Rewards of Integrity


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This is a sequel to Funk. It just sort of came about one day - and then took a very long time to finish. It is, once again, primarily a Kermit story. Very little Peter, and NO Pop, but quite a bit of Paul.

Rewards of Integrity

It was a dreary winter day, but the man sitting hunched over a glowing computer screen was oblivious. He was unwashed and unshaven, and from the growth of his beard, it was fairly obvious that he'd hardly moved in at least a week. With his eyes blearily focused on the glowing screen and his right hand manipulating the mouse, he was totally unmindful of anything other than his task.

It took a while for the soft tapping noise to break through his concentration. At first, it was just a little annoyance, then, as it persisted, it became distracting. Finally, it got his full attention. He turned to glare at his apartment door and, muttering imprecations, he stood, nearly crying out as his cramped muscles protested. With a soft groan, he tried to stretch the semi-permanent hunch out of his back. Unsuccessful, he shuffled over to his door and peered out the spy-hole. Seeing who it was, he smiled and opened the door.

"Abigail, hello. Don't tell me you lost your key again?"

The little girl smiled up at him and shook her head. "No. Mommy has to work late, tonight, and she said I should see if I could stay with you until she gets home, if that's all right with you?"

It had been a couple of months since he'd first met his new neighbors across the hall, and they were slowly forming a friendship. "Sure, come on in. I'm afraid the place is a mess, but I've been kind of busy." As usual, his heavy drapes were closed, blocking most of the light of the day outside. He moved out of her way and then closed the door behind her. Turning, he stumbled and had to twist to avoid hitting the girl on his way down. There was a loud 'crack' as his hand hit the floor to break his fall. With a cry of pain, he rolled to his side, pulling his injured arm to his chest. Gasping, he shook his head and wondered when the last time he'd put anything more than sweetened coffee in his stomach. He heard the grating of bones and knew he'd broken his wrist.

"Damn. Damndamndamndamn." He looked up at Abigail, who was frowning down at him worriedly.

"Did you break it? It sounded like you did. Can I help? Do you want me to call 911?"

"Uh, no. But would you call my friend for me?" He thought hard, trying to decide what his best bet would be, finally settling on the cell number. "His number is 555-0495. His name is Mr. Blaisdell, and all you have to tell him is that 'Kermit took a header and broke his wrist at home.' Okay? Can you do that for me Abigail, sweetheart?"

"Yes." She looked at him for a moment. "Can't I help you get up, first?"

He shook his head. "No, I'm fine right where I am, for the moment. Just make the call, okay?"

"Okay." She picked up the cordless phone from the coffee table and turned it on, then carefully recited the number as she pushed the buttons. "Five-five-five-oh-four-nine-five." She held the phone to her ear and waited for it to be answered.


"Mr. Blaisdell? Mr. Kermit said to call you and tell you that 'Kermit took a header and broke his wrist at home.' He said that you'd know what to do."

Paul scowled and looked at his cell phone in confusion. "Is he awake?" He spoke softly to the child, wondering who she might be and what she would have been doing at Kermit's apartment.

"Yes. He's all curled up on the floor and he won't let me help him get up."

"He's at home? You're at his apartment?"

"Uh-huh. He's cold. Should I get him a blanket?"

Shock. "Yes, honey, that's a good idea. You get him a blanket and I'll be there in a few minutes, all right?"

"Okay." She pushed the off button and set the phone back on the coffee table. Going into his bedroom, she pulled the comforter off his bed and dragged it out to the living room, carefully pulling it over him. Once he was completely covered, except for his head, she frowned down at him. Chewing on her lower lip, she returned to his bedroom and came back with his pillow.

"Come on, Mr. Kermit, this is softer than the rug." She managed to get him to lift his head so she could get it under his cheek.

"Thanks," he murmured, focusing on 'breathing through the pain' and thinking that all that shaolin mumbo jumbo was a crock. He realized he'd been too long without anything to eat when the room refused to stay in focus, and he kept feeling dizzy, despite lying very still on the floor. "Abigail? Would you get me a glass of orange juice from the refrigerator, please?" He hoped it hadn't gone bad, as he wondered just how long he'd been at his computer. He closed his eyes to rest them for a few moments, falling almost instantly into a heavy, exhausted sleep.

Paul drove as quickly as it was safe through the light, spring rain, wondering who the kid was, and what she was doing at Kermit's? Pulling up before his building, he was lucky enough to find a parking space, which he quickly parallel parked into. Hurrying up the stairs, he knocked loudly at Kermit's door, which swung open under his assault. Worried, now, he drew his revolver and, with his body pressed against the wall, he pushed the door open wide. When nothing happened, he crouched and turned to enter the darkened apartment. He immediately spotted his friend on the floor, curled on his side, his right wrist held to his chest, covered with a comforter and with his head on a pillow. Sitting beside his head was a little girl who was gently stroking his hair and asking him to wake up. With a quick glance around to make sure the apartment was clear, Paul holstered his gun and moved to kneel by his friend.

"What happened, honey?" he softly asked the girl.

She frowned at him uncertainly. "Are you Mr. Blaisdell?"

He smiled and nodded. "Yes, what's your name?"

"Abigail Wardleigh."

"So, can you tell me what happened?" As he listened, he gently pulled the comforter back so he could look at Kermit's injury.

"My mom said she had to work late, so I should come over and stay with Mr. Kermit. He opened the door and I came in, but when he went to close the door, he fell. I heard his bone break. Did he break his arm?"

Paul, who had gently moved Kermit's good hand from it's protective curl around the injured member nodded. "It certainly looks like it." He looked at the child and smiled. "You did very well to call me. How long has he been asleep?"

"He went to sleep after I got him his pillow."

Since he knew that it hadn't been more than twenty minutes since she called him, he didn't worry too much about Kermit's current state of consciousness. He looked at Kermit's condition and quickly figured out what had happened. "Fool probably hasn't had a real meal or any sleep in close to a week." He grinned at the girl. "So, tell me, Abigail, where do you know Kermit from?"

"My mom and me live across the hall. I lost my key and I knocked on his door to ask if I could call my mom." The little girl smiled. "He helped mommy get a new job, and made my dad pay her what he was supposed to. Best of all, he made my dad stop hurting us."

Paul didn't need to hear any more. "Well, Green Knight, let's see if you can wake up, now." He gently patted Kermit's cheeks, just hard enough to be annoying, saying, "Come on, Kermit. Rise and shine." When that didn't work, he sighed and looked ruefully at the little girl. "Abigail, would you get me a wet wash cloth? Cold water?"

"Okay." She stood up and scampered for the bathroom. It wasn't often that they'd taken Kermit up on his offer to baby sit, but often enough that she knew where to find things. She brought back the cold, wet piece of terrycloth and handed it to him, watching worriedly as he applied the cold soggy thing to Kermit's face.

"Gah!" Kermit brought his injured hand up to push the annoyance away, and yelped when it collided with Paul's arm. His eyes opened and he glared. "Ow."

"I'll give you 'ow'. When's the last time you put anything besides coffee in your stomach?"

"What's today?"


"Uhhhh, Monday night I had a pizza?"

"This week, or last?" There was both amusement and exasperation in Paul's voice.

Kermit scowled. "This week. I think."

Ignoring the implications, he held out a hand. "Think you can stand on your own, now that you've had a nap?" Kermit just glared and held out his good hand, allowing Paul to pull him to his feet. He spotted the worried Abigail, who was watching them with enormous eyes.

"I'm all right, sweetheart."

"You broke your arm," she reminded him.

Paul snickered as Kermit glared. "Wrist, actually. I think." He sighed, looking at Paul. "ER?"

"After you shower and change." He wrinkled his nose slightly.

Kermit looked down at himself and nodded. "Good idea. Abby, why don't you call your mom and tell her what happened? Have Paul talk to her, too."

"Okay, Mr. Kermit." While Paul insisted on helping Kermit to the bathroom and got him out of his shirt and tie, the girl phoned her mother.

"Mr. Blaisdell? My mom wants to talk to you, please?"

"Sure, honey. "Mrs. Wardleigh?"

"What's wrong? Abby said Kermit broke his arm?"

"Yeah, his wrist. He got overly focused on a computer project again, and lost track of the rest of the world."

"Oh, dear. I knew I hadn't seen him in almost a week. And he was looking a bit worn, then. That was Monday night when the pizza delivery guy came." She chuckled, "Seems we both decided on pizza that night. Is he going to be all right?"

"I'm sure he will, but I'm going to take him to the emergency room for x-rays and a cast. Your daughter said you had to work late?"

She sighed. "Yes, I'm afraid so. I guess I'd better go home, though."

"Well, if you'd like, she can go to the hospital with us." He could feel her debating the wisdom of this. "I've worked with Kermit off and on for years."



"How many years?"

"How much do you know about Kermit?"

"Enough to know that he has to know some very scary people."

Paul chuckled. "Not any more. I'm his captain at the precinct, now, but we go back a long ways. To those 'scary' times."

She remembered Kermit talking about his captain and how he'd brought him 'in from the cold'. He'd never mentioned the man's name, however, except his first name, Paul. "What's your first name?"

"Paul." He knew she was trying to decide whether or not to trust him. "I've got two girls of my own, as well as a new grandson, if that helps."

"Could I talk to Kermit for a minute?"

"Sure. He's in the shower, let me get the portable phone to him." With a wink at Abigail, he took the portable phone into the bathroom. "Kermit, Mrs. Wardleigh would like to speak with you." Kermit's left hand came out from behind the shower curtain and Paul put the phone in it.

"Isabel? Yeah, I'll be fine. I'm sorry about this. With us? Uh, sure, no problem. Paul's good with kids. Yeah, that's right, he's already raised two of his own. Hey, I'm the one who's sorry. Believe me." He suddenly hissed as the water started to get too cold for him. "Look, let me get going here and with any luck, we'll be back before you get off, okay? Okay." He held the phone out to Paul. "Here, she wants to talk to you again, make sure she's not imposing on you." Paul chuckled and took the phone, leaving the bathroom.

"Yes, Mrs. Wardleigh?"

"Are you sure this isn't an imposition on you?"

Paul chuckled. "Hardly. What's one more child to take care of?" There was a moment of silence and then he heard her answering giggle.

"Well, when you put it that way."

"I'm going to stop and get them something to eat on our way to the hospital, so they don't decide to keep him. I can't think of anything worse than Kermit forced to stay in the hospital overnight simply because his blood sugar is too low. Then, when we get back here, I'm going to make him eat again, just because. If you like, you could join us? It'll probably take two or three hours at the hospital."

"Thank you. That would be lovely."

"I'll let you speak to Abigail again." He handed the phone to the little girl, who smiled at him as she took it.

"Hi, Mommy."

"You be good for Mr. Blaisdell, now, okay?"

"Okay, Mommy. I'll see you later."

"Okay, sweetie, goodbye."

"Goodbye." She pushed the off button and put the phone back in its charger. She smiled up at Paul, and then there was a muttered curse from the bathroom.

Paul chuckled. "He just realized that he can't quite dress himself with only one hand. Wait right here and I'll go help him."

"Okay." She dutifully sat on the sofa and waited patiently.

Paul went into Kermit's bedroom and selected comfortable clothing for him that would be easy to manage with one hand. Sweatpants with pockets and a short-sleeved polo shirt. It wasn't, perhaps, Kermit's 'usual' style, but he kept such clothes for situations like this. Entering the bathroom, he chuckled at his annoyed friend.

"Here. You can dress yourself, can't you?"

"Yeah." He managed to get his feet into his boxers and pull them up. It was awkward, though, having to pull up first one side, then the other with only the one hand. But at least Paul didn't laugh or offer to help. The sweat pants went on the same way. He looked doubtfully at the polo shirt, and then looked up at Paul.

"Here." Paul took the shirt, stretched the right sleeve wide, and Kermit eased his damaged arm through the opening. From there, he was able to manage the rest, himself, although Paul did finish straightening the hem and collar for him.

"Do you want socks and shoes, or what?"

"I've got a pair of huaraches in the bottom of the closet. I think those might be the easiest."

"All right. Why don't you go and let Abigail know you're all right, while I get them for you?"

"Sure." He paused and added, "Thanks, Paul."

"You're welcome. I'd do the same for any of my 'kids', Kermit. You know that."

Kermit chuckled. "Yeah, I know. Fortunately, it's not usually me who gets himself into trouble."

"True, but you always make up for it when you do." He gently patted his friend on the shoulder and headed for the bedroom to find the shoes.

"Hey, Abby. Sorry about all this."

Abby looked up at him with wide, worried eyes. "It's okay, Mr. Kermit. Does it hurt a lot?"

"Some, but I've been hurt worse." Paul came in with his shoes and he slid his feet into the sandals. "Well, I guess the next stop is the ER?"

"Food first. They'll take one look at your blood glucose level and admit you."

Kermit grimaced. "What kind of food?"

"Something that will bring your blood sugar up fairly quickly. How about a milk shake?"


"Of course. How about you, Abigail? What flavor milkshake would you like?"

"Strawberry, please."

"Strawberry it will be." Taking Kermit's keys from the desk, he held the door for them and made sure to lock the apartment behind them, leaving the lights on for their return.

By the time they got back to Kermit's apartment, the hours he'd been up were catching up with him. With the pain meds he'd been given, he was ready to sleep for at least twelve hours. Paul, however, insisted he eat a real meal, even if it was just Kentucky Fried Chicken.

After he made sure Kermit had filled his belly, he allowed him to go to bed, teasing him about Abigail baby-sitting him instead of the other way around. Abby giggled at the idea. Once Paul got him stripped down to his boxers, he pulled back the covers and Kermit sat on his bed and flopped onto his back, his feet still on the floor. Within moments, he was asleep, leaving Paul shaking his head and lifting his legs onto the bed and pulling the covers up. Automatically, Paul tucked him in, as he would one of his children. Once he was sure Kermit was safely ensconced, he turned out the light and joined Abigail in the living room.

Sitting on the sofa, he sighed. It had been a very long day for him, and he'd love to go home to his loving wife. Which reminded him. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and hit his favorite speed dial.

"Hey, babe. I'm still at Kermit's. He's sleeping, now, and I'll be home as soon as Abigail's mom gets home." He looked over at the sleepy child and frowned. "I'll call you when I leave here. No, we had KFC for supper." He listened for a while, and his voice dropped in timbre as he spoke to her. "I'm looking forward to getting home, babe." He smiled softly, "I'll see you in a while, then. Goodbye, love." He put his cell on standby and slid it back into his pocket. He continued to watch the sleepy little girl, and finally went into Kermit's spare bedroom to set up a place for her to sleep. To his surprise, the room was relatively clean, with just the usual computer stuff scattered about. The bed was even made. He drew the covers down and then went back into the living room.

"Come on, honey, let's get you into bed, shall we?"

