This Mortal Coil

Summary: Mel contracts a life-threatening case of meningitis. As she lingers in a coma, her friends must come to term with her mortality and their own feelings.

Rating: PG

Disclaimer: I don't own them but, hey, just as soon as that deal with Zin goes through…

Timeline: First half of the season, pre "Love, Cirronian Style"

Spoilers: Minor for the Pilot and "Cloud 9"

Author's Note: Thanks to Kameka for betaing and to Fluffy Cat for helping me on the medical details.

Feedback: Better than Fek-Maln. Always welcomed and much appreciated.

This Mortal Coil

"To die, to sleep --
To sleep, perchance to dream, ay there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause; there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life."

-- William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Chapter 1

"Cole, could you do me a favor?" Mel asked quietly from the door of the war-room.

Cole was surprised that Mel was up at this hour, but no less pleased at the prospect of having her for company. He smiled as he looked up at her, but his smile quickly faded. She was leaning against the doorframe, both hands braced firmly against the wall, and Cole badly suspected that this was the only thing keeping her upright. She was so pale and swaying on her feet. Even at a distance, he could feel how weak her life-force was. He rose swiftly and closed the distance between them, gathering her into his arms and half-carrying her into her bedroom.

"Are you ill, Mel?" he asked anxiously, helping her sit on the edge of her bed.

He had known all day that she was not feeling well. She had seemed fine at breakfast, but afterwards she had rapidly become less than fine. She had been moving and thinking slowly, tired, weak, and had refused to eat, complaining of an upset stomach. Cole had been worried, spent most of the day following her around and trying to get her to eat or rest, asking if she was sick. She had dismissed his concerns and assured him that she was just fine, saying that she had been working too hard since Isabel was sick and she was just a bit worn as a result. But she had obviously been mistaken. In their three months together, he had never seen Mel in such a state.

She nodded weakly. "Think so, Cole. I don't think I've ever felt this bad in my life."

Cole frowned as he watched her attempt to nod. Her neck rigid, her head barely moved at all. "Are you in pain? Where?"

She nodded and leaned forward, resting her hands on her knees. "Headache, Cole. Like a migraine, but worse. Pretty weak, too."

"Here, Mel, lay down," he directed, helping her into a prone position. "What should I do? Call Jess? Or Vic? Jonas? Should I call Jonas?" he offered, the questions tripping out rapid-fire. One of their human friends was sure to know what was wrong with Mel and how to help her. They could tell him what to do, how to help, how to make her well.

"Calm down, Cole," she ordered gently. It was as close to frantic as she had ever seen the stoic Tracker come. "Everything's going to be just fine. I just need you to drive me to the hospital." She shivered violently as she spoke. "Can you do that, Cole?"

"Of course I can, Mel," Cole assured her gently. She was obviously quite cold in spite of the heavy pajamas she was wearing, so he wrapped her in a blanket and lifted her into his arms. "Don't worry, Mel. We'll get you to the hospital and they'll fix you."

She nodded weakly, resting her head against his shoulder. She had to reposition her entire body to accomplish that. "Thank you, Cole."

"It's okay, Mel. You're going to be okay," he promised.

He sighed deeply. Holding her like this, he realized that her life-force was even weaker than he had thought at a distance. She was very sick and he felt helpless to do anything about it. He simply did not know enough about her species. He could have kicked himself for not making a greater effort to learn. At the back of his consciousness, hovering like a predator ready to strike, was a single, unsettling thought. If Mel was as weak and as sick as she seemed to be, she might die. The idea of life without Mel, even in the few short months he had known her, was almost unbearable to him.

"Oh, hang on," she ordered as he carried her down the hall. "Let's go in the living room. I need to call Jess so she knows that I might not be there to help her open tomorrow. With Isabel sick, she'll have to do it alone unless she can get Bridgett…"

Cole kept walking, fishing his cell-phone out of his pocket and handing it to Mel. "You can call her on the way," he said, not wanting to delay the process of getting Mel treatment, not by one second.

"Thank you, Cole."

Mel sighed, clutching the phone in her hand and trying to remember the younger woman's phone-number. Her mind was foggy and she was having trouble concentrating on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. She would remember the first two or three numbers, but by the time she could recall the next few numbers the first were already gone. Her sudden inability to remember her best friend's phone-number was disorienting, frightening.

"You're going to be just fine, Mel," Cole whispered gravely as he carefully carried her down the stairs and across the dark bar.

