"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 14"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG-13

The Color Red

       Morning came and awakened Rinnah by stabbing fingers of brilliant light into her eyeballs even through the veil of closed lids. She uttered a small groan. There were some mornings the process of waking up was, for her, a painful progression. This morning was no different. Slowly rising to consciousness a few foggy layers at a time she did her best to open one eyelid but found it just too difficult; it felt glued shut to her bottom lid. The thought occurred to her ‘why bother?’ and therefore was ready to succumb to the siren song arising from the depths of slumber. Starting to drift down again to a comfortable level of dreaming she was rudely startled awake by a jolt of realization. There was a weight around her waist and it felt suspiciously like an arm. Whose arm? Eyes snapping open wide with alarm, Rinnah slowly and as sneakily as possible, reached up and over for the nightstand lamp. She was planning on using it as a weapon to smash the intruder over the head with when she heard a sleep-roughened voice speak into her ear.

        “It’s me you idiot!”

        Her hand halted midway before drawing back in as awareness washed over her. She gave a feeble fake laugh. “Heh, heh, of course it’s you! I knew it was you!”

        “Yeah, I got that impression.” She didn’t have to see his face to know there was a smirk on it, she could hear it in the wry expression of his voice.

        The sunlight streaming in the windows was making her squint and blink. The bedcovers rustled and the springs creaked as she felt him slip out of bed. She waited until she heard a door shut and then slapped a hand over scrunched eyes berating herself. Smooth, Rinnah, real smooth. She blew out a puff of air pretty sure it was a safe bet that a blush was spreading across her face making her skin feel hotter than a sun scorched rock.

        While he was occupied in the bathroom doing boy stuff concerning which she had no curiosity about whatsoever, she flipped the covers back and reached for her day clothes and froze with an involuntary hiss slipping out her lips. Pain. Still in pain. Make no sudden moves there, star queen. With deft and easy movements, she reached and caught up her clothes and headed for the other bathroom. A good hot soak was exactly what she needed right now.

        Returning to the kitchen area Rinnah decided she would surprise everyone with her culinary efforts. Sure she wasn’t that great a cook but how hard could it be? Nobody could screw up eggs, toast and bacon, right? Where was the frying pan kept? One needed a frying pan, she was quite sure about that as she watched eggs being cooked before and a frying pan was always involved. And a flippy thing to turn over the eggs. Milly used one all the time, now what drawer was it kept in? Upon finding the flippy thing, she laid it on the counter and then found the frying pan next and put it up by the spatula, finally remembering what she heard Milly refer to it as.

        Opening the door to the fridge she bent in scanning the contents searching for the ingredients needed. She was in luck; she found eggs, bread, and bacon right away and began pulling them out to place on the counter next to her.

        Just then she heard a noise, straightened and turned to find Vash a few feet away from her. He was showered, dressed and had his hair up in spikes ready for the new day. She started to smile and make a remark... and froze all movement to stare. Then she blinked uncertain of what she was seeing. His eyes... were red. Red, the color of red, as in, ... her mind went blank.... red.

        “Ehhh..” Came out of her mouth but he didn’t seem to notice her stunned state of being or if he did, he was ignoring it.

        He came closer and put his hands on her shoulders and whispered even though they were alone, “I know last night wasn’t fun for you but liked I said, I’ll make it up to you, promise.”

        “Eh?” One corner of her mouth quirked up with her effort to form an intelligible reply. Rinnah lifted a finger to point but he rested hands on either side of her waist and slowly began pulling her in close.

        “Eh.” The hybrid tried again. He really needed to know about this... red business. She could not move her eyes away from his for anything short of the universe coming to a screeching halt, and maybe not even then. Lifting a hand, he cupped her cheek and brought his mouth down on hers even as she tried again, “Ehhh...” His mouth covered hers in a possessive hold and he pulled her tight against him.

        Rinnah was trying to focus on his eyes and hers crossed in the middle until he closed his. He was insistently deepening the kiss when she heard that word again, “Mine.” Leaving her to wonder. Then remembered red. Did she actually see red or was it just a trick of the morning light reflecting off his eyes? Reflecting off what, star dim, a frying pan, a dishrag, or one of these real shiny eggs? Maybe I’m just seeing things, but this is way too important to leave until a later time... Did I really see red? Since it worked last night, she tried using the technique again and began patting him on the shoulder to get his attention only this time a little more urgently and with more force. She felt him stiffen with irritation as he pulled back with a growl deep in his throat, “Woman you are...” and stopped as he opened his eyes to find hers open wide and staring up at him with an astounded and worried expression. Also she had a finger pointing up into his face.

        “What now!” He demanded.

        “Red. Really. Really. Red.”

        “What are you babbling about?”

        “Your eyes.” She said, waving a pointing finger back and forth between his two eyes.

        “What about them?” He was totally mystified now.

        “They’re red.”

        “Red? That’s not the funniest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

        “I am so totally serious here. Red I’m telling you! C’mon!”

        Starting a long-legged stride toward the bathroom she stopped with a curse while squeezing eyes shut and then tried to breathe evenly. She really had to stop doing that! Opening her eyes she took much smaller steps before she realized he wasn’t following her. Throwing a glance over her shoulder she saw him looking at her with suspicion wondering what she was up to now. With an exasperated sigh she reached back and grabbed his arm and tugged him until he was following her even if reluctantly while still stabbing a mistrustful frown at her.

        “Oh save it for someone who impresses easy! Come on, you have to see this!” She kept a constant pull on his arm as they went through the bedroom towards the bathroom.

        When they were finally in front of the bathroom mirror she shoved him forward and stood behind him. Peeking over his shoulder she said, “Look, see? Red.” However he was already seeing. He just couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He missed this in the mirror earlier, but then, as he ran a hand through his spikes, he didn’t bother to look when he was doing his hair. After a century of the same unchanging hairstyle, it was quite easy to do without the use of a mirror. An outlaw with a bounty on his head doesn’t always have the luxury of large mirror and he had learned over the years how to do without one.

        Vash stared and then leaned in closer inspecting the irises of his eyes. The pupil was the normal black but the irises were a deep shade of crimson, the color of newly spilled blood kind of red. A wash of alarm and uncertainty went through him and his hands felt cold as he leaned them on the counter so he could get closer to the mirror. Up close the eyes were just as red as they were farther away.

        What was going on here? When had this happened? What was causing it? Why had it happened? He blinked and looked again. Still red. He blinked harder and held his eyes closed for a couple of seconds, then lifted his hands to rub his eyes with the heels of his palms and opened them hoping to see his normal aqua colored eyes staring back at him. No such luck, they were still red.

        Whispering in a voice filled with uncertainty, “They were the right color last night.” He let his head drop and hunched his shoulders as thoughts whirled through his head. Was this a part of the normal changes his body would go through and if so why didn’t Knives say anything about it before? Did Knives even know about this or was this something he knew but wasn‘t planning on sharing with his brother? His fist clenched. That would be like Knives, withholding information if he thought it would give him the edge.

        “It’s like you’re turning into a giant albino rabbit.”

        Lifting his head, the red of his eyes found hers in the mirror and glaring at her said, “Not helping.”

        Instantly contrite she softly replied, “Sorry.”

        Then laying a gentle hand on his shoulder in sympathy she choked out in a strained voice and with misery filling her eyes, “did I do this to you? Did I cause this?”

        Catching her eyes reflected in the mirror with his he gave a mirthless half-smile and answered, “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you did, you’re hell on wings after all.”

        He didn’t get the reaction he expected which was anger and a smart comeback. Instead her eyes filled and she began to blink rapidly.

        “Okay then, why is this happening? Are you sure it hasn‘t happened before?”

        He expelled a snort of air. “I think I would remember red eyes if it had happened before, don’t you think?”

        “Er, yes, sorry, stupid question.”

        He lowered his head between his shoulders, using his arms to brace against the counter. “I wonder if this has ever happened to Knives, but if it has, would he even tell me about it?.”

        “Considering your brother, anything is possible. Er, do you feel any different?”

        “No.” He lifted his newly acquired eyes, the color of a bleeding wound, and searched the mirror. He found her concerned gaze fastened on the side of his face. He could see the worry and fear there and a deep emotion underneath both of those which he couldn’t identify.

        With a tilt of an eyebrow he said, “I’m fine.”

        “Hey, that’s my line! You have to pay me a copyright fee to use it.”

        “Check’s in the mail.”

        “Probably forged. Okay, now turn around and let me get a good look.”

