"This is Ghostbusters Central." Winston ushered the graying man in with a flourish, guiding him through the minefield of scattered tools and equipment surrounding Ecto-1 to the reception area. "And this," he added, indicating the pretty redhead behind the desk, "is Janine Melnitz, our secretary. Janine -- Greg Lambert, an old buddy of mine."

Janine studied the portly figure, pausing only briefly to acknowledge the pinned-up left sleeve; her eyes swept upward, registering approval at the newcomer's open face and friendly smile. "Pleased ta meet'cha," she said, allowing her hand to be taken in a warm grip. "Any friend of Winston's...."

"The feeling is certainly mutual," Lambert returned smoothly. He regarded the woman with a twinkle. "You were right, Winston," he said in a stage whisper. "She is a looker."

Winston groaned aloud. Janine snorted, the jaded New Yorker who'd heard it all before. "I don't need any more insurance," she pronounced firmly.

Lambert drew himself up. "My dear girl!"

"I told you it wouldn't work," Winston laughed, jabbing the other man in the ribs. "Nothing like that, Janine. This is Doctor Greg Lambert of the VA Hospital."

"Oh." Janine contemplated Doctor Lambert with dawning comprehension. "You brought him here to talk to the guys, didn't you?"

Zeddemore hesitated, casually slipping his hands into the pockets of his slacks. "Don't you think I should have?"

"You better believe I do."

Braced for censure, her heartfelt agreement threw the black Ghostbuster off stride for a moment. He recovered quickly and leaned across the desk, pinning the woman with a look. "Then you've noticed it, too," he began eagerly.

"I've noticed changes in all of you," Janine replied tartly. "Nothing much gets past that I don't see, Winston..."

"That's the truth," her companion muttered.

"...including the fact that you've been disappearing every night since the guys got hurt." She crossed her legs, smiling at the way Lambert's eyes automatically traced her skin from ankle to exposed thigh. "You've been going to Dr. Lambert here?"

Winston opened his hands wide, a note of embarrassment creeping into his voice. "After what happened, I needed someone to talk to. Greg ... well, Greg's known me since the war."

"What you did wasn't easy," Janine patted his arm sympathetically. "And personally, I'm glad you had someplace to go to get your head together. You can be pretty smart when you put your mind to it."

Winston visibly relaxed, basking in her rare praise. "Thanks to Greg. I just hope he can help the others too. They sure aren't getting better on their own."

She mulled this over. "True. Egon hasn't played with his spore collection once since all this started -- or said more than two words to me, either. He and Ray putter around the lab all the time; even Peter doesn't come down here anymore."

"Exactly why I called Greg in." Zeddemore clapped the other man on the back and nodded toward the stairs. "Next step is to get them to go along with this."

Janine snorted again. "Good luck," she offered, going back to her typing. "'Cause frankly, I think you're gonna need it."

***

Dismissed on this cynical note, the two men made their way to the second floor living quarters where Winston showed his companion to the sofa. "Make yourself comfortable, Greg. Coffee?"

"Maybe later." Puffing from the climb, Lambert settled himself gingerly into the overstuffed cushions of the sofa. "I hope I can get back out of this chair," he groaned, sinking in. "I'm not as young as I used to be."

"Who is?" Zeddemore drew a long, deep breath, expelling it in a soft whoosh. "Guess I'd better go invite the guys in. Sooner I get started...."

Lambert raised a hand, stopping the other midturn. "Just a minute." He leaned forward, or rather, attempted to do so. The hungry sofa refused to let go. "Listen Winston, are you sure this is such a good idea bringing me in without telling the others first?" He sank back, giving the sofa a temporary victory. "Janine didn't seem to think I'd get much of a welcome once they found out why I was here."

Winston dropped wearily down next to his old friend, the couch sinking even further under his added weight. "You may not -- especially from Peter. Most stubborn, independent cuss I've ever met."

"Peter... Peter Venkman?" Lambert scratched his head. "Now why is that name so familiar?"

Winston shrugged. "We're in the news every other week and you wonder why the name's familiar?"

"Maybe." A pause. "You're sure you want to go through with this?"

