, a visual show of uncaring laughter that chilled his defiance to an icy, impotent rage. A strangled, inarticulate growl escaped him, an animal sound of pure hate.
Lurching to his feet, Winston stumbled away into the darkness without a word.
To Peter's other side, Stantz sat unmoving, completely withdrawn into himself. His eyes were closed and tears ran down his cheeks in a continuous stream, glittering in the headlights' cold glare like broken glass. That sight, and the twisting pain it brought broke the hold his anger had over him. Scooting sideways the short distance to Ray's side, Peter leaned against him and wrapped both arms around him.
Ray shuddered and recoiled, an uncontrollable reaction of horror, and it cut Peter to the core. Feeling Peter stiffen and let go his hold, Ray mumbled an inarticulate apology and reached blindly to return the embrace, holding him in place before he could withdraw completely. "I loved him," he whispered in explanation, his breath catching into sobs.
"He knew." Peter locked his chin over the top of Ray's head, his breath stirring the auburn hair, and hugged him tightly. The cold inside made him shiver and seek a warmth in Ray's touch that could never be sufficient to drive the chill away. What have I done? A wave of inward-directed revulsion crested over his mind and his whole body shook with the violence of the internal conflict. He had loved Egon. He had killed Egon. Those brilliant eyes had been closed forever at his hand, and he knew he would never again look into Ray's open face without seeing that knowledge reflected back at him.
Peter wasn't aware of Winston's return until he moved into his line of vision to pick up Egon's uniform before he spoke. "There's nothing to stick around here for. I'll drive." His voice was husky and Peter acknowledged the offer with only a silent look.
Still dry, his eyes gleamed dully green, reflecting little but despondence too hopeless to be called grief yet. "Ray, come on, we're going to leave now," he said gently. "We're going home."
"It won't be home," Ray murmured. "Not without Egon." But he didn't resist Peter's tug on his arm. With one final look back at the crushed grass covering the small patch of ground that was the only testimony remaining to their sacrifice, he allowed himself to be steered to the car and into the back seat.
"I'll sit with him," Peter offered as Winston slid in behind the wheel. "Do you mind?" He hadn't ever stopped to notice before how perfectly the car fit the four of them. One empty seat meant that unless they were willing to cram shoulder-to-shoulder three across in the front seat for three hours, somebody had to spend the trip alone with his thoughts. Neither of them believed it should be Ray.
"No, go ahead. I'd just as soon have a little time to myself right now any way."
Climbing in behind him, Peter leaned forward over the seat long enough to lay a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks," he said simply.
Winston's head drooped forward a moment. "It ain't easy, man."
Venkman tightened his grip momentarily, unable to offer any words that could make it easier, then let go as Winston started the engine. Slumped listlessly against the inside of the door, Ray was a pale smear half-seen against the black window, but Peter read enough from his posture to know he was withdrawing into his own closed world. Sliding halfway across the seat toward him, the psychologist silently offered a haven within the circle of his arm, but Ray shook his head, retreating further back into the corner.
Peter's pretended nonchalance in accepting the rebuff came purely through force of habit and he transmuted the gesture into an indistinguishable part of his stretching and settling in place. As if he had intended nothing else, he left his arm along the top of the seat and tilted his head back, closing his eyes in apparent preparation to drift off to sleep. It was a mistake, for his mind disdained inaction and projected a vivid picture on the inside of his eyelids. Bright and bitter, the memory surfaced of Egon meeting his gaze, before his face twisted with contained agony as Peter leaned forward on the hilt and drove it downward.
His own breath caught in his throat as his heart stumbled in its pace again, and the stabbing in his chest kept him from noticing his eyes also betrayed him, finally beginning to leak slow tears against his volition. Had he really believed he could accept the results of that action without effort, secure in the knowledge Egon had volunteered and agreed to it? Struggling to even out his breath as it persisted in catching only seemed to make it worse and even as he fought against allowing the tempest of emotion to take over, he felt a warm, trembling weight against his side. Strong arms wrapped around him offering silent forgiveness and companionship, and that simple feeling tipped the last vestige of his control irrevocably out of reach. "Egon," he whispered, treasuring the name with a lingering pronunciation that laid him open, for in letting himself feel the warmth of that love he let loose the fires of hell.
In the darkness Peter wept as Ray did, the force of his sorrow shaking them both as they clung together. Remorse burned through him like a firestorm, leaving a bleak, lifeless waste in place of his soul. Many miles had passed silently under Ecto's even tread before that hellish blaze was done with him. The air was cool on his cheeks where wet tracks dried slowly, and he stared unseeing at the black-on-black countryside that rolled anonymously past the window, as dark and empty as his thoughts, his life. It would hurt like this forever, he knew with utter certainty, because he would never forget Egon nor love the memory of him any less as time passed. His hold on Ray shifted subtly from the clutch of desperate need to a more gentle touch of support and solace, and he tried to give the younger man the comfort he could not find for himself, for despite all he had lost the gift of caring still lived in the smouldering ruins of his heart.
Ray shifted in his arms, bringing a hand up to wipe at his eyes in a futile effort to clear them. "I'm sorry," he murmured in a tone of wrenching hopelessness. "It was my fault..." Unable to finish, he tried to pull back but Peter didn't let go and he subsided, tightening his own hold and crying again. "My fault," he repeated, his voice fainter and slurred with tears.
In the darkness Peter's face twisted with confusion, a look that would have been comical if it hadn't been so melancholy. "How could it possibly be your fault?" he demanded in a low voice. I killed him. "Ray, listen to me. We ran into something we just couldn't handle, and it got one of us. That's not your fault. Hell, if you hadn't known that binding formula Set would have killed all of us instead of having to be satisfied with one."
The reply was a muffled wail. "But we killed Egon!"
No, I did. Truth sent ripples of pain from the blackened wreck of his heart outward to lap at the crumbling edges of his sanity. Oh god, Egon, what have I done to us? He forced that question into the background, concentrating on what he could do to retrieve what was left of Ray. Knowing only distraction could break through such overwhelming despair, he sighed with conviction truer than even Ray could have guessed, "You hate me for that." To his sensitized hearing there were undercurrents in the answer that contradicted its words, but those unspoken reproaches were less condemnation than he deserved.
"I do not. I don't hate you, Peter, honest."
"No," the psychologist said very gently, "You hate yourself right now. But you don't deserve it."
"Yes, I do. I let it happen. I never deserved a friend like Egon," he protested, voice thick with tears.
God knows I never did. "No, that's not right, damn it." Peter sighed, tightening his hold around Ray's shoulders. "Listen to me, Ray. You are worthy of everything any of us could give, you've proved it a hundred times."
The only answer for a time was the renewed, miserable, low sobbing of a man whose life had become too pointless and ill-fated to bear any longer. Finally, Peter caught the whispered, "Oh, god, I hate myself for letting him do it."
His own stomach twisted in complete agreement as automatic self-blame scourged him again, but he ruthlessly quashed the rising tightness in his throat and hissed fiercely, "Don't, Ray! He knew what he was buying and he considered it well worth the cost. How can you hate someone Egon loved well enough to die for?" It was a rhetorical question and he continued with the answer immediately. "Yes, you're alive and he isn't. You're entitled to grief, Ray, there's nothing at all wrong with that. But don't feel guilty along with it, or confuse the two. Yes, you should remember Egon, remember his friendship, but don't destroy yourself with blame over what happened."
His own voice was beginning to shake and fail and Peter shut up for the moment, unable to keep talking without betraying how thoroughly he was incapable of following his own advice. All those years and classes in psychology and what did he have for it? A handful of platitudes that could no more comfort his friends than they could heal the raw, bleeding slashes that were his own emotions. Remember Egon, remember his friendship, his own words mocked him. He remembered all right, remembered too well the trust he had seen in those eyes, the love for him in those final words, and his own cowardice in being unable to repeat them. Clearer than even the feel of the cold iron hilt in his hands he recalled the infinitesimal catch of returned pressure on his lips.
If any human throat can truly convey the sound of ultimate suffering, Peter Venkman came closest to it that moment.
Up front, Winston could only drag his arm periodically across his eyes to keep his vision clear enough to drive, and whisper 'good-bye' to the lean, blond image that haunted his thoughts.
The firehouse was dark when they pulled in shortly before dawn and after shutting the big doors behind the car they didn't bother to unload anything, even the full traps, but by silent mutual agreement made their way upstairs to the bedroom. Halfway up the stairs Winston staggered back, nearly missing his footing as he was assaulted by a high-pitched squeal of delight and a flying mass of ectoplasm.
"Winston! Peter! Ray!" Slimer greeted each one ecstatically, following up with a sloppy kiss. Once past Ray, he paused and looked around eagerly, knowing he had one more greeting to administer. "Egon?"
"Egon's not coming home." Deadened with grief and fatigue into anonymity, the voice that answered could have come from any one of them.
"Not coming?" Zipping over and around Ecto in several looping passes, he caught up with them again at the top of the stairs. "Why not coming?"
"He's gone," Ray said flatly.
"Gone how?" Floating at eye level in front of Peter, the spud crossed his arms and stopped in place, forcing Peter to halt.
Coming to a stop, Peter said wearily, "He's dead. We ran into something nasty and it got him and he's not coming back." Reaching up, he gently pushed Slimer aside and continued through the door, wiping ectoplasm off his hand absently.
Stunned, the little ghost floated straight into the doorframe, vanishing into the wood. When he emerged a second later it was at full speed, wailing loudly. Peter staggered under the impact as Slimer latched around his neck from behind, shedding copious tears.
"Get off," he gritted, and his voice was so cold that Slimer let go immediately and backed off, his eyes going larger.
"Peeeeeterrrrr?" With a sensitivity to mood that he seldom displayed, Slimer's whine was not his usual reproachful complaint, but a questioning tone that carried something approaching real sympathy. Looking to the others as they passed him, he wrung his hands in confusion, begging for some explanation.
"Peter's upset, but it's not your fault, Slimer." Winston paused and gingerly patted Slimer on the back, his look in Peter's direction compassionate. "Just let him alone for now, OK?"
Nodding without understanding, Slimer moved to follow Ray as he trudged toward his bed. "Ray?" he asked cautiously, clearly not sure he wouldn't be rejected again.
"Yes?" As if he didn't have the energy to even get undressed, Ray dropped onto his bed and sat slumped over, elbows on knees, head hanging.
Slimer drifted closer, floating near the floor so he could peer upward at Ray's face. "Ray mad too?"
He sighed but it was flat and conveyed only a pervasive sense of inner defeat. "No, I'm not mad at you." He straightened slightly. "Come here, Slimer," he offered, opening his arms.
Snuggling into his chest with uncharacteristic care, Slimer glanced once over his shoulder at Peter, then began to soak the front of Ray's outfit with tears and slime.
His face still set and cold, Peter stripped off his uniform, and had tossed it on the floor in the corner per his usual habit when he paused, then retrieved it and examined the sleeves carefully. The cloth was dirtied only with grass stains and the ectoplasm Slimer had left behind. No trace remained of the blood that had saturated it when he had leaned over Egon at the last. He had felt it at the time, sticky and warm with the heat of Egon's body, soaking through the material to his skin as he said farewell. It had been the least of his concerns, but now the loss of even that token of his friend's presence was too hard to take. Egon was gone, wiped from their lives as thoroughly as if he had never existed, but for the memories they had of his calm courage, sly humor, and warmly protective devotion to them all.
His hand crumpled the cloth and his arm cocked to throw it back onto the floor but he paused as another memory surfaced, then he slowly drew the red-framed glasses from the front breast pocket. Folded, they lay in his palm looking small and lost, but no more so than he felt at that moment. Peter made the few paces around his own bed to Spengler's and carefully set the frames down on the table between them.
Across the room, Ray's face tightened and he squeezed his eyes shut, unable to bear the illusion that Egon had left them there and was only out of the room for a moment. Silent tears slid from under his lashes and he hugged Slimer closer, preferring even the cold, squishy comfort of that contact to being so alone.
Returning from the bathroom, Winston hit the light switch, plunging the room into shadow. Outlines of the furniture became half-visible in the faint light coming from the hallway through the arched window over the door. Though everything looked as it should, a fundamental element of their lives was gone from their midst and that missing part was so essential that even the things which were still in their proper places somehow looked wrong.
Acutely aware of the depth of silence from the bed next to his, Peter lay wide awake in the darkness, listening to Slimer's diminishing snuffling and Ray's harsh breathing becoming quiet sobbing. Each sound cut at him, reminding him over and over of his part in causing that grief, renewing the images of Egon's death in broad strokes of pain. A great part of him longed to go to Ray's side and lay down next to him, simply to hold on to a warm body and be held in return so that the cold, foul horror of what he had done would not catch him alone and defenseless when he slept. Instead he lay still, guilt keeping him from making the short journey to his friend's side, knowing he had no more power to console Ray than Slimer did. Less, for he had shed the blood Ray mourned and even if it did not show on his hands, it still dripped redly from his eviscerated soul.
His chest and throat ached with the strain of holding his own grief inside, the taste of bile and ashes rising to choke him as memories flashed through his consciousness. The years of his association with the tall physicist were so full of near-misses; the times they had said goodbye over the decision to cross the streams or set the self- destructs, all the times they had thought themselves fatally outmatched until some last-minute inspiration brought them out victorious again. They'd faced a lot of danger together, it was part of what had forged their friendship so powerfully, but in looking back over those times Peter found himself noticing how all along the truly weird, hazardous shit always seemed to zero in on Egon. From werechickens and backfiring disintegration weapons to vengeful witches and demons in search of new bodies, he had survived more bizarre attempts on his life than the other three ghostbusters together had ever had to face. Years of seeing such repeated escapes from certain death had given Peter the feeling that nothing could beat Egon, that the tall, blond genius could think or luck his way out of any peril the world (or the netherworld) could throw at him. That luck had finally run out, as it had to some time, and all the practice Peter had gotten in saying goodbye hadn't come close to preparing him for the time when it would be for good, when there would be no surprise twist to bring them the joy of saying hello again. There was no comfort for him in remembering the successes and good times they had shared together, not when every thought of Egon was overlayed with the visceral memory of what it had felt like to lean his weight on the sword until it sank deep into flesh and brought agony and bloody death to a man he had loved like a brother. Egon's death had not been quick or clean; in Peter's memory it was a slow and obscene ending, a butchering instead of a release. He accepted that the price paid meant he had to live, yet his whole being yearned for the peace of death he had sent his friend to.
Peter lay in his bed, alone, remembering, knowing with total, unforgiving clarity what he had done and what he had lost, and didn't try to stop the silent tears from soaking his sideburns. The thin light of dawn was beating faintly around the edges of the heavy curtains when the sheer weight of exhaustion finally overcame him and he fell asleep, and began dreaming.
He was walking along a deserted path through twilight, the cinders of the path distinguished from the burned, dry ground all around only by their slightly lighter color. The bleak landscape was totally empty of life, not even the pale green of lichen lightening the stones that littered the dark, gritty ground, and the lowering red sky lent the air an oppressive feeling. Next to the walkway was a row of identical stone crosses, each about two feet high, spaced at six foot intervals. Their faces were crudely cut and after casually glancing at them he continued onward.
With nothing much else to look at, his eyes returned to the crosses soon, but this time he noticed there seemed to be some weathered carving around the outline of the nearest one. The traces were more definite on the next one along and he tilted his head, coming to a stop for a moment to study them. Shrugging to himself when he failed to discern any immediate importance to the observation, he walked on, now watching the markers with mild curiosity.
They gradually transformed, as if the sequence of stones were placed in time rather than space and he was walking along the history of a single one, seeing how it changed from an original shape. Each was slightly more delicately formed than the last, the crosspiece thinner and the upright developing a bevel leading to increasingly sharper edges. With an unpleasant jolt, he abruptly realized the shape was not that of the Christian cross that commonly marks graves, but of a sword driven point-first into the ground. The changeover was so gradual he could not tell which one stood at the boundary, but now he could see that the grey markers were made of dulled metal, not polished stone. There were traces of a shape on the ground under each, the shadow of something that had once lain under them, and he was positive he didn't want to know what it had been.
It wasn't a choice he had. As the roughly sword-shaped markers became more and more positively identifiable, the traces of what accompanied them also became more unmistakable. First there were small bits of white that might well have been small stones, but soon resolved themselves into chips and pieces of broken, weathered-clean bone. The pieces became larger, more numerous, until the outline of a skeleton lay under each implanted blade, bleached ribs reaching up toward the hilt like curving fingers. Under the evil sky, they cast shadows that had a disturbing tendency to shift just inside the limits of his peripheral vision.
"No," Peter moaned, not wanting to go any further, knowing what he would find when he reached the end of the path. Already he was far enough along that he could tell the skeletons were becoming more and more complete, and in the distance the final blade pinned a whole body. The livid sky reflected on the distant metal, flashing red highlights above a pale purple and tan shape.
Dragging his feet, resisting the pull that kept him moving forward, he rebelled against admitting recognition of the figure laying so horribly still at the end of his journey. A hot, fetid gust, heavy with the smell of sulfur and stone, ruffled his hair as he rounded a small curve in the path. Hidden from him before but visible now was a huge lake of half-molten lava, black crust floating on it like scum, the red-orange glare of liquid rock showing through cracks in its surface. Wisps of smoke and tendrils of flame danced across it, giving it a simmering appearance of life.
Despite the heat, he shivered. The molten, fiery lake held none of the awesome fascination such sights usually did; instead it radiated the same sullen, evil intent as the grim sky and scorched ground. In all that expanse of burnt lifelessness there was only one fragment of color, and now he hurried toward it, suddenly afraid it was an illusion that would disappear before he could reach it, touch it, say one more goodbye to it.
Illusion or not, it didn't disappear before he reached it. Laying on the ground as he had been when Peter last saw him, arms spread out from his sides, Egon looked unchanged. The sword's vertical shaft, a third of its length buried in his ribcage, made him look as if he had been pinned there like a butterfly. Blood stained a wide circle around the blade's point of entry, but the wet crimson patch was no larger nor darker with oxidation than it had been when he last saw it under the blue-tinted light of the force dome.
Grabbing at the hilt, Peter braced his feet and tensed to pull the blade upward and out of Egon's body, meaning to free him, if not from death, at least from the instrument of his death. In the space of time between touching the sword and the moment he could exert any tension on it, Egon tensed in sudden reaction and wailed a low, terrible keening cry, too weak to be a scream though it carried all the agony of one. Paused momentarily with shock, Peter gritted his teeth and ground out, "Hold on, I'll get this thing out of you."
Wide, disbelieving blue eyes opened, their expression transmuting almost instantaneously from relief to horror. "No," he groaned. "Don't."
Half-tensed to yank the blade free, Venkman paused in puzzled surprise at the protest. "What?! Why not?"
"If you remove it, the bargain reverses. Set will return and kill you all." His words held no hesitation, only an urgent concern.
"Next you'll have to ask me if I care." He had felt what Egon's loss could do to him, and comparing a lifetime of hours like those just past to the alternative of his own death was hardly a tough choice at all.
"No!" Without the luxury of time to soften the blow, Egon snapped, "Don't kill Ray too!"
Snatching his hands away, Peter shook his head as if he had been slapped. "Not at all fair," he protested, but his resolve still wasn't completely sidetracked. Torn between the desire to alleviate his friend's suffering and the suspicion that doing so would indeed make things worse, he wavered, indecision etching lines in his forehead and around his mouth, until suddenly his eyes narrowed and his expression lost its intense animation. "Wait a minute. I'm dreaming this. None of it's real: not you, not this place."
He backed away and glared around, his angry gaze at last swinging down to Egon in accusation. "This is all a twisted projection of my subconscious guilt. Well, I've got news for my subconscious: I don't need any reminders." Throwing his head back, he clenched his fists and shouted at the flame-colored sky, "I don't need this! I know what I did - I loved him, and I killed him." Waving one hand at the prone form on the ground, he cried, "I know I killed him, I admit I killed him, I accept I killed him. Are you satisfied? I looked into his eyes as I drove that sword through his breast and I felt his last breath on my cheek." His chest was heaving and his voice failed, the shout reduced at last to pleading laced with wracking dry sobs. "What the hell else do you want?"
Above him, the clouded sky gave no answer, and his attention was forced back to the unchanging bare, black ground and the wretched figure still laying there. Brimming tears had slowly filled Egon's eyes and were spilling out the corners to leave wet tracks across his temples before disappearing into his hair.
"You're not real," Peter insisted desperately, rocking forward one halting step. His eyes were haunted with the approach of madness as the dichotomy between what he felt for Egon and what he had done kept tearing at the foundations of his stability. "You were my best friend. I killed you."
"I'm sorry." Egon's voice broke, cracking under the weight of an inescapable torment as cruel as the conflict that tortured Peter. He had never expected he'd have to face the specter of what his death had done to the ones he left behind. Now, as Peter's ruined spirit confronted him with all its pain, he knew that through his own blindness to consequence he had caused that agony, had in effect deliberately willed and accepted it on behalf of a man who now paid the price with his sanity. The anguish tearing Peter apart was entirely on his account, and the logic that had seemed so simple and persuasively clear when he had made his decision was no longer so perfectly obvious at all when all the costs were tallied and laid out in view. Held immobile as much by Peter's struggle with himself as by the blade that transfixed him, Egon looked helplessly on, barely able to see through the tears that magnified the blue of his eyes into bottomless azure wells of misery. "It can't be you." As if drawn on wires against his will, Peter moved forward until he was standing over the prone body. Raising his line of sight, he stared at the unchanging landscape around them, puzzlement briefly edging out the internal strife that had dominated his features. "If this is a dream," he wondered aloud slowly, "why hasn't it changed or come under my control when I recognized it wasn't real?" When he looked down again the faint beginnings of a daring hope showed, and his voice shook. "Egon?"
Well aware his own voice would only betray him if he attempted speech, Spengler assented by closing his eyes briefly. He heard the low moan of inextricably combined joy and despair as Peter fell to his knees, and when he opened his eyes again Venkman had bent forward over him far enough that he could see clearly into those stunning green eyes. Surfacing from the depths was Peter's vulnerable soul, stripped of all camouflage, and Egon returned the look for a single eternal moment, his eyes lambent with the same undisguised love.
"Damn you anyway, Egon Spengler," Peter murmured with infinite tenderness. His fingers combed through the long blond hair, thumbs coming to rest over Egon's temples, stroking away the saltwater tracks.
As if intending to speak, Egon's lips parted but then he simply sighed and leaned his right cheek into the hand cradling his face. Eyes closed, he savored the touch of his friend with such unabashed gratitude that Peter's eyes stung and his breath caught painfully, forcing him to cough to clear his throat. Gently, he shifted his hand lower and his thumb caressed the high, sharp cheekbone. "How could you know?" he whispered, as sure as he had been when the straws were first drawn that Egon had known the outcome ahead of time. That certainty also recalled his vicious accusation of attempted self-preservation in preferring odds of one in four over sticking together with the team, thrown out in a moment's unthinking heat. The courage and love for them all Egon had concealed by arguing as he had, knowing the whole time it was his own death he promoted, humbled Peter into a very unfamiliar feeling of unworthiness. This time the tears did escape him. "I'm sorry," he choked, but as he tensed slightly to shift his weight back and pull his hands away, Egon curled his own right arm upward from the ground and captured Peter's hand, holding it in place.
"Don't be." His eyes opened slowly. "There was no other choice." That rare pride flashed in their depths, mixed with a hint of resignation, before they drifted shut again as if seeing lessened the perception of Peter's touch on his skin. "Knowing just made it easier. You were right. I took the safer way."
Peter gently brushed his free hand through Egon's hair, smoothing it back from his forehead and temple in delicate strokes that said what he could not give voice to without breaking down completely. "What went wrong?" he asked at last. He looked around, and shuddered at the stark unpleasantness of the surroundings. "What is this place and how did I find it?"
Egon sighed shallowly, letting go of Peter's hand and shifting with his usual speed and lack of discomfiture from deep emotionalism into objectively analyzing the situation. "A dimension controlled by Set." The familiar light of scientific curiosity was returning to his eyes, momentarily clearing them of pain and tears. "You're not here physically, but in astral projection."
Following that calming lead, Peter swallowed until his throat was clear enough his voice would not crack, and replied, "Uh uh, won't wash. I researched astral traveling for my second dissertation. You have to know where you're going in the real world in order to send your mind there in trance. Which leaves this out because I don't have a clue where we are or how to get here, awake or asleep." Reaching out, he picked up Egon's hand and pressed it between his palms before simply holding it. "Besides, classic astral projection is limited to observation without interaction. I'm here as more than just a floating awareness."
"You must be linked to me through the sword."
"Even allowing for the natural psychic resonances created by a ritual killing, a plain old sword couldn't draw me to another dimension." At the look of surprise he got, Peter shrugged nonchalantly. "So I paid more attention in Pagan Magic 101 than I let on. It has to be a psychically active artifact, then, so where does that get us?"
"It would fit with the information Tobin had on Set and his symbology. That means real information exists on Set, and possibly on how to deal with him." Egon had the pained look of a frustrated scientist faced with a question that could be resolved by a simple measurement he was unable to make. "If we could determine how much of your presence is real and how much is projection, we could probably control travel back and forth. I wish I had a PKE meter."
That brought a smile to Peter's face, the first genuine one in what seemed like ages. "You're a nutcase," he said, his voice warm with fondness.
One blond brow cocked in mock umbrage, but he made no return insult. Instead, he asked, "How long?"
"How long what?"
"Since I died."
Peter had to pause to calculate, but some of the time he used to reabsorb the knowledge that his friend was dead. "About ten hours." Even sitting here talking to him, touching him, did not change the loss he had to return to when the dream ended.
Suddenly Egon's breath caught, hissing between clenched teeth. His head tipped back and his whole body shuddered, his grip on Peter's hand tightening sharply.
"What? What is it? What'd I do?" Peter demanded frantically. "Egon? What's happening?"
For a minute that stretched to the breaking point he got no answer and all he could do was hang onto his friend, trying to impart some measure of comfort through his touch. Nothing he did seemed to help and he could tell it was only by the most extreme expenditure of effort Egon held back a raw scream. The fit was over as quickly as it started and he went limp as if some giant, invisible hand had released him, his head rolling loosely in Peter's hold.
"Talk to me, damn it! What's going on?" Peter snapped, trapping him in place and staring at him until Egon's eyes cracked open again, bleary with residual pain.
When he spoke again his voice was weaker, as strained as if he had given vent to the cry he'd suppressed. "Set." Peter had to lean even closer to hear him clearly. "Like when he attacked us all. The sword - burns, sometimes." As he spoke he slowly regained some strength and Peter backed off, settling on his heels and taking Egon's hand again, holding it as they spoke. Whether it was for his own comfort or Egon's didn't seem to matter much.
Falling back into detached explanation, Egon's deep voice smoothed out as he continued with his earlier train of thought as though no interruption had occurred. "I suspected it had been something on that order, though you will notice none of my blood has dried. This place exerts a selective stasis - my mind senses time passing but my body appears to be held at the precise moment of death."
"You're continuously conscious without time passing?"
One corner of his mouth twitched slightly in a pathetic attempt at a smile. "I believe I just said that."
"How can you tell? Does it get dark?" Peter glanced upward briefly at the clouded sky, lit from below with the reddish glare of the molten lake. "Relatively speaking, of course."
"No. But my estimate of how long I'd been here was about 11.2 hours, based on counting between flare-ups in the sword and the number of times it's happened. It may not be as precisely regular as I'd estimated, nor did I begin counting them for some time, so there's room for discrepancy. But I believe our two dimensional time lines are moving forward at the same rate." His deep voice still cracked occasionally, the imperfection lending his words more poignancy. "What I don't have a clue to is how long this condition persists before I will be truly dead, or if separation from my body will free my soul from this dimension."
"I'll find out," Peter swore, "and we'll find a way to get you out of here before then. Ray and I... "
"No," Egon interrupted with as much force as he could command. "No. Peter, you cannot tell Ray you've seen me." He could see the stubborn set to his friend's jaw, and hurried to explain his intent before Peter's natural aversion to being told what to do could crystallize any further. "Put yourself in his place," he suggested gently. "How will you feel if you can't find a way to bring Set down or free me?" The flash of apprehension that briefly widened those green eyes told him he had made his point and he pressed on, regretting it had been necessary. "Even if he finds a reference in the literature that tells him about this place or what's happening to me, I don't want him to know for certain. I don't want him to ever believe he failed me."
Still feeling the anticipatory horror of failure and knowing too well how much harder that weight would fall on Ray's ready shoulders, Peter bowed his head slightly and whispered, "All right. He won't know from me." Beneath his hands he felt Egon relax slightly at that promise, accepting it at face value. The scene wavered momentarily as if seen through a heat haze above a desert, solidifying reluctantly. "Damn, I must be waking up," he muttered, and the ground softened under him, firming up and then going semi-solid again even as he spoke.
"Yes, you're fading," Egon observed dispassionately, but in his eyes Peter saw an echo of the tortured despair that had filled them earlier.
Reaching out, he smoothed the unruly hair off Egon's forehead, smiling in exasperation as it persisted in curling back into place. "Hang in there. I'll be back," he managed to say before the sky and ground rippled into one grayish-black non-form and he whirled away from the contact, only vaguely aware of the salt stinging in his eyes.
As Peter's touch faded from his hand, Egon's fingers curled until they clasped only emptiness, trying to hold on to every last bit of human contact that touch gave him. Too soon the last lingering warmth was gone, leaving nothing against his skin but the cold, dry cinders of the desert of pain that held him prisoner. On the heels of his full knowledge that he was alone again came a rolling wave of mind-bending agony, its torture all the harder to bear for his having known and then lost the support of Peter's caring presence. But he fought the attack more fiercely this time than he had when he was alone before, resisting with a resolve as uncompromising as any stand he had ever taken the torment and its endeavor to drive his mind into withdrawal. The difference was made by his having been given a reason to hold on that he'd neither had nor wanted to find when he first arrived in this hell. At first, all he had prayed for was the peace death had promised. That peace had been denied him, and now he did not want it but welcomed instead the continuing existence he had despite its awful price.
Stabbing, boiling heat lit every nerve in his body with unbearable fire, but he locked his teeth over the scream that rose in his throat and rode out the attack, his vision going red. Concentrating all of his considerable intellect, he strove merely to retain his identity and reason intact. For a mantra to focus on, he called on the memory of Peter's face and touch, recalling the strength and affection he had seen and felt and using them as an anchor to sanity. Peter's need to have him there, to find a way to rescue him, gave him the ability to hang on and accept the pain as a transitory condition that had no power over his mind or soul.
At last the pain abated, ebbing away with a sullen reluctance. In its wake Egon slowly relaxed, knowing he had the equivalent of ten to fifteen minutes before it struck again. "Come on, Egon," he mumbled to himself, "you've solved bigger problems than this in less time than that." The words brought a slight twist of dry humor to his lips. On several occasions during the course of his career in ghostbusting he had deduced in mere seconds the necessary method for saving the entire world, but he hadn't really tackled any problem as solely personally involving as his own accomplished death. "Think of it as a challenge," he encouraged himself, and shutting his eyes to the grim, dark sky overhead, began to consider the problem in the pure abstract.
As consciousness returned, Peter realized he had a headache that could faze a berserker. It hurt too much to even groan, and he chose to lie perfectly still for a while ignoring even the cold, damp sensation of Slimer sleeping high on his chest. With his eyes closed, the image of Egon's contained suffering filled his inner vision and his brows contracted, a line of pain centered on his forehead that increased the pressure on his headache. By careful effort he kept his breathing even until the urge to sob or scream had abated. Finally he sighed deeply, opened his eyes, and mumbled, "Yecchhh."
Curled in a tight ball, Slimer was snoring softly, arms wrapped around his tail holding it to his face like a pillow. As Peter stretched and began to roll over, the small ghost sniffled in his sleep and tried to snuggle closer.
"Get off!" Peter hissed at him, pushing at him and struggling to roll onto his side so he could get out of bed. "Dammit, Slimer, how many times..."
Waking, Slimer stretched with his customary innocent enthusiasm, until halfway through a massive yawn his mouth abruptly snapped shut as his big orange eyes locked on Peter's angry face. Cringing back, he shot straight up off the covers and hovered above the bed, uncertain whether he should flee or take the chewing out he knew was coming.
The automatic fear dismayed Peter, and regret surfaced as he recalled how unsympathetic he had been the night before. It had been years since he had been so deliberately nasty, and of all the things he often felt justified yelling at Slimer for, honest sorrow had never been on the list. Glancing around, he saw he was the only one awake yet. "I'm sorry," he whispered, not even giving his habitual grimace at the incongruity of being overtly kind to the spud. "It's not your fault."
Taking the admission for an invitation, Slimer launched himself across the short distance between them, wrapping his arms around Peter's neck and burying his face in Peter's chest, sobbing loudly. "Egon gone!" he cried.
"Geez," Peter choked, and hugged Slimer tightly to him, for once completely uncaring of the ectoplasm smeared all over his pajamas as a result.
"Poor little guy," Winston's low voice was sympathetic. "I'll bet he misses Egon as much as we do."
Glancing over the top of Slimer, Peter let go and observed without heat, "Oh, yuck, spud."
Sniffling, Slimer backed away obediently but his eyes were round with misery and still leaked slowly. He drifted across to Ray's bed. "Ray?" he whined, and Peter bristled.
"Leave him alone, Slimer," he said sharply. "He feels bad enough without your help."
"Peter!" Winston sounded shocked. "Have a heart! The spud's got feelings, too. I thought you cut him some slack just now. What's with you?"
Turning on him, Peter started to snarl, then caught himself with a visible effort and forcibly restrained his temper. "Didn't sleep well," he growled. Blindly grabbing a clean shirt from the wardrobe, he headed for the shower and the door slammed behind him hard enough to rattle the hinges. His head hurt worse from it.
He let the water pound on his back until it began to turn cold, and he didn't shut it off until it had gone completely icy. But even that abuse couldn't distract him from the pain in his head and the even more painful recurring vision of Egon's private hell. There had to be something he could do, but even while he strained for some approach that would offer any hope at all, he knew he would have more problems than he could deal with at once unless he could somehow ensure Ray and Winston's cooperation in keeping Egon's death under wraps. Briefly he cursed his promise to shelter Ray because now he had to trick the other two into going along with his desire for secrecy without letting them know why he needed it.
Without finding any solutions, by the time he had toweled off he had an initial grasp on the more mundane difficulties he was going to have to face, and a basic plan drafted. The details of implementation proved to be slightly challenging.
Winston looked up as Peter joined them at the table. Although it was just before noon he had cooked breakfast instead of lunch, but it really didn't matter since nobody wanted to eat anyway. Noting the psychologist's apparently improved control, he suggested quietly, "We'll have to tell his mother."
"And Janine," Ray mumbled, not looking up from the food he continued to rearrange on his plate without consuming.
Feigning concentration although he already knew his answer, Peter shook his head. "Not yet, guys." Over their twin looks of incomprehension, he plowed onward. "Look at it this way. We don't have a body, and even the blood disappeared when he vanished. He's only missing, so far as we can prove."
"What difference does it make? He died, we were all there." Winston barely bit back the cruel observation that Peter should know since he'd done the killing, more for Ray's sake than to spare Peter's feelings.
"I'm not saying he's not gone." Peter tried to backpedal and sound more plausible. "I'm saying we don't alert the media until we've got something more definite to report. All we could do now is declare him missing and it's not right to waste the cops' time looking for him."
By his troubled expression it was clear Winston was having trouble buying into the proposition. "So what do we tell his mother when she wonders why he hasn't called for weeks? He's on vacation?"
"Research sabbatical?" Peter suggested weakly.
"He's DEAD, man!" Winston exploded. "He's dead and you're cheating him of his memorial, the one thing left we can give him in return for what he did. He deserves honor, not being swept under the carpet and ignored because we don't want to be inconvenienced. You are cold, Venkman, stone cold dead inside." Throwing his napkin down on his plate he shoved back his chair and stormed out.
A stunned, lost look on his face, Ray turned to him. Peter was still for a moment, absorbing the aftershocks of Zeddemore's accusation. Resistance he had expected, but Winston's charges had hit him hard. He could feel Ray's puzzled, hurt look on him, and he cursed himself yet again for ever giving Egon his promise. Avoiding Ray's eyes, he pushed away from the table and left, retreating to the third floor lab with an instinct he didn't even recognize until he had closed the door behind him.
