Tin Horses and Paper Planes

Chapter 17 - Mercuries Rising


The tuning of a zither sounds like this:










And then a short interval for restringing.

Glitch watched himself work, in a state of mild, amazed joy. So long as he didn't try to think about the process, it seemed his hands were happy to go about the work unsupervised, so he sat back in his chair with the instrument on his lap, trying first one string, then another, and turning the pegs that flanked the angled pegbox as he did so. The mellow, plangent sounds evoked a brief ripple on the surface of his memories, and he let his gaze fall idly on them, catching a glimpse of a garden, of crimson flowers and the sounds of childish voices nearby. He let them fade once more, knowing that chasing his thoughts was likely to sent them out of sight like forest lizards darting off the path.

Every now and then his hand would steal up to touch the line of his zipper. Gingerly, almost fearfully, each time expecting a flare of pain. But there was no pain.

"No pain," he whispered, confiding in the zither, and it hummed back reassuringly, as if to say this is the way of things.

There had been a frost that morning, but it hadn't stood up for long under the gaze of the suns. Now the day was clear and still, a snapshot of September that had somehow found its way between November's pages. It would only be a few short weeks until the suns did no more than coast along the mountain tops before sinking the valley into wintry gloom. For now, though, there were suns, and Glitch slipped his thumb back into the pick and stroked a chord of pure yellow from the strings. There. That was nice. He strummed it again.

"Ohh...the suns are done eclipsin'...the Witch has...cashed her chips in." He grinned and moved his hands over the zither, fetching back a harmony in red and chestnut-brown. "The worlds can start again." Move. Strum. Move. Strum. "Things have worked out for DG..." Rising notes of amber. "...now they'd be completely peachy, if I only had a-"

"I can come back later if you're busy?"

Glitch turned in his chair, his palm hushing the strings. "Cain!" He started to rise, then thought better of it, the room executing a dignified pirouette around him. "Ohh, the things are moving."

The Tin Man crossed the room quickly, and Glitch wondered how he could be so silent on those big flat feet. "Stay there. You're meant to be resting, remember?" He laced his fingers demurely in his lap, feeling strong hands settle on his shoulders. I guess I'm staying here, then. He tilted his head back, squinting upwards.

"Mm - d'you want a drink? There's... I'm not sure. Something in a jug - I haven't looked."

"I'm fine. And it's apple juice. Want me to pour you a glass?" Glitch shook his head, shut his eyes, waited for pain, then sighed blissfully. The warmth on his shoulders departed, and the unoccupied chair creaked a welcome. "Were you singing?"

He opened one eye, cautiously."Yes...unless you thought it was terrible, in which case it was...ducks." There were ducks down on the lake, or possibly they were swans. Or chickens. He'd always been fascinated by the mechanics of birds' wings, the porous bones, the clever little hooks and barbs of their feathers. The fact that they all wore different clothes was an added detail he hadn't really had time for, yet.

"I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it wasn't ducks. Anyway, it didn't sound terrible." Cain nodded towards the zither. "And you really know how to play that thing. Colour me impressed."

Glitch couldn't see 'impressed'. He suspected it was one of those colours. 'Approval' was a long, tapering shape, something like a blunted arrowhead, but it didn't have much of a colour. 'Surprised' was more a thing of light, pale and grey-silver. So 'surprised approval', in an informal context (as opposed to 'approbation', which was more of a lavender colour), was


He blinked. "Hello?" Cain was leaning towards him, and Glitch riffled back through their conversation, looking for clues. Concentrate, knucklehead. "Ohh...I was glitching?"

"Don't worry about it. You're doing well, that's the important thing." And, simply by saying so, the Tin Man made it fact, unassailable and impervious to doubt.

I'm doing well. Some of that was down to Dossley - he frowned. That wasn't quite right, but it was the closest his mind would allow. The medico, anyway. He ambled in once a day, always when Cain was there to keep the past where it was supposed to be, and chatted about this and that while Glitch distracted himself by counting buttons, or guessing at the purpose of the bifurcated rubber tube that dangled around his neck. But it was Cain who stayed, listening patiently to the interesting things about Feigenbaum fractals, and the moth cocoon he'd found in his uniform pocket, and every day walked him down the Long Gallery and back, every day a little further.

