Chapter 6 -- Between Friends

Cole approached the warehouse silently. A lone Nodulian stood outside, enjoying the light drizzle that had begun to fall. Cole took him completely by surprise, grabbing the criminal's shoulder and leveling a stern gaze at him. Although the Nodulian had no way of knowing it, it was the same expression that he had used with his students when they got unruly and for all its sternness, there was very little of actual menace in the gaze.

"You know who I am?" he asked gently, receiving a horrified nod in answer. He smiled. "Good. I want you to tell Zin that I want to talk to him. Alone. Can you do that?"

The Nodulian stared at him, wide-eyed and nodded slowly. "He... he..." He pointed over his shoulder, towards the warehouse, then reached into his pocket and pulled out an inhaler, taking several draws.

"Zin is in the warehouse?" Cole asked gently. When the terrified fugitive nodded, Cole smiled. "Good. Then you can go tell him what I said now."

"N... Now?"

"Yes." Cole nodded gently. "Now. Or I can just--"

"I'll... I'll go tell him!" the Nodulian assured Cole, not even letting him finish the threat. He turned and fled into the warehouse.

"Nodulians..." Cole muttered, shaking his head and pulling his jacket more tightly around himself. He sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets, waiting. After five minutes that seemed more like an hour to the chilled Cirronian, the Nodulian returned.

"Um... sir?" he asked, emerging from the warehouse and edging away from Cole. "He says to go right in."

"Is he alone?"

The Nodulian nodded.

"Are you lying to me?" Cole asked gently, taking a step towards him.

"No, sir." He shook his head firmly.

Cole eyed him thoughtfully and nodded, satisfied that he was being truthful. "You should go now..." he advised gently.

The Nodulian did not need to be told twice. He took off at a run. Cole shook his head and cautiously entered the warehouse. Zin did seem to be alone as promised. Except for six bodies stacked near one wall which Zin was staring at reflectively. He glanced up as Cole entered, shaking his head and clicking his tongue.

"Just couldn't resist, could you, Daggon?" Zin asked, not turning from the bodies.

"It is my job." Cole cautiously edged closer, still not entirely satisfied that Zin was alone. The warehouse could be crawling with Dessarians and he would have no way of knowing until it was too late.

Zin rolled his eyes in irritation. "Oh, well. They obviously weren't that good at their jobs anyway." He turned his back on them, facing Cole. "How?" he asked quietly. "Those restraints should have held you."

Cole shrugged helplessly. "Maybe they were defective..." he suggested quietly, not wanting Zin to know about Kettai. "Were they under warranty?" he asked.

Zin laughed and shook his head. "A sense of humor, Daggon? This is new. I see these humans are having a positive effect on you."

Cole shrugged.

Zin shook his head, his smile fading slightly. "Yet you still insist on walking into these untenable situations. Daggon..." He sighed and threw up his hands in disgust. "When will you learn?"

Cole shook his head. "I have a very good reason for being here."

"Lontoria." Zin shook his head, sighing. "Has reason ever entered into that over-developed, under-utilized brain of yours, Daggon?"

"Not where my friends are concerned, Zin..." he said softly, gazing thoughtfully at the man. "Friendship carries with it certain obligations..."

"Don't preach at me." Zin shook his head shortly. "And don't tell me what I do and don't owe you..."

"You owe me nothing but to hear me out. I expect nothing more." Cole folded his arms over his chest, waiting impassively.

Zin shook his head in mild irritation. "So get on with it, already."

"I want you to promise me that you'll leave Lontoria alone, that you won't try to harm her and that you'll never send anyone else after her. I want you to swear on our friendship."

Zin stared at him, genuinely startled. "We aren't friends any more, Daggon. I gave you a chance to leave with Rhee, it's true, but that was the last moment of our friendship. Now we're enemies."

"I know that, Zin..." Cole said gently, nodding. "We are enemies... now. But we weren't always. Please, Zin. Swear to me." He extended his hand hopefully.

