Summary: The Cirronian fugitive Lontoria is once again targeted by Zin, and turns to Cole and Mel for protection, causing Cole to reflect on two past relationships. Certain things about Gwen make it slightly AU unless I get hired to write a second season.
Disclaimer: I don't own them, but, hey, just as soon as that deal with Zin goes through...
Timeline: Between "Eye of the Storm" and "Dark Road Home"... After my Tracker fic "Tabula Rosa"
Spoiler Alert: Tons of spoilers for "The Miracle"
Author's Note: As always, a thousand thanks to Cyn Tolram, my amazing (and amazingly patient) Beta.
Feedback: Feedback is better than Fek-Maln... Oh, yeah, and more feedback equals more fics. (email@example.com)
Chapter 1 -- The Call
"Clowns?" Gwen repeated with a laugh, staring at Mel and shaking her head in bemusement. Interesting twist to a conversation that had started in all seriousness.
"Long story..." Mel laughed, shaking her head.
"It would almost have to be. Wouldn't be a result of reading too much Stephen King at a young age, would it?" Gwen asked with a wicked grin.
Mel opened her mouth to answer but stopped when the front door swung in and Andrew Cutter, Gwen's boyfriend, walked in. Although he went to school with Gwen, Andy Cutter reminded Mel more of the stereotypical Banker than of the stereotypical college student. Every time she had seen him, he was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, complete with briefcase in place of a backpack. He had several years on Gwen, which only added to the impression although, Mel knew, Gwen was young for a grad student.
Mel liked Andy Cutter very much, even if she thought he might have been a little old for Gwen. He was always polite, always cheerful, and never had a cross word for anyone. According to Gwen, he was also "kind of smart", which, coming from Gwen, was high praise indeed. Gwen tended to be fairly noncommittal in her opinions of others, even of others she liked very much, so when she described Andy as "kind of smart" and "really sweet", Mel knew that he must have been quite a catch. It did not hurt that he looked like a young Sidney Portier and had a voice like Ray Earl Jones.
"Miss Porter..." he greeted her with a wide smile. "Gwynlyn."
Gwen smiled faintly by way of greeting. "Cutter. What can I get you?"
His smile turned regretful. "Nothing today, I'm afraid. I've only a few minutes."
"Ah." Gwen nodded expressionlessly. "So, what brings you by?"
"I was on my way to campus to drop off my lab report. Thought I might save you the same trip."
"Oh, could you? I'd appreciate it." Gwen ducked behind the bar and pulled a manila folder out of her backpack, handing it to Cutter. "You're an angel."
He smiled and accepted the report with a slight shrug, tucking it into his briefcase. "Perhaps I could... stop by your place tonight. If you've no objections."
"None at all." Gwen smiled at him as he turned to leave. "See you then."
"I look forward to it, Gwynlyn. Have a pleasant day, Miss Porter." With a quick bow of the head, he left the bar.
Mel smiled after him. "That was sweet of him."
Gwen grinned and nodded, ducking her head. "Cutter's like that. Think it must be what attracted me to him." Her smile widened. "That or his voice..."
Mel grinned. "The voice is nice."
"Just nice?" Gwen chuckled and shook her head. "Get him to say 'Luke, I am your father' some time."
Mel laughed softly. "So, when are you two tying the knot?"
"Eh." Gwen shrugged. "No hurry. He's not going anywhere." She smiled mischievously at Mel. "When are you and Mister Hauser tying the knot?" she retorted, winking.
"Gwen!" Mel laughed, tossing a bar-rag at her. "How many times..."
"I know. Just friends. Whatever." Gwen shrugged. "Not really any of my business, I guess." She grinned again. "You're just lucky I have Cutter, or I might try to steal Mister Hauser from you..." she teased.
"I guess that does make me lucky."
