It didn't take a mystic or a Shaolin priest's brands to know that Lo Si was bursting with a secret. Peter watched him closely, wondering what more could possibly rock his world. The last day had been unreal. The image of his father, his head shaved, leaving again, was seared into his brain. He had two sets of brands now: the ones on his arms and the ones in his mind.
His arms were on fire, pulsating pain that throbbed around the edges of his consciousness despite the herbal mixture the Ancient had provided.
The trick is in not caring that it hurts.
He was Shaolin now; he would learn not to care.
"Lo Si? Whatever it is--just tell me."
The little man's face was solemn. "Very well. Sit down, Peter."
He didn't bother to argue; he sat and rested his arms on his knees--then immediately raised them, blinking away involuntary tears.
"Do you wish more--"
"No. Just...tell me."
Lo Si sat beside him. "Peter...at the temple--"
Understanding flashed through him; perhaps he'd always known. He raised his hand to stop the words. "You're going to tell me you're Ping Hai, aren't you?"
More tears, from another source. He forced them inward. He had always been too generous with his grief; his tears would not be shared again.
The trick is in learning not to care.
"How did you know?"
"I'm a cop, remember?" He bit off the words. "Sorry--was a cop."
"Peter, do not be angry. What I did was--"
"For my own good, right?"
"Yes, it was." The Ancient regained his composure and lifted the teapot. "Tea?"
Peter laughed shortly. "No, thanks." He stared at the delicate flowers painted on the china. They were faded and pale, the color of a winter sky. Once, he supposed, they had been bright, like the springtime he could barely remember.
"Tan would have killed both you and your father. The two of you, together, could not have remained hidden from him. Your father's pride had to be crushed, he had to believe you were dead. Separated from you, your father would not be the same man, so Tan could never find him. There was no other way."
There is always another way, my son.
"That's not the only reason," Peter said in a low voice. "What else, Lo Si?"
The old man remained silent while he poured tea for himself and slowly sipped it.
"It's my right to know."
The Ancient sighed. "Peter...each of us has his own destiny."
"And yours is to continually interfere with mine?"
"You are bitter."
He stood. "Bingo! The man hit the jackpot."
"It was necessary."
"Finish it." He loomed over the smaller man, though he knew Lo Si wouldn't be intimidated. He couldn't help it; it was a cop stance, and it was in his blood.
"You needed to learn more. Things you could not learn in the temple or at your father's side."
"So you tore me away from my world."
"It was not me," insisted Lo Si--Ping Hai-- Peter didn't know what the hell to call him. "It was Destiny."
"Right. Well, thanks for telling me. Better late than never, right?" He paced to the door and paused with his hand on the knob. "One more thing. How much does my father know?"
The little man stared into his teacup.
Lo Si poured more tea.
"He knows you're Ping Hai."
"Has he known from the beginning?"
"There is no beginning, Peter, and no end."
"Ah--" He waved his hand in dismissal. "Don't give me that cryptic shit. Did he know when he came here, when he saved you from the fire?"
"Peter, you must not let anger control you. It is--"
"Oh, I'm not angry, Lo Si. Ping Hai. Lo Hai--how about I call you that?" He laughed and was unnerved by the sharp edge to the sound. "Tell me what my father knew. That I was alive all those years? Was he part of this--this plot of yours?"
"No! And-- It was not a plot, Peter, but a lesson. You misunderstand--"
"I understand perfectly." He stared at the blankness of the door. "My life has not been considered my own. You think it's part of some divine plan. A plan only you could put into motion. My feelings are irrelevant. My father's pain was irrelevant. All that matters to you is the result--another Shaolin and another Shamballah master to add to the cosmic list. I understand. But," he looked directly at the old man, "I do not approve."
He opened the door and walked through it.
THREE MONTHS LATER...
When he recognized the passing countryside, the street signs...saw the skyline in the distance...the beautiful city across the water, the mountains looming behind it.... Kwai Chang Caine knew he was home. There had been many years when he had been certain he would never again call anywhere 'home'. The temple had been his last sanctuary, a place of great joy and great sorrow, a place of peace and anger.
He remembered the first time he had come to this city, twelve years earlier. He had been drawn to it without knowing why and had left without finding the answer. If only he had known....
No, he must have no more doubts. He had to believe that the time had not been right. That Peter had not been ready.
But Peter was here now. And with no trace of his beloved wife remaining, Caine was returning to his true home, his son.
It took the last of his money to buy passage on the ferry. He stood at the bow, lifting his face to the cool spray of the water and the emerging warmth of the spring sun. He closed his eyes and felt for his son, found the golden ray that was Peter. He sensed that Jordan was no longer beside his son. No one was beside Peter...he was alone again, his worst fear.
The Ancient's personality shone bold and strong and--troubled.
All had not gone well.
