UNFINISHED BUSINESS



August 1978



Peter Caine decided that his thirteenth birthday would be the perfect day to die. To free his spirit on that particular day felt right. His father would have said that the balance gave it harmony. Peter hadn't felt harmony for a long time. He had almost forgotten what a quiet spirit was like--how it sang in your head, gave you strength and energy. He used anger for strength now.

Most days he felt very strong.

Peter shifted on his bunk, burying his head in the pillow to shut out Wheeler's snoring. Back in the old days, he had liked the noise and bustle of the small town near the Temple. It sounded alive, different. He had never stopped to think that noise you could walk away from, leave on the road back to the echoing hush of a Shaolin temple, was different from noise you could never escape. Well, things got pretty damn quiet once you were dead. In less than a week, he would have all the quiet he could use.

His father would say that he had set himself a journey--- One both long and short. It takes an entire lifetime to reach the door, and the briefest instant to pass through it. There can be no preparation, yet every thought, every action, must be performed with that final moment in mind. It is the end of all, and the beginning of all.

Peter's chest hurt as he remembered where he had heard the words. His father had been speaking over the body of an old, old, priest. There had been candles and incense, with priests and students attending to mark Chin Lu's return to the beginning.

His father's return had been marked by the two of them alone in the rain, with just a few words from Ping Hi, before hurrying out of robes and into "real" clothes for the trip into the city. They'd left the Temple almost immediately, and Peter gave eternal thanks that he'd already searched the ruins--and that he had found his father's knife. Now the knife was his. It was the one remembrance of all that the Temple had been.

When the authorities at Pathways found it, no more than half an hour after his arrival, they acted like he planned to butcher everyone in the place. He tried to explain, but it was like shouting at the moon. The most they would do was promise to give it back when he left. Well, he was leaving...and his father's knife was going to send him on his way.

But first, he had to get it back.



~~~

The orphanage building was big, and grey, and smelled like mop water. Peter slammed the door open and took the steps at a run. There was never any place to be alone inside--not even now, after learning that Ping Hi was dead. Someone was bound to catch him...feeling...and start asking foolish questions. The only safe place was outside, so Peter ran until the building was out of sight. The rhythm of his feet beat a name into the earth...the earth that would soon hold Ping Hi. The running helped. After a few minutes he felt calmer, and headed for the only place that offered any kind of sanctuary.

Kyle had beat him to the corner of the grounds that they had claimed for themselves. Peter dropped to the ground beside him, panting a little from the run. Kyle handed him the pack of cigarettes and let Peter light from his own half-finished smoke.

