Wolfwood dropped one hand from the steering wheel and flexed his arm while rotating the shoulder joint trying to work the kinks out of the muscles along his shoulder blade and back. His whole body was stiffening up from being in the same position for so many hours. This was the longest they drive he remembered them ever doing in a day. They had been the car and traveling for several hours when the suns finally decided to make an appearance. All four decided that since this section of the map was notoriously known for the highwaymen, robbers, thieves, and all sorts of scum that congregated from all corners of the planet that it was best to get through it as quickly as possible. However not one nefarious evil doer was spotted. That was the good news and Wolfwood wasn’t complaining, he felt they already had done their fair share of dealing with enemies. The bad news was that they were all getting tired of being in the car. It was a good thing they stopped for lunch when they did.
The rest of the trip was quiet. No one seemed inclined to chat after the foursome stopped to rest and have lunch. Rest! Some people rested but not others! Thankfully, Vash and Rinnah had taken care of lunch for everyone. Or maybe, not so thankfully, if you wanted to call hard ration bars, canned cold asparagus, burned bacon and peanut butter spread on chocolate chip cookies a fortifying lunch. When Wolfwood had held up the blackest piece of bacon he had ever seen in his life her reply was that she didn’t realize there was trick to cooking bacon. In response to that comment all he could do was stare at her. Milly didn’t seem to mind and ate all her portion first.
Wolfwood knew it could have been better, after all, he was the one who helped Milly stock the food larder. Note to self: don’t let Rinnah cook again. At least Vash had made tea while Rinnah made the coffee. Both drinks were tasted better than expected and Wolfwood helped himself to both. However, now he could do with a good solid meal, preferably one not cooked by either of the two in the back seat if that was the best they were going to come up with even if it was a spur of the moment lunch break. He glanced back at them in the rearview mirror.
And there was something else he couldn’t understand. He knew from past experience that Vash knew how to cook. Both gunmen could, yet Vash let Rinnah, the one non-chef in the group, put together the lunch. All he could really say about it when asked was that no one would die of starvation. What kind of stupid answer was that? Shrugging his shoulders a bit Wolfwood let it drop. His taste buds were a little confused by the mixture of odd flavors from the lunch meal but at least he wasn‘t hungry anymore.
He looked around at the countryside, what little there was of it. It was pretty desolate in these parts, more so than usual for this planet. He was driving because he knew this part of the territory better than the others did and also knew what areas to avoid. Milly sat shotgun, her chin drooping lower as she vainly fought sleep. Rinnah and Vash sat in the back. Rinnah was slumped down in the seat with her eyes closed and arms crossed in front of her. Vash had his head propped up on his hand and Wolfwood couldn’t tell if either one was resting or sleeping. Vash’s eyes could be closed but Wolfwood wouldn’t know it as he was still wearing the priest’s sunglasses which covered the eyes and then some. Wolfwood was wearing Vash’s sunglasses as he needed something to shade his eyes from the bright glare of the bouncing off the desert sands. And as luck would have it, his luck anyway, there wasn’t a town between Last Chance and Towering Rock they could stop at to buy him a new pair. There not being a soul; well the only ones without the intent of killing and robbing them blind around for iles, he could have worn his old ones but he wanted Vash to get used to them. Who knows just how long it was that Vash had worn his old glasses? Years? Decades? With Vash, it could be either one but if Vash’s eyes ever did return to their rightful color Wolfwood planned to be there to reclaim his sunglasses back even if he had to wrestle the outlaw to the ground for them.
In Towering Rock, Wolfwood promised himself, he would find the first store and buy a pair, either for him or for Vash. Right now he didn’t care which. What he knew for sure was that he wasn’t going to wear these girlie glasses forever, of course he would never say that out loud, especially with the previous owner around to hear.
Wolfwood looked over at Milly with a smile playing about his lips. He could tell she was happy, she had a small smile on her face even as she fought to keep heavy lids from falling shut.
Wolfwood was beginning to get tired of traveling all the time. It was a wearisome lifestyle and he didn’t want Milly to think that they were going to live their whole lives like this, constantly traveling from one place to another. This wasn’t what he had in mind when they said their “I do’s” to each other. There was a whole life; a dark tainted past he wanted to leave behind and forget ever happened. He wasn’t so naive as to think he could ever totally get far enough away from it though. But he didn’t want his children to inherit any of his past coming back to haunt him or them, he could only try. That was the best any one could do. What he was looking for was a clean break from a sordid and tarnished history with a chance to start anew. That’s what grace was all about. Ah yes, it was good to be clergy... especially married clergy. He grinned until the thought of his past reared up again along with images he wished he could wash out of his memory. The whole lifestyle of a gunman for hire or a hired assassin was one he not only wanted to leave behind but it was imperative that he did so they could settle down somewhere and start a family in relative safety. He sighed, that was exactly what he yearned for. Finding a home with Milly, settling down and raising a brood of little Wolfwoods. The girls looking like her and the boys the spitting image of him, of course. He smiled as he imagined a little gang of identical-looking siblings running around the yard and house. Paradise.
As soon as the alignment on his cross was done they would pay Knives a little social call and send his plant ass back to hell where it belonged, roasting over coals reserved especially for him. Wolfwood was glad he was a believer for he needed to be able to believe that there was going to be some kind of payback for such beings as Knives. He needed to believe that ‘you reap what you sow’ and Knives being a plant should know more about reaping and sowing than anyone.
Wolfwood realized he was grinding his teeth when the pressure in his jaw grew too painful to ignore. Forcing his jaw to relax he took a deep breath to calm himself. It wouldn’t do to pop a vein now before all the fun of taking out Knives started. His jaw was tightening up again. Better to think of something else.
Oh yes. The new eye color that was so in fashion in Vash’s little end of the world. He glanced at Milly again out of the corner of his eye. Before joining the other two for lunch, Milly had given him strict instructions not to bring up the subject of Vash’s eye color just yet. When Vash wanted to talk about it he would bring it up himself and until then the priest was not to point it out.
Wolfwood’s brows knotted. Obviously something else was also going on, again. Milly informed him that he didn’t need to know unless someone else brought it up. Now how in the hell was he supposed to know about what the something was which was going on when it got brought up? And why was it that she always seemed to know these things ahead of him? How was he going to know what ‘it’ was even if they did bring it up if he didn’t know what ’it’ was in the first place! He shook his head as the thoughts buzzed like bees in his head. Milly’s logic is starting to infect me, I almost understood that!
