DREAM SHADOW - Part 6

by Neetz



Emma's eyes never left Peter as he walked out onto the roof of the old firehouse. For a moment, he gazed up at the sky, knowing he would not be able to see stars, but hoping, all the same that what he knew to be true could somehow be proven wrong. He shook his head at the thought. So many truths he would change if he only had the power to do so.

With a heavy sigh, he eased himself down to sit on the brick ledge surrounding the air intake dome. Emma stepped up in front of him, her eyes full of worry.

"Is it Mom?" she asked. "Is that what's wrong? She's-she's never going to be... all right?"

Peter quickly shook his head. "Your mother is going to be just fine," he assured her. "But you'll have to be patient. It's going to take a lot of time and a lot of support. We're gonna see to it that she gets the best care possible. My old friend, Dr. Clayton, recommended a former student of his in Boston and he'll take over the case immediately."

"Boston?" Emma asked. "But Mom's here."

"Your... the Marshalls are going to take her to Boston to live with them and take care of her until she's better. They've offered to pay all her medical expenses. They've been very generous, and your mother has agreed."

"But..." she hesitated. "But how can I go see her if she's in Boston?"

Peter took a deep breath. "The Marshalls want you to come live with them too."

Emma shook her head forcefully. "No!" she replied. "I don't want to live with them."

"You want to be with your mother, don't you?" Peter asked.

Emma hesitated. "Yes," she whispered, then looked directly into Peter's eyes, "but I don't want to leave you either."

At that simple affirmation, Peter felt his eyes fill with tears. "And I don't want you to leave," he replied. "But we have to think of what's best for everyone. You, your mom..."

"I know you don't love my mom," she told him. "I had friends in school whose parents didn't live together, but one boy, Jimmy Young, he got to live with his mom for six months and his dad for six months. He said it wasn't so bad. You and Mom aren't mad at each other, are you? Couldn't you figure something out?"

"I wish I could, Peaches," he replied. "But there's more to it. Something I just found out about today; something I... can't change, no matter how hard I want to."

Emma's eyes grew wide with fear. "You're not sick, are you? You're not gonna..."

"No," he told her immediately. "I'm gonna be just fine."

"Then what's wrong?"

Peter closed his eyes for a moment. "Mr. Parsons came by to see me today at the hospital. Remember, he was gonna check into getting the court to legally recognize me as your father?"

Emma nodded.

"Well, he got the tests back that they took to prove I was your father." He put his hands on her shoulders and met her gaze. "Em, I'm not your father." Emma stared at him. "It was all part of Jillian's plan to get revenge and she used you and your mother to try and hurt me." The girl started shaking her head as she backed away from him. "Please, Em, don't."

"You don't want me anymore," she whispered.

"No, that's not..."

"I thought you loved me."

"I do love you, Peaches, I..."

"No!" she cried, stepped further away from him as he stood and tried to move closer to her. "You never really wanted me! And now, you have a way to get rid of me!"

Peter felt his stomach knot painfully as his vision blurred from the tears that filled his eyes.

"Oh, God, Em," he cried, falling to his knees. "That's not true!. Please, please, believe me. More than anything in this world, I want to be your father."

"You just took me in because I was your responsibility," she accused.

Peter shook his head violently. "No, that's not true, I..." Then he stopped, taking a deep breath before looking up at her again. "Maybe it was true when I first found out about you," he admitted. "But I think I started to fall in love with you that first moment I saw you at the Anderson's. At first, it was because you reminded me of myself. I knew what it felt like to think you were all alone and I couldn't stand to have you feel that way. Maybe I was acting out of a sense of duty or guilt or just compassion when we first brought you here to live. I won't lie to you, Em. I never have and I never will. So I'll admit you may be right about how I felt at first. But it all changed."

He sank back down to sit on the floor of the roof. "From the first time we met, I started to get to know you. You liked peach. Remember your dress? Then, the way you stood up to Egon, determined not to be afraid of him. I could see myself in you then, but I was also starting to see a whole new person who was becoming a part of my life. Little by little, I got to know you. How smart you were. Remember that day I found you with Ray learning all about the containment unit? By then, you already had a piece of my heart right in there with yours.

"Then," he spread his arms, indicating the roof surrounding them, "that night we came up here to talk. I had been scared out of my mind when you disappeared and so relieved when you walked in that door that my knees were weak. We came up here and talked about your fears and finally, finally, you started to open up to me. You trusted me." He wiped at the moisture on his face, looking down at his hands as he continued, as if afraid to watch for her reaction. "It was, for me, the moment I truly became a father, as much as if I had been there when you were born. That was when I really felt what it was to be a father, the awesome responsibility, but the most wonderful feeling in the world to have someone begin to trust you, to... love you. I never wanted that to end."

Emma had stood very still as she listened to him. Now, she took an unsure step toward him. Peter looked up, his face a mask of pain.

"I wanted to be your father, Em. I still want it. But your mother is alive and soon will be well and she needs you. I could fight for you, but that wouldn't be right either. I have no rights to you, legally. Your mother needs you and your grandparents want to take care of both of you."

"I don't like them," she replied.

Peter smiled sadly. "You didn't like me much when we first met," he reminded her.

"You really aren't my father?" she asked.

"Only here," he replied, pointing to his heart. "That's the one thing that the law can't change. What's in here, that's forever."

As she stood watching him, Emma's shoulders started to shake as the tears poured down her face and her breath caught in a sob. Peter raised up on his knees again and held open his arms. Without hesitation, Emma ran to him, hugging him tightly around the neck while he pulled her close, running his fingers up into her hair.

"I love you," she cried, and Peter could no longer hold back his own sobs. "I wanted to be your daughter."

"I know," he replied. "And that's the best gift you could ever give me, to know that you really wanted me for your father."

"But if I go to Boston, I'll never see you again," she sobbed.

