Egon was pacing again. Peter leaned back on silken sofa pillows, kicked his boots up onto the now less than pristine surface of the mahogany coffee table, and kept an eye on him while he channel surfed.
Flick, flick, flick. Channels 33 through 72 were all reruns of the Andy Griffith Show. Egon shuffled his way through a not-so-small pile of Nerf toys as he passed the foosball table.
Flick, flick, flick. The 100-plus range seemed entirely devoted to Leave it to Beaver. Egon had no interest in stopping to admire Peter's truly stunning new collection of threads as he passed the racks. Not even the tan and black dinner jacket.
Flick, flick, flick. Somewhere in the 200 range, he located Fantasy Island, and shuddered. Mr. Roarke really creeped him out. Egon had reached the far wall, such as it was, and stopped just to the left of the wet bar. After a moment of consideration, Peter forbore asking him for a martini -- shaken, stirred, or otherwise.
Flick and flick, and seventy straight channels of the Love Boat finally did him in. He flipped the set off and let silence descend. He sneaked a sideways peek to make sure Egon wasn't looking at him, and then settled in for a good long stare at his friend's back. Egon, in fact, appeared to be concentrating ferociously on the wall's craggy rock surface, as if he expected to locate some vital clue there, some solution to all their problems, if only it could be correctly interpreted.
It remained, unfortunately, a barren rock wall.
After another five minutes of staring at Egon, who stared in turn, unmoving, at the still-blank wall, Peter felt his nerves begin to jangle.
"Hey, Egon, you hungry?" he called across the distance. Their pocket of existence might be one simple round bite out of this mountain, but it was a pretty decent sized bite, with a ceiling that arced up above to peak at around 30 feet. He had to put some lungpower into the words. "'Cause, you know. There's plenty to be had!" He reached over to the matching mahogany side table, and picked up a slightly tacky sterling silver spoon. There were no coasters, of course, and it left behind a telling schmear of chocolate and caramel. He rattled it temptingly against the crystal sundae glass it had arrived with. "Butter pecan, this time, maybe?"
The thought of actually eating another sundae made him more than slightly nauseous. Who knew there really was a point when your body began to yearn for, no, actually demand, a nice big bowl of steamed broccoli? But that was hardly the point of this exercise. "No, huh? Raspberry sorbet? Caramel whirl? You know, I read somewhere that in Japan, you can get fish ice cream? I'm almost ready to try that, at this point."
Egon ignored him. He wasn't even bothering to make a point of it anymore, with the stiff back and pointed scowling at random objects carefully located nowhere in Peter's direction that he'd been doing previously. No, he'd just flat out stopped paying attention to his presence. The wall held more interest.
Peter struggled for a moment with his rational understanding of the deep frustration, boredom, and worry at work, then threw it aside with a mental shrug, and settled gleefully into the enjoyable rush of irritation that came with feeling deeply put out. There was only one proper response to the situation.
"If ice cream isn't your thing," he drawled, "there is, of course, always pizza." Did he detect a slight stiffening of the spine? "Pizza with pineapple. Pizza with pepperoni. Pizza with anchovies, and olives, and pickles! Pizza with sausage! Pizza with meatballs, with bacon, with those horrible little mushrooms that Ray likes to buy and cut up and put on an otherwise perfectly good pizza."
Ah, there. Egon had swung around to better level his patented Egon-glare-of-dealing-with-complete-idiots in his direction.
"Pizza with french fries. Pizza with artichoke hearts. Pizza with linguini!"
And here he came. Slow careful steps at first, but then faster and faster, as though he were falling down a hill as he allowed his anger to propel his lanky frame across the space.
"Pizza," said Peter, "with extra cheese." He grinned at Egon, whose forward momentum had been halted only by the obstacle of the coffee table. "Oh, hey there, Egon. Long time no see."
"Will you." Egon stopped, and visibly swallowed. Peter watched, fascinated, as his fingers curled into fists. The next two words were the very essence of self-control. "Shut up."
Peter quirked an eyebrow. "I'm sorry. Was it something I said? Nah, that couldn't be it." He never gave Egon the chance to cut him off. "Man, you don't have something against pizza, do you? 'Cause that would be unnatural. But you know, maybe, if you're just not that hungry, and you need something for a little in-between snack, well, you know, there're always Twinkies..."
Egon lost it. Lost it in a way that was more improbable, more unlikely than this entire insane situation. Peter saw the spark in his eyes, almost heard the snapping sound in his head, saw the rush of outrage and annoyance reach a level so high it couldn't be expressed with words, from a man who could have shamed both Merriam and Webster, and then Egon simply lunged for him.
He was so fascinated by watching a man with iron-clad self-control unravel that for a few moments it didn't occur to him that he should be doing anything about it. About the time Egon wrapped one long arm around his neck, and knocked the coffee table flying with a foot as he climbed onto the sofa the better to throttle Peter, his hindbrain finally kicked him into action. Unfortunately, by that point, he didn't have a whole lot of traction to work with. Silk pillows flew. He beat at Egon rather uselessly with a particularly floral number. Elbows aimed at kidneys found knobby ribcages in their way, and the slow-motion thought that he'd really better think of something before the air got any thinner and Egon ended up stuck in a cave with his corpse for all eternity ambled his way.
He threw all his weight backwards, and took the sofa over. Egon's body compressed the remaining air from his lungs upon landing. Something hard smacked the floor, and he winced in sympathetic pain as he realized it was Egon's skull. Egon gave a wail that was full of pain and frustration and despair, and went still.
Peter panicked and wriggled out from beneath, carefully catching Egon's frame and rolling him onto his side as he emerged. "Egon? Is it bad? Do you think you have a concussion?" They were so screwed if it was a concussion. Peter's heart seemed to be doing a series of painful calisthenics in his chest, while his brain scurried around trying to avoid coming to conclusions about just how screwed they might be. "Egon?"
Egon opened his eyes and gazed unseeingly past Peter's shoulder. "I can't figure it out!"
"Egon." His heart skipped, and began to slow down, just a little.
"I can't solve this! I don't know what the answer is! We're trapped here!" Egon pounded at the floor with one fist.
"Yeah, I know that, Egon." Peter had known it would take a little longer for Egon to reach the same inevitable conclusion. Harder for him to overcome the belief that every problem had an answer, a solution that could be reached if only you were smart enough.
"But there's supposed to be a solution! There's always a solution." He uncurled his fingers and slapped the ground again, but it was weak, half-hearted. His energy was gone, he was giving up. He blinked blearily up at Peter's face, and Peter realized his glasses had vacated the premises at some point during the tussle.
"This is your fault," Egon accused Peter.
Peter went still. "I know that, too," he answered quietly.
The call had seemed like a promising one, at least from a financial perspective. And hey, Peter was all over that. If you had to take a call for a highly powerful, malevolent, Class 7 that appeared to have an axe to grind, and the power to grind it really sharp, that had to be dealt with right this very minute, then why not take the call from a bunch of lawyers who were willing to pay huge freaking bonuses for speed, confidentiality, and a lack of questions?
Egon raised an eyebrow over both the conditions, and the bonus offered. Peter, after careful questioning of their contact, one highly eloquent Mr. Willis Burnaby, whose explanation of the problem had been oblique, to say the least, felt he had a handle on the nature of the situation.
"It's an image thing, Spengs," he explained. "They're embarrassed by this. Bunch of suits in an office building, upscale clientele, they can't admit they even believe in this sort of thing, much less that they had to bring us in to deal with it for them. It's just not.... seemly."
Somewhere behind him, Winston snorted while loading equipment into Ecto-1. "Or maybe they just don't want rumors to get out that dealing with their firm really is like doing business with the devil."
Peter grinned. "See? That's what I'm saying. It's an image thing."
Egon nodded, slowly. "I can certainly see how that kind of thing might be a public relations issue, if their description of the entity is to be believed."
"Do you think it really is? An accurate description, that is? I'm just not finding anything here," Ray complained. He was buried to forehead level in a huge musty book, bits of its aged spine flaking off on his fingers. "I mean, people might describe demons as looking like the stereotypical devil all the time in books, or conversations, or cartoons, but... it's just not that common." He closed the book carefully and started rewrapping it in protective plastic.
"Maybe they're just freaked out, and describing what they expect to see," Winston offered.
"Maybe," Ray said dubiously. "I just wish we knew more. I mean..."
Peter and Winston both watched as Ray visibly struggled with the decision whether to say more and then shrugged instead. No point in bringing religion into this before it was necessary. "I can't find anything more," Ray concluded. "We might as well just go."
"Shotgun!" Peter called cheerfully, pulling open a door and slinging himself into the vehicle. "Let's go! Hup hup! Forward harch! Full steam ahead and all that, because time is money. Literally, in this case!"
"Would that you were always this enthusiastic, Peter," Egon said wryly, climbing in behind.
"Hey, don't knock it. They've got a devil... and we've got bills to pay!"
Forty-five floors, and an infinite number of stairs later, Peter was somewhat less enthusiastic. He leaned over, hands on knees for balance, and gasped air in huge sucking mouthfuls, while the receptionist twittered and flapped her hands at him. Ray bounced off a wall somewhere to one side, making similar noises of asphyxiation.
The firm of Ross, Rosser, Gillis and Harvey was steeped through and through with money, power, prestige, and class. Peter hoped the fresh reek of sweat they'd brought with them as they'd lurched into the foyer had added that little je ne sais quoi they'd been missing.
"We have to... stupid rule... change... honestly, Egon!" He gave up bitching and focused on breathing again.
Instead of the inevitable lecture on elevator safety, there came a series of choked wheezing noises. Peter glanced up to see Winston directing a red-faced Egon towards an uncomfortable looking upholstered chair. Winston shrugged, disgustingly unwinded, and nobly strolled in to fill the breach. "It really is a good rule, you know. It's just... demons like high places, or something. They always seem to head for the top of the building."
The fluttering, chirping receptionist materialized on Peter's left. She appeared to be attempting to herd them. "What? What?" her demanded harshly, and tried to tune his hearing to the upper registers.
"She wants us out of the lobby," Winston translated. "She wasn't expecting us to come through this way."
