“Reach for the sky Vash the Stampede! You’re a goner!”
Not a muscle twitched to betray the shock that flashed through the two men as they froze in place. It lasted but a second as they swiftly regrouped. Both gunmen were masters of quick recovery when caught in a tight situation. It was a must for survival for the two of them. Yet, Wolfwood noted, underneath the hyper-alert awareness tingling along his nerves, that there was something odd about that voice however it was soon swept away in the frustration of the situation.
“Not again!” Squeezing his eyes shut with a low groan, Wolfwood quickly slid his arm off Vash’s shoulder while at the same time Vash released the grip he had on Wolfwood’s wrist.
“Is there a two-for-one sale going on someplace I’m not aware of?” The exasperated priest exclaimed. “Just try and go out for a relaxing evening and once, just once, couldn’t a guy count on not being ambushed?” With a sour look up at the night sky Wolfwood raised his voice asking, “Yeah, just this once, I’m asking you, is that too much to ask?”
Even as the indignation flowed from him, Wolfwood was trying to decide which of several distracting moves he could make to cover for Vash. He wasn’t under any illusions that he could arm himself faster than Vash could. Moving slowly he could feel Vash’s eye on him as he shifted his weight so that it looked like he was tensing to spring to the side. The priest hoped the bounty hunter‘s eyes would follow his movements rather than stay on the one who was motionless. Vash probably didn’t need the help but it couldn’t hurt either. All they needed was a blink of an eye for the plant to utilize the opportune moment. Mumbling through clenched teeth he muttered under his breath, “I don’t believe this! Why me Lord?”
Wolfwood heard a rough whisper aimed in his direction, “It would be a nice change of pace it if were about you.”
Wolfwood was only turned halfway when his eye fell on the newest adversary threatening them. A quick smile shot across his face while his eyes crinkled in amusement. He lifted his hands in an exaggerated motion and said, “Ya got us fair and square sheriff. We‘ll come along quietly.”
Wolfwood’s eyes twinkled as he unsuccessfully tried to suppress a chuckle as his gaze wandered over the four-foot something bounty hunter holding a gun on them. A gun that was made of two slats of wood and tied together with a dirty string. His eyes followed the grubby fist holding the toy gun until they reached an equally grubby face of a boy looking to be about eight-years-old. The boy’s grime-coated, shocked face was covered with freckles topped by carrot-colored hair and his surprised brown eyes were as wide as they could get and still stay in their sockets. Obviously the little sheriff had come dashing around the corner expecting somebody else and not two grown adult men in front of him.
Wolfwood chuckled at the sight. This was the kind of thing that Vash just loved, being the overgrown kid that he was. With laughter flowing out of him, Wolfwood chanced an amused glance at Vash expecting to see him playacting along with the priest for the kid’s benefit with that goofy smile plastered on his face. He was turning away when his head snapped back in shocked unbelief.
All mirth fled and the smile died a quick death on his lips as he beheld Vash down in a feral crouch, lips pulled back from his teeth and the tip of his silver gun pointed at the boy’s face. Immediately the youngster was old enough to understand his peril and Wolfwood watched as the blood drained from the child’s face causing the freckles to stand out in a vivid pattern. The boy was frozen with terror. Wolfwood had seen that look many times before in his life and recognized it for what it was.
“Oh God, no.” Breathed out the priest as his heart squeezed in sympathy for the little guy.
In a low, soothing voice; at least he hoped it came out that way even if he was feeling a far cry from calm at the moment, he pointed out the obvious to the outlaw, “Vash. He’s a kid, just a kid.”
Wolfwood shifted his body so he could get a better look at the outlaw’s face but what he saw there didn’t alleviate his fears. Vash’s eyes held emptiness so deep and vast it was painful to see. Wolfwood didn’t have a clue as to what was going on in Vash’s brain but it was evident that he was not presently with them in the alley. What was worse was that he was still not relaxing his rigid stance.
Vash’s pupils had shrunk to mere pinpoints and his limbs were beginning to tremble in a way that caused the gun tip to waver as each wave passed through him. It also had the effect of making Wolfwood extremely nervous. The priest perceived the first movement from the boy since becoming petrified with fear by the very strange and dangerous man dressed in a black trench coat holding silver six-shooter. The frightened child swallowed around a great lump as he looked up to see what frightened him more than the gun. The man’s eyes were glowing red!
The boy’s throat worked up and down as he attempted to speak, “Sor... sorry... m... m... mister. We were... jest... p.. playing.” Tears glittered in his wide, frightened eyes until they began to slide down his dusty cheeks leaving muddy tracks in their place. Wolfwood was near panic and the only thought that came to him was the question of what was this kid doing out in the streets this time of night, especially on this side of town!
Wolfwood swore under his breath. Even as he did so, he slowly and with a great deal of care, so as not to jar or startle Vash, he reached for the wrist holding the gun. Then he heard the pounding of running feet coming closer and silently cursed again when he heard a voice call out, “Temmy, Temmy, where are you? C’mon out, you win! It’s time to...”
“Dammit! Are all the children in this town nocturnal!?” Growled the priest.
Another boy, roughly the same age although shorter came tearing around the corner only to stop short at the sight confronting him. A crouching white-haired stranger dressed in a long black coat was pointing a large silver gun at his playmate’s head. He looked up into the white-haired stranger’s face to see glowing red eyes. A loud scream of horror and panic ripped from him even and he spun on his heel to run back in the direction he had come.
The boy held captive at the end of Vash’s custom-made revolver gave a small whimper while another set of silent tears slid from his eyes.
“Dammit Vash! He’s just a kid!” Wolfwood grated out, fear making his voice harsh and rough. Vash stood stone still as a statue except for the occasional quiver that gave him away as a living being. Wolfwood moved as if in slow motion, not wanting to startle the outlaw into pulling the trigger. If the unthinkable happened he would bet the fifth moon that Vash would never recover from this kind of heartache. It was clear to him that it wasn’t just one life here that needed saving. He looked back and forth between Vash and the boy. The priest groaned. Somehow he had to rescue both child and plant at the same time. He was feeling the crush of being caught right in the middle between the proverbial rock and a hard place. In the past there wouldn’t have been any hesitation, he would have pulled the trigger on anyone who threatened the life of a child. That couldn’t be the solution this time. He had to find another way.
