"How did you do that?" Allen Hobby demanded hoarsely, standing in the middle of his living room both angry and befuddled, staring down at them.
"What?" Tabby asked dully, not bothering to look up at him. Smoothing Joe's hair, she kissed his forehead, closed his eyes, and folded one of his flaccid hands between both of hers.
"How did you stop him? Once a Mecha's gone rogue, they stay that way."
She didn't want to hear the man's voice turn suddenly rough and tired. Shaking her head, Tabby tried to stop her tears from flowing, loath to show any human feeling in front of a man that had less compassion than the computer she used at home. "Don't you understand? Even angry enough to kill, to want to hurt, Joe wouldn't, not in his right mind. It was easier for him to stop himself and fight his violent impulses because he's had practice, unlike your other poor victims. Your damn virus didn't make him go rogue. He's been what you consider "rogue" ever since he was forced to abandon David."
Hobby jerked at the name, his face going pale. He stopped breathing for a moment, his wide eyes devouring Joe's still form, trailing slowly up to her face. "What responsibility does that person hold towards that Mecha in return?" he whispered hoarsely, stricken, suddenly hurting.
Moving like he was propelled by a hidden force from behind, the professor crouched beside her and grasped Joe's husk under the arms. "Help me," he ordered harshly.
"What? Why?" Tabby demanded, hanging on to Joe with every breath of life left in her. "Leave him alone!"
"Miss Cooper, we have two hours, maybe less, before the virus shorts out his neural sequencers. If that happens, he'll be wiped completely, permanently, and even his body will be useless because any attempt to re-install any kind of programming will be contaminated. Help me get him to the lab!"
"He's already dead, you bastard! What else do you want to do to him?"
"He's not dead, you silly . . . listen to me, the virus wipes everything, yes, but it is possible to retrieve all the information. We can cure the virus; our scientists just translated the foreign programming. Now that we have a way to purge to virus first, we can save his memory without bringing back the contamination. Now help me!"
Tabitha hunched over Joe's body, glaring up at Professor Hobby. "Why would I believe the man who created the virus? You've killed people!"
"It's not my virus," Hobby answered wearily. "It's a mutated form, changed by a parasitic program hidden within the original. My virus simply wiped a Mecha's memory. We're trying to find who attached the parasite. All we know right now is that it was sabotage, an inside job. I didn't kill anyone, I promise you." Glancing at Joe, the man flinched. "Not intentionally," he whispered. "Please. Let me help."
She didn't trust him, couldn't trust him, but after a moment's hesitation she roused herself and helped Allen Hobby lift Joe in arms that were surprisingly strong. Taking curt directions, she preceded him down several hallways and through an assortment of levels, opening doors ahead of him. At last they reached a set of large white double doors that wouldn't open at a touch. Following Hobby's commands, she dug a plastic card out of his pocket and swiped it through an electronic lock that was hidden in the crack between the door and the wall. Instead of swinging open, the door slid, and Hobby stopped her from entering. "The doors are equipped with S.M.A.R.T. recognition, and anyone besides selected personnel set off alarms all over the building. There's a room in the last hallway we passed, third door on the right. Wait there until I come for you." With that, he disappeared behind the heavy, impenetrable barrier.
Left standing alone, Tabby felt lost, having to trust her friend at the hands of a man who hated him.
"Him." He'd called Joe "him" instead of "it." She scratched what comfort she could out of the meager hope.
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Two hours . . . three hours . . . four, five, six, ten twelve . . . Hobby had failed and didn't want to face her. There was no other explanation for the length of his silence. A fully-stocked refrigerator held no appeal, nor did the cooler filled with assorted drinks. The only thing in the vacant break room that beckoned was the coffee maker, which she used until her hands trembled. Her eyes itched and burned, after sixteen hours trying to drag themselves closed, even under the influence of a heavy caffeine overdose. Slumping in her chair, she curled her legs under her and gripped her coffee cup, determined to wait for the professor's word, whatever it might be.
But she was human, organic, and at the mercy of her mortal body; sleep curled around her, as warm and suffocating as the silken fur of a cat and as impossible to resist as her need for oxygen.
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Tabitha was curled animal-like on a cushioned chair in a position that looked explicitly uncomfortable, even to him. An empty paper cup was half-crumpled in her slack hand, her head pillowed on her upper arm. One leg twisted under her, the other dangled over the edge of the chair, but despite the joint-popping angle of her limbs, her breathing was deep and even.
He would have retreated, should have left her to the sleep she so plainly needed, but he had to touch her, to feel the warmth of her flesh beneath his hand, just for a moment. He reached out slowly, trailing a finger over the rounded contours of her face. He felt a distinct flash of chagrin when her eyes blinked open at the soft contact, but it fled when her gaze froze in his, her breath stilling. Both her hands reached out, digging in either side of his face, confusion, hope, and disbelief mingling. He knew he looked somewhat different, so he remained silent, letting her drink in the sight of his more human skin, his softer hair. "Is it really you, Joe?" she squeaked unsteadily. "Is it really, really you in there?"
"It's really me." Joe tugged at her hands to loosen her grip, folding them between his own and kissing her knuckles. "Shall I prove it to you?"
Making a wordless, primal sound, Tabitha threw her arms around his neck, kissing him hard. "Just hold me," she whispered, wrapping her entire body around him, so hard she had to be bruising herself in some indelicate places, hanging on with all her being to affirm his presence.
Nose buried in her soft hair, Joe cradled her, stroking her back and feeling warm tears fall onto his neck, trailing heat past the collar of his shirt.
Indeed this could be better.
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"Why did you do it?"
Hobby was startled by the question and knew he showed it, the ice in his glass of twenty-year-old Scotch clattering from a small involuntary jump. The girl only looked at him expectantly; she really did think of the machine reclining beside her as nothing more or less than another person and was obviously used to its . . . his . . . eccentricities.
But for Allen Hobby it was a new experience to sit and listen to a Mecha question him. Never, never was a Mecha to question its masters and creators, no matter the circumstances. Yet there sat Joe, on Professor Hobby's own leather couch, in Hobby's own office, gazing at him with large, unblinking eyes, waiting with all the patience of a Mecha, but none of the subservience.
"I . . ." he trailed off, watched Tabitha's eyes ice over, and cleared his throat, realizing he owed an explanation. "My . . . son. He . . ."
"We know about David," Joe interrupted gently.
The professor stared for a moment at the machine that was rapidly coming to seem more like a man, if a singularly sensitive and compassionate one. "I was angry and frustrated," he continued after a pause. "Then . . . Cybertronics decided to use my technology, MY TECHNOLOGY, that it took years to develop, that I meant to help ease the pain and yearning for those that craved the innocent, loving company of their own child, in their newest lover models. I . . . it seemed like a . . . a violation. I . . . I am sorry. It's over, but I can never erase it. The virus has been nullified, the anit-virus released, and the programmer who added the parasite was identified and arrested." Noting Tabitha's sharpened interest, he inclined his head towards her, an ironic tilt to his eyebrows. "She was one of Johnson-Johnson's more rabid followers."