He should have stayed. He should not have chased his impossible ghost-- It had only brought him to face another old enemy, fight a battle that he had fought before. Perhaps now he had truly laid his ghost to rest. And perhaps now he could get answers from the Ancient.
...until you were ready...until Peter was ready....
He had thought Peter was ready.
He wasn't. Caine could sense that before he set foot on the ground at the busy dock. He hiked his duffel bag higher on his shoulder as he strode down the ramp. First, Peter. Lo Si's troubles would wait.
* * *
Peter sensed his father immediately. At least it wasn't like the old days, full of surprises. Now he had warning, time to prepare himself. He smiled faintly. Used to be he worried about preparing himself for his father's departures. Now he had to strengthen his resolve for Caine's return.
He concentrated on the mixture he was making for Mrs. Lee. Extreme herbing had never become his number one sport, and he would be relieved to return that particular chore to his father. He bottled the smelly concoction and packed it in his pouch. "I look like my father," he muttered to the plants on the countertop. "Except I still have hair." And no hat.
At first, he'd tried carrying the medicines in a briefcase that Kermit loaned him. It had looked ridiculous. Jordan had offered a black leather purse, but he finally surrendered to the inevitable and bought a Western-style pouch. After he snipped off the fringe, it was perfect. And exactly like his father's bag.
He lingered with Mrs. Lee, giving her unnecessary instructions and eating the tea cookies she liked to bake for him. He lingered in the shops and in the streets, listening to everyone's woes and joys. He lingered for over an hour before he felt renewed enough to face his father.
The fire escape beckoned, and he climbed it silently. In his pre-Shaolin days, he'd made enough noise clattering up the steps to wake the neighborhood. Now he walked like a shadow on rice paper.
Caine was on the balcony inspecting the plants.
"My son." The voice was full of pleasure, and the arms opened for him.
He endured the embrace like a good child, then stepped back, studying the older man. "You look like Strenlich," he commented, eyeing the stubby growth on Caine's head.
His father shrugged.
"Same old Dad, full of words," Peter said lightly. He went inside and put his pouch on the kitchen table. Caine followed him indoors. "How was your trip?"
"It was...as I expected."
"Really? Then why did you go?" He was proud of the way his voice sounded; cool, but not brittle.
"Laura...I had to be certain."
"Oh, yeah? I didn't realize anything was certain." He noticed the duffel bag was gone. "Unpacked already? Look, I had to give up the lease on my place--no income, you know--but I'll be out of here as soon as I find somewhere to go."
"You do not need to leave."
"Great. So you're moving out, huh?"
Caine removed his hat. "Peter, we must talk."
"You need a new writer, Dad. You've used that line too many times."
"New writer," he said again. He pulled a beer out of the fridge. "Drink?" Without waiting for an answer, he twisted the cap off and gulped down several mouthfuls. Then he leaned against the counter and faced his father.
"I'm not angry. I'm Shaolin, remember? I've learned my lesson. I've learned not to care."
Caine's brow creased. "There is...no such lesson."
"Sure there is, Dad. Don't you remember?" He closed his eyes and quoted as closely as he remembered: " 'The trick is in learning not to care about the pain.' Isn't that right?"
"Are you in pain?"
"Actually, I'm much better, thanks for asking." He shed his jacket and revealed his forearms. "They turned out pretty well, don't you think?" He studied his dragon and tiger. Scales and stripes. Curling tails. Narrow, predatory eyes.
His father caught his wrists and studied the brands. "Beautiful, my son."
Thumbs moved across his pulse points, and he flinched, freeing himself. "You must be thirsty. How about a glass of water?"
"It is not necessary. Peter...tell me what troubles you."
"I thought you knew everything, Dad." He retrieved the jacket and carried it to the closet, draping it over a hangar with more care than he usually used.
"It is about...Ping Hai."
"Smart man, my father, my Shaolin-Shamballah-father."
"Peter," said the voice, so close behind him he nearly jumped.
"You can still sneak up on me! How about that," he said brightly.
Hand on his neck, kneading the tension. He suffered the touch, neither pulling away nor moving with the caress.
"You are angry with him. And with me."
"No." The massage worked; the taut muscles began to relax. "I'm not angry. I'm...without trust."
The fingers faltered, then resumed their gentle movement. "It is a sad thing for a man to lose trust. Without trust, there is nothing."
"Yeah." This time he pulled away and faced his father. "Tell me about it. 'Cause it seems like you lost your trust a long time ago. That's why you never had any to give me."
"I have always trusted you, Peter."
"No, you have never trusted me," he mimicked with savage mockery. "You've lied to me since you came here. You knew Lo Si and Ping Hai were the same man. You knew he was responsible for separating us--and you knew why. You knew my destiny and wouldn't tell me. You lied to me."
"I did not lie."
He pointed a finger at his father's chest. "I got news for you. A lie by omission is still a lie. You knew and you told me nothing. Lies, Father."
He half-expected the head to bow in humility, for his father to ask forgiveness. Instead, he got the Tiger.
