by MJ Mink
He was still riding high on the cloud of euphoria, warming in the glow of self-pride. He'd succeeded in his father's world--without his gun and badge. He'd tried playing the clown, the devoted cop, the teasing boy, the serious student, but seldom did those roles earn him the small burst of sunshine that was his father's approval. This time, he'd made Caine proud and been rewarded with the hint of a smile, that sweet, rare thing, the elusive prize Peter strove to win through every trick he could conjure.
This time, he'd acted as the Shaolin's son, and the radiance in Caine's eyes was tribute to his achievement.
It had been there when the first battle was won. But was the approval for Peter or for the young emperor?
Uncertainty gnawed at his pleasure, driving doubts into his accomplishment. His grip clenched around the steering wheel. He stared at his white knuckles. Inhaling deeply, he consciously released the tension. There was something neurotic about this--he hungered for his father's blessing, then refused to believe it when he got it. A shrink would have a field day with him. It was simple: he'd succeeded and his father was proud of him. Where was the problem? With a self-conscious laugh, he got out of the car and headed for the kwoon.
He was crazy to be jealous of a teenaged kid his father would never see again. Just because Caine had offered his son's life to protect the boy...just because the kid had been Caine's pot of gold. Finding his son at the end of the rainbow had been a "wonderful accident". But Peter couldn't help wondering if Caine's single-minded pursuit had really been for the emperor-- or for a shadow of his lost boy.
Or for a replacement.
Peter hesitated on the sidewalk, struggling to grasp the elusive thoughts. The child-emperor had been a babe when the temple had been destroyed. Then Caine had devoted his life to the search for another man's son, the heir to a vanquished throne, declaring his goal to be redemption of the family name. But if Caine no longer had a son, what did the honor of the line matter?
The honor of the line... or was it restoring the honor of Kwai Chang Caine that had driven his father for fifteen years?
There's more you're not telling me, Pop. Peter snorted and shook his head, shoving his misgivings aside. As if that's anything new.
He pushed open the door and swung into the kwoon, barrelling forward as he usually did, forcing the confident stride that said I belong here. Halfway through the stripped room, his steps were checked and he faltered. He turned in a circle, cop's senses warring with boyhood terrors. "Pop!"
Cold sweat ran across his body; he staggered and felt dizzy. He'd lived this nightmare over and over in his dreams. In the orphanage, he'd dreamt of his father's return--and a second loss. In the Blaisdell house, the dream had continued for years, though its frequency ever decreased. But since his father's reappearance into his life, he'd begun suffering it again, night after night until he was afraid to close his eyes.
Maybe this was just another one. He was asleep--
He was awake.
Somewhere, the back room, the alley--
"Dad. Dad, what're you doing?"
Have a good answer, Pop. 'Cause you're standing there facing fire like you did fifteen years ago, and you won't look at me.
"For what? He's fine. We--we took out the assassins--we cleared our family name." We. You hear me--we! "The ceremony's tomorrow. It's over." His breath caught in his throat. Flames danced orange light across his father's face.
The last time ever I saw your face....
No, not the last. But...the last time that you were truly my father, you had fire in your eyes....
Flames devoured the tiger.... He couldn't tear his gaze away from the terrible sight, save for a single, disbelieving look at Caine. It's your favorite shirt, he whispered without words. You love that shirt.
Can you throw me away as easily?
Or...have you already done it?
His hand raised, an aborted gesture. It was too late to rescue the tiger. He watched a moment more, blinking as memories slid through his veins. No thoughts, just remnants of terror, screams, the smell of burning flesh-- Father! Father, where are you? Help me!
Caine hadn't saved him then.
Strange men, racks of clothing nearly ran him down. World spinning too fast, out of control, out of reach.
Out on the street, he watched his father's back as Caine walked away.
Premonition of disaster shivered along his nerve endings...
...as Caine walked away.
"I am free."
The three words echoed in Peter's head all night. He couldn't sleep, too terrified to close his eyes. He'd felt this way fifteen years ago...fourteen...thirteen...twelve...eleven.... The countdown ended when he rose and stood at the window, staring into the city night, wondering if his father was still close to the neon, half-shadowed among his candles.
I am free...
...of my responsibilities...
...of my son.
The last words hadn't been spoken, but he'd heard them. Perhaps his quick judgement was without fact; that's what his father would say, but--
You came to this city looking for someone else, not for me. You didn't expect to find me, you weren't prepared. And now...have I become a burden?
I'm not what you wanted. Not what you hoped. Not what you wished.
I'm not the boy you dreamed about for fifteen years.
He couldn't let it go; couldn't let his father go so easily.
