Walk With Me
by MJ Mink
The pain had passed. It wasn't that he'd conquered it, more that it had ...faded, grown inconsequential. Embrace your fears, make them one with you...and they will pass. A lesson taught by his father that he'd resisted at first, unable and unwilling to believe. But it had been proven true once again.
He'd cruised rapidly through denial (he can't be dying!) and anger (why did he sacrifice himself for that family?) and self-pity (don't leave me yet, not when I'm almost ready), embracing the emotions, letting them slide through his veins and travel out again.
That was why he was calm now, the eye of the hurricane that whirled around him in the form of hospital staff, police coworkers, Chinatown residents, and his foster family. For the last week, they had held deathwatch with him, coming and going according to their personal needs. He was the lone person who went nowhere, who had no other needs, who remained at his father's bedside.
Peter leaned over and kissed his father's forehead, feeling the paper-thin texture and coolness of the skin against his lips. A day earlier, desperate after the final failures of both traditional medicine and the Ancient's herbal remedies, he'd crawled into the narrow hospital bed beside Caine, a last ditch effort to warm the cold, fragile body with his own. There had been no response, no fading ch'i stretched out to accept his strength. Part of his mind accepted that Kwai Chang Caine was already moving on ...upward to the next plane, that his spirit was aching to soar. That his son's grief was the only chain that held the Shaolin earthbound.
Defying his newfound serenity, his soul whispered protests. I'm almost ready to be Shaolin, Father. I feel it, this long-awaited finding of my Self. But I need you to guide me, to teach me--
Our time together has been too short.... How can I let you go?
But it was the only gift he could still give his father. He meditated through the night, practicing an art he'd barely accomplished and, now, Peter made the choice for both of them. He released his heartache and set Caine free.
I love you, Pop. Wait for me, I'm coming with you. No arguments. I'll protect you or be your student or be...nothing. But I'm coming with you.
He felt a voiceless objection that was stymied by his resolution. Behind it appeared a flash of guilt that the Caine line would end -- all that we are will vanish.
He struggled for a reason. I couldn't teach a son. I'm barely learning myself. Still the guilt lapped quietly at the shores of his mind. He looked at it, accepted the burden, and moved on.
Caine's eyelids quivered, and two slits of brown appeared. "Peter." The word was barely audible, little more than a weary exhalation. "Stay...here. " The command was emphasized with a feeble gesture, forefinger lifted, then pushed into the sheet,
"C'mon, Pop, I never obey that order. Why start now and break a nearly perfect record?"
"Father." He wrapped his fingers around Caine's hand. "Look into my soul."
He laid himself bare, open in a manner he'd always been reluctant to reveal, despite his longing. He let his father see everything he was: new and ancient happiness fighting for life between the walls of his aloneness, his needs, his wounds half-healed. Neither of us will ever be alone again. Wherever we go, we go together.
There was a caress across his mind. In his hand, the fingers curled in a minute embrace. He watched his father's face relax, tension fading and pulling the flesh taut and serene. Felt the departure of the spirit. Could almost see the brightness of it as it rose and exploded, cascading over him, colorful dying sparkles of a hot night's celebration.
The room was warm, rich with the scent of herbs and incense. He'd half-expected a unearthly coldness to sweep across his limbs; instead he felt snug and secure. For the last time, he kissed the cheek of Caine's physical form. He stood and clasped the hands together on top of the sheet. "Good night, Father," he whispered. "I'll see you very soon."
Then the body became a discarded shell, hollow and useless. He didn't look back as he left the room and pulled the door closed behind him.
There were few people in the private waiting room at this early hour. The Blaisdells, Kermit, Skalany, Strenlich, the Ancient. The faithful ones. Peter felt as if he were already halfway in the next world because he seemed to be looking at them from afar, smiling at them with a remote sort of affection.
Kermit removed his glasses. He looked tired.
Paul touched his arm. "How is he?"
It was curious that they couldn't feel the enormous void that had swept into the world. "He has moved on," he said formally, choosing his words carefully, hearing an echo of his father's style in his own speech. "He is...journeying."
Their reactions were distant, and he noted them only fleetingly: gasps, moans, tears. The Ancient grasped his arm and hissed, "You are not prepared, Peter," but he didn't listen.
Paul Blaisdell hugged him, but he remained unresponsive. "Come home with us," Paul said. "I'll take care of the arrangements."
Arrangements? Yes, he remembered that there were rituals to be performed, intended to ensure passage to the next world. Perhaps they would need to be done for him, but his father's passage was already assured and underway.
Peter shook his head. "Lo Si knows what to do."
The elderly man bowed. "l would be honored." His gaze was troubled. "But, Peter...I fear what you are thinking."
"Never fear thoughts," he responded softly, uncertain if that was a quote from his father or came from deep within himself.
"What are you thinking?" Kermit asked in his strange tone that combined harshness with gentleness.
He studied his second family and his friends. Mary Margaret had walked away to cry privately. Strenlich glowered like a bulldog, oblivious to the single tear that dried on his cheek. Annie clutched Paul's arm, her expression distraught.
Peter spread his hands. "I died seventeen years ago... in the Temple," he said simply. "I've lived on...borrowed time in this body, with a soul I built on the ruins. A man I never...liked very much. Not a man I want to...continue."