Winston leaned forward -- a feat Lambert watched with some degree of envy -- and rested his chin on his fist. "Frankly, I don't know what else to do. You've got to meet them to understand, but...." He sighed. "We got burned on this one, Greg -- all of us. Burned big time."

Lambert laid a hand on his companion's muscular shoulder. "I know how it was for you, buddy. None of us thought we'd ever have to kill again after 'Nam."

"I sure didn't." Zeddemore fixed his gaze on the blank screen of the television, studying the reflection he saw there. Distorted by the glass, it nevertheless showed a man of strength and character, as well as one who was desperately unhappy with his circumstances. "Blast," he swore softly. "I look like an old man, don't I?"

"I should look that old," Lambert retorted good naturedly. "Despite the gray."

"Gray?" Winston ran a hand through his short black curls, permitting himself to be distracted for the moment. "I ain't got no gray, man, and you're a fine one to talk anyway, you with that bald spot."

Lambert looked startled. "Bald spot?" He rested a hand on his own pate and glowered at the smiling black. "You gonna pay for that one, Zeddemore," he growled, mimicking Winston's worst street accent.

They both laughed, enjoying the brief respite. Winston quickly sobered, however, his practical mind returning to the problem at hand. "Dude was bad news, Greg," he said, his smile fading as though it had never existed. "Hurt my friends bad. You should have seen Ray laying there like one of the numbers, or Peter's face when...." He broke off, his eyes haunted with shades he'd thought buried long ago. "I did him, man -- that son of a--, Ali. I did him without a second thought." He gazed at his reflection again. "And I enjoyed it."

"It was necessary," Lambert pointed out.

"Enjoying it wasn't part of the package," Winston snapped. He stopped, his expression rueful. "Aw, c'mon, Greg, you've heard all this before. Every night last week in fact. You're here to see my friends, not me."

Lambert released Winston's shoulder and wagged a finger under his nose. "I'm here so you can all learn to help each other, my friend. You're going to need their support as much as they need yours."

"Don't know how much good I'm going to be," Winston admitted sadly. "First thing I did was run crying to you. I didn't even try to talk to Peter, and he's a psychologist, too."

"Peter is too close to the problem," Lambert said. "And as competent as he may be, I doubt he has the experience to deal with trauma victims." He tapped Winston's knee. "You're the one with that kind of experience, Winnie, not those stay-at-home college boys."

Zeddemore winced. "They were a little young for the war, Greg. I ... wouldn't have had them go, anyway."

"Mother hen."

"Who, me?" The black Ghostbuster turned, surprised. "Maybe I am a little. Not something I'd've called myself last week, but now...."

"Normal reaction."

Winston laughed shortly. "You think I'm bad, you should see Egon. I don't think he's been more than two feet from either Peter or Ray all week! He's got Peter ready to kill him. Even Ray is starting to kick -- and that's saying something when Ray's patience runs out!" He paused, the laughter fleeing his expression. "Or maybe not saying so much lately."

"Don't worry so much, Winnie." Lambert smiled encouragingly. "We'll get your friends through this -- and you, too, provided you can get them to talk to me."

Zeddemore rose. "Guess I'd better go talk to them."

"Help me up first," Lambert ordered, extending a meaty hand. "Men of my ... 'stature' weren't created to sit this low to the ground anyway."

Winston accepted the hand and pulled, hauling the heavier man out of the couch. "No problem. Oh, one thing you should know, Greg."

"What's that?" Lambert asked, gaining his feet with palpable relief.

"You ever call me 'Winnie' again, and I'll feed you to the next gooper we bust. And that, my friend, is a promise."

"I'll remember that," Lambert acknowledged, shooing him off.

***

Winston headed directly for the main lab adjacent the bedroom where, as expected, he found Egon and Ray hard at work. They sat huddled over a conglomeration of tools and equipment unrecognizable to the non-physicist; wires strung like spaghetti decorated one metal stand, another was covered with circuit boards and spare parts heaped in no logical order whatsoever. Ray, his right hand swathed in bandage, brace and sling, sat at the wooden work bench holding one component, Egon bent over his shoulder also examining it closely. The general air was that of ordered chaos, a familiar atmosphere whenever the two scientists were involved. Pausing just inside the doorway, Winston took a moment to gather his courage and watch.

