I lovingly dedicate this chapter to the memory of my father.
He taught me the love of a good book, a well-told story, and that every person has a story within.
Rinnah paused mid-step before carefully placing her foot down lightly and with care. The instant rush of adrenaline was already speeding through her bloodstream. However, in that split second before one toe touched the floor, the half-breed took in the fact that the newcomer’s stance was not a threatening one. Even so, she didn’t drop her guard, reminding herself that large surprises were known to come in small packages.
The hybrid was not in a good mood and being caught red-handed trying to make off with a valuable commodity did not exactly give her a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Rinnah was sure the stranger was younger than she was although it was hard to tell with plants, which she could whiff even from where she was. What she berated herself for was not paying attention to the new scent instead of just assuming it was Ember’s she smelled. The fact that the girl was fully plantkind made it more of a challenge to guess her age. The hybrid took another sniff. Oh no, there’s not a soul who can sneak up on me with my wonderfully keen sense of smell to alert me to their presence. Right. She snorted in disgust at herself as she noted that the odor was identical to the female plant beside her.
The hybrid looked over the new plant arrival thinking there were one too many plants in the room. The plant girl stared back up at her as she waited at the bottom of the steps wearing a smirk that would have brought tears of pride the arrogant dictators of the past.
Rinnah cocked her head, studying the unknown female up and down for the possibility of any hidden weapons while wondering about the obvious. Who was she and what was she doing here? Beyond that, the half-breed didn’t care what the girl wanted. She decided to go on the offensive, if she was lucky she would learn something essential. If she wasn‘t lucky, she might, at least, have some fun.
“What, don’t tell me I’m double-parked again! Damnit that’s three times this month! If this keeps happening, I’ll have to start taking the bus. Write me up a ticket and let’s call it good. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
The newly freed plant angel looked up at her first words and while surprise registered on her face Rinnah didn’t sense any fear coming from her when she noticed the intruder below them. Instead, a small sound of acknowledgment issued from her between her lips as she continued to stare at the female.
Taking notice of it but deciding it could wait until later, she said, “I thought I told the waiter I only wanted a table for two. No horning in on a party already in progress!”
She and the angel took the last few steps to close the gap between them and the top of the stairs. The hybrid knew it was a tactical advantage to be staring down at the girl but noticed the newcomer didn’t seem intimidated by the little ploy in the least.
Despite the offhand remarks, every muscle in Rinnah’s body tightened while her knees bent in a slight crouch, ready to jump the girl if need be. She hoped ‘need be’ wouldn‘t be called for as she was really tired tonight and only wanted to go to bed when this whole thing was over. In fact, she was wishing the whole thing were over with right now. Besides, this was just the kind of wrinkle in the plan she was hoping to avoid. No such luck of course, and why not, luck favored those lucky enough to be blessed with abundant amounts of luck. Oh, I got luck all right, piss-poor luck.
Her eyes roved over the girl’s slender body, taking in the old-fashioned ship’s suit, a style that had died out long before Rinnah’s birth. Underneath it, and not able to hide it, was a figure that still retained the coltish, gangly look of a girl on the verge of womanhood. What arrested her attention and set her teeth on edge were the eyes watching Rinnah with sardonic amusement. Her dark eyes were the color of purple shadow at twilight, yet with a flash of silver shining out of them. They bounced over to the plant angel before coming to rest on Rinnah again.
Rinnah’s eyebrows shot up. Confident little twerp. Reminds me of me. She returned the look with a frosty one of her own. I really hate that.
The two females locked challenging gazes; neither willing to break the moment as the clash of wills grew taut between them.
However, stepping into the mounting tension as if it didn‘t exist, the extracted angel chose that moment to speak.
“Smallest!” She exclaimed in amazement.
The girl actually rolled her eyes and Rinnah revised her opinion of the girl’s age downward even though she, herself, was known to employ the dreaded Eye-roll of Contempt on occasion. I, of course, use it sparingly for the purpose of fighting evil... and stupidity, allowed Rinnah virtuously, even my own. She watched the girl’s eyes return to their original position and with an indifferent shrug of a shoulder turned back to look at the hybrid.
A wave of emotional language snapped from the freed plant angel at the girl before them. The hybrid cracked a smile. If forced to interpret the unsaid feeling into human speech, it would translate as ‘Don’t roll your eyes at me young lady!’
With dignity not even slightly dented, the Smallest turned her attention back to the half-breed. Her lips stretched into a smile without a hint of warmth or friendliness. Now it was Rinnah’s turn to roll her eyes. The family resemblance runs ego deep, I see. Lucky me.
“I want to know what you are going to do with my... aunt.” The pause was a deliberate attempt to show that human speech was inferior for communicating all but the simplest of concepts. Oh yeah, she’s related to Knives. I’d bet money I don‘t have on that. Such a joy to meet the rest of the family... ‘and this little tyke must be Knives Jr.’ What a pleasure to become acquainted with all the relatives!
She stared down into calculating eyes before reaching up to knuckle one of her own. I’m too tired to deal with Little Miss Attitude tonight. “Listen honey, I’m beat, and by the way, shouldn‘t you be in bed?”
“What say you?” Queried a puzzled Ember.
Addressing her charge, Rinnah answered, “Pay no attention to me, I am getting those late night giddy attacks so if I am making no sense, then I am par for the course.”
Rinnah sighed, “You’ll get used to it, I promise.” Then looking down at the girl who had yet to say anything. “So what about it Punkin, another time perhaps?”
“No. This time, now.”
The half-breed shrugged. So be it. Still, and here she narrowed her eyes looking the girl over again, the stranger wasn’t acting like she wanted to fight.
“What are you planning to do?” The girl tilted her face up even further so she could look down her nose at the black-haired woman at the top of the stairs.
Rinnah couldn’t help but chuckle. Darn, they are so cute when they are at this age being so superior, condescending, and flaring up with the nose raised like that. It just made her want to ruffle the young one’s hair, but she was pretty sure that would only aggravate the child more.
