DREAM SHADOW - Part 1

by Neetz



She sat alone in her room, her expression carefully blank. Even if it seemed no one was around, she knew there was always a chance of her being observed. She couldn't allow anyone to catch her, so she had willed herself never to move a muscle in her face, never to so much as shift her eyes or lick her lips. When she was fed, or bathed, or prodded to walk, she made a point of making it difficult for her caretakers to get even an involuntary response from her. To the world, she had to appear to be nothing more than a vegetable. She couldn't let them discover she had found her way out of the dark pit of madness to which she had been so cruelly consigned. Not yet. Not until the time was right. And that time would be very soon now.

Behind the catatonic facade, her mind was always working, reaching out to touch those around her, seeking anything that might help her carefully made plans succeed. For months she had languished in emptiness, in a place so deep within herself that she couldn't find her way back. Slowly, oh so gradually, she had found the path that led to awareness, using the stray thoughts of those around her as her guides out of the darkness. When at last she had emerged, she was able to recall the events that had plunged her into her very own hell and once she remembered, her mind filled with the strongest, most violent emotion of all: hatred. And the object of that hatred had a name.

Peter Venkman.

For a long while after the awareness returned, she would sit alone and seethe silently with anger, aching for a way to exact revenge for what the mortal had dared to do to her. But the obstacles to that sweet vengeance seemed insurmountable. She had to have a plan, and a plan would take time to formulate. But time had no meaning anymore. There was no day or night, no passing hours or days in her prison. So she contemplated all the ways and means of claiming her rightful retaliation for the crimes he had committed. She knew she could not confront him directly. That strategy had been tried and resulted in ignominious defeat. She dared not even reach out to his mind for fear he would recognize the touch. The way must be subtle and cunning. A thousand scenarios were considered and discarded. And then, suddenly, like a gift from the gods of malevolence, the first piece in the puzzle fell into place.

She would always remember the day it happened. She had been taken to the television room along with the other inmates of this asylum. She never looked at the screen, never risking exposure, until she heard the reporter on the news broadcast describing the latest exploit of New York's famous Ghostbusters. The word stirred something in her mind and as she tried to place it in some semblance of context, the on-scene reporter announced he was about to interview a spokesman for the paranormal elimination team, Dr. Peter Venkman. If anyone had been watching her at that moment, they would have been amazed to see her head turn and her eyes fly to the television screen.

There he was, smiling and enjoying every minute of his celebrity. It was all she could do not to fly into a rage, to scream at the top of her lungs at the injustice and tear the television apart at the sight of him. She might have done just that, if not for the wildest stroke of luck. The face of her enemy had brought to her mind another memory of past association and she was startled to realize the thought had come from someone else.

Immediately, she focused her inborn telepathic abilities and scanned those in the room with her. Most minds were unclear to her, a few she could read only the strongest of thoughts and emotions. Strangely enough, that allowed her to read the thoughts of many of the insane about her whose minds were a chaotic jumble, but none of them were the one she sought.

At last, she found it, and her eyes flicked once more, away from the screen and toward the white uniformed woman who sat across the room from her. She recognized the nurse who had often attended her. To her delight, she found the woman's thoughts open to her, one in a hundred to which she could connect in such a complete way. She narrowed her focus tighter, picking up every thought and emotion of the attractive blonde. What she read made her smile inside where no one could see. At last she had it. The key.

She had been exceedingly patient over the next few weeks, keeping her focus on the ever more familiar thought patterns of the nurse, seeking out information she could use for her malevolent purposes. Never did she allow her eagerness to push her into undue haste. The way must be clear; the plan perfect. She would not fail again.

The more she learned, the more confident she became that the strategy she had envisioned would work. Once it was conceived, she set out to put it into motion. Step by careful step she laid the groundwork. Slowly and with infinite patience, she planted the seeds of memory. A touch here, a stray thought there, planted in the mind of the nurse as she slept. She had learned the art of subtlety and with a sculptor's precision, she reshaped memories, planted new thoughts and thereby crafted the means to her goal.

Now. Now was the time to put the first phase of the master design into motion. Soon she would use her pawn to trap the betrayer. Soon he would suffer as she had, with one difference: his suffering would never end. The pit from which she had emerged had held its own dark secrets. Those secrets were hers now to own and to use. Out of the madness she would call forth the ultimate weapon.

But it was not yet time. First, the plan had to be set in motion. One move at a time until the game was hers.

Behind the blank face, deep within the confines of her mind, the sandman's daughter was laughing.

***

Egon Spengler raised his head from the notes he had been studying when he felt Peter nudge him gently in the ribs. The face of the man sitting on the sofa next to him held a bemused expression as he nodded across the room toward Winston Zeddemore. A moment in observation of the ex-soldier and Egon understood Peter's amusement. For the past few days, Winston had been engrossed in a new mystery by one of his favorite authors. The fact that they had been inordinately busy of late had limited the time the avid mystery buff had had to spend with the novel. Now, finally, he was able to sit down for a reasonable stretch of time, and was completely absorbed. Egon returned Peter's smile before going back to his own reading, but took note as Peter began to saunter over toward the chair where Winston sat. He took a position behind the older man, leaning carefully on the back of the chair so he could read over Winston's shoulder. After a few moments study, he glanced back at Egon, his smile turning to a broad grin.

"I bet Ashley did it," he whispered into Zeddemore's ear. The sudden sound coming from an unexpected direction caused Winston to start as he spun around in the chair to look up at Peter. As he did, the book fell from his hands and closed as it hit the floor.

"Peter!" Winston cried in exasperation. "Look what you made me do."

Egon, his expression properly disapproving, clicked his tongue at Venkman. "Yes, Peter, you should know better than to sneak up on someone when they are so deeply engrossed. It's ill mannered."

Winston gave the physicist a look that told him he didn't buy the innocent act. "You ought to know," he told him. "He's done it to you often enough when you're working on something in the lab."

"You're evading," Peter pointed out. "I said I bet Ashley is the murderer."

"Sure, Pete," Winston replied. "And you could tell that from looking over my shoulder for a few seconds?"

"Few seconds?" Peter shrugged. "Why, Winston, for all you'd have noticed, I could have been standing back here for an hour."

Winston shook his head. "No way, you haven't got that much patience."

"Excellent deduction," Egon approved, "based, no doubt, on your extensive knowledge of the perpetrator."

"Well, it certainly wasn't from keen observation," Peter laughed as he stepped around the chair and picked up the book. He studied the cover for a few seconds. "You know, this author is getting too predictable. It's clear Ashley offed her husband because of her affair with Robert."

Winston frowned. "You been reading my book behind my back?" he asked.

Peter fell back on the sofa next to Egon, laughing uproariously. The blond couldn't keep his lips from curving in amusement. "Actually, that's exactly what he was doing," he pointed out.

Winston suddenly realized what he had said and immediately saw the joke. Despite a valiant effort, he couldn't contain his own laughter.

"What's so funny?" asked Ray Stantz as he walked into the room.

"Winston just made a most erudite observation," Egon replied.

"Yeah," Peter struggled to catch his breath. "Our very own Sherlock Holmes!"

"Oh, the mystery?" Ray asked. "Did you figure out who did it already?"

"No," Winston replied, "but Pete thinks he knows after reading over my shoulder for a couple of minutes."

"Really?" Ray asked, innocently ready to believe his long-time friend could be so gifted.

"No," Winston replied. "Not really. He's just trying to be irritating. He hasn't got a clue what's going on."

"I still bet you Ashley did it," Peter insisted. "And I'll bet you a pizza from Mario's that I'm right."

"You're on," Zeddemore replied, reaching over to recover his book from Venkman.

"Frankly," Venkman said, "I'm surprised you haven't already figured it out yourself. What's the matter, Winston? Your powers of deduction slipping?"

Zeddemore's only response was to shake his head and roll his eyes.

"Aw, Peter, you know Winston always solves them before he's halfway through them."

"Most of the time," Zeddemore qualified. "This author puts so many twists and turns into his plots, they're a real challenge. That's why I know Peter is just blowing hot air as usual."

"We'll see," Venkman smiled assuredly.

"Don't let him bother you, Winston," Ray advised. "You know how Peter enjoys yanking our chains." He looked down on the psychologist. "And you know very well how good Winston is at figuring out who done it. I bet if he hadn't become a Ghostbuster he would have made a great detective."

"And look at all the fun he would have missed," Peter replied.

"There are times," Egon observed, "that his deductive skills have come in handy even as a Ghostbuster."

"Yeah," Winston injected dryly. "Trying to figure out what page I was on before he made me drop it." He paused as a thought came to him. "Or like when I have to solve the mystery of why I've run out of clean shirts."

"Oh, that one's too easy," Ray replied. "It's because it's Peter's turn to do the laundry."

"Very good, Dr. Watson," the ersatz Holmes smiled, turning his attention back to his search of the novel.

"All right, all right," Peter leveraged himself off the couch. "I can take a hint. The solution to this game of Clue is Dr. Venkman in the laundry room with a hamper!" He trudged toward the stairs, stopping at the first step to look back at Winston. "By the way, it was page 104."

Winston hefted the book in an feigned threat to heave it at Venkman, but Peter turned and fled down the steps.

"Now how'd he know that?" Ray asked.

"When he wants to, Peter can be quite observant," Egon noted.

"Maybe so, but Ashley isn't the killer. She's too obvious."

"Perhaps that's what the author wants you to think," Egon pointed out.

Winston looked at Spengler with narrowed eyes, but Egon had already gone back to his notes, so he returned to his novel.

