"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 24"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG

Just a Pleasant Evening in Paradise

       Knives wearily rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. Today he had finally come to a decision and had given the order. Vash was taking too long. The bulb he had been growing specifically for Vash was ready and waiting. Knives expected Vash to show up weeks ago and couldn’t figure out why he was hesitating. Something was amiss or delaying him and it was a situation that needed to be rectified. He dropped his hand from his eyes to flop down on the arm of the chair he was reclining in. The teams were on their way to the towns where his twin was most likely to show up at. It should only be a matter of time now.

        “Something wrong?” Meryl looked up from another outfit she was sewing, pausing to study the plant before her. Her eyes were soft in the subdued light of the one lamp on the table between their chairs, a quiet, muted lavender as they gazed at him. Placing an elbow on the arm of the chair, he propped his cheek up on a fist as he stared back at her.

        “No. Just business.” He didn’t want to tell her that he had given the order for the net to be cast. Soon his brother and his bothersome friends would be brought in. Even now he couldn’t figure out what to tell her. He knew she didn’t have any romantic feelings for Vash any more but he didn’t want to take any chances. However, worse than hauling his errant brother in with the chance the two would come face to face, was the fact that Meryl’s best friend would be among the group and that could be more of a complication than bygone feelings for an old flame.

        Meryl considered the slumping shoulders, oh nothing that another would catch, but she had spent too much time with him and knew him better than most. He was tired, he had come to a conclusion that was not sitting well with him and was uncomfortable about it. Not only, that, it involved her somehow and he didn‘t want her to know about it. She looked back down and continued hemming the baby garment. Only a few more stitches and it would be finished.

        When she would have asked another question, she stopped, the breath in her lungs locked in. A shudder just flowed over her and she felt an internal pop and a wet leaking. With a speed she hadn’t been able to move at in months she rose from her chair and headed for the bathroom.

        Knives saw the look on her face and made ready to face the barrage of questions he knew she was going to ask him. She was nothing if not tenacious at times. So he was startled when she pushed herself from her chair with a strange look on her face and left.

        Without thinking about it, he rose and followed her, drawn after her as if with a cord. He couldn’t have stopped himself if had tried. The only barrier came when she closed the bathroom door between them. He stared in shock at the imitation wood of the door. He may be the richest being on the planet, but even he had some limits.

        Bending his head, he put his hand on the doorknob but it was locked and with a frown commanded, “Meryl, open the door.”

        “No.” She said firmly but he heard the strain in her voice. His eyebrows rose. No?

        He exerted a bit of his strength and pushed. With a sharp cracking noise the door came off the hinges. He stepped in, slid the now useless door against the wall and turned to find Meryl leaning over the sink, hands clutching the edge with a white-knuckled grip. Her brow was furrowed with eyes and teeth clenched tight, as a sharp pain ripped across her abdomen. It only lasted for a few seconds but already there was a fine sheen of sweet along her hairline.

        “False labor or contractions?” He went still as he waited for the answer. He didn’t have to wait long even though he already knew. A rush of water fell from between Meryl’s legs to form a puddle underneath her.

        “Guess.” She gasped out. Then her face relaxed as the contraction passed.

        “I will alert the doctor and make sure everything is set up.” Informed Knives as he turned to leave.

        “You anal, micro-managing plant! You know we have had the room ready for weeks now!” She started to growl something else but stopped as another contraction hit her.

        These were coming much too close together for this early. There should be minutes between contractions, not seconds. Knives was suddenly worried but he didn’t let it show in his face as he went and made the necessary call. He returned and without her permission, picked her up and began carrying her. The room chosen for the birth room was only a few doors down the hall. It would have been an easy and boring walk, but Meryl was yelling and punching him the whole time. Stoically and without expression he took the blows but made no move to stop her. She was beyond reasoning with and he was even expecting it.

The Straw That Broke the Milly's Back

        Rinnah’s first inkling of trouble as she was being remorselessly yanked from the cozy dreams of slumber into the cold world of reality was a persistent yelling in the background. Sluggishly she raised her head, pillow draped over it as she listened, then flopped back again with a grimace before clutching it tightly over her ears. However it turned out to be impossible to dampen the noise coming down the hall and speeding into her room.

        Lifting the pillow until one eye could be seen peering out, the hybrid noticed that the door to her room was wide open allowing the sounds of the uproar to easily enter. With a sullen wrench Rinnah threw the pillow off her and glared in the direction of the door. It was the most she was willing to do. A dish fell and broke on the floor.

        “Holy Hybrid! What now!!” Rinnah groaned as she reached for the pillow again and jammed it over her head in a futile effort to muffle the rising din echoing down the narrow hallway. She didn’t want to grump; if she was woken up it was her own fault after all she was the one who had forgotten to close the bedroom door in the first place. Another sharp crash made her jump at the sound even through the pillow. C’mon people! A little sensitivity here! The hybrid scrunched her face as she focused on trying not to hear the escalating rattling and smashing, sounding like whatever it used to be in a previous life, the thing was now in a million little pieces. No! This can’t be happening to me!

        A sound of a shriek had her rocketing up into a sitting position, her heart in her throat. She was starting to roll off the bed but stopped to listen again. Cocking her head, she strained to hear any further noises but there was nothing, only an eerie silence that made her doubt she had ever heard anything in the first place. Not a sound came from the other room. Deciding that whatever it was had been worked out, she replaced her pillow, snuggled into it and folded the other half over her head. Just then a loud clatter rattled over the floorboards in the other room making her eyes pop open while a curse flew from her lips. This was beginning to sound a little more serious than a friendly little food fight amongst friends.

        A crash of falling pots and pans caused Rinnah to start. Now that was loud. Someone is right pissed. She cocked her head to listen again and wondered if she should get up or not. I am curious, but not that curious. What she wanted was for the combatants to kiss and make up so she could go back to sleep in peace. With all her heart Rinnah wanted to avoid rising if at all possible. What she needed was another couple of hours of sleep which would do her just fine. Pounding a fist into her pillow she cautiously laid her head down. With her luck it would be off of it again in seconds.

        The next instant proved her theory correct when an earsplitting piercing shriek of rage launched her right off the bed to race for her six-shooter before she could even had time to think about what she was doing. Now she was grateful she had dressed after the bath and before falling into bed. Her hand snatched the gun belt and whipped it around her waist buckling it in one fluid motion as she moved for the door. The familiar weight settled around her hips and left thigh. Instinctively she popped the restraining snap holding her gun secure. With her gun in her hand she raced for the door. If someone was hurting Milly they were going to rue the day they even the thought of looking cross-eyed at her.

        She flung open the door and raced down the hall, the metallic blue tip of the gun safely pointing at the ceiling while every nerve in her body geared up for battle. Rinnah barreled into the room and slid to a stop landing in a fighter’s crouch, gun tip lowered to aim at....


        Rinnah’s eyes went round with shock while her gun arm sank slowly to hang down by her side from nerveless fingers as she slowly straightened from her crouch.

        Can’t say life is boring when traveling with this crew. The thought flashed through Rinnah’s head as she took in the sight in front of her wide, stunned eyes.

        Milly was doing her level best to strangle the life out of Vash.

The Truth Hurts... Someone and I Am Going to Make Darn Sure It’s You

       Rinnah’s mouth dropped open at the sight of Milly stretched out flat on her stomach over the length of the tabletop with her feminine yet abnormally strong hands wrapped around Vash’s throat.

        “So.... what’d I miss?” She inquired brightly but her voice was lost in the midst of Milly screaming something incomprehensible as she strove to tighten her fingers on Vash‘s throat. Vash was just keeping the life being choked out him by wedging his fingers under hers. Whoa Nelly, but that girl has a right powerful grip!

        Not alarmed for Vash, knowing he could easily break the tall girl’s wrists if he wanted to, she turned her attention to Milly. That was when she noticed Nicholas off to the side, thunder on his brow, arms crossed, stance rigid as he glared at Vash. His fingers contracted making dents in the material of his sleeves as if wishing he too could throttle the life out of the outlaw right along with Milly.

        She wondered what the stupid plant had said to rile St. Milly. It had to be good whatever it was, it had to be something horrific, beyond belief, ghastly, shocking...something... oh dear.. Suddenly she knew.

        Rinnah moved over to Wolfwood and with eyes pinned on his wife answered her unspoken question. “He told us Meryl is alive. The bastard. He lied to us, he lied to Milly and she isn’t taking it with her usual good humor.”

        Now that was an understatement if she ever heard one.

        She turned to look at Milly’s face, bothered to see pupils shrunk down to mere pinpoints in her rage and lips drawn back over clenched teeth. It was obvious that her one intent was to take down the gunman no one in all these years had been able to do. For his part, Vash was doing his level best leaning back away from Milly while at the same time trying to pry her fingers off his throat, all without hurting her. Milly was pulled across the table a couple of inches by Vash’s action but she didn’t seem to notice. He transferred his grip to her wrists and then hesitated. Rinnah could tell what he was thinking but again, he didn‘t want to hurt Milly.

