Cold Comfort

Summary: Mel comforts Cole after his capture and examination in the episode "Breach".

Rating: PG

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

Spoilers: Breach

Author's Note: I started this right after I saw "Breach" the first time, didn't finish it until it aired the second time on the Sci Fi Channel, and just never got around to having it Beta-ed or posting it. Mahalo to Kameka for Betaing.

Feedback is a girl's best friend. Please feed me...

Cold Comfort

Mel crossed the war-room to where Cole was standing and slowly extended her hands. "We'll be fine. We erased the files," she said softly, hoping that she sounded more certain than she felt.

It made no difference and Cole knew it, but she was so worried. She always worried, of course, but he had never realized quite how much. Looking at her, though, that shy embarrassment when she had confessed to worrying. About him. He had asked why her people wanted to harm them, thinking more of Kres than of himself, trying to make sense of the senseless. Then he had seen that concern, more powerful than ever before.

"Did somebody hurt you?"

Her voice had been shaking, her eyes wide. So much fear and concern, almost too much for him to bear. Maybe he had been spending too much time with her species, because the lie came quite easily, more easily than it had any right to.

"No, not me."

It was a lie, and Cirronians did not lie, but how could he have told her anything else? She worried and he hated to see her like that. For Mel to be even a little worried was unacceptable in his mind and she had been near tears. He did not think he could have borne to see her any more upset. He still could not bear it…

So he slid his hands into hers and repeated her quiet assertion, not because it was true, neither of them believed that, but because both needed to hear it.

"We'll be fine," he agreed, giving her hands a slight squeeze before releasing them.

She half nodded, looking down at her feet again, wringing her hands.

"Why do your people want to harm us instead of talk to us, Mel?"

His eyes when he had asked that, the pain there. His eyes when he had told her that they had not hurt him… She knew he had been lying. It was not in his nature to say things that were not true, yet he had. Without a moment's hesitation, he had lied to her face. Why? Because he had not wanted her to worry. Because the truth would only have upset her more.

Oh, Cole… what did those monsters do to you?

She took a moment to contain the tears that threatened and then looked up at him again. "It's going to be okay," she promised. "It's… I… I won't let anyone hurt you," she whispered.

It sounded absurd even as she said it, her protecting him, but she had to. Had to protect him, had to reassure him. She had known, taking him in, that she might be called upon to do so. Part of her promise to help him had been a promise to keep him safe. And she would, no matter the cost. Creatures like him, sweet and gentle and kind beyond the pall of human experience, should not have to suffer, not ever. To the best of her ability, she would protect her gentle Cirronian from harm and pain, no matter what it took.

He looked up, startled by the sudden constriction in his chest at her words, more startled by how close to tears she seemed. "Mel…" he whispered uncertainly, reaching for her and then stopping, not sure how to react to this situation. She was upset. He had told her it would be okay and she was still upset. "Mel," he murmured, cradling her face in his hands. In spite of how alien it was, that act of comfort seemed natural to him.

Her head shot up. "Cole, your hands are like ice," she whispered. She stared at him with wide eyes, waiting for some explanation of that fact when another forced its way into her awareness. "You're still wearing your jacket! Oh, my God, Cole. Are you sick? Or hurt? Or--"

"Mel," he interrupted gently, shaking his head. "I'm okay. It's okay," he assured her. "I'm okay."

Mel shook her head. "You are not okay, Cole. Why are you wearing your jacket?"

"I'm just a little cold, Mel. It's okay." He gave her a smile he did not feel, hating to see her in such obvious distress.

Her voice a whisper, she asked, "Why are you so cold? What did they do to you?"

"They… used the cold to incapacitate me, Mel. That's all," he answered.

It was even a halfway honest statement. Certainly he had not been tortured as Kres had, if only because they had not known how to do so. The truth about those events would only frighten her; there was no need to do that. She was obviously disturbed enough as it was.

Mel composed herself and nodded, biting back the tears and smiling up at him with as much conviction as she could muster. "I won't let anyone hurt you," she repeated, nodding firmly. "Not ever again."

