"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 28"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG-13

Like a Fly in a Web...

       Rinnah scrunched her eyelids together and silently cursed the fact that she was waking up and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. She wasn’t fully awake yet but instinctively knew that when she did a blooming headache was waiting to greet her with open arms. Seeking to delay the process as long as possible she tried to flee back into the blessed fog of sleep. Too late, she was already firmly entrenched in the gray zone where the dreaming mind overlaps with reality. She groaned, or at least thought she did. The headache was making its presence known with a constant, steady pressure throbbing back and forth between her forehead and temples. If that wasn’t bad enough all her limbs were registering a weight on them making it impossible to move them. Right now she desperately wanted to rub her forehead but couldn’t lift her arms. It was beginning to annoy her.

        Another groan and this time Rinnah knew it belonged to her because of the sound reverberating through her aching skull. I need a painkiller, Holy Hybrid, but I need one in the worst way! Damn, did I go out drinking last night? This is the absolutely worst hangover in the history of hanging over. Another throb lanced through her tender brain tissue, which by now she was sure was caused by melting brain cells. Soon it would be leaking out of her ears.

        At some point she became aware of male voices speaking in low tones in the general vicinity of her feet. The words were too indistinct for her to make sense of them. My head! The whispering was drilling through her skull and she wanted to scream ‘shut up!’ to make it stop. However, she was certain the action would result with her head exploding in pain. She settled for a soft, protesting whimper.

        Consequently, being consumed by the pain in her head, it took her a while to notice that there were restraints crossing over her ankles, knees, thighs, waist, chest, wrists, biceps, and, finally, even a loose one around her neck. Okay, I guess I‘ll stay put for now. Thinking over her situation, she became aware of the antiseptic smell underlying everything else in the room. Forgetting the ache pounding against her skull, her eyes popped open. Did I get so drunk that I hurt myself? Am I in a hospital? Mental ward? Or worse yet, a tanning salon for those who are solar-challenged? She was wide awake now and began struggling against her bonds in earnest.

        “Master,” a sycophantic voice said, “the subject is fully conscious now and can hear...”

        The voice cut off instantly as if the speaker was abruptly silenced. The resulting quiet hung heavy in the air. Even though Rinnah couldn’t see anyone the information gathered from her sharp sense of smell told her that there were four men and a plant in the room with her. The humans were unknown to her, but she recognized the plant scent immediately. She closed her eyes wearily. I don’t feel up to dealing with arrogance personified today, maybe not even tomorrow. I‘d much rather sit this one out. Not bothering to test the straps any more, she lay quietly, waiting for him to make the next move. Which, in all fairness, was the only thing she could do.

        She didn’t have long to wait. The sound of footsteps approached her. Thankful that the neck strap was as loose as it was, the hybrid moved her head a fraction of an inch and watched as the top of Knives’ hair, forehead, and then face came into view. He loomed over her, staring down at her without expression while somewhere in the room a clock ticked the seconds off. Rinnah decided a little playful humor would help lighten the mood.

        “I hope you gave me a non-smoking room.”

        Her voice sounded a little hoarse but she was glad to note that her ability to speak was restored.

        “With a southern exposure and a houseboy to bring me mint juleps by the pool.”

        Not an iota of expression crossed his face. In a flat voice he asked, “where are you from?”

        “The loony bin, around the bend, where the crazies congregate,“ she gazed at him with one eye shut while the incandescent blue one took measure of the male plant next to her.

        Ignoring her comment, he gazed down at the free-walking female with undisguised curiosity. There was no need to pretend now. He knew she was not from this planet and she knew he was aware of that, yet she feigned ignorance.

        How was this free plant angel able to exist outside of her bulb? Here before him was this alien half-plant with the ability to move around on her own. Not only that, she had black hair, the color of death among his kind. And that was the question, was she a plant or some freakish mutation?

        Rinnah narrowed her eyes at his silence thinking he was looking at her as if she were some new strain of bacteria on his microscope slide. She watched his eyes travel from her head to her feet and back again.

        “Say Doc, your bedside manner could use a little help.”

        As if acknowledging the rising tension between them, Knives smirked. Rinnah’s hand jerked in response. What she wouldn’t give to be able to smack that off his face and then wondered if anyone ever felt like she did about that annoying little half-grin.

        Surprising her, Knives reached out a hand and caught a strand of the glossy black hair and began rubbing it between his fingertips. Her hair was unbelievably soft and silky for looking so shaggy that it gave the appearance of being coarse and rough. Deep in thought, he began winding the lock of hair around his finger, curling it over and over again whenever it slipped off his finger.

        “Your hair is black,” he said quietly, looking down at it with a genuine expression of interest, watching the curl as it sprang loose from his finger time and again.

        “And your powers of observation are practically god-like,” retorted Rinnah.

        He tugged gently on the strand he had as if to remind her that he held more than just her hair in his hand.

        “You are a plant.” He stated with a peculiar tone in his voice.

        “Half.” She answered closing her eyes with a sigh.

        “Where did you come from and who are your people?” He tugged with a little more force.

        “Not from around here, that’s for sure.” She opened her eyes and speared luminous blue eyes straight at his. “I’m on vacation.”

        The powerful male plant bent so his lips were close to her ear and whispered softly, “I am sure you will want to tell me all about it and all about yourself as well.”

        “Not really. Why don‘t you wait for the book to come out?” She pulled back her face as far as the neck strap and the hold on her hair would allow.

        Suddenly he freed the lock and straightened. For a brief second there, judging from the look on his face she thought he was going to backhand her and even braced herself for it. A frozen glare like the sun striking the tip of an iceberg pinned her and she held her breath until she saw him regain control of himself. The friction flowing between them was almost crackling with electricity. Great going, antagonize the unfettered plant while totally helpless! Noting the rigid set of his shoulders she didn’t believe for the moment that this little tea party was over just yet.

        Lifting his face to the attendants in the room he made a beckoning motion. In response she heard a squeaking coming closer from behind her head. A couple of the technicians wheeled a monitor next to her, within her range of vision. Once the monitor was in place the white-coated scientists or lab technicians, whatever they were, arranged it at an angle so she could easily view it. Then they backed away without uttering a sound. The screen was blank for a moment before a picture formed there.

        Rinnah’s heart skipped a beat when she recognized Milly sitting on a bed in a functional but unadorned room. Her chest constricted and alarm flooded her but this time it was all centered on her friend. The only good thing she could see was that Milly was looking well, even peaceful considering the circumstances. Still, worried she watched as Milly ripped the cellophane off a toothbrush and began to brush her teeth unaware she was being watched. On the heels of that she gargled and then crawled into bed after taking off her shoes and socks. The overhead light was still on so she pulled the covers over her head and ducked her head in, curling up in a fetus position. A few minutes after that the lights winked off in her room and Rinnah couldn’t see Milly at all. One of the technicians reached up and turned off the monitor and the same ones came over and helped wheel it off to the side.

        A voice spoke in her ear making her jerk in surprise. She didn’t notice when Knives returned to her side.

        “I see I don’t need to warn you. It is obvious that you understand the situation. As long as you keep in mind that you are a means to an end and I am your master, your friend will be safe. You are a mere tool for me to attain my goal, which will soon be realized.”

        “Bully for you.” She stated seeking to show a face of indifference to him. As much as she hated to admit it he was correct that she was in no position, at the moment, to help Milly except by giving in to his requests.

        Knives merely looked over at his small group of assistants where they were grouped together and they understood immediately what he expected of them. The door opened along with fading rustling noises as the group exited from the room. Once the door quietly slid shut, he waited a few minutes as the silence grew heavy between them.

        “Now, we are alone and you will tell me your story.”

        The detached manner and the chill blue of his eyes made Rinnah’s skin twitch before he turned away to reach for something. When he resumed his place next to her she realized he was sitting on a stool in order to be closer to her so he wouldn’t miss a single word she had to say. Oh joy! He gave a nod for her to begin and then another grin that she assumed was meant to be friendly as if to create a rapport between them.

        Rinnah made a face. Fine, let him be that way. She knew better. However, if she played this just right she could use his own web against him.

        “Do not seek to deceive me, tell me everything.”

        Rinnah shot him a surprised glance at the coincidence of him saying that. Whaddya going to do, send for my tax records? It was all she could do to keep the grin off her face. Time to bait the trap. Here’s your chance, don’t blow it!

        Taking a deep breath, Rinnah told him the story of her life, but was very careful to make sure she left out certain details he didn’t need to know. Doubting he would even notice with the amount of information he was getting she dropped the bigger information bombs on him at intervals to keep him preoccupied.

