Cee sensed a person coming up into the loft. Jamel lifted his head toward the sound, not in the least alarmed. And then Cee knew it was Kayden. He'd heard her through Michael's datalink transceiver, and now she was here, fully alive, fully intact right to her fingertips -- those fingertips which had given Michael such nightmares.
Kayden hugged Jamel's long neck and then scratched him behind his ears, as Michael would do for Twilight.
Jamel rolled over so that his stomach was up, and his head stretched out. "Under my chin."
Kayden sat and took his large head into her lap, scratching under his chin.
"That feels so good. I love you, Kayden."
Kayden smiled. "A good scratching is all it takes, is it?"
"If I were human, I would marry you."
"Oh, Jamel, don't even go there." She pushed his head from her lap.
Jamel rolled onto his stomach and inched his head toward her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean in a bad way. I just want to stay with you."
Kayden reached for his head and hugged it when he brought it closer. "I know, Sweetheart. I wouldn't go away from you if I married Gaben." She sighed. "What am I going to do about him, Jamel?"
"Do you want me to scare him away?"
Kayden laughed. "No. He's a good doctor. The people need him. I just wish . . . ." She stood and leaned against his back. "He would make a good husband. I just don't think I'm ready to be a good wife." She straddled Jamel's back then. "I just don't like him touching me. Why is that, Jamel? I don't mind when I ride double with Collin or with Quinn. It just bothers me with Gaben."
"You are safe with Collin. Quinn . . . you are safe with him. He is your brother, right?"
"Yeah. That must be it. So, it's just Gaben's potential, is your guess?"
"I am not guessing. I want you to stay with me. Promise me you won't leave me."
"I'd never leave you, Jamel. Never." She slid off his back. "That is one advantage to marrying Gaben. I know he wants to be a partner at this practice, so he'd stay in Hope forever, right at this farm."
"Collin will never die. You'll always live here without marrying Gaben. You don't need him."
Kayden kissed the side of Jamel's nose. "No. I don't need him. I just wish I could say that because I know I don't want to change things, and not because I feel all panicked whenever he gets too close. Know what I mean? If I do panic on him, Jamel, it won't be him. It'll be me. Don't blame him."
"I will be with you to remind you. But you really don't need him."
Kayden laughed. "You like being my co-favorite guy, don't you?" She scratched behind his ears again, and then ran to the ladder. "Maybe we'll go flying tonight. See you later."
She left and Cee sensed her working down below with the huge wingdeer.
Cee wished he had a beautiful dragon body so that Michael would love him like Kayden loved Jamel.
It was dark. "Cee? Cee?"
"Yes, Michael. You are safe."
"It's okay, Friend," came a gentle man's voice. A hand brushed his forehead. "You're going to be okay."
His nose itched. His mouth and throat were sore. His back ached with a flame. He reached up to at least relieve the irritation on his face.
His hand was grasped. "No, Friend. I have a nourishment tube in you, but since you're awake, I can take it out."
A light flicked on, and Michael clamped his eyes shut. He felt the doctor working, withdrawing something from his throat, making him gag.
"Watch your arm, Friend. You need that IV a little longer."
Dr. Alex Collin had found him. He knew it. He would be safe. And so was Kayden. He drifted back to sleep.
Collin stretched in the chair when he heard Wilma come in, and he went out to greet her. "Our guest is ready for some broth today."
The man had been with them a full twenty-four hours before he awoke, and then every hour since, he'd become restless, either crying out in fear, which was completely normal for dragon survivors, or showing a quiet anxiety, also a normal response.
Collin reentered the room and stood beside the bed. Kayden came in and wrapped her arm around Collin's waist, looking down at the man. "He woke up," she said, noting the missing feeding tube.
"Yes. Not coherent enough to hold a conversation yet."
Gaben entered. "How's our mysterious friend?"
"Fever broke around midnight, and he's been restless since about four. Looks like the worst of it is over."
Gaben smiled. "Great, Doc. You saved another one. I wondered if Kayden and I could take half a day off to have a picnic."
"Might be better if you'd ask me first," Kayden said with a frown.
The man on the bed thrashed his head. "Kay . . . Kayden! No. Don't. Let her go!" He sat up and almost toppled off the bed.
