So carrying the box out into the bar by herself had been a bad idea, Mel decided, panting and blowing her hair out of her face as she resettled the case of bottles. She was just getting sick and tired of Cole refusing to let her do anything for herself and felt this overwhelming need to prove that she could still do everything that she had been able to do before.
She fumbled the box and dove to catch it before it could hit the floor, shattering its contents. By the time she had finished her first startled curse, the box was resting on the bar, its contents in-tact, and she was upright in Cole's arms. Her favorite Cirronian did not look happy.
"That box is too heavy for you to be carrying, Mel," he informed her levelly. "And you told me that you were going to take a nap."
She jerked free of his arms and shook her head, angry. She knew it was irrational, but that only made her feel more angry at him, for being right. "Do not start, Cole!"
"Mel, you will never get better if you do not rest as the doctors advised!" he sighed, frustrated.
"So I'm just supposed to lay in bed all day?" she snapped. "Haven't I done enough of that in the past two weeks? Eleven days I wasted in that hospital, Cole, and another three upstairs doing nothing. I want my life back!" she shouted, tears in her eyes.
"Mel," he whispered, gathering her into his arms. He hated it when she cried. It made his heart ache and made him want to cry right along with her. "You are tired and must rest if you are to get well," he counseled.
She shook her head, pulled away and started removing bottles from the box. "No, Cole. I have a lot of work to do. I need to catch up…"
"The rest of us will handle it," he told her firmly. "You must rest."
He frowned, irritated by her refusal to see reason. "You are not fine, Mel. You are very weak and I want you to go upstairs now and rest."
"No, Cole," she said firmly, shaking her head.
Cole walked up behind her and scooped her up into his arms.
"Hey! Put me down!" she protested, glaring and punching his shoulder.
"Uh, guys?" Jess asked quietly, entering the bar.
"Mel is overexerting herself and must rest now, Jess," Cole told her simply, tightening his hold on the struggling woman. "She will not be working today or tomorrow. We will see about the day after that."
Jess looked at the box on the bar. "She try to move that by herself?" she asked Cole. At his grim nod, she frowned. "Yeah, time for some enforced inactivity, I think. You handcuff her to that bed if you have to, Cole." She smiled slyly. "In fact, I've a nice pink pair I can lend you," she offered helpfully, pointedly ignoring the look of shock and horror on Mel's face.
Cole frowned in confusion as to why Jess, a woman in no way involved in law-enforcement, should be in possession of handcuffs. Why they should be pink was a source of even greater confusion. He shook that off, though. It could be addressed later.
"If Mel does not stay in bed where she belongs, Jess, I think I will borrow them. Thank you." He looked down in concern as Mel groaned softly. "Are you okay, Mel?" he asked tenderly.
"Forget it, Cole. Just put me down, huh?"
"No, Mel. I am going to bring you to bed now."
"Just try and remember that she needs rest, Cole," Jess called after them cheerfully, giggling as Mel glared at her over Cole's shoulder.
"What did Jess mean, Mel?" Cole asked as he gently arranged Mel on her bed and pulled off her shoes and socks. He looked up at her curiously as he absently balled the socks together. "Why else would I bring you to bed?"
Mel gave an expressive shrug and shook her head. "Never mind, Cole. She's just being Jess."
"She is a very sweet young woman, Mel," Cole noted quietly, opening one of her drawers and pulling out a pair of pajamas. "I'm very glad that I thought to call her after I brought you in, otherwise it would have been much harder to get in to see you."
"Yeah, only Jess would think to come up with a plan like that." Mel smiled and accepted the pajamas from him with a sigh. "And only you would think to forge a marriage certificate and driver's license to back it up!" she added, more amused than irritated. "You do realize that's illegal, don't you?"
"Yes, Mel." He nodded placidly, turning to leave. "Sleep well, Mel."
"Cole, I'm not tired," she protested. At his look, she shrugged. "Exhausted, yes, but not tired. I'll lie down, but I doubt I'll be able to sleep."
Cole considered this, nodding. "Change into those. I'll make some tea and bring you a book."
