Choices

(A sequel to "Consulting Fee")

by Jeanne DeVore



"Got you, you bastard!" Kermit exclaimed, punching a key and sending the file to the printer. The guy was elusive, he'd give him that. But soon, Mr. J. G. Harrington, wunderkind stockbroker and serial killer, would be brought to justice.

Kermit grabbed the printout and headed into Simms' office. What he found there made him stop and stare. The captain was sitting at her desk, her head in her hands, covering her face.

"Captain?"

At the sound of his voice, she raised her head. Her face was deathly pale, and her lower lip trembled. And Kermit reached behind him, swinging the door shut and to hell with how it looked.

Few at the 101st precinct knew about the tentative, new-found relationship between the precinct's computer expert and its captain. And if any did know, so far none of them were talking. Kermit supposed he and Karen Simms could be considered "dating", for they had certainly been on "dates"--they'd been out to dinner a couple of times, been to the theatre once. One of their rare days off together, a drizzly Sunday, had been spent meandering from used book store to art gallery to coffee bar, ending up at a retro movie house where they'd watched Casablanca--for the first time on a big screen.

But the relationship still had the tinge of newness to it, the learning that happened with any new relationship. And in one particular aspect, it was totally unexplored. The sexual tension between them was high, and thus far, unacknowledged. Kermit kind of liked it that way. It might be frustrating at times, but the thrill of anticipation kept things interesting.

Because of their work situation, they had to be especially circumspect about this fledgling affair of theirs. She was Captain and he was her subordinate. And his unorthodox classification as a detective wihout caseload didn't change that. They were very careful to keep their conversations strictly on business at the precinct, and made it a point to leave the precinct separately--even if they were planning on getting together later. It was important that their personal life, and whatever that entailed, should not impinge on their working relationship. As the information gatherer for the precinct, Kermit had a part in virtually every case they were involved with. That meant that he frequently had to work very closely with Captain Simms on dissemination of information.

Such as the information in his hand, forgotten as soon as he'd seen the anguish on her face.

"What happened?" he asked.

She blinked back tears and wiped a hand across her face. "Uh--that was Jack," she indicated the phone. Kermit frowned. To his knowledge, Karen's ex-husband seldom called his former wife. "There's--there's been an accident. Katie was--was thrown from a horse. She's in a coma."

"Oh my god," he murmured. "When?"

"I--just a little while ago, I guess. Jack said he called as soon as he could."

"Did he say anything about her injuries?" The spectre of an actor recently paralyzed in a throw from a horse loomed large in both their thoughts.

She shook her head. "They don't know anything yet."

"Are you going out there?"

"And do what? Sit around and worry? I can do that just as well here. And at least here I've got the job to distract me."

"You could be there for her," he insisted.

"She's unconscious, there's nothing I can do for her."

"For god's sake, Karen, she's your daughter--"

"I know that!" she snapped. "Don't you think that if I could do anything I would? If I could change it? But I can't--I can't do a damned thing to help her. And I still have a job to do here. Now, do you have some information for me, Detective?"

He stared at her for a moment. The warm, vulnerable, caring person he'd grown to appreciate so much was gone; the Iron Maiden was in its place. He wanted to fight her on this one--he knew how he'd feel if it was Jake in a coma, and Jake was only his step-son. But fighting her would serve no purpose; she was strong, she knew her mind. Even if he disagreed with her, he respected her right to handle this as she saw fit. He took a deep breath. "I found Harrington." He flicked the paper onto her desk.

She quickly scanned the sheet. "How solid is this?"

"Solid."

"Good. We've got him. Tell the Chief I want to see him."

The emotions were buried deep now--she was all business. He nodded and turned to leave.

"Kermit--" her voice called him back. "Thank you." The pain flickered across her face again.

He grinned and saluted. "Any time."



~~~



Detectives Caine and Powell, along with a backup crew of four, were tasked to pull Harrington in. The man began squawking for lawyers almost immediately, and Simms ordered him to be put on ice--left in total solitary until his lawyer arrived. Then she spent a long time in the interrogration room with Harrington, his lawyer, and the DA, and another 20 or so minutes in a private meeting with the DA, who left with an atypical smile on his face. Kermit, well-pleased with the fruits of this particular labor, returned to his office and the next case on his never-dwindling stack of files.

He lost track of time, as usually happened when he got tangled in his webs of information, so all he knew was that it was some time later when he heard a soft knock on his door. He looked up. Captain Simms was standing there, holding her coat.

"I've changed my mind," she said softly, her voice pinched. "Will you drive me to the airport?"

"I'll get my coat," he said, ignoring his own cardinal rule about logging off.

They were silent during the drive. She was wrapped in worry and misery and he didn't want to intrude. Part of him wished he could hold her--take the pain away. But he knew that was impossible. Even if they'd been at that stage in their relationship--which they weren't--there was nothing he could do.

They stopped at her condo, so she could pack a quick bag. He was impressed--she was ready to go within fifteen minutes. He used the intervening time to look around her house. He'd been here twice before; once to fix her computer, once after dinner for coffee and conversation. He liked Karen's home--it was comfortable. He wandered into the living room, looking at her bookshelves, then stopped in front of the double frame and studied the images there. They were school photos--recent ones, from the look of the children portrayed. Ben had sandy brown hair and dark eyes. He looked more like his father, though Kermit could still see Karen in him. He was at that adolescent crossroads which made him a little gawky, but his half-smile was full of a mischievous light. And Katie--

Katie was a little miniature of her mother. Long blonde hair pulled back in barrettes, a wide, intelligent mouth and bright blue eyes. She was a pretty child, fine-boned and delicate. Kermit stared at the photo, unable to imagine this small sparkle of life being extinguished. He shook his head. It hadn't come to that yet, thank god, and with luck, it wouldn't. But if it did--

If it did, it would kill Karen.

She came out of her bedroom, pulling a wheeled carry-on suitcase. He took the bag from her and waited while she closed up the house.

"Did you talk to the Chief?" he asked as they got in the car.

"Yes. He said he'd take care of everything on this end. I told him I'd call him tonight from the hotel."

Kermit nodded, concentrating on his driving.

"Oh, and I'm taking the cellular, so if you need to reach me, you can."

He smiled at that--she rarely gave out her cellular number, preferring to use the device to make calls, not receive them. But she'd given the number to Kermit on their second date. He'd yet to use it, but it was good to know that he could.

"Anything you need me to do while you're gone? Water your plants? Feed your gerbil?"

That got a little laugh from her. "I'd need to get a gerbil first. But thank you." He reached over and squeezed her hand in reassurance before returning his attention to the road.

They completed the drive silently until he pulled up in front of her airline. He got out, fetching her bag from the trunk.

"All my thoughts and wishes go with you," he said gently. "If I were religious, I'd say a prayer."

She smiled sadly. "Thanks for the thought anyway."

He cupped her chin in his hand. "Call me."

"As soon as I know anything," she agreed.

He lowered his head and kissed her mouth, tenderly. Then he put his arms around her and held her tight, feeling her tremble in his embrace.

And then she slipped from his arms, gathered up her suitcase and headed into the airport. Kermit watched her go, helplessly.

Back at the precinct, a few eyes watched him as he walked back to his office. He was tempted to shut the door on them, close them out. But they'd just knock. A few minutes later, just like clockwork, Frank Strenlich showed up at his door.

"Captain get off OK?" he asked.

Kermit didn't bother to look up from his screen. "I didn't stay for her flight," he commented. "She got to the airport, yeah."

"How's she taking it?"

"How do you think?" he snapped, impatient with inane conversation.

"God--if anything like that happened to one of my kids, I--I don't know what I'd do. I'd go crazy, getting news like that, and she's so far away."

Kermit looked up then. Frank was babbling, but his worry was genuine. "Yeah," he answered, softening.

"She said she'd call tonight," Frank went on. "Maybe they'll know something by then."

Kermit didn't answer--had nothing to say. There was nothing any of them could do. Except what Karen Simms herself was doing. Waiting.



~~~



By the next morning, everyone in the precinct knew what had happened to the captain's young daughter; it was the subject of the morning's coffee-pot gossip. Most of the officers were shocked and concerned, and Mary Margaret Skalany stopped Kermit to collect for the flowers and card they were sending. One of the new detectives, however, Steve Levy, was less than sympathetic about it, and didn't mind who knew.

"It's too bad that little girl got hurt," he was saying, "but what kind of mother abandons her kid halfway across the country like that? No kind, that's what. Simms' got no business being here when her kids are somewhere else."

Whatever else he was planning on saying got lost as Detective Levy found himself against the wall, Kermit's arm across his throat.

"You keep your opinions like that to yourself, Levy, or you're liable to find your head down those stairs," Kermit hissed, "with or without the rest of your body. How the captain chooses to live her life is nobody's business but her own and your neandrethal comments have no place in this precinct. Clear?"

Kermit let him go and Levy staggered away from the wall, coughing.

"Oh and this from good little Kermit, in the captain's pocket," Levy taunted. "Or is that her bed?"

Thank god for Peter and Blake--they kept Kermit from killing Levy, both of them holding onto him until the redness subsided. Otherwise, he surely would have committed murder.

"Get a life, Levy," Skalany said disgustedly, and the other detectives turned away from the coffee-pot drama. Kermit broke from his captors and stalked off to his office, slamming the door behind him. He was angry at having lost control, at having possibly given himself and Karen away. But mostly he was angry at that weenie Levy for making him so angry.

He powered on his system and spent several minutes furiously burying himself in his work. The upsetting thing was that Levy's attitude, boorish as it may have been, was not untypical. Even in these "enlightened" times, the idea that a woman would willingly give up custody of her children still smacked faintly of scandal. Like there was something wrong with her. Kermit scowled. The only thing wrong with Karen Simms was that she admitted she couldn't be everything to everybody. She'd made choices, and had to live with them.

There was a knock and Frank Strenlich opened his door.

"Kermit?"

Kermit took a deep breath. "Sorry about that scene out there, Chief," Kermit said. "Levy's a punk--I shouldn't have let him get to me."

"We're all on edge about the Captain's daughter," Frank accepted the apology. "Levy's been given an official reprimand."

"And me?"

"If you hadn't done it, I would have," he answered. Kermit chuckled and turned back to his keyboard. Strenlich didn't leave. "I got a call from her last night," he said. "She said Katie's stable, but still in a coma. They don't know anything else."

Kermit nodded. He didn't want to reveal that he'd also talked to Karen last night--she'd called him around midnight and they'd talked for well over an hour. Or rather, she'd talked, he'd listened--dreams and sorrows, hopes and fears. Jack and his wife had welcomed her, past disagreements disappearing in the concerns of the present. Karen had met Jack's new wife, Meg, only once before, but now the two of them were united by a common cause--concern for Katie. And Ben--she said Ben had clung to her most of the evening. He might be growing fast, but he still needed the love and comfort only a mother could give. She was grateful she'd made the trip; it was where she needed to be.

They talked until she was too tired to talk anymore, and Kermit liked to think that his good night wishes had finally lulled her to sleep.

He came back to himself to find the chief still standing in his doorway. "Was there something else, Chief?" he asked.

"Did she say anything else--I mean, when you took her to the airport?"

Kermit looked up. The ex-marine's face was an odd combination of compassion and stoicism. Whatever Frank knew or thought he knew concerning the captain and Kermit, he would keep those thoughts to himself. No rumors would start with the Chief of Detectives, and Kermit suspected Frank would do his best to quash any he got wind of, also. His acceptance or approval were immaterial--it had to do with company loyalty.