        The only thing giving Rinnah pleasure for the time being was watching Knives’ eyebrows climb up his forehead and his eyes go wide with shock in certain places in her narrative. Several times he held up a hand for a pause so he could take a moment to absorb some aspect of her story or another. With internal amusement she congratulated herself on keeping certain pieces of information well hidden.

        Despite a careful and cautious unfolding of her tale, she hated to admit the hard truth but this day belonged to Knives. With an internal chuckle Rinnah knew that before long there was a tomorrow with her name on it and that day would belong to her.

        The only thing she had doubts about in relating her account were the parts about the plant angels. He was under the impression that the two she had dealings with were dead. Once grasping that insight, she ran with it saying the attempt to help had resulted in their atoms being scattered to the winds. He assumed the attempt meant she tried to heal them and that it had met with failure. Knives frowned remembering that Vash was white-haired like a plant angel now. His brother had survived though. He directed his frown to the female who smiled reassuringly up at him as if guessing his thoughts.

        “I got better each time I did it. Practice makes perfect and all that!”

        Elation filled her. The powerful lure was in place. This is working out great! Rinnah scrunched her toes in glee as it was the only part of her body that could move freely and could also go unnoticed.

        Then the hybrid frowned remembering that the only hitch in the plan that filled her with genuine dread was knowing Milly was being held hostage to make sure of her cooperation.

        She knew he was going to ask her to heal him. Normally the hybrid would have said no, but there was Milly’s safety to think about and also, if she allowed it, an impish grin would have creased her face because she wanted him to order her to heal him. That really wasn’t such a problem because when it came to power and possessing it, Knives would not let Vash be one up on him. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

        When she came to the end of her narrative, Rinnah was drained. It as a considerable strain to make sure that some holes were not seen as holes and smooth right over them as if they didn’t exist.

        Hearing a noise she opened her eyes to see Knives sitting up straight, eyes glazed over in contemplation.

        One hand was wrapped around his chin with the elbow supported by the other hand, lost in thought. Finally he pulled his attention back and looked down at this current acquisition. He had a gold mine on his hands. His eyes met hers and held them mockingly. He should have known she wasn’t wholly human simply from the fact he had never seen bright blue eyes that luminous before in any human he had ever encountered. He wondered if others of her kind looked like her and then dismissed the thought. There was no way that he could find that out for himself, besides there were more important issues to consider here.

        He narrowed his eyes at her as he mulled over the news that there were other plant species scattered throughout the galaxy. His mouth turned down as he decided he didn’t much care for that piece of information. In fact, it messed with his tidy worldview where the only plants were his innumerable sisters and his irritating brother. Not to mention the second generation of free walking plant beings. Before hearing her news, it was his belief that he, Vash, and female plants were special and unique. All of a sudden the universe was crawling with plants and it was beginning to feel a little more crowded. He made a snort of disgust.

        Turning his attention back to his prisoner he reached down fingertips and ran them through her thick, black hair.

        Then speaking, but not to anyone in particular, “Black hair... but not dying. Amazing.”

        Hard eyes snapped back to her face.

        “You will heal me.”

        Rinnah looked him over doubtfully and then raised the question, “you trust me to do this?”

        “No,” he snorted in disdain, “Of course I don’t trust you!” He made a motion toward the monitor that she could no longer see. “What I trust is that your friend’s life is of value to you. If anything happens to me she is carrion for the worms.” He smiled but it didn’t reach the hard icy blue of his eyes.

        They studied each other for a few seconds with clear understanding before Rinnah gave him a barely discernable nod.

        “Since I can’t move my hand you will have to hold it,” She instructed him. Without a word he took and held her more slender hand in his larger one.

Feeling Like a Brand New Plant

       Sometime later one exultant male plant exited out of the containment room with an extremely pleased expression on his face and the beginnings of a grin he was unable to keep in check. Every hair on his head was the original white-blonde. Also, as an added bonus was the astonishing energy surging throughout his whole body. There was a spring to his step he couldn‘t deny. Everything in him jubilantly thrummed with vigor and life.

        Knives was not the type to show much emotion, but he was unable to keep the grin off of his face that was growing wider with each step. An astonishing liveliness was flooding his veins and his nerves were pulsating from power he hadn’t felt in ages.

        Realizing it would only draw shocked stares that he was not up to dealing with for the time being, he made for his quarters with long ground-eating strides, taking a little known back way to get there.

        With a quirk of his brow he decided to shock Meryl with this new development. She would be stunned. He wondered how wide her eyes would get as she stared at his hair trying to take it in. It would be quite a sight and thinking about it made him grin in anticipation of her reaction. However, his mind’s eye quickly shifted from wanting to see her expression to wanting to touch and hold her again. She was such a little thing, curvy, soft, warm and the jasmine scent of her skin was especially tantalizing. His step faltered. Why did every thought of her seem to lead to that point? He shook his head trying to clear his thoughts before pressing on.

        Knives wondered if she was recovered from the surprise of the night before. It was with a deep sense of gratification to realize that she was as interested in him as he was in her.

        Upon entering the room he noticed the clock and with a start realized he had stayed up all night. If she was up, generally the best place to look for her was by the coffeepot, bleary-eyed and clutching a mug as if her very life depended upon it. If she wasn’t up yet he would go in and wake her. He wondered what she would have to say, besides the inevitable, ’what are you doing in my room?”. He chuckled. One way or another he was bound to get a reaction, maybe she would even faint again.

        Knives paused by the kitchen leaned his head through the doorway to glance in but didn’t see Meryl by her favorite kitchen appliance. With a grunt of annoyance he started for her door. When he reached it, with a hand on the knob, he hesitated for a second, rethinking his impulse. With a low growl he shrugged off doubts and threw open the door expecting to see her still in bed or coming out the bathroom. All he found was the bed neatly made. Looking to the side where the bathroom was he saw that it was dark with the door open, obviously she wasn’t in there either.

        Now he was puzzled. He went to check on the baby and found her still asleep with Zazie sitting in the rocking chair reading. Zazie must have heard a noise as she looked up to see Knives standing in the doorframe. She started to rise when he waved her back letting her know he was only peeking in.

        After shutting the door, he turned down the hallway and passed through the kitchen and into the living room where he stopped to think. Where could that woman be? Then it occurred to him abruptly just where she would be. Of course, her gargantuan human friend. He had given orders that she was given free rein in the matter concerning her friend. Anything was allowable outside of trying to help her escape, which went without saying of course. It was his thought that having her friend on the premises would keep Meryl occupied as he knew living here could be boring at times. Women liked to congregate with other women and, and,... go shopping and... what else did they do? No matter, she couldn’t do any of those activities but now that her friend was here at least she shouldn’t be as bored. I may have to consider keeping that big human as a pet for Meryl even if I don’t need her for anything else.

        The desire to see her was overriding everything else of the moment. Besides, he wanted to see the look on her face when she saw the difference. He started for the door.

Some Flies Bite...

       Now that she was alone, Rinnah allowed a small smile to cross her face. She began tapping her toe to a tune in her head, a song about freedom. The smile deepened and she realized for the first time that her headache was gone. Life was good in her little corner of the universe.

Leaving Part 1
She's Your Niece!

       “Spikey, I haven’t met a family member of yours yet who isn’t a little on the odd side.”

        The priest was leaning back on a chair on two legs with arms folded across his chest next to a table in a room off the back of a saloon. Presently, a map was spread out over the surface and marked up with lines and circles resulting from their previous discussion of how and where to penetrate Knives’ lair. Tessla had just finished explaining how to find the secret back entrance that led to a labyrinth of tunnels running underneath Knives‘ hideout. After that they would need the codes to go through any door they came to. It was great to be a man of the cloth; Almighty God was indeed smiling down on him today. With the information she was giving them neither gunman would have to try blasting in through the front doors which were sure to be guarded anyway. From what Vash said happened last time, there was guaranteed to be an ambush somewhere along the line. If both gunmen could avoid all of that hassle and loss of time then so much the better for them.

        There was something that was nagging at him though. “You know, your story sounds.... well, implausible,” the priest pointed out.

        Seeing the indignant look forming on the plant girl’s face, he hurried on to explain, “Oh, c‘mon now. A lot of trouble went into bringing about your existence. Our friend was kidnapped and impregnated against her will and not expected to survive your birth. No sacrifice too great to attempt in bringing a seedling to life!”

        He noticed her growing pout and mentally sighed, in spite of a fast growth cycle she was such a child , no matter how mature her body looked. “You are too valuable to Knives, yet here you are offering us information about secret codes and then bolt holes that you and only you know about. How far-fetched is that? I find it really hard to swallow.” It wasn’t like Knives to let his possessions run amok causing havoc... well, unless it was his idea to begin with.

