"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 26"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG

When It All Hits The Fan

        Tessla swore. It made those around her jump for the young plant girl never liked to use vulgar language as she considered it demeaning and beneath her to make use of something that humans were so known for. Yet in this circumstance she decided the situation more than warranted it, and besides, it was a great outlet for letting off pent up frustration without screaming which was even more beneath her than the use of foul language. She felt the surface of her skin rippling and hastily clamped down on it. No one knew she had this certain ability and she wanted to keep her secret ability secret for a while longer.

        It was all going down before she even had a chance to make contact with the team. The young plant girl indulged herself again and swore, barely noting the agitated shuffling taking place behind her. It looked like Knives had stepped up his plans by a few weeks and all without keeping her informed of his intentions. Now he was playing his hand and before she could put her own machinations into place. It was infuriating. She clutched the binoculars tightly in her hands before realizing what she was doing. Looking down at them she forced her grip to relax, the last thing she wanted was to break them, they were still useful and needed.

        Raising the binoculars to her eyes again she watched as the handpicked teams surrounded the building. Earlier the two bounties had been observed entering and the word brought back to her was that they were enjoying something called ‘ice cream‘ that the humans liked to eat as a sweet between meals.

        She trained her glasses on one of Knives specially selected operatives, the only one worth watching. The person paused for a second before giving the signal to enter by lifting a gloved hand. The first strike team followed close behind him while the second and third teams were standing around the building to form a net if the prey was able to get past that first team.

        Sensing movement down the street she pointed her lenses in that direction and swore again. A fourth team! No, there was a fifth one behind that one! She recognized the team leaders but no one else in the formation as it made its way up and down the alleys as backup for the sweeps team. Talk about overkill. Lowering the lenses she handed them back to an aide without even looking, knowing he would be there to take them out of her hand.

        She looked over her shoulder for the one she wanted. Levio came forward, knowing it was him she wanted to approach her. He walked over to her with lowered chin, eyes drifting shut as they periodically did when the ‘other’ struggled his hardest to break the mental bonds.

        “Your other is cruel and relentless. It is difficult is it not?” She inquired softly. He opened his eyes to find that she was looking up at him with a show of concern he wasn’t used to having directed his way.

        “To hold him down, even with the help, is most demanding and the night‘s are even worse.” It wasn’t said as a question. He nodded once and looked down at his toes.

        “Soon the night will come and you will be given allowance to unleash him,” He looked up swiftly, startled at her statement, “But not today. I have something else for you to do today.”

        Tessla turned and beckoned to another and watched as a woman approached her. The servant cautiously carried a small suitcase in her arms. Setting it apart from a normal suitcase were the strange glowing latches locking it. Levio watched entranced as the plant girl touched each latch with a forefinger and a mental imprint. The lid slowly rose with a sound like the air inside had been pressurized. After taking it out of the hands of the subordinate she turned to show Levio what was inside. The other servant backed away with head bowed; Tessla didn’t notice.

        Holding the box out to him she informed him, “This is what you will wear and this is what I want you to do.”

        The twinned part of him that was connected to him in a manner that no amount of telepathic tinkering could control, gave a low growl saying, “I do not wear things like this in my killing.” Contempt twisted his lip.

        “Today Levio is in control,” she informed the caged beast. “You will not kill. He is needed to go on a special kind of hunt,” She pointed down to the shimmering in the case, “and Levio, you will be the one hunted. And this will help you from being caught until I desire it.”

        Grudgingly Levio took the case from her hands and listened to her instructions before setting off.

        Tessla lifted a thumb to her front teeth and began nibbling on the edge. Things were getting complicated. It was time to reel in Uncle Vash and have a little chat about the family. He was not going to be happy with what she had to say.

Milly, Aren't You Going to Introduce Me to Your Friend?

       A voice came from over her shoulder....

        The hairs on the back of Rinnah’s neck stood up on end as the voice coming from over by the door said, “Oh my, but you two pieces of trash are more trouble than you’re worth. I wish I could take care of that killing thing for you, but alas, I have been instructed to bring you both with me and sadly for me, unharmed.”

        Milly and Rinnah slowly turned to face the speaker. Milly’s mouth dropped open while a flicker of surprise flashed across Rinnah’s face. The insulter was a woman dressed in a coat that reached just above her knees with a feathery boa around the cuffs of the sleeves, the collar, and the bottom of the coat. It was done in tones of rich dark mulberry, maroon with accessories in various shades of shell pink to black. Despite the fact that she looked like she was daily sanded, creamed, oiled, buffed and polished over every square inch of her body, the hybrid didn’t doubt that the woman was lethal in some capacity. A classy villain, what are the odds?

        Reacting faster than a heartbeat Rinnah whipped around while at the same time diving to the side in a rolling blur, putting a good deal of distance between them as she berated herself the whole way. Always expect the unexpected... but dammit, this was just so unfair! Now she couldn’t even take a breather to enjoy a sundae and coffee.

        Milly was out of the booth and in the process of reaching for her own handgun. Rinnah had hers out already aiming and shooting the weapons out of three of the henchmen’s hands before anyone could blink. However, she did have to admit that the lady in the lead wasn’t looking the least bit fazed even though her men had just been unarmed. A quick look told her that the woman in charge wasn’t holding a weapon, just a large briefcase clutched in one hand. The hybrid’s eyes traveled up to see the cold expressionless face staring back at her.

        Noticing she had the attention of the female plant, one elegantly shaped eyebrow shot up but not in surprise. The unknown woman wasn’t caught off guard at all by the marvel. It was as if she had been expecting something like this to happen. Obviously she was familiar with the unnatural speed of a plant. Dang but it was hard to outsmart a person who was already anticipating what should have been a surprise. Blistering star holes!

        Being at the woman with what she hoped was a friendly grin Rinnah took a few more steps to the side putting even more distance between her and Milly. Hopefully it would make it that much more difficult to keep them both sighted as targets. It wasn’t much but at the moment it was all she had in her bag of tricks until she could figure out what the modus operandi of this little gang was.

        Her gaze swept over the opponents as she took in their stance and evaluated the level of threat to the two of them. Definitely, it was at the risk level of ‘all hands on deck’. Without any difficulty it could easily reach ‘torpedoes away!’ and that was the place that Rinnah was eager to avoid.

        “Hey,” Rinnah stated “it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.” Her electric blue eyes scanned the group confronting them, sizing each one up along with the potential firepower that might be hidden on their persons.

        In a surprise move, Milly advanced forward until she was a couple of steps out in front of Rinnah when she threw a staggeringly virulent curse at the cultured woman. Rinnah would have turned shocked disbelieving eyes on Milly except that would mean taking her eyes off the crew in front of her, which wouldn’t be a very smart move on her part.

        “Milly!” She hissed to the side even as her eyes kept focused on their assailants “get back here!”

        Beyond a shadow of a doubt it would be harder to protect her friend if said friend went charging off into the middle of a hostile group of men up to no good.

        “Well, little Milly, shall we play?” With a pseudo sweetness threatened to dissolve Rinnah’s teeth in her mouth as the newcomer egged the tall honey-blonde on. It didn’t take much since Milly was not acting like her normal self but still, Rinnah couldn’t have been more stunned when Milly took yet another step forward. In an instant the atmosphere in the room shifted from tense to highly charged as the space between the two women grew electric with hostility and animosity. Rinnah whipped her head back and forth between the two; obviously there was a little history here that she knew nothing about and it could get Milly killed, and that would be bad.

        “Worse than bad! Oh man! Worse than terrible!” Rinnah whispered to herself. She had one goal in life right now and that was to get Milly out of this situation safe and sound. Rinnah clenched her fist, but dammit, could Milly be any less cooperative?!

        “I see I didn’t quite manage to kill your lover? Shame on me.” The stylish woman said in a husky drawl that made Rinnah want to snatch up an ice cream scoop and beat her with it. However, when seeing the look on Milly’s face let her know that this little encounter was intensely personal for the both of them.

        “Well, you can be sure that this time I will. Or, should I play with him first?” She taunted with a deep-throated purr. With a wicked grin stretching her mouth she flicked her tongue out to lick her lips. “When I am through pinning him to the ground it will be your turn, you little witch. I will pierce your skin a little at a time until I am ready for you to die; ” She reached up a gloved finger and slowly ran it over a cheek. As an afterthought she stated acid malice dripping from her voice, “to pay for damaging my flawless beauty.”

        Whoa, steep price for.... ! Rinnah frowned, searching the stranger‘s face, Wait a minute, what damage? The hybrid tried squinting but couldn’t make out a mark of any kind on the woman’s face. The way the female was caressing her cheek made it seem like there should be a hideous scar there. The hybrid snorted in disgust, obviously the pampered female villain had spent too much time sniffing her powder puff; she was a complete mental case.

        “Milly, maybe you should apologize to the...” Never had she wanted to use the phrase ‘nut job’ as much as she did right at this moment. However, she refrained, this was not the best time to antagonize the female and upset the precarious mental health of the loon who had them surrounded. Rinnah coughed into her hand and finished her sentence, “the, er, lady in question here.”

        Unknown to the hybrid, Milly had started trembling as soon as she recognized the Crimson Nail. Her eyes shrank until the only view left in her tunnel vision was that sight of the hated Elendira.

        “I’ll do more than scratch you this time!” Milly spoke with a voice shaking with repugnance and hatred. Her eyes narrowed and she spat out a word that Rinnah didn’t think she even knew. Then Milly’s cannon of a gun went off and the recoil sent Milly to totter back a couple of steps. Rinnah saw it coming and kicked a chair underneath her to break her fall. She landed in it unharmed and immediately bounced back up again with her gun pointed straight toward the heart of their opponent.

        The hybrid winced, her ears ringing with the echo of the sound, damn, that was a loud gun! There had been a yell when the bullet struck someone. Rinnah shook her head, obviously someone still needed practice time on the range. It was that or either no matter how angry she was; Milly couldn’t bring herself to kill someone in cold blood.

        In spite of being shot at, the woman still didn’t move or pull a weapon, for which Rinnah was extremely grateful, even if it was also confusing. This was atypical behavior for a lawbreaker, criminal, outlaw or whatever these people were. More than anything else she was desperate for Milly to stop trying to shoot this feathered piece of work. It was like tempting fate on a bad day and with the way her luck had been running someone was going to shoot back and, God love her, Milly made for a pretty large target. It was making her break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.