She nodded again and reached up, smoothing back his hair and then letting her fingers linger on his too-cold face. He closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, obviously needing it, so she tenderly cupped his face in her hands, stroking his cheeks with her fingertips. Leaning forward, she rested her forehead against his, closing her own eyes as well.

Fingers that were usually cool against his skin felt warm, just when he needed it the most, so he closed his eyes and leaned into her gently touch. It would not do much towards warming his chilled body, but when she touched her forehead to his own it instantly began to calm his turbulent emotions. With a sound between a moan and a sigh, he slipped his arms around her waist, grateful for her calming presence.

He tightened his hold on her, needing to feel her body against his, to know he was not as alone as he felt. "They tortured him, Mel," he said abruptly, shaking his head. "And then they shot him! I... I didn't want to, but... he saved my life… but I… I had to… to save his life, Mel…" He trailed off, dissolving into tears.

"Oh, Cole," she whispered, holding the crying Cirronian tightly. A Nodulian criminal had saved his life, and her people, her government, had tortured him and tried to kill him. And if they had tortured one alien in their custody she knew they had probably tortured both. There was no reason to suspect otherwise. They had tortured Kres. They had tortured Cole. "Oh, honey… Baby, it's going to be okay," she whispered, half-pulling him into the living room and making him sit down on the couch. "Shh… you're going to be fine. I promise, I won't let anyone hurt you, Cole, not ever again."

"They tortured him, Mel!" he sobbed, burying his face in her shoulder and clinging to her. "They tortured him! He was dying and they didn't care… Why, Mel?"

She shook her head helplessly. "I… I don't know, Cole. I… I'm so sorry…"

***

Jess had come upstairs to make sure that everything was okay. Mel had been even more high-strung than usual in the past few days, and then she had run upstairs without so much as a 'be right back' when she had heard that Cole was back. Obviously, something had Mel worried, so Jess wanted to make sure that everything was more or less as it should be. If not, she could at least offer Mel a shoulder to cry on and a sympathetic ear.

She had entered the apartment to hear Cole sobbing and Mel, sounding distraught and assuring him that she would never let anyone hurt him again. Again? Jess shivered at the implications of that word. She paused, torn, wondering if she should just go or if she should see if either of them needed anything. It seemed to be personal between them, so she turned to go, only to hear Cole sobbing that someone had been tortured nearly to death. Her blood running cold, she turned and fled down the stairs at a run.

Poor Cole. Whatever he did, and Jess suddenly found herself seriously doubting that it involved the INS, it was obviously a lot more dangerous than she would have credited it with being. No wonder Mel worried so much. No wonder she was so reluctant to involve Jess. She resolved not to trouble Mel with any more questions about Cole's line of work. Later, she would go to each of them separately and let them know that she was always there for them if they needed to talk, or just needed a hug. God, though. Poor Cole…

***

Mel held Cole until his sobs had subsided to sniffles. Her mind was running circles around itself the whole time, wondering what they had done to the two aliens, what else they would have done, and how hard they would try to get Cole back. God, poor Cole must have hated her species at that moment. She continued holding him, patting and rubbing his back and trying to find the words that would make everything right again. Except that nothing would ever be right again and no words would ever change that.

He continued to sit there with his arms around her and his face buried in her shoulder long after even the sniffles had passed, grateful for her quiet presence and what little warmth he could draw from her. He would never have supposed that the simple act of holding someone close like this could have been so incredibly comforting, but it was. He understood fully now why Mel had come into his arms like that after Tev. It was a very natural thing, the desire to give and to receive comfort, universal across species.

"Shh," she whispered lovingly.

Absently, not really thinking about it on anything but an instinctive level, she played her fingers up and down his throat, recalling how much comfort Cole could provide her with such a touch and hoping that it was as comforting to him now. It was, in essence, the Cirronian version of a kiss or a hug, she knew from earlier conversations. If it was what Cole needed now, she was more than willing to give it to him. She raised her other hand as well, doing her best to mimic what Cole had done in the hotel room after Tev had attacked her, stroking his throat with both hands. Encouraged when Cole closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, she continued on like that.

