Collin resisted the temptation to climb onto Jamel's back. He wanted to give his new body time to adjust even though Jamel claimed he'd adjusted. Although a week after he'd been home, Collin found him almost starved because he hadn't wanted to kill the sheep he left out. But Collin made him. He wouldn't always be there to cut up Jamel's food for him. After the first time, though, Jamel hunted boar in the woods, and he no longer touched the domesticated animals.
He set the first flight date on the anniversary of Jamel's third month as a dragon. He and Kayden snuck out to the barn after dark. Jamel waited for them, so eager he already had the saddle contraption fastened to himself.
"You're getting pretty dexterous, aren't you?" Collin asked.
"I couldn't get these up by the shoulders." But he'd done a good job at fastening the straps around his waist. When they were designing the body, Collin and Jamel had agreed to give it almost hand-like front paws to allow for more versatility, with longer fingers and two opposable thumbs, one on either side to give a stronger grip.
Collin insisted on going first to test the safety, climbing into the saddle and strapping himself on. "Okay, Jamel. I'm ready."
Jamel launched from the loft, taking him up into the cool night air. They flew serenely for a few minutes.
Collin adjusted to the different feel of the muscles beneath him. Then he grinned. Jamel was coddling him. "Is this as fast as you can go?"
"I do not wish to . . . ."
"Show me, Jamel. You may coddle Kayden if she'll let you, but don't attempt it with me."
Jamel's huge wings took a wide beat, and he shot upward. Collin lurched back, suspended head down and hanging only by the straps that held him on. Then Jamel rolled, and Collin grabbed for his neck, clutching it tightly. Jamel started down, spinning straight toward the earth. Collin stared at the approaching grass in fascination, briefly realizing he trusted Jamel too much. He was not afraid. Jamel would not get them both killed. And right as he began to doubt that thought, Jamel leveled out and flew along the ground, trees whipping by them. A pine tree loomed before them, and when Collin could see each needle and the cones, Jamel made a ninety degree turn toward the moon again.
"Jamel," Collin managed, but he couldn't say anything else.
Jamel made an abrupt turn, but Collin kept his eyes closed, trying to keep the nausea at bay. He'd flown since he was a child. He thought he was prepared for anything. He was wrong.
The movement stopped beneath him, but his head seemed to be spinning. He couldn't move.
"Collin?" It was Kayden. "What did you do to him, Jamel?"
"Collin?" Jamel's voice conveyed fear. "You said you were ready. You said . . . ." He felt Jamel's breath on his neck.
"I'm okay," Collin whispered. "Touch of that stomach virus, I think."
He let Kayden unstrap him, and he slid off Jamel's back. It took all his strength to stand upright. "I believe you were right again, Jamel. I think I'll just go sit over in the corner while you two go out."
"I'm sorry, Collin. I . . . ."
Collin grabbed the nose that had followed him. "Stomach virus, I said. Didn't realize I had caught it." He hugged Jamel's nose. "That was one great ride. Thanks."
Collin lowered himself into the corner and watched Kayden check her straps. Then they were off. Collin didn't bother trying to watch. By the time they were back, his stomach had settled.
Kayden was not sick at all. She undid her straps and jumped down. "That was great, Jamel. Fantastic. You're the best." She hugged his neck.
Either he was getting old or Jamel had coddled her. It was a good thing Collin had gone first.
Jamel nosed Collin. "Better?"
"Yeah. Thanks for the demonstration. I'll know better next time." He nuzzled his head into the side of Jamel's neck. "I love you, you tornado with wings."
It was three days before the aches left Collin's body.
A month later Collin was just finishing with a patient, Gaben was taking house calls, and Quinn was reading his little girl a story in the waiting room, waiting for another patient. As Collin's patient left, Kayden ran into the clinic. "He's gone!"
"Gone? Who's gone?"
Kayden glanced at Quinn and Shanika and pulled Collin back into the examination room. "Jamel is gone! He won't answer me. I can't hear him."
"Jamel!" Collin demanded. He listened for the soft reply in his ear, but it never came.
He rushed out of the examination room, grabbing his pack as he passed the office. "Quinn, I've got to go. I don't know when I'll be back. Might be days."
"Emergency. Not sure of the extent. I'll be back as soon as possible."
"I'm going with you," Kayden said.
"No. I need you here. Quinn watch out for things for me." And Collin ran to Angie in the barn. He quickly checked the loft, even though he knew Kayden had before her alarm.
As he left the barn she ran up to him, grabbing his leg, as he sat on Angie's back. "Where are you going?"
"I'll start a search. He must be out of range. If I'm not back tonight it means I found him."
"He's hurt, isn't he?"
Collin reached down and touched her cheek. "I'll find him, Kayden. You help Quinn with the practice."
