"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 25"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG

On the Road Again...
Must You Sing That Song?

       A surprising change was the fact that this time it was Milly, actively and nearly physically, pushing everyone on in their travels instead of Vash. Every stop was a waste of time and greatly resented. At those occasions the other three hurried with whatever business they had stopped for as they observed the impatient tapping foot, forbidding frown, and disapproving downturn of her mouth. Rinnah grumbled a comment that it wasn’t healthy to ‘pee on the run’ but not so loudly that that Milly would overhear her. She was wary of this new militant Milly. Vash, however, didn’t care about whether his remarks were heard or not and said that anytime the real Milly wanted to rejoin the living he would welcome her with open arms.

        Vash never realized how much he had counted on Milly just being Milly, no frills, no embellishments, just pure and wholesome rock-steady kindness and goodness. The thing he noticed that unnerved him the most was that she didn’t pull out one pudding cup the whole time. Not once during this new regime did he see her eat one or even talk about wanting to eat one. It was creepy. However, with the others, he went along with her wishes. The only one who acted immune was Wolfwood.

        Vash glanced at the priest, who at the moment had his arms crossed over his chest and his head drooping, taking a little nap even with the jouncing of the car rocking him back and forth. The outlaw thought back to morning when Milly snapped out orders urging them on in their efforts to get the camp packed up so they could leave. He had stopped to watch as the priest stepped up to his wife, grin down into her scowling face and then swoop in to leave a quick kiss on the tip of her nose. He and Rinnah had tensed, waiting for an eruption but instead, saw an answering smile if even for just a few seconds.

        One time they stopped and Wolfwood decided they needed to use the time for target practice, but not without a bit of reluctance from Milly until they convinced her that she needed to practice also, all in the name of setting Meryl free.

* * *

        Wolfwood set the cross punisher down in front of him with a thud, a satisfied smile spreading across his face. Turning to look at the other gunslinger he remarked, “Told you she was off before, but now my baby is a perfectly honed and tuned wielder of punishment and mercy.” The smug pride was evident in his voice.

        Vash nodded in agreement. There was a definite improvement in the accuracy of Wolfwood’s shots and he didn’t have to compensate any more for the drift. As for Vash, started out the practice with his silver gun before switching to his artificial arm with the gun in it. Without looking down he slid the silver gun home.

        “I don’t know why you bother,” the priest grumbled, “It’s obvious to anyone with functional eyeballs that you don’t need the practice.”

        Vash just shrugged. No matter what the priest said, it never hurt to keep the skills polished. He was feeling a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction since he could tell that his speed, strength and accuracy had returned. He grinned as the gun slid back into his prosthetic arm with a smooth click and his parted palm molded back together until it looked like a normal hand once again.

        At that point both men looked at each other knowingly. Vash reached into an inside coat pocket and pulled out his yellow sunglasses. He had retrieved them from the priest several days earlier saying that it didn’t matter if Knives or any of his could see his red eyes or not. Wolfwood had concurred, in fact, it might even give them an edge and the priest was all for anything that would give them an advantage. As one they turned to look at Milly, who along with Rinnah, was standing several feet behind them where they had been watching the men as they shot one empty pudding cup after another into oblivion.

        “Your turn Honey.” Wolfwood stretched out a hand toward her. Milly came forward with a nervous smile. She knew she wasn’t the best shot on the planet, not with this gun anyway. Give her a stun gun and she was hot! Casting a disgruntled look down at the great cannon of a revolver in her hand she grimaced as she raised it up. She knew to be careful of the powerful recoil but for some reason she was always caught unprepared and when too many shots were fired she ended up with sore muscles starting at her wrist and going all the way up her shoulder. With a determined set to her chin she took aim at one of the cups left propped up on the rock. If she wanted to be of any help in taking down Knives it was best that she learn how to shoot this monster accurately.

        The only one who refused to practice was Rinnah. As the priest became preoccupied with helping his wife how to not lose control of her gun while compensating for the powerful kick, Vash took a few steps back and turned to face the half-breed. With arms crossed over her chest and a half-smile she returned his look, humor dancing in her eyes. He made an inviting motion to signify she could step up and take a turn. She gave a little shake of her head in response to his gesture.

        With an eyebrow rising in disbelief he asked, “Are you so awesome a shot in your part of the universe that you don’t need to lower yourself to practice?” He became annoyed when she merely smiled back at him. No quips, no remarks, no insults? That‘s it? All she had for him was a simple wave of the hand before turning and walking back toward the campsite? He narrowed his eyes at her receding back. She was up to something again, which should be no surprise by now. He should be getting used to it. If he was, why were his teeth grinding?

        Later that night Vash was determined to get an answer and began to unfold his plot, but it had to be done in careful increments. On his side was the fact that they were sharing blanket space and the night was unbelievably cold. She didn’t seem to have a high tolerance for cold and he could use that to his tactical advantage. It was darn nippy out there and he could see his easily see his breath and neither were dressed as warmly as they could be against the chill of the night.

        Currently the only thing warm about Rinnah was the irritation she was beginning to feel. Reluctance overcome by a greater desire to be warm, she stuck an arm out and began patting around in search of her traveling bag so she could pull on extra layers of clothing. Not finding it she lifted her head only to spot it a good stone’s throw from the bottom of the bedroll. At the sight she let her head flop back with an aggrieved growl. There was no way on earth she could reach it and still stay warm in the process. A puzzled crease appeared between her brows. She didn’t remember placing her bag there. She was sure she had dropped it closer than that.

        Rinnah weighed the options, she could either stay under the covers, somewhat chilled but not in imminent danger of freezing or she could make a mad dash over to her bag. That would entail a frantic dig for her clothes, pull them all on before an equally mad dash back to the only shred of warmth available and dive under the blankets again. And, hopefully, perform the task before hypothermia set in. She groaned and decided to go with the ‘somewhat warm but not quite freezing yet‘ option.

        She had gone to bed wearing a tank top for a nightshirt with her pants but now the cold hybrid was kicking herself for not putting on every stitch of clothing she owned. It wasn’t this cold last night, cold yes, but not with an artic chill in the air. With stinging regret she berated herself for not having also included four or five pairs of socks on that list, thick wool ones with built in electric heaters. Not that she had any but that didn‘t stop a freezing hybrid from wishing did it? It wasn’t this cold at night when she had first arrived! Next time they reached town she would buy a sleeping bag designed for artic weather... if such were available on this planet.

        “Why’s it so cold all of a sudden?” She complained with a shiver, watching her breath puff out to dissipate on the slight evening breeze that cut like a knife. And why the hell am I not in some nice warm hotel room? Her nose had to be blue and she wouldn’t be surprised to wake up in the morning to find it had frozen and dropped off in the course of the night only to be snatched up and carried away to the den of some little scurrying desert critter. Another shiver wracked her frame.

        “This is the season that passes for winter here.” Replied Vash calmly. He folded his hands behind his head as he studied the stars above them. She scrunched her eyes shut, ignoring the amusement she could hear in his voice. Another shudder passed through her even as she noticed that he was only wearing his sleeping pajama shirt. So what if it was fuzzy, warm and soft! It couldn’t be that warm! Wasn’t he affected by the cold? This was just too much; first he wasn’t bothered by a sandstorm, and now this! Show off!

        “Then how come it’s still so hot during the day?” Rinnah was sure he was having fun at her expense by trying to put one over on her.

        “It’s only at night you can tell the difference.” He added as an afterthought. He turned his head slightly to look at before lazily rolling his head back to face the starry night again.

        “Flipping planet!” She stuck a hand out and lifted it up in the air to test the temperature and sure enough, it was just as cold if not colder than it was a few minutes ago. The air temp was dropping noticeably.

        “I can think of something to keep us warm.” Suggested Vash as turned his face to her with a leer.

        “Bite me! I’m not doing anything tonight except shiver.” Snarled Rinnah, not bothering to meet his eyes feeling his body next to her shaking with silent laughter. He was getting too much enjoyment at her expense.

        She rolled over and tried to tuck the covers around her when she felt a cold draft go up her back and hit the exposed skin on her arms and shoulders. Hunching down she let out a curse and grabbed for the blankets to yank them up around her neck again. Quivering and with a whimper she curled into a tight ball to conserve heat. It wasn’t working.

        Just then she felt a tap on the shoulder.

        Turning to look over her shoulder she saw him lift something in the air. “Is this what you were looking for?” She cursed and rolled, lunging for the very items that had just been sitting in her bag, and as far as she was concerned as accessible as they had been, they might as well have been sitting in the middle of a black hole.

        “Oh no you don’t,” He lifted his straightened arm up and grinned at her vain attempts to grab them while at the same time trying to stay under the warmth of the covers. “At least not until you ‘fess up about not practicing today.” He tossed them back behind him beyond her reach. She gawked at the spot where her clothes landed in a heap and then back at him. Again, they might was well have been thrown into the center of a galactic rim particle storm for all the good they were doing her.

        She snapped at him, “Okay then! I don’t need to because I am fantastical, beyond amazing, and boggle the imagination with my skills!” She saw the gleam in his eye but before he had a chance to make a snide remark, she cut him off, “At hitting a target, you dope! There, happy now?”

