Let it Snow

Summary: Mel and Cole get snowbound on a Track and make the best of it, spending some quality time together and learning that some things are universal (snowball fight, anyone?).

Rating: PG

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

Timeline: Late in season one.

Spoilers: None

Author's Note: In response to the Blue Raven/Fluffy Cat Winter Wonderland challenge. (Required-type elements: Mel and Cole alone together in a cabin in the woods, snowball fight, cuddling to get warm, and some quality time in front of the fire… Optional-type elements: snow angels, wild animals, cocoa, and Mel or Cole announcing "this blows" a la "Eye of the Storm".)

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

Let it Snow

Cole sat on the window-seat, wrapped in a quilt and watching the snow as it fell. Inside, in the warmth, it really was quite lovely. Cold and wet or not, he was suddenly able to see what Mel saw in snow. Well, Mel and about 9 billion Enixian children could not be wrong. He allowed himself a faint smile, amusing himself with the mental image of Mel frolicking in the snow as an Enixian youth might have. It was an incredibly appealing picture.

"What are you smiling at?" Mel asked with a good-natured yawn as she stumbled out of the cabin's bedroom.

They had been staying at the park while Cole tracked a pair of Orsusian fugitives who were hiding out in the forest. Cole had caught them the night before, but they had decided to stay overnight at the cabin they had rented so that Mel could get a good night's sleep in a proper bed before they started the day-and-a-half long drive back to Chicago. Or rather Cole, noting that Mel seemed to have a definite fondness for the State Park that the cabin was situated on, had decided that they should stay overnight.

Neither had counted on an inch of ice and more than a foot of snow coming down overnight.

Mel rubbed her eyes and stared out the window. "Well, this blows," she muttered sullenly.

"Actually, Mel, the wind has died down substantially overnight," Cole provided helpfully. "The radio said that it was gusting up to fifty miles, but now it is steady at about five. They also mentioned something about snowdrifts," he added.

"Damn. I… really don't think it would be safe to drive in this, Cole," she told him apologetically. "Even on the main roads. Middle of nowhere like this, we'd be lucky to find the road we came in on. And with it drifting…" She shook her head. "Looks like our return trip to Chicago just got delayed."

"That's okay, Mel," he assured her easily, sensing her distress and wishing to soothe it. "We can stay for another day or two without any problem. We've paid for the cabin through the end of the week," he reminded her.

"True…"

Tracking his Orsusian quarry to a park, Cole had made immediate arrangements to rent a cabin there, paying for the cabin with some money he had confiscated from another fugitive. Mel had heard the name of the State Park and had immediately started telling Cole how wonderful and beautiful it was. Cole had been more than happy to invite her along, on the sole condition that she stay safely and anonymously out of harm's way while he was out Tracking. So Cole had spent his days searching for the fugitives and Mel had spent them going on group hikes or relaxing in the park's main lodge and socializing with other visitors. The lodge was about twenty miles from the cabin and the view alone made the daily drives worthwhile.

At the time, it had seemed the idea of a perfect vacation to Mel: days spent communing with nature or just relaxing in front of a roaring fire and evenings spent relaxing with Cole. God, though, a couple of days with Cole with nothing to distract them from each other… she was not entirely sure if that was a good thing or not.

"There is more than enough food and wood for the fire," he added reassuringly, sensing her continued discomfort. Reaching up, he caught her hand and gently tugged until she sat next to him on the window-seat. "And it is very pretty, isn't it, Mel?" he asked quietly, leaning close.

Mel's heart gave a little jump as his breath tickled her ear. "Yeah, Cole. It definitely is that," she agreed, taking in the snow-covered forest surrounding the cabin. "Beautiful."

On a whim, she blew on the windowpane and quickly traced a smiley-face on the foggy patch she had left. Noting Cole's delighted expression, she did it again, tracing a heart onto the glass this time, and nodding encouragingly to him.

Cole smiled and blew on the glass as she had, tracing an abstract pattern onto the pane. "This is fun, Mel," he announced, smiling happily.

Mel nodded. "When I was a little girl, my dad would sometimes bring me to this park," she told him, resting her cheek against the cold pane and smiling up at the Cirronian Tracker. "Summers were nice, but there winters were best… Hiking and sledding and then coming home and curling up together in front of the fire to get warm, and he'd always read me a book while we were warming up. Oh, Cole, it was wonderful."