“Let‘s see, this is what‘s on my To Do List so listen carefully because I am only going to say this once.” She paused a second before going on, knowing she had the other‘s interest. “I’m planning on sleeping, then wake up and make the strongest, most lethal cup of coffee known to man, and after that spend the rest of the day lounging in a hammock grumbling about the exertion it takes to sweat. So, what’s it to you kid?”
Unexpectedly Rinnah felt a mental push. Startled, with a sharp glance she narrowed her eyes at the Smallest. Then it happened again, that push of a strong-willed personality testing and weighing her. The little thing didn’t know that what she was pushing on was the link between the plant angel and the hybrid. She was totally missing Rinnah who wasn’t bothering to push back. It was like having a cat entwining around one’s shins. Cute, easy to trip over if one wasn’t cautious, but no fatal damage would be sustained from the contact. With a grin the hybrid gave her a half-lidded look of disinterest. That’ll piss her off.
“*Freenah saved me!*” The plant angel boldly announced across the family link the two shared.
Rinnah, hearing the echoes of it, blinked in surprise. Freenah? Now where did that come from?
The girl just gave her aunt an insolent look before turning back to the hybrid.
“Well?” Demanded the girl.
“Well what?” Rinnah could be insolent too since it certainly didn’t require a fancy degree when one had an innate talent for it carefully cultivated over the years.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Say it.” Instructed Rinnah with a grin starting to curl on her lips.
“Say the magic word.”
Confusion settled on the newcomer’s face as she tried to figure the out what the hybrid was asking.
“What... magic word?”
“No room in your world for a little magic eh? Pity.”
“There is no such thing as magic.”
“You poor thing. Standing there so full of yourself and still empty as a shiner’s still on Saturday night.” With a sad shake of her head Rinnah added, “Sad state of affairs.”
“You know nothing!” Those shadow-purple eyes flashed in anger.
Whoo hoo! Rinnah mentally gave herself a high-five. It was working. She hadn’t expected it to, but it was.
“I know the magic word but apparently, you don’t.” She said in a singsong voice sure to evoke a response.
“There is no magic word!” Persisted the dark-haired girl, hands balled into fists at her side.
“Yes there is. It’s a human word... maybe that’s why you don’t know it.”
“Human! I find their words to be nonsensical sounds desperately trying to the imitate true superior speech of...”
“Geez kid, save for the campaign trail, I’m not interested!”
“Humans are selfish, prideful creatures who...” She was so angry she was sputtering.
“Now there’s the sun calling the star a mass of fiery gas.” Interrupted Rinnah with a mischievous sparkle in her opalescent blue eyes.
“Whhaaaa?” The girl gaped at her. It was truly a rewarding sight.
The hybrid’s night was taking a turn for the better. Fun was the spice of life, really. Right then, the spice was flowing without constraint as she watched the girl try to shift the meaning out of that comment.
Shrugging off the black-haired woman’s remark as inconsequential and mere human chatter as the meaningless dribble as that entire imperfect race engaged in, she hissed out, “Tell me what you are going to do!” The dark-haired girl known as Smallest insisted.
“I already did.”
“That was nonsense.”
“There you have it. I’m a failure at serious, a chaser of the elusive fancy of flippancy, a dedicated seeker of the fantastic quip and a lover of miscellaneous babble.” She gave a little nod of the head.
The plant angel stared at Rinnah as she had been doing during the whole conversation. Hope she’s taking notes we may be quizzed on this later.
“You must be mentally defective for one of your kind.” Concluded the young female with firm certainty of one with the complete self-assurance that they knew more than anyone else.
“This isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last time where I will be accused of that.” She graced the girl with a smile. My kind! As if I have a kind!
“There are many of you, but few of us, but we are already at the top! You just do not know it yet.”
Says the ever-wise child. Rinnah pursed her lips as she studied the fuming female plant. She needs to run smack dab into a few solid walls called ‘life‘ a few times before she gets interesting.
“Maybe so, little britches, but you are still standing there not getting what you want and I am here losing patience.“ As if to take the sting out of her words, Rinnah gave her a wry half-smile.
Backpedaling to the previous request she blurted out, “What is the magic word?”
Now she asks, thought Rinnah with a pang of disappointment. Darn! I was going to try and break the old record for how long I can keep a sentient being in a high state of frustration.
“Please.” Rinnah said with a twinkle in her eye and a grin.
“Please yourself!” Rinnah burst out laughing, bending slightly at the waist at her quip dragging the angel beside a step or two forward before straightening. Her humor was definitely being twisted by sleep-deprivation.
Taking pity on the girl she explained slowly, “The magic word is ‘please’. The girl stared back at her unbelieving. The angel’s gaze was on her as if glued in place.
“What?!” Sputtered the girl.
“Know you strange.” Remarked the plant angel. Both comments were spoken simultaneously.
“Everyone’s a critic.” Grumped Rinnah, the little morsel of energy she had now depleted leaving her grumpy and more tired than when she had first started.
“Well ladies, as much fun as this little tea party has been, I got a hot date with a plump pillow.”
“You may not leave.” Retorted the girl.
Rinnah’s monthly quota of patience was evaporating at a high rate of speed. Breathing in a deep calming breath she bared her teeth at the younger female.
“Listen, Junior, there are two facts you are going to have to deal with here, one is that I’m tired. The other is, I’m leaving. Choke on it.”
She tugged at Ember beside her and they started down the stairs, albeit slowly and with great care. It turned out descending was not as difficult as she thought it was going to be. The freed angel was not intimidated by the descent at all but placed her feet on each step firmly and gracefully.
When they were halfway down, Rinnah said, “If you want to ask me something, I would suggest you do it now while I am still here. Otherwise you are going to be standing here all by your little ole lonesome self, staring at an empty globe.”
Just then Rinnah’s head popped up and she came to an abrupt halt. She thought she had heard something, just a whisper of a sound really, but one that didn’t belong in this place.
