"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 23"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG

Sanded, Buffed, and Polished...

       Later, a dust-covered trio burst through the door and stumbled into the house with an alarmingly loud crash. The two females were sputtering and coughing as they entered the room. Ember leaned against Rinnah who was making a feeble attempt to wipe the plant angel’s face with a cloth from Milly’s coat pocket. Every time she tried the angel scrunched up her face and whipped it back and forth just like any two-year-old would do when not wanting their face washed. Admitting defeat Rinnah wiped her own with a muttered curse. Stinking sand storms! However, her ire was not just directed at the storm but also for the fact that Vash was right, hang him! Rinnah allowed him a grudging respect though. It turned out that he did have an uncanny weather sense that led them safely from the facility to the house in a journey that didn’t take that long at all. Along with that she noticed they weren’t buffeted by the strong gusts of wind like she and Ember were when they had tried to brave the storm on their own. She narrowed a glance at him. Sneaky gunslinger, it was probably some sort of secret plant magic, or blast him, a weird bending of air molecules around them like a shield, who knew! Behind them Vash shut the door and watched as the females staggered their way into the room still leaning on each other for support.

        Rinnah finally let go of the plant angel and bent over to grab her thighs all the while hacking and spitting, not caring how unladylike a picture she presented just then. She had only one desire at the moment and that was to take in a deep breath of air without it feeling like small grains of sand were falling down the back of her throat. She glanced over at the plant angel and saw her bent over coughing and wheezing also.

        Vash was back at his sister’s side, helping her to straighten before he removed Milly’s duster and hung it up. It was not lost on the hybrid that he was the only one not coughing or choking. She wanted to know his secret, but not right now, maybe later. Wiping the tears from her eyes she sniffed at the dust clogging in her sinuses. She could feel a fine layer of sand covering her whole body and longed for a nice warm bath to clean off the topsoil. It was everywhere and the granules were making her itch in strange places.

        She forgot her immediate discomfort when Vash grabbed both women’s elbows and guided them over to chairs and helped them each sit down. Rinnah gave him a look, she wasn’t sure if he meant to be a gentleman or not, but to her it felt more like they were being hauled over and plunked down in their chairs with a spine rattling jar than being politely escorted to the table.

        Vash looked them both over critically as his sister laid her head on the table with her hair spilling out around her as she recuperated from their harrowing journey. He turned to the sink and returned with a glass of water for each of them. Pulling out a chair, Vash flipped it around to straddle it as he rested his chin on crossed arms over the back as he studied the two females.

        Vash was in the process of opening his mouth to speak when the hallway door to the bedrooms exploded outward and the no-nonsense end of a cross punisher swiveled in their direction. The dangerous end was looking astonishing large and lethal in the low light of the few lit oil lamps scattered about the room. All three heads jerked in surprise at the arrival of an extremely pissed priest on the scene. The two plants and a half froze at the sight.

        The end of the cross weapon lowered to the ground as alert yet wary gray eyes, still puffy from being ripped from recent sleep, scrutinized the trio. Obviously the shadow-eyed priest was not pleased and he leveled a venomous glare at the three sitting in front of him. They took in the tousled hair and unshaved face of the barefooted priest wearing only pajama bottoms.

        Wolfwood snorted and said, “I should’a known.”

        Without further ado, the ill-tempered priest turned around and with an effortless toss flipped the cross offhandedly over one shoulder as if it hardly weighed a thing before exiting back the way he had come. Vash could hear him grumbling under his breath as he left saying that he didn‘t want to know what was going on before his first cup of coffee.

        Turning back to the female plants still staring at the now vacant door, Vash inquired, “What now?”

        Rinnah looked up to see those burning eyes insistently demanding an answer.

        She held up a hand and began ticking off, a finger at a time as she went down the list, “First food, then let her sleep and after that to improve her speaking, uh, and... oh, remember to buy her some clothes.... “ she cocked her head thinking, “...did I forget anything?”

        “Your sanity perhaps?” His eyes landed on his sister’s head as she laid it back on the table, white hair curtaining her head and shoulders as it pooled out over the surface. The sable-haired blue-eyed imp was treating this as if this was a mere case of taking in a stray kitten found on the doorstep.

        “What else?” Vash asked wearily as he rubbed his eyes. He could hear the sound of creaking chair as she carelessly leaned back in her chair. Dropping his hand he opened his eyes to find her tipped back staring up at the ceiling.

        “That about covers it, don’t you think?“ She brought a hand up to cover a yawn and then gave a shake of her head as if to clear it. With a thud she let the chair drop back onto all four legs. She screwed up her eyes and thumped the heel of her palm against the center of her forehead. “I can’t believe I forgot. I’ve got to drop her off with the other one. When am I going to go do that I wonder?”

        “The other....“ Vash began before he winced as it occurred to him that he had forgotten to inquire about his other sister.

        “Feh! What did you think I did with her?” The hybrid huffed dropping her hand and turning to face him offended at his lack of confidence in her ability to handle a freed plant angel. She glared at him while thoughts ran through her head and she briefly wondered if he could read what was going through her mind. She intensified her frown, just in case he was. Who is the one with experience here? Huh? Who? You? Not hardly! How many have you freed? Let’s count, shall we? Oh look, ZERO!

        “What’d you expect I’d do, hang her up on a wall next to a moose head for safekeeping?” She was still feeling a little put out. It didn‘t help that her ego was a little bruised about not being able to find the way home even if it was dark, and sandy, and windy! Nope, it didn’t help at all that he made it look like a walk in the park.

        “And where is...” he started again.

        Anticipating his question, she answered, “On a thomas ranch with two thomas-taming rancher brothers. Now each brother can have an angel.” She spread out hands in a self-congratulatory manner as if the old equation of two plus two had just been solved. “Works out great!”

        Vash’s face darkened as he struggled with this bit of news and stared in disbelief at her brazen confidence as if she had solved everyone‘s problems in one brilliant stroke. A gurgle was making its way up his throat. One didn’t just hand out plant angels to humans, or to anyone for that matter! The half-plant was going to drive him hair-ripping insane if he didn’t watch it. Calming himself he returned to the subject at hand. If he was guessing correctly at what she was implying, his sisters, formally energy output for cities or towns, certainly weren’t intended to solve some lonely rancher’s inability to get a date for the prom! In frustration he narrowed his eyes at the thought of two young men, on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, and worse, most likely with overactive hormones. He fumed. Not his sisters!

        This offhand manner of dealing with freed angels was, at best, unsettling. As much as he valued humans and defended them over the years, did he want one to marry a plant angel? He dropped his head into a hand covering his eyes. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it and blew out an exasperated puff of air, this was new territory for him and he felt adrift. Dropping his hand away, he turned a threatening frown to face her as he started to comment, but again, the hybrid started speaking before he could get the first word out.

        “Now before you go getting your knickers in a twist, you should know that Twila and Steffen are in love and probably married by now.” She rolled her eyes to the ceiling and folded her arms across her chest, “Heck, they may even be producing little plant angel babies, you just never know. All thanks to me, no, no, don‘t thank me. Their happiness is reward enough.” The expression on her face brightened, “Hey, their babies would be like me... I guess I would have a ’kind’ after all.” she mused to herself remembering the remark Tessla had made about her ‘kind‘. She left off her private ponderings when she heard choking sounds coming from Vash’s side of the table.

        “Love? Married....!” He managed to keep his voice just this side of a shout. “Ba... babies? Did you say BABIES?!” It was with a supreme effort that kept him from reaching to shake her until her teeth rattled like a set of castanets.

        Surprise was too mild a word for the shock that rolled through his mind right then. Even in his wildest imaginings he had never entertained the thought of a plant/human joining to produce... he looked over at the infuriating female who returned to gaze up at the ceiling, she was either deep in thought or she was ignoring him. He would bet one of his bullets it is was the latter.

        It was his understanding that the two different species were just that, too different, too incompatible to produce any offspring together, but then, he had also never thought a sister of his would ever be free from her bulb either. His gaze rested on the top of his sister’s head. He wasn’t sure when, but one of these days he was going to be meet these brothers and decide for himself if they were worthy of his sisters. Damn, he was beginning to sound like Knives. He grinned and then felt his blood chill. If he had this reaction then Knives would be frothing at the mouth in fury, bent on the immediate eradication of these vermin who dared to even look at his precious sisters. His grin straightened. No, a raging, out-of-control male plant would not be a good idea at all. Vash shook his head and sincerely hoped that Knives wouldn’t find out about this. He could have groaned in aggravation. Yet another thing to add to the growing list of things about this odd female half-plant that Knives was not supposed to know about.

        He turned to look at the half-breed. Her head was turned to look out the windows at the dying storm. The faint gleam of lamplight fell across her cheek, barely illuminating her skin against the darker background of the room. He had to admit that she was the first who had seen his scars without showing a sign of reaction, looking each one over as if they were nothing more serious than a hangnail. No one ever had that reaction before, not his brother, and that time when Meryl and Milly had seen him, to say they were shocked wouldn‘t even accurately begin to express their reaction.... He shook his head remembering the ebony-haired half-breed’s comment when she had seen him the first time. “You call that scarring? Okay, but I’ve seen worse.“ Then she had changed the subject almost bored by his disfigurement as if it truly didn’t matter. He hadn’t paid it much thought at the time, but now it haunted him, what had she seen that was worse than his body carved and etched with scars? Yet.... He ran a hand over a smooth patch of skin on his right bicep. A particularly wicked-looking scar, one he had there for over forty years was missing. However, he couldn’t remember when the last time was when he had looked at it with any awareness. One day in the shower he had glanced down and away only to jerk his head back so fast he nearly gave himself whiplash. Where once was a misshapen scar, there was only healthy skin. He lifted his fake hand and unconsciously ran it over the smooth skin on his bicep. He had his theories but couldn’t be sure, not yet anyway. Unfortunately, the one he could get answers from, Knives, was the one he was promising to kill. What irony. His lips twisted in a down-turned grin. Then it tipped upward as he shot a look at Rinnah. What a troublemaker, yet she did something no one else had ever done, freed a plant angel that also survived the extraction process.

