The first thing Nadia was aware of was stiffness and a faint burning sensation all over her body

The first thing Nadia was aware of was stiffness and a faint burning sensation all over her body. How long had she been lying here? And more importantly, where was 'here'? The last thing she remembered was a huge, angry dragon flying at her…

This is all very confusing, she thought, and ventured to open her eyes.

A snuffle and a white face greeted her.

"Good morning to you too, Bryne," Nadia muttered wryly. She reached up to hug the dragon's head, noting the feeling of thick bandages under her shirt. Wow, she must have missed a lot. "So, how long have I been out?"

Just a couple of days, Bryne hissed. You're the first, though.

Before Nadia could ask what that meant, Quinn stepped through the doorway. Apparently she'd been given the privacy of a more intact room in the keep. The rugged man smiled with evident relief to see her sitting up.

"I was beginning to think we were too late," he said by way of greeting. "How're you feeling?"

"Better," Nadia replied. "Just a little stiff and tingly. How long do I have to stay in bed?"

"I'd take it easy, at least today, just to play it safe. But I wouldn't keep you there long."

Nadia grinned, then became curious as a thought crossed her mind. "Where's Jared? Before this, it was like I couldn't get rid of him. Then he never said goodbye…What's wrong, Quinn?"

Quinn suddenly looked uncomfortable. "Well, he's here. He's the reason we're all still here. Unfortunately, we didn't come by that without a price." He stepped to the side.

A second makeshift bed had been made for Jared, who was wrapped tightly in thick blankets. A white bandage was wrapped around his forehead. Only one arm, which was done up in a sling, was visible on top, rising and falling with his steady breathing. Shiny burns were visible from this side as well.

"So far he hasn't regained consciousness yet," Quinn explained quietly. "He had a pretty rough time battling that other dragon. Don't feel that it's your fault, because it's not; he did it because he cares about the community, and he cares about you."

Nadia nodded. "So, is she still around, the big female?"

"No. Bryne fought and killed her in defense of us all. You should be very proud of her."

Bryne ducked her head as if she were blushing. Both Quinn and Nadia laughed.

"Enough of this seriousness. Why don't I bring you some breakfast?" Quinn offered.

"Thank you, I'd like that very much," said Nadia. She watched him leave, then turned her attention back to Jared. "So, he rode you to face her?" she asked.

Bryne nodded. He was determined to find a way to save you, even to the point of recklessness. Don't be too hard on him. He's meant well.

"I know. To tell you the truth, I wasn't even mad at him by the time I fell asleep that night. I guess I was just afraid of leaving the life I knew behind—of leaving you behind."

But you're not. I'm learning to live with humans too, remember? It's just a bigger world; we haven't left anything behind.

Nadia smiled at her best friend. "Thanks, Bryne. For everything. What do ya say we step outside for a stretch and some fresh air? I promise I won't do anything drastic."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When Jared came to, it was slow and very painful. It seemed at first that he couldn't move anything. How badly was he hurt? With that question, memory of the whole incident flooded back.

His eyes snapped open. A field of white seemed to take all of his vision—a broken arm. If it was bad enough to need a sling, he'd be useless for weeks. On top of that, his face and neck felt strangely taut. Burns, no doubt. He carefully turned his attention to the surrounding room.

Weak sunlight shone in from the door and various holes; it was probably around midday. His bed was situated on the far side of the old dormitory, in view of the one Nadia was in—except she wasn't. The half-made covers were abandoned, occasionally ruffled by the breeze. A cross lay on top. She didn't…she couldn't

Jared made an agonizing attempt to sit up, which only resulted in an involuntary cry of pain. Right on cue, Quinn walked through the doorway and caught him.

"Eh, what do ya think you're doin' mate? Take it easy," the big man said in a would-be calm voice. He slowly helped Jared into a sitting position. "Now, what's got ya all worked up?"