"Want Mr. Kermit," Abigail mumbled.

"Well, Mr. Kermit's sleeping. Remember? He got hurt?" He lifted her in his arms and carried her into the spare room, laid her on the bed, and removed her shoes, drawing the covers up over her. Remembering something in Kermit's room, he left her for a moment; coming back a few minutes later with the giant stuffed Kermit the Frog. Settling the toy beside her, he proceeded to tuck them both in.

"There you go, honey. You hold onto Kermit, there, and pretty soon, your mom will be home."

"'k. Thank you for dinner, Mr. Blaisdell." Her eyes were already heavy and as he turned off the light, she turned on her side, hugging the stuffed frog to her.

"You're welcome, baby." He left the door ajar and headed into the living room to wait for her mother to come home. He glanced at his watch and was surprised that it had taken only an hour and a half from the time they'd gone to the hospital to now. It would be at least another hour or two before Mrs. Wardleigh got home. He cleared the sofa and, after he'd taken his suit jacket off and hung it over a chair, removed his tie, and loosened his shirt collar, stretched out on the sofa to relax. With his internal alarm set for one hour or any odd noise, he fell asleep.

The light tap at the door brought him instantly awake and aware. Sitting up and stretching before he stood up, he grimaced when his back popped back into place. Yawning and glancing at his watch, he was surprised by the time. It was barely nine p.m. He felt like he'd had a good four hours sleep, even though it had been less than an hour. He glanced quickly through the spy-hole, and then opened the door.

"Mrs. Wardleigh? I'm Paul Blaisdell."

She looked up at him and gave him a tentative smile. "It's nice to meet you. How's Kermit?"

He smiled and helped her off with her coat. "He's out like a light. I doubt he's had more than six hours sleep all week."

She shook her head. "What in the world was he doing?"

"Something on his computers." He shrugged and shook his head. "It's all beyond me, but I swear that man can make them sit up and do tricks."

Remembering her nice, fat bank account, courtesy of some of Kermit's finagling, she had to smile. "I know what you mean. You don't seem too concerned, though."

It was Paul's turn to smile as he led her to the kitchen and fixed her a plate. "It's not the first time he's gotten engrossed in something, and I'm certain it won't be the last. He usually at least remembers to order in food, though. Whatever it is this time, is so absorbing that he even forgot that. I'm surprised they didn't keep him because he's dehydrated."

She frowned, worried. "Oh, that's terrible. Do you think I should check on him occasionally?"

Paul smiled. "Couldn't hurt." He set the plate he'd heated in the microwave before her. "Your daughter is sleeping in his spare room, at the moment. She was falling asleep on the sofa, so I moved her."

"Did she steal his frog again?"

Paul chuckled. "No, I stole it for her."

"Thank you. She adores her 'Mr. The Frog'; Kermit got her one just like his."

Paul, knowing that the toy was custom made, said nothing, contenting himself with probing and observing. "So, how long have you known Kermit?"

"Oh, almost three months, now. He's a very sweet man." She looked almost dreamily into the distance, causing Paul to almost choke on his coffee.


She smiled at him and proceeded to explain how they had met, and the results thereof. Paul was totally unsurprised to learn what Kermit had done. It was very in keeping with the man's sense of fairness and justice, which just happened to agree with his own.

"Did he ever tell you what happened with your ex?"

She nodded, her smile fading. "He turned state's evidence. Kermit set it all up so he didn't really have much choice; it was either jail or dead. He chose jail."

"Smart move. Of course, that sort of screws up the child support."

She smiled at him. "That's not a problem, any more. He found me a great job, at the city. In fact, I'm supposed to be interviewing for a permanent position at the police department. It's nearby, too. I could walk from here."

Paul's breath caught. "Oh?" he asked cautiously. "Did they say with whom you'd be interviewing?"

She shook her head. "No. I only found out this afternoon. It was rather short notice, but of course I jumped at the chance. I was going to tell him about it when I got home." She smiled a bit ruefully. "Of course, it's just an interview, that doesn't mean I'll get the job, but it's a chance, anyway."

Paul smiled. "I don't think you have anything to worry about. Do you know who it's with?"

"No. Just that it's for a secretary for a captain at the local precinct. It's about five or six blocks from here."

"Yes, I'm familiar with it." He thought for a moment. "Maybe Kermit can put in a good word for you."

She looked shocked. "Certainly not! I'd never impose on him like that," she said earnestly, and with just a hint of anger. Paul smiled, pleased.

"I think you'll probably get the job, then."

She frowned at him. "Why do you think that?"

"Because integrity is rewarded."

She looked puzzled. "You're kidding."

"Not at all. Why don't you finish your supper while I check on the children?" He smiled at her and stood, leaving her to look after him curiously.

He found Kermit on his stomach, with his face half-buried in his pillow and his blankets on the floor. Shaking his head and smiling, he pulled the covers back up and tucked him in a bit more securely, careful to leave enough room for him to move about without having a panic attack at being confined. From there, he checked on Abigail, who was curled on her side, hugging the stuffed Kermit. He glanced over his shoulder and moved out of the way when Isabel joined him.

"I hate to wake her up, but she needs to be in her own bed."

"No need. I can carry her for you." Paul gently eased Kermit out of the sleeping child's grasp and tenderly lifted her into his arms. Turning, he followed Isabel out and across the hall to their apartment. He placed the child in her bed and stepped back to let her mother tuck her in and kiss her good night. He couldn't help smiling as she placed the twin to the giant stuffed green frog his friend owned in her daughter's arms. The child murmured 'Mr. Kermit' and snuggled with the toy. He was a little surprised, but then, looking at the girl's mother, decided he shouldn't be.

Isabel turned to Paul, smiling. "Thanks."

"You're most welcome." He observed her and debated with himself for just a moment. "Kermit's a little hard to live with. It isn't entirely his fault, but his history is such that he doesn't trust easily." He watched as her interest piqued. "He's a good man, but he's been hurt a lot by people he's trusted."

"But not by you."

"No. Not by me." He smiled. "He seems to have bonded with your daughter. I know he likes kids, but he's always been a little afraid of them; afraid that he might accidentally hurt them."

She remembered Kermit telling her how he'd answered his door with a gun, seen her daughter and slammed the door in the child's face, and then gone and puked his guts up. She nodded, understanding. "He's so different from my ex. He's always so soft-spoken and calm, even when he's angry, it's a quiet rage, not loud or threatening."

Paul nodded. "Do you date?"

She shrugged. "We occasionally invite each other over for dinner. He's a pretty good cook, for a bachelor."

Paul chuckled. "He had to learn to take care of himself, and takeout only goes so far, I'm afraid. He's no gourmet, but he's adequate."

She smiled at him. "And you? Are you an adequate cook?"

"I like to cook, but so does my wife, and she's had a lot more practice and, therefore, success at it. My job is grilling, because she can't quite get the hang of it."

She looked surprised. "Really? I always thought that's why men did most of the grilling, because it was simpler."

Paul shook his head, realizing that she had no idea. "Annie is blind. She can't keep from shoving everything through the grate and into the coals, so it's my job."

The news was a shock, but she covered well. Kermit had mentioned Annie and what a wonderful woman she was; she'd thought he had rather a crush on her, but maybe it was simpler than that, the basic admiration for someone who was strong and capable despite adversity. She saw the love and admiration in Paul's eyes, as well. "Sounds like a good arrangement, then." She smiled.

Paul chuckled, having seen her surprise. "It is." He shifted from his position, leaning in the doorway. "Well, I'm going to check on Kermit one more time and head for home. It was nice meeting you, Mrs. Wardleigh."

"The pleasure was all mine, and it's Isabel."

"Isabel. And you already know me as Paul." He smiled and turned to go. She followed him to the door. "If you need anything, or if Kermit does, give me a call." He handed her a card.

"I will. Thanks."

"You're quite welcome. Good night."

"Good night." She closed the door and bolted it, somehow suspecting that, like Kermit, he was waiting to hear the deadbolt latch before he left. She thought about what he'd told her about Kermit, and realized that he'd been giving her his blessing in any relationship she decided to enter into with him. She smiled a bit ruefully with the realization that she'd fallen down on her job as Kermit's friend by leaving him alone so long that he'd overworked himself into his present state. She decided that she simply would have to check on him more often, in future.

Paul remembered to return the stuffed Kermit to the live one, having to stifle his desire to laugh when he placed the toy on the bed and the sleeping man shifted and grabbed it. He watched him for a few minutes, making sure he'd stay asleep for a while longer, at least, then he made his way out, locking the door behind him.

Kermit awoke with a groan. His arm ached, and when he shifted in his bed, he realized that he had a cast on his right arm, from his fingertips almost to his elbow. He scowled, realizing he'd broken his wrist. He looked around and recognized that he was in his own bed at home. What the hell had happened? The last thing he recalled was working on tracking down a certain arms dealer who had been spotted in town. He pushed his stuffed Kermit the Frog to one side and threw the covers back. Okay, who would have tucked him in? He could only think of one person who'd have the nerve. He glanced over at the toy and groaned; reaching for the phone, he made a call.

"Paul? What did I do?"

"Good afternoon to you, too. You tripped over your own feet and fell, the other night. Your neighbor's daughter came over for you to watch because her mother had to work late. She finally got your attention and after you let her in, you had your little accident. You had Abigail call me, and I hauled you to the hospital. After getting you a milkshake to bring up your blood sugar so they wouldn't keep you." There was just a bit of chiding censure in his tone of voice, which made Kermit wince.

"Sorry. I was closing in on Perez and got a little over-focused, I guess."

"A little? Do you have any idea what day it is?"

Kermit frowned. "None," he sheepishly admitted.

"Right. It's Saturday afternoon. And I bet you have absolutely no idea when you broke your wrist, am I right?"

"Right." His tone was chagrined.

"Thursday night. You've been sleeping for nearly 40 hours. Your neighbor called me this morning, worried that you still weren't answering the door."


"Yeah. That's a nice lady, Kermit. And both she and her daughter care about you. Don't blow it, kid."

Kermit sighed and closed his eyes against the burgeoning headache. "I'm trying not to." Hell, he was trying to get up the nerve to ask her out on a real date. Well, them, actually. He liked Abby at least as much as he did her mother.

"Well, if you're feeling up to it, you might try taking them to the county fair this weekend. The weather should be nice, and it would show them that you're capable of more than cooking dinner and using a computer."

Kermit was glad his friend couldn't see him as he felt the embarrassment flush his face. "Uh, where's the county fair held?"

Paul chuckled. "At the fairgrounds, of course. It's out by the airport, on the south side of it, off of Airport Road. You won't be able to miss it, between the signs and the traffic. Just get in line and follow them."

Crowds. Oh, joy. "Today or tomorrow, huh?"

"Yeah. If you want to avoid the crowds, I'd suggest going tomorrow morning. The later it gets, the bigger the crowds. Of course, if you like the rides, then tonight would be good."

"I hate carnival rides. Besides, they're dangerous."

"True, but the Ferris wheel and the carousel are usually safe enough, even if you get stuck on them." He couldn't help but smile at the silence on the other end. "Kids usually like to look at all the animals. I understand that they have elephant and camel rides, this year." He could imagine the disgusted expression that went with the grunt Kermit made.

"Besides, when was the last time you had a funnel cake, hmmm?"

"What's a funnel cake?"

"Go and find out for yourself. There's a Greek place that makes a good gyro, as well as the usual things you find at a fair."

"Gyros?" Now, that sounded interesting. He shook his head and sighed. "Before I make any plans, I'd better get out of bed and see what's going on. Maybe finish what I was working on before all this happened."

"You're going to have a problem with that, since I took your laptop with me when I left last night."

Kermit scowled. "Last night? I thought you said this happened the night before last?"

"You think I left you all alone without checking on you? You don't remember me waking you up and feeding you and sending you to the bathroom?" His amusement was obvious. "You really were out of it, weren't you?"

Kermit growled. "So, where is my computer, and did you save everything before you closed?"

"I did. Abigail showed me how." He could hear the sigh of exasperation.

"So, I guess I'm on enforced R&R?"

"That's a good way to think of it. There's a casserole in the refrigerator that Annie sent over, just pop it in the oven for forty-five minutes and dig in. I think she sent you lasagna," he added to entice the recalcitrant Kermit to eat.

Kermit grinned. "I love her lasagna."

Paul chuckled. "So does everyone else. You should have seen how disappointed Peter was when he was told to get away from it."

Kermit snickered. "Oh, yeah. All right. I'll get up, pop it in the oven, take a shower and get dressed, and then see if Isabel and Abby would like to go to the fair."

"Good man. Oh, by the way, I talked the hospital into giving you a fiberglass cast, so you don't have to wrap it in plastic to take a shower."

Kermit looked down at his cast and realized that it was a bright, fluorescent green that would match his corvair. He grinned. "I suppose you picked out the color?"

"Oh, yeah." Paul's voice was teasing. "Give me a call when you get back from the fair and I'll see about returning your laptop to you."

He shook his head. "Yes, Paul," he singsonged.


"Why, thank you!" Paul just laughed and hung up. Kermit, now in a very good mood, got up and wandered into his kitchen, where he found the enormous pan of lasagna and put it in the oven to heat. Then he took his shower, looked in the mirror and decided to keep his two-week-old beard, for the time being, and got dressed. The smell of the lasagna made his mouth water and stomach growl, reminding him that he'd been very remiss in certain things. He went to the door to the hall and across to knock on the Wardleigh's matching door.

The door opened and Abigail looked out at him. "Mr. Kermit! Mom! It's Mr. Kermit!" She opened the door wide and pulled him in. "Are you okay? Is your arm still hurting? Are you feeling better? Your friend, Mr. Blaisdell came over yesterday, too. Did he take good care of you?"

Kermit marveled at how the child could talk so much and so fast, seemingly without breathing... just like someone else he knew, and he grinned. "I'm okay, Abby." He looked up to see Isabel in the hall doorway. She was wearing jeans and a too-big t-shirt, and from the rubber gloves, he deduced she'd been scrubbing the bathroom. "Uh, I was heating up a lasagna that Paul brought over, and wondered if you'd care to join me?"

She smiled. "We'd love to. What time?"

"Half an hour?"

She blinked in surprise and glanced at the clock on the VCR, startled to find it was almost six in the evening. "Half an hour, that would be fine. Thanks. Can we bring anything?"

"Got anything for a salad?"

She smiled. "I think I can whip something up."

Kermit smiled back. "Great. See you in about half an hour, then." With that, he turned and left.

Half an hour. Good grief! "Abby, I'm going to grab a quick shower and I'd like you to get out the makings for a salad, please."

"Okay, Mommy. I can do that." The child was smiling as she headed for the kitchen and her mother went back to the bathroom. She quickly finished her scrubbing and turned on the shower. Stripping, she stepped in and washed. She'd been cleaning house all day and was hot and sweaty, so she had no choice but to wash her hair. She hoped it would dry in time!