Scanning the shadows to the back of the room she tried to pierce the darkness even as she tilted her head listening for any little noise that sounded out of the ordinary. There was someone back there and her hackles rose at the thought there was yet another visitor to worry about. Party-crashers! It was only an insignificant rustle of cloth, but she had heard it. Staring into the dark corners it was hard to tell if she was seeing any forms or if it was just her imagination trying to fill in the blanks. Out of the corner of her eye she caught the Smallest signaling in that direction with a brief motion of her hand.
“What, got mop-up troops waiting to rush in?” Rinnah gritted out. She wondered if she was going to have to fight a whole squad of goons and she really wasn’t in the mood to work up a sweat dancing about the joint with lethal partners stomping on her toes while doing their best to kill her.
“No, just my bodyguard.” The girl’s attention turned back to the hybrid, already dismissing the guardian in the shadows.
She needs one. The desire to punch the creature was at an all time high...
“I will ask my question now and you will answer.”
... But getting stronger with each passing second.
“I thought you would never ask!” Teeth still bared at the girl who was either too young to understand the danger she was flirting with or just too arrogant to care.
Ignoring Rinnah’s flippant attitude she asked “Who are you? Are you the one who removed my other... aunt? And what have you done with my kindred?”
“Okay, that was more than just one question but I’ll play fair even if someone else isn‘t going to.”
She continued down the stairs until they reached the bottom and took the couple of steps closer to the girl. They were eye to eye with each other and both peered at the other with intent, searching gazes.
“So you watched the whole time?”
“I set tethered angels free who want to be free. That’s what I do. That’s why I am here.”
“Are you going to destroy Knives?”
Rinnah’s eyebrows shot up.
“No, but when I get the chance I am going to kick his can all over the desert. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Smallest is our future.” Inserted the freed angel, looking back and forth between the two.
“Some future.” The ‘Smallest’ straightened and smiled as she received the praise. I am going to be sick to my stomach. Insufferable plants, the whole freaking lot of them.
“I do not care what you do to him as long as you do not kill him. It would devastate Mother.” Explained the plant girl with a flip of her head that sent her dark hair flying.
The hybrid‘s brows rose even higher. This was a development she hadn’t foreseen. Okay, deal with that later, there are more pressing issues right at the moment.
“So, that’s it then?”
“Yes. I will leave now.” With that the girl turned to leave.
“Hey wait, what’s your name? I can’t keep thinking of you as Knives Jr. It‘s just so wrong.”
The girl looked back with shock showing on her face. “Tessla. I am named Tessla.”
“Mine’s Rinnah Blackfire. Pleased to meet you.” She responded automatically and then could have bit her tongue. Plants did not understand polite manners, Rinnah was sure it would be wasted on the girl.
“Yes, it is.” She turned back around and headed for the shadows at the rear of the building. Rinnah watched until Tessla was swallowed up by darkness and heard the opening of a door and then shut with a click.
“You’re a fine weird lot aren’t you?” Said the black-haired hybrid to the plant angel not expecting an answer.
“We, yes wonderful are.”
Rinnah wondered if Ember deliberately misunderstood her that time.
She pointed them to where the coats were waiting before remarking, “That’s quite some little niece you have there.”
“*She was born and raised to exterminate humans.*” Obviously she didn’t want to take a chance on her rescuer misunderstanding her.
“She needs a new hobby because that’s simply not going to happen.” Rinnah replied firmly and with utter conviction.
Slit feral eyes watched as the black-haired woman helped the newly freed angel into a coat, crammed a nondescript hat down over her white hair and together exited the building into the fury of the storm.
He snorted in disgust at their stupidity even as he churned inside with shock and awe. They would be back soon or they would be dead. He had seen this kind of storm before, not the worst one he had lived survived but still, it wasn’t safe to travel around town in this kind of weather. Either way it didn’t matter to him. He had a secret route to an escape tunnel leading out to a series of hidden caves in the cliffs. He would hole up there until the storm passed over.
But still... in his mind he replayed the whole event again, watching it unfold in front of his eyes and even now he was having difficulty in believing what he had just witnessed. When the angel came through the glass as easily as if passing through a thick curtain his mouth had dropped open with shock. Incredible! He shivered with the aftershock, unable to believe what he had observed. He didn’t know of anyone who could do what that black-hair had just done. It was mind-boggling. Then to stroll unceremoniously out the front door with a plant angel, a plant angel, as casually as if coming by to pick up a friend to head out to get their nails done.... It was unheard of. This was a history-making first. This was monumental. This could get him killed.
He shut his eyes as he digested the thought that Tessla may want to make sure she was the only one with this information. In that case it was in her best interest to have a tight control so that it didn’t get bandied about until she was ready to share what they had both seen this night. Yes, his life was hanging by a thread. Especially since he was given the assignment to be her bodyguard on this mission.
He was about to move to rejoin the female Plant when he felt the cold, hard circle of a gun tip nudge a spot just behind his left ear. He froze except to slowly raise his hands in the air. He heard the familiar metallic sound of a gun being cocked and felt his heart begin to race.
How had this happened? No one, but no one was able to sneak up behind him, not in a very long time. Who was it? He couldn’t hear any movements, rustling of garments, or breathing behind him to give him any clues. He clenched his teeth in rage and felt the frenzied fury of the ‘other’, the beast within, beating and snarling, throwing himself at the constricting bars holding him prisoner deep inside. The ‘other’ wouldn’t be allowed the upper hand until this mission was over and the computer chip implanted into his skin was removed. The Plant was quite clear about that. The Young Plant’s safety was too important to risk to the psychotic ravages known as Razlo.
A calm voice spoke one that filled him with quiet foreboding. Composed and cool yet Levio sensed the barely restrained menace and threat behind the words.
“You get one chance. What are you doing here and make it good or I will kill you Levio, or is it Razlo tonight?”
A smile without warmth slashed across his face. He knew who it was. In some townships he was being called Black Vash or Dark Vash. There was even talk of placing a new bounty on this entity. No one was sure if it was the old Vash the Stampede or a copycat with a twist, not that they really cared. People only worried whether this mysterious new Black Vash would come to their town or not, praying he wouldn’t. Levio thought quickly, weighing his dwindling options until he felt the hard tip of the infamous silver gun dig into his skin.