"It won't work, Egon," Ray pronounced dispiritedly, dropping the unidentified module roughly to the table. "This design won't modulate the wave enough, either. I'm sorry."

Egon rubbed his red eyes and adjusted his glasses before reconsulting a sheet of blue foolscap in his hand. "Why don't you try reconfiguring the multi-drive unit again," he suggested. "Maybe if...."

"It won't work, Egon!" Stantz snapped. "I can't do it!" He blinked, surprised by his own outburst, then dropped his eyes back to the module. "I'm sorry. I'll try something else." He rifled through a pile of schematics, missing the sharp sorrow which crossed Spengler's ascetic features. Spengler lifted one hand, made to touch his friend's slumped shoulder, then dropped it to his side, the motion uncompleted. With a sigh, he turned to stare out the open window, lost in thought.

Winston watched this miniature drama with a pain in his own heart. Since the first time he'd met these two, he'd recognized the rapport which existed between them both on a professional as well as an emotional level. There was little of that peculiar affinity in evidence today, nor had there been since the return of Walter Peck.

A soft whisper of sound touched the periphery of Winston's senses. Turning toward it, he found himself staring into a pair of sharp green eyes which were regarding him steadily from the corner. This was a surprise to the black Ghostbuster, for Peter Venkman habitually worked in his own office on the ground floor. Winston had, in fact, deliberately avoided going downstairs first, anticipating the need for a little support before facing this stubbornly independent spirit. He hesitated, but there was understanding in those eyes and this, more than anything, gave Zeddemore the boldness to speak.

"A-hem!" he began, with force cheer. "If you all have a minute, I'd like you to come out and meet an old friend of mine."

"Does she have good legs?" Peter asked drolly, automatically smoothing his thick, dark locks. "Money? A car?" He struck a pose, hand on heart. "You have my blessings, my son. Go and sin in peace."

"It's not that kind of a friend," Winston replied, grinning despite himself.

"Oh. Sorry."

Ray simply regarded Zeddemore with weary patience; Egon cleared his throat. "We're rather busy at the moment..."

"Busy getting nowhere," Ray grumbled in a depressed voice, staring intently down at his denim-covered thigh.

"...perhaps another time." Egon turned his back, dismissing the matter.

Not so Peter. "No sense being rude, Spengs," he said in mild rebuke. "A new face around here might be a welcome sight. Hanging with you two is like hanging in a mausoleum." Giving Spengler no time to formulate an appropriately crushing response, he went on, "Who is this friend of yours, Winston?"

Zeddemore leaned back against the doorjamb in a deceptively negligent pose. Here we go, he thought, bracing himself. "Old friend of mine, name of Greg Lambert. He...."

"Lambert?" Peter's smooth forehead creased while he ran the name through his efficient mental filing system. "Lambert, Lambert...." His face cleared. "You mean Doctor Greg Lambert? The psychiatrist?"

"You know him?" Winston asked, mildly chagrined. "He did say your name sounded familiar, but I thought he probably caught you on the tube somewhere."

"One arm, right?" Peter rose, stretching his legs. "Knew him slightly post- grad. I remember because he was a lot older than the rest of us in the lab." He smiled in remembrance. "We used to call him 'Pops.' He hated that."

"He had spent almost seven years overseas by then," Winston told him, his carefully prepared speech knocked into a hat. "I met him after I came home ... at the ... VA center."

Peter's eyes narrowed. "PTSS?"

"Yes."

"And you brought him home to meet us." It was not a question.

"Yes." Zeddemore left the support of the door, strolling forward to stand in the geometric center of the room. He addressed the confused Stantz and Spengler, but he was acutely aware of Peter's gaze boring into his back.

"After I got back from Viet Nam," Winston began, back very straight, "I needed a little help adjusting to being home. I couldn't hold a job, couldn't relax.... Every time a car backfired, I'd hit the dirt screaming."

