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Chapter Twenty-Five

"The Magic Lingers"

Skalany called Paul and the group while they were still at the cabin. "It's seems the mighty Wilson Cooper Clark killed his son and then himself when the news started televising stories of a dramatic mountain rescue."

"Shit," Kermit said.

"What?" Paul asked.

"Now we've got another goddamned leak!"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"The press, Sandra Mason has gotten to somebody."

"Well, that's the least of our worries, especially now that Celeste and Tommy doesn't have to worry about testifying against Delmar Clark anymore. Saved the court system a bundle of money for an extended trial. All we've got to do to get you and Peter well again and things will be back to normal."

Kermit grunted. "Since when are things ever normal?"

Paul laughed and patted Kermit on the back. "You know, I've really missed you two."

"Paul, we weren't gone that long."

"Just enough for me to begin to forget all of your irritating habits."

"I think I'll enjoy riding back in the helicopter with Peter instead of with you. At least with Peter, I get a certain level of respect."

"Just get that leg looked at and I'll be off your back."

Paul stopped and grunted.

"What is it?"

"It's Christmas morning, Kermit. With all the drama, I simply forgot about it. Merry Christmas, my friend."

"Yeah, Merry Christmas to you, too, Paul. For all that it's worth."

"Am I looking at Ebenezer Scrooge in the flesh?" Paul asked with a taunt echoing in his voice.

"Bah, humbug," Kermit growled. "You know I never get into the holidays."

"Yes, Scrooge, I know that. Peter tells me him and Tommy were working on carved tokens for gifts for the group at the cabin. In the end, they wound up saving their lives."

"Sharing gifts with friends and family is all fine and well, Paul, but it's not the true essence of Christmas. At least not to me."

"No, you are quite right," Paul said, letting his hands sink down into the depths of his jacket. "It's the magic of love shared between family and friends, not the giving of gifts. I think we all felt that today when Tommy was reunited with his family."

"And Peter?"

"Peter will have the nurses at the hospital eating out of the palm of his hand. Plus there's been a change in him. The anger that was there before he left for this assignment seems nonexistent. As if being with Tommy cured a wound Peter didn't know he was holding inside."

Kermit played devil's advocate. "Peter still could have died several times over."

"But he didn't and maybe that's my Christmas gift. Having Peter still in my life with all of his aggravations and irritations, along with that bottomless well of love he has."

"Come on, Paul. You're getting nostalgic. Load Peter into the chopper and I'll ride in with him. Hell, I don't envy you the write up on this report. It's gonna take every bit of your finesse to present it without sounding like you're a prime candidate for the looney bin."

Paul laughed out loud and shook his head, glancing to Celeste, Ansel, and Tommy. "You're probably right..."

"What is it, Paul?"

Paul stared again at the Crowfoot family. "Maybe they are another Christmas miracle unfolding. Torn apart by tragedy, yet healed by the struggle to stay alive. In the end, they were made much stronger by surviving it together."

"I can't argue with you on that point. They are different people than when I first met them."

"Okay, I think the chopper is almost ready for you. Call Annie for me when you get a chance and tell her I'll be home as soon as I can."

"Will do. Anything else?"

"Just watch yourself. I'm damned grateful that you survived another battle relatively intact, my old friend."

"Better than intact. These people weren't the only ones healed by these forests."

When Paul started to ask why, Kermit put up a hand. "Let's just leave it at that."

"Fine."

Kermit was almost to the front door when Celeste stopped him. Tommy was beside her. The boy handed him one of their animal tokens they'd made. It was a fox token. Celeste spoke up, "I've always said Uncle Ansel has the spirit of a fox. Since you two were so alike, Tommy thought you might like one of these fox tokens to take as a memento."

"Thanks, Tommy, Celeste. I'll keep it close to my heart."

Tommy beamed with pride and then bolted outside. Kermit knew where he was going. To see Peter one last time, following in Paul's footsteps. Kermit was still staring out the door when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

Turning, he saw Celeste was still beside him. He smiled, but she was hesitating in saying whatever she wanted to say, so he spoke instead. "You know, except for getting shot, this was almost like a vacation."

"Vacation," Celeste repeated incredulously. "Yes, it is eerie how much you and Ansel have in common."

Holding up his token, Kermit chuckled and said, "It's the fox spirit in us."

He started to step away again when she stopped him. "Kermit, I never thanked you for taking that bullet for me. That damned pride of mine..."

