Quinn had stayed in bed for the next two days. On the third day Collin decided he needed to intervene, and he made arrangements to take him up to the cabin for a few days where he could speak with him privately. Quinn hadn't spoken at all since the dragon-slaying incident. At first, Collin knew he'd been in a state of shock. That and his throat was a raw mess, probably from yelling for almost five hours straight in the cold. But he wasn't extraordinarily sick, by the normal means of measuring.
One there Quinn settled into one of the beds on the far side of the room. Collin lit the fire and then went outside, returning with extra wood, fresh water, and a hopper, a small colorful rodent similar to a rabbit, to cook. He started the meal and then sat beside Quinn.
"Remember when you first moved in with me, Quinn? You were sick like this. Oh, you had the broken ribs to keep you down, but you wouldn't speak to me or anyone, didn't even want to open your eyes. Just like now, isn't it?"
Quinn didn't speak.
"You finally got bored not doing or saying anything, didn't you? Your patients need you, and so does your little girl. We don't have three months to wait this out." Collin leaned back in the chair to wait, but Quinn still kept silent.
He served the meal, but it was as difficult to get Quinn to eat as now, it had been the last two days. Only when he gave him direct commands did he respond. Collin suspected it was only because responding was easier than fighting.
That night Collin told Jamel, "If he's not talking by noon tomorrow, I want you to join us. You were the last one he spoke to."
By noon the next day Quinn had refused all of the attempts Collin had made to get him to speak. "Okay, that's it, Quinn. We're going to the lake. A friend of mine will take us. He's outside."
Collin led Quinn outside where Jamel waited. Jamel snaked his head around to meet Quinn at eye level. "Hello, Quinn. Are you ready for that ride?"
"The mammalian dragon!"
"Ah ha!" Collin said. "You can speak."
Quinn looked trapped, shaking his head as he backed toward the doorway he'd just come through.
"I don't eat people," Jamel protested.
Quinn closed his eyes. "Not real, not real," he muttered.
"Yes, Quinn, he is real," Collin said soothingly. "Is this what has kept you silent? Jamel has been our friend for a while, Kayden and I, that is."
"I want to be your friend, too, Quinn."
"I didn't kill the dragon!" he burst out.
"Of course not," Collin said. "No one can kill a dragon with a sword unless they get awfully lucky and have arms made of steel."
"But you . . . Tara . . . everyone...."
"I always knew what happened. As far as Tara and everyone else," Collin shrugged, rubbing his hand over Jamel's neck. "I have never liked how they treated you. You're a gentle and kind man, Quinn, who would be appreciated as an excellent doctor and man of honor in any community except your home town. Since we are needed here, we've tolerated the disrespect. But this can work to your advantage."
Quinn shook his head and backed away another step.
"Hey, let's just take that ride, okay?"
Jamel flew them to the lake. The winter sun had made it bearable enough to rest on the rock outcropping on the north side. Jamel spread out and lay his head on Collin's lap, accepting the scratching of his ears. Quinn sat on the other side of him, watching Jamel's enjoyment.
"How did you find him?"
"Same time I found Kayden. He saved her life also."
"You saved her life, Collin. You saved me, too." Jamel lifted his head to look at Quinn. "He's the best father in the world, isn't he?"
Quinn shook his head. "I . . . you're not making sense."
"Jamel has been adopted also. He's alone, separated from those of his kind, and since Kayden refers to me as father, Jamel does also."
"Alone? He's the only one?"
"Well, the only one we've seen," Collin said, wishing he didn't need to lie to Quinn.
Jamel rolled to his back on the warm rock, basking in the sun.
"Collin Hansell created him also?"
"Yes," Jamel said, his eyes closed against the sun, the underside of his neck exposed for Collin to rub. "He is my designer."
Collin wondered if Jamel had simplified on purpose. Technically Collin was not Jamel's designer. Charles Jamel had designed his core, the essence of who he was.
"That's why you're a Hansell worshipper," Quinn said, with the first slight smile Collin had seen in a long time.
Collin laughed. "I've always admired a good work of art, and you've got to admit, he did a wonderful job with color."
"Humble," Jamel mumbled. "But right. I'm beautiful."
Even Quinn laughed that time. "You are beautiful, Jamel. Even prettier than the bronze dragon."
"Of course I am."
Collin winked at Quinn. "He's got a bit too much pride in himself."
"It's not pride if it's true, is it?"
"It's pride if you keep thinking about how great you are."
"You do it."
Quinn laughed again. "No, Alex is a wonderful teacher. It just seems that way sometimes because he knows so much."
Jamel rumbled deep in his throat, and then Collin heard his own voice, "he did a wonderful job with color."