        For her part, Rinnah was surprised that Vash was taking the evening’s events as well as he was. She was expecting a violent eruption and it wasn‘t happening. A pucker appeared between her brows, where was the bitter rancor tainting every word he expressed that she was used to ? She could still sense the underlying anger there but it was obvious to her that he was in control of it instead of the other way around. This was an unexpected development even as it was a relief. Poor plant, he had been through so much. What a weird setup, a family tree loaded with hostile sisters and an insane brother. Speaking of brothers, what kind of brother goes around shooting off his twin’s arm and then set deviant socio-paths on his trail to deal out pain and suffering in any way they could think of? Oh yeah, the plant kind, ruefully remembering her own twin, it must come with the species.

        Finally, feeling the weight of the outlaw’s stare as it penetrated through her meditation, Rinnah swiveled her head around to return his gaze. As if reading his mind, she stated with a preening look, “Ta da! And for my next trick.....” She grinned, she was unable to help herself; she just had to point it out just in case he missed the obvious.

        Her look of satisfaction was met with a scowl as the eyes began glowing red again. She smiled over the gulp that wanted to form in the back of her throat. It was that eerie, otherworldly look, the one that gave her the creeping willies. She fought back a shiver while waiting for a reply.

        Vash gave a tight nod, his mind elsewhere. The half-plant was indeed able to free his bulb-bound sisters. Female plant angels running around loose on the planet. The thought of it caused anxiety to grip his chest in a tight fist as his imagination ran wild. The thought of freed sisters with either Knives chasing close behind them or certain greedy humans desperate for power following in Knives trail, well it was enough to make him break out in a panicky sweat. Nothing good could come of this, yet what else was there to do? He grit his teeth, how could she be so shortsighted and inconsiderate?

        His eyes glazed over in thought even as they stared at Rinnah who shifted uneasily in her chair trying to find a position out of the gunman‘s line of sight. Conceding defeat she picked up her chair as unobtrusively as possible and moved it closer to Ember’s. It was an eerie sensation to be stared at with those crimson eyes when they were staring, unseeing, off into space like that.

        Vash didn’t notice her move. He was busy wondering if she even understood how huge a discovery this was, how significant in the ramifications to the whole balance of power on this planet. He shut his eyes and lifted a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. Vash doubted it. Did it never end? What was she going to do next, pull a rabbit out of a hat? This complicated things, greatly, massively. He couldn‘t be the only one who saw the disaster this could lead to. Then, with a thought that made his heart wrench, he saw in his mind’s eye Knives taking it into his head to absorb Rinnah. He wondered if Knives would be able to since they were from two different plant species, actually, he didn‘t even know that for sure. Vash fervently hoped not and shot a quick plea to Rinnah‘s Holy Hybrid since she thought so highly of him. He opened his eyes to find her looking at him and resentfully thought I bet she never even considered that! She wouldn’t, too damn conceited about her own abilities. When will she learn!

        Venting his mounting frustration, Vash pounded a fist on his thigh as Rinnah watched with wary eyes, not wanting to know what he was thinking. She was pretty certain that if something was getting him all worked up in a lather then there was a fairly good chance that she had something to do with it.

Ready to Rise and Shine

       Wolfwood returned to his room and saw Milly sitting up with much too perky of an expression for that time of night, or morning, or whatever. All he knew was that his body was aching for more sleep and being awake was not accomplishing the feeding of that need. Without a word he propped his cross punisher in the corner, gave it a tired pat and turned toward his bed, knowing that if he needed it in a hurry it was within an easy arm’s reach.

        He lifted the covers and crawled in next to his beautiful, but much too wide-awake, wife. Eyes barely slits, he leaned over and placed a quick kiss on her cheek as he took in the alert and curious expression on her face. This did not bode well for him. He tried to ignore it and mumbled an explanation but could see from her tilted head and puzzled eyes he must not have made much sense. With a deep sigh he returned to his side and slid down under the covers.

        “Nicholas? What was it? A burglar? An assassin? A bounty hunter? A...” here she stopped with a slight gasp and her husband clenched his eyes shut knowing that something purely and uniquely Milly was about to be uttered. He hoped, with everything in him, that it didn’t require him to be up doing something in response. PleaseGodpleaseGodpleaseGod, let her say she wants to go back to sleep and I won’t ever complain again, or at least not as much.

        “.... Or, was it a...” She barely managed to whisper through her outrage, “...pudding thief?!!”

        Wolfwood cursed, it was official, God hated him. Now she would want him to catch and trounce the nonexistent pudding thief. He pulled the covers over his head and missed the dangerous gleam that lit his mate’s eyes as they narrowed in contemplation of what said thief could expect if she caught him messing around in her precious supply of pudding. A mumble came from under the blanket.

        “What? What did you say?” Milly leaned over the lump that was her beloved trying to make out what he was saying. She reached over and shook his unresponsive shoulder. “Let’s go see what’s happening!”

        “Leb’s nob!” Came the muffled reply.

        Milly threw back the covers and bounced out of bed causing it to shake.

        Wolfwood poked his head out and growled, “Honey, not even God gets up this early!” Tucking his head back under, pointedly ignoring her growing indignation, he muttered under his breath something about curiosity and cats.

        “Nicholas, I don’t own a cat,” she tapped her chin with a finger as she rolled her eyes in thought, “however there used to be one, that I was sure was following me, I kept seeing it in town after town. I am pretty sure it was the same one.” She laughed, “Isn’t that funny?”

        “Hilarious. Can I go to sleep now?”

        Then came the reply making him wince with dread, “Still, I wonder what’s going on. What did you see out there?”

        “As clear as day, I saw a spiky-haired dip with a side order of complications. Please Honey, have a heart, just a few more minutes...” A huge yawn erupted from the submerged form rolling up in a tight cocoon.

        Standing now with hands on her hips, Milly frowned down at the love of her life, although at the moment, all she could see of him was a thatch of dark hair poking out at one end and a bare toe sticking out the other.

        “You were just up.” She pointed out reasonably.

        “But I didn’t enjoy it. I promise you I didn’t. Swear on my cross and hope to die”

        “That’s a horrible thing to say!” With rising ire, she placed hands on hips she leaned over the human lump and inquired, “but what made you get up in the first place?” A quizzical tone entered her voice. Was Nicholas keeping something from her on purpose? She bet it had something to do with pudding.

        “A lapse of sound judgment on my part, really.”

        “Nicholas, you’re mumbling again, what did you say?”

        Wolfwood flipped back a corner and lifted his head up. “I only got up because I thought we were being invaded.” He flopped back on his pillow deciding it was sleep that was the elusive mayfly that Vash used to blather about.


        “Well what?” He slurred, eyelids already drifting shut.

        “Were we being invaded?”

        “Yeah, by those two plants plus a stray.”

        “Whaaa? Who?” Milly’s eyes went round.

        “No idea.”

        “Aren’t you curious?”

        “No, I‘m not.” He laid an arm over his forehead as he waited.

        “Well I am.”

        Then, God must have had a change of heart for Wolfwood had an idea pop into his quivering brain full-blown and ready for use.

        “You should be, she’s quite beautiful, without a flaw, lovely skin, and what really matters, curves in the right pla... Ow!” Milly had a powerful right hook and he was sure there was going to be a bruise on that shoulder in the morning.

        “Nicholas!” Gasped out Milly, shocked and a little miffed but it was quickly overshadowed by a growing sense of unease.

        Under the blanket, Wolfwood couldn’t stop the impish smile and was thankful that Milly was unable to see it.

        He decided to lay it on thick, what the heck, he was already committed, “She was latched onto Vash making them look like a two-headed plant. Hardly room for a thought between them.” Now that was a stretch, a big stretch of the truth as the two weren’t even sitting on the same side of the table, but he figured Milly wouldn’t remember that later in the day when he was up and ready for breakfast. If she did, he would deal with it then. He had a stash of forgive me please, hard-to-find flavors of pudding tucked away for such emergencies.

        “What! Where’s Rinnah?” Demanded Milly as her head whipped around on her shoulders searching the room for a something to put on over the nightgown she wore now instead of the pajamas she used to.

        “She was right there watching them and I might add, green with envy and frothing at the mouth. Yep, looking like for all the world she was ready to shoot someone.”

        “Where’s my robe!” Now Milly was flying around the room looking for the yellow robe, which was hanging across the foot of the bed. It went right out of her head to ask if Rinnah was so close to pulling her gun, then why had Nicholas come back to bed without a care in the world.

        Wolfwood grinned. Sleep was within triumphant reach after all. He felt Milly snatch the robe off the bed and heard the rustle of cloth as she slipped it on over her night apparel.