        The half-plant’s eyebrows rose as she looked back to the priest to see a slight tremor run through his wiry frame. He was feeling the betrayal as deeply as Milly. Rinnah nodded, all this time Vash had scathingly labeled the priest as a traitor only for this to come out. Plants, humans! She gave a mental shrug, outside of the each species obvious differences both were capable of being incredibly stupid.

        Turning back, Rinnah sighed as she took in Milly‘s enraged face, the grip of her hands, Vash‘s hold on her wrists and how he was acting amazingly calm for someone running out of air. A quick glance out of the corner of her eye let her know that the priest was not going to step in and come to Vash’s rescue. Neither was Vash coming to Vash’s rescue. From the looks of things it appeared that he was going to let Milly choke the living daylights out of him. She looked across the room to Eleazar and Ember. He had a hold on Vash’s sister who was trembling and frozen in place with horror. The process of elimination put it squarely on her shoulders.

        Turning back to the sideshow, she called out merrily, “Okay, everyone, playtime’s over! Let’s all get back to our assigned seats before class starts!”

        No one said anything and neither did the throttling action on Milly’s part cease. Rinnah quirked an eyebrow up in irritation. No one was paying any attention to her. This would not do. Lifting the colt still in her left hand, she pointed it upward and pulled the trigger putting a bullet-sized hole in the ceiling.

        It had the desired effect though; everyone froze in place before turning to look at her with startled eyes. Sliding her gun back into the holster she snapped the strap closed as she glided to stand next to the table on which Milly was stretched out.

        Milly speared the black-haired hybrid a heated look before turning back to Vash.

        “This is no joke Rinnah. He‘s the meanest...!” A sob came up out of her throat as she cried around it, “He.... He lied! About... lied... about Meryl!” Her friend’s name ripped through her lips with as an agonized sob wracked her tall frame and with a deep growl she redoubled her efforts to choke the life out of the gunman between her hands.

        Rinnah lifted her hands in a placating motion, palms facing outward, “No joke Milly, as much as I would like to join you in your endeavor in chastising this pitiful excuse for a plant, I’m afraid we still need him alive.”

        “He lied! He‘s nasty and mean!” Milly emphasized as Rinnah was obviously unable to realize how very horrible it was that Mr. Vash had lied. “About Meryl being alive!“ Her face was red and wet from tears along with the effort it was taking to try and strangle the outlaw. “I trusted you! I believed you! I stuck up for you! You are a very bad man, you liar!” With each exclamation she shook his head back and forth. Vash, didn’t try to defend himself, not that it would have done him any good at this point. Milly was beyond listening to anything he had to tell her.

        “Yes, and strange as it may seem, everyone lies about something.” Rinnah was now gently working on Milly’s fingers one at a time, being as careful as she could. Where Vash couldn’t get her to loosen her hold, Rinnah was successful. She shot a look at Vash’s face, even he needed air to survive and it looked like he was running on a quickly disappearing supply.

        “Nicholas, some help?”

        “Not this time Blackfire.” She cast an incredulous look at him. This was the first time he had ever used her surname.

        “Okay, fine. More fun for me then.” She turned her attention back to Vash and Milly.

        “He lied!” Milly insisted. “Hateful, nasty man! She’s alive and he lied about it!”

        “Yes. I know.”

        Immediately two things happened. Milly let go of Vash’s throat and threw herself at Rinnah, latching onto her neck. Rinnah found herself staring into enraged eyes. Fire and brimstone! Rinnah gulped and reassessed her opinion of her own intelligence down a few notches as Milly began to tighten strong fingers around her neck. It was a ‘for sure’ thing that stupidity was not limited to either species or even those caught in the middle of the two. The effort of turning and throwing her full weight at Rinnah had her staggering backwards with Milly following until they collapsed to the floor with Milly landing heavily on top of her. Upon impact between the floor and Milly, air whooshed out of the hybrid’s lungs and she gasped trying to get her breath back. Making it difficult was the strangle hold transferred from Vash’s neck to her own. Yes, only a special kind of stupid had this sort of luck.

        “You knew!” Milly accused.

        “Yeth...” Gurgled Rinnah as she wiggled underneath Milly’s body, desperately trying to worm out. It wasn’t working, she was good and pinned. She could just toss the taller woman and send her flying across the room but, like Vash, she didn’t want to hurt her. Besides, except for the whole not-able-to-breath part, she did feel guilty about not saying something to Milly when she had first found out about Meryl. Why’d I ever listen to Vash! I should have just said something from the very start!

        The hybrid looked past Milly’s shoulder to see Nicholas bending over and hooking hands under the tall girl’s armpits trying to lift Milly off of her. She felt a flash of gratitude that the priest liked her better at the moment than he liked Vash. Just then she saw Vash’s face join Nicholas’s over Milly’s other shoulder as he helped the priest by peeling Milly’s fingers away from her neck. When the last finger was pulled off Vash took Rinnah’s upper arms and, with one smooth move lifted her up and placed her on her feet. Rinnah rubbed at her throat wincing. That’ll leave a mark! Once she was on her feet she noticed Vash was also rubbing his throat where the marks of Milly’s recent attack were now visible. They both watched as Wolfwood rocked Milly in his arms as he whispered tenderly in her ear. Milly looked around, dazed, blinking slowly as if returning to her normal self. Rinnah noticed that Nicholas still had an ‘I’m pissed as hell’ look on his face as he stopped talking to look up at them.

        Rinnah still rubbing her neck whispered hoarsely, “Milly, I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to...”

        Vash laid a restraining hand on her arm as he spoke for the first time since Rinnah had entered the room. Although, I have to admit, he was a little preoccupied at the time.

        He stared into Milly’s eyes but speaking to everyone said, “No, this is mine. I am the one responsible for the decision from the start.” His expression softened. “Don’t blame her Milly. I told Rinnah that I would tell you when I thought the time was right...”

        Choke on it! Directing a resentful thought his way but not expecting him to catch it, Red-eyed jerk of a plant has the absolute worst timing on this side of the galaxy!

        *I heard that!* He spiked a ruby-red glare at her.


        “Well, how did she...” Milly started, suspiciously eyeing Rinnah, not quite willing to let bygones be bygones just yet.

        “The plant family grapevine.” Vash gave the hybrid a quelling look and she snapped her mouth shut with an audible click. Notawordnotawordnotaword... She couldn’t help it, her mouth was half-open to utter a quip when she heard the telltale growling sound of warning starting deep in his chest. Deciding that the wisest course of action was to keep silent and move away, she took a few steps back.

        Vash turned his attention back to Milly and took a step closer to look down into her face to place a large yet surprisingly gentle hand on her shoulder. Wolfwood dropped his knowing that this was significant for the two of them and much needed if they were going to be able to work together as a group again. Milly flinched under Vash’s touch, but met his gaze unwaveringly, her eyes still murky with pain.

        “After I was captured....” He started but had to pause staggered by the tidal wave of anger threatening to sweep over him at the remembered humiliation. Vash took a couple of deep breaths before continuing, “When I managed to escape, I did see Meryl. She was alive,” He didn’t add that Knives was in the process of trying to revive her, but he knew she survived from Rinnah’s reporting of the family gossip, “And I know she would have stayed even if you could have made your way down to her, which I doubt you would have lived to do.”

        He placed his other hand on her too, looking earnestly and deeply into her eyes, willing her to believe him, “You would not have survived Milly. Believe me when I tell you that. Knives gave us a chance to leave and I took it. And remember,” His eyes shot a quick glance at the priest who gave a curt nod of understanding, “Wolfwood was bleeding to death, I was missing an arm and a gun. You were running low on ammo and we barely got out of there with our lives.” The outlaw’s eyes were glowing an eerie red and he finished in a savage tone, “Do you think we could have stood a chance if we had tried to take Knives on given those conditions?

        Milly looked down at her feet for a moment before looking up to meet the challenge of Vash’s glowing crimson eyes.

        She gave a small shake of her head, “No, Mr. Vash. You are right. We would not have survived.” With that admission the tension seeped out of Vash and he visibly sagged with relief. Then he watched as Milly’s eyes harden in a way that was more dramatic than the so recent attachment to Vash’s throat, as shocking as that un-milly-like behavior was.

        Sternly she announced, “Still, you were wrong not to tell me before this. But now that I know, I am going back for Meryl whether you come or not Mr. Dark Vash the Stampede!” She turned around to face her husband, her eyes revealing her wretchedness and with a voice hoarse and thick with tears, stated “And whether you come or not either.”

        “What if she doesn’t want to be rescued?” Vash asked in a flat voice before Wolfwood had a chance to respond to his wife‘s statement of intent.

        “Mr. Ace Gunman,“ Milly reached way a long way into the past for that one and Vash’s eyebrows climbed his forehead in surprise, “That will be her decision, but she has the right to be asked first before I leave her in the clutches of that nasty man-plant!” She ended, her fists on her hips and leaning back to peer up into the eyes of the outlaw daring him to say anything different.

        “Honey, you are not going alone, we are going with you,” Wolfwood looked at Vash who nodded, “We all are going with you. The path in front of us has always led there, we just have more reason to follow it now than ever and not give up.”

        Milly nodded.

        “OH boy! Sounds like fun! When do we leave?” Rinnah rocked back and forth on her heels and toes.

        “This is serious!” Snapped two voices simultaneously while one said, “Oh dear.”