        He turned to face her and bent down close to her face watching as her eyes bounced worriedly back and forth from one eye to the other.

        “Well, except for the change in color you don’t seem any different.”

        ‘I look pretty healthy for a giant albino rabbit?”

        “Yep, in the pink.” He made a face at her and straightened back up.

        Noticing her shifting from foot to foot in seeking a comfortable stance, he inquired, “and how are you feeling?”

        It was asked casually but when Rinnah looked up to reply she was caught, trapped in a raptor’s sharp talons and unable to move. What changed from a second ago when she was searching his eyes? Rinnah forgot to answer, those eyes the color of liquid rubies were strangely bizarre, alien, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand up straight. At the same time having these red orbs locked on her, and not in a mere casual sort of way, amplifying the stripping, piercing quality of them. Panic was causing the air to catch in her throat and she nearly choked.

        Taking a step back for the sake of self-preservation she tried to break the eye contact and discovered she couldn‘t. His gaze was zeroing in even tighter as he waited for her to answer. It was too potent and gaining in force especially the more he concentrated his attention on her. She backed up another step. Now he was frowning and the intensity of it was searing her soul as if twin coals from the furnace of hell were now sitting in his sockets as he eyed her. It was too much for her.

        Swallowing over a throat going dry, she started to take another step back to give herself even more space. The eyes by themselves were already screwing with her composure and self-assurance but Rinnah was further disconcerted to find Vash taking a step forward eating up what little distance she was endeavoring to place between them. Wrapping long fingers around her arm he bent down and asked in a voice that echoed the weight of his stare, “I asked you a question and I want an answer. How are you feeling?”

        Was he even aware of the effect of those eyes? If he would stop concentrating on her she knew she could regain her equilibrium but now she was the one like a rabbit, totally immobilized by that red stare that was not allowing her to move. Frozen, she couldn’t think, she couldn’t move. In that moment, Rinnah was reduced to the only action that the flaming crimson was allowing her to take and that was to stare back into them, totally helpless, absolutely and utterly at his mercy.

        “Eh?” She said, staring up into eyes to rival any demon‘s barred for all eternity from the gates of the celestial city. Finally her brain started up again and screamed at her to dip down within and use some power to break the spell. Gathering a thread with mental clutching hands, she hauled it up and held it between them. Rinnah had no idea what she was doing but it something happened because now he was frowning at her in puzzlement. At least the intensity was slowly dwindling she noted with relief.

        “What is wrong with you?” Now there was a hint of unease in his tone. She was acting strange, even for her.

        “Ugh... uh, nothing.” She finally managed to choke out and wrench her eyes away. This would bear some thinking on.

        “Good.“ He turned his attention away for which she was deeply thankful. Her pulse was beating a fast staccato and she willed it slower as she took even breaths.

        “Although I am beginning to wonder about your mental state.”

        “S’alright.” She forced through a dry windpipe. Yeah, right, she restrained from rolling her eyes, the one person in their group so well known for their mental stability was commenting on hers. What a laugh!

        Besides, she thought with a twinge of panic, I may have done this, but if so, the how is a mystery to me. Anxiety gripped her heart as she lifted a palm to her forehead in thought trying to remember anything that could be a clue and then lowered it to rub the length of her nose. My nerves can’t take much more of this. I feel like I am going to have a freaking nervous breakdown here.

        Vash eyed her skeptically then gestured for her to exit first but not because he was any sort of a gentleman. Instead, he wanted to watch her move and assess for himself what her condition was. As experience had shown, she wasn’t always forthcoming about the truth as it was but truth as she wanted it to be. She scooted around him in as much of a rush to get past him as she could possibly manage. He frowned. He would have to remember that this little development was just as much of a shock to the others as it was to him and they were the ones who would be eye to eye with it, so to speak. With a grim look he followed after her.

The Morning After for Everyone

        Vash stopped in the bedroom doorway when he saw Rinnah go back over to the kitchen counter. She was picking up right where she left off before he interrupted her earlier in the process of making a breakfast big enough for four people. He didn’t notice the first time when he walked in on her. With growing alarm he counted plates and saw the amount of food arranged on the counter waiting to be cooked. She was definitely expecting two more people than would be there. He winced. The longer it was taking to tell her about Milly and Wolfwood the more hurt and angry she was going to be. Vash frowned, this should be Milly’s job as the girlfriend and she was woefully falling down on the job in neglecting her friendship duties. Helplessly he surveyed the pile of food on the counter. It looked like he was going to have to say something after all and eat enough for four people to make up for the missing members of their group. He wasn’t looking forward to either undertaking. He didn’t have his normal appetite this morning, which, was another thing that was rather odd along with the changing color of his eyes.

        Rinnah began humming as she opened a package and pulled out the bacon. Then she stopped, trying to think, and mumbling, “What is cooked first, bacon or eggs? Does it even matter?” Rolling her eyes in thought, “Maybe I should cook the eggs first, no, then they would get cold. Let’s go with bacon first. Yeah, that sounds good.” Resuming her humming, she arranged the bacon in the pan. Then she retrieved the juice can and poured four glasses full. Picking up the spatula she took a step back to contemplate her next phase of attack. She was feeling pretty pleased with herself. Look at me puttering in the kitchen. I’m cooking! This is kind of fun; no wonder Milly likes doing it all the time.

        Vash cleared his throat, “Wolfwood and Milly,“ He started and she turned to him curious, looking at him with those big glimmering blue eyes. He really didn’t want to do this, damn them! “They aren’t…” A knock sounded on the door.

        Rinnah would have bounced over but managed to just make her steps look perky and flung the door open waving a spatula in greeting. “Where have you two been? Lucky for you that you didn’t miss breakfast. I’m cooking and I bet I can make it edible! Wonder of wonders!” She beamed at them as they stepped in.

        To Vash’s eye, they both wore a surprised expression but Rinnah didn’t seem to notice. Vash snapped his mouth shut. Unbelievable! Their timing was uncanny. He leaned a shoulder against the bedroom doorframe and crossed long, sinewy legs in a relaxed stance. The show was about to start and he had a front row seat... from across the room a safe distance away from any hurled objects.

        Wolfwood walked over to the table with his arm around Milly’s shoulder looking around. The table was all set and waiting. A distraught expression was growing on Milly’s face as she took in the sight and understood what it meant.

        “We’ve already eaten.” Wolfwood informed the hybrid, although his nose starting twitching as it identified the cooking bacon.

        “What? When?” Rinnah turned to stare at them in disbelief.

        “Earlier.” Eying the package of bacon on the counter Wolfwood decided he could eat more bacon after all especially since it looked like it was being cooked, besides, it smelled delicious. “We went out.”

        “But, but, why? And why didn’t you stop by to ask us to come along with you? We could have gotten ready in time, if Vash doesn’t stop to put up his hair that is.”

        “Always a pleasure to be so accommodating to others.” Vash added dryly crossing his arms in front of him. Not feeling threatened in the least when she shook her spatula at him menacingly and quirked up an eyebrow in response at her attempt to shush him so she could hear Wolfwood’s explanation.

        I can’t wait to see what she has to say about this. He thought as he tried to ignore the twisting in his stomach as he heard the hurt in her voice. He hoped she would explode into her usual display of anger he had discovered in the last few hours that she wasn‘t acting like her normal self. An angry Rinnah was much easier to deal with than a hurt, emotional one, as experience was teaching him. He was not used to seeing Rinnah’s eyes filled with sadness and he found out that it did matter to him, not that he would tell her that. He would rather cut out his own tongue before saying anything of the sort to her.

        Milly heard the hurt too although and her eyes began tearing up in sympathy. To her credit Rinnah was trying to keep her voice even and calm as she tried to understand what was going on.

        “What did you expect for two newly married people to do? It was our first morning together as a married couple.” Wolfwood was genuinely puzzled by Rinnah’s response but still eyed the bacon. She was acting like she didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. And yes, he did have room for a few more strips of bacon now that he thought about it.

        “WHAT!” The half-breed’s mouth dropped open with stunned surprise. “Ma… Married! You two?” She pointed a limp finger gesturing back and forth between them. “To each other?” She stopped gesturing as shock overtook her.

        Wolfwood immediately amended the thought, Rinnah wasn’t acting, and she really didn’t have a clue as to what happened the day before. He looked up at Vash and cocked an eyebrow at him. Vash returned the look with a lowered brow. He was not going to take the blame for this.

