Never a Dull Moment
Summary: Jess returns to Chicago for a visit, Cole receives some unexpected backup, and Mel is reminded that life at the Watchfire is many things, but never dull.
Rating: PG 13
Disclaimer: I don't own them but, hey, just as soon as that deal with Zin goes through...
Timeline: After "Remember When". After my fics "Morning After", "Training Day", "In Sheep's Clothing", and "Dancing With the Devil"
Spoilers: As usual, for "What Lies Beneath". A few others, probably, but none major.
Author's Note 1: This follows the other fics in my post-"Remember When" series. I would have liked to see a second season take this direction, though some may disagree and feel that Tracker fics should focus exclusively on Mel and Cole. Mel and Cole will always be my first love, but I personally think the Tracker universe is too rich to completely ignore the possibilities presented by six alien species running around Earth. I'll be interested to see how this is received. Good, bad, or indifferent, feedback is always welcomed and really can shape the direction of future fics...
Author's Note 2: Thanks, as always, to Kameka for betaingChapter 1
"Hey, Miss Porter," Isabel greeted Mel as she walked into the bar. "You seen Mister Hauser, lately?"
Mel shook her head in spite of the fact that she knew exactly where Cole was and what he was doing, moving the contents of his war-room to the Vault on Eijan's orders. It was easier simply to deny knowledge of his whereabouts than try to explain or come up with a cover-story.
"He's working," she temporized.
"Oh. Some girl left this for him," she said, holding up a sealed envelope.
"A girl?" Mel repeated, raising an eyebrow. Cole did not know any girls. "Well, I'll give it to him when I see him," she promised, extending her hand.
"Cool. Thanks." Isabel handed an envelope to her and returned to cleaning glasses.
"No problem," Mel assured her, walking upstairs and dropping onto the couch with the note. Knowing that Cole would not mind, she unsealed the envelope and read the short, cryptic message.
Stashia/Eikon, 9:30 tonight, Lakeshore Caf
That was it. No signature, no indication of who might have sent the message or what it meant. Cole would presumably be able to make some sense of it, so she tucked it into her pocket to await his return to the apartment. She was practicing her self-defense forms and pondering the possible meaning of the note when the phone rang. Retrieving it, she walked into the kitchen to mix herself a drink rather than returning immediately to the living room. She needed one: it had been a trying few weeks between Cole being forced to work with Zin and Lana still cheerfully carving Vardian words of wisdom into the backs of her captors.
"Hello?" she answered the phone.
"Mel, hey!" a familiar voice said.
"Jess!" Mel smiled widely, returning to the couch with the phone in one hand and a martini in the other. "How are you?"
"Good, Mel. I'm doing really good."
"That's great." Mel looked up at the sound of a squealing, screeching voice filtering through the apartment. Bendal, leaving a message for Cole.
"What's that?" Jess asked.
"Television. There's a thing on about dolphins," Mel lied. It was almost unsettling how adept she had become at lying in the past two years.
"Oh. So, how's Cole?" Jess asked, always her first question these days.
"Good, he's good."
"Yeah?" Jess asked, clearly skeptical.
"Well, work's killing him, but he really is hanging in there okay."
"The meetings working for him, then?"
"Yeah, Jess. They really are. He just got his sixty-day chip, and he's spending a lot of time with Jonas."
"Well, that's good. A guy needs friends."
"Cole has friends!"
Mel chuckled, amusing herself with idle speculation about how Jess would react to Cole's rather unique circle of friends. It would have been memorable, to say the least.
"If you say so."
"Oh ye of little faith." Mel smiled and shook her head. "He has friends," she repeated. "You can see for yourself when you come visit us."
"Well, actually, that's why I called... I got some time off earlier than I thought I'd be able to. The bar I work at's closing for renovations for a few weeks so the boss pushed up all of our vacation time." Mel could hear the mischievous smile in Jess' voice as she added, "I can be there tomorrow evening..."
"But, tickets," Mel protested.
"It's called the internet, Mel," Jess laughed. "Cheaper than they'd have been through an Agent, actually. What do you think?"
"We'd love to have you for a few weeks, Jess."
"Great! I'll call again when I have the tickets and hotel all sorted out."
"Oh, Jess, you can't stay at a hotel," Mel protested.
She and Cole had discussed Jess' eventual visit at length, and both had agreed that she would be safest staying with them, in the now ultra-secure apartment. Cole would have to pull a lot of equipment out of the war-room to make it habitable again, but it would be for the best.
"Oh, it's okay, Mel. I really don't mind," Jess assured her. "Besides, I've seen the inside of your guestroom..."
Mel snorted. "Smart-ass. We will clean it out." She smiled faintly. How serendipitous that they were in the process of doing just that.
