"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 27"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG

A Hectic Evening in Paradise

        Meryl quickened her pace, her padded shoes making a whisk sound with each step she took on the buffed stone floor of the hallway. These days she refused to wear anything with heels or, for that matter of fact, any shoe that made a clacking noise against the stone floors. It was too eerie to hear the faint echo of her heels clicking as she walked down the long corridors. Very few were allowed to enter this area except the very elite of Knives’ organization so it didn’t have the traffic that other hallways had to muffle the sound of her footsteps. This hall she was traveling down now housed most of the people in Knives’ inner circle.

        “Ah, and how is our little queen doing this fine evening.”

        Trying to conceal her annoyance before lifting her head because Meryl knew who was speaking to her before she looked up. It was Elendira. Completely engrossed in private musings Meryl didn’t notice the other presence in the hall with her. The cross dresser made it no secret that he detested Meryl with an intensity that surprised and unnerved the raven-haired female. She wasn’t sure why he hated her so much but assumed it was because he was jealous of her proximity to Knives. Elendira considered himself to be Knives’ favorite of the Gung Ho Guns. Whether that was true in Knives’ mind as well Meryl had no idea. All Meryl knew for sure was that if, given permission, the Crimson Nail would have Meryl dead within seconds and all without Elendira getting one hair out of place. Elendira made Meryl very nervous and no matter how hard she tried to hide it, the Crimson Nail was able to pick up on it and used it to torment Meryl even more.

        Elendira stretched his mouth in a malicious smile, which looked out of place on such a beautiful face with its flawless complexion. He was unlocking the door to his suite looking over his shoulder at Meryl with hostile eyes.

        “Has the little mother been out for an evening stroll? I didn’t think you were allowed out of your rooms without an escort.” The tone of voice made it plain that, if left up to him, Meryl would never be let out of a pitch black hole in the ground.

        Then with a smile so devoid of any shred of warmth that Meryl could imagine her bones freezing under the weight of that cheerless stare, he went on to say, “I would be more careful with our prize broodmare. Mustn‘t let anything happen to her lest she trip and break her ugly face.” The stare was filled with a deadly and malignant hate. “But then, it’s not her face that we need, is it now? So where have you been Miss Meryl?”

        Meryl longed to scrub that snooty and coldly remote smile off Elendira’s face. He knew as did she that he could easily kill her which only made Meryl feel even more powerless. It left a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

        “None of your business!” She snapped out and then fumed, disgusted with herself. Her first and only intention had been to get past the Gung Ho Gun without acknowledging his presence or the snide remarks. Every time she exchanged words with Elendira she always came away feeling stupid, awkward, and ugly. The undisguised loathing directed her way was as potent and toxic as any poison. Meryl kept walking fervently praying she wouldn’t trip over her own two feet. She couldn’t help but grit her teeth when she heard the soft ridiculing laughter accompanying her down the hall until the sound of a closing door abruptly cut it off.

        Heaving a sigh of relief she turned the corner to the short hall that led to a stairway. Going down those steps and then continued following halls from one to another until she went down a last flight of stairs that connected up to the corridor leading to her old suite and also to Knives’ apartment. She was thankful that Elendira’s suite was not situated next to hers.

        Once upon a time she had lived in the rooms she was passing and gave them a nostalgic glance as she passed by the door. The last time she was impregnated and totally taking her by surprise, Knives ordered her moved to his suite, with separate rooms of course.

        That was the one thing about Knives that seemed human to her, his nervousness about her safety. Oh nothing out on the surface, no jitters, worried looks, or wringing of hands, nothing that showed up like that. It was in the way he watched her move about, his whole body still and quiet while his entire attention centered on her. He claimed he was concerned about her safety but sometimes the intense way he stared at her made her more nervous about her safety than it did when she lived in her old room. At such times the only person who frightened her more was Elendira. She made a small sound of disgust. This whole facility was filled with odd characters more frightening for their barely contained violent tendencies. The fact that they were twisted humans, not just on the inside, but on the outside, stretched and molded to some perverted idea of being a living weapon that made them all that much more terrifying.

        Her thoughts circled back around to the subject of the cross-dresser which always caused her consternation. Meryl was unable to fully suppress her fear when they were in the same room together. One would think that there shouldn’t be any reason to fear Elendira. Everyone knew how Meryl fit into Knives’ plans for the future. He would not be very happy with the Crimson Nail if he decided to take care of Meryl in a way that was detrimental to her health, well being, and more importantly, Knives‘ plans.

        Besides, who would dare try to take away something that belongs to Knives’ away from him? No one else had the power or the ability except Vash and he had never been in love with her in the first place. He had made that abundantly clear in that oh-so-long-ago time now that he was not the least bit interested in her. Thinking back on her infatuation with Vash caused a blush to rise to her cheeks. Any feelings toward him were long laid to rest, but it was embarrassing to look back on. She was only glad that she had not been one of those females that threw themselves clingingly at their love interest begging to be loved in return. That would have made it so much worse than it had been.

        Listening to the pad of her feet, her insides cringed as she recalled how besotted she had been with the legendary gunman. Vash, she mused with a shake of her bangs, was a schoolgirl crush. It was easy to see that now after the years filled with fear, a crushed heart, a first pregnancy that was more than difficult in that it was an induced alien one, a near death experience... well she could go on and on. The ashes of these experiences left a wisdom that saw through the facade to recognize that her feelings for Vash then were frail, needy, and selfish. It had been more about her than it had been about him. Meryl knew that there was some true love there and had it been returned, she was sure it would have turned into something that a future could have been built upon. She shook her head slightly over the faded hopes and dreams of the past. Poor Vash, after all this time I can feel sorry for him that he had to put up with me.

        No longer would she place her hopes in someone who couldn’t love her in return. Well, no shame in that... except for the fact that everyone on the planet seemed to know about it when she would rather have kept her feelings a secret.

        Time and new interests had healed her wounds of rejection to the point she could think about Vash without feeling her heart constrict with remembered pain. Funny, that it was seeing Milly tonight that brought all this back to the surface for her to ponder again.

        Seeing her door coming up she realized she was more tired that she had given herself credit for. As much as she was overjoyed to see her friend, it had been an emotional meeting that had taken a toll. Right now Meryl wanted nothing more than to sing Melanie goodnight, get a cup of hot tea and curl up to read a few pages out of book she was leisurely enjoying. She was, bit by bit, making her way through Wurthering Heights.

        Anytime Meryl thought on how bad she had it she would think about Catherine and Heathcliff’s star-crossed love. She was beginning to come to the conclusion that desperate, needy love was dangerous and hazardous to one‘s mental and physical health. For the first time ever she was almost glad to be isolated from others. It was a kind of protection to keep her from feeling that messy, mind-altering and heart breaking kind of love for anyone else. Picturing Knives in Healthcliff’s place she just managed to catch the giggle from exploding out of her mouth. Knives as Heathcliff, that was rich. The countryside would be left in flames wherever he went.

