"Okay, Cole, so what did you want to talk to me about?" Vic asked, following the Cirronian into the storeroom.
"Vic, what would you say if I told you that five people outside are not human?"
"Shit!" Vic hissed, automatically reaching for his gun. "Why the hell didn't Mel tell me?" he demanded. "What the hell are we leaving her alone out there for?"
"Because they are friends," Cole answered simply. "Kallissa and Eijan thought that you would be the best person to judge their ability to blend in. You know of the existence of aliens and you are a Detective and a good judge of people. Did any of them make you suspicious?"
"Not that they were aliens, no," Vic answered, leaning against the wall, stunned. "Jeez..."
"Hey, guys," Mel began entering the storeroom. She paused at the look on Vic's face. "You okay?"
"Except for the heart-attack Cole just gave me. Jesus, Mel, how long has this been going on?"
"Ah. Thus you being all cagey with me." He nodded faintly. "Got it."
"Sorry," Mel told him, shrugging apologetically. "Uh, there's one other thing..."
"There is currently a Tracker working in the Chicago Police Department," Cole said. "We can not tell you who or in which precinct, though."
"Oh, come on!" he protested.
"Kallissa is concerned that you might inadvertently make others suspicious of him if you knew," Mel explained, knowing that Cole would have stumbled over the masculine pronoun. "You know, that your behavior might inadvertently tip someone off that something was up."
He sighed and nodded. "Fine. I guess I understand."
"I am sorry," Cole added. "If the choice were mine, I would not keep it from you."
"I know." He nodded.
"Uh, so, do you know which five were aliens?" Mel asked hesitantly. This was the real test. Jess or Jonas, not knowing about aliens, might have been fooled, but Vic...
"The underage-looking one, the guy in Bermuda shorts, Jess' new friend, the woman in green, and the guy in the suit drinking with her," Vic reeled off, smirking at the shocked looks on both of their faces. That would show them to withhold vital intelligence from him. Not to mention being used as a guinea pig... "What?" he asked innocently. "Was I wrong about any of them?"
Cole's jaw dropped and he regarded Vic with unveiled admiration.
"How did you..." Mel began, wondering if the storeroom had grown warmer or if she was just starting to panic.
Vic wanted to continue teasing her, but she looked ready to start hyperventilating. "Relax, sweetie," he directed, grasping her shoulder. "It's a weeknight. Everyone else in there is a regular."
"Oh!" Mel gave a weak laugh. "Right, so... none of them struck you as... odd?"
"Mel, one of them is wearing Bermuda shorts in the middle of a winter storm and hitting on anything that moves," he pointed out. "That definitely qualifies as odd. Too odd to have raised my suspicions, actually. I've seen barflies act weirder than that, trust me, and that kind of behavior is just a little too overt to raise suspicions of trying too hard to blend in. And the girl got my attention, too, but not because of her behavior." He shrugged. "If that's any example, I don't think they'll have much trouble fitting in."
"Oh, thank God," Mel muttered, allowing herself to breathe again.
"So, they finally sent you guys some backup, huh?"
"Nine in total," Cole told him. "You have not yet seen Shana, Kallissa, or the twins."
"The twins?" Vic repeated.
"They're Orsusian," Mel told him. "And we can't tell you their names because one of them..."
"Now works for the Chicago PD. Right." Vic nodded. "Convenient, having a telepathic uplink to your inside man."
"Very," Cole agreed. "I was initially surprised that Eijan did not select a Dessarian for the assignment, but an Orsusian makes sense as well."
"Right." Vic shook his head. He was starting to understand how Maria felt about being shut out. He had a sneaking suspicion that he was about to be handed the Migar equivalent of a pink slip.
"Vic, we all need every bit of help you can give us," Mel assured him. "This doesn't change that, not by a long-shot. All it means is that if you ever get into a situation at work where you or some other cop need backup and Cole isn't around, you'll have the help you need."
He nodded slowly. "Fine, Mel. I understand."
"Vic, this..." She shook her head. "Come meet the others," she suggested.
Vic exhaled deeply. "I'm not sure if I'm up to that right now."
"Then come have a drink first," Mel suggested.