He smiled widely at her fond expression. "It sounds like you both had a lot of fun in this place, Mel," he observed quietly.

Mel nodded. "You ever do anything like that with your daughter?" she asked quietly.

"There was no snow on Cirron, Mel. And if there had been, I would not have let her go out in it," he stated firmly.

"It really is too bad that you don't like the cold," Mel said softly, shaking her head.

"I may not like the cold, Mel, but the view is magnificent."

Her smile was fond and more than a little nostalgic. "Yeah, Cole. Definitely beautiful out there."

Cole smiled, an almost reflexive response to watching Mel smile, and reached forward to brush a stray curl out of her face. He tucked it behind her ear, letting his fingers linger on her cool cheek for a moment before dropping his hand.

"What's it like, Mel?"

"What?" she asked, smiling up at him. Her face burned where his fingers had touched, but she did her best not to let it show.

"Being outside in that," he clarified, nodding out the window. "You don't seem to like the cold very much, either, Mel, so why would you want to be outside in it? What makes it so pleasant?"

"Oh." Mel smiled a little shyly and shrugged. "A lot of things, Cole. Um… I mean, it really is beautiful, and that's a huge part of it." Seeing that he was about to object, she quickly added, "And I know you can see a lot of that beauty from inside where it's warm, but it's not the same as being in it, like you're a part of it. And it's quiet, Cole, more peaceful than someone who's spent their entire life in a city can understand. It gets so quiet you can hear new snow falling. It's amazing…"

She trailed off, shaking her head in embarrassment. It was hard to explain that sense of child-like wonder she still felt when she looked at the tree-covered landscape, covered in a fresh blanket of snow.

"When we have eaten breakfast, would you like to go for a walk?" Cole offered.

Mel regarded him with wide eyes for a moment, surprised that the heat-loving Cirronian had made such an offer of his own accord. "Really, Cole? You mean it?"

He smiled and nodded. "Yes, Mel. It sounds very lovely the way you describe it. I think I would like to experience it with you."

Mel grinned and nodded, rising. "Okay, then. Breakfast and then a nice hike. Snow is definitely more fun to hike through than to drive through," she added with a smile at Cole, walking into the cabin's kitchen and opening a cabinet. "Pancakes?" she offered.

Cole smiled, his mind more firmly on the impending hike than on breakfast. "That sounds very nice, Mel."

***

Breakfast was spent in comfortable silence, and they spent a few minutes just relaxing on the window-seat and letting their meal settle before Cole announced that it would be a good time to leave.

"Oh, you should change into a pair of long-johns first," Mel suggested quickly, glad that she had thought to introduce Cole to thermal undies before the trip. They would probably make the walk a lot more pleasant for him. "In fact, it probably wouldn't hurt for me to do the same," Mel decided, entering the cabin's one bedroom as Cole grabbed his bag and vanished into the bathroom.

She emerged first and was just pulling on her jacket when Cole returned to the cabin's living area. Finding a snowsuit in Cole's size had been difficult, but they had managed and Mel smiled up at him as she helped him shrug it on and zip it. Boots, gloves, earmuffs, and scarves followed in short order: an extra scarf and pair of gloves each for Cole. Mel could not help but smile as Cole wordlessly helped her with her scarf. Her smile widening at the simple intimacy of the act, she helped Cole with his own scarves before helping him into his extra pair of gloves.

Thus prepared, they emerged from the cabin into the still forest surrounding it. Mel smiled up at Cole as he looked around in wonder, obviously impressed.

It was not lost on the Tracker that Mel was absolutely correct. It was beautiful. Also so quiet that he could actually hear the snow that was still falling as it lightly impacted the snow that was already blanketing the ground. Allowing Mel to lead the way, all he could think was that her description did not begin to do this amazing scene justice. Everything was so still, so quiet, as if they were the only two people left in the world. He glanced ahead to Mel, graceful even when breaking a trail through the snow, and decided that the thought was a lovely one.

