Chapter 10 -- Delivery
Táhirih did not bother to open her eyes or even move when she heard her cell door swing open. Until the opened door allowed her to heard shouting, running, and the unmistakable sound of what most human members of the Taskforce had come to term the 'Collection howl'. She struggled into a sitting position only to find herself slumping to the floor.
Gentle hands broke her fall and when she finally managed to force her eyelids to part she found herself staring into what Gwen had once referred to as 'only the most amazing eyes in the universe'. Táhirih had never been entirely sure about that, even if hazel eyes were remarkably striking set into such a dark face. Until now.
"She was right," she mumbled as he gently shifted her back onto the bed. "They are beautiful…" She reached for his face and missed, her fingers skimming his shoulder before her hand dropped limply to her side.
Kettai smiled faintly and shook his head. "So, very little actual point in asking if you're going to be able to walk," he guessed. "So we'll just skip to the important one. Are you hurt?" he asked, touching a large bruise on her right side.
"Hey," she protested weakly, swimming out of her drug-induced haze long enough to grab a blanket and pull it over her mostly-bare body.
He reached for the blanket only to have her bat at his hand. "I am not going to sit in here playing tug-of-war with you over this blanket because of some stupid human concept of modesty. In case the screaming didn't give it away, I've got a fight going on out there."
"Not hurt. Professional opinion," she yawned, rolling onto her side with her back to him.
"Bad time for a nap, Doctor," Kettai sighed, wrapping her in the quilt and picking her up. "Come on…"
"No sign of Zin or Lana yet, sir," a young woman reported jogging up to him. She eyed Táhirih for a moment. "She okay?"
"Heavily sedated, Agent Thompson." Kettai gave her a reassuring smile. "Any trace of…" He paused long enough to pull a photo of Zin and Thaler from his pocket. "This man?"
"Uh, not that I've seen, but I can ask around."
"Do that." Kettai handed her the picture. "Call me if he's found."
"Is he to be taken?"
"He may have valuable information. Hold him for me."
"Yes, sir." She nodded and hurried off.
"Jenin?" Táhirih whispered into his shoulder. "Zin said… she died…"
"No, baby." Kettai shook his head and gently pet her hair for a few moments before walking on. "She's still with us, last I heard. And I would be the first to know."
"Baby's too large…"
"So I heard. You going to be up to performing a C-section on her?" he asked gently, transferring her into his car. She barely looked up to figuring out which end of a scalpel to cut with.
"Done dozens… do one… asleep." She yawned and made an annoyed sound. "If… could stay awake."
Kettai winced. No way was she going to be helpful to them. "Okay, Táhirih. Enough small-talk. You just rest now." He looked over when there was no answer. Táhirih had taken his advice to heart. She was sound asleep. Shrugging, he drove.
Cole hesitated in his next cut, not trying to remember how, but to still his trembling hands. Human bodies reacted strangely to anxiety and this was one of those cases. The last thing he needed was to try to do this with shaking hands. Drawing a deep breath, he lowered the scalpel again.
"Stop," Kettai directed, half-carrying Táhirih into the room.
"Oh, my gods," Gwen whispered, staring at the battered woman wearing little but an appropriated hospital gown.
"I'll take it from here, Daggon," Táhirih directed gently, pulling on a pair of gloves. "How is she?" she asked Mel.
"In and out of consciousness. And… she's so pale…"
"She's losing a lot of blood," Táhirih said after taking a moment to assess Jenin.
Cole shook his head. "But not from this. I've been doing it like I read, cauterizing as I go. There's hardly been any blood."
"Baby's too large. Something must have torn," Táhirih decided, nodding to herself. She looked over the surgical incision. "Well done, Daggon. Gwen, Kettai, come assist me."
"Cole?" the Nodulian asked weakly.
"I'm here," he assured her tenderly, catching her hand. He gently brushed her hair out of her face, playing his fingers along her forehead. "Táhirih is here, too. Everything is going to be fine. You're both going to be just fine."
"I'm so tired…"
"I know. And you can rest very soon," he promised. "They say that stasis is just like taking a nap. You can rest then."
She smiled weakly and nodded. "Sounds good. Just as soon as I've named her." She winced and let out a quiet grunt.
Cole took one of her hands in both of his. "Look at me, Jenin. You focus on the sound of my voice and you breathe just like I showed you."
