Home for Christmas

Summary: Mel and Cole share a quiet Christmas Eve in each other's company. No fugitives, no worries, just some quality time, an exchange of gifts, and much shippiness.

Rating: PG

Disclaimer: They aren't mine, but, hey, just as soon as that deal with Zin goes through…

Disclaimer 2: The quoted lyrics aren't mine either:

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was (originally, lol) written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane and performed by Bing Crosby although it has been remixed too many times to count since.

"No Frontiers" is written by Jimmy McCarthy and performed by Mary Black and is available on her album "No Frontiers" and on the anthology "Celtic Moods".

Timeline: After "The Miracle" and before "Love, Cirronian Style" or "Fever of the Hunt"

Spoilers: Wow, she wrote one without spoilers!!!

Author's Note: Many, many thanks to my Beta Cyn Tolram for all her help on this fic. It's better than it would have been, that's for sure. Thanks a million, Cyn, as always :)

Feedback: Better than Fek-Maln. Always welcomed and much appreciated. Feed me, feed me!!!

Home for Christmas

The apartment above the Watchfire was empty except for the human and the Cirronian washing the last of the dishes from dinner. Flickering candle-light was the only illumination in the kitchen and living room, and the home was silent except for Bing Crosby on the radio.

Here we are, as in olden days

Happy Golden Days of yore

Faithful friends who are dear to us

Gather near to us

Once more

Through the years we all will be together

If the Fates allow

Hang a shining star off of the highest bough

And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Cole smiled faintly at the lovely words, accepting the last of the glasses from Mel. His smile widened as her wet fingers brushed his, sending a by-now familiar jolt through his adopted human form. Although it had been unusual at first, he had grown to enjoy such reactions very much. Of course, he enjoyed everything about Mel, especially such quiet times as these. He was glad he had decided not to go Tracking tonight.

Not knowing that Cole had already decided to stay in, Mel had been insistent. Christmas Eve was no time to work. It was a time to spend with the people you care about. With Jess back in London, all they had was each other and, although Mel had not said anything of the sort, Cole knew that she was lonely. The holiday was a significant one for her species and it was meant to be spent with others. Jess was in London. Vic was working and then going straight to a religious service. Jonas was visiting his daughter and her family. Worst of all, it was her first year without the grandmother she had loved more dearly than a mother.

Cole had listened to her quietly explain that the holiday was a time to spend with loved ones and had known in his heart that they would spend it together. Mel should not be forced to spend such a time alone. So she would spend it with the man who loved her. He knew that Mel had been prepared to spend hours arguing the point with Cole, had sensed her surprise at his quick acquiescence. He also knew that he could not have let her be alone, not if she felt it was important. Not when he was the only real family she had. So he had readily agreed to spent the day and evening with her.

An afternoon and evening alone together, filled with comfortable silences, fleeting touches, and quite conversation only reinforced Cole's decision to spend more time with the human he had grown to love. It left him feeling warm inside, happy and at peace. He could sense the calm it evoked in Mel, too, and that pleased him more than anything. Even a simple act like this one, standing here washing dishes with her, seemed to only reinforce the growing closeness between them. As he put the last glass away, he found himself hoping that the feeling would outlast the activity. He did not ever want this sense of togetherness with Mel to fade.

"All done," Mel murmured as he put the glass away. "Cleaning up doesn't take nearly as long with someone else helping you," she noted.

"It's more fun, too, with someone else."

She grinned up at him. "It is, isn't it?"

Cole smiled and nodded. "Most things are more fun with company, Mel."

Mel shrugged and nodded. "You're right, Cole." She looked up as the CD that had been playing clicked off. "Would you go put on another one, please, Cole? I'll start the cocoa."

He smiled and obediently walked over to the radio and began leafing through the disks of Christmas music that Mel had laid out earlier. "Mannheim Steamroller, Mel? Are they good?"

She grinned over her shoulder at him, nodding. "They're great, Cole. I think you might like them."

Cole nodded and obediently plugged the CD into the player, turning it on and adjusting the volume before returning to the kitchen. "It's a different sort of sound," he noted quietly, not displeased. The synthetic sounds were no less pleasing than the other man's vocals, simply different. He approved. He returned to the kitchen and looked over Mel's shoulder as she began heating a pan of milk on the stove. "What's in this 'cocoa', Mel?" he asked. She had mentioned it several times, but he had never had it before and was curious. To hear Mel talk, it was probably the best drink available to the human race. He was looking forward to experiencing it with Mel, more so because it was something that she wanted to share with him.

She looked up at him with wide eyes, then smiled widely. "That's right! You've never had cocoa before! I'd forgotten." She shook her head. "You'll like it, Cole. It's very sweet and very rich-tasting."

He smiled at this intelligence. "Sounds very nice, Mel."