"And Cybertronics hired her?" Tabby snorted. "One of those murdering maniacs was actually helping to design and build Mechas?"
"She wrote software programs. She'd been here for three years, waiting for any chance at something like this," Hobby sighed. "The company tries to screen all its employees, but unfortunately, views such as hers aren't uncommon."
"No," Joe agreed softly, deeper meaning laced through his tone. While his face was disconcertingly human now, his skin almost completely lacking the plastic sheen of most artificial dermas and his hair falling loose and naturally, his gaze was all Mecha, steady and unwavering. "No, her views are shared by many, many others. Why did you help me?"
The internal lurch of a shaken reality was less this time, and the professor even managed to keep his eyes locked with Joe's cool blue ones. "Because of the way she looks at you. She loves you," he answered in a whisper. "She is . . . what I wished for David's . . . for your David's family. And because you love her."
Tabitha swallowed hard, a suspicious sheen of damp glowing in her eyes until she blinked to chase it away. Her gaze drifted to Joe with an expression that was enough to make Hobby look away, wishing he had left his little robot with Joe instead of luring him here. He looked at the drink in his hands and cleared his abruptly tight throat again, surprised at how much it still hurt. The thought of David, his second son, lost and alone under the waves . . .
Blinking, Allen Hobby realized he was thinking about a Mecha much the same way Miss Cooper did; he looked hard at the slender golem, noting the way Joe's personality looked back, studying and judging, and for the first time not finding him wanting. "You . . . helped him, the best you knew how," the professor articulated carefully, to hide the huskiness in his voice. "Thank you."
Joe's eyes widened in surprise but he nodded, his expression acknowledging both the man's evolving understanding, and his pain. It wasn't a look he was comfortable with, from Mecha or Orga, and to get away from it he turned his attention to the girl who curled at Joe's side, her arms wound possessively, nay, protectively, around him.
"You'll have to let me know if you run into any problems," Hobby warned them both. "Much of the new programming is experimental, even what's based on my designs."
"Yeah. Generation Five," Tabitha said with a half-grin. "But how? Threes just came on the market a few weeks ago."
"We upgraded his systems with the newest technologies, some of them tested only in a lab setting," Hobby explained. "Many of his circuits were damaged and overtaxed, most likely from his . . . quest. The virus aggravated some of the damage until it was irreparable. Only his frame and central personality and memory circuits are the same."
"You didn't try to change anything?" Tabitha asked suspiciously.
"No. I wouldn't know how to go about repairing or replacing the burnt out behavioral circuits without doing permanent damage." The professor's eyes flicked back to Joe for a moment. "Signals were rerouted, even completely erased, and I can't make out how. It will be interesting to see if any more of his line develop. Though I must say most of the circumstances leading to his . . . evolution . . . were singular and unlikely to be repeated."
"I should hope so," Tabby said, then yawned.
"You need sleep," Joe observed sharply. "And food. You need to rest and heal." He looked faintly accusatory as he lifted one of her hands, inspecting scrapes and dark, ugly bruising that mottled the pale flesh of her wrists. Glancing at Hobby's surprised, faintly horrified expression, she withdrew from the gentle grip of his slender fingers, flushing as she hid the injuries.
"She can use my bed. I have a room across the hall," Hobby offered hastily. "While she sleeps, I'd like to run a few tests, to make sure everything is in working order and all the new programming is compatible."
The girl and the Mecha exchanged glances. Tabitha shrugged. "If you trust him, I do," she told her mechanical lover. Joe's head swivelled gracefully, regarding Hobby with a thoughtful tilt.
The professor tensed, relaxing only when Joe nodded slowly. "Yes, I do." Strange how the machine's affirmation made him feel . . . validated.
"All right, then." Stretching, the girl let Joe help her out of her seat, smiling warmly at him. "The bed sounds wonderful, Professor Hobby."
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"Could you tell me what happened to David? All of what happened? I don't know all of the story."
Joe couldn't miss the wistfulness in Allen Hobby's voice, especially now that his programming specifically defined an emotion like "wistfulness." It was strange; not feeling, he realized now that he had been feeling for some time, but understanding what he felt. Or at least as far as the humans who had designed him could understand their own emotions.
He shortened this version of events, focusing solely on the little Mecha from the moment fate had thrown them together into a hostile world, minimizing mention of his own involvement. Hobby shuddered at the description of some of their adventures, swallowed hard at others, nodding quietly, stiff-featured, at the end. "I should have realized," he murmured to himself. "I didn't know I had made him so . . . human."
"But it is what you meant to do," Joe protested quietly.
"I know. But it was suppose to be impossible." Professor Hobby looked away, then back with the sharp, predatory stare of a falcon. "Why did you help him?" he asked, consciously throwing Joe's own question back at him.
Joe stared steadily back, trying to form an answer, but it was a question he didn't know the answer to himself. Was it because the model boy's immature, magical view of the world had helped Joe see the world clearer than he ever had before, the strange, illogical ideas flowing through his circuitry like a machete through thick, obscuring vegetation, allowing him to absorb and process more of what was around him? Was it that he simply found the boy intriguing, prickling at his, even then, un-Mecha-like curiosity? Why had he responded to the small hand thrust trustingly into his?
"He . . . needed help," Joe finally answered, slowly. "I don't know what else to tell you."
"Interesting," Hobby murmured to himself. Cocking his head, he glanced over Joe's shoulder towards the open door of his office, to the door across the hall. "Tell me, Joe, how did you meet Miss Cooper? How did that relationship develop? Forgive me for my curiosity, but it seems to me that you showed signs of surprising insight for a Mecha, even growth and evolution, before you ever encountered your David. That could possibly explain why you had the capacity to see that he needed help," Professor Hobby mused, rubbing his chin absently as he studied Joe. "Mechas are not built to be truly self-sacrificing or loyal, yet you put yourself in danger for his sake. And the capacity for self-preservation you exhibited in running from the murder scene was not part of your original programming. That kind of imagination and foresight is completely unheard of, or was before you and the David II. Your loyalty to Tabitha Cooper is just as amazing; your kind especially are programmed to see one master as much the same as another. I'm simply trying to ascertain the origins of your differences, Joe, if you don't mind."
It was the first time Allen Hobby had called him by his name, Joe noted, filing away signs of the professor's own growth. Keeping his scrutiny to himself, he began with the story of Tabitha nearly running him down with her car.
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Tabitha walked in, hiding a yawn behind her hand, just as Joe was describing her showdown with Lord Johnson-Johnson's goons. Allen Hobby leaned forward in his seat, entranced by the Mecha's tale of romance and adventure, a small, admiring smile crooking one corner of his mouth. Stopping inside the door, Tabby looked from one to the other, frowning. Joe trailed off uncertainly, staring mutely at his lover.
