Part 2

*"What do you think you're doing with that city dweller?"*

Ay'nin didn't bother looking up from the river she was painstakingly adding to her newest map.

*"It's bad enough that she somehow managed to find the cabin, but to actually let her see you, and invite her in! You've gone crazier than I thought!"*

Ay'nin threw down her jealously hoarded writing utensil and glared at her own personal specter. Balwin was floating toward her, a furious expression on his face, like he wanted to slam his fist on her table. She was glad that he was too angry to concentrate on his actions. The last time he'd decided to interact with anything corporeal he'd given her a black eye. "What would you have me do? Leave her out there for the netis? Or maybe just ignore her and wait long enough for a rescue party to come looking and have them find the cabin?"

*"Yes! That girl is going to go back and tell someone about the crazy person who lives in the basin and then-"*

"And then what? You think anyone will figure it out? No one comes out here, Balwin, so why should the Council care?"

Balwin's face twisted into an ugly sneer as he raised his nearly see through finger and pointed at the map spread out before her. Ay'nin looked where he indicated and felt her heart speed up. *"You've figured out their dirty little secret, or have you forgotten?"*

Ay'nin shook her head.

*"Good. I wouldn't want to think that Cerina and I made a mistake. Make sure, Ay'nin, that the city dweller understands she isn't to tell anyone about you. Don't think I won't fix the situation if you can't."* Having issued his ultimatum, Balwin turned and floated through the wall of the cabin to return to wherever he stayed when not tormenting her.

Silence reigned in the cabin for several long seconds before, in one smooth motion, Ay'nin rose to her feet and threw the table across the room. The slamming of the cabin door herald the returning calm.

JP's entire body flinched as she heard the crash and slamming door through the sheet that separated Ay'nin's bed from the rest of the cabin. She knew Ay'nin had believed her asleep but she had been too stiff to relax enough. Her interest had been piqued when Ay'nin's voice had reached her ears but when it became obvious that she was answering someone else's questions JP had felt a slow dread begin to fill her. She had strained her ears to their limit and had even considered leaving the bed to see if someone else was with Ay'nin. She hadn't though, her growing fear of this odd woman keeping her in place.

Despite her best efforts, JP hadn't detected another voice or even the opening of the cabin door to signal someone's arrival. She supposed Ay'nin simply could have been talking to herself but it had sounded distinctly like an argument. Normal people didn't argue with themselves. Normal people didn't storm out of the room after having a one sided conversation.

JP finally worked up her courage to get out of bed and poke her head around the curtain. Ay'nin was gone and the cabin was empty. She took a few limping steps into the room to see that the table had been overturned and the map, which Ay'nin had obviously been working on, was now destroyed.

Climbing back into bed JP just barely managed to suppress a shiver. She wanted back into the city and away from this place. If she had been suspicious before of Ay'nin's motives, she was now downright frightened.

Only crazy people talked to themselves like that.

***

Morning light spread over JP's face, bringing out lighter highlights in her dark blonde hair. She grumbled and reluctantly opened her eyes, staring at the roof for several minutes before her brain finally started up and reminded her that she was supposed to be very uncomfortable in this place. JP jerked herself upright and swung her legs onto the floor, gingerly testing her ankle before standing.

Hmm.

She took a few hesitant steps and smiled. It didn't hurt very much and the swelling was down. JP sat and quickly pulled on her boots before sticking her head around the curtain. Ay'nin wasn't around but the table was once again upright and there weren't any signs of last night's excitement.

Just then the door opened and Ay'nin stepped through carrying two steaming bowls of something. She set them both on the table and sat, apparently thinking JP would do the same. After a seconds pause, she did.

She studied the bowl carefully before taking a bite. She had known better last night not to ask what dinner had been, although it was obviously some poor forest creature that had been unfortunate enough to get itself killed. That, mixed in with roots and plants, JP would have almost called it a stew. This looked like some kind of cooked grain as it reminded her vaguely of oatmeal.

"How's your foot?" Ay'nin asked, not looking up from her bowl.

JP swallowed and looked up at her table mate before answering, "It's pretty good."

Ay'nin nodded and finished scraping out her wooden bowl before standing and placing it in a larger bowl filled with water. She disappeared then behind the curtain and reemerged with a sack over one shoulder. JP deposited her own bowl into what she assumed was Ay'nin's washing water and turned to face Ay'nin.

