Catherine Dawson Delaney's sharp features were confused. She looked around at the figures in the old auto-shop, and not one of them was looking at her – including her mother. All eyes were riveted on the still figure lying prone on the metal workbench, its surface now oil-streaked and stained with ugly pools of dark red-black hydraulic fluid.
She tried again, brows furrowed with impending anger.
Her words fell on deaf ears.
Connie ignored her daughter, and shifted her hands to lie on Rabbit's shoulder, bracing herself, making sure Rabbit's chassis didn't move any more than it had to as Michael worked to remove the bar. Clarence held tight to Rabbit's legs and lower torso, and Michael re-firmed his grip.
His gaze flicked to Brander.
"I might need help here - I don't think I can …. I can pull this thing, Tom. Maybe … maybe you could pull the bar from the other side while I push. My ribs … I can't –"
"Just let me know when, son." His pale eyes were soft with concern.
Cathy Delaney didn't like being ignored.
Reaching forward, she firmly grasped her mother's shoulder and tried to turn Connie around to face her. The only response she garnered was an irritated, dismissive shrug as Connie tightened her grip on Rabbit's unresponsive frame.
"Mother … MOM … For God's sake, Mother –" Cathy's voice had dropped to an irate hiss.
Connie didn't look at her daughter. Her attention was wholly on Rabbit. Then Connie spoke so softly even Michael could barely hear her, all the while keeping her gaze fixed on the unconscious automaton before her.
"Catherine … Cathy … I have to do this, girl. I'm safe, an' I'm glad beyond belief to see ya, but I got hurt people here, an' I gotta help 'em – without them I wouldn't be here. I'd be dead an' gone. Period. So, leave me be an' I'll see ya later when they're outta danger, okay?"
Michael could tell that Connie was doing her damndest to control herself, to keep her voice calm, although he could hear the waver in her words even as she looked at Rabbit's motionless figure.
Cathy shook her head, confused.
"People?" She frowned and studied Rabbit for a moment. She glanced at The Spine and The Jon, taking in the metal plates and glowing optics. "Mom … what people? There are no hurt people here that I can see! I … I don't understand –"
The Jon's terrified voice cut through the impending tirade like a hot knife through butter.
Both Cathy and her mother turned to the little 'bot, who still sat beside The Spine, his good hand clenching and unclenching and his entire being oozing fear.
Connie furrowed her brow, her focus momentarily disturbed.
"Jon, honey –"
"YA GOTTA STOP, LADY!" His gaze was fixed on Cathy as though willing her to be quiet. "CONNIE AN' MICHAEL ARE TRYING TO SAVE RABBIT!"
It was obvious to Connie that The Jon was nearly at the end of his tether. The stress was now breaking him, bending him to its will, his frame quaking with horror and terror.
A soft growl began behind the old chair cradling a fading The Spine, and Blue crept into view. His hackles were raised, and he stood beside The Jon, menacing rumbles coming from his deep chest.
"SEE! NOW YOU'VE UPSET BLUE!" The Jon added, oil glistening on his cheeks as he hugged the big dog.
Somehow, finding strength from somewhere far, far within his battered chassis, The Spine raised an unsteady hand from his terribly damaged side and laid it on The Jon's shoulder in comfort.
His emerald optics gazed at Cathy with such infinite sadness that her mouth snapped shut in shock. After a few moments of struggle, he managed to utter one word, gaunt face riven with pain and exhaustion.
"Please …" he whispered.
That single word, said so softly and with such unfathomable agony, made Cathy Delaney blink.
The tension in the big workshop was almost palpable, thick in the air, oozing with an unbearable sense of desperation. She looked from face to face, gazing deeply into sets of eyes and optics that darted from her face to the still figure on the oil-slick table. All was silence, apart from the rasp of The Spine's hitching breaths and the occasional rumble from Blue, who now crept around The Jon to lie at The Spine's feet. The big dog lifted a paw and dropped it on The Spine's boot, and then rested his head on both paw and foot.
Connie touched her daughter's hand.
