Show of Affection
Summary: After the ep 'The Plague', Cole and Mel reflect on hugs and on their changing feelings towards each other.
Disclaimer: I don't own them, but, hey, just as soon as that deal with Zin goes through…
Timeline: Right after the ep "The Plague"
Spoilers: The Plague
Feedback: Better than Fek-Maln. Feed me, feed me!!! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Show of Affection
Cole tried, without luck, to concentrate on the newspaper Mel had given him to read. She had suggested that he read it every morning, not to improve his reading skills which were now on par with those of any human adult, but to get a feel for the way the world worked. It was always a source of interest for him, an almost random survey of different human customs and behaviors. Today, though, he simply could not focus on the words printed there.
His mind, and his gaze, kept traveling back to Mel. Mel, the strange creature who had taken him in without hesitation, who had helped him in every way possible without expecting anything in return. Mel, stubborn, brave, beautiful Mel.
Cole blinked and closed the paper, watching her as she poured another drink for her friend Jonas Carr, the only customer in the bar. She smiled and laughed at something he said and Cole's impression of her as beautiful was confirmed.
Cole closed his eyes in confusion and shook his head. She was not a beautiful creature. Cirronians were beautiful. Humans were just strange-looking. Right? He looked up at her again, leaning against the bar with her elbows and cheerfully talking with Jonas. He struggled for a moment to recall his initial impression of her appearance. Strange, yes. Strange and more. He had viewed her, all humans, as ungainly, graceless, ill-proportioned creatures with just the wrong amount of fur. None at all would have been attractive, a full pelt at least acceptable, but this partial and seemingly random coverage was totally impractical, as if evolution had given up on the species half-way. Many aspects of their appearance gave that impression, that evolution had just given up on the species, thrown them aside as a false start.
The problem, though, was that Mel was not ungainly, and there was nothing strange about her appearance. She was graceful and beautifully proportioned. Her hair shone in the sunlight, attractive even if it was impractical. And her face… He shook his head in frustrated confusion. When had he started thinking of her as beautiful? How? Why? When had she changed? When had her voice become music instead of cacophony? When had her touch, and hers alone, become something that his body craved? When had her eyes when she laughed begun to remind him of Nallia's?
No, that last one, he realized, was wrong. As much as he wanted to compare the things he found most beautiful in her to the things he had found most beautiful in his wife, it was incorrect. Mel was not Nallia and never would be. So why was this strange creature suddenly so… familiar? Why was her form, alone in her species, one that he found lovely? Her form, her voice, her touch… Cole closed his eyes, staggered by an abrupt realization. Suddenly, with stunning clarity, he understood exactly why he had stopped drawing comparisons in his mind between Mel and his daughter and started drawing them between Mel and his wife.
It had been so much easier to be able to view her as a child, one to protect. But to see her as a woman, one to love? When had it happened? How? When they had first found each other, he had viewed her as a child, a creature who needed to be protected, nurtured. She had seen him the same way, he knew, and it had always amused him. Now, he found it less amusing. He did not want her protection or her nurturing. He was not even sure if her language contained words for what he wanted from this no longer strange life-form.
He was not sure when his view of her had changed, whether the transition had been gradual or abrupt. He only knew when he had become aware of it.
The awareness that he very well might lose her to Tev had left him feeling empty and alone. It had taken that to make him realize that he had not felt empty or alone in weeks. Mel had filled some void in his soul, and Cole had known that losing her would bring it back, worse than before. There had been no time to think on that. His only thought was of finding her, making her safe. Seeing her struggling valiantly but futilely against Tev had filled him with anger at the Nodulian. Cole had not Collected a life-force with such satisfaction since Rhee, and he had intentionally made the process slow and agonizing, not even aware of Mel's horror as she looked on until much later.
Having dealt with Tev, he had turned his attention to Mel. He had not just seen the fear she had experienced, he had felt it, pouring off of her in waves. It had been almost overwhelming, and he would have done anything to ease it. A caress of the throat, not unlike one he would have used to soothe his daughter, without him even thinking about it, had become more like the sort of touch he would have used to calm his wife. Doubting that she would understand that distinction, he had not bothered to censor himself. In many ways, the touch had soothed him as much as it had soothed her.
Then she had touched him, first his face, then her hands had moved lower, until she stood with her arms around him, her hands clutching him, her face buried in his shirt. He had not known what she was doing, or why, had not known how to respond, but feeling her body against his had started a fire smoldering within him, although he had been far too concerned about her at the time to be aware of it. Now though, in retrospect, there could be no doubt.