They headed out of the cabin into a beautiful morning and JP found herself forgetting for just a moment that her guide was a potential mental case. She focused on navigating the rough terrain so she wouldn't further injure herself and would be able to keep up with Ay'nin. It wasn't long before they were walking almost exclusively uphill and JP's lungs started burning.

She paused when they came upon a "mini-hill" that basically amounted to a wall they had to climb. It was perhaps two heads taller than Ay'nin who was maybe a head taller than JP herself. She leaned against the dirt wall and planted her hands on her knees. "Just give me a second."

Ay'nin paused and turned back around, studying JP while studiously ignoring Balwin who was floating not five feet away. "We can't stop for more than a few minutes." JP nodded and Ay'nin took the opportunity to retie the piece of leather that kept her shoulder-length brown hair away from her face. She then dug around in her bag and pulled out a flask which she offered to JP. Next, she produced something about the length of her finger which was wrapped in leaves. Ay'nin pulled the leaves off a took a bite, chewing happily while offering a second one to JP.

They are their snack in silence and when Ay'nin was finished she scaled the dirt wall easily. She leaned over the edge and held out her hand, her orange eyes glinting in the sunlight. JP swallowed and took the hand and found herself pulled to the top of the wall. They looked at each other for a long moment before Ay'nin turned and continued.

It was perhaps an hour of walking and climbing over obstacles before Ay'nin stopped so abruptly that JP walked into her back. Ay'nin turned and pointed. "Your camp's just in there."

JP peered through the trees and wiped some sweat off her forehead. "Really?"

Ay'nin nodded.

"Okay, well, thanks." JP started to leave but stopped when Ay'nin spoke.

"You can't tell anyone about me. No one. Do you understand?"

JP considered not answering but as she looked over her shoulder and caught the expression on Ay'nin's face she detected a note of urgency in the woman's voice. JP nodded. "I promise. I won't tell anyone."

Ay'nin stared at JP then turned and swiftly disappeared into the woods. JP watched for a long time before shaking her head and continuing towards the camp. As she got closer she could hear Sonya and Robert's voice discussing something, well, arguing was a better word for it. JP smiled at hearing her friends and started walking a little faster.

Sonya and Robert both stopped in mid-sentence when their friend emerged from the trees and stopped at the edge of the camp. They stared at each other in shock for several silent moments before Sonya and Robert exploded into action. They rushed JP and wrapped her into a suffocating group hug, all the while shouting out questions.

JP laughed and fought off their hands. "Hold on guys, wait. I fell. I woke up and was fine. Then I found a way up that looked easy enough to climb and started climbing."

"What about the netis?"

JP thought furiously for an acceptable answer. "I found a cave with a really small opening and just blocked it off with some rocks and fallen logs." She shrugged and smiled, "I'm fine guys, and it's great to see you. Let's get going back to town."

Sonya and Robert seemed to accept her answer and JP breathed out a sigh of relief. They started breaking camp and JP exulted in the return to normalcy. She was ready to forget all about Ay'nin.

At the far side of the clearing, Balwin floated, keeping vigil over the little interloper.

***

*"Ay'nin."*

The suddenness of hearing her voice almost made Ay'nin trip and fall flat on her face. She grabbed at a tree and turned toward the source of the summons. She felt a smile stretch across her face and leaned against the tree. "Did you find it?"

*"Yes."*

"You're sure?"

*"Very. It is a three day walk south from your cabin."*

"Thank you, Cerina. It would have taken me months to find it."

Cerina floated closer and smiled, *"It was my pleasure, Ay'nin. If we want you to be successful in helping us, it would be foolish to not aid you in the task we have put before you."*

Ay'nin snorted and resumed walking, "Try telling that to Balwin."

*"He is...concerned."*

"He's a jackass."

Cerina inclined her head. *"He's never sure how to approach you; he feels like you don't understand how important this is to us so he tends to act..." Cerina tailed off in thought for a moment and then continued, "well, like a jackass."*

"Hmph." Ay'nin mumbled under her breath for awhile and then stopped abruptly, turning to face Cerina head on. "Promise me you'll make sure he doesn't hurt JP."

Cerina's mouth opened and then closed, her eyes squinted in thought. *"Ah, yes. The human. Truly, Ay'nin, a worse thing couldn't have happened. Is it not true, based on what you told us of your situation when you first arrived here, that even then you wouldn't have been well received in the city?" Cerina didn't wait for a response before continuing, "Now your situation is even more precarious. If she tells even one person about you, or figures it out for herself, the results could be-"*

"Horrific, terrible, deadly and so on. I get that Cerina, but it's my life that'll be lost, not yours. And I will not allow him to sacrifice JP for me. I won't. You better make sure he understands that, or you'll get no more help from me."