"Cathy girl. It don't mean I love ya any less. You're my daughter, an' I love you more'n life itself, you know that. But I have to do this, okay? These boys … I … they …" her words drifted into silence. She sighed deeply, gathering herself together. "They're my precious boys." She smiled at Michael. "All of 'em." Her eyes softened. "An' they need me."
Cathy studied her mother. She saw the storm-grey eyes fill with tears, and took in the exhaustion and sadness in her mother's features. She had no idea what the hell was going on, and she didn't understand this sudden affection for what appeared to be nothing more that mechanical automatons, but after decades of butting heads with her parent, she knew when to back down.
She let out an explosive breath.
"Oh, what the hell …" she exclaimed, arms waving in exasperation. "You do whatever the hell you want to do. You always have," she added with more than a trace of bitterness. "I'll be back later when you've come to your senses. Joe will let me know when that is, no doubt." And without another word, she stalked out of the building, slamming the small door behind her.
Connie nodded to herself, swallowing back tears. Her hands were back steadying Rabbit.
Michael braced himself.
"You okay, Connie?" he asked gently.
"Yeah … yeah, 'm okay." She took a deep calming breath.
Michael glanced over at The Spine and The Jon, both of them watching him intently. He nodded, and saw both robots nod back, as though giving him permission to save their brother's life.
"Right." He tensed his bone-weary muscles, tightened his grip once more on the heavy steel rod buried deep, deep within his friend, and pushed.
The sound was terrible.
The scream of metal on metal filled the auto-shop, setting human teeth on edge and making sensitive robotic aural systems send out electrical impulses of alarm. The Jon scrunched his optics tightly closed and put his hands over his ears trying to block out the dreadful sound, but The Spine stood the appalling noise of the steel rod moving through his brother's chest as stoically as he did everything else in life. He sat back, good hand once more clutching his side, futilely trying to ease the interminable drip … drip … drip of oil and hydraulic fluid from the hole in his chassis.
Michael was struggling to move the rod as quickly but as carefully as he could, given the circumstances, and the combination of effort, strain and the pain in his side had sweat sticking his shirt to his back.
"Damn, this is … this is awful …" he muttered, heartbreak rife in his voice.
"It's comin' son," said Tom, who was trying to help even out the movement of the rod as it emerged slowly from Rabbit's back. "Just … just keep goin'. It won't be long now," he added. Even though the trauma Rabbit had endured during the aftershocks had enlarged the entry and exit holes, the rod was still driven through cogs and wheels deep inside his chest, and the effort to move it was tremendous.
Connie held tight onto Rabbit, feeling the agonizing rasp of metal on metal, deep within this young-old clockwork man she loved as a son. She saw the new ooze of oil and hydraulic fluid from the hole in Rabbit's chassis, and there was the swoosh of fluid sloshing alarmingly as the copper automaton's damaged bellows was unavoidably agitated by the journey of the rod.
"Michael … his bellows … when that thing comes outta there …" Connie bit her lip.
Michael looked up from his work, perspiration dripping into his eyes. He stopped for a moment to wipe it away with a sleeve. He had already drained the fluid from Rabbit's good bellows, but the damaged one … he dreaded dealing with it.
"It's going to be messy – nothin' I can do about it. But the fluid's better out than in. Means I can patch up the bellows without working wrist-deep in oily water. Then I can weld over the holes in his chassis and check for any other leaks an' stuff." He dabbed at his face with a cloth handed to him by Clarence. "Then I should be able to get him back to Walter Manor for an overhaul. I hope." He added wearily.
Connie took a shaky breath.
"Okay, boy. You ain't alone here … we'll help ya all we can, you know that," she added.
Michael eased the crick in his neck and set himself to finish this dreadful business.
"Tom, when this end frees up on this side we got to keep it as straight as possible and get through Rabbit as quick as we can. I don't want it movin' around inside and causing any more damage."
Tom Brander gripped the rod more tightly.
"I got it, Michael. We'll do this quickly an' cleanly, I promise."