"Oh, you'll like the next part even better." Her eyes twinkled up at him. "You absolutely have to drink it steaming-hot." She grinned at the gleeful expression on his face. Sweets and hot things, definitely two of Cole's favorites.

"That does sound nice, Mel," he told her honestly. Most sweet human drinks were cold and Cirronians, of course, were not exactly known for being fans of the cold. "How is it made?"

Mel bit her lower lip thoughtfully for a moment. "If I tell you, you have to swear never to tell another living soul," she informed him, a grave expression belying the twinkling of her pale eyes.

"Why not, Mel?"

"Secret family recipe," she explained. "My grandmother always used to claim that this recipe is what won my grandfather's heart." She giggled at Cole's expression. "She was joking," she explained, shaking her head.

"Yes, Mel." Cole nodded slowly, perplexed.

Mel was beginning to suspect that 'yes, Mel' was occasionally Cole's version of her habit of smiling and nodding when hopelessly lost. "It is pretty great, though," she assured him. "Everyone makes cocoa a little differently, but my grandmother's is the best I've ever tasted."

"How is it made, Mel? Is milk the main ingredient?"

"Um, chocolate would probably be considered the main ingredient," Mel told him. "Depending on who you ask, of course. My grandmother always used to claim that love was the main ingredient…"

"Love, Mel?" Cole asked, intrigued. He smiled faintly.

Mel flushed and ducked her head. Why the hell had she said that? Cole tended to be very literal. He would never get it. "Which must sound pretty silly to you, huh?" she asked quietly.

Cole shook his head and lightly caressed her throat. "Not at all, Mel. I think it makes perfect sense."

"You do?" she whispered, staring up at him in surprise.

Most humans did not get it when she said that. Not that it really should have surprised her that Cole understood, she supposed. He was so many things that no other man she had ever known had been. He was sweet, gentle, compassionate, caring, intelligent, understanding, tender, and so much more… Cole Hauser was everything any woman had ever looked for in a man all wrapped up into one incredibly well put together package.

And he was going to leave some day…

The knowledge cut like a knife, wounded her to the soul. She loved him so much, and she would never be able to express that. Not when he had to leave. A relationship with Cole, a homesick alien dedicated to Tracking several hundred fugitives and bringing them back, had absolutely no chance of working out. They would only end up getting hurt, both of them. As sure as she was that she could not have stood her own pain when things stopped working for them, she was even more sure that she could not have borne to see sweet, gentle Cole hurt.

Of course, the awareness that she could never have him as a lover did nothing about her feelings towards him. She did love him, wanted to be with him. Failing that, she settled for filling the role of a friend and protector, doing what she could for him in every way that counted. She did her best to ignore what they could not have. It was not always easy, but she tried her best. She was grateful for what they did have, more than there were words for. Every day, her feelings for him grew, fueled by some new proof that he was the most extraordinary man she had ever known.

"I understand," he assured her, smiling tenderly down at her. "You put your heart and soul into the things that you create. It doesn't matter what it is that you are creating. What matters is the spirit behind it. This is the most important thing. Love."

Mel smiled, feeling unaccountably shy. He understood perfectly. "That's it exactly, Cole. A lot of people just throw the store-bought powder into hot water and call it cocoa. To make it the right way takes an awful lot of time and effort and patience, so it really is about love."

He smiled and nodded. "You make this cocoa for people you love?" he asked, pleased with the idea.

"Well, people I care about," she temporized uneasily. She fixed her gaze on the milk she was heating. "It's important not to let the milk scald," she told him, changing the subject. "That's the hard part, but if you do scald the milk, the cocoa isn't drinkable."

"I'll remember that. Can I get any ingredients for you? So you can watch this more closely?"

"Actually, yeah. Thanks, Cole." Mel grinned at him and listed off the things she would need.

Cole watched attentively as she stirred the Dutch cocoa, sugar, and cinnamon into the milk. It definitely took patience, he decided as his nostrils were assailed by the wonderful smell. He did not want to wait to drink this 'cocoa'. He waited as patiently as he could, anticipation fueling his appetite for the wonderful-smelling beverage that Mel was making for him. With love as the main ingredient. The thought made him warm inside.

When she was obviously nearly done, he retrieved two large mugs for her. Mel smiled up at him, mouthing a silent thanks before carefully transferring the cocoa into the mugs. She dusted both with a little more cinnamon to really bring out the chocolate taste, and then picked them up and steered him into the living room. He stopped long enough to pick up a plate of cookies, then moved to the couch, setting the cookies on the coffee-table and relieving Mel of the mugs until she could settle herself.

"You can turn up the thermostat," she offered, tucking her legs underneath herself. Tonight of all nights, he deserved to be able to get decently warm. He was always very good when it came to not complaining about the temperature in the apartment, but she knew it was too low for his taste. "Turn it up as high as you want, Cole. You deserve it."