        Groping for a chair Rinnah dropped down on it and stared blankly at the plate on the table in front of her. “Married.” She said softly, shock paralyzing her mind as it went around and around with the news. Then the profound shock gave way to a new feeling, a deepening sense of hurt rising up with sharp cutting edges.

        Milly watched as a dazed expression dulled Rinnah’s normally bright eyes. She turned accusing eyes on Vash across the room, and frowned, something was wrong with his eyes but he was too far away to tell what it was. She shook it off for later, right now she wanted an answer. The gunman noticed and held up his hands in front of him in self-defense. “I didn’t see you here yesterday delivering the news.”

        Wolfwood raised his voice, frowning at Vash and then stared at Rinnah. “We were busy getting married! What‘ so hard to understand about that! I can‘t believe this!” Swinging his look back to Vash something struck him as odd but he couldn’t put his finger on it, besides the creepy new eye color. I hate him, thought Wolfwood, feeling pressure starting to grip his temples. He reached up a hand to massage his forehead.

        “Why the hell didn’t someone tell me! Didn’t you want me to be there?” Rinnah was blinking faster than she believed possible. I am NOT going to cry! I was a battlecaptain at one time and we don’t go around crying at every little thing that comes down the pike! And we certainly don’t get our feelings hurt! She sternly told herself, trying to get a grip on her rebellious emotions, which were refusing to listen to her. Damn! I can’t believe this hurts so much.

        “You were wounded and asleep .”

        “So what!” Burst out as Rinnah waved the spatula around wildly. Wolfwood took a step back as he kept a wary eye on her kitchen tool. “I get wounded all the time! I sleep all the time, that’s nothing new! Geez! You’ll have to do better than that for an excuse!”

        Milly was in tears, Wolfwood alternating between cursing angrily and apologetic embarrassment. Vash looked off to the side as if indifferent to the theatrics going on around him.

        “Ouch.” Rinnah finally said, numbly shaking her head. They all looked at her. “I have to admit that not being told really stings like hell! But geez people, you couldn‘t even take a moment to nudge me? I wasn‘t expecting to be the flower girl but it would have been nice to know!” She stood up, anger radiating off her in waves.

        “I gotta take a walk.” Milly moved to join her but stopped when Rinnah stabbed her with a warning glance. “Alone.”

        Wolfwood started, “do you think that’s a good idea in this town…”

        “Nicholas!” Wolfwood nodded when he saw her eyes glistening under the frown. “I really don’t care right now.”

        “You should.” He said and then winced. Damn but his headache was getting worse with a shooting pain growing behind his eyes. He was familiar with family tensions at weddings, he had officiated at enough of them to witness all sorts of behavior but this was new territory, now he was in the middle of a ‘family squabble’.

        Rinnah refused to get pulled into an argument with him, as much as she wanted to though. It would feel good to let it loose, but tried to calm herself because the end result usually was broken relations between those involved. I don’t want that, but I need to get rid of this steaming resentment. And she needed to leave before she said something hateful which would be soon if she didn‘t leave immediately. Stalking quickly toward the door mumbling under her breath she opened it and was on the other side ready to close the door behind her when a small explosion got away from her.

        Pointing to Vash and with a deepening frown she informed them, “Oh, yes! I almost forgot here‘s the latest news flash coming over the wires!” Waving a trembling finger at him she said, “The Red Eye Express has just made an unscheduled stop in Vash Land.” And exiting she shut the door behind her with exaggerated care to keep from slamming it in her state of distress, she didn’t want to be accused of not being able to control her temper. Lord knows that would be a tragedy! She fumed to herself.

        She was several yards down the hall when she heard Milly’s little cry of astonishment through the door. Suddenly a stab of remorse hit her and she lowered her head in misery. Right at this moment she wasn’t feeling very proud of herself or her behavior. No, it was worse than that; her insides were twisting in wretched dejection. Immediately she tried to stretch out in her usual rapid stride to escape the scene of the crime when a stabbing ache in her lower gut reminded her of the previous night’s activity. I deserve this. But she still hissed out an especially virulent curse through gritted teeth on all men everywhere and then shortened the length of her stride to one that didn’t put any strain on her womanly parts. Serves me right for being so mean.

        She headed for the end of the hall where the doors to the elevator were. Normally, riding the ancient elevator was an experience she would rather forego as it was rickety, slow, and well, just plain frightening to ride, but this time she would take it as she really didn‘t have a choice. Places hurt that she never anticipated hurting. She was the only one not keen on taking the elevator, but would make an exception today. No one else seemed to mind riding in it but she always made a point of taking the stairs, which was faster. They usually found her leaning against the wall by the door impatiently waiting for them. Maybe none of them had ever been in an elevator that was smooth and quiet. Considering the planet, she wouldn’t be surprised if clackety and creaky was the norm for them and what they were used to.

        Hitting the button with a fist harder than she intended, she yelped and shook her hand as she listened to the car clank and squeal it’s way down to her floor. Entertaining sullen thoughts twisting around in her brain she stared at the floor as she listened to the car coming down the elevator shaft. What fun. I get to think about how creaky it is and hear the screech of impending doom all the way down. That way it gives me a chance to ponder updating my will, not that I have that much to leave to anyone. Then with a good dose of morose self-pity she went on, So I can just happily plunge to my death. Not that it matters because today I am the lowest of the low.

        Tapping her foot impatiently she peevishly let out a huff of air and scowled. Normally being right was a good feeling, but not when it was about her bad behavior. This day was turning out to be a real pain and her without her first cup of coffee. It just wasn’t natural, what next, the sun, suns would start spinning backward? She couldn’t begin to imagine how things could get worse from this point on.

        Deep remorse was nagging at her convicting her for her behavior and words. I have the worst mean streak this side of the sun, suns, dammit! The great immovable rock of guilt was sitting like a weight in her chest so heavy she doubted she could have used her wings to fly now even if her life depended upon it.

        The elevator screeched to a stop and the doors opened jerkily. I hate weddings anyway! With a grumpy expression she started to step into the elevator but stopped as it sagged under her foot. Then, with a wary and distrustful step, she gently brought her other foot in and set it down lightly as if that would make her weigh less. Pressing the button as delicately as she could to keep the car from shaking she waited with held breath for the doors to close. Now this was taking her life in her hands and was much more unsettling than flying.

        As Rinnah waited for the right floor she thought I am not being emotional, this is a normal reaction, I’m not being... aw crap. She hated being surprised by unexpected hurt. That’s what made it hurt all that much worse. Life could be one big unpleasant surprise sometimes. Like this morning. Who could have predicted that? Not her, she was half-plant, not half-prophet!

        The elevator jerked to a stop and she waited impatiently the eons it took for the doors to remember they were supposed to open. “Thank you!” She muttered sarcastically to the arbitrary elevator fairies. She moved out as soon as the doors were wide enough to accommodate her. Biting her lip she looked ahead where the stairs were waiting for her. Why the elevator only went down to the second level and not to the ground floor was beyond her. The doors opened onto a wide balcony that faced the main floor where the guests entered to be greeted by a great wooden front desk. To the extreme right a wide stairway covered with luxurious burgundy carpet. Maybe at one time only the rich folk stayed here, although that wasn’t true today. They let people like me in so they can’t be all that snooty any more.

        Coming to a stop at the head of the stairs she looked down the steps. This shouldn’t be too hard and without thinking took that first bouncing step down. Stopping to grip the rail with a white-knuckled hand, she leaned against it letting loose another curse upon all the sons of Adam, although technically the one at the top of her list wasn’t human. Didn’t matter, he was male and males were all the same no matter what part of the galaxy they were in or what species they were from. Right now she was in a biased mood and more than a little ticked that her first time wasn’t as wonderful as she had been led to believe it would be.

        Taking deep breaths she glanced up to notice movement coming toward her and saw that it was the lady from the evening before but this time in a fancy dress of yellow with a matching parasol. What was it with all the matching parasols all of a sudden? Rinnah caught the woman looking her over with disapproval and instantly felt a mischievous impulse come up and out it slipped. “My first time last night. How about you?” She grinned watching the shocked looked come over the woman’s face as she hurried those last several steps to slip by Rinnah. Oh, I am just rattlesnake mean this morning, and began descending the stairs at a rate that didn’t pull or wrench sensitive, sore parts.

        Even with the gentle placement of her feet on each step it still jarred her enough to make her to grit her teeth in pain. By the time she reached the bottom she was dizzy and had to grip the railing. Holding onto the banister post to keep steady, she waited a moment for the sensation to pass before trusting to let go and stay upright.