Mel grinned at her and shrugged. She knew that Gwen was not serious. Although Gwen was very friendly with Cole and Cole with Gwen, there had never been the least hint of anything beyond friendship. Cole seemed to feel almost paternal towards Gwen. As far as Mel could tell, Gwen seemed to view his occasional lapses in understanding as just part of his recovery process. She was quick to explain anything that Cole seemed to have trouble with, and she never asked why he should not understand certain figures of speech or why people behaved in certain ways.
And, of course, the psychology student and the Tracker spent hours discussing the ins and outs of the criminal mind. Mel almost swore that, at times, Gwen's insights allowed Cole to better Track his fugitives. The fact that Gwen did not know that his fugitives were not human did not seem to matter in the least. Gwen seemed to have accepted Cole's cover-story, that he was an undercover agent, and more than once he had asked Gwen for her insights into a given case. More than once, too, Gwen's insights had made the difference.
"Okay. Clowns." Gwen opened her mouth to speak again, then paused as the phone rang. She picked it up. "Watchfire." She listened for a few moments, frowning curiously, then glanced at Mel. "It's for Mister Hauser. Jamie Swinson, says she's an old friend of his." She covered the receiver and added, "Which would be a neat trick considering that she doesn't even sound old enough to be calling a bar." She regarded Mel quizzically.
"Yeah, tell her to hang on. I'll go get him."
Gwen nodded. "You should hurry. She sounds upset." She held the phone to her ear again. "Jamie? Yeah, someone's getting him if you can just hang on for a few seconds."
Mel hurried up the stairs and into Cole's room, wondering why Lontoria would be calling Cole. She suppressed an irrational surge of jealousy at the thought of the Cirronian scientist who had once been so deeply involved with Cole that he had been unable to find words to explain their attachment, except to say that, as a human, she was not equipped to understand it. She was not even sure if their involvement had been physical, if Cirronians even had physical involvements with each other.
And, she reminded herself firmly, it did not matter. She had no real claim on Cole, after all, and even if she had, that did not mean that he was not entitled to his own past entanglements. God knew that Mel had enough of those. She was in absolutely no position to judge. Sar-Top had been lonely, cold as Cole had described it. It only made sense that two Cirronians would seek each other out in such an environment, surrounded by aliens as they had been. So what if one was a guard and the other a prisoner?
Whatever there had been between them, Mel had supposed that it was over. After all, Lontoria had made no effort to contact Cole in the past several months. Until now...
Mel knocked on Cole's door, feeling a little anxious, wondering what could have prompted Lontoria to get in touch now. She hoped that it was nothing serious, even as she suspected that it must be. "Cole?" she called.
"Yes, Mel?" he asked, looking up. "Is something wrong?" he added, noting her expression.
"Lontoria's on the phone..." Mel said quietly. "Gwen says she sounded upset."
Cole rose, frowning. "I wonder what's wrong..." he muttered, following Mel down the stairs and into the bar.
"Here he is..." Gwen said into the phone, handing it to Cole.
"Thank you..." Cole told her, taking the phone. "Jamie? Is something wrong?" Cole listened, his frown growing deeper. "No, calling me was the right thing to do... Don't worry, I'll be there as soon as I can."
He hung the phone up, pausing for a moment, then he took Mel by the arm and led her to the far corner of the bar, glancing at Gwen before beginning. She had turned on her radio and was washing glasses, not paying any attention to either of them once 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone' came on. He watched for a moment as she danced to the music, strange moves but also familiar. He was sure he had seen them before, although he could not be sure where. Not that it mattered in light of other facts. Dismissing the thought, he shook his head and turned to Mel.
"What's going on?" Mel asked in a low voice once she had also satisfied herself that Gwen was too absorbed in what she was doing to notice them.
"Lontoria may be in trouble..." Cole replied in an equally low voice. "She says that there have been some government agents asking her all kinds of questions about her 'miracles'."
"She's raising people from the dead again?" Mel asked, shaking her head in disgust. That was insane. There could be no better way to draw attention to herself and the other aliens than that.