With her hair still damp, but brushed, salad bowl in hand and daughter in tow, she left her apartment and crossed to Kermit's. She knocked and waited. The door opened and there stood a smiling, bearded Kermit. She hadn't realized that he'd grown the beard, earlier, but now she looked at it and thought how distinguished it made him appear. Her smile was a trifle shy and she held out the salad bowl for him to take. He smiled and she couldn't help but smile back at him.

"Come on in and make yourselves at home," he suggested.

"Thank you." She noticed he (or perhaps his friend Paul) had straightened up the apartment. As usual, the drapes were closed, however. "Can I help with anything?"

"Well, you could pull the cork on the wine, if you'd like?"

"Of course." Wine? She found the bottle of good Chianti setting on the counter with a corkscrew beside it. She removed the cork and left the wine to breathe. Turning, she saw him struggling with the oven. "Here, let me get that for you." She took the hot casserole pan from him and set it atop the stove as he closed the oven door.

"Thanks," he murmured, inhaling deeply of the light, barely noticeable scent she wore.

"You're welcome." She looked at him and, realizing how close he was to her, her breath caught. Raising her eyes to his, she saw concern and uncertainty in his expression. She smiled, not wanting him to flee. She slowly moved out of his space, leaving him gazing at her, his expression going unreadable. "Thank you for inviting us. This smells wonderful."

His expression cleared. "Yeah. Annie's an excellent cook." He continued watching her as he set the table.

"Mr. Kermit? Can I play with Mr. The Frog on your computer?" His attention flew to Abigail and he smiled.

"Sure, sweetheart. Let me pull it up for you." With a shy smile for Isabel, he crossed the room to his desktop computer and turned it on. Then he pulled up something he'd been working on in his spare time, an interactive game with Kermit, which involved traffic safety. The player's job was to guide Kermit through the streets and neighborhoods while driving a car, riding a bicycle, walking, and playing. He'd designed the game with Abigail in mind and this was going to be her first time to try it. He got her seated and started the program, softly explaining the rules and what she was supposed to try and do. With a squeal of delight, she grabbed the mouse and started Kermit on his way.

Isabel watched him with her daughter and realized that he was enjoying himself, showing her how to play the game he'd created. She marveled at his ability, not to mention his willingness, to interact with the child. She thought about what Paul had said about him, and found herself even more intrigued than before. Knowing his history, she was amazed at his innate gentleness and patience. She couldn't help but smile.

Once he'd gotten Abigail into the game, he looked up to find her mother smiling at them. He smiled back, not quite sure why she was smiling, but liking that she was. He stood and headed back to the kitchen. "We'll give her a few minutes. If you hear sirens, the game is over and she's lost."

Isabel continued to smile, and nodded. "She loves coming over here, you know. She's always asking about 'where's Mr. Kermit and when is he coming to visit again?'" She shook her head. "Thank you."

"You're welcome, but for what?"

"For showing her that not all men like to hurt people."

Kermit's heart thumped once, very hard, before settling back to its normal rhythm. "I don't know many people who know me that would agree with you," he softly murmured.

"They haven't seen you with Abby."

His expression turned a little distant. "You haven't seen me in my world." He didn't meet her eyes.

"Oh, I don't know. I've seen how you respond to a really crappy day and it's not nearly as bad as you think it is."

"You haven't seen me in action, or really pissed off."

She reached out to take his face in her hands and forced him to meet her eyes. "Have you ever played Russian Roulette with a four-year-old child begging for you to please don't hurt her again?"

His eyes widened. "Never."

"Then you at your worst are nothing in comparison to my ex at his best." She held his face and his gaze until she felt him nod, then she let him go. "I don't think there's anything you could do to frighten us after what he did to us." She smiled at him. "I know you've never frightened me, except when your friend called me the other night and said he was taking you to the hospital. I told him I was going to start checking up on you more often." She watched him for his reaction and breathed a silent sigh of relief when he blushed slightly.

"Maybe you should, at that." He looked at her closely and saw her smile. Before they could continue their conversation, however, the sound of sirens filled the apartment as Abigail lost the game.

Kermit hurried to the computer and killed the sound. "Sorry about that. I'll have to reset the volume for the sirens." He glanced down at the screen and saw a flattened Kermit. "Crossed the street without looking, did you?"

"Yes," Abigail's annoyance at making such a simple mistake was apparent.

"Well, you can try again after supper, okay?"

She smiled up at him. "Okay." She grabbed his left hand as she slid from the chair and held on as they headed for the table. Once there, he pulled Isabel's chair out and held it for her, and then Abigail's. The child always giggled whenever he did it, but it had quickly become their custom. It was something that always reminded Isabel that Kermit was nothing like her ex, who wouldn't have known the 'gentlemanly thing to do' if his life had depended on it. Kermit did it effortlessly and without conscious thought.

As always, Annie's lasagna was perfect. Unusual, however, was the pleasant company. It was such a 'typical' family type scene that, when Kermit realized it, he shivered.

"Are you all right?" Isabel softly asked, lightly touching his hand.

"Yeah. I'm fine, thanks. Just had a weird thought."

She smiled. "Care to share?"

He gazed into her eyes for a few moments before shaking his head. "Not just yet, I don't think. I need to work on it a bit, first."

"All right." She smiled and went back to eating.

When they were nearly finished, Kermit remembered what Paul had suggested and cleared his throat. He was amazed at the speed with which both ladies focused on him. "Uh, I was wondering if maybe you'd like to go to the county fair tomorrow? If you don't have any other plans, that is."

Abigail wriggled with excitement. "Oh, Mommy! Could we? Please?" Her eyes shown with hope.

"Well, tomorrow after church, maybe." She looked doubtfully at Kermit, knowing of his discomfort at her religious beliefs, but also realizing that he'd rather easily accepted their habit of saying grace before a meal. His expression showed as much doubt as she was feeling; sensing his insecurity, she smiled. "Well, I suppose we could skip church just this once." She was surprised when Kermit frowned.

"We can go after you get back," he offered, knowing how important it was to her. "Tomorrow afternoon?"

"Church gets out about twelve-thirty. We can be home and changed by one?" She knew this was a big step, for him in particular. He'd normally have been content to allow things to go on as they had for the past couple of months. She rather suspected that his friend Paul had suggested it, and determined to thank him for 'interfering'.

"Tomorrow at one, then." Kermit smiled, somewhat surprised by their agreement, and at the same time, rather pleased that she had offered to forego her usual custom.

"Tomorrow at one." She grinned at Abigail's shriek of joy and leap from her chair to give Kermit a huge hug. Seeing the pleasure in his expression pushed her close to kiss his cheek, and watch as his eyes widened in surprise. She rose, laughing, and began gathering the dishes.

"You don't have to do that!"

"Kermit, you are not going to wash the dishes." She tapped his cast. "I realize that the fiberglass lets you shower without a plastic bag on, but you don't have the strength in your fingers to not hurt yourself. Let me do this, okay?"

He sighed. "Okay." He watched her as she put the leftovers away and then washed the dishes. She moved gracefully and he wondered about how it would feel to dance with her. His reverie was interrupted by a gentle touch on his arm. His eyes came into focus on Abigail.

"Play the game with me?"

"Sure, Sweetheart. I'd be happy to."

Isabel finished in the kitchen and moved into the living room to watch them play the computer game. Basically, Abigail was playing while Kermit kibitzed.

"Watch out! Look down the street, see that red light? It may turn green before you get across, so keep watch as you go, and if it turns green, move faster, okay?" Abigail did as he instructed and, seeing the light change, made Kermit run for safety, barely managing to avoid being struck by a speeding truck.

Eventually, however, she made an error and the sound of sirens again filled the apartment. "Oops, game over, Abby." Kermit glanced at his watch and then over his shoulder at Isabel. "I think your mom's ready to go, too." He stood up and turned to his adult guest, feeling a bit embarrassed with having played with the child so long. "Thanks for coming," he shyly told her.

"Thanks for inviting us. I'm looking forward to the fair tomorrow." She smiled and lightly stroked her hand from his shoulder to his elbow. "We'll see you tomorrow at one, then?"

"Yes, ma'am," Kermit replied with a smile. After he escorted them home and listened for the deadbolt to snick on, he returned to his apartment and locked up for the night. His arm practically tingled from the memory of her touch and he wondered a bit at the fact that he didn't frighten them. And they were going on a real date the next day!

It was getting to be early evening and Abigail was getting tired. Kermit hoisted her up to his shoulders and carried her, much to her delight, as the additional height made it easy for her to see everything better. She was careful with her cotton candy, to not get any in his hair. They'd had lunch as soon as they'd arrived, and she had her first experience with Greek food. Kermit kept insisting on trying different foods, most of which were not terribly sugary, much to Isabel's relief. He'd never had a funnel cake, and had been fascinated, watching them being made. They shared one and Kermit had admitted that he liked it, but that it might be a bit too greasy for a frequent treat.

Isabel leaned against his side as they looked at the 4H kids and their show stock. Kermit looked down at her and grinned. "I don't suppose you have a freezer?"

"Just the one on the refrigerator, why?"

"Well, they auction off the livestock after the show. I was thinking of bidding on one of the steers, but I don't have room for eight hundred pounds of meat. Do you?"

Isabel chuckled. "Hardly. You'd have to get at least a twelve cubic foot freezer, I'd think. And neither of us really has room for such a thing in our apartments."

Kermit sighed, and then grinned. "Wait a second." He shifted away from her and pulled out his cell phone to make a call. "Hey, Paul? You still got that industrial sized freezer? You do? You using it, much? No? Think I could use it? Yeah? Well, we're at the fair, and they're about to auction off the 4H livestock. Oh? Yeah, sure. Yeah, I could do that. Great! How about we split them? Fine by me! Yeah. I'll take care of this end. Great. Thanks, Paul." He was grinning broadly as he disconnected and put his phone back in his pocket.

"I take it he'll let you use his freezer?"

"Even better. He wants to go in halves on it. We get half, he gets half." He suddenly frowned. "Do you like lamb?"

Isabel shook her head, "What? I thought you wanted beef?"

"I do, but Paul suggested we go after one of each, pork, lamb, and beef. He's got a huge walk-in freezer in his garage, which is mostly empty at the moment. We can just do our weekly 'shopping' for meat from there." He was grinning.

Isabel noticed the 'we', and smiled. "We can, huh?"

Kermit looked a bit crestfallen at the way she emphasized the 'we'. "Can we?" he asked very softly, suddenly uncertain.

"That depends."

"On?" His breathing accelerated a bit.

She tilted her head and looked at him. She saw a sensitive man with an overgrown sense of fair play, who had been hurt many times and was somewhat fearful of relationships. "Even half a steer, pig, or sheep is a huge commitment," she softly reminded him. "Are you up to that?"

He understood what she was really asking, and it gave him pause. "I want to be," he finally replied.

She smiled at him and nodded. "All right, then. Let's go to the auction."

Fortunately, Abigail fell asleep and never realized what they were doing. Paul had advised bidding on the earliest offerings, rather than the first or second place winners. People bought those animals for the prestige of them, rather than because the meat was any better. At the end of the auction, they had purchased three animals. Kermit went to pay for them, and asked how he would go about getting them freezer ready. There were half a dozen butchers standing around, offering their cards. He talked to a number of them, collecting their business cards; then he went to one of the 4H parents and asked, "Which one of these guys would you use?" The woman was surprised, but looked through the cards he'd collected and chose one.

"This one. He does good work, and he's got the best smokehouse in the area. What did you buy, beef or pork?"

"Both, and lamb."

She looked at him, even more surprised. "Well, tell him to use the dry-cure on your ham, and the maple-cure on the bacon. Are you going to have him make your sausage, or make it yourself?"

"Uhhh. Him."

The woman smiled at him. He was so obviously new at this, but he had the right idea, to ask someone with experience. "Ask for his 'special' sausages. He's got maple, apple, and some sage sausages that are absolutely to die for. Since you got beef, as well, he'll do you up some mixed ones. His summer sausage is fantastic. He'll even make extra-lean, if you want. Have him double-smoke the sausages, if you like smoked sausage. Oh, and ask for the stuffed lamb breast!"

Kermit hoped he remembered her list. "Thank you, ma'am. Now to find him, again."

The woman laughed. "He's right over there, leaning on the fence and smoking a cigar."

Kermit turned to look where she was pointing and smiled. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. This is your first time buying?"

He paused and looked at her, "It's my first time seeing, let alone buying."

"Hope you have a big freezer, then."

"Oh, yeah. I'm going in halves with a friend who has a walk-in."

"In that case, enjoy! You've bought a year's supply, I should think. Tell him to vacuum pack everything for long-storage. Protects it from freezer burn."

"I will, thanks again." With a smile at the helpful woman, he turned back and sought out the butcher.

It was a bit unusual to have a single buyer purchase three different animals, except for some small markets, who usually did their own butchering, but he was pleased. When Kermit pointed out the lady who recommended him, he nodded. She was an occasional customer, but he'd make sure to thank her. When Kermit listed the suggestions she'd given him, he smiled. "Yes, sir. I do like to make sausage. My venison can't be beat, and the regular kinds are some of the best you'll ever find. Do you want them regular or low-fat?"

"I'd better go with the low-fat. Will that cause a problem?"

"No. I just won't have to add any fat other than what's on the carcass. These animals nowadays are a lot leaner than they used to be. When folks want full-fat sausage, I have to supplement it with extra lard, usually. If there's more than an inch of lard on that pig, I'd be surprised. How do you want the loins done? Chops or roasts?"

"Uh, what do you recommend?"

"Well, the shoulder can be made into what's called a picnic ham, or a Boston Butt roast. It's up to you."

"Hold on." Kermit pulled out his phone again and hit the speed dial. "Yeah, Paul. Yeah. On the pig, do you want the shoulder as a roast, or a ham?" He listened, his eyes scanning the crowds, checking, always checking; he spotted Isabel and the still sleeping Abigail where he'd left them in the bleachers by the show pens, where they were now judging goats. "Yeah? Okay. Wait; since you've done this before, I'll let you talk to the guy. No, you decide. You know what you're talking about." He listened for another moment and then "Collected business cards, then asked one of the 4H moms for her recommendation." He listened again and then chuckled. "Oh, yeah. Here." He held the phone out for the butcher.

"Hello? Andy. Yes, sir. I've heard of you. No, sir, not professionally." He chuckled and glanced at Kermit. "There are several options...."