With teeth gritted he focused on Vash again. Wolfwood didn’t know what Vash was seeing with those empty eyes but the gunman was acting as if he was unaware of the child he was putting in danger or the priest trying to bring him back to some form of sanity, or if not that, at least within breathing distance of it.
Bending close to Vash’s ear Wolfwood tried again, whispering, “You gotta back down Vash. You got a kid in your sights. For God’s sake Vash, he’s just a child!” Now he wrapped his hands around Vash’s wrists trying to push the weapon down. It was like trying to bend a beam of iron for all the good he was doing.
Turning his face away from Vash to the frightened child and ordered in a low voice, “Son. Look at me.” With a nervous wrench of terror-filled eyes, the boy obeyed the raven-haired man in the black suit. Slowly the child’s eyes rose to the priest’s face. He could tell by what he found there that this man cared, and cared deeply, about his welfare, no matter what his crazy friend was doing.
When Wolfwood was sure he had the boy’s attention he said, “Son. Step to the side, slowly, now, slowly. That’s it. You can do it. Slowly there son, a step at a time.” The only reaction the outlaw had to the boy’s movement was an increase in the shaking passing through Vash’s lean frame. Wolfwood breathed out a quick prayer of thanks as he noticed that for all the shaking Vash was doing the end of the six-shooter stayed where it had originally been pointing. He was extremely relieved to see that Vash’s arm wasn’t following the boy’s progress to the side.
“Alright now, that’s it, more...” With gentle instructions Wolfwood talked the boy well out of the danger zone of Vash’s lethal gun.
A woman’s voice cut through the evening air calling her children home. Wolfwood cursed parents who would let their children play out in the dark alleys. Damn irresponsible. He could be angry now that the boy was nearly out of danger and relief flooded him leaving him weak in the knees.
The boy turned towards his mother’s voice and then glanced back at the priest for his consent. Wolfwood nodded and jerked his chin for the boy to leave. Needing no more encouragement than that the boy dashed around the same corner the other boy had disappeared around.
Wolfwood was left in the suddenly descending silence with his fingers still tightly gripping the Humanoid Typhoon’s wrists. Oblivious to everything, Vash was staring into a distance only he could see. Vash gave no sign that he was even aware that his gun was pointing off into empty space. The priest felt his skin crawl at the sight. By now you would think he would be used to things that weren’t normal about Vash, but this, this took the cake. It went way beyond strange and unusual, barreling straight into the heart of bizarre.
Finally deciding that it was a lost cause trying to budge Vash’s immovable arm he dropped his useless hold and took a step back to assess the situation and wonder what to do next. With a frustrated sigh he studied the outlaw as he considered his options. He could shoot him, there was always that but not lethally of course, because after all, they were pals. Maybe he could just wing him with a trifling scratch, on the arm or leg. He frowned, all too aware that even just little bit of ‘winging’ the outlaw was out of the question. He knew Milly and Rinnah would do him some serious bodily damage if he did. It had to be something else. He eyed Vash’s immobile stance as he distractedly ran a hand through his hair. What he wouldn’t give for a cigarette about now.
Walking in a circle around Vash to study him, Wolfwood finally decided on one course of action that he was sure to get Vash’s immediate and undivided attention. Coming to a halt slightly to the side and behind the gunman, Wolfwood gripped Vash’s shoulder and upper arm and jerked him off balance. Automatically the outlaw straightened, or his body did it for him as Vash was acting like his mind had taken a leave of absence.
Vash staggered to the side a step but it was enough for the priest to use. As the outlaw straightened the priest pivoted and threw a knee deep into Vash’s unprotected groin and before the blow even registered he quickly followed it with one to the gut. Immediately he was rewarded to hear the gagging of expelled air explode out of Vash’s lungs and the retching noise that followed. Vash bent over double before collapsing to his knees. Wolfwood viewed the results of his handiwork with satisfaction. For one thing, it meant that the plant wasn’t unreachable.
Wolfwood took a few steps away in case Vash was in his right mind enough now to wish to retaliate in revenge for the low blow. Wolfwood tilted his head contemplating the wheezing outlaw. The priest doubted it since he hadn’t been gentle, but the one thing he learned over the years was that one should never underestimate a plant, especially this one in particular. A few grunting pants were heard and Wolfwood began to worry that maybe he had used an excessive amount of force. Too bad.
Now Vash was on his knees groaning, one hand protectively going to his abused groin, but Wolfwood noticed that while Vash loosened his grip on the butt of his gun, he didn‘t drop it.
Eyeing the hunched over, pain-wracked outlaw, Wolfwood was thankful that though Vash was a plant with astounding abilities, he was still male enough to be affected by an incapacitating blow. He took another step back and fervently wished again for a cigarette. He even patted the place where he used to keep them on the off chance one might have been overlooked, but regretfully, the pocket was flat and empty.
“I just can’t catch a break tonight.” He said sadly to himself.
Closing his eyes and clamping his teeth as a sudden sour taste filled his mouth, the results of an over-active stomach. He bent over trying to breathe slowly and deeply. He willed the wild churning to calm down. I don’t have time for this! Wolfwood could tell himself that he was letting Vash have a minute to recuperate. In truth he was in as much need himself for a moment of rest. He listened to the thrumming in his veins slowly calming and took more deep breaths until he felt confident he could stand up straight without being hampered by the heaving of rebellious stomach walls.
Returning to normal, Wolfwood opened his eyes. They were dark and hard as he stared at the recovering plant who now had his head hanging down and shoulders slumping forward as if he were trying to curl in on himself and shut out the world. Wolfwood did notice that the gun was back in its holster and outlaw had both hands lethargically resting on his thighs. The air of despondency that hung over Vash was thick and palpable.
Wolfwood’s eyes glinted in the moonlight. This would not do at all. With a few steps forward he reached down in a quick motion and grabbed two fistfuls of Vash’s black coat and with a grunt of effort, yanked the outlaw to his feet. Vash hung limp from Wolfwood’s fists, not struggling or trying to protect himself from the priest’s anger. Now that the tense moment was over the priest felt free to express the panic and fear that had been firmly held in check since his first glimpse into Vash‘s blank face, along with the anger over the child’s endangerment.
