"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 2"
By Susan-chan

Note from Ricki: This chapter is rated PG-13 (language)
Susan owns Rinnah... deleria's "DH" original concept... Gunsmoke, Vash and crew by Nightow.

Clothing Stores and New Friends
        Rinnah leaned against the wall, letting her head rest against the warm stone as she allowed herself to close her eyes and take it easy for a moment. So far she had been everything and anything but bored on this planet. For the first time in hours she felt relaxed, or if not relaxed at least not as tense as she had been.

        Twila was safely tucked out of sight behind a pile of crates sleeping peacefully with blankets tucked around her. Earlier, Rinnah had used water from the jeep’s water jugs to sponge them both off. She had quickly changed clothes and was glad that she had. She was feeling more confident about going out in public now. She didn’t need the hassle of people gagging and holding their noses as she walked by.

        Opening her eyes, she ran a weary hand over her brow. Peering at the pile of crates with a critical eye she was pleased to note that no one could tell they covered a small cubbyhole hiding the town’s missing angel.

        Rinnah looked up and down the ally they were in which was situated well away from the plant facility. After the quick wash-up, she had explained to the still exhausted plant angel that she had to go buy them clothes. This led to a brief discussion of what naked meant. Rinnah had finally summed it up that it was fine to be unclothed on one side of the glass but on this side one needed to wear them. Twila looked confused but only nodded before her drooping eyelids closed in sleep and Rinnah promised to be back soon.

        She eyed the sleeping angel before stacking the boxes around her. A thought had occurred to her. The angel would be getting hungry if she wasn’t already. Rinnah doubted that a newly awakened digestive system could handle dehydrated rations. First she’d buy clothes and then some fresh food, something soft on the stomach and easy to digest.

        The sun-warmed stonewall felt good against her back and she was reluctant to leave. Reaching up, Rinnah rubbed her nose as she weighed the pros and cons of camping out or getting a hotel room. If the hotel had a back stairs and her angel had clothes on it could work. Sighing she opened her eyes, pushed off from the wall and started towards the head of the ally.

        Emerging from the ally, Rinnah looked up and down the quiet street for any easily identifiable clothing store signs. Seeing none hanging conveniently in sight, she turned and walked down the paved sidewalk peering in at the contents of each shop window as she passed, noting the many empty stores. Finally she spied what she was searching for and walked through the door.

        Bells jangled to announce the arrival of a customer. An elderly woman with grey hair gathered in a bun on the nape of her neck bustled through some curtains in the back.

        “My goodness, a customer! I thought most folks with money had used it to buy a ticket out of this angel-forsaken town. You must be one of the few people left. How can I help you young lady?”

        One eyebrow quirked up in amusement as Rinnah considered the unorthodox sales pitch, which also just confirmed for her that the town was being slowly abandoned. Not voicing a reply to the woman’s comment, she glanced over at some clothes hanging from a rack.

        “Well, I need to buy some clothes for an indisposed friend.” She really didn’t want to lie so stuck as close to the truth as possible.

        She wandered over to the rack with the owner following. Rinnah had come prepared, she had measured her foot next to Twila’s and had done an eyeball comparison of their measurements being confident she could pick something out that would fit her.

        The owner started to say something when the door opened up with another jangle. A look of surprise crossed her features and she said to the new arrival, “I’ll be right with you miss... As soon as I finish with this young lady. My goodness, two customers in one day...” The corners of Rinnah’s lips turned up. It had been a long time since someone had called her “young lady.”

        Waving her hand, the tall young woman, responded with a cheerful voice, “Oh take your time, I’m just looking for some red cloth.” She turned to eye the few bolts of material stocked in layers against the wall

        The owner turned back to Rinnah and asked, “And what would your friend be needing?”


        “Everything?” Iron-grey eyebrows climbed up her forehead. “My goodness...”

        Too late Rinnah realized it sounded a little extreme. “Uh, she’s lost a lot of weight recently.” Thinking of the bloated bodies Twila had carried on her back just a short time ago. Technically that wasn’t a lie either.

        The woman nodded, satisfied.

        After describing Twila’s measurements, the owner led Rinnah to a rack of clothes indicating that these were the size she needed. Nodding thanks Rinnah flipped through the clothes and began filling her arms with outfits. Making sure her first customer was occupied the owner bustled merrily over to her second.

        It didn’t take Rinnah long to choose sturdy traveling clothes for herself and Twila plus some skirts, blouses and necessary undergarments for the newborn angel. Carrying her load over to the counter she gratefully dumped her selection next to the register.

        She turned to watch when she heard the woman with sandy-colored hair say with disappointment in her voice, “Are you sure you don’t have any red?” Rinnah’s eye roamed over the bolts on the shelf noting the limited number of choices; most were a printed material. The only plain fabrics were brown, black and olive.

        The tall young woman continued, “But I really need red. I’m making a coat and well, it’s supposed to be red.” She tilted her head, one finger coming up to tap her chin in thought as she considered her only two options, brows furrowed.

        “I’m sorry young lady, but what you see on the shelf is all that I have and I won’t be placing any new orders for more. I’m going to be leaving at the end of the week and all this will be going with me.”

        Without thinking, Rinnah found herself speaking up, “Red is nice but if you have to choose between these,“she waved her hand between the black, olive and the brown, “I would go for the black. It will go with just about anything. And have that added cool factor going for it as well.”

        Both women stared at her for a second then the younger one giggled and asked, “How can a coat be cool?”

        Rinnah felt a warmth steal over her cheeks. She had done it again. She quickly amended, “Er, it will look very, uh, dashing! Yes, quite dashing, that's it.”

        The tall woman reached up and pulled down the black bolt and carried it to the counter. Putting it down next to Rinnah’s pile she flashed a big smile and introduced herself. “Hi! I’m Milly Thompson. Thanks for your help.”

        Rinnah couldn’t help but return the smile; it was one of the most infectious ones she had ever come across. Good will, friendliness, and genuine kindheartedness radiated out of the woman. Yet even as Rinnah noticed that, she was sure she saw a flicker of sadness pass across Milly’s eyes.

        “Hi Milly. I’m Rinnah.” She held out her hand for Milly to shake, which the tall girl did with a strength that surprised her. Rinnah looked up and saw it again knowing for certain there was a heartache lurking in the depths of those eyes underneath the sunshine exterior.

        Rinnah looked down at the bolt of black material on the counter, “Looks like you’ve got quite a bit of sewing to do. You must be pretty good; I’m lousy at it. That’s why I buy my clothes already made.” Gesturing at the pile next to her.

        Milly laughed and explained, “This is a one of a kind coat. I’ve only seen my friend wear one like it.” The smile straightened out, “He lost his other one and I told him I would make him a new one.”

        I bet there’s quite a story behind the loss of this one-of-a-kind red coat, Rinnah mused.

        “Whoever he is, he’s lucky to have someone who cares about him enough to take care of him.” Rinnah smiled trying to re-ignite Milly’s lost cheerfulness. “This is a fine fabric,” she said as she ran her fingers over it, “And if you make him anything from it, he should be pleased.”

        Milly looked off towards the windows, staring at something that only she could see and softly replied, “I hope so.” Rinnah couldn’t help but pat her on the arm in comfort.

        “He’s got a good friend in you, and if he doesn’t appreciate your friendship, then he’s a doofus.”

        As if the shutters had been pulled back from a window letting the sunlight in, Milly’s smile returned with a small laugh, “Oh, it’s almost like you know him!”

        Then, with a pleading look, she asked, “If you are staying in town for a while, why not come to the hotel cafe and have dinner with me? It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to talk to another girl.” And for an instant the sadness crossed her face again like a passing shadow.

        This girl has seen some tough times.

        “Sure. Sounds like fun.” Came out of Rinnah’s mouth before she remembered her newborn plant angel. If it wouldn’t have called undue attention her way, she would have slapped herself on the forehead. Oh well. Maybe this could still work. If nothing else she could use an adult’s view of life on this planet.

        “Oh good, I’m so glad!” Enthused Milly, her eyes crinkling in delight.

        After the owner had Rinnah’s pile rung up and bagged, Rinnah paid for her purchases, pleased with her ability to give the correct amount without fumbling. Asking for directions to the hotel, she picked up her bags saying, “Bye Milly, I‘ll try to make dinner.”

        “Oh yes. I do hope so. Bye!” Milly beamed back at her. As Rinnah headed for the door, she overheard Milly ask about needles and thread.

        After putting all the bags in the jeep, Rinnah was relieved to find Twila asleep when she moved the boxes to check up on her. Good. Rinnah woke up the angel and helped her to her feet and half carried her to the jeep, twisting her own body at an odd angle so her gun wouldn‘t dig into the plant angel‘s side. Looking around to make sure they weren’t being observed, she helped Twila take off the poncho and get dressed before hiding her under the blankets and bags in the back seat.

        While helping Twila on with her clothes she came to a decision that she was going to get them a room. It would be easier to teach Twila how to wear clothes and well, just about everything, in the relative safety and comfort of a hotel room. It would also be easier to sleep and rest there as well. And Rinnah wasn’t worried about money. From her impromptu money lesson with the children she was, without knowing exactly how much was in the lock box, a very well-to-do woman. She didn’t doubt that the gang from which she had liberated the double dollars and jeep would be keeping an eye out for her. I bet they are quite put out with me.

        Rinnah had no trouble finding the hotel or getting a room on an unoccupied floor. Apparently the only occupants of the hotel were Milly and now Rinnah. She was able to get Twila up the back stairs dressed in a jacket with the hood pulled up. After finding their room and entering, she carefully lowered Twila to the edge of the bed and over she tipped, asleep before she hit the pillow. After a couple more trips up and down the stairs, Rinnah was beginning to feel just as exhausted as the dozing angel. When she was finished with the hauling of bags and supplies she set out in search of fresh food from the hotel cafe.

        Returning, she carried a large tray of food and set it on the room’s only table before sitting down and wearily eyeing the angel. With a groan, she stood up, thinking she shouldn’t have sat down in the first place; it only made her aware of how tired she was.

        Waking Twila up she had her eat before letting her return back to sleep. Rinnah lay down on her bed, the pillow looking so temptingly inviting she couldn’t resist any longer. Stretching out with a sigh she was asleep before the next breath.

        The afternoon sun cast long shadows across the room when Rinnah woke up with a start. She hadn’t meant to sleep that long. She stood up, stretched and covered a jaw-popping yawn with a hand.

        Going over to the plant angel, she shook her awake. Rinnah helped Twila to sit up and placed the tray of food in front of her again, urging her to eat. The angel was even groggier than earlier and had to have help in getting the food and drink in her mouth.

        Twila thought at her, “*I’m so tired.*” and produced such a great yawn that Rinnah caught it and yawned along with her. Shaking her head to get rid of that drowsy feeling she replied, “I think newborns sleep a lot and your body has to adjust to working on its own now in a different and strange environment.” At least that’s what I hope it is.

        With a sigh the angel tipped over, head hitting the pillow with a soft poof. Rinnah pulled the blankets up over her and tucked them in around her before brushing the hair off of her forehead. She stopped, catching herself, Good God, I’m turning into a flipping parent! She made it a firm priority that in the morning she would devote her day to finding this ‘Steffen’ Twila had referred to.

        Rinnah ’pathed her even as she said aloud informing Twila that she would be gone for awhile and for her not to leave the room. Twila opened her eyes a crack to look at Rinnah. Even without irises or pupils the angel was able to convey the message in that look how implausible the idea was of her getting up and going anywhere. Rinnah grinned back at her as the angel’s eyelids fluttered shut.

This Was Almost Pleasant
        Descending the front staircase she started to walk by the front windows viewing the courtyard when she spotted Milly. She was sitting at a table in the outside cafe’ sipping from a cup. Turning in that direction, Rinnah exited the swinging doors.

        Hearing the doors opening and then footsteps, Milly looked up from her steaming cup to recognize Rinnah coming toward her. She gave a big welcoming wave. “Rinnah, hi! I hoped you hadn’t forgotten me!”

        Rinnah pulled out a chair and sat down. “I’m not too late, am I? I kind of fell asleep when I got settled in my room.” She smiled drowsily, picking up a menu. Eyeing the specials she wondered what the hell ‘sand- escargot’ was.

        “So, what do you recommend that would go good with coffee? And what is this sand-escargot?” She looked up to see Milly wrinkle her nose.

        “Oh don’t order that! It’s sand worm.”