Mel nodded weakly, giving in. Something told her that Cole was not going to let her leave her room today. Maybe she could at least get him to keep her company. Shaking her head, she changed and sat down on the bed, feeling a little out of breath from the 'effort'. Cole tapped on the door and waited to receive her permission before entering, bearing a steaming mug and her favorite novel.
"Thank you," Mel told him with a smile, accepting both. Used to it by now, she let Cole arrange her in the bed to his satisfaction and tuck her in.
Cole nodded. "Call me if you need anything," he told her.
She reached up and touched his cheek with the back of two fingers. "Thank you, Cole. I appreciate it. I appreciate everything that you did and… are still doing for me."
Cole closed his eyes, enjoying the way her cool fingers felt against his face. "Cirronians watch over those they care for, Mel," he explained at a whisper, startled by his intense physical reaction to her touch. He opened his eyes and smiled faintly at her. "Rest now, Mel," he suggested tenderly, stroking her throat.
"Will you stay?" she requested hopefully. "We can talk…"
He smiled and nodded, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I like talking to you, Mel."
"We don't talk enough," Mel told him. "You've been here for almost three months now and… I sometimes feel like I don't know the first thing about you."
Cole nodded slowly. He often felt the same about Mel. "What would you like to know?" he offered.
"Um, I don't know." She shrugged. "Jess said you have a sister?"
He nodded. "Sister-in-law, actually, but very much like a sister. Nallyn. We worked together for many years, and then she introduced me to Nallia. But I considered her a sister long before I met my wife. Nallyn waited to introduce us. She said she knew we would fall in love, and wanted to be sure that I was worthy of her sister. Nallyn was always very protective of Nallia."
Mel smiled. "Did the two of you get married right away?"
"Not right away, Mel. We spent… almost a year coming to know each other." He paused for a moment, closing his eyes. A slight smile played across his face. "Oh, she was very different from her sister, Mel. To meet them, you would not know that they were related. Nallyn is… more like you. Strong, a fighter. Nallia was a… peace-maker." He smiled faintly. "Nallia was a musician, an artist. Only beauty interested her, and harmony."
"She must have been a remarkable woman," Mel observed quietly.
"She truly was," he agreed, nodding to himself. "Not without her flaws, I think, but I was too in love to see them. All I saw was her beauty and quiet compassion. She was like you in that, Mel."
Mel smiled faintly, too touched by his description of his amazing wife to give much thought to the compliment. "And your daughter? What was she like?"
His smile widened. "Ashi was… the daughter of both parents. On Cirron and here too, I think, a child may be referred to as her father's daughter or her mother's daughter, much more like one than the other. But you could see us both in Ashi. She was sweet and gentle, like her mother, but never content except when asking questions or receiving answers, like me. She would not have been an artist, I think. She was not interested in beauty, only in Truth."
"Like her father?" Mel guessed.
Cole shrugged noncommittally. "I don't know, Mel. I used to think I understood Truth. Now I am less sure. Ashi was her own person. She would have been one of the great…"
Mel smiled. "And I'll bet she had your spirit."
He nodded. "My spirit and her mother's heart, Nallyn always said."
"And they were your only family? Nallia and Ashi and Nallyn?"
Cole nodded. "And their family. My own parents died… many years ago. I was a young man. I still miss them very much."
"I'll bet you do." Mel nodded. "My… my mom died giving birth to me," she told Cole quietly.
"Mel," he whispered, caressing her throat, his expression sympathetic. It was a loss he could understand.
"It's why my grandmother raised me. My father married again when I was eight, but his wife didn't really want me."
He frowned. "Your father was alive but… did not raise you?"
"It was hard for him, Cole," she said with a shrug. "I reminded him of my mother, I think. He provided for me, everything I needed, and it's not like I didn't know him, but he thought that I should be raised by a woman…"
She shook her head. No point in trying to explain to him the politics of a second wife who wanted 'their own' children, or her father's reluctance to see her in boarding school because he worked 80-hour weeks on a regular basis. No point in trying to explain to him how her grandmother was 'mama' and her father was 'sir', her grandmother's 'friend'. No point at all in trying to explain any of those things to a man like Cole. No point in dwelling on them at all any more, she told herself firmly. Before her death, her grandmother had been very firm that it was time for Mel to start a new life for herself.