Collin grabbed him and forced him to lay back down.
"No! Stop him. You've got to stop him! Help me. Kayden!"
"She's safe. She's okay," Collin soothed. "The nightmare is over. It's over, Friend." He glanced at Kayden.
She stared straight into the man's face, her features drained of any color.
"Who is he?" Collin asked softly.
"I . . . I don't know."
Gaben brought his arm around her shoulders.
Kayden whirled away from him. "Don't ever touch me! I don't need anyone to touch me ever." She ran from the room, but not before Collin saw her tears.
He focused on the man again whose eyes were open.
"What was that all about?" Gaben demanded. He stared down at the stranger. "You don't go putting her in your fantasies."
"Gaben!" Collin chastised in a low voice. "The man's delusional. You're overreacting. If you can't tolerate her mood swings, find another woman to marry, but don't blame the patients."
Gaben stalked from the inpatient room through the surgery to the exam rooms.
Collin focused on the stranger. His eyes were still open, and he breathed deeply. "Kayden is safe?"
"Kayden is safe, my friend. And so are you. I'm Doc Alex Collin. And you are?"
"Jamel? Did you know this?" At Michael's confused look, he continued. "Are you new to the planet, Michael Jamel?"
"I did not know his full name," Jamel told him.
"I . . . yes. Shuttle." His eyelids dipped, and his breathing became strained.
"Let's let you rest. I'll bring you some broth in a few minutes." Collin straightened the blanket.
Then Collin stepped into his office, closing the door. "Is he related," Collin whispered to Jamel.
"He is Charles' grandson. I am not going back and neither is Kayden."
Collin guessed Jamel had always known more about this particular stranger, but he was scared of the consequences. "No, Jamel," he said softly. "Neither you nor Kayden will ever have to leave. He couldn't force a dragon, could he? And I will make sure Kayden is not cohered against her will. Remember, we have a place to hide if we need it. You are both safe."
Collin sat in his desk chair. "Jamel, how well do you know Michael?"
"I don't know him at all."
A brief memory flickered through Collin's mind. "Michael is the name Kayden called out. She does know him. And she trusted him. Is he related? A brother perhaps?"
"I have no information on Kayden. In the genealogical records, Michael's sister is Hannah, although the age is similar. I see no Kayden in Charles' lineage. She is not going back."
"Have you talked to her about this?"
"Then let's let Michael introduce himself to her. It may break that last memory block."
"I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt her."
Collin had repeatedly assured Jamel that his actions had not caused Kayden's memory loss, but since he accepted that responsibility, Collin let it go for now. Jamel would do what he could to fix her memory no matter how scared he was of losing her or of going back. Collin just had to hope that once her memory returned, Kayden's loyalty would not be swayed by her old friend.
Collin was almost certain that this man was not a convict. He remembered Ulan's warning about a tech spy, which he'd dismissed rather quickly. Hope was the last place anyone would look for tech. He hadn't thought he'd ever come across the man, and now the only way to avoid him would have been to let him die. The pieces were fitting together. The man was looking for Jamel and Kayden, and he had been pathetically ill prepared for the task of spy. But he had found them.
Collin rose from his chair. He had a lot to hide, and suddenly he knew Jamel's fear all too well. Michael Jamel could destroy them -- destroy them or be the best thing that ever happened to Aussie.
Dr. Collin returned with a bowl of soup, pulling up a wheeled table. He helped Michael into a sitting position, arranging the pillows behind him carefully to keep pressure on the healing wounds to a minimum. Then he sat on the edge of the bed. "How strong are you, my friend? Can you lift a spoon?"
His hand felt like lead, and he managed to get it to the table, jarring the soup.
"Let me help you this time and then later you'll feed yourself."
Michael accepted, too weak to do anything else. He wondered why he didn't have a nurse or an aide help him. The doctor must be bored. Or he'd gone through his pack. "Where is my pack?"
"I'm afraid you had nothing but the ripped clothing on your back."
"But . . . ."
"I am hidden in your pack, close by," Cee said in his ear. "The doctor did not find us. A friend has agreed to keep our secrets."
"Excuse me?" Doc Collin asked, lowering the spoonful of soup.
