"Amazing. Absolutely amazing," Mel murmured, running her hands over Cole's back. "Cole, this is…"
"Amazing?" he ventured, smiling over his shoulder at her. "You know I can heal myself, Mel. Why should this time be different?"
"I…" Mel shrugged and shook her head. As she had sat on the edge of his bed looking on, Cole's burn had slowly faded into nonexistence. Amazing did not begin to describe it. "Because last time I didn't watch it happen, I guess."
He smiled and allowed her to continue running seeking hands over his back. If she was looking for unhealed tissue, she would not find any, but he hoped that it would take her some time to realize it.
"I don't know. I guess I just figured that a burn would be worse than a cut…"
"Easier, actually. Normally, with a small burn, I simply accelerate cellular replication in that area. With a cut I also have to manipulate the way it divides and where the new tissue goes. The hard part with this burn was how large it was. It was not complicated even it was very tiring to heal completely."
"If it was tiring, then maybe you should lie back down?" she suggested.
Cole obediently did as directed as Mel turned her attention from his back to his legs. It was definitely the most she had ever touched him at one time and he was not about to do anything that might prompt her to stop. Her touch really was like a drug to him: exhilarating and soothing at once. And highly addictive.
"Can you do this to other people?" she asked quietly, resting her hand against the small of his back. His skin was warm as always, but not giving off nearly as much heat as the burn had.
"It takes more effort," he answered simply.
That was a yes. She shook her head, once again amazed by the things he was capable of. What was more incredible to her was that he did not seem to think there was anything extraordinary about any of it. He accepted it as a matter of course, spoke of his superhuman abilities without even a trace of pride. They were there, he used them, and that was that. As if it were the simplest and most natural thing in the world to manipulate your own metabolism to make a third-degree sunburn vanish in hours without so much as a trace of peeling skin.
"You ever going to stop surprising me, Cole?" she asked softly, more to herself than him.
"I hope not, Mel."
She raised an eyebrow at that answer. It was the last one he had expected. "Really?" she asked, resting her hand on his shoulder. "Why?"
"I like the way your eyes look when you are surprised."
"Oh," she whispered.
"Your hand is shaking," he whispered in a surprised voice, covering her hand with his own and sitting up. He regarded her with a concerned frown. "Are you upset?"
"No. Not even a little," she assured him softly, shaking her head and chewing on her lower lip. She dropped her eyes, unable to look into eyes that might perhaps see too deeply into her own.
"Does it surprise you?" he asked, gently resting his hand against her heart but making no attempt to force her head up. "That I find you attractive? That I like it when you're happy? That I like being the one to make you happy?" he asked gently. He argued with himself for a long moment before adding quietly, "That I desire your touch?"
Mel's head shot up and she stared at him with wide eyes for a long moment. "Yes! And no, no, and… yes," she muttered, shaking her head and rising. "Can a human even be beautiful to a Cirronian?" she demanded, pacing. "Can they have any hope together?"
"Yes. And I don't know." Cole shrugged. "All I know is that for ten years, there has been a void where my heart was." As Mel stared at him, he quietly added, "And now there is not. You are lovely, Mel. Your eyes shine and your smile makes my heart glad." He rose and gently caught her arms, forestalling her pacing. "You push me away," he whispered, shaking his head in confusion. "Always, you push me away. Whenever we get close. Why?"
She sighed deeply and shook her head. "Fear? The knowledge that there's a hundred light years between us and a happily-ever-after? The desire not to lose one more person I care about?" Shaking her head again, she pulled from his grasp and walked onto the patio. Frustrated tears in her eyes, she watched the sun begin its trek below the horizon.
"The universe is a harsh place full of hard truths," a voice whispered at her ear.
Startled, she spun to find her mouth inches from his. She stared up at him with wide eyes, aware that he was still dressed only in his trunks and that all she had on was a robe over her swimsuit. Any other man would have taken advantage of this position to make his point physically and she knew it. Cole just watched her with sad eyes.
"But the gods are not without compassion," he added tenderly, brushing away her tears before falling back a step. "Never lose your hope, Mel. And never fear the unknowable. Think here," he whispered, touching his hand to her heart. "Feel here," he added, moving it to her forehead. "And let the rest take care of itself."
"You're not asking much," Mel told him softly. "But I'm still not sure I can give it to you."