"I heard. Can't keep a damn thing quiet here." Kyle blew a smoke ring. "You ask about the funeral?" Peter nodded. Kyle gave him a sharp glance and shrugged. "Don't worry about it. Funerals stink, man. Everybody crying and shit. Who needs it?"

"Ping Hi's the only one I know...knew...from before. They wouldn't let me visit him in the hospital because he wasn't a relative. Now he's dead and they won't let me go to his funeral because he still wasn't a relative." Peter took a deep drag off the cigarette. "It's not even that far--just down in the city."

"Not the point, Ace. The point is that someplace it says "relatives only", so relatives only is what you get. Anything else would be extra, and they don't do extras here."

"No lie, man." They smoked in silence. Peter flopped onto his back and closed his eyes. The news about Ping Hi was bad, but it would have been worse if he hadn't already come to his decision. Maybe it was a sign he was doing the right thing.

The thought hit Peter like a fist. That was exactly what it was. Ping Hi was the last thing holding him to his old life, his harmonious path. Now Ping Hi was gone, and the old life died with him. That had been the trouble all along--Peter's life had died, his path had ended. Only his body had survived, to endure all the awful things that had happened to him since that night.

Not that all of it had been bad...Chinatown might have been fun, but Peter had been too dazed with grief to remember much of it. Things hadn't really focused again until Ping Hi collapsed on the stairs one afternoon, and the dragons under his bed turned into doctors and social workers. They had solved the problem of the orphan boy and the sick old man by locking them up in jails called hospitals and orphanages. Ping Hi had needed to die to escape them.

And it was as simple as that. He was alive when he should be dead.

Kyle was staring at him. "You okay, Pete? You suddenly went weird on me."

"Never better, man. Listen, Kyle... I gotta ask you something."

"Shoot."

"You been here a long time, right?" Peter was glad that his voice still sounded casual.

"Most of my life, on and off. Why?" Kyle ground out his cigarette and began scraping earth to bury the butts. Peter added his own unfinished smoke to the pile. Being caught smoking was a serious offence, and neither wanted to endure house grounding.

"When I got here they took something away from me. I want it back. Where do you think they put it?"

"Depends. What was it?"

Peter took a deep breath. He either trusted Kyle, or he didn't. Time to decide.

"A knife. My father's knife--well, it's a dagger, really."

"Hummm." Kyle squinted as the gears turned inside his head. "Good news and bad news. Something like that they'd lock up. The good news is, that means it's still there. Bad news is, it's probably in a closet in the grand poobah's office. A lot of our stuff's there. Somebody sends you a really good Christmas present, nine times out of ten it winds up there. They don't want to be responsible for it getting swiped. Which it will."

"So how do I get it?" Peter watched as Kyle stamped down the disturbed earth.

"Don't know." Peter's blood turned solid in his veins. "Yet." Kyle grinned. "But don't sweat it, sport. We'll figure it out." A sharp electric buzzer cut the air and they sprinted back to the building for what passed as dinner.



