"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 34"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG-13

What to Do, What to Do....
Let's Try This Again

       “Stupid, lazy, treacherous, sneaky, underhanded, double-crossing sprites! A virulent plague upon you and all your ancestors, you star hole stinking, spiteful, pea-brained fairies!”

        Rinnah Blackfire, pounded on the wall next to the metal panel. Unresponsive to her angry outburst the call button to the elevator merely glowed a dull orange back at her, as it had been doing since she had first tapped it. She was infuriated but not to the point of being so out of control that she was taking out her aggravation on the button itself. It wouldn’t do to damage her ticket to freedom. The outside world awaited and she had no intention of spending one more minute in this depressing cave than she was forced to.

        Her pounding slowed before finally dwindling to a stop. In a brilliant, if somewhat tardy burst of inspiration, it dawned on her that all the plant facility bulbs behind her couldn’t possibly have been brought down on the elevator in front of her. She stared unseeing at the doors for a second and then blinked slowly before cursing her lack of utilizing the brain cells the Holy Hybrid had seen fit to entrust her with. How was she utilizing them? Pounding on a button the size of her cornea. Orange glowing button, one; Rinnah Blackfire, zero.

        Groaning, she leaned her forehead against the stone wall and gave the matter some real thought. Yes, the place was festooned with huge globes decorating the vast cave and all the equipment and machinery needed to maintain their environments. Unless Knives owned a shrink ray machine she didn’t see how he could have brought in all the equipment, plus that skimmer, not to mention those pregnant fortune-telling balls all the way down here. At least, not through the shaft of this elevator that was only large enough to transport people, not enshrined plants. Rinnah thought it safe to assume that Knives was not in the possession of a shrink ray machine.

        Lifting her head, she ran a hand through her rumpled hair while turning to look over her shoulder at the length of the cavern and its inky black depths. Well, there had to be an easier way to find out the answer then rely on guesswork and conjecture. Dropping her hand she slowly turned to face the bulbs. She wasn’t looking forward to this as the harpy ladies were such a cranky lot and tended to give her a headache when all was said and done. Shoulders sagging in defeat she realized there was no where else to go to get the information. She blew out a tired sigh. Might as well get it over with, otherwise she would be wasting even more precious time.

        Straightening her shoulders she sent out a query, “*Hey there ladies! How’s life on the vine been treating ya since I been gone these last, oh say, few minutes?*”

        There was an instant squawking of sharp protests and a flurry of stinging replies. Rinnah waited, head cocked until the outcry died down.

        “*Just wanna know one thing... how’d y’all get in here anyway?*”

        Even though the plant angels were pretty much linked together as one consciousness there were a few very strong personalities who dominated the plant mind and stood out as speakers for the whole group. They were doing a good job of making their opinions known. Rinnah rolled her eyes at their demands. They were being very insistent about the fact that they wanted the half-plant to return back to where she belonged. She threw a glance at the bulb. Even if she had a the desire to; which she didn’t, the hybrid had not a clue as to how one would go about trying to reconnect into the bulb.

        “Oh yeah, like that’s gonna happen anytime soon.” Rinnah muttered softly into the echoing chamber.

        Then, catching her attention was one little plant mind recalling the memory of how they were transported across the desert. They were brought from the facilities they were freed from in a huge working starship! Rinnah’s eyes went round at the mental picture. That was the one that shot her down out of the sky, stranding her on this planet! Then the memory went on to show the huge door set in the side of the cliff and the long tunnel descending to this lower level. Rinnah could have rubbed her hands together in glee. Now she knew two ways out. Glancing over at the elevator knowing that this was top priority since it led to Milly, somehow, up there. And that was where she needed to get to if she was going to find her tall friend and escape this place.

        Turning back to the doors she glared at the offending button until realizing what could be keeping the car from arriving: someone was holding it at another level.

        “Great, just freaking great!” She turned and threw up her hands in disgust before settling her hands on her hips to gaze about the lab.

        It was yet another brilliant demonstration of intelligence that any six-year-old child could have shown. Slapping a hand to her face in consternation over the state of her current slow-as-molasses cognitive abilities, she fervently hoped the car was just being stopped for repairs. However, that kind of luck was usually reserved for other people.

        With a deep groan she dropped her head into her cupped hand to allow herself the luxury of a few seconds of self-pity. Once satisfied with that, she lifted it again to immediately hook a forefinger over the middle of her nose as she assumed her thinking posture.

        It didn’t take long. There was a good possibility that someone was coming down to this level rather than the car being called down, despite her constant and repetitive pushing on the button. With that thought in mind, she realized that whoever was going to step out of the open doors would most likely want to fight. Wonder if I could interest them in thumb wrestling or a pie-eating contest? Rinnah wished the car would arrive. Where was it anyway? Waiting was worse than fighting. She leaned on the button with a finger.

Sick of Elevators

       “I’m ready to be quit of these elevators Milly. I bet Knives put all these in just so people would get tired of trying to find his little man sanctuary.”

        “I believe that would be plant.”

        “Whatever,” Meryl said with a wave of her hand. “Males are all alike Milly,” she informed her friend airily, “They have to have their little man corner away from the rest of the world. And Knives is not exempt from that particular male urge.”

        “Wow Meryl,” Milly said, eyes alight with admiration. “You sure do know a lot about men, especially plant men.”

        Meryl’s eyelids drooped in a jaded look, “Well, it’s not like I haven’t had the experience thrust on me, rather unwillingly at times I might add.”

        Taking the statement to heart, Milly replied with remorse lacing her voice, “I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner Meryl.” Morosely she stared down at the tips of her shoes.