Her tempestuous eyes settled on Allen Hobby, Tabitha growled low in her throat. "What did you tell him?" she asked Joe slowly. "How much?"
"I'm sorry," Joe articulated. "I didn't realize . . ."
"I apologize, Miss Cooper . . . Tabitha," Professor Hobby interrupted. "I asked him to tell me how the two of you met and developed such a close relationship. It's my fault, I shouldn't have tried to indulge my curiosity."
Ignoring the older man completely, Tabby crossed her arms. "Joe, you can't go telling anyone about our lives. It's . . . it's . . . private," she said, louder and harsher than she intended. Between general early-morning crabbiness, an oncoming menstral period, and the turbulent highs and lows of the previous day, she was snarling, ready to take a bite out of the world. Unfortunately for him, Joe was the only familiar part of the world in sight.
Joe sat back, stricken. "But . . ."
"But nothing, dammit. Don't ever talk behind my back."
At those words, Joe's face tightened, his own arms crossing to match hers. "I was hardly talking behind your back. Most of what I said to Professor Hobby is a matter of public record in any case. As I recall, large portions of it were in the newspapers," the Mecha bit back in clipped tones.
"I . . ."
Scowling, Professor Hobby waved his hands. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to get in the middle, but Joe has done anything but be disrespectful. In fact, Miss Cooper, he has been nothing if not admiring."
"I'm sorry," Joe said again, shocked at his own words and showing big eyes that still held a glimmer of innocence despite his function and his many adventures.
Tabitha couldn't hold the look for long. She grunted and turned abruptly, but she seemed more annoyed than angry. Moving stiffly, she walked to the large picture window that took up most of one wall in Hobby's office, leaning against the cool glass to stare out over the ocean.
Joe glanced at Professor Hobby, who raised his eyebrows and jerked his head towards the sulky girl. Feeling he would never understand the effort and complexities involved in a relationship, Joe rose to his feet and made his way across the room.
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Halfway to his destination he stopped in mid-stride, an odd, riveted expression on his face. Stooping, he pressed his fingertips to the floor, his head tilted as though trying to listen to something just out of earshot. He stayed like that for several long moments, perfectly still in a thoughtful pose. Suddenly he was on his feet so fast his motion blurred, charging towards Tabby. "Get down!" he howled at Hobby, dragging a squawking Tabitha to the floor and covering her body with his.
Hobby froze, shocked; he was only halfway to the ground when the building around them began to rumble and shake.
Her terrified gasps muffled under Joe's weight, Tabitha curled herself into a compact ball as the floor under her did its best to buck her off. Amid the chaos she heard a heavy crash and a deep-throated cry of pain, then nothing but the feral growls of an enraged Earth.
It went on forever and ever. The swaying building's deep-voice protests groaned continually around them and she expected it to plummet and crush them all at any moment.
Then it stopped. There was no gradual slackening, just a sudden, total cessation of movement. The only sounds were her own heart slamming in her ears and Professor Hobby's hoarse breathing, each pained exhalation an extended moan. Joe stayed curled over her for a few more seconds before rising cautiously, keeping Tabby trapped under him while he surveyed their surroundings.
Rolling away and letting her scramble to her feet, Joe picked his way across the debris-strewn floor to where Allen Hobby lay panting, his legs trapped under a heavy set of shelves amidst broken picture frames and shattered awards. A double-fist sized crystal paperweight carved in the shape of Cybertronic's emblem lay dangerously close to his head.
"Professor?" Joe asked, his voice startling in the unnatural silence.
"I'm . . . all right," Hobby grunted, grimacing as he pushed and tugged futilely at the shelves.
It was obviously a lie; Hobby was grey-faced and sweating, breathing too hard and fast. Bending at the knees, Joe reached down to grasp the top edge of the eight-foot tall black marble structure. He straightened slowly, carrying a weight his slender arms never should have been able to bear. He didn't grimace as a human would have; there was a look of intense concentration on his face as he lifted a load that should have been impossible even for his sturdy Mecha frame.
The shelves lifted agonizingly slow, Joe's legs straightening by hesitant degrees. After only an inch or two, his left leg began to whine, softly at first but quickly rising to a shrill level. Grabbing Hobby by the shoulders, Tabby tried to slide him backwards; he cried out, gripping her still-sore wrists in a bruising grip. "My foot . . . caught," he gasped.
Joe closed his eyes, forcing the unit up another few inches. The whine in his knee became a scream, then a harsh crackle of burnt-out electronics that made Joe grunt, but he hung stubbornly onto the marble slab. Pulling at Hobby, Tabitha managed to this time free him from his entrapment.
He wasn't a light man. Letting go as soon as he was clear, Tabby leaned against the wall, panting.
That was when the after-shock hit, shorter but almost as intense as the original earthquake. Tabby was pitched to the ground, landing on her hands and knees with a small yelp. There was a sick cracking behind her, the tinkle of breaking glass, then a spear of fire through her back.
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The short, cut-off shriek of pain sliced through Joe's circuitry with a physical force. "Tabitha!" he yowled, watching helpless as she clutched her abdomen around the protruding sword of glass, crouched dazed on her knees. The shelves dropped, cracking the floor tiles two inches from Hobby's injured legs while Joe leapt heedlessly past him, landing on his knees and skidding to Tabitha's side, his damaged leg splayed awkwardly.
Large, paling grey eyes gazed at him with a glazed, distracted expression. "I'm sorry, Joe," she whispered. "I didn't mean to yell at you. I had no right to be mad. I'm so sorry."
"I know," Joe murmured, brushing her soft, downy cheek with the back of his fingers. Closing her eyes, Tabby leaned into the touch, breathing a small sigh. Her body started to slump forward bonelessly. Joe caught her shoulders, staring at the shard of glass that entered her back, sliding between her ribs to erupt crimson-streaked from her abdomen, the sharp point biting into the floor.
"Oh my god," Hobby croaked. Propping himself on his forearms, he used a crawling motion to drag himself to his desk. Grabbing the hanging cord of his phone, he yanked it down to his level. Taking the receiver in a shaking hand, he dialed a four-digit number with quick, jerky strokes. "We need help!" he yelled into the mouthpiece. "People hurt!" He listened to the answer white-faced and hyperventilating. "The window's broken we can get out that way if you can get a 'copter up here," he said hoarsely. "There's a girl hurt bad."
Tabitha moaned painfully. Ignoring the rest of Hobby's conversation, Joe shifted carefully until he was supporting the girl from behind with one arm and stabilizing the glass with the other, holding her up to keep her from sliding down the spear. Warmth seeped over his fingers; her blood, hot and wet, the most intense sensation he'd ever felt, hot enough to burn . . . no, that was the glass biting into his hand, opening his epidermis wide enough that her blood seeped inside, directly onto his sensors.
