"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 16"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG

Inside and Outside of Time

        Something was nudging at the edge of his awareness trying to arouse him to a conscious level from the depths of slumber. Groggily, he tried to open his eyes but found them much too heavy. He was being cradled, buoyed up in a cocoon of warm comfort without pressure points to irritate his skin or muscles and all he wanted to do was yield to the well-being that surrounded him. Every bone in his body was peacefully melted in a floating sensation as he hovered relaxed in the healing jell supplied by his sister. Surrendering to the impression of being gently supported and nurtured in a tender and protective womb, he let himself fall back into an unbroken and deep healing sleep.

        Later, unable to discern the passing of the units of time from where he was, safely being restored to health in his sister’s bulb, he awoke. Still feeling fuzzy with the natural healing forces at work in and around his body he turned lazily to look out the bulb.

        Knives knew someone was standing outside of the globe, waiting patiently for him to wake up. He could feel their presence through the various levels of sleep. It was provoking him and that annoyance was causing him to regain his awareness of where he was and why he was there. Aggravated at first by this interruption of the peaceful relaxation washing over his body and mind, he nearly roused himself to blast the intruder before he realized that it was the technician only doing what he was instructed to do. His job was to monitor the board, the power fluctuations, the flow of the current levels, and make sure that the speed of the healing process stayed at a constant reading and wasn’t rushed or going too slow. Knives had given the man standing orders before he was placed in the bulb that he was to be awakened every six hours. Squelching the irritation he presented his unreadable stone face and thought his question at the man.

        “*How is she?*”

        The balding man bowed slightly to the bulb as he was acknowledged by the superior life form.

        “Master, she complains of the discomfort, which is normal at this stage, but she is also constantly asking about you and for you. What do you wish us to tell her?”

        “*You may tell her that I am healing and that my brother nearly killed me.*” Yes, he thought with a smirk, which will put a nail in the lid of the coffin of where any residual feelings for Vash were kept. Time to make sure the old feelings for Vash were dead and buried beyond the hope of any resurrection. She didn‘t belong to Vash now, if she ever had. She did, however, belong to Knives and he wouldn’t give her up. My enemies shall be her enemies. My children shall be her children. My dream shall be her dream.

        “*You may tell her that I will come to her when I am finished healing here.*”

        The man hesitated for only a second but Knives caught it.

        “*What is it?*” Knives asked with difficulty as he could feel himself being pulled under again into the healing sleep and was having to fight it to concentrate on what the man was saying.

        “Master, when I say she asks about you,...”

        Knives forced himself to look up and at the man and give him his attention as his stomach inexplicably squeezed tight. His sister felt his reaction and concerned, tried to convince him to return to the womb-like depths of the healing sleep. He resisted, telling her he would in a moment but he needed to take care of this first. Unconvinced, she did release her hold for a moment until he was finished with his human business.

        “*What is her condition?*” Asking with more concern in his mental voice then he meant to let out.

        “She questions us all day and hasn’t been eating or sleeping well since we told her that you were recuperating in your sister’s bulb. She has developed dark circles under her eyes and is stumbling when she walks. Do you have any instructions concerning her health?”

        The technician shifted uneasily on his feet. They could have forced her to eat or given her sleeping drug but their Master had been explicit about his instructions concerning her health and the health of the baby. They were not to do anything to her or for her unless by his express permission.

        “*Tell her to eat and I will be out of here soon to visit her. Also, that it displeases me that she is not taking care of herself or the baby.*” There, that should take care of matters. It would only be a couple of more days until he could come out. Satisfied that his wishes would be attended to, he finally let his anxious sister have control again and lull him back to a restful and therapeutic slumber.

        The man bowed, turned and walked out the door to the plant room. When the door swung shut a figure stepped out of a recess startling him. After a gasp of surprise he realized who it was and bowed his head waiting until he was addressed or given leave to depart.

        “How is he?”

        “The Master is doing well and if he stays there the full twelve days or so he will be fully recovered.”

        The figure nodded and gestured for him to continue about his business. He bowed again and left through the outer door closing it softly behind him. Turning to gaze through the glass window into the plant room, the figure contemplated the Lord and Master of this little kingdom with a thoughtful expression.

A New Day in Towering Rock

        The next morning Rinnah was up, dressed, and sitting at the breakfast table before anyone else. Caught in the act of shoveling a mouthful of eggs in when Vash walked into the room she waved a quick greeting before returning her attention to her plate. Eleazar placed a heaping plate of food in front of the empty chair and with a gesture of his hand, indicated for Vash to take it.

        “I remember young men have great yawning pits for appetites. Ye’en be a busy lot with much ado in front of ye all. Sit down laddie and eat up.” Eleazar turned back to the stove.

        Vash eyed the portion dubiously wondering if he could. The plate was nearly overflowing with an enormous amount of food, even for him. Looking up at Eleazar’s back thinking it ironic that here he was so much older than this old man and still had a ‘young’un’s’ appetite. With a soft grunt he pulled the chair out and sat down.

        “There ye be, fixin‘s to rival your mama‘s any day of the week.” The old priest eye was lost in wrinkled flesh as he smiled at them. “I’ll be right back.” With that remark Eleazar walked over to the door that led to his shop and entered, the door swinging shut behind him.

        Vash looked at the clock over the stove, must be time to open the shop up although it was still early with only one sun breaking over the rim of the horizon.