Kermit barely paid any attention to the phone conversation going on. He was checking the crowd, looking for trouble, and watching Isabel and her daughter. What was he thinking? He hardly knew this woman, but he knew he liked what he'd seen. She was nothing like his former wives. For one thing, she liked kids, as was demonstrated by the look in her eyes every time she looked at her daughter. She'd been hurt by her ex- husband, who was lucky Kermit had never met up with him. There would have been no need of a trial or prison if he had. And Abby. She was teaching him what it would be like to be a father; and that was something he thought he might like to be. Only not some mythical 'someday'...he wanted it now. He wanted it to be with her. But that would have to include her mom. He turned his attention again to Isabel. He could see that she was tired. She chose that moment to look up at him and she smiled. He really liked her smile, he decided. He remembered the way she'd leaned against him earlier, when he suggested buying one of the 4H animals. He thought about the way she'd run her hand down his arm, and remembered that far too brief kiss she'd given him that first night they'd met. It had been one of gratitude, but there had been a promise there, as well. Perhaps it was time to commit to the promise? Could he? Did he want to? He realized that it was really too soon for thoughts like this and he sighed. She was still smiling at him, and he smiled back. Too soon for the commitment, perhaps, but not too soon to pursue the notion.

"Here you go, Mr. Griffin. I got all I need from your partner. If you'll let me see your receipts, I'll make out the papers for you to sign and I'll take care of everything for you. Uh, do you want the hides tanned? I mean, the pork will be scalded and scraped, unless you want the hide for something else, but the sheep and the steer?"

Kermit's attention snapped back to the task at hand. "What did Paul say?"

"He said to ask you. He said he's got a good sheepskin rug or two and doesn't need another. Hair-on cowhide makes a nice rug, and nothing beats sheepskin for something soft and warm to step out of bed onto."

Kermit shrugged. "Sure, can you take care of that, too?"

"Yes, sir. Let me get my book, and I'll give you all the details."

It was almost an hour later before they were finished. It was nearly dark, and despite having nibbled and noshed on various and sundry things for the entire afternoon, he was hungry again. Ruefully, he decided it was probably due to his lack of food for the preceding week. Returning to his ladies, he smiled. "I'm starving. What would you like for supper?"

Abigail awoke at his voice and grinned. "Pizza?"

Isabel winced at the suggestion. "Well, that depends. Do you want to stay here longer, or go somewhere else?"

"Can I have another elephant ride, first?"

Kermit looked at Isabel, his head tilted in question.

"Why don't we all go, this time?"

"Yay!" Abigail jumped up and started jumping around in her excitement. "Come on, Mr. Kermit!" She grabbed one hand of each adult and began tugging them back towards where the elephants were patiently carrying their passengers around.

It was late enough that most people were over on the midway. There was no one waiting for rides when they arrived at the elephants. Kermit bought their tickets, and the three of them were led up the stairs leading to the platform where they were allowed to step onto the elephant's back and sit in the metal framework that acted as a restraint to keep them from falling off. Abigail got to sit in front, right behind the elephant's ears, followed by her mother, and with Kermit behind her. Normally, the elephant rides were for no more than five minutes, but it was quiet, just then, so the man running the ride asked if they'd like to ride all the way through the midway to where the elephants were stalled? Kermit immediately answered in the affirmative, and they wound up in the parade across the entire fairgrounds. At the quiet spot behind the midway, they dismounted and thanked the man, who simply smiled at them.

"It's nice to see the whole family together. Most times, it's just the mom with the kids. We don't see many dads here, I'm afraid. You're doing a good job, there, mister."

Kermit smiled weakly, and was grateful when Isabel answered. "Yes, he is." She squeezed his arm and smiled at him.

"Well, have a good evening, folks." The man turned from them and led his elephants into their tent.

"So, now what?" Kermit asked, carefully avoiding the subject of his being good father material.

"Well, you're hungry, but I was hoping you might be able to win something for Abby on the midway."

"I noticed they had some shooting galleries. I might be able to do something there." Kermit smiled hopefully for a moment, then looked stricken as he remembered what she'd said her ex had done to them. "I'm sorry, I...."

"It's all right, Kermit." Isabel reassured him, understanding his sudden apprehension. With a relieved sigh, Kermit smiled at her and, taking her hand in his, they sauntered over to the arcade. They watched the shooting gallery for a few moments and Kermit shook his head.

"The rifles all fire high and to the right. Since that's the normal way a right-handed person drifts, it makes it harder to aim." He smirked at his ladies. "I, however, am not the normal right-handed person." He plunked his dollar down on the counter and selected his rifle. Thirty seconds later, he'd shot a line across the target, separating the red star from the hangar. The Carney scowled at him but offered him his choice of the smaller prizes. "Let it ride," Kermit said, laying down a second dollar. The man sighed and took the money. Again, Kermit simply shot a line across the target, leaving the portion with the red star in it to flutter to the ground. This time, the Carney offered him his choice of the larger prizes. Kermit grinned and pointed. A moment later, he handed a three-foot tall Michigan J. Frog to Abigail.

"There you go, sweetheart, now you have a friend for your Kermit one."

The child grinned widely, after she'd glanced at her mother for permission to accept his gift. "Thank you Mr. Kermit. I'll take good care of him."

"I know you will, sweetheart." He straightened up and offered his arm to Isabel. "Well, now that I've worked up an appetite, I'm ready for some real food."

On their way out, he paused at one of the souvenir stands to make a purchase. Seeing what it was, Isabel frowned. "What on earth is that for?"

"Paul. For the next time he's got to go to a meeting with the mayor. She tends to try and ignore him. This should get their attention, don't you think?" He grinned at her.

Abby giggled. "Will Mr. Blaisdell hit them with it, Mr. Kermit?"

"Probably not, but hitting the table with it should get their attention."

Both his ladies giggled. "Yes, I daresay it would," Isabel agreed. Grinning, they headed for the exit; Abigail had to have her mother help her carry her new frog, while Kermit sauntered along with his huge, inflatable sledge hammer over his shoulder.

They decided on a family-style buffet for their dinner. Abby was allowed to choose her own food, which thrilled her, no end. She carefully watched what Kermit chose and practically duplicated his every choice, drawing the line at the mixed greens. Kermit chuckled and teased her by adding even more of the cooked green vegetables to his plate, causing Isabel to smile with approval.

"I'm glad I won't have to threaten you with the consequences of not eating your vegetables."

Kermit smirked. "I even go vegetarian, sometimes. Not so much any more, but sometimes." He didn't bother to explain that those times had always followed a great deal of blood and gore on one of his missions. That was a part of his life he wanted to protect them from as much as possible.

"Vegetarian is good. I know that Abby would like it, except for green things. She's not very fond of meat."

Kermit looked surprised. "Really? I'll have to see if I can't change her mind, then." He grinned. "And see about getting her to like her leafy green vegetables."

"Yuck," Abby said, wrinkling up her nose.

Kermit chuckled. "We'll see."

Supper was pleasant and afterwards, he drove them home. He took her key from her and unlocked her door, automatically checking for intruders, much to her amusement. Deeming it safe, he allowed them to come in. Seeing her amusement, he shrugged. "Old habits."

She stepped close to him and cupped his face in her hand. "Good habit. Thank you." She lightly kissed him.

He forced himself not to react by grabbing her and holding her tightly, like he wanted to do, instead, he let his lips and tongue tell her what he was feeling. When she broke the kiss, they were both breathing hard, their hearts hammering. She smiled. "I'll make coffee," she offered softly. He nodded and closed the door behind him.

In reality, he made the coffee while she put Abigail and Michigan J. Frog to bed. Kermit hadn't been replaced, however, she insisted on having them both in her bed with her, despite her mother's protests that there wouldn't be room for her in her bed with both giant amphibians. Finally, they got it sorted out and she came back to the kitchen, where he handed her a mug of coffee, just the way she liked it. They sat down at the kitchen table.

"Thank you. Today was wonderful."

"Yes, it was." He looked at her, frowning slightly. "Is this real? Or is it just a figment of my imagination?"

"Well, I hope it's real," she replied, watching him, a cautious look in her eyes.

"So, was this an official date?"

She smiled and nodded. "Oh, absolutely." She liked his delighted smile. "You're really good with Abby, you know."

"Am I?"

"Yes." She reached across to touch his hand, just below the cast. "You're patient, you don't get mad at her when she makes a mistake, you don't yell, and best of all, you don't take your frustrations out on her."

"I've never understood how anyone could deliberately hurt a kid," he murmured softly, his features going hard at the very concept.

"Her father did. I constantly have to reassure her that I'm not angry with her; sometimes I get frustrated at things, and she immediately picks up on my mood and thinks it's her I'm upset with."

"Her father did a lot of damage. It takes time to get over it."

"If ever," Isabel looked across at him. "Thank you for being so nice to her."

Kermit grinned. "Hey, she's a great kid. I - I've become very fond of her."

"And what about her mother?" She held her breath, waiting for his answer.

He met her gaze head-on. He saw the same fear in her eyes as he was feeling. "I'm becoming very fond of her, as well. I'm a little worried; I don't have the best track record when it comes to women, or relationships. I'm not always a nice man. Sometimes, I can be just as big a monster as your ex; but I can promise that I'd never deliberately hurt either of you."

She stared into his gaze and realized that he'd taken his glasses off. He only did that when he either felt perfectly safe, or needed to make a very strong point about something. She nodded. "It's a start."

"Is it?"

"I think so."

"I hope so."

"Me, too." She smiled and grasped his fingers with hers, twisting her wrist to accommodate his cast.

"When can I see you again?"

"Any time you like, outside of working hours, that is." She debated a moment telling him about the job interview, but decided not to. She wouldn't want to put him on the spot over it. She smiled at him, instead.

Kermit found his mouth and throat suddenly very dry and quickly took a sip of his coffee. "So, what now?" His heart was pounding.

What was he really asking? She saw the fear and uncertainty in his eyes and decided to take the step she hoped he wanted.

"We could make out on the couch for a bit?"

There was first a flash of shock, then of panic across his face, followed by a slow, pleased smile. "Oh, yeah."

Kermit arrived at the station early Monday morning, whistling happily to himself. Broderick, the desk sergeant, backed away from him. He couldn't recall seeing Detective Griffin in such a jovial mood, ever. One of the uniformed officers watched as the normally taciturn man smiled at them when he passed.

"I think he must have gotten laid, this weekend," the uniformed officer muttered.

"Shut your mouth and don't go spreading rumors like that. You ever see him pissed off at someone?" The officer looked surprised and shook his head. "Well, let me tell you, you don't ever want to. And to be the focus of his annoyance could be hazardous to your health." The two men looked up the stairs they could hear Kermit rapidly climbing and shuddered.

"Good morning, Sweetbritches," he whispered to Mary Margaret Skalaney, from right behind her chair. He'd managed to sneak up on her and she jumped, badly startled. Turning on him, she tried out her most formidable scowl.

"You know, I hate it when you do that." His brilliant smile, not to mention the new beard, ended her tirade. She scowled. "What's up with you? You are far too cheerful for a Monday morning."

"Ah, the sky is blue, spring has sprung, and all is right with the world."

"Oh, yeah? Tell that to the guys down in the morgue from the gang fight Saturday night."

Even that news didn't really dim his good mood. "Oh? Automatic weapons, by any chance?"

"Yeah. How'd you guess?"

"Because Perez has been seen in the vicinity and I'm going to find him and stop all his fun and games. Care to lend a hand?" He was still smiling, but it was more predatory, now.

"Damned right I would," she growled at him.

"Is the captain in, yet?"

"Well, the light is on, but the door is closed, so there's no telling." Everyone knew better than to beard that particular lion, but Kermit wasn't everyone. With a grin and a mocking salute, he headed for the close-blind door and tapped once, and then opened it to walk in. Mary Margaret watched for a moment to see if Kermit returned minus any body parts, but there was only silence. Shrugging, she went back to reading the overnight reports.

"Good morning, sunshine." Kermit announced to his superior and friend. Paul took his reading glasses off and leaned back in his chair. It was obvious to anyone who knew him that he'd been there for hours; the tie was untied, the jacket was hung on the rack, and the shirtsleeves were rolled up almost to his elbows. His hair was mussed, as well, bespeaking a long and frustrating session.

"How was the fair?"

"Delightful. Thanks for the suggestion. You should be receiving a call in the next few days about delivery. I gave them your number."

Paul nodded and sighed wearily. He nodded to the table in the corner. "You can have that back, now, and if you really can nail Perez, I need you to do so ASAP."

"Yeah, Mary Margaret mentioned there'd been trouble?" His ebullient mood continued, but the task at hand took precedence. He took his laptop and hooked it up, using Paul's phone line to connect the modem.

Paul pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yeah. Six kids, one of them was only twelve, mowed down with automatic fire at a park basketball court. Eight others injured. One of them was only seven."

Kermit winced. Abigail was seven. "Give me a few minutes, and I'll see what I've got." He'd set up some searches and the results were there, waiting for him. "Got the bastard." He sent the information to print through the LAN Line and stood up to retrieve it. He'd made several copies, and handed one to Paul, while he perused the rest.

"What am I looking at, Kermit?"

"Bank transactions, mostly. And, if we bump them up against the map of the city, we'll find that they're making their home in, surprise, surprise, Chinatown."

Paul sighed. "Of course. Where else would they be?" Shaking his head, he stood up and went to his office door and opened it. "Skalaney, Caine, and Chin. Come in, please." He left the door open as he returned to his desk. As he sat down, the three detectives filed in, looking curiously at the unusual grin on Kermit's face.

"Yes, Captain?" Mary Margaret asked for the group. None of them were looking at the captain, however, they were all too fascinated with the obviously happy Kermit to be able to focus on anything else.

Paul shook his head and sighed. "Kermit, I'll let you explain your findings." Then he sat back and watched the proceedings and wished that Strenlich wasn't on leave.

"Right, Captain. "I'm sure you're aware of the sudden influx of automatic weapons into our fair city's underworld, so I'll skip that part. Perez is in town. Now I know you have no idea who he is, but take it from me, he's bad news."

"Is he the arms dealer selling to kids?" Peter asked, lips compressed with anger.

"Oh, yeah. Normally, he sells to small, third world countries, but it seems that he must have either had a deal fall through, or is overstocked and is unloading his surplus. I've been trying to track him down, and have narrowed his location down to somewhere in or near Chinatown."

The three detectives exchanged glances that plainly said a resigned 'of course.'

"So, here's what I need for you to do...." Kermit explained how he wanted them to proceed in gathering the information that would allow them to pinpoint their quarry and then take them down - hopefully without any major difficulties and loss of life.

Thirty minutes later, the three detectives headed out, determined to seek out and find what they needed to remove the current blight of high-powered weaponry from their fair city's streets.

Kermit disconnected his laptop and took it with him to his tiny cubbyhole of an office, leaving Paul to his perusal of the weekend reports.

Peter suggested that someone go down to Chinatown to ask around about Perez. Much to his disappointment, Chin was tapped to go, simply because he was less well-known in the area; everyone knew 'Caine's son, the policeman,' and with his father off on another of his interminable 'retreats,' there was no really valid reason for him to go down there, except to look for criminals. Chin, on the other hand, fit right in and no one really knew him for a policeman.

