"Cole, how do you know Lana?" Maria asked gently as she drove.
"A long time ago she worked for a man I called friend," Cole answered quietly from the back seat, staring pensively out the window and lapsing into silence.
"Fine." Maria sighed and glanced at her partner, sitting next to her. "Vicky, you tell me. How does he know Lana? And why was she was speaking in tongues?"
"Just the one tongue," Cole contributed absently.
"Don't help, Cole," Vic advised, shaking his head.
"I hate being kept out of the loop," Maria told them. "And it is not going to go on after this is over. I want answers, not these 'I work for the government but not this one' evasions. I'm sick of them."
"Mar," Vic began.
"Don't. Just don't. Damn it, Vic. You've been lying to me! I don't even know if I can trust you any more…"
"We'll talk about it later."
"What is your problem?" Vic sighed.
"Dozens upon dozens of dead bodies? All people who match the profile of the men and women your friend here is going after. We've been edgy over this for better than a year and suddenly you're defending and covering for a man who could well--"
"I don't take life, Detective," Cole told her softly. "I never have and I never will. I promise you this."
"Right… And what was up with Lana pulling a Carrie on us, exactly?"
"Carrie?" Cole repeated, frowning. "Who is Carrie?"
"She's a fictional character, Cole," Vic said softly. "A… uh, a telekinetic."
"Oh." Cole nodded. "Lana is--"
"Don't help, Cole," Vic repeated. "Mar, can we please discuss this another time?"
She shrugged. "Fine. But make no mistake. We will discuss it and we will do so to my satisfaction. You understand me?"
"Yeah." Vic nodded. "And do you understand that I've only kept you in the dark this long to keep you safe?"
"I'm willing to concede that, Vicky," Maria told him, sighing. "I just… Next time one of these people kills me, I want to know what I'm dying for."
"The safety of more people than you can possibly imagine," Cole whispered, reaching into the front seat and touching her cheek.
Maria's first impulse was to recoil, exactly as she always did from any uninvited touch, but his fingers were warm and gentle and their touch somehow brought with it a sense of calm and certainty. If she had not been behind the wheel of a car, she probably would have given in to the impulse to close her eyes and just enjoy it. It was not like being touched by Vic, carried a whole different emotional pull to it, but it was no less pleasant. She was no longer even a little agitated or suspicious.
"You have no idea what Zin and his people are planning," Cole continued gently. "It can't be allowed, for all our sakes. If you can't trust me, trust the man you love. I have never lied to him about who and what I am. He knows what I'm trying to do here and why. And he knows that it's the right thing. That's why he's helping me."
"I don't do blind faith well," Maria said softly, shaking her head. She was willing to place her curiosity on a back burner for now, if only because they had a life to save, but she would have her answers.
"It's never easy, but sometimes necessary," Cole told her. "After we've rescued Mel, I'll talk to her about telling you everything. Then we will talk."
"Mel? What's she have to do with anything?"
"I value her advice greatly. I usually do what she suggests; it's the reason I waited so long to tell Vic."
"How far into… your job is she?"
"Farther than I am," Vic answered for Cole. "Way deeper than I'll ever be."
Cole nodded. "Vic's right. She's incredibly important to what we do, but her importance is well beyond that, too. Turn left here…"
"How much farther?" Vic asked.
"Fifteen minutes if traffic is light," Cole told him. "It's in a mostly-abandoned industrial area."
"So were the other two we found," Maria told him.
"It's so no one will hear the screams," Cole told her simply before lapsing into silence again.
"Who was here with you earlier, sweetness?" Kaehto asked casually as he changed Mel's IV bags.
Mel's eyes widened faintly and only the fact that she was trussed up in a way that precluded most movement kept her from wincing at the question.
"What do you mean?"
"I'd say it's fairly obvious what I mean," he muttered, shaking his head. "Who was here and when were you going to tell me you had company?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," she lied softly. He was losing his cool and that was not a promising sign. Come on, Cole. Come on…
"Vardian female," he clarified, annoyed. "Name her."
Right, Cirronians could sense life-forces. Oops… "I don't know any Vardian females."
"It was Zin's little whore, wasn't it?" Kaehto demanded, losing even the pretense of composure. "What was she doing here? What did she want?"
"I don't know. She came, looked around, and left," Mel assured him quickly. "I don't know what she wanted…"
"Did she say anything to you?"
"No." Mel shook her head quickly. "No, of course not." She took a deep breath, aware that she was facing one very pissed off Cirronian. He was losing control of the situation and he knew it. "If she had said anything, I would have told you about it. You know that, Kaehto… It's just that she left without saying a word so I didn't think it was worth worrying you about." Please be as stupid as you are crazy.
