2 -- Cole

Cole shook his head in frustration as he stared at the computer screen. He had been looking at the same information for hours without really absorbing any of it. His attention kept returning to that stupid model head, after which, it inevitably turned to Mel, charming, beautiful, utterly incomprehensible Mel.

She understood. She said that she had understood. But she had seemed so damned depressed, too. He knew the feeling, wanted nothing more than to comfort her, but knew better. When Mel was upset, she sometimes put her arms around him, and that might lead to... other things. His lips still burned with the kiss that they shared. His body screamed at him to repeat it while his mind firmly refuted the possibility of ever sharing another such moment with her. It could not be allowed to happen again, and rationally he knew that. The problem was that Mel was a very distracting influence in his life. He should have known better, should have remained detached, but with Mel that had been impossible from the first.

It was not what humans called 'love at first sight', he was sure of that. From what he could tell, that was nothing more than an incredibly strong physical attraction which, occasionally, turned out well. Being physically attracted to Mel had been impossible at first. Human bodies were strange things, and for a long time it had been hard for him to know what to make of them, for good or bad. His own was more of an impediment than anything at first, especially when Mel was close. It reacted to her in ways that he could not predict or explain. It was not unpleasant, in fact it was usually very pleasant, but it confused him.

In time, he had come to understand that Mel was very attractive by human standards, but he was still not entirely sure what made her so. As far as he was concerned, humans tended to look very similar to one another. His growing interest in Mel had come from something else entirely. At first, Mel had done nothing more than fill a need in his life. She was a human who knew what he was and could help him blend in to the culture, teach him things. The truth, though, was that their relationship had stopped being about that a long time ago.

Mel was, and had been for some time now, more than a mere helper, more even than a friend or professional partner. At first he had needed her help. Now he just needed her. She was someone that he could talk to, ask questions of, formulate plans with, or just be around when being alone became intolerable. Her presence comforted him when he was upset and, when he was happy, it made him more so. Her smile made him want to smile. The sound of her voice, once so strange to his ears, had become almost musical to him. Hearing it always lifted his mood. Of all the humans on this planet, she was the one that he would have trusted with his life.

It was difficult for him to say when he had started caring for her more as a mate than a friend. It had been a while ago, he was sure. Certainly he had been feeling these things well before he was aware of them, or, at least, that was the feel he got when he looked back over their relationship and interactions. Responses to her that he had not understood at the time now made sense in light of his new feelings for her. He would have happily welcomed the relationship, which would have been the first since his mate's death. The problem was that it was exactly this kind of relationship that had gotten his mate killed. His inability to focus had translated into an inability to protect her. And their daughter.

Cole was unwilling to lose Mel in the same way he had lost them. Mel did not seem to realize that she was in as much danger from the fugitives because of her relationship with Cole as Cole himself was from them. If he had been the only one at risk, he might have been willing to pursue a relationship with her, but with Mel potentially in danger too, there could be no relationship. Cole knew that he could never bring himself not to care for her, but he also knew that things could not continue to progress in the way that they had begun to, even before the seminar. Friendship had, at some point, turned into cautious courtship.

Sometimes, against all reason, he was afraid to leave her alone at the Watchfire, or anxious for her when she went out with her friends. He knew what he was doing when he felt these things, knew that it was irrational and had less to do with Mel than with his mate, but he was powerless to stop himself. He worried until his stomach hurt about her safety when he was chasing fugitives or when she was at the store. Sometimes, when he closed his eyes, he saw Mel's image in his head. That was nice, but sometimes the image in his head was in pain or in trouble, because, after all, he was not the only one who knew what Mel looked like. Zin had seen her. The Orususian assassins had known about her, had probably gotten her description from Zin. They would have killed her in an instant if she had gotten in the way of their plans for Cole. They had been professionals, not killing her because it had not been necessary to. Others among those he pursued would have killed her anyway, just to make him suffer.

He knew that, and the though made him want to be ill. Without Mel, he would be alone once more. As much as he wanted more from their relationship, he knew that it could not be without putting her in danger. Better to keep her as a friend than to lose her as a mate. It made sense. He knew that it made sense. But he still could not fully accept it. He knew that he was being selfish, and he hated himself for it, but that did not change his feelings. He had convinced Mel that their relationship could not become more than it already was, now he only had to convince himself.

Sighing, he rose, intending to go into the kitchen to get something to eat. He paused outside of Mel's bedroom door. He could feel her presence inside. When had that happened? When had her life-force become so special to him that he could pick it out from all the humans around her, even in a crowded room?

They could talk, he decided, pushing the door open, wanting to comfort her and honestly not caring what it led to as long as Mel was happy. He stopped in the threshold: the lights were off, Mel sleeping on her bed.

She had been crying, but now she was sleeping peacefully, a slight smile on her face. Cole smiled at the sight of her smile. Whatever she was dreaming of, it was making her happy, and that made him happy. He watched her sleep for what might have been minutes or hours, his own anxiety and confusion slipping away. She was very pretty when she slept, very calm. He wished that he could have been the cause of that wonderful smile and then recalled that she had smiled like that at the seminar when he had touched her during the couple's session.

He withdrew from the room abruptly, his sense of serenity evaporating, replaced by confusion and desire. He retreated down the stairs, not wanting to be near her while his thoughts were so chaotic.

"Cole..." Jess said as he walked into the bar. She was about to demand an explanation from him of what he had done to so thoroughly upset Mel, until she saw his face and realized that, whatever had passed between them, Mel was not the only one who had been crying over it.

"Hello, Jess..." he said absently, sitting in a corner.

"You okay?" she asked gently, joining him.

He looked up at her thoughtfully for a moment. "Jess, why..." He paused, not entirely sure how to express himself.

Jess waited patiently for him to find the words he was looking for.

"Why, when you care about someone, does it sometimes hurt so much?"

Jess stared at him with wide eyes. "That's a good question, Cole. I... I don't really know."

Cole nodded, not entirely surprised. He had thought that, with the emphasis that humans placed on love, they might have had the answer. Obviously not. He supposed it was the same on every planet. Some things were just beyond explanation.

Jess sighed, seeing that her answer seemed to have upset him more. "What I do know is that, usually, it's worth the pain in the end."

"What if the ending can't be happy?" Cole asked softly.

"Hey, Cole." Jess took his hand in hers and smiled at him. "There's always a chance at having a happy ending. Sometimes... you just have to work a little harder for it. It's not always the fairy-tale happily-ever-after, but... Don't give up on the two of you, Cole. Things have a habit of working out for the best."

He looked up at her, somewhat surprised that Jess seemed to know what had him upset. It must have been that 'women's intuition' that Mel sometimes mentioned.

Jess patted his shoulder and rose. "My mum used to tell me that all the little pains in this life just make all the little pleasures that much nicer by comparison. It's okay if a relationship doesn't go perfectly at first. The important thing is that it works in the long-run." She smiled at him. "Cheer up, Cole. In a few days, you won't even remember what you were fighting about."

He nodded and smiled sadly. "That would be nice..." he muttered. With a sigh, he rose and returned to his room. Shaking his head, he sat down at the computer and resumed working.