If I get through this, I swear I'll never play sick to get out of annual proton pack maintenance again! Peter Venkman sighed in relief as the latest spasm finally stopped and he fell back down, exhausted and limp, on the couch. Well, at least I've moved on from Anger to Bargaining, the psychologist noted as soon as his mind was clear. If only he knew the course this... ghost allergy or whatever it was would take as well. How much longer was this going to last? He thought getting away from the fire hall and all the ectoplasmic residue it had accumulated over the years was supposed to help, but he'd been at Janine's apartment for hours, and there still hadn't been much of a change. This wasn't his field of expertise, but he was sure, once you were removed from the source, that allergy symptoms didn't take long to...
"Augh!" Peter closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as another spasm shot through his body, contorting his limbs and flinging him in the air. It couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity before it released him. He tried not to groan as he hit the floor with a thud, but he only partially succeeded.
He waited a few seconds to be sure it was over before hoisting himself back onto the couch. He hoped he hadn't woken Janine; she was upset enough with the arrangement already. He couldn't really blame her – sharing her apartment with a single, male coworker was probably the most awkward situation they could ever put her in. Well, maybe if it had been a different single, male coworker, she wouldn't find it so awkward, but, tragically, this disease hadn't had her preference in mind when it chose one of them to strike. He wondered if that was more or less ironic than the fact that he was now staying in the home of the only woman on the planet whom he never would have...
"Ack!" Peter braced himself for another attack, but, mercifully, it was just his face and throat swelling up like a balloon again. He spent a few seconds choking and gasping for air before it ended and allowed him to resume breathing. Once the subsequent coughing fit passed, he wiped the sweat from his brow and reached for his glass of water on the end table. It was almost empty, and he was still thirsty after he drained the last few drops. Should he risk going to the kitchen for more? It was either that, go thirsty for the rest of the night, or wake Janine. Choosing the option his mind nauseously recoiled from the least, he took a deep breath and sat up.
He waited for the dizziness to pass before standing up all the way. He wobbled a little on his feet, and his head started spinning again, but at least he was able make the effort (a miracle after how little he'd been able to eat today). Hoping he could do this before it flared up again, he stumbled his way through the dark and managed to reach the (fortunately nearby) kitchen area without stubbing his toe more than twice. He had just made it to the fridge when he thought he saw a flash of light out of the corner of his eye – oh, great, a new symptom! Maybe his optic nerve or something was swelling up, and he'd go blind! He tried to ignore the thought as he took out the gallon jug almost full of water and refilled his glass. He immediately downed three-quarters of it and filled it again. Man, those chips sure made your mouth dry. Weird – they didn't taste very salty...
Well, mission accomplished – maybe now he could actually get some sleep. Peter caught another weird flash of light in his right eye as he put the jug back in the fridge. He had just turned around to head back to the couch, wondering how bad a sign that was and how worried he should be, when he suddenly felt a chill and a light puff of wind blow through his hair. "Huh?" Before he could wonder about that, he heard what sounded like a clap of thunder... from inside the apartment. "What the..." He instinctively turned toward the sound and spotted something – either he was seeing things, or the light was actually coming from behind the door to Janine's bedroom.
Peter watched the white light flicker and dance through the cracks beneath and around the door for a few seconds to be sure he wasn't imagining it. He couldn't be – that was the only place it was coming from. "What's up with that?" A glance at the clock on the microwave confirmed it was after one in the morning. Janine had said she was going to sleep almost an hour ago. Maybe she'd stayed up late reading or something, but why the flickering? Was a bulb burning out or she having problems with her electricity... and her a.c.? Leaving his glass on the counter and cocking one questioning eyebrow, he walked towards her bedroom, not forgetting the taboo nature of the action under normal circumstances and not without knowing he might regret it. Nevertheless, he picked up his pace when he heard that strange thunder again.
He stopped a few feet down the hall when the thunder stopped and the bright, white light suddenly went out. No, not quite... he could still see a faint, steady, yellow light shining under the door, like you'd normally see from a desk lamp or a nightlight. But if that was the light on in the room, where had the rest come from? He opened his mouth to whisper, "Janine," and prepared to take another step, but the sound of her voice stopped him before he could do either. Was she on the phone? Janine had never given them the impression she was a night owl – who could she be calling at this hour? She sounded strange... wait a minute, that wasn't her voice... was it?
He took a few more steps down the hall, much more slowly than he had before, trying not to make any noise. He still couldn't make out any words, but he was sure he could hear two distinct female voices in there. Funny – he didn't think Janine had a speakerphone. The second voice didn't sound like it was coming over a phone, though – was someone in there with her? That made no sense; the lateness of the hour aside, he knew for a fact nobody else had been here since the guys left.
The voices were whispering so softly, Peter was almost next to the door before he could pick up any words. "Earlier... very risky... difficult..." That was the second voice.
"Didn't plan... asleep now... only chance..." That was Janine. He crept closer. "... told them... only for a few days."
"You shouldn't have agreed at all." Peter tried to place the other voice, but if he'd ever heard it before, he couldn't remember. He didn't recognize it at all.
"I didn't want to, but I had no choice. I didn't want to make them start asking questions about why I couldn't do it."
"True. Clever move, my dear." Peter had raised his fist to knock, but when he heard that, something made him drop his arm.