Wolfwood had the sneaking suspicion that everyone else in the car knew what was going on except him. It wasn’t leaving him with a particularly warm, fuzzy feeling either. What he would do, if he weren’t a married man right now traveling with his new wife, would be to grab Vash around his scrawny neck and wring every morsel of information out of him. Patience be hanged!
Red eyes! How in the world was he supposed to ignore the eyes and pretend everything was okay when that unearthly red stared back at him every time he was face to face with Vash? He could ignore it for a while and then all of a sudden it would come over him that this was so very wrong. That’s when it gave him the creeps. He also wanted to know why everyone had to go around on tippytoes and not talk about what was a new reality in their little group? And why was everyone intent on stopping him from asking if anything unusual happened last evening or the night before?
The one thing he knew was that Vash’s eyes were his usual aqua when they left him and Rinnah yesterday when Wolfwood and Milly left them to go to their own rooms. He wondered if anything remarkable or odd went on between the two of them. Sure Vash said no mind stuff went on, but what if something else happened? What could be so secretive that he wouldn’t talk about it, or Rinnah wouldn’t either? From the way they were acting it was almost like they were embarrassed. No, that wasn’t quite right, Rinnah was acting exactly like she was embarrassed. Vash wasn’t acting like anything except his usual close-mouthed self.
Wolfwood’s brow knotted in thought. He knew Milly was already clued in to whatever it was that was going on. It wasn’t like her to seduce him in the car with witnesses, not that she needed to try very hard. He was quite willing to be seduced by her any day of the week, day, hell, any hour of the day! Yet from the way Vash, Rinnah and Milly were acting Vash and Rinnah might as well be.... Wolfwood’s thoughts came to a screeching halt as while all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place and his mouth dropped open in astonishment . “Lord have mercy!” He breathed quietly to himself.
He turned to ask Milly and found an enigmatic smile waiting for him. Then he snapped forward almost hitting the steering wheel as someone from behind smacked him on the back of his head. Rubbing his head he straightened to glare at Vash in the mirror and found a scowl being aimed back at him. The priest would have aired his opinion right then but the fierce look he was getting from Vash let him know that the gunman didn’t want him saying anything. Besides, Milly had her hand on his arm also. From the silent message he was getting from the two of them he knew he was supposed to keep quiet. Damn! Why was everyone treating him like the village idiot all of a sudden? He could be tactful. He could be sensitive, as long as someone warned him first. Hell, he was more tactful than Rinnah!
The priest dropped his eyes from the rearview mirror but could still feel Vash’s glare boring into the back of his head. With a twitch of his shoulders Wolfwood lifted his eyes in a return glare communicating his grudging understanding along with another message of ‘wait until I get you alone’. It was hard to tell from behind those dark sunglasses but he was sure the outlaw got the message when he saw him give a little nod. Good, a corner of his mouth quirked up a fraction.
Then Wolfwood shifted his gaze to get a glimpse of Rinnah. He could only see the profile of her face as she looked out over a landscape filled with a whole lot of nothing that she wasn‘t seeing anyway since her eyes were still closed.
Feeling the gentle weight lift from his arm to cover his hand, he looked down to see Milly’s resting on top of his. Wolfwood always knew she had that certain extra something but when had she acquired a wise earth-mother smile with the calm certainty that all would work out for the best? He hunched his shoulders. Even being a man of the cloth he didn’t have that kind of faith. He sighed and lifted her hand and brought it up to his lips to place a soft kiss of affection there. He looked over to see a smile deepen the corners of her mouth and eyes gleaming with emotion. For him, it was all for him. Right at that moment, if he had any doubts before or after this moment, Wolfwood knew there was a God heaven and He was smiling down with favor on one disreputable priest.
It was nearly night when Wolfwood pulled into the little town of Towering Rock. He sighed with relief and rolled his shoulders trying to get the kinks out of tight-knotted muscles in grateful anticipation that he would be out of the car soon and able to stretch out tired limbs. Turning a few corners he headed in the direction of the home of the retired priest, Eleazar Greylock. A few more turns and he was on the other side of the great stone that rose upward and could be seen for iles around. The rock reached a stony finger skyward undaunted by sand or endless winds and was the reason for the town’s name.
The town of Towering Rock was an unusual place on an already unusual plant. The place only had two plant angels in residence to boast of. The plus side was that Towering Rock hardly needed them as desperately as other towns needed their plant angels. It was the only place on Gunsmoke where that could be said. The wind was a constant unrelenting force from a small breeze to violent gales that was a companion to all the inhabitants every day of the week. Consequently the town was littered with windmills. There were several on every block standing like sentinels over a particular establishment erected to catch the perpetual winds and transform the energy into a form that could be used. The plant angels were utilized but only to augment the power already being generated by the windmills. It was a system that worked well for the town but there was a drawback. Over the years it was found that that only a certain type of individual could stand to live in a place where the wind blew unceasingly. People were known to be driven insane by the incessant howling of the winds that dropped over this part of the desert planet like a sharp talon clawing into their souls and bleeding them dry while snapping their minds in two. It took a specific type of personality blessed, or depending on which way you looked at it, cursed to thrive in the rugged and adverse conditions that were unique to Towering Rock. Needless to say, it was not considered a vacation spot. There were very few people that actually enjoyed the challenges of a difficult environment. These were the ones considered to be flirting with a precarious sense of self-preservation. Some would call it flat out insanity, those personalities not afflicted with a strong sense of mental balance to begin with. Those who enjoyed an unrelenting stiff breeze in the face along with the airborne particles of sand that were blown into every orifice known to man and lodge there, were a hardy bunch of just barely sane lunatics. In Wolfwood’s humble opinion.
Wolfwood stated for the others even if they were asleep, which he doubted, “It’s a real miserable place. I can’t stand being here more than a few days at a time before I need to move on. But it shouldn’t take that long to get my cross punisher fixed.” He had no idea if anyone heard him or not. To see if anyone was paying attention he remarked, while a mischievous grin spread across his face, “Of course, there is the mandatory orgy newcomers have to attend in order to be allowed to stay....”
He chuckled. Someone was paying attention.