        Worm! Damn straight she wasn’t going to order that! She was glad that she had asked about it.

        Looking over the menu Milly began pointing out the meals that were good. “The salmon sandwiches are good, as well as the pizza toast...”

        Deciding to go with one of Milly’s recommendations, Rinnah noticed that with each one Milly pointed out she also mentioned pudding for dessert. When their waiter came Rinnah made sure to order coffee as well, hoping that it was as good as the stuff back home.

        “So,” Rinnah started after the waiter had gone, “What brings you to this angel-forsaken town all by yourself?”

        Milly shook her head, “Oh, I’m not here alone. I’m with my friends. You know, the one I told you about, the one I was making the coat for? And... My...” She blushed and Milly lifted her teacup to her lips. Rinnah waited for her to continue, but she didn’t. It wasn’t long before she discovered there were certain land mines that brought on awkward silences.

        “And what about you?” Milly asked after a few more moments. Any questions beyond frivolous were the boundary of the awkwardness.

        “I’m looking up a friend of a friend here in town,” Rinnah replied. It didn’t help that she was as tightlipped as Milly about her business and where she had come from. That spanned another dead spot in the conversation and Milly seemed uncomfortable so Rinnah ventured a query. “Are your friends going to be joining you for dinner?” That was simple enough, all it required was a ‘yes or no‘ answer.

        “Oh no. They are....” She pulled up short and seemed flustered.

        Rinnah covered, “Well good, we won’t have to share this cramped little table with them, will we?” The tables were made for two people to sit together closely .

        Milly shook her head and added with a smile, “Or our pudding.”

        Dinner was excellent and she was glad that she had followed Milly’s advice. Rinnah’s coffee tasted like she expected it to taste. Who knew from planet to planet differences that would crop up? Closing her eyes in pleasure she finished the last of it and began to look around for a waiter to come and refill her cup.

        Out of the corner of her eye she saw someone dressed in black approach the table and she held up her cup waiting for the refill. “Just fill it up...”

        Just then she saw Milly’s eyes light up as she said, “Here is one of my friends now!”

        Rinnah looked up over her shoulder as the man came around to stand next to Milly bending in her direction. Oops. Feeling foolish holding up her empty cup she casually lowered it to its saucer and with relief spotted the waiter. Frantically she tried to wave him down but he turned and walked away. Dammit, there are only two other couples here besides us. I swear he’s been doing this all evening. He can’t possibly not see me waving like a freaking windmill over here! Irritated, Rinnah had had enough and placed two fingers to her lips and let out a loud whistle that pierced the quiet of the courtyard. Both Milly and her friend jumped along with the waiter. The startled waiter turned to see Rinnah gesturing to her cup and returned to serve her with ill grace. Some advice friend, don’t get between a girl and her coffee.

        Turning back to Milly and her friend, a smile spread across her face as she observed the obvious affection that hung heavy between the two. So this is why she trailed off, she’s got a boyfriend! Rinnah let her gaze shift to the dark-haired man swiftly taking in his dark eyes, sparse chin hairs, and the cigarette dangling from his mouth. He pulled it out and flicked it away as his eyes studied Rinnah.

        Milly supplied, “I met Rinnah at the clothing store today. Rinnah, this is my friend....”

        “Nicholas D. Wolfwood.” He interrupted as he stretched out his hand to shake hers. A slow smile brightened his features. Rinnah wondered if both were haunted by a similar past, they both seemed tired and sad.

        “Nicholas; pleased to meet you.” See Mom, I have slightly better manners than a descending horde of Huns. “I’m Rinnah Blackfire.” She felt a slight cynicism and skepticism as he evaluated whether she was a potential danger to Milly or not. Rinnah must have passed the test because the corners of his mouth turned up a notch.

        Under his dark eyes were equally dark circles and she noticed that he was gaunt from a recent weight loss or sickness. There was an unhealthy pallor showing through from underneath his tan. But his handshake was firm and strong, yet gentle at the same time. Although she didn’t need it, Rinnah approved of Milly’s friend Nicholas.

        Finding a chair at a table behind him, he pulled it up next to Milly’s and sat down. With a mental grin Rinnah noticed that Milly didn’t seem to mind being in tight quarters with him. Rinnah watched as his eyes lingered on Milly’s smiling face with her cheeks turning a becoming shade of pink. It was with apparent reluctance that Nicholas tore his gaze from Milly to look over at her again. Rinnah suddenly felt like a third wheel.

        Just as she put down her cup deciding she should go back to her room and give the two time to themselves, she smelled it.

        Rinnah sniffed. A scent came under her nose making it twitch. She threw a quick glance at the other two but neither indicated that they smelled anything wrong. She took another discreet sniff, this time from behind her half-empty coffee cup. Every muscle tensed. It was familiar yet definitely not. It smelled kind of like, but... No, it couldn’t be, could it? But it was so similar to the scent of an Antressla... Similar to the angel up in the hotel room... Confused, Rinnah scanned the immediate area not sure whether she would see Twila or something else...

        There was an added intriguing scent mixed in with it that set Rinnah’s pulse to racing. A rising irritation and hostility danced like lighting down her nerves and she curled a hand into a claw in response, noticed and hurriedly relaxed it before anyone else did. The scent was also making her feel slightly dizzy. Milly and Nicholas laughed at something and looked over at Rinnah. She gave her best smile hoping it didn’t look too transparently fake.

        They went back to chatting about something but Rinnah could barely hear with a roaring in her head deafening her. How could they not notice that odor? She almost missed it when another presence came to stand next to the table.

        “VASH!” She heard Milly exclaim mostly in delight but some uncertainty mixed in. If she was reading it right, Nicholas was even less enthused than Milly at the arrival of their friend.

        Rinnah looked up at Milly’s other friend and realized that the scent she had picked up was coming off of him. Am I going crazy or what? Who is this guy? He can’t smell like... He isn’t, he can’t be... Her eyes narrowed in suspicious study as he reached over to the next table to snag a chair and dragged it over. He pulled the chair up to the table and sat down next to Rinnah, either not aware or not caring that he was thigh to thigh with her cramming her against the opposite table leg. She felt her face warming and couldn’t decide if it would cause a stir or not if she were to stand up and move her chair around to the other side. Except there was no other side. Milly and Nicholas occupied the “other side”. So, she would just pretend he wasn’t practically sitting in her lap. Star holes! Some people’s children! Shifting awkwardly, she nonchalantly edged her thigh away the best she could with what little room she had to play with, slowly putting a wee bit of space between them. She was totally unnerved when his followed. Look at me; I’m smiling so hard that my flipping teeth are about to snap in two.

        “I had some shopping to do... So I have been keeping busy but now, I'm all worn out, but I did stock us up on pudding! Also, you should see all the things I was able to...” Milly stopped in the middle of chattering about her day and her meeting with Rinnah realizing she had forgotten introductions. “Oh Rinnah, I’m sorry, this is my friend Vash. And Vash, this is my new friend Rinnah.”

        She turned to Milly’s newly arrived friend and held out her hand and said, “Hello Vash, I’m Rinnah.”

        Vash merely looked at her hand and then up at her. Grunting out something that could have been a greeting, he turned to Milly and Nicholas and said, “This one’s gone. He must have been here already and gotten to her first. We’ll just have to wait until the next town.” His cold glance at Rinnah told her she was definitely unwanted company.

        Milly’s face was turning red from embarrassment at Vash’s rudeness and even Nicholas shifted uneasily. Rinnah shrugged and gave Milly a smile to let her know it was okay.

        Looking at Vash she noted he had a strange hairstyle. He had black hair with streaks of yellow blonde scattered throughout it. If that wasn’t odd enough, having his hair stick straight up was, giving him a broom headed look. He had pretty eyes though, if they hadn’t been so darn cold looking, an odd blue-green or green blue. She occupied herself trying to decide if the color was aqua or turquoise. Nice face if he ever decided to smile instead of glaring at everyone.

        She took another experimental sniff, awarding her a curious glance from the broomhead whom had heard and whom, she also might add, still had not removed his thigh. She was starting to feel somewhat claustrophobic at the small table and the trespass of her personal space.

        Otherwise she felt vindicated. The odd scent was, without doubt, coming from him. She sat back, well as much as being pinned against the opposite table leg would let her go, to ponder what the smell meant, if anything. She flicked her eyes quickly over him not wanting to be caught studying him and his clothes as she noticed his outfit was different than his companions.

        Milly had a great tan traveling overcoat with wide cuffs and a little shoulder cape and pants that ended in sturdy shoes. Wolfwood had on a stark black suit and an unbuttoned white shirt showing a muscular chest. Nice physique approved Rinnah.

        Vash, on the other hand was wearing a close-fitting black body suit with a layer of leather chaps and long leather gloves that went up past the biceps. A gap of skin showed at the shoulder between the leather arm gloves and the sleeveless black shirt. Of the skin showing there was hardly an inch that wasn’t marked by a gouge or scar. She was hardly able to stop the wince from showing on her face.

        Interrupting her train of thought, Milly said, “Rinnah and I are just waiting for our dessert.” Adding shyly she asked, “Would you boys like to join us?” Nicholas’ face softened and replied in the affirmative.

        Vash frowned and said, “No, I’m going back to our room.”

        “Our?” Rinnah wondered. Everyone’s eyes were on her in an instant.

        “Damn! Did I just say that out loud?”

        She was just so startled at the news of Milly sharing close quarters with one person who was obviously in love with her and another one with all the congeniality of a snapping turtle. Odd combination. Milly didn’t seem like the type to take up company with two men at the same time. But she did seem devoted to both of them. It was Vash wasn‘t it that she was making the coat for, right?

        Milly must have sensed how that sounded to an outsider and with wide eyes hastened to explain, “Nothing is going on between me and... Uh them. We’re just friends who sleep together... I mean... but we don’t sleep in the same bed... er...“Getting more flustered, Milly’s face turned three shades of red while Wolfwood’s eyes glinted from amusement and Vash’s eyes narrowed. “What I mean is, we are friends! That’s it, friends!”

        Chuckling, Rinnah waved a negating hand at her new friend, “Hey none of my business.” She assured Milly. “Don’t need to know, don’t want to know. It’s your affair.” And even as the phrase slipped out starting laughing at her blunder.

        “That’s an interesting choice of words,” Wolfwood joined, his eyes lighting up with amusement and thought to himself, I kind of like her.

        “Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to phrase it that way!” Rinnah sputtered apologetically.

        “But we just live together... Oh God, I’m just making it worse!” Putting her head in her hands, Milly moaned while Wolfwood patted her on the shoulder.

        “This person doesn’t need to know anything about us and what our living arrangements are.” Stated Vash coldly, hostile eyes scouring over Rinnah in distaste.

        Well, we were having fun. Thought Rinnah.

        Milly turned distressed eyes to Vash, “I can’t have Rinnah thinking that I’m, that we are... Well...” She stuttered to a halt, her face a deep red and her eyes dropped to her lap.

        “It’s okay, Milly, really. I have enjoyed your company.”

        Turning her face to meet Vash’s hostile gaze she added, “I don’t hold it against you that the broomhead’s a jerk. We can’t all be graced with good manners.” And turned to smile at his deepening frown.

        She wondered what hold this man held over Milly and Nicholas for them to be willing to put up with him. Personally, she would rather chew sand then spend another minute with him. Okay Mom, maybe I am as uncivilized as a rampaging Mongol horde. But I was able to keep my elbows off the table!

        Placing her napkin with care by her plate she addressed Wolfwood, “Nicholas, you may have my dessert if you’d like. My treat. I really think I should turn in. I’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

        Wolfwood smiled back at her and said, “Nice meeting you Rinnah.” There was gratitude in his eyes for giving Milly a moment of happiness. She nodded back to him even as he finished with, “Go with the blessing of Almighty God.” Rinnah blinked. It was an unusual goodbye, but she felt touched nonetheless.

        Sliding her chair back she said to Milly, “If you want we can meet for breakfast tomorrow.”

        Milly’s face lit up, “Sure! I would love that!”

        “Good, then I’ll see you first thing in the morning,” Rinnah said, ignoring Wolfwood’s hand on Milly’s arm in warning and Vash’s dark look before he turned to Rinnah with eyes starting to glow. She couldn’t tell if it was the last bit of the sun setting reflecting there or not. Rinnah curbed the impulse to stick her tongue out of him and instead spoke a polite good night and left them to what remained of dinner. What a strange group of people. Glad I’m not traveling with them, spike head would be a severe pain in the South Pole to live with.

