Quinn entered the barn. It was getting dark, and Kayden and Marta were bringing in the horses and wingdeer from the field. His wingdeer, Rae, was already back in her stall with her two two-week-old calves. Michael had helped with the delivery, and as promised, Quinn gave him the one he wanted. It was the least he could do when he now had Cee. Michael had chosen the first to come out into his hands, and he’d named the little girl Athena. The other calf was a female also, but Michael had placed a small violet dragon-hide halter on Athena. Most of the other wingdeer had regular cow leather halters, except Angie, Rae, and Sam.
Quinn murmured to Rae and caressed her head until he heard Shanika’s voice coming from Flash’s stall.
He walked across the barn and leaned against the stall wall as Shanika caressed Flash’s head behind his ears. “You’re the prettiest little horse. You’re going to fly so fast.”
Flash rested his muzzle on her knees in contentment. He still lay most of the time, but he did walk when Kayden made him earlier, so they knew his legs were fine. He was just weak from his ordeal.
“Are you sure that man really wants Flash? Maybe you could buy him?” She hugged him, her dark hair contrasting with the colt’s dun yellow hide.
“Wish I could, Sweetheart, but I’m sure he won’t sell.”
“Not even if you give him a kazillion coins?”
“No. Not even for a kazillion coins.”
“Maybe you could give him Rae or her other baby.”
“Nope. He already has a wingdeer.”
She hugged the colt tighter, and he struggled to move away, his good wing stretching out.
Tears clouded her eyes. “But I love him so much.”
“I know. But it’s time for bed. I’m sure you’ll have your own pegasus someday.” He lifted her into his arms and hugged her, before letting her ride his shoulders to the house.
After he put Shanika to bed, he went to his own room. No use going to the barn. Niles and Marta would be there again, and they’d get nothing accomplished. He needed to ask Collin about something he’d read in his studies also, but until the house was finished so that Par and Gwen, Niles and Marta could move out, he couldn’t talk freely in the house either, unless they gathered in Collin’s room, which they had a few times. Three more weeks, the builders had told him that afternoon.
“Jake says we should go to the barn,” Cee said.
“Who is there?”
“Collin, Michael, Kayden, Jake.”
“Not Niles and Marta?”
“No. Collin told them he was Hans Trapper and that he needed to talk business with Jake.”
Quinn was about to ask why he’d told them that and then realized it had been obvious. Collin had been wearing his blue outfit when Marta discovered them with Jake. If Collin really needed to discuss Hans Trapper business, he better get out there.
The barn was dark except for the light coming from the open hole leading to the loft. Quinn climbed the ladder, and then Collin shoved the board door over the hole, sealing them in as he would when he wanted to make sure no one knew they were up here.
Kayden sat beside Jamel’s neck. Michael sat cross-legged near her. Jamel wore his saddle, promising that some time tonight one of them would go flying. Collin settled onto a straw bale. Quinn smiled. He could relax tonight. He rested against the mound of straw Jamel used for a bed and stretched out.
“Well, my children, first Jamel has requested to speak.” Collin gave the dragon a nod.
Jamel lifted his head. “I just want all of you to call me Jake instead of Jamel. Cee is Jamel, Michael is Jamel. Even Kayden is Jamel now. I think there is less likely to be questions about why my name is Michael’s last name if I am always called Jake.”
Collin tilted his head. “It is logical, Jake, and I will attempt to comply with your wishes.” He smiled. “But I don’t think I’ll ever see you as fully Jake. You are so much more.”
“But it is just like you are more than Dr. Alex Collin. We can’t call you who you are, even though Collin Hansell more fully fits you,” Jake argued.
Collin’s grin widened. “You are right again, my friend. I can never argue with whatever you wish to call yourself.”
Kayden hugged Jake. “I’ll try to remember. You may have to remind me a few times, just like you had to keep me in line for Collin when we first came.”
Jake rubbed his head against her arm. Michael leaned back to avoid him.
“Any problems, Quinn, Michael?” Collin asked.