He recalled an early occasion, where Mel had been standing against a wall and he had been within inches of her. That gap between them, so small in terms of actual space, had seemed enormous and he had found himself badly wanting nothing more than to bridge it, to close the distance. His ignorance of human custom had prevented it, but he had felt that need all the same. He had seen something in her eyes. A confused mixture of anticipation and anxiety; she had wanted something from him but had, at the same time, been afraid that he might give it to her. Looking back on it now, he realized that this contact was what he had craved then, what Mel had wanted but been afraid of.
Now, he found himself curious about it, craving it that much more, wanting to understand it. Wanting to experience it again for no good reason he could name, to feel her body against his. Why that thought should make his heart beat faster and his body grow warm was beyond him. Recalling the look on Mel's face on the earlier occasion only intensified these feelings within him and made him want it that much more. This body had instincts of its own, ones that often conflicted with his Cirronian ones. Cirronians were not, as a general rule, touchers even with their closest family members. Quite aside from the fact that they did not experience sensation physically, there was no real need for such contact. Humans, though, touched all the time, enjoyed touching and being touched. Cole could not help but find that difference unsettling, perhaps more so because, in his human body, he found himself feeling those same things, enjoying random, casual, meaningless contact. Craving it.
As Jonas rose to leave, Mel circled the bar and quickly slid her arms around him. Jonas smiled and hugged her back, touching his lips to her cheek. Cole frowning, rubbing thoughtful fingers over his own lips, wondering at the gesture and wishing that he were in Jonas' place. That reaction was confusing, too, not something he had ever felt before. He was no more sure why he felt that way than he was about why he wanted to touch Mel again in the first place. Troubled, he walked up the stairs to the apartment.
Mel turned in time to see him go, but since she had not seen his troubled expression she thought nothing of it. When Jess came in a few minutes later, Mel greeted her cheerfully, spending a few minutes in idle conversation with her before another customer walked in. Leaving Jess to deal with him, Mel walked upstairs to see what Cole was up to. She was surprised to find him sitting in the living-room, a grave and thoughtful expression on his face.
"Hey, something wrong?" she asked, a little worried.
"Why did you touch Jonas like that?" he asked, looking at her curiously.
Mel frowned, startled by the question, trying to make sense of it. "Uh, what do you mean?"
"Why did you touch Jonas like that?" he repeated. "Why did you put your hands on him like that when he was leaving?"
Mel considered for a moment, sitting down next to him. It was strange, she reflected, how quickly one became used to educating an alien about human customs. As awkward as it had been at first, there was no longer anything even slightly usual in her mind about explaining these things to her strange guest. Of course, her guest no longer seemed that strange himself. Familiarity had gone a long way towards convincing Mel that Cole was really not that much different than any of the men she had known in her life. Smarter, perhaps, and more gentle, but really not that different from a human man in any tangible sense.
"It was a hug, Cole. It's just a thing humans do." She shrugged.
"Were you troubled?" he asked, frowning. "Upset?"
Startled, Mel shook her head. "No." Confused, she asked, "Why would you think that, Cole?"
"When you touched me like that, you were upset."
"Oh." Mel nodded, understanding how he might be confused. "Um, hugs can mean different things."
He turned to face her, trying to make sense of that. "What things?" he asked, staring curiously at her. If humans were somehow genetically keyed to convey and receive different messages from different types of physical contact, it might explain this body's troubling need for contact with Mel.
Mel shrugged, a little taken aback by his intense gaze. She could see his mind working and, although she had no idea what he was thinking, she was unsettled all the same. She rose and walked into the kitchen, as much to get away from that look, from the confused flurry of reactions it caused in her, as to pour herself a glass of water. Cole followed.
"Um, hugging…" She shrugged, staring at the glass in her hand rather than at him. She sternly forced herself to think about anything other than her body's all-too-physical reaction to that look. It was insane. "It's… um, a touch between human friends. Conveys… strong emotions, usually. But… they can be good, like affection, or bad, like fear."
Cole nodded. "You hug Jonas for affection?" he asked, beginning to understand. It was not unlike the Cirronian custom of touching the throat of a loved one. One of the few touches the species indulged in, it could convey affection, reassurance, approval, or any of a dozen other feelings.
Mel nodded, absently correcting his syntax. "I hug Jonas to display my affection for him, yeah. He's been a family friend for as long as I can remember. He's very nice, a good guy."
"Why don't you hug me to display affection? Why only when you're upset?" he pressed, wondering at the distinction. "Do you not feel affection for me?" That thought was troubling beyond words, although he would have been hard-pressed to articulate why this might have been the case.