"We'll have to take a break for a while. I just wanted to warn you that you'll need to stay away until he's gone. You probably won't hear from me for a few days." Now he was eavesdropping, putting his ear to the door and listening like a boy spying on his sister's slumber party, but he couldn't resist. His instincts told him something wasn't right about this...
"You sure you'll be all right without me?"
Janine's voice trembled as she said, "Not really, but what choice do we have?"
The second voice was perfectly cool and serene when it replied, "Understood. I'll wait until you contact me."
"You will come back, right?" This was apparently so urgent that Janine accidentally raised her voice above the whisper they'd been conversing in up 'til now; Peter started at the obvious fear in her plea.
"Of course, my dear. As soon as it's safe, call me. Is there anything I can do for you before I go?"
"No, I think I'll give this one a little more time."
"Take as much time as you need."
Janine groaned before she said, "It feels like it's taking forever. Why can't I get it right?"
"Perfection takes time, Janine. Be patient – you'll find the right combination if you keep trying."
"But I don't know what to try." Peter shivered at the desperate way Janine said that. "Can't you tell me what I need to do?"
"You need to do whatever you want to do. It's all your choice. Anything you want, I'll do, but you must choose." Something about that sounded familiar... and not in a good way...
"I know, but what I'm choosing isn't working, not at all. Nothing's changed." Janine's tone had changed somehow; she sounded more doubtful, but more confident at the same time, more alert. "Maybe I shouldn't have... maybe this is the wrong way. I..."
Before she could finish, the second voice quickly asked, "Do you really want to stop? To give up?"
There was only a short pause before Janine whispered, "No... but is it right to...?"
"If you wish to, of course, it is. Don't limit yourself, Janine. There's no need to hold back anymore. You mustn't give up – you're too strong for that."
"Right," said Janine, more firmly than she'd spoken so far. "I can't give up... not now. I don't care how many times I have to try, I can keep going until I get it right, can't I?"
"Of course." Peter would swear he could hear a broad smile behind that. "Ask me for anything – as long as I'm here, you can try everything you can think of. As often as you choose. Whatever you want."
Peter shuddered with horror as he realized what that reminded him of – a night in an abandoned warehouse, two boys dangling from a catwalk, hanging on for dear life as he struggled to reach them, held back by the demon who had promised them "anything you want." What was going on here?
Janine repeated weakly, like someone talking in their sleep, "Anything... I... want..."
Peter had heard enough. He turned the doorknob, but it was locked. He rapped on the door, lightly so he wouldn't startle her, and asked softly, "Janine? Janine, you all right?"
"Please, just help me. I need to know what will be perfect." It was like Janine hadn't even heard him!
Her companion gave no indication she'd heard him, either. "I can't tell you what to do, my dear. Remember, it's all up to you – the choice is all yours."
"Wait! Don't go yet, please, I..."
Pounding more loudly on the door this time, Peter repeated, "Hey, Janine!" He heard her gasp. Hoping he'd gotten her attention but not wanting to scare her, he called, "Janine, it's me. What's going on in there?"
Another gasp, this time full of fear. "Oh, no! Hurry, hurry!"
His hand automatically went to the doorknob again, and he turned it and rattled the door back and forth, not like he was trying to force it open but like whenever they kicked the car when it wouldn't start, not to try fix it but out of sheer frustration. "Janine, can you hear me? Open up!"
"Go away, I'm... I'm not dressed!"
He'd told his mother that too many times while the girl was climbing out of his window to fall for it now. "What are you doing? Who's in there with you?"
"Nothing! No one!"
"Then what..." He was cut off by a bright burst of light and rush of wind by his feet. Neither lasted long, however, but quickly disappeared with a final, brief burst of thunder. Now growing truly frantic, Peter banged on the door as hard as he could. "Janine! Janine, answer me right now! What is going aaaah..." He only got that far before the door swung open and he fell forward into the room.
Janine, still wearing the shirt and skirt she'd worn all day, stood over him frowning, her eyes narrowed, her arms crossed. "You're well over the boundary we established."
"Forget about that," her guest said as he got to his feet. "Who's in here?"
"Just me – who else?" she answered in complete nonchalance.
Peter could feel another headache coming on and his temperature rising again while he stood in the doorway, his eyes darting around the room. "Who were you talking to?"
The windowless room was completely empty, but the sight didn't calm him one bit. He turned to her and insisted, "I heard you talking to someone just now."
"I was probably talking to myself," Janine said while he looked under the bed and opened the closet, trying his best to ignore the lightheadedness and shaking that had started. "You never do that when you're tidying up, or getting ready for bed, or thinking as you wind down at the end of the day?"
"Then who was talking back? Your imaginary friend?" he snapped as he slammed the closet door closed. Nothing – the source of the second voice had completely vanished into thin air.
He thought he saw her flinch, but he couldn't be sure before she started laughing. "We better take your temperature again, Peter. I think you're starting to hallucinate."
Her attitude was even more unexpected than the accusation, and it made him even angrier. "Don't give me that, Janine! I know what I heard! There was someone in here! Who was it?"
Her amused grin didn't weaken a fraction. She shrugged before answering, "I haven't the faintest idea, but while you're figuring it out, if you don't mind, I'd like to go to bed." She stepped aside, pressing her back against the door, indicating he should leave.