"I don't ask it for myself, Mel," he told her simply. "Watch the sunset. It's beautiful. You like beautiful things." He nodded towards the horizon, then returned to the hotel room, leaving Mel staring after him.
Think with your heart and feel with your head? She shook her head, not sure what to make of his words or behavior, less sure about her own turbulent feelings. She turned towards the setting sun, taking in a thousand shades of red. Shaking her head, she entered the hotel room. Cole had pulled his pants on and was in the process of buttoning his shirt.
"What do you want?" she whispered from the door. "What do you expect?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "But I'm quite certain of it."
"Stop talking in circles!" she snapped, pulling on a pair of jeans before discarding her robe. Shaking her head in disgust, she began searching drawers for a shirt. "Think with your heart, feel with your head? I don't know, but I'm certain?" Her eyes fell on the shell Cole had given her earlier and she picked it up, turning it over in her hands, looking at it instead of him. "Does that even make sense to you? Are our minds really that different?"
"That you don't understand a thing doesn't make it less true, Mel. You know that. You must by now. I can know that I feel a certain way without understanding how or why or what to do about it. I have for months now."
Mel exhaled deeply, returning the shell to its place on the dresser. "What do you want?" she repeated.
He closed the distance between them, once again standing far too close to her.
Mel felt herself swaying on her feet, felt Cole half-carrying her to her bed. Opened her eyes and looked up into his.
"You," he repeated more gently, shaking his head. Sensing her continued anxiety and confusion, he sat down next to her and tried to explain, "I don't want the world from you. I ask more. Your addictive touch, the sound of your laugh, to touch you and be touched by you, and to hold you in my arms and never let go. To be near you always. That is what I want, Mel."
"Always is a very long time, Cole," she whispered, cradling his face in her hands. "How do you know you won't get hurt? How do you know it'll work? How do you know that I won't leave tomorrow?"
"Cole," she sighed, leaning forward and resting her forehead again. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Anything you want, Mel," he answered gently.
She pulled away, frowning at him. It took her a moment to realize that he meant it. He was placing the ball squarely in her court and patiently waiting for her decision. And he would abide by it, like it or not, she knew without knowing how she knew. It took her a moment to realize that the man calmly watching her was not calm at all. Behind those tender eyes, there was a lot of anxiety and fear. Almost as much as she herself was feeling.
"If I ask you to wait?" she asked in a shaky voice. "How long would you wait, Cole?"
He shook his head in confusion at the question. "Until you told me that I was done waiting …"
"Just like that? Just go on with the way things have been? You'd do that at this point? Indefinitely?"
"What else would I do?" he asked, frowning uncertainly. His frown deepened slightly. "Are you going to send me away, Mel?"
She frowned at the pointed question. "Would you leave if I did?" she countered.
"What other choice do I have?" he whispered, tears in his eyes. "If you find me unacceptable, what else can I do?"
"It doesn't matter. I'm not going to," she told him firmly, wiping away his tears.
He looked up hopefully. "Thank you," he whispered. "Even though I am not acceptable to you, your presence gives me strength."
"I never called you unacceptable, Cole," Mel sighed, shaking her head. "What is with you?"
"I don't understand, Mel." He shook his head, his expression confused.
"You're not being Cole." Frustrated by his blank look, she just started talking, not bothering to think about or censor her words. "Cole is a guy who never quits until he has exactly what he wants exactly the way he wants it. Cole takes control. He doesn't wait passively for someone else to tell him how things are supposed to be. He isn't… subservient. You are being more subservient as I've ever seen you." She shook her head in annoyance. "Why are you acting like this?"
"Subservient, Mel? Passive?" Extreme confusion was replaced by mild distaste in his expression. "You expect me to force affection on you uninvited? Against your will? Is that what kind of planet this is? What man has the right to make up a woman's mind for her? Such a decision can only be hers."
"Maybe on Cirron it's all in the woman's court," Mel began, shaking her head.
"Love can not be forced, Mel. Not on any planet. On Cirron, the things I have told you today would not be acceptable for a man to say to a woman. To speak openly of love… of desire?" He shook his head. "Before marriage it can only be shown, subtly. Never spoken. It is unforgivable of me, Mel, but I grow so impatient to know…"
"Is that what you've been doing for the past few months?" she whispered, staring at him with wide eyes. "Trying to get my attention?"