"You have never been an obedient child. An obedient child would honor the truth. You argued always--you fought--you denied-- You would have destroyed the plans. Destroyed your future. You would have destroyed your path to the Way."
"And what if I had?" Peter asked coolly. "The world would have had one less Shaolin priest-- so what?"
Caine moved so quickly that Peter anticipated being struck and ducked. He wasn't fast enough. Hands caught his face and held him immobile. "Whoa, Dad!" To his dismay, his voice trembled. "I thought you confronted your anger and, uh...neutralized it or somethin'."
"I accepted it." The fury was there, controlled, but audible. "Do not mock your destiny. More fates than yours reside within it."
"Really." He knocked the hands aside, knowing he was set free only because his father allowed it. Kwai Chang Caine was not a man he ever wanted to fight. For more reasons than two. "So... obviously this place isn't big enough for both of us."
The Shamballah master was back, not as humble and self-effacing as he used to be, Peter noticed.
"I will live elsewhere," Caine said.
"Terrific." Peter smiled. "Why don't you move in with Mary Margaret? Make her fall in love with you the rest of the way. Then-- Hey, how about telling her that her destiny is to become a nun? She's a good Catholic girl--that should tie her up in knots for years."
His father's enormous self-control was so close to the surface that it was nearly visible. Despite his resolve, Peter took a step backward. Caine's eyes bored into him.
"A Shaolin should know peace. You know only anger. You are filled with rage."
"And you're not?" he taunted. With a spurt of daring, he held up his arms. "You know why my brands look so good? 'Cause they're not from just the cauldron. I'm burning inside, the Tiger and Dragon are on fire, clawing their way out. I'm on fire, Father. Will you admit now that you made a mistake with me?"
Iron fingers curled around his wrists and held him immobile. Caine lifted the wrists and pressed the brands against either side of his own face. "Your anger causes you to believe you hate me. If this is true, then the fire in your heart will burn me."
He tried to pull free, but the grip tightened. "Don't."
"Burn me," his father ordered. "If your anger is directed at me, burn me. If you think I do not love you, burn me. If you do not love me, burn me."
"Stop it!" There was heat in his tears; in a moment, they would scald his eyes. He could feel the fire in his arms, singeing his father's face, scarring his father's flesh; he could smell the pungent odor of burning skin.
Using all his strength, he jerked away and turned his head aside. There was an eternity of silence, then:
"Peter...I am uninjured."
He returned from hell in an instant. "I'll take your word for it," he said bitterly.
"I love you."
What the hell was that supposed to be--a gift? A consolation prize? "Do you?" With renewed anger, he faced his father. "Which one of me do you love? Junior Shaolin, the kid who worshiped you and thought everything you did was perfect? Pete-the-cop? No, you never could stand him. Peter the teenager, the one you never met? My son the priest? That's the only one you love."
"That is not--"
"You told me--" He raised his hand. "You told me that you loved me despite all my flaws. And ever since you said that, you've been picking at my 'flaws', one by one, trying to correct them. Because I had to be what you wanted. Are you sure being Shaolin was my destiny? Or was it just the destiny you wanted for me?"
His father's eyes filled with his son's pain. Peter wished he could see real sorrow, not his own reflected back at him.
Caine looked up--for divine guidance, Peter assumed. He spread his hands. "I never did anything with the intention of hurting you, my son."
"Of course you didn't! That would have taken understanding-- that would have taken love."
"I love you. All of you, not separate parts."
He pulled himself very straight. "Well, your love isn't enough for me."
Caine blinked; for a fraction of a second, his face crumbled. Then the Shaolin master was back. "It is all I have to give you."
Peter walked away and stared at their garden high above the earth. "I know," he said finally. "But... I can't take it. Not now. You--" He clenched his fist and placed it carefully against a glass pane. "You hurt me," he whispered. "You don't trust me, and you hurt me. Over and over. Why can't you understand that? Why can't you stop? What did I ever do to make you hurt me so much?"
He didn't expect an answer. But his father's hands closed around his arms and the voice whispered from behind his ear: "We are the same." Caine's head bowed and rested on his shoulder.
It was an answer both simple and complex. Or was it even an answer? He felt the warmth of his father's body against his back, the softness of his fuzzy new hair as it pressed against his cheek. Who was Kwai Chang Caine? Who was this man who could love him so much and hurt him so much and never understand what he did to his son?
Who was this man, this Peter Caine, who could love him so much and hurt him so much and never understand what he did to his father?
Who was Peter Caine that he could love and burn with equal intensity? A man who could pull close and push away, and never understand why people were hurt. A man who discharged his harshest cruelties on the only person he'd ever loved. "Damnit," he muttered, "we're exactly alike."
He grabbed the hands and pulled them down
until the arms wrapped around his chest. They were two; they were one.
They were learning not to care that it hurt.
Return to story index