Dragons in the Night
Being a parent, Paul had discovered years ago, meant that one developed skills otherwise unheard of. Such as the technique known as "sleeping with one ear open", which enabled a parent to identify and respond to a child's distress quickly, even from a deep sleep. Thanks to this long-practiced art, Paul was out of bed and to his foster son's room within moments of hearing Peter's cry.
He opened the door and peered through the gloom to see Peter sitting upright in bed, chest heaving, blanket clutched in his hands.
"Peter?" Paul called softly, then could have bitten his tongue as Peter jumped at the voice. "You all right, son?"
A look too fleeting for Paul to identify in the dimness flickered across Peter's face before the boy turned his head away. But he paused before he answered, "Yeah," and his voice was none too steady.
"You sure?" Paul asked, knowing he was pushing, but feeling that somehow a little pushing was needed right now.
Peter swallowed. "Yeah," he repeated, and struggled to get himself back under control. He was shaking, fighting emotion, and he hid his face in his hand. "Sorry for makin' noise," he finally managed, "I--I tried to wake up before I started screamin'."
"It's all right, kid," Paul soothed. "Everyone has nightmares now and then." In truth, the orphanage had told him that nightmares had been somewhat of a problem for young Peter. Paul was surprised this had been the first one here--at least the first one severe enough to wake Peter screaming.
"Yeah, b-b-but--" Peter stammered, "when I started yelling, I used to get slugged by my roommates--to shut me up."
Paul took a couple of steps into the room, closing the physical gap between them. "Well, no one is going to hit you here. Especially not over this."
He saw a shudder go through the boy's frame, and Peter sniffed, still struggling to suppress the strong emotion. One hand still covered his mouth, as if holding in the sobs, the other clenched in a fist at his gut. But he nodded, as if to say he understood.
Paul walked the final couple of steps to the bed, putting a reassuring hand on his foster son's shoulder, feeling the rigid tension there. He let his hand massage in a circular motion on Peter's shoulder, hoping to settle him down.
"Well," he said quietly, "I'll bet you're not much in the mood for heading right back to sleep. How about if you come downstairs with me and we can have a bowl of ice cream." When there was no response, he added, "Annie doesn't like me eating this late at night. So maybe we can share the blame."
Peter choked on a laugh, but finally nodded and swung his feet out of the bed, still keeping his face averted. Hand securely on his back, Paul escorted his foster son from the room.
Downstairs, they dished out the ice cream and took it into the family room, where they sat in silence on the couch and ate. After finishing about half of his, Peter set it aside and hunched over, clutching both hands around his middle. Paul watched him for a moment. The boy's complexion was pale and he looked frightened and lonely.
He set his own dish aside. "Do you always have the same nightmare?" he asked softly. Peter's comment about being hit by his roommates had confirmed that the dreams weren't uncommon.
"Not exactly the same," Peter answered after a long pause.
"Are they about the temple?" Paul asked. Peter responded with a nod.
Paul knew nothing about what had happened there two years previously. Only that the temple had been destroyed 'under suspicious circumstances' according to Bill Trager. He reached over and put his hand on Peter's shoulder, resuming the gentle massage begun upstairs. "Can you tell me about the temple?" he asked. "Tell me what happened? Sometimes it helps to talk about it."
Peter stiffened, then shook his head jerkily and hunched further over.
Paul gave him a moment, then asked, "Was it a fire?"
There was another long stretch of silence, and just when Paul thought his foster son wasn't going to answer, Peter whispered hoarsely, "Fire... guns...explosions...chaos. Everything was destroyed...."
"Guns--" Paul frowned. "It was attacked?" Peter nodded. "Do you know who was responsible?"
Peter raised his head and murmured, "Soldiers of evil. Masters of hate. There is no grace in victory, and the one who glorifies it must revel in bloodshed." His voice took on a note of steel beneath its tremor. "Some day I will find those soldiers of evil--and destroy them."
Some day, kid, Paul vowed, I'll help you do it. Peter's words sounded like some sort of litany--a practiced speech. But he didn't doubt there was truth behind them. He'd need to find out more about the actual attack that destroyed the temple, but Paul had seen that kind of vigilantism before, and few things angered him more.
Peter was still speaking; the steel was gone, the tremor more pronounced. "Everything was destroyed. The priests--the children-- My father--" he pinched his eyes closed.
"Were you hurt?" Paul asked.
Peter nodded. "My leg--and my ankle. I-I tried to get out, but I couldn't. My father--he...he...." Finally, the dam broke and Peter's face crumpled as he could no longer hold inside the grief that overwhelmed him.
Paul pulled him into an embrace, holding him tight, gently stroking his hair, whispering soothing sounds to him.
"I miss him," Peter sobbed.
Paul hugged him closer. "Yeah, I'll bet you do."
"It's not fair--he wasn't supposed to die! He wasn't supposed to leave me alone." The words were broken through the tears, but there was real anger in them. That surprised Paul, though he wasn't sure why it should. It was natural for the boy to feel anger toward the father who had left him--abandoned him to his fate. The fact that his father had been cruelly taken from him didn't really matter in the ultimate scheme of things; the loss was just as great.
Peter buried his face against Paul's chest, hands clutching at his pajama shirt. Paul simply held him close, willing to be cried upon or yelled at, whatever would help ease his foster son's troubled heart.
"Why did he have to die?" Peter whimpered. "Why did they all have to die?"