Yesterday had been the best so far. They'd made it all the way to the portrait of Prince Lupercus, with his mismatched eyes, and Cain had surprised him by offering an analysis of the man - just based on his expression - so dry and quietly witty that Glitch had had to beg him to stop before he giggled his way into a headache. Cain was funny. Who would have thought? So when he realised his visitor was dressed to go outside, it was hard to keep disappointment from his face.

"Are you going for a ride? I don't blame you," he added quickly. Cain had been so generous with his time - the last thing he wanted was to sound ungrateful. "I-it's a beautiful day. Just the kind of weather for -"

Once upon a time, Cain would have cut off his babbling with a sharp word, or a sharper jab of his elbow, leaving Glitch feeling small and useless. Just getting in the way, as usual. Of course, that was just how Tin Men were: mean and suspicious, dark thunderclouds, all ready to lash you with stinging hail, or drench you in chilly rain, or - if you were really unlucky - singe your heels with a lightning bolt. Cain's scorn was icy, and Glitch had already decided that the best that he could hope for was avoid anything harsher than a cuff to the head for letting his mouth run on ahead of his thoughts.

Then, in the half-light of Demilo's truck:

"Hey, Glitch?"


"I owe you one."

And, just for a moment, the suns came out.

And the sunslight was so good, after the cold, and it sank into the very marrow of your bones, and it healed all those little hurts like soothing magic. And you started to look for ways to summon back the suns yellow to call 'em, and songs to keep 'em here, because in those warm moments, you felt as if you mattered.

A part of him hated himself for this sudden need, perhaps because that same part of him knew it wasn't sudden at all. If you starved a man for long enough, what would he do to earn a few scraps of food? Pride was all very well, but you couldn't eat it. For that matter, you could eat grass, and acorns and horse-feed if you were starving, but there wasn't an orchard in the whole OZ where the boughs hung heavy with kind words and respect. Those few words from Cain were as sweet as any apple Glitch had tasted, made all the sweeter by what he'd been through to win them.

"Slow down a minute, will you?" Cain looked amused. "I'm not going for a ride. I came to see if you're up to heading out of doors for a little while."

Outside! Glitch glanced towards the window, eagerly. "That'd be wonderful. I don't remember the last time I went out...seems like forever." His fingers brushed the zither absently, tugging a soft chord from the strings, and he looked down, momentarily surprised to see it there. "Sorry. I was just getting to know some of my old stuff again. Azkadelia found this when they were putting the palace back in order, and she says it was mine." He glanced away from his hands to lull them into a false sense of security, then played a brief ripple of notes before they could plead forgetfulness. "I guess she was right," he concluded, happily.

"Well, if you want to stay here and practise for a while, we can always walk down the gallery and back later on, to keep the doc happy." Cain hesitated, as if he'd said something he shouldn't have, but Glitch didn't give him long to brood over it.

"Outside, please! I can practise later. The suns won't wait for us..." he set the instrument aside and rose carefully, using the back of the chair for balance "...and right now I'm getting overtaken by passing herds of tortoises. There's a stick somewhere..." Had he left it by the bed?

"There's no rush." The Tin Man pushed his own chair back and started searching for the elusive walking stick. "I don't think the suns are gonna go anywhere just yet."

Glitch grinned. "I'm so used to leaning on a Cain it's gonna be hard to do without." There it was - it had slithered down near the end of the bed. He made his way cautiously from the chair to the bed and retrieved the stick and, as he straightened up, Cain reached out to him. He slipped his hand through the crook of the other man's arm, feeling the curve of muscle beneath his palm, warm through the fabric of his shirt, feeling here and now and safe. Like resting your hand on a stone wall, suns-warmed and weathered, a feeling of reassurance, stability.

Now just you stop that. You've still got a couple of marbles to click together - don't you remember how it was before?