        With a sigh she came up to her door and entered in the personal code Knives demanded she memorize. When a soft chime sounded she pushed the door open and stepped into the room. She made sure to shut it quietly behind her. Meryl didn’t want to wake Knives up in the off chance he should happen to be sleeping. She didn’t know why she bothered though; he usually went to bed long after she did and was also up in the morning before her. Besides, she was hoping to get to the baby’s room to say goodnight and then slip into her room all on the sly. No doubt he knew where she had been but Meryl was in no mood to answer any of the probing questions he would be sure to ask. At least, not tonight, she was feeing more than a little weepy and vulnerable right now. That was something she was sure Knives would not understand and think it was a weak, human female thing that went along with their messy hormonal imbalances. Her lips thinned at the thought. She would give him hormonal and more should he make even one unflattering remark about imbalances.

        It took a human female at least a year to full recover from nine months of pregnancy and after giving birth. Try carrying around a growing, developing sentient being in your body Knives and then let‘s talk hormonal! I’d just love to see how rational you would be with surging hormones, crying jags you can’t control, and a changing body shape! Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that one’s humanity is being tampered with! It was a wonder she wasn’t more temperamental than she was.

        Now that she thought about it, she wondered if after all the changes she had gone through in the past, if it would still take that long for her to recover from a pregnancy and birth. After all, strictly speaking, she wasn’t totally human anymore. If she was all over the map because of strange things going on in her body was she to blame for it driving her near crazy at times? She knew whom to thank and she would remind him of that fact if he got all huffy in her face about it.

        Wearily she turned in the direction of the kitchen, shoulders slumped, eyes bare slits as she knuckled one of them. The hallway from the kitchen led to an inner back room for the baby. It was large enough to accommodate the toys and things of a growing child.

        Meryl walked through the kitchen not bothering to turn the light on. Not that it was necessarily needed since it wasn’t terribly dark in there as every wall socket in the kitchen held a glowing nightlight. Knives had them placed there after she had tripped once and fell on her nose during a midnight run to satisfy a craving for warmed up yogurt with toppings. Thank goodness that at the time she hadn’t been hugely pregnant yet.

        On that occasion he had been quite angry with her and had scolded her in that cool, clipped voice for her clumsiness telling her that she should be more cautious with herself and the baby that neither could be allowed to be endangered. Meryl had rolled her eyes only to find herself being suddenly picked up, carried to her room, deposited on her bed and as he left he ordered to stay put and not get up. She had taken it with ill-grace being the independent soul that she was. Fully expecting a servant to deliver the yogurt concoction with warmed up dill pickles and onion slices drizzled with mustard, she was surprised to see Knives return and thrust the bowl and spoon in her hand with a curt demand that she be more careful next time. The next day a maintenance man had arrived with a box of nightlights and placed them in every room of the suite but especially in the kitchen. Her ears burned as she imagined people whispering out of earshot about what a clumsy klutz she was.

        By now though she knew the way by heart. She didn’t need the dim glow of illumination from several points in the kitchen to light her way. Not paying attention to her surroundings she didn’t notice the person against the wall on the far side of the room. A deep yawn forced its way up causing her eyes to squeeze shut, missing the lone occupant in the shadows.

        With back propped against the wall to support his weight, slender, strong arms crossed over his chest, and long, lean legs casually crossed at his ankles, Knives waited.

        It was with a twitch of an eyebrow as Knives watched the plant-altered female breeze through the room ignorant of his presence. Meryl made her way down the hall to the baby’s room. He heard her talking to Zazie for a few minutes as the she brought Meryl up to speed about every little thing the child had done while she had been away be it every so insignificant as a burp to a gurgled laugh.

        Knives waited. He had an innate talent for patience being quite good at it after cultivating it for over a century. It was a much-needed attribute in the weaving complicated schemes and plans that took decades to come to fruition. So it was with some surprise when he heard a rhythmic noise breaking through his wandering thoughts. He looked down to see a foot tapping impatiently. Immediately he squelched the movement. It annoyed him to catch himself showing signs of impatience over a mere woman when he could be doing something worthwhile instead. There were many more important items demanding his attention, yet here he was caught up in a web as neatly as if it were one of his own making. Yes, he could be doing something else but here he stayed as if nailed in place unable to bring himself to move.

        The murmuring of voices in the back room ceased and a few seconds later Zazie came out of the back room and was halfway through the kitchen when she caught sight of Knives leaning against the wall. She stopped short. Zazie was in the female form she had been in for a while now. It didn’t take him long to get used to the insect hive life form as another gender as he at first thought it would be.

        “Do you need me?” Zazie asked respectfully.

        “I have no further need of you tonight.”

        With a bow of her head Zazie turned away from Knives and retreated. The hive creature was so quiet the plant couldn’t hear the tread of her feet crossing the carpeted living room. He did, however, hear the door open and close. He let out a breath not realizing he had been holding it in.

        The soft sound of a lullaby could be heard echoing down the hallway; Meryl‘s sweet voice rich and soothing at the same time.

        The being who could cause fear and panic among humans everywhere, if they knew who he was, what he had done and what he wanted to do, closed his eyes and settled back to listen to Meryl’s singing. He was unable to make out the words to the song but leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, enjoying the sound of her voice.

        It was late; the baby should have been asleep a long time ago. It irked him slightly that the plant child refused to fall asleep unless Meryl sang her a lullaby every night. The child was stubborn and willful. He wondered briefly where the stubbornness had come from before dismissing the thought. Of course it didn’t come from him. As of yet it wasn’t a weakness, but he would have to keep an eye on it. He could hear the melody; it was a particular favorite of his and he was unaware of a finger tapping against his sleeve in time along with the melody or the lift at the corners of his mouth.

        The song was finished. Meryl would be coming through the kitchen soon. He quickly rehearsed the couple of short sentences that he had decided upon in his study earlier that afternoon.

        Lowering his head he opened his eyes ready for Meryl to come through.

        Meryl tiptoed out of the room and carefully pulled the door shut behind her. She paused, tilting her ear to the door and smiled when all she heard was silence, golden silence. Good. Melanie should sleep through the night now. In this new stage once the little plant was asleep she usually stayed that way for the rest of the night.

        As she stood next to the door, her stomach took that opportunity to remind her that it wanted, nay deserved, a midnight snack. It rumbled again, demanding nourishment.

        “All right! All right! I’ll get you something! Sheesh.”

        Meryl walked into the kitchen making for the fridge wondering what she should make for herself. Nothing too complicated or that took too long to put together. Maybe there was pudding in there. Even though as tired as she was, a little giggle escaped; obviously Milly was having an influence on her.

        Something out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. Startled she jumped emitting a little squeak of surprise before recognition set in. Hand over a rapidly beating heart Meryl gasped out, “Knives! You scared the crap out of me!”

        She eyed him suspiciously; there seemed to be something different about him tonight. He was situated in a shadowy spot beyond the reach of the faint illumination of the nearest nightlight. She watched him push off from the wall. Part of his face was cast in shadow and the half she could see was unreadable. Without thinking Meryl began to back away stammering out while she did so, “would you... uh, like me to fix you.. um, something to eat?”

        “No. I do not require nourishment at this time.”

        He spoke as he steadily advanced and Meryl began backpedaling with mounting unease. When he passed through a lighted spot Meryl gasped in fright. That look was back on his face. It was the ill-omened look that made her believe he was contemplating her immediate demise. Once again she assumed he was trying to figure out how he was going to kill her without making a mess or getting his hands dirty.

        I can’t die just yet... My baby needs me! Even as frightened as she was, she was determined to live.