Kermit pulled off his sunglasses. "You were worried about Tommy. Besides, this is nothing," he said as he pointed to his leg wound.

"Nothing? You saved my life."

"That's why this wound is nothing. If Tommy was to lose you now after all of his other losses, well, that would have been a wound that time could never heal. I've taken bullets in the line of duty before. You're a civilian and you've already known enough pain to last a lifetime. Forget about it."

Kermit started to leave again when Celeste reached forward and kissed him on the cheek. Her lips lingered there as she whispered, "I think I've just found the chink in your armor, Kermit. Both of you and Ansel have a heart of gold buried underneath your gruff exterior."

Kermit stared at her for a moment before he winked at her. Afterwards, he put his glasses back on and left without another word.

oOoOoOoOo

Tommy darted toward the medical helicopter, seeing that they were still treating Peter and that Paul, one of Peter's fathers, had beat him to Peter's side. He could see firsthand the love Peter had felt for his second father. Tommy paused at the door, allowing them a close moment as they spoke quietly.

"You know, I half-expected to see Pop sliding around in the shadows, taking out those men."

"That would be an easier explanation that what I'm going to have to come up with in my report," Paul said sarcastically.

Peter sighed. "Sorry, but Pop is nowhere to be seen."

"Peter, are you still upset about Caine's absence?"

Peter shook his head in response to Blaisdell's question, his eyes focused on a distant point outside the window.

"No. Somehow, I know he's been with me...in my heart. I'm not very good at the mystical side of being Shaolin, but I do know he's been close to me. I've felt his love and probably his chi to help me get through this."

Peter sighed with a contented air about him as he went on to say, "For now, that is all I need to know."

Paul chewed on his lower lip for a moment before saying, "You just sounded an awful lot like your father."

Peter's serene expression grew with a hint of mischief flavoring his countenance as his hazel eyes met Paul's, "Remember, Dad, I have two very wise fathers. Now, just which father did you mean?"

Paul's eyes shimmered with pride and he brushed the hair from Peter's eyes, kissing him on the temple. "I love you, son."

"And I love you."

"Have a safe trip in."

Paul looked down and saw Tommy standing beside him.

"Tommy, it's awfully cold out here. Are you sure you don't want to go back inside?"

Peter put a hand to Paul's arm and shook his head. "Tommy, you want to climb inside here?"

Tommy nodded and Paul helped him to reach Peter's side. The medic was stilling fiddling with Peter's IVs, injecting something into one and then checking his readings again.

The boy looked at the EMT. "Are you almost done?" Tommy asked innocently.

The medic grunted. "We won't be done until this guy is in the hospital where he belongs."

Peter made a face and Tommy giggled as a fellow conspirator.

The medic glared at the two of them. "No fun is allowed while I'm working." And then, he winked. "You can have him for five minutes, then he's mine all the way to the hospital."

Tommy smiled with appreciation flashing in his eyes as he scooted close to Peter. "Do you feel better now?"

Peter nodded. "They gave me some medicine and I do feel better."

Peter closed his eyes for a moment and sleep started pulling him away. Tommy put a hand to Peter's heart and smiled. "You're right!"

Without opening his eyes, Peter smiled. "What? Do you think I lied to you all the time?"

Tommy shook his head. "No, only when you didn't want me to know the truth."

Peter laughed, holding his side. "Busted again."

Tommy turned serious. "Will I ever see you again, Peter?"

"If your aunt does move back into the city, you will."

"Awesome!" the boy replied.

Then Tommy turned sad.

"What is it, sport?"

"Aunt Celeste says I still need to see some doctors and talk about how I feel about my mom and dad."

Peter nodded. "It won't be easy, but like the ache in your heart, it gets better. I know it will help you in a lot of ways."

"You helped me in a lot of ways. And I like you. You're my friend. Those...doctors won't feel what we felt."

"No, but they were help in their own way."

Tommy was still grim-faced, so Peter changed the subject, "Do you know where Chinatown is?"

Tommy nodded.

"I'd like you to meet my father. He's very good at helping special gifts grow. I think he could help you, too."

Tommy shrugged. "I don't need to use it as much now that I can talk again."

"You'd be surprised. Have Aunt Celeste call me when everyone is feeling better. I'll give you all a tour of Chinatown."

Tommy reached forward with his book about the Spirits of the Forest. "This is all I have to give you for saving our lives."

He handed Peter his beloved book. Peter hefted the lightweight book as tears shimmered in his eyes before handing it back to Tommy.