"Uh…" Mel stared up at him, feeling a little like a deer confronted by the headlights of a car. "Um, well, yeah, Cole. Of course I do."
"Then why do you only touch me like that when you're upset?"
"Hug, it's called a hug," she reminded him absently.
Cole nodded. "Hug," he repeated dutifully. "Why do you only hug me when you're upset?"
Mel shrugged, feeling absurdly defensive and struggling not to let it show. "Not all friends are the kind of friends you hug all the time, Cole."
"You feel more affection for Jonas than for me?" he asked, frowning and not liking the thought at all.
"No, Cole." She shook her head firmly, startled that he would assume that and more startled by his hurt look. "Of course not. Don't be silly. It's just that, with Jonas, he's… more like family than like a friend."
He nodded. "I understand, Mel. You only hug some kind of friends to show affection."
"Right!" Mel nodded quickly, feeling a little relieved that the topic seemed to be closed. Relief lasted for less than five seconds.
"Did I react improperly when you hugged me, Mel?" he asked, frowning curiously at her.
"Of course not! What do you mean? Why would you think that?"
"When you hugged Jonas, he hugged you back. When you hugged me, I didn't."
"Oh." Mel shrugged. "That's okay, though, Cole. You didn't know what I was doing or why. I shouldn't have hugged you in the first place. I was just upset."
"Would it have comforted you more if I had put my arms around you?" he asked, frowning uncertainly. As badly as he had wanted to comfort her, it hurt to think that he might have failed to do so through an improper reaction.
"Um…" Mel shrugged helplessly. "Don't know, Cole. Maybe, maybe not. It was just… um, right then I needed to know that I wasn't alone. Do you… can you understand that?"
The Cirronian, who often felt very alone himself, nodded. "Of course, Mel." He paused for a moment. "Humans touch a lot," he observed, wondering if this was their way of convincing themselves that they were not, in fact, alone in the universe. It would not have surprised him that a species who could not sense the life-forces of their loved ones would have been forced to communicate their presence in this way. It was a shallow reflection, but it seemed to be all they had.
"Yeah, they do. Don't Cirronians?"
"Not as much as humans, Mel." He shook his head. "Show me how to hug," he requested abruptly, very much wanting to do it right the next time, hoping that there would be a next time.
"What?" she asked, taking an involuntary step away.
Cole frowned, confused by her reaction. "Is this… not appropriate?" he asked, perplexed. He knew from earlier conversations with her that some forms of contact were simply not appropriate between unmated adults. Still, if that were the case, why had she hugged him in the first place? Her species, their customs, could be so very confusing at times.
"Um, no," Mel assured him quickly, shaking her head. "You just… surprised me." She gave him a reassuring smile.
"Will you show me?" he asked hopefully.
Mel considered for a moment. Part of her insisted that it was a very bad idea to hug Cole, reminded her that she was dating Vic and that while Cole might look it, he was not human and did not always understand human boundaries of behavior. Another part assured her that he was just being his normal, curious self, doing his best to blend in to his new environment and that a simple hug was completely harmless. Hugging a friend did not by any stretch of the imagination qualify as being unfaithful to Vic. That was as true with Cole as it was with Jonas.
She nodded slowly, squaring her shoulders. "It's not hard. You just… um, put your arms around each other."
Putting her glass down, she approached him cautiously. The part of her mind that found the Cirronian as attractive as he was intriguing was loudly cautioning her against this. She silenced this part of her mind quickly. It was, after all, just a hug. A simple, harmless hug. And hugs were, as she had told Cole, a gesture between friends. Looking up at him, into curious, eager eyes, she slid her arms around his back, waiting for him to do the same.
He stood, unmoving, looking down at her, his face thoughtful. The touch was an appealing one, the feel of her body against his incredibly pleasant for no good reason that he could understand. Although it was strange and unfamiliar to him, it felt right, natural to have her arms around him and their bodies gently touching. Yes, he could definitely see what her species saw in this form of contact.
"You just do exactly what I'm doing," she told him gently when he made no move to reciprocate.
Cole nodded and slowly placed his hands against her back. It was wrong, though. There was too much space between them this time. There had not been before, nor had there been when she had hugged Jonas, so he pulled her closer, freezing at her startled gasp, afraid that he had done something wrong.
"It's okay," she assured him, trying to convince herself of the same thing. "You just surprised me. That's right, though."
"No." Cole shook his head, aware that something had changed in Mel's manner. Strangely, she was nervous, and it was affecting her response to him. "This is different. Why are you so stiff?"
