Seeking Absolution


This was going to be part of a very convoluted and much longer story...unfortunately, the timeline wouldn't work and couldn't be tweaked so it could....however....

This story, at least, the first part, was written October, 2003, and at the time, I thought it needed more. This is the 'more'. As always, I'm using characters created by others and brought to life by the talents of some very good people, most particularly Robert Lansing - we lost him too soon.

Seeking Absolution

In every man's life, there comes a time when he must face his past; and if he's honest with himself, and hopefully he's at least that, he will face it - fearful, perhaps, regretful, very likely, but with the same courage he's had previously. Of course, on occasion, it takes even more courage than he's ever needed, before.

Sometimes the first step towards enlightenment is taken very quickly, running in the opposite direction as the perceived threat, only to come face to face with the one inescapable truth.

Wherever you run, no matter how far or how fast, there you are.

You can't escape yourself.

At least, not for long.

The last time he was here, it hadn't been as a tourist. He had the name and the address and just enough skill in the language to get his request across to the cab driver. To his surprise, the house was in a fairly nice part of the city. It wasn't quite what he expected. He looked at the house for several long seconds before handing the driver the fare and a decent tip and got out. He just looked at the house for several long minutes, dredging up the courage to actually go up to the door.

Eventually, he knocked.

The young man who answered smiled at him curiously. "Da?"

"Do you speak English?"

"Yes." The young man frowned, wondering why an American would be visiting him. "Can I help you?"

"Are you Sergi Berkhof's son?"

The young man's smile faltered. "Yes?"

"I, uh, knew your father." He was somewhat surprised at the expression of dismay that crossed the young man's face.

"Did you know him well?"

"No. I...I was with him when he died."

The young man looked interested. "Please, come in?"

"Thank you." He followed the young man into the house and was pleased to note that Berkhof's family seemed to have managed to not only survive, but to thrive without their bread winner. He was led to the kitchen, where he was given the seat of honor at the head of the table. He took it reluctantly. There was an older woman already seated at the table. She smiled at him, until her son explained, in Russian, what he'd said. She looked at him, fear in her eyes.

"Did you know Sergi well?"

He shook his head. "No. Not well."

"What do you know of him?"

"I was with him when he died."

"That was such a long time ago. Gregor was but a small boy."

"Yes." He looked up from his hands where they rested on the table to meet her eyes. "It's taken me a long time to gather up the courage to come here - to see you."

She looked confused. "You did not know him."


She nodded. "How did he die?"

"I shot him."

Whatever he'd expected as a reaction to his confession, it hadn't been anything like this. The woman smiled and stood up, came around the table and hugged him, hard. He looked in confusion at the young man, who was grinning, as well. When Mrs. Berkhof let him go, he looked at her, at a total loss. She blushed at her boldness and returned to her seat.

"You did not know Sergi. You could not have and come to apologize for killing him if you had."

"I don't understand?"

"My father, he was what you would call abusive. Back then, he would have been called a strict disciplinarian? It was thought to be good to be strong leader of one's family. It did not matter that he would beat my mother unconscious, or hit me until he broke bones, yes?"

He stared at the smiling young man in shock. "He begged me to save him, because he had a wife and children he loved. There was nothing I could do, he'd taken two bullets, center mass. One had pierced a lung, the other was a gutshot. Even if medical help had been available, I doubt he'd have lived. He said he wanted to live to see his children grow up." He spoke softly, trying to reconcile the anguished man who'd died in his arms to this seemingly happy pair.

"The government provided a pension for us when he died. Because of his death, my children were allowed to pursue their own paths, rather than what he wanted. He expected our daughters to marry the men he chose for them, without regard to their wishes and desires. Had he not died, my eldest daughter would not be a doctor, now. Gregor would not have become an artist, and my other daughter would not be politzei." There was great pride in her voice.

He'd been soul-searching for months and had finally sought peace by locating the survivors of men he'd killed. He'd searched for a number of families, but this had been the first ones he'd actually managed to locate and approach. He'd expected to be hated and castigated, not welcomed with smiles and gratitude. It made him wonder. From their description, Sergi Berkhof had been a monster, not the loving, caring father he'd assumed from the dying man's pleas to live to go back to his family.

As an honorable man who truly loved and adored his family, this seeming dichotomy didn't fit. It was too far beyond his understanding. Oh, he'd seen men who claimed to love their families and were dangerously abusive, but he'd never been able to understand it. He'd been strict with his children, but punishment was always meted out in love, never anger, and he honestly couldn't remember administering more than a very few spankings to his children.

"I see you are a gentle man. You do not understand how he could say he loved us and still be so cruel? I cannot answer you. I know only that his death was a blessing for our family. I thank you."

"I... I don't know what to say. I wasn't expecting this."

Mrs. Berkhof nodded. "May I know your name? I would like to remember you in my prayers. I see you seek peace." She smiled again. "When they told me he had died 'in service to our glorious country', I could hardly believe it. I was so happy. No more fear, no more pain. It was such a relief. You did us a great favor, sir. One we can never repay."

He looked at them, the calmness, the smiles, and the obvious contentment. He'd sought forgiveness - but this hadn't been what he expected, not at all. He'd expected them to hate him, perhaps to attack him. Instead, they wanted to know his name so they could pray for him. It made him wonder. "My name is Paul," he softly told them.

"Paul, like the saint. I will remember you, Paul. And I will bless you every day in my prayers." Mrs. Berkhof stood and Paul rose, as well. To his surprise, she hugged him again, kissing him on each cheek, and then Gregor escorted him out.

"You did us a great service, I too, will remember you in my prayers, Paul."

Then he was back on the street, confused and no closer to peace than when he'd arrived.

It wasn't at all what he'd expected, or been prepared for. When you've steeled yourself for what you consider well-deserved punishment, undeserved mercy can be even more of a shock than expected hatred and anger. He was totally at a loss. Looking back once at the house, he began walking, heading back towards the airport, many miles away.

"I'm looking for the Munez family? Eduardo Munez?" The old man glared at him and spat.

"Munez is dead, senor."

"I know. I'm looking for his family? I was given to understand that he had a wife and children?"

The old man nodded, his expression only slightly more friendly. "Si. Senora Sanchez."

"She's remarried, then?"

"Si, senor." The old man looked at him, his curiosity bright in his dark eyes. "Why you ask for El Puto?"

He hesitated. He knew what that word meant, and it certainly went far towards explaining the earlier reaction. "Why is he called that?"

"He was a bad man. A, how you say, criminal. Not just a bandito, for there are many like that. He was cruel, and had no concern for any but himself. He had mucho dinero, but nothing for his family, comprende, senor?"


"So, why you look for him?"

Paul shook his head. "Not him. His family."

"You knew him?"

"Only briefly. I... I was with him when he died."

The old man nodded. "Did he die bravely? Or crying like the coward he was?" His sharp glance and glinting eyes gave the clue as to which the man hoped.

Paul shrugged. "He died wanting to see his family again."

"Even in death he was a liar, then, senor."

"I'd still like to speak to his family."

The old man sighed and nodded. This was not a one like El Puto, this was a kind man - he knew such things. That and the fact that El Gato, the ugly one, was rubbing against the man's trousers and was not kicked for his trouble. "Come."

He followed the old man to a small Mercado, where they entered and he spoke rapidly in Spanish to the proprietor. He met the man's worried gaze calmly. He wondered if this was Sanchez? Finally, the proprietor nodded and turned to call softly into the back of the store. A woman came out, wiping her hands on her apron, looking at him with a worried expression.

"Si, senor?"

His Spanish was adequate, though Castilian, rather than the local dialect, but he could be understood. "You used to be senora Munez?"

Her expression tightened, whether in anger or fear, he wasn't certain. "Si. He is dead, and good riddance to him and all like him."

"I was with him when he died."

Her expression turned guarded as she looked closely at him. "You did not work with him."

"No. I was on the other side."

She nodded. "It is well that he is dead. He was a cruel man; an evil man." She pulled her hair back from where it covered one side of her face. "He did this because I asked for food for our children." 'This' was a long, jagged scar that ran from her temple down her neck. She'd been lucky he hadn't severed any major blood vessels.

"I'm the man who killed him."

Her expression of anger and mistrust turned instantly into a broad smile, showing a couple of gaps in her teeth where her late husband had probably knocked them out. "You are welcome here, then, senor!" She turned to her current husband and spoke rapidly, faster than Paul could follow. Sanchez and the old man both grinned and nodded, hurrying out.

As surprised as he'd been by the way the Berkhofs had reacted, it was nothing compared to the reception he now received. He would never have thought of anyone throwing a party for him for killing someone, but the Sanchez family did - with the help of the entire village. To his amazement, the entire population greeted him as a hero for having removed the evil man from their midst.

Mrs. Sanchez was one of many who asked his name that they could bless him with their prayers. It left him even more confused than before.

The same basic scenario repeated itself time and again. For every face from his nightmares, begging to live - to go back to their loved ones, when he found their families, all, almost without exception, had greeted him with joy upon learning his part in the demise of their father, husband, or son. And almost without fail, they all wanted to know his name so that they could remember him in their prayers. He simply couldn't understand. It didn't make any sense. However, those faces whose families he found vanished from his nightmares, banished by the truth of the kind of men they had been.

"I'm looking for Mrs. Bartok."

"She is dead."

"Her family, then."

The man looked at him. "They do not live here any more. When Bartok did not come back, she killed herself, and the state took the children."

"What was he like? Bartok?"

"He was a good man. A soldier, but a good man. He was a good father, and a good husband." The man shrugged. "I do not know what became of the children."

Paul nodded. "Thank you." He turned away - there would be no comfort here - only the confirmation of what he'd originally expected.

Though most of those he found had been grateful, the few he learned of where the dying man had been truthful about caring for his loved ones left him still searching for relief.

Most of the nightmares had gone, but he still was not at peace. As much as he missed his own family, he still hadn't found the answers he sought. When he returned to the US, he flew into Dayton, and headed for the old homestead. There, he talked to his older brother, who had no answers for him, either.

"But you've found peace. How did you do that?"

"I decided to focus on what is good in my life. My children, my nephews, my family."

Paul looked at him and shook his head. "I've always had those things. Maybe that's why I'm having so much trouble now."

James sighed and took a sip of his scotch. "I wish I could offer you more, but I'm not exactly in the absolution business." He frowned, thinking, "You mentioned most of them wanted to know your name so they could pray for you?"

"Yeah. Odd, isn't it? Here I'd always thought that they should hate me for what happened, but instead, they promised to bless me in their prayers."

James nodded. A sudden thought made him shake his head and a slight smile lightened his expression. "I just had an idea, let me make a call...."

Silence. A garden to work in and blessed silence. No judgment, no questions, nothing but calm acceptance.

Unfortunately, it still didn't keep the nightmares away, though they'd changed, somewhat.

"My son, wake up! Paul!"

With a gasp, he sat up, breathing heavily. He looked up at the abbot, who stood in the doorway. The abbot was a wise man, understanding not to come too close to him when he was asleep and in distress. He rubbed a hand over his face, forcing his breathing back under control, but there was nothing he could do about his racing heart.

Seeing that it was now safe, the abbot entered and sat on the edge of Paul's cot. "I wish you could tell me what causes you such distress, my son," he said softly. "Perhaps there is something I can do to help you?"

"What do you know about me, father?" His voice was rough from lack of use. He'd been at the monastery for more than a month, and at least several times a week, he'd had the nightmares badly enough to wake the abbot.

"I know that you are troubled, my son. I would like to help you, if you'll allow me to."

"I'm not a Catholic, father."

The abbot smiled. "I know that, my son, but that does not change my desire to help you. Perhaps by talking about it, the answer will come?"

Paul looked at him, debating. Realizing that he had nothing to lose, he began to speak.

The abbot listened without comment until the flood of words ceased. When the tears came, he offered a comforting hand and soft words of encouragement and explanation. As the sun came up, Paul finally finished. "What do I do now, father?"

"My son, do you pray?"

"Not in years."

"But you know the Lord? Know Christ our redeemer?"

Paul looked at him in consternation. "If you're asking if I ever went forward at a service to ask for salvation, yes. But I was a kid, then."

The abbot chuckled softly and shook his head. "But you're a child of God, now. It matters not what you've done in the meantime. You can speak to Him and ask Him for the peace you need."

Paul just stared at him, totally nonplussed. "You make it sound so easy, father."

The abbot shook his head. "Forgiveness from God is very easy; it's the devil reminding us of our sins that's the hard part. But once you've gone to God with your needs, all you need to do is tell those thoughts that God has forgiven you, and they will, eventually, cease."

"How can you be so certain, father?"

The abbot smiled. "Because I, too, was once a soldier. The primary difference between us is that I found my solace somewhat sooner than you have. But speak to the Lord; tell Him all, and if you can't speak the words again, He will know from your groanings what you need." The abbot stood up and with a final squeeze to Paul's shoulder, left him.

He sat for the longest time, staring at the closed door. Slowly, he pushed back the covers and swung his legs over the edge of the cot. Taking a deep breath, he stood. He frowned in concentration and then looked out the small window at the lightening sky. Shaking his head, he muttered, "What do I have to lose?" Taking another deep breath, he sank to his knees by the cot, bowed his head and began hesitantly, "Dear, God...."

Much later, exhausted, he slept, dreamless and unmoving for three full days.

It was never truly silent. He could hear the sounds of birds in the nearby trees, the buzz of the bees from the apiary checking out the flowers in the garden. The trees were finished with blooming and were in the process of developing fruit. He was tilling the ground by hand, when a shadow fell across him. He looked up, smiling. It was one of the brothers, holding out a glass filled with ice and fresh lemonade. He nodded his thanks. He'd learned that words were not necessary. He'd also learned that God does hear the silent cries of the heart. Soon, he'd be leaving here and returning home to his own world. But first, he had a promise to keep. He'd stay until the planting was done, he'd made a vow to God - and he had never been one to fail to keep a promise. He'd been learning a great deal about faith and God. Far more than he'd imagined. He lifted the glass to his lips and gratefully took a long drink. When he'd finished, the brother smiled and took the glass back before turning away. Paul watched him go for a moment before smiling softly and turning back to his task. He looked around the garden; pleased with the amount of work he'd gotten done. Sighing contentedly, he returned to digging the soil.