"You are giving us away," Cee said, his voice full of reproach. "You are safe now, and so is your pack. The matter is unimportant."
"How did I get here?" Michael asked Doc Collin. If his stupid computer wouldn't tell him, he'd get the truth.
"You were brought to our door by someone who found you."
Doc Collin smiled. "You are insistent for a man so sick. We have dying people dropped off at our door all the time, and frankly we don't interrogate their saviors. You were too seriously ill to waste the time."
"I told you," Cee said. This time his voice sounded hurt. "He just agreed to hide your pack."
Michael wanted to ask, "And he simply listened to the instructions of a talking black box and left a pack full of tech sitting in some corner." But Doc Collin was watching him, and he couldn't give himself away when Cee had somehow managed to hide his tech after all.
He closed his eyes, his anger now gone. Cee really had saved his life, but how? He let Doc Collin slowly feed him the rest of the soup but he was too tired to open his eyes again.
"We will have plenty of time to talk later, Michael. For now you just rest." Doc Collin helped him lie down again and then left him. As Michael tried to sleep, he wondered why Alex Collin looked so familiar. But then maybe it was just previous delusional moments in his recovery that had shown him the man's face.
Collin took the lantern up the ladder to the loft. Michael had slept most of the day, but occasionally Collin caught him muttering to himself. He wasn't sure if he was delusional from the medicine or . . . after all he was Charles Jamel's grandson. If he didn't have one of his grandfather's wonderful computers, even an older model, Collin would be surprised. He'd checked for a transceiver like the one's hidden behind his and Kayden's ears, but didn't see one, although there had been a very faint white scar behind his left ear. It also had a slightly raised bone structure, which may or may not be normal for him. Collin couldn't tell without an x-ray. He was more inclined to believe it was an electronic implant. They had been very common among the scientists he used to work with.
He'd thought about it all day and decided he needed some time alone with Jamel. As he stepped into the loft and swung the light around, he noticed Jamel was ready, the riding straps and saddle already fastened to his back.
Collin smiled and lifted the lantern to a hook hanging from the ceiling. "You're all set, my friend."
"Just check the straps."
Collin nuzzled against Jamel's soft neck. "I've missed you."
Jamel's wing closed around him. "I've missed you, too. Let's get away from here."
Collin climbed on and secured the straps. Then Jamel took off. Collin didn't bother trying to direct him. Instead he just relaxed and enjoyed the feel of the night breeze against his face, the rhythm of Jamel's strong body, the beauty of the silver moonlight on the trees below them.
Jamel landed beside the Reese River which ran from the mountains along the west edge of his property and then on through the farmland joining the Capitol river on the southern boundary of the village. Collin dismounted, and they walked between the trees and shrubs to the bank before Collin sat down, watching the moonlight reflect and waver on the water. "So what's on your mind, my friend."
Jamel gave a low chuckle. "What makes you think I need to talk?"
"You find your designer's grandson half dead, and you seem positive he's here to take you and Kayden back into space. But then the man was unconscious when you found him, so he couldn't have told you that."
Jamel jumped into the river and rolled around.
"If you had warned me you wanted a swim, I would have removed your saddle first."
Jamel rose, flying low over the water. Collin loved the way the scant light reflected off his sky blue body making it a silvery, blue-grey, foggy cloud. Jamel returned from behind him, and then settled beside him. "I have a secret."
"And do you want to share it?"
"Yes. But I promised I wouldn't. Is it okay to keep a secret from you?"
"Depends. Does the secret endanger anyone's life?"
"I wouldn't have made the promise if I thought it would."
"And there was an adequate reason for making the promise?"
"I think so. An exchange of promises."
"I see," Collin said, stretching out and lying back to look at the stars. Jamel had a new friend he was hiding. "You know I'm counting on you, don't you?"
"I'd never let you down, Collin. I'll tell you if you think I should. You're more important than any promise, and I won't let you be hurt, ever." He ran his muzzle over Collin, and then rested his chin on Collin's stomach. "I'll always belong to you. Charles Jamel was going to turn me over to someone else anyway. He didn't really want me, so I have no reason to be loyal to him, do I?"