"It's called PTSS," Peter elaborated, coming to perch on one corner of Ray's table. "Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Common personality disorder afflicting people who have experienced some particularly disturbing or stressful situation." He paused, looking at Winston intently. "It affected a lot of war vets. You weren't alone."

"Not just soldiers," Winston confirmed. "But anyone who's lived through something too rough for them to adjust to alone." He emphasized the last word ever so slightly, his expression carefully neutral.

Light dawned. "And you brought him home to meet us," Egon quoted, frowning.

"Yes." Zeddemore took a deep breath, then took the plunge. "I think we all need a little help to sort out what happened -- to try and put it behind us so we can get on with our lives again." He finished in a rush, "Greg has a program...."

"No." That was Stantz, his soft voice unutterably weary, his eyes shadowed. "I don't want to see him. I don't want to talk about ... what happened. I just ... I just want to forget." He lifted his face pleadingly to Egon's, then dropped it again immediately. "Please, can't we just forget what happened? Please?"

"I don't know -- can you?" Winston stepped closer, staring at the bowed auburn head with compassion, but his voice, when he spoke, was implacably hard. "You're looking at a second operation, then six to eight weeks of therapy after which you may -- I say may -- get back most of the mobility in your hand." He leaned closer. "You were imprisoned, drugged and tortured, but you're telling me you can just forget all that happened? Or that Peter can? Or Egon?" He raised his hand in a sudden gesture and Ray cringed away with a cry. "Are you putting it behind you, Ray?" he went on sadly, the compassion spilling over into his voice.

"I think that's about enough." As hard as Winston's tones had been, they could compare not at all with the steel in Egon's deep bass. The tall physicist stepped protectively in front of Ray, impaling Winston on arctic ice. "You will drop this subject immediately. The matter is forgotten."

Winston allowed his shoulders to sag, reading his defeat in those words. "Yeah, I'll forget it," he said regretfully, "but he won't. And neither will you."

"Wait a minute." Peter, uncommonly silent through the preceding, spoke up at last. "Maybe we should ... hear him out," he suggested, swinging one sneakered foot back and forth in imperfect rhythm.

"There's no reason to employ non-team members," Spengler protested, losing some if not all of his chill.

"You're a psychologist, too, Peter," Ray spoke hesitantly, continuing to stare at his own leg. "We don't need anyone else."

Peter smiled vaguely, settling back down onto his wood chair. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, but in case you haven't noticed, I haven't been exactly helping myself, much less any of you."

That brought the auburn head up, and Winston knew the youngest Ghostbuster was aware of what that admission must have cost the proud psychologist. Peter shrugged and again ran a hand through his thick brown hair, finger combing it into place. Ray immediately went back to studying his jeans.

Spengler watched the exchange every bit as intently as Winston was; his blond brows knitted in a disapproving frown. "It's only been ten days, Peter," he pointed out, dropping a hand onto Stantz' tense shoulder. "I'm quite certain that, given a little time...."

"How much time do you think you're going to need?" came a voice from the door. "Six months? A year?"

Four heads swiveled in unison, following the heavy-set figure as he stepped fully into the room. "I couldn't help but overhear," Lambert explained without a hint of embarrassment at his intrusion. "Hello, Pete. I should have known it was you just from Winston's description: wild, outrageous, bizarre...."

"Greg." Peter didn't offer to shake hands, but a mischievous light brightened his face. "Ever get that Peterbilt out of your waiting room?"

Lambert chuckled. "Some of my clients finally tore it down. I understand it's being used in the children's ward as a jungle jim."

"At least it didn't go to waste. Darned truck cost me fifty bucks. You still with the VA?" he asked, watching the older man closely.

"Paying back a debt." Greg indicated his empty left sleeve. "May take awhile. So," he said, looking interestedly around the room, "Winston tells me you boys have been going through a bad spell of late." He stared pointedly at Ray's sling, then at the slowly fading bruises on his face. "Rough one, eh?"

Stantz flushed. "This comes off soon," he blurted defensively.

"And then everything will be just like it was before," Lambert translated, albeit sarcastically. "Do you agree, Dr. Venkman?"

Peter cleared his throat. "There has been limited recovery time," he began uncomfortably, shrouding himself in the security of medical jargon, "and in the case of massive trauma..."