        Meryl hastened to ease her friend’s anguish over not being able to help her sooner. “I already told you Milly, you couldn’t have done anything and I would much rather have a live friend than a dead one. Besides, look on the bright side, you are here now and that’s what counts!”

        Milly looked up and beamed a smile at her small friend. “You are so right! I shouldn’t be looking at the past and whining, I should be looking at a future that we can do something about! Thanks Meryl!”

        Meryl smiled back without realizing she was doing so. It was hard to resist Milly when she was in full perky form.

        The elevator had stopped moving and they were waiting on the doors to open. Meryl wondered nervously if they would find any more Gung Ho Guns waiting for them.

        The door took an eternity to slide open before Meryl was able to peek out and nervously scanned the room before them. There were three sets of elevator doors on their wall that also stopped here to let out occupants into this room. Across from them and located on the far wall facing them were a set of elevator doors.

        Meryl had exclaimed, “Now this place I remember! It’s the last puzzle before we take that elevator which leads straight to where we want to be.”

        When Milly started to step out of the car Meryl had grabbed her arm and hastily pulled her back with a gasp. “NO!” Once she had her tall friend by her side again, she pointed to the floor. “See those colored squares?” She waited until Milly looked down at them and then nodded.

        “It looks like a chessboard,” she noted with a happy smile.

        “It is in a way, but more importantly, it‘s the last obstacle to stop prying trespassers. I don‘t see how anyone could have made it this far without being detected. Really! This is just overkill.” She gave the floor a withering stare before looking around the room and wondered how to cross it. Right at that moment the solution came back to her as clear as the day Knives escorted her here.

        “Here follow me. I remember the way...” Meryl hesitated a moment, a puzzled frown on her face. “I wonder... why do I remember it?” and shrugged it off as unimportant, it could easily be the results of her being plant-changed over the years. “Oh well, follow me and land on the squares I do.”

        “Right.” Milly concentrated on Meryl’s feet until they got halfway across. Then she leaped on the same square as Meryl, startling her, before leaping ahead in a series of jumps, hops and skips. She made it to the doors before Meryl could catch up with her.

        When finally reaching Milly’s side Meryl yelled, “What were you thinking?”

        One arm pointing back behind her even as her eyes held Milly’s in a furious glare. “You could have jumped on the wrong one and gotten killed!”

        Milly smiled and, looked back over Meryl’s shoulder to the checkerboard pattern behind her before returning to gaze calmly down into Meryl’s face. Milly knew her friend almost better than she knew herself. Meryl may be frowning and angry but it was only a smokescreen for the fear lurking underneath the surface over her friend‘s safety.

        “No, I knew what it was. My middle big brother taught me how to play chess and that was a move.” Here she pointed to the tiles nearest them. “And then these last squares were sort of like a hop scotch pattern.” She smiled brightly at Meryl.

        “How did you know it was not a chess move?”

        Puzzled, Milly cocked her head at Meryl’s panic, “Well, I could see it, didn’t you see it?”

        Meryl’s face was white but she could only shake her head numbly. Walking past Milly she tapped the button and the elevator doors opened up for them. There was no use trying to explain normal reasoning to Milly. She operated out of a totally different paradigm than anyone Meryl had ever known. Well, at least they were in the last elevator, thank God, which would take them to the lab. Meryl was glad that the journey was almost over.

Come On In and Take Your Shoes Off

       “Alright then, let’s try this one more time,” Rinnah said as she pushed the button, yet again. By now she was getting antsy from waiting so she paused a second to take a deep breath and remind herself of all the things that had gone right so far by going down the mental list and ticking off each item with a mental quill pen: The plant ladies had been most informative, the Cinderella of the piece (meaning her) was out of her glass plant shell, the bloated cherub leech was off her back, and she was clean and dressed even if it wasn’t an outfit that was in the height of fashion. She looked down at the medical scrubs she had found in a locker, this color of grayish green didn’t look good on her but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

        She looked at the front of the elevator doors to the wall panel next to it and reached up to push the button again.

        “C’mon you freaking slackers! Clock in already and open the doors for business!”

        As if hearing, and fearing, the growled command, the doors obligingly slid apart and Rinnah found herself staring at Milly who was standing next to a shorter, dark-haired woman. It took the space of a breath to get over being surprised but when she did Rinnah’s face lit up with a dazzling smile. It took a second longer for Milly to recover from her amazement but her smile matched Rinnah’s for brilliance even as the hybrid launched into a rhapsody of greeting.

        “Well glory-be and set out the good china! Look who’s finally come a-calling!” She rolled her eyes upward, “Thank you elevator fairies! I’ll never call you names again!” But muttered under her breath, “Leastways not so you can hear me.”

        Rinnah turned sideways and extended an arm out to the side as if to usher them into her spacious abode.

        “Won’t you come in and sit a-spell? I’ll put a pot on and then we can chew the fat by the fireplace.”

        Milly leaped forward and grabbed Rinnah up off of her feet in a twirling spin off as she enveloped her in a bear hug. “Oh happy day! It’s like getting a million bowls of pudding all at once!”

        “Milly! Can’t breathe! Milly!”

        Fortunately Milly heard her and gently set Rinnah back on her feet. Then taking a few steps back she beamed widely at her friend.

        Meryl stepped out while saying over her shoulder, “You never mentioned that she was eccentric. And, by the way, what did she just say?”

        Milly shrugged and looked down at her more diminutive friend. “Gee Meryl, does it really matter what religion she is? Oh, and she‘s always saying things like this.”