"Oh, yes, you will," he replied. "I already asked your grandparents if it would be all right for me to visit you sometimes and they agreed. They know I'm no threat to them. I don't have any legal right to try and take you away from them and your mother. Truth is, I think they're basically good people. They had a misunderstanding with your mother all those years ago, but they regret it and they want to make up for it. And, remember, they cared enough to want you with them even when they believed you weren't their granddaughter. I think they'll love you, too, if you just give them a chance."

"I'll never love them as much as I love you."

Peter squeezed his eyes closed. "That's because we have something special. Don't close the door on them without giving them a chance. They could be special, too. Okay?"

She sniffed as she nodded. "I'll try."

"That's my-my girl," Peter stuttered. "God, I'm going to miss you!"

"I don't wanna go!" she cried.

"I know," he replied. "But no matter where you go, I'm gonna be right there with you." He gently pushed her away and forced a smile on his face. "Right here," he said, putting his hand on the center of her chest. "You're always gonna have that little piece of my heart right here next to yours."

"There's room," she replied, "'cause part of mine is in here." She placed her hand over his heart.

"Thank you, Peaches," he whispered.

"Peter?" she called, and he flinched at the reminder of his change in status.

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"Remember when we were up here last time, you told me that I was a part of the family, that you and the guys and Janine were a real family and that you didn't have to be legally related to be a family?"

"I remember."

"Then, we're still family, aren't we?"

He smiled as he hugged her again. "A long time ago, I chose Egon and Ray to be a part of my family, just as they chose me. Then, Winston and Janine came along and we chose each other, too. I've always had good luck in the family I picked. And since I've known them, I have never had reason to doubt that someone loved me. That's a really wonderful feeling, Peaches, and I don't want you to ever doubt that you're loved. Always know that you're a member of this family. Once we choose you, you're chosen for life!"

Emma pushed back to look into his eyes. "If I could pick someone to be my dad, anyone in the whole wide world, it would be you."

Peter struggled against the emotions he felt about to overwhelm him. "And I would pick you for my daughter, Peaches. I already have."

Emma moved back into his arms and for a long time they were just satisfied to hold onto each other. After a while, Peter opened his eyes and leaned his head back to look up at the sky once more. This time, a flicker of light caught his eye. Somehow, amidst the clouds and the smog of the city, overpowering the glare of the city lights that sought to blanket it, one single star had managed to break through. Just one little flickering star in the sky. Peter held on as he watched the star, held on until the child in his arms had fallen asleep. Lifting her gently into his arms, despite the pain from his ribs at such exertion, he carried her toward the door that led back downstairs. Before he opened it, he paused and gave a final glance at the sky. Despite all odds, the star was still there as if to remind him, some things are forever.

***

Egon noted when Peter came to bed, very late, and debated with himself whether or not to try and talk with him. When the psychologist went directly to bed, Egon waited, planning on remaining awake until he heard his friend's breathing even into sleep, but somehow, his own emotional exhaustion caught up with him first.

He awoke to daylight pouring in the dormitory windows and the smell of bacon and coffee wafting up from the kitchen. When he rose, he was surprised to find he was the only one still in bed. The sound of running water from the bathroom indicated someone was in the shower. Quickly pulling on his robe, a habit he'd cultivated since Emma had joined the household, he headed downstairs.

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty has arisen!" Peter called from the stove where he and Emma were busily preparing breakfast. Egon looked at his friend closely. He could see the lines of tension on his face, but Peter was obviously making a concerted effort to remain cheerful, and from the expression on her face, Emma was doing the same.

"Is... everything all right?" he asked, reluctant to bring up the painful subject.

"Great!" Peter responded. "Isn't it, Peaches?"

"Just... peachy," Emma replied with a laugh at the joke.

When Egon still frowned at his friend, Peter allowed his expression to relax for a minute and looked at his friend with all seriousness.

"We're going to have a great day to remember, Egon," he told him, then the cocky grin broke in again. "So, get with the program, sourpuss!"

"Where is everyone?" Egon asked.

"Ray's in the shower and Winston is out running an errand for us"

"Winston is back!" announced Zeddemore as he bounded into the room.

"Did you get them?" Peter asked anxiously.

Winston held up an envelope. "Mission accomplished!" he cried. "But I'm afraid the price was a little steep."

"Hey, nothing is too expensive for this family," Peter replied, flipping a pancake high in the air.

"Careful, you'll land one of those things right in Emma's eggs," Egon warned.

Peter turned his eyes up toward the ceiling and cocked his head as if listening for something. "I think Ray just finished with the shower. You'd better get a move on, Spengs. We've got places to go!"

"Just where are we going?" Egon asked.

"Oh, no," Peter replied. "Not until you're all dressed and ready. I took the liberty of picking out the proper attire for you. You'll find it hanging on the inside of your closet door. Now, hurry up before Janine gets here."

Egon looked at his watch. "Isn't it a little early for Janine?"

"I called her," Peter explained. "Woke her up, as a matter of fact. She wasn't too happy about it, but I told her this was a command appearance and she'd better get her tail down here."

"Peter!" Egon exclaimed scoldingly.

"Okay, I said her pretty little tail," Peter replied.

Once again, Egon looked closely at his friend.

"Come on, Spengs," Peter said in a softer tone. "Go along with us, okay?"

Egon took note of the pleading expression in Peter's eyes and knew immediately that the psychologist was desperate to maintain his carefree attitude, perhaps for Emma, but also for himself. There was something that begged Egon not to get serious, not just now, or Peter would lose it. It was the least he could do for his friend, so he pulled on a smile and winked at Emma.

"All right, I'm going!"

"Yeah," Peter called after him. "And make it quick or we'll leave you behind."

"No, we won't," Emma corrected.

"Aw, Em, you gotta learn to lighten up a little."

Egon shook his head as he bounded up the stairs, meeting Ray as he emerged from the bedroom having just gotten dressed and still toweling dry his hair.