It really annoyed Peter, but there was no argument he could make that would change anything, so he watched sadly as Chin gathered his gear and headed out.

"Cheer up, Peter. You'll be there when it counts. In fact, why don't you go pester Kermit and see if he's got anything you can do to help all this along?"

"Yeah. What are you gonna be doing in the meantime?"

Skalaney smiled. "Getting ready for the captain's new secretary, of course."

"Oh?" Peter's interest piqued at that. It had been such a long time since Paul had had a secretary that they'd pretty much gotten used to just opening his door to ask questions. "What's the word?"

Mary Margaret stretched, grinning. "Seems that it was discovered that there are lieutenants in this department who have secretaries, when there are captains and commanders who do not. Word is, the mayor's office called some precinct captain and no one answered his phone. The mayor was not happy, and when she found out why, there was some huge blowup in the council meeting and there's a sudden re-shuffling of clerical personnel in the entire city - now based on what the mayor deems the reasonable expectation of being able to at least get a message to people she needs to."

"Ouch. So, who was the unlucky SoB who got in her sights?"

Mary Margaret stared at him in surprise. "Who do you think? Who's the only captain anyone knows who goes out on as many cases as ours does?"

Peter winced and glanced at the closed blinds and door to the captain's office and sighed. "How's he taking it?"

"The idea of a secretary? Surprisingly well, I think. When I came in, he asked me to set up the interview room for him for one this afternoon."

"He's holding interviews?"

She shook her head. "I don't think so. I think he's already chosen from the list of applicants and is just going to offer it to them. He certainly seemed satisfied about it, but then, that was before the weekend's crap landed on him. Good thing Kermit decided to come in, today, is all I can say."

"Yeah, and if he's really got Perez - that'll make everyone happy. Hey, what did you think about Kermit? I mean, he was smiling, on a Monday morning, no less."

"I don't know, but I hope she doesn't hurt him."


Mary Margaret just gave him a long-suffering look. "What else makes a man so jovial? It's certainly not exactly natural for him, is it?"

"No, I guess not. Huh. Wonder who she is?"

Mary Margaret smiled, rather maliciously, "Why don't you go and ask him?" she asked sweetly.

Peter looked at her and shook his head. "I may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night. You want to know, you go ask him, yourself. Me, I'll just take it as it comes."

"Good idea, partner." With a wink, she turned to the paperwork on her desk, leaving him to go and do likewise.

Kermit was humming under his breath as his fingers flew across the keyboard of his desk computer. He'd downloaded all the information he'd gotten that had been on his laptop to it, and was now doing a more detailed search. An alert sounded, and he froze for a moment before using the mouse to open the alert. He smiled seraphically. "Got you, you bastard." He looked up a number and made a phone call, and a few minutes later he received an email. He printed out the screen and rose, taking the paper with him.

"Children, are you ready to go and get the bad guys?"

Mary Margaret and Peter looked up at him. "Chin's not back, yet," Peter informed him.

"Give him a call. I know where Perez is, and I'd just as soon go and get him now, before he's really wide awake."

"On it. Why don't you let the captain know while I get him back?" Mary Margaret suggested. With a grin and a nod, Kermit breezed across the bullpen and into the closed office.

"I know where Perez is. Don't know how many will be with him, but he's never been one for a lot of hangers on."

Paul looked up, over his reading glasses, and then took them off, frowning. "Much as I hate the idea, you'd better call in the SWAT team. You know how they get when they feel that anyone is trying to upstage them."

Kermit scowled and a soft growl came from his throat. "But if we do that, it will take a lot longer and more people might get hurt; whereas if we sneak in there now and hit him before he's fully awake, we've got a chance to catch them flat-footed."

"What about a search warrant?"

Kermit smiled. "We don't need one."


"You know the old warehouses down by the river, next to Chinatown?"

Paul inclined his head. He knew them only too well; they were a haven for much of the lower echelon criminals in the city. "What about them?"

"I've checked with the owner of one, it has not been leased or rented. It has, however, had the utilities turned on. Now, I have an email from the owner, giving us permission to check it out. He's as aware as we are of the kinds of things that go on down there, and he'd just as soon not lose his building over it, due to damage by either squatters or arsonists."

"Stop by the owner's office on your way there and get him to sign a release."

"He's going to meet us at the end of the block."

Paul stood, then glanced at his watch and grimaced. "Let's go. I've got a meeting in an hour and a half. I'll have Jody ask them to wait." He looked at Kermit. "If we can pull this off without a lot of trouble, SWAT will hate us some more, and we'll have Perez in custody, and with a little luck, no one will get hurt in the process."

Kermit grinned and nodded. "Oh, yeah."

Paul paused to give some quiet instructions to Jody, who scowled at being left behind, but accepted the orders. It wasn't as though she was totally healthy and would have been allowed on the raid. She'd slipped in the bathtub the previous Friday and had sprained her ankle, not to mention her dignity. She watched with longing as the rest of the bullpen and half of the uniforms left, leaving her behind to catch the phones and any visitors.

"Excuse me? I'm here for an interview?"

Broderick looked at the woman and smiled. She was definitely good looking. "Interview? Oh, for the captain's secretary?"

She smiled back at him, "Yes. I'm afraid they only gave me the address, nothing more."

"Yeah. It's up those stairs, there, and to the left, through the bullpen. I'm not sure if he's back, yet, but someone should be up there."

"Thank you." She felt decidedly uncomfortable as she walked away, feeling that he was leering at her in a most unpleasant manner. She glanced back, once, as she started up the stairs and, sure enough, he was watching her. She couldn't help but wonder what kind of person the captain must be to allow that sort of behavior.

She reached the bullpen and the only person in it was sitting, tilted back and with her bandaged foot atop the desk. She wore a sulky expression, which turned to a glare upon seeing her. "You the new secretary?"

"Well, I'm supposed to interview for the position. I'm Isabel Wardleigh." She smiled, hoping for a friendly response, but was somewhat disappointed.

"Yeah. The captain's out at the moment, but said for you to wait in the interview room." She pointed across the bullpen to a door. "He should be back any time, now, so if you'll just wait?"

Her smile faltered as she nodded. Maybe she didn't want to work here, after all. Between the leering desk sergeant and this sulky woman, she wondered what the rest of the people were like? Certainly, if the two people she'd spoken to thus far were any indication, there was no way she wanted to be a part of it. She walked across the room and entered the indicated door. 'Interview room' was hardly an apt description. Interrogation room was more like it. There were three folding metal chairs, a beat up old table, and what was obviously a two-way mirror. She used the mirrored surface to check her appearance one last time. Satisfied, she sat with her back to the door and waited, wondering if she actually wanted to work here. Sure, it was more money and closer to home, but she wanted a pleasant work environment, as well, not some cold, harsh place where the people didn't like each other or get along. She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths and tried to wait patiently.

Her thoughts drifted back to the night before and the makeout session she'd had with Kermit. She couldn't help but smile, knowing how much he'd wanted to stay the night, and how wrong it would have been. She was grateful that he'd been strong enough to pull back and patient enough to wait. He'd said that he didn't want to screw this up, but that he'd better go now, before he couldn't stop himself. She had walked him to the door, knowing he wouldn't leave the hallway until he heard the deadbolt snap into place.

She'd dreamt of him that night, of the quiet, gentle man she'd observed with her daughter, creating computer games for her to play and teaching her. She wondered what he was doing now?

The raid had gone off with hardly a hitch, except that at the very last moment Perez decided to fight. Choosing carefully, he'd gone after the man with the bright green cast on his wrist. It had been a serious error in judgment, as what he'd thought to be the weakest member of the police had turned out to be more like a mongoose. Not only had the guy with the shades not been an easy target, he had managed to take Perez down, despite a surprise blow to the face intended to remove him from his escape route. Now that it was too late, Perez didn't struggle at all, but kept a close eye on the man with the green cast and glasses.

"C'mon, Paul. Five minutes, that's all I ask. Just five minutes alone with him. I won't even have my gun with me." Kermit's bloody nose was evidence of his annoyance, as he was still holding a tissue to it, trying to stem the flow. Fortunately, it hadn't stopped his automatic reaction to the attack. He'd let out a bellow of pain and rage and simply retaliated. Perez watched in worried concern as the woman detective pushed him into a chair.

"Sit, stay. You move, and I'll let Kermit have his chance at you."

"C'mon, Paul. Three minutes! Just three minutes."

Paul, trying to keep his amusement under control shook his head. "Remember Colombia, Kermit?"

Kermit's expression went blank for a moment. "Which time?" he asked, cautiously.

"El Gordo. You asked for three minutes that time, too, remember? And I gave it to you?"

"Oh." Kermit's expression turned to one of chagrin. "I was a lot angrier that time. And I didn't kill him!"

"No, but we were unable to get the information on the rest of his gang, if you recall?"

"How was I to know he had a thin skull?"

"That's not the point, Kermit, the point is that in three minutes, you can kill half a dozen men with your bare hands. I can't let you do that. The mayor gets upset."

"Two minutes?" Kermit asked plaintively.

"Only if he tries something." The captain turned his attention to their primary prisoner. "You're not going to try anything, are you, Mr. Perez?"

Perez had listened and had recognized the name of El Gordo. The man had been a monster, grossly fat, but also very powerful. This was the man who had destroyed him? He hardly seemed big enough, but then, looks could be very deceiving. He decided to remain silent and await further developments.

"Captain," Jody called from her desk, still leaning back in her chair and resting her mismatched shoe and bandaged feet on the desk.

"Yes, Ms. Powell?"

"Your interview is in room one."

"Thank you." He looked at her and hoped that her manners had been somewhat better with Isabel than she was displaying at the moment, but he rather doubted it. With a glance around at the detectives who were preparing to do their paperwork prior to booking their suspects, and with Mary Margaret handling the impounding of the cache of weapons they'd found, they were going to be busy for a while. Sighing, he straightened his tie and headed for the interview room.

To his surprise, she was sitting with her back to the door. "Sorry I'm late, but we had something come up that couldn't wait." He saw her stiffen as he walked around to the other side of the table.

She knew that voice. She stiffened as she watched him come into view and sit heavily in the chair across the table from her. "Is this a joke?"

Paul smiled, and his weariness was apparent. "No joke. I'm afraid that what came up was a little difficult, but it's pretty much over with now, except for the paperwork." He looked at her and could read the various emotions chasing across her face. "I'm afraid you may have caught us at a bad time. Jody's a little P.O.'d about not being able to go. Please don't let her attitude color your thoughts about working here."

Isabel smiled in relief. "I did wonder about that." She didn't mention the desk sergeant's leering, thinking it might just have been her own oversensitivity. "So, this is where Kermit works?"

Paul nodded. "This is it. I'm afraid he's not exactly presentable at the moment; he caught a plank to the face a little while ago. His nose doesn't seem to be broken, but it's been bleeding rather copiously. Does he know you were coming?"

She shook her head. "No. It was just supposed to be an interview, nothing more. I didn't want to impose on him, or have him think I'd ask him for help in landing a job." She watched him, wondering if and when the interview would start.

Paul's smile widened. "That's good. You understand 'need to know'. That's important around here, though more in keeping with Kermit's and my former lives. So, what do you think? Do you think you could handle a bunch of sometimes surly, sometimes angry, sometimes depressed cops?"

"Exactly what are the duties? All I was told was to come for an interview. They didn't even tell me what floor to report to."

Paul shook his head. "Sorry about that. Hold on, I'll get the work plan for you to look over." He stood and walked over to the door and out, leaving it open. She couldn't resist and shifted so she could look out, her lower lip caught between her teeth as she watched the now full and very busy squad room.

Her eyes immediately sought out Kermit and she winced at the bruising on his face. Even with the shades, it was obvious that he had two black eyes, and his swollen nose was already turning interesting shades of magenta and violet. From his body language, he was angry, she realized. He was tight and controlled, lips compressed together in barely restrained fury. She realized that the man he was talking to was trying to get him to react by taunting him. Several of the other detectives were casting surreptitiously worried glances his way, as though waiting for him to explode. Finally, he leaned close to his prisoner and spoke softly in his ear. The man erupted in sudden fury, going for a head-butt in Kermit's already bruised face. But amazingly, Kermit somehow managed to dodge the attack and like a matador with an enraged bull, sidestepped and 'helped' the prisoner on his way by gently pushing the man's shoulder.

He couldn't take another word from Perez, but he also knew he couldn't touch him. Instead, he leaned close and whispered, "And just think of all the visitors your little girl will have while you're in prison." The reaction he got from Perez was somewhat unexpected. He'd no way of knowing that the man had a pubescent daughter whom he adored. He barely managed to dodge the head butt, and twisted out of the way of Perez's charge, sidestepping and pushing on the passing shoulder.

Perez went headfirst into Peter's desk. The entire room was suddenly silent.

"Kermit," Paul's longsuffering voice softly broke the silence. "Now you can call the paramedics and take him to the hospital. And while you're there, get your face checked out, as well. Oh, and see if you managed to break your cast, earlier, hmmm?"

"Yes, Captain," Kermit softly replied, reaching for a phone. One thing the incident had done was open the mouths of the other members of Perez's gang. None of them wanted the sunglasses wearing ex-mercenary to interview them.

Paul sighed and crossed the bullpen to the interview room, realizing that Mrs. Wardleigh had no doubt seen and heard everything. He entered, closing the door behind him. "My apologies. It's not always this crazy around here."

She smiled and replied, "Sometimes it gets worse?"

He paused to give her a considering look and then nodded. "Something like that. Did it bother you?"

"Hardly, Captain. I think Detective Griffin showed remarkable restraint. It was obvious that that man was taunting him, trying to get him to react. Yet he was the one to attack, all Kermit did was to move out of the way."

Paul regarded her for a moment. "He's generally very careful about not getting caught doing anything untoward."

She smiled, she'd noticed the word 'caught'. "Yes, I can imagine that he's pretty good at that." She accepted the thin sheaf of papers he offered her. It was a standard work plan for a secretary, though somewhat more detailed than most. Particularly in the list of some of the duties. It had been carefully worded, but she was able to read between the lines. Her primary function, it seemed, was to run interference between the captain and the higher-ups. It didn't have anything she wasn't familiar with, except that the paycheck was substantially more than she was used to.

He watched her read it, hoping that it didn't finish scaring her off. For Kermit to be interested in her and her daughter was a big selling point in asking her to come and work for him. He knew that he wasn't always the easiest of bosses, but then, this wasn't the easiest of jobs, either. She finished reading the position description and looked up at him, expectantly.

"Well, what do you think?"

"It seems fairly standard, although with perhaps a bit more emphasis on acting as the buffer between you and the mayor's office?"

He was pleased that she'd caught that. He grinned and sat on the edge of the table. "So, are you interested?"