        The woman just shot a quick fleeting look over her shoulder before making a dismissing gesture with one gloved hand. The wounded man was clutching his arm, groaning, but nodded and left. When she turned back to look where Rinnah and Milly were standing she showed the first sign of emotion.

        Milly pulled the trigger again. Rinnah let out a screech of frustration. Where was the woman’s self-restraint! Sane, stable people should have more self-control than what Milly was displaying at the moment. She might as well paint a large bull’s eye on that overcoat with a sign pinned over it saying, “please shoot me!”

        Even before Milly had fully depressed the trigger the hybrid was on the move. Rinnah flung herself to the side snatching Milly to tuck her under an arm before launching them both into the booth located in front of the one they had recently been sitting in.

        With Milly still tucked under her arm as if the tall woman weighed no more than a piñata, Rinnah used all of her inhuman strength and speed to leap clear over the back of their old booth to land behind it. A few listless scattered shots followed them as if the shooters were doing it out of duty rather than with any real intent on doing them damage. Maybe they weren’t, they could be doing it just to keep the two of them on edge. If that was what they were trying to achieve, it was working.

        Bullets sprayed the booth and wall where they had been standing before the strange woman sharply called for a halt.

        Luckily for them theirs had been the last booth. Now crouched down in the space in between the back of their old booth and the counter, Rinnah spared a quick glance around and noticed that most of the patrons were gone and the young girl at the counter was nowhere to be seen. That was a blessing, now she only had to worry about Milly.

        Rinnah took that opportunity to study their enemy in more detail. She was a very tall woman with blonde hair, lighter than Milly’s even, pulled up neatly in a bun on the back of her head with not a stray hair out of place. Instead of making her look matronly, on her the bun came across as fashionably cool and sophisticated. On top of her head sat a prim little hat pinned charmingly at a tilt. Rinnah’s brow wrinkled in a thoughtful frown. Where had she seen something like that before? It seemed familiar somehow.

        The overcoat she wore was an expensive one; even Rinnah with her unrefined eye could tell that it was tailored to fit her tall graceful figure. With an internal grin she didn’t allow to show on her face, Rinnah took in the rather long feet encased in artfully designed boots of the finest of leathers with elegant heels. Both hands were gloved in highly glossed leather, but still, they were rather large and broad for a woman of her slender size. Come to think of it, the shoulders looked a little on the broad side too. In one hand she held a briefcase but wasn’t carrying a purse. Now that was unusual and out of place with the rest of the flattering ensemble. To Rinnah’s eye she looked like a very rich woman out on a shopping spree, but one thing the hybrid had learned the hard way was that appearances were more than just deceiving, they could be downright hazardous to one’s health. Trusting her nose over the information supplied by her eyes, she lifted her nose and inhaled deeply. The first whiffs proved her suspicions but she inhaled a couple more times to confirm it.

        With an indignant whispered complaint, “What is it with this planet! Every cross-dresser I have met has been a bounty hunter!” Raising her voice to the he-fem, she asked with scorn, “What are you going to do, shoot me with a hatpin?”

        “No, little plant, I am not.” Came the voice dripping with answering disdain.

        Rinnah clenched a fist but for once refrained from correcting the misconception of her biology. Instead, she chanced a look around the corner and saw that the pseudo-female’s nose was lifted slightly as if the air around him had the ability to leave slime on the exquisite outfit. Indeed, he appeared to pull into himself as if the air molecules rubbing up next to him were contaminating and tainting the breathing space in his personal bubble.

        “Elendira! You nearly killed Mr. Priest! I am very angry with you for that!” In her anger Milly had fallen back on old habits. With worry for her tall friend evident in her vibrant blue eyes, Rinnah watched Milly tremble with rage, but at least now she understood why. So this was Elendira the Crimson Nail, one of those few humans allowed within Knives’ inner circle. He had been with Knives since before the first Gung Ho Gun was sent out in search of Vash.

        “Hey, I thought you were supposed to be dead?” Inquired Rinnah. It wasn’t such a dumb question as even Vash thought the human wouldn’t survive with that amount of blood loss. Not caring if she got an answer or not, that’s not why she had asked the question. She wanted some time before anyone decided to leap into action. She reached around to the back of her belt for her extra supply of bullets. Extracting them she began to place about her person where she could easily reach them if she needed to. Also she needed the time to think of a way out of this and that was the harder task of the two. How she wished she could call ‘do over’ like kids when playing a game.

        “I nearly was but I did not have permission from the Master to die. He revived me using the sacred healing arts of the plants.” Elendira supplied, not seemingly worried about whether the two cornered women were trying to plot a way out of this predicament or not. Rinnah fumed from behind the booth. This was not a good sign.

        “Oh... well that explains the smell.” Rinnah said cheekily as if she didn’t have care in the world, as she pondered where to place the last three bullets nestled in her palm. She glanced around the corner again before deciding to put them back in her pouch.

        What she knew was that someone so immaculate and careful with her appearance would also be vain. It was a goad in a weak spot of vanity and the half-breed grinned when she was proved correct.

        “What do you mean?” Came the quiet query. Elendira had been warned about the half-breed’s ability to incite others to throw caution to the wind but even knowing that the cross-dresser couldn’t help but ask.

        “Dead and revived, buuuut....” She made a point of taking a few loud, exploratory sniffs; “you have that stink on you too that no amount of rolling in the dirt is going to be able to get rid of. Oh, and your low-priced makeup can‘t hide that ugly blemish either. And what is that stench, your cheap, generic, knock-off perfume?”

        Might as well zing that one in, Elendira showed a clear and deep desire to kill Milly if it hadn’t been for the, ’bring ’em in alive’ order. Rinnah was absolutely certain if it weren’t for that Milly would be a pincushion at this moment. With that mental image in her head she couldn’t help but start to hyperventilate from fear for her friend’s life. She needed to know what Elendira’s mode of operation was in a battle but she doubted a ‘time-out’ for the handing out of surveys would be greeted with smiles and hugs.

        Milly poked her from behind and when Rinnah looked over her shoulder she saw the tall girl give her a thumb’s up and mouthing, ‘good one‘. She leaned closer to the hybrid and whispered softly, “I really hate him.”

        Now that was interesting to hear. Rinnah didn’t think it was possible that there were two people on the face of the planet that Milly actually hated. It sure made for an uncomplicated life... if only those enemies weren’t Millions Knives and Elendira the Crimson Nail. Geez, when Milly picked enemies she sure didn’t mess around, no, she went for the cream of the crop. Why couldn’t she pick enemies with names like ’Bambi’, ‘Cuddles‘, or even ‘Fluff Muffin‘?

        Rinnah heard the slipping control in the cross-dresser‘s voice, as it grew strident and harsh. “This is Glamorous Ardor you ignorant, unwashed, freak!

        It figured it would be the remark about the grievously and outrageously expensive perfume that riled him. Rinnah grinned. If she could keep this up and if she could make Elendira lose control, they would be that much closer to being home free, well at least pointed in the right direction. However, she did take exception to the freak remark. Here was the baton twirler from the Freak Parade calling her names!

        There was silence from the other end of the room for a space of time. Then a clearing of a throat and Elendira spoke in a cold voice, once again covering his anger under an exterior of icy control. “You are surrounded without hope of escape. Your presence is demanded and the two of you will be coming with us, whether it is voluntarily or by force. Either one is fine by me.”

        “Come and get me copper!” Rinnah quoted. With gun in hand, spare bullets made accessible, she was all set and she could tell, even without the aid of her nose where each person in the room was. It was getting to the place where the tension level was at a fever pitch. Something was going to break, one way or another. She could either wait for them to make the first move or she could try to control the dance and make the first move herself. When I dance, I like to lead, that way I know where I am going. Lights, camera....! Rinnah was just about to make her move when she heard the door to the kitchen open.

        Lifting a nose to the air, she took a sniff and knew it was the girl who worked behind the counter coming back this way. Stupid chit! Couldn’t she see this was a dangerous situation where people could easily get killed? Probably forget her purse.

        She noted that the teen was making her way behind the counter coming to a stop near Milly and Rinnah was becoming frantic for the right moment to make her move. Great, just freaking great! Now there’s another person besides Milly to worry about. Anyone else want to come tripping in? Let’s make it a free-for-all, come one, come all, and let the games begin! The hybrid closed her eyes and took a calming breath before looking back over her shoulder again at Milly. She gave Milly a small smile then mouthed that she was going to act and for Milly to be prepared. Grimly Milly nodded back, brows lowering on her brow as she tightened her grip on the revolver. She was more than ready.

        Again there was a moment of quiet as that was digested. Elendira spoke again in a cold tone of voice, “Your time is up...” Rinnah could hear the anger restrained behind the words.

        “Knives is ugly and his mommy dresses him funny.” It was a simple, classic, and time-tested insult among human children everywhere. She wondered if they had that saying here, but decided it didn’t matter when she heard air being sucked in at the blasphemous words.

        The hybrid grinned. It never failed with these obedient pets of Knives. They were unable to endure an insult aimed at their lord and master.

        With that, Rinnah shot out from behind the little hiding place and launched herself up in the air to land halfway across the room with uncanny speed. Even as she flew through the air she was able to glimpse the shocked surprise on faces as she whizzed by them too fast to land a hit on her. The tips of their guns attempted to follow her flight, the tips blazing as they tried to land a crippling but not lethal hit. That was her ploy, a ruse to get them shooting at her with the line of fire pointing away from Milly to give her a clean break for an escape. Maybe the little server would also take the hint and flee with her.

        Landing easily on the balls of her feet and with inhuman speed several tables were swiftly tipped over so that the heavy marbled surfaces were facing the group in front of her. She didn’t think she would need them, but it never hurt to be careful. She puffed her cheeks out to huff out an exasperated breath. Like some certain tall people in the room seemed to be incapable of today!