Michael quirked a quick smile, and nodded.
"Here we go …"
And gathering the last of his strength he gritted his teeth against the pain in his ribs and pushed.
The rod, complaining and screeching every inch of the way, moved through Rabbit's battered chassis and disappeared slowly but surely as Tom pulled carefully, keeping up a steady pressure.
"It's … it's movin' …" Tom grasped the rod and pulled as straight and as hard as he could, knowing that if he deviated even a fraction of an inch either way, Rabbit's internal mechanisms could be damaged beyond repair.
The sudden gush of filthy, oily fluid was almost obscene. As Tom finally pulled the rod free and threw it on the floor behind him out of the way, the holes in Rabbit's chest and shoulder bled. Oh, how they bled, and Connie gasped her horror. She had been through this whole nightmare knowing that Rabbit was badly hurt, but right at that moment, the full impact of what he had endured tore her heart in two.
She stared at Rabbit, lying on his side, photoreceptors closed and face in gentle repose. The red-tinged water, greasy with oil and hydraulic fluid, swirled around his torso and dripped noisily onto the concrete floor. A small stream of the messy liquid trickled from the side of Rabbit's mouth. The metal table was awash with the stuff.
Connie suddenly had to turn away. She felt faint, and she covered her mouth with one hand, feeling the bile rise.
"Connie!" Michael's voice was sharp. "Connie, I need you! Now! C'mon, gal, I need help here!"
She heard the urgency in the young mechanic's voice, and it sent a shudder of sudden clarity through her. Connie swallowed, coughed, and turned back to the job in hand.
"Sorry …" she whispered, genuinely horrified that she had let the situation get to her. She had decades of experience caring for badly-injured people, but never … never … had she allowed it to become personal. She couldn't afford to let Rabbit down. Not now.
Michael had moved to Rabbit's chest plate and was deep within the automaton's battered chassis, frantically repairing the remaining tubes and connections. He grabbed Connie's hand, shoved it deep within the chest cavity and folded her fingers around a slick, oily tube.
"Hold this as tight as you can! Tighter!" Michael's voice was raw with emotion as he left Connie holding the tube shut as he taped it closed and then tightened a clamp onto the valve. That done, he pried Connie's hand loose and put another tube into her grasp. Once more he taped and clamped, and for the next ten minutes the two of them followed a routine as one by one, Rabbit's badly damaged systemic tubing was either sealed tight or brought back into use. It was only temporary, they both knew, but it would hold until Rabbit returned home.
After an hour had passed, Michael looked up at Connie, eyes haunted and bloodshot with fatigue.
"I … I think that's it. I've done as much as I can with his electronic circuits and hydraulics. It should work well enough for now." He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "All I gotta do now is patch his bellows and find a way of welding the holes closed in his chassis."
Connie leaned over Rabbit, her hands still stained with oily water, and squeezed the worn young mechanic's shoulder.
"Michael … son … rest a few minutes, please. You're gonna pass out if you keep this up."
He shook his head groggily.
"Nope. Gotta keep going. I have no idea how I'm going to patch Rabbit's bellows. I don't have anything –"
"Hang on, Michael." Tom Brander spoke up, his mouth curving in a wry smile. "I think I've got just the thing. I used to keep some stuff of mine here years ago … "
The lanky man turned away from his place at Rabbit's feet and rummaged in an old wooden box in the recesses of Clarence's storage area. He finally gave a grunt of triumph and straightened, turned, and returned to Michael's side. He offered the mechanic a small metal box.
Michael stared at it. Then he laughed quietly, the laughter easing the worn lines on his face.
"A bicycle puncture repair kit. Sheesh. Why didn't I think of that?"
And within minutes Rabbit's bellows was sealed as tight as a drum.
Michael sat down on a stool. His shoulders slumped and his head hung. He was trembling.
Connie rested a hand on Rabbit's head for a fleeting moment, and then she eased herself off her own seat and limped over to Michael. She studied him, her brow furrowing.