        After pushing through the front doors the hybrid halted. The decision of which to turn, right or left needed to be considered. She didn’t have a destination in mind when leaving the room. Coming down the elevator and stairs had taken all her concentration. On a whim she turned left and started down the sidewalk. Passing a thomas feed store, then a small engine repair shop, a shoe store, clothing store, and a seedy looking pawn shop, she wondered if this was the best direction to take. All of a sudden her stomach let out a growl, a loud one, startling her and a couple of passersby. Giving them a rueful grin, she patted her stomach and came to an easily made decision, she needed food. Problems always seem worse on an empty stomach.

        Food, yep, that’s what she needed. Now, where was a good place to start looking for a food establishment? Peering about her Rinnah didn’t see anything that resembled a restaurant. Maybe she should go back to the hotel and make inquiries as to where the nearest place to find a good meal would be. As far as she knew, the hotel they were staying at didn’t have a cafe’ in it, blast them!

        It wasn’t helping that Rinnah couldn’t stretch out in her normal stride. Keeping her pace at a leisurely gait she studied each shop she passed. There was plenty of time to read the window advertisements three times over. It helped that they were somewhat amusing whether they were trying to be or not. “Fix yer injin while yu wait!” And “Been here again and again and again” for the pawnshop. Then, “Not a sole slips by us.” “Dresses for Lesses.” “Don’t doubt your thomas’ll like this grub!“ It was obvious that no expense was being spared for high quality advertisement.

        She was passing a shop but couldn’t read this sign as a tall, broad-shouldered man with his sleeves rolled up over huge biceps was leaning against the post in front of it. She looked up and seeing his eye upon her she nodded politely to him.

        “Looking for something little lady?” His voice rumbled out of a deep chest.

        Me? A little lady? He couldn’t be talking to me! Rinnah resisted the urge to turn and look behind her for a ‘little lady’. That was one name she couldn’t recall ever being labeled with. Once reaching her full growth it was obvious that she was taller than the average human female. However, eyeing him she did see his point. He was huge, no, taller and broader than huge. Muscles on top of muscles to the point it actually looked painful. Was he able to move under the weight of all that brawn?

        Since she was indeed looking for a place to sit down and enjoy a meal, she stopped to reply, “Yes, as a matter fact, I am. Do you know of a place to eat somewhere around here?”

        He nodded across the street. Turning, she followed his gaze to spy a little hole in the wall diner. The door to it was a washed out pinkish white that used to be red. No wonder she had missed it. A warped sign hanging to the side proclaimed to be Beanie’s Eats or Bernie’s Eats, it was hard to tell as the lettering was so faded and nearly impossible to read. The sign was also tilted and hung from rusted chains creaking in the morning breeze.

        Rinnah thanked the man and started across the street. When she reached for the doorknob she noticed a small sign in the dingy window that said, “Good eats. Ain’t killed nobody yet.” She smiled, now this was advertising. And it was too intriguing to pass up. Besides which, little greasy spoon diners were irresistible to Rinnah as they had their own innate charm of not caring to cater to any one. ‘Don’t want to come back? Suit yourself.’ A diner with attitude, she loved it. Entering, she looked at the cracked seat covers and old wall coverings covered in a patina of grease and grime built up over the years covering the walls and ceiling.

        Letting the door swing shut behind her she walked up to the counter. There stood a gum-smacking, bored-looking waitress with dark brown hair styled in a beehive of curls on top of her head watching her approach. This was great! A surly fry cook would top if all off and make it perfect! Inhaling deeply, she took in the greasy aroma hanging in the air, and God love ‘em, strongly brewed coffee so black it would resist the casual efforts of any creamer to lighten it. Black as a deep cavern on the south side of hell. Rinnah smiled. She gave another appreciative sniff along with the thought that this was her kind of place.

        Rinnah gingerly lowered herself onto a stool at the counter with a wince.

        The waitress saw the wince cross the black-haired girl's face. She looked her over with a hard glance before remarking, "Usually honeybun, people walk out the door with that look on their face, not when they first come in."

        She eyed her new customer again, assessing her and finally came to a decision. Her face softened. "Coffee’s on me; you look like you could use the kick.“

        Rinnah said happily, “Thanks!” And picked up a greasy menu but looked back up to listen as the waitress continued speaking.

        “I can tell what you want sweetie.”

        When an interested look crossed Rinnah’s face she explained, “ I have the touch.” And let a small crease that could be called a smile touched her pink smeared lips. “You want strong coffee and you’ll try to put creamer in it and sugar along with our famous plate of suns-cracking works.”

        The waitress crossed over to a small window with a ledge for plates and yelled an order through. Returning, she took the menu out of Rinnah’s hand and put in front of the stool next to her. “No need for that now. What’s coming is what you got a hankering for.”

        After saying the waitress nodded with a snap of her gum and reached over and grabbed the coffeepot. Then she leaned down to snag a thick ceramic mug and set it in front of her customer. Rinnah viewed all of this with interest and also noticed the nametag on her uniform dress said ‘Maribelle’. Maribelle was such a pro that she had the coffee pot in hand and with an expert tilt and flip of her wrist began pouring before the mug was on the surface of the counter, all without spilling a drop.

        “I don’t mean to poke my nose where it’s not wanted...“ She paused and then gave a small shake of her head and smiled, “Aw hell, that’ ain’t true, I’m always poking my nose where it’s not wanted.“ With a shrug of her shoulders she dismissed that thought and looked at the young woman’s captivated stare to ask, “Not the morning after is it?"

        Rinnah didn't know how to answer that. "Er, in a manner of speaking."

        Maribelle just nodded, no familiar alcoholic fumes were wafting off the young woman so that left the other thing. She hadn't been around the block more times than you could shake a bagful of sand at without knowing what that sickly look the young woman was giving her meant. Poor thing. She gestured for the girl with the unusual blue eyes to drink up.

        Rinnah picked up her coffee inhaling. This was the best part, the cherished aroma resting in the sinuous steam as it rose gently from her cup to her waiting nostrils. Sniffing appreciatively she lingered in that moment of time just before taking the first sip. She was expecting it to taste like it had been left too long on the heating element resulting in a burned and oily flavor, but such was not the case. Pleasantly surprised she found the strong taste was as pleasing to her taste buds as the aroma was to her nose. She closed her eyes and sighed. It was perfect.

        The waitress leaned in close and with kind, dark eyes asked, "does he love you?"

        Rinnah spilled her coffee and almost spit out what was in her mouth. Looking up with startled eyes and a question forming on her lips that she was too embarrassed to ask.

        Maribelle winked at her. "Was he too rough with you honeybun on your first time?"

        Rinnah's mouth dropped open. Was the woman psychic? Am I wearing a big sign on my forehead? She was tempted to reach up to find out.

        Stuttering, Rinnah grabbed for something to say, anything would be handy about now but had what came out was, “Is it so easy to tell?

        “It is for me honeybun.” Maribelle rested one hand on the counter and leaned her weight on it as her eyes ran over Rinnah once again. “So, does he love you?”

        Rinnah closed an eyelid and studied her with a brilliant blue one. “That’s kind of personal don’t you think?”

        “Sure it is, that’s why I asked.” She popped her gum and smiled. “Don’t learn nothing if you don’t ask.” Rinnah couldn’t stay offended. There was something so comfortable and sincere about the gum-popping waitress that put her at ease. She didn’t realize her shoulders were tight with tension until she felt them slowly relaxing. She sighed with relief.

        The waitress watched and waited with a slight smile on her face. Poor little thing.

        “Er, I’m doing this as a favor for a friend.” Some things were hard to explain. Rinnah was pretty certain if she happened to mention that ‘it’s just mating season for plants’ the remark would surely put her in a special class of lunatics. She would have no choice but to think I was delusional.

        “Well honey, that’s a new one on me.” Placing a hand on one ample hip. “An’ I hear ‘em all. But your’s takes the cake.” Eyeing her skeptically for a moment she added, “Must be right popular with all the boys if that’s your attitude.”

        “Hey! Not even! Okay, maybe just with one!” Sputtering again with hot indignation Rinnah frowned and leaned an elbow on the counter to cup her cheek to think. Why wasn’t anything ever easy? And why does this kind of thing always seem to happen to her? Really!

