Kermit Griffin hated to lose.
He sometimes thought of his life as a series of competitions he almost always won. He carefully chose his games, like selecting the brightest stones from diamonds scattered on black velvet. He worked hard and planned carefully, and excelled as both spy and mercenary.
The game of cops and robbers turned out to be a piece of cake. It took some time to get used to the little-league rules, but working for Blaisdell had helped him ease into it. Both exceptions and corrections were made with the same cool, emotional detachment that had initially drawn him to Paul, and Kermit soon found his own niche in the One Hundred and First precinct.
Meeting Peter Caine seemed normal enough at first. The shock of recognition can be a stiff one, and Kermit was rattled when he finally admitted he'd come to care about the kid. He lacked a successful strategy for dealing with his new young friend. As soon as he thought he had Peter figured out, Peter would say or do something that would force him to reevaluate not only their relationship but Kermit's own philosophy of the game of life.
Kermit knew that rumor and mystery swirled around him like a twister hugging the ground. He had a reputation for being a technical wizard, but while Kermit knew the difference between RAM and gigabytes, he was much more than a computer geek. He was a master of the art of gathering and interpreting information. Making connections, finding patterns and then formulating conclusions gave him an intense satisfaction that he could not easily explain and knew that nobody understood.
Except for Peter Caine.
"Hey, Kermit," the young cop said, bursting into Kermit's office and sacred refuge.
"Go away, Peter. I'm busy," Kermit muttered.
"Really? What secret chest of cyber-treasures are you unlocking now?"
And Peter's smile so disarmed him that Kermit shook his head and laughed. He ended up stopping what he was doing to help Peter find a few well guarded facts.
Kermit sighed at the memory; that's the way the Peter was. Vigorous, irritating, honest, impulsive, and a dozen other adjectives that were all contradictory but that somehow endeared him to Kermit.
A quiet chime pulsing from his computer interrupted his thoughts. A few clicks of the mouse and up popped a view on his monitor, a clear display of his apartment entrance including the image of Peter Caine preparing to ring the doorbell. Kermit looked down and fingered the cotton of his black t-shirt, and considered it along with the faded black jeans he wore. He always felt more comfortable in his new-found armor – his suit and tie – but he didn't feel like or have time to get changed. So he grabbed his sunglasses and pushed them on before he got up to answer the door.
Kermit took in the sight of a jacketless Peter Caine, wearing a white Henley and blue-jeans, rubbing his hands together in the cold night air. Maybe it was just the color of the shirt, but Peter looked pale and definitely tired.
"Come in, young Peter," said Kermit, ushering in his friend and closing the door. "Nice of you to drop by. I don't get many visitors."
Kermit watched Peter's eyes dart nervously around the room and he waited for the inevitable wisecrack, but the comment never came. Peter shoved his hands in his pockets and fixed his gaze on a point above Kermit's shoulder.
"I need to talk to you."
"Sure. Come on in and sit down."
Peter plopped down on the sofa and Kermit sat on an adjacent chair. He had a pretty good idea why Peter had come. During the weeks after Kwai Chang Caine had mysteriously vanished while on an evening stroll with Mary Margaret, Peter had become increasingly distressed and withdrawn. Since Caine had disappeared, Kermit tried everything he could think of, pulling in favors, making contacts he'd rather have avoided, working days and nights to find the priest, but no matter what he did he couldn't find his friend's father. A missing persons case, Christ, in the past Kermit had found so many people so easily, but it seemed like he was destined to lose this particular game of lost and found.
Damn it, Caine! Kermit thought. A hell of a fine mess you've left me with this time.
Finally Peter spoke. "He's been gone a month, Kermit. One month today."
"I know, Peter."
"You know?" Peter speared Kermit with a look, his eyes revealing his torment. Then sighing, the young cop turned away quickly. "Of course you know. Nothing escapes you. Nothing, except…"
"Except that I haven't been able to find your father," Kermit finished.
Peter shrugged, not meeting Kermit's steady gaze. "Kermit, not even you can find him if he doesn't want to be found. And this time, he obviously doesn't want to be found."
Kermit stared at the younger cop, his replies unsaid, their dry and hollow resonance choking his throat. The silence seemed to parch the air in the room. Peter stood and walked to the oak bookcase, a solid piece, an antique Kermit particularly enjoyed. Peter absently fingered the spines of a few well worn volumes.
"One month, and not a word. He must know I'm sick from worrying about him."