        She kept a wary eye on him when she saw a lopsided grin forming along with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Scooting lower under the covers she pulled the edge up to just beneath her nose while continuing to glare at him. She stuck out a hand waiting for her garments to be handed back to her. It wasn’t boding well for her, as he wasn’t making a move to reach back and retrieve her items for her.

        In a sudden and unexpected move a grinning Vash pounced and pinned her down ignoring the scorching death threats she hurled at him in response while waving a fist in the air and landing punches on any part of him she could reach.

        Now this was more like it! This was the hybrid he knew. Then he dove in and nipped the end of her nose causing her to squawk in protest. Slapping a hand to cover the tip her eyes flew open wide as she stared at him in disbelief. It did however, have the desired effect. All movement on her part ceased. Rinnah looked down the length of her nose making her eyes cross in the middle. Vash chuckled at the sight. Overhearing his amusement the offended hybrid looked up before bursting out in complaint.

        “What the hell! You bit me!” Rinnah accused as she rubbed the end of her nose. “What kind of pervert are you anyway? I hope you’ve had all your shots! If I get blood poisoning from this I will sell your precious long colt to pay for my medical bills!”

        A smirk spread across his lips, “So sue me! But now we’re even. You bit me once too, remember?” With fingers still curled around the end of her nose she glared at him over her hand, refusing to answer.

        He leaned in, the smile disappearing from his lips. “What are you up to?” He demanded in a whisper, lowering his face closer to hers. So rapid was the shift from playful to serious that it had her looking at him askance, mystified at the sudden shift in mood.

        “Why do you always think I am up to something? You know, maybe, just maybe I was tired today. Did you ever think of that?”

        Vash shook his head, white locks flopping down in his face covering up one red eye. The other one was glowing, burning like a coal in the night and with that one he eerie pinned her with a look. “Because you are, that’s why. Or,” he peered down into her eyes, “you have something up your sleeve already decided on and you are just waiting to put it into action.”

        I hate him. “I don’t need to practice because I am not going to use my gun when we get there.” She grudgingly and resentfully shared with him. “I am going to be too busy to shoot anyone. I was hoping you three would subdue the place while I... eh, checked on something.”

        Not use her gun? That was a new one on him. Vash, stunned, loosened his grip and thinking the conversation was over with she moved to roll over back onto her side. Except he yanked her back.

        “What are you planning on doing instead, mowing Knives down with a few well-placed insults?” He demanded. Idiot! He despised, no loathed, her plans because they always hinged on her own estimation of her abilities, which really came down to her wanting to do things her way and everyone else could go hang themselves if they didn’t agree with it.

        It soon turned into a wrestling match since Rinnah was reluctant to share her plans. However, since he didn’t seem to care about the cold she lost the tussle before he had even won.

        “No. No more of your surprises. They are too hair raising and dangerous for the rest of us. Now what’s going on in that devious little brain of yours?”

        Not known for being the world’s most gracious loser she spent a moment sulking first before tersely outlining a few thoughts she had been mulling over the past several days.

        Aghast upon hearing her plans, Vash exclaimed, “You will do no such thing! And to make sure, you are sticking to me like glue when we go in. Even if I have to tie you to me. Do you understand?”

        “There you go talking to me like the village idiot again. Here’s what I understand, you domineering, over-controlling, snot-faced jerk! I have an idea that just might help. And you hate that!” She glared daggers at him, or rather at the end of his nose since that is what she was eye level with. You star blazing jerk, don’t think for one moment that I am not considering on returning the nipping favor.

        “No, it’s me you hate!” It flew out of her mouth before she realized what she had said. Her head reared back at her inadvertent admission. She slapped a hand over a groan, muffling it. Where had that come from? She had been in the riveting exercise of scrutinizing his nose for a retaliatory strike when it had erupted out of nowhere. She didn’t know about him but she certainly had surprised herself. She tucked her hand under the blanket again. It was too cold to keep it exposed to the chill. “Er.... uh... eh,” came stammering out of her as her mind went blank.

        Vash was quiet for a few seconds before calmly replying, “Is that what you think? You idiot fool of a half-plant and I say that with the utmost affection, you don’t know what I hate...” Then with an unexpected fierceness he tilted his head down to look her straight in the eye and said, “Hear me on this, you are a conceited, coffee-swilling, insufferable wretch, but I don’t hate you.”

        “Thanks. Coming from you that means everything to me. I’ll treasure it always. Now let go.” She mumbled trying to look away but was trapped under the raptor gaze.

        With red eyes going a darker ruby color, Vash dipped his head close enough that she could feel his breath on her cheek. “Now, how I feel about you aside, you will do as I say as long as you want to go in with us, do I make myself clear? Otherwise I will tie you up and drop you off at the nearest town‘s post office, postmarked with enough stamps to send you to the other side of the planet.”

        Rinnah’s eyes narrowed menacingly. “I’d like to see you try it plant boy!”

        The hybrid tensed for a fight. She was ready, willing and able and suddenly didn’t care about how frigidly cold the night air was. A little frostbite might be good for the one person in the vicinity who wasn’t a half-breed.

        In a surprising move that was blindingly quick, Vash gathered her close to him and caught her mouth with his and only pulled back when the tight anger under his lips was replaced with bewilderment.

        “Hey!” She breathed out upon release, startled confusion written all over her face. This was not how one started a fight.

        “Your problem is that you take things way too seriously!”

        He reached up and ruffled her hair. With that, he rolled onto his back still holding her tight and pulled her close next to his side ignoring her indignant yelp. The blanket slipped off her shoulders. Immediately the contact sent goose bumps racing up and down her all the skin exposed to the contact with the cold air. A shudder passed through her as she let out a pained gasp. It wasn’t merely wintry cold; it had a skin-searing bite to it! Seizing the covers she buried her face in Vash’ s soft shirt and pulled the blanket up around her neck, teeth chattering. Rinnah’s jaw was beginning to ache from being clenched so tightly shut in the effort not to let her teeth chatter. Like nothing else could have, the night air changed her mind about clobbering him just then. She could wait until morning when it was warmer. Right now the only thing she wanted was to be warm and for her teeth to stop sounding like a couple of castanets.

        Vash moved, stretching and that an opening that let in a wintry blast that went straight down to her toes. Gasping from the cold, she tried to close the hole but it was difficult with him moving around so much. Rinnah started looking for a rock with the faint hope of beaming him with it. Anything to keep him from doing that again! Numerous ways to knock him unconscious were playing out in her head when she felt a weight drop on her chest. She lifted her head and saw her extra clothes had been dumped on her. Without hesitation she snatched them and ducked totally under the blankets. Vash could only see a moving lump that muttered and mumbled now and then until finally finished dressing, the top of her head appeared. He saw a grimace appear on her face and could easily guess that she thought it was still too cold. He kept his eyes on the stars above as he felt her move closer to him. The desire to make a comment almost a burning need but he managed to suppress it. What he couldn’t suppress was an ever widening grin.

        Rinnah glanced around, the one thing between them and the chill air of the desert night were a few blankets and she was not in any way enthusiastic about exposing herself to its icy bite again. Not that she had anything left to pull on. She cursed the irony of being pressed up as close as she could to the only heat source in the immediate area and wasn’t that just darn galling! Rinnah threw him a glare at the same time as she tried to burrow under him. His wide grin soon turned into soft laughter. It was maddening to hear that satisfied masculine chuckle rumbling deep in his chest but at that point in time she wasn’t exactly in a position to chastise him.

        Finally finding a position where she was warm and comfortable, her body began to relax. The last thing she heard as she was drowsed in that last stage before sleep, was him in a whispered mumble about ‘there used to be one here, one there, and a deep one here. Regenerating, but how? .” He sure was a noisy fellow before he fell asleep at night. If he bothers me again I’ll give him the cold shoulder. Her lips curved up in a small, tired smile as the worn-out hybrid drifted off to sleep.

* * *

        The next morning, as with all mornings since they had left the ranch, the tyrant formally known as Milly, roused them earlier than Vash ever had and badgered droopy-eyed compatriots into the vehicle, handing the whiners a hard ration bar and water for breakfast. Rinnah nearly got herself punched when she told Milly with some heat that she was ready to take her chances with Knives, she was sure he would let his workers have morning coffee before they started their day of terrorizing and destruction. The girls were nearly growling at each other and coming close to blows but neither of the males felt brave enough to step in the middle of it. Only when Milly realized that Rinnah was seriously about to mutiny, she finally relented and made a cup of the coffee addict’s get-up-and-go juice, but just one. If she wanted more, Rinnah had to wait until later in the morning. It was an uneasy compromise.

        Wolfwood watching this with wary eyes leaned over to Vash at one point and whispered, “She‘s not in a good mood.”

        Vash wasn‘t sure which woman Wolfwood was referring to but decided that it didn‘t matter as each one looked mad enough to explode. “Preach on priest man. I can’t wait to get this over with.” Then with a gleam in his eye and a lift of an eyebrow, he whispered, “are you sure that’s your wife?” Which earned him a punch on the arm.

        Even lunch was eaten in the car, again, not winning her any fans. The only thing that saved her from a full-blown, out-and-out rioting amongst the troops was that when they stopped for the night and she made them a large, hot meal with a heavy emphasis on delicious.