"Yes, Mel." He nodded. "To show my affection and indicate that I would welcome yours, yes."
"Freaking cultural differences," she muttered, shaking her head in disgust. "You've been trying to get my attention for three months?"
Mel closed her eyes and shook her head. "You've had it for four," she informed him quietly.
"I don't understand, Mel," he told her softly, confused. "If you have felt affection, why have you not shown it?"
Frustrated with herself, she shook her head. "Because you are Cole. Cole, the Tracker who doesn't need anyone. Cole the widower. Cole the alien who couldn't possibly find a member of the human race attractive. Decisive Cole, who wouldn't hesitate to tell me if he wanted a more than platonic relationship. Cole who held me in his arms and danced with me for three hours and then said goodnight at my bedroom door. Innocent, unworldly Cole, who didn't understand or recognize physical arousal when he was in my bathtub experiencing it. Or dancing with me, experiencing it…" She chuckled and shook her head. "I could go on, but I think you get the point."
Cole spent fully five minutes processing her words, a confused, shocked expression on his face. Finally, he blinked once, gave one quiet laugh, and shook his head.
"Freaking cultural differences," he said, echoing Mel's words in a bemused tone. "Mel," he murmured, shaking his head. "Mel… Mel who says goodnight to me at her door every night while I pray to hear 'come in'. Mel, who knows what she wants and feels and isn't afraid to say it or take a stand. Mel… who has seen and felt my reaction to her touch and her presence and has reacted as if it was a bad thing, something she did not want of me. Mel, who could not possibly care for an alien as she might care for a man."
"Freaking cultural differences," she agreed quietly, shaking her head. "How's this work on Cirron? I come to you? Is that what you've been waiting for?"
"Yes, Mel." He nodded. "On Cirron, a male acts in a way that shows that he is receptive to a woman's advances. She acts on it or not. It is her choice only and no Cirronian man would dream of trying to influence or coerce her. It is his place to wait for her to make her will known."
"So the guy has no choice?" she asked, frowning.
"He can… say 'no'," Cole said, shrugging. "It is a woman's to say 'yes'. So I waited, hoping to hear 'yes' from you." He regarded her apologetically. "It must be your choice, Mel. 'Yes' can only ever be your choice."
Mel closed her eyes, exhaling deeply. "I can't say that," she admitted apologetically, hating herself for it even as she spoke.
"I understand, Mel." Cole nodded weakly. Part of him wanted to flee the room with what remained of his dignity intact. The only thing that kept him from doing so was the fact that he doubted he could have made it to the door. "I'm sorry that I have--"
"I'm not saying no to you, either, Cole," Mel interrupted. "This is not a rejection."
He closed his eyes, his head swimming. "You find me acceptable?" he whispered.
"Yes." She nodded firmly. "More than acceptable. I'm just not sure what's next," she sighed. "I'm sorry, Cole, but the last serious relationship I had…"
"I know. And the last relationship I had ended as it ended. Pain teaches caution. You wish to continue only as friends?"
"Not really." She shook her head. "I just don't want to rush into anything. I am not saying that I'm not open to a relationship with you. Just that… we should take it slow."
Cole chuckled softly, shaking his head. "More cultural differences, Mel. On Cirron there is no other way. Mutual desire and affection leads to familiarity. Familiarity to acceptance. Acceptance to love…" He shook his head. "To… physical love," he amended.
"Slow and easy, huh? Guess you guys don't get a lot of divorces?"
He smiled faintly and shook his head. "Even dating as you understand here is seldom seen. Usually a man has known the woman who marries him his whole life. Nallia and I were a rare exception and it was years before she found me acceptable." His smile grew fond. "Many men's hearts were broken that day."
Mel smiled faintly. "Bet a lot of women had that same problem."
He chuckled and shook his head. "I was not an attractive man, Mel."
"If you can be interested in a fur-ball of a mammal like me, Cole, a Cirronian woman can be attracted to a guy like you no matter what he looks like. She was not the first woman to ever be interested in you, was she?"
"There were others before," he admitted.
"You turned them down?"
"There was no love with them. Only Nallia. Only ever Nallia until you."
Mel processed his words, his tone of voice, and started at him with wide eyes. "You've only ever been with one woman? Just your wife?" At his nod, she shook her head. "Great, now I feel like a slut…"
"It's different for Cirronians," he told her, shaking his head. "We are not like humans. We only ever mate for life."