“Greetings Black Vash.” He managed in a calm voice even though his muscles quivered for action.
With a growl Vash warned, “Careful, your life is in the balance here.”
Levio agreed. Like being caught between a rock and a hard place, if it wasn’t one brother, it was the other.
Rinnah grabbed Ember and shoved the angel between her body and the wall. She was panting heavily now from a combination of emotional fallout from the freed angel, the day’s events, and now all the physical activity. Who needed aerobics? What she needed right now was a big box of glazed donuts, with sprinkles, with a side order of donut holes and a honking big mug of coffee, cream and sugar to quaff it all down. She squeezed her eyes shut as a rain of abrasive sand hit her face and the short-lived dream faded quickly away under the assault of the storm.
The stinging sand peppered them, battering and assaulting them relentlessly. The skin exposed to it was being abraded and ripped by the slashing wind. She pulled the angel down and bent over her trying to protect her even as the Rinnah turned her back to the storm taking the brunt of the fury. This was the last straw; she was not going to build a summer home here.
Ember ‘pathed a frantic question across the link, “*Is it always like this?*”
Rinnah shouted back, “No. Sometimes it’s worse.” Then wondered why she hadn’t just ‘pathed her along the link instead of trying to bellow over the wind. Besides now she had sand grit in her mouth. She bent her head and tried to spit it out.
“*Worse!*” Came the horrified response and the angel quailed next to her and stumbled. She would have fallen to her knees except Rinnah caught her with a supporting arm before she fell.
“*It’s been better too.*”
“*I would like to see this better.*”
“*You and me both angel face!*”
The hybrid could feel the angel starting to panic under her and wrapped her arms around the freed angel in comfort. “*We have to get back or we are going to get lost. I can’t navigate in this.” She pulled the angel close to her and keeping her by the wall, she tried to shield the frightened plant the best she could. Slowly, step by step, she guided her back the way they had come.
They had only gone half a block. On a clear day she could have circled the town in the same amount of time that it took them to reach this first corner. Lifting an arm to screen her face, Rinnah tried to figure out exactly where they were but all she could see was the brick wall next to them of the bank that was located next to the plant facility building. That was good. At least they weren’t totally lost. She was feeling pretty confident about them being able to get back without incident since it was a straight shot down the sidewalk. Now, if she could make out the steps when they reached them.
“It is a pleasure to meet you Black Vash.”
A grunt of acknowledgment came from behind him.
He didn’t allow it to show but Vash was a little surprised at the new nickname. He reached up and pushed Wolfwood’s glasses up his nose. He still wasn’t used to them and they had a habit of sliding down his nose to perch at the end.
“Answer the question.” Vash stated in a cold voice.
“I am the child’s bodyguard. I was watching to make sure the black-hair didn’t harm or follow my charge before I left.” He tried to look turn his head a fraction of an inch but the tip moved to Levio’s temple, biting the skin there.
“Well, since you’re the one doing the talking instead of the other one trying to go on a slaughter spree it is obvious which one of you is doing the talking.” Vash said in a reasonable voice, which worried Levio more than the menacing one of earlier. Then in an action that caught him totally by surprise, he felt Vash lower his long colt, yet he noted, the gunslinger still kept it at his side as he warily eyed the killer in front of him.
Head down so that the hair fell over and covered the side of his face with the skull mask, Levio informed the legendary gunslinger, “It is time for me to leave. Your own charge is of no interest to me.” He was playing loose with the truth, but instinct told him he needed to be very cautious concerning this matter.
Vash could hear the untruth and said so, “”Now you are lying,” and his hand tightened on the grip of his gun ready to level it at the man who carried around his own demented twin inside of himself.
Levio shrugged believing he was going to die soon and admitted, “Yes, you are right. I was curious about her.” He turned his face slightly to look at the notorious outlaw out of the corner of his eye, but still careful to keep as much of that side of his face covered as possible from the eyes of the Black Vash. “I wonder if she is as strong as he is...”
Vash felt fury rising and knew his eyes were blazing, but held it in an iron grip as he saw the eye peering at him from the lowered head and tensed, ready for battle if that is what this was leading to.
“... Because you couldn’t defeat him.” Levio stated truthfully, wondering if that remark would get him killed or if he would be allowed to live another day.
“The outlaw’s frown deepened, “I won’t fail again.”
Levio shot a look at the front door and even before his gaze returned he felt the tip of the gun pressing into his temple again.
“Don’t even think about it. She’s off-limits, understand me?” It was said softly but the danger lurking there was easier to hear than if it were shouted to the rafters. It wasn’t a question so much as an ultimatum.
Carefully and slowly Levio nodded his assent. He wasn’t free to follow up on this turn of events anyway. He had a duty to fulfill and he couldn’t do it if he were dead. That would only piss Knives off. Even death was no an excuse for a failed mission.
Vash stepped back a pace and lowered his gun. He wasn’t worried about being jumped. He was six times faster than a human and could easily have his colt raised and trigger pulled before the demon-infested man in front of him could turn. He didn’t want to admit it, but Vash felt a certain pity for this man with two personalities living within him. At one point when the men were alone, Wolfwood had told Vash about his fellow Gung Ho Guns.
He studied the side of the killer’s head, slightly bowed so that the hair fell over his face as if not wanting to show his face to the outlaw. This was a twisted being standing in front of him with a human half and a crazed, mindless murderer that usurped the body and rampaged through the night hours. One being was Levio and the other, the cold-blooded murderer, Razlo. Vash didn’t know his whole story or where this Razlo beast came from, but out of anyone he had ever met in his long life, this one was as even more tormented and conflicted than he was. He really wanted Levio to walk away from this confrontation and was willing to give him the chance. Maybe someday Levio would find a way to put Razlo to rest and be free to inhabit his body without a second entity making his life a living hell. Maybe. Vash decided to give him the chance to fill in his own blank ticket.
“It‘s up to you Levio, make the right choice and you can walk away from this.”