Cole shook his head. "When she revived me, it used almost all of her Cirronian life-force. She's as human now as you or Gwen. These people want to know about the last time. But..." He lowered his voice again and leaned closer to Mel. "From the direction of their questions so far, Lontoria thinks that they might know the truth about her. She's scared, Mel."
Mel's eyes were wide. Lontoria had every reason to be worried by that, and Mel suddenly, irrationally found herself worried for Cole as well. "Oh, my God..." She frowned uncertainly. "So what are you going to do?"
"I don't know yet, Mel. But she can't defend herself anymore. No more than a normal seventeen-year-old could."
"In other words, not at all."
Cole nodded. "I need to go to her. It's... my fault that she can't protect herself now." He sighed, feeling horrible that Lontoria had given up so much for him.
"Be careful..." Mel told him softly.
He smiled and nodded. "Yes, Mel." He turned to leave, but stopped when he felt her hand on his shoulder. He turned to face her again, curious.
"Look, her home might not be the best place for either of you right now..." Mel began. If these people knew that Jamie Swinson was really an alien, it would not be safe for Cole to be seen with her, especially since they might be affiliated with a government agency that already knew about him. They did not however, know about Mel, which made the Watchfire the safest place for him. And for her. "Bring her back here. It'll be safer."
Cole smiled and nodded. "Thank you, Mel."
Mel shrugged. "Just stay safe, okay?"
Cole smiled and nodded. "Yes, Mel." He touched her throat lightly, then turned and left.
Gwen looked up as he reached the door. "Bye, Mister Hauser! Have fun. Catch the bad guys." It was her traditional goodbye when Cole left the bar on 'business'.
Cole smiled and nodded at the young woman as he left. "Yes, Gwen."
Gwen smiled at Mel and returned to washing glasses. "Hope everything's okay..." she remarked off-handedly. "That Jamie girl sounded really upset..."
Mel nodded. "Nothing that Cole can't take care of..." she assured Gwen, knowing that the girl would, as always, refrain from asking further questions about the matter.
"Okay." Gwen shrugged, turning her attention back to Mel. "So, you were going to tell me about this clown phobia of yours..."
The statement relieved a lot of Mel's worry, so she laughed and sat down at the bar. "Mix me a drink and I'll tell you all about it."
Cole took a deep breath as he walked to the door, trying to compose himself. He felt so horrible that Lontoria was in danger, worse because she was powerless to protect herself because of him. Guilt, definitely his least favorite human emotion. Squaring his shoulders, he reached up and rang the doorbell.
"Yes?" an attractive middle-aged woman asked, answering the door. She regarded Cole warily, searchingly.
"Mrs. Swinson?" Cole asked, smiling as he remembered her.
She nodded and smiled at Cole. "Oh, I remember you... You helped Jamie out when that man tried to kidnap her, didn't you?"
He nodded, smiling. "That's right, Mrs. Swinson."
"Call me Abby. Come in, please." She ushered him into the living-room. "You're here to see Jamie? She's upstairs. I'll go get her."
"Thank you, Abby." Cole smiled at her and patiently waited as she walked up the stairs.
After a few minutes, Abby and Lontoria came down the stairs.
Lontoria stopped when she saw Cole, a smile lighting her face. "Oh, thank God you're here!" she muttered, hurrying down the stairs and wrapping her arms around Cole.
A little surprised, he returned the hug. "How are you? Are you okay?"
She nodded. "So far, yes." She buried her face in his chest. "Better now..." she added, her voice shaking.
"Be calm..." Cole breathed, pushing her back far enough to rest his hand on her heart. "Be calm. Everything is going to be okay now... I'm going to take care of you."
She smiled up at him, nodding firmly. "I know. Thank you for coming."
"You called." He smiled warmly at her.
Lontoria smiled and nodded. "Here, sit down." When Cole sat down, she sat down next to him. "Mom, you remember Mister Hauser?"