"It's funny but… I don't believe you. I think you're lying to me, sweetness." Kneeling in front of her, he caught her chin in his hand and held it in a bruising grip. Shaking his head, he leaned towards her until their noses were almost touching. "Why are you lying to me, Melanie?" he hissed.
"I'm not," she whispered, trying to shake her head.
"I have an acetylene torch in my bag, sweetness. Now I was saving it for later, but we can break it out now if you really want." Met with silence, he walked over to his bag and produced the blowtorch in question. "I've gotten very good at using this," he purred, moving to kneel in front of her again, torch in hand. He turned it on and lit it with a spark from one fingertip.
Tears formed in her eyes as the flame passed dangerously close to her face.
"Don't cry, sweetness," he soothed, turning it off and caressing her throat gently.
Mel shivered under the touch, a sick mockery of Cole's way of comforting her.
"She told you not to let me know she'd been here, didn't she?"
"Yes," Mel whispered, more than willing to sell Zin's most trusted advisor out to buy herself some clemency.
"Okay." He nodded, the tenderness returning to his eyes. He threw the torch aside and hastened to reassure her. "It's okay. I'm not mad at you. It's not your fault, sweetness. It's that Vardian whore. She made you lie to me."
Mel nodded hastily.
"However, we do have a problem now. Lana won't let you stay with me, sweetness." He shook his head faintly, pulling the IV tubing out of her arm and quickly healing the prick.
Mel's eyes widened. He was going to kill her now, she knew with certainty. His way of 'keeping' her.
"You don't know that," she protested in a harsh whisper.
"I know Lana. She belongs to Zin and Zin is not happy with me right now. Lana will make me suffer by taking you away from me. You know I can't let her do that, Melanie." He caressed her cheeks gently, his expression apologetic. "You need to pick now."
"Pick?" she repeated, her stomach sinking.
He nodded gently. "How would you like to die?"
"Old age springs to mind…"
He chuckled and shook his head. "For you, it will be painless. You know, I'm sorry we didn't have the time to get to know each other better. But I do love you, sweetness. It won't hurt, I promise. You'll like it. You will…"
He gave her a gentle smile and his hands dropped from her face to her throat. Blue-white sparks of energy appeared under his fingertips.
"No, Kaehto, don't," Mel protested, shaking her head. "Don't do this…"
"Don't be scared. I would never hurt you…"
"Then what the hell have you been doing to me for the past two days!" she shouted, tears spilling down her face. "Let me go, you son of a bitch!"
"Oh, you're just nervous," he cooed. "Just relax into it. Let it happen."
"No!" She shook her head, sobbing. "Oh, God!" she protested as she felt her temperature spiking. Her head was swimming and her entire body felt like she was holding on to a live wire. "Stop it!"
Cursing, she started struggling as much as she could, ignoring the pain it caused her to strain against the tape. Pain was rapidly receding in favor of a strange sense of insubstantiality. She could almost feel the air passing through her body, no longer repelled by the barrier of her skin.
As Mel continued struggling and cursing, Kaehto continued caressing her throat and releasing mating energy into her body, smiling as the changes he was triggering began to manifest themselves in the form of a white glow, hanging around her skin.
"Almost there," he promised her, untaping her wrists and allowing himself to start glowing as well.
"No," Mel sobbed, dropping to the floor and shaking her head.
Even that action was becoming more and more difficult, though, as Kaehto continued to flood her with mating energy. Moving was almost impossible and her tears were evaporating on her too-hot cheeks as soon as she could shed them. She was glowing, but it was nothing like the warm, gentle glow that she cast off making love to Cole. This was a hot, burning electric-white light, almost painful in its intensity, and it was growing stronger by the second. She could feel her body changing to allow Kaehto access and, as much as she struggled against it, she could not slow the shift.
Cole had explained Cirronian mating to her, told her about the biology behind it and how glorious it could be. When she had discovered her own Cirronian heritage, she had ached to share something so amazing with Cole. But he had always made it clear to her: until she was better trained, her life-force stronger, an attempt at joining would almost certainly be fatal.
Kaehto rose once he was satisfied with her state, stripping off his clothes, and Mel realized that he was going to rape her in the human fashion before he did so in the Cirronian one.
No longer even able to struggle, Mel accepted the inevitable, exactly as a Cirronian should. With grace.
"I love you, Cole. And I'll miss you."
