What Are Friends For?

Peter watched as his friends and cohorts preceded him into the not-quite deserted mansion. They had come out to the New York countryside to this reputable mansion -- reputed to be haunted by a variety of supernatural beings -- to conduct some tests. The Dan family, long since moved to sunny Southern California, had no qualms with the ghostly residents as they kept burglars and vandals away. Since the closest neighbors were half a mile away, and therefore never disturbed by the supernatural goings-on, the Ghostbusters had never been called for a busting job. Instead the home's owners, the home's residents, and the Ghostbusters had reached an agreement -- no busting, but for a small fee (negotiated by Peter, down from the exorbitant fee to which Ray had been about to agree) the Ghostbusters could use the place to test any equipment which did not actually harm ghosts. A very useful arrangement and so far it had worked well. They had tested repaired PKE meters as well as devised a programmable PKE meter -- now they could adjust their meters to ignore or focus on any readings they wished, without ever picking up a screwdriver. There was even a 'speed dial' feature to select the reading of each Ghostbuster, Janine, and Slimer.

Today Egon and Winston were lugging in the newest version of a prototype psycho-origination emissions meter -- a POE meter. Winston was carrying a fifteen-pound metal box, containing a small generator, processor, and various other circuit boards. Egon held the meter itself, attached by retractable cable to the larger box. (Ray promised to have the meter resized for a single handheld unit before they started carrying them in the field.) Egon had his head bent over the readout as he walked, giving the appearance of someone about to head smack into a wall.

Ray was carrying only his usual proton pack and PKE meter, and had already begun sweeping the porch and entryway. His readings would be used to verify whatever readings Egon received. Peter still wasn't certain what those readings were supposed to be, despite his claims that he didn't understand every time Egon had explained it. Egon and Ray were supposed to be refining the meters to not only distinguish between classes of ghosts and other supernatural entities, but what they were calling 'types'. Egon called them ectoplasmic isotopes, determined, according to their theory, by the entities' point of origin.

Egon believed that there was a spectral residue in the ectoplasm which could be detected, typed, and analysed. In other words, (Ray's), an entity originating from the Netherworld would bring along detectable amounts of the Netherworld. Ghosts of deceased humans would have residue from their physical body and/or gravesites, and so on. Ray and Egon were testing this theory with their POE meter but so far were not having much luck getting reliable readings. Peter wasn't wholly convinced his friends weren't just getting readings of background noise or sunspots or the magnetic pull of Saturn. He believed that Egon and Ray had a sound theory -- they rarely managed to get an unsound theory out of the lab more than twice and today was their fourth field-test for the POE meter. So far the tests had been inconclusive. Ray and Egon were trying to adjust the prototype so they could get better readings and therefore prove their theory of origination.

Taken together, the tests had yielded readings with more than a 31% accuracy rate. The first test had merely given them what Egon termed "woeful incoherency" and the second two had only intermittently distinguished among sixteen of the theorised seventy types of supernatural beings. They knew, from pre-experimental interviews, where the various ghosts in the mansion were from, but so far they could not verify those claims. Egon and Ray had been hard at work for the last several weeks, ensconced in the labs during practically all of their free time. Ray had only emerged for his daily dose of morning cartoons and Egon only when prodded. Winston and Peter had taken the time to use Winston's season basketball tickets without telling anyone where they were going or when they'd be back or how many hot dogs they'd eat while gone. In fact, there was a game tonight and Peter was hoping the tests wouldn't run too long.

With the sigh of a greatly put-upon soul, Peter followed his colleagues into the mansion. With Winston to help tote and carry and Ray making the secondary readings, there was little for Peter to do except stand-by in case of trouble. He wore his proton pack and carried a couple of empty traps, but didn't expect to use them. As he came into the first room he saw Egon and Winston setting up for the first test. They had mapped out the residence and were going to proceed room by room, cataloguing the ghosts.

"We will begin in the drawing room," Egon's voice interrupted Peter's musings, as if they all didn't already know the plan. "Winston, keep an eye on the digital readout and let me know if the phototronic display fluctuates--"

"More than three points. Got it, my man." Winston grinned.

Egon didn't look up, eyes still focused on the readout screen. "It is very important that we do not record any readings when the fluctuation is greater than three point one as the data will--"

"Be unreliable," Peter interrupted smoothly, laying a hand on his friend's shoulder. "We know, Egon. And not just because you've reminded us twenty one times. We were all here for the last four tests, remember?"

At this Egon did look up, giving Peter a look of impatience. "You are exaggerating. I have not repeated myself twenty one times."

"Well, no," Peter agreed easily. Then he grinned. "You've repeated yourself twenty times."

Behind them Ray and Winston stifled their laughs. Egon only acknowledged the truth of Peter's statement by his silence and the lightening of his expression. "Be that as it may, these tests today are very important. I believe we have finally corrected for the failure to distinguish between the roaming type A 'interdimensional' and the roaming type B 'parallel universe'. As there are several ghosts of each type in this mansion, we should finally get accurate readings for these types of class 2 and 3 entities."

"Okay, Egon, okay. You go play with your toys and Uncle Peter will keep watch." Peter clapped him indulgently on the back, and looked around for a dust-free place to sit. The chair he'd brushed off three days ago was covered again -- he suspected that two ghosts in particular were responsible. They had apparently chosen Peter as their target, ingeniously playing pranks that no one else seemed to notice, whenever the Ghostbusters visited. Their jokes were a harmless sort of mean fun and he knew exactly what to do about them if they got out of control. He settled his proton pack on the floor and sat down, throwing a cloud of dust into the air. He held his breath until it dissipated and pretended he didn't care. Overhead, he heard the disappointed mutterings. He smiled and watched his friends begin their tests.

"Ok, Egon, I've made a full sweep of the mansion," Ray walked over to stand beside Egon. "I'm registering the same seven class 2s and fourteen class 3s that are usually here. You can start whenever you're ready."

"Mm... all right, Winston, turn on the meter." Egon was once again hunched over the display.

"Here it goes!" Winston flipped a switch with a flourish. The equipment began to hum softly.

"Very good, it seems to be..." Egon trailed off, frowning at the screen.

"What's wrong, Egon?" Ray bounced over, looking at the screen Egon held in both hands. "What's that?"

"It appears to be a malfunction," Spengler answered tightly. "It would seem that our theory is going to remain unproven -- I could have sworn we had the adjustments correct, taking into account the variant field radiation--"

"Whoa, Spengs, back up. What's wrong with the toy this time?" Peter walked over, hefting his pack by one strap over his shoulder.

Egon gave him a short glare at the 'toy' remark then proceeded to explain. "The POE is not registering the class 2s and 3s which we know to be inhabiting this mansion. Instead I am only reading one class 8--"

"WHAT?!?" Winston and Peter exclaimed at once, Winston making a grab for the thrower he wasn't wearing. Peter grabbed the display in Egon's hands and pulled it towards him, forgetting he wouldn't make sense of the readings.

"Relax, gentlemen. There is no class 8 -- I would surmise the POE has merely combined the readings for each individual ghost into one reading." Egon took the display out of Peter's hands then proceeded to ignore it. The disappointment on his and Ray's faces was obvious to their friends. Spengler moved to switch off the meter. "I suggest we pack up our gear and go home."

"Hold on, Egon." Ray put a hand on the other scientist's arm, preventing him from reaching the power switch. "Why don't we try making a few adjustments, first? Our theories can't be that off. Just because we haven't proved them yet, doesn't mean we've disproved them either."

"Yeah, man, we've got the whole afternoon free." Winston added. "Why not spend it hanging out here? If you can get the meter working, think of how much time it'll save us trying to figure out what we're up against when we go out on busts."

In the face of his companions' encouragement, Egon let himself be swayed. "That is why Ray and I began this project in the first place. We have noticed over the years that entities from the Nether Regions tend to be more vicious than those originating from this plane of existence. The PKE meter only measures potential energy which is not always useful in identifying the exact type of entity we've encountered. If I'm right, this new meter will be able to do so and allow us to better prepare ourselves for a bust."

No one reminded Egon that they all knew this already; they knew the man was persuading himself to continue. When the 'scientist at work' gleam reappeared in Egon's eyes, Peter and Winston exchanged a grin. "Just remember we're leaving at four, guys," Peter said as Ray began opening the back of the meter.

"Why? What happens at four?" Ray looked up, even as he handed the screwdriver back to Winston.

"We go let Pete lose another twenty bucks, that's what," Winston answered with a smirk, referring to the betting the two friends indulged in for each game.

Peter decided not to dignify the claim with a response, and left them to their experiments. He'd have liked to take a nap, but knew that he'd be at the mercy of the jokester ghosts. He'd already explored every nook and cranny of the mansion on previous visits and there was nothing worth revisiting. He returned to his still dusty chair and sat down, one leg draped over the top of the proton pack and arms crossed casually on his chest. Settled in, he watched his friends. They were more entertaining than a mansion full of ghosts, any day.

"Egon, why don't we adjust this series? Maybe we're still getting too much psycho-kinetic energy bleeding into the readings."

"It's possible," the other scientist peered over Ray's shoulder, transferring Stanz' mechanical suggestions into the theoretical to determine what effect it should have. "Although it's possible that is our problem." Suddenly Egon's eyes lit up as he was gripped by a new idea. Ray and the others watched intently; Peter in particular enjoyed seeing Egon get another of his brilliant ideas. The normally staid man would become almost exuberant in anticipation of fully understanding whatever premises he'd realized. He listened with a half-formed grin as Egon explained his revisions. Peter let the technical babble roll off of him until he heard the other man mention something important.

"Although I don't know if the equipment we have with us can be modified to that level of sensitivity. We may need the finer platinum wiring back in our labs to construct the--"

"OK, Egon, OK." Peter held up his hands, ignoring the consequences Egon's intention to use the exceedingly expensive platinum wiring. "What you're saying is, we head back to Ghostbuster Central, and let you two bury yourselves in the lab again."

"Essentially."

"Great. We won't miss the game after all." Peter and Winston exchanged grateful high-fives, then helped get the equipment back to the car.


~~~~~

On the drive back to Ghostbuster headquarters, Ray and Egon began dismantling the meter, discussing the various changes they needed to make. As they talked, they reworked their theory, tossing back and forth multisyllabic phrases like a baseball. Or, Peter surmised, to keep with the season, like a basketball. He turned to Winston, asking carefully, "So... how 'bout them Mercury?" He referred to the women's pro basketball team from Phoenix they had seen play the previous week.

Winston grinned, then glanced over from the driver's seat. "Shouldn't it be 'the Mercury'?"

"I don't know... can you pluralise Mercury?" Glancing into the back, Peter asked the two preoccupied scientists, "Hey guys, what's the plural of 'mercury'?"

Absently, Egon responded, "Mercury is a substance; there is no plural." After a moment, when Peter had already turned back around, he added, "Winston is correct. 'How 'bout the Mercury?' is the correct phrase."

Peter spun around in time to see a familiar grin vanish. Ray and Winston both chuckled, and Peter decided that it was time he started keeping an eye on his friend -- a prank war looked to be shaping up in the near future. It was about time, too, because he'd been waiting for a chance to try out an idea he'd stolen from the two ghosts back at the mansion. But he disliked firing the first salvo in their prank wars, because it always seemed to give the other man the psychological advantage. As the psychologist of the group, it really irked Peter to be psyched-out. He spent the rest of the ride home discussing the finer points of basketball with Winston while keeping half an ear on his other two friends.

~~~~~

Four days later Peter was lying on the couch, flipping through last month's APA Journal. The TV was keeping Slimer amused, and Peter had to keep forcing himself not to be distracted. The old black and white sitcom was nothing that interested him, but he was still somehow drawn to looking up at the screen. It was a psychological phenomenon worth studying, he mused, as he wrenched his attention back to his journal one more time. Might even be a grant in it...

"This is great!"

The sound of Ray's excited voice interrupted Peter this time; this distraction he didn't mind.

"We still have to test it, Ray." Egon's voice followed Ray's as they came downstairs. "There is no guarantee that we--"

"Let's try it now, Egon! We can test it on Slimer. At least we'll know if it can pick up the POE readings among the PKE ones."