        Still thinking about the odd threesome she shook her head as she unlocked the door to her room. Rinnah wasn’t surprised to find Twila still asleep. Unbuckling her gun belt, she placed it on the floor by the head of her bed for quick retrieval in case she needed it. Then, following the plant angel’s example she fell onto her bed, rolled a blanket around her but couldn’t fall asleep. Thoughts whirled in her head. What was he? Why did he smell like that? Was he plant or human or even like Rinnah, a hybrid? He had a plant smell to him but something else added. A heady musky aroma that caused a shiver to run up her spine as she recalled it. Just then a thought chilled her and she tensed. Wait, what if he’s the alpha male? She groaned and rolled over onto her side thinking, Oh great, like I’m going to be able to sleep now!

        Back in the courtyard Milly idly twirled her spoon in her pudding, her appetite gone. She refused to look up as the tension around the table mounted. Vash had been warning them that they couldn’t be making friends right now. They couldn’t trust anyone. Wolfwood had looked off down the street while Milly had slowly stopped eating what was left of her pudding.

        “I just can’t stand it... Rinnah was just being nice to me and you had to go and blow it.” Her hands formed fists in her lap as she stared at the pudding that used to be her favorite comfort food. She tried to pick up her spoon again but couldn’t quite lift it out of the bowl.

        Wolfwood looked at her, his expression worried as it had been so many times in the last few months. “She didn’t really seem all that offended,” he said, trying his best to make her feel better.

        “That doesn’t give you the right to be rude,” she said, looking over at Vash. His expression was so dark that she had to turn away again and look at Wolfwood. At least he hadn’t changed... Even after everything she and Vash had put him through. Somehow he’d survived... Somehow he hadn’t changed... And in him it was as if things could somehow get back to the way they were.

        Milly found herself so deep in her thoughts about Wolfwood that a flush started to creep up her cheeks again. But then suddenly Vash spoke again, and it sounded like a thunderclap startling Milly into dropping her spoon with a clatter. Wolfwood turned to her, concern creasing his brow.

        “You are not meeting her again.”

        Milly looked up with a frown holding Vash’s cool gaze. This wasn’t the first time he had issued an order but it was the first time where it touched her personal life. Of course, they were practically living on top of each other now and had been for quite some time. Maybe he didn’t think they had a personal life anymore.

        “Why not? I’d think you’d be happy for me to finally make a friend after all this time.”

        “Because we are leaving before the suns come up.” He looked away, the wall coming down between them again. Had his brother finally scarred him beyond healing? How she hated Vash’s brother. She had never hated anyone in her life and she hated him for making her hate him.

        “She was so nice too...” Milly sighed, and Wolfwood patted her arm in reassurance.

        Vash turned back to Milly and Wolfwood and said, “We can’t trust her. She’s hiding something.”

        “Aren’t we all,” Murmured Wolfwood as he put an unlit cigarette in his mouth, thinking Vash was one to talk. He had sensed secrets and hidden things hovering around Milly’s new friend but was confident that none of it was a threat to them or more importantly, to Milly.

        He glanced at Vash who was now frowning in thought. If we have anyone to worry about, it’s you. He turned his dark eyes away with a slight shrug. Wolfwood’s only desire was to make it through this and then take Milly someplace far away from the warring plant twins and forget about them both. He grunted. This whole thing was tantamount to a suicide mission and he doubted very much that any of them would survive. Well, maybe Vash would, he had the luck of the devil that one did.

        He let his eyes wander over Milly’s frowning face. His heart twisted in his chest. Just then Milly looked over at him giving him a small smile. He wished he could freeze this moment in time and hold it in his heart forever. Tears threatened to come to his eyes... If it were up to him, he’d storm Knives’ stronghold right then and kill the bastard, just because he made Milly unhappy.

        Milly reached over and placed her hand on top of his as if to say, I know, me too.

        Vash’s voice interrupted the moment, “We’ll leave at three full moons.” And he abruptly stood up. Eyes flicked over Milly and Wolfwood before leaving with ground-eating strides.

        “Oh dear.” Said Milly following Vash’s retreating back with worried eyes.


        “I wish Meryl were here. She would know what to do and how to deal with him.” In a soft low voice she added. “I really miss her.” A tear tipped out of her eye to course down her cheek. Wolfwood caught it with the tip of his finger and put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. She leaned her head on his chest and listened to his heartbeat. He leaned his cheek on the top of her sand-colored hair, catching the faint scent of flowers.

        “I know Honey, I know.” He whispered, his breath moving her hair in small puffs. They sat that way for a long time watching the moons come up.

Getting to Know You
        When Rinnah woke the moons were riding high in the night sky with the light beaming through the window. What do you know, I was able to fall sleep after all! Lifting her head she could see that Twila hadn’t stirred from her bed and was still sleeping deeply.

        Rinnah was beginning to get concerned about her sleeping ward. Of course she had never freed a plant angel before and had no idea of what was normal and what wasn‘t. For a few minutes she watched the rhythmic rise and fall of Twila’s chest. Then, getting up she padded over and checked her pulse. Studying the angel’s face she wondered if that particular color was a healthy one for her kind or not. Ruefully Rinnah admitted to herself she wouldn’t know what an unhealthy color would be. She was just going with her instincts on this. The angel also wasn’t showing any signs of being in pain or in discomfort. Rinnah would have to be content with that.

        However, now that she was up, she felt too awake to try and lay down and go back to sleep. She decided to go sit in the outdoor cafe’ and watch the moons. She reached for her gun belt and strapped it on, letting the familiar weight settle around her hips and thighs.

        After making her way down the stairs and out the front doors, she took a deep breath. As she inhaled she felt the last of the lingering cobwebs being swept away by the brisk night air. Turning to the place where she remembered a table was set against the wall, she walked over to it. The table and chair were so deeply set in the shadows from the overhang she wouldn’t have known they were there unless she had seen them there earlier in the day. Sitting down she pushed the chair back against the wall to support her head as she looked up at the moons. Crossing her arms against the night chill Rinnah noticed that the light from the multiple moons was so bright a person could actually read by the glow given off by them. She wondered if she would ever get used to seeing that many moons ride the night sky and then got to wondering about the perfect crater circle on the big one.

        It wasn’t long before Rinnah began to get chilled and she was just about to leave when she heard the hotel door open. For reasons unknown to her, she instinctively pushed back deeper into the shadows and froze.

        Coming through the door was Milly’s odd black-haired friend Vash. Following behind him were Nicholas and Milly. Milly was yawning but both men tensed as they scanned up and down the street for any sign of danger. Rinnah was glad she was hidden behind them.

        Milly, still sleepy stumbled but Rinnah was happy to note that Nicholas caught her under her elbow and steadied her.

        “I’m so tired. I don’t know why we couldn’t have left when the suns were up. Besides, I was looking forward to having breakfast with Rinnah.”

        Vash threw a contemptuous look over his shoulder saying, “That one! Nothing good will come of being friends with that pointy-chinned, sharp- nosed, black-haired harpy! She’s just trouble waiting to happen.”

        Feh! He’s one to talk! Rinnah huffed indignantly before letting a wry smile touch her lips along with a mental chuckle. I do seem to have this effect on people.

        Milly wondered why Mr. Vash was so being so mean about her new friend. It wasn’t like she was making him be best friends with her!

        “Mr. Vash, I didn’t say you had to come to breakfast too, especially if you don’t like my friends!”

        “Huh. She could be working for anyone. She’s just using you Milly.” Rinnah felt an ugly desire to leap in his face and rip his eyebrows off.

        “You’re wrong about her Mr. Vash. Rinnah’s one of the good guys.” Thanks Milly, you are too.

        Vash just growled and turned to Wolfwood, “Chapel where did you park the car?”

        With a weariness as if hashing over an old argument Wolfwood replied, “Don’t call me that. I parked it back where we left it the first time.”

        They started down the street but before their voices faded into the distance she heard Vash say, “At the next town I’ll see if I can find even one.....” as his voice trailed out of earshot.

        Interesting. And there goes my breakfast date. Rinnah suddenly felt tired and chilled to the bone now but waited a few more minutes before getting up to leave.

        Upon entering the hotel room Rinnah was surprised to see Twila sitting up. She slowed and let the key drop with a thunk on the table without taking her eyes off Twila’s blinking eyes. Looking up at Rinnah with a confused expression she ’pathed her, “*I... I.... hurt*?” The confused expression deepened into a puzzled frown.

        With rising worry Rinnah hurried to her side asking, “Where? Where do you hurt?” I knew it! I knew something was wrong! I shouldn’t have left her alone! Gah Rinnah! You are such a dim star!

        Twila looked down and pointed to an area lower than her stomach. Rinnah frowned, considering. Cramps? Not likely. She was a plant so.... Then her eyes widened with understanding. Grabbing the angel she propelled her into the bathroom and plunked her down on the appropriate furnishing. All the while trying to explain, as best she could without causing the plant angel undue concern, what the sensation was caused by. Nature took its course and it was all Rinnah could do to keep the angel from doubling over to watch the process in total amazement and fascination.

        After an impromptu lesson in cleaning up, Twila asked if she could do that again. She was satisfied with Rinnah’s assurance that she wouldn’t be able to stop doing it from this point on. With a dry smile Rinnah gave herself a mental pat on the back. She had just given her first, and hopefully only, lesson in potty training an angel. After this, I’ll have to write a book, yes, a how-to book. I’ll call it, The ‘How To’ Manual for Beginners on the Feeding and Care of Freed Plant Angels, unabridged and illustrated.

        After the brief excitement, Rinnah found, surprise, surprise, she wasn’t feeling sleepy anymore. She sat on the edge of her bed watching Twila polish off the last of the tray of food with a hearty appetite. What set her mind at ease was that the angel didn’t seem to be as groggy as she had been previously in the past couple of days. Maybe she was finally starting to recover from the surgery and globe extraction.

        They occupied the remaining night hours with Rinnah explaining and demonstrating each piece of clothing and what it was for. She had Twila practice getting dressed and undressed several times before she was satisfied she would be able to do it on her own. The angel was still awkward with certain undergarments but that would come with practice.

        Next she began teaching the angel to speak. Creating a mental link at the same time sped the teaching time up considerably. Again, as with everything concerning parenting this freed plant angel, it was new ground for both of them. Twila was just as fascinated with the making of sounds as she had been with the producing of liquid from her lower extremity. It wasn’t long before she was speaking in short babyish sentences.

        Rinnah felt herself glowing with parental pride over her angel’s achievement as Twila would try a word saying it over and over again until she had pronounced it correctly. Soon she was talking so quickly she was tripping over her words. Face shining with excitement the angel chattered and stumbled but didn’t let that stop her from pointing to things and asking how to say them.

        Once the first sun came peeking up over the horizon, Rinnah took their belongings down to the jeep. Then she snuck Twila down and covered her with blankets again. Turning in her key, she asked the desk clerk where Steffen, who used to work at the plant facility, lived. She was overjoyed to discover he lived on the family spread outside of town a couple of hours down the main road to New Memphis and then turn down the road that lead to the ranch.

        After leaving and when they were far enough away from town, Rinnah pulled over and had Twila climb up front with her. Like a child Twila stared wide-eyed at everything. Her head swiveled constantly trying to take in everything all at once. Without knowing it Rinnah soon learned the games parents discover in raising children: “What’s that?” and the all time favorite, “Why?”

        It wasn’t long before Rinnah tired of the games. Not for the last time, she sourly decided she wasn’t parent material. The game, while enjoyable at first, quickly lost its appeal. She stepped down on the accelerator and prayed they would arrive soon. Keeping a sharp eye for the turnoff sign to the Boyington Thomas Ranch, where, she had been informed by the desk clerk, the two brothers raised and trained thomases.

        She had no idea what a thomas was but wasn’t about to expose her total ignorance to the desk clerk, that would only make her stand out and give him cause to remember her as being odd. And she didn’t want to be remembered by anyone for any reason.

        It wasn’t long before she saw the sign for the ranch turn off and with a delirious whoop of joy and sense of impending freedom, she nearly put the jeep on two wheels in taking the turn.

        Twila began asking why the sky was blue and Rinnah, her patience already spent by the previous couple of thousands of questions, she snapped out, “It’s the only color God could afford at the time!” And immediately felt guilty for her tone of voice.

