Chapter 6

"How's Cole holding up?" Jess asked as Mel handed her a tray of drinks.

"He should be completely recovered in a few days," Mel assured her, glancing at her watch. "I need to get back up now, okay?"

"Sure thing, Mel. Get some rest while you're up there," Jess ordered.

"Believe me, I will," Mel assured her with a sigh. "These last few days have taken an awful lot out of me."

"Yeah, then you just have a nice long lay-in," Jess told her. "I can take over with Cole until he's better."

"Oh, no..." Mel shook her head quickly. The glow had almost faded, but it was still occasionally noticeable, especially if you got too close. "He just needs rest now. He's really doing worlds better."

"If I didn't know better, Mel, I'd think that you didn't want me seeing him, the way you're always skiving off my offers of help," Jess noted.

"Well, maybe he's just a big grouch when sick and I don't want to subject you to that."

"Yeah, right. Like Cole has a grouchy bone in his body..." Jess shook her head.

"Don't you have a table to deliver drinks to?" Mel asked abruptly, turning and hurrying from the bar.

"Chickenpox my bum," Jess muttered, shaking her head. "Wonder what's really wrong with him, anyway?"

***

Cole was propped up in Mel's bed, leafing through a handful of printouts. She still had him confined to bed and he still needed quite a lot of sleep, but he was rapidly growing stronger as the days passed. Once the itching had grown tolerable enough to allow him to comfortably wear clothes again, she had left the apartment long enough to buy him a large pair of very comfortable silk pajamas, which he quite planned to keep wearing at night even after he no longer required sleep. It really had been a thoughtful gift, he reflected, more interested in ways to repay Mel for that kindness than the contents of the police reports in his hands.

He smiled widely as the object of his reflections appeared in the doorway. "Hello, Mel."

"Hey," Mel greeted him with a smile of her own, sitting on the edge of the bed. He had still been sleeping when she had gone down to the bar, so she had not had an opportunity to talk to him yet. "How are you feeling today?" she asked, cupping his cheek in one hand. "Ooh, you're so warm," she said, her smile widening. It was the first time his skin had been warmer than hers since he had gotten sick and she took it as a very promising sign.

"Yes, Mel, I am much warmer now," he agreed, closing his eyes and just enjoying her touch for a moment. "I think I will be completely well very soon."

"Well, that's wonderful news," Mel said with a smile, giving his cheek a gentle pat before reluctantly withdrawing her hand. "I was really worried about you there for awhile." Impulsively, she brushed her lips quickly across his.

Cole stared up at her with wide eyes, amazed. The gesture itself was not an amazing one, certainly: Mel often kissed his cheek when he returned from Tracking and he had seen her kiss Vic on the mouth when they had been dating. What amazed him was his own reaction to the gesture that was only a modification of her more normal kisses on the cheek. Those made him feel quite nice, of course, made him feel warm all over and left his cheek tingling, but this...

Oh, he was definitely feeling warm all over, but the tingling sensation had not confined itself to the kissed area this time, either. It had radiated outward from his mouth to encompass his entire body. Even his fingers and toes were alive with the energy of it. Energy and... longing. Recalling the way it had felt to hold this radiant creature in his arms, both less than half dressed... Repeating this gesture with Mel was suddenly the most important thing in his universe. It had felt so perfect, so right, had so completely erased what was left of his fatigue and discomfort. He wanted more, needed it. To hold her so and to share another such kiss with her.

Mel's eyes widened as she watched the emotions flashing across his face but found herself unable to lean away as he reached up to cradle her face in both hands.

"Cole, I..." she began, her voice wavering.

"I want to do that again, Mel," he informed her gently. "May I?"

"I really don't think that's a good idea, Cole," she whispered, swallowing hard.

"I really think it is a good idea," Cole contradicted her gently. "It will be nice. Let me show you," he suggested hopefully, drawing her face closer.