        Things were happening, she just knew it and she darn well wasn’t going to sleep through it! Someone had to stop Rinnah from blowing a gasket and hurting someone. Besides she wanted to see this person who was adhered to Vash‘s side like a lovesick thomas.

        Milly belted her robe and Wolfwood heard her hurrying step pause at the door as she opened it with a squeak and then rush down the hallway. Ah, blessed sleep was within his grasp and Wolfwood could feel himself sinking lower into the depths of slumber before being pulled down into welcoming dreams.

Everyone Needs a Hobby

       Taking a moment to gather her wits and retie the belt to her robe, Milly took in the scene in front of her before stepping into the living area. Vash’s surprised expression swiftly changed into one of welcome. Rinnah’s head was cradled on her crossed arms as they rested on the tabletop. She didn’t lift her head but did open the lid of one brilliant blue eye, gave a half-hearted wave of a finger before closing it again. Milly looked at the other person in the room preparing to be displeased. While the woman was by no means in Vash’s lap as her overactive imagination had painted her to be; her chair was at the end of the table near Vash. Before a snap judgment could be made, Milly began to notice several things that were decidedly odd about the newcomer. Holding back any hasty judgments; which was easy for her as she usually could find something likeable in just about everyone she met, she studied the... woman? The human-like creature lifted her head to stare back at Milly through strands of white hair hanging over her face.

        The female looked just as surprised as Milly and obviously feeling a little threatened, moved faster than Milly could blink until she was next to Vash leaning over him from behind, her arms entwined around his neck and partly shielded from Milly’s openly curious stare. Vash barely had time to look startled when her hold began to tighten. He forgot to consider she would be meeting strangers in the flesh for the first time. Sure, it was easy to feel secure and protected when encased in the safe environment of an almost impenetrable bulb but to see and meet people without that barrier... Vash twisted his head again trying to get a glimpse of his sister’s face; it would be a big first for her. He could just see the edge of one cheek and the tip of her nose as she stared at the tall girl.

        One eye looked at Milly from over Vash’s shoulder, most of her face curtained by the fall of thick white hair, and the rest of her hidden by her brother’s larger frame. Milly’s eyes went round as saucers as she beheld with wonder the huge eye returning her gaze. It lacked any normal white of the eye nor did it have a pupil. Obviously she wasn’t human and that made Milly wonder why Vash and Knives did look so human. One would mistake them for such, well except for Knives’ big mouth and even larger ego announcing to all how much better his kind were than humans. What was it that made the two brothers more human and less alien looking? Milly tilted her head, eyes flashing back and forth between the female plant and Vash. Except for the same white hair, they didn’t much resemble each other. Now that she was paying attention, she noticed that Vash was looking a little frazzled. She hid a quick grin. Mr. Vash certainly had his women problems.

        Milly looked back to the plant angel, correctly guessing what she was, and offered an enthusiastic and friendly smile. Lifting a hand with fingers splayed out she said cheerfully, “Helloooo! I’m Milly Thomp.... er Wolfwood.” Milly reprimanded herself. Gracious, one would think she would be used to the name change by now.

        Vash noticing the frank questioning expression beaming from Milly’s open face, took the initiative and tried to glance back over his shoulder at his sister. However she shied behind him even more making further eye contact impossible.

        He lifted a hand and gestured at his sibling, “Milly this is.... Ember, newly freed and newly named,” saying that he shot an ambiguous look at Rinnah’s head, now laid out on the table. Milly puzzled over the meaning of that but let it drop, it must be something between the two of them. Vash went on, “Ember, this is Milly Wolfwood. She’s the nice one. The disagreeable one who breezed in and out of here with the obnoxiously huge weapon was Nicholas D. Wolfwood, her husband.”

        Just as Ember was shyly coming out from behind her brother a voice broke in, “An me, being old and cranky at nearly being disremembered in de heat of introductions.”

        Heads turned to see Eleazar standing in the doorway to his shop. The marks on his face proof of his recent rising form his bed as was his wild hair bristling around his head, save for the flattened area he had slept on. Despite his disheveled appearance, he remembered to put his eye patch on, or maybe he even slept with it on, Milly wasn’t sure. However his gray eye was bright and alert, not in the slightest dimmed from being recently awakened.

        Vash started to open his mouth to introduce the owner of the house when, startling them all, Ember startled, inadvertently knocked into the table with a small cry. Rinnah, jarred from the bump, looked up from under dark brows, her head still cradled in her crossed arms to see what the fuss was about. Ember grabbed a fistful of her brother’s hair making him yelp in pain as she yanked his head back and forth in excitement. She only stopped when Vash grabbed her wrist and one by one peeled her clenched fingers from their tight hold. He heard a chuckle and whipped his head to pin a glare at the hybrid but her face was hidden in her crossed arms.

        Milly darted a look at Eleazar’s face in time to catch his thunderstruck look. Ember seemed oblivious to her brother as he kept working to extricate her fingers from his hair. Her whole being was focused on the old man in front of her.

        “An ye would be....” Eleazar asked as disbelief chased across the wrinkles of his face. He slowly approached until he was several feet within reach of the table to gaze with single-minded intent on the angel’s face. He extended an unsteady hand that stopped midway, eye wide in shock.

        “Aye,” he breathed out, “yen be out lassie-girl. Much a-doing ta that I’m thinking. And here ye be standing with not a black hair gracing yon head. All healthy white glory, it be. How’d ye manage to free yeself, eh lassie-girl?” He asked, marveling as Ember took a few steps and reached out to receive his trembling hand in both of hers.

        Vash cleared his throat, catching the old priest’s attention as he pointed a finger at Rinnah. “It’s the work of this one. Seems to be a clandestine hobby practiced under the cloak of darkness.” He shot a disapproving look at the half-breed who chose to ignore his remark.

        Eleazar’s astonished look landed on the top of Rinnah’s head and her shoulders twitched as if she could feel his gaze on her.

        “Lassie,” he broached softly, awe and doubt waging war with each other as he stared at the impossible made possible, “how many have ye set to walk free na?”

        Rinnah hesitated and then held up a hand with two fingers raised before letting it drop back down.

        The old priest nodded, and said, more to himself then anyone else in the room, “Two more than naught for en others that be.” He turned his wondering gaze back to the incredible standing in front of him as the plant angel clung to his hand and gazed back at him in adoration.

        “They seem to know each other,” remarked Milly as she watched Eleazar tenderly wrap his fingers around the female’s hand. No one answered as even Rinnah lifted her head to watch as Ember unexpectedly threw herself at the stupefied older man who grunted in surprise at the impact. Instinctively he caught her and rocked back on his heels before righting them both.

        To Milly the air was thick with unspoken words. She lifted her head as if to listen, although it helped not to use ears. She smiled as she recognized what the buzz in the air was; it was Ember and her brother speaking to each other. She could recognize that much.

        Confirming Milly’s suspicions, Rinnah snapped out, long fingers rubbing at her temples, “Holy Hybrid! Stop shouting! At this volume they can hear you on Venus!” She glared at the siblings from under thick, arching brows but neither paid any attention to her outburst. Ember was too excited and Vash was giving Eleazar a wary look while Eleazar’s eyes were on the plant angel. She turned to look at Milly whose eyes were like shining stars. She dropped her head in defeat. “Why do I bother?”

        Deciding there was nothing else she could do for the moment, Rinnah stood up and stretched weary muscles with a groan. What a night it had been. She couldn’t remember the last time she had this much fun. Maybe it was the last time she had a cavity filled. The hybrid took a few steps until she was even with Milly and stopped short. She paused and sniffed as a stray scent floated past her. She inhaled deeply a couple of times to stop only when she recognized what it was. Her eyebrows shot up her forehead. She was about to say something when the female plant interrupted her thoughts turning her attention to her.

        “Freenah! I old man know.” Announced the freed angel, fairly beaming as she looked over her shoulder at Rinnah while still keeping a tight grip on the old man.

        “That’s swell Ember, you catch up on old times and tell me about in the morning. I’m going to take a bath and then off to dream sweet dreams.”

        Startling everyone Ember grabbed the old man in a fierce embrace, squeezing a choked sound out of him as without effort she lifted him off his feet and up into the air.

        Milly wondered if that could possibly be good for an old person such as Eleazar was, to be swung around that way as his face was turning a decidedly odd color. Just when she thought someone should say something or step in Ember set the older priest on his feet again and let go of him. Swinging around with a huge smile the plant angel stated, “Strong I be!”

        “Are you okay Mr. Old Priest?” Inquired Milly with concern. He nodded an affirmative although he still looked taken aback by the display of affection.

        “Now Ember, no more picking people up without their permission, alright?” Rinnah shook a finger while placing the other hand on a hip trying to give the freed angel a stern look but her twitching lips gave away the fact that she wasn’t angry.

        Satisfied the older man was fine, Milly moved over to the stove and counter to start making breakfast. Bending over she began pulling open cabinet doors and drawers looking for everything she needed to start the meal.

        Rinnah watched and as comprehension dawned on her she shot a look out the window at the steadily lightening of the darkness. “Ah star-flipping crap! Please don’t tell me it’s morning already!”

        Milly sweetly replied with a chuckle, “Oh it is still early yet but if you want any sleep, you should get it now.”

        Eyes bouncing from Milly to the window again, Rinnah agreed, “well, it’s been fun. Toodles,” with a little wave of the hand she turned in the direction of the hallway.

        That’s when a masculine voice said, “She’s leaving Ember.” But she didn’t pay it any attention until she was slammed forward a few paces from a weight landeding on her back.