"Michael, take a minute, boy. Go wash up, eat something and get a hot drink in you. We'll look after Rabbit."
Michael looked up blearily.
"Can't. Gotta seal up those holes in his chassis –"
"I can do that, son." Clarence appeared at Connie's side. "I've been welding stuff since I was knee high to a gopher, and I can do the job quick an' easy. Go rest a while. We'll have Rabbit all fixed an' cleaned up, and then we can get The Spine ready … if that's okay?" he added, his gaze settling on the tall automaton seated in the old chair, his eyebrows raised questioningly.
The Spine smiled painfully.
"Yes …" he ground out between clenched jaws. "And … and thank you. For helping Michael take … take care of our brother."
Clarence returned The Spine's smile with one of his own, his dark gaze soft with concern.
"That's okay, son. That's what friends are for."
The Spine's mouth tic'd with a small grin, even as he tried to figure out how many times in the past few days he had been called 'son' and by how many people. But his mental acuity was not working to order, another effect of oil and fluid loss. He felt … fuzzy.
The Jon's gentle murmur interrupted his wayward thoughts.
Green optics met blue ones.
"Spine, I'm gonna help Clarence take care of Rabbit, an' then I'll be back to help ya. Blue?"
The dog raised his head as The Jon spoke his name.
"Blue, you gotta take care of The Spine for a little while. Now you make sure he doesn't move, okay? Don't let him get antsy, 'cause he can be a bit … " The Jon struggled for a moment to find a suitable epithet, "um … well … not fluffy."
Happy that Blue understood him, confirmed by the animal's yawning whine and rump-wag as The Spine had the good grace to look utterly confused at being referred to as not fluffy, The Jon stood up and after squeezing a somewhat bemused The Spine's shoulder in comfort, he was beside Clarence in a moment.
"Hi Clarence. I'm gonna help." The Jon beamed.
Clarence raised an eyebrow, and then his expressive features broke into a grin.
"Hell, why not?" he said, charmed by The Jon's enthusiasm.
The Jon almost hopped with delight.
"Great! Clarence … c'n I ask you something?"
Clarence's other eyebrow hitched in curiosity.
"I got an idea for the welding stuff. Rabbit'll love it!" he added conspiratorially.
Clarence pursed doubtful lips, but he nodded.
"Oooookayyy … let's hear it, Jon. It's not gonna cause ructions, is it?"
The Jon shook his head vigorously, hat bobbling.
"Oh no! Honest! It'll make Rabbit happy!"
"Well then … let's get on with it, son, and get Rabbit all whole again, huh? Oh, an' Michael?"
Michael Reed looked up from his slumped position on the old stool, exhaustion writ large in every muscle. Connie rubbed his shoulder, comforting as best she could.
"Yeah?" The young mechanic's voice was hoarse with tiredness.
Clarence raised a hand, gesturing at Rabbit's lax body on a table still awash with red-stained fluid.
"Go rest a little. We got your back, lad. Let us deal with it, get everything cleaned up and ready for you to take care of Spine, alright?"
Michael looked at Clarence, then his gaze drifted to Connie and then finally to The Spine. The automaton sat rigidly in the old chair, head hanging and the rasp of each breath coming more slowly now. But even as Michael opened his mouth to speak, The Spine looked up, photo-receptors dim but steady.
"S' … S'okay, Michael," The Spine whispered. "G … go."
Michael suddenly realised he had to take a step back from the stress. If he didn't, he knew, Connie would be proved right – he would pass out and be absolutely no use to anyone – a situation that could have deadly results for The Spine.
Decision made, he tried to stand up, but it took Tom Brander's help for him to stay upright, swaying. He took a minute to pull himself together even as his ribs reacted to the sudden movement, but finally he felt well enough to walk slowly from the building, Tom beside him, his hand at the young man's elbow, supporting him.
Connie watched silently as Michael and Tom shut the external door behind them, and then she turned to The Spine. Leaving Clarence and The Jon to take care of Rabbit and clean up the oily residue on the table, she limped over to the tall automaton and knelt slowly beside him.