        “I’m surrounded,” muttered Meryl even as she stuck her hand out in greeting for the eccentric-ologist to shake.

        She began with a smile, “Hello, pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Meryl Stryfe.”

        “And bestest friend in the whole world!” Enthused Milly as her face lit up, “See Rinnah, I did find her just like I said I would.”

        “Star holing luck beans there, Milly!” Rinnah’s attention however, was riveted on Meryl, scrutinizing her even as her hand rose to meet the petite woman’s extended one.

        The hybrid noted the black wisps of hair framing a dainty heart-shaped face. On top of that she reminded Rinnah of a finely-crafted porcelain doll. She was perfect. Rinnah felt like a massive, lumbering giant besides the petite human. It would be easy to hate her except that she didn’t seem to realize how adorably cute she was. The hybrid couldn’t move her eyes off of Meryl to save her life. She was eye-catching and it wasn’t just a physical beauty but something from within that emanated to float about her like a rare perfume. The doll-like human’s eyes were soft dove gray with flecks of purple twinkling in them. The hybrid became aware that she was still pumping the smaller woman’s hand up and down like a maniacal fool and immediately released the slender hand with an embarrassed chuckle.

        Star holes! No one had told her that Meryl was so delicately lovely! No wonder he.... Then she realized the smaller woman was speaking to her.

        “.... I guess you must know Vash pretty well by now then?” She remarked dryly, a fleeting twitch of the lips and then it was gone.

        Rinnah stared. Was Meryl jealous about the fact that she had been traveling with Vash all this time and knew him.... oh no! Talk about knowing him! What if this elfin creature found out that the two of them had been intimately acquainted in that certain way? Well, Rinnah had no intention of telling her anything! The sharing of such information was going to be only on basis of the ole ‘need to know basis’ with the view that Meryl really didn’t need to know... Anything.... At all.... Ever... This lifetime or the next.

        “Um, yeah,” Suddenly Rinnah was dry-mouthed and a heavy weight settled like a rock in her chest. “It’s been a real experience getting to know him.” This last was said through a forced smile.

        Meryl nodded, not missing the unnatural strain around the woman‘s mouth. After all, Meryl herself was an old hand at that look. She wondered if Vash was acting like his normal goofy self or the jerk he was the last time she had laid eyes on him. If she let herself dwell on it the remembered hurt made her angry all over again when she recalled the fleeting exchange of their last meeting. A light frown creased her brow as his few cutting words came back to her. What a prince... She frowned.... Of a jerk!

        “Yes, Rinnah and Vash have been keeping each other company at night.” Milly smiled as if unaware of what was being implied in that simple statement.

        The hybrid’s eye whipped over to stare in horror at Milly. Oh great, just the kind of announcement that‘ll get me killed thank you very much! It was hard to keep from panicking. That wasn’t the kind of information that was bound to ensure a mutual and lasting friendship between her and Meryl! She could’ve whimpered.

        Meryl took the opportunity to study Milly’s friend, and obviously Vash’s friend as well. Seeing the discomfort and embarrassment registering in the half-plant’s expression she wondered what was causing it. Then lavender gray eyes narrowed for a brief second as a glimpse of alarm crossed the face of this new ‘resource’ that Knives had been talking about.

        With a sick, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, she sincerely hoped the freed female plant wasn’t attracted to Knives... (There! She could admit it!) Especially since the female was more like Knives and Vash, and from the looks of things, made a rather intriguing and attractive power source.

        She had turned Knives’ hair his original white-blonde color again? Well, with a woman who could do that why would he need a short, repulsive human around? Meryl decided she wasn’t going to fool herself about trying to be dispassionate about this. Same this for logic as well. This was an area that had everything to do with the heart! And right now hers was feeling crushed by the fact that this experiment could probably take care of all the things Knives said he wanted from Meryl. Fine then, let the new plant produce offspring for the entire plant family if that’s what he wanted. It wasn’t as if she was having the time of her life doing it! Tears pricked the corners of her eyes; what did she care anyway? Meryl felt her blood pressure going up.

        He made it sound so clinical and cold but the flesh and blood woman standing in front of her was anything but a scientific experiment of a regenerative plant power source! Nothing like it, that was for sure! Meryl felt her blood beginning to boil as she contemplated Knives as a double-crossing, two-timing pollinator! However, looking the hybrid over, she couldn’t be angry with Milly’s new friend. Milly had said earlier with a secretive, smug smile, that Rinnah was not interested in Knives and Milly might evade telling the truth but she didn‘t lie, at least not over something this important.

        That devious, lowlife! Was there something else going on that she wasn’t aware of? Did he think she didn’t matter anymore? Oh she had some questions she wanted to ask his High and Mighty Royal Pain and she wanted some answers to them too!

        However, she doubted that Rinnah would be able to answer her questions for her. Right at the moment this female part-plant was staring at Milly with a dazed, if somewhat hopeful smile on her face . Someone obviously had told the hybrid about Meryl’s past crush on Vash or that she was involved with Knives. She looked out of the corner of her eye at Milly; she could probably guess who.

        And look at those eyes, such a strange blue and so neon bright that they were the first thing that leaped out at you upon meeting her. Startling Meryl was the quick stab of jealousy to know that this exotic creature was the reason Knives was spending so much time down in his lair. This striking looking woman with her night-black hair, her luminous eyes vivid and flashing did cause the eye to keep returning to her. Not only that, was the force of her personality in the genuine interest and warmth she was showing even as nervous as she was. Meryl shifted from one foot to the other. It would be easy to hate her remembering what it was Knives had told her last. Oh right, ‘gotta keep an eye on the fluctuating variables during this critical time‘ ploy eh? Huh! I’m just sure! She huffed as she fumed silently to herself.