~~~



What Peter thought was an earthquake turned out to be Kyle shaking him awake. Once Peter had both eyes open Kyle disappeared into the hall, so Peter trailed after him, regretting the first decent sleep he'd had in a month.

"What's up?" Peter asked once they'd reached the safety of the bathroom.

"Been thinking. We may have a problem getting your knife back." Kyle perched on the edge of one of the sinks, something strictly forbidden, which made it Kyle's favorite seat.

Peter hit full awake, hard. "What?"

"This is a real knife, right? I mean, it's not plastic or anything like that."

"No, it's real. Why?" Peter gulped a lung full of air and wished he hadn't--bathroom cleaning was done twice a week, and by the night before they were generally pretty rank.

"If it's real, then they might call it a weapon and hand it over to the cops. Another one of their damned rules."

Maybe being in the bathroom was a good thing after all; Peter suddenly felt like throwing up. "So what do we do?"

"Nothing until we know for sure." Kyle jumped down off the sink. "Looks like time for Plan B, man."

"Okay...Plan B it is." And for once, Peter knew exactly how to make the next move.



~~~



The door was half wood and half smoked glass. It looked heavy and old. The letters painted on the glass part said "William G. Trager, Chief Administrator". By the time the man arrived in his office at 9:25, Peter had thought up eleven different middle names starting with "G". His favorite so far was Gustav.

"Good morning, Peter. And how can I help you?" Since Trager never looked directly at him, Peter wondered how the man recognized him.

Peter tried to look harmless and woebegone. "When I got here, I had something...the only thing...that had been my father's. You said that you had to lock it up, until I was ready to leave. I was wondering...could I see it, please? Just for a second." Peter hated having to ask this man anything, but he was the key to Peter's true path. After a long night of planning, rejecting, and replanning, Peter had decided on honesty. They didn't deserve it, but it was the only weapon he had.

"Well, perhaps. What was it?" Now for the rough part.

"It was a ceremonial dagger." Peter saw the "No" coming and hurried on, trying to deflect it. "You see, today would have been his birthday..." Actually, his father's birthday was in November, but let them try to prove it. "It would mean a lot if I could...hold it for a second." Peter tried his woebegone look again, wondering if the man was buying any of this.

"It's very irregular." Trager tapped his fingers on the desk. "Very irregular. But still, I can't see what it would hurt."

Yeah, be nice to the poor orphan boy and feel good all day. The thought was so immediate and so strong that Peter only hoped he hadn't said it out loud. Evidently not, because Trager started shuffling papers on his desk and came up with a key ring.

"You understand that you can't take it away, and that I have a meeting and can only spare a few minutes." Peter nodded, his heart in his throat.

"Very well. Wait here." Trager headed for an ordinary looking door with a big lock. He opened it slowly enough for Peter to get a look inside. It was narrow and deep, with wire shelves running all along the inside. From what Peter could see, there a hodgepodge of things on the shelves--a small television, an electric piano keyboard, all kinds of boxes and bags. Trager stopped less than half way down the left side and picked up a big brown envelope. He backed out and shut the door before handing the envelope to Peter.

It felt surprisingly heavy in his hands. Peter turned it over slowly, seeing PETER KANE printed on the front.

His name. The only other thing he had from his true life, and they couldn't even spell it right.

Suddenly he didn't even need to open the package. He felt it carefully, and the shape of the item inside reassured him.

It was his knife. It was his return to his true path.

Peter laid it gently on the man's desk. "Thanks. Thanks a lot."

He made it to the bathroom before the tears came.



~~~



"Well, that was easy." Kyle gave him a quick congratulatory punch. "Didn't think you'd pull it off."

Peter shrugged. "Wasn't hard. Some of it was true, and Trager's an idiot anyway."

"That's for damn sure. So what do you do for an encore?"

Kyle settled onto the ground and started digging the cigarette trench.

"Steal Trager's keys and get my knife back." Peter was surprised that Kyle even had to ask.

"Nah, I mean after that. When are you taking off?" Kyle finished digging and looked straight up at Peter. "That is what all this is about, isn't it? You don't need a knife if you're planning to stay around." Peter felt his face go red, and Kyle went back to clean up duty, satisfied with Peter's reaction.

"No, I guess not." Peter wondered if Kyle could possibly understand. If anybody deserved an explanation, if anyone would mourn him, it was Kyle. For a minute he just watched Kyle, saying a silent goodbye.

Kyle met his eyes again. "Sit down, Pete. We gotta talk." Peter slid to the ground beside him, praying that Kyle wasn't going to turn him in. Or worse, ask to go with him.

"Listen, you know I think this place is Grade A Number One Bullshit, right?" He waited for Peter's nod. "But even I gotta admit that they're right about one thing. Running away is a bad scene. I've known a couple of guys from here who hit the road." He shook his head. "No good."

"So what happened to them?" Peter asked, mostly because Kyle obviously wanted to tell him.

"If you run and get caught, they dump you in Pine Ridge. And this place ain't nothing compared to Pine Ridge. "

"That won't happen to me." Peter wished he could say more.

"I hope not. Just think it over, okay? After all, they kick us out at eighteen, so it's not like it's forever. But if ya gotta, ya gotta. You know I'm in your corner." The buzzer sent them running for the building.

"Hey, Kyle?" Peter ran a little ahead, looking back over his shoulder. "Thanks, man."