        His considering look made Tessla stare back at him blankly. He was only a human.

        However, since she knew that this black-haired substandard being was her uncle’s friend and very highly regarded as such by him so she unbent enough to say, “Yes, I found it and many other ways as well. They were not incorporated into the construction of Sanctuary. The whole place is situated over a warren of worm tunnels that Knives found. He integrated them into his compound as he extended the foundation downwards and out.”

        Wolfwood frowned. Sanctuary? He knew without asking that it was ,sure as shootin’, intended only for plantkind. No stinking humans allowed, no doubt about that.

        She lifted her head proudly, “Crews have been down there in the past to cut through the rock for new tunnels and rooms, but only I have explored the unused ones. In the process of my explorations I discovered several that lead to the surface. It is how I am able to leave the compound unnoticed.”

        Vash lifted a skeptical eyebrow, “Are you trying to tell me that Knives hasn’t a clue as to how you are getting out?” Like Wolfwood, he found that hard to believe. “And then not noticing that you are gone for long periods of time? How stupid do you think we are?” He leveled a flat, no-nonsense look at her and crossed his arms in front of him.

        Maybe Vash uncle wasn’t quite the fool she had surmised him to be. She may have to re-evaluate her estimation of him upward. This could bring in all sorts of complications to her plans if she wasn’t careful. Tessla knew she could manipulate a goofy idiot but since being in his presence she had yet to see that side of him.

        Vash gave his newly discovered niece a skeptical look as he reached for the bottle of rotgut provided by one of her servants. Splashing a small amount into his shot glass he avoided looking at the child for the time being. She was beginning to get on his nerves six ways from Sunday and he was already thinking of leaving her behind.

        Wolfwood was slowly sipping on his second glass and Vash noted that the priest was taking care not to become inebriated either. If they stayed here much longer talking and drinking they were sure to end up drunk and unable to drive.

        Vash made sure that he only drank what he poured for himself refusing the attentions of the three women attendants hovering around the edges of the room. The youngest of them kept smiling at him, standing too close, needlessly touching his arm or shoulders with light fingers. At other times she brushed up too closely against him, letting her long dark brown hair fall in seductive waves across him. It was all he could to keep from flinging it aside. Finally he took the bottle from her and put it by his elbow, a clear sign that he would be serving himself from here on out.

        With a look of disappointment she went back to stand with the other women by the wall, ready, and all too eager to serve if the need arose. She would have filled his shot glass full every time he so much as blinked. The only water drinker in the room was his niece and he frowned down at her glass. He didn’t know where Tessla got her information but it was obvious she was trying to take advantage of his habits. If that wasn’t a clue he didn’t know what was.

        With a haughty smile she explained, “There are many important issues which Knives is preoccupied with and has been for some time now. Besides, I often hole myself up in a room for days on end doing research. He is used to that. But for now, the main thing concerning him is, he is discovering love.” She practically beamed with pride and joy. “For my mother! It‘s about time too!” She tilted her head to the side considering, “He will have a hard time admitting it though.”

        The reaction was instantaneous; shocked to the core of their beings, in unison the two gunmen spewed cheap liquor out of their mouths, spraying it all over themselves, the table and the map.

        “Whaaaa....!!!” Vash sputtered, liquor trickling down his chin unnoticed as he stared at her in disbelief. He couldn’t have been more vacant-eyed stunned as right at that moment; because, if there were two words that did not belong in a sentence it was those two. Love? Knives? With brain disengaged all he could do was numbly reach for his drink and knock back the last of it before he had time to think. He was so preoccupied with the news that he was oblivious to the hard liquor burning its way down his throat.

        Wolfwood slapped his shot glass down on the table as he coughed and choked so hard that tears streamed from his eyes. Finally able to breathe without gagging he grabbed a somewhat clean rag to wipe his face and then swipe at the spots on his jacket in an attempt to get the liquid before it set in. He grimaced, he and Vash were bound to smell like they had been in a bar all night. He glanced at the door separating them from the barroom. With a start he realized he would rather be drinking some of Milly’s tea instead of the liquor provided.

        Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the women waiting by the wall were ready to rush over and assist them but Wolfwood held up his hand for them to stay where they were. Thankfully they obeyed although he noticed they looked over at the plant girl to see what her desires were. Since Tessla was busy watching Vash with a surprised expression they stayed where they were.

        The priest was very aware of Vash’s growing ire from attentions of the one woman’s insistent fawning over him. His friend was a powder keg of emotion right now and the last thing he needed was someone mooning over him.

        The one thing the priest felt thankful for, and here he speared a quick look at the assassin sitting in the corner of the room, was that Levio had refrained from speaking or interacting with the gunmen since their dealings at the truck. Even with him in a dormant state, Wolfwood could feel the ‘other’ in Levio like a smoldering coal just waiting for an opportunity to flame out of control.

        Wolfwood couldn’t decide what was worse, the silent and brooding Levio or the women quietly aggressive in their attendance upon them, especially that youngest one who had her eyes locked hungrily on Vash. It was ironic. Those rare times when Vash would talk about being a plant it was always in a derogatory manner saying that no sane human woman would want him. Except for the short girl who had liked Vash for who he was not for what he was. Yet here were women definitely showing more than a healthy interest in him and it was all because he was a plant. And for once Vash wasn’t interested. Wolfwood shook his head.

        Unaware of his friend’s thoughts, Vash stared at Tessla with red eyes still slightly glazed over from the news of this unexpected bombshell. Vash wiped his mouth with the back of his gloved hand unsure of what to say at this point.

        Bringing his attention back to the table again, Wolfwood tossed the cloth on the table to look at the Tessla incredulously.

        “Did I hear you right, kid?” He tilted in his chair but didn’t lean as far back as earlier. Another surprise like that could maim him for life.

        “Are you sure the word you’re not looking for here is ‘kill’ as in, he’s discovered he wants to kill her? Because that would make much more sense than... that other... thing.” He ended lamely with a shake of his head, he couldn‘t even bring himself to say it out loud.

        Then, with eyes unfocused, Vash reached for the map and methodically but absentmindedly began folding it up. Thankfully it was smaller than the one they owned as it only showed Knives hideout and the surrounding terrain.

        Along with the map, Tessla had supplied them everything they needed concerning the security codes and then the override codes that only she and Knives knew. Also, what halls and rooms to avoid and which rooms where their women were likely being held. The information was valuable beyond belief. Once inside, and with that knowledge in hand, they would be able to get through any locked door. Finally he glanced up at his niece. He was positive there was going to be a price to be paid for this help and that someday she was going to call in a favor for it. He wouldn’t put it past her. Or, he studied her with a narrow-eyed gaze, she was holding something back.

        “Curious, this love thing,” reflected Tessla with head tipped, “I hope I never fall in love as it looks to be quite detrimental to one’s well-being and thought processes, I have noticed that even Knives is... forgetful at times,” she looked at her uncle and the priest scrutinizing them and judging what she saw through the filtered eyes of youth.

        “Vash uncle, you and your friend are very” She looked them up and down again with a skeptical glance as she searched for the correct term... “kind of... old. When one is so old like you, can you possibly still...?”

        Wolfwood shifted uncomfortably suddenly anxious about what she was going to ask. Vash froze, eyes guarded and suspicious.

        “... Still be much fun to be with when you are so... well, over the hill as humans say?”

        “OVER THE HILL!” Sputtered Wolfwood and then turned to look in outrage at Vash. “Over the hill she says!”

        Talking about the birds and the bees was hard enough with any young person, and although in no way was he a prude, there was no way he was going to have this specific conversation with a naive girl not even of his species! However he was of a mind to tell her just how ‘over the hill’ he actually was. He sucked in a breath to answer her before abruptly changing his mind, deciding to take a different tack instead.

        “As the only married man present,” Wolfwood started, a spread hand placed over his chest. Vash looked up with interest. Maybe the married man and only clergy in the room would have an answer to her question.

        “I have just one thing to say,” continued the priest and then turned to the outlaw, “She’s your niece, you handle it.”

        Vash‘s face fell before he stiffly responded, “Not my problem, she’s got parents.”

        Abruptly Vash stood and headed for the door muttering, “Why do we always have problems with females?”

        “Hey, speak for yourself Spikey! You’re the one with the iffy luck,” he ran a hand over his tousled hair, “Mine married me, so I think that shows some level of success on my part, wouldn‘t you agree?”

        “You are annoying when you are full of yourself, you know that?” Vash threw a half-smile at him before starting for the door again.

        Tessla stood up and signaled to Levio in the corner. He came over to her side and followed, a pace or two behind her as they made for the door too.

        Noticing the two, Vash came to a halt and turned back to face them asking fiercely, “Where do you think you are going?”