With a smile still on his face, Wolfwood pulled behind a non-descript white brick building, just like all the other white brick buildings on the block. Despite the green awning in the front proclaiming the place as a shoe repair store, Wolfwood knew better. Only a handful that carried the huge cross guns knew the true and secret occupation of the retired priest of Towering Rock. He drove around the back and pulled the vehicle into an empty shed with the doors wide open as if expecting them. It wouldn’t surprise Wolfwood at all to find Eleazar waiting for them, along with cups of tea set out on the table waiting for company to arrive.
Parking the car in the waiting shed he opened the door with a sigh to step out and stretch cramped muscles gone tight and stiff from the long ride. He heard a sharp crick noise as he straightened and could hear Milly grunting as she also stretched out cramped muscles. A sigh sounded behind him as Rinnah moved her legs around with relief. Glancing at Vash over his shoulder he noticed the gunman was standing in the opening of the shed still wearing the priest’s shades. His head was swiveling this way and that as he scanned the area, alert for anything out of place, suspicious of everything. After the week they had just lived through, Vash must have felt it to be a safe precaution to suspect even the most innocent of settings. Not that Wolfwood blamed him, in their profession it paid to be cautious.
Wolfwood looked Vash over. Every line in his long physique was taut and rigid with wariness. Vash’s right hand hovered near his gun ready in an instant for any trouble.
Wolfwood suppressed a grin. Vash couldn’t possibly know this but they were safer in this dingy, run down section of town than any other place on the planet. After working the kinks out of his back and shoulder blades, Wolfwood walked around the car and put a gentle hand on Milly’s shoulder. “How are you doing Big Girl?” He asked with a soft smile.
Milly returned his smile with one of her own and instinctively leaned into him. “I’m good. I’m glad the ride is over though.” She blinked, looking around her still slightly droopy-eyed. One sun was dipping below the horizon and the other was ready to dive down after the first. She started to take a step but swayed to the side for a moment until Wolfwood immediately circled an arm around her waist to steady her. Once she was upright again she grinned her thanks up at him until a yawn replaced it. “Goodness. All I did was sit like a lump in the car all day but instead I feel like I’ve been running along behind it the whole time.”
“Traveling gets tiring Big Girl, we’ll get you some food and get you to bed.”
Milly actually blushed causing him to uncharacteristically blush in response.
“Just to rest, Honey, you need to.... “ Those huge light blue eyes looked up at him with the rays of the setting sun touching the curve of her cheek, that soft mouth and causing her beautiful ruffled hair to glow... “Aw screw it.” And with that, he caught her up to him and gently swung her around in a circle, then smoothly set her down on her feet again to plant a quick kiss on her lips. Looking into her wide eyes he said, “I love you Honey, you know that don’t you?” She nodded, too breathless to speak.
“Hey, hey! Great galloping star holes, give it a break will you, what’s with you two! There are other people who are present and we really don’t want to see this!” Complained Rinnah, stretching up on her toes and raising arms above her head to loosen tight muscles.
Wolfwood smiled at her, gave her a wink and then guided a still blushing Milly over to stand next to Vash and saw the miniscule movement of Vash’s muscles tightening and loosening under his skin. The priest doubted anyone would have noticed it but it didn’t escape his trained eye. Also, it helped that he knew the outlaw pretty well by this point. He also saw when Vash’s shoulders settled back into a comfortable position. Vash must have decided that they were safe as his arms were now crossed in front of him in a waiting position.
Vash half expected his early warning system to tingle but it was silent, as it was the past four or five days, for which he as extremely grateful. The last thing they needed right now was to get involved in another firefight.
“Is this it Nicholas?” Questioned Rinnah as she glanced around but not with the same predator intensity as Vash who was now curiously looking around him with an attitude of waiting patiently for the next thing to happen, whether it be fighting off attackers or settling down for a nice meal.
“Yes, not much to look at, but it’s what’s inside that counts.” The priest gestured. “This way folks. I believe we are expected.”
Wolfwood saw both Rinnah and Vash tense at those words. In their opinion being expected brought up images of running, sweating, swearing, the smell of gunpowder hanging in the air, and dodging bullets. Being expected almost always led to being shot at or being ambushed. Being expected did not conjure up sweet images of sitting down to high tea with a visiting dignitary. Wolfwood could almost see the hackles raising on them as they both began scanning the area with a wary intensity. No, ‘being expected’ was not necessarily a good thing in their book. Maybe he should have used a different expression.
The door to the back of the house swung open with a suddenness that made every one jump a few inches into the air, even Wolfwood who was expecting the owner of the shed to come out and greet them.
“Geez old man! What are you trying to do, us a heart attack here?” Yelled Wolfwood. Vash and Rinnah both came out of their crouches but were slower in lifting their hands away from their revolvers. Neither relaxed out of their watchful stance but stayed hyper-vigilant and tense ready to go on the offensive in a split second if need be.
“Mind how you speak to yer elder lad.” The foursome walked over as the older man’s eye swept over the group, said, “Relax young’uns, it’s jes me, old Eleazar. Won‘t do you na harm, but I kin see ye not into believing that jes yet.”
The old man who addressed them stepped out of the shadows of the deep set doorway and into the ray’s of the sinking suns so they could get a good look at him. A drooping iron gray mustache proceeded him and it was the first thing that caught their eye. His gray hair bristled about his head, sticking out in strange angles in a mass of small spikes. His face was deeply marked by two scars down one side pausing to slide under an eye patch over his right eye. They came out the bottom of the patch and continued from there to the edge of his jaw line. The eye that studied them was as iron gray as his mustache and hair, meeting theirs with a strength of a sharp-edged weapon hinting at even more mysterious depths than what showed on the surface.
Eleazar Greylock of Towering Rock smiled and as he did so the mustache lifted and a twinkling warmth filled his eye. Rinnah couldn’t take her eyes off of him and wondered if anyone else saw the same thing she did. He was as safe as a ship’s neuron phase beams on stand by. He was as peaceful as the radioactive core of a ship‘s engine. She wasn’t sure if she even wanted to see what he looked like when in attack mode.
The gray eye missed very little in as it swept over them in appraisal. With a glance he took in their weary and travel-stained appearance. Nodding, he threw out his arm toward the door and invited them in, offering friendship and rest. Wolfwood started toward him dropping his arm from around Milly’s shoulders so she could go in ahead of him. Rinnah and Vash followed in his wake.
