"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 17"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG

It All Comes Down to a Stone's Throw

       After pushing through the door and rapidly descending the few steps, Rinnah was already wondering how she was going to accomplish her plan to free the plant angel. Biting her lip as the thought struck her that the actual freeing of the angel would be easy in comparison to what would follow. Why must life be so very complicated!

        Spotting a clothing store sign down the street she turned and headed for it. Unlike last time, she was going to bring everything the plant angel needed for a nighttime stroll about the town. Walking down the street with a naked non-human female plant angel was a dead giveaway that something odd was going on. With the way her luck worked she knew she would bump into someone heading for home, she could place star chips on it. Better to be prepared now. A hat or a hood along with some clothes and the plant angel would be disguised. Besides, no one was about to stop and chat at that time of night. They would look like a couple of working girls on their way home from a night of carousing. Hopefully. The circumstances called for grace under pressure, the ability to weave a subtruth to look like the real thing, and if all else failed, to fake it. All of it calling for her to shine with brilliance on the spur of the moment, and... there was the rub. She winced. I am not feeling at all brilliant today! It is hard to be operating at genius level when there are so many stinking details to keep in mind, but, more importantly, if one isn‘t even a flipping genius! Maybe I can hire one? She shrugged off the thought as nice to think about but not practical to the situation at hand.

        Clothing was not going to be a problem and extracting the angel out was not going to be such a problem either. The impending threat would be trying to sneak out at night with no one the wiser. Although, she mused, it wasn’t like she was setting traps anymore, those days were over. At first they were a group of people with like purposes and a common goal. Now she couldn’t imagine traveling without them, even though the days of being with them were coming to an end. That thought made her heart squeeze painfully so she shunted it aside to think about her current problem.

        Should she tell them what she was planning on doing? Imagining all three saying “no” she opted for secrecy. It was a force of habit. It’s not like they would try to stop me. Or would they? She wasn’t sure. Outside of Vash, the other two were natives and products of this culture that was so utterly and desperately dependent on the plants to survive in a very inhospitable climate. The descendents of the original colonists were steeped in the unconscious belief patterns of a people who knew that in order to live on and thrive here meant an operating plant facility nearby. It could be that Milly and Nicholas believed they were free of the set thinking and underlying beliefs of their culture. However, if they were up against the choice to leave the plant angel where she supposedly belonged or to help to set her free, which would they choose? The continued survival of humans or the individual desires of a plant-being who only wanted to be free? Although, it wasn’t like this town was in dire need of their plant angels. Rinnah hooked a forefinger over her nose in thought. Well, she wasn’t going to give them the chance to wage an inner war with their beliefs, customs, or conscience. She was going to take it out of their hands. The choice between the plant’s freedom to exercise her own will to determine her future. Still the question was there and not going to go away anytime soon. Was one choice more right than the other?

        Rinnah frowned. There had to be another way to survive than always taking the easy route of depending upon another species. She had grown up with the belief that each individual deserved the gift of freedom to make choices for their own life. She could see the clash of the ideals of her culture against the ones formed by those living on this planet. Knowing these people much better than when she first landed, she knew they would disagree with her, vehemently, maybe even with force. She did not regret freeing Twila and she wasn’t going to regret freeing this one either. If the plant angel wanted to be free, and then she should be, it was just that simple to her. The black-haired hybrid nodded in agreement with her thoughts. However, it would be better not to force Milly or Nicholas to go against their cultural taboos. She smiled thinking that it would be better to just surprise them after the fact. Yeah, that is what she was known for, her tactful sense of timing. Rinnah couldn’t help the grin that spread across her face.

        The grin quickly vanished to be replaced by a frown as she thought on what would happen next after releasing the female plant. She would bring her back to Eleazar‘s house. Now, how to explain her? “Look what followed me home. Can I keep her?” If the fireworks happened at least it would be too late for them to do anything about it. What could they do, shove the angel back through the globe? Rinnah would like to see them try. She grinned, and satisfied as the indecision rolled off of her like a weight dropping off her shoulders. Entering the clothing store with a bouncing step she spotted the women’s section and headed in that direction to look for the size that would fit a plant angel.

        Rummaging through the clothes one at a time, she thought over yet another problem. Would Vash expect the same arrangements as last night when she had shared more than just a room with him? Feeling the warmth creep up her cheeks she shook her head as if to rid herself of where her thoughts were heading. What was important right now was if he wanted to share again tonight, in all the connotations of the word. Rinnah grimaced. This could certainly be a problem. She was going to have to come up with something, some excuse, some plan because he was an annoyingly light sleeper, hang him! And then, be brilliant! Yes, yet again the plan called for her to be shining with brilliance. It just wasn’t fair. Skipping right over dazzling intellect or scintillating reasoning, she opted for whining. Maybe she could make them work for her. Naw. God, what was she going to do! She had about twelve hours, give or take a couple, to think of something! Think! Think!....I got nothing.

        Moving from one item to the next for inspection, she picked each one up and turned it this way and that imaging what it would look like on the plant angel. As she held the garments up to her, using herself as a rough model, she was pleased to note that an adequate wardrobe was beginning to come together. This time she had several changes of clothes beforehand. Sweet damn, but I am hot today! Well, except for the brilliant part.

        Still musing over her dilemma she remembered the night before when she had been afflicted with an episode of insomnia. Starting to slide out from under the covers and trying to be quiet as possible, one toe came into contact with the freezing surface of the floor when a scar-covered arm lashed out to encircle her waist and pull her back in. What followed helped her get back to sleep afterwards, who knew it could help with insomnia? However, the whole interlude only emphasized the fact that Vash was abnormally easy to wake up, the total opposite of Milly. Damn her luck! How in the world was she going to be able to slip out without a certain someone noticing? Gah! This is giving me a headache!

        Thinking so hard at one point she came back from her thoughts only to find herself in the men’s aisle reaching for undergarments she didn‘t need or want. Upon becoming aware of what she was reaching for Rinnah snatched her hand back and spun her head in several directions to see if anyone had noticed. How embarrassing. She was relieved to see that no one was even looking in her direction. Scooting back to the proper aisle before anyone noticed she continued her search to complete the wardrobe. She was almost finished.