        “With you, Vash uncle, but I must point out that this would be an ill-advised time to leave.” She informed him before adding, “You will run into a trap if you leave now. Also, you need me to guide you through the tunnels. I have not enlightened you to which of the them is the safest and which are the ones that should be avoided. Some of the tunnels are still used by the worms and the great ones are known to have unpredictable tempers.”

        Vash gave her a hard look.

        She hastened to reassure him of her reliability, “Vash uncle, it is the truth. Some tunnels are used while the worms hibernate before mating season. One must use diligent care when traveling the tunnels.”

        Vash gave a snort and opened the door and exited. As he walked out he looked up to notice the last sun dipping toward the horizon and bit out a curse. The rest of the afternoon had been wasted in pointless chases and drawn out discussions when she could have given them the information they needed within a few minutes. He was determined not to be delayed again.

        Wolfwood gave the plant girl an unreadable look before turning to follow Vash out the door.

        Tessla hurried after the men with a silent Levio on her heels. She was thoroughly irritated. The reports made much of the fact that both men liked to drink to excess. Her plan was to get them stinking, falling down drunk until they passed out on the floor. Then she would wait until the next morning to wake them when it would be safer to leave for her home.

        The other distraction was to tempt both men with the women attending her. Finding out the priest was actually married and not just living with his woman was a shock as it was obvious even to her young eyes that he was faithful to his wife. He didn’t give them one interested glance all evening. The women could have been animated puppets for all the attention he paid to them.

        Vash uncle was not married, not in the sense of humans anyway. However, he was more of a mystery. Tessla had done her research and discovered what kind of women usually attracted her uncle’s attention. Finding the right kind of females among her servants had taken some doing but now the three that fit the description were trying their best to tempt him.

        She puzzled over it, they were the exact type needed: voluptuous, curvy, and with that soft feminine appeal to them. She chewed her fingernail in exasperation. Yet, he was uninterested, and in fact, was obviously becoming more irritated with the special treatment of the prettiest of the lot. Tessla was coming to believe that the males of any species were an odd lot.

        The young plant girl shook her head setting aside the thoughts of Vash’s rejection of the specially selected women to turn back to a more immediate concern. Knives was sure to have his men on the alert waiting for Vash and the dark-haired priest to show up. She made a face. Dealing with Vash uncle was most frustrating, and, more difficult than she had anticipated. It made her wonder how Knives managed not to lose his temper with his sibling all these years. Then again, maybe Vash uncle made Knives lose his composure but she wouldn’t know it as Knives rarely talked about his twin or the outcome of any discussions between the two of them. One thing she did know and that was she did not want her uncle pinned to the ground by Elendira and imprisoned in a bulb a second time. Did he not care about that? If he went charging in like he did last time the same thing was bound to happen all over again. Fuming, she walked out the door after the two men and instantly some of her bad mood lifted. More time had passed than she had realized. Good, that meant her men had time to work. The corners of her mouth curved up in a private smile.

        Vash seethed as he made his way to the vehicle. Coming up to the door he tossed the map in the passenger seat. With little effort he swung up and over to land with a small bounce. He didn’t notice, his thoughts were still bristling over the little pain in the neck. In the middle of his grousing he had to admit that for an amateur she was still able to slow them down even as she supplied them with indispensable information. However, the attempt to get them drunk or laid was so obvious it was laughable. He reached for the truck key determined to leave the little pest behind.

        Levio and Tessla walked up to stand next to the truck. When she made no move to get in the truck, Levio bent and, without waiting for permission, scooped her up and placed her in the back seat. With a wondering eyebrow raised Wolfwood walked up and swung himself over in the front passenger seat. The priest had noticed the surprise registering on her face when Levio had placed her in the truck. Interesting. She wasn’t planning on getting in and wondered why. He found out in the next few seconds.

        Ignoring them Vash turned the key in the ignition. It was unmistakable that his intent was to leave them before they could get in and was turning the key as Levio was lifting Tessla. He turned the key but nothing happened. The silence went unbroken as Vash stared down in stunned betrayal at the key clutched between his fingers.

        Being a new vehicle the truck engine should have started right up. This was a new top of the line with emphasis on ‘new‘, military grade, B-class armored truck made for all varieties of sand except sink sand. An astonished Vash turned to gape at Wolfwood who was looking down at the ignition switch with the same shocked expression as Vash had on his face.

        “It’s not starting,” Wolfwood pointed out needlessly. This should not be happening. Of them all, he knew engines the best and this one was in excellent shape.

        Vash didn’t reply. Throwing his real arm across the top of the seat he twisted to look over his limb to stab a fierce glare at his niece.

        She crossed her arms and said in a firm tone of voice, although the effect was ruined by the sullen pout, “We will leave in the morning.”

        “So Vash, any more delightful relatives you want to introduce me to?” Wolfwood said sarcastically. He began climbing over the side of the truck and stared at the plant girl.

        Never, never had Vash taken a child across his knee for a spanking and he wasn’t about to start now, but the urge was so overwhelming right at the moment he was near to trembling from the yearning.

        “Have you ever been spanked?” Growled the priest not realizing he and Vash were on the same wavelength and fighting the same impulse.

        Tessla shook her head although he noticed Levio tense up, his eyes narrowing at the two men and fingers twitching in his lap.

        The priest gave a soft snort. The bodyguard didn’t need to worry about them. Wolfwood glanced back at her with irritation flashing in his eyes. It was hard to read her at times because of her white eyes with glinting silver sparkles in them.

        “You really need to be, you spoiled, little...” he forced himself to a stop and instead, allowed himself a muttered curse inappropriate for young ears.

        Heaving a sigh as the priest reigned in his temper and started back to the room. There were some extra cots against the wall and he wanted to stake out a claim before anyone else got there as there were only three of them. The additional two cots could be fought over by the others.

        Tessla was shocked. No one ever threatened her with bodily harm before and she didn’t know how to deal with it much less to have a lesser being intimidate her. So she sat there with unfamiliar emotions swirling through her and with new eyes she turned to watch the black-haired man walk for the door of the saloon’s backroom.

        Vash was so angry he didn’t even trust himself to curse and with measured, deliberate movements began to climb out his side of the truck. He concentrated on breathing in slow, calming breaths and counting to ten before starting the count all over again. When he found Knives he had a few harsh words to say to him on the subject of child rearing.

You Were Expecting...?

       Milly was bored. It was so unusual a sensation that she stopped to analyze it, which right there went to prove how affected she was by this peculiar, unpleasant feeling. Pondering the state of boredom occupied her for a few seconds out of what promised to be a long, tedious day. It was threatening to stretch out ahead into a misty horizon of unending, indeterminable time that would never, ever end, ever. Milly sighed. Even pondering the subject of boredom was boring, which made perfect sense to her.

        The tall girl rolled over to her other side and tried to figure out how much time had just passed in her contemplation of never-ending time that drags on and on until a person went insane from having nothing to do. She decided that the next time Meryl showed up she would ask her for some board games and books to read. Just to kill time until she escaped of course. Requesting reading material didn’t mean that she was planning on staying for any length of time. Nuts! I wish I had a chess board. Then she perked up, maybe Meryl could find one of those for her before remembering that she would need a partner and her countenance dimmed again. She wasn’t one of those people who could play endless games with only themselves as an opponent and Meryl never like the game. The times they had played she had always lost. Her small friend didn’t mind losing while she was learning how to play the game but once she understood the strategy and how to move the pieces she expected to start winning a few games here and there. It never happened and Meryl had grown tired of losing every single time. Milly heaved a sigh more pitiful than the last one.

        The thought occurred to her that maybe this was one of the devious ways Knives tortured humans, he bored them into submission. Tossing that aside as just plain silly even for her, she sat up and reached back to grab a handful of her hair. Bringing it around front she contemplated the blonde strands in her grasp. Look what that diabolical plant had reduced her to, she was about to fill the time with braiding her own hair, something she never did. Milly preferred to keep her hair long and straight and have it hang down her back. It was simple and relatively easy to take care of. Most people didn’t realize that having longer hair like hers was easier to take care of than Meryl’s when it was shorter that is. She giggled, recalling the many mornings she came out of the bedroom and walked into the bathroom to find Meryl grumbling over the state of her bed-tousled hair. Some mornings parts of it stuck up straighter than the Humanoid Typhoon‘s. Meryl usually ended up wetting her whole head down in order to make the rebellious locks obey and lay down like they were supposed to. Milly giggled again as the memories flooded back of Meryl fighting her constant morning battle with her hair.