"Don't mention it. You'd do the same for me."



~~~



The day before his birthday was a weekday, which made the whole thing a lot easier. Peter raced through his chores, then grabbed a book from the library cart. By nine o'clock he was glued to a chair by a window with a parking lot view. Trager's car pulled in at 9:45. Peter gave him twenty minutes to get settled, then abandoned his book and headed for the stairs that lead to the administration floor. Since he had no business there, he propped open the hall door and waited for the sound of footsteps.

For almost forty-five stomach-churning minutes there wasn't a sound from the hall. Then, finally, he heard a phone ringing and one side of a conversation. It sounded like Trager's voice. Peter edged closer, trying to make out the words. A long pause, then "Very well." Definitely Trager. Peter was gripping the edge of the door so hard that his hands hurt. He made himself let go and took ten deep breaths to relax.

Footsteps.

Heart pounding like a ceremonial drum, he waited for the footsteps to recede. When it was quiet he counted to fifty and slid into the hall. Empty.

He walked lightly to Trager's door. It was closed and he listened for a minute before pushing the handle. Locked, damn it. He shoved it, harder this time, as if sheer force of will could overcome mortise and tumblers. As his father would have said, the effort met with no reward. The phone rang again and he almost flew back down the hall, afraid someone would come to answer it.

Trager did return only a few seconds after Peter made it back to the stairwell. The jingle and click as the door opened told Peter that Trager's keys had been in his pocket all long. Peter pulled up a seat on the bottom stair, grimly prepared to wait as long as it took.

The lunch buzzer went at the usual time and Peter headed for his place in line. Mealtimes ended with a nose count and absentees had some explaining to do. He didn't want to answer questions and he did want to talk to Kyle. Besides, he was hungry.

Seventy boys and a dozen staff all eating and talking made enough noise to cover a careful conversation. He slid into place beside Kyle and started shoveling down chicken pattie, fake mashed potatoes, and mushy green beans. The faster you ate, the less you tasted.

Kyle wiggled a eyebrow at him. "No dice, huh?"

Peter shook his head. "Only left once, locked up."

"Yeah, thought so. Where are you?" Kyle's eyes were scrunched up, which meant he was thinking.

"Stairs into the hall." Peter finished his milk in three long swallows, wishing it could kill the canned aftertaste of the beans.

"Going back?" Kyle wasn't really asking a question.

"Uh-huh." And back, and back, and back tomorrow if necessary. After all, he was running out of time.

"Okay. Once we're done, gimme about fifteen minutes, then be ready. You're only gonna get one shot."

Peter stared at him. "Kyle..." His voice just stopped.

"No sweat, man. I'm gonna enjoy it!"



~~~



Peter paced in the stairwell, almost dancing with impatience. Kyle would come through. He hadn't wanted to involve Kyle too much, because what he'd seen on tv meant that there would be a lot of questions, afterward. But if Kyle wanted to help he sure as hell wasn't going to turn him down.

Fifteen minutes, nine gone by according to the clock on the hallway wall. Peter paced some more and seriously wondered if time had stopped. Thirteen minutes and an almighty bang from the other end of the hall. It sounded like the heavy outside door being slammed. A second, lighter bang--the other hallway door--then heavy footsteps on the run.

"Ohshit, ohshit, ohshit!" Kyle's voice, higher than normal and really loud. His language had just bought him about a dozen chore demerits. "Mister Trager, you gotta come!" Kyle was panting like he'd run a couple of miles since lunch. Peter risked a peek out into the hall.

Kyle stood in Trager's doorway sweating and gasping for air, every nerve in his body stretched tight. "Come On! He's outside!" Kyle took off again, running for the far door. Trager evidently wasn't responding fast enough, because Kyle ran back to confront him face to face. "Wheeler's having a fit out there, creep! Do you want him to die?" At last Peter heard Trager's bland voice answering Kyle and two sets of footsteps moving quickly down the hall.

One of the hardest things Peter ever had to do was wait for outside door to slam. At the sound he sprinted to Trager's office--empty, and open. He dove for the desk, praying that Trager hadn't thought to grab his keys. The desk was cluttered with papers and files, everything piled in no particular order. Peter patted everywhere once, twice. Nothing. His nerves were wound tight enough to vibrate, and the tick of Trager's desk clock sounded as loud as his pounding heart.