"Define 'for life'?" Mel whispered.
"I never expected to find love or even happiness again. It was unthinkable to me until you."
She swallowed hard. "How many cultural taboos have you broken today, Cole?"
"Human or Cirronian?" he asked gently, a trace of a smile in his eyes. "I believe I've broken a few Vardian ones as well…"
"Cole," Mel chuckled, shaking her head. "How can you joke about the fact that you are… basically… um… What about Nallia?"
"I am not turning my back on her, Mel," he told her gently. "It is as I told you, as you helped me understand. There is room in a heart for so much love. Nallia will always be a part of me, but that does not change what you have become to me."
"How would your people feel about… this?"
"Nallia might have been shocked by my forward methods, but she would have approved my choice." He paused. "There are those who would not understand," he admitted. "I don't care about them."
"So it doesn't bother you?"
"Your touch lifts my spirit, your voice calms my fears, your smile gladdens my heart. How can that be wrong, Mel?"
"That is a good question," she murmured, wrapping her arms around him and pulling him close. She rested her forehead against his. "Can you wait for a physical relationship?" she whispered.
He nodded immediately. "I can't deny that I desire one, but waiting is… a choice I can understand. It's the right choice. Too much remains to be seen." He shrugged, smiling shyly. "The truth is that if you were to take me into your bed now, I would be terrified."
Mel smiled faintly. "Likewise. Waiting is good, important. If we do this, I want to do it right."
Cole nodded. "Yes, Mel."
"I don't want things to change with us, Cole. Well… some things," she admitted. "Just… not the important ones. I can't change for you."
"I wouldn't ask you to. I came to care for you as you are."
"You can't change for me, either," she added. "That is just as important. As long as we are throwing cultural rules out the window, we might as well go all out. In case you failed to notice in your drive to catch fugitives, Earth is not a matriarchal society…"
"I hadn't noticed," he chuckled, shaking his head.
Mel grinned. "Equal partnership. All the way."
"Is there some other way?" he asked with a smile.
"Well, there's the wrong way, but I've tried that and it doesn't work." She shrugged, then hesitated. "Cole, can we make this work? Are we ever going to be able to make it work? I mean, granted that friends make the best lovers… but you have a job to do."
He nodded slowly. "It's something that I've thought about frequently. I will protect you, always. I made a promise. Nothing between us will ever change that. You may be more vulnerable because of your relationship with me, but I will keep you safe."
"That's not what I mean. What about when your job is done?" she clarified softly.
"I will come back for you once I have delivered the fugitives to Sar-Top. Or you can come to Migar with me if you prefer. This is not something we have to decide now. It will probably take me many years to Collect them all. That's a long time to think."
"You… you would stay on Earth?" she whispered, staring at him with wide eyes.
"Yes, Mel. Mel… I would move to Enix to be near you."
She smiled faintly, shaking her head. Amazing. "Cole?"
"I think I want that physical relationship now." She chucked as the Cirronian's expression became roughly that of a deer caught in a car's headlights, equal parts fearful and transfixed. "And here I always considered you fearless…" She grinned and shook her head, relenting. "I was joking, Cole."
"Oh!" He laughed and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mel. I'm still practicing my sarcasm."
"Teasing, Cole. That was teasing, not sarcasm."
"Teasing," he repeated dutifully, nodding. "Joking of a sexual nature?"
"Usually but not always. Jess and I tease each other all the time. It's joking between friends, but it's very gentle. No one gets hurt or insulted."
"Although occasionally death by coronary arrest may occur."
She grinned and nodded. "That's good. That's very good, Cole."
He smiled widely, pleased with himself. "Thank you, Mel."
"You're welcome." Mel sighed gently. "I think I could get used to this."
"Me too, Mel. But no more attempts to give me a heart attack, okay?"
She grinned and shook her head. "You just watch it, pal. You get much more adorable and I'm liable to forget that we agreed to wait and jump you now."
He smiled and nodded contritely. "Yes, Mel," he agreed in a tone of voice she had never heard from his mouth before but definitely hoped to some day.
"Hey!" she protested, laughing. "You're going to be as bad as Jess with the innuendo, aren't you?"
"Probably not, Mel. I don't know enough about human culture and sexuality yet. Give me a few years…"
"Agh!" Mel exclaimed, grabbing a pillow and swatting him. "You brat!"