As he realized where he was, he also began to realize why he had come there. Scientific ghost elimination was their business. Reliable detection and control was the reason they were raking in five-thousand-dollar containment charges on every call and hundreds of "mediums" and "spiritualists" hadn't gotten any further than selling tarot readings for fifteen bucks in grubby storefronts and Rennaissance fairs. The Ghostbusters had averted the Apocalypse, met a half-dozen demigods on varying terms and never come off the encounter with a loss, and were called worldwide when weird shit went down and nobody else even had a clue how to handle it. If the Ghostbusters couldn't figure out a way to find one crummy Egyptian refugee and bring back their own, they might as well hang up their proton packs and retire. Peter glared around the lab, pride and anger flashing in his eyes. The whole world came here for answers to this kind of problem. They didn't go down the street to some Madame Xanadu, they called Dr. Peter Venkman and the Ghostbusters, and they kept calling because this was where they got results. Nobody could tell him there wasn't a way to beat Set; he was standing in the very room where everything created for nether-entity busting started. The fight wasn't over yet, not by a long shot.
The problem was, that had never been his end of the business. The person who could have put determination together with knowledge and actually come up with an answer was laying helpless in another dimension. Looking around at the equipment-loaded benches and the large construction in the corner he felt more out of his depth than he ever had before. The hopeless feeling of bewilderment that filled his mind now was far worse than getting lost in the baffling technojargon Egon had delighted in spouting. He'd always had the suspicion that Spengler was perfectly capable of explaining his work in more readily comprehensible terms but chose to speak as he did simply to tease Peter into claiming ignorance. It had been one of their favorite games, with no real rules or object, played only for the enjoyment they got from teasing each other. Right now he missed that deep, dry tone and its occasionally scathing humor more than he could remember missing anything at all, and the ignorance he had often feigned felt as real and profound as his grief.
Sliding into the chair at the main workbench he rested his forehead on his folded arms. "Damn, Egon, I don't know if I can do it," he whispered. "You could solve this in a day, but trans-etheric physics was never my best field." His head still hurt and he had no idea what to say to the guys that could explain his reluctance to declare their partner dead without betraying his promise to Egon. To top it off, the tensions left over from last night were tearing the survivors apart, unraveling the ties that had bound them all together and ruining the unity that should have sustained them through a loss like this. He had heard it in Winston's voice and seen it in Ray's look, and he wondered if even getting Egon back could heal the growing breaches in their mutual support system.
That, he decided, was something else he'd face when it became impossible to avoid. 'Never put off until tomorrow what you can get out of doing all together' had been one of his favorite mottos through school, and this looked like a good time to renew the practice. Until he could talk to Egon again, all he could do was get the home front under control and work up some preliminary theories on where to go from there. Venkman would readily admit to being lazy and non-technically inclined, but he was not stupid and years of association with the two brightest brains in the field had not left him completely ignorant of the applications of ectoplasmic physics either. Maybe he couldn't solve it on his own, but he could damn well get a head start on helping the one who could.
Ray had returned to the bedroom and lain down, his eyes open but not seeing the high ceiling. Against its neutral background he watched the years of his friendship with Egon replayed, until the quirk of a smile or the resonance of a familiar phrase would twist his heart in his chest and he would cry quietly for a time. Never to see Egon again, never to hear his deep, even voice explaining some new invention, never to feel the strong clasp of those arms around his shoulders or know the particular joy an approving look from those cool, laughing blue eyes could bring. When he thought of all the years he had taken such things for granted, from their first meeting at the university to the last touch, he berated himself for not ever having let Egon know how much he was appreciated. Now he had years more to spend knowing what he had lost, and he would never be able to reconcile himself to the terrible cost at which those years had been bought.
To Ray, the physicist had always appeared brave, intelligent and wise, in control - quite simply everything he had always wanted to become himself some day. That his own virtues were practically the same but for their mode of expression had not occurred to him, and would not have made any difference if it had. Egon had been his role model, a scientific icon all the more valuable for being so accessible.
If only he could go back, move faster, be more convincing - anything to avert the ending that took place. Not succeeding in his bid to take the sword alone was the greatest failure he charged himself with, and he replayed that last hour with merciless attention to every mistake he had made until he knew them all by heart. His fault they had not found a solution to the dimensional entrapment, that they had not been able to circumvent the barrier, that the draw for death had fallen to anyone but himself, the most expendable member of the team. All these he claimed as his personal failings, and he inspected and embraced each one until they became a part of him. Fatal errors, all of them, but even so, less painful to recall than the very last blunder he had made: not telling Egon how much he loved him before it was too late.
For each mistake, he found and cataloged all the easy, obvious, painfully simple alternatives he should have been able to spot and accomplish with so little effort. From the minute he had seen the first hint of a large manifestation to the moment Peter had cried out as the sword pierced Egon's chest, there were dozens of paths that might have been chosen instead and led to an ending less unacceptable. If only he'd been paying attention to the road, seen the mist in time, and gotten them the hell out of there before Set could trap them. If only he had recognized Set sooner, had known something about the intent of his appearance, and been able to call on the power of Ra-Harakte's name sooner and to better effect. If only he'd been able to get to the sword in time, before the others could notice and have to stop him. If only he'd been strong enough to shoulder his duty, go through with the destiny he had drawn for and spare Peter the agony of killing Egon. If only he'd simply said, 'Egon, I love you.'
Several times Peter tried to interrupt his introspection, but he did not rouse out of his depression to reply. It was easy, for the soft voice calling his name had no power to banish the guilt nourishing itself on his loss. Each time Peter came, Ray would only turn a mute, liquid look on him, waiting for the reproaches he knew he deserved to be spoken aloud. But Venkman would take his hand and sit silently beside him for a few moments, or merely rest a reassuring touch on his shoulder briefly before going away again. For a few minutes afterward, puzzlement would be intermixed with the melancholy on Ray's open face, for he could not quite understand why Peter didn't hate him as much as he hated himself.
Spending the day unpacking and cleaning Ecto and taking care of the accumulated laundry from their trip gave Winston time to examine his feelings and reevaluate his mood of the morning. The simple activity of doing essentially mindless chores was soothing, and over the course of the afternoon he ended up spending several hours sitting on the basement steps reviewing his association with the ghostbusters, and Egon in particular. When the buzzer on the dryer would bring him back to the present he would be smiling to himself sometimes, but more often having to wipe tears from his face.
It was looking back over the years and seeing the time as little individual scenes that truly brought home how much of their own lives they had lost. His memories were a jumbled combination of the sublime and the ridiculous that, for all their variety and clarity, remained inadequate to convey the sum of what Egon had been. Nor could they begin to make his loss comprehensible in terms of what Egon had taken with him. Crazed charges into haunted buildings; complex gadgets that made neat noises and sometimes threatened cities in other states; long impenetrable lectures on technical topics that somehow became clear, precise orders in the heat of battle; extra turns at doing dishes and taking out the garbage: all of their activities had the tall, nearsighted genius inextricably bound to their center. The obvious loss that would affect the business was his inventive mind, but their lives were made of more than their work together and Egon had brought much more to their partnership than his intellect. Humor and love form the core of the fleeting majesty of life and Egon had effortlessly infused them into everything he touched. Their lives would be that much poorer for his absence. When the singer's gone, let the song go on... Life for them would go on, but the rhythm would be all wrong with a quarter of the notes missing.
Emotions swept through him, and he accepted the grief for the natural part of the healing process it represented, but gradually he became aware of another feeling there, entwined with the sorrow. Anger. He was mad, and it wasn't just the good, righteous anger that should have come from being defeated by an evil force. It was a dirtier feeling compounded of guilt and shame, directed not at their enemy but at himself, and at his friends. Seeing it there within himself, he also saw how it had driven him to say such cruel things to Peter that morning.
He thought back over the hour they had spent under the force dome, watched the last of it from all the distance he could muster. Egon's final words had been meant for them all, Peter's kiss had only echoed the closeness they all felt, and admitting that made Winston ashamed of his accusations. From the back seat of Ecto the sound of Venkman's suffering had reached him as he drove, and he had known it for the breakdown it was. This morning he had added to that burden, not helped ease its carrying. He had seen the pain in Peter's eyes, he just hadn't wanted to acknowledge it was there, as immediate as his own but deeper and more horrible for the part the psychologist had played. Winston saw the anger he felt had been based on rejection of his own perceived cowardice and participation in killing Egon rather than any real belief Peter had no feelings for what had happened. Understanding himself brought a measure of peace, and with it came the strength he would need to help the others through their own resolutions.
When the laundry was done, the car washed, and all the ghost traps emptied, it was late enough to consider dinner. Certain the others would be no more interested in food now than they had been earlier, he also knew they were going to have to face the fact that they remained alive and had the needs of the living to attend to. Fixing the most tempting dish he could think of, he let the smell do the calling for him. It worked, at least partially; as the chili neared completion he looked up from stirring the pot to find Peter leaning against the doorframe watching the preparations.
"About this morning," he said uncomfortably, and saw Peter wince at the reference. He put down the ladle and approached, not sure how to begin explaining all he had considered and concluded during the day.
Evidently Peter had a similar confession. He straightened away from the wall. "I, ahh...."
"I'm sorry," they said simultaneously. The tension between them disappeared as if it had never existed and they moved easily into each other's arms, giving and accepting forgiveness as readily as comfort.
"I didn't mean it, man, any of it. I know you loved him." He felt Peter's breath catch, and held him closer for a moment, giving him time to recover before releasing him. "It's just gonna take time, that's all."
Venkman nodded, his composure settling into place rapidly, the cracks in it almost invisible. Until you looked in his eyes. "It will. But we'll make it. We owe him that." He sighed, leaning back against the wall, and went straight to the point. "I wasn't kidding this morning, I want that time. I think we need it. Can you trust me on this one, for a while at least?"
Winston studied his face, and found nothing more sinister there than weary sorrow. "Give me one good reason, Pete, that's all I ask. Why hush it up?"
"Have you seen Ray all day?" Peter asked in apparent non sequitur. At the look of blank noncomprehension his question elicited, he explained, "He spent the entire day laying on his bed staring at the ceiling. I tried to talk to him a couple times, but he's not ready yet. I don't want him hounded into total withdrawal by the media chasing the juicy story of the world-famous Ghostbusters killing each other." At the incipient protest, he raised one hand. "That's all they'll see, Winston, you know that, and they have no mercy or sympathy. They'll shove a camera into his face just to get a shot of one of us in tears for the evening news." His hand clenched into a fist and his whole body tensed with the force of his determination. "I won't have them doing that to him. Not until we've come to grips with what happened ourselves. It'll be hard enough then, but I don't want any of us to face that circus until we're damned good and ready to take them on."
"When you put it that way, I got no problem with the idea." Over the years he'd seen as much callous sensationalism of death as anyone, he just hadn't made the logical leap of applying that law of publicity to their own situation. When it came to protecting Ray from the insensitive horde of vultures making up the press, he agreed completely with Peter's decision to avoid the confrontation as long as possible. "But I think you ought to let Janine know, she'll be in the spotlight as much as any of us when it finally breaks."
This was the harder choice to justify, and he'd spent a good hour on it. "I will tell her before we go public. But if we're keeping the incident under wraps, the fewer who know, the better. I know she wouldn't phone the Times, but if she tells her mom or one of her friends when they ask why she's depressed, the rumor will get around long before we're ready to confirm it and take the heat. If we're taking the time, we should have it free and clear." Their secretary's special fondness for the physicist made his scenario all the more plausible, and he didn't need to elaborate on the theme to be convincing.
With his recently formed resolve to be supportive and understanding providing additional impetus to go along with the plan for the present, Winston nodded agreement, though privately he thought Peter was being overcautious. Returning to the stove, he stirred the bubbling chili thoughtfully. "What are you gonna do about Slimer? The spud couldn't keep a secret to save anybody's life. Especially not from somebody who knows him as well as Janine does." Dishing up a bowl of the steaming, aromatic concoction, he handed it over with a look that clearly said he would not take no for an answer.
Accepting the bowl, Peter carried it to the table and sat down. "I'll think of something." He did, and had a long conference with Slimer that evening, but whether he used bribery, threat, reasoning, a combination of all three, or something else entirely, neither of them ever let on.
When the dream began the second night, Peter found himself much closer to the end of the path than he had been the time before. Barely glancing at the smoking lake of molten rock, he hurried forward, suddenly afraid he might find only a bleaching skeleton under the last marker. "Egon?" he called anxiously. As he got closer he saw the familiar form still in place, then the lean body tensed and the long neck arched as scarlet flares ran down the blade. He broke into a run, sliding to his knees at Egon's side and grabbing his hand, holding on as the physicist rode out another of the searing attacks.
As it subsided, Egon's fingers relaxed slightly, but it took a little bit longer for him to refocus than it had the night before. When his full consciousness finally settled into the present and included Peter, the gratitude shining in his eyes spoke more eloquently than any verbal greeting.
Peter smiled at him, his own relief lending his eyes a momentary brightness. "Hi there, big guy. Miss me?" Settling back, he sat crosslegged, but did not let go of the hand he was holding.
"Only when I have nothing better to do. News?"
He'd already anticipated the request and mapped out what he wouldn't say. "Pretty much what you'd expect under the circumstances. Winston thinks I'm heavily into denial because I don't want to let everyone know you're dead. He's going along with me for now, but I'm gonna have to get you back soon or he'll try to talk me into facing reality." He waved his free hand at their surroundings. "Such as it is. Now, the way I see it, you're not really dead yet..."
"I'm not dead yet?" The slightest hint of a Pythonesque accent colored the phrase and the shared joke sparkled in their eyes without further acknowledgment. "Peter, it may have escaped your notice, but there is a rather large knife intimately involved with my ribcage. Just how do you define 'dead'?"
"Hey, dead guys usually don't give me a hard time about my powers of observation. If you can argue with me, you're still alive. That makes this situation category B: one of us is missing and we get his butt back no matter what."
"I would agree, but it's pointless to risk much just to recover my body. As soon as I return to the normal dimension, time will resume for me and I will simply die." There was a measure of regret in his voice. He had not wished to die, for life was something he enjoyed very much.
"Then at least you'd be free of this torture." Shifting his grip, he enfolded Egon's hand and laced their fingers together. "If I'd known this would happen, I would never have let you do it, even if we all had to die. The others would back me a hundred percent, and you know it, too." He smiled with fond humor. "Face it, Spengs, you screwed up big time on this one. So shut up and let us rescue you."
"It would appear I have little choice."
"Damn straight. Now, assuming this place is another dimension like the netherworld, or maybe even a part of it, the question becomes: how do we find exactly where you are and get here with a working arsenal? You're our theory man, tell me what to do and I'll build it during the day. It'll give you a way to pass the time."
As if to punctuate his statement, a flare of light ran down the blade and Egon stiffened again as the agony washed through him. Peter leaned forward and gently rubbed the backs of his fingers across Egon's temple. Leaning into the touch, Spengler drew the strength from it to not cry aloud. When it had passed, he blinked a couple times and rolled his head away from Peter's hand again. This time it took even longer before he could speak clearly. "I could use a distraction," he admitted in a raspy voice. "And I have begun some theories along those lines." The constant horrific interludes of agony had kept him from getting very far, but he would no sooner admit that than tell Peter the reason he had no answers yet stemmed partially from his uncertainty that anyone would come again to hear them.
To someone who knew his physicist as well as Peter did, those unspoken reasons were clear without being voiced, as was the struggle to hold on to his dignity and pride every time the sword drew its measure of pain. Granting him that dignity was all he could do and Peter let the question of what had been accomplished in the time passed since last night lay unasked. There would be plenty of time for the physicist to consider the problem and technical details once he was alone again, so Peter shifted into his entertainment mode, actually drawing a weak chuckle at one point with his description of some of the calls that had been waiting for them with their answering service. Very consciously he avoided mentioning Ray's near-catatonic state or the brief bitterness that had divided him and Winston. Egon, astute enough to notice there were omissions, was also wise enough not to question them, though he yearned for the reassurance his decision had been the right one that word of Ray and Winston's continued existence would have provided.
When Peter was drawn away from him this time, Egon found himself missing that friendly presence even more than he had when he was left alone the night before. The first time Peter had come their meeting had been so unexpected and intense it had some of the quality of a dream, a wishful hallucination allowing him the fantasy of emotional closure in what he had done. As session after session of the soul-destroying agony slowly eroded the edges of his mind, Egon had come close to believing their talk had not been anything but his imagination's seeking escape in dreaming of what he wanted most. Nor could he take much comfort in forcing himself to believe it had really happened, for even if Peter had actually been with him there was every possibility the unforeseen encounter was only a single unrepeatable event; a gift from some merciful power or an oversight by the enemy. Over the long hours separating their contacts the physicist had steadfastedly refused to allow either probability to strip him of his will to endure, for if by some chance Peter's sojourn had been not only real but the beginning of a continuing dialog, then giving up hope and resistance was the one thing he could not afford to do. There would always be opportunity later to give in to Set's hunger and let his will and soul finally dissolve away.
Now that it appeared he was to have a regular visitor the time between those visits was an endless wasteland of lonely pain, made all the more awful through comparison with the comfort of companionship he had for so brief a period each night. For long moments he savored the memory of the feeling of Peter's hand in his, refusing to give up the solace of that touch, knowing Set's torture would be back soon enough to find him bereft of his best support. Resisting was an automatic reflex he no longer had to consciously engage, but it got no easier with repetition. The pain returned each cycle as sharp and new as it had been the very first time, and the only refuge he had from its awful draining effect was the inner fortress built from his own feelings and memories. Reinforced by Peter's open caring, Egon's remaining inner strength was founded on the knowledge that he had bought the lives and safety of his dearest friends and he clung to it tightly as the red-black tide of agony rose again and again.
Through the blinding pain, he remembered the soft, wet feel of Ray's gentle farewell and for a moment, the sweet twist of warmth it brought overshadowed the torment spreading outward from his heart. The similar, intensely powerful memory of Peter's goodbye could almost banish the agony Set used to try him to his breaking point. What Egon called on for the ability to endure had no breaking point; the love of his friends had no limit or boundary that could be measured and overcome by any external force, no matter what it did to him. So long as Set could not take that away from him, the Egyptian would not prevail. Against Egon's will Set could hurt him, anger him, weaken him, and eventually destroy him, but never own him.
Ownership was the crux of the matter, that much Egon had guessed early on from the terms of the sacrifice. In the all too brief respite between attacks he considered what he knew of such matters, and regretted deeply the resources of strength and will he had let go in the first hours of his captivity without realizing their value until too late. Useless recriminations were not something he was prone to, however, and after acknowledging to himself that he should have been more alert to the implications of what happened despite the emotional distractions inherent in the situation, he returned his mental efforts to the more immediate and pressing problem of his own rescue.
Winston was already up and the smell of coffee floating up from the kitchen indicated his general whereabouts. Caffeine was tempting, and Peter inhaled as deeply as he could without moving. His head hurt just as badly as it had the day before but he didn't feel the same overwhelming horror. They had a plan, Egon was thinking, and Slimer was not sleeping on his chest. Things were improving already. The next step was to chivvy Ray out of his funk and into some vital research.
Hauling himself upright, he plodded over to Ray's bed and surveyed the damage. For only a day's time, it was extensive. Ray's eyes were set in dark hollows that gave him a gaunt look, and the laugh lines that decorated the corners of his eyes were already less pronounced than the lines of care and sadness that creased his brow. Knowing he had put some of those lines there hurt, and he wondered whether they could ever be erased even if there was some way to win in the end.
Curled up against Ray's side rather than floating nearby, Slimer was snoring. Peter's mouth twisted in anticipatory disgust, but he bent and prodded Slimer awake. "Yo, spud," he hissed. "Breakfast!" The look he got carried mild suspicion, but the smells wafting up from downstairs confirmed his invitation and a moment later he was alone with Ray. Pushing aside the ectoplasm-covered blanket, he sat down and gently shook Ray's shoulder, calling his name.
Upon waking, the lines in his face seemed to deepen as consciousness returned, an aura of despair materializing around him. Squinting up, he rubbed at his eyes. "Peter?" There was more resignation than curiosity in the greeting.
"Yeah, kid. You gonna talk to me today?"
That brought a little life to his face, though it did not linger long. "Of course."
"I need a big favor. Can you do some research for me?" He was glad to see puzzlement in Ray's eyes. So far he'd elicited more reaction in two minutes than he'd seen the entire previous day. There was life under the shell of pain, he only had to keep dragging it out into the light until it could stand to stay there on its own. "I need to know more about Set. Who he is, where he lives, everything."
The brief light of interest faded back into dull unhappiness. "He's a god, Peter. Something we can't handle."
He snorted derisively and smacked Ray's shoulder with the back of his hand. "Since when? We've busted more gods than most people believe in. Egon said we could take the guy if we could have gotten outside his force field. I'm betting he was right, and this is one deity whose butt needs some serious kicking. Nobody grabs my friends and gets away clean, god or not."
As Ray nodded doubtfully, the expression in his haunted brown eyes wasn't so much a renewal of hope as it was a miniscule lightening of complete hopelessness. "I'll check, we have a couple books that should say something about him." For now, that much of an admission he was willing to move onward would have to be enough of a start.
"Great. One other thing. Winston and Slimer have agreed not to tell anyone about what happened for a while. I'd like you to give me your word that you won't either, until I say it's all right."
Ray's brow creased in complete incomprehension. "Why not?"
"I need time." That much, at least, wasn't a lie. "We all do. When the news breaks it's going to be a media circus. I don't think any of us are up to dealing with that, or the accusations that are bound to come out of it." He leaned closer, and the pleading fear in his voice was not faked. "Ray, if we tell them he's dead, we have to tell them how it happened. I'll be arrested for his murder. I couldn't handle that, not yet, not so soon. Just give me a little time, please?"
Ray hadn't been under the illusion that things couldn't get worse, but he hadn't had the opportunity to think about just how awful they might become. The idea of Peter jailed for Egon's murder opened new vistas of loss and fresh tears welled, wetting his cheeks.
The agonized sympathy in those trusting eyes made Peter feel like a monster for manipulating him so easily. Smiling with an effort, he said as confidently as he was able, "It might not come to that. Just let me work on it for a while before we do something we can't take back, that's all I'm asking." When Ray nodded agreement he relaxed slightly, then hurried to close the conversation before his rising dislike of his own unscrupulous behavior could give him away. "You'd better head down to breakfast, Slimer's already ahead of you and Winston's likely to let him clean the table before we get there."
Watching Ray struggle out of bed and pull on his robe with the slow determination of someone who felt no joy in any prospect, Peter experienced an odd combination of hope and despair. The situation had not improved, in fact if he considered lying to his best friends part of the balance it had deteriorated, but everything he could do about it was at least in control. He'd beat his conscience into a coma later, and work harder at believing he had done the right thing for the long run. If he failed to get Egon back... his mind balked at that, unable to see past what he knew he would feel if he did not succeed. No, Ray did not deserve that added strain, he was going to have a hard enough time making it through the next few days as it was. For now it looked like Egon was right again and he would have to keep his promise of silence.
"Hi, Peter, how was your road trip?" Shifting slightly, Janine peered behind him up the stairs. "Where's Egon?" More interested in looking for the handsome blond, she didn't even ask what Peter was doing up so early when they didn't have an appointment, nor did she catch the flash of intense pain that was quickly guarded in his eyes.
"Boffo trip," the psychologist answered, the forced casualness of his tone detectable only to someone who knew him extremely well. "Mr. Science is out doing research... way out. New Jersey."
Settling back in obvious disappointment, Janine barely avoided sulking at the news. "So when's he gonna be back?"
"A week, two weeks, six months, who knows? Once he gets into his research mode you know how he loses track of time." At the lowering glare that got him, he hastened to add, "Hey, I told him it was a bad idea. New Jersey? Maybe if he'd been exploring toxic waste, I could see it." Explaining glibly that Egon had decided to do some additional data gathering for his low level activity sensor and was staying away from the city (and for that matter, any center of civilization) for an as-yet undefined while, Peter fielded the rest of her questions about their trip so obnoxiously she didn't inquire deeply into why they all seemed quieter than usual or exactly how Egon could be contacted if he was needed back before he was ready to return on his own.
"So unless something is completely urgent, tell them we'll schedule it later when we're at full staff." If something completely urgent did come up, he'd figure out another excuse then. "I'll be upstairs, and Ray's doing some research of his own, so try to keep the interruptions to a minimum. Us scientists have to have complete quiet to concentrate, you know." He leered at her suggestively, ensuring she'd be too mad to wander up later and ask what he was doing.
Glaring at his retreating back defiantly, she injected just the right note of insubordination in her reply. "Sure thing, Dr. Venkman." As he headed up the stairs out of earshot, she added to herself, "Concentrate on screwing off, you mean."
It gave her a bad moment when he paused on the stairs as if he had heard her, but he spoke as if he had only just happened on an idea. "Why don't you take a few days off?" he asked carelessly, coming back down to the lower landing and leaning over the banister. "From what I saw of the appointment list there isn't anything that couldn't wait that long, and we'll be taking it easy here recovering from the rigors of the road." He wiggled his eyebrows at her lewdly, judging to perfection her disgusted response and knowing it would completely overcome any urge she might have had to pry into what those "rigors" were. "When you're done rescheduling things, turn on the answering service and take a week or two off."
"Don't have the vacation time saved up," she said sullenly.
An attack of generosity was one of the more difficult moods for him to feign convincingly, but he assumed an indulgent look and waved a dismissive gesture of royal magnanimity. "Don't worry about it," he said graciously. "Just because you did such a good job all on your lonesome here while we were gone, I won't even count it against your accumulated vacation hours." As it left his mouth the offer surprised him almost as much as it did her, and he considered his own statement with awe. "Am I a great guy or what?" he marveled.
"Usually, 'or what'," Janine replied, and this time she didn't miss the ripple of pain that flashed across his face. Alarmed, she straightened and pinned him with a look that saw far too much for his comfort. "What?" she demanded. "What did I say?"
"Nothing," he covered quickly. "You reminded me of somebody. That's all." Withstanding her scrutiny, he shrugged with forced nonchalance that would not have fooled Ray or Winston. "Really. Don't sweat it." He dismissed her concern with a languid wave, his control recovered enough for the answer to be believable. "Just have a good time and maybe by the time you get back the big blond guy will have finished chasing whatever boon to mankind he's discovering this time. Think positive."
She brightened at that thought, distracted from Peter's odd behavior at the combined lure of ten days of paid free time and the hope of finding Egon returned when she came back. "I'll make the calls right now, Dr. V," she promised, and reached for their schedule book. Peter resumed his trip up the stairs and her last glance at his disappearing figure revealed nothing at all unusual, so she shrugged off the uneasiness she had felt at his last reaction. She would not have been so reassured if she could have seen the way he collapsed bonelessly into the sofa once he made it upstairs, his face a crumpled mask of bared grief.
Ray moved to the shelves and ran his finger lightly along the spines of the volumes until he came to one with a fine leather binding. Taking it down he carried it carefully to the table and opened it with a gesture approaching reverence, though his respect was more for the age and quality of the volume than the literal content. Turning the pages slowly he scanned the illuminated vignettes reproducing tomb wall paintings until he found one depicting a man holding his heart to his breast with his left hand, kneeling in front of a monster with a knife in its hand. The title over the accompanying text was "Chapter XXVIII, Not letting the heart of the deceased be carried off in the netherworld."
His eyes scanned over the rows of heiroglyphs on the facing page, only occasionally flicking down to the translation. At several points he paused, closing his eyes briefly and swallowing hard, his jaw clenched tight, before he had finished the entry. When he had read the chapter twice, he pushed the book away and leaned back in the chair, the thoughtful look on his face marred by the sad downturn of his mouth. "My heart is placed upon the altars of Tmu, who leadeth it to the den of Set..." he murmured to himself, rolling the words as he pondered the ancient text.
Several hours later the table was covered with other books from the same section of the shelves, laying open to various chapters. Four sheets of paper were covered with notations and references, and he was fully absorbed in the puzzle of integrating fragmented translations to form a cohesive story. Intent on the work, he didn't notice the passage of time until he realized the uncomfortable sensation disrupting his concentration was hunger.
He found Peter upstairs, spreading parts all over the lab bench and muttering unintelligibly to himself as he organized them into piles. Hovering in the background, floating aimlessly back and forth looking like he would be pacing if he had legs, Slimer kept him quiet company. The sight was unusual enough in itself that Ray stopped in the doorway to watch.
Slimer perked up at seeing him, but instead of approaching Ray he threw a cryptic glance at Peter and then vanished through the floor with a faint cry of "Dinner!"
When Peter took no notice of the spud's exit, curiosity prompted Ray to ask, "What are you doing?"
Venkman started, almost guiltily, and turned to face the door. "Just keeping my hands busy," he replied evasively, then changed the subject. "What have you got?"
Baffled but willing to let it pass for the moment, Ray asked, "You want the good news or the bad news?"
"There's good news? I'll take it."
"There's a chance Egon's not really dead." Seeing Peter blanch, he hurried onward, mistaking the reason for the haunted look that came into his eyes. "According to the Book of the Dead and other references I had, Set takes his victim to his domain, near the Fiery Lake, and feeds on their soul for half a moon's passing. That's why Egon disappeared. He's a prisoner at Sekhet-hetepu and unless we can get him back before too long, Set will devour him completely."
Even without Ray's knowledge of the occult Peter had suspected something like that was going on, there had to have been some reason Egon was being held and tormented past the death he had agreed upon as the price for the others' freedom. He closed his eyes, the fleeting internal image of blood soaking the dry ground of a black desert leaving its track on his face. "It can't be that easy. He's got a sword through his heart, bringing him back won't save him."
Ray paled in turn, but clenched his hands and answered, "Maybe not his body, but I'm not absolutely certain about that either. The sword is not a normal blade, it's an extension of Set's hunger that only has power within his domain. If it were removed there, before it had destroyed the soul, I think Egon could return to this dimension unharmed." He shrugged very unhappily. "I just don't know for sure, but that's the way I read the texts. Nobody's ever managed to come back and prove it. Or if they did, they didn't last long enough to write it down. The biggest problem is finding him in the first place."
"That's the bad news?" When he looked up again, his expression was controlled, not showing any of the hope Ray's words had given him.
"Part of it. Set's domain is like the netherworld, in that it's not someplace you can just get to without special projection equipment. But it isn't the same netherworld we have access to. It's some other similar dimension in the space-time continuum and we have no way to locate it among the infinite number of co-existing reality planes."
This sounded like a problem they'd already solved once. "You can't set a PKE meter to Egon's readings and zero in?"
"No, the readings we can take don't escape dimensional boundaries and that's what we need to locate. If we knew what dimension he was in, we could probably get there and locate him by his readings. But there's no way to determine which of the layered dimensions he's in." This was getting out near the fringes of Peter's grasp of theory, Ray knew, and he reined in the urge to explain in greater detail or to use a mathematical model to make the problem clearer.
"That n-dimensional stuff always did give me a headache." Peter rubbed at his temples wearily. "So what you're saying is we haven't got a prayer of finding Egon, but if we did, we could probably get him back whole."
Ray's eyes slid shut for a moment and he took a deep breath that couldn't ease the ache in his chest. The steadiness of his reply took an effort of will as great as any he had ever made. "Assuming our equipment worked in Set's domain and we could defeat him there. That's the second problem. If we just brought Egon back without eliminating Set, he'd follow us and we'd be beaten again as soon as he got us in another of his force field bubbles."
Peter's eyes flashed and Ray flinched at the intense hatred he saw suddenly blaze in their depths. "I didn't plan on coming back without waxing his buns first." He sighed, consciously forcing his anger under control, aware he had no useful outlet for it. He could also see that the cold, hate-filled intensity of his fury upset Ray. "But that is a major problem. I doubt we'll have the four hours plus needed to upgrade the throwers before he shows up and wants to party."
Ray shook his head and his shoulders slumped in defeat. "It's awful to think Egon's out there, if we could just find him, and there's nothing we can do about it." His voice broke and he turned to flee the room, acutely conscious his news could only have made Peter's grief worse rather than lighter. Peter had accepted the responsibility of assisting Egon's death, but he had not known that by it he would be condemning his friend to a long, agonizing dissolution and permanent soul death. In discovering and passing that knowledge on he had made Peter's burden ten times worse.
Surging out of the chair, Peter caught him before he could leave the room. Pulling him around gently, he lifted Ray's chin with one finger, forcing him to look up. Holding his gaze, Peter spoke with every ounce of persuasive assurance he had at his command. "I know what you're thinking and you can stop it right now, Raymond Stantz. It's not your fault. Read my lips: it-is-not-your-fault. It never was. If anyone's at fault, I am. I insisted we head home right away, I asked Set for an option, I picked up the sword and used it."
"No," Ray protested weakly, his eyes wide and dark with misery. "Nobody blames you, Peter." On the contrary, he had already been over the territory thoroughly and claimed it all as his own. Whatever brief reprieve from blame Peter offered had no power to disturb his conviction of total personal responsibility.
Refusing to be sidetracked by sympathy that could break his strained control and unable to hear the depth of Ray's self-assigned guilt through the roar of his own, Peter continued, "If there'd been anything we could do about it before, Egon wouldn't have made the choice he did in the first place. You only think he may be rescuable. He knew we'd all be dead." He intensified his look, throwing all of the considerable force of his personality into his words. "Don't second-guess him now. And don't ruin yourself over a possibility none of us can do anything about. He wouldn't want that on his head."
As if mesmerized by that compelling look and the charisma Venkman projected, Ray nodded. "But..."
Releasing him and turning away, Peter seemed suddenly smaller, as if the effort of reaching out so strongly had drained him. His voice was weary when he spoke again, empty of the binding force it had carried seconds ago. "No 'buts', Ray. He gave it all up for us. Don't waste that sacrifice."
"I won't," he whispered, and stepped forward to lay one hand on Peter's shoulder. "So long as you don't either."
Straightening, Peter flashed him a smile, though it was a pale copy of his normal grin. "Don't worry about me. Like Winston says, it'll take time to accept what happened." He glanced around at the lab, only the slight wobble in his tone giving the lie to his calm front. "I'll just stay out of everyone's way until I'm human again, and then we'll go on. That's what Egon wanted."
Underneath the brittle shell of acceptance Ray could sense the pain of Peter's broken heart as he spoke of Egon, Venkman's entire soul vibrating with the same chord of immeasurable loss that resonated within himself. His grasp tightened on the shoulder he still held, and Peter lifted one arm to mirror the gesture. Arm twined around and over Ray's, fingers digging into his shoulder in return, Peter stood head bowed, breathing raggedly. Ray could have pulled him closer, enfolded him in a forgiving embrace, but by doing so he would have broken the remaining control Peter was so desperately holding onto. As much as he needed the comfort himself, he knew how much that outward shell of self-mastery meant to the psychologist and would not increase the pain Peter was feeling for some small alleviation of his own. It didn't occur to him that breaking and releasing some of the pressure Peter was holding inside, even if it meant unloading on a fellow-sufferer, perhaps would have been better for him than managing to keep it curbed.
Peter's self-possession slowly rebuilt itself and he finally released his grip, pausing as he shifted away to ruffle Ray's hair in gentle affection. "We'll make it," he said with quiet sadness. "We'll hurt for a long time, but we'll make it through." They could do nothing less than make sure that what Egon had paid for would continue onward, but it was no substitute for his living presence and the raw pain of losing that life held more sway than pride or honor could yet command.
That the hurt would ever go away was something Ray doubted because he knew his responsibility for it would never change, but he wasn't going to burden Peter any further with his shame. Shared pain is lessened, shared joy increased. He'd heard that once, but doubted one could lessen the infinite and see a difference, and as for joy, twice nothing was still nothing. Instead of agreeing, he essayed a tentative smile of his own, though it was far from appearing even vaguely genuine. "Why don't you let me help you build whatever it is?" He waved at the array of electronic pieces-parts laying on the bench. "I could use the diversion too."
Peter shrugged, and the furtive look was back again. "Thanks. I'd take you up on that if I had any idea what I was doing. If I figure it out, I'll let you know, OK?"
"Sure." Able to see he wasn't wanted but not given a clue to the motive behind that rejection, Ray could only conclude Peter did, after all, blame him for Egon's loss in spite of his words to the contrary. He knew Peter hated to be alone, especially when he was unhappy, and if the gregarious psychologist preferred isolation to being with him it had to mean his presence was an unpleasant reminder of what had happened rather than the comforting companionship of a friend. Once he was alone on the other side of the closed lab door, he leaned against it, head tipped back, letting the tears fill his eyes. Egon was dead because of him, and Peter, the one person who could have granted him some form of absolution, couldn't stand the sight of him.
With a choked sob, he headed blindly across the hall, stumbling to his bed and throwing himself face-down across it. Bunching the covers in helpless fists of pain, he cried, but the tears brought no release nor easing of the crushing guilt.