        With that to look forward to in the evenings it made the days easier to put up with. A memory of the dinner from the night before with the taste still in their minds and on their tongues went a long way to forgiving the cook. Milly, was nothing, if not a culinary genius. Vash decided that if he had to travel again he wanted Milly going with him. He cast a look at her sitting next to the priest who had his arm wrapped around her shoulders, affection shining in his eyes as he looked down at her bent head. Vash doubted that once the priest was done with this business that he would be wandering after this or letting Milly go traveling about either. This priest had latched onto a dream come true and he was determined to live out his days in peaceful retirement from the wandering lifestyle gunslinger he had once been. Which only made Vash wonder. What did he, personally, want to do after this, and really, should he even be thinking about an afterwards right now? His roaming gaze came to rest on one glossy black head bent over her dinner.

        Feeling eyes on her, Rinnah lifted hers from her plate to catch his gaze from across the cooking ring. Vash’s glowing eyes were staring at her with an intent look.

        “What?” She asked puzzled. What had she done now? He shook his head and looked back down at his own plate.

        However, any time when Milly and Wolfwood were too engrossed in their own conversation, he would grin and ask, “Want to go for a walk?” Blushing all the way up to her roots, she would snarl an emphatic “No!” at him and drop her gaze back to her plate.

        Vash chuckled. No matter how many times he asked, she still had the same reaction. It was amazing that he could make her feel flustered like this after all this time, not to mention that the fun quotient was quite rewarding.

        It was all Rinnah could do to keep from rolling her eyes. What ever happened to her rules? She couldn’t even remember what they were now, something like, no touching, no looking, and what, no sniffing? Stupid rules, they hadn’t helped a bit. New rule, stop making rules.

        Finally, a day came when Wolfwood, holding up and consulting a grimy map, announced that the next day they would be arriving in the last town untainted by Knives and his crew. At least it used to be clean of them, who knew what it was like now. After that they could start for Knives’ hideout. Milly was all for pressing on and getting there but Vash and even Wolfwood took a firm stand stating they needed to do an inventory and make some much-needed purchases. Also, this town had a few explosive items, more than just a little illegal in some of the other civilized portions of the planet, and hence, there weren’t too many places where they were to be had. Sandstone was a violent town but on the verge of becoming a larger one now that the company of freight sand steamers had added the town to its route.

        What Vash and Wolfwood were not admitting was that the traveling gunmen had gotten used to the soft life of hotel suites that Rinnah’s monetary windfall afforded them. They really missed it and looked forward to sleeping in regular beds rather than on the hard cold ground and equally cold nights. The life of a wandering outlaw and priest was great for telling tall tales but when trying to get to sleep on rocks poking holes in one’s skin, it tended to make one re-evaluate the whole outdoor life of being a gunman on the run. Clean sheets, soft pillows, frequent baths had corrupted the two like nothing else had.

        It seemed that once she knew they were getting closer to the next leg of the journey that led straight for Knives, Milly did an abrupt about-turn and regained her usual cheerful equilibrium. It was even to the point she hummed or sang one particular song over and over until even Wolfwood was ready to put her in the back to ride on top of the ammo boxes. Otherwise, every one was pleased, if startled by the quick return of the old Milly. Vash and Wolfwood shared a baffled look and simultaneously shrugged their shoulders and went with it. Rinnah snorted and crossed her arms in front of her. She was more leery and skeptical than the men were and would wait and see how this played out. Besides, she was still a little miffed at the attempt to keep her from having a morning cup of sunshine. No coffee? What could she have been thinking? It was all categorically, utterly, and most blatantly a sin of some kind, somewhere. Rinnah was pretty sure it should fall under a commandment, a really big one. The kind that will get you stuck in a lightless place for eons. She scowled at the back of Milly’s head.

        Wolfwood’s calculations were off a wee bit and they rolled into town in the evening. After getting checked in to the local hotel, Milly surprised them all by suggesting they go out for a celebratory drink.... and pudding. She was met with deafening silence at the proposal as the other three stared at her. It took her a while to get the others to believe she was serious, but once they realized she was, they hurried for the door dragging her with them before she had a chance to change her mind.

        Sitting around a table in the nearest saloon, Milly had several cups of pudding opened and devoured in a short amount of time. There were leftover cup carcasses littering the table in front of her. The others were drinking the saloon’s version of the house drink except for Milly who had ordered Ceylon tea that turned out to be the same color as their drinks. Why Rinnah had ordered it for her was a mystery, but since she had been such a hard taskmaster of late she didn’t question it and drank it with a cheerful smile on her face. After all, it was her favorite tea and not that easy to get a hold of. It was kind of Rinnah to order them as soon as they arrived. She didn’t have a chance to place her order. Rinnah came waltzing over to the table with pudding and tea, plunking both down in front of her.

        While being watched by the other three, Milly dug in with her old enthusiasm wondering why she had let so much time go by since her last pudding cup. Like a scythe through soft butter Milly swept through the cups with nary a breath until the last one was scooped hollow. Finally satiated, she put down her spoon and crossed her arms on the tabletop and cushioned her head on them while watching the others with a smile as they drank, laughed, and told jokes.

        “Now this is what I call a good time,” remarked Wolfwood at one point, as he looked at his friends before settling on Milly’s upturned face. With her head still resting on her arms and pudding cups strewn out in front of her she looked up at him and gave him a wink. His mouth dropped. Milly, his Milly just winked at him, and it was that kind of wink.

        As for the other two they had thrown surreptitious glances in her direction throughout the evening, still not quite believing their good fortune at the change in Milly. It was their Milly sitting with them for the time being and they all fervently hoped she was back to stay.

        Milly knew what they were thinking and smiled internally. After all was said and done, she would humble herself and apologize, but right now there was a greater concern on her mind and that was getting back her friend. Maybe Meryl wouldn’t come back with them, but she had to talk to her. She couldn’t explain why it was so important and something that had to be done, but it was.

        Thinking these thoughts and others to herself, she happened to notice Mr. Vash looking at her. His elbow was propped up on the table with his head resting on a curled fist. However, she was not so pudding-gorged she didn’t notice when Mr. Vash lifted his left hand and casually set it to cover Rinnah’s and pin it to the table.

        The black-haired hybrid had just set down her glass and left her hand to rest on the table as she shot another puzzled look at Milly trying to figure out what had happened to her these past several days. The thoughtful look on her face rapidly shifted into one of surprise when Vash slid his hand over hers. Rinnah stared down at their hands and attempted to slowly slide her hand out from underneath his without calling attention to herself. Then without appearing to, he exerted a bit of pressure and it being his prosthetic hand it felt like bars of steel clamping down without an ounce of give to them. The only sign from Rinnah was a small intake of breath. Even as she wiggled her fingers she looked at him but Vash was looking at Milly still as if waiting for her to resume telling a story about some odd Thompson relative or other. Realizing how futile it was, with a resigned sigh the hybrid ceased her efforts to remove her hand and let him hold it there.

        Besides, she had other things to think about and that was Knives, the lost soul housing a void of darkness. Poor baby. She for one didn’t feel one bit sorry for him. Somberly she shook her head until she felt Vash’s gaze looking at her out of the corner of his eye; cheek still propped up on his curled fist.

        She gave him a small grin before looking away as if something else had caught her interest. She bit back a curse as her fingers were pinched again in a tight grip. Freaking ouch! She glared down at his hand. He had given her another little squeeze to get her attention. Rinnah considered grabbing the bottle next to her and slamming down on his hand until she remembered that it wouldn’t hurt this arm. She looked up into his face and only to find a half-smile aimed at her as if he knew what she was thinking. From past experience, he probably did. She made a face at him.

        It did nothing to deter his deepening smirk. He winked at her. Weasel!

        Rinnah was more determined now to keep her revelation to herself of the idea she had about Knives’ absorbing his sisters and how to stop. She hadn’t told Vash everything, she had left out certain... facts. Besides she still wasn’t sure if it would work or not. She wouldn’t know until she was face to face with Knives himself and she didn’t want to get everyone’s hopes up if the idea turned out to be a bust. Yes, best to keep it to herself for now. Coming to that decision she looked up again and found that the smirk was gone from Vash’s face to be replaced by a piercing and perceptive crimson stare, this time, his was the forbidding look. She dropped her gaze hoping that he wasn’t privy to her private thoughts just then.

Luck is Such a Relative Term

       The late morning quiet was interrupted by a resounding crash. Not the sound of a crash of a saloon owner throwing out a misplaced drunk overlooked after a previous night‘s carousing, nor was it the kind of crash where vehicle owners’ exchange profanity along with insurance information. This crash was out of place, interrupting the peaceful morning and had heads instantly craning around on curious necks to search for the source of the disturbance. They couldn’t have missed it even if they had tried.

        A fist the size of a steamer trunk lid slashed through the air and fell upon a second empty shipping crate. Tiny pieces of wood roughly the size of toothpicks shattered and fell in a circular blast pattern to join the rest of the litter from the first crate, the only evidence to show where the boxes had once been.

        An indignant voice protested, “Hey pal that was good aged wood! You’re gonna have to pay for that!” The owner of the voice stopped short as his gaze scaled upwards and he realized who was responsible for the smashing of the crates. An audible gulp was heard as he squeaked out, “Never mind. Boxes are easy to come by.”