As the season of spring arrived, he was looking forward to the work. He'd been here for months. He'd found his peace and was content with his current life, though he missed his family. As soon as the planting was finished...

"Paul? You have a phone call."

Paul frowned. Who? Only one person knew where he was. For him to call, it must be important. He followed the brother to the abbot's office, where he lifted the phone. "Yes?"

"I think you'd better come, Paul."

He sighed. "Can't it wait a few days? I've got something I need to do before I leave."

"It's Peter. He's quit. Taken the brands. He really needs to talk to you, little brother. He's a little upset."

Paul frowned. "He what?"

"Oh, yeah."

Paul's breath caught. "What about Kermit?"

"He's here. He's mad enough to spit nails, pacing around and muttering about 'killing the bitch'. I *think* he's talking about his girlfriend?"

Definitely not good. What the hell had Simms done to drive Peter to quit? And he'd taken the Shaolin brands? His brother was right, he needed to get home. "Three days." It would take that long to get most of the planting done. Whatever Peter had done could wait that long; it might even give everyone time to calm down a little and stop being quite so reactionary.

"All right."

Paul hung up the phone. Shaking his head, he returned to the garden and the planting. They'd have most of the remaining transplants in within the next couple of days, and then his vow would be fulfilled and he could go and find out what on earth was going on. Peter took the brands? What the hell had Caine done? What could have happened to change him so much that he'd have quit being a cop? But... he shook his head and turned all his attention to his work. He'd learn soon enough. For now, he had a job to complete.

He took a Greyhound bus to Ohio, calmly watching the passing scenery. Although he could easily have taken a plane, he'd realized that speed wasn't needed. What had happened was in the past and there was no preventing it. All he could do was whatever damage control he might be able to accomplish. There was no point in worrying about it until he learned more. The most important thing was that no one was injured. He wondered what had happened, why Peter had quit - it must have been something serious - but again, there was no point in worrying about it until he got there and found out for certain.

When it got dark, he slept, easily and without any nightmares.

It was a good fifteen miles from town to the farm, but he thought nothing of the walk. When an old truck slowed up beside him, he looked over, totally unconcerned with who it might be or why they'd paused.

"Get in, James. I'm going right by your place. What happened, your horse throw you or something?"

He smiled. "I'm afraid not, Mr. Hardesty. I'm Paul, not James."

The elderly man shook his head and laughed. "Never could tell you boys apart, I swear. Come on, boy, get on in here."

Paul chuckled and opened the door to climb in. Mr. Hardesty had been one of his father's friends back when he was growing up. He had to be over ninety, now. "How's Joey, these days?"

"Doin' well, Paul. I've got three great great grandchildren, now. Two girls and a boy. Never thought I'd live this long, but I have. Wish your dad was still around."

Paul smiled a bit sadly. He still missed his father, himself, but he also knew why Hardesty missed him so much. They'd had a friendly rivalry ever since he could remember - first with who had the most children, who had the most boys, who had the first grandchild, great grand child, and so on.

"You'd just gloat over the great great grandchildren, if I know you, Mr. Hardesty."

The elderly man burst into laughter. "You're right, there, Paul. But your family still has more boys than mine."

"That may be true, Mr. Hardesty, but you've got more grandchildren and great grandchildren than Dad. At the moment, I've only got one grandson. Of course, I've also only got one married daughter."

"What about that boy of yours? Hasn't he settled down, yet?"

Paul sighed. "I wish I knew. I've been away for an extended period. In fact, I'm meeting a friend at the farm to find out what's been going on. Peter's quit his job and become a priest."

The elderly man frowned at him for a moment before turning his gaze back to the road. "Didn't think you folks was Catholic."

Paul smiled in amusement. "His natural father is a Shaolin priest. I understand that's what he's become."

"Hmph. Seems a silly sort of thing to do. What made him do that?"

Paul sighed. "I wish I knew. Hopefully, I'm about to find out, though." The truck pulled up at the end of the lane leading to the farm. "Thanks for the ride, Mr. Hardesty. I'll give your regards to James."

"You do that, Paul. It's been good to see you. Take care."

"You, too, Mr. Hardesty. I hope to see you soon."

The elderly man chuckled, "Only if you stick around for more than an hour or two, boy."

Paul grinned. "We'll have to see. Thanks again for the ride."

"You're welcome, Paul." With that, he slipped the clutch and the elderly man and his almost equally elderly truck headed on down the road.

Paul watched as the truck drove over the hill and shook his head. It was amazing, to him, how easily he could fall back into behaviors he'd had as a boy. He found it amusing how deferential he'd been to Mr. Hardesty - but that was how he'd been raised, so it really shouldn't have surprised him, he supposed. Of course, his recent time in seclusion might have had something to do with it, as well; his time at the monastery had definitely taken him back to his youth, when ideals of making the world a better place had filled him.

But now, it was time to return to the real world and find out what on earth his son had gotten himself into.

By city standards, it was still insufferably early. For farmers, it was the middle of the morning. There was a light in the kitchen and he could smell fresh coffee. He tapped out Morse Code for hi, ditditditdit ditdit. Then he opened the door and walked in to find his brother taking down another mug from the cupboard.

"Kermit still asleep, I suppose?"

James chuckled. "What do you expect from a city kid?"

"Well, from an ex-mercenary, I'd expect more, except that this house has always welcomed the weary traveler with peace and safety."

His older brother smiled and nodded. "That's quite true. I know that I've always felt it. He finished his mug of coffee and rose. "Well, I've got chores to do."

Paul stood, as well. "I'll help you." Smiling, the brothers went outside to feed the livestock and muck out the stalls.

An hour later, Paul paused for a moment in his work. He'd helped feed the cows and milked them, then they'd fed the horses, and now they were cleaning the stalls. He was mucking out the stall of one of the small American Cream Draft horses his brother owned. Like other draft breeds, it was a willing, docile, and gentle animal. It had kindly moved out of his way without urging, snorting softly at his unfamiliar scent. When he was finished removing the soiled bedding and droppings, he added more straw and banked it up against the walls of the stall. As soon as he left, the horse sniffed around a bit, then dropped down and rolled in the fresh and fragrant pile. Paul grinned as he watched.

"She's always done that. As soon as there's fresh bedding, she's got to lie down and roll in it," James murmured as he joined his brother outside the stall. "Let's dump the wheelbarrows and go wake up your young friend."

Paul glanced at the angle of the sun and shook his head. "I'll be surprised if he's still asleep."

"Well, prepare to be surprised. I haven't seen him before nine since he got here."

Paul grinned. "That doesn't mean he isn't awake."

James frowned at Paul, then grinned. "What, he's afraid I'll put him to work mucking out stalls?"

"Probably. He's got little or no experience with livestock, even nice, gentle ones like yours."

"In that case, I'll let you tease him about it."

Grinning at one another, the brothers returned to the silent house.

Kermit awoke when the kitchen door banged closed as James went out to do the chores. He felt guilty by not volunteering to help, but frankly, he was afraid of the animals. His experiences with horses and cows had not been good ones, starting with being chased by a supposedly docile and domestic water buffalo in Viet Nam. The one time he'd tried riding a horse, again, a supposedly well trained and gentle animal, he'd wound up tangled in a barbed wire fence when the animal had thrown him. He'd just as soon see all cattle in small pieces on his dinner plate, and all horses at race tracks, safely beyond barriers from him, thank you very much.

He got out of bed and prepared to meet the day. He decided that since he wouldn't be much use outside, the least he could do would be to fix breakfast.

He looked up in surprise when he heard James talking to someone an hour later, but shrugged, remembering that the neighbors seemed to come by frequently. When he'd first come, he'd hoped to find Paul, here, but that was not to be. However, James *had* known where his brother was and how to contact him. He'd said that it would probably take at least a week for Paul to arrive. The week would be up the next day, but for once, he wasn't getting antsy about having to wait. There was something so peaceful about this place that the wait didn't seem quite as onerous as he thought it would. He glanced down at the batter he'd prepared and shrugged. There was more than enough to feed the two of them and a guest.

He glanced up when the door opened and James came in, followed by another man. It took him a moment to recognize Paul, he looked so different from the last time he'd seen him. He was bronzed from being outside, he'd gained weight, and he looked positively robust. A far cry from the shadow of the man who'd left them just over two years earlier.

Paul followed his brother into the house and paused. Kermit stood at the kitchen counter with a bowl of something in his hands. He watched, guardedly as his friend slowly set the bowl down and moved towards them.


"Paul." He shook his head, marveling at how good his friend looked. He approached him and grinned, then opened his arms and engulfed the larger man in a bear hug. "God, it's good to see you!"

Paul chuckled and returned the embrace. "Good to see you, too, Kermit." He decided not to ask how things were going, as he suspected that they weren't going all that well for his friend or his family. He released Kermit the moment he started to pull back.

Kermit couldn't keep the grin from his face. "You look good, Paul."

"I feel good, Kermit." He shook his head and grinned. "It'll be good to get home."

Kermit's grin faltered. "You're definitely needed, Paul. The shit's really hit the fan this time." His voice lowered into a growl.

"But that can wait until after we eat. Paul arrived a little over an hour ago and all either of us has had is a cup of coffee," James interjected.

"Well, I mixed up some pancake batter, if that's of any interest to you?"

"Get to cooking, Kermit," Paul ordered with a grin.

Grinning again, Kermit sketched a mocking salute and turned back to his earlier preparations.

James shook his head and poured coffee for Paul and himself. They sat at the table and quietly watched as Kermit cooked pancakes.

Kermit's emotions were in turmoil. He was thrilled with how good Paul looked, younger and far more healthy than he'd been in several years, in fact. But why hadn't he come back sooner? Why did he have to come begging to the retired master-spy who was Paul's brother? Where had he been, what had he been doing, and why the *hell* hadn't he kept in touch with his wife, at least? He fought down the resentment and anger. He knew Paul. Something had kept him away for all that time. And Paul, of all people, deserved a chance to explain. He remembered how bad his friend and mentor had appeared the last time he'd seen him, almost like he was dying. He knew it wasn't a physical hurt, but a soul-deep wound that had festered for who knew how many years? Remembering that, his anger and resentment dissipated into nothing. Paul had come. He said it would be good to get home. He'd always trusted Paul to pull off some kind of magic whenever they'd been in tight spots, and the man had *never* let him down. To think that he would now, with his son's life in the balance? Not as long as he breathed.

He flipped the last pancake onto the stack and took them to the table. James had set the table, and both men were sipping coffee. "Here you go, gentlemen. Eat up."

James sniffed appreciatively. "Since I know I don't have pancake mix, these are from scratch."

Kermit blushed. "Uh, yeah. As Paul can tell you, it's one of the things I can do without a recipe."

"Kermit's a pretty fair cook, for a bachelor. But he's best at breakfast. Even Annie likes his pancakes," Paul informed his brother as he stabbed his fork through four pancakes and transferred them to his plate. Kermit grinned. Paul must be hungry for him to start off with four of the light, fluffy disks.

James watched his brother as he slathered butter and poured the real maple syrup over his pancakes. Considering how the younger man had been feeling the last time he saw him, it was a delight to watch him with such a good appetite. He glanced up at Kermit and saw an expression he was sure matched his own. Shifting, he snagged some of the pancakes for himself and prepared them to his liking - without quite as much butter and syrup as his little brother.

Paul was well aware that the other two men were watching him closely. He understood why, and was secretly delighted by it. He'd looked like death warmed over when he'd left, but it was a sickness of the soul, not the body. He wondered what they'd think of where he'd finally found his peace? No matter. He was healed and ready to go home and take up the reins of his life once more. He finished his stack of pancakes, and stabbed two more.

"Kermit, my compliments. You've actually gotten better at this since the last time you fixed breakfast."

Kermit stared at his friend. He'd *never* known Paul to put away that many pancakes at once, not even after a rough mission. He glanced at James and saw the same surprise on his face. Obviously, Paul was feeling a *lot* better than the last time either man had seen him.

Mopping up the last of the buttery maple syrup with the last bit of pancake, Paul ate it, set his fork down, lifted his mug of coffee, leaned back, took a sip and sighed with contentment. His eyes twinkled at the consternation in the ranks. "What? You didn't think I remembered how to eat?"

James grinned and rose to refill his own mug and to bring the pot over to refill his guests'. "Oh, I was sure you remembered how, and why, but I wasn't sure if you remembered how to enjoy it."

"Oh, yeah," Kermit agreed, grinning. "So, I take it you're feeling better?"

Paul grew serious. "I am. It's been an interesting two years." He glanced out the window into the spring day. "I was almost ready to come home when you called. I've finished what I had to do, and I'm ready, now." He turned his eyes back to Kermit's, a concerned expression on his face. "What happened?"

Kermit sighed and told him. The weird stuff that Caine had done, the way Peter had changed, how Caine and the Ancient had pushed and prodded Peter until he gave in and took the brands....

"He says it's his `destiny,' but I know he isn't happy, and neither is anyone else. I guess the last straw was when Karen wouldn't back him up on nailing that dirty cop." He looked even more troubled and then shrugged. "Maybe Caine had something to do with it, but unless he either hypnotized her or brainwashed her or something, I don't know how. The minute Peter quit and took over the apothecary with Lo Si, Caine was off on another of his searches. Seems he now thinks that Peter's real mother is alive, somewhere."

"That's bullshit," James murmured and Paul nodded in agreement.

"Yeah, well, if he comes back with someone and claims she's Pete's mom, I'll demand a DNA test to be sure."

Paul sighed and rubbed his thumb and index finger into his eyes. "Well, Peter doesn't remember his real mother at all, so anyone could claim to be her." He shook his head and sighed, then grinned sardonically at his companions. "Are you certain that Peter isn't doing what he wants?"

Kermit sighed and shook his head. "I wish I could be sure, but he avoids all his old friends like the plague. He hasn't been by to visit Annie in nearly a year, and Kelly says he doesn't even call or send cards on birthdays or holidays. You know him better than anyone, though, so you can judge for yourself when we get there, I guess."

Paul looked at Kermit closely and recognized his friend's discouragement. "Then we should get going. Did you drive down?"

Kermit looked up in surprise. "But you just got here. Don't you and your brother..."

"Kermit, James and I have spoken any number of times over the past two years." He glanced at the older man, who nodded almost imperceptibly, and continued. "Obviously, I'm needed at home, so let's go."