"You know..." Zin said thoughtfully without accepting his hand. "My friendship with Daggon isn't the only thing that's dead. I'm beginning to suspect that Daggon himself is no more. Isn't that right, Cole?"

Cole made no effort to deny this fact. Maybe Zin was right. Certainly he felt more at home on earth every day, a little more Cole than Daggon with each passing week. "If Daggon is no more, Zin, can Lontoria truly be said to exist either?" he asked, almost pleading his case. "She's as much Jamie now as I am Cole. Jamie, a human child. She's not a threat to you. You don't need her. She won't interfere with your plans, I promise. I'll see to that, but please..."

"She means that much to you?"

"Of course she does." Cole nodded.

"What if I told you that I'd spare her in exchange for your life?"

"I'd say that if you promise to leave Mel alone as well we have a deal." Cole exhaled deeply, unafraid but more than a little sad. "I'd only ask a chance to say goodbye."

Zin considered the offer, staring thoughtfully at his friend-turned-adversary. Could even a Cirronian be so willing to give his life in exchange for the safety of a pair of friends? Or so trusting as to believe that Zin would not go back on his deal? No, Zin realized, Cole knew that if he made the promise freely, he would be bound by it. It was as close to manipulative as the Vardian had ever seen any Cirronian come. Living amongst these humans was definitely having a positive influence on him.

He paced around Cole, thinking. He had known that the Cirronian would return once he had the women safely hidden away, but he had not expected this request. It would have been so easy, almost too easy for him to have had several of his people standing by to take care of the problem that was Daggon once and for all, but somehow he had been unable to bring himself to do so. Perhaps it was simply the knowledge that the Tracker would come, alone and unarmed, in good faith that stayed Zin's hand. Perhaps it was a desire to share one last conversation with one of the few citizens of the Migar Federation whom he considered an intellectual equal. He would more readily have admitted the latter to himself, although the excuse he had given to his own people was that he wished to kill the Cirronian himself.

He could have, too, he knew. Easily. Too easily. There would, he told himself, have been no real sport in it. He would kill him another time, he decided, under better circumstances. Which only left the question of the woman whose life the Cirronian was pleading for.

Finally, shrugging, he nodded. "Lontoria is... less pliant than I had supposed when I agreed to take her through the wormhole with me. She's of no real use to me." With a sigh and a shrug, he swore, "On the friendship that once existed between us, I swear to you that no harm will come to Lontoria through me or because of me. Happy?"

Cole nodded. "Thank you, my friend." Lontoria was safe, and the thought made his heart soar. Now the only question was whether or not Zin would make good on his promise to leave Mel alone in exchange for Cole's life.

"I'm not going to kill you, Daggon, so would you stop looking like you expect a bolt in the stomach?" Zin rolled his eyes. "If I killed you, life would really be dreadfully dull." Laughing and shaking his head, he turned and started towards the door to the warehouse. "Daggon..." he called over his shoulder, humor evident in his voice.

"Yes, Zin?" Cole asked softly.

"As long as she stays out of my way, I'll even leave your girlfriend alone." He laughed. "She's too pretty to kill."

Cole stared after Zin, shaking his head at the last statement. It was so... Zin. There was no doubt in Cole's mind, though, that Zin had meant both promises. There had been a flicker of emotion in his eyes that Cole had come to know years ago, a desire to reshape the universe by mere force of will. Zin would leave Lontoria, and for the time-being Mel, alone because it suited his ends to do so. It was as much as he could have hoped for from his old friend.

Nodding, Cole bundled his jacket more tightly around himself and left the warehouse, emerging into a drizzle that was rapidly turning to sleet. A swift wind was kicking in off the lake as well, promising yet another blizzard in a few hours. Chicago in the winter...

The first time he had said it, it had been a mistake. This time, he knew exactly what he was saying when he declared, "This city blows..."