He was surprised when Mel paused in a small clearing and turned to face him before falling backwards into the snow. He started towards her, frowning uncertainly when she started moving her arms and legs, but not in an attempt to get up.

"Help me up," she requested as he approached, holding out her hands. When Cole had gently tugged her into an upright position, she turned and examined her handiwork, smiling. "Ah! It's been years since I've made one of those and it's perfect," she declared with a smile.

Cole regarded the shape she had created with a faint smile. If she had held still, she would have left a perfect human imprint in the snow. By moving her legs she had created the impression of a female wearing a dress. He was not sure why she had moved her arms, though.

"What is it?" he asked curiously.

"Snow angel," Mel told him with a grin, dusting herself off.

"Ah. Angels have wings," he declared, understanding the shape now.

"Right. Thanks," she added when Cole saw that she was having trouble reaching all the spots on her back and began helping. She closed her eyes and bit her lower lip as he casually wiped the snow off of her 'bum'. She felt a flush working its way up her body when he took his time with the task. She firmly told herself that he was just trying to keep her pants from getting wet. "Thanks," she repeated when he was done, her voice a bit shaky. "Want to make one?" she offered.

"No thank you, Mel." Cole shook his head. "I don't think I would like lying down in the snow very much. It is pretty, though," he added.

"Your loss." Mel chuckled and shook her head, suddenly feeling a lot more like a little girl than an adult. It felt good, too, to just fell happy and playful without having to worry about things like the bar or the fugitives.

Laughing quietly, she started walking again, Cole close behind.

When Mel stopped walking again and froze, he hurried swiftly and silently to her side, afraid that she might have spotted some danger. His concerned expression faded immediately, though, as his gaze followed hers to the family of deer that she was watching raptly. Cole had read about them in a book, but had never seen them so close before. They were supposed to be afraid of humans, but this small family had obviously never learned that there was a need to be. Two adults and a yearling fawn had found a tree that still had a few leaves clinging to it and the parents were quietly browsing. The fawn was nosing through the snow and gradually approaching them, seemingly unaware of their presence.

Fascinated, Cole gestured for Mel not to make a sound and quickly pulled off the gloves on his left hand. Stuffing them into his pocket, he silently approached the young animal as Mel watched, captivated. The fawn looked up, its eyes locking with Cole's, but it still made no move to flee. When he slowly extended his hand, the fawn took a few steps towards him and nuzzled it. Mel let out an amazed gasp. Hearing it, Cole smiled at her and beckoned with the hand that the fawn was not currently licking.

She pulled her gloves off as he had and cautiously approached, half-afraid that she might scare the fawn away. Its parents seemed completely oblivious to the presence of the human and the Cirronian. Cole smiled and took one of her hands in his free one, moving it to the top of the fawn's head. Unable to believe what she was doing, Mel began petting the deer exactly as she would have any dog. Fearful of breaking the spell, she did not say a word, just continued petting the creature as it continued to nuzzle Cole's hand.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity to the awe-struck human, the fawn turned and wandered off to rejoin its parents. The three left at a leisurely pace, obviously not even slightly intimidated by the two outsiders.

"How did you do that?" Mel whispered, staring at Cole with wide eyes.

He smiled faintly, amused by her wonder. "I didn't do anything, Mel. We meant it no harm and it knew that."

"Cole, wild animals do not behave like that on Earth." She shook her head, smiling up at him. "That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen."

Cole gave a dismissive shrug, pulling his gloves back on.

"Cole, come on!" Mel protested, hurrying after him. "You have to tell me how you did that!"

"I told you, I didn't do anything," he repeated, shrugging. "Animals just like me, I've noticed. They seem drawn to me." He gave another shrug, then a sly smile, unable to resist the urge to tease just a little. "Animals and… many human females, Mel."

Mel stood perfectly still at that last comment, shocked for a moment. Shaking her head, she nabbed a handful of snow and walked after Cole again. "Many human females, huh?" she asked, falling into step beside him.

"Yes, Mel. Many human females." He smiled down at her, his eyes laughing.