Peter watched as his friends came into the room, Egon holding a much smaller version of the original POE meter. Peter stayed where he was, waiting to see if the meter would work and whether he'd get to offer congratulations or consolations and more encouragement. Slimer continued watching the TV, but Peter could tell he was listening to the other Ghostbusters discuss him.

"All right." Egon agreed. "It should work, of course, and I would like to schedule another test run out at the Dan's mansion. I've checked everything and there's no reason--"

"Egon, just turn it on!" Ray was bouncing eagerly on the balls of his feet at Egon's side. Peter grinned at him, knowing Ray would never think to take the meter out of Egon's hands and turn it on, himself. Ray did hold up the PKE meter he had with him, and switched it on for comparison readings. "Just Slimer and Peter, usual levels of PKE. Turn it on, Egon."

Egon gave the other man a patient glare, then held up the meter. He switched it on, aiming it at Slimer. The wands at either side came up, flashing a blue light. The two scientists peered intently at the readout for a moment, then looked at each other, looked down at the POE meter, up at Peter, then at the meter again.

With a shrug, Ray said, "Well, it sorta works."

"What's wrong with it this time, guys?" Peter asked, curious to know why an apparent failure didn't elicit a more frustrated response.

"It is registering Slimer as an isotope 39 -- free floating, harmless, with a complex origin of the nether regions and this world, which is to be expected from his longtime residence here." Egon answered matter-of-factly, increasing Peter's curiousity.

"So what's wrong?"

Egon gave him a flat look. "It says you're a demon."

Peter sat up straight, dumping his journal on the floor. "I'm a what?"

"Your PKE readings are normal, but the POE readings indicate that you are a demon." Egon looked back down at the meter, and elaborated, "A type 16, originating from the deeper levels of the Netherworld -- although not, I would venture, from the same region as Tolay." He said it all with a straight face, then asked, "Is there something you'd like to tell us, Peter?"

"You've got to be kidding." Peter got off the couch and headed for the offending meter. He gave Egon a smirk and said in his best con-man's persuading tone. "You know if I were a demon I'd tell you guys." Standing in front of Egon, he peered over the top of the meter, reading the screen upside-down. "Do you think the City of New York has a demonic licensing board? I should probably register."

"If anyone does, it'd be New York." Ray agreed, then turned back to Egon. "So, what do you think is wrong with it?"

Egon stared at the meter for several moments, fiddling with knobs, making 'mm' noises and frowning slightly. Peter noticed he didn't seem to be distressed by the meter's inability to make accurate readings. He suspected that simply having figured out why the meter hadn't worked before, and figuring out how to revamp the meter so it should work, had been enough to restore Spengler's patience with the experimental process. Finally the mm'ing stopped and Egon nodded. "I believe the problem lies with the automated circuitry. The meter did read Slimer perfectly -- we will of course have to test the meter with other supernatural entities, but there is every reason to believe it will perform as intended. Something must have gone wrong with the 'speed dial' function."

Ray spoke up before Peter could voice any confusion. "We went ahead and included the 'ignore/focus' features of the PKE meter so we could program in or out our own readings. Must be a short or something in the wiring. Let's take it apart and see if we can fix it."

Peter watched as the two made their way back upstairs to the lab. Once they disappeared from view and the sound of their voices faded, Peter sighed, then glared over at the small green ghost hovering in front of the TV pretending not to listen. "OK, spud, you can laugh now."

Slimer turned towards him, eyes huge. "Slimer laugh? Not laugh at big, powerful demon, no, no, no!" Slimer sped away -- towards the kitchen. Peter grinned as he heard Slimer, from the safety of the other room, begin to laugh.

~~~~~

The guys teased Peter for the next several days. At first he took it with good humor, laughing at their jokes and making some of his own. After a while he began treating the teasing as just another long-running joke -- amusing, but usually not worth acknowledging. He hoped they'd get the hint and stop, but didn't really expect them to. How many times could "hey Peter, wanna zap this bill collector?" be funny?

The POE meter had been tested at the mansion and on all their busts since, and seemed to work correctly -- even registering Peter as a normal human, once again. (Egon drolly professed great disappointment, saying he'd been hoping to run some tests on Peter as the only available domesticated demon.) As they collected data on the various types of ghosts, Egon and Ray began creating a new catalogue; Janine refused to do the data entry, so Winston and Peter were drafted. Winston claimed that in one week his typing words-per-minute went from 15 to 35. Peter wondered if CTS was covered under their medical insurance. But otherwise neither man complained -- the new meter had twice identified spectres that appeared harmless but were hiding a malicious nature. Class 4 wraiths disguised as simple lost spirits had in the past caused great damage before being trapped. On the two busts Egon had positively identified the danger and the Ghostbusters had been able to trap the ghost with a minimum of wreckage.

~~~~~

Peter was surreptitiously rewriting the invoice to include a surcharge for use of the POE meter when the alarm rang. He came around the divider and found Janine at her desk. "What's up, Janine?"

She gave him a concerned look. "Sounds serious, Dr. Venkman. Might be a class seven or eight from the sound of it."

"Oh yeah?" Their secretary had become pretty good at classifying ghosts from their clients' descriptions and Peter didn't ever scoff... well, not seriously, at her. "What's it doing?"

"Eating a house."

"Oh. Oh, Egon! Bring your POE meter!" Grabbing the workslip from Janine, he headed for Ecto-I. He slid in beside Ray, and read out the address. Ray flipped the siren on as they left the firehouse, exclaiming eagerly as he listened to Peter's relayed description of the ghost, "This sounds great! I wonder if it's a two-plasmic dimensional projection? We haven't had one of those in months!"

Winston leaned forward and said to Peter, in a low voice, "We got to do something about that boy."

"You're telling me?" Peter was glad to see Ray's grin in response. Stanz never got upset at their remarks about his enthusiasm, and sometimes he became more excited about a job when they teased him. Sometimes Peter wished he could feel that way about the work they did; even when afterwards they were basking in a successful bust and another world saved, he never seemed to feel what he saw in his friend's face. It wasn't just excitement, adrenaline pumping for the fight and it wasn't just the prospect of saving a life, somebody's home or business, or even the world. Ray acted the same when they faced class 1 ghosts as when they faced the highest, most dangerous elementals. Peter could only describe it as a deeply rooted sense of happiness. Ray enjoyed his job because he enjoyed his life; it was a mindset that bemused and sometimes confounded Peter.

At least Winston and Egon would occasionally behave in ways that Peter could relate to -- Winston moreso than Egon, with his fatalistic acceptance of the things life threw his way. Peter understood the realization that there were some things you couldn't change, and yet sometimes things you simply had to do in spite of it. Facing your own death to save strangers was very often the only available choice. Peter admitted readily (but not loudly) that he didn't always understand why Egon would accept that choice. As a scientist born to explore and demand rational explanation of the world, Egon should have been content to stay at his labs, testing theories and running experiments and never setting foot into the larger world to see those theories in action. Peter thought maybe his friend felt it wasn't enough -- and he was right, too often they had been saved by Spengler's quick thinking and action in the middle of a bust.

Other times Peter would wonder what else drove him, what made him not question the actions they found themselves taking. When Ray would ask why something had gone so wrong that it needed to be destroyed, and Winston would shrug and say the being they'd busted had made its own choice towards evil, Egon would simply look on, and do everything possible to ensure their efforts succeeded. Once, Peter wondered if it was simply an experiment spun out of control, and that Egon had never intended to view it as more than an extended experiment, going out into the world because that was where the ghosts were, studying and busting them because that was how he learned more about them. All liberally dusted with, it nearly went without saying, the need to see his friends remain safe. But that was a motivation for them all, and it really needn't be considered during the late night internal dialogues that most often led to these sorts of musings.

These sorts of musings were more fun than watching a class 7 monster destroy a house. They'd pulled up to a stop; Peter realized he hadn't even noticed the drive. Clambering out, he and Egon held up their PKE and POE meters. Peter's verified the class 7, and Egon simply shook his head to indicate the POE readings were unhelpful, the creature was the first of its kind to be typed. They drew their throwers, and advanced cautiously.

The monster was almost as large as the house it was eating, vaguely bipedal with flippers for feet, blue and green slime for skin, and a wild shock of yellow tufts on the top of its head. It was sitting beside the house, pulling off large chunks and shoving them into its mouth. The two-story building was nearly half gone; the family was standing across the street, in the arms of neighbors. Winston tapped at the traps hanging from his belt, making sure they were ready. Egon and Ray took up positions to one side; Winston and Peter went to the other.

"Didn't I see this thing in a Beatles' movie?" Peter asked as they made their way forward, thinking of the psychedelic animation of "Yellow Submarine". So far the monster had paid them no attention. Hopefully that was about to change.

"Set your throwers to mid-dispersment, three-quarters power." Egon called out as they got into position. Once everyone was in place, he cried, "Fire!"

Four beams flew out, crackling and lighting up the entire neighborhood. The creature let out a tremendous howl, and turned towards the four Ghostbusters. Peter saw that, while annoyed, the thing was not appreciably slowed down. One fist came flying, and Winston ducked barely in time. His beam shut off as soon as his hand left the thrower and the three remaining beams served only to enrage the beast further.

"You all right, Winston?" Peter called out, even as Winston was climbing back to his feet.

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!"

Peter grinned. "I'm with you, Zeddmore! Let's blast him into the next region of space."

"Full power," came Egon's command. As the stronger beams shot out, the creature glared and howled, then reached out to swing again.

"Narrow the streams!" Egon called over the beast's howling. As they adjusted their beams, the effect was noticeable -- the creature drew back his fist, howling even louder. It appeared as if it were being held, and Peter saw Winston readjust his grip on the thrower, to grab the trap at his waist without turning off his stream. Then, with a ferocious cry, the monster stood, shaking off the effect of the proton packs as if they were water guns. It took a single step, crashing down on a corner of the house; plaster and broken studs went flying. Behind them the crowd began screaming, and, Peter hoped, fleeing. He saw Ray ducking out of the way of falling debris; as his proton stream shut off the others shut theirs off to regroup and re-plan. The monster seemed pleased by this turn of events and stood still, making a noise somewhat like a bellow of triumph and an aching chortle.

Peter had an eerie feeling that the bust was only going to get worse.

"Any ideas, Egon?" Winston called out once the debris had settled. The monster was obviously waiting for the Ghostbuster's next move. At least it had ceased eating the house, Peter noted. That had to count for something when he made out the bill for services. He eased over towards Egon, to hear his plan.

"Unfortunately, no," came the normally reassuring voice.

"No? You're kidding, right?" Peter couldn't believe it. "It's just a big, thick skinned, nasty looking, Blue Meanie. We can blast it, can't we?" He noticed the narrowing of the creature's eyes and hoped no one thought to accuse him of antagonizing the beast.

"I'm not certain what's wrong, but the more we concentrate our streams, the less effect we have. But a wider dispersal would destroy more of the surrounding houses than it would of the creature itself. I've never seen anything like it..."

"Do we cross the streams?" Winston asked doubtfully.

"No, that would take out the whole neighborhood and we won't be able to hold it here while the people were evacuated." Ray answered, keeping his voice low enough that it wouldn't carry. The police had held back the residents behind their black and whites and hastily-erected barricades, but the streets and sidewalks were still filled with people, even though a quarter block away.

"We have to do something," Peter knew the creature wouldn't stand still for long. He aimed his thrower at the creature, to remind it of the threat. The intended threat, anyway.

"The trap should hold it, if we can get one close enough. But if we can't weaken or distract it to get the trap in..." Egon began.

"One of us will have to risk it." Ray finished. He opened his mouth to volunteer, but Winston held up the trap.

"My turn, fellas."

Peter saw the arguments in his friends' eyes, but they all knew they had no time to say anything. He wished there was something he could do, some way the creature could be stopped without sending Winston in to face it. He thought furiously, considering and rejecting one idea after another even as they began to take their new positions. Winston was walking slightly ahead of him, trap out and held ready. The others fanned out to either side of him, holding their throwers up to -- at least -- distract the thing while Winston went in.