"Like you've all suffered," Lambert interjected.

"...it requires a finite amount of time to effect healing..."

"...or not," Winston finished for him. "In this case, probably not."

"Why do you say that, Winston?" Egon asked, scientist's mind intrigued despite any emotional blocks.

Zeddemore hesitated, mentally flinching away from his own past yet aware of how important his answer could be. "I remember what it was like ... before." He broke off, running a hand across his face; it came away damp with sweat. "Look, it's been a long time since I had to deal with anything like this," he began again. "After 'Nam, I never thought I would have to again, but killing that Ali dude brought it all back with a bang." He shuddered.

"Winston, I...." Ray rose, approaching the black Ghostbuster timidly as though expecting to be struck. "I'm sorry you had to.... I mean, I knew Ali was dead, and I knew...." He trailed off, raising his hand helplessly.

"...that I was the one who killed him," Winston finished for him savagely. Ray retreated, but Winston reached out, snagging the other's good wrist in a solid grip. "Rifle or thrower, Ray, dead is dead. It's something that had to be done -- something I've learned to live with over the years." He glanced pointedly in Venkman's direction. "Something I'd rather not have anyone else have to go through if I can prevent it." He turned back to Stantz and gave his wrist a gentle shake. "It's all right to need help sometimes, Ray -- we all do. I would have never come home from 'Nam without it."

"Especially if it's help from someone who's been there," Lambert said from behind. "And I was a prisoner of war for three years."

"C'mon, guys, what can it hurt?" Winston switched tactics, going from rational to cajoling in a breath. He gave Ray's wrist another friendly shake, then released him. "Wouldn't it be worth it just to sleep a full night through?" he asked Peter, "Or to not go crazy every time your friends go to the john by themselves?"

That last was to Egon, who blushed. "I'm not that bad," he protested, hunching his shoulders.

"Like fun you aren't," Peter muttered under his breath. He turned to Lambert and there was the first glimmerings of acceptance in his eyes. "What precisely are you proposing, Pops? Group?"

Lambert nodded. "I've had a great deal of success with group sessions. You'll meet men who've gone through the same things you have and come out the other side. Sometimes just talking things out with someone who understands can be enough."

"But I don't want to talk about it." Ray sank back into his chair, his face visibly paling. "I ... don't even think I could if I wanted to."

Egon draped an arm around Ray's slumped shoulders and squeezed comfortingly. "Maybe they're right," he said uncertainly.

"I think so; none of us can go on like we've been." No answer. Still perched on the desk, Peter reached across to give Stantz a light tap on the head. "Oh, Raaa-aaay. You in there?" Ray looked up a shy smile on his lips, which Peter warmly returned. "Do you realize that's the first time you've looked me in the face all week?"

Stantz looked away. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean...."

"You also apologize every third sentence," Peter added bluntly.

"And you haven't slept in days," Egon told the psychologist, kindly drawing attention away from the discomfited Stantz.

"Which proves my point," Peter agreed triumphantly. "Not that group is my all time favorite thing," he added, scowling at Lambert, "but I guess it's better than nothing."

"High praise from you, Dr. Venkman," Lambert returned sweetly. "And they say doctors make the worst patients."

"We do," Peter smiled. "But we're not stupid."

"No, you're not." Winston slapped the psychologist on his gently swinging leg and turned to his two remaining partners. "Ray? Egon?"

Spengler waited, watching Stantz who hesitated then met Winston's eyes with a deliberate effort. "I'm not sure I can talk...."

"Then just come," Lambert invited, "and listen."

After another moment, Ray nodded and that was when Winston started to breathe again for he knew Egon was won as well. "I'm scheduled to go in tonight at eight," he said briskly, as though a crisis had not just passed. "We can all go together." He waited for four nods of agreement before turning to the patiently waiting Lambert. "Come on, Greg, I'll make that coffee I promised." The two started out, then paused at Peter's call. "Yo, Pete?"

"I just want you to know," the psychologist told him very solemnly, "that I don't do group hugs."

"We'll work on that one," Winston winked, heading for the door.

***

finish