He smiled faintly, easily plucking the pillow from her hand and tossing it aside. "You like me better this way. I can tell."
"Gee, and here I thought I was being subtle." She chuckled and shook her head. "Come here," she directed, beckoning with one finger.
Looking hesitant, Cole leaned closer, receiving a tender kiss on the cheek for his obedience.
"You are too good to be true. Come on." She rose and extended her hand.
"Where are we going?" he asked, frowning and rising.
"We never did get around to that moonlit stroll," she pointed out. "They're considered romantic, you know."
"Like dancing close?" he asked, gently pulling her into his arms and against his body.
Mel smiled and nodded. "Yeah, like that." Taking a deep breath, she added, "You're testing my willpower again, Cole."
"We'll walk, then we'll dance," Mel told him.
He smiled widely and nodded eagerly, following her from the room.
Cole turned to face the ocean, inhaling deeply. The remains of his sandcastle were slowly being carried away by the tide, a fact that did not concern him in the least, not with Mel by his side.
"I feel… like we're the only two people in the universe," he told her.
"Me, too. And it's nice." She smiled up at him. "But it's not going to last."
"No. One day there will be three people in this universe of ours." He grinned down at her. "And then four. Or even five if you prefer."
Mel swatted his arm, shaking her head. "We have to go back to Chicago in a few days. This… this is not going to last. We are not the only two people in the universe. Zin makes a nasty third."
"I know." He nodded. "And I will find him one day, along with all the others. Then we can have our solitary universe back. Until then, I intend to steal as many of these moments as I can. Nothing between us but a shared feeling… and a few layers of fabric."
"You are worse than Jess…" Mel shook her head. "But you've got a better butt, so it kind of balances out." She laughed as he made a show of trying to look at his behind over his shoulder. "We're going to be okay, aren't we?" she whispered.
Cole's playful mood vanished in a heartbeat and he nodded, tenderly gathering her into his arms. "Yes, we will be. You make me strong. With you here…" He pointed to his heart. "I feel like I can accomplish anything. I can't promise that I can protect you from every evil in the universe, but I will do my best. And I will love you," he added. "Since we met, you have always been the woman I needed exactly when I needed her. A parent, a teacher, a friend, a sister, a daughter… a wife. The last barrier has fallen away. Nothing can stop us any longer. It won't always be easy, Mel. Not with this task I have and not in the universe we live in. But it will be glorious. I can promise you that much."
She smiled up at him, awed. "My God. We are going to be okay."
"Always," he agreed, nodding. "I will never leave you of my own free will. This is my promise to you. You have given me everything and asked for nothing. Now I give you the only thing I have to offer. A piece of my heart."
She reached up and rested her hand over the heart in question, lightly playing her fingers across his chest.
"That feels good, Mel," he told her, and for the first time the phrase did not prompt her to pull away.
She smiled up at him. "Good."
"Is this what Jess meant by rubbing each other the right way?" he asked curiously.
Mel grinned. "I don't know what Jess means half the time." And the half she did get was usually related to sex. She would explain that to Cole later. One trauma a day was more than enough. "Does it feel right?"
"Yes, Mel. You are definitely rubbing me the right way." He nodded. "Can we take more of Jess' advice?"
"Which part?" she asked wryly. "The part where you shag me until I do God knows what? That part?"
"If you'd like, Mel," he agreed readily, earning a shocked look from her that he did not entirely understand. "But you'll have to tell me what shagging is and how to do it," he told her with a shrug. Frowning, he added, "And… why passing out is considered romantic."
Mel's face twisted into a wry smile and she shook her head. "I am going to kill her!" she announced. "Or maybe… just buy her flowers."
"Flowers, I think, Mel," Cole told her. "Later," he added.
"Later?" she repeated, smiling faintly.
He nodded. "We were going to dance again. You promised."
"That's right," she agreed, sliding her arms around him. "I did." Dancing with him under the moon, Mel murmured, "Cole?"
"Yes, Mel?" he asked tenderly.
"Whatever you do when we get back, do not tell Jess you got Lei'd."
Author's Note:In case you're curious, "Ua ola loko i ke aloha" means "Love gives life within" or "Love gives life to the spirit" … fitting description of the relationship between Mel and Cole, imo.