That was how Winston found him when he went looking for company at dinner time. Nearly passing the room by because none of the lights were on inside, he paused when he heard the muffled sound of Ray's uneven breathing. Pausing in the doorway, some instinct prompted him to let his eyes adjust to the darkness instead of hitting the light switch. Soon he could see well enough to make out shapes, well enough to tell Ray's huddled, miserable form was alone. Throwing a confused look at the closed lab door he moved into the bedroom and sat beside him, resting a hand on his back in silent sympathy.
"Peter?" Turning his head at the touch, Ray's inquiry held an odd combination of hope and dread.
"No, just me," Winston said gently, his light touch transmuting into an active one as he rubbed automatically at the tensely bunched muscles between Ray's shoulderblades. When Ray sighed and flattened out under the pressure, he shifted sideways and applied both hands to the task. One leg crossed under himself, he worked quietly for a while knowing that whatever simple physical comfort he could administer was less important than the benefit provided by the caring touch of a fellow human who was there to share the sorrow. Concentrating on projecting calm, he continued the soothing massage as he asked the most innocuous question he could think of. "Where've you been all day?"
"Library downstairs." It was a simple enough answer, but Winston could tell by the renewed tenseness in the muscles under his hands that Ray hadn't spent the day in light recreational reading. "Peter asked me to do some research on Set," he answered the unspoken question, but didn't elaborate on what he had discovered.
There was something in the way he said it that indicated he had found something and Winston seized on that lead to draw him out of his moody introspection. "Anything worth pursuing?"
Pouncing on the faintly leading hint of ambiguity, he prodded, "Something we should follow up on?" It was a safe bet that if anything truly helpful had come out of his work so far Ray would not be laying in the dark - but if there was any prospect at all, however vague or apparently futile, it should be explored. Even if it was too faint to pin any real hope on it could still provide an outlet for the directionless energy they were only channeling into self- destructive depression now. "Come on, if there's a chance we gotta try it, we can't leave any option untried in getting that creep out of circulation. That's what Egon died for, man. We can't fail him now."
"You're right," Ray said, as if he were waking up to something that should have been obvious. "There are other sources, I know of several places we can look, a couple collectors and the rare book archive at the main library. There has to be something more than we have here, something I just haven't found yet."
"That's more like it." With a goal to keep in sight they could begin the process of getting on with rebuilding their lives - not forgetting, but learning to accept and move onward. Winston knew that, and helping to guide Ray in that direction was necessary not just for his recovery but for his survival. It was also the one task he felt should not have been left to him, it rightfully belonged to the man hiding behind the laboratory door. "If there's a way to beat this, you'll find it and we'll use it."
"Yes. We will." The determination in Ray's words was almost frightening in its intensity, especially coming from one who had never been vindictive or vengeful by nature. His fierce intent faltered in the next breath as he asked, "Would you come with me?" From the look on his partially averted face, he more than half-expected Winston to suddenly have something else more important to do with his time.
"Count on it." With a final pass across Ray's shoulders he quit the massage, clapped him on the back and stood up. "Come on, let's do food for now, I came up here to get you for dinner. We can hit the books first thing tomorrow morning." On the way down the stairs he threw one last, puzzled look at the lab door, still closed on whatever secret Peter was guarding.
That night, Peter found himself only a few feet from his friend's side. The unchanging red sky and black landscape were as stifling in their oppressive ambience as the thick, hot air was to breathe, and the pale gold of Egon's hair on the dark ground was an abrupt splash of color that looked as out of place as the wetly gleaming ruby stain on his chest. Forcibly ignoring the sword's presence, Peter studied Egon's face while he knelt and lifted the physicist's hand. There were new lines of pain around his mouth and eyes, and a tightness to his expression that spoke eloquently of the relentless internal battle for his soul. Even when Peter had clasped his hand firmly, warming the cool skin with his touch, Egon's eyes did not open in response.
Worried, he leaned forward and tugged lightly on the drooping forelock that fell across the high, pale forehead. "Come on, I know you're in there." That was enough, and he smiled seraphically at the peeved glare he had earned without revealing how worried the weakness of it made him. Trying to maintain his innocent look, he brushed negligently at his shirtfront and only then noticed that he was in his pajamas. The striped ones. "Ack! You didn't warn me this was a come-as-you-are dimension! Was I dressed this way last night too?"
"Not quite so colorfully, actually," Egon said drily, a tiny smile curving the corners of his mouth. "For which I was quite grateful at the time."
"I'm gonna sleep in my uniform from now on," Peter swore, then broke into a grin. "Still, wouldn't it give old Set an eyeful if we busted him in our nightshirts? Now that's making a fashion statement!"
"It also confirms one of my conjectures about your presence here, which will facilitate your completion of the retreival device. You are not in control of your surroundings as you would be in a true dream state, you are projected exactly as you physically exist back in our own dimension." The discovery renewed his energy as much as Peter's presence, and the unquenchable spark of scientific excitement shone in his eyes.
Peter nodded. To keep Egon looking so intently alive he'd even sit through one of those arcane lectures on etheric physics. A short one. "This is good, right?"
"Does this mean I can bring a PKE meter and get those readings you needed?" Peter asked, brightening considerably. The whole project would be cake if they had that sort of freedom.
"Unfortunately, no. Remember, you're not completely physically here, however real the experience seems. If you managed to hold onto a PKE meter when you fell asleep, you could probably see and hold it once you got here but it would only be able to register what surrounded it in the firehouse." Egon sounded quite regretful at the prospect of not being able to get the readings.
"OK, no high-tech. How about paper and pencils? If you could do drawings while I was awake, this would go a lot faster." The logical hole was immediately obvious to him and he sighed, shaking his head. "Don't tell me. If I'm not here, it doesn't have a link to hold it in place, so it won't stay if I try to leave it behind."
"It wouldn't have really been here in the first place," Egon reiterated. "You couldn't even take notes yourself and find anything written on the paper when you woke up. Your body is still laying asleep in your bed, and whatever you imagine you do here won't translate to that dimension's reality."
"So what does this get us?" Frustrated, Peter was hard-put to maintain his earlier optimistic outlook.
"All it means is we're on the right..." He abruptly broke off in a gasp, his body going rigid with the struggle not to cry out in pain.
Tightening his hold on the hand in his, Peter said tensely, "Fight it, big guy, come on, you're tougher than he is."
Jaw clenched, Egon could only nod, pulling in air in short pants that made the sword driven through his chest quiver with movement which had to increase the level of agony already clawing at his mind.
Leaning forward, Peter laid his free hand on the blond temple as he had the night before, giving Egon an external focus of support free from pain. As before, it seemed to help and he let instinct guide his touch, supplying a pressure to lean against or gentle caresses as seemed appropriate at each moment. He did not pull away until Egon relaxed again.
A long sigh escaped the physicist as the pain finally abated. "Thank you," Egon breathed weakly, striving for his usual calm detachment despite the glint of tears driven to his eyes by the torture. It was several minutes before he could speak again, but rather than give Set the victory that distracting them would be, he returned to their original subject and asked, "What have you been able to find out so far?"
Trying hard to pretend that the episode just passed had not driven lances of vicarious agony through him, Peter tacitly agreed to the dismissal of it and answered, "Well, you were right about there being some semi-accurate information on Set. I got Ray to dig around in our collection for most of the day and he came up with the basics of your situation all on his own. This lovely locale," he waved his free hand at the scenery, "is called Sekhet-hetepu, which probably means 'ugly dump in the middle of nowhere' and it's some separate dimensional plane similar to the netherworld of fond memory."
A faintly wry smile crossed Egon's lips. "It means 'desert of devouring pain' but that's not as important as the fact that its existence is part of the mythos. There are some reliable accounts, then. What of Set himself?"
"Not as much helpful stuff yet. Tomorrow I think Ray and Winston are going to the main branch of the library as well as contacting some other sources that may be more help with the specialized arcana." He paused, a line of frustration marring his forehead. "Damn it, Egon, they'd get further quicker if they knew what they were looking for. At least let me tell them they're on the right track."
"You know why that's impossible." With nothing to do but think during the time he was alone, Egon had come to realize that while he had not been ready or eager to die, he had lived a full, rewarding life and did not regret who he had been or what he had done. What made his choice so painful had been not what he was losing himself - by his death he had saved the three people who meant the most to him - so much as what he knew his friends would go through because of it. Lessening that impact was all he could do for them now and he would not compromise in that protection.
His implacable resolve was so evident that Peter sighed, dropping that line of argument as hopeless for the time being. "According to what he did find out, your soul is held here for half a moon, which optimistically gives us fourteen days from last Saturday night to get you back. We've already used two." Twelve days left - twelve days of mind-ripping torture before Egon was lost to them forever. Shaking the panic that deadline inspired was no easier than remaining unaffected by what he knew would have to be suffered in the meantime. Forlornly he hoped the mix of worry and horror surfacing around his thoughts did not show too plainly in his face. "Can you make it? If it takes me that long to figure this out..."
"What choice do we have?" Egon asked with quiet reason. "But you must remember there are no guarantees, Peter. At the end of that time, no matter how hard you try, you may not succeed." One eyebrow quirked in honest, if cynical estimation. "Probably won't succeed."
"No." Peter's flat denial allowed no contradiction. "I'm getting you out of here in one piece if I have to take on Set myself. You're not staying here and he's not getting your soul."
"You may not be able to change that." He could see Peter's stubborn streak kicking in again and tried to make his point heard over the force of his friend's impossible, absolute resolve. "Please, for my sake, don't count on it. If you fail I'm no worse off than I expected to be, but if you count on success you set yourself up to feel worse if it doesn't work."
Peter snorted with amusement, looking down his nose in mock condescension. "Like I could feel worse. Egon, buddy, it hasn't been a cakewalk so far and if you think it could get much harder for me to take your death you've been underestimating yourself." Though his tone was careless, there was nothing flippant about the look in his eyes.
Responding to the look rather than the words, Egon said with chagrin, "I'm sorry, I only meant -"
"Hey." Leaning over, he stopped the incipient discussion by the simple expedient of putting his hand over Egon's mouth long enough to break the flow of words. "That's not the point here. The question is, what do we do to make sure this isn't a problem? You've had a day to work on it and I've cataloged the available equipment in your lab, so give me some specs and I'll get to work. My guess is we need some sort of locus definition device first, and a way to link that to a destabilization projector that will allow physical transport."
"Excellent, Peter, that was precisely my conclusion." There was genuine respect in his praise, but what was even more indicative of his regard was the lack of surprise at the similarity of their reasoning. When he began to describe what he wanted done he didn't water down his vocabulary either, and Peter absorbed all his instructions with unaffected intelligent attention.
Alone again, Egon found that being helpless was not something he was accustomed to, and he liked the feeling less now than he ever had. The mind-ripping pain broke his concentration repeatedly from his efforts to calculate the parameters of the device Peter was building. Egon hadn't realized how dependent on electronic calculators he had become over the years since he had stopped carrying a sliderule; it was nearly impossible now for him to carry a long series of numerical operations to a conclusion he had any confidence in. Even simple integration sequences became muddled and lost when the searing pain shocked through his system and his body convulsed in torment and his mind went blank with white flaring agony. Half the progress he'd made would vanish and slowly, arduously, he would have to regather his thoughts and begin again at the last point he could reliably reconstruct. Hanging on to his work, focusing on what he had done and where he wanted it to go next, gave him some will to fight the energy- sapping drain, but for all its clarity and precision it was not as effective as using his memories of Peter and Ray and the reason he was here in the first place.
He also had more to think about than just the technological details of his theoretical retrieval device. Peter's belief that Ray and Winston ought to be told the truth had good reasoning behind it. Just because Egon disagreed with the conclusion didn't mean he couldn't admit there was a fair amount of logic and emotional sense to the opposing position. It was a knotty problem in motivation and reaction every bit as complicated as the circuits he was trying to design and he spent a great deal of time reviewing his suppositions and biases in the matter as well as the very reason he had so willingly accepted death.
Given the alternatives they had been allowed by Set he had taken not only the most reasonable course but, as he had seen it at the time and still saw it as he lay there wracked by Set's torture now, the only possible course. His honor, the strength of his integrity, and the commitment generated by his affection for his friends were involved, for to ask at any cost to be freed from his choice now would negate the sacrifice and admit he wasn't willing to carry out his intent to protect the others from Set. In the time when he endured the attacks alone, even the faintest chance to be shed of the agony or returned to his previous existence was worth any illusion of honor or pride. But when Peter was there with him, when he had proof of the lives he had saved and could keep from further ruin through silence, then he knew his secret had to be kept. He had loved his life and he loved his friends; which he loved more had already been proven. Now he had the same choice to make all over again: telling Ray meant ruining the young man's chances for ever attaining peace when the effort failed, and keeping his own current fate hidden meant certain failure of any attempted rescue and eventual personal destruction. Egon's priorities had not changed and his decision to protect his friends remained adamant.
The one friend he could not protect from additional pain was Peter, and Egon was unable to avoid the weakness of devoting some time to wishing he could change that fact. Peter had looked worse this evening despite his cheerful front, and Egon blamed himself for that even while he knew there was nothing he could do to exempt his friend from the vicarious horror he was going through. Venkman's condition was a barometer indicative to him, however, of the daily grief and stress not only Peter but also Ray and Winston would be dealing with. His death had been bound to cause them pain, but the worst of the torture he endured now hurt him less than to see what knowing about it did to Peter day after day. Even if he'd had enough confidence in his own theory to believe the chances of a successful return to life were good, seeing what the knowledge of his soul's fate was doing to Peter sealed his resolution to keep Ray in ignorance of it, preferably forever.
"The library doesn't even open until eleven," Winston grumped when Ray shook him awake at eight the next morning and he got a look at the clock. Pulling the pillow over his head, he growled, "Wake me again when you have breakfast ready, I don't need three hours to get dressed."
A faint smile crossed Ray's face as he left Winston's side and headed for the stairs. His own sleep had not been so peaceful lately that he wanted to prolong it when he woke each morning, and he was glad his friend was able to find some forgetfulness and respite from grief in sleep. Cinching his robe tighter around his waist as he walked, he wondered if he could manage to cook something without the smell making him queasy. Despite occasional relapses of normalcy when hunger or exhaustion would steal up on him unannounced, he did not feel really connected to his body. The world around him was still just a little unreal, life without Egon so unlike what he had been used to that he moved through it like a visitor, not an inhabitant. The thought of food more often made him feel ill than interested in eating.
A flash of light caught the corner of his eye and he turned with a start, backing up the half-step it took to bring him in line with the barely open lab door. The golden highlight seen out the corner of his eye that had driven a spear of recognition through him resolved itself into the early morning sunlight glancing off a legal pad left laying on the bench, not a sunlit blond head bent over some experiment. For a moment, his mind had filled in the details and the illusion had been so strong that he was certain he had seen that tall, familiar shape half-turn to greet him before the fantasy dispersed. Now the room was empty, light conspiring with his imagination to play tricks on him, bringing glimpses of the presence he missed so much and would never see again.
Winston got a bowl of corn flakes for breakfast that morning, and ate them alone.
Neither of them had expected a simple research trip to the public library would be as draining as they found it, but they had not counted on the vast number of associations the huge gothic building held for them. Ranks of books stretched out to either side, perspective making them look endless, and the musty smell of tons of bound paper made the air heavy and solemn, as much a part of the building as its foundations. From their first real case through later years when they had made regular group expeditions in search of special research information, to the several additional hauntings they had dealt with at the library, the Ghostbusters had spent nearly as much time in its quiet, evenly lit corridors as they had in the more mundane aisles of the nearest supermarket. Winston hadn't been along on that very first sighting but he'd seen the Hollywood version and heard Peter's laughing recounting of it often enough to guess why Ray kept his eyes so fixed to the front as they followed the librarian to the third floor and toward the locked rooms where the special collections of rare books and manuscripts were housed.
For Ray, it had all started here with the three of them and there was a strange sense of closure to his presence now, as if it were all ending here too. His musings had taken a distinct turn toward melancholy recognition of the ironies of fate by the time they were left in the appropriate room with the usual cautions, and he was momentarily grateful that because of their reputation (or perhaps, considering some of their previous visits, despite their reputation) he was allowed unsupervised access for he had no wish to explain his mood or intended research to an inquisitive audience.
"What are we looking for?" Winston asked as soon as they were alone.
"We'll start with the translations of the Book of the Dead," Ray answered, gesturing at a section of the shelves. "Scan for anything on Set and references to the heart or soul-eating. It's all tied together but so far as I know, no books on him alone survived, if they ever existed, because of the ban on his worship." He laid the notebook and pen he had brought on the table and moved over to the shelves, his eyes already involuntarily alight with a flickering hint of the unquenchable excitement of the chase. The only mode of attack that might put the old enthusiasm back in his face at anything like its former strength would have been a full scale charge through the gates of hell itself, proton beams blasting clear the way to Egon's side. "When we have all the pieces a picture has to emerge, and it may even point to another topic area or mythos where information about him exists. For now, we start with what we know."
"You're the boss on this one," Winston said, pulling one of the heavy, leatherbound books down from the shelf and carrying it over to the table. For the next couple hours, the two men worked in a companionable silence that needed no interruption save the occasional question or sharing of a possible lead. Lunchtime came and went early in their stay but Winston was the only one to take a break. Completely absorbed in his task, Ray waved off the suggestion several times and since trying to sneak food into the special archive rooms past the vigilant librarian on duty might have gotten them both thrown out on discovery, Winston reluctantly let him skip the meal. Dinner, he vowed, would be another matter.
By six when the special collections were closed, between them they had been through every book in that room and checked on several others in different sections. They had covered some twenty-plus sheets of paper with notations, questions, half-quotes, and ideas, all with lines and asterisks pointing to other sections in a maze of cross references and inferred relationships. To Winston, it appeared that they knew a great deal more than they had ever wanted to without discovering the few things they needed to find. Ray, however, seemed satisfied with their progress and gathered their notes together to leave with a look of intense concentration furrowing his brow. Whether or not they had made any material gains toward their stated goal, Winston considered the day a success and guardedly applauded his own victory so far in getting Ray's interest engaged in something other than blaming himself for what had happened. He would have felt that all his obligations were being met if he could just get Ray to eat something.
"Winston! We were just wondering about you this afternoon and thinking it was past time you called. What's up, son?"
"Oh, nothing too much weirder than usual, you know this business: ghosts, goblins, ancient gods, the same-old same-old day after day."
"Yeah, I know. Is Mom around?"
"Sure, just a minute..."
"Hi, Honey, how're things?"
"Fine, Mom, really. Hey, do you still have the recipe for that dessert thing with all the fruit and whipped cream and kirsch in it?"
"The one you got sick on at your last birthday party? You had four helpings and then lay around moaning for an hour and swearing you'd never touch it again."
"That's the stuff. What's it called?"
"It's a version of trifle, but we've been calling it the Winston Special."
"Thanks. You always did know how to make a guy feel like a million bucks."
"You don't sound quite right, dear. Are you sure nothing's wrong?"
"Honest, Mom, it's nothing. Work's been busy this week and I'm just tired. And I miss you guys, too. It's been a while since I was home."
"You know how to fix that problem."
"OK, Dad, I promise I'll come down soon. Maybe in a few weeks or so, how's that? We had some trouble a few days ago and the guys need me here until then."
"You're not hurt, are you?"
"What is it, Winston? You can tell us, your father and I worry about you enough as it is."
"No! I mean, not really, nothing like that. Mom, Dad, I'll tell you all about it when I come down, OK? Until then, I'm all right and there's nothing you need to worry about."
"All right, so long as you let us know if there's anything you need. You're always welcome here, remember that."
"Thanks, Dad, I appreciate that. I love you both."
The line hummed with static for a moment. "I'll look up that recipe tonight and put it in the mail tomorrow. You be careful, you hear?"
"Yes, Mom. G'bye."
"Call us more often."
"I promise. See you soon."
It was possible. Heck, it wasn't even going to be difficult. They'd win, Peter had practically convinced himself of it after the first day of real progress he'd made. Egon's idea made too much sense not to work, and there was nothing that the two of them couldn't do if they put Egon's mind and his own unstoppable drive to it. They'd proved that any number of times, from getting the first grant they applied for together to opening the first ectoplasm elimination business in the world. Set had definitely underestimated them if he thought he could screw with the Ghostbusters and get away with it. Nobody screwed with them and got away with it. The bounce of confidence lightening his step, Peter crossed the few feet to Egon's side and greeted him with a wide, cocky smile as he sat down and automatically reached for the hand laying nearest to him. "Yo, oh Great Brain! Your servant arrives, bearing news and seeking the guidance of your fabulous self."
Egon smiled in return, unable to be anything but encouraged at the upbeat quality of Peter's mood. "I'm glad you're taking this well," he rasped without sarcasm, and seemed surprised himself at how faintly his voice came from his throat.
"I take everything well. The wonderfulness of myself is beyond comparison or comprehension," Peter declaimed, deliberately ignoring the weakness in Egon's voice and grasp. "You, on the other hand, have not been taking this whole death thing well at all and since I am such a generous guy I intend to do something about the situation. Already been working on it, as a matter of fact." He buffed his fingernails on his chest, drawing Egon's attention to the fact that he had carried out his threat and gone to bed in his jeans and sweatshirt rather than endure the indignity of journeying to Set's world in his pajamas again.
"Do tell. And what have you accomplished?"
"OK, we got a spectral sequencer, we got a delta wave analyzer, we got rhythm... what else could a man need for total happiness?"
The infectious humor was hard to resist, and Egon didn't want to try. "A cold beer," he pointed out, knowing it was Peter's favored remedy to most of the temporary discomforts life offered.
"Naturally," he agreed readily. "I'll have to jury-rig the electrical feed lines but it can be done." With a suitably demented Mad Scientist cackle, he almost launched into a more lengthy description of the advantages of such an accessory, but caught himself and sobered instead. Egon didn't have all the time in the world and their nightly information exchanges were too brief already. Lightening the mood was good, wasting the one precious contact they had was not. "I found the t-field generator in the storage room right where you said it would be. Are you sure that thing's safe? Some of the induction coils are exposed."
"I stripped them to connect a resonator, rewrap those sections before you hook it to the rest. We'll need all of what you've got so far, and you'll have to find a Lakhovsky oscillator." He digressed into a long explanation of how to connect the equipment and several tests that would have to be run to ascertain its functional limits, attended closely by Peter. The lecture was interrupted twice as destructive agony pulsed from the sword and coherent speech became impossible for him. Without hesitating, Peter offered his supportive touch and Egon accepted it willingly, turning his head to press his cheek into Peter's palm.
"Shhhhh, don't try to talk," Peter murmured when the second attack was over. It had been a longer, harder bout than the first, and tears glistened in Egon's lashes as they did after nearly every round. It gave Peter some idea of how inconceivably fierce the torture must be, for he had never seen tears pulled from Egon by mere physical pain before the night the sword had pierced him. "Just get your strength back. I'm here." Clamping down fiercely on his own urge to cry, he forced a light tone back into his voice and added, "Do you have any idea how many beautiful women would arm wrestle a gorilla for the chance to see me every night? I get the feeling you don't really appreciate just how lucky you are to have me here."
"I... appreciate... you..." Egon rasped slowly and with those few words, though he never intended it, came within a hairsbreadth of utterly demolishing Peter's remaining control. But by the time he had recovered enough energy to relinquish the touch on his face and look up, there was nothing left to tell him what he had nearly done but an unusual luster in Peter's eyes.
"You may be a tall, good-looking blond, but the accessory package is all wrong," Venkman said. What the frivolous rejoinder cost him was plain in how reluctantly he drew back from their more intimate contact to simply hold one long-fingered hand loosely in his.
"Entirely a matter of opinion." Playing the part as well, Egon also strove to regain the same lighthearted mood they had shared earlier. It was a more familiar form of communication for both of them and brought back memories that reminded him over and over again of why he had chosen this fate. It hadn't been an abstract, logical solution to some problem in long-term strategy, it had been the one thing he could do to save the lives of men he had lived and laughed with for so long they had become his family. "Anyone whose opinion is important in that regard has disagreed with you." Still not completely recuperated, his voice failed midway through his statement, but Peter allowed him the time to recover and finish without interruption.
"You must be feeling better," he decided. "At least your ego is back to its normal, overblown state of total denial of reality." Welcoming the light of challenge he saw in Egon's look, he prepared to defend himself from expert verbal assault, but before the battle could be properly joined the ground wavered under him and then faded away with the rest of Set's demesne. His dreams for the rest of the night were of wandering through various landscapes and scenes trying to return to someplace he could not find, never able to make it back no matter how hard he tried.
Winston had never seen so many old books, nor had he had any idea Ray knew so many out of the way, hole- in-the-wall shops as they visited the next day. Stantz seemed to have an infinite number of contacts scattered throughout every corner of the city, each of them stranger than the last, and every one of them hoarding a tiny collection of ancient books with all the zealous dedication of someone in possession of the Holy Grail. At each stop, Ray would be greeted by the proprietor as if he were a long lost son, and Winston was accepted by virtue of his association with the young parapsychology expert. He felt more like a third wheel than he had the day before, allowed only to watch as the jealously guarded books were always reverently handed to Ray and the esoteric discussions of their contents that followed often left him completely excluded.
But for the way Ray collapsed into the car each time they returned to it, so grateful to have Winston taking care of the driving that it was obvious without his even speaking, he would have wondered why Ray had wanted him along. Such dependence on his presence made it impossible for him to be upset at the chauffering duty, and his contribution wasn't really confined solely to the driving. Ray would talk to him as they drove from one place to the next, using him as a sounding board to help mentally sort and correlate the collected information and gravely considering the occasional questions Winston offered regarding their 'leads'. The older man's more pragmatic outlook on the topic kept the search aimed at a solidly practical application, a focus Ray sometimes lost sight of when he became absorbed in the search for knowledge. To Ray's researcher's instinct, any bit of intelligence was worth having, while Winston tended to see the value of any detail as being directly related to its immediate usefulness in getting them closer to finding and defeating Set. Alone, Winston might have passed by some tiny but significant fact, while left to himself Ray could have lost himself in an endless hunt for the most accurate and complete version; together, working as a team they remained on track and efficiently pursued precisely what was required.
Toward the end of the day, as their travels took them farther and farther from the areas he was familiar with and comfortable in, Winston began to elect to stay in the car and wait instead of accompanying Ray inside. To him, each stop was fairly indistinguishable from the others and keeping an eye on Ecto and the expensive equipment mounted on her was a convenient excuse to avoid listening to more lengthy dissertations on the weird and unnatural that boiled down to very little solid data. The first two times he had to reassure Ray that it was not necessary to hurry back and that he was not discouraged into giving up the hunt, he only wanted to sit quietly and commune with his thoughts.
To a great extent that was the truth; Ray's investigation so far had turned up hints that led to some very disturbing conclusions about Egon's fate and Winston needed some time to put them in perspective with his own feelings about what had happened. He didn't expect to solve the problem driving Ray onward; as helpful as he had been he still felt that was a task best left for those more acquainted with the study of such things than he ever wanted to be. From all the different and often conflicting tales they had heard, the impression he had was that while they may have learned a great deal that would have been helpful to know at the time of their meeting with Set, nothing had emerged that could materially advance their current ambition. What he spent the time reviewing were his own reactions, seeking a calm center within himself from which he could view their loss and their enemy and come to a fuller acceptance of the emotions they both had kindled in him. Inevitably, those reflections led to Egon and then beyond the basic fact of their friendship to the elements that had formed it, the shared experiences that had decided and defined how they felt about each other.
He was in the midst of one such reminiscence when Ray pulled open the door after leaving the last stop of the day, wearily slumping into the front seat. In the gloom of early evening on the poorly-lit street, Ray couldn't read his expression clearly. Guessing easily what tracks his solitary thoughts must have been running in, because it was the same ground his own never left for long, he inquired carefully, "You all right?"
"I was thinking about Egon," Winston said softly in a dreamy, peaceful voice. "Remember how he always caved in to Peter's blackmail attempts before getting slimed, and then would end up turning the spud loose on Peter before he could duck?"
Smiling wistfully, Ray allowed himself to share the remembrance. They'd had so much fun playing those tricks on each other, and the firehouse had frequently rung with laughter and the outraged cries of a turnabout's victim. It would be a long time before laughter filled the house again, and it would never sound the same as it had when they'd been whole. "I remember," he acknowledged, giving the memory its tithe of his heart.
"Why?" Winston's peace abruptly shattered and the look he turned on Ray was a plea for answer, its confusion founded on a hurt too large to grasp even yet. "Why was Set waiting on that road for us? Why did he want one of us instead of all four? He had us all, and he took only one. I don't get it, man, it just makes no sense."
Ray's eyes closed in pain, remembering too vividly the choices made and the price paid, but he answered the question. "Willing sacrifice. Without our consent Set could only take what power he could force from us with pain, and we fought too hard for it to be much good. By tricking us into letting one of ourselves voluntarily die for the rest, he gained complete power over the soul of the sacrifice. It's always been known that a willing victim is far more pleasing to the gods." His mouth twisted briefly, smiling without amusement. "Even your own religion has that tradition."
Winston felt his heart contract around the cold stone of pain at its center. "And he was willing. Oh, God, Egon was so willing. Did he know?"
"I think so. He's... was as familiar with most of the literature as I am." Ray's eyes filled and he bowed his head, ashamed to look Winston in the face when he recalled his own unforgiveable weakness. "If only..."
"If only what?" Ray didn't answer him, shaking his head as if he regretted the words. "If only what?" he asked again, for the torment he had heard in those two words had rung a clear warning to him, telling of some sharper pain hidden under the grief like a shipwreck under the waves of a storm. "What else could you have done?" he asked compassionately. "We all did what we could. There just wasn't any other course we could have taken."
"I drew the second time! I could have picked up the sword," he cried in denial, "if Peter hadn't decided I couldn't handle it. I could have pretended I would do it...." Wild sobs claimed his breath before he could finish the sentence, but his intent was clear.
"And thrown yourself on it instead. Oh, man, you are something else," Winston breathed, twisting to face him squarely and leaning forward to take Ray's shoulders and shake him gently. "Ray Stantz, you got no call to think you could have done that. Even if you'd thought of it then, you'd never have been able to pull it off before we figured you out."
"But I didn't even try!" That was the worst part, that he hadn't had the wit to think of it at the time much less the strength to try it.
"You couldn't have," Winston said with genuine empathy. "Pete said that wasn't your gig and he was right. It's not wrong, Ray, and you're not weak for that either. It just ain't part of your nature and that's all there is to it. You can't change it and you shouldn't want to."
"It cost Egon his life. I did."
"No! Damn it, where do you get these ideas? Listen to me." Holding Ray's shoulders firmly, he stared into his eyes and tried to project the same positive force of assuredness he had seen Peter use successfully in the past. "Nothing you did caused what happened. Nothing you could have done would have stopped it." Somehow, it didn't work for him the way it always had for Venkman, that much he could feel in the set of the shoulders under his hands and see in the way the other's gaze slid away from direct contact. Ray's acceptance of fault was too deep and unassailable for words of reason to shake, and Winston didn't have the right emotional lever needed to pry him from his conviction.
With a sigh he released Ray and sat back behind the wheel. "Nothing," he reiterated, but his tone was resigned rather than forceful, and he started the car and drove home without breaking the silence again.
When Peter didn't join them for dinner this night either, Winston merely sighed and dished out enough food for himself and Ray. Once they were done he'd take a plate up to the lab; what he was going to say to Peter would be better off without an audience to hear it anyway.
Ray cast one look at the two empty places at the table and ate the usual less than half of his meal in silence, eyes downcast. When finished, he mumbled that he was heading to bed because tomorrow was going to be another early morning, and Winston let him go without protest. It hurt him to see the beaten slump of Ray's shoulders, and to know there was nothing he could do to change that discouragement to confidence. If he couldn't get through to Venkman and make the psychologist see what was happening, Ray might never regain his enthusiasm, and that loss would destroy what little hope they had of ever recovering from Egon's death. Without Ray's youthful delight in everything life brought, the team would never be more than an automaton repeating a pattern from the past, living a life of habit without joy for the sake of a memory none of them could ever stand to betray. Peter was the key to changing that, and somehow Winston had to make him accept the responsibility of starting the healing process for them all by freeing Ray from the cage of guilt he was building around himself.
Carrying a plate of spaghetti like a peace offering, he knocked on the lab door, waited a minute, and when there was no answer he opened the door and went in. He found Peter asleep over the work table, head pillowed on his arms, a melancholy expression on his face even in his sleep. Floating over his head as if keeping guard, Slimer looked up at the intrusion and put one finger to his lips, cautioning silence. Setting the plate down out of the ghost's reach, Winston glanced over the assembly of parts that was taking shape on the bench, but it made no more sense to him than most of Egon's contraptions ever had. He could recognize a few individual components but, like someone who could pick out the oil filter and battery from the mess under the hood of a car without being able to diagnose an engine problem, knowing that the construction contained a modified caduceus coil and a T-field spectral analyzer brought him no closer to guessing what the device was for. Even more puzzling than its function was the exclusive fascination it had been exerting over the normally non-mechanically inclined psychologist. Peter had always preferred supervising such projects from a safe distance, and that he should be so obsessed with building something like this now was more than a little strange.
Then again, it wasn't like nothing weird or upsetting had happened to them recently, and Winston decided that if building this gizmo helped Peter adjust, it was all right with him. Noticing that Slimer was drifting closer to the food he'd brought up, he waved him off and whispered, "Why don't you go clean the table for me?" Predictably enough, he was alone with Venkman in seconds. "Peter?" He leaned over and shook Peter's shoulder, then stepped back as he roused. "How you doin', pal?"
Groggy, Peter blinked up at him and then sat up, knuckling the sleep out of his eyes and stretching a kink out of his back. "Fine," he yawned. "Must'a dozed off for a sec. What's up?" Catching sight of the full plate on the end of the bench, he grimaced and asked, "Dinner already?"
"Long past, and we were wondering where you were. I guess one of us should have come to get you, but you've been so stand-offish lately we thought you just didn't want to join us." Peter didn't choose to take that as a conversational opening, leaving him to make another attempt at raising his concern. "You've been spending a lot of time up here, you know. I really think you ought to take a break from this and spend some time with Ray," he suggested, striving to sound helpful rather than meddling.
"What for? He's a big boy, Winston, I'm sure he can take care of himself." There was an oddly sullen, defensive note to his reply that angered Winston, who had expected some response other than insensitivity and rejection.
"Don't you get it?" he demanded, and went straight to what he saw as the center of the problem. "Ray not only thinks it's his fault we ended up in that mess, he's got this crazy idea that he should have been able to save Egon's life by throwing himself on that stupid sword. We may have stopped him the first time, but he's figured out that if he'd pretended to want to go through with his draw, he could have gotten his hands on it again and we wouldn't have been quick enough a second time."
Venkman's brows drew together in a definite frown. "That's crap and you know it. No way he could have faked us out."
"Yeah, you know it and I know it. The point is, he doesn't know it. Pete, you've got to talk to him, I can't get through, not the way he feels." Reaching out, he grasped Peter's shoulder. "You're the only one he'll listen to now."
Panic flared deep in Peter's eyes, so momentary that Winston wasn't sure he'd actually seen it. Backing away from the hand that threatened his self-possession with too much understanding, he shook his head. "You're wrong. I can't help him." He shrugged, a painful, jerky motion that was anything but nonchalant. "Give him time. That's all he needs, all any of us need. He'll start coming around on his own if you give him a chance."
"That's not going to work! What's wrong with you? Don't you care what's happening to him? He'll self-destruct before he comes to terms with it on his own, you know that as well as I do."
Peter shuddered and turned away from him, converting the momentary lapse of invulnerability into a dismissive toss of his head. "I know no such thing. People don't die of grief any more, Winston, that went out with the eighteen hundreds. Trust his common sense to bring him out of it and leave me alone to deal with things my own way, and everything will work out in time."
His mouth thinning into a line of disagreement, Winston threw his hands up in the air and said forcefully, "Fine. Just fine. If that's the way you think, nothing I say is going to make a difference." Whirling, he stomped away angrily, pausing at the door to throw a final challenge over his shoulder. "When you get through with whatever you've got to do that's more important than caring for Ray, why don't you try taking a real look at him? I think you'll be surprised at how little things have changed since the eighteen hundreds." The door slammed behind him and he paused in the hallway, breathing heavily. That hadn't been what he meant to do at all, and he wondered what the heck was wrong with all of them that they couldn't talk any more. Hands on his hips, he stood for a moment briefly considering turning around, apologizing, and starting the conversation over on a better note. Behind him the closed door remained a mute likeness of the emotional wall he'd run into, and in all honesty he had to admit some of the conflict had arisen from his own inability to contain his intense feelings about what Ray had revealed earlier.