"Now there's one I can wrap my brain around..." he muttered, following them back into the bar.
What amazed Mel as Jess' visit progressed was how accepting she was of the others. Bendal perhaps drank too much, and certainly flirted too much, but he was a sweet and friendly man all the same, not that different from many barflies. If Ro'ahn was uncommonly shy, that could easily be explained away by the fact that he was an exchange-student, unused to life in American culture and unsure. And in spite of her habit of wearing black and lurking in shadows, Olia was engaging and sweet. Certainly she had earned Jonas' seal of approval.
The others were freer of idiosyncrasies and completely failed to register on her radar except as regulars who had not been regulars a year ago. She knew that some of them were coworkers of Cole's, that they sometimes held nighttime meetings at the Watchfire, even, but there was nothing unnatural about that in her mind. It was a convenient location, close to their office, where they could talk and drink in peace.
What intrigued Jess more than Cole's coworkers was Vic's behavior. He could often be seen stopping in the bar only long enough to give an envelope to Mel, or to Cole's pretty Asian friend Kallissa, or to receive one from them. Jess remembered once upon a time when Vic could not even look at Cole without glowering. Now he called Cole "buddy" and worked with him in what Jess could only assume was an unofficial, and perhaps not even technically legal, capacity. And all the while, he continued to call Mel sweetheart and always had a peck on the cheek for her or even a hug if Mel's mood made physical contact acceptable.
Not that Mel was always receptive. More than once, she had tensed at some unexpected contact from Jess, even if she just touched her arm during conversation. And sleeping in the bedroom next to theirs, able to hear the crooning with which Cole typically lulled Mel to sleep, Jess was also aware that the two were no longer intimate. She could not blame Mel given the torture and attempted rape she had been subjected to, but the time-line just confused her. Those scars looked as if they had been healed for at least a year, yet Mel and Cole had not become lovers until a few months ago. Which begged the question.
Not that Jess had pushed Mel by asking it, but she could not help but be curious. Jess had adopted a strict policy of non-interference and refused to ask questions which might only make Mel even more nervous than she already was. Obviously, a lot was going on, above and beyond the attempt on Mel. Mel was just as clearly involved in it, and deeply. If it was classified, it was, at least for the time being, better not to question too deeply. Observation and indirect information could tell her a lot.
Meanwhile, Cole was cheerfully making plans for her permanent move to the apartment over the bar. Apparently, he had been wanting to replace the bathtub with a Jacuzzi hot-tub and he considered Jess' residency there a perfect excuse to override Mel's protests on the matter. He also wanted to install a shower, which he had promised Jess would come with a temperature-control valve for her safety. Jess told him he was going to too much trouble, a concern he had waved off, assuring her that it was nothing would, in fact, be a measure he would enjoy taking. She had even overheard Cole and Ro'ahn discussing the design of the valve one afternoon in the bar, complete with unintelligible schematics.
Cole's other proposed measure amused Jess more: he planned to soundproof Mel's bedroom. That suggestion had sent Jess into gales of laughter and prompted Mel to turn a brighter shade of red than Jess would have thought humanly possible. She had started to protest until Cole had quietly pointed out that he was an extremely vocal lover, at which point Mel had gone from red to purple and stopped protesting.
Jess had assured them that she was accustomed to living in apartments with very thin walls and that those sorts of noises did not really bother her that much, but Mel had been insistent. If Jess was moving in, the walls would be soundproofed. If nothing else, she said, it would keep her nightmares from waking Jess. But Jess got the distinct impression that this was not Mel's real reason and that the real reason in question had little to do with any amount of screaming Cole might be capable of.
As amusing as Mel's reaction had been, it had also left Jess curious as to what Cole could possibly say in there that Mel did not want her to hear. Business discussions held in bed, perhaps. Or maybe it was related to Cole's reassuring murmurs to Mel when she had her dreams, murmurs that were most certainly not in English, or in any language Jess had ever heard. He never sang to her in English either, she realized, though he could frequently be heard crooning along to the jukebox in English. But never in English alone with Mel...
He had this nickname for her, too, Melah en'i . Jess would have considered it nothing more than a cutsie, sing-song endearment had it not been for the fact that she had once overheard Irene use the term for Mel while talking to Jonas before her death. Which left Jess entertaining a curious idea.