It wasn't just that he liked to touch things. He navigated his haphazard way through life with every sense continually bombarded, every sensation a note in a complex chord. It was hard to imagine how other people coped with colourless music, shapeless words, where numbers were no more than concepts instead of warm and living things with their own places in the universe. Touching was important, and Glitch could no more hold back from touching the world around him than he could go about with his eyes shut. The problem had begun when he'd started touching Cain.

People didn't touch zipperheads unless they had to. When you said goodbye to your brain, you soon forgot the feeling of a hug or a handshake and, if you were lucky, the white-coats scooped out your libido along with your marbles. Glitch had drifted along, blown from farmstead to hedgerow, haystack to hollow tree, and he carried a keepsake with him everywhere he went: the memory of a warm, slender hand on his forearm, the last gentle touch he could remember. Nothing had ever caused it to dim, no kick or blow had ever weakened its hold on him. Then he'd found himself standing on the edge of a cliff, a swarm of Papay snarling close behind and Raw's fuzzy form disappearing into the turbulent river-spray below. And Cain had grabbed him, and they'd leaped into the abyss together. It wasn't gentle. It wasn't loving. But something went 'click' inside Glitch, and while his memory continued to slip and stutter, he never lost the recollection of Cain's hand, hot against his shoulder and the understanding that, for once, he wasn't going to be thrown away.

And you should have been satisfied with that, shouldn't you? But whatever relay had flicked over in the depths of his tattered grey matter when they jumped had burned out set to Cain = comfort, and he found himself trying to stay close to the Tin Man, even as he was infuriated by his attitude. Close. Closer. Closest. Just to touch his sleeve when everyone was distracted. Most folks would make do with a lucky rabbit's foot. Trust you to need a whole Tin Man to cosy up to. It had taken a freezing night in Demilo's wagon, his mind focused on keeping Cain alive, to get it out of his system. So don't you start following that road again, dummy, because he's a good guy, and he doesn't deserve you and your weird, obsessive little tics.

Cain steered them out of the Long Gallery and towards the back staircase. "I asked the kitchens to put up some lunch for us. We'll get it on the way down."

The suggestion of food was enough to momentarily derail Glitch's introspection. By the time we make it down there, we could pick up tomorrow's breakfast, too. He peered into the stairwell and drew back, suppressing a shudder. "Just three flights. No problem."

"Hmm." Cain looked doubtful. "Okay. Listen to me, Glitch, and don't try to pretend there's nothing wrong. You've been through a lot these past few weeks, and you've good reason to be tired. It's okay. We can go back, now."

Glitch stared at him, crestfallen. "But I want to go outside. It's sunny, Cain, and there'll be frost dragonflies out on the lake, and mercuries, and skimmers." Anything to be away from his room for a while. He was so close to the sunslight he could almost taste it, and now it was slipping away. "I can hold onto the banister and go slow...please?"

The thought of fresh air and the glittering lake carried him all the way down the first flight of stairs. The thought of having to tell Cain that he'd run out of energy and couldn't go on took him nearly half-way down the second. Then he had to stop, clinging to the banister with his eyes tightly shut. Cain's arm encircled his waist just as his knees turned to marshmallow, and together they sank down onto a step.

"It was too far. I shouldn't have suggested it." The Tin Man sounded chagrined, and Glitch put his hands over his face.

"Nonono, please don't! I - I just need a minute. Only a minute, and then I'll be okay." He was starting to sound a little desperate, even to to his own ears, and he forced himself to take a breath and calm down. "I'll be fine. My legs are just catching up with the rest of me." They weren't catching up very fast, though. "Give me a minute and I'll slide down the banisters, if it'll show you I'm fit to go out."

Cain snorted. "Try it, and if the doc doesn't have my hide for it, DG will." He patted Glitch on the shoulder and stood up, moving down a few steps so that they were eye-to-eye. Glitch leaned closer. If he looked deep enough into Cain's eyes, perhaps he'd see clockwork - tiny, delicate, miraculous mechanisms that whirred and ticked behind glass the colour of a summer sky. The colour of falling. The colour I lost. Tick-tock, Tin Man. I see you. "I could try and carry you, but they're steep steps and if I miss my footing, we're both gonna end up in bandages." Glitch opened his mouth, marshalling his arguments, but Cain hadn't finished. "So how about this? You sit on the banister and lean against the wall, with an arm across my shoulders, and I'll walk us down slowly. That way I can hang onto the handrail too, you can't get your feet tangled, and you don't have to try and stand."