Ray paused for a moment just to watch his two friends as they each were once again engrossed in their own pastimes. A gentle smile played across the youngest Ghostbuster's face. Sometimes after they had just barely survived a threat from the supernatural world it was easy to realize how lucky they were, but it was at times like this, with them all safe and relaxed and happy, that Ray truly realized just how lucky he was. The early years of his life had been anything but secure and contented. It hadn't been until Columbia, when his path had crossed those of two upperclassmen, an unlikely pair that seemed as different as night and day, that Ray's luck had changed. With Egon and Peter, he not only found two men whose interests coincided with his own, but two people he could trust with his life, and even more, a family to which he could truly feel he belonged.

Where the cynical Peter and even the pragmatic Egon would often question the fortuitous nature of their meeting, Ray never had and never would. Ever the optimist, the young engineer and occultist simply accepted that it was as it was meant to be and was simply grateful the fates had smiled upon him.

With a deep contented sigh, he turned and headed down the broad staircase to the ground floor of the old converted firehouse that served as the headquarters for the world's first, and only, paranormal investigations and eliminations firm.

"Hi, Janine," he called out in greeting even before reaching the bottom step.

"Morning, Ray," the red-headed secretary replied, barely sparing him a glance up from her computer terminal. "No calls yet this morning."

"I guess that's good," Ray said, his tone belying his words and signaling his suppressed disappointment.

"As busy as it's been the last few weeks, I'd think you'd be ready for a little downtime," Janine commented.

"We are all kinda beat," he admitted, "and I suppose you can have too much of a good thing. But wasn't it exciting?"

Janine shook her head. Ray would never change. "By the way, who lit the fire under Dr. V?" she asked. "He seemed almost cheerful when he headed down to the laundry room to do the wash."

"He scored a few points at Winston's expense." Ray sighed. "Gosh, it really is good to see Peter so happy, isn't it?"

His wistful tone caught Janine's attention and she turned her gaze on him with a pensive smile of her own. "Don't you ever tell him I said this, but, yes, it is. After what happened last year, I wasn't sure he'd ever bounce back completely."

"We were very lucky," Ray nodded.

"In more ways than one." The comment came from behind Ray as Egon came down the stairs to join them. He offered Stantz a smile as he patted him on the shoulder, but his gaze moved to Janine and lingered there. "In more ways than one," he repeated, his tone heavy with meaning that Janine clearly understood.

As the shared look continued, Ray cleared his throat. "I guess I'd better get down to the containment unit and run the checklist."

"You do that, Ray," Janine said, her eyes never leaving Egon.

Ray chuckled quietly to himself as he headed for the basement. Some things remain constant, like the guys and the way they had always been there for each other, but some things changed, and change could be a good thing.

As soon as Ray disappeared, Egon closed the distance between himself and Janine's desk, perching casually on the corner. She rested a hand on his knee which he covered with his own. "Yes," the secretary said softly, "I think we all came out of that nightmare with a lot to be thankful for."

Egon gave the hand under his a little squeeze. "How did you do with the tickets?" he asked.

"Just found someone online that's willing to part with a pair for $100. I'm afraid that's the best I can do."

"Well, considering the symphony concert has been sold out for weeks, I'd say that's pretty good. Grab them and we shall have ourselves a well deserved night out."

Janine offered him a quick salute with her free hand. "You got it." Egon reached across and caught that hand too as he leaned over and gave her a gentle kiss.

"Ahem."

The sound brought the two heads apart immediately.

"Sorry if I'm interrupting something," said the man in a dark gray pinstripe suit and carrying a briefcase who stood just in front of Ecto-1.

"Uh, no," Egon fumbled to recover his dignity as he quickly rose from the desk. "We were just..."

"Can we help you?" Janine asked, obviously realizing Egon may have come a long way in being able to express his feelings to her, but he hadn't come far enough to be comfortable being caught in the middle of such an expression by a complete stranger. Egon gave her a quick look of relief and hoped their visitor would allow the moment to pass. He did.

"My name is Bennett Parsons," he said, drawing a business card from his inside jacket pocket and handing it to Egon. "I'm an attorney with the firm of Kelley and Brown."

The physicist exchanged an uncomfortable look with Janine. "What can we do for you, Mr. Parsons?" he asked warily.

"I need to speak to Dr. Peter Venkman on a confidential matter of the utmost urgency."

His phrasing left little room for Egon to question him about his intentions. "I believe he's downstairs. I'll get him for you."

As Egon turned slowly, still watching the lawyer with distrust, Janine pointed him to take a seat and offered him a cup of coffee, which he declined.

"I hope you aren't planning on causing any trouble for Dr. Venkman," she told him, not feeling as constrained by the man's words as Egon had.

"I'm sorry," he smiled. "I can't discuss this with anyone but Dr. Venkman."

"Lawyers," she said under her breath, but not quietly enough that Parsons failed to hear her.

A few minutes later, Egon and Peter emerged from the basement and Parsons stood up to meet them.

"Dr. Venkman?" he asked.

"Yes," Peter replied somewhat apprehensively.

"I wonder if I could speak to you in private."

Peter studied the man a moment, then glanced at Egon and Janine before turning back to Parsons. "Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of my friends."

It was the lawyer's turn to hesitate. "Very well," he said finally. "I am here in fulfillment of a client's will. Do you happen to have a video recorder?"

"Yes," Egon replied. "Upstairs."

"A part of my duty to my client requires that I play a video tape for you. Could we adjourn there now?"

"This way," Peter indicated the stairs. Parson started in that direction and after another glance at his friends, Peter followed. Egon hesitated.

"Go on, Egon," Janine whispered. "A will means someone died. Peter shouldn't be alone."

Spengler nodded, reaching out to give Janine's hand a final squeeze before heading after the others.

As they stepped into the family room, Winston looked up from his book. "Hey, Pete. Laundry done already?" When he noticed Parsons, he glanced from him back to Peter. "What's up?"

"Winston, this is Mr. Parsons. He's a lawyer and he says he has something to discuss with me."

Like Egon and Janine, the mention of the man's profession brought suspicion to Winston's eyes.

"Dr. Venkman, I really think it would be best if we didn't make this a public discussion," Parsons insisted.

"I already told you, Mr. Parsons..." Peter began, but Winston rose quickly.

"Hey, it's okay, m'man. I was just about to go get something to eat anyway." As he stepped past Peter, he briefly rested his hand on the psychologist's arm. "If you need me, just yell," he whispered. Peter nodded.

As Winston left, Egon appeared at the top of the stairs. "Peter," he said. "If you would prefer I leave..."

"No," Peter said firmly, then turned to Parsons. "You said you were fulfilling the terms of your client's will. Who was your client?" As he asked the question, Egon could see the tension in his friend's body as he dreaded the answer to that question. Egon was sure the first possibility that had leapt into his own mind was the first person Peter had thought of-his father. It had been months since they had heard from the old con man and in his line of larcenous endeavor, the possibility was always there that someday Peter would receive a visit like this from a stranger bearing the news that Charlie Venkman was dead.

"My client was Mary Elizabeth Titus Marshall."

Peter frowned in concentration. "Mary..." Then the memory clicked in. "Mary Titus?" He turned to Egon. "You remember Mary? She was a nurse. We met when I was in the hospital after that run in with the Wickenburg Manor ghost."

"Yes, I remember," Egon replied. He remembered it very well because at the time, Peter had seemed to been on an emotional roller coaster following the breakup of his relationship with Dana Barrett, their first customer after the formation of Ghostbusters. When he met Nurse Mary, Peter had fallen for the lovely blond woman on the rebound, and had seemed more enamored than his usual casual flirtations. He had, in fact, dated her regularly for three or four months until, quite suddenly, Mary had broken up with Peter in favor of a wealthy young doctor. Egon remembered Peter mentioning they were married quite soon afterward. It had hit Peter rather hard at the time, coming so soon after his rejection by Dana, but he had bounced back and by now, the incident was far in the past. He watched his friend closely for his reaction. Recalling his time with Mary and the way it ended would be difficult for Peter. With the news that she had died, it could be even worse.

His worst fears about his father having been allayed, Peter seemed momentarily relieved, then as memories took hold and realization set in, his brow wrinkled once more. "How did she die?" he asked.

"Mrs. Marshall was killed in an automobile accident last night. Per her instructions left with her employer and several friends, our office was notified immediately. It was very important to Mrs. Marshall that we contact you as soon as possible in the event of her death."

Peter shook his head in confusion. "Contact me? Why? I hadn't even heard from Mary in... ten years."

"Could we sit down, Dr. Venkman?" Parsons asked. "This will take a bit of explaining."

Peter nodded as he and Egon sat on the sofa. Parsons took for himself the chair that Winston had vacated.

"About two months ago," the lawyer began, "Mrs. Marshall came to see me in order to draw up her will. She seemed a little nervous at the time. A lot of people are, but hers appeared to be a little more than the usual uncomfortableness of having to deal with final arrangements. She admitted to me that she had had a premonition that something was going to happen to her and she felt an urgent need to prepare for the eventuality."

"What about her husband?" Peter asked.

"Dr. Marshall died of a heart attack about two years after they were married. After that, she relocated to Chicago and only recently returned to New York."

"Mr. Parsons, I still don't understand what all this has to do with me," Peter replied.

"I think perhaps it would be best if we played the video tape Mrs. Marshall made for you and let her explain in her own way."

"She made this tape just for me?"

"Yes, but she asked that I remain with you as you watch it so that I could answer any questions you might have. I was there when she recorded it, so I already am aware of its contents."

Peter hesitated, then nodded. "Okay, let's see it."

Parsons handed the video tape to Egon who put it in the machine and turned both it and the television on with the remote control. He sat back down next to Peter in time to feel the slight stiffening of his body as the image of Mary Marshall came on the screen. She was older, but still the lovely woman Egon remembered. The sense of age came from small lines on her forehead and a certain sad weariness in her eyes. When she smiled at the camera, it was forced, and her nervousness was signaled by the way her hands unconsciously twisted the handkerchief she held in her lap.