        The short woman looked up again to search his face with apprehensive eyes wondering if she had seen correctly or if it was just her overtired brain imaging things. She stopped as icy blue eyes bored back into hers with a hard hungry look. Maybe not. Gathering the fragments of what little courage she possessed, she started to back away again but was stopped when he reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders.

        “I am rethinking...”

        Meryl’s eyes went round as saucers with what she considered as confirmation to her fears. Is this it? I’m not longer of use in the grand plant scheme of things? Am I a dead weight? She winced, bad choice of words.

        With an audible gasp she tried to twist out of his hold but wasn’t surprised to find she was unsuccessful. She tried to pull away again but was met with the same level of success, which was none.

        “I have made a decision about your place in my plans...”

        Unable to listen anymore she was consumed with one desire and that was to flee. After that, an escape plan would be improvised as she went along. So panicked was she Meryl didn’t even stop to consider that not only was Knives stronger but he was also faster by who knew how much. It wouldn’t be much of a contest that would even make him break out in a sweat.

        I knew it! I just knew it! He has changed his mind about letting me live! I gotta get out of here! It was the only coherent thought her brain could form under the circumstances.

        Meryl was not in a place where logic was of much use to her. It was survival, pure and simple, so basic and elemental there weren’t even words to express the intense drive to avoid death at all costs. She wanted to live and she would fight to live!

        Thinking on Melanie’s sweet face gave Meryl the added strength and determination to succeed. She would try her best even if she met with failure. Her beautiful child, who, like Tessla had her dark hair. However at Melanie’s birth Meryl‘s suspicions were confirmed that Knives contributed genetic material for this child when she saw this baby’s icy blue eyes. Unlike Knives though, Melanie’s eyes were innocent, lacking the contempt and arrogance that so graced Knives’ expression.

        Liar! He told me that there were going to be several more births! I should have known better than to trust that deceitful scheming plant! Obviously his word means nothing to him!

        Even if they weren’t exactly friends she did think they had found some common ground where an uneasy truce was established between the two of them. Oh hell, I don’t know what we are! But we do have be the most unconventional and bizarre couple raising children there is!

        Meryl’s lips thinned as she lifted her eyes. Killing her in the kitchen, how crass was that? All she wanted was to get one blow in and then she would run like the wind, but subtly so she didn’t arouse the suspicions of others that she was trying to escape. She would worry about that hurdle when she came to it. Coming to a quick decision, Meryl instantly threw herself at Knives hoping to catch him by surprise.

        Knives was surprised. He only wanted to talk to her. He had just readied what he wanted to say when the diminutive woman completely lost what little of her mind she possessed and attacked him. Turning his hips when he saw what she was aiming for, her tiny knee glanced off the outside of his thigh however he wasn’t looking where her feet were going as his attention was fixed on the top of her dark head, frowning down at her odd behavior. Coming as a surprise was the totally unforeseen blow she landed on his instep followed by a swift kick to the shin that had him hissing at the sharp pain lancing up and down his shinbone. Wincing at the unexpected blow that made him drop the grip on her shoulders Knives instinctively grabbed the abused shin to rub it while cursing and glaring at her as he did so.

        “What the hell woman!” the male plant growled out, bent over still massaging the aching leg.

        Meanwhile, Meryl ran behind the great slab of stone that was the kitchen’s center island with its small sink in the middle for cleaning vegetables. Her head whipped back and forth searching for a weapon of any kind. The knife drawer would have been the best option but her mind went blank when she tried to remember where it was. The only thing on the counter was a wooden rectangular cutting board and a few baby items.

        “I hate you Knives, I mean really, really hate you! You lying, deceitful, conniving,... ” Meryl was so angry that she sputtered to a halt. Instead she scanned the counter for a weapon to defend herself.

        Snatching up the breadboard by the handle she waved it menacingly at Knives. His shin was throbbing but he ignored it as he straightened up to stand stock-still and stare at the little female in stunned amazement.

        He could admit it, Knives was baffled and that didn’t happen often. Hate him? It had been a long time indeed since she last hurled that word at him. It didn’t bother him then but it did cause an internal twinge now that he as unprepared for. He shrugged off the feeling. There was something strange going on here. Yes, her mind has definitely become unhinged. If he was reading the situation right, and he believed he was, she was threatening him with a breadboard. He waited to see what she was going to do with her weapon.

        With a wary eye fixed on him Meryl cautiously backed her way slowly around the island toward the door putting as much space between them as possible and unable to stop the flow of words from her mouth.

        “You know, I tried, I really tried to get along with you... only God knows how much of an effort it has been and believe me, if He rewards anything in this life it should be my efforts to live peacefully with you! Because of you I should get a secured, ‘No Hassle, Free Admittance’ ticket through the pearly gates, all thanks to you, you unholy, vengeful, bad-tempered, devoid of any emotion, mentally unbalanced, weed of a plant!“ She was so red-faced angry after that outburst that she lost the ability to speak coherently. Everything she had held in over the years came up and out, along with weariness of living with impending death always looming around every corner. A person could only take so much of that before they cracked. Out of Meryl’s crack gushed out all her anger and resentment about his current plans for her and what she thought of them.

        Knives took this all in and watched the board being held so tight her knuckles were turning white. Whatever she was worked up about it was obvious she deemed it to be very important. His took in her trembling arms causing the breadboard to quiver slightly in her hands before studying her determined expression. An eyebrow quirked up. This was an unquestionable first. In the past he had been threatened with many different kinds of weapons but no one had ever threatened him with a cutting board before. He looked down at her weapon of choice and then back up to the resolve filling her eyes. Slowly he became aware that she was prattling on about something.

        What did she just say? Who was off? Taken down without a fight? What was going on here? Knives cocked his head trying to make out the words of her near-hysterical speech.

        All he could do was gaze at her until certain frantic phrases started to sink in and he began to comprehend her nonsensical babble. Suddenly he realized why she was acting so strangely and could have burst out laughing. However knowing the little female as he did he was sure it would only offend her and make her even more difficult to calm down.

        Meryl saw the momentary flicker of distraction and seized that opportunity to throw the board at him. She regretted it as soon as it left her hand. That wasn’t a particularly smart move on her part now she was weaponless! As she turned to run she stopped to grab a couple of other items sitting on the counter and quickly hurled them one after another at Knives‘ head.

        “Kill me will you, you overbearing, heartless..” She threw a baby rattle at him.

        “Arrogant, insecure...” Next speeding toward his head was a half-used tube of baby bottom ointment.

        “Take that, you domineering, homicidal...” Now a small stuffed toy tomas with a jingling bell sewn into the tummy flew at him.

        “I’m a hindrance now, eh?” A teething ring was thrown rapidly followed by a wood building block, a rare item on this planet. After that, a pacifier in the shape of a yellow duck. “Insensitive, unfeeling...” She reached out and patted the surface for another missile.

        Meryl suddenly realized she was out of ammunition and looked down in alarm. Whipping her head back and forth she searched the counter in vain for something else to throw at him. He was so god-awful infuriating!

        However, more maddening to her than anything else was that, in the blink of an eye, Knives effortlessly plucked all of the items one by one from the air and set them down in a neat row next to the cutting board.

        Shoulders hunched and fists clenched at her side lavender-hued eyes glared at him as she fumed silently. He deliberately made it look easy to mock her, Meryl was sure of it. That is so like him!

