Thicker Than Water
Summary: A pregnant fugitive goes to Cole asking for protection from Zin, forcing him into a no-win situation and dredging up unwanted memories. Help once again comes from an unexpected corner, courtesy of Gwen. (AU)
Disclaimer: I don't own them, but, hey, just as soon as that deal with Zin goes through…
Timeline: Between "Dark Road Home" and "A Made Guy" … after my fic "Old Friends"
Spoilers: minor for "Breach"
Chapter 1 -- Unexpected Developments
Busy today, Gwen noticed as she carried a tray laden with drinks to a corner table. Gwen Angelo loved tending bar, everything about it except the noise. It was a job she enjoyed, a constant chance to meet new people and study behaviors first-hand. Because of the Watchfire's location and reputation as a cop-bar, working there frequently allowed her to interact closely with members of the law-enforcement community.
Frequently, she managed to overhear snatches of conversation not meant for civilian ears. Working a cop-bar was a great way of picking up valuable information. It was far better than stripping had ever been, even if that, too, had allowed her to pick up her share of Intel, albeit from different sources. Intelligence gathering was all about being invisible. It was an activity where it was advantageous to become just another piece of scenery. Gwen had blending into the background down to a science. She was nowhere near as skilled as the Dessarians she knew, but she was not far off either. She spent a few moments in light conversation with the men and women she had just delivered drinks to before returning to the bar.
Cole smiled down at her as she brushed past him on her way back behind the bar. In the several months since Mel had hired the cheerful young grad student, she had found her way into the Cirronian's heart. He still missed Jess very much, of course, but he could not help but like her replacement. Gwen had a great deal in common with him in terms of personality and beliefs, as well as a common interest in criminal psychology that had led to more than one discussion that had started early in the morning and terminated late at night.
The fact that she was dating a Cirronian was one that Mel was still getting used to, Cole knew, but neither of them really held her secrecy in the matter against her. After all, it was still in question whether she even knew that her lover was Cirronian, and there was no real cause to expect her to be open with the fact if she did. Cole had, more than once since that revelation, had reason to wonder if Gwen was not more deeply involved in Kettai's work than she let on, but he had no real proof. Without revealing to her that he was Cirronian, Cole could hardly broach the subject with her. Besides, secrecy and distrust were ways of life for members of Migar's Special Security Taskforce. Staying quiet often translated into staying alive and no doubt Kettai had made sure that Gwen understood this. She might not tell them anything even if confronted directly.
He looked up as the front door opened. "Hello, Jonas!" he greeted the older lawyer cheerfully.
"Afternoon, Counselor," Gwen chimed in as he pulled off his coat.
"Hi, kids," Jonas greeted them, smiling.
"Your usual?" Gwen asked, reaching for a glass. "Or did you want to get adventurous? Mister Hauser and I have that new recipe book out again," she told him in a sing-song voice.
Cole frowned and looked around. He could have been certain that Mel had thrown away the book in question.
Jonas chuckled and shook his head. Two weeks ago, he had let Gwen talk him into 'being adventurous' and sampling some drink they had been practicing. Cole had abstained as he always did. For Jonas and Gwen, though, who had not, the results had resembled those of a nasty case of food poisoning.
"I think I'll stick with my usual fare, Gwen," Jonas chuckled. "Thanks."
"They say God hates a coward, you know," she teased, her eyes shining.
"They also say that it's generally wise to let sleeping dogs lie, dear," he pointed out, laughing.
"Hey, can we get a couple more pitchers of beer over here?" a young man called from a table by the door.
"You bet!" Gwen replied cheerfully.
"I'll get it, Gwen," Cole told her.
"Thanks, Mister Hauser." She grinned up at him before returning her attention to Jonas. "One plain old boring excuse for a drink, coming up," she announced in a voice laden with disapproval, shaking her head and handing Jonas his drink.
Jonas chuckled and accepted it, shaking his head. "How have we been, dear?" he inquired.
"Taking solid food again," she teased, resting her elbows on the bar and quickly becoming absorbed in conversation with him.
Cole drew up another pitcher of beer, knowing that Gwen would be awhile with Jonas. She always was once the back and forth teasing got started. She would not neglect her work, but she would spend as much time bantering with Jonas as she possibly could in between dealing with other customers. That would be less time today, Cole decided, than was typical on a Tuesday afternoon. The bar was not crowded by any stretch, but two small groups of college students, a professionally-dressed couple, and Jonas himself tallied up to fifteen customers. Definitely not bad for a Tuesday afternoon. There were times when the bar had fewer customers on Tuesday night. Cole smiled, pleased to imagine Mel's happy expression when she returned from her grocery shopping and saw the small crowd.