"Hey, Olivia, luv, you mind if I borrow Jonas for a minute?" Jess asked, approaching them.
The Enixian smiled faintly. "And what sort of shape do you plan on returning him in?" she asked, her eyes laughing.
"I'm no poacher," Jess assured her with a grin. "I promise to be good."
"Then by all means," Olia answered, rising and inclining her head to Jess. "Jonas," she murmured, leaning towards him and catching his earlobe between his teeth.
The lawyer yelped and jumped. If not for the quick reflexes of Jess and Olia, he probably would have fallen from his stool. "Olivia!" he gasped, staring at the Enixian.
"See you tonight," she answered simply, giving him an enigmatic smile and leaving the barroom.
"Bloody hell, it's moving fast with you two, isn't it?" Jess asked, sitting down next to Jonas.
"I didn't know it was moving that fast," the clearly-rattled lawyer answered, lifting one hand to his ear and staring in the direction Olia had gone with wide eyes. "My own fault for getting involved with one that young," he told her, shaking his head. "Did you need something, Jess?" he asked, shaking off his surprise at Olia's behavior. He would ask her about it over dinner tonight. Dinner in a very public place...
"Cole has this nickname for Mel, Jonas."
Jonas shrugged. "Lovers usually do," he pointed out.
"This one's different. I've heard it for her before. From Irene."
Jonas frowned faintly. "Cole didn't know Irene."
"Yeah, but he still calls her granddaughter Melah en'i."
Jonas' eyes widened, but he shook his head anyway. "Can't help you, Jess."
"We've both heard her call Mel that."
"It was Aidan's nickname for her. I don't know how Cole got it. Maybe he's read her diaries."
"What's it mean? What language is it?"
"Aidan wasn't born in the States. Did you know that?"
Jess nodded. "He was Irish, right?"
"With a name like Aidan, he'd almost have to be. He dropped a lot of foreign phrases in company with his friends. You got used to them."
"Fair enough, but Cole's as Irish as bloody Vic."
"Maybe you should discuss this with him?" Jonas advised gently.
"Yeah, because he and Mel are just so forthcoming."
Jonas snorted softly, shaking his head. "There is that," he agreed. Sighing, he abruptly added, "You miss her much?"
"Irene? Every day. You?"
"I proposed to her once, you know."
Jess stared at him with wide eyes, giving her head a slight shake. "No, I didn't."
"Second generation of Carr men to fall for a Porter woman. Which still has me in better shape than poor Vic. He was third generation."
"Poor Vic," Jess answered quietly, shaking her head. "Must be hard for him, working with Cole and all."
"He has Maria. She's a sweet woman."
"I don't know. She seems so... on edge."
"She is now. I'm not sure what's changed." He shook his head. "But Vic adores her and she adores him."
"More than he adored Mel?"
Jonas sighed and looked around before answering. "Jess, sweetheart, I can tell you for a fact that loving a Porter woman is no easy thing. They... don't love back, even when they think they do." He shook his head. "They are one-man women, all, the Porter girls. The rest of us don't stand a chance."
"Still hurts, does it?"
He sighed and nodded slowly. "She was always the best of friends to me, Jess. Whatever else was true, she loved me as much as I loved her. But Porter women..." He shook his head. "When she was your age, even into her late thirties, she always swore that she'd never marry, even after she met Aidan. All she ever wanted was to be free."
"So why'd she marry him? What? She get pregnant or something?"
He shook his head. "Mark was born almost two years after they married. They had lived together for years already. I have no idea why she accepted him. My father always said it was amazing that she did. He never thought it would happen. Of course, having been turned down by her himself, he might have been biased." He shrugged. "I never presumed to understand the woman, Jess. I don't try to understand Mel very much, either. She has more of her grandparents than her father ever did, that's for damned sure."
"What was he like?"
"Who? Mark?" Jonas sighed deeply, considering. "He was a wonderful young man, but watching his father die killed a piece of him. I'm sure you know the feeling."
Jess' head shot up. She had never mentioned her mother's death, or its impact on her, to Jonas. "Irene told you?"