When she stepped away, he urged Angie to the air, flying north toward the mountains. Jamel often went hunting in the mountains. As Collin flew, he called, knowing if he was within range of Jamel's sensors he'd hear him through the transceiver. But Jamel never answered.
Five hours later, Collin stopped at the cabin, searching the ground and the barn. Jamel had several times collected plants for him over the last four months, but there was no sign today that he'd been there.
"Jamel, please Jamel, answer me," Collin pleaded, almost hoarse from asking the same thing over and over.
Collin mounted Angie, and started toward the lab. He was halfway there, when he heard him. "Collin. Help me, Collin."
"Where are you?"
"By the lab. I can't get in."
As he approached the door, he saw the light blue patch puddled before the lab door, almost like water reflecting the sun. "What happened?" But as he asked, he could see the dark red streaks of blood, the ripped flesh of his neck, the wing bent as it shouldn't. He landed Angie near him.
"A reptile dragon. He was after a pegasus. I thought I could stop him. I knew I had to come here. And it was closer. I just can't open the door. The code . . . isn't working for me."
"It's not just a number but a genetic imprint. I'll have to make sure you can get in." He pushed in the numbers and then shooed Angie into the stable. He turned in time to watch Jamel slowly raise himself and limp into the building. He collapsed in the hall.
Collin examined him, and then ran down to the operating rooms to gather supplies and get Mauve and Burgy. He'd have to stitch him up and administer intravenous fluids right on the floor there.
Jamel's robotic unit accompanied him back to the dragon. "I knew if I could just get inside I could maybe do this myself. It hurts so bad. Do you think . . . ?"
Collin told him which pain killer to get and how much. Then they worked until the ribbons of his flesh were sewn back together. When he'd done as much for Jamel as he could, he leaned back against the wall near Jamel's head and closed his eyes, caressing his ears and forehead. "I'm so glad you'll be all right, Beloved."
Jamel rolled his eyes up to look at him. "Next time, I shall be victorious. Next time I will make you proud."
"I'm always proud of you, Jamel. Please don't endanger yourself."
"You would to protect the innocent. I want to be like you." He lay his head so that his chin rested on Collin's legs.
Collin kept rubbing Jamel's head, but didn't know how to respond. Most of his apprentices became extremely loyal, but he had never expected any of them to risk death for him or especially to risk death for his ideals. How could he protect Jamel from his own fierce loyalty?
"I want to give you a laser."
Jamel lifted his head. "A laser?"
"If you're going to fight them, you'll need an advantage so that you can avoid ripping that beautiful hide apart. I don't want any more scars."
"But how would I carry it?"
"You think about it tonight, but before you leave here, I want you to have one."
"But Kayden . . . ."
"I'd suggest a program like the one I use in my modified laser. The sensors on each side of the beam analyze the matter its in contact with. I can cut a dragon in two, but I can't even perform minor surgery with it anymore. Stray shots in the heat of battle will never harm a human."
"I had a similar program in the robot's lasers. They were to be strictly tools to cut, solder, heat, and mend. But I can change a simple program like that in seconds to suit my desires. It will not protect the innocent from my mistakes."
"But perhaps we can make it so that you can't move the switch to accept a new program. You would have the laser always set to protect human life. Your teeth and size would be enough against a human evil, I think. You could find a way to stop the attacker and detain him for human authorities to make the decision on his fate. That would absolve your conscience of the need for life and death judgments."
"I will pray that I never disappoint you," Jamel said solemnly.
The next day they decided to install the laser at the back of Jamel's throat in his neck. He would need to have his mouth open in an attacking position to use it. There was no way for an accidental discharge without tearing out part of his mouth, which he'd program against.
The operation was a tricky one, getting the laser not to interfere with breathing, eating or mobility, and making sure that it did not ever change its angle even a fraction. They spent the first two days modifying the laser to fit the available space, and on the third day Collin operated with Jamel and Mauve's assistance.
It was a full week before Collin was able to get home and reassure Kayden that Jamel would be all right, but Jamel wasn't well enough to fly home for another week and a half.
Winter was coming on again. Jamel had taken reptile-dragon hunting as a serious business so that Collin was forced to make trips to Alexandria as Hans Trapper almost every week. But now he rode in at night on Jamel. The trip took half the time.
The first time Hans had knocked on tanner Ulan Tole's door before dawn, he'd been shocked, but Hans knew he'd welcome the hides. On Jamel he could bring two full hides instead of one.
The third time Hans came at night, Ulan actually chuckled as he tightened his robe. "Knew it was you, Hans. Come bring in your wares." He grabbed one of the heavy bundles from beside the door and led him toward the shop.
A teenage boy rushed down the stairs, one of Gustav's artwork swords attached to his waist. "Hans Trapper." He held out his hand. Ulan's only child often greeted Hans Trapper, and lately he'd been hinting that he was ready to apprentice somewhere, as if he was not content to stay and inherit his father's large tannery. "Hey, I got a sword like you use. I'm ready to learn." He pulled the sword from its sheath.