"Here, here. This is where she said," Cole announced, bounding out of the car.
Vic grabbed his arm as he started towards the warehouse. "Are you sure this isn't an ambush?"
Cole nodded, shrugging off Vic's grasp and running towards the warehouse. Vic and Maria followed close on his heels. The three burst into the warehouse at almost the same moment. The sight that caused Vic and Maria to stop in their tracks, staring on in awe, spurred Cole into Hyperspeed.
Mel, glowing brilliant-white, illuminating the entire warehouse. Her body, barely substantial, lay on the floor in the center of the warehouse, and she was obviously unable to move in such an advanced state of readiness. Kaehto was leaning over her, naked, his human body as ready for mating as his Cirronian spirit as he stripped off her underwear. A pale white glow hung about him, growing stronger by the second as he dispensed with the underwear and climbed on top of the sobbing woman.
Screaming, Cole barreled in to the other Cirronian at Hyperspeed, bearing him to the floor and landing two heavy blows to the face before Hyperspeed faltered. Cursing in every language he knew, the Tracker continued driving his fist into the other Cirronian's face.
Vic shook off his shock first, rushing to Mel's side. He reached towards her, then pulled back, not sure if he should touch her or not.
"Mel?" he whispered, needing both guidance and reassurance that she was alive.
"Stop him," Mel managed. Talking was hard, but she had to. "Don't let him kill him."
"Cole's not a killer. Don't let him be one, Vic. Please…"
"Mar!" Vic shouted, waving her over.
Maria ran over then, crouching next to Mel. "What do I do for her?"
"I have no fucking clue." Vic shook his head. "Just stay with her." At Maria's nod, he raced to Cole's side, grabbing a raised fist and getting himself thrown twenty feet for his troubles. "Cole! Stop!" he ordered, scrambling back over to him. "Mel says you're not a killer!" he snapped. "Don't you dare make a liar out of her."
Cole shook himself, letting out a low moan. "Mel…"
"She's okay," Vic assured him, hoping it was true. "Take the man's life-force and get it over with," he whispered harshly.
"You deserve death," Cole whispered to Kaehto, wrapping one hand around his throat.
"Cole," Vic whispered, shaking his head.
"Do it. You'll like it." Kaehto smiled up at him.
Cole raised his fist again, driving it into Kaehto's chest, hard enough to not just break but shatter bones.
"Cole!" Vic protested, wincing as the normally-gentle Cirronian punched Kaehto again, in the stomach this time.
The Cirronian kept smiling in spite of the two rapidly growing black bruises forming on his chest and stomach. Frustrated by his refusal to cry out, Cole grabbed his arm and jerked it backwards, audibly dislocating it. Throughout, his hand never left the other Cirronian's throat.
"You are an affront to everything that it means to be Cirronian!" he snarled, driving his fist into Kaehto's collarbone as he drove his knee into his groin. The collarbone was reduced to dust, and even if Kaehto survived, he would never be able to rape a woman again, not in the human fashion. "You revel in the pain you cause!" Another sharp blow to the side of Kaehto's face, accompanied by a satisfying crack of bones. "You deserve death," he repeated in a grim whisper, slamming his fist into Kaehto's chest, which caved under the pressure.
"Damn it, Cole!" Vic hissed. "You want Mel to spend the rest of her life knowing that you cold-bloodedly killed this guy?" Part of him was worried that it was too late.
"He deserves death," the Cirronian answered simply. "But it is not my place."
Shaking his head, Cole produced the Collector and slammed it into his into his chest. The Cirronian took his time with the procedure, longer even than he had with Rhee and Tev. There was no satisfaction in prolonging the process he realized, not sure how he felt about that fact. Shaking his head, he finished quickly.
"No, I wouldn't have enjoyed it," Cole whispered to the corpse, shaking his head. "I'm not like you…"
Maria bent over the still-glowing Mel, pretending that she had not seen what she thought she had seen. When Cole scrambled to her side, she fell back, rising.
"What's wrong with her?" she demanded.
"Doesn't matter," Vic assured her. "She'll be fine. I think… Cole?"
"She'll be fine," Cole agreed, nodding and gathering her into his arms. "My love…"
"Cole, you didn't kill him, did you?" she managed weakly.
"No, Mel." Cole shook his head. "I wanted to, though."
"But you didn't and that's all that matters…" A translucent, luminous hand came up to dry his tears. "How long will I be like this?"
"It will go away in a few hours. I'll stay right here with you." Lowering his voice for her ears alone, he added, "And then I'll heal your injuries."