Cerina sighed and slowly nodded her head. After more than eight years she had gotten used to being the intermediate between Ay'nin and Balwin. *"I'll speak to him."*

Ay'nin nodded and once again started walking back to the cabin. "I'll head out tomorrow. I should be back at the cabin before the weather turns really bad."

*"Whatever you say, Ay'nin."*

***

JP sighed and rubbed her eyes. She hated Mondays. She never got enough sleep and the day seemed to drag on and on into eternity. Especially History class. She glanced over at Sonya who always seemed to be able to coast through the day half asleep and felt the tiniest bit of envy. With nothing better to do, JP returned her attention to the teacher.

"The Founder's Group didn't always have an easy time of it, though, and probably the biggest obstacle in its way was its own internal problems. For the most part the group of scientists got along and worked well together. There was one, however, who some say met hostility from all members except for the Burke's. It-" Mr. Thomson stopped talking as a hand went up, "Yes, Julie?"

"So why did this person stay?"

Mr. Thomson nodded, "A good question. The Burke's were adamant that this woman be a part of their team and many believe that she stayed out of loyalty to them."

"If she was such a good friend of the Burke's, why didn't they just tell all the other scientists to knock it off? I mean, the Burke's were the leaders of the Founder's Group." Julie continued her line of questioning with her usual unrelenting tenacity.

Mr. Thomson smiled and nodded again, "Yes, it was their group but they could only control the others so far. They still had bosses and goals to meet and time frames and so, for the most part, the scientists could do whatever they wanted and everyone pretty much fended for themselves."

Julie sat up straighter and by this time JP was paying a little more attention. This sounded like it might get good, not the usual boring stuff, but a little intrigue in their history. "So why did the others not like this one scientist so much?"

Mr. Thomson turned as he spoke to flick on a projector. "It was a matter of prejudice, Julie. Her name was Ay'nin Yanon and, as you can see, she was half Rotorri."

JP felt the air leave her lungs and almost swallowed her tongue. She had to blink a few times to see that it was Ay'nin, the woman she had encountered in the woods. There were differences, of course. In this picture she looked at least ten years younger, her face far less creased and weather-worn than it was now. But, except for that and a layer of dirt, the woman now and the picture then looked remarkably similar. Something Mr. Thomson had said struck JP then and she put her hand up in the air so fast she pulled a muscle.

"Yes, JP?"

"What do you mean 'was'?" JP asked.

Mr. Thomson's eyes crinkled a little and he titled his head to one side, "I'm sorry?"

"You said 'Her name was', what happened to her?"

Mr. Thomson sniffed and smiled a little, "Ah, that's where, as with all things, it gets a little murky." The teacher leaned back against his desk and thought for a moment, "Almost nine years ago there was an...incident of sorts. Some people say that the other members of the Founder's Group finally had enough and went after Ay'nin. Others say she just got tired of all the hatred surrounding her and took off on her own. Neither the Burke's nor the other Founder's Group members know for sure, or at least they say they don't. The first scenario supposes that Ay'nin ended up dead. The second, well, either dead or she somehow got off the planet and is living somewhere else now."

The bell rang then and Mr. Thomson walked behind his desk, reminding them that their homework was on the board. JP grabbed her stuff and waved to Sonya before heading out. She had Robert both had spares during the last block of the day and she was anxious to speak to her friend. JP stopped short as she stepped into the hall and looked over her shoulder. She'd had a sudden chill.

Shaking her head, JP continued down the hall to drop her books off at her locker before heading outside to their bench. She arrived before Robert, as usual, and busied herself trying to finish off her math homework.

"JP!" Robert's voice interrupted her calculation as he loped over to the bench and plopped on the seat opposite her. "Hey."

"Hey."

"I finished my sketch of the landscape," Robert said as he opened his sketchbook and flipped through the pages, "here." He slid it across to her and she took it, studying the picture as a whole and then taking in the details.

Robert really was a very talented artist and JP always loved looking at his work. Glancing up, she could see that he was proud of this one. His brown eyes were practically dancing with glee and his grin was so wide it was bringing out his rarely seen dimples. JP smiled and slid the sketchbook back. "It's great, Robert. I love it."