Wolfwood couldn’t wait to see how everyone would react to this even-more-than-usual priest, retired priest that is. Eleazar knew things, things he wasn’t supposed to know, deep, unknown things that, at times, made people uncomfortable to be around him. It even gave Wolfwood a shiver down his spine now and then. Yet for all his knowing the priest-smith was a closed-mouth old man, rarely sharing what he knew. Otherwise, he was just an irritating old codger. Wolfwood shook his head, he remembered many a-time when he felt those arthritic old knuckles rap him on the head for everything from not paying attention to cussing, and those knuckles were hard as marbles too.
Holding the door open, Eleazar motioned for them to enter. Wolfwood extended his hand in front of him for Milly to go on ahead of him. As she passed by the older man she practically bloomed under the warm regard directed toward her. The old man received one of her plant-generated smiles beamed at him. He chuckled as she went by but laid a hand on Wolfwood’s arm to detain him. Looking up at the younger priest, he said, “Take special care of that one lad, because Heaven leans down to listen and give regard to her prayers. She’s a rare one she is.”
Wolfwood smiled agreement, “don’t I know it.”
Stepping into the back of the shoe repair shop he crossed over and joined Milly next to a circular table in in the kitchen area at the far end of the room. Milly was in the act of unbuttoning and shedding her coat. Draping it over a chair she proceeded to make herself at home by checking the water on the stove to see if it was hot enough to make tea. When she was satisfied it was she carried the steaming teakettle over to the table and poured water into the three mugs and the tea bags, letting the tea steep. Returning the kettle to the stove she came back and sat down in the chair next to Wolfwood who took her hand in his and smiled at her.
Meanwhile, Eleazar also stopped Vash and Rinnah at the door before allowing them to enter. First he peered up into the dark glasses totally covering any glimpse of Vash’s new eye color. Then he looked the half-breed over.
He reached for Rinnah, pulled her up close to him and whispered in her ear, “Ye’ve lost home and family have ye now lass?” Rinnah’s eyes immediately teared up. How could he possible know that? She could only nod. The priest-smith smiled and patted her arm. He waited kindly as she struggled to not cry. A few simple words shot like an arrow into the center of her heart. He leaned in again and said softly to her, “Ye’ve a home and a place for ye to rest ye self, ye‘ll be finding it nae doubt.” With a final pat on the arm, he stood aside and in stunned silence she passed by him.
Vash saw the immediate change in Rinnah’s posture and the near stumble as she entered the house. He watched her disappear through the door before turning an intimidating frown at the man. With the corners of his mouth down-turned, he started forward, daring the man to say anything to him. Without seeming to move the old priest suddenly filled the entryway blocking it so quickly that Vash couldn’t go through unless he either plowed over the old man or moved him aside first.
Vash came to a stop and eyed the old priest. He didn’t doubt he could easily deal with the human, but he didn’t want to and also, he was feeling an unfamiliar wash of power coming off the man. It was a bit confusing. Not like Legato, not like a plant’s, not like any human he had ever encountered before this. Now he frowned in puzzlement but even as he did a cold, hard wall come down deep within him as he fixed his eyes on the old man, his manner and stance radiating antagonism and hostility in palpable waves.
Eleazar of Towering Rock just stared at him for a few heartbeats. Unlike his brief halting hand on Wolfwood and Rinnah, he didn’t attempt to touch the stiff form of the outlaw.
“Worried about the eyes are ye lad? It won’t hurt none so don’t ye be worrying on it, there are other things to worry ye more. Mind them and solve one riddle at a time.”
With a deliberate and measured movement of his arm Vash reached up with one hand and slid Wolfwood’s sunglasses off his face. Then he lifted his head so the old man could look him in the face and view, without obstruction, the crimson of his eyes. He let the priest get a long good look at red eyes that, unknown to him, were glowing in the fading suns’light.
“Old man, eyes aren’t supposed to be red, now if you know something I don’t just tell me straight out. Don’t give me riddles or puzzles. I don‘t have the time nor am I in the mood for games.” Vash said it softly but with menace lacing his words.
“Nah lad. Ye’ve enough worries, don’t crowd others out needing ye to attend them. Ye are right, human eyes aren‘t supposed to be red now, are they?” With a slight grin he nodded his head to indicate he was finished speaking.
Stepping aside to let Vash enter, he shook his head sadly.
Vash would have been furious but was too taken aback that Eleazar seemed to know what he was. Entering the room, he paused until he saw the table and then stalking over to it tight with growing disquiet and anger. Milly and Wolfwood were already sitting there waiting for their tea to get cool enough to drink. Rinnah was lowering herself into another chair lost in thought.
Wolfwood’s forehead wrinkled at Vash’s apparent and abrupt mood change. “Now what Needle Noggin?”
“Crazy old coot!” Vash grated out through tightly clenched teeth. Both Rinnah and Milly looked up at him wondering what had happened between the two to cause this reaction.
“Oh,” The priest shrugged, “Thought you were going to tell me something new.” Milly giggled.
“You didn’t tell him...” Vash started to ask with an edge in his voice.
Wolfwood‘s eyebrows shot up. Here he thought the days of Vash suspecting him of not being trustworthy were over. Guess not. However he hurried to put Vash‘s concerns to rest. “Not a thing about you. What he knows, he knows. He didn’t get any information from me.”
“I like him. He’s nice!” Milly interjected happily.
“You would. You like everyone Milly, even degenerates if they gave you a half a chance.”
“Now Mr. Vash, that’s not true....”
“Honey, it’s as close as one can get to the truth without stepping on it and making it squeal. Accept it. You like people of all sorts, shapes and sizes.” Milly smiled in response, picked up her mug and blew the steam in a horizontal stream. Milly thought over their opinion before tilting her ahead in agreement. She did like people. She couldn’t help it. And she especially liked Mr. Eleazar even just meeting him for the first time. Right away she could tell he was like family she was meeting for the first time. Se could tell though that both Vash and Rinnah were disturbed by something he must have said to them.