Cole smiled widely, his eyes shining. With an eager nod, he handed the cocoa back to Mel and hurried off to turn up the heat. Smiling, he nudged the thermostat up by several degrees. It was not as warm as he might have liked but he did not want Mel to be uncomfortable, either.

"Tell me if it gets too warm for you, Mel," he told her gently, sitting next to her on the couch and finally accepting his mug of cocoa from her. He very much looked forward to tasting something that smelled so wonderful. He cupped his hands around the warm mug and inhaled the steam rising from it, closing his eyes and smiling at the scent.

"Oh, I'll be fine," she assured him, smiling at his reaction to the smell of the cocoa. If that response was any indication, watching him take his first sip was definitely going to be worth the effort of making it

He reached out and caressed her throat in a touch that conveyed all the warmth and tenderness he felt towards her. She closed her eyes, enjoying the tender caress. He was so much more physically demonstrative than he had been in those first days. Not that he had ever shied away from touching her, it had just taken him awhile to catch on to the fact that he did not need to have a good reason to do so. Well, except for the very obvious one of displaying affection. And her Cole was definitely affectionate. She sometimes wondered if that should worry her. Usually, though, she just enjoyed his innocent displays of affection.

She loved his friendship, was grateful for it, especially just recently. She had been feeling so lonely lately, her first holiday season without her grandmother. Cole had picked up on that and been even more attentive than usual. She had felt a little guilty over that at first, but Cole actually seemed to enjoy giving her extra attention, so she was not going to complain too strenuously. Especially not when it felt as good as Cole's gentle touches and tender smiles felt…

"Mel, our cocoa will get cold," he told her gently, not really wanting to stop caressing her throat but remembering that she had told him that it was very important to drink the beverage hot. Reluctantly, he dropped his hand, aware that she sometimes had trouble concentrating when he touched her pretty throat. He could definitely sympathize. Touching her often left him with the same difficulties.

She sighed gently but nodded and opened her eyes. "Yeah. Can't have that." She gave him a small smile. "Have a sip, let's see what you think. Careful not to burn your mouth."

He smiled faintly at her expectant expression and slowly raised the mug to his mouth, eager. His eyes drifted shut as the hot fluid flooded his mouth. When he opened them again, he saw Mel smiling at him.

"You like it?" she asked quietly.

He let the cocoa roll over his tongue a few more times, then swallowed. "Mel, this is…" He smiled, suddenly able to see the humor in Mel's statement that her grandfather had fallen in love with her grandmother because of this drink. The love and care she had put into it definitely showed. And it had been for him… He smiled more widely and shook his head.

She smiled faintly at his reaction. "Yes?" she encouraged gently.

He took another long sip, closing his eyes and savoring the taste for a moment before swallowing. He let out a low moan, shaking his head. Amazing, absolutely amazing. "There is a popular drink on Cirron, very similar, Mel. But this… this is far better." He shook his head again, smiling at her. "I don't think I've ever tasted anything as wonderful as this."

"Uh…" Mel stared down at her cocoa, blushing slightly at his words of praise. She had expected him to like it, of course, but was surprised by his extreme reaction. "I'm… well, I'm glad you like it."

Gentle fingers closed around her chin and forced her head up. Eyes full of love and tenderness smiled at her. "It's as lovely as you are, Mel," he informed her honestly, his voice low and soothing.

Mel felt her heart skip a beat at these gentle words. Her eyes widened and she gave him a weak smile before bowing her head again. "I'm… glad you think so."

"Glad I think the cocoa is lovely or glad I think you are?" he asked gently, caressing her throat with one hand and raising the mug to his mouth again with the other.

Mel sucked in her breath. "Cole…" she began uneasily.

Cole frowned, aware that his words had, for some reason, upset her. He increased the amount of soothing energy he was releasing into her throat and decided to try a human tactic for defusing tense situations. He changed the subject. "You should drink your cocoa now, Mel."

Her head shot up and she gave him a tremulous smile. Obviously she had misinterpreted Cole's initial statement and the ensuing question. "Yeah. You should finish yours, too," she suggested, blowing on her cocoa and sipping at it. She smiled. It really was very good. "Have some cookies, too. Cocoa and cookies go well together."

Cole nodded and picked up the plate, proffering it to Mel. When she had selected a cookie, he took one himself and returned it to the table. "Will you show me how to make this, Mel?" he asked, indicated the mug in his hand.

"Sure." She nodded. "Remind me tomorrow and I'll walk you through it."

He smiled. "Okay, Mel. And cookies? Will you also show me how to make these cookies? They're very nice. I can taste the love in them as well."

Mel grinned and nodded. He was definitely one of a kind. "Okay, Cole. I'll show you how to make cookies as well."

