Chapter 16 -- Epilogue
"Here, this might help put things in perspective," Aeko told Mel gently, handing her a glass of scotch.
"Thank you," Mel sighed, accepting it with a tremulous smile. She had never expected to be sitting in Vic's kitchen trying to come to grips with the fact that she was not human. It was insane. Yet, in her heart, she knew it was true. She looked up at Aeko. "That word Daggon called me? Melah en'i. What does it mean?"
"It's a Cirronian word. Hidden beauty."
"My name's a… Cirronian name?" Mel whispered.
"Sure looks that way, Mel," Vic said, sitting down next to her.
"How are you feeling?"
"I've felt worse." He smiled gently at her. "How about you?"
"I can't believe I've spent the last few months working with the bad guys…"
"I know that feeling," Aeko muttered, sighing deeply. "What's taking him so long?" she demanded finally, shaking her head.
"Would you relax, Aeko?" Vic suggested for probably the fifth time.
"You want me to relax when--"
"You heard the man, Aeko," Daggon told her quietly, joining them in the kitchen. "Relax."
She let out a soft laugh. "Damn, sir. I never thought I'd be so happy to see a Tracker."
Daggon smiled faintly, patting the back of her neck. "How are you feeling, Vic?"
"Uh, better. Tired, but a lot better."
"Good, I'm glad. Miss Porter?"
"Confused?" Daggon ventured.
"That's one word for it, yeah." Mel nodded, smiling weakly.
"You wait here. I need to do some things. Then we can talk. I think I can help you understand many things."
"Uh, I would definitely appreciate that."
He smiled and nodded, walking to the war-room. Aeko followed on his heels.
Daggon nodded, sighing deeply. "The two guards, Lana… and Zin."
"Is it true what they say?" she asked quietly. "About you and Zin?" It was not a question she had ever dared ask before.
He nodded faintly and started to transfer the captured life-forces into storage. "We were good friends for many years, yes."
"I'm sorry, sir."
"So am I."
"Are you going to be okay?"
"Yes, Aeko. It may take time, but I'll be fine."
"Good, I'm glad." The Dessarian took a deep breath. "Guess that makes it my turn?" she asked in a tone of forced cheerfulness.
"What?" he asked, frowning.
"You spared me so I could help you get to Zin. I did. Now you can take my life-force."
He placed down the Collector, turning to face her. "Aeko, I am not Collecting you…"
Her forced smile was replaced by a genuine frown as confused eyes searched his. "But… I'm a criminal."
"Not any more, child." Daggon sighed and shook his head. "You have more than earned a chance to start over in the past few months," he told her gently.
She looked up at him with wide eyes. "Uh, sir… I…"
He smiled and gathered her into a gentle hug. "I could never have come this far without you, Aeko. I thank you."
She inhaled deeply, her eyes wider than before. "Wow, freedom. Uh, that could take some getting used to…" she whispered.
Daggon smiled and nodded. "I'm sure you'll manage just fine. And you are always welcome here among your friends."
She batted at tear-filled eyes. "You have no idea how much that means to me."
"Which? Your freedom or my friendship?" he teased gently.
"That last one."
"You've had that for awhile now, child." He smiled down at her. "Tomorrow we will establish a new identity for you and--"
"No," she interrupted.
"No?" he asked, frowning.
"You still have fugitives to catch and I am still a trusted member of the hierarchy. I can still be useful to you."
He smiled and touched her forehead. "You're a good woman, Aeko. Your continued help would mean a great deal to me."
"You have it." She looked down as her pager went off, reading the number with a grimace. "That would be all hell breaking loose. Took them long enough." At his blank look, she explained, "It's Haag. He's called a meeting of all the Lieutenants, which apparently now means me. I've got to run."
"Okay, Aeko. Stay safe."
"You, too, sir." She gave him a half-smile and then left.
Shaking his head, he retrieved the Collector and transferred the last life-force into storage. Zin. "And nothing has changed," he murmured, sighing deeply.
"Daggon, buddy? You okay?" Vic asked gently from the door.
"I don't know." Daggon shrugged. "I just… I hadn't really thought before. I always thought on some level that catching Zin would be the end of it…"
"And now you have and there's still a whole lot of work to do?"