Eyes smoldering with suppressed rage, Wolfwood yelled at Vash’s lowered head, “What the hell were you thinking? What’s the matter with you? You could have killed him! He was just a kid Vash! You could have killed that boy!”
The enraged priest shook the outlaw hanging limp from his fists as if surrendering himself to the deserved onslaught. Vash’s arms hung limply at his sides. He made no effect to defend himself. Vash’s face was lowered and slightly turned away, unable to meet Wolfwood’s fury. “If I hadn’t stopped you, you could have pulled that trigger!”
Wolfwood gritted his teeth so hard the crack was loud and sharp between the two men. “Have you gone insane! Answer me dammit! What did you think you were doing?” He shook Vash again in frustration.
Though Vash wasn’t looking at him Wolfwood saw an uncertain, anguished, and bewildered look flit across his face. Finally Vash lifted tortured eyes to the priest’s wrath and for the first time Wolfwood saw the misery and distress lodged there. Tears were dangling on the edges of his eyes, filling his lashes but not given permission to fall. Vash wouldn’t allow himself the relief of cleansing tear. He didn’t deserve the privilege. With each passing moment he reflected on what had happened and the magnitude and horror of his offense reverberated within him. The agony of devouring despair curled itself around his thoughts while self-hatred and loathing, along with disgust, flooded his being.
All his limbs were heavy and weighted with aching grief as if pieces of his soul were being ripped into shreds. He was ready to surrender himself to the heavy darkness except that a nagging, indignant curiosity was insistently demanding to know what had just happened to him. Why had he responded like that? What was going on? It was just a thread of life but he wasn’t hanging onto it, it was brazenly hanging onto him. Even so, he wanted to give up to the dark tide that was threatening to consume him.
Vash raised his head to look up into his friend’s eyes and Wolfwood saw there the almost forgotten Vash of old, despite the distinctive and unusual color of his eyes. He drew in a breath and whispered in wonder, “Vash?” Then struck by the absolute and bottomless despair starting back at him. “What happened to you?”
“I... don’t know.” Then Vash buried his face in his gloved hands, in dry sobbing heaves sounding all that much worse for the lack of tears. He leaned back away and Wolfwood’s fists followed until releasing his grip on Vash’s coat so he could slide back down the wall. Once sitting on his haunches he rested his forehead on his drawn-up knees.
A child, he nearly caused a child to come to harm! He loved children, he always had. No one needed to rescue them from him! How absurd was that? He was the one who did the rescuing! Again a tidal wave of anguish crashed down on him with a menacing promise to suck him under into the black void of hopelessness. With the bleak despair edging out every coherent thought, all that was left him was a heart-breaking and lonely emptiness. He didn’t deserve to live; he brought pain and death wherever he went. Trouble and sorrow tagged his every footstep. He wasn’t human. He didn’t have to physically harm himself to cease to function; he was able to will the life from him. He could do that. Those around him would be much safer.... from Knives and himself as well.
Assessing him with a keen, knowing eye, Wolfwood grated out, “Oh no you don’t Needle Noggin! I’m not going to let you do this, not to yourself and certainly not to us!”
Through gritted teeth came an apathetic, muffled “do what.“ It wasn’t a question. Vash really didn’t care if Wolfwood answered him or not. He didn’t even bother to look over the clenched fists covering his eyes at the tall form of the priest looming over him.
“This. What you are trying to do to yourself right now.” Wolfwood reached down again and grabbed Vash’s coat and lifted him up. Vash dropped his fists from his face to grasp Wolfwood’s wrists as if he was going to try and wrest himself out of the priest’s grip. Wolfwood tightened his hold even though he knew that if the plant wanted to be free of the restraining grip he could easily do it. But Vash made no attempt to free himself but stood there with his fingers wrapped loosely around Wolfwood’s wrists. With head hanging down ready to accept the sentence like a prisoner wanting, no needing to hear the punishment for the crime, Vash waited to hear what Wolfwood had to say.
“This,... this... is beyond anything I ever thought you would do... it‘s more like something I would expect from Knives, only without the restraint. Now that should be a comforting thought.” The heat was slowly fading as he tried to puzzle through this turn of events and was the puzzle was too great for him to grasp and made sense of it.
“I can’t... do this... anymore.” Vash said in a hopeless, ragged whisper.
Wolfwood peered at the outlaw for a second before shaking him, although more gently then the previous times. It was good that Vash was feeling regret, sorrow, and guilt. At least he was feeling something. He wasn’t acting like that aloof, indifferent ass. Wolfwood sadly shook his head. It was too bad though that it took this incident to for his soul to engage again in the complicated balance of the beautifully joyous existence and horrendous tragedy known as Living. However Vash was going beyond that. Like a scent in the air, Wolfwood could sense that the plant was set on a course of willing himself to not exist any longer. That wasn’t like the old Vash either, most definitely not like the old Vash. A curious mixture this new dark Vash of theirs. Wolfwood knew the moment had come to intervene with some timely priestly action. After all a situation like this was what he was trained for.
“People... get hurt... because of... me. I just... keep... hurting people.” Came another tormented whisper. Wolfwood was fairly certain that Vash wasn’t even talking to him anymore but whispering over the bones of the past piled high in his mind.
“Yeah, don’t we all, pal,” replied Wolfwood. “So I‘m sorry about this, just thought I would tell you now.”
Vash looked up finally, startled by the priest’s words and tone of voice only to find a fist slamming into his jaw. Dimly aware of being caught in Wolfwood’s arms and kept from collapsing to the ground, the only thing he knew was the welcoming darkness that swallowed all awareness and thought.
“Okay then Spikey. Being human doesn’t come easy and you’ve been playacting at it long enough.”
Wolfwood bent his knees and let Vash fall over his shoulder, grunting softly as the full weight of the plant landed on him. “I’m not going to let you skip class just because it’s getting too tough for your liking. You found your breaking point. Took a century and a half, though. You sure are on the slow learning curve aren‘t you? Most people figure this out a whole helluva lot sooner than you did. But then, we don‘t have the kind of time to squander like you do.”
Taking a deep breath, he groaned as he straightened. Once standing he wobbled for a second as he waited to grow accustomed to the weight. “Gotta lay off the doughnuts Vash. You’re as heavy as a sand steamer.” The evening was not turning out the way that he hoped it would.