"How can you tell," Peter asked, nastily. The waves of perfumed air she was flapping in his direction were doing nothing to aid his recovery.
"Mr. Venkman?" came a new, querulous voice.
"Dr. Venkman," Peter responded automatically, twisting his head around to catch sight of the new arrival. "And you are?"
"Mr. Willis Burnaby, we spoke on the phone. I'm the office manager for the firm." Burnaby hesitated, then extended a hand. He was a nondescript, grey-haired, middle-aged man with glasses that had been out of date twenty years ago, and his palm was wetter than Peter's. Peter waited until he moved off to introduce himself to the rest of the team to wipe his hand on his jumpsuit.
"We're very glad you're here. You... you came up the stairs?" Burnaby gave them a disbelieving look.
"We did," Egon agreed, laconically.
"Why on earth would you do such a thing? I had our intern, Mr. Lawson, waiting for you in the lobby, so as to direct you to the freight elevator..."
"Yes, and we appreciated the whole upstairs-downstairs quality to that introduction, I have to tell you." Peter smiled as Burnaby gaped at him.
"What Dr. Venkman means to say," Egon hurriedly stepped into the fray, "is that we have a policy against taking the elevator in cases such as this. Although it may seem like a somewhat overenthusiastic safety precaution, we've, ah... well, we've had experience with being trapped in an elevator when a demon struck."
"And it's not something we care to repeat," Peter added, grimly.
"Ah, well. I see. If this is your standard operating procedure. We intended no disrespect, it was simply that, as we stated on the phone, we had hoped to avoid any publicity regarding this... episode. Please, please, follow me, this way." He gestured down the hallway with one hand. Peter gathered himself up and followed along, wondering if Burnaby was using a royal "we."
Behind him, he could hear Egon and Ray drawing meters from belts, and electronic equipment pinging to life. Burnaby shot them wondering glances as he led them to an empty conference room.
"Got him," Ray reported. "Two hundred meters to the left. I've got another reading there, too." He twisted a knob, and then made a slow circling turn. "There are other people here as well, maybe seven or eight on this floor?"
"We sent everyone home, of course, who wasn't of vital importance to the operation of the business today," Mr. Burnaby assured them. "A hardship for us, but then most of our associates can work out of the University's Law Library when necessary."
Peter bit his tongue hard to prevent himself from asking what vital duties required the receptionist.
Egon was double-checking Ray's intel. "The life form in the vicinity of the Class 7 is definitely human," Egon confirmed. "Very close proximity." He looked up in alarm. "We should proceed there immediately--"
"No, no! Mr. Ross is on his way here to talk to you." Burnaby spread his arms to prevent Egon from heading to the door. "He will be here in just a moment."
"Mr. Burnaby!" Ray was about as shocked as Ray got. "There's someone in danger while we discuss all this!"
Burnaby gave Ray a confused look, as though the notion did not quite register.
"Mr. Burnaby." Egon looked at him severely. "One of your employees is imperiled. We cannot assume that we have time to dally. We must track the location of the Class 7, determine the identity of the employee--"
"It's Mr. Harvey, one of the firm's partners. He's in conference room seven with Mr. La... the demon. They're... having a conference."
All four of them stared at Burnaby. Burnaby swayed back slightly under their collective gaze, and pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket to mop at his face.
"Excuse me?" Winston recovered first. "Did you just say that you're having a conference with the demon you called us here to bust?"
"It's, well, it's difficult to explain! Ah, Mr. Ross!" Burnaby swung about in desperate relief as his superior arrived. "Mr. Ross, the Ghostbusters are here. This is Mr. Merle Ross, our senior partner."
"Good. Then perhaps we can proceed with all due speed." Merle Ross was everything Willis Burnaby was not. Tall, sleek, and composed, he wore a suit Peter suspected of costing more than his entire wardrobe. He also appeared far too young to be a senior partner. He took in their assembled presence with assessing, cold black eyes.
"Gentleman, I understand you have been informed of the conditions of this job? We have your assurance that the matter will be kept confidential, and if the matter can be handled within the specified period of time, there will be the negotiated bonus. Of course, we only have an oral contract for this matter, but given the time constraints, I believe we can all go forward on the honor system, yes? Good. In that case, there is a demon, so to speak, in conference room seven. Unfortunately, my partner Mr. Melvin Harvey is in the room with him, purchasing us time until your arrival. However, I am sure that you will be able to safely extricate him from harm's way."
Peter reeled back from the non-stop litany, and shook his head admiringly. His dad, he felt, would have been thoroughly impressed with that whitewash job.
Egon, however, was not. "Actually, Mr. Ross, before we proceed, perhaps you could explain in more detail what is occurring here. Certainly, there seems to be more to the matter than previously stated."
Ross gave Egon a look cold enough that Peter shivered from the backdraft. "Is this really necessary or relevant to the job we are paying you to do? Surely it is a simple matter. We have employed you to rid us of this beast. Can you not handle the task?" He cast a disdainful eye over them, and ran a hand over slicked back hair.
Peter stood back and began a final equipment check. Let Egon handle it. He enjoyed taking on a jerk as much as anyone, but when it came to fancy language and pompous attitudes, it was best to let an expert take the lead.
"Yes, I believe it is necessary," Egon asserted, through his most aloofly professional expression. "We will not go into a situation uninformed. Every piece of information we can gather may be critical to ensuring a safe outcome. If you are in negotiations with this being, that fact, along with any additional data regarding the nature of the being we are dealing with, is assuredly vital to the operation."
Peter shot a delighted look at Ray and Winston. Ray had a look of distaste on his normally trusting face. Winston was clearly biting the inside of one cheek.
Ross snorted. "Negotiations. What a quaint way of putting it. We are in nothing of the sort. Very well." He turned towards his forgotten lackey. "Mr. Burnaby, your service here has been appreciated."
Burnaby, who had faded, chameleon-like, into the background, jumped, nodded, and scurried from the room, mopping his face as he went.
"Well, then." Ross's lips compressed into a thin line. "I am afraid that I have to admit that this firm has been... duped, as it were. In fact, there is a deal in place with the demon in question. A contract. And while I very much doubt the conditions of the contract in question would hold up in court, this demon, obviously, cares little for our legal system."
"A contract. Of course there is," Winston muttered. "Lawyers, demons..."
"That is exactly the type of slanderous rumor that we were attempting to avoid here!" Ross shot Winston an aggrieved look. "We had no idea who or what we were dealing with. We believed Mr. Labartou to be an honest broker of information."
"Mr. Labartou?" Peter couldn't stop himself. "Is that French?"
Ross ignored him and continued. "He appeared to be a normal, respectable businessman. He contracted with the partners of this firm, all four of us, many years ago when we were just starting up."
"In what way?" Egon asked sharply.
"He acted as a go-between, and helped drive business our way," Ross explained. "It was a profitable relationship for some time, and then, when the firm became successful, and no longer needed his assistance, we thanked him for his services, and believed that he had gone on his way."
"No such luck, huh?" Peter asked, oozing false sympathy. Ross continued to address Egon, clearly having reached the conclusion he was the only worthwhile adversary in the room.
"It's been years now since we gave that early arrangement any thought at all. But then, this morning, he suddenly reappeared, and has referred us to clauses in the contract that were simply not there, originally. While we have confirmed the provisions in our copies of the documents, we cannot account for their presence. We accused him altering the documents, and informed him that we would take the matter to a judge," Ross's narration slowed. "It was then that he... showed us his true nature. He informed us the clauses would be enforced. And the demands that the demon is making..." he made a moue of distaste. "I'm sure that in your line of business, you can guess their nature. We did not feel equipped to handle the matter, considering what was at stake."
"And yet, he hasn't simply taken what he wants," Egon noted. "Do you believe he is capable of doing so? He is instead waiting patiently in one of your conference rooms."
"Oh, I assure you, the things he has done..." Ross went a shade paler, and showed the first real signs of concern since their introduction. "I fear, well... my partner, Mr. Harvey, is a good man. Luckily, neither Mr. Rosser nor Mr. Gillis are on the premises today. They are, in fact, on the West Coast, handling a matter for one of our clients with national interests. This fact has allowed Mr. Harvey to stall for time, while we assure Labartou that we are arranging for them to return to the office as quickly as possible."
"Are you?" Peter found himself genuinely curious.
Ross shook his head. "I have called them, of course, and warned them about the situation that is unfolding here. But we are partners, and colleagues. We have been together in this firm for over a decade now, and I would not bring them into harm's way by having them return. Better they stay as far away as possible, until. Well." He rubbed his hands together. "Can you handle this matter for us? Mr. Harvey has been in there for hours now, and..." he trailed off, his composure slipping just a little bit more.
"Don't worry about it," Peter said firmly. It was vaguely reassuring to know that even bastards had people they cared about. "We'll send this devil back to hell for you. Or New Jersey. Whichever one he came from."
Negotiations had clearly broken down. The demon had Melvin Harvey by the throat when they entered. Peter had just enough time to note the huge, muscular arms, the red-tinted skin, the sharp black claw-like nails that rested delicately against the paleness of the lawyer's neck, and the absolutely shocked expression on the demon's face before he was shouting, "Throwers UP!"
It was a pointless order in one respect -- Egon, Winston and Ray were all moving to better spread out and cover the room, throwers at the ready, before the words left his lips. They'd done this too many times to need instruction. But there was always the chance that their entrance and the shock of impending battle would spur a stupid adversary to do something, well, stupid. Like fling itself directly at them, forgetting about its victim, currently located too dangerously close for any of them to actually get a shot off.
"Now wait just a minute!" the demon shouted. He pulled Harvey to his chest, wrapped both arms around him, and tucked the man's head under his own black goatee. "Nobody do anything rash here!"
"Oh, come on. Can't we ever get one of the stupid ones, just once?" Peter demanded. "Okay, let's get on with this, be a nice minion of hell and let the other minion of hell go, and we'll be nice and vaporize you fast and painlessly, sound good?"
"Wow, guys," Ray said, breathless with excitement. "He really does look like the devil."
"Yeah." Winston's single-word reply was laden with unease. Of them all, he was the only one who could be considered at all spiritual.