        She started to explain why the sky was blue when Twila interrupted. “Who’s God?

        “Oh no. I’m not getting into a theological discussion with a plant angel. You’re going to have to answer that one for yourself.” Stated Rinnah firmly.


        Rinnah rolled her eyes and muttered through gritted teeth, “Holy Hybrid give me patience or this angel is going to be joining you soon!’

        “Who are you talking to?”

        “No one.”

        “Did No One answer?”

        Another roll of the eyes. “Pleeeeaze just ask me about the sky again!”

        Just then they came up a rise and spotted the house. “Look Twlia, Steffen’s house. Hallelujah and strike up the band! Woo hoo!”

        Twila turned to look at her and finally said, “I do not understand you when you talk like that.”

        Rinnah sighed, “So cute and so misunderstood, that‘s my cross to bear.”

        As they approached Rinnah spied two men standing on the porch waiting for them. They were broad shouldered and stanced in an alert mode holding obscenely huge guns with more that just a passing knowledge of how to use them.

        “Get down.” Ordered Rinnah.


        “We don’t have time for ‘why’! Just do it!”

        Never having heard that tone of voice coming from Rinnah before she obeyed and scrunched down in her seat as far as she could go. Rinnah darted a quick glance at her and was satisfied she was reasonably hidden. She also reached down and unsnapped her left six-shooter. Just in case.

        Coming to stop about five car lengths from the porch, Rinnah called out, “Hello! Is this where Steffen lives?”

        One of the men on the porch stepped off, looked her over as she slowly climbed out of the jeep. Holding her hands up in the air to show her lack of hostile intent, she said, “I’m looking for Steffen. Is this the right place?”

        “Who wants to know?” Asked the man in front with a dark beard and narrowed eyes still looking her over suspiciously.

        “Well, I do. Name’s...” She started to say and remembered that Twila didn’t know her real name and she wanted to keep it that way. “...Friend.”

        “Strange name you got there lady.”

        “Hey, I didn’t make fun of your name.”

        “Didn’t give you my name.”

        “I still wouldn’t make fun of it, well, unless it was like Tantril, or Cuddles, or Horace, or Marion, or ...”

        “You’re a strange one.”

        “So I’ve been told but still standing here wondering if you’re going to answer my question.”

        Then the other man, leaner, slightly taller and without any facial hair came to stand next to the first man. She could tell they were brothers with the same brown hair, dark eyes and facial features.

        “I think she’s okay Harry.” He said softly to his brother not realizing just how sharp Rinnah’s hearing was.

        Addressing Rinnah he asked in a louder voice, “What do you want with me?”

        “I have something I need to deliver to you. I thought you might be interested.” She stopped, confused as she saw him grimace.

        “Not another Thomas Professional Breeding, Training, and Show Kit I hope. After the first one you’d think any after that would be redundant.”

        His brother turned to look at him in disgust saying, “I told you not to get on their mailing list!”

        “At the time we needed one,” He shot a dark look at Rinnah, “But we didn’t need any after that. I wish you people would leave me alone.”

        “Would you listen to me? Eh? Of course not, what do I know, I‘m only your brother.”

        “Hey, it was a discount...”

        “Maybe, but they won’t quit coming out here....”

        Rinnah was getting nervous as the tone of the conversation was escalating into hostile territory and the bearded brother was gesturing more wildly with his loaded rifle.

        “That’s not my fault...”

        “Gentlemen, gentlemen. I am not here to sell you anything.” Interrupting them as they turned to her as she reminded them of her presence. She was relieved to see them both relax at that piece of news.

        “I have something to deliver and it is free of charge. Actually, it is more of a someone than a something.” Seeing them start to tense up in alert mode again she rapidly said, “Uh Twila, why don’t you come out now.”

        The freed plant angel curled out and lifted her head, eyes immediately searching for the one face she longed to see, the clean-shaven Steffen. Slowly, without taking her eyes off of him, she climbed out of the jeep with the assistance from Rinnah who had come around to help. Standing next to her friend, she stared at Steffen unsure of what to do next. Suddenly shy, the angel looked down at the ground.

        Rinnah thought it was amazing that he knew immediately who this was before him without ever having laid eyes on her before. His face went slack and stupefied as he opened and closed his mouth without a sound being uttered. Steffen jerked a step forward, one hand reaching out, letting his rifle dangle from the other hand until it slipped through nerveless fingers to the ground.

        “How... how... you... here...” Finally finding his voice, “How did you get out?” Then joy lit up his face and he crossed the distance and swept Twila up into his arms. Pulling her close he buried his face into her thick white mane and began sobbing. Shudders ran through the young man from the force of his emotions but he pulled back to cup the angel’s face in his hands.

        “I thought I had lost you to the Last Run! It near killed me to know....” He stopped, realization dawning on him on the near impossibility of freeing a plant angel. More than most people he knew the difficulties involved.

        “How did you get free?”

        Smiling up at him and then turning to Rinnah she pointed saying, “Friend healed me and Friend got me out. Friend brought me to Steffen.” Smiling through grateful tears he clasped Twila to him again.

        Both Rinnah and Harry shuffled and began staring off into the sky feeling uncomfortable with the blatant show of emotion between the two as they stared into each other’s eyes. Unable to stand it another second, she broke into their private world and said, “I doubt they are going to be looking for her. Her, uh, disappearance is a bit of a mystery, But I wouldn’t ever take her into town... oh, and there is a little matter of the murders.” Both men looked at her sharply at that. She hastened to explain that she and Twila had found dead bodies when they crawled out of their hiding place. Leaving the rest unsaid for now, she figured Twila could fill them in later.

        Steffen dropped his face back into Twila’s hair, his arms wrapped around her shoulders holding her close. Twila mindspoke to Rinnah, “*What is wrong with Steffen? His eyes are leaking fluid. Will he need to clean up afterwards?*”

        Rinnah returned the mindspeak assuring her it was not the same kind of liquid as before. Quickly she explained tears and what they meant as she retrieved Twila‘s meager possessions from the jeep. Next she explained the hug and instructed her to put her arms around his neck and hug back.

        Rinnah would have left after that but the brothers insisted she stay for an early lunch and her stomach growled, loud enough so both brothers heard and chuckled. She had forgotten to eat breakfast so hungrily agreed.

        It also gave her a chance to inspect the grounds and house where Twila would be living. Trying not to look like she was casing the joint, she threw darting glances around the rooms with a critical, probing eye. It was a warm, comfortable environment, probably left over from a mother or grandmother. It was kept clean, neat and was well cared for. Rinnah approved, feeling confident she was leaving Twila in good hands. Watching the considerate and kind way that both men tenderly treated the plant angel she became sure of it.

        Before she left the brothers loaded her up with enough supplies crammed in the back of the jeep and passenger seat to last for weeks. She barely had room to move her right elbow. Steffen was so grateful he would have given her more if the jeep could have held it.

        She started down the dirt road with a wave of her arm. Observing the brothers making the same arm movement, Twila also waved her arm. Rinnah blinked back a stinging in her eyes. As glad as she was to turn over the plant angel’s welfare to someone else she was going to miss her. Yet, once she was turned onto the road to New Memphis she was content to be traveling alone again.

New Memphis
        When Vash, Milly and Wolfwood first arrived in the room and gotten their things put in order, Milly started for the door with the intent of finding a place to eat. She was halfway out the door when she perceived a blurred motion out of the corner of her eye. Before she had a chance to question the movement she felt a strong grip wrap around her upper arm and haul her away from the door. With another jerk Vash pulled her further into the room and slammed the door shut behind him. Milly turned to gape at the Humanoid Typhoon. It was the first time ever he had laid a hand on her. He loosed her and took a stance like a sentinel before the door with arms crossed in front of him and silver gun glinting menacingly on his hip. He kept his frown on Milly who was still open-mouthed at the unexpected and rough treatment.

        In a harsh voice he grated out, “Don’t leave the room until it’s dark. This is a bigger town and we are still in his area of influence. None of us goes out until nightfall.”

        Waving a pointing finger between Vash and Wolfwood, Milly informed him indignantly, “If anyone stands out in a crowd it is you two!”

        Vash didn’t move from his spot. He glanced at Wolfwood, “Chapel?”

        Wolfwood frowned at the name but came to stand next to Milly and taking her gently by the shoulders he guided her to a chair.

        He leaned over and said, “As much as it pains me to admit it Honey, Vash is right. Our faces are known while seemingly normal looking people can be working for Knives and there’s no way for us to tell the difference.”

        Vash added, “The less we are seen, the safer we will be.”

        Milly frowned and uttered in an uncharacteristically sullen voice, “If that is why you wanted we might as well have stayed out in the middle of the desert.”

        Looking at Vash and then angling her face to look up at Wolfwood she stated, “Safe is what we will never be. I don’t know what safe is anymore.” Her shoulders slumped and she looked back to Vash still guarding the door and shook her head.

        “Okay. If you both feel so strongly about this.” She grumbled. Wolfwood put a comforting hand on her shoulder. Milly rarely, if ever, grumbled proving that even she had a breaking point. She was about to say something else but ended up yawning instead. Eyes starting to droop from lack of sleep, she got up and walked over to the bed next to the wall to claim as hers. Shucking her coat Milly laid down and pulled it over her.

        She yawned again and said, “I am pretty tired. Guess I’ll close my eyes and rest for a little bit.” It wasn’t long before she fell into a doze and was only vaguely aware of Wolfwood and Vash moving around the room. She could tell they were both making an attempt to be as quiet as possible so that her rest wouldn’t be disturbed. Her heart warmed and a little smile came to her lips. Underneath it all they were both still very sweet and caring.

        Milly woke up as the suns were hanging low in the sky. Yawning, she sat up and stretched. Opening her eyes she found Vash and Wolfwood both cleaning their guns with an intensity she found unnerving. She shivered, hoping it wasn’t a bad omen of things to come.

        Wolfwood, sitting on the other bed, had dissembled gun parts and pieces scattered about him. On the other side of the room Vash was sitting on the floor with his back leaning up against the wall focused on cleaning his silver gun.

        Milly cleared her throat and both men stopped what they were doing to look up at her with eyes filled with what she could only call a feral gunslinger look gleaming in them. Not for the first or last time she was sure, she wished Meryl was still alive. Meryl never had that look on her face, even when angry.

        Swinging her legs off the bed and standing up, she reached for her coat and firmly announced, “The suns are going down and I’m hungry. I’m going out to get something to eat.” She eyed Vash who just shrugged.

        “Huh.” She got up and headed towards the door.


        She whirled in Vash‘s direction, “WHAT!” She slapped a hand over her mouth and looked abashed. That had come out a whole lot louder than she had intended.

        She glanced down to see him holding out an arm in her direction with something in his hand. It was the huge handgun that he had helped her buy back in the days when they were first going to rescue Meryl. Back then Vash had helped Milly find the powerful and heavy handgun and taught her how to use it. He had told her that from that time forth she couldn’t use the stun gun anymore. They were now engaged in a war of survival between two different species. Milly thought nostalgically back on the days when Vash used to go around shouting “Love and Peace!”

        “Don’t forget this.” He held the gun out to her and she hesitantly took it from him. It looked as he had cleaned it for her. She accepted it as the apology he couldn’t say.

        She tucked the gun under her coat feeling its weight against her side. Briefly she thought about asking Wolfwood if he would like to go with her but then decided she had had enough quality time with the boys.

Second Chances
        Pulling up at the hotel before dusk set in, Rinnah couldn’t help but notice all the people rushing about in a hurry to get home from their work day. It was startling to see this many people in one place after the scanty human contact she had over the past week or so.

        Hands positioned on top of the steering wheel, she leaned her head down until her eyes gazed over her hands and watched the bustle of the crowd with something akin to awe. They had made it. They were carving out a civilization even in this extremely unfriendly and harsh environment.

        A voice broke into her reverie, “After you sign in Miss, there’s a place to park your vehicle around the back of the hotel.”

        Looking up she saw an older man with a grey bushy mustache and sparkling eyes standing next to her jeep. She had been so deep in her thoughts she hadn’t heard him walk up. He jerked his thumb indicating the direction of the parking area and walked back to the hotel doorway. Her eyes followed him seeing it as a sign of this town’s affluence that the hotel could afford to have a doorman. Stepping out of the jeep she waved at the older man as she went in, receiving a friendly smile return lifting up the corners of his mustache.