His head was pounding so hard now, Peter had to brace it against his right hand to keep himself from keeling over. "I'll rephrase – what was it?" Something that could move through walls and disappear in a flash of lightning...
The grin had morphed into a warning frown. "Go back to bed, Peter."
"What were you asking for help?"
"Go to bed, Peter."
He took one more glance around the room before taking a few unsteady steps towards her; he felt like the room was suffocating him. "Fine – don't tell me what you're hiding. I probably don't want to know."
"I'm not hiding anything, but if I were, it's none of your business."
"It is if it's a ghost."
She grabbed him by the side of his collar and yanked him over the threshold. "I don't know what you think you heard, Venkman, but unless you want this place to be far more dangerous to your health than a ghost-infested firehouse, drop it! And stick to the rules – don't spy on me, don't butt into my business, don't tell anybody your crazy ideas, and don't you ever, EVER eavesdrop on me again, got it?! Aah!"
She dropped him as the transformation got out of control. Peter felt it start as soon as she touched him – the nausea, the tingling, the swelling, then the contractures, and fireworks goings off in his veins. Every cell in his body went haywire as his limbs were pulled and twisted in all directions at once, as his flesh turned into hot wax that molded itself into random shapes, with him helpless to stop any of it. All he could do was lie on the floor, keep his eyes closed, and scream, partly from the pain but mostly from terror as different parts of his body kept growing, liquefying, and shifting shapes. This was the worst attack he'd had yet!
When the violent spasms finally stopped, he could see Janine kneeling next to him, looking frightened and concerned, all traces of her anger at him gone. Just as things were calming down, she reached out her right hand. The instant she touched his shoulder, it started again. While his body shook back and forth, up and down, in its own personal earthquake, his throat swelled up so much, he could hardly breathe. Soon, he couldn't breathe at all. Janine's scream of horror was the last thing he heard before everything went black.
The first thing he noticed was how cool his forehead felt. He reached up and felt his fingers clasp around a wet rag; as they did so, he realized he was lying flat on his back. Slowly, with a greater effort than the action had ever required before, Peter opened his eyes and found himself lying on Janine's couch, every inch of him aching and throbbing like he'd just been run through a wood chipper.
What had happened? It was all a blur – the allergy, flashing lights, thunder, cold, pain... How long had it gone on? It was still dark, the living room only dimly lit by a light from the direction of the kitchen. Couldn't have been long... unless he'd been out over twenty-four hours. He tried to sit up, only to be paralyzed by a dizzy spell. Somebody grabbed his back and chest, steadying him. "No, lie down. It's okay – it's over now." As soon as he felt safe, he opened his eyes again to find Janine leaning over him, dressed in her pink ghostbusting suit and looking harried and worn out but also relieved. She smiled as she said, "Welcome back. You had me worried there for a second, Dr. V."
He took a deep breath and managed to say, "Had myself a little worried, too." He leaned his back and groaned as he gathered the strength to continue. "What happened?"
"Another attack. A bad one. You... you don't remember it?"
"Not much..." He tried, but the attempt just made his head hurt more; as if she'd noticed, Janine put the cloth back on his head. "How long was I out?"
"About two hours. You guys didn't tell me it was this serious."
"Nobody told me, either. I thought this was supposed to stop when I left the fire hall." As soon as he could walk without turning into silly putty, he was going to have a word with that so-called "doctor." Moving out hadn't fixed anything!
"Just give it some time. You haven't even been away from ghosts for a full day."
"Yeah... ghosts..." Peter's voice trailed off as he started to remember bits and pieces from earlier. He thought he'd heard... that there was... Had that really happened? Had he imagined or dreamed it? "Say, uh, Janine..." he said nervously, "there haven't been any... ghosts around here lately, have there?"
"Nope, not since that haunted geranium tore it up," she answered completely naturally, without the slightest hesitation. "At least, not that I know of."
"Then why are you wearing that?"
"Oh, this..." She seemed surprised by the question, but neither her voice her smile wavered. "Well, when I saw you were getting worse, I tried to think of what could be causing it, and I thought, I've been at work at the firehouse all day, picking up as much ghost energy as you guys, and exposing you to it all over again. But I haven't worn the spare suit I keep here for a while, and it hasn't been anywhere near ghosts for a long time, so it... it seemed like the best way to protect you from any... traces of ectoplasmic energy I brought home while I took care of you."
"Good plan. Thanks. Guess it worked..."
"Don't worry, no ghosts have been within miles of here for years."
She almost giggled. "Trust me, if my apartment's ever haunted again, you guys'll be the first to know."
"Everything's okay around here?" he asked with genuine concern.
"You mean before my new roommate moved in?" she said in the same playful tone before becoming more sincere. "Yeah, why wouldn't it be?" She was perfectly calm, comfortable, never missed a beat; he could detect no sign that she was lying, and yet... "Peter, what's wrong?"
"Nothing it's just... I thought I heard..."
He sat up. "I heard someone... a woman... talking to you..."
Janine shook her head. "There was no one here, Peter," she said gently. In fact, her attitude didn't seem right.
"You're... not still mad at me?"
"For what? Getting ill in the middle of the night? You couldn't help it – it's not your fault."
"For spying on you."
"I wouldn't call staggering towards my door for help 'spying.' "
What was she talking about? "But I... but you..."