"Did you get your orders?" the occultist asked.

"Get showered and dressed quick or I'll be left behind," Egon replied. Then he paused as he caught Ray's eye.

"Do you think he's okay?" the younger man asked.

"I think he's holding it together right now and we shouldn't do anything to rock the boat."

"But what happens when..."

"Then, we will be here for him," Egon replied. "This is their last day together, Raymond. Let's not spoil it for them."

Ray nodded and patted Egon's arm as he headed downstairs.

Egon quickly showered and put on the selected ensemble, a pair of casual slacks and comfortable shirt, and headed back down. He found Janine had arrived and everyone was seated around the table.

"Ah, Spengs, just in time. We were about to feed your share to Slimer!"

"YeahYeahYeah!" Slimer practically panted and looked as if he were about to take Peter's words as an invitation, but Egon put out his hand to the spud.

"Not just yet, Slimer," he cautioned. "I'm hungry."

"Slimer hungry," the green ghost protested.

"Slimer's always hungry," Emma laughed.

"Oh, Memma," Slimer ducked his head. Then the little girl tossed a sausage in the air and he caught it deftly.

"Emma, it isn't a good idea to indulge Slimer in that fashion," Egon said sternly.

"Just this once," she replied, her cheerful appearance faltering a bit.

Egon quickly smiled at her. "Okay, just this once. But he'll be insufferable for a week."

"Slimer's always insufferable," Peter informed them. "Now eat. We gotta get on the road."

"Do you think you could tell us exactly where it is we're going?" Egon asked.

Peter looked at Emma who considered a moment, then nodded. Egon noted that Winston, who was obviously in on the whole plan, was trying to hide his smile, but Ray and Janine looked as curious as he felt.

"We're going to Madison Square Garden!" Peter announced.

"The circus?!" Janine cried, clapping her hands.

"The circus," Emma laughed, her eyes beaming, "just like Dad promised. Oh!"

She caught herself almost the moment she said it and her eyes flew to Peter. His expression sobered a moment, then the sparkle returned to his eyes.

"And you all know Dr. Venkman always keeps his promises," he announced, reaching out and squeezing Emma's hand.

"But isn't it a little early? I mean, isn't the performance this afternoon?"

"Yes," Winston affirmed, "but there's a special show this morning just for the kids from Mercy Children's Hospital. Peter offered them an appearance by the Ghostbusters in return for us being allowed to bring Em along. And I happened to snag five adult and one child's ticket to the afternoon performance as well."

"And in between, we're having a picnic lunch in Central Park," Peter added. "I ordered three baskets of food from one of the swankiest restaurants in Manhattan. We're gonna have a blast!"

"You bet we are!" Ray cried with joy, then jumped up from the table. "I'd better check the equipment out."

"All taken care of, m'man," Winston assured him.

"And just how long have you been up?" Egon asked.

Winston shared a smile with Peter. "Long enough."

"Stop talking and eat!" Peter commanded.

The day was just as gloriously happy as Peter had promised it would be. The morning performance of the circus was less grand than a full show would be, but with the small number of children in attendance, every child got special attention. They got to see the animals up close, were entertained one-on-one by the clowns and treated to the thrill of meeting the acrobats who taught those who were able a few somersaults and rolls. Emma mixed right in, and when the Ghostbusters turn came, her eyes glowed with pride as she watched all of them, but especially Peter, entertain with their light show. Slimer, as always, was a hit with the children, and when the performance was over, everyone had thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

True to his word, Peter had their picnic lunch all arranged, complete with a uniformed butler to serve them fried chicken and potato salad on fine china. After the meal, there was just enough time for a buggy ride through the park. Winston and Ray declined, opting to stretch out after their large meal, but Janine coaxed Egon into joining her in one carriage while Peter and Emma took the other. As romantic as it might have been, Janine didn't seem to mind that Egon kept glancing behind at the occupants of the other carriage. She recognized his concern and shared it, but both resolved to help make this day memorable for Peter and Emma.

The afternoon performance was grand, with the Garden packed to the rafters with eager youngsters and some not so young in years thrilling to every performance. Emma loved every minute of it and Peter basked in the glow of her happiness. They whispered softly to each other all through the performance as Emma would ask a question or Peter would point out something of interest. Everyone got in on the act, as Ray insisted on buying Emma a bouquet of balloons, Winston came back from the concession stand with a tee shirt from the "Greatest Show on Earth" and Egon managed to slip away long enough to purchase a book on this history of the circus, complete with lots of photos and illustrations.

When they had arrived, Peter steered them over to a photographer's booth, insisting they get a "family photo" of all of them, including Slimer. After the performance, they stopped back by the booth to pick up their prints. The man smiled as he handed Peter the package, accepting his payment, then turning toward another customer.

Peter walked away from the crush and back to where his friends waited for him. He waited until they had made their way through the crowd and back to Ecto before opening the white envelope. To his surprise, there was not just one print of the group shot, but six, and two more prints of another photograph. He was amazed to find it was of him and Emma, sitting in their seats during the performance. Peter had his arm around Emma's shoulders and she had hers wrapped around his waist as she leaned against him gazing up in pure adoration. Peter's head rested on top of the little girl's head, his expression full of contentment with just a touch of sadness in his eyes.

"How did he get this?" Peter asked.

"You aren't the only one who can arrange for surprises, Dr. V," Janine replied, sharing a conspiratorial look with the others.

"You were all in on this?" he asked.

"Sure," Ray replied. "You said this was to be a day to remember. We wanted to give you something to make it even easier."

"What is it?" Emma asked, trying to get a look at the photos in Peter's hand. He took a breath and handed her the photo of the two of them.

"Oh!" she cried, staring at the picture for several seconds, then a smile crossed her face and she looked back up at Peter. "Can I get a copy?" she asked.

"That one is yours, Em," Egon told her. "The other is for Peter. We also had the photographer make six copies of the group shot, so we all could remember this day."