Mel shook her head and pulled him into a gentle hug, grinning up at him. Cole smiled down at her and wrapped his arms around her waist, no longer even a little inclined to tease. Teasing Mel could be fun, watching her flustered attempts to save situations that were really in no need of saving. What made it really worthwhile, though, was that little smile that she always gave him afterwards, once she realized that he had been teasing instead of genuinely clueless. Smiles like the one she was giving him now. Like all her smiles, they lit her entire face, made her eyes shine with love and laughter. He would have given her the world for one of those smiles. The hug was just an added bonus.

Mel relaxed into the embrace, taking several long minutes to enjoy it. Standing with Cole in the middle of nowhere as he gently held her in his arms was definitely a nice sensation and, as an added bonus, her favorite Cirronian was doing a great job of keeping her warm. Maybe a little too warm, she reflected, wondering how long it would be before this wonderful sense of intimacy drove her to do something stupid. Aware that the answer was 'not long at all', she decided that it was time to defuse the situation with a little silliness and dropped her handful of snow down the back of his collar, eliciting a startled shriek from the Cirronian.

"Mel!" he protested, pawing frantically at his collar as she sniggered and scurried away.

He regarded her with wide eyes for a moment, then bent and scooped up a handful of snow, shaking his head. She wanted to play, they would play. If three rotations as a teacher on Enix had taught him anything, it was how to win at a snow-fight. Laughing, he lobbed the makeshift projectile at Mel, hitting the back of her head. She spun, startled, barely managing to duck a second snowball.

"Cole!" she laughed, diving behind a tree for cover. "Where did you learn about snowball fights?" she demanded, buying herself time to shape a snowball.

"Enix, Mel. I've told you, I spent several years teaching there."

"Oh, yeah. Guess you did mention that a time or two," Mel agreed, ducking out from behind her tree long enough to launch her snowball at him.

Cole tried to duck and managed taking it in the face instead of the chest. Chuckling at the unexpected turn their walk had taken, he quickly retrieved another handful of snow, tossing it at her before she could vanish behind her tree again. It fragmented in mid-flight, covering half her chest with white powder. Finding a tree of his own to take cover behind, he began forming a stockpile of snowballs, completely losing track of Mel in the process. Until she launched herself at him and sent them both tumbling into a snow bank.

Mel came down on top of Cole. Straddling him and holding him down, she grinned triumphantly, laughing. "That'll teach you to pick a snowball fight with Mel Porter!" she announced haughtily, shoving a handful of snow down the front of his shirt.

Cole let out another yelp, flipping Mel into the snow bank and coming down on top of her with a smug grin.

"But you started it, Mel," he reminded her gravely, smiling down at her snow-dusted form. Her face was red from a combination of cold and laughter, but Cole thought that her rosy face, almost the color of her pretty lips, only made her look more lovely.

His eyes twinkling with amusement, he freed one hand long enough to gently brush the worst of the snow off of her pretty face. He pulled off his gloves with his teeth before he began, not wanting the roughly textured fabric to irritate her delicate skin, probably more sensitive from the cold. The eyes he loved so much widened as his fingertips gently stroked across her face and her red cheeks grew an even brighter shade. Cole felt a not unpleasant tightening in the pit of his stomach, a sensation that was only ever associated with Mel, with physical contact with Mel. He liked touching his remarkable human, so he did it again, his fingertips tracing her cheeks and then lightly skimming across her lips.

He was fascinated to see her breath quicken as a result of his actions. It made him curious about what she was feeling and more than a little eager to keep touching her. His hands executed another quick exploration of that lovely face and then his long fingers dipped beneath her scarf, lightly caressing the sensitive flesh there. Cole smiled as she moaned softly and closed her eyes, her mouth opening slightly.

The Cirronian licked suddenly-dry lips, wondering why Mel was reacting like this, but more curious as to why her reactions where having such a telling effect on him. He quickly decided that it really did not matter. All that mattered was that Mel liked him touching her and so did he. He found himself wanting to touch more of her, much more than her heavy coat was allowing him to reach.

Instead, he bent and brushed his lips across hers. It was his turn to moan then. Amazing, absolutely amazing how many different sensations and emotions such a simple touch could evoke. He absently wondered if this was what Mel felt when he touched her throat in the way she loved so much. The thought of Mel feeling such things, of him making her feel such things, was doing strange things to his body. Not unpleasant just… strange. His breathing quickened as understanding set in and he was able to attach a name to the things he was feeling. Arousal.