Janine steadied him with a hand on his shoulder. "Peter, you were delirious. Whatever you think you saw, forget about it. Everything's fine."
He shook his head. "But it had to have been a ghost! No one else could have just... disappeared..." He tried to explain, but it was hard to describe something you could barely understand yourself. "If it wasn't a ghost, what..."
"It was nothing, Peter."
But that wasn't true; he knew it! "No, you... you needed help, and I..."
"Peter, I'm fine. Look around – there's no ghost here. There never was."
He did look up, and he did look at her. He couldn't deny that Janine seemed fine. She looked perfectly normal. He couldn't see anything about her that worried him; in fact, the longer he looked at her, the less urgent the whole thing seemed. Janine messing around with ghosts? She knew better than that. She wouldn't let a ghost into her apartment willingly, and she would have asked them for help if she knew she had a problem.
What if she had a problem but didn't know it? Peter rubbed the back of his head as he looked at the floor. He couldn't consider that a possibility, either; she had none of the symptoms of possession or mind control. Nothing about her or her quiet, empty apartment indicated anything was wrong. It was actually easier to believe his mind was playing tricks on him. Maybe he'd been dreaming right before the last attack struck, but his brain had jumbled the two together in his memory.
Peter raised his head and looked intently at Janine. "You're sure everything's all right?"
"Couldn't be better," she said confidently. Between his dad and his studies, he had more than enough experience to spot when someone was lying; she wasn't. "Well, except for my friend's condition."
"If you say so," he accepted with a shrug. Janine said everything was okay, and he couldn't see anything proving otherwise. He must have been dreaming. Or hallucinating. This was why he hated fevers.
"You just need some rest," Janine said as she stood up. "Trust me, everything'll look better in the morning."
"It is the morning."
"See? You sound better already. Good night, Peter." Janine started to walk away, but she must have seen something in his face that showed what he was still thinking because she turned back and added, "Relax. I promise there's nothing to worry about."
"Hey, if you say nothing's wrong..." Peter said with a yawn. He was too tired to argue with her anymore, and the next day kept him occupied with far more urgent matters, so that, by the time the four of them had been cured of their "allergies" and McCatheter had been dealt with accordingly, he'd forgotten all about it.
Peter didn't think of the incident again until the morning after Janine finally moved back into her newly refurbished apartment (it had taken longer than expected, but only he and Winston suspected she had deviously stretched out the time as an excuse to stay near a certain someone as long as possible). As much as they all liked their secretary, it was a relief to have the hall back to its natural bachelor pad state, and as soon as the scent of womankind's plethora of bizarre hair and skin products cleared out of the bathroom, they had every reason to believe things could go back to normal, "provided," Egon qualified at breakfast, "that Louis had learned never to take candy from strangers again."
"I just hope whoever poisons us next has something more humane in mind," Peter said as he stirred sugar into his coffee. "Like killing us."
Ray was grinning like a kid in a toy store as he sat down at the table with his bowl of cornflakes. "That was a brilliant plan, all right... I've never heard of anything that can cause that dramatic a change on the cellular level so quickly. It kind of reminds me of the formula that botanist in California developed 10 years ago that was supposed to cure allergic reactions to pollen but made people start to take on qualities of plants... but that, of course, wore off after four to six weeks."
"Don't think I could've survived four to six weeks of this," said Winston, dropping his forkful of scrambled eggs back on his plate. "No chance it can come back twenty or fifty years from now, is there?"
"No, we're completely cured," Egon assured him.
"Speak for yourself," Peter said with a shudder. "I still can't pick up a loaded trap without cringing."
Without bothering to look up from his book, Egon told him, "Don't expect to get time off for that," before making more notes on the sheet of paper in front of him (his companions knew better than to ask what he was working on).
Peter said lazily, "Hey, cut me some slack, will ya'? I'm the biggest victim of all here, you know. You guys had it easy; I had to suffer through it two days longer than all of you. I'm the only one who thought I was gonna have to give up my life's work." He gestured dramatically as his voice became more tragic. "You have no idea what agonies I endured in my exile, tormented by the fear that I would never see my home again, tossing and turning at night as I anxiously pondered my fate – writhing in pain, gasping for breath, losing my mind..."
"Aw, how horrible," Winston said sympathetically, before adding, "Poor Janine."
"Think she's still mad at us for wrecking her place again?" Ray asked worriedly.
"I estimate it will take two more weeks, four days, six hours, and twenty-two minutes until she completely forgives us," Egon announced, without breaking the flow of whatever other project he was working on, "allowing for her original displeasure at being forced to baby-sit Peter, and assuming that no further damage occurs to her home or car in that time frame, that no infestations or security breaches occur during her office hours, and that Peter refrains from playing any pranks on her..."
"Oh, sure, blame it all on me," Peter said in mock indignation.
Winston's eyes narrowed slightly as he asked, "You didn't give her a hard time, did you, Peter?"
"I would have, but I was so busy fighting off ectoplasmic anaphylaxis, I didn't have time for anything else."
"Drop the victim act, Peter," said Egon, removing a calculator from his breast pocket.
"What act? It was a nightmare."
Egon continued pressing buttons and making more notes as he spoke. "It was a nightmare for all of us, but as we all know your symptoms vanished once you got to Janine's ghost-free apartment, you might as well think of something else to complain about."