He didn't have to say it twice. Kermit was up and clearing the table. The sooner they got moving, the sooner they'd be home, and Paul would talk to Peter and straighten everything out.

"I'll clean up, Kermit," James softly said as he took the dishes from the younger man's hands. "Go get your gear and get going. I think my sister-in-law would like to have her husband home sooner, rather than later."

Kermit glanced at Paul, who was smiling almost the way Caine did when he knew things no one else did. He suppressed a shiver and smiled at James. "Thanks. For everything."

"You're welcome, Kermit. Go on, I'll clean up here." Kermit went.

"He's pretty upset. He's not usually so... ebullient."

"He's glad to see you, and considering what you looked like the last time I saw you, can you blame him? I don't think he ever thought he'd see you again."

Paul smiled softly. "Well, I found the healing I needed."

"At the monastery?"

"Yes." He was calm, eerily so for those who knew him well. James understood, though. He'd gone through similar fires in his life. They either killed you or made you stronger. He was glad to see that his brother had found the solace he needed. He wouldn't press for details, though. It wasn't their way.

"Give me a call when you get settled back in the real world, little brother."

Paul smiled and nodded. "I shall."

Kermit came back in with his duffle bag and smiled tentatively at Paul. "Are you sure you don't want to wait another day? Rest up for the drive?"

Paul chuckled with genuine amusement. "Kermit, I'm fine. I'm not fragile...." he stopped upon seeing the expression on Kermit's face. James looked away, hiding a smile. Paul's voice softened. "I'm all right, Kermit. Truly. Come on, let's go. I'm looking forward to seeing my wife and family." His voice turned uncertain as he added, "I just hope Peter can forgive me for deserting him the way I did."

"You had no choice, Paul. He knows that. If you'd stayed, you would have died, and that, my friend, there is no return from." Kermit turned to James again and extended his hand. "Thanks again. For everything."

"You're welcome, Kermit. Drive carefully."

"Oh, yeah."

The drive was long and wearying. They went over everything that had happened since he left, how Caine had taken control of Peter's, and everyone else's, minds. At least, that was Kermit's perception.

Paul considered the possibilities and sighed. "But Kermit, what if this is what Peter really wants?"

Kermit turned to him, startled. "You're joking, right?"

Paul looked out the window and shook his head. "No. I'm not. If it turns out that Peter truly wishes to follow in his father's footsteps, I'll give him my blessing." He turned back, and Kermit spotted a flash of the old Paul, "But if it isn't, I'm going to have a long heart-to-heart with that young man."

Kermit grinned. "Oh, yeah."

They drove in silence for a while; the hum of the motor and the tires on the road was hypnotic. Paul offered to drive for a spell, but Kermit thanked him politely and continued. Paul smothered a grin behind his hand. Kermit hated to let *anyone* drive his car. "So, Kermit," Paul began, "How are things going between you and Karen?"

Kermit stilled, only his hands on the wheel moving to make minute adjustments in steering. "I rather suspect whatever I thought we might have had is over."

"I'm sorry."

"So am I." He shrugged fatalistically. "We did a *lot* of arguing over Peter the last few months. At the end, we weren't talking at all, just yelling, and neither of us was listening."

"For you to think that, it means that you were."

Kermit sighed. "Yeah, but she wasn't saying anything I wanted to hear. So, here I am." They drove in silence for several miles, until Kermit pulled off to get fuel.

"I'll get us some coffee," Paul offered.

Kermit grinned. "And something to snack on?"

Paul chuckled. "Of course." He returned a few minutes later with two large thermal mugs of coffee and a bag full of snacks.

Kermit stared. "Uh, I hope those aren't full."

"They are. Hot coffee for you, iced for me."

"Paul, that much coffee will float my kidneys away."

"Kermit, they're only equal to about half a pot of coffee, if you're using a twelve-cup pot, that is."

Kermit lowered his sunglasses and peered skeptically at his friend. "You've got to be joking."

Paul chuckled. "I'm not. A 12-cup pot of coffee only holds 60 ounces. These are 44-ounce mugs. Besides, they're thermal and will keep your coffee nice and hot for hours. Just don't scald yourself with it, hmmm?"

Kermit accepted the enormous mug. He took a cautious sip. It was strong and hot, just the way he liked it. He cast a puzzled glance at his friend as he retrieved his receipt from the gas pump. "Since when do you drink iced coffee?"

"Since last summer. I discovered that I like it. Of course, I put sugar and cream in it."

Kermit shook his head, grinning. "Milk and sugar in coffee? You? What *is* the world coming to?"

"Change is inevitable, my friend. I just prefer to make some transitions as easy on myself as possible."

Kermit nodded, somber again. "Oh, yeah."

They spent the night at a Day's Inn. They could have pushed through and gotten back to Sloanville by morning, but Paul insisted that it wouldn't hurt them to take the extra time and get some rest. Kermit agreed, reluctantly.

Kermit listened to Paul's quiet breathing and envied him. For some reason, his mind was awhirl with concerns about Peter... and Paul. He tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable position. The bed was comfortable enough, but his stupid mind just wouldn't let him rest. He sighed and sat up.

He glared over at the other bed at the soundly and peacefully sleeping Paul. Grumbling silently to himself, he threw back the covers and slid out of bed. Dressed only in his boxers and tank tee, he went over to the table where his mug sat. To his pleased surprise, it was still warm enough to drink without distaste. Maybe this wasn't such a bad idea, after all. He listened to Paul sleep. There was only the soft, deep breathing of a totally relaxed and comfortable man. No tossing or turning. Kermit shook his head and smiled. This, more than anything Paul could have said, convinced him that his friend had found whatever healing he'd required. Thinking of healing, he wondered why Caine, who seemed to be able to heal even bullet wounds with just his `chi', hadn't helped Paul? He quickly decided not to dwell upon that little problem, realizing just how ugly the possibility was. Was it possible that Caine had made Paul sick? Just to tear Peter away from his foster family? He shuddered. He hoped not.

He finished his coffee and went back to bed, hoping that now he could get a few hours of sleep.

Kermit pulled into the driveway of Paul's house. The two men got out and headed for the front door. Kermit rang the bell and they waited. It opened a few minutes later and Annie stood in the opening.


"Hey, Annie. I've got a little present for you."

Her concerned expression turned to one of pleasure. "Kermit! What brings you here?" Then she paused as what he said registered. "A present? For me?"

"Oh, yeah." He grasped Paul by the arm and pushed him into his wife. Her hands came up automatically to fend off the perceived attack, but her moment of terror vanished as she recognized the soft chuckle.

"PAUL!" Her hands flew over him, touching his face, running through his hair, and down his body, checking him for damage and remembering how frail he'd been when he'd left two years previously. "Oh, Paul!" She threw herself into his arms and lifted her face for a kiss.

Paul hugged his wife tightly and kissed her soundly. Finally needing to breathe, he pulled away slightly, and asked, "Hey, Babe, may we come in?"

She stepped back, but kept a tight hold on his jacket, unwilling to release him until she was fully convinced he was really there. Once inside and the door was closed, she grabbed him again, and they kissed once more while her hands continued to roam over his body. Kermit was glad she was blind, as their passion was strong enough to make him blush. Finally, apparently convinced that he was real, she let him go, all but his hand. She clung to it like a child fearful of getting lost. "Kermit, where on earth did you find him?" She blushed with the realization that he'd been witness to just how much she'd missed her husband.

"I figured out who to ask, and sure enough, he knew how to get in touch with him. I didn't ask where he's been, but I can tell you, he looks great. But, I supposed you noticed that?" He couldn't help smirking.

"I'll let you know when I've had a chance to do a full examination," she replied saucily. Paul laughed.

"Oh, Babe, I've missed you so much." He glanced at his friend. "You should know better than to take on Annie in a battle of wits, you'll never win."

"Oh, I don't know. I've won a few skirmishes. However, I'll leave you two to your reunion, and when you're ready, say in a day or two, give me a call and I'll take you."

"All right. Thanks, Kermit. I'll call you later, probably tomorrow." He could feel his wife's hand tightening on his and knew she wanted him all to herself, just now. Kermit waved goodbye and quickly left.

Paul turned to his bride and stared at her. There was more silver in her blond hair than he remembered. There were a few more worry lines on her forehead, but her smile was exactly as he remembered it, and her lips.... He bent down to kiss her again.

"Kelly's off for the weekend with friends."

"Oh?" There was no disappointment in his voice, it was that soft, rumbling purr that even now melted her bones.

"Yes. Race you to the bedroom?"

"I need a shower, first. It's been a long trip."

"Can I help?" She tilted her head coquettishly and he chuckled. "Of course. How about we go all out with the spa?"

"You read my mind."

They didn't race at all. They had all the time they needed.

When he awoke, he was somewhat amazed to find himself at home and in his own bed, with his wife sleeping snuggled in his arms. It had been such a long time since he last thought of his life here. That final black hole of loneliness was now filled almost to overflowing with the joy his Annie had always brought him. He didn't stir as she began to awaken, until she stretched and her hands began to reassure her that he was real and really there. With a soft chuckle, he kissed her.

"Good morning, my love."

"Ummmmmm, I've missed you."

"I'm sorry. It won't happen again."

"Do you want to tell me?"

"Yes. I'll tell you everything you want to know. But the important thing is that I'm home, and for good."

"Did Kermit tell you about Peter?"

He became still. "Yes. Tell me what you know?"

She sighed and snuggled into his embrace. "He's hardly come by at all since you left, and not once in almost a year. Kelly calls him fairly regularly, but you know Peter, if he doesn't want to talk, he doesn't."

"Or he'll chatter inanely about unimportant matters until you want to scream. Go on."

"Well, Kermit's the one who finally told us about Peter quitting the force. I called him, but he wouldn't talk to me, and I haven't tried again."

"Fried chicken didn't get him here?"

She shook her head, fighting back the tears. "I guess," she choked. "I guess he's found his own way, and we're not a part of it, any more."

He held her closely and tenderly, knowing how much it must have hurt her and that without contact, she could only grieve for her lost child. It made him just a bit angry with Peter. It would be interesting to hear his excuse for not taking care of his mother for him. He'd counted on Peter, Kermit, and Blake to take care of things in his absence, but Peter apparently had forgotten his promise.

"I'll go and talk to him. Hopefully, he'll be more willing to talk to me." His annoyance was apparent in his voice.

"Don't be too angry, Paul. You know how he is. He probably feels that you deserted him as much as Caine has."

Paul sighed. "I know, Babe, but that's no excuse for taking his distress out on you and Kelly. Besides, what if something had happened and you'd needed him?" Then his anger dissipated and he shook his head. "It'll be all right, Babe." He gently kissed her, as his hand drifted down her body.

"Mmmmm, I've missed you, so much."

"I missed you, too." His hands gently stroked her body, but she stiffened and sucked in a breath in a hiss.

"Sorry, Paul, I'm just a little sore, I'm afraid."

"Sorry, Babe," he murmured, realizing just how much he'd missed being with his wife, but it had been more than a year before he'd left in search of healing that they'd...he'd been able to have normal physical relations with her. He'd even taken to sleeping in the guest room because of his nightmares. Well, no more. She had some aches from their passion the night before, but that would pass. At least they still had the same strong feelings for one another they'd always had. He kissed her tenderly and touched her lightly, without any intention of arousing her. "I'll go get the coffee started, if you want to shower first?"

"Come with me?" She still didn't want to be out of reach of him, for fear it would all turn out to be a dream.

He smiled and kissed her again, "Always."

It turned out that she wasn't as sore as she'd at first thought.

"Do you want me to come in with you, Paul?" Kermit asked.

"No. I think what we need to say should be private. You're sure Lo Si's gone?"

"Yeah. He's out with one of his ladies. I'll wait here for you."

"Thanks." With that, Paul got out of the car and entered the building where his son now lived. He climbed the two flights of stairs to Peter's apartment. The door stood open and he quietly entered. He looked around, thinking it looked like Kwai Chang's home, more than Peter's, except for the bits of soiled clothing on the floor. He smiled to himself at this indication that at least some of the 'old' Peter still remained. He found him sitting in a half-lotus position, with his back to the door. He shook his head, wondering if it was overconfidence or something else that made him so careless. He deliberately made a small sound and saw the figure stiffen.

"Come in. I am Caine. I will help you."

Paul shook his head. Peter just wasn't the same as Kwai Chang. The words sounded less believable coming from him.

"I thought you were going to, but I get back and you haven't talked to Annie in a year. I was under the impression when I left that you were going to take care of them for me." He felt a little mean spirit's satisfaction at Peter's reaction. First he stiffened as he recognized his voice, then tried to untangle his legs to get up and turn around, ending up sprawling on the floor in an ungainly tangle of his own limbs. Paul had to fight it, but he didn't smile.

Finally, he got his body back in control and stood up. His jaw was slack, his mouth open as he gaped at what could only be a ghost, but if it were, it was a very tanned and healthy looking ghost. "Paul?" He stared.


"Wh-when did you get back?"

"Yesterday. Kermit and Annie filled me in on what's been happening." He played it cool. He turned away from Peter and looked around. "Except for the scattered dirty laundry, this looks more like Kwai Chang's place than yours." He turned and pinned his foster son in place with his eyes. "Care to tell me what happened?"

Peter tried to bluff, but almost immediately gave it up and shrugged. "I'm following my destiny."

Paul regarded him, his piercing gaze reading far more than Peter would have liked him to. "I see. I only have a couple of questions for you, if you don't mind?"

"Not at all," Peter agreed, wondering even as he did if he'd be able to answer them.

Paul looked away from his son, his head lowering. "Why haven't you been to see Annie in so long?"

"Uh, I've been busy?" Even as he said it, he knew it was untrue. He shook his head. "Sorry. No excuse, really. I just...." He shook his head again and looked at Paul. "I was too embarrassed."

Paul's body language softened. "Why?"

Peter fidgeted. "I just was. I-I didn't think she'd approve of my decision."

"You don't think she deserved to hear it from you, rather than Kermit?"

Peter flinched. "Yes, I mean, no." He sighed in frustration, "I don't know." His voice turned plaintive and he lifted his eyes to Paul's, but didn't see the expected anger there, only disappointment - and that made him feel about two inches tall. "I-I should have told her. I know, but.... but I didn't."

Paul sighed. "Peter?"

"Yeah?" He wasn't going to look at Paul. That disappointed expression he'd seen on his face hurt too much to risk looking at him again.