Kermit shook his head. "Only that she'd call as soon as she knew anything."

"If you talk to her," Frank began and Kermit looked up again. Understanding flashed between them. "Tell the captain our prayers are with her."

Kermit nodded. "I will."



~~~



10:30 the following morning, Kermit's phone rang. "Griffin," he mumbled, concentrating on his screen.

"Kermit? It's Karen." She sounded choked up.

He sat up in his chair. "How is everything?"

"She woke up--about 45 minutes ago." Kermit recognized her emotion as giddiness and let out a breath he didn't know he was holding.

"Thank god," he sighed. "How else is she?"

"Um--she's confused, disoriented. They say that's not uncommon. But she knew me, she knew her father. They think she'll be all right. She's going to be all right!"

"That's fantastic! Everybody here has been pulling for her."

"Yes, the flowers arrived yesterday afternoon. They're lovely. Thank everybody for me."

"I will. And I'll let them know the good news."

"Actually, I'd better talk to the Chief. Can you transfer me over?"

"Sure." He debated telling her about Frank and his suspicions, then changed his mind. "How long do you think you'll be gone?"

There was a pause. "As long as I'm needed here," came the response.

Kermit smiled. "Good. That's the way it should be. Which isn't to say you're not missed, of course."

"I know," she replied softly. Kermit liked to imagine the unspoken "I miss you too" in her words.

"How are you holding up?" he asked, his voice gentle.

She sighed. "Well enough. I'm tired. Right now, all I feel is happy. I'll probably crash a little later."

"Where will you be tonight? I'll call you."

"I don't know--it depends on how things go today. I'll call you."

"All right," he agreed.

"Hearing your voice at the end of the day has been a wonderful balm for me these past couple of days."

He grinned. "All part of the service. Let me transfer you over to the Chief."

"All right, I'll talk to you later."

"Take care--give Katie a hug for me."

"I will. Thanks."

Kermit pressed the transfer button and sent the call on its way.

Several minutes later, as Kermit was mulling over his screen, he heard Frank's whistle for silence in the squad room. Heard him announce that the captain's daughter had woken from her coma and was on the road to recovery. Heard the cheers from the rest of the squad--a whoop of joy and relief. He smiled. What was that he'd told her when they went out to dinner that first time? That give them time and eventually they'd start referring to the precinct as Simms' precinct, not Blaisdells. That they'd become Simms' people. From the sound of it, they were well on their way.



~~~



Karen called Kermit to tell him she was coming home. In the almost two weeks she'd been gone, they'd talked at least once a day, sometimes more. Occasionally, they were brief, check-in conversations, but often they were long ramblings, covering old and new ground. She said that their calls had become an anchor for her--something to keep her centered when the stress of the situation got to be too much for her. And as for Kermit, they were the highlight of his day.

The daily phone calls had been important in another sense, as well; they served to draw them closer together. Karen had been under incredible strain during her trip, and their conversations had allowed her to escape from the tensions, if only for a little while. In an effort to distract her, they'd talked about inconsequentials, and in the process learned more about each other. The discussions had even turned very personal on one occasion, as they'd discussed relationships in their past and their tentative hopes for the future. With at least one failed marriage behind each of them, neither of them was anxious to jump into anything too quickly. But, they both admitted that getting to know each other better--definitely had some merit.

"I'll be on a flight this afternoon, getting in around 5:30," she told him. "Pick me up?"

"My pleasure," he agreed. "Katie's doing better?" After her return to consciousness, Katie had not made as rapid a recovery as they'd hoped. She spent most of her time asleep, and the few hours a day of wakefulness were often filled with pain and confusion. In addition to the skull fracture, she had a broken collarbone, a broken arm and a broken leg. She would sometimes forget where she was. And she seemed to have totally lost most of the week before the accident. Not only did she not remember anything about the accident itself, she didn't even remember going riding that day. Not unusually, her pain and disorientation had made her act younger than her twelve years; she cried and whined and clung to her mother. Karen had even spent a couple of nights at the hospital, sleeping on a cot at her daughter's bedside.

"Yes, a little. She's letting go of me more. Now she's complaining because she wants to get out of the hospital. I think she's bored." She sighed again. "And Ben has stopped clinging, too. And Meg and I are starting to ache from being so polite to one another. And this morning Jack and I had a fight about my rental car. I think it's time to come home."

Kermit laughed. "I'll be there."

Sure enough, at 5:45, he met her at the baggage area with a smile on his face and a kiss for her cheek. "Good flight?" he asked.

"Flight," she replied. "I wouldn't bother to qualify it." She looked exhausted, pale complected, with shadows beneath her eyes.

He took her suitcase in one hand and held out his opposite arm for her. She smiled and took it as he escorted her to the car.

"Have you eaten?" he asked as he pulled out into traffic. She was resting her head against the back of the seat and her eyes were closed.

"They fed me on the plane."

"That's not food."

"That's what I thought, too."

He chuckled. "Where do you want to go?"

She sighed and opened her eyes. "I should probably go to the precinct."

"I meant for dinner." He shook his head. "The precinct is fine, there's nothing there that won't still be there in the morning, nothing that requires your immediate attention. Where do you want to go for dinner?"

"I'm sorry, Kermit, I'm just not up to being sociable tonight."

"Then I'll take you home and cook for you--no, you've got no food in the house. We'll stop for--no, too much hassle. We'll order in?"

That made her smile. "That would be fine."

At home, her mail had piled up, and her answering machine was full--even though she'd checked it every day. Kermit made a quick call to a local Chinese restaurant while she sorted through the consequences of her absence. He took the opportunity to watch her carefully. She was tired, that much was obvious. But there was something more--a sense of heavy-heartedness about her. As if every breath was an effort.

He walked into the kitchen, stared for a moment, then searched 'til he found her liquor cabinet, pouring straight scotch over ice cubes in a glass. He returned to the living room, put a hand on her shoulder and felt her jump--more evidence of how strung-out she was. "Drink this--medicinal purposes," he said softly.

She didn't protest, simply did as she was told. He felt the shudder go through her as the alcohol hit her system. He lifted her braid out of the way and gently massaged her neck muscles. She stretched and dropped her chin forward, breathing out a sigh. "Keep that up and I'll fall asleep before the food arrives," she told him.

"Might not be a bad idea."

She chuckled softly. "I did miss you, Kermit," she said.

He smiled. "That's nice to hear. I missed you, too." His hands stroked across her shoulders, sliding down her arms to hold her in a loose hug. She turned in his embrace, putting her arms around his neck. They stayed like that for several moments, doing nothing but simply holding each other. Her head rested at his shoulder and he tightened the hug. Then she shifted. "Uhm--I'm about to pour whiskey down your back."

"Ah--" he let her go and took the glass from her. "Not a good thing." He set the glass on the table behind them, then reached out again, stroking a finger down the side of her face until his hand rested at the base of her throat. She reached up and removed his glasses. He grimaced; he'd forgotten to do that. She always preferred to see his eyes, so he usually made it a point to take the glasses off when they were alone together. He gazed into her eyes, seeing a sparkle there which managed to shine through the fatigue, and he smiled, lowering his head to hers. But instead of kissing her, he simply rested his forehead against hers. She smiled, too, and they stayed like that for a long moment, simply gazing at each other.

Then she was in his arms again, holding on for strength and comfort--two things he had to give her. He held her close, stroking a hand down her hair and back.

Eventually, she straightened in the embrace and he loosened the hug. "Now then," he cupped the side of her face, "you want to tell me what's wrong?"

She sighed and shook her head. "I don't know--I know it was time for me to come home. I know it. But--"

"But Katie's still in the hospital and you're feeling guilty," Kermit guessed, leading her to a seat on the couch. "How does Katie feel about it?"

"She says she understands, but I could tell she was hurt that I wasn't staying longer."

"What about Ben?"

She smiled. "Ben's just about back to normal--which means that sports and video games are more important than Mom and Dad. Or little sister."

Kermit chuckled; that sounded a lot like Jake, too. "How does Katie get along with her step-mother?"

"All right, I guess. I know Meg loves the kids, but I can't help feeling--I'm her mother, damn it! I should be there!"

"Then go back," Kermit said reasonably.

"I can't--I have a job to do here."

"There are other police forces in the world, Karen. Even in Connecticut. With your experience and qualifications, you could get another job easily."

"That isn't the point--"

"Isn't it? You want to be with your kids. Fine. Then move there. Maybe you could petition Jack for joint custody."

"Oh, get serious!" she scoffed. "Joint custody is a joke--all it does is pull the kids in opposite directions. I'd never dream of doing that--I'd rather--" she stopped and stared at him.

"Give them up?" he completed.

There was another silence. Then she smiled wryly. "Did you ever consider becoming a lawyer?"

He grinned. "Nah--I prefer honest professions--like the mercenaries." He put an arm around her shoulders. "The way I see it, you've got two choices--either go on the way things are, or move out there and be with them."

She shook her head. "I can't do that--it would be a disaster. Jack and I couldn't stand being that close to each other. We pick at each other, we always have. The kids used to hate it when we would fight. I think in a way the divorce was a relief to them because then the fighting stopped."

"So that leaves you with going on the way things are."

She sighed again. "I know. I know we all have choices to make. And when I look at mine, logically, I know I made the right one. The only one I could have made. But that's my little girl in the hospital, and I'm half a continent away. And it doesn't matter if it's the only thing I can do. I should be there for her and I'm not. And that hurts."

Kermit took a deep breath. "My father ran his own business--small, one-man operation. He worked 12 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week. He missed every ball game, every parents' night--my high school graduation-- Before he died, I visited him in the hospital. He said to me, 'I'm sorry I never got to one of your ball games.' I said 'Dad, I wasn't that good a player.' He said it didn't matter, that he should have been there. All that time he was feeling guilty about missing my ball games. But I understood. I understood and accepted what he was. I just took it for granted that he wouldn't be there, so it didn't bother me. It didn't change the way I felt about him--I certainly didn't love him less.

"My point is that you might think you should have done something different, but I'll bet Katie doesn't. She knows what you are and what you do. And I'll bet she gets a kick telling her friends that her mom is a Captain in a big metropolitan police force. You might not be able to accept it, but Katie will. And she'll love you anyway."

He reached over and brushed a tear from her cheek; he wondered if she'd even realized its presence. She sniffed. "Thank you," she whispered.

He smiled. "Any time." He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

"You could try that a little lower, you know," she said.

"You mean like this?" he grinned and kissed the tip of her nose.

"Not exactly." She tugged gently on his tie, bringing him down to her. "Like this."

It wasn't their first kiss. But it was, perhaps, the first one without necessarily chaste motivations. She vocalized a little sigh and wrapped her arms around his neck. He pulled her closer as the kiss continued.

Until the doorbell rang a minute later.

"Shit!" he muttered, and she giggled and let him go. "Bad timing." But he dutifully got up and answered the door, paying the delivery boy and carrying the bag into the kitchen. She joined him a minute later. Her hair was mussed and she looked a little flushed. Kermit decided that she looked more desirable in that moment than she had ever done--and he'd always found her attractive.

But such thoughts got set aside as food was dished out and they carried their plates back in to the living room, deciding to sit on the couch and eat instead of the more formal dining area.