        Milly looked down at her fingers. They were holding the ends of one long strand of hair, tightly braided. She frowned, slightly puzzled. Her fingers must have been on automatic pilot while she was knee deep in memories. As she was pondering what to do next, either let it go which would free the braid to come undone, or keep holding it since she didn’t have any hairclips with her to fasten it, she heard a polite tap on the door.

        Smiling, she stood up knowing immediately who it was. “Come in Meryl!’ It must be morning which she suspected since they had turned on the lights waking her up from a sound sleep. However she had no idea what time some unseen person deemed was morning for the prisoners.

        Meryl opened the door with an answering laughing smile and with a cheerful lilt called out, “Good morning Milly! I’ve brought breakfast for us!”

        That wasn’t strictly true. Behind her were the ever-present guards with one of them pushing a cart bringing breakfast for the two of them. Already she could see a large breakfast spread out being kept warm under metal domes covering the individual dishes.

        Meryl advanced in and obediently the guard with the cart followed her. He left it in the middle of the room before taking a cautious look around in case Milly had taken into her head in the middle of the night to try and dig a tunnel through the wall. Seeing that the walls and floor were intact, he backed out with a bow in Meryl’s direction. Meryl paid no attention to him. Instead, she grabbed the cart handle and pushed it over to the bed, then nabbed the chair and set it next to the cart. She sat down in it knowing that since Milly was the taller of the two that the lower set of the bed would be perfect to bring them both to about the same eye level.

        “Oh goody! I love breakfast!” Milly plopped down on the bed bouncing up and down a couple of times before coming to a stop. As soon as she was stable, Milly reached for a napkin to place on her lap. Meryl was already lifting up the warming covers and placing them to the side. Milly sniffed at the enticing aroma filling the air.

        “Smells good, doesn’t it?” Meryl inquired, her eyes lighting up with happiness upon finding a bowl of strawberries. She was claiming those as hers and she would arm wrestle Milly for them if she had to, although she knew she wouldn’t need to. Her tall friend’s eyes were already locked onto her favorite food. Meryl grinned and shoved the two bowls of different flavored puddings toward Milly before reaching to claim the small dish of fruit for herself.

        Milly was already chewing on her first bite of eggs with a succeeding spoonful of banana pudding with a caramel swirl. It was yummy. The tall blonde smiled with contentment nearly swaying in place from the pleasure of flavors mingling like the exquisite taste of ambrosia melting on her tongue. The raven-haired woman laughed softly at the expression she saw on her friend’s face, recognizing it for what it was. Milly was in seventh heaven, gastronomically speaking of course.

        Both women smiled, giggled and told ‘remember when’ stories as they enjoyed their breakfast. Finally, the plates were scraped clean and both women were leaning back in their chairs satiated and full almost to the point of being painful.

        Meryl was telling her friend about the most recent adventure her daughter had been involved in but as she listened Milly began to feel a vague sense of discomfort. It was a tenuous feeling at first making her think she stuffed all her food compartments a little too full. Trying to ignore the feeling, she concentrated on the story about Melanie and the mural the child had colored on the wall just that morning.

        “How old is she Meryl?” asked Milly rubbing her tummy. It was feeling decidedly odd.

        “It’s hard to compute Milly, but roughly I would say she is about a human year old.” Meryl began beaming proudly.

        “That’s wonderful Meryl, and I bet she is a beautiful like girl, just like you.”

        With a rueful wince, Meryl conceded, “I do hope she grows to be taller than me. Tessla already is. I wouldn’t wish my height or lack thereof on any of my children.”

        “Oh come on Meryl, there is nothing wrong with your size.”

        “Except for it being so short!” Meryl grinned and waved a hand when Milly would have protested. “No, I am short and I know it. It’s just a pain in the neck sometimes, and I mean that literally what with always having to look up at everyone!”

        The two friends chuckled together for a moment.

        “But once I get Knives’ permission, I will bring her to show you.” She said mind easily swinging back to her little one. A stubborn look came over the mother’s face. She was all for showing off her toddler to her best friend. With a set expression to her face that Milly was all too acquainted with, Meryl reached for her half-full coffee cup. Milly smiled, Meryl had a baby to show off and a maternal stubbornness to prove that her child was perfect, beautiful, intelligent, creative and no grumpy male plant was going to stand in the way of that.

        The tall blonde shifted uncomfortably and leaned back against the wall behind her to see if a change of position would help. It didn’t, in fact it was making it worse. Now her stomach was starting to ache.

        She decided to keep ignoring it.

        Worriedly, Milly shook her head saying, “Oh don’t do it for me if it will only get you into trouble.” She really didn’t want to be the reason for an argument to start between Knives and Meryl especially if there was a chance that Knives would forbid Meryl to come back and visit her. That would be very bad, in fact, Milly couldn‘t think of anything that could be worse.

        Just then Milly’s stomach did a little flip and her face went white.

        “What is it?” Meryl asked over the rim of her cup. With concern she watched the change of expression on Milly’s face. “Are you okay?”

        “Oh.” Milly breathed out softly. Her tummy wasn’t feeling too good. No, not at all! Actually, it was feeling more like, like she needed... to... to...

        The tall woman launched up from her bed and rocketed across the small room for the toilet. Meryl’s eyes popped open over the raised coffee cup she was about to take a sip out of, mouth open but rendered speechless by the sight.

        Her friend flew by her so swiftly she could easily imagine herself being sucked into the wake following the tall girl. As it was, Meryl did feel herself lean a little in her chair before righting herself. Quickly she set down her cup and turned while her eyes registered alarm at the sight of Milly bent over the commode being violently sick.

        Hurrying to her friend’s side she bent over with her with a light touch of her hand on Milly’s back the girl know she was there for her. Gently she pulled the tall girl’s hair away from her face around to her back. Keeping it in place with a grasp at the nape of Milly’s neck she began crooning indistinct words of comfort into her friend’s ear, not making much sense but not caring either. Silently fretting but exercising patience, she waited until Milly was finished.

        “Milly, what’s wrong?” Meryl started to ask, but stopped when it was obvious that Milly wasn‘t recovered enough to answer yet. She chided herself, it was obvious what was wrong, the tall girl was losing her breakfast. Deciding to save her questions for later, the dark-haired woman stayed by her friend’s side doing what she was already doing, being there for her while also keeping a hold of the long honey-colored hair.

        After what seemed like an eternity Milly finally straightened up from the sink, her usual cheerful face ashen with beads of sweat at the hairline and eyes blank. Meryl supported her as they made their way back to the bed. Returning to the sink she hastily grabbed the hand towel off the bar and held it under the water until it was soaked. Turning off the faucet she then wrung out the excess water before hurrying back to Milly.

        Milly was breathing shallowly and had her eyes closed. Her face was pale and there were dark circles under her eyes. Meryl sat down next to her careful not to jostle the bed and disturb the nauseous blonde. Gently she began applying the wet cloth to her friend’s face and neck. Eyes barely open in slits, the tall girl acknowledged Meryl’s ministrations before letting them wearily slide close. Unfortunately she wasn’t able to rest for long before she was making another mad dash for the toilet.

        Several more times this activity was played out, Milly rushing back to the corner with Meryl at her side and then helping the taller woman back to the bed before dabbing the sweat-soaked face with the cloth again. Meryl didn’t bother asking the tall girl what was wrong with her, for one thing she may not know. Besides, it was obvious to her that Milly was not up to talking right at the moment. Meryl couldn‘t take her eyes off her tall friend. With an anxious expression she studied Milly’s closed eyes and open mouth taking in air slowly and evenly.

        After what seemed like a slow turn of the galaxy, Milly opened her eyes to look up at her friend’s face to see lavender eyes dark with apprehension and concern.

        With an effort Milly lifted the corners of her mouth into a small smile. Meryl could just see the light-blue color of her eyes peering up at her with utter trust and faith. Meryl’s heart constricted for she wanted to be worthy of that trust. Her lips set in a firm line, and she would be even if it cost her. She sighed, she knew it would too.

        The small woman gave herself an internal pep talk about not to giving in to fear and cowardice. Stryfe’s are made of sterner stuff, she reminded herself by reciting her favorite mantra. Sitting up with spine stiff in single-minded determination she mused over the next step. It was the most important one... and that was to come up with an idea, a plan of some kind to help Milly escape.

        Meryl had managed to live here in this place for years but she knew Milly would quickly deteriorate if she was forced to stay here for any length of time. This Meryl could not have on her conscience. With renewed energy the raven-haired woman threw herself at the problem as she was not one to shirk a responsibility once committing herself to action. However, the problem was, and here she tapped a fingertip against her cheek in thought, she didn’t know what she could do or how to proceed from this point on.