For the third try he forced himself to calm down and go slower, one section of the desk at a time. He almost didn't believe it when his fingers touched the strips of spiky metal. In a heartbeat they were in his pocket. He looked at the closet door. Maybe he could save time and get the knife now. No. Too much risk of getting caught, no place to hide it until tonight, when it was time to use it. Just get away clean and follow his plan. Follow it back to his path. Peter vanished out of the door and down the hall to the safety of the outside with wings on his heels and elation in his heart.



~~~



The afternoon passed in a daze, the keys heavy in his pocket. In the safety of a bathroom stall he pulled them out and looked them over, trying to figure out which one was the key. He would have given anything to talk to Kyle, but Kyle had drawn two weeks house grounding for his stunt that afternoon. He ate lightly at dinner, remembering that the monks used fasting to focus their energies for a task ahead. After a restless hour, he slipped away from the tv room and spent the evening in his dorm. It was suddenly important that his belongings, few as they were, be in order. Half an hour before lights out he got out clean underwear and headed into the bathroom for a through shower. He made it back to the dorm with barely enough time to grab fresh jeans, shirt and socks and hide them in easy reach under his bed. His dorm mates made the usual going to bed ruckus, but for once he was able to ignore them. He curled onto his side and began waiting.



His father had told him that he was born just before dawn. He would wait for the sky to brighten in his secret place and release his spirit there.

The hours of the night seemed endless.

Peter woke with his heart pounding and stomach in knots, not having intended to sleep. He forced a calming breath then slid his clothes and shoes from under his bed. The hallway lights were dimmed but never turned off. This had always annoyed Peter before--what was wrong with darkness?--but tonight he was grateful for it, because it made moving quickly and silently much easier. He dressed in the bathroom but carried his shoes. Socks were quieter.

The administration hallway was also partly lit. He stood in front of Trager's door trying key after key, swearing under his breath and wondering why any man needed so many of them. One finally worked.

He hit the key to the closet on the third try. Trager had only walked a little way into it, and had taken the envelope off the shelves on the left side. Of course, it had been daytime then, and the office lights had been on. Now it was pitch dark. Peter realized he would be working by feel and cursed himself for not bringing a flashlight.

He took a few steps into he closet and faced the shelves. Trager hadn't reached over his head so he could ignore the top shelf. He started with the shelf directly in front of him, patting with his hands moving in opposite directions to save time.

Some things were easy to ignore; smooth, cool things that felt like glass, hard flat plastic, stuff that was way too big, too small, or nowhere near the right shape. Every time he touched paper he used both hands to check, but it was always wrong.

Peter's right hand touched the wall and he realized that he'd worked his way all the way down the shelf. Okay. No problem. Another shelf, or he'd started too far down. Try again.

The shelf above was no different. Neither was the shelf below. Fighting down panic, he methodically checked every item on the left side.

And it simply wasn't there. Trager hadn't put it back in the same place. Peter heard himself cursing in Chinese, made himself stop. Trager had moved it, that was all. It was here. He'd find it.

He got started on the right side. This time he moved carefully, inch by inch. By the time he was midway down the bottom shelf he was weeping in terror, barely able to breathe. His hands hit the wall, confirming his fear.

The knife was gone.

Peter had thought that nothing could be worse than the destruction of the temple. That no thing could darken his spirit more.

He had been wrong. This was worse, because it meant that the pain would never end, not til he was old, old, old.

Peter shoved two knuckles of his right hand into his mouth and bit down hard, using the pain to focus. When it filled his mind, he let the pain go. His hand hurt but his mind was clear.

On one shelf had been something which felt familiar. If he could find it again--if he was right---if not, fine. There were other ways and he would find them.

Left side, middle shelf. Small thing in a pretty big envelope. He found it again almost immediately, ripped open the envelope and reached inside. He was right!

Joy made him generous and he carefully locked the closet and tossed the keys under Trager's chair. He made sure the office door shut behind him and tossed the torn envelope into the hallway trashcan. In the dim corridor he examined the compact thing. The red casing with the white cross marked it as a genuine Swiss Army knife. Master Dao had owned one, pleased by the elegance and efficiency of the design.

Peter ran a thumb along the elegant, efficient, and very sharp blade.

He had intended a single, swift stroke up under his ribs. The dagger's blade was long and sharp enough to finish him whether or not it reached his heart. Now it would be far more gentle, his blood draining out of the severed veins of his wrists.

No problem.