Cole could not help but feel a little guilty about enjoying her caresses as much as he did. Mel had no way of knowing that she had crossed over the line from a friendly touch to one that was technically only acceptable between mates and he was not about to tell her, doubted he could have if he had tried. It was not the sort of touch that might have been used before a joining, but it was still an undeniably intimate way of offering comfort. He could not help but feel that with Mel, perhaps, it was appropriate. That they were not mates did not change the fact that they had a uniquely close relationship and a… connection that transcended species.

"It's going to be okay, Cole," Mel whispered as she continued caressing his throat. "I promise."

He opened his eyes slightly and nodded. "I… I know, Mel," he sighed. "I just feel… It just all seems so wrong, the things they did to Kres, the fact that I had to Collect him to save his life…" A violent shiver tore his frame. "So cold, Mel…" he whispered.

She blinked, aware that his skin was still like ice under her hands, in spite of his coat, the warmth of the apartment, and that provided by her own touch and embrace. There was nothing normal about that. What had they done to him to make him so cold, hours after his escape? Was he in shock? Sick? What would she do if he was sick because of something they had done to him? How was she supposed to treat him? Bringing him to a doctor was out of the question, more now than ever before… And she was spending too much time thinking and not enough acting, she realized, mentally berating herself for it.

She immediately jumped to her feet, leaving the living room and quickly returned with a quilt, which she draped over him. She turned up the thermostat and sat down again, watching him with concern. She reached for his throat again, then hesitated, wondering if the moment had passed or not. She wanted to comfort him, but she also did not want to overstep any of his people's social bounds. Assuming they even had those. She wondered sometimes. They were just so open about everything but, at the same time, Cole was always so hesitant where physical contact was concerned…

Cole watched her reach for his throat again only to stop short. "Please, Mel?" he requested gently. "I… it helps." It did, too, simply knowing that she was there and cared enough to try. And quite aside from that and the wonderful way her hands always felt on his skin, her touch was incredibly soothing.

She nodded and resumed her interrupted caresses.

Cole smiled and reached up to gently stroke her throat in return, knowing that she was upset as well and in need of comfort of her own. Impulsively, he leaned forward and brushed his lips across her cheek as she sometimes did to greet him when he got back from Tracking a fugitive. Her fingers froze on his throat but she made no move to pull away.

He kissed her cheek again and whispered, "Ay ah'a noori cirot, Taushi." We're going to be fine, my love.

His eyes widened and he pulled away as he realized what he had just unintentionally called her. Taushi, my love, just as if they had been mates. He had never called Nallia 'Taushi', preferring Hwa'a, my heart, but that did not change the fact that the word was used only for a man's mate. What had he been thinking? Why had he done that?

"Are you okay, Cole?" Mel asked gently, startled by how abruptly he had pulled away.

His nod was stiff, but his tender smile was genuine. "I'm fine, Mel," he assured her. "Just… cold."

"Still?" she whispered, rearranging the blanket around his shoulders. "Why don't I make you a cup of hot tea and get you another blanket, okay? How's that sound?"

The idea of getting something warm into his system was an appealing one, as was the idea of having another blanket. So, for the matter, was the idea of having Mel care for him. "Sounds good, Mel."

"Okay." Mel left and returned a few minutes later with a blanket that Cole recognized as belonging on her bed. It was different then the one he was wrapped in now, thicker and filled with something soft and fluffy. He smiled up at her as she wrapped it around him, startled by how heavy it was. "It's a comforter," Mel explained at his questioning look. "Um, that's what we call them. It's filled with goose-down."

"Goose-down?"

She nodded. "Um… feathers from a kind of bird. They insulate really well, keeps the cold air out."

Cole nodded. Even though he had been wrapped in it for only a few seconds, he could see what Mel meant. It kept the cold air out and the warm air in. It must have been delightful for Mel to be able to spent several hours snuggled under it every night.

"I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything," she told him gently, reluctant to leave him even if she would only be a few feet away and plainly visible to him. "You just curl up here and get comfy."

He smiled and nodded, as always moved and gratified by her tender, almost wifely, concern. "Yes, Mel. Thank you, Mel." He smiled slightly and watched her move into the kitchen.