He smiled happily and stuck the book back in his bag. When he looked up he stopped and just stared at JP for a moment. She couldn't imagine what her face looked like, but it must have been an interesting expression judging from him reaction. Robert leaned forward and placed his folded arms on the table. "What is it?"

JP swallowed and considered how she wanted to start. She didn't know if this would be a sore subject for him and didn't want to hurt her friend. She needed to know, though. "I, ah, I just had history class." Robert nodded. They knew each other's schedules. "And we learned about this scientist who...disappeared, I guess, and I just-"

"Ay'nin."

JP stopped talking and nodded, staring at the table. His voice sounded flat, which usually meant he was holding back a lot of emotion.

"What did you want to know?"

JP opened her mouth and then closed it. What did she want to know, really? She had promised Ay'nin that she wouldn't tell anyone about her and JP had no intention of going back. Her brow scrunched as she thought. There had been something about her though that she'd gotten a sense of in that short time. JP blinked as her mind reminded her that Ay'nin was crazy. And in that, she found her question. "What was she like?" JP looked up and saw surprise on Robert's face. He obviously hadn't been expecting that.

Robert rubbed his face and sighed. "When the Founder's Group was first put together I was ten years old. My parents didn't want to leave me behind in some boarding school so they brought along a...tutor, I guess, is the word. I studied what I normally would have, had I been in school. Ay'nin was..." Robert trailed off for a moment, biting on his lip in thought. "She was great. One of the smartest and kindest people I had ever met. Mom and Dad knew her from before and they were friends. They insisted that Ay'nin be a part of the Group and she agreed for them. She knew that the others wouldn't appreciate her presence, that they were all a bunch of bigoted jerks who'd rather see the human race die out before we 'diluted our blood by crossbreeding'.

"She met a lot of hostility but at first it wasn't too bad because everyone was so busy they didn't have time to give her any trouble. Mostly it consisted of not interacting with her unless they had to and just generally ignoring her. Which was fine with Ay'nin. She was there basically as an authority on plant and animal life and spent a lot of time alone out in the wilderness. That's where I learned most of what I know. She and I spent a lot of time together. We were both sort of outcasts. She was the only one, besides my parents, who didn't treat me like I was just a kid and had no right to be there.

"Anyway, two years later we had found Lorraine and set out to make sure it was safe for everyone else. That's when things started to turn really bad. There were nights when the others would get drunk and Ay'nin would come pounding on the door in the middle of the night for help." Robert paused then and swallowed, briskly rubbing his eyes and blinking. JP had seen just the slightest hint of tears there. "I remember this one time, I got out of bed and snuck downstairs when I heard my parents get up. It was really bad. I think...I think she almost died, but I'm not sure. My parents didn't tell me much. After that she was...different."

"Different how?"

Robert shook his head and picked at the wooden bench. "I don't really know. She was distracted, her mind always seemed to be a million miles away." He sighed and rubbed his face again. "It wasn't long after that that she disappeared."

They fell into silence then, Robert reflecting on his lost friend and JP wondering if maybe, just maybe, Ay'nin had suffered some sort of brain damage or something that made her crazy. She squinted and shook her head. No, probably not. Besides, she didn't even know that Ay'nin was actually crazy. She'd been living alone in the woods for years, that'd be enough to make anyone start arguing with themselves.

"Why are you asking?" Robert's question pulled JP out of her thoughts."

"It just seemed like Mr. Thomson couldn't say much about what really happened. It's one of the only vaguely interesting things we get to learn about and I just wanted more information." JP hesitated for a moment before asking, "Do...do you know what happened to hear?"

Robert shook his head. "No. I'm sure the others were involved, though. Ay'nin wasn't the type to just give up after so long and leave with no notice. She wouldn't worry my parents that way, either. No, I'm sure someone else had something to do with it and I-" His throat closed up and he blinked rapidly several times.

JP reached out and covered his much larger hands with her own. "Hey, we don't have to talk about this anymore, okay?"

He nodded and smiled just a little.

JP smiled back and reached out, moving a piece of fallen black hair out of his eyes. "Time for a haircut, huh?"

Robert laughed just a little bit and JP smiled again, having succeeded in breaking the mood.

He looked at his watch then and stood. "I've gotta get home. I'll see you later, JP."

"Yeah. And thanks for telling me..."

He nodded sharply and ruffled her hair as he walked by, obviously still unsettled. JP watched him go and tried to ignore the sudden chill she felt. That was the second time today.