        A deep vibration filled the air along with a higher-pitched snicker. The shop owner turned and made a frantic dash for his shop door but not before a metal circle with spikes landed in the wood frame of the door. The snicker changed to chortling at the handiwork for it had sliced through the shopkeeper’s shirtsleeve shearing off a scrap of fabric with it. Even now the piece of cloth hung limply where it was nailed into the doorframe by the thrown circle blade. The weapon quivered for a second until a large hand reached out for it and easily but mindful of the sharp edge, plucked it out. With an incoherent mumble the owner of the hand lifted it up to the one who had thrown it. Released, the piece of cloth fluttered down to the ground unnoticed.

        “People in this town are so rude, don’t cha think Grello?”

        To anyone listening, if they were brave or foolhardy enough, this comment was made in a whine-tinged voice as the owner watched with satisfaction as pedestrians hurried off while casting uneasy looks over their shoulders at the two strangers.

        In answer came a deep, rumbling answer, “Strong is good, smashing is good too.” The voice speaking sounded as if it echoing up from the bottom of a deep well.

        “And it’s a good day too. In fact, a perfect day for us to catch our prey, eh Grello?”

        “Good, yes Spaz.” The one called Grello looked up at the small misshapen man sitting on a saddle contraption strapped across his shoulders while something resembling a papoose hung down the middle of his back. Both devices were placed there so the deformed other could ride on the human behemoth’s back or ride on the padded seat on the giant’s left shoulder. There was no chance of him falling for he was tightly buckled in and held securely to the cushion that extended upwards in a curve that molded to the shape of Grello‘s neck but not close enough that it would chafe him. Attached to the side within easy reach of the smaller man was an assortment of throwing knives, daggers, slicing stars, and twin morning suns, all his weapons of choice.

        Spaz rode high above the world, looking down upon people who would normally be looking down upon him, if he weren’t situated above them next to his brother’s head. The riding platform attached to his brother’s shoulder was a cross between a saddle and a platform that was fastened to another pad buckled to harness covering Grello’s shoulder and torso. No longer would the normal humans pity him or make fun of him for his size, or lack thereof.

        Spaz and Grello were distant relatives of the Nebraska clan and it showed. Grello was a veritable giant of a man, not as big as some of the Nebraska clan got, but much larger than the average male on the planet. Right now his shoulders were shaking from laughter, not from the remark his brother had made, but because he smashed the boxes and the flush from the little bit of pleasure was still pulsing through him.

        “Not hurt.” He reminded his brother, the thought sluggishly poking itself through his enjoyment. Immediately he felt a slap on the side of his head that only had the effect of moving his hair. If anyone else tried to do hit him they would have been slapped and squashed as if a mere irritating insect.

        “Ya oaf! Of course I remember what....”

        “No lumps on bounty...”

        “I said I remember!” Another slap on the side of the head accompanied those words. It would have been a more effective reprimand if the voice weren’t the squeak that it was. The larger of the two viewed the smaller brother’s reprimand slaps as mere love taps. At times he said things that sounded more stupid than he actually was just so he could feel that brotherly affection being expressed.

        Recalling his instructions, Spaz stopped delivering the slaps to say, “Yes, in perfect condition. Damn, more trouble for us but at least we are saved the trouble of hunting them down. Who knew they would come to us? Ah, the reward money...” here Spaz’s speech faded as he greedily rubbed his hands together. He could easily envision a pile of double dollars bound in bundles stacked neatly to cover a table in a huge mound. He licked his lips. He couldn’t wait.

        The smaller of the two brothers felt the movement as the giant vigorously nodded in agreement.

        They were indeed brothers even if it wasn’t obvious to the casual glance. Bizarre orange eyes being the only thing the two brothers shared in common. Strangely enough, although that was the only thing in looks they held in common, it was not a family trait but genetic tinkering and exposure to carefully controlled bursts of high levels of plant angel radiation residue. It had the ability to manipulate the human template. Although the technicians made it sound like it they were the ones in charge and managing it, Spaz secretly believed that this leakage, or whatever they wanted to continue to call it, was more manipulating rather than manipulated. They were not the first to be so exposed and most likely wouldn’t be the last since it suited the Master‘s plans. At the last stage they were blindfolded and taken to a place deep in the earth that housed the Engel Manig Aeternalis machine, as it was reverently known among the faithful. Whatever it was, it worked. A shark-tooth grin split Spaz’s lips. His throwing speed had increased three-fold and his brother’s strength, about the same. They were a force to be reckoned with now.

        Already the two brothers had been successful on all their missions and were now being sent to take in a bounty. It wasn’t their usual type of work, but someone in higher management believed they were the ones for the job. Spaz didn’t care why they were chosen; he was only interested in the bonus along with the reward if both were brought in with a minimum of damage. The less damage the more the amount the bonus. For once Spaz and Grello had a vested interest in making sure their prey arrived in good condition.

        “Hungry.” What would have come out as a whine were it not for the deep rumble of his voice, the giant complained as he rubbed his hand over his empty stomach. The sound reverberated through the Spaz’s bones.

        “Right then bro, first we feed ya and then we catch the prey.” Spaz rubbed his hands together again as his thoughts returned to the reward offered. It was an obscenely huge amount of money, although not as large as the one once put on the head of the Humanoid Typhoon who had, for all intents and purposes, fallen off the face of the map. Spaz licked his lips again. That bounty alone would take care of any financial woes they had but no one had heard anything about Vash the Stampede for a long time. One couldn’t waste their time on a dead thomas, best to bet on the ones already lined up for the race.

        He chuckled and then leaned over to speak into his brother’s ear, “Don’t worry, little bro, ya can eat as much as ya want, when ya want when we get that reward... in fact, we may even pay for the meals!” He chuckled to himself, extremely pleased with his little joke. His brother chortled along with him. He and his brother were so lucky.

First Impressions Are So Important

       Rinnah Blackfire was happy, no two ways about it. Having experienced the emotion more than just a few times in her life she knew what it felt like. Right at this moment in time she was genuinely, bona fide, fat-free, good-as-gold, certifiably happy.

      With a pleased grin splitting her face she did a little dance and then spun in place, arms open wide to the sky.

      Only moments earlier she had been standing in the street looking up at a sign in disbelief at her good fortune. It must be a hybrid holiday! She stared at the sign written in pink puffy curlicue letters along with balloons and a carved pixie at the door announcing that they had special discount for children as this was their opening week. Rinnah hugged herself. Man, I wish this adult suit I have to wear had a zipper on it. Don’t care though, I’m getting me some before the line starts forming. She rocked back on her heels before doing a fist into the air with a hissed, “Yes!”

      People passing by gave her strange looks and hurried past and though she noticed it didn’t bother her, life was good again after long days of wearisome travel. Travel that involved being out in the worst of the blistering heat of the day bothered Milly and Nicholas more than it did Vash and Rinnah. However, the two full humans were less bothered by the dropping night temperatures than she was. The hybrid considered the frigid air to be a barely survivable sub-artic cold. So unfair. She was the half-breed. Vash should be more susceptible to the cold than her, but he wasn’t. It was a puzzler, but that could wait for another day.

      But nothing can go wrong now, the sun is shining... she cast a considering glance upward and amended, make that one more sun than necessary, but the sky is clear blue and the grass, if they had any here, would be green, and I am standing in front of my just desserts, just drooling.

      Rinnah took a step back to take note of where they had erected this shop that was as near to heaven as one could get without having to leave the ground. Looking to the left and to the right at the stores bracketing the shop she was standing in front of, she began to chuckle as she read the signs. A riddle was forming in her brain. This was rich; she had to try out this brainteaser on someone.

      With a graceful spring to her step, somewhere between a skip and a hop the hybrid made her way down the sidewalk. Yes indeed, it was turning out to be wonderfully wondrous day. Things were turning around for her.

      The day hadn’t started out that way when she dutifully followed Milly up and down the aisles in a fabric store. Despite what Vash had said about taking only those things needed for penetrating Knives‘ lair, Milly insisted that she needed more sewing supplies. In a world of all her own, Milly assured Rinnah in a distracted manner that they wouldn’t take up much room in the truck at all. The hybrid only shrugged and kept following, not that Milly was waiting for an answer. Rinnah doubted Milly would have heard her even if she had answered. The woman’s head was filled with threads and... stuff. She had no idea if the sewing... things would take up much room or not.

      With one objective before her Milly headed for and entered the first shop that advertised such, Hanging By A Thread, and then this one. Boring! Rinnah’s face scrunched in distaste then gave a dismissive snort; everyone needed to have a hobby. She didn’t mind watching Milly sew seeing it was art in progress on the same order as watching Mr. Rembrandt paint. Milly worked marvels with needle and thread. However, wandering about touching and pondering each bolt of cloth, well that was above and beyond the call of duty as a friend. With an excuse she doubted Milly had even heard as the blonde woman was preoccupied running a dark green fabric between her fingers, Rinnah made good her escape. She was able to slip out the door so quietly the bells above the doorframe never tinkled a farewell chime.