        Then she was on her feet, her own colt blazing so quickly it gave the impression that she magically shot one bullet that knocked the guns out of the hands of the men behind Elendira. It wasn’t surprising to see they had other weapons secreted about their bodies, it would have been too much to hope for to think that they had been totally disarmed the first time. All that happened in the wink of an eye. Elendira was the only one not surprised by the feat while the others were exhibiting different degrees of surprise on their faces. A hint of sneer appeared on his face as he watched the proceedings as if bored by the whole thing.

        It was a mere diversion, she had no intention of following it up by rushing the group and kicking the happy off their faces. The hope was that they would be looking to their leader for directions and maybe she and Milly could slip out the back.

        “Now!” Rinnah yelled out and was gratified to watch Milly do a roll over the counter like a real pro. A pang of regret tugged at her as she noticed how shot up the place was getting and this the opening week. Afterwards she would make sure to buy a lot of ice cream to make up for it. A LOT of ice cream.

        Out of the corner of her eye she saw Milly dash toward the door leading into the kitchen area. The hybrid started to back up, keeping the tables in front of her as a partial shield. Once Milly was out of the way, it wouldn’t matter if they rearmed themselves or not. She was confident of her ability to dodge the bullets and still make good on a getaway. What mattered most was that Milly was safe.

        It couldn’t have been a few scant seconds when Rinnah heard a cry ring out and get cut short along with a muffled thump noise. That was not a good sound. She cursed as she sensed the escape plan was going down in flames all around her head. As she made the decision to leap back and over the counter also, she felt an explosion of sharp pricks hit her in the back as if a porcupine bomb had been detonated behind her.

        As the needles pierced Rinnah’s back, she whirled to face the counter. Surprise made her eyebrows nearly rise to her hairline when she recognized the shooter as the young waitress from earlier. Facing them with a huge barrel of a tricked up trank gun, was their server, with a serious and unsmiling look to her face now showing her to be much older than Rinnah had previously estimated. Funny, I never noticed that thought Rinnah as she felt the drug being pumped into her system. It as getting harder to stay upright and the room was beginning to spin. The girl’s face lost some of the serious look as relief registered to see the drug working and the effect it was having on the hybrid.

        “Oh flipping star poop! She‘s one of them!” She muttered as her vision went blurry and her knees grew weak under her. Rinnah felt her senses clouding over but had one last clear thought, no wonder the coffee was so horrible.

        Her colt fell from numb fingers as she crumpled to the floor unconscious. The last thing she heard as her world went dark around her was Milly’s scream and the sound of something twanging.

        Yep, a lucky day for hybrids... on some other planet maybe.

The Absence of Presence

       Wolfwood shoved the last of the boxes into place with an exhausted groan. Straightening, with a one hand on his aching lower back and the other used to wipe the sweat from his brow, he took a break to study the blue sky above. After a couple of deep breaths he took a step over to the edge of the truck bed and hopped down knowing that Vash could secure the box without his help.

        The suns were beginning to approach their zenith position and soon morning would be over. A shoulder twitched as he wondered where the girls were. Milly said she wouldn’t be gone long but that had been quite a while ago now that he thought about it. He didn’t want to admit it but he was getting that restless, jittery feeling he got when Milly was out of his sight for too long. He knew it wouldn’t always be like this, but until this business was over it was best to err on the side of caution.

        Vash lashed the last box of ammo down and turned to set the final carton of instant pudding down next to the large exploding rounds, just one of the many different kinds of ammo the cross punisher could use. His eyes skimmed over all the different boxes just for Wolfwood’s cross punisher. Some of these were unfamiliar with and that was saying something. The priest’s remark was that now the punisher was calibrated correctly he could use some of the more delicate ammunition he hadn’t used in a while. Vash wasn’t sure if wanted to know what that was. He turned and saw the priest looking up at the sky and lifted his own gaze to the suns. He hadn’t noticed time slipping by. A frown creased his forehead as a nagging sense of concern began tightening in his gut. He wondered if he should say anything or if Wolfwood would think he was being paranoid. Of course paranoid was the best way to stay alive and healthy on this planet.

        Lowering his face he turned his attention back to the rope and checked the knot. Satisfied it wouldn’t sway or come loose in the harsh traveling conditions they were soon to embark on, he then tilted his head to read the directions on the side of the box, “Instant pudding, just add water and enjoy. Approximates taste of genuine article.” Vash lifted a sardonic eyebrow. He had his doubts as whether the pudding they had just bought was going to taste good or not, or even have any taste at all, but then, it wasn’t for him, but their resident pudding addict. He gave the box a pat and hoped she liked the taste of the leftover pudding rations. Wolfwood had found them in a corner of an army surplus store and they bought enough that if Milly were inclined to, she could live out in the desert on just these supplies for a month. Vash knew he couldn’t, donuts, yes, pudding, no.

        Wolfwood glanced over to see what Vash was reading and chuckled when he followed his gaze to the box. “You’d think it was one of the four basic food groups.” Affection laced every word.

        Vash turned in time to see the softening expression come over the priest’s face at the mention of his wife and smiled while shrugging a shoulder. “For her, I’m sure it is.“ He said while walking over the edge of the flatbed before hopping down to land next to the priest on light feet.

        Wolfwood grunted an acknowledgement before looking over at the last of the fifty-gallon water jugs. He grabbed the handles of the dolly and wheeled it next to the tailgate readying it for lifting up into the truck bed. He rested his forearms on the top and leaned his weight on it while waiting for Vash.

        “I think when we get this done we should mosey around and see what the girls are up to.” Wolfwood’s brow creased. He hoped that came out as casual interest instead of anxious worrying.

        Vash reached over and helped Wolfwood lift up the last of the water jugs on the bed and then scooted it into its spot with the rest.

        Vash lifted his eyes to meet Wolfwood’s. “I’m starting to get uneasy about them too. It’s been too long.”

        The relief in Wolfwood’s eyes was tangible. “Good, let’s get this finished and we’ll go.”

        Wolfwood wrapped the restraining cord around it and buckled it into place. It was Vash’s job to boost them up, although with Wolfwood ‘helping’ so it looked like the two of them were lifting the jugs up. They wanted to avoid calling attention to themselves and having Vash toss the water jugs up as easily as if they were empty milk cartons. The mandate to try and not be conspicuous was still in effect and Vash lifting these large containers in by himself would definitely be noticed and marveled at. Rinnah’s remark, and Vash had waited for it, counting to three before it came, was that they could pass him off as the strong man from a traveling side show. Milly had giggled. Her first true giggle in days. Right then, Wolfwood forgave Rinnah for any past sins and future ones she should happen to commit. He hadn’t realized how much he missed that giggle. He could have kissed Rinnah and indeed, it must have looked like he was going to because Rinnah took several hurried steps away from him while holding up a warning finger.

        Wolfwood listened with half an ear as Vash continued his remarks on Milly‘s pudding, “I just hope she doesn’t throw out our other rations so she can buy more of these.” He said while studying the secured pudding boxes.

        Wolfwood nodded in agreement. He loved his wife but pudding he could take or leave however since it came with the territory, it looked like he would be taking it for many blissful years to come. Sure, he didn’t have the same yen for it as she did, but then, no one he knew had a hankering for pudding the way Milly did. He smiled. God bless her cute little pudding-obsessed heart. She was a keeper all right. Better yet, he fervently hoped she kept him! It was his secret belief that she was the one who got the short of the stick in this marriage, but if she could live with it then so could he.

        Just then Vash’s head snapped up as if he was listening to something in the distance. Neither one said a word as in tandem as they reached for their weapons. Senses honed from years of frequent ambushes, battles and traps, Wolfwood began scanning the street looking for any sign of danger. It didn’t even occur to him to question Vash’s instinct. It was a better indication of trouble than any weathervane predicting the change of the wind. Narrowed gray eyes danced up and down the street, probing the shadows and alleyways, searching for the reason for Vash’s uneasiness. Wolfwood moved over to where his weapon lay in the back seat. Cautiously he reached for it, eyes still roving up along second-story windows and rooftops.

        “What?” Asked the priest in a low voice as he popped open the snap of the bindings. In seconds the bindings were off that held the cloth covering his weapon. The sun caught the sharp edges of the straight lines and glinted off the shining metal of the cross punisher. Quickly he inserted his fingers through the middle section shaped like a skull where the arms came together. All this happened without a look, sharp gray eyes were busy scanning up and down the street.

        “I... It’s... I...” Vash tilted his head and if trying to figure something out or listening for a sound that was almost too soft to be heard, even with his exceptional hearing.

        Wolfwood shot the Humanoid Typhoon a puzzled look. A confused Vash was not what he was expecting.

        Vash was struggling to understand it himself. It was like something was missing... something he was used to, something that had been there for so long he no longer questioned the right to its existence within him. Then it hit him with a force that took his breath away.

        With realization, he growled out “DAMN!” He spun in an aimless circle for a moment as if searching for where this ripping emptiness eating away at him was coming from.

        “Don’t be doing this to me Needle Noggin’! Is it something or isn’t it?” Demanded the priest, growing more worried by the second that he couldn’t find the source of Vash’s agitation.

        “Something’s wrong...” Vash started to explain.

        “No shit.” Exclaimed the priest in irritation, the hold on his weapon tightening.

        “No, not here, not around us....”

        “What then? C’mon man, out with it. Don‘t keep me in suspense!”

        A paralyzing fear sliced through him as the same realization hit him. He turned to Vash with horror-filled eyes. “No!” He breathed in a despairing echo of Vash before a blinding rage clawed through him and darkened his eyes with a savage gleam.

        Vash didn’t respond. He had his silver long colt in hand and his yellow-tinted sunglasses hiding eyes gone deadly and promising violence to come.

        As fearful for Milly as Wolfwood was, this murderous rising glow in Vash’s eyes, a red blazing inferno, hit the priest like a physical blow causing him to involuntary fall back a step. Then Vash snarled and Wolfwood was surprised to see a feral show of fangs he had never seen before. It was startling but he was in complete agreement with the plant. Intellectually he knew that the girls were capable of taking care of themselves, but then sometimes they got into situations over their heads. His heart told him that anyone who threatened them needed to die, especially if they harmed Milly. The blood racing through him was boiling and he could feel and think one thing only, find and protect Milly.