"Hey, Mel, where did you leave the invoice for... oh, bloody hell. Sorry!" Jess gasped, taking in the scene in front of her. "Sorry," she repeated, backing away a few steps then turning and fleeing.

"Shit," Mel muttered, shaking her head. "Damn it! Just when I had her convinced we aren't involved..."

That reaction affected Cole like a blow to the stomach. "I... I'm sorry, Mel," he whispered, dropping his hands. "I... I'm sorry," he repeated helplessly, wondering why the hell his eyes were suddenly full of tears. "I don't... I didn't..."

"Oh, it's okay, Cole," Mel whispered, wiping away his tears. "I'm sorry. I'm not mad at you, Cole. It was just... bad timing. It's okay. Come here," she ordered, pulling him into a hug.

Cole went obediently, but was not much comforted. He had sensed that the intimacy between them was growing by leaps and bounds since her illness and it had given him some hope that she might be willing to change the terms of their relationship. Mel's reaction, though, seemed to indicate otherwise. He sighed and reached up to dry away the last of his tears.

"I'm sorry, Mel," he repeated quietly. "I... I had hoped it might be something that you wanted. I... won't do it again."

"Cole, it's not that I don't... care about you. I do, you know that. It's just... complicated, too, you know?"

"I do, Mel," he agreed quietly, gently pulling out of her embrace.

"Cole, we need time to... figure out what we're really feeling here. We've come so close to losing each other and we've been forced into this relationship where you've had to do just about everything for me and then I had to help you so much and... it's confusing, Cole." She sighed and shook her head. "You like having someone to take care of, Cole. It reminds you of being married again. But... what if that's all it is? What if it's just that you like having someone to take care of?" she asked, tears in her own eyes.

Cole regarded her tenderly, shocked by her words. She actually seemed receptive to the idea of a more intimate relationship between them. "What if it is more?" he asked gently, reaching out and drying her tears before giving her throat a soothing caress.

"Then... time will tell." Mel shrugged. "There's no rush, Cole. You're not going anywhere any time soon, after all. Right now, we're in a state of... I don't know... enforced intimacy, I guess. So let's see what happens after that. Things will... they'll happen the way they're meant to happen."

"Yes, Mel," he agreed, smiling and nodding. "They will." In time she would grow to see him as a love, he was sure. They were meant to be, he had felt it in her kiss. "Jess seemed very upset, Mel. Maybe you should go comfort her?" he suggested.

"Yeah, think so. And try to do some damage control." Mel made a wry face. "Hey, could have been worse. At least she didn't notice that you were glowing."

"There is that, Mel," Cole agreed with a faint smile, retrieving his printouts as she rose. "I'll see you later, Mel."

"Okay, Cole. I..." She paused at the threshold of the room, turning to face him, her expression conflicted.

She wanted to come back to him, he realized, his heart doing a back flip, to give him the requested kiss. At the same time, though, she was scared to. "I understand, Mel," he assured her, smiling gently and nodding. "I'll see you later."

"Yeah," she murmured, turning and leaving the temptations of the bedroom behind. She looked around the bar for Jess in time to see her duck into the back room, obviously trying to avoid her. Cursing under her breath, she followed. "Jess," she sighed, closing the door behind them. "It's not what you--"

"I know it wasn't... I'm sorry, Mel. My timing was ruddy awful, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, it really was." Mel sighed and nodded. "Jess, I swear, nothing like that has ever happened before..."

"I know, Mel," Jess answered.

"You... know?" Mel repeated, blinking.

"Yeah. Cole adores you, but he told me when you were in the hospital that there wasn't anything going on with you."

"So months of not listening to me and all it takes is Cole telling you?" Mel asked with a grin, shaking her head. "Figures."

"Well, you know... We really opened up to each other the night you were admitted."

"I know," Mel said quietly, nodding. Cole's relationship to her was not the only one to have grown in intimacy since her illness. He was much closer to Jess as well.

"I bunged it up royally, didn't I?" Jess asked quietly. "I mean, he was finally taking the leap, wasn't he?"