Taking a few steps he continued his lecture to the unconscious gunman who was oblivious to the scolding harangue. “Welcome to being human Vash, and yes, I am fixin‘ to speechify so keep your opinions to yourself for now. Yeah, you screwed up big time. You know, in your own way, you are just as arrogant as Knives is. You never come out and say it, but then, you don’t have to, you know, it was always there under the surface. You always assumed you were too untainted, too in love with the human race to ever be in the wrong. You were always the perfect victim. Stay away everyone or else you will get hurt. How easy was that? Nope, you never did anything wrong, oh no not you, you were always the injured party time after time. So how does it feel to be like the rest of us, eh? We hurt others and we get hurt. It’s one big cesspool Vash. None of us are like God. How come you thought you could be a runner up, eh? Did you see yourself as our older brother or immortal babysitter? Or did you just think of yourself as going around helping others out and rescuing us poor slobs from ourselves? Well guess what pal, when you are down in the mud with the rest of us it’s hard to keep from getting dirty. So what do you do from here? Quit? Not going to let you do that. What you need to do in this little situation you got staring you in the face here is make amends somehow, let yourself be forgiven and here’s a tough one, forgive yourself. Just like the rest of us. The best you can do Needle Noggin, is just do the best you can, and also, try not to make the same mistake twice. Glad you’re out cold for this little pep talk because I am in no mood to listen to your humble, ‘I’m not special’, or your evasions and your excuses or even the old ‘woe is me, everyone I know gets hurt‘ crap.”
Wolfwood kept a rumbling monologue as he staggered every now and then under his burden. It really felt good to get these thoughts that had been on his mind for so long even if Vash was in no position to hear or appreciate them. The priest shifted Vash up onto his shoulder again to halt the inevitable slide downward. Although he doubted the outlaw would appreciate it especially with how prickly Vash was of late. So maybe it was all for the best that Vash was out of commission and not able to hear anything the priest said.
Wolfwood paused for a moment at the end of the street to catch his breath and lifted a hand to protect his eyes from the grit in the wind coming down the street with a growling whine. It was beginning to whip and pull at the fabric of his coat and pant legs. That wasn’t bad but what was irritating were the long flaps of Vash’s coat lashing him across the face when he least expected it. Damn coat. He was glad he was so close to Eleazar’s house, as he certainly didn’t have a desire to get lost in this while carrying a heavy load. Already he could see a fine light haze making the gusting wind visible for brief periods of time.
For the hundredth time since he started staggering down the streets he wondered how the lanky and lean outlaw could be such a backbreaking burden. Wolfwood would swear the plant weighed more than his cross and was getting heavier by the minute. At times Vash looked to be all pointed elbows, sharp knees, and clumsy as a newborn thomas. Wolfwood reminded himself that, of all people, he should know the whole gangly act of tripping and stumbling over a pair of clumsy feet was just that, an act, part of the mask Vash used to wear to hide his real self. It was quite an effective disguise, Wolfwood had to give the long-lived plant that. Being all arms and legs, he didn’t look like he weighed more than a man of that height. Of course, nothing about Vash was normal. But, dammit, did he have to be so blasted heavy!
On the heels of that thought, he became aware of the sweat beading and trickling down his sides. Wolfwood would have groaned if he had the breath for it. He was sure he smelled rank and was desperate for a soak in a nice tub of hot soapy water... with Milly scrubbing his back for him. He allowed himself a smile as the daydream continued on from there. Coming back to himself, he shook his head to remind himself to keep focused on the matter at hand. Get the outlaw home first and then more pleasant things can happen after that. Vash, you red-eyed twit, why couldn‘t floating be one of your special plant abilities? Then I could just tie a string around your ankle and tow you home. Several times he stopped to rest and directed uncharitable thoughts at Vash. It helped hold at bay the fear that was threatening to break out and resurface.
He glanced at the gunman, still unconscious and dangling down from his shoulder. He was getting concerned. Vash should have come to before this. It wasn’t that hard of a punch, at least, he didn’t think it was. Sure, his knuckles hurt but that was because Vash was possessed of exceptionally hard head. Wolfwood expelled another huff of air in irritation. Just like the big idiot, more trouble than he was worth. It would serve Vash right if the winded priest just dumped him and began pulling him along by his boots. What a pretty picture that would be.
Despite his threatening thoughts, Wolfwood had no intention of dragging Vash home. Not only could he not bring himself to do it, he would be in such big trouble if he arrived and the girls saw him towing the outlaw along behind him in the dirt like that.
Looking up through the sweat running freely down his brow to trickle into his eyes, he was relieved to find himself at the entrance of the back courtyard of Eleazar‘s home.
“This sucks Vash. You were supposed to help me home you stupid thomas-for-brains! You owe me big time, buddy, emphasis on big!” Underneath the thread of complaints a very real fear raised it‘s ugly head again and this time he couldn‘t ignore it. What if something like this happened again? What if Vash started pulling that silver cannon of his on innocent people? It made Wolfwood’s blood run cold just thinking about it. Would he be around to stop Vash if he did pull something like this again? The real question was, of course, could he even stop Vash if he were in a situation like this? Vash was the strongest person he had ever met. Vash tried to hide his ‘special irregularities’ underneath that wimpy exterior but he, for one, knew better. If the plant was set on harming anyone, who could stop him?
Coming up to the entrance, he stopped to lean over and let Vash’s body slide off into the dirt with a dull thud. He looked down at his unconscious friend and wiped the sweat from his brow again. He’ll live; but the question is, does he want to?
Before he could travel any further down that path the door suddenly opened and although slightly startled, Wolfwood was too fatigued to jump in surprise.
Wolfwood made a face at the aching kinks and popping sounds his back made as he straightened to face the priest-smith. The younger priest lifted his hand to shade his eyes from the light spilling out of the doorway. The warm inside light cut out a bright rectangle on the ground at his feet, illuminating the outlaw’s crumpled form.
Surprise etching clear lines on his face, Eleazar stared at the prone outlaw for a second and then up at Wolfwood with a question in his eyes. When Wolfwood began to answer and launch into a lengthy explanation of what happened, Eleazar held up his hand to stall him. “Wait till we get the lad in.”
Shaking his head the old priest leaned over and scooped the outlaw up with not even a grunt to show for his effort. Lifting Vash as easily as he would a small child, his eyes skimmed across the younger priest’s face a second before nodding his head toward the interior of the house in invitation. Turning, the older man sidled the lanky form of the plant through the door and headed in as one weary priest followed close behind.