"Shows how much you know, Dr. Spengler," said Peter, now a trifle offended. "I spent most of my time on her couch trying to hold myself together."
Ray looked up at him and asked, "What are you talking about?"
"The 'allergies,' or whatever McCatheter gave us, didn't stop in Janine's apartment," Peter explained. "Ask her – that so-called treatment barely made any difference."
"Hmmm... fascinating." Egon held his book in one hand as he carried his plate, mug, and silverware to the sink with the other. "You should have noticed some improvement in a zone of significantly less spectral activity."
"Yeah, I should have, shouldn't I?" Peter asked Egon's back, but the latter, now reading his book on the counter while he washed his dishes, had tuned out the rest of the world.
Winston said what they were all thinking: "That's weird."
"Very weird," Ray agreed. "You didn't notice any ghosts while you were there, did you, Peter? Maybe McCatheter sent some after you to keep you out of commission."
"Nope, none..." Peter started to answer before he remembered. "Not really... I don't think so..."
His two remaining companions exchanged a confused look at that. "What do you mean, you don't think so?" Winston asked.
"Nothing, it's just..." Peter shook the uneasy feeling off; he was being silly. "Forget it; it's no big deal." He had no desire to relive any part of this adventure, especially the bizarre effects of his fever and headaches.
"What? What happened?" Ray asked anxiously.
Peter sighed but decided he ought to put their minds at ease. "Nothing, honest. I just... I had a really weird dream or something the first night."
"About what?" Winston pressed him.
"I thought I heard Janine talking to someone in her bedroom." Peter had to grin at the way Egon visibly tensed up when he heard that. "A woman." He relaxed. "Janine was asking for help, she sounded nervous, I think she was talking about something not working, and there was this weird light coming from under the door."
"When was this?" asked Ray.
"Middle of the night. I was raving about hearing ghosts when I woke up."
Egon, who hadn't so much as turned around, now rejoined them at the table. "What exactly did you hear them say?"
"I don't know. It's all a blur."
"What did Janine say?" Winston asked next.
"That I must've imagined it."
"Did you see anything...?" Egon amended that to, "... or think you saw anything?"
"Not a thing – there was no one there. Everything looked normal."
His audience all looked at each other, unconvinced there was nothing to worry about. Ray was the first to speak. "You guys don't think Janine's in some sort of trouble, do you?"
"Of course not," Egon said with conviction as he adjusted his glasses. "It was probably just a hallucination or vivid dream induced by the fever, stress, and state of the mind at such a late hour."
Winston nodded. "Yeah. Janine would tell us if anything was wrong."
"What if she can't?" Ray wondered. "Maybe we should check her for traces of psychokinetic energy."
"We could, but it would be useless," Egon explained. "Janine's exposed to ghosts on a regular basis. She spends most of five days every week above the highest concentration of spectral energy in the city. A positive PKE reading would tell us nothing unless it was high enough to indicate she was actually possessed, and as none of our equipment has ever alerted us to anything when in her presence, we know that's not the case." He rested his chin in hand as his eyes screwed up in deep thought. "Although, now that you mention it, she has been exhibiting some distinctly uncharacteristic behavior lately..."
"Such as...?" Peter asked suggestively.
Egon cleared his throat and replied nonchalantly, "It just occurred to me that she's been acting... far more professional and... more mild in her emotional expression lately."
"Yeah," Peter sighed. "She's no fun anymore. Remember how sassy and cheeky she used to be? Now she's as sweet and perky as the girl next door."
None of them had ever felt the need to point out any dramatic change in their secretary's personality before today, but it now suddenly seemed so obvious, they wondered why nobody had brought it up long ago. "Yeah, she's really mellowed out," Winston agreed. "What happened to the spitfire?"
"She's not depressed, that's for sure," said Ray, crossing his arms. "She's always smiling and giggling these days... and not the way she used to."
"Yeah – she used to laugh at us." Peter rested his chin against his fist as he propped his arm up on the table. "I haven't been able to tease her for... years." The realization struck him for the first time. He remembered how he and Janine use to spar, snark, banter, and tease each other like brother and sister – when had that changed? He couldn't imagine teasing a girl as sweet and gentle as she was now; she wouldn't have found it fun, and it would have come across as mean, not as a game between equals. How come he'd never thought about it until now?
As if he felt obligated to provide a theory, Egon said tonelessly, "I suppose she just grew to respect us."
Winston turned to him. "Yeah, she seems to look at everyone different now, huh?" Egon made no comment but looked across the room, his eyes narrowed in annoyance. The other three looked at each other, Peter rolling his eyes, nobody willing to ask if Egon knew why his formerly biggest admirer no longer threw herself at him like she'd always done. How long had it been since they'd seen her grab his arm, throw her arms around him, lean against him at dinner or in the car, blow him a kiss as they left, or even just make him blush by giving him that lustful smile?
The unspoken question gave Ray an idea, and he suggested in perfect sincerity, "Maybe we should ask Louis if he's noticed anything strange about her lately." Egon looked aside, evidently determined not to make eye contact with any of them, especially Peter, who couldn't help glaring at him.