        Feeling the urge to clarify the situation for the waitress even if it wasn’t any of her business she lifted her cheek off her hand and continued, “It’s just until he doesn’t need to anymore.” and scrunched her eyes shut realizing what that sounded like. All she was doing was digging herself in deeper and deeper; she should quit while she was behind.

        Maribelle rolled her eyes in exasperated disgust. She wondered who let this young’un out the door without the proper training. No use talking to young people these days. Sometimes only experience could teach wisdom. Shaking her head in pity as she wiped the counter cracking her gum she didn’t think that the black-haired young woman would take her advice but she was going to give it anyway. Putting the rag away she looked up to find the young lady’s eyes on her as if waiting.

        “Sweetie hon, no man is ever going to ‘not need to anymore’ until they put him six feet under. I don’t know who told you that but they’s a yanking you around by the thomas hairs.” Shaking a motherly finger at Rinnah, “If he doesn’t love you, run away, don’t walk and don’t look back because if he doesn’t he will do the running as soon as he knows you want a ring.”

        “But,” Rinnah looked up, almost shocked into incomprehension; “I don’t want a ring! I don’t want anything!”

        A skeptical eyebrow went climbing up Maribelle’s forehead so high it nearly reached her hairline. “You are a different sort of girl now, aren’t you?”

        “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” She muttered dejected, once again leaning her cheek on her cupped palm.

        Just then the surly short order cook banged on the small bell sitting in the window while setting the order next to it. He could have easily looked over and spoken to the waitress but didn‘t.

        Maribelle ambled over, leaned up to the ledge and yelled an “About time ya hash slinger!“ through the window at him.

        Coming back was an equally loud yell, “Don’t give me no grief woman!”

        “Ya love it; lets you know your heart’s still a-ticking so you should be grateful!” And incomprehensible growling response was all that Rinnah could make out of the next reply. Maribelle smiled as she picked up the order. Obviously this was a well established relationship.

        Returning with the order Maribelle placed it in front of Rinnah and stepped back to watch her reaction. Eyes wide with appreciation, Rinnah’s mouth began watering even she grabbed a fork. Hot damn but she was a lucky half-plant! She got a big forkful and shoved it in her mouth and rolled her eyes in ecstasy.

        Maribelle chuckled at the expression on Rinnah’s face. This girl knew good eats and good coffee even if she was having a tough time right now.

Hole in the Wall Diner Espionage

       Just then the door jangled open causing Rinnah to jump. The illumination from the brief visit of sunlight invading the badly lit diner caused the white tile counter to momentarily gleam in the light blinding Rinnah. When she blinked and her eyes adjusted, she could see countless coffee and food stains freckling the surface to either side of her. The normal dimness soon returned as the door swung shut again, the stains disappearing as the counter returned to a dull lusterless white.

        Listening to a heavy tread of booted feet come even to the counter several stools down, Rinnah had that prickling warning sensation racing up and down her spine. She did shoot a curious glance at the newcomer, as that was typical in a public place, the sizing of up of a new person on the scene.

        It was the man from outside who directed her to this cafe’! Those huge broad-shoulders and beefy muscular arms looked even more intimidating inside the small confines of the diner. Huge chest muscles were easy to see straining against his gray button-up shirt. Rinnah’s eyes popped open, she didn‘t notice earlier but his thigh muscles were easily as large as her waist, maybe larger. And tall; flipping star holes, but he was a big one! She knew he was tall when she first saw him, but at the time he was leaning against a pole when she spoke with him and that made him seem shorter. Look at him now, he was like a freaking walking tree! Trying to act as casual as she could yet still look down at her plate quickly so she would go back to nonchalantly eating as if her curiosity was satisfied about the new arrival after finding out it wasn’t a gunslinger of ill-repute. Like the ones they don’t know I travel with.

        In a deep voice, he whispered, or at least must have thought that was what he was doing. With his deep rumbling voice Rinnah could hear every word as if he were shouting it in her ear.

        “Maribelle, the word is that they didn’t leave town after all, says her. They’re still here someplace. No one was watching for them so it was thought they skedaddled.”

        Skedaddled? Rinnah tried to suppress a grin as she kept her head bent down. Now there was a word out of antiquity for you. And people thought she talked strange! Listening, because she still didn’t have a choice, she shook her head in pity. It was pretty evident that his espionage skills were not up to snuff. It was hard not to feel embarrassed for him and want to stop and give him some pointers on how to improve his expertise.

        “There are four of them and they always travel together, Vash the Stampede, a black-clad priest carrying a huge shooting cross, an abnormally tall girl with dark blonde hair, and a shorter black-haired female freak of some sort.”

        Black-haired freak of some sort!!! Affronted her eyes narrowed and a hand clenched. Nearly letting a huff of air escape too loudly, she controlled the urge to throw her spoon in his direction. She was expecting much better than that. Wings buddy, I think the wings were pretty damn obvious description! Rinnah was peeved. Freak? After the previous night ‘freak’ was a word she was feeling overly sensitive about for the time being. Freak? Of some sort? That’s it?! I’m insulted, that’s what I am! What about charming, witty, and also downright damn humorous with a winsome personality to boot? I wonder if they have some sort of home office where I can go and complain to. I want a better description than ‘freak of some sort’!

        “Just a minute Jerry gotta take care of a customer here.”

        Maribelle reached behind her and picked up the coffeepot from the warmer and came over and poured Rinnah some more coffee even though it was still three-fourths full. As she did so Maribelle leaned in and whispered through lips that didn’t move, “Easy there sweet cakes, you’re more tense than the only mare in a stable of lusty stallions at mating time.”

        Returning the pot back to the burner she came back to Jerry to lean on the counter and give him her full attention. Rinnah stared at her for a moment rolling the description over and over in her mind. It seemed quite suitable not only for this occasion but the past night and evening. She resumed eating although with much less enthusiasm than earlier.

        “You keep your eye out and if you see them you send the message the usual way.”

        The waitress grabbed her rag again and began rubbing the already clean counter with energetic swipes. “I know what to do, but why are these folks wanted?”

        “No need for you to know, just send the message.” With that the human hulking mountain left the diner in the same manner as he arrived.

        Maribelle came back over to Rinnah and said, “They can’t think outside of a very small circle. Doesn’t it occur to any of them that you folks might not always roam about together?” She gave a humph and a flick of her towel before stowing it back underneath the counter.

        Rinnah could only stare at her in stunned wonder.

        Pegging Rinnah with a grim look she said, “You get back to your friends little miss skinny butt and get all of you and yours out of this town. It ain’t safe for you. What they don’t have in ‘bright’s’ they make up for in persistence and they will find you sooner or later. “

        Rinnah tried to keep her face blank but doubted she was doing a very good job of it. A poker face was not one of her best talents.

        With a small grin on the corners of her mouth Maribelle gestured to the door. “Git going don’t just sit there with stupid dripping off your face like that.”

        Rinnah decided to take a chance. “Why?”

        “Why am I helping you instead of turning you in?” Maribelle questioned with a jaded and tired half-grin. “It’s like this honeybun, because my youngest brother got himself ‘converted’ and now he don’t laugh at my jokes anymore, if he should come around to visit, which he don’t hardly. He just sits there like a sand-for-brains puppet and that just is a canker in my craw. Don’t sit well for me and I’m not like to help them any time soon.”

        The hybrid was puzzled, “How did you know about us and that I was part of the group?”

        “Honey, I got people all over this town that are my friends or are related to me one way or another. I hear things and I know everything I need to know, besides, I ain‘t stupid, even if I am a waitress in a dive like this.”

        Rinnah started to open her mouth to protest.

        Wit a smile Maribelle said, “Don‘t bother honey thing, and I know what people think of those in the food business. But like I said, I ain‘t stupid. Probably smarter than most people in this here town even if I don‘t talk highfalutin‘. But listen, if you want to keep your friends from harm, you’ll get yourself gone. Hightail it sweetie!”

        It sure seemed to Rinnah there was a whole lot of ‘knowing’ that was going on about her and her doings. First Livia and now Maribelle. No, she did not like this town at all and would be glad to shake its dust off her feet upon leaving.

        Rinnah pulled out more than enough to pay for the breakfast, put it down and then hurried, in a slow hightailing sort of way, for the door. Looking over her shoulder she said, “Thanks Maribelle, you know what, you’re one of the good guys.”

        Maribelle chuckled and shook her head and removed the plate to a waiting tub full of dirty dishes.

Pulling Up Stakes

        Back at the hotel Rinnah gripped the handrail and slowly lifted her foot up on the first step. With relief she noted she wasn’t feeling as sore as earlier and sent a little thanks upward for a body metabolism that mended so quickly.