        Vash was aware of a part of him that felt as if another entity had risen with a vengeance and was taking over. This had nothing to do with reason, friendship, and even loyalty. This went much deeper and beyond even spoken words. He didn’t care if he was possessed or not. He was going to kill; someone had touched something of theirs that was off bounds and he was going to take revenge upon them. He was able to cast a quick inquiring look at the priest and noted that Wolfwood appeared to be in sync with him on this. After emitting a low growl he took off running in the direction that he felt the tugging and ripping through his soul coming from.

        He didn’t notice Wolfwood toss his weapon in the car and hop in, gunning the engine to follow him. Wolfwood knew he would have a better chance of keeping up with Vash in the vehicle than trying to follow him down the street carrying his cross punisher.

Car Sick

       Being thrown about and jostled brought Rinnah protesting out of layers of foggy sleep. For some reason, and this she was having difficulty figuring out, her bed was being bumped and shoved around and it was irritating her. Having had so many nights where she got little to no rest, she appreciated a good night’s sleep and really, was that too much to ask for? As she was contemplating, at that lower level of awareness, just ignoring it and letting herself be pulled under into the depths of slumber again, her bed took an unexpected leap up into the air and came down with a crash. All desire to sleep vanished. Yet... she was having a hard time getting her eyelids to obey her and open.

        She knew she was awake and aware enough but at the same time listlessness pulling her limbs down. Just when she was about to question that, she noticed that her mouth was dry. In the worst way she wanted a drink of water but when she went to move her arms they were too heavy to move. This wouldn’t do. Cursing her fatigue, she tried to pull herself up figuring she would feel so much better once she made it to the kitchen sink and got a drink of water.

        That’s when she began to wonder if it was morning or not. Where had the day gone? Something was beginning to feel terribly wrong. She couldn’t remember going to bed during the daytime, and why in the name of blazing star holes was her bed vibrating and rattling about? She stopped all movement, becoming aware whispering someplace beyond her feet in the corner of the room. Her bed took that moment to make another astounding leap in the air causing Rinnah’s eyes to snap open. Trying to swing her legs out of bed, she found to her surprise that she couldn’t.

        She looked around at the ceiling, which was swaying back and forth in a rapid motion. She frowned up at it trying to come up with a plausible reason why the ceiling had transformed into canvas since the last time she woken up. Hearing voices she scanned the room she was in looking for the source.

        “She’s awake. Should I keep her under?”

        An answering voice, smooth and cool, “Too much too soon is dangerous... but then we weren’t sure how much she could tolerate. We will wait and see what she does.”

        “Okay. You’re the boss.”

        With a supreme effort she managed to lift her head. The first thing she noticed were the two people sitting on some boxes a few feet away at the end of her feet. Then she noticed thin tubing taped to the canvas wall next to her feet. Following the line she found the end hooked to a bottle with several lines stringing up to other bottles all with different colored fluids in them. They were hung upside down, some above her head and the other lines she followed with her eyes where they were hooked up to a machine covered with gauges. The owner of one voice sat next to it keeping a close eye on it and some other machine on the other side of him also covered with gauges. The other voice noticed her looking and returned her gaze.

        This one was dressed in the height of fashion in a coat coming down to mid-calf. Around the collar were feathers that bobbled up and down in time with the bouncing movement of the vehicle. She stared, and then chuckled even though the woman looked somewhat familiar. She had that nagging feeling that she had seen the woman somewhere before. Her brow wrinkled up in her efforts to remember but while she did, Rinnah looked over the rest of the ensemble the woman wore before returning to study her face with the cold, cold eyes filled with contempt.

        At the moment, the sharp eyes swung from the hybrid to the other hostage and back again. Rinnah didn’t notice as she looked over the woman. To complete the picture was flawless skin and a perfect profile. Rinnah tried to focus on the woman. For some reason she looked vaguely familiar but the hybrid couldn’t put a finger on why that was. More disturbing was the fact this strange woman was in her room with her. Why was she here and who had let her in?

        After that Rinnah turned her attention to the small man sitting next to the woman. A little, round man with blondish-red hair and moon-shaped face sat and it was obvious, leaning away into the corner as far as he could get to keep from being anywhere near his female comrade. His face was hard to see, except for his horn-rim glasses, since he kept his head lowered. Rinnah turned her attention back to the other and blinked trying to clear her eyes.

        Turning her head, since that seemed to be the only part of her body that would obey her for the moment, she rapidly scanned the cubicle she was in because it was becoming painfully obvious that it wasn‘t any room she had fallen asleep in.

        There was a constant trembling emanating from underneath her running up and down her body. Every once in a while a bounce or rattle surprised her at first, until she figured it out, was the fact she didn’t fall off. Then felt like an idiot. Every limb was strapped down to a cot, in a van of some sort.

        Out of the corner of her eye she caught something dangling to the other side of her head. Twisting her neck she was able to see a thin clear plastic tube. Following the tube up she saw it was connected to a rectangular plastic bag filled with a murky fluid. Every few seconds a drip was allowed to flow down the tube. Now following the tube down she found, to her horror, that it led to a place on her arm that had a piece of tape over it. Her scalp crawled at the sight and she couldn’t stop staring at the spot where the IV was slipped into her skin. Right then she wanted nothing more than to be able to reach over and rip out the needle where it was hooked up. However, being strapped down made that desire impossible.

        Starting to panic at not being able to use her hands she instantly opted for using her power. She reached down for it and the ability to use it and made another appalling discovery, she couldn’t reach it or it was blocked off. Whatever one wanted to call it, it wasn’t available to her. It was if she was a prisoner in her own mind and soul. Just when she thought she was going to lose it and go stark raving mad a voice interrupted her near spiral into insanity.

        “Rinnah?” Came the soft question. She snapped her head around to the side and saw Milly in a sitting position with both hands and feet manacled together then a chain attached from them to either side of her on the bench she sat on. It as obvious that they were not taking any chances with either of them. “Can you talk?”

        Clearing her throat was a real effort and almost hurt to do it. She tried to speak but all that came out of her was a dry croak. Milly seemed to understand. Giving the hybrid a gaunt smile while her eyes stayed empty. The open sorrow on her and hopeless look on her face made Rinnah’s heart ache for her.

        Her mouth formed the question ‘where’ but all she could get out of her mouth were breathy sounds and she finally gave up trying. What had happened? Where were they? How had they gotten here?

        Again Milly seemed to have a sense of what Rinnah was trying to ask and said, “Ice cream, pudding, coffee, and bad guys. Remember now?” Her eyes were filled with distress and sorrow.

        Squeezing her eyes shut Rinnah grimaced. It all came rushing back to her. Yes, the ‘lady’ was indeed the Elendira from the ice cream parlor that Milly was wild to tangle with.

        “They shot you with about a million little needles and down you went. We have been riding for most of the day now. They are taking us to Knives.”

        It was Rinnah’s plan to meet up with Knives at some time, but always in her mind it would be on her terms, not as a helpless captive. She started struggling with the straps that held her. Right now she wanted nothing more than to get up and beat the tar out of those responsible for capturing the two of them. Thick leather straps began creaking ominously under her twisting and yanking on them. The world around her was turning a shade of light blue and she could feel something alien surging from within, struggling to free itself but not the familiar feeling that she was used to when connecting up with her power.

        An urgent voice cried out, “She’s going to break her restraints! I thought you said a miniature-dampening field wired into the straps!”

        “Calm down, we are still the ones in control; she just doesn’t know it yet. Now do your job and get over there and start the new drug. And remember, not too much or it will damage the areas of her brain that are going to be studied.”

        “Yes’m.” The small man knew the Crimson Nail wasn’t a she, but when someone looked every inch the definition of female perfection it was hard to keep that in mind. He shook his head; he really hated working for someone who confused him so much. Not only that, the Crimson Nail was very touchy and hard to work for. He much preferred his regular supervisor and ardently hoped he would be reassigned back to him.

        Rinnah heard halting footsteps as the person came over to her cot. It was the small man. He reached up and braced himself against the jolting of the truck by placing one of his hands against one of the ribs holding the canvas up. Rinnah saw the underside of his chin with its sparse hairs he had missed the morning shaving and growled at him. “I don’t want to hurt you. I really don’t.” One of the bolts holding the strap down was about to give. In just a few seconds she was going to have one arm free.

        Not looking at her, he tapped a button a couple of times and then turned a knob. “That’s kind of you. For the record though, I don’t think you will be doing much hurting of anyone in a moment here.” Then he gave the hybrid a rueful smile. Rinnah noticed that for a trained monkey of Knives, he had soft, gentle eyes. What was a guy like him doing working for Knives, she wondered?

        “I really don’t want to hurt you,” He said softly enough so that Elendira couldn’t hear what he was saying as he fiddled with some knobs and made some alterations. “You seem like a nice person.”

        Finally finishing his adjustments the round face of the man looked down at her. To Rinnah’s eyes the edges of his body began to blur. She saw him nod and then heard him mutter to himself as he checked a couple of the monitors attached next her.

        “Has the customized engel suppressant been administered along with the plant cytogene inhibitor?” Elendira asked without looking at him as if he were too lowly of an insect to be given consideration.

        “Yes, there should be a response.... Now.” He looked back down at the hybrid for the expected reaction and nodded in satisfaction at what he saw.

        Rinnah could feel a suffocating blackness edging her vision pulling her down into a dark oblivion. The last thing she heard was Milly’s voice calling out her name and then she was falling.

        “I hate my life.” She mumbled right before being sucked down into the darkness.


       Wolfwood followed Vash’s streaking form and it wasn’t easy since at times the outlaw was just a blur along the sidewalk. He was grateful he had decided to take the truck this time instead of relying on his feet to run after and try to keep up with the speeding plant. He knew Vash was so single-minded in his pursuit he would have left the priest in the dust a long time ago and without a second thought grumbled the priest to himself.

        Wolfwood came around the corner mere moments after Vash and as he straightened the wheel he saw Vash come to a skidding halt in front of a store. Wolfwood pulled the truck to a stop in front of the swinging door. He looked up at the sign announcing that the place was an ice cream parlor. He reached over and grabbed his cross punisher, hopped out of the vehicle and rushed up the steps after Vash. Pushing through the door, holding his weapon out in front of him, all senses tingling with wariness he scanned the room for any sign of danger. All he saw was Vash alone in the room, a very messy room.