But could Peter's feelings about recent events be any less intense? Winston had to admit to himself that he had not spent as much time worrying about how what had been done would affect the psychologist. If any of them were going to need long-term help getting through the ordeal of this loss, it was far more likely to be Peter than Ray, after all, for Venkman had not merely witnessed an atrocity but had committed it. However much the act had been against his wishes, he had still voluntarily killed one of his friends in cold blood. Looked at from that perspective Peter's reclusiveness was only to be expected. How could he regain his equilibrium exposed to the constant reminder of his guilt that the survivor's grief was to him? Seen in that light, Winston thought he understood that brief flash of fear he had seen in Peter's eyes at the mention of Ray's need. No, he was going to have to face the fact that forcing the issue now would not help any of them, not until Peter managed to get his own emotions reconciled, and he found it sad to realize this was something neither he nor Ray could assist. Finally, he heaved a deep sigh and moved toward the stairs. The best thing he could do for now was relax a little, maybe watch some tv so his own internal disharmony could have some time to settle down, get a good night's sleep, and try again in the morning when they were both rested and more likely to remain calm. The next time, he promised himself, he would get results, but he would also be more aware of the reasons behind Peter's withdrawal.
Ray and Winston had already turned in by the time Peter found himself nodding over his work again and decided to call it quits for the night. Not much progress had been made in the last couple hours anyway, for his mind was still churning with what Winston had said. While he discounted the more dire predictions as being founded in concern rather than objective diagnosis, he also trusted the older man's judgment well enough to have begun worrying about just what he had been missing by refusing to spend more time outside the lab. It was time to reassess some priorities when the last time he could remember talking to Ray was two days ago, and the result of that conversation had been his rejecting an offer of assistance and sending Ray away from his presence without being able to explain why.
Turning on the lights would have awakened the others so he stood over Ray's bed squinting in the darkness, trying to see some indication of the condition he was in. All he could tell was that Ray's breathing was slightly uneven; he slept, but not well. It would probably do more harm than good to wake him and try to assess his condition now, much as Peter wanted to know the answer before more time passed. But sleep was a form of healing, it was rest and renewal and Ray needed as much of that as he could get, no matter how badly or well he was doing. Peter was not going to deprive him of whatever measure of peace he could find just to satisfy curiosity when the alternative he could offer would do no more good now than it would twelve hours hence. In the morning, he promised himself, he would check on him and verify Winston's accusations for himself. First he had some serious talking to do with a certain physicist.
Egon's decline in condition was subtle, but Peter could tell he was not doing as well as he had been the night before. There was a slightly duller look to his eyes, a faint hesitation in his reactions, and his wit was not as acerbically sharp as it had been. The combination of symptoms left him appearing weaker and more vulnerable than Peter had ever seen him, and it was a very disconcerting feeling to see Egon powerless, losing a critical battle. The older man had always had an air of invulnerability about him; even when he had allowed himself to be killed he had been in control of the situation. Now, with only tiny cracks flawing that previously unbreachable armor of competency, he suddenly looked older, weaker, less like the man Peter had always known. It brought a new urgency to Peter's request, and the pressure on his stressed emotions cranked itself up another notch.
"You've got to let me tell Ray," he pleaded. "Your death is tearing him up, Egon, literally. He blames himself for all of it somehow, he's ripping himself apart day by day, and lying to him is driving me insane."
Egon's eyes were dark with pain, but held an unwavering determination. "It's not a lie, Peter. I'm dead to your world and there's every chance we won't be able to change that." At Venkman's inevitable protest he tightened his grip, though his long fingers were weaker than ever, barely able to clasp the hand that held his own. "I don't want him to go through my loss more than once. How could he stand it if you told him there was hope, and it didn't work? If he's doing so badly now, how will he be able to handle the next time, thinking there was something he could have done? No, Peter, I will not release you from your promise. It's bad enough that I have to know what you will go through if this effort is unsuccessful."
Though he disagreed with the decision, Peter had to admit Egon's reasoning was sound, and based on the same desire he felt himself to protect Ray from further pain. Once he'd conceded Egon's assessment of the situation was basically correct he had nothing further to propose as an alternative. Winston's warning and plea earlier that evening supported the contention Ray would not deal well at all with the sort of let down a failure to retrieve Egon would bring. The conflict of imperatives brought him close to grinding his teeth in frustration, because he could see that no matter what the end result was, Ray would take the worst of it. They had not known the half of what they were giving up when they had accepted Set's offer, he reflected bitterly.
Egon had paused for breath, and when he resumed his tone was soft with kindness but resolute beyond any argument. "I see what it's doing to you even now. I cannot let you make him suffer that too." Unspoken but clear in his eyes was the regret that he could not spare Peter the burden of knowledge he already had.
"All right," Peter agreed wearily, defeated as much by the compassion aimed at him as by the train of logic. He still considered it vastly unfair he was being forced to agree Egon was right again, but years of experience had taught him there was no recourse for it. "Until we're absolutely sure this thing will work, I'll keep them in the dark. Under protest." Returning to the topic of theoretical physics, he barely had time to question the first half of the more complex series of steps he would have to do next before the desert rippled and wavered around him. His contact with Set's dimension was abruptly gone, lost as he drifted into a lighter dream state against all his protests.
When he woke the next morning, Peter did not, after all, check on Ray any more closely than it took to see that he was sleeping quietly in his bed, before going back to work in the lab. If he had, perhaps he would not have gotten anything at all done that day.
Ray also dreamed that night, of walking along endless corridors between tall rows of dimly-lit shelves built with niches full of rolled papyri. As he moved down the aisle he searched the labels under the niches, but he could not find the one he wanted, though he knew he had to be close to it. Under some sections the titles were smeared or faded too faint to be legible and he would have to pause and pull the dusty scrolls out to check their contents. They were never what he was looking for, but when he stopped to think about it, he did not know the title of the one he sought. All he was certain of was that he would know it held the right answer when he found it. The answer was very important, something he absolutely had to have, but the precise question eluded him when he tried to pin it down. Looking down the corridor that receded into infinity without changing, he wished Egon were with him to help sort and compile the library's contents until the solution distilled out of the vast collection.
To his left the shelves stopped, then resumed again a few feet further on past a closed doorway. The door opened easily when he tried it, and he stepped through onto grass oddly colored by the glowing blue dome that arched overhead. Ahead of him, Peter, Egon, and Winston stood waiting for him near a discarded sword. Backing away in abrupt panic, Ray found the door to the library had disappeared; behind him was only the road and the silent bulk of Ecto-1. "No," he moaned, dread rising to choke him. Turning back to the silent tableau, he moved slowly forward, his steps dragging as if he were bound for his own execution. When he came to a halt in front of his friends he looked pleadingly at Peter, begging silently to be spared what he knew he was there for.
There was sympathy in Peter's face, but he did not speak words that would release the obligation binding Ray. Instead, he gestured at the blade laying by their feet and said, "It's your duty. You wanted it."
Next to him, Winston nodded. "Fair is fair," he affirmed. "You expect to be an equal partner, you have to pay the freight."
"It is fitting you are the one to end it, since you brought us here in the first place." His logic was as impeccable as ever, but it was clear from the resigned tone of Egon's voice that he found no joy in it this time. "I trust you will be efficient about it."
The thought that had been skirting the edges of Ray's mind, tantalizing him with hints of hope, suddenly came clear, and he knew there was a way out. Joy suffused him at the realization he could finally redeem all his disappointments and failings and he bent willingly to lift the sword. It was heavy, poorly balanced and clumsy in his grip, but he did not mind; it was well suited to the job he needed it to do. Dropping to one knee, he reversed the weapon and drove the hilt into the soft ground at a slight angle. He drew a deep breath, leaning against the sword, the tip of the blade against his own chest digging in between his ribs. It had no more than pricked his skin when Peter knocked it from his grip. The point skidded out of place, leaving a welt across his chest and the sharp edge cut his palms as it was struck out of his hold and fell. He clasped his hands together to contain the bleeding, wincing in pain and looking up, puzzled. "Why did you stop me?" he asked in genuine confusion. "I thought you wanted it this way." His breathing was uneven, not yet caught up from the one that was to have been his last.
Peter shook his head, eyes cold with unforgiving, pitiless judgment. "You're pathetic. What makes you think you can get out of it like that? Set wants a worthy sacrifice. Egon was chosen. You drew to kill him because you haven't been able to come up with a better solution."
Staring up at him, Ray felt all the blood drain from his face and a huge, heavy knot of dreadful apprehension settled in his stomach. That was why Egon had to die. Because he had failed to act soon enough or provide a better alternative, Egon was lost to them. He bowed his head over a rising sob, knowing his way out had only been a fantasy born of self-deception, the illusions of merit and wisdom shattered around him. When Winston and Peter lifted him from either side by his arms he rose slowly, pliant in their grasp until upright. Then he shrugged away from them and picked up the sword again. With the two of them flanking him more like jailors than allies, he approached Egon, eyes downcast. He felt Egon's hands on his shoulders and finally looked up, drowning in the solemn blue gaze. "I'm sorry," he whispered, knowing it would never be enough. "Forgive me."
The look in Egon's eyes softened but it was still distant, already becoming more attuned to the place he would soon be sent. He shifted closer, as if he considered hugging Ray, but Set's sword was between them and he let go instead and turned away. "Farewell," he said, the word a soft sigh barely discernible to Ray over the pounding of his own heart.
Numb, he grew slowly colder all over as he watched Egon begin to unbutton his shirt and sink to his knees on the grass. Peter strode over and knelt in front of Egon, taking both long-fingered hands in his own to still their work for a time, pulling him close in an embrace that was returned with fervor. Arms around each other they melded together into a single form, and through the helpless tears that filled his eyes Ray could not tell whose breathing became the nearly inaudible sobs that shook them with repeated tremors. For long moments they remained pressed together, until Egon's hand stole upward and tangled in Peter's hair, ruffling it with tender ruthlessness.
Reacting with his instinctive aversion, Peter exclaimed, "Augh!" Too wise to waste the opportunity he had been given, he backed off from their embrace, struggling to his feet dragging one sleeve across his eyes and then finger- combing his bangs back into place with both hands. "I'll speak to you about that later," he promised, and had to clear his throat after speaking to smooth out the hoarseness that had somehow crept into his voice.
"I expect so." With perfect composure, Egon continued his original task of opening the front of his shirt, though the performance was marred ever so slightly by the almost imperceptible trembling of his hands. When he had finished and lain down on the ground, he turned his head and pinned Ray with a glance. "Well?" he prompted mildly, as Peter moved to sit beside him and Winston appeared at his other side.
In that single word Ray heard neither forgiveness nor resignation, but every nuance of the accusation he knew Egon would never detail aloud. Feeling separate and removed from his body, as if he watched his own actions from outside himself and had little control over them, he lifted the blade one last time, moving to place it over Egon's chest. He knew without need of verification precisely where the steady beat of Egon's heart was seated. Once he had been deserving of trust, once he had been held close and had listened to that quiet pulse murmur under his ear. Now it fell to him to stop its regular cadence, because he had failed to find any other solution. Blinded with the tears that had not ceased, he gathered all of the guilt and anguish and loss into himself and leaned his weight on the hilt, knowing the whole time it should have been his own life forfeit instead.
The sword plunged into Egon's chest, drawing a low, keening cry of mortal pain from him. Bright red with oxygen, his heart's blood fountained out of the wound and quickly soaked his chest. Catching in his throat, his last words were lost though Ray leaned forward, trying with all his might to hear what was said. But there was nothing on that final breath for him, and he only saw Egon convulse once more with agony, then go still in the loose sprawl of death.
To the side, Winston sat silently, knuckles pale as he clenched his hands together in prayer. Peter's eyes were fixed on Egon's lifeless face, not searching for a sign of breath, only setting its tranquil lines in his memory forever. "Goodbye," he whispered, reaching out with a shaking hand to gently close the wide, sightless eyes. His touch lingered briefly, fingers trailing down the cooling cheek in a last caress.
Cold to his marrow, Ray stood over his handiwork with no reason or desire to live left in his mind and waited, hoping his own heart would stop beating on its own, wondering how it could go on. Peter turned his head away, then slowly hoisted himself to his feet and headed toward the car without a word.
"Peter?" Ray called, desolation making his voice quaver.
His back to Ray, he paused. "What?"
"I loved him too," he blurted out, knowing the words would hurt but wanting Peter to know, hoping that somehow that common bond could keep him from being left alone.
Peter's shoulders slumped, and he didn't turn to face him. "Then why didn't you save him?" he finally asked. Not waiting for a reply, he started moving away again.
Mouth opened to protest, Ray was acutely aware he had nothing to say that could excuse his deed. If he had truly loved Egon, wouldn't he have found some way out of the trap other than death? All that emerged was a half- formed whimper of protest.
Winston laid a hand on his arm, silencing him with a look. "Don't bother, it won't do any good. You know how Peter felt about Egon. You might as well just have killed him, too." His hand dropped away and he also stood, heading toward the car without a backward glance.
Left alone on the cold, damp ground, Ray reached for the sword's hilt, intending to pull it free and make the only restitution he could offer. But as his hand touched it, it dissolved away to nothing, leaving only the wound that disfigured Egon's chest to mark its passing. In the absolute hush of the night, Ecto's engine coughed to life and broke the silence as it rumbled its throaty, familiar purr, idling briefly before the sound rose in pitch as the gears were engaged. It made such perfect sense they were leaving him here that he didn't even raise his head to see if they were waiting for him to join them. He couldn't go back with them, not after what he'd done. The noise faded away as the big car rolled into the night and he didn't bother watching it disappear down the road; the life it represented had been extinguished with Egon's last breath.
He gathered the corpse of his friend into his arms, bowing his head over the fair hair, his cheek resting on the high, regal forehead. My fault, I could have stopped this if I'd been smart enough... Without the energy to even sob, he simply held Egon's limp body, sometimes rocking very gently, sometimes shaking with the effort it took to draw breath. There was so much he had wanted to say and all of it was pointless now that Egon would not hear it. The words would never be spoken and Ray wept bitter tears, feeling all over again what it was like to lose someone beloved without ever having said goodbye properly. Far more cruel than that lesson was the constant whisper in the back of his mind that would not let him forget this death had been at his own hand, that the life had been taken because of his own failure and no matter what he did he could never escape that knowledge.
How long he spent grieving was impossible to tell, the midnight sky above him did not change at all. The body in his arms continued to cool until at last he could not bear to hold it any longer, the cold skin was too plainly devoid of the least remnant of Egon's life and warmth. Gently, he released his embrace and laid the lifeless form back on the ground, folding the pale hands over his motionless breast, hesitating over laying them in the darkening blood there. For a moment he was tempted to lift the tapering fingers to his lips, but if he had ever earned the right to say his farewell with such familiarity he had surely lost that priviledge when his inability to find any other solution to their plight had doomed Egon. All he allowed himself was a single fleeting touch, tracing the curve of cheekbone and jaw with his fingers nearly the same way Peter had earlier, before he forced himself to his feet and began walking. It did not matter to where, so long as his destination held the peace of forgetfulness, and he had several ideas already in mind as to how he could achieve that state. Nothing fancy or complicated, just quick and permanent.
Under his feet the asphalt reflected the faint starlight brighter than the grassy sward to either side of the road and he aimlessly followed the lighter path it gave him. Wandering down the center of the highway as if hoping to be hit by some rushing car coming over one of the low, rolling hills without warning, he stumbled occassionally when his dragging feet caught on the pavement, but never quite fell. Every once in a while he would tilt his head backward, trying to see the stars overhead but never able to make anything out beyond the faint blur of light they became when seen through the water that filled his eyes. The road he followed became darker and darker, the sky above him shedding less light until the time came when he looked upward and the stars were gone, leaving nothing but darkness above him. He blinked, realizing his eyes were really open, the ceiling of the firehouse bedroom lost in the gloom high above his head, as tear-blurred a sight as the sky had been in the dream.
For long minutes the emotions and thoughts he had formed in the dream filled his mind, causing a surrealistic confusion as he tried to correlate them with reality and decide if he actually was going to kill himself for having murdered Egon. The desire to do it quickly, the conviction that it was his only option now, the bone-deep grief and guilt were as powerful on waking as they had been minutes ago in sleep. Clear as actual memories, the scenes he had dreamed remained with him, and he knew they carried an inner truth every bit as damning as the images had been. No, he had not held the sword, but Egon had died because of him - to the point that he might as well have laid his hand to the killing, and Peter knew it. That much was very clear, intuitively obvious from the way Peter had been treating him and only slightly more blatant in the dream than Venkman had yet chosen to make it in reality. His subsconscious knew it too, and wasn't so reticent about confronting him with it bluntly. An open declaration from Peter was, no doubt, only a matter of time, and Ray found himself grateful for whatever remnant of their friendship it was that had prompted Peter to put off facing him with it so soon after their loss.
Across the room he could hear Peter tossing in some nightmare of his own, his breathing harsh and uneven with the intensity of whatever he fought internally. Quieting, Venkman turned in his sleep and sighed Egon's name with the hopeless tone of one who knows he will not be answered. Ray knew he would get no thanks for bringing him back to wakefulness, where memories would separate from dreams and become real again, a reality no better than nightmares.
He also knew he did not want to go back to sleep. Instead, he rose silently and went downstairs. Turning on the TV with the sound turned way down low, he sat through the Not Ready For Bed Movie and the Night Owl Feature; wet, unseeing eyes fixed on the screen though if he'd been asked he could not have said what the films were.
The next morning Winston stormed the sanctuary of the lab a second time and confronted Peter, certain that if he did not succeed this time the psychologist would contrive to remain isolated for an indefinite period. The prolonged silence from their traditionally most vociferous member was worrisome in more ways than one, and while Winston didn't have the training to know if this withdrawal from contact with his friends was clinically "healthy" or "normal" or not, he did know it was not what Ray needed. That alone was enough to make such behavior far from normal. Peter had always displayed an intensely protective side to his nature where Ray was concerned and this voluntary state of exile at a time when Ray manifestly needed support more than ever was highly uncharacteristic. Almost enough so to make him check the basement for pods and, reflecting on that and his failure to make any progress the night before, as he opened the door his greeting was perhaps a bit sharper than he had initially intended it to be. "OK, Pete, you're going to tell me what the hell is eating you or I'm gonna have to hurt you."
The interruption was unexpected enough that Peter turned to face him, a small smile starting that faded when he saw the seriousness in Winston's dark eyes. It may have been phrased lightly, but it was no idle threat. "What do you mean by that?" he asked, only a hint of defensiveness in his voice.
"Exactly what I said," Winston said grimly. "I know you've taken Egon's death hard. We all have. But you aren't acting like yourself at all and I want to know why. And don't hand me any crap about needing time, it won't wash any more."
Peter crossed his arms and leaned back against the workbench with a casual attitude that did not reflect the anxiety and tension he felt inside. "So I'm retreating to deal with it. What's your problem with that? A man can't come to grips with the loss of his dearest friend on his own without it being suspicious?"
"Maybe you can, but Ray can't. That's what's got me confused, I can't figure why you're letting him try." His puzzled anger melted away, turning into an open concern that he couldn't have known was even harder for Peter to resist. "What's wrong, Peter? Can't we help? Lean on us if you want to, we all shared the same love for Egon you had. You don't have to be alone. And Ray shouldn't be - he needs you but you've chased him away so many times he's afraid to ask any more. He's got this crazy idea the whole thing was his fault and your reactions have only convinced him you think so too. There's not much I can do to convince him he's wrong when you won't even speak to him."
"That's not..." It was too, and he knew it very well. Unable to continue lying to Ray while he kept the very key to curing their grief hidden, he had beeen avoiding the others instead. His actions might as well have been deliberately calculated to hurt Ray, already insecure and grieving, by convincing him he was not wanted because of his fault in the matter. Out of the twisted mess Peter's emotions had been tied into, a sudden, deep hatred fashioned itself, aimed at the cause of all their pain: Egon Spengler. "No," he protested weakly, ashamed of the very thought, quashing the feeling with panicked disgust at himself. Set was the enemy, not Egon, Egon had willingly laid down his life for them. But a taste of that misplaced rancor remained, tainting his thoughts despite his efforts to banish it.
"Not true? When was the last time you really tried to talk to him? I know it hasn't been for the last two days at least, I've been with him the whole time. You're up early, locked in here all day, out like a light at night, and cranky as a bear if we happen to see you in between." It was the first time he had put his observations into words but Winston realized as he spoke that he was saying nothing but the unvarnished truth. Peter had been distracted and grouchy when they had seen him, and while he had plenty of reason to be unsociable it still seemed there was more of a pressed desperation to his abruptness than the depression working through Egon's loss would naturally have caused. Admittedly, Peter didn't have only Egon's death to darken his outlook, he bore the additional weight that came from having been the one to carry out that death sentence. Winston shuddered to himself, unwilling even to try imagining what shoving Set's blade home in Egon's chest must have been like. Whatever loss the others felt, Peter's feelings about the whole event were in a completely separate category, a territory he had to walk alone. Winston was acutely aware that no gentle words of comfort could reach across the gulf of experience that lay between them now.
It was a low tactic, but Winston realized the only way to shock Peter into coming out of his shell would be to let him know he was needed so badly. One of the hallmarks of Peter's character had always been his ability to lock his own feelings inside and extend his help to whoever needed his support, a virtue that he exercised sometimes to a fault. Whatever it cost him to maintain his facade of easy acceeptance, Winston had expected Peter would pay it, hiding his grief behind a mask of strength that wouldn't crack until every one else had recovered and he had no more reason to ignore his own pain. But this time he had been shaken so badly he wasn't even putting on his act. He always awoke bleary-eyed, claiming a ferocious headache, and Winston had noticed the aspirin and other painkillers they stocked disappearing from the bathroom cabinet at an accelerated rate. The upset stomach downing analgesics in such quantity would induce probably accounted for Peter's continuing lack of appetite. His eyes had become permanently shadowed, the dark circles not fading even by the end of the day, and this morning there was a bloodshot tiredness to them even the early hour could not entirely excuse. In precise summary, he looked like hell, and Winston's natural reaction to the sum of his observation was as directly to the point as his conclusion had been. "Jeez, Pete, what are you doing to yourself?" he asked with heartfelt sympathy.
Venkman's face closed, going shuttered and unreadable in a last attempt at defense. "That's my business." If he broke his promise and told Winston, there was no reason not to tell Ray also, and that he absolutely could not do. If they even guessed the truth behind his activities, the entire effort to protect them would have been wasted, or worse, once discovered would drive a wedge of misunderstanding and betrayal between them.
Winston shook his head, amazed at the degree of stubbornness Peter was showing. It was so exactly like Ray's unreachable self-blame that he felt like he was surrounded by determined martyrs. It didn't even matter what Peter had to blame himself for, how horrible the memories had to be for him, what was important to Winston was the support system they should have been making the most of was falling apart because nobody was willing to give up their precious fraction of self-assigned guilt for Egon's death. "You're as full of it as Ray is!" he declared in disgust. "We're a team, remember? We don't blame each other for what we can't change, and we take care of each other. Let me help you." He tried reaching out again and this time Peter didn't shift away. "I care about you, man, don't you get it?" he said much more gently, and when he slid one arm around Peter's shoulders the psychologist sighed as if he had been relieved of a heavy weight and leaned into the embrace, sagging against him in tired acceptance.
"Yes, though I sure as hell haven't been making it easy," he murmured.
"That doesn't matter so much." A tiny smile lifted the corners of his mouth as he realized he had succeeded in breaching the wall between them. "We've got to help each other through this, Pete, or none of us will make it in one piece. Please, talk to Ray. He's hurting and you can help him."
Peter's eyes were clouded, but he did no more than sigh again and wrap one arm around Winston's back, slapping him lightly between the shoulderblades in grateful acceptance of his patience and caring. "Where is he now?"
"Still asleep. Looked to me like he'd had a bad night so I didn't wake him." He didn't mention having heard the TV quietly chattering to itself at 3 that morning, nor happening to wake when Ray finally sneaked back to bed around 5:30. Peter would be able to deduce Ray's condition well enough on his own once he took a good look at him.
Taking a deep breath, Peter moved away from Winston's support and squared his shoulders. "Thanks." When he reached the door, he paused and turned, raising one eyebrow at Zeddemore with rueful respect. "Winston? Next time I get my head too firmly implanted, feel free to kick it loose again." As he passed through the door he took on a whole different air, shrugging into an aura of cool, strong confidence as he would don a cloak.
"Any time." Dark eyes warm with affection, he watched Peter stride across the hall. "What are friends for?"
Winston had been right, Ray must have had a superlatively bad night. The bruised shadows under his eyes that had been so prominent three days ago, then abated slightly while he spent his time in research, had returned with a vengeance. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Peter studied the gaunt hollows in Ray's cheeks and the etched lines of sorrow that were settling deeper around his mouth. Even under Winston's watchful care he must not have been eating well. The tiny bit of spirit that had peeked out from underneath the shell of pain had withdrawn again, and needed dragging back into the light of life another time or two. If only he didn't feel so hypocritical doing it....
A slight unevenness in breathing let him know Ray was not deeply unconscious, if at all. "Gonna sleep all day?" he asked, shaking one shoulder under the blankets lightly. When Ray cracked a bleary eye open at him, he grinned and added, "I thought you were back to speed on your ADLs."
"ADLs?" Ray muttered indistinctly, his eyes drifting shut again as if holding them open were too much effort.
"Activities of Daily Living. You know, getting yourself out of bed, dressing, eating regularly, like that." He prodded the prone figure in the chest. "Indicators of mental health and ability to function in the real world. Something we've been having trouble with lately."
Ray turned his head to the side and seemed to sink lower into the pillow, as if he were flinching from an expected blow. "Sorry," he murmured with no animation.
"You aren't getting it, are you?" Peter reached over and with his forefinger tipped Ray's head back to face him. "Look at me, Ray." Ray didn't open his eyes, but a crease of pain marred his forehead. "Please?" The request was made in so gentle a tone that it drew Ray's attention as nothing else could have. Haunted and bloodshot, his eyes stared uncertainly up, and the wary fear in them rang all Peter's alarms.
Shifting his hand to smooth the rumpled mess where Ray's hair stuck up at odd angles, Peter tried to define what had changed in the gestalt of grief that was Ray Stantz. There was some new hurt there, a pain fresher and more raw than he had anticipated finding. As he stroked Ray's hair back into place, Peter felt a wave of tenderness and guilt wash through him that brought a fleeting sharpness to sting his own eyes. How could he have missed or ignored the defenseless need broadcast so plainly by this tortured soul? Living in the same house, how could he have not seen or responded to it? "Talk to me," he said, and his voice was even softer than before.
Still unopened, Ray's eyes abruptly overflowed and tears ran down his cheeks in quiet lines. He turned his head away again, his breath catching as he choked, "How can you stand remembering?"
Drawing back sharply, Peter felt the familiar wrenching stab of pain shoot through him, tightening like a noose around his heart before letting it stumble on in its pace again. He had no need to guess what Ray meant; the physical memory of the sword sinking through flesh under his hand pursued him yet, a ghastly sensation that would come upon him repeatedly, undeterred by his knowledge that Egon still survived that ending. "Remembering what?" he asked, and cursed the shakiness of voice that betrayed his knowing.
"Egon," Ray answered, but there was a sense of incompleteness about his reply that told Peter his gut reaction had been right.
"And what I did to him?" he finished the thought and saw confirmation in Ray's wince. "I can't." This, at least, he did not have to lie about, and the chance to be completely honest brought a candor to his confession it might have otherwise lacked. "I can't stand it, Ray. Even though it was necessary and he wanted me to do it, it eats away at me knowing I'm capable of such a thing. Knowing you see that in me now, too." His memories of that night, so close to the surface and so deeply painful, surged forward with unabated strength and his control failed abruptly. Words he had not meant to release tumbled from him, baring the guilt feeding on his soul. "Every night I see it again, hear his voice, know what was in his eyes as I murdered him." His voice caught and he bowed his head, whispering hoarsely, "Oh god, I killed him and I remember it, every minute of the day." He did not notice he had broken through Ray's shell of quiet until a warm hand stole over and covered his fists, clenched in his lap. Catching at that tentatively offered contact, he let it soothe his pain as his own touch helped Egon to endure.
Finally, Ray looked at him, and his eyes that had always seemed youthful were old beyond their years with misery, horror, compassion, and a strange loneliness. "I dreamed I killed him." His voice broke and tears continued to course down his face, as much in sympathy for Peter's admission as for his own hurt.
Part of Peter knew that no matter how vivid a dream Ray had had, he could never truly know what it had been like, but he also knew even a taste of that experience would be a terrifying weight for Ray to carry. The hand in his trembled and tried to pull away but he held firm, and said, "You didn't do it. I did." His breath caught on a half- laughing cough that sounded too much like a sob. "God, who would have guessed it? Of all the people I've ever wanted or threatened to kill, the one I really do end up murdering is my oldest friend."
"You didn't murder him," Ray insisted earnestly. "He said it wasn't murder, before it happened. It wasn't your fault, Peter." Something in his tone made it perfectly obvious whose fault he thought it was.
Years of knowing Ray gave Peter a very exact idea of what Ray meant, and it explained the haunted, stricken look that had not left his eyes. It was pretty much what he had heard from Winston the night before. Bowing his head, he gathered his internal reserves for what he knew would be a difficult struggle. "Your dream," he began quietly, "wasn't reality. It reflected how you subconsciously see reality, but don't let what your mind thinks is real affect how you deal with what's actually going on around you. Your unconscious mind sees things sometimes more clearly and those insights can be very valuable, but it also misses things, interprets them in its own way, and sometimes what it shows you can be so twisted that listening to it will mess you up worse." He pitched his voice smooth and confident, pulling out all the stops in his 'professional psychologist' demeanor. When he put it on, the guys gave him a hard time about pretensions of intellectualism, but in truth he had an excellent grasp of the tools of his trade.
It was making very little impression on Ray, however. Eyes wide, he watched Peter with complete concentration, taking in every word as if his life depended on it. The trouble was, just as obviously those words were not being believed, only clung to.
"Ray, you're not listening to me," he pointed out, and frowned when the response was a poorly hidden wince.
"I'm sorry," Stantz said, and his normally soft voice was so hesitant that it came out in a whimper. Though he could have repeated every word just spoken, Peter had been essentially right; he had been soaking them up as tokens of proof that he was not abandoned after all, not paying attention to their meaning as advice to be followed.
Peter sighed under his breath, knowing that he had made as much progress as he could hope for in this encounter. Drawing Ray out was going to take time and the application of more attention than he had given him all week. "Why don't you get up," he suggested gently. "Have some breakfast, and we'll talk later, OK?" It would mean that the retrieval device would fall further behind schedule, and he had already begun to figure out that there was a lot more yet to be done than he had thought a day ago. None of that stress showed in his face as he released Ray's hand and stood up, but it twisted his gut with the realization of time passing. Part of his mind railed at him, How can you waste even a second while Egon's still in Set's control, suffering that agony? And another part answered, Wasn't protecting Ray the reason Egon died in the first place? If he did not take the time to see that Ray came through this in one whole piece, then he would be responsible for wasting that sacrifice. The knots in his stomach ratcheted tighter again, ensuring that he would not be interested in food today either.
Assuming that Ray would be getting up, Peter went back to work, but his mind would not remain fixed on what he was doing and he ended up making no real progress. Continually expecting Ray to join him so they could continue their conversation, two hours later he told Slimer to wait for him and emerged from the lab to find that Ray had not even gotten out of bed yet. Angered at first, his reaction changed in the next second to sympathy and deeper worry. It made him feel like he was slipping, both personally and professionally, to have misread to such a degree the state of someone he thought he knew very well.
Dozing uneasily, Ray looked every bit as unhappy as he had earlier. Once again, Peter refrained from waking him for lack of having any true comfort to offer. Instead, he retreated to his own bed and kept watch, waiting for Ray to reawaken, and arguing bitterly with himself over which course of action his time was better spent in: trying to make headway on the retrieval device when the longer he worked on it the more it became horribly clear to him that he could not complete it in time to do any good, or tending to the emotional wounds their experience had left before it was too late and his inattention left them all permanently crippled by the unresolved conflicts. By the time the sleeper stirred and opened his eyes Peter had come to no firm, clear conclusion, but the very inability to make a decision spoke eloquently to him of the weight of the opposing imperatives. Though his internal division left him unsettled and tense with the knowledge that no matter what he did he was choosing to condemn one of his friends, he managed to greet Ray's return to consciousness with gentle concern. "Good morning again, sleepy head. Going to join the world this time?"
"Peter?" Propping himself up on his elbows, Stantz squinted blearily over at him, almost immediately managing to look ashamed for his late arising. It never occurred to him to explain that he had spent better than half the night awake after his nightmare, and even after sleeping this late in the morning he still felt as if another couple hours would do him some good. Nor did he point out that Peter's invitation had been so vaguely worded that he had not realized it was meant as a prompt to immediate action. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you were waiting for me."
"No problem-o," he replied easily, sliding off his bed. The dark circles under Ray's eyes and the bleary, half- conscious way he spoke were beginning to clue Peter in to the reason it was taking so long for him to get up. Although it didn't alter the innocent pitch of his voice, he had resolved internally to get to the bottom of this particular case of prolonged exhaustion no matter what devious or extortionate measures were required. "I wanted to know what you and Winston found out over the last couple days, he said you had all the details."
Ray's expression went closed. "We didn't really find anything more than I already told you," he said defensively. "Nothing helpful, anyway." Struggling all the way upright, he fumbled out of the covers and slid his feet into his bunny slippers. Having gotten that far, he stalled out, clearly unable to convince himself there was a good reason for going through with the rest of the morning ritual only to face a day empty of meaning.
His hollow, joyless look tipped Peter's mental balance and he knew that no matter how bad failing to save Egon would make him feel, failing to save Ray would certainly give Set the final victory. Egon would understand that. Resigning himself to the outcome of his choice with a tiny prayer for strength, he sat next to Ray and said, "OK, I can accept that nothing really helpful exists. The ancient texts I've seen aren't usually full of dimensional coordinates or power supply specs for alternate realities. But you must have found out something that will tell us what we did wrong in the first place."
"What do you mean?" Ray's voice was lifeless, devoid of the inflections that usually characterized it. Without turning his head to see Peter's face, Ray remained slumped in place, not even trying to gather the energy to stand up.
"For starters, what the hell was an Egyptian god doing in New fucking Jersey in the first place?" His face twisted with frustrated confusion. It was not a theoretical question to him, it was personal. They had been struck by a fate that seemed anything but random though he could see no reason other than random chance it should have chosen them. "Talk about taking the wrong turn at Albuquerque."
Ray sighed, but a shade of interest returned to his expression and he straightened a little as he replied. "Winston asked me that yesterday and I've been thinking about it. I think I know what happened. He wasn't just in New Jersey, he was there for us."
That made even less sense to Peter than a random happening. "Why? We bust his grandmother or something? Why don't I remember giving him some reason to come after us like that?"
"The reason was... the way we were. Are. What we feel for each other." Ray fell silent, unable to articulate his deduction any more precisely without using words he wanted to avoid.
Sensing the omission, Peter raised an inquiring eyebrow. "You're going to have to explain that one a little more slowly."
Heartened by Peter's patient willingness to consider acceptance of his theories, Ray shed a bit more of his despondent listlessness. He took a deep breath and plunged into an explanation of the results of his research. "Set goes hunting once a year for a soul to feed on. Any death he chose for his victim would probably suffice, but he can draw far more power from a willing sacrifice than from a kill by force."
Familiar with the concept from his own studies, Peter took no convincing. "I'm with you so far. In a world of hamburger helper offerings, voluntary sacrifices are the filet mignon of soul-grabbers."
"Exactly. His cult followers used to capture families; parents are usually willing to die in order to save their children and they could feed him a steady diet of high quality sacrifices that way. Without that assistance he seems to be fairly choosy about how he approaches feeding. From what we've pieced together, he only attacks groups of less than eight, and only in isolated situations where he can keep his prey completely contained in that force bubble."
"So why the heck haven't we heard about this before? It's hardly common knowledge that once a year you shouldn't be caught out alone or an ancient Egyptian god will get you."
"If he isn't bound to the contract at the time of the deal, once the sacrifice has been made he returns and takes whoever was left as well. It's most likely they get fed to his underling demons, the Unrepentant Ones who followed him into exile after he lost the big battle with Ra, the sun god. There haven't been that many victims caught who knew they had to protect themselves outside of the bargain or how to bind him, so there haven't been survivors telling the story. There are only three cases we found with record of a survivor escaping in the last two thousand years. All those other unexplained group disappearances were probably the source of a lot of the stories down the centuries about travelers being carried off at night by various local monsters." This time, his usual innate enthusiasm for discovering the key to a vast number of related mysteries that had puzzled researchers for ages was missing.
Peter's interest did not follow Ray's into the historical aspects of the manifestations, remaining fixed instead on the idea that there had been some successes in the past. "He wouldn't limit his attacks like that if he weren't somehow vulnerable, so he does have weak points."