Propping her elbows on the table as Vash pulled out his chair and sat down, she noticed how his eyes roamed around the room taking in the setting. That made her curious so she started looking too and noticed the room they were in was a rectangular shape with four doors, one situated on each wall. The door they came in through, against the back wall, was the one to the outside. The door on the wall opposite must lead to the front part of the shoe repair shop. She was guessing that the door on the same wall as the stove led to the bedroom, but the door on the wall directly facing it, now that was a mystery. She couldn’t think what that would lead to. Dismissing it as not important it for now, she went back to studying the ace gunman as his eyes swept over the room inspecting it. She noted that he didn’t put the sunglasses back on but tucked them away in an inside pocket of his black coat. Having made it, she could probably guess which pocket.
Vash’s eyes wandered about the room, looking over the shelves neatly stacked with leather of different sizes, colors, and thickness. Knives of all shapes and sizes were hung in carefully ascending order from smallest to largest on a pegboard. Leather, cloth, and cord shoelaces were hung on another board, also according to length sizes. Different shoe models lined another shelf. Next to it was another shelf filled with shoes and boots in all stages of completion or repair. On the next shelf over were finished products with slips of paper attached to each one indicating the owner and the amount owed for the finished work. Vash studied all of it carefully and felt his opinion of the peculiar old man climbing. He appreciated a true craftsman and could tell the old priest put his heart into his profession and he was an artist, it wasn’t just a job to him.
Milly inhaled, taking the sharp tang of leather, along with a clean sharp smell of herbs hung from a lattice hanging from the ceiling. She sniffed again. It reminded her of home and she felt a wave of homesickness come over her for just a moment. Then she smiled and looked over at Wolfwood who was busy stirring his tea. She didn’t care where they went because she would be at his side for however long it was given to her to be with him.
Milly sighed happily and then turned to include Rinnah in her furtive study. Mr. Vash and Rinnah were acting odd, more oddly than usual for the past week. Milly knew why but still thought they were acting more like juvenile human children than plants. Milly stopped her train of thought for a moment. How did juvenile plants act? She didn’t know, but she wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that they acted just like humans. For the many differences between the two races, there were also just as many similarities. For one thing, the boy and girl thing between them was just as confusing and mixed up as humans, or maybe they were making it harder than it needed to be. She rolled her eyes in exasperation.
They were too busy trying to act casual in front of others, in this case, Milly and Wolfwood. In Milly’s opinion they weren’t doing a very good job of it and even though she knew what had happened, she also knew they slept apart while the group had traveled to Towering Rock. Everything was so tense and awkward between them. Milly frowned over the rim of her cup; it was like being in grade school all over again. Mr. Vash may be over a century old but in some ways he acted like an adolescent. Milly caught the quick darting looks he and Rinnah sent each other’s way when they thought the other wasn’t looking. Her frown dropped and she shook her head in affection for the both of them.
Breaking into her thoughts came the sound of approaching boots. She looked up to find Eleazar standing by the table his one eye dancing over the tired group with a friendly twinkle.
Wolfwood cleared his throat and nodded to the old priest. “Eleazar this is Milly, my wife, “ his extended hand gestured to Milly who dimpled a smile back at the old man and reached out her hand for him to shake. With a chuckle, priest reached over and enveloped her softer one in his work-hardened and calloused palm, apparently charmed by her friendly and gracious demeanor. Wolfwood pointed to the hybrid, “This is Rinnah Blackfire, and don‘t panic but” he jerked a thumb in the outlaw‘s direction, “here we have Vash the Stampede.”
“I hate it when you use my full name.” Despite being so recently irate Vash was able to joke with a hint of a smile. Wolfwood stared, blinked, completely caught off guard, but then smiled, remembering.
“Get over it Needle Noggin. I’m not going to even try to use that weird made-up name of yours.” He mimicked in a singsong voice, “‘Don’t hesitate to call‘ he says to me, like I would try to repeat that, you skinny, broomheaded...”
“Nicholas.” Interrupted the priest-smith.
“Huh?” Wolfwood came to with a start. “Oh yes.”
Milly laughed while Rinnah looked back and forth from one to the other not getting the joke. They think the things I say are weird. I got news for them. Finally she exhaled quietly and then she noticed that an earthenware mug was placed in front of everyone around the table except her. She began looking around for her mug. Just when she was about to open her mouth to ask if she was even going to get a mug, an arm reached around in front of her and placed one near her hand. Rinnah was prepared to take a token sip to show what a good guest she was since she could smell the aroma of spiced tea wafting up from the other mugs. Not overly excited she lifted the mug and looked down thinking it was an odd color for tea. Then the aroma hit her nose and unbelieving, she took a deep whiff inhaling the fragrant smell of hot cocoa. With joy she closed her eyes pulling in another breath and smiled at the warm fragrance, smooth as velvet to her nose. Sighing, then taking a sip she looked up at the old man.
Tilting her head in puzzlement she asked, “How did you know I don’t like tea?”
He only chuckled in answer, which was no answer to Rinnah's’ way of thinking.
Turning that sharp gray eye on Wolfwood who squirmed like schoolboy caught putting a tack on a fellow student’s chair; a smile lifted the corners of his mustache.
“Well lad, did ye forget something?” He chuckled again at Wolfwood’s sudden changing expression.
Rinnah was coming to the conclusion that the old man apparently thought they were an amusing bunch of people although she couldn‘t figure out what it was about them that lent itself to mirth of any kind.
Still, Wolfwood’s reaction surprised both Rinnah and Vash. The younger priest barked a curse, exploded out of his chair and dashed out the back door. The door swung shut behind him with a bang that made everyone jump. Vash and Rinnah were tense and sitting rigidly listening for any sound out of the ordinary. Both laid cautious hands over the grip of their guns wondering what was going on and if they should follow Wolfwood out into the descending night.
Not acting the least bit concerned, Eleazar remarked while shaking his head, “Boy’s got a mouth on him I couldn’t ever get rid of.”
Soon Wolfwood was back with his cross-punisher over his shoulder and an abashed look on his face. He was baffled. It wasn’t like him to be so absent-minded to the point he forgot his cross punisher! Some cross priest he was! It was embarrassing, that’s what it was. Somehow it had totally slipped his mind.
With a sheepish grin on his face and his free hand rubbing the back of his neck he said, “Sorry Eleazar! I... I’ve never done this before!”
The priest-smith waved away the explanation. “No need lad, it’s totally excusable for a newly married young feller. Jes don’t let it happen again. All of ye lives could depend on yon cross.”
Wolfwood nodded, still kicking himself. This was unacceptable. To choose to leave it behind is one thing, but to forget it altogether? Disgraceful.