"Hello, Peter. This is awkward for me and I know it will be for you. It's also very hard for me, so hard that this is the only way I could face you. The only way you'll be seeing this tape is if I'm dead and past facing whatever your reaction is to what I've done." Peter leaned forward a bit toward the screen.

"When we first met, I thought it would be fun to date a Ghostbuster. You guys were so famous, you hadn't been in the business very long and everyone was still in awe of you and what you'd done when Gozer came. And it was fun... and so much more.

"I know you felt some of the same thing that I did. At first, that was all it was, just fun. But the more we saw each other, the more I knew I was falling in love with you and I'd like to believe you cared for me, at least a little bit more than just another date." Peter clasped his hands together in front of him, his gaze intent. "I grew up poor. You know that. At the time, you guys were making a lot of money, but I was afraid it was just a fad, that your work would dwindle away. I know this sounds very materialistic, but the most important thing to me then was security. I thought there might be a future for us together, but the prospect of being poor again scared me to death. So when I met Mark Marshall, I encouraged him. He was not only a well-established surgeon, making quite a lot of money on his own, but he came from an old Boston family that was very wealthy. I thought that's what I wanted, so I broke off with you when Mark asked me to marry him."

"Peter, I know I hurt you when I walked out on you. I think a part of me wanted to hurt you so you would hate me and I would never have to see you again. I wouldn't blame you if you hated me."

Egon noticed the slight shake of Peter's head. He hadn't hated Mary. He had been confused and his self-esteem had taken a blow, but he had recovered quickly. Egon always believed the potential had been there for a relationship with Mary, but for Peter, it hadn't gone far enough for him to truly feel committed. He knew his friend hadn't blamed Mary for the breakup, he just had never quite understood what had gone wrong.

"What I'm about to say to you now, Peter, is the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. It's something you had a right to know about a long time ago, but I couldn't tell you. After Mark and I were married, I discovered I was pregnant." Peter gasped and his hands reached to the edge of the sofa for support. "When I told Mark, he was elated... until I told him it wasn't his. Then he was furious, but his pride wouldn't let him admit to anyone that his wife was about to have another man's child, so he made me promise never to tell anyone. Even his parents believed the child I was carrying was their grandchild. When the baby was born, Mark arranged things where it appeared I had delivered prematurely, so there would be no question of his being the father." She looked down at her hands for a moment. "Mark was a good man, really. I think he truly loved me and he was a good and loving father to the baby. But I learned, too late, that I didn't love him, that I had given up my chance at real love for security. I always regretted my decision, Peter. I never stopped caring about you.

"When Mark died, I thought about contacting you. I wanted to tell you about your daughter."

"Daughter," Peter breathed almost too softly for Egon to hear.

"But I realized it was too late. It had been over two years by then. I was always hearing about you on the television or reading about you in the newspapers. Occasionally, the gossip columnists would mention that you had been seen out with some lucky woman. You had gone on with your life. I knew if I told you, it would look like I was using our child to try and get you back. I didn't want that. I thought it would be better if you never knew. I moved to Chicago, to get away from the constant reminders of you and to put some distance between myself and Mark's parents. I was afraid they'd find out about the child or worse, try and take her away from me. They always believed Mark married beneath his station." She laughed sadly. "Maybe they were right.

"Anyway, last year I moved back to New York to take a job in a hospital on the outskirts of the city. One night, I saw you on television and it all came back to me. I still believed it would be best for you not to know, so I did nothing at first. Then I started getting these strange feelings. I never used to believe in premonitions, but then, I never used to believe in ghosts before I met you. Maybe I'm crazy, but I'm afraid something could happen to me and I don't want to leave Emma all alone." She smiled. "That's her name, Emma Kathleen. Oh, Peter, she's a beautiful little girl. She has your coloring, brown hair and green eyes. She's smart as a whip and stubborn along with it. She's had to grow up without a father, but I've given her all the love I had in me to give. She's my whole life, and if anything happens to me, I have to be sure she's taken care of." Tears began to stream down her face. "Please try to understand why I did what I did. And please don't hold my actions against Emma. I just want her to be safe and happy and I believe you could take care of her better than Mark's parents. If they became her guardians, they'd be bound to figure out that she wasn't Mark's child and I don't know what they'd do then. Please, I'm begging you, Peter. Take care of our Emma. She can seem very grown up at times, but she's still just a little girl inside. Please don't let her forget that I love her." She closed her eyes against her tears and suddenly, the image disappeared as the screen went black. It took Egon a moment to remember to turn it off. As soon as he did so, he dropped the remote on the coffee table and put his hand on Peter's arm.

"Are you all right?" he asked quietly.

Still staring at the darkened screen, Peter let out the breath he had been holding almost as if someone had punched him in the stomach. "I-don't know, Egon. I don't know how I'm supposed to feel."

Parsons cleared his throat. "Mrs. Marshall's will names you as the child's father and as her guardian, but only if you consent to accept the responsibility. She specifically requested that Dr. Marshall's parents not be informed of her death until after you had viewed this tape and had time to come to a decision. In the meantime, the child is in the custody of a friend of Mrs. Marshall's, Aggie Anderson, and her husband. She has been told of her mother's death, and Mrs. Anderson tells me she has reacted by shutting herself off from everyone. She feels the child needs time to come to terms with her loss."

Peter shook his head. "What she needs most is to know that she isn't all alone in the world."

"Mrs. Marshall's will also established a trust for the child to provide an allowance for her financial support until she's eighteen, at which time she will inherit the remainder of the estate. It isn't a large inheritance, but it should be sufficient to provide modestly for the child."

"Emma," Peter said, almost to himself, then turned to Parsons. "The child's name is Emma."

"Uh, yes, of course," Parsons replied. "I realize this has all come as a bit of a shock to you, Dr. Venkman, but I will need your decision as soon as possible."

"Decision?" Peter asked, looking at the lawyer as if he couldn't fathom what he was talking about.

"If you decide to refuse guardianship of the child-er-Emma, I am to contact Dr. Marshall's parents and turn her over to them. Despite Mrs. Marshall's fears, there is very little chance of them discovering the truth about her paternity. According to medical records we researched, you and Dr. Marshall had the same blood type. Dr. Marshall also had brown hair and green eyes, and I'm told the girl's facial features resemble her mother. The Marshalls are quite wealthy, as I told you previously, and would undoubtedly be able to provide for her quite well."

"You're saying you think I should just say I don't want her and turn her over to them?" Peter asked in disbelief.

"All the medical records indicate Dr. Marshall as the father. The only evidence to the contrary is in Mrs. Marshall's statements, both on video tape and in writing and those papers are confidential, to be released to you only according to her instructions. As her attorney, it is my duty to follow her wishes, but she has left it up to you, and it is quite a burden she is asking you to take on. If you feel you aren't up to it..." He let the remainder of the sentence go unsaid.

Egon could feel Peter's arm trembling beneath the hand that still grasp it. "Peter, it is a lot to think about. Perhaps you should take some time and..."

"No," Peter shook his head firmly. "She's my daughter, Egon. I can't turn her away. Mary knew that. Maybe I didn't know she existed but..." He lowered his face into his hands. "She should have told me, damn it! She should have told me."

"Yes, she should have," Egon agreed. "But for her own reasons, she felt she couldn't. It was wrong for her not to tell you, but there is no changing what has happened. This has all been too overwhelming a revelation for you to make any quick decisions. You need to at least take enough time to let all the ramifications of this decision sink in. Then you can decide what to do for the good of all concerned, especially Emma."

"There is no decision," Peter replied, then looked at Parsons again. "How soon can I see my daughter?"

The attorney reached into his briefcase and handed Peter a large manilla envelope thick with papers. "The Andersons' phone number and address are in here. I'll inform them to expect your call. The envelope also contains copies of the will and trust forms, the affidavit wherein Mrs. Marshall names you as the child's natural father, Emma's medical and school records and other personal papers of Mrs. Marshall that she directed be turned over to you. There is also a letter to the child that Mrs. Marshall wanted you to give her. I don't know the contents of that letter."

Peter's hands clutched the envelope in a vice grip.

"Peter..."

"Thank you, Mr. Parsons," Peter said jumping to his feet, breaking Egon's grip. "Tell the Andersons I'll contact them before the end of the day."

Parsons stood. "If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me."

"Yes, thank you," he replied quickly as he started to move quickly toward the stairs. Egon reached out and grabbed his arm again. Peter's anguished eyes flew to his friend's face. "Let go, Egon, please."

"Peter..."

"I just-I just have to get out of here right now," he replied, pulling away again, pushing the envelope into Egon's hands and rushing down the stairs out of sight. Egon felt a tightness in his chest as Peter's expression remained imprinted in his mind.

Parsons stepped around him into his field of vision. "As her attorney, I was duty bound to follow Mrs. Marshall's instructions, Dr. Spengler. Personally, I admit that were I in Dr. Venkman's shoes, I don't know what I would do. It's a heavy burden to ask someone to undertake the raising of a child he hadn't even known existed and I couldn't condemn him for passing the responsibility on to the Marshalls."

"He would condemn himself, Mr. Parsons," Egon told him. "Right now, he's acting purely on emotions. He isn't yet able to consider all the implications of such a decision. But in all honesty, I don't think time and reason would sway him. He simply is incapable of turning his back on his own daughter and the responsibility he feels."

"Your friend seems to be a very compassionate man. I sincerely wish him and the little girl the best."

"Thank you, Mr. Parsons," Egon replied as the lawyer turned and headed down the stairs.