"Is this what you really want? I mean, *really*?"

"It-it's my destiny."


Peter looked up at him, surprised, and saw annoyance, now. "What?"

"You heard me. Forget fate and destiny. Is. This. What. You. Want?"

Peter looked away again. "I...I don't know."

Paul sighed. Maybe this wasn't a lost cause, after all. "If you don't know, then it's not what you really want, son."

Peter jumped. His eyes widened as his head came up and he looked at Paul, startled. Paul had just called him 'son', maybe... maybe Paul didn't hate him? "Wh-what?"

Paul came closer and Peter marveled. He remembered hugging Paul when he left, how he'd said that he'd come back if he ever could, and how he'd felt that he'd never see his foster father alive again. This was certainly a very different Paul. He was positively robust, tanned, and healthy.

"Peter, why did you decide to take the brands?"

Peter gazed at him, his confusion was obvious to Paul, and Paul pressed his advantage. "Is this," he indicated the room, but also meant everything else as well, "what you really want?"

"I want to help people."

"I remember. That was why you became a cop. To help people, remember?"

"I-I can't be a cop any more."

Paul nodded. Kermit had made it very clear why Peter had quit. But there was a way around that. "But do you really want this? You said it was your 'destiny'. But what about free will? What about what *you* want, Peter? Is your heart in this? Completely and totally?"

Peter looked away, knowing that Paul was asking him the questions he should have asked himself before making the decision that had brought him to this point. "No."

"Peter. One of the things that I tried to teach you was that love, real love, doesn't come with conditions. No strings, remember?" He could see Peter struggling and his voice softened, "No hug for your old foster dad?"

With an inarticulate cry, Peter launched himself across the room and into Paul's embrace. He clung tightly to the sturdy frame of the man who'd done more to show him how to be a man than anyone, particularly his father, could have.

It felt good to have his son in his arms. He remembered when Peter had suddenly been taller than him, and smiled. He held him tightly while his son sobbed out his frustration, anger, fear, and pain. He didn't have to say a word; his accepting touch was all that was required. Finally, he felt Peter begin to relax in his embrace and he eased them both down to sit on the floor. He cradled his exhausted son against his chest and began to softly speak.

"Love, real love, can't have conditions attached. I love you, son, no matter what you decide to do with your life; just as long as it's what *you* want to do. If you'd decided to become a criminal, I'd have still loved you - I'd have hated your choice, and been bitterly disappointed, but I'd have still loved you. Remember when you decided to try out for the police academy? You were so afraid I'd be angry with you, but remember what you said? That it was one of the few ways you felt that you could actually make a difference for people? Even then, you wanted to help others. I was *so* proud of you, son, when you finally told me your decision. You didn't know, but I already knew. They contacted me for a reference. I was thrilled, and then afraid. Afraid that you were doing it because you thought you had to, to please me, but remember? You were so excited? I was so relieved when I realized that it was all your own choice and that I hadn't pushed you into anything. If that's how you feel about all this, then I'll give you my blessing and let you go, if that's what you want. But if it isn't, then we need to do something about it. If it's what you truly want, I'll back you 100%, but if not, we need to find out what you *do* want. I don't want you to be miserable because you think you have to be in order to please anyone. It's *your* life, Peter, no one else's, and you have to make your own decisions on what to do with it. You'll never be happy unless you're doing what you love." He realized that sometime during his gentle rant, Peter had fallen asleep. Smiling, he cradled his son close and patted his back.

"It'll work out, Peter. I promise." He glanced up to see Kermit standing in the doorway. From the look on his face, Paul knew that he'd heard at least some of his words. He smiled and shrugged. Kermit took a good long look at Peter and nodded. It was only obvious that Pete was feeling better, from the expression on his sleeping face, to the way he clung to Paul, even in his sleep.

"You want to take him home?"

"Not until he wakes up and realizes I'm really here. Then I'll ask him."

"No conditions."


Kermit nodded. It was what had made Paul a good soldier, an excellent police captain, and a best friend. "Let me see if he's got anything worth drinking around here." He found a six-pack of beer in the refrigerator, and a case of soft drinks. Choosing two of the canned sodas, he returned, opening one and handing it to Paul.

"I can tell that Pete lives here. There's nothing in the refrigerator but beer and soft drinks."

"He's lost weight," Paul mused idly as he sipped his drink and rubbed his son's back.

"I doubt he's been sleeping very well, either."

"Doing the wrong thing will do that."

Kermit regarded his friend. "So will doing the right thing, under certain circumstances."

Paul nodded. "It was bad. I couldn't sleep, couldn't eat. Couldn't deal with my memories. All the enemies we fought through the years, the men who died, begging to live, to go back to their families." He looked up, sadness in his eyes. "It was killing me, Kermit. Like a slow poison." He looked back down at his son and ruffled the still too-long hair. "I hadn't been with Annie in more than a year prior to my leaving. I wasn't safe, and I was terrified that in my nightmares, I'd wind up hurting her."

Kermit shivered, knowing just how dangerous Paul could be. For him to be afraid of hurting Annie, it had been even worse than he'd imagined. "I wish I could have helped."

Paul smiled. "You did. You made it so I could go and find peace without worrying myself to death over what was happening here. I'm still not sure what happened that made Peter decide to become a Shaolin, but we'll figure that out as we go along. For now, all that's important is that this is *not* what he wants, so when he wakes up, I'll take him home, Annie will smother him for a while and feed him until he's full as a tick, and then we'll talk. Calmly and rationally."

"There's an oxymoron for you. Peter and the words 'calm and rational'."

Paul chuckled. "Well, I'll be calm and rational. And Peter will be Peter, ranting and raving until he reaches the right conclusion. Then, hopefully, he'll ask for our help in getting things straightened out."

"Are you going to come back on the force?" Kermit asked cautiously. He knew that Paul had only taken a leave of absence, but everyone really thought it meant he wouldn't be coming back. He, himself, had believed that until he'd seen Paul again. Now, he could only wonder, and maybe hope.

"I haven't decided. First, let's get Peter squared away. Once he decides what he really wants, then we'll worry about whether or not I'll go back to the department."

Kermit nodded. Paul always did tend to have his priorities straight. He found a cushion and sank down on it. He wondered at Peter, he'd never been all that fond of sitting on the floor, before. But Paul was back, now, and all would soon be straightened out. He couldn't help but smirk at the consternation Captain Simms would be feeling when she found out he was back. Especially if he wanted his old job back.

It was less than an hour later that Peter stirred. Paul continued to gently hold him, until Peter gasped and jerked upright. He stared at Paul like he was seeing a ghost, and Paul simply regarded him calmly.

"Feel better after your nap?"

"Uh," Peter's eyes darted around the room, spotted Kermit and then returned to Paul. He blushed. "Uh, yeah. I guess so." He shivered, but not from cold.

"Good." Paul got to his feet and held his hand out to help Peter up. Peter grasped his hand and Paul pulled him to his feet. "Come on. Annie's preparing the fatted calf for the returning prodigal."

Peter's flush grew darker. "You or me?"

Paul grinned. "Both of us, I suspect. Of course, you're going to have to answer to her for your dereliction of duty, but I think that will pass fairly quickly. She's in a pretty good mood, at the moment."

Kermit snickered, having seen Annie earlier. The woman was overjoyed to have Paul back, and he was fairly certain that Peter coming home would only be the icing on the cake, as it were. "Oh, yeah. Come on. I saw some of what she had going, and I hope I'm invited."

"Of course. After all, you're driving." Paul threw an arm across Peter's shoulders, noting yet again that his son had lost weight. He'd always been lanky, but now, he was almost skeletal. "And I hope you're hungry. Your mom's going to give you a hug and then, son, you'll *really* be in for it." But there was humor in his tone and Peter felt no fear. Paul still loved him, despite his mistakes, and there was no judgment from him, and that calmed his restless spirit.

"You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

Paul turned serious. "Peter, I was dying when I left here. Annie kept it a secret, but to be honest, no one, including me, ever expected to see me back."

Peter swallowed hard. "What happened?"

Paul shrugged. "I don't know. I started having nightmares, seeing faces from the past; people who died and blamed me. I suppose you could say I was literally haunted by my past. It got so bad that Annie and I had to sleep in separate rooms because I was afraid I might hurt her when I had the nightmares - and they never stopped. Drugged, drunk, nothing helped. That's why I left. I had to try and find some way to fight off my demons."

Peter frowned. "Why didn't my father help you?"

Paul looked at him. "I didn't ask for his help."

"Why not?"

Paul frowned. "I don't know. It just didn't seem right, somehow. Besides, you and he were trying so hard to relate to each other, I didn't want what I was going through to distract you."

Kermit, remembering what he'd thought of two nights before snorted.

"What?" Peter asked.

"Oh, I don't know, Pete. Think about it. Your father and Paul both call you 'son', but Paul never fought for you. He let you do your own thing. When Annie needed help with that Mike guy, your father was Johnny on the spot. He was always 'helping' people, even if they didn't want him to. He just 'knew' stuff, you know? Yet, when it came to Paul, here, he was oblivious." He shrugged. "Just makes me wonder."

Paul scowled at Kermit, his expression surprisingly similar to Peter's at that moment.

"Oh, come on, Kermit. You don't really think pop had anything to do with Paul's getting sick, do you?"

Kermit stopped and lowered his sunglasses to look at Peter. "I don't know anything at all. I just made an observation. You extrapolate your own conclusions." With that, he turned and circled around Paul's car to get behind the wheel. Peter, frowning in worried confusion, climbed in the back while Paul, equally worried and concerned, got in the front.

Both men had a lot to think about on the silent journey back to Paul's house.

"Peter, welcome home." Annie hugged her gangly son and frowned. She could feel his bones and decided that he was much too thin, but she didn't say anything. She was also a bit diffident, not knowing if he was here willingly, or out of a misplaced feeling of obligation.

"Thanks, Mom. Uh, I'm sorry I didn't...that I... well, for everything."

She smiled, realizing that he wasn't here under duress. "I forgive you. Now, come and tell me everything."

Peter smiled and followed her. The moment she'd put her arms around him, he realized he hadn't had anything to fear from her. It was almost as though he had never avoided her. He heard feet pounding down the stairs and was prepared when Kelly ran in.

"Peter!" She threw her arms around her foster brother. "It's about time you came to visit. What's the special occasion?"


She froze, the delighted smile on her face with seeing Peter turned to one of open-mouthed amazement as she turned to see her father.

"Daddy!" she screamed and turned from Peter to launch herself into her father's waiting arms.

Paul chuckled. "I guess you came home early?"

"Yes. Mom called me and told me that she needed some help cooking for some kind of party. Oh, Daddy, we've missed you *so* much!" She pulled back to look him over and smiled happily. "You look really good, Daddy."

"I feel good, too, Kel." He hugged her again and murmured, "It's good to be home, sweetheart."

"How long can you stay, Daddy?" Kelly asked, reluctantly pulling away.

"For the rest of my life, Kelly. I'm back home for good."

Kelly squealed with joy and gave him another hug and kissed his cheek. "Oh, Daddy, I'm so glad." She turned to grab Peter's arm, as well. "Both of you home, this is *so* cool."

"Why don't you and Peter help your mom with whatever it is she's fixing, hmmm?"

Kelly laughed and let go of his arm. "Okay, Daddy. Can I get you and Kermit something to drink?"

"No, I think we're okay in that department, for the moment. How about we just sit at the kitchen table and kibitz?"

"I'm all for that," Annie agreed and then led them into the kitchen, where she set to work with her children to help her.

"What have you heard from Caroline and Todd, Babe?"

"We're going to be grandparents again."

It was all so domestic and tranquil, like a family reunion, which in a way, it was. Kermit felt a bit odd, being included, but it wasn't an uncomfortable feeling. They treated him like he belonged there.

When the feast was ready, Kermit had to admit that Paul's description of Annie's having killed the fatted calf wasn't far off the mark. There was easily enough here for half the station, had they been invited. Glancing at Peter, he rightly figured where most of the leftovers were going. He smiled to himself. When Annie said Grace, he bowed his head with the others, and while Paul carved the prime rib, he gently teased Peter about how lucky he was to have a mother who liked to cook.

The conversation was easy and the meal was outstanding. Finally, they were all stuffed, and Annie delegated the cleanup to the 'children'. Kermit volunteered to help, but she insisted that he was a guest, and in her house, the guests didn't work.

Paul and Kermit retired to Paul's office.

"What are you thinking, Kermit?" Paul asked as soon as they'd settled into chairs with their drinks.

"I think that my gut is telling me things that I really don't want to listen to, but it's seeming more and more likely, I'm afraid."

Paul sighed. "Yeah. I think I know what you mean."

"Oh, yeah. I'm going to strand Peter, here, if you don't mind? Something tells me you've got some things to talk over with him?"

Paul smiled. "Yeah. We do, at that."


"Yeah, Paul?"

"Can we talk for a few minutes?"

"Uh, sure." Peter looked around, frowning. "Where's Kermit?"

"He went home."

Peter stopped and stared at him, surprised and confused. "Uh, okay, I can call a cab to get back to Chinatown."

Paul noticed he didn't refer to it as `home' and was relieved. "I was kind of hoping you might spend the night here. Maybe a couple of days, catching up?"

Peter grinned. "Yeah, I can hang." He sprawled on the couch and looked at his foster father with pleasure and fondness. "So, what'd you want to talk about?"

Paul's smile faded and he moved over to sit beside Peter on the couch. He glanced at the young man he would always think of as his son and breathed a silent prayer for the right words.

"Do you know why I left?"

Peter looked at him in surprise, and then he looked away in consternation. He thought back to the day Paul had left, remembered the tears they'd both shed at that time. "You went away to die. You didn't want anyone to try and take care of you."

"Yes. For more than a year." Paul sat forward and placed his elbows on his knees. His head hung down slightly and his voice was little more than a whisper. "I *was* dying. I hadn't been able to sleep more than an hour or so at a time without these hideous nightmares. Men who'd died on missions, mostly men on the other side; they were accusing me, asking me why I killed them, why I should have a good home and life when I'd stolen theirs." He sighed. "I moved into the guest room after one night when I hit Annie."

Peter stared in horror. "You *hit* Mom?" He couldn't imagine Paul ever striking any woman, let alone Annie.