        Matching wits with Knives wasn’t the wisest course of action if one wanted to live a long and healthy life. In fact, just thinking about it realistically, she was doomed. Meryl combed shaky fingers through her hair. She was no slouch in the intelligence department but wasn’t deluded to the point that she thought she could outthink or outsmart Knives!

        Dropping her hand she began tapping her fingers on her thigh in a staccato beat as she thought. Finally she admitted that not a hint of an idea was coming to her. If she let Milly out of the cell and even if she accompanied her to the surface they were sure to be spotted and stopped. A grimace crossed her face as she imagined the scene when Knives found out. It wouldn’t be pretty that was for certain.

        With head bent and hand clenched in a tight fist on her thigh, she fought against being swallowed by despair or defeat before she had even put any plans into motion. There must be a way, she just wasn’t hitting upon it yet! With that slight thread of hope she left the thought of escape for later. Relaxing she returned her attention to her friend on the bed.

        Absentmindedly she rubbed her other hand on her friend’s back while turning her thoughts to what was causing Milly to be sick. If she didn’t know better she would think that... Meryl chuckled, no that couldn’t be it. Yet, she stopped mid-chuckle, Milly did say she was married.

        “Uh, Milly?” Meryl inquired softly, already knowing the answer before Milly even cracked open her eyelids to look up at her.

        “What do you think is causing this? Do you have the flu?”

        Milly hesitated, afraid that answering would start the cycle all over again. Her insides felt empty and ready to cave inwards and the thought of food wasn’t appealing at all. Not even pudding. Milly knew it was bad when she wasn’t even interested in her favorite treat.

        She looked at Meryl’s worried face and gave a small shake of her head. “I am going to have a baby.” Milly knew all about morning sickness but not that it would leave one feeling so... wretched and weak.

        Meryl went over to the sink and rewet the washcloth as she pondered her friend‘s answer. It was the reply the shorter woman had been expecting. Wringing the cloth and then shaking off the lingering drops she returned to the bed. Gingerly she sat down on the bed careful not to rock her sick friend. Reaching out a hand she smoothed the sweat-soaked bangs out of Milly’s eyes.

        “Are you sure you are pregnant?” Asked Meryl.

        “Oh yes, Rinnah said she smelled it for awhile now. She has a very keen sense of smell.”

        Smelled it? Meryl’s brows shot up to her hairline. “That’s a new one on me!”

        Putting that on the shelf for now, interesting piece of information that it was, Meryl was now even more worried than she had been previously. She didn’t know if Milly being pregnant would alter Knives’ plans for her in the slightest. She bit her bottom lip in frustration. Despite the new and somewhat uncertain relationship shift between the two of them, she still didn’t know what Knives’ wanted with Milly. Maybe she was a lure for a trap or she could even be a potential experiment. Meryl’s resolve hardened. Somehow she had to get Milly out of this place and on her way to safety. Mind speeding with ideas that were just as quickly discarded, but nothing presented itself as a brilliant idea and Meryl could have groaned in frustration. She looked down at her hands, fisted in her lap, the hopeless feeling was coming over her again.

        It was then she noticed her watch and the time it showed. She gasped. Knives usually came back for breakfast after working the predawn hours. Usually they sat across the small table in the kitchen’s nook while she sipped her coffee and he ate a balanced breakfast. It wasn’t as if there was a lot of conversation that when on but it was a ritual now and she knew Knives, if nothing else, he was a creature of habit. He wouldn’t like her not being there. She grimaced, maybe if she ran all the way back she could get there in time.

        “Milly, I gotta go.” She leaped to her feet, not wanting to leave but knowing it would be worse if she didn’t.

        Milly waved a hand at her and closed her eyes. Meryl decided it was okay to leave her as it looked like she was going to take a nap. She dashed for the door and pounded on it while glancing over her shoulder at her friend. It looked like Milly was already fast asleep. Breathing out a sigh of relief she darted out the door as soon it was open wide enough.

        The guards looked at each other, then at the Mother’s retreating figure as she sprinted down the hall past the elevators to the stairs, and then back to each other again. They had never seen her move this fast before. Peering into the room to check on the prisoner they saw she was sleeping. Shrugging, they closed the door and locked it again. Whatever was going on, as long as the prisoner didn’t try to escape, it was none of their business.

Looking, Not Finding

       Knives stared at the men in front of him as they struggled not to cringe under his icy gaze.

        Someone, with more bravery than sense, spoke up, “She just left Master. They ate breakfast together and then she rushed out like she had seen a ghost.”

        Knives repressed a smirk. He could well imagine that she was wary of upsetting him. She knew he didn‘t like his routine upset. He nodded absently and turned on his heel well aware of the relief among the guards at his back.

Out of Breath

       Meryl couldn’t tap in the code fast enough. After what seemed an eternity, the door opened and she ran in.

        “Knives?” she panted out. He wasn’t there and she couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not.

        Leaning over to place both hands on her thighs she sought to catch her breath. She had run the whole way here and it was an activity she wasn’t used to. If she weren’t so busy trying to suck in air she would be proud of herself since she had ran all the way here and not even stopped to use the elevator.

        Where was he? She could tell by the empty silence of the place that he wasn’t there. Oh dear. Where could he be? Her eyes went to the door. She straightened and a hand flew to her mouth. Was it possible that he was searching for her? Would he go to Milly’s cell looking for her? No, that couldn’t be right. He was much too busy and had more important things to do than lower himself to do something like that. Besides, if he wanted her badly enough, he would do what he always did, he would send someone, most likely Zazie, to fetch her. Really, she was getting all worked up over nothing.

        Concluding that she was overreacting she decided to make a few more cups of coffee. The customary sipping of her beverage at daybreak had been cut short by Milly’s being sick. She glanced at the clock. What a morning and it was still early yet! Wearily she headed for the kitchen.

        Grounds, favorite coffee mug, creamer, sugar, and yes, her favorite stirring spoon were all laid out and ready for use. She depressed the button on the side of the coffee pot before sweeping the spilled coffee grounds into her hand that were inevitable no matter how careful she was. Turning to dump them into the garbage she bumped into a solid object that wasn’t there before.

        “Ah, here you are.”

        Meryl shot straight into the air while screaming at the same time. Before she realized what she was doing, her fist was raised and swinging. Without difficulty he caught her wrist and held it fast.

        Heart racing she yelled at him, “Stop sneaking up on me like that!” and yanked on her arm while frowning up at him. For such a tall man how could he move as quietly as he did? It was unnatural, that’s what it was!

        Meryl stopped trying to wrench her arm loose, dazed by what she was seeing. Wait a minute, is he... is he smiling... a real smile? She didn’t think it was genetically possible for Knives to smile without it being cynical or sarcastic. What was normal to see on anyone else was a little intimidating coming from him and... odd. Oh this can’t be good. Friendly wasn’t something that Knives did well. Concerned, she leaned back as far as she could despite the fact that her wrist was still in his strong grasp.

        Trying to act casually, she returned his smile and asked lightly, “Were you looking for me?”

        With a small frown he released her arm.

        Meryl didn’t notice the coffee pot gurgled on the counter signaling the brewing cycle was done.

        Knives looked her up and down until Meryl began to feel like a morsel set in front of a very hungry cat. Wondering if she should make an excuse to leave, he said, with a partial smile curving his lips, “And no, I am not thinking of killing you.”

        “Like I‘d want to know what you were thinking!’ snapped Meryl indignantly, embarrassed since the thought had indeed occurred to her even if ever so briefly. He must have suspected she was lying as his mouth formed into the mocking smile she was so used to seeing.

        Then she saw it. Jaw dropping open and eyes wide, she lifted a limp hand and tried to point at his head.

        “Eh... eh... “ Were all the sounds able to come out of her mouth.

        “Like the new look?” Knives found her reaction immensely satisfying. “Or Maybe I should say, ‘the old look’ since it has been returned to the way it should be.”

        He reached up and fingered the end of one strand of his hair. There wasn’t one hair on his head that was black. Every single hair was the glorious white-blonde the way it was meant to be. But the added bonus was seeing her totally floored and unable to even get her finger raised all the way to point at his head. Right at the moment her drooping finger was aimed at his chest while her eyes were glued to his head.

        “You... it... “ Finally her thoughts engaged again and she made up for lost time, “It’s the way it used to be! How did you do that? It’s not bleached!” Unable to help herself and not even realizing what she was doing, the petite beauty stepped forward and reached up to lightly finger the hair on his neck. “I’m astounded! I can’t believe it. Wow. This is really amazing! Did you do this?”

        Finally she was able to take her eyes off his hair and looked over to meet his own eyes regarding her with an unwavering cool blue gaze. Seeing something there she didn’t expect she gave a breathy laugh and straight away dropped her hand. For some reason touching him at the moment didn’t seem like a good idea.