He watched the two-entity man closely, he was no fool, and it would be the height of foolhardiness to become lax and give the killer a chance to retaliate.
Vash gestured with his left arm, indicating that Levio was free to go. As he took his first steps away, hesitant as if he were expecting to be shot in the back any moment, Levio turned his head and Vash caught sight of a metallic glint on the back of the man’s neck he had overlooked earlier.
The gunman was right to think that it was rare for Levio to be in the ascendancy position during the night hours. That reflected glint of light on his neck looked like a computer chip pasted or implanted into his skin. Vash wondered if that had anything to do with the fact that it was Levio doing the talking and not the rabidly insane Razlo on a killing binge. It made sense; Knives would need Levio to be in charge if he was going to provide protection for the female that he had seen leaving. Razlo would be worse than useless in this situation.
“Levio, one last warning...” Vash’s voice cut through the dark reaching Levio’s ear as he paused at the door. He didn’t bother to turn and look at the gunman.
“What?” He asked.
“Don’t go near her or any of my friends. You will not find me forgiving if you do.”
Levio gave a quick nod of understanding and pushed through the door. He was thinking he was already lucky for getting the chance to walk away. The Brother wasn’t spouting empty words, he could feel it all the way down to his divided heart and twisted soul.
Vash reached up and removed the sunglasses. Folding the arms he tucked them into a side pocket before closing his eyes. Raising his arm, he laid the barrel of the custom-made colt alongside his face, feeling the cool metal against his skin. Without looking he knew the light from one of the moons was dancing along the barrel. He let his senses expand outwards, searching for any more dangerous elements. The only one he felt was the fading presence of Levio.
Then he felt her; she was close and getting closer. If he weren’t so angry with her he would have grinned. And not only was she returning, but she also had someone with her... Vash frowned in puzzlement. There was a feeling he should know this presence. Maybe it was another telepath. A flash of alarm went through the outlaw as the thought that it could be someone like Legato or with abilities like his. What had that fool woman gone and gotten herself into now? He swore vehemently. She needed a keeper, a babysitter or to have her feet glued in one place. Something to keep her from her nocturnal wanderings that were making his hair turn white, if it weren’t white already. With a grim half-smile he even allowed himself the luxury of contemplating a tracking device of some sort and wondered how easy it would be make one. Or maybe a gun with tranquilizers darts....
Vash turned toward the doors just as they were pushed open by the very female he was contemplating shooting a homing dart at. She came through half-carrying another female with her.
The outlaw’s lips turned down. What the hell was she up to now? Who was this new friend who, he noted with interest, was wearing Milly’s coat. Vash would just bet that Milly didn’t know where her coat was or who was in it. Not that she would be upset.
He heard them murmuring together and watched as the hybrid, with her back leaning against the doors, slid wearily down to the floor. Vash started walking in their direction, his long legs striding over the area quickly closing the distance between them.
Once they had climbed the outside stairs pushed through the entrance and were inside, Rinnah leaned against the doors trying to catch her breath and cough out the dust she had sucked in. Ember was on her hands and knees coughing. The half-breed wished she had thought to bring masks to filter out the dust. She felt like she had inhaled a whole sand dune while out there. She would probably be hacking up sand balls for weeks after this.
In a despairing mental voice the angel ‘pathed a question.
“No,” said Rinnah wearily, running a slender hand through her hair shaking the sand out of it, “This is not the way it usually is. Believe me, all the smart humans are holed up safe and sound in their homes until this blows over. And no, I am not totally human so I only have to pretend to be half-smart. Apparently I’m the only idiot wandering around in this.” She gestured back the way they had come. “I guess we will just have to wait it out before we can leave.”
She slid down until she was seated on the cold, hard floor with knees bent in front of her, propping a forearm on one knee as she continued to fluff her hair with the other hand. The way things were shaping up the comfy pillow she had a hot date with was going to get stood up. Rinnah hoped it could stand the rejection.
The plant angel didn’t respond but appeared uneasy at the prospect of spending any amount of time in the place of her former prison. Rinnah couldn’t blame her but the weather wasn’t being the least bit cooperative.
Ember looked at Rinnah and then around the room. Suppressing a shiver she came over and sat next to her rescuer.
Rinnah squinted at her out of one eye and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Me are that okay.” Even battered by the wind and sand, the plant angel was able to communicate her pride at being able to speak ‘human’. Then remembering a gesture the humans used, she nodded her head up and down with vigor.
“Yeah, me that okay too.” Replied Rinnah tiredly but smiled at her charge’s bobbing head.
“WHAT ARE YOU UP TO NOW!”
Ember let out a small scream and visibly flinched while Rinnah felt one of her nine lives give up the ghost as in a bare fraction of breath she was on her feet and jumped between the owner of that familiar sounding bellow and the plant angel. In a blurring motion the hybrid had her six-shooter up and left arm leveled in the direction of the voice.
“I’ve been looking for you!”
The voice was cold and clipped with anger. She relaxed and slid her gun back into the holster. It was always so pleasant to be greeted so cheerfully at the end of a hard day's work.
“You‘re awake!” Always state the obvious and make it sound like an accusation. She glared daggers at him with hands on her hips hoping he couldn't tell she was just covering her unease at being caught red-handed, yet again, Then it occurred to her why it might not be a very effective dodge against him when his snapping red eyes blazed into hers. Oh crap! She thought back to earlier in the evening when he had used that creepy ability to freeze her in place.
Immediately looking away, she removed her hat and slapped it a few times against her thigh giving her time to collect her wits. Also, he couldn’t freeze her with that glare if she wasn’t looking at him. At least the guess was that it might work that way. She was beginning to think of it as the Predator Bird of Prey glare. Nope, not going to give him the chance to pin her in place with the PBP again. Satisfied the dust was off and hat was as clean as it was capable of getting, she returned the hat to her head and was ready to meet his eyes again. I look good in a hat, I should wear them more often, she thought to herself with satisfied grin. Then she looked up at Vash’s scowling face and felt the grin droop. What a killjoy.