        “Yeah, yeah serious... gotcha.” She rubbed her hands together, her enthusiasm not in the least bit dimmed by the united disapproval at her inappropriate cheerfulness and irreverent attitude. “Hey, all I need to do is pack a toothbrush and extra bullets and shazzam, I am ready to shift the ole ship into hyperthurst, how ’bout you folks.”

        “Go I?” Came a voice from the other side of the room. It had the power no one as no one else had to dampen the hybrid’s zeal. Her shoulders drooped as she looked over at the plant angel.

        This could be a problem.

        Rinnah took in the sight of the plant angel being held in the circle of the priest-smith‘s arms. Of them all, she looked the most traumatized by the recent doings here. Of course she would be. How violent could it be in a bulb by oneself with no one else to pick a fight with? The hybrid briefly entertained the vision of each member of the human race in their own specific glass globes. Hard to start a bar fight, kill or rob someone, take a walk, play soccer, fly a kite, smell a flower when one was isolated from everyone else. A shudder of distaste ran through her as she hastily dropped the image and turned back to her immediate problem. Did this mean she would have to take the freed angel with her or would she be able to make a detour and drop off the angel at the thomas ranch? Would she be able to catch up with the others before they arrived at the place where Knives’ made his home? She buried her fingers into her thick black hair and tugged in frustration.

        “Na lassie, na need to get worked up so. It’s all been decided whilst ye be taking a wee bit of a nap. I’ll be taking the lassie-girl to her sister. All I need from ye is the directions.”

        “Hallelujah and pass the pickled beets!” She shouted as she did a little twirl in place, raising her arms above her head.

        Vash gave a little shake of his head at her reaction. Milly clapped her hands in glee, the altercation of earlier nearly forgotten since things looked like they were back on track to go and rescue Meryl. Milly’s face lit up again to the usual smiling cheerfulness as Rinnah continued.

        “Oh yes. The Stampede Rescue and Weed-Be-Gone Team is on the job! Break in, locate, extract, spray weed-kill, and then vacate. Yep, that’s us!”

        “You half-wit, half-plant! This is not a vacation or a pleasure outing!”

        Wolfwood merely groaned and absentmindedly patted pockets wishing for a cigarette as things began to return to normal.

        “Hey now no need to get personal... I’ll pack!” She said excitedly, ignoring Vash.

        “NO!” Three voices said in unison. They didn’t let her pack anymore, not only was she not a very good at it but she also had a tendency to throw everything in one spot without rhyme or reason. Then getting frustrated she would decide it wasn’t of any use and ended up tossing it into the nearest garbage can.

        The gunslinger gave her a flat look. “You’re determined to get us all killed, aren‘t you. When you do, will you finally be happy?”

        “I’m happy now!” she gushed.

        “That was a rhetorical question.”

        “Now Mr. Vash, I find Rinnah’s positive attitude uplifting.”

        Milly had already moved on, forgiving as only she could do. She started for their possessions in the room and began rounding them up before sorting and then putting them in an order that only she understood. After that she disappeared down the hallway only to return with bags and boxes from their room to pack their stuff in.

        “Milly, no offense...”

        “None taken Mr. Vash!” She sang out as she brushed by him, carrying an armload of belongings.

        “... But you could find something uplifting on the back of a can of smoked salmon.”

        She stopped to look at him over an empty box. “Well, can’t you Mr. Vash?” Without waiting for an answer she continued moving around gathering things up. Then Milly’s conscience gave her a hard poke reminding her of her recent attempt at plant-ticide, if there was such a thing. She gave her head a reproving shake, there was such a thing as hurting people and it was just plain wrong no two ways about it, especially when it involved the people she loved. It was also embarrassing, for Milly knew she would never have tried to strangle Meryl no matter what the circumstances were. Meryl would be ashamed of her not to mention her family if they knew of her actions. Her eyes glistened and she sucked on her bottom lip to keep the tears back in her throat. She couldn’t do anything else until she made this right.

        Returning to stand in front of Vash, half-turned so that she was facing him and Rinnah she confessed in a voice filled with remorse and her eyes filled with contrite tears, “I’m sorry for trying to strangle you Mr. Vash,... and you too Rinnah. It was a very bad thing to do. It doesn’t matter what you did, it matters that I hurt my friends. Can you forgive me?” She was looking down as nervous fingers played with the strap of her suspenders. Screwing up her courage she dropped her hand and forced herself to look up at her two friends.

        Rinnah closed the distance between them in an instant throwing her arms around Milly in a hug. “Of course I forgive you Milly! As far as I’m concerned it was a justifiable chokehold, I deserved it.”

        Milly shook her head in refusal of Rinnah’s gracious assessment. Before Rinnah could release Milly another set of strong arms went around them both giving them a hard squeeze. Vash’s voice fell gently into Milly’s ear, “I will make a deal with you. I will forgive you only if you forgive me. I am sorry too Milly. I haven’t been playing fair with you and you have put up with more hell from me than you deserved.”

        Milly sniffed, tucking her head into the space between Vash and Rinnah and wailed, “I love you guys! I’m so happy we’re friends again!”

        Rinnah dropped her arms and took a step back as Vash released them. She placed a hand on Milly’s arm, “You didn’t stop being my friend Milly. I didn’t enjoy being choked but you were my friend through it and still are.”

        “PUDDING FOR EVERYONE! ON ME!” Yelled Milly, overjoyed now that the air was cleared between them and hurried to bring out her precious stash of different flavors and hand each person a cup. A shared moment of quiet content was shared over Milly’s generous offering which everyone seemed to enjoy. Milly noticed that Ember merely looked at her cup in puzzlement and smiling, put hers down to help the plant angel with the unfamiliar process of opening the lid.

        Wolfwood smiled, that was his Honey. Then turning his thoughts to earlier, he gave Vash a questioning glance; given the gunman’s iffy temper of the past, this was a significant moment showing how far they had come. The Vash he used to know from the very first was revealing a part of his old self.

        Putting thoughts to words, Rinnah stated brightly, “No harm, no foul, we’re all good!”

        When the apology pudding was finished, Milly immediately sprang back into action. Rinnah watched for a moment as Milly bustled about, a human beehive of activity. Wolfwood gave her a smile, he was grateful there wasn’t going to be any harboring of bad feelings against his girl.

        Knowing what was coming since they had done this often enough before, the hybrid turned in the direction of the table where she spied a forgotten mug sitting there. If Milly wanted a lick of work out a freshly-woken, half-stressed half-breed then she would have to let her have a morning cup of ‘wake up and shine’ juice before the ability to swing into action could kick in.

        Rinnah started for the table and stumbled and would have reached for the back of a chair to help her catch her balance except that a large calloused hand caught her elbow and prevented her from taking a tumble. Feeling his body heat, she blushed, knowing who it was without looking a “Thanks“ slipping out before she had time to stop it. She looked up in time to see the fleeting smile chase across his lips at her unthinking politeness. With a snort she wrenched her elbow from his hand. You just can’t be civil to some people.

        Pulling out the chair Rinnah plopped down with a grunt while reaching for a mug filled with coffee. She knew it was, she would recognize that aroma no matter what planet she happened to crash land on. Pulling it closer to her, she glanced around, not caring whose cup it was or who had previously touched their lips to it, she was claiming it now and lifted a defiant gaze over the lip at the others converging on the table. She dared a certain someone to make a remark about her choice of beverage. However there wasn’t a peep out of anyone, they didn‘t even look like they noticed. Well, ‘To the victor belong the spoils‘, or more simply put, ‘loosers weepers, finder‘s keepers‘. Now there was an advertisement slogan for you. Eyes half-closed she sipped the still warm drink with a contented whispered, “Yee haw.”

        Enjoying her drink, Rinnah noticed that the outlaw settled himself in a chair next to her rather than across, like usual. He rarely did anything by chance even when it appeared that way. She pretended not to notice and decided it wasn’t worth the effort to think about it right then. Instead, she closed her eyes and enjoyed the tantalizing smell of the coffee curling up around her nose. Grab the glory while you can, she told herself and smiled.

Don’t Mind Us, We’re Just Here to Drop Off the Plants

        As it turned out, the group accompanied the priest-smith and the plant angel to the thomas ranch where the two Boyington brothers made their livelihood. The reason for the change was Vash got it into his head that he was going to meet and check out these brothers and wouldn’t be deterred from his mission. Then they ended up staying longer than they had first intended.

        When the time actually came for them to leave and they were driving down the long road of the house and picking up speed, Rinnah waved farewell to the group of five waving back from under awning. It had been an interesting time. Of all of them, it was a surprise to find that it was Milly who pushed for them to leave and it was Vash who would not be hurried through this visit. Only when the priest-smith said he was going to stay with the girls for an indefinite time did the plant brother relent and let himself be talked into leaving. Once he made that decision, Milly went back to her usual, cheerful self.

        The hybrid gave one last wave of her hand and thankfully turned around in her seat as the house shrank in the distance until they topped a rise and the view was cut off altogether. She, for one, was glad to be leaving even though her reasons were entirely different then Milly’s.