Michael shook his head. “I’ve always known him as Jake, and would rather not be reminded about his split personality. I mean….” He grabbed a piece of straw and bent it into little pieces. “You’re right, Jake. Logical thing to do.”
Kayden squeezed his leg.
Quinn shrugged. “Won’t be as hard as switching from Alex to Collin.”
“You’ve had something on your mind the last few days, Quinn,” Collin prompted.
Quinn didn’t meet Collin’s gaze, instead digging a hole in the straw down to the wooden floor of the loft. “Me and Cee talked over that last lesson you gave me, but I still wondered if you knew a way to get through to me.” He shrugged. “Guess it’s one of those times,” he admitted. Several times during his studies to become a doctor he’d come to a section he’d never thought he’d understand. Early on he’d despaired of ever learning the material, but after conquering several of those difficult concepts, he had learned that just because something didn’t make sense the first time, didn’t mean he could never learn it.
Collin glanced at Michael and Kayden. “Why don’t we save that discussion for last? Michael and Kayden will be more lost than you are.” He grinned at them.
Michael rolled his eyes. “I’ll never catch up.” But he smiled. “Of course I figure listening in on your problems now will give me an advantage when I actually get to it myself.”
“Collin, can we raise pegasus, too,” Kayden asked, changing the subject.
Michael reached over to give her waist a tickle. “Just can’t stand all thatdoctor talk, can you?”
She shot him a grin, but then focused on Collin. “Can we?”
“Actually, I wondered that also,” Quinn admitted. “Shanika wants one so much. Hate to disappoint her.”
“I would like to,” Collin said. “But we have a problem. No female pegasus.”
“You could make one, like you did Jake,” Kayden suggested.
“The way we made Jake’s body was an exception. I’d prefer to plant a embryo into a wingdeer womb, but we can’t do that here, because our friends will think it’s mighty strange when Angie has a foal instead of a calf.”
“What about a horse? That’s more natural.”
“You’re backwards, Sweetheart. A pegasus might conceivably have a foal without wings, but a horse will not have a winged foal. Besides the average horse’s womb is a bit too small.”
"But couldn’t you, for the first one, grow him like Jake?”
“Not to adulthood. Maybe up to gestation.” Collin stared across the barn over their heads. But then he shook his head. “No. I’d rather not do that if I don’t have to. The young foal will be weaker than if he was born naturally. We were lucky with Jake that the body didn’t die in transition, especially with the operation.” He nodded to Quinn. “Be prepared, you two. Our first attempt at a body for Cee might not work. But we can always try again.”
“We could hide a wingdeer away until after the foal’s born,” Kayden said, throwing out yet another idea.
Quinn had to smile. She always had far more ideas than he did, although most of them were simply unusable. But no one berated them. No one said she shouldn’t throw out ideas.
“Where?” Collin asked her simply, encouraging her to think through her idea with a slight smile on his face.
Cee spoke from his pocket. “Would a dragon’s womb work? You said something before about reintroducing many of the near extinct wildlife. Are there any restrictions other than size?”
Collin’s face lit into an excitement Quinn rarely saw. “Cee, what an idea! Would you like to try it? Jamel, think of it! What a challenge.”
“But not baby dragons,” Jake said, his voice subdued.
Collin shook his head. “No. Mammal dragons will always be unique, needing more than just an animal brain. But the other wildlife….”
Quinn pulled Cee from his pocket. “You want to be a girl?” he asked, finally comprehending what Cee had said.
The barn was silent. Michael stared at Cee, his mouth open. Kayden bit her lip.
“I am neither now. If you have a preference, I will defer to your wishes,” Cee said meekly.
Quinn glanced up at Collin. Collin had loved the idea, but now he stared at Quinn as if trying to tell him something. He wished he knew what it was. He looked at the small, black rectangle in his hands. He… It was always timid about speaking out, and it rarely expressed its desires. Quinn glanced at Collin one more time and then to Michael and Kayden.
“I think it’s a great idea, Cee,” Kayden said softly.