"I won't ever forget it," she replied, leaning into Peter's arms again. "Not as long as I live."

Peter looked up from the top of her head and gave his friends a watery smile. "Thank you," he mouthed, then bent down to kiss Emma's hair.

***

It was the morning everyone had dreaded. Egon knew Peter hadn't slept at all. He had spent most of the night sitting in Emma's room just watching her sleep. The child had been exhausted by the time they arrived back at Central and Peter had carried her up to bed. Egon thought they must have talked a bit before Emma finally fell asleep. The one time Peter emerged from the room, Egon had let his friend know that he was available if he needed to talk, but Peter put him off.

"Not yet, Spengs," he had said. "But don't wander too far away."

"I'll be right here," Spengler had assured him. "We all will."

Peter had nodded gratefully and proceeded on his way. Egon suspected Peter had gone out for a walk, but he wasn't gone long. When he returned, he went right back to Emma's room.

None of them had actually gotten much sleep. Several times in the night, Egon had turned over to see Winston watching or Ray sitting on the side of his bed. They hadn't talked; there was little they needed to say. They all knew the hardest part was only hours away and they were all worried about their friend.

At the first rays of sunlight, Ray got up and headed for the kitchen. Winston followed shortly thereafter. As the smell of breakfast filled the firehall, Peter emerged from Emma's room and headed directly for the shower. Egon waited until he came in from the bathroom and headed for his closet.

"Peter?" Egon asked softly.

"I'm just trying to hold it together, Spengs," he replied, not turning to meet his friend's gaze. "They're gonna be here at ten. There's not much time left."

"I understand," Egon replied. "I guess I'd better get my shower." He climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom.

"Egon?" Peter called. The physicist turned and looked back at his friend. "Thanks."

Spengler nodded. Then Peter returned his attention to his closet. Egon watched him a moment longer, then disappeared into the bathroom.

At breakfast, they all tried to maintain the tone of the previous day, but it was just too hard. No one seemed to have much of an appetite, not even Slimer who had picked up on the unhappiness surrounding him.

When, at last, everyone had given up on the meal, they all disbursed, by unspoken agreement, leaving Peter and Emma alone. Egon and Ray went to the lab, but found it difficult to concentrate on the experiment they had planned. Winston went to work washing and polishing Ecto, moving mechanically, often recleaning the same area as he found himself lost in thought. When Janine arrived, she spoke to him briefly then went straight to work at her computer, unusually quiet for the outspoken secretary.

All too soon, a car pulled up in front of the firehouse. The Marshalls had arrived. Winston greeted them and showed them to the television room, then he went to tell Egon and Ray. They had started to look for Peter and Emma when the pair came down the stairs leading to the roof.

"The Marshalls are here," Winston told Peter.

The psychologist nodded. "Winston, there are a couple of boxes of Em's things in her room, would you guys..."

"We'll take care of them," he replied, then squatted down in front of Emma. "You take care of yourself and your mother, you hear, Em?"

"I will," she replied, then threw her arms around the man's neck. "Take care of Peter for me," she whispered.

"You got it, honey," he promised.

When Winston left, Peter steered Emma toward the spiral stairs leading down to the second floor. As they entered the family room, the Marshalls rose to greet them. The older couple were obviously nervous, but Muriel Marshall held out her arms toward her granddaughter.

Emma hesitated, looked back at Peter, then after a signal from him, she walked slowly into the woman's embrace.

"Oh, Emma, darling, we're going to make a home for you. We're going to be happy together, you'll see."

"We understand it may take some time for you to adjust," Geoffrey Marshall said, placing a hand on her shoulder, "but we hope you'll give us a chance to prove how much we care about you and want to help you and your mother."

Emma looked up at him. "My da-Peter-said I should give you a chance, that you are good people and that you really care about me."

Muriel looked up at Peter. "Your Peter is a very kind man," she said. "You will always be welcome to visit Emma, Dr. Venkman. You've proven yourself to be a good... friend to her."

"Thank you, Mrs. Marshall," he replied.

Her husband looked at his watch. "I'm sorry, but we have to be going. We have to pick Mary up at the hospital and catch our flight back to Boston."

"My friends are loading Emma's things into your car. It's a couple of large boxes. I hope it won't be a problem on the plane."

"None at all," Marshall replied.

"Shall we go then?" Muriel asked Emma.

The child didn't meet her gaze, but slowly nodded. Muriel took her hand and started to lead her out. As they were about to pass Peter, Emma pulled away and flung her arms around his waist.

"I don't want to go!" she cried.

Peter closed his eyes. "I know, Peaches, but we have to do this. It'll be all right. That's a promise from Dr. Venkman."

Emma continued to cling to him. He looked helplessly at the Marshalls, then reached down and scooped the little girl up into his arms, turned and headed toward the stairs without even looking to see if the Marshalls followed.

They reached the ground floor to find the rest of the family gathered around Janine's desk. Peter whispered something in Emma's ear and she turned to look at them. Almost reluctantly, he set her down on the floor and she moved toward the group, reaching Ray first, who handed her the large white teddy bear that had first greeted her in her room the night she arrived.

"We didn't pack this," he told her. "We kinda thought you might want to hang onto it... on the trip."

She took the bear, then immediately dropped it to throw her arms around Ray.

"We love you, Em," he whispered.

"I love you, too, Ray," she replied.

Ray retrieved the bear as she moved from his embrace into Janine's. The secretary was openly crying as she hugged the child close.

"I'll miss you so much," Janine whispered. "It was almost like having a little girl of my own."

"You'll be a good mom, Janine," Emma replied. "And I'll miss you too." She held on for a few more minutes before turning to Winston.

"I guess I already got my hug," he frowned.

"You get another one," Emma said as she hugged him again, before turning at last to Egon.

"I was never really scared of you," she told him, then smiled through the tears, "well, maybe just a little."