"I suppose she must have," came the noncommittal reply, delivered with a shrug. "You think you're the only one she ever got drunk with?" Sighing, he leaned towards her, cradling her face in his hands. "Damn, child, it has been good having you back."
Jess smiled in answer. He was more like a father to her than her own had been in the end. "Why are you so good to me?"
"You want an honest answer to that one?" he challenged, raising an eyebrow.
"Irene always did say it was the best policy," she teased.
Jonas snorted softly, leaning forward and planting a kiss on her forehead. "You would have been the best kind of daughter, Jess."
"Tell that to my dad," she scoffed.
"Christian's a man who's suffered a lot in his life. You know he loved you. He just hurt."
Jess tilted her head. "How'd you know his name?"
Jonas shrugged. "Irene must have mentioned it. Buy you a drink, dear?"
"Why, Jonas, what would your girlfriend say?"
"She isn't my--"
"Like hell if she nibbles your ear to say goodbye," Jess laughed.
Jonas considered her words in silence as she rose and returned to the apartment upstairs to pack. The comment was both disturbing and, oddly, compelling.
Sitting in the restaurant, Vic looked around the table, smiling warmly at those of the Trackers he had come to know well and giving the others polite nods. Next to him, Mel gave his leg a reassuring squeeze. He glanced over at her, smiling and nodding. As odd as it was to be sitting at a table with nine aliens, his ex-lover among them, he was starting to grow to feel that he knew these people or, at least, some of them. They were not, all told, that different from any group of cops. They had their quirks and their own lives and interests but, together, they made up a coherent whole, a working unit of men and women bound by a common ideal.
Kallissa lifted her glass, smiling around the table. "Vatauni te. We drink this night to a principle greater than any we may individually hold. Vatauni te, we drink to our absent brethren. Vatauni te, we drink to many become one. Vatauni te." She extended her glass to each in turn. "Who else would speak?"
"With permission," Ro'ahn said, lifting his own glass, this one filled with water.
"By all means, young Tracker." Kallissa smiled and nodded once.
"Vatauni te. I, too, drink to many become one. I drink to a universe that can be made better by our own hands and labors. I drink to a day when species matters not, not even to my own people. I drink to the ideals that we bleed and die for, for equality and for Right. I drink to what it is to be an Alliance, a Confederation. I drink to unity, not of race but of spirit."
"Vatauni te," many of the others responded. Kallissa gave him an approving nod. Mel's look was more speculative. He was not what she had thought he would be, not by a long shot.
"If I may," Olia murmured, raising her glass. At a nod of permission from Kallissa, she spoke. "Vatauni te. This night, I drink to that which has been and that which may be. My hope for our future relations with the humans is great. Two sit at this table who demonstrate that. Vatauni te. I drink to Melah en'i I'in Porter and Victor Dominic Bruno. May they always be welcomed among us and may they always serve the Cause. May they be joined by a multitude of other human friends and confederates."
"Admirable," Cole murmured, nodding faintly. Ro'ahn was not the only one to nod along with him.
Bendal lifted his glass next. "Vatauni te. I drink to many things this night, our new friends not the least among them certainly. I drink further Eijan, who will see the Alliance to peace if any may. I drink to Kria and Ro'ahn and those of their party, for the risks they take in following their hearts."
Ro'ahn bowed his head in response to this, staring into his glass.
"Vatauni te," Bendal continued. "I drink to all those who take the risk of following their hearts, in all things. I further drink to the lovely females of Earth. This is a most hospitable planet, with most hospitable females, for which I am truly grateful." He winked at Mel.
"I would speak," Leila added, ignoring the second half of Bendal's toast. "I drink this night to the men and woman who are not of the Corps, who have not been traditionally among us, yet who still aid our cause. I drink to Victor Dominic Bruno, to Melah en'i I'in Porter, and to the Vardian Roa'hn."
Mylik smiled and nodded in agreement, resting his hand on her arm. "Your audacity does you great credit even and advances the cause of each of your species."
"Others?" Kallissa inquired, glancing around. "Detective Bruno, will you speak?"