***

"God!" The door to the cabin slammed open followed by Ay'nin's snow covered form. She had been on her way home from checking out the cave she had sent Cerina to find when the storm had come out of nowhere and caught her a half a days walk from her home. She hadn't been prepared for a full out snowstorm and had just barely managed to make it back.

She threw off her fur covering and tugged off her boots and pants, which were soaked through. Her feet were numb and she wasn't shivering. Ay'nin's eyes drifted to her almost fully constructed chimney and she berated herself for once again putting it off. There would be no fire tonight to help keep her warm. She stumbled back behind the curtain that separated her bed from the rest of the cabin and pulled down all the clothes and blankets she owned.

Pulling off the rest of her wet clothing, Ay'nin tugged on a heavy sweater and wrapped herself in every scrap of cloth she could find before snuggling down on her bed. She closed her eyes and sniffed, wishing once again that Lorraine didn't get cold enough for snow. Granted, the cold season was only two months long but it was wicked.

The cave had been only moderately helpful in her quest to help Balwin and Cerina and Ay'nin knew that the trip wouldn't be worth the consequences. She was going to get sick. She knew it in her bones, just as she did so many other things. It was times like these that she almost regretted leaving the city.

The Burke's had been great people, some of the few humans she had met who didn't shrink back at the thought of her being a hybrid. They had been friends, people she could always go to when she was hurt and receive care and comfort with no questions asked. If there was one thing she could go back and do differently, it would be to tell the Burke's that she was going to have to leave. Especially Robert. He had been an even greater friend than his parent's with a child's curiosity and acceptance.

Ay'nin smiled just a little as her eyes closed and her mind dropped off into a fevered sleep.

***

JP jerked awake with a gasp as another bout of wind lashed against her window. She had just had the strangest dream. She had been out in the storm struggling to get home, the wind cutting through her like a knife. And then, finally, she had crested and hill and seen, of all things, Ay'nin's distinctive cabin.

JP shook it off and rolled over, determined to go back to sleep and forget about it. It had, after all, just been a dream. People had them all the time.

She fluffed her pillow and rearranged the covers.

It was just a dream.

She stared out the window then transferred her gaze to the floor, watching a shadow creep across the floorboards.

A chill passed over her.

JP scowled and muttered to herself, "It was just a dream."

Then why couldn't she shake off this feeling of dread?

The storm continued to rage on and JP considered it for a moment. It had been sudden and violent, they were saying the worst storm in the history of Lorraine. Then she thought about Ay'nin, living out there in the woods by herself with no one to help her if something went wrong. No matter how strange she was, Ay'nin had saved JP's life. Not to mention that JP liked to consider herself a decent human being. And wasn't it the decent thing to do, to go and check up on someone when you thought there'd be a very real possibility that they might need help?

Yes.

There wasn't any school tomorrow either. It was winter break.

JP scowled again and made her decision.

"Fine. If the weather's better tomorrow I'll check on her."

With that decided she rolled over once more and burrowed under the covers to drift back to sleep.

In the corner of JP's room Cerina floated, a triumphant smile on her nearly transparent face.

***

She'd had a spectacular argument with her parents the next morning when they saw her packing up her bag to go out into the woods. They'd pulled out the usual cards, it was too dangerous and after what happened last time.... Blah, blah, blah.

JP had finally pulled out her hardly used trump card that she kept for times like these. She was eighteen years old, an adult, and if she wanted to go onto a day hike into the woods, by herself, they couldn't really stop her.

Her father had turned an amazing shade of red at that and had been just about to say the whole "While you're living under my roof" thing, but JP's mother had calmed him down. They'd finally agreed and now, she was off.

It was actually a pretty nice day, considering the storm last night. The two suns were beating down on the planet, managing to melt some of the snow and raising the temperature. It was nice, but that meant it'd be terrible the next day. That evening the temperature would drop and everything would freeze over and there'd be a nice layer of ice on everything.

It was a rather treacherous season, winter.

JP took a deep breath and smiled. She was hardly ever out on her own and everything seemed so much brighter.

As she got deeper into the woods JP started to wonder if she'd even be able to find the cabin again. She sure wasn't going to jump off the ridge in the same place just so she'd be that much closer and she doubted there'd be any smoke to tip her off this time. She'd just have to try her best and if she didn't find it, well, JP figured it wasn't that big of a deal.