Daggon nodded. "How is your friend?" he asked, sitting down at his computer and starting to type.
"Good. Confused, but holding up okay. What about Aeko? She looked sad when she left. You cut her loose?"
"I tried to. She preferred to keep working with me. I think it surprised her that I didn't plan on taking her life-force."
Vic raised an eyebrow. "I'll bet it did. Surprised me too, honestly."
He looked up. "You think I did the wrong thing?"
"Man, I am in no position to judge." Vic shrugged. "She saved my life, remember?"
"Mine, too. More than once since we've started working together. And too many others to count by helping me to stop Zin. She deserves a second chance."
"You're right. She does. What are you doing?" Vic asked, looking over his shoulder at the monitor.
"This is the dossier Lana compiled on your friend. She deserves to see it."
"That's not Cirronian, is it?"
"Vardian," Daggon supplied, printing the file. "Translating it will take the computer awhile, but I can read it to her."
"Good deal." Vic nodded. "She's really… not human?"
"No, Vic." Daggon shook his head. "Or, not entirely human. Zin must have stumbled across the fact and then exploited it."
"How? How could he have known?" Mel asked quietly from the door.
"Miss Porter." Daggon rose and ushered her into the war-room, offering her a chair.
Mel accepted it with a grateful smile. "How did he find out?" she asked again. "I mean, it's not like I'm obviously not human…"
"You like having your throat touched?" he ventured. "Was Zin in the habit of squeezing it when you were intimate?"
"Uh…" Mel shifted uneasily.
"Maybe I should give you guys some time," Vic suggested, not particularly wanting to hear those kinds of details about Mel's love-life.
"Okay, Vic," Daggon agreed.
"Thanks, Vic," Mel murmured, smiling weakly up at him.
"Hang in there, sweetie," Vic told her, squeezing her shoulder on his way out.
"Miss Porter?" Daggon prompted gently when Vic had left and closed the door.
"Once, he squeezed my throat once. How… how did you know?"
"It's a Vardian mating behavior. You enjoyed it, didn't you?"
Mel closed her eyes and nodded faintly, a little ashamed to be admitting to the fact.
"You like this kind of touch better?" he asked, leaning forward and stroking her throat.
Mel's eyes shot open. That definitely felt better. "Yeah," she whispered, swallowing hard.
"That's how he knew, I think. Like Vardians, Cirronians have very sensitive throats. They're… easily stimulated."
"This is different from the way Julius, um, Zin would touch me. It feels different…"
"I know. I wouldn't touch a woman in that way unless we were married. This is a greeting for Cirronians," he explained, letting his hand fall away. He placed the printouts on the desk. "How well did you know your grandfather? Your paternal grandfather?"
"I didn't. He died… before I was born."
"He was Cirronian." Daggon flipped through the pages, coming to one with a photo in one corner.
"That's him. How did you get this?"
"I remotely accessed Lana's computer. There's a lot of material on you there."
"I am never taking Jess' advice on men again," she muttered. At his curious frown, she shook her head. "Never mind…" She sighed deeply.
"Oh, that's right," Daggon said abruptly. He reached into his pocket and extracted a metal triangle. "This is yours…"
"It's my grandmother's… thing."
"Key. It's called the Key. It opens the Vault below your bar." He sighed. "It's the sacred duty of your family, Melah en'i, to protect what lies there."
"I don't… I didn't know. If I'd known I never would have…"
"I know." He nodded, his expression understanding. "People die and secrets are lost. No one blames you."
"I blame me. I can't believe that I actually fell for his lies…" She shook her head, batting at her eyes.
"Zin is a charming man. You are not the first to have been fooled by him. I let his charm blind me as well."
She slowly looked up at him. "You?"
He nodded. "Yes. For years, he planned a prison-break right under my nose, at the facility where I was warden, and I never suspected a thing."
He shrugged. "It doesn't matter, not now." Reaching out, he covered her hands with his own. She still had a lot of anger and fear and shame, and it was intolerable to him that such a lovely creature should. "Melah en'i," he began tentatively.
Her breath caught in her throat and she looked up at him with wide eyes. Nights in Zin's bed, spent dreaming of this man… they were meant to find each other, there could be no doubt.