Blue lifted his head and wrinkled a doggy smile at this human who, he sensed, cared a great deal about his charge. Connie smiled back at the big dog and rumpled his ears, which resulted in a Blue-stumpy-tail-wag and a panting huff of pleasure from the animal.
"Good … good dog …"
The Spine whispered the words, ground out from a voice box dry and cracking from lack of lubrication and care.
Blue's rear end wagged so hard it was almost a case of the tail wagging the dog.
Connie looked affectionately at Blue, and then turned her gaze to The Spine. Green optics, flickering now with stress, gazed back.
Connie cupped his cheek with one hand, and her face creased into a rueful grin.
"Hey there, handsome. How're ya doin'?" she said softly.
The Spine wearily raised an eyebrow and then, to Connie's astonishment, managed a sweet, gentle smile, his mouth curving gently, albeit a little lopsidedly.
"O-Oh … you know …" he whispered breathlessly, "I … I'm doing –"
" – fine, yes, I know," finished Connie, wiping a tear from her cheek. "Okay, sweetie. Now it's your turn to rest up while Michael takes care of you. While we all take care of you." She ran a thumb across his cheekbone. "You can stand down now, son. You've worked miracles these past couple of days. But now … now you gotta get fixed and let yourself heal, y'hear?"
The Spine blinked slowly, and then he nodded, every movement jerky with resistance from the dry rasp of metal against metal.
"I … I hear you," he said, his voice so quiet that Connie barely heard him. The Spine had finally reached the end of his formidable strength. His thoughts were erratic now, words were refusing to form themselves into sentences, and even his memory was beginning to fail. "Can't …" he began, and then halted, trying to take a deep breath before he continued.
"Can't … can't what, sweetheart?"
The Spine's sweet smile and his optics widened, the child-like wonder in his face making Connie's breath hitch with the heartbreak of it.
"Can't … remember … your name …"
So this was it, Connie knew. The Spine was winding down, his systems failing neural synapse by neural synapse. He was dying.
She began to wipe tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand, even as she smiled reassuringly at this failing young man who had given everything he had to save his family.
"Oh, now, that's okay, hun. What do names matter, huh? You just hang on in there for a few minutes until Michael gets back, an' we'll get you all fixed up in a jiffy!"
The Spine closed his optics and then then opened them again with great effort. He looked puzzled.
"M … Michael …?"
Connie couldn't stop the hitching sob in her voice.
"He … he's goin' ta make you well again, boy. I promise. An' you won't be in pain any more an' you'll remember your brothers an' the band an' … an' even me. I hope," she added.
The Spine allowed his optics to finally drift shut, and he gave the tiniest of nods.
"Oh … o-okay …"
Connie leaned forward, and as she had done with Rabbit so long ago, or so it seemed, she rested her forehead against The Spine's, trying to comfort him.
But the moment was broken by the noise of a door opening and shutting, and she lifted her head and saw Michael Reed walk stiffly towards her, the ever-present Tom Brander at his side.
The tall young mechanic looked a little better, his eyes less dull and his features not quite so drawn with pain. He was also wearing a change of clothes. Irene Ticonderoga had worked her magic and brought Michael back to them, fed, watered, clean and his hurts tended to. Michael might not be fighting fit by any stretch of the imagination, but he was, at least, able to continue his work of saving his friends for as long as it took.
"How's he doing?" Michael asked, favouring his injured side.
Connie eased back and rose stiffly to her feet, one hand returning to The Spine's good shoulder. She had to swallow back further sobs when The Spine leaned his head against her arm, taking comfort from her presence. He might not remember who she was, but he knew somewhere deep within his terribly damaged circuits that she cared about him.
"Um … he, ah … he can't remember who we are, Michael," Connie replied, voice crackling with fear. "He … doesn't know his own folks … his family. What're we gonna do? He's dyin', an' I don't know –"
Michael ran shaking fingers through his hair. He should have guessed – no, he should have known that The Spine would hide the real effect of his injury from them all.
