"I say it looks like a puppy."
"Only if its parents are terror dogs."
Pause. "I can see that."
"Are you sure you don't want to take a taxi?"
"Yeah! Come on, isn't this fun?"
Sigh. "Sure it is, Tex, but I thought you wanted to catch that special on the Learning Channel about the origins of the Loch Ness Monster. If we walk you might miss it."
"Oh, that won't be a problem. I set up the VCR this morning before you got up." Another pause. "Don't you have a date tonight?"
"Sarah canceled for tonight, so enough with the guilt. I wouldn't have agreed to come along if I thought I was going to miss something important. Besides, this is important too. It's not often we get a chance to just... be. Two guys walking to the store..."
"Chimera Hobby Shop."
"...talking like normal, everyday people for a change. We all need a break from time to time, Tex. And I think the four of us need to take simple time outs to connect on a different level than just our jobs. Think about it. Our lives are built around our work. We do enough things outside of it to keep our heads on straight, but sometimes a deliberate separation and reconnection outside the norm is exactly what the doctor ordered. So consider it ordered."
Pause. "That's why you decided to come with me?"
Sigh. "I think you missed my point. I would be your friend whether or not we did what we do, and this is my way of reestablishing that. Just the two of us, doing something that has absolutely nothing to do with work, just talking about things that everybody else talks about. That better?"
Long pause. And then, without any warning, the husky redhead grabbed his lean brown-haired friend and hugged him for all he was worth. "Thank you, Peter. I'm glad to just be hanging out with you, too. And you're right. We do need to do this every once and a while. Feels good."
Peter grinned and let the lids close over his bright green eyes as he returned the embrace. "Of course I'm right. When am I not? Don't answer that," he said quickly as the pair broke apart. "We're out here to have fun, not pick on me."
The redhead grinned, a slightly wicked gleam in his warm brown eyes as the two men continued on their way. "But, Peter, that is fun." He laughed as the slightly taller man glared at him. "Okay, okay, I'll leave you alone. For now. I make no promises about later though."
The other man sighed yet one more time. "I can't say I expected any less. But I'll take what I can get. So why are we going to the comic book shop today? Didn't you already make your Captain Steel run this month?"
"Yeah, last week. But I got a message that something I ordered would be coming in with today's shipment, and since we didn't have anything scheduled I figured I'd go pick it up. It's gonna be great!" He practically glowed with his enthusiasm.
"Uh, huh. Great, Ray. So what did you order?" Peter raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"It's a surprise," Ray said smugly, with a smile to match. Peter could only shake his head and chuckle fondly.
"Hey, Peter," Ray said after a comfortable silence that lasted for about half a block. "Did Sarah really cancel your date for tonight, or was it something else?"
"She really canceled. And I think it's something else. She's been acting distant lately, so I have a feeling this relationship's about run its course. It's too bad; she was a lot of fun."
"How do you do it, Peter?"
"The Venkman charm, kid. Attracts 'em like flies to honey... or lawyers to a car wreck." He smiled wryly. "And sometimes with the same results."
Ray shook his head. "No, that's not what I mean. How can you deal with going through so many relationships like you do? I know you've gotten kinda close to some of the girls that have dumped you. How do you do it?"
Emerald greens shifted to take in the earnest man. "Most of the time it's not that big a deal. We were just together to have a good time and separated once we'd had it. No strings, no worries. There have been a few times that the girl has gotten a lot more serious than I ever intended and ended up hurt when I had to call it off. I hate when that happens." Peter shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and hunched his shoulders. "And then there have been a few times where I was more serious than my partner. That... that's been the hardest. But you go on. You have to."
"Was it that way with Dana Barrett? You seemed so down after you guys broke up." Ray's baritone was soft with sympathy, a touch of surprise at his friend's readiness to talk about such a touchy topic behind it all.
"It all happened so fast. Too fast. The Gozer situation speeded up what was happening between us, and after the close call on the roof of Central Park West we clung to each other - a stress reaction. We had been mildly interested in each other before that, and might have started dating under normal circumstances - not that we would have met under normal circumstances - but the stress took it to the next level. And we were never ready for that. So it fell apart. I don't think I was more serious than Dana, and it really was mutual, but the whole thing was a huge let-down, and I actually had to deal with what had happened during our showdown."