"They're coming," Hobby grated, his voice so dry it sounded like bone rubbing on bone.
Tabitha shuddered in his arms, trying to take a deep breath, and the glass shifted with the movement in defiance of his best efforts, drawing a choked cry that cut off as she convulsed against him.
"Oh, god," the professor gasped again, crawling towards them with his legs dragging uselessly behind. Their shape was wrong, twisted, reminding Joe of the Doctor Mecha's misshapen limbs.
Joe's hands tingled and throbbed. The blood from Tabby's wound had increased from a steady trickle to a heavy flow, gushing faster with every heartbeat. "Have to slow the bleeding," Hobby said. "It'll take time for my pilot to get here, and we're twenty minutes from a hospital.
Something inside still purely Mecha automatically calculated the timetable with cold precision. Half that time would be too long. "Tabitha? I have to take it out," Joe said emotionlessly. He didn't think he'd get a response, but Tabitha shifted in his arms, moaning. He had to concentrate to make out the pain-garbled "Please, no."
"Have to," Professor Hobby grunted, tears standing in his eyes. He sat up with agonizing care and reached out to grasp Tabby by the shoulders, helping Joe support her weight. Trembling so hard it was more a vibration, Tabitha pressed her face against Hobby's neck. Locking his damaged knee so that it would no longer bend but would support him without danger of sudden collapse, Joe straddled his legs and steadied himself. Gripping the glass shard just above where it pierced her back, he paused, his eyes meeting Professor Hobby's before he drew the glass from Tabby's fragile body. He moved fast but not too fast, in case there were jagged barbs that could catch her insides and cause further injury.
Tabitha stiffened, her arms clutching weakly at the professor, but remained silent except for a slow hiss of air through her teeth. Her blood made a rhythmic pattering sound on the floor, small puddles forming and running together. Joe felt a grimace flash across his face and touched a hand to the side of his head, leaving a thick ruby smear on his temple; terror, despair, hope, anger . . . countless feelings swirled through his new circuitry in a muddled overload. How could creatures as delicate and fragile as humans exist like this?
"Joe!" Professor Hobby barked urgently. Tabitha was held limp against him, her face the color of bone. Gripping her arms, he helped Hobby lay her out gently. Blood soaked her from waist to knees, thick gore candy-coating her clothes and skin. It pumped from an ugly slash low in her gut, spurting at high pressure. Joe heard the professor swallow hard and ignored it; closing his eyes and cocking his head swiftly to the right, he accessed his extended memory files, those he didn't need on an everyday basis. His new Gen 5 body, he found, was equipped with more advances than a radically improved chameleon dermis; his knowledge of human anatomy, formerly restricted to basic first aid, was now extensive. Opening his eyes, he glanced at Hobby with a swift nod before focusing all his attention on the few square inches of wounded flesh. Sliding his hands inside, he put his ultra-sensitive tactile perception to a use he had never even visualized, using his hands more intimately than he'd known was possible. Moving cautiously in the precious life before him, he pinched here and clamped there, instantly slowing the river of blood to a lazy stream.
"They made it," Professor Hobby creaked through a dry throat, relief making him sound weak. Only then did Joe notice the roar of an engine, looking up at the crash of breaking glass to see two men hanging onto the open doors of a cargo 'copter, kicking out what remained of the deadly windowpane. Reaching back, they grasped two stretchers, tossing them through the new-made entrance, then climbed carefully through themselves.
The men froze just inside, their eyes widening at the gory panorama spread before them, the younger of the two flushing green. Their badges said they were low-level factory workers, not technicians but laborers who loaded and unloaded products and supplies. Hobby grunted irritably, prompting them to move; grabbing a stretcher, they dropped it beside the professor, one grasping him under the arms the other searching for a way to lift his legs without causing further pain.
"Slide it under him," Joe told them.
The men just stared at him blankly, unmoving but for an occasional blink. Joe waited for several seconds, his brows slowly drawing down into a scowl. "Now!" he finally barked.
The pair flinched in unison, then scrambled to obey his curt order, both gaining several slashes from the sharp, scattered glass. Professor Hobby groaned several times during the proceedings, but was finally loaded onto the stretcher, strapped in across his chest and legs. Hefting the stretcher, the men carried Hobby to the window, glancing down at the long drop to the water before the larger of the pair set his end on the window sill, climbed across to the 'copter, and leaned through the door, balancing dangerously as he lifted the professor, slowly drawing him into the hovering amphicopter.
Buffeting wind caught the 'copter once, bucking the ship with the professor halfway inside, but the tight-faced pilot brought it under control before the ersatz paramedic lost his grip on the stretcher. Once the injured man was secured in place by straps and buckles that were meant to keep inanimate cargo from shifting, the men scrambled back over the debris-strewn floor to Tabby's side.
"I can't let go. You'll have to lift us both," Joe informed them.
"You can walk beside the stretcher," the slighter man snapped, his face still a ghastly green-white.
"I can't walk across to the bloody 'copter. Flying is not one of my basic capabilities," Joe retorted harshly.
The men drew back, eyeing him warily. Then the younger of the pair glanced at his partner and nodded. The set the stretcher beside Tabitha, careful not to look at the ichor-streaked rip into which Joe's hands disappeared. Moving slowly, trying not to jar her, they lifted her onto the stretcher, then let Joe crouch over her, straddling her hips, his damaged leg jutting over the side. The men straightened, grunting under the double load. The stretcher shifted suddenly, jostling Joe, who glared wordlessly until movement underneath him drew his attention.
Tabitha's eyes fluttered and opened. They were glazed with pain, dim, but lucid. She blinked once, in slow motion, her gaze trying to flick down across her torn body. Joe leaned forward, blocking her view. "You're going to be fine," he assured her softly.
"You said . . . couldn't lie," the girl gasped, the effort and obvious struggle taking all her oxygen.
"Just lie still," Joe murmured as the workers maneuvered them into the 'copter.
"Where . . . 'd I go?" Tabby snorted, humor trying to make its way onto her papery face.
"Hush," Joe whispered. A series of bumps, made as gentle as possible, announced their arrival on the amphicopter. Tabby tensed, her eyes squeezed shut, but she barely made a sound. A choked sob made Joe look up; the younger man, boy really, he was barely legal for Joe's brand of services, had tears running down his face. Hobby was watching them from across the cargo space, solemn and grim.
"Tabitha, listen to me . . ." Joe started, but her eyes rolled back and closed, her pain-stiff muscles going slack beneath him.
"How long?" Hobby asked. "And blow the flight laws."
"We'll be at the hospital in eight minutes. I radioed ahead; they're expecting us," the pilot informed them tersely.
Eight minutes, and every second was more of her life trickling away from between his fingers.