        Taking the opportunity Vash grinned as he watched Rinnah utterly absorbed in searching for the perfect toasted bread from the plate. Finally finding one to her liking, not too dark, not too light, she began buttering it. She was being overly nonchalant in carefully making sure the butter was spread to every edge and corner. In effect, doing a wonderful job of ignoring him in her endeavors to achieve the perfectly buttered slice of toast.

        Knowing how to get her attention and have some fun at the same time, he leaned toward her and said in a low voice, “See, fun, what did I tell you?”

        Reacting immediately she stabbed a hot blue glare at him, “Shut up!” With a savage swipe she sliced through her toast destroying all her careful work. With a frustrated sound she tossed it back on top of her plate. Fun! The thing was, he was right but she didn’t want to admit it, at least, not to him. She had thoroughly enjoyed herself... dammit!

        “First admit you enjoyed it.”

        Snatching up her ruined toast she flung it at him. She hissed out in a fierce breath. “Alright then if it will shut you up!” The anger fading she lowered her face to hide the blush she could feel rising up her cheeks. “No need to rub it in. You were right, so there, are you a happy plant now?”

        Without giving him time to reply, she grabbed another piece of toast and began to butter it with firm strokes saying, “Soon you will be fine, I will be fine. All of us will be Fine, ... JUST.... FINE!”

        She tossed the second ruined piece of toast back onto the plate and then reached for the bacon. Biting into it savagely she looked up at him daring him to make any smart remarks.

        Cheerily waving his slice of bacon at her before replying, “See, that didn’t hurt to admit.... much!” Chuckling he ducked the bacon thrown at him.

        Vash had more to say but Eleazar chose that moment to return. In each hand he carried a pair of boots, one finished, the other almost complete. He help up a pair of men’s knee high boots saying, “Let me fit ye lad. I think these will do.”

        Vash was astounded. “How did you know...?” He started to ask.

        “That ye needed boots? Simple lad. Someone told me.”

        The outlaw eyed him skeptically, as did Rinnah but tilted her head and studied the boots wondering what they were for.

        As soon as he found out the old man was a shoemaker Vash was planning on asking the old priest if there were any boots in his size on the shelf. His old ones were getting to be good only for mucking out a thomas stall. It was time to retire them, but this was the first time an occasion was available to him to replace his old ones. Briefly he wondered if Eleazar sold sunglasses along with shoes.

        The priest set the one pair down and used his free hand to grab the heels and lift the boots, presenting them to Vash in the same manner as a waiter in a fine restaurant would present a good bottle of wine to a customer. Eleazar watched as Vash, amazed, fastened his gaze the boots. He extended them to Vash for him to take and waited patiently as the outlaw slowly reaching for them.

        The outlaw took them by the tops and pulled them in closer to examine them in detail. The boots were sturdy and solid. He could tell they would be rugged enough to hold up well for a long time to come. Not only that, an added perk was that the fact they were what he would pick out if given the chance.

        Eleazar knelt at the gunman’s feet and asked, “May I lad?” And gazed steadily as he held out his open hands waiting for Vash to choose to place a booted foot in them. Vash hesitated for a moment, unsure, before he did.

        The priest-smith’s agile hands expertly and quickly unfastened the strange buckles on the boots and removed them in short order.

        “Let me see what ye have here now lad. I can tell by the way ye walk that ye will need special care taken in the final finishes so yon boot can fit ye well.”

        Vash stared at the old man’s bent gray head astonished. “By the way I walk?“ He muttered to himself. He didn’t know of anyone who could have even guessed that.

        “Ye’ll have to take off the socks with the boots. I need to see the skin and the what ye have there in order to make some modifications special just for ye.” The old man picked up one foot and ran gentle questing fingers over the bumps, metal pieces, calluses and scars covering the notorious gunman’s feet and ankles.

        To Rinnah’s eye Vash was, all of a sudden, acting uncharacteristically uncertain and shy. Curious she leaned over to see if he had webbed feet or something else equally odd that was different about him. Upon seeing the scars and metal parts embedded in the flesh of his feet she leaned back in her chair. And here she thought it was going to be something strange. Scars. Was that all? She had seen space radiation burns worse than that. Then it hit her how careful he usually was about covering up his scars and not letting other see them. She hadn‘t, well, not until lately at any rate. Giving herself a mental hit for being so unobservant she made a note to be more sensitive the next time. Granted, she rarely saw a person so covered with scars but she had also seen worse disfiguring scars. She pondered the previous night’s activity and smiled, Vash’s scars only made him more interesting.

        Eleazar didn’t seem surprised or fazed by Vash’s unusual feet. All he did was run a couple of fingers over a spot or two and grunt as he assessed the need for support or the need for more give in a certain area.

        Satisfied he nodded for Vash to put his socks and boots back on. Rising to his feet with a groan, his joints creaking, he smiled and informed them, “Stay one more night and these will be ready in the morn.”

        Then turning to Rinnah he reached for the smaller pair of boots and held them out to her. With only her eye to measure them, they looked to be the exact size she wore.

        Wondering how the old man did it she said quiet awe, “You certainly are an eerie old coot.” She studied the boots as she slowly took them from him.

        Eleazar turned to Vash and catching his eye asked, “Lad ye don’t mind me giving your wife a gift, do ye now?”

        The gunman would have greatly enjoyed Rinnah’s reaction and watching her expression if he wasn’t so busy choking on his own spit.

        “No.” He managed to rasp around the tickle in his throat as the old priest looked at him waiting for an answer. “Don’t mind at all.”