And Mel was feeling it, too…

That third pair of thermal underwear had been a bad idea, he decided abruptly. They were too tight. Some corner of his mind insisted that the first and second pair had been a bad idea, too. Inconvenient. Puzzling over the meaning of that stray thought for only a moment, he returned all of his attention to Mel, to kissing her and stroking her throat under the scarf she was wearing.

Mel smiled against his lips and pulled him more firmly against her chilled form. The snow he had her pressed into may have been freezing, but Cole was not cold in the slightest. Even with his snowsuit, she could feel the heat pouring off of his body, engulfing her as wave after wave of it broke against her body. Once his body was satisfactorily pressed into hers, her own gloves came off and her hands quickly found his face, tracing the lines of his cheeks and chin as he continued kissing her and trying to caress her under her scarf. She quickly abandoned his face in favor of his chest, pretty amazing even through the heavy, well-insulated snowsuit. The snowsuit was annoying, though, so she unsnapped a few catches and slipped her hands inside.

Mel's scarf was inconvenient, too, Cole decided as she rubbed his chest under the snowsuit. It kept him from touching her as fully as he would have liked. He started to unwrap it, then paused, sitting up and shaking his head.

Why had he been trying to take her scarf off? Mel would get cold without her scarf! She must have been getting cold already, pressed under him into a pile of snow like that. What had he been thinking? He trembled, aware that he was very cold, too.

Stunned, Mel lay in the snow bank for a few moments, panting in surprised frustration that he had so abruptly ended an encounter that had obviously been about to turn… cold. She winced as she saw him shiver.

"Yeah, we should not be doing this outside," Mel decided, rising and quickly closing his snowsuit again. "We're going to turn you into a Cirronian freeze-pop if we don't take it inside. Come on, Cole."

He nodded and climbed stiffly to his feet, his knees still weak from the things he had felt kissing and touching Mel, being touched by her. Mel's reflexes were quick for a human, and she saved him from falling more than once. By the time they reached the cabin, Cole was a little steadier on his feet, but he was still convinced that the too-tight thermal underwear had to go.

Mel's soaked pants had her freezing and no longer amorous in the least. She was more ready for a warm bath than a cold shower and could not believe what she had been about to do with Cole. She spent most of the walk back mentally berating herself for taking advantage of him like that, completely forgetting who had initiated the kiss.

Mel quickly stirred up the fire and steered Cole to stand in front of the hearth, helping him out of his gloves, boots, and snowsuit. Thanks to her earlier antics, shoving snow down his shirt like that, and to their rolling around on that snow bank, his clothes were as soaked as her own.

"Get your clothes off and I'll get you something warm and dry," Mel directed, grabbing the quilt that had been left on the window-seat and laying it near Cole.

She quickly extracted a warm pair of sweats from his bag, watching out of the corner of her eye as he stripped off his pants and shirt and not one but three sets of thermal underwear. She was biting back a laugh at that when he reached for the waistband of his briefs. Amusement was replaced by panic.

"If those are dry, you can keep them on," Mel said quickly, handing him the sweats. "If not... um... there's another pair in your bag on the very top…"

She retreated to her room. After their kiss and him having those amazing hands of his all over her throat, it was a struggle not to look over her shoulder as she went. She closed the door firmly and leaned against it, her body torn by a shudder that had nothing to do with her cold, damp state. He had not kissed her since the seminar, but her body had not forgotten. His kiss joined with that throat-caress was a lethal combination, melting resistance before it could be formed.

More than melting her resistance, though, it had excited her passion. If Cole had not pulled away when he had… he might not have known enough about human physiology to initiate an intimate encounter, but Mel had been more than ready to do so herself. And it was obviously from Cole's behavior out there that he would have been more than willing to go along.