"Unbelievable!" raged the demon. "The bastards hired hitmen!" Claws spasmed slightly around the lawyer's neck, eliciting a whimper of panic.
"Hey, don't hurt him!" Ray called, anxiously.
"Yeah, 'cause then what's to stop us from killing you all slow and painfully?" Winston asked.
"Oh, I'm well aware that my hostage's value is contingent on the state of his health," agreed the demon. "But as of yet, he retains his life, and I feel it likely that both he and you hold it in some high regard, if you have not yet begun your attack."
Peter looked over at Egon. "Are you sure he's a Class 7? He's all bark and no bite, so far." He adjusted his equipment slightly. "If he's got any power, what's with the chatter?"
"I assure you, I am extremely powerful," Labartou said, "but I'm not all-powerful, I am certainly not omniscient, and I am not a fool. Certainly, I could start hurling bolts of lightning in your direction. And you would most certainly return the favor. Although I am unfamiliar with the toys you have brought with you, I have no doubt you believe they would be effective. It would all be very messy, with bodies, and injuries, and there's always the fluke chance I won't come out on top. I detest the use of violence when there are other, logical ways to proceed. So, shall we discuss this reasonably? I'm sure we can all come to some arrangement that's amenable to everyone. There's no reason for violence."
Peter cast an incredulous glance at Egon, whose left eyebrow had risen half an inch.
"An arrangement," Egon said, flatly.
"Indeed. We're all businessmen here. Whatever they're paying you, I can offer you something... better." The demon attempted to affect a casual stance, and failed miserably, as he forgot about Harvey and nearly toppled them both.
Peter laughed out loud. "Well, this is a new one. A demon trying to buy its way out of a bust. I don't think so, buddy. Not all of us can be bought by the likes of you."
"And yet, you can be bought by the likes of them? In what way does that make you superior?" Labartou righted himself carefully, propping up the trembling lawyer, and gave Peter a disdainful look.
"Hey! We were hired to do a job, and we're doing it." The trick now, of course, was to distract the opponent, a job that naturally fell to Peter. Peter made himself focus solely on the demon, but he knew that Egon would be discreetly checking readings, that Ray and Winston would be positioning themselves as closely as possible for any necessary action, and watching Egon for cues.
"Oh, I see. You're thugs, but you're professional thugs. You do the job you were hired to do, and break the knees you were hired to break, and can be trusted to keep your word that you'll do the job," Labartou spat at him.
"We are not thugs." Peter snapped, growing defensive despite himself. "We hunt and capture ghosts and other demonic entities. We provide a valuable service against forces of evil, buddy. And yeah, we need to make a living doing it, but maybe in your case, we'll make an exception." He inched closer.
Labartou was assessing him more carefully. "Forces of evil? Are you... from the Church?"
"God, no." It slipped out involuntarily. "We're private contractors. We'll take on any old otherworldly or supernatural force." He wondered at himself, presenting their resume to the entity they were here to deal with, but hey, time was time, and he could see Ray at the periphery of his vision, now.
"I see. So you enforce the will of humanity against that which you do not understand, and that which you fear," Labartou said.
"We defend the good against the evil," Peter corrected. "And we take a small, reasonable fee for our hard work."
Labartou raised both eyebrows at him. Peter found himself fascinated by the curly ends of his fine black mustache. "In that case, I apologize for my insulting comments regarding your profession, but I do not retract my offer. If it is justice you seek, then I assure you, it is with myself you should be allying yourselves."
"Sure. I'll buy that. And some bridges, and some swamp land. We've heard all about the kind of deals you make," Peter informed him amiably. Was Egon doing something on his left that he should be aware of?
"Perhaps you should not take everything you hear at face value. Certainly, not from the inhabitants of these offices."
"Now, now. Lawyers are people too. More or less."
"These lawyers are deceptive, conniving, lying cretins," Labartou hissed.
"What did they lie about?" Ray asked, sounding concerned.
Peter shot him an annoyed look. Leave this to Petey, Ray, he thought at him, but Ray seemed to be giving the demon's words far too much consideration. He was also giving away just how close he had gotten to the demon's position.
Labartou, though, seemed grateful for the apparent sympathetic ear. "I carried out a great deal of difficult work for them, and secured information for them that they would not have otherwise have been able to come by!"
"Like what?" Ray persisted.
"Oh, the usual," Labartou said. "Information about the law firm they were breaking away from, mostly, and some of their competition in the local area. Blackmail material to let them set up a firm despite their non-compete clauses. High profile case files so they could secure the best clients. A whole notebook full of information one which local police officers are on the take."
Ray gave him an appalled look. Peter noted with satisfaction that any hopes Labartou may have had about winning an ally had been lost in that moment. "That's awful!"
"I am not saying I am perfect," Labartou protested. "I'm just saying I did the job I was hired to do. I am unclear on why you appear to be judging me more harshly than those who would seek out such materials in the first place."
"Well, they're awful too!" Ray declared.
"And yet, you are not threatening them with your weapons!"
"Hey, there's no rule that says we have to love the lesser of the two blights upon the land," Peter answered smoothly. That's good, look at me again. "If it makes you feel better, we'll report what you've told us to the Bar when you're gone. Sort of like a memoriam."
"I have a valid contract with this office!" Labartou shook the trembling man in his grasp without seeming to realize it. "All I am asking for here is what was originally agreed upon. Extra time was requested before the debt was due, and I even agreed to that! They've done nothing but put me off and put me off! They finally claim they're willing to pay up, and what happens? It's a trick to lure me here and have me murdered."
"If it makes you feel any better, we're not actually going to kill you," Peter said consolingly. "It's more like a life sentence. For the better part of eternity. Or until the equipment fails. One or the other. Probably be out in a couple thousand years!"
Labartou drew himself up to his not insignificant height, stretching one massive red arm out to point at Peter to make some point. Harvey took the opportunity to raise his freed arm, and scrabble ineffectually at the bulk trapping him. Labartou gave him an annoyed look. "Stop that," he ordered crossly, shaking him again, like a dog with a rat.
Harvey stared at the red face and yellow eyes for one more long moment, and then passed out cold. Labartou looked down in distress at the now limp, but very solid bundle of flesh that was sprawled awkwardly in his grasp, arms and legs escaping in different directions.
It was an opening of sorts, and Ray, who always worried the most about civilian casualties in this kind of situation, took it. He reversed the position of his thrower, swung, and got a solid hit in on Labartou's back and shoulder. Labartou threw up an arm to block the next incoming swing, and lost his grip on Harvey. Winston darted in instantly, grabbing Harvey by the feet and hauling.
There followed a brief tug of war, with Harvey as the rope. Labartou gave it up a second later as Egon entered the fray, and Winston fell backwards, taking the lawyer with him. Peter raised his thrower to take advantage of the loss of the hostage, and found himself blinded by a flash of white light.
It took precious seconds of blinking to restore his vision. By the time it returned, Egon was down, sprawled over a chair. Winston was carefully laying Harvey down on the other side of the room. And Labartou and Ray were halfway out the door, locked in struggle. It was hard to tell who was holding on to whom. Peter climbed to his feet and threw himself after them.
"Yo! Devil Boy!" Labartou turned just as Peter reached them, swinging his right fist towards the demon's face with all the force he could muster.
Peter shrieked and tucked his hand under his left armpit. Labartou rolled his eyes and seemed disinclined to fall down. "Why even try such a pointless thing!" he demanded, completely ignoring the fact that Ray was pummeling ineffectively at his abdomen.
"Oh, so sorry to have bothered you with my broken hand," Peter snarled. "Pardon me if we're not used to getting into fist fights with the ghosts we bust, them being non-corporeal and all! Let go of Ray so we can shoot you instead!"
"I will not! You'll just--" At this point, Ray changed tactics, and bit him. Labartou screamed, and heaved him away. Peter threw himself to the side to avoid getting taken down by the flying body, and Ray instead hit Winston, on his way over to help them out. They went down in a tangle of limbs. Peter stayed just long enough to hear Ray begin an apology for knocking him down, and then he was out the door and the chase was on.
It turned out Labartou had not been fibbing about having power. Chairs, law books, files, and a variety of other painful objects rose to throw themselves at Peter as they raced down corridors and through offices. A water cooler upended itself and caused him to skid for six feet, flailing for balance all the way. A wall of flame rose up, and he considered going back to roll in the contents of the cooler to throw himself through, but instead darted through one door, around a corner, and found the trail of his prey again.
It occurred to him to wonder why the demon didn't just transport itself the hell off the premises about the time Labartou began his chant.
"Merle Oliver Ross! I, Labartou, will have my due! Present yourself to me!" The voice boomed hugely through the empty halls. "Malcolm Alistair Gillis, I will have my due! Present yourself to me!" It went on and on, infinite hallways and law libraries and rooms filled with cubicles all blurring past. Peter felt hopelessly disoriented by the chase through the office and began to wonder if this actually was some twisted version of hell. "Nigel Jason Rosser! Present yourself to me!"
Someone was running along behind him, but he was afraid if he stopped to find out who it was, his reserves would give out and he'd never get started again. Up ahead, a door slammed open so hard the walls shook, and Labartou boomed, "I HAVE YOU." Peter dredged up non-existent energy for another burst of speed.
Labartou did indeed seem to have them. The conference room at the end of the hallway was four times as big as the one they'd been ushered into, and ten times as well-appointed. Crystal glasses filled with liquor were being served to three impeccably dressed, but highly nervous-looking men. They huddled away from the demon as Peter entered. Annoyance flashed through him at the sight of Ross, and what were undoubtedly his partners. "The West Coast, huh?" he called. Although, come to think of it, it was possible he had just run all the way across the country.
Labartou spun to greet him. "You see! You cannot believe a word they say!"
"I never assumed otherwise!" Peter said. He pulled himself together, and leveled his thrower. On his right, another thrower hove into view, and he noted with mild surprise that it was Egon, not Winston, who had been keeping pace with him. His strong silent presence sent a wave of relief and renewed confidence through Peter, and he stole a second to shoot him a wry grin.