        There were odd sounds coming from across the table that sounded suspiciously like the grinding of teeth and growling. Vash avoided looking in direction from which the sounds were coming from, knowing it wasn’t safe to do so at this point in time.

Oh What a Beautiful Morning!

       Wolfwood burst through the door and the sudden flurry of motion announcing his presence caused both gunman and hybrid to startle in their seats. “Good morning all! What a beautiful day! Man it’s great to be alive!” He said with enthusiasm, his chest expanding as he drew in a great lungful of air. Married life was the greatest! Why didn’t he think of getting married sooner?

        Vash cursed silently to himself. The priest had the most incredible timing. He barely was able to slide his last boot on before the priest came around the table. It didn’t matter if the priest had seen him in various stages of undress in the past, he was never comfortable showing his scarred body to anyone.

        Eleazar asked “Where’s your pretty wife?”

        “Right here Mr. Eleazar!” Milly practically sang. Married life agreed with her too.

        Eleazar’s one eye twinkled at her.

        “Sit down all. Son, you do the honors.” He bowed his head while the others turned to stare at Wolfwood. Honors? The younger priest coughed into his fist, a bit embarrassed, before launching into the shortest blessing-the-food prayer on record.

        After the blessing everyone attacked the food with appetites that knew good eating like this was not easy to come by, even with their stocked larder and Milly as their cook.

        Mumbling around a forkful of food Rinnah asked, “Nicholas, you mean to tell that all this time we have been eating unsanctified food when you could have been blessing it? Geez, what kind of priest are you anyway?” Eleazar lifted an eyebrow in Wolfwood’s direction while Wolfwood frowned in return at Rinnah who just smiled at his ire. Milly giggled, Vash snorted, and Eleazar smiled but no one slowed down their intake of a glorious breakfast to make any other comments until the plates in front of them were emptied.

        Milly’s only comment when she saw the priest-smith place the bread pudding on the table was to wave a spoon in the air with a delighted exclamation of, “Yay! The blessing worked!” Sticking the tip of her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, she grabbed the bowl and began scooping out huge spoonfuls onto her plate as the others watched in amazement at the growing mound in front of her. She looked up to see all eyes on her and not in the least self-conscious about her generous portion asked politely, “Anybody else want some?”

        Everyone spoke at once.

        “No, you go ahead, help yourself. “

        “Take as much as ye want lassie.”

        “I don’t dare, I could be taking my life in my hands.”

        “Honey, is that going to be enough for you?”

        Milly ignored the comments swirling around her and scooped the rest onto her plate with a small satisfied smile of contentment.

        All in all, it was one of the best breakfasts they experienced. The group was relaxed and soon they were all laughing at quips and jokes thrown around instead of food. Milly placed a hand over her stomach to hold aching muscles, Rinnah sported a cheek-slitting grin, and Wolfwood was laughing freely and loudly. Vash only allowed a small smile to lighten his features as the others laughed freely. Eleazar’s deep laugh accompanied theirs while flooding the room as they told stories of their encounters and Milly even had a chance to share some family legends.

        Milly couldn’t put her finger on what exactly it was that was making the difference but at the moment she didn’t care. It was a good thing to be able to enjoy the time they were sharing together.

        Rinnah saw Eleazar making coffee at one point and reached for a mug with ivy leaves painted around the rim. Must be an old cup she thought, who would know what an ivy plant was by now? She watched him as he checked to make sure the pot was finished perking and then grab an oven mitt so he could pick it up.

        Turning back to the table, he gestured with the pot, “Any ’un want a cup of hot joe for the morning?”

        Both priest and outlaw nodded and not to be outdone, Rinnah‘s vehement nod clearly outdid theirs in enthusiasm.

        Placing the mug in front of her, both hands encircling it with a hopeful expression on her face, she patiently waited. To her way of thinking Eleazar was agonizingly slow in pouring Wolfwood and then Vash a cup before heading for Milly’s cup. She was giggling at something the priest commented on but held her hand up to indicate none for her thanks. Rinnah sat up straighter pushing her mug over but Eleazar passed by returning the pot back to the burner. Mouth slight ajar with growing disbelief she was about to comment when he returned with another steaming mug and placed that in front of her.

        Perking up again, she smiled, elated, until she saw it was hot cocoa again. What the freaking hell? One eyebrow raised in question before lowering to join the other one in a puzzled frown. What was it with the cocoa all of a sudden? Eyeing the coffeepot with a frustrated glance she pushed aside the empty mug and resigned herself to a coffee-free morning, at least until she got out of the house. The first bakery or diner she came to she was going to order a cup, or a bucket, no a barrel with no holds barred. Frowning at the priest-smith she thought with a good deal of frustration, this is war old man! Taking a first sip she could have groaned. It was very good cocoa, in fact one of the best she had come across in years. It is easier to be angry when there’s something to criticize, but she couldn’t criticize this cup, it was delicious, damn him!

        At the end of the meal everyone carried his or her dishes over to the sink when Eleazar spoke up addressing Wolfwood. “Boy, I’ll do those if ye and yon friend do a few errands for an old, tired priest who was up all night fixing a cross that shouldn’t be needing to be fixed in the first place.”

        Wolfwood growled under his breath but without any bite to it “just can’t leave it alone, can you!”

        “Eh? What’s that lad?” Eleazar said with a smile and then handed Wolfwood a list. “I’m going to take a wee bit of a nap after I’m done cleaning up while ye are out for the day.”