Collin rubbed Jamel's ears. "If Charles wants to see you again, perhaps he should come here. Besides, you do belong to me. Without me, you wouldn't be a dragon."
"The most beautiful dragon in the world," Jamel said. "I want to stay a dragon. I belong to you forever, Collin Hansell."
As they got ready to go back to the barn, Jamel said, "We should not speak freely near the house, Collin. We should always come at least to the river. Perhaps I should tell Kayden also."
"Thanks, Jamel. You let her know."
Collin mounted the saddle, assured of Jamel's loyalty. He could make new friends. Jamel wouldn't be swayed by anyone.
Michael awoke when a low light switched on beside him. A man with a long, black braid to the middle of his back straightened blankets over the second bed in the room. Then he pulled back the blanket and sat on the edge of the bed, facing Michael.
"Who are you?"
"Alex told me you were feeling better." He walked to his bedside. "I'm Dr. Quinn Stone. It's my turn to stay with you tonight. If you need anything at all, I'll be right in that bed."
"I'm a little hungry."
"Sure. I'll be right back."
Michael was able to raise himself into a sitting position, but was out of breath by the time he did. His back burned again.
Dr. Stone returned with a bowl of soup and a cup of water.
"How long am I going to be like this?" He motioned over his body.
"I believe we'll take out the catheter tomorrow morning, and start you walking to the bathroom. That means you'll be able to get your hair washed. Tara or Kayden can help you with that."
"Where's Kayden?" He hadn't seen her since that morning, and he'd been too groggy to be certain. She was even prettier than he remembered her, if he'd seen right. Not a scar on her beautiful face.
"Probably asleep or in the barns. She's a good nurse, but she'd rather work with the animals. But Tara loves to help the patients as they recover, so she'll probably be the one doing your hair. She can give you a shave also."
Michael didn't think he'd seen Tara. "I'd like to see Kayden again."
Quinn gave a small smile. "She's a pretty girl, but Dr. Blanne has already made his claim. She'll marry him eventually."
Michael closed his eyes and felt sick to his stomach. He pushed the tray away.
"Hey, friend. Is the pain getting to you, or something else?"
"Pain," Michael lied, although right now everything hurt.
A minute later he felt Dr. Stone at his arm. "Here, drink this down. It should help the pain and let you sleep."
Michael took the small cup and swallowed its contents in one gulp. Then Dr. Stone helped him lay on his side and covered him with the blanket before going to the other bed and turning off the light.
"Michael," Cee said. "I heard Kayden while you slept. She isn't comfortable with Gaben's advances. I think she might marry you instead. You're better than he is."
"Thanks, Cee," he whispered. Cee was right. After all this searching, and the years of longing for her safety, she was a part of him, and he wanted her exclusively. He wanted to marry her.
Light filtered into the barn loft through the strips of dragon hide covering the second story entrance. Jamel shoved several of the strips aside to rest against a wood block in the large door frame, and the sunlight flooded in. Then Jamel grabbed Michael's pack.
"What are you doing?" Cee asked.
Jamel tipped the pack sending everything to the sunlit floor of the loft.
"What are you doing?" he asked again, trying to keep the panic from his voice.
"You are scared. I'm sorry. I don't mean to alarm you. I am just making sure there is nothing dangerous hidden within Michael's things. I cannot let him hurt anyone." He grabbed the laser. "This is weapon grade."
"He needs it for protection."
Jamel studied it, and then he grabbed Michael's electronics kit.
"He needs that. He fixed a lot of equipment at the hospital with that. He helps people."
"I'm not going to destroy it," Jamel said soothingly. "I am just making sure all is as it should be."
Cee watched as Jamel ran his sensors over each item in the kit. Then he focused on the laser again, this time sending a communications beam into it. "What are you doing?"
"I'm adjusting the settings. He'll still be able to kill reptile-dragons, but I'm changing the kill setting. The sensors will prevent the laser from cutting human flesh. He wouldn't want to accidentally hurt anyone, would he?"
It sounded reasonable. But then Butler always did that. He made things sound reasonable, and then Michael was mad. If Cee ever protested, Butler would just force him to go along with him anyway. And Michael was always mad at him, because he was a pathetic excuse of a robot, Butler said, and not an android.