        After checking in she parked her vehicle around back and loaded herself down with bags so she wouldn’t have to come back down for another trip. Rinnah’s plan was to stay for an unspecified number of days doing research. It would mainly consist of watching people in their daily lives but if they had such a thing as a library she was going to check out books on the history since humans had landed on this planet.

        She jerked and repositioned her bags with growing irritation as they had a tendency to get caught on the butt of her guns. So annoying. Walking down the corridor and glancing up from time to time at the numbers on the doors, she knew she was getting closer to her room when she heard a familiar voice call out.

        “Rinnah! I don’t believe it!”

        Turning around she saw Milly wave and jog towards her with a huge smile on her face. Breaking into a grin Rinnah dropped a bag to free an arm to wave back. Coming abreast of Rinnah she reached down to retrieve the dropped bag before Rinnah had a chance to pick it back up.

        “Let me help you. Where’s your room? This one?” She looked at the number on the door.

        “No, next one down. Hey, have you had dinner yet?” Rinnah’s stomach growled and Milly’s answered in kind. They both laughed.

        “I’ll take that as a no. I had an early lunch but nothing since then and I’m starved! Let me toss these in my room and then we can go get something to eat. Besides I like your recommendations. You kept me from eating worm before and I will always be eternally grateful to you for that.”

        After dropping her stuff on the bed, she thought for a moment and loosened the strap and popped the snap that hooked her right holster to the belt and placed in between the mattresses. It wouldn’t stop a determined thief but no reason to make it too easy if she did happen to get robbed while she was out. Besides she noticed that wearing a gun on each hip was getting looks from people she passed by. If it was calling attention to herself the best thing to do would be to lose a gun.

        “You don’t often see someone wearing two six-shooters.” Observed Milly with a considering look, confirming Rinnah’s opinion that it was an odd enough sight to be noticed and even commented upon.

        “Well I can shoot with either hand equally well, but I prefer to shoot with my left hand. I am ambidextrous.”

        “Oh. I see. I think my great, great aunt suffered from that and was forced to give up needlepoint. And ballet.”

        Rinnah turned wide eyes to Milly who was grinning as they started down the hall. “Really? You’d think by now they’d have a pill for that. What do you suggest I do?”

        Milly laughed good naturedly. “I haven‘t had someone tease me like this in a long time! It feels nice.”

        Rinnah laughed too, “And that was set up if I ever saw one Miss Milly Thompson! You must have wanted to be teased pretty badly!”

        “Yes indeed Miss Rinnah Blackfire!” She sang out and then held a hand up to cover a giggle. “In my family we teased each other a lot, but not mean teasing.”

        Smiling at each other they exited the hotel to stand on the street.

        “Where do you want to go eat? I don’t know the town so you can choose.”

        “I don’t know, I have never been in this town either.” Milly looked up the street one way and Rinnah looked down the other. Neither saw anything resembling a restaurant and decided to just walk and talk until they found one.

        It wasn’t long before they were sitting in a restaurant several streets over. Milly said she was glad because she didn’t want the boys to crash their dinner with those sour dispositions. Rinnah was pretty sure that it was just Vash she was referring to but Milly was too loyal of a friend of his to say so.

        After ordering and finishing their meals, Rinnah took a moment to ponder Milly’s suddenly glum expression as she took small bites of her pudding. Most of the time she was smiling, but when she forgot, a more serious look would slip through.

        Deciding to put a voice to her observation she said, “Had enough of inhaling too much testosterone lately ?”

        Milly looked up brows puckered in puzzlement at the remark.

        Rinnah clarified, “What I mean to say is, aren’t you getting tired of hanging with the boys all the time?”

        Milly nodded and bit her lip.

        Leaning forward she rested her chin on top of her clasped hands, she went on, “I’m guessing you are more accustomed to traveling with females than living with two boys. Especially when they are engaged in a pissing contest that is starting to wear thin. Am I right?”

        Milly nodded again and stated in a soft voice, “They never have fun anymore. I used to think we were all pretty good friends with each other. We did have some fun times and adventures together. Or at least we used to. Not any more though. I wish things were like before.”

        Coming to another decision, Rinnah risked it and took a stab in the not-so-dark, “I take it there used to be a female friend who is gone now?” This time Milly didn’t nod but Rinnah saw a tear run down her cheek and heard an accompanying sniffle.

        “Meryl.” A little whisper came across the table.

        “Meryl? She’s the one gone missing?”

        “No. Dead. Vash’s brother killed her.” More tears spilled down and Milly reached for her napkin.

        That explained a lot.

        “So, were Vash and Meryl an item? Er, you know, dating?” Still a puzzled look from Milly.

        “Rinnah, you’re not from around here are you?” Rinnah smiled, Milly couldn’t begin to imagine.

        “Uh, no, I’m from about as far from here as you can get. But, about Meryl and Vash, were they, uh let’s see how to put this, ‘more than friends‘, boyfriend and girlfriend?” Milly’s eyes lit up with comprehension.

        “Meryl was in love with him but I never knew how he felt about her. He never acted like he was in love with her.” Rubbing her nose in thought, Rinnah considered the information, so he’s not out for revenge on Meryl’s behalf. Of course not, that would have been too easy of an explanation for the annoyingly rude spiky-haired man.

        “Okay, the three of you are on a vendetta against the killer, Vash’s brother, right?”

        Milly looked up with alarm realizing how much she had unintentionally revealed and Rinnah felt like a jerk for letting her curiosity pry into Milly’s private affairs.

        Underneath the alarm Milly felt the relief of finally being able to confide in another female, one sympathetic to her and willing to listen to her pour out her heart.

        “I’m sorry Milly. I shouldn’t have been poking my nose in your business.” Going on to reassure her she said, “Don’t worry, I won’t ask any more questions and even though you have no reason to trust me, I won’t tell a soul what you have told me.

        Milly’s eyes rolled upwards as she pondered for a moment and then said, “But I do trust you. I know I can. I may not be real smart but I am good at knowing people.”

        Rinnah waved a negating hand. “Feh! You are smart, smarter than you give yourself credit for. I would take one of you over a bagful of Vash’s any day.”

        Rinnah ordered coffee and regaining her appetite Milly ordered another pudding, an obsession for her new friend Rinnah noticed. They were soon giggling and laughing too much to notice the restaurant door opening. Both were also too engaged in their conversation about childhood memories to look up. Since Rinnah had grown up on a verdant and watery world her tales were heavily edited for Milly’s benefit.

        Milly was relating a story about one of her brother’s hurting himself trying to get a girl’s attention when they heard a voice coldly interrupt, “What the hell are you doing with her!”

        Surprised both girls looked up to find Wolfwood and Vash flanking their table. Vash was radiating so much animosity that his black hair seemed to be giving off sparks. In comparison Wolfwood was relaxed although the worry showed in the way he looked at Milly.

        Uh oh. Busted. She shot a glance over at Milly who was looking contrite and defiant at the same time.

        Glaring at Rinnah, Vash grabbed Milly by the arm and hauled her up out of her seat.

        In less time than it takes to blink, Rinnah was chest to chest with Vash invading his personal space.

        Electric blue eyes blazed with fury as she said in a low voice filled with a perilous edge, “Mister, I’d advise you to remove your hand from her. And if you so much as touch her with disrespect in my presence again I’ll rip that fake arm of yours off and cram it down your throat.”

        Her knees flexed and legs positioned for a fight, her whole body radiated hostile energy as her left hand hovered over her piece. Blue eyes flashed warningly up into his angry ones, daring him to so much as twitch a muscle with ill intent.

        The silence stretched until Vash slowly, one finger at a time, released his grip on Milly’s arm. Just as slowly, Vash lowered his hand near his own gun. Rinnah noticed but didn’t waver from his locked stare as her fingers spread and curled. Milly would have stayed right where she was but Wolfwood reached over and gently drew her back to him. When she would have protested and moved back again he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her tight against his chest. Lowering his head he whispered in her ear, “Not yet. Trust me.”

        Vash looked his opponent over with the light of many decades of experience. Over the years he had learned to read people and he knew she was not going to back down, but neither would she initiate the battle. And he had learned something in these past few seconds, she was a professional, a warrior by training and inclination. No matter how hard she tried to hide it from here on out, he knew.

        Rinnah’s hand crooked over her gun, not caring and not in the least afraid or threatened by Vash or the friction and hostility that were rapidly building to a breaking point. Despite the tension, she was unruffled and composed even as her sight shrank to a tunnel vision that encompassed only him, yet aware of their surroundings. She waited, the challenge in the air like electricity, sizzling the hairs of the skin, snapping the air and leaping back and forth the short distance between two of them.

        A silence descended over the restaurant, spreading like gossip from table to table as the other diners ceased eating and conversing to look up with wide eyes. The only sounds heard were the rapid movement of chairs being scooted back as people scrambled away from their tables in an attempt to leave, some hurried towards the back of the restaurant with whispers and gasps of fear.

        It was at that moment that Wolfwood coughed. Milly jerked in the circle of his arms and angled her head to look up at him. Gazing fondly down at her, he said, “Honey, you should have told us that you were leaving the hotel. We were beside ourselves worrying about you.” Wolfwood was counting on the affection these two people had for Milly to help break the impasse.

        As if on an agreed upon cue, Rinnah and Vash broke their icy stares to peg their glares on Milly. She made a little ‘eep’ noise under the weight of those cold fierce looks. Icy as the grave, unrelenting as hunger. Paling, she turned in the circle of Wolfwood’s arms hiding her face for a moment.

        Seeing her reaction Rinnah immediately felt ashamed and let her gaze drop to the floor, the piercing glare melting like an ice cube set out at midday. The tension in the air quickly began to fade. Vash, having experienced many such moments such as this over the decades, knew the moment was over and let his shoulders relax. Loosely crossing his arms in front of him, he turned to look at Milly in reproof.

        Also sensing the difference she turned around to face them and lowered her eyes, saying, “You’re right. I should have told you both where I was going. I’m sorry. I’ll be more careful in the future.”

        Then, considering the panicky and alarmed patrons around them she looked back, eyes glistening but filling with anger, yelled at them sharply, “What the hell is matter with you two!?” She waved her arm to indicate all the other people that had been too afraid to move from their tables. “Someone could have been hurt! Don‘t you care about anybody besides yourselves?!” She calmed down quickly though as she observed Rinnah’s reaction. Vash, well, who knew what he felt anymore.

        Vash grunted and grabbed a chair from another table, spun it around and straddled it. He crossed his arms on the back of the chair and looked at them grimly . Rinnah hung her head in guilt for a moment before looking back up with distressed eyes. She hadn’t been thinking. She darted a shamefaced look around at the remaining diners and then back to Vash to peg him with an accusing glare which he returned with equal heat.

        Wolfwood also snagged a chair but politely asked permission from the couple sitting there, who had watched the whole event with dropped mouths and anxious eyes. They urged him to take it with fervent nods and fake smiles. He must have said something else to reassure them as relieved expressions crossed their faces and they turned back to eating their dinner. Seeing that the confrontation was over, others also went back to eating but the more fainthearted got up and left.

        Wolfwood brought the chair back to their table but before sitting down said, “I’ll order some honey spice tea, it’s soothing for the nerves. And right now mine definitely need soothing.”

        “Oh mine do too!” Agreed Milly and then yelled after his departing back, “Order some pudding too!” With a quick smile over his shoulder he nodded.

        Meanwhile Vash and Rinnah stabbed at each other with dark looks before turning to watch him talk with the waitress to place their order. Aqua and jewel blue eyes followed as Wolfwood returned and sat down with a relaxed smile.

        Turning back to the staring contest, Vash glared at Rinnah and Rinnah glared at Vash. She slowly sat down without breaking eye contact with him, still giving back glare for glare. This time it was a sizing up of each other and storing the information for the future reference.

        “From watching you two one could draw the conclusion that you were rivals for the lead in the school play or else there was some kind of....”

        Wolfwood stopped as two sets of challenging eyes whipped over to him and dared him to finish that thought. He shrugged, then let out a breath. He had to hand it to Rinnah though, she had gone toe to toe with Vash and wasn’t the least bit intimidated by him. One corner of his mouth turned up glad for once it wasn’t him that Vash was having a face off with.

        Then he remembered the question he wanted to ask. Being curious Wolfwood decided since no one else was bringing it up then he would ask. “How’d you know about Vash’s arm?”