"I'm not your enemy!" Labartou insisted. "I have no quarrel with you! Leave these to me, and you can proceed on your way with no harm to you and yours!"
"Sorry, bud, no can do. And you're still assuming you're gonna win this."
"Because I am," Labartou said simply. "My power is greater than you can understand."
"And yet I'm still standing!"
"Because you are not my enemy! Why do you persist on treating me as one! What basis do you have for such hostility?"
"You want a basis? Here's one. Take a look in the mirror. You're the living, breathing, embodiment of evil, chum. It's what you are. It's your nature. You're here to trick and deceive us, and even lawyers are humans, in the end, and should be protected from the likes of you."
Labartou stood perfectly still, staring at him. "You judge me on my appearance then? Are you such a wonder to the eyes? Does all that is good reside within you? Have you no flaws?"
"Hey, I know what I am," Peter countered. "And yeah, beauty is skin deep, and all that crap. I'm vain and I'm pushy and I'm loud and obnoxious. But I'm not evil. I'm not like you."
Labartou gave him a look then that was uncomfortably measuring. Peter blinked as he found himself squirming in a way he couldn't remember doing since elementary school, when he'd tried to give Suzie Harmon flowers during recess. After six straight weeks of his calling her names and tying her shoes together, she'd justifiably suspected the worst, and preemptively belted him one.
It's just some kind of demonic trick, he told himself, but the stare continued, and Peter couldn't look away. A light sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead while his stomach seemed to lunge for his shoes. In the next second, every attempt at coherent thought was blotted out in a haze of white static.
IF YOU ARE SO SURE OF YOURSELF, THEN PERHAPS YOU WILL BE WILLING TO PUT THOSE PRECIOUS IDEALS OF YOURS TO THE TEST.
Peter yelped and tried to cover his ears, but couldn't seem to find his hands.
EVIL IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. WE DO WHAT WE MUST TO SURVIVE. WE TELL OURSELVES THE LIES WE NEED TO HEAR. HAVE THE POWER YOU DISTRUST ME TO WIELD. THE POWER TO DO ANYTHING, ANYTHING AT ALL.
Peter's scrunched his eyes tight, against the brightness. Was he still in the conference room? Were there other people here, hearing this?
ANYTHING EVIL, THAT IS.
The world fell out from under his feet, and with it the noise, the static, and all of New York.
They'd started with the essentials.
"Food and water, obviously," Egon proclaimed. Peter nodded. They were huddled together in the center of the cave, a psychological defense, Peter knew. There was light here, a comfortable yellow glow, with no discernable source. Peter didn't think the walls were glowing, but he wasn't ready to rule it out. He wondered if the light would go out at 'night.'
He squinted at the floor.
"Yes?" Egon gave him a worried look.
"How do you think I do this?" Peter gave him a worried look right back. He didn't feel any different. No tingly bits. No sudden deep omniscient knowledge as to how to alter the very nature of the universe, or maybe just summon them a grilled cheese sandwich.
"Well, obviously, you will it," Egon stated firmly, after only the most momentary of hesitations.
Peter rolled his eyes. "Oh, sure, of course. Obviously."
"He said you could do this, so it must be a matter of concentration, of focus, of..."
"He was a demon, and he was pissed off at me, and he stuck us in the middle of a mountain! I'm not sure taking him at his word is a great idea. Maybe this is just his idea of a really great joke! Stick 'em in a mountain, laugh a lot while they scrunch up their foreheads and concentrate until they starve to death."
A deep unpleasant silence descended while they both considered this. Peter waited for Egon to contradict him, and felt a franticness begin growing inside his chest as the silence stretched on. The firm lectures on foolishness and buffoonery and talking when he should be concentrating on the problem should have started at least twenty seconds ago. "Oh sure, I know what you're thinking. Peter's just panicking, he's totally overreacting and making up unlikely scenarios instead of logically working through the problem."
Egon's forehead wrinkled in thought.
"You're thinking I'm just trying to avoid a little hard work, ol' Petey can't even think hard, that's how lazy he is! But I'm just saying, how do we know this isn't how he gets his jollies!"
Egon utterly failed to commence lecturing.
Peter freaked. The critter in his chest tried to claw its way up his throat. "Well, I've had just about as much of this deriding my character as I can take!" he shouted. The slight echoing rebound of his own voice in the cavern caused him to hunch a little. "I'm clearly up to this task! There is no one sharper or more on the ball when it comes to the matter of food!"
And there they were. A dozen fresh-baked, wonderful-smelling, still hot, pizzas, with Grimaldi's logo scrawled across the boxes. Peter went jelly-like with relief.
"Indeed." Egon put a careful arm around Peter's shoulder and steered him towards the pizza. "Perhaps you should sit down for a moment." He suited actions to words, drawing Peter down with him, and reached for a box. "It was not that I doubted your ability, or your determination, Peter. Hmm. This has anchovies on it. It was simply that you were putting forth a valid argument. It was not necessary for Labartou to have been telling us the truth. In fact, this is an altogether extraordinary situation, and for an adversary to imbue you with such power, for evil or otherwise, is, well, extraordinary. I would not have predicted it. This one has black olives and... what is this?" Egon gave the contents of the second box a narrow look.
Peter leaned in to help with the inspection. "Ugh. It's that disgusting expensive cheese that Winston likes, that costs so much because they let it congeal for fifteen straight years wrapped in the intestines of a goat, or something."
"Thank you so much for that revolting, and I am sure, completely inaccurate image." Egon replaced the slice and moved on to the third box. "How about something to drink?"
After the pizza, and its accompanying panic, summoning a two-liter bottle of soda was a breeze.
Peter grinned triumphantly at Egon, and accepted a slice. "This isn't so bad. This is even sort of cool. If this is how it's going to be, we'll figure a way out of here in nothing flat," he promised. "Wait, what is this greenish stuff on top?"
Of course, it was nowhere near that easy. In fact, easy did not factor into it.
He couldn't teleport them home. He couldn't figure out a way to send a message to Ray and Winston. He couldn't drill a hole straight through the side of the mountain, and that one, he had really worked at, long past the point when Egon was irritably urging him to focus on more likely possibilities. And, it turned out, he couldn't bring them water.
"Really, Peter!" Egon waved a soda bottle at him. "We've got thirty of these already! What is so difficult about fetching water instead?"
"I don't know!" Peter hollered back, clutching his hair. Three straight hours of trying had produced nothing but every brand of soda known to man. "I'm not sure how I'm even doing this! You summon water out of thin air, if you think it's so easy!"
Egon fiddled with his glasses, and schooled his expression. "You are, of course, correct."
"I am?" He attempted to mentally retrace his words to determine what argument he'd been making.
"This was never intended to be a simple matter. Labartou set out a challenge for you. We must proceed to determine the scope of the tool he has left us, step by step. It is a puzzle, which must be approached logically, if the correct solution is to be ascertained. Let us take a look at what we have."
"Ah." Peter felt a sense of inevitability settle over him. This was his fate. Trapped in a mountain, forever-more the subject of a never-ending series of tests and experiments devised by Egon. Labartou was, indeed, the very devil.
"So far, you have successfully brought us soda, pizza, cheese fries, burgers, and a corndog. You have failed to bring us," he paused to level a gaze over the rim of his glasses, "water, the ham sandwich I requested, blankets, any of my scientific equipment from the lab, any type of long wave radio--"
"That last one wouldn't work anyway," Peter said, dismissing the suggestion with a wave. "We're inside a mountain, in case you hadn't noticed."
"I have noticed that we are in a cavern. The walls and floor are all solid rock. There are no apparent openings. One might, based on this evidence, conclude that we are inside a mountain." Egon settled firmly into professor mode.
"But you're going to tell me the other alternatives?" Peter untucked one leg from under himself and carefully stretched it out. He was getting too old for all this sitting around in uncomfortable caves.
"For all we know, the rock only extends a few feet. This structure could be located anywhere. That we are inside a mountain is one possibility. But we could also be at the bottom of the sea. Or, we could be out in space--"
"The middle of Times Square?" Peter suggested.
"It's possible that none of this is real! That we only believe ourselves to be in a mountain. That one or the other of us is imagining this, and that Labartou does not have this level of power, but rather, the power only to deceive! It could be a shared constructed reality in which we are both participating."
"Egon, first of all, you're entirely too enthusiastic about the possibility that we could be nutso, and imagining this," Peter watched Egon deflate the tiniest bit, "and secondly, we're in a mountain."
"You are sure?" Peter watched Egon unwrap his loving hold on the possibility of a constructed reality.
"Yeah, I am."
"Did Labartou tell you this?" he persisted.
"No. I don't think so. I... not in words?"
"But you did hear words," Egon fell upon the information Peter had relayed earlier. "We must assume that Labartou was being very specific," he continued. "He told you that you would be able to do anything... evil."
"Anything evil," Peter repeated. "So... so what? Fetching us water isn't evil? But fetching soda is? Because it's not good for us, or something?" He looked down at the can of root beer in his hand. "Can we survive on carbonated beverages?"
"Would it be evil to teleport us home?" Egon asked.
"No," Peter said instantly. "Sending us home would be a good thing. We'd be safe, I'd have rescued you, I'd be a hero. And don't think I missed the fact there that you didn't answer me about the soda thing."
Egon gave him an exasperated look.
"Well, I would be, and you didn't. So... so. I can't do it? Because it's not evil."
"Because you don't think it's evil," Egon corrected. "Labartou was correct, in that respect. The notion of good and evil are human constructions."
Peter mulled it over in his mind. "I'm sorry. I'm sort of glad. Uh. That I can't send you back. I mean, I'm sorry you got pulled into this with me to begin with, though. But now that you're here..." and he went down, trailing off in a hopeless tangle of words and emotion.
Egon looked mildly surprised at the confession. "It's not unreasonable to not want to be alone in such a situation, Peter," he said. "And I certainly would not want you to have to experience this alone. Our chances of success are exponentially better as a team."
"Well, yeah, sure, that." Peter again tried to find a more comfortable position on the ground. "But also, what if I could teleport you out of here, but couldn't teleport myself? I can't get messages through. I'd sit here wondering if I'd gotten it wrong and you'd ended up embedded in rock halfway through the side of this mountain. And what if that actually happened? I have no idea what I'm doing here."