"Thank you, Mel."

He smiled warmly at her, then popped the cookie into his mouth. They were different from the other sorts of cookies Mel had made and bought in the past, a sweet yet spicy nut filling wrapped in a pastry shell. They were very nice and the prospect of spending time with Mel as she showed him how to make them was definitely an appealing one.

Spending time with Mel was always nice. He had long since given up trying to convince himself that anything other than love was behind that sentiment. It scared him, but that did not make it any less true. There was no denying it. He found himself thinking of Nallia as his 'first wife'. After almost ten years of certainty that he would never feel love again, he did. The uncertainty of that made him anxious for his own sake but, more than that, the memories of what had happened to Ashi and Nallia made him anxious for hers.

They sat in comfortable silence for what seemed like hours, sipping cocoa, eating cookies, and just enjoying each other's company. Both felt that moments like these were proof that it really was about the little things. After a few minutes, Mel shyly moved closer to Cole, whose tender smile invited her to move closer still if she wished. For once in her life, she threw caution to the winds and sidled even closer, snuggling against the warm Cirronian. He looked down at her, his expression startled but obviously pleased.

"Like this," Mel provided quietly, reaching up and drawing his arm around her. "If you don't mind?"

Cole smiled warmly at her, shaking his head and shifting his arm into a more comfortable position, securing her against him. "I do not mind this. It's a very nice behavior, Mel."

"Cuddling." She nodded absently, refusing to let herself thinking about what she was doing, how he might take it, or any possible consequences. "Human… um, friends do it."

She ignored her own uncertainty over doing anything so intimate with Cole and focused on the soothing warmth pouring off of him, lulling her mind and calming her body. Cole's proximity actually having a calming effect on her body was not something she had experienced in weeks, she realized, but it was very nice. It was like curling up with a long-established lover where intimacy did not always bring urgent desire, sometimes just bringing warmth and contentment instead. And, in a manner of speaking, long-establish lovers was exactly what they were, partners in every sense of the word but one.

Cole smiled to himself. She may have said friends, but he suspected that another word entirely had been in her mind and her heart. He knew full well that certain touches were allowed to mates that were restricted between others and he suspected that this 'cuddling' was one of them. He liked it. The warm, exciting feeling of completeness it triggered was especially nice, almost euphoric but soothing at the same time. He slid his hand up her arm slightly, nearer her throat and chest, closer to the life-force that resided there. His smile widened. This touch triggered the same responses in her. She liked it and, for once in their association, she was refusing to be daunted by that fact. The Cirronian could not help but find this a promising development.

Being close to Mel was always wonderful, and Cole reveled in it. She was the sort of woman that any man would be pleased to call 'friend'. She was very compassionate, intelligent, understanding, strong-willed, proud, gentle, loving, insightful… She was everything that Cole had ever found attractive. She would never replace what he had lost, but that did not change what he felt for her, either. Nallia had been his Heart. Mel was his Strength. Having her as a wife, or even just a mate, would have been wonderful. If he could only figure out how to convey his love to her.

He showed her that she was special to him in all the ways that a Cirronian man should convey such things to a woman, but Mel was not Cirronian and was not necessarily equipped with a frame of reference for those behaviors. His affectionate touches, in spite of her obvious enjoyment of them, continued to be misinterpreted. Alterations in tone and manner that would have screamed his love to a Cirronian female were entirely lost on her. He was reduced to reading nonverbal cues, repeating behaviors she seemed to enjoy, and… hoping.

Right now, his main hope was that this 'cuddling' was something that she would allow them to repeat in the future. His body was experiencing all those lovely sensations that only came from touching Mel or holding her close and his mind and heart feeling all those wonderful emotions that came with sharing some little act of togetherness with her. If she would allow it, this was definitely something he could find himself getting used to, he reflected as he sipped his cocoa. He smiled faintly as he became aware that his proximity was having a sedative effect on her.

"You're about to fall asleep," he observed tenderly, placing his now-empty mug on the end-table. "Come on, Mel. I'll walk you to your room."

"No," she protested, yawning. "Presents, Cole. We have to." She did not want to wait until morning to see the look on his face when he opened hers. It had taken her forever to think of something but, when she had, she had known that it was perfect.

"In the morning," he urged. "Mel, you're half-asleep. Your body requires rest."

She shook her head firmly. "It's just the cocoa and the… the warm air in the apartment, Cole. Those things can make humans sleepy. It doesn't necessarily mean that we require rest."

Cole regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded. She was the human, she would know. "Presents, Mel," he agreed, rising and helping her to her feet. "Then you must promise me that you will rest."

She smiled faintly at her mother-hen of a Cirronian and nodded gravely. "I promise, Cole. Once we've exchanged gifts, I'll go to bed."