        She reminisced about their time spent on the ranch. Maybe it was the water but the oddest things had happened while they were there. Milly acted more like the Vash as the hybrid first knew him, and Vash, well, he didn’t act like anyone she had ever met before. If it was the water, it only seemed to have an effect on Vash and on Milly. Thank God the priest stayed the same. She didn’t know what she would have done if he had acted out of character.

The Way It Was - Memories for the Family Album

       Their initial uninvited and unexpected arrival at the ranch was a shock to the both of the brothers and also to Twila when they showed up unannounced at their door. It didn’t help that it was near midnight, which would explain the guns in the hands of the two brothers when the door was finally opened up to greet the crowd on their front porch.

        While it took the brothers a bit longer to get used to the idea of the visit, Twila was thrilled with delight when she found out that favorite brother Vash, a freed sister, the old one from before, and also, her adopted surrogate mother Rinnah, were all apart of the crowd descending on what once was known as a bachelor‘s abode. The only ones unknown were Wolfwood and Milly, but Milly with her disarming smile and friendly demeanor made a favorable impression right away. It took Twila a while to warm up to the priest who looked scary to her with those slanted gray eyes with a glint of danger lurking in them, that is, until he smiled. She couldn’t help herself and returned the smile. There was something gentle and understanding in those silver-hued orbs that reached out to reassure her and she found herself relaxing.

        After that, it was the two brothers’ turn to be nervous when they discovered Vash was the brother of the two plant angels and was definitely not happy with the idea of his sisters living with them, which he made known as soon as he stepped over the threshold. There wasn’t anything he could do about the one that was already mated as he took in the sight of the gold wedding ring around her finger and the matching one on the brother he presumed was Steffen, but he could make sure that the other sister wasn’t looked on as some consolation prize for the remaining brother.

        It took a few days for all the brothers involved to relax and for Vash to decide they weren’t the worst of a bad decision on the hybrid’s part. Twila was very happy with her human male and immediately wanted Ember to take the unmated brother telling her that he was nice. Vash stepped in smoothly hauling Ember out of Twila’s grasp and spoke to both sisters on a mental level letting them know there would be no joining of this freed sister just yet. Twila was put out and pouted but soon got over it as it turned out that she could be easily diverted having a short attention span along with an extroverted personality that immensely enjoyed having company. It took all evening to get the two sisters to calm down. Milly, seeing the problem announced that she would make some soothing chamomile tea, which meant, of course, that all had to settle down and sit at a table. Soon everyone was yawning and eyes began to droop and it was decided to get beds made in the spare rooms, and thank God they had spare rooms aplenty in this old farm house.

        The next day it was as if someone had stolen the real Milly and left a doppelganger in her place. This Milly woke up and without a smile or a cheery word of greeting went about the house with an expressionless face. It was so unusual that it had Wolfwood, Rinnah, and Vash asking her periodically throughout the day if something was wrong. That continued for first couple of days but she would only shake her head and stare off into the distance. Rinnah was concerned the whole time but she knew that if she was concerned then Nicholas had to be half out of his mind with worry over his wife. Still, there were times the tall girl would break out it and come back to her normal self. It was disconcerting to those who knew her, but the others, who didn’t, took it in stride thinking that it was part of her normal personality. Even Eleazar tried to win a smile from her and only managed a small, sad half smile.

        The only thing they could think was that Milly was fixated on finding Meryl and breaking her out of the plant clubhouse. Vash and Wolfwood kept reminding her that by this time if it was true that Meryl had children she may not want to leave them alone with Knives. Realistically, their chances were low anyway, but trying to make off with any of Knives’ new generation of plants would only make their task all that much harder. It was a sobering thought and one that demanded consideration.

        Milly would nod as they tried to reason with her, their intent was to prepare her for the worst, a friend that might not exist any more. They didn’t want her to be crushed if Meryl rejected the offer of assistance and made it clear she wanted to stay where she was. Meryl may not be the same person as Milly remembered her since she had been with Knives for so long. Then also there might be other changes that Milly wasn’t counting on. Both Wolfwood and Vash would end their warnings in mounting frustration at the oddly blank look she gave them as she listened until they were finished. She never argued with them but let them have their say before giving them both a small smile before going about her business. Vash was concerned about her but not as much as Wolfwood was. He reported to Vash that talking to her, even when the couple was alone in their room for the night, was like talking to a wall of impenetrable stone.

        Once Vash decided that she was going to be this way and nothing they said was going to change her mind, he let it go. She would find out for herself soon enough.

You Are All Acting Very Strange, Even For This Planet!

       For his part, Vash started acting like a recent escapee from a mental institution the second, or was it the third day in? There were times he would be serious and discuss options about how they were going to invade Knives’ little castle. That was the Vash Rinnah was used to. Then, and this was the weird thing, he would start acting like some buffoon from a traveling sideshow. Yes, it was the second day in because that was the first day he had smiled at her. Smiled! A real honest-to-God smile without a sneer or smirk lurking around the corners. Then he had pulled out a chair for her at supper that evening. The pervert! What was he up to? What was his game? Once when he took her hand and helped her up and kissed the palm and didn’t that set off all sort of tingly feelings along with warning bells! Each time she could only stare at him in shock, any smart quips or remarks fleeing the scene of the crime.

        Also, the waltzing mania that had gotten into him, what was that all about? The door separating the kitchen from the dining room had burst open, causing both her and Milly to startle in surprise. Vash had waltzed, as in actually dancing only without music, into the kitchen where she was helping Milly in the chaos known as after-dinner cleanup. Rinnah had stopped in her tracks to stare at him mouth dropping open in disbelief. To her horror, he had swooped down on her and caught her up to twirl her madly around the kitchen all the while with her yelling at him to unhand her dammit. Fortunately, with her uncanny ability to balance she kept the dirty stack of plates she was carrying from dropping until during one turn that passed close by the counter she was able to set them down next to the sink before whisked about the room again in crazy twirling circles. And Milly was no bleeding help either, she had merely smiled in that inscrutable way of hers and started humming a waltz tune in time with his dancing. If one wanted to call it that.

        Just then Wolfwood came in from outside and stopped short in surprise as Vash breezed by him with a protesting Rinnah held tightly in his arms. Eyebrows rising to new heights, he started to say something but caught sight of the happy look on his wife‘s face and stopped. Instead, with a gleam coming to his eyes, he walked over to Milly, bowed and held out a hand for her to take. With a return smile the tall girl placed her hand in his and then both joined Rinnah and Vash in spinning around the large kitchen. Only the three of them enjoyed it. Rinnah was at a loss for words, again, as she was spun and dipped about the room. Then Vash had slowed and pulled her into a tighter embrace and bending his head until his cheek touched hers and led her in a slow dance which was accomplished by lifting her up until her toes were the only part of her feet touching the ground. Good God, was there no end to his shenanigans? Yet, amazingly enough, she had relaxed enough to lean against him to rest her cheek on his chest. When the dance was over, and how he knew that, she was clueless, he stopped and placed a light kiss her neck right at that sensitive ticklish spot. What a cur!

        At the end of this impromptu dance, he let go of her with a mischievous smile as he stared down at her, he let go with a whispered, “Later.“ and then like a flip of a switch he immediately started talking about what he was going to do once he was face to face with Knives.

        Rinnah’s head and other parts were buzzing and the abrupt change was like having cold water thrown on her. She shook her head at the oddity of the incident, mouth slightly agape.

        Looking over at Milly she saw Wolfwood holding her tightly as he planted small, gentle kisses across her forehead and then the tip of her nose. They only had eyes for the other, drinking in the sight of each other‘s face like thirsty travelers fresh out of the desert. With a laugh Wolfwood scooped up his wife and headed for the stairs while she stared up at him with stars in her eyes.

        Rinnah glanced over at Vash who was mumbling under his breath while rummaging through draws for sheets of paper and a pencil to draw up some plans and work out attack ideas. Rinnah decided it was time to leave and took the opportunity to go visit the thomas barn and talk with the two brothers. Nice guys, and a point in their favor, they didn’t dance, she had made sure to ask.

A Whole Corral Full of Nightmares

       Then, as if he weren’t being strange enough by day, there was the new nighttime activity. Every night, in the quiet of their room, Vash had wrenching nightmares catapulting him awake yelling with fists flying and there were even a couple of times his left hand split open and his gun propelled out to aim at empty space. Thankfully he always woke up before firing a shot, except once. Maybe that was why he was so hyperactive during the day and was using frantic activity to wear himself out so he would stop dreaming. If he was, it wasn’t working.

        Usually she woke up about the same time since some nights she would experience the same dream as his dreaming subconscious leaked it out over the link they shared, but she didn’t let him know that.

        Without looking at her, Vash would run a hand through his sweat-soaked hair and admit in a mumble that he was dreaming about Knives. Each dream started out the same, he and Knives facing each other and talking. And it seemed so real while it was happening even though he knew it was impossible. As if on a huge screen surrounding them, faces, scenes, places they were both familiar with would flash as they calmly conversed. Although it always started out that way, it wasn’t long before it headed toward tempers flaring and from there escalated into a violent battle with angel arms erupting. When all was said and done, everything around them was destroyed and the landscape littered with debris and broken bodies. Each nightmare had a different scenario with a multitude of battles but they all ended with two brothers facing each other as the only survivors. The threat of living with only Knives for companionship for countless ages to come just added to the pain of loss Vash felt as he looked over the blasted countryside to realize that they were utterly and completely alone, there wasn’t a soul to be found anywhere in that bleak wasteland.