        Rinnah broke the stare to look at Wolfwood in disbelief. “What do you mean how did I know? Look at him, look at it.” She gestured at Vash’s left arm, ignoring his glare. “It doesn’t move like a real arm, it doesn’t hang the same way, it moves differently, I can hear the metal in it when it moves and it is heavier than his real one. Extremely heavy.” Eyes narrowing in study she took another glance at Vash’s left arm. “Heavier than it needs to be.” Looking up at him, her hostility forgotten she asked with a half-smile, “What do you carry in that thing, lead weights?”

        His glare deepened and lips pressed together in a thin line but he didn‘t answer.

        Rinnah finished, “But since I can smell the metal and gunpowder....”

        Wolfwood spoke first, unconvinced, “Wait a minute! You.... smelled it? You smelled metal? As in, smell with your nose, smelled the metal?” His voice raising with skepticism.

        Unsure now and biting her lower lip, Rinnah nodded. Wolfwood shook his head in amazement, a small chuckle escaping out of him.

        She berated herself, Rinnah you are such a dim star! That was a special kind of stupid you displayed just then! Definitely she shouldn’t have revealed that part. If you can’t be brilliant then be the queen idiot of the babble-on people.

        “I’m guessing it is some kind of side arm.”

        Then realizing what she had said, burst out with “Holy Hybrid! That’s funny!” And chuckled, vastly amused with herself. Milly and Wolfwood stared at her wide-eyed before grins split their faces and they began chuckling also.

        Upon seeing their expressions Rinnah laughed harder, leaning back in her chair and holding her stomach with her hands. Milly snorted out a laugh, slapped her hands over her mouth in embarrassment but then started laughing louder along with her friend. Watching Milly lose it made Rinnah laugh to the point she was taking in gasps of air. Then Wolfwood started out chuckling and then as if infected by Milly and Rinnah began laughing harder along with them. That only made Rinnah lose what little control she had now laughing helplessly while wiping her eyes with one hand and thumping the table top with the other.

        “Side arm! Damn that’s funny!” And burst into gales of laughter until slowly it calmed down down into chortling enabling her to catch her breath. That is, until she heard Milly snort again with shoulders shaking before she burst out in delighted mirth. Rinnah gasped and then threw back her head, unable to stop. She grabbed and held her.

        Vash looked back and forth at them as if they were all insane. “It wasn’t that funny.” Rinnah almost choked on her laughter as she gazed helplessly at him, tears now running down her face with abandon.

        Milly was clutching her stomach little hiccups issuing out of her between bursts of laughter.

        “You‘re... right!.” Rinnah managed to gasp out nearly falling out of her chair as another wave of laughter came over her. “Not... funny!” and then howled again squeezing her eyes shut.

        Milly’s face was beet red and tears were streaming out of her eyes as well. Wolfwood was wiping tears out of his eyes with the heel of his palm trying to get some control when another wave of laughter would hit him as well.

        “It’s NOT that funny!” Vash said through gritted teeth. And then Rinnah did fall off her chair. Wolfwood roared, slapped the table and Milly threw back her head and let the laughter roll out of her as she clutched her now aching sides. They watched Rinnah laugh and roll back and forth on the floor arms folded over her stomach.

        “This is embarrassing!” Hissed Vash. “Get up!”

        Through gasps, Rinnah pointed out, “Yeah... right... bad... as... shootout!” Milly rocked in her seat about ready to join Rinnah on the floor.

        Finally Rinnah reached up grabbing the edge of the table and with difficulty tried to haul herself back into her chair. She kept slipping off until impatiently, Vash reached over and grabbed her arm and hauled her back into her seat. He didn’t let go until he was sure she wouldn’t fall off again. Milly pointed at her and started laughing all over again. Wolfwood glanced at Milly’s tear streaked red face and began a fresh round himself.

        Vash let them laugh, determined not to say another word lest it set them off again. As it seemed that anything he said right now was ammunition for more hysterical and uncontrolled hilarity. He crossed his arms on the back of the chair and propped his chin on them prepared to wait them out as he watched them laugh.

        Finally, when the laughter slowly calmed down level by level, Vash felt it was safe to speak up again. “I’m going to get some fresh tea. I take it that you are finished with your childish display.” It wasn’t a question but the three nodded their heads not a bit contrite.

        Milly smiled happily at all of them as Wolfwood shook his head still chuckling and Rinnah grinning said. “Woo hoo! I haven’t laughed like that in since I don‘t know when!”

        Milly nodded, “Oh my goodness. I can’t remember either. But it sure was fun!” She turned to Wolfwood, “Wasn’t that fun?”

        Wolfwood replied, “I can’t remember laughing like that either. And Vash was right, it wasn’t that funny.” At that they nearly went into another round but managed to keep it to gurgles and chortles mindful that Vash was not having as much fun as they were. By that time Vash had rejoined them carrying another pot.

        Eyeing them, “Get it out of your systems?” They beamed back at him nodding. It was like sitting at a table with a bunch of drunk first graders at closing time.

        Milly sighed and looked around the table, happier than she had remembered being in a long time. With a wistful sigh she thought that the only thing that could make this better is if Meryl were here to share the moment with them. But it was good to relieve the stress they were living under, if only for a moment.

        She felt Wolfwood take a hold of her hand and curl his fingers around it, giving it a slight squeeze. She looked up at him. He always knew.

        Silence descended over the table as each became engaged in fixing their tea according to their preferences. Rinnah tried hers and made a face. Tea wasn’t her cup of tea. She reached for the sugar and dumped several teaspoons in, thought about it and dumped even more in before passing the sugar bowl to Nicholas. She mused to herself. The only way tea would be fit to drink would be if it were coffee.

        For some reason Rinnah had felt any lingering distrust Wolfwood had about her begin to fade away. She didn’t know if it was because of her knowledge about Vash’s arm or if it had been the shared laughter. She was of the opinion it was the latter. There was a loose casualness and connection that had formed from that. The only one unaffected by it was Vash who was tight-lipped and broadcasting disapproval on all frequencies.

        As for Vash, he stole glances at Rinnah while they all sipped their tea. It wasn’t lost on him that Rinnah tried not to make a face each time she took a miniscule sip of her tea. He also refused to show that he was impressed by the fact that Rinnah had known about his arm and only revealed that knowledge when coming to Milly’s aid.

        Vash watched Rinnah and Milly animatedly carry the conversation with Wolfwood looking like he was enjoying himself for the first time in a long time. He realized that they all had been tightly wound up and needed the break. He stole another glance at her, noticing that her light blue eyes had returned to normal. Watching the girl’s chatting away it was hard to believe Rinnah had just recently been threatening to rip off his arm and feed it to him. From what he saw in her eyes she really believed she could do it. Huh. Not likely of course as she had no idea what she was up against, but still, she was ready to try for the sake of her friend. Again, despite himself, he was impressed by her loyalty.

        Rinnah was aware of Vash’s frequent suspicious scrutiny but didn’t let it stop her form having fun. At least it was less strained than the first dinner meeting. Nobody got shot and arms were still attached. She took that a s a good sign.

        Looking up at one point Rinnah noticed that full dark had fallen. Leaping to her feet, she made her apologies for having to leave so abruptly explaining she had an appointment with a group of ladies . After paying for her meal and leaving a generous tip, she waved to the three companions as she exited the restaurant.

        A couple of streets down Rinnah found a street vendor just closing up for the night and asked directions to the plant facility.

        As she headed for the facility, following the directions she was given, Rinnah thought back to her day’s drive . She had used the time to ponder everything she had learned from Twila and from accidentally falling into the plant family’s link. She now knew that Twila’s brother Knives meant to exterminate all the humans on the planet and wasn’t above absorbing his plant sisters if it suited his purposes. Rinnah had come to a decision on the journey. Knives had to be stopped and she couldn’t assume that someone else was going to do the job.

        Smiling grimly as she mentally went over the outline of her plan and evaluated it for flaws. There were quite a few of them but overall she thought it a good plan. She just had to work out the bugs. What would hamper her would be the technological level of the society here. But they did have satellites orbiting the planet so that said something. She wasn’t sure what yet, but it said something.

        The main part of her plan hinged on the information she had learned from the plant link. The link was their strength. That was the key. Rinnah Blackfire, hybrid half-plant and half-human child of two different space faring races and advanced technologies, grinned evilly. Traps. When hunting weasel, set traps.

        The last thing to take into consideration was her supply of pills that Rachel had given her. Would they last? What would happen when they ran out? Would she die, go insane, shrivel up and wilt? She didn’t know but it was best to plan that in and taking that into consideration it, that meant she only had a short month and a half to put her plans into operation.

The Five Sisters
        With a sense of deja vu Rinnah stood on the bottom of wide steps gazing up in disgust at the great stone building that housed the plant angel facility. Stone, stone everywhere and not a plank of wood to be seen.

        The vendor had said there were five plant angels at this facility. He had looked at her sideways when she had asked if he had ever seen one. No, not the pods, but the angels themselves. She didn’t know what possessed her to ask him that. He never answered, or maybe picking up the handles of his cart and hurriedly pushing it down the street was the answer. Rinnah had huffed and with an irritated and ineffectual swipe of her hand at her bangs which were getting long enough to hang into her eyes had started off down the street. He had given her good directions, she hadn’t had any trouble finding the place.

        She looked up and gave the building a long considering look, searching for any sign of security or defenses. If they had any it wasn’t obvious. Like the building in the last town, this one gave her the impression of a great troll that had squatted down and then had turned to stone when caught in the light of the rising suns. In short, it was the perfect structure for a government building.

        With a grimace she started up the steps. As she joined the stream of people she decided not to call up her cloaking glamour to physically conceal herself from human eyes. Observing the throng with some surprise crowding in around her she wondered if this was a special plant angel holiday that she was unaware of. Rinnah wasn’t going to complain though as it gave her the chance to blend in and feel safe from prying eyes.

        As her group pressed through the door into the reception area, she noted right away a couple of differences between this facility and the last one she had visited. The first difference was that this one was clean. The other difference was the line of people waiting in front of the desk to sign in. Rinnah could only chalk it up to the fact that there were five healthy angels here whereas Twila had been sentenced to the Last Run.

        Moving with the flow of people around her, she found herself in the line and wasn’t quite sure how that had happened. However, she now had a chance to study the silent group of people surrounding her. As always when hemmed in on all sides in a human crowd, the smell threatened to overwhelm and choke her. Humans didn’t smell that bad really, not if they bathed frequently that is, but right now it was intense. They had, well, what she had always tagged as a “human smell”. She sighed miserably. Rinnah had never been physically attracted to any human and the blame for it was all because of her persnickety nose. They just didn’t smell attractive to her in any sense other than friendship. If there was something she could change about herself, that would be it. She loved humans. Get a few humans together and things were never boring. They lived in their lives and weren’t content to observe it just flow around them. Holy Hybrid! Humans were so much fun!

        But this concentrated smell, while not horrific, was too much for her poor overloaded nose. She began to breathe out of her mouth to ease her predicament. It helped a little.

        Rinnah felt a tug on her thigh and looked down. A small girl child, maybe three or four, as Rinnah had a hard time determining children’s ages, had grabbed a hold of the bottom of her holster with one hand. With the other hand she had a thumb in her mouth sucking on it. The child wasn’t looking up at her but just watching the quiet milling of the people around her.

        Rinnah looked up and spotted a young woman whipping her head around back and forth searching the crowd for something or someone. The black- haired hybrid took a guess that it was for this small person attached to her thigh. Rinnah raised her hand waving trying to catch the mother’s attention. As the young mother’s head swiveled looking around again, she spotted Rinnah waving. She pointed down to the child latched onto her. The young mother made her way through the crowd, tears of gratitude making her eyes bright. The little girl looked up at her mother and smiled as she was scooped up.

        “Thank you!” She said to Rinnah and then made her way back. It was nudging at the edge of Rinnah’s awareness that something was odd but she just couldn’t put her finger on it. Instead, she focused on the pleased sensation that came from the brief interaction of mother and child. Just a small thing really. A smile spread across her face. Damn but that had felt good.

        Then was jostled from behind breaking her reverie. Giving herself a mental shake, she continued her contemplation of the crowd around her. She saw an older people, middle-aged and children of all ages. Her eyebrows quirked in puzzlement. It was dark out, or what passes for dark here. Why weren’t half these people at home getting ready for bed? Wasn’t there school the next day? She watched a mother rock a toddler to sleep against her shoulder. Rinnah watched for long enough that she caught herself rocking in time along with the mother, swaying back and forth. She didn’t know about the toddler but her eyes were starting to feel heavy. With a wrench she shifted her eyes away to an old couple. He had his arm wrapped lightly around her shoulders. Rinnah couldn’t help but smile again before turning to look at a group of teenage boys. They were standing quietly, politely, hands in their pockets.