Abby nodded. "He helped you when that man was trying to kidnap you."
"Yeah." Lontoria nodded. "Only he wasn't just trying to kidnap me. He was going to hurt me, and... Mister Hauser helped me out then. So, I'm hoping he can help me out again now with these government people."
"Oh, Jamie, you don't know that they want to harm you..." Abby protested. "They're just... interested."
Lontoria rose and approached Abby, taking her hands. "Mom, he can tell you firsthand what the government does to people like us." She nodded over her shoulder at Cole. "It's not nice..."
Cole shivered involuntarily at the memory of the artificial cold that the scientists had used to keep him weak. It had almost killed him. Abby noticed Cole shiver and stared at him in surprise.
"Honey, is he... like you?" she asked, wondering if this man was also capable of the types of miracles that had brought her daughter so much trouble.
Lontoria nodded. "That's... that's why he helped me, mom. He's my friend, and he can protect me."
Abby nodded, trusting her daughter's judgment. Jamie was an excellent judge of character, especially since she had gotten better. Also, there was something about Mister Hauser's bearing and manner that invited a person to trust him. He had an innocent, trusting expression that seemed almost out of place on an adult. Anyone who was that trusting of others just had to have been trustworthy himself. She regarded him thoughtfully. She had no real idea what these people who claimed to be government agents wanted with her daughter, but she did know that Jamie seemed terrified of them and that she herself was more than a little unnerved by them.
"I can take her to a safe place..." Cole told Abby gently. "Somewhere that no one will think to look for her. We can keep her safe there until we figure out what to do about this situation."
"Mom..." Lontoria whispered, giving her an encouraging nod.
"If Jamie believes that she is in danger from these people, then she almost certainly is. And I can protect her, Abby..." Cole added gently.
She sighed and nodded. "I guess it couldn't hurt to get her some place safe for a few days." Abby glanced from Cole to Lontoria, who nodded, her expression pleading. "Jamie, honey, go pack some things."
"Yes, mom. Don't worry. Everything's going to be okay. Promise." Lontoria gave Abby a quick hug, then half-ran up the stairs.
Abby sighed and nodded, then turned to Cole. "Can you really keep her safe?"
He nodded. "I'd give my life to protect hers..." he told Abby gently.
Abby looked startled at that pronouncement. It made her wonder what her daughter was up against, whether it was not, perhaps, more serious than she had thought.
"I should come..." she said quickly.
"You should stay, Mom, otherwise people are going to know that something's up..." Lontoria told her.
Cole nodded in agreement. "I'll take good care of her."
Reluctant but trusting her daughter's judgment, Abby nodded. "Okay. Please... She's all I have left."
"I understand..." Cole told her gently. "I'll take really good care of her for you."
"Thank you." Abby nodded and sighed. "This is all so..." she trailed off, shaking her head.
"I know." Cole nodded and gently touched her shoulder. "First you almost lost her to cancer, then she recovered from that and she developed these abilities and that almost got her taken from you. The abilities are gone now, yet still she's at risk. I know how important, how precious a daughter can be, Abby, and I promise you, I will watch over yours."
Abby nodded. "Thank you so much..."
He smiled and nodded. "You don't have to be afraid..." he assured her.
"He's right, mom. You don't have to be afraid. I'm in good hands." Lontoria walked down the stairs, carrying a small duffel-bag in one hand. "I'm ready."
"You stay safe, honey..." Abby told her.
"I will, mom..." Lontoria promised, hugging her. "Don't worry." She smiled. "I love you."
"I love you, too, honey."
Lontoria smiled and nodded. "We should go now..." she told them, giving Abby one more hug.
"You really care about her, don't you?" Cole asked as he started the car.
"Of course I do. She's a good woman." Lontoria sighed and rested her head against the headrest, closing her eyes. "She loves her daughter very much."