The women rose from their chairs in alarm as they caught sight of Eleazar carrying Vash in. The plant was much too tall for Eleazar to be carrying him with the ease that he was. Rinnah thought again that this was no ordinary old man as she watched him hold Vash without displaying any sign that his arms were getting tired or of that Vash was too heavy for him. Then looking back down to Vash her breath caught in her throat at the sight of Vash’s unconscious form and acting purely on instinct and unknown emotion, she started forward. Telling herself that he was only passed out from drinking, she was still unable to stop that cold sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Coming up next to Eleazar with Milly right next to her, she looked down into Vash‘s relaxed face and lifted her hand to tenderly brush the bangs out of his eyes.
Looking up at Wolfwood she asked what was on all of their minds, “What’s wrong with him?” She tried to make her voice come out even and calm but even she could hear the worried quaver laced through the question.
Wolfwood shook his head, eyes on the unconscious outlaw. “I can’t even begin to answer that. But here’s what happened...” With that he gave a hasty if heavy-hearted summary of the evening. He could see the disbelief in Rinnah’s eyes and the stunned horror in Milly’s. Milly was shaking her head in adamant denial. This was not her Mr. Vash, she would not accept that he pulled a gun on a child. He sighed knowing that she was close to calling him a liar or that he was mistaken as to what he had seen.
Unbelievably Eleazar still held Vash without effort, but did say in a soft voice, “Let’s be puttin’ him to bed. He be needing some checking out and I have the means to do so.”
With an unsatisfied noise in the back of her throat Rinnah stepped back to give Eleazar room to maneuver. She felt torn. She wanted answers but more than that she wanted to put her arms around Vash and keep him safe. Instead moving over to allow him to walk away was one of the hardest things the female half-plant had done of late. Vaguely aware that one part of her brain was trying to distract her from worrying, she concentrated on that thought. That old man was carrying Vash as if he were no heavier than a ponderous thought. No matter how good of shape he was in, a man of his age shouldn’t be able to do that. Old man my ever-loving half-human foot! And I am so noticing that he is not even making one remark about needing to set down his load. For someone of his advanced years it was remarkable that the priest-smith could even cross the floor while holding his burden. As it was, she let him lead and followed tight on his heels with Milly right on hers.
Wolfwood watched them disappear down the hall and rubbed a weary hand over his face. Then straightening his shoulders and heaving a sigh he followed after them with a slow step. Somehow he was going to be blamed for this. He just knew it. It was a fact of life. Everybody always blamed the priest.
When he entered the bedroom he saw Rinnah at the head of the bed on Vash’s right with Eleazar on the left side and Milly stood at the foot of the bed, stiff with rigid anxiety.
He saw the three of them were busy unbuttoning Vash’s great coat. Milly and Eleazar lifted different parts of Vash at a time so Rinnah could unwind the coat off of him. With a final heave, she pulled it out from under him and then took it over to the coat rack and hung it up while Eleazar and Milly straightened his limbs getting him into a comfortable position. Not that he would be able to tell in his state.
Finally satisfied, the priest-smith stepped back to lift the lone gray eye and peg Wolfwood with it. “Think ye need na blame yeself laddie. None of yon doings were of ye.”
Wolfwood was startled. He wasn’t going to be blamed for this? One corner of his mouth lifted a notch. So far this was the best thing he had heard this whole hideous thrice-cursed evening. As for how the old man knew what he was feeling, he had given up trying to figure that out years ago. He accepted it as just one of those annoying things that the old man did on occasion. The priest-smith did hit the bull’s eye though. In truth, underneath all his ranting and raving earlier Wolfwood was half-afraid that he had triggered something dark in Vash and set it loose.
“No, think nothing of it, lad. Know I that ye take on this load, but none of that now. Me, an idea is coming as what this could be.”
“You do?” Burst out of three very surprised mouths.
“Aye. Seen such like before.”
“You have?” The three glanced at each other and Milly quickly put a hand over her mouth to stop the nervous giggle that wanted to burst out.
Then again they asked in unintentional unison, “When?”
“Okay, we are going to have to stop doing that; it’s beginning to give me the creeps.” Insisted Rinnah. Then turning to Eleazar she narrowed suspicious eyes at him and opened her mouth to ask some very pointed questions.
“Aye. But first, let me take stock.” Rinnah closed her mouth with a sound of disgruntlement. She would ask later. The old priest turned to the dresser in the room, knelt and pulled open the bottom drawer. Rummaging around and muttering under his breath while the apprehension in the room grew thicker.
“Mr. Priest” started Milly, who gave a quick assuring smile at Wolfwood on his instinctive turn in her direction at the old name, “What are you going to do and what is wrong with Mr. Vash?”
“Ah lassie, a wee bit of a thing to my way a-thinking. But ah’ll know here in jest a minute.” He stood up and turned around holding a couple of instruments in his hands.
Rinnah’s eyes widened as she recognized one of them from a visit to the medical museum at the academy, from another lifetime it seemed like. In one hand he held an old fashioned medi-scanner, the grandfather of the one used in medical circles on New Earth. The other hand held an instrument that Rinnah didn’t recognize at all. It looked like a little black box with knobs and tiny lights winking on and off. She gave it a doubtful glance. What could that thing do? It looked more like a child’s toy.
The priest-smith returned to the bed and ran the medi-scanner over Vash’s body, from his feet to his head and then making the pass again. He studied the scanner for a moment before Milly asked, “What is that? What does it do? Oh my, is Mr. Vash all right?” She clasped her hands in front of her chest and tears began forming in her eyes. Wolfwood recognized what Eleazar had in his hands was a bit of lost technology but he didn’t recall seeing the old priest use either instrument before.
“Ah lass, hold yon tears till they be needed. Give me a wee sliver of time.” Wolfwood snapped his eyes up to the old man’s face while he was still busy studying the little screen on the first blinking rectangle box.
“Yes. It is as I suspected,” now Milly lifted light blue eyes to watch him. Tilting her head in puzzlement she listening intently as he spoke to himself, “There it is. That kind of power signature can’t be hidden for very long, especially from someone who knows what to look for. I ken tell ye that the placement of this wee thing was very cleverly done. Diabolically so. Poor lad.”