Conversation, such as it was, was light and inconsequential, Kermit trying his best to keep Karen distracted. But halfway through the meal, he felt her go morose again and she set her plate down.

"Now what?" he asked.

She sighed heavily. "Nothing. I-- I'm not very good company tonight, Kermit. I'm sorry."

He set his own plate down. He didn't know what to say to her, didn't know how to deal with her mood. "Do you want me to go?" he asked.

She stared at him for a long moment. Then she nodded. "I think maybe it would be best."

"All right," he agreed. "Fair enough." It wasn't exactly what he'd envisioned for the evening, but if she wanted to be left alone, he'd obey her wishes. He respected her enough to give her the space she needed. "You done with your plate?" he asked, picking up his own. She nodded and he carried both plates into the kitchen, rinsing them before putting them in the dishwasher. He closed up the containers, putting them in the refrigerator. Then, because he couldn't procrastinate any longer, went back in to say his good byes.

She was standing in front of the photos on the bookcase, arms wrapped around herself. Silent tears were streaming down her cheeks.

"Karen?" he frowned.

"My baby," she whispered hoarsely. "My baby--"

To hell with leaving. He took her in his arms as the dam burst and she wept bitter tears against his shoulder. He led her back to the couch where she curled against him, weeping inconsolably. He didn't try to calm her, only to comfort her, cradling and soothing her with gentle whispers and touches. He was glad he'd loitered; she'd only dismissed him because she didn't want to put too much pressure on their relationship. It was too new to endure too much turbulence. But he wanted to be here for her. He wanted to give her comfort. He was willing to be dumped on, occasionally, because he was certain that after the drama, this was a relationship worth working for. Because spending time with Karen Simms felt better than anything had in a very long time.

Eventually, the tears trickled into sniffs and sighs, and he dug in his pocket for a handkerchief, which he pressed into her hand. She blew her nose, wiped her eyes, then glanced balefully at the square of cloth. "Uh--I'll get this cleaned for you."

"Doesn't matter--you can toss it out for all I care," he hugged her closer, kissing her hair. She sighed and rested against his shoulder again. "You still want me to go?" he asked softly.

She shook her head. "I just-- This isn't like me--not at all."

"We all have different ways of handling stress."

"I handle stress every day without bursting into tears."

"Professional stress, sure. That's easy. Personal stress is totally different. If I know you, you've been using the Iron Maiden a lot these last couple of weeks--keep it all together, cool, in control. Can't do that forever, though. At some point you need to lock the doors, turn off all the lights, scream and throw things."

She smiled. "And that's what this is? Letting off steam?"

"More or less."

She sighed. "I didn't want to burden you with all this--"

"Hey--" he turned her face toward him. "I'm here because I want to be. No one's forcing me into anything, you know. It's OK to need somebody sometimes." He stroked a thumb across her cheek. "I have a hard time with that one, too. Maybe we can work on it together?"

She gazed at him. "I'd like that," she answered softly.

"So would I," he replied, leaning in to kiss her mouth.

Eventually, she straightened and excused herself, and Kermit heard the bathroom door close. He leaned his head back and groaned, stretching out the kinks. Well, he'd say one thing, this relationship was never dull! He went into the kitchen, refreshing her glass of scotch as well as pouring one for himself. He handed hers to her when she returned.

"More medicinal purposes?" she asked. She'd washed off the remains of her makeup; the effect was to make her look more tired and more vulnerable.

He shrugged. "Or you could just decide to get plastered."

She chuckled. "I have to go to work tomorrow--and so do you." But she obligingly took a sip of the liquor.

"You could take a sick day," he reasoned.

"If I wanted to lie-in, I'd have stayed in Connecticut." She settled herself on the couch, legs tucked up, resting against him. He draped an arm across her shoulders, gently stroking his thumb up and down her arm.

"Oh yeah, and tell me how much sleep you got there."

"Enough to keep me on my feet," she admitted.

"Uh huh. So you're exhausted as well as stressed. Nice combination, makes for a really alert police officer."

"So I'll stay in my office and shuffle papers all day--it's what I do most of the time anyway."

"And here I was thinking police work was exciting," he shook his head.

She chuckled softly, and they settled down to quiet, easy conversation, nursing their drinks. Eventually, even the conversation ceased and they were content to simply be together in silence, a silence far less uncomfortable than silences usually were between people. High drama, crisis and angst notwithstanding, this--felt good.

She wriggled around so that she could put her arms around him, her head tucked beneath his chin. He kissed her hair and rubbed her back soothingly. He found the elastic band which held her braid and slid it off, his fingers stroking through her hair, unplaiting it. Her beautiful, soft hair spilled in a tumble over her back, gently waving from the braid. He could feel her relax beneath his touch, felt the tension seep out of her like water from a leaky bucket. Felt his own tension fade as well. He pressed his cheek to the top of her head, closed his eyes and let himself drift....

He opened them again, aware of the passage of time. He glanced at his watch; it couldn't have been more than ten minutes. Karen was asleep in his arms--or nearly so. He raised his head and the movement was enough to waken her.

"Mmmm?" she murmured, lifting her head groggily.

"Hi," he smiled at her.

"Did I fall asleep?"

"Yeah. Just for a few minutes. I did, too."

"Oh." She shook her head, trying to wake up.

"You should get some sleep," he said, stroking her hair.

"I thought I just did."

He chuckled. "Cat-naps don't count. I meant in a bed, for a whole night. You remember sleeping at night, don't you?"

"Vaguely." She rubbed a hand over her face.

"Come on--I'm gonna get out of here so you can get to bed." He started to stand up. Her hand against his chest stopped him.

"No--" He looked at her. "Won't you stay?"

He smiled. In any other circumstance, he'd jump at this invitation. Any circumstance but this one. A physical relationship with Karen Simms was a thing devoutly to be wished. But not when she was so needy. Not when she was apt to turn to anything that could give her comfort. Kermit wanted Karen, but he wanted her to want him, too--not just need him. He liked to believe that that would happen eventually. Once this crisis was over and Karen was back to her old self. It would happen.

But not tonight.

"Not a good idea," he shook his head. "You need to get some sleep."

"I will," she insisted, "it's just--I know I'm being foolish, but-- I don't want to be alone right now, Kermit. I'm sorry."

"You need your sleep," he repeated. "You won't get that if I stay."

"I think I'm tired enough to sleep no matter what."

Kermit laughed. "You overestimate my restraint, sweetheart. And you underestimate your own allure."

She blinked at him. "Like this?"

He took in her red, puffy eyes, pale complexion and tangled hair. "Even like that," he kissed the tip of her nose, making her smile. "Besides which, unless you're on birth control--" She frowned, then shook her head. "Then it would be a very bad idea for me to stay."

She sighed, then finally nodded agreement. "I just--didn't want to be alone. I keep thinking of Katie--the choices I made that I shouldn't have--the ones I should have that I didn't--"

"Oh, Karen, Karen, Karen," he rocked her gently in his arms. "I'll make a deal with you. You get ready for bed. I'll come and tuck you in. Then I'll sleep on the couch, a quick hollar away if you need me. Will that do?"

She sighed again. "I'm sorry, I'm taking terrible advantage of you. It's just that-- You've been the only thing good--the only thing right, since this whole mess began. It feels good, having you here. It helps. Just now, I don't seem to want to let that go."

"You don't have to," he answered, hugging her closer. "I'll be right here. Now come on--let's get you to bed."

He led her to her bedroom, then left her, returning some ten minutes later. She was already in bed, eyes closed, but she blinked them open when he sat next to her.

"Do you want a bedtime story?" he asked grinning, and took one of her hands.

She smiled sleepily. "How about the one with the frog who turns into the knight in shining armor," she answered.

He was touched by her allusion. "I don't know that one," he said.

"It's my favorite."

"Well then," he squeezed her hand, "you can tell it to me sometime."

She stifled a yawn, then gazed at him intently. "Kermit--when I asked you to stay, I-- I wasn't even thinking about-- Making love. I just didn't want to be alone."

Kermit felt the blood drain from his face. How could he have misread something like that? What must she think of him?

She was still speaking. "But once I've gotten past this--once I'm myself again-- I'd like to think about it. Very much."

The blood returned to his face--and then some. He grinned, feeling the warmth of her declaration all the way to his--well, he felt it somewhere north of his toes, but he sure felt it, all right. He brought her hand up, turned it over and kissed the palm, folding her fingers in on themselves again, as if to hold the kiss in her hand. He pressed a second kiss to the backs of her fingers, to seal the first one.

"Good night," he whispered, leaning in and kissing her mouth tenderly. "Sweet dreams."

"'Night," she murmured and closed her eyes, sighing in contentment.

Kermit stroked her shoulder through the blanket as he stood and turned off the light, closing the door behind him.

He walked into the living room and gazed balefully at the couch--it was much smaller and much less friendly than her double bed. But safer. A lot safer.

"Congratulations, Griffin," he muttered, "you've just proved that chivalry isn't dead."

He downed the last of his scotch and took both glasses into the kitchen. He thought briefly about the studio couch in the spare room, but decided it was too much hassle to find sheets and make it up. He'd settle on the couch.