Paul lifted his anguished gaze to his son. "It was one of the nightmares. She woke me and I reacted. Remember when I'd go on trips and when I got home I'd stay in the guest room for a few days?"

Peter nodded. He remembered several times that had happened, and how tense the whole family had been until he got back to `normal'.

"Yeah, I remember."

"Well, it happened. I didn't hurt her very much, because I was already growing weaker, but I couldn't take a chance of it happening again." He looked back down at the floor. "That was a year before I left. I tried everything. Shrinks, counseling, drugs, booze...nothing helped. Finally, I wasn't sleeping more than a few minutes at a time before they'd start. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. The doctors were saying I was dying and they didn't know from what. I-I decided that I couldn't put the people I love through that, so I left. I thought that maybe, if I could find the families of those men in my dreams, I might find some kind of peace."

"And it worked?" Peter asked in surprise.

Paul smiled wryly and shook his head, glancing over at Peter for a moment. "Sort of, but not really. I was surprised with the first family I found. The Berkhofs were grateful, because he was abusive. Mrs. Berkhof asked my name so she could pray for me." He barked out a laugh, but it was as much a sob as a laugh. "That happened a dozen times, and I couldn't believe it, or understand it." He shook his head and glanced again at Peter. "Most of the ghosts, at least all the ones where I found the families and they were better off, vanished from my dreams, but the rest just got louder, only I had the evidence of the ones who had gone to fight back. I started to get a little better. I was up to sleeping a whole hour at a time."

Peter felt the moisture swell in his own eyes as he watched and listened to Paul. He chewed on his lower lip, uncertain what to do to try and help. Finally, after Paul was silent for nearly a minute, he shifted closer to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "So what happened then?"

Paul sighed and closed his eyes. Leaning back against the couch, and incidentally into Peter's touch. "I went to my brother's."

Peter blinked. He barely knew his foster uncle. "Yeah? What'd he do?"

Paul smiled, but left his eyes closed. "I asked him how he coped, and he said that he'd decided to focus on the good things in his life, his family, mostly. But I'd always had that, so it wasn't much help for me. Finally, he suggested I try going somewhere peaceful." He shrugged and smiled sardonically. "I certainly didn't have anything to lose, so I went."

"And it worked?"

Paul sighed. "Yes. The abbot was most helpful. He'd wake me up when the dreams got too bad, and then, one morning, he got me to tell him about it." He shook his head in wonder, still marveling at how simple it had been. "His advice worked."

Peter looked at Paul oddly. "But you're not Catholic."

"You're right. But we both worship the same God, Peter. Our doctrinal differences aren't all that important. Though I'll admit that I was surprised." He smiled, his expression was one of wonder and joy. He looked Peter in the eye and said, "God met me more than halfway, Peter. I learned a great deal at the monastery, and no, I'm still not Catholic."

Peter frowned in confusion. "I guess religion doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

"Well, you are a Buddhist, aren't you?"

"Well, yeah, I guess. Shaolin, anyway." He rubbed the still-new brands on his forearms and wondered. "I don't know much about Christianity, that's for sure."

Paul sighed. "That would be my fault. When you first came to live with us, you went to church on Sundays, but I could tell that it bothered you, so I told you that you didn't have to go if you didn't want to. So you didn't."

Peter nodded. "Yeah. I remember that." He looked at Paul, noticing for the first time that he was getting the same feeling from him as he would sometimes get from his blood father, and he wondered. "Maybe I need to learn about your God, too."

Paul smiled. "Whatever you want, Peter."

And there, Peter realized, was the biggest difference between his two fathers. The one by blood insisted his was the only right way, and Paul was willing to let him make his own choices, and respected him for them, even when he disagreed.

"I never expected to see you again," Peter softly whispered. "I was sure you were going away to die, so we wouldn't have to watch you suffer. You were suffering, we all knew it, but no one knew what to do about it." And why didn't my father know and why didn't he do anything to help? Is Kermit right? Could my father have made Paul sick? It was a sickness of the soul, after all.

"Let it go, Peter." Paul softly spoke, his hand coming up to touch Peter's where it rested on his shoulder. "I'm all right, now, and I've come to understand a great many things, though I don't know if I have the words to explain them." He shrugged. "I know what I know and that is enough for me."

Peter looked into Paul's eyes, the blue orbs were window to the soul behind them, and they were as calm as the lake on a summer morning. "Can I have a hug?"

Paul smiled broadly. "Of course you can." He pulled his son into his arms and hugged him tightly. "I'm home, Peter, home for good, this time."

It was a promise and a vow, and Peter rejoiced in it.

"Hey, can I get in on some of that?" Annie asked from the doorway. She'd shamelessly listened in, but neither man cared.

"Babe, you know you're always welcome." Paul released Peter with one arm and grasped his wife's hand as she sat down beside Peter. They embraced again and Peter felt that same warm, safe feeling he'd had almost from the beginning of his life with them. He reveled in it, now.

"Hey, make room for me!" Kelly said as she entered the room. She'd been studying in the kitchen so she could keep an eye on her dad. Seeing her mother enter the den and the door left open, she felt she'd be welcome.

Paul laughed and they made room for her.

After several quiet minutes of simply hugging each other, Kelly sighed. "This reminds me of when we were kids and got scared by the thunderstorms."

"You've always loved thunderstorms, Kelly," her father softly corrected her.

"Well, yeah. They were a great excuse to come and snuggle with you guys."

Peter looked at her in surprise. "I thought...."

"Well, they might have startled me, but I was never afraid of them; not like you were, Peter."

Annie nodded. "But it certainly was useful in helping Peter fit in."

Peter frowned. "Wait a second. You mean that first time there was a storm, you all set me up?"

"No," Paul gently chided. "Thunderstorms have always been an excuse for the kids to come and get a little extra attention. That first time when you were here, it gave us the opportunity to invite you to join the family. The fact that the storm upset you was only incidental. After a while, they didn't even wake you up."

Peter stared, first at Paul, then at Annie, and finally at Kelly. "You knew that?"

Kelly shrugged. "No. But it didn't matter, don't you see? It was just an excuse to cuddle with our parents."

"Sort of a bonding session, if you will," Paul added. "Remember how we'd all sit up in the dark, when the power was out and tell stories?"

Peter remembered; everyone had to take a turn at storytelling. He invariably told a tale from his childhood at the Temple, while Paul would tell undoubtedly sanitized versions of his adventures, and the girls would repeat their favorite fairy tales. They had been some of his favorite times.

"But you knew the girls weren't afraid?"

"Of course. That first time it happened when you first came here? I saw you in the doorway and knew that you were afraid. Do you remember what I said?"

Peter did. "You said to come on in and join the rest of the family, that it was all right and that it was okay to come in." He also remembered how hesitant he'd been and how he'd needed a lot of urging from Caroline and Kelly before he believed it was really all right.

Kelly sighed. "I miss those times. That's one bad thing about growing up. You don't feel like you can impose on your parents every time something frightens you."

"I miss them, too," Annie softly agreed, hugging Kelly. "Remember when we'd all get together and just giggle and talk?"

"Yes, but that only happened when Daddy was gone, and I think it was a way of coping with the fear he wouldn't come back, wasn't it?"

"Yes, but then he'd come home, invariably in the middle of the night, and he'd find us all in bed, sound asleep."

Peter remembered the first time Paul had left, with the explanation that he had a job to do and would be home in a week or so. When he'd asked about where he'd gone, Paul had explained that he did some special work for the government, sometimes, and it required him to go away for a while. But he'd always come back, and when he did, he was always so obviously happy to be back with them that it hadn't bothered him. So why did it bother him so much every time Kwai Chang left? He frowned, thinking.

"What is it, Peter?" Paul softly asked, seeing his troubled expression.

"I was just wondering why it was when you went away on your missions, I didn't feel like I do when Pop goes somewhere."

Paul's lips tugged into a slight smile of satisfaction, not that Peter recognized it as such. "Perhaps it's because I always informed the family before I went, and said how long I expected to be gone?"

And there it was. Kwai Chang Caine never told him when he was going, unless it was at the last minute, and never, ever, how long he expected to be gone or when and if he was returning. Of course it triggered feelings of abandonment. Even when Paul had gone away to die, he'd promised to return if he could. And he'd said what he was going to do...go to fight his demons. And then Peter recalled Kermit's question as to why his blood father hadn't helped Paul - and the thought made him feel sick.

"Peter? Are you all right?"

He looked into the concerned blue gaze of his foster father - his *Dad* and reached for him, the tears starting to run from his eyes.

Paul gathered his son close and held him. He didn't know what had brought on the tears, but he was there for him, to comfort and console. After several minutes of silence, wherein Kelly started to say something, but was hushed by her mother, Paul asked, "Peter, what is it, son?"

And the word 'son' made Peter cling even more tightly to his dad. Paul looked over at his wife and daughter and shook his head; he had no idea what had brought this on.

Finally, Peter stopped crying, but he didn't pull away. Instead, he pressed closer to Paul, who began to understand. He reached out a hand for his wife and drew her to them. The gentle, loving touch of the only mother he'd ever known brought on more tears, but they were different. These were not the tears of anguish and suspicion he'd cried before, but those of love and the need to be loved. Kelly seemed to recognize it as well and knelt by them and wrapped her arms around her brother, as well.

They all stayed like that for a long time, until Peter regained control of himself and pulled away. Paul immediately let him go, though Annie's hands lingered on his cheek and Kelly gave him a last hug before sitting back on her knees by the couch.

Paul watched closely as Peter's breathing finally evened out. He didn't say anything until Peter's eyes met his.

Looking at Paul and seeing the love and concern in his face, he nearly started crying again. Somehow, he knew Kermit's suspicions were right, in which case, it was his fault that Paul had gotten ill and had to leave.

"I recognize that look, Peter, and I assure you that my getting sick was *not* your fault."

When had Paul begun to read his mind, Peter wondered. He shook his head and remembered something Kermit had told him, about not taking on anyone else's guilt, as it would only drive him crazy. He took a deep, shaking breath and held it for a few seconds before letting it out. He could see Paul's worry, he smiled. "You know, you're the best dad any kid could ever want."

"Here, here," Kelly agreed, leaning up to give her father a quick hug.

"I think I may have missed something, here," Paul murmured. He lifted a hand to ruffle Peter's hair.

Peter grinned. He was never afraid when Paul reached for him, as he'd never struck him in anger. In fact, Paul had never even spanked him, and only once had he known of either of the girls getting spanked, not that they hadn't, just not after he arrived. "No, I just realized some things, and I'm ashamed to say that I think Kermit might be right."

Paul's breath caught. Kwai Chang Caine. "Now don't jump to any conclusions without any evidence, Peter," he gently cautioned.

"Dad, I know. In here," he tapped his chest over his heart, "and in here," he tapped his temple, "and finally, in here," and he touched his abdomen, "I *know*."

Paul looked deep into Peter's eyes and slowly nodded. He knew all about that kind of knowledge. It was the kind that never lied, and might not ever be proven, but it was as certain as the tides. He looked away and sighed. "But why?"

"I think he was jealous."

"Uh, mind letting us poor womenfolk in on what you're talking about?" Kelly asked impatiently.

"It's not important, Kelly." He looked earnestly into Peter's eyes. "What's important is that our family is back together again. Right, Peter?"

He knew Paul believed him, knew it with certainty, and Paul still wanted him as part of his family. The tears welled again as he nodded. "Yeah, our family is back together." He choked on the words, but was smiling through his tears. Paul smiled at him and gave him another hug.

"We'll talk about this another time, son. For now, let's just enjoy one another, shall we?" Paul whispered in his son's ear. He felt Peter nod in agreement and tightened his hold before releasing him.

He stood up. He was emotionally exhausted. He needed time to come to grips with what Peter believed about why he'd gotten ill, but it was certainly something to think about. Meanwhile, it was late, and definitely time for bed.

"Come on, I think it's well past all our bedtimes, and I for one, need some sleep." He smiled as Annie pressed against his side. Well, maybe not immediately to sleep. He kissed Kelly on the cheek and gave her a quick hug. "I know, you were doing your homework, so you can, of course stay up. But keep it down to a low roar, okay?"

"Okay, Daddy." She smiled broadly. Even though she was in college, now, and he'd been gone for two years, he was still the same, and she took comfort in that. She glanced at the clock and decided that her homework could wait. She went into the kitchen and cleared the table of her books and papers.

Peter offered to help her, following her silently and picking up the heavy books and carrying them up the stairs for her. They heard Annie's soft giggle as the door of the master bedroom closed and exchanged pleased but embarrassed glances.

"As much as it embarrasses me, I love how much they still love each other," Kelly murmured. "I just hope that some day I can find someone who'll love me as much as Daddy loves Mom."

Peter sighed, "Yeah. If I ever find a woman who looks at me the way Mom looks at Dad, I'll do my very best to make her happy."

"Peter, what did you mean about knowing something? I know Daddy understood, but Mom and I didn't get it at all."

"I-I can't tell you, yet. Not until we're sure. I'm hoping I'm wrong, but I don't think I am."

"Is it something bad, Peter?"

"Yeah, it's bad. But it's not anything for you to worry about, I promise."

Kelly regarded her brother for a few moments and nodded. "Okay. I'm sure that between you and Dad, you'll be able to take care of it." She smiled and opened the door of her bedroom. "Thanks for the help, Peter. Good night."

Peter placed the books on her desk and turned. Impulsively, he gave her a hug and kissed her cheek. "Good night, Kelly. Sleep well." He left her and headed down the hall to the bedroom that even now they all thought of as his.

Entering his room, he turned on the light and looked around and smiled. It still looked exactly the same. It wasn't a shrine, he knew, but something Annie did to make sure he knew that he always had a home here. He felt a pang of remorse that he'd kept away for so very long and had no doubt hurt his foster mother and sister. Sighing, he toed off his shoes and flung himself on the bed. Stretching out and rolling onto his back, he laced his fingers behind his head and stared at the ceiling, thinking.

He desperately wanted to be wrong, but deep inside, he knew he wasn't. Whatever was he going to do?

Worried, he closed his eyes and almost immediately fell asleep.

"Touch me, Paul," Annie whispered insistently.

"Willingly," he agreed. He'd missed her so much, her gentle voice and touch, the way she could whisper in his ear and inflame him, the soft sounds she made when he brought her pleasure... each time was better than the time before, and their love had grown through the years. It had always been an incendiary love, never harsh, but burning like napalm.