Rinnah’s mouth hung open and then snapped shut while her eyes narrowed in suspicion. He was speaking in a calm, professional, and analytical voice. Only a bare trace of an accent could be heard!
“Hey!” She started but dropped her question at the look on his face, which she instantly recognized. He was an expert with a job to do and didn‘t need any hassle from someone who was keeping him from getting it done. Again, her jaw tightened in annoyance, another time then. It was getting harder not to demand answers to the growing horde of questions that were piling up within her. Cagey old priest.
Finally Eleazar laid the medi-scanner on the nightstand with a satisfied sigh. Turning back to Vash, he held the instrument near Vash‘s head. Rinnah leaned forward, overcome with curiosity. She couldn’t figure out how the thing was able to gather information. She looked up to give Eleazar her full attention when he touched a spot on the box. Emitting a soft whirring noise, out popped a little panel from the side. The old priest touched a few more places on the side and the top and the box responded with a low hum that soon turned into chirps and squeals that resembled dolphin speak. The hybrid knew neither Milly, nor Wolfwood would know that sound, but it was eerily like that. The sound may be reminiscent of the mammal but this instrument was totally unknown to her. The hybrid had never seen the like and suspiciously wondered what its function was.
All of them watched quietly as the older priest stared at the box, glanced at Vash, and continued to mutter to himself. Then closing his eyes he began speaking under his breath. Rinnah was the closest to him and heard some of the words. In her opinion it sounded suspiciously like medical terms or a liturgy being spoken in one of the dead languages. When he finished, he nodded to himself and opened his eyes.
“Yes Mr. Eleazar?” Milly answered quickly because she hoped she was going to be asked to do something helpful and right now Milly had a desperate need to do something helpful.
“Lass, I need you to go and make the medicine I will be needing. Don’t worry, it’s easy enough, the directions are in the yellow tin in the back of the cabinet above the stove. Inside the tin is a paper, just follow the directions on the paper. Oh, and don’t let the water boil but it shouldn’t be cold either.” Milly nodded and threw a quick salute and dashed for the door, grateful to be doing something useful.
Vash floated in a hazy twilight. He was hearing her voice singing again as it always did at odd moments in his life. He couldn’t see her, but he could hear her. She was singing her favorite song and it was breaking his heart.
“Rem. I failed you,” he whispered, “again.”
He spoke it once more and this time could hear the sound of his voice. Then he heard someone else speaking. “He’s coming around.” He knew that voice; he just couldn’t place it.
Through a fog he became aware of his surroundings. Opening his eyes, he blinked a few times at the whiteness until he realized he was staring at the ceiling. Suddenly faces materialized blocking off his view. His eyes flicked from one worried face to another while wondering what was wrong. Awareness came to him slowly as if his senses were sluggishly awakening from a deep sleep. Realization was slow in coming but he finally figured out that he was laid out on a bed with his friends gathered on all sides of him. It was very disconcerting. Now he knew why it bothered Rinnah to awaken and find them all standing by her bed staring down at her like they were doing to him... when was that anyway, this past decade or the one before?
Vash placed a hand to his head as he became aware of a throbbing ache pulsing through his temples. He tried to sit up. That’s when the pain hit him racing through his skull like a screeching sandstorm. Arching his spine he fell back onto the pillow and instinctively reached up to grip the throbbing sides of his head. A groan escaped him as he writhed on the bed. The pain was increasing and it cut like a knife through him as he dimly wondered if he had been shot or struck in the head for him to be feeling this way. He didn‘t feel any bullet wounds and after all these years he would know what one felt like. There had to be a reason for him to be hurting this badly. Through the pain-induced haze a voice spoke saying, “Lift him up lad. He needs to drink this. Then the lass and me can help him.”
“Me? Help? How, how can I help?” Vash recognized that one immediately. The link was still in effect then and, underneath his own pain, he could feel the curbed fear and worry churning within her that she was frantically trying to keep under control. Another wave of pain passed over him and he lost all ability to think. If the gunman had still been able to put coherent thoughts together he would have seen the irony of a member of a supposedly superior species being reduced to the state of near animal-like twisting and turning that he was doing in a futile attempt to escape the pain.
Again another wave washed through him. He didn’t know what it was but at this point Vash would have gladly pulled off his left arm to trade in for a fast-acting painkiller. He groaned again.
Someone slid an arm under his shoulders causing an involuntary shudder to course through him. Then he was lifted up and the pain that went through him was indescribable, causing him to moan in misery. He would have cursed but all that came out was another groan.
“It looks like he is in a lot of pain.” What was their first clue?
The next thing he felt was a metal cup being pressed up against his lips. He would have knocked the cup away but there seemed to be no strength in his arms left. He managed to move an arm only to have his hand flop uselessly in his lap.
Eleazar watched Wolfwood help Vash drink before turning back to the dresser to pull the top drawer open. Removing a thin black box he opened it and pulled out a purple silk strip of cloth with a white cross embroidered in the middle. Bringing the cross up to his lips, he kissed it softly and placed it around his neck.
“Hey, he’s not dead yet!” Protested Rinnah with a hint of anger thinking she knew what that meant.
Eleazar looked up at her with a grin. “Na Last Rites lass. Jest my job. I am a priest ye ken.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t think you were religious!” She blurted out and stopped cold, face blank. Flaming crap on a splintered stick, did that sound as idiotic as she thought it did?
“Know who ye work for lass, tha’s key. Now, I combine what I know with what I do.”
Rinnah was desperate to wipe that faux paux away with... anything, anything at all she could think of. Sleight of hand tricks? Whistling? Nah, those wouldn’t be appropriate. Humming, that sounded good, yeah, humming, just the thing. Oh, not that happy, inane humming that drives people crazy to the point of chasing after you with bricks, but something simple, low and sad.
“Na now lassie. We have work to do.” He looked up sharply when he heard her quiet humming, but then gave a small smile and went back to work.
“We? Oh yeah, about that...” Started Rinnah thinking to get answers now.
Eleazar interrupted yet again and she could feel her temper fraying at the edges.
“Lass, I need ye to use that power of yours and keep a steady flow between ye on that ’pathic bond of yours, and keep it constant, no fluctuations, mind ye?”