Cole regarded her wordlessly for a moment. They both knew that Jamie had died the moment that Lontoria had taken over her body. Still, he saw no real need to bring it up. Definitely not at this point.
Lontoria looked at him, sighing. She knew exactly what he was thinking and he was right. "There's not a day that goes by that I'm not ashamed of what I did, Daggon. But I could not spend the rest of my life on Sar-Top if there was any way to get off." She shrugged. "It's still in your power to send me back."
"Please..." he whispered, closing his eyes. He was duty-bound to do so, but unable to bring himself to. The conflict was painful for a man unused to seeing the universe in shades of gray.
"I'm sorry." She shook her head, ashamed to have been the cause of his pain. "Look at me, Daggon. Look me in the eyes." When he had, she smiled. "You've met someone. I'm glad. You deserve a chance to be happy. I hope she's worthy of you."
Cole smiled and pulled the car into the street. "You'll like Mel. She's not that different from you. Very stubborn."
Lontoria laughed and shook her head. "A human?" she asked, eager to hear more about the woman who had put the light back into her friend's eyes.
"Yes. But not like any human I've ever met. She's special..."
Lontoria smiled. "Well, I look forward to meeting her." After a few minutes of companionable silence, she asked, "Is she pregnant yet?"
Cole's hands tightened on the wheel, but he did not otherwise betray his surprise at the question. On Cirron, it would have been a perfectly acceptable one, and even by earth standards it was blunt rather than rude. Still, it had been unexpected, and it made Cole wish for things that he had once, not too long ago, been certain that he would never have again.
"Our relationship... it's not... physical."
Lontoria was surprised by her friend's halting tone. If he had been human, she might have thought it embarrassment. From a Cirronian, though? She had to look more closely before it occurred to her. Ah, regret. Poor Daggon.
"Does she not feel the same way about you?" Lontoria asked gently.
"I don't really know."
Lontoria blinked in surprise. "Have you asked?"
He remained silent.
"You've been living with these humans too long, Daggon." She shook her head.
"They aren't that different from any of the Migar species, Lontoria..." Cole told her gently. "They just have farther to come."
"Never thought I'd meet a self-respecting Cirronian afraid to tell a woman that he loves her." She shook her head in confusion. "Why are you waiting? It makes no sense."
"I don't know. It's just... not the right time."
"You're going to give yourself an ulcer at this rate, Daggon."
He stared at her, frowning. "Ulcers are the result of bacteria or foreign material in the stomach, Lontoria. I don't see how--"
"It's a human expression. It means you're too stressed."
He shrugged, admitting that this was probably the case. "I don't know. It's a species with such complex emotions and... rituals. Dating and pick-up lines and..." He sighed in frustration.
She smiled, amused by his frustration. "And love. Love is universal, Daggon. Tell her. If you can't tell her, show her."
"I don't know how to do that either..."
His frustration was obvious, so Lontoria put a gentle hand on his shoulder. Her touch soothed him and he relaxed immediately.
"You'll like Mel..." he repeated, smiling.
"I'm sure I will. How is everything going for you here?" she asked gently. "Work."
Cole smiled again. "Work is going very well. I've had a few close calls and obstacles, but I'm making substantial progress."
"Close calls?" she asked. "Obstacles?"
Cole shook his head and began explaining about Mel's friend Vic, whose purpose in life sometimes seemed to be making Cole's appointed task more difficult. Lontoria could not help but be amused. Although the Cirronian seemed not to realize it, it was obvious to her that Vic was jealous of Cole's close relationship with his remarkable human. Still, even if his interest in Cole was a result of jealousy, it did not change the fact that Mel's nosy friend was in a position not only to make Cole's life very difficult, but to expose him. And it was not just a matter of positioning, but of motivation. Simply put, it was in Vic's best interest to put Cole out of the way.
As Cole's narrative switched from Vic to Mel, Lontoria wondered if he realized this.