That sounded...very, very silly. But fun. Admit it - you want to give it a try. Glitch twisted awkwardly to look back up the staircase, still mercifully quiet. "I won't tell DG if you don't. Just don't let me fall - I've got limbs I'm kinda fond of." He craned his neck as Cain came back, and stifled a squeak as he was hoisted bodily into the air and set down on the broad wooden rail. Everything looked a long way down. He grabbed Cain's shoulders to steady himself. "Hey Cain! I can see the top of your head!" It wasn't, perhaps, a tremendously important discovery, but it took his mind off his sudden elevation. Today wasn't a day for worrying. Today the suns were gently embracing the land, and the light would be jumping from the water in golden darts, and he wasn't going to miss a moment of it.

"Make the most of it, Munchkin." Glitch couldn't see his face, but there was a grin in Cain's voice. "...and if you spot any thinning patches up there, I don't wanna know, okay?" Step by step, they began to descend. "This isn't so bad, is it?"

"It's the only way to travel...I'm gonna recommend you to all my friends." Keeping one hand firmly clamped on Cain's shoulder, Glitch reached out and ran his fingers through the cropped blonde hair, enjoying the texture of it, the way it sprang back as he displaced it. "You don't have to worry; no blight in your crop-o’-corn..." Then something sank in. "Did you just call me a Munchkin?"

Cain didn't answer right away - he seemed distracted, probably concentrating on a tricky step. Then his shoulder lifted in a shrug. "Well, you're shorter than me." There was that grin again, Glitch observed. Did it show itself more often when it thought it couldn't be seen? Sneaky.

"Cain, everyone's shorter than you." He continued to fiddle with the other man's hair for a moment longer, then pulled his hand back quickly. There you go again. He's gonna notice if you keep petting him like a stray coconut. "Anyway...I'm only a little bit Munchkin on my mother's side." He nodded decisively.

"Really?" They came to a halt, so that two maidservants could scurry past them like blackbirds darting through damp grass. There was soft giggling as they disappeared up the stairs. "I guess the feathers were optional, were they?"

Glitch resisted a sudden urge to swat him, and shut his eyes, trying to push aside the distracting recollection of angry Munchkins and the sickening swing of a wooden cage as it was hauled up into the trees. "That's a tribal thing. My Great-grandma Nehmy wore so many, a strong breeze would have carried her away. She'd've been..." he leaned down and tapped Cain lightly on the hip. "That high on you. Compared to her, I'm tall."

There were more voices as they came down the final flight of stairs, and more curious eyes to greet them. It was interesting, though - wherever Cain turned, people all seemed to become engrossed in what they were doing. It was, Glitch decided, a special power, because it didn't seem to work at all when he looked. Perhaps it was something in the eyes. Plain old brown-cow eyes like his just didn't give off that strange influence. And, possibly, waving regally at the onlookers wasn't helping.

He sighed as the stairs came to an end and Cain lifted him, with no apparent effort, and settled him down on a bench to wait while the promised lunch was brought out in a covered basket.

"I can walk the rest of the way." He waved a hand towards the doorway at the end of the hall. "That goes through the kitchen garden and out to the lake." Beaming at the sheer delight of recollection, he made to stand, and found himself being pressed gently back into his seat. Cain was doing his best 'I'm in charge' face.

"Oh no. You look ready to keel over as it is. No, we're doing this my way, sunshine." He put the basket down beside Glitch, then got down on one knee.

"If I'd known you were gonna propose, I'd have dressed up." Glitch batted his eyelashes, earning a strange look from the Tin Man. Oh, someone's still got masculinity issues. "C'mon, then. What does the knight in charming iron want me to do?"