        Wait a minute. Rinnah’s brows tightened again in a small frown. It was starting to edge in on her thoughts that something odd was going on with the crowd. It tickled at the back of her mind. She looked over the group again but with different eyes. Why hadn’t she noticed it earlier? There was an oddness about the eyes of the people and it seemed to be the same with everyone she looked at. They were... too content? Placid? What am I missing here?

        Rinnah mulled it over with a growing sense of bewilderment. That small voice of reason, with which she had only a nodding acquaintance, began screeching for attention. Now that she was aware of the vibes of the too-silent crowd, the wrongness was beginning to jangle on her nerves. She began to mentally plead with the line to hurry and sign in so she could escape from the growing sensation of being hemmed in from all sides.

        Finally it was her turn to sign in. She wrote her full name in with a quick scratching and a flourish. Looking up into the bored face of the guard with a grin she thought that some things don’t change from building to building and handed the pen back to him. He grunted and took it from her his attention already on the person waiting in line behind her.

        Walking up to the double doors, Rinnah noticed the layout of the building was the same as before. Opening the doors she took a step in and stopped short, eyes staring in amazement. The first thing to assault her senses was the commotion and then buzz of voices, a drastic change from the eerie silence of the reception room. Next was, again, the sense of order and cleanliness. There was the constant motion of the crowd milling around the slower moving clusters of people.

        Someone behind her nudged her and she realized she had halted just inside the door blocking the entryway. Absently taking a step to the side, her eyes roamed around the room taking in the size; it was at least four times as large as the first facility she had visited.

        One corner of her mouth twitched as a soft “Eh” breathed out over her lips as she considered the risks of trying to free a plant angel from this facility. It would be a daunting undertaking, complicated and nigh on impossible even with her abilities. However without more information she wouldn’t know if they wanted to be free or not.

        Before making contact with any of the plant angels hidden safely within their pods, she allowed herself to flow along with the rest of the crowd. At each bulb the crowd would stop and buzz with comments. Rinnah ignored them as her eyes practically glazed over with schemes and plans.

        So far she hadn’t been too impressed with these plant angels. Twila had been a sweetie. These ladies were hateful and bitter. They were near drowning in their hatred of humans. The only thing they had anything positive to say was about the plant child that would save their species and the Mother who would live to give birth again. Other than that, they were oozing venomous joy about the day when humans would die.

        Damned if I’m gonna waste my time and energy healing or freeing any of them! Thought Rinnah firmly with a shifting of her shoulders trying to shake off the corrosive loathing seeping from Twila’s five sisters. It was hard for her to imagine that Twila was their sibling. So maybe the attitude of the five was more the norm for the plant family and Twila had been anomaly. Rinnah came to a decision. She would free and heal any plant angels like Twila but not if they were like these three plant females. In fact, she thought grimly, they can all go to fertilizer hell for all I care.

        Yet, she hesitated and then decided to make contact anyway. She brought up and dropped the mental mask over her as she stopped in front of the globe at the end of the row. They shouldn’t be able to glean any information from her with the mask in place. Then closing her eyes in concentration she launched a link outward and up. For mere communication she wouldn’t have to be touching them as when she had forged a link in order to send life energy to Twila.

        As Rinnah pushed her mental link up into the plant angel frequency her brows knotted together with the effort to hook up with the five of them.

        Surprise, consternation, anger and fear greeted her swirling around her.

        “*Sorry, sorry! Don’t be afraid. I’m not here to hurt you. My name is Ringing Cry. I just wanted to talk.... So, how’s it going ladies? Seen any good movies lately?* Now confusion was thrown into the emotional mix. With a mental thwap she reminded herself again about the resolve not to use slang.

        With combined effort they came together in their common fear and anger merged it into an almost incoherent fury that launched itself at her. She observed it coming at her but it was if it slid down harmlessly like raindrops falling against a windowpane. She didn’t doubt that it would have hurt if it could have connected and was relieved they couldn’t reach “down” into her frequency. The frenzied screeching of the plant angel sisters was rather annoying though.

        “*Ladies! Please, one at a time!*”

        Finally a dominant sister took over the job of communicating. The gist of the conversation, if one wanted to call it that for lack of a better term, was a gushing forth of demands and questions. All of it pretty much centered on what happened to their missing sister.

        Feh. Like I would tell them anything. This was a mistake. She thought as the other sisters now joined in and traded off with each other but all saying the same thing over and over. Screeching harpies! She thought at them and listened to the mental howling that greeted that.

        The alpha sister sent in her direction that their brother would destroy all humans, their brother was powerful, their brother would find her, and their brother would destroy her...

        Rinnah rolled her eyes until she realized something with a start. Slapping her forehead with the palm of her hand, she reprimanded herself, Satisfied you freaking idiot! They know you are a ‘her‘. Damn! How did I let that slip by? Her mouth turned down in displeasure, mostly at herself. She had been waiting for them to get tired or run out of mental breath when that realization dawned on her. Well, it didn’t look like they were going to run out of steam anytime soon. Lowering her head she kneaded the center of her brow with her fingertips where a pain was starting to blossom outward to her temples. The main sister continued her threats with the other four joining in with their raucous crowing. All this squawking is giving me a headache.

        Threats and attacks were still being thrown at her that, like before, slid off without doing any damage. Rinnah was amazed at how a mental voice could duplicate hissing and spitting as they raged their anger through the link.

        One finally calmed enough to warn her yet again. “*Our brother will find you. He will kill you. You cannot hide from him forever.*”

        That did it, she was getting heartily sick of hearing about this brother of theirs. Her eyes began to glow blue and she returned. “*You can tell your precious kitchen utensil of a brother from me that I think all plants are asses and he is their king!!*”

        With an abrupt jerk she dropped the link with that particular angel and went to sever the link she had unintentionally formed with the plant family and dropped into unknowingly when she felt a surge of power coming through the established link. Those treacherous yapping she-plants! They had sent out a call without her knowing it! Great. Now big brother’s on his way.

        Like a great rushing wall of flood water a crashing wave of energy rushed toward her and then around her. A male presence dropped into the link literally vibrating with rage. Whoa. Startled and without thinking, she cautiously backed up sensing strength in him that she hadn’t sensed in any of his sisters. Feeling a powerful clamp of mental energy trying to surround her and grab at her, she dodged and darted back.

        In another place, Knives sat in his chair concentrating. He had heard his siblings calling out for him warning him that the one he sought was with them. He had flung his mental ’pathic self into the family link and had rushed to that precise location.

        There! An unknown ‘familiar-but-not’ presence. He threw a lock around her. It should immobilize her mentally and physically until he could send someone to retrieve her. If nothing else she would be tagged and he would be able to track anywhere for retrieval. Feeling smug he had reached out for her and was utterly shocked and astonished as she simply moved away from him as if the lock were made of mere air. With a growl in his throat and mind, he followed.

        Rinnah realized what he was doing. He was trying to place a ‘tag’ or ‘collar’ on her. If he was successful then even if she did drop out of the link with that on he would be able to track her all over the planet no matter where she went. Rinnah felt the condescending smirk, as his plan was laid bare before her.


        Fury would not begin to describe the returning emotion before she cut the link completely. HA! He had not been able to touch her! She took a deep breath trying to clear her head. Well, if given time and with all of his dear sisters at his back adding to his power, he might have been able to inflict some damage. She would just have to be careful if she ran into him again.

        A voice at her elbow interrupted her thoughts startling her and in a lowered fighting stance she whirled to face the speaker.

        “I wondered why the plant angels were in such an agitated state.” Vash said in an almost serene voice, sounding calmer than she had ever heard him. Gee. He almost sounds like a normal person. With arms loosely hanging at his sides, he looked up at the bulbs before turning his gaze to her.

        “But seeing as it’s you, I shouldn’t be so surprised.”

        Rinnah relaxed her stance and took a step closer. Vash lifted an eyebrow at her but saw her eyes scan the crowd.

        Puffing out her cheeks she decided to take a chance and ask what was on her mind. Out of the side of her mouth she inquired, “It has been really strange... No it’s these people who are acting strange. I can’t put my finger on what’s wrong with them.”

        Rinnah noticed that voices were raised and people were pointing at the bulbs now sparking and flickering with colored lights. Uh oh. Had she caused that? She looked over the crowd again noting their alarm and consternation. Some were talking excitedly to one another while others were trying to climb the stairs to the plant angel platforms holding the globes the angels were encased in. The guards were blocking the way stopping the people from gaining access to the platforms. Each bulb had a group milling around it in a state of anxiety. She couldn’t read human minds, but this was a heightened emotional state that was coming across loud and clear. What the hell was wrong with these people?

        Vash grunted, “Plant worshippers.”

        Rinnah turned to stare at him not quite sure she had heard him right.

        “Run that by me again.”

        “Plant worshippers. Sort of like the Christian faith only plants are their saviors.”

        Mouth working in disbelief she finally uttered, “Plants? A religion that worships plants?! You gotta be shitten me!”

        Vash tilted his head, again that one eyebrow lifted. That was beginning to get annoying. Then a small twist of his lips that was not quite a smile, he acknowledged the aghast and appalled shock she felt.

        Eyes wide now and then a slow blink. “Oh, this is just so wrong on so many levels.”

        Vash shrugged and glanced back up at the plant angel’s bulb before turning back to study her.

        “What were you doing?”

        “I was... uh...” There was no way out of this one. She knew he knew that she had been communicating with the plants.

        “Listening.” She winced. With regret she felt the air between them change becoming electric again. Crap. He had almost been pleasant there for a while.

        “You can hear them?” He asked softly, with an edge to his voice.

        She considered and then nodded.

        “What else?!”

        “I was just chatting with them... when they weren’t shrieking at me that is.”

        A dangerous quiet stretched between them.

        Then, “Do you know anything about the missing plant angel?” Vash didn’t miss how Rinnah tensed at his question in that split second in the time it takes to blink. A human would have missed it. He was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that she knew something.

        There were very few allies in his family that were sympathetic to humans as it was. If she had been behind the disappearance of one on their side... even if she was scheduled for a Last Run, their ally would have known where they could have gone for other allies. He narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously. Had Knives sent her to kill off the sisters that were friendly towards humans?

        Her voice broke in on his thoughts. “Everyone has an opinion on what happened. I’m not sure if I believe what people say though there are some pretty wild stories out there right now.” One hand cupped an elbow while a finger ran up and down the length of her nose in thought. “I know that plant angels are confined to their bulbs and weren’t engineered to exist outside of it yet this one is gone.”

        Turning huge light blue eyes in his direction she added “Sure is a mystery isn’t it?” Now eyeing him she asked, “Did YOU have anything to do with it?”

        Offended he gave her a withering stare.

        A thought occurring to her, Rinnah took an experimental sniff as something had been nudging at her. Oh dear Lord! It was him again! She had to fight the urge to lean in and fill her lungs with that scent. It was intriguing and making her feel woozy at the same time. With a sudden dawning she knew what he was and what was going on. If he was an Antressla he would be in his.... Star holes! This is great, just freaking great! It must be his mating cycle and it was affecting her all this time. That’s what it was! She felt a certain relief in being able to put a name to it. Now Rinnah knew how to deal with it and promised herself she was going to take a double dose of her pills when she got back to her room.

        Still in deep thought she felt a large hand wrap about her arm and squeeze. Shocked, Rinnah looked down to see Vash’s mechanical hand clenched so hard around her bicep it was leaving indents in her skin. With an angry hiss she glared up at him. Plant man has a death wish! Seeing the storm brewing in her eyes he released the pressure several notches but without letting go.

        Leaning down close to her face Vash said harshly, “You know something you’re not saying. And you have been following us, why? Who sent you?” Eyes glinting with heightened ire continued, “Milly is nice. I’m not. If you hurt Milly, I will kill you. If you interfere with any more plant angels, I will kill you. If you don’t stop following us, I will k....”

        “OH STOP! You’re gonna hurt yourself if you keep this up!” One finger came up poking him in the middle of his black clad chest. “Not afraid of your threats plant boy. I’ve been threatened by better than you so get over yourself!” No more holding her tongue time to share.