"She—she's gone," breathed Jared, pointing at the empty bed. "But she can't've…why—"

"Well, we couldn't keep her there for long, Jared," said Quinn. "Wouldn't be right."

"I couldn't even see her? You couldn't wait?"

"You know how she is. Anyway, you'll have plenty of chances to see her."

"Oh, sure. You know as well as I do that it'll never be the same. It's not really her!"

Quinn looked thoroughly bewildered. "Why wouldn't it be?"

"You know what I mean, Quinn. She's—" Jared suddenly stopped, and thought back over Quinn's half of the conversation. Then it hit him. How could he have been so stupid? Almost swaying with relief (and pain), he let out a wheezy chuckle.

"What?" asked Quinn. Jared simply shook his head, grinning to himself. Finally, he regained some composure.

"So, what's the worst of it?"

"Worst of it?" Quinn repeated.

"How long am I stuck here?"

"Oh. Well, you did take some serious knocks out there. Not to mention trying to drown on me. The doc said you had a concussion, though it's been nearly four days. I don't think that'll be a worry—"

"Four days?" Jared said incredulously. "It's been four days?"

"Give or take," Quinn shrugged. "Depends on how you want to count. Anyway, the sling won't stop you from walking once you're rested up. I'm not sure what we'll do about the burns yet. Alex said she knew a recipe they used that'll heal it up pretty well. I'd be taking it slow, though. You've been through a lot."

Jared caught a roar from outside. "I'd be alright with a short walk, though, wouldn't I?" When Quinn looked skeptical, he added, "I'll be careful, and it's not like I'm going to go far. I've been stuck inside for four days."

"You've been unconscious for four days…"

"Please, Quinn, just out in the courtyard."

Quinn sighed, and looked Jared over. "I suppose. But not for long, do ya hear me?" He tossed some clothes on the blanket.

"Thanks."

The going was slow. Gingerly, Jared stood up, grabbed the cross, and headed for the doorway, having to pause at the arch to stop his head swimming. Bryne was in the courtyard, being treated to a neck rub by Nadia. Only the outline of bandages under her shirt bore evidence of her own ordeal. Jared managed to get halfway before they noticed him coming.

"Uh, hi," he said uncertainly. A blast of wind sent him shivering—he'd forgotten a coat. Nadia bit her lip shyly, slipped out of the trenchcoat she'd first borrowed weeks ago, and put it around Jared's shoulders. "I…I don't know what to say…What you did was—" She stopped as Jared held up his good hand. Heart racing madly, he leaned over and kissed her. The rest of the world seemed to fall away.

"I want to take care of you, for you," he finally whispered. "You're amazing, and I want you to feel like you have a home, somewhere to be safe."

"And I promised myself I wouldn't cry when you woke up," choked Nadia. "I was awestruck when Quinn told me what you'd done. What everyone here has done is…I guess you never know how much something means to you until you risk losing it." Suddenly she broke off and threw her arms around Jared's sore shoulders. He found he didn't mind; his good arm reached around to hold her close. Then a sharp poke in his right palm reminded him of what else he was holding.

"I think this belongs to you," he said, opening his hand to show Nadia. "I thought you had died after all when I saw it on your bed." A sheepish smile cept onto his face.

She studied it curiously for a moment before smiling and picking it up. "I guess the chain must've broken while I was asleep. It was pretty old. Thanks."

I suppose I'll just go join the rocks, then! came the snort from overhead, so close it ruffled Jared's hair. Bryne's eyes glinted cynically.

"Big baby, we haven't forgotten you," Nadia laughed. She rested her head against Jared's chest, still looking up at her dragon friend. "Twelve years together is a lot to forget. But the world's getting bigger. It doesn't have to be just us anymore."

Jared smiled to himself as he propped his chin on Nadia's head. Bryne answered by curling her tail lightly around the two of them. It wasn't about love, or even survival. It was simply about having others be there, to support and lean on in turn. And everyone deserved it.

Fin