CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Connie broke down completely. Kneeling beside the still body, she put her hand onto Rabbit's battered chest and wept.

"No … nononono … not my boy … my Rabbit … no son, ya can't leave me, not now … I need ya, sweetheart … my Rabbit … my precious boy … " Her voice was a soft, grief-stricken wail.

She felt Rabbit's chassis move and she looked up to see The Spine crumple into a sitting position beside her, Blue beside him, his face distraught as he very gently pulled his brother's limp frame against his chest. The Jon flung himself down on the other side of Rabbit and lifted his brother's hand, pressing it to his cheek, now streaked with oily tears.

"Rabbit? Rabbit, you can't go! You're not dead! Ya can't be! You're my brother!"

Sam, Tom and Joe stood by, helpless, shock written plainly on their faces. Walt crouched down beside The Jon, his young face twisted in pain.

"Jon?" he said quietly. "He … he's gone to the edge of the earth now. He has made his choice," he added enigmatically.

The Jon didn't appear to hear him as he keened softly in pain. Three brothers, together again once more. But only two would be left to carry on. The Spine dropped his head and tightened his hold on Rabbit, the copper robot's head cradled on his shoulder.

"Did you get 'em?" Steve Negrete was frantic as he yelled from his place in the shelter. "Somebody, let me know what the hell's goin' on! Are they safe? Did you get 'em out?"

"Joe …" The Spine murmured, his deep voice a broken rumble.

"Yeah son?"

"Could … uh … would you mind checking on Steve and … and …" The Spine couldn't continue.

Joe rested a hand on The Spine's good shoulder, and then placed it on Rabbit's head as if in benediction.

"I will. I'll take care of it."

Sam sank down beside The Jon. He could hear nothing from Rabbit's chassis – no soft clicks and whirrs, no gentle whoosh of bellows … nothing. Rabbit, for the first time in his life, was completely silent.

"Oh God …"

Michael Reed was suddenly kneeling beside them, looking down at Rabbit. Connie rocked gently beside the oldest of the Walter automatons, one hand over her face and the other on Rabbit's still chest.

Behind Michael stood George Humboldt and Clarence Ticonderoga, Humboldt holding a cloth to his head to stem the bleeding from the small cut above his eye. They watched as Michael carefully knelt down beside Rabbit, reaching to unbutton his vest and shirt.

Clarence moved slightly as if to try and help, but Humboldt stopped him, his free hand on Clarence's arm.

"Don't bother."

Clarence looked at him, puzzled.

"What? Why?"

"It's broke. The thing's broke an' it can't be fixed. It's not human, Clarence. It's kinda sad, I know, an' it saved Connie, but it was just programmed that way. Just like the other two. I know, I know – the little one was pretty good at doin' as it was told, but none of 'em are alive, Clarence. How can somethin' that ain't alive even die?"

Clarence's dark, expressive eyes grew round with shock and then narrowed in anger.

"George … that boy … all of those boys … are one helluva lot more human than you are right now. An' if I can help 'em … any of 'em … I will."

He looked away from Humboldt in disgust and took a step forward to see if there was anything he could do – and walked right into Connie Dawson. She was on her feet now, young Walt Redaya beside her, supporting her as she tried to put weight on her twisted ankle.

She was covered in dust and dirt, her face streaked with tears and her red-rimmed grey eyes dark with grief and anger.

"Get outta my way, Clarence," she said, her voice deadly soft.

"Now, Connie – " Clarence said placatingly, hands held up, trying to calm the situation.

"Don't you 'Now, Connie' me, Clarence Ticonderoga," she growled, "… an' Get. Out. Of My. Goddamn'. WAY."

Clarence Ticonderoga got out of her way.

With Walt's help, Connie limped forward until she was standing only a foot away from George Humboldt.

"You killed my boy," she said quietly, looking the big, burly man straight in the eye.

Humboldt sighed in irritation.

"Connie, you know as well as I do there wasn't nothin' to kill. It's a thing … not a human – "

Connie was shaking now, the anger consuming her.