She was surprised. "Don't you want to ask me any questions?"

"When you told me that you wouldn't use your friendship with Kermit to try and get a better paying job, I made up my mind. Now, that doesn't mean it's not a sometimes very difficult job, like when things go terribly wrong, but for the most part, it's fairly quiet." He noticed her skeptical expression and shrugged, smiling. "Okay, it's high stress and you have to deal with a lot of detectives who want everything half an hour ago."

"What happened to your last secretary, if I might ask?" She couldn't believe he was offering her the job. She was a little worried that it was because of her being friends with Kermit, but his next words eased that concern.

"My last secretary was absconded with by the Chief of Police, who was even more demanding than I am, and she retired, rather than have to deal with all the hassles." He chuckled. "The only reason they're letting me get another one is because the mayor called several times when I wasn't here, and there was no one to take a message. She was rather...annoyed, shall we say?"

"So, why me? I mean, you don't know me at all, why pick me? Why not do the interviews?"

"Because you impressed the hell out of me when you said you wouldn't use Kermit to get a better job, that you already owed him for getting you the one you have. And I know for a fact that you didn't tell him you had an interview here, because he'd have mentioned it to me. Besides, he trusts you enough that he lets you into his apartment. And most of all, he cooks for you. He hardly even does that for himself, so if he's had you over for dinner, you must be pretty special. And I really do need someone to answer phones and make sure the detectives have dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's and signed off on their reports before I see them. It really would help me a lot. Between meetings and slogging through half-completed, poorly written reports, I don't have time for much else. What do you say?"

"Would there be a lot of overtime?"

"Rarely. Unless there's a war, or something. And if something happens that you would have to stay over, your daughter could come here."

"Is it safe enough for her? She's only seven."

"My office is. She could even have some toys in a drawer in there, if you want. Or I'm sure Kermit could let her play on his computer?" She was good; she wasn't giving anything away, another mark in her favor.

"What would my duty hours be?"

"What do you want them to be? My official time is from eight to five, but I'm usually here about six-thirty and when I manage to get home before eight, my wife is generally shocked."

She nodded. Perhaps she could help with that. He had certainly seemed nice when she'd met him at Kermit's. And as he said about Kermit trusting her, it was obvious that Kermit trusted him even more, but that trust had to have been earned.

"When would I start?"

"As soon as your current position allows, I think. It's the start of the pay period, so, two weeks from today?" He only barely managed to keep the hope out of his voice as she smiled up at him.

"All right. I'll go back and give my notice, then." She stood up, not believing her good fortune. It had certainly been an extremely fortunate move on her part that had brought her to Sloanville and her current home. And maybe she could car pool with Kermit when the weather was bad, instead of walking or taking the bus. She extended her hand to her new boss. "Thank you."

He took her hand, pleased with the firmness of her grip, and smiled. "Thank you. You have no idea how much I was dreading this whole process. Are you going to tell Kermit, or let him find out on his own?"

"What would you advise? I wouldn't want to really upset him, or anything."

"Well, let's see what happens when we go out there. If he's still here, we'll make the announcement, all right?"

"All right."

Like Kermit, he was a gentleman and got the door for her. She wondered if the rest of the squad was anything like the two men she knew, but didn't hold her breath, wondering.

The paramedics had brought Perez back to consciousness. They weren't hurrying, so apparently the concussion wasn't too severe. Kermit was talking to someone from IA, explaining what had happened, and it was fairly obvious that the other detectives had already made their statements. The man from IA did not look very happy. When he spotted the captain, he snarled something to Kermit and walked over.

"I don't suppose you saw anything, right?"

"I heard Perez verbally goading my detective, then Griffin said something to the man I didn't hear, and the guy went for him. Kermit managed to dodge the head-butt and move out of the way. He used one hand to fend the man off and Perez went head first into the desk."

The man from IA growled and glared at Isabel. "That what you saw, too?"

"That's what I saw, but I didn't hear any of the actual conversation. The suspect lunged up and tried to head-butt the detective, who simply managed to move out of the way. He didn't even lose his sunglasses in the process."

The man from IA froze. "He didn't?"


The investigator sighed and shook his head. "Okay, thanks." He turned back to Kermit, scowled at him and shook his head. "One of these days, Griffin, you'll go too far."

"We'd both better hope not, Joe. Though I'm a little surprised that you didn't ask what I said to him."

The man from IA shook his head. "Not after everything everyone told me he said. To be honest, I'd have punched out the bastard." He gave a lopsided grin and left.

Kermit turned his reluctant attention to Paul's visitor. One of the few people he didn't want to see right now, with his face all bruised and swollen. "Is something wrong, Isabel?" He looked at Paul for a clue, but got nothing but a satisfied smirk in return.

"No, I just had an interview for a new job and thought I'd like to let you know about it."

"Oh?" He looked both puzzled and concerned, and the last of Paul's misgivings dissolved.

"All right, everyone, I'd like your attention, please." When Paul spoke in that tone of voice, everyone stopped what they were doing immediately and gave him their full attention. "As you know, the mayor was somewhat unhappy with us a few weeks ago." There were chuckles and smothered laughter from the officers. "So, I was instructed to get myself a secretary. I'd like to introduce her to you now, even though she won't actually be with us for two more weeks."

Every eye was on Isabel, most curious, a few smiling in welcome, and one or two scowling - most notably Kermit and Jody. She noticed Kermit's scowl and wondered what she'd done wrong. It wasn't an expression she'd seen, before, but he was quite obviously not pleased with her.

"This is Isabel Wardleigh. She's going to be coming in cold, so help her out, folks. Isabel, this is my squad." He pointed to each person as he introduced them. "...And this is Kermit Griffin, our resident computer expert."

Isabel smiled at everyone. "Hi. I'm, uh, looking forward to working here." She tried to remember everyone's names as they greeted her. Kermit, to her dismay, simply turned away and walked through a door to what she assumed was his office. Paul touched her arm and motioned her to come with him.

Once safely in his office, she blurted, "I don't think Kermit wants me to work here."

Paul shook his head and smiled. "He's just upset that one, you saw him like this, covered in blood and looking like he was someone's punching bag, and two, that you didn't tell him you had an interview with me."

"But I didn't know!"

"I know that." He picked up his phone and dialed an internal number. "Get in here, now," he growled into the phone. He wasn't going to let Kermit off the hook on this. He needed to know that Isabel hadn't told him because she didn't want to impose on their friendship. He smiled at his new secretary and then the door opened and Kermit came in. He'd managed to clean up, somewhat, and change his shirt, so at least he was no longer covered in blood.


"Sit down, Kermit."

"I'd rather stand, if you don't mind, sir." He was completely ignoring Isabel.

"Sit!" Kermit sat.

"Mrs. Wardleigh didn't tell you because she didn't want to impose on you."

"What?" He looked confused and glanced over at Isabel.

"I asked her, when she told me she had an interview here, if she'd tell you, and she didn't want to impose on your friendship or make you think she would use you to help her get a job." He could see that Kermit was listening, and continued. "And think about it. What would you have thought if she'd asked you to put in a good word for her, hmmm? You know as well as I do that it would have thrown up all your walls; that you'd have felt that she was using you. This way, she came in on her own. She had no idea that she was interviewing with me. She was as surprised to see me as you were surprised to see her."

Kermit continued to gaze at Isabel, who met his gaze, somewhat surprised that she could see his eyes behind his sunglasses.

"Oh," was all Kermit said, but his posture softened as he took off his glasses to look at her. "Is that what you thought?"

"He asked me if I was going to ask you to put in a good word for me, and I said that I wouldn't do that. I really had no idea that he was the one I'd be interviewing with." She glanced over at Paul and then focused back on Kermit. "He didn't say he was the local precinct captain. Though I maybe should have known when he said that integrity is rewarded. I didn't realize at the time that I'd just had my interview." She looked again at Paul, "That was what happened, isn't it?"

Paul smiled and nodded. "I figured anyone unwilling to ask someone to help them get a better job has the kind of honesty and integrity I want working for me." He turned to Kermit. "She didn't know, Kermit. And she wouldn't have asked you for help even if she did. She wouldn't impose on your friendship like that." He wanted to grab the younger man and shake him.

Kermit got the message. He smiled at Isabel, albeit a bit shyly. "Oh, yeah," he said softly.

She smiled, her face showing her relief. She wanted to hug him, but it was neither the time nor place for that. Instead, she looked at his swollen nose and winced. "Shouldn't you go to the hospital?"

Kermit blushed, though it was a bit hard to see through the bruising. "I'm fine."

"She's right. Get yourself down to the ER and make sure you didn't break anything," Paul agreed, adding, "And that's an order, detective."

Kermit sighed. "Yes, sir." He stood up, accepting the dismissal. "Can I give you a ride?"

"It's the opposite way from the hospital."

Kermit shrugged and grinned. "So, it will just take me a bit longer to get checked out. Come on. I'll drive you back to work." He held out his good hand to her and pulled her gently to her feet.

"All right, thank you."

Paul watched the couple leave and grinned. Oh, yeah.

"Thanks for the ride." She smiled at him as he closed the door of the car. It was a nice day, and the top was down on the Corvair. He grinned as he circled around the vehicle to get in.

"I'm sorry. I didn't have any business getting upset."

She looked at him, gnawing on her lower lip. "I felt that it would have been far more upsetting to tell you I had an interview with a police captain. I didn't want you to think that I'd trade on our friendship that way."

He glanced over at her as he steered through traffic. "You really didn't know it was with Paul?"

"I nearly fell out of the chair when I heard his voice. I had no idea he was the captain, here. For some reason, I thought you worked farther away."

Kermit frowned. "Why would you think that?"

"Well, you leave so early. I just thought you must have a long commute."

"Oh. I tend to work until the particular task is done, then I go home. Sometimes it means I don't see my place for days at a time." He grinned, "And other times, I work from home and the office doesn't see me until I either finish my research or break my wrist."

She couldn't help the giggle that escaped. "Whichever comes first?"

He grinned at her. "Oh, yeah."

Isabel sighed in relief. He was no longer upset with her, for which she was grateful. "Why don't you come over for supper this evening? I'm in the mood to celebrate."

"Sounds great. What time?"

"Well, what time do you think you'll be getting off work?"

He grimaced and made a sour face. "Not until the paperwork is done, I'm afraid. Good thing I'm a pretty good typist. Probably between six and seven."

"Then let's plan for seven-thirty?"

"Sounds like a plan." He pulled the car into the parking lot behind her building and stopped by the steps leading into the office complex. Before he could reach for his door handle, she'd gotten out. He frowned at her.

"Now, get to the hospital and get your nose taken care of. I'll see you at supper, tonight."

Kermit sighed, and then grinned. "All right. Can I bring anything?"

"Just you, and an appetite." She smiled and turned, going up the steps to her building, pausing at the door to look back and smile at him.

He returned the smile and watched her enter the building. "Oh, yeah," he murmured softly as he put the car in gear and steered towards the hospital and the interminable wait to be seen and told his nose was broken again.

He'd turned down the offer of having his nose taped. There was no deviation to the septum, so he figured that the bruising and swelling was more than enough. He'd returned to the station and gone straight to work on his reports, wanting to be finished quickly so he could get home on time. Home - how odd to actually consider that concept. He'd always thought of his apartment as 'his place', never 'home'. Paul had a 'home'. He just had a place to sleep. That's all he'd ever really needed or wanted. Somewhere to take a shower and sleep in safety. But lately, at least when he thought of Isabel and her daughter, he had begun referring to it as 'home'. It gave him a warm feeling inside.

Paul stood in the doorway, watching his friend as he gazed dreamily into the distance. "She's special," Paul softly said.

Kermit jumped at the words. He hadn't even heard the door open. He scowled up at Paul. "What?"

"Isabel. She's special, and so is her daughter."

Kermit turned his attention back to his report, which was nearly finished. He only had to run it through spell check and print it out and he was done. His fingers flew over the keys. He made a few corrections and sent it to print. Paul hadn't moved and was still smiling. Standing up, Kermit grabbed his report from the printer, signed it, and handed it to Paul.

"In a hurry, Kermit?"

"Just thought I'd try and get home at a decent hour, for a change."

Home? Paul thought. Kermit wanted to get home? He grinned. "Like I said, they're special."

Kermit gazed at his oldest friend and mentor. "How did you know that Annie was the one, Paul?"

"I couldn't stand the thought that she wouldn't be near to talk to. When we held hands, I never wanted to let go, and when we kissed, the world stopped and held its breath. Even after twenty years, it's still like that for me." His voice was soft and serious.

Kermit nodded. "I think it's coming to that for me, Paul. But I don't know. I've got a really lousy track record, as you well know."

"I suggest you talk to her. Tell her everything you can, and wait. You won't be able to breathe while you wait, but if she's the kind of woman I think she is, she'll give you the answer you need. She may not be ready, yet. But if there's a chance, she'll let you know. And if it's too soon, you'll just have to be patient and wait until she is ready. And then you marry that girl, and spend the rest of your lives being happy together."

"You think it's possible for me? To not screw this up?"

"Kermit, you've always gone for the flash over substance, before. Isabel isn't anything like your previous relationships. She's as serious as you are, as dedicated as you are, just that her focus is a little different. She's not looking for a 'good time'; she's looking for permanence and safety. You make her feel safe." He saw Kermit's uncertainty and placed a hand on his shoulder, gaining his full attention. "Take it slow and for God's sake, talk to her. Tell her about your previous relationships; about how you don't want another like them; that you're looking for something real and permanent. It's time for you to grow up and settle down, Kermit. But I think you've already figured that out. You've never called your apartment 'home' before."

Kermit gazed into Paul's serious blue eyes, noting the hint of amusement in the depths, and nodded. "You're a hell of a detective, Captain."

"Thanks. I didn't get to be captain based on my social skills or kissing up to the politicians, as you well know." He smiled, squeezed Kermit's shoulder and turned, pulling the shorter man along with him. "Now, get home before your supper gets cold."

"Oh, yeah." Kermit glanced at his watch, if he hurried, he'd have time for a shower before dinner.

Paul watched his friend leave and allowed the pleased grin to grace his features. Taking a deep breath, he glanced around at the rest of his detectives, who were still struggling with their reports. His gaze settled on Peter, and he wondered if and when his foster son might find someone. He sighed and realized that he must be getting old, wanting to see all those he cared about settled down in relationships as good as his own. Shaking his head ruefully, he glanced down at Kermit's report and headed back to his office.

Abigail opened the door to Kermit's distinctive knock and stared up at him. "Mr. Kermit? Are you okay?"

Kermit smiled, though the swelling in his face was painful. "I'm fine, Abigail. How are you?"

"I'm okay." She let him in and closed the door behind him. "What happened, Mr. Kermit? Did you fall down again?"