        Picking up where she left off she considered again, obviously she couldn’t slip out like she used to do with her old roomie. Rinnah snorted and then let a wry grin spread across her lips. This marriage thing of Milly’s was beginning to interfere with her plans. So inconsiderate of them to get married without thinking that it might affect other people’s late night escapades!

        She tried to consider what her options were. A visit to the local apothecary? Rinnah reached up and rubbed her nose with a forefinger. Look what they were doing to her, reducing her to the level of considering the use of knockout drops to put in Vash’s drink. So low, so deceitful, so underhanded. It was brilliant! She grimaced; she couldn’t do it, could she? Maybe...

        Yet, a quiet inner voice of conscience spoke up pointing out how wrong it would be to go down that route. Rinnah mentally growled back for it to come up with a better solution then. It wouldn’t do any good. The job of a conscience was not to come up with ideas to get her out of sticky situations, but to point out the moral lack in the ones she did come up with. Stupid conscience.

        I have principles, she argued back, highly flexible ones, but at least I got them, not everyone can say that! Sure, they were a little bent at the edges, smudge-marked and torn in places yet still hanging in there. Fat lot of good they did her, getting her into more trouble then they were worth. What was the use of having them if no one else used them too? Her shoulders slumped.

        Damn, damn, damn. She couldn’t use a drug and knew it; all it took was admitting the fact. Why do I have to be such a nice person? It really gets in the way at times! A nice person! She snorted again only this time in disgust. Well maybe not. Not so bad, not really. I think. Almost nearly okay. Sure I am. Hopefully. Damn!

        Going up to the front she dumped the merchandise on the counter and paid for it. Soon she was carrying the bagged clothes out the door and turning in the direction of the bakery. The wind hit her in the back pushing her along and for the first time that day she was grateful for the little favor of it being behind her and not pelting her in the face.

        She cast a quick look up at the suns in the sky. It was getting later and Milly must be wondering where she was.

        As Rinnah started down the street she pondered again how she was going to get out of the house without being challenged. And she did not doubt there would be some challenging going on at some time by some one.

        Rinnah walked past the bakery door before noticing and did a quick about-face to take the few steps back. This absentmindedness was beginning to get annoying, not to mention a little embarrassing.

        Grabbing the door handle she pushed it open and stepped inside. She signed in relief to be able to step out of the grit-filled wind even as the delightful smell of baking goods filled her nose. Lifting her nose higher to take in an even deeper sniff, she looked around taking in the homey sight of the little shop. Life was good again and she was grateful it didn’t take any brilliance at all to sink teeth into a fudge-covered custard donut.

        Rinnah began looking around for Milly when she heard her name being called above the buzz of conversation from a couple of the tables closer to the front where she was standing. Peering into the back of the room she saw Milly waving one of her arms in the air to get the hybrid’s attention. “Over here!” She yelled just in case Rinnah hadn’t seen her. She smiled at her friend’s antics and moved in Milly’s direction.

        When she arrived at the table Rinnah was startled to see a number of empty bowls arranged in a haphazard fashion in front of her friend. While unbuttoning her duster, she took stock of what looked like a culinary battle had been fought. After tossing her coat over the extra chair with Milly’s, she reached for the chair next to her and sat down. Scooting in, she ran her eye over the surface of the table again. Definitely a battle had been waged here and by the looks of things, Milly was the victor.

        “How long have you been waiting for me?” Rinnah asked as incredulously she began to count... five, six, and seven. Seven! Seven bowls of pudding? “Hey, just how large is the size of that pudding compartment anyway?”

        Milly looked at her and Rinnah saw the dot of chocolate pudding decorating the tip of her nose. Picking up her napkin and shaking it so it unfolded, Rinnah reached over and wiped the smear off of her nose while Milly watched with bemused surprise on her face.

        When her friend was finished, she said, “Rinnah. I’m surprised at you! You should know by now there is no such thing as too much pudding!” Milly gave her a quick grin and turned her attention back to the bowl in front of her. There were a couple of spoonfuls left at the bottom and she wasn’t going to let even one get away from her.

        Rinnah was impressed once again. Pudding was obviously a serious matter to Milly. Soon the sounds of a spoon scraping the bottom could be heard. Just when Rinnah was going to point out the obvious, “the bowl is empty Milly, you can stop digging now,” Milly put the bowl down off to the side with a tiny burp, a smile of apology and a pat on her stomach.

        “That was good. I believe I have finally filled my pudding compartment.” She grinned merrily at Rinnah’s open astonishment before noticing, “Hey, aren’t you going to order?”

        “Too busy being in awe.” Muttered Rinnah still staring at the empty bowls.

        Milly lifted an arm and began waving it around wildly trying to attract the attention of the owner. Rinnah grabbed it, noticing the eyes of the few patrons in the shop were studying them both. She offered them a weak smile in return.

        “Gee Rinnah, we’re not at a bar this time.”

        Rinnah was already on her feet starting towards the counter but said over her shoulder, “Milly this is a bakery not a restaurant. I’ll go up and get my own...”


        “No, you loveable idiot, not pudding,” she replied with a chuckle, “Just watching you has filled my pudding compartment. I’m going for chocolate-covered cherry-filled glazed bear claw!”

        “And don’t forget coffee!” Milly sang out.

        “That goes without saying!” And Milly giggled, leaning back in her chair, pleased and sated for the time being.

        Rinnah looked back over her shoulder at Milly and asked, “Want me to get you anything?” She had a finger pointing down at the case hovering over her selection. Milly shook her head and patted her stomach again. “Done full up to my ‘choke and puke line’ as my Dad used to say.”

        “Your Dad must be an interesting fellow.” Remarked Rinnah as she tried to imagine what it would be like to sit at the dinner table with the Thompson clan.