        As she ascended the stairs, a single thought kept going through her mind and that was her friends had to be safe and were as yet undiscovered by Jerry‘s crowd. She doubted they had been found just yet but it didn’t stop her from worrying. Nothing like the threat of losing people you care about to put things in perspective. I acted like star chomping jerk! If they are all okay I am going to get down my knees, throw myself at their mercy and profusely and humbly apologize! At least I am half-human enough to admit my mistakes. A nagging concern for her friends twisted in her gut. If I ever get up these blasted steps that is! Whose idea was it anyway to make these stairs go up so high?

        Upon reaching the top of the stairs, Rinnah broke out in a trot and had to stop after a few feet and spat out a curse. She still wasn’t that healed yet. Making it to the elevator doors she pounded on the button freely cursing the ever-changing whims of the elevators fairies. Just about the time she was considering going up the stairs she heard the sound of the car grumbling down the shaft. Again the doors opened in starts and jerks but she helped it along pushing them open with all her formidable strength. Leaping inside she ignored the way the floor once again sagged under her weight and hit the button for her floor.

        When she was hurrying down the hall as fast as she was able she had that strange premonition that the occupants were missing from the room. Halting in front of the door to their room with heart beating faster, she reached down and popped the restraining snap over her gun and then loosened it in her holster. Standing outside the door she listened for any kind of movement or sound from within the room. Nothing. She could have groaned in dismay but held it in. Someone dangerous could be on the other side of the door waiting for her. Putting her hand on the doorknob she slowly turned the knob and....

        ....The door was yanked opened and startled she jumped a few inches in the air while in the action of sliding her gun out. A large hand covered her gun hand to stop her and shoved the gun back into place.

        “About time!” Vash scowled at her. Then he reached out and grabbed her by the arm and hauled her in as he scanned up and down the hallway.

        “My, aren’t you the patient one!” As she let out a breath and waited for her heart rate to return to normal.

        Vash closed the door quietly but left it unlocked. “I’ve had a bad feeling for a while now.”

        Rinnah knew he meant his warning feeling must have been buzzing. She looked around, “Where are...”

        “They went out to buy rings. The priest insisted on it.” He shook his head as if that was the most senseless thing in the world to do.

        Rinnah was alarmed, “Why didn’t you stop them? Didn’t you tell them your warning bells were going off?”

        Vash’s ever-present scowl deepened but she noticed he looked away and seeing the worry etched on his face she retracted what she was about to say. It was unusual for him to show concern like this. As a result that made her tighten with apprehension also.

        “It didn’t start until after they left and...” He hesitated, unsure, “he also said they needed a break from the eyes.” With a keen, observing eye running over him, she detected the ever so miniscule lowering of his shoulders as if he were fighting to stay erect but couldn’t quite hold up the weight resting on him any longer.

        It didn‘t escape her notice and sympathy welled up within her, “Well, I won’t lie to you, they are kind of creepy and will be until we get used to them.”

        She pondered his new red eyes a moment as they turned to study her. “Are you sure they don’t hurt? It looks like you’ve borrowed burning coals from the furnace of hell and could weep magma tears at any moment.”

        “Very poetic.“ He snorted scornfully. With that change of expression caused the red in his eyes to glow slightly and cause a rising intensity in them. He wasn’t conscious of the effect but it made her catch her breath. Thankfully he turned away again as he continued, “But no, it doesn’t hurt.“

        He shot a veiled look at her from out the corner of his eyes. Okay, maybe he did notice something in the way she reacted.

        Trying to act casual Rinnah placed her hands on her hips but spoke to what she was hearing with her heart. “Liar. It does hurt. When your friends can’t look you in the face and turn away from you, it‘s painful.”

        Vash hesitated and then nodded wearily but didn‘t acknowledge the observation, “Anyway, splitting up isn‘t a good idea. But now you’re back we can go look for them...”

        “Wait!” Startled, he looked at her with brows shooting up his forehead. “Er, what I mean to say is...” And she filled him in on her morning and the news she found out at the diner and would explain why his early warning system was going off.

        Closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead with thumb and forefinger he muttered something that Rinnah couldn’t catch, but then said, “I didn’t want to stay here in the first place. I hate this town.”

        “Amen to that, brother.” Rinnah was starting to get tired and felt the need to sit down for a few minutes. Cursing her impaired state she headed for the couch. She didn’t have time to coddle herself all of them were needed to be at their best. It was so frustrating to be weak, achy and dependent like this. Trying to cheer herself up she figured that it would only be a few more hours, it wouldn’t be like this forever and then she would be able to kick bad guy butt without pain or aching. Life is good. But only when you have your health that is! She thought sourly with down turned lips.

        Vash started collecting their belongings together and piling them on the table and the floor. Rinnah had just sat down and rocked back into the soft cushions when she saw him gathering their things. Feeling guilty for sitting then while he was busy, with a soft grunt started to pull herself to the edge of the cushion saying, “Hold on, I’ll help.”

        “Don’t. You aren’t moving as fast as usual and you’ll be a more of a hindrance. It would be a bigger help if you just stay seated and out of the way.”

        Leaning back she began calculating on how she could be a help. It would require some sneakiness and pretending she was being obedient until the attention was off of her onto something else. She smiled sweetly at him when he shot a suspicious glance in her direction. She would have to wait until he was busy with gathering and packing in the other room and couldn’t comment...


        ...Like that.

        Her brows pinched in a puzzled frown. It was like he could freaking read her mind! Peculiar and odd. Feeling twitchy she let her thoughts wander. One nerve left, that‘s all I have and he keeps finding it and jumping up and down on it!

        She eyed him distrustfully. If she didn’t know better she would swear that he had been reading her mind over the last several days and that wasn’t... pos-... sib-... bul. Or was it? Tilting her head, she thought back. Maybe it was. Returning her gaze to rest on him as he quickly and efficiently started piling things in separate mounds, her eyes narrowed as she studied him. He couldn’t forge a link with her, could he? No, was unlikely, for the link to be established it had to be the other way around. The frown that sat on her brow deepened as she thought over the past few days. But how, when...

        A timid knock sounded at the door interrupting her drifting thoughts. Vash growled for them to enter and the two newlyweds walked in, and in Rinnah’s estimation they were glowing, honest to God glowing. Whoa, I’ll buy myself a ring if that’s what it does for a person.

        Milly saw Rinnah on the couch and headed straight for her while Wolfwood saw the growing pile and immediately deduced things weren’t good and began helping Vash collect their baggage. The gunman kept his eyes turned away from the priest but obliged his curiosity by telling him what he learned from Rinnah.

        “I didn’t want to stay here in the first place!” Growled the priest as he grabbed items off the counter and started shoving them into a nearby bag.

        “That’s what I said.” Agreed Vash, shooting Wolfwood with a glance before hiding his eyes again by looking in the other direction.

        Standing next to Rinnah, Milly smiled and while nervously tugging on a strand of hair asked softly, “are you still...”

        Rinnah interrupted with a reassuring smile, “No, I’m not mad. I just had to clear my head. I have to admit it did hurt at first but I want you to know that I am happy for you two, really I am.” Now taking her friend’s hand, “And I need to apologize to you. I acted like a mean little shrew and I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”

        Milly laughed in delight, the lead weight over her heart lifting. “Of course I do!” In waving her hand around Rinnah couldn’t help but notice the sparkle on her hand catching the light.

        Showing enthusiasm she didn’t have feign she cried, “Let me see your ring!”

        Milly’s smile lit up her face and she held out her hand. On the her heart finger was a ring made of white gold with a gray stone and a light blue one and then there were two green stones, one on either side of the gray and blue ones.

        “Hey!” Rinnah exclaimed, “the silvery gray and light blue stones are just like your...” She looked up to see Milly glowing, if possible, even more than when she first walked in. Rinnah looked back down at the ring. It was beautiful with the band coming up in a swirl around the two stones, holding them together and then the two green stones flanking that. “Wow!” Was the only thing that Rinnah could think of to say. Milly giggled as Rinnah let go and she lifted her hand to look at her new ring again obviously enamored with it.

        Then remembering why she came over in the first place, Milly reached down and grabbed her friend’s shoulders and pulled her up off the couch in a huge hug.