Egon sank back down on the sofa. His own thoughts, he realized, were tied up in his emotions, leaving him in a state of confusion. If he felt this way, how much more had this affected Peter? He couldn't get past the look in his friend's eyes and the myriad of emotions he had seen there. The pain, the anger and the shock had all blended. He had been overwhelmed and he needed time to come to terms with what he had learned and what he was to face. Egon was certain that, for better or for worse, their lives would never be the same again.

"Egon?" He looked up to find Winston standing before him. "I was in the kitchen. I heard someone running down the stairs, so I came to see what was going on."

"You heard?"

"Peter has a little girl he didn't know about," he replied.

Egon nodded, turning the manilla envelope over in his hands.

"Egon, what's going on?" Janine asked as she and Ray came up the stairs. "Peter went tearing out of here without a word and then that lawyer still wouldn't say anything as he left."

"What's wrong, Egon?" Ray asked, his face a mask of worry. "Is Peter all right?"

Egon took a deep breath. "I think we'd all better sit down and I'll tell you." He wasn't looking forward to the task, but if Peter wouldn't talk to him now, the least he could do is prepare the others and relieve his friend of at least that burden. "I know Peter would want you all to know what Mr. Parsons had to tell him. He's going to need all our help and support."

"Egon, you're frightening me," Janine said, dropping down beside him on the couch and grabbing his hand.

"Peter will be all right. He's just had an emotional shock and he needs a little time to get it under control. Unfortunately, time is something circumstances have denied him. And when he comes back, he'll need us all to be here for him." He took a moment to gather his thoughts, then he launched into the entire story.

***

Peter Venkman had no idea where he was going. After he bolted out of the firehall, he had turned right and just kept walking. His mind did not seem to be able to settle into one coherent pattern of thought. All he saw, over and over again, were images, fed by his emotions. Some memories of his own childhood, some moments spent with Mary. He felt like if he didn't get control, his brain would explode.

After a few blocks, he stopped, worried that one of his friends might take it upon himself to try and follow him. He just couldn't talk to anyone right now. He needed some time alone to calm down and begin to think again. Without wasting another moment he flagged down a cab and hastily issued instructions. Moments later, in the midst of traffic, he realized he had no idea where he'd instructed the driver to go. But it really didn't matter.

When the cab pulled to a stop at the curb, Peter mechanically paid the tab and climbed out to find himself standing on the sidewalk in front of a very particular building in Central Park West-Dana Barrett's building, the same building where they had fought for their lives against Gozer.

He shook his head in amazement. That he should end up here, of all places. He took a deep breath and, stuffing his hands in his pockets, he crossed the street and headed into the park. After a moment, he found an empty bench and sat down.

Looking up, over the tops of the trees, he could see the apex of the Ivo Shandor's masterpiece of demonic design. Of course, after the coming of Gozer, much of the building had been in ruins and the renovation had included certain changes suggested by Ray and Egon to render the structure less conducive to paranormal activity. It was just another building now. And Dana was long gone from it.

Strange, Peter reflected, that he should find himself drawn to this place, the sight of such a major change in the direction of his life. Their defeat of Gozer had firmly established the credibility of the Ghostbusters with the officials and citizens of New York. They had turned a corner from amusing curiosities to serious scientists and-yes-heros. From that point on, there was no going back. No matter where he went, he would always be Peter Venkman, Ghostbuster.

Another memory inescapably connected to the building was Dana. For the first time in his life, Peter had seriously considered the idea that he might have found his match. When Dana walked out, he had managed to hide from almost everyone just how knocked for a loop he had been. Egon had known, but then, he had never been able to hide anything from Egon.

It hadn't been long after that when the ghost of Wickenburg Manor had dropped that chandelier on him and he'd ended up in the hospital. That's where he'd met Mary. He'd fallen into his relationship with her on the rebound, but she had given him something he desperately needed right at that moment in time, a sense of self-worth as an individual, apart from the team. Mary had cared about him, had found things about him that she liked and admired. She had enjoyed being with him, and he had reveled in the feelings. Mary had helped him get his feet back under him.

When she told him she wasn't going to see him again, it was a shock and cost him some of the headway he'd gained. But later, as he thought about their relationship, he had realized he had never thought of her in the same terms he had thought of Dana. He had never pictured a future with Mary. It had seemed clear she adored him at a time he was hungry to be adored, but he had never felt the same toward her. The shock came in finding out he was wrong about how much she cared. And when the dust had settled, he was almost relieved he had been wrong. The last thing he would have wanted to do was hurt someone else the same way Dana had hurt him.

How long had it been since he'd thought about her? When Parsons had said her name, it had taken him a moment to make a connection, and then a wave of guilt had passed over him. After all, she had just died and for some reason had thought of him in her will. Then when the tape began to play and he'd seen the expression in her eyes, the guilt had intensified. He had been right all those years ago, she had been in love with him. Without realizing it, he had played a part in causing someone pain.

Before he could even finish conceptualizing that thought, she had hit him with the bombshell. She had been pregnant when she married Marshall. The moment she said it, he had had no doubt whose child it was. It was at that moment he ceased to be able to think rationally. His emotions had kicked in and taken him for a ride.

First came shock and disbelief, but that was quickly replaced by anger. Anger at Mary for keeping the truth from him, at the lawyer for bringing him this news and then suggesting that he should just ignore his own child, at Egon for trying to get him to take the time to consider something that would never be an option for him, at fate for twisting around and biting him in the backside.

Next he was overwhelmed by a sense of sadness for the little girl who was his daughter, who had grown up without them ever knowing each other. How much of her life he had missed? The things he might have been able to do for her, with her. There had been fleeting moments where he considered what kind of a father he would be if he ever had the opportunity. Emma had lived the first nine years of her life never knowing he would have been there for her. And now she thought she was all alone. Her mother was dead, but to a nine-year old, the concept of death held no basis in reality. All she would feel was that her mother was no longer there for her. She would feel abandoned and so very alone.

How could he help her if he couldn't even get control of his own thoughts and feelings? He closed his eyes and lowered his face into his hands.

"Get it together, Pete, old boy," he said aloud. The longer it took him to pull himself together, the longer his daughter would be all alone.

His daughter.

He couldn't get used to the idea, but he would have to and quickly.

He stood up and headed out of the park. It was time he got back. He'd done all he could on his own. He knew now he needed to talk to Egon. But he already knew what he had to do. When he got back to the firehouse, he would call the Andersons and tonight, he would meet his daughter for the first time.

And the very thought scared him to death.

***

It seemed like forever since Peter had disappeared out the front door. In actual fact, it had been less than two hours. But Ray had been frantic, so Winston had finally agreed that they would drive around the area and see if they could locate their wayward partner. Egon had opted to remain in the firehall. He knew Peter would be back; he just needed a little time. In his own way, however, Egon was just as worried as Ray, although for different reasons. Peter was about to embark on a course of action that would change all their lives. But most of all, it would change Peter's life.

"Come on back and sit down," Janine said softly as she threaded her arm around the waist of the man standing against the frame of the open front door. "Peter will be fine and he'll be back as soon as he's ready. Standing here watching for him won't make him come any sooner."

"I know," Egon replied. "It's just that I feel so helpless." He looked down at her uplifted face and wrapped his own arm around her shoulders. "I know that he needs to be alone for a little while, but I also know this has thrown his world off center. And I've never been good at standing around waiting."

Janine leaned her head against his shoulder. "I remember last year when Peter was kidnaped and I was in the hospital. You sat beside my bed for hours, needing to be doing something to find Peter, and yet unable to bring yourself to leave me until I woke up. That must have been almost unbearable for you."

"You have no idea," he whispered as he recalled those terrible hours when he lived with the fearful knowledge that he might have lost two people he loved and there was nothing he could do but wait.

"How could that Marshall woman have done this to him?" Janine asked, her thoughts having moved back to the current crisis. "He had a right to know the child was his right from the beginning."

"And if he had known?" Egon asked. "Who knows how different things might be right now." He shook his head. "That's terribly selfish of me, isn't it? To be almost grateful that Mary didn't tell Peter long ago, wishing that he had never had to learn the truth."

"Egon, you don't really mean that, do you?" she asked in surprise.

"A part of me does. The part that's known Peter for so many years and finally seen him come to terms with most of the demons in his life. I was so afraid he'd never completely recover not just physically, but psychologically, from his battle with Jillian. And it took a long time, but finally he had come back. Finally, we were all back to a place where we were happy with our lives. Then this has to happen."

"I don't think Fate likes people to be happy," Janine told him. "Every time you begin to think things are going your way, she throws in something to knock you down. But then, isn't that really what life is all about? Getting up and moving on no matter how many times life pushes you down?"

Egon tightened his grip around her shoulders. "Yes, but isn't there a limit to how many times you can pull yourself back up?"

"Peter doesn't have to do it alone," she reminded him. "He's got us. We just have to make sure he knows that."

Just then, a cab pulled up in front of the building and Peter emerged. Egon and Janine watched as he walked slowly, shoulders slumped, head down, toward them. He had almost reached the entrance before he looked up and saw them. He looked away for a moment, then turned back and offered them a tired half-smile.

"I know," he said quickly. "Running away wasn't exactly the mature reaction."

"It was a very human reaction, Peter," Egon replied. "Are you all right?"

Peter shook his head. "I don't really know, Egon."

The older man reached out and settled his hand on Peter's shoulder. "As a very wise young woman just reminded me, you need to know we're all here for you. Remember that."

Peter squeezed his eyes shut, leaning his head down against Egon's shoulder. Egon wrapped his arm tightly around his friend, and Janine, one arm still around Egon's waist reached out with the other one and completed the three-way hug. They stood there silently holding on to each other for a few moments before Peter pulled away a bit to look up at Egon.

"I think I'm ready to talk now," he said and Egon nodded.

"Why don't you guys go upstairs and relax," Janine suggested as she pulled away, "while I call Ray and Winston on the mobile and tell them the prodigal has returned."