        With a flash of unrivaled speed that only Vash could follow, Ember was across the room colliding with Rinnah, moving her a few steps before she was able to regain her balance with flailing arms. She turned to see who it was even as she felt the plant angel’s arms wrap around her neck.

        “Hey! No overt displays of affection!” She said while gently trying to wiggle out of the hold.

        The angel was stronger than she looked.

        With a plaintive wail the hybrid continued, “Aw c’mon, I’m allergic to hugs, they make me break out! VASH! Get your sister off me!” She glanced over at the outlaw with frantic look, but at that moment Ember hung her full weight from Rinnah’s neck causing her to stumble so the side. Both staggered until Rinnah managed to snag the back of a chair to prevent them from falling over. One hand on the chair and one hand pulling at the angel’s hold she squirmed in the angel’s iron grip without effect.

        Vash tilted his chair back on two legs, crossed his arms and with commented dryly, “A camera would be handy about now.”

        Milly looked up from the batter she was energetically stirring, wondering if she should go help, but then giggled at the look on her friend’s face. Rinnah sure was funny, pretending to struggle under the assault of a mere hug while spearing dark looks in Vash’s direction. She turned back to stirring and reached for the next ingredient to blend in. The breakfast of champions must be pudding based. To test out her theory she stuck a finger in the batter and popped it in her mouth with a contented hum. It was perfect. It was going to be a delicious breakfast. She glanced back at the scene going on behind her, tilting an ear to listen.

        “You did that on purpose!” Rinnah hissed, addressing Vash even as she struggled in Ember‘s grasp.

        “I did no such thing,” Vash chortled, as the half-plant’s predicament continued to amuse him. “Well, maybe, but I didn’t expect that to happen!”

        “En na lassie, calm down na, ye temper only causes her the more distress. Remember, she be ‘en sensitive creature.”

        “Sensitive! My ever loving hybrid ass..teroid!” She amended quickly. Ember may look like an adult, but she still had some very childlike qualities. ”Easy for you to say! She doesn’t have a death grip around your neck; besides, the circulation is being cut off to my head.”

        “Which could only be an improvement!” Needled Vash.

        “Now, now Mr. Vash, there’s no call to be amorous to Rinnah.” Rinnah flushed and couldn’t seem to find a safe place to rest her eyes while not stopping her tugging on Ember’s arms.

        Vash looked over at Milly and demanded, “Do you even know the meaning of that word?”

        Milly only smiled and took a spoon to scoop out more batter that promptly found itself in her mouth. She rolled her eyes in bliss.

        “She’s not listening again.” He complained.

        “Stop pouting and come get your sister, I’m serious, she’s cho...”

        Rinnah’s airway was shut off and her face began changing colors. Within a heartbeat Vash and then Eleazar were next to the plant angel and half-plant. Eleazar began murmuring soothingly into the angel’s ear while Vash worked at his sister’s hands. Finally the grip was loosened enough that Rinnah was able to suck in great gulps of air.

        “....king me!”

        “Go I Freenah.” The angel said wretchedly.

        Rinnah was leaning as far back as she could in the loosened circle of Ember‘s grip. “I appreciate the thought but...” Then it hit her what the female plant was trying to say. “Huh?”

        “Ember no go with Free... damn, now she’s got me doing it.” Grumped Vash. He looked hard at his sister and she wilted under his stare. Her grip was now slack enough that Rinnah could breath comfortably.

        “En laddie, let me ‘av a go at her.”

        Vash took a step back and shrugged. “Be my guest.”

        Again, in that soothing and calm whisper that was so low Rinnah couldn’t make out the words, Eleazar spoke into the angel’s ear. Finally she released Rinnah entirely and turning to the old man grasped him in a tight embrace while burying her nose in the worn, soft fabric of his robe and started crying.

        The half-plant heaved a sigh of relief while rubbing at her neck glad that she was the priest-smith’s problem now. He kept up a steady murmur and circled a comforting arm around her shoulders as a hush settled over the room as the others watched quietly.

        “*Freenah! I am losing water again. Am I going black-hair?*” came the mind wail from the female plant.

        “No,” she stated out loud for the benefit of the others, recognizing the euphemism for what it was, “you are crying, remember? Sometimes the reason for tears just makes us feel like we are dying. Don’t worry, you’ll live through this.”

        In response Ember snuggled into Eleazar’s embrace, surprising him and the others with her next statement.

        “You there first be. Know I you. You I see.” Explained the plant angel.

        Vash shot Eleazar a sharp-eyed glance. Eleazar caught the look and unperturbed, spoke in a calm voice, “I told you the truth boy, it weren’t the bizarre tale of an old man’s wandering mind.”

        Ember leaned back to look up him to inquire, “You us?”

        With a grin the old priest shook his head. “No lassie-girl, all human I am, not plant kind at all.”

        “You us like?”

        “No he isn’t!” Vash ran a weary hand through his falling spikes, he really didn’t want to try and explain this.

        “Oh, Mr. Old Priest is very mysterious. Isn’t that right Mr. Old Priest?” Milly waved a batter-covered spoon in the air. She seemed unaware of the drops being flung around the room at random or why the others were ducking and dodging.

        “If’fen ye say so Miss lassie.” Said the priest-smith with a twinkle in his eye causing Milly to smile before turning back to her concoction. Eleazar helped the puzzled angel back to a chair and waited until she figured out how to sit herself. This was only the second time in her long life and it was an awkward position. She patted the table in front of her before looking up into the old man’s face for assurance which came readily.

        Vash looked at the old priest, then at his sister and then back again. “Maybe I should ask you just what your intentions are toward my sister.”

        The freed female was leaning her head on Eleazar’s side while he patted her on the shoulder as he considered Vash’s words but before he could answer Rinnah piped up instead.

        “She remembers him you idiot. Even I can tell that.” She said with laughter bubbling out of her.

        “You have entirely too many opinions,” snorted Vash.

        “Most of them spot on correct.... In my opinion.” She arched a challenging brow at him, with mirth playing about the edges of her lips.

        Not wanting to start an argument with a crowd watching on, he brought up the concern that had been eating at him since he first set eyes on the freed plant angel standing on the wrong side of the glass, “What’s going to happen to her?” He asked softy as he stared at his sister watching her look around the room. It occurred to him that every little thing they took for granted would be a new discovery for her.

        “Well, let me know in the morning. Night.” Rinnah started for the door again.

        “Wait! Where do you think you are going?” Demanded Vash, outraged.

        Rinnah turned around while gesturing at the door, “Were you not here earlier? I believe I stated very clearly that I was tired and I am going to bed, but I already told you what I was going to do with her.”

        “That was a plan?! You can‘t be serious!“ He stared at her, incredulous. “You got her out and now you are responsible for her future safekeeping. Or did you overlook the small, but ever so crucial detail that Knives might be able to track them both down and that this supposedly safe ranch may not be the best place to leave them? Did that ever cross your mind?” Vash was fairly vibrating animosity and anger. He moved swiftly to stand in front of the hybrid, legs spread in an intimidating stance as he leaned over her demanding an answer by his very presence.

        “Oh,” she uttered a nervous strangled chuckle under the ominous gaze going dark burgundy as his eyes stared relentlessly down into hers, “you didn’t like that plan?”

        “That is not a plan! You are saying you are going to take a plant angel, and you probably forgot this too, that to everyone else on the planet she is a precious commodity and not a person, and drop her in the middle of nowhere and hope that she stays safe?! I know this is hard concept for you to take in, but the fact is that all my sisters are the only energy source on this planet! Even a hint of a rumor of a rumor will have people flocking from all over creation looking for them. They are more precious than Atlantis, El Dorado, and Avalon all rolled into one because they are the real thing, not myths!” He paused to hold her eyes pinned to his and coldly demanded, “Is this beginning to sink in yet?”

        “That is just so wrong!” She insisted indignantly, sympathy for all the plant angels rising within her. “They are people, er beings... whatever! They deserve to have the same rights and freedoms others have!”

        Vash closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose before answering.

        “True, but the sad fact is this little mindset you are failing to take into consideration. They are not considered people, they are living plant batteries. You can’t just drop them off someplace with feeding instructions. So what I want to know is, what are you going to do about ensuring their safety from here on out?”

        Rinnah made a face, tugged at her left earlobe and then hooked it over her nose while she thoughtfully studied his face. She tried not to show the unease she felt from the predator bird look show on her face or in her posture. He was also smack dab in her path, blocking the way to the door and she doubted he would let her sidle around him without an answer.

        In a soft voice she said, “Uhmm, I don‘t know... I shared my plan but you apparently think it is flawed.” No matter how hard she tried, she would never have the mindset the lost colonists and their descendents had. One needed to be born and raised here instead of on another world that was green, lush and didn’t have the same scramble for survival as these people had. She couldn’t get into the automatic mindset that came with being raised on this dust ball of a planet. A facility plant angel, a viable one, was the difference between survival and death. It was that simple, yet she had a hard time grasping it and it looked she always would.

        Vash’s eyes narrowed knowing how hard it was for her to admit the internal struggle. Not only was it written in her eyes, the glimpse he got of them, but he could feel the churning turmoil it was causing within her. He studied her face while waiting for more. Instead, she looked up at him with a light smile sitting easily on her lips and impossibly blue eyes wide and staring up at him. He stared at her with a measuring look. She’s going for the innocent look, which means she‘s as blameless and trustworthy as a fallen angel. Straightening, he crossed his arms over his chest and held her eyes with an unblinking glare. Knowing he was deliberately trying to intimidate her she matched his stiffened stance, gesture for gesture, grim look for grim look, returning the glare with full force.