~~~



Peter let himself out of the building, his step as light as his heart. A breeze, fresh with the smell of distant rain, ruffled his hair. Hair. For so long he'd thought hair would be really cool, been tired of the way his shaved head made him stick out. Now he only wished he'd had time to shave his head again. For his father.

The wind whipped around again, stronger this time. It didn't matter; his secret place was sheltered from rain by tall trees and the rocks were big enough to hide him from the wind. He stared up at the sky, trying to figure out how long before dawn would begin. It would probably be best to get started right away.

He moved out of the shadow of Pathways, looking back one last time toward the window where Kyle was sleeping. The bars made it easy to spot. Peter paused to give most reverent thanks that in this hellish place there had been Kyle. He was turning away again when the wind hit his face bringing the smell of smoke.

Smoke that smelled like the ruins of the Temple.

It wasn't his problem--he had a journey to take. Even if the whole place exploded, it didn't matter.

It would have mattered to his father.

Peter's feet were moving before his brain made the decision. He circled the building, sniffing like a tiger scenting for prey, trying to hope that it was all his imagination. He had almost convinced himself that it was nothing when another gust in his face left him coughing. He rounded a corner and saw light from a window. Orange light that moved with a life of its own.

Fire.

No gunshots this time, no soldiers of evil seeking slaughter. Just heat, and smoke, and the light that destroyed, leaving darkness. No pain in his leg, nothing to keep him from doing now what he had not been able to do then.

So many dead. His grief for his father had hidden his pain at not saving any of the others. He would not meet them again with more blood on his hands.

Peter ran to the window cursing himself for not keeping Trager's keys, because without them he couldn't even get back inside to pull the fire alarm. And why weren't the smoke alarms going off? He couldn't remember what went on in this part of the building--it wasn't a section that he had spent any time in, that was for sure. He reached the window hoping that it was an office or a storeroom, anyplace people wouldn't be right now. In the light of the burning curtains he saw a bedroom. An empty bedroom. Peter felt a rush of relief so overwhelming that it almost hurt. It lasted until the little kid poked his head out from under the bed. Peter watched in horror as he crawled part way out, then scooted back beneath the bed.

He had to be one of the youngest kids there, five at the most. Peter didn't remember seeing him before, so he probably hadn't been here long. And if he didn't get out of that room he wasn't going to be here a whole lot longer.

Peter rapped on the window and yelled, "Hey! RUN!" hoping that the kid wasn't too scared to pay attention. When the kid didn't respond, Peter tore off his tee shirt and wrapped it around his hand, using it to smash in the window. The air made the flames worse but enough of the glass gave way that Peter was able to crawl inside.

It was like walking into his own nightmares. The heat almost forced him back; all he could do was grit his teeth and go on. At least this time there no screams.

The fire seemed worst around the bookcases, which made sense since they were wood. Unfortunately so was the door, which was only a few feet away from the bookcases. Coughing from the smoke, Peter ran over to the bed and grabbed underneath for the kid--who moved away from him.

Peter thought for a second that he had just missed reaching the kid's arm or leg so he tried again. This time he connected and felt the kid jerk away from him. Peter remembered being five, and he sure as hell remembered being scared. He gathered the last shreds of his patience and dropped onto the floor. A glance at the bookcases told him they didn't have much time; the space between them and the door was discolored and smoking.

The kid was flattened against the wall all the way under the bed. "Hi. I'm Peter. What's your name?" It was easier to breathe down on the floor, since the smoke was rising.

"Willie." The kid's eyes said that he was miles beyond scared. Peter wondered why he hadn't died of sheer terror.