        “Oof!” Rinnah got in before being enfolded in a loving and enthusiastic embrace. Discerning a pleasant odor, she sniffed, noticing that Milly smelled a little like peaches. They must have come out with a new pudding flavor. “I wish I could have... uh Milly... can’t... breathe!” Milly was strong!

        “Oh Rinnah, I’m sorry too. I wish you could have been there, but you can throw me a party at the next town!”

        Vash overheard and snapped out, “NO PARTIES! What’s the matter with you two! Might as well just send up flares and hang out balloons to announce where we can be found!” As he tossed a few more possessions on the table.

        Then he saw Rinnah standing and growled at her, “I thought I told you to stay put! Damn, you never listen to anyone do you!” Before turning back to the bedroom to search for more items.

        Lifting her voice so he couldn’t help but hear her, she said, “It’s my most loveable and endearing trait! I‘m known all over the galaxy for it!”

        “And it’s going to get you killed one of these days!” Came the immediate and sharp reply.

        “Not without the permission of my superior officer, who, thankfully, is not stationed on this planet! So there!”

        Vash leaned around the doorframe and in between curses informed her, “Don’t worry about getting permission, I’ll kill you myself if you don’t start taking this seriously!”

        Rinnah stuck her tongue out at him as soon as he ducked back into the room, curses still floating back to them through the door.

        Milly had been watching the exchange between Vash and Rinnah and her brows lifted in surprise. Wolfwood did the same and then shrugged as he started packing again. Something was odd here. It was the same kind of exchange between the two but also different. Milly couldn’t quite put her finger on. It would come to her though. All she had to do was be patient and wait; understanding would come when it was needed.

        Then, with a small sound of horror, Milly noticed the way Wolfwood was packing. For him it meant grabbing clothes and cramming them in without rhyme or reason.

        Hurrying over she nudged Wolfwood aside and pulled out the clothes saying to him, “Dear, this isn’t packing. Now bring me the suitcases, bags and boxes then you can help Mr. Vash make a trip down to the car while I finish this one.”

        Out of the corner of her eye she saw Rinnah starting to come help and said, “No offense Rinnah, but you aren’t very good at this either. You just sit down and I’ll get this done in no time at all!” She said merrily, her eyes crinkling with good humor to take the sting out of her words.

        When Vash came in with the last few items she smiled up at him, “Oh Mr. Vash, you don’t have to worry about us. When I said party, I meant just me and Rinnah will go out and party.”

        He swung around to face her, stabbing her with his red eyes and she froze for a moment, her reaction much like Rinnah’s of earlier.

        Vash said, “Like hell you will! Remember the last saloon you went in for just a simple drink!?” He frowned down at her, demanding she remember.

        Rinnah broke in, saying in a bright voice, “Well, we’ll just find an ice cream parlor then.” The thought of a caramel and chocolate sundae with a cherry on top cheered her up immensely. “No worries mate, no one gets drunk in one of those!”

        Vash cast her a warning look made all the more unmistakable with the glare of a fiery glow of a sunset. “Can’t you two stay out of trouble for even one day?”

        Wolfwood started to reach for a cigarette when he saw the ‘look’ on Milly’s face. Geez, married only a couple of days and she had the ‘look’ down pat. Must be something genetic that kicks in when women get married.

        “Honey, I’m with Vash on this. You two have a way of, let’s see how to put this nicely, of attracting n’er-do-wells and getting caught smack in the middle of trouble.”

        Milly placed her hands on her hips and huffed while Rinnah frowned. Honestly. They weren’t children. But then brightened as she thought of something.

        “Hey, if trouble surrounds us, I’ll grab Milly and we’ll wing away!” She added perkily, making a zooming off motion with a hand. Maybe a little too much emphasis on the perk part as two forbidding, unconvinced male stares firmly landed on her. However, Milly brightened at the prospect of flying again. Her eyes lost in the crinkling of a great smile as it blossomed over her face; she waved a clenched fist in the air yelling, “Yay! Hurray for flying! You bet Rinnah! Anytime you want to go, just let me know!”

        Vash decided to ignore the conversation for now. The girls weren’t listening, or if they were listening the warning wasn’t sinking in, like usual. He wondered why he and Wolfwood even bothered.

        “You‘re aging me here Honey, I swear to God, you‘re aging me!” Complained Wolfwood despairingly. Then as Vash came back into the room and started to pick up a bag, Wolfwood stopped him with a hand on his arm and quiet, “Vash.”

        Vash looked up surprised wondering what the priest wanted.

        With a serious expression Wolfwood said, “I know those eyes have got to be bugging you as much as they do the rest of us and quite frankly, you have a good reason to be disturbed by them.”

        The priest looked from one eye to the other before continuing, “and they are bizarre. People are not going to be able to accept the color; you will scare the living hell out of them. Which, by the way, is supposed to be my job, I might add. Anyway, I’m thinking we need to cover them up for now, and Vash, those pretty little sunglasses of yours aren’t going to do the trick.”

        Reaching into his coat pocket he pulled out his own dark sunglasses and handed them to Vash. “Here, try these on. They will hide your eyes, besides being manly sunglasses.”

        Vash looked at them for a moment and then slowly reached out his hand to take them. He flipped the arms straight and then slid them over his ears until the nosepiece was resting only half the way up his nose.

        Looking at Wolfwood over the top rims he asked, “How’s this?”

        Exasperated Wolfwood exploded, “Are you kidding me? The idea is to hide your eyes, not call attention to them and people will notice, believe me. This isn‘t like trying to hide a hangnail...” Here he stopped to look straight in Vash‘s eyes without wavering, “or scars. People are not going to react well to those eyes, no, not at all.”

        Reaching out he gently pushed the glasses up Vash’s nose until they hid his eyes. “There, that’s the effect we’re going for here. Total concealment.”

        Vash tilted his head down for a second thinking while the others held their breath wondering how he was going to react. Reaching into his coat pocket Vash retrieved his yellow glasses and handed them over to the priest. Saying quietly, “You’re going to need these until you can get yours replaced.” Waiting for Wolfwood to take them.

        Wolfwood stared at the sunglasses with the zigzag arm pieces. These weren’t the type of sunglasses he would ever pick out for himself or even wear willingly, but at least he would have something to shade his eyes if he needed them. He reached over and lifted them from Vash’s hand, looking at them for a moment as if in deep thought. Then sliding them on all the way up his nose with the same middle finger gesture they had all seen Vash use in the past to push them up his nose, he turned to Milly and Rinnah.

        “Well girls, what do you think? Is this look the real me or what?”

        Milly didn’t know what to say. The glasses looked fine, wonderful in fact, but only on Mr. Vash, on Nicholas they looked, well, kind of odd, out of place.

        Rinnah’s mind was racing. Tact was called for and she possessed a scant amount of it. Several different expressions shot across her face as she waited for Milly to say something. Come on Milly, she thought with mental teeth gritted, you’re the nice one, say something!

        “Huh. Thought so.” Pulling the glasses off his face he folded them up and placed them in his jacket pocket. He would only wear them if he absolutely needed them like when his eyes were near going sand blind. Otherwise he would wait until they got to the next town; they just didn’t have time to shop now.

        Turning to face Vash he said “Thanks for thinking about me pal.” On impulse he stuck out his hand for Vash to shake.

        Vash looked at him, his hand, then back at his face again before reaching out his own hand to shake the priest‘s. Wolfwood smiled at him.

        Vash returned it with a true smile, albeit a small one, pointing out, “You thought of me first.”

        Embarrassed Wolfwood frowned and pulled back his hand, “Well don’t get all mushy on me now! Just don’t want you getting chased all over the town by angry screaming townspeople again. It’s damn hard to keep up with you!”

        Vash’s smile transformed into a smirk as Wolfwood turned to study the piles of stuff.

        Changing the subject Wolfwood looked around and remarked, “Okay, looks like we’re ready to go and really, there isn‘t that much to take down to the car. Milly, if you bring this pile down, Vash and I will get the rest. Rinnah, here’s your pile...”

        “I’ll take hers.” Vash interrupted as he grabbed up his pile and Rinnah’s few belongings.

        Wolfwood looked at Vash then at Rinnah now leaning against a chair for support. Milly went to stand next to her and her face that had sphinx-like look that hinted she knew more about what was going on than most people would be comfortable with. He shrugged and picked up his pile and followed Vash out the door.

        Rinnah started to push herself up and found Milly’s hand underneath her elbow adding her strength to pull her friend up off the couch.

        “Thanks Milly!”

        Milly beamed at her, but then turned serious to ask, “are you all right? Is there anything you want to talk about?”