"What do you mean?"
"We nearly died on top of that apartment building, Tex. When Spengs told us the only way out he could think of was crossing the streams, we did it fully expecting to die. And then we didn't. I got a bit of it out of my system while we worked our tails off rebuilding the firehouse, but in general I ignored it and focused on the aftereffects - my relationship with Dana. She did the same thing actually. We never talked about what had happened. Part of me knew I shouldn't have let either one of us do it, but I hadn't gotten used to the fact that my choice in career could kill me at any time, and Dana had the whole possession thing to work out. Now, after Watt, I can completely relate, but I couldn't then, and dealing with that would have meant facing my own inner demons, so to speak.
"It wasn't gonna happen. So we kept going and we started rubbing each other the wrong way and then the whole thing with our possessed uniforms happened. The sight of an ectoplasmic me in that uniform - that still had marshmallow on it for heaven's sake! - shook me and made me start to cope with that whole close call with Gozer thing. And when I started to do that, I realized Dana and I would never work out. She had come to that conclusion too, and we talked it out. The reason I was so down wasn't because of the break-up - actually I felt a lot better once it was over - but because I was facing my own mortality. Depressing thoughts."
Ray blinked and gazed at his friend sympathetically. "Wow. I never knew that was the reason. Gozer was that hard on you?"
Peter smiled. "Not any harder than it was on any of the rest of you. It just took me longer to deal with it. And the timing disguised it."
"Does Egon know why you were depressed?"
"Probably not. I never talked it over with him. He might have suspected there was more to it than Dana and I breaking up, but he didn't say anything if he did."
Ray chewed on the inside of his cheek as he considered what to say next. "So why did you tell me?" he asked finally.
There was another pause as Peter did some considering of his own. "You asked," he said simply. "And I guess I was ready to talk. It doesn't really hurt, and I've come to grips with the inherent danger of my job. No risk, I guess." He smiled fondly. "And you deserve the truth. We're supposed to be reconnecting. What better way than to share a few skeletons that have been hiding in the closet?"
Ray chuckled a bit. "I'm glad you could trust me with that, Peter. It means a lot to me."
"I trust you with a lot more than that, Ray. I trust you with everything."
"You do know that if Egon heard you saying those big words you used earlier you'd never hear the end of it, don't you?" Brown eyes glittered with barely suppressed mirth.
Green eyes glittered in kind, recognizing and appreciating the attempt to lighten the mood. "I guess Egon doesn't need to hear about it then, does he?" The two of them laughed as they turned the corner and arrived at their destination.
Peter decided to wander around the aisles while Ray talked to the clerk behind the counter. He walked right by the typical superhero comic book issues and found himself in amongst the role-playing section of the store. The thick, hard-cover volumes that were displayed caught his eye, and he reached out and grabbed one to occupy his time. He raised his head briefly as he heard Ray burst out with his trademark comment - "This is great!" - before his redheaded friend lowered his voice quickly and conspiratorially. Obviously something for him then.
Fifteen minutes later, as Peter was admiring the fantasy artwork that accented the text, Ray bounced up, two double-bagged packages in each hand. "Okay, I'm ready. We can go."
The brown-haired man took one last look at the scantily-clad barbarian woman he had paused at, sighed, and put the book away. "Took you long enough. Are you sure you got everything?"
The redhead smiled. "Yep! What were you looking at?"
"One of those role-playing books. Had some neat artwork. Shall we go then?"
"Definitely. I can't wait to get back with my gifts!"
Peter chuckled as he led the way to the door and out to the street. "There better be one for me in that haul," he kidded as they headed back the way they came.
"You bet there is, Peter. It was backordered for months, but it finally came in along with Egon's. Winston and Janine's have been on hold for a little over a month so I could give them to you all at once."
"Presents from a comic book shop?"
"You'll see." Ray wore the same smug look he had worn on the way there earlier.