        It was getting to be routine. He would struggle in the twisted the bed covers while gasping for air and then surge up into an upright position with sweat rolling off of him and fingers digging into the sheets in a desperate attempt to... to... he wasn’t sure... Then he would turn his head and blink into vivid blue eyes clouded with worry until awareness slowly returned to him and he remembered where he was. She would watch him anxiously and just when he thought those bright blue eyes were watering up, she would give him a thump on the shoulder and accuse him of being a blanket hog.

        A few times he had awakened, catching himself in the act of lashing out only to feel a fist land on soft flesh accompanied by a startled grunt of pain. Most of the time she was awake already and would catch his hand midair but sometimes she slept through the throes only to awaken when a fist came flying out of nowhere. The next day would find a bruise forming on Rinnah’s arm or cheek.

        Vash couldn’t figure her out. He tried to apologize but she would have none of it. Instead, she acted as if it were no more traumatic than a sneeze. He thought she would have scalped him in his sleep or would whip out her gun and shoot him for hitting her, yet she didn’t respond in any way to his violent dreaming activity. He wouldn’t have blamed her though, but she never said anything or complained either, except about the blankets.

        Most of the time she would get up and go downstairs to the kitchen and fix that hot chocolate milk drink for him to help calm his frayed nerves. So deeply entrenched in the misery of the recent dream, he never heard her quiet tread on the stairs as she brought up two mugs to their room. Then softly pushing open the door she would enter and he would look up to notice the tip of her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth and a tiny pucker of a frown of concentration as she tried not to spill the hot drinks. The enticing aroma of the cocoa would fill the room and his tight muscles visibly relaxed as she carefully handed him his mug. Coming around the other side of the bed she was careful not to jostle the bed and spill both drinks.

        As he would sip the hot drink in the comfortable silence he found himself whispering bitterly to the ghost memory of Rem. “I promised you Rem. I promised you I would take care of Knives and I am going to. You can count on that!”

        It wasn’t fun being startled up out of a sound sleep by a flying fist but Rinnah couldn’t figure out how to help. And then this heartbreaking whispering to this Rem woman again that she was sure he didn‘t realize he was whispering out loud, made her eyes well up with unshed tears. She couldn’t imagine the pain he was feeling, but then she didn’t have to, there were times when it would break through the bond and flood her, ripping her awake from her sleep. Once she had woken up whimpering and found him bending over her with a the same look of concern. As soon as he saw she was fully conscious he quickly masked it. With a grunt of apology he would close his eyes his eyes when she tried search his with unspoken questions in hers. The only thing he did was to pull her up close to spoon against him and bury his nose into the hair at the nape of her neck.

        The one time she tried to sleep downstairs on the couch he had woken up yelling, with his gun arm going off leaving a multitude of holes in the ceiling and in the process, waking everyone in the house up. They knew it was a nightmare but no one realized it was a recurring one and Vash didn‘t want them to know. At least when she was in the same room with him he didn’t wake everyone up, just little ole lucky her. Even sleeping on the floor didn’t help, not to mention that her back was sore by the next morning. Even after all this time of traveling through the desert spaces of the planet, she still wasn’t used to the hardened life of a wandering outlaw. No, she was spoiled by the hot baths, fluffy towels, and soft clean sheets every night. Digging sand out of unseen, unmentionable places did nothing to make her crave the nomadic life that Vash and Wolfwood were used to. They may not like it, but they were used to it, she wasn’t.

        As for Vash, he was one way at night but during the day he was another person. In fact, Rinnah was thoroughly confused. He would laugh in this high-pitched laughter that about made Rinnah‘s eyes pop out of their sockets and stare at him in disbelief. He had also taken to pulling his sister’s hair in a teasing manner and, and, well, in short, he had made a total doofus of himself.

        In the middle of their time there he had an altercation with a thomas. Steffen and Henry had taken them out to meet the herd since one of Vash’s ideas for sneaking up on Knives was for them to ride in on thomases rather than a vehicle as one of the downsides of it was that it could be heard coming from a long distance away. He and Wolfwood wanted to look over the herd and see if any of the breed the ranch raised were sturdy enough for the long, arduous trek. They would need ones to ride and that many more to carry the supplies. That was a lot to thomases to be caring for. Still, they wanted to make sure before they decided against that plan. The two brothers had separated several of the most likely out of the herd, three of them female, for inspection. They were looking at one of the females and discussing whether she was hardy enough when they heard a sound behind them.

        The bird-animal (Rinnah was still unsure of what exactly they were) must have felt his herd was being threatened and had taken an immediate dislike to the outlaw petting the neck of the lady thomas. Henry and Steffen were sitting on the top rail of the fence, the plant sisters and Rinnah were leaning against it staring over the rail to watch with Milly next to her while Wolfwood and Vash stood in the corral.

        Vash was softly stroking the neck of the alpha female of the small herd but had his head turned to talk to Wolfwood who was nodding at something he was saying. That’s when they all heard something like a growling chirp mixed with raspy puffs of air. Turning towards the noise they saw the herd leader stomping one of his hooves on the ground. Then he began digging a hoof to rip up puffs of dirt to form miniature dust clouds behind him. A feathery tuft on his head was standing rigid as it jerked threateningly in a pecking motion.

        “Uh Vash, I would step...” Steffen only got that far before the thomas charged Vash and began snapping at him.

        Vash ran around the female bird a few times with the thomas only a beak’s distance behind him while calling for the brothers to control their beast. Then he vaulted over the female bird who, by this time was throwing her head up in alarm with eyes rolling wildly in their sockets. As soon as his feet touched ground, Vash ran toward Wolfwood who was pointing and laughing at him. Wolfwood stopped pointing and laughing to stare in shock as soon as he saw Vash launch himself through the air at him. Mere instinct made him reach out and catch the outlaw as he came down to land in his arms. Stunned, he stared at Vash until he turned his head and saw the enraged thomas bearing down on them. With a loud curse, he dropped the outlaw and jumped for the fence with Vash hot on his heels.

        Wolfwood made a clean getaway over the top rail, hurdling the fence with ease. With a exclamation of boyish satisfaction he landed gracefully on his feet and turned to grin triumphantly at Milly. Only she wasn’t looking at him, she was looking up at something. Before he could also look up, that something hit his back like a truck filled with thomases, fat ones. Vash had landed and both went down with grunts of pain.

        Once he got his breath back the incensed priest picked himself off the ground and made a clenched fist as if he would like nothing better right then than to punch the gunman as he yelled, “Vash you idiot! Look where you are falling next time!” The outlaw ignored him as he stood up, already inspecting a hole the thomas had made in his jeans where the angry bird had managed to take a nip out of him. Once the laughing died down, both men were treated for their wounds, mainly in the area of pride.

        Then, there was the ruckus he had caused when he had tried to help cook a breakfast. Runny eggs had exploded, exploded, (how the devil did eggs explode anyway?) to splatter their dripping remains down the walls. Toast was burnt and one had to be careful where they stepped or their feet would slide out from under them from the flung jam and spilt orange juice making the floor slick as ice. She almost groaned at the memory of the cleaning job that took place afterwards. Everyone pitched in to help with rags and buckets brought out to help clean up the mess. Help being a relative term of course. The plant angels needed to be watched or they cleaned things that didn’t need to be cleaned or the two would start quarreling over an area that did need it.

        No one had escaped unscathed that morning and no one got to eat until the place was cleaned up, by order of Milly, firmly setting her foot down and no one was going to argue with her about it. During all of that, Vash had stumbled and tripped over each of them at least once along with the mops and then the buckets so that in the process he ended up drenching himself and everyone else as well. That’s when Wolfwood had exploded calling him ‘needlenoggin’, ’spikey’, and other assorted colorful names before finally hauling him over to the back door, kicked open the screen door, tossing Gunsmoke’s most notorious outlaw out of the kitchen while telling him to not come back in until they had things cleaned and maybe not even then. Again, Rinnah took silent note of the bizarre behavior not knowing what to make of it.

Still Reminiscing...

       Rinnah turned a beginning scowl in Vash’s direction in the back seat next to her. He acted like he didn’t notice the weight of her stare or if he did, he was ignoring her. For the first time she understood how he had earned the moniker, ‘The Humanoid Typhoon’. At that moment in time, the alleged Typhoon was resting with his eyes closed and an elbow propping his head up. She narrowed her eyes at him. She knew he was awake and even aware. Oh he knew she was looking at him with displeasure; she could feel his wry amusement as her mindtouch fluttered briefly over the bond. What was with this comical act all of a sudden? Cracking jokes, smiling, laughing, being all goofy, helpful to a fault that led to disaster, charming, and friendly. It was enough to make her stomach turn.

        What was worse was Wolfwood encouraging him; outside of the egg explosion incident that is, laughing at his jokes, and once, even joining him in the schoolboy pranks. And the pranks! When he added a bright pink color to the soap in what he thought was Rinnah’s shampoo bottle, well it had nearly brought about his demise. When two wet, pink, but very angry, plant angel heads showed up in kitchen demanding to know what he had done, did he realize that he had mistakenly gotten the wrong bottle and made himself public enemy number one with his sisters.