It was still early--very early by Kermit's night-owl standards. He wasn't tired, so he found the coffee, made himself a cup, and settled down to watch an evening's worth of bad television.



~~~



Kermit arrived at the precinct the next morning to find Karen's car already there. He frowned. Did she get up when he left, or did she go back to sleep like he'd coaxed her to?

Around 6:00 a.m., Kermit had finally given up pretending to try and sleep. So he'd gotten up, cleaned up, then checked on Karen again. She'd had a blessedly undisturbed sleep; in sleep, her face lost that tight, pinched look it had carried all evening. Kermit had found himself simply gazing at her, unable to turn away, unwilling to disturb her rest.

Kermit didn't believe in love. He'd never been in love, despite having been married twice. So for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why he kept thinking in horrid cliches when thinking of her; why phrases like "luminescent beauty", "heart-swelling" and "aching tenderness" kept swirling in his head. They still barely knew each other, for god's sake. It was much to early to be thinking of--

Thinking of what? A physical relationship? She'd admitted she'd wanted that last night. Taking their relationship to the next level? They'd both talked about that earlier. Greater committment? Kermit shuddered, unsure anymore what committment meant--or even if he were capable of it. It had never been his strong suit in the past.

Eventually, he'd stirred himself from his musings. It was only fair, after all, to tell her he was going rather than sneaking out without a word. He'd leaned in to kiss her (like sleeping beauty, his mind supplied before rejecting the notion as being too smarmy to credit). However, at his kiss she'd fluttered awake--just like sleeping beauty. He'd bade her good morning, told her he was going home, assured her that her alarm was set for half an hour hence and she could go back to sleep for a little while. Then, with another kiss, had taken his leave.

His eyes were gritty from lack of sleep, but he'd been this road before. He was an expert on short sleep. He'd gone home, showered and changed, then fortified with breakfast and lots of strong coffee, had made his way to the precinct.

The door to her office was closed, and he couldn't see who she was talking to. So he went to his own office. Blake stopped him by the coffee maker.

"The Captain's back," he said.

"Mmm," Kermit nodded and went on his way. He ordered his files, printing out a status report for her perusal. Then he got to work on the day's mysteries.

It was late morning when he received his summons, delivered by a harried Chief Strenlich. He had to hope Frank's mood wasn't indicative of the captain's. He gathered his printouts and headed to her office.

When he knocked, she looked up and an expression Kermit couldn't identify flashed across her face. Then the Iron Maiden snapped firmly into place.

"Come in, Detective," she said, "and shut the door."

He complied, slouching into his usual chair. He handed her the case log printouts. She glanced at them briefly. "Chief Strenlich has told me about your run-in with Detective Levy," she said bluntly.

He grimaced. Well, he had to figure it would get back to her. "An error of judgement on my part. Levy has a big mouth and I got sick of it flapping where it didn't belong."

She allowed herself a sliver of a smile. "Yes, that's what the Chief said. I've spoken with Detective Levy myself, this morning." He looked up, surprised at that. She was gazing at the papers on her desk. "I told him that he either kept those opinions to himself, or found himself a new place to work. The transfer request arrived on my desk about twenty minutes ago."

Kermit nodded. "Good riddance. Levy wasn't so good at his job that he'll be missed. Let someone else deal with his mouth."

She sighed. "Except that it makes us short-staffed. Again." She shook her head and moved Levy's transfer request to the side. "But we'll find somebody, eventually. Now--what do you have for me?"

"It's all right there," he answered, drawing her attention to his printout. "We don't have enough on Grayson yet--I'm working on it. Guy's a lot slipperier than I was expecting. Harrington's out on bond--natually. But what we've got on him makes for a pretty water-tight case. He'll whine, of course, because that's what he does, but I'm not expecting him to be much trouble. He's scared now."

"Any chance he'll run?"

Kermit shrugged. "There's always a chance, but it's slim. All of his Wall Street buddies' middle-class sensibilities have been offended by this; they've left him pretty much high and dry. He's on his own. And he knows that if he runs, all he's doing is pounding one more nail in his coffin. The guy's slime, but he's intelligent slime."

"What about the Stem muggings? Have you found the connection?"

"You mean besides the fact that they were all beaten to within an inch of their lives? Not a thing. Different ages, different sexes, different backgrounds. The only common denominator so far is the locale. I keep thinking there had to have been some like reason why those people were in that area at that specific time, but until we can figure out the link-- We've got it under surveillance, but it's a big area. Another one slipped through on Monday."

"And no one can offer a description?"

"'It was dark'." Kermit quoted the "witnesses".

"Damn," she shook her head.

"They'll slip up--they always do," Kermit reassured her. "When they do, we'll be there."

"No, not good enough. I'll talk to Chief Strenlich about tasking someone undercover in the area. Perhaps Drake. Or Chin."

"Not Peter Caine?" Kermit grinned.

She looked up at that, and reluctantly smiled. "Undercover? No, I don't think so. Not his strong suit." She looked back at the file. "And Marsetti?"

"Over and done with--the report's there," Kermit pointed out. She flipped the page, saw the report in question, and nodded. He waited for her next question. And waited. She seemed absorbed in the report--a two-paragraph summation of a surveillance detail, nothing that should require such study. "Was there anything else?" he asked.

That brought her out with a start. "Oh-- no, I--" she paused; Kermit noticed that she wouldn't look him in the face. She took a deep breath. "Kermit, I--want to apologize--for what happened last night."

So that was it; she felt bad about what had happened. He needed to reassure her that it was all right, so he pretended to misunderstand. "But nothing happened last night."

She looked up sharply. "I--"

"I picked you up," he continued, "we went back to your place, had dinner, played some couch games--that was rather nice, by the way, too bad the doorbell rang--" he waggled his eyebrows at her.

"I fell apart--" she added, and he heard the touch of anger in her voice, though anger at herself or him, he couldn't be sure.

"Oh that," he waved his hand dismissively, hoping to diffuse her ire. "No big deal."

"It is to me. I don't make a habit of--"

He interrupted her. "I'd've been more concerned if you hadn't had any reaction at all, the stress you've been under. At least now I know you're human."

That made her look at him. "I didn't realize that was in doubt."

"There have been moments," he shrugged.

She looked away again. "It wasn't exactly Grace Under Pressure."

He smiled. One would have thought this conversation would have taken place after they'd slept together, but-- "Is that what you're worried about? Will I still respect you in the morning? No fear, sweetheart. This didn't change anything."

"But I--" she paused, took a deep breath and rubbed a hand between her brows. "This isn't working," she shook her head.

"What isn't?"

"This. Us."

"Why? Because of a few tears? I know now that you can be vulnerable so that's screwed up everything? I don't buy it. If that sort of thing happened every night, then we could talk. But a one-time occurrence like this is nothing to get upset about."

"You're not understanding me, Kermit--"

"Oh, that's right, typical lack of communication between men and women, men are from Mars, women are from Venus," he said disgustedly. Then he grinned. "Yeah, we are. And that's what makes it fun! If you want to give up, that's up to you. But not because of this. Not because you're afraid that if I see the real you, I won't want to be with you anymore. There's not a damned thing I've seen yet, tears or no tears, that's done anything but convince me that I want to get to know you better. I'm a lot harder to scare than that."

She stared at him for a long moment. And then she smiled ruefully, shaking her head. "Are you always this infuriating?"

"Any chance I get," he agreed amiably. He sat up straight in his chair. "Look, Captain--Karen-- As long as we're already breaking Rule Number One by having this discussion here at the precinct, we might as well go whole hog. However mortified you may be because you proved last night that you have feelings, and god forbid sometimes those feelings come out, I'll have you know that I for one thought that last night had some definite high-points. You know it's very good for the male ego for a strong woman to admit she needs a hug now and then. Reminds us that maybe a relationship is worth fighting for after all."

She regarded him curiously. "You think this is worth fighting for?"

"Absolutely," he nodded. "I wouldn't have spent a sleepless night on your couch if I didn't."

"I'm sorry about that," she looked sheepish.

"Hey, I said I was willing to be there for you, and I meant it. And like I said, parts of the evening were definitely worth remembering."

She smiled at that. "Yes, they were. I meant what I said last night--right before I went to sleep--"

"Oh, don't talk about that now--in here," he moaned. "Let's go to lunch. You free?"

She glanced at her watch, the papers on her desk, and sighed. "Can't," she said regretfully.

"Ah well," he said mock-despairingly, "spurned again. I shall just go back to my lonely computer and contemplate the infinite." He grinned and she laughed. "You done with me?"

As soon as it was out of his mouth, he realized the double-entendre of his question. She caught it, too, and her eyes sparkled mischievously. "Not hardly. But I am through discussing your caseload. Let me know when you get anything on Grayson. That man needs taking down."

"Certainly, Mon Capitan," he saluted and headed for the door.

"Kermit--" her voice called him back. "I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but thank you."

He gave her his best cheeky grin. "Any time."



~~~



Kermit's extension rang late-afternoon, as it had been doing seemingly every five minutes for most of the day. "Yeah." he snapped.

"Has anyone ever discussed telephone etiquette with you, detective?" Karen's voice came over the line.

"Sorry, Cap'n, what can I do for you?"

"I'm going grocery shopping this evening--what should I get?"

Kermit sat back in his chair and laughed. "You serious?"

"Of course. You've been promising to cook for me. Here's your chance."

"Well, what do you like?"

"Surprise me."

He thought for a moment. "You like veal?"

"As long as I don't think too hard about where it came from, yes."

"Fine. Get a couple of veal chops, a clove of garlic, olive oil, pasta or rice, your choice, and a vegetable--something green, like brussels sprouts, but only if they're small and tender. And anything else you want. I don't bake so dessert's on you."

"All right. I'll let you know how I do."