      Out and about on the serious business of killing time she had stumbled across this shop. Even now Rinnah ran the phrase over her tongue, trying it out to see how it sounded as she sought to find the correct wording to spring it on Milly later. Working and reworking the wording of the riddle in her head, she failed to see that she was not alone on the sidewalk. The hybrid was so caught up in her musings she didn’t notice the shadow following her as she practically danced her way back. After stopping for traffic, which consisted of a bus of weary and travel sore passengers staring apathetically out their windows, she darted across the street humming a tune under her breath. The shadow paused and followed quickly closing the distance between them.

      The first inkling Rinnah had of trouble was when she felt a ground tremor under her feet.

      The hybrid stopped short to wait out the earthquake before remembering that there hadn’t been one the whole time she was here and, come to think of it, no one ever talked about earthquakes happening either. She hesitated, felt nothing, then shrugged and started on her way.

      The moment she took a step ground shook again. Freaking star holes, it was an earthquake!

      The shaking stopped. Rinnah paused. Then she placed the other foot down but nothing happened. Cautiously she picked up and set down the opposite foot only to have it happen again. The ground vibrated under her foot, the very same foot as before. No earthquake she had ever heard of acted that way. Was she doing something to cause this?

      She stopped in her tracks to stare down at her feet in puzzlement. The occurrence only happened with that certain foot. Standing in place, she lifted up the suspect foot, gave it a once over and a shake before gently setting it down. The ground under her feet trembled. What the... With growing unease, she picked up the foot again to peer at it in wonder. How very odd. She briefly wondered if this had anything to do with her abilities and being a hybrid. Weird things were happening in her body but she had yet to see something like this being manifested. This time she placed it toe first and immediately the ground quivered again, only less so than before. Rinnah bent over to study the foot in question when she felt a disturbance in the air and the wake of something large and heavy passing where her head had just been.

      Instinct sprang into action and she threw herself to the side and forward, hitting the ground and rolling while out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of a giant fist returning in a slashing arc.

      “Ya idiot, ya know that would have significantly damaged her if it had landed! I said, a gentle tap to knock her out, not a blow that could shatter a rock!”

      A petulant grunt replied to the complaint.

      Rinnah rolled and used the momentum as she continued into a spin so that in one a quick and fluid movement she was on her feet. That’s when she got her first good look at the biggest fist she had ever seen in her life and that, attached to an equally outrageously huge and long arm. Her eyes traveled up a mountain of a shoulder, and she hadn‘t even reached the top yet,... a trunk of a neck, and there, at the top, like a monument at the crest of hill, a large head as big as a good-sized boulder.

      Rinnah gave a low whistle of amazement at the view before her before remarking, “Whoa! They certainly do grow ‘em big down on the farm. Yee haw ploughboy!”

      Then she darted to the side and skid to a stop several yarz away. Coming to a standing position with one knee slightly bent, hands hanging at her sides in a relaxed pose she gave the appearance of nonchalance as she took the time to study the behemoth facing her. That’s when she saw the accessory sitting next to the head. When had shoulder-puppets become a fashion statement? She squinted trying to get a better look at the dummy before realizing it was alive. It was simple to deduce it was real when it started talking and the big guy’s mouth didn’t move. She gaped up at the puppet.

      “Ya will surrender now. We would rather bring ya’s in while ya’s are in one piece. So don’t make us stomp on ya and squish ya flat.“ It was hard to take the threat too seriously or the small man riding high on the giant’s shoulder who uttered it. She didn’t know that they were hoping she would just surrender so things wouldn’t get that far since they were under orders to bring in a living bounty.

      Rinnah ran her eyes over the smaller one sizing him up. She figured that if he were standing next to her that he would only reach up to her shoulder, if that. Rinnah continued to stare up the speaker. It was easy to see that he was the one in charge, but she couldn’t quit staring. It was an odd sight to her even if this was just everyday tourist attraction for everyone else.

      Spreading out arms to the side she said, “Gentlemen, that has got to be the worst pick up line I have ever heard. Too blunt, too forceful, and that promise of gore to come is a downright turnoff to most women. Now what you need are flowers, a little sweet talk, but even more, and in this you can’t go wrong, chocolate or even some ice cream,” a critical eye scanned them before saying, “however, you may want to consider a dating service. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you boys are not exactly the stuff of every girl’s dream.”

      The giant roared. Oooh, a little sensitive about the size issue noted the hybrid ruefully.

      She watched with interest as he reached around behind his back and tugged out a very long and very thick length of black wood, or at least it looked like wood. At the top was a leather hood sheath but she was guessing it covered a razor sharp axe. It certainly didn’t take a razor sharp intelligence to deduce that since the form was suspiciously shaped like that of an axe blade, then it probably wasn‘t a glorified shoehorn.

      Rinnah kept a vigilant eye on it even as she was aware of the little man unsnapping small black and silver circle and pointed things on the leather strap across his chest and also on the one fasted to his stand. Then she gave a quick glance around over her shoulder and to the sides to make sure there weren’t any innocent bystanders that would get hurt in the cross action. With relief she noticed there weren’t bystanders anywhere within eyeball distance. The street was, not so strangely, deserted. It was just her and her new friend. She looked up when he began speaking.

      “Little girls shouldn’t be so quick to insult people. Especially those much larger and stronger than they are.”

      “Well, when I see one I’ll be sure to pass that message along.”

      “Ya lack respect! Little peoples with good sense would know not to play with us. We could easily kill ya, ya know.” The little man had both hands full of odd spiky circles that looked very sharp even from her angle on the ground.

      Rinnah smiled and spread out her palms, “Oh that! You know, I have never let good sense stop me before, why make a habit of it now?” Squinting against the bright glare of the suns, she gave him a lopsided grin.

      The two brothers frowned down in unison at the female in front of them. She wasn’t acting the least bit afraid and that was something new in their experience.

      “No one talks to us like that! We will have to chastise ya for ya sassy little mouth, missy.”

      “On no! I’m the victim of an attempted sassination. Whatever shall I do?” She lifted an arm and placed the back of her hand against her forehead in a mocking portrait of a wilting and helpless female.

      There was silence for a moment as Spaz just stared at her, then the giant’s shoulders began shaking and he pointed a massive index finger at Rinnah and said, “Funny little girl. We keep her?”

      “At last! Someone who appreciates my sense of humor!” Cheered the hybrid while dipping down into a curtsey that also allowed her take what she hoped was a discreet step backward.

      “Annoying bounty head!” Muttered Spaz to himself before speaking up to warn her, “I can see why ya’s on someone’s list!” He said as he scowled down at her only to be met with opalescent blue eyes twinkling merrily up at him.

      Turning to his brother who was looking at him with a hopeful glint in his eye, he snapped, “forget it! If we keep her or the other one we don’t get the money. It’s that simple. We have talked about this before, remember?”

      Money? Rinnah peered up at the two brothers. For her and...? Nicholas, Milly, or was it Vash? Could it be possible it was the same bounty that Livia had mentioned?

      “Say gents, this whole money issue thing... are you strapped for cash because I could spot you a loan if you’d like.”

      Two sets of orange eyes blinked down at her.

      “WHAT! We don’t take loans from little girls we are bringing in for a reward! It‘s just not done! We’d be laughed out of the guild! Don‘t be stupid and come along quietly.” Spaz said glowering down at her.

      “Not take your money little girl.” Rumbled out Grello in agreement with his brother.

      Rinnah shrugged, “Okay, it was just a thought.” My wonderful day is getting the wonder sucked out of it in a mighty big way.

      Meanwhile the giant’s face showed disappointment and Rinnah decided that he was sincere in wanting to keep her as a strange pet of some sort. Then he began swinging his weapon back and forth and she concluded that he was also one of those types who were quick to overcome the little disappointments in life. She watched the weapon swing back and forth, to and fro, in a hypnotic manner while gaining momentum with each arc. Finally he let it fly up so that it came down to smack in his suitcase-sized palm with a dull meaty sound. He turned his attention away to work on the lacings of the sheath covering the head.

      She watched until a flash of metal passed by her eyes to land in a thud at her feet. Looking down she saw a pair of old fashioned handcuffs. Were they kidding? These antiquated handcuffs were worse than useless and would be a breeze to slip out of. She snorted in disdain. She used to own watchbands that took more skill to remove than these obsolete manacles! Surely they didn’t think they would hold her, did they?

      With a scornful toe she nudged the handcuffs before looking up, one hand on a hip and the other pointing accusingly at the ground. “Tell me you’re not serious.”

      The little man smiled evilly and the orange eyes were nearly lost under the heavy eyebrows.

      “We came prepared. They are modified especially for interrupting and dampening the power output from a plant and we know ya’s a plant.”

      She shook a fist at them as she hissed through clenched teeth, “Half! Half!”

      If they, whoever they were, were going to send bounty hunters after her the least they could do was to get the facts straight. She wondered if Vash ever had this kind of aggravation.

      “Aw, is the little missy upset?” Then his tone changed to a command, “Put those on before we have to take drastic measures.”

      Stubbornly she crossed her arms over her chest and said in a flat voice, “Make me.”

      Grello, suddenly a not so gentle giant, pulled the covering off his weapon and took an experimental swing. Even from where she was standing she could feel the air being stirred by the passing of the enormous blade. The handle of it was longer than she was tall and the head itself looked to be half that wide, yet he was twirling it through the air as if it weighed no more than a matchstick. Spaz watched with a triumphant sneer on his face and each hand filled with those razor-sharp circles.