He hesitated for a long moment before raising his glass as the others had. "Vatauni te," he said, stumbling slightly over the phrase. "I don't even know what that means," he informed them, chuckling and shaking his head. "But I know what it means to fight and die for a brother in blue. You may not even know what that means, but here it's an important concept. You aren't even members of my species, but you are my brothers and sisters in blue. A year ago, I didn't even know you existed. Now I do, and I know why you're here and what you're doing. So what I drink to tonight is the fact that all of you are fighting to save all of us. Bless you and thank you. I drink to the humility and service that is what it means to be a cop. We are in over our heads here, and you have come to help. I drink to you." Shrugging, he drained his glass before setting it down. "Thank you all."
"Well spoken," Kallissa informed him, smiling and nodding. She lifted her own glass again. "Vatauni te! We each of us drink to the humility and dedication required to serve as an officer of the law. Any law in any place. Hwa'an bless us all."
"As the humans would say," Cole contributed quietly. "Amen to that."
"Amen?" Kallissa repeated uncertainly.
"It's an affirmation. Roughly, 'I believe' or 'it is so'," Vic told her.
"Then Amen indeed," she replied, smiling. "Now that we have drunk in honor of these causes and ideals, let us eat in favor of them. Indulge, friends. Enjoy!"
Vic watched, interested by the way the different Trackers present ate their respective meals. Ro'ahn and Olia tore unrepentantly into their steaks while the Dessarians devoured their salads with abandon. Like Cole, Kallissa seemed to have slipped into some sort of trance but, unlike Cole, she conscientiously avoided anything containing animal-products. Bendal and Shana cheerfully ate their sushi while murmuring jokes to each other. Judging by the looks Olia was shooting them, the jokes in question were of a decidedly bawdy nature.
"Strange, isn't it?" Mel asked him quietly, giving him a faint smile.
"Eating dinner with nine aliens?" Vic answered, smiling wryly. "Nope, not strange at all, Mel."
She chuckled, shaking her head. "I meant... I don't know. Just, I mean, look at them. They're us, Vic."
He exhaled deeply, nodding. "I'd noticed. I guess I never thought about aliens as anything other than criminals before. But... they aren't even that alien, really. That is strange. They're so... human."
"Well, I don't know about that, but they're not that different from us, either." She smiled faintly, shaking her head.
"Not even the Vardian?" Vic asked quietly. He had noticed Mel's mild discomfort around Ro'ahn. It was a hard thing to miss although she was obviously making a concerted effort to be polite.
"Yeah." Mel shrugged. "I don't know, Vic. It scared the hell out of me at first, but..." She shrugged.
"Been a long couple of weeks for you all around," Vic noted. "Jess visiting, the mugging, these guys showing up..."
"Long doesn't begin to describe it," Mel answered, laughing wryly and shaking her head.
"So, rumor has it that Jess is coming back for good?"
Mel nodded faintly. "Frankly, I was shocked. I mean, considering the number of times I woke up screaming, and her seeing the scars..." She shook her head. "Cole's over the moon about it, though."
"Aren't you?" he asked, startled.
"It'll be great to have her back, but I'm so worried about her, too. All this, you know?"
"Yeah." He sighed and nodded. "It could be a problem. How do you think she'll react when she finds out?"
"I'm less worried about that than I am about her getting into some kind of trouble."
"Like in London?"
"I was thinking more along Khaeto's lines," Mel answered quietly, taking a long pull of her drink. "Rhee is still out there, Vic, and he is one of many."
Vic sighed and nodded, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. "I know, sweetie, but you've got a lot more backup and a lot more firepower at your disposal now than you did."
"I know," she whispered, reaching up and squeezing his hand.
"You want to tell her, don't you?"
"I don't want to scare her, but..."
"I know," he answered, giving her shoulder a squeeze before dropping his hand. He was in the same position himself with Maria.
A laugh from Bendal distracted his attention from Jess and Maria, and he returned to surreptitiously scrutinizing his tablemates. Mylik had looped an arm around Leila's shoulder and she, in turn, was whispering in his ear, one hand resting lightly on the back of his neck. Cole, Olia, and Kallissa were deep in what looked like a serious conversation. Bendal and Shana were still swapping jokes. Ro'ahn was staring at his plate, in spite of the fact that it was empty.