“I’m a little busy right now. Why don’t you take a number and I’ll get back to you.”
Vash stepped out of the shadows that blended so well with his black coat that it was hard to tell where he ended and they began. So much so that it appeared the shadows were clinging to him, reluctant to release him to faint glow of what little light allowed in through the windows set high in the walls.
As silvery light waged war with hovering shadows, only Vash was the victor as he crossed over patches of shadow on the floor and the alternating sections of light. Neither could claim him as belonging to them. His form blended with shadow and then flared up, illuminated with moon fire, but he was of neither as he passed through them both.
Rinnah frowned in annoyance at the effect he was having on her. Vash halted before her and glared down into her eyes and she could feel the build up shift this time as he began using that paralyzing predator look on her. First the metal arm and now this I am so flipping lucky I could bite myself!
Vash reached out and took her shoulders, his fingers gripping hard enough to leave dents in the thick material of her duster. He then gave her a shake that rattled her teeth and caused her hat to fly off her head and roll a few feet away.
“God help me but you are the most aggravating, troublesome, and infuriating female I have had the misfortune to run across in decades. Why you thought you had to come out in this,” and at that he glanced up to the windows before glaring at her again, “I can’t even begin to guess but I bet you think you have a damn good reason for it.”
Holding up a finger, she managed to croak out of a dry throat, “Library fines. I’m scared to death of being caught by the library cops.”
That only earned her another shake as he hissed out between his teeth, “Be serious! I can‘t... “
“*Brother VASH!*” A joy-filled thought ripped through his awareness causing him to freeze mid-shake for which Rinnah was grateful. The headache of earlier was returning with a screaming vengeance.
Vash’s head whipped around faster than a gunshot to look at the other person present and struggling to rise to her feet. His mouth dropped open and his hands numbly fell from the hybrid’s shoulders as he saw the evidence of this night’s work standing before him and smiling. This, he gasped and choked; this was what she has been up to! How...? When...? How!
Rinnah gasped and jumped to the side in order not to be trampled as Ember launched herself at Vash in a bounding run. Unused to running, she would have gone down except that Vash took several steps forward and gracefully caught her before she landed on her nose. He peered intently into her face as he gently placed her on her feet and held her until her sense of balance was restored.
Feeling the need to rest the hybrid moved over to the wall and slid down to the floor while watching brother and sister greet each other in a way that was impossible before this. I don’t care what anyone says, I done good.
Impossibly huge eyes without pupil or iris looked up into Vash’s crimson ones adoringly. For all of them to hear she ‘pathed to Rinnah and in the process opened up a connection between herself and Vash. In an equivalent to a shout she ‘pathed, “*Brother Vash! I am like you now! I am alone in my mind and see, I am alone outside too!*” She spread her arms out wide to prove there were no attachments connected to her.
For his part, Vash was stunned, no, more than stunned. A sibling outside her bulb! Correction. A sibling outside her bulb and surviving. He looked her over. He couldn’t see any marks on her and she looked healthy too. What was amazing though was her speaking to him mentally and also, here he could tell for mindspeak could hide no lie, she bore him no ill will like his other relatives did. Instead, he felt wave after wave of happiness and delight blazing from her. Already she had learned to smile and graced him with great beaming show of teeth. She let him know that Knives might be the favorite brother of the majority of the sisters, but Vash was her favorite from the very beginning.
“*My brother, my little Vash, my free-walking angel brother! Is this not fun little one?*” She grabbed hold of his hands and bounced in a circle around him. He turned in place with her; unable to take his eyes off her face, drinking in the sight of the reality that one of his sisters was free and bounding around him like a child.
Vash blinked. Little one? That was an affectionate nickname from the distant past long before the ‘Stampede’ name. It had been a good long time since he had been called that. On it’s own accord his face split in a grin. A long time indeed, but it was good to hear anyway even after all these years. With tears stinging his eyes he went to embrace his sister.
Feeling his intent, his plant sister responded and flung herself at her free-walking brother while wrapping her arms around his frame to hug him fiercely. Oh this wonderful feeling of touch. Lucky, fortunate blessed humans to be allowed this ability. Did they realize what an incredible gift this was to be able to reach out and touch another being?
“*Freenah, Freenah! I am touching my brother!*” Ember called out excitedly with a mind shout that made Rinnah wince.
Wearily the hybrid replied, “Rinnah. My name’s Rinnah, okay? I’d give you my card but I left it in my ship, which is scattered to kingdom come in little, tiny pieces about so big...” Rinnah held up a finger and thumb to demonstrate the size. Suddenly she was feeling more than a little depressed.
Vash snapped out of his joyous shock at seeing his sister on this side of the glass. He held her back a pace to get a good look at her. He tried to think the equivalent of her identity in the family link, a name without words, but she interrupted him.
“*No Brother,*” She proudly announced, “*I have a name. I am Ember.*”
“Who gave you this name?” Demanded Vash and then in stunned amazement turned to the half-breed. Oh he knew. It had to be her, especially as she was rolling her eyes up at the ceiling and whistling tunelessly through puckered lips.
Rinnah could feel the weight of his stare on her. Oh boy, deep kimshi.
Instead of yelling at her he smiled down at his sister and gently asked “Do you like it?”
His sister was practically vibrating with excitement.
“*Yes, it is very pretty, like me.*” He chuckled at her answer. “*Freenah named me.*”
“Rinnn-nah! As in ‘wren‘, and then flipping ‘Nah‘! Geez it’s not that hard of a name to remember! And you be careful, you could still be called Hortense!” Warned Rinnah who lowered her throbbing head between her hands. Does anyone have any aspirin on them?
“She named you did she?” Murmured Vash.
Uh oh, here it comes, thought Rinnah as she tensed readying for a verbal explosion.
Across the private bond they shared came, “*So you felt the need to label my sister?*”
Rinnah didn’t look up, even speaking was a pain, “Because she is as irritating as you are and wouldn’t stop pestering me.”
He grinned down at the bowed head and ignored the remark until a thought struck him and he said in accusation, “This means that you are the one who freed the Little Carson City angel.”