"We really need to go outside now, Willie. Crawl over to me and we'll run. Okay?" Peter figured that even if the kid was too petififed to move, the bed wasn't that heavy. He'd move it and drag Willie out if there was no other way.

At the last minute Willie decided to cooperate. Once he was mostly clear of the bed Peter scooped him up and ran for the door. Willie clung to him like a baby monkey, burying his face in Peter's neck. The flames had only reached the frame, not the door itself so they made the hallway breathing and unburned.

The smoke pouring into the hallway finally set off the smoke alarms, but Peter pulled the red box alarm anyway. This time, the electric buzz was one of sweetest sounds Peter could imagine. With Willie still wrapped around him, Peter ran for the front door, and the safety of the outdoors.



~~~



Peter's thirteenth birthday began in a confusion of fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances. The paramedics finally pronounced him likely to live and let him go. Willie had refused to leave without Peter--had refused to do anything without Peter--so Peter was leading him by the hand up to his dorm monitor's office. He hoped she'd take over at that point.

After all, he still had a journey to make.

They were halfway up the stairs when Trager stopped them. "Peter, when you've settled Willie, come to my office, please." Even dressed in tee shirt and jeans, Trager still looked like he was wearing a suit.

"NO!" Willie wrapped himself around Peter's leg.

"Well, perhaps you should come along now." Trager lead the way and they

made a tired little procession up the stairs.

The office door stood open, and looked even shabbier in the half light.

Trager sat at his desk and automatically reached for the switch on his desk lamp, frowning when nothing happened. "I keep forgetting that they turned off the power. That's what caused the fire, they think. Probably the nightlight, but with the wiring being so old, it's hard to tell." He stopped talking, and Peter realized that he was making conversation, trying to find a way to say what he really had to say. Peter sitting across from him with Willie on his lap, wasn't in much of a mood to help him, so they sat in silence for a few minutes.

Finally, Trager cleared his throat. "Peter...Pathways owes you a great debt. You risked your life to save Willie, and by pulling the fire alarm you might have saved many more. Someone.. well, someone official...should say thank you."

Peter shrugged. "No big deal."

"Yes, it is. Outside of the other risks, this is only home most of these boys have. You prevented serious damage there as well. You showed a lot of courage. We're grateful, Peter, and it's right that you should know that."

"I'm glad I saved Willie." Peter was surprised to find that it was true.

"So are we. So glad that I'm not even going to ask what you were doing fully dressed, outside, and on the opposite side of the building from your dorm at that hour. Now why don't you get Willie upstairs, and get some rest yourself." Peter knew an exit line when he heard one, so he and Willie went on their way.



~~~



His secret place had never seemed so welcoming. Peter dropped to the ground, tired to the bone. For a long moment he lay watching the sunlight make shadows with the leaves, letting his mind drift.

His father would be proud of him.

It would make a nice gift to offer his father, when he joined him.

Peter took the knife out of his pocket and flipped open the long blade. It felt cold against his wrist, and he braced himself for the pain. He began chanting in his head, an old prayer, asking guidance on his journey.

He took a deep breath, positioned the blade--and stopped, blasted by the memory of Willie's tiny arms around his neck.

Frantically, he reached out with his spirit, desperate for the balance.

But it was gone. The rightness of dying on this day had been lost.

Part of it was living past dawn, past his birthtime into his thirteenth year. Part of it was not having his father's knife. And part was something else--just a feeling of...wrongness. Peter couldn't explain it, but he couldn't deny it either.

Anger grabbed his heart like a fist. All he wanted was to leave this place, this untrue path, and return to the beginning. And now even that wasn't possible.

Not yet, anyway. He still had the knife--and it was small, easy to hide. He folded it closed and slipped it into his pocket, planning to keep it very safe. It made all the choices his again, and his father had taught him that a man with choices was never truly alone. For the moment, he chose to believe it.

For the moment, the balance was..not wrong. As for tomorrow, he would simply have to wait and see.



Chapter 2: In The Company Of Strangers

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