They didn't get far before the creature decided to act. It raised both of its hands, screaming in a voice that shook the nearby windows and rattled the Ghostbusters' bones. In a flash, Peter knew that this plan would not work. They would be smashed without a second thought because the creature was unaffected by their streams and, based on a similar technology, the trap would not capture it either. He barely had time to consider before the two monstrous hands came swinging down. Seeing the images of his friends, bloody smears for the split second before their proton packs exploded (leaving a large glowing hole where the surrounding neighborhoods had been), he knew. He couldn't let it happen.

With no time to think of an alternative choice, he held up a hand and felt the power running through his fingers. Power he had bent back towards himself for decades, he let out. Aimed at the creature (a Delvoun, he knew, one whose being was such that particle accelerators would have no effect but that something more traditional would) the power flew out, striking the creature at ten points of vulnerable contact. The attack was invisible, but the results were not.

The Delvoun stopped in mid-swing, frozen in place for a brief moment. Then it crumbled. As if squished by hands greater than its own, the Delvoun collapsed without even a chance to howl in outrage or frustration until with a final <pop> it disappeared. Peter let his hand fall, the throbbing in his hands telling him how long, indeed, it had been since last he had let the power loose. He stared at the spot where the creature had been, wondering why it had come here, now, and why it was that he had been forced to do the one thing he had wished to never do - betray himself to his friends. He waited before turning to look, not wanting to see what he knew he would see.

"What happened?" Ray's stunned voice filtered through the silence. With a sudden flash of inspiration, Peter decided that if they didn't know, neither would he. He turned, schooling a look of disbelief on his face to match Ray's. He stopped when he saw Egon staring at him... the POE meter aimed directly at him.

"Egon?" Maybe Peter was simply standing in between Egon and where the creature had been; maybe Egon was staring like that because of unusual readings when the creature disappeared.

Egon was looking at him with an expression of horror; Winston and Ray went to see what the problem was. Before either could look at the meter he held, Egon said, "It is a demon. Class 8." His voice was devoid of emotion, and then he spoke with a tight outrage Peter had only heard when one of his friends was in danger. "What have you done with Peter?"

Peter heard the repeating words of hopeless optimism in his head and realized... of course that was the problem. With the POE meter aimed at the Delvoun and Peter standing in between it and Egon when he sent the creature away, of course Egon would be looking at him like he'd suddenly transformed into a demon. The power he'd used to deal with the Delvoun had previously been used to hold up his shields. A slight glance towards the people gathered to watch reminded him of potential complications, so he threw up a wall of illusion. With no current need to shield his identity from the Ghostbuster instruments, he could use the power for other things. Those down the street would see only the four Ghostbusters wrapping up from a difficult bust -- he swiped the images of past clean-ups to create a realistic scene.

He wished it were real.

"What?" Winston and Ray both exclaimed; Ray checked the meter then his head whipped up towards Peter, thrower held ready in front of him. Winston followed suit; Peter held his hands up in surrender.

"Easy... don't shoot those things at me, guys, please!"

"Where is Peter?" Egon demanded, advancing a few steps, the other Ghostbusters pacing him.

Peter didn't know exactly what to say. He'd dreaded this moment from the time he'd met his current friends but for all his efforts he'd never figured out the best -- or even a halfway decent -- way to do this. He tried to look non-threatening as he tried to figure out a way to explain, a way they would believe. He shook his head slowly, not certain if it would work. He took a deep breath. "Guys... I know you're not gonna want to believe this. I mean, I wouldn't, in your shoes. I know what it looks like -- but I haven't taken Peter's place. I am Peter, I always have been." This was met by expressions of disbelief. Peter kept talking, as quickly but as sincerely as he could. "I have been Peter Venkman for over thirty years... my last life was over and I wanted to start again so I did. I'm not going to do anything, I swear, I'm not like those other demons we've met on the job. I don't wanna destroy the world, or take it over, or destroy you."

Egon was glaring at him, still wholly unconvinced. "What do you want?" It was the tone he used with strangers with whom he was displeased. Peter knew he was still negotiating, hoping for the chance to rescue a trapped friend.

Peter knew there was no way to convince the man if he did not want to be convinced. He dropped his hands, and answered quietly. "All I want is for you guys to be safe."

Winston and Ray looked startled; Egon remained unmoved. Ray asked the inevitable, "Why?"

He looked up at them, answering calmly, "Because you're my friends. I don't have so many friends, I can't afford to see any die."

"We weren't your friends your whole life... what about before then? What'd you want with being Pete Venkman then?" Winston was giving him a skeptical look, but it seemed more open than Egon's.

"I wanted to be here. I don't like the Netherworld; I don't like other demons. Earth is more fun... I just..." his voice dropped, and Peter admitted, "I don't really have anywhere else to go."

"You got bored so you decided to play human?"

Egon's sarcasm cut at Peter, but he answered. "No. I wasn't bored. I... demons are evil, and I wasn't in to that. I wanted to enjoy what was already here, not destroy it or remake it or rule it. I... like being human."

"I can imagine." Egon was still facing him down. "Masquerading as a human, but using your powers to get whatever you want, sounds great. If I believed it."

Peter met his gaze squarely, an uncomfortable stirring inside. He ignored it, forcing instead harsh words and a hard tone. "What don't you believe, Spengler? Don't you like being human?"

Egon's eyes narrowed. "If you have always been a demon, why haven't you registered on our PKE meters before?"

"Ever since you started building the first one, I shielded myself. It took nearly all of my power, too. Just to hide what I am so I could keep on being your friend."

"Nearly? What'd you do with the rest?"

"Kept you from being killed."

"What?" Winston interrupted the interrogation. "How? We've been nearly killed lots of times. If you have the ability to get rid of that thing," he waved to where the Delvoun had been, "you coulda done a lot better than 'nearly killed'."

"Yeah, I could have, if I'd dropped my shield. But then you'd have known what I was and every demon with a grudge against me would have found us. As it was I had enough power left over to do things like softening some bricks before you hit them. Or move the Ecto-II so it would be in position to catch Egon when he fell off a roof. Or trip Ray up before he got hit full-on by another demon."

Winston's face changed to amazement. "You did all that?" Peter just nodded. After a moment, Winston smiled. "Thanks, man."

"Don't be fooled by a bunch of words, Winston. Anyone could say they'd made those things happen. It doesn't make it true. I find it highly skeptical that one of the Ghostbusters should turn out to be a demon -- one of the very type we've been attempting to rid the world of -- and have it be nothing more than coincidence. I find it much more likely to be yet another demonic plot to destroy us."

"I never said it was coincidence, Egon." Peter spoke sadly, committed to the truth but knowing it might not be enough. "I knew you guys would... or could, at least, become the Ghostbusters. I could see that much. I also saw you guys being the best chance I had at having real friends. I couldn't pass that up." He grinned briefly. "I'll admit seeing Tolay's face when we busted him was a definite plus."

"That I would believe. Getting rid of the competition, as it were. It hardly proves you're telling us the truth."

Ray and Winston stayed silent, watching the argument without any sign of what either believed. Peter turned back to Spengler. "Fine, Egon. What do you want?"

"I want my friend back."

The words cut through Peter, to hear that his friend loved him so much and couldn't believe. "I am your friend, Egon." At times like this he wished he could feel the emotions the way humans did. If he could, he'd be crying, showing his pain, and for humans that seemed to help make it go away. He held out his hands in appeal. "Egon, I am Peter. Tell me how to convince you."

"I don't believe you."

Peter was at a loss. He stared at Egon, unable to think of a way to prove his words, and knowing that he had, in saving his friends' lives, lost them forever. He closed his eyes and began to turn away.

"Egon," Ray's gentle voice stopped him. "How do you know he's not telling the truth?"

"Because it is a demon and demons are not known for being honest. Would you believe Tolay if it looked like me and said it was me?"

"Well, no," Ray admitted, and Peter waited for the words to convince him. "But this isn't Tolay. You said yourself, when the POE meter registered him as a demon back at the firehouse, that he wasn't from the same region."

"That doesn't make him one of the good guys."

"What if he is, though?" Winston joined Ray's argument. "What if he's--"

"I can't believe you two!" Egon stared at them both. "This demon has kidnapped Peter -- at least a month ago, maybe longer -- we don't know where he is or what's being done to him, and you want to take the word of this demon that he is Peter?"

At this Ray and Winston looked doubtful, turning to Peter. He could tell they were thinking of unnamed horrors a real kidnapper demon might be putting him through, had Peter been a human like his friends thought. He realized he couldn't blame Egon for his refusal to believe. The chance that it was a lie, that Peter Venkman was somewhere in trouble, was enough that Egon would never listen. His friend cared too much to let Peter suffer such a fate... and as a result, Peter was suffering one much worse. He'd have to watch his friends turn on him; then, as they searched for and never found the "real" Peter Venkman, they would grieve for his death. Losing his friends was a worse sort of torture than any a demon could devise.

It occurred to him he could save this by fabricating such a kidnapping and let himself be rescued. But now that he had dropped his shields and used an extent of his power as needed to banish the Delvoun, other demons would know he was here and come for him. He'd made many enemies in his time before leaving the Nether Regions, mostly for his unwillingness to play along but recently he'd made more for his role in busting them and their minions. If he spent the required power to set up a convincing kidnapping, he'd be left unable to defend himself from other demons which would, without a doubt, take advantage of the distraction to get rid of him. Their attacks on him would no doubt spill over onto the other Ghostbusters. He couldn't risk setting up a fantasy to reclaim his place as their "human" friend. Miserably, he faced the three friends.

"So... what do you want me to do?" He hoped Egon would pull something out of his mental hat, a question he could answer that would prove his words.

"If you won't answer us, then we'll just look for Peter ourselves." Egon's face was set, determined to defeat this -- to his eyes -- monstrous creature who threatened his best friend. Egon pulled his thrower from the pack he wore, and leveled it at Peter. The others hesitantly followed suit; Winston still holding the trap he'd carried towards the Delvoun.

Peter raised his hands. "Wait." For a brief second Egon's eyes lit with triumph and Peter saw the searing of self-recrimination in Winston's and Ray's. He realized he had almost convinced those two. "You don't need the streams." When -- if -- they ever learned the truth, he didn't want them faced with the knowledge that they had captured him. Looking down at his own belt, he saw a trap hanging there. Unhooking it, he tried not to let his hands shake. He tossed it on the ground, drawing a shocked gasp from Ray. As he shucked his proton pack, he looked each of his friends in the eye, tried to let them know... what? That he didn't blame them for his mistakes? Not to worry about him, real or human? He wasn't sure. Maybe it was just to say good-bye. None of them spoke as Peter raised his foot and stepped on the trap's release.

He took two steps forward, into the pull of the trap. The last thing he saw of the human's world was Egon Spengler, staring at him, expression for once unreadable. Then his world was nothing.

~~~~~

Peter had never asked Slimer for a description of the interior of the traps they used. Now he was rather glad; anticipating this would have made his choice harder. He knew he would not have avoided this choice, once finding himself needing to make the decision, but knowing what he was sending himself into would have... it was better he hadn't known.

The ghosttrap folded its contents in on themselves, but for a non-physical creature this was no great distress. After a moment to readjust, it felt no different than an empty plain in the Netherworld. It was the "empty" that made it so hard. He was all alone, in a realm which was, from a certain point of view, infinite. There were no walls, no borders, but neither was there any landscape or anything at all, besides himself. Once he was sent into the containment unit that would change -- he would be at the mercy of thousands of creatures who had every reason to hate him. When he'd stepped on the trap's release he hadn't realized that he was handing himself over to be destroyed; he'd thought no farther than being out of the way, someplace where his friends would know themselves safe from him. He wrapped his arms around his body and faced, for the first time, his death.

When he'd been living on Earth as a human he hadn't worried about death. Demons existed or they didn't, and when it came time for his life as a human to end, he'd create a corpse and go start over. He'd "lived" eight times this way since leaving his home realm. Eight lifetimes of watching humans fall to age and injury, knowing he would simply start again, had not prepared him for the realization that now he too would die. There wasn't even a chance for an afterlife: no ghostly demons wandering the realms looking for a graveyard to rest in, no heaven, and certainly no new hells. Peter sat, staring out at the featureless world. He would be destroyed and never have the chance to redeem himself in his friends' eyes. In one fell swoop his world had been demolished, so perhaps it was fitting that he himself be destroyed, too.

He found himself shaking, closed his eyes against seeing the trap open, seeing the creatures waiting to greet their newest arrival, seeing them turn on him and tear him apart. The less powerful ghosts would not be able to hurt him, even with their huge numbers. But there were demons and creatures as powerful as he, and more, in the unit. Without his equipment, without his friends, he had no chance. It wasn't something he could face. "E--"

He'd turned blindly, not thinking, calling out for the friend who was always there to support him. The one who had made it necessary to do this now. Something inside him shuddered, and he began moaning -- the closest he had ever known of real sorrow.

He wondered how long he'd have to wait.