He could be wrong about all of it. If he didn't find Caine and clear up
--Of course he did; he found them in the morning, twenty minutes after hitting Chinatown. Cold air rushed into his lungs when he saw the familiar figure, read deception in the languid pose. His father stood there, casually talking to Lo Si as if this were an ordinary day. As if he wasn't carrying his flute case, the bundle that held his few belongings, as if he hadn't abandoned his home, his son--
Carelessly dodging traffic--he was invincible now, a small god while his father watched. Caine would never allow a tire to brush his knee or a fender to toss him skyward.
So, invincible, he crossed the street and listened to the offer of explanations and refused it with a bravery that came from outside himself.
"You don't have to explain, Pop. Not to me. We've come a long way. You've taught me a lot."
You have...do you believe it? I listened, I absorbed--
And I can learn more.
I'll show you, just wait and watch and I'll show you! Just wait, wait a minute....
"So the only responsibility you have to me is what's in your heart." It was the worst kind of blackmail, emotional. Annie would scold him if she heard. But his father-- Peter tried to hold his gaze calm and steady and succeeded... for the most part.
But blackmail was always a gamble.
"Then--then--then--" God help me get my breath! "--you must find your path," he read from the Shaolin script of his life, the scene where his heart was broken again.
No!! he screamed inside as the hand lifted. He couldn't help flinching from the small embrace. He closed his eyes so he wouldn't see the cruelty of his father's love, closed his eyes so his father wouldn't see the truth that would imprison his soul as surely as heavy chains would bind his arms.
But his courage dissolved. His body betrayed him as his face followed the withdrawing caress the way sunflowers followed the sun, and his eyes lifted to his father's face, trying to fathom the mystery and salvation there.
Still a mystery. Mild regret, was that what he saw?
That was much worse.
"Hey!" He would not be a burden. No tie that bound. No demands, no chains. Keep it light, Detective, you're undercover.
"Stop by sometime. We'll catch a ballgame or somethin'."
His acting skills-- or is this pretense? -- were still strong; Caine believed him. Peter turned his face aside as the lean figure walked away. Again. No tears, not yet, not now, not here. There would be time later. He could begin dying now... slowly, because he had all the time in the world. He had the rest of his life.
He forced himself to return to the Ancient, his movements sluggish, his tongue thick.
"...He'll be back. I'm not goin' anywhere...." Except sliding into the miasma of darkness that was already beckoning, familiar as only an old friend could be. "He'll be back."
And he died a little more...
...as Caine walked away/except for three books a ring, and a necklace made of beads, I'm alone/...
I am both pleased and troubled. Pleased because we have erased the stain that has clung to the Caine line for four generations. Troubled because I have to face Peter and explain my actions. Peter does not accept logic without argument. And explanations of a personal nature have never come easily for me. For the last decade and a half, I have not needed to explain.
When matters became complicated, I simply moved on.
But now I have a son, a burden... a beloved burden.
Lo Si speaks earnestly, but I am distracted. I sense Peter's presence. I have been stalling, "playing for time", putting off the moment when I would go to Peter's apartment and confront him. Now the opportunity for privacy has passed.
Perhaps it is better this way. Peter's pride will not allow a public display of grief or rage. He will show his strength.
I watch him run across the street--heedless of traffic, does he think he is invincible, that my resurrection has made him immune to tragedy? For a passing second, I am irritated by his faith in me. The feeling does me no honor. I shift my gaze away, pretend I do not see him until he speaks.
I watch while his heart breaks.
Six months had passed, time that should have given him more perspective for he had spent much of it in quiet contemplation. Many years ago, his path had pointed to Shambhala, but the loss of his son had crippled his conviction and consumed his strength. Now Peter was back in his life, in need and ripe with promise. Was his path to instruct Peter, or should he turn again to his destiny as a Shambhala master? Both choices required indefinite commitment.
The choices were clear... destiny or love, but the decision was clouded.
A Shambhala master was committed to fighting evil in all its guises, for the greater good of humanity. To teach his son--was that the selfish choice? With instruction, would Peter's path someday also lead to Shambhala, or would teaching Peter prevent both of them from masterhood and reduce the forces of Good? It was an old truth that two very different paths were sometimes identical.
He had been considering for six months. Now the Chi'Ru were forcing him into a decision.
"I do." He stood in the hospital corridor, legs planted firm and unbending like tree trunks.
A stranger who wears my son's clothes lifts his head. His eyes-- his face--
This cannot be my beautiful child.
Caine waited while Peter approached. This was not the reception he'd expected. There were no arms flung around him, no delighted smile, no tears of happiness. Just the numb stare of an animal paralyzed by oncoming headlights. Waiting for the inevitable collision and its inevitable aftermath.
This was not the robust, expansive son he'd left behind. This man's eyes were haunted, his face haggard, his body stripped of excess, too thin, too fragile. No courage shone like a beacon to lead others, no irrepressible humor reflected in dark eyes that held sorrow as a treasured possession. No smile touched the tight lips.
In all his contemplating, one thing he'd forgotten: he'd left Peter alone with his nightmares.