        Milly pulled a paper out of one of her pockets listing everything they needed for their own larder and went over it carefully. Handing the list to the boys Vash and Wolfwood cracked heads as they both leaned in to try and figure out Milly’s handwriting. Wincing and rubbing the sore spots with a few names thrown at each other for good measure, they resumed trying to decipher her writing. It wasn’t a scribble; it was actually very legible and neat, but the writing was so small that it was hard to read. Soon they were frowning and found their noses getting closer and closer to the paper until their cheeks touched and they jumped apart as if an electric shock had been applied to the both of them.

        Giggling, Milly took the list and taking pity on them began reading it for them. They both made a few additions and waited for her to write them down. To their surprise, Milly looked at their requests for a second and then ripped the list in two and gave them one section.

        “What gives Honey? I thought you were going to get supplies?” Questioned Wolfwood as he stared at the half he held in his hand.

        Smiling sweetly at her husband she said, “It’s a long list for just us two to get filled out and besides Mr. Eleazar’s list isn’t very long at all!”

        Wolfwood grumped. Unbeknownst to his lovely wife, he was planning on stopping in at the local saloon as soon as he and Vash were through filling out the priest-smith’s list. A thought had occurred to him the night before that it might be helpful in getting Vash to relax a little. And besides, how long was it since he had done something like that? Ages. He wouldn’t have as much time to relax now with a longer list in his hand. His mouth turned down in some displeasure.

        “And Nicholas?”

        “Yes dear?” Wolfwood put a pleasant face on to look up at her.

        “Don’t get so drunk that you can‘t find your way home.” She waggled a finger at him and then laughed at the dumbfounded expression registering on his face.

        With that both girls started for the door, Rinnah excitedly telling Milly that Eleazar told her about a bakery they could stop in at since it was on the same street as some of the shops they needed to visit.

        Coming to stand next to the priest, Vash clapped a hand on Wolfwood’s shoulder commiserating.

        Wolfwood shook his head lamenting. “How does she DO that?!

        “No idea.”

        “It’s... it’s.. like she can read my mind!”

        “Maybe she can. Maybe she‘s part plant and we never knew it.”

        “That’s NOT funny!” Growled the priest, reaching into his jacket pocket for a cigarette without even thinking until he couldn’t find what his hand was automatically trying to fasten on.

        “Come on. Grinned Vash, “Let’s get the things that crazy old priest wants and be done with it. When we were driving into town last night I spotted this seedy, run-down, disreputable-looking saloon.”

        Wolfwood brightened, “Hey! Way to go Vash! Sounds like our kind of place!”

Girls Day Out


        Rinnah and Milly turned towards the sound of the priest-smith’s voice. He was coming out of the house carrying a brown duster and a couple of hats.

        “Here.” And then indicating Milly with a gesture of his arm, he went on addressing Rinnah, “The lassie here has the right idea. Ye’ll be needing a coat against the wind or it’ll blow sand all over ye. And these hats for tucking up yon hair.”

        Rinnah pulled the coat on and buttoned it up. Now that he mentioned it she did notice the stiff wind but at the angle they were at the full force of it missed them. At the moment they were being sheltered from the worst of it by being in the corner of the courtyard so were protected. When it struck the house just right the shingles on the roof clattered making a rattling noise overhead.

        Grateful, Rinnah smiled thanks as she buttoned up the coat. Milly’s smiled while saying in her lilting voice, “Oh thank you!”. As she took the hat the old priest beamed at both of them. Milly got her hair twisted up and tucked under her hat with an expert twirl of her hands. Then she noticed Rinnah was having trouble with hers. Every time the hybrid tucked her hair up it came sliding back down before she could get her cap pulled down. Soon sizzling curses began to blister their ears as each effort was met with failure.

        While Rinnah was trying unsuccessfully to tame her hair, Eleazar and Milly ignored her as he explained the directions and how they could use the great rock to orient themselves if they should get lost. If they did, they could use that to figure out where anything in town was located and find their way home from there. To be on the safe side, Eleazar handed them a small map with the places they wanted to visit marked on it. Milly accepted it as Rinnah was still busy trying to shove her hair under cap with curses becoming strong enough to make a thomas go cross-eyed.

        With a huge smile and a shake of her head, Milly reached over to help, captured Rinnah’s thick black hair and with an expert twist of her wrist stuck it up under the cap and pulled it down over her trapped hair.

        “Thanks.” Muttered Rinnah eyes lifted up to her brows in an effort to spot any stray, dangling locks.

        Once they were out on the street they stopped to take their bearings. The town was coming to life in starts and spurts with the sidewalks slowly filling up with people moving up and down the street as they made their way to work or to do errands. Shop owners were pulling up shades and putting open signs in their windows getting ready for the new day of making another double dollar.

        The natural formation of Towering Rock was easy to spot rising above the town. The shape of the rock and the set up of the town around it reminded Rinnah of a sundial. From there it wasn’t difficult to determine where the shops were from the given directions. The tallest thing around for miles was the great rock of course, with the next tallest shape in the town being the plant facility and from there they could find the shops they needed.

        Eleazar told them that most of the shops they needed were on the same street as the plant facility located only several blocks from each other and easy to find. Also that they wouldn’t be able to get lost. That was the theory anyway. Rinnah rolled her eyes, she entertained no doubts about their ability to get lost but at least they couldn’t stay lost for long in such a small town with such obvious landmarks. Apparently he had no idea of their ability or luck in doing something that strayed from the norm. She was beginning to admit and accept it, both she and Milly excelled at finding themselves in the middle of trouble, all of it unintentionally of course. Rinnah rubbed a slender thoughtful finger up and down her nose.