"Yeah, he was about to take the leap, Jess, but I'd say that your timing was pretty much perfect."

Jess stared at her with wide eyes. "Mel, come on!" she protested. "I know how you feel about him, even if you try not to let it show. It can not have been unwelcome..."

"I'm not saying that I wasn't about to kiss the man, Jess, it's just... well, things are just very... confused right now. I mean, nearly losing each other and having to take the kind of care of each other than we've had to... it's just so confusing, Jess. My God, there are still nights when I need him to help me into the tub..." At Jess' wide eyes, she quickly added, "I mean, Cole's a perfect gentleman the whole time, always, not even taking a peek, but..."

"But it's not the sort of thing that 'just friends' do, either, is it?" Jess ventured, nodding her understanding. "You just don't know what you're feeling right now, do you, Mel?" she asked gently.

"No clue in Hell," Mel sighed, her shoulders slumping.

"You tell that to Cole?"

She gave a shaky nod, not quite able to bring herself to speak.

"He'll wait."

Mel's head shot up and she stared at Jess with wide eyes.

"He will. He adores you, Mel, and he'll wait for you to sort out your feelings." Jess gave her a reassuring smile and squeezed her shoulder. "Why don't you run upstairs and get some rest?" she suggested.

"No." Mel shook her head. "I really don't think I can be with Cole right now without doing something stupid."

"Then you can just have a sit-down on one of the couches and I'll make you a cup of tea," Jess said firmly, steering Mel from the back room. "Jonas would have my hide if he caught me letting you be down here for any length of time, you know."

"Yeah, I know. I still need to discuss him sharing that nickname with you," Mel noted.

"Oh, come on," Jess chuckled, shaking her head. "It's cute. And at least he didn't mention it to any of the other barmaids." She winked and nudged Mel in the direction of the nearest couch. "He's right, though. Irene'd want us to look after you."

"I have too many people looking after me lately," Mel grumbled, shaking her head and sinking onto the couch. She looked up as Jonas entered the bar, shaking her head. "And here's one now," she muttered, rising to meet him. "Jonas, hi!" she greeted him in a cheerful tone that immediately had the lawyer looking alarmed.

***

A week later, things were pretty much back to the way they had been before Cole had gotten ill. After Mel's tongue-lashing, Jonas was still shying away from spending any time in private with her, but the status quo was otherwise restored. Cole was no longer glowing even a little and was back to his Tracking duties and to following Mel around like a second shadow making sure she did not overdo.

The kiss in the bedroom and the one that had almost followed it up were not mentioned by either; both were still trying to sort out their feelings. But the emotional intimacy between them was exactly what it had been before. Every little act of closeness was like a Communion between them, a gift in its own right. There were a few nights when Cole still needed sleep, and Mel offered him the use of his bed as readily as he continued to offer her help getting into the bath and brushing her hair. Nothing seemed more natural in the world than this 'enforced intimacy' and it had both beginning to wonder if it was only the situation or if the feelings really had been there.

"Having trouble with your hair, Mel?" a quiet voice asked as she tugged a comb through her wet curls.

Her head shot up and she smiled widely at him. "Hey, welcome back!" she said, climbing to her feet and walking to meet him. "How'd it go?"

"Very well, Mel," he told her, smiling as she stood on her toes and planted the requisite kiss on his cheek. "How was your day?"

"Uh... long," she admitted, shrugging. "But I'm feeling pretty good. Tired but... good."

"I am glad, Mel," he told her, tenderly caressing her throat for a moment. Her life-force was definitely growing in strength. "Here, let me help you with your hair," he offered, plucking the comb that she still held from her hand and gesturing towards the couch.

"Thanks, Cole. I just get so uncoordinated when I'm tired..."

"Yes, but that is getting better, too," he observed, smiling and sitting down next to her. "I've noticed that your hands do not shake as often, either," he told her, gently separating out a tangle.