"I know," she whispered, leaning into his chest as he unlocked the passenger-side door of her car. As bad as she felt, it was hard to have anything other than complete confidence in her alien housemate. He would make everything okay, exactly as he always did.

"Here, Mel. Just relax and let me help you," he directed as he carefully transferred her into the seat. He resettled the blanket around her before buckling her seat belt and closing the door. He circled the car quickly and climbed into the driver's seat, pulling on his own seat belt and starting the car. "Are you still cold, Mel?"

"Yeah, Cole," she sighed, resting her head against the window.

Just sitting upright had become an effort. She had spent the day dismissing her symptoms as nothing and the evening assuming that she was getting the flu. Now she was sure it was a lot more serious than the flu. Isabel had called in sick. Isabel, whose school the health-department had closed down for… something. She could not quite remember at the moment. She shivered again, a combination of cold and fear, and wondered if she was dying. Something told her that she very well might have been.

"You're going to be okay, Mel," Cole promised again, turning the heater up all the way. He reached out and brushed his fingers across her cheek before shifting the car into gear. He winced at the feel of her life-force, even weaker than it had been just a few moments ago. "Mel, would you mind if I broke a few human laws?" he asked uncertainly.

It took Mel a moment to make sense of this request, then she shook her head. "Just go the speed-limit, Cole. The hospital's not that far and there's not a lot of traffic."

"Mel, I really think…"

"Cole, I don't want you getting pulled over," she sighed, feeling as breathless as if she had just run five miles instead of simply telling him not to break any traffic-laws.

"Yes, Mel," he said in a tone that clearly indicated that he was not happy with the restrictions she was placing on him.

Fortunately, Mel had been right about how light traffic tended to be on a weeknight at three in the morning and they reached the hospital quickly. Vividly recalling a very firm lecture Mel had recently given him, he even remembered to park in the parking lot. He was less than pleased with the distance between the car and the emergency entrance, so after he had lifted Mel into his arms again, he went into hyper-speed, closing the distance in the space between one labored beat of her heart and the next.

"Wh--" Mel looked around sluggishly, confused to find herself at the entrance so quickly.

"It's okay, Mel," Cole reassured her gently, holding her close and burying his face in her hair for a moment before carrying her inside. "I'm here."

"I know," she said in a thick voice, nodding weakly. "I know you are. The registration desk is--"

"I know, Mel," he reminded her gently, starting in that direction. "I brought Jess here a few weeks ago. Remember?"

"Um…" She paused to think, then nodded slowly. "Yeah, Cole. I… think I remember."

Cole stared down at her uncertainly. "I hope the paperwork doesn't take as long this time as it did with Jess," he whispered to no one in particular. He did not think that Mel could afford to wait very long.

The desk nurse took one look at Mel, her skin alabaster-white except for the red splotches that covered it, her eyes refusing to track properly, and her body trembling in Cole's arms in spite of a heavy quilt and pajamas, and reached the same conclusion as he had. After that, things moved too quickly for the Cirronian to keep up with what was happening. There was a quick check of her vitals, a short physical exam, and several questions directed at Cole about her behaviors over the past few days. Cole mentioned that Isabel was out sick because they asked if she had been around any sick people lately. When he told them where Isabel went to school, Mel was moved from the ER to a private room and then on to the ICU, all in a matter of minutes.

When he asked to be allowed to stay with her, they started asking him question about his own contact with Mel over the past several days. Some of the questions were just confusing and he could not see what they had to do with anything, like had they shared a glass or silverware in the past several days. Others were of a much more personal nature, like whether she had kissed or slept with anybody recently. Cole had been annoyed by those invasions of Mel's privacy, but had answered as well as he could, guessing that they were important for some reason he simply could not understand.

When they were done with their questions, he again asked if he could see her. They had refused, something about Mel being contagious. Which at least explained their questions, Cole thought, but he needed to see Mel, to assure himself that she was well and would be all right. He tried to convince them that it was very important, but they flatly refused to allow him access to Mel or to answer any of his questions about her condition. Finally retreating in confusion, Cole had followed the only course he could think of and called Jess, telling her what had happened.

"Cole, there you are!" Jess called, running up to him in the waiting room. "Are you okay? Is Mel okay?"

"I don't know. They won't tell me anything, Jess, but I think she must be very sick." He shook his head in obvious distress. "They won't let me see her, Jess, and they won't tell me what's wrong with her, either."

"Well of course they won't, Cole," Jess told him gently, patting his arm. "They'll only tell that sort of thing to family."

"But… I do not think that Mel has any family, Jess."