Recalling that he had once seen Mel doing something similar, he slid off his shoes and pulled his legs onto the couch and under the covers. By the time he had managed to rearrange himself into a position that was both comfortable and allowed his entire body to be under the blankets, Mel was carrying two steaming mugs back into the living room.

"Thank you, Mel," he murmured once she had settled herself next to him and handed him a cup of tea.

She smiled sadly at him. "I just wish I could do more," she told him with a shrug. "I… damn it, Cole, you must hate me so much right now," she whispered, bowing her head. Never in her life had she felt so ashamed on behalf of her people.

Startled, Cole set the cup down and sat up, leaning towards Mel and stroking her throat. "Mel, how could I ever hate you? Why?"

"The things my people did to you…" She trailed off, tears in her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Cole!"

"Mel," he whispered, shaking his head and drawing her awkwardly into his arms. This hugging was harder when they were both sitting but he managed to draw her against him at a slight angle. He wrapped his arms and his blankets around her, pulling her more tightly to his chest and resting his chin on top of her head. "These things that those people did to us… I understand that you had no part in it. I couldn't hate you, Mel," he confessed, whispering the words. "Not ever."

She had buried her face in his chest when he had hugged, but she looked up now. "I'm so sorry, Cole," she repeated. "My people, my government…" She shook her head.

"Just a small minority, Mel," he soothed, tracing random patterns on the back of her neck with his fingers and pretending that there was no intimacy engendered in the act. "You have nothing to be sorry for. These individuals work in secret and without the approval of your people. I understand that. You don't have to be sorry."

Mel nodded weakly and looked up at him. "Why are you so cold, Cole? Your skin's still like ice. Are you sick or… or hurt? What should I do? How do I take care of you?"

He smiled lovingly at her and shook his head faintly. "I'm not sick or hurt, Mel. Just very cold. The blankets are helping and I think the hot tea will help as well."

"What else can I do? How can I help?" she asked. "Please, Cole. Let me help you."

"You are helping, Mel," he assured her. "You are comforting me and helping me to get warm…" He shivered again.

"You poor baby," Mel whispered, shaking her head. "Why are you so cold?" she repeated. "Can you tell me?"

"Cirronians… low temperatures make them very weak. And they can interfere with our natural ability to heat our own bodies, so it takes us a long time to get warm again. We have to absorb the heat from our environment."

"Oh." Mel nodded slowly. "Finish your tea, Cole, then we'll get you warm."

"Okay, Mel." He nodded and sipped at the hot tea.

"Will you be okay here alone for one minute?" Mel asked gently. "I hate to, but I kind of rushed out on Jess. I have to let her know that I'll be up here with you for a little while."

He felt a small pang at her words, not wishing to be alone, but he smiled and nodded anyway. "I'll be fine, Mel."

"Okay. Finish your tea and I'll be back in one minute," she promised, reluctantly returning to the bar. "Hey, Jess."

"Mel?" Jess asked, watching her anxiously. "Are you okay?"

"Fine, but I need you to call Isabel or Bridgett to cover my shift. I'm not going to be down tonight."

"Isabel's on her way," Jess said quietly. "I kind of figured… He okay?"

Mel's eyes widened. "What did you hear?" she demanded in a low, shaky voice.

"Mel, I swear! I only came up to see if you were okay--"

"What did you hear?" she repeated more firmly.

Jess started at her shoes. "Some friend of Cole's got hurt, nearly died…"

Mel leaned across the bar and caught her hand. "You can't tell anyone, Jess," she whispered urgently.

"No, no, Mel, of course not." Jess nodded. "It's Cole's work. I may like to tease you about it, but I'm no blabber-mouth, either. I… I told Isabel that you were getting sick."

Mel gave Jess' hand a squeeze and planted a kiss on her cheek. "Thank you. I'll be upstairs with Cole."

"You two need anything?"

"Right now? Just some time alone. Cole needs… well, he's a little banged up physically and emotionally, so I'm going to try and help him out as best as I can."

"You do that, Mel." Jess nodded. "And if you do need anything, either of you, you just call on down."