"This would be a good time to start chanting," Táhirih told Cole.
Cole nodded and quietly took up a Nodulian chant. Jenin gave his hand a squeeze and started chanting as well. Mel stood by, feeling useless as the others worked on the other side of the drape. She sat down in a corner, the smell of cauterized tissue suddenly making her nauseous. She closed her eyes and sent up a prayer that mother and daughter would both survive this insanity. Her eyes popped open abruptly at the sound of quiet cooing.
"Allah," Táhirih breathed, her expression one of wonder.
"Gods," Gwen whispered, cleaning up the baby.
Cole moved to her side and gently took the baby from her hands, smiling widely as he quickly looked it over. "Neh etan…" He wrapped her in the waiting receiving blanket and placed her gently into Jenin's arms. "She is perfect, Jenin," he breathed. "Beautiful." He looked up at Mel, smiling and beckoning her. "Mel, come look."
"Oh, look at you," Jenin whispered, smiling weakly down at her child, happy tears in her eyes. "You are perfect."
"She's a hundred percent Nodulian," Táhirih whispered as Kettai healed the incision. "I don't know how, but it is amazing…"
Mel slowly approached the bed again, joining Cole where he stood, smiling up at him as he slid an arm around her shoulder. Slowly, not entirely sure what to expect, she looked down at the Nodulian infant. Cole had been right. She was beautiful. Only her head stuck out of the blanket, but Mel was enchanted by that little view of her. Her skin was the smooth gray of a dolphin or whale, her big round eyes completely black. There was nothing the least bit human about her features. Her face very much resembled that of a dolphin. Her tiny little snout bore what could only be a smile. She blinked a few times and looked around with an expression of obvious curiosity before cooing again.
"Thank you," Jenin whispered, closing her eyes and weeping silently. "Thank you all so much…"
"Her name, Jenin?" Cole asked gently but firmly. He could feel her life-force slipping away.
"Ashi, with your permission."
Cole blinked, startled. "Thank you, Jenin. It is an honor."
She smiled and nodded, holding the child close. "Ashi, her name is Ashi. She is Ashi, firstborn child of Jenin and Kres, their beloved daughter." Nodding firmly, she touched her forehead to Ashi's and then handed her to Cole.
"Welcome to the universe, little one," Cole added with a sad smile, holding the baby close for a moment before handing her to Mel. "Jenin?"
"I'm ready." She nodded again.
Cole sighed deeply, tears in his eyes as he produced his Collector. "Mel, please take Ashi outside. She should not be here."
"Are you sure, Cole? Should I stay?"
Cole close his eyes and shook his head. "Please, Mel," he whispered, almost a plea.
Mel nodded and cuddled the baby close as she left.
"You need moral support?" Gwen asked gently as Táhirih joined Mel in the hall.
"No." Cole shook his head. "You two go, get Mel and Ashi out of here."
"We'll meet you at the Watchfire," Gwen murmured, squeezing his shoulder and following the others from the room.
Cole drew a deep breath and slowly approached Jenin. The Nodulian's expression was one of utmost serenity.
"Thank you, sir. There are not words enough to express the gratitude I bear you."
Cole nodded, tears in his eyes. "Close your eyes and be calm," he directed in a pained voice.
"Never so calm as in this moment. Zin will not have my child. You and your friend will keep her safe and see to it that she is well loved. Nothing else matters to me." Jenin reclined in the bed and closed her eyes. Oblivion was threatening to take her, but she was not afraid because she knew he would not let her die.
"Think of the most beautiful place you've ever been," he whispered tenderly, resting one hand on her forehead and releasing calming energy. Quickly, painlessly, he Collected her life-force. His entire body shaking, he sat down and wept.
"Can we get her out of here with Zin's people everywhere?" Mel whispered as the others joined her in the hall.
"I can," Kettai announced, gently taking the child from her arms. "I'll get her back to the Watchfire." He looked down at the baby, then smiled at Táhirih. "Well done, Doctor."
"Definitely a first for me," Táhirih admitted, allowing Gwen to support her. "Of course, it's been a day of firsts. Held captive by a Vardian, interrogated and tortured by an Enixian, rescued by a Cirronian, brought a Nodulian into the world… all I need now are a pair of Orsusians and a Dessarian and I'll have a full house."