Peter looked past Egon at the empty space in the garage. "Where did Ray and Winston go?" he asked.

"Out to look for you," Egon replied. "You had us all pretty worried."

The brown-haired man sighed. "I'm sorry, Egon. It was all just too much. My mind was going 90 miles per hour in all sorts of different directions."

"You don't have to apologize, Peter. I believe I've already indicated that we understand."

"I wish I did," Venkman whispered.

Egon slid his arm back around his friend's shoulders and guided him inside. "Come on," he said. "Let's get you upstairs so you can sit down before you fall down."

Peter allowed himself to be led through the garage and up the stairs. Neither man spoke until they both sank down on the sofa in the family room.

"Can you tell me what you're feeling, Peter?" Egon asked, and Peter smiled.

"You've lived with a psychologist too long, Spengs. You're beginning to pick up some of the standard phrases."

"I've had an excellent example," he replied, "and you, my friend, are evading."

"I know." He took a deep breath and held it a moment before slowly letting it out. "What do I feel? I'm not sure. I think I've felt just about everything in the last few hours. Mostly, I think I feel lost." He leaned against the back of the sofa, resting his head and closing his eyes. "I'm mad as hell at Mary, but I feel sorry for her at the same time. I can understand where she was coming from, but I can't get past the feeling that she took something very precious from me and I never even knew it."

"Peter, how did you feel about Mary at the time you two were together?"

He considered a moment. "I've been thinking about that. I wasn't in love with her, Egon. That's a pretty rotten thing to admit, isn't it? I cared about her. I liked her a lot. She did a lot to help me through a bad time, but it was all too soon after Dana. I hadn't had time to sort out those feelings. Then, suddenly, she broke off with me. I was hurt and confused at the time... and maybe a little relieved."

"Relieved?"

"Yeah. I was afraid she was getting too serious, more serious than I was ready for. Maybe she was right to dump me for Marshall."

"At the time, she didn't know she was pregnant," Egon pointed out.

"And by the time she did, they were already married. I know she felt she couldn't tell me then. I know it in my head, but it just feels so wrong in my heart."

"What would you have done if she had told you?"

"Honestly?"

Egon nodded.

"I don't know." He stood up and started to pace the floor. "She was married, and from the sound of it, Marshall wouldn't have been very receptive to her admitting to anyone that Emma was not his child. But I'd like to think we could have worked something out. At least I would have known. I could have watched her grow up. That's what makes me the maddest at Mary, Egon. Emma's mother just died and she's all alone. If Mary had told me from the beginning that Emma was my child, she would have known me. She would have known there was someone she could count on. Now I have to go to her as a complete stranger." He stopped walking and leaned against the bookcase shaking his head. "I can understand why Mary did what she did, but she was wrong. In the long run, it's only made things worse for Emma."

"She was guided by her emotions, just as you are now. She didn't stop to think. But you must, Peter, before you do anything. You must think about what you are doing and think it completely through, or you could make another mistake that will end up hurting Emma."

Peter looked up at Egon in surprise. "Egon, there is only one thing I can do. Her mother just died. I'm her father. She's my responsibility."

"As you yourself just pointed out, she's a little girl who doesn't even know you and you don't know her. Peter, she still believes Mark Marshall was her father. Will it really be best for her now, having just lost her mother, to take away from her the father she's always believed was hers?"

"He wasn't her father!" Peter insisted.

"She doesn't know that."

"So what am I supposed to do? Just call up Parsons and say, hey, man, I've changed my mind. Think I'll pass on the kid?"

"Of course not."

"Do I send her off to live with Marshall's parents and let them go on believing a lie? And suppose someday they discover that lie? Do they pack her off to an orphanage?"

"We don't know that they are that kind of people."

"We don't know that they aren't," Peter insisted. "No, Egon. It was the lie in the beginning that has brought us to this point. Another lie isn't going to make it all better."

"No," Spengler admitted.

Peter shrugged. "I don't believe it's right for Emma, Egon, and I know it wouldn't be right for me."

"Are you ready to suddenly become a father?" Egon asked gently.

"I am a father," Peter replied, "whether I'm ready or not. If Mary had told me years ago, while she was married to Marshall, if I had known Emma would be raised by her mother in a good home where she was loved and cared for, it still would have been hard, but I think I could have accepted it. But I can't walk away and not know that she's going to be all right. My God, I don't even know her, but I know I couldn't live with myself if I did that." He walked back to the sofa and sat back down next to Egon. "As to whether or not I'll make any kind of a decent father, I don't know. God knows, I didn't exactly have a great example to go by. But I have to try."

"Peter, how much of this determination to be there for Emma comes from your father's not being there for you?"

Once more Egon had taken him by surprise, but after only a moment of thought, he nodded. "Probably a lot. I remember all too well what it was like not to have my dad around when I needed him. I won't do that to my child." He sighed and shook his head. "My child. Do you know how strange that sounds? I guess I'd thought about it from time to time, that someday I'd meet the right girl when I was ready to settle down, that we'd have kids. But it was always way off in the future. It wasn't something I thought about a lot. I've just got used to my life as it is." He smiled. "To tell the truth, this past year I've kind of figured it would be you who got married first."

Egon looked at him for one quick moment, then returned the smile. "I guess some things have changed a little this past year."

"Good changes," Peter replied. "I'd never admit it to Melnitz, but I was always sort of rooting for her when it came to you."

"I noticed you did more than your share to aid and abet her campaign," Egon told him. "I seem to have been the last one to realize what I should have seen all along."

Peter reached up and thumped the corner of Egon's red-rimmed glasses. "You should clean those specs more often, Big Guy!"

"It took more than glasses to clear up that particular form of myopia," Egon admitted. "It took nearly losing Janine to make me realize how much she meant to me. And the most remarkable thing is that once I accepted and acknowledged those feeling to myself, I found it so much easier to admit them to her."

Peter looked at his friend for a moment, noting the quiet happiness that shown in Egon's face. "That's the one really good thing that came out of the whole mess last year. It's good to see you and Janine really happy."

Egon looked at him, some of the happiness fading into concern. "We want you to be happy, too, Peter. We're a little selfish that way. We all love you and it hurts us to see you hurting. We've all become such a part of each other's lives. Whatever you have to face, please remember what I said. You don't have to face it alone."

"That means everything to me," Peter admitted. "But there are some things I have to do myself, no matter how much you guys want to help me. I need, and believe me I appreciate, your support, but tonight, I have to face my daughter and I have to do that alone."

Egon shook his head. "Remember when you awoke in the hospital after Jillian kidnaped you? I told you that you had had to face her alone and you told me you were never alone. You had all of us with you through your memories, our words, the times we've shared. You may stand by yourself, but you are never alone."

Peter leaned into the eagerly offered embrace of his long-time friend and whispered simply, "Thanks, Spengs."

***

Darkness had just settled on the neat little suburban neighborhood when Egon pulled Janine's car to a stop at the curb in front of one in a row of cookie-cutter houses. Peter sat in the passenger seat showing no signs of moving as he gazed out at their destination. Egon said nothing, but merely sat in silence with his friend, knowing the fears Peter was coming to terms with at this moment and in no hurry to push him into action before he was ready. The silence became prolonged, but still the older man felt no obligation to break it. He and Peter had long ago gotten past the point of needing to inject conversation into moments that required none. He knew what Peter was going through and wished with all his heart that he could take part of the burden from him. He knew Ray and Winston and Janine all felt the same way, but in their love for Peter, they also recognized his need to do this himself. Still, none of them were willing to send him out completely alone, and Egon had been the logical choice to be beside him on this journey. Spengler recognized his role. He was not here to guide, but to support. His silence as Peter pulled his own thoughts together was his own way of telling the younger man he recognized this function.

"Guess I can't just sit here all night," Peter breathed at last.

"No rush," Egon replied softly.

Peter looked back at him and nodded before reaching for the handle. With Egon following, he walked up the sidewalk to the front door, and taking a deep breath, rang the bell. It was only a few seconds before a heavy-set woman with short brown hair opened the door, gazing at the two men warily.

"I'm Peter Venkman," he told her.

"I'm Agnes Anderson," she replied. "Won't you come in?"

Peter hesitantly followed inside. "Is..."

"Emma's in the guest room upstairs," she anticipated the question. "She hasn't left it since we brought her here. Can I get you gentlemen a cup of coffee?"

"Thank you, Mrs. Anderson," Egon nodded. "I'm Egon Spengler," he responded to her questioning look. Her only response was to nod.

"I'll get the coffee. Please sit down." As she left the room, Peter and Egon awkwardly found their way to the sofa and sat down.

Egon looked around the room. It was a neat, typical middle class family home with family pictures on the walls, books and video tapes on the shelves and the television and video recorder as the focus of the furniture arrangement. At the moment, it was silent, the uneasy silence of apprehension, in which the usually indiscernible ticking of the clock on the wall was magnified out of all proportion.

A glance at Peter seated beside him confirmed that the tension was beginning to get to Venkman. He could sense the tightness in his friend's body, could hear the increased rate in his breathing and see his hands as they twisted within each other's grasp. Gently, he rested a hand on Peter's arm only long enough for Peter to look at him in acknowledgment, then he removed it. A simple, non-verbal gesture that both men understood completely. Egon knew what Peter was feeling and wanted him to know he wasn't alone. The look in Peter's eyes was just as simple and was just as readily understood.

Mrs. Anderson returned with three cups of coffee on a tray with cream and sugar. Both men took their cups without addition as the woman began to speak nervously.

"My husband isn't here. He works nights. I'm afraid I'm not used to dealing with children. We've never had any. And I'm not sure what to say to you, Dr. Venkman."

"Mrs. Anderson," Peter sat his cup down and reached out very deliberately to place his hand on hers. "This is an awkward situation for all of us, but we're all here because we want what's best for Emma."