"That's okay," he replied, kneeling down and pulling her into his arms. "I was a little scared of you, too."

"Take care of my dad," she whispered so only Egon could hear.

"I will," he promised.

"I love you, Egon," she told him, and the usually stoic scientist felt his eyes fill once again.

"I love you, Emma, with all my heart."

She finally pulled away and took the bear back from Ray. Peter walked beside her to the door following the Marshalls. The older couple took the bear from her and went ahead to the car as the pair paused in the doorway, seeming to understand the need for a last moment of privacy between the two.

"I'm trying to be brave, but it hurts," Emma told him, the tears running freely down her cheeks.

"I know, baby," he replied, "It hurts me too, but we just have to remember, this isn't forever. I'll come and see you real soon. I promise. Until then, you've always got that piece of my heart."

Emma threw her arms around his neck and hung on for dear life. "I love you, Daddy," she cried. "You'll always be my Dad, always."

Peter struggled for all he was worth not to cry, but the tears rolled down his face all the same. "You'll always be my very own Peaches. I love you forever."

Emma held on until Peter finally pulled her arms from around him and turned her toward the Marshalls' car. He gave her a gentle push and she took a few steps, then turned back to look at him.

"Go on, Peaches. Your mother will be waiting for you."

It looked for a minute like she would bolt and run back to him, but Muriel Marshall stepped forward and taking her hand, led her to the car. They climbed into the back seat and closed the door. Peter stood in the doorway, feeling his friends gathering behind him, and watched as the car pulled away. Emma's tear-streaked face was peering out the window, one hand pressed against the glass, the other clutching the white bear.

Peter watched until the car was out of sight, then turned back to face his friends.

"She's gone," he said quietly and started to walk past them through the garage area. He had only taken a few steps when his knees started to buckle. His friends were there instantly, Egon and Winston catching his arms and easing him down. Ray dropped to his knees in front of the psychologist whose face had dropped the mask he had struggled so hard to maintain and dissolved into an expression of raw pain. He leaned immediately into Ray's embrace and sobbed. Egon and Winston wasted no time in wrapping their own arms around the two men and Janine sank behind Peter's back, leaning her head against his shaking shoulder and rubbing her hand up and down his back.

For a long time, the all just stayed there on the garage floor as the wrenching sobs of loss racked Peter's body. No one tried to stop him from crying, knowing that after the restraint of the past two days, he was in desperate need of the emotional release. As they huddled on the floor, they all cried and held on to Peter and to each other, offering and receiving comfort from each other until, at last, Peter's sobs subsided and he fell limp with weariness into their arms. Between them, Egon and Winston carried him up the stairs to his bed. Egon checked his pulse, just to be certain he was suffering only from emotional exhaustion, but after he had assured himself, he remained seated on the side of the bed, unwilling to leave, even unwilling to release the hand he still held. Janine sank to the floor beside him, leaning her head on Egon's thigh. Gently he caressed her hair, glad for her silent support.

Ray moved around to the other side of the bed and pulled up a chair. Catching Peter's other hand in his, he too held on, while Winston sat down on the foot of the bed, leaning his back against the bedpost. No one questioned the need they all felt to remain there while Peter slept. They all intended to stay just where they were until their friend awakened.

Peter would know he was not alone.

Not ever.

***

Throughout the next day, Peter struggled to regain his emotional equilibrium. His friends were constantly with him supporting him when needed, distracting him when possible. Each of them took a turn just listening as he talked out his feelings. That night, when he had trouble sleeping, it was Ray who talked to him, Ray, who was best qualified to understand the kind of loss he was suffering. Finally, Peter managed to fall asleep, and for the second night, the others took turns watching over him, but mercifully, his rest was not interrupted by nightmares.

Peter assured them their talks had helped, and by Sunday, he seemed to be reaching the point of being able to maintain an even keel.

That afternoon Peter wandered into the family room as Egon was on the phone with Janine. He was about to make his presence known when something Egon said caused him to remain silent and listen.

"I knew you'd understand, Janine. I just don't want to leave Peter tonight. I know he seems to be doing better, but this is going to take him some time to work through and I'd feel better if I were here. I promise to make it up to you." He listened for a while, a smile coming to his face. "Yes, I feel the same way, and I promise not to tell him what you said."

Peter's eyebrow rose at the remark.

"Yes, all right. I'll see you tomorrow. Goodnight." He hung up the phone but the smile remained for a moment before he turned to find Peter standing behind him, arms folded across his chest.

"So, what is it she said about me that you aren't supposed to tell me?"

"Something you will never pry out of me," Egon replied, "and didn't you ever learn it's impolite to eavesdrop on other people's conversations?"

"Ah, but I learn so much that way," he replied. "Okay, if you won't tell me what she said, you can tell me what you were canceling out on."

"Nothing important," Egon replied, trying to slip something into his pocket unobserved. Peter grabbed his hand and pulled it out.

"Just what do we have here?"

"Peter."

One look and he knew. "The symphony tickets!" he exclaimed. "These are the tickets that cost you a hundred bucks! They're for tonight?"

"Yes, but we've decided not to go."

"Why not?" Peter asked, then held up his hand. "Wait, don't answer, I wouldn't want you to lie to me. I already know. Me."

"Janine and I agree we wouldn't enjoy the evening... under the circumstances."

Peter smiled. "Spengs, I appreciate your concern, more than you could possibly know, but I don't want you planning your life around me. I'm gonna survive, and I can at least get by without you for one night. Ray's talking about having a Star Trek marathon tonight anyway. He and Winston will be here. I don't need more than two babysitters at a time and I promise not to have a nervous breakdown while you're gone. Deal?"

"Peter, I don't think..."

"Deal?!" Peter repeated insistently.

Egon sighed. "All right, if you're sure."

"I'm sure."

Egon put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "You know that Janine and I would be glad to forego this concert if you feel in any way that you might need us here."