Cole smiled his approval and gave her throat a gentle caress before they walked down the hall together. As Mel walked into her room, Cole entered the war-room and retrieved Mel's gift from a high shelf. He had given a lot of thought to the gift and could only hope that she would like it. As she had explained it, gifts given on Christmas should be tokens, gestures of your care for another. It was a beautiful idea to the Cirronian, and a not unfamiliar one. He had frequently bought such tokens of love for his wife and daughter, simply because he could. No occasion was necessary beyond the fact that they were sharing one more wondrous day together.

Selecting a gift for the amazing human who had taken him into her home without hesitation had been no easy task. He had started with only a single requirement. It had to be as lovely as Mel was. It had not taken him long to realize that this restriction made finding something for her a tall order indeed. He had looked assiduously for better than a month, finally forced to settle on what had seemed like the best of his choices. He thought she would like it but somehow that did not really seem like enough. It had him worried.

For her part, Mel had no such hesitancy over her final choice for Cole's Christmas present. The process of picking something had not been easy. What did a girl get for a Cirronian Tracker who may not have had everything, but was certainly capable of cobbling it together with old household appliances? One day shortly after the art-museum fiasco, frantically looking through a catalog for probably the tenth time, the answer had hit her between the eyes. The perfect present had jumped off the page and loudly declared itself to Mel. She had spent a few minutes in stunned silence at the perfection of the gift and the serendipity of the timing involved in finding it and then breathed an enormous sigh of relief and immediately ordered it.

Pulling the large, flat package out from under her bed, she found herself wondering what the Cirronian had gotten her. When she had explained about the tradition of exchanging gifts and asked if he understood it and wanted to do so, Cole had mentioned that he had frequently bought gifts for Ashi and Nallia. It was a nice tradition and he looked forward to sharing it with Mel, too, he said.

He was all smiles now as he emerged from the war-room with a small, neatly-wrapped box carefully cradled in both hands. She smiled up at him, carefully holding his package against her chest.

"Let's do this the living room," she suggested.

"Okay, Mel," he agreed easily, stepping back so that she could precede him down the hall.

He followed closely, curious about the large, flat bundle in her arms. He had never seen a box quite that shape before and was curious as to what might be in it. They sat together on the couch, smiling at each other in silence for a few moments.

"Um… here," Mel said shyly, handing him the package. "I think you'll like it. I mean, I hope you will… but if you don't, we can return it and get something you do like."

Cole smiled warmly at her, setting her own gift carefully on the coffee-table and accepting the one she proffered. "Mel, I'm sure I will like it very much," he told her gently, caressing her throat. How could he not love a gift that Mel had bought to show him that she cared?

"I sure hope so." She smiled hopefully at him, her eyes half-closing under his touch. "I mean it seemed just perfect for you, but… can be hard sometimes, picking a perfect gift." Rambling was no easy task with Cole's hands gently stroking her throat, so she just fell silent and enjoyed it for a few moments. When his hand fell away, she smiled adoringly up at him, knowing that she looked like a love-sick adolescent but not really caring. "Why don't you go ahead and open it now," she suggested quietly.

Cole nodded, carefully removing the paper from the gift. He stared down at it with a wondering expression for several silent minutes before smiling up at her, unaware that there were tears in his eyes until she reached up and wiped them away. A neatly framed and matted copy of that painting, Impressionist Sunrise, the one that reminded him of home.

"Do you like it?" she asked hopefully, her eyes searching his. She was more than half-afraid that his tears were sorrowful rather than happy, that a reminder of home was not something he wanted when he could not yet go back.

He caressed her throat, smiling tenderly at her. "It is perfect, Mel. Beautiful."

"I figured, you know, that you could hang it in the war-room. Kind of… a piece of home, you know? Or we can hang it out here if you want."

"War-room, I think, Mel. That way I can look at it when I work." It would remind him of home. It would remind him of her. "Thank you, Mel," he whispered, smiling at her again, still caressing her throat.

"I'm glad you like it, Cole. I was kind of worried that you might not, that it would make you sad or something."

He shook his head. "No, Mel. It does not make me sad. It makes me very happy."

"Is home really this beautiful?" she asked quietly.

"Sometimes." He smiled at her. " It's more noticeable at high altitudes or with certain weather conditions. When there are solar flares, it is even more beautiful than it is the rest of the time, more like this." Seeing Mel's smile, he continued, telling her what he had once told his daughter. "There are so many colors when the sky is on fire that there aren't even names for all of them, Mel."

"It sounds so beautiful, Cole. You must miss your home very much." She smiled sadly at him, tears in her eyes.

"Sometimes." He nodded slowly, looking down at the picture in his lap. He smiled up at her. "I'll miss it less now, though, I think." Leaning forward, he played his fingertips lightly across her throat. "It's a very nice gift, Mel. Thank you."