She nodded and seemed to relax a little. Strange how Peter could always seem to do that, to read people so well and instinctively know just how to ease their tensions, even when he himself was a bundle of nerves.

"Mary and I worked together at the hospital. I hadn't known her long, but I think I was the closest thing she had to a friend. She kept to herself a lot. When she first came to work there, she seemed normal enough, but she changed. She was always nervous and scared, you know? I tried to get her to talk about it, but she wouldn't. Then, about three weeks ago, we were having coffee on a break and she told me she had this premonition that something bad was going to happen to her. She asked me to take care of Emma just until someone could come to claim her. She put me down as the person to notify in case something happened to her and she told me to call this attorney, Parsons, if anything did and to take care of the little girl." She shook her head. "I wasn't even very good with kids on my rotation to pediatrics when I was training, but I never really figured anything was really going to happen. Then, when it did, I did what she told me. The attorney told me he was notifying you and then he called back to tell me you would be contacting me about taking Emma."

Peter nodded. "What has Emma been told about her mother's death?"

She hung her head. "I told her there was an accident and that she should come home with me. I'd been to their apartment a few times and Emma knew me... a little. Her mother had told her that I could be trusted, I guess, so she came. After we got her here, Frank and I told her that her mother was gone."

"How did she react?"

"That was the strange part. I expected her to cry and get all hysterical, but she didn't. She asked if she was supposed to stay here and I told her that was what her mother wanted until something more permanent could be arranged with her family. She just got really quiet and then asked if she could go to her room. She won't come out. I took her something to eat and she ate a little, but not much. I asked her if she wanted to talk, but she'd just shake her head." She looked up at Peter, her eyes full of helplessness. "She's just a little kid and I don't know how to help her."

Peter nodded and squeezed her hand again. "What does she know about me?" he asked, his voice revealing his hesitance.

"I-I just told her that a friend of her mother's was coming to see her tonight. She just nodded, then she turned over in the bed away from me." She took a deep breath. "Dr. Venkman, I told you I don't know much about kids, but I think she's really scared and is determined not to show it."

"I imagine you're right," he replied.

"Would you like to see her now?"

Peter took a deep breath, glanced at Egon, then nodded at Mrs. Anderson.

"I'll take you up."

"I'll wait here," Egon told him. "If you need me..." He let the sentence go unfinished, knowing Peter would know what to do. He watched as Peter followed the woman up the stairs.

Agnes Anderson knocked, then led the way into a medium sized bedroom, neatly, if sparsely, furnished and decorated in earth tones. The room had a definite adult, even slightly masculine, feel about it. The last thing one would expect to find occupying such a room was the little girl who sat stiffly on the side of the bed as they stepped in. She looked up at their entrance, her eyes locking with Peter's for several seconds. He didn't know what he had expected, but he was surprised at how small she seemed to be. He had known she was only nine, but somehow she seemed even smaller than that age would account for. The look in her eyes was wary, with a definite trace of fear beneath. Yet she sat up straight, her chin held up, almost defiant, and Peter felt a chill run down his back as he felt he was looking into a mirror at the child he once had been. So afraid, and yet even more determined not to show it.

Mrs. Anderson stepped closer to her. "Emma, this is Dr. Venkman. He's the friend of your mother's I told you about. He wants to talk to you. Is that all right?"

"I guess so," she replied, looking away for the first time.

"I'll just leave you two alone for a while then," the woman said as she turned and started out of the room. Emma's eyes flew immediately toward her, her expression almost panicked for a second before she caught herself and covered it with a carefully constructed blank expression.

Peter started to call the woman back, but she had made a hasty retreat, closing the door behind her with a sound that seemed louder than it probably really was. He stood there for a moment, a little afraid to move closer to the child and yet wanting to reassure her at the same time.

"Hello, Emma," he said.

After a moment's hesitation, she looked up at him. "What kind of doctor are you?" she asked.

"Uh, I'm-I'm a psychologist," he fumbled, taken by surprise by the question.

"Then you're not a real doctor," she concluded.

"I'm not?" he asked. "Why not?"

"Psychiatrists are doctors, psychologists aren't," she replied. "My mother works with both at the hospital."

Peter nodded. "Well, that's almost right. Psychiatrists have to have medical degrees and psychologists don't, but I have a doctorate in psychology, so I'm really a doctor. I'm just not a medical doctor."

"But you're still some kind of a shrink, right? Is that why you're here? They think I need to talk to a shrink?"

Peter smiled. "No, Emma, that's not why I'm here. Mrs. Anderson told you, I knew your mother... a long time ago, before you were born."

"Did you work with her?" she asked.

"No, but we did meet in a hospital. I was a patient at the time and she was my nurse. We became... friends."

"You dated her." It wasn't a question, but a statement.

"Yes."

"That was before she met my father?"

Peter hesitated. "Yes."

She seemed to be processing the information she had just obtained and Peter let her take her time.

"Why are you here?" she asked.

"Your mother asked that I be called if... if anything happened to her."

"They said she was dead."

Peter grimaced. "Yes, sweetheart, I'm afraid that's the truth."

She looked down at her hands and didn't seem to be ready to say anything else for the time being.

"Emma," Peter whispered as he carefully took a step closer and squatted down in front of her. "Mrs. Anderson told me you didn't cry when she told you about your mother. Didn't you feel like crying?"

"No," she replied in a very small voice.

Peter nodded. "Well, that's okay. If you don't want to cry, then you don't have to. But just remember, it's all right to cry if you feel like it."

"I don't want to cry."

"Then, that's okay." He took a moment to consider what to do next. All his training seemed to have deserted him, so he had to rely on his instinct and hope it didn't fail him too. "Emma, I know there are probably some questions you'd like to ask. I'm here to answer them, if I can."

She looked up at him almost expectantly. "What's gonna happen to me?"

Peter willed himself to relax at the question. "Has anyone said anything to you about that?" he asked.

She shook her head. "They said someone was going to come to take me. They said my family would come, but I don't have any family."

"What about your grandparents?" he asked.

She shook her head again. "Mom said they didn't like her. I don't want to live with people who didn't like my mother."

"Did your mother have any relatives?"

"No," she replied, then looking him straight in the eye, she asked, "Are you here to take me to an orphanage?"

He felt like someone had kicked him in the stomach and his hand immediately reached out to gently grasp her small hands. "No, Emma," he said firmly. "You are not going to an orphanage. I promise you that."

"Then where?"

He forced a smile. "I thought maybe you'd like to come stay with me for a while."

"I don't know you," she said firmly.

Peter closed his eyes against the burning sensation those words suddenly created. "I know that, sweetie, but I hope we can be friends."

"I wish..." she stopped and turned away.

"What is it, sweetie? What do you wish?"

"I wish my mother was here," she said almost too softly for him to hear. Suddenly, Peter remembered something and reached for the envelope he had put in his pocket before he left the firehouse. He had no way of knowing what Mary had said in the letter, but he had to trust that Mary knew her daughter better than anyone else and maybe she would have known what to say to the child.

"Emma, your mother isn't here, but she did ask me to give you this." He held out the envelope and the little girl stared at it, her mouth falling open a bit. She looked up at him for a second, then slowly reached out and took the letter.

Holding it carefully, she got up and walked around to the other side of the bed, sitting facing the wall as she opened the envelope. Peter rested an elbow on his knee, putting his hand to his lips as he watched her reading in silence. As she read the letter, her back tensed once and she looked around at Peter, a look of surprise on her face. Then, she turned back to the letter. After another few moments, Peter could hear her breath coming short and shaky. Perhaps the letter was the impetus she had needed to allow her to cry. But after a few moments, she took a deep breath and stood up, tucked the letter in the pocket of her blue jeans and walked back around the bed to stand before Peter. There was still no trace of tears on her face.

"Are we going to your house tonight?" she asked.

Peter gasped at her in surprise. "Well, if you want to, I guess so." He hadn't been planning to take her to the firehall that night, only to visit and try to get to know her. "Would you feel comfortable coming with me tonight?" he asked. "I know you don't know me. I thought maybe you'd like to get to know me better before we..."

"I want to go now," she replied. Then she looked up at him, green eyes locking with green eyes. "My mother said I should trust you and that you would take care of me."

"I'd really like to, if that's what you want."

"I'll have to pack up my clothes. Mrs. Anderson put them out in the drawers and the closet last night."

"Would you like me to help you?" he asked.

"If you want to," she replied, pulling open the dresser drawer.

"Uh, where's your suitcase?" he asked.

"In the bottom of the closet," she replied as she methodically lifted the neatly folded clothes from the drawer. Peter watched her a moment before heading for the closet. When he opened the door, he saw that there were only one dress and two pairs of slacks hanging on the rod. It had to have been painfully obvious to a child as smart as Emma that the Andersons hadn't expected her to stay with them long. His heart ached at the thought of how the little girl must have felt not knowing what was going to become of her.

"You must have more things at the apartment where you and your mother lived," he said as he reached for the hangers with one hand and the small suitcase with the other. "We can go tomorrow and get all your things." He turned around and brought the suitcase to the bed, opening it so she could deposit her small armload of clothes. "This is a pretty dress," he told her.

"Mrs. Anderson said I could wear it to the memorial service, but my mother told the lawyer she didn't want any memorial service."

Peter dropped down on his knees before her. "Emma, a memorial service is just a way for people to remember someone they've lost. We can remember your mother in our hearts and she'll always be with us."

"But what if I forget her?" she asked quietly. "I don't want to forget her, but I'm afraid..."