"Fine." They hung up. Kermit shook his head, chuckling. It occurred to him that they hadn't set a date for this wonder-meal. If she wasn't shopping 'til tonight, then it wouldn't be today. Tomorrow, perhaps? He decided to stop at the market on the way home himself--pick up a few odds and ends for the dinner. He'd bring a good bottle of wine, maybe something else, however his mood struck him. He mentally rubbed his hands together. This was gonna be fun!



~~~



Kermit was juggling a shopping bag, a bottle of wine and a bouquet of flowers, trying to get a finger to the doorbell when Karen beat him to it.

"Good Lord, what is all that?" she asked.

"Good evening, my lady," he greeted her. "This is the rest of dinner. Some of my own special touches. And wine, of course."

"Oh, good."

"And these--" he whipped out the bouquet, "are for you."

She gasped and her face brightened. "Oh, how sweet. Oh, Kermit, they're lovely, thank you." She reached up to kiss him. The kiss was languid and lingering. "Mmmm," she sighed into it, "that's nice, too."

"We aim to please," he murmured, letting her go.

"And you're right on target, too. Come on in, bring your goodies. I want to get these right in water. I can't even remember the last time I got flowers."

"Your husband?"

She glanced at him. "Jack didn't believe in flowers--he thought them frivolous."

"Sounds like a real romantic," Kermit commented.

"No, but he was a good husband--solid, steady and dependable."

"That's fine for a brick wall, but doesn't say much for a human being."

Karen sighed. "I don't want to talk about him, OK?"

"Sorry. Sore point?"

She shrugged. "Unpleasant, not really sore. It's hard to think, years after a divorce, that you could have loved someone once. And now you can barely stand to be around him."

"I last saw my second wife about six months ago," he nodded. "I still don't hate her. I never did. But I'm more convinced than ever that the smartest thing we ever did was splitting up. Even taking Jake into account. Cass is crazy and she makes me crazy just being around her."

She frowned. "Crazy as in really, pathologically crazy?"

Kermit shrugged. "That's open for debate. But Cass lives life on the edge. Always did. I did too, once, but I looked over once too often, got scared one time too many, and learned to stand well back. She's still dancing along the precipice. That's the way she likes it. More power to her, except that it'll be me that'll have to tell her mother and her son when she finally falls off the edge."

Karen frowned. "I couldn't live like that."

"Neither can I. Anymore. That's why I got out."

Karen finished arranging the flowers in a vase and set it on the dining room table, which was set for a dinner for two, complete with candles. She smiled at Kermit. "Do you want to start on dinner, or do you want a drink--unwind first?"

"Let's check what we've got so I can see how long everything will take. But I wouldn't say no to the drink anyway."

She smiled and fixed him a cocktail as he sorted through his parcel. "You really don't cook? Ever?" he asked.

"Every once in a great while," she admitted, handing him his drink. They toasted mutely, then returned to their sorting. "I used to, when the kids were small," she went on. "Every night. And if I was working the late shift, then I'd make everything ahead of time, so all Jack had to do was heat it up. But then he got successful. And I got busier. So we hired someone."

"To cook?"

"Cook and clean."

Kermit raised an eyebrow. "I'm definitely out of my league here."

She shrugged. "I grew up with servants. There was always domestic staff at the embassies."

Kermit set his oils and seasonings on the counter, putting the wine in the refrigerator to chill. "Where was your father posted?"

"Oh, everywhere. At least that's how it seemed. We spent a long time in the east--Singapore, Jakarta, Manila, Hong Kong, Tokyo. Then, for some reason I've never understood, they posted him to Canada. Quite a shock after the far east. I went to high school in Ottawa. Then I came back home for college, and the rest of the family went to New Zealand and Australia."

Karen was pulling things out of the refrigerator for him. "I got the veal, and rice. And potatoes. I couldn't find any brussels sprouts, so I got asparagus. And salad greens. If we want appetizers, I'm afraid all I've got is fruit and cheese. But there's a fruit custard tart for dessert."

"Sounds perfect," he smiled. "You might not cook, but you can sure plan a menu. All that diplomatic hostess training?"

She smiled back, then appeared to hesitate. Finally, she took a deep breath and said, "Um, and I got some things for breakfast, too."

It took a moment for that to register. But when it did, Kermit felt that old familiar tingle. He resisted the temptation to piston the air with his fist. Instead, he cocked his head and asked, "Is that an invitation?"

She flushed slightly. "Yes."

He couldn't have stopped the grin if he'd tried. "Good. I was hoping it was." He put down his onion and took her in his arms. "And, because I'm such an optimistic guy, I took some precautions, which are in my jacket pocket."

She chuckled. "Mine are in the nightstand drawer."

He did laugh then, as did she. Then he kissed her quite soundly. The kiss went on for some little time, until they heard a thud behind him.

"Do you have a cat?" he murmured.

"No," she sighed, "Why?"

"Then what was that noise?"

"I dropped the lemon I was holding."

"Oh." He gave her a final kiss, then withdrew. "Well then--" he picked up the lemon from the floor, setting it back on the counter. He glanced around the kitchen dubiously. "Hell, you weren't really hungry, were you?"

"Oh no," she shook a finger at him, "I didn't buy all this stuff for us to ignore it. We've got the whole night ahead of us--" she smiled at him, "and I want dinner."

He sighed melodramatically. "Oh well. Can't blame a guy for trying." He grinned.

"Oy-oy-oy," she shook her head, but she was laughing, too.

Somehow, knowing where the evening was going made a world of difference in their mood. The pressure was off. It was no longer a "performance", expecting perfection in the hope of being granted a special "reward". They knew already where they were headed; they could just relax.

Dinner preparation was an eventful affair. Kermit was serious about liking to cook, though the process was something of a game for him. He wielded a knife like an expert, chopping onions, pulverizing garlic. Karen watched, fascinated, 'til he put her to work helping him. He believed in the social benefits of preparing a meal--whether it was around a campfire in the bush somewhere or in a fully appointed kitchen, cooking was meant to be shared. So while he chopped, she measured. He turned, she stirred. They broke out the fruit and cheese, and spent the time nibbling, cooking and talking. Especially talking.

Talking with Karen was always so easy. He didn't know why, but it was. Talking about little unimportant things, talking about things that mattered. Kermit had a lot of--shadows--in his past. But he was beginning to think that some day he might just be able to let his guard down enough and let her see some of them--perhaps to cast light on them and make them disappear. He wasn't sure know why he felt this way. Perhaps it had to do with trust.

The food was ready and together they brought it to the table. She lit the candles, he opened the wine. She took her seat as he filled their wine glasses, then sat opposite her. He raised his glass.

"To--" he paused. Suddenly, he didn't have a clue what to say, that wouldn't sound either perverse or ridiculous.

"To the future?" she suggested.

"To getting to know each other," he replied.

"I'll drink to that," she smiled and they touched glasses.

The meal was, if he did say so himself, perfect. Karen took one bite and her eyes widened. "Kermit, this is wonderful!"

"You doubted?" he raised an eyebrow.

"Well, I could tell you knew what you were doing in there, but this is amazing. You're hired."

He chuckled. "Sorry. Not looking for another job. Have one already." Then he pretended to consider. "On the other hand, the hours would be better, and the pay couldn't be any worse...."

She laughed. "Why did you join the police--and don't give me that line about Blaisdell being difficult to say no to."

"It's the truth," he insisted. "More or less. Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that a job which pays very well but makes it unlikely you'll ever get to enjoy any of your riches, is perhaps not the best choice for a career. Some things happened that made me ready to get out. Blaisdell'd been 'courting' me for awhile. So here I am--lousy pay and more headaches than I can use. But at least when I go to work in the morning, I'm reasonably assured I'll get to come home at night. It's a novel experience; I'm beginning to like it."

Karen shook her head. "For most of us, we had to weigh the inherent dangers of the profession when we joined the police. You chose it because it was safer."

"'Chose' isn't really a good word," Kermit corrected. "It was 'chosen' for me. If Blaisdell'd been an insurance salesman, I'd be doing amortization tables right now instead of hunting criminals."

She gazed at him, amazed and assessing. "You would have gone anywhere for him, wouldn't you?"

"To the ends of the earth," he confirmed, "to hell and back. Still would. If he called me tomorrow, wherever he was, and said I need you, I'd be gone."

"That's quite a debt," she said gently.

"I don't expect to ever be able to pay it," he explained, "I can only try."

She took a deep breath. "There aren't too many people these days who believe in that kind of personal loyalty, Kermit. I'm honored that I know one of them."

He looked down, pretending to study his plate. He hadn't expected her to understand. But she did.

It was getting too heavy again--time to switch gears. He took a sip of his wine, then sat back, grinning at her. "So, if I became your personal chef, what would you pay me?"

She laughed. "Well, I can't promise to give you more money at the precinct--they're even talking about freezing salaries next year."

"Jesus--" he shook his head disgustedly.

"Yes, my sentiments exactly. Hmmm," she considered. "I'd offer to clean your house and do your laundry, except I don't even do my own. I could get your car washed, but it would probably frighten the guys at the carwash. Ah!" her eyes brightened, "I've been told I give a good back rub."

He blinked. "Seriously?"

"So I've been told."

"You have just hit upon the magic words, my dear--back rub."

"Ah," she nodded knowingly. "You're one of those--the way to your heart is through your back."

"With this hacker's back, how could I not?"

"A what?" she frowned.

"I call it 'hacker's back'--from hours slumped in front of a computer." He demonstrated his usual posture, shoulders rounded, neck thrust forward. "Some nights it's all I can do to straighten up."

"Well after dinner, I'll see what I can do," she agreed.

"Bless you," he put palms together and bowed. A backrub! Oh, rapturous joy! He'd always been a sucker for a backrub, loving the tactile experience. But his back was not good--hadn't been good since--well, for a very long time. Long hours in front of the computer hadn't helped. There were mornings when only strength of will got him out of bed, times when codeine and massive doses of ibuprofen were all that kept him going throughout the day. And now she was offering to help relieve his discomfort a little. To ease the ache. And for it to be Karen's hands doing it-- Oh yeah!

"On one condition," she amended.

"What?"

"Lose the tie."

He blinked. "What?"

"Kermit, every time I see you, you're in that damned suit and tie. Even on our one day off together, you were still in the tie. I'm beginning to think it's stapled to your body."

He chuckled. "Not so, my sweet. Wait 'til later and I'll prove it to you." He waggled his eyebrows at her.

She leaned forward, resting her chin on her hand. "Prove it to me now."

He gaped. "Over dinner?"

"Just the tie."

Kermit considered. Karen Simms was a fascinating surprise. So he shrugged in acquiescence, loosened his tie and tugged it off with a flourish. The jacket had been abandoned much earlier in the kitchen. He wrapped the tie into a ball and dropped it ceremoniously in the center of the table.

"Better?" he asked.

"Almost," she glanced pointedly at his top collar button. So with a mock-resigned sigh, he unbuttoned the single top button.

"I can tell you've never seen me at home," he smirked.

"Why?"

"My favorite at-home attire is a pair of thoroughly disreputable sweatpants, a faded t-shirt and an old flannel shirt with no elbows."

She opened her mouth, surprised, and shook her head. "I can't picture it."

He laughed. "It's true. If I'm home, which isn't very often, I'm either working in the kitchen, slouched in front of the computer, or asleep. I like to be comfortable."

"Not lounging on the couch in front of the tv?"

"I don't have a couch. My tv's in the bedroom."

"You don't have a couch?"

"I don't have--furniture. Things to sit on."

"Why not?"

"I've just never bothered. I don't use it, so I don't have it. I don't entertain, so I've never needed one."

She smiled and shook her head. "Sometimes I think I'll never figure you out." But her voice was low--like the idea pleased her.

"Maybe not. But won't it be fun trying?"

They smiled.

The meal over, they cleared the table. He put away the leftovers while she rinsed and loaded the dishwasher. She was facing the sink when he came up behind her, putting his hands on her waist and kissing the back of her neck. She was just enough shorter than him that it was an easy gesture--she fit in his arms.

"Mmm," she sighed against him. "Coffee?"

"Definitely," he murmured, nuzzling his way behind her ear. She sighed again and shivered slightly.

"Kermit--" she whispered, "if you want coffee, you'll have to let me go."

He sighed and did as requested. "It's always something."

She smiled and turned around, stroking a hand down the side of his face; an intimate gesture that set his nerves alight. "Why don't you go on into the other room--I'll just be a minute," she said gently.

He caught her hand, kissed the palm, then let her go. He walked into the other room, giving himself a little shake to dissipate some of the energy. Electricity between two people was a wonderful thing--assuming they didn't short-circuit. They had the whole evening ahead of them--the watchword was conservation.

In her living room was a stone fireplace. He'd never noticed it before, not really. It was a design element, like her comfortable couch, the cabinet which contained her tv and stereo, and the bookcases. But he found himself noticing it now. Sitting in front of a roaring fire--now this had appeal. But he didn't see any logs in the area. Perhaps it was a fake fireplace? Be a damned shame if it was.

She came into the room carrying two mugs of coffee on a small tray. "Black, isn't it?"

"Absolutely," he nodded. "And strong." He took a cup, sipping at it. "Does the fireplace work?"

"I don't know," she frowned. "I've never used it. It's gas."

"But is it connected?"

"I have no idea--it must be."

"Shall we find out?"

"All right," she agreed. He opened the glass doors and pushed aside the mesh, kneeling in front of it. "Ah--that looks like a knob. Let's see what happens--" He turned the knob. Nothing happened. "Hmmm. I wonder if it needs to be lit by hand. Do you have matches?"

No sooner had he spoken when the fireplace went 'whoosh' and the 'logs' burst into flame. It startled him and he sat back with a thump, sloshing hot coffee over his hand.

"Shit!" he swore.

"Kermit!" she exclaimed at the same time. "Did it get you?"

"No, the coffee did."

"Oh, no--hang on." She ran into the kitchen. He set the cup on the hearth and sucked at his hand. It wasn't really burned, just a little scalded. It stung.

She returned with a cold wet towel for his hand and a dry one for the spilled coffee, most of which was on the rug. He dabbed at the injured hand while she mopped up the spill.

"How is it?" she asked, wadding up the soiled towel.

"It's all right--" he turned the hand experimentally. "Just stings a little."

She looked from the hand to his face, and her eyes sparkled in the firelight. "Do you want me to kiss it and make it better?"

In response, he thrust the hand in her direction. So she took it, stroked it gently, and placed tiny kisses on the fingers, back, wrist and palm. "Better?" she asked huskily.

"Oh yeah."

She smiled let it go, climbing to her feet. "I guess you don't need a warm-up on the coffee?"

"I don't think so," he chuckled.

She took the dirty towel to the kitchen, came back and turned off all the lights but one, setting it to its lowest setting. The fire cast shadows and bathed the room with a golden glow. She knelt beside him. "Now then, let's see about this back of yours.

Kermit smiled gratefully at her, sat up and dropped his head down.

She started by running her hands gently across his shoulders, neck and upper back. "My God, Kermit, you weren't kidding, were you?" She gingerly explored the knots. "This may be beyond my skills."

"Anything at all would be appreciated," he said imploringly. Her hands felt so good....

She worked in silence for several minutes. The fireplace, despite being gas, still made the odd pop and crackle. All that was missing was the wood scent. Kermit relaxed his neck and shoulders in an effort to ease his muscles.

"Have you always had back problems?" she asked softly.

"For awhile. I had an injury some time ago--that didn't help.'

"What kind of injury?"

No--he wasn't ready to tell her about that. Maybe later. Maybe after she'd seen the scars and he could no longer avoid her questions. But for now.... "Later," he murmured.

She sighed, but said nothing, simply continued her gentle strokes, her careful prods and kneads. Every once in awhile she'd find an especially sensitive spot and he'd flinch. She'd ease her touch, going carefully, but work to loosen that spot. She didn't get very far, but it was definitely a start; his back felt better than it had.

And then the touches changed; they were less massages than caresses. Her fingers stroked the sides of his neck. He felt her shift closer, felt the whisper of her hair against his shoulder. Smelled her perfume, going to his head. And then he felt her lips on his neck, kissing tenderly. Nibbling to his hair, sweet breath in his ear. He tipped his head to the side and moaned. "Your technique's fantastic," he sighed.

"Glad you like it," she murmured.

Her hands were roaming across his back while her lips sought the pulse at his throat. He turned his head, leaned back and claimed her mouth, kisses she returned eagerly. He edged around, taking her in his arms, mouths open to each other hungrily. Her hands came up to capture his face, then stroked down his neck, fingers sliding beneath his collar. His fingers tangled in her hair, freeing the tumbling mass from its barrette. She moaned against him as her fingers sought the buttons of his shirt.

She tasted incredible; of coffee and cream, and an indefinable something which was simply her. As she eliminated the buttons on his shirt, he reached for the hem of her sweater, hands sliding beneath to stroke her bare skin. He felt her shiver. At last she brushed the unbuttoned shirt aside, tugging to free it and his t-shirt from his pants. He slid a hand around to the front, cupping one of her breasts, feeling the nipple harden, even through her bra. God, she felt so good! She slid a hand beneath his t-shirt and stroked his chest; he groaned. Jesus! It was like every touch was setting him on fire.

He pulled her against him, both hands going to the fastening of her bra, while his mouth relished every millimeter of hers....

When a strident beeping shocked them into stillness.

"Shit!" she cursed, but it took her a moment to actually move and do something about the beeper at her waist. "Jesus Fucking Christ!"

Kermit was too shocked to do anything except sit there, his only coherent thought that Karen had a much more creative vocabulary than he'd expected. "Why are you still wearing that thing?" he finally managed to ask.

"I'm the captain--I always have to wear it," she growled. She looked at it. "Shit, it's Frank."

He watched as she scooted over to the phone and angrily punched buttons; the Captain was clearly not pleased.

"It's Simms, get me the Chief," she demanded. Then, "This had better be good, Frank.... Oh no. Jesus. Is she down? But we don't know." She sighed heavily. "All right, I'm on my way." She hung up and just sat on her heels for a moment, staring into space. "Fucking hell," she muttered.

"What is it?" Kermit asked.

She looked toward him, as if just remembering he was in the room. "One of Morgan's busts went sour. She's a hostage. Shots have been fired, but we don't know who fired them or who's been hit." She looked at him sadly. "I have to go."

"And I'm right behind you," he said, tucking in his shirt and buttoning it. She was already adjusting her clothing and rapidly plaiting her hair.

"Kermit--"

"In separate cars, don't worry. I can even take a different route if you want."

"I only meant you didn't need to go."

"I'm going to the scene, not home."

"I know--but--"

"You know you can always use an extra body at those things. Besides--" He got to his feet, bringing her with him, "I intend to finish this evening--even if we have to wait 'til tomorrow to do it. I'm going with you."

That made her smile, and she slapped the barrette on her hair. "Can you turn off the fire?"

Less than three minutes after Frank's phone call, they were out the door.