Eleazar reached out a hand saying, “Let’s take a look at the little lady and see what this old man can do for what’s amiss with her.”
The younger priest handed over his cross punisher without hesitation.
With a deftness and strength that belied his age, the priest-smith took it with one hand and twirled it around several times concentrating on the spinning cross. Wolfwood showed no surprise though the eyebrows of the rest of the group raised at this display of casual strength.
“You’re pretty remarkable for an old geezer.” Rinnah voiced in amazement when she found her voice.
A gray eye twinkled as he looked at her. “Thank ye lassie, but no more remarkable than any of ye. Jes plain folk.”
Vash couldn’t stop the soft grunt of skepticism that escaped out of him earning him the priest-smith’s gaze and a small knowing smile.
Turning his attention back to the merciful weapon in front of him, with one hand the older man hefted the cross a few inches off the ground, shook it slightly, set it down and repeated the maneuver a few more times until he was satisfied. He set it down and leaned on it to look at Wolfwood.
“She’s off several centimeters ain’t she lad? What have ye been doing with her?”
“Yeah she is, a little.” Wolfwood rubbed the back of his neck while replying, “Nothing really... hardly much... at all.”
“Uh huh.” Muttered the priest but he didn’t press the issue.
“Laddie, hand me that pouch on the bench there.” Already running his fingers up and down the length of one of the arms, he took the pouch that Wolfwood carried over without looking away from the cross. Taking a small tool out of it he stared at it moment before nodding approval.
Vash eyed the tool. It didn’t look anything like a standard gunsmith tool. Instead it looked more like something that would hang as a pendant on a necklace, long and skinny with a twist at one end.
Humming to himself the old man looked over the other tools before choosing several more, looking each one over with a critical eye before pulling it out of the pouch.
Vash felt his skepticism rising. Those little pieces of jewelry were going to be used to fix the cross-punisher? He eyed the tools doubtfully and wondered if this so-called priest-smith was as good as Wolfwood believed.
“Aye, that’ll do it. Now the grand lady and me need to spend some time in the chapel together.”
Vash’s eyebrows rose even higher if possible, which didn’t escape Eleazar’s eye.
“What is it lad? Ye were expecting maybe an anvil and forge?”
“No.” He replied slowly, “But something other than a chapel.”
“She’s used for the Lord’s work...”
Vash didn’t hear the rest as he shot Wolfwood an inquisitive look but Wolfwood wasn’t looking at him. Vash had seen the priest fight with the cross punisher on numerous occasions in the past and decided that there must be some flexibility allowed in the interpretation of the rules as to what was meant in the phrase, ‘the Lord’s work’. Wolfwood was thoroughly ignoring the intent look Vash was giving him as he stared up at the ceiling as if intrigued by the sight. Right. Vash thought so.
“...Like knights of old with a blessed blade. There’s the work you see and then there’s the work you don’t see. I’m fixing to do both at the same time.”
With a tilt of her head Milly said, “I don’t understand.”
“That’s fine if ye don’t lass. It’s for me to fix and for him to use.” Here he pegged the younger priest with his gaze. “Not to abuse, hear me lad?”
Everyone could practically hear Wolfwood swallow before he nodded his head in quick affirmation.
Then with a gleam of humor in that one orb the priest-smith went on, “”Been using it as a mallet to hammer the ungodly have ye lad?”
Wolfwood actually broke out in sweat. Rinnah felt sorry for him and wished she could do something to help make him feel better. All she had was her mug of cocoa in front of her. She pulled the mug closer to her. There was no way she was going to offer him a sip, it was hers, all hers. Then she saw Milly place a hand on his and smile at him. Everyone could see him perk up immediately from just that one touch.
With a small chuckle fluffing out his mustache, Eleazar said, “Never ye mind lad. I know ye well. Jes ‘member, it wasn’t made for hitting, it is for punishment of the guilty and a symbol of mercy for those in need.” He kept a kind eye on the younger man who was still relaxed as Milly’s hand rested on his. He did mumble something unintelligible in return though.
“What’s that lad?” The priest-smith cupped a hand behind his ear. “Did ye say something? If ye did, ye need to speak up. Keep in mind I’m an old man and hard o’ hearing.”
“Old man my cross hairs! You’re...” and tapered off as Eleazar held up a finger. “Right. Sorry. I’ll try to be more careful.”
“Of course ye will lad.”
Without effort he lifted the cross and started for the door that Milly wondered about saying, “I’ll be in me chapel, that’s workshop to you Mr. Stampede, if ye’ll be needing me. Be ye at home as I sure’n I won’t be waiting on ye tonight.” A chorus of thanks followed the old priest out of the room.
The four stared after him for a moment and then turned to each other and finally three pairs of eyes turned back to Wolfwood.
“What!” He looked around at his friends as their gazes came to rest on him.
Milly laid her other hand with her first one; “we like your friend Nicholas...”
“But he’s dashed odd!” Interrupted Rinnah before taking another sip.
“Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way...” Milly mused with a thoughtful expression on her face. “Although there is something different about him...”
“One bullet shy of a loaded gun...” Added Vash with a shake of his head.
“Oh you’re a fine one to talk!” Rinnah tried to scoff but ended up covering a yawn.
Wolfwood wasn’t thinking at all. He was caught up in staring into his beloved’s face and those soft blue eyes... hey, wasn’t it time to retire for the evening?
As if hearing his thoughts a female stood up. The wrong one though, thought Wolfwood with a rueful sigh.
Rinnah carried her mug over to the sink, washed it out and set it out to dry saying as she did so, “I’m tired. I’m gonna find a room. Night everyone.” Milly’s goodnight chirped above the he lower grunts from the men at the table.
The three companions were silent for a moment in that lull between conversations, filling the void with taking drinks from their mugs and looking down at the table or off into the distance in thought.
However in mere moments Rinnah was back in the room to break up the companionable silence. Looking a little flustered she addressed Wolfwood, “Nicholas, I can only find two rooms.”
Wolfwood looked over at her still somewhat preoccupied by his recent thought and was unable to comprehend what her problem could be. “Yeah? So?”
Milly was on her feet instantly and started for the door. “Let me see, maybe we can work something out.”
Wolfwood looked blank. What was that all about? Vash’s red eye caught his. “What!” He was beginning to hate this feeling of not knowing what was going on and being left out of the loop.