"You won't forget her," he told her firmly. "After a while, you won't think about her all the time like you are now, but that doesn't mean you've forgotten her." He paused for a moment before continuing. "My mother died a few years ago and it was one of the hardest things I'd ever had to face and I was afraid, just like you are, even though I was all grown up at the time. I haven't forgotten her, Emma. I still remember all the things we did together and all the good times and the not so good times we had when I was growing up. I know I'll always keep a part of her right here," he touched his chest, "inside me."

She stood before him looking down at the tops of her shoes and he felt the need to change the subject. "I really like the color of this dress," he said lamely.

"It's peach," she replied.

"Peaches are one of my favorite fruits!" he said much too brightly. "I'm sorry, Emma. I guess grown-ups don't always know the right things to say either."

"I like peaches, too," she offered and Peter smiled with relief.

"All right, then, Peaches," he grinned hesitantly. "Let's get you all packed up and take you home."

She didn't look at him, but continued to carefully arrange the clothes in the case, then closed it. Peter reached around and lifted it off the bed. "Is there anything else?" he asked.

"No," she replied and started for the door, then she hesitated. "Dr. Venkman?"

"Yes."

"Where do you live?"

Peter put the case back down on the bed and once more sank down to put his face on a level with hers. "I live right in New York City in an old converted firehouse with my friends."

"Friends?" she asked, and he could detect the wavering in her resolve.

"They're more like family than just friends," he assured her. "We've known each other for a long time and we work together."

"In a hospital?" she asked.

"No," he flashed her a quirky smile. "I'm not just a psychologist. I have another doctorate in parapsychology. Do you know what that is?"

"Like ESP and stuff?" she asked.

"That's part of it." He took a deep breath before he said, "Emma, I'm a Ghostbuster."

Her eyes grew large. "A Ghostbuster? You mean, the guys on television?"

"That's right."

"Wow!" she exclaimed with more sparkle in her eyes than he had yet seen.

"I take it you aren't afraid of ghosts, huh?"

If anything, her eyes grew larger. "I-I don't know. I've never seen one."

"Well, you will when we get home. We have our own resident ghost. His name is Slimer. He's kind of messy with yucky sticky green slime, but he won't hurt you. He's really kind of part of the family, only don't you dare tell him I said that. If he thinks you really like him, he can be a pain, always wanting to hug you and getting slime all over you."

"Really?"

Peter laughed. "Yes, Peaches, really."

She seemed to suddenly catch herself and as Peter watched, she reined in the excitement, her animated expression replaced once more by the blank mask. "Is it all right with your friends if I come to live there?"

"It's just fine with them. I told you, they're like my family and there's always room for one more, especially someone special like you."

"Dr. Venkman?"

He frowned. "Dr. Venkman is a little formal for new friends, isn't it? Why don't you call me Peter?"

"Okay," she replied after a moment's hesitation.

"You were going to ask me something?"

She shook her head. Obviously, she'd changed her mind.

"All right then, before we go downstairs, I think you should know, one of my friends is here with me. His name is Egon Spengler. He's a doctor, too, but he's not a medical doctor either. His degree is in physics and he's been a really good friend to me for a long time. He's kind of intimidating if you don't know him, but you shouldn't be scared of him. He's tall and he has this really deep voice and he's really smart. He likes to use big words when he talks and he'll probably seem a little stiff when you meet him because he's not used to being around kids." He chuckled. "Except for Ray and me." He put his hand on her shoulder. "But deep down inside, he's a really good guy. He's the kind of friend you can always depend on and I trust him completely."

"I'm not scared," she replied, sticking her chin out.

"That's my girl," Peter cheered, then, realizing what he'd said, felt that same ache in his chest. Impulsively, he reached up and ran his fingers over Emma's long brown hair. She jerked away from his hand.

"I'm sorry, Peaches," he said immediately. "I know you still don't know me and I don't want to frighten you. That's the last thing I want. I wouldn't hurt you for anything."

She looked at him for a long moment and he could almost feel her appraising gaze trying to gauge his sincerity, then the moment passed and she turned, opened the door and walked out of the room. After a moment, Peter sighed, then stood and followed her.

Egon had been sitting uncomfortably in the family room with Mrs. Anderson engaging in small talk interspersed with anxious silences as he caught himself gazing up the stairs wondering what was going on between Peter and the daughter he was meeting for the first time. He was so attuned to that concern that he almost jumped when he heard the sound of the upstairs door opening followed by the thud of footsteps on the carpeted stairs.

He and their hostess both jumped to their feet. Egon got his first look at Emma Marshall as she turned at the top of the landing and paused before starting down the second half of the stairs. She was quite a lovely child and he almost immediately could see the resemblance to her mother. And the lawyer had been right about her hair being the same shade as Peter's, so he wasn't surprised to find when her eyes fell upon him, they were the same green as his friend's.

Peter came down the stairs behind her carrying a small suitcase. That surprised Egon. He knew that taking the child home this night hadn't been in the plan, but before he could consider it any further, he found himself under the scrutiny of the little girl before him.

"Dr. Spengler?" she asked directly.

Egon looked down, feeling the discrepancy in their heights keenly. "Yes," he replied. "You must be Emma."

"Dr. Venk-um-Peter said I shouldn't be afraid of you."

Egon shot a look at his friend and caught Peter trying to hide a smile. "That was very thoughtful of Peter to anticipate your fears."

"My mom always says that if you're afraid of someone, you should march right up and look the person you fear in the eyes and then never let them know your afraid."

Something about the words in combination with the way she was standing and the determined expression on her face sent a chill down Egon's spine and he looked once again at Peter, only to find him looking down at his new-found daughter with great sadness in his eyes. Egon looked back down at Emma and immediately sank down on one knee.

"You sound very much like someone I met a long time ago. I think he was a little afraid of me at first, as I was of him, but once we really got to know each other, we both found there was nothing to be afraid of and we learned to trust each other. When you trust someone, you don't have to hide anything you feel from them, even fear, because a true friend will understand." He looked up at Peter meaningfully, then returned his gaze to Emma. "I hope we can be friends someday."

Emma looked at him a little longer before she spoke. "Peter said you didn't mind my coming to live with you."

"You are very welcome, Emma," he replied.

Peter turned toward Agnes with a shrug. "I-uh-need to make a phone call, Mrs. Anderson, if you don't mind."

"Of course," she replied, having managed to recover from her surprise. "I didn't know you were going to take her with you tonight," she whispered to Peter as they moved away from Egon and Emma.

"Believe me, it was Emma's idea. That's why I need to use the phone. I need to warn my friends to expect..." He caught his breath. "I was about to say 'company', but that isn't exactly right, is it?" He moved past her and lifted the receiver, looking back toward his friend and his daughter as he listened to the phone ring and steeling himself once again for what was to come.

***

The trip back to the firehouse took over an hour and was accomplished, for the most part, in silence, but this time, it was not the companionable silence of the trip up, but a strained quiet of two nervous adults and one unresponsive child. Try as he might to initiate a conversation, Peter was doomed to fail. Emma would occasionally respond with a yes or no, but most of the time she would only nod, shake her head or shrug in answer to Peter's questions. Although the child sat between the two men in the front seat of the car, she might as well have been in a different vehicle. Peter and Egon exchanged several helpless looks during the journey, and when they finally pulled up at the firehouse, it couldn't have been too soon. Egon reached into the back seat to grab Emma's bag while Peter directed her toward the front door.

Inside, as he had expected, Winston, Ray and Janine were all waiting for them. They all smiled at the little girl, but Peter could detect the strain behind their expressions that mirrored the apprehension he felt.

"Emma, this is the rest of the family," he told her. He placed his hand on her back to direct her forward, but she immediately stepped away from him. The movement was not lost on the others. Peter seemed to forget the rest of the introductions he had been about to make.

"Hi, Emma." Ray was the first to step forward and immediately crouch down in front of her. "I'm Ray and I'm really glad you're coming to stay with us." He looked around behind him, then back to Emma. "And this is Winston and this is Janine."

"Are you all Ghostbusters?" the little girl asked.

"You bet we are," Ray replied. "Even Janine's busted a ghost or two."

"That's right," the secretary smiled broadly. "Sometimes we women have to teach the guys how to do things the right way, huh, Emma?"

"I guess," she replied, continuing to look at Janine with curiosity. "Aren't you... I mean... weren't you scared?"

"Sure I was scared," she replied. "And so were these guys the first time they went after a ghost." She leaned down closer. "To tell you the truth, sometimes it's still kind of scary."

"Then... why do you do it?" Emma asked.

The five adults all looked at each other and started to laugh.

"Emma, I'm not sure even we could answer that one," Winston replied.

"And if we started to try, we could be here all night," Egon added.

"And I think it's time we got you to bed, Peaches," Peter said with authority.

Emma looked as if she was about to object, but she didn't get a chance as at that moment, a streak of green whisked across the room and back and came to a halt almost directly in front of Emma. She was so startled, she stepped backward, right into Peter, who grabbed her shoulders to steady her.

"Slimer!" Janine scolded. "Behave yourself. You're scaring Emma."

"It's okay, sweetie," Peter whispered. "Remember, I told you about Slimer."

"He-he's a ghost?" she asked.

"Slimer is ghost," the specter in question replied. "YeahYeahYeah!"

"He looks more like a green potato," she replied, causing them all to chuckle.

"If only I had a dollar for every time someone has used that particular description," Peter said wistfully, the leaning around Emma, one arm still around her shoulders, he reached out for Slimer. "Come here, spud," he called to Slimer, "but make it slowly, okay?"

"Okay," Slimer agreed and floated slowly toward Peter's outstretched hand. Peter could feel Emma pressing back more against him. She was still afraid despite her attempt to show otherwise.

Slimer floated right up to Peter's hand and stopped. "Okay, proper introductions. Slimer, this is Emma. She's come to stay with us. Emma, this is Slimer. He can be a real pain in the neck, but he's harmless, aren't you, spud?"

"Slimer harmless," he nodded.