        She quickly scanned the counter but there weren’t any more drooled-on baby toys left to fling at him. She was out of weapons and decided that there was only one thing left to do. Meryl spun and made a valiant effort for the door.

        However, it was a futile attempt since Knives easily caught her as she was about dash through. Wrapping an arm around her waist he lifted the kicking woman up even as she tried to hit him with delicate little fists that were doing about as much damage as the stuffed tomas of earlier. An eyebrow went winging up at her frantic exertions, which were an annoyance only. More dangerous were her knees so he made sure to turn her slightly so she couldn’t do any damage.

        Knives easily swung and tucked the struggling woman underneath one arm and with ease carried her toward his favorite chair. At one point she yelled at him but he lifted a finger to his lips in a shushing motion and reminded her, “You’ll wake the baby.”

        Immediately the mother in Meryl lowered her voice in tone if not in venom telling him exactly what she thought of him and his parentage. Knives took note that some of the things she mentioned were physically impossible which only showed she certainly was not in possession of all of her reasoning faculties. Also not lost on him was the immediate display of her mothering instinct which made her lower her voice so the sleeping plant child wouldn’t be disturbed, even as she believed she was about to be killed.

        Sitting down in his chair, he effortlessly swung a protesting Meryl around and firmly placed her on his lap. Wrapping long, whipcord lean arms around her he effectively kept her from getting up or even moving. No matter how hard she twisted and wiggled, she was unable to budge against the strength of his grip. Slowly realizing how useless it was to try and squirm her way out, Meryl gathered the tattered remains of what was left of her dignity and forced herself to sit quietly despite the rapid beating of her heart. She was thoroughly and completely caught. It was hard to not fidget because everything in her wanted to lash out at the smug plant even as she waited for the inevitable.

        When Knives decided she was as relaxed as she was going to get, one corner of his mouth lifted in wry amusement.

        Hearing a sound he looked down to see eyes narrowing in fury and resentment, once again the gray turning to a silvery lilac. So much for her being relaxed. Now, she was rigid again however, her eyes snapping in anger only made his mouth twitch. He never thought he would find this kind of thing entertaining. In rueful reflection he had to admit that he had changed also, although not as much as she had, but it was undeniable. He was used to her presence. She was indeed compelling to watch and he enjoyed doing so, whether she was sewing baby clothes, baking cookies, changing diapers or singing lullabies. Knives could finally admit it; he had spent several weeks on and off thinking upon this very thing, trying to analyze it. The truth was, he caught himself more than once just gazing at her as she went about her chores. Not only that, he found he enjoyed her company more than anyone else’s. She had a good sense of humor, even if it was purely human and therefore tainted, still she was intelligent even if very opinionated and so full of life. Over the years she had grown on him to the point she was a part of his life.

        “What!” She glared up at him and he realized he had been staring down at her lost in thought. Unaware, he tightened a possessive hold on her, which elicited a surprised sound from her as she suddenly found her cheek being pressed into the crook of his shoulder and chest. Meryl sat very quietly thinking hard and fast as to what this could possible mean when his voice interrupted her thoughts.

        “You thought I was going to kill you,” he stated the obvious with a barely discernable grin showed on his lips.

        Meryl could feel the vibration of amusement under her cheek. Her lips turned down in a displeased expression.

        “Well, weren’t you?” Suddenly she was beginning to feel like the butt of a bad joke.

        “I should be insulted,” he said with real amusement in his voice, “but it is common for humans to so easily jump to conclusions without a shred of evidence to back them up.... Especially female humans.”

        Meryl tried to swing at him but her arms were still pinned to her sides. She was getting fed up with his cracks about humans especially when it centered on her own specific gender always being called into question. Finally she grated out through gritted teeth; “One could easily come to that so-called conclusion when considering the source, you homicidal, psychotic, asocial plant!”

        Instead of becoming a tower of icy, aloof anger like she was expecting, Knives merely looked down into her eyes with a trace of humor evident on his face. She was startled by an expression that was alien to him and it was certainly one that she wasn’t anticipating on seeing there.

        Knives imagined he could see fumes pouring out of her ears with fury before it slowly ebbed as she peered up into his eyes, puzzled.

        With a smirk he said, “Meryl. In the kitchen? Where the food is prepared?” He gently chided her, “Use your intelligence if you can manage it.”

        If he was trying to make her even angrier he certainly was doing an excellent job! A rolling pin, she should have grabbed a rolling pin instead of a breadboard. Then she could feel a flush creeping up her neck to her cheeks. He had a point. Knives was a very neat person, the polar opposite of Vash when she and Milly had traveled with him. The tidy and precise plant wouldn’t want to pollute his living quarters with human remains.

        “Well,” Meryl grudgingly admitted, “When you say it like that it does sound a little..” She stopped, trying to think of a way to admit he was right without admitting he was right.

        “Silly? Preposterous? Ridiculous?” Knives supplied helpfully with a chuckle.

        Meryl glared at him. He wasn’t as helpful as he thought he was being. Or as funny as he thought he was being, especially when she saw his lips twitching up in that smirk she found so irritating. Right now it was being accompanied by an amused gleam in those winter-blue eyes and not to be overlooked was that damn eyebrow lifting in an oh-so-superior angle. It just made her want to beat the smirk off his face at times. She made a small exhale of exasperation.

        “Fine,” she grumped, wanting nothing more than to hold onto her hostility but it was slowly leaking out of her until she was sagging against him. The tension and strain seeped out of her at a steady rate now that she knew she wasn’t going to be killed, at least not tonight by the looks of things. It had been a really intensely stressful evening, from her reunion with Milly, to the unpleasant meeting with Elendira in the hallway, and then believing she was going to meet with imminent death. She was exhausted emotionally and thoroughly wrung out.


        Knives interrupted her mindless staring off into the distance. She looked up at the change in the tone of his voice. Apprehension filled her all over again and she tensed.

        “Meryl,” he paused as if to collect his thoughts. Now she was even more worried. When Knives had something to say he was not known for needing to stop and think about how he was going to present it. She made a soft inarticulate noise to let him know he had her attention.

        He looked down into her worried eyes and she noted that they weren’t cold, aloof, or even threatening. She narrowed her own and leaned in a bit as she tried to the look. It was.... No, it couldn’t be... but it looked almost, well, friendly. Tilting her head to the side and something else besides that. Affection, was that affection she was seeing in that look? Meryl gave herself a mental shake. She had to be reading this wrong. If he had been a human male it would have been obvious that he was showing affection and that he was partial to her. She smiled at her speculation, this was Knives, dreaded threat to all humankind not some neighborhood boy trying to get up the nerve to ask her to wear his ring. No, Knives couldn’t be showing interest in her, that was as preposterous as it was laughable. Somehow, she decided, she must be misreading the look on his face. Maybe it was some obscure plant thing.

        Meryl looked up and her eyes went wide. There! That concentrated single-minded, heated stare and it was directed at her again! She swallowed hard as the intensity of his light-blue eyes bored down into her violet gray ones, which were showing a great deal of confusion and apprehension at the moment.

        “It pleases me that you are here.” He said softly as he bent his head until his forehead rested against hers.

        As his skin came into contact with hers she jerked in surprise. It was as if an electric shock passed between them at the touch.