        Vash was so shocked he dropped his grip on her arm.

        “I wasn’t and am not following you. No one sent me, I travel alone.“Giving him a intent look went on, “So everything is always about YOU eh? Thought so.”

        Leaning back waving a hand between them, “Not to worry, plant boy, I’m not interested in someone with all the bristling personality of a scrub brush. I like Milly and it has been fun hanging out with her and Nicholas. You, however, have been as much fun as vomiting into a stiff wind.” She halted noticing the look on his face. Crinkling her nose in curiosity she asked, “Are you alright? You don‘t look so good.”

        Vash just stared at her. Leaning closer she waved her hand in front of his face as she asked again, “Hey! Are you okay?”

        Finally he gave a short nod even though to Rinnah his eyes looked a little glassy. Studying his white face for a moment with uncertainty she said, “Well, uh, I have to get going. Sure you’ll be okay?”

        He managed a hoarse reply, his throat working, “I’m... Fine.”

        “Okay then.” Turning to leave she called over her shoulder, “See you at breakfast.”

        That snapped him out of his trance-like state and he glared at her, “No, you won’t! Stay away from us.”

        Swinging around she said with a raised eyebrow, “I think Milly and Nicholas can make their own friends. They were the ones who invited me and you were sitting right there when they did. You should have said something then. But I don’t think they are in the mood for your perpetual sourpuss attitude. So man up and enjoy breakfast,... Or starve.” With a shrug of her shoulders, “I don’t care either way. As for me, I’m gonna enjoy mine.”

        She waved and turned away, near dancing through the crowd disappearing from view.

        Vash heard his teeth grinding before he realized he had them clenched. Insufferable woman. He started for the door. Plant boy? How had she known? He, Chapel, and Milly were going to have a little chat.

        In another part of the country a plant being quivered with swelling frenzied rage. Breathing in ragged gasps and sweat trickling down his brow, he tried in vain to retain control until he could get to his private quarters. Everyone who saw him storming down the hall shrank away, heads down, desperately trying to slink by him without calling attention to themselves.

        Whirling at light speed in his brain was the fact that a human, a lowly, miserable, filthy human had violated his family! Not just once, but twice! This human! Just saying the word in his head made his whole body vibrate and his mind enflame with barely contained fury. Knives could not remember ever being this infuriated, with anyone. Of course, he had killed anyone who made him the lest bit angry so had never experienced this level of anger before. But this two-legged vermin was out of his reach, taunting him with her actions. This one had dared to reach up and touch the abode of the gods. And with a casualness and flippant attitude to add to her sins.

        Finally, he made it to his suite. Slamming the door behind him, he didn’t bother to lock it, no one would have the courage or audacity to interrupt him while he was in this mood.

        Leaning against the door for a moment, taking in great gulps of air, shaking so hard from the building ferocity. He was hardly aware of his skin rippling and shifting up and down his body with the force of his rage.

        Now that he was in the privacy of his quarters he gave in to the unrelenting thrust of a power unable to be contained or denied any longer. Exploding out of him it gushed out, flowing up and down his skin, running over his arms and legs forming razor-edged blades. Along his shoulders large pointed blades curved high over his head.

        He pushed off from the door, unable to keep still any longer and stalked around his room, pacing back and forth, the passion of his anger churning and grinding in him. And... fear.

        He had almost had her! But then lost her! How had that happened? It was nearly driving him mad! And there was something else... he couldn’t put his finger on it. Something that was... No, it was gone... But a throbbing pain in his head pounded against his skull bones until even the blood vessels behind his eyes seemed to swell from the pressure.

        Clutching his thrown back head, arching back, and through clenched teeth he growled curses and threats. The sound of crackling and snapping brought him back to realize that the power was building without an outlet. If he kept this up he would hurt himself. Still unable to harness the power, he paced around the room again trying to bleed off the pent up energy fed by his fury. Twin glowing orbs burned bright in the darkness of the room.


        He grabbed at the air in front of him in a snatching motion. He had almost had her.

        He shuddered again and more needle sharp quills and blades formed in response to his overwrought emotional and mental state.

        A human had dropped into the pure plant link and polluted it with her perverted, inferior self. He kept coming back to that. It was a fact that he couldn’t deny. No human, not a one had ever been able to do that! Not even Legato. Not only that but had escaped unscathed when discovered! His breath whistled out through his teeth. He wanted nothing more in his life right now but to have ‘Ringing Cry’’s’ throat between his hands squeezing the life out it. The flesh knives rippled and twitched again.

        Swimming below the tidal pool of his heated emotions a calm thought managed to assert itself. No. If he was honest, she hadn’t ‘almost’ been caught. The female had backed up in surprise, not fear. This ‘Ringing Cry’ had never truly been immobilized.

        That realization sent a whole new shuddering to course through his tall, hard-muscled frame. Blades burst out of his flesh again and again propelled by the force of his power, flying from him in all directions, embedding themselves in walls, breaking objects, and shredding anything made of fabric. He hardly noticed except that it had the objective of bleeding his power down to manageable levels. He put out an arm against a wall to steady himself. He suddenly felt limp and weak.

        Breathing in ragged gasps, he had to admit a hard truth to himself. Not only was she outside of his control but she wasn’t afraid of him or his power and that in itself was another affront. He couldn’t remember that happening, ever. Humans, he would have them obey him, fear him, or die. He didn’t care which at this point in his plans because the third option was finally an attainable dream. It would materialize someday. He just had to protect it until that day from all threats and this was a threat he had never anticipated. How could he?

        Mouth turning down in displeasure he firmly resolved that no one would kill her. With eyes burning, he decided that the privilege of ending this wretched human’s life would be his alone. His breathing hissed out of his mouth in short pants and muscles jumped along his jaw line, shoulders tensed as he considered his options. But first, he needed to get control of himself. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t plan if he was like this.

        He needed information and he needed it now.

        Running a hand through his almost black hair with its few strands of white blond scattered throughout he considered what was at stake, his plans had been coming together for over a year now. He was about ready to embark on the second generation.

        There was too much invested.

        He had too much to lose.

        As much as it galled him to admit it, this made him vulnerable, made them all vulnerable.

        He forced himself into a state of calm and calculated composure, feeling the flame decreasing little by little as he gained control of himself. Waiting several minutes, he listened to his heartbeat as it went from the rapid pounding to a more calm and familiar thudding. Soon his breathing returned to normal. Slowly the flesh blades sank and receded into his skin as his controlled self asserted itself once again. He let his shoulders slump with a sigh.

        He needed to be clear-headed if he wanted to come up with a plan to capture this Ringing Cry. A lip curled in a snarl but he quickly quelled the rising emotion and power that threatened to surge back up at the brief flare of anger that had flashed through his veins.

        Knives, the absolute god of his little kingdom stood quietly in the middle of his ruined room meditating.

        He had to find her. Or... maybe he could turn her into another Legato.

        He turned to his desk and touched a button.


A Little Slice of Heaven
        Rinnah pirouetted out of the bakery and leaped up, throwing a quick succession of punches into the air while shouting “YES!”. She spun in ecstatic delight before breaking into a skipping dance whirling down the sidewalk. For once things were going her way. Lifting up her face to the night sky and not caring who overheard, she shouted gleefully, “There IS a God in heaven and I’m STILL His favorite! Hot Damn!” And pumped her fist into the air again.

        A courting couple nervously edged off the sidewalk into the street taking a wide detour around the dancing, shouting lunatic. Rinnah didn’t even notice. For the first time on this rock with too many moons for comfort, she was beside herself with joy.

        Upon leaving the plant facility she had started back for the hotel when she saw a bakery sign hanging in a window. She hadn’t noticed it on the way to the facility, and chalked it up to being too preoccupied with plant angels.

        Stopping short in her tracks with wide eyes she couldn’t believe she had missed it earlier, . She was mesmerized by the delightful smell slipping through the door. The black-haired hybrid lifted her nose sniffing and followed the delectable scent into the shop. The aroma left over from a recent bread baking greeted her nose. She inhaled the warm comforting smell. Rinnah stood there breathing in deeply unable to believe her good fortune.

        A voice asked, “Can I help you ma’am?”

        She opened her eyes to see a young man with curly dark brown hair behind the counter getting ready to close up for the night.

        In a heartbeat she was in front of the counter eagerly leaning over it scanning the depleted selections from that day.

        Rinnah asked, “What time do you open?”

        The boy blinked and answered, “Five a.m. ma’am.”

        Still leaning she glanced up at him, “And do you serve coffee?”

        “Yes ma’am.” She followed his pointing finger to what looked like a space capsule with pipes sticking out of it. She had seen antiques in museums that looked like this and felt a shiver of delight run through her.

        “We grind ‘em fresh every morning ma’ am.” This ‘ma’am’ business was starting to get old. .
        He then gestured to the back where several tables were set up.

        “We even serve eggs and bacon for breakfast if you get here early enough.”

        She couldn’t believe her stroke of luck. They only had automated bakeries back on New Earth. Human hands didn’t roll out dough anymore, it was deemed too unsanitary. Standing on the brink of paradise like this, she just about drooled. Fresh ground coffee, eggs, and handmade dough every morning. It just didn’t get any better than this! And this, she decided, was where she and Milly were coming for breakfast even if she had to carry Milly’s comatose body over her back. Milly would thank Rinnah later when she saw this little spot of heaven come down to grant blessings upon undeserving mortals. Wolfwood could come if he wanted to. And Vash? Pagan! He wouldn‘t appreciate it like a true believer would. That being herself of course.

        She was rudely interrupted from the glow of her contemplations when a burly, broad-shouldered man with lank greasy hair came in. Rinnah scanned him taking in the muscle tension, eye movements and the smell of elevated hormones and chemicals in his body. Immediately she knew what was going down. Although the young man with his mop of curls was still clueless, but he wouldn‘t be for long.

        Turning his attention to the newcomer he asked, “Can I help you sir?”

        “Yeah.” And the man pulled out a small handgun that looked like a toy in his large hand. Small, but still capable of inflicting damage or killing someone.

        Oh no. Not her little slice of heaven! No way was she going to let it be sullied and violated like this, especially since she had just found it. Rinnah rolled her eyes upward and under her breath asked, “Did I do something to piss you off?”

        “Empty all the double dollars into this, kid.” He tossed a small bag on the counter and stabbed Rinnah with a quick assessing stare and then dismissed her as inconsequential. The blood drained out of the young man’s face. Even his curls seemed to droop.

        “Excuse me sir.”

        The greasy-haired, greasy-eyed man whipped around toward the lone female customer to find that she had disappeared. He felt a feather light touch on his hand but whatever had caused it was gone by the time he looked down. Then the pain erupted up along the nerves of his hand and he howled, clutching his hurt hand to his chest. The gun was gone but his hand felt as if it had been skewered with a hot piercing needle.

        “Your piece is disturbing my peace. It’s gonna have to be confiscated.” Not her best pun she thought with a wry grin, but it got the message across.

        Growling, the would-be robber jumped for her only to find the female gone. Bewildered, he stared around. He blinked and found that she had reappeared next to him on the other side. What kind of trick was this? Spinning, he leaped again, reaching for... Only to find himself grabbing at empty air. He felt a tap on his shoulder and turning was cold-cocked with the butt of his own gun, hard. Eyes rolling up in his head he slumped to the floor like a dropped bag of flour.

        The young man peered over the counter at the unconscious, thwarted robber and breathed out an impressed, “Wow!” Then reaching for an instant communication device called for assistance from the local law enforcement agency. She was pleased as she listened to him give the report for in his excited delivery the boy forgot to mention his other customer’s participation. That was fine by her. She planned to leave before they arrived anyway.

        “Lady! That was great!” The young man exclaimed animatedly bringing her wandering attention back to him. “I’m gonna tell my grandfolks about this! You come tomorrow morning and your breakfast and any friends is on the house!”

        He dropped his eyes to the greasy-haired man. “Gee. He’s down for the count. You’re two suns up lady!” He grinned at her. Rinnah doubted the man would wake up any time soon and said so. She was itching to leave before the peace enforcers arrived. She returned his smile with one of her own in thanks. Life was good. She turned to leave.

        “Hey wait, what name do you want to leave so I can let the morning staff know?”

        She threw a mischievous look over her shoulder as she opened up the door, “Ringing Cry.”

        He made a face at that but shrugged. Grown ups. Go figure.
Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 3
Back to Chapter 1

Email Susan