        When the two furious ladies were standing before him Vash looked up over the donut he was eating and had promptly fallen out of his chair laughing with a priest struggling with holding in the laughter that wanted so badly to explode out of him. That is, until the same two females made it clear it was no laughing matter. That was when Wolfwood made a hasty and prudent escape as the sisters showed a tendency toward expressing their ire by throwing things and like their brothers, both sisters were inhumanly fast. Everything in the kitchen that wasn’t nailed down was thrown at him. One picked up a stoneware crockery set and it was one of those bowls that had hit him a glancing blow to the cheek before he had dodged the rest. It was, surprisingly enough, Rinnah who had walked in on the fun and games and had brought it all to a halt. She told him later that he still owed her a donut from eons ago and she had an investment to protect but it certainly wasn’t because she was concerned about him. The sisters didn’t forgive easily, and only with ill-grace when they returned the favor and for several days there were three plants walking around the house with pink heads until the stain faded away.

        Rinnah looked at the cheek that still had the fading bruise on it and shook her head. The car was picking up speed and she could feel the wind beginning to whip her hair behind her.

        Then, there was the incident which nearly sent the resident pudding lover into a fit. Apparently Vash thought it would be humorous to put pudding in the toe of Rinnah’s boot. Her new boot that Eleazar had given her! What a repulsive feeling that had been when her toe had slid in and she felt that cold, wet slimy feeling. Milly heard Rinnah shriek a curse and then curse loudly but had stayed out of it until she heard the all-important key word and then had come storming in. Grabbing the boot out of Rinnah’s hand she had slid her fingers in to touch the beloved food and had then erupted. This prank also had not gone as well as planned for a boot came flying through the air aimed at his head. He easily dodged it but not the tongue lashing from Milly for wasting good pudding not to mention an angry Rinnah standing behind her shaking the other boot at him saying, “Yeah, what she said!” Her usual silver tongue deserting her at that moment.

        Rinnah sighed, who was this creature pulling off these mischievous pranks?

        Wolfwood’s only remark after each episode was to the effect that the old Vash was making an appearance again, only more needlenoggish than before. However, only he seemed to be enjoying the antics of the old Vash. Rinnah was fervently beseeching the Holy Hybrid that this old Vash would be left at the ranch and the cold, aloof, disdainful one would return.

        Another reason she felt it was time to leave, besides the hope that Vash and Milly would stop channeling each other and return to their own bodies, was that the two plant sisters followed her around like little puppies. They adored Vash and clung to him at times, cooed at Eleazar, enjoyed Milly, but it was Freenah (some nicknames will stick with you forever no matter how you try to live them down) they were almost physically attached to her. She had saved them from certain death or absorption and they saw her in the same light as the mother they had never had. Worse was the sibling rivalry for mother’s affection and attention going on between them that nearly drove Rinnah right up the wall and down the other side. Milly, unfortunately for Rinnah, was of little use, off in her own little world. What finally saved her was the other eligible bachelor in the house. The plant angel sisters were nothing if not competitive and one wanted what the other one had. One had a mate and, despite Vash’s opinion on the matter, the other one wanted one too. The plant brother and the other unattached brother didn’t stand a chance.

Saddle Up!

       Rinnah gingerly shifted from one cheek of her behind parts to another. Tender wasn’t the word for it and the car seats bouncing around under her weren‘t helping either. Yet another reason to be glad to be leaving was coming to her, she should make a list, it would be a long one, but no more riding lessons would be at the top. It started off innocently enough, as such things usually do....

        “You don’t say!” Exclaimed Henry, the normally more reserved of the two brothers. He was surprised into speech with Rinnah’s confession that she had never ridden a thomas. He didn’t hear, or chose to ignore, the second half of her comment which went something along the lines of ‘over my dead body’.

        It had started out to be pleasant morning, at least it was in Rinnah’s opinion. Breakfast was good and she was finished and slumped back in her chair feeling fat and lazy. This morning the brothers had made breakfast and Rinnah silently blessed whoever it was that had taught them how to cook. She reached up and pushed her plate back, the universal sign no matter what planet you are visiting that a person was done with the meal or ‘no more for me, thanks‘. Just then she caught a piece of conversation that had her perking up her ears. Twila was expressing her worry over Vash’s safety. After all, if something happened to him they would not only lose their favorite brother, but their defender too. Well, if that’s the case why don’t they leech on him then and leave me alone? Grumped Rinnah as she listened.

        However, she had to admit, it was a good question. According to Vash’s story, Knives along with the collected mind of his sisters’ had come close to killing him last time.

        Rinnah rolled her eyes and breathed out a puff of air in annoyance. The harpies. Reflexively she sat up in her chair, curious to hear the rest of the conversation. This was something none of them had brought up in all their conversations or scheming. Could it be that the plant angel’s could sense their arrival through Vash? Would they lose even the small advantage of the element of surprise that they had? Was it possible that they could kill him if he came within range? That meant he was more of a risk factor than a help.

        “Brother Vash, it is dangerous, you could be killed.” Warned Twila with a worried look crossing her face.

        Ember nodded vigorously in agreement. “Don’t go, Brother Vash. Stay here with us.” Rinnah was pleased. Ember’s speech pattern was getting better each day. “We keep you safe.”

        One of Vash’s eyebrows lifted in wry amusement at his sister’s obvious doubt in his ability to take care of himself. One only weeks out of her bulb and the other several months and already they were giving advice to the Humanoid Typhoon, the only one, ever, to be officially declared a designated localized disaster. It was cute, but irritating.

        As for the Boyinton brothers, both stopped eating for a moment as they tried to get control of themselves and wipe the horrified looks off their faces. They glanced at each other and then down at their plates to hide their expressions. They were still getting used to the antagonistic male plant with his inhuman red eyes. It wasn’t easy to take all the odd quirks that came with the plant angels’ brother, but the brother’s were nothing if not accommodating to guests, all the same, they were not thrilled about the idea of Vash living with them. Just the thought of it made them queasy. One brother looked like he could eat thomas feathers before he would let that happen and the over was turning a pasty white as he contemplated life with the gunslinger.

        A voice broke through their dismayed ponderings. “Awww,.” In a voice that one usually reserves to speak to infants or beloved pets, Wolfwood said, “Him’s is so cute with him’s sisters to take ov widdle Vashie.”

        Milly and Rinnah were smiling broadly at the ludicrous picture of Vash cowering down behind his two sisters while they faced up to the numerous horde of facility plant angels seeking on taking their anger out on the renegade brother. The Boyington brother’s looked at each other nervously wondering if it was okay to laugh or not. Obviously Wolfwood wasn’t worried about it as he chuckled away at his end of the table.

        “You’re so mean Wolfwood, you know that? ” Replied Vash to Wolfwood. Rinnah’s eyes were getting more exercise these days then they had ever had before as they widened in surprise at his unusual comment. “But no, I am not worried because I have found out that they can’t reach me on that mental level anymore. I have a shield they can‘t penetrate.”

        There was silence as they waited for him to go on. Seeing that he had their attention he explained, “I found out while communicating with these two,” he waved a forefinger back and forth between his two sisters, “that I can talk with them and they can with me, but only when I allow it.”

        “How’s that Spikey?” Inquired Wolfwood, as he bit into a piece of toast.

        “Yes, Mr. Vash, what kind of shield are you talking about?” Milly sipped at her hard-to-find ceylon tea. Somehow Nicholas had come across some and now she had a whole case in the truck just for her, of course she would share with the others, that was half the fun of having favorite drinks and foods.

        With a half-smile on his lips, Vash looked down the table at Rinnah who was listening with her head tilted and sipping her own brand of nectar.

        Noticing everyone’s eyes were pointing in her direction she became nervous and shifted uneasily in her chair. Seeing the questioning look on their faces, she put her cup down and lifted both hands shoulder high and curled her fingers into claws then pulling back her lips to show her teeth she said, “Grrrrr. I’m very scary.” And then flexed her fingers a couple of times in a clawing motion for good measure.

        Wolfwood lifted an eyebrow at Rinnah’s show of feigned ferocity before turning back to Vash to inquire, “Okay Needlenoggin, want to let us in on the big secret, besides Miss Tooth & Claw here?”

        “It’s that thing that the old geezer was telling us about. She did this bond thing...”

        “I did no such thing! I don’t even know where it came from, how it got there, and I don’t know what it is, and if I could undo it don’t you think I would by now!” She was getting angry and contemplating the unthinkable, throwing her half-full cup of coffee at him. She wouldn‘t though, it would be a sad waste of coffee. Why must he keep blaming her for that?

        “Gee, this sounds important.” Milly turned to Rinnah and said, “I think we should let Mr. Vash tell us about this. Anything that helps us with....” She choked up and looked down at her plate, letting her hair fall over her face to hide it. Wolfwood reach over and put an arm around her shoulders.

        “Yeah, anything that will help us in the upcoming battle would be appreciated.”