"Can I help you with the bags?"
"Nah, I'm alright. They're not too heavy."
Peter nodded and lapsed into a brief silence as he contemplated what could possibly be in the bags. Then another question occurred to him. "Why did you ask about Dana?"
"What?" Ray asked, startled.
"Dana. What made you ask about her? It's been years."
Ray blushed a bit and gulped before answering. "I ran into her the other day when I went with one of my occult friends to see the New York Symphony Orchestra practice. He knows a guy that works with the sound system. Anyway, I happened to catch her and we talked for a while. She asked how you were, and it made me think about what had happened. When you mentioned Sarah and how things weren't working out, I figured I'd ask. I really don't understand how you can be so casual about relationships; I never have."
"I guess I'm not completely sure what I want, so I'm willing to sample. And I'm sure the way I grew up has something to do with it. We won't go there. You've known I'm like this for longer than I care to admit. What makes you ask now?"
"Well..." the stocky man began, blushing even more fiercely, with a hint of hurt touching his features. He took a deep breath before continuing. "I've been seeing someone I met at the last comic book convention a couple months ago."
Peter blinked. He hadn't known that. How could he, Don Juan Venkman, have missed the tell-tale signs of one of his best friends falling in love? "Another comic book junkie, huh?"
"Actually, no. Valerie was working at one of the food vendors' booths. We got to talking one night as she was closing up and just seemed to click. I ate a whole lot of subs during that convention."
"How romantic," Peter said with a smirk.
"Peter," Ray chided half-heartedly.
"Sorry. Slipped out," the psychologist said apologetically. "Go on. What's the problem? You and Val aren't clicking anymore?"
Ray sighed again. "I thought we were, but I guess I was the only one. I went to see her after that morning bust on Sunday, and she sat me down for a little talk."
Peter winced. "Not the talk."
The occultist couldn't help but smile a little at his friend's exaggerated tone. "Yeah, I guess so. She told me she thought I was a great guy, but we just wouldn't work out."
"Did she use the famous line?"
"Which line is that, Peter?"
"'Can we still be friends?'" Peter's eyes rolled.
"Actually, that was my line. She said we could try, but she wasn't promising anything. We don't really just run into each other all that much, and with my erratic schedule..."
"Oh, Ray, I'm sorry. But I have to wonder why you didn't tell us about this girl. Keeping secrets in your old age?" Peter quirked his lips in his patented cocky style, but his eyes were sharp and evaluating.
"If I'm old, what does that make you?" Ray shot back with a quick grin. Then it faded. "No, I wasn't trying to keep secrets. We're in the middle of a busy stretch, and the topic never came up. I just wanted to see her whenever I could, and no one asked me where I was going. I was going to bring her down to the firehouse to introduce everybody on Sunday actually, since we didn't have anything scheduled."
"But then the talk happened. Are you going to be okay?"
"About Valerie? Sure. We didn't really know each other that well, so I guess I'm more disappointed than hurt. I think what's really bothering me is that I stopped at a diner on the way back to headquarters and met a new waitress they have working there. She's really pretty and sweet."
Peter blinked again. "So what's the problem? Couldn't get her number?"
"Peter, I had just broken up with my girlfriend. Don't you think it's a bit odd to immediately be attracted to someone else?"
"Ray," Peter said seriously, grabbing the other man's arm and bringing their pace to a halt. "All that tells me is that you couldn't have been that serious with this Valerie person. You aren't fickle, you aren't petty, you aren't shallow. You are nowhere near any of those things. Besides, even the most devoted of married men can look at a woman other than his wife and find her attractive. It's called being human. I know you're serious when you start seeing someone, hoping that this will be the girl you want to spend the rest of your life with, but that kind of emotion doesn't happen overnight."
"And Valerie and I weren't meant to be. Is that what you're saying?"
"Yes and no. Considering she turned down Super Stantz, one of the best people I've ever known, I have to question both her sanity and her taste, but she obviously wasn't really your type anyway. I hope you enjoyed it while it lasted, though." Ray smiled. "Good. My other point is that attraction does not automatically equate to relationship. Because you find someone attractive does not mean that somewhere in your subconscious you want to seriously date this person - at least not most of the time. You broke up with Valerie on Sunday, right?"