Caine was momentarily stunned. "We must talk." Gently, he took his son's elbow.
Outside, he inhaled the crisp, fresh air again. With caution, he draped one arm around Peter's shoulders. The boy's fists were clenched and jammed in his pockets, a symbol of his pain.
"Will he be all right?" Politeness dictated that he inquire after Blaisdell first, though he quickly shifted to his real question. "Are you all right, my son?"
The voice was low, the tone despondent. A lie came easily to Peter's lips, but it dissolved just as quickly. Caine listened keenly as a whisper of Peter's despair was revealed.
"I hope I am not responsible for any of your pain," he offered tentatively. How could he be? He was the father of the long-ago child, while Peter had fifteen years' worth of friends, a family, another father to care for him--
Those misconceptions vanished when Peter sent him a tense, quick glance full of anger and despair and grief that twisted like a blade slipped into his heart.
"I have been... walking... learning." His voice trailed off when he saw Peter's reaction. His response was unsatisfactory to his son, and he could almost hear Peter's voice-- You left me because you wanted to walk?
Peter was not Shaolin, not yet. How could he be expected to understand?
Peter asked him the question he now dreaded, but his answer had to be honest: "I am back because... the Chi'Ru master has returned."
Thick lashes lower quickly, dropping a veil between me and the sadness and anger he believes I will read in their depths. But his face reveals all. The bitter, chill wind of his despair sweeps over me and I fear.... Have we lost all we had gained?
He thinks I would never have returned. I would, eventually, but--
"Perhaps not so soon." He wondered if Peter saw the promise in the words. He continued, speaking of the Chi'Ru-- he wanted to talk of Peter, but the danger they faced was too great to devote energy to emotions. Later... and with great care... they would talk of themselves.
He wondered how long it would take to repair this wound.
And realized that it didn't matter. They had their lifetimes and beyond.
Peter's pain vibrated the bench where they sat, his gestures spoke of fear and heartache. He cared nothing for patience and lifetimes of opportunities. Peter was now, living as he always had, gathering to him the pain of the moment, the pain of the past, the unlimited pain of the future.
Peter's agony raced across Caine's open senses, connecting them for an instant, and he was dazed by its intensity. He reached across and curled his grip around his son's shoulder. He felt the rapid pounding of the pulse against his arm.
"You are disturbed," he said, offering the citadel of his strength as shelter.
Nightmares, more, too many. Filled with a terror so primal, he broke their contact, startled and deeply worried. "I hope I am not responsible for these dreams." To cause Peter pain, to create the demons he had always feared the most, his dragons--
This cannot be borne.
Not causing them-- but in them, Peter confessed, not understanding. Perhaps ignorance was a blessing. But pretense was unwise between them.
He interpreted the fear: "Unable to rescue you."
Recognition flared in his son's brief sweep of his gaze.
Fierceness strengthened his sorrow. "You will never be alone again." For a moment, he raged at Peter's lost path, then his being filled with renewed determination. "I will always be there for you."
It was not an explanation Peter understood. His son wanted the flesh-and-blood father, not a spectral advisor. But it would begin the healing. Peter offered a reluctant hug. Caine's fingers dug into his son's back, and he sighed with the satisfaction of touching such tenderness. But Peter's grasp was loose and tentative.
He is afraid to accept my love.
They walked the streets of Chinatown together, victors for the moment, talking of Chi'Ru, until Peter asked his hesitant question. He didn't wait for an answer; already he was planning his father's departure and his own mourning.
Destiny or love.... When they stood side by side and he faced them, the decision was simple. This day, the forces of evil could not overshadow the sadness in Peter's eyes. He could make no other decision, could do no less for his lost son.
And, perhaps, for himself.
Caine raised his hand, but the flow of words did not cease for several moments. "I will stay."
A smile flashed across Peter's face, the first one since their reunion. It vanished before Caine could snare it and hold it in memory for the angry times.
He wants more--always! Such is Peter.
He wants a commitment that is impossible.
"I have time. For inner search, reassessment of my values...." Not the answer Peter yearns to hear.
"To... get to know my son," he added compassionately, a gift for both of them.
The ring came off Peter's finger and was raised with purpose. The smile flickered back, shakey, uncertain.
"That is for your children." But your intention is clear. If not a verbal commitment, then a more physical one. And what is more symbolic of commitment than a ring? I must allow this, for I cannot allow your heart to break again. No matter what my path, I cannot stand here and watch you bleed to death on a sunny Chinatown street.
You slip the chain onto my finger and tighten the links.
From you I feel... relief. And... lingering wariness.
"I will keep it for you." This small, immense thing he could do for his son, though Peter did not yet understand how truth could also be false.
Later, alone, he stood in the sunshine of his new rooms and stepped into the chaos and freshness that was Chinatown. "It is... good to be back," he finally admitted to his son and himself.
It was right to be back. With a smile, he turned around and began to put his home in order.