"No, she doesn't, not any more," Jess told him. She smiled slyly. "Except us, of course."

"But you said that if we are not related by blood, they will not tell us anything."

Jess shook her head at his lack of understanding. Of course, Cole was like that as a general rule and being upset was probably not helping matters. "Sit, Cole," she directed. When he had, she sat down next to him and took his hand. "Look, you and I both know that we are as close to family as Mel has, yeah?"

He nodded. "Yes, Jess."

"Right, so what we're going to do to get them to talk to us is to tell them that you are Mel's husband."

Cole blinked. "Lie to them?" he asked uncertainly.

Jess nodded. "Yeah, Cole. Because that is probably the only way they are going to let us into the ICU."

Cole considered. Lying was wrong, pure and simple. Everyone knew that. Still… Mel was like a wife to him in many ways. Every way but one, he sometimes thought. So was it really a lie at all, since it was not really false, either? "It's a good plan, Jess."

She nodded again and patted his arm gently. "Don't you worry, Cole. You just let me do the talking, okay?"

Cole smiled gratefully, nodding. "Yes, Jess. Thank you, Jess."

"Yeah." She gave him a quick hug. "It's going to be okay, Cole. I promise. Come on."

He nodded and rose, following her to the desk.

Jess cleared her throat and squared her shoulders as she approached the desk. "Excuse me," she said to a nurse. "Look, my sister-in-law was admitted here a couple hours ago and no one will tell my brother a bloody thing about her condition!" she announced, not having to feign the indignation she felt over anyone making poor Cole as upset as he obviously was.

The nurse blinked in obvious surprise. "Um, who's the doctor on the case?" Cole quietly provided the doctor's name and Mel's. "Okay. If you want to have a seat, I'll find out what's going on. I'm sure there's just been some misunderstanding somewhere down the line."

"Thank you," Jess said sincerely.

Cole nodded his agreement. "Yes. Thank you." He allowed Jess to steer him back to the chairs. "Jess, how will I explain that I did not tell them that I was married to Mel before?"

Jess took in Cole, and the blank look he was giving her, and smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry about it, Cole. It's not a problem."

He nodded. "Okay, Jess." He gave her a weak smile, not entirely sure if she was right, but grateful for the assurance anyway. "Thank you, Jess."

The doctor arrived a few minutes later, starting out apologetic, then frowning suspiciously. "Why didn't you mention that she was your wife when you brought her in?" he asked Cole.
Cole's brow creased in concentration as he tried to come up with some explanation.

Jess jumped to her feet and grabbed the doctor by the arm, hauling him a few feet away. "Yeah, about that… my big brother… well, he is not exactly the brightest crayon in the box if you didn't notice." Jess gave an expressive shrug and nodded discretely towards Cole who was watching them in obvious confusion. Jess was pleased by this reaction, feeling that his blank look leant credence to her explanation. "When he's upset, he doesn't always… think like he should, you know?"

The doctor nodded his understanding. "Of course. I'm sorry."

"Hey, honest mistake, yeah?"

He nodded slowly, then his frown returned. "He said that she hasn't slept with anyone in the past week. In fact, I believe his exact words were 'Mel usually sleeps alone'." He regarded Jess suspiciously.

Jess managed not to cringe at that. Barely. Time to think on her feet. "Yeah. Well, they have not really been on the best of terms lately. He's sleeping in the guest-room. It's… you know, they're working on patching things up, but it's hard. They're taking it slow. Sometimes he joins her, you know, but Mel does usually sleep alone. Cole's very literal… It's part of his… well, you know."

"I see." The doctor shrugged. He had too much work to do to spend much time on one patient's domestic situation. Several dozen meningitis-inflicted college students added to his regular workload was not helping matters. He was just grateful that he could trace the Porter woman back to one of them. The CDC would have pitched a fit if the latest case of meningitis in the current outbreak had not been linkable back to the others.

Offering up a silent prayer of thanks to whatever deity had allowed her to pull that off, she led him back to where Cole was sitting. "Cole, sweetie. It's all cleared up, now. Just… you know, you really do need to remember to tell people these things. Now, I know you were upset, but…" She gave him a meaningful look, willing him to just play along.

Cole nodded slowly. "Yes, Jess. I'm sorry, Jess. I understand now."

"Good." Jess nodded and looked at the doctor. He was clearly quite thoroughly convinced that Cole was not exactly all there. If Jess had not spent so much time around Cole, she would have thought it either brilliant acting on his part or genuine cluelessness. Cole was incredibly smart, in spite of his mannerisms. Anyone who spent any length of time with him knew that. The doctor, however, had no reason to suspect any such thing. "So, how is my sister-in-law?"  she asked the doctor. "Cole's been beside himself."