The worry in the child's voice gave Kermit pause. His sensitivity to emotions was somewhat heightened by his desire, more need, really, to make these two ladies part of his family. "Not exactly, sweetheart. We arrested some bad men, today, and one of them tried to get away."

"He hit you in the nose?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm all right, though, just a little bruising and swelling, is all."

""Kermit, your nose is broken," Isabel chided softly from the kitchen door.

He looked at her and saw her genuine concern for him, and he smiled. "Well, yeah, but I've broken it a couple of times before. It hurts, but it'll be fine in a couple of weeks."

"Come into the bathroom, I've got something that will help the swelling and bruising."

He was surprised. He didn't know of anything that was really good for bruising, except for ice, and his face was just too tender to place an ice pack on it at the moment. He followed her, however, into the bathroom, where he sat on the edge of the tub while she got out a distinctive yellow and blue tube. He frowned. "Uh, is that what I think it is?"

She grinned. "Yes, but it works wonders for bruises. You'll see." She opened the tube and squirted a bit onto her finger, then she turned to him and began to gently apply the ointment to the swelling on his nose and around his eyes. Her touch was light enough that he didn't flinch. She carefully rubbed the ointment in. When she was finished, she smiled at him and kissed his forehead. "There. The swelling should start going down, soon." She turned to wash her hands. "Now, dinner is ready."


She smiled at him. "You're welcome." He followed her, thinking hard about what he was feeling and afraid of what it might mean.

Dinner was something of a surprise: a pork roast with all the trimmings, including homemade applesauce. It was absolutely delicious, and he said so. The fact that he went back for seconds told Isabel what a hit it was. She couldn't stop smiling. He was so appreciative of even the smallest things. And the way he kept looking at her... she realized that he generally took his sunglasses of when he was here. She couldn't remember if it was before, or after she started dimming the lights for him, but thought it might have been before. She gazed into his deep, dark chocolate eyes and smiled a bit shyly.

After dinner, Kermit helped Abigail with her math homework, explaining some tricks for doing the problems, as Isabel did the dishes. She couldn't help thinking how 'normal' this was. When Abigail had been put to bed, after a good night kiss from Kermit, at the child's insistence, they sat together on the sofa. Kermit had gotten very quiet and was frowning slightly, his sunglasses back in place.

"What is it, Kermit?" she asked, turning towards him, trying to hide her concern.

He looked at her and saw a warm, loving woman who was as afraid of this as he was. "I don't have a very good track record when it comes to relationships," he began. His smile was self-mocking. "But I think that maybe this time, well, maybe it could be different."

She returned his smile with a gentle and encouraging one of her own. "Maybe," she agreed. Her hand gently slid over his and he turned his palm up so their fingers could clasp.

"I need to tell you some things."

"All right." She listened avidly to him as he recited his history. There were a lot of blank spots and she realized that there were things he'd never be able or willing to talk about from his past, but he told her everything he could, and she listened with an open mind and heart. When he was finished, she moved quietly into his arms and rested her cheek against his shoulder, her arms around his body.



"You're not saying anything."

"Of course I am. Listen." She held him more tightly and he realized what she was saying. That his past didn't worry her, that she was interested, that she thought there was a chance for them. He let out the breath that Paul had told him he'd be holding in a sigh of relief, allowing his arms to tighten around her.

"So, now what?"

"Now? Now, we sit and relax for a while." She snuggled closer to him, making him smile.

"Oh, yeah."

The next morning, a cheerful and whistling Kermit entered the precinct with a smile and good word for everyone. Broderick watched him warily, wondering at the change in the man. Two days running, Kermit, the taciturn, cold, hard, ex-mercenary, had been positively glowing with good will. Even the slight swelling and bruising of his face didn't even seem to faze him. It made Broderick nervous.

"Good morning, sweetbritches," Kermit whispered into Mary Margaret's ear, having snuck up on her. She jumped and turned to scowl at him.

"You're cruisn' for a bruisin'. Except that it seems you've already gotten one." She looked at him closely. "Actually, the bruises don't look all that bad; the swelling is down a lot and they're already fading. What did you do? For that matter, what's got you in such a good mood again?"

Kermit grinned and shook his head. "Perez is in jail along with all his cronies. A major source of high-powered weaponry is off the streets of our fair city, and the sun is shining. What more does one need?"

"All right. Who is she?"

Kermit's grin widened. "She?"

"Yeah. 'She.' Who is she and do we get to meet her, and have you run her through the system to make sure she's not a serial killer?"

Kermit laughed. Not his usual half-smothered chuckle, he laughed from his toes, joyously. Everyone in the room froze and turned to stare and wonder.

"Kermit? Go away, you're scaring me," Mary Margaret softly said, backing a few inches away from him. To her shock, Kermit bent down and kissed her on the cheek.

"Whatever you say, sweetcheeks." Still grinning, he crossed the room to his office and entered. To everyone's relief, he closed the door behind him.

"She must be something really spectacular," Peter murmured softly.

"Oh, yeah. You think the captain knows?"

"He will, if anyone does." Peter gazed towards the closed door to the captain's office and sighed. "But I'm not going in there. He's already gotten two calls from SWAT, one from the commissioner, and one from the mayor, and it's not even eight, yet."

"Ouch. In that case, Kermit's good mood won't last long."

"I think we need to spend the day on the streets, looking for bad guys. My reports are all up to date, how about yours?"

"All done." She grinned up at Peter. "Let's go see if we can find any bad guys, Partner."

"You got it. I'll tell Strenlich and we can be on our way."

Paul sat back in his chair and smiled ruefully. SWAT was, as expected, extremely irate about the operation the day before. His mild 'could you have been ready in fifteen minutes, like we were?' had only served to inflame the other captain, who had complained to the police commissioner, who had called and asked what was going on. He'd simply explained that they had gotten some vital information that was time-sensitive, and had acted upon it. With only one minor injury to one of their officers, and the resultant injury to the suspect who had attacked his man. When asked which officer, he'd grinned as he told the commissioner, who was only grateful that Kermit hadn't killed the guy. Mollified, the commissioner simply told him to use SWAT whenever it was practicable, or what were they paying them for? Paul wisely didn't answer that.

When the mayor called with her congratulations on the arrest of Perez, he informed her that his computer expert, Kermit Griffin had been the one to track him down. He was well aware of the distrust and uncertainty both the commissioner and mayor shared over his having brought the former mercenary into the ranks of the department. Fortunately, Kermit usually kept a pretty low profile, but this was a good time to point out his contribution, and he had done so. When the mayor had countered with the fact that Perez was in the hospital, he calmly informed her that the man had fist hit Kermit in the face with a board, at the scene of the raid, breaking the detective's nose. And later had attempted to head-butt Kermit at the station, with the entire squad watching as he managed to dodge. The mayor had already read the reports from IA on that one, and Kermit was in the clear, so there was no gain for her on that point. Everyone had commented on how well Kermit had behaved, never reacting adversely to loud and constant provocation.

He heard the exchange between Kermit and Skalaney and smiled. Kermit must have followed his suggestion and talked to Isabel. Good. Taking a deep breath, he reached for the stack of reports he still had to go through. Back to the usual grind. But he couldn't help but smile every time he thought of Kermit and his lady.

Isabel was a trifle nervous, as she got ready to go to work at her new job. Kermit had spent most of the weekend with them. They'd gone for a picnic, on Saturday, and he'd actually gone to church with them on Sunday and taken them out for lunch afterwards. Their long talk, well, he'd talked and she'd listened, two weeks before had opened the gates to his very serious courting of them. Not just her, but Abigail, as well. They were both thrilled. Abby had always liked Kermit, from the first time they'd met, and now, he was rapidly becoming a very important part of their family, and she could definitely see a future for them all as such. He was always patient with Abby, and he didn't push her for a more physical relationship, which gladdened her heart. Now, he'd voluntarily joined in going to church. She hadn't been attending there very long, choosing it because it was an easy walk from their apartment, and one of the elderly members had asked if Kermit was her husband. She'd blushed in embarrassment, but Kermit had smiled at the older woman and simply answered 'not yet.' It had been an unconscious answer on his part, but it was enough to give her hope that indeed there could be something permanent between them. She shivered in anticipation and checked her appearance one last time before leaving.

Kermit waited nervously in the hall. Several times, he'd almost knocked on the door to the apartment across from his, but hadn't. He'd smiled and given Abby a hug and kiss on the cheek when she'd left for school twenty minutes earlier, and now he waited for Isabel, wanting to give her a ride to work this morning. When the door finally opened again, he straightened up and turned to look at her, smiling uncertainly. Seeing her surprise, as he was usually long gone by now, his smile faltered. "I thought you might like a ride, this being your first day, and all?"

She smiled, relieved. "I'd love one, thanks." He smiled in relief and offered his arm, which she took, grinning and trying not to giggle. As always, he got the door for her and made sure her skirt didn't get caught in the door as he closed it.

"I'll let you off out front and go park the car." He didn't explain that the stench from the garage was enough to gag a maggot, most of the time. But she smiled and thanked him, letting herself out. She watched him make the turn into the parking garage under the building and then turned to climb the steps into the building.

It was fairly busy, as Monday mornings often were, mostly attorneys sorting out their clients and preparing for arraignments and bail. She strode purposefully across the room, heading for the stairs up to the bullpen and her new job. As she passed the front desk, the same sergeant who had leered at her when she'd come for her interview did it again, and as she got closer, commented on how 'tasty' she looked. Embarrassed and annoyed, she tried to ignore him, when he said something else that she didn't quite hear. She frowned and turned to find out what had made him make that odd, gurgling sound. To her horror, Kermit had the sergeant by the throat, dangling a good two inches off the floor, as Kermit had lifted him up.

He couldn't believe Broderick could be so crude so early on a Monday morning. With a silent snarl, he'd taken two strides to the man and grabbed him by the shirtfront, hoisting him off the floor. Kermit wasn't all that tall, but Broderick was no taller, and although heavier, Kermit was much stronger, his strength added to by his fury. Shaking the terrified desk sergeant, he snarled so softly that Isabel, a mere four feet away couldn't hear him.

"If I ever hear you say anything like that to another woman they'll never find your body, and if I catch you looking at her like that again, you'll never look again, do I make myself clear?"

"Kermit?" Paul's voice wasn't loud, but pierced his detective's consciousness.

"We're discussing the desk sergeant's poor manners towards the lady, Captain." He forced himself to set the heavier man down, shaking with rage. Broderick's eyes darted from the reflective shades the detective wore to the disgruntled expression and cold fusion glare of the captain's eyes.

"Broderick, Ms. Wardleigh is my new secretary. What did you say to her?"

"Uh, I didn't, I mean, I...." His lips clamped shut, realizing that the captain, further away than the still fuming detective Griffin, was actually the more dangerous of the two men. "Oh, hell. I'm sorry, ma'am. It won't happen again."

"It had better not," in two-part harmony from the two annoyed former mercenaries.

"Are you all right, Ms. Wardleigh?" Paul asked softly, as he took her arm and led her towards the stairs. "Kermit? Are you coming?"

Kermit had still been glaring death at Broderick and with a disgusted grunt, turned to follow his leader, but the glare he tossed back as a parting shot almost caused Broderick to soil himself.

"Yes, sir." He was so angry, still, that he wanted to hit someone. Unfortunately, there was no one to take his annoyance out on, as the captain had effectively put the kibosh on his taking out Broderick. Then he remembered that it was Monday and that there was mandatory PE after work that evening for the more sedentary - like the desk sergeant. With a feral grin, Kermit decided he needed to work on his hand-to-hand skills. Oh, yeah. Good mood restored as he contemplated a little 'playtime' later, he quickly caught up to the others, in time to hear Paul apologizing for Broderick's lapse of good manners.

"I assure you that I will make sure he adjusts his attitude," Paul was saying. Kermit grinned.

"Tonight is his turn in the gym. I think I need to get a little work on my self defense."

Isabel perked up. "Self defense? Is there any way I could learn some?"

Paul smiled and practically purred. "Of course. We hold classes after shift down in the gym. I'd be delighted to teach you some moves. And I'm sure Kermit would like to help out, as well, wouldn't you, Kermit?"

"Oh, yeah." The day was definitely looking up. He wondered if Broderick would survive?

To her surprise, the bullpen had been rearranged a bit, to give her a small, separate area outside the captain's office, almost guarding the door. She couldn't help smiling about it. She saw the look of discomfort on Kermit's face as Paul held her chair for her and began explaining where everything was and how it worked. It was very simple and straightforward. And she couldn't help the giggle that escaped when he called her his 'dragon at the gate.' It certainly gave her a very good idea of what he needed from her. Now, if she could only survive the initiation by the detectives....

"Excuse me, but do you have an appointment?" She stood up and blocked the peevish woman from entering the captain's office.

Kelly Blake looked at her and scowled. "What?"

"I asked if you have an appointment with the captain?"


"Because he's busy. Your name, please?"

The woman shifted her weight to one foot and took up a stance that could well have been intimidating, had Isabel been the type to be intimidated. "Kelly Blake."

Since she knew that the captain's calendar was remarkably free, at the moment, she smiled sweetly. "You aren't on his calendar, I'm afraid. Let me see if he's free, all right?" She remained before the door until the disgruntled Kelly backed away. Standing at her desk, she used the phone intercom to contact Paul. "Captain? There's a lady named Kelly Blake here to see you." She smiled at the impatient woman again. "Yes, sir, I'll tell her." She hung up and looked apologetic. "I'm sorry, but he doesn't really have any time, today. Could you come back tomorrow morning at 0800?"

"Eight! That's ridiculous!"

Isabel frowned, and gnawed at her lower lip as she looked at the captain's date book. "Oh, well, the only other time I see that he's free is 0630, will that be better?"

Kelly, who had a very hard time getting to work on time for her eight o'clock shift, flushed. "Six... eight will be fine, thanks." She watched as Isabel dutifully wrote it in the book.

"And the purpose of your visit?"


Isabel looked up, a slight frown on her face. "The reason you need to see him?"

Kelly shifted her weight and crossed her arms. "Tell him it's about one of his detectives. He'll know what it's about."

Isabel understood. "Very well. See you tomorrow morning, then." She forced a pleasant smile onto her face. "Have a good day." She watched as Kelly spun on her heel and stomped out of the bullpen. Sinking into her chair, Isabel heaved a heavy sigh. That had to be the resident witch, she decided, kneading the back of her neck and gently stretching.


She looked up to see her new boss standing in the doorway and smiling at her. She returned the smile. "That's why you hired me, isn't it? To be your dragon at the gate to keep out the enemy?"

"Something like that. She's generally bad news. Could be a very good cop, but for the attitude. If she's not here by eight fifteen, tomorrow, let me know so I can escape, all right?"

Isabel grinned. "Got it. Who is she, if I may ask?"

"My son's sometimes girlfriend. They broke up again, and she wants him punished for it. Hopefully, this will be the last time. She's not good for him."