Cain patted his own shoulder. "Get on and hush up - think you can manage that?" He was smiling, though, so Glitch decided he'd got away with it. He put a hand on Cain's shoulder and rose with some care, waiting to see if his legs would support him. So far, so good.

"Okay... you have to tell me if I hang on too tight, though." He curled his arms around Cain's neck, right hand against his collarbone, left arm crossing so he could grip his forearm, creating a careful yoke. He had a good view of the back of Cain's left ear, so he leaned forward and murmured "Hello..." into it, because that was what ears were for. Oddly, instead of responding, Cain seemed to freeze up. Glitch pondered this for a moment, then bounced gently, kicking his heels. "Gee-up, horsey..."

This was enough to stir Cain from his reverie. He looped the basket handle over his arm and hooked his hands behind Glitch's knees with sudden purpose. "Oh you are asking for a dip in the lake." And then they were moving - almost racing - towards the door, and there was laughter, and Glitch had only a moment to wonder if it was his or Cain's before they emerged into

...the sky was...

The sky was a copper bowl, full of impossible brightness. It was a hole, and the universe poured away into it with little snaps and fizzles, and the stars sang plaintively into the nothing, childish rhymes and paeans to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The sky was the uncolour, the puzzle piece you left alone, because what was beneath it was a wound.

I want it gone. Burn it out of him.

"Hey, are you okay?"

Green. The sky is green. Cain's eyes are green. The lake is green. It's all just a special shade of green.

"Glitch? C'mon Glitch - you've got to hold on or I'm gonna lose you."

He opened his eyes, then shut them tightly against the borderless everywhere that stretched away around and ahead of them. "Isn't everything here green?," he mumbled and buried his face in the warm linen of the Tin Man's shirt, counting silently, stacking prime cubes into inverted pyramids until he could filter out some of the brightness. Little by little, it grew easier to open his eyes and, by the time they were within shouting distance of the lake, he was able to look around without discomfort. "I'm okay. I am, really. Everything's brighter out here. And more..." He twitched his fingers in a vague gesture. "...I don't know. Just more."

They'd stopped on the edge of a path that led down to the waterside. Here, for their convenience, was a small stand of trees or, more accurately, one tree and a number of shrubs with ideas above their station. Cain stooped so that he could let the basket drop. "Trust me, I know the feeling. When I came out of the suit, I thought my head would explode. Do you think you can stand, if I let go of your legs?"

"Won't know till I try," Glitch gave the ground a speculative look. "'least it's a softer landing here, if I can't..." Imagine... Shut away from the suns for years, not just days, and he was dressed, shaved, and on the road in barely more than an hour. You can't even look at the sky without falling apart. You oughtta thank your lucky stars he's so patient. Cain let him go. After a minute, Glitch cleared his throat gently. "You might have to hunker down a little. My feet aren't touching the ground..." He sighed as the world rose up slowly to place itself under the soles of his feet, and he unwound his arms from Cain's neck, testing his balance. "That's better. 'Cause you'd have been wearing me as a cape, otherwise."

"I've had heavier raincoats." No sooner had he let go, Cain was at his side, offering his arm. "You've been living on sleep and applesauce for weeks. Give me some string and a strong breeze and I could fly you back to the palace like a kite." He tilted his head at the basket. "The sooner we sit down and get some of that inside you, the better."

Glitch took the proffered arm, pleased at the way they fitted so neatly together. He remembered, or thought he remembered, a puzzle in the School of Science - a heap of wooden blocks in odd, curving formations. It had taken him hours to study each individual piece long enough that he could keep them firmly in his mind's eye while he linked them together, turning them this way and that in his head, and then he'd sat on the floor and reached for one piece after another, and made...made what? The memory winked out like a spent match, and he contented himself with the thought that it had been something beautiful, and right. Smiling, he laid his other hand on Cain's forearm.

You're touching him again. Didn't we agree that was a bad idea?

Shut up. This doesn't count, okay?