"How can a person be beside himself, Jess?" Cole whispered in obvious confusion.

"Forget it, Cole," Jess murmured, shaking her head. Well, if the doctor had not been sold before, he certainly would be now, she decided. "How is Mel?"

"She's suffering from acute bacterial meningitis, complicated by septicemia, blood poisoning ."

"Oh, bloody hell!" Jess gasped, grabbing Cole's arm.

"Is this a serious condition, Jess?" Cole asked uncertainly, looking down at her. He covered the hand on his arm with one of his own hands, wanting to comfort the clearly upset girl.

Jess bit her lower lip and nodded. "Damned serious, Cole." She was, somehow, not in the least surprised that Cole made absolutely no effort to conceal the fact that he was crying. It seemed fitting from Mel's strange, gentle roommate. Somehow, it seemed to add to her perception of him as masculine instead of detracting from it. "Is she going to be okay?" Jess asked the doctor quietly.

"It's still too early to tell for sure, but the prognosis is grim."

Jess looked as if she had just been punched in the stomach. She felt worse. The composure she had managed to keep up until that point shattered in a heartbeat. A strangled gasp was followed by a low moan and then tears.

Cole understood exactly what Jess was going through. He felt as though someone had shoved a knife into his gut and begun twisting it. If he had not already been weeping, he would have started then and there. He did not focus on his own pain for long, though, not with Jess suffering beside him.

He wordlessly gathered the sobbing girl into his arms, his tears mingling with hers as she turned her face up to give him a grateful look. He could feel her distress, of a different character but no less powerful than his own. Jess loved Mel every bit as much as he did. When she called herself Mel's sister, it was no different than it had been when Cole had professed to be her husband. Not literally accurate, it was still the absolute truth. Holding Jess against him with one hand, he reached down with the other and gently caressed her throat, releasing soothing energy into her body, doing what he could to calm her fears.

"We must see Mel now," he told the doctor firmly, still holding Jess and lightly touching her throat. "Mel should be with the people who love her at a time like this. Jess and I both need to be with Mel right now," he insisted.

"Okay, well first we need to get both of you under treatment," the doctor informed them firmly.

'Treatment' involved nothing more than a handful of pills and was quickly accomplished. More pills were given to each of them to take later, and the doctor was quite insistent that they finish them all. Both were questioned about their physical health after the pills had been given over. Everything was fine until Jess reluctantly confessed to having a slight headache.

At that point, she was hustled off into a side room by a pack of doctors and nurses. Cole held the trembling girl's hand as they vanished, enjoining them not to move.

"You're going to be fine, Jess," he promised her gently. Her life-force was strong, not like Mel's had been. She would be fine. He would not lose them both, could not.

"I'm scared, Cole," she admitted quietly, shaking her head. "Oh, bloody hell… I don't want them to do this."

Cole began stroking her throat lightly. One of the nurses had mentioned something called a 'lumbar puncture' but he was not entirely sure what such a procedure entailed. Until two nurses and a doctor returned to the room and one unwrapped a large needle. Jess went pale and Cole was sure that he had done the same.

"You can not put that into Jess," he told the doctor firmly, horrified.

"Mister Hauser…" he began.

"It will hurt her," he protested. "She's scared, you can't," he added, holding Jess' hand and caressing her throat. Having seen the needle, she was shaking worse than before.

The doctor regarded him thoughtfully for a moment before speaking gently. "She may have a very serious disease. If we can catch it early, we can keep her from ending up like her sister."

That was all Cole needed to hear. "May I stay with her?"

"Sure you can." The doctor nodded. "You can hold her hands if you want. That can make it a lot easier."

Cole nodded and offered Jess his hands. "Close your eyes," he told the girl gently as the doctor rubbed iodine onto her back.

Jess did as directed, closing her eyes and shaking. "Cole," she whispered, squeezing his hands and biting back tears.

He rested his forehead against hers and whispered tenderly. "Think of the most beautiful place you've ever been," he suggested gently.

Jess whimpered as the needle was inserted, and Cole immediately released her hands and moved his own to her shoulders, caressing her throat with his fingertips even as he held her still. He murmured soothingly in Cirronian, releasing soothing energy into her throat. Jess submitted to both the test and Cole's ministrations without protest, not fully aware of all that Cole was doing to help. She rested her forehead on his shoulder and whimpered once as the needle was removed.