        Meryl’s mouth turned down at the corners while at the same time trying her best not to be jealous while running her eyes up and down Rinnah’s length, envious of her stature, which wasn’t as tall as Milly but in Meryl’s eyes it was the perfect height to be. A black wave of despair rolled through her. Not only that, even though she wasn’t exactly what would be considered classically beautiful, there was a certain attractive quality to her besides being startlingly different.

        Rinnah caught the slight frown that disappeared as quickly as it had formed and wilted a bit. She’s jealous... of me! I knew it! This is not good, not good at all! She thinks I am the other woman! I never wanted to be the other woman! Well, once things are taken care of here I will be on my way. She‘s so picture perfect and gorgeous, why would she be giving me that look for?

        Inwardly cringing as she pondered the petite woman’s expression she decided that Meryl was, obviously, not pleased to know that Vash and she were acquainted in that way. Well, no worries, the two former lovers would soon be reunited and there was someplace else that the hybrid needed to be... Even if she had to invent a place. Rinnah was having trouble breathing around the hard rock of dread sitting in her chest. A trembling hand reached up to clutch at the v-neck of her scrubs. Her head bent as pain rippled through her skull to pierce downward causing shortness of breath. Everything around her was becoming shadowy and dim while a cold and hot sensation alternately coursed through her leaving her dizzy and lightheaded.

        In the space of a second Milly was on one side of her supporting her elbow and Meryl disappeared.

        “You don’t look good Rinnah, your face just went completely white. Here, maybe you should sit down.”

        Milly guided her friend to a chair with wheels. The first couple of times the chair rolled out from under Rinnah just as Milly was lowering her into it. Finally, with a soft growl, Milly solved the problem by hooking an ankle around the chair and slowly lowered the stricken hybrid into it. However, the chair unexpectedly scooted toward Milly and she lost her balance, falling backward.

        As she was going over a hand shot out and caught her forearm and halted her fall. Rinnah’s eyes looked luminous and bright in her otherwise colorless and expressionless face.

        Only after she pulled Milly up, did she give her a weak smile while saying in a tight voice, “Sorry Milly, I didn’t mean to worry you.” Then eyeing her tall friend she asked, “Are you okay? You seem a little different somehow.”

        “Oh,” Milly replied cheerfully, “I’ve been sick.”

        At Rinnah’s alarmed expression she giggled before explaining, “You know, the kind of morning sickness that lasts around the clock and comes on a pregnant woman at any time of the day.” Then she leaned forward and whispered as if imparting a state secret, “I even got sick eating pudding!”

        The hybrid visibly relaxed, she was relieved to know that it was normal baby sick and not anything serious.

        Suddenly she remembered in a blinding rush of memory, the black stone she had given Milly for a wedding gift.

        “Milly,” she exclaimed as she turned to stare up at the tall girl, “Push the buttons, push them now!”

        Milly stared for a second until comprehension flashed across her face and she reached underneath her shirt collar with a searching finger. Hooking the chain she pulled it out to reveal the black stone mini-computer nestled next to the cross Nicholas had given her. Hurriedly she tapped in the code with the tip of a fingernail, remembering the sequence Rinnah told her when she was first given the stone. With wondering awe she watched the stone split apart to reveal the inside workings of the computer.

        “Thank God you remembered code because I don’t think I do anymore!” Rinnah slumped lower in her chair in relief.

        “Here you go. Remember what?” Meryl asked as she walked up with a glass of water and handed it to Rinnah. “You’re looking better now. For a minute there I thought you were going to faint.”

        “I never faint.” The hybrid stated emphatically but accepted the glass and drank down half of the water. Lowering the glass she saw the ‘uh huh‘ smirk on Meryl‘s face. With a slight frown she admitted, “Well, only lately really, not to mention feeling overly tired and then there’s this on and off nauseous feeling I’ve been having at times.” She shot a withering glare at the bulb that had been her prison before facing them again.

        Milly looked up from her hand to stare at Rinnah. “You didn’t say anything about feeling faint and sick to your stomach before.”

        “Pish posh, never you mind, I am in the pink!” Rinnah said, waving a hand about.

        “Oh, okay.” And turned her attention back to the black pebble in her palm.

        Pish posh? Pink? Where on Gunsmoke was this this creature from anyway? That’s when Meryl noticed the black thing Milly was tinkering with fastened to her necklace. She was about to look back at the hybrid when she saw lights twinkling in the middle of Milly’s palm. Her eyes snapped back in amazement.

        “What is that thing?” She breathed out softly, her eyes going big with curiosity.

        “It’s a computer,” Milly said without looking up as she poked here and there with her fingernail. Finally when she was through she snapped the halves together with a satisfied look before slipping the necklace back down her collar. “Lost Technology!” She informed her with a buoyant grin looking well-pleased with herself.

        Rinnah shrugged, “Not really ‘lost’ I would say...”

        “It is to us,” Milly reproved serenely. Then she lifted her eyes and inspected the hybrid from top to bottom as if expecting something to happen. Tilting her head at an angle, she wondered if anything would happen to Rinnah if this thing was supposed to work on plants. Maybe it was only going to work half-way on the half of her that was half. Milly shook her head, she was confusing herself now!

        Milly looked around the cavern at the bulbs attached to the bottom of the walls to the ceiling, but she couldn‘t tell if anything was different or not. Nothing looked out of the ordinary there. Returning her attention back to Rinnah she asked hesitantly, “Did it work?”