***

Gwen was alone in the Watchfire except for Jonas, who was watching impressed as she proved her contention that you could, indeed, play 'Clare de Lune' on wineglasses and brandy-snifters. She stopped abruptly as the front door opened.

"Hey!" she called cheerfully, circling the bar and pulling Mel and Cole into a bear-hug.

"Hello, Gwen..." Cole told her with a smile, returning the hug before pulling away. "Mel, I'm going to take Jamie home, now."

She nodded and extricated herself from the young woman's grasp. "Okay, Cole. Drive safely." She smiled and waggled her finger at him.

Cole smiled faintly. "Yes, Mel. No parking on the sidewalk, no driving tips from Nestov. Hello, Jonas." Cole waved at the older man and took Lontoria by the arm, steering her back out of the bar.

Mel returned her attention to Gwen, noticing the glasses arrayed on the bar. "What are you doing?" she asked with a bemused smile.

"First she played 'Greensleeves' and she was just doing 'Clare de Lune'..." Jonas provided, shaking his head and grinning. "I was about to request 'In a Gadda de Vida'."

"This I have to hear..." Mel said with a grin, sitting down next to Jonas. "Gwen?"

The girl shrugged and circled behind the bar, humming thoughtfully to herself for a few moments before beginning. The notes and tempo were perfect, the song undeniably the one requested even if it did sound rather strange coming from the water-filled glasses.

"How do you do that?" Mel asked, grinning with amazement.

"Practice." Gwen smiled. "I can show you, if you want."

Mel shrugged and nodded and Jonas also agreed to give it a try. Soon the three were quite absorbed. Gwen looked up at Jonas, indicating the snow that was beginning to accumulate. The weather had let up over night only to return in small measure that morning. Now it was looking like it was going to end up worse than the blizzard of the other week.

"Counselor, you should go home soon unless you want to get stuck here. You have a long drive..." she suggested gently.

Jonas nodded and rose, picking up his coat. "Good afternoon, ladies."

"Bye, Jonas." Mel smiled and waved.

"See you later, counselor. Drive safely!" Gwen smiled after him, then turned her attention to Mel. "Detective Bruno spent the night in the hospital..." she said softly, starting to empty the glasses. She had mainly set them up to detract Jonas from asking any more questions about where Mel and Cole had gotten to.

"Oh, God..." Mel whispered. She had almost forgotten about Vic with everything that had happened in the past day and a half.

"He's home now..." Gwen continued quickly. "But not too happy with Mister Hauser for some reason." She paused for a moment. "If... it were me... I'd want to talk to Detective Bruno before he could talk to Mister Hauser..." she ventured quietly.

"What'd he say?" Mel asked, surprised.

Gwen shook her head, not wanting to alarm Mel. "Nothing specific, just a lot of grumbling..." she lied. "Mister Hauser's name came up a time or two."

"I'll... I'll talk to him." Mel nodded. "Go home, Gwen, before the snow gets any worse."

She nodded placidly. "Yes, Miss Porter. Give Mister Hauser another hug for me."

"Will do. You give my love to Andy." Mel smiled at her.

She grinned and nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

Grabbing her coat but not bothering to pull it on, Gwen waved to Mel and left the bar. A wide, almost smug, smile crossed her face the moment she was on the street. She reminded herself to be extra nice to Kettai when he got home tonight.

***

"So, I figured I'd go into pediatric oncology..." Lontoria was explaining to Cole as he drove her back to Jamie's home in the suburbs. "Cancer in children. It's something that Jamie always wanted, even before she got sick."

Cole smiled and nodded his approval. "That's wonderful, Lontoria."

"Admit it." She grinned at him. "You're relieved it's not physics..." she joked.

"A little." Cole smiled faintly at her. "I know that you'll make a real difference, Lontoria. You'll save many lives."