Ay'nin could take care of herself and JP didn't really expect to find much, except maybe one very ticked off woodswoman.

Eventually, JP got to their campsite and found the same place she had emerged from the woods over a week ago. She started down, careful of her footing since misplaced roots and rocks were covered in snow. Going down was a lot faster than going up and JP was soon at the bottom of the ridge trying desperately to find something familiar. It looked so different covered in snow.

An animal that vaguely resembled a deer jumped out of the trees and bolted off to JP's right. Figuring it was the closest thing she'd get to a sign, JP followed the direction of the animal. It was maybe fifteen minutes later when she climbed a slight hill and looked down in the clearing that held Ay'nin's cabin.

JP grinned, proud of herself. As she descended the hill and looked around she felt a small amount of concern start in her gut. There weren't any human tracks in the snow and JP knew that Ay'nin would have to spend a lot of time outside doing chores no matter the season. There was still a thick layer of snow in front of the door, undisturbed and pristine. She knew that Ay'nin's cabin had no other exit unless one was inclined to climb out the window.

JP approached the door and took in a breath, wondering at her etiquette. Should she knock? Just walk in? Finally, JP knocked and waited, not expecting an answer. She grasped the latch on the door and pulled it open, cautiously sticking her head inside. It was quiet and looked the same except for a few articles of clothing on the floor that led to the curtained off room.

JP dropped her bag by the door and walked over, pulling the curtain aside. "Oh, my God." She knelt by the bed and put her hand on Ay'nin's forehead. It was slick with sweat and extremely hot. "Okay...what do I do?" She looked around helplessly and started to panic. "Okay, um...you're sick, you're half human so..." JP's eyes widened as a thought occurred to her, "Shit. You're only half human and what the hell do I know about Rotorri's? What if I end up killing you?" JP blinked and looked wildly around the room. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment, forcing herself to calm down. "You probably need to drink something so you don't get dehydrated. Okay. Water." She nodded, her course of action set and stood.

After checking Ay'nin's cabin to make sure there wasn't already water in the cabin she grabbed a bucket and stepped back outside. She got five steps off the deck before stopping dead in her tracks. "I don't even know where the God damn river is! And it's gonna be frozen." Scowling, JP looked around and then slapped herself on the side of the head.

She dropped the bucket and went about clearing away snow about where she remembered Ay'nin's fire pit to be. Then she gathered some of the wood that was still stacked and covered where she had first seen it and retrieved the starter fluid from her backpack. Soon she had a fire going and was rapidly melting snow. JP was just bracing herself to pick up the bucket of water when a voice almost made her spill it all.

"JP!"

JP yelped and looked up, her eyes going wide in a mixture of surprise, relief, and horror. "Robert?! What the hell are you doing here?"

He jogged up and stopped, his cheeks red from the cold air. "I could ask you the same thing. Where did this cabin come from? Who lives here?"

"You followed me?"

Robert looked at her and shrugged, "Don't look so surprised. You left tracks, you know. It wasn't that hard."

"You followed me!?!"

He grinned and nodded, "We've established that."

JP growled a little and then blew out a breath. He could probably help, he knew Ay'nin. She just couldn't imagine what Ay'nin's reaction would be when she was better and saw him. She'd probably think JP had told him about her. How would Robert react?

JP shook her head. It didn't matter. Right now what mattered was the fact that Ay'nin was sick and they were the only two who could help her. She pointed to the bucket. "Bring that." He did, without question, his natural curiosity fully engaged.

They entered the cabin and JP could tell that he was practically bursting at the seams. "You found this place the last time we camped, didn't you? Whoever lives here helped you and you didn't want to tell us about them for some reason. Right?"

JP nodded and stopped just short of the curtain. She turned and looked him in the eye. "Put the bucket down." He did. "Now, don't freak out, okay?"

His face reflected his puzzlement but he nodded and stepped forward as JP pulled the curtain aside and gestured him forward. Robert got closer, looking at the person lying in the bed who was so obviously sick. As he got a better look at the face his heart started beating faster and his hands started shaking. Then, as his heart told him what his mind refused to believe, his eyes started to water.

He finally got close enough to reach out and push back a strand of familiar hair that was obscuring the woman's face and his heart skipped a beat. "Oh my-"

Robert's voice cut off suddenly as his eyes rolled back in his head and his body collapsed with a resounding thud. JP's eyes widened as she took in Robert's sprawled form, hardly believing what she'd just seen.

Robert had fainted.

To be continued...

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