        After being served and paying for her treats, Rinnah carried her plate and coffee back to the table and sat down across from Milly and began eating. Now that she wasn’t eating Milly and had a captive audience, she began telling stories about her family. This time it was about her second cousin Irving who once got arrested for riding a unicycle while singing lewd songs as he cycled around the public square... apparently cousin Irving was also plastered and naked. As Rinnah chewed she squinted her eyes shut. Damn, the mental picture was now engraved in her brain for life. But it did make her wonder how cousin Irving could balance while being that intoxicated. After plowing through several donuts and a couple of cups of coffee Rinnah realized she had lost track of Milly‘s narrative, always a dangerous thing to do. She became aware that Milly was now telling the story of great-gramper getting bit by his own dentures and the big family discussion whether that meant he needed to get a rabies shot or not. There was a certain Milly-logic to the way she told stories but it required the listener to pay close attention from the very beginning of the story.

        “... And Aunt Carrie swears to this very day that those teeth will nip at someone if they get their hand too close to them where they are kept on the mantle. But only on the anniversary of the day that great-gramper died.” Milly looked thoughtful for a minute. “Of course Aunt Carrie is a little bit of an airhead and flake so we don’t put a lot of stock in what she says. Oh, do you have a tickle in the back of your throat? Here take my napkin. Better take a drink of water too.”

        Rinnah just barely controlled her choking laughter to take Milly’s advice and took a drink of water.

        Then with a burst she was reminded what she had been planning on giving Milly the first chance they were alone together.

        “Oh I just remembered!”

        “What!” Said Milly getting caught up in the excitement she could hear in Rinnah’s voice.

        Looking down at her belt pouch, Rinnah snapped it open and began digging. Milly’s eyes were now quite wide and large and her hands clasped in front of her in anticipation as she listened to Rinnah mumbling as she dug in her pouch, “It was in here, I swear it was. I just saw it the other day.... Hmmm, where did it go..? Darn thing, it can’t have gotten lost... Oh! Here it is!” She held up a tiny velvet bag and passed it to Milly who eyed it with shining curiosity. “Ta da!”

        “What is it?” Milly asked as she ran her fingers over the fabric of the bag.

        “This is my wedding present for you.” Announced Rinnah with a proud grin but also with an odd expression that crossed her face too quickly for Milly to tell what it was.

        “It’s just for you though, kind of a secret wedding present.”

        “Secret?” Milly eyed the bag again.

        “Yep. Just for you. At least for now. You will know when the time is right to tell others. So, go ahead, open it.”

        Complying with the request, Milly untied the strings and tipped the bag until a black stone wrapped in a silver wire setting tumbled out into her palm. Lifting it up for closer inspection she breathed out a soft sigh.

        “Rinnah, it’s beautiful, it‘s lovely... uh, what is it? I don’t recognize the stone.”

        The hybrid leaned forward resting her forearms on the table and lowered her voice even though no one was anywhere near their table. “To you it would be lost technology and it only looks like a stone. You remember all those nights when I would go out at as soon as you were asleep?”

        Milly looked up wondering if Rinnah was going to confess to being either a lost technology thief, a lost artifact smuggler, or even a cat burglar. Activities that were all terribly illegal of course. In some provinces technology theft could even lead to a death sentence. Milly’s heart sped up in fear for her friend.

        “I made it.”

        “Get out!” Milly was so surprised that she spoke without thinking.

        “Yes, I did!” Rinnah’s eyes twinkled with laughter at her friend’s reaction. Milly’s eyes nearly popped out of her head and astonishment was making her mouth open and close like a fish. Her fingers shook and she almost lost hold of the black stone.

        Noticing and starting to grow concerned for her friend, she explained, “Well, not the stone itself, but I filled it so it will work. You can think of it as a tiny computer.”

        “I can?!” Squeaked Milly as she eyed it suspiciously waiting for it to do something ‘computer-like‘.

        It was obvious to Rinnah that the explanation she had just given wasn’t helping Milly any. Now Milly’s whole hand was trembling as she stared at the stone of lost technology. She looked like she couldn’t decide if it was a rare and precious thing; and Rinnah admitted on this planet it would be, or if it was a dangerous object, which again, it could be. The conflicting emotions warred back and forth on her face.

        “Why isn’t it doing something, uhm... well, computery?” She breathed out while bringing the stone up close to her nose, eyes nearly crossing as she scrutinized it. With the finger of her other hand, she flipped it around in her cupped palm studying it from every angle but it still looked like an ordinary black stone.

        As Milly continued in her examination Rinnah told her all about the traps set and waiting for the button set in the triggering device and what would happen if it were pushed. Then pointing to the stone she said, “I want you to put that on your necklace and keep it with you at all times.”

        Milly pulled out her necklace that held her cross and opened the latch on the silver setting and clipped it to her chain.

        “Now see those different colored highlights in the stone?” Rinnah inquired and waited until Milly saw them and nodded. “They look like natural sparkles in the stone but when pressed in the correct sequence they will open the stone up.” Giving her a string of colors to press in a certain order, she made Milly repeat it back to her and then do it herself so she could see how it was done and what the results would look like. She wasn’t worried about Milly forgetting her friend was an exceptionally gifted in that strange way of hers that defied logic.

        Once again Milly’s eyes widened in wonder and amazement as a delighted laugh escaped her as she watched the little stone split in half and open like a black flower blossom in her hand. Lifting the stone to her eyes again she stared at it, such a little thing!

        Nestled in her palm was the smallest computer she had ever laid eyes on. If Milly was astonished before, it was nothing compared to what she was feeling now. She had never seen anything like it before.

        Opening it had turned it on and she could feel the tiny vibrations humming against her skin. A wave of dizziness came over her and she felt close to fainting. Milly swayed in her seat as her face went white. To Rinnah it looked like Milly was ready to pass out.

        “Breathe Milly. That’s it, take a nice deep breath okay?” She urged in a worried voice, “Milly? Can you hear me? Will you please breathe for me?” Rinnah was halfway up out of her chair now, reaching out a hand to steady her friend and also shake her. Her voice took on a more desperate edge until she saw Milly’s chest finally move with a deep intake of air into her lungs. Milly’s face regained the usual healthy color. With a relieved exhale of air Rinnah sat back down in her chair.

        “Okay, are you with me again?” She inquired as Milly’s eyes stared off into the distance. Finally the taller girl nodded though she still had a dazed expression on her face.

        Waiting a few moments more, Rinnah finished her drink and left the table to get a refill in order to give Milly the time needed to regroup. She was sipping her refilled drink when she observed Milly start and then blink.