Ray nodded wearily. "And he knows how to compensate for them. He's been at it for some six thousand years. Don't forget that."
"I'm not likely to." He sighed, returning to his original line of inquiry. "And we happened to fit the bill: four guys in the middle of nowhere at the right time. What did you mean, it had something to do with the way we feel?"
"Peter, to an empathic creature our friendship stands out like a beacon." It had never been clear to him before what a liability that could be.
Grimacing with understanding, Peter nodded. "We weren't just four guys in a car, we were a flashing neon sign that said 'these guys would die for each other' and that's why he zeroed in on us."
"Right. His instincts for prime food source, and our..." He trailed off, knowing the word but not willing to give it the blame for what had happened.
Peter did. "Love." His mouth twisted bitterly as he saw the irony of the arguments they had made with each other that night. "Friendship."
Ray nodded, the unfairness bleak in eyes that had always seen a world founded on an inherent natural justice. "The best thing we had, what made us a special team, brought that doom down on us."
Anger flared in Peter at his own failure to have seen they were being taken when he considered himself an expert in the con game. "The whole threat of killing us all was just a ploy and we walked into it like total morons. He wasn't just empathic, he was stupid-pathic and he sure read us right." Caustic recrimination weighted his words.
Putting out a hand to his shoulder, Ray reflexively denied the self-accusation he heard. "He would have killed us all if we hadn't accepted his offer. The threat wasn't an empty one, it simply wasn't his first choice."
Peter covered the hand on his shoulder with his own, and his voice was quiet, persuasive, only emphasizing the point Ray had made without intending. "That's something we all need to remember, something that's hard to see clearly through the pain. We would all have died if it weren't for Egon's sacrifice, but even that would have been in vain if you hadn't figured out what was going on and spoken up when you did." Ray tried to pull away at that, sensing where the theme was going and not willing to hear himself absolved of blame.
Instead of letting go, Peter grasped his hand and held it, forcing him to meet his eyes and hear him out. "You were as responsible for getting us out of there as Egon. When all he wanted was for us to survive, you made sure his last wish was granted. There is nothing there for you to feel guilty for, Ray, you know Egon would thank you for making sure his death meant what he wanted it to."
"He shouldn't have had to die!" Ray burst out. "If I'd only found the solution in time he wouldn't have had to! I should have known what to do when he first showed up, if I'd been more alert Egon wouldn't have had to make that choice."
"Is there a solution? Do you have it now?" At the negative shake of Ray's head, Peter demanded with exasperation, "Then how can you blame yourself for not having it then? Ray, you idiot, you can't claim responsibility for everything that happens, sometimes it just happens whether you want it to or not and there's nothing you can do about it."
"That's not what you said-" He chopped his statement off abruptly, remembering it was only in the dream that Peter had blamed him out loud.
"What?" Those internal alarms were ringing again, letting him know there was something here, something he should be paying attention to. With quiet insistence, he asked, "What did I say?"
"It was in the dream," Ray mumbled. "You didn't really say it." He tried to escape by standing but Peter pulled him back down beside him.
"The point is that you thought I did, so at some level you believe I would. I think you owe me a chance to defend myself against your subconscious perception of me."
Ray sat in miserable silence for several minutes, but Peter patiently outwaited him. At last, he gave a deep sigh and said dejectedly, "You won't be mad?"
"Why should I be? Ray, all I want is for you to come through this in one piece, the person Egon died to preserve. Let me help you." A brief smile canted his mouth as he found himself repeating Winston's exact words of not so long ago. When it came to some topics, they all thought alike. He slid a comforting arm around Ray's shoulders and said, "Whatever you dreamed, you can tell me and I won't hold it against you. What I won't do is leave until you've spilled it all, so start talking."
It took a few more minutes for him to be thoroughly convinced that Peter's promise not to leave until he heard it all had not been an idle one, but the psychologist's normally short attention span appeared to have become infinite without warning. In a dejected monotone, Ray said, "It was back under the force dome, and I had drawn to kill Egon and you said the reason he had to die was because I hadn't found any better solution and you stopped me from doing anything else because Set needed a worthy sacrifice. After he was dead, you turned away and wouldn't look at me. When I told you I had loved him too, you asked why I hadn't been able to save him. You and Winston got into Ecto and drove off without me. I held him..." His voice faltered and he finished in a whisper, "but he was dead." He fell silent, shivering with the memories, certain all over again that the dream had been a tactlessly accurate representation of the underlaying causes and effects and that Peter would now have to admit it covered perfectly his view of the whole situation.
As the confession unfolded, Peter saw between the lines of what was said to the things left unspoken, and knew with immediate insight why Ray had seen the events that way in his dream. Rejected repeatedly in reality, his mind had created a reason for it when no other explanation had been offered. In essence, Peter had told him those things, for his reclusiveness of the past few days had no other obvious interpretation. Worse yet, he could not say why he had withdrawn nor retract his rebuff because it was more certain than not that to tell Ray there was hope would only be setting him up for a second, more devastating loss when the attempt at rescue failed. Trapped in the lie he was bound by his honor and concern to perpetuate, he could offer no honest explanation to counter Ray's dream, and the slightest hint of insincerity in anything he said would instantly be seen as confirmation of blame. The taint of anger directed at Egon flared again; for putting him in this position, for occupying his mind to the extent that Ray had been left alone believing himself to blame and he hadn't been able to see it until it was too late, for making him helpless to comfort Ray. It was Egon's fault for being gone when he was needed so badly the hole he had left in their midst was a wound that would never heal, for being loved so well they could not get along without him. In a brief moment of unendurable resentment, Peter hated him for leaving them all behind to feel this way because of him.
"It didn't happen the way you dreamed it, Ray," he finally said hoarsely. "None of it was ever your fault. Egon died of his own free will to save all our lives. Not because you failed, not because you weren't worthy, not because we wanted to leave you out. He never blamed you, none of us did. I don't." Under his arm he felt Ray stiffen, knew he had been right about that being one of the central pins of the problem, and gave it his full attention. "You have to believe that, Ray, you have to know we stopped you because we couldn't let any one of us make the decision himself, not because we didn't think you could do it."
Ray shook his head vehemently, shuddering in Peter's grasp. "Egon decided by himself! He knew!" As if he had only realized it as the words left him, he said more slowly, a wondering note to his voice as he explored his conclusion out loud, "I didn't see it at the time, but he knew he would be the one." Too caught up in the intensity of what was happening at the time he hadn't made the connections before, but he had not missed the look in Egon's eyes, the tone of his voice and the things he had said to Peter, he'd just failed until now to see what they meant.
Forced to admit that Ray's perception was correct, Peter bowed his head and took a deep breath. There was no way he could lie about this and hope the rest of his statements would hold any credibility. "Yes. I saw that too, and I let him talk us into drawing for it. There was no other way, and I still hate myself for not understanding what I saw in his eyes as we argued. I should have seen it, should have known what he was up to, and I didn't. I didn't have a clue until we drew and he looked so... vindicated." He knew what would happen and he talked us into a drawing of lots that was anything but random. Egon cheated. There was no other term that fit, and Peter had to grudgingly concede the staid physicist had outbluffed and snookered them all in the final game. If he ever met Egon in a place where they had the opportunity, he wouldn't make the mistake of playing poker with him again, not for anything but penny ante. "I knew him well enough to see it, and I was too stupid to know what it meant and stop him in time."
"You couldn't have," Ray said, applying his own personal conviction to the situation. If he'd had the same advantage of knowledge that Egon had, he wouldn't have let the others know and there would have been no way they could have talked him out of it either. Each of them would have done the same thing, and for the same reasons. "He wanted to be the one." Just like I did.
Though he had not spoken that last thought aloud, it resounded as clearly to Peter as if he had, and he answered it. "We all did, Ray." Peter backed off, releasing his hold so he could grasp both Ray's shoulders and look into his face, green eyes meeting brown in direct appeal. "Isn't that the point? That we all would be willing to do that for each other?" Ray nodded, eyes locked on his, and the psychologist knew he had found the right key to unlock Ray's belief the others held him at fault for what happened. "You would happily have taken his place. I know that's how you felt, and I have the same guilt you feel for not having saved him somehow, whatever it might have cost me." The tiny catch in his voice was more elegantly persuasive than his words, and totally unfeigned. "But even though we lost Egon, we haven't lost everything, we haven't lost what we were. If you and Winston and I faced that same test tonight, we'd each fight just as hard to be the one taken to spare the last two, wouldn't we? We still feel the same way about each other." Shaking Ray slightly, he asked, "Don't we?" and Ray nodded again, hanging on his every word and really absorbing them this time. "That's what's important here, you can't let yourself lose sight of what we still have. Don't let yourself get lost in regret when there was nothing you could have done, it wouldn't be fair to Egon." Holding Ray's gaze intently, he finished very quietly, "Or me. I need you the way you were, to make it all mean something worthwhile."
"...or the sacrifice is pointless." Egon's words on that very topic echoed in Ray's mind, and he nodded, as much to himself as to Venkman. Life had to be worth something, they had paid too much for it not to be, and even if he couldn't make it so for himself he would not be the reason Peter came to believe it had been a waste. After all his other blunders in this matter, he was not going to be the one to betray that trust. "You're right, Peter," he said, his voice gaining strength as determination flowed through him. His back straightened with resolve, dredged from the memory of what it had been like when the challenge of a new day had been something to look forward to with pleasure. "I'll go take a shower."
"And then?" Peter prompted.
Back to him, Ray shrugged. "Nothing exciting. There are a couple new journals that have come in that I want to read. I think I'll spend the day catching up."
Peter watched with a faint, pleased smile as Ray collected his clothes and headed out of the room. While he wasn't exactly moving energetically, he was at least moving of his own volition and mapping out something to do which appeared future-oriented rather than focused on the past and its losses. That was progress from two hours ago. The bathroom door had closed behind him before Peter's careful mask fell away to reveal the pain that filled him. Though he would continue to work on the retreival device as much as he could, he knew he would not be able to give it all his time from now on and that guaranteed failure. For Ray's sake, Egon's soul would be lost, a death more final than the mere physical cessation they all faced as human beings. The knowledge of what he was deliberately condemning his friend to curdled in his stomach like vinegar in milk. Damn Egon anyway, for making me choose.
Although his initial intention had been no more ambitious than to spend the day sitting quietly in a corner reading or staring into space, Ray found himself unable to waste that much time in total inactivity. It worked for a little while at first, but he soon found himself paying no attention to the magazine he was holding. Instead his mind wandered back to his dream and the talk that morning, trying to reconcile what Peter had said with the way he had been acting for the past few days, comparing the words actually said to what he had dreamed and striving for an internal peace that was just slightly out of reach for him yet. Jumbled up with his nightmare's images and the questions Peter had asked was all the research he had done over the past two days, and around ten in the morning it all jelled into a burning desire to do something.
The difficult part was finding an outlet in action that was not as pointless as sitting around would be. He began by carrying all the notes taken during the trips to the library and his collector friends down to his basement lab where he organized, indexed, and studied every nuance of them in search of some clue. When Peter meandered in to ask how he was doing, he replied in uncharacteristically noncommittal tones, not wanting to draw attention to the fact he hadn't produced anything helpful yet. That particular inadequacy was too close to his dream's version of what had happened and he pushed himself harder to avoid repeating the imaginary failure. But once spent in the initial drive to organize what he had found so far, Ray's ambition stalled as he surveyed the piles of paper and realized there was nothing in all of it that could help him do anything concrete to find out the true state of Egon's soul nor where it might be and how to get there.
Disheartened at his lack of progress, Ray leaned back in his chair and regarded his work with eyes that remained dry only through determination not to give up. There had to be another way to use what he had to find Egon, some way he could redeem himself by discovering the answer that had eluded him so far. Some way to tie into Set's universe through what was already known of him... Heterodyning Egon's biorhythm wavelength with every etheric resonance suggested by applying numerology to the texts he had did not result in any response that might indicate a presence. Tearing apart the hastily constructed mass of electronics with a grim expression, Ray relapsed into lethargic despondency for nearly twenty minutes before he thought of designing a device capable of scanning dimensional boundaries for traces of recent passage. It occupied him for several hours, but didn't work, and he spent another couple futile hours trying to determine if his mathematical theory or his hardware were to blame. The entire day passed in cyclic bouts of frantic activity and dejected listlessness as Ray's hopes for his applications of theory to practice alternately rose and disintegrated with each experiment.
Showing up at roughly hourly intervals to check on him, Peter saw the swing of Ray's moods as he went from hopeful optimism to disappointed depression with each new idea's failure. That there could be optimism at all heartened him, but he found its perforce wasting in useless pursuits a terrible squandering of resources and bit his tongue each time, swearing to himself that he would not take no for an answer the next time he broached to Egon the topic of letting Ray in on the truth. Whether Ray was in one of his busy periods or staring moodily at his latest failed inspiration, Peter would trade a few supportive words with him and retreat, only to return another hour later to softly inquire how he was doing. The constantly renewed solicitude was in fact the best thing he could have done, and he was not unaware of its effect. His regular reappearances reinforced his lecture as nothing else could have, visibly refuting the last lingering vestiges of Ray's suspicion that he had any desire to avoid or reject him. It was entirely fortunate that Ray did not follow him up to the third floor lab and offer his help, or he would have been forced to undo all his reassurances by turning him away again without explanation.
Winston managed to keep Ray company by being able to sit in the same room, reading on his own and keeping half an eye on him, but he wasn't able to draw Ray into conversation except to elicit an occasional explanation of why the most recent avenue of exploration had come to nothing. For Winston, the day was more a passing of time only for the sake of seeing it gone, mainly because he could not see any cohesive logic behind Ray's efforts and deduced early on that the bursts of energy were due more to desperation than to having found a genuinely useful direction to pursue. Having gotten Peter out of his isolation and involved in Ray's condition, he felt as if he had accomplished the most important thing he had been capable of doing. It left him content to sit back and provide the unobtrusive support the other two still needed while they dealt with whatever lay between them. As yet Winston had no new purpose, no plan to begin pulling toward, only a formless dread of what they had yet to face when they inevitably went public with Egon's loss. Reluctantly, he had to admit to himself that Peter had been right about this delay, they did need the time without intrusion to make their own adjustments to the situation. Some time in the next couple days, he promised himself, he would mention that to Peter, and thank him for having been able to see clearly enough through the initial pain to give them the breathing space they hadn't realized they had to have.
Peter joined them for dinner for the first time, and saw for himself how disinterested in food Ray was. A worried glance at Winston's expression confirmed this was an ongoing condition he had not had any luck in combatting. Poised to make some remark on it, he caught sight of Ray's eyes and closed his mouth. It wasn't good that Ray wasn't eating right, but it wasn't time yet to cajole him into it with friendly rude commentary. Lack of hunger was merely a symptom of the deeper problem he had to overcome first, and Peter was wise enough to know alienating his patient by harping on the symptoms would not help either of them in the long run. They had made a very good start that morning, he knew that for certain, and was willing to let the foundation for recovery he had laid during the day set up, as it were, before beginning the next level. While patience wasn't one of Peter's more well- publicized virtues he was capable of nearly any forbearance when Ray's welfare was at stake. He bit back his comment and did not say anything when Ray left the table, his meal barely touched.
Once the others had settled in front of the evening's bad movie experiment, Peter excused himself and headed back to the lab for the last time that day. There was little enough he could do in a couple hours but it had to be better than nothing and he felt an urgent need to do something before he had to face Egon and explain his shift in priority. Hours later when he finally admitted defeat and closed down the lab, no closer to success than he had been that morning, he found Ray and Winston had already retired. Moving quietly, he changed and got into bed, then lay there staring at the ceiling wondering how he was going to be able to justify his lack of progress to the man who had lain another 18 hours in hell counting on him. Before the conversation took place, he had his answer.
This time, Ray's subconscious didn't bother to use an approximation of what had actually happened to make its point, it went straight for his emotional throat via his most vulnerable point: the conviction that helplessness equals culpability. All he had done all day had only shown him again that he was inferior and the indirect cause of all their grief, for he had no doubt at all that had their situations beeen reversed Egon would have been easily able to find a way to save him. Vaguely depressed, disconnected dreams gave way suddenly to a scene of blood and terror, where he stood by helpless to intervene or even move while a laughing, monster-headed demon tore from their living bodies first Egon's heart and then Peter's. Their broken, bleeding corpses lay at his feet, blind, accusing stares directed upward at him, and still he could not move to fight against the fate they had resisted so strongly. Unable to even turn away or run and save himself, he felt paralyzed, useless, impotent when he should have been able to do something, when his friends had needed him to be able to do something. Ray breathed an apology and raised his eyes from their bodies, ready to meet his own doom and welcoming it as just, for he had done nothing to prevent their deaths and deserved the same fate his failure had condemned them to. But there was no monster there any longer, only a mirror and he looked into his own face, saw his own hands dripping with the lifeblood of his friends, and came awake screaming.
His first clue was Ray's thrashing and moaning his and Egon's names several times, and Peter was already halfway to his side when the muttering escalated into a sharp cry that cut through the quiet with painful violence. "NO!"
Practically leaping the last few feet to him, Peter wrapped his arms around Ray and contained his brief flailing, saying in a firm, soothing voice, "Wake up, Ray, it's just a dream. You can wake up now. Come on, look around, I'm here."
Coming awake to find Peter holding him, he was momentarily glad, but seconds later he was sobbing heartbrokenly, knowing that only one of the two he had seen killed could be there to hold him and say it had all been only a dream. He truly had stood by and watched the other die; Egon had been murdered while he sat and did nothing. "I'm sorry! God, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, oh, Egon...." Unable to stop himself, he broke down again. It hurt all the time, deep inside, and in the haven of the dark and Peter's arms he cried again as he had the night they left Egon behind, for despite the time that had passed the pain was still as fresh and sharp as it had been then.
Holding him tightly, Peter felt him shake as hot tears dampened the front of his sweatshirt, and could not remain unmoved himself. Pulling him closer, he buried his face in Ray's hair and bit his tongue until he tasted blood because he could not say, "Take heart, believe in Egon's theory, trust me, it's not over and we're not beaten yet." For Ray, it was over, there was nothing left to believe in, and nothing Peter could say would make it all right for him again. All Peter could do was murmur empty, quieting phrases and rock him gently, smoothing his hair and letting him know that he was not alone or unwanted. It was not nearly enough for either of them.
In time, Ray's crying subsided and Peter let go of him, reluctantly aware there was nothing more he could offer. "I'm sorry," Ray hiccupped one last time, but Peter shushed him before he could go any further.
"Don't apologize, Ray, just promise you'll let me help." At the silent nod of agreement he stood and stretched, yawning ostentatiously but quietly enough that he took no chance of waking the still-snoring Zeddemore. Somehow he had managed to sleep undisturbed through Ray's noisy awakening. Pausing near the other's bed on his way back to his own, Peter realized Winston must be as zonked as Ray and himself, dead tired with the stress and emotions brought on by Egon's death. More so, since he'd been keeping it together so well for himself and the rest of them without complaint, filling in the gaps where those ADLs were going unattended by anyone else. It bothered him to find he hadn't really been thinking of how Winston must be taking everything, accepting everything their third partner had been doing for the two of them as if he weren't also grieving the loss of a friend as close as family. God, I've been out of it!
Scrunching back down into his bed and rolling the covers around himself, Ray murmured sleepily, "'Night, Peter. Thanks."
"'Night, Ray. Any time."
As Peter drifted uneasily to sleep, his thoughts were still full of the frustration of his helplessness in the face of Ray's pain, roiling with an underlying anger at Egon that he could not exorcise no matter how hard he tried. In fact, the more he concentrated on it the more righteous his rage became, fueled with the trapped feeling that came over him every time he examined his situation and options. Peter hated feeling trapped, he had always fled or talked his way out of emotional corners but now he found himself unable to do either. Instead of being at a comforting distance watching the action from behind a solid wall of well-maintained defenses, he was out in the open, right in the middle of a dangerous, visible territory. Denied even a way to flee, he was surrounded by emotional confinements that made him feel a constant twinge of incipient panic lurking under his breastbone. He had dealt with the grief and begun to move onward, only it was a circular path that always came back to misery and the faster he ran from it the quicker he came back to the pain at its center. One of the walls holding him in had to give, to let him out so he could breathe air clean of the taint of unceasing loss and get his equilibrium back. One of those walls was Egon.
As if his connection to Set's world were responding to his ambivalence, he found himself further away this time than he had been since the first night, some hundred yards away from Egon when the black desert shimmered into existence around him. Walking slowly to the night's rendezvous, head bowed in thought, Peter tried to compose a quiet, rational argument with which to present his case, knowing, and resenting the knowledge, that such a speech had the only hope of making an impression on Egon. No impassioned plea for understanding would hold water, not when a few strokes of surgically applied logic could turn it into a small pile of disconnected irrelevancies. The problem was there was no reasoned argument that had not been tried already and found wanting by the exacting tests of logic and equal concern. All he had were his feelings and his gut sense of what should work, and they weren't going to be enough, not this time. Damn Egon and his cold, insensitive analysis, this wasn't a problem that a series of differential equations could solve, this was a matter of spirit and feeling and knowing what was right without needing to prove it.
Before he was ready he came upon the sight that had haunted him day and night all week; Egon stretched in agony on the ground, chest as freshly bloodied as it had been the moment he had been killed. The scene brought the same surge of horror and grief it did every time he looked on it here or thought about it when he was awake, but this time those feelings were mixed with the anger that had been growing strong in the dark corners of his mind for days, living in the shadows of his misery. Vehemently denied and repudiated, it still existed, creeping through his consciousness, contaminating his mind with a resentment that suddenly clamored for recognition and an outlet.
He couldn't hold fate to blame, it was too nebulous an opponent and he had always needed something he could confront, call his enemy, and punch in the nose. This time the only enemy he could find and face was the one person responsible for what he was going through. "Egon."
Turning his head blindly, seeking the source of the greeting, Egon peered nearsightedly at the blob of grey and blue that would not resolve itself to his vision. "Peter?" His voice was a barely discernible grating whisper, nearly lost in the eerie, low whistling of the unceasing wind. Sipping air delicately as though he had just been through one of the sword's attacks, he observed, "It's late."
Peter's brow creased with the effort of reining his temper, but it was a lost cause and the rational argument he had been attempting to formulate fled entirely. "Late? What, you're keeping track now? Look, when I went to bed, this shirt wasn't damp, OK? I would have been here sooner but Ray needed me. He needed more than I could give because I can't tell him the truth. You know how that makes me feel, to know he knows I'm not being totally open with him? He can tell, he's not stupid. All I can give him is lies, Egon, and lies don't comfort adults." His resentment charged unchallenged to the surface and seethed there, so much easier to feel than the fear and pain that would not leave him alone when he thought of Egon, easier than the wondering awe that humbled him when he remembered what the physicist had knowingly volunteered for. Those were issues of the past, things he had been shoving around his consciousness for days until the sharp edges were partially worn with familiarity, but now he had a new distraction and its freshly razored edges claimed precedence. An hour ago Ray had sobbed in his arms and he had been helpless to comfort him, tortured with the knowledge he would speak that night to the man whose loss Ray mourned with all his broken heart. "Do you have any idea what you're putting him through?"
In the heated tone and sharp phrases Peter used as he warmed to his topic, it was not hard for Egon to see which ongoing disagreement he wanted settled now, nor that he would no longer agree to disagree until a better solution could be found. When he replied, he spoke with a vehemence nearly equal to Venkman's, forcing the words past his dry and aching throat. "He would have had to face my death sooner or later anyway. At least this way it had some meaning, some usefulness." In his own way Egon felt the same frustration and more, for his mere presence could ease Ray's grief but he was as helpless to cross the distance and comfort Ray as Peter had been. With all his mind he wished he could simply rise and take Ray in his arms, make all the hurt and recriminations and loss go away with a touch. If he could not be allowed that, then he preferred to be safely on the next plane of existence, removed from mortal grief and untroubled by the constant reminder of what he had left behind that Peter's visits had become. This halfway in-between un-death was worse than either, and his own anger at the situation brought him near to pounding his head against the ground.
Dismissing Egon's point with a wave of one hand, Peter said cuttingly, "Your method of dying was a long way from being comparable to whatever inevitable end we all accept as possible. You knew what would happen to Ray if he went through with your killing as well as I did, I saw that in your eyes. But didn't it occur to you that even just letting him watch would be almost as bad? After he goes through a trauma like that and needs all the help he can get simply to keep from going insane at the horror, all I can do is lie to him, keep any hope that might lighten his grief hidden while he blames himself for your loss..." Running out of steam through sheer frustration he ground to a halt, breathing heavily with the intensity of his passion.
Egon rolled his head weakly side to side, trying to deny the accusations, but there was too much truth in the hurtful words, and his thoughts had been so fuzzy and repeatedly distracted by pain for so long that now the original clean logic of his position was lost to him. "This way is better..."
Stressed beyond endurance, Peter snapped angrily, "Damn it, what the hell makes you think you know what will work? You're only here because you had some weird 'feeling' and railroaded us all into going along with you. What if Ray had drawn the short straw to die? What about your 'feeling' then?"
"Luck. Pure, stinking luck. How can you justify taking a risk like that with us?" Hands jammed deep in his jeans pockets, he paced back and forth in short lengths, agitation making his movements jittery.
"We were all going to die anyway, Peter. It is better this way."
Whirling back to Egon, he challenged, "Tell me you'd still believe that if you'd had to kill Ray and spend the rest of your life remembering you talked us into allowing it. Go on, Egon, put yourself in his place now - in mine, for that matter. I have to look in his eyes every day and know he remembers watching me kill you. And I can't even give him the comfort of hope, of letting him know I'm doing something besides hiding in your lab day after day while he tries to figure out what's happened and why he has to go through grieving your death all alone. My god, he thinks it's his fault that you died in the first place and if he finds some way to rescue you from Set he can make up for that failure. Sooner or later he's going to have to find out all his work was wasted, a useless diversion we sent him on to keep him occupied. That betrayal will kill him as surely as destroyed hope!"
"No..." Laced with an equal weight of pain, Egon's hoarse protest was more moaned than spoken.
"Yes! I have to watch him driving himself to find an answer to a question that I'm hiding the solution to." That was the most painful part for him and all the lonely anguish surfaced in his voice as he cried out, "Do you know how that makes me feel? I can't take the time from working to be with him, Egon! I see him day after day and he needs me, he needs my attention but I'm too busy. He wants to help just to be near and I have to refuse him, shut him out because he would figure it out too soon otherwise. But all he can see is that I'm pushing him away and he doesn't know why and I don't know what to tell him!" Backing away, he pointed an accusing finger at Egon, shaking with rage and apparently unaware of the tears that streamed down his cheeks. "You're killing us all! Oh, it's a little slower, a little more subtle than Set's method, but that's what's happening."
Unable to refute that statement, for he could see what was happening to Peter as each day stressed him closer to his breaking point, Egon simply closed his eyes, the misery of his understanding drawing deeper lines in his face.
Sight blurred by the tears that filled his eyes, Peter didn't see that unspoken acquiescence and in frustration he shaped all his turmoil into a description of the trap he could not think his way out of and hurled it at the helpless man who had caused it. "God, I wish I'd never found this place, never known anything beyond that night! You're making me choose between the two of you! How can I do that, Egon? Tell me how I can pick which of my friends I should sacrifice for the other!"
The words stabbed Egon's heart, already pierced once in that very offering. "The decision was already made. Ray is alive and I am not."
Egon's answer held no comforting escape from the unbearable choice that tore Peter in two directions until he could not move in either. "And leave you to die? What will that make me?"
"I am already dead. Leave me that way and it will make you sane." Weary defeat saturated his words and he closed his eyes again, dismissing Peter from his presence with a tired, utterly sincere plea. "Help Ray. You're needed by the living, not the dead."
When Egon opened his eyes again he was alone, and the pain that washed through him was as sharp as the torture from Set's blade though its source was within, not outside of himself. But seconds later the other torment was with him also and this time he did not fight it, did not hold his mind above its encroachment with every resource of his will until the pull on his soul receded. As it burned outward lighting fires of agony in its wake he gave in, his resistance collapsed under the weight of Peter's charges, and a shuddering scream tore his throat leaving him sobbing brokenly in its wake. In the spooky quiet of the black, empty desert only the thin whistling of the wind past the stone markers accompanied his harsh cry or bore witness to his undoing.
If he had died as he had thought he was fated to, whatever afterlife he found himself in would have been endurable carrying the knowledge he had succeeded in saving his friends. But this slow half-death that claimed his soul with exquisite deliberation was destroying not just him but Peter, and with Peter, Ray and Winston. His victory in placing himself between those friends and Set had become an empty one that bought no life or freedom, only madness and pain for them all. The only success he could take now was to submit, let his death become real and permanent so the others could mourn him properly and go on with the lives he had paid so dearly for them to keep. It was beyond his power to end the waiting immediately, but he could hasten it, surrender to the appetite that was devouring him and let it take what it wanted without struggle.
Take it now. Perhaps, once he gave up his soul as willingly as he had volunteered his life, Set would release Peter from the pull that brought him to this realm night after night to watch his ruination. The endless agony answered his call eagerly, swelling through him again in a dark rising tide that left him unable to even draw breath to scream any more. Tears slid from his skin to vanish in the cold, gritty ground as he turned his cheek to lay against its dry cinders and begged silently, Let me die.
Peter woke direct from their converstion, sweating, sick with remorse for what he'd said but unable to feel he'd been wrong. Each time he thought of the suffering in Egon's eyes as he'd spoken, regret would be countered with anger as he also remembered Ray's tears and heartbroken sobbing. The anguish in Egon's voice tore at him, matched by the outrage of his own helplessness and trapped, hypocritical inability to remedy Ray's loss. Caught between resentment and grief, his whole system churned with conflict and anxiety and he did not go back to sleep that night, except for a few uneasy periods of half-consciousness filled with images of angry confrontation with people he cared for.
As the morning slowly crept closer, he decided to devote himself to building on his progress with Ray the day before. Out of the ruin their lives had become, that seemed to offer the only real hope of salvaging something worthwhile. Since he was awake before the others anyway he actually got up and made breakfast. Between the headache he was nursing and his normal inability to deal with morning, the smell and sound of the bacon made him very queasy. By the time Ray and Winston staggered down and joined him in the kitchen he was as unhungry as Ray, and Slimer got well over half the breakfast pretty much to himself.
"So what are you guys planning to do today?" Peter asked once the unsuccessful meal had been given up on. Nobody had volunteered to clear the dishes away, and the three of them sat at the table as if by some unspoken agreement the first to leave would be delegated the duty.
"Is it time to go public?" Winston said, clearly not looking forward to the prospect.
Instant panic seized Peter. Despite what he had said to Egon last night, the physicist wasn't really dead, not yet, not so long as Peter could change his mind and apply his total energy to building the retreival machine. To announce Egon's death, make it official by telling the world, was to admit he wouldn't make that effort, declare he was giving up. It would force him to accept Egon's death as complete and finished, and no matter what anger he felt he could not turn his back on Egon totally when there was the faintest spark of hope to cling to. His resentment began to evaporate as he found himself feeling the loss of his friend all over again, made final last night by his own rejection of hope. Permanent, forever loss... this time when he faced the concept it wasn't a relief from uncertainty, it was an ending to something he needed very badly. It scared the hell out of him. "No!" The other two gaped in surprise at the strength of his outburst, Winston's look filling with concern and a hint of suspicion. Peter hastily added, "I mean, what about Janine? She's on vacation and doesn't know - you want her to find out when it shows up on the evening news?"
Ray looked pained. "No, that wouldn't be right."
"Can't we call her?" Winston asked, then thought better of it as he began to imagine how the conversation would go. "Ahhh... maybe not." Not that it wouldn't be safer for them all if she were at a distance when she heard the news, but she would need support once her anger was over. Whatever risk of severe bodily injury they ran in confessing the situation to her at this late date, she deserved having them present to help her through it too. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to keep her out of this in the first place, but none of them had been thinking very straight that first day back and Winston couldn't fault Peter for the decision he'd made then. Not when his own thought processes at the time had been so muddled. "When's she coming back?"
"Little over a week," Peter said, appearing calmer for the moment.
"Should we wait that long?" Ray wondered. "Won't it look like we've been trying to hide something?" His gaze came up to fasten on Peter, solemn and frightened. "Won't that make them think we really did just kill him ourselves?"
"It's all so weird that most people won't believe any of it anyway," Winston pointed out. "If we spill the whole story the way it really happened, we could tell them we've spent the time since that night working on a lead to save him or bust Set or something and who would know any different? Matter of fact, we have been doing that the last few days." Not that it had gotten them very far. He sighed dejectedly, "We'll be lucky if they don't lock us all up in the loony bin this time."
Peter agreed with him, on that last point especially. "Winston's right, this is not your usual disappearance case and we are not the usual suspects. We can either tell it like it happened and point out we've been trying to rescue him ourselves, or we can claim he went on a research trip and hasn't come back and we don't know why. I think we can figure out some good, public reason not to have come forward earlier." Pitching his next appeal directly to Ray, he said, "And will it matter if we wait one week more at this point?"
"No," Ray admitted, adding in a whisper, "He'll still be gone then."
And forever and forever after that... The full weight of a future without Egon's presence bore down on Peter as it hadn't since the drive away from New Jersey, and it was a vista he could not bear. Fear of that emptiness doused the last of his low-smouldering anger like a deluge of cold water, leaving the taste of ashes in his mouth. His own problems, Ray's reaction to what had been done, the pressure to be in two places at once, healing Ray's guilt with half-truths while he struggled to create something he was not technically competent to build, these were all transient things that time would eliminate or heal. But Egon's death would not fade away and become something that had happened to them once. It would stay with them, with him, for the rest of his life, and what he would always know was that he had turned away from his friend's side in a moment of selfish pique. Because he couldn't take a little stress, he had condemned Egon's eternal soul to provide fodder for some stinking godlet. He hadn't just killed his friend, he had destroyed him. Once Egon's time was up in Set's domain he would be gone forever and they wouldn't meet again, even on the Other Side when Peter's turn finally came to cross over. Oh, my god, what have I done? Pushing his chair back, he stumbled to his feet, sickened at the amount of irreplaceable time he had wasted already.
Ray put out a hand to steady him, alarmed at how white his face had gone. "I'm sorry, Peter," he said shakily, "I didn't mean to say that."
Seeing everything through a haze of gut-level anxiety that urged him not to lose another second in reaching the lab, he still paused his flight long enough to cover the hand clutching his arm with a gentle touch and say, "No, I'm glad you did. You just sort of put some stuff in perspective for me, that's all." Regaining his outward cool with a physical effort, he glanced over to Winston and cocked one eyebrow. "Trust me just a little longer, please?" At the incipient objection he saw, he cranked the persuasive charisma up a notch. "It's important to me, I swear it."
Against his own better judgment Winston allowed himself to fall prey to the psychologist's natural charm, and nodded reluctantly. "OK, Pete, whatever you need. For one more week. Just don't shut us out again, man, or I'll be up there to kick your head loose before you know it."
"Deal. Call me for lunch." With a last pat to Ray's hand as he disengaged himself from the supportive hold, he turned and left the dining room as quickly as he could without actually running.
Watching him go, Ray's eyes held a briefly questioning hurt, then his expression evened out to bland acceptance. Gathering the nearest dishes together and stacking them in front of himself, he grimaced halfheartedly at the drying coating of slime most of them sported. "I'll wash if you'll dry," he offered.
Zeddemore eyed the sticky mess and made his own face of disgust. "You got it." Picking up as large a pile as he could carry at once, he headed for the kitchen behind Ray, complaining mildly, "Wish I had Peter's aptitude for skipping out on housework. You notice he hasn't gotten his hands anywhere near a sink full of spud-spit-covered dishes all week?"
Already running water, Ray shrugged. "He's been busy," he said, and the quietly resigned tone he used made Winston swear to himself that Peter was going to get more than he'd bargained for in head-kicking if things didn't straighten out pretty damned soon.
Once the dishes were done, Ray vanished in the direction of his lab again, but this time Winston didn't have the heart for follow him down and watch his repeated attempts to make his wishes into working solutions. It hurt him to see the inevitable expression of melancholy defeat that would come over the young engineer's face as each new scheme failed, all the more because Winston's innate practicality had already told him that if Ray had not found a solution by now he wasn't likely to ever discover one. He also knew that meant sooner or later Ray would realize the hopelessness of his task himself and revert to the withdrawn grief and self-blame he had been sunk in before this phase of frantic endeavor and disappointment.