        “I was hoping I could talk what’s-his-bucket out of his plans for absorbing them.” She made a face, that sounded lame even to her ears.

        “That is not very likely. You don’t know my brother like I do.”

        “I am starting to get that impression.”

        He scrutinized watching her squirm under his gaze and thought that it served her right. She deserved to be on the defensive for a change. “You are saying you don’t have any ideas about what to do from here?”

        Guiltily she looked away and softly muttered, “I know what I was going to do.... ”

        He waited again. He was learning that when she wasn’t forthcoming with fast and ready quips, it usually meant she was backed into a corner without a way of escape. He vowed that the wretched imp could wait until the suns’ burnt out and fell from the sky before she was going to leave the room without admitting she had screwed up and had jeopardized everyone‘s safety. Thoughtlessly, she had involved everyone, Milly, the priest, the priest-smith, the plant angel’s and, despite the fact she didn’t seem able to t see it or acknowledge it, even her own self.

        Milly however made no such promise and asked, “well, if Mr. Vash won’t ask, I will. What were you going to do with Ember and her sister to keep them safe?”

        Milly looked over to the plant angel with her white hair, huge orbs that were missing pupils; or maybe the whole eye was a pupil, she didn‘t know. She didn’t have to look at Vash to sense his worry. Poor man, it was only reasonable to worry about his sister. Ember would stick out like a sore thumb no matter what town they were in. She smiled reassuringly at the plant angel who returned the smile with a some hesitation, but it made Milly’s heart warm.

        Flipping star holes! She did have a plan, a simple plan and not the deviously complicated one they were pressuring her for as if she was keeping it under wraps waiting for the right moment to spring it on them. This was it folks! It never occurred to Rinnah that she was going to have to do anything beyond dropping the angel off. Once they were out of their bulbs she figured they would be safe. Suddenly she was feeling very stupid, small, and idiotic. She shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, a nervous flush rising up her neck to her cheeks.

        With head bent, staring down at the tips of Vash’s boots, her voice glum she admitted, “I was going to bring her back here although I wasn’t sure about the reaction I would get.”

        “And?” He asked a dangerously soft voice. He might as well have been carved from granite for all the warmth he gave off.

        “And,” she retorted, lifting snapping blue eyes snapping with resentment to meet his, “For your information, Mr. All-in-my-face, you may think that I go merrily traipsing on my way to each and every plant facility, popping open canary cage doors, and setting plant angels free at the drop of a hat, but I don‘t. So there!” She sputtered out, realizing she was still evading the issue. “Why can‘t you just root for the home team for a change, eh? I thought you would have been happy about this. She‘s not going to be made one with Knives against her will.”

        Ever since he had appeared on the scene he had done nothing but make her try and feel guilty for doing a good thing and she, for one, was tired of it. She gestured to the others, “They seem okay with it, even a little happy, but not you, oh no, can‘t possibly do that! God forbid you should crack a smile over this! And why? Because I did it that‘s why! So you are just scratching around the trashcan for a reason to get a all pissy-faced with me? Well shove it up your thrusters blossom boy, it was a good thing done and I don‘t care what you think! She‘s going to live her own life now.”

        Rinnah stopped to take a breath, she was so miserable that an ache was developing in the middle of her chest making inhaling a pain.

        Milly softly interjected, “Rinnah, I don’t think Mr. Vash is mad about his sister being freed. I think he is more worried about the safety of his sisters’ in the long run. Mr. Knives is not a very nice person and the plant angels may not be safe on the ranch. You have to remember that they are living gold to us.”

        “They are better off there than anywhere else.” Muttered Rinnah. Milly was right about the plant angels being important. To her they were enslaved living beings without rights or privileges. Somehow there had to a middle ground here, if she could only find it.

        “So does this mean that you are quite through with these nighttime wanderings of yours?” His face was hard and his eyes magma red.

        This was getting old. Rinnah lashed out, “Oh sure, bring that up! Okay I went out at night but I wasn’t bouncing around freeing plant angels left and right.” She made a negating gesture with her hand, “Now don’t you think it’s time we moved beyond that? Besides, I forgive you for being you; I think you could unbend a little and forgive a little nocturnal wandering now and then.” She stuck her nose up as if indignant that she was being accused after all this time.

        Nervously Milly stepped in; Mr. Vash looked like he was ready to explode again and who knew what would come out of Rinnah’s mouth as a result.

        “Well, we all know that Rinnah doesn’t do that anymore, she’s reformed!”

        Vash snorted.

        Milly turned to the half-breed with a stern look and pointed the spoon at her.

        Rinnah watched the circling spoon deciding for the moment that it was the greater danger than an angry outlaw.

        Milly reproved, “Now Rinnah,” the spoon was twirling faster, “Mr. Vash may be able to read minds but he can’t possibly know everything, and we can’t read minds either so maybe you could let us tell us in on how you were planning to keep Ember safe.” Then realization struck Milly and she looked at the abashed hybrid with compassion. “You don’t have a clue, do you?”

        Rinnah looked at the ground and shook her head.

        Milly sighed quietly but turned and picked up the bowl and began ladling out scoops of batter on a griddle heated to the proper temperature. “Well tell us what you think should be done.”

        She was on the verge of saying something more when the aroma caught and diverted Rinnah’s attention. Lifting her nose, she sniffed the air. This was intriguing. She inhaled deeply forgetting the conversation of seconds ago. Like a moth entranced by a porch light, she drifted closer to Milly until she was at the counter next to her, nose sniffing with great pleasure at the aroma of cooking griddlecakes.

        “Rinnah Blackfire!” Milly turned in one swift motion and the spoon lashed out and lightly smacked Rinnah on her thigh startling her to jump back a pace, but the damage was done, she now had a spoon-shaped batter mark on her leg. She stared at it for a second and then reached down with a finger and scraped some off and stuck it in her mouth.

        “Hey!” Rinnah exclaimed with a bright expression, “that’s good!” but she made sure to dance out of reach of the swinging spoon.

        Milly shook it at her and laughed, “You behave yourself Rinnah! And you didn’t answer the question.”

        Rinnah looked around the room; Eleazar was sitting next to Ember now, quietly watching what was transpiring with interest as was the plant angel. Geez, what did they think she was, a performing circus freak?

        “Rinnah, you are not getting a griddlecake until you say!” Threatened Milly with an impish gleam in her eye.

        “Okay fine!” Talk about a tough crowd. She paused, embarrassment shading her voice. “My plan, from the very beginning was to get her out and bring her here. I swear, that was it plain and simple.” After the little confrontation she and Vash just had it did sound naive and childish. And the fact that they were all staring at her waiting for more. “And... uh, well, then I was going to take her and drop her off with her sister.”

        “That’s it! You irresponsible, black-haired imp spawned in Hades, there will be no more freeing of anyone until you first figure out...” A small wooden spoon came flying through the air to smack into Vash’s head jolting it before bouncing off to land with a clatter on the floor in a suddenly quiet room. Everyone stared at him then at Milly. As for Vash, he reached up to rub the spot while glaring daggers at Milly who didn’t seem at all perturbed.

        “Rinnah! Mr. Vash! Here is what is going to happen,” Milly twirled the larger spoon in the air in a threatening manner. “After we deal with Mr. Vash’s nasty brother we will come up with a plan that will keep the plant angels safe. I think we should focus on one problem at a time. You two are getting worked up over something we can’t do anything about now anyway.” Her expression softened as she looked at her two friends. “What we all need to do is to sit down and have something to eat. That will make us feel better because you can’t possibly come up with any good schemes on an empty stomach.”

        She didn’t have anything more complicated or sneakier than that, no matter what they assumed. What else did she need beyond that? It was obvious to her by now that they were expecting something more from her as to arrangements and safety. Squirming a bit under their scrutiny a bit, she hit upon a diversion.

        Looking over at Ember she asked, “Hey Ember, you want to see your other freed sister?” Not letting her answer she pointed an emphatic finger at the plant angel, “Sure she does, see! She’s all a-tingle with excitement ! Aren’t you Ember? See there! She can barely contain her exuberance!”

        Ember tilted her head like a curious kitten watching a string being dangled in front of it. Rinnah was talking too fast for her to make sense of what she was saying.

        “Right then. So that’s the plan... She’ll be safe there, really!” Rinnah enthused trying to convince Vash as she began bouncing on her toes. Seeing his skeptical expression she hastened to add, “until we can trounce Knives sorry butt and afterwards we can call a committee to decide who is safe and who isn‘t and what should be done about it. How’s that for a plan?”

        Vash just threw up his hands in surrender and spun away from her in defeat, for now at any rate. The unknown thomas ranch it was then. They would take up this discussion at a later time and when that time came, he was not going to quip or lip her way out of it.

        He turned toward the table with an exasperated sigh. He hoped that there was an ‘afterward’ once they challenged Knives. If Knives won Vash guessed it wouldn’t matter anyway. Life all over the planet would end in more ways than one. No place would be safe. Milly was right. They had to take out Knives and then he could decide what to do about the safety of his sisters after the battle.