“What bond? What are you talking about? Sure I can establish a link, but a bond? What is that? I don’t have a bond. And how the heck did a...”
“Lass, there is one already in place and has been for a while. Believe me, it is there now so stop ye yapping and start sending him the energy ye have. He needs it and this is a thing I cannot do. Besides, I have other things I need to be doing.”
Yapping? Her? Babble maybe, but yap? She blew out an irritated huff of air before settling her thoughts.
Turning to Nicholas the older priest listed off things he would need. Rinnah didn’t hear a word of what was said as she was busy pondering this new information. What bond? How’s it different from a link? In place? What place? When? What is he talking about? How can I concentrate on anything after that piece of news? What was I supposed to do... oh yeah, feed power over. With obsidian head bent she closed her eyes in concentration, found her place of power and tapped into it. Carefully she guided only a small amount at a time to come up to the surface. Holding onto it was like trying to hold onto greased lightening. Now that it was being put to use, it wanted out.
Once Nicholas had returned with a bundle, some antiseptic, gauze, and some bottles of liquid, he set them on the nightstand. Taking a moment he gazed down at the outlaw, eyes growing dull as he turned away and went to stand next to Milly. He turned his gaze to look off into the distance.
“Now what I am fixing to do won‘t take long at all and is not all that serious now I know what I am up against. Believe me, leaving it in will be more serious and harmful to your friend than taking it out.”
Rinnah pounced on that. “Out? Take out what?” She was not nearly as convinced as Nicholas that this old geezer knew what he was doing.
“Someone nasty has left a wee giftie, if you will, in your friend that works much like an infection reaching the lowest level of...” Eleazar stopped to think how to phrase it so they would understand. “Basement in a house. It is causing the negative changes in his body chemistry and mind of late. It needs to come out. And then there is this bruise in his mind that has me concerned.” Here the old priest glanced at Rinnah before continuing, “But he will be able to fight it with his own strength if she be pouring what amounts to back up power so he is not depleted needlessly.”
Oh good. From ‘freak of some sort’ to fuse, and now a battery. It just never ends does it... Hook her up and watch her glow, folks! She rubbed up and down the length of her nose before hooking a forefinger over the bridge in quiet reflection. She was startled from her thoughts when Eleazar spoke sharply to her.
“Lassie! Pay attention! I told you to keep it at an even modulation.” Eleazar didn’t look up as he ran the machine over Vash’s torso and then his left arm, the circles he made becoming tighter and tighter until he came to a half. He lowered the black instrument over Vash’s left arm where it joined his artificial one.
Stung at the deserved rebuke for letting her concentration waver, she brought her focus back to guiding the power feed. Grumpy old codger. The transfer was easy enough, it was a trick of only letting so much through so that the proper amount went across. Rinnah started to ask what the proper amount should be, when it dawned her that she instinctively knew already. The problem was that the greased lightening was bucking and kicking trying to charge through the connection at too great of a speed and dump into Vash all at once. Huh. Maybe she was a battery. A vibration went through her with a jolt and it was all she could do to grab a hold with a firm grip refusing to let the energyforce get away from her. She changed her mind. It was more like a battery exploding in all directions. Wrapping her inborn ability to control and use the power, she did the mental equivalent of wrapping it around her hands like reins and dug in her heels. It was not going to usurp her, she was master here. Finally coming under the hybrid’s control, the power transfer went more smoothly and obediently.
After making sure she wouldn’t lose the thread again but had it firmly under control, Rinnah looked up to study Eleazar. He happened to look up and saw her ocean blue eyes growing brighter until they began to glow. He gave a small smile and nodded for just as quickly as they had lit up, the glow faded from her eyes.
“Milly darling, would ye mind making some more of that medicine but don’t drink it lass, it is only for plants, not humans. I may need it later.” He explained. “And after ye bring it back, ye and Nicholas can do na more here. Might as well wait in the kitchen until we are done.”
“Okay.” Milly replied, but hesitated to leave, her eyes still fixed on the unmoving form of Vash. She hated to see him like this. Nicholas came to stand next to her and gently took her hand and led her out of the room.
“Come on Honey, we can’t help this time. Let’s go brew some tea that we can drink.” She let him turn her and they headed for the door with grave concern written on their faces.
“All right then lass, can ye lower the input just a wee bit.”
Rinnah didn’t hear Milly and Nicholas leave the room, she was too busy right then checking on the link and lowering the flow as the priest-smith had requested. It seemed to be doing fine now that she had exerted her control over it.
While Rinnah had a firm hold of it she took the time to look down below, underneath what she always thought was the ‘bottom‘. Lo and behold there was something even beyond that! The old geezer was right! Rinnah was amazed and astounded. That wasn‘t there before... before… well, it just wasn’t there before. There was some kind of a link already there and in operation, but deeper than the ones she familiar with and had used in the past to connect to the plant angels.
The hybrid kept a wary eye on it and then noticed something. The power she was trying to shunt over the usual way, was going up and then falling down like a small stream’s waterfall, into the link... or ‘bond’ as the old priest-smith called it. She allowed the power to bubble up and then it was sucked down into that... thing, before it rose to her chest to flow down her arms. It took some concentration because, on it’s own, and it wanted to rush out at a geyser speed and flood the pureblood plant. It took deliberate focus but she was now firmly in control.
Now that she was dictating how fast and how much she could allow the pay attention to the questions buzzing around her brain at a dizzy rate. How had it gotten there? When had it gotten there, and more importantly, who put it there because she knew she didn’t have a hand in creating it. Vash couldn’t have done it, she knew that for sure since his plant species showed no ability whatsoever to connect with her unless she allowed it. These weren’t the only questions chasing around her thoughts. How had the priest known about her? How had he known about a connection in the first place when she was unaware of it? And who was he to use technology so blithely? Especially, she had noted, when everyone else approached that same technology with awe akin to a knight of the Round Table approaching the Holy Grail. And that didn’t even begin to touch on the questions she had about his strength. The uncertainties and queries buzzing around her head were beginning to make her brain itch so she turned her focus to what the priest was doing. On top of everything else, what had happened to his other eye?
The energy tingled about them, between them, and she could feel it flowing off of him down through his arms into his hands. She felt the power she was supplying run up through Vash into Eleazar. Rinnah could sense the power going up and down through him but he wasn‘t manipulating it at all, nor did he have any control over it. It was as if he were a rock in the middle of a stream. A great boulder that did not have control over the rushing water but neither did the water control the rock. They were separate yet joined together at the same time.