        Rinnah shot a quick look around the shop. Break time must be over. Only one table with a couple deep in their own conversation was left in the shop and no one else had entered in the meantime.

        Leaning in she said in a quiet voice, “If you are captured again this could prove useful in helping you to escape.”

        Milly looked up to find her black-haired friend staring at her with a grim expression. Rinnah was serious.

        As much as she hoped neither would ever be caught by Knives or his minions again, it was best to be prepared just in case it did happen. Rinnah wasn’t as worried for herself as she was for Milly.

        Still leaning toward her friend, Rinnah emphasized; “This part is really important Milly.” Then she explained how to work the stone, watching Milly’s intent frown as she absorbed the information.

        “Also, again, another important point...” She caught Milly’s eyes with her own iridescent ones, "This will just work on plants and you will only be able to get a one-time use out of it. So make sure you will be able to escape any nearby humans because it won’t have an effect on them. It will mentally paralyze any plant angel or free-walking plant, “ she paused a moment to let this sink in, “who is hooked up to the family link.”

        Reaching out to touch a fingertip to the open stone, Rinnah concluded saying, “You will have sixty minutes, maybe even as much as a couple of hours to get away and put some distance between you and your captors. But don’t count on it being more than sixty just to be on the safe side in case I am wrong, okay?” The jewel blue of her eyes seemed to Milly to be glowing unusually bright but she nodded, indicating she understood. Then a suspicious thought occurred to her.

        “If I am using this then what are you going to be using if you get captured again?”

        Rinnah was already shaking her head even as Milly spoke. It was a good question. She was more than confident of her chances to escape if taken but she didn’t want to say anything to tall friend about how she knew that. “Don’t worry about me,” Here she waggled her fingers in the air, “I will use plant magic to help me escape.”

        “Plant magic?” Milly’s eyes narrowed, was Rinnah making fun of her?

        “I’ll be straight up with you Milly; I just have the impression you are supposed to have this,” Rinnah tapped the stone cupped in Milly’s hand. “And I already do have an idea how I am going to be able to get away which involves using my powers.” Rinnah hoped Milly didn’t notice she made no reference at all to abilities.

        Straight up? There was Rinnah talking strange again but she closed the two halves of the stone together, amazed that a seam couldn’t be seen when it was shut. The stone slid down the chain to rest next to her cross. Then she tucked her necklace back in under her shirt.

        She could feel the cold surface of the stone as it slid down against her skin until her body heat warmed it up.

        “Well, I hope I never have to use it, and I hope you never have to use your powers. If nothing else it is really pretty stone.”

        A corner of Rinnah’s mouth lifted. “I hope you never have to use it either Milly, Holy Hybrid but I fervently hope that you don’t.”

        She waited a moment wondering if this was the time to share all the plans she was carrying inside of her like seeds waiting for spring to come in order to be planted. Plans that had become little weights tugging at her. The burden of them was so heavy at times in her heart and she just needed to confide in someone and today just it felt right to do so.


        Milly looked up at her over her cup to tea, her expression friendly and open, inviting Rinnah to continue.

        “If everything goes well here’s what I’m planning on doing afterwards....” With that start Rinnah outlined her future plans and that started the first argument the two ever had between them.

        Just then, as the tension began to mount and heat up between the two women, two shadowy figures watched the two women from a hiding place that kept them from being easily spotted. Two sets of eyes observed with interest the rising friction at the small table.

It's Not Really Spying You Know

        Outside the bakery two figures were watching the arguing women from a shadowy vantage point. One dark head peered cautiously from around the pillar, leaning a bit further then originally intended but still careful not to be spied. Another head peered along with the first one also trying to get a good look.

        “Vash, dammit, stop breathing on my neck!” Wolfwood leaned his head over to the side while lifting a shoulder to rub the tickle off his ear left by Vash’s breath.

        “This is spying you know.” Vash informed him, turning a deaf ear to the priest’s complaint.

        “Of course it is, but I get too nervous if I haven’t seen her... er them, in a while. Considering our recent history and our amazing lack of luck, I think I have a right to be a little on the cautious side... And dammit, would you quit breathing on me like that! Get your own pillar!” Ignoring the fact that there was only one pillar in the vicinity.

        “You’ve gotten soft since you got married.” Remarked Vash, again not paying any attention to Wolfwood’s grumbling but assessing his overall mood with the added comment of, “You seem a little moody today.”

        “Cram it Spikey! I don’t care what you think!” Then the priest grew thoughtful. “It’s a good kind of soft, the best kind Vash and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Turning to look at the outlaw he said, “don’t think I didn’t notice you following me here. You didn’t have to you know.”

        In a swift change of voice and face that tightened behind the glasses, Vash stated flatly, discouraging further comment, “Saloon’s not open yet.”

        “Gotcha.” If this was the usual seedy, run down den of iniquity they normally frequented it didn’t have a closing time. Which was the allure of such places to such fine fellows as themselves.

        They turned their attention back to watching and saw when the shift in the expressions of the two women happened. One minute they were leaning towards each other speaking amicably and then the next they saw Milly shaking a finger in Rinnah’s face and speaking emphatically as she made her point. In turn Rinnah clutched her cup with both hands as if trying to wring all the warmth or comfort out of it and spoke for a while. Milly’s face softened as she listened with head tilted to the side before reaching over and giving her friend a sympathetic pat on the arm.

        Rinnah then looked up and began speaking again, letting go of the cup with one hand so she could accompany her words with gestures in the air. Milly nodded and appeared to mull over what was being said. Rinnah’s other hand joined the first and she used both to design graceful pictures in the air.

        “What do you suppose they are talking about?” Wolfwood muttered, not really expecting an answer.

        “We could go ask.” Responded Vash obviously seeking to wring every bit of enjoying from the moment.

        Wolfwood squeezed his eyes shut for a brief second. I swear, if he so much as chuckles I am going to slug him. Wolfwood thought to himself but instead commented, “Oh you are the funny one. And once again, can’t you find someone else to go breathe on?”

        “Too bad you can’t read lips.”