        “No. I didn’t to it, it was that half-plant of Vash’s.”

        Milly’s friend. “Well, that was certainly... nice of her.”

        “She had no choice.”

        “Oh.” Suddenly Meryl didn’t want to hear any more. Maybe this was a good time to take her coffee and go sit in the geo plant’s recreation room.

        Too fast for Meryl’s eyes to follow Knives crossed the insignificant space between them. With a little ‘eep’ of surprise she looked up into his face. She really hated that hyper speed of his as it never failed to unnerve her.

        However, her female intuition began screaming at her even quicker than Knives could move, that she was going to be kissed again. She could live with that.

        What she wasn’t prepared for was the possessive embrace he suddenly wrapped around her as he lifted her up until her toes left the floor.

        A quiet gasp squeezed out of her when he tightened his hold, pressing her closer to him. The hug lasted a while as she felt him beginning to tremble.

        Slowly he set her back on her feet and slid his hands down to rest on her hips.


        Uncertainty flashed across his face and she knew he was on the edge of a decision. She searched his eyes.

        Meryl was a little worried about the unfocused look on his face and waved a hand in front of him. His eyes snapped down to center on her. She gulped under the intensity of his gaze.

        At one point in time Knives shared a few tidbits of his childhood with her. One of those small crumbs of information was about his being educated on the Seeds ship by teaching tapes (whatever that meant) and knew, in a detached, clinical way what to do, with... the opposite sex. However, it was another matter when one was putting theory into practice, but both instinct and imagination could be very helpful at such times.

        Meryl couldn’t control the wild rush of blood flooding up her neck to stain her cheeks. Knives saw and watched, fascinated as if he had never seen a woman blush before, which could be, how many women were in his life for him observe? But being watched just made her flush all that much harder.

        It dawned on him that he was the one responsible for this enticing reaction and one lip lifted in a smirk. That only made her turn redder only this time with anger as frowned warningly at him.

        Pulling her closer, his left arm circled under her shoulder blades and lifted her up higher until than before. Meryl noted that his eyes, usually an glacial blue, were starting to cloud over.

        She watched as he, almost lazily, raised his hand to gently trail fingertips from her jaw line up to her cheek and into her hairline. His fingers sank to intertwine with her soft hair and slowly he tipped her head back. The slow ascent upwards of his touch left a tingle behind on her face to race up into her scalp. Oh my!

        He bent his head to rest his lips in a light touch on her slightly parted ones. Without meaning to, Meryl’s free arm went up to circle behind his neck and slide into his own silky hair. So soft to the touch that she couldn’t help but play with the ends before diving her fingers in to the scalp and start the process over again .

        No exploding stars or stomach flips there was only the soft pressing of his lips on hers and the racing of hearts.

        Lifting his head, he stared down into her eyes and in them she saw the precise moment he made the decision. Again she was surprised when he effortlessly swung her up and easily caught in his arms. He gazed down at her, his expression unreadable until he gave her a half-grin and started toward his room.

Let's Take it Out for a Spin!

        The elevator doors opened with a soft whoosh of noise before Rinnah peered out eyes full of curiosity. Her eyes scanned the room which turned out to be a long narrow cavern. A snort of impatience sounded next to her as Knives took hold of her elbow and yanked on it as he exited.

        Almost unaware of his grip, the half-breed gawked at the sight that met her eyes. First she stared up and then tried to pierce the blackness that the tunnel disappeared into. When Knives informed her he was taking her to a secret place she assumed it was another lab to conduct more experiments. Then he passed her some clothes and with a mocking grin told her to put them on instead of the hospital gown she found herself dressed the first time she woke up. Almost as bad was the dress she was ordered to put on.

        A dress! Her? She took it for an insult whether it was intended that way or not and snatched it out of his hands with a curse. She couldn’t remember the last time she had worn a dress but tripping over the extra material the hybrid was reminded why she didn’t like wearing them in the first place. In order to make a successful escape, our heroine, meaning me, needs to find her clothes. I wonder where Knives little circus clowns hid them?

        Every time she stumbled she threw a murderous glare at the male plant walking calmly next to her. For the most part Knives ignored her except to take her elbow to steer her down one hall when they came up to an intersection and she would have chosen the other direction.

        The last time she tripped she skewered him with a hull-melting glare while muttering quietly to herself, “I hate them both.”

        Knives raised his eyebrows at that vehemence behind the comment but forewent the need to have it explained to him. Hate was something he was used to having directed his way. It did set him to wondering if that was why Meryl was able to sneak her way past his usual normal defenses. The petite female knew exactly what he was, what he had done, who he was, what he was like and even though there were some of his attributes of his character she hated, she had come to accept him. Worship, honor, hate, loathing, dislike, all of those he was used to. Acceptance, he could only remember a short time where it was directed his way and she.... he wrenched his thoughts from going down that path. It was enough that his little female... Knives couldn’t even form a coherent thought as his mind lingered over the time he and Meryl had spent together. A secretive smile lifted at one corner of his mouth. It was... an amazing time and he was having trouble finding words to describe it, but he would, since this was an activity he had every intention on continuing in the future.

        With a firm mental shake he turned his attention back to the moment at hand and looked down at the black-haired hybrid, pleased at her reaction.

        Rinnah stared, mouth slightly parted as she took in the display of large globes lining both sides of the cavern wall. Bulbs were stacked in a row toward the ceiling and then the continued into the depths of the cavern until they were swallowed by the darkness. This was the most she had ever seen in any one place. Turning to Knives she saw contentment on his face as his own gaze followed the line even though he was well-acquainted with the contents of his hidden cavern. Rinnah had to admit to being impressed.

        “Quite the rumpus room you got set up here.”

        With this many of Knives’ sisters in his care and plans for world domination, not to mention that he was the father-figure in a newly-started family, the fruits of his labor showed he was extremely industrious and hard-working. Either that or he keeps others busy doing the labor portion of the equation. Still, he must be quite the workaholic. The thought came to her and she let out a soft snort of disgust.

        She soon forgot that thought as she tried to estimate the number of bulbs there were in the cavern. What was he planning on doing with all of the plant angels? And why was she here? Suddenly a sick feeling washed over her as the answer came to her immediately upon the heels of the question. He wanted her to reverse the Hair Darkening Effect afflicting his sisters. These must be the weakened ones he had rescued from all over the planet and brought here for safe-keeping. Rinnah gazed at the line with growing horror. Doing one or two would be okay but how many was he thinking she could do at a shot?

        Now that she was trying to count it was becoming clear that there was an astounding number of bulbs here. She wondered if he was under the impression that she could do all of them in one day. Working the numbers in her head, Rinnah doubted she could attend to all of them even if she were to run by and tap each one like in a game of tag. If he thought she was able to do that then he was delusional! It was then that Rinnah’s eye fell on the last thing she expected to see.

        Knives turned to watch the half-breed’s eyes widen and take in the size of the place and the sheer number of globes he had stored here. Next her eyes drifted over to the front and off to the side where it sat. He lifted his own eyes to where she was staring, nearly pop-eyed with shocked wonder.

        “Omigod! I don’t believe it!” A hand came up to cover her mouth. Then she dropped it and dashed over forgetting her position as prisoner in the excitement of her find. She placed a respectful palm on the cool metal.

        “Do you know what this is?” Not even waiting for reply she ran incredulous hands over the perma trans-steel.

        “This is an LK-Taupin Skim series! Can you believe it! I can’t believe it! The only one I have ever seen is a stripped down one in the Space/Deep Space Museum on New Earth. How’d you come by this? Is this yours? Can you pilot it? What are the specs? Oh, look at this, rust around the rear aerofoils. Huh, this dorsal regulator is bent. Why haven’t you replaced that? And over here, these curved space access ports, absolutely shameful...” She would have gone on but she happened to look up and see the thunder gathering on Knives’ brow and opted to change the direction of her comments.

        Taking a few steps back she gestured at the ship with a wide arc of her arm, “Nice ride you have here. Yep, looks like an old LK-Taupin-G Slip class.”

        “F,” supplied Knives, “skimmer secondary grade.”

        “An ’F’! Glory be! This is mind-boggling!” Rinnah turned shining eyes back to the ship, a spring in her step as she moved closer again and reverently ran both hands over the silver-white hull.

        “Do you know how rare these babies are? What a sweet opportunity! I know! Let’s take it out for a spin around the block, whaddya say, eh? Stop at the corner store grab some chips and soda and then burn rubber. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

        With a face-splitting grin she threw a gleeful look over her shoulder at Knives and immediately her enthusiasm diminished. Damn, forgot who I was talking to. It’s unbelievable, he’s only standing there but he is able to suck the fun and joy out of a moment. What a rare talent that is! She decided to keep her sarcastic opinion to herself and turned back to the ship.