"Yeah, just before lunch."
"Wow, better than Dexatrim for appetite control. Anyway, I'm willing to place money you weren't brooding about it on your walk back toward the firehouse like I've seen you do when your previous relationships have ended. Like you said, you were a bit disappointed, but not really heartbroken. I bet you were even a bit relieved. And then you walked into the diner. Your waitress was nice and good-looking. Someone you would normally find attractive. Probably the same kind of traits you saw in Valerie before you got a chance to start to get to know her. You reacted the way you should have - you talked to her. If you're that worried that it was a fluke because you were down over the break-up, wait a little while and go back. If you still find her attractive, ask her out. It won't be rebounding or anything else you might think it is."
"Don't you think I'm getting over Valerie kind of fast, though?"
"Nah. You weren't that serious; you didn't have time. You've always been like a rubber ball, Ray: you bounce back from just about everything. You just didn't have that far to come back from, that's all."
"You're sure, Peter?"
"Hey, Dr. Venkman is giving you a clean bill of health in the melon department. You're fine, Ray. Nothing wrong with you. Although I think I'm going to put in a request to be filled in a little quicker on developments like this. You threw me with this whole Valerie/dating thing." Peter grinned. "You know how much I like to keep on top of things."
Ray smiled back. "Of course. And I promise to tell you sooner if something like this happens again. Thanks, Peter. I feel a lot better." He threw his arms around the older man in a fierce hug.
Peter returned the embrace for a moment then pulled back. "Those boxes of yours are deadly weapons," he said rubbing where they had impacted his back. "Let's get them home and away from all the innocent women and children."
Ray laughed. "You got it. I can't wait to see all your faces!" The two of them continued on home to the firehall.
Ray had gotten everyone to gather in second floor living room about a half hour after he and Peter had returned from their walk and was bouncing in place in the middle of the room as they settled themselves. "Is everyone ready?" he asked excitedly.
"Ready for what?" the lean, muscular black man asked as he sat back on the left end of the couch. "What is this all about?"
"I must concur, Raymond," the tall blond man seated next to him said as he pushed his red, round-rimmed glasses back into place. "What was so important you needed me to pause my experiment?"
"Not that I mind the break," the only woman in the room said with a shrug from her place next to the blond man. She brushed a stray lock of red hair out of her face and adjusted her own glasses. "It's been nuts around here for two months now."
"Oh, come on, Janine," Peter drawled as he flopped onto the recliner next to the sofa. "You know you enjoy the excuse to hang around Egon."
"I'm actually doing work, Dr. Venkman, unlike some people around here." She shot a piercing blue gaze at the lounging psychologist.
"I know. Spengs over there really ought to get it together, don't you think?"
"Peter, it's my turn to do laundry this week. Unless you would like me to 'misplace' all of your socks and underwear, and possibly your sheets, it would be prudent for you to be careful with what you say." The blond man's pale blue eyes sparkled with humor amidst the stern expression.
"Oh, of course, Egon. I won't spill your secret lazy lab activities anymore. Point taken."
"Pete, you just don't know when to quit, do you?" The third seated man's dark brown eyes were as filled with mirth-filled affection as any of the others'.
"Sure I do, Winston. I just haven't reached that point yet."
"Guys, please?" Ray finally burst out, unable to hold back anymore. "I've got presents for all of you and I wanted you all to be here when I gave them out. The last two finally came in with today's shipment at Chimera's, and I had to pick them up." He started reaching into the bags resting at his feet and handing out the packages he pulled out.
"You were with him, Pete. What is this?" Winston asked, confused, as he took in the plain white box his gift was in.
"Got me. Tex here wouldn't let me near the counter when he was picking them up. I'm just as much in the dark as you guys are."
"Probably more so, considering the status quo," Egon muttered, also examining his box.
"Just open them!"