"I do not think you should adjust his equipment. He can do that himself."
"I'm sure he can. But my job is to protect human life. I will not allow a laser to be around here that can kill or maim."
Cee remembered the communications pod where the man's laser had kept hurting Kayden. It sounded so reasonable. But Michael was already upset that he wouldn't tell him who brought him to the doctor and who had his pack.
"Do not do it, Jamel. I will be forced to tell Michael."
"Finished." Jamel dropped the laser back into Michael's pack and began looking through the rest of his things, opening his art kit, and then the portfolio. "This is a beautiful picture of Kayden as a child."
Jamel was not taking him seriously. He wasn't going to treat him like Butler did. He was just a robot, too, no matter how he managed to get that dragon body.
"I can not let you alter Michael's equipment. He could be seriously hurt not knowing it has been changed."
"He's planning to slice humans in two?"
"No! But you can not . . . I must tell Michael. He is already mad at me. Michael, I need to tell you something." He sent the last comment through to Michael, knowing that Jamel could hear him.
Jamel ignored him, continuing to study the painting, his wings folded serenely along his back.
"What is it, Cee?" Michael whispered.
"Aren't you going to stop me? Aren't you going to invade my processes or just destroy me?" Cee left the channel open so Michael would know how he died.
"I'm not going to kill you, and I'd never invade your neural net. Butler sounds like a rapist. I'd kill him, but I wouldn't hurt you."
"You found the A," Michael said, his voice raising a little. "Where is he?"
"You're going to let me tell him?"
"Do what your conscience tells you. Vows, promises, and loyalty mean a lot to me. I won't trust you again."
"But you . . . you don't care that he knows?" Michael was hearing everything, and Jamel must know that.
"I will be inconvenienced. I'll have to hide from you both, because I'm never leaving this planet. But I'd have never saved Michael's life if I planned on killing you both to keep my secret. You do what you want."
"Cee!" Michael called, his voice a frantic whisper. "Your loyalty is to me. Where is he?"
"I promised him I wouldn't tell if he saved your life. I would make the same promise today. I'm sorry, Michael. I can't tell you."
"Cee! You're my robot. You can't hide things from me." Then Cee heard Dr. Stone enter Michael's room, and he knew Michael wouldn't be speaking to him until after he left.
"Thank you, Cee. You are an honorable person." Jamel turned to another picture. "The laser will not cut human flesh, but it still has the power to slice reptile-dragons."
"You made sure it would not cut you either, didn't you?"
"Yes. Of course you can tell Michael, and he can reprogram it to kill people, but if he's as honorable as you say, I will guess that he won't."
"He probably would not."
Jamel finally closed the portfolio and replaced everything in Michael's pack, setting Cee's core in on top. "I remember what it is like without a body, Cee. I know you are frustrated. But someday you'll get your body back." After placing the bag in the corner he curled up with his head resting on his forearms, facing the pack with Cee as if he wanted to keep talking.
"I'd rather be here with Michael than back in my pathetic robot body," Cee admitted.
"Is it the body you hate, or the conditions you lived in? What little you've said of Butler, he doesn't sound like a nice person."
Cee always thought Butler was his friend -- his only friend, Butler had told him, because not even Michael liked him. But now he knew Jamel was right. He didn't want to be anywhere near Butler again. There had been a few times when Michael really seemed to want him. Not many, but a few. Things were changing. But Butler would ruin it all.
"Dr. Collin and Kayden love you. I wish Michael loved me like that."
Jamel lifted his head. "He doesn't?"
"I'm not capable enough."
Jamel snorted. "That's silly. You're a 5000 unit. The same as me or that Butler. You're capable. Top of the line, aren't we?"
"Still prototypes. Working out my bugs. Butler is fine. But I am not right. And they want to know how you think."
Jamel lay his head down. "I'll never go back. And you don't make it sound at all nice. Not if they're going to tell me I'm buggy and incapable." He yawned showing all his sharp, white teeth. "Stay here, Cee. We'll find someone who will love you."
"I go where Michael goes. I want him to love me." But now Michael was calling him again, asking for the A's location, and Cee had to anger him to keep his promise. He would never be loved.