They landed without incident, either because the hospital in turn radioed the authorities or because the aggressive police 'copter was busy with the earthquake's aftermath. White-suited paramedics and grey-clad Mecha orderlies swarmed over the 'copter. Professor Hobby was unstrapped and hauled away in seconds, then the overseeing doctor turned to Tabitha.
"The hell?" he exclaimed, staring blankly. Leaning over Joe, he inspected the wounds where the automaton's agile digits disappeared into the young woman's flesh. Head snapping with his quick movements, he called out to the waiting crew for a surgical tray. It was produced with Mecha efficiency. The doctor hastily wiped his hands with gauze soaked in sterilizing solution, pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, and gently prodded Joe to one side. In moments, a set of surgical clamps replaced Joe's fingers, freeing him.
After the warmth of Tabby's body, the cool air against his blood-wet skin was enough to send a tingle through his pain receptors. He ignored it, following the doctor silently as the man directed Tabby to be moved.
He was stopped halfway to the surgical floor by a less-humanoid orderly Mecha, informed with cold, inflectionless tones that only family members were allowed any further. Joe stopped in the middle of the corridor, staring after the gurney that bore Tabitha towards the unknown. He stood there stone still until he was ordered sharply by a human nurse to get out of the way.
He stopped asking any familiar faces for information after the twenty-seventh time he was ignored, shuffling stiff-legged into the nearest waiting room, where he inserted himself near a window and shut down all but his most basic functions, gazing at the bright twinkle of sunbeams off the distant ocean.
David was under there somewhere, searching for the blue fairy. Maybe Tabby could join him and help in the search . . .gray nothing.
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He was being shaken gently, and a fluffy pair of arms was locked around his neck. Harold's worried eyes looked down on him, one big hand gripping his arm. Grizz had settled into his lap and was hugging him tightly, just as though he were an Orga in need of comfort. A third presence was pushing against his thigh. Glancing down, Joe found Roger's head laying in his lap, the dog's brown eyes gleaming warm from the midst of his artificial-looking fur.
"Harold," Joe greeted the man, his voice ringing hollow in his own auditory circuits.
"Professor Hobby had one of his men call me," Harold explained. His quiet face was tormented and pale; he looked ill and older than his not inconsiderable years. "The doctors said if it hadn't been for you, she would have died before she got here."
"They won't give me any information," Joe told the visitors tonelessly.
Grizz's arms held tighter. Harold and Roger exchanged glances, avoiding his eyes. "She's not doing well," Harold murmured shakily, staring at the ground. "She's still in surgery. They couldn't save most of her reproductive system. Right now they're trying to repair her intestines."
"She's very ill then?" Joe questioned, still hollow, more so than ever he was before encountering Tabitha.
"I'm afraid so, yes."
Roger whined quietly. Grizz swivelled his round head to stare at Harold. "Where's Tabby? I want to see Tabby," the bear demanded, his ears twitching.
"As soon as she's stable," Harold told the little animal gently.
"No Mechas are permitted beyond the waiting areas save those owned by the hospital," Joe said.
"We'll see," Harold grunted. His tired eyes examined Joe suddenly, softening with sympathy. "Come on, boy. Let's get you cleaned up," he ordered, catching Joe's arm and pulling him to his feet.
Joe looked down at himself. Dried blood flaked from his hands and smeared his usually immaculate clothes. Tabitha's blood, so much of it. He was careful not to touch Grizz lest the rust-colored coating rub off on his fur. Ignoring his protests, Harold took him by the hand and started to lead him to the nearest bathroom. Joe hobbled a few steps after him, and the old man immediately noticed. "What did you do?"
"I'm not sure of the extent of the damage. It happened during the earthquake," Joe answered.
Harold wavered from annoyance to relief at the prospect of something to do. "Well, we'll check it out. I don't have any of my equipment here; maybe their maintenance department will let me borrow some of their tools. But let's get the mess off you first."
Harold scrubbed him from top to bottom, mercilessly eliminating every fleck of blood, going so far as to making him undress so he could scrub at his stained clothes in the sink. It didn't completely eradicate the stains, but the spots at least faded to a pale pink that wasn't quite as noticeable. Before he let Joe don his jeans, Harold knelt in front of him, gently prodding around his damaged knee. "Can't tell anything until I get in there," he grunted. "All right, get dressed, then let me see that hand."
Wrestling the damp-spotted pants over his rigid knee, Joe buckled his belt and held out his cut hand for Harold to examine. "Hold still," the man ordered, and gently peeled the epidermis away from the underworkings. Blood, gummy and congealed, streaked the bright metal, making Harold flinch. "This will have to be cleaned out, too, before it starts affecting your joints," he muttered thickly, swallowing hard. "Dear god . . ."
The last was a whisper, not meant for him to hear, but Joe knew the source of the man's disquiet. The amount of blood required for him to get it ground that deep into the inner mechanisms was staggering, and a good clue as to how badly his granddaughter had been injured. But the old Orga rallied quickly, straightening. "All right, let's look for a maintenance worker," he said. "I didn't bring my tools; maybe I can borrow some."
Joe followed Harold down the corridor, not caring where he was taken. Roger stayed close to Harold's side, but Grizz waddled beside Joe, and, reaching as high as he could, his stubby fingers just managed to catch Joe's hand.
In the hours that Joe had sat unaware by the window, Tabitha's story seemed to have spread over the entire hospital. The maintenance staff, human and Mecha alike, were happy to let Harold use their equipment, even offering to repair Joe themselves. Harold refused, thanking them but telling them he had to do something besides sit and wait.
Cleaning his hand was relatively simple and quick, as was sealing the torn dermis. His knee, on the other hand, was a far more complicated procedure. "I suppose you won't let me shut you down for this?" Harold asked without hope, and Joe silently shook his head. Harold sighed impatiently but propped Joe's leg on a chair and peeled the silicone epidermis completely away from the joint.
A broken pin and ruined hydraulics were the main problems, taking more than an hour to repair. Harold had to delve deeper into Joe's leg than he'd expected and in the end he cut away more than a third of his carefully molded skin, laying his metal skeleton bare from not quite mid-thigh to six inches below his knee. The process drew an audience, and even a pair of assistants in the form of one of the older Mechas whose clumsy-looking bronze hands were amazingly nimble, and a young man with shaggy hair even darker than Joe's own.
The robot explained the more intricate procedures of the repair in a slightly crackled but somehow gentle voice. "What make are you?" Harold asked as he held two newly re-shaped pieces of metal together while the maintenance 'bot used its right forefinger to tighten the tiny screw that held them in place.
"I am a TX-7G," the robot answered placidly.
"That was one of Cybertronic's first mechanic models," Harold commented, awed. "You must be, what, nearly eighty years old?"
"It has been seventy-seven years, eleven months, sixteen days, ten hours, fifty-three minutes, fourteen seconds since I was first activated," TX-7G answered.