"Yeah, well, we should all vacate now," Gwen suggested quietly. "Kettai, go."
He nodded and kissed Gwen's cheek. "Stay safe, my love. It's almost over."
"I know." Gwen smiled warmly at him. "Looks like we're going to get that happy ending after all."
"So it seems," he agreed. Bowing to Mel, he resettled the baby in his arms and slid into Hyperspeed.
"Okay, now what?" Mel asked, glancing over her shoulder to the closed door.
"You and Táhirih get out. She knows the way. I'll cover this door until Daggon's done."
"Okay. Thank you." Mel quickly hugged Gwen before following Táhirih off.
Gwen waited better than twenty minutes before intruding on Cole.
"Daggon," she called gently, leaning into the room. "You really do need to go now."
Cole looked up at her, not bothering to dry his tears as he rose. "Yes, Gwen. Thank you, Gwen. For everything."
"Hey, that's what friends are for, yeah?" Smiling reassuringly, she patted his shoulder. "Better get. Mel will worry."
Cole nodded, took a deep breath, and slipped into hyper-speed. Gwen stared after him, took a final glance at the body that Jenin had recently vacated, and left the room. The Taskforce would make sure that no trace was every found. Kettai would get Ashi safely to the Watchfire. Mel Porter and Kedriss Daggon would settle back into their lives. Lives not likely to ever be even remotely similar to the way they had been before, thanks to a new addition to their loving family. And life would go on for everyone. All in all, a good day's work.
She could not help but be a little disappointed that she had not run into Zin or the fugitive that had taken her brother's body, but there would be other chances for that.
Perhaps sooner than later, she realized with an internal smile as she rounded a corner in the abandoned wing and ran into both Vardians.
"Well, well, well. Look what the cat coughed up," Gwen drawled, smiling benignly at Zin.
"Gwynlyn Moiré Angelo," Zin greeted her with a polite nod. "We meet at last."
Gwen's smile widened. She was really going to enjoy beating this arrogant bastard to a pulp. "We do. You have much to answer for, Vardian."
Zin affected polite interest. "Do I indeed?"
"Mmm." Gwen nodded. "Starting with that." She nodded towards the man who had once been her brother.
"Ah, yes, of course. I'd nearly forgotten that one of my people had the good fortune to find his way into the elder brother of an SST Agent."
"Bad fortune, I dare say," Gwen corrected him, discreetly palming her Collector. She had received it after James had been taken, so neither man had any way of knowing about it. She glanced from Zin to 'James' and back to Zin. "You won't take it too personally, I hope, when I kill your lap-dog?"
Zin raised an eyebrow, intrigued by the girl's bravado. "Have at it, Thaler," Zin said, shrugging and nodding to the Vardian.
He was eager to see what this Gwen creature with her muddled genetics was capable of. There were enough of his people in the hospital to find the Nodulian and her child without help from Zin himself or Thaler, so the little diversion would cost him nothing. If the hybrid died quickly, nothing was lost. If it took her longer, she might still prove useful to him in some capacity. If nothing else, her DNA might be added to his growing data-base.
Zin watched, intrigued, as Thaler rushed Gwen. It was a foolish move, Zin reflected as Gwen side-stepped, caught the Vardian's arm, and flipped him. Thaler landed on the floor with a grunt. Gwen, refusing to lose the advantage she had gained, dove on top of him and pressed the Collector into his chest, rolling off as soon as she had, Collecting his life-force even as she put distance between herself and Zin. She regarded him with a grim smile, swaying slightly as she sized him up.
Served Thaler right for underestimating his foe. "Not bad for an Enixian mongrel," Zin remarked mildly, turning to leave.
Gwen decided that Zin leaving was not an option. The next words out of her mouth were calculated to make him stay, and she knew they would.
"Takes one to know one, hmm?" she asked easily.
It was a verbal blow below the belt and she knew it, hitting him in not one but two Vardian soft-spots. Racial purity and their respect for the honor of their mothers. Zin spun to face her, his expression livid.
"What?" he snarled.
"You heard me, you bastard." Gwen kept her voice free of emotion. Her aim was to get Zin emotional, not herself. If he were angry enough, he would slip up. "I said it takes a tahgana to know one."