        "Too bad you can’t read minds... oh but wait, you can!” Wolfwood shot a look over his shoulder and said, “Read this!”

        Instead of getting angry like the priest anticipated, Vash smiled on of his rare grins and in so doing the heaviness momentarily lifted from his face.

        “Don’t need to, I’m guess-sychic.”

        “Stupid idiot. There is no such...” Wolfwood groused before he realized that he was being teased. He stopped short, mouth still open but was unable to think of a comeback. It finally dawned on him that Vash was teasing him and had been since the night before! His mind couldn’t get around the concept. When had this started? Just a little, a very thin veneer of the old Vash raising his head to give the priest a hard time. It had been so long that he almost didn’t recognize as it was happening right under his nose. Then, despite his earlier growl, a begrudging half-smile spread across his face and giving a little jerk of his chin he let Vash know that was a good one. As if on cue both gunmen settled back into spying.

        When they turned back to look through the storefront window they were surprised to see both of the girls tense and leaning toward one another with frowns. Deep furrows creased Milly’s brow as she stood up and placed both hands on the table to support her as she leaned forward into Rinnah’s face. Definitely unhappy. Again she lifted a finger to point in Rinnah’s face and began speaking forcefully. Rinnah was leaning back as far away as she could get without having to scoot her chair away from the table. She also had her face turned away from the window so that neither gunman could see the expression on her face.

        Milly sat down again and Wolfwood relaxed. This time her face was puzzled and sad. Rinnah began talking and using both of her hands to sketch in the air like earlier.

        “Woman would be mute if she couldn’t use her hands to talk.” Murmured Vash in an indulgent tone that made Wolfwood glance at him wonderingly.

        “And you act like you don’t care.”

        “I don’t!” Vash said a little too vehemently.

        “Sure is getting thick.... hey!"

        Wolfwood stopped talking. All of his attention was centered back on Milly as he forgot about teasing Vash. With dismay he saw little tears run down her cheeks. He went rigid as a post as he watched. Everything in him wanted to go charging into the shop to comfort his wife and demand of Rinnah what she had said to cause Milly to cry.

        “Aw hell.” He breathed out in a soft whisper. He was leaning forward on his toes just seconds away from hurtling through the door when he felt a strong hand land on his shoulder restraining him, cautioning him to rethink his rash impulse.

        Then Milly stood up as did Rinnah and they rushed around the table at each other for a hug, with pats on the back for good measure.

        Wolfwood relaxed and let out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding.

        “Aren’t you glad now that you didn’t go storming in there?”

        “You’re not helping sparky!” Growled the priest without taking his eyes off of his wife. The truth was, he was mighty thankful for Vash’s hand holding him back for that brief second. Now that his head was clearing and he could think again without that band squeezing around his chest, he knew Milly wouldn’t thank him if she found him rushing in on her and Rinnah’s girl-time together.

        “Uh oh.” Both said at the same time as they spotted the girls standing up and slipping their arms into their coats and button up. Next they reached down to collect their bags. Sensing the danger of imminent discovery the men began stepping back a few feet and looking for a route to make good their escape.

        “Time to leave. This way.” Vash said and Wolfwood looked to the alleyway that Vash was pointing to.

        “Good! Let’s go!” Vash was already starting down the alley and Wolfwood didn’t need to be told twice to follow him. When they were on the other side and came out into a street that was a little more traveled, Wolfwood pulled up to Vash.

        “I could use a drink.”

        “Me too. Stalking is such a thirsty business.”

        “Who asked you? I already told you earlier that you didn’t have to come.”

        “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. A priest skulking around a small town bakery checking up on his wife of only a week? And I get called a pervert!”

        “Yeah,” mused Wolfwood, “When you put it like that it doesn’t sound too good does it?” Shoving his hands into his pockets and shaking his head he went on, “But I tell you Vash, until Knives is six feet under I am going to be nervous as all get out about their safety.”

        “But not ours?” Questioned Vash, turning his head to look back at the priest.

        “Not ours and especially not yours. You have the devil’s own luck.”

        “Is that what you really think?” Vash stopped short forcing the priest to slam into his back bumping his nose. Then Vash took a step back and his heel came down on a toe. Wolfwood clamped his lips around a howling curse that wanted to burst from his throat like a raging beast.

        Breathing hard, rubbing his nose, and hopping on one foot, he tried to clutch his toe at the same time, he finally yelled, “What the hell are you doing? And what’d you stop for!? Damn that hurts!” He winced as he let go of his foot and then started to hobble to walk the pain out but Vash was still standing right in front of him blocking the sidewalk. He stopped to study the outlaw’s face.

        Vash’s glasses had slid halfway down his nose and were now perched where he usually wore his old ones. Wolfwood was guessing it was hard to break some old habits, but it did make it easier to see his eyes. And he could see that Vash was looking at him with a flat, hollow-eyed stare.

        Wolfwood realized what Vash was really asking him and replied, “Still sensitive about the eyes eh? No, I don’t think the red means you are turning into a monster. Your dumb luck is something I have noticed from the very beginning and that‘s what I have always thought about it. You are either protected by heaven or hell, I just haven‘t decided which one yet. Now keep going but take it slower because I think you broke something, you big idiot.”

        “Wolfwood, what you need is a drink.”

        “That’s what I’ve I been saying all along!” Growled out the exasperated priest.

        The two started walking, although one was limping a little, and without speaking, they turned in the direction of the bar with a particularly unsavory and questionable reputation. The kind of place that was as familiar to them as a second skin.

Home is Where the Hug Is

       Milly walked out of the shop first and froze in her tracks only to have Rinnah slam into her from behind.

        “Milly! Warn a person next time will ya?”

        The taller girl turned to see Rinnah rubbing the end of her nose with an irritated look on her face. It wasn’t easy as the bulky bags she was carrying were heavy weights pulling on her arms and bumping into her side hampering her movements.