Mel was studying the others as closely as Vic, her expression thoughtful but not discontented. In spite of her initial misgivings, she did seem to be coming to accept them. It was odd, the things one could accept with time. Like the fact that one's ex was not entirely human, that her current love was not at all human. That almost a dozen alien cops operated in Chicago, fighting to bring down an organized crime family which was also alien. Amazing...
He sighed softly, wondering how Maria would react to such news. Jess would, doubtless, be stunned but, after her initial period of shock, would no doubt consider the whole situation 'bloody brilliant'. Maria, though... She had been increasingly on edge lately: cagey and questioning at once, suspicious, looking over her shoulder, jumping at shadows, not at all herself, really. Of course, a lot of that might as easily be put down to breaking in a new partner and, of course, to Vic's secrecy with her. That continued to grate and he was starting to wonder what it would do to their relationship. Still, that was, perhaps, a concern for another time. He glanced up as Kallissa caught his attention, politely inquiring after human laws and protocols regarding search and seizure.
Mel sighed and rubbed the back of her neck as she pulled off her shirt. "Even Bendal behaved," she said. "Amazing."
"They have been well-trained to blend into human culture," Cole answered, moving to stand behind her and gently massaging her shoulders. "Are you sore?"
"Just tired. Vic was right tonight. It's been a long few weeks."
"Jess' return will help," he promised. "You will have a female friend to confide in again."
"Yeah, but I can hardly confide everything, can I?" she sighed, turning to face him.
"We may have to," he pointed out. "Kallissa has been discussing the matter with Eijan."
"I don't want her to be scared, Cole."
"And I do not wish for her to be unsafe," he retorted mildly, absently stroking her throat. "Time will tell what must be done. The problem is not a pressing one. It will be many weeks before Jess returns to us."
Mel smiled faintly. "It'll be good to have her back."
"It will. And, as Vic has said, we will always keep things interesting for her."
Mel snorted. "I could do with things being a little less interesting than they've been," she informed him, shaking her head.
Cole smiled in answer, bending and kissing her tenderly. "Things will settle down now, Mel," he promised. "And I will be able to spend less time working and more time with you and Jess. Such matters work themselves out more often than not."
"And if they don't?" she whispered, staring up at him.
"Then Jess may still be trusted to keep us and our secrets safe." He smiled and shook his head, stripping off the rest of her clothes before turning his attention to his own. "But this is not something we must be concerned about tonight. Rest now and we will discuss it further in the morning."
Mel smiled and obediently crawled into bed. "I love you, baby."
"As I love you, Taushi" he answered, climbing into bed next to her. "Now rest."
She sighed and nodded. "I can use the rest, too. The past two weeks have been hectic."
"Yes, Mel," he agreed with a grin, drawing her into his arms and passing his hand in front of her face, releasing a burst of energy that eased her into a dreamless slumber.
Staring down at his sleeping love, Cole's smile grew. It had indeed been a long two weeks, but rewarding as well. He had sufficient backup to substantially reduce the amount of time he spent thinking of the fugitives. He had three old friends to confide in as well as several new friends to enjoy time with. Jess was returning to them...
That last was a beautiful thought. There had been a time when Cirron had been home, but it was long past. Earth was his home now, though. Earth was where Mel was and Earth was where he would spend the rest of his life. A home, a wife, and now a young woman that he could father. It was not the family he had dreamed of as a boy, perfect and carefree with a large estate and a half-dozen children underfoot, but it was his. Home, family, two beautiful words for two beautiful ideas, his now. Not perfect, not by any means, but his all the same.
The Cirronian sighed softly, stretching out next to Mel and closing his eyes to meditate. Whatever may or may not have been true about his life, whatever he did or did not have, whatever he had lost or found. Life was not perfect, not ever, but that did not change a thing. His life here, in spite of everything, was the kind of life that could make him happy, that did. And in spite of the sub-freezing temperatures outside, thinking of his life now warmed him.
Knowing that he would not wake Mel, Cole did something that he had not done in a very long time. Laying in a dark bedroom, a blizzard raging outside, a war waging itself around his ears, a thousand cares and concerns weighing on his mind, the fate of two solar systems largely in his hands, the Cirronian laughed.