        He reached up and with one finger slid his sunglasses down to the tip of his nose so he could clearly view the disarray of the room and the shambles it was left in. His eyes narrowed at the sight of overturned tables, chairs, and scattered empty shells littering the floor, broken glass and bullet holes across the walls. The priest looked down and saw bloodstains on the floor near his feet and couldn’t suppress a flash of fear. Studying the drops he forced himself to calm down as he studied the spots telling him that it wasn’t an overwhelming amount of blood. That meant that whoever got hit would survive. Even if he didn’t know for sure something in him told him that the blood didn’t belong to Milly or Rinnah.

        “Wolfwood.” Vash said quietly. As the second syllable hung in the air the priest was already by the outlaw’s side as he faced the last booth in the row.

        They both gazed down at the tabletop littered with empty bowls. On one side of the table was an ice cream bowl and another next to it licked perfectly clean. Wolfwood knew what that one had recently held. This was where Milly had been sitting when whatever happened here went down. Across from Milly’s place were a half-full coffee cup and an empty bowl with the ice cream a melted lump at the bottom.

        They stared at the table for a minute, each man lost in his own thoughts. Wolfwood could feel the muscles along his jaw jumping from being clenched so tightly. Simultaneously they lifted their eyes to look at the other and then back to the table.

        “They were here,” whispered Wolfwood hoarsely. “And not long ago either from the looks of things.”

        Vash merely nodded and then noticed something in the corner of the seat. He leaned over, pulled out a leather hat and held it up so Wolfwood could see it also. It was Rinnah’s wide-brimmed hat but what was definitely not hers was a pin piercing through the side of hat. It was a pin so incredibly thin it was nearly invisible until a sunbeam hit it just right making it glint. To look at it one would have thought it to be an overly long hatpin with a wickedly sharp tip. Vash went still and cold as death as he stared at the pin before anger as sharp and wicked as the pin washed over him.

        “Oh shit.” Wolfwood’s face went pale. This was bad. The one person he never wanted around Milly ever again had taken her. All the Gung-Ho Guns were crazy in one sense or another but Elendira was in a category of scary all by himself.

        Vash pulled the needle from the hat where it had been pierced, knowing it for the message it was. The anger he was feeling pounded through his veins in a heated rush and he snapped the pin in half as his eyes flared a burning red. He knew Rinnah was clueless as to what was going on between them but he was not and he would have her back.

        He lifted magma hot eyes to watch as the priest’s previously horrorstruck ones began filling with a darkening rage to equal his own. Vash said so softly that only the man standing next to him could hear what he was saying, “Wolfwood...”


        “I am tired of this.”

        Wolfwood held his gaze and nodded affirming Vash‘s feeling and replied, “So am I.”

        A rage had been eating away at him but it had instantly switched to a cold burning fire in his belly at the sight of Elendira’s trademark weapon, even if it was only one of his smaller ones. A cold sweat broke out all over his body. He had to get Milly back and soon. Elendira was one sick twisted soul and he was afraid for Milly in a way he hadn’t been before discovering this. This changed everything. Before this he had an idea that he and Vash would rush into a room and rescue their dear ones from some menacing drunken scoundrel. This little slender pin spoke volumes and all of it gravely life-threatening for their loved ones. His hand clenched tighter around the cross punisher’s center skull without noticing it was leaving red indentations in his fingers.

        “Shall we pay Knives a call?” The menace in Vash’s eyes met and held the priest’s equally ominous ones.

        “I‘m ready when you are.” The dark side of the clergyman answered and had Vash been anyone else he would have been frightened by what shone out of those gray orbs.

        They turned as one toward the door and froze.

        Just inside the door was Levio, standing there, hands hanging weaponless at his sides. They could only see the front part of him as he had barely had taken a step into the room. They tensed, waiting for him to say something but he remained silent returning their stares. Both men reached for their guns at the same time but Levio’s only reaction was to step back through the door.

        At the nonviolent move Vash and Wolfwood looked at each other a little taken aback by the unorthodox behavior for one of his ilk, and then took off after him. Vash was out the door first with Wolfwood close on his heels but as soon as they exited the shop they came sliding to a stop with Wolfwood barely able to keep himself from slamming into Vash‘s back. He noticed Vash’s head swiveling back and forth searching. He joined him in the search and discovered what Vash had already known, there was absolutely no sign of Levio anywhere. It was as if he had been an apparition appearing only to disappear again. Vash cursed as he turned one way and then another in search of the assassin.

        “You saw him too, right?” Questioned Wolfwood, second-guessing what he had seen.

        “Yes, he was here and he was real.” Replied Vash flatly, annoyed that Levio had gotten away from them.

        “Good, I thought for a second there that I imagined I saw him. So how‘d he disappear so quickly, he can‘t move that fast!”

        “Yet he’s not anywhere to be seen. It’s just not humanly possible.” Growled Vash. He was remembering the time he had fought Dominique the Cyclops and wondered if it was the same thing in operation as back then. He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck with a hand. Levio had never exhibited that kind of ability in the past though and he certainly didn’t have the lizard eye thing going for him either.

        “Damn! We could have gotten some answers from him, I’d just bet on it!” Wolfwood slammed a palm against a post in frustration.

        “Well, we’ll just have to...” Vash stopped short and Wolfwood looked up to see him staring down the street. Wondering what had caught his eye he turned to stare too. There stood Levio, under an overhang in front of a tool store. People were passing by him but they weren’t reacting to his presence. It was as if he was invisible to them and only Wolfwood and Vash could see him. Vash was afraid to move, afraid to take his eyes off of him in case he vanished again.

        “How...” started the priest but Vash interrupted him.

        “No time for that now.” He sped off in Levio’s direction with a fierce look of determination on his face.

        Wolfwood ran to the truck and threw his cross in even as he swung over the door to settle behind the wheel. As he started the truck he noticed a group of men hurrying down the street in their direction and some of them had the look of lawmen about them. Wolfwood decided they had chosen a good time to vacate the premises. The last thing they needed was to be detained and blamed for the shoot-up in the ice cream shop. He put the truck into gear and hit the gas.


       Milly sat on the bed in a fair-sized room. She looked around, studying her new abode. For a prison cell it sure was roomy. In the past, the four of them had slept in rooms this size many a time. She personally, had slept in rooms even smaller than this. The look of the room was of one that was recently and hastily remodeled. Maybe at one time it belonged to someone else as a living quarter before it was converted into a holding cell. The amenities included a large fake marble sink, a toilet behind a curtain (which she put to use as soon as she was alone, after all, it had been a long ride!), a small table with chair, and a narrow bed. It was done up in antique Gunsmoke poverty with a nod of the head to a the simple style of a monk’s cell

        The walls were bare concrete and freshly painted a light tan. She turned her attention to the door, which was metal without a hint of rust on it. Now that spoke of unrelieved detention. It also looked to have been recently manufactured.

        They placed her in the room and quickly left. She heard a bolt shoot home with a loud, dull thud. It was the kind of sound that boasted of a well-made lock. The kind of lock that spoke, “Not anytime soon, sweetheart!” Milly wanted nothing more than to pout about that, but admitted that she was finally in the place where they were planning on heading for in the first place.

        Milly nervously plucked at one of her suspenders with a thumb. They stripped her coat off her as soon as they had unlocked her chains when she was still in the van. She really hoped she would be able to get it back. It was her one heirloom to remember her grandfather and she would be heartbroken if anything were to happen to it. Until her suspender snapped back onto her chest rather painfully was she aware that she had pulled the strap out too far. It was enough of a sting to bring her out of her reverie as she rubbed at the sore spot and contemplated her circumstances.

        Teetering on the cusp of clashing and opposing emotions, Milly first worried about Rinnah and why they decided that the girls needed to be separated. Next was the elation of knowing she was so much closer to Meryl. With a small grin appeared as she thought her friend. Finally she would be able to find her and plead for Meryl to forgive her for leaving her here all this time. Then she would ask her if she wanted to leave. This part worried her more than she had let on to the menfolk and Rinnah. What if Meryl was no longer Meryl? It was too horrible a thought to contemplate. Then her thoughts bounced back to Rinnah and what Knives could be doing with her or to her. Her brows came together in a frown, thinking over all she knew of Vash’s brother, none of it good. Considering all the things Vash was plagued with over the years because of his one and only brother, it didn’t bode well for Rinnah. Well, not for her either if Milly let herself think about it. It was a sure bet that neither one of them was going to be treated as an honored guest.

        Disheartened she stared down at the blanket and noticed for the first time she was unconsciously plucking it in lieu of her suspenders. Quitting that, she lifted herself up and pushed further back on the bed until her shoulder blades came to rest against the wall. She slouched down a little trying to find a comfortable position.

        Milly closed her eyes and pictured the room in her head and focused on the door that was the biggest obstacle to overcome in her quest for Meryl. However, the locked door would pose a near insurmountable problem. She doubted she was smart enough or strong enough to move the door so that meant that she would have to exercise patience and wait for them to come to her. Hopefully she would be able to find a way at some point to escape. The only thing that would take them all by surprise is that she wouldn’t be making for the door that led to the outside but searching the maze within looking for her friend.

        She thought back to when she and Rinnah were separated. Since the time that Rinnah first woke up and then was forced back into unconsciousness, they had traveled the rest of the day and into the evening before arriving at the familiar place that housed Knives’ underground compound. Even though she knew Meryl wouldn’t be above the surface waiting for her, especially in the motor pool area, she couldn’t stop herself from scanning the surrounding area looking for any sign of her friend. Still, it was disappointing not to find her there and she had to blink back the tears that threatened to spill over.

        Once the truck stopped and before the engine was turned off, workers descended on and swarmed the truck. They waited until Elendira and her assistant exited before they scrambled in and began to unhook the machines and some of the tubes that led to Rinnah. Milly noticed they left a couple in, presumably to keep her sedated.

        She listened to the low voices of the workers and attendants around her as they rushed to and fro but it wasn’t clear enough to make out what they were saying. Watching with interest Milly began to liken the busyness to worker bees bustling around. With all their murmuring it did sound like the humming coming from a beehive.