She shook her head again. "Doesn't matter, Cole. Really."
He frowned but nodded. "The grandmother who raised you was the one who owned this bar?"
Mel nodded. "She was like a mother to me, Cole, but a friend, too. I was lucky to have her. She taught me everything I needed to know to make my own way in the world and she was supportive and understanding and… and… I miss her," she added quietly.
Cole winced at the obvious pain in her voice. It was a pain he could understand, that of being young and alone. Closing his eyes, he reached out and caressed her throat gently.
"She told me, before she died, that it was time for me to start over. She also told me never to be surprised by anything that I encountered in my life." She covered the hand on her throat with one of her own and quietly quoted some of her grandmother's last words. "'Melanie Irene Porter, there are things in this universe that you can not even begin to conceive of. Now, if you're lucky, you will never see a one of them. If you're more lucky, you'll only see one and you'll find for yourself what I found in your grandfather.'"
"What did she mean, Mel?" he asked.
"True love, I guess." Mel shrugged. Her grandfather had died a few months before her birth in some sort of robbery, protecting her grandmother, but Mel felt that she knew him all the same. "They loved each other so much, Cole. They… she said that they gave each other meaning. When he died, she lost a lot of that. She never stopped missing him, but I think raising me must have helped take her mind off of her grief, you know?"
Cole nodded his understanding. "Yes, Mel. Having something else to occupy your mind can ease grief. It is still hard, but responsibilities or love can give you a reason to carry on."
"Yeah, they do," Mel agreed quietly, nodding.
She had spent the last two and a half months firmly reminding herself every time she looked at this gorgeous and gentle man that he was not human, but the truth was that he was more human than many of the men she had dated. She had been right to tell Jess in the beginning that Cole really was not that different than either of them. Human or alien, clueless or insightful, his mind worked a lot like that of anyone else. The differences, where they existed, were minor and more about context than anything.
"What were you like as a child, Mel?" he asked abruptly, curious.
"Not so different." She shrugged. "My grandmother always did say that I was a horrible patient," Mel chuckled. "I couldn't stand to sit or lay still for very long. I… I remember this time when I was probably around eight. I was home sick with the chicken pox. It's a human disease," she explained at his questioning look. "It's not dangerous, but it's unpleasant and very contagious, so you can't go to school while you have it."
He nodded his understanding. "There are similar children's diseases on Cirron."
"Ah, okay. So I was home sick, and she tucked me into bed and went downstairs to check on how things were going in the bar… and I snuck out of bed and went exploring in the basement. There was always so much cool stuff down there. The old pictures were my favorite, but there were other things. I loved exploring down there, but she would never let me."
"So you went anyway?" he asked with a faint smile. It was the sort of thing he would have done as a boy.
Mel nodded. "Oh, she was so mad. She caught me looking at some old diary or something she had down there. For a minute I actually thought she was going to spank me."
"Spank you? Strike you, Mel?" he asked, surprised. "In anger?"
"Well, I mean, she didn't. Came damned close." Mel shrugged. "Only time I've ever seen her angry. She wasn't even mad about it being her diary, I don't think. Just said that I was too young and took it away." Mel shrugged again, dismissing the incident from her mind. "What were you like, Cole? As a child?"
"Me?" He smiled and shook his head. "The kind of child that Cirronian parents pray not to have."
Mel regarded him with wide eyes, trying to imagine Cole fitting any definition of a 'problem child'. She failed miserably. "How so?"
"Very adventurous," he explained. "Combined with curiosity, a child's limited understanding of the universe, and hyper-speed, Mel, it is a dangerous combination."
Mel regarded him with wide eyes. "Uh… yeah. I would say so."
She nodded and swallowed hard, trying to picture a toddler version of Cole zipping around in hyper-speed, banging pans together, coloring on walls, and getting into absolutely everything. For some reason, the miniature Cole in her mind had freckles and was exploring her apartment and jumping on her couch. Probably not the safest line of thought when she was sitting with him in bed and still needed help in the tub, she decided, schooling herself to think of anything else.
"Was your daughter like that?" she asked quietly.