"You killed my boy," she repeated, the muscles jumping along her lean jaw. "If you hadn't've refused to help us, he'd be alive right now. We woulda been outta that hole before the aftershock hit us. My Rabbit's dead because a' you, George Humboldt. You murdered him as certain as if you'd stuck him with a knife." Her eyes were as cold and as sharp as flint. "You murdered my boy, you sonofab – "

"CONNIE!" Michael's voice ripped through the confrontation like a razor. "CONNIE! I need you – Rabbit needs you!"

Connie blinked, suddenly confused.

"What?"

She heard a flurry of activity behind her, and turned to see Michael looking at her with blazing blue eyes. He had the plate in Rabbit's chest open and she saw … something.

"Michael? What's happ – "

"His core, Connie! Rabbit's Blue Matter core! It's still working – not particularly well, but …" Michael closed his eyes and took a deep breath, " … but he's not dead."

Connie shook her head as if to clear it.

"No … no, that's not … how … how can that be?"

"I told ya he wasn't dead!" The Jon's azure optics glowed with hope.

The Spine rested his head on top of Rabbit's and held him tight.

"Hang on in there, buddy … just hang on."

Michael gestured to Connie.

"I need you to help me, Connie. Spine and Sam aren't able to work with only one arm each and The Jon … well, I've put him on hand-holding duty. I need you to pass me my tools and help in any way you can." He looked down at Rabbit, who still looked pretty dead, despite Michael's declaration. "Can somebody please tell me why you guys, after 116 years, never bother to check out an' see what's going on in Rabbit's insides? Why do you always assume the worst and expect me to make miracles and fix everything from an oil leak to a rainy day?"

The Jon frowned through his tears.

"B-Because you're a Reed. Reeds fix stuff. We can't fix stuff, an' we don't need to because we have a Michael."

Michael shook his head and wiped away his own tears with the heel of his hand.

"I don't know what's wrong – it could be anything from a major systems failure to a fritzy connection from a bang on the head. I need my tool kit – "

"I'll get it," Clarence answered, a smile beginning on his face. "Where – "

Michael gestured to the makeshift shelter.

"Over with Steve. Thanks Mister Ticonderoga – "

"That's Clarence, son."

Michael smiled for the first time in what felt like years instead of hours.

"Thanks … Clarence."

Connie had almost collapsed, only prevented from doing so by Walt Redaya, who held on tightly to her arm. Connie leaned on him, her hand over her mouth, unable to speak.

He wasn't dead. Her boy wasn't dead. And Michael would fix him, because Michael could work miracles.

Connie looked up at George Humboldt, who had been watching the scene unfold with cold, hurt eyes. She took a deep, shaky breath, gathering her wits.

"I gotta go take care of Rabbit now, George. An' I know that if he has even the tiniest of chances, my boy'll make it. He'll make it because he's tough, an' brave, an' … an' … kind, an' funny an' – " she paused for a moment, and another tear trickled down her face. "An' more human than you'll ever be."

And with that, she hauled back her fist and punched George Humboldt as hard as she could squarely on the nose.

The big man let out a yelp of pure agony and staggered back, blood streaming from his nose and trickling between his fingers as he tried to stop the flow.

Connie watched him for a moment, and turning gingerly on her heel, she let Walt help her back to sit beside Rabbit and his family. As Walt settled her beside Michael, she shook her hand to get rid of the sting and sucked at the knuckles, one of which was already swelling.

Michael looked at her sternly.

"Connie, I need that hand. Are you gonna be okay?"

Connie nodded.

"I'll be fine. It's bruised is all." She studied her knuckles ruefully. "Mind you, it hurts like hell. But," she continued, giving Michael a swift grin, "It was worth it."

Michael leaned over and gave Connie a small kiss on the cheek.

"Are you ready? I need you to talk me through what happened to Rabbit and we'll try and find out what's what."