"I don't want to put the two of you out..."
"You won't. Come on, Jess. You're our friend," Mel pointed out. "We don't mind. In fact, we'd feel better about it if you stayed here than in some hotel somewhere."
Jess hesitated. "If it's no fuss..."
"It isn't. We insist." Mel's smile widened. "So just let us know when we need to pick you up at the airport and it's all settled."
"Okay. I'll call you when I get the ticket."
"Wonderful. Cole's going to be thrilled, Jess."
"Can I talk to him?"
"He isn't here right now."
"Always work first with him, isn't it?"
"Always," Mel agreed, smiling. "Lucky for the human race," she added, chuckling.
Jess laughed. "Yeah, we're lucky. We have old Forrest watching our backs. He may be odd, but nothing gets by him, does it?"
"Not a damned thing," Mel agreed. Her smile faded abruptly as she really stopped to consider the implications of her friend's visit at this particular time. No one was really at their best. "Jess, you remember when I told you that things had changed around here?"
"Yeah. You mentioned it."
"Well, I really meant it." Mel sighed. "Things are... strange right now..."
"Stranger than usual?" Jess asked, her voice amused.
"I mean it, Jess," Mel said, shaking her head. "I just want you to be prepared..."
"You okay, Mel? You don't sound so good."
"I'm fine, Jess. Just a little tired right now. Long day in the bar. Oh! Which reminds me... I'll need to call the girls and get my shifts covered if you're going to be visiting."
"You sure I'm not putting you out at all?" Jess asked uncertainly.
"No. In fact, I think I could probably use a few days off," she answered honestly. "It's okay, Jess. We've both really missed you. It'll be good to see you again for a few days."
"Yeah, I've been missing you guys, too." Jess hesitated. "Mel, what you said a few months ago about me always having a job waiting for me..."
"If you move back to the States, the job is yours," Mel assured her. "But... I don't know. After you visit, you may not want to."
"Oh, things can't have changed that much," Jess scoffed. "Doesn't matter, though. It'll still be a few months before I've saved up enough to move, and there's all my papers to get."
"You really want to do this, Jess?" Mel asked quietly. "Move back, I mean."
"Of course I do, Mel. Chicago's more my home than London's been since I was fifteen."
Mel closed her eyes and bit her lower lip. "Okay, Jess, just... don't do anything hasty."
"Okay," Jess agreed quietly. "You okay, Mel?"
"Fine, I'm fine. I just don't want to see you do something you'll regret."
"I know, Jess. Just... just think about it, okay?"
"Okay, Mel. I will, I promise. I'm done making decisions without thinking about them. It's gotten me in trouble too many times."
"Okay, Jess. Call me when you have your tickets."
"Promise, Mel. Talk soon."
"Yeah, sweetie. I love you."
"I love you, too, Mel. Give Cole a big hug for me."
"Will do, Jess. Bye."
"Bye, Mel. See you soon."
Mel hung up the phone with a gentle sigh, shaking her head. As much as she wanted to see her friend again, she was a little worried about her. Chicago was a dangerous place right now, especially if you happened to be friends with Mel or Cole. They might keep her safe over the course of a short visit, but if she moved back, she was almost certainly going to have to be told things, if only for her own safety.
She was certain that Jess could be trusted not to tell anyone else the truth about Cole and the fugitives, but that did not make Mel any more eager to tell her about them. It was frightening knowledge and it wormed itself into every aspect of your life after awhile until you woke up in cold sweats, looked over your shoulder every time you left home, jumped at unexpected noises, and generally adopted a full-blown bunker mentality. For Mel, nervous by nature, it was not much of a stretch. For the bubbly and carefree Jess, though... the knowledge would change her, take away a vital part of what made Jess Jess.
She looked up at the sound of the apartment lock clicking open without keys, smiling and rising. "Hey, Cole," she called.
"Hello, Mel," came the cheerful answer.
Cole walked into the living room and smiled warmly down at her, nuzzling her cheek with his own. The Cirronian display of affection was still about as physical things tended to get between them since Kaehto's attempt on Mel. Mel still clung to him in the night, but she never sought more from him. Even kisses were sometimes unsettling to her. Cole understood and was more than willing to wait until she was ready again. In the meantime, he offered her what comfort he could and made sure she was never alone for too long.
"Some woman left a note for you. And Jess called, and Bendal left a message," she told him.
"I should see what he had to say first," Cole told her, starting down the hall. "What did Jess say?" he added as he started typing on his keyboard.
"Oh, she wants to move her visit up."
"By how much?" Cole asked, calling up the recording of Bendal's message.
"She says she'll be here in the next few days."
Cole smiled widely. Seeing her old friend would be good for Mel, he was sure. "That will be very nice, Mel."