        “Sorry. But I just have this feeling....” Even as she said it Milly’s mind was elsewhere as her eyes searched up and down the street. She didn’t know why but there was just a funny feeling in her tummy and since her pudding compartment was full she knew that couldn’t be causing it. Tilting her head as if to listen to a sound only her inner ear could hear, the tall girl revolved slowly in place looking vigilantly all around her. This made Rinnah nervous and she instantly dropped her bags and came out from behind Milly to take a more protective stance in front of her friend. Now her eyes joined Milly’s in scanning warily back and forth over the area. Milly was still looking when she noticed Rinnah’s on-guard status with her left hand resting lightly on her gun grip and giggled.

        “On no Rinnah, I’m sorry. It wasn’t a bad feeling.” Rinnah relaxed a trifle but her hand still hovered near her holster. “I just thought I felt something familiar but I must have been mistaken.” She gave a shrug of a shoulder, the sensation already gone from her mind.

        Even though Rinnah couldn’t stop checking out the area Milly was already pulling a piece of paper out of her pocket with the list written on it. “Ah just a couple of more items and from the directions...” she looked up and down the street and spotted what she was looking for, “There it is right there!” Pointing to a sign.

        The tension was entirely released from Rinnah’s system as Milly mumbled and muttered to herself about the list and what shops they needed to visit next. Since Milly was not sensing anything hostile and the area appeared clear to her as well, Rinnah bent down to retrieve her dropped bags but, even so, couldn’t stop herself from one last wary look around.

        With a grunt, she straightened and grumbled, “I hope we are about done. I am getting tired of lugging these bags around with us. They are getting to be a pain to carry.” She was not one of those women who liked to shop.

        “Cheer up. We’re almost done and then we can go home!” Milly said in a cheerful singsong voice.

        “Milly?” Questioned Rinnah as she followed Milly, ardently glad that the wind that greeted them upon their exit was only a light breeze.

        “Yes?” Milly started off with Rinnah walking next to her.

        “It’s not really home. Don’t you ever get homesick for your family?”

        Milly let light blue eyes rest on Rinnah’s darker blue glowing ones. “Oh my yes. Of course I miss them. But now and for always home is wherever Nicholas is.”

        Eyes crinkling she added while trying to lift a finger even with all the bags hanging from her arms, “Besides Rinnah, home is where you carry it and when I am with family and friends, then I am home.”

        “You’re kidding me, right?” Rinnah couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Sometimes Milly seemed so simple and other times so deep, there wasn’t any middle ground with her. What a mixture she was, a puzzle of simple profundity, but this sounded a little too much like one of those sentimental cards you buy people for no special reason. She studied her friend from the corner of her eye. Only Milly could take commercial sap and make it believable... and, truth be told, desirable.

        “You are one unique and weird person, you know that?”

        Milly’s only answer was a smile that would have made Mona Lisa proud while Rinnah shook her head in disbelief.

        After a pause filled with their footsteps walking along the sidewalk, Milly asked, “Where’s home for you Rinnah, New Earth?”

        There was a silence that stretched tight between them before Rinnah could bring herself to answer. “No. Nowhere is home Milly. I don’t have one.” With a suddenness that left her breathless Rinnah was immediately caught up in a strong embrace with toes dangling and bags sliding down her arms until they came to a halt at Milly’s encircling arms. Milly’s bags were on the ground at her feet. Geez and I think Vash moves quickly!

        “Milly!” Rinnah’s face was red and not just from having the air crushed out of her. Public displays of affection were hard for her to accept. She was better at giving affection then getting and right now she was on the receiving end of a whole lot of getting.

        “Rinnah, you will always have a home with Nicholas and me.” Milly sniffed out, her voice quivering with emotion.

        “Milly... need... air!” Embarrassment and dire need to breathe were making Rinnah feel a strong and urgent desire to feel the ground beneath her feet again.

        Thankfully Milly set the hybrid down and took a step back. “I mean it Rinnah. Everyone needs to belong to someone and to someplace.” She said as she reached down to gather up the bags that she dropped to lift up Rinnah in a hug. Rinnah gave herself a shake and brushed at her clothes, straightening them as she tried to regain her mental balance. Once again it was brought home to her that her friend was freakishly strong. And fast. Breathing out a puff of air she nodded to let Milly know she was ready to move on.

        Smiling, Milly gestured to the shop just ahead and the two friends continued.

Some Things Never Change
But Some Things Do

        “Dish ish a great place.” The priest burped, fumes wafting out and floating over to a less-than thrilled Vash who waved a hand in front of his face. Hoping to outrun the lingering reek of Wolfwood‘s breath Vash pushed his chair away to lean back on two legs. Effortlessly balancing himself, Vash considered that so far he was having good luck in avoiding the increasingly alcoholic billows Wolfwood was breathing in his direction.

        “Yeah, a great place.” Vash looked toward the back of the room. He could barely see through the haze that hung low from the ceiling to the dancing girls on the stage. Dancing girls. Right now neither descriptive term could be applied with any amount of accuracy. They were females that was true enough, and dancing, well a person could be generous and give them that. He watched with an indifference that showed every one of his one hundred and fifty years. Then he scanned the crowd again as he was in a habit of doing every few minutes since they first arrived and spotted the last empty table to sit at. The good thing was that they found it in a corner so that both men could sit with their back to a wall. A must in their line of work, or at least in Wolfwood‘s as he mentioned that people were always ready to blame a priest for any little thing that went wrong from crop failure to sandstorms. “This world is filled with such prejudice, Vash.” With a wry grin, Vash thought it was more accurate that blame got shifted to the priest, not because of his vocation, but more of his personality and conniving ways.

        Looking over the room, Vash was once again struck with the thought that it was more crowded then he expected it would be. A small town like this shouldn’t have this many people jammed into a saloon at any one time, especially when they had first arrived in the middle of the afternoon. Even if it was the only one to be had here, it still was more than a little odd. Which meant that most likely every reprehensible partaker of iniquity must be on hand. Everyone of them within a hundred iles of the place must be here to enjoy a night off for a bit of relaxation and drinking with the boys. A day off for the bad guys? Vash shook his head. He was long-lived enough to have seen it all, but this was a new one on him. Of late he seemed to be running into a lot of ‘I’ve never see the like...‘

        The crowd didn’t bother him when they first came in and sat down, but now, he was finding it was beginning to grate on his nerves. In the past he enjoyed being around humans and even just watching them, he didn‘t have to be interacting with them. Humans, yes, they could be a lot of fun. Now though, he was starting to feel irritated and restless. At first he had tried to pin down exactly what was bothering him, and looked around for something to blame. No, it wasn’t the listless dancers who weren’t even trying to pretend they were following the music let alone the beat, he wasn’t even tired of the clientele made up of thugs, bandits, smugglers, assassins, con-men, card sharks, hustlers, and slavers; and that was the cream of the crop. Along with what he was feeling were the several bounty hunters scattered out throughout the smoke-filled room. He could spot them a mile away. It wasn’t even them. He felt twitchy inside of his own skin as if he could peel a layer off of him and in order for this weird, strangling feeling pushing itself down on his brain. He rubbed his forehead, feeling a small headache coming on as he eyed the bounty hunters once again.