        Meryl wanted to ask but didn’t trust her voice, but really, where else would she be? He kept a close eye on her; she was, after all, a very useful commodity.

        Every brain function was coming to a screeching halt. What was going on here? Meryl lifted her brows so look up into his eyes, totally and completely speechless.

        “Your,” he hesitated for only a fraction of a second but Meryl heard it, “Companionship gives me pleasure.”

        Oh, so he was going to kill her after all using the little known weapon of traumatic, shocking surprise to stop her beating heart.

        Meryl was finally able to blink.

        “What,” she had to stop and clear her throat to whisper, “What did you say? No, no, scratch that,” her eyes still stared up at him from under her eyebrows, “What did you mean by that?”

        Serious and intent, he repeated himself; “I enjoy your company Meryl. It pleases me that you are here.”

        That’s what she thought he had said. Nervous tension was forcing a giggle to work its way up but she put a clamp on it. Now was not the time.

        Meryl did the only thing her stunned brain was capable of. Since he had loosened his hold the petite woman was able to lift a hand and give him a platonic pat on the shoulder feeling slightly silly as she did so.

        “Well, I’m awfully fond of you too Knives. You sort of grow on a person after a while.” Once one saw past all the destructive tendencies which were a little difficult to ignore at times.

        Suddenly she felt like she was reliving sixth grade.

        “Meryl, Roger likes you.”

        “Does not!”

        “Does too!”

        “Stop it! Does not!”

        “Yes he does! See him over there pretending to ignore you? That proves it!”

        A dizzy spell flashed through Meryl and she would have wobbled were it not for the fact that Knives still had his arms around her supporting her.

        “No Meryl. You misunderstand me.” He frowned; he had expected her to pick up on this a little quicker. She was being denser than he thought her capable of. He went on, speaking slowly and succinctly as if talking to someone of defective and limited mental capacity. “I am more than fond of you.”

        “You are?” Meryl squeaked out. With growing concern Knives noted that she was looking a little on the pale side.

        Her brain shifted out of neutral for the first time with the thought that the safest place to be, when it concerned Knives, was to be ignored by him. With him either emotional extreme of intense like or dislike could be dangerous to one‘s health. Her head was reeling with thoughts and feelings that were speeding around leaving her near breathless. Good Lord, I’m going to have a heart attack!

        “Yes. I am.” He lifted a hand from around her waist and put two fingers under her chin and lifted so she had to look him full in the face. “You belong to me.”

        Just what every girl wanted to hear. Now Meryl felt like her eyes were spinning in her sockets. Everything in her wanted to refute that statement but she knew it would only be a waste of time and energy. Knives thought everything belonged to him. Still caught up in her musings Meryl missed Knives closing the gap between them until his face, was, well, in her face. Slowly, deliberately he brought his lips down on her stunned ones. For a moment Meryl couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe and wouldn’t have been surprised to find she was passing out from shock.

        Despite being dazed, Meryl thought it remarkable that his lips were as soft, warm and firmly gentle on hers as they were. Somehow she assumed that for someone as evilly uptight as Knives could be he would have cold, sharp angles for lips. Then, surprise upon surprise, for someone of limited experience, he was quite good at this. He was even holding her differently, cradling her with careful tenderness. Meryl was floored and shocked beyond measure. Yet, if someone were to ask, she would have to admit that she was enjoying being held in his arms, enjoying the kiss, enjoying him and that was not something she thought possible. It made her wonder about herself. First she was throwing things at him, then running from him, and now she was kissing him back for all she was worth. Make sense of that!

        She was more than just a little surprised at her actions, Meryl slid her arms up and around his neck pressing into him and kissing back him, telling him without words that she liked and approved of what he was doing. It was if an electrical current was passing between them to race through her veins. Meryl felt a corresponding flush of heat rising in her. She wasn’t experienced beyond a certain point but she knew instinctively that he wanted more, even if he didn’t know it himself. She could tell by the way his lips held hers and the way he held her tightly with one arm around the small of her back pulling her to him while his other moved caressingly and lightly along the curving lines of her back. With an internal flinch she admitted the truth, she found Knives very desirable and handsome beyond belief, but to go any further? Could she?

        Then, at that point, flashing through her again was a flash of dizziness leaving her lightheaded with spots forming on the backs of her eyelids. She opened her eyes and saw the same spots only now they were dancing around with reckless abandon. With a soft sigh...

        Noting the difference instantly, Knives lifted his head to look down at the small human in puzzlement. Of all reactions he thought she could have, this wasn’t one of them. He reached up and lightly touched her cheek. She had fainted. He studied the way her long and ebony eyelashes rested softly against the ivory of her skin. He ran gentle fingertips over the velvety curve of Meryl’s cheek down to her chin, stopping there as he felt an unfamiliar pang in his chest that caused him to suck in air. Meryl was beautiful and he didn’t mean only in a physical sense but everything about her appealed to him and didn’t he just find that as annoying as all hell.

        She sagged into him as if her bones had melted, her head lolling to the side to rest against his chest. He stared for a moment, lost in thought before breaking out of his reverie. Then leaning forward, he lifted her and easily rose from the chair. He looked down into her face for another moment before turning for her room.

        Knives carried her to the door of her room and pushed open the door with an elbow. Taking a step within he halted to take a look around. He never realized how small it was in comparison to his own. As he crossed the space to the bed, he decided he would do something about it. He smirked. It would probably make her faint all over again when he told her what he had just decided and that right there would be well worth it.

        With care he placed her on the bed, unfolded the blanket from the end of the bed and pulled it up and over her before standing back to study at her. For a brief second the expression on his face turned hard. She was his, always, forever. Slowly and quietly he exited the room and pulled the door softly shut behind him.

        Always. Forever. Those words echoed through his mind.

        Knives exited the apartment but made sure that the door was securely locked behind him before heading for the containment room in the lower levels. There was a special guest being held there that he needed to have a chat with before he could retire for the evening. It was shaping up to be quite a night.

The Hunt and the Hunted

       At one point Levio realized that the two gunslingers weren’t following him any longer and now he was circling back around trying to find them. It took him a while, he must have lost them several streets back. He had stopped when he realized he wasn’t hearing the sound of the plant sprinting after him with that demonic speed of his. There were a couple of times that Levio had almost been caught but quickly threw himself to press up against a wall careful to control his breathing until the Stampede safely passed by unaware of his presence. His job was to lure and tantalize them, not to get caught while doing it.

        Per instructions, he had used up a good deal of the afternoon. He looked up at the sky and was satisfied to see the first sun sinking toward the hills. He still had a few more hours to kill but it was getting harder and harder to keep the plant brother following him. He was sure that the outlaw was growing wise to the purpose behind the chase. He then reminded himself that he only needed to keep them occupied a couple more hours and then he would be released from this odious duty.

        Retracing his steps he came back to the last place he had seen them and sure enough there they were. Levio watched from his vantage spot with worried eyes. It appeared that the outlaw and priest had lost interest in trying to catch him. The two friends stood next to each other studying a large map. He frowned in irritation; he wasn’t done yet leading them around in circles. It wasn’t time yet to bring them in.

        Levio watched as they intently studied the map, every now and then motioning to one spot or another as they discussed their plans in hushed voices. He needed to get closer to hear what they were planning. He wasn’t worried about them being able to tell if he was near them or not. At the moment the suit was set on maximum and knew he wouldn’t be able to be seen by anyone and he could move more stealthily than the usual person, even the usual Gung Ho Gun.