        Rinnah nodded, “Tons in fact, but maybe when we have time for a nice long chat... over coffee... in a bakery... with creme-filled donuts... with glaze.” Her mouth was starting to water and her eyes were beginning to spin in her head. How long was it since last she had sat down with a mouthwatering donut? She was going to have to do something about this sorry state of affairs the next town they came to because it had been too long, much too long since enjoying a baked sweet.

        Milly crinkled her eyes with laughter before saying, “Being on those pills really helped you out didn’t they? I’m sorry we can’t find more for you.” Then she patted her understandingly on the shoulder while Rinnah froze in astonishment.

        The hybrid looked up into her friend’s familiar sky blue eyes; shocked, but knowing she shouldn’t be after all this time. “Milly you are like a freaking wise old mystic stuffed into a giggly tall girl body. Sometimes you absolutely floor me, like right now. How’d you know?”

        Milly just winked and headed for her pile and began loading up. Rinnah was right behind her peppering her with a torrent of questions.

        “No, really, how’d you know? Ah c’mon Milly, how’d you figure it out? Now don’t go all inscrutable on me here. Was it easy to tell, how did you guess? Or did I give it away? Gah! This is no fair! How do you do it, just know things like this? And how the blinking hell does anyone ever throw you a surprise party, eh? Can’t be done I bet. ”

        The door opened and Wolfwood entered, looked around with a satisfied expression and then came over to take a couple of bags out of Milly’s hands. After the girls exited, with Rinnah still badgering Milly Wolfwood placed the key on the table and turned to follow the girls out the door. He, for one, was glad to be leaving Last Chance.

The Big Question

        As they traveled that day toward their intended destination of Towering Rock to find Wolfwood’s priest-smith, the main topic of conversation was Vash’s inexplicable eye color change. After much discussion, ideas thrown out, differing opinions were voiced and a consensus was reached. No one knew. They were stumped, stymied, and at a loss to explain what had happened to cause Vash‘s eyes to turn red.

        Then came an uncomfortable moment for Rinnah when Wolfwood asked, “Hey Rinnah, you didn’t have anything to do with Vash’s eye color change did you?” He looked over at Rinnah slightly squirming in the front passenger seat.

        Vash glanced at Wolfwood in the rearview mirror and then over at Rinnah and watched her as she turned to stare out over the landscape as if she wasn‘t being addressed.

        Not noticing anything unusual, Wolfwood went on, “I mean this situation is unexplainable, never been seen before, and a total surprise. It has your name written all over it.”

        Vash added softly, “He brings up a good point. Does this kind of thing happen to any of your people, what, the Andrussla?”

        “That’s Antressla!” She snapped that out wondering why she even cared if the name was pronounced correctly or not.

        Rinnah looked out over the terrain trying to decide what to say which actually wasn’t that much really. Her biology and mixed racial heritage was not something she ever had an interest to explore before this and she wasn‘t very knowledgeable about it. There was more she didn’t know than she did know and right now it was glaringly obvious and sort of embarrassing to admit too.

        “Rinnah?” Wolfwood prompted.

        “Uh. Don’t know.” She muttered with a hand covering her eyes.

        “What do you mean you don’t know?”

        “I DON’T KNOW!” She lowered her hand in frustration. “I was raised among humans, remember? And my mother rarely, if ever, talked about her people.”

        “So this could be you then?”

        “Could be, wouldn’t rule it out.” She said over her shoulder with a nervous grin. “But if it were I would have gone for another color other than red. But no, I haven‘t done anything intentionally to cause this. I mean, why would I want to do something like this?”

        Wolfwood twirled a finger next to his temple, “Just thought it might have to do with that whole wiggy mind thing you did.”

        Seeing Rinnah’s growing discomfort, Vash supplied, “She didn’t do any ‘wiggy mind healing’ if that is what you are wondering.” There was an inkling of a clue bouncing around in his brain but he wasn’t going to bring it up yet, even to Rinnah until he had a chance to think it over for a while.

        Milly kindly pointed out, “Nicholas, you had a wiggy mind thing done to you and your hair didn’t turn any colors and your eyes are still the same. Maybe this has nothing to do with Rinnah.”

        “Stop calling it a wiggy mind thing!” Insisted Rinnah, not sure why it was bothering her so much.

        “Well what should we call it then? Do you have a name for it?” Wolfwood asked curiously.

        With a sullen expression Rinnah answered, “No, no I don’t. If there is one I never heard about it. Geez, go ahead and just call it a wiggy mind thing if you want!” She threw up both hands in defeat.

        Scratching his chin Wolfwood thought about it, “Okay, then. Big Girl has a point about the hair color change. My hair didn’t change and Vash’s did. Does it have something to do with the human/plant factor? But something must have triggered it. What have you done in the past twenty-four hours that you haven’t done before? Something different must have happened, maybe even during the night.”

        Rinnah was in hell, or as close to it as one can get without actually touching down for a landing. She was writhing internally in the flames of dismal mortification. Not by nature given to blushing however in this past day and night blushing was becoming a common way for her to express discomfort and awkwardness. She was blushing more than if you added up all the other times in her life, she was pretty sure about that. She was also positive she was as red as the new eye color Vash was sporting.

        Wolfwood didn’t seem to notice the state Rinnah was in and continued, “okay, maybe she’s like the fuse on a bomb. It’s all there, ready to go off but won’t since neither the bomb or fuse can work without the other. Their only purpose is when they come together and cause a reaction. Vash could have had all this inside of him just waiting for the right time,” Here Wolfwood gestured at the back of Vash’s head to indicate eyes and hair, “then when they work in tandem boom!”

        “Great. Now I’m a bomb.” Vash stated flatly, gripping the steering wheel with a white-knuckled grip, which no one could see under the gloves.

        “That’s better than being the fuse!” Complained Rinnah, “Geez Nicholas, couldn’t you come up with a better word picture than that!” From ‘freak of some sort’ to a fuse. It just keeps getting better and better.

        Out of the corner of her eye she spotted Milly tugging on Wolfwood’s sleeve to get his attention. At first he was ignoring it and starting to open looking like there was more he wanted to say.

        Please don’t, please don’t, thought Rinnah at him desperately willing him to drop it. At this point she was wishing with all her heart she could influence minds, bend them to her will because she would cause Nicholas to forget this topic of conversation altogether.

        With a burst of intuitive knowing, understanding blossomed in Milly and she knew for sure, before she had only been suspecting. She knew what the strain was lurking beneath Rinnah and Vash’s words, the extra meaning in the tones of voices and position of their bodies. She knew and was slightly surprised but not beyond comprehension. It really was only a matter of time if one were to look at it with the twisted and powerful illogic that only the heart was capable of reasoning with. But right now, someone needed to be distracted, for the sake of at least one plant in the car if not both. Some things could keep until later.

        Milly tugged harder and Wolfwood looked over at his new bride a little irritated that his train of thought was being interrupted. Taking him totally off guard she wrapped her arms around his neck and tugged. Then she brought his head down and pulled him into a long deep kiss. Coming up for air she tipped them over backward taking him with her. When they landed she applied a heated and demanding kiss on his startled ones stealing away every higher thought process he possessed to vanish in a magical haze.

        Rinnah’s eyes bugged out as she watched over her shoulder, a warmth stealing up her cheeks, damn blushing reflex, yet at the same time wanting to reach for a pencil and paper to take notes.

        When Milly let Nicholas come up for air again he only protested halfheartedly. “Milly we haven’t figure this out yet. There could be a...”

        He couldn’t continue as she pulled his lips back down within reach of hers and ensnared him thoroughly and effectively silencing him. Rinnah was impressed. Wolfwood was losing all interest in continuing the conversation.

        Wow, it’s like... magic! But why is she doing this with us in the front seat? She knows we are sitting right here and doing our best trying not to watch what is going on. Damn. I can’t pull my eyes away! Can‘t. Stop. Looking! A light bulb flashed on over Rinnah’s head. Milly was distracting Wolfwood for her. What a friend! Although, eyeing the couple it seemed to be slipping from the duty to friendship into the area of personal pleasure.

        Shifting to look at Vash, she suggested, “Maybe we ought to find an outcropping and stop for lunch so” giving a quick nod at the two in the back, “the newlyweds, can have some privacy.”

        Vash nodded and began searching the terrain for any pile of rocks poking up through the sand. With a grimace he thought that one couldn’t be found one fast enough to suit him.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 15
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