"Damn." He wiped his hand over his face, took as deep a breath as he could and made a decision. "Tom, we need to get going on this. I need a clean space to work – I can't wait for Rabbit to be moved. Is there another table, or something like it?"
Tom Brander thought for a moment and then grinned.
"I got an idea. Give me a minute. I'll be right back."
Michael nodded and then turned to Connie and The Spine. The automaton gave no sign that he had noticed Michael's return.
"I'm sorry, Spine. I shouldn't have gone … I should have got right on with helping you out … it's … it's my fault …"
The tall young man looked stricken.
Connie wrapped her free arm awkwardly around him as carefully as she could and gave him a hug.
"No, son. You did the right thing. Absolutely the right thing."
She held him for a few moments, and then straightened, looking Michael square in the eye. She didn't have time for sorrow now. She had to help Michael take care of The Spine, and then she had to make sure that Michael got medical attention for his own injuries. He was, she decided, as stubborn as The Spine.
"Can you save him, Michael? Be honest now."
Michael stared at Connie, and then at The Spine, who still sat with his head against Connie's arm. He didn't move an inch. Michael shook his head.
"Honestly?" he whispered. "I have no idea."
Connie smiled ruefully.
"Well, that's a better answer than I expected. All you can do is try, boy. Just … try."
They were interrupted by the sound of a large vehicle starting up outside, followed by the huge door into the auto-shop sliding open. Tom grinned at them as he hitched the door open, and then disappeared, only to appear a minute later driving a big tractor and flatbed trailer. He swung the vehicle around and then, with the greatest skill, eased the trailer inside the doorway, inching backwards into the available space.
As soon as the trailer was in place, Tom applied the brakes of the tractor and leaped out of the cab.
He turned to Clarence and The Jon, who were still cleaning up the remains of the fluid surrounding Rabbit.
"Jon? I need a hand here for a moment. I can't lift this on my own," he added.
The Jon looked at Clarence, who smiled.
"Go ahead, Jon – I can manage here." The Jon grinned. He bent down to Rabbit, so still and battered, but now a lot cleaner.
"Hey … Rabbit … just goin' to help Tom. Be right back, okay? Then we can getcha all welded up. I got a surprise for ya. Just you wait!" He added gleefully.
He listened for a moment, and despite Rabbit's silence, The Jon nodded, reassured. Straightening, he glanced over to The Spine, and a shocked frown slid onto his golden features.
"Oh! Oh, Spine … we gotta hurry!" His voice was a choked whisper, and for a moment his hands ran up and down his dusty suspenders. His brother was so, so sick …
The Jon heard the softly-spoken words and felt a comforting hand on his shoulder. Blinking, he turned to see Tom Brander beside him.
"C'mon, Jon. I need your help, son. Then we can take care of your brother super quick, okay?"
The Jon nodded, hat bobbling.
"We gotta, Tom! He's gettin' worse! What can I do?"
Tom guided him over to a large sheet of galvanised steel propped up against the wall of the auto-shop.
"We need this," he indicated the steel sheet, "on here," he rested a hand on the trailer. "We need something clean and strong for The Spine, so that Michael can fix him. Once we get the sheet in place, I'll back the trailer over to The Spine. Then you can help him get settled, all right?"
The Jon leapt on the sheet of heavy steel and began grappling with it, even though his wounded hand wouldn't allow much of a grip.
Tom raised his hands, trying futilely to slow the little 'bot down.
"Whoa there, son! Wait for me! We gotta do this together, okay?"
The Jon slowed a little, allowing Tom to grasp the other end of the sheet, but he didn't stop.
"Tom! M-my brother … he's dyin'! We gotta hurry!"
Tom Brander hesitated, and then nodded. "We'll go as fast as we can, Jon, I promise. C'mon. Let's get this done!"
So they did.
It took less than fifteen minutes to get the trailer ready, park it beside The Spine, and – with The Jon's strong arms and gentle ways – ease The Spine onto the trailer.