"What?" Mel blinked, surprised to realize that she was stiff. What a silly reaction. With an embarrassed laugh, she relaxed in his arms, resting her cheek against his shoulder. "Like that."
"It's very nice," Cole told her, smiling and rubbing his cheek thoughtfully against her hair. His body was acutely aware of every location where her body was touching him. Now that he was not worried about her, now that she had relaxed, it felt very nice indeed. He never wanted to release her. "I can see why humans like this."
"Yeah." Mel nodded, not feeling particularly inclined to break away. "Humans are like that. Um, tactile. We're a very tactile species."
Cole nodded. "Yes, Mel. I'd noticed. If you are upset, this is how I should comfort you?" he asked.
"Um, yeah." Mel nodded and started to pull away. Tried to, actually. Cole seemed less than inclined to release his gentle grip on her. "You can let go now," she told him gently.
"Do I have to?" he asked reluctantly.
Mel closed her eyes, startled. The part of her mind that had insisted that this was unwise was having a lovely I-told-you-so at her expense. "Um, you… should, yeah. Hugging for too long… well, friends just don't."
"Yes, Mel." Feeling disappointed, Cole began to release her. Recalling Jonas' gesture as he had released her, he brushed his lips against her cheek as well.
Mel felt her face redden, and not entirely from embarrassment. She quickly took several steps back until the counter stopped her progress. Cole was watching, as curious about her reaction to the gesture as he was to his own reaction. His head was swimming and he very badly wanted to repeat the gesture. More, he found himself wishing that Mel would make such a gesture to him.
"What is it called?" he asked, watching her closely. She had enjoyed it, there could be no doubt about that. He had felt her enjoyment at that touch as clearly as he had felt her fear in the hotel room and her discomfort earlier. She had definitely enjoyed it, but she was distressed as well. Curious.
Flustered, Mel looked at him in confusion. "What is what called?" she managed in a shaky voice.
"This." Cole closed the distance between them and again brushed his lips against her cheek again, enjoying the sensation, enjoying Mel's enjoyment of it. "What is it called?"
Mel closed her eyes, struggling to compose herself. She had absolutely no right to react that strongly to a friendly kiss on the cheek from Cole. As long as she was dating Vic, it could not be allowed.
"Mel? Is something wrong?" Cole asked, alarmed. As much as he had enjoyed her enjoyment of the contact, she was very upset now, and he was sorry to have been the cause of that. He had not meant to upset her, but clearly he had managed to.
"It's called a kiss, Cole," Mel managed, taking a deep breath and staring up at him. "It's for family or, um… um… mates, and you can't do it again. Okay?"
"Why?" he asked, strangely disappointed by the restriction. He would not fight the restriction, did not want to upset Mel further, but he did not like it one bit.
"It's just… not something that friends do." Mel shook her head, confused, angry with herself, embarrassed…
"Jonas did it."
"That was different. Look, just… please don't do it again, okay?" Seeing his confused expression, she explained firmly, "It's just not appropriate, okay?"
Cole nodded slowly, feeling a little sad. "Yes, Mel," he said softly. If it troubled her that much, he would restrict himself in the future, no matter how much he might wish to do otherwise.
Mel winced at his hurt expression, cursing herself for the lack of foresight that had led to it. Sighing, she tried to explain. "Cole, you know that I'm dating Vic, right? Do you understand what that means?"
He nodded. "Courtship, yes, Mel. I understand."
"Good." She nodded slowly. "Um, the fact that I'm involved with him, dating him, means that certain things just aren't appropriate for me to share with another man," she explained gently.
Cole frowned, confused. "Then what Jonas did was not appropriate?"
Mel inhaled deeply. "No, Cole, it was. With Jonas, it's different. It was… more the way a father would kiss a daughter."
Cole nodded. This was a distinction that he could understand, at least. "Yes, Mel."
Curious, she asked without thinking, "Do they have kissing on your planet?"
Cole considered for a moment, not sure how to explain. Kissing for humans was clearly a gesture of extreme affection, one that, as Mel had explained, was limited to family and mates. Cirronians did not touch their mouths to the faces of other Cirronians, but they felt and expressed those same kinds of emotions in their own ways. While the form was different, the idea it was meant to convey was the same.
"Like this," he told her, reaching for her throat. When she tensed, he gently explained, "As a father would touch his daughter, Mel." This was clearly a more acceptable mode of expression to her, so he wanted her to understand the distinction. If touching his lips to her face was unacceptable to her, then touching her as he would have touched Nallia was an equally unacceptable gesture.