        Rinnah was ready to smack her forehead. Lately every time she opened her mouth something stupid came out getting her into trouble, at least, it seemed that way to her.

        “Well, whatever it is and however it got there,” he gave Rinnah an enigmatic look before continuing, “It has the ability to shield me from any telepathic attack from any plant angel and I suspect, Knives as well.” His lips lifted in a slight satisfied smile.

        “Wonderful! We can use all the advantage we can get.” Wolfwood was looking just as pleased as Vash. Milly lifted her head at the news with a confused expression as if she didn’t quite understand the implications of the news.

        Vash noticed and explained, “They can’t kill me using that method. It will have to be on the physical dimension if they want to take me out.”

        “Oh.” Milly said with a nod as understanding lit her eyes.

        “We can go with you and help you Brother Vash.” Emphasized Twila. Steffen whipped his head around to look at her with a frown.

        Vash was quick to reply, “I’d rather walk through a sandstorm with a pregnant thomas on my back or worse, ride that one that hates me so much.” He was frowning at his sister and seeing that she was mulling his cryptic remark over trying to decipher the hidden meaning, he shook his head and restated, “No, you two will stay here.” The look of relief on Steffen’s face, and even Henry’s was evident.

        Lost in thought, Rinnah absent-mindedly mumbled, “Ride them, why would you want to do that anyway? I don‘t think we should ride those beasties in at all. Nope, mark me down for the strolling-in-casually option.” What she didn’t say out loud was that if she were the one holding down the fort and saw the enemy horde charging in on a herd of ostrich-like critters, she would have doubled over in hysterical laughter. Anybody with enough gumption to attack on those things deserved to take the fort and she’d happily sign the surrender papers with a flourish.

        Milly looked at her, “Why Rinnah, they are very friendly and affectionate creatures. They are fun to ride too, well,“ She tipped her head in thought, “Once you get the hang of their gait.”

        “I’ll take your word for it.” The hybrid replied with a lack of interest.

        “Haven’t you ever been on one?” Milly persisted, her eyes wide and beginning to shine with good humor which Nicholas noticed right away and sat up straighter. His eyes narrowed on the two and their conversation with an intent look on his face.

        Rinnah, with exaggerated patience looked Milly in the eye and said succinctly, “Not from around here, remember? So, no, I don‘t know how to ride one.”

        “You don’t say!” Exclaimed Henry who was normally taciturn but was now interested enough to speak up and leaning forward so he could look around Twila at Rinnah.

        Milly sat up straight, eyes shining now. “Oh goody, we will have to teach you how to ride then.”

        “I wouldn’t ride one of those mutated chickens on steroids even if my life depended upon it.” She frowned at Milly then at Henry hoping they would drop the subject.

        “Freenah shall ride!” Enthused Ember. She stood up and headed for the door with Twila close on her heels saying, “Yes, we will help her learn!”

        Rinnah called after them, “Don’t get your hopes up! I don’t ride huge ugly chickens... it’s undignified. If God wanted us to ride oversized, unsightly, clumsy chickens he’d of.... he’d of...” a blank look crossed her face and she shrugged, “I got nothing.”

        “Oh please Rinnah, it will be loads of fun!” Milly wasn’t giving up. “You’ll like it once you give it a chance!”

        “Yes, and we have quite a few tame thomases that will be easy to learn on.” Spoke up Steffen as he also stood up and started for the back door.

        “No, really, thanks and all that, but those things give me the creeps.”

        Suddenly it became the goal of the day to get one hybrid on the back of a thomas. She didn’t mind if they all wanted to ride them, that was their business. However, to the one half-breed off-worlder of the group, she thought they all looked ridiculous sitting on top of a flightless fowl. The sight of a running thomas with a wobbling rider on it’s back made Rinnah have to bite her cheek to keep from bursting out laughing.

        Strangely enough, it was Eleazar who calmly talked the hybrid into trying to ride the saddled thomas. She considered his advice, especially once he mentioned that if she did get it over with then, human nature being what it was, they would leave her alone and not bother her to ride again. Seeing the element of truth in that, she gamely agreed.

        When Steffen led the thomas over, she gave it a doubtful look. A chicken-ostrich body with a long skinny neck and then a head shaped like that of a turkey. Unlike a bird though, the feet didn’t end in claws but rather hooves, as in more like horse hooves. A hoof on a bird. This was just so wrong.

        Gathering up her nerve, she lifted her foot, placed it in the stirrup, hefted herself up and swung her other leg over to insert the other toe in on the other side. It was like riding a feathered barrel! Steffen began giving her pointers, showing her how to hold the reins and how to get animal to turn. Again, unlike a horse, riding one didn’t take a great deal of practice. It wasn’t difficult to learn how to handle or ride them. Not that she paid it a great deal of attention, all she wanted was off and had no plans to ever repeat this little adventure in the future. She would crawl on her hands and knees before riding a thomas again, heck she would even consider flying before riding again in spite of her fear of heights.

        She looked up to see Henry getting thomases for the others to mount. This was not looking good and fervently hoped they were not going to go for a trail ride. Vash was on the largest female and Wolfwood was holding the reins of his thomas and Milly’s as she cooed into the side of it’s head into it’s.... ear?

        Steffen smiled as he looked up at Rinnah and said, as he continued to stroke the bird’s neck, “This is Fang. Now she is a little jumpy at times but over all, a very steady thomas.”

        “Jumpy, what do you mean by jumpy?” Inquired Rinnah suspiciously not taking her eyes off the thomas below her. She was getting a bad feeling about this. Fang turned her head to look at Rinnah and she swore the thomas had a gleam in her eye, the homicidal kind of gleam. Then she moved her beak to Rinnah’s boot and gave it a lick.

        “Gah! Stop that. Bad chicken!”

        “Now Rinnah, Spot here...” Started Milly before the priest interrupted her.

        “I think her name is Fang Honey.” pointed out Wolfwood genially.

        “Well, you would think so, but I think her name is Spot because she looks like my middle older brother’s dog Fang who had a spot on the same eye the exact shape and color too.”

        “Okaaaaay.” Replied the priest, eyes going glassy even as he nodded.

        “Who cares!” Snapped Rinnah, “It’s trying to lick my ankle! Yuck! Hey you featherbrained avian failure, how‘d you like to be made into a big kettle of soup? Stop that! Ick! Stupid chicken!”

        “Now be careful Rinnah what you say, Spot is very sensitive.”

        The hybrid leaned sideways in the saddle to look the thomas in the eye. Sensitive as a bucket of wet sand, that was her bet but she decided to humor Milly.

        Unexpectedly, through the chest of the huge bird she could feel a thrumming vibration building up against her legs and to her way of thinking it wasn’t like the comforting sound a cat makes when it is purring.

        “I don’t think this thing likes me.” Remarked Rinnah with a doubtful look down at the head of the thomas.

        “Why do you say that?” Asked Steffen from where he was standing several feet away as he let Rinnah get used to the feel of the bird.

        “Well, it’s rumbling at me.” The vibration was coming faster and growing louder.

        “Rumbling? Wait! Oh no! Why don’t you get...” That was all he was able to say

        Rinnah’s thomas erupted beneath her. It jumped and landed a few yarz away flinging Rinnah so that her head first snapped back and then immediately lashed forward to smash into the strong neck bone of the thomas making her see stars. Her feet were free of the stirrups and she had lost her grip on the reins so reaching down she grabbed the thomas around the neck to keep from being thrown off. She kept up a steady stream of cursing as Fang the Spot hopped up and down, leaped from side to side, spinning and twisting. For a flightless bird it was doing a good imitation of one trying to take to the air. With a resentful thought, Rinnah decided that the brother’s must have been taken the last time they had purchased their big chickens and gotten a bad lot. She wanted to know what they meant when using the word ‘tame’ to describe their livestock. First Vash’s and now hers. She knew what she wanted to do with hers, pluck it and use the feathers for a pillow!

        Language learned in the greasy bowels of star faring vessels flew from Rinnah’s lips even as the bouncing and jumping caused her teeth to rattle in her head. She kept thinking an opportunity would show itself and she could let go and hope for a soft landing. However, the demon chicken from bird hell was too quick and twirling in a frenzied attempt to do damage to the rider.

        From where she sat, Milly gasped and yelled for Spot to sit, without effect. She would have climbed down and run over to help, but the priest had different ideas. He slid off his thomas and grabbed her before she could get a foot out of a stirrup. Holding onto her tightly he carried her over to the relative safety of the fence and with ease lifted her up to place her on the top rail. When she would have slid off, he held her there and looked into her worried eyes with his own adamant ones.

        “Stay here Milly, helping may only make it worse.” Turning his back to the honey-blonde girl, he lifted his hands around his mouth and began yelling advice which was answered by a long stream of curses learned from different alien cultures.

        “Rinnah girl,” he laughed even in spite of the seriousness of the situation, “You are making me blush and that‘s saying something because I‘m not even sure what language that is!” He took a step back to stand by Milly’s knee, placing a hand on it as a warning for her not to try and leap down to Rinnah’s rescue. Hearing the shouts and commotion, the other brother had come running out of the barn and was now slowly approaching so as to not frighten the thomas anymore than it was. They were concerned but neither seemed to be unduly worried about her safety and that in turn eased Wolfwood’s worry. Wondering how Vash was doing with this he chanced a look in his direction.