"Well, when you put it like that, let's just stick with the theory that my rescue would indeed, not be evil, and not attempt it," Egon said dryly. He leaned over, picked up a slice of pizza, and balanced it on the fingertips of his hand. "What about the pizza?" he asked. "Bringing us food, even junk food, could be classified as a 'good' thing, rather than evil, since it will, after all, keep us from starvation."
"Yeah, but it's stealing." Peter paused, suddenly uneasy with how sure he was of the answer. "It's... this is a real pizza. It didn't just appear from thin air. It's from Grimaldi's. I must have taken it right out of their kitchen. That's a lot of pizza for them to lose without anyone paying up."
"Ah." Egon brightened, unburdened by Peter's encroaching guilt over the pizza theft. "This is most interesting, and logical. Labartou was concerned with what he felt was, shall we say, your narrow-mindedness."
"Hey! I am not narrow-minded." There was no comfortable position to be found. Peter wondered if there were any inherently evil chairs he could summon, or if evil chairs were also necessarily uncomfortable chairs. This led to strange, vague thoughts about shadowy evil agencies mass-producing chairs of evil, many of which he'd encountered during his educational years. A way of steering the young down the wrong road, and into their clutches. Egon's voice snapped him back to the present.
"All of us are, Peter. It's simply that most of us are never put in a position where we have to examine our core beliefs this closely. He's put you in a position where, to live, it may be necessary to do that which you would judge ill of others for doing."
"Oh, so he thinks I'll just throw my own moral code out the window to save my skin."
Egon raised an eyebrow at him.
"I'm going to ignore that insinuation about my moral code, Egon."
"We must find the perfect balance. Something 'evil' enough to allow us to escape, while avoiding damage which cannot be reversed, or mitigated. Labartou himself was willing to engage in enterprises which we would deem criminal, yet was loath to do us physical harm without provocation. We must assume the solution would not necessarily require such deeds of us, or rather, of you."
"Uh huh. Egon?"
"Do you think there's an evil furniture manufacturers' association in collaboration with another dimension, attempting to infiltrate our world through the school system?"
"Please, Peter," Egon looked pained. "It's far too early for your mind to be cracking from the strain of imprisonment and isolation. Save us something to look forward to."
It took all of four hours of trying to sleep on hard rock for discomfort to spur creativity, and help overcome a little more of Peter's moral integrity. Egon rubbed silk sheets between thumb and forefinger as though inspecting an alien specimen. "These are quite... extravagant."
"Yeah, well. Evil expects the best." Peter bounced slightly, checking out the springs. "And this... this is evil. Man, talk about froofy!" He admired the vastness of it, the nymphs carved into the posts, and the velvet lilac canopy. "We might even be doing the world a favor, removing something this evil from eyesight."
"But it is still stealing."
"Yeah, well." Peter shrugged uncomfortably. "We'll... find a way to take it back."
Egon's silence was eloquent.
"Okay, maybe not. We'll pay for it later? I can't get a normal bed, I tried. And we have to be able to get some sleep while we're here, so that we can think our way out of this."
"Perfectly rational justifications," Egon noted, calmly.
"I'm aware of what I'm doing, you don't have to point it out to me. I wouldn't want to sully your ethical code, Egon. After all, you were mainly an innocent bystander in this whole thing. So please, feel free to sleep on the floor rather than take advantage of my ill-gotten gains."
Egon swatted him with a plush lilac pillow.
There were some things that even Evil simply needed.
Peter stared, utterly fascinated.
"But how does it work?"
"Peter, for once in my life, I have to admit, perhaps there are some things man is not meant to know."
"No, really," Peter balanced himself on his forearms as he peered at the pipes vanishing into the solid rock floor. "I mean. We're in the middle of a mountain. There's a toilet here. And it... works. Where the hell is it going! Are we piping this stuff to the center of the earth? Is our waste polluting the habitat of deep underground dwellers of another, yet unknown species? Are we environmental criminals? What makes this evil?"
"Peter," Egon's voice held just the slightest trace of impatience. "I don't know. Clearly, it shouldn't be possible. What were you thinking when you summoned it?"
"That I really had to go."
Egon shrugged at him and fidgeted ever so slightly, uncomfortable with the clearly supernatural plumbing, and his lack of ability to provide any rational scientific explanation for how it could exist.
"Hey," Peter brightened and climbed to his feet. "Hey!"
Egon eyed him warily. "Yes?"
"If this works, do you think we can get cable in here?"
By day five, Egon was getting somewhat frustrated.
"I don't believe we are attacking this problem strategically." He tapped his keyboard and squinted at his own carefully recorded notes. "For all that we've tried, all we've really managed to do is summon material possessions into this cavern. I'm not even sure I understand the basis of what allowed you to do it, in some cases."
"Like what, f'rinstance?" Peter asked, without looking up. He was hunched over the bar, reading furiously. Dehydration had been staved off when it had turned out that seltzer water could be summoned in conjunction with alcoholic beverages. As a result, Peter now had the equipment, the liquor, The World's Best Bartender Guide: How You Can Mix the Perfect Drink, and the will to do exactly that. It was important for Evil to have Goals.
"Well, this computer, for one. Much though I am grateful to have it, it would only seem to aid in our predicament. This fact would seem to outweigh the evil of its theft." Egon sighed, casting another wistful look at the machine. Peter hadn't had to ask what to summon; Egon had left a brochure of the model tacked to his bulletin board for months now. The hardest thing about summoning it had actually been avoiding his own unsettling thoughts about just how satisfying it had been presenting it to Egon, and watching the expression on his face.
Peter snorted and waved a hand currently occupied with a small red bottle in Egon's direction. "That one is easy." He peered suspiciously at the bottle. The liquid inside it was the right color, but the label was not in any language he recognized.
"Oh? Please, feel free to enlighten me."
"All Evil Overlords have teams of scientists with fancy computers to do their bidding." Two teaspoonfuls couldn't hurt anything.
"Peter, for the last time, I am not a henchman."
"You know, actually, a lot of Evil Overlords have secret lairs inside the middle of mountains, too." Something cold and fizzy cascaded over his hand and distracted him from his contemplation of where he'd place the missile silos.
Egon arched an eyebrow at his Overlord as the chemical reaction really took off and started heading towards Peter's precious hoard of gin. Peter mopped futilely at it with his shirtsleeve.
Evil didn't have much use for washcloths.
By day eight the trash situation was getting a little out of hand.
"I just summon it," Peter defended himself. "It's not my fault we live in a consumeristic society with all this damn packaging."
"And yet, our space here is limited, and we are clearly going to be here some time, while we work out the solution to this problem. We must find a way of dealing with the detritus before it overwhelms us." Egon gave a grunt. He was flattening the pizza boxes in an effort to conserve space.
Peter shoved a sundae dish towards the growing pile of glassware. "You know, your efforts at discovering new and varied ways of saving our personal environment are only going to do us so much good. Glass won't fold down. Styrofoam can be mushed, but you can only go so far. And I am not flattening out those boxes the cheesy fries came in. They're all covered in... gunk."
"If you would just summon us a sink, we could, in fact, wash the glassware," Egon said with some asperity.
"I've tried. Honestly. But Evil doesn't do the dishes, Egon. Evil could give a crap about the environment. Evil likes the Styrofoam."
"Evil doesn't live in squalor!"
"I think that depends on the particular Evil, actually..."
Egon took a deep breath and collected himself. "Perhaps we are looking at this from the wrong angle. To this point, you have mainly conjured items into this cavern. But there's no reason you can't send things away, as well."
"I tried that already, remember?"
"You tried to send us away," Egon said. "And yes, I agree, saving us by teleporting us from this place would be a good thing, not evil. "But the same doesn't necessarily apply to objects other than ourselves. It depends on the item, and the act. It's the interpretation that matters."
Peter let the notion roll around his head a moment. "So you're saying, if I can put a spin on getting rid of the garbage that would be evil, I can clear this place out, even though cleaning up the cave itself would be a good thing?"
Egon winced. "Don't start thinking about the positive aspects of teleporting the garbage away. You'll only make it more difficult to accomplish your goal."
"Yeah," Peter nodded. "Like, everyone litters already, so just tossing it in the street is probably not evil enough."
He gave the garbage his most nonchalant look. The garbage sat and decomposed back at him.
"What do you think about throwing it in the river?" Egon suggested. "I intensely dislike suggesting such a thing, because of the environmental aspects. But it would not directly harm an individual, and is a fairly evil act."
They simultaneously darted shifty-eyed looks at the garbage. The garbage sat, haughtily impervious.
Peter shrugged. "I didn't think that one would work. I know you think it would be terrible, but the river's pretty much just a liquid landfill and unofficial cemetery already. I'm amazed we don't get more calls out there."
Egon tapped the frame of his glasses with his index finger. "It's a fine line, clearly. Something evil, but not injurious. Something, perhaps, fairly subtle in its nature."
"Hey, you know what would be funny? Teleporting this trash right into the Mayor's office! Now that would be a scream... oh."
The garbage departed with an audible whumph of air displacement.
"Oh. Well. Heh?" Peter gave Egon a weak smile.
At two weeks in, tempers were beginning to fray.
Peter wanted, more than anything, to run. Despite his self-professed laziness, he loved to run. The cold bite of air, the burn in his muscles, the place he went in his head where he could run forever, his own two feet could take him there. Winter days were best, when the summer super jocks and health nuts were tucked safely under blankets with hot cocoa and remote in hand, and the paths were relatively clear, no obstacles to be avoided.
He couldn't even summon a treadmill, and he didn't want to admit to Egon he'd tried, much less how hard he'd tried. There was nothing Evil about running. It was freedom.
He could feel his muscles atrophying, converting themselves into silly putty. He needed to move.
He'd sat in silence and sulked at first, but over time, the sulking had turned into true depression. Egon didn't question his silence. Egon was furious with him.
"Why won't you even try?" Egon demanded, irate.
"You're the one who's always telling me to think ahead to the consequences of my actions," Peter snapped back. "You're asking me to try things blind, here."