Rinnah could feel the difference once he came back out of him into Vash. It was a mighty cleansing breath blowing away all impurities and foul atmosphere and bringing healing in its wings. The whole procedure was like a physical surgery on the deepest, unseen level along with a mental healing although applied to a place she didn’t recognize... as if he was going down into the essence, the spirit of who Vash was.
While that was happening, the old priest was making a small vertical cut in Vash’s left arm where the skin was joined to metal. At the same time he was muttering under his breath. Rinnah leaned forward to catch the sounds but they were too soft for her to make out clearly. Again, it sounded like praying but Rinnah couldn’t be sure but reminded herself that he was a priest and they known to do things like that.
The hybrid narrowed her eyes to watch as he made a shallow cut about half the length of her pinky fingernail. He placed a square piece of gauze over it while he set down his knife. Then he lifted the gauze to spray something over the small wound. After that he reached for another instrument that looked like a tiny pair of tweezers. Parting the wound he dipped the head of the tweezers into the miniscule cut with a sure and gentle touch. Then he pulled it out along with something gripped in the tip of the tweezers and held it up before his face. It had the appearance of an eyelash. Rinnah gave it a puzzled look. Who would put an eyelash into Vash and why?
“Thought so.” He murmured. “Only this one is modified.”
“Don’t lose your focus yet lass. Keep your hold na.” He rebuked her and she would have grumbled back at him that she was able to talk and supply energy at the same time. She checked, just to make him happy, and yes, everything was flowing just fine.
In deep thought, Eleazar stared at the little thing at the end of the tweezers. He was surprised to see on after all these years. He held the tweezers up to the light and turned them so he could get a good look at what he knew to be a gene manipulator, only someone had tweaked it. He knew what it was as soon as he saw it, but also knew it had been tinkered with by someone who knew what they were doing. Someone not in awe of Lost Technology. Just who, how, or why, he didn’t know that just yet, but whoever modified it was a clever little devil. The wire part of it was fashioned to look like it belonged where it was placed, as if it was a part of the circuitry in the layer between his fake arm and the flesh of his upper arm. Then there was the patch of psychic tampering in Vash’s mind. It was easy to spot. It appeared on his scope as a spreading bruise across the plant’s very soul.
“With your energy input and the medicine I gave him, his mental abilities and power were held in stasis-like state so we could work without worrying that this little thing might counteract what we were doing. Now that this is out, it will be easier for him to stand. ‘He who continues to stand is not alone. He who falls never knew how to stand.’ “ Eleazar rubbed his jaw in thought.
“Who said that?” Questioned Rinnah trying to match it to famous sayings and quotes she had heard over the years. She was drawing a blank.
“You quoted someone. Who?”
“Oh...yes.” Eleazar smiled. “Me.”
“You? You actually mean to tell me you quoted yourself?! Who does that sort of thing! Damn, that sounds pretentious don‘t you think?!” She exclaimed with a slight frown.
Eleazar just chuckled at her reaction and continued his thought, “I wonder if the person or persons, who did this knew what it was supposed meant to do?” Eleazar put what looked like a hair with the root end shaped like a diamond into a flat circle of edged glass and took it over and put it on the dresser.
“What is it?” She asked, starting to seethe with anger at whoever placed that hair thing in Vash’s arm. “And what was it supposed to do?”
“Hmmm, let me clean this and put on a bandage and we will go out to the others and I will only have to say this once.”
“All right then, but, what about this whole link thing, which by the by, I did not create.” She closed one eye as she studied the priest-smith. “Do you want me to continue to...”
“Nah, lassie, ye can stop pouring ye power along it. He should be waking up soon. Was na major surgery or such.” He was putting a small bandage on the tiny cut and missed the varied expressions that chased across her face as she cut off the flow of the power. She made a face as she failed to reach down to the bond to shut it down. Perverse thing. The black-haired hybrid scrunched her eyes shut and used everything within her to push down to...
Her eyes snapped open as she rocked back on her feet. It near tipped her off her own feet with an equally powerful reactive push of energy! She would have better luck trying to reach down through a electrical fence over a muck-filled hole for dropped keys that were just inches out of the range of questing fingertips and on top of that to be flung back as if a coiled spring had gone off in her face. It left her reeling with thoughts spinning in all different directions.
“Great. Just peachy. Now, how to do I break this bond thingie?” She asked, after catching her mental breath.
“You can’t. And I believe I said to stop pouring ye power along it, I never said anything about trying to break it na, did I? Ye not a great listener are ye lass?”
“WHAT!” Exploded out of her mouth as lifted eyes starting to sizzle with irritation. She frowned at him, not quite sure what was making her angrier, the remark about her listening skills or this new information about the bond. She leveled a glare at Vash even though she knew he couldn’t have done it and besides the fact that he was as oblivious as one could get at the moment. Somehow though, she knew he was involved in this. Then she returned her gaze to the priest-smith and stabbed him with a heated glare. He looked up into a storm brewing and sighed.
“Lass, it is of ye own doing.”
“Not even!” Hearing the shout in her voice, she forced herself to calm down before speaking again. This time, using a pleasantly modulated tone like that of a rational, level-headed person in their right mind, which she could imitate with the best of them, she responded with a deceptively soft voice.
“I did no such thing. I don’t even know how it got there or who did it, but what I do know for sure is that I didn’t. And I want whoever did put it there to undo it before I feel the need to hurt them!” Somewhere in there she had lost pleasant tones and right after that chucked rational and level-headed out the window along with it. Right now she was irate maybe even incensed and wanted nothing more than to hit something. She thrust her chin out at him daring him to contradict her. Which, she noted with irritation, he proceeded to do.
“Ye did lass, as unlikely as ye seem to think it. Well now, tis not much of a mystery but it seems to be beyond ye ken now, doesn’t it? Ah, it does. I will not be answering that one for ye then.”
Seething a litany of curses at the old priest under her breath, she turned and walked toward the door with back rigid and stiff. Cryptic old bastard. She could name childhood diseases had been more pleasant than this conversation. She wanted to turn around and stick her tongue out at him. I’ll show him, I’m going to make some damn coffee for myself!
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