Chapter 4


Angie landed in front of the two story, log finish, house and Collin led her to the stable to rub her down. When he'd settled her in, he walked to the house, noting that the last of the flowers were gone, and a few deciduous trees had started to lose their leaves. He studied the garden. Quinn needed to get out there. It was time to pick the aphadite heads, as they were at their full strength. A few more days and they may be rotted.

Quinn met him at the door. "You're alive. What happened?" He grabbed his arm as if to make sure Collin was really there. Then he closed his eyes a second and took a deep breath. "You're alive."

Collin knew Quinn had a deep affection and appreciation for his mentor, and he knew it must have torn him apart to think he'd been killed. "I'm sorry, Quinn. Do you have a patient, or can we talk?" He peeked into the waiting room just to the left of the front door. No one.

"It's been slow today." He led Collin back to the dining room, his long black hair was held in a braid down the middle of his back. It was a reminder of his father's religious beliefs, and even though the man was dead, Quinn kept the braid.

Quinn's wife, Tara, rushed to him, giving him a tight hug. "Oh, Alex, we were so scared for you."

Collin kissed her cheek. "I'm sorry I worried you both. I had a little trouble."

"Oh, I knew you did," Tara said. "Was it a dragon? Damn that Hansell to hell."

"Please, Tara," Collin admonished softly. He slipped his pack off his back, placed it beside his chair, and sat at the table. He'd asked her before not to judge those who came before, but it did no good. Tara's father had been killed by a dragon shortly after the family moved to Hope. "I'm so hungry," he said to change the subject.

"Oh, I'm sure you must be." Tara rushed into the kitchen.

"How's it been going here, Quinn?" Collin asked softly.

"Gets a bit busy sometimes. Other times, like today, we just had one person this morning. Same as always, I guess." He shook his head. "You said a week. It's been almost four."

"Yeah. And I need another four." And then he launched into the lie he'd prepared. "I found a dragon victim, barely alive. She's just now well enough to take the food I've left for her, but I'd like to give her another four weeks before trying to fly her back here."

"She's at your cabin?"

"Yeah. Young girl. Not much more than thirteen. Doesn't remember her family. Probably didn't get away like she did."

"Damn that Hansell," Tara said again from the kitchen. "You bring that girl here, and I'll take care of her."

Collin rose and took Tara's hands. "I'd hoped you would. I'll try not to make it too much of a burden."

"Oh, no burden. She'll be a great help in the kitchen. Especially when the baby comes."

Collin glanced back at Quinn who smiled sheepishly. Collin rushed over and pounded Quinn's back. "Hey, congratulations. When's the big event to be?"

Quinn shrugged. "We suspected before you left, but you know how...." He glanced at Tara. "How uncertain things were." Perhaps he didn't want Tara knowing he'd discussed her irregular menstruals. Collin had mixed up a hormone supplement to induce ovulation, and given it to Quinn to give to Tara, just asking him to try it for a couple cycles. Quinn grinned though and winked at Collin, acknowledging his debt to him. "We figure we've got about six and a half months left. And you will be here," he jokingly commanded.

Collin laughed. "Wouldn't miss it for the world. I love deliveries."

Tara brought out two steaming bowls of mutton stew and a couple thick slices of bread.

Burke, Quinn's 16 year old brother, entered the room and slipped into a chair. "Where's mine?"

"Just one minute, Burke."

Collin caught her as she turned back to the kitchen. "I'll need that upstairs guest room next to mine set up for Kayden."

"That's my room," Burke protested.

"Your room? Are you visiting," Collin asked. He wasn't sure why the boy would, as Quinn's brother and mother had a home on the other side of the village. "Kayden won't need it for four weeks. But it must be ready by then."

"But...."

Quinn kept his eyes on his stew. "We'll move you to the other room."

"But that is going to be the nursery," Tara protested.

"I don't want that dinky room. Who's Kayden? A new apprentice? I'm ahead of him, so I get the bigger room."

Collin shot Quinn a sharp look. Quinn cringed. "I kind of told Burke that . . . that he could apprentice . . . ."

"Then kind of tell him he's not qualified." Quinn needed to learn to stand up to his family. But it was just as Collin feared. The minute he was out of the picture, his family moved in to take advantage of Quinn.

Burke stood and placed his hands on the table. "How can you say I'm not qualified? I'm Quinn's apprentice, not yours."