Not taking his eyes off his stubborn friend, Peter said bitterly, "Oh, he would have more than anyone, but I doubt he ever would have complained." He found that change in Janine the most tragic of all, but he also couldn't find anything the least bit abnormal in it; nobody could blame a girl for getting tired of waiting after years of no progress and moving on... although he was shocked by her choice. Paul Smart may have been a lying scumbag, but at least he would have seemed like an impressive conquest at the time. No offense to their accountant, but it was impossible for Peter not think that Janine should have known she could do much better.
Egon cleared his throat more loudly this time and declared, "That's none of our business. Things change. People change over time; it's quite common in our species. Nothing about the changes in Janine's behavior implies anything dangerous or unnatural is at work. She has never given us the slightest indication that she's in any trouble or that anything is wrong; until she does, we have no reason to assume otherwise." He seemed to have forgotten that he was the one who raised the subject in the first place. "In fact, as it's highly improbable she would approve of us discussing her like this, I suggest we refrain from continuing."
His arguments didn't seem to have much effect on Ray. "But what if Peter really heard something?"
"Janine says he didn't, and if she had a problem, she has no reason to hide it from us," Egon instantly replied.
"I hope not," Ray said halfheartedly, but he perked up as he considered the matter. "I mean, why would she?"
Peter now regretted ever telling them about it. "Exactly," he said without doubt. "She said she was fine, and anyone can tell by looking at her that she's fine. Forget about it, Ray. This is Janine we're talking about – she doesn't go around getting herself in trouble. What would she be doing with a ghost?"
Winston smiled as he suggested, "Maybe she's taking secret singing lessons from a disembodied voice on the other side of the wall," causing two of them to laugh.
Egon, however, reminded them sternly, "That wasn't a ghost," before gathering his papers, book, and calculator and heading towards the lab, leaving his friends to stare after him in varying degrees of amusement and disappointment.
To protect himself from any more ridiculous comments, snide looks, or unwarranted assumptions from the others, Egon remained hidden there for the next several hours. As he genuinely believed that Janine was perfectly all right and was keenly aware that they had no right prying into her business without very probable cause, he had no desire to renew the subject, no matter how perplexing he may find it. He never expected he'd one day find himself face to face with a mystery without attempting to solve it, but the ways of women were a mystery beyond his skill. He couldn't hope to explain in a million years why Janine had gone from acting like the team's bossy older sister to an amiable, nurturing team mother, how her aggressive, fiery spirit had turned into a soft warmth, or what she had seen in Louis Tully... and it wouldn't have interested him even if he could. How Janine acted was her business, as was whom she dated, no matter how inexplicable any of it was. For all he knew, such transformations were common in women. Well, that was no concern of his, as long as she wasn't in any trouble.
He mentally repeated what they'd all agreed on earlier: If she was ever in trouble, she would tell me... us! It was odd, the thought that Janine might be keeping secrets from him. She used to be so open and frank with him – too much so, if anything. He supposed the change was only natural when she started seeing someone, although her original lack of restraint around him hadn't resumed when she and Louis ceased to be anything more than coworkers. Maybe it had become habit for her... or maybe she was dating someone new they didn't know about...
Why did the thought make him frown? He'd learned his lesson about that long ago. Why should he care? He hadn't cared when she started dating Louis... had he? The scientist tried to objectively examine what his feelings had been during that period. He knew for a fact that he'd felt nothing like what he felt when he first saw Janine with Paul Smart. No, he honestly didn't believe he'd experienced any pathetic, foolish, unreasonable jealousy when Louis became the surprising object of Janine's affections. Egon couldn't remember it ever bothering him. He had truly been above such weakness then. Whatever mistakes he may have made where Janine was concerned, he was not guilty of being jealous of Louis Tully... because he couldn't imagine how any man ever could be – there was nothing about him to be jealous of (the thought had to be admitted even if it was too uncivil ever to be said).
Janine, what were you thinking? The man may be a great accountant, but his chances with Janine should have been no better than his chances with Dana Barrett. What could she have possibly respected or admired enough in him to be attracted to him? Maybe they did have probable cause to worry about her mental health after all, even if there was no ghost involved. Had she been so reluctant to let Peter stay in her apartment merely because he was Peter, or did she have something to hide? Egon even started to wonder if Peter really had heard something after all. "What are you up to, Janine?" Remembering Winston's remark, his eyes instinctively went to the small mirror on the left side of his workbench. Humans had ways of passing through walls, too. What kind of angel was secretly visiting Janine...?
"You've been in this line of work too long, Spengler." He shook his head to ward off the crazy thoughts breaking in. Like Ray said, Janine hadn't become depressed, reclusive, or "indifference personified," as Leroux so eloquently put it. He was being paranoid. Why did Janine always drive him to act so irrationally? Before he could answer that question, the alarm went off. Egon gave himself five seconds to take a deep breath and compose his features before going out to face the others. A showdown with a powerful Class 6 and 7 kept them busy late into the night; by the time he had the leisure to worry about anything unrelated to their opponents, he didn't have the energy.
Egon could tell he wasn't the only one whose mind was taken back to their conversation two days ago when Janine reported for work Monday. "She looks okay," Winston whispered as they followed Peter upstairs for lunch after a morning of no calls.
"Yeah... we should just leave her alone," Ray said apologetically, as if he truly felt guilty for judging her.