"Emma, why don't you shake hands with Slimer?"

She looked at him like he was crazy, but then, determined not to show anymore of her fear, she stuck out a shaky hand. Slimer waited until Peter nodded, then placed his ectoplasmic member in Emma's. "Hello, Memma," he nodded.

"H-Hello, Slimer," Emma replied, then letting go, she looked down at the green residue oozing between her fingers. "Yuck!" she cried.

"That's the icky stuff I told you about," Peter whispered. "Trust me, it's disgusting, but harmless."

Ray laughed. "Peter ought to know. He's been slimed more than all the rest of us put together!"

"Slimed?" she asked.

"Sometimes when we are attempting to entrap a ghost, one or more of us ends up covered in this substance," Egon supplied.

"From head to toe," Ray added.

"Especially Pete," Winston chimed in.

"And he's always the loudest to complain about it too," Janine finished.

"Thanks so much, guys."

"Slimer be friends with Memma?" Slimer asked, still floating in front of her.

"Well, okay. I guess so," she replied.

"Yippeeeee!" Slimer erupted, flying erratically all around them.

"Okay, that's enough!" Peter cried. "Slimer, calm down. As I was saying before we were interrupted, it's time for Emma to go to bed."

"Where do I sleep?" she asked.

"We've got the guest room all ready for you," Janine assured her. "We didn't have time to do a lot, but it should be livable for tonight. Then we can figure out what else you need."

"Can't I look around first?" she asked.

Peter shook his head. "There'll be plenty of time for that tomorrow. Come on, Peaches, I'm sure it's past your bedtime. Say goodnight to everyone and let's go upstairs."

"How would you know about my bedtime?" she challenged.

"Well, I know it's soon going to be past mine, so it must be past yours," he replied, trying to sound reasonable and carefully avoiding looking at any of his friends who knew all too well what his usual bedtime was.

"All right," she agreed.

"Come on, then." Peter offered her his hand, but she looked away instead. He flashed a quick look of frustration toward his friends, then started toward the stairs, looking back to make sure Emma was following.

"Well, this is it," he announced as he opened the door to the seldom used guest bedroom. Even he was surprised to see the transformation. There were new curtains on the window that matched the sheets and comforter on the bed, all in a sweeping pattern of pastels. A large, white teddy bear sat in the old chair, which also sported a new cover, and a small desk and chair with a reading lamp had been added in the corner. His friends had obviously been busy between the time he called and their arrival home. He smiled and turned back to Emma. "Not too bad, huh?"

She didn't reply, but stepped inside and dropped down on the side of the bed. Peter frowned as he watched her for a moment, then stepped inside and deposited the suitcase on the bed.

"Want me to help you unpack?" he asked.

"No, I can do it," she replied, but made no movement to do so. Peter sighed.

"What is it, Peaches?" he asked. "I thought we were going to try and be friends. Did I do something wrong?" She didn't answer. "If I did, you have to tell me or I won't know. I'm really trying here, Em, but you've gotta give me a little help."

She turned her head and pinned him with a hard stare. "Are you really my father?" she asked.

Peter was sure his heart had just stopped and for several seconds, he couldn't breathe.

"Where did you..."

"Is it true?" she demanded. "Are you my father?"

It was a very direct question and Peter knew it required a direct and totally honest answer if there was to be any hope of beginning a relationship with his daughter.

"Yes, Emma, I am."

For several seconds, they just looked at each other. Finally, just as Peter was about to summon up the courage to speak, Emma beat him to it by standing up, turning her back on him and opening her suitcase. "I'm going to go to bed now," she announced.

"Emma, I think we should talk about this," he started.

"It's past my bedtime and I'm sleepy," she replied without stopping her unpacking.

Although she wasn't watching him, Peter nodded, then hung his head. "All right. But we do need to talk about this... when you're ready."

"Goodnight," she said, in a dismissive tone.

Peter watched as she walked from the suitcase to the dresser and deposited her things, then walked back to the suitcase for another armful, all without once looking at him.

"Goodnight, Peaches," he said softly, then turned and left the room, quietly closing the door behind him.

***

His three partners found Peter sitting alone in the family room, slumped on the sofa, his head lowered into his hands.

"Peter?" Ray's soft inquiry caused him to raise his head and look at them with tired eyes. "Are you all right?"

Peter sighed and shook his head. "I knew this wasn't going to be easy, but I never realized just how hard it would be."

Egon sank on the sofa next to him. "Peter, it's the first day. You have to give it time. You can't expect her to warm to you right away."

Peter looked at his friend. "She knows, Egon." Spengler offered him a confused look. "She knows I'm her father."

"How?" Ray asked.

"I think her mother must have told her in the letter," he replied, then leaned his head back on the couch and closed his eyes tight. "She knows who I am and she hates me."

"Come on, Pete," Winston chided. "She doesn't hate you."

"Yes, she does. And from her point of view, I can't say as I blame her."

"Peter, this isn't your fault."

"Ray, all she knows is that I'm her father and that I've only shown up after she just lost her mother. She can't help but wonder why I never was there before."

"You didn't know. You can tell her that."

Peter shook his head. "She doesn't want to hear it."

"Then you'll have to make her hear it," Egon replied.

Peter's eyes flashed angrily. "What am I supposed to do, Egon? March in there and lay down the law to her? Tell her she has to believe me because I'm her father?" He shook his head. "The only chance we've got is if we can get to know each other, and the way she feels about me right now, I don't see how that's going to happen."

"Peter, I understand your concern for Emma's feelings, especially right now, but you are her father. A certain amount of firmness is called for. The longer you let this misunderstanding go uncorrected, the harder it will be in the long run."

"No, Egon, I think Peter's right about one thing," Ray said. "He can't just start telling her what she's going to believe or feel. The best thing to do right now is to be her friend."

"A child needs discipline," Egon stated flatly.

"A child needs love," Ray countered.

Winston chuckled as he sank into the chair next to the sofa.

"What's so funny?" Egon asked, somewhat annoyed.

"You're both right and you're both wrong," he replied. "A child needs both, but you can't force either of them."

Peter smiled. "Winston's right. None of us have any parental experience and we're all coming at it from our own childhood experiences, none of which you could reasonably call 'functional'." He looked at the physicist. "Egon, you see discipline as the solution because that's how your father always handled things with you, but was that right for you when the Bogeyman was threatening you and no one believed you?" Egon started to reply, but thought the better of it.

"And Ray, all you can see is a child that needs love, and you're right, but what you're seeing yourself as a child, all alone and desperate to find someone who would care about you. Believe me, I understand that need. And I understand how easy it is for you to relate to Emma. I've been doing the same thing. I want to be her friend, but I can't be only a friend. I have to be a father to her, especially now, and I just don't know how."

"Peter," Winston said softly. "Stop beating yourself up over this. You can't become Father Knows Best overnight, homeboy. And I don't think there is such a thing as the perfect parent. Of all of us, I probably come closest to having had a normal family life as a kid, but my Dad and I didn't always get along." He smiled. "We still don't seem to agree on much, but I never had any doubts that he loved me." He sat up on the edge of the chair and leaned toward Peter. "You'll make mistakes, but every parent does. And you're certainly at a disadvantage because you haven't been able to grow into this role slowly. But being a parent is mostly instinctual. Some people have better instincts than others. But, Pete, in all my life I've never known anyone who had better instincts when it came to understanding other people than you. It may be a new title, but you've got to use the same tools you've always used. All you have to do is trust yourself and go with your feelings. It may take time, but Emma will respond to you. Just don't lose confidence in yourself, man."

Egon nodded. "You are the best equipped of any of us to be an instant father. And none of us should presume to tell you how you should act or what you should feel. I'm sorry I didn't see that before."

"Me too, Peter," Ray hung his head.

"Hey, guys, don't go backing out on me now. Okay, I'm the parent here and I have to make the final decisions on how I handle things with Emma, but that doesn't mean I don't need to hear what you have to say. Maybe I won't agree, but I do value your opinions and I can use all the help I can get."

"What are you going to do, Pete?" Winston asked.

"Nothing tonight," he replied. "But Spengs is right about one thing, I can't let her go on believing I willingly stayed away all these years. Whether she believes me or not, I have to tell her what happened. I have to be honest with her because if I'm not, I'm lost before I start."

Ray sat down on the sofa on the other side of Peter from Egon and put his arm around the older man's shoulders. "Right now, I think what you need is a little rest. This has been one stressful day for you."

Peter looked at him in surprise. "One day," he breathed. "It's hard to believe everything that's happened has taken place in one day. It doesn't take much time to completely change your life, does it?"

"If we've learned anything in this business, Peter, we've learned that," Egon replied.

Peter looked around him at his friends. "And it's not just my life that's changed either. I made a decision today that's affected all of you guys, too. And I never gave you a chance to share in that decision. I've brought Emma here to live, and I never even asked how you guys felt about that."

"You made the only decision you could make, man," Winston told him. "And you don't have to ask us if it's all right to bring your daughter here to live. This is your home."

"But it's your home to, Zed," Peter insisted, "and Ray's and Egon's. I don't have the right to..."

"Hold it right there," Ray interrupted. "Ask yourself this, if Emma wasn't your daughter, but mine, or Egon's or Winston's, would you expect us to ask you if it was all right if we take her in? And knowing how much we care about you, can you honestly think we'd have any objections? We're you're family, Peter, and that makes Emma family too. We couldn't turn her away any more than you could."

Peter smiled. "Thanks, Ray." He reached out and drew the younger man into a firm hug. "I don't know what I'd do without you guys."

"And we'd be lost without you," Egon assured him. "Now, Raymond is correct. It's high time you got some sleep. After all, it's well past your bedtime."

Peter shot Egon a highly put upon look, but the physicist only smiled.

(Continued in Part 2)