        Then, like he knew what she was thinking, he pointed a finger at her, at her! Then he said, “Behave ye’self lass, less ye invite trouble ye can’t chew.”

        He couldn’t possibly be talking to her! She dropped her hand away from her face and gaped at him not sure if she should be feeling insulted or not.

        Well, there was only one thing to say. “Okay.” That was easy to agree to. His warning advice couldn’t be applicable to her since he didn’t include a now giggling Milly in on that. With a hard nudge of her elbow she gouged the giggler in her side which only made Milly giggle all the more.

        Finally they were on their way and as soon as they were out of earshot range Milly leaned over and said out of the corner of her mouth, “It’s funny how well he knows you after only just meeting you.”

        “Not even!” Milly only smiled at Rinnah’s indignant frown and answer; “I don’t know why I am constantly getting accused of that! It’s totally misplaced. I don’t cause trouble! I am well known for not causing it....” Here she paused in thought, reconsidering, “Well; I do have to admit that it does seem to find me though... Oh be quiet! You’re no better than I am!” Milly placed a couple of fingers over her mouth but it didn‘t stop the chuckles from escaping out through amused lips. Rinnah darted a look at her but decided not to make any further comments.

        Moving in the direction they were told, they walked along settling down into the comfortable conversation between companions, chatting about nothing and everything as friends do when sharing a relaxed moment together.

        So involved were they in their discussion that upon turning the corner they were nearly knocked over by the gusts of wind hitting them. For the first time they felt the force of the wind that Towering Rock was so well known for.

        Wincing and holding a hand up to block her face and ducking her head to avoid the constant breeze, Rinnah complained about the grit in her teeth, eyes and ears. Even as good-natured as Milly was she too squeezed her eyes in annoyance and tried to angle her shoulders to cut the force of the wind as it hit her.

        “I can’t think why they didn’t name this place ‘Windy Freaking Rock‘! Or even, ‘Here’s Sand In Your Face, Rock!’” Sarcastically she continued, “But no, they had to go and make it sound pleasant, like a flipping tourist trap!”

        Milly just nodded. She wasn’t going to risk getting sand in her mouth by responding.

        It was hard to keep their eyes on the plant facility in the distance while their heads were lowered to prevent the sand debris from scouring their faces. Relief only came when they turned another corner and the wind came at them from the side.

        “Whose bloody idea was it to build a town here!” Demanded Rinnah as she brushed the fine dust off her shoulders. Making a face, she shook her fist at the indifferent wind.

        “Oh it wasn’t their idea to build a town here, the founders had no choice, this is where they had to put the town,” Responded Milly, shielding her mouth and eyes with an upheld hand. “A ship crashed not far from here so that’s how come the town came into being. I don’t think anyone would deliberately want to live in a place like this. At least I wouldn’t, not for long anyway.”

        “Star holes! Couldn’t they just roll those plant globes downhill to a better location? It’s not like they are bolted into place. Or are they?” Rinnah glanced at Milly out of the corner of her eye curious.

        Milly was shocked down to the core of her being. What kind of crazy talk was that? No one raised on Gunsmoke would ever say such a thing or even think it. It was another example showing once again that Rinnah was ‘not from these parts’ as she so often mentioned. But, move a plant? Risk endangering a globe? Risk harm or maybe cause the much essential plant energy to be in jeopardy? Her knees felt weak just at the thought. It was the only thing the stranded colonists had that stood between a slow torturous death and eking out any kind of existence on this hell of a planet. So overcome with shock Milly actually stopped walking.

        Her comment already forgotten, Rinnah looked back in surprise when Milly froze. “What? What’s wrong? Was it something I said?”

        Milly blinked. Realizing she was standing still in the middle of the sidewalk staring into space, she gave her head a shake and started up again. It only took several of her long strides to catch up to Rinnah.

        “It’s okay. I just never thought of moving a plant globe. I don’t even know if they can be moved safely.”

        The hybrid already lost interest in the conversation, she wasn’t in the least interested in whether they could be moved or not.

        “Freaking, stinking hellhole of an already blazing sandblasted planet!”

        Milly giggled as she said “You make your opinions so funny Rinnah!”

        “What opinion? That’s a bloody scientific fact!” Rinnah grabbed at her hat as the wind nearly succeeded in snatching it from her head.

        Turning a corner the wind hit them full in the face again causing them to duck their shoulders into the gale. It tugged at their coats, making them hold their hats down on their heads lest they be lifted away, and buffeted them in the face and body with stinging sand. All conversation stopped as both women leaned into the wind desperately looking for the corner where they were supposed to turn. Several more turns and they were out from the main force of the wind. Gazing around they realized they were very near to their destination.

        Rinnah pumped a fist in the air, “Yee haw! We are out of that hurricane! What a relief!”

        “Hey there’s the ...” Milly started to point with her left hand and the light glanced off one finger to sparkle in the sunlight, catching Rinnah’s eye and she grinned.

        It was getting to be a game they played. Milly would waggle her fingers and the light would catch and bounce off her wedding ring while Rinnah would pretend to notice it for the first time.

        “Hey yourself! Let me see your ring!” Rinnah said it and watched Milly turn a delightful pink. Milly blushed but she obligingly held up her hand for her friend to examine her ring and Rinnah made the appropriate noises of appreciation. Milly held up her hand, turning it this way and that throwing off glints of fiery blue and green light.