        Tipping her head to the side, vibrant blue eyes rose up to the ceiling and then hovered there and taking on a glassy shine to them. Meryl was about ready to break the silence to ask what the devil was going on, when Rinnah finally lowered them. A wicked smile formed on her face as her eyes turned frosty. Meryl would have been worried except that she knew the expression was not directed at either of them.

        Nodding, the obsidian-haired hybrid replied, “Sure did, all the ladies are taking a much needed siesta right now. Although I don’t know for how long. I guess we had better take advantage of the time we have.” She turned and greedily gulped down the rest of the water so quickly that on the last swallow she started choking.

        “Thanks!” She finally managed to gasp out, “’Preciate it!

        Meryl chuckled and reached for the glass before the other woman dropped it. Milly’s friend looked rather queasy although the color was returning to her cheeks again.

        “That hit the spot, I feel much better now.” It was the first drink of water, or of anything in a past couple of days and it felt wonderful sliding down her throat. The plant cherub umbilical cord that had been attached to her back assured that the body it was merged with didn’t lack for any nourishment. As efficient as it was supposed to be, it couldn’t take away the desire to feel food and liquid sliding down one’s throat. It was heavenly.

        Meryl looked around for a place to put down the glass and finally decided to set it down on the console next to a blank computer screen.

For Every Action...

       Knives sagged in the corner of the elevator car, his head abuzz with echoes ringing in it. Everything in him wanted to lie down and go to sleep. It was so quiet...

        His head shot up. Too quiet. With a frown of concentration he listened for the gentle, underlying hum of the mental voices of his sisters. He couldn’t hear them clearly, it was like trying to pierce a murky cloud. He was aware of them, but couldn’t tap directly into the link as usual.

        He then realized that his sisters were slumbering, all of them! They were sound asleep as in the human sense of rest! Which was astounding since plant angels did not need sleep the way humans did. Their way of resting was to stay tightly sealed within the plant buds they usually hibernated in, that place where they lived ‘outside of time’.

        Clasping both hands to his head Knives sought to make a connection. Even if they were sleeping, which he found hard to accept, he should be able to contact their slumbering minds. Within seconds he knew it was useless, he couldn’t make the connection because something was blocking him. Shrugging off the numbing sensation resisting his attempts, he mentally backed off while leaning his back against the wall.

        In the tiny space his eyes were a whirling explosion that illuminated the car in a wash of blue. His hands clenched into fists of determination. He would find out what had happened and fix it. His sisters depended upon him and looked to him to take care of them as he had all these years. There was no one else who cared about them or their welfare; Vash certainly didn‘t! Underneath the hostility he felt for his brother at the moment, and the concern over his sisters, was also the sharp worry concerning Meryl‘s safety. He hoped she was out of harm’s way. A low rumble of anger started low in his throat. She had better be untouched and undamaged! He fumed and the car glowed ever brighter with the output of his energy.

Clothed and In My Right (Where I Left it) Mind

       “Hey Rinnah, I almost forgot, we brought your clothes with us!” Eagerly, and with a sense of pride, Milly thrust the bag out which Rinnah couldn’t grab fast enough. Once in hand, she darted back through the doors and into a room to change.

        “Wow,” commented Meryl, eyes wide. “I haven’t seen anyone move that fast...”

        “Except for Mr. Vash or Mr. Knives, right?” She tilted her head knowingly at her smaller friend.

        Meryl stared after the hybrid and whispered “Yeah... just like them,” so softly that Milly didn’t hear it.

        With a puzzled frown she looked down at her friend and wondered at the fleeting expression of misery on Meryl‘s face. She didn’t understand, everything was working out so well now, Meryl should be happy. After all, looked what had been accomplished, she was out of jail, they had found Rinnah, and also had survived a harrowing brush with death. All in all, things were looking up.

        At that moment Milly took a moment to look out over the cavern and saw the hundreds of plant angel bulbs lining the walls from the floor to the curve in the ceiling. It was very impressive. Before this moment she hadn’t had a chance to fully recognize the value of what the sight meant.

        “Wow,” she breathed, staring up astonished at what she was seeing. So many plant angels in one place. Lowering her head so that she didn’t develop a crick in her neck, she spied the one globe that was different from all the others and walked over to it. Milly could just barely see over the edge of the platform that surrounded the base of the globe, but it looked like there was something dark lying on the bottom that looked like black rubbery skin. In order to get a better look she would have to climb the stairs to the platform and peer in but just when she was considering it she heard a door opening behind her. Turning around she was just in time to catch the hybrid’s entrance so started back over to join the other two.

        Obviously delighted to be in her own clothing again, Rinnah came toward them with a merry bounce in her step. Throwing out her arms in a wide open gesture and with a joyous smile of greeting lighting up her face, she cheerfully exclaimed, “Life is good!”

        Upon the utterance of those words a soft chime sounded in the room and at once everyone‘s disposition was immediately changed. Rinnah froze in her tracks. She leveled a watchful eye over Meryl‘s shoulder to the elevator doors behind the shorter girl. Milly and Meryl slowly turned to also stare, both were suddenly tense and on edge.

        “However, I have been known to be wrong before,” remarked Rinnah, hands on hips as she waited for the doors to open.

How Paranoid is Paranoid?

       It was a silent ride after Vash managed to pull his feathers back into his body. Until Levio spoke up to ask, “Do either of you have a plan?”

        Wolfwood just stared at him while the shaggy-haired man patiently returned his gaze.