Out Of Thin Air

       Vash spoke in a low voice to keep from being overhead.

        “He’s getting closer. I can sense him and even hear him now that I know what to listen for.”

        Wolfwood fought the wild urge to turn and look over his shoulder, even if he couldn’t see the Gung Ho Gun with the split personality. Instead, he jabbed a forefinger at a random spot on the map. Hopefully it looked like he was indicating a place they were talking about.

        In a normal conversational tone he said “this is the place, I’m sure of it. If we don’t get moving now, we won‘t get there until midnight.” He hoped the half-crazy assassin would show up soon. He was running out of fake things to say about places they weren’t going to be visiting. How often could one say, “This looks like the best route, let’s go this way"?

* * *

        Levio stood only a few feet away trying to come up with a plan to stop them from leaving. His strengths were best used when he was engaged in an out and out fight with someone, not this cloak and dagger stuff he was unaccustomed to. If only he were allowed to use his Double Fang on them, then he could slow them down, but he had explicit orders not to harm either one but worse, she held out her hand for him to place his weapons in. She was taking no chances that he would lose control and accidentally shoot her plant relative.

        Deciding that the best thing to do was slice some tires he began to move toward the vehicle and reached for his knife before realizing that he didn’t have it on him. The mistress had taken that as well. What she didn’t know was that he had a backup gun hidden on him. With regret, he realized he couldn’t use that to shoot out the tires too much noise and a dead giveaway of his presence near them. He gritted his teeth as he drifted toward the truck. He was going to have to do it the hard and slow way and hope the two gunman wouldn’t hear the hiss of escaping air from the truck tires.

        He hesitated for just a second, the other within him screaming warnings that he could sense but not understand. Levio looked over at the men, they were still absorbed in studying the map. He was within a few yarz of them but they weren’t even looking in his direction but talking in normal tones with each other, even arguing about the direction they should be taking. Deciding they were too busy with making plans he turned and started for the tires.

How Hard Can It Be To Catch an Invisible Person?


        Wolfwood spun in place to watch Vash leap through the air toward what looked like... absolutely nothing, until the outlaw rammed into an invisible unyielding object and brought it crashing down to the ground. Obviously it wasn’t just empty air because Wolfwood heard a pained gasp. Next he could see dirt being stirred up in the locale immediately beneath Vash.

        However, Vash wasn’t through, he continued in a gracefully arc over the assassin and agilely rolled to his feet. Then in a nearly unperceivable motion, whipped out the silver colt and pointed it. It always amazed the priest when Vash’s gun arm moved faster than the eye could follow. He leveled the gun with care, taking precise aim at the dirt. I hope to hell he knows what he‘s doing! observed the priest as he took a couple of steps off to the side just to be on the safe side.

        A shot rang out followed by a choked gasp.

        At the sound Wolfwood realized he was holding his own gun out but was uncertain where to aim it. It was such an automatic response he didn’t even remember reaching for his piece and pulling it out. Sliding it back into the holster inside his jacket Wolfwood started to move to where Vash was standing.

        The priest felt something tickle the skin of his face and reached up to wipe it off. Looking down at his fingers he saw that it was a fleck of blood. Vash had indeed nicked the invisible Levio. He looked up and scanned the ground until he saw drops of blood leaking into the dust.

        Wolfwood noticed the outlaw’s gun was back in place as Vash was again pouncing through the air to land on the spot where the blood drops were forming. He began struggling on the ground with an invisible object. He quickly moved over to where Vash was rolling over and over trying to get a good hold on something or someone using invisibility as a disguise. He assumed it was Levio. At any other time it would have been amusing to watch as the outlaw grabbed and wrapped long fingers around empty air. If Wolfwood didn’t know better it appeared as if Vash’s intense concentration was zeroed in on vacant space.

        He squatted down next to Vash and asked, “need any help?”

        Vash glared daggers at him before grunting out, “grab him!” He finally had his legs wrapped around the invisible body, legs or waist, it was hard to tell, and was working on finding the thrashing arms to catch a hold of them.

        Wolfwood studied the situation. Easy for Vash to say, ‘grab him’ but what was impossible to figure out was where exactly, was he to grab? He stuck out a hand and waved it around trying to feel something solid.

        “Will you hurry up! Anything will do!”

        Not a problem for Vash since he knew what he was holding onto, and that was precisely the problem, Wolfwood didn’t want to grab just anything. A little on the nervous side, he finally jabbed a hand up close to Vash’s head figuring that was where Levio’s invisible head or hands were located. He never thought it would be so difficult to grab a hold of an invisible man even when one was halfway pinned like Levio was.

        “I’m trying...” he replied in a strained voice, “He’s a wiggly little son of a .... OW!” Wolfwood snatched his hand back to look at the teeth marks forming along the side of his thumb. He wiped it against his pants leg and then lifted it up to his face to study it with a disgruntled look.

        “Are you SURE you nicked him?” He growled at Vash. He would have turned a glare on Levio but he couldn’t see the man and glaring off into space just didn’t have the same gratification factor. So he aimed his glare at the one person he could see.

        “Yes,” grunted Vash as an elbow or fist landed in his stomach. “Here, take this.”

        Right, he hands me something invisible and tells me to take a hold of it!

        Wolfwood decided to try one more time. He stared at the space above where Vash was holding something and reached for it with both hands. With a great deal of satisfaction his fingers closed around something solid and real.

        “When you have a good hold of him, I’ll check to see if he has any weapons on him.”

        The priest was a little preoccupied with keeping a hold on the arm that was trying to lash out of his grip, but he nodded his understanding. As he tightened his handhold realizing it was Levio’s left wrist between his hands. He looked up and saw Vash waiting for his signal.

        “Yeah, I got this arm, go ahead, he’s not getting away.” He said that with more confidence than he felt especially considering the freak was in a biting mood.

        When Vash saw that the priest had a firm grip he let go of that arm and grabbed for the other wrist and quickly yanked that one back when he felt Levio trying to move his hand toward an inside pocket.

        Wrenching the man’s arm back, Vash patted around and felt the familiar shape of a gun and pulled it out. He stared at for a second and sent it flying with a flick of his wrist. The tossed gun landed in a nearby empty thomas trough with a loud clunk noise.

        Addressing Levio, he asked in a strained voice, “do you have any more weapons on you?”

        There was a space of quiet and finally Levio’s voice spoke up. It gave Wolfwood gooseflesh to hear the disembodied voice. It’s one thing to listen to ghost stories and hear about such things but it was another when one was dealing with the phenomenon of spooks in broad daylight; rolling around on the street no less.

        “That was the only one I had on me.”

        Wolfwood looked at Vash and then down at.... Well, nothing. Whatever was causing him to be invisible didn’t even waver or give any indication that there was a form there.

        “Now what?” Asked Wolfwood, tension filling his voice as he turned his face to Vash again. They couldn’t keep this position for long. People were sure to notice and comment. One man sprawled on the ground with legs and arms going every which way and another man squatting next to him holding his hands out to grip vacant space was bound to cause some comment. None of it good.

        Wolfwood lowered his head with a groan. How did he get into these weird situations? The sight was guaranteed to draw some interest from the good, law-abiding folks of the town as they passed by. Besides the fact that he felt absolutely ridiculous sitting here like this.