Tahgana, a Vardian born to parents from two different castes. It was the single worst insult you could level against a Vardian and the look on Zin's face told Gwen that it had hit home. Gwen pressed her advantage with malicious pleasure.
"Oh, come on. We all know how your mother really died. Suicide to avoid prosecution for the crime of outbreeding, wasn't it?"
She casually ducked a stray paint-can Zin sent flying at her.
"Temper, temper. Definitely a sign of warrior-caste heritage." Gwen tisked at him and shook her head. "You're only making my point for me. Your father's body-guard, I suppose?"
"You will die for your insolence."
Gwen scoffed. "You think? Because I was thinking something very similar about you. Now, we can't both be right," she pointed out reasonably.
Any citizen of the Migar Alliance could tell you that the only creature more dangerous than an enraged Vardian was a mother Enixian protecting her young. Gwen had no children of her own to protect, but she did have a family. Mel, Cole, Táhirih, Kettai. James… She looked down at the corpse, her ears ringing. Oh, yeah. No one messed with the people Gwynlyn Moiré Angelo cared about. Zin was responsible for James' death, had tortured Táhirih, was actively trying to work harm against Mel and Cole, would have killed Kettai in a heartbeat on general principle. He had screwed with one too many of the people she loved.
Howling as only an angry Enixian could, she launched herself at the Vardian. Zin was too stunned to react as she bore him to the floor and applied her fist to his face three times in rapid succession. She wrapped one hand around his throat and raised her Collector, only to have it telekinetically plucked from her hand and hurled away down the hall. Shrugging, she drove her fist into his face again. And found herself flying down the hall as her Collector had. Bones shattered as she hit the floor. Ignoring the pain, she scooped up her Collector and took off at a run.
"This isn't over!" she snarled over her shoulder. "Next time, I won't bother with the Collector!"
Zin scoffed and picked himself off, dusting off his suit and pulling a handkerchief from one pocket. Shaking his head, he applied the cloth to his bloody nose. Death was too easy for a creature like that. He was going to have to think long and hard on a suitably agonizing punishment. Or maybe he could find a way to brainwash her over to his side. A modified neurodebilitator, perhaps? One that left her sense of ethics intact while completely overriding her free will.
He chuckled quietly as he stepped over Thaler's body and pulled out his cell-phone. He quickly gave orders, annoyed that his people still had not found the child. Shaking his head, he hung up and raised the handkerchief to his still-bleeding nose again. Oh, yes, that one had potential.
"Not bad for an Enixian mongrel," he repeated, his smile growing. "Not bad at all…"
Kettai arrived at the Watchfire first, but he was not the only person in the darkened barroom.
"Well done, Agent Kettai," Tarsk greeted him, smiling widely.
Kettai frowned at his tone and held Ashi more firmly against his chest. "You should still be at the hospital, Tarsk. I ordered you to supervise the removal of Jenin's body."
"Anyone can handle that," Tarsk said dismissively. "But speaking of people who are not where they should be… shouldn't you be at the airport? We wouldn't want the Starkes to worry."
"There's been a change of plans."
"I know. And another since."
Kettai closed his eyes, aware that there were multiple non-human life-forces nearby. "The fugitive Jenin made her choice as to who would raise Ashi," he stated firmly.
"A choice that the Council rejects."
"I beg your pardon?" Kettai shook his head, backing away. "I don't think so." He looked up as the front door opened and several more members of the Taskforce entered. "No!"
"Don't make it hard on the child, Kettai, or on yourself. Just give her to me."
"Over my dead body."
"No. You're too valuable to us for that."
Kettai mentally judged the distance between himself and the door, shouting and holding the child closer when two Taskforce Agents grabbed him from behind. It took four more to restrain him enough for Tarsk to take Ashi from his arms and, even then, it had more to do with Kettai's fear that his struggling might hurt her than with the fact that he was overpowered.
"A Nodulian child should be raised by Nodulian parents, not by a Cirronian and a talking monkey." Tarsk shrugged, lightly touching the baby's forehead. "She really is perfect, isn't she?"
"Don't do this. It's wrong…"
"The Starkes were most pleased to hear that you had changed your mind," Tarsk added, ignoring Kettai.
"I need to go now. The Starkes are waiting." Bowing, Tarsk left the bar.