The other four shrugged and did as Ray commanded. Peter was the first to tear through the tape holding his box shut and pull out something encased in Styrofoam. "What in the world...?" He was a little more careful in taking the tape off the packing material then pried open the two halves to reveal the prize in the center. "Oh, wow, Ray. This is great. Absolutely perfect," he whispered in awe at the sight lying in his lap.
"What is it, Peter?" Egon asked, pausing in the act of opening his own present.
The psychologist silently held up the thirteen inch high figurine, done in exquisite detail, of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. It rested on a small base, as detailed as the main figure, three inches thick with a corner scene depicted on it complete with old fashioned lamppost. "This is wonderful, Ray. I love it. Thank you." A huge smile lit up his features as he looked at his still-standing friend.
"I told you it'd be great," Ray said, returning the expression. "I'm glad you like it."
"Oh!" gasped Janine, who hadn't paused in her task as she looked at Peter's present, although she had let out a low whistle of appreciation at the sight of it. She pulled out the black-framed mini-poster as tears filled her eyes. Her gaze took in all the subtleties of the artwork. "I've wanted this since I saw it in one of your catalogues! This is perfect!"
"Who is that?" Peter asked as he leaned over to look at the poster, his tone still a bit subdued from shock.
"The Endless," she responded, holding her present up so everyone could see, "from Neil Gaiman's comic book 'The Sandman'. I love those books."
"You read a comic book?" Peter asked, raising his eyebrows.
"You'd be surprised, Peter," Ray defended their secretary. "Not every comic book is like Captain Steel. I think you'd like 'The Sandman'..."
"Uh, maybe some other time, Tex." Peter turned his attention to the two people who hadn't finished with their boxes. "So what about you two?"
Egon pulled out the Styrofoam packing from his box as Winston struggled with the tape on his. The blond physicist pried it apart and gasped lightly. "Wherever did you find this, Raymond? I never even knew this existed." He held up a statue about the same size as Peter's done in the likeness of Albert Einstein, just as exquisitely done.
Ray shrugged. "I saw it in the catalogue - I forget which category it was under - and knew you should have it. So I ordered it and it finally came in. So you like it?"
Egon smiled at his exuberant friend. "Most certainly, Ray. I merely need to determine where I shall display such a fine piece of artwork."
Just then the tape holding the box shut finally gave for Winston, allowing him access to the treasure inside. He quickly tore through the packing material and brought out a piece that brought a smile to everyone's face. It was a statue, the same size as Peter and Egon's, depicting a pipe-holding Sherlock Holmes, down to the coat, hat, and haughty expression. "Man, this is cool! I saw this in one of the catalogues you had lying around one night and thought about having you order it for me, but I never got around to it. Thanks, man!"
"Any time, Winston. You're all worth it." Ray's smile lit up the room.
"While these gifts are quite appropriate and greatly appreciated by everyone, the question remains: why did you purchase them? I cannot think of any significance for today." Egon was truly bewildered by the turn the day had taken, thanks to the redheaded occultist.
The love Ray felt for the others in the room came through loud and clear in the change of his smile. "Like you said, Egon, they were perfect. When I saw them I just couldn't pass them up for you. But even more importantly," here he shared a significant look with Peter, "I figured it was important to share something with you guys that didn't really have anything to do with ghostbusting. I love my job, and I know you guys do, too, but we all need a break from it every now and again. This is just a reminder of a friendship that goes beyond what we do for a living." He laughed a bit, obviously at himself. "And I didn't even realize that one until Peter told me just how important that kind of thing was."
Peter preened himself cockily. "Hey, what can I say? I'm a genius of the highest order." The others groaned.
"Ignoring that last remark," Ray continued, "just remember this. Every time you look at my gift, think of it as a reminder of our friendship, a reconnection that we all need from time to time. It's just me saying 'I love you.'"
"We love you, too, Ray. We love you, too," Janine said, the tears still standing in her eyes. The others nodded, smiling, and the conversation quickly turned back to the gifts they had been given. Thus they wiled away yet another ordinary day in the lives of the Ghostbusters: business partners, co-workers, and most importantly, the best of friends.
The End (for now...)