Paul sighed and kissed Peter's hair. "I wish I had an answer for you, kid. But I don't. I don't know why. But I'll promise you that you'll never have to be alone again. Not if I can help it."
Peter looked up at him and blinked, tears running in rivulets down his face. "But you can't. You can't promise that any more than he could. You're a cop--you could be killed just like he was."
In that moment, Paul had never felt more ready to throw away his career, if it would have meant giving this frightened boy peace of mind. But that wasn't a practical solution, and he knew it. So did Peter. "No, I don't suppose I can, not really," Paul stroked Peter's hair. "But I will promise that as long as I'm around, you'll never be alone. And if ever anything happens to me, you'll be taken care of. I swear that to you, Peter. I won't let you be alone again."
Large hazel eyes stared up at him, lashes spiked with tears. Paul felt that he would promise anything--anything to take away the pain he saw there. But eventually, the eyes closed and Peter nodded briefly before he lay his head back down on his foster father's shoulder. He sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve. And Paul, not wanting to let go of his charge, even for as long as it would take to cross the room to the Kleenex box, simply let the lapse of manners slide.
Peter sighed and snuggled closer, and Paul hugged him tight, a hand stroking over his back and shoulder while he pressed a little kiss to his hair. Peter's need for physical affection had been a surprise at first, until they realized that the boy had simply been craving what he had been denied. Perhaps his father had been physically demonstrative with his son, perhaps not. But in any case, Peter had spent most of the past two years deprived of all but the most impersonal of physical touches. It was possible that he hadn't even been aware of the lack, until it had been offered to him again. But then, like any creature, he sought that which made him feel good. It wasn't uncommon, when Paul would reach to ruffle his foster son's hair, for Peter's head to follow his hand, almost like a cat requesting to be petted. Peter probably didn't even realize he did it; it was simply his unconscious way of seeking affection and consequently, security.
He cuddled his foster son closer, and Peter sighed against him, more of the tension leaving his thin form. It was still somewhat of a shock to Paul, the idea that he had a son. He was used to cuddling his daughters, but he hadn't expected to have that kind of physical affection with a boy--a son. But from the start, he found himself giving Peter the same hugs that he gave his daughters, and found the boy just as willing to be hugged, if slightly less willing to be cuddled and coddled, at least by Paul. With Annie, Peter was perfectly willing to tuck himself into her arms and stay there indefinitely. But with Paul, the affection was usually more reserved.
It was different, holding a son like this. Different because there was so much more of Peter to hold. The boy was growing like a weed--already he looked like he'd shot up at least an inch or two in the three months they'd known him; he was almost as tall as Paul. Peter's light tenor was becoming more baritone by the day, with sometimes embarrassing consequences.
But in some ways, it was exactly the same. The feeling of affection, of protectiveness was the same. The warmth, that indescribable glow he felt when he was "being a dad" to his children. Sometimes Paul boggled at the turn his life had taken; from an American James Bond, to a husband and father, with scarcely a look back. From a confirmed old bachelor to a dad of two, now three children. Life was funny, what it did to you when you weren't looking.
He closed his eyes and sighed, letting himself drift on the glorious sensation of protectiveness and contentment. Peter was safe and in his arms; everything would be all right....
Some time later, Paul opened his eyes again. He didn't know how much time had passed, didn't figure it really mattered. He knew he'd dozed, and Peter was sound asleep against him. Part of him regretted having to wake the boy, but the other, more sensible part of him, preferred to spend the remainder of the night in his big, comfortable bed, and the embrace of his wife.
So he nudged his foster son gently, and called his name. "Peter? Come on, son, wake up, let's get you back to bed. Come on, Peter. Wake up."
"Mmmm?" Peter mumbled and snuffled against Paul's chest.
"Come on, kiddo, let's get you to bed," Paul repeated.
Peter's eyes opened, but they were hazy with sleep and his lashes were still spiked from tears. With his barely open eyes and his red, running nose, he wasn't really the most appealing thing on earth, but Paul found his sleepy fuzziness sort of endearing. He smiled and eased the boy into a sitting position, then helped him to his feet, guiding him from the room. As he turned off the light behind them, Paul thought briefly about putting the two ice cream bowls in the sink, but decided that Annie would forgive him his lapse just this once. After all, care of Peter was more important than clean dishes.
Gently, he guided Peter through the house and up the stairs, escorting the boy into his bedroom, where he fell into bed with that wonderful boneless sprawl of youth, and went back to sleep almost instantly. Paul smiled and pulled the blanket up around him, tucking him in. He smoothed the unruly hair away from his forehead and pressed a good night kiss to his temple. Then he stood there for a moment, simply watching his foster son sleep.
From the start, he'd felt something for Peter Caine. At first it was curiosity, some pity, and the feeling that there was something more to the ill-mannered kid he'd met in the hallway of the orphanage. Then it was affection, real liking, and the desire to help the boy--help him find stability, help him reach his potential. And still, there was that feeling that in Peter was someone very special, someone who would be worth all the time and effort it took to get to know him.
Tonight, Paul's feelings changed. Perhaps changed wasn't the best word. Perhaps coalesced described it better. Because tonight, Paul realized that what he felt for this boy was love. Real, no-holds-barred love. The kind of love a father has for his son. Peter couldn't ever bring himself to call Paul "Dad"--probably never would. But Paul knew that from now on, when he called Peter "son", he would be saying it for real.
With love in his eyes and a smile on his face, he reached down and stroked his son's shoulder through the blanket, then turned and left the room, closing the door softly behind him.
Chapter 7: The Height
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