~~~~~

"Egon..." Ray followed the other man down the stairs to the basement slowly, Winston following even more slowly on his heels. Ray'd stayed silent during the drive home, as Egon outlined his plan for locating and rescuing Peter. Ray couldn't help thinking that there was something not right about the demon who claimed to be Peter -- rather, something not wrong. When faced with demons who had destruction and evil in their plans, he'd always felt in his bones the hint of their malevolence. It still upset him to fight such creatures, for he didn't believe that anything was totally evil. Anyone could choose to be good -- and wasn't this demon, who claimed to have been Peter Venkman all Peter Venkman's life, exactly what Ray believed in? A demon, created for evil, who turned away from his own kind and lived the life of a good man?

Besides which, Peter was his friend and Ray couldn't bear to watch him be hurt. Even the facsimile of Peter was enough, the pain on his face cut Ray deeply, and the knowledge that he was now suffering and alone in the trap, waiting to be placed... Ray looked up in time to see Egon and Winston step up to the containment unit. "Egon, no!" He leapt forward, hands outstretched.

Egon stopped, and looked at him over the top of his glasses. "Ray, you're not going to--"

"Egon, listen to me! I won't try to convince you that demon is really Peter... but I can't say I believe he isn't. Of course I'll help you look for Peter, and I'll do everything I can to rescue him if he really has been kidnapped. But you have to admit there's a chance Peter was telling us the truth. If you put him in there and it really is Peter, he'll be killed! There are creatures in the containment unit who would be glad to get their hands on one of us. He'll be outnumbered, over-powered... and killed!" Winston looked shocked; it was obvious that hadn't occurred to him. He took his hand away from the levers he'd been preparing to pull.

"And if it isn't Peter, it could escape this trap at any moment. We have to keep it locked away." Egon argued.

Frustrated, Ray snapped, "Then why did he step into the trap in the first place?" At that Egon stopped, trying to think of an answer. Before he could respond, Ray continued. "Maybe he did it because he's our friend, and he didn't want us to take that responsibility. He wanted to spare us doing that to him."

"Ray..." Egon looked doubtful for the first time, but Ray could tell he was nowhere near being convinced.

"Look at it this way, Egon. If he put him in there, we may never know. At least keep him out here, where he'll be safe, until we find out for sure. Besides," he added with sudden inspiration, "maybe we'll need to ask him some questions about where to look."

"He's right, Egon," Winston spoke up. Ray thought he looked relieved to have an excuse not to go through with the containment. Winston had been as ready as he to believe in Peter, back at the site of the bust, but had capitulated to Egon's arguments. Ray suspected that Winston too often trusted Egon's brains more than his own more nebulous feelings. Ray had more experience in verifying his instincts with Egon's calculations, but the few times before they had come into conflict, he'd found he preferred to trust his feelings. Besides, he reflected, when he was really wrong Peter always... Ray turned his attention back to Winston, who was adding to his argument.

"The portable containment unit is strong enough to hold a class 8 demon for a few days. Let's put him in there, while we look for Pete. If we find him, we put the demon in the larger unit with the rest, and no great loss. But if we don't find him... we haven't done anything we can't undo."

Ray saw as Egon found himself swayed by the logic. When Egon finally nodded and moved away from the large containment unit, Ray smiled with relief. "Thanks, Egon."

Egon merely 'Hmmm'ed in response. He did not look very happy about the situation, but Ray knew it was mostly from worry. But he did take the trap over to the miniature containment unit in the far corner. Winston and Ray pulled it out and checked it over; they'd used it last over three months ago, and in spite of regular check-ups knew better than to trust it to work after long disuse. Who knew when moisture would rust a delicate wire, or a mouse would have chewed through a seal? It didn't take long to verify the unit was in good working order, and Ray gave Egon a solemn nod. He couldn't shake the feeling that he was doing something horrible -- but he knew, if it was Peter in there, he'd forgive his friends easily. He always did, even if he yelled a bit first.

Egon placed the trap and released the gates. Ray waited until the green light came on, before turning to him. "So... where do we start?"

"We should attempt to narrow down when and, if possible, where the substitution took place. We know the demon was here as early as one month ago -- the POE meter did work correctly the first time we tested it."

"Before that, Egon," Winston interrupted. "The prototype of the POE meter read him as well, remember?"

"That's right. The class 8 reading you thought was a conglomeration of the smaller readings."

"Mmm, still, that was only four days before the second reading. However, the POE never registered the demon previous to that test." Egon was considering the matter carefully, all doubts about the demon's identity apparently pushed away for now. "We were not involved in any major busts during that time. In fact, it hasn't been since we busted the Triumvirate over in Little Italy that we've faced anything over a class 6. Those three were class 7s..." He trailed off, thinking over the possibilities.

"You think maybe they were in league with a demon? And he's come to get his revenge?" Ray asked doubtfully.

"I'm not certain." Egon's frustration was obvious. "It could very well be something from much farther in our past, whose plans are only now coming to fruition. Perhaps we should use the PKE meters to try and track Peter down. When we find him, we can possibly discover the reason for his kidnapping."

"You got it, Egon. Come on, Ray, let's get the other meters."

"OK, Winston." Ray began to follow him up the stairs, then stopped and looked at Egon. Spengler was staring absently at the miniature containment unit, frowning and rubbing his chin. Ray wanted to say something, reassure his friend that they would find Peter and that everything would be OK. Something held him back, and he went upstairs.

A small green projectile met him.

"Slimer! Hey there, Slimer, how..." Ray was suddenly hit by inspiration. He called downstairs. "Egon! Come here, I have an idea!"

Egon appeared quickly, as did Winston who was carrying two more PKE meters and one POE meter. "What is it, Ray?"

Instead of answering Ray turned to the small ghost. "Slimer, we need to ask you some questions about Peter. Answer as carefully as you can, all right?"

"All right," the little ghost agreed, bobbing up and down in front of the Ghostbuster.

"We think Peter's been kidnapped--"

"Oh no!" Slimer stopped bobbing, and raised his hands to his face. "Poor Peter!"

Keeping his voice calm to reassure him, Ray continued, "We need your help finding him. The problem is, we don't know when or where he was taken -- he seems to have been replaced by a demon--"

"Demon? Peter gone?"

"That's right, Slimer. The demon resembles Peter a great deal, so we can't be sure when the switch took place." Egon added. "In fact, I've been trying to pinpoint a time when his behavior changed, but it seems to have remained consistently in character." Egon sounded worried. Hesitantly he said, "It may be due to the demon having stolen Peter's mind, as well as the appearance of his body."

Ray felt his heart stop -- from the look of it, Winston's did too. But Slimer only looked puzzled. "Demon hurt Peter?"

"Maybe," Ray admitted. For the first time the reality of the possibility hit him. If Egon was right, then Peter could be in very serious danger... or he might already be dead. "Slimer, have you noticed any changes in Peter?"

Slimer shook his head slowly back and forth. "Same Peter."

"Even today?" Egon asked in surprise. Slimer nodded. "Thanks, Slimer. Obviously it is able to shield its identity from you. We know it has been here for over a month."

"Peter here all month." Slimer said, still confused.

"No, Slimer, that was the demon. It looks and sounds like Peter but it is a demon." Egon explained.

Slimer looked at Ray. "Peter demon?"

"I know it doesn't make sense, Slimer. But we'll find him. Don't worry." Winston spoke up when Ray said nothing.

"Slimer!" Ray faced the little ghost. "Is Peter a demon?"

"Peter demon." Slimer repeated, doubt and confusion still obvious in his voice.

Ray spoke carefully, "This is important, Slimer. We have to be sure we understand you. Is Peter -- the Peter who was here today -- a demon?"

"Yeah," Slimer agreed.

Ignoring Egon's protest, Ray continued his questioning. "How about a month ago? Was Peter a demon then?"

"Yeah."

"How about when you first met Peter? Was he a demon then?"

"Think so. Didn't know... slimed Peter. Found out later Peter demon. Peter not like Slimer, afraid Slimer tell on Peter. But Peter give Slimer pizza. Slimer and Peter friends now."

Triumphantly, Ray turned to Egon. "See? Peter was telling the truth."

"The word of a class five ghost... no offense, Slimer, need not validate the word of a class 8 demon. It could very well have tricked Slimer--"

"No trick Slimer! Peter tell Slimer after Slimer figure out. No trick."

Still unconvinced, Egon tried again. "That could simply mean Peter was replaced by the demon several years ago. It did admit it knew we would become the Ghostbusters. Perhaps it put its plans into motion before we ever met Slimer."

Winston asked, "What plans? To help us bust ghosts? Pete's done as much as anyone to help the Ghostbusters succeed. Even if you don't believe him about having saved our lives without our knowing, he has done a lot. There's lots of times he's openly saved our lives, and others' as well. What sort of evil plan does that accomplish?"

"He has access to the containment unit. Perhaps he's waiting until the right time, to free the ghosts and use them to rule the world. Or destroy it."

"The right time? He stepped into a trap, Egon. How could he free the ghosts from inside the containment unit?" Ray found the arguments coming easily; he felt vindicated, believing that the demon was indeed Peter. He wanted to run downstairs and let him out but knew he had to wait until Egon was convinced.

"I don't know." Egon's voice was soft, as if defeated. Ray knew he was afraid of giving up on finding Peter, in case he was being held prisoner somewhere.

"Egon... we know that the PKE meters won't pick up Peter if he's outside their range. We could spend all day searching and not find anything." Ray reminded Egon of the time he had done just that. "If the demon's holding him hostage, chances are he isn't in our world anymore. He's probably in the Netherworld. We could go over and look around... just to be certain."

Egon looked at him; Ray could see the gratitude in his friend's eyes. Ray knew they wouldn't find him -- he was convinced Peter was downstairs, in the portable containment unit. But Peter was safe, and Egon would never be fully convinced unless given the chance to search for his friend. Ray took a meter from Winston. "Let's get going. The sooner we start, the sooner we get Peter back."

~~~~~

Peter noticed when the world changed. It was hard not to, the sky opened up and a bright light grabbed him, pulling him up and away. He let out a scream, reaching out for anything to grab -- facing death with dignity was not on his agenda. It was useless, the pull was too great and there was nothing to fight it with. He felt himself being pulled into the containment unit. He turned his face towards the light, thinking if he could escape the first salvo, maybe he could run far and long enough to survive... until what? It didn't matter. He'd go down fighting simply because he could.

The unit pulled him in and he landed in a place much like the one he'd just left. He held his hands up, waiting for the ghosts to appear, then stopped. It didn't look like anyone was around. That didn't seem right -- every time they looked through the scope inside the containment unit, there were dozens or hundreds of ghosts jeering at them. So where were they now? Hiding? A monthly meeting? He thought about calling out for them but saw no reason to hasten the inevitable. Better to sneak away now and make plans for his survival, limited though it might be.

He surveyed his surroundings in order to pick a likely direction. That was when he noticed there was still no landscape. That was wrong. The containment unit had an environment similar to the outer regions of the Netherworld, so the ghosts would be more comfortable in their entrapment. This place had none of that. It was almost like being in a trap... had they simply transferred him? But why? Why not leave him in the first trap? Peter looked around and carefully extended a tiny bit of power. There was no one else here. So where was here?

Before he could get seriously worried about his situation, it hit him. The portable unit had been empty. The guys must have placed him in it, instead of the main unit. He felt his chest tighten -- maybe they'd realized what would happen if they put him in with the other ghosts? If they had, and put him in here, did that mean they believed him? No, if they believed him they would have let him free. However, and with this thought his chest tightened more, if they weren't sure, or if one of his friends believed him but hadn't yet convinced the others, they might put him here until they knew. They wouldn't want to risk letting him get hurt, just in case it really was him.

With a yell, Peter spun around. He had a chance! It might take awhile -- not that time passed the same in here as on Earth -- but he would wait. He was centuries old, by human reckoning, and waiting for his friends would be easy. With a grin, he stared up at the sky.

"Come on, guys! I'm waiting! It's my turn to do the dishes, remember?" With a laugh, he settled down to wait not letting himself think of the chance he could be wrong.