"Well, we know the Starkes got her," Kettai told Mel, Cole, and Gwen with a deep sigh.
The four of them sat around a corner booth in the closed Watchfire. All had obviously been crying. Mel and Gwen had half-finished a bottle of scotch and Cole and Kettai had made short work of a pound of fudge that Gwen had brought, suspecting that a mild sedative was in order for both men. In spite of their bleak expressions, none looked the worse for wear physically except for Gwen: black, blue, casted, and with her left arm in a sling. She had resolutely refused to allow Kettai to heal any of her wounds.
"And we know that the Starkes went into hiding a short time later. Tarsk told them that Zin would be actively seeking out the child," Kettai added.
"Will he?" Mel asked quietly.
"No." Gwen shook her head, pouring herself another glass of scotch. "Ashi will be safe. Zin believes she died."
"I can't believe you gave Zin a bloody nose," Mel remarked quietly, shaking her head.
"Hey, he deserved it."
"Gwen, he could have killed you!" Mel protested. "Your arm is broken in two places, you broke three ribs, bruised your collarbone, dislocated your shoulder…"
"Yeah, okay, so discretion has never been my strong-suit." Gwen shrugged. "Next time I'll know better."
"Gwen, Zin is not a man to be underestimated," Cole told her gently. "Attempting to take his life-force without backup was unwise." He gently patted her good shoulder. "We would not want to lose you."
"He's right, you know," Kettai murmured.
Gwen nodded and stared down at her drink, then leaned back against Kettai's chest. He smiled down at her and wrapped a careful arm around her, resting his chin on top of her head.
Mel watched the couple with a wistful smile, feeling half happy for them and half envious of what they had. She looked down in surprise when she felt a warm hand brush against hers. Smiling, she took Cole's hand in hers and wrapped his arm around her, leaning into him.
"How's Táhirih?" Mel asked quietly, reluctant to break the comfortable silence that had fallen between the small group but worried about the other woman.
"Our doctors are keeping her overnight for observation and to give the drugs time to leave her system, but her injuries are healed," Kettai told Mel. He glanced down at his watch. "We should go now, too. The doctors say that Gweny must rest."
"Notice how they've stopped telling you that I need to 'stay in bed' when I get hurt?" Gwen teased as he draped her coat over her shoulders.
"Took them long enough to catch on." He kissed her cheek, chuckling as he became aware that Cole was watching them with bemusement. "Good night, Daggon. Good night, Miss Porter. I am sorry beyond words that things could not have turned out better."
"I think we all are," Mel agreed, rising and giving him a quick hug. She gave Gwen a quick peck on the cheek. "You still aren't off the hook about lying to me," she whispered, winking at the girl.
Gwen smiled. "Night, Miss porter. Night, Daggon."
"And I am healing at least those bruises," Kettai muttered to Gwen, shaking his head.
"Good night, Gwen. Good night, Kettai." Cole stood next to Mel as she watched the two leave, sliding an arm around her waist. "You should also go to bed now, Mel," he suggested once they were alone together.
Mel considered joking about Gwen and Kettai's earlier comments about bed versus rest but did not have the heart. She settled for an almost-plea of, "Not yet."
"Mel?" Cole asked, watching her with concern.
"Just… not yet, okay? I feel… lonely right now."
He nodded and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her close. "So do I. We'll… we'll go upstairs and sit up together for a little while."
"Yeah." Mel nodded and threaded her hand through his. "Thank you, Cole."
"You're welcome, Mel." He smiled down at her. "And thank you, too, Mel. I don't know that I could have made it through the last few days without you."
She smiled tenderly up at him. "I'm always here for you, no matter what you need."
He wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her close and resting his forehead against hers. "I would have loved to raise a child with you, Mel," he whispered.
Mel stared up at him with wide eyes, swallowing hard.
"You will be a wonderful mother some day. It's my favorite thing about you. You have love in your heart to spare."
She reached up and cupped his face in her hands. "So do you…"
Cole smiled at the gesture. "Let's go upstairs now, Mel," he suggested gently.
Mel felt her heart skip more than one beat at a suggestion that could have been taken more than one way and definitely brought to mind the bed versus rest banter that Gwen and Kettai had shared. Composing herself, she smiled and nodded at her alien friend and love, following him up the stairs to the apartment.