Egon lingered behind them on the staircase, looking down at Janine sitting at her desk, filing her nails. It was true that nothing about her looked odd; he couldn't see anything suspicious about her. Had Peter not brought it up, it never would have occurred to him to worry about her – everything about her seemed perfectly normal. He began to feel shamefully foolish. What had he been thinking? Nothing was wrong – this was obviously who she wanted to be now. He couldn't explain it, but he didn't need to; it was none of his business.
"Something wrong, Egon?" It took him a moment to realize Janine had said anything.
"No – I guess not," he said truthfully.
He took one more step up when she said brightly, "Guess you guys don't miss me at all then."
He stopped. "As much as you would miss us when we stopped staying with you." He should just keep going, but he stayed where he was and turned back to her. "Everything all right with your apartment?"
"Just perfect," she said brightly. "Maybe I should have you guys trash it more often."
"I think that would be highly inefficient and inconvenient for everyone involved." He once again considered going upstairs but found himself walking back down to the first floor. "I'm glad it was ready for you to move back in. It... took a rather long time."
Janine out down her nail file and picked up a newspaper. "Well, you know how contractors are," she said with a shrug. "They never do anything as fast as they promise."
"How reprehensible," Egon observed as he walked towards her desk. "I'm sorry they forced you to stay here so much longer than you planned – you must have hated it."
"Well, I'm probably scarred for life, but I'll try to hold up," she vowed with a grin.
"I'm sure you are..." He braced himself, sure he was going to regret what he said next. "I mean, we all know you had no reason for wanting to stay here longer than necessary."
"Don't flatter yourself, Dr. Spengler," Janine said once she stopped laughing.
"Don't flatter yourself." Although Egon was well aware of Peter's theory on that subject, he had something far different in mind. "I only meant, I hope you didn't have some reason for not wanting to go home."
She didn't flinch, didn't gasp, didn't react at all like someone with a secret they feared to see exposed. He could see nothing but mild confusion in her eyes when looked up at him. "What are you talking about? Like what?"
"Such as, if there was something there you wanted to avoid, or someone you knew you were safe from seeing here..."
Her eyes widened like someone who'd just made an unexpected discovery. "What? Don't be ridiculous, of course not. Why would I..." Her voice dropped, and she looked down at her desk. "Why would I think that?" He had no idea what to make of that. "Of course I'm not... I don't... I would never..." She shook her head rapidly. "No, everything's fine! Where would you get a crazy idea like that?!"
"I'm sorry, Janine. I just..." Egon supposed there was no point in trying to hide it from her now. "We've been a little... concerned about you lately..."
"You? Concerned? You don't know the meaning of the word, Mr. Spock."
He ignored that. "Is there anything going on that you'd... like to tell us?"
Janine groaned as she stood up from her desk. "Yeah – my bosses need to mind their own business!"
Egon heard his voice rise: "If you have a problem, it is our business, not as your employers but as your friends."
She'd begun walking away but stopped and turned around. "Hah, friends... you know, there are some times when you hate that word."
He gritted his teeth and said, "There's nothing I can do about that, but yours couldn't help noticing that you..." He hesitated, unsure how to put it.
"That I what? What?" She sounded more hopeful than angry.
"... That you haven't been yourself lately."
Janine looked aside and released some cross between a sigh and a laugh. "I've never been more myself..." Before he could ask what in the world that meant, she shook her head, looked back up at him, and said stiffly, "Please inform everyone that your concern is noted and appreciated but not needed. I have everything under control."
That got his attention. "What thing is there to control?"
Egon watched the realization of what she said come into her eyes. "Nothing! I didn't mean... oh, men! Where do you come up with this stuff?"
"Well, you can't blame us for being a little surprised by... certain things... recent events..." He bit his tongue, cursing himself for saying too much.
Now was the perfect time to take his turn to say, Nothing; instead, he said, "Your fling with Louis Tully."
"Oh, did that bother you?"
"Bother, no; surprise, yes."
She pulled her jacket off the hook and put it on. "I can't imagine why – Louis is very sweet once you get to know him."
That did bother him, but he tried not to show it. "He never struck me as... your type."
"What type is that?"
Egon would have walked away and dropped the issue right there if Janine hadn't narrowed her eyes at him like she was daring him to answer the question. He responded with his own challenge: "You tell me."
"Smart, funny, and adorable." Egon was sure his eyes widened with each adjective. "Like a... puppy you want to cuddle and protect."
As annoying as her crush on him had always been, Egon had never tried to deny that it existed – or, at least, had existed. Neither could he believe that what she'd just described had ever applied to her attraction to him; she had never treated him like a puppy she needed to protect or given him the impression she would have enjoyed that – was such a dramatic reversal of opinion common for women? Out loud, all he said was, "Fascinating – I always thought you were attracted to what you could admire, not pity."
"I used to be, but that was getting me nowhere," Janine said coolly, "so I decided to try something different. It didn't work out, but it was fun while it lasted, which was more than I ever got before."
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"Well..." Egon cast a quick glance around the garage to make sure no one was nearby. "While I have nothing but the deepest respect for Louis..." (The particularly slow way he pronounced every syllable easily gave away the lie.) "I must express surprise that someone with your qualities would be satisfied with someone like him instead of looking for something better... unless..." He now confessed the fear he hadn't been able to put into words until now. "Unless you thought, for some reason, that you couldn't do better... that you weren't worth more than... that caring for a poor, pitiful, wounded puppy was all the love you deserved."