"You are so much more now, Peter!" The Ancient insisted, his voice trembling. "You have come far. You have changed. You can be Shaolin, like your father."
"I don't like the sound of this, Peter. What are you saying?" Paul frowned, the heavy hood over his eyes deepening.
"You know what I'm saying. I'm sorry that this sounds...uncaring. But...I'll stay to see my father's life celebrated, then I will... follow him."
"Peter!" Annie's voice was thick with horror. "Don't say such a thing! You're in shock, sweetheart. Come and stay with us for awhile -- we'll take care of you."
"Mom -- Mom," he interrupted, smiling. "It's okay. You're thinking death. That's not what I'm talking about."
"Good," Kermit said flatly. "Because you wouldn't get away with it."
He laughed, genuinely amused. "It's not death, it's...life continuing. Another existence. He promised to wait for me and guide me. I'll be fine."
"Peter Caine!" Paul grasped his elbow, steered him toward a chair, and pushed him into it. "The only existence we care about is your here-and-now. Annie's right, you're in shock. Let us take care of you."
Paul went on talking, but Peter tuned out his words and focused on the emotions in the room. Sadness, concern, confusion, agitation all swirled around them. He didn't want them to be upset when he was so in control. He'd overcome the reality of losing his father's body; they needed to understand, but he didn't know enough to convey the wisdom to them. He bowed his head, acquiescing to their unspoken demands. He could not persist in trying to explain what was unexplainable. He would only hurt them further.
"Thank you," he said, stopping Paul's unintelligible words. He stood and faced the Ancient. "Lo Si, may I take you home so we can make plans for my father's...memorial." He stumbled over the last word; it was unnecessary pretense to grieve.
No. It is arrogance to assume that grief is unworthy or unnecessary. Pause to grieve, my son, and reconsider.
Kwai Chang Caine's voice rumbled through his head, and Peter wondered if it was a memory or a current scolding. He turned to the Blaisdells.
"I'll stay with you a few days."
"Can I help you with ...?"
"No, thanks. The Ancient will know what needs to be done." He paused. Paul and Annie were still shaken. "If you could stop by my place and get my dark blue suit, take it to the cleaners?"
"Of course, dear." Annie lifted on her toes and kissed his cheek, transparently relieved that he could look at a future. "Will you be home for dinner?"
"I'm not certain. Don't wait for me." He extended his hand to Kermit, then Strenlich. "Thanks for being here. I'm sure my father knew and appreciated it."
Kermit watched him a moment before sliding the green glasses back up his nose. "You need anything, modem me."
He smiled and realized that he would probably miss his friends. "Sure." He wrapped his hand around the door handle and opened it so Lo Si could pass. "Go home. I'll let everyone know about the service. Kermit, take Mary Margaret with you."
One eyebrow waggled. "Gladly and gallantly," Kermit answered in a forlorn attempt at humor. "See you later."
"Later," Peter echoed as a promise.
Later came and went, days of later. Eventually, weary to the bone, Peter found himself in Lo Si's flat. He removed the tie and tossed it aside, loosened the stiff collar of his best white shirt, and shrugged out of his suit jacket. Beside him on the sofa was Caine's worn bag of herbs and surprises. He'd clutched it through the services, deciding against leaving it with the remains. He might need it where he was going. He pulled it over his head and inhaled deeply. The familiar scents made him dizzy.
"Will you help me?" he asked the old man quietly.
The Ancient's eyes closed, and his expression contracted as though he were in pain. "You are sure," he stated, needing another confirmation.
"I am sure," Peter repeated. "I belong with him, wherever he may be."
"It may not be easy. There may be troubles."
"That's what makes things interesting." He grinned, anxious to be away. His joy paled as other thoughts crisscrossed his mind. "Annie and Paul...my friends...you'll talk to them, explain?"
"I will." The fragile head bent. "But my talk will be a poor substitute for your presence. Peter, reconsider what you are about to do. You are letting your grief control you. Wait until--"
"I can't expect him to wait forever." Peter held out his hand, warmed his icy palm with the teacup that was placed in his grasp.
The tea was sweet where he'd expected bitter, only hot
where he'd expected scalding. It slid easily down his throat, and
he was immediately drowsy. He leaned back on the cushions, then slipped
sideways to rest awhile. He dreamed...
... It was night, he was on a familiar, rain-slick street, climbing into his parked car, the Stealth he'd given up as his knowledge and confidence in himself had grown. His father was standing in the middle of the road, oblivious to the vehicles that streaked through his ghost-self. He was shaking his hair free of its leather tie, saying decisively, "I...will walk."
Peter laughed shakily, his vision blurring through the mist. "Father?"
He slammed the car door and approached the figure that waited for him with customary patience. Moonlight glinted silver across the pavement, a moment taken out of time. Caine's hand brushed his cheek. "Yes, my son?"
He caught the fingers and pressed them against his face.
"I will walk with you."
The Ancient lifted Peter's jacket and tie and carefully folded them over his arm. He bent and smoothed away the indentation left in the sofa cushion, the last trace of young Caine. Closing his eyes, he appreciated the aura that lingered in the room and considered the words he could use to explain Peter's disappearance to those he had left behind.
Lo Si lit two candles and turned his attention to the practicalities of meditation.