        Milly was kept chained while a team of workers focused on unbolting and lifting the hybrid’s cot and the medical team watched over her tubes, bags and machines with a mindless intensity. With gentle care and attention to detail the two different sets of teams worked to keep all the lines from getting tangled while at the same time hoisting her cot from the back of the truck. To Milly’s eyes it took them longer than it needed to but on the other hand, when she looked into their faces she saw an underlying fear written there along with a hungry desire to please. She shook her head at the pathetic pointlessness of it all.

        She watched as they finally got Rinnah and all the things connected to her off the truck and followed their progress over to the far wall. Milly cocked her head in puzzlement. It looked like a place where a door should be but there weren’t any doorknobs that she could see. A man stepped out from the group and walked up to the wall. He reached out and depressed an area and then a panel measuring about a square foot sunk in and slid open. Milly’s eyes widened. How’d he do that? Holding her fascinated were a row of blinking lights, which the man then pressed in no specific order but it, was obvious the sequence had some meaning. As soon as he pushed the last button a crack appeared and slid open to reveal a room that was as small as the size of the truck bed. The team carried Rinnah’s cot within the small room before the doors slid back into position sealing it shut. Milly could barely tell where the line was to show the place where the opening had been.

        It was an elevator of course. Milly, indeed, most residents of the planet were familiar with elevators as there were elevators all over the place but especially in the bigger cities, however next to this technological wonder they were ancient, clumsy, and noisy. What astounded her was the soundless way the doors opened and shut, not to mention the fact of how to operate them. She shook her head, amazed by it all. Vash never said anything about his brother being a Lost Technology techno-geek.

        She was still staring in wonder at the wall when several men, this time it must have been a guard unit, jumped up into the truck and began unlocking her chains. It wasn’t until they grabbed her under the elbows and hauled her to her feet did she realize that she had been staring at the place in the wall. Two large men on either side of her, tilting her head back to gawk at the size of them, big or bigger than her brothers, ushered her to the edge of the truck and two more, very large men, carefully helped her down.

        When she was safely on the floor Milly looked up again at the four men surrounding her. They were very tall and broad in the shoulders and Milly didn’t doubt for a moment that these men could possibly be bigger than her brothers might be. Then the size of the place caught her eyes and they went round with renewed amazement as she took in the sweeping roof and the depth of the long building. Oh my, she couldn’t wait to tell her family about this place. Cooling her amazement somewhat was when she noticed the very large revolvers buckled on the waist of the guards. Tilting her head up she tried to look into their faces, but these men were wearing those black wraparound sunglasses that hid a good deal of the face. Now that she noticed, they were wearing navy blue jumpsuits and had a no-nonsense air about them as they hustled her over to another section of the wall.

        She thought it was a good time to bring an up an urgent matter for consideration. “Um, do you have some facilities around here? You know,....” Her cheeks started to turn crimson, “uh, rooms for women... er, restrooms.” Milly frowned; it was as if she hadn’t spoken. Instead one of them gestured to her coat. She looked down at it, was there a stain on it, a rip? Looking back up she saw the impatient flat line on the lips of the man who had gestured at her.

        “Do you want me to take it off?” She hoped she had misunderstood him. He gave her a curt nod and another gesture. Reluctantly she unbuttoned the coat and was thankful they hadn’t just ripped it off of her. When she had all the buttons undone someone behind her reached around, firmly slid it off her shoulders and shook her arms out of it.

        “Hey, do I get a receipt for that? I want it back when I leave.” Milly watched them with worried eyes as the man who had helped her out of her coat walked off with her precious duster.

        She called out after him. “Be careful with that! It’s a family heirloom! And, I STILL have to PEE!”

        Oops. A flush spread over her face, she really hadn’t meant to yell that last little bit but it was getting to be a pressing need. She wondered what Rinnah would have said to them, probably something snappy and cutting, or cute and totally incomprehensible, of that Milly was sure. The only thing that came to her mind was ‘pudding meanies’ but that didn’t quite have the zing she was looking for. She sniffed, already she was missing Rinnah and it had only been a few minutes. Her plan of coming to Meryl’s rescue was not going as well as it could have.

        Soon she was standing before a blank wall circled by unsmiling commando thugs. Really, would it do irredeemable damage to their tough guy images to smile even a little bit? Milly vowed to herself that if she ever got to be tyrant of the whole world she would make it a mandatory rule that all her soldiers were required to smile. Just the mental picture of a whole army of smiling soldiers lifted her spirits somewhat and she couldn’t help but smile in response at the grinning troops in her head.

        They led her over to a space of blank wall and one of them reached out and pressed what must have been a button but Milly couldn’t tell if there was a button there or not and wondered how he knew where it was located. Startling her, panel slid open to reveal an array of colorful blinking buttons. Pretty! She didn’t realize she was stepping to get a better look until one of the gorilla guards grabbed her by the elbow and hauled her back.

        The squad leader typed in something and then, like the sliding door they took Rinnah through, the wall divided and revealed an elevator. She was ushered in and then the descent began and she could hardly tell it was going down. There was barely any movement of the box, certainly no jerking or squealing of cables like what she was used to. Instead, it was just one long smooth drop. She wondered how fast they were going but decided against asking. These fellows gave no indication of being the friendly type. Shifting from one foot to the other kept Milly’s mind off her most urgent need and also kept her from being bored.

        The elevator came to a stop with a gentle nudge and after a few seconds the doors opened to let the occupants depart.

        After that they marched Milly up and down halls so quickly that she was completely lost as how to get back to the surface. Maybe that’s what they meant to happen. She wouldn’t be surprised if they led her around in circles so she would be too confused to try and escape.

        When they reached the room where she was now, the head gorilla, she wasn’t sure if he was or not, but he acted like it so she assumed he was, stopped short. Not a one of the squad had yet to utter a word to her or to each other in her presence, they stopped when the leader turned to face a metal door. As if on cue, when the men stopped without warning Milly walked into the back of the man in front of her. Rubbing her nose she watched the leader as he tapped in a sequence of numbers onto a keypad. He had his shoulder turned in such a way that Milly couldn’t see what he typed in. Then he pulled out a long thin transparent plastic card from his shirt pocket and slid it into the keypad. After it made a chirping beep, which to Milly’s way of thinking sounded very cheerful, he took out an old fashioned metal key and inserted it into the keyhole. It made a dull chunk sound and the door opened.

        Milly was impressed. All this security... for her? She made a mental note to add this to the list of things to tell her family when she got out. The goon squad definitely wanted her to stay put. Once she was escorted into the middle of the room, still encircled by guards, the leader stepped over to her and removed the manacles from her wrists. All of this was done in silence. As he unlocked the cuffs she decided it couldn’t hurt to ask some questions.

        “Where did they take Rinnah? Can I see her? You are not going to hurt her are you?”

        They ignored her.

        “Can I see Meryl?”

        This time she got a reaction. He lifted his face from the cuffs to take a moment to look into hers before looking down again. When the cuffs were off he handed them to one of his men and began to turn away. For as many people as they had in the room, the silence was eerie.

        She tried again, “Is that a no?” Outside of that one brief moment of earlier there still was no sign that they had heard her.

        “What time is dinner?” Milly wished again that Rinnah were here, she was certain that the half-plant would have been able to get a reaction out of them. “Could I see the pudding menu?”

        Never saying a word the squad trooped out of the room leaving her alone to stare at the locked door. Drat! She gave a soft snort at the closed door and then went to sit down on the bed.


       Meryl had taken Melanie out in the hallway to practice walking up and down the long stretch of corridor. She was only about a month old now which roughly put her at the same age as a human baby in the toddling stage. The plant child had learned to crawl early but didn’t seem to take to walking with the same enthusiasm as she had showed for learning to crawl.

        Meryl looked up and down the hall. It was so unvarying and the sameness was only broken at intervals by a door set in the wall. What she really wanted to do was to take the child up to the surface to play out in the sunlight and fresh air. For the past several days she had been working up the courage to say something to Knives, trying to find phrase it in such a convincing way that would make it sound logical, reasonable, and sensible. In short, like him, then maybe he would give her an affirmative answer.

        It wasn’t good for a child not to play in the sunlight, in her opinion it just wasn’t natural. Children needed to be out in the sunlight. She sighed already guessing that the answer was going to be a flat-out no unless he went with them.

        The little plant girl was delighted with the echoes of her shrieks and would clap her small hands with each echo and then try to chase them down the hall. Meryl smiled down at her daughter with great fondness and stretched out her legs to keep pace with the fast waddle of the toddler. For someone with tiny legs she sure could move fast.

        Just then, a couple of workers turned the corner and Meryl picked up on a piece of their conversation....

        “... And then she asked for a pudding menu, just like that... who in the hell asks to see a pudding menu?”

        Both men stopped short when they caught sight of the concubine and the newest little miracle in the hall and in unison they bowed respectfully and kept it there until Meryl passed by. She gave them a perfunctory nod even as her brain raced. Pudding? There was only one person that she knew of that would ask that kind of a question.

        Reaching down she snatched up her child and began a fast-paced walk to where she knew Zazie was. She needed a babysitter and the hive life form was the only one she trusted with her child, and more importantly, that Knives trusted with this newest plant generation. The child instantly made her displeasure known, beginning a piercing squall protesting the interruption of her fun. Meryl made shushing noises knowing that the child would change her tune as soon as she saw Zazie, one of her favorite people.

        Even as she carried the child, Meryl’s mind was racing. Milly? Here? It couldn’t possibly be anyone else.

When Thoughts Chase Thoughts

       It had been days and days since they left her there. Not really, it had only been an hour or so but Milly thought with resentment that it sure felt like time immeasurable had passed by. Now she was here with only her musings and they weren’t pleasant company. Milly rubbed a strand of her long hair between fingers, becoming absorbed in her thoughts and the direction they were taking.

        It was hard to tell time in her room as it was without windows, which made sense, she was deep underground. She was guessing they would turn out the lights during the night since there wasn’t a light switch on the wall. At least, she hoped they would. If the lights stayed on all night and day it wouldn’t be long before she went loony drooling nuts. There was a certain order to life and one is that at night it is dark and in the day it is bright.