        Despite the fact the male plant was silent glowering at her as she inspected the small ship, she imagined the space between them heavy with cold hostility.

        As there wasn’t anything she could do to make the situation better, Rinnah decided to ignore the antagonistic male and focused her attention back on the ‘F’ series ship in front of her. In the worst way she wanted to sit in the pilot’s seat and run a pre-flight checklist and see how seaworthy she was. Maybe the old bird could still sail. Although, now that Rinnah studied the ship with a critical eye while walking back and forth looking the hull over she became aware of flaws she didn‘t notice the first time.

        Stopping in front of a hole ripped in the metal skin, she studied it and wondered how it had gotten there. Must have taken quite a bit of force to slice through an impulsion siphon node and shear it clean off. All in all though, it was a beautiful old jalopy despite the desperate need for repair work. She looked up at adoringly. She’d give Vash’s fake arm to own this ship.

        “Needs a lot of tender loving care,” she patted the side affectionately “She’s a sweet old lady but even outdated she’s still a beauty.” Rinnah stopped as she noticed, “Hey, where are the spiral access compressors?” She pointed to another area, “And look, the rerouting enabler is also missing.”

        Knives frowned in displeasure. To him there was nothing grossly wrong with the slip skimmer. A few decades back he had come across it while excavating a lost ship crash site. It was the only one of the ship’s little scouts that wasn’t a pile of useless scrap metal. Over the years he had worked on it as a hobby trying to get it flight worthy. One never knew when having scout ship that could fly might come in handy. He was pretty certain it could achieve altitude but hadn’t the time yet to take it out and test it. Whether it could stand up to space travel he was still doubtful of. It was the next thing on his list to attend to except that certain events kept him from getting started on it.

        He became aware of her speaking, more to herself than anyone else about the things that needed fixing or that were missing. “.... and see here, the Belcher Shunts... how did they keep the grappler rings from overheating.... oh that’s right, no bottled plant emissions at this stage so no need for the rings. Huh, go figure.” Hands on hips she moved a few steps back and gave the ship a critical look.

        She pointed to an exposed power-diode wire running along the side saying, “Look at this! You can tell an amateur worked on this. It shouldn’t have been welded like that. It will break apart as soon as the ship leaves atmosphere. Really, what you need is a professional...” She shot Knives a considering look, “But I suppose you don’t have one who knows how to work on one of these old birds anymore eh?” With a shrug of her shoulders she concluded with, “That’s a damn shame.”

        His jaw tightened. Did she feel it absolutely necessary to point every little flaw?

        Something caught her eye and she bent over to examine a seam in the metal. Following it she soon came to a recessed handle held in place by a clasp and two bolts. Stenciled instructions next to it were barely legible. Underneath the wording was another recessed handle, only smaller, for blowing the bolts and clasp off.

        Wasting no time, she grabbed it a gave it a tug. When it didn’t budge she summoned and pulled with all the inhuman strength within her A ear-piercing squeal announced its reluctance to release the bolt only to move little by little. Once the restraints were out of the way, Rinnah reached down and told hold of the lever and pulled. This one was easier to lift although as she raised the lever it squeaked and make grinding noises. As soon as it was upright, she pushed it a quarter turn to the left as stated in the instructions. After a great deal of force the hatch finally swung open with a rusty screech. She impatiently watched as it slowly swung open. If I were in charge of this project the first thing I would do is oil all the hinges.

        However, her patience was rewarded and in a flash she was on her hands and knees with a cry of joy, exclaiming with delight over everything she saw. Knives watched uninterested as she started crawling into the guts of the hull like a sand-tick through thomas hair. Then it dawned on him that his prize was about to disappear into the plumbing of the outer hull. In the throes of blind ecstasy she might not come out for days. Already all he could see of her was her squirming derrière and the bottoms of her slippers. In a few more seconds she would be lost to sight. The last thing he wanted to do was to rip apart his ship in order to find the creature. With a few quick strides he was beside the one foot still sticking out the entry hole. With a growl of irritation he reached down and wrapped fingers around her slender ankle and gave a hearty yank.

        “Hey!” Came the muffled protest. She shook her leg, trying to break his hold but to no avail, he merely tightened his grip.

        “Stinking star holes! Go rain on someone else’s parade for a change ya big overgrown daisy!“

        Paying no heed to her squawking he hauled her out the rest of the way.

        “Watch the dress pal!”

        He still had hold of her ankle preventing her from twisting around. It was awkward since she was trying to kick him while also tugging her skirt back into place. It had stayed behind while she was being dragged out which now meant there was more leg showing than what she was comfortable with. He released her ankle and as soon as he did she was on her feet in an instant brushing at the skirt, face aflame.

        With disapproval Knives coldly asked her, “How does my brother put up with you?”

        Rinnah wasn’t sure but she thought she detected a tic under one of his eyes. Mood turning on a dime, she spread her arms out wide informed him, “What, me? I am a delight and joy to be around! A veritable life of the party!” Her smile faded under his inflexible expression.

        “Geez, what a killjoy!” she grumbled.

        Knives controlled his rising ire and pointed to the first bulb in line. “My sisters...”

        Rinnah followed his finger to where it was pointing and then back to him.

        “Frankly, I don’t see the family resemblance. Are you sure you weren’t adopted?”

        “My sisters,” he started again, grating out, “heal them.”

        “Fine...” she looked at the globes and then over at the ones on the opposite wall.

        “Uh, how many were you thinking?”

        “As many as you can until you drop,” Knives said in so cold a tone of voice it could have dripped ice.

        “Great, just freaking great!” Rinnah frowned as she started for the first one in line, the full sweep of dress swirling around her legs making it difficult to stride out.

        As she came to the first one she stopped to look up it and then at him.

        “Is this a joke?”

        “What do you mean?”

        Irritated she gestured at bulb they stood before. “It’s empty.”

        Knives looked up at it and then realized the half-breed’s mistake. He didn’t think of this first globe as the first in line because it was the one grown specifically for Vash. He intended it to be his twin’s personal bulb which was why it was larger than of the other bulbs. He stared up at it thinking on the fact that once installed in it Vash would always be accessible and nearby while at the same time his troublesome antics would be contained. It was a comforting thought, Vash here, where he belonged close to his brother’s side but without being a nuisance to Knives‘ plans anymore. He looked forward to many discussions with his brother which were sure to be heated and lively.

        Rinnah watched as a creepy smile crossed Knives’ face making her shift uneasily from foot to foot.

        Then he realized what about the globe threw her off. The globe was giving off a hazy light almost as if it were occupied.

        “Ah, I see why you are confused. It is glowing dimly from the small amount of power being sent through it. The faint glow that you are noticing is from artificial energy keeping it viable. This is a prototype globe that, in a sense, is alive. When it is brought fully online and detached from the temporary life support cables it will need a plant angel to inhabit it in order for it to survive. It then becomes a symbiotic tradeoff. A plant angel inhabits a safe environment that protects them and then the angel also provides the particular energy needed to keep the bulb healthy and alive. It is a complicated cycle between the two and constantly needs to be adjusted, maintained and strictly regulated. The end result is that I can then slowly accustom my sisters to live outside of their bulbs. Then when it comes time to free them into the atmosphere and environment of the terra formed planet the transition won‘t be such a shock to their systems.”

        “Whoa.” Said Rinnah, impressed even though she was trying hard not to be, by the bulb itself and then by the longest thing she had ever heard come out Knives’ mouth. He was certainly a thinker and inventor, she had to give him that much. Wouldn’t he be surprised to find out that this complicated stage wasn’t needed... well not the way she freed plant angels.

        “This is Vash’s new home, once I capture him that is.”

        Just when she was giving him points for something positive he had to go and ruin it!

        “Then I hope you never catch him, you sicko plant!.” Replied Rinnah with heat, repulsed that one sibling would consider treating the other that heartlessly. An old nursery rhyme came to her mind about someone putting a loved one in a pumpkin shell and being kept there very well.

        “I have before and I am certain that I will again, it is only a matter of time.” He said calmly while staring up at the bulb as he thought on his wayward twin. It was easy to catch Vash but it was hard to keep him in captivity. His brother was quite the slippery character. Knives wondered if she knew what an eel was because that was the comparison that came to mind when he thought on all the times Vash was able to escape from his clutches. The grinding of teeth brought Knives back to himself and he forced his jaw to relax. Then he turned to look at the half-breed.

        Rinnah felt the weight of his stare and turned to find one corner of his mouth quirked up in a smirk that made her narrow her eyes at him suspiciously. She had a feeling that this look did not bode well for her.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 29
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