        “A plan?” Vash said absently as he slowly pulled his thoughts back from where they were occupied although his eyes were still staring off into the distance.

        “You know, one of those things we never seem to have.” Wolfwood’s mouth jerked into a grin before he could suppress it. “Although our normal practice is to use that tried and true standard called, ‘by the seat of our pants’.”

        Levio’s eyes bounced back and forth between the two men, nonplussed at their indifferent flippancy in the face of overwhelming odds and danger.

        “So, you do not have a plan then?” Levio asked, not quite believing what he was hearing.

        “No.” There was a pause. “Why do you ask? Is it important?”

        Again Levio looked back and forth between one and the other. Were they serious or was this human bantering again meant to take the tension out of a stressful situation?

        “What do you intend to do when we arrive at our destination?” He said slowly and succinctly in case they missed his point.

        “I don’t think he has much respect for our ability to deal with a sticky situation. He’s talking to us like we are a couple of idiots.”

        “Well, we shouldn’t have let this happen in the first place.”

        “Yeah,” Wolfwood replied glumly. Then glared at Levio. “Thanks for cheering us up pal, you’ve been a big help.”

        The preacher made a face at his friend then heaved a sigh. Maybe the assassin was right, maybe they were one moon short of a full night sky. He turned back to the address the skull-covered side of Levio’s face. “How about this for a plan? When the doors open we’ll leap out and scream like a couple of bloody fools and shoot back at anyone who shoots at us.” He could feel Vash’s hot stare boring through the skin on the side of his face and added, “And we’ll be careful to not kill anyone... Intentionally.”

        Levio gave them both a dirty look out of the unmasked eye, obviously less than pleased with their answer.

        “I don’t think he believes us.” Said Wolfwood in a stage whisper.

        “Or maybe he does believe us.”

        “Yeah, there is that.”

        “Hey! I believe this is our floor!” Vash said, an eager light in his eyes.

        The car jerked to a halt before sinking into place and halting. The two gunslingers were instantly alert and ready. Levio was about to open his mouth to make a remark when both gunmen rushed by him leaping out through the open doors like cowboy heroes in action.

        However they never got to set so much as a toe outside of the elevator for both men were grabbed mid-air and yanked back into the car by the backs of their collars and then unceremoniously dumped onto the floor.

        Accompanying the thud upon their landing was the sound of cursing and choking while hands immediately flew up to rub their necks.

        “What...” Vash, coughed and then demanded, “What the hell was that for?!” He stared up with a puzzled frown at the towering figure of Levio standing over them, while Wolfwood glared daggers at him. Despite being pissed and confused, both men were impressed, Levio had hefted deposited them both with an ease as if each man weighed no more than a bag of feathers.

        Levio returned their stares with composed unconcern.

        Calmly, ignoring their rising impatience, Levio jerked his chin at the small empty room behind him. “Notice anything?” He demanded curtly.

        Wolfwood leaned one way and Vash the other so they see around Levio’s legs to view the room in front of them.

        Leaning back upright, the priest testily answered, “No.”

        Vash scanned the room. He didn’t see any sign that uglies might be hidden about ready to leap out at them without warning. Come to think of it, his inner warning signal wasn’t going off so it couldn’t be that. He looked at the room again with the view that his brother had designed it.

        “The pattern on the floor,” he mused, and sat upright. Vash didn’t need to see any more.

        “Yes, we must be careful. This is not just a floor but a giant code panel to catch the unwary who would venture this far,” intoned man quietly in a pensive voice.

        Vash shot him a quick look, it was strange to see the skull and then to hear that soft, low voice coming out of this killer.

        “What, we have to play checkers to get across?” Wolfwood gave the floor a sour look. “I knew it, I just knew it!”

        Levio merely looked at him with an annoyingly serene expression on his face, the side that was visible anyway. “Yes. First the move named Kramnik‘s Stone, then Fischer’s Respite, and finally, hop scotch minus one. But in case you don‘t know the moves, follow me and you will be safe.”

        “What? You’re shitten’ me right?“ As Wolfwood goggled at him in disbelief. Then he turned accusing eyes to Vash, “Your brother is seriously warped, you know that? He is the most obsessive, suspicious son of a bitch I have ever had the displeasure to come across!” He waved a hand at the floor in indignation. “Chess is one thing but Knives would never throw in....“ He stopped as a thought struck him. “Yeah come to think of it, I guess he would. Paranoid bastard.” He sat for a second looking daggers at the floor before muttering, “‘The wicked flee when no man pursueth them.’.”

        There was a moment of silence, each man wrapped up in his own thoughts.

        “You’re right. We only came because he forced our hand,” Vash spoke quietly still gazing at the floor.

        Wolfwood’s eyes shifted to Vash and then back again to study the floor stretched out in front of them. He reached over and lightly slapped Vash on the back and with a wicked twinkle in his eye said, “You go first.”

        Vash sighed. The two gunmen climbed to their feet and looked out over the floor with new eyes. In the next instant Vash was staggering to the side, an unfamiliar buzzing ripping through his head clouding his thoughts for an instant before it was gone. It was that quick, a touch that slapped his mind as if to say, ’tag, you’re it’ before departing and just as swiftly he was back to normal. If one would call normal being held upright on either side by supporting hands while one’s head lolled around on his shoulders.

        “What the hell? Vash, what is it!”

        “Does he do this often?”

        “NO! He never does this! Believe me pal, I have been around long enough to know and this is completely new!”