~~~~~

The three Ghostbusters donned their re-charged proton packs. It had delayed them an hour, but none of them wanted to venture into the demons' home realm without being fully armed. Now, with Janine and Slimer waiting worriedly by, they were ready to begin their search. Egon had gone over the plan several times, outlining the pattern of search and the frequency of returns. They would search in five-minute increments, until they picked up Peter's readings. Then they would track him until they were able to determine where he was being held. With a brief jaunt back to finalize rescue plans, they would go in, and rescue their missing friend.

No one said anything about the demon in the basement, for now they would act as if Egon's fears were true. As Ray pointed out, as long as they were careful it would cost them nothing but time. After one last check of their return bracelets and the transport settings, Ray gave Janine a nod. She touched the button, and the Ghostbusters disappeared.

Sixteen minutes later the Ghostbusters had seen three very unpleasant parts of the Netherworld. Each time they had appeared in a mostly uninhabited region and spread out, PKE meters tuned to Peter's unique readings. Winston would stand guard with his proton pack ready, while Ray and Egon took readings. Three times they had returned with no sign of their friend. Egon was merely frowning, determined to continue the search all night if necessary. Ray was beginning to wonder how long he should let him search, before trying again to talk him into accepting Peter's story. As long as they remained out of danger -- relatively speaking -- Ray was content to stay quiet.

Egon was readjusting the coordinates for the next jump. Janine was standing beside him, worry evident in her face -- Ray felt guilty, realizing they hadn't told her about the demon's story. She thought it was a straightforward demonic kidnapping. Now was no time to explain it to her. He wondered, would she believe Peter's story? Or would she be dubious, like Egon? She knew Peter Venkman as well as anyone, excepting Ray and Egon and they only knew more of him, from having known him longer. Ray knew she was fond of Peter as she was all the Ghostbusters and Ray suspected she had a special place for the occasionally irrepressible Dr. Venkman in her heart despite their frequent verbal clashes. Maybe even because of.

Ray's thoughts were interrupted by Egon's announcement that they were ready for the next trip. He gripped his PKE meter tightly, and gave Janine a nod. He heard her whispered 'good luck' as they disappeared.

After four hours of narrow escapes and empty terrains, they still had found no trace of Peter. Winston had suggested, an hour and a half previously, that they pin up a sort of map to mark off the areas they'd already scanned. Since the Netherworld was not laid out in Cartesian space, the map would only be a mathematical estimate - a large piece of graph paper with a simple X and Y axis to represent the more complicated actual coordinates. It would still help rule out areas from their search. Janine updated the map every time they went out, marking out the surrounding coordinates that their PKE meters could cover. Every time they returned they could see more of the map being covered; Egon would select a new location as distant from the previously checked areas as possible.

Now they were down to only a few areas which they had previously judged to be within meter distance. They would go through and check those, and if no trace of Peter could be found, they would form another plan. Ray knew Egon would suggest that Peter was somehow being shielded from their meters, or was in fact not in the Netherworld but being held in some other dimension. Janine had long since called the police and reported Peter missing, in case he was being held in their own dimension. Now she made them take a short break before continuing their search, feeding them coffee and sandwiches to help them keep up their strength.

Egon could barely hold himself back; Ray could see him straining to remain seated long enough to keep Janine from ordering him to sit back down and finish his food. Winston was looking only worried, glancing from Ray to Egon. He hadn't said much since the search began, other than indicating his readiness to begin yet another search. Ray realized he hadn't said much either; from trying to avoid encouraging Egon's fears yet not wanting to disregard them, he hadn't been able to think of anything to say. It was weird; usually they worked amidst conversation which, if not lively, was at least plentiful. The abnormal silence only strengthened the belief that this was all wrong, that they need not be searching for a companion who was not lost.

Besides, Ray reflected, Peter was usually the one to keep those conversations going with his off-the-cuff remarks. He sighed, and stared down at his mug of cooling coffee. He didn't often think about how much better the job was when all four of them were working together. It wasn't until one of them was unable to accompany them that he would even notice how much his enjoyment from the job came from working with his friends. The job was satisfying enough, in its own right, but there was just something about working with Peter, Egon, and Winston that made it wonderful. Difficult jobs were somehow easier, dangerous jobs felt a little safer, when his three friends were with him.

He missed Peter. He wanted to hear the other man say something -- a sarcastic remark or a teasing joke -- which would make them all smile. It was frightening, going into the Netherworld time after time, risking life and limb to the denizens of that world. It would have been bad even without the belief that there was no one to rescue; with it, he couldn't help feel as if he ought to think of a way to bring the search to an end. Some way to convince Egon they would not find Peter there; but talking Egon into and out of things had always been Peter's specialty. Peter had tried to convince Egon, and failed.

What if Egon was never convinced? That thought made Ray look up at his friend. He saw Egon staring at the table, no doubt running through their next options for locating Peter. What if Egon would never accept that Peter was telling the truth? They could spend the rest of their lives looking for him, and all that time they wouldn't be able to let him out...

No. If it came to that Ray would sneak Peter out. But Egon would be left tormented by the belief that they'd failed to rescue him, that he was dead or worse, somewhere out of reach. It would destroy Egon, eventually. Ray couldn't let that happen. He had to find a way of saving both his friends. He simply had to.

~~~~~

The police had been kind -- or experienced -- enough not to laugh in their faces. The next day, after spending several fruitless hours searching for Peter, the police had come around to follow-up on Janine's report. They told the cops the entire story in a slightly modified fashion. Egon insisted on not revealing the reasons the demon had given to believe it was the real Peter Venkman. He didn't want Janine unnecessarily hurt, nor did he believe the police would be understanding of the point. When Ray argued, Winston pointed out that the cops didn't need to know in order to look for Peter, and Janine could be told the truth as soon as they figured out what it was.

So Ray kept quiet while Egon relayed the facts and suppositions. The police were conducting a more conventional search, checking hospitals and keeping an eye out for suspicious characters. Officer Dallas assured them he would call whenever new information came in. He wished them luck in their searches, and then herded his junior partner out the door. As soon as they were out the door, Egon turned to the others.

"We have completed our initial search of the Netherworld, without success. I suggest we begin trying to determine from where Peter was taken, perhaps that will lead us to some evidence of where he was taken to."

Wearily, Ray asked, "Where do you want to start? The Dan's mansion?"

"That is where we first noticed the demon's presence. Janine, if you can locate a list of all our busts during that period, we can revisit them all as well. Hopefully the traces of the demon's arrival haven't faded too much."

The visit to the mansion turned up no trace of demonic activity. The meters showed nothing unusual, not even registering the month-ago presence of the demon when it had presumably been posing as Peter. They brought Slimer along, to talk to the ghosts in residence. The only thing Slimer was able to report was the two ghosts who played their jokes on Peter missed their favorite target. When they learned from Slimer that the being they'd been harassing was a class 8 demon they volunteered to pack up and leave for parts unknown. Discouraged, the Ghostbusters returned to the firehouse and collected the list of locations from Janine.

The size of the list led them to divide up the search -- Egon and Winston returned to every location of a bust in the two weeks before the demon's presence had been verified. Ray remained at the firehouse to contact his friends who had, in one fashion or another, some dealings with the spiritual planes. It was hoped that someone would have noticed an unusual occurrence that could be linked to Peter's disappearance. Egon was getting desperate for some clue to Peter's whereabouts and they were all were getting desperate for some answers.

Ray promised not to voice his doubts to the people he spoke to, giving Egon his word that he would support completely this search for as long as necessary. He didn't want to give Egon reason to believe the search had failed due to some fault of Ray's, when they failed to locate Peter. Ray hadn't said 'when' to Egon, though. As much as he worried about Peter trapped in the portable unit and as much as he missed his friend, he knew that he couldn't rush Egon into accepting Peter's claims.

Ray and Winston confided to each other, when Egon was out of the room, their fears that Egon might take a long time. They debated how long they would wait before letting Peter out regardless. They re-debated all the reasons for giving Egon the time he needed to search -- and reassured themselves that the demon they'd trapped was telling the truth.

Two days after they had begun searching, Ray had left one such conversation feeling doubtful. Were they talking themselves into believing something that wasn't true? Did their desire to have Peter back mask their arguments, until they were simply deluding themselves about the demon's truth? Although they had found no trace of Peter, Ray knew Egon could still be proven right -- how could he think about letting Peter, the demon, whoever it was, out before they knew the truth? Uncertainties dancing in his head, Ray had gone downstairs to sit and stare at the miniature containment unit and hope for understanding.

He found Slimer there already, hovering over the small unit. He watched, unnoticed, as the little ghost let out a sad sigh. He reached out and stroked the top of the unit, and muttered something Ray couldn't catch. "Oh, Slimer," Ray came down the rest of the stairs. "Don't worry, Slimer. We'll let him out soon. We just have to let Egon convince himself it's really him." Ray looked down guiltily, hoping Peter would understand. "He's safe, in there. There's nothing to worry about."

"All alone." Slimer gave him a sad look.

"I know, Slimer." Ray winced.

"Let Slimer in?"

"What?" The request took him by surprise; a second later he knew he should have already thought of this. "You can't stay too long, if Egon finds out he'll... well, I don't know what he'll do. He'll be mad, that's for sure. I'll let you in for awhile, then you'll have to come back out. OK?"

"OK!" Slimer bobbed up and down eagerly. Ray got out an empty trap and, with a quick look around for witnesses, opened it for Slimer. The ghost dove in; when the trap snapped shut Ray quickly loaded it into the portable unit. As the light turned green, he tapped the unit carefully and hoped Peter would appreciate the company.

Ray knew Peter was fond of the little ghost, but he'd never said he'd like to be trapped with the little guy.

Four days later, they met gathered around the kitchen table, maps and reports and hard copies of readings strewn about. None of them had lead to anything even remotely demonic. None of Ray's friends had picked up anything -- with one exception. All had noticed when Peter zapped the 'Blue Meanie', with varying degrees of perception. That only confirmed what they knew -- a demon had been responsible for getting rid of the destructive creature. Egon was frustrated, as they all were, but he had taken to making comments about Ray's and Winston's sincerity in assisting the search. It had taken them an hour, this morning, to assure him they would never risk their friend's life that way. Eventually Egon had apologized, and Winston had ordered out for Chinese, claiming that hunger was making them more irritable.

Egon appeared not to hear the implied suggestion that they take some time to rest and recuperate. "I suggest we begin refining our search. Perhaps if we--"

"Egon, I think we need some rest first -- I'm exhausted--"

"Ray, I hardly think Peter would appreciate our delaying his rescue." Egon's words cut sharp; Ray knew he was accusing him of his failure to believe Peter was out there at all. That didn't erase the truth of their exhaustion. Peter had told him, via Slimer, that he was willing to wait for them but they shouldn't do anything stupid -- he didn't want them getting hurt, looking for him. There was no way for Ray to talk Egon out of doing anything dangerous, however. He could only go along and try to keep them all out of trouble.

Fortunately Janine, who had walked into the room in time to hear Winston's initial suggestion, was on his side. "A couple of hours' rest won't hurt, Egon. How are you gonna rescue him if you're too tired to walk?"

Egon gave her a glare as well. "I am not too tired to walk. I am not going to stop looking for Peter." He turned back to Ray. "You can if you like. You can believe what you like. But I know Peter is out there somewhere and I am going to find him."

"It has nothing to do with what I believe," Ray faced his friend. "I want Peter back the same as you. We all do. I said I would help you search and that's what I'm going to do, for as long as necessary. But I don't think that collapsing somewhere is going to help him. If we take a couple hours to rest, we'll be better able to rescue him." When it was obvious that Egon wouldn't be swayed, Ray tried again. "What happens if we find him and we have to fight something? What if it's a lot of somethings? How much physical exertion do you think you're capable of right now?"

"Adrenaline is a wonderful thing."

"Egon, please, we're just--"

Egon stepped away from Ray, face closed. "Peter is out there, not downstairs. You will not convince me otherwise."

"What?"

Janine's confused voice made them all turn. Egon suddenly looked guilty, realizing what he'd done. Ray glanced towards Egon, wondering what he would say to explain. Ray spoke up before Egon could begin.

"The demon we trapped, who might have kidnapped Peter and taken his place... well he says he's Peter."

"He what?" Janine favored him with a no-nonsense glare.

"He says he's Peter -- the real Peter Venkman, that he's always been Peter. It's possible that Peter wasn't," he looked over at Egon, apologetically, "actually kidnapped. We can't prove the demon we spoke to is telling the truth, but, well if we find Peter being held prisoner somewhere we'll prove it wasn't."

"The demon you have downstairs in the containment unit?"

"Yeah."

"Is that why it's in the portable unit and not the regular one, in case it turns out to be Peter?"

"Yes." Ray was impressed with how quickly Janine figured it all out.

"Why do you think it's really Dr. Venkman?"

Ray realized she was humoring him. He answered honestly, explaining everything that had happened at the bust that they'd left out of their previous story -- everything Peter had said, and done. He related his own opinions as well as Egon's, all the arguments they're given each other, then waited. She stared at him for a moment. From the expression on her face he assumed she was just gathering herself before yelling at them for not saying anything sooner, about treating her like she was too fragile to handle the truth. She'd be right, and Ray was unable to think of anything to say in response other than 'I'm sorry'.

Instead she turned to Egon. "After all that you still think Dr. Venkman's been kidnapped?"

All three men were shocked. Ray's jaw dropped, Egon simply turned his frown towards her. "I see no reason--" he began.

"I see tons of reasons! Egon, I can see why you wouldn't believe him at first, I mean, who would? But Slimer told you what he is -- Isn't that 'corroborating evidence'?"

Patiently, Egon began to reiterate his arguments. "Janine, Slimer is not a reliable source of corroboration. For example, he may not understand the nature of the demon the way we do--"

"Egon!" Angrily, Janine cut him off. "Slimer understands perfectly well. He understands better about ghosts and demons, or have you forgotten? Besides, Dr. V stepped into a trap for you guys. He let himself be put into the containment unit, not knowing when or if we'd ever let him out. For all intents and purposes he gave up his life for his friends. Doesn't that sound like Dr. V? Would a demon make that kind of sacrifice?"

Egon gaped at Janine, unable to respond. Ray found himself smiling, wanting to add his own words to her tirade but knowing it wasn't necessary. Behind him he heard Winston add a quiet agreement. But they didn't gloat -- Egon had been motivated by the best of intentions, ones that they had all supported. Finally Egon looked away, uncomfortably. "I don't know."

"Egon... please, let's let him out." Ray asked.

"We can't take that risk." Egon's voice was quiet, almost defeated.

"Why don't we have Rogers set up a pentagram for us?" Winston spoke up suddenly. "We can hold Pete -- uh, the demon, inside that when we let him out. If it turns out we're wrong, we can re-trap him."

"That's a great idea!" Ray was bouncing on his toes again, feeling optimistic for the first time since he'd watched Peter toss the trap to the ground. "I'll go call him!" As he left, he heard nothing from Egon. No objections, but no concurrences either. But they were one step closer to making Egon believe; they were going to let Peter out, even trapped by ancient spells he'd be more free than before and they'd be able to talk to him, let him know they were going to let him free for good, soon.