Though he did join them for lunch as promised, Peter was so distracted and hurried that he might as well not have bothered attempting to grace them with his presence. Barely paying attention to what he ate, much less the answer to his polite query about what they'd been occupying themselves with that morning, his thoughts instead were focussed on coordinate transfer wiring and power couplings. As soon as he was done he dashed off again, and he was so plainly preoccupied with something other than merely avoiding dishwashing duty that they let him go. Ray appeared content that he had joined them at all but Winston shot him a severe warning glance and it served its purpose, for Peter was back downstairs in about an hour, inquiring after their activities. For the rest of the afternoon he made brief appearances, checking in on Ray to see what he was doing, lending a hand to whatever household project Winston was involved in at the time, and then vanishing back upstairs once his interest and social participation had been established.
Keeping his mind divided between paying attention to the other two and what he was doing was difficult, but it was a stress he actually welcomed now, a sign to himself that he had not given up. There was so much he didn't know, so much he had to get done and couldn't hope to complete without asking more questions of Egon's specialized knowledge. The very need to seek guidance ennervated him, making his movements jerky and quick with nervous tension. So much to do, so awfully much more that needed to be mapped out before they could hope it would work, and it didn't help that his own subconscious kept trying to discourage him. All the while he worked, a small voice in his head kept piping up, reminding him word-for-word of what he had said the night before and asking snidely if, after telling Egon to get it over with and leave the living in peace, he really expected there'd even be anything left to rescue now. No matter how he tried he couldn't concentrate hard enough, couldn't absorb himself in the work deeply enough to block out that voice and its maddeningly pointed remarks.
Dinner came and went in the same fog of inattention lunch had, with Peter vaguely resenting the time it took but still mindful of his promise and duty. If he'd been asked he could not have repeated any of the conversation, at best he had a general impression of the topics covered and that he had somehow managed to make coherent contributions even though his mouth had been on autopilot. The problem of bringing Egon back held the greatest portion of his attention in an iron grip until Ray came seeking him and he had to shift mental gears with such speed he nearly stripped them.
The turning point for Ray's mood had come late in the evening, after his tenth consecutive try at mapping a coordinate system fixed in relation to the infinitely layered dimensional boundaries had resulted in such random data return that it was obviously and totally meaningless. Every last avenue he could see had been tried and had failed; all his work had only succeeded in forcing him to accept the conclusion there was no way to locate the dimension Set called home without some tracer to it. He had no connecting element to use to home in on, therefore he could not build anything that would ever stand a chance of leading him to Egon even if he tried for the rest of his life, much less the few days remaining before Egon's soul was lost forever. It was the final straw for him and after he had overcome the urge to curl up in a ball and cry out his frustration, in desperation he went looking for Peter, afraid he would be rejected again yet too lonely not to look for the support he had been told to expect and needed so badly now.
Ray stood for several minutes outside the closed door to the laboratory on the third floor before he knocked. When there was no response he almost turned and left, but then he recalled how distracted and inattentive Peter had been during the day and knocked again, louder. This time the door opened to him, a disheveled Peter looking surprised and then worried. There were dark circles under his eyes and he looked unutterably weary. "Are you OK?" he asked, though he did not move aside from the door or invite Ray in.
"Yeah, I just... wanted to talk to you, a little," he said hesitantly. "Maybe I could help you with your work for a while?"
"You haven't found anything," Peter surmised, and there was a trace of disappointment in his voice along with the sympathy. The appeal for help was so clear that he knew whatever the risk of Ray's figuring out what was being built in this lab, he had to take it and let the younger man in, give proof of his acceptance before the continuous setbacks of failed experiments gave Ray a reason to believe again in his fault for Egon's permanent loss. Hoping he could manage to distract Ray simultaneously from his sense of guilt and the advanced design of the circuitry on the bench, Peter beckoned him in. "I don't think there's anything you can do to help me, since I'm not doing anything but messing around. Why don't you just sit over there and talk to me for a while?"
Seeming not to hear the suggestion, Ray made a beeline for the bench and looked over the spread of parts Peter had accumulated and strung together apparently at random. On more than one occasion he had accused Peter of never studying or taking the time to think things out before he acted, but it was clear from the mess on the bench that he had paid more attention than he had let on to Egon's many lectures on how their equipment worked. Among the scattered half-assemblies Ray could see basic outlines that directly paralleled at least two of his own failed ideas, and he realized Peter had to be desperately searching for an answer, a way to reach Egon's soul before it was too late, the same way he had been. "It can't be done," he said sadly. What puzzled him more than Peter's turning to this outlet was the way the psychologist had refused to let him help when together they might have come to the answer sooner. But the answer was there was no way to accomplish their goal, Peter must have seen that and known more experienced help could only make final the truth he didn't want to hear. "You know that, don't you?" he whispered, seeing both confirmation and panicked denial in Peter's eyes.
Unable to tell the whole truth yet unwilling to lie any longer, Peter said softly, "I know, and if one of us could make something work it wouldn't be me, but I have to try, the same way you did." He waved at the table helplessly. "It's just going to take me a little longer to come to the same conclusions you did." His expression twisted briefly, revealing the intense conflict within. "Until I get there on my own, the work keeps me from having to know he's gone." The entire day's worth of fear ambushed him without warning and pain flashed in his eyes before he closed them and moaned raggedly, "He can't be gone."
Abandoning his survey of the equipment without a second thought, Ray moved to take Peter's shoulders in his hands, instinctively wanting to reassure him. Peter's back stiffened as if he wanted to deny his momentary lapse, but the open sympathy in Ray's face disarmed his intention and he sagged against the support, head drooping. "I don't want to dump on you, Ray," he breathed, knowing it would be all too easy to begin letting go of the secrets inside and then find himself unable to stop until he had spilled everything.
"I don't mind," Ray answered gently, shaking him slightly. "That's what we're all here for, isn't it? You've listened to me often enough."
Peter nodded once without looking up and slid forward, feeling Ray's arms close around him as he came to rest against the broad, sturdy chest and anchored himself in the affection and forgiveness of that embrace. "I don't want him to be gone," he choked, and his eyes burned but he held back the tears. When there was no more hope at all, then he would mourn and the force of his grief might well consume him, but until that time he had to keep himself together and go on trying to make everything turn out all right. It was not easy, not when there was so little reason to hope he could succeed. "I need him."
Holding him tightly, Ray took a deep breath and said the words that hurt him as much to say as they did to hear. "We all need him, but he's gone, Peter. There's nothing left we can do, and you're tearing yourself apart with these impossible hopes." He lifted one hand and gently stroked the hair that tangled on the back of Peter's neck as he continued very quietly, "You told me how Egon would have wanted me to recover so his sacrifice wouldn't be wasted. I think you should take your own advice, and come back to us in one piece."
The words dragged a weak, half-sobbed chuckle from him. "Hoist on my own petard again." He backed off to arms' length and smiled at Ray through misty eyes. "When am I gonna learn to keep my mouth shut if I don't want you guys parroting my own advice back at me when I need it the most?"
Ray smiled shyly back. "Why quit a system that works?" he asked, and caught one of Peter's hands in his, tugging him toward the door. "Come on, you need to rest, it's late and you know you can't do more here tonight."
Fear and guilt lanced through Peter again, and he resisted the pull. "No! I can't give up, not now..." Not when I'm so close? Face it, you're not even in the ballpark.
Ray's expression grew sad, almost pitying in its compassion. "Listen to yourself, Peter. Do you really think you can find some way to beat the laws of physics by yourself in the next couple hours?"
"No," he murmured, and an infinitely large weight settled on his heart. "Of course I can't."
"Then at least rest for a while," Ray pulled at him again, gently urging him toward the door and the bedroom across the hall.
With a last glance backward at his work Peter acquiesced, for Ray was right and the psychologist hoped his willing acceptance and display of trust might spare Stantz another nightmare like the other night's vision of rejection and blame. In that much, at least, he was correct.
Used by now to the transition from aimless dreaming to the reality of Set's realm, Peter accepted the change anxiously this time. The things he had said the night before continued to burn in his memory, cruel and cold, and he prayed Egon would forgive him and understand it had been the product of stress, not hate or any real desire to give up trying to get him back. Driven by the need to make things right again, he hurried forward once the black desert had solidified around him, but even from a slight distance he could tell Egon looked different somehow.
Lying limply in place as he had before, there was no obvious difference, only a subtle change in the impression of existence Egon had radiated before. He looked now as if the loose sprawl of his arms had been the result of falling there unconscious rather than laying himself out with a purpose. Lack of volition was the essence of the change; his body looked discarded, abandoned. Dead.
Kneeling at his side, Peter reached out, his hand shaking, and gently tipped the loosely rolling head away from the ground, toward him. On Egon's high cheekbone the faint tracery of tear tracks caught the dim light, barely visible but unmistakable. Even Peter's touch as he lifted the unresponsive eyelids to check the dilation of his pupils failed to rouse the physicist, and the dulled eyes did not wake with the spark of presence when the light hit them.
"Egon? Answer me!" He tapped the pale cheek lightly, then harder with growing dread. Since Egon technically did not need to breathe except as required to speak there was no way to tell if he were merely unconscious now or if only the wreckage of his body was left behind, bereft of the remnants of his mind and soul. I did this. I told him I wished I'd never found him. Without wanting to, Peter found himself knowing what could possibly feel worse than remembering the plunge of blade into flesh.
"You can't give up now! I'm so close..." Not close enough, that was clear at last, but he couldn't allow himself to believe the effort was doomed. For his own sake as much as Egon's he had to keep believing he would succeed in time. But in order to succeed there had to be someone there, a soul to bring back, and the lack of that living awareness was terrifying him more by the second. "Egon, you answer me this minute or I swear I'm pulling that sword out of your chest and the hell with the consequences, do you hear me?"
The threat brought some response, though it was only a faintly sighed, "No...."
It was the first indication he had that Egon had not passed completely on and Peter's breath caught in a sob of relief. "Yes! I will and you know it. Now get with the program and answer me, and I mean pronto." It earned him another sighed denial, but to his straining ears it was marginally stronger than the first and he redoubled his efforts, plunging into a rambling apology. "Never mind whatever I said last night. I worked my butt off slaving over a bunch of geeky electronic gizmos in a lab, I got a little stressed and shot my mouth off, and now I'm apologizing, OK? You can't take it on the lam over a couple stupid remarks, Egon, you've known me too long for anybody to believe you'd fall for that. Of all the people in the world, you ought to know how much weight to put on anything I say when I'm tired. Now get out here and talk to me or I'm bringing the party to your house, get my drift?"
The startlingly blue eyes finally cracked open of their own accord, gazing fuzzily up at him. "You can't." His deep voice was so hoarse it was barely recognizable, and after that protest his eyes slid shut again, their bright color disappearing under ashen eyelids like a candle flame being snuffed out.
"Bet me, big guy. You know I love a challenge and you're perilously close to offering me one I can't resist. I think you should know I will take any further avoidance as a double-dare to go ahead with it."
This time the blue gaze tracked to his face directly, and there was a hint of asperity detectable in the response. "You are impossible." The brief flare of life died away again, but not as completely as before; there was a smouldering flicker of attention left in the half-open eyes.
"Yeah, but I'm cute. Now come on, wake up." He tapped him on the cheek again, then tugged on the disordered forelock several times, demanding attention in the most annoying ways he knew possible. "We haven't got all night, Egon, perk it up and put it on the road here, we gotta lot to cover before I wake up."
"Peter?" Another marginal gain in strength. There was a slight note of disbelief to the greeting, as if he hadn't really believed before that he wasn't still alone, hallucinating Peter's presence.
"Yes, it's me. Who else would you be expecting, Sigourney Weaver? Sorry to disappoint you if that's the case. It's just me, Peter Venkman, Jerk Extraordinaire."
"Why are you here?" Egon breathed in a faint, pain-filled whisper. "Let me go."
In those words Peter heard the confirmation of exactly what he had feared had happened. Egon had taken his cruel words at their face value and given up, begun wishing for dissolution rather than rescue. Remorse threatened to overwhelm him with the realization that if they failed now he could lay the blame at no one's feet but his own. "Die, you mean?" he asked very gently. "No, I don't want that." Cupping Egon's face with both hands and staring intently into the hazy blue eyes, he pleaded with every ounce of feeling he had within himself, "Egon, please, come back. You have to keep fighting, hanging on, until I find a way out of here for you. I couldn't stand it if you gave up because of what I said. None of it was true. Don't make me know I've killed you a second time." His voice caught and he choked back a half-sob, refusing to let despair stop him before he had finished. "I'm begging you, don't do this to me over some stupid remarks I didn't mean. Please. If you check out now, I think I will need to die."
"No...." The anguish and passion in Peter's appeal had reached Egon as nothing else could have, and he began the slow, difficult process of dragging his scattered will back together. If Set had chosen those few minutes to attack again, he could have shattered the physicist's last feeble resistance with one blow.
Helping him in the only way he could, Peter kept calling to him, chafing his hand, giving him a focus to pull toward. After what seemed like ages but had probably comprised no more than a couple minutes, Egon's eyes opened to him again, clear intelligence present and conscious, and he knew they had won for the time being at least. "God, don't ever do that to me again," he said feelingly, relief washing through him and leaving him suddenly weak. "You have no idea how bad I felt about what I said as it was. And to find you almost gone..." An involuntary shudder took him.
"You were right." Shaky as it was, Egon's tone still conveyed the sense of absolute certainty he had always commanded.
"No," Peter said, enfolding one hand in both of his and leaning his cheek against it. "I wasn't, and if your mind was running on even half its cylinders you'd know that too. I was out of my mind with worry about Ray and fear for you, and instead of dealing with it I laid it all on your head. Transference, Spengs, a textbook classic case." He closed his eyes and sighed, knowing Egon needed to hear all of it and willing, not just because it might mean the difference between success and failure, to bare parts of his soul that a week ago he would have denied having. There was no desire left in him to rebuild his shields for the sake of an image that meant far less to him than Egon's life. Here and now it was pointless to hide what he felt. Maybe it always had been. "I wasn't mad at you, I was mad at myself for missing you so much that I couldn't see straight, couldn't function without shutting everything out because thinking of you hurt so much I couldn't stand it."
"Don't," Egon breathed. "Not your fault."
"Not true." He shook his head and confessed, "If this rescue scheme doesn't work, I don't know what I'll do." He didn't want to find out what going on without Egon would be like, he didn't even want to think about it very hard. Been there, done that, didn't like it at all. "We've got a chance and we have to grab it and it has to work, that's all there is to it."
The positively definite declaration brought the faintest chuckle ghosting from Egon's throat. "So let it be written, so let it be done," he intoned in a whisper more fond than mocking.
"Smack you hard, Spengler." Peter raised the back of a playfully threatening hand, smiling in return. "Now do that thing you do with your brain and figure out the next phase, we passed my grasp of theory about four steps ago and I don't think I ought to be winging this one with string and bubblegum."
When Peter's presence faded from his touch in the middle of a sentence, Egon's meager strength also abruptly failed him and he gasped as loneliness washed through him like a physical sensation, suprising him into letting go of the unconscious muscle tension he had been maintaining in his effort to concentrate. Sagging in place, he felt as if all the molecules of his body were so loosely connected they might at any second let go their hold on each other and he would dissolve away to nothing without warning. That feeling vanished as agony followed and he was reminded with a vengeance of the precise location and capacity for pain of each and every single atom that was part of him. He fought and though he drew on every last bit of resolution within him, it was still a pitiful effort, little more than token resistance. When the pain finally left him his mind was spent, no more power in it than was left in the wreckage of his body.
The train of thought he had been explaining to Peter was gone, as unformed as if he had never conceived the idea. Too weak to even attempt retrieving the concept to build on, he dispassionately assessed his condition and what estimation he could make of the work left to be done on the device Peter was creating. Without being able to see with accustomed clarity what they were, he did know there were several crucial and highly complex features yet to be added, and he also knew he was no longer able to provide the guidance necessary to their completion. Giving up to Set for that one day had robbed him of so much of his strength that he could not recover, he simply had no reserves left. He had no resource but his love for his friends to draw on and even that love could not sustain him when he needed not merely to survive but to be able to think, to theorize and mentally construct a cross-dimensional detection and transit device that would have taxed all his intellect when he was healthy and unstressed.
With sorrow, he began to comprehend that the only work he could undertake now had to be preparing Peter for failure because there was no way to complete the full design in the few days left. The time would come and go for his final dissolution before there could be any hope of rescue, and nothing either of them could do would change that now. It did not take him any great effort of honesty to admit the fault for this defeat lay with himself, not with Peter's work. Getting Peter to accept that, however, would strain all of Egon's meager remaining concentration. It was a duty he could not leave half-finished. Even though he went not to the next plane or a peaceful rest but to his own total destruction he had to know, for the little time left to him for caring, that he had not hurt his friends more than he had helped them, that his existence had not been their bane for which they would end up cursing his memory. He struggled to remain whole now because he had to try to last long enough to give Peter peace. But even for the sake of sparing Peter from blaming himself for having killed someone who loved him, Egon could not hold on any longer. He had reached his limits and there was no more of himself left to give in the battle.
With a renewed sense of purpose and redoubled urgency, Peter disappeared back into the lab the next morning. Barely allowing himself to recover from the pounding headache that his nightly journeys always left him, he buried himself in his work with a vengeance, trying frantically to make up for lost time. Egon's condition was so much worse that he feared they did not have the remainder of the fourteen days at all, probably not another whole week, maybe not more than two more days. But even while he tried to sustain his momentum, he could not allow himself to lose the ground he had gained with Ray either, and shuttling back and forth maintaining both his nonchalant concern with Ray and his intense application in the lab by alternate turns wore him out physically and emotionally in amazingly short time. Having given up on his repeated attempts to do something, anything, to find and rescue Egon, Ray was slowly slipping back into the same withdrawn depression in which he had spent the first day after Egon's death. Winston noticed the decline in activity and drew him into other work that needed to be done, keeping him busy enough that he did not interpret Peter's absence as anything more than a similar preoccupation with not sitting still long enough to think about their problem too deeply.
Ray and Winston spent the day working around the house. There were zillions of small chores that needed to be done which had always been left for 'later' when more important business (or fun) had come up. Over the course of the day the two of them did more maintenance than the firehall had seen in years. From repairing ailing spare traps and clearing half-plugged sink drains to sewing buttons back onto a dozen different shirts that had been put aside over the last year and not worn again when the five minutes it took to fix them had never been devoted to such small labors, they began to catch up on the tedious business of resuming their lives. They did not admit to each other that they were getting used to the silence, the subliminal loneliness that came of knowing one voice wouldn't be heard disturbing the quiet. It was an adjustment that had to be made, but it was one that couldn't be consciously assimilated or rejoiced in. Slimer's periodic low key appeals for food or someone to play catch with him gave them a manageably normal sense of merely vacationing from a busy schedule. Ray even helped Winston in the kitchen, though as usual he had no real interest in the results of their work.
When Peter went to bed that night he had found no encouragement in the meager progress he could claim to have made and no reprieve from the nagging questions that had filled his head all day. Driven by his increasing sense of being out of his depth in what he was attempting to create, speculation and fear had chased each other around and around in his head as he worked, distracting him with unanswerable questions. What would happen when the fourteenth day had come and gone and he had not finished the retreival device? Would he know he had failed when he did not find himself in Set's world that night, or would he be doomed to travel there anyway to find the empty husk of Egon's body, stripped of his soul and slowly rotting to leave another skeleton along the trail of Set's conquests? Would the ritual and the sword tie him to the other dimension and lead him on that journey every night for the rest of his life? He knew he could not stand the prospect of an eternity filled with nightly revisits to the decaying remains of his dearest friend. But what other option did he have? He was all too afraid he was going to find out for himself what the answers were, and he already knew he was not going to like any of them.
When he took Egon's hand there was no immediate response and he leaned forward in increased concern, pressuring the hand to elicit some indication of awareness. "Come on, don't play hard to get on me now. You haven't got so many dates beating down the door that you can afford to ignore a sure thing." Watching closely, he was not reassured by the sluggish response. Egon was unable to focus on him, not much recovered from the diminished clarity he had been reduced to by his period of capitulation. Helpless against the endless pain after having lowered his barriers to it, his controlled consciousness was fading with increasing rapidity as his soul weakened under the constant assault he had briefly welcomed and assisted.
"Peter?" Sounding groggy and distant, he was so disassociated from his surroundings that he was hardly aware of Peter's presence. His voice was hoarse, the clear bass roughened and faint like creased, faded velvet.
"Who else? Come on out, I need some more advice." Deliberately keeping his tone light, Peter searched the blank gaze that slowly turned toward him for some sign of the quick, brilliant mind he knew should be there. "I've got the coordinate transfer circuits connected, but you have to tell me how to align the correlation algorithms on the alpha wave sensors."
"Algorithm?" There was a frightening lack of comprehension in the accompanying look that slowly cleared to a simple defenseless misery. "I'm sorry. I had it, but I can't remember how it went." He turned his head away and confessed with shame, "My concentration is gone. I can't help you any more."
"Then I'll get Ray to tell me how it goes, he can - "
"No!" He pinned Peter with a glare that carried only a fraction of its former power, but it was still sufficient. "You promised!"
"Then what am I supposed to do? I sure as hell can't do this kind of math on my own and there isn't time to bring in anyone else who'd have a hope of figuring it out in time to do you any good! I'm running out of options here."
The glare softened. "Then I die, the way I was supposed to in the first place." For a brief moment his mind wandered away from the present, but he brought his attention back to Peter with a visible effort. "You did what you could, and that's all that matters."
"Bullshit. And don't hand me that 'supposed to die' stuff, it's a crock and you know it." He couldn't be sure Spengler heard him, for his eyes had already unfocused, and Peter knew another spell of the mind-draining agony was imminent. The only course left open to him was suddenly as clear as if he'd had a vision.
The decision made, he wasted no time in implementing it. His face set, eyes coldly alive like faceted emeralds set in stone, Peter stood, then reached forward without hesitation and grasped the hilt of the sword. With one smooth motion he pulled it up and away, dropping it to the ground without hearing the weird ringing tone the stones struck from it. Ignoring the abrupt darkening of the sky, he stared at Egon, all his hopes depending on the result of his action.
Ray's intuition had been right: when the blade was removed it left no wound, not even a scar marking the slight depression between his ribs where the iron had entered. Even the blood that had soaked the front of Egon's shirt vanished, leaving no evidence it had ever been present. Dropping to one knee, Peter touched the unbroken skin, breathing a faint "thank you" though he could not have said who he addressed it to. His eyes tracked upward and met the look of confusion.
Egon took a deep, shuddering breath, exploring his condition with curiosity and wonder. "Why?" he asked hoarsely. "What have you done?"
"I'm breaking you out of this joint." Glancing around nervously, he grabbed Egon's hand and pulled him upward, giving him only a moment to sit still and adjust his equilibrium. "Get up, I think the coppers are on to us."
Though still slightly groggy, Egon was quickly recovering his lucidity, his sharpening look showing his rapidly increasing ability to focus his mind. "How are you going to defeat Set?"
"I'm not. I'm taking your place." Pulling him forward, Peter shifted his weight backward and hauled Egon to his feet in a smooth counterbalanced pull.
"What?" His voice cracked and he grabbed Peter's shoulders. "You cannot be serious."
"Hey, I'm as serious as you were when you took this on in the first place."
"I won't allow it." He let go of Peter and bent to retrieve the sword, apparently determined to re-impale himself rather than accept his freedom.
Peter grabbed his arm and pulled him back away from it before letting go. "You said it yourself, man." His gaze was level and serious. "Some things are worth it." The rising wind began to whip his hair into his eyes, and he grimaced automatically as he combed his fingers through it in a futile gesture. Giving that effort up, he quickly pulled his sweatshirt over his head and folded it into a makeshift pillow before tossing it to the ground. When his eyes met Egon's again his impish humor was closer to the surface, though dread lurked behind his half-smile. "Besides, it's my fault you gave up and can't make it any longer - let me work off a little karma here."
Not rising to the lighter tone, Egon warned him earnestly, "This will mean not just your life but your soul, if I fail."
Peter nodded once, jerkily, all too plainly terrified of what he was about to do and determined to do it anyway. "I know. Don't screw up."
Egon's hesitation lasted only another few seconds, then he held out his hand. "Very well, Dr. Venkman, I accept."
"I knew you'd see it my way, Dr. Spengler," he answered. Their hands barely touched before they forsook the gesture and moved with a single accord, each stepping forward and reaching out both arms to take the other in a hug. There was more than a little desperation in the way they held each other so tightly that breathing was somewhat difficult, and neither one loosened his grasp on the other except to shift and draw him even closer for the few moments they could spend on the luxury of the contact. The wind continued to increase and the sky grew redder still, its warning forcing them to quit their embrace.
Hastily, Peter lay down on the bare ground, taking the place Egon had been in. As the tip of the sword came to rest over his heart he reached up, his arms long enough that he could support the crosspiece on his open palms.
Shifting his hands to the top of the bar to apply pressure, Egon's long fingers interlaced with Peter's around it. The howling wind reached a crescendo and a darkness moved across the sky like the swift-rushing shadow of an approaching eclipse. Standing there with his long hair blowing wildly in the gale, his features pale as he stared past the sword to Peter's face, Egon looked like the merciful avatar of some avenging Norse god. "Peter, I would rather stay here myself than do this to you." His deep voice was laced with compassion as he hesitated one last time, for looking down he could sense the fear lingering in the shadowed depths of Peter's eyes. "Are you sure you want this?"
"No," Venkman replied with absolute honesty. "Do it anyway." He pulled downward, their interlocked grip forcing Egon to comply. The blade slipped between his ribs with surprising ease, drawing a strangled gasp from him as piercing agony filled his world. He was barely conscious of Egon releasing his hold on the sword and kneeling as he lowered their still-clasped hands to rest on Peter's chest.
Even as Egon tightened his hold on Peter's hands and gathered breath to speak, Peter's back arched and Egon knew he was feeling the bite of Set's hunger drawing on his soul. His own protesting "No!" was lost in Peter's hoarse scream and both faded to echoes as he bolted upright in bed, awake.
Around him were the familiar confines of the firehouse bedroom and out of sheer habit he groped at the bedside for his glasses as the sounds of the others stirring let him know his cry had come with him into this world from the other. Not finding his glasses, he peered around nearsightedly, only then realizing he was not in his own bed but Peter's.
"Of course," he murmured to himself, "Total physical exchange would require transportation to the originating coordinates." The words were a comforting mantra of scientific explanation, but underneath the analytical satisfaction his thoughts churned. Elation at the proof there was a way back warred with horror at what he knew Peter had condemned himself to until that way could be made to work at their command.
"Egon?" The wavering, hopeful voice was Ray's. The young man was approaching him timidly, unsure in the darkness even of Egon's distinctive blond crown.
The lights abruptly went up and once he'd blinked in adjustment he saw Winston standing at the switch, a comically dumbfounded look on his face rapidly being transformed by gathering skepticism.
"How the hell...?" Zeddemore said in a dazed tone, then his face hardened in disbelief. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"Egon!" Ray cried, ignoring Winston's uncertainty and throwing himself forward, wrapping his arms tightly around the tall physicist who'd barely made it to his feet in time to meet Ray's rush. Egon accepted the embrace with unreserved emotion, holding on as tightly as if he hoped to anchor himself to this plane of existence solely through Ray.
Seeing the liquid sparkle in the taller man's eyes, Winston abandoned his suspicion and hesitantly approached. Without taking his eyes from the two men locked together, he moved over to Egon's bed and picked up his glasses, then brought them over and offered them cautiously.
Egon freed one arm long enough to accept the frames and set them in place one-handed. Blinking owlishly, able to see clearly for the first time in what felt like ages, he looked around with wonder, though his free hand had slid back around Ray's shoulders immediately, continuing to hold him close. There was an incredible feeling of luxury to the contact, a vivid sensuousness that enhanced the most simple things to a marvelous degree. For a few moments, all sensations were made new and wonderful because he'd been so certain he would never know them again. The soft flannel nap of Ray's pajamas under his hands, the warm pressure of Ray's chest rising against his with every breath and the fresh, clean scent of the fine auburn hair that tickled his cheek, even the cool, slimy splat of the spud ecstatically plastering him with ectoplasm-dripping kisses - everything he experienced for those few minutes had the special intensity of a first encounter.
In Egon's arms Ray shuddered, holding on tightly and crying with relief so profound that his attempts at speech were basically incoherent. For those few minutes Stantz didn't care how or why Egon was there, only that the physicist was real, solid, not another dream haunting him in his grief. Running his hands up and down Egon' back as if to assure himself by tactile impression that this was a whole, living body, he finally simply tried to squeeze the stuffing out of him and sighed, "Oh, Egon, I'm glad you're alive," with the heartfelt intensity of someone who had reached the pinnacle of happiness from which they had nothing left to ask of the world.
No matter how hard it was to breathe at that point, Egon would not have asked Ray to loosen his hold for anything. His deep voice rumbled in his chest as he spoke Ray's name in return, and his eyes flashed with thanks when Winston wrapped his arms around them both, saying, "Welcome home, man." In that acceptance of his return, Egon read a relief as true as Ray's, all trace of reluctance or suspicion gone. Letting their strength support him, he leaned into Ray's desperate clutch and Winston's more peaceful embrace, sinking further with each breath into the normalcy of life and the companionship of his friends. The brief, flaring intensity of impression he had experienced at first gave way to a deeper contentment with the absolute mundanity of his surroundings and the familiar joy of sharing the affection that existed around him.
It was Winston who finally asked, "Where's Peter?" His voice betrayed his foreboding, but Ray didn't hear the note of premonition.
His head bowed over Ray's, Egon's eyes closed with anguished knowledge. "He took my place. He's Set's prisoner now." There were details hidden in that simple statement he wasn't ready to share, and some he never would reveal.
Suddenly, Egon swayed and his knees buckled under him. If not for the arms of his friends around him he would have collapsed, and he wouldn't have had time to protest before the two of them had shifted to his sides to lift and carry him to his bed. Surcease of the continuing pain he'd been subjected to, the emotional stress of going through with Peter's decision, and the homecoming had all combined to exhaust every last reserve he had. Sound asleep before they'd even caught him, he never felt them swing his body onto the bed, pull off his outer clothes, and tuck the covers over him.
"I'll stay," Ray offered, and Winston didn't need to ask what he meant.
"Sure thing." He studied the sleeping man and saw lines in his face that had not been there before, lines that even complete repose could not erase. "He looks like he's been through hell," he said, accurately if undiplomatically.
"Maybe he has." Ray's soft voice held a touch of awe. As they had drawn the blanket around Egon, he had paused long enough to run a wondering touch over the unmarred skin of the blond-furred chest, smooth and perfect where the blade had once pierced him. "And now Peter's there." He shuddered, then leaned against the pillows on Peter's bed refusing to speculate further on that line of thought. "Good night, Winston."
Watching Egon, drinking in the sight of him, whole, breathing and unbloodied, Ray forcibly kept his mind off the questions this development raised. When Winston shut the light off he settled back more comfortably, prepared to stand watch all night though he could not have said precisely what he was guarding against. Unaware of time passing as his own interrupted sleep reclaimed him despite his wishes, he was conscious long enough to see Egon's breathing become slightly uneven and in the dim light he caught a faint glitter playing in the blond lashes. With fading concentration, Ray wondered what relics of Egon's ordeal still stalked through his dreams.
Like Peter had the first time, he found himself so far from the end of the path of sword markers that he could not see the most recent additions. Jogging along the trail he rounded the bend by the fiery lake, and slowed his pace briefly to study it. The dancing flame and smoke on its surface formed shapes that moved across the lava, shapes that lingered with more substantiality than mere wisps of steam would have held. From what Peter had relayed to him of Ray's research, he knew those shapes to be the sub-demons called the children of the impotent revolt, participants in Set's rebellion and exile. There was nothing he could do about them and they seemed not to notice or care about him, so he relegated them to the back of his mind under the heading of 'things to study sometime later' and resumed his stride.
At the end of the path he found Peter as he had seen him last, pinned to the ground by the thirsty iron sword. Sinking to his knees, he took the chilled hands in his own. "Peter?"
The look Venkman gave him was hazed with confusion and pain that faded slightly as his forehead creased in puzzlement. "How do you do that?" he demanded weakly.
"Do what?" Egon asked in confusion.
Pulling his right hand from the physicist's grasp Peter reached upward, tangling his fingers in the neatly coiled forelock and tugging on it. "This! A little while ago you looked like you were ready to VJ for MTV, and I'll bet you didn't stop to comb it before coming back."
Egon's head dipped in response to the gentle pull until his forehead came to rest on Peter's chest and his voice was muffled. "I don't know."
"No biggie." Peter's touch changed to a caress, idly petting the soft wave into place as he spoke. "Be especially careful with Ray. He hasn't taken this at all well." A sudden flare of white heat pulsed outward from the sword, igniting a nightmare of seared nerves in all of his senses. His body stiffened and his hands clenched, grabbing for any anchor they could find. A deep-throated scream was ripped from him before the burning let up and he went limp with reaction, feeling as if he were melting into the cold ground. Panting in short, tortured breaths, he gradually realized his grip on Egon's hand and hair had to be painfully tight. Slowly, deliberately, he loosened his hold, finding it almost unbearably difficult to let go, knowing he might want that comfort again. "Sorry," he whispered hoarsely. Each breath he drew renewed the agony of his impalement, yet he could not force himself to quit the movement of his lungs to draw air. Trying had left him gasping frantically to ease the impression of suffocating so his only alternative had been to accept the increased pain and use it as a focus to fight the far greater pain of the sword's burning attacks.
"I'll make a way out, Peter, I swear it." When Egon raised his head his eyes were bright, sparkling with a dampness that couldn't hide the emotion shining in their clear turquoise depths, pure and intense. His long fingers wrapped around Peter's hands, warming them with his presence, and he made no remark at the way Peter clung to that touch for he knew how great a comfort it was to simply have someone there, someone who cared and wasn't afraid to let it be known.
"If anybody can do it, you can," Peter said with pitiful confidence. There was nothing more to be said, and so Egon merely sat next to him, lending the solace of his presence and touch while his mind worried at the problems that remained in the construction of the retrieval device. Time passed without their caring about it and Peter had drawn heavily on the freely offered support to make it through two more of the attacks when Egon felt the pull of his dream state shifting. With the ease gained from his years of research in lucid dreaming he controlled its passage long enough to press Peter's hands in farewell before he left Set's domain.
The next time Ray woke, Egon was gone and his bed was as neatly made as if he had not been in it. Winston was already up, the sound of the shower running reached Ray and he pushed aside the afghan he found tucked around himself. Unsuccessfully fighting the fear that the night's reunion had all been a wishful dream, he padded toward the door and called in a low voice, "Egon?" There was no answer, but before full-fledged panic could set in he noticed the light in the lab through the half-open door. Crossing the hall, he pushed the door all the way open and felt a rush of relief at the utterly normal sight within. Bent over the table, Spengler was deeply engrossed in his study of the contraption Peter had been rigging. The thought of Peter brought a brief twist of pain to Ray's heart, but there was hope to lighten it now - if Egon could be brought back, then surely Peter could too, and all would be right with the world in the end. He stopped behind the chair and leaned forward, resting his hands on Egon's shoulders as he asked, "How are you feeling?"
"Much better, thank you. You really didn't have to keep watch over me, you know."
Ray shrugged with some embarrassment. "I fell asleep anyway." In a nervous gesture his grip tightened, and he said in a rush, "I meant to tell you and I forgot before you fell asleep last night but I really missed you and I love you and I'm sorry I didn't say so more often before."
Egon bowed his head forward briefly, and when he spoke his voice was faintly roughened with emotion. "I knew." Clearing his throat, he tilted his head up and back to look at Ray. "I don't often try to make it clear how much I appreciate you either, Raymond, and I found myself regretting that."
Leaning forward, Ray slipped his arms lower around Egon's chest and hugged him tightly. Egon reached up to ruffle his hair with one hand as Ray said sincerely, "I always knew, too." As he let go and moved aside, he glanced over the disorganized pile of electronics occupying the table. Added to the mess were several sheets of notes, equations, and sketched circuitry diagrams in Egon's neat drafter's printing. "Peter wouldn't let me help, and he never takes notes. I'm not sure what he was trying to build." It took a couple more seconds, but Ray began to realize that the physicist's analysis of the design was extraordinarily complete for the amount of time he'd had to study the wildly confusing mass of connections Peter had assembled. He shifted to the side, peering at several linked equations. "How does this relationship control the secondary sensory grid?"
"The coordinate conversion should have controlled the phase-locked loop circuit output, but he didn't have the algorithm," Egon replied automatically. Then he clamped his mouth shut, instantly regretting the words.