Vash stood up, “I think I know.”
Vash had only taken a few steps when it dawned on Wolfwood what it was that was ‘going on’ and with an loud oath he stated emphatically to the departing gunman‘s back, “Oh no! I am not sleeping in a room with you again Needle Noggin! Not going to happen! Do you hear me! Not going to happen!”
Vash leaned back around the door with a sardonic grin on his face, “Believe me, I’m counting my blessings!” And with that his white-spiked head disappeared around the doorframe.
“Ha! Like I believe that, spiky!” Grunting softly he swirled his tea with such vigor that it sloshed out over his hand. With a curse he reached for a napkin. “Not going to happen!” He muttered to himself insistently.
Vash followed the sound of feminine voices down the long, narrow hall. The first door he came to was situated on the left. The door was wide open and showed a large bedroom with a huge bed and heavy, dark-colored dressers, tables and chairs. Doilies, fake flowers, and pictures were scattered throughout the room in strategic places. One look around and he knew why Rinnah passed it by as a choice. It looked like a honeymoon suite and she was leaving it out of consideration for the newlyweds.
Next was a bathroom, also on the left and alongside it was a linen closet with the door already open. Across from the linen closet was another larger closet. A few more steps and he found a small study on the right side. He noted the voices were getting clearer and more distinct the closer he came to the end of the hallway. He threw a quick glance at the study before moving on a few more steps to until he came to the last doorway.
Looking around him with a sour disapproving expression he took in the set up of the hallway and bedrooms. It would be difficult to escape from if they were surrounded and needed to leave in a hurry. Not impossible, but difficult.
This room was also on the left of the hall with the door open. It was from here the sound of Rinnah and Milly’s voice originated.
Stopping in the doorway he cast a look around the room. It was smaller then the first bedroom with slightly smaller bed. There was also less furniture in it, just a dresser and a nightstand with a lamp on it. There weren’t any pictures or flowers in this sparsely furnished room. This room only had a shade covering the one window while the other one had curtains with flowers on them. Vash guessed that at one time a woman had lived here or still did to leave the soft touches around, but Eleazar didn’t mention any wife, sister or daughters though.
Letting his gaze settle on the two women facing the bed the usual stiff expression on Vash’s face softened a fraction. Then as if realizing that his mask was slipping he instantly shifted his expression back to the standoffish look with a forbidding frown to emphasize his mood.
Even though her back was to him, if he knew Milly, and after all this time he was pretty sure he did, she was busy tapping one finger against her chin as she thought. They were still trying to solve the perceived problem.
Vash arrived just in time to hear her say, “Well, I still think the floor would be way too uncomfortable. But, it should work if you and I took a room and the boys can sleep in the other room.” Then with a nod, “Yes, they will need the bigger bed.” Rinnah laughed quietly as in her mind’s eye she pictured the two men in a tug of war with the blankets along with flung curses and flying fists. She was pretty sure that neither man would be happy with whatever solution she and Milly came up with.
With a grimace at the thought of having to be roommates with Wolfwood again, Vash spoke up to announce his presence, “I know of one priest who will not go along with that idea at all.”
The two women whipped their heads around, startled to find him there. So intent on their own conversation they didn’t hear him coming down the hall. Leaning against the doorframe he cocked his head to the side with a mocking smirk.
“Oh Mr. Vash, you spooked us!” She shook a scolding finger at him. “You really shouldn’t sneak up on people like that!” Rinnah was frowning in agreement with her friend, hands on hips ready for a fight whether it be verbal or otherwise.
Walking into the room he stopped several paces from Milly to look down into her face with an affectionate smile. “Sorry Mrs. Wolfwood. I’ll to remember not to spook you in the future.” Then looking at Rinnah’s storm-waiting-to-break countenance he raised an eyebrow in return challenge.
Crossing his arms in front of him he said, “Milly would you leave please.” It wasn’t said as a question.
Milly darted a look over at Rinnah whose brow promised thunder and eyes were beginning to flash with glittering sparks of blue. Milly thought it an excellent suggestion to depart before the storm front moved in. It didn’t look like this little room was going to be safe for humans soon. As she nodded and made haste for the hall, she stopped by the door, hand on the knob and brightly inquired, “Open or shut?”
Rinnah’s eyes didn’t move from a fraction of an inch from Vash’s face but said, “Open.”
Vash countered, “Shut.”
Rinnah vehemently insisted at him, “Open!” Hands clenched into tight fists at her side.
Though he narrowed his eyes the smoldering of flame-colored eyes blazed out at them. Unaware of their effect on others, Vash growled out, “Shut!”
Milly quickly weighed her options and decided red won out when he stabbed those unnatural crimson orbs at her. Disturbing and scary overrules peeved every time. Quickly shutting the door behind her Milly moved down the hall at a hurried pace.
Vash turned to face the irate woman with the glare of impending doom on her face directed straight at him.
Slowly he advanced on her and spoke in a near whisper that caught her full attention; “can I prove something to you?”
“You already have. You’ve lost all pretence of sanity days ago.”
With raised eyebrows she queried, “What more is there to prove? That you are actually mentally stable?”
Although quipping back at him she started to take steps backwards and to the side as she angled for the door. She really had to save him from himself. He couldn’t possibly be in his right mind.
“I made a promise. I don’t make promises lightly and I always keep them once I make them.” He reminded her.
Was that all? That was easy enough to take care of. “Oh well, think nothing of it, I hereby free you from all promises,” she gestured, “made in my direction.” There, she thought with a smug grin.
With a blurred step he was directly in front of her looking down into her face.
“Would you stop doing that!” The command exploded out of her without thinking.
“More so than the eyes?” He asked curiously wondering why the eyes didn‘t trouble her as much as the display of uncanny speed did.
“Yes, if you must know, way more weird! I hate it, it bothers the hell out of me so stop doing it!” She made an attempt to step back but the back of her knees bumped into a chair.
With a lifted eyebrow he mused that it was interesting that the thing she complained of bothering her the most was something she would do herself and not the abnormal color change of his eyes. Most interesting.
With a quirk of his lip at her still annoyed expression he caught her up in long, lean arms and whirled her up and around as he fell back and to the side, taking her with him. She let out a yelp that made him grin but the surprise effect didn‘t last long. By the time they were rolling he had a spitting, furious wild cat in his arms. When they came to a stop, he effectively had her pinned with his weight and heard a grunt of surprise erupt out her.