"Spengs, I said I was sure." He smiled. "I think I'm ready for a little happiness for a change. I told you I was pulling for Janine, and that's something you can't tell her!"

"So many secrets!" Egon complained.

"Besides," Peter's eyes positively twinkled. "I'll get a lot of mileage out of this date. At least a week of giving you both a hard time."

"I knew there was some ulterior motive. The Peter Venkman I know could never be that eleemosynary."

"Say what?" Peter gaped at him. Egon smiled wickedly. "Oh, never mind," the psychologist finally replied. "You'd better call Janine back before she gets a better offer."

Egon reached for the phone, smiling to himself as he heard Peter leaving the room muttering to himself.

***

Peter sat on the sofa and watched as Star Trek: The Voyage Home played on the VCR. He had wondered why Ray had chosen to skip the first three movies until he remembered the part of the storyline involving Kirk's son. The sensitive Stantz would have realized that might be a little too close to Peter's situation.

Looking over at Ray, enthralled in a movie he'd seen a hundred times, Peter had to smile. He was truly lucky to have friends who loved him so much. It was at times like this, times when he realized just how much he depended on his friends' presence, that he marveled at his good fortune and questioned whether he truly deserved it.

Ray glanced over at him and did a double take when he caught Peter smiling at him. "Something funny?" he asked.

"No," Peter replied. "Just enjoying myself."

Ray's face lit up. "I knew you'd like this movie!"

Peter shook his head. "Sorry, kid, but I couldn't care less about the movie."

Ray's expression dropped immediately and Peter felt like kicking himself.

"What I mean is, I'm enjoying just being here with you guys. I don't need any other entertainment."

Ray's smile returned as he reached over and patted Peter's arm.

"Well, I'll be a..."

The two men turned to look at their third companion as he closed his book and stared at Peter.

"What is it, Zed?" Peter asked.

"How did you know?"

Peter looked at him in confusion. "How did I know what?"

"Ashley really was the murderer!" he exclaimed, holding up the mystery novel he had finally had the time to finish.

Peter's grin was a mile wide. "I told ya! You owe me a de-luxe pizza from Mario's!"

"Fine, but I want to know how you knew. You only looked at one page for no more than a minute."

"I guess you aren't the only one who can make brilliant deductions," he replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back on the sofa. Ray chuckled in delight.

"Oh, no, Venkman, I don't buy it. Give."

"Maybe I'd already read it before you got around to it."

Winston shook his head. "No way. I hadn't had that book that long, I bought it the day it hit the bookstores and it wasn't out of my sight long enough-unless you just read the last few pages to find out."

Peter managed to look shocked at the accusation. "Why, Winston, how could you think such a thing. I'd never do that."

Winston narrowed his gaze at him. "Oh, I think you might."

"Well, I didn't," Peter replied, holding up his hand in the traditional fashion, he added, "scouts' honor."

"You expect me to believe you were ever a boy scout?"

"Sure I was a boy scout. The girls in sixth grade really dug the uniform." He waggled his eyebrows at his friend.

"Oh, Peter, you're incorrigible," Ray told him.

"Yeah, but I'm cute as a bug in a rug!"

Winston stared at him. "You're really not gonna tell me how you knew?"

Peter sighed. "Okay, but only because I know you'll never get any sleep tonight if I don't. Rita told me."

"Rita? Who's Rita?"

"She's the blond I met when we busted that class five at the Hightower Building. We had a couple of dates and she loved to talk."

"How would this Rita know about..." Suddenly the light seemed to dawn. "Wait a minute."

Peter turned to Ray. "I think Sherlock is about to make a brilliant deduction."

"The Hightower Building. Hightower Publications. Rita works for..."

"The firm that published your book!" Peter finished for him. "She said it was a wonderful plot device because no one would suspect this particular author to go for the obvious murderer. She said there were a lot of twists and turns before you finally could figure it out."

"And you thought it would be fun to play a little trick on old Zed."

"Yep! And it was." Peter laughed, absolutely delighted with himself.

Winston couldn't maintain his stern expression, as he smiled at the psychologist. "I'll get you for this one, Pete."

"Oh, I'm scared," Peter replied, effecting a mock shiver.

Winston retaliated by throwing the book at him, which Peter deflected. Unfortunately, it struck the coffee table in front of them, knocking off a white envelope which, in turn, spilled out its contents of photographs. Peter reached for the book and froze, when he saw the picture of himself and Emma taken at the circus.

"What's the matter?" asked Ray, whose view of the photos was blocked by the coffee table.

Winston, who immediately saw what was wrong with their friend, shook his head at Ray.

Peter paused a moment, then took a deep breath and reached out for the photos. He placed them back in the envelope, then set the envelope back on the coffee table.

"You okay, Pete?" Winston asked.

"Yeah," he replied, a little too quickly and with a tremble in his voice. "Think I'll get a little fresh air." He got up and headed for the door.

"Want any company?" Winston asked.

"No," Peter replied, turning long enough to flash them what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Think I need a little time to myself."

"Peter?" Ray called.

"It's okay, Ray. I know you guys are here if I need you."

"Always, m'man," Winston replied. As Peter disappeared, Winston reached over and retrieved his book, shoving it roughly into the bookcase before flopping back down in his chair. Ray reached for the remote and turned off the movie, no longer able to find enjoyment in it.

***

The house was enormous, the lawns were manicured and the gardens abundant with every color of flower conceivable. It was quiet and peaceful here, away from the noise and bustle of the city. The Marshall estate offered every luxury anyone could dream of. But Emma held on to other dreams.

As she sat on the chaise lounge in the fragrant rose garden, Emma could look up and see a sky full of stars, shining against the darkness of the night. It was beautiful beyond description, and yet, for the nine-year old, it all paled against the memory of the rooftop of an old converted firehouse in the middle of the ever noisy New York City.