~~~~~

Rogers was more than happy to come over and give them a hand. He considered it an opportunity to practice a spell which would normally be too risky to use. Trapping a demon normally meant calling one forth, first, and that almost always led to trouble. He arrived two hours after Ray called, armed with the tools of his trade. The Ghostbusters had been considering the matter during that time, looking for what they hoped was a safe place to let a potentially evil and angry demon free. Not on the premises of Ghostbuster Central, and not someplace which had any latent or active psychokinetic energy. They obtained an initial list of deserted or nearly deserted properties and locations from the local Coven Resource Guide by ruling out anyplace listed in the guide. They then checked off any location at which they'd recorded the presence of ghosts, from their database of busts.

Janine made a remark about the usefulness of the database and how fortunate it was that somebody had been maintaining it all this time. Ray promised to give her a raise, "As soon as we let out the guy who signs the checks."

Finally they had a list of half a dozen likely spots. Loading the portable unit into Ecto-I, they set out to check each one. Rogers sat in the backseat next to the portable unit, preparing himself for the spell.

They drove to the first site, and checked it with the PKE meter. A tiny blip showed, and Egon ruled it out. The second and third sites had traces of PKE as well, larger than the first. The fourth, a small abandoned building with "Caution, Keep Out" and "Warning, Asbestos" tape freshly wrapped around it, had no PKE readings.

"We won't be here long." Egon noted. "There will be no danger from the building."

"Then let's get set up." Winston opened the back of Ecto and he and Ray wrestled the unit out. Janine and Slimer waited nearby, both looking uncertain but eager to begin. Rogers went ahead of them, digging through his backpack and muttering under his breath. He flung some powder at the entrance to the building before letting Egon remove the locks. Ray could hear him saying a spell for protection as he went up to the door. It wasn't one he recognized -- which meant Rogers was ad-libbing, a good sign at this juncture. Later it would be best to stick with the script.

They followed Rogers and Egon inside, squinting against the darkness. Egon checked the building one more time before confirming the lack of PKE energy. Janine and Slimer set up the lanterns in a rough circle near the edge of the room. Rogers had wanted candles, but Ray had explained the fire risk; a little brainstorming on the appropriateness of electric lights led to the selection of several small Coleman lanterns. When there was enough light to see by, Rogers selected a spot for the containment unit. Ray and Winston set it down carefully, then helped Egon clear the area of debris.

Rogers scattered more powder, set a ceramic dish on the floor in front of each window and placed a handful of something in each. Ray suspected he knew what the materials were but didn't interrupt the preparation to check. When the floor was mostly cleared, Rogers began tracing the initial diagrams on the dry boards. The Ghostbusters waited to one side, just inside the outermost chalk line. None said a word until Rogers straightened, brushing the dust and dirt from his hands.

"Are we ready?" Ray asked.

Rogers nodded. "I'm ready to begin. If you five will simply do as I instructed, this should go quickly. I will tell you when to release the demon from the containment unit."

"We understand." Ray spoke for them all, knowing that while spell casting was beyond the field of study for his companions, they all believed in the results. Due to their lack of experience, though, Rogers had asked them to simply remain nearby, thinking "positive thoughts" and keeping focused on the task at hand. It would strengthen the spell and help contain the demon, without risking an unsuccessful cast through a misspeaking. They had explained the situation to the witch, and stressed the possibility that the demon might assert that it was Peter... and might, after convincing them, break free and wreak havoc. Rogers would hold the spell up, until all three Ghostbusters, Janine, and Slimer indicated that he could drop it.

Raising his hands, Rogers began the incantation.

Minutes later he lowered his hands partway, still holding them out at his sides. He nodded. "All right, you may let the demon out."

Ray walked carefully to the portable containment unit, being very carefully not to smudge any of the lines Rogers had drawn. He set a trap on the floor beside the unit; Winston was holding the trigger. With a thumbs-up from the other man, Ray switched off the protective grid and unsealed the small door. The door would cycle open in 30 seconds, and Ray made his way back to the others, in the safety of the protective circle Rogers had created.

Rogers remained where he was, inside the two outermost circles, and outside the innermost three. Ray knew he had a banishment spell ready, in case the demon broke free and the trap was unable to capture it. Finally the door opened, and a light shot forth. They could hear a rumbling, soft at first then it grew louder until the light and sound came together in a crash. Ray closed his eyes against the intense flash, and didn't open them until he heard a hesitant, familiar voice.

"Guys?"

~~~~~

Slimer had finally left. Peter wasn't sure how long ago, nor did he know for how long the little ghost had stayed. There was nothing to mark time's passage -- he got neither hungry nor sleepy, and there was nothing growing or moving in here with him. He hadn't thought to ask Slimer; he'd been so surprised by the ghost's appearance, and so eager for someone to talk to, that the question hadn't occurred to him.

Slimer caught him up on his friends' efforts to prove, one way or another, who he really was. Peter was touched to find that Ray believed him, and apparently Winston as well. When Slimer told him Egon still refused to believe, Peter had turned away. He'd known Egon the longest -- his oldest and dearest friend, the one who had, for the first time, made living on Earth fun instead of simply amusing. The one who had taught him about friendship, and the one who had, although unknowingly, been the first to elicit some true emotion in the lost demon. That friendship was the first best thing in his existence. He wondered if this was retribution for accepting it. Everyone knew demons existed for one reason only -- to bring evil to life, and carry that evil into as many corners of the universes as possible. Refusing that burden had cost him almost everything. He lost his right to belong, his home, the companions he'd known all his life.

What he'd gained in return he wasn't sure he was supposed to have. He'd found peace, and some sense of doing right. Interacting with the humans had taught him the virtues of caring and friendship and after 600 years he thought he'd finally got it right, making real friends of his own and gaining some understanding for the first time what it was to say 'I love this person.' He admitted he wasn't very good at it yet, the niceties still eluded him when he couldn't speak from true emotion. But as a student of human behavior and motivation -- a psychologist for six centuries -- he could fake it fairly well.

Someone must have noticed, and rectified the situation. Hopeful though he was that his friends would come around, he knew better than to depend upon it. He'd tried, he really had, to be the kind of being he wanted to be. If the universe and the forces of evil were set against it, there was little he could do.

He hadn't been able to explain this to Slimer, of course. The lesser creature had its own ideas about good and evil, and wouldn't truly understand why Peter felt that it might all be for naught. Instead he'd let the ghost entertain him with stories of the Ghostbusters' search, and Slimer's own escapades into the surrounding neighborhood. He appreciated the visit, anticipating the next one although he'd refuse to say so out loud. The others believed his treatment of the little ghost came from a refusal to reveal his true affection. That image, of one unwilling to reveal what he felt, was one he cultivated for it helped disguise the times when he felt nothing. With Slimer it was different. The ghost triggered instinctive responses which he could only overcome when he stopped and thought it through. Slimer understood, and accepted Peter's apologies and pizzas, given when no one was around. So they traded remarks and sometimes insults, as they did now, to amuse Peter in his entrapment. Finally Slimer judged it was time to leave. Peter had watched the little ghost go, wondering how long it would be before he'd see him, or anyone, again.

Since then, Peter had spent the time thinking and amusing himself with the plentiful dust. He created puzzles for himself, and drew pictures of his lives before this one. He didn't find the time boring but he did find it uncomfortably similar to the life he'd spent in the Netherworld. He wondered if he'd forget where he was.

~~~~~

Peter watched the sky crack. He knew what it was, getting to his feet from where he'd been playing checkers in the dirt (against himself, a sure way to win) he waited patiently for the crack to open into a door. The crack grew slowly, and for the first time he realized just how differently time passed inside -- he knew the cycle took 30 seconds on the outside. Although he could see the crack growing, it seemed to take much longer than a mere half minute.

Finally it split open, and the light pulled at him, drawing him out. With a huge grin he let it take him, knowing he would be returning to his friends. He didn't know how long he'd been inside, but Slimer had told him that they were only waiting for Egon. Ray and the others must have convinced him -- surely Slimer would have warned him if they were going to toss him into the main unit.