Ray looked over the wiring, then back at the equations, the device finally beginning to make sense to him, the cohesiveness of the design suddenly making it clear that this was not merely the collection of separate pieces he had seen the other day but a single, brilliant conception coming together. Though how Peter could have incorporated theory at that level with such insight to the physical application... "You had to have created the algorithm! And he built that section two days ago!" Egon's lips thinned and he shook his head, but the denial didn't convince Ray. "Of course! Peter had to be getting your guidance, I should have guessed he didn't have enough grounding in etheric physics to get this far. That's why he wouldn't let me help, he knew I'd ask him something he couldn't justify on his own."
His deductions snowballed and longing filled his betrayed look. "Peter knew! I guessed, but he knew you were out there and he never told us! He let us go on believing you were gone for good when we could have been working on a way to get you back." His eyes filled slowly and he backed away. "How could he keep that to himself when he could see what we were going through?"
"Ray, wait. That was my decision. I made him promise not to say anything to you." When he'd extracted that promise Egon had been thinking only of the benefit of leaving his fate settled, not the repercussions to be dealt with when Ray found he had been left out of the attempted rescue. Now he wondered with a detached portion of his mind just how far gone his mental processes had been, for in retrospect this confrontation was perfectly predictable and one he would definitely have preferred to avoid. Why had he refused to see that when Peter had tried repeatedly to warn him?
"Why? We could have retrieved you sooner." Ray waved at the contraption on the bench. "If he'd let me help with that it would have been done in less than half the time!"
"No. This isn't what did the job, it's nowhere near finished." There had never really been any hope that it would be done in time, he'd realized that when he'd begun mapping out the remaining work. The short time for communication they'd had each night, without the benefit of being able to exchange written notes or diagrams, made the project impossible from the start. "If I had allowed him to ask your help, it might have been finished before he had to make the choice he did."
"Then how could he have traded places with you?"
Egon's eyes darkened at the memory. That reckless trade, he was forced to admit to himself, had been the inevitable result of his own miscalculation, and what Peter was going through now would have been entirely unnecessary if he hadn't been so blind to consequences. By holding out the hope that something could be done and not letting Venkman use the resources it would have taken to do the job successfully, he had in effect forced Peter to make the choice he had. "He pulled the sword out." A note of wondering awe entered his words as he spoke, for he realized as he said it that the choice had still been Peter's, and his decision spoke more clearly than any words about the true depth of their friendship. "Ray, he traded his heart's blood for mine."
Ray paled and leaned against the table in shock, his eyes going wide with horror. "You mean..." It had occurred to him last night that the exchange had to be exact but he had immediately buried the knowledge, refusing to think of Peter laying in some other dimension pierced through with the same blade at Egon's hand. Against his will, his imagination supplied him with a vision of Peter, blood welling crimson from his breast, jade eyes gazing sightlessly upward from features slackened in death for love of the man standing before him now. "Oh, no," he moaned, not sure in that instant whether he grieved more for Peter or Egon, knowing only that he hurt for his friends and the memory of an unspeakable ordeal he heard echoing in Egon's voice.
"Yes." The physicist's look was direct, admitting everything Ray imagined, and it also carried a plea for understanding Ray had not often seen coming from the usually self-assured man.
He reacted instinctively to that unspoken request, reaching forward to grasp the taller man's shoulder while he urged, "Then let me go! I can keep Set's blade fed while you and he work on this."
It was Egon's turn to recoil in shock. "Absolutely not." Even had Ray known what he was asking, he would not have considered permitting it. Before allowing that, he'd take the obligation back again and go through with the whole payment on his own, though the idea of them spelling each other on soul-torture duty had a sort of morbidly ludicrous humor to it.
Picking up on the automatic refusal without seeing the reason behind it, Stantz drew back in anger. First Peter holding out on him, then Egon, the pattern was clear enough to him without a map. "I'm not good enough? You can play a blood price, Peter can ransom you, but I can't?" Normally close to the surface, his emotions had been scraped so raw by the past few days that he was more volatile than Egon had ever seen him. In the space of seconds he had gone from displaying genuine affection to the coldest anger he was capable of, and the same pain drove both displays.
"No! That's not it at all." Egon forced calm into his words. "It's not a matter of my choice, the link was formed by the ritual and simply doesn't include anyone else. Even if I were to ask it of you, you couldn't do it."
It was also clear to Ray that he would not get any straight answers. "Fine. If that's the way you want it," he said, his lips tight over the words.
Egon sighed with helplessness, seeing Ray's pain through the cold, transparent exterior but not knowing how to reach it with reasoning. He did not seem able to find the right words to make his intentions plain, and every effort he made only increased the distance between them. Dropping the unprofitable line of conversation for a later time when it could be tackled with more careful attention, he said, "I'm going to need your help. The equipment has to be modified to work in Set's domain, or we won't have any hope of retrieving Peter or escaping once we do."
"Yes, that's what I told him." The hard tone sounded out of place in Ray's voice, its soft timbre more suited to gentle teasing. "Just give me the specs and I'll get it done. You can trust me to do that much, at least."
Handing over a sheet of calculations, Egon watched unhappily as Ray scanned them, nodded silent understanding of the requirements projected, and headed for the door. "Ray, wait..." His appeal met only a stony silence. Ray didn't even break his stride on the way out, much less turn back. "Damn," he murmured to himself, but the greater problem took precedence and he returned to work, burying his concern for Ray's hurt feelings in his effort to get Peter back as soon as possible. Once that were accomplished, he assured himself, everything would have to get back to normal.
Some eight hours later, Egon had not emerged from the lab yet. Used to such displays of single-mindedness in pursuit of a problem, Winston assisted as he did when not actually helping with assembly, by staying out of the way except to leave a plate of sandwiches on the end of the workbench at hours roughly approximating lunch and dinner. While the scientist never appeared to notice such offerings at the time, Winston knew that they were not unappreciated because he often found similar gifts appearing for himself on days when he was totally occupied preparing Ecto for one of the many car shows he entered her in.
This time, he found he had two preoccupied scientists in his charge. Ray had retreated to the basement lab with most of their proton packs and spare traps and was uncharacteristically close-mouthed about the work he was doing. When two attempts at convincing him to take a break failed to elicit any response, Zeddemore had given up and headed back toward the kitchen muttering, "Great. Half this operation goes to hell and I get to play short-order cook. The world could be ending and I'd be stuck making dinner for the occasion." It was a useful function and somebody had to feed the army for it to keep marching, but the fact that the task was necessary made him feel no less unnoticed in the general frenzy of activity centered on rescuing their missing partner.
It was nearly ten hours later when Egon finally emerged from the lab. His step was not light with triumph, but neither was it heavy in defeat. Work on the retrieval device had progressed well but he had projected the remaining labor and knew that at least another twelve hours were required before it could be fired up with any hope of success. With cold logic he knew that continuing to work straight through would not be the best course, for when the machine was done he would still have to rest before they faced Set. Therefore, despite his determination to waste not a second in unprofitable effort until Peter could be freed, the most intelligent thing to do at the moment was take a few hours out and get some sleep. That was what he knew. What he felt was frustration at the need to pander to his body's weakness while there were more important things to be done and time slipped away.
The others were already asleep and he did not wake them as he quietly prepared for bed. For once he found it difficult to drop off, and spent several minutes fighting an unfamiliar battle to calm his racing thoughts enough to allow sleep to take him.
Peter was unaware of his approach. Hands clenched in tight fists, arms straight down his sides, slow tears leaving tracks from his closed eyes, he was oblivious to everything but the recurring agony of the sword and his own loneliness. Egon knelt swiftly at his side, taking his hand and gently pushing the bedraggled bangs back from Peter's forehead with the other.
Venkman's eyes flew open at the touch, revealing an abyss of hopelessness that filled with renewed life even as Egon watched. "Oh god, I'm glad to see you," he gasped, latching on to the hand that held his as if he feared it might dissolve away. His grip was pathetically weak. "I thought you weren't coming back. It was so long..." his voice trailed off vaguely.
"I'm sorry." Returning the pressure on his hand, Egon didn't withdraw from the other contact either. Long fingers combed the untidy brown hair into place as well as could be done, and if the back of his hand brushed across Peter's temple and obliterated the tracks there, neither of them cared. "I was working on the alpha wave location projector. There's no way you could have completed it yourself in less than two weeks, it will take me another full day of work as it is now."
A spark lit Peter's expression with a glimmering return of his old spirit. "Oh, great, so now he figures out it was impossible. What did I tell you all along, you big idiot? Couldn't be done, right?" Though his voice had a tendency to crack unpredictably, the psychologist appeared ready to carry on with a full scale rant until suddenly his whole body tensed and his hold on Egon's hand became crushing. A strangled moan escaped him and he pressed his face into the hand that cupped his cheek. When it had passed, he went limp and his breath hissed in long, slow draws before he finally whispered, "How did you do it? Hold on for so long?" His eyes opened slowly, and the lost look was back in them. "I don't think I can make it."
"Bullshit," Spengler said succinctly. He pulled his hand away from Peter's head and sat back, observing trenchantly, "You are the most pigheaded man I know. You can do anything you put your mind to; you always have, despite the odds against you. Anyone who can fake his way through two dissertations while simultaneously holding the university beer-pong championship title can damn well lay on the ground for another eighteen hours."
Peter's eyes had widened in disbelief at first, for he rarely heard such words from his more conservative colleague, then he smiled at the memory evoked. Out of curiosity he'd checked on the record when they'd been called in to help Tri Cuppa Brew, and his accomplishment still had not been duplicated. "Men's singles, doubles, and coed," he reminisced fondly, then the pride turned wistful. "I was good, wasn't I?"
"You still are." Abandoning his harsh tone now that it had served its purpose, he clasped Peter's hand between both of his and spoke very gently. "You have to make it, that's all there is to it. You can't give up, Peter, if you do it will destroy you all the faster, as it did me." His voice faltered momentarily at the admission and the memories it brought, but he took a single deep breath to quell the reaction and continued. "You must fight it. You've managed things I never thought you capable of when you got mad enough to ignore false limitations. Do that now."
"Channel the pain into your rage at Set and use it to hang on. When you're tired of being angry for your own sake, remember what this has done to Ray and be angry for him. Think of what it was like for me, how you felt seeing me there, and be angry for me, too."
Fanned with such memories, resistance and determination began to glow hotly, and the restored drive to overcome whatever was in his way showed in the hardening planes of Peter's face. "Thanks, Egon. You're a hell of a psychologist when you try. Now beat it, OK?" He squeezed the hands that held his before letting go, negating the rejection in his words. "The longer you're here, the worse the headache is when you wake up. I'd rather have you in top form building that whatchamacallit, so get the hell out of here and do what you have to do. I'll be fine."
Accepting the assurance at face value, Egon nodded and stood up. "I'll be back," he promised in a deep, slightly accented tone, and was rewarded with the brief flash of a responsive smile before the scene dissolved away around him.
Egon didn't join them the next day either, he was up and working before they woke. Ray seemed oddly disinclined to seek him out to offer help, and that made Winston curious enough to poke his head through the third floor lab's doorway a couple times wondering if the physicist was engaged in something that for some reason could not be assisted. From Egon's single-minded absorption in whatever he was doing to the exclusion of all else, including the lunch left for him at one point, Winston gathered a sense that progress of some kind was being made, but the work itself looked standard enough.
Puzzled at the strange undercurrents he heard in Egon's short reply when he asked why Ray wasn't helping, Winston went looking for the younger man. He found Ray in the basement lab surrounded by most of their spare traps and four semi-disassembled proton packs, not unusual circumstances nor other than what Egon's words had led him to expect. What was not right was the look on Ray's face as he worked. Normally, when he was immersed in the technological challenges that Egon frequently set him, his face would be lit with an intent, encompassing fascination that more often than not became sheer enthusiasm for what he was doing, his engineer's mind most supremely happy when prying into the mysteries of reality as revealed by physics. But that internal light of pleasure and easy, accomplished competency was absent this time. Instead, his expression had a lonely, joyless aspect, his thoughts turned inward to some vista less pleasing than the work his hands did without the need for concentration. Watching him from the door, Winston wondered if it was Peter's absence that bothered him so much that he couldn't continue to rejoice in Egon's unexpected return to life. He'd seen the way Egon's loss had devastated Ray during the past week, and after last night's reunion he had expected the two to be inseparable, not working sullenly alone in rooms at opposite ends of the building. Clearing his throat to announce his presence, he strolled casually over toward the working area.
Quite uncharacteristically, Ray didn't invite him to listen to a comprehensive explanation of the details of whatever he was doing. Acknowledging Winston's entrance with little more than a nod, he returned to the adjustments he was making, trying very hard to look completely involved in the process.
The effort was wasted on an audience that saw through it. "What's the matter, man?" Winston asked. "You don't look like somebody who's just got his best friend back."
"Sorry to disappoint you," Ray answered shortly, then looked up to see the confused look on Winston's face and corrected himself with instant remorse. "It's not you," he added hastily, straightening up from the trap he was working on.
"I should hope not." Pushing two more traps aside to clear a spot on the bench, he hoisted himself onto it and regarded Ray with overt concern. "Would you care to tell me what it is?" His look and tone implied he wasn't leaving until he heard the answer, and 'no comment' wasn't going to be sufficient this time.
"I'm busy," Ray mumbled, reaching for another tool among the pile Winston had moved.
Catching his hand, Winston said very gently, "After all we've been through the last few days, you're not going to talk to me when something's bothering you?"
Brief rebellion tightened his expression with anger at being coerced, then Ray sighed and slumped, defeated by the caring he could hear in Winston's voice. He pulled his hand free without effort and looked up, hurt bewilderment surfacing in his eyes as he spoke. "It's Peter. And Egon. They..." Searching for a word, the only one that came to mind that seemed to fit was 'conspired.' "They lied to me," he finally said. "To us."
He waved one hand helplessly. "Peter knew Egon wasn't dead. That he was in Set's realm instead of truly passed on. He saw him, talked to him, and then he let us go on thinking he was dead. That there was nothing we could do about it." All the work they had done, the research and study, all of it a pointless waste of time, good only for keeping them out of the way. "He watched us mourn Egon and the whole time he was hiding in the lab because he knew, he knew that Egon was coming back."
"He can't have known from the start." Venkman might be the most accomplished liar ever but there was no way he could have faked his reactions that first night, no way at all. His grief had been as real as theirs. But the next day, when he had asked for time before making Egon's death public, there had been something odd in his look, something that supported Ray's contention now. "How did you find this out?"
"That machine he's been working on upstairs, that's Egon's theory and Peter was just putting it together from instructions. There's no way he could have designed it on his own."
"You can't know that for sure," Winston protested. "Peter's no dummy, he's built some pretty gonzo stuff on his own before. Remember that microwave generator thing he beat Nexa with? And even Egon was impressed by the ghost attractor he built."
"It turned out to be an ectoplasmic capacitor," Ray said almost idly.
"Whatever. The point is, Pete could have been working on his own."
He shook his head adamantly. "Not this time. I saw it, Winston, and Egon let something slip too. He as much as admitted he'd given Peter the background."
Some of Peter's bizarre behavior during the last week was beginning to make a kind of sense at last, but even in this new light it still didn't make a complete picture. "That has to be why he wouldn't let you help him," Winston said with sudden insight. "He knew you'd see that as soon as you got a good look at what he was doing."
Ray nodded miserably. "They lied to me," he reiterated. "Egon said he told Peter not to let me help." That was what hurt the most. Not being told that Egon would return was bad enough; he had spent nearly a full week experiencing unbearable loss with every breath, the aching empty part of his life where Egon used to be more crippling than he had thought anything could possibly be. But it was the reason they had kept that knowledge from him that went straight to the core of his insecurity and guilt. They had left him out because they couldn't trust him to do anything right. He'd let Egon die in the first place, his best friend sacrificed because he'd been too incompetent to find a better solution in time. It didn't end there. He'd stood aside from a duty he had been chosen for and instead had let Peter take the burden for him because he had been too weak to do what had to be done.
That was the terrible, central truth, the inescapable consequence of his incompetence and cowardice. Peter had been forced to kill the man he loved more than any other in the world, and Ray knew with utter certainty that nothing could ever make that change. Not Egon's return, not Peter's return; nothing would erase his responsibility for the horror they went through that night. They would all know for the rest of their lives that he had failed them as completely as it was possible to fail, at the one time when he had been needed most desperately.
No wonder they didn't want him involved. All they could expect him to do was screw up. His wide, expressive eyes mirrored the direction of his conclusion, if not the precise thoughts that led to it.
"Now wait a minute, Ray. There's no way you can be right - neither of them thinks anything but the best of you. You know that, you have to know that. "
"Thanks, Winston." His tone was listless, the lie in it too plain. "I'm sure you're right."
Opening his mouth to continue, Winston abruptly shut it with a snap, knowing a hopeless task when he saw one. There was only one way to change Ray's outlook and that was to show him once and for all that Peter and Egon trusted him implicitly, both personally and professionally. Third-party intervention wouldn't cut it, those words had to come directly from the source.
"It's not what you think, I'm sure of that," he tried one last time, sliding off the bench. As if to deny his own right to any encouragement at all Ray moved aside to let him go past without touching, and he had to forego the reassuring pat on the shoulder he had half-intended. Winston knew he was right about what he had seen in Ray's face. The sensitive younger man was sunk in perceived rejection so deep that Winston didn't have the power to show him the way out on his own, but he knew where to find one of the guides who could.
By the time he reached third floor, he had no better idea of how to approach the matter with Egon that he'd had when he started the trip. Ray's conclusion was so outrageous that it couldn't be right, yet he had seen the machine Peter had been building, knew what it meant, and had even drawn some kind of involuntary admission from Egon. Winston had none of that to go on, only his gut feeling based on years of observation. Peter, Egon, and Ray had a special friendship, something he could not begrudge them because they shared it with him as much as the difference in their history together permitted. Everything he had seen in their eyes, heard in their voices, read in their actions, told him that Ray couldn't be right about what was going on.
Egon was as deeply engrossed in his work as before and just as genuinely oblivious to Winston's entrance as Ray had unsuccessfully tried to be. "Guy could get a complex the way you dudes ignore a body around here," he said, and it didn't even earn him a noncommittal grunt in reply. "Ray's convinced you think he's a bungling idiot," he tried next, watching with interest for his words to sink in through the physicist's preoccupation.
It took a minute, but it did make an impression. Spinning to face him, Egon demanded sharply, "What did you say?"
"Thought that might get your attention." He moved into the lab and pulled over a chair from near the bookcase, straddling it backward to face Egon. Without further preamble, he plunged into the issue, hoping that the direct approach would draw a direct response. "I was just downstairs with him and I'm telling you, the kid is hung up bad. He says Peter knew you were coming back, that the two of you conspired to keep him out of whatever it was that got you back alive. The only reason he can see is that you figured he'd mess it up, and I'm worried about where that train of thought is going to take him."
Egon sighed, pushing at his glasses in a manner peculiarly reminiscent of Ray's earlier helpless gesture. "He's partially correct, but only partly. Peter was in contact with me, but there was no assurance at all that I could return, or remain alive once I was brought back to this plane. I extracted his promise that he would not tell you because of what I feared it would do to Ray if we failed. We didn't know if this machine would work and the way the exchange was actually done was not what we had been working for."
"Then you still don't know if it will work?" he said in surprise. "Are you telling me you don't know if you can get Peter back?"
A deep-rooted pain flashed in his eyes. "Right now, that is correct. Do you see what I mean?" At the reluctant nod, he continued, "I saw what that same uncertainty was doing to Peter every night. He told me Ray was taking it hard, begged me to release him from that promise so he could give you some comfort in hope, but there wasn't anything he could tell you that wouldn't make everything you and Ray were feeling worse if the device failed. There was a good chance it wouldn't work and I thought it would destroy Ray if he hoped for my return and my theory was wrong. It was bad enough that I could see it ruining Peter." His voice firmed and became totally sure. "Peter's involvement I couldn't change. But I would not let him bring Ray in and I do not regret that, for Ray's sake. If he thinks he failed us now, then how much worse would it have been?" What he felt for Peter's sake he didn't say - that was a matter to be laid to rest between him and Peter alone. Which brought his mind back to Peter's current situation and the driving need to get him out of it before he suffered another minute longer than could be avoided. "I will deal with Ray when I've got Peter back," he said, and there was no room for challenge in his statement.
"But..." Winston protested anyway, "what about Ray? He's hurting, man, don't you care?"
"Peter is hurting worse right now." Already turning back to his work, Egon was trying very hard to keep the distinction a clear, bright one that would make his course easy to follow. "Ray is alive and safe, therefore he can wait. He has to. Peter's situation takes absolute precedence over mere hurt feelings. I made a promise that I intend to keep." That his heart did not see the difference so clearly was making it very difficult for him, and Winston was not helping either.
"I think you're making a mistake, Egon, Ray's been really hard-hit by this. You don't know how badly he took your death. I was with him through most of it and I'm here to tell you that boy was in a world of hurt over you." He knew his words had impact, he could almost see them striking home, and he tried to press his momentary advantage. "Did you know he blames himself for it? For not having the strength to pretend to go through with your murder long enough to get his hands on that damned sword so he could kill himself instead. Egon, he thinks it's his fault you had to die, and I don't think he's going to get over that without any help from you. Go talk to him, tell him what you told me, before he ends up so confused by this that you'll never be able to make it better. How can you let him go on hurting for you? Would Peter want that to happen, no matter what his own problems were?"
Winston's words fell like blows, and Egon bowed his head under the assault, but his decision was made and the debt he owed Peter did not allow him any freedom to turn aside. "I can't change that," he whispered. "Not without endangering Peter's life beyond hope." The conflict between Ray's need and what he absolutely had to do for Peter was tearing him in two, but the force of his promise and his intimate knowledge of what Peter had given himself up to bound him to the more immediate goal. He could only guess what agonies of doubt and rejection Ray might be feeling, but he knew all too well exactly what agonies Peter had accepted in his place, and he couldn't turn away from the rescue. Not while Set's hunger tortured the man who had bought his return to life with blood. Peter's blood, soaking the black, burned ground as he cried in pain... Venkman's last scream echoed in his ears. "It will have to wait until Peter is back. I'm sure we can all address any lingering misunderstandings then." The subject closed, he reached for the soldering iron that he had set aside.
Watching him, Winston saw the pain under his stoic facade and, knowing how much Egon cared for Ray, he had some idea what sort of tension he had to be sustaining to deny Ray's need. With a shock, he realized that stress was born of exactly the same opposing, simultaneous demands that had so nearly torn Peter apart last week, and his indignation subsided. For now there was nothing futher he could do and to press the issue would only needlessly batter Egon's already bruised concentration, so he stood and returned the chair to its place. But before he left the lab, he paused at the door. "Just get him back soon, then. Or we'll lose a third man to Set."
Some thirteen hours had passed before Spengler emerged from the lab again, and both of the others had already packed it in for the night. Dragging a large wheeled table through the bedroom doorway, he flipped the lights on with his elbow as he went past. By the time he had the heavy mass of wires and other less identifiable electronics in place by his own bedside, Ray and Winston were blinking at him groggily from their beds.
"You gonna sleep with that thing?" Winston demanded in a cranky tone.
"In a sense, yes."
Ray was already struggling out of bed and reaching for his clothes. "We're going now?" he asked, but it was a rhetorical question and he didn't wait for the answer. "The packs and traps are all ready, I'll go get them."
"Hold on, man, I'll give you a hand," Winston offered. He had seen the grim set to Egon's face as he set up the contraption he had brought in, and knew that it would be a waste of effort to suggest they get any rest before this expedition. Egon was the only one who knew where Peter was now, and whatever was happening to him was not something that the physicist was willing to allow for another second longer than he could help. If the habitually calm, unhurried physicist was in such a rush to get Peter back, then he was certainly not going to question the need for haste.
Minutes later the two of them returned from downstairs, carrying four proton packs and weighted with over a dozen ghost traps. "We couldn't of made two trips?" Winston panted, letting the second pack drop onto Peter's bed.
"No time," Ray gasped behind him, also shedding his second main weight. The extra traps he had slung all around his belt decorated his waist like some weird variety of grass skirt. Once his hands were free he finished buckling the lower strap on the pack he was wearing, his entire demeanor that of someone about to go into the Final Battle. That worried Zeddemore just a little, because to his understanding Ray was the one who had the best idea of just who or what they were going up against.
"Oh, come on, we're not leaving in the next three minutes, are we?" He watched Egon work, and revised his estimate. They very well might be gone within that short a time. "What is that thing, anyway?"
Without pausing in his preparations Spengler replied, "You could think of it as a combination of the alpha wave generator I built a couple years ago and the netherworld projector Ray created when the molecular destabilizer backfired on me. Peter was on the right track as far as he got, but the coordinate specification is the tricky part."
Winston surveyed the contraption skeptically. His experience with at least one of the aforementioned devices had been less than encouraging. "OK, so what does it do? How are we gonna get Peter back and kick Set's butt?"
Ray had been looking over the hastily finished but neatly labeled control panel. "I think I see. You're using the primary aura trace to focus and locate the coordinates when you travel along the link to see him. Once it pins the location, the projector feed adjusts off it and sends us all there in person, complete with proton packs."
"Correct." Egon settled the band of electrodes over his head. "It is also set to retrieve us on signalled command rather than timer, which should allow us more flexibility in strategy when Set challenges us."
"But will the throwers work?" Winston asked. "Won't do us much good if his whole dimension has the rules that force bubble did."
"That is the one possible drawback," the physicist admitted. "Based on my experiences there and the nature of my return, I made some educated guesses on how his domain's physical laws are altered from ours. Ray recalibrated our throwers and made some adjustments to the accelerators and traps that I believe will adequately compensate for the changes..."
"But you could be wrong." At Egon's reluctant nod, Winston shook his head. "I hate it when you say that, almost as much as Peter hates it when you say that."
One blond brow cocked with mild self-mockery. "For both your sakes I try not to say it too often." Laying down, he composed himself, eyes closed, and was asleep in seconds.
"How will we know when it works?" Winston whispered to Ray.
"When the locus definition moves." Ray pointed to a display that currently read out a line of zeros. "It registers his conscious mind as being present here now. When those numbers change, he's traveling etherically."
It was obvious when Egon's dreaming changed, his breathing altering from a normal pattern to an uneven, nearly staccato panting indicative of internal stress. It was the same disturbance that Ray had seen in Peter's sleep and in Egon's that first night he was back, and now that he knew its significance he felt again the stabbing hurt of their distrust. Quashing the pain that rose with being reminded of that rejection, Ray watched the LED readout rapidly settle to a single reading and when the allotted time had passed he leaned over and gently shook Egon awake, calling his name in a low voice until his breathing shifted again and his eyes flashed open.
"Got it?" he asked, pulling his consciousness rapidly together.
"Got it." Ray stood back and held the proton pack for him to slide into. Calm and professional, he didn't comment on the ease with which Egon seemed able to commute to Set's realm. If there would ever be a time for those recriminations, this wasn't it.
"Let's do it." Winston moved into position with them in front of the projector. A moment later, the white vibrating nothingness of transition engulfed them all and the firehouse bunkroom vanished to be replaced by the sere landscape of Set's demesne.
They were standing less than ten feet from Peter's sprawled form, and once they were solid they made a concerted rush to his side. Though he had to have been expecting their arrival he was laying still, eyes closed, in an effort to spare Ray and Winston the sight of him half-alive yet conscious of his torture. It was a safe bet Egon would not have prepared them for it by describing in any detail what had happened to him or how he had been able to return.
Ray's face was absolutely white, expressionless with a controlled restraint over his reaction that was totally unlike his normal unguarded openness. Only his eyes were alive, reflecting horror and a deep internal rage at what he saw. It was as if he had managed to wall away his emotions, hiding his feelings for what he saw behind a mask of professionally uninvolved reserve that looked very out of place on him.
His long legs and prior knowledge of the scene giving him the advantage in reaching Peter's side first, Egon laid hands to the sword and drew it free. Raising his arm, his lips twisted in a vicious expression none of them had ever seen on his face before, he tensed to throw the blade down the slope into the smoking lake. Before he could fling it away, Ray cried, "Wait! That's it!"
Egon's brows lifted in appreciation, the fierce hatred leaving his expression though his eyes were still cold with fury. "Of course! Brilliant, Raymond!" Lowering the blade, he drove it into the ground instead and quickly knelt next to Peter, his attention divided between Venkman's recovery and the darkening conditions around them. "Can you handle a thrower?" he asked, his voice carrying nearly equal weights of concern and urgency.
"You bet your ass I can," Peter answered, struggling upward with Winston's help. Once he was standing, Venkman kept his legs from buckling by sheer force of will and adrenalin as the heavy pack settled over his shoulders. "It's about time you bozos got here, by the way." The sky had gone completely black and the ground was lit by the reflection from the hellish glow of the lake and the intermittent but increasing lightning that they knew had to indicate the imminent arrival of Set. The weird red glow and white bursts of light reflected in Egon's glasses and on the sheen of perspiration on Peter's bare chest, making the two of them seem more closely tied to the surroundings, living parts of the world they had inhabited.
"We're glad as hell to see you too, buddy," Winston told him without a trace of sarcasm. Now was not the time to get mushy, no matter what calisthenics his stomach and throat had been doing at the sight of Peter laying there transfixed by the blade. Under the continuous roar of thunder, the low whine of four accelerators powering up buoyed their spirits like nothing else could have. "Now this is how it ought to be," Zeddemore declared, and none of them thought it was odd he was so happy to be in a hostile alternate dimension about to face a powerful and angry god.
Two beams lashed out simultaneously as Peter and Egon turned full streams on the sword. The particle beams should have slagged the iron immediately, but the blade absorbed them instead, glowing brighter and brighter, a sullen nimbus of reddish light growing around it. Ray and Winston's beams joined in and the glow intensified slowly at first before it flared abruptly into incandescence, then disappeared as the unnatural blade flashed into its component atoms. They raised a ragged cheer, interrupted by Winston's warning cry.
With a deafening crack of thunder and a blinding flash, the lightning that had been striking randomly across the sky consolidated into a single searing blast that met the surface of the lake. The ground trembled under their feet, and as the afterimages cleared from their vision they saw Set striding toward them. Behind him, his wake swirled with the nebulous forms of the Unrepentant Ones.
"Guy really knows how to make an entrance," Peter mumbled. Forcing himself to stand straighter he kept his shoulders back and his head high, only pride and anger visible and not a trace of the weakness he still fought.
"You dare!" Set's harsh voice roared at them.
"You bet," Peter snarled back, and opened fire. His beam was augmented virtually instantaneously by the other three and the glowing proton streams enveloped their target in a solid wall of coruscating light. "Hot damn, this is more like it," he added aside to Ray.
"We aim to please." Suiting action to words, Ray slid his beam sideways to block the sneaking approach of the smaller vaporous spirits that had been taking cover behind their master. With Set immobilized, they began to fan out to either side, drawing fire in an attempt to allow Set time to recover.
"Traps!" Egon called, swinging one forward on its cord. Ray and Winston's beams wavered briefly without drifting off target as they struggled to hold their throwers one-handed. Two more traps bounced out, sliding poorly on the cinders but thrown far enough forward that they landed upright beneath the advancing spirits. The triggers were stomped simultaneously and white suction drew the first phalanx down, lids snapping shut on their wailed protests.
A second wave split out from behind Set and attempted to encircle them. When two of the beams left him to contain the smaller demons, Set was able to push the force wall he maintained forward in full steps, the wildly whipping ion streams splashing against its surface without penetrating. All four of their streams were needed to supply enough power to halt his approach, and they could not always keep them on that single target without risking attack from another direction.
"If we turn to run, we'll be toasted," Winston grunted, tossing another trap forward and to the side to block the vapor spirits' advance. "Anybody got any bright ideas?"
"Plan B?" Peter asked hopefully. "Tell me we have a Plan B, guys. You wouldn't have come all this way without packing one, would you?"
"'Fraid so," Ray answered. The last of the spare traps he carried had been used and he held his weapon steady on Set while Egon snared the next group of advancing ghosts. "This is a god, remember? We've never trapped or destroyed one before, and I don't think this is going to be our first."
"Hold it, hold it, now you bring this up?" Winston stepped back a pace so he could direct a glare at Ray. "You mean to tell me this is a waste of time? What about Gozer? That was a god too."
Egon shook his head, and closed another trap on four more of the small demons. "True, but recall that we did not destroy it, we only sealed the dimensional door and prevented a full manifestation." Without looking down he fumbled at his belt for another trap and came up empty. "Nuts."
His attention attracted by that low epithet, Peter measured their resources with a glance. All the traps that had been brought were spread on the ground in front of them, status lights blinking full. With the four of them focussed on Set, he was halted again. The Unrepentant Ones they had caught must have been close to three quarters the total number that had come up from the lake, and the few that were left no longer were eager to leave the protection of Set's barrier. At the moment the status quo was holding unchanged, but the red glare in Set's eyes did not bode well for that time when it might be different. "It's a stalemate, right? We can't contain him, and he can't destroy us. So what are we gonna do, spend eternity like this?"
Ray grimaced. "I doubt it. At this power setting, the charge in our packs will run out fairly soon."
Shoulder to shoulder with the tall physicist, Peter asked as casually as if he were suggesting breakfast, "Overload?"
Egon's nod was sharp, and the set to his mouth was grimly unhappy. "With the modifications I asked Ray to make, there's no guarantee that crossing the streams would yeild the desired result." After everything they had gone through, it would end with his friends all dead anyway. Now, at least, he had the futile satisfaction of knowing they stood a chance of taking the enemy with them, but it was small comfort for the loss and none at all for the pain they had already endured to get this far.
Peter read those musings clearly, for they were precisely his own thoughts. The anger that had kept him sane and whole while he waited for rescue boiled to the surface, seeking an outlet in any gesture of defiance, even a pointless one. "He's not taking me without losing a few of his sick souvenirs first. Hold him in place, guys." He turned his thrower at the nearest sword marker, and it resisted his beam only briefly before vaporizing. The skeleton under it vanished at the same time, and Set roared.
"Don't like it when somebody rains on your parade, do you?" He blasted away at the next marker in line and it went up in the same flare of sparks. There was a perverse satisfaction to seeing the emblem of some anonymous victim's suffering demolished, and Peter smiled a terrible, ruthless smile as he shifted to bring his thrower to bear on the next one. Set strained against the three beams, pushing forward one step. "You will pay for this," he thundered at them.
"Peter, I think that's the answer!" Ray risked looking over his shoulder at the long line of markers. "He's drawn his power from all those destroyed souls. If we blast them, he'll lose his anchor to his power source."
"No problem-o." The next one standing was far enough away that he was going to have to move to be able to reach it. "Step this way, men, I think we can do some real damage before dog-breath has his day with us."
The four of them moved as a unit, backing down the pale cinder trail, their backs braced against Peter's. With each marker he blew up, it grew easier for the others to hold Set with only the three proton streams. They had progressed perhaps fifty feet along the line of markers when Set's howling threats ceased and he screamed, "Stop! I will grant your freedom!"
Not so trusting that they would release their hold over him, the other three ghostbusters only moved slightly aside to allow Peter through their rank to address Set. Over the powerful burring hum of the firing weapons, he called, "All of us? Free and clear for good?"
"Yes!" Even as he agreed, he strained against the force holding him, and the burning glow in his eyes flared with unabated evil.
"Wait, let me." Ray's voice took on a formalized cant as he intoned, "I charge you, Devourer for millions of years who dwelleth in the Lake of Unt, that you shall not leave the Fiery Lake nor take another soul until we shall release you of our own free will. Do you so swear by Horus, Ra-Harakti, the One who defeats you?"
"No! How dare you seek to constrain me!" The monster slammed both fists on the barrier in front of him in a paroxysm of rage. The invisible surface bowed outward under his blow, deflecting the beams that struck it in skidding parabolas of light and making the throwers buck and twist almost uncontrollably in their hands.
"Not a problem for me if you feel that way, pal, I'll just waste a few more of these little decorations of yours." Turning back, Peter lowered his thrower at the next marker, and was rewarded with a howl of protest as he touched his trigger switch. He turned slightly and looked over his shoulder. "Was that a 'yes'?" he asked sweetly without lifting his finger from the button.
"Sobek take you, yes!"
"Read him the conditions again, Ray," Venkman ordered. He wanted no ambiguities left open as to what they were getting. "Any protests and we fry some more party favors."
When Stantz had repeated the formula and Set had answered in a ritual phrase that satisfied him, they finally powered down. The tips of their throwers had grown so hot with continuous use that they glowed dully red, matching the oppressive surroundings, and their hands felt as if they were still vibrating in contact with transmitted energy.
Egon raised the small retrieval remote. "Should'a taken our offer for New Jersey," Peter called mockingly.
"GO!" the god roared, and the ground shook under them. Egon triggered the recall signal and the lowering, hot, black desert wavered and disappeared, replaced with the magnificently homey surroundings of their headquarter's bedroom.