The young men by the door would please Mel especially, Cole knew. They were celebrating. Gwen had explained to Cole that it was Finals week, the end of the fall term. She had spent a few minutes chatting with the young men at the table and Cole had overheard some comments about 'surviving Biochem'. He assumed that meant they had passed the class in question, an assumption that seemed to be borne out by the amount of alcohol they were consuming and the general good cheer of the group. Gwen had explained to him that Biochemistry was a requirement for the premed program, and one of the hardest classes offered.
"Gwen says you passed your Biochemistry final," he noted brightly as the beer was accepted. "Congratulations."
"Thanks, man!" one replied cheerfully.
"That Gwen chick seeing anyone?" another asked.
Cole frowned at the obviously drunk young man, his disapproval clear. He did not like the leering way the young man was following Gwen's movements, not one bit. "Gwen is not a chick. She is a woman. She is also in a very committed relationship," he added firmly. "And it is not polite for you to look at her like that, either, or to call her by such names."
The lecture was more for the young man's sake than for Gwen's. Normally mild-mannered in the extreme, there were some things Gwen simply could not stand. She might let a leering look pass with nothing more than an icy glare, but the last man to take liberties with her had gotten a lot more. He had grabbed her 'bum' as she walked past, making some very distasteful comments. Gwen had calmly placed her tray on an unoccupied table and politely requested an apology. When one had not been immediately forthcoming, she had half-carried the transgressor from the bar. Cole had not followed her, but he had clearly heard her requesting Mel's permission to 'bounce his skull off the pavement a few times'. He firmly believed that Gwen would have, too, if Mel had allowed it.
Another young man punched the drunk one on the shoulder. "Told you it was a promise-ring, man." He looked up at Cole apologetically. "Ignore him. He has a thing for unattainable women."
Cole smiled and nodded the way Mel did when she did not quite follow but wanted him to think she did. "Congratulations," he repeated. "Enjoy your drinks," he added, turning to leave.
The front door opened and a woman, heavily wrapped against the cold outside, hurried in, glancing over her shoulder. She bumped into Cole, looked up, let out a short yelp, and staggered backwards. Startled, Cole gently grasped her shoulder to steady her. That brief contact was all he needed to tell him that this woman was a fugitive.
Shocked, Cole acted by instinct. Since the break-in and murder at the Watchfire a few weeks ago, he had been on edge. It had made it impossible for him to ignore or minimize the fact that they were both completely vulnerable, especially Mel. The fugitives knew them, knew where they lived. The thought of one coming here scared him for Mel's sake and angered him even more. Mel must not be allowed to suffer because of his presence in her life. He was no longer comfortable leaving her alone, and the Collector had become a constant companion, Tracking or not. Not stopping to think about the sixteen men and women currently in a position to witness it, Cole tightened his grip and the fugitive's shoulder and raised his Collector.
Talking to Gwen, Jonas was aware that something was wrong before any of the other patrons. Whatever she had been about to say was cut off mid-syllable and her cheerful expression vanished, replaced by a look of appalled horror mingled with a healthy dose of irritation. He looked over his shoulder, wondering what had affected her so, and nearly missed what she did next. Not that it was easy to miss a tiny creature like Gwen planting both hands on the surface of the bar and then vaulting over it with easily fifteen feet of clearance.
He swiveled on his bar-stool, stunned. His surprise and confusion grew as Gwen crossed the barroom, faster than should have been humanly possible, and jumped up to grab Cole's raised hand. Cole let out a yelp of protest as she pulled his arm back over his shoulder, producing an audible popping noise in the suddenly-silent bar. She plucked something out of his hand, spun him around and shoved, propelling him the rest of the way across the bar. Following closely, she pushed him into the corner, shoulder first, the action forcing the joint back into place. Cole stared down at the girl, stunned. Not that Jonas could blame him.
Gwen shoved the Collector into her back pocket, staring up at him angrily and keeping one hand firmly on his shoulder, bracing him against the wall. Cole was too confused by the sudden assault from the wrong direction to resist. Amazingly, there was absolutely no menace in Gwen's manner, just annoyance. The fugitive was standing like a statue, regarding the exchange with wide eyes. No danger from that quarter, either, it seemed. He returned his attention to Gwen, glaring up at him in disgust.