"Yeah." She nodded. "I think, with work I might be able to develop a vaccine against certain kinds of cancer that effect this species." Her smile flickered slightly. "It's not redemption, but it's a start."

Cole gave her a gentle smile as he pulled Mel's car in front of the Swinson house. "It's a good start, Lontoria..." he told her as he helped her out of the car. "I know you and you'll be the best." He rested his hand on her heart. "You'll save a lot of lives."

She smiled and nodded. "I hope so. Not many get a chance like this to start over. I plan to make it count."

He smiled and kissed her forehead. "I know you will."

"I also hope that you and Mel will be very happy together. You were right about her. She's special. You could love her like you loved your wife. And... I think she cares about you as much as you do about her." She rested her hand over his heart. "Be happy, Daggon."

He smiled at her and covered the hand over his heart with his own, resting his other hand securely against hers. "Be happy, Lontoria."

"Jamie..." she said softly, covering the hand over her heart with her free hand. "My name's Jamie now."

Cole sighed deeply and pulled her into a hug, holding her against him as he had once held his daughter and ignoring the tears that froze on his cheeks. "I'm going to miss you."

"Will you come in for a few minutes?" she offered, hugging him tightly.

"I shouldn't. With this weather, Mel might be worried. Besides..." They had tacitly agreed that they would not communicate with each other again, except in absolute emergency. It was too dangerous for her and would only slow her integration into her newly acquired life. "It would probably be better, easier for both of us…"

He trailed off again, sighing deeply. Last time had seemed less of a good-bye and more of an until-we-meet-again. This time, they both knew that it was to be good-bye forever.

Cole held her tightly, the woman who had brought a ray of sunshine to a cold, dark prison satellite. Having her in his life again, this time on more equal terms, was an appealing proposition, but simply too dangerous. If she was to succeed in the life she had planned for herself, the life of a human, she could not be forced to face such reminders of her old life, for good or bad, as Cole's presence would provide. It was time for her to move forward, to leave the past in the past where it belonged. She would do great things, he knew, make a difference. She might even find the redemption she sought, but she would do it on her own. As much as it hurt him to admit it, Cole Hauser had no place in the life of Jamie Swinson.

The woman who had been Lontoria held the man who had been her jailer and, more importantly, her friend tightly. She had loved him the first time she had laid eyes on him. For all the sorrow, all the anger there could be no denying what an amazing man he truly was: compassionate, considerate, understanding, loyal, supportive… More than once she had filled her own loneliness with dreams of a life with him. When she had seen him again, those dreams had returned, although she had recognized them as laughable. He never had, never would love her as he had loved his wife, as he was growing to love Mel. She was a fine woman, though, good for him, and Lontoria wished them only the best together. Although she would miss her old friend, she knew that it would be better for both of them this way.

"I understand." She nodded and gave him a last squeeze. "Stay safe. Be happy."

"You, too, Jamie. I hope your life is a wonderful one." He smiled at her and kissed her forehead again, then turned her towards the house, where Abby was lingering in the doorway, patiently waiting for them to say their good-byes. "Your mother's waiting."

Squaring her shoulders, she turned and walked towards the house. Cole watched for a moment before climbing into the car and driving home in thoughtful silence. He knew that she would do great things, his only regret was that he would not be there to see it happen. Deliberately, he turned his thoughts from Lontoria to Mel as he drove, from his past to his future.

She was waiting for him and the relieved smile that she flashed him lit her entire face. He could hardly blame her. The weather was turning nasty fast. He smiled back and pulled his coat off, rubbing his hands together for warmth. Mel joined him and helped, smiling curiously up at him. She had not expected to see him smiling. Last time he had parted ways with Lontoria, he had been depressed for days. He smiled back down at her, relaxing and enjoying as she rubbed warmth and life back into cold flesh.

"Thank you, Mel." He smiled at her.