~~~



When Kermit arrived at the scene, the street was littered with cars, official squads as well as the cars belonging to practically every detective at the 101st precinct; they looked after their own. Kermit often thought of Janice Morgan as a mouth with legs, but she was still one of the detectives. She deserved all the backup they could give her.

Simms was talking with the chief.

"I don't want to wait for Lasher, damn it! I want action now!"

"He's the one with the experienced team," Frank insisted.

"Experienced, my ass! I've had more experience with my detectives than that man has had with his squad."

"Look, Captain, let me try it." That was Peter Caine, angling to be the hero again.

"Absolutely not," she shook her head. "I said no last time, I'm saying no again. Now you'll do it my way, understand?"

"But you need to get someone in there--see what the deal is, see how Morgan is. I got in before."

"You make them nervous and it's over. I will not risk you like that, and I'll certainly not risk Detective Morgan," she stated.

"Look, someone distracts them from the front, Jody and I can slip around back. Piece of cake."

"Out of the question," she denied.

"Wait a minute, Captain," Kermit interrupted. "Why not? We know there are two entrances, let's use that to our advantage. Only don't send Caine to the back--let him be the distraction in the front. He can do one of his usual 'mad cop' routines, distract them, I'll go around back with Jody, we'll get in. It's worth a shot."

"It's putting Morgan at risk," Simms insisted.

"She's at risk now!" Kermit protested. "We need to assess her condition, get her out of there. That won't happen unless we get someone in there."

"Come on, Cap'n," Peter added, "it's our best shot."

Simms looked at her detectives, looked at Frank, looked at Kermit, who tried very hard not to smile and wink at her, then nodded. "All right. Kermit, you and Powell have two minutes to get into position. You move on my signal and my signal only. Got it?"

"Got it," Jody replied and Kermit nodded.

"Once inside, no grandstanding. Take out anyone you have to. Get to Morgan, get her out of there." Again, Kermit and Jody nodded.

"Detective Caine," Simms went on, "just get him distracted. Get him talking."

"Give him something he's not expecting," Peter replied. "No problem."

"Fine. Get in positions."

Two minutes later, Kermit and Jody were in the alley, poised on either side of the back door.

"Pray it doesn't squeak," Jody muttered.

"Oh yeah," Kermit nodded.

"Stand by," Simms' voice came over the walkie-talkie.

"Come on--come on--" Kermit hissed.

"You're getting as bad as Peter," Jody smirked.

"Oh now be fair--"

"Back up--Go!" Simms commanded.

"It's showtime!" Kermit declared. He turned the knob, slowly opening the door. No squeaks. He and Jody spun into the back hallway, doing a standard search pattern. Nothing--looked like everyone was in front. They could hear voices, including Peter's voice from outside. Kermit nodded to Jody and they spun into the main room. "Police--Freeze!" Kermit shouted. He assessed the situation in a heartbeat: three men and Morgan. One man was down. So was Morgan. One of the others swung his gun on her. Down but not dead, then. Good.

"Drop it or she's dead!" he yelled.

"Damn," Jody muttered.

"Better do what he says," Kermit told her, wishing not for the first time that the damned glasses could allow him to convey things with his eyes--such as the fact that he had no intention of throwing down his weapon, figuring on nailing the bastard before he could react.

They made a show of setting down their weapons.

It was enough. A gun barked and the gunman dropped before he knew what hit him. Kermit blinked. Though his gun was still in his hand, the shot hadn't come from him.

"Drop it!" Peter Caine yelled, bursting through the front door. The remaining gunman just stood there stupidly, rifle still clutched in his hand. "Oh, for--" Peter sighed, swung and kicked the guy, putting him down in three moves.

Kermit glanced at Jody. "He's such a showoff," he muttered. Jody smirked.

"What the hell happened?" Peter shouted. "How'd they get the jump on you?"

"They didn't," Kermit replied. "I was about to move when you burst in."

"With your gun on the ground?" Peter scoffed.

"No, with my gun right here--" Kermit's gun appeared, pointed directly at Peter's middle for the barest of seconds before he put it up. Making a point was one thing, waving an armed weapon around was quite another. "Never forget that age and treachery will overcome youth and skill," he added.

"Guys--" Jody interrupted. "Kermit, give me your coat." Jody was kneeling by Morgan. She was breathing raggedly, bleeding from a wound in her side. What remained of her clothing was in shreds, and her breasts were bruised and streaked with blood. The side of her face was bruised and bloodied also.

Kermit hurried over, draping his coat to cover her nakedness. She forced her eyes open. "Let's hear it for the 101st Cavalry," she sighed.

Peter knelt next to her. "You know us, we look after our own."

The rest of the officers had stormed into the building. There wasn't a lot of rounding up to do; all three perpetrators were down. The first man was dead, possibly from Morgan's gun. The second was down with a shot to the arm, the third was unconscious from a blow to the head.

Kermit saw Simms come into the room. "Well done," she told the room in general. "Next time, Detective," she addressed Peter, "Do you think you could follow the game plan?"

"He got the drop on them!" Peter protested. She dismissed it with a wave of her hand and came over to Morgan.

"Hang on, Detective, help is on its way."

Morgan smiled feebly. "'s already here," she said and Peter squeezed her hand.

Kermit had fashioned a rough bandage out of his handkerchief and was pressing it to her side. "There's an exit wound--bullet went clean through," he told her.

Simms knelt on the other side, next to Peter. "Detective, did you take out the one man?" she asked.

Morgan nodded. "Tried to rape me."

Kermit saw a look of revulsion on Simms' face. "Did he succeed?" she asked softly.

"He's dead," was Morgan's simple reply.

Karen stroked her fallen officer's hair gently. "Just take it easy, the ambulance will be here soon. And don't worry about anything--I'll take care of it. There won't be any question about this--I guarantee it."

Morgan struggled to smile. "I knew a woman would understand," she sighed.

Simms glanced from Kermit to Peter to Jody and back to Morgan. Kermit didn't know what his own face revealed, but suspected it echoed the revulsion in Peter's face, the horror in Jody's. "Oh, I think the men here would understand also, Detective," Simms told her, "that's why they're here." She looked up, caught Kermit's glance, and smiled.

The sound of a siren announced the arrival of the ambulance, and they all moved aside for the EMTs. Kermit got his coat back, but it was blood-streaked, so he wadded it up; it would go in the back of the car 'til he could get it to the dry-cleaners.

Meanwhile, the perpetrator Peter downed with the kick came to and tried to make his escape. Frank took care of that; he lacked Peter's finesse, but got the job done.

Within minutes, Morgan was stabilized and loaded into the ambulance, the coroner's wagon came for the dead man, the other two were taken to the hospital, and then into custody. Simms looked at her officers.

"Good work tonight, people. Get your reports on the Chief's desk by tomorrow morning. Chief, I'll be in after I finish at the hospital. We'll need to contact Morgan's family."

"I don't think she's got family in the area," Peter supplied. "She's got a fiance, though."

"I'll let him know," Frank said, nodding.

Kermit frowned. If she was going to the hospital, then going to the precinct, this pretty well took care of the rest of the evening. Damn. Damn damn damn. He wasn't nearly as creative in his profanity as she'd been.

Karen walked up to him. "I'm going to the hospital, then I've got to talk to IA. You might as well go on home, Detective," she said, but she surriptitiously reached for his hand. He felt something small and metal and closed his fingers around a key. He grinned.

"My captain says I've got to do my report first, but then I think I'll call it a night."

"I'm envious," she smiled.

"Don't work too late," he said and left the scene, watching as she stood and talked with Frank for a moment before climbing into her car and following the ambulance.