"Yeah." Mel gave her hand another squeeze, then hurried back up the stairs. She locked the apartment door before returning to the living room where Cole was just finishing his tea. "Do you want more?" she offered gently, sitting down next to him.

He shook his head, setting down the cup and pulling the blankets more tightly around his body. "No, Mel. Thank you anyway."

"Yeah." Mel nodded weakly and cupped his face in her hands again. His skin did not feel even a little warmer than it had in the war-room and that had her worried. It had her worried, wondering if he might be suffering from hypothermia, shock at the very least. "Cole, we need to warm you up," she murmured.

"The blankets are helping, Mel," he assured her, not wanting her to worry.

"You don't feel any warmer to me, Cole," she protested.

"It will take time, Mel," he explained simply. "I need to absorb a great deal of heat to return my body to--"

"Cole," Mel interrupted quickly, before she could lose her nerve. He needed to absorb excess heat, she told herself firmly, and she knew exactly what the best way to help him do that was. Every woman who had ever been a girl scout knew the best way to conserve and share body-heat.

"Yes, Mel?"

She rose and extended her hand to him. "Come with me," she said, her voice trembling faintly.

He nodded and rose, sliding his hand into hers and holding the blankets tightly around his shoulders as he let her lead him into her bedroom.

"Mel?" he asked uncertainly.

"When a human gets cold, sometimes the best way to get him warm again is for him to curl up under a blanket with another human," Mel explained quietly, struggling to remain adequately detached. "You'll be able to absorb my own body's radiant heat this way," she explained.

He hesitated. Mel had made it clear to him in the past that her room was off-limits to him under most circumstances. Once, after he had been invited into her room, she had even become flustered when he sat down next to her on her bed. He did not think that lying with her in her bed would be any less uncomfortable for her. Yet she was inviting him to…

"It's okay," Mel whispered, taking his hand in hers. She gently unwrapped the blankets draped over him and tossed them onto the bed. "We're going to get you warm." She paused, allowing herself to consider for the first time exactly what she was about to do. " Are you okay with this, Cole?" she asked gently.

He nodded. "If you are."

"I'll be fine," she promised, smiling reassuringly. "We just need to get you warm."

Cole nodded again and submitted quietly as Mel stripped him to his briefs. He stood, shivering, as Mel pulled off her own shirt and jeans, then walked over and turned up the thermostat in the room. He felt a little curious when she closed, and locked, the door, but he did not comment. She seemed uncomfortable but determined as she helped him into bed and under the covers, spreading the two additional blankets from the living room over him as well before sliding in next to him.

"Okay," she muttered, carefully sliding her arms around him. "Um… I've never done this before, but I think we just need to… stay close. Our skin should be touching."

Cole nodded slowly and wrapped his own arms around her, pulling her into his chest. "Like this, Mel?"

"Yeah," she managed in a shaky voice, nodding.

"Are you okay, Mel?" he asked, concerned. "You sound worried."

You have no idea… "Hey, let's just focus on getting you warm," Mel suggested, slowly rubbing his arms.

Cole closed his eyes, wondering if the process was supposed to feel this good or if it only did because he was with Mel.

"You want to talk about it?" she offered quietly, grateful to change the subject.

"Does that help? Talking about things?"

"Yeah," she murmured, nodding and smiling faintly up at him. "It really does sometimes."

"Oh." Cole paused, considering, then began slowly, "Mel, I… I'm a Tracker. My job is to Track and apprehend fugitives, criminals. Kres was a criminal. But… he saved my life, Mel." He closed his eyes. "I didn't want to take his life-force, Mel. I… never before have I hesitated to take a fugitive life-force, but Kres… he saved my life. He risked himself to help me, Mel… No fugitive has ever done that before."

"Makes you think, doesn't it?" she ventured gently.

Cole nodded faintly. "He was a good man, Mel, in spite of his crimes."

She nodded and moved one hand to his face. "You know, Cole, whatever else is true, you did save his life," she pointed out, gently smoothing away a few stray tears that her Cirronian was shedding. "That has to be worth something."