        For the first time, she thought back trying to reckon the months and years and realized that this time, for the first time ever; she was alone, truly and utterly alone. Not the kind of alone when one is in the hotel room waiting for the others to show. That was normal alone. This kind of alone was stripped of everyone she knew and loved. She was cut off, isolated, and forlorn. A single tear slipped out to trail down a cheek. She brushed it away with the back of her hand. How had things gone so wrong? And she didn’t just mean the fact that she and Rinnah had been captured. Milly was taking a look at herself and she didn’t like what she saw. She had been raised better than this.

        In the total separation from anyone who ever thought fondly of her, Milly saw herself as sharply and unrelieved reflection of a mirror. How did she think she was going to rescue Meryl? She wasn’t strong, well not as strong as she needed to be. Who did she think she was trying to take on Knives and his whole organization?

        Milly lowered her head into her palms. “Oooooo, I have been such a fool!”

        Worse, she pictured Nicholas’s face when he realized she was gone and her blood ran cold. No, she wasn’t gone, she had been taken, call it what it was, and to top it all off, at the mercy of Knives‘. Nicholas would be frantic, he would... her heart skipped a beat! Even though they were intending on coming here anyway, now her love would come charging after her without giving a thought for his own well being! Milly sniffed at the tickling in her nose. Her hardheaded obsession was the reason she was here! Nicholas, her beloved rogue of a priest, the father of her unborn child would be killed and it was all her fault! On that note all the remorse and regret tore through her and hot tears gushed out as she turned and fell face first into her pillow sobbing loudly.

        ‘Merciful God’ she pleaded in her mind, just repeating the phrase over and over again along with ‘please, oh please’ too afraid to voice her fears beyond a fervent emotional plea she sent up on the wings of a wordless prayer.

        If she got out of this, if Nicholas and her friends got out of this alive, she vowed she would listen and heed other’s warnings after this. Why hadn’t she listened to Rinnah? Why oh why did she delude herself into thinking she was going to save Meryl? In the reality of this room it was what she couldn‘t see it as before this, insanity. Here she was in the same place and Meryl probably didn’t even know she was here. Was Meryl okay, was she being taken care? Milly doubted it and another wave of weeping overcame her, shaking her entire body until even the bed seemed to move in time to her sobbing.

        It could have been minutes or hours before Milly’s weeping subsided to an occasional sniffle. She was sure her nose was red, her eyes puffy, and her hair was matted but she didn’t care, who would see her like this except for Knives’ goons? Yet, she didn’t like that fact that she felt sweaty and disheveled so getting up she crossed over to the sink. She made good use of the facilities to wash her face and run her fingers through her hair exasperated that they had felt the need to disarm her of her oh so dangerous comb. What did they think she was going to do with it, threaten to part their hair? Feeling more together she went and sat back down on the bed and occupied herself with untangling the snarls in her hair and fervently wishing all the while they had at least left her with a comb.

        Just as she was working on a particularly nasty snarl, she heard footsteps coming down the hall, getting louder as they approached. She froze when they stopped right outside her door. Looking over at the door with interest, because maybe it was dinnertime, but she didn’t bother to get up. Then she heard a key turn in the lock.

Time to Turn the Tables

       Wolfwood drove up to where Vash was standing on a corner leaning against a brick wall looking for all the world like he didn’t have a care in the world. The sunglasses were back in place and he had his face tipped up to the sky with arms crossed over his chest.

        The priest pulled to a stop and killed the engine. Then he rotated his torso so he was facing the outlaw.

        “Next chance I get I’m going to wing that soulless bastard.” Stated Vash through gritted teeth.

        Wolfwood sighed and climbed out of the truck. Shoving a hand into one of his pockets he walked over to outlaw and stopped next to him.

        “What now?”

        “Don’t move.” Vash’s lips barely moved, startling the priest with his request but he did as requested.

        “Okay.” Where was he going to go? It took all his willpower to overcome the urge to look over his shoulder and not reach for the smaller gun he carried on his person. He noticed that Vash wasn’t moving so that had to be a good sign for the moment. Still, his stance was tense and prepared. He hoped the outlaw knew what he was doing.

        “I think I know how he’s doing this vanishing act. He’s been trying to lure us after him and keep us chasing him. I was puzzled at first because he wasn’t leading us in any one specific direction, which is why I didn’t catch on right away.”

        He looked up at the sky for a moment, a frown deepening on his brow. “I, for one, am tired of these games.”

        “You and me both pal.” Grumbled the priest. Now he was really irritated. He and Vash didn’t have time to play cops and robbers like this. They had someplace they needed to be.

        “Act nonchalant.” Instructed Vash.

        Wolfwood could have groaned. He was nonchalant and casual as he could get already but when someone asked him to act that way it always came off as contrived and phony.

        “We’ll make it look like we‘re giving up.”

        Wolfwood let his shoulders slump in apparent defeat. Maybe he had overdone it a bit as Vash gave him an impatient look.

        “Hey, I’m a priest not an actor!” Snapped Wolfwood defensively.

        Vash ignored the remark and went on to explain, “He only shows himself when we lose his trail. Now keep facing me like we’re talking to each other.”

        “Have you lost your mind! We are talking to each other; I don’t have to act like we’re talking!” Pointed out the priest, starting to frown.

        “Time to play it our way. I think I can hear him if he gets near us.”

        “Hey, got an idea!” Wolfwood turned and head for the truck.

        “What? Where are you going?” Vash asked, puzzled.

        “Props.” Wolfwood called over his shoulder.

        Reaching the vehicle, he leaned over, popped open the glove box and reached in. Scrounging around for a moment before pulling out a map, he held it up and gave it a little shake with a pleased grin.

        “It was right here all the time. Lucky us!” He spoke loudly as he turned and trotted back to Vash with the map clutched in his hand.

        Coming to stand next to Vash he explained in a softer voice, “We will be able to ignore his little popping in episodes if it appears we are too engrossed in this map. It will look like we are trying to figure out where to go next. Let him worry that we have given up on him and are getting on with our own lives.”

        Vash grinned and came to stand next to Wolfwood and look down at the opened map he held up. “Good thinking. It’ll drive him crazy.”

        “Better him than us. And I agree, let’s turn this game around.”

        Vash looked up at the priest and they exchanged cold smiles. The outlaw had to hand it to Wolfwood; the priest was devious when he needed to be. He nodded and both men turned their attention to the map as if studying it intently.

The Love of a Good Friend

       Milly tilted her head as she listened to the murmuring of indistinct voices in the hall. It sounded like two people disagreeing but she couldn’t tell for sure what it was over. She made herself go still hardly daring to take in a breath as she tried to make out what they were saying. She wondered if they were arguing about her. That would be silly though, why would anyone argue on her account? Doubting it was Knives himself, because Vash once said that arguing with Knives got one very dead, she was curious as to whom it could be. Since she couldn’t solve the mystery she was going to have to wait until the door was opened and she could see for herself who it was.

        The door swung open and standing framed in the doorway was the person her heart had been missing for years. At the sight of her diminutive friend a once-withered part of Milly’s heart filled in again, becoming whole. A wide smile split her face but the rest of her was frozen, as if paralyzed. She wanted to move, to leap up, dance around the room and cry out for joy all at the same time, but she couldn’t. Only a smile and a fresh set of tears coursing down her face were the only things about Milly that were able to move freely.

        Meryl. Milly eagerly scanned her friend. Her dark hair was longer, hanging down past her shoulders, and she had a fuller figure. With a sharp, knowing eye that came from being around many pregnant Thompson women, she knew the signs of someone who was a new mother. For some comforting reason, Milly was relieved to see Meryl wearing her great-grandmother’s heirloom earrings brought from Earth. Another thing that was distinctly and uniquely Meryl was the way she issued orders to the men who had placed her in this cell, telling them to leave them alone.

        A couple of them were in her line of vision but the ones she could see were shuffling about uneasily. Meryl gave them a dirty look and they apparently came to the decision that she would be safe with the prisoner, but they didn’t appear to like it. That didn’t make a difference to Meryl, she frowned at them and Milly held her breath at the warning signs that those hapless men were ignoring at their own peril. Meryl snapped out another order and this time it seemed to sink in and the guards stepped away from the door.

        Before turning away Meryl firmly ordered, “and have someone bring a large bowl of chocolate pudding and a decaf cup of coffee.” Not waiting to see if she was being obeyed or not, Meryl turned to face the room and stopped short at the sight of Milly’s puffy red eyes.

        Lifting delicate fingers to her mouth, her eyes questioned and then turned accusatory, “Milly... did they hurt you? If they did I swear to God I’ll...”

        She didn’t get any further. Milly had crossed the distance between them to stand looking down at Meryl in wonder.

        “Meryl.” She breathed out quietly, almost reverently. Then she swooped down to embrace her friend even if she could not cross the gap of time that had grown between them. It didn’t matter though, Milly’s belief learned at her mother’s knee as a small child, was that love does not know or care about the distinction of time. Love can speak without using words in a language all of its own and anyone at all is welcome to learn.

        “Milly.” With that Meryl threw herself back at her friend and clasped tightly to her, sobbing out her own unspoken fears and loneliness of the past. It was only seconds before Milly joined her. For a while the weeping from the two women was the only sound in the room along with a few muffled, “I’m sorrys” and a few choked “I missed you”, and “I love you” as each strove to comfort the other.

        Finally the well of tears was emptied and the two women stepped back from each other as if in mutual agreement to carefully study each other’s face.

        Meryl noticed that Milly looked exceptionally fit and healthy. Outside of the current arrangements taking a toll on her usual cheerful attitude, Meryl could see the glow of happiness that clung to Milly like a soft hint of perfume. Milly was happy and Meryl wondered if the priest had survived to have anything to do with that new air of contented bliss. She hoped so; Meryl remembered how Milly felt about him. Then, if that was so, that could only mean that Wolfwood would be arriving soon and perhaps Vash would be coming with him. She expected to feel something at that but with a sad smile she acknowledged that what she once felt for Vash was gone.

        For her part, Milly saw a shadow in Meryl’s eyes she never remembered being there before. Her face was thinner, paler, but her eyes were still that unusual and eye-catching gray lavender color. Meryl’s figure was what her family would describe as lush, or matronly, being fuller at the hips with a larger bust line also. Still, her waist was small and slender for someone who had recently given birth. Milly narrowed her eyes. There was something else that was different about the shorter woman but Milly couldn’t put her finger on it. Whatever it was, it was foreign and not something that was originally a part of Meryl.