"I'm asking for some level of experimentation, yes. If we don't test our theories, how can we learn what is and is not possible?" Egon clutched pen and paper like they were weapons.
"How am I supposed to know if something worked, if I can't see what's happening? Carve words into the side of the mountain, why don't you Peter. Send a message! Saying what, exactly? We're trapped inside a mountain, but we have no idea where? How do they get to us, even if they see it? What's the point?" he demanded.
"It is possible you will simply know it has worked, as you have evinced strong intuitions several times regarding these matters since we've arrived here. The point is discovery, as with any experiment." Egon looked as though he were dealing with a particularly unruly kindergartener.
"And if it does work, and the reason it worked is because some mountain climbers were in the way of my all-powerful mountain carving rays?"
"The mountain was just a hypothetical, Peter," Egon ground out. "I am putting forth suggestions, to spur creativity, which is more than can be said for you. You shoot down everything I put forward with some snide, flippant remark."
Peter felt darkly happy at the emergence of Egon's rarely seen temper. He was sick of calm logic in the face of what could happen here, if they screwed up.
"We have unlimited power here," Egon continued. "We could take over the airwaves, and control people's televisions. You could blast this mountain apart. For all we know, you could change the nature of reality, so that we could walk through the mountain to freedom. I'm asking you to try."
"Yes, because you think I'm not trying," Peter replied, pissed off, and trying to bury his hurt. "Like I haven't spent every waking moment feeling sick about what could happen. Taking over the airwaves gets us no further than carving words in a mountain. How many people die when I take this mountain to pieces? We change the nature of reality, and then what? I can't change it back. And right after that the Evil Overlords Society presents me with a plaque, because really, who can top that? Oh wait, except for the part where they'll all be dead. Ooops."
Egon opened his mouth to retaliate, and Peter cut him off before he could begin.
"You're the brain! You come up with a solution that's evil, really evil, that I'd actually be willing to try, as you so condescendingly put it. You name the magic 'evil' that's our key to freedom. Because I've tried greed, and I've tried sloth. I was all over the pride thing before we ever got here, and I'm not unfamiliar with envy. I think we've both covered the gluttony thing recently, and anger? Hoo boy. I've got the sins down cold, so if Labartou wanted to point out my failings, I think he's accomplished his goal."
His voice had leveled off at some point during his rant. Now it was just as cold and logical as anything Egon could manage, and it hurt him to listen to the words coming from his own mouth. "I just don't see how it helps us. So you tell me, Egon, how long do we chisel away at what I think is wrong until suddenly, it doesn't seem like such a bad idea to trade a life for a life? Until I teleport you out, replace you with someone else I don't know or care about, and let them rot inside this mountain instead? Until I don't even mind being in the mountain, because it means I can have everything I want. Labartou didn't put us here to solve some scientific puzzle. He put us here to show me anyone will eventually do whatever they have to, to save their own skin."
He waited for Egon to say something, but Egon just stared at him, expressionless.
"You tell me what the answer is, Egon. When you come up with it, you let me know, and I'll try."
Three weeks in, and Egon snapped.
Peter lay sprawled on his stomach across the width of the bed, head dangling over the side, and stared at the ground. The canopy provided the only illusion of privacy available in their Hell Cave, and Peter had retreated here once he was sure Egon's brain was still in solid working order. The floor, he felt, was overdue for close inspection.
The merest displacement of air and canopy somewhere near his feet indicated Egon's arrival.
"I don't want to fight anymore, Egon," he told the floor tiredly.
"This is not your fault, Peter," Egon's voice came, soft and resolute. "It was both unfair and cruel of me to appoint blame for the situation."
"My mouth got us here, if I recall," he disagreed.
"The risks we take on any bust are the same. We go into them armed with the knowledge of what might happen, and of the roles we will play on the job. You have always taken it upon yourself to make yourself the target so that the rest of us might proceed more safely."
"That's me, all right," Peter agreed. "Selfless, heroic Venkman."
Egon ignored the bait. "I'm not angry at your refusal to try, Peter. I'm angry at my own inability." The words were bitter. "Because you are right. The fact is, my creativity has failed me. Intelligence, my own personal sin for the pride I take in it, has not provided the answer. As much as I might argue that evil is a notion created by society to control chaos, there is nothing I would have you try, when the outcome might be something intolerable."
Peter sighed and rolled onto his back. "We were never meant to find an external solution, Egon. You said it when we first got here. It's not about what I can do, it's about how I feel about what I'm doing."
There was a moment of startled silence, and then the bed sank slightly as Egon joined him. "You've been working on another theory? That the solution Labartou wished you to seek would be something of an internal nature? It's certainly possible, given that it was your... attitude, to which he objected, that the goal of this exercise might be purely mental. Something subjective--"
"You know, Egon, I'm starting to think you're the one who hasn't thought about this logically." He couldn't see Egon, but he knew the stiffly affronted look that would be growing on his face now. He sat up to spell it out more clearly.
"I have attempted to analyze the situation methodically, and thoroughly. Where is it that you believe I have failed?"
"That's the problem. It's just a puzzle to you. This isn't numbers. It's not an equation. It's evil. Labartou wants me to do something I consider evil. Well, the things I consider evil, really evil, aren't just theft, Egon. It's not the pizza that's the problem." He gestured wildly at the stack of boxes. "It's Grimaldi. It's the fact that he's a real live person, and I've met him, and his wife, and I know how much work he and his family put into making that place run. Evil isn't about wanting things, it's about who you hurt if you don't care how you go about getting things. There's nothing wrong with having all these toys if it doesn't hurt anyone. But let's face it, we took what we wanted to make ourselves comfortable. We hurt someone, somewhere, trying to make a living. Not a big hurt, but one more little thing to chip away at them, to make their lives harder, to chip away at our resistance to kicking the puppy in the street."
"You think Labartou wants you to hurt someone before he'll free you from this cave."
"Hasn't that been obvious since we arrived? I'm not here alone, Egon. There's only one thing in this hellhole that he sent along for the ride. Everything else is something we brought in."
Egon's face grew increasingly disbelieving. "You think Labartou wants you to hurt me."
"Why else would you be here?"
"If that was the case, then why me? Why not Winston, or Ray? Why not all four of us?"
"Because that would just be kinky." The retort was so automatic, so easy, he couldn't believe he'd said it for a moment. He watched the words spiral off into the ether, intangible, impossible to call back. He gave serious consideration to teleporting himself into the nearest wall.
Egon blinked at him.
"That... that was a joke." The words were feeble, and saying them made it all the more clear it hadn't been. Guns were evil, right? Despite distinctions the gun lobby might make, he could summon a gun--
"I do not believe it was."
Peter desperately avoided looking in Egon's direction. "That's because you have absolutely no sense of humor. Born that way. It happens some times. They'll have genetic testing to prevent that kind of deficiency in the future, so don't worry, you won't have to pass it on to your children." He was Peter Venkman. He could recover from this verbal catastrophe. He had a golden tongue. Only not literally, for god's sake, let's hope that little bit of imagery didn't come true, the way the thing with the Jacuzzi had.
"Peter, are you attracted to me?"
"Egon, if you can't take a joke for what it's worth, maybe we'd just better get separate caves, you know?" God, it was like digging his own grave with his fingernails. It occurred to him that in all the time they'd been here, he'd never once tried to summon a simple shovel.
"How long have you felt this way? Why have you never said anything? Did you say something? Were indications made which I, perhaps, failed to notice? I admit, Peter, sometimes, well, regarding... social issues, so to speak, I can sometimes be, as it were, somewhat oblivious, although I would like to think that if a statement of such importance were made, in any form--"
"Because." The desire to stop Egon's horribly convoluted self-introspection helped force the word from his lungs, despite the implicit admission it brought with it.
"Because." Egon repeated, and then waited, gazing at him patiently.
"Because." Peter crossed his arms defensively.
"Peter." Egon's voice was implacable. "We are stuck here for eternity. Do you really think I will not wear you down eventually?"
Peter hugged himself tighter and glared. "Because that really would be evil."
Egon looked positively shocked. "Peter, in all the time I've known you, I have never actually thought that you were, by the standards I judge people, narrow minded. Surely you do not actually believe that someone's sexual preferences--"
"Of course not! Not that kind of evil. Egon, weren't you listening? Evil's about taking what you want even if it will hurt other people. Evil is screwing up a good thing for something you can't have anyway."
"What is it you think you cannot have, and how do you know when you haven't asked?"
Egon was back to his horrible, inescapable analytic self, and Peter couldn't handle it in the context of his own horribly embarrassingly jumbled feelings. "I just know. And I don't want to talk about this. Can we please discuss our inevitable horrific deaths, and how anthropologists will someday discover our remains here, and the resulting scientific furor will earn approximately five undeserving students their PhDs, and probably create at least three new religions?"
"Fine!" Peter shouted. "First of all, you're straight. So, I tell you how I feel, and where does that get us? With me feeling really, really, stupid, for starters. And then with you being all polite and sympathetic, and awkward, and then always having it in mind, no matter what we do. And then with Winston or Ray figuring it out, because neither of them is all that stupid, and because you'll be all awkward around me, the way you are whenever you're around someone you think is attracted to you. And Ray, when he figures it out, first he'll be shocked, and then he'll be happy for us, and then he'll realize there's nothing there, and he'll be worried about his friends, and at the same time? He'll be sort of hurt, because he'll think I like you more than him, and that's just so Ray."
Peter was aware he'd snapped as thoroughly as Egon's earlier break, it was just expressing itself in his own uniquely embarrassing format. At some point he'd risen to his knees, and was now kneeling on the bed, arms waving. "And Winston? I don't even know! He'll probably be really polite, and try not to notice, but he's religious, and we've never discussed the subject, and I don't know how he'd feel about it, so the next thing you know, we've broken up the team, all because--"
Egon grabbed him.
Normally, Peter would have shrugged him off. He could take Egon in a wrestling match. Normally, about this time, he'd have recovered his glib, his calm, his patter, and this would have been the point when he'd have struck a pose and demanded they never bring up any of this again. He'd have called upon their friendship, and it would have worked.