"Yeah. I've missed her." She smiled down at him. "So, what's Bendal say?"
Cole hit the playback button and listened to the Nodulian words, frowning. His frown deepened as the message proceeded.
"What is it?" Mel asked when silence had once again filled the room. She rubbed her forehead. Listening to Nodulian for any length of time always left her with a headache.
"He conveys an order from Eijan," Cole said, still frowning. "I am not to leave the vicinity of the Watchfire for the next two days."
"What? Why?" Mel asked, frowning at the order.
"He does not know."
"I thought you said Bendal always knew what Eijan was up to..."
"He does. Except now." Cole shook his head. "He said Eijan was not on Sar-Top, but that she was most emphatic. She must have her reasons, though, Mel. She is a wise woman."
Mel shrugged, accepting that. Cole reposed absolute faith in Eijan and was not in the habit of questioning her. "I still wonder what she's up to, though. First the war-room and now this. We'd have had to clean the room out anyway with Jess coming, but this..."
Cole shrugged and began unplugging his mainframe. "I was going to make supper tonight, Mel, but I doubt I'll have the time, moving all of this and making the guestroom habitable again."
"We'll order pizza," Mel said. "You really think we can have this place cleared out and in shape by tomorrow?"
"Oh, yes, Mel." Cole nodded. "And the Vault will afford me more room to work as well as more secrecy. I'm surprised I didn't think of it myself."
"You've had your own set of worries," she pointed out. "Need help moving this stuff?"
"Yes, please, Mel. The job would go faster, I think, with two people."
It was an annoyingly slow task, moving the equipment one piece at a time, carrying it out the back door of the apartment into the alley before reentering the Watchfire through a side door into the basement which contained the Vault access. Two sets of hands would make the job pass much more quickly, and time with Mel was always to be considered an added bonus. Smiling down at her, he handed her the remains of a toaster and picked up the mainframe.
Cole frowned down at the note, shaking his head. He had been so preoccupied trying to understand Eijan's orders and anticipating Jess' visit that Mel had remembered it before he had. Now, though, he was less interested in the reasoning behind the order than he was tempted to ignore it.
"Stashia and Eikon are both very important members of Zin's inner circle," he explained to Mel, shaking his head and reading it again. "And, as I understand it, Stashia is seldom in this country."
"Who would leave you the note, though?" Mel asked. "Could it be a trap?"
"I don't think so, Mel." He shook his head faintly. "There are others who could have been named who would be more likely to draw me out."
"Then you think it's on the up and up? A fugitive looking for leniency, maybe?"
"It would not be the first time," Cole noted.
"Hey, didn't Bridget say the other day that some woman called for you? Refused to leave a message?"
He nodded slowly, sure there was a connection, but less sure who among the fugitives might wish to help him? Or why.
"Taking Stashia would severely cripple Zin's overseas operations," he murmured.
Mel frowned. "Of all the times for Eijan to ground you... What are you going to do?" she asked quietly.
"I may not get another chance to take Stashia for some time, Mel."
"You're going to disobey her order?"
"She would understand, I think."
"Unless she knows something you don't. Like that the fugitives are trying to draw you into an ambush."
He shook his head faintly. "If there was some danger, she would have said so, I'm sure. She has another reason for wanting me to stay here and, I doubt, much intelligence on Zin's operation here beyond what I convey to her."
"So what's up with the order?"
"I do not know." He shook his head and rose, glancing at his watch. "Mel, would you like to accompany me to dinner?" he asked.
"As in a date or as in 'my training officer has a new exercise for me'?" she teased, grinning up at him. He had stepped up her training substantially since Kaehto.
"Well, Mel, since it's only eight, we should have more than enough time for both."
"I'll get my coat."
"Mel, I sometimes think you enjoy the Collection process too much," Cole told her gently as they returned to the Watchfire.
"Not a thing wrong with enjoying your work, Cole," she answered, winking up at him. "I'm getting good at it, too. Besides, why shouldn't I enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with taking down an alien thug?"
He smiled faintly, slinging an arm around her shoulder as they entered the dark, empty barroom. He stopped dead, staring at a black-clad girl standing in the alcove, turning a pool-cue over in her hands. She was no more human than he was, a fact which Mel had obviously picked up on as well, because she had her Collector in hand and was closing on the girl in a second.
The girl was faster. Her expression supremely unconcerned, she brought up the pool cue in a sweeping parry that Mel recognized immediately because Cole had taught it to her only two days before. That move knocked the Collector from Mel's grasp. As it skittered across the floor, one of the girl's hands came up to brace Mel's shoulder. With her other hand, the girl held the cue ready, eyeing Mel expressionlessly.
"Kedriss Daggon, lea'an nithata Melah en'i?" she asked levelly. "Atan alla li'a, Olia."