Afterwards, as they lay in one another's arms, Annie asked, "Paul, what did Peter mean?"

He sighed. He'd been nearly asleep and her soft question brought him back to full consciousness. "He thinks that Caine had something to do with my getting sick." Except in matters of National Security, he had long maintained a policy of total truth and honesty with his wife. On the rare occasions when he didn't want to talk about something, she respected his need to protect her from whatever it was that was bothering him. She had enough confidence in him to know he would never frivolously keep anything from her. Especially not his feelings.

She frowned. "But, how?"

Paul sighed again. "I don't know, Babe." He allowed the hand not attached to the shoulder she was using for her pillow to gently rub up and down her side.

After a few moments, she softly asked, "Are you really tired?"

He chuckled. He'd been home two days and if he hadn't been healthy, she'd have worn him completely out; as it was, even before he'd stopped sharing her bed out of fear of hurting her, he'd been unable to be intimate with her. "No, I'm not that tired, yet. What did you have in mind?" he added, teasingly.

"Ooh, I can think of lots of things."

She did, and he more than willingly joined in.

Afterwards, as he held her close and they drifted into sleep, he couldn't help but wonder if Peter was right?

Peter felt the touch of his father's mind and awoke with a start.



*I sense a disturbance in your Chi. What is wrong, my son.*

Before he could control his thoughts, he projected the name. "Paul."

*Ah, he has died, then. I will come.*

Peter felt only relief that his father hadn't gotten the entire truth from him. Realizing what his father had said, he scowled. This was looking worse and worse. He glanced over at the bedside clock and groaned. It was four in the morning, and he was wide awake. Disgusted, he threw back the covers and got out of bed. Padding in bare feet, he made his way, first to the bathroom to relieve himself, and then down the stairs to the kitchen. Looking in the refrigerator, he studied his choices. Finally deciding, he hauled out the leftover prime rib and the ingredients for a sandwich.

He laid out his ingredients on the counter and began building.

"Make me one, too, would you, please?"

Peter jumped and turned, nearly dropping the slice of bread he was adding mustard to. "Gee, Paul, sneak up on me, why don't you."

Paul looked at him and grinned. "I didn't. You were too far away to hear the scuff of my slippers. What's wrong?"

Peter sighed. "Pop did that mental telepathy thing to me. He 'sensed a disturbance in my Chi'. I couldn't help it and thought about you. He assumed you were dead and we'd just found out. He's coming." He concentrated on building a second sandwich for Paul, wondering what had woken him up.

Paul sighed. "I'm sorry, Peter."

"Me, too." He passed a thick prime rib sandwich to Paul and, after putting the rest of the food away, took his own sandwich over to the kitchen table to sit across from Paul.

"Milk okay with you, Peter?"

Peter grinned. "Yeah, sounds perfect." He waited while Paul poured two glasses and brought them to the table, setting one in front of him and taking a sip from his own glass before sitting down. They started eating, the silence brooding, but not uncomfortable.

"I'm right. I know I am."

"Don't let it worry you, son, it isn't your fault."

Peter sighed. "I know, but I'm the cause, for whatever reason."

"If you say 'I wish I'd never been born,' I'll have to pound some sense into you," Paul growled.

Peter lifted startled eyes to his foster father. "What?"

"Peter, it's out of your hands. Let it go."

"He thinks you're dead."

"Let him keep thinking that. It might be interesting to see what he does."

Peter sighed. "All right. I'll try and guard my thoughts. But it's awfully hard to keep secrets from someone who can read your mind."

"But he can't, Peter. You said he 'sensed a disturbance in your Chi,' that's not the same as reading your mind. Otherwise, he'd know I'm not dead, yet."

Peter thought about it and smiled. "Yeah, you're right. Great! Now, all I have to do is guard my thoughts, right?"

Paul chuckled. "You can try, son, that's all you can do."

"Yeah." He grinned at his dad and, feeling better for their little talk, tore into his sandwich. When they'd finished and cleaned the kitchen afterwards, Peter was able to go back to bed and right to sleep, without worrying.

Paul slid back into bed and carefully gathered his wife close to him.

"Is Peter all right?" she asked sleepily.

"Yes. His father contacted him. He thinks you just got word that I'm dead."

She awoke more fully. "Why would he think that?"

"Because it's what he expected." He felt her shudder in horror. "Peter's going to try and keep his thoughts to himself, for now."

"Poor Peter."

"I reminded him that none of this is his fault, but he sees himself as the cause."

Annie sighed. "Hasn't our son been put through enough in his life, Paul?"

"Well, no one ever said life was easy, and as for the question of 'why me,' the simple answer is 'so, why not you?'"

"I don't have to like it, though."

Paul huffed a soft laugh. "No, no one said you have to like it. Our job is to support and love him. Eventually, it'll all work out, I'm sure."

"You're remarkably calm about all of this."

He was silent for a few moments. "I suppose so. I spent most of the past year in a quiet, desert community. A monastery, to be exact...." He went on to tell her all that he'd gone through from the time he'd left two years before. Much of it brought tears to one or both of them, but at the end, she understood as much as she was capable, and grateful that he'd found the light and peace he had so desperately required.

And the fact that he could once again make love with her was simply an added bonus.

It didn't occur to Peter to return to Chinatown, he was too busy reacquainting himself with his foster family. It amazed him that they forgave him so easily for his dereliction of duty over the preceding two years. There was no anger, no lingering disappointment, only the joy at his return. It was so different from the way his father treated him, and he didn't quite understand, but was grateful for it, and relishing every moment basking in the love of the Blaisdell clan.

It was a wonderful three days.

Unfortunately, it was interrupted by the arrival of Kwai Chang Caine.

Peter was in the kitchen with Kelly and Annie. They were discussing plans for dinner while Paul was in his den with Kermit, talking about police work and possibilities.

The doorbell rang and Annie went to answer it, leaving her children arguing over the menu.



Her smile of welcome dimmed. "Master Caine, I wasn't expecting you." Still, she backed up to allow him entrance.

"I felt a great disturbance in Peter's Chi, and knew something had happened. I am deeply saddened by your loss." He took her hand in both of his and bowed over it.

Annie felt a creepy chill run up her spine. Her heart began to pound and she had the desire to pull her hand from his grasp and wipe it on her pants. She turned to the sound of footsteps and felt inordinately relieved to recognize the steps as that of Peter.

"Pop. What brings you here?" Peter still didn't want to believe what he did, but he wasn't going to back down without knowing the truth.

"I have come to offer comfort on your loss." But he didn't let go of Annie's hand, and he didn't turn to look at his son.

Peter felt the acid in his stomach churn and a sick feeling crept into his heart. "Why?"

Caine frowned and finally looked at his son. For some reason, he couldn't read him, and it annoyed him. He released Annie's hand and turned to the younger man. "It is my place to be with my family at such a time."

Peter was confused. "Your family? I'm the only member of your family here."

"I am your father," he turned to Annie, "And this is your mother, is she not?"

Annie gasped at the implication. "Master Caine, I am Peter's foster mother, and Paul is my husband."

"But he is gone, now, and you have needs. I will provide for you."

She stiffened and backed away. "No. Thank you, but no. Paul is the only man I'll ever love, and no one could ever take his place."

"Pop, you don't belong here," Peter said sternly.

Caine turned on his son. "Do *NOT* call me 'pop'!"

Peter shook his head. "What are you doing? Annie is Paul's wife. What do you mean, coming on to her like this?"

"She is your mother, as I am your father."

He sounded so reasonable and looked so innocent that Peter almost fell under his spell. Then he shook his head. "No! She's my *foster* mother, Pop."

Enraged, Caine turned to his son, "I have told you, do *not* call me 'pop!'" His hand struck out like a snake and Peter closed his eyes and flinched in anticipation of the blow, but a moment later, he opened his eyes to see his father's fingers a bare inch from his face, and the fingers looked odd, with another hand crushing them. His eyes tracked that second hand up the arm to Paul's calm but angry face.

Caine was shocked. He stared at the apparition crushing his fingers and didn't register the pain, only the stark amazement of the man who stood before him.

"You are dead."

"I should be, yes. If you'd had your way, I no doubt would be." Paul pushed and let go of the hand he'd intercepted before it could strike his son. "I only have one question for you. Why?"

Caine's face screwed up in rage. "Peter is *my* son."

"I never said he wasn't."

"You took him from me."

"Never. I took an angry, hurting boy from an orphanage and invited him into my home and family. He made his own place, here, with us. We love him, and he loves us. It was from choice, not happenstance, that he became my foster son. Foster - I hate that word, but when you came back, I was glad that we'd kept that distinction. I did whatever I could to make your reunion as easy as I could, even to stepping back and letting him agonize over the duality of his feelings, alone. I should have told him that I still loved him, no matter what, but I stepped back, forcing him to deal with you without backup. I tried at the same time to tell him he was still welcome, but he was never sure that he belonged."

Caine glared at Paul. "There is great darkness in your Chi. I had to protect my son from that darkness."

"There is darkness in every man's soul, Caine, even yours. The trick is to find the light and stand in it, banishing the darkness. The job of being a parent is to teach your children what they need to know to survive, and to love them unconditionally for as long as you live; to back them up in their life-choices, even when you disagree, and to support them through bad times. I never asked Peter to become a cop; that was all his own idea. He was afraid that I'd think he did it out of some misplaced feelings of obligation. When I found out why he wanted to be a cop, I was thrilled. Yes, I'd have liked him to do something safer, but he made his own choice, without any pressure from me, and I'm proud of him and what he's accomplished, so far. If he wants to be a priest, that's fine, but if he doesn't, I'm not going to insist he continue."

"He is *my* son. He will do what I say."

Paul frowned and glanced at Peter, who had his head hanging down, and a deep, beet-red flush on his face. "Peter?" Paul softly asked.

Peter lifted his head and Paul could see that the flush was one of hurt and anger. "I'm not a child any more, *Pop*, I don't have to `do what you say' any more. I'm an adult and perfectly able to make my own decisions. I don't want to be like you. I don't want to manipulate and trick people into doing something that they don't want to. And I don't want to be a shaolin priest."

Caine looked surprised, and then furious. "It is your *destiny*," he said insistently.

Peter shook his head, his eyes meeting his father's. "No. It isn't. It's what *you* wanted, Pop, not me. I never wanted to be like you, not even as a kid. I wanted to be someone who could hug someone else, who could instruct without hitting, who could love and be loved without strings. Those are all things Paul Blaisdell taught me, things you seem to have no knowledge or comprehension of. Why in the world would I want to be as cold, unfeeling, and manipulative as you are?" His chin lifted and he took a deep breath, "I'm not you, pop. And I never want to be like you." He waited, his eyes staring into his father's and he saw the rage and...something more. He shivered inside and wondered if what he saw was madness.

Kwai Chang Caine flushed with his fury. "You will do as I tell you, you are *my* son, not his!"

"I'm an adult and I can make my own decisions without your interference." He cast a quick glance at Paul, who was looking at the floor, but as he gazed on his foster father, the blue eyes rose to his, and the left eyelid closed slowly in a wink of encouragement. Taking a deep breath, he turned his attention back to his father. Softly, he spoke. "I don't want to be a priest, Pop. I never did. I *liked* being a cop. I *liked* what I was doing. Why couldn't you see that? `There's always another way.' Well, you're right, but not in the way you thought. I don't have to be your little puppet, I have the ability to decide for myself what I want and need, and I don't need to allow you to keep trying to force me into your mold." He swallowed hard and continued. "I quit, Pop. I'm not going to make myself miserable to try and please you any more. I-I still love you, but I'm not going to be like you." He stared earnestly into his father's furious gaze for a moment, and then turned away. "Sorry, Pop."

Kwai Chang Caine glared at his son's back for a moment, and then turned to Paul. "You have done this," he hissed in fury. He leaped into the air, aiming a kick at Paul's head, but to his absolute amazement, Paul moved out of the way. Landing heavily, he snarled and attacked again, only to once more see his quarry move out of the way of the blow. This time, Paul moved deeper into the house, and Caine followed, practically slavering in his rage.

Kermit, seeing what was happening, started forward to help his friend, but Annie's hand on his arm stopped him. "No," she softly told him. "You can't fight this battle for him. He has to do it himself, or Caine wins."

Peter, too, had started forward to try and stop his father, but Kelly's hand on him stopped him. With eyes shiny with tears, she shook her head. "You can't, Peter. You can't take sides, now."

Anguished, Peter turned away from the fight, only flinching as he heard furniture overturn and what he assumed to be a lamp break. He couldn't watch. No one could outfight his father, particularly not Paul.

Paul kept his hands out, partly for balance, partly to deflect any blows that came too close. Another kick to his head, and Paul leaned back, caught Caine's foot, and forced it even higher, causing him to crash to the floor, but not until he'd crushed the coffee table beneath him. Paul winced. The table was heavy mahogany and glass, and even though the glass was tempered, it shattered.

Even that didn't stop him, Caine came back again and again, putting on an amazing display of martial arts skills, but not one of his blows landed; Paul always seemed to be just an inch to one side, or farther away than Caine thought he was. Finally, as he tired and reached exhaustion, Caine charged Paul one final time, his arms reaching to encircle the older man, intending, apparently, to tackle him to the floor.

Paul met him solidly, both of his fists coming down from above his head on either side of Caine's head. The sickening crunch of breaking bones was heard and Caine cried out in pain, falling to his knees at Paul's feet.

Paul's breath was coming fast, and his heart was pounding, but he was in control of himself. He stepped away from his fallen foe. He shook his head at the concept that Caine had hated him to the point of trying to kill him, and for what? He lifted his gaze to his family, who were all looking at him with varying degrees of surprise and wonder on their faces, all but Annie. His wife's blind eyes gazed in his direction filled with pride and love. He smiled, content.

Kermit shook his head in wonder. Glancing down at Caine, he asked. "So, how did you do it? How'd you make Paul's nightmares get so bad?"

"Herbs," Caine gasped out, then the glint of madness came again into his eyes, he glared at Paul, "Why did you not die?"

Paul stared calmly down at his beaten foe. "Because there is a beneficent and merciful God." He gazed down a few more moments and then softly added, "I forgive you. For what you did to me, what you tried to do, I forgive you." And with that soft declaration, he turned his back on him.