For the next few minutes Michael and Connie went through everything, Connie recounting how Rabbit came to be injured and the sequence of events. As she spoke, Michael carefully checked Rabbit's internal workings and was astounded that the copper robot had even lasted this long. He was so desperately hurt, and Michael had no idea if he could repair his friend. But there was the constant feeble glow of Rabbit's Blue Matter core, and he couldn't deny that it gave him some sort of hope that Rabbit might just come back to them.

He had initially thought of lying Rabbit flat on the ground so that he would have more light to work by, but the steel bar sticking out of Rabbit's back prevented that. The Spine would not relinquish his gentle grip of his brother anyway, so Michael just had to work with it.

Sam stepped in and sat on the other side of The Spine, and with Walt's help, they gently removed the sling from Rabbit's body. They released the belt strapping Rabbit's arm to his chassis and once that was done, Michael had easier access to the chest plate. They were about to remove the other belts supporting the steel rod when Michael stopped them.

"No, leave them!" he said hurriedly. "They're keeping the rod in place, and from what I can see …" he swallowed, the fear rife in his voice, "it's sealing leaks and keeping Rabbit from bleeding out. But I can't … I can't do anything about it until I get him someplace with the equipment to remove it without killing him."

Clarence returned from retrieving Michael's tool kit and laid the big box beside the mechanic.

Connie looked up at him, brow furrowed.

"How's Steve? I been worried ta death about him."

"Better now that he knows Rabbit has a chance. Joe's stayin' with him – he's pretty upset."

Connie smiled her thanks.

"I gotta go see him as soon as Rabbit's doin' better. So we'll get to it, Michael – I gotta look after the rest of ya after my Rabbit's fixed."

She looked around at her boys.

It was the first time she had seen most of them clearly since the earthquake. Michael and Sam were battered, hurting and exhausted. Lines of grief and pain marred their features, and she could see Sam shaking. Connie reached over Rabbit's limp body, resting her bruised hand on his chest as though her touch alone could heal him, and placed the palm of her other hand on the side of Sam's face, wordlessly comforting him, something for which Sam was incredibly grateful. Connie had a way of making the pain easier to bear.

And then there was The Spine and The Jon.

The slender brassold automaton clutched Rabbit's hand, regardless of his own injury, and Connie touched the wrapping around The Jon's hand.

"Oh sweetie … your poor hand …"

The Jon gave her a wobbly smile.

"I'm okay, Miss Connie. Honest. Michael can fix me up later."

Connie nodded silently.

The Spine still sat with Rabbit tenderly held against his chest, but Connie could see the terrible injury in his side.

"Spine? Spine, honey?" The tall robot didn't answer, his head still lowered over his brother's. Connie tried again. "Spine? Why don't you let Walt take care of Rabbit? You're hurtin,' son, and you're bleedin' an' you're just about done in. Let us look after Rabbit, an' you get some rest. I can't face thinkin' I might lose you too, boy."

The Spine raised his head slightly to look back at Connie, green optics dull with 'pain' and worry.

"He's … he's my brother, Connie. My big brother. I've put up with him for … for 116 years, and I have every intention of having him around for another 116. I'll … I'll hold him."

Connie put her hand on Rabbit's bandanna'd head, lying seemingly lifeless against The Spine's shoulder.

"He drives ya nuts, huh."

The Spine gave his tired one-sided smile.

"He sure does. And I'm glad of it."

Connie nodded, understanding. She patted him on the shoulder in support.

She glanced at Michael, now muttering to himself as he checked out Rabbit's circuitry in his chest. Behind her she could hear George Humboldt, moaning quietly, and Clarence telling him that if he ever mentioned to anyone that Connie was the one who had hit him, then he would deny all knowledge – and anyway, who would believe that a ninety-eight-pound woman in her late sixties and with a gammy leg could floor a burly two-hundred-and-sixty-pound man in his fifties.

Humboldt cursed under his breath but told Clarence he was all right.

Connie turned back to the matter in hand – saving her Rabbit, and taking care of her boys.