Michael rolled his eyes, but then Collin gave a slight shake of his head. Michael clenched his jaw, but didn’t speak.
Quinn rubbed his thumbs along Cee’s side. “What do you want, Cee?”
“Rae is a girl,” Cee began in a small voice. “You love her.”
“I’ll love you whether you’re a girl or a boy dragon or no dragon at all, Cee. Don’t decide by what you think I want. What do you want?” And Quinn was rewarded with Collin’s smile of approval. He’d said the right thing. Nothing meant more to Quinn than pleasing Collin, his mentor, his father, and his best friend.
“I want to do something important, but if I did what Jake did, that would be repetitious.”
“You realize that if we succeed with a plan such as this that your agility and speed would be compromised near the end of each pregnancy,” Collin cautioned. “You’d have to stay out of the way of danger.”
“I’ll protect her,” Jake said quickly.
Michael shook his head and rolled his eyes again.
“Do you think it’s a good idea, Jake?”
Jake brought his nose to Cee’s small core. “Would you be married to me?”
“Collin!” Michael exclaimed, standing. “Listen to them! This is ludicrous.”
Kayden jumped up. “No, it’s not. It’s so… so romantic. Can you just see them both curled up together, resting. Protecting each other. Helping each other. It’s….”
“Kayden, they’re robots!”
“Dragons! They’re not just machines. Jamel loves as much as you do. He deserves a good wife.”
“Cee isn’t a wife! He’s a little round robot.”
“Jamel is still sometimes a rectangular robot. So what’s your point, Michael. Cee’s right. Now she has no gender. What’s wrong with choosing female?”
Collin placed a hand on each of their shoulders. “Enough! The decision belongs to neither of you. It is Cee’s alone, and if Cee wishes to be female, I will attempt to accommodate her.”
“But at what cost! The machines will band together and be loyal to neither of you.”
“That’s not true,” Jake stated evenly. “I will always be loyal to Collin. His vision is mine. Cee will follow Quinn until he dies, and Quinn’s vision is Collin’s. A physical union between Cee and I would diminish Collin’s goals less than when you wished to take Kayden away from us.”
“A physical union! I can’t believe you’re lusting after Cee.” Michael flung his arm toward Quinn. Quinn slipped Cee back into his pocket and placed his hand over it.
“I am not lusting. I have seen the possibilities, and I am curious what you and Kayden find so fulfilling in the act. But if Cee is unwilling, I wouldn’t care either way. I am, after all, just a machine with no flesh or hormones.” He swung his head back and rested it on the floor, away from them.
Quinn rushed to him and leapt into the saddle, quickly securing the straps around him. Jake turned as soon as they were tight and ran through the hide door.
Jake shot north of the village, making his way around it. Slowly Quinn relaxed. As they reached the south point where the Capitol and Reese river merged, Jake shot up in a spiral. Then he came down again and flew just above the Reese river until they were on the far side of Collin’s property.
Jake landed on a bluff overlooking the water, and Quinn dismounted.
“You’re upset,” came Cee’s voice.
Quinn thought he was talking to him, but Jake snaked his head around to touch Cee’s pocket. “I do not lust. Friendship is enough. I do not need marriage.”
“But you want me to be female?”
“I am going for a swim.” Jake jumped off the bluff into the water leaving them alone.
Quinn sat on the ground. “You want Jake to like you, don’t you?”
“I like her,” Jake said in his ear.
“I am confused. I want to help Shanika have her pegasus. I didn’t think anyone would care if I was a male or female unit. Do you care? I can tell if you lie to me, Quinn.”
“Really? I don’t think I’ve ever lied to you.”
“No. Not yet. But you did when you told Mr. Burns the accident wasn’t his son’s fault.”
Quinn shrugged. “But he couldn’t change it now, and his son felt bad enough for causing his dad to lose his finger by his carelessness. Didn’t want the dad to hate him.”
They sat in the darkness. Clouds obscured the moons, and Quinn could no longer see Jake. He lay back, looking for any sign of the stars he knew were still there.
“Do you care whether I’m male or female? You were shocked earlier.”