Enraged beyond the point of feeling pain, Caine lurched up and forward to attack once more, but Kermit was there to stop him, with Peter right beside him. Kermit caught Caine's flailing right hand and twisted it to defuse the blow, only to hear bones breaking. Startled, Kermit let go and watched as Caine again fell to his knees, this time, cradling his broken wrist and crushed fingers from Paul's earlier interception of the blow he'd aimed at Peter's head.

Finally, the reality of his situation penetrated his consciousness and he realized what he had tried to do, and that he'd failed, miserably.

"Peter?" he asked plaintively, his eyes seeking his son. But Peter wouldn't look at him. He was staring at the floor, shaking. "My son?"

Peter flinched.

Paul turned to see his despondent son standing alone and moved to him. "Peter?"

He lifted grief-filled, anguished eyes to his foster father. "How can you forgive him for what he did to you?" Peter whispered.

Paul went still for a moment, thinking. "Because I can." Seeing Peter's confusion, he continued. "I can forgive him what he did to me, Peter, because by forgiving him, I break the cycle of hate; but I can't absolve him of what he's done to you, or the rest of the family. Just as you can't apologize or take the blame for his actions, I can't absolve him of what he's done to anyone but me. But I can, and have, forgiven him. I won't forget, however, that's beyond my ability, I'm afraid."

Peter stared at Paul, still not understanding.

"Peter, it's all right. It wasn't your fault, none of it." Paul emphasized his words with a gentle hand reaching up to stroke the tears from his son's face. Peter leaned into the caress, and then forward, into Paul's arms.

He closed his eyes and hugged his son, and as the taller man's head came down to rest on his shoulder, he turned his face and kissed his cheek. "It's all right, Peter, I still love you. I always will."

And the floodgates opened, and Peter sobbed, clinging to his dad.

Kermit watched in wonder as Annie and Kelly joined Paul in a group hug with Peter. Shaking his head at them, he turned his attention to the cause of it all. "You're under arrest for attempted murder. You have the right to remain silent; you have the right to have an attorney present before questioning. If you so desire and cannot afford one, an attorney will be appointed on your behalf before any questioning. Do you understand these rights as I have explained them to you?"

Caine stared at him in consternation. "What?"

"I'm arresting you for the attempted murder of Paul Blaisdell. Do you understand your rights?"

Caine blinked at him in confusion. Kermit sighed and pulled his cell phone out. He was about to dial the station when there was a soft knock at the front door. Seeing that the Blaisdells were still clinging tightly to one another, he shrugged and answered the door.

He should have been surprised, but he wasn't. "Lo Si. You're a little late."

The Ancient looked troubled and almost ill. "Kwai Chang Caine, what has he done?"

"Oh, besides making a pass at Annie and trying to kill Paul, not a whole hell of a lot." He looked at the elderly man and could see he wasn't looking very well. He shrugged. "I just read him his rights. He confessed that he gave Paul some kind of herbs to give him bad dreams, intending for him to die. Paul didn't, however, and he got a little... annoyed that he didn't follow the plan." He stepped back and let the Ancient enter, turned and led the way to the living room. It looked like a tornado had touched down. "As you can see, he didn't take Paul's survival very well."

The wizened little man stared in horror. There wasn't one single piece of furniture that hadn't been overturned or broken. More amazing was the condition of the combatants; Paul Blaisdell hadn't a mark on him, but Kwai Chang Caine looked like he'd gone twelve rounds with the Shadow Assassins, and lost.

He shook his head, wondering how in the world Paul Blaisdell had managed to stave off Kwai Chang Caine's attacks. He scowled down at the whimpering Kwai Chang Caine. "What have you done, Kwai Chang Caine? What darkness has possessed your chi?"

Kermit snorted at the gentle tone of the old man's voice. "He tried to kill Paul because he had the audacity to love Peter and wanted whatever Pete wants for his life, instead of trying to force him to become something he doesn't want to be. Wake up and smell the coffee, Lo Si. The `darkness' is green, I'm sorry to say. The green of envy, because Paul was a better father than he could ever hope to be." He glared at the old man, "And it seems to me that you were his willing accomplice, for most of it. Maybe not trying to kill Paul, but everything that the two of you put Peter through." He shook his head. "Don't think you're going to get him off."

Lo Si gazed sorrowfully down at his friend and slowly shook his head. "You have left the light for the darkness, Kwai Chang Caine. Shambala is now closed to you."

Caine stared at him in horror and a wail of grief and anger escaped his lips. "But Peter is *my* son!" he wailed like a spoiled, petulant child denied its whim.

Lo Si shook his head again. "You have lost more than your son, Kwai Chang Caine." He looked up at Kermit, "And so have I." He glanced over at the Blaisdells, who were blissfully unaware of what was going on, being solely focused on one another to the exclusion of all else. "I hope one day they can forgive a foolish old man." He turned back to Kermit. "You said he used herbs?"

"Yeah. He slipped Paul some kind of herbs to make him sick and give him nightmares, and then his own subconscious and past took over. He nearly died, Lo Si! I'm not letting him go."

The Ancient sighed and nodded. "No, you cannot. He has a sickness in his chi - his soul, if you will. I will discover what he used and how he administered it. If he is wise, he will not fight his punishment." He looked again at the broken Kwai Chang Caine and shook his head. He placed a gentle hand on Caine's shoulder, snatching it back when Caine gasped in pain. "I am sorry, Kwai Chang Caine, but I cannot help you, this time. You must accept your punishment. Meditate, Kwai Chang Caine, conquer the evil that has taken over your chi." Seeing the glint of madness in Caine's eyes, Lo Si stopped talking and backed away a step. Shaking his head, he looked at Kermit.

"He's nuts, right?"

"Yes," the old man whispered, horrified. "Why did no one see this?"

"Because we were all under his spell, including you, Lo Si. I'm going to call for backup and transportation. They can stop off at the ER and tend to his injuries, but he's going to jail."

"Yes, yes, I understand." He looked again at his friend and shook his head in dismay. "I am sorry for my part in the harm he has done."

"Yeah, well, he had you fooled, too, I suppose. He fooled a lot of people, and the others, I think he just hypnotized them." He didn't make the comparison to other charismatic and evil men. He didn't have to.

"I will go and meditate and find the evidence you will need." Without another look at Kwai Chang Caine, Lo Si turned to leave.

"Lo Si?" Paul softly said, lifting his head and looking at the old man.

Lo Si bowed lowly in submission, but said nothing.

"I don't blame you for anything that happened."

Lo Si lifted startled eyes to Paul. "You are most generous. Thank you," he said simply and then turned and left.

Kermit caught Paul's eyes and frowned. Paul shrugged and turned his attention back to his family. He'd try and explain it to Kermit, although he'd already done so to his family, but he'd try again... later.

Kermit reopened his cell phone and hit a speed dial. "Yeah, this is Detective Griffin, hundred and first precinct. I've got a suspect in need of transport. Oh, and medical attention. I think he's got a broken collarbone, and I know his wrist is broken, and some of his fingers may be, too." He listened and smiled a bit grimly. "No, I didn't beat him up. Although I will take responsibility for breaking his wrist. The rest he more or less did to himself in attempting to kill another man." He listened some more and his smile turned smug. "The attackee is Paul Blaisdell." He listened with satisfaction at the consternation over that little announcement. Word would be all over town within an hour at this rate. Good. Let them start to sweat. He finished giving them his location and then disconnected, and immediately made another call.

"Hey, sweetcheeks. Guess who I just busted for attempted murder?" He listened to his colleague's guess and then announced, "Your boyfriend."

There was a shocked silence and then a flood of questions. When she'd finished, he calmly informed her that Caine had admitted it in front of witnesses, including the man he'd tried to kill. Mary Margaret asked who, and he told her, then had to jerk his phone away from his ear as she screamed. Shaking his head, he simply hung up on her. That took care of the important parts, Simms was sure to know any second, and she'd call the Commissioner, who'd tell the Mayor. Oh, yeah. Paul was home and he was feelin' fine.

Once Caine had been removed, softly muttering to himself about how Paul should have died, Kermit sighed in relief. He rather suspected that when they stopped off at the hospital, that those worthies would probably decide to keep him for a psych eval. Considering Peter, maybe his pop in a rubber room was a better idea than prison. Just as long as he didn't get out any time soon, and if he ever did, he stayed away from them; that would be fine. He looked at his friends and sighed. They were still in the same position they'd been in after Caine had been defeated. He felt a twinge of envy, but chided himself that they were a family, and he was just a friend. He got ready to leave, when Paul stepped away from his family and approached.

"Thanks, Kermit."

Kermit grinned, "You're welcome. Hopefully, nothing like this will ever happen again, but if it does, just give me a call. You thought any more about coming back?"

"Still thinking. Have you informed the department that I'm back?"

"Sort of. Called in the transport, told them who the attackee was, then called the precinct and told Mary Margaret. She was getting loud when I hung up." He shrugged.

"That should do it, then," Paul agreed. Mary Margaret was a good cop and a good detective, but she was also the biggest gossip.... He smiled and to Kermit's surprise, came over and gave him a hug. "Thanks, Kermit, for everything."

Kermit reflexively leaned into the embrace, his eyes closing at the sensation. Most of the time, the idea of hugging another man would have been anathema to him, but he and Paul had a long history and were as close as family. He returned the hug and then stepped back. He grinned. "So, I guess I'd better get going. I'll go down and make out my report. Do you want me to let anyone know how you're doing?"

Paul grinned, a glint of mischief in his eyes. "Tell them that I beat Caine."

Kermit roared with laughter. "Oh, yeah!" With another quick hug, Kermit took off, leaving Paul with his family.

Paul stood gazing at his wife and son and youngest daughter. He smiled, content. Then, his stomach rumbled, and he asked, "So, did you guys ever decide what to fix for dinner? I'm starving over here."

It provided the distraction needed to bring them back to the here and now, and he slipped his arm around his wife's shoulders as Kelly and Peter immediately returned to their earlier wrangling over what they should have for dinner. As they all headed back to the kitchen, Annie softly asked, "So, what would *you* like for dinner?"

"Well, with Kelly and Peter here, I'm not going to get it, so how about something you really like to make, hmmm? Or, how about we go out, instead?"

"Out? Oh, I'd love to go out, but what about the kids?"

Paul chuckled. "Peter! Kelly!" Both immediately stopped their arguing and turned expectantly. "Your mother and I are going out. You two can fend for yourselves. Don't wait up." With that, he guided his bride upstairs, where they started packing an overnight bag. A hotel would be appropriate. A moment later, there was a soft tap at the door.

"Yes?" Annie called. The door opened and two very subdued young adults entered.

"What's wrong?" Paul asked. He noticed that both of them were blushing furiously.

"Uh, how about I go out and bring something back and then Kelly and I go out to a movie, or something?"

Paul immediately understood their embarrassment. "What did you have in mind?"

"There's this really good Italian place that does takeout, Daddy," Kelly explained.

Paul sat on the bed and grasped his wife's hand. "Italian, huh?" He knew Annie's thoughts from the pressure of her hand in his.

"Yeah, and then Kel and I will take off. There's a movie marathon down at the Cineplex."

"Oh? What kind of movies?" Paul asked in concern. Even though both of them were legally adults, he still couldn't get past the parental mindset on what was appropriate viewing.

"It's a classic comedy marathon, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Keystone Kops, Harold Lloyd, and the like," Kelly explained. She'd wanted to go, but hated to go alone; however, with Peter along, it would not only be fun, but it would give their parents more time alone, and it was only obvious that they wanted that. She did her best pleading look, the one that seldom failed her.


Annie sat in his lap, one arm slipping around his shoulders, and smiled. "Sounds lovely, to me."

"Great. Come on Kelly, let's get going, we need to have dinner back here in an hour and the movies start in two and a half." Peter grinned at his dad and grabbed his sister's hand, dragging her out.

They listened to the pounding of feet on the stairs and the slamming of the front door. Paul chuckled. "An hour, huh?"

"Not much time for more than an appetizer, but I'll take it."

"You will, huh?" He ran his hands up her body to her neck and, cupping her face between his hands, he kissed her.

"Mmmmmm." Standing up and breaking the kiss, she moved over to the door and locked it. "In case they get back early," she murmured. She slowly raised her hands to unbutton her dress, and then slowly stripped it off, knowing how much Paul liked to watch her undress. She draped the dress over his head, smiling seductively as she heard him toss it aside. Reaching up behind her back, she unfastened her bra and removed it as she straddled his legs, allowing her breasts to cradle his face. She dropped the bra as his hands ran up her body to her shoulders and he nuzzled at her breasts.

"Oh, Babe, I've missed you so much," he softly murmured as his hands began to fondle her breasts and then pulled her into his lap. He lifted his face to hers and kissed her, deeply. Her arms wrapped around him, one hand finger-combing his hair, the other sliding down his back to pull herself closer to him.

"You have too many clothes on, Paul," she whispered, then squealed in surprise as he abruptly moved, rolling back onto the bed and over so that she lay beneath him.

"Thirty seconds," and he was gone. She listened as he practically tore his clothes off and smiled, satisfied that even after all these years, she could still elicit such a response. In less than the half minute promised, he was back, fully aroused and totally in control.

"Now, where were we?" He murmured. "Ah, yes, I remember." And he lowered his face to hers and again kissed her, while one arm supported his weight from her, and the other fondled her breasts and then stroked down her body.

When Peter and Kelly returned with dinner an hour later, they were *not* ready to eat.

Paul was awake when Peter and Kelly returned after their movie marathon. He listened to them laugh and discuss the movies they had seen. There was the sound of happiness and contentment in his children's voices and he was pleased. He knew that Peter wasn't dealing with what had happened, yet, but he was coping. He was using their love and affection as a bulwark against thinking too much. Yet.

Satisfied that his children were safe, he shifted slightly to his side, holding his Annie closer and burying his face in her hair. Within moments, he was asleep.

Peter lay awake in his bed. The movies had been great, and Kelly's company was wonderful, but now he had time to think. And thinking wasn't necessarily a good thing, just now. On the one hand, he felt sick over what his father had done to Paul, and thought to do to...with Annie. He shuddered just thinking about that. That was too sick to even contemplate, so he forced it from his mind. On the other hand, Paul and Annie still loved him. They didn't blame him for what his father had done, and Paul had even forgiven him for his misdeeds. But he couldn't. And he couldn't understand how Paul could. He was angry, and hurting, and happy, all at once. The first two stemmed from his blood father, the last from his foster father and his family.