        Figuring she was off the hook, Rinnah made a beeline for the table and sat down. Looking up with an expectant face to Milly, she held up a fork that she had swiped as she had passed the counter. She smiled with what she hoped was in a winsome, poor-me way at Milly as she waited for a plate. It was gratifying to see Milly return the smile and shake her head in good humor. However, the first plate was set in front of the plant angel and then Eleazar’s was set in front of him. That was okay, she could wait, she was known all over the galaxy for her patience.

        Milly stood watching for a moment as Eleazar picked up the tableware that Milly had had delivered along with the plate and began showing the angel how to use each one. Ember looked at the fork and then down at the griddlecake before snatching the cake and cram into her mouth.

        “Oh Mr. Vash, isn’t she cute?”

        “Adorable.” Muttered Vash reluctantly and with a grimace as he watched pieces of food being ingested with a great deal of messiness. He was hovering over the chair across from his sister but at the sight quickly changed his mind; instead, he took the chair next to her so he was sitting across the table from Rinnah. At least the hybrid had better table manners. He really couldn’t see the cute factor that Milly did.

        “You can tell she’s related to you Mr. Vash!” She was practically cooing at the angel even as she addressed the outlaw. Vash stared at his sister then up at Milly. He hoped to God that she wasn’t going to compare their eating habits.

        “She can put it away like you can!” Turning back to the stove she began humming a tune as she began pouring more batter onto the pan.

        Vash rolled his eyes even as his rebellious and empty stomach gave him away with an embarrassing loud rumble that only earned him a crinkled-eyed smile from over Milly’s shoulder.

        The next plate was for Rinnah, which she devoured before Vash even, got his. Then she was on her feet heading for the door mumbling a good night through a stuffed mouth.

        Milly called after her, “Save some hot water for Mr., er, Nicholas.” She blushed furiously, partly because she forgot again, and to a certain extent, because she always seemed to have this reaction to him, even when he wasn’t in the room. She caught Vash with his fork paused halfway to his mouth laughing at her and after a slight pause of surprise, she joined him in his amusement.

Light, Dark, and the Gray Place in the Middle

       “It sounds like we will be taking a side trip before visiting your brother, Mr. Vash.”

        Vash just kept himself from heaving a sigh. Leave it to Milly to make it sound like they were going to be paying Knives a social call.

        “You know,” She said thoughtfully, “I think we should get Rinnah a card for all her hard work and the trouble she has gone to.”

        Was the woman deliberately trying to provoke him?

        “Oh, you don’t have to say anything Mr. Vash, we can pick her up a ‘thank you’ card in the next town.” She stopped to lift her eyes to the ceiling and tap her chin with a batter-covered finger.

        Vash stared at her with a blank expression, thoughts frozen.

        “However, I think she would appreciate a gift certificate more, especially if it was one for coffee and donuts. OH! Or for ice cream!” She nodded, deciding. “Yes, that’s it, a gift certificate.”

        “Please tell me you’re joking.”

        “Don’t worry Mr. Vash, I won’t make you do the shopping, I know how men are.” She smiled with abandon, quite pleased with herself.

        “You are serious!” He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

        “Well she did free two of your sisters and I think that is something, don’t you?“ Not giving him the chance to answer she slid the spatula under a cake and with an expert flick of her wrist, flipped it up in the air to land in the pan on the other side. She paid no attention to his outburst as she conversed with herself. “Now what was that odd flavor she liked, besides a triple order of everything?”

        He fumed, viciously stabbing at his next bite, I hate that black-haired pest.

        “Now I know she tries the patience of a saint at times, which you aren’t, are you Mr. Vash?”

        He stopped chewing to stare at her in surprise. He swallowed and reluctantly admitted in a mumbled no, he wasn’t. The gunman was a little unnerved at the uncanny timing of her remark. Quickly shoving a forkful of egg into his mouth swiftly followed by a large mouthful of griddlecake to cover up his amazement.

        “You know, she has only our best interests in mind.” She shook her utensil at him to emphasize her words. He kept a cautious eye on it. Milly was fast with that thing.

        “Okay Milly, I believe you, now can you please give it a rest?” Milly one, Vash zero, he admitted with sagging shoulders.

        Milly watched with deep contentment as the old priest and plant siblings feasted on breakfast. Satisfied they were taken care of; she fixed a plate for herself and sat down. She giggled watching the struggle that the priest-smith was having trying to keep Ember from overfilling her mouth. The she glanced at Vash and saw that he was off in his own little world.

        For his part, Vash went over the change of circumstances. One more detour. The fates were against him. They must like Knives better. Everything always, always, seemed to go in his favor leaving Vash to get the short end of the stick.

        He heard gagging and alarmed, looked up to see Milly and Eleazar trying to dig chunks of half-chewed cake out of Ember’s bulging cheeks. He grinned at Milly’s gentle chiding as the priest dipped his napkin into a water glass to clean off the angel’s syrup-covered mouth. It wasn’t easy as the plant angel had only one interest and that was consuming as much as she could get away and then some. It was the ‘then some’ that was getting her into trouble.

        Vash sighed, and propped his head on a fist. When first setting out to look for allies this was not what he had in mind. This far surpassed his wildest dreams, a plant outside of a bulb. If she was within he could have detached her from the family link, or even better, if he could have found the right equipment he could have removed the bulb and hid it away from Knives. Then he could have used her much the same way Knives used the rest of their family, as a power source; of course Knives wouldn’t admit it.

        He glanced up at his sister with the two still fussing over her as if she were a grown baby, which he admitted, was a pretty good comparison. He rubbed his forehead over this new glitch. He had two sisters free and loose. Everyone else only saw the positive side while all he saw were problems and more problems, one linked to another stretching into infinity, each accompanied by it’s own unique headache. Placing his elbows on the table, he cradled his face in his hands. He was feeling ill just thinking about the complications of her actions along with that she-plant’s own particular brand of fearlessness when she should be more circumspect, like a normal person would, but normal is one of the last words he would use in describing her. Where angels and fools fear to tread... he let the thought go unfinished, as an image of her appeared unbidden in his mind. Unaware, one corner of his mouth twitched up. Without effort he reached out with his mind and felt her on the verge of falling asleep, content and happy now she was bathed and changed into clean clothes. Satisfied, he pulled back.

        He heard another noise at the end of the table that caught his attention. He looked up in time to see his sister had stuffed another three whole cakes into her mouth. It was no surprise to hear the gagging noises. Obviously in this situation experience wasn’t doing such a good job at being a teacher. Again both Milly and Eleazar were digging their fingers into her mouth pulling out wads of shredded food and dropping it on her plate. He grimaced.

        “No Ember, remember, just take a bite at a time. Here let me show you...” With the limitless patience that was Milly, she showed the plant angel the correct way to eat without the fear of choking to death.

        He covered his eyes with a hand; it wasn’t a pretty sight. Then dropping his hand, he straightened in his chair. As he watched Milly, he felt a certainty rising in him that it was time to come clean. He couldn’t keep the news from her any longer. It was time to tell Milly the truth. No longer was he sure of when the right time would be to spring the news on her, but this moment seemed as good as any. Besides, he was getting tired of hauling the weight around within him. It was getting too heavy a burden to carry and Milly was the most tenderhearted, gentle, compassionate, kindhearted person he knew. She would understand when he told her.


        Expectant, Milly looked up at Vash patiently waiting to hear what he had to say. For the first time he felt a thread of an apprehension course through him. He was not looking forward to this, no matter how wonderful Milly was, this wasn‘t going to be easy.

        “Yes Mr. Vash?” Prompted Milly. Her head tilted in curiosity as she watched him nervously lick his lips.

Sunrise in Paradise

       This was the third time she had shivered. Knives’ eyebrows lowered in irritation as he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. After the first shiver in the cold pre-morning air, he had asked her if she would like to go back inside but she had only given him that stubborn look and shook her head ‘no‘. She was adamant about watching the rising of the first sun. He bit back a sigh. Humans and their little quirks, especially female humans, he couldn’t begin to understand them, but then, it wasn’t like he had ever tried to or even wanted to. He wondered how human males were able to put up with the bizarre behavior that afflicted them at times. At times it was like they were a separate species altogether.

        He didn’t wonder anymore why he allowed her to have her way on occasion when he wouldn’t tolerate a hint of defiance from anyone else. There were times when Knives let her have her own way over something she had her heart set on, and then there were times when they were practically nose to nose arguing with each other. Again, not behavior he would permit from any of his underlings but the plant would never admit how much he looked forward to watching the flush of temper rise in her cheeks or how it made her eyes lighten to a lavender even as they flashed in anger at him. Then in the midst of the clash of wills she would remember just who it was she was yelling at and abruptly turn away, fear silencing her tongue. He would give much to make her forget that fear, except that there was truth to it.

        As a plant with many fearsome abilities he had great power at his fingertips, yet in the face of her apprehension he was helpless to lay her fears to rest so she wouldn‘t turn away from him with that look on her face. He hated that look. He waited for the other one, where her eyes softened and she watched him with lips slightly parted in a small smile that he knew she only let him see. Knives was also aware that he wouldn’t hurt her, not now or ever, he couldn’t even if his other feelings weren’t twisted in confusion. He only knew that he liked to be near her, around her and she was constantly running through his thoughts no matter the time or day. The puzzle was that the more he grew to know her, the more she was a mystery to him which he found intriguing and frustrating all at the same time. He didn’t like mysteries. He wanted to know.