Isabel frowned in confusion. "Why would she talk to you about your son? What does she expect you to do about it?"

"Peter Caine is my foster son. She thinks that I'll punish him for her."

"That's sick."

Paul chuckled. "Which is why if she can't be on time, I won't have to deal with her."

"Got it." They smiled at one another in understanding and Paul returned to his perusal of reports while she went back to filing those reports he'd finished with, sending those needing to go to the DA's office and putting the others away in their proper cabinets.

She looked up at the mousy older man who paused by her desk. He seemed nervous and she struggled to remember his name. "Yes, Detective?"

He smiled shyly. "Blake. I was wondering if the captain had a few minutes."

She smiled and lifted the phone. "I think so, but let me check. What's it about, if I may ask?"

He lifted some kind of electrical device to show her. "New piece of equipment I've been working on. It's a wire, but it doesn't look like one, see?" He showed it to her. It looked a bit like a fountain pen, but inside, there were electronics, not ink cartridges.

"Wow. Looks like something out of a James Bond movie." She dialed and waited a moment for the captain to answer. "Yes, sir, Detective Blake is here and has a new gadget to show you?" She listened, still smiling at the visitor. "Yes, sir." She hung up. "Go on in, Detective Blake."

"Thank you, Ms. Wardleigh."

"Is the captain busy?"

She looked up at the harried young man. His hair was tousled, and he was perspiring. "Let me check." This was Peter Caine, she remembered, Paul's foster son. She lifted the phone and dialed. "Yes, sir, Detective Caine would like to speak to you. Yes, sir." She hung up the phone and smiled up at the frazzled young man. "Go right in, Detective."

"Peter, please."

Her smile broadened, "Peter," she acknowledged.

When he came back out, he was much calmer. From her spot, she could hear the voices, though the captain didn't normally speak loud enough to be understood; with Peter, she noticed, the tone of the rumble was soothing and gentle. Peter's voice she could almost understand, but she didn't strain to try and overhear. It was obvious the young man was upset, and she suspected that the earlier appearance of Kelly Blake had had something to do with it. She hoped she wasn't related to Detective Blake. She'd taken an instant dislike to the woman, and an instant liking to the man.

"Everything all right, Peter? She asked as he made his way past her desk. He turned to her and smiled.

"Yeah, thanks."

She didn't pry, merely smiled and nodded.

"I'm Mary Margaret Skalaney. You can call me Skalaney or Mary Margaret. What do you want me to call you?"

"Isabel Wardleigh, and Isabel is fine." She smiled at the taller woman, who grinned.

"Isabel it is. So, want to go get some lunch?"

"Any particular reason?"

Skalaney shrugged. "Let's just say that I'm curious. What do you think of it, so far, stuff like that."

"It's too soon to decide. I still don't know who everyone is, even."

"Well, from your visitors, so far, you've met Kelly Blake, a real...witch. She's got an on-again/off-again relationship with Peter. That's Peter Caine, by the way. He's Paul's foster son. Good cop, a little emotional once in a while, and sometimes he takes off without thinking things through, but he's a good kid. Shakey Blake is one of Paul's old cronies, though I can't imagine what he did. Oh, and Paul's an ex-mercenary, as is Kermit. Every once in a while, he still gets called away for some kind of mission. And Kermit disappears for up to a month at a time, as well. I guess they just can't quite quit, yet. Then there's Jody, she's the blond over by Peter's desk, and Frank Strenlich is the Chief of Detectives, he's not in, yet. Had to be in court, or something."

Isabel sat and listened, awestruck at the way Mary Margaret just rattled on about all her coworkers. Obviously, Skalaney was the squad gossip. She'd have to be careful not to give away anything - she didn't want to get either the captain or Kermit upset with her.

"... and Kermit's our resident computer geek. Scary guy. Carries a Desert Eagle. I swear, that gun is bigger than he is. He's pretty scary, really. Hasn't been out of 'the business' as long as the captain or Blake, but if he thinks of you as a friend, you're set. He's pretty secretive. He's been awfully cheerful, lately, though, and we're all trying to figure out why. Someone said he's got a girlfriend, but we're not sure. If you hear anything, let me know, okay?"

Smiling insincerely, Isabel replied, "Of course. But what if he doesn't want anyone to know? Do you think that would really annoy him, maybe?"

Mary Margaret stopped talking for a long moment as a frown of consternation crossed her face. "Uh, you know, that's a very good question. I guess maybe not. Unless you know it won't upset him." She smiled again, "But you wouldn't have to worry, the captain would protect you." At Isabel's skeptical expression, she added weakly, "Probably."

"Thanks, but I don't think I'd care to take the risk, just yet. I'm still on probation, after all. I've only worked for the city for two months, and it'll be another ten months before I'm in the clear."

Mary Margaret nodded and smiled. "So, come on, and I'll buy you lunch."

"Mary Margaret is offering to buy you lunch? I'd jump on that offer," Paul's voice came from behind them. Mary Margaret jumped, although Isabel had noticed the door opening several moments earlier.


"Yes, Skalaney?"

Mary Margaret thought for a moment, gnawing at her lower lip, "Do you know what's got Kermit in such a good mood, lately?"

"How lately is, lately?"

"Past few weeks? Two or three?"

"Is he? I didn't really notice. Although I'm sure he's feeling pretty good with how quickly his face has healed. Maybe that's it?"

Skalaney shook her head. "No, it started before that - just before that, when he broke his wrist?"

"Then I suggest you stop trolling in murky waters and go to the source and ask him." Paul grinned at the look of outrage on the detective's face. "Instead of pumping my secretary for information."

Mary Margaret had the grace to blush. "Sorry, Isabel. The offer for lunch still stands, though. There's this really nice little deli a bunch of us goes to a lot. Come on, I'm buying."

Isabel saw Paul nod slightly and smiled. Gathering up her sweater and purse, she stood. "It sounds lovely."

Paul watched them, wondering which of the two women would be garnering the most information? He'd put his money on Isabel. She understood 'need to know,' and he seriously doubted she'd compromise herself by being too talkative.

Mary Margaret Skalaney was a little disgruntled. Try as she might, she'd been unable to get anything out of the new secretary beyond the fact that she was divorced and had a young daughter. It was almost enough to make her wonder if maybe Isabel hadn't come out of Paul's old world. Shaking her head, she dismissed the thought, until she noticed Kermit perched on the edge of her desk, his sunglasses dangling from his fingers.

She blinked and stared, then shook her head. Nah. Couldn't be... could it?

"So, how was your first day of work?"

"Exhausting. And I got the impression that this was a quiet day?"

"Yeah, pretty much, but they'll get used to you pretty soon and once you've learned who everyone is, it'll get easier. So, what did you think of us?"

Isabel leaned back and stretched. "Mary Margaret is a chatterbox and a gossip, but doesn't seem to have any ulterior motive or evil intentions."

Kermit's dry chuckle sounded and she turned to look at him. "What?"

"Got it in one. Go on."

"Peter's a powder keg. Volatile and passionate. Very strong sense of fair play, I think, but he's got a lot of self-doubt, too. Jody I haven't really talked to, although she seems pretty solid and dedicated." At Kermit's nod of agreement, she continued. "Chin seems to enjoy his work, pretty cheerful sort. One question, though."

"What's that?"

"Is Detective Blake related to Kelly Blake?"

Kermit laughed. "No, why?"

"I've dubbed her the wicked witch of the east. She's self-centered and for some reason thinks that everyone should jump to do her bidding. Whatever did Peter see in her?"

"She knows how to stroke a man's ego. Then, once he's infatuated, she twists him up into knots. Pete just hasn't quite figured out that it's not him, it's her."

"Yeah, he was pretty upset when he came to talk to the captain."

"So, what do you think about Blake?"

"Why is he called 'shaky'?"

Kermit's smile vanished. "Ah, that goes back to a previous life. Let's just say he left the business just a tad too late."

She nodded, whatever it was had frightened the ex-mercenary to the point to garner him a new nickname. "I like him. He's sweet. He had some new kind of transmitter to show the captain."

"Oh, yeah, Blake's a real genius at that sort of thing."

"Like you're a genius on the computer?"

Kermit grinned at her. "Sort of."

"So, if it isn't impolite to ask, what does a computer expert have to do with being a mercenary?"

Kermit looked at her in surprise, and then grinned broadly. "Not a single, solitary thing. The computer was how I'd occupy myself when not on a mission." He shrugged. "I just got good at it."

"I love it," she laughed softly. "I couldn't figure out what one had to do with the other, unless you were stealing secrets, and that sounds more like a spy than a mercenary."

"Except for Paul and Blake, who already knew, you're the first one to ever ask me about it."

"Don't worry, I'll keep your secret."

Kermit's expression turned serious as he looked over at her. "I have a lot of secrets."

She gazed at him for a few moments, until the red light changed to green and he had to refocus on driving. "I still won't tell anyone."

Kermit's heart was fluttering with excitement. Maybe she was what Paul had been talking about when he talked about Annie. "Promise?" he asked very softly. He nearly jumped when her fingers covered his hand where it rested on the stick shift knob.

"I promise."

Pulling into his parking space behind their apartment building, Kermit turned the car off and turned to her. Searching her face, he removed his sunglasses and stared a bit longer, searching... Finally, when her fingers began to twist in the shoulder strap of her handbag, he leaned across the seat and lightly kissed her. She numbly watched him as he exited the car and came around to get her door for her. Taking her hand, he helped her from the car, but then, instead of releasing her, pulled her close and kissed her again, hard. Her arms slid up his back and her hands gripped his shoulders and she returned the kiss with just as much ardor and passion as he.

When they finally had to break for air, they stared into one another's eyes for the longest time. Finally, Kermit smiled tenderly and lightly kissed her on the forehead. He then took her hand and together, they entered the building.

They both recognized that this was definitely a beginning. There would be questions and some answers, fears and uncertainties, but they were aware that they were building a foundation for a relationship that should last for the rest of their lives. They were both terrified, and excited. As they went inside the building and up to their floor, they held hands in silence, neither of them at all confident enough to say anything. As they walked from the elevator to their apartment doors, hers opened and Abigail came out and ran to greet them. Kermit, at first, tried to withdraw, but the child grasped his cast hand and tugged him, along with her mother into the apartment.

"Come and see! Look at what I found in the park!" The two adults looked worriedly at one another, wondering what she'd found. Abby had obviously been watching and waiting for them, since there was a kitchen chair pulled up by the door with two slight indentations from her shoes to show she'd been standing on it. She dragged the adults over to a shoe box with something in it and a gooseneck lamp over it, turned on to provide warmth. "See? I found it in the grass on the way home. There was a dog trying to hurt it, so I yelled at it and it ran away." The adults looked into the box and then exchanged a worried look. In the box was a small kitten. There wasn't any obvious damage to it, but it looked rather young to be out on its own.

Sighing, Kermit carefully picked it up. The eyes opened, as did the mouth, and a surprisingly bass meow came out. He looked the kitten over very carefully, and realized that it didn't seem any the worse for wear from it's encounter with the dog. He looked into the small creature's face, only to find one blue and one golden eye staring back at him. "Well, hello, there," he softly murmured. He looked over at Isabel, "It looks healthy enough. I don't have any idea how old it is, so I guess we should take it to a vet and have it checked out."

"Oh, Mommy, can I keep it? Please? I'll take care of it and everything, I promise!"

Isabel frowned. They hadn't had a pet, before, as they were on the run and there was no time or safety for a pet. She tilted her head at Kermit. "What's the policy on pets in the building?"

"I don't know. I've never had one. But I can ask, and at the same time, get the number and address for his vet."


Kermit grinned. "You didn't know?"

"Know what?"

"You rented through the management agency, didn't you?"


His grin broadened. "Paul's our landlord. I'm sure he'll allow us to have a pet. He's got a cat of his own, so let me call him and find out what vet he uses, okay?"

She stared at him in shock. "My boss is also my landlord?"

"Oh, yeah."

"That could be... interesting."

"I wouldn't worry about it. He's one of the good guys."

She looked from the kitten to the hopeful expression on her daughter's face, then up at Kermit, whose expression was surprisingly similar to her daughters. "So? Give him a call." She shook her head as her daughter and her - she was too old to have a boyfriend - gentleman friend? turned matching grins on one another and Kermit reached into his coat pocket for his cell phone.

"Hey, Paul, can we have a cat? Oh, and can we have the number and address for your vet?"

Abigail began to dance around the room, happily, while the small kitten snuggled down on Kermit's cast and began to purr.

"Yeah? Great, thanks." He hung up the phone and grinned. "Let me call the vet and see if it's too late to have it looked at, today."

"While you do that, I'll start dinner." Isabel shook her head as she headed for the kitchen. She'd pulled out the ingredients for a marinara sauce when she realized what he'd asked Paul. 'Can we have a cat.' She shivered. Apparently, he was already thinking of them as a family - and watching the two of them talking to the vet and petting the cat, she couldn't help thinking the same.

It was late, and Abigail was asleep. Kermit and Isabel were snuggled together on the couch, with little Froggie nestled between them, purring softly. Kermit sighed contentedly, thinking that this was what he'd always thought having a family would be like. Of course, they weren't a family - yet.

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"Being here. Being you. Taking care of us."

"You've both taken care of me, too, you know."

She smiled. "So we have. How do you like it?"

"I like it a lot. You?"

"I can't remember ever feeling so... well, contented, I guess. I feel a little like Froggie, here. If I could, I'd be purring, too."

He smiled and nodded. "I know what you mean. Me, too." His arms tightened marginally around her and he rubbed his cheek against the top of her head. "Do you think we can make this work?"

She nestled closer to him and nodded. "It will be work, you know. We won't always be in agreement, sometimes we'll get angry, or frustrated."

He sighed. "I don't do frustrated, well."

"Better than my ex," she reminded him.

He thought for several moments, "Oh, yeah."

After a time, just sitting together and cuddling, Kermit asked again, "So, do you think we can make this work?"

Her arms tightened around him and she lifted her face to kiss him. "As long as we both remember to talk to each other and tell one another what we're thinking and feeling, yes."

He nodded, his expression serious. "Will you remind me, in case I forget?"

She smiled and kissed him again. "Yes, if you'll do the same for me."

"Oh, yeah." He smiled, tightened his arms around her for a moment, and then kissed her.

She smiled up at him as he withdrew, "Oh, yeah," she agreed.

They sat in one another's arms, secure in their feelings for each other, for now. But they were coming into this relationship with their eyes and communication lines open. As long as they kept it that way, they both felt that they could make this relationship work and form a family. She made his heart flutter in anticipation, while he made her feel safe, secure, and loved. She knew all the things about him that he didn't tell people, and she hadn't run away, screaming; and even knowing, had smiled at him and told him (and more importantly convinced him) that he at his worst was better than her abusive ex at his best.

All in all, it was a good beginning. A very good beginning.

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