        For the first time Rinnah realized she didn’t know why there were green stones on the ring. A puzzled wrinkle appeared between her brows and she asked “Why the green stones?”

        The taller girl smiled softly and said, “It’s for the promise that someday this planet will be filled with green meadows and beautiful flowers.” Milly’s usual cheerful expression was replaced by a pensive, somber one for a few seconds. By the time she dropped her hand and looked over at Rinnah, it was replaced once again with her normal, happy smile.

        Then noticing where they were both girls stopped to look around them. Several buildings down sat the plant facility just ahead of them. Looking to the left they found they were a donut toss away from the bakery. Their eyes lit up.

        Milly spoke first. “There it is! Let’s go!”

        Happy to oblige Rinnah started to cross the street when she happened to give the plant facility another quick glance only to freeze in her tracks.

        Dammit! What could it be now? A tug pulled at her causing her to stagger to the side in an unwanted step. She was unfamiliar with this pulling sensation making her stumble off balance and frowned wondering what was causing it.

        Milly realized that her friend wasn’t with her any longer turned and came back. She found Rinnah staring off into the distance and following her gaze noticed it was centered on the plant facility.

        “I don’t want to go in there but if you need to why don’t you go on ahead.”

        Rinnah turned her head to look at Milly, uncertainty warring in her face. Milly reassured her, “I’ll be in the five and dime and then a couple of other places. We can meet up at the bakery for a light snack before lunch.” Then giving Rinnah a conspiratorial smile she lowered her voice to a whisper, “And I won’t tell Mr. Vash,“ here her eyes darted a glance at the facility building, “If you won’t.”

        Wide luminescent eyes met Milly’s laughing ones. Rinnah blurted out, “Holy Hybrid no! I’d prefer not to be lectured until my ears bleed!”

        Milly giggled and then waved a goodbye before starting down the street for the stores she intended on visiting.

        Rinnah felt the sensation of tugging again and turned facing the building. Numbly she started down the sidewalk toward the squat structure and then hurried her pace. All she wanted to do was find out what was going on and then get back to business.

        From a deeply shadowed recess in a narrow alley a pair of interested eyes observed the black-haired woman trot up the stairs of the building, pause for a second as if having second thoughts before pushing through the doors. The eyes kept watch for a moment longer before the figure turned and disappeared into the darker shadows in the rear of the alleyway.

Towering Rock Facility

        Rinnah entered the plant facility with some hesitancy. She wondered what the place was going to be like. Was it going to be like the run facility of the first town or would there be a crowd bustling about on a tour inside of it? She doubted the latter as the town didn’t have that many people in it to support daily tours.

        Pushing through the doors she halted just inside to give her eyes a chance to adjust and take in her surroundings. The hall was long and narrow, just wide enough to accommodate more bulbs as if the first settlers thought they were going to import more plants before discovering the alternate energy source. All in all, it was a rather small sized building. With just one glance the hybrid could see that it was well tended and maintained by people who cared. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, for there were no windows here, she could make out the row of machines against the back wall. There were some lights that were steadily glowing and others were flickering on and off with a slow pulse. Otherwise it was rather quiet even with the low sound of steady humming in the background.

        Lifting up her nose, she took in a deep lungful of air. Nothing smelled out of the ordinary and she also didn’t smell any plants, just the regular, normal human smells. She let herself relax a little, but not all the way. It could still be a set up. She cast a suspicious glance to the right and then the left. She spotted someone’s shadowy figure near the back but he was sweeping. Normally assassins, on this planet she noted, didn’t engage in a menial chore they would consider beneath them. They tended to see themselves as an elite group a cut above the blue-collar worker, especially those who worked for Knives. Rinnah made a noise through her nose. They would make better assassins if they did.

        The old man stopped his sweeping and leaned on his broom. He noticed the visitor when the doors swung open. Seeing the young woman was not moving any further in he tossed the broom over one bony shoulder and started toward her.

        Hearing steps coming toward her Rinnah turned to watch the old man approach her.

        With a friendly smile he said “Welcome to the Towering Rock Plant Facility. We don’t do tours usually but that’s only because we also don’t get many visitors here. If you have been in town long enough you will already have guessed why.”

        He was near enough now for Rinnah to get a good look at him. Her eyes widened for a fraction of a second before she controlled them into as a bland expression as she could manage. However he saw the look cross her face and said in answer to the unasked question, “Blossom fever when I was four.”

        His skin was tanned like old leather hung out in a sandstorm to dry. Over the skin of his face, backs of his hands and forearms were small-pitted scars in the shape of a flower starting to bloom. Hazel eyes peered out from under hooded and pockmarked lids.

        “Oh wow.” Rinnah breathed out as she stared at him. “You look like someone used you for a pincushion.” The realized how rude that sounded she began apologizing. “Sorry, it’s just that you look pretty marked up.” Again that didn’t sound very tactful. “That must have been some fever for you to look like that.” Holy Hybrid Rinnah, shut up, just shut your star hole before you say anything else stupid!

        The caretaker flipped his broom to the floor to rest both palms over the end and leaned against it again. He smiled but for a moment Rinnah thought she saw a sharpened tooth through his lips that hung down further than an ordinary human tooth. She blinked and frowned but it was gone when she looked again. Blinking harder this time she tried looking again but all his teeth were a normal size. I’m losing my mind. Rinnah gave a little shake of her head.

        “Don’t worry about the scars, I am used to people staring. The miracle is that I didn’t die. People rarely survive the blossom fever.” He said all that with an unconcerned shrug of his shoulder.