The Tin Man navigated them over to the tree, steering Glitch around anything that might pose an obstacle: roots, rocks and malevolent blades of grass. Grinning at the over-solicitous treatment, Glitch settled back against the trunk and sank down in an angular heap onto a soft mat of pine needles. "One of these days, you're gonna let me lead..."

"Oh, I'm pretty sure you can take the lead when it suits you." Cain's approach to a sitting position was significantly more controlled. "As I recall, you once put four Longcoats down without any help from me."

Ohhh that... Glitch stirred the pine needles with his fingertips, modestly. "I get carried away sometimes. It's lucky you weren't standing closer, or you might have got a foot in your face..." Privately, he thought Cain would have been fine. When you were out on the floor, you always got a sense of other dancers moving around you. You listened to the rhythm - a swish of displaced air filling the path of a swinging fist; the scrape of a boot on stone; a grunt of effort; a grunt of pain. When the beat said 'sway', you swayed. When it said 'spin', you spun. And when it said 'introduce the heel of your shoe to the angry man's ear', introductions were made.

"I knew there was a reason I didn't step in. You're pretty dangerous."

Glitch had been called a lot of things in his life. 'Dangerous' wasn't one of them. He regarded Cain, amused. "Sure. Left alone for five minutes, I could fall over no end of fragile things." A shimmer out on the lake - the green lake - distracted him. Though the breeze was nothing more than an occasional sigh of warm air, the water had begun to stir and boil some twenty yards from the shore. In the light of the suns, spray and bright silver flashes created a cloud of interweaving rainbows. He pointed, exuberant, his weariness momentarily forgotten. "Look at that!"

Cain grinned. "Those are your mercuries?"

"Yes!" He reached sideways, grabbing Cain's hand as though physical contact could somehow communicate his excitement. "They're hunting..."

Out on the lake, the shoal leaped as though maddened, small arcs of metallic brightness hurling themselves from the water over and over. Some snatched the insects that bobbed erratically above the lake out of the air mid-flight. Others fell back, darting down to jacknife back and surge up again, bringing their prey down in the fine mist created by their joint efforts. Glitch was engrossed, lost in the moment, and in his brain, tiny arcs of electricity leaped in sympathy.

Everything touches everything. Here's the water, clinging to the earth like a lover, green-gloved in the sky. Here are mercuries that will never fly higher than they do today, kissed by the suns-light as they tumble, in their element, into their element. Distance means nothing. Difference means nothing. These are the atoms of a hand that once were the atoms of a tree, a bird, a star, a woman, touching the atoms of a hand that were once smoke, a river, a field of wheat. And this is the way of things.

"Hey. You okay?" Concern knitted Cain's brow, and Glitch blinked at him. He wasn't surprised to feel tears running down his face.

"Don't mind me. They fix one leak, and I go and spring another one." He wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand and laughed. "Hard to believe I used to be somebody, isn't it?"

"Now that's not -"

Glitch didn't let him finish. "Don't worry, I'm not trying to make this a pity-picnic. I remember a time when I used to come here to think about official advisorly things, just before suns-up, when the night birds were losing their voices and the mist was slinking over the water. I always had my best ideas first thing in the morning." He gnawed on his lip, considering. "Or... last thing at night. One or the other. Out on the lake it was quiet, and still, and..." Another pause, as he rummaged through the incomplete library of his memories. "I think I probably got distracted a lot."

Cain smiled. "Some things don't change."

The thick layer of needles beneath the tree was springy and comfortable, and the tree mercifully free from sharp little knots and broken prongs of old branches to prod and annoy. Glitch leaned his head back carefully against the bark, and sighed. "And some things do. I ought to talk to the Queen about my replacement." He felt Cain's eyes on him, heard him take a breath to speak, and smiled. "It's okay. I've thought about this...I think I was gonna talk to Her before I got sick. The Sunseeder's finished. She doesn't need me any more."

He'd expected the admission to be a painful one, but instead he felt lighter. That's because it's the right thing. It's no good wishing for things to go back to the way they were. If they could only put my brain back together I'd be useful again, but there's no sense wishing for miracles.