The light pulled him up and out, and when it faded he felt the throbbing of a containment and warding spell all around him. There was also a truth spell laid in among the forces holding him. He frowned, glancing over at Rogers, the witch who was holding the spell closed.

"Guys?" His friends were across the room, standing together. Maybe they weren't letting him out -- they might have decided to question him, try to get him to admit where he'd stashed their missing friend. With a glance at the witch he knew he could break free -- it would take about a day, and all his power, and it wouldn't go very far towards persuading his friends to trust him.

Ray took a step towards him; his happy grin was a balm to Peter's spirit. "Peter! I'm sorry about the--"

"Ray," Egon cautioned the other man. Peter saw Egon restrain Ray with one hand on his arm. Ray gave him a short glance, then ignored him. He began to speak again, but this time Rogers gave him a glare.

"Sorry," Ray apologized for interrupting and stopped trying to move towards Peter.

Peter turned his attention back to the witch. The man faced him squarely. "Who are you?"

Peter felt the power of the question, tied into the truth spell. He could, if he wanted, fight against it and make the man work for his answers. "Dr. Peter Venkman."

He saw the glances his friends gave each other. Rogers asked again, "What are you?"

Lots of truthful answers he could offer, stalling the man from getting what he wanted. Peter simply answered, "A demon."

"What is your name? Your demonic name."

"Gaeden." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ray begin to look through Tobin's Spirit Guide. Peter tried to remember if he was in it.

"Why have you taken Peter Venkman?"

Obviously they had rehearsed the questions beforehand. If he'd been trying to hide the truth, these direct questions would have been tricky to answer. "I haven't taken him."

"Who has taken him?"

This guy is good! Peter thought with increased respect for the man. "No one. I came of my own free will." The tug grabbed at him, and he elaborated. "Except for when I was in the trap, and the portable unit. Wherever I was taken then, was someone else's doing." He could hear the strained whispers from his friends, as they heard his responses. Peter focused on the witch, though. Didn't want him thinking he was not cooperating.

"Are you holding Peter Venkman?"

"No." That one was easy.

"Who is holding Peter Venkman?"

He wanted to smile when he answered. "You are."

The response to that was immediate. From Ray he heard "Yes! You see?" From Slimer he heard a garbled cry of encouragement. The witch's eyes grew huge, and almost lowered one hand. With a visible effort, he pulled himself together and resumed his questions.

"Why are you here?"

"I guess it's for questioning."

"Huh? No, why are you on Earth?"

"I like Earth. I like it better than the Netherworld."

"Why do you like Earth?"

"People like each other, here. They're nice to each other sometimes. They fall in love, and take care of each other. Humans have emotions and I want some, too."

The witch stared at him, startled. "Wh... why do you want emotions?"

"I'm not sure." Peter shrugged. "Maybe because they make it easier to have friends. I never had friends before -- but I've started feeling things, and I've got five good friends... that's got to mean something. The first time I ever felt an emotion -- I think it was an emotion, it kinda felt like a sore throat, too -- I was becoming someone's best friend."

Peter didn't look at his friends. He didn't look or listen to find out if they believed him, if they were convinced. He stared at the witch as if he were the only one here, the only one he had to deal with. Otherwise he would have screamed to be let free, begged his friends to believe him.

"Whose best friend?"

"Egon Spengler."

He heard Ray's, "Oh, Egon." Peter tensed, but heard nothing from Egon. Should he look?

The witch asked again, "Who are you?"

"Peter Venkman. I'm a Ghostbuster. I'm Ray's and Winston's and Janine's and Slimer's friend. I..." he swallowed and forced it out. "I think I'm still Egon's friend."

"Are you telling the truth?"

"Yes." If he'd been lying he could have said yes -- but the question had taken him by surprise, and the truth spell might have forced a 'no'.

"What will you do if I let you free?"

"I... I don't know. I want to keep being a Ghostbuster. I want to stay on Earth and be human."

"Have you ever intentionally injured a human?"

"No."

"Have you ever by inaction, intentionally allowed a human to be injured?"

"No." The guy was an Asimov fan.

"Do you plan to injure any humans in the future?"

"No."

"Is Charlie Venkman a demon?"

"Huh? No. He and mom are humans."

"Do they know you're a demon?"

Peter grinned. "When I was five, my mom suspected -- but Sheila really deserved those tadpoles in her Kool-aid." He became serious again. "No, they don't know. I made myself a human fetus and let them have a kid -- me. They never knew I was anything more than that."

Ray spoke up as if casually. "I found 'Gaeden' in Tobin's Guide. Not very much there, but it does say that he's the only surviving demon to have resisted the inherent nature of demons. Apparently he saved someone's life about 600 years ago who went on to become canonized in the Catholic church for preaching the possibility of saving even the most fallen souls."

"It does?" Peter asked in surprise.

Ray nodded. "A journal entry of his was used for the Spirit Guide's entry. It didn't list his name, though, or anything else about him."

"Mikhail." Peter remembered, seeing the man's face as clearly as he had the day they met.

"Let me see," Winston said. Peter waited while they looked at the entry, meeting the witch's patient stare with one of his own. Finally the witch looked over at the others. With a raised eyebrow he asked their opinion. Peter heard Ray's instant verdict.

"Let him out."

Slimer seconded it, with a "Peter!"

Janine offered, in a firm voice, "It sounds like him. I can't think of any way to prove he isn't."

"It is logically impossible to prove a theory true. One can only disprove a false theory, or increase the probability of its being true." Peter couldn't tell if Egon was unconvinced, or merely being conservative.

"So if we can never prove it's Peter, and we haven't been able to prove it isn't... can't we let him out?" Ray pleaded.

"Egon," Winston's calm voice was the last to give his verdict. "If it is a demon then we'll never find out with it trapped away. We'll only be able to prove it isn't Peter if we have the chance to interact with him. It. And if it is Peter... we'll have him back."

"Winston, do you believe it's Peter?" Ray asked him hesitantly.

There was a brief pause, then, "Yes. I do. That entry in Tobin's convinced me."

Peter finally looked at his friends, feeling that 'swallowed hot cocoa' emotion warming him inside. Four of his friends believed him. He saw how they smiled at him, accepting. He shifted his gaze to Egon, who was still only staring at him. Peter bit his lower lip.

"It is a demon." Egon said at last, frowning at him. Before the others could say anything, he continued, "But it appears to be Peter. You may let it out."

Ray's cheer was the loudest. The witch was grinning as he began lowering the spells; Peter waited politely for them to fall completely before moving away from the containment unit. With the drawn circles now safe to cross, Ray bounded over and grabbed Peter in his arms. "Oh, Peter! I'm glad you're back!"

Peter returned the hug, nearly overcome with the realization that he might have lost forever this precious thing, this friendship. The others added themselves to the hug, Winston and Janine on either side and Slimer plopping down from above. Peter involuntarily gave Slimer a slight growl for the sliming, but the ghost just hugged him. Relaxing, Peter squeezed his friends tighter around him. "Thanks, guys. I can't tell you what this means."

"I think we can imagine, Pete. We almost lost our friend, too." Winston answered.

Surrounded, Peter looked over at Egon. The man was still standing outside the third circle, watching the proceedings without comment. "Egon? Don't you...?" He was afraid to say it. What would he have said? Believe me? Like me? He didn't want to hear the answers.

Egon's face was expressionless. "I don't consort with demons."

With that, he turned and left the room.

~~~~~

They cleaned up the room quickly. Peter explained to Rogers, the witch, where the weaknesses in his spell were and how he might fix them. Ray hovered nearby; Peter didn't know if he wanted to hear the advice or was offering silent support. Peter hadn't said a word about Egon's statement.

The others had tried to apologize for him to Peter, but Peter brushed them off. If Egon didn't want to be his friend, Peter didn't see that there was anything he could do about it. He didn't tell the others that the emptiness of Egon's desertion was as strong as the sense of fullness at the rest of his friends' acceptance. Instead he focused on answering the witch's questions and helping load Ecto. He didn't think about what might happen -- whether Egon would come around or if the friendship was over.

If this was what being human was like, with its maelstrom of emotion-like reaction, he was just glad to be here in it. Gradually, he let Ray distract him, listening to the other man's cheerful conversation. He let Ray draw him into a discussion of the spells Rogers had used, and was amused at the witch's expression when Peter said he could had defeated it in only a day's time.

Halfway home Ray leaned over and gave hugged him again. Bemused, Peter returned the hug. "What's this for, Tex?"

"I missed you, Peter. I didn't know when I'd ever see you again."

Peter gave him a squeeze, then finally asked the question that had occurred to him the first time he'd seen Ray's belief in him. "Are you mad that I didn't tell you?"

"Of course not!" Ray looked honestly shocked. "I'm glad you have, though. It doesn't matter, Peter."

"Yeah," Winston added, ignoring the stiff expression the conversation had brought to Egon's face. "You're our friend. It doesn't matter what you are. I don't believe in stereotypes."

"Besides, if I can put up with my Aunt Greta, I can certainly put up with a demon." Janine added with a wry smile. Peter smiled, remembering the one time he'd met Aunt Greta. Janine had a valid point.

No one remarked on Egon's silence, no one pushed him about his decision. But Peter knew the others were trying to tell them both how important their friendships were.

~~~~~

They dropped Rogers off at his office to study up on the suggestions Peter had made. As they headed for home, Winston asked, "So what happened with this Mikhail? How'd you save his life?"

Peter turned sideways in the shotgun seat so he could see his friends. "I'd just been on Earth for a few years. Not doing much, mostly trying to stay out of the way. Didn't want to draw attention to myself -- a few enemies were sorta looking for me. I was wandering around, in the middle of winter, still trying to decide what to do with myself. Ran across Mikhail in the middle of a mountain range -- still don't know which one. Somewhere in west Asia. He was trying to get home from a trip across the mountains. He'd been there to do some trading -- never found out what for, or why. He wasn't in much shape to talk, the cold had gotten to him pretty good."

"And you saved his life?" Ray's eyes were glowing as he listened to the story.

"Yeah, I saved his life." It felt different, now, than it had back then. Then it was just the thing to do, and he hadn't felt anything from it. Now, he felt a stab of pride. Maybe because now he could see in his friend's eyes the impression such an act could make. "I gave him some food, and the blanket I'd been carrying around trying to look like a cold human. I walked with him for a few miles, talking to him to help keep him walking. I'd picked up some gossip in Persia which seemed to keep his interest. Anyway, we made it out of the mountains and he was able to get the rest of the way home on a better-traveled road. That's all."

"There must have been more to it. Come on, spill." Janine encouraged.

"I didn't, really. He didn't talk much but he did ask the usual things -- who was I, where was I from, where was I going. I just told him the bare essentials. I didn't say 'Hey I'm a demon' or anything."

"But?" Winston prompted.

"Well, I told him what kind of place I was getting away from. What I was looking for. You know, a better life and all that. Just clichés, really."

"How did he know your name?" Ray asked.

"I told him. I hadn't adopted a human one yet. It was the only one I had."

"So how did he know you were a demon?"

Peter shrugged. "I didn't tell him. Maybe it had something to do with his being canonized."

"He might have seen something, a vision perhaps. Discovered the truth mystically," speculated Ray.

"I didn't realize he'd known, until today. Never saw him after that winter."

"That's incredible, Peter. To think, your first good deed helped save your friendship with us." Janine said, then added shyly. "It convinced me, too."

Peter grinned. "Wow... my first piece of karma. I never expected it to get back to me. I'm touched, guys."

Ray laughed, then a confused expression appeared. "Peter... why'd you do it? You'd only been on Earth a few years..."

"Seemed like the thing to do." Peter shrugged. "Thoughts like that are what made me leave the Netherworld in the first place. They're heretical down there."

'No one taught you it was right?" Ray asked earnestly.

"No. I'm a mutant demon." Peter concluded proudly.

"Oh, Peter!" Ray hugged him again.