"Very good, Jess," Cole told her, caressing her throat and holding her close. "You were very brave, sweetheart," he told her, using a term that he knew humans sometimes used for their offspring.

"You were, Miss Hauser," a nurse agreed, patting her shoulder gently. "You just stay put and we'll get this cultured."

"When can we see Mel?" Cole asked the nurse.

"Just as soon as we know about Jess here," the nurse promised him.

Cole nodded and returned the rest of his attention to the quietly crying girl, holding her against him and murmuring in Cirronian as he caressed her throat and face as he might have with his own daughter.

"You're going to be fine, Jess," he promised her again. She was shaking badly and clearly distressed in spite of the fact that she no longer seemed to be in any pain. Cole simply continued holding her and caressing her until a nurse returned and announced that Jess was perfectly healthy.

Finally, they were led into the ICU. Like all the worst cases, Mel had her own room, and both Cole and Jess had to don masks and gloves before they were allowed to go in to see her. His first look at Mel convinced Cole that it had probably not been wise to allow Jess to come in and see her. Mel was horribly pale and as still as death, her tiny form covered with tubes and wires, red splotches covering her skin. One look at the expression marring the young Englishwoman's pretty face reaffirmed Cole's conclusion.

"Jess," he whispered, reaching out and stroking her throat again. "Are you okay?"

"I don't think I can do this, Cole," Jess whispered, shaking her head and backing away from the unconscious woman. "I… I'm sorry, but…"

Fear and pain were pouring off of the girl in great, rolling waves. The force of those emotions was enough to bring fresh tears to the Cirronian's eyes. Instead of worrying about his tears, though, he turned his attention to Jess.

Stepping between Jess and her view of Mel, he kept his voice low and soothing. "It's okay, Jess. Seeing Mel like this is not easy. I understand that." He gave her a tender smile and focused all of his attention on reassuring Jess instead of worrying about Mel.

"I… I'm sorry, Cole. I just can't."

"It's okay, Jess," he gently reassured her. "Go wait outside if you need to. I need to spend a minute with Mel, and then I'll bring you home."

"Oh, that's okay, Cole. I can--"

"You should not drive when you are this upset," he told her gently. "I will bring you home, Jess."

"Yeah. Thanks." Jess nodded weakly. "Bloody hell, though… look at her, Cole!" she groaned, fresh tears in her eyes.

"I know, Jess." Cole touched her throat lightly, releasing as much soothing energy as he could summon up. "Wait outside. I'll only be a minute."

Jess nodded weakly and retreated.

Cole drew a deep breath and turned his gaze to Mel. So much medical equipment, and all so invasive… He shook his head and slowly approached her, feeling strangely detached. He could hardly believe that any of this was real. Mel was strong, healthy, not someone to be laid low in an instant by some microbe. It made no sense. It was unfair, wrong.

Not yet able to look at Mel, his eyes moved slowly around the room, taking in every detail. Several IV bags were piggybacked and hanging on a rack over her bed, their contents slowly draining into her body via a tube inserted into her forearm, the speed regulated by a machine of some sort. He quickly read the writing on those bags. Some, like saline, he recognized, but he had not heard of most of the others. There were tubes and wires everywhere, a machine to help her breathe, one to monitor her vital signs, and others that he could not begin to understand. Too many tubes and wires…

Resigning himself to the inevitable, he looked down at Mel. She was so pale, her skin the color of the pearls she sometimes wore when she dressed up. Livid red splotches bore witness to the blood poisoning the doctor had spoken of. Cole did not need to have studied that condition to know how serious it was. That name said it all. Blood poisoning. Mel, his Mel, was being poisoned by her own blood. Tears in his eyes, he reached down and brushed gloved fingers across her cheek.

"Don't leave me, Mel, okay?" he whispered desperately. "I was just getting used to not being alone. Don't leave me alone again, please." No response, none at all. He whimpered quietly and moved his hand to her throat, examining her life-force. So weak, so turbulent. He could feel it all, all the pain and fear that she was suffering in spite of her unconscious state. Loneliness, too. That was the hardest for him, only amplifying his own sense of being completely and utterly alone in the universe. He shook his head, not wanting to accept it, any of it. Not that he had any choice. "Mel," he whispered, caressing her throat. "I need to go bring Jess home now. But as soon as I bring her home and put her to bed, I'll come back to you. And you won't be alone. I won't leave you. I promise. When I come back, I will stay with you until you are well." Giving her throat a final caress, he left her, weeping.