"But you'd stay with the Royal family, wouldn't you?" The Tin Man had started to unpack the basket, setting out parcels of sandwiches and covered dishes, but now he sat back on his heels and Glitch found himself subjected to one of those direct looks that probably had criminals spilling everything from their worst crimes to their shoe size.

It's a special power he thought again, and he wondered what Cain was learning from his candid study. Probably looking to see if he can see daylight coming in through my ears. He tracked a small black beetle's laborious progress as the sunslight painted its back with green and purple uncertainties. The orphaned phrase 'phase shift' drifted by, bobbing along in the wake of his thoughts, and he picked it up and examined it, wondering if it was good for anything.

"I'll stay if they want me," he said, quietly. The beetle was making slowly for his leg. Glitch watched the small creature a moment longer, then scooped it up on a handful of needles and set it down a little way from the tree. "I can't be an advisor like this. We'd be at war with everyone before the week was out. But maybe I can have a room somewhere, where I can just stay out from under everyone's feet." The thought worried him. After the eclipse - and before he'd begun his Viewer-assisted marathon reshaping the Sunseeder - there had been several uncomfortable months during which he had...

I got in the way. And everyone was really nice about it.

"When I was a kid, we used to have a clock in the sunsroom." He shut his eyes for a moment, trying to picture it. "It belonged to my pop, and his pop, and his grand-daddy before him, and there was a dial for the moons, and another for the days, and I used to watch them turn for an age, sometimes, trying to feel the universe moving around me." And had he? He couldn't remember, now. "Well, one day it broke - just gave up the ghost, and no amount of fooling around with the workings would get it going again. Pop couldn't fix it, but he couldn't throw it away, either, because..."

"Because your grandad left it to him?"

He nodded.

"I'm surprised he didn't ask you to take a look at it for him."

"I can't have been more than four years old. I just remember him putting it away in a cupboard one day, and me asking him why he didn't want to look at it any more. And he said 'I don't like to see broken things' and that was the last I saw of it."

Cain peered under the cloth covering a bowl, then pushed it towards him. "Chopped up carrots and some kind of weird gunk. That one's for you. I guess your pop never heard the saying 'a broken clock is still right twice a day'."

Glitch helped himself to a carrot stick, watching Cain lay out three chicken drumsticks, and take a bite out of a fourth. Four legs? I bet they're tricky to catch. "True," he conceded. "But I wouldn't set my watch by it."

Cain subjected him to another of those too-long read-your-thoughts stares. "A rainbow isn't useful, but people like looking at them."

"But a rainbow was never supposed to be useful. It just is." Glitch jabbed the air with the carrot to emphasise his point. "If it was meant to clear the air after a storm, and somehow it stopped working, I guess you wouldn't want to see it shining up there while you sweltered away in the fug. It'd be like a slap in the face seeing it hanging around being useless." He rolled his eyes towards the zipper. "I think the Sorceress understood that. Change the subject, before I turn the food sour moping. What are you gonna do now DG doesn't need us chasing around half the realms?"

Sleep had played a big part in his recovery. Blissfully free from pain, Glitch had coasted from hour to hour on the very surface of sleep, and bubbles of conversation had drifted up around him. Sometimes they passed him by. On other occasions, they burst nearby, leaving a tantalising scatter of words.

"...can get you some more clothes. You've been living out of that bag for weeks."

"I expected to buy what I needed in Central City. I only planned to stay for..."

Whether it had been for a week, or a night, there was no doubt in Glitch's mind that the Tin Man's presence was only supposed to have been fleeting. Instead, he'd remained, indefatigable and uncomplaining, for more than a month. Sooner or later, he'd move on. The thought of Cain disappearing back into the wilderness struck Glitch with a pang of peculiar emotion, like the remembrance of grief.

"I haven't exactly figured that out, yet. DG was angling for me to go for a palace security job, but I think I've pretty much talked myself out of that one. The queen and I have had what you might call a difference of opinion." Cain bit into the chicken leg with a vehemence that made Glitch wince and wonder who had come off worst. "In any case, I wasn't relying on finding work here. I just wanted to see you-" he paused to clear his throat, "-all. I just wanted to see you all, and then I guess I'd be going on to the city."