"It's okay, Mel," Cole assured her, gently retrieving the Collector from her hand for safekeeping. "I know this woman."
"You..." Mel blinked and stared at the girl, Enixian to judge by her voice. And her glowing green eyes.
"You were not supposed to leave this place tonight," the girl pointed out to Cole in perfect English, scowling faintly. "Eijan told us you would be here."
"Us?" Mel asked. Still scowling up at the Cirronian, the girl did not respond and Cole, staring down at her with unfeigned delight, seemed disinclined to speak either. "Cole? What's going on here?"
"Mel, this is Olia," Cole told her quietly, extending his hand to the girl. "I lived in her mother's household for three years on Enix when she was a child." He shook his head abruptly, staring down at her in confusion. "But... what are you doing here?"
"If you had stayed here as you were meant to, you would have received Eijan's communiqué and would not have to ask me that," she answered tartly, grinning. "Tracker Kedriss Daggon, your backup has arrived!"
"My... they sent you... but... you were to be a priestess!" he protested.
Olia snorted and shook her head. "My mother realized that it would never be tenable. I lack an appropriately pious nature," she informed him, her tone mocking.
"Wait. They sent you to back Cole up?" Mel asked, staring at her in confusion. She was so young. Nor did she look powerful or imposing enough to take on a fugitive with any luck.
Olia smiled, the effect of her unimposing appearance on Mel obviously not lost on her. "Not myself only. There are others."
"Others?" Mel repeated, processing the concept. Her stomach dropped abruptly. "Oh! No! No, no, no! No! Cole, no! They can not stay here!"
"Is she always so openly grateful for assistance?" Olia asked, clearly bemused.
"Mel?" Cole asked, frowning at her panicked reaction.
"Jess is coming tomorrow!"
"Oh. Yes, she is," Cole agreed, nodding thoughtfully. "It does not matter," he concluded finally. "I am sure that they have all been well-trained in human customs."
Mel groaned softly.
"Does this 'Jess' creature present a problem?" Olia asked quietly.
Mel's head shot up at Olia's tone. It almost sounded like an offer to take care of any problems by 'taking care' of Jess.
"Jess is curious by nature," Cole answered, resting a reassuring hand on Mel's shoulder. "But she would never expose us."
"Good." Olia nodded shortly. "Because Shana has his hands full enough as it is without trying to rewrite anyone's neural pathways on short notice."
"Rewrite..." Mel gaped at her.
"Exposure can not be allowed, now more than ever. I read the report on Doctor Lana's abduction. It troubles me greatly, nor am I the only one."
"Who else is here?" Cole asked. "Where are they?"
"In our temporary headquarters." Olia pointed at the floor. "I must admit that I was pleased you were not present when we arrived. I was glad of the excuse to escape the noise."
"You're setting up in the Vault?" Mel asked, staring at the floor in shock. An unknown number of alien cops were using the Vault under her bar as a base of operations? Surely they would feel like having a drink and unwinding after long Tracks, too... "Oh, God. Cole, I think I need to sit down..."
"T'hala lei'ei a a tha a?"
"Usually, yes," Cole agreed, nodding in faint amusement. "But she has the makings of an excellent Tracker."
"That is no longer for you to judge," Olia pointed out mildly. "Our Operations Coordinator and Certification Expert will ultimately be responsible for her evaluation."
"Of course." Cole inclined his head. "How many have come?"
"We are nine in number. With yourself, we constitute a standard low-impact, zero-presence field-office."
Cole nodded thoughtfully, mentally reviewing the compliment of such a team. And the training that was involved... "How long has Eijan been planning this?"
Olia smirked. "Since approximately three hours after the second escape."
"And she didn't tell us?" Mel asked, gaping.
"Perhaps she wished it to be a surprise?" Olia suggested, rubbing her upper lip against the bottom of her nose.
Cole shook his head faintly. "You are Search and Retrieval?"
She shook her head faintly. "Crime Scene Analysis, Team Surveillance Specialist, Covert Ops Specialist, Intelligence Apprentice, Field Tracking Trainee."
Mel blinked. "Talk about multi-tasking..."
"We are all required to fill many roles that we may be fewer in number and therefore less likely to be discerned," Olia explained.
"Oh." Mel nodded faintly. "I suppose that makes sense."
"What are my tasks to be?" Cole asked.
"Field-Tracker-in-Charge, Medical Technician, Intelligence Apprentice, Electronics Tech, Terran Liaison."
He nodded faintly, pleased. "So Mel's training will remain in my hands?"
"It will. Now, If you'll follow me, I can introduce you to the others," Olia offered. "This way, please," she said, gesturing towards the storage-area doors with the air of a museum guide.