"We're back!" Peter turned, surveying the room with his eyes lit as if he were viewing the wonders of heaven. "It actually worked! We're back, and we won!"
Egon had already swung his pack off his back and inspected the charge level gauge. "I thought as much. We had less than two minutes of power left."
Winston collapsed on the nearest bed, flat on his back. "Oh, man, I do not want to do that again any time soon."
Shedding his pack, Peter flopped down next to him. "Welcome to the club. I say we make it a rule from now on: No more screwing around with unreasonable deities." A huge yawn caught him and his jaw cracked with it. "I am bushed," he murmured, already half asleep.
"Peeeeterrrrrr! You'rrrrre baaaaack!"
"Incoming," moaned Winston, rolling away from Venkman to avoid being caught in the backwash of Slimer's greeting. It didn't help, for as soon as Slimer was finished smearing his affection all over Peter he started the rounds with the next closest person and Winston ended up completely soggy despite his best efforts to fend off the spud's attentions.
By the time Slimer had finished administering his greeting to the last in line, Peter was snoring, his arm across his eyes in a half-completed and forgotten attempt to wipe the ectoplasm off his face.
"Poor guy," Ray said sympathetically, his expression sad as he looked down at the sleeping psychologist.
Still scraping the last of the green goo off his cheek, Egon snorted delicately. "He'll certainly agree with that, once he wakes up and realizes we left over a dozen traps and his favorite sweatshirt in Set's dimension."
Turning on Egon, Ray snapped, "I'm sorry I didn't pick them up, OK? I was a little occupied at the time." Grabbing his pajamas off his bed, he muttered, "Dibs on the shower," and retreated toward the bathroom, shoulders tensed as if waiting for a blow to fall from behind.
Watching him go, Winston shook his head. "I didn't think it was going to be easy, but I was hoping it wouldn't be this hard."
"He'll calm down by morning." There was more hope than assurance in Egon's tone. "Once Peter and I explain everything to him, he'll be fine."
"Yeah. Right." As the two of them stripped Peter's jeans off and rolled him under the covers of his own bed without trying to stuff him into his pajamas first, Winston couldn't help noticing the tight downturn to Egon's mouth and wondering how much longer they would have to keep fighting the same enemy's effect on their lives. The other thing he saw was the open caring that shone in Egon's eyes, softening the strong, disciplined lines of his face as he tucked the quilt over Peter's unconscious form. That look was almost enough to make him believe that as long as they all had such feelings to draw on perhaps the battle could be won without casualty after all.
Breakfast the next morning was uncommonly subdued. For a group of conquering heroes they were peculiarly quiet, though on closer analysis it could be seen that it was not truly a general condition. Peter was as genially sullen as he always was in the morning, and Winston knew his own air of practical tolerance was unchanged. Looking around, Zeddemore tried to pinpoint the difference and finally decided the unaccustomed chill was radiating from Ray though it was aimed at Egon and, to a lesser extent, Peter, but not at himself. It was an odd feeling that was not quite hostility although a surprising undercurrent of that was present, but it was mixed with guilt or shame or some other less clearly defined emotion and the end result was a directed confusion more than anything else. Though he was not overt about it, Egon plainly knew something was wrong because he was more firmly entrenched in the book he was reading than usual. It was, moreover, a pretty flimsy front: in the last five minutes he had not turned the page once and Winston knew Spengler's normal reading/comprehension rate was a hell of a lot higher than that. Even Slimer sensed something wrong, and after his initial ecstasy at cleaning off several plates full of syrup-dripping pancakes he began to droop by progressive stages until he looked so deplorably confused that it couldn't be ignored.
"Just what the heck is with you guys?" Winston finally demanded, having decided that getting the problem aired had to be better than this silent tension. "We beat the baddest dude we've ever run into and we're acting like Egon was still dead."
"I have to go readjust the equipment before we can take on any jobs," Ray muttered. Shoving back from the table he left quickly without a backward glance.
"There are some things I really should attend to upstairs," Egon said calmly, but to familiar eyes his exit was no less precipitous than Ray's had been.
Speculation in his eyes, Peter watched him go, then turned to Winston. "Things been a little strange since Egon came back?"
"Don't I know it," he grumbled. "The two of them have hardly said a word to each other since then, which is pretty damned weird considering how broken up Ray was after we left Egon behind. I've talked to both of them but couldn't make any headway, and what I think is going on may not have anything to do with the real problem." He stood and began clearing the table, letting Slimer carry the dishes. "I just do the cooking, not the psychoanalysis." He cast a meaningful look at Peter. "That I leave to the pros."
Bent over his experiment, Egon would have been the picture of normalcy to a casual observer, but Peter's scrutiny was anything but casual. To his eyes the physicist looked tired, not yet nearly recovered from his ordeal. It showed in the slight slump of his shoulders, the lines that had not faded from around his mouth and eyes, and the careful way he moved as if most of his muscles were sore. The plain cotton shirt clung to his skin making him look thinner than he did in uniform, and Peter had never seen him looking so much like he actually needed the suspenders to keep his pants from sliding down over his narrow hips. Though he had not starved nor dehydrated during his week in Set's realm, the stasis must not have been absolute, for he appeared to have lost at least ten pounds to sheer nervous exhaustion. They were pounds he could ill afford and, combined with his obvious weariness, the wasting beyond his natural slenderness made him look older.
Consciously Peter squared his own shoulders, knowing that in an objective comparison he would not rate any higher marks himself for looking healthy and energetic. At least he did not begrudge the few pounds he had lost, it just made his jeans fit a little better in the waist, and a couple weeks of weightlifting would get his t-shirt fitting as snugly across his chest as it ever had. He'd ask Winston to make whatever that incredibly decadent dessert was a couple more times and Egon and Ray would be looking like themselves inside a week, he was sure. Physically, at least. Restoring their emotional wellbeing might take just a bit more effort, but it was a task he was going to throw himself at wholeheartedly.
Though he was aware of Peter's presence, Egon projected an air of intense involvement that was obviously intended to be impervious to interruption. To anyone else it might have been, but Peter had always been immune to such subtlety.
Perching his hip on the edge of the table, he reached over and pushed the gizmo out of Egon's reach, forcing him to look up in annoyance.
"I assume you have some purpose in mind?"
"No, just thought I'd see if I could get a rise out of you." At the flash of ire in the blue eyes, he grinned. "Aha! I knew you were in there someplace." He shifted, and decided to start the conversation on his own behalf before bringing up the issue of Ray's feelings. "I just came to ask you if you're ever wrong."
"Not so you would notice," Spengler replied, returning the cut as smoothly as he usually did one of Peter's digs. But there was something else, a serious offer under the question that he recognized. His tone became quieter and lost its insulting edge. "If that's an apology, I don't feel it's necessary for you to make it. In fact..."
Peter cut him off. "No, you were right, and I was a jerk about it for a while there. It's occurred to me just where we'd all be if you hadn't insisted, and then gone ahead with making good on Set's offer."
"It's always better to have something left than nothing," he began, then realized he was being sidetracked and tried again to make his own regrets clear. "You shouldn't have had to take my place, Peter, it was stupidity on my part that left you no choice. Your life should never be forfeit for my bad judgment. There's no way I can make that up to you."
In the clear, guileless aqua eyes he could see a measure of pain still lingering, and knew that Egon felt it for what he had seen the events do to his friends, not for himself. Peter's heart thudded unevenly in his chest and he easily defeated the urge accept the open-ended obligation with gloating righteousness. Instead, he met that look with equal candor and said, "You already have, Egon. Don't sell yourself short. It took a hell of a lot less courage to replace you than it did for you to go in the first place."
The blond shook his head in denial. "I don't agree. I took what looked like the fast way out. You went into it knowing what tortures were waiting with no guarantee of escape."
"Will you stop with this crap already? I had the best guarantee of escape there is: you were working on it. If that's not a sure thing, I'll stop betting. My god, I killed you when for all any of us knew it was a true, permanent death. How can you sit there and apologize to me for anything you've done?"
"What I did..." Egon frowned, not willing to glorify what had only been the sole thing he could have done under the circumstances. To him, that was less deserving of recognition than the proofs of friendship Peter had freely given. "All I did was allow my life to be ended, which was certainly no more than any of us would have readily done to save the others. In our line of work we have seen enough to know that crossing to the next plane is not the finish of all we are. What you did was not just what was needed for the group to survive, not a simple sacrifice of something you'd lose sooner or later anyway. You risked true and final dissolution for the sake of nothing more than our friendship. Peter, how can you feel any debt to me when you bought my passage out of hell with your soul even though there was no need to?"
"No need to?" Peter choked. "It was my fault you gave up! I said things to you..."
Egon raised a hand, cutting him off, though his voice had already failed him of its own. "All that you said was true and you owed me no more than that, I had made my choice and left life behind." His memory reproached him with the reminder that he had not managed to do so on his own, and he felt again the weight of a debt that could never be repaid. "Even in helping me leave it, you gave more than I had a right to ask. You gave me what I had to have to make the passing bearable, beyond a swift, sure death. We all will face death sometime, Peter, but I cannot think of a better way to die than in the arms of one who loves me." Briefly embarrassed by that bare-faced assumption, he colored slightly but continued, the blush fading away as he finished the thought. "I prefer to live, but if there comes another time when there is no other way to buy your safety, then I would willingly make the same choice again."
"You'd do it all over again? All of it?" Peter hadn't been in that other place as long a time as Egon, but even the thought of those horrible, endless hours alone through the repeated bouts of soul-destroying agony made him flinch visibly. He didn't care to imagine what memories Egon carried of it, or how the physicist felt remembering the way his mind had begun to fail under the assault. "Even knowing what you know now?"
Egon rested his chin in his hand, as was his habit when thinking, and his forefinger lifted slightly and gently ran across his lips. The gesture was purely contemplative, but Peter felt his cheeks flush at part of his own memory. What passed between them when they had both believed the parting to be their last was done and he could not take it back now, whether he would or not; but it took surprisingly little reflection to decide he would not change his actions now even if he could. Words had failed him when Egon lay dying, but his instincts had not. The feelings that had moved him then were not changed now, only tucked back away in the recesses where "civilized" men kept such things safe. If anything, those emotions had been amplified, strengthened and reinforced by the sacrifices willingly made and the caring they had let loose from behind their walls of civilization when small solaces were all they could give. Holding his gaze steady he awaited an answer to his question, and was rewarded when Egon's eyes met his fully.
Tranquil and open, Egon's look shone with an ineffable love free of the restraint that usually protected his dignity. He had seen the blush, deduced without pause what prompted it, and knew that for all his confident demeanor Peter was looking for some reassurance that their friendship had not suffered for being forced into expression. "Especially knowing what I know now," he said, and the velvet depth of his voice was unflawed with reservation. "I would do it again." His tone softened still further, the emotion in it so deep and strong that he could have closed the distance between them and placed his own chaste kiss on Peter's brow without revealing more of his heart's truth and trust than already showed. "As would you."
Peter held that look, letting its fierce clarity and the power of what he heard in that serene voice burn the last regrets and doubts from his mind. The last of his own shields dropped unnoticed and tears rose to obscure his vision. "I would," he said huskily, and he did take that step forward, wrapping his arms around the taller man and holding him as he would something immeasurably precious. As Egon's arms encircled him in return Peter sighed in profound contentment, for in all the excitement and exhaustion of beating Set and returning home he hadn't yet had the chance to truly welcome his friend back to life nor be welcomed himself from his own sojourn in hell. This time, though they held each other as closely as they had before he traded his life for Egon's, there was no desperation to their embrace, only a sublime cherishing that for those few minutes knew no limits or disguises. In that total honesty Peter saw that through everything they had done and shared and agreed on, there still remained something he had left unsaid too long. "I love you," he murmured, the words coming easily as old friends.
In answer, Egon drew him closer with a small, trembling sigh that said the feeling was fully returned as unmistakeably as any words could have conveyed. That was all Peter had needed to know, and he hugged Egon to him even more tightly, several lifetimes worth of friendship filling his soul to its very brim so that his breathing caught on it. When they finally released each other, only one unanswered question was left and Peter spoke it reluctantly, knowing it would trouble the peace they had reached within and between themselves. "What are we going to do about Ray?"
The light faded slowly from Egon's eyes, replaced with a sad perplexity. He pushed at his glasses again, though this time it was a purely nervous gesture since they hadn't moved in the last three minutes. "I wish I knew. I am afraid he won't listen to me now."
"You're the one person he needs to be convinced by." If Ray could see what he just had, begin to comprehend the reasons behind the way things had happened and see the depth of their committment to protecting him, he'd have to believe they had not left him out because he was unworthy. "I have a feeling the problem isn't all that mysterious or unexpected to you, either."
"I had some warning of its development besides your predictions," Egon admitted. Pushing the chair out of the way absentmindedly, he paced the length of the table, head bowed. When he turned back to Peter his expression was dejected. "When you and I traded places, it didn't take him long to figure out you had been in some contact with me. He felt betrayed by that, just as you had anticipated, and I was unable to explain why I had done it." He waved one hand in a lost, searching gesture. "No matter what I said, he was convinced I left him out because I didn't trust him."
"I thought it had to be something like that. Thinking he had lost our trust could make him that stubbornly upset." The resentment he had seen in Ray's eyes was beginning to make sense.
Egon nodded without losing his unhappy look. "That had occurred to me as well. He did indicate that he felt left out, as if we had somehow deliberately denied him participation."
"He thinks we rigged the whole thing to keep him from being a part of it?"
"Essentially." He pushed at his glasses and met Peter's gaze with honesty. "You know that if it had been possible we would have, and he knows that too, though he does not understand why. Which only makes it harder to convince him I did not choose to hide the truth from him because I think he somehow isn't good enough."
Peter rolled his eyes in exaggerated disgust. "That's exactly how I thought he'd react. Didn't I say so? But do you ever listen to me? Nooo...." He moderated his mocking to a milder, teasing tone, sensitive to the guilt that clearly lurked behind the edges of Egon's calm statements. "I've got a few ideas. What's bothering him is going to take both of us to resolve, but if we corner him to start with we'll never get through." Taking a deep breath, he let what they had shared moments ago fortify him for the coming encounter. Peace and that profound, unchallengable affection still resonated deep within, a touchstone of essential power that would not fail, and he was certain that with it they could bring Ray back. "Follow me in about fifteen minutes."
Leaning against the doorframe, Peter watched Stantz without announcing his presence, and wondered if a few extra helpings of whipped cream and kirsch would really be all it would take to get him back looking like himself again. It wasn't just the slight gauntness of his face that made him look like a concentration camp refugee, it was the dark circles under his eyes, the paleness of his skin, the way his chambray working shirt hung on him because he wasn't holding his shoulders back. Ray didn't look like someone who'd been griefstricken and miserable for a week, he looked like someone who was thoroughly miserable that very moment.
Peter could also see a tight anger in Ray's movements that was completely uncharacteristic. "You want to tell me about it?" he finally asked, moving away from the door and into the lab.
"No." The answer was curt to the point of rudeness, and picking up a screwdriver, Ray bent back over his task in a transparent effort to shut out the intrusion. His voice had been steady, but his hand trembled and the tool skidded across the surface of the thrower with a screech.
"Too bad. I do." He ignored the gasp of surprise as he lifted the screwdriver from Ray's hand. "Now, you aren't going to make me force you to listen to me, are you?"
"Why not?" Brown eyes flashed darkly with rancor and Peter's eyebrows went up a fraction of an inch at the frustrated animosity he heard. "You seem to think you have the right to make every other decision for me."
The note of revelation in his voice only seemed to anger Ray further. "Don't patronize me, Venkman, I'm not a child, though you and Spengler think I can't make an informed decision."
Raising his hands to ward off the accusations, Peter backed up a step. "Now wait a minute -"
Ray shook his head, refusing to be calmed, knowing that if he lost his momentum he'd end up breaking down. He didn't want that, he wanted to leave with some of his dignity still intact even if it meant being on bad terms. How could he make them see he was a worthy adult if the last sight they had of him he was in tears? "You wait. I'm sick and tired of you two treating me like some kind of second-class citizen!"
"Now hold on!" In spite of his previous determination to remain reasonable, Peter's temper began to flare under the repeated charges. "I don't treat you like a child!"
"Bull! You do and he does. Do you think I'm too stupid to see it? Well, I've got news for you, Doctor Venkman, I'm old enough to take care of myself and old enough to decide what I want to do with my life. I don't need your protection, damn it, I'm an adult!" Tears of frustration rose in his eyes and he dashed them away angrily, hating his helplessness to stop them and his inability to make Peter understand what had hurt him so badly. "Do you have any idea how that makes me feel? You're my friends, not my guardians! You're supposed to allow me to be what I am, not protect me from making up my own mind on what I want to do. You've got no right at all to treat me like this!" His eyes filled again and he raised both hands to cover his face, trembling with the force of unaccustomed passion. The thought, So much for leaving as an adult, surfaced bitterly, making him feel still more insignificant and weak-willed, unable to contain his emotions even for one conversation. Maybe they had been right to treat him the way they had; surely adults weren't supposed to be this uncontrolled.
Peter ached to reach over and reassure him with a touch, and knew that it would be precisely the wrong thing to do right then. Instead, he asked very gently, "Do you hate me so much for pre-empting your draw to kill him, then?"
When Ray uncovered his eyes, they were wild with swirling, conflicting feelings, and the core of his pain burst forth in jumbled, incoherent sentences. "That was just the first, I had to watch you kill him! You wouldn't let me be the one given to Set but it was fine if he was. I wasn't strong enough to do it, I held Egon's hand while he died because you were stronger, and then he made you lie to me. I loved him as much as you did and he let you bring him back but I wasn't good enough to help him and it hurts!" Unable to stop the tears that persisted in falling, he gave up trying and wrapped his arms around himself, his chest heaving with unreleased sobs.
"No," Peter said quietly, and his eyes held as much anguish as Ray's. Despite the mass of contradictions it contained he had still made sense of Ray's protest. He swallowed hard and felt the sharp prickle of tears behind his own eyes. "That's not true, Ray, it was never a question of you not being strong enough to do what needed to be done. I don't know how to make you see that. You've got to know neither of us feels that way about you."
"How?" His voice was a miserable wail. "How am I supposed to see that, Peter? Neither of you trusts me! You hid and lied and sent me away!" Behind the helplessness was a wall of unforgiving misery and his eyes were dark with it. "You made it pretty clear what good I was to you." He drew a deep, shaky breath, trying so very hard to keep his eyes from filling as he fell back on his decision reached during the last day, certain that it would be easier to face the others once he let them know he'd gotten the message. "I'll leave as soon as I reverse the adjustments I made to the equipment." It had seemed to him there was some grace in that gesture, erasing the changes he had made before disappearing from their lives forever instead of leaving a half-finished mess behind. Otherwise he would have been packed and gone already.
The words went like arrows to Peter's heart and his eyes widened in horror. "What?!" Not so soon, not like this - he had only just made peace with the feelings the too-realistic death of one of his dearest friends had brought forth. He could not face that same unending sense of incompleteness again, not when it didn't have to happen. Struggling to keep his voice even, he said very patiently, "Ray, we don't want you to leave. Don't even joke about that."
Backed into a corner, Ray lashed out with all the guilt and rejection that had soaked and directed his thoughts for days. "I'm not joking, damn it! Why can't you ever take me seriously? Can't you see that's the whole problem?" He waved his arms in wild gestures as he went totally ballistic, unable to contain the pain raging inside any longer only made worse by what sounded to him like condescension. "What the hell do you want? You don't want me to leave, you don't want me getting in the way. You wanted me to help bring Egon back, so long as I didn't get in the way of the important work, the stuff that really made a difference. I'd rather be ignored than lied to! I can't stand it any more! If I'm not good enough to be one of you, to be trusted with what's meaningful, then I don't want to be here at all. I'm leaving, Peter, it's the only thing left I can do right."
Ray's words frightened Peter, as did the frantic tone they were delivered in. He moved a cautious step closer, trying to project a calm rationality he did not feel. "You are good enough, Ray, worth anything in the world to either of us. That's why Egon preferred his own death to yours."
Without looking up, Ray shook his head vehemently. "That's not why he did it," he disagreed. "It was just the only logical thing to do. He would have done the same no matter who was there." Never something he had been able to sustain well the anger was failing, leaving only the tormented self-doubt and sense of rejection that had grown so strong in the last week, grown far worse since he discovered the deception Peter had been practicing. Now there was nothing left but the certainty his friends did not want him cluttering their lives and work because they did not respect him enough to trust him. Though Peter's attention for two days had been nearly enough to bring confidence back to the younger man, the psychologist had not killed the root of the insecurity before changing places with Egon and it had flourished in the time since then.
"Is that why you think Egon went through with it?" Why couldn't he make Ray see what was really between them, that the unselfish devotion which had driven all their choices was based in an affection that included him as an equal partner? "You think he went calmly, almost joyfully, through that sacrifice just because he's the naturally noble martyr type?" In the next second he could have bitten his tongue for using such flippant words.
Ray actually flinched away, drawing his arms tighter around himself. He rocked in place, and fresh tears flowed down his cheeks. "We've all set the packs to overload before, it's not like I haven't faced the possibility of failure or death with you. But this time you wouldn't let me take the same risk you did, be part of the group. Either of you." A small, wounded sound escaped him at that thought and he squeezed his eyes shut, remembering the blood and the agony he had seen in the cobalt depths of Egon's eyes. "He let you kill him, and when I could have helped bring him back, you wouldn't let me. He didn't want me to. You would rather go through being killed than let me help."
Truth was the only resource Peter had, and he threw his entire self into trying to reach the man he cared for with no other weapon but pure openness. "Ray, he would rather have died for real and forever than let you think you had failed him. We didn't know if he could be saved no matter how hard any of us tried, that's why I couldn't tell you there was a chance." Peter took a step forward and his voice broke with his pleading. "I took his place because out of love for him that was the only choice I had. I never doubted your willingness to make the same offering or your ability to help." Another step and now his own face was wet, but he ignored it, desperate to make Ray see what feelings had lain behind the way things had gone. "We don't want to stifle or coddle you and we never thought you weren't worth it. The world didn't need us this time, you did, and we did it for you and you alone." He took the final step to Ray's side, arms outstretched, begging to be heard and believed. "Please, Ray, I'm not lying. Egon doesn't distrust you, he loves you, loves you well enough to believe you're worth dying for." This time Ray didn't shy away, and Peter carefully gathered him in, pulling him close against his chest and burying his face in the soft, fine hair. His throat ached with the strain of holding back his own distress but his whisper was clear and tender. "I love you, as much as he does. Please god, you can't leave us when we're willing to do so much to keep you."
The younger man shuddered once, then collapsed against him, sobbing violently. His hands twisted the fabric of Peter's shirt. "I wanted to take his place," Ray choked brokenly. "Why would you keep me away unless I couldn't do it right? If I'd been smarter he wouldn't have had to die at all. You wouldn't have had to." Pounding his fists against Peter's chest without having let go of the shirt first, he only succeeded in emphasizing his point by making both of them sway slightly in place. "How could you let him do that?"
Peter sighed sadly, his breath teasing the hair laying soft against his cheek as he spoke. "And if I'd thought to rig the draw or break my own straw and bluff it out, I could have kept him from going through that. I owed him at least the attempt and I botched it completely. I just let him lay down and then I killed him." His eyes closed as the familiar sharpness drove through him like the tightening of an invisible hand on his heart. What he had felt and done that night would be with him for a very long time, even in the light of day where Egon strode tall and alive at his side. "I killed one of my best friends."
That drew Ray's broken-voiced protest. "No, Peter, not you, it was me, I'm the one who let him die." Even as he spoke, he thought of the great difference between "killing" and "letting die" and began to feel slightly ashamed of making so much of his own guilt when it only had to remind Peter of his greater active role in the atrocity. Gulping until his voice steadied enough to allow him to finish a full sentence, he tried to explain. "Don't you see? It should have been my doing, not yours. I got us into that trap and then you had to kill him, but it shouldn't have been that way."
"That's not true," Peter said forcefully, ruthlessly ignoring his own automatic internal reaction to the reminder. "It doesn't even matter now; Egon left for a while, but he's back, he's alive and with us, and we're all fine. Let go of whatever blame you think you deserve, there's nothing to be blamed for."
Ray's grip on the mangled shirtfront he held tightened and his eyes blazed with sudden ferocity as he stared up into Peter's face. "Then why did you shut me out?"
No answer that would make sense came to Peter and his expression twisted with dismay. There was no way he could make Ray see there was no blame when he had lost Ray's trust, and he could not regain that trust with words now because Ray remembered the past few days too well.
A strong, warm arm slid around his shoulders and he glanced up to see Egon standing beside him. "I tried to tell him. He doesn't believe me," Peter explained weakly, his voice treacherously prone to crack. "You tell him. Tell him he can't leave us, that we need him."
Without letting go of Peter, Egon slid his other arm around Ray, holding him as closely as Peter still did. "Raymond, please listen to me," he said, and his smooth bass timbre held infinite compassion. Though he had not been listening to the conversation before he joined it he had known what issues to expect, but Peter's revelation that Ray intended to leave them was a new and frightening aspect he had not anticipated. "Whatever you have gone through has been my fault, and mine alone. I knew you would be hurt by my decision to accept Set's terms, but I couldn't change that. It was the only way to save what was most important to me." Egon felt Peter tremble once and knew the memories of what they had seen happen to him would haunt his friends for years to come, even though they had come through the experience alive and victorious. He pressed closer to them, striving to reassure them with his vital, breathing presence, tightening his arms around them both as if by holding on he could keep Ray from ever leaving.
"I knew you couldn't help grieving for me no matter how willingly I went. I believed you would get over my loss, though I admit I was vain enough to think it wouldn't be easy. But to me it was worth everything I went through to know that you were here, safe. You and Peter were ever in my thoughts; the only comfort and strength I had came from the memories of you." Unable to continue, he had to focus his eyes upward for a moment, lower lip caught between his teeth. When his breathing steadied he continued, his voice roughened, "What would you have done if you'd known for certain that Set had me, but you were not able to rescue me in time no matter how hard you tried?" The stricken look that deepened Ray's already wounded look into one of unbearable misery was answer enough, and left its own mark on Egon's heart. "I knew that even if the task were humanly impossible you would blame yourself for failing, for my loss, and I didn't want that to happen."
"I agreed with him," Peter added softly, his arms still locked around Ray as if he would not let go until he was promised there would be no leaving. If Ray had been willing to leave because he felt untrusted, it was clear he would have taken the failure of Egon's final loss every bit as hard as the physicist had estimated. Peter's instincts had led him to agree in the beginning, but now he had the unshakeable certainty of demonstrated proof. With the clarity of hindsight he knew the risk had been too high to take, despite the mess resulting from the course they had chosen instead. "We weren't trying to keep you from helping, we were trying to keep you from feeling any more responsible for his death if we failed." Finding Egon almost gone the next night after they quarreled had been a close enough experience of such responsibility for him, and he knew whatever they had done to keep Ray from learning firsthand what it felt like was worth any effort. The conflicting pull of priorities he had wrestled with would remain a private matter between him and Egon. Knowing what had passed between them in that argument and why Egon had lost the ability to endure any longer would surely lead Ray to believe he had been the cause of Peter's exchanging places with Egon. With the ease that Ray had assigned himself blame for the first death, Peter was unwilling to give him any opportunity to accept additional guilt for something else he'd had part in but no control over. "We couldn't risk that, whatever it cost us."
Seeing the truth in their faces as his gaze traveled from Peter to Egon, Ray drew an unsteady breath and whispered, "But I love you enough to have risked it. It should have been my choice to make."
His own voice none too steady, Egon replied, "What good would it have done me to prevent Set taking you but know I had left you dying inside anyway? I couldn't bear thinking you would feel that much pain because of me." If he had a worst nightmare, that was it, and he wanted with all his soul to make Ray see that, and understand how much he was needed. Egon had given and endured so much in the mere hope his friends would be all right and now, when he had miraculously been able to return to them so they were whole once more, to find that Ray felt so miserable he wanted to leave struck him as one of the crueler ironies of fate. "No more than I could bear it if you left us now."
"But your plan would have worked, and sooner if you'd let me help! Peter wouldn't have had to go through that trade." Ray burst out in frustration, glaring from one to the other. "How can you stand there and tell me I shouldn't leave now because you need me so much when you both chose your own tortured death over my assistance? How can you love me so much and not trust me?"
Egon's eyes were shining and the smooth bass of his voice was flawed with huskiness. He needed very badly to make this right, knew that the wrong approach could lose him one of the things he had died to preserve, and for guidance he drew on the experience of total honesty and openness he and Peter had just shared. "I misjudged both the situation and you. I had very little confidence in the possibility of my rescue. Even with you assisting, I calculated the odds of success at less than one in approximately 1500. There did not seem to be any way I could survive long enough for the device to be built. The pain was... incredible." Peter's muttered "amen" spoke for several different kinds of pain. "It unhinged my mind, broke my will, destroyed my concentration. All I could focus on was making sure it was not in vain, that you suffered no more than my simple loss had to cause."
Ray watched him closely, his eyes huge and cautious, unable to interrupt. Rarely did Egon speak of his own weakness or seek sympathy for hurt, he was so casually and reliably stoic as to appear invulnerable. Ray could recall very few times when he had heard Egon admit being affected by fear or uncertainty, and of those occasions he knew at least half had been half-jesting to ease a tense situation the same way Peter's outrageous humor often bolstered their spirits. Listening to him now, Ray heard no humor in his tone, only an intense, sincere appeal to be heard, understood, and forgiven for something he had not been able to help.
"I know I don't need to protect you from the world. I know you can take care of yourself, but can you forgive me for wanting to save you from whatever measure of pain lies within my power to spare you? As a friend, could I do less?" As if to underscore the overwhelming affection that filled him, he lifted his hand from Ray's shoulder and stroked his hair gently, fingers brushing lightly through it in a gesture reminiscent of the way Peter had supported him through the pain so many times. There was so much care in the touch that Ray could not see it as patronizing, only as loving and reassuring as it was meant to be. Egon's deep blue eyes regarded Ray with unabashed warmth and his voice dropped an impossible half octave. "How could I throw away your health and happiness to get back what I'd freely given up?"
"Happiness?" Ray asked in bewilderment, finally loosening his stranglehold on Peter's shirt and simply resting against him as if too tired to stand on his own. "How could I be happy?"
"You would have been, some day," Egon said gently, forsaking the touch of Ray's hair to replace his arm around Ray's shoulders. "Could my death be any harder for you to overcome than your parents'? Yet you have been happy in the time since then, haven't you?"
"I saw you die." Turning haunted, tear-filled eyes on him, Ray's statement was a plea for the past to change, for the memory to go away so it would stop hurting. "You think I could ever have gotten over knowing what you went through?" He shivered and Peter held him closely, feeling the tension sing in his body as if he were a wire stretched too tightly.
"I'm not saying it doesn't hurt forever," Egon tried to clarify his meaning. For his own part, he would have given anything he had to make that taste of loss and grief the future could bring at any time disappear and leave them all in the peace of ignorance. "That was part of why I thought I needed to protect you. If just my death hurt you so much, how much more would a personal failure to save me, and a second more horrible loss? I thought it would kill you. Would I have been so wrong?"
At that, Ray's eyes blazed. "Don't you think it would have been worth it to me? Don't you think any risk would be totally unimportant next to getting you back? I saw you die for us, for me, and you begrudge me the chance to help save your soul because I might feel bad about it?!"
Bowing his head, Egon aknowledged the hit, the words' effect even more observable in the way his long fingers dug into their shoulders in reaction. "You're right, of course. You're right to be angry with me, Ray. I underestimated your professional abilities to help me, and even more to my shame, I drastically underestimated your emotional ability to handle not just my death but the probable failure of my designed retrieval mechanism. If I had been able to remember my respect and trust for you as well as I could feel my affection and need to protect you, I would have known I was wrong to force Peter to keep my condition a secret from you."
The self--recrimination in his voice swung Peter's attention momentarily aside from the man he held. "Hold on there, it's not like you were the one who actually lied to him. I agreed with you, at least enough to look him in the eyes and tell him anything but the truth, that I knew what was happening to you." Catching and holding Ray's clouded hazel gaze, he said, "If there's blame here lay it where it belongs, on the fact we both care so much about you that we'd do anything to spare you the pain the world sends at you."
"Please don't resent us for that," Egon begged, openly pleading. "How can we change it? Why would we want to?"
"Don't ask me for that, Ray," Peter added softly. "I don't think I can give it to you." Finally he loosed one hand from holding Ray to his chest to lightly rub the back of his fingers across Ray's temple in the soothing contact he had learned could impart strength all out of proportion to its apparent capacity.
Ray sighed in quiet acceptance, letting his eyes slide closed as he pressed faintly against Peter's hand in response. The knot of fear inside him finally unwound as he came to see that he could, after all, have what he wanted most - his place with his friends - without giving up his pride or adulthood to keep it. "All I'm asking for is the trust that's supposed to go with friendship. Let me decide when I'm strong enough to handle something, that's all." His request was weary but it was the tiredness of having come to the end of a long, terrible journey to find the goal was exactly what he had hoped it would be. Looking up into Egon's eyes, he thought of all the longing and grief of the last week and simply said, "Let me decide how much I love you."
"I will, I promise." Egon slowly tipped his face downward until his forehead touched Ray's and his voice was nearly inaudible. "Only, let me love you as much as you love me." His last words were breathed so faintly they were virtually subliminal. "Raymond, please don't leave us." The quiet, steady beat of his heart pulsed in the hollow of his throat, marking time as it passed in the silence that followed, betraying none of the fear still present behind his calm, utterly heartfelt plea.
The last light of anger went out of Ray's eyes, and he shifted sideway in Peter's arms and wrapped his own around the physicist's waist to draw him close, not having the words adequate to say thanks for what he had just heard. All he had ever wanted was to be loved by his friends as much as he loved them in return, as friends, brothers, equals. While he was far from emotionless or repressive, Egon was normally too calm and naturally dignified to wave his gentler emotions around for casual viewing. Though Egon's feelings were often indicated by nothing more blatant than a fond look or tone of voice, Ray had always been able to tell he had a certain reserved place in the physicist's affections. Now, when he had questioned the validity of that place, Egon was willing to make it clear beyond doubt how he felt and such an open expression awed Ray with its candidness. If he could draw forth a declaration like that, if Egon were willing to bare so much of his soul just to convince him to stay, then at last he had to believe he had been wrong to question his value to his friends. There were renewed traces of moisture in his eyes, but they were attributable now to the joy of finding his place in their affections and its unshakeable nature. He was loved, and he did not want to flee from their protection any longer, he wanted to stay here wrapped in the haven of their arms and affection forever. "No," he sighed in answer to the question, and the last lingering tension dissolved out of him as he melted against Egon in acquiescence. "I won't ever leave."
"Damn right you won't," Peter agreed, but there were tears mixed with the relief in his tone. At long last he let go of Ray on the side near Egon and as he hugged Spengler with the freed arm he felt Ray also move so that suddenly they were an equilateral three-way embrace. Peter's eyes misted over, making him blink sharply against the happiness that stung them. The weight of Egon's arm around his shoulders, the heat of Ray's side pressed against his, and the final, complete easing of the constriction around his own chest were feelings he wanted to indulge in for a very long time. In that haze of repaired and healing breaches they stood for a while, feeling no urge at all to leave the security of their mutual embrace. He felt as if he could stand there with his arms around his friends and theirs warming him, basking in the glow of their closeness for the rest of his life and not want anything else.
The alarm rang sharply, startling them out of the increasingly comfortable mood. Upstairs, Winston's voice could be heard calling, "We got a hot call and we need the grocery money! Where the heck are you guys?!"
Peter let go of Ray and dragged his sleeve across his eyes, grinning tentatively. It felt pretty good. Damn, it really did. Disengaging his other arm from Egon's waist, he balled his fists on his hips. "Well, what are we waiting for?" he inquired archly. "An engraved invitation?"
Ray scrubbed at his own face, and essayed a nonchalant air. "Aren't we worth that?"
The deep rumble as Egon cleared his throat was halfway between a chuckle and a groan. "At the very least, our egos are." He slipped backward away from them, edging toward the stairs. "Quite certainly Peter's is."
"Sez you," Venkman sniffed disdainfully. He also began sidling toward the steps, a calculating look on his face every bit as obvious in its intent as the overtly innocent look Spengler had adopted. There might just be time....
Before he opened his mouth, both Ray and Egon called at the same time, "Shotgun!"
"No! It's my turn!"
"You had it the whole trip home!" Ray protested, and abruptly they were elbowing each other aside in friendly competition and laughing with sheer joy as they raced for the top of the stairs.