He looked down at his hand. The key shone in the streetlight. A smile crept across his face. He shoved the key in his pocket, feeling the box of condoms already there. Well, the evening wasn't a loss--not yet. He drove on to the precinct.



~~~



He was dozing on the couch when he heard her car pull into the garage. He looked at his watch. It was after 2:00 a.m. She must be exhausted. He met her at the door. She looked tired and bedraggled, and, he had to admit, beautiful for all that.

"I wasn't sure you'd still be here," she said.

"I didn't know if I had your only key. Besides--there nowhere else I had to be." She smiled tiredly at him. "How's Morgan?"

"She'll be all right. Her fiance came down, he's with her. I think it will help, having him there. And I want her to talk to Doctor Grange, too."

"The shrink? Why?"

"Attempted rape is a serious matter," she replied. "Even if he didn't succeed. We always want officers to talk to Grange after a shooting anyway. This time especially."

He nodded, thinking that if he'd talked to someone about how he felt after every time he'd killed someone, he'd still be talking.

"I talked to Jeff Markus from IA, too," she went on. "He said it'll just be a formality--a couple of forms. There won't be any trouble about it at all."

"Good."

She sighed. "God, I'm tired," and moved into his arms. He held her close, his head resting atop hers. She smelled of cigarette smoke and antiseptic, cordite and blood. And still a trace of her perfume and that scent he was coming to define simply as "Karen".

"I'm sorry," she murmured, "this wasn't how I'd hoped this evening would go."

He shrugged. "We're cops--it happens."

"I know, but--"

"Do you want me to go?" he asked.

"No. I don't want that at all." Her arms tightened around him, as if to hold him there.

"You're tired," he explained.

"I know, but I want you here."

He chuckled. "If I stay, it's not gonna be on the couch again."

She pulled back to look at him. "It won't be."

"Good," he smiled and drew her back into his arms, kissing her tenderly.

"Mmm, you taste wonderful," she murmured. "What have you been drinking?"

"Coffee."

"And what else?"

"Drambuie," he admitted. "I think there's some left if you want any."

"No, I'll just taste it second-hand." And she kissed him again.

They remained like that for several moments, simply holding each other, sharing easy, gentle kisses. Until he whispered, "Let's get comfortable."

"No," she pulled back. "Let's go to bed." Her eyes sparkled even through her fatigue. He nodded and let her go, taking her hand. "I can't promise fireworks--" she confessed.

"I'm not looking for any," he replied. "You can get burned that way. But some good old-fashioned intimacy sounds about perfect."

She smiled and reached up to stroke his cheek. They locked the door, turned off the lights, and hand in hand she led him into the bedroom.

She turned on the little tiffany tulip lamp at the bedside. "Do you mind the light?" she asked.

He shook his head. "I prefer to see what I'm doing."

She smiled and reached out to kiss him again.

Their disrobing was no elaborate seduction, made more enticing by the very ordinariness of the act. She removed her own clothes, he removed his. And then they stood in front of each other next to the bed and took a moment to just look.

Popular culture defined sexy as a young woman with high upturned breasts, a concave stomach, long long legs, and a smooth, flawless face.

Popular culture was blind. That wasn't a woman, that was a department store dummy. It wasn't real. Real stood before him; a mature woman. A woman who had borne children. Perhaps her breasts had once been higher and firmer. Perhaps her hips had once been a little less round. He reveled in these "flaws", just as he reveled in the slight swell at her belly, the crow's feet at her eyes. She was still slender, she was very beautiful, and she was incredibly sexy. And best of all, Karen Simms was real.

Kermit didn't know what she saw when she looked at him. He knew the ravages of time had taken their toll on him as well. Knew that his muscles weren't nearly as well-defined as they'd been in his youth. Knew that the gray hairs on his chest were rapidly replacing the dark ones. Knew those damned "love handles" which seemed to mysteriously appear somewhere around age 35 and would not go away, no matter what he did. He couldn't tell what she felt, but from the look on her face, it wasn't repulsion.

She smiled and extended her hands to him. He smiled in return, taking her hands and kissing their fingertips. Then she turned toward the bed, slid between the covers and drew him in after her.

They moved together with a sigh, mouths meeting, hands touching flesh, bodies sliding together. Each touch felt better than the one before, each kiss tasted sweeter. The tingle of her breath on his skin, the moan she sighed as she moved against him. It was all--very very good.

She was right; there were no fireworks. But fireworks blaze bright and then disappear. Making love with Karen was like banked coals, burning steady, providing warmth and light. In the warm cocoon of her bed and her arms, the rest of the world ceased to exist; there was no 101st precinct, no family, no worries, no fears. There was only here and now.

And soon there was not even that as he spent himself between her legs and his entire existence reduced to a single moment in time. She shuddered her own climax, and time paused for them--allowing them that sweet moment of joining and completion.

He returned to awareness gradually, feeling her body beneath his, hearing the breaths which bespoke her own exhaustion. He withdrew and slid off, lying at her side for a moment, trying to muster the energy to deal with his spent condom. Eventually, he managed to take care of it and flopped back down again bonelessly. She smiled at him, stroking a hand across his face.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Shhh," he soothed, taking her in his arms again, this time just to cuddle, to lie entwined and at peace.



~~~



The body pressed against his was soft and warm, smooth and fragrant. And it fit tucked against him as if it were made to fit there.

Kermit couldn't remember at what point she'd turned over, when she'd snuggled spoon-like into the curve of his body. She was deeply asleep now, the exhaustion of the past few weeks finally catching up with her. No sooner would she start to catch up on sleep than something else would happen to cause her to lose it again. Like last night.

He didn't know how long they'd made love, couldn't say at what point fatigue had won out over the desire to touch and be touched. He must have dozed as well, which surprised him. Generally, he didn't sleep when spending the night someplace new. Strange bed, strange body. But he felt very comfortable with Karen, more so than he logically should have felt. He was at a loss to explain it, so he didn't try.

Last night had been... Good. Better than good. The best. It had been lovemaking, not just sex. Making love. What an alarming thought. What a scary, terrifying--delightful idea! He smiled and nuzzled her hair, tightening his arms around her. She sighed in her sleep and unconsciously wriggled a little closer.

God, it felt good, lying here, not quite awake, reveling in the feeling of this beautiful body in his arms. Feeling that phantom tingle which bespoke of spent sexual energy. It felt better than anything had in a very long time.

Shannon, Kermit's first wife, had been--a prude. There was no other way to put it, and Kermit was disinclined to be charitable. He always suspected that Shannon found it a relief when he'd disappeared with Blaisdell. It meant that he would no longer soil her pristine bed with his male urges and bodily fluids. Sometimes he wondered why she'd ever married him. Then he remembered; in Shannon's narrow view of the world, young women were supposed to be married by a certain age. Having reached that age, Shannon married the first man who came along. It was Kermit's misfortune that it happened to be him. He seldom thought of Shannon at all these days, but couldn't help thinking of her bitterly when he did.

Cassandra, his second wife, was all spark and fire, burning with an incandescence which blinded him to her true nature. Cass was crazy. She was brilliant, shrewd, clever, and mad as a hatter. To Cass, life was a series of thrills to be sought, dares to be taken, challenges to be met. There was

always a higher mountain, always a more dangerous game. He'd married Cassandra because she was exciting. He'd left her for the same reason.

Seeing her again last year, after years of being apart, had only reinforced the wisdom of his decision. She was still pelting headlong into danger, heedless of the consequences, still dragging those around her into her madcap adventures, whether they wanted to go or not. The only good thing that had come out of his marriage with Cass was Jake. Kermit loved his step-son, seeing in him all the good in his mother without the destructiveness. He was a very special kid, and Kermit could only hope that he would not be too hurt by his mother's behavior.

But nowhere in his life, at no time during his marriages or outside of them, had Kermit ever felt the amazing, satisfying peace he felt now. That incredible "all's right with the world" feeling which oozed contentment into his every atom. This was good. This was right. This was-- Karen.

Except that Kermit didn't believe in love, he could almost begin to think he was falling in love with her.

Oh, come on, Griffin, don't get carried away. You had sex with a babe, no big deal.

Except it was. And she wasn't. Karen Simms was many things--Babe wasn't one of them. She was strong, beautiful, intelligent, classy, independent--and in his arms.

Still, it didn't pay to get to involved. Things like love didn't happen to old mercenaries.

It happened to Paul Blaisdell.

Kermit smiled, thinking of Annie Blaisdell. Pretty, blonde, warm, clever, loving Annie. Blind to sight but not to nature. Annie knew her husband and accepted his past, even if she didn't always understand it.

He wondered how Karen would react if she knew the truth about him--some of the things he'd done. Shannon had only known he was a soldier, but that disgusted her. Cass knew his history and it excited her. What would Karen think? Would she be disgusted like Shannon? Or accepting like Annie? Or something else he couldn't even imagine.

He sighed, snuggling close to her. Thoughts too heavy for the aftermath of good loving. What did Caine say? Do not worry about the future--concentrate on the now. Now she was in his arms. Now he was content to let things be. Now he was happy--

He must have dozed again, because the next thing he knew, she was easing from his arms. He opened his eyes in time to see her slip out of the room. Poetry in motion his brain supplied. God, I must be far gone, he mentally shook himself. What insane thoughts!

He lay there happily thinking that he was losing his mind when she came back to bed. She looked luscious, totally at ease with her nudity. She saw him looking at her and smiled.

"You look happy," she said.

"Content," he replied.

"Me, too," she agreed, sitting on the edge of the bed and stroking a languid hand down his breatbone.

"Did you sleep?" he asked.

"Very well. You?"

"Ehh," he shrugged. "I don't usually sleep well in strange beds."

She raised an eyebrow. "Well, we'll have to do something about that, won't we?"

"Like what?"

"Like making sure it isn't a strange bed anymore."

He couldn't stop the sappy grin on his face. "Oh yeah," he said fervently, making her laugh.

They stayed like that for awhile, Karen gently caressing his chest, Kermit idly tracing circles along her near hip and thigh.

She sighed. "You know I'm going to have to go in later to deal with the aftermath from last night."

"I assumed as much," he nodded.

Her hand slid up and a thumb rubbed at his nipple. "But not just yet," she murmured huskily, and bent down to claim his mouth hungrily, her hair spilling in a curtain across the pillow.

They made love again, lazy, comfortable, languid, intense morning love. Perhaps someday they'd grow weary of gentle, easy loving. Perhaps they'd start searching for more fire, more passion. Perhaps when they weren't so fatigued, when sexual excitement became more important than deep pleasure.

But not yet.



The next Kermit was aware, Karen was lying on her side, her head pillowed on her arm, watching him.

"I guess you must be getting comfortable," she smiled.

"Mmm," he nodded, languidly shaking off the veil of sleep. "What time is it?"

"Almost 9:30," she answered. His face must have revealed his surprise, because she explained, "Well, it was after 2 when we went to bed, and God knows what time it was when we finally went to sleep."

"I doubt God was paying that much attention," he replied, making her smile. They kissed tenderly, and Kermit found himself thinking that spending the entire day lying naked in her bed, drifting between lazy conversation, lovemaking and sleeping had a hell of a lot of appeal. But then he remembered her saying she had to go into the precinct today. He sighed. "You hungry?"

"Wouldn't say no," she nodded, sitting up. "But the first thing I want is a shower, I'm disgusting. I don't know how you could stand to be in bed with me."