        Rinnah lifted her chin with a slight jerk and replied, “Uh, okay.” Then feeling awkward she looked around the room. “Nice place you have here. You do it a good job of keeping it really clean.”

        The old sweeper let his eye wander around the room taking in the entirety of the facility before saying, “Oh it’s a right sturdy old place and easy to take care of as few come in to dirty it up. But I like to keep it clean for the ladies.” He nodded in the direction of the two globes.

        Rinnah was getting used to the idea that most of the ordinary folk on the planet didn’t know that the plant bulbs housed sentient beings. Only those who worked among them or had connections to those who worked in the facilities knew this. That still surprised Rinnah since she knew they were sentient from the get go. Obviously this gentleman knew this about them also. Rinnah didn’t know everything there was to know about the plant race but she did know that she wasn’t supposed know as much as she did, which was more than the average person on the street knew.

        Shooting a quizzical glance at the bulbs she raised both eyebrows up and asked, “Ladies?” Then she shifted her glance to the old man and smiled hoping it was coming across as adorable and innocently sweet as Milly. Worried she was coming across too syrupy she tightened her smile wishing she had pretended to be ill instead. Adorable and sweet weren’t her forte. Rinnah didn’t want the man to suspect she was seeing things, or maybe she wasn’t. Widening her smile more she tilted her head, desperately trying to remember what adorable looked like.

        “Oh yes.” Not really answering the question, he went on to say, “Come to gawk at the girls have you?” He looked up at the one globe and then at the other across from the other with obvious affection on his face. Rinnah dropped the fake smile for a look of intent interest.

        “Yes. After hearing the history of Towering Rock, I was curious about the plant facility.”

        “Ah, and who told you?”

        “A friend.” Rinnah wanted to keep her friends cloaked in unspecified and nameless and faceless as much as possible. Exposing herself to risk was one thing, involving them was another.

        “Where are you staying? The Watering Hole?”

        “Nope. With Eleazar.” Rinnah nearly slapped a hand over her mouth. Brilliant way of keeping friends safe in the background there, plasma for brains!

        For only a second she felt a wave of dizziness come over her but just when she was automatically reaching for her power it was gone leaving her doubting whether she had, indeed, felt something after all or if it was just dropping blood sugar. Rinnah was beginning to think that coming here was not one of her better ideas. Stabbing the broom pusher with a suspicious glare she tried for a link and was relieved when she only felt a blank spot, which was normal if he was human. Despite the slip of the tongue she resolved to keep a tighter rein on her mouth. It bothered her though as it was unusual for her to be that free with information when she was determined not to say anything at all. The hybrid looked up and in one split instant thought she saw a flitting shadow pass over his eyes. It was there and gone so quickly she wasn’t sure, but even as Rinnah was lifting a foot to take a step back a friendly smiling visage stared at her as if wondering what she was doing. Looking around undecidedly she tried to get a feel for the place but nothing was coming to her.

        Looking around one more time she noticed that there weren’t any technicians wandering about with clipboards jotting down notations gleaned from various machines. The quiet of the room was a little unnerving. Rinnah felt a twitch between her shoulder blades and turned to look over her shoulder. Not seeing or perceiving anything or anyone she returned her attention to the sweeper.

        “Where are the attendants?”

        ‘You are looking at him.”

        “You? That’s all?” One eyebrow rose in surprise.

        “Yes.” He replied, with a small smile on his lips while looking at her from over his folded hands.

        Then holding up a hand to forestall any further questions he explained, “By your reaction I can tell that you have been to other plant facilities, and I’m guessing, larger than this one, is that right?”

        He waited for Rinnah’s affirming nod before continuing. “As a young man I opted for training at all sizes of facilities in different towns. So I know just about everything that three or four tekkies know. I can keep the ladies happy.”

        Rinnah was glad that the plants were being so well taken care of, that meant no one would want to leave but she would check in with them just in case to see how they were faring. After Twila she had yet to meet one that wanted out, all of them were pretty content to stay where they were.

        “Is it okay if I just hand around for a bit and look at them?” At his curious but non-threatening gaze she hurriedly added, “It gives me such a peaceful feeling and I have a lot of stress in my life right now that I can use all the peaceful I can get.” Gah that was the most pathetic thing I think I have ever heard come out of my mouth, no one is going to buy that...

        “Ah yes. I do feel that myself when I get to feeling troubled. Sure, you go right ahead, but I can’t think what a lovely little lady like yourself would have to be troubled about.”

        Oh yeah, like I’m going to open that can of worms with a stranger. Not likely.

        He gave the bulbs another glance and picked up his broom, saying over his shoulder, “If you have any questions I will be right over there.” And jabbed in the general direction with the handle of his broom.

        “Right. Thanks!” She replied to his retreating back willing him to walk away faster and then feeling a kernel of guilt for being so impatient with him.

        Not wanting to give the impression of being in a hurry or doing anything but staring dreamingly into the bulbs, Rinnah clasped her hand behind her back and did her best to stroll casually over to the first globe. She hoped she projected the air of someone seeking quiet and peace by mimicking an unfocused stare into the bulb. Everything in her wanted to stride over in a few quick steps and stare up at the plant angel within, but quick movement was the very opposite of what she was trying to portray. It was an agonizing to force every muscle in her body to mimic languid movement.