"Would be a bad idea, Mel," she told herself firmly as she stripped off her wet clothes and changed into a pair of warm, and concealing, pajamas. "Bad, bad, bad idea… This is Cole; he's too innocent." She emerged into the living room and saw Cole crouched in front of the fire, rubbing his hands together. "Still cold?" she asked sympathetically, kneeling next to him and taking one of his hands between hers. It was her fault he had gotten so cold and she would help him out. And she would remain detached and professional about it, she decided resolutely. "I'm sorry, Cole. I shouldn't have started that…"

"It was fun, Mel," Cole told her simply, watching with a smile as she rubbed life and warmth back into one hand before switching to the other. He dropped into a sitting position, enjoying the feel of Mel's hands on his and the warmth of the roaring fire. There was something so homey about it, and his feeling of togetherness with Mel warmed him far more than the fire could have.

"Yeah, it was," Mel agreed, not sure if he was talking about the snowball fight or their subsequent activities together. "Where'd you learn to pitch a snowball like that?" she asked softly, dropping his hand and sliding into a sitting position herself before pulling his left foot into her lap.

"I told you, Mel. I spent many years teaching on Enix. I frequently played with the children I was assigned to teach, and snow fights were a favorite game. It…" He trailed off with a little gasp as Mel began rubbing his foot.

Mel's eyes widened. "Does that hurt?" she asked, afraid that he might have gotten frostbite.

He shook his head. "No, it doesn't hurt. It just tickles, Mel," he soothed, sensing her concern. "It surprised me a little."

"Your feet are ticklish?" Mel asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Many parts of this body are ticklish, Mel," Cole answered honestly. "Isn't your body ticklish, Mel?" he asked, curious. He regarded her thoughtfully, badly wanting to find out firsthand.

Mel smiled whimsically, still holding his foot in her lap. The playful mood she had felt outside was back. "Just for, uh, future reference, Cole… never confess to being ticklish."

"Why not, Mel?" he asked, frowning in confusion.

"Because, it opens you up to people doing this," Mel explained, giving his foot a little tickle.

Cole yelped and tried to pull his foot free, but Mel tightened her hold on his ankle and continued tickling the sole of his foot. He could easily have pulled away if he had wanted to, but her touch had him starting to feel a lot of the same things that he had outside, so he submitted, closing his eyes and smiling faintly.

"Feels good, Mel," Cole breathed.

Mel grinned and shook her head, amused by his reaction. Quiet acceptance was not a response she had ever gotten while tickling a man. Her smile faded as it suddenly occurred to Mel that it was not the response she had been hoping for either. She had actually, on some level at least, been hoping for a repeat performance of him pinning her on that snow bank outside. When else did a grown woman tickle a grown man, after all?

"Your, uh… your skin feels… a lot warmer," Mel assured him quickly, releasing his foot and trying to look anywhere but into his gorgeous, eager eyes.

A surge of frustration accompanied Mel's abrupt retreat but Cole ignored it. Living with Mel had left him well capable of dealing with a little physical frustration. Right now he was more worried about how uncomfortable she obviously was with the situation.

"Yes, Mel. I'm a lot warmer now," he assured her quickly, giving her a gentle smile when she was finally able to meet his eyes again. "Thank you for helping me with that."

"Oh, no problem, Cole." Mel took a deep breath and startled rambling. "I'm glad that you're warm now, but if you're still cold I can make cocoa. I brought everything with me that I need to make my grandmother's special recipe and I know how much you--"

Cole abruptly quieted her with two fingers, gently brushed over her lips. "Cocoa would be very nice, Mel," he told her gently, realizing that she wanted to put some physical distance between them. Probably wise to give them both a little time to compose themselves. Human bodies could be so demanding at times.

As she rose and scuttled into the kitchen, Cole wondered if Mel felt frustrated too or just nervous. He suspected the former. She was frequently nervous, but his mere presence was usually enough to ease that. Today, it only seemed to be compounding her disquiet. By the time Mel returned with two cups of cocoa, he had resolved to do everything in his power to make her more comfortable, ignoring the things his body wanted from her. It would not be the first time. He was relieved that she seemed more at her ease as well.

He took the mugs from her with a smile as she settled down on the hearth with him, not exactly far away, but not as close as he might have liked either. Putting down the mugs, he rose and threw a few more logs on the fire. When he sat down again, it was closer to Mel, but not so much closer that she would be able to tell the difference. He did not want to intrude on her human 'personal space' and make her nervous again.

"This is very good," he told her, sipping at the cocoa and staring into the fire. "Thank you, Mel."