He grinned. "Believe me, sweetheart, the last thing on my mind last night was whether your hair smelled like cigarettes."

"Yes, well it's on my mind this morning. I feel grubby, I'm going to take a shower." She started out of bed, then stopped, turning back and laying a gentle hand on his chest. She smiled. "Join me?"

"You need me to wash your back?" he murmured huskily.

"And other things," she nodded.

He chuckled, amazed again at her totally unselfconscious seductiveness. The Iron Maiden had revealed a core of molten fire. So he followed her to the bathroom, willing to be seduced--again and again.

They made love again--sort of--in the shower. At least there were a lot of hands and mouths and erogenous zones, but it was more playful than anything else. So different from his last romp beneath running water....

He'd been out there for a long time and was feeling the heat. She'd been sixteen and he'd saved her life. She was grateful and wanted to thank him. So she'd brought him to a mountain stream, and he'd taken her beneath the pounding of a waterfall. It had been immediate, direct, perhaps a little brutal. The blood which had rinsed away with the spray had told him she'd been a virgin. But he didn't let himself think about that, merely used her to slake his lust, used her as she was willing to be used. The next day, she was dead and he tried to forget it had ever happened.

Karen's mouth on his throat brought him back and he was disgusted with himself, disgusted that those ugly memories should taint the purity of this moment with her. He dropped to his knees, arms clutching at her hips, face buried against her belly, the smell of soap and her own musk obliterating the image of that mountain stream.

"Kermit, what--" Her voice was distant, but her hands were immediate. She slid to her knees beside him, her hands cupping his face. Her expression was mixed confusion and compassion, but she took him in her arms, kissing away the shadows.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"Shhh," she soothed, cradling him against her, instinctively feeling the demons in his soul and seeking to banish them.

Before the water cooled, she got him to his feet and they finished bathing. They were silent as they dried off and returned to the bedroom. Her hair was wrapped in a turban of toweling, and she slipped into a silk robe. Kermit sat on the bed, toweling his hair dry. He could feel her watching him, but couldn't bring himself to speak.

"You want to tell me what that was all about?" she finally asked.

He looked up at her. He wanted to tell her, wanted to tell her very badly. But the preservation instinct was strong. He shook his head. "Not especially." Her face fell in disappointment. "Not because I don't think you deserve to know but-- Some things are difficult to talk about."

She appeared to consider that for a moment, then she nodded. "All right. I understand. But--" she slid her finger down his nose where she tapped it gently, "I'd understand if you did tell me, too."

He looked away bleakly. "Don't be so sure."

"There's not a thing you could say which would change the way I feel about you," she told him. "I'm sure about that, Kermit. Now you need to be sure of me."

"I am--" he started to protest.

"No, you're not. But I hope that you will be. Soon." She smiled at him. "Now, you want to help me with my hair?"

He grinned and she sat next to him on the bed, releasing her hair from the towel. He loved her hair and she knew it. He loved to touch it, feel it, revel in it, and she encouraged him. She turned her back and handed him her hairbrush, and he carefully brushed out the entire damp length. The very mundanity of the act restored his equalibrium, and he ended his tress-tending with a sloppy kiss to the back of her neck. "To hell with breakfast, I think I'll eat you," he mumbled.

"Oh no you don't," she protested, "I'm hungry. Now come on." She took back her hairbrush, then turned around with a frown. "I'm sorry, I don't have--anything for you to put on. I'm not used to overnight guests."

He smiled. "That's all right, I'll just get dressed." He started climbing into his clothes.

"But not the tie," she reminded him.

"Not the tie," he agreed. Then he grinned. "I'll go casual this morning. See?" In response, he left off both the tie and the t-shirt, and left the dress shirt untucked and unbuttoned, revealing his chest. She smiled and stroked a hand down the center of his chest. He grinned, and they both went to the kitchen to fix breakfast.

He made an omlette, finding things in the refrigerator to make it interesting--ham, onion, peppers, cheese-- She made coffee and warmed the croissants. She'd even bought oranges and made fresh-squeezed orange juice.

They were just bringing everything to the table when the phone rang. She sighed disgustedly. "So help me, that better not be the precinct." He just laughed and shook his head. He had the distinct impression that whatever their relationship consisted of, it would do so in between crises.

"Hello?" she answered. "Hi, honey, how are you?" Her face lit with a smile. "How are you feeling?" It must be Katie, Kermit decided. Good. He went ahead and eavesdropped. "Really? That's wonderful, honey. I'll bet you're looking forward to that. Oh, I know. I don't either. Did the doctor say how long you'd have to stay home? Uh huh. So is Ben bringing your homework home? Come on, Katie, you know that your dad and I expect you to keep your grades up, in spite of all this. Yes, you're supposed to take some time to recover, but once you're home, you can start working on keeping up with your schoolwork. Well that's good, Jennifer can help you, then. Uh huh. Good." Kermit smiled. Moms were always moms. He brought the rest of the food to the table and poured the coffee. Karen was still talking. "She has, well, that's good. Did the doctor say what day next week? Uh huh. Well, that's wonderful, honey, I'm so pleased. What?" Karen frowned. "No, it's--I have a friend here and we're about to sit down to eat." Kermit raised his eyebrows; Katie must have heard him in the background. "What? Um, no." She colored slightly, then smiled. "Yes. Yes, sort of. His name is Kermit. Yes, like the frog," Karen chuckled. Then she moved the mouthpiece slightly. "Katie thinks you have a cool name," she told him.

He laughed. "Tell Katie thank you."

"He said thank you." She said into the phone. "Okay, honey, you take care. I'll talk to you later. Okay. Love you. I will. 'Bye." Karen hung up, smiling. "Katie says I should tell you goodbye for her."

"Well, goodbye to Katie," he smiled.

She shook her head, sitting at the table and sipping her coffee. "Very odd, getting the first degree from your twelve-year-old."

Kermit laughed. "She asked about me?"

"Yes. What are you doing, who's there, who is he, is he your boyfriend, what's his name, is he nice." She shrugged.

"You said I was?"

"What, nice?"

"No. Your boyfriend."

She smiled. "Well I wasn't about to tell her you were my lover. I'm a liberal mom, but there are limits." She started in on her breakfast. He did the same.

"I didn't think she'd hear me--sorry if I made it awkward," he said.

"It doesn't matter."

"Will it cause any problems?"

"Problems?" she frowned.

"With--Jack."

"It damned well better not," she said emphatically.

"Hey, just didn't want to make waves," he held up his hands in surrender.

"Jack was remarried less than a year after the divorce," she told him. "If he tries to even so much as comment, he'll hear about it."

"You said it yourself; a lover is something different."

She sighed, and they ate in silence for a few minutes. Finally, she put down her fork.

"I was thinking--Katie said the doctor told her she could go home this coming week."

"Hey, that's great."

She smiled and nodded. "Anyway, if she does, I think I'll go out there the following weekend."

"That would be good," Kermit agreed.

She gazed at him. "I'd like you to come with me."

He laughed. "You don't want me there."

"Yes, I do."

"No. You don't want to have to explain me. And you don't want to have to think about anything else except your family. I'd be in the way."

"You wouldn't. I'd really like you to come with me."

He leaned forward. "No offense, but it's a little early for 'come home and meet the family' isn't it?"

She shrugged. "I don't think so, but-- I can understand you'd feel uncomfortable. The offer still stands."

"And it's appreciated," he nodded.

They ate in silence again, more comfortable than the last.

"What are you doing tonight?" he asked.

"It depends on how long it takes me today," she answered. "Why, what did you have in mind?"

"Oh, nothing terribly exciting. I was thinking in terms of microwave popcorn, beer, and something from the video store."

She smiled. "I like the way you think. I'll give you a call later and let you know how things are going. I've got to sort out the rubbish from last night. And then I want to check in on Detective Morgan."

He nodded. "Just let me know. If you can't, it's no big deal, but--"

"No, I'd like to. In fact, it sounds wonderful. And--" she looked at him speculatively, "I could finish up that backrub I started before we got--distracted."

Kermit couldn't help grinning. "Oh yeah."

"Good, then it's a date." She smiled back. "In fact, maybe if I do an especially good backrub, you'll even tell me where that terribly impressive scar on your back came from."

He flinched at the comment. "I--"

"It's not a condition for the back rub, but I just thought-- It doesn't look like a gunshot wound."

"It isn't," he said shortly, hating every second of this conversation; feeling again the incredible pain which continued to plague him to this day.

"A blade?" she asked.

"Can we not have this conversation over breakfast?"

She looked startled. "I'm sorry, I--"

"No, I'm sorry," he sighed. "It's just that--well, it wasn't a very pleasant experience and I'd rather not think about it at the moment. I--I will tell you. I promise. Just not right now."

"Don't make promises you can't keep," she said gently.

"I'm not."

She smiled and finished her coffee. "Well, the work won't get done any faster if I sit around here," she sighed. "I'd better get moving." She picked up a plate to clear the table.

"No, leave that, I'll take care of it, you go get ready," he said, taking the dishes from her.

"All right," she nodded and left the table, and he made short work out of the breakfast dishes. Then he headed to the bedroom to finish getting dressed. She was in the bathroom when he passed, putting on her makeup. She was in her business clothes, her hair neatly restrained by its usual braid. He waited until she was done with her mascara before putting his arms around her waist and kissing her neck.

"Too bad you have to go in today," he murmured, "I was having these fantasies about spending the day in bed."

"I know, me too," she sighed, leaning into his embrace, "but unfortunately, they're just fantasies." She turned in his arms and they kissed deeply for a long moment.

He sighed, hugging her close. "And I'm not helping." He let her go. "I'm gonna get dressed."

He was fixing his tie when she came into the living room, gathering up her coat and briefcase. He was back in his usual suit and ubiquitous tie. "Oh, here, before I forget..." he pulled the spare key out of his pocket and handed it to her.

She glanced at it. "No keep it," she said.

He frowned. "You sure?"

"It's very likely that what happened last night, will happen again. It will be easier if you have a key."

He shrugged; it made sense. He pocketed the key again.

"And, not to push things, but-- If you have a spare robe..."

He thought about it. "Actually, I can't remember if I have a robe at all. I'll have to check." He gazed at her. "Should I bring a spare toothbrush, too?"

"Might not be a bad idea," she agreed.

He nodded, then chuckled. "We're getting very domestic here."

Karen looked at him intently for a moment. "Well, I don't know about you, but-- Last night and this morning were nicer than anything has been in a very long time. I'd kind of like to keep that--if we could."

"So would I," he smiled and took her in his arms again. He reached to kiss her, but stopped himself. "Ah--don't want to smear the makeup." So he kissed her softly on the forehead and let her go. "Come on, time's a wasting. The sooner you get there, the sooner you can be done."

He helped her on with her coat and escorted her outside, pulling the door shut behind them, waiting as she locked it.

"I'll call you later," she said.

"OK. Anything you want to see?" he asked, putting his sunglasses on his face.

"Surprise me."

He smiled and they separated, each to their own cars.

"Kermit." Her voice called him back. "Thank you."

He dipped the lenses and grinned at her. "Any time."

Still smiling, he got into his car. He waited 'til she pulled out of the driveway and waved as she passed. He took a deep breath, reflecting on the glorious evening (and morning) past. And, from the look of it, there was a lot more to come. The thought made him tingle. "Oh yeah," he said, started the car and drove away.



~End~

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