But Egon, being Egon, had struck with Egon-like intelligence and precision, and now his brain had other concerns, and the whole talking thing wasn't high on that list.
He curled up around the hand. "Holy crap, Egon!" he gasped. Egon had climbed up onto the bed behind him, and was wrapping himself, octopus-like, around Peter's torso. His other hand also clearly had goals, but it was hard to focus on what they might be, since most of his attention was divided between trying to determine just how Egon could have snaked a hand right down his trousers like that, and what that hand was currently doing now that it had reached its destination.
"Take off your shirt," Egon ordered, tugging at the fabric.
"I will not! Oh, hey!" he panted. "You can't just grab someone like this! We were in the middle of an arg... a discussion! And I could totally have you arrested for this!"
"Call a cop," Egon suggested, working at a button.
"You're straight! You have a thing for Janine! You don't, you're just, uh--" he lost his train of thought.
"Peter," Egon was fumbling with zippers. "How long has Janine been our secretary now?"
"Uh... is that a math question?"
"And in that time, has she ever played, what you would describe as, hard to get?"
"You have got a concussion. Hey, don't put that there. Your head--" Peter wrapped his hand around a length of cloth and tried to determine who it belonged to. Either way, it was obstructing the process.
"Peter, if I had any interest in Janine, don't you think that I would have done something by now? Or perhaps you thought I was waiting until just the right time? Perhaps when we were both entering the same Eldercare Facility?" Someone was tugging at his shoe, but he didn't know how it could be Egon, since Egon was clearly involved with various other body parts.
"I would have known! I mean, if you were interested, like that, and other things--"
"Not all of us feel the need to discuss matters of intimacy and the heart with all and sundry, you know. Some of us," Egon grunted, and suddenly, there was a good deal more skin-on-skin contact, "place a premium on privacy, oh, hmmm, Peter, perhaps you could move onto your side..."
"I am not sundry!" Peter, who had always assumed he was actually fairly familiar with Egon's body, between the occasional good-natured rough-housing, terrifying visits to the emergency room and intensive care unit, and the lack of regard he gave his housemates when it came to issues of bathroom privacy, was finding Egon's body to be intensely more complex than he'd imagined. Also taller, lankier, and bonier. "And even if that's true, you're moving awfully fast here! What about the whole getting to know one another, and the dating process, and the--"
"I have been stuck in a one-room cave with you for twenty-one days now, Peter," came the sardonic reply. "Even if our previous years of friendship had not resulted in a level of knowledge that I can truly say I share with very few people, I believe it is fair to say that I now, unfortunately, have more intimate knowledge of your body, your thoughts, and your habits, than most dating couples would care to possess."
"You think sweet nothings like that are gonna get you some nookie? Huh? Do you?"
"I think," Egon breathed into his ear, "That Evil is no fool."
"Peter," Egon's voice rumbled low and deep, a vibration Peter could feel through his chest.
"You know, I hate to ruin the moment."
Peter went still. "I have a suggestion. Don't."
"No, seriously, Egon."
"If that was the perspective that you needed to, overcome, shall we say..."
"I'm not joking, Egon. I will kill you."
"We're... still here."
They were still there when they woke up again, eight hours later, after Peter's foiled attempt to smother Egon with a pillow that had led to, necessarily, some more fooling around, and then some more warm and cozy spooning and snoozing.
Egon wasn't saying the words this time, but he kept making facial expressions, and rolling his eyes in various directions, until Peter heaved his breakfast sundae at him and destroyed the bedspread.
"That's going to need to be replaced if we still have to sleep on it," Egon noted primly.
"Yeah, whatever. Silk's totally not all it's cracked up to be anyway. I kept... slipping... at important moments." Peter made a gesture at Egon that would have gotten him arrested in at least five states.
"Hmmm. Yes. I was thinking about that," Egon said, reflectively
"You... uh. You were?" Peter wondered how much embarrassment was called for.
"I was thinking that there is much on this subject that we should seek to educate ourselves regarding. Perhaps a book is called for. Is the theft of a book evil, when balanced against its inherent existence as... a book?"
"Don't worry, Egon," Peter leered at him. "The books I'll bring us? Will definitely qualify as evil."
They were still there two days later. Peter shrugged at Egon. "Well, we could panic now. Or, we could really put this book to use."
Egon never even looked up from his reading.
Four days later, Peter woke with a start. Egon was kneeling over him, with a feral, greedy gleam in his eyes that Peter had never seen there before.
"If indeed, we truly are stuck here, trapped in this place, and must resolve to make ourselves as comfortable and happy here for an indeterminate length of time, in order to stave off madness, or cabin fever, or other related sensory deprivation diseases, we must endeavor to occupy our minds and bodies in new and interesting ways."
"Isn't that what we've been doing? I could feel a little insulted here."
"There are things that I'm going to want, Peter." Egon's smile was positively predatory. Peter felt his interest, among other things, quicken.
"Yeah? Okay, say the word!"
"I have, in fact, made a list." Egon waved not a list, but an actual sheaf of paper at him.
"Uh, well." Peter stared at the pale sheets and illegible writing. "Maybe we should start slow. Like you said, we're gonna be here a while, we wouldn't want to do it all at once--"
"For starters, I would like you to conjure up Professor Morovsky's geostatic analyzer."
"You want... you... what?"
"Next, there is Professor Tupikov's Transmission Laser Microscope. That miserable son-of-a-bitch. He snubs me every time I drop by the Karasov labs. It's supposed to be open to requests from outside scientists to make use of, for short periods of time. It encourages independent scientists who would not otherwise have access to such equipment. And yet, somehow, my name always ends up at the bottom of the waitlist, while he stands there and sneers about 'ectomaplacisity' and 'black magic' and how it's a pity I couldn't get a job at an actual university, and had to join the snake oil crowd to make a name for myself." The gleam in his eyes was no less intense, but his attention was clearly focused inwards as he spoke, Peter's presence as audience half-forgotten.
"Egon." Peter tugged blankets back up around himself in disgust. "You woke me up in the middle of... of the time during which I was happily sleeping, dreaming all sorts of depraved and lustful dreams, many of which I intended to see if could be replicated in a waking state, to demand I conjure up scientific equipment? From fellow geeks you have a grudge against? When you could be making lists of all sorts of perverted items we could be gathering from our local leather and--"
"And then there's Morgan. That untalented little ninny. He cheated off my tests in college for years, and then toadied his way up the ladder, that miserable, bootlicking--"
"Geez, Egon. This is seriously unlike you. I had no idea you had such a vindictive streak."
"If Evil cannot give us at least a little vengeance against that penny-pinching miser, Donovan Lyons, who I am convinced stole those three books from Ray's room, after he had scoured the city for them, than how can it even hold its head up in public, without Good laughing at it?" Egon demanded. "And after all, many great philosophers have stated that we should embrace the darkness within us, to better understand what we truly are."
"Isn't there something else you'd rather embrace?" Peter wiggled hopefully.
"We have all eternity, Peter," Egon replied distractedly, peeling off the first sheet of paper. "But in the meantime, I'd really like to ruin that cocky little know-it-all Harrigan's day. Can you imagine his face! He'll have to explain it to the board, how he misplaced a brand new, half-million dollar piece of equipment for which he specifically lobbied, assuring them of the long-term value to the institute--" Egon's face took on a demonic cast as it filled with positive glee at the notion.
Peter sighed. He was pretty sure True Evil got some whenever it felt like it.
The floor of the bunkroom was nothing near as comfortable as the silk-sheeted, four-poster bed, and the initial resentment of waking up stiff and pained momentarily pushed aside the realization that it was, in fact, the bunkroom floor he was waking up on. Peter blinked in disbelief, then threw the down comforter to one side, and scrambled to his feet, using everything at hand as leverage.
Egon yelped and sleepily protested being used as a ladder. "Egon! Wake the hell up! We're home!"
"What?" Egon went from sleep to full alert in nothing flat. Peter spared a second to hate him for the ability as he stumbled over his own feet and barked a shin against his very own bed.
"We're home! Shit..." he hopped and clutched at his leg. "And underdressed! What time is it! What day do you think it is! God, the guys must be insane by now. They've probably had our memorial service. Do you think the mayor came? Hey, do you think they saved the newspaper clippings? We could check out who--"
"Peter, with all due respect to your agitated state of mind over this admittedly wonderful turn of events, would you please cram it?" Egon struggled to his feet. Peter blinked at him. Egon looked as pale and clammy as the belly of a dead fish in this light. And he was giving Peter an assessing look that he suspected indicated a month without natural light hadn't done him a whole lot of good either. "We really could use some clothing before we proceed further. And maybe we should schedule a weekend or two at the beach."
"They must be going," Peter repeated, wrenching open the closet door, "absolutely nuts! Here, wear this!" He scavenged frantically through the contents, hurling various unmatched garments in Egon's direction. "And here, look in the dresser, grab some socks, aww, man." He stopped, pausing to stare in dismay at the black turtleneck he found himself holding.
"What is wrong?" Egon looked up from his search through the underwear drawer.
"This stuff is so... cheap. I miss my new wardrobe already."
Winston and Ray could not have been further from panicked concern if they'd rented a private jet to avoid it, like an unloved visiting relative, in favor of a nice day on a private tropical island. They sat like bookends on the sofa, a bowl of popcorn balanced between them, eyes glued to the TV set. Luke sailed heroically across the screen, Leia plastered to his side.
Egon gaped, possibly more astonished by this turn of events than anything that had preceded it. Peter managed a faster recovery time. "What the hell!" he shouted. "I mean! I mean, what the hell! Star Wars! Where are the machines! Where are the gadgets and the dusty tomes and the charts and spells and the volunteers all dedicated to helping find us! Where are--"
"PETER!" Ray flew to his feet, smile as big as the entire room, spun, and leaped the sofa back. Winston yelped and dove to save the popcorn. "You're back! We missed you! Wow, it's so good to see you! You look... you look really white. Are you okay? Are you hungry?" He flung his arms around both of them with just that extra bit of vigor that defined a Ray-hug, and knocked their heads together in the process.