Harold gaped, then chuckled. Joe, too, noted the way TX-7G paused, plainly waiting for a reaction, though its molded metal features, only vaguely humanoid, was incapable of showing expression.
The young maintenance worker laughed. "Tix likes to mess with new people," he said cheerfully. "If I asked for a measurement, he'd give it to me in millimeters. Decameters once."
Harold grinned in return, until the main doors onto the surgical floor burst open. A pair of nurses darted through, followed by the ER doctor who had first taken care of Tabitha. He was grave-faced and pensive, glancing furtively in their direction once before disappearing through the double doors that led to the operating rooms, moving at a run.
With a sharp ping, Harold's suddenly shaking hands snapped the screw he was tightening. TX-7G gently took the pieces from his nerveless fingers, looked around quickly with black, empty eyes that were nothing more than blank lenses, and rose creaking from his knees. He lumbered to the nurse's station, leaned over the counter, and picked something up. Returning, he inclined his squarish, oblong head to his mournful-eyed partner and held out a paper clip. Straightening the slip of metal, he bent over Joe's leg and slotted it through the hole left by the broken screw. He wrapped it around the deceptively thin, delicate struts it connected, surveyed his own work critically, and straightened.
"Very good," Harold said unsteadily. "Interesting. Very inventive."
"You must make do with what you can when you work within a hospital budget," the robot answered.
"Tix has taught me a lot," the young man said, glancing towards the doors through which the doctor had fled.
"I'm sure he has," Harold answered woodenly, holding out one hand. "I think I can finish from here. Thank you . . ."
"Brett Keller. No problem," the worker said, taking the proffered hand briefly. "I'm off now anyway. Listen," he continued, ducking his head. "I . . . I hope she's okay." Glancing once at Joe, he fled. "Come on, Tix."
"Thank you . . . Tix, is it?" Harold offered, holding out his hand to the elderly robot.
Tix hesitated, then took Harold's hand gingerly. "You're welcome," he said, and left.
"That robot needs repairs himself," Joe commented, his voice ringing and distant.
"Yes," Harold agreed in the same kind of tone, then bent over Joe's leg to seal the silicone covering back in place, his movements as mechanical as the most primitive, non-intelligent robot. He was just finishing when Joe saw the surgeon and the ER doctor exit the surgical ward, walking towards the small waiting room. Joe gripped Harold's shoulder and the man looked up, his face closing tight at the sight of the two somber doctors. He stopped with a few inches of the last seam remaining, laid aside his borrowed tools, and stood, facing the doctors.
"Mr. Cooper?" the surgeon greeted him questioningly. When Harold nodded, the doctor inclined his head. "I'm Doctor Spencer," the mid-aged man said. "I'm sorry. We've done everything we can, but your granddaughter lost a lot of blood, and her intestines were perforated. I managed to repair them, but infection has already set in. We're treating her with antibiotics and steroids, but . . ." he trailed off, running a hand through his sandy-colored hair.
The ER doctor shook his head. "I'm sorry, at this point we just don't know anything," he finished for his colleague. "But she is very, very ill. The next twenty-four hours will be critical. She's in the ICU now. We . . . we don't expect her to respond."
Harold staggered; Joe reached out to steady him, and the old man tumbled into his arms, a fine tremble running up and down his limbs. He held weakly on to Joe, who could only keep his arms around him to keep him on his feet.
A small tug on the hem of his shirt made him look down into two pairs of dark round eyes. "I want to see Tabby," Grizz said impatiently. "I want to see her now."
"I know, little ones," he answered. "But we have to wait."
Grizz growled, and so did Roger.
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Hours later, Joe had gone unasked to find a cup of coffee for Harold. When he returned, carrying two plastic cups full of a substance that resembled nothing so much as old tar, Harold was standing, waiting for him with red-rimmed eyes. Taking the cups, he set them gently on the single small table in the waiting room. "We're going to see her," he said quietly. "We need to go now."
"We need to say goodbye," Harold said more gently still.
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Two nurses tried to stop Harold from taking three unauthorized Mechas into the Intensive Care Unit, but he told them both that the Mechas were family and if they didn't like it, they could call the police and have them arrested. Except that the old man didn't put it nearly so politely.
Tabitha's room was large, but instruments took up most of the space. Machines around her kept track of her pulse, breathing, oxygen levels, blood pressure, and temperature, running a constant line of information to a monitor at the nurse's station. Tabby lay in the center of the hospital bed, naked but for a single thin temperature-controlled blanket under which ran what seemed to be dozens of tubes and wires. She breathed in hard, hitching breaths and the heart monitor beeped erratically, the pulses weak. Her face seemed to have sunk into the skull beneath it, her flesh taking on the color of the bone but for deep shadows around her eyes that were a dark purplish black.
"Tabby," Grizz murmured, pushing himself out of Harold's arms and toddling to the bed. Climbing up the side, he held onto the railing and stretched out until he could pat her face with one fat, furry paw. Joe moved more slowly, carefully making his way to the other side of the bed, noting every machine that was connected to her. Two thick wires led to the heart monitor, an oxygen tube bisected her face just under her nose, a larger tube dipped from under the blanket, draining dark fluid into a whirring, boxy machine, another wire measured the oxygen content of her blood, a clear IV tube dripped fluid into the vein in her right hand, and a cuff around her upper arm kept watch on her blood pressure. She looked like a damaged Mecha with its electronics spilled like mechanical viscera.
Joe stared down at her for a long time. He glanced up once to find Roger and Harold across from him, the Mecha dog nosing Tabby's arm, Harold smoothing her hair. "They said a few hours," Harold told him hoarsely. "They said she's just too weak. She's not responding to the drugs at all."
Grizz, who was sitting beside her pillow, still petting her face, growled quietly. Joe reached out and carefully slipped his hand into hers, curling his fingers gently around her warm ones, feeling the fever that continued to mount despite the cold blanket covering her. His unblinking electric eyes remained trained on Tabitha's still face as he tilted his head, freeing the gentle strains of a delicate but cheerful lullaby.
Tabitha's pulse sped for a moment, the erratic bleeps from the monitor coming fast but steady. They slowed after a double dozen or so beats, but her fingers twitched against his, not clenching tight but exerting a noticeable increase in pressure. But there was no other sign of life; her face didn't move and her eyes didn't flicker.
The door opened slowly, a large, wide-featured nurse edging in, her strong face set in lines of clear annoyance. "I'm sorry, sir, but I have to ask you . . ." She stopped mid-sentence when none of them bothered to do more than glance in her direction. Coming further into the room, she studied each of them, her gaze lingering most particularly on Joe. She obviously recognized his type, her eyes widening just a little as she looked from him, to Harold, to Tabitha's helpless shape huddled under the blanket. Ignoring her, Joe leaned down, brushing his free hand against Tabitha's cheek. "Tabby," he whispered in his best throatily seductive voice. "Tabitha."