She had promised Peter she would try to accept the Marshalls, and she had to admit, they had done everything they could to make her feel at home. She had her own room, three times the size of the little converted spare bedroom in the firehall, and the possessions she and Peter had carefully packed the night before she left were dwarfed by the toys and books and furnishings her grandparents had provided for her.

But still she missed the little window where the sun came in at just the right angle to wake her up every morning to the smell of bacon or sausage and coffee. She hadn't been allowed to drink the coffee, but she loved the smell of it. Here, there were cooks and maids and gardeners and butlers. You didn't have to lift a finger. Back at Ghostbuster Central, she helped with the cooking, took her turn washing dishes, Winston let her help him polish Ecto and Ray and Egon even allowed her to help them in the lab.

Tomorrow, she would start a new school, a fancy private school for girls where they wore uniforms and every day she would be taken there by the chauffeur, Dibbs, a man who never seemed to speak or smile. Already she missed the mornings riding to school with Peter in Ecto-1, talking about this or that, maybe nothing important, but talking and sharing their thoughts.

Here, she had all the advantages money could buy, and she couldn't claim she wasn't loved. She knew her grandparents loved her very much, and she knew in time she would come to care for them. And her mother was already starting to get better. Emma was still her whole world and having her with her was making Mary's recovery so much easier. She was grateful for that.

But she missed Slimer, who called her "Memma" and hovered around to protect her. And Janine, who had become such a good friend. She missed Ray, who was fun, and Winston, who was sometimes strict, but always caring. She was surprised to find how very much she missed Egon, who had been so protective of Peter and who allowed her into his sheltering circle. Yes, she missed Egon.

But most of all, she missed her dad, because that is how she would always think of Peter Venkman. As much as she loved and was devoted to her mother, Peter was the first person who ever seemed to truly understand her, and more than that, wanted to understand her. He had told her that he saw himself in her fear and vulnerability, but she had also recognized those shared qualities in him.

She looked down at the framed picture she held in her hands. One of the maids had found frames for this and the other picture, both of which she had carefully placed on the table beside her fancy canopy bed. Tonight, she had brought this one with her to the garden, out under the sky, where she could feel closer to the person she loved and missed.

She traced the outline of Peter's image with her finger, gazing into the green eyes that matched her own. No matter what the tests had shown, no matter what everyone said, she knew she had a connection with Peter that went beyond friendship.

"I'm never going to forget you, Dad," she whispered, hugging the photograph to her.

Inside the house, watching her from the library windows Muriel Marshall shook her head.

"She seems so sad, Geoffrey," she said to her husband.

"Give her time," he replied. "It's a lot to adjust to. We'll make her happy here, you'll see, my dear."

"But I just can't help but wonder, did we do the right thing?"

"How can you doubt it?" he asked. "You saw what kind of danger living with Venkman put her in. Could you in good conscience abandon our grandchild to that kind of life?"

Muriel turned and look at her husband. "But she isn't our grandchild, Geoffrey."

He stepped up to her quickly and placed his hands on her shoulders. "No one need ever know that, Muriel. Parsons has been paid well and he knows how to keep his mouth shut. Besides, I actually think he agreed with us that Emma would be better off raised as the heir to one of the largest fortunes in Massachusetts than by that man and his friends."

Muriel was about to reply, but he held up his hand to stop her. "I know, I believe Venkman is a good man, and he certainly behaved honorably with us, but what kind of a life could he offer a child, especially a little girl? She will be safe and secure here. And we will care for her and her mother always. What right does Venkman really have to deny her what we can give?"

"He's her father, Geoffrey," Muriel whispered.

"No," Marshall replied. "Mark was her father. That's all anyone will ever know. Once she is well again, Mary will agree."

Muriel gazed out at the little girl clutching the photograph like a life line. "I hope you're right, Geoffrey, for our sakes and the sake of that child, I hope you're right."

***

Egon and Janine left the concert early. It wasn't that the music hadn't been magnificent, and the performance of the guest artists inspired, it was just that neither of them could tear their thoughts away from the man back at the firehall. Egon couldn't seem to shake the feeling that he was needed at home. At one point, he had turned to Janine, about to confess his desire to leave when he realized she was silently crying. Gently he had placed his arm around her shoulders and drawn her closer to him. She had rested her head on his shoulder, and he could feel her body trembling.

At intermission, she confessed to him that the sadness of the melancholy melody the orchestra had been playing had made her remember Emma's leaving and Peter's breakdown.

"Egon, I love the music and I love you for bringing me to this concert, but I can't enjoy being here when all I can think of is how heartbroken Peter is."

"I know," he confessed, telling her of his own feelings that were drawing him home. Without any further discussion, Egon collected their coats and drove Janine home, leaving her with a promise to call her and let her know that Peter was all right, and ending the evening with a goodnight kiss and another promise of more fulfilling evenings together in the future.

When he arrived back at Central, he found Ray and Winston in the television room, both looking very dejected, and they told him about the incident with the photographs.

"How long has he been up there?" he asked.

"A little over an hour," Ray replied. "He said he needed a little time to himself."

Egon hesitated, then headed for the stairs.

He found Peter standing by the edge of the roof, gazing up into the sky. He watched him a few minutes, then slowly moved up behind him. When he got within a few feet, he cleared his throat.

"I wondered how long it would be before someone came up after me," Peter said, then turned around to see who it was. He frowned at Egon, glanced at his watch, then back at his friend.

"A little early for you to be home, isn't it?"

"Janine and I both found ourselves a little too distracted to enjoy the concert," he replied. "We couldn't seem to stop thinking about someone we love."

"Besides each other?" Peter asked.

"Yes," Egon replied.

Peter smiled, then turned back to look at the sky again. "You see that star up there?" he asked pointing at the lone shining object in the sky. "It isn't often you can see stars from here, but this one was there two nights ago and it's still there."

Egon stepped closer and looked up at the sky. "I believe that is the planet Jupiter. It is quite bright in the sky right now."

"Figures," Peter sighed. "It's not even a star."