"You're welcome," Mel told him, taking a long drink and simply enjoying being with him, near him. The heat radiating off of his body was almost as nice as that from the fire. Which he was still staring at, his expression thoughtful. "See something interesting in there?" she bantered gently, smiling up at him.

Cole smiled in return and nodded. "Yes, Mel. Fire can be very pretty, like the snow," he told her in a low voice. "Look at all the colors, Mel," he continued. "Too many to count."

Mel smiled, aware that he had adopted his 'teacher voice'. She obediently gazed into the fire, smiling as she realized that he was right. There really were a myriad of colors, not just reds and oranges but blues and whites as well, among many others. The colors ebbed and flowed into each other, constantly rearranging themselves, like modern art that had suddenly been infused with a life and a will of its own.

"It's beautiful," she breathed, leaning a little closer to him.

Cole smiled and nodded. "My people used to believe that flame was a living entity," he told her, cautiously sliding an arm about her shoulder as he spoke. When she did not object or seem to become upset or nervous, he gentle pulled her a bit closer, securing her against him. "They would capture it, domesticate it, care for it, mourn its passing…"

"Wow." Mel looked up at him, a little surprised by the revelation that such an enlightened race was capable of such superstition.

"Of course, this was millions of years ago, before we understood flame for what it was, before Cirronians were Cirronians. There was no science yet to explain things, so our ancestors relied on what they could see. Flame requires nourishment, it grows, multiplies… It behaves very much like a living entity."

Mel nodded. When he put it that way, it was perfectly reasonable. "I guess that makes sense."

He nodded. "In the time before Cirronians were Cirronians, it was necessary to survival. Cirron was not always warm and bright. Flame fought off the darkness and the cold. Even now that Cirron is as it is, always warm, flame holds an honored place with us."

"Because you remember when you needed it?" Mel guessed.

Cole shook his head and smiled down at her. "Because it is beautiful, Mel, and Cirronians love beautiful things."

She nodded.

Cole brushed a stray curl out of her pretty face, yet another thing of beauty that the Cirronian loved dearly. "The Cirronian word for flame is the same as the Cirronian word for life-force," he added. "Because all living things have something of this beauty within them."

"Now that is beautiful…" She smiled up at him. "Tell me more."

***

Cole spent the rest of the afternoon explaining the Cirronian philosophy to a transfixed Mel as the weather raged on outside, worse than it had been the night before. She felt spoken to by his simple words on a personal level, as if they were truest words she had ever heard spoken. She suspected that they probably were.

They had just finished dinner and were relaxing in front of the fire again when the lights flickered and then went off completely. They were immediately cast into dark silence, the only light that from the fire, the only sound that of their breathing.

"No," Mel groaned, shaking her head. "Damn it!"

"It's okay, Mel," Cole reassured her, caressing her throat. "The fire gives off plenty of light."

"Uh, I'm more worried about the lack of central heat at this point," Mel grumbled, rising and searching for the circuit breaker. She found it quickly, but could not make heads or tails of it until Cole had the sense to bring a candle over. With a grateful smile, she began examining the switches. She looked up at him and shook her head. "It's not the fuses. A power line must have gone down somewhere," she sighed.

"There will be power again soon?" he asked hopefully. Mel had been right about the lack of a working furnace. The cabin was already growing cold away from the fire.

"Well, it depends." She shook her head. "This is some pretty wicked weather. It'll take awhile for them to get crews out, I'm sure, and they tend to restore power to areas with more people first…"

He frowned, understanding perfectly what she could not quite say herself. "Then it will be some time before power is restored here…"

"Yeah, probably." Mel sighed and nodded. "Look, I'm going to go bring some more wood in. It's the only thing that's going to keep this cabin warm right now."

"Okay, Mel." He nodded and watched her go, frowning thoughtfully for several moments before reaching a decision. Nodding to himself, he vanished into the bedroom.

When Mel returned with the first armload of wood, she nearly dropped it. Cole had moved the mattress off of the bed in the other room and positioned it directly in front of the fire. He was in the process of neatly making it. Becoming aware of Mel's presence, he smiled up at her.

"Hello, Mel. Do you need help getting the wood?" he offered.

"Uh… Um… sure." She nodded and glanced at the mattress again.