        Over the past couple of years he had formed a new opinion about bounty hunters. They were despicably filthy, never bathed, had little regard for any sort of hygiene... he would be surprised to meet one well-dressed, well-groomed, bounty hunter with fresh breath. What was it with them anyway, did they take some sort of aversion-to-cleanliness blood oath that made taking a shower a forbidden sin? All the ones that had come after him over the years had exuded a sour body odor or rotting black stumps in their mouths, sometimes if he was ever so lucky, they had both. That was bad enough, but the worst thing was, they just kept on coming regardless of the presence or lack of sanitary habits. Once one was taken care of, influenced, or talked into retirement, there was another one to replace him, eagerly lined up right to try to bring in the most ridiculous bounty ever placed on a being’s head, man or plant. It got old several decades back.

        “Yesssshuur!” Realizing that his words were starting to slide out of his mouth without the benefit of enunciation, Wolfwood stopped, concentrated and with a great deal of care, uttered what he said next in a very succinct voice, “This. Is. A. Great. Place!” Then totally loosing it again he waved an arm in a vague circle to encompass the room, “Look’it all the ‘appy,” here spittle flew through the air on the ’p’ sound, “Peepul!” Again, spit sailed through the air and Vash leaned to the side to avoid it. Even if no one else was getting happy, it looked like the priest was loaded with enough ‘happy‘ for a whole group of ‘peepul‘.

        “Whaz ze madder Vash? Aren yew ‘appy?” Another burp, but much louder than the first one erupted out of the priest as he slid down slowly in his chair and began laughing with a hand behind his head. He raised his beer bottle in toast to what, Vash wasn’t sure, and then took another hardy swig.

        Putting the bottle down on the surface of the table with exaggerated care, Wolfwood laughed again, realized he was laughing for no reason and tried to control himself. Instead a huge grin stretched across his face. Vash imagined that the last sober brain cell in his head was screaming at the soused priest in an effort to get him to shut up while he was still reasonably coherent. Vash sighed and turned to scan the crowd once more.

        Wolfwood grinned and laughed again because this time he was remembering all the times he and Vash had gone drinking. In those days it was Vash who laughed and goofed off like a fool on holiday. Now he was the one sitting here grinning and laughing like a fool and Vash was about as sorry looking as a miser with the offering plate passing in front of him. He stole a wobbly glance at Vash. The outlaw was still sitting there matching him drink for drink but with that same flat look on his face, no emotion, no twitch of any facial muscles to indicate what he was feeling or thinking. Wolfwood made a face. It was like having statue for a drinking buddy and what was the fun of that? Usually Vash got happier, positively giddy aspiring to heights of manic silliness when he drank. The around-the-bend-leaving-tipsy-way-behind priest, was beginning to realize that this was not going to be one of those times.

        Wolfwood would be feeling a whole lot more frustrated if he wasn’t already so numb. It had been his ulterior motive to get Vash drunk and see if it would help the plant regain even a little bit of his old self or, if not regain it, at least give him a break from this hard nose character who was inhabiting his body of late. Heh, get him drunk and give the old Vash a chance to come out and pal around for a while. It was only fair, ‘hard nose’ had been in control for far too long, time to give Vash a break and let him come out and play. It had to be tiring to be this uptight and tense all the time. Still, he could understand why Vash was like this, poor plant had a lot on his mind recently and who could blame him, but he didn’t have to like it. He missed the old Vash. Wolfwood let out another breath of beery fumes into the air and silently wondered if he was getting too drunk. And why in the hell was he still grinning like a drunken idiot?

        Vash, slid a sharp gaze over the room again, keeping an eye on the various scum of humanity that liked to style themselves as self-employed adventurers. Villains of all descriptions, shapes and sizes were all eyeing each other from time to time knowing what each of them was. At first Vash wasn’t sure why Wolfwood wanted to come here but Wolfwood let it slip at one point that this was all to help Vash cheer up and get happy. He sighed deeply, now he couldn’t remember what made him think this was a bright idea. Maybe it was a force of habit. It sounded good at the time. Most of the fun in his long life had been in a saloon, a room above it, or playing with children in the street. He was getting depressed just thinking about it. He eyed the clientele once again, scanning the room for any sign of impending danger. Most of them weren’t paying any attention to the white-haired man wearing dark sunglasses with his dark-haired friend in the corner, but some were and those were the ones he was concerned about.

        Yes, some were eyeing him back. In this light his spiked white hair was taking on a yellowish cast making him look more like his old self even if he wasn’t wearing his trademark red coat. It was all he could do to act casual and relaxed when what he really wanted to do was pull his gun out and set it on the table in warning. However, that would just confirm the suspicions of the ones who had doubts before this about his identity. Maybe he should stop drinking, it was losing what little allure it possessed when he and the priest had started out the afternoon. He and Wolfwood had passed the time by telling stories, which he doubted the priest could even remember at this point, and now, from the peek he got outside when the doors opened as someone entered, it was early evening. The afternoon passed in the telling of ‘remember when’s’ tossed back and forth across the table and now they were scraping the bottom of the ‘remember when‘ barrel.

        Wolfwood reached over for his bottle, and lifting it up, noticed it was empty. Now that was a sad sight, and another sad sight sat at the table with him. He managed to look over at Vash without falling out of his chair.