"Careful, I'll start to think you're glad to see me."

~~~~~

Egon still hadn't said a word when they arrived home. As the others began unloading Ecto, Egon walked away. Peter pretended he didn't notice but Ray frowned then headed up the stairs after him.

"Egon."

"I don't wish to discuss it, Ray." Egon continued towards his laboratory.

"I do. Egon, what's wrong?"

Egon whirled. "What's wrong? My friend turns out to be a demon and you ask me what's wrong?"

"Well, yeah. I know it's a shock, but... that's no reason to reject him. Egon, you've really hurt his feelings."

"I doubt he has any to hurt."

Ray frowned in disapproval. "Maybe not like we do, but he does have them. That's no excuse to treat him like this. Egon, he's your friend!"

"He was my friend." Egon bypassed his lab and turned into the library. Ray followed.

"Egon, I don't understand."

Finally Egon faced him. "What is there to not understand? He's a demon. What more do you need?"

"Well," Ray began. "How about a good reason to stop being his friend?"

"You are deliberately being obtuse."

"I am not. Egon, what has he done to make you stop liking him? Specifically, what has he ever done to hurt you?"

"He lied to me. He betrayed my trust."

"By not telling you about being a demon? Egon, come on... if he had told you you'd have thought he was nuts. Or you'd avoided him, thinking he was up to something, like sabotaging our work. Egon, you said you believed him. You believe he's really Peter. Why can't you believe the rest of his story? That he's one of the good guys?"

"I don't see that it matters what I believe--"

"But it does! Egon, you're his friend. You can't just abandon him!"

Egon said nothing, merely turning away in dismissal. Ray watched him for a moment.

"What's wrong, Egon? Are you afraid of him?"

"What?" Egon spun, mouth dropped open. "Don't be..."

"That's it, isn't it? I mean, otherwise you'd be a hypocrite and I can't see you being that. You can't hate Peter because he's a supernatural being. It must be something else. That you're afraid of what he could do."

"A hypocrite, Ray?"

"Well, you never had any problem with Slimer hanging around. You've never had problems with any of the ghosts we've been called to bust only to find out they're good souls, just lost or trapped on this plane. But Slimer's only a class 5 and none of the lost souls were ever more than a class 6. But Peter's a class 8 and if he wanted to, he could have escaped the spells today, or the trap. There's a lot he could do... but there's a lot he has already done. He's saved our lives, Egon. Maybe by doing "little things" but they had the desired results -- we're alive. Probably a lot of times he's done things like that. He'd tell you, if you asked him."

"I have no intention--"

"But that doesn't matter. Don't you see? You don't have to be afraid of him, because he's your friend. He's a good person, Egon. He won't ever hurt us."

Egon didn't answer. He gave Stantz a slight frown, and turned away.

"Egon, wait--"

"Let me be, Ray." Egon continued out of the room.

Ray followed. "But Egon,"

"Raymond. Let me be."

This time Ray stopped. He watched as Egon headed down the hall, at a loss for what else he could do or say to repair the apparently shattered friendship. Egon disappeared into his lab at the other end of the hall.

A quiet voice in the shadows said, "Thanks, Ray."

~~~~~

Ray looked at Peter, misery in his eyes, his entire bearing. Peter went over and squeezed the man's shoulder.

"I tried, Peter. I tried but he won't..."

"I know." Peter found himself marveling at his friend, that the other man should hurt so much because others were hurting. Peter did not doubt that Ray felt as if he were the one who'd lost his best friend, with his two friends at odds. "Let me talk to him."

Ray looked at him uncertainly. "Are you sure? I mean, do you think he'll listen?"

"I don't know," Peter admitted. "What have I got to lose?"

Ray came forward and gave him a quick hug. "Good luck, Peter. Just don't give up on him, OK? He's still your friend, he's just having problems..."

"Thanks." Peter returned the hug, then glanced down the hallway. How much harder would this have been without Ray's support? As he headed for Egon's lab, he realized how fortunate he was. He wished he knew whom to thank.

He didn't knock on the door, knowing Egon would never grant him entrance. Instead he quietly pushed the door open, and stood in the doorway. Egon didn't look up from his seat.

"He's right." Egon spun towards him. Peter looked at him sadly. "Egon, I love you. You don't have to be afraid of me."

Egon answered with a frosty glare. "I don't wish to discuss it."

"Why? Egon, why are you acting like this? Why do you hate me?"

"I am angry with you."

"Does that mean when you're done being angry we'll be friends again?"

"I--" Egon had been ready to deny it, Peter could see that in his eyes. Why he stopped, Peter wasn't sure. But he waited, hopefully. When Egon said no more, Peter called on his years of watching human behavior and hazarded a guess.

"Egon? Why don't you want to be friends anymore? Are you afraid of me? Or is there more?"

Egon took a deep breath, then, for the first time, faced Peter squarely. "You betrayed my trust, Peter. You lied to me, when you had every reason to know I would believe you. When you knew I considered you," Egon's voice staggered, "my dearest friend, along with Ray... you persisted in lying to me. Deceiving me. The issue of your powers is... a small part of it. I admit to some fear, should something occur I could not defend us from you. I have only your word that you will not harm us. Yet you have, quite significantly, already proven yourself untrustworthy."

Peter felt the words hit him in the chest, one after another, breaking pieces of his self off and flinging them away. He tried to hold himself together, literally, enough to answer. "Every reason?" Peter felt his throat try to close on the words; he forced them out, hoarsely. "Egon, I've never had close friends before. I've never had anyone close enough that I would even consider telling, much less think they might accept me. How was I to know you would? How was I to know Ray and the others would keep being my friends?" His legs were shaking minutely and he knew he would fall, if Egon chose to attack him again. Egon was frowning at him. Peter continued, "All I've ever known is humans -- the good ones -- hating and destroying demons. How was I to know you wouldn't react... just like you did? Hating me and fearing me and leaving me?" Peter found himself on his knees, not certain when he'd collapsed but just looking up at Egon and continuing. "Egon I couldn't stand losing your friendship. I couldn't risk telling you the truth. I can't change what I am and if that's the only way you could accept me... Egon I am sorry I lied. I won't ever do it again and if you would tell me if there is even a chance that you'll f--for-- forgive me, I would do anything."

"Peter, there is no reason for..." For a moment Egon had sounded like his old self -- like Peter's friend.
"It isn't that simple. I can't just change how I feel about this situation."

"What more can I do?"

"There is still the issue of your powers. Your... inherent demonic nature."

Peter slowly shook his head and shakily climbed to his feet, clinging to the edge of a shelving unit. "What do you want? I won't hurt you, Egon. I've never lost control or lost my temper and attacked one of my friends."

"What of Slimer?"

"Slimer?" Peter drew back, confused.

"You've said he is your friend as well -- so are you going to tell me that the way you treat him is friendly behavior? Or all an act so we didn't suspect?"

"Ask him if he minds," Peter answered, still reeling from the conversation. He had no idea where this would end up.

"That wasn't the question."

Peter shifted uneasily, then nodded. "What I do to Slimer I mostly can't help. That's why I make it up to him -- and why he doesn't mind. But I wouldn't -- I haven't done anything like that to you guys." The fear of loss still filled him, but frustration was growing as well. No matter what he said, it seemed Egon would refute him.

"Slimer knew what you are. Now we know. It stands to reason that the common element would encourage an identical reaction."

Peter wanted to yell at his friend for being so dogged. Before, when a display of temper would not have been a matter of losing Egon's friendship and trust, he would have let go. Of course, even in the past Egon had never been impressed by his displays -- they'd certainly never convinced him that Peter was right. So Peter responded as calmly as he could. "Slimer is a ghost. He's the sort demons occasionally use and abuse, in their line of work. It's like when you swat at a fly that's buzzing around you -- even if you don't want to hurt it, your hand moves sometimes before you can stop it. I don't do that with you guys because you're human. Every time a demon has hurt a human it's been very intentional." He shrugged carefully, wondering if the lecture would reach his scientific friend. Begging and cajoling hadn't worked, maybe information would. "That's the way we are."

Egon was looking at him doubtfully, but also thoughtfully. "I would have thought that ill treatment of humans was part of your nature."

"It isn't. That's the challenge, that makes some demons better than others -- how well they learn to... do that stuff." Peter dropped his eyes. "But you only have my word on that, don't you?"

"It does make sense, in a way." The distracted tone of Egon's 'scientist mode' had crept in. Peter was tempted to encourage it, but didn't know if it would only distract him from his feelings for Peter, or actually convince him. Egon had continued. "Evolutionary theory of 'survival of the fittest' would apply to supernatural creatures as well. Although that wouldn't explain your survival."

Peter shrugged and suggested carefully, "You're welcome to study me. Find out why I'm still alive." Egon almost responded to the gentle offer of humor. When he stopped himself, Peter felt defeated. "Maybe I'm not such a good demon."

This wasn't working. Long life had taught him patience, but he hadn't learned to be patience under the onslaught of these new effects of confrontation. It felt like he was bleeding from the inside out, and he didn't think he could stand to feel it much longer.

"A fallen demon." Egon's thoughtful voice distracted him.

"Huh?"

"Perhaps you are a fallen demon -- a failed demon, as it were."

One more piece of his self vanished, spun to dust and thrown on the floor. He was right, one more stab of pain like this and he would... what? Die? "Egon--" He wanted to plead with his friend, to stop. Amazingly, Egon walked forward, thoughtful expression giving way to something else. "Egon?" The look in his friend's eye was almost...

"According to most studies of the matter, the first demons were fallen angels. They then created more demons, in their own image. I would surmise, then, that if a fallen angel could become a demon, a fallen demon could become an angel."

Peter found his world suddenly a lot taller. Looking around, he realized he'd collapsed again, and was sitting on the floor. "I what?"

"It stands -- or sits, in your case -- to reason. If angels can fall, why not demons as well? Everything you've said would fit into a pattern of a demon whose nature is not demonic, but rather, angelic. You chose good over evil because it 'seemed the right thing to do'. You chose to live among humans because we are more appealing than demons -- humans are, traditionally, in between demons and angels on the cosmic scale of morality. You have even begun learning to feel emotions, which are often considered the basis of morality -- it would be reasonable that in your progression you would move from the demonic plane to human plane, living as a human until--"

"Egon, you have got to be kidding me." There was no way this was true. He was a demon, he could feel it -- he'd always been a demon and there was no way someone was going to let a demon be anything else.

"It is a valid theory, Peter. We shall have to test its soundness, of course."

"How?" Could demons fall into the Twilight Zone? Peter shook his head.

Egon crouched in front of him, and Peter recognized the look in his friend's face. Affection. Acceptance. Friendship. "By waiting to see if you grow wings, instead of horns." He smiled, then it faded slightly. "I'm sorry, Peter."

"For what?" Just because he saw what he thought he saw, didn't mean he understood it. When had Egon become convinced? What had he said that convinced him?

"For refusing your friendship. For doubting you. I believe..." He stopped, then held out his hand to help Peter stand. "I believe I was wrong."

"Ya hoo!" Ray yelled from behind them. Peter looked over his shoulder, and found all his friends standing there. He looked back but made no moves to take Egon's hand. Egon gave him a sheepish grin.

Hesitantly, Peter had to confirm this. "You're sure? We can be friends?"

Egon smiled; it felt like the first time Peter had stepped out into the humans' world. Free, alive, and wonderful. "We can be friends, Peter. I am sorry I ever told you otherwise."

Peter waited for this to settle. The words seemed to resound off his insides, careening this way and that, until suddenly everything seemed to coalesce and he felt it. Egon's friendship. He let Egon help him up, and take him into a fierce embrace. Peter returned it, seeing Ray dance in the background. He let his best friend hold him, memorizing this sensation for eternity.

He suddenly felt something tickling his nose. Pulling back, he tried to look down.

"What's wrong?" Ray asked.

Peter reached up and felt at the tickled spot; his finger came away wet. Startled, he met Egon's contented smile.

"It's tears, Peter. I suppose I should say congratulations."

Peter's 'whoop' echoed throughout the firehouse, and his friends gathered around in their typical amoebae hug, arms around every shoulder and neck with reach, pulling tightly until no one could move any more. Peter closed his eyes and let the sensation drip over him. It didn't matter if Egon was right or not -- he had his friends back, and that was all the heaven he needed.

A few moments later Ray asked, "Do you really have horns, Peter?"


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