      Okay fine then. An orange-eyed, axe-wielding giant with a bald-headed ninja freak riding shotgun. Great bearded star holes! Isn’t this the wrong season for hybrid hunting?

      “Hey there big fella! Watch where you swing that thing, you could shear an eyebrow off! All right now, let’s all just step back and take a deep calming breath, okay? Hey! Watch it! That was leg-shaving close there! C‘mon big guy, let’s just take it easy and be friends. You don’t want me for an enemy so don’t force me to mock you and hurt your feelings. We all lose that way, I feel bad, you feel bad... no one walks away a winner.”

      Rinnah was gesturing with placating motions while slowly backing up trying to put some distance between them.

      “Stop right there.... One more step and we attack and ya know what that means.” Sneered Spaz.

      No, she didn’t, but she wasn’t going to let on.

      The axe swung dangerously close making it obvious that she was still within easy striking reach of the giant’s huge weapon. Even though it ruffled her hair as it passed by she didn’t flinch as was expected. She did something they weren‘t expecting, her left hand dropped to snap open the securing strap on her colt. All trace of humor disappeared from her face as her eyes lost their merry twinkle. Instead, her spine stiffened and her eye sockets began to fill with the radiant blue glow that grew brighter to overflow, spilling over her face as she stared up at the two mismatched brothers. What they could see of her face was frozen and unreadable. It was as if a magician had pulled back a curtain revealing a person with the same exterior but different personality. Realizing that she was once more going ‘code blue’ Rinnah made an effort to haul the power back into herself and contain it. Right then, she was more afraid of herself and for others than any danger these brothers were threatening her with.

      Making no move to pull her metallic blue colt out, she just let them see that she meant it as a warning. Unfortunately neither man took it as such. Normally the otherworldly glowing eyes would have been the more upsetting of her two actions, but both brothers had been prepared for this and were even expecting it to happen. Spaz laughed as he pointed at her little gun and after a brief pause his brother joined him. Then with a rapid movement and a gleam of something metallic, the little man threw something in her direction.

      A twin throwing sun cut through the air aimed at her shoulder with the intention of striking her to disable her gun arm. With her inherent plant abilities hypersensitive to her surroundings, time seemed to slow down, suspending the natural forward movement as she watched the weapon rotating toward her at the speed of a mountaintop eroding. At a precise second in time, she dipped her shoulder slightly so that the thrown circle passed harmlessly over.

      Again, Spaz had been expecting something like that to happen. He had been warned that one of the intended victims wouldn’t be easy to catch. Equipped, he sneered at Rinnah and pulled something long and black hanging next to the papoose that looked like an unholy union between a launcher and a bazooka. Not recognizing the thing Rinnah shifted on her feet uneasily since she had no idea what it was capable of doing.

      At an unimaginable speed flying discs flew from the launcher. As sharp circles spun toward her at a dizzying speed, Grello began swinging his axe again, as if it were a mere broomstick in his hands. He carved intricate and convoluted motions in the air and, amazingly, both brothers were in sync with one another as they pressed their attack on Rinnah.

      Dancing one way and the another she soon saw their plan. They were working together to fill up any holes and force her in a direction off to the side. Rinnah frowned as she watched the pattern being woven in the air; she refused to be so accommodating.

      The hybrid spun into a blurring dance of avoidance, twisting, and dodging while watching and absorbing information relating to the brother’s attack strengths and weaknesses. They were trying to move her in a side and back direction over to the opposite side of the street where a suspiciously dark doorway was situated in the wall of the alleyway. No more alleyways! She was beginning to hate them as some of her more unpleasant experiences happened in them. The black-haired hybrid had no idea what was over there but she was in no way curious nor did she intend to find out. Weaving from one side to another in complex movements she managed to keep all the intended strikes from hitting her while also keeping them from moving her in the route they wanted. However, for two greedy bounty hunters they didn’t seem overly concerned about hurting her. As the attacks became more intense and the passes came at her quicker and quicker she was pressed into moving faster and faster to avoid a hit from landing on her.

      Finally she decided she had had enough. With a move that was counterpoint to their harmonious moves, she leaped and spun so that in mid-twist she smoothly and effortlessly slipped out her colt, aimed and squeezed the trigger, all before she landed in a cushioning crouch. Even before straightening she was on the move in a blurring motion.

      Looking to where she should have landed, the two bounty hunters were surprised to find she wasn’t there. It was as if she had pulled a vanishing act in front of them. All they heard was the whisk sound of a swift movement and felt a faint breeze brushing by them.

      Before they realized it she was behind them and firing the colt again. They didn’t have a chance to look over their shoulders when with another blink of the eye she was standing before them only this time with a smoking gun and emotionless face. She came to a stop and stared up at them, legs splayed apart ready for any reaction on their part.

      They stared down at her noting, but not understanding the enigmatic expression on her face. It was then each heard the dull thud of the enormous axe head landing on the ground at their feet.

      The human behemoth looked up with a puzzled expression on his wide face while his brother echoed his with a dumbstruck one of his own. Grello held up his axe to find that he was staring at the splintered end of a long useless stick.

      The little man’s eyes were goggling in his head as anger consumed him. Just for that, they would drag her in by her heels the whole way back.

      Spaz yelled at Grello to grab her before she could do any more mischief. He was near spitting with rage at the one-eyed look she was giving them with a little smile playing about the corners of her lips as if waiting for something to happen next. Something was going to happen all right. With a command and a curt gesture he indicated for Grello to seize her. His brother began moving but suddenly she was not standing where she was supposed to be.

      She was standing a few feet away watching impassively as Grello’s giant hand went speeding past her. Still she wasn’t showing any signs of being the least bit worried. Grello tried to grab her again but only managed to clutch at the empty place where the hybrid plant had been patiently waiting as if for this very thing.

      Just then Spaz heard a creak as his brother straightened back up staring at his hands in puzzled disbelief. It wasn’t the kind of creaking that the leather straps holding the shoulder saddle usually made. He shot a look at the straps and felt the saddle move and then tip. To Spaz’s horror he realized what the sound meant and made a little noise in the back of his throat.

      A force known throughout the galaxy caught and mercilessly held Spaz. Slowly he began to slide, held fast in the relentless claw of the law of gravity. Belatedly he realized that the little tramp’s shots had neatly sliced through the restraining straps holding the saddle in place. Frantically he worked to unfasten the buckles around his waist but it was a vain attempt, his fumbling fingers were useless in the race. He was beginning to roll back and it was only a second later that Spaz dropped backwards off his brother’s shoulder with a yell.

      Tardily Grello realized his brother was falling and reached a hand up to catch him. It was too late. The smaller brother was gone and the giant’s hand fell on the empty space so recently occupied by Spaz. A thud sounded behind him along with a painful groan. In a slow lumbering turn Grello moved to help his brother up.

      Rinnah, knowing opportunity was knocking when she saw it, beat a hasty retreat. She didn’t think they would see which the route she took but she made sure if they did see anything that it was a blur that could be blamed on a trick of the light.

Just Me, Just You, or Just Desserts?

       Arriving at the door of the fabric shop Rinnah leaned an extended arm and palm against the wall as she stooped over a bit while waiting to catch her breath. As she did, she looked up at the sign above her head swinging in the slight breeze. Written on it was the name of the shop, ‘Material Possessions‘. Cute. She wrinkled her nose. Cute girly curls and frills were not things that were typically a part of her world and she didn’t have much of an appreciation for such things, until she met Milly, the artist of cloth. Her heart rate was returning to normal but she waited a little longer. It wouldn’t do to waltz in all flushed and sweaty. Milly would want to know what odd encounter she had gotten involved in this time, as if strange things like this happened to her over and over again.

        Once she was feeling calm and composed Rinnah reached for the door handle. Entering through the door with what she hoped was a nonchalant air, she stopped to stare, taken aback at the sight of the mob scene in front of her.

        Women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages were jammed into the store trying to get to where they weren’t right then. Scary. Hesitating, Rinnah thought about backing out and waiting, but decided that it looked worse than it was.

        “Oh, there you are Rinnah!” She heard yelled at her from over the heads of the other patrons. “Look at these patterns, thread, needles and cloth I found on sale!” Rinnah started pushing for where Milly stood at the counter waiting for her order to be bagged. Milly ran an appreciative hand over the neatly stacked items in front of her.

        Rinnah moved toward her friend through the crowd. It wasn’t this packed earlier when she had left Milly here to go her own way. Word must have gotten out about the sale. Making her way through the moving horde of barely controlled chaos, she tried but couldn’t keep from bumping shoulders with the sea of humanity swarming around her. Her apologies fell on deaf ears, as each woman there seemed to be on a single-minded hunt for that perfect purchase, at a reduced price of course or else what would be the purpose?

        Wincing as someone with a very solid and bony shoulder rammed into her back, she was about to move to the side when a large woman carrying a briefcase of a purse slammed her in the thigh with it. Things were getting dangerous here. She started to make a remark but the woman was gone in ebb and flow of female shoppers surging around her. Thinking she had made a mistake after all, she continued to wade through and was rewarded at last to reach the counter only arriving in time for Milly to grab her purchases with one hand and Rinnah’s wrist with the other. Rinnah was towed behind Milly like a pet on a leash but she didn’t resent it at all.