Again there was a small response, but this time the heart monitor fell back not into fragile, unsynchronized beats but into a rhythm that was still slow and weak, but steady. The nurse froze for a moment, then burst into action, pushing Roger out of the way to lean over Tabitha's bed, curling her fingers around one white wrist to time the pulse for herself. Her eyes bright and her face coloring with a delicate flush, she looked up at each monitor in turn; the heart monitor looked far closer to normal and Tabitha's blood pressure had risen by a margin or two, though nothing else had changed. "Keep talking to her," the nurse ordered, sounding tense and excited.
Joe gazed at her; Harold nodded encouragement over her broad shoulders, Roger whined, and even Grizz had turned enough of his attention away from his beloved mistress to stare at him. Crouching so his face was level with Tabitha's pillow, Joe called her name again, speaking so softly that even the other robots' Mecha hearing couldn't pick it up.
"Keep talking!" the nurse said again, sweeping from the room.
Doctor Spencer followed her in a few minutes later. He strode to Tabitha's bedside, thoroughly examining every tube and wire connected to her, then checking each machine in turn, making notes on his clipboard as he noted every readout. At last he turned to the girl herself, taking her pulse, listening to her heartbeat and respirations. After he'd taken her pulse for the second time, he straightened, hanging the stethoscope around his neck. "Maybe," he said, speaking both to the nurse and Harold. "I don't know. But maybe."
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Mechas are possessed of infinite patience, but Joe had never passed a longer night. He didn't move from Tabitha's side, his internal speakers playing her lullaby over and over. One part of his brain counted every second, just waiting. The rest of him stayed intensely focused on Tabitha, moving only an inch or two to give nurses and doctors more ready access to the nearest machines.
At last Harold's purely mortal body gave out, and he slumped dozing in a chair that the big head nurse had provided. Only Joe and the other two Mechas remained constantly alert, their eyes glowing faintly in the dimmed room as they kept a three-way vigil.
It was near morning by Joe's internal chronometer when the limp hand he held twitched once, then again, Tabby's pink fingers gripping his tightly for just a moment. The digits had grown noticeably cooler in the last two hours, her breathing a little easier. Joe leaned closer, watching for anything that might indicate a return to consciousness.
It came a few minutes later when her eyelids quivered, the eyes under them flicking from side to side as though in the throes of an intense dream. Roger whined softly, his tail thumping from side to side, standing with his front paws planted near her pillow. The girl took a deeper breath and her eyelids fluttered, trying to open.
Yipping, Roger bounded to Harold, jumping up on the man's chest and nipping at his arm. Tabitha's grandfather woke instantly, springing alertly to his feet. "What is it?" he demanded in alarm.
Joe only nodded towards Tabby. She shifted, moaning softly. Harold was immediately at her side, moving like a man fifty years his junior. "Tabitha?" he called softly, taking the hand opposite of Joe, careful to keep his fingers away from her IV. "Come on, honey, I know you can here me. Tabby, it's Grandpa. Joe and Grizz and Roger are right here."
"Come back to us, Tabitha," Joe whispered. "Please."
Tabitha's red head tossed restlessly and her breath hitched once or twice, then she relaxed. Her hands moved, clutching at those holding hers, then subsided. "Tabitha," Joe enticed, Grizz and Harold echoing him. Her eyes opened slowly, blinked, and focused, first on Harold, Grizz, and Roger clustered on one side, then on Joe. Her brow furrowed in confusion and pain; Joe petted the back of her hand soothingly. "You're in hospital," he told her. "There was an accident."
Her mouth opened, closed, worked a little, then opened again. "Earthquake," she corrected in a barely-heard, raspy whisper. "Hobby . . . all right?"
"The professor will be fine," Harold answered. "They operated on his legs; the doctors think he'll have a full recovery and regain full use of his legs."
Tabitha nodded, her eyes sliding stubbornly closed; she was plainly exhausted. She slipped quietly away, but into sleep, not the irretrievable depths of a coma.
Letting go of Tabitha's slack hand, Joe bounded to the other side of her bed and swept Grizz into his arms. Lifting the little bear high, he danced a quick two-step, spinning the smaller Mecha helplessly. Squirming, Grizz growled down on him. "Put me down. Joe, put me down right NOW!" the Teddy unit demanded with every atom of dignity he possessed, and it was surprising how much dignity a small, fuzzy teddy bear could have. Relenting after a few more steps, Joe halted and lowered Grizz back onto Tabby's bed, where the ruffled Mecha sat with a stony glare.
Joe looked at Harold, grinning, and Harold smiled back, though not nearly as bright. "It's still only maybe," he cautioned.
"You don't believe that," Joe challenged.
Harold tried to keep a more serious mien, but he couldn't hold it in the face of Joe's high-wattage smile, used not to charm or cajole a nervous, resistant customer but as an expression of something he'd never really known existed, though he knew the word; hope.
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Three days later, Tabitha was sitting up and talking, awake, aware, and completely lucid. The first thing she wanted to know was what scientists were saying about the earthquake, an event unprecedented in that part of the United States. Harold could only tell her that nobody knew anything yet and the speculation was that it might be caused by a formerly dormant undersea volcano. He also told her that Cybertronics was heavily damaged, but nowhere near a total loss, and the company should be up and running in a matter of weeks, possibly months.
Professor Hobby came to see her, too. He was in a wheelchair for the duration, he said, but the orthopedic surgeons said he'd be walking in a few weeks, and completely healed in anywhere from three months to a year, depending on how willing is body was to heal, and how willing HE was to follow their directions. "They know me too well already," he said ruefully. "I have this. I want to get back to work." Glancing sidelong at Joe, who never left her bedside, he smiled. "Your friend has given me some new ideas and insights. The potential . . . can you imagine Mechas who could build other Mechas? By themselves? If that happened, the law would have to give them rights of their own, because being able to reproduce would go a long way towards fulfilling the scientific requirements to be considered a true lifeform."
"If that happened, can you imagine what people like Johnson-Johnson would do?" Tabitha snorted, unimpressed. She hesitated and considered for a moment, her brow furrowing. "Of course, if we could get Mecha destruction reclassified from destruction of property to murder, that might dampen some of the Flesh Fair enthusiasm . . ." she trailed off thoughtfully.
Joe didn't contribute, but he didn't believe many humans would be receptive to the pair's radical ideas, though it was interesting to watch Allen Hobby's transformation. He had been talking of Mechas as though they were truly people without even realizing it, and when Harold's friend TX-7G, or Tix as Brett had dubbed him, had come into Tabby's room to fix a burnt-out lamp, the professor seemed fascinated by the ancient Mecha in a friendly, good-natured way.