        The voice was turned away from him but then it came back, closer to his ear. Vash could tell Wolfwood was worried about him and he tried to speak but it took him several seconds to gather his wits, all the while the priest was talking urgently in his ear asking him if he was okay. Opening an eye the outlaw saw the concern in the gray eyes and gave him a slight grin. What spoke volumes to the outlaw was the sight of the cross punisher left leaning haphazardly against the wall. It looked like Wolfwood had dropped it without a thought in order to hurry to his friend‘s side.

        Finally, he managed to say, in a thick voice, “S‘kay.” He didn’t realize he had lost strength in his legs until it came back and then he was able to stand up straight. In fact, whatever that was that had just happened was gone now. He shook off their supporting hands, leaned against the wall and took a couple of deep breaths.

        Wolfwood and Levio stepped back but stood close enough in case he collapsed on them again.

        “Your cross... slipping.” Vash said thickly, lifting a finger to point.

        Levio shot out an arm and caught the priest’s weapon as it began sliding down the wall toward the floor. He lifted it and a surprised expression crossed the side of his face not covered by the mask. Looking at Wolfwood he extended the cross to him and said, “It’s heavy!”

        “Hey, it takes a lot of faith to carry that much mercy.”

        Wolfwood reached for it and then effortlessly swung it back up over on his shoulder. Levio’s one uncovered eyebrow raised at the sight. The priest gave him a lopsided grin, “A little muscle don‘t hurt none either.”

        Both turned to look at Vash before Wolfwood asked, “You okay now?”

        “Yeah, much better.” Vash pushed himself off from the wall feeling improved with each passing second. “Thanks guys.”

        “Well, couldn’t let you fall on your face.” Wolfwood felt the knot in his chest loosen. Vash was sounding more like his usual self. Not that he was worried or anything.

        Raising a hand Vash rubbed the back of his head and then moved the hand to massage his temple and wondered what the hell had just happened to him.

        “Hey, Spikey, what was that all about?”

        “Not sure. Wait just a minute... Not from what I can sense, but from what is being transferred over, it‘s like...” His brow puckered in thought as he stared at the preacher with unseeing eyes continued “All of them are silent, as if they were turned off.”

        “Dead?” Wolfwood asked in a flat voice, already knowing whom it was that Vash was talking about.

        Vash shook his head. “No, not dead... just quiet, inert, maybe sleeping. You know since this link thing, I haven’t been bothered by them,” he made a wry face, “Not that they were wanting the prodigal brother to return to bother with anyway. Still, it will be nicer this way, no henpecking or clucking to listen to in the background.”

        Out of the side of his eye he caught a glimpse of an ever so slight lift of the corner of Levio’s mouth. If one wasn’t careful it could be interpreted for amusement.

        “How are you feeling?” Wolfwood frowned. Whatever happened was more unnerving to him than seeing all of the power-feathers Vash sprouted on occasion.

        “No. It only lasted for that fleeting moment and whatever it was, it’s gone now. I have never felt anything like that before, from anyone.” He shrugged as if the issue was of no matter.

        At that moment the doors of the elevator across the room from them opened.

        Vash heard Levio breathe in sharply and turned to look at him.

        “What?” He had a suspicion that he already knew the answer to that question.

        “Someone has descended before us and that would be one of two people.”

        “What are we waiting for then, snow?!” snarled the priest cross held in an attack postion.

        Levio stepped out onto the first tile not even bothering to alert the two gunslingers to follow in his footsteps. They had been warned already.

Shall We Dance?

       Grimly Rinnah watched as the doors opened and an extremely agitated Knives stepped out. As much as she wanted to pounce on him straightaway she hesitated and forced herself to wait for she could see that his attention wasn’t on her but zeroing in on someone else more important to him at the moment.

        Knives only took one step forward while the flaring blue faded in his eyes as they sought and found Meryl. As soon as he saw that she was safe and sound the rest of the glow vanished leaving them a normal blue. Instead, something akin to the power glowing in his eyes flowed up from deep within him at the sight of her. The intensity of emotion ripped through him leaving him weak-limbed. At any other time it would have astonished him except that his whole being was completely focused on her so that he wasn‘t aware of anything else for that brief span of time.

        Knives’ knees quivered but the coldness was melting that had been wrapped around his spine since he first felt her overwhelming terror of earlier. In its place was a mixture of powerful feelings warring within him. One desire was to grab her up in a lusty embrace and the other was to stick her in a cell to keep her safe so that she would never come to harm again. Yet another was to shake her until teeth rattled in her head. And these options were vying for the top spot while other feelings of equal intensity struggled for dominance. He hardly knew how to deal with it. So he didn’t.

        Instead, he took a step toward his raven-haired mate, unable to keep his distance.

        “Meryl,” He breathed her name like a prayer and was unable to keep the concern for her from seeping into his voice. “Have you been harmed?” His eyes roamed over her small frame searching for any evidence of wounds or bruising. She looked to be in good health even if her face was a little pale. The knot in his chest loosened a notch and he could breathe easier again.

        Meryl saw the play of many deeply felt emotions chase across his face and knew that whether she lived or died could swing either way at this dividing moment in time. Yet as she watched him staring at her, she sensed the shift when it happened and knew that she had nothing to be jealous of from Milly‘s friend. Knives had been beside himself with worry, over her! But she could also tell by the look in his eye that she wasn’t going to be easily forgiven for the transgression of turning on the alarm. However, for right now she didn’t want to dwell on what the punishment would be. Despite the anxiety over his reaction upon finding out that she was the culprit, she couldn’t contain the immense relief flooding her and the fluttering of her heart at seeing him again.