The Jon and Connie let the silver automaton rest on his back on the galvanised sheet, and The Jon cradled his brother's head, unwilling to let it fall onto the hard surface. Connie saw his dilemma and grasped a cushion from the old armchair and slid it under The Spine's head.
Blue followed her and crept underneath the trailer, laid his head on his paws, and settled down to wait.
The Jon ran his fingers over The Spine's features, his bottom lip beginning to quiver.
"Spine … oh, Spine …"
The Spine, hurt and battered and bleeding still, managed, with the greatest effort, to crank open his photo-receptors. Flickering and dim, his optics studied the face above him, and The Jon's face lit up.
"Spine! You're awake! How're ya feeling? Michael's gonna fix you all up an' then we're gonna stay with Joe an' Walt an' Pie an' Blue at the rez an …" his voice faded and his features fell. He looked up at Connie. "He … doesn't know who I am! Connie, Spine doesn't know me! He … he's …"
"I know, Jon, I know." Connie rubbed The Jon's back. "C'mon, now. Let Michael do his work. Let him bring Spine back to us, whole an' well. Anyway, you got to take care of Rabbit right now. Help Clarence."
The Jon was torn. He watched, appalled, as the oil still drip-drip-dripped from the ragged hole in The Spine's side, and then he looked over at his oldest brother, unconscious and bare-chested now, as Clarence prepared to weld shut the holes in his chest and shoulder.
All of a sudden, he felt a wail begin to bubble in the void in his chest.
The Jon's wails were something over which he normally had no control, and the sudden feeling of alone-ness finally got to him. His brothers were so badly injured, and he was on his own. They had been part of his entire life – 116 years of brotherhood … 116 years of arguments, hugs, wars, and, most of all, music. The wail began to work its way up his cogs and pipelines and then it reached his voice box.
But The Jon saw the agonised confusion in The Spine's gaunt face, and there and then, he decided that right now was the time for him to be Ever So Brave.
Clamping his mouth shut, The Jon felt the wail hit his voice box like a tidal wave. It battered its way up his throat and into his mouth, but that was as far as it got. For a moment, The Jon thought his head would explode and he felt steam try and vent through his teeth along with the treacherous wail, but he clamped his jaws even more tightly together and all that escaped was a tiny, annoying squeak.
Closing his optics, he waited until the wail had had enough and given up, and then he let go and opened his mouth, venting an alarming amount of steam.
The Jon blinked. Now the wail was gone, he felt better and he could think more clearly, and he looked at Michael and Connie, both of whom had witnessed his inner battle. Connie was worried to bits, he could tell, but Michael smiled gently.
"Feel better now, buddy?" he asked.
The Jon checked that his ears were still in place and that his head was intact, and then nodded.
"Yep. Nothing missing." He took a deep breath, and he felt his koi calm. "Michael …"
The young mechanic was beginning to unbutton The Spine's shirt to get at the terrible injury, but he stopped for a moment.
"You an' Connie look after The Spine. I gotta help Clarence take care of Rabbit." The Jon reached over and patted Michael's head. "You c'n save him, Michael. I know you can. You gotta save him. You saved Rabbit, an' now you're gonna save Spine. 'Cause you're a Reed, and that's what Reeds do."
And before Michael could reply, The Jon had returned to his older brother and to Clarence, who was setting up the welding equipment.
The Jon bent over and whispered to Rabbit.
"Don't worry, Rabbit. Spine's going to be okay. Michael's going to save him. Michael an' Connie." He straightened. "Clarence, what do you want me to do?"
As Michael watched the brassold automaton busy himself taking care of Rabbit, he looked at Connie.
"What … what if I can't, Connie? Save him, I mean? I don't know –"
Connie laid a hand on The Spine's chest, just over the Blue Matter core that gave him life, and smiled sadly.
"Son … you do what you can. Then we'll see what the future brings. That's all we can do. So … let's get going. We got a Spine to fix!"
And giving Michael a watery smile, she set to and began to help him in the task of trying to save The Spine's life.