"I've been dreaming about you…"
"You have?" he asked hopefully. At her faint nod, he smiled and shook his head. "I've been dreaming of you, too. The games that Fate plays, I guess."
She nodded. "Sick, isn't it? All that trouble that could have been saved if I had never met Zin." If only she had met this man first…
"But if you never had, you probably never would have learned about your Cirronian heritage. Our people say that nothing goes wrong except to serve some greater purpose."
"You honestly believe that?"
"Not always," he admitted. "But it reminds us to seek out blessings in our despair and that is a lesson worth learning. You have been used and lied to for months now. But you have learned a great truth about who you truly are."
"Yeah…" she admitted. "But I'm still honestly not… I mean… it's going to take some getting used to."
"Of course it is." He nodded faintly. "But if you should ever wish to learn more about your other people or your abilities I would love to show you," he told her in a quiet, hopeful voice.
"I already know a lot," she told him.
He smiled faintly. "You will need to be untaught a lot of what you think you know. If your healing is any example, you have been badly taught. There is a lot of damage to correct. I can help you with that."
"Just like that? Why?"
"I was an educator once. I love that and I miss it. But… spending time with you would be… something I would want to do even if you did not want to learn more about yourself."
"You want to spend more time with me? Like… socially?" she asked, staring at him with wide eyes.
Sitting here with him now, just talking, felt so natural, completely right. But at the same time, she was reluctant. Not because she did not trust this man but because she had just spent months in a lie of a relationship, being controlled and misled and she felt like she had lost a part of herself. She needed that back before she could even consider another relationship.
"If you'd… like that. If you don't--"
Mel blinked, forcefully reminded of Zin and his refusal to let their association end at one meeting. This man was clearly as interested in her, on some level at least, as Zin had been, but was, in stark contrast, unwilling to push himself on her.
"I honestly don't think I'm ready for a new relationship right now…"
He frowned quizzically. "But… at such a time you need friends more."
"Friends?" she repeated, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes." He nodded firmly. "You need friends. You must not isolate yourself. It will only make your pain greater. In times like this, you must take comfort in your friends. It is why we are given them."
"You want to be… friends?" she asked, grinning and shaking her head. First time a strange man had ever approached her with that particular request.
His expression bemused, he nodded. "Yes, Melah en'i. I would like that very much, if you would allow it."
"I think that would be very nice," she told him, smiling and nodding. In her mind, his answering smile more than made up for the day's pain and anxiety. It was beautiful; he was beautiful.
He smiled shyly at her, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He lifted his hand to her throat, gently smoothing his fingers over the soft flesh there for a moment before dropping his hand to rest over her heart. She was a good creature, with a good heart. He smiled more confidently and nodded to himself. Their association would benefit both greatly, he was sure.
"It is a lovely evening, Miss Porter. Will you walk with me?" he invited, dropping his hand. "We can talk. I can explain anything you would like to know."
She smiled and nodded, rising and following him from the room.
"Vic, Miss Porter and I are going for a walk," Daggon announced as they entered the living room. "Oh, good evening, Detective Cruz," he greeted her when he saw her in the kitchen with Vic.
"Hey, John." She smiled and nodded in his direction. "Melanie."
"Hi, Maria." Mel smiled at her. "We'll see you guys later."
"Okay, Mel." Vic smiled at her. "You take care, sweetie."
"You bet." Mel nodded and allowed Daggon to help her into a jacket before following him from the house. She smiled as she inhaled the crisp evening air. "Oh, we're in time to see the sunset," she noted, pleased.
Daggon smiled widely, nodding. "I love to watch the sun set. We don't have sunsets on Cirron," he told her as they started walking.
"Really?" Mel raised an eyebrow. "Your loss."
"It is," he agreed placidly.
"You know, this is almost a cliché… The hero riding off into the sunset with the heroine…" She chuckled and shook her head.
"We are not riding, though," he pointed out, frowning uncertainly. "We're walking."
"You always this literal?" she teased.
"Yes, Melah en'i. Vic says I'm like something called a Vulcan that way." He looked down at her, his expression uncertain. "Why are you laughing?"
Still giggling, she shook her head. "Never mind, Daggon. Never mind…"
His expression bemused, he shrugged. "Yes, Melah en'i…"