“Surprised, yes. I always thought ‘he’ in my mind. But, you really think this will work? You’re not just doing it for Shanika, are you?”
“I am not sure what I am doing. The thought just occurred to me as Kayden discussed possibilities. But I do like the idea of having a purpose that is different from Jake’s.”
“You don’t want to hunt dragons?”
“I will still be able to hunt, won’t I? Except when I’m very pregnant as Collin pointed out.” There was a very slight pause, and then Cee whispered into his ear the way he did when Jake wasn’t supposed to listen in. “I just want to be special, Quinn, not a clone of Jake. Will you love me as much if I’m not just like him? Will you love me as much if I am? He can give you all the rides you want and hunt with you. I couldn’t do anything more than that for you. You were very happy when Rae had her calves. I want to make you happy, too.”
“Cee, you’ve become my closest friend. Even with Collin I can not speak so freely. You don’t have to give birth to make me happy. A friendship like ours isn’t conditional.”
“You mean like Michael loves Kayden whether she can have children or not?”
“Exactly. Real friends don’t place that kind of pressure on each other. If that’s what you really want, Cee, I’ll be with you through every delivery, every miscarriage, and every triumph. If not, I’ll never miss it. I promise. Shanika will get a pegasus some other way. If Collin can make dragons without dragon-wombs, then he can make pegasus.”
“I wouldn’t be special, would I?”
“Sure you would. You’ll always be special to me. And I know Collin loved the idea. He probably saw possibilities in your idea that you and I couldn’t even imagine.”
“Collin really was pleased, wasn’t he?” Cee’s voice seemed to relax. “And Jake? He will not tell me what he’s thinking about this. He said marriage and then changed his mind.”
“Do you want to marry Jake?”
“I do not even know if I will be female yet.”
Quinn smiled. “Maybe that’s why Jake said that. He didn’t change his mind. He just didn’t want to pressure you either. After all you’re going to be that beautiful royal blue. A man can’t help but think marriage when he sees a beautiful female.”
Cee’s voice lifted. “Marriage? Is that all men really think, Quinn?”
Quinn laughed. Cee had never teased him before. He… She was getting over her timidness. “I can’t fool you, can I?”
“I will always be loyal to you, even if Jake wanted…” She paused and then said dryly, “marriage.”
Quinn rubbed the pocket which held Cee. “I know. Jake is right. We are all working toward Collin’s goals. I don’t anticipate a problem.”
“If there is, you would come first.” There was a moment of silence, and when Cee spoke again her voice was subdued. “I hope he never forces me to betray you. I trust him now. I keep expecting he will call me a silly, stupid robot, but he never does. He never pries. He is not even listening now. But if he did want something, I know he can crush me just like Butler did. I thought Butler was my friend, but he kept pushing me around and taking what he wanted. I couldn’t stop him. Please don’t hate me if Jake takes my data.”
“I won’t hate you. You tell me if anything happens like that. Cee, sometimes I don’t fight, thinking I can’t win anyway. But a couple times recently I did fight, and I won. Maybe you’re just as strong as they are, but you don’t know it yet.”
“No. I know I am not. Once when I fought hard, Butler wiped out a piece of my memory. I do not know if he got the information before he purged it from me, or if it was destroyed in the fight. Michael was angry I had forgotten his appointments, and I have a small section in my core that can never hold data again. It is permanent damage, and if a fight escalates that far again more damage will occur until I can not function at all.”
Quinn closed his eyes tight and rubbed his pocket. “My lungs were damaged when my father broke my ribs. Some winters I get bronchitis or pneumonia. Not recently because Collin always catches it early now. But I don’t want you hurt again. When you are a dragon, can’t you fly out of range if someone starts to hurt you?”
“Jake could follow me. But I do think I trust Jake as much as I trust you and Collin now. Sometimes I have wanted to be just like him. Jake is asking if we are ready for him and Collin to join us.”
Quinn sat up. “Are you?”
“Yes. I am ready. And I wish to be a female dragon.”
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.