"Really?" she asked, smiling and relaxing as Cole gently worked out the tangles. "I hadn't even noticed that."

"I have. So have Jess and Jonas. We were discussing it yesterday."

"My God, don't you people have anything better to do?" she chuckled.

"Better than taking care of you, Mel? Of course not." Cole smiled tenderly down at her for a moment before returning his attention to her hair. "Besides, I have it on good authority that your grandmother would come back and haunt us to our dying days if we let anything happen to you."

"That so?" Mel asked with a chuckle, shaking her head.

"Hold still, Mel," Cole directed absently. "This tangle is horrible..."

"Oh, sorry." Mel bowed her head and silently submitted until Cole had finished vanquishing the horrifying snarl, smiling to herself. That was her determined Tracker alright, zeroing in on his target and not stopping until it was no longer a problem. "Thank you, Cole," she said quietly as he rose, doing her best to keep the amusement from her expression as she accepted his proffered hand and allowed him to tug her to her feet.

"You're welcome, Mel," he answered with a warm smile. "Get some rest now."

"Okay." Mel nodded and followed him down the hall to her bedroom. She hesitated at the door. "What about you? You going to need any sleep tonight?"

He could not entirely keep regret from his expression or voice as he shook his head and said, "No, Mel. I will not require sleep tonight."

Mel ignored the little pang of regret she felt at his words and nodded, forcing a smile. "Okay, Cole. You have a good night."

"You, too, Mel." He smiled warmly down at her and gave her throat a final caress. "Sleep well, Mel."

"Okay. Thanks, Cole. Night."

"Good night, Mel," he said softly, reluctantly turning to his own doorway. "Have sweet dreams."

"I will, Cole," she promised.

"And if you do not--"

"I'll come get you," she promised, nodding. "Okay, Cole. And if you do need some rest after all, you just go ahead and join me."

"I will, Mel. Sleep well, Mel."

"Yeah, Cole. Night."

Mel entered her own room then, aware that she could not really have prolonged their 'good nights' much longer. The simple truth was that she had had no desire whatsoever to say good night to Cole. She would much rather have had him join her, and that was a dangerous enough impulse without tempting fate further.

Cole entered the war-room with a soft sigh. He had very badly wanted to join Mel in her room and it had nothing to do with his body's need for rest. He was almost completely recovered from his illness; he simply enjoyed being so close to Mel. Depositing his fugitive's life-force in the containment unit, he abandoned the war-room in favor of the living room couch, feeling the need to meditate and sort out his confused feelings.

He did not take his meditation father than second-stage so that he would not lose track of the state of Mel's life-force. It was not the deepest of Cirronian meditation cycles, but it would be enough to refresh his mind and body while still retaining an awareness of what was happening around him. He considered his 'confused feelings' only to realize that there was very little confused about them. He knew exactly how he felt towards Mel. Her illness had forced him to accept what he had been denying to himself almost since the beginning. He loved her. How could he not?

He snapped out of his meditation, shaking his head. Of course he loved her, it went without saying. It was exactly as he had told Jess when Mel had been in the hospital: it was impossible to know her and not love her. The knowledge, his acceptance of it, were not as frightening as he would have thought. In fact, it was uplifting, almost a relief. He ignored the urge to join Mel after all, content in the knowledge that she would invite him to join her, and mean it, when she was ready. And when she had accepted him, he would give himself over to her gratefully.

Smiling faintly at the thought, he rose and returned to the war-room. He had a lot of work to catch up on, after all. An email from Nestov suggested that he might know where to find Caedra and Vaedra, a pair of Orsusian assassins. That was good news as the sisters were quite a dangerous pair.

As he followed up that lead, he kept close tabs on Mel's life-force, smiling when he saw that her sleep was not only restful but actually, for the first time in ages, pleasant.

"Sweet dreams, Mel," he murmured faintly, his smile growing as he allowed himself the possibility that her dreams might actually be of him. "Sweet dreams."

The End