She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. "I'm glad you like it, Cole."

His smile widened as he continued his caress. It truly was a wonderful gift that she had given him, this small taste of home. It was strange, though. He would have thought that such a gift would only have made him long for home more, but that was not the case, not at all. Instead, he found himself not for the first time questioning that word, wondering.


Home was… Cirron 17, of course. The planet of his birth, the planet of his daughter's birth. A planet where he had spent his entire young life and almost half of his adult life. Yet… other than her inherent beauty, there was very little of Cirron that really seemed to call to him. He had nothing there. Few friends, no relatives, just memories of a too-painful past. On Sar-Top, he had missed the beauty of his home planet, but nothing else about it.

Earth had one thing that Cirron never would. Earth had Mel. Kind, compassionate, considerate, gentle Mel. The woman he loved. So which was really home? Earth or Cirron? Accustomed as he was to making snap decisions, he just was not sure any more. Perhaps Cirron could be home again if it had Mel, if he could bring her back with him. He had no reason to expect her to be willing to leave her own home, but the thought gave him hope all the same.

Not that it mattered. Such things could be considered and acted on later. There was plenty of time, many fugitives still to capture before the possibility of returning to Migar became an immediate consideration. Tonight, the Tracker was willing to live in the now, to enjoy the gift of this familiar, intimate moment with Mel. What was not to love in such a moment? Being near her, sharing a quiet evening with her alone, touching her…

His body shivered involuntarily at those thoughts: being near her, alone with her, touching her glorious body. It was a strange reaction given that he was not even a little cold, but he did not bother to examine it too closely. Whatever it was, it felt good, everything about it from the heat that flooded his entire body to the pleasant tightening in the pit of his stomach. It was not the first time he had experienced these sensations, always in response to thoughts of Mel, and he suspected that they were a human reaction, on some level related to his desire to have her as a wife.

Mel's eyes popped open at his shiver and she realized that, if she had leaned into his touch much more, she would have ended up in his lap. Flushing at that thought, though not solely from embarrassment, she straightened.

"Are you cold?" she asked gently, brushing his hair out of his face and frowning as he shuddered again. "Oh, you poor baby! Here, I'll turn up the heat some more."

Cole inhaled deeply as he watched her rise and walk to the thermostat. She was so considerate of his needs, one more thing he adored in her. And lovely beyond words when she moved, he noted as she made her way back to the couch, her light skirt swishing around her legs. He realized that he could almost make out her legs behind that sheer fabric. It was an unsettling, if not unpleasant, realization. She seemed to have very pretty legs indeed. It seemed a shame to him that she always kept them covered. Not that he could blame her with weather in Chicago what it was.

Mel frowned uncertainly at the scrutiny he was giving her legs. "Something wrong, Cole?" she asked quietly as she sat down again.

He shook his head, smiling at the blast of warm air that hit him as the heater kicked back on. "That feels very nice, Mel."

She smiled at him. "I'm glad you like it."

He smiled warmly and transferred the beautiful picture to the coffee-table before reaching out and caressing her throat again. "Let's cuddle some more," he suggested, smiling widely at the idea.

Mel winced, then shrugged. "If you'd like," she agreed.

"This is very nice, Mel. We don't have anything like this on Cirron," he told her, pulling her back against his chest and wrapping his arms around her waist.

"Your loss," Mel teased.

"Yes, it is," Cole agreed honestly. He retrieved his gift to her and gently placed it in her lap before sliding both arms around her waist again.

She craned her neck, smiling up at him. "I thought you wanted to cuddle now."

"We can do both." He grinned, pleased with himself for having reached this determination. He definitely wanted Mel to open her gift now, but he did not want to give up the wonderful feel of her body against his. The heat and gentle pressure combined to be almost intoxicating, leaving him pleasantly light-headed.

"Yeah, I suppose we can." Mel shrugged helplessly and looked at the little box in her lap.

Cole rested his chin on her shoulder. "Open it, Mel," he urged quietly, rubbing his cheek against hers as he spoke in a Cirronian gesture of affection.

Mel felt her heart flutter at that contact. She fumbled with the package, trying to focus on it instead of the burning in her face where Cole's cheek had touched. His hands were still looped firmly around her waist, securing her body against his. His breath lightly tickled, telling her that his lips were very close to her own. All she had to do would be to turn her head… She shook that off and focused all of her attention on unwrapping the present.

She smiled widely at the little cedar box, set with an abstract pattern in stained-glass on its lid. Instead of dark lead, the stained-glass was joined with copper. It complimented the pastel tones of the glass and the color of the wood perfectly.

"Oh, Cole, it's so beautiful…" she whispered, turning her head and grinning at his eager expression. "I love it."