        “Vasssh, Vasssh, Vasssh.” The priest started out shaking his head overcome with pity for his friend but it caused his head to swim with dizziness and his stomach to heave in protest so he stopped.

        “Oh no.” Vash said, his eyebrows raising in alarm as he turned his attention to the drunken priest.

        “What?” The priest burped his question, looked surprised by the involuntary noise that snuck past him before trying to fix his drooping gaze on Vash.

        “You are not going to suggest I need a hug are you? Because you can just forget that right now.”

        “You need cheering up.” Wolfwood said, he was having a hard enough time trying to focus on Vash’s two wavering faces.

        “No I don’t.” Vash replied, came down on all four chair legs so he could scoot the chair away from the table in case the phrase ‘cheering up’ meant the intoxicated priest was going to lunge across the table to give him an unwanted and disgustingly slobbery hug at any moment. If it did Vash wanted to be able to make a clean getaway.

        “Shure yew do,” Wolfwood waved an arm signaling the bartender. When he got the man’s attention he held up to fingers and then gestured to their table for another round. The bartender nodded his understanding.

        From there the table grew near to overflowing with empty bottles. Vash may have been disinclined to being cheered up with a hug, but he wasn’t going to turn down the drinks Wolfwood was offering to buy. Then a thought struck him, Wolfwood offered to buy drinks, right? He shook his head, slightly fuzzy from the afternoon of consuming his fair share of bottles that littered the table. He wasn’t as bad off as Wolfwood but he also couldn’t remember now who had offered to pay for the rounds they had been busy sucking down.

        Vash decided it was time they returned to Eleazar’s house. He was pretty sure it was past dinnertime. Thinking about dinner made his stomach rumble and then he was positive they had missed the meal. With another sigh, he reached in his coat and pulled out the money Milly had issued them earlier that morning. He stared at it for a moment trying to read the fuzzy numbers on the bills and finally, in disgust, ended up throwing the wad in the middle of the table.

        Vash stood up and with exaggerated care made his way around the table to where Wolfwood sat, or rather slumped in his chair.

        Noticing Vash’s slow approach Wolfwood slurred out, “Tho..tt yew didd’t.. wanna hug?”

        “Still don’t.” Huffed Vash as he took careful and precise steps over to the priest‘s side. Why on earth did they pick a round table to sit at? It was near impossible to navigate without his stomach protesting the swaying motion.

        “Dere’s preddy g... g...gurls here. I’m sure dey would h... “ Wolfwood hiccuped, “H.. hug yew.” and frowned. Vash frowned along with him. The priest was odd enough to begin with without his words coming out of his mouth in a slush.

        “You are drunk! Have you even looked at these... um ‘girls’?”

        “God luv evvree un ov dem! Wha shweet spes,.. spess... specimums of womanhood!” He practically sang out in his stuttering attempt to say it correctly while waving his bottle to encompass the room.

        “Okay, now you’re just scaring me. I gotta get you home.”

        “Home... home... ish where heart ish...” Wolfwood gave Vash a beery smile and then burped odiferous vapors into Humanoid Typhoon’s face when he bent over and took Wolfwood’s arm to pull it over his shoulders. Bracing his hip against the table as the outlaw felt none too steady himself; Vash heaved himself up taking the sagging priest with him.

        “You have had enough getting happy. Besides your wife is going to kill you, or me ,or maybe the both of us for coming home so late.”

        “Wife?” Wolfwood looked around him in alarm, “Whossh wife?” Then he winked, or tried to but the result was that both eyelids came down before going back up. Then what passed for a manly punch in the arm Wolfwood slurred, “Vassssh, why diddn’t ya vite me to.. “ Another burp erupted out of him making Vash turn his head away with a grimace, “wed... din’?” Then he hiccupped. His eyes were beginning to glaze over and roll in his head as Vash tried to maneuver them through the crowded room. “Cood... av.. done, da sher...sher...a... sher... uh... mony.. for yew...” Wolfwood’s head was beginning to loll on his shoulders as he stumbled along with Vash. Why was the outlaw in such a hurry? People were whizzing by him at the speed of drunk and it was making his head spin in a very unpleasant manner, not to mention his stomach.

        Being too busy with keeping his feet underneath his body, Wolfwood didn’t see Vash shake his head in amused wonder at the intoxicated priest. Even as Vash held Wolfwood up he also kept an eye on the several bounty hunters who had been eyeing him back as they took note of the two men’s departure. He wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of them got up to follow as soon as they passed through the doors of this fine drinking establishment. The outlaw noted the looks but ignored them and began weaving the two of them back and forth through the crowded room making for the double doors at the front of the room. Soon they were near the exit when Vash felt that peculiar prickling warning sensation flying across his nerves alerting him to danger. He didn’t move his head even as his eyes scanned the room again. No one was standing or moving towards them. Next to him the priest coughed a little and hiccupped.

        Vash halted for a moment at the doors, giving the priest a chance to catch his breath and get his eyeballs to stop spinning in their sockets. He turned and said in a low soft voice into the priest’s ear, “I don‘t want to alarm you but we have company.”

        It was like a detoxification drug was applied because instantaneously the once rubber-kneed priest wasn‘t stumbling as much. While Wolfwood was nowhere near sober, he wasn’t as drunk as he was only seconds ago and was shooting narrowed-eyed and alert glances around the room sizing up the patrons to gauge the danger.

        He let Vash lead him through the doors out into the refreshingly cool night air which also had the effect of helping him to sober up. What others didn’t know about him was that when drinking in a suspicious bar not all of his drinks passed his lips. Tonight, many found their way into the spittoon on the floor by his feet or into the fake potted plant on the other side of him. No, he wasn’t quite as drunk as he let on earlier. Still, he as rather tipsy but that was passing with the threat of imminent danger directed at them. Dammit, couldn’t a couple of hard working gunmen go out for a few drinks without their off time being spoiled by some overzealous, flat-nosed bounty hunter or assassin trying to ruin it? Didn’t they ever take any time off? Obviously they were surrounded by a bunch of career-conscious workaholics.

        From behind them a voice interrupted him, “Stop right there Vash the Stampede. I have you in my sights and I don’t care if I take you in dead or alive.”

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 18
Back to Chapter 16

Email Susan