"Why don't I make us some hot cocoa?" she offered, smiling up at him. He had been through a lot in the last two days, and she hoped that she could offer some measure of comfort or, at the very least, a sympathetic ear.

"I'd like that, Mel." He nodded and started towards the stairs. "I just need to store these life-forces." He held up the Collector.

"Okay, Cole." She smiled and watched him go. When the front door swung open a few moments later, she was surprised that anyone had braved the weather. He must have really needed a drink. Or, more likely, a phone. "Hey..." she said cheerfully. "Help you?" It took her a moment to recognize Kettai under the layers and layers of coats and scarves. "Not a fan of the cold, I guess?" she said with a grin.

"I'm Cirronian. What do you think?" His tone was cheerful as always and he smiled warmly at her, making words that should have seemed sarcastic seem friendly.

"Good point." She grinned. "What can I do for you? Or did you want to see Cole?"

He nodded. "Yes. Is he upstairs?"

Mel nodded. "Yeah. Last door on your right."

"Thank you, Miss Porter." He smiled and started up the stairs. The door in question was open, and he watched with interest as the Tracker carefully transferred one life-force at a time into the storage-unit. He had never seen one take quite so much care at it. "Hello, Daggon."

Cole smiled up at him as he transferred the last life-force. "I'm glad you came. It saves me having to return this to you." He returned the other Cirronian's Collector.

"Thank you." Kettai nodded and accepted it. He paused for a moment.

"Was there something else you wished to discuss?" Cole asked gently.

He nodded slowly. "The Security Council is... displeased with you, Daggon."

He nodded and bowed his head. "I know. The escape was my fault."

"They don't blame you for that, but you are technically AWOL. You followed Rhee without permission, without reporting your intent..." He shook his head. "You've made enemies."

Cole watched him uncertainly. He had suspected as much and wondered what Kettai was getting at. "Yes."

"I thought you should know..." Kettai said simply, shrugging. "Just in case anything comes of it."

"Thank you." Cole smiled and nodded. "I appreciate everything that you've done for me." He paused. "Although I still don't understand why."

"Gweny."

Cole nodded but wondered fleetingly if Gwen could really have not known about Kettai. If they were lovers, it seemed unlikely that she could remain ignorant of the truth. Still, if she did know that Kettai was Cirronian, he could hardly blame her for having kept silent. Who would have believed her, after all? And even if she did know that he was not human, it did not mean that she knew anything about his mission or the Taskforce. She was not, after all, a girl in the habit of asking too many questions. He resolved to discuss it with Kettai later, but now the Cirronian seemed in dire need of relief from the cold outside.

"Mel is making cocoa. Will you join us?"

Kettai considered for a moment before shaking his head. "Hot chocolate is nice for keeping one warm, but... there are things that are better." A slow smile spread across his face, making him seem younger than normal. With a bow and a cheerful wave, he left.

Cole stared after him, perplexed. He knew of very few things that could warm him up as fast as a mug of Mel's hot cocoa. He rubbed his still-stiff hands together again, recalling Mel's gently hands rubbing warmth back into them, he suddenly understood the other Cirronian's meaning. He was still very cold in the hands, face, and chest, and he wondered if Mel would be willing to help with that as well.

Mel was walking into the kitchen to start the cocoa and saw Cole standing in the hallway, smiling reflectively. The expression was compelling in its innocent charm. "What are you thinking about?" she asked curiously, approaching him.

"You..." he answered honestly, smiling and taking her hands in his.

"Cole, you're freezing!" she exclaimed, dropping his hands and touching his face, which was also freezing. "Come on, let's get some cocoa in you. That'll help."

Although a little disappointed, Cole smiled and nodded. "Okay, Mel."

His smile widened as she slid her arm around his waist and steered him into the living-room where she made him sit down and draped a comforter over him before bringing him his cocoa and curling up on the couch next to him. Kettai had been right. On a cold winter night, Mel's presence was better than a mug of cocoa.

The End