Glitch had found a flask of juice, and poured some out for Cain, who accepted it gratefully, his cheeks slightly flushed. Must've got something caught. That's chickens for you. Dangerous. "You're going back to the Tin Men?"

Cain shook his head. "It's a young man's game, walking the streets in all weather. And I've got a hankering to do something where I'm in charge of my own time. I've lost too many years to the war to spend another minute dancing to someone else's tune."

You've been dancing attendance on me for weeks. And I can't remember if I even said 'thank you'. Glitch darted a guilty look towards the palace path. "You couldn't farm horses there. Everywhere's paved over - you'd never be able to dig the little holes for the seeds." He stifled a yawn, basking in the warmth of the sun.

"I had an idea of going into business for myself. The city has plenty of Tin Men, but they can't always give enough time to a case. The bad guys aren't too considerate about waiting for one crime to be solved before going out and committing another one." Cain shrugged. "Sometimes it's not even clear if there's a crime in the first place. I thought I might set up as a detective for hire."

A private detective? "Is that allowed? Wouldn't you be stepping on some tiny tin toes?" There was a bag of apples amongst the bounty, and now Glitch held a particularly fine specimen up to the light, regarding it with blissful anticipation. It was a moment before he realised Cain hadn't answered. Then the Tin Man, who wasn't a Tin Man any more, seemed to shake himself, and cleared his throat again.

"It's not against the law, so long as I can get the City Constabulary to approve my license. And there's more than enough crime to go around."

And probably plenty of old Tin Men who owe you a favour, Glitch thought, with what was probably a disproportionate amount of glee. He'd never had a very high opinion of the police, his patchwork memory holding together well enough to supply him with numerous instances of his own vagrant dealings with them. Cain was one of the good ones, and Glitch had no doubt that he'd got less competent colleagues out of hot water enough times to rack up a whole tin pail full of gratitude. He bit into the apple with deep satisfaction.

The formation of great things is reliant on the position of tiny things. Here is an apple seed, born of the chance meeting of bee and blossom, shaken loose to catch in the throat of a man who was once a boy, sitting in the branches of an apple tree, still able to look up into the cloudless sky and understand the concept of blue...

"Oh-hh, hey! Glitch?"

There were arms around him, and he was coughing. Or, he was coughing, and there were arms around him. Cause and effect. At last he caught his breath, and slumped slightly, letting Cain support him while he rearranged the world around him so that gravity meant down, and the mountains got bored of their carousel ride and got back to looking remote and majestic once more.

"Nrgh." He cautiously opened one eye, then the other, a portion of Cain's shirt sleeve taking up most of his view. "You can tell the doctor I got my exercise for the day." Apparently choking was catching today. "I blame the chickens. It's a conspiracy. Don't let the squirrels eat my apple..."

"Uh-huh. I think you're getting tired. Just stay quiet for a moment."

Cain shifted slightly and Glitch relaxed, resting his head against warm linen. The other man's heart spoke into his ear, a solid, rapid booming, too fast. Ohh... scared you. I'm sorry.

"I can hear..." He was tired, but that was all right. It didn't seem to have stopped his mouth from working. "Like an engine. Cain engine...you need fuel, Cain. Eat your chicken. Gonna stay here a while."

"That's okay. I'm not going anywhere." And then, indistinctly, a sigh that Glitch felt rise and fall beneath his cheek like a slow wave. It sent a chill through him that tugged him back towards reality.

"Don’t wanna spoil your Plan," he mumbled fretfully.

"You’re not spoiling anything. As long as you need me, I’m not leaving." Cain's answer was immediate and absolute, and Glitch felt the reassuring voice turn him round and usher him back towards sleep. Still, he felt compelled to try one more time.

"...but...but...what if I always need you?”

If Cain replied, it was too far down in the waking world to be heard. But the atoms of a pair of lips rested for a moment against the atoms of a drowsing cheek.

And that was the way of things.


Chapter 16 ~~~~~~~~ Back to Tin Man ~~~~~~~~                 



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