"Are you out of your mind?" Gwen hissed, shaking her head. As he struggled to compose some answer to that, she continued, never raising her voice above a harsh whisper. "Damned trigger-happy Cirronians! Fifteen potential witnesses, Kedriss Daggon! Fifteen of them! And you want to drop this woman?" Shaking her head in disgust, Gwen took a step backwards, releasing her hold on Cole and shaking her head. Typical Cirronian, not the least bit worried about generating a dead body in front of civilian witnesses. "Besides," she added in a more normal tone, nodding towards the obviously shell-shocked fugitive. "You can't. She's with child."
Cole rubbed his shoulder, sore from the way Gwen had forced it into a position it had no business being in, and stared at her in surprise. "Gwen?"
Gwen shrugged, suddenly looking far younger than her twenty-two years. Shaking her head, she stared at the floor, scuffing her feet. "You want to hear what she has to say, I guarantee it." She nodded and glanced up at him again, her expression firm. "Bring her upstairs. Get her a glass of water. She'll need it after the scare you gave her."
Cole blinked. This was not a side of Gwen he had ever seen before. Firm, confident, and in absolute control of the situation, she was not about to take no for an answer. Much that had been confusing about Gwen in the past was beginning to fall into place. The ease with which she had relieved him of his Collector spoke to years of training. The strength of her grip, to say nothing of her amazing little display of acrobatics, could only mean that she was not human.
He looked up and into Mel's eyes. Beautiful eyes, but full of fear and confusion. She must have returned at some point just before the fugitive had entered, in time to see every move Gwen had made. Mel stood motionless near the back entrance, not making a sound.
"Sixteen potential witnesses, Gwen," he told her gently, testing a theory.
"Seventeen," Gwen corrected him absently. "I stand by the original figure," she added, never taking her eyes from him. "Miss Porter and I can be trusted to keep our mouths shut."
Cole nodded. Enixian. It at least explained her frequent migraines. And how she had known that a heavily-wrapped woman without a noticeably bulging stomach was pregnant. He returned to the fugitive, raising his hand to her face. She submitted to his probing search without protest.
"Jenin?" he whispered, stunned. And alarmed. The Nodulian's life-force was incredibly weak.
She nodded weakly. "I need your help, sir," she murmured.
She needed medical attention, he thought. She was with child, as Gwen had contended, and very close to her time. She was also quite weak. He paused, indecisive, as Mel moved to join them.
Gwen shook her head and glanced at Cole. "Bring her upstairs. Give her some water," she directed again. "She can not afford to be recognized." Ignoring the way Mel, and Jonas by the bar, were gaping at her, she continued. "A bath might not be amiss either if you can lay hands on some zinc salts to dissolve in the water."
"Gwen," Mel began, her voice suspicious.
All eyes went to the fugitive as she swayed on her feet. Gwen moved first, lifting the Nodulian effortlessly into her arms and moving her to the closest of the couches along the wall. She had her cell-phone out in the next heart-beat, dialing as Cole leaned over Jenin.
Gwen looked up at Mel. "There are too many people here. Can we bring her upstairs?"
Mel nodded slowly. "Uh, sure. Gwen, what's going on here?" she asked quietly.
"Long story," Gwen told her, shrugging. "Táhirih, there you are!" she said into the phone. "Love of the gods, I was starting to think you were out. Yeah, that would be a bad thing. Look, I need you to drop by the Watchfire ASAP. Bring some of that zinc solution you keep on hand for Nodulians and whatever you need to do a physical once-over on one. No, negative. Not, and I say again not, one of ours. I've got a very pregnant fugitive here in questionable physical shape. Possibly drugged… Yes, Táhirih. Yeah, you could say that… It was necessary. Just get over here, hmm? Yeah, thanks." Gwen nodded and hung up, glancing at Cole. "Take her upstairs before anyone gets too good a look at her face," she ordered firmly.
Mel and Cole both stared. Gwen giving orders was, as far as they were concerned, not the norm. Still, she did it with the ease of long practice, her tone demanding compliance and her manner clearly indicating that she expected it. Shrugging, Cole gathered Jenin into his arms and carried her up the apartment stairwell.
"Start talking," Mel told Gwen.
"Here? Now?" Gwen asked, shaking her head. "I think not, Miss Porter. Later. In private."
Mel blinked. It was the closest Gwen had ever come to contradicting her. "Later in private?" she repeated.
"Yeah. Right now, I think damage control is more called for."