        Meryl saw the sorrowful suspicions crossing Milly’s face and knew the changes she was undergoing were evident to the one person who knew her so well. Her eyes misted up, even in this it was good to be known by someone who loved and accepted her. She looked Milly over closely and saw a person who had gone through the fires of adversity and had suffered in their flames. Instead of letting it steal her joy and leave her embittered, Milly was refined like pure gold; all that was best about her was brighter and stronger.

        Without a word both women headed for the bed and sat down.

        “Oh Meryl,” started Milly but the lump in her throat was too painful to swallow around and forced her to stop. Instead she reached over and clasped Meryl’s hand. Meryl put her other hand on top of Milly’s and patted the larger woman’s under hers.

        “Milly,” she whispered, “I have missed you.”

        “Meryl,” Milly started again. She didn’t think this was going to be so difficult but she finally had the chance and she wasn’t going to squander this opportunity to talk with her best of all best friends in the world.

        “I am so sorry;” Milly had to rapidly blink her sky blue eyes to keep them from filling up. “I failed you. I didn’t rescue you. I just left,” She stopped, her voice breaking and her shoulders shaking. “You here with him and...” A fresh rain of tears poured down her already soaked cheeks, “drove away without you!” She ended on a wail.

        Trying to get control of her voice, she hesitated before going on, “Vash told me you were dead.”

        “Oh Milly, don’t do this to yourself. You couldn’t have helped me. If you had tried you only would have been killed. Do you honestly believe even for an instant that I would rather have a dead friend rather than a living one? I know better than most what you were up against.” Giving her friend’s hand a playful slap, “And since when has Vash been an authority on anything? Besides, even if he lied, I am glad that he did since it saved your life.” She leaned her forehead to rest against Milly’s bowed head. “And that means everything to me.”

        Meryl leaned back to give Milly some room when Milly lifted her head. Soulful blue eyes sought hers and held them as if searching for the truth.

        “But I wish it had been different.” Milly sniffed until Meryl reached into her pocket and handed her friend a tissue for her leaking nose. Milly accepted gratefully and took a moment to blow her nose.

        Meryl leaned back making the bed creak under her movement. There was a hint of smile on her lips that puzzled Milly. She whispered, as if imparting a deep, dark secret.

        “I did too for a long time,” Meryl said softly.

        Milly blinked in amazement. Meryl was blushing!

        “But now...”

        The pink stain was spreading across her cheeks! Milly was fascinated by this reaction of Meryl’s.

        Meryl looked down to the side and gave a shrug of one small shoulder before looking up to catch the growing concern filling Milly’s face.

        “Things... uh, things have happened,... uhm, certain things that I wasn’t expecting.”

        Milly gave her friend a sad smile, “and now you are not so sad to be here, is that right Meryl?”

        Meryl gave her tall friend a quick, almost shy nod, her cheeks growing even darker.

        Maybe the Milly of the past would have been clueless, that was debatable, but married Milly wasn’t. That tall girl was pretty sure she knew what some of these changes entailed. It meant that if she ever got out the chance to leave of this accursed place then she would be leaving it without Meryl at her side. Meryl was choosing to stand at someone else’s side now.

        “Are you happy Meryl?” Desperately Milly hoped so.

        “I’m not unhappy too often anymore Milly, which is quite the improvement. I have a life and I have my children whom I love beyond life itself.” There was something else she didn’t say but Milly heard it as an echoing whisper beneath the spoken words.

        Milly’s eyebrows shot up as she wondered just how many children were there that Meryl loved beyond life itself? Boy, that Knives, who would have thought he was such a fast mover. She didn’t think he was the type. She frowned; she had never pegged him for the husband or family man type. She reached up and scratched her head. It was a puzzler all right. Curiosity got the better of her and she to ask.

        “Uh, Meryl?”

        Meryl turned to look at Milly who was twisting the ring on her finger around and around.

        “Uh... with him?”

        “Yes...” Then understanding dawned on her what exactly it was that Milly was asking, “Oh my! No! Well, not in the sense you are thinking of.” She looked down, overcome with shame, but then defiantly met Milly’s questioning gaze.

        “I’m not going to leave him,” with a suddenly realizing what had just slipped out of her mouth she quickly amended to, “them.”

        “Meryl, if this is what you want then I respect your wishes even if I don’t agree with them.”

        Meryl gave Milly a true smile that lit up her eyes. Milly was the best of friends, so loyal, a friend for all seasons.

        Then she pointed to the ring on Milly’s left hand. “Are you going to tell me about that?”

        Now it was Milly’s turn to blush and she began to fill Meryl in on the doings of the past, making certain to leave out some delicate parts. Milly had no idea how deeply Meryl was entrenched in Knives’ camp or if he could read her mind or not, but she didn’t think it wise to take any chances.

        Meryl was amazed with the story and the changes in Vash, and this stranger that traveled with them.

        “She was going to help all of you to rescue me?”

        Milly nodded.

        “But doesn’t it worry you about Vash? About what he is turning into?”

        Milly shook her head. Quite frankly she was more worried about what Knives was doing to Meryl but didn’t think it diplomatic at this point to say so.

        Meryl checked her watch and grimaced.

        “I have to be going soon but I will be coming back to visit you. I came as soon as I found out you were here. They couldn’t keep me away.” She said with a fierce light filling her eyes.

        Milly would have liked to see them try. A determined Meryl was usually a successful Meryl no matter the obstacle in her way. Except for this little matter of Knives that was. This must be the first time Meryl’s unstoppable force slammed into the immovable rock.

        Now that Milly knew Meryl’s desire, she could say this even with sorrow clutching at her heart. “Meryl... I know you are going to stay, but I...,” she glanced down at her hands, nervously twisting her ring around and around her finger again. “I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to escape.” She looked up to find Meryl smiling at her.

        “Of course you will, but you won’t succeed....”

        Milly frowned and was about to protest when Meryl interrupted her with a conspiratorial smile and wink, “... alone.

        “You have probably heard from Vash that I am not, well, entirely human anymore. I heal faster if I get hurt. I can move faster.... When I am not pregnant that is.” Both women smiled at that.

        Milly thought for a moment and then nodded. She was prepared for this. Reaching out a hand, she patted her friend‘s.

        “You are still my friend Meryl, no matter what, and always will be.”

        Meryl returned the smile and placed a hand on top of her friend’s. It felt so good to touch and be touched by someone who fully and completely accepted her no matter that she was not quite human. “It was an unexpected development. No one foresaw this.”

        Just then came a knock on the doorframe and one of the guards walked in carrying a tray. On the tray was a bowl of pudding and a steaming cup. Milly sniffed chocolate pecan! It was great to have connections with friends in power!

        Meryl threw up her hands and exclaimed, “It figures!”

        Milly tilted her head at her puzzled by the raven-haired woman’s reaction. She was actually quite pleased with the service. The servant bowed themselves out of the room.

        Meryl nodded for the guard to place the tray on the table and then looked around the room in disapproval. “I’ll have them send you some nice things Milly. This really is a disgrace.”

        “Oh don’t bother Meryl.” Milly mumbled around her spoon, she already had the bowl snatched off the tray and was shoveling in bites as quick as she could. “I’m not planning on staying long.”

        Meryl winced and scolded herself. That’s right Stryfe, this isn’t a pleasure visit. We aren’t girlfriends staying up late, giggling, baking cookies, and talking about which boys we hope will ask us out Saturday night. An immediate depression descended and threatened to crush her and she angrily shook her head.

        “Now Meryl, don’t go brooding.” Admonished Milly gently. “I know you are prone to it but someday we will be neighbors visiting over the fence, singing in the choir together, going to our children’s school plays, doing laundry, and sharing the latest gossip.”

        Meryl couldn’t help but smile at the picture Milly painted.

        Milly held the bowl in one hand and tapped her lips with her spoon while she thought.

        “Well, we know of course that Knives is not just your normal man! Hmmm, so that may present a bit of a problem.”

        Meryl laughed at the idea of Knives living in a town of humans. Indeed, that would be a problem. Come what may though, Meryl had the feeling that Milly’s little picture had a ring of certainty in it and it felt right somehow.

        “Milly you have a gift for stating the obvious and making it look like wisdom,” She chuckled softly. Milly had no plant powers yet she was uncanny at times with her pronouncements as if they were truth yet to be realized.

        Milly placed her half-finished bowl carefully down on the seat of the chair and then stood up. Stretching out her arms she reached down and grabbed a surprised Meryl up into a fierce hug.

        “I love you Meryl.”

        Now it was Meryl’s turn to develop a lump in her throat.

        Huskily she whispered, “I love you too Milly.”

        Milly released her and took a step back.

        They both turned when they heard a knock. Meryl went over and opened it. There, shuffling nervously, stood a couple of the guards. One of them whispered something and Meryl shook her head in return. Meryl returned to Milly’s side but left the door open as she did so.

        She gave her friend a quick hug. Then Meryl stepped away. As she did so Milly said softly so that only Meryl could hear her, “take care of yourself, okay Meryl?”

        “I will,” she replied just as softly as Milly. Looking up into Milly’s eyes with firm resolved she said, “And Milly, I will take care of you too.”

        Meryl turned to the men and said with authority, “Be nice to her.” She let them feel her glare for a second before adding, “Or else!”

        After Meryl left and the door was shut and locked, Milly sat back down and picked up her bowl. Yes, she was going to escape but not right now, she had pudding to finish. Thoughtfully she spooned more pudding into her mouth. She wondered why she decided to keep the news about the computer stone from Meryl. Was it because she didn’t trust Meryl anymore or was it because she had made a previous promise to Rinnah? No, she did trust Meryl, but she didn’t trust Knives and who knew what Knives would find out from Meryl. Now that she knew Meryl would be okay here, she had to think about the safety of her other friends, and her most beloved. They were in danger.

        Carefully placing the spoon in the bowl so it wouldn’t tip out, Milly reached up and touched the black, fake stone with a light caressing fingertip. She wondered if she would know when to use it.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 27
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