        There was Vash, sitting astride his thomas laughing. The more the thomas threw her up in air with legs flailing in all directions and the unending stream of foul language the more he laughed until he had to wipe the tears out of his eyes.

        At one point Spot halted, wheeled and tossed its head so abruptly that Rinnah’s legs went flying up and over but without breaking her hold on the animal’s neck. She was flipped over landing with the thomas’s head hitting her hard in the small of her back. That startled the thomas into flipping her back again and as she did so, Spot jumped straight up into the air which only slammed her torso into the hard neck, knocking the breath out of her.

        Wheeling again with head extended and curled back to the side, the thomas was able to bite her on the ankle eliciting a fresh round of curses. Then Spot leaped up in the air and on landing smashed a shoulder into Rinnah’s stomach causing her to loosen her grip around its neck. Sensing imminent freedom the thomas did a choppy jump and toss while twisting her body. A sharp loud crack was heard when Spot tossed back her head and managed to connect with Rinnah’s own. This resulted in her releasing the neck entirely. Spot took the opportunity to buck her straight up into the air at a high rate of speed. The hybrid squeezed her eyes shut, the landing didn’t promise to be a good one but she would be hamstrung before she opened up her wings. Somehow falling towards the ground was a whole different ballgame, if painful one, than treading air dozens of feet up with solid, safe ground all the way the hell down there. The mere thought of it made her stomach tighten and her palms sweat in with that sick-fear sensation gripping her mid-section with nausea. She would take her chances with falling. In her mind it seemed much safer than hovering.

        As the hybrid approached the zenith of her flight an inspiration exploded an idea into her brain. Her inner eye was consumed with the vision. It was so monumental of a solution that she temporarily forgot she was spinning through the air out of control. She cried out in the euphoria received from the bright flash of her bursting brainbubble. She knew how to make sure Knives could never absorb another plant angel again!

        The onlookers watched as Rinnah laughed hysterically as she flew up and seemed to just hover for that brief split second before starting the journey back to terra firma. Milly covered her eyes with her hands, not wanting to see the inevitable, and Wolfwood was wincing in anticipating of the landing. That was when a whisper of a noise breezed by them and the next thing they all knew, Vash was underneath her catching Rinnah in his arms before she could complete her plummeting fall.

        Rinnah didn’t seem to notice, her eyes were starting to glow unearthly bright and she was jubilant. So much so that as Vash set her gently on her feet, she grabbed his face and placed an enthusiastic kiss on his lips with a loud smacking noise. He looked startled at first but quickly placed his hand on her hips and pulled her close against him returning the kiss in kind, meeting her zeal with a passionate interest of his own. The hybrid’s eyes flew open as he held her tight and made a pleased sound in the back of his throat. He grinned against her lips as he felt her tense.

        Milly and Wolfwood goggled at them. This was the first, well really, the only sign of any kind of physical intimacy they had seen from the two.

        Vash let go of her when she moved to take a step back. He lifted his head with a half-smirk. She could only stammer and blush a bright red before making a pointing motion to the house, “I gotta pee!” and dashed off.

        “Way to go Spikey! I didn’t know you had it in you!” Chuckled the priest before being elbowed in the side by his wife.

        “I better go see if Rinnah needs.... er... anything.” Said Milly with a soft smile of her own.

        “Don’t take long Honey, I want to take a thomas ride and stop for a picnic!” He called out after her.

        That stopped Milly in her tracks and she turned to look behind her and asked, “Where’s the picnic basket?”

        “On the counter... I got it ready after breakfast this morning when I heard we were going to have a riding lesson. I think this would be a perfect opportunity to watch the sunset, don’t you think?” He said while waggling eyebrows at her with a suggestive leer which swiftly dissolved into a laugh at Milly’s cheeks blushing pink even as she nodded in consent.

Never Overstay Your Welcome.
Why? Because It Says So Right Here In the Book,
“Happy Relations With Your Relations”

       So it was with everyone’s blessing and understanding that the freed angel sisters would be happy and relatively safe at the thomas ranch. Breathing out a collective, if figurative sigh of relief, the foursome left feeling they had done their duty. Rinnah especially. While she wasn’t afraid of any consequences of punishment or retribution for freeing any plant angels that wanted to be free, the last thing she wanted was a gaggle of freed female plants following her around like little ducklings. The mere thought of which caused an involuntary twitch to run through her. She, Rinnah Blackfire, former Battle Captain in the United Lost Earth and New Earth Colonies and now a dust-covered, gun-toting, sand-spitting, desert wandering half-breed , did not make a good mother duck.

        The first thing they did after deciding it was time to leave was to strip down the flatbed portion of the oversized truck. Then only those supplies considered essential for the upcoming confrontation were allowed to be loaded in. There was quite a bit of leftover space but Vash just shook his head. They would need that for the last leg of the journey and Nicholas agreed with him. The plan was to acquire a few items in each town they came to instead of everything all at once. Otherwise it would be too suspicious. Wolfwood joked that once they did have everything they could have invaded another country and taken it over if they had the inclination or desire. As it was even suitcases of clothes were left behind at the thomas ranch. The only allowance were those hygiene things that women were known to need. At this both men went pink, mumbling something incoherent under their breath and quickly turned away to check knots and buckles they had already checked and rechecked earlier.

        When Milly questioned why they had to leave nearly everything behind except toothbrushes and things, Vash’s comment was that they needed the room. If they survived, they could always retrieve their clothes or buy new ones on the way back if they had to. If they were dead it wouldn’t matter if they had extra clothes or not. Milly nodded, it was the kind of logic she could understand. Wolfwood’s response was typical traveling priest, why would anyone even need an extra set of clothing, all that was truly needed was the set of clothes on one‘s back.

        Yes, she was glad to be leaving. Rinnah stared at the receding house in the distance and sighed as she thought over their time at the ranch. So many things had happened that were out of character that it felt like her brain was a spinning top.

        Rinnah turned her head back to the road ahead of them and sighed. Things were changing and they were rapidly heading for even bigger changes. Should be fun. She sighed again. Then she felt a warm touch on her hand and looked down at Vash’s gloved hand gently covering hers, before looking up at him with surprise widening her eyes. He was still slumped over, head propped up on a fist, eyes closed, the fingers of his hand curled around hers. She thought he would let go then, but he didn’t, just released his hold a little and kept his hand over hers.

        He looked relaxed, more relaxed than she felt. Carefully, slowly she tried to slide her hand out from underneath his, but he tightened his grip, pinning her it to the seat cushion. Rinnah lifted her other hand and hooked her finger over her nose in thought. Was this new Vash which was really the old Vash to the others, but new to her and the new Vash which was the old Vash to her... or, oh drooling star holes she was only mixing herself up! She squeezed her eyes closed and rubbed her brow with two fingers trying in vain to figure it out.

        Finally, the wind was in their face, they were heading in the right direction, and no more attachments to take care of. They were ready to face the trial that lay ahead of them.

A Bundle of Joy

       The dangerous and volatile plantbeing cradled the sleeping child in his arms. She was the second one to be born in the next generation of freewalking plants. He pulled the blanket back from her sleeping face. Only a couple of weeks old and she would be crawling soon. Unaware he was smiling an unguarded, genuine smile, his gaze traveled over her face. There was no surprise to see that the hair coloring matched that of Meryl’s and the shape of the face also, but the eyes, when they were open, were a winter blue.

        Knives marveled at the wave of emotion that flooded through him with such an intensity and power that he had to grit his teeth at the effort it took to control it. None of that communicated in the way he held his daughter as he rocked her slowly back and forth. This little one was a thief, she had stolen his heart the moment she was born and looked up at him. He, Knives, the instigator for the parasitic humans living on this planet, killer of many more than survived, was completely ensnared and didn’t care.

        He did not regret for one instance of having Meryl impregnated with his DNA. That had been part of the plan, along with also taking some of Vash’s. Frowning, he realized that he was not going to reproduce Vash’s line through her, but he would find some other incubator for him. Now was not the time to think of that though. He touched the tip of his large finger to the tip of Melanie’s tiny nose. It was so small. Running a careful finger over her downy eyebrows he marveled once again at how very tiny she was, even though she had already outgrown most of the clothes Meryl had made for her.

        He looked over at Meryl from his chair. She was asleep in her own, head tilted over to the side, her breathing relaxed and slow although she hadn’t intended on falling asleep. This baby was obstinate about sleeping through the nights and that meant she kept Meryl up for most of the them also. Meryl’s mantra was, ‘Any night now she will sleep all the way through, it has to be soon, any night now.’ He shook his head in amusement. Deluded, that’s what she was. This little one already had her mother’s stubbornness and knew what she wanted. There was going to be a battle royale once mommy figured it out too. That should be one interesting period of time.

        A thought entered his head and his smile straightened as it grabbed his imagination with the boldness of it. He went still, pondering, turning the thought over in his mind before coming to a decision. Yes. Next time Meryl was ready to bear another child, it would be done the old fashioned way. A small smirk pulled at one corner of his mouth, if the stories he had heard were true, it could be fun, more than fun. The smirk widened.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 25
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