Mel stared after her as she walked to the table by the door, an easy smile on her face. Shaking her head, she returned to the bar, not sure what else to do. Gwen was right and damage control probably was necessary. Fifteen men and women had seen Cole having an altercation with a girl who could not have been twenty yet, and had seen Gwen forestall it with superhuman displays of strength and agility. Not that any of them were equipped with the proper frame of reference to recognize her actions as inhuman, but they were still likely to raise questions.
"Dare I ask?" Jonas inquired gently, noting that Mel still seemed unsettled.
"Um…" Mel thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Work. Cole's job…"
Jonas nodded, accepting this without comment. Cole was some kind of federal agent and therefore entitled to occasionally unexplainable behaviors. Where sweet little Gwen Angelo fit into that picture he was not even going to ask. Some things were definitely best left unspoken.
"You okay, sweetie?" he asked Mel gently, patting her hand.
Mel nodded. "Just fine, Jonas."
"You look a little shaken."
"Trust me, I've had stranger things than that happen to me since I met Cole," Mel assured him honestly.
She gave a dismissive shrug and looked up to where Gwen was lightly chatting with the group by the door and resolved to have a very long chat with Gwen quite soon.
"Sorry 'bout that," Gwen told them cheerfully, resting her elbows on the table and her chin on her hands. She smiled serenely around the table, her eyes settling on the twerp who had been hitting on her earlier. He was regarding her with a lot more respect now, and it had nothing to do with Cole's little lecture about being polite. "Guess my doc was right about downing espresso shots with my new meds. Though what else a girl is meant to do during finals week is really beyond me, you know?" she rambled on blithely.
Spin-doctoring rule number one, if you act like something out of the ordinary has happened, then they will know that it has. Never let them see you ruffled and never deny anything. Any psychologist could tell you that unless a big deal is made of an incident, an eye-witness will tend to minimize it in his mind. Gwen knew that and she knew that the reverse was true as well. If she had rushed to explain away the whole thing as a misunderstanding and no big deal, they would have known that a big deal was precisely what it had been.
"Of course, I really should have factored in the caffeine from all that chocolate, too, I guess." Gwen gave a ditzy giggle. "Sugar always gives me a buzz, too, actually." She covered her mouth with one hand. "Oops."
Another giggle. The young men were staring now, what they had seen between Cole and Jenin set aside in favor of what they had seen between Cole and Gwen. And since a big boy like Cole could take care of himself, they would sober up and be sure that they had imagined much of that and blown the rest out of proportion. After all, how was a girl Gwen's size supposed to manhandle a man like Cole Hauser around the bar? Being easily underestimated definitely had its advantages.
"I mean, triple whammy… Between that and the PMS. Whoa… You boys are going to be doctors. Why haven't they invented a cure for that yet?" Gwen asked, putting her hands on her slim hips and pouting at the young men.
Come to think of it, being female had its share of advantages, too. James would have been appalled and accused her of setting back the women's lib movement by years. Kettai would have been hard put upon to keep from laughing out loud.
Jonas was just leaving as Táhirih Gibbons walked into the bar, carrying a small duffel-bag over one shoulder. She was wearing faded and worn jeans instead of her ever-present business-suit, and her black hair hung loose instead of being pulled back. She had obviously come in a hurry. She nodded politely to Jonas whom she had met a few times in the past, then hurried over to Gwen.
"Where is she? Is it her? Are you sure?" she hissed at the girl.
"No. There are actually two pregnant Nodulians running around Chicago, Táhirih! Of course it is her!" Gwen snapped, clearly exasperated.
Since Jonas was the last customer to leave, Mel locked the front door and put up the 'closed' sign, suspecting that she was going to have other things to concern herself with tonight.
"Who is 'her'?" Mel asked, hoping she sounded more firm than she felt.
"A Nodulian fugitive named Jenin," Gwen told her. "Miss Porter, you know my friend Táhirih?"
Mel nodded. Doctor Gibbons worked near the bar and frequently dropped by for a few minutes to chat with Gwen or just to have a drink. She was quiet, friendly, and never ordered anything stronger than black coffee. "We've, um… met, yeah. Gwen, I want some answers now…"
Gwen shook her head. "More important matters right now. You've got a fugitive upstairs and she's in very bad shape. Not to mention a great deal of danger. Shall we?" she asked, gesturing towards the stairwell.
With a resigned sigh, knowing that answers would be some time coming, Mel nodded and ushered Gwen and Táhirih up the stairs.