"I can say it, because according to the medical practice board, a doctor isn't eligible for apprentices until he's been qualified for seven years. Quinn has only been qualified for one, so if he's registered you at all, he's done it under my name. My guess is that you're not even registered."

Quinn cringed even deeper into his chair.

"I can't believe this! You lied to me. You lied to Mom. I trusted you."

"I didn't exactly lie . . . ."

Collin sighed. "I'll be in my room if you need me." He grabbed his pack and headed upstairs. He was a little tired, but more he wanted to give them time to readjust to his presence.

He set the pack on his desk and glanced around. The bone animal sculptures on his shelf were rearranged. The drawers of his chest weren't shut tight, clothing caught sticking out. He opened his desk, and his ink, pens, and other tools were in disarray. Collin closed his eyes trying hard to contain his anger. He suspected Burke. Even if Quinn thought he was dead, he'd have treated his belongings respectfully.

Collin sunk into the desk's chair. He was glad he never left anything important behind. Any illegal tech always went with him in his pack. Or on his clothing. He reached into his shirt pocket, withdrew the small, black rectangle, and leaned on the desk holding it before him.

"Jamel, my boy, what am I going to do about you? You'll depress the poor girl to tears if you go on and on about wanting to be destroyed."

"I will not." The voice was small and a little tinny, and at first he thought he'd imagined it.

"Jamel?" he whispered, so he wouldn't be heard by anyone in the hall.

"Yes, Dr. Han... Collin."

"When were you reactivated? Is Kayden safe?"

"I was never deactivated. I cannot communicate with the mobile unit from here."

"But... but you have remained silent."

"You asked me not to speak."

Collin thought back over their last conversation. Indeed he had. And his last question to Jamel had probably been asked after he'd been taken to the recycling center. "So... did removing the cube deactivate the robot?"

"It reduced power. There is enough to replace the cube and the core."

"But you haven't."

"No. I am content in your pocket."

Collin had to laugh. His computer was content. He must be feeling better. "So have you been studying your philosophy texts?"

His bedroom door flung open. Burke stood in the doorway. "Who's in here?"

"Me." Collin slipped Jamel back into his pocket as he stood. "This is my room. And I don't appreciate my things being rummaged through."

Burke glared at him. "You think you know so much. You think you can decide someone else's fate. You think you have the power of life and death and judgment. Well, I'll be a better doctor than you ever will."

He was about to respond with anger, when he realized Jamel was listening to every single word he said. But Jamel didn't know Burke and why he wouldn't make a good doctor. Collin took a deep breath. "Burke, listen. I told Quinn why I made that decision last time you were here. You can't read. You have to get training in basic skills before you can come here for advanced training."

"I know how to read."

"And you need to care whether you're giving someone aspirin or arsenic. There's a big difference."

Burke stalked to him and glared into his eyes. "I know the difference between aspirin and arsenic. You think I'm just stupid." His stance was one of intimidation. It may have worked beautifully on Quinn, but not Collin.

Collin worked hard to keep his voice even. "I think you care more about looking important than you do about the people who come to you for help. I don't have time to work through your immaturity. If you're serious about wanting to be a doctor come back in two or three years after you've studied your basic sciences."

"You don't know anything." His fist swung up toward Collin's chin.

Collin grabbed the fist and twisted Burke's arm behind his back. "I know this is how your father used to solve all his problems, but it doesn't work here," he said near Burke's ear. "This is exactly the kind of immaturity I was talking about."

Burke struggled but couldn't break the hold. "You just like people you can intimidate, like girlbaby Quinn. You walk all over him. You should be dragon bait."

"You aren't the first to think so, Burke. Try to be a little more original." He released him with a slight push. "Now please leave my home."

Burke whirled around and glared. "If you'd died . . . ."

"If I died, but I haven't. So it's my house, my practice, and my decision. Now please leave."

Burke gave one last glare and stalked from the room. Then there was banging from the next room, as Collin imagined him packing his belongings. And then he stomped down the stairs. He heard yelling. Burke was taking his frustration out on Quinn. Tara screamed.

Collin ran downstairs, but Burke was gone. Quinn picked himself up off the floor, his left eye half shut. Collin groaned. "Bring me some fresh drawn water, Tara."

He led Quinn into the examination room, just as he had eleven years ago. Only then Quinn's father had hit more than just his eye. Quinn couldn't read either when he'd first taken him in, but he learned fast, and he had a temperament that allowed him to care for others.

Tara rushed in with the fresh water, cold from the well. She set the bowl on the counter. "Is he okay?"