‘Yep,” She looked up and grinned at him around the throbbing in her head. Hooking a thumb toward her chest, “That was yours truly.” Which ended in a groan as she dropped her head in her hands again. She didn’t remember getting a headache after freeing Twila.
Vash mused out loud not expecting a response; “they were both on Knives’ list to be absorbed you know.”
“I know, but they won’t be now.” Her eyes flared up briefly as she glanced up but just as quickly faded as she groaned again and clutched at her aching head.
The outlaw among humans and his own plant family, leaned down and placed a tender kiss on the top of his sister’s head. “I am so happy for you that you are free.” Then he pulled her into a tight embrace, which she returned with such fervor that he finally gasped out a breath. “Okay, you win the hugging contest.”
Ember released him and stepped back. Little tears were running down her cheeks. Feeling the tickle of their journey over her skin she reached up and wiped at them. Looking at the wetness sitting on the tips of her fingers she looked up to her brother. Confused, she held out her fingertips to Vash and asked, “*Vash brother, I am leaking water. What does this mean?*”
Vash chuckled as he wiped her cheeks with his thumbs. “Don’t worry Ember sister, you will be fine. They’re just tears, it means you are very happy or very sad.”
The plant sister stared back down at her fingers, entranced. Then she looked to where Rinnah sat head in hands. *”Freenah! Look, I am eye wetting up like a human!*”
“That’s just swell Ember, knock yourself out.” Mumbled Rinnah in a flat voice not bothering to look up.
Vash gave her a piercing look. She really was hurting. It dawned on Ember that Rinnah was not as excited for her as earlier and she tilted her head in concentration looking back into her rescuer through the link.
“Uh huh.” The hybrid didn’t move.
“*I will help you.*”
“Unless you have a family-size bottle of heavy-duty painkillers on you, I am not interested. And make that extra strength too.... Long lasting.... Cherry flavored.”
Ember walked slowly over to Rinnah and then floated down gracefully to her knees beside her rescuer. After a couple of seconds of watching Ember as she placed her hand on Rinnah’s head, the intrigued male plant walked over to join them. Curious, he observed Ember close her eyes. Neither female spoke or moved during this time.
The outlaw could feel the familiar ebb and flow of a plant’s energy field being employed, the surge at it build and receded only to climb to a more intense level. Sensing the change as it happened; Vash fixed his eyes in the air above their heads. Unseen motes were illuminated as they winked on and off under the influence of his sister’s fluxing energy output. Residual energy in them made them twinkle and glimmer above the women’s heads in an acrobatic dance. Little by little the air lightened over them as if the very air molecules were being charged and drained in rapid succession.
His gaze lingered over them, drinking in the dreamlike vision.
The outlaw did not notice time slipping by until, with a start, the freed angel leaned back on her heels with a deep sigh. Ember’s huge eyes were locked on the jet-colored strands flopping over the crossed arms propped up on bent knees.
Vash’s eyes bounced back and forth between the two females and wondered what was going on.
“Sister, what did you just do?” He inquired softly, hesitant to break the hush.
He took a step back closer and sank to one knee beside Rinnah who gave no sign of acknowledging his presence.
Vash stretched out an uncertain hand toward the hybrid’s shoulder but second-guessing himself, he halted, just shy of touching her. She was curled in on herself; it made his heart ache to see the picture she presented. Despite the very good chance of his touch being answered with a snarl, he cupped his hand around the top part of her arm. Upon feeling the touch she gave a slight twitch but didn’t say a word.
The touch made the bond that much stronger and he could sense the churning emotions thinly veiled by her usual surface of verbal slings ready to explode outward is someone came too close to restricted areas.
“I gave some given. She not do for a time of times this.” Ember paused, wondering if that made sense in the human speech that was their way of communicating. She wasn’t sure since time was an unknown equation to her yet. Vash nodded, easing her doubts as if he understood the meaning behind the fractured sentence.
“*Freenah is up-down all side in and....” She paused in though looking for a word, “making new out...”
“Oh great.” It was accompanied with a muffled curse from beneath the buried face. “Just one more damn thing to worry about! If it weren’t for this.... HEY!”
Rinnah’s head snapped up from her arms to stare wide-eyed at the plant angel. Catching him looking at her he saw something he never expected to see out of her, Rinnah Blackfire was flustered. She frowned at him hot with embarrassment and unused to the feeling. She ran her fingers through her hair on the side facing him so it hung over her face like a shiny ebony curtain.
Ember nodded eagerly. “*You are out of balance because of changes.*”
Rinnah dropped her head into her hands trying unsuccessfully to hide from the rush of coldness racing through her. What was she changing into? The pills were long gone and the bottle tossed away months ago. With a noise similar to a whimper she shut her eyes tight, trying to squeeze away the images of an insane, howling-at-the-moon, drooling half-breed. Rinnah had a very good imagination and the picture that shot across her mind was in sharp detail.
At the sound issued Vash’s brows met in the middle in a baffled frown. His hand was where he had first placed it to brush the back of his fingers across the portion of her cheek not covered by hair. It pained him to see her wince.
The angel ducked her head to the side trying to see her rescuer’s face. Unable to get a good look at Rinnah she asked, “Pain Freenah am you?”
“Yes,” came the reply, “But of another kind.... I knew it, I knew I was going to turn into a raving lunatic.”
“And that’s different... how?” A glimpse of a shimmering electric blue eye peered up at Vash with an eyebrow raised.
“Ha ha, aren’t you the humorous plant! But if you must know, the pills keeping me sane are gone and I can’t stop what’s going to happen.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “Whatever that is, even I don’t know.” Rinnah was desperately wishing she remembered exactly what it was that was said to her about her condition.
“Pills? What pills?” Vash demanded. Unseen by either woman his eyes took on the glow of burning coals. He didn’t like what he was hearing. “What are you talking about?”
She lifted her head up and waved a hand in a vague circle from a dangling wrist. “Doesn’t matter now,” she muttered hopelessly, “I’m doomed.”