"The bedroom will get cold very quickly, Mel," he explained with a shrug, tugging on his boots and a coat before stepping around her to retrieve more wood.

Smiling at his quiet consideration, Mel dumped her own load next to the fireplace before going out for more. Between the two of them, they managed to transfer more than enough wood indoors to heat the entire cabin for several days. As Cole finished making the bed, Mel built up the fire.

"There, that should keep us… fairly warm." Mel nodded a little uneasily.

"Everything will be fine, Mel," Cole assured her gently, sensing her uncertainty. His fingers found her throat and began to wash away her tension.

"We could be here for awhile," she told him with a little sigh.

"We will be fine," Cole assured her. "Now you should get ready for bed. It is late."

Mel nodded and wearily walked to the bathroom to get ready. No power meant no hot water, which meant no shower, so she was ready fairly quickly. Cole was still banking the fire when she emerged again.

"Are you going to be cold?" Mel asked Cole as she pulled back the blankets and prepared to crawl into bed. "I know you've been spending your nights sitting in front of the fire…"

"I can sit on the couch," he assured her. "I have a quilt."

Mel sighed and regarded him in the firelight. "You really think one quilt is going to be enough?"

Cole hesitated before shaking his head. "I did not think you would be comfortable with the alternative."

"Cole, I am not going to let you freeze on a cold couch while I sleep in front of a warm fire." She shook her head.

"They say on the Discovery Channel that the best way to conserve body-heat is to--"

"I know what they say on the Discovery Channel," Mel interrupted, shaking her head. She had watched the same damned special about the idiot hikers caught in a snowstorm. In the mountains. In the middle of winter. Unlike the idiot hikers, though, there had been no way for them to predict a situation like this. But it did not change what was necessary, either. "Get undressed and under the covers and I'll be right back," she sighed.

Cole could not help but be a little disappointed by Mel's less than enthusiastic reaction to the idea, but he could at least understand it. She was very frustrated and upset right now, and understandably so. If all she wanted was to keep warm, all he would do would be to keep her warm. He would, as an added bonus, be able to spend an entire night holding Mel in his arms and watching her sleep. Her beautiful face would look even more beautiful in the flickering firelight. Smiling at that thought, he stripped to his briefs and slid under the covers. Mel returned a few moments later, wearing a robe. When she pulled it off, he saw that she had changed from her pajamas into a pair of panties and a bra.

"You do have your briefs on down there, right?" Mel asked with a nervous twitter.

Cole smiled reassuringly. "Yes, Mel. I didn't think you would want me to remove those."

"You're right." She gave a grateful shake of her head and slid under the covers next to him. "Damn, this is awkward," she muttered, making no move to get closer to Cole.

"No, Mel, it is not," he assured her gently, propping himself on one arm and smiling gently down at her. He tenderly stroked the smooth skin of her throat as he spoke. "Just… try not to think of it in such human terms," he suggested gently. "If all either of us are interested in right now is staying warm, then staying warm is all we will do," he pointed out reasonably. "Just close your eyes and try to relax," he counseled.

"You know, there are not too many men I would trust like this," Mel murmured, closing her eyes as directed. His continued caresses of her throat were having a very sedative effect.

He smiled adoringly down at her. "I am glad that you place so much trust in me, Mel," he told her honestly. "Now rest. I will keep you safe and warm."

"I know you will," she whispered, nodding and sidling a little closer to him.

Cole smiled and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her against his chest. Snuggling closer still, Mel muttered something that might have been 'good night' and fell asleep before the Cirronian could respond.

Cole's smile turned reflective as he held the sleeping woman in his arms. Definitely not how he had expected this Tracking expedition to turn out, but he could not complain. He had caught his fugitives and spent some very lovely time with Mel. And now he got to hold her in his arms all night. More might have happened, had she been willing, but he could not complain. Besides, they were likely to be here for several days more. Mel might well change her mind about the manner in which she wanted him to keep her warm. Even if she did not, though, he reveled in the chance to hold her so close for so long. He considered himself a lucky man.

Cole buried his face in her hair, planting a gentle kiss on the top of her head. "Good night, Mel," he whispered to the sleeping woman. "Sweet dreams."

The End