        The volatile plant closed his eyes and inhaled slowly trying to calm his clamoring pulse. One of these days the situation was going to have to be resolved. A small pucker of a frown appeared between his brows. At times, under the onslaught of these intense emotions he was being threatened with, a weakness touched him, something between consuming hunger and empty need. With all his powers, abilities, strengths, intellect, cunning, and logic one would have expected him to be able to solve this problem. Still, the seed of knowing was eluding his grasp even if he wasn’t afraid to reach for it. His jaw tightened at the thought, that he, Knives, was afraid of anything. He closed his eyes for a fraction of a second as if to block out the thought that at times he was being reduced to an animalistic state stripped logic, intellect and the purity of higher reasoning. And the object of this imbalance stood next to him enjoying the last twinkle of the stars before they were swallowed by the light of the coming dawn.

        Right now the last moon was still hanging brightly in the sky but it seemed darker without his more luminous kindred dancing the night with him. It was also cold. Usually he required her to wear something to keep warm but this morning they started out late and she had dashed out the door without her jacket. A corner of his mouth lifted in wry amusement. She dashed with as much speed as she could manage at this stage but it would be more accurate to call it a fast waddle. He had followed not even thinking to grab her coat. Not thinking, that also was very unusual for him and soon he was kicking himself when she started to shiver. Knives could see his breath with each exhale. He gazed down at the small female at his side in time to catch another shiver pass through her.

        He saw her lift her chin, aware that she was being watched, so with a small crease of his lips, he averted his gaze and looked back to the horizon. Proud, independent, and stubborn as the desert was hot. Involuntarily, a lip twitched. He was amazed again that what he wouldn’t put up with in anyone else he actually admired in her. It wasn’t something he allowed himself to think about much as it made him uncomfortable with feelings he couldn‘t name and didn‘t know what to do with. He snuck another peek at her from the corner of his eye. With only one moon showing and that in descent, he couldn’t see but a dim reflection lighting the curves of her face.

        He didn’t bother to look around them, as he knew, in ways no one else could begin to comprehend, that they were alone. On his orders, the corridors they had walked down only minutes earlier were deserted during this time of the morning. When he and Meryl made their morning pilgrimage to the surface he made sure the halls they used were vacant. These outings of theirs were special, a moment of time just between the two of them and he wanted no prying or curious eye to observe something he considered to be private. Until he returned the pregnant woman to her suite the halls were off-limits. Also, he knew Meryl was distinctly uncomfortable with the fawning looks she was at the receiving end of when one of the workers caught a glimpse of her passing by. She would avert her eyes and scurry past, back in the days before she was too big to move quickly, now she could only look elsewhere and move at that fast-paced waddle of hers. She never said anything, but he knew it bothered her and had arranged it so she could avoid these awkward and painful encounters. That was one thing he would admit, and with pride, was that he cared about her well being, as any sovereign should when starting a dynasty.

        Before this time one or another of his servants used to accompany her to the surface, back in those days when he allowed her to come up. It was a trip he had forbidden for quite some time and only recently decided to allow her to come again deciding the fresh air was good for her. This time however, he determined that he would accompany her instead of a servant. Anymore, he didn‘t trust her safety with anyone else. At least that was what he told himself. Together they turned to watch the impending rising of the first sun as the darkness lifted to a dark purple.

        He uttered a deep, low sound in his throat when he saw her shiver again.

        “Really, I’m okay.” She said, voice quiet in the pre-dawn stillness.

        “I can’t risk you to a chill.” He answered as he reached out and started to take an elbow to guide her back inside.

        “Please. Let me stay... I... need this.” She begged softly, those peculiar grayish lilac eyes peering up into his beseechingly. He looked down at her, the angles of his face unreadable in the hazy light before the crack of dawn. Briefly, she wondered what he was thinking. Did it matter? She dropped her gaze to look off into the distance.

        Knives watched the dark head lower in seeming submissiveness. Those eyes again. Every once in a while they caught him unawares and something like hunger came over him, he narrowed his eyes at her, a needy hunger he didn’t know what to do with or how to fulfill. He was trapped within it and dared not utter a sound or make a move until he could gain control over himself again lest he do something he would regret later. What that could be he wasn’t sure but one thing he did know and that was he didn’t like feeling bewildered and bewitched like this. The thought came again and he reminded himself that soon he would have to think about how to resolve this tension within himself. He couldn’t keep going on like this.

        He grunted and raised his hand to grasp her upper arm. She sighed, thinking he was going to demand that she return to their quarters. She started to move in the direction of the doorway but surprising her to no end, he turned her slightly to the side and pulled her into his chest to wrap his arms around her. She looked up at what she could see of his profile in the light of the last moon. His skin caught the light of the single orb and lit it up until it glowed with an unearthly light. She caught her breath. He was indeed glorious right then, like a beautiful marble statue, but she reminded herself, with a heart just as cold and hard. He only cares about wiping out humans. She could have believed that except for the comforting warmth inside the circle of his arms.

        With a start, she saw a blue flash cross his eyes and then felt even warmer. He was generating heat so she wouldn’t be chilled! Then she looked down. Of course, she was as big as a barn and near her due date. No more than a week or so if she had to guess. He wanted to make sure nothing happened to his favorite brood mare. She let out a soft sigh.

        Being held in the possessive circle of his arms was making Meryl feel distinctly ill at ease. Not only was her body changing in ways she couldn’t begin to comprehend, also her feelings were all over the chart. First, the plant babies within were changing her into something she couldn‘t begin to understand and she was having nightmares of turning into some sort of creature with a numerous tentacles waving from out of her torso. Also, in a state of flux were her emotions, thoughts, and everything she thought she believed in. The only thing she knew for sure that gave a semblance of stability was the awakening of the two suns preparing themselves for a new day. Everything else was shifting sand beneath her feet and right now, Meryl desperately needed to know something was solid, stable, and always the same.

        Sorrow washed through Meryl. There was no one to talk to or pour her heart out to, her fears, frustrations, and secret thoughts. For a brief second she wished Milly were with her, but right on the heels of that thought was also relief that Milly was safe wherever she was, away from here. Who knew what this vengeful plant would do with her best friend. Or to her. It was the silken invisible collar and leash she could never throw off, no not as long as he could threaten Milly. She almost shuddered but caught herself in time. She didn’t want him to assume she was still cold and make her go in before being able to watch the rising of the primary sun. Then she became conscious that she hadn’t thought about escaping in a very long time. God help her, but Knives didn’t need a silken leash anymore, she was caught for life.

        She let out a sigh that quickly turned into a shiver. Her teeth chattered before she could tightly clench them together. She knew he heard but she wasn’t going to look up or say anything. Her resolve strengthened, she was going to watch the suns come up, no matter what! If he tried to drag her in she would point out that her kicking, and screaming couldn’t be good for the baby. A barely discernable lift of the corner of her mouth as she reflected in amusement. It was an argument she made sure not to overuse so when she did pull it out on occasion it would stop him in his tracks to eye her suspiciously, but he usually gave in and let her have her way. Being pregnant certainly had some distinct advantages. It was lucky for him she never requested pickle-flavored ice cream from that little shop near her old apartment. A slight chuckle escaped her and she knew Knives could feel it with her pressed up against him like she was.

        With a sudden movement and without warning, Meryl’s feet were swept out from under her by Knives’ strong arm and she felt herself being lifted up. Unable to keep a small gasp from slipping out, she shot a look up at his face but her surprise made no impression on him that she could see. Instead he took a few steps over and sat down on a huge rock and placed her gently in his lap, taking care not to jar her. Meryl was speechless, not to mention amazed that she could fit in his lap but he arranged her so that she was sitting comfortably.

        Meryl’s mouth was open with shock and a thread of irritation that he had, yet again, neglected to ask her what she wanted. So very infuriating, but come to think of it, why was he doing this? He was acting as if he actually cared about her like before, when he had kissed her. He had never explained that kiss and never tried to kiss her again since then. She finally decided he was just curious and found the whole thing to be repugnantly human.

        But this, this was new. He was concerned about her. She frowned in puzzlement. That couldn’t be right, he must have some ulterior motive up his sleeve that she was unaware of. She gave her head a quick shake. It didn’t matter if he did or not. He would do what he wanted, when he wanted, how he wanted, no matter what she thought or had to say about it. She gave him a quick, suspicious peek. He was in the inscrutable mode that always drove her crazy with exasperation. Then with an internal shrug of dismissal she turned her attention back to the beginning of the new day. Wouldn’t it be ironic if, she who had pushed for this privilege missed the first slice of light on the rim of the sky?

        As if hearing her internal and unspoken questionings, he answered as he stared at the horizon over the top of her head, “I can’t have you getting chilled or tired and I know you wouldn‘t admit it.” It was said in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. Meryl realized he was right, she was indeed, a little tired, but feeling strangely perverse, didn‘t want to admit it. She let a small half-smile creep over her lips she didn’t know if she liked him knowing her so well but then decided she didn‘t care.

        Letting out a tiny yawn in concession to the fact that he may be right, she settled into him, letting herself accept the warmth and comforting feel of his strong arms circled protectively around her.

        The first sun was just peeking over the horizon’s rim and she smiled at it in greeting. This sight never ceased to excite and reassure her at the same time. Funny, something she had always taken for granted in her old life was now a special advent. She was glad to welcome the birth of the new day.