The Spine was tiring quickly. His good arm was bearing all of Rabbit's weight and he was struggling to hold his brother's chassis. His fingers slipped slightly and Rabbit's head rolled gently to one side before The Spine could adjust his grip.

"Oh God, Spine! Your shoulder's bleeding!" Connie gasped.

The Spine frowned in confusion. Looking down he saw a sodden stain of oil on his shirt front.

"What? No … m' not hurt there – "

Connie very carefully lifted Rabbit's head to see more clearly and her hands were instantly covered in oil.

"Michael! It's not Spine! It's Rabbit! He's hurt his head!"

A second later Michael was easing Rabbit's red bandanna from his head and he swore. Loudly.

"He's got one helluva dent there, Connie." He grimaced. "All the while I thought it was in his chassis - I've been lookin' in the wrong damn' place! We couldn't see it because of the bandanna – he must have got a bang on the head just as the shaft collapsed."

Connie looked at Rabbit, his optics shuttered and lifeless as Michael gently examined the back of Rabbit's head which was slowly leaking oil.

"Can you fix him?" Walt asked, his black eyes wide with concern.

"I … I have no idea," Michael replied, desperation rife in his voice. "Spine, we have to turn him on his side so I can get a closer look – I can't do much for him lying the way he is." His voice softened. "You can let him go now, Spine … we got him."

The Spine looked at The Jon and Michael, and then at Connie, who nodded encouragement. Then he loosened his grip on Rabbit's limp body and allowed Michael, Walt and Tom Brander to ease Rabbit onto his side beside his two brothers. Walt took off his jacket and placed it almost reverently beneath Rabbit's head.

The Spine began to sag sideways, and just as the tall automaton had supported Rabbit, The Jon, in one fluid move, scooted over Rabbit's lax body and caught his older brother as The Spine struggled to stay upright.

"I'm … I'm making a habit of falling apart, huh. Sorry, Jon," he whispered.

"S'all right, The Spine," The Jon whispered back. "You can catch me next time I fall over."

The Spine smiled fleetingly and then set his optics on Michael as the young mechanic got to work trying to find and fix the damage in Rabbit's head.

All of the Walter automatons had small access plates in their heads and Rabbit's was located just above the dent that was causing all of the trouble.

In the end, it took Michael all of forty-seven seconds to isolate the problem.

"You have got to be kidding me!" Michael looked up, a look of disbelief on his face. "Connie, can you pass me a pair of wire strippers and those little pliers? Oh, and some insulation tape."

Mystified, Connie rummaged in Michael's tool kit and handed over the small, delicate tools and the tape.

"What? What is it? Is he gonna be okay? How bad is it? Can you repair whatever it is? What's the problem? " Connie was jittery with fear.

Michael didn't answer her for a moment or two as he carefully assessed the damage in Rabbit's head, and in seconds he had snipped a piece of wire and then set to work with the wire strippers.

"Damn, this is tricky," he said to himself rather than anyone else. "Connie, can you cut me off a few inches of the insulation tape?"

Connie did so and handed the short length of tape to Michael, who fiddled about inside the cavity, oil staining his fingers. Connie wordlessly handed him a rag which Michael used to clean up the spill.

Everyone waited with bated breath.

"Well?" Clarence finally said.

Michael looked around at everyone and saw faces strained with worry coupled with anticipation.

"You're not going to believe this, but it's down to a single neural circuit and the tiniest oil line I've ever seen."

Everyone looked at everyone else. Michael took a deep breath and continued.

"The ding he took as he was pulled out of the shaft split the oil line and badly damaged the neural circuit lying beside it. I've fixed the oil line temporarily. Well, at least it isn't leaking anymore and it's clean and free-flowing. The neural circuit, though … as far as I can tell, it's the one that controls reboots. It was badly crushed, and … well … in short, Rabbit was knocked out. He shut down, and until it's repaired he can't boot up."

"So … you can repair it? Or … or replace it?" Connie asked, still fearful and worried.