        “Let’s take him over to the truck,” suggested Wolfwood, “at least that way we can be standing up instead of sitting here on the ground looking like we are talking to empty air like a couple of brainless loons.”

        “Okay, and then we turn this thing off.” The words were said in a snarl making Wolfwood give the outlaw a sharp glance.

        Then puzzled, he asked, “Off? How do we do that?”

        “Remember the moonslicker? I think this is a variation on that theme. And as to how, we ask.” He gave whatever part of the assassin’s body he had a hold of a good hard shake.

        “How come the bad guys get all the cool equipment? It’s just so damned unfair!’ Complained the priest, thoroughly irritated by the circumstances.

        Vash frowned but agreed with a curt nod. Both men tightened their hold and couldn’t keep a look of satisfaction off their faces when they heard a pained grunt for their efforts. Slowly they stood up expecting Levio to try to escape but he made it easier for them in that he didn‘t even make the effort. They dragged him over to the truck and Vash slammed him into the side with a little more force than necessary in warning for him not to try anything. Wolfwood was in agreement though, if Levio had anything to do with Milly’s disappearance he was going to rue the day he had ever joined Knives, and he didn’t need Vash’s help in the bit of revenge that was going through his mind.

        “All right Levio, how do you work this thing?” Demanded Vash.

        When there was only silence in answer to his question, he tried again saying, “Things will go better for you if you turn that thing off. And if you don’t then I will strip you of every piece of clothing you have on until you turn visible. Understand?” Vash’s voice was hard unbending steel as was the look in both men’s eyes.

        Levio understood one thing, and that was these men were done playing. He was well acquainted with the look and posture. The priest he knew from before and he recognized the darkening gray in his eyes. This man wasn’t afraid to kill. His eyes flicked over to the plant, this one was known far and wide as a killer according to rumor and legend, but in Knives’ organization it was equally well known that Vash the Stampede was a pacifist. Only these eyes burning into his were red and they were not the eyes of a peace lover. For the first time that day an unfamiliar sensations went through him, unease and a spark of anxiety.

        “Yes, I understand.”

        They waited for him to turn visible.

        “You have to let go of one of my hands.” He pointed out.

        Vash and Wolfwood looked at each other and then back to the invisible area between their hands with suspicion. It was a gamble on their part. They wouldn’t be able to tell what he was reaching for without being able to see his hand.

        “Keep your hand on mine then,” Levio proposed, “I am going to reach up to my collar, and there are some buttons there that need to be pushed in a correct sequence.”

        “Fine,” growled Vash and loosened his hold but kept his long fingers wrapped around the twin demon’s wrist as it was lifted it up to his collar. Vash could feel him fumbling around and in a couple of seconds the assassin was visible in the space between them bent backwards up against the car.

        Even though they were expecting it, nevertheless both men were startled at the suddenness of Levio’s appearing out of thin air before their eyes like that. Both leaned back without letting go of their hold.


       Tessla did a very human thing right then. She slapped a hand to her forehead in frustration as she stared at what was occurring down the street. Once again she was forced to concentrate on the restraining the power leaping up and down her arms. It was getting harder to control lately but with a firm mental thrust she forced the innate power down to a manageable level.

        As soon as she as felt normal again, she checked her hand-held monitor that informed her where Levio was. She had tracked him down by using the suit’s homing device which was sewn very cleverly into the fabric. Levio didn’t know about it, although if she could have asked the restrained Razlo, she was sure that the insane mental twin of Levio would have deduced that she had a way devised to keep track of her servant. However, she had no intention of informing either one. He was a servant after all, she told him all he needed to know in order to serve her to his utmost. That was all that counted.

        Earlier she had a sense that she needed to find him although that was all she had to go on. Usually she hated relying on that inner sense that warned her of things, except for the fact when she paid heed to it, it was correct. Finding Levio was easy and so was keeping in the shadows as she followed him. To prevent her strange eyes from giving her away as not human, she wore a wide-brimmed hat that kept them in deep shadow.

        Now that Levio had been found and also the two targets, she watched as they consulted a map together. She frowned at the sight. They couldn’t be allowed to leave yet. Knives was expecting them and had an ambush waiting. If they wanted to succeed in their rescue attempt they needed her and the information she had for them.

        With concerned eyes she followed Levio’s progress on the monitor. It indicated that he was moving closer to the two men absorbed in studying their map.

        She watched, admiring the way Vash managed an impressive leap through the air. Upon seeing him spin away while whipping out his gun with unrivaled swiftness her eyes widened in awe. When he came to a standstill he took careful aim before pulling the trigger. Tessla gasped in surprise and amazement even as she saw him replace it in such a blur of speed that the male plant was already airborne with an immense leap before the echoing report of the shot died out.

        Rarely had she seen Knives move that fast, he considered it beneath his dignity and as much as she didn‘t want to admit to being impressed with Vash‘s display of speed she felt a stab of pride at his plant abilities. To her eye, it appeared that he used his quickness and strength more often than Knives did. What was odd about the older twin was that while he rarely used his incredible speed, conversely, he was not above forming one of his lethal blades on his arm when he deemed the occasion called for it. For a moment she forgot her purpose as she thrilled in the display of speed she had just witnessed along with the inhumanly accurate shot.

        Any other pair of eyes would have thought he had taken leave of his senses if they saw the outlaw leap through the air like that. She knew exactly what he would find when he landed.

        Now the priest was helping and she knew then that Levio was good and caught without any hope of escape. Soon they would figure out how to disable the coat. She glanced up and down the street. There were people moving about on the sidewalks but it wasn’t nearly as heavily trafficked street as some of the other ones.

        Reaching up she pulled the brim of her hat down even lower on her forehead. Her white eyes with the silver sparkles in them were indeed a dead giveaway that she wasn’t human. Not for the first time she thought with some resentment that it wasn’t right that Knives and Vash had human-looking eyes and she was stuck with these female plant angel’s orbs without iris or pupil. Just not fair. If it weren’t for that she could have easily mingled with the general populace without worry of discovery. It was her suspicion that always accompanied these thoughts that Knives deliberately planned it that way and she wouldn’t put it past him. He always made it clear on many occasions in her, so far short life, that he did not want her anywhere around humans. Fine for him to hole up in his hideout but she got bored with living in a hole in the ground. If she couldn’t get away every once in a while she would have lost her mind.

        Snapping out of her deliberations she saw the priest fumbling around in the air above Vash searching for a handhold. The two men had subdued their invisible tormenter and were lifting him to his feet. Even from where she stood watching, she could tell they were two extremely pissed gentlemen on the edge of losing control of their tempers.

        She chewed on a thumbnail, her one vice and also one that drove Knives absolutely crazy. She smiled around the nail as she nibbled on it, which is why she refused to give it up. She stopped chewing and then dropped her hand as she saw them hauling the empty space that she knew was really Levio, none too gently either, to the truck before tossing him back into it with a dull sounding thud she could hear all the way from her position.

        The black-haired man, the one known as Wolfwood was angry if the way his hand twitched was any indication, and Vash uncle wasn’t at all pleased either. The plant girl could feel his anger all the way from where she was watching them, like a tangible weight hanging over the street. Tessla shook her head and real regret. It was too soon. This little scene was completely trashing her carefully arranged plans and now it looked like she would have to scrap everything and play it by ear from this point on.