Collin hugged the big head on his lap. "Okay, smart mouth, you can rest on your winnings today, but I foresee a few more discussions on pride in your future."
Jamel rolled to his stomach and faced them. "Actually I did study pride. I was thinking I was the most beautiful creature on the planet, and then I was ripped to shreds by that hideous green monster. Look at my neck. Are the scars still there?"
Collin got up to study Jamel's neck. Faint lines could be seen if he looked closely enough. "Yes. You are scarred, Jamel, dear. Pity your pride tempted you to fight a hideous green monster. I actually think the greens are quite lovely."
"It wasn't pride." Jamel leapt into the air and flew away.
Collin laughed. "I love that beast."
Quinn watched Jamel until he blended in with the daytime sky. "He is beautiful. I can't believe he's real."
Collin sobered and focused on Quinn. "Let's walk." They started around the edge of the lake. "Quinn, he's real, and no one must know he's real. I don't want him killed by misguided trophy hunters. They're going to be looking to match your feat for a bit until we have a few more end up dead."
"We should just tell them that . . . ."
"That a talking dragon saved your life? They'd never believe you."
"But I'm not brave, and I'm not a hero."
"A hero isn't someone who goes around putting themselves in danger, Quinn. Do you love me because I do that? It has nothing to do with endangering myself, does it?"
Quinn walked along the stony beach without speaking.
"Quinn . . . ."
"I love you because . . . because you love me. You care about people, everyone, and . . . ." he scowled. "There's lots of reasons, but you don't have one reason for loving me."
"Yeah, I do. But you haven't listened, my gentle friend. Your family has only focused on one attribute, an attribute that frankly, I find repulsive anyway, so I'm glad you're lacking in aggression. Now assertiveness . . . you could work a little on that. But do you think I would have taken the time to teach you how to be a doctor if I didn't see any merit in you at all? I could have brought someone from Alexandria years ago, but I knew you had it in you to be a great doctor, and I was right."
"You always are right," came Jamel's voice in his ear.
"But now Tara only loves me because of that stupid dragon."
"That's not what I saw. Sure you happened to marry a woman who carried a lot of the same negative traits you'd lived with before, but she was genuinely concerned for you. I believe she loves you, but doesn't know how to show it."
"She loves Gaben. She's probably already slept with him."
"If I find she has, Gaben will be sent back to Alexandria on foot. But I think we can trust him. He actually seemed scared for you also when he realized you were missing."
Quinn shook his head and kicked a rock into the water.
"I love you, Quinn. You're my son. Not Levi Stone's but mine. And I need you. Eventually Kayden may marry and go off with her husband, but you will stay here to carry on my plans for this village. And if Kayden doesn't marry, I trust you to watch over your sister if something happens to me. I need you. And no matter what happens, no matter what Tara says or does, no matter what your mother or sister say or do, remember that. I need you. Don't ever play dragon-bait again. You may not be lucky enough to have Jamel close by."
Quinn kept his gaze on the stones.
"You, me, and Kayden are Jamel's only friends. Keep him safe also. He's like a child still. A very bright and eager child, and I love him as another son."
He actually got a response that time, as Quinn shot him an incredulous look.
Collin gave a slight chuckle. "I know that sounds odd, Quinn, and I can't explain it. But the more you visit with him, I think you'll see that he's a special person. If something happens to me, you'll have to protect him also."
"Why are you talking like you will die?"
"Yeah, Collin," Jamel agreed in his ear. "You won't die. I'll protect you."
"I have always believed in making contingency plans. Most times I never need to use them. I may outlive both you and Kayden, but if tomorrow my riding straps break and I tumble to the ground, I want you to be prepared to carry on. No more breaking down. Protect my interests. You can't do that from your bedroom, okay?"
"I will not let you fall."
Quinn stopped and looked out over the water. "You don't want Gaben to do it?"
"I want you to do it. I chose you, and I don't change my mind."
"I'll try not to disappoint you."
He was so stiff. So serious. Collin grabbed and pulled him around to hug. "You've never disappointed me. Now lets find dinner."
Jamel returned, a bleater, a wild, winged, goat-like creature in his talons. "I have found dinner." He allowed Collin to cut off a piece before he ate his meal raw.
They returned to the clinic the next day, and Gaben greeted Quinn with a warm smile and a thump on the back. "Good to have you back. We've been busy."
Tara continually bragged about his heroism, which made him nervous, but she no longer compared him to Gaben. Alex preserved and mounted the dragon's head and hung the red sword beneath it. Tara wanted a jacket for herself from the bronze hide, and Quinn told Alex to get it, even though he secretly wanted something made of the soft leather.
Alex took the hide to someone he knew in Alexandria, and when he returned to get the jacket, he also brought back a vest and a belt for Quinn. There had been enough for all three items.