It didn't take Tabitha long to get restless sitting in her room. As soon as the drainage tubes and IV came out, she asked Joe to take her to the lobby for a change of scenery. The nurses hovered protectively as he helped seat her in the wheelchair, handling her as carefully as if she were made of blown glass, but the big head nurse, Betty Roberts, had taken a liking to him and shooed them away. Joe and Tabby both smiled gratefully at her as Joe wheeled her out of the room.
Settling her by the window, Joe traced a finger over her cheekbone. She caught it, drawing his hand close to kiss the back of it, then frowned. "Joe, I'm sorry, I should have thought of it before. Could you please bring a pitcher of water? I'd rather have caffeine, but they won't let me."
"Of course, daaahhhling," he answered, drawing out the last word, highly exaggerating his accent. Tabby smiled and giggled, squeezing his hand. Joe bent down to plant a small kiss on her forehead before making his way to the nurse's station.
When he returned, he found Tabby staring out the window, her mouth curved down pensively. "What is it?" he asked, crouching beside her.
"'The waters and the wild.' He's still out there somewhere, isn't he? Your David," Tabitha whispered, still staring out across the distant blue sparkle of the ocean.
Hanging her head, Tabitha sighed deeply. "No one ever tried to find him?"
"I never questioned it."
"Maybe someone should," Tabby said fervently. "He can't be left alone out there."
"He's not alone," Je said, recalling the gruff little Teddy with the boy Mecha, smaller and somewhat simpler than Grizz, but no less devoted to his master and no less wise in his simple bear way. "You said he'd be better off out there."
"I know, but I hate it," the girl replied savagely. Tears sparkled in her eyes but did not fall.
Joe reached up, brushing the side of her face. "I think you were right," he murmured. "His wishes will never be fulfilled, unless he finds his blue fairy. A heart can be taught, but not truly changed."
Tabitha stared at him, and slowly nodded. Her eyes dropped sadly, and fell on the objects he had set at her feet. Not only had he brought icy water in one of the ubiquitous plastic pitcher-and-glass hospital sets, he had also somehow acquired a can of diet soda. Condensation formed on the can in beguiling proof of it's perfect coldness. "Joe, you're a wonder," she half-grinned.
"As always, milady," Joe replied gaily, stepping into her line of sight, effectively cutting off her view of the water.
Tabitha laughed, for the first time since she'd awakened in the hospital.
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Joe was by her side when she took her first shaky, painful steps, Grizz and Roger standing with Harold encouragingly on the sidelines. The nurses had gotten used to Joe's charming presence, and had even ceased taking umbrage when he refused to let them perform much of Tabitha's care. Nurse Roberts commented once that she wished half the nurses under her were as gentle and considerate as Joe was, and stated bluntly that she was "as jealous as hell" of Tabitha's relationship with the Mecha. Joe only smiled an extra-sexy grin at her, until Tabby poked him in the ribs and told him to knock it off, though she was teasing rather than angry.
Only two days before her release date, the phone in her room rang. It had video capabilities, but she shook her head when Joe asked if she wanted it turned on. "Never liked the things," she muttered before taking the receiver. "Yeah?"
She listened for a long time, growing paler with each passing minute. "But what did his girlfriend say?" she gasped at last. Listening for another long while, she finally smiled wanly. "I bet the lawyers loved every minute of that one," she grunted. "Yeah, thanks, Simone. Yeah, you can give the lawyer this number. I'll have to deal with it eventually, it might as well be now."
Hanging up the phone, Tabitha flopped back on her pillows, grimacing and holding a hand to her abdomen. "Wow," she said.
"What is it?" Harold asked, sitting on the edge of his seat. "What happened?"
Tabitha grinned silently just to annoy her grandfather for a minute, then relented. "You won't believe this, but Rick left the bar to me," she told her audience.
"What? But . . . that doesn't make sense," Harold protested. "Why would you be in his will? Why would he have a will? He wasn't more than ten years older than you!"
"Don't ask me. Did anything Rick ever do make sense?" Tabitha answered. "Apparently, he was going to offer me a permanent management position and just use Edward as my assistant, or something. He said I was the best thing that had ever happened to his nightclub," she finished with a blush.
"And you were," said Harold. "Well . . . this is . . . interesting."
"You might as well tell her now," Grizz intoned in his deep, growly voice.
"Tell me what?" Tabitha asked suspiciously.
"Well . . . Professor Hobby said not to tell you until tomorrow," the old man hedged.
"And he's already been released. He said goodbye this morning," Tabitha countered. "So spill."
"Professor Hobby and Cybertronics paid the cost of the police amphicopter. In full," Harold told her. "They felt the entire incident was their fault, and said it was the least of what they could do. Hobby said something about poor retribution." Smiling, Harold shrugged. "They tried to replace my 'copter, too, but the insurance company already has."
Tabby shook her head. "Wow," she said again.
"You said it," supplied a new, unfamiliar voice, as heavily accented as Joe's but deeper, and with a different twang. Tabby looked around the room, seeing nothing, until her eyes finally settled on the Mecha dog sprawled on the foot of her bed. "Roger . . ."
The dog gazed defensively at Harold. "If you can tell her yours, I can tell her mine," he insisted, and grinned his doggy grin.
Tabitha's mouth hung open; Harold and the two Mechas just smiled at her. "But how?" she asked.
"Joe told Professor Hobby about Roger and Grizz," Harold explained. "Allen and I got together, with the help of Tix, and . . ."
"He said I reminded him of an Australian shepherd," Roger said in apparent explanation.
Tabitha finally closed her gaping jaw, just to open it again in a delighted laugh. "I don't believe it!" she crowed. "Roger, that's great!"
Tail thumping, Roger jumped into her lap, licking her face.
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Home. They were finally, finally going home. All of them.
"I am most grateful," said the newest member of the family in his slightly crackling voice.
"I wasn't about to let you be dumped, Tix," Harold grunted. "Poor Brett was crying when he came into the room. Told him they'd finally replaced you. He quit on the spot, you know."
"Brett is a good boy," Tix agreed.
"Hey, I'm gonna need all the help I get running the new bar," Tabitha said, sliding gingerly into place in the new blue 'copter that exactly matched her favorite shade of Joe's eyes. She snuggled deep into her lover's arms, still moving stiffly but undoubtedly on the mend. "Good thing, too. Joe's offered to help. I was starting to wonder what he was going to do with himself now he's out of a job."
"He's good with details," Harold supplied thoughtfully. "I thought he'd make a good private investigator."
Tabby stared at her grandfather, then started to giggle, her face slowly turning a deep, fetching pink. "Grandfather!"
The four Mechas looked at each other, then at the two Orgas. "What's 'e babbling on about?" Roger demanded.
Tabitha couldn't hold back a full-throated laugh any longer. "Can you imagine," she choked between guffaws. "Gigolo Joe, Private Dick?"
Grizz just growled.