“*No Freenah, the change is within....*”
Vash interrupted his sibling as if she hadn’t been speaking, “’No’ is right! Now tell me what the hell kind of pills you are talking about and no more evasions!” He seethed out.
That got her attention. She lifted her face to meet Vash’s glare, startled by the color of crimson come to life there.
“Now!” He hissed through clenched teeth. The last thing they needed now was more complications. As if a freed sister and obsessed brother weren’t enough, now this, whatever it was.
“It’s none of your....”
With a speed remarkable even for him, he grabbed a shoulder and whipped her around to face him fully. Two large, strong hands clamped down heavily on her shoulders and shook her.
“You odious creature, can’t you once, just once, give a straight answer!” He yelled into her face watching her squint her eyes shut at the force of his roar. Teeth rattled in her head making a sound like the clicking of dice being vigorously shaken.
When he was finished, she peeked out at him through one wary eyelid. With shoulders hunched as far as she could manage in his fierce grip, she surprised herself and him by saying “Okay then! Not that it matters now but the pills that kept me from turning into... And stop gripping me so tight, I’m telling you the truth!” She shouted at him.
“Go on. I’m listening.” He said, and loosened his fingers a tad but still keeping a firm grip to let her know she wasn‘t going to be able to talk or bluff her way out this time.
With less vehemence she concluded, “turning into some kind of... something.”
Vash let go and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose, gazing at her over his fingers. “All right then.” He said calmly and lowered his hand to grasp his chin as he thought. “I understand that part, but change into what?”
“Who the hell knows!” Rinnah exclaimed, throwing up her hands in frustration. “There is no textbook to reference because they were in the process of writing one while observing me. Me and also, others like me.” Something was nagging at the edges of her brain that she was forgetting something. Rubbing her temple that was so recently throbbing, she tried to chase the elusive and tantalizing crumb of memory but even as she reached for it, it vanished.
Without effort Vash rose to his feet pulling Rinnah up with him. He started to reach out a helping hand to his sister but saw she was already standing.
The outlaw turned back to the hybrid who, uncharacteristically, was looking like she had just lost a wrestling match with a sand steamer which had backed over her a few times for good measure. He was in over his head and knew it. The only thing to do was to return to the house before anyone noticed the two them were gone and got worried. He gave the room a swift scan. Also before anyone came for the day and noticed a certain someone missing.
Eyes resting on the head with hair so black with different strands looking like shards of obsidian in the thick locks.
“By the way, you must think I am a first-class idiot.” Vash started in remembered annoyance.
He heard her mutter “You read my mind.” But ignored it and kept right on speaking over the comment. “You may have left but your ‘pathing woke me up as if someone had shot off a cannon right next to me.”
“I wasn’t ‘pathing you! I wasn’t even trying; in fact I was being...”
“Sneaky? Furtive? Devious? Duplicitous?” He supplied in a scornful tone.
“NO!” Rinnah crossed her arms in front of her with an eyebrow arched. “Considerate. I didn’t want to wake you; you looked like you needed your sleep.”
“Considerate!” Vash was breathing heavily and took a menacing step closer, “I’ll have you know...”
“*Vash brother, is this how humans mans and womans act when together?*”
That pulled Vash up short as he considered his sister, mind racing for a plausible explanation before he decided on one. He looked toward the entrance doors.
“We need to get back!”
Ember visibly cringed at the idea and Rinnah waved a hand to the window. “The storm, remember?”
“It is abating now.”
The hybrid cast a doubtful glance through the window. It was a little less brilliant out. It meant they were closer to dawn than they were to midnight. Vash had a point. They needed to get going. Giving the outside another unconvinced look, she turned back to the plant angel.
“How about it Ember, wanna give a go?”
“How, give go?” Ember tried her voice again. With a good deal of satisfaction Rinnah noticed Ember’s voice was sounding a little smoother than previously. Uncertain yet of her speech the angel abruptly changed back to ‘pathing.
“*If Brother Vash says it is safe then I will trust him.*”
“Yes, yes, trust him, Mr. Johnny Come Lately!” Grumped Rinnah at the confidence the plant angel placed in her brother. Who had given up a nice warm, comfy bed to come out in the middle of the night, in a freaking storm no less, to rescue a sorry, oh-woe-is-me critter out of her fish tank? Who? Not the adored little brother, that’s for sure.
Rinnah rubbed her eyes. Tired did not begin to describe how she was feeling.
Vash caught the gesture and softly urged, “Come on. We won’t get lost or hurt. I promise. Besides,” he added with a smug wink, “I can get us home safely even in the height of the storm.”
Seeing the hybrid’s raised eyebrows and mouth open to inquire how he thought he could get them safely anywhere in a sand blizzard, Vash cut her off with his explanation. “I am quite experienced at traveling in weather like this. It keeps undesirables of all sorts from following me as I make use of it to put distance between trouble and me.”
He saw her skeptical look and knew she was thinking of his scars.
“You can’t have a sandstorm on demand!” He grated.
“Didn’t say a word!” She replied with a wide-eyed attempt to look innocent.
“Didn’t have to!” He accused her.
“Okay, okay,” she said placating him, which only earned her a scathing look. “Lead on intrepid guide and we will follow.” She started to move away when he stopped her by tightening his arm around her waist, stopping her movement.
“No, you both will stay right beside me. I am not going to take the chance of losing either one of you. The two of you have proved to be worse than useless in making your way through this.”
Ember nodded her head and Rinnah caught the gesture out of the corner of her eye.
“Holy Hybrid! Don’t agree with him, or if you do, don’t say anything, it only gives him a higher opinion of himself than need be!”
Vash grinned. “Well, Ladies, on that note, we shall take our leave...”
The trio moved out the doors as they opened before him without physical assistance. As the wind ripped at her tugging at the roots of her hair, Rinnah stared back over her shoulder wondering how he had done that. Then she felt something like an electrical charge fill the air around them and the particles of sand slid by them and the wind pulled less fiercely at her hair and clothes. She shot him a suspicious glance.
Back to Chapter 21