"No, but that doesn't make it any less magnificent, even if it isn't what we thought it to be, we can still enjoy its radiance. And sometimes, like in this case, its difference makes it all the more splendid."

"But sometimes stars burn bright for a little while, then they're gone forever."

"Sometimes the brilliance can burn brightly in our hearts long after the star itself is gone."

Peter lowered his head. "I guess I'm not the astronomer you are, Egon."

"Perhaps not," the physicist replied, "but you're an intelligent man and you know that there are some things that always remain. What you feel in your heart, for instance. That can't be taken away from you."

"I'm not sure my heart can feel anymore, Egon," Peter replied.

"I think it can," his friend replied, "or you wouldn't be hurting so much right now."

Peter turned to look at him. "And this is good?"

"I don't know," he replied. "But I do know that love is worth the pain it can cause. I never would have known that if it hadn't been for you and Ray. I know you're hurting now, Peter, and I know it isn't something that will easily go away, but you have to remember, even if Emma isn't here, she still loves you. I think she will always love you as the only father she's ever known."

"But I was her father for such a little time. What if she forgets me?"

Egon shook his head. "I don't think that's possible," he replied. "Even if she never was your biological daughter, Peter, a part of her will always be yours. It was so easy to believe she was your daughter because she is so much like you." He smiled at Peter's surprised look. "Yes, my friend, you aren't the only one who saw the similarities. In our business, we know with certainty of the existence of souls. Whether you believe in the religious sense or not, there is something beyond the physical being that exists within every human. Very few people in life are lucky enough to find someone whose soul mirrors theirs and are able to make a connection that goes beyond conscious understanding." He paused and his expression softened. "I like to think the five of us have found such a relationship, the kind of bond that has given us such strength and forged us into a family. I think you and Emma also found that kind of bond."

"I understand," Peter replied. "And I believe you're right about us and about me and Em. I know how close I feel to her and I believe she feels it too. But I can't get past the pain, Egon. Right now, it just hurts too much to know how much I love that little girl and have her taken away from me." Tears streamed down Peter's cheeks. "How long does it have to hurt like this?"

Egon stepped forward immediately and pulled Peter into his embrace. "For a while," he whispered. "It will hurt for a while. But someday, sooner than you probably believe, you'll be able to look at the memories and the joy will outweigh the pain."

Peter pulled back. "Do you really believe that?"

"Yes," he replied. "I do. And so do you."

"I don't know what I believe in anymore."

"Believe in Emma. She's not really gone. You'll see her again, and you'll visit and talk. That light hasn't been extinguished. Believe in us, because Ray and Winston and Janine and I love you and will always be here for you when you need us. But most of all, Peter, believe in yourself. You have a great deal of strength, Dr. Venkman, and an abundance of love to sustain that strength. Jillian tried twice to defeat you. The first time, you proved that the forces of hate were no match against the power of love. This time she tried to use the very strength of that love against you and the hate she created destroyed her. She's gone and can hurt no one every again. Don't let her reach out from beyond the grave for her revenge. Don't give up on love, because it can sometimes hurt. Don't give up on yourself, Peter."

The younger man looked at his friend for a long time until finally a hint of a smile broke through the tears. "I think you're a better psychologist than I am."

"No," Egon tilted his head, "but, as I believe I have pointed out to you before, when you've been around one as good as you for as long as I have, something is bound to rub off. I'm only telling you what you would tell any one of us were the situation reversed. Peter, no one expects you to get over this blow quickly. It will take time. And you have that time. All the time you need. And we're here for you. Just don't hold it inside yourself. Let us help."

Peter nodded. "Okay, buddy, I'll try to remember that."

"Don't worry," Egon smiled. "We'll be here to see that you do."

Once again Peter wrapped his arms around his oldest friend and gave him a tight squeeze. Egon reciprocated, only not as tight in deference to Peter's still sore ribs.

"Are you ready to come back inside now?" Egon asked at length.

"Not just yet," Peter replied. "I just need a few more minutes."

Egon looked at him with concern.

"It's okay, Spengs. I'm gonna be all right. As long as I know I've got family who cares."

"Always believe that, Peter, because it will always be true."

"Go on," Peter gave him a gentle push. "Tell the guys I haven't jumped off the roof, and tell Ray to rewind that movie. I don't want to miss the part where they save the whales."

"We wouldn't watch it without you," Egon replied as he turned and walked back across the roof toward the door.

"Egon?" Peter called just as Egon reached the entrance, and Spengler looked back at him. "Thanks."

Egon only smiled, then turned and went inside.

Peter raised his head once again to gaze at the sky. He spotted his star-or planet, if Egon was correct (and Egon was always correct)-and remembered the old nursery rhyme. Even if it was a planet, maybe it would still work.

"Star light, star bright," he whispered. "First-and only-star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight." He paused before continuing. "Keep my little girl safe and happy and watch over my friends."

The brilliance of the heavenly object seemed to flare for just a second and he caught his breath, wondering if it were real or just an illusion of his mind's making. Then, as he watched, a lone cloud rolled over the point of light, obscuring it from view.

"So this is what I get for believing in fairy tales?"

At that moment, the wind suddenly blew in a gust strong enough to whip at his hair, the unanticipated chill cutting through his shirt. The sound of it as it blew through the buildings surrounding him was almost a moan or something else he couldn't quite discern. He shivered and wrapped his arms around himself to conserve as much warmth as possible. There was something about the wail of the wind that his mind sought to identify, an eerie sound more chilling than the icy gust. Something unearthly that bore no resemblance to nature and yet was hauntingly familiar.

With one final glance at where the star had disappeared, he turned up his collar and headed for the doorway, back to the warmth and comfort of the family room and the warm companionship of his friends. He stepped inside and closed the door against the unnatural cold, and the sound he could almost imagine to be ghostly laughter.

Or maybe it was just the wind after all.

~The End~