"Well … I can simply strip it out and replace it, and then he can boot up. That's not a problem." He paused for a moment and when he spoke again his tone was low and quiet. "What I'm worried about is that his whole system is so damaged he might not be physically able to do so. His bellows … it's sloshing with fluid and I don't even know if he can use the thing. He had broken oil and hydraulic lines all over the place – and I gotta say, Connie, you did an amazing job patching them up – and some of his internal circuits are … not good. That rod has just about pulled him apart inside." Michael was sombre.

"Can you fix him, son?"

Connie's lips trembled as tears threatened once more.

Michael thought about it and then nodded.

"I think so. I thought about leaving him like this until we got somewhere with decent equipment that would give me the chance for more extensive repairs … but I'm too scared to do that. I don't want to leave it too long. It might be hours yet. And," he added sombrely, "… I gotta say … I'd feel uncomfortable making that decision without Rabbit's say-so. I don't think he'd ever forgive me."

"He wouldn't. You know how he is, Michael." The Spine flinched as he took a deep breath, and The Jon made little shushing noises, trying to stop his big brother from exerting himself too much. "I know he'd rather wake up sooner rather than later – even though the stubborn fool needs to power down," he added a little bitterly. Rabbit's propensity for stubbornness was fuelled by decisions that had been made for him by previous Walters and by the military. He didn't like decisions being made for him, and his brothers backed him up. "If you can get him back on line, we'd appreciate it." The Spine gave a small tic of his head – as much of a nod as he could manage.

Michael smiled.

"I have to say it'll be easier to find the problems and fix 'em if he can tell me how he feels and where it hurts – although I can guess a lot if it at this point. Damn, but he's beat up … okay, here goes …"

It took him less than five minutes to strip out the circuit and replace it with a spare from his tool kit. Then he closed the access plate, found Rabbit's reset switch and pressed it.

Nothing happened.

Connie became fraught, and clutched The Spine's good hand for support. She felt him squeeze her fingers gently.

"Michael … Michael, he's not – "

There was an audible 'click'.

Rabbit's chassis thrummed faintly, and his optics flickered.

There was a general murmur of hope within the little group.

"So far, so good …" Michael bit his lip.

Connie rested her other hand on Rabbit's shoulder.

"C'mon, hon … wake up, now. Your brothers're worried about ya. We're all worried about ya."

And deep within his chassis was the tell-tale 'shift', something Connie had felt the first time she had met Rabbit, a mere two days ago. It felt as though it had been a lifetime ago … 'way back in a time that held promise and love and the discovery of a new family.

A soft whirr began, and a painful wheeze came from deep within Rabbit's wounded chest. His optics brightened and within seconds one of them opened slowly, shining blue in the shadow cast by The Spine beside him. The other followed a second later, blinking green, and Rabbit's hand tic'd spasmodically. A wrenching, painful cough came next, a small trickle of oil coming from the copper robot's mouth. Michael carefully wiped it away with a clean rag.

There was a huge, collective sigh of relief from humans and robots alike.

The Spine took a deep and very painful breath.

"Easy there, champ. You're safe. Just … just take your time, okay?"

"N-Not … not in tha … in tha hole?" The voice that answered him was a soft, rasping croak, but The Spine couldn't care less. He grinned.

"No, buddy – you're not in the hole. You're safe and sound, here with all of us."

"Miz … Miz Connie … safe?"

"I'm here, sweetie … I'm here. We made it. Thank god – an' thanks to you."

Connie's nose let her down again and she began to snivel.

"Use … uh … you c'n use your s-s-sleeve …" Rabbit said.

Connie smiled through her tears and used her sleeve to wipe her nose.

"E-Everybody … h-hunky-dory?" Rabbit tried to turn his head to see everyone and failed miserably, but it made Michael's day to see his friend move.

"Yeah, Rabbit – we'll all live. And as soon as the rescue chopper gets here to take Steve and Sam to the hospital, we'll be gettin' out of here and find someplace where I can fix you up. You and Spine." Michael tried to be as upbeat as he could.

Rabbit moved weakly in alarm.