He was prepared for a (not unjust) outburst of anger. It scared him when all Janine did was stare blankly into space before saying weakly, "Why would I think that?"
"Why don't you tell me?" Egon stepped towards her but restrained the urge to put a hand on her shoulder. "What's going on, Janine?"
"Noth-ing," she replied instantly.
Egon was no more satisfied now than he was the first time she said that. "Either you've done something, or someone's done something to you – something that's made you lose confidence in yourself. What is it?"
"I have not, I'm just... just experimenting."
"But Peter said he heard you..."
"Peter was delirious – he doesn't know what he heard."
"Look – I do appreciate your concern, Egon, but I'm fine. Nothing's wrong, nothing's going on. How many ways can I say it?"
Why wasn't he ready to believe her? "You know you can always come to us if you ever need help, right?"
"Except when my apartment's haunted." She was entitled to bring that up, but the memory of how flippantly they'd dismissed her problem that day made Egon sick to his stomach. Maybe they couldn't blame her if she didn't trust them. Janine let the remorse sink in for a few seconds before adding, "If I needed help, why wouldn't I tell you?"
"Maybe because you don't realize you have a problem. Or you do but think you can handle it yourself. Or you're embarrassed. Or you're afraid."
"No, no, no, and definitely no," Janine assured him with another shake of her head.
"Are you sure?"
Egon now believed she was telling the truth... what she truthfully thought of the situation, that is. "Even if you're not in trouble, is there anything you haven't told us that we should know about?" Instead of readily denying it again, she opened her mouth and closed it again like she was about to say something but changed her mind. "What is it? You know you can trust us with anything, no matter what it is." She closed her eyes tight, obviously struggling with herself. "Janine..."
She hesitated a few more seconds but finally opened her eyes and said, once again, "Nothing. I mean it – everything's fine." She smiled and pushed her hair behind her right ear. "Can't you tell?"
Was she asking, couldn't he see for himself that she was all right? "If you say so."
He wondered why her face fell at that. "Okay, then. I'm gonna go grab some lunch."
Egon grabbed her arm as she walked past him. Janine gasped in surprise but didn't pull away or turn around. "I'm sorry we weren't there for you in the past – we all are – but we want to be there for you now. If you need anything..."
Janine didn't let him finish. "I don't need anything," she said like a kindergarten teacher repeating instructions for the hundredth time to a slow child. "If I do, I promise, you guys'll be the first to know."
"I'm holding you to that." Egon returned her smile and released her. He still felt uneasy, but logically, he knew there was no reason to. He trusted Janine to take care of herself; if she still said everything was all right after he made it clear there was never any reason to hide anything from them, he believed her. Even if she wouldn't tell the others, she would tell him, he was sure of it. What kind of thing could she have been hiding, anyway? No likely possibilities came to mind. None except... He was heading back up the steps, relieved that he had survived the conversation, but he stopped and turned around halfway up the staircase. "Janine..." he called.
She turned around as well. "Yes?"
"You're not... not taking secret singing lessons from a ghost on the other side of the wall, are you?"
She blinked twice, swallowed, and laughed until tears came to her eyes. She caught her breath enough to say, "Absolutely not," before opening the door and stepping outside, laughing all the way. Egon had expected her to laugh, but it wasn't that funny...
"After a few weeks, I no longer recognized myself..."
"By the Voice's order, my progress was a secret known only to me... No one noticed any change. I did everything the Voice wanted... I lived in a kind of ecstatic dream where the Voice was in command."
"I should have suspected some sort of deceit. But I was no longer able to think for myself: the Voice had total control of me."*
He had heard her reading aloud as he came upstairs from the basement, but she stopped when she heard his footsteps approach. Janine put her book down, sighed, and said without looking at him, "You guys weren't far off."
Egon stepped forward and laid his hand on her right shoulder. "Was that really what it was like?"
"Pretty much. Christine had an Angel of Music, I had an Angel of Beauty."
"I'm not afraid of you anymore!" He blinked and pushed the memory aside. "You were afraid of her?"
"Not in the beginning, and not all the time, but often enough that I shouldn't have let it go on. But I couldn't stop. It was like I was addicted. And, honestly, I didn't keep it a secret because I was afraid of her but because I was afraid of losing her. She'd convinced me that I needed her and couldn't go on without her. And I let her do it. I trusted her, believed everything she told me. Everything she said always made sense somehow."
"That was because of the control she had over your mind."
"Control I gave her."
"Which wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been so..." He couldn't go on.
Janine rose from her chair and faced him. "No, you saved me! Don't think like that!"
Egon smiled at this skewed view of the situation. "I won't blame myself if you won't blame yourself."
She smiled at that. "Deal." She looked at him for a second with those strange green eyes before taking him in her arms and kissing him. His denial and restraint forgotten on the dock where he'd confessed what he should have recognized years ago, he readily returned the embrace and the kiss. They may never be able to undo the physical changes she'd made, but her inner fire and passion had returned, and that was all that mattered.
"It's over now," he said when she pulled away and laid her head on his shoulder.
Janine soon looked up at him, grinning, and said, "Say you love me."
His arms still around her, Egon returned the grin. "You know I do."
* Leroux, Gaston. The Phantom of the Opera. 1910. Trans. by Lowell Bair. Bantam Classic edition, 2008.