        Milly, bless her heart, had an advantage in that she was able to make it through the mob toward the door without incident. The crowd of women magically opened a path for her and they skimmed through like a heated knife through a brick of butter leaving a straight shot for the door.

        She was glad that she was with Milly. Rinnah had her doubts whether she would have been able to swim to shore without getting bitten by one of these human barracudas. Once they were outside she breathed a sigh or relief and said a little thank you for the gift of having a tall friend.

        As soon as they were in the sunlight, Milly looked up and down the street wondering whether she and Rinnah should return and help with the packing and loading of supplies. Today though she was feeling indolent and wanted to meander lazily down the sidewalk and peer into shop windows. It had a strong appeal and just as she was starting to take a step she noticed Rinnah hopping from one foot to the other in barely concealed excitement. Recognizing the gleam in her eye Milly halted and grinned at the hybrid.

        Seeing she had Milly’s attention without having to say a word, Rinnah bounced on her toes.

        “Milly, I’ve got a riddle for you. Want to hear it?”

        Milly’s face crinkled up in contagious joy, “Sure Rinnah, what is it?”

        “What’s halfway between a tattoo and Jesus?”

        Milly placed a forefinger to her chin, tapping it in that way of hers when she was trying to figure something out. Rolling her eyes upward, she mused out loud to herself, “Let’s see,.... Tattoo, like a picture... Jesus,... like a tattoo? Hmmmm, what could it be? Halfway huh? Tattoo. Jesus. Tattoo. Jesus.” She reached up to scratch her head before returning to tap her chin again.

        “Oh, that’s a tough one.” She looked at Rinnah who was now shifting impatiently from one foot to the other. “Is the answer, ‘to get to the other side’?”

        Rinnah dropped her head for a brief second before looking up again, schooling her expression to patience, “No that’s the answer to a chicken joke, there aren’t any chickens in this one.”

        “Okay then... hmmmm, does this involve a talking thomas walking into a bar?”

        “Star holes no! Here, come with me and I’ll show you the answer to the riddle.”

        “What fun!” Milly merrily followed but not having to worry as Rinnah looped an arm through hers and began pulling her along by her side. It only took a couple of Milly’s long strides to match steps with the eager hybrid.

        They traveled two streets over and a few blocks down before Rinnah pulled Milly off the sidewalk and into the street. Turning her, she waved an arm in an expansive gesture to indicate three stores in a row.

        Milly looked up, read all three signs and broke into peals of delighted laughter.

        “Rinnah Blackfire! You are too funny!” Pointing to each sign she read them out loud, “Here we have ‘Big Bob’s Moving Pictures Tattoo Parlor’ and on the other side is the ‘Holy Scrollers Christian bookstore‘!” She giggled and then pointed to the middle shop, “And here is the best one. The answer to your riddle of ’what is between a tattoo and Jesus’ is this, the ‘Just Desserts Ice Cream Heaven‘!”

        Rinnah’s face split into a smile at her friend’s enjoyment of her sense of humor. Not everyone got her jokes. Thinking back to the moving mountain of muscle she rephrased that to not everyone in her height vicinity that is.

        Now it was Milly’s turn to grab Rinnah’s arm and yank her along behind her as she entered the door painted bubblegum pink.

        “Hellooooo!” Milly sang out as she made her way to the counter, “Do you have pudding along with ice cream?” She shot a grin over her shoulder at Rinnah, “and do you have coffee too?”

        “Uh, yes ma’am.” Said the young girl pointing up to the menu on the wall above her head.

        “Yippee!” Turning back to Rinnah she exclaimed, “I hear puddings calling to me Rinnah! We gotta answer the call! Let’s eat!” She reached for a plastic spoon from the dispenser and wasted no time in giving the clerk her order.

Revelations and Remembering

       During the course of their wading through their dessert, Milly had a thought and decided to voice it after sucking the ice cream off her spoon and waving it in the air to catch Rinnah’s eye to let her know Milly wanted her attention. “You know Rinnah; we have talked before about Mr. Vash’s arm transforming into an angel arm gun that put that hole in the moon. I know you are half-plant and half-human, but maybe your arm can, you know, form something else? What do you think? Have you ever thought about testing it out?”

        Licking her fingers, Rinnah shrugged and said, “no, my limbs don’t turn into anything. I am pretty darn sure about that. But if you want to go to the outskirts of town sometime we can try it. Personally, I don’t think anything is going to happen though whether it be a peashooter or a slingshot. Sorry.”

        “Shucks.” Pouted Milly for a second then added as an afterthought, “Well, maybe it is a good thing in the end. From what I understand it takes a lot out of a person, er plant.” With a slump of her shoulders she scooped up another spoonful but stopped when to sadly notice that there were only a couple more spoonfuls in her bowl. “Darn.”

        Rinnah noticed and pointed at the menu, “There are still other flavors you haven’t tried, and it wouldn’t kill you to get another order. Besides,” she lowered her voice in a conspiratorial whisper, “I won’t tell anyone.”

        Milly shook her head. “No, I shouldn’t.” Then tilting her head she reconsidered, “Well, maybe, just this once.” Then turning back to her bowl she commented in an afterthought, “Too bad you can’t just shoot energy out of your hands.”

        “Yeah, it’s too baaaa.....” She started to agree with her tall friend when she stopped short, frozen. Her face went still and blank as Milly’s words sank in. Energy bolts out of the hand?

        Milly was shocked when she heard dull sound of thumping and a metallic clinking. She looked up to find Rinnah banging her head on the table along with her spoon gripped in her left fist.

        “I can’t believe this! How could I have forgotten? All this time! Damn! I don’t need enemies; I choke on the fumes of my own idiocy at times! I swear I do!” Lifting her head, she dropped her spoon to clatter on the table while covering her face with her hands. Then she propped her elbows up and groaned again. A memory from a past that seemed to be a bygone age of a prehistoric era came flooding back to her where she was in the ship’s recreational room with scorch marks scattered about the room in various places on the walls, floor, and ceiling.


        “Yes?” She scraped the last spoonful out of the bowl.

        “As it so happens, I can shoot out energy bolts out of my arms.” Rinnah told her in a resigned and slightly muffled voice from behind hands covering her face.

        Milly perked up, “Really?”

        Still hiding behind her hands, Rinnah nodded her head.

        “Ooooooo, let’s go to the edge of town now and see what you can do. This oughta be fun to watch.”

        “Yeah, fun.” Rinnah dropped her hands and folded her arms on the table to rest her chin on them while staring at her half-empty bowl. Suddenly she felt the need for something with more zip to it than this. Heaving a sigh, she got up and headed for the counter. When she returned she was carrying a large cup of steaming coffee.

        “I can’t believe this.” She murmured, sliding into the booth before taking a cautious sip of the steaming drink. Wincing at the taste she looked down at the offending drink. Obviously a neophyte had made it, of that she was sure. Only one thing to do; she reached for the creamer and sugar. All the basic food groups in one cup. Milly merely crinkled her eyes at her friend watching a moment before getting up to get another bowl, this time pudding, straight up, stirred, not shaken.

        Sometime later both women enjoyed the last scoops of their favorite foods of choice while making plans to nip out to the edge of town and see if Rinnah could still manage to shoot a bolt of energy from her hand. Nothing lost if she couldn’t since she hadn’t used that ability the whole time she had been on the planet. If she could, it would be another plus in their favor in the upcoming battle. She shook her head in amazement at herself and then at Milly as she looked at the empty bowls of pudding and ice cream that Milly had been able to consume. The tall girl burped and slapped a hand over her mouth. With a sheepish grin she giggled out an apology for her lack of manners. Rinnah waved a spoon letting her know she didn’t have a problem with it.

        Pushing back away from the table to lean against the booth‘s cushioned back with a deep, contented sigh, Milly murmured, “I could die happy now.” Then popped the chocolate covered spoon into her mouth to suck off the last vestiges of pudding.

        “Don’t say that, not even in jest! You have to take care of your....” Rinnah faded off awkwardly. That was sounding a little intense and not at all how she meant to introduce the subject.

        Milly still had the spoon in her mouth when she froze to stare questioningly at her friend.

        Rinnah fidgeted in her seat, looked out the window at nothing in particularly back to Milly. Then she turned her gaze back down at the floor, at Milly, then her empty bowl, at Milly, then down at the crumpled napkin, and finally came to rest on Milly again, while her mind desperately raced for something to say.

        “I need a toothpick! I bet they have them by the cash register next to the mints! You want one too? Sure you do. Be right back!” She started to scoot out the booth when Milly’s hand shot across the table and clamped down on her wrist. Sweet merciful crap! The woman had a grasp like an iron vise grip!

        Looking up she watched as Milly pulled the spoon from her mouth with her other hand and with great care placed it on the table.

        She hesitated to raise her eyes to Milly’s but finally did and gave her a half-hearted smile.

        A serious Milly stared back at her. “What is it Rinnah? What are you having a hard time telling me?” Then with expression softening, “You can tell me, no matter what it is. I’m your friend, remember.” She released her hold on Rinnah’s arm.