        Knives tilted his head so he could see her face. He knew she was unaware of this but he looked forward to this moment every morning since they started coming out to watch the first sunrise. As the little female scanned the horizon, he absorbed every nuance of expression crossing her face like a thirsty man at the only well on the edge of the desert.

        During this time he couldn’t take his eyes off her and the way the rising sun lit up her face causing the gray in her eyes to light up in an unusual shade of purple. She was beautiful, and, he acknowledged with a smug feeling, she was with him. So many good things were associated with this one tiny, fragile female, not quite human anymore.

        Too caught up with the morning’s minor miracle, Meryl was unaware of his scrutiny. She watched, entranced as the sun pulled itself above the rim of the horizon and a sense of joy flooded her. The rays of the sun ran warming fingers over Meryl’s face and she closed her eyes even as her skin of her face tingled in response to the touch.

        With eyes still closed in contentment Meryl asked, “Knives?”


        “Won’t you get bored?”

        He looked at her sharply. This wasn’t a conversation starter; she had something on her mind.

        “With what?” He replied, curious as to what she was thinking. Again he regretted the transformation she was undergoing with the effect the left him unable to gain access to her mind.

        “With Eden.” She murmured and now she opened her eyes to look up at him.

        His brow creased with a puzzled frown and she smiled in response.

        “What happens after you wipe out all the humans?”

        “That is an easy question to answer. We begin working on Paradise for our kind and....”

        She held up a hand with a shake of her dark head. “I know all that. What I want to know is this;” She paused for a second thinking over how to word what she wanted to ask.

        Meryl braved a quick glance at the imperious face before boldly forging on, “When... when this planet is no longer a lifeless dust ball but a lush paradise, after all the plant angels are living together peacefully in Eden,... well, what will you do when everything you dreamed of is accomplished? What will there be left to do after that?”

        With the frown deepening he lowered his chin in thought. Answering slowly, which was unusual for him, “We live in peace...” he started.

        “Doing what?”

        “Well.... building, growing,...”

        “Yes, but what? What will you, personally, be doing Knives?”

        “I... well, I...”. He trailed off dumbfounded.

        Meryl wanted to giggle. Without the evil ‘I’m going to wipe the existence of humanity from this planet’ glower on his face, he actually was kind of cute, especially with his mouth slightly gaping open like that and his eyes glazing over in thought. For the first time she could see the resemblance to Vash. The twins did look alike but their personalities were so different the family likeness was barely discernible.

        Resuming her thread of thought and surprising him, commented, “Humans were kicked out of Eden you know.”

        “I know and well they should be.” He arched an eyebrow at her and she huffed in irritation at the oh-so superior look he gave her.

        “I won’t argue that with you, but we can’t go back the way we are now. For one thing eternity was taken out of our bodies but not our hearts. But there is a thing in us, something that still remembers and yearns, a longing for home. So we hold paradise in front of us as an ideal Knives, a model to strive toward and emulate and that is what the majority of us try to do.”

        She didn’t have to look at him to feel the lip curling in disdain.

        “Humans are a lower species; they are too flawed to appreciate the perfections of Eden. They are too corrupt.” His voice was laced with contempt.

        With a sigh, Meryl replied, “I won’t argue that with you either but as it is, we all need something to strive for and with so we can look back at a thing say, ‘I was there, now I am here.‘ Then, we need something to look forward to as all this shows us the measure of ourselves. All of us are flawed Knives but for as bad as we can be, we also seek to extend a helping hand to those in need. Your kind is flawed too.” She wondered if that last comment would be too much. Meryl held her breath while waiting for a frosty response covering a churning anger. She was surprised with the answer she received, it wasn’t the one she had anticipated.

        “I do not see this.” He stated calmly, “You are as deluded as my idiot brother.”

        Meryl chose not to respond to that but instead pointed out, “Knives, you will wither away and die in Eden because you will be too proud to admit you are bored to tears. And a fitting punishment would be God just leaving you there. He did us a favor when He kicked us out because it would have been a type of death to stay in a place too perfect for the imperfect. I think it will be the same for you. You are your own snake Knives, you will end up being poisoned in the venom of your own bitterness, fear, and hate.”

        “Since, when did you become a priest?” She shook her head at the scorn dripping from his voice but didn’t reply. “You spout folklore with ease; I didn’t know you believed in this... stuff.”

        “I believe in Heaven Knives, but truthfully, I could have used the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and still made the same point.”

        “You use children’s tales and myths to support your argument? This is an unsound and flawed reasoning Meryl. I thought you were more intelligent than this.” He was chiding and humoring her at the same time but she noted he had regained that smug superiority again along with that exasperating lift of his lip when they got into discussions.

        “Faith and intelligence need not cancel each other out,” she looked up at him, “The upper realms are the abode of true angels Knives and whatever else you may be, you are not a true angel.” She ended in a whisper before raising her shadowed eyes to his and asked, “So then Knives. What will you do when all is said and done?”

        What was he going to do? Knives‘ had immediately gone on the offensive to keep from thinking about it. He didn’t have an answer for her. He never thought past the part of dead humans littering the landscape and ecstatic plant angels rejoicing in their bulbs.

        “Ah, I see,” she whispered, her eyes softening in the light that was breaking night‘s hold, “The ultimate evolved life form hasn’t thought that far ahead, has he?”

        “Shut up woman, I need to think.” He snapped out, oblivious of his words as he ran a large hand through his short-cropped hair.

        He heard chuckling and his hand stopped midway through his black hair with the white blond streaks to stare down in astonishment at the grinning female. He couldn’t believe her behavior; she should be in fear for her life right about now. However, she looked up at him with eyes sparkling with glee as she made a pathetic attempt to smother her laughter under a covering hand. The plant forgot his previous shock as he watched, entranced. Her eyes were vividly alive with lavender highlights and her face lit up with unrepressed mirth. This indeed was taking his breath away. He could admit it. He wasn’t one of those deceitful creatures who spent their lives hiding from reality. She was beautiful. He lowered his arm slowly and again circled it around her expanded waist as he stared into her eyes. He would think about Eden another time.

        The smile faded from Meryl’s face. He was looking at her strangely again with an look she couldn’t decipher. She wondered if he had come to the decision that she was of no use to him. That’s what she thought when she saw that oddly intent look on his face. She nervously shifted in his lap thinking that maybe she should remove herself several yarz away to a place of safety. That was a silly thought though, where could she go that he couldn’t easily catch her if he wanted to? Why, oh why, didn’t he say something? This silence was getting intolerable. She would be happy even to hear that cold clipped voice saying something mocking to her. Even that would be better than this look she couldn‘t fathom. Her eyes bounced from one cold blue eye back to the other as if clues were hidden there. If there were, she wasn’t finding them. This strange expression that came over his face was unsettling, although, come to think of it, she had been seeing it more often of late.

        “Why do you haunt me Meryl?” He asked in a soft whisper with gentleness that was at odds with his strength and power as his eyes stared intently into hers.

        “I... I...” She lifted a hand to lightly touch a collarbone with fingertips. What was he talking about? Haunt? How was she haunting him? She was doing no such thing.

        His stare drilled into her as he lowered his face until their breaths were mingling. “I will figure this out Meryl. I swear to the Heaven that you believe in that I will find the answer to this.”

        “O.. okay...” Stuttered Meryl, bewildered by his intimidating behavior and the fierce quality in his voice.

        He gave her another hard look before releasing her eyes to look up to scan the horizon. Meryl released out a trapped breath with relief. His was such a difficult personality even when she did understand what he was talking about.

        The sun was above the horizon now and it wouldn’t be long before the following sun also peeked over to join the older sibling. Already the air was turning from a pleasant warmth to fast becoming too uncomfortable for the pregnant woman.

        Knives knew she became easily flustered when he stared at her, which in the past was always a source of enjoyment, but now, for some reason, he didn’t want her to have that reaction to him. He wanted... he wanted... what did he want? He frowned but it was an elusive thing that he couldn’t quite grab a hold of to pin down and study. Maybe another time then. As it was, he decided they needed to return to the wing where their suites were.

        He stood up and as he was about to place her on her feet, he gave a mental shrug and decided not to. Instead, he would carry her back.

        “Kn... Knives?” Came a hesitant whisper. She was clearly confused by his action. “What are you.. doing? Put me down, I... I can walk just fine.”

        “I will be the one to decide that.”

        She wiggled a little in his tight hold. “I don’t need you to tell me if I can walk or not!” Some of the old Meryl asserted. “I’m pregnant, not crippled! I am fully capable of moving about on my own!”

        Without looking down at her he replied calmly, “You may be but I will make the decision as to what is best for you.”

        She muttered something under her breath but even with his remarkable hearing he wasn’t sure what it was but it sounded suspiciously like “stubborn plant!” It amused him but he didn’t let on he had heard anything.

        When they reached the door, he lifted a hand from her shoulder and leaned closer to tap a code into the door panel and watched as it slid open obediently. He stepped in to the relative coolness of the stairwell with his precious burden and heard a small sound out of her. He chanced a look down and glimpsed the grudging acquiescence on her face that he was, indeed, going to get his way and carry her all the way back to their wing. A slight crease in the corner of his mouth lifted in triumph. As if he had any doubts.

What We Lack in Social Graces We Make Up For With Loyal Friendship and a Warm Smile....

       Rinnah sped into the room six-shooter in hand and ready for action.

        Someone was being killed.

        Rinnah’s jaw dropped in shock as she slid to a stop and saw.....


        ...doing her level best to kill Vash.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 24
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