"Oh, no, sport. That's a family heirloom and probably the real reason why we are still alive. Never part with it, understand?"

Tommy smiled and nodded. "I'll miss you, Peter."

"So will I, but it's not forever."

Tommy's hand was still resting on his chest and Peter put out a shaky hand to Tommy's chest as Tommy said, "It adds another sadness there."

Peter leaned closer, whispering into Tommy's ear, "That's because you are only looking at the hurt, and not all of the joy and healing we've all shared in the last three weeks. If you remember the good memories first, the sadness just goes away."

Tommy hugged him. By then, Ansel was waiting for Tommy. Kermit was beside Paul, getting ready to climb inside.

"Bye, Peter. I'll never forget you!"

"And I'm sure I'll never forget you."

Tommy got out and Kermit climbed into the chopper with help from Paul, and then Ansel, Tommy, and Paul backed away as the rotors started turning.

oOoOoOoOo

The chopper carrying his friend and son took off and Paul watched it until it disappeared in the distance. He whispered, "Godspeed and protection on this sacred holiday."

Thinking about Christmas, his first thoughts were of gift giving, but gifts no longer held any appeal for the police captain. He'd already received his Christmas blessing. His son and friend were alive when the odds had been very much against them. Material things could never make up for that.

He turned back to the cabin as Strenlich started organizing the clean-up. Tommy and Ansel went on ahead of him, leaving him to his silent musings. Kermit had been right about one thing. Paul had one hell of a report to write and he had no idea how he was going to explain the deaths of so many of the hit men, including George. Maybe he'd leave the details to Nicky Elder.

Time to get to work, he told himself as he followed Tommy and Ansel back inside the cabin. He sat down to speak with Ansel and Celeste, with Tommy right beside her, holding his book, "The Spirit of the Forest", like it was the Holy Grail itself.

He was about to begin debriefing the witnesses when he stopped, staring at the joy on the faces of the family before him. Screw the reports, Paul thought, as he looked into Tommy's twinkling eyes. Maybe the boy did hold all the answers to the day's bizarre events in his hands.

Perhaps what Paul needed to do instead of interrogations was to just allow himself enjoy the miracle of life with the family before him. Something similar to what Peter had said earlier.

'Don't try to make sense of it, Paul. Just enjoy the rewards.'

Paul glanced toward the open door when he noticed the strange mists moving in again, and that distant sound of chanting and beating drums. He looked to Tommy. The boy scratched his head. "It's almost sunset, Grandfather Ansel. Shouldn't we be doing the offering and prayers now?"

"Absolutely, son. You get the offering. I'll get the sage leaves to burn."

Celeste spoke up. "Yes, I believe the sage leaves would be most appropriate and I'd like to join you two if you don't mind."

Both child and man nodded with smiles. "It would be very nice to have you with us, Little Raven."

Paul watched them when Celeste reached forward to touch his arm. "Would you like to join us in the ceremony since the Great Spirits and the Forest Spirit were so instrumental in saving Peter's life?"

"I would be honored, Miss Crowfoot."

He extended his arm as she rose awkward. The boy and his elder returned with their supplies and everyone went outside to offer a prayer of thanksgiving and appreciation for all that was done to keep them alive.

Two religions and four praying souls blended together into a single statement of gratitude and love. While they prayed, the woods around them went silent, as if honoring the sanctity of their prayers.

After a long moment, words no longer became necessary, because they became aware of a loving presence encompassing all of them. As they stood in wonder, the muted forest world suddenly came back alive with great exuberance, as if the birds and the animals were joining them in their declaration of gratitude.

Hope and joy were the only words Paul could think of with the forest's awakening. Joy for Tommy and his family. Hope for Peter and Kermit's recovery. Hope and joy for all in the coming year.

Paul smiled as he decided life does renew itself as it rises above tragedy and grief to move ahead with hope fueling its every move. He watched the others and decided he was feeling pretty renewed himself. Hope, what a precious commodity. Without hope, there could be no joy or happiness.

He turned away and headed back to the cabin and his unavoidable report, but his step was a little lighter and his thoughts were consumed with the miracle of life, instead of the burdensome job of writing his damned report.

And perhaps that was his healing in that magical forest, knowing when to rise above the mundane trappings that can bog the average person down, and simply relish the simplicity of living. Yes, gratitude for the simple act of living life on life's terms could ply its magical ways and always healed a troubled soul.

oOoOoOoOo

The End