"It makes music," Cole told her, smiling at her obvious pleasure.

The beautiful little box had reminded him of Mel. Like Mel, it was delicate-looking, but still quite sturdy and resilient. The pastel glass echoed the color of her beautiful eyes, her pretty lips, and her cute freckles. The copper joining was the color of her hair. The realization that it was a music box had pleased him more. Music held a special place in his heart and always would. It was important to humans, too, and Mel frequently listened to music, occasionally even responding emotionally to it.

The song the box had come with was unfamiliar to him and, while pretty, inadequate. He had brought it home and modified it, replacing the mechanism that produced the music with one of his own, modified. Human music boxes were still primitive. The sound was not true and the music had no words. Cole had fixed that drawback, replacing the mechanical device with a tiny chip. There was no need to wind it any more, and no mechanism to take up space that could otherwise be devoted to storage. Any time she opened it, she could hear the song he had chosen, for as long as she wanted. The chip would last years. And if his selection displeased her, he could simply replace it with a song more to her liking.

"It's a music box?" Mel asked, smiling at him and turning the box over in her hands. "Nothing to wind…"

"It didn't need it any more. I--"

"Modified it?" she guessed, smiling widely at him. That was Cole for you.

He nodded. "I wanted a song that was appropriate for you."

Her eyes widened faintly. "A song that was appropriate for me?" she whispered, flattered.

He smiled and nodded. "Yes, Mel. If you don't like this song, I can replace it with another, but I think it's one of your favorites. You listen to the CD it's on often."

Smiling uncertainly, wondering what song Cole considered appropriate for her, she opened the music box. Mary Black's pure, Irish-accented voice filled the room.

In your eyes faint as the singing of a lark

That somehow this black night

Feels warmer for the spark

Warmer for the spark

To hold us 'til the day

When fear will lose its grip

And heaven has its way

Heaven knows no frontiers

And I've seen heaven in your eyes

"Cole, that is definitely one of my favorite songs." She smiled and nodded, setting the music box on the table, not bothering to close it.

He smiled widely. "I'm very glad, Mel. It reminds me of you."

"It… reminds you of… me?" she whispered, blinking suddenly-full eyes. She had always considered 'No Frontiers' to be one of the most beautiful songs written in the last fifty years. And Mary Black, though not particularly popular or well-known in the States had one of the most beautiful voices she had ever heard. "Really?"

The music box sang on, not forgotten by either.

Your heart is a pure flame of man's constant night

Cole nodded, smiling at the lyric. Yes, that was his Mel, her heart, her life-force a pure flame in man's constant night. And he had seen the Heavens in her eyes, every time he most needed it. It was almost as if the song had been written for them alone, him to her. It was a love-song without being a 'love-song' in the traditional sense. Not a single word was dedicated to physical beauty or desire. Instead it was a declaration of love and appreciation and gratitude for support. Every line of the song described Mel in some beautiful way, her strength, courage, compassion, and her perfect, pure soul.

"It does remind me of you. Every word of it, Mel," he told her honestly.

Mel covered her mouth with one hand. The tears that had threatened earlier refused to be denied any longer. "That's so beautiful, Cole," she whispered.

He reached down and dried her cheeks. "You like it?" he asked hopefully.

She bit her lower lip and nodded, not entirely trusting herself to speak. She nodded and smiled, slipping her arms around him and pulling him into a hug. "You are amazing, Cole," she whispered, shaking her head for a moment before resting her cheek against his chest.

A little perplexed by that reaction, he reached down and returned the hug, glad for the opportunity. "I'm glad you like it, Mel. I was unsure of what was appropriate."

"It's perfect, Cole," she whispered in his ear.

"So are you, Mel." He smiled down at her, enjoying the hug but wishing that he could have reached her throat. Wide eyes returned his gaze and he saw that he had once again stepped over some invisible line with his honest words. Those wide eyes, he saw with a frown, were red-rimmed with fatigue. "You're tired, Mel," he said reluctantly. "You should rest now."

He could feel exhaustion pouring off of her in waves and could tell that she was fighting it, wanting to spend more time with him. As much as he would have liked to spend the entire night out here, hugging Mel like this or cuddling with her, or simply enjoying her company, he was unwilling to let her body suffer as he knew it would if she did not sleep soon. He released his gentle hold on her with an involuntary sigh.

She straightened reluctantly, a little surprised by Cole's obvious reticence. Not that she could blame him for wanting company. It could not have been fun for him, spending every night alone. This must have been a nice changes for him. She made a mental note to do it more in the future, just spend time with him. He really was wonderful company anyway.

She started to protest that she was not that tired, but the effect was ruined by a yawn. Smiling wryly, she shook her head. "Guess you're right, Cole."