"Peter, wherever he is and whatever he's doing, he must have a good reason for it. Maybe he's unable to contact you."
"No." Peter turned and met his gaze. "We both know that's not true." Kermit noticed that Peter's eyes were red-rimmed and puffy with fatigue. Pain seemed to hurl from those eyes, physically tangible to Kermit, pelting him like some unholy, burning sleet, and he barely kept from wincing. "My father is purposely staying away. He's staying away from me, Kermit."
Lips pressed together, Peter's arms slipped into a tight twist, and the young man hugged himself stiffly. He turned and Kermit suddenly noticed that Peter had lost quite a bit of weight.
"I – I don't know exactly how I've failed him, but I have. Whatever is wrong, whatever trouble he's in, whatever battle he has to fight, he doesn't…" Peter took a deep breath, and when it came out, his entire body shuddered. "He doesn't trust me enough to tell me. He doesn't need – or want – my help."
Kermit closed his eyes and wished he believed in the divine so that he could pray for guidance. He took a deep breath, and he remembered a time when he had watched the powerful bond between Peter and his father emerge…
"Beautiful," Caine stated, his hand squeezing Peter's shoulder. The tension seemed to drain from Peter, the young cop's body visibly relaxed. "I've never seen Niagara Falls before. It is magnificent. Absolutely beautiful."
Kermit grinned as he watched Peter chase after Caine, who had meandered down the steps to get a better view. "Oh, yeah," Kermit drawled softly, feeling a deep happiness he was not entirely able to understand.
"You know, after everything we've been through," Peter said, looping an arm around his father's shoulders and pulling him close, "you always take time to smell the roses, don't you. Come on, let's take a closer look."
When Kermit opened his eyes, Peter was gripping one bookshelf, his knuckles white.
"Peter!" Kermit quickly maneuvered to Peter's side, reached out, but paused. He'd spent a lifetime constructing a wall around his core, protecting himself in the most fundamental way, but it seemed that Peter was about to knock out yet another brick. Hell, the whole damn thing was probably ready to come crashing down. Peter trusted him enough to come to him and talk to him openly, to let himself be vulnerable. How could he let him down? Frowning at his reluctance, Kermit finally grasped Peter's shoulders with both hands. Peter's body felt hot, possibly feverish from stress and lack of sleep, so he was somewhat prepared when Peter swayed a bit and leaned against him.
Kermit forced himself to remain perfectly still and to not recoil from the physical contact. He focused on studying Peter's profile and saw the furrowed brow and tense jaw relax, and read other subtle signs of relief play across the fine, pale features. Glimpses of Caine and Peter together flashed through his mind; Peter needed his father and the comfort of their unique connection. Kermit could not replace Caine or be a substitute for him, but he could help his friend the best he could, inventing it as he went along. Kermit took a deep breath, and let his hands slide down and squeeze Peter's arms.
"Peter… you need," Kermit spoke softly, his face close to Peter's, "You need to let go."
Peter closed his eyes, and swallowed hard.
Kermit shifted so he stood behind the slender young cop.
"Let go of what?" Peter rasped.
"Let go of," Kermit began, but stopped. He couldn't say the words. Let go of your obsession with Kwai Chang Caine.
"Look, Peter, you're under too much stress," Kermit rubbed Peter's arms, then moved his hands to the young cop's shoulders and began to knead the tense muscles. "You're all tied up like a knot."
Peter sighed, and for several long moments the young man stretched and twisted his upper body in rhythm with Kermit's massage. Cautiously, Kermit permitted his own body to relax and accept the warmth and energy that radiated from Peter in steady waves. Then Peter suddenly froze and turned to face him. Kermit let his hands drop and snapped his guard in place. He analyzed Peter's expression – took in the flushed cheeks and clenched jaw. But what struck him most deeply were Peter's eyes. The hazel eyes that met his were naked and revealed a despair that almost made Kermit flinch.
"You said 'let go'. Let go of what, Kermit?"
"Forget it, Peter."
"Don't tell me to forget it! What did you mean?"
Kermit lifted his hand and pressed his palm against Peter's chest. "I said forget it," he interrupted. "And I'm having a drink. What can I get you?"
"Go to hell, Kermit."
"Fine. Scotch it is."
Grabbing two crystal snifters, Kermit ignored Peter, who paced anxiously in the small living room, pausing at times to examine books, CDs, and even a small jade Buddha Kermit had picked up in Hong Kong. By the time he finished pouring them both a drink, Peter sat on the sofa, his arms folded, his head resting on the back.