        The time it took to walk over to the first globe, glaciers could have melted but finally she was there, in front of it. Closing her eyes Rinnah only listened in. She wasn’t going to climb up into the family link without just cause, especially after her recent experience of getting caught in Knive’s mental trap. It was a horrible feeling, not being able to breathe when everything was screaming for the lungs to take a breath when they were incapable of doing so. She liked breathing; in fact, she was quite fond of it and was determined to make it a lifelong habit until her dying day.

        Tuning in to the sound of the mental wave given off by the plant angel, she knew within seconds that this was one content angel and very involved in the family gossip.

        Becoming bored she was sure the next globe would be the same but walked over anyway, remembering to keep it down to a leisurely saunter.

        Not expecting anything out of the norm, she opened her mental ears to listen, ready to catch any little tidbits dropped her way. The angel didn’t speak with words but Rinnah could feel the strength of her mental calling out. The plant angel was seeking.... her! Rinnah gasped and then in a flash leaped up and made contact by throwing a link out to the plant angel. Now that she was in closer contact, Rinnah was nearly bowled over from the strength of the desperation being turned her way. It was the pleading of a frightened angel begging for help.

        Rinnah interrupted the torrent of pleading flowing out of the plant and let her become aware of her presence. The first thing that surprised her was this angel could think in words and not just mental concepts and pictures.

        Rinnah, knowing what was planned for this angel, thought at her, repeating what she once told another sister so long ago, “*not on my watch sweetie!*” On no, Knives was not going to get this one either.

        Beaming calming and hope-filled thoughts back to her Rinnah mindspoke her “*You won’t be! I have done this before and I can do it again. I’ll be back tonight because we don’t want anyone to interrupt us.*”

        Waiting for an answer Rinnah wondered how she was going to achieve this undertaking. The angel replied, still nervous but now beginning to be filled with hope at the thought of being rescued.

        Rinnah kept pouring comfort in even as she thought about the mission. The extraction itself would be a piece of cake; it was the sneaking off part that was going to be a problem. The other glaring problem was going to be returning with another person and having to explain to the others who this new person was and where she had come from. With a wince, Rinnah realized that there were going to be questions on why she was getting involved in Knives’ affairs again before they were ready to confront and attack him on his home territory. Cause I just can’t stop myself. He is one of those asses I can’t but help thumb my nose at. His very demeanor just begs to be mocked. And here I am with time on my hands and more mockery at my disposal than you can shake a stick at. Besides, she needs help. With a sigh, Rinnah acknowledged the real reason, I can’t, not help her.

        The plant angel was calming down from the outpouring of strength and compassion coming through the link between them. Rinnah looked up at the bulb. This angel definitely wanted out and from what she was sensing, this one was a lot like Twila, more of a ‘people-person’ than most plant-kind.

        This should be much simpler and quicker than her first one. This angel wasn’t in a weakened condition or near death. In fact, Rinnah was guessing that the plant angel could supply all, if not most, of the energy needed for the extraction while leaving the hybrid free to concentrate on the surgery side of things. Also, it would be much quicker than Twila’s had been. She would bet one of her guns on it. Neither of the two would end up at the point of dropping from sheer exhaustion afterwards.

        Thinking of everything she would need, experience being such an excellent teacher; she planned her afternoon out. Clothes for the freed plant angel would be the first thing on the list to get. She would leave here and buy the clothes first, before meeting up with Milly. If she did it while Milly was with her, would Milly guess that the clothes bought were for someone else and if she did, would she say anything? Rinnah had a pretty good idea that Milly would help her if she knew what plans Knives’ had for his sister. Still, there was that nagging doubt lurking in the back of her mind. Thinking a farewell at the plant angel after assuring her that this day would be her last to spend in the bulb, Rinnah gently broke the link.

        Back within herself, she contemplated the glowing sphere. Was her imagination or was it shining it even brighter? She smiled, yes, it was brighter.

        “Ah, she must like you.”

        Startled, Rinnah jumped and turned. The caretaker was back, this time without his broom, standing right next to her glancing back and forth between her and the bulb with concern and respect.

        “I haven’t seen her react this way to someone in a very long time. She’s a shy one she is. Natasha she’s been called since I was a young one. Her sister is Amelia.” Rinnah wondered at the hint of a smile she saw cross his face. Again something seemed to shift but when she blinked it came back into focus. Rinnah was beginning to think she needed glasses or it there was something that was being hid from her. She took a few more sniffs but couldn’t detect anything unusual in what she was smelling. Then he asked, “is anything wrong miss, anything I can help you with?”

        Not the best at keeping giveaway expressions off of her face and also knowing her limitations, Rinnah went with the next best plan. Grabbing her stomach and bending over a little she said with a groan, “don’t feel good. Where’s the bathroom?” Just as he was about to answer she went on overriding what he was about to say, “Never mind, I’ll just go home. Bye!”

        Forgetting to act indisposed she headed for the door with a nimble, light step.

        The caretaker regarded the closing door with a meditative look waiting for it to click all the way shut. After a few passing moments he walked over to a dark corner of the room. Stopping a few feet away he bowed his head waiting.

        A voice came floating out of the darkness saying, “She is going to come back tonight.”

        With a worried glance at the door he before facing to address the shadowy figure, he asked, “Your orders?”

        There was a brief pause before the voice replied firmly, “Leave her be and let her do as she pleases.”

        Astonishment chased across his wizened features before he could control them back into a bland mask.

        “As she pleases?” He questioned.

        “You heard me.”

        He bowed his head again murmuring, “As you wish.” Then he turned and walked back to his broom and began sweeping as if nothing unusual had taken place

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 17
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