He nodded and rose, offering his hand to her and helping her up. Not removing her hand from his, Mel bent and retrieved the music box.

"It really is beautiful, Cole," she told him, smiling warmly at him. "I love it."

"I'm glad, Mel. I like mine very much as well. It makes me happy." Smiling down at her, he twined his fingers through hers and walked down the hall with her, stopping outside her door. "Good night, Mel. Sleep well."

She smiled up at him as he released her hand. "Good night, Cole." Impulsively, before she could change her mind, she stood on her tiptoes and gently kissed his cheek for a long moment. "I'll see you in the morning," she murmured, embarrassed. Shaking her head at having done something so silly, she vanished into her room before he could respond.

Stunned, he lifted his hand to his burning cheek. Mel had just kissed him! Not on the mouth as he had seen some human couples do, but it had still been a kiss, completely different in character from the way she would occasionally brush her lips against his cheek when he returned from Tracking. It had been quite lovely, too. A shaking hand pressed itself against her door and part of him considered reaching for the doorknob with that hand. He very badly wanted Mel to repeat that gesture. There was more to it than he would have supposed from seeing other humans doing it. It was not simply a touch, it evoked a hundred emotions to varying degrees and a number of very nice sensations as well.

Shaking off his almost overwhelming reaction to Mel's touch, he stared at her door again, frowning thoughtfully. Early in their relationship, he had seen a pair of humans kissing and had asked Mel about it. They had seemed to enjoy it a great deal and he had been eager to try it for himself. Mel had been quite firm that such gestures were only meant for mates. So why had she done it now?

Cole smiled to himself, nodding. Months of listening to Mel insisting to anyone who asked that they were only friends had almost convinced him of the fact as well. Shaking his head, he walked into the war-room, looking for a place to hang the beautiful picture Mel had gotten him. He quickly found a suitable location, one where he would be able to look up from his monitors and immediately see the painting.

It would remind him of home, he reflected as he hung it up. More, though, it would remind him of Mel, of how nice it was to hug her and cuddle with her and have her kissing him. Nodding at the way the picture looked hanging there, he returned to his computer. He doubted the fugitives stopped to celebrate human holidays even if he had, so he was going to have to work harder for the next few days. Not that he was complaining. It had definitely been worth it. As the extra work would be worth it.

His gaze was immediately drawn back to that picture. There would be more kisses from Mel in the future, he resolved, more little touches and moments alone together. He would see to that. And, he decided, brushing his fingers over his lips, Mel would not be the only one doing the kissing either. Cirronian displays, after all, were obviously not doing the job of showing Mel how he felt. He would need to learn how, but once he had he was determined to try it out on Mel at once.

He sighed and shut off the monitor, aware that he was unlikely to get much work done tonight. He rose and walked over to the picture, examining it thoughtfully in the dim light.

Is home really this beautiful? she had asked.

He raised his hand to the glass. It could be. If it had you.

He shook his head, frowning. That was wrong, he realized. Because 'home' was not this place depicted in this picture. 'Home' was not even Cirron, not any more. Home was something else, more indefinable, harder to trace.

Home had been sitting on that couch with Mel, holding her in his arms and exchanging presents. Or sitting on that same couch with Mel months ago as she patiently taught him to read. Or standing at the bar learning to mix drinks. Or just sharing dinner with her as he had dozens of times since his arrival. Home was there, in every fleeting touch, every tender glance, every kind or amusing word. Because home… home was not a place. The Cirronian smiled and chuckled softly at the realization.

On Earth, Cirron, or anywhere in between, home was wherever Mel was.


Blinking lights filtered into the dark bedroom from the window outside, her only light. Mel sat on the edge of her bed, cradling the beautiful music box in her hands, examining it in the pale glow. It was such a beautiful gift, moving beyond words. She had been dreading her first Christmas without her grandmother, but Cole had made it not just bearable but actually nice. No, not just nice… Wonderful. She shook her head, placing the music box on her night-stand and crawling under the covers.

She wondered how she was going to face him in the morning after she had kissed him like that? Not that Cole probably knew any better, but she did. Kissing him like that had been unacceptable, wrong. So why did it feel so right? Why, when she knew that she and Cole could not be together, did it so often feel as if she could never be with anyone else?

Maybe because it was true, she decided, closing her eyes and sliding under the covers. She opened them long enough to open the music box, then closed them again and snuggling more deeply under the covers, lulled by the music and warmed by the memories of their evening together.

She had been so afraid of spending the holiday alone, but he had known. He had sensed it and he had done what he could to make her feel more comfortable. Alone. All her life, she had felt alone, out of place. With her parents, her friends, every boyfriend she had ever had, she had felt like she did not belong. With her grandmother, some of that had vanished. With Cole, all of it did. With Cole, she belonged, she was accepted. With Cole, she was home.

The End