        The idea had been to slow them down and wear her plant uncle out at the same time. She was also beginning to wonder if Vash was slightly insane and if the red eyes had anything to do with it. It didn’t matter if he was or not, insanity was daily occurrence in her little world and if one knew how to make another’s insanity to work one‘s own end, well then, all the better.

        She watched as Vash reached up to Levio’s collar and tore the controls off the coat that were shaped to look like decorative buttons. He curled his fingers around them and crushed them in the palm of his artificial hand and then turned his hand over to let the pieces fall to the ground. She cringed in pained silence. Those weren’t easy to come by! It wasn’t like she could go into the nearest hardware store and scoop some out of a nail bin! The plant girl was not very pleased with her uncle’s actions. Now she was going to have to raid the secret experiment labs in order to steal a new set to replace the ones Vash uncle had just destroyed. They must have made a very satisfactory crunch if the expression on Vash’s face was any clue. She gave a soft snort of disgust.

        As soon as Vash tore off the buttons, Levio winked back into existence.

        One last nibble on the nail and then she blew out a puff of air before starting off across the street at an angle toward the trio. Halfway there she was able to see where Levio had been shot. It looked like Vash uncle had grazed his lower left bicep. It was hard to tell if it was bleeding profusely or not with that black coat he was wearing, at least, she wouldn’t be able to tell until she got closer.

        Since they had their backs to her as she came up behind the outlaw and the priest, only Levio was aware of her arrival. His eyes flickered in surprise and then lowered to the ground in shame unable to meet her gaze.

        Tessla was more forgiving than Knives. She did not expect success when thrusting her minions into impossible situations. In this case, a human against a plant? No contest. Levio was only human and Vash uncle was superior in every way. It shouldn’t be surprising that Levio had been caught. In fact, it was commendable that he was able to keep the two men as busy for as long as he had. She smiled when Levio lifted questioning eyes to hers. He was probably wondering why she wasn’t hauling over the coals him for his failure.

        Clearing her throat so as not to startle the male plant and priest too badly as they were very tightly wound at the moment. It was hard telling what they would do if she came up on them too suddenly.

        She said, as politely as she could, “Excuse me. Sirs?”

        “Nothing to see here kid,” Wolfwood explained while casting a look over his shoulder at the youngster. “Run along home.”

        “As sound advice as that is, however, this one belongs to me so I would appreciate it if you take more care in your handling of his person.” She was pleased with how adult she sounded, very calm and reasonable.

        Simultaneously a black head and a white head snapped around to pin probing stares on her.

        “Come again?” Asked the priest, dumbfounded by the teenager’s statement. Then he caught a glimpse of her eyes from under the brim of her hat when she lifted her head to look at him full in the face.

        “Uh, Spikey, this one’s for you.”

        Vash already noticed the difference. So this was Knive’s pride and joy. He grunted and narrowed his eyes at her waiting for her to explain her presence.

        “Greetings to you Vash uncle. I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.” She merely nodded at Wolfwood without looking at him.

        “Yeah, she’s his kid all right.” Remarked the priest.

        “Knives send you?” Vash asked coldly, eyes narrowing.

        Tessla could barely make out precisely what color his eyes were but through the yellow lenses they looked to be a strange shade of orange.

        “No, he is unaware of my presence here and most certainly would be quite vocal in expressing his displeasure if he was made aware of it;” she tilted her head and raised her chin up in thought and then lowered it again before saying, “It is not in my plan at this time to inform Knives of my whereabouts.”

        Her eyes ran over them taking note of the tense lines and slightly spread legs, bent knees and tight angled shoulders. They were ready for a fight if one presented itself. She doubted that they were even aware of their aggressive posture. The plant girl looked back and forth between them; she had no intention of fighting. That was why she had servants, fighting was their job.

        “May I approach?” Normally she wouldn’t ask but both men were not exactly in a calm state.

        “Oh please,” Wolfwood said through a tight jaw. The turning to the outlaw he asked, “Vash, your call.”

        “Let‘s see what she has to say.” He said it in a way that Tessla knew she had been reprimanded. For some reason it made her look down in guilt which did not sit well with her.

        Looking back up with silver specks swirling angrily in the depths of her white eyes she said, “You two have need of the information that I possess. You need to hear what I have to say or you will not be able to succeed in the retrieval of your mates.” She stuck her chin out defiantly and waited for an answer.

        All expression fled from Wolfwood’s face, the only hint of emotion flashed in eyes of gray silver holding hers in a firm gaze. Tessla was impressed. She hadn’t met many humans that could look in her eyes without flinching or making a face of some kind. Not only was he meeting her gaze but from the look in those darkening silver-hued eyes, she was quite sure he wanted nothing more than to pick her and give her a good shaking. That may be what he wanted but he didn’t act on his inclinations, instead he looked over at Vash in deference since the girl in front of them was his relative. The priest would go with whatever Vash decided to do with this new development. Tessla took note of the wise decisions and forbearance of the priest, admiring his control.

        Tessla spoke up before Vash could open his mouth to ask any questions, “If you will follow me I have a place where we may converse together in private.”

        She eyed some of the pedestrians passing by giving them curious looks. “I think it would behoove us not to stand out in the street discussing matters not meant for the ears of others.”

        One of Wolfwood’s eyebrows shot up. Behoove? Shaking his head he turned to see what Vash had to say about this and wasn’t at all shocked to see him nod in his head. The priest hid it well but he was curious as to what the girl could tell them that would help them with their quest to get Milly and Rinnah back.

        “But first you must unhand my servant, you need not hold onto him any longer.” She pointed out.

        Wolfwood looked at Vash who stared back at him. After all that work to catch the little bugger they weren’t too eager to release their prisoner.

        “He will follow me now. His task has been completed.” With that she turned and started to walk away.

        “This is the point where we just let go, right?” Wolfwood said, his fingers didn’t want to let loose the firm hold he had on Levio and apparently Vash was feeling the same way. He looked undecided for a moment and then with a sound of disgust dropped his hold and took a step back. Once he saw Vash’s hands fall away the priest released his own hold, but he didn’t have to like it.

        With a mocking gesture he held out his arm indicating that Levio should go first and they would follow. The man with the twinned soul pushed off from the truck, brushed past the priest and without looking at either gunman began following the plant girl. Wolfwood dropped his arm and frowned at the assassin’s back.

        “Same to you pal!” he growled, dark brows descending in a frown before turning to Vash.

        “Well, you first. She’s your kin.”

        Vash snorted at that. He moved out, his long strides eating up the ground with ease. Wolfwood fell into step with him as they started down the street before remarking, “With relatives like you got it sure makes me glad I’m an orphan.”

        Vash’s head spun to peg the priest with an incredulous stare. Oh shit. Wolfwood forgot he had never shared that specific piece of information with the outlaw before. Milly knew of course, but it was something that was extremely difficult for him to talk about, except for this little slip of the tongue. He looked at Vash from the corner of his eye but the indifferent expression of late was already settling back into place on his face. Feeling the priest’s attention on him he just gave a little shrug of a shoulder to show him that it didn’t matter.

        Wolfwood let out a whistling sigh. Life sure was complicated sometimes.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 28
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