"Vic, Detective Cruz. Can you leave us?" Cole asked.
"Will you two be okay?" Vic asked, watching the two with concern.
"We'll be fine, Vic," Mel assured him. "I just need to get some rest…"
"Come on, Mar," Vic said, catching at her arm and tugging. "They need some time alone. They almost lost each other."
Stunned by everything she had seen in the last five minutes, Maria allowed herself to be led from the warehouse.
Cole held her against his chest and began crooning in Cirronian until the glow began to fade and his love once again seemed fully human. He assessed her injuries quickly, fighting the urge to be ill at what he saw. Cirronian love-poetry had been carved into her chest and one arm. Electrical burns peppered most of her chest and torso. Her stomach was partially flayed, only the muscle remaining. Both shoulders were dislocated, the ligaments torn. And there were burns on her back that could only have been caused by extreme cold.
He healed her stomach first, as the wound most likely to get infected, and then the cuts on her chest and arm. The gouged cuts healed easily, not leaving a mark to suggest that they had ever been present. Her stomach would always bear a large, livid scar. There was nothing the Cirronian could do about that. Drained by the two healings preformed when he was already weak, he did not have it in him to heal the rest of her injuries. They were not life-threatening; they could wait. With a muttered apology, he forced her shoulders back into their sockets, then looked around for something to dress her in. Only Kaehto's clothes were in evidence, and the Cirronian refused to compel Mel to wear those. He stripped off his own shirt and draped it around her, buttoning it and then retrieving her panties.
When he had helped her into those, he scooped her into her arms and left the warehouse, cradling the quiet woman against his chest.
"Mel?" he whispered, worried.
He could not stifle his relieved sigh. "Get some rest. I'm going to take you home now."
"Okay, Cole," Mel agreed, wrapping her arms around his neck and burying her face in his shoulder.
It was not until they were back in the car and already driving off that she was able to compose herself enough to speak.
"What was he doing to her, Vicky?" Maria asked. "What is all this?"
"Told you my life turned some kind of cross between X-Files and Twilight Zone."
"I believe you." Maria nodded shakily. "What was wrong with her?"
"Doesn't matter. All that matters is that she's alive."
"They're going to find William Brandon dead in a few days, aren't they?"
"Cole didn't kill him. He could have, but he didn't." Vic shrugged. "But, yeah, Mar. They will find yet another body in the next few days. And one less killer will be wandering the streets."
Considering everything that she had seen, and the conditions of Brandon's earlier victims, Maria nodded. "Take me home. I need to get drunk."
"Me, too, baby," Vic agreed. "We going to get drunk together or separately?" he asked hesitantly.
"Together, dumb-ass. Then we can have make-up sex. I'm not mad at you, just frustrated that I don't know what's going on with you. I worry. You know that."
"I know, Mar. And I worry about you, too… That's why I think it might be better not to burden you with the things I know."
"You know what worries me?" Maria asked quietly.
"Just assuming for one moment that Cole's our best line of defense against Zin…"
"I'd call that a fair statement," Vic told her.
"Vicky, he's in Zin's debt now," Maria whispered. "If Zin hadn't sent Lana to tell him where Mel was, she'd probably be dead by now. He owes Zin."
"Here, Mel," Cole murmured, handing the pajama-clad woman another mug of cocoa. He sat down on the edge of the bed, regarding her hesitantly. He had healed the rest of her injuries, but there would always be a scar on her back to match the one on her stomach and the effort had left him exhausted. "How do you feel?"
"Uh… lightheaded." Mel shrugged and sipped her cocoa. "I'm not in pain any more, thanks to you, and… my stomach feels a lot better."
Cole had healed her completely as soon as he could muster enough strength for each task: her burns, the frostbite, the deep gouging cuts, the flayed stomach, her dislocated shoulders. Those had been easy. What he really worried about were the injuries that even Cirronian hands could not heal.
"And here?" Cole asked, touching one hand to Mel's forehead and one to her heart.
"Still numb, I guess." Mel shrugged. "I think it could take me a few days for it all to sink in. I… it was like watching him torture someone else. Eventually, it is going to sink in, though." She drew a shaky sigh. "I don't know what's going to happen then. I'm probably going to be a basket-case for a long time."
"But you're strong. You'll get through it. I'll help you." He started to withdraw his hands.
Mel covered the hand over her heart with one of her own. "And I am going to need every bit of help you can give me," she told him.
"It's yours. You know that. There is nothing I would not do for you."