“I always keep my promises.” And brought his face down muffling any replies from her.
Smiling Milly headed down the hall with a quick step trying to outdistance the sounds she was hearing. Exiting the hallway she shut the door behind her to find Nicholas staring off into space. With a surprised look he turned and saw a light blush spreading over her cheeks.
Wolfwood held up a hand to forestall what she opened her mouth to speak. “Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.”
Then gesturing to the empty chair next to him he said, “I was just wondering if I should join everyone in the great room debate.” With a grace which wasn’t always seen in someone of her height Milly moved to take a seat and gave Nicholas her full attention.
Aiming a firm look at her wide sky blue eyes, he declared, “Just keep in mind that in the future if someone should ask, we are not, I repeat not, sleeping separately from each other. I am not sharing a bed with anyone other than you! Understand?”
“Yes dear.” Milly smiled at him with a twinkle in her eye.
Wolfwood wasn’t impressed with her answer. It lacked the authentic ring of sincerity he was looking for. Leaning forward on his forearms he stared Milly straight in the eye to convince her that he profoundly and deeply meant what he said about this matter. This was something that was not up for discussion.
“I mean it Honey.” He said with a frown. “I’m putting my foot down.”
“Of course dear.” She replied too calmly, staring at him with a contented gaze.
Wolfwood eyed her distrustfully. Somehow he wasn’t reassured that he was coming out of this argument with the matter settled for all time to come. In fact, it felt like he wasn‘t being taken seriously. He pressed his lips together in a thin line.
“Are you hearing what I am saying? I am not sleeping with any more notorious outlaws and I don’t care what color they can turn their hair or eyes!”
Wolfwood let his head drop and then with a shrug of his shoulders gave up. It was time for a change of subject, she was agreeing with him but it seemed like every time she did, he was taking a step backwards. How did she do it? In such a sweet way too.
Inwardly admitting defeat he asked, “Would you like another cup of tea Big Girl?”
“Yes, but I would rather have...”
“Here.” Wolfwood pulled out a can of pudding out of his pocket and placed it front of her. It was worth keeping it hidden all this time just to see her eyes light up like that. She looked up at him with eyes beginning to swim as she reached over and popped the lid off the can and then reached for a spoon.
Milly wasn’t used to other people remembering her and if they did, it was usually as the human wall standing behind Meryl and backing her up. Usually Meryl was the one who got all the attention. Not that Milly minded. Meryl only tried to get attention in the interests of her job, like the time she tried to get a whole town to stop shooting and chasing after the infamous outlaw, Vash the Stampede.
It was easy to be passed over when compared with Meryl’s firecracker personality. People noticed Milly but usually to look up and down her tall frame and remarked on how tall she was, for a girl. Along with that frequently came the inevitable question, ‘just as hot up there as it is down here?‘ Since Milly was, for the most part, soft spoken and easygoing she could usually escape the other people’s notice if she so chose. There were exceptions of course, helping people in need and pudding. In those situations she was known to get very vocal. Usually she didn’t let the less important tings in life bother her.
The upshot was, Milly was easily overlooked in the shuffle. Now all of a sudden here was someone who promised to be hers and to love and cherish her for the rest of their lives together. This someone with his dark hair and dark silvery eyes, who thought, no believed, she was the most important person on the face of the planet and treated her like that way too. It still boggled her mind.
Cheeks flushing a wee bit, Milly took a bite of her pudding, hmmm, chocolate and caramel. Not bad. “Thank you Nicholas. This was so thoughtful of you.”
A tear slipped out of corner of her eye unnoticed at first until followed by the second one. Then the flood came. Setting down her cup and spoon, she dropped her head into her hands sobbing. Instantly Wolfwood was besides her wrapping an arm around her totally clueless as to why the tears were flowing. Instinctively he knew she needed to be held whether he could help solve the problem or not, if he could even figure out what it was going on.
In response she threw her arms around his neck and turned to press her face into his lapels.
“I...” have absolutely no idea what this is all about. He thought as he slowly rocked his wife in his arms.
“Honey. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” She wailed tightening her grip around his neck.
This was going to be more of challenge then he first believed.
“Nothing? Are you sure?”
“You love me!” She sobbed out.
He stopped rocking. With a wrinkled brow he considered her remark. This was a problem? If he had a hand free he would have used it to scratch his head in bewilderment. Sure he loved her. He married her didn’t he? That was a simple, bullet-straight-from-the-barrel-of-the-gun logic, which he doubted would work here.
“You are my life...” only to stop as she started crying harder. Okay, that wasn’t going to work. He glanced at the ceiling and mouthed pleas to his boss upstairs to have mercy on one disgraceful priest slightly tarnished around the edges for some much-needed inspiration. He was out of his depth and wasn‘t afraid to admit it. Hoping he was being heard he breathed a small prayer and started again. He cleared his throat.
“Milly...” He heard her sniff then a muffled reply came softly...”Yes?”
“I love you. Always will, forever.” He gently lifted her chin to so he could look into her eyes, sparkling with tears over a nose turning a becoming shade of rose petal pink.
Pulling a cloth from her pocket she wiped her eyes and blew her nose.
“Really.” He traced a tear track with a gentle finger. “And long as I am able I will bring you puddings, o love of my heart.” With a tender smile he caressed a calloused palm over her hair marveling at it‘s silkiness. Unfortunately for him the last comment set Milly off crying again and she threw herself at him. Since he was in an awkward position beside her on one knee they both went tipping over falling to the floor with legs and arms flailing about.
Once they were able to untangle themselves and haul themselves off the floor with his helping Milly back into her chair before sitting back in his, Wolfwood remarked as he rubbed his sore back, “Honey, this pudding addiction of yours is going to be the death of me.”
With shining eyes Milly took her husband’s hand in hers and said softly, “I think it is time to retire for the night, don’t you?” She had Wolfwood’s full attention and he was very much interested. He stopped rubbing his back and perked up. Suddenly he wasn‘t feeling any pain at all. “Praise the Lord, I’m healed! Let‘s go!”
Standing up the priest assisted his wife up and encircled her waist with an arm. Looking back over his shoulder he noticed the pudding cup was empty. When? How? He shook his head. She was amazing, this woman of his.
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