Cole smiled and nodded. "Yes. Nallia and I had our hands full, but I think I was probably a little harder to raise. Ashi was more inquisitive than anything, not as interested in exploring as long as someone would explain what she wanted to know."
"Well, that's good anyway," Mel said quietly. After a few minutes of silence, she asked, "What was it like on Sar-Top, Cole?"
His smiled faded. How to explain the loneliness and despair of life on Sar-Top to her. "It was… a very cold place, Mel."
"You're not just talking about the temperature, are you?" she ventured quietly.
He shook his head faintly, not surprised that she had the insight to see beyond the words themselves. Her species was not so different from his own, not in the important ways. "No, Mel. But it doesn't matter." He gave her a slight smile. "Maybe you should rest now?" he suggested, not really wanting to talk about it.
Mel frowned faintly at that reaction. "Come here, Cole," she ordered, spreading her arms.
Cole hugged her as directed, not exactly sure why she wanted him to, but not about to argue. There was something incredibly comforting about the touch. It felt good, too, holding Mel in his arms, natural, even, to use this 'alien' display of comfort and affection. With Mel, there was nothing the least bit alien about it. Holding Mel like this was like being home, a glorious combination of holding his daughter and touching his wife. He tightened his hold on her, burying his face in her hair and smiling to himself.
"I'm glad you're better, Mel," he murmured.
She turned her head and smiled faintly at him. "Good to be back, Cole."
He smiled back, touching his forehead to hers. "I was so worried," he told her. "I felt helpless to help you or even to try to help. I hated it, Mel," he admitted quietly.
"Sure you did," she agreed quietly, cradling his face in her hands. "No one likes to feel helpless, Cole. Not ever, and there's nothing wrong with that… It's a part of being alive." She gave him a gentle smile, touching her lips to his cheek for a moment. "You prayed for me?" she asked quietly, pulling away. "Jess says you prayed."
He nodded, touching his cheek with a thoughtful expression. "It was… something I could do," he explained absently, trying to make sense of why such a small, brief contact could have such an impact on him. "We all prayed, Jess and Vic and I."
"It's good to know that I have people who care," Mel said softly.
"You have many people who care for you, Mel," he told her softly. "You have a spirit that makes it hard to know you and not care."
She blushed and bowed her head.
"You aren't alone, Mel," he whispered.
Her head shot up and she regarded him with wide eyes. Being alone was among her biggest fears in life, not just a condition she disliked but one she was actually afraid of on some level. How Cole knew that was beyond her.
Cole touched her forehead with the back of two fingers. "You should never have to feel lonely, Mel."
She swallowed and nodded slightly. The quiet intensity in his voice as he spoke told her exactly how Cole knew. Because he had the same fear. They had suffered through many of the same painful events in their lives, and they understood each other a little better as a result.
"We're not that different, are we?" she whispered.
"No, Mel. We aren't." He smiled and gave her another hug. Her body was near exhaustion, her life-force weaker than it had been just a few minutes ago. "Rest now. We'll talk more when you wake up, if you'd like."
"I'd like it a lot. We don't talk nearly as much as we should," Mel said, sliding under the covers and allowing Cole to tuck her in. She smiled up at him as he gently touched her forehead and then her throat. "I'll see you in a few hours."
He nodded. "I'll be in the war-room if you need me," he told her gently. "Sleep well, Mel."
Knowing that sleep had been hard for her lately, he eased her into a dreamless slumber with a gentle burst of energy. On impulse, he dropped to the floor next to her bed, sitting and watching her sleep, a slight smile on her pretty face. She looked so at peace in this state, and even more beautiful to Cole than normal. He had given up trying to trace exactly when this strange creature had become beautiful to him. He only knew that at some point she had. And no longer particularly strange, either. They had a great deal in common, more than he would have credited a few months ago before actually having met a member of her species. The similarities made him feel less alone.
He reached out and brushed her hair out of her face, letting his fingers linger against her cool skin and smiling when her own smile grew wider. Her smile faded as he withdrew his hand, her expression looking troubled. Leaning closer still, he rested his chin on the mattress, his lips almost touching her ear as he began quietly crooning a Cirronian lullaby.