Mel smiled and nodded faintly. "Come to bed now, sweetheart."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm not going to be able to get to sleep without you here with me." Mel took another sip of her cocoa, then put it on the nightstand. "I… I might need awhile, you know, before things are like they were with us… making love, I mean… but I'd still like to have you near me."
Cole nodded his understanding, freeing his hand and kissing her fingertips before rising and pulling his clothes off. He climbed into bed next to her, sitting there hesitantly for a long moment until she slid across the bed and snuggled into him. He smiled gratefully down at her.
"I'm sorry I couldn't protect you from him, Mel."
"You saved my life, Cole," she pointed out.
"Barely. And not on my own."
"Lana…" Mel nodded. "I know. Ayjata thera ayjata, Cole. What does that mean?"
"Blood will be repaid in blood. It's an old Vardian code of behavior."
"She thought you were going to kill him."
"I almost did…"
"You didn't, though. You proved that bitch wrong. Good for you, Tausha."
"I received several transmissions while you were resting earlier," Cole told her. "Many words of thankfulness that you are safe, and wishes for a quick recovery. Eijan, Bendal, Kallissa, Nallyn, Alicia, my older nieces and nephews, a few cousins… you are much loved, Mel."
"One hell of an extended family I married into," Mel chuckled. "How did they all find out?"
"I told Eijan. She told Kallissa and my family."
"How'd Bendal find out?"
"By not listening at Eijan's door." Cole smiled faintly. "Bendal knows everything that happens on Sar-Top, usually before Eijan does. He is a useful Second." His smile widened. "And he has finally admitted that you are not that strange-looking after all…"
"High praise," Mel chuckled.
Cole smiled down at her, gently wrapping his arms around her. "Actually, I believe his exact words were 'she has the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen' and 'you're a lucky man'. He's right, too, Mel. I am. Get some rest," he ordered.
"Do you still need sleep?"
"I probably will later. I'll stay up and watch you until then."
"Okay." She nodded and turned off the light, before climbing under the covers and laying down again.
Cole looked down at her for a moment, his face concerned, then joined her under the covers, smiling when she snuggled into his chest as quickly as she always did. She would need his comfort now more than ever before, and he wanted to be there to give it to her. Sighing softly, he held her close and just lay there watching her until her face relaxed into sleep.
Mel yawned, in the darkness, making no move to get up, not when gentle arms embraced her and held her securely against a large, strong, warm chest. She smiled and snuggled further back into him, eliciting a low chuckle.
"Not nice to laugh at me," she chastised, her smile widening.
"Why ever not, sweetness?" a cheerful voice inquired.
It's a dream, she told herself firmly, just a dream. But she could not stop herself from tensing and she could not resist an attempt to pull away. When the arms tightened painfully around her, she struggled wildly, screaming and hoping to pull herself awake before the dream could get any worse.
What finally woke her, though, was not her loud and repeated screaming but the man shaking her roughly.
"Mel? Mel! Wake up, Mel!" Cole loudly demanded of the screaming woman.
Mel's eyes snapped open and she looked up at him, gasping gratefully. "Cole," she breathed, cradling his face in her hands, drinking in those beautiful eyes. One of which was freshly blackened. Had she done that to him?
He smiled reassuringly at her, a smile that did not echo his current, anxious feelings one bit. "It's okay, Mel," he murmured. "It's over."
Sobbing and nodding, she buried her face in his chest, clutching him tightly.
"It's okay, Mel," Cole assured her gently. "I'm here. I won't let anyone hurt you."
She lifted her head from his chest and gave a shaky nod. "I'm going to go make a pot of coffee. You want some?"
"No, Mel. And neither do you."
"Yes I do." Mel nodded. "I really need caffeine right now, Cole," she whispered.
He shook his head. "Mel, depriving yourself of sleep will not help."
"I can't go back to sleep, Cole," she protested.
"I can put you to sleep without dreams," he reminded her gently. "I've done it before."
She shook her head. "Not tonight, Cole. It's just too much to ask, okay? Please…"
"Okay." He nodded faintly. "I'll make you a pot of coffee and we'll curl up together on the couch…"
"Thank you," she whispered, rising with him and following him into the kitchen.
"Sit down, I'll make the coffee," Cole directed.
When he had started the coffee, he found a blanket and wrapped it around Mel, hovering until the coffee was done. When he returned to the living room with two mugs of coffee, Mel was sleeping again. Smiling faintly, he set the coffee down, sitting down next to her and wrapping his arms around her, waiting until she would wake and need his comfort again. The next few weeks would be difficult for her, but he would be there every step of the way, providing strength to the woman who had always been his Strength.