        Rinnah blew a puff of air out that stirred the bangs on her forehead. She studied Milly’s face. She needed to know, she should know, that was the only way she could make an informed decision on what to do from here on out.

        “Wait a minute! Is this about Meryl?” Milly leaned forward on the table, expression suddenly fierce.

        Rinnah leaned away, “No! Not at all! I swear!” She held up both hands with the palms out hastily reassuring her, “I don’t know anything more about Meryl.” For the life of her she did not want to get Milly all riled up into another neck-wringing episode.

        She relaxed as Milly slumped back into her seat, mollified with Rinnah’s answer.

        Rinnah, suddenly and unusually serious, said softly with a quick glance around the place as if she were about to impart a deep, dark secret she didn’t want anyone else to hear. Leaning over the table and, she noticed that Milly, unconsciously, was mimicking her action to lean her head toward the center close to Rinnah’s. Their faces were inches apart when Rinnah whispered, “You’re pregnant.” Then she leaned back with a relief written on her face. There. She had done it.

        Milly stayed where she was, frozen in place. Her eyes went wide, staring at nothing. Rinnah squirmed and wondered if Milly was going to take that next breath. Just when she was about to reach over and give her tall friend a nudge to break her out of her trance, Milly snapped out of it.

        Flopping back against her seat, eyes still wide, her mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. Finally she cleared her throat and found her voice.

        “What... what...” she tried in a breathy whisper that ended up in a shout, “WHAT?!”

        Rinnah noticed she wasn’t having any trouble finding her lost voice and using it. With a wince she waved one hand in a shushing motion while holding up a finger to her lips.

        “That’s not a very nice joke Rinnah!” Milly’s face was flushed with anger and her voice rose with indignation, feeling hurt that her friend would play such a nasty joke like that on her.

        Rinnah was shaking her head vigorously, black hair flipping around her face from the action. “I’m not teasing or joking Milly. You really are.”

        Milly’s eyes flew wide again. “I am?” She exhaled in wonder wanting to believe but also afraid to. Joy was at the gate ready to barrel in but one thing she had learned in all her travels across the face of the planet these past few years and that was to be cautious when receiving news, especially good news. However looking over at her friend’s earnest face, she knew Rinnah wouldn’t lie to her about something this important.

        “I am? With Nicholas’s baby?” Her face lit up with joy shining from every pore and eyes glowing with happiness.

        Rinnah could only beam a smile back at her in response. “Geez Milly, give me a break here! Of course you and Nicholas!” That was as far as she could get as she felt an embarrassed flush rising up her neck and cheeks. “I hate talking about stuff like this.”

        Milly clasped her hands to her breast bone, stars in her eyes, until she realized, “Hey, how could you tell when I can’t tell any difference myself?”

        Rinnah tapped the tip of her nose, “I smelled you. Your scent has been all over the map of late but it just recently it has settled down into a steady mommy-to-be scent, my friend! Congratulations!”

        “I’m so...” a loud sniff, “Happy! Wait until I tell Nicholas!”

        “Well the next thing is deciding where we should leave you. Mind you it has to be someplace safe so we will feel at ease leaving you there. Do you want us to take you back to the thomas ranch? Or put you on a steamer for your hometown?”

        Rinnah was not prepared for the thunderous look Milly gave her.

        “Miss Rinnah!”

        Oh dear, Milly was upset. Rinnah leaned back, pushing at the table with both hands and steeled herself for the explosion.

        “I am pregnant, not incompassionated!”

        Rinnah blinked. “Uh, you mean incapacitated?”

        Still frowning she nodded, “Yes, that’s what I said.”

        “But Milly.... A baby, your baby, Nicholas’ baby is on the way. You can’t risk getting hurt now. Or,” She clutched at her head, fingers digging into her hair, “Holy Hybrid forbid, getting killed, not now!” Her voice scaled up an octave in panic. “Oh maaaan! I know I am going to get blamed for this somehow!”

        “Really Rinnah, don’t be silly, how can you be blamed? You weren’t there at all when Nicholas and I were...

        “STOP! Too much information!” She slapped hands over her ears in an attempt to drown out anything else Milly should happen to say. “Don’t want to know, don’t need to know!” She warily watched Milly’s mouth and when her lips stopped moving and when she showed no further attempt to say anything more did she drop her hands to stare helplessly at the pregnant person sitting across the table from her.

Do You Smell That? I Think the Wind Just Shifted

       Milly eyes had changed again, making them look like a peaceful summer sky had just clouded up. She crossed her arms with a stubborn look on her face met Rinnah‘s pleading eyes. “Now listen. I am not going to say this again. I am going to find Meryl. She would come for me. We are friends Rinnah.”

        For the hybrid that was the trump card and that was all Milly had to say to convince her. Thankfully Milly was going to tell Nicholas and instead of making Rinnah promise not to say anything to him. She was done with those kinds of promises. Still, she closed her eyes in frustration for she did feel an obligation to try again to change Milly’s set-in-permabond-crete mind.

        “Milly, you know, this is not just about you anymore. This is about a third, innocent party that is totally dependent on you for life. I think Nicholas also has a say in the matter don’t you? Which reminds me, let me know when you are going to tell him because I don‘t want to be around this.... gushy stuff.” She fanned a hand back and forth in the space between them, her nose wrinkling up.

        “Oh Rinnah, you are right. Of course Nicholas has say in the matter...”

        Rinnah brightened, so far so good.

        “... But not until after we find Meryl. No, he can‘t know now because he will want to drop me off someplace to keep me safe.”

        Rinnah’s mouth dropped opened in astonishment. She was flabbergasted by Milly’s decision. She doubted she would be able to convince Milly but she had to try.

        “You... you... aren’t going to tell him now?” Her voice ended on a squeak. “He deserves to know! You have to tell him! I mean, he’s the father! And hey, I know I am not really knowledgeable about these kinds of things, but don’t you think the father should know, that he has the right to know? It‘s not just your baby, he‘s like, you know, the father!” Suddenly the unfairness of it all struck her and she began waving her arms around in frustration. “This is so unlike you Milly! Nicholas has a right to know!”

        Milly had an uncharacteristic hard look on her face when she spoke, “No. He. Doesn’t! And you will not tell him! This is my decision, my right. I will tell him when I think the time is right.”

        “Hey! I can’t make that kind of promise, if anyone asks I will tell the truth. You didn’t like it that Vash held the truth back about Meryl, so how is this different?”

        “It isn’t, not really,...” Milly tapped her chin in thought, “and yes you are right. It isn’t different.”

        Rinnah perked up, hope rising within her only to be dashed when Milly said, “But, no, I am not going to say anything, not yet.” She kept talking in that maddeningly reasonable tone of voice that was making the sable-haired female feel like she was the crazy one needing to be reasoned with in a soothing manner. The half-breed bit her lip to keep from screaming out in vexation.

        “Well Rinnah, I will be nicer than Mr. Vash was. If someone should happen to ask you if I am pregnant or not then I give you permission to confirm it, otherwise, I want you to promise me that you will keep my secret.”

        “Gee thanks a lot, I appreciate it.” I am so going to get blamed for this. I don’t know how I get in the middle of these kinds of things!

        Rinnah wilted under the light blue gaze of those huge, innocent-looking eyes. She decided right then and there that Milly was their secret weapon in disguise. She would lay odds down that Milly could sit down with Knives and if he wasn’t tempted to resort to physical violence, the tall girl would have him drooling within a half-hour pleading to be taken away and tranquilized.

        “You know under that sweet, caring, thoughtful and kind exterior lives a closet sadist. Which normally would be fine by me, but I don’t want to be anywhere around when you finally do tell Nicholas.” The hybrid said morosely.

        Milly laughed saying, “Rinnah you are too fun! I understand that I am asking a lot of you, but really, I am going and nothing is going to stop me. Try to leave me someplace and I will follow.” She waggled a warning finger at Rinnah.

        With elbows on the table Rinnah lowered her face into her hands. She was feeling nauseous and the lining of her stomach was producing enough acid it could be used to eat a tunnel through a mountain of rock. This could have gone so much better.

        Lifting her head in defeat she said wearily, “To make up for your adbominable behavior I am going to let you pay this time.”

        Milly laughed, “don’t you mean abominable?”

        Rinnah shot a half-grin at her, “I always thought you did that on purpose.”

        Milly giggled, “Now this secret I’m sure you don’t mind keeping.”

        “Damn straight.” She slid out of the booth, stood and reached for her poncho before pulling it over her head. Vash alerted them that there was bad weather ahead that they were going to have to travel through. Milly buttoned up her duster and glanced at the clock on the wall. The boys should be done buying, stacking, and packed by now and even had a time to rest on top of everything else.

        “I am sorry this conversation was so hard for you.” Milly said apologetically as she started for the counter to pay their bill.

        “Hard! You don’t know the half of it. It was like near to killing me!” She grabbed her hat, turned it sideways and gave her wrist a flick to send it spinning around up in the air before catching it again. She was about to place it on her head when a voice, smooth, cultured and dripping with coldness, came from over her shoulder....

        “Is that a mere amateur’s opinion or a scientific fact? It’s a shame but you both look fairly healthy to me.”

        Both Rinnah and Milly froze before slowly turning as one to confront the owner of the voice.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 26
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