"He's fine, Tara."

"But . . . ."

"Later," Collin said firmly. Quinn sat hunched over with his face in his hands, and Collin knew he felt embarrassed by his defeat in front of her, yet years of defeat made him too hesitant to fight.

Tara looked like she wanted to argue, but after another glance at Collin who remained firm, she left the room.

"I'm sorry," Quinn pleaded, as Collin soaked a cloth in the ice cold water.

"I told you to stay away from your family, didn't I?"

"But Ma was sick, and it just seemed like . . . They needed the money."

Collin wrung the excess water from the cloth and handed it to Quinn. He leaned against the examination table in the center of the room. Oak cupboards surrounded the room, above and below a counter.

"I'm sorry," Quinn repeated, still trying not to meet Collin's gaze.

"Quinn, my son, we've been here before. Now you go rest for a couple hours, and I'll watch the practice." He left Quinn and ran up for his pack with his texts. Often he hid an electronic notepad behind a paper medical textbook.

Before he could take out Jamel or a text, a man came in saying his wife was ill. Collin picked up his pack, and followed him home.

When he arrived back at the practice he went to the barn wondering if he should turn Angie in for the night.

Quinn was there, bedding down his horse. He came to watch Collin finish up with Angie. "When are you leaving?"

"Tomorrow morning."

"Do you need any help with her?"

Collin leaned against Angie. "Not anyone I know that's free to help. You have to take care of things for me here."

"Tara said she'd . . . ."

"And if you have overnight patients and house calls? No. I just have one patient . . . ."

"She said she'd go, and you could come back."

"No. It's a wild, dangerous area. I wouldn't feel right leaving two women there alone. I don't like leaving Kayden there, but at least I'm pretty sure she isn't well enough to wander outside yet. Look, we still have a shred of light. Let's get into that garden. I haven't gotten as much planted for spring at the cabin as I wanted, but I did get the harvest in."

He'd started before he found Kayden, but then when she was well enough, he would take Angie flying over to the cabin, where he'd work for a half hour or so before bringing his wares back to the lab to process. It was "cheating" at the lab, because he was able to dehydrate and process with the machines there, instead of following preparation procedures he'd need to teach others.

They worked together companionably, and when they finally parted, Collin fell into bed exhausted.



The next morning, Quinn walked with Collin to the barn. "Wish you'd come back sooner."

"Wish I could, too."

"Are you sure she wouldn't make it here?"

Collin shrugged. "Might if I could guarantee no trouble. But I can't, so I'm not risking her. She's been beat up pretty bad, and I don't think she's ready to face a lot of people until the wounds heal a bit."

Quinn studied him. "Wasn't a flying beast, was it?"

Collin gripped Quinn's shoulder. "Don't tell anyone, even Tara. The girl doesn't remember, and in some ways I don't want her to."

Quinn nodded but kept his gaze to the floor. "She couldn't do any better than to have you take her in. Will she study for nurse?"

"May study for doctor," Collin said with a grin. "But she's been too sick for me to know yet what she's capable of. There isn't any rush."

Quinn nodded again, keeping his gaze low.

"Quinn?" There were times Quinn was as independent as any man, but then, mostly after he'd had a confrontation with his family, he'd revert to what he'd been when Collin found him -- scared teenager trying to avoid his next beating.

Quinn shrugged. "Scared me, when I thought you died."

"I'm sorry, Quinn. I wished I could have somehow gotten you a message, but Tabitha just wouldn't take you one, and Kayden was too critical to leave for even a day." Not for the first time, Collin imagined an animal that could be sent exactly where you wanted it to be sent with messages. The hard part was getting the animal mind to comprehend the variety of possible locations the owner might desire to send it.

"Yeah," Quinn said, his head still down.

Collin's heart went out to the man, still sometimes a boy even at twenty five. He had the feeling he knew what Quinn wanted to express, but just couldn't. He squeezed Quinn's shoulder, and then let his hand run down his arm in a gesture of affection. "I missed you, too, Quinn. You're like my own son."

"Don't ever get killed," Quinn said, and then he turned and jogged back to the house.

As Collin flew back toward the lab he reflected on Quinn and then the apprentices he'd had throughout the years. They had all been like sons to him in a sense. And it had satisfied that longing to some extent for him -- not for his wives. He'd suggested they look to the community. His first wife had, his second... she'd divorced him after twenty-two years. But in all his years, he'd never had a surrogate daughter. He prayed she was still safe.




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