The crux of the whole thing was that they loved him. Without reservation, without strings, without compensation. They simply did. And that, all by itself was comfort for the other things, the betrayal, the manipulation, the pain. With a sigh, he turned over onto his stomach, hoping that maybe he could go to sleep.


He jumped. He hadn't heard the door open or Paul come in. He looked up, startled. "Paul?" He couldn't imagine what had brought him here, now. Not that he was annoyed or anything. Quite the contrary.

"Are you all right, son?"

Son. Peter's disquiet calmed. "I'm still trying to get my mind around what Pop did, and why." He shifted to his back and sat up, adjusting the pillow behind him and leaning back, incidentally making room for Paul on the bed.

Paul took the hint and sat on the foot of Peter's bed. "I can understand how difficult that is for you. You still had him up on a pedestal."

Peter sighed. "Not really."

Paul was surprised. "Oh?" His hand reached out to gently rub Peter's foot beneath the covers.

"No. I just felt... trapped, I guess. Like I was in a maze and there was only one way out, to do what my father wanted me to do." He shook his head. "Man, why couldn't I see what he was doing?"

"Because he's your father and you didn't want to believe anything bad about him?"

Peter paused, thinking, then he frowned and nodded. "Yeah, I guess so." He looked at Paul and tilted his head to one side, "But you never tried to manipulate me into doing anything."

Paul chuckled softly. "Oh, I don't know. Seems I did a lot of cajoling and threatening in order to convince you that you needed to apply yourself in school and get decent grades."

Peter grinned. "Yeah, well, the promise of being grounded helped, but your asking me when I got a bad grade if I'd done my best, and even if I lied and said 'yes', you accepted it. It made me feel so guilty, to know that I'd lied to you and you bought it."

"Well, I knew you weren't being honest, but I wasn't sure if you really thought that you had done your best."

"Yeah, and you still made me take it over in summer school." He stared at Paul for a few moments, seeing the fondness on his face and feeling the love this man had for him. "Thanks, Dad."

Paul looked up and smiled. "We may not be family by blood, Peter, but you *are* my son. Stubborn, independent, and able. Don't ever change, all right?"

Peter smiled. "Okay, Dad. I'll do my best." They sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes. "So, what woke you up?"

Paul chuckled and shook his head. "Parental sixth sense. I knew that you'd be having trouble sleeping, trying to figure out how you could have prevented what happened and trying to accept the guilt for your father's actions. Well, guess what? You have no culpability in this. You may have been the excuse, but it was *not* your fault. Got that?"

"Yes, sir!" Peter felt inordinately better. The only thing that could possibly make him feel even better was....

Paul shifted forward on the bed and gathered his son into his arms for a hug. Peter's eyes closed and he hung on tight. One of the great things about being a member of Paul Blaisdell's family was that there was never any dearth of physical contact. And his dad gave the best hugs on the planet. Even better than mom's. "I love you, Dad," he whispered.

"I'll love you for as long as I live, son. Never doubt that."

"I won't. Not again." Peter tightened his arms around his dad, relishing the feeling of his strength and love. No, he'd not doubt him again. Not as long as he lived. Paul demonstrated his love every day, and even when Paul was furious with him, he still loved him, and that was the most reassuring thing of all.

Paul felt Peter relax and gently eased back. He helped his exhausted son get comfortable and tucked him in. "Sleep well, Peter," he whispered to the nearly sleeping young man and leaned down to kiss his son on the forehead.

Peter mumbled an "I love you, Paul," and was asleep.

Paul watched his son sleep for several minutes, until Annie came looking for him.

"Is he all right?" she whispered.

"He will be."

"Good. Come back to bed."

Paul smiled. "You're insatiable, you know that?"

"Paul, for two years you've been gone, for a year before that you slept in another room, and for almost a year before that, you couldn't...." Her voice caught and she shook her head, fighting back the tears. He was instantly conciliatory and went to her, going out Peter's door and closing it softly behind them.

"I'm sorry, Babe. Hey." He gathered her into his arms and held her as she sniffled, fighting back the tears.

"I never expected you to come back to me, Paul."

"Oh, Annie, love. I'm sorry, Babe. I should have contacted you sooner."

She shook her head. "No. You did what you needed to. You found healing and then you came home to me. Now, we've got a *lot* of loving to make up for missing, so," her voice turned pleading, "Please?"

There was no way on earth he could resist her. And he never wanted to try. She was right; the last two years before he'd left had been hellish on their relationship. And it had gotten dangerous for him to even sleep with her. "Come on, Babe. Let me love you."

She smiled up at him, her eyes still sparkling with unshed tears. "Forever."

"Well, I doubt I can last quite that long," he teased.

With a giggle, she pushed away from him and ran back to their bedroom, with him right on her heels.

Kelly woke up to hear her parent's footsteps and laughter. With a smile at that reassuring sound, she drifted right back to sleep.

Kermit finished his report and sent it to print. He was well aware of the consternation going on among the hierarchy of the department. Karen... Captain Simms was in deep kim chee, and she knew it. But so was the Commissioner. So were a lot of people. The Mayor was making noises about a complete shakeup. He wasn't quite sure what had happened, there, but something was certainly in the wind. He wasn't worried, though.

There was a tap at his door. "Come."

Blake came in and looked at him. "Is it true?"

Kermit grinned. "Paul is home, yes."

Blake shifted uneasily. "How's he look?"

"He beat the crap out of Caine."

Blake frowned. "He beat up Peter?"

"Nope. Kwai Chang... well, okay, he didn't actually beat the crap out of him, but he managed to break some fingers and a collarbone. I got to break his wrist, but that was after Paul had finished with him and turned his back on him. Pete and I stopped his last attempt." He shrugged, inordinately pleased. "So, what's the word?"

Blake came the rest of the way in, closed the door and sat in Kermit's visitor's chair. "Well, Mary Margaret told Simms that Paul was back and that Caine had tried to kill him. Oh, and he's in the psych ward. Seems he went a little nuts when they tried to take care of him at the hospital. Even with the broken bones, he tried to escape." He shook his head. "I heard he was foaming at the mouth, but I kind of doubt that one." He regarded his long-time colleague. "Paul really is okay?"

Kermit grinned. "Oh, yeah. Got him home and Annie practically crawled inside his skin with him. I got out as fast as I could. He's looking good, and I guess he's feeling pretty good, too. At least I'd guess that from the way Annie won't let him out of her reach."

Blake sighed, relieved. "I have to admit that I never expected to see him alive, again." He smiled. "I'm happy for them."

"Yeah, well, there are people who are going to be very unhappy, and soon. It's time to batten down the hatches, my friend and be prepared for gale forces and rough seas."

"Is he going to come back?" he asked hopefully.

"We didn't get to settle that before Caine came in. Can you believe he made a pass at Annie?"

Blake went very still. "And we're not hiding the body?"

"Nope." He shook his head. "Caine attacked him, and every time he tried to kick him, or threw a punch, Paul was just that much farther away." He smiled. "It was impressive. You've seen Caine in action." Blake nodded. "Paul was faster."

"Wow. So, how come he didn't kill him?"

Kermit shrugged. "I don't know. I think he didn't want to hurt Peter by killing his old man. When I left, though, they were having a Blaisdell huddle."

Blake smiled. He'd been in a couple of those, himself. So had Kermit, as he recalled. "Good. Peter needs Paul and Annie. They're possibly the best parents I've ever seen." He stood up. "Meanwhile, I guess I'll go start battening down those loose hatches. I've got that old cabinet by the coffee machine rekeyed if you need to stash anything."

Kermit grinned. "Thanks, but I've got everything I need right here," he patted his laptop. "And it goes home with me."

"Good idea. You think it would be okay if I gave Paul a call tomorrow?"

"I think he'd love to hear from anyone at all. He's still deciding whether or not to come back. I, for one, would very much like to see both him *and* Pete back here where they belong."

"Commissioner Kincaid isn't going to be very happy. He and Captain Simms...."

Kermit flinched. "It's okay, I know whatever I thought we might have had is over. So, she's after TJ's dad, now?"

"Yeah. TJ is mightily upset. I think he'd rather have Paul back, too. Or maybe take over his father's job? Paul would be good as commissioner, don't you think?"

"He would, except for one thing."


"Politicians. You know how he feels about them."

Blake sighed. "Yeah, I suppose so. Well, let me get out of your hair. Thanks for the info. Paul beat Caine, huh? Wish I could have seen that."

"Oh, yeah."

After sleeping in until nearly ten a.m., the Blaisdells woke up and settled down for a family breakfast, complete with children teasing one another unmercifully. The only reaction it received, however, was fond smiles from their parents. As they sat over their last cups of coffee and discussed what they should do for the rest of the day, the phone rang. Kelly, who'd been loading the dishwasher, got it.

"Daddy? It's Mr. Blake."

Paul smiled and accepted the cordless handset. "Blake, how are you?"

"Kermit said you were back. How are *you*?"

"I'm fine. It's good to be home, Dexter. How are things there?"

"Well, I wish you were back at work. As soon as Kermit arrested Caine, the shit's hit the fan. Simms and Commissioner Kincaid have their heads together, trying to figure out how to defuse the situation. I think that if you press, you can get Peter's job back, including all his back pay. They'll be lucky to keep their pensions, if you ask me."

Paul nodded. "That's good to know. Any word from the mayor?"

"Scuttlebutt is that she's highly upset. She's afraid the media will find out and make her look bad. It's really a crapshoot, still, but if you come down and start making noise about being back and ready to come back to work...." He trailed off, hoping his opening would be taken up.

"We'll see. I need to discuss our options with my family, first. I may just take the retirement and I'm not sure, yet, what Peter wants." He cocked his head at his son, who looked up at him and smiled, then shrugged. They were still reconnecting as a family and hadn't gotten to future plans, yet. "When I know, I'll call you or Kermit, okay?"

"Okay, thanks. And welcome home, Paul." There was relief in his voice.

"Thanks. I'll talk to you later." After turning the phone off and handing it to Kelly to replace on the cradle, he looked at Peter. "Well, I guess some of what we need to do today is decide whether either of us still wants to be a cop."

Peter sighed and looked away. "I don't know that I can go back. It was pretty awful, Paul."

"I know. It looks like Commissioner Kincaid and Captain Simms have realized the trouble they can get in over this." He shrugged. "I can talk to the mayor, but think about it and decide if it's what you want. There's no point fighting if it isn't what you want. It's up to you, Peter. What do you want to do?"

Peter smiled, thinking how different his life was with Paul back. There was no pressure to do anything, only questions to help him decide for himself. He looked at his foster father and asked, "Can we do that pro/con thing?"

Paul grinned. "Of course we can, son."

"Then that's what I want to do, first. See what my options and obstacles are."

"All right. One of the options might be to get you reinstated here, and then get a transfer to a different department in another city or even state." He could see that he had caught Peter's interest and relaxed. There was plenty of time to help his son decide, and if it required him to get tough, then so be it. Peter had, according to Kermit at any rate, been railroaded over a dirty cop; victimized and forced to quit. It was possible that Kwai Chang Caine had something to do with it, but that didn't matter. His son had been mistreated by people he had every right to expect to back him, and he'd defend his son to the death.

Kermit was sitting in Paul's den, sipping his scotch and regaling him with the recent goings on at the precinct, including Karen Simms sudden departure and the arraignment of Peter's father. "It looks like Caine's lawyer is hanging all his hope on an insanity plea. I suspect that if you're there for any length of time, he'll get it."

"Well, I'll only be there for as long as I have to be. I have no desire to see the trial. In fact, I'd prefer not having to testify, but that's not going to happen."

"How's Peter holding up?"

Paul smiled. "Surprisingly well. He hasn't gone to see his father, though. I think the wounds are still too raw, like the brands on his arms."

"Oh, yeah. He's tough, though. Have you decided on whether or not you're coming back?" He tried to seem nonchalant, but Paul knew perfectly well that Kermit was anxious for his answer.

He shifted back in his chair and stretched. "Well, Retirement has its place, but I'm not at that point, yet."


Paul smiled. "So, I've got an appointment with the mayor and Commissioner Kincaid tomorrow afternoon. Part of my deal is that they have to reinstate Peter, as well."

"With his back pay, I trust?

"Oh, yeah." They grinned at one another, satisfied.

Peter looked at Paul and smiled. It was good to see him back in his gray suit and heading for the precinct. It felt good, as well, to be going with him. When they'd gone to talk to the mayor, he'd been nervous, but she'd been very friendly and supportive; especially after she got all the facts about his quitting. Now, two weeks after Paul's return, they were both going in for their first day back, and it felt great.

The mayor had called in Commissioner Kincaid and Captain Simms, as well, and had offered Paul the post of Police Commissioner right in front of them. He'd respectfully declined, stating his difficulty in dealing with politicians on a daily basis. She'd smiled her understanding and ordered Kincaid to accept his reinstatement - or else.

And suddenly, Peter had six months of back pay in his bank account. He was looking forward to getting back in harness, and couldn't stop grinning.

Entering the station behind Paul, he couldn't help but think that this was another homecoming, of sorts. Broderick was his usual self, telling them 'welcome back'; Chief Strenlich was almost ebullient, he was so glad to see them both; Kelly Blake was noticeably absent, but Jody and Mary Margaret were both there, waiting and happy to see them. Blake was, as always, quietly pleased and demonstrated his feelings by having provided a varietal coffee and fancy pastries. Chen and TJ were grinning as well in their welcome, but they were more interested in the pastries and coffee, of course. And Kermit was...Kermit. Showing nothing behind his dark glasses, but both Paul and Peter knew that their master hacker was delighted with their return.

Peter's old desk had been cleaned out and was ready for him. He had, however, a new chair with a big, red bow on it. Grinning, he sat down, leaned back, and put his feet up on his desk. The phone rang, and he quickly reached for it. "Hundred and first precinct, Detective Caine, speaking...."

Paul entered his office and was pleased to note that it had been recreated to match how he had left it; thanks, no doubt, to Kermit and Blake. He had his mug filled with good coffee and a Napoleon pastry, and settled at his desk and sighed. It was almost like coming home, only not quite as good as that had been; but then, Annie wasn't likely to be here with him. He opened the first file on the stack in his in box, and began reading.

It was good to be home and have things back the way they should be.

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