"Look, Peter, you've been through a lot in your life."
"So have you!"
"My life is different than your life in every way."
"When there's trouble, people don't run away from you. They come to you and ask you to help them."
"Ah, Peter," Kermit lowered himself on the well-padded arm of the sofa and handed Peter the glass, "People don't run away from you. Not even your father."
"You're like my father, Kermit – you're strong. You're not a wreck like me." Peter took a sip of his drink and puckered his lips. "What is this stuff again?" he muttered, but then he blinked and Kermit watched in amusement as he tossed down the hefty shot of single-malt whisky in one swallow.
"Kid, the only person who thinks you're a wreck is you."
"You're telling me you're not worried about me? That you wouldn't think twice before calling me for backup?"
Kermit paused and set his drink on the coffee table. The hesitation cost him.
"Yeah, that's what I thought," Peter said softly.
Kermit shot up, frustrated by Peter's pervasive self-doubt and ready to flee from his own apartment, overwhelmed by the potent swirl of emotion and energy that defined Peter Caine.
"Never," Kermit exploded, "assume to know what I am thinking!"
Then Kermit felt Peter's fingers lock around his wrist, and with great effort he ignored the immediate urge to break the arm attached to the hand.
"I'm sorry!" The panic in the kid's voice matched his wide-eyed stare and sliced through Kermit's haze of anger. Maybe the whisky had gone straight to Peter's head – Kermit should never have given him a drink without insisting that he eat something first.
"Kermit, tell me, please. Am I doing it to you now?"
"What? Doing what, Peter?"
"Pushing you away. Just like I pushed my father away."
Kermit sat back down, his burst of rage gone, replaced by worry. A long moment passed. Kermit pried the fingers from around his wrist and then carefully removed his sunglasses. He placed them on the table, next to the lamp. When he faced Peter, Kermit looked directly in the young man's eyes. Peter's troubled gaze questioned him, demanding a direct response.
"I'm not your father," Kermit said quietly. "You can't push me away."
"Just give it time."
"I have plenty of time."
"And I have plenty of practice."
"It doesn't matter! It won't happen," Kermit said forcefully.
"I've had the Shaolin training. I thought I'd be more prepared for when he—for something like this. I was wrong. I don't know what I'll do if he's gone much longer, Kermit."
"Now you listen to me, Peter. You are strong – much stronger than you give yourself credit for! If I get in a jam," Kermit waited until Peter's eyes slid to meet his own, "you'll be the first person I call. Count on it."
Kermit paused, giving the words time to sink in. Before looking away, Peter nodded his head slightly.
"There is one thing I know for a fact," Kermit continued, "and that I want you to believe: we will find your father. You gotta have faith, kid. It may take us time – more time than you'd like – but we'll find him. And until we do, we – I…" Kermit reached over and let his fingers curl around Peter's hand, "just know that you're not alone, Peter. Not now. Not ever. I promise you. Do you understand?" Kermit squeezed Peter's hand once, then let it go.
"Yeah," Peter said in a low voice, looking down at his feet.
"What's that? I didn't quite hear you."
"I said yes! Yes, I do." Peter sounded irritated, but Kermit could see the corners of his mouth turn up in a small smile.
"Terrific! Now," Kermit said, standing and pulling Peter to stand with him. "Let's get the hell out of here. After I get some food into you, we can do something wild and crazy and forget our troubles. Do you want to take a ride to the casino and tempt lady luck?"
Peter grimaced. "I hate casinos!"
"All right, then. We'll get drunk at Delancey's."
"I guess I can handle that. But Kermit?"
"Don't thank me, Caine. When the time is right, I'll exact my pound of flesh. Count on it."
"That sounds kind of creepy."
"I haven't even begun to get creepy. Did I ever tell you about that dungeon in Vietnam?"
"No, and I don't want to know."
"A pity," Kermit drawled, snatching his shades and guiding Peter toward the door. "It's one hell of a good tale!" He grabbed his jacket from the small hall closet. "Don't you have a coat, Peter?"
"It's in my car."
"Good. Get it. I don't want to be blamed for you catching pneumonia." Kermit was encouraged by the slight lift in Peter's mood. In a flash of understanding, he realized that until Kwai Chang Caine came straggling back from whatever jaunt he was on, that he'd be spending more time with Peter, helping him to keep the faith. It was a prospect the battle weary ex-mercenary found himself almost looking forward to. And that was good.