"Th-Spine … you … y-you're hurt?"

"Easy now, cowboy … I …I'm okay. Or I will be. Michael can patch me up and I'll be fine. Just … just fine."

The Jon leaned a little so that Rabbit could see him with his arms still around The Spine, keeping him supported.

"I said you weren't dead, Rabbit. 'Cause you're my brother. An' you're a hero 'cause you rescued Miss Connie."

Rabbit looked at The Jon, seeing the joy on the little golden robot's face, and gave him the ghost of a wide grin.

"I was just … just like Luke S-S-Skywalker … rescuin' Princess Leia."

The Jon's face lit up.

"AWESOME! Oh, an' I'm gettin' a cape from Saint Pappers Claus with 'SuperTheJon' on it, 'cause I saved Sam from certain death!"

Rabbit glanced at Sam.

"Y-Yeah?"

Sam grinned, cradling his bad shoulder.

"Yep. He sure did."

"Spine?"

"Yeah, Rabbit?"

"C'n I … I have a c-cape too?"

"Oh, for cryin' … cryin' out loud … here we go …" The Spine sighed, loving the familiar banter and settling happily back into 'straight man' mode, "Michael – any chance of switching him off again?"

The humour broke the last of the tension.

"God, Rabbit … it's good to see you! We've been kinda worried about you for a while now!" breathed Sam, his face rife with emotion.

There was a soft whine beside The Jon, and Blue gently pushed his way through the bodies arranged around this new person. He was intrigued, and snuffled at Rabbit whose optics clicked with surprise. His 'pain' was forgotten for a moment as Blue gazed curiously at him.

Michael was about to push Blue gently out of the way, but Rabbit gave a tiny hesitant smile.

"Spine?"

The Spine sighed again. He knew what was coming.

"No."

"B-But Spi – "

"Rabbit, you … you can't keep him. He belongs … belongs to Joe."

"But – "

"Forget it."

"I looooves doggies – "

"No. Y-You don't. So don't even go there."

"S-Spoilsport." Rabbit pouted.

"Get over it."

Blue washed Rabbit's face, leaving a layer of drool on his cheek vents. There was a painful giggle.

"Tickles …"

"Typical," groused Sam, "first The Spine, now Rabbit. Damn' dog has a robot thing goin' on."

"Rabbit, honey …" Connie loved hearing her boys sound less stressed, but she had something to do.

Rabbit turned weary optics to look at her.

"Yes'm?"

"Son, I'm gonna go see Steve. I'm guessin' he's had a tough time worryin' an' not bein' able to help out. An' I want to take a look at his leg, so you just be still an' rest easy, an' let Michael take care of ya. Oh, an' before you ask, I'll be back with your hug as soon as I can, y'hear?"

"Promise?" Rabbit sounded bereft.

Connie smiled down at him and moved her hand from his shoulder to his head, soothing him. She had almost lost him several times over the past two days, and here he was, gazing back at her, battered and hurt, but alive.

"Yeah, sweetheart, I promise. An' lots of hugs for all of my boys."

"Uh … me … me first …"

"Always, you know that," She smiled.

"THEN ME!" crowed The Jon.

"I promise, sweet pea."

"Connie …" The Spine didn't have to say any more.

"I'm savin' two for you, son. I got hugs for all of ya." With Walt and Tom's help, she stood up. "I won't be too long. But I gotta go see my Steve. Put his mind at rest."

"Don't worry, Connie – we'll take good care of Rabbit," Sam said.

Leaning over, she dropped a kiss on Sam's head and then Michael's.

"My boys," she whispered. "My precious boys."


Steve Negrete was not doing so well, Connie discovered. Joe was hunkered down beside the engineer, talking to him quietly, but Steve was still agitated. He had been utterly delighted and relieved to see her, but she was shocked at how ill he looked.

He was terribly pale and his face was drawn with fever. He was obviously in great pain, and Connie could see that he was trembling. His hands clutched at the comforter spasmodically, fingers tense with stress.