Ulan focused on the hides Collin had brought and grunted in a disapproving way. Collin guessed that arguments had already taken place, but he wouldn't continue them in front of Hans Trapper. Collin sighed. He didn't want the boy killed trying to live up to some fantasy he had about dragon-slaying. "Gustav tells tales. I've never killed with one of his swords. Beautiful works of art, they are, but not weapons."
"How do you do it, then? Can you teach me?"
"And then your father wouldn't need to pay me if I give away my secrets." But then he became serious. "Don't even attempt it. You'll just be killed."
Dannel's mouth opened in obvious surprise. "But . . . you're not!"
"Told you he's experienced," Ulan growled.
"You had to kill your first one some time."
"Dumb luck. Just dumb luck," Collin lied. "Don't even try it."
Dannel shook his head and backed away. "I don't need you." Then he raced from the room and up the steps to the apartment above the storefront.
Collin slid into a chair and placed his head in his hands. "I'm sorry, Ulan."
"Oh, no." Ulan sagged against the wall. "You really believe he doesn't stand a chance."
Collin didn't look up. How could he meet his gaze, when his fantasy personae would kill the man's only child. "He has no chance. The beasts are killers."
"Collin," Jamel said. "Perhaps if he sees your 'secret weapon' and realizes he'll never have one."
Collin lifted his head. "That's it. Ulan, pay me my wages and we'll show your son my secret weapon -- of course on his vow to never reveal it."
Ulan's face changed instantly from anguish to hope. "I'm pretty curious myself."
"Vows of secrecy," Collin said with a wink.
Ulan called up the stairs. "Dannel! Dannel, come back in here." Ulan quickly finished calculating Collin's wages based partly on how big the pieces of hide were, the color of the hide, and the quality or age. Collin knew he was extremely careful to be fair because Hans gave him a continent wide exclusive. If they disagreed, Hans could find another tanner to bless with the rare finds.
Dannel reluctantly reentered the room as Ulan gave Hans his money. "Hans will show you his secret, if you promise never to tell anyone."
Dannel's scowl evaporated. "Yes! I promise. And I won't take away your business. There's enough room for both of us."
Hans smiled. "Afraid my secret is something you'll have a hard time getting your hands on. I was just lucky, as he literally fell into my life. Come." He led Ulan and Dannel outside.
Suddenly there was a flurry of wings. Both Dannel and Ulan screamed and jumped back into the building. Jamel landed before Hans and snaked his neck around him to look at Ulan and Dannel huddled in the doorway.
Hans ran his hand over Jamel's neck before turning to them. "Meet my friend and partner, Jake Trapper."
Dannel and Ulan slowly made their way to them. "I can't believe it. I just can't believe it. I thought they could never be trained."
"They can't," Collin agreed. "Ulan, notice any difference? Take a feel of this hide." Jamel obligingly leaned toward him.
Ulan tentatively reached out and then ran his hand down Jamel's neck. "I don't believe it. It has fur! I never knew furred dragons existed."
"Neither did I until I had him. Rarer than those pegasus I sometimes see. So, you understand, Dannel, that unless fate gave you a partner, you'd be killed or horribly maimed."
"Can you get me one? I'll pay anything."
"Jake's the only one I've ever seen. But you promised to keep the secret. You don't want a bunch of guys tearing through the woods looking for them and getting eaten by reptile-dragons. I'm sure these guys would just hide, like the pegasus do."
Dannel looked skeptical. "Pegasus are myths."
"I've seen them. And Jake saw one a couple months ago. There are more beasts hiding in those mountains than we know. Now you'll keep the secret, right? If anyone finds out about Jake here, I won't be able to come and drop off the hides. I'd have to go someplace where no one knew to look for a dragon who wouldn't eat humans."
"He'll keep the secret," Ulan said, understanding the economic importance immediately. "I'll make sure he does."
"Good. I'll see you both again." He climbed on Jamel's back, set the straps and took off.
The next time he went to Alexandria he took Angie and visited Ulan during business hours. "During the day? What happened?"
"Just wondering if Jake would be safe during our regular visits."
"Of course," Ulan said, his voice lowered. "We'll never tell a soul. You can trust us."
"How's Dannel taking the disappointment? Has he chosen another career?"
Ulan sighed. "One just as dangerous, I fear. But I gave in and have placed an order with a breeder in Capitol for a wingdeer. He wants to start an air mail delivery service, of all things, and fly around the continent." He leaned over the counter toward Hans and lowered his voice. "I think he's hoping to run into one of your rare friends in his travels." He straightened and began pulling the money from his drawer. "But thanks for risking your friend to warn him. I won't forget." He grinned then. "Never forget touching a live one."