No force on earth could prevail in the face of Ray's true happiness and joy at seeing them, certainly not Peter's mildly affronted dignity or sore skull. Egon made a small grunt beside him, but it seemed like a fairly happy pained noise. Peter pried an arm free from the clutch, and gave an awkward one-handed hug in response. "Okay, so maybe you were researching how to use The Force to bring us back. That works for me." He peered over Ray's shoulder. "Hey there, Zed."
Winston gave him a slow, easy-going grin in return, set the popcorn down, and trotted over to join the huddle. "Hey there, homeboy." He pulled back and patted Peter on the back. "Right on schedule, I'm glad to see."
"Right on...we... what?" Peter let Ray lead him and Egon back to the sofa, fussing all the way. "I didn't realize our return to civilization and freedom had been calendared in."
"Oh, sure," Ray said, fluffing pillows as though they were invalids. "Labartou said it would be exactly thirty days until you came home."
"La..." Peter felt the name die in his throat. He stared at Ray, disbelievingly.
"Ray." Egon's voice, of course, was level and calm. "Perhaps you could explain more precisely what you mean by that statement."
"Pretty much what he said." Winston perched on the arm of the sofa, socked feet on the cushions, and faced them. "Labartou said, well, he said a hell of a lot, really, but after he'd calmed down, and stopped calling Peter's ancestry into question, he told us that he couldn't really undo what he'd done, but that he'd put a time limit on it of thirty days, and you'd be back wherever you really belonged at the end of that period."
"But." Peter gaped at him. "But he said the way out was through evil! About... all that crap about changing one's perspective about what evil is, as opposed to what it does, and how it's all in the eye of the beholder, and... he said the only way out was for me to change my perspective!"
"Well, he was lying, Peter," Ray explained reasonably. "He said he was just really mad at you for being such a narrow-minded bigot. You know, basing so much importance on appearance, and all that stuff. Believing the lawyers instead of him without hearing both sides of the story. But he said no one could really change someone else's mind about something, that sometimes all you could do was give them the time and space to reflect."
"That... that..." There were no words. Peter shook. "I want my power back! I'll show you evil! I've changed my mind! Thirty straight days and it never occurred to me to boil that bastard in oil! To turn him to solid lead! To set entire continents of lawyers against him--"
"You couldn't have, anyway, Peter," Winston told him, without an apparent ounce of sympathy. "Labartou was powerful, but he wasn't that powerful. He wasn't like Gozer, or some of the other nasties we've come up against, or he'd never have needed to deal with the lawyers to begin with. And he sure didn't give you the full extent of his powers when he put you in that cave."
"What exactly happened after we departed the premises?" Egon asked. "It sounds like there was a good deal more that we missed, through the fact of our incarceration. I take it you came to a reasonable compromise, of some type? Certainly it does not sound as though Labartou is now residing in our containment unit."
"Oh please," hissed Peter. "Tell me he's down there. In his own, wonderful little demon-filled, metallic, extra-dimensional hell."
"Sorry, Peter." Years of experience with Ray made it fairly easy for Peter to deduce that Ray was not at all sorry. He was, in fact, shelling out platitudes. Ray grinned back at his stormy expression, cheerfully impervious. "He really wasn't all that bad a guy, for a demon. He was certainly a lot nicer than those lawyers."
"Boy, that's the truth," Winston muttered. "Sons of bitches. Only reason we're not in court right now for breach of contract is because of what Labartou threatened to do if they gave us any more trouble."
"Fine, I get it. I misjudged the demonic hell beast," Peter spat. "What did you do about the original contract?"
"Oh, we made 'em fulfill it." Winston's grin had become sly as he anticipated their reactions.
"What?" Peter and Egon cried in unison.
"But, Winston..." Peter protested, shocked.
"They sacrificed their souls?" Egon looked disturbed.
"Gosh, no! Labartou never wanted their souls!" Ray exclaimed.
"Specifically, he said he wouldn't go anywhere near the twisted, yellow, ugly things, for fear of contamination," Winston added wryly.
"But... what did he want, then?" Peter demanded. "What the hell did we go through all of that for?"
"Cash," said Ray, simply. "Oh, and some stock options. The firm was supposed to be handling a portfolio for him, some long-term investments, things like that. But when he came to collect, over a year ago, they told him it was a bad time to cash out, that the market would be better in a few months."
"Yeah, and then a few months after that, and a few months after that..." Winston took up the story. "Which was just their way of obscuring the fact they'd never shelled out the cash for his investments to begin with, figuring there was no court in the land that would hear the case, much less find in favor of a devil."
"But he could look like a person," Egon objected.
Ray shook his head. "That was a lie, too. Labartou can only look like exactly what we saw. That was one of the reasons he got so mad at Peter. He always has people jumping to conclusions about him. He worked for the lawyers so they could handle the things he couldn't go do in person himself. And sometimes he needs things from the human world, so he has to have agents here."
"But he could summon anything he wanted," Peter protested. "What does he need cash for!"
"He can't actually summon anything. Just small stuff, really, and apparently, he can twist metaphysics a bit, he said. But he said that kind of thing was stealing, and can have unintended consequences, and that he didn't really like to do it, outside of an emergency," Winston told them. "He said he'd be interested to know how much you'd take advantage of that capability, after all your preaching."
Peter wondered if his skin was actually burning. Someone would mention if it were, right?
"So he told you guys all of this and then... what? You went out and had a beer with him?" When in danger of dying of humiliation, deflecting attention to a new subject was a good tactic. "Even if you decided to side with him against the suits, you didn't feel the need to twist his arm a little to get us out of our month-long stay in Cave Med?"
"We tried, Peter, honest," Ray protested. "But he really couldn't undo it once it had been done. The spell just had to run its course."
"Uh huh." Peter didn't believe it for a second, and was glad to see a similarly skeptical expression on Egon's face. He glanced at Winston, who shrugged.
"If he could, he wasn't giving that fact up to us," Winston said firmly.
"We really are sorry, Peter, Egon," Ray said, taking on blame entirely more suited for red-skinned, mustachioed creeps. "Was it awful?"
Peter and Egon glanced at each other, and then away, just a little too quickly.
"It was... frustrating, Ray," Egon said. "But it was also enlightening. However, I am extremely glad it is over. And," he stood up, "glad though I am to see you all again, and much as we have to catch up on, if you don't mind, I'm going to take a few moments for myself, to have a shower."
There was a moment of silence as both Ray and Winston tried to pretend they weren't sniffing.
"Well," Winston said after a moment. "You don't stink."
"Gee, thanks, Zed." Peter stole some popcorn. "That means a lot to us."
"Hey, I wouldn't have mentioned it if you had. Okay, yes, I would have. But you seem fine for two guys in a cave for a month. Was there water?"
"Not exactly. We, uh, improvised. Actually, we had a Jacuzzi for a while," Peter replied. "But it was an Evil Jacuzzi. We had to send it back."
"How can a Jacuzzi be evil?" asked Ray.
"Truly, Ray, you don't want to know," Egon said on his way out the door. "Don't tell him about the Jacuzzi, Peter. I'm serious." He disappeared from sight.
Peter shrugged at Ray. "Sorry, kid. You heard him! No Jacuzzi stories." He climbed to his feet and stretched. Winston gathered popcorn and paper towels and began straightening up, while Ray just hovered, as though watching closely enough would prevent further disappearances.
"Gee, Peter, it must have been hard. Was it awful? Did you get enough food? Is there anything you need?"
"Actually," Peter said slowly. "The thing I'd like to do most, is go for a run. A long one."
"I guess you didn't get much exercise in a cave, huh," Ray nodded sympathetically. "No fresh air."
"We got enough." And again, with the whole speaking before thinking thing. The words had been far too satisfied, too smug. But it was okay. Ray wouldn't get it, he told himself, frantically. Ray was the last person who would come to that conclusion--
One careful, slow, deliberate hair turn, an oh so subtle glance, and it was clear that Ray had Got It. His face suffused with shock, followed, in short order, with beaming, delighted satisfaction.
"Gosh, Peter, that's great! I thought you'd never figure it out!"
"What?" Peter's head whipped the rest of the way around.
"Don't tell Janine, though," Ray begged. "She'll be so angry no one's ever explained it to her before this. I have to go talk to Egon. Hey, Egon, wait!" and then he was through the door and pounding his way up the stairs.
"What?" Peter repeated stupidly to the empty space Ray had occupied. A hand clapped onto his shoulder, and there was Winston, grinning knowingly at him.
"Well, if thirty days in a cave didn't do it, nothing ever was," he told Peter complacently, then collected the tape from the VCR. "Ray's right about Janine. That's really going to be a problem. Glad it's your problem." He patted Peter once more on the shoulder, then followed Ray out of the room.
Peter stood in the empty living room and stared at a wall. "What?"
The wall did not answer.
He closed his eyes, and thought about caves, and friends, and demons.
"I am going to go for a run!" he shouted to the firehouse at large. "I will return when my feet are bleeding stumps! When I return, we will celebrate with good food and large quantities of alcohol!"
From somewhere upstairs came an enthusiastic affirmative response from Ray, and a muffled shout about booze and bills from Winston rose from the lower floor.
He jogged up the stairs, full of cheer and energy. His jogging clothes were in their proper place. His bunk held only the mildest traces of slime. All was right with the world.
It wasn't until he was back on the first landing, dressed and ready to go, that he realized what he'd done.
"Ray!" he shouted. "RAY!"
"What, Peter?" Ray hollered from above.
"Ray! Don't cook! We'll handle that when I get back."
A door crashed open above, and the sounds of Egon cursing and slipping on wet tile as he rushed into the hallway to catch the exchange were all too clear.
"It's okay!" Ray called down, "I don't want to spend time cooking either, it's just been too long since you were gone, we have to catch up! I called it in and told them to be here in two hours!"
Peter felt dread paralyze him. It was like standing on a train track, hypnotized by the oncoming lights. What with all the good sex, and the finally being home, and the team not breaking up, and even being happy for him, he'd forgotten the most important thing of all.
"I got us pizza, old man Grimaldi himself will bring it over! With all our favorite toppings!"
He'd forgotten that Evil Never Wins.
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