But his brown eyes lit up when he saw Connie, his mobile face wreathed in smiles.

"CONNIE! Oh thank god you're all right! Rabbit? Tell me how Rabbit's doin'! Is he okay? Is he awake? Joe told me he … he …"

He ran out of words and swallowed, trying to control his emotions.

Walt helped Connie settle down beside him, and without saying anything, she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Steve. She held him close, silently giving him all of the love and comfort she could. His bandanna'd head rested under her chin and Steve's strong arms encircled her waist, hanging on as though his life depended on it.

There was a fierceness and loyalty in Steve Negrete that reminded her so much of Dan Malone. He had withstood terrible pain and illness and had tried his damnedest not only to help his friends, but also to save Rabbit's life with his work on their only hacksaw – without that, both of them would be dead.

"He's alive, son … he's pretty sick an' hurt, but with luck Michael will be able to fix him up when we get back to Takoya." She loosened her hold and leaned back to look at him. Steve's face was lined with pain. "Oh, sweetie – I can't think what we would have done without you. I can't …" her face crumpled. "I can't thank you enough."

Steve reached out with one hand, tilted her chin up and smiled at her, one eyebrow raised in that daredevil expression she loved so much.

"I just wish I coulda done more, Connie. But I feel much better knowin' you're both alive an' kickin.' Figuratively speakin'," he added ruefully, and then sneezed.

Connie sniffed back her tears and nodded.

"O-Okay, then." She gave him a little smile in return. "Sweetie, I'm gonna have a look at your leg, okay? You got a temperature?"

"A little bit. I think it's the 'flu though, not the leg." His smile faded into a grimace. "Please god, let it not be the leg …" he added under his breath.

Connie shifted around and undid the dressing over the open fracture. She winced in sympathy.

"It's … it's …"

Joe blanched when he saw the massive bruising and bloody bone.

"Jeez …"

Walt just looked away, suddenly pale.

Steve bit his lip.

"Pretty bad, huh."

Connie nodded. She wasn't going to lie to him.

"Yeah, son, it's bad. But it's not infected, which is way beyond good. I gotta tell ya … this is goin' to take a while to heal and get right, you know that. You'll probably need the bone pinned and you won't be up on your feet for some time. Get used to the idea of elbow crutches, son."

Steve brightened hopefully.

"I'm not goin' to lose the leg?"

Connie looked at him steadily.

"Steve, honey – I'm not goin' ta guarantee you won't. But there's no infection and coupled with the fact you're young, fit an' healthy – those factors're all in your favour. Ya know the docs'll only consider that as the very last resort."

Steve swallowed, but nodded, understanding.

"The rescue chopper's on its way, an' you'll be in the hospital within an hour once you're picked up. Sam's comin' with ya, an' we'll all get there as soon as we get everyone else fixed up, okay?"

Steve nodded. It was going to be an ordeal, but he'd deal with it. With his friends and family around him, he would cope.

Don't worry, son," Joe interjected. "I'll bring your family in to see you. My place is only forty-five minutes from the hospital. Everyone'll be there, all right? They'll be close."

Connie's eyebrows hitched.

"Your place? On the rez?"

Joe grinned.

"Sure, I got plenty of room. After my Lizbeth died, I had the place to myself. The boys had all left home by then, an' I didn't want to move. So y'all can stay with me. Is that okay?"

Connie and Steve looked at one another.

"Yeah. Yeah Joe, that would be wonderful." Connie smiled, wonder in her eyes. "Thank you."

Walt grinned with delight.

"That's so cool, Grandfather! I want to introduce Jon to everyone!"

"Then it's decided – everyone back to my place."

They were interrupted by a series of frenzied barks from Blue, who ran to the perimeter of Connie's holding.

Steve and Joe tensed.

"Oh no – "

But there was no sign of an aftershock.

The sunset was beginning to send hints of gold and pink across the cloudless sky, and through the chopping bays of Blue's alarm came the WHOP-WHOP-WHOP of a helicopter, the noise echoing through the early evening sunlight.

TBC