Mel swallowed hard and nodded, allowing him to touch her throat as he had in the hotel room. She was relieved that the sensation was not as… intense as it had been then. If she had not been so upset then, the way he had touched her there could easily have allowed her to forget that she was involved with Vic and to do something inappropriate with Cole. As comforting as the touch had been, there had also been something incredibly erotic about it, although she seriously doubted that he had meant it that way. This time, though, it was different, nothing more than a gentle display of regard. She could easily picture Cole touching his daughter this way a dozen times a day.
"It's very nice," she told him softly, smiling.
Cole smiled and nodded. He could feel the gentle warmth that filled her body as he caressed her throat, could feel the calm that accompanied it and the affection towards him that the gesture seemed only to amplify. He could also feel, more faintly, her understanding of the affection engendered in the touch, her acceptance of it as a gesture of love that had nothing to do with the kind of love a man traditionally felt for a woman. It encompassed many, if not all, of his feelings for Mel without upsetting her. That made it, in his mind, far better than the earlier kiss.
"Yes, Mel, it is very nice. Would you prefer if, when you are upset, I comfort you like this?"
Mel considered for a moment, then shook her head. "No. I don't think another human would understand if he saw you touching me like that."
"It would seem inappropriate?" he guessed.
"Yeah." Mel nodded. "It probably would."
"Then I won't do it again," he told her, feeling a little regretful.
Feeling a little regretful herself, Mel temporized, "Just not in public, okay?"
Cole blinked, processing this. She was giving him tacit permission to touch her in this way again in the future, as long as they were alone. Strange. But not unwelcome. Smiling slowly, he nodded.
"Thank you, Mel."
"Um… you're… welcome," she said, not entirely sure what he was thanking her for. "Um, I'm going to go back downstairs now. I've got a lot of work to do, okay?"
"Yes, Mel." As she turned away, he asked, "Mel?"
"Yeah, Cole?" she asked, turning to face him again.
"How long is appropriate for hugging a friend?"
She considered. "That's a hard question to answer, Cole. It kind of depends on a lot of different factors."
Cole frowned. "How will I know?"
"Um… You plan on doing a lot of hugging in the future?" she asked to cover her own uncertainty at the question and how to answer it.
"If you are upset, this is how I should comfort you," he pointed out. "How do I know how long to hold you?"
Mel shrugged, smiling a little uncomfortably as the conversation once again drifted towards the physical. As nice and non-sexual as the throat caress had been, hugging Cole, no matter what it was meant to convey was different. He was an incredibly attractive man with an incredible body and it was hard to hug him and not be aware of this fact. Hugging him filled her with conflicting emotions.
"You just… follow my lead. Let go when I do, okay?"
He nodded. "Yes, Mel. Thank you, Mel." As she turned to leave, he called to her again. "Mel?"
"Yeah, Cole?" she asked, wondering what he could possible want to know this time.
"Why is your face that color?"
Mel raised one hand unconsciously to her cheek, aware that she was blushing rather badly. With a nervous smile and a shrug, she fled.
Cole frowned and watched her go, as confused by her behavior as he was by his own feelings. Of course, he was quite used to being confused by Mel's behavior, but being confused by his own feelings was a new experience for him. Sighing deeply, he struggled to resolve that confusion.
It was incredibly difficult to try to distinguish between the different things he felt for Mel, the affection that was like that which a father felt for his daughter and that which was more similar to what a man felt for his wife. The line was further blurred by the fine distinctions that humans made between different forms of physical contact. It seemed like there was always some risk associated with expressing affection physically, a chance of stepping over the line, of turning a platonic display of affection into something else entirely. He had no desire to cross that line. After all, Mel had Vic. She was interested in Cole as nothing more than a friend.
Shaking his head and pouring himself a glass of water, he decided that it would be best, for the time being, to avoid displaying his affection for Mel physically. Humans indulged in many non-affectionate forms of contact, and he was just going to have to restrict himself to those, expressing his affections for Mel in other ways more appropriate to their situation. How difficult could it be?
"Incredibly difficult," he muttered, starting down the stairs. Still, he would not let that stop him. Proceeding in any other way than the one he had chosen would have been wrong, inappropriate.
"Going for a walk, Mel," he announced on his way out the door.
"Do you have your cell-phone?" she asked automatically.
He smiled and nodded, touched as always by her concern for him. "Yes, Mel." He dutifully held it up for her inspection, then smiled again and left.
"What?" Mel demanded when she became aware that Jess was staring at her with a grin.
"You do realize how bad you've got it?" Jess asked, shaking her head.
Mel, who had recently come to realize exactly how bad she had it, shook her head. "Don't start, Jess…" she ordered firmly.