Cole sighed, closing his eyes and leaning his face into her touch. "It is, Mel, it is, but… it's not enough. It seems so unjust."

"I know it does. It is… But…" She sighed deeply. "Cole, there is so much injustice in the universe…"

"I know that there is, Mel. But it doesn't make it any easier to accept."

"I know," she whispered. "I know. It's so hard to accept sometimes. That's where the talking comes in," she explained gently. "It does make acceptance easier."

"Maybe some things are not meant to be accepted, Mel," Cole suggested quietly.

Her eyes widened. "You think so?"

He nodded faintly. "Humans, Vardians... many species believe this, Mel. They… fight Fate. They try to reshape the universe into an image they like." Cole shrugged. "I don't want to accept this, Mel. Pain should not have to be a fact of life."

"No, no it shouldn't. But sometimes it is."

"I know, Mel." He sighed deeply. It was a fact of life and Cirronians were meant to accept that which was, that there were some things that they had no control over.

Mel sighed herself, biting her lower lip. She had hoped that maybe if she could get him talking about it that he would start down the road to feeling better, but talking did not seem to be helping. Which was not good since she could only think of one other psychological band-aid readily applicable while lying in bed with a distraught, mostly-naked man in her arms. Not an option with Cole, she told herself firmly. She was here to comfort this man and she was going to find a way to do it.

As soon as she got him warm. "You're still so cold," she whispered, closing her eyes. This could not possibly be healthy for a Cirronian.

"Warmer now," he assured her, glancing down at her with a reassuring expression. Hard not to grow warm in Mel's presence, impossible not to do so in her arms.

"Good, that's good," she murmured, smiling up at him and lightly touching his face with one hand.

Cole regarded her thoughtfully, pained by her sad expression. "It's going to be okay, Mel," he promised, his hand coming to rest on her cheek. His fingertips lightly stroked across her cheek, half mimicking the action of her own and half acting on instinct. "Everything is going to be okay."

"Cole…" Mel held her breath, closing her eyes as waves of warmth filled her. Somehow, though, that tender touch was more like an accusation to her than anything else. "I'm so sorry this had to happen to you," she whispered, biting back tears.

"It's not your fault," he assured her.

"Like hell! Damn it, Cole, when I agreed to help you, protecting you was a part of that…"

"Mel," he sighed, drawing her closer. "No one can protect anyone else every moment. Believe me, I know."

Mel stifled a sob, burying her face in his chest and shaking her head. "It's not fair…"

"Life seldom is. Even Cirronians know that," he told her gently. "But life will carry on. Everything will be okay. We'll be fine."

She looked up at him with wide eyes. "Do you honestly believe that?" she whispered.

"I do, Mel. I have to." He sighed softly, hugging her close. "You seem very tired, Mel. Rest now."

"What about you," she protested.

"I will rest as well. I am very tired, too. May I rest here?" he asked hopefully. He was still cold, but there was more to it than that, a very real need to be reassured that he was not alone.

"Any time, Cole. As long as you need to," she assured him. "I just wish I could do more."

"This is enough," he assured her. "This is what I need. This is all that I need."

"You sure?"

"I am. Rest, Mel. I will be fine."

"Will you?" she asked quietly, looking up at him.

Cole considered the question for a moment before smiling down at the creature holding him in her arms, comforting him and loving him. "I will be now, Mel. Rest," he directed, passing his hand in front of her face and releasing a burst of energy that put the upset woman into a state of restful, dreamless sleep.

Sighing softly, he tightened his gentle hold on her, soaking up her radiant heat and reveling in the knowledge that she cared. It was a comforting piece of intelligence to a man who could do little but worry at present. Their pursuit of Kres, their capture of him, the possibility that they might come for him again.

The possibility that Mel might get caught in the crossfire...

Another shudder tore through his frame at the thought and he spasmodically tightened his grasp on her. She stirred in her sleep, mumbling a protest. Cole murmured soothingly in Cirronian, loosening his hold only marginally.

"I will keep you safe," he promised.

In truth, he knew, they would keep each other safe, exactly as they always had and always would. As comfort went, it was a cold one, but it was something. It was all he had. It would just have to be enough...

The End