        All of a sudden, startling her, was a growl rumbling deep in his chest. He began to take slow steps forward and she started to have second thoughts. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to be in such close proximity right now, but even so, she found herself taking a step forward every time he did. She was being drawn to him without the aid of any plant-mental powers.

        Milly watched as Meryl got closer to Knives. She was thinking that it might be wise to keep a good distance away from him for the time being. The only other thing she would hope was that the mad face Knives was making would change before Meryl got within striking range of him, but it didn’t look like it was going to. Knives was scary, even more than Vash that time when he fought Monev the Gale. A shivering fear started in her belly and threaded outward until she was cold as a block of ice.

        “Meryl, maybe you should...” She started, a terrified quaver in her voice, but she didn’t have a chance to finish her sentence.

        “No Milly,” Meryl said firmly, “This is between me... and Knives.”

        Brave words but Milly could see the goose bumps forming on Meryl’s arms even from this distance.

        Several steps later Meryl was standing in front of Knives on trembling knees. Looking up into his face she saw the furious expression and coldness in his eyes.

        Softly, for his ears alone, she said, “I’m sorry but I couldn’t let you hurt Milly.” Her small chin lifted defiantly, daring him to punish her for caring about her friend.

        Hard, light blue eyes pierced into hers and held them. “Is that what you think I would have done?”

        “Yes.” There was no hesitation. Meryl knew now that she loved this difficult, moody, exasperating plant, but she wasn’t blind to his violent streak.

        Reaching out he clasped her shoulders and pulled her to him. Then leaning down he rested his brow on hers and closed his eyes for a moment as that same strange and powerful emotion coursed through him. Opening them again he lifted a hand so fingers could trail over her cheek. Then with a mocking grin he admitted, “You know me exceptionally well... for a human.” Both corners of his mouth curved up in a half-smile and he continued, “But this one time I would left her alone... for your sake.”

        Meryl blinked in stunned shock, then tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.

        Milly’s jaw dropped and she held up clasped hands under her chin, eyes becoming soft and dewy. So softly that only Rinnah who was standing close behind her heard, “He does have some Mr. Vash in him!”

        Rinnah crossed her arms in front of her. Yeah like I so believe that! Not a problem for him to say all that after the fact! She wasn’t as impressed as the other two seemed to be.

        “Jerk.” She replied faintly, not even loud enough for Milly to hear.

        However, as if he had heard her, Knives raised his head and spied Rinnah standing slightly behind Milly. The tall blonde friend of Meryl’s was instantly relegated to that of non-threat. However, the hybrid with hair the color of glittering obsidian, now she was a danger. He grasped Meryl by the shoulders and moved her behind him before she had time to protest.

        “Feh. She has nothing to fear from me plant boy.” The contempt coloring Rinnah’s voice couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. She came several steps forward to stand in front of Milly shielding her somewhat from Knives‘ threatening glare.

        Instead of answering, Knives looked from her and then shot a hard glance up to the bulb that had so recently held the hybrid. Within, on the bottom of the globe he saw a withered, black puddle. Incensed, he turned to pin a livid glare on the hybrid with a murderous black look.

        “It is dying!” He said, rage trembling his voice.

        “Not my problem,” she returned with an indifferent shrug. The hybrid met his glare with an icy one of her own. A continuous buzz was coursing through her head and had been since the moment Knives stepped off of the elevator.

        The time of retribution was at hand. Narrowing her eyes at her tormentor, she knew she was ready, but he was looking somewhat the worse for wear.

        This was going to be a contest of wills as well as of skill and strength. The telltale glow of a plantbeing gearing up for battle mode began to show at the edges of her shining eyes.

        Rinnah held out her hand as if to toss something at him.

        Knives watched her warily, stiff on the balls of his feet but only saw a small white square sailing through the air. He hesitated for a brief second but sensing nothing harmful in it he stretched out his hand and caught it.

        She smiled mockingly at him. “Afraid plant boy? Well, I promise not to hurt you,... just yet anyway.”

        Knives lifted a lip in disdain.

        He looked down at the small square object before transferring it between a thumb and index finger to study it more closely. It wasn’t a weapon. Maybe it was poison but that suspicion was laid to rest when caught the scent of peppermint and knew it was a candy of some sort. He looked up to see her watching him with a sharp and eager expression. It was one he wasn’t used to seeing directed at him.

        “Care for a mint?” The look on his face was a familiar one to her. It meant that the other person was speculating as to her sanity, or lack thereof.

        “Let me introduce myself properly. I’m Miss Highly Motivated to Kick Your Ass. Nice to meet you.”

        Knives looked down at the square and with a snarl hurled it to the side. It made a skittering sound as it slid and tumbled across the floor until it hit a wall with a sharp crack. When he looked back to where she had been standing he found only empty space.

        For a long space of time by plant reckoning, less than a handful of seconds for humans, he couldn’t find her and was infuriated by that fact. She shouldn’t be able to move so fast that he couldn’t have followed her actions.

        Suddenly she appeared off to the side and waved at him before disappearing again.

        Knives stared at the place where she had disappeared. She wasn’t wearing any kind of variation of a moonslicker, she had done that herself!

        Rinnah moved again, this time out from the lab rooms into the open space of the cavern and dropped the aura of ‘no-see-me’ she had drawn up around herself. It was harder to use and took more concentration than phasing a plant angel out of a bulb, which didn‘t seem fair at all. Most likely it was because she didn’t practice using that ability. It was taking too much effort so she wasn’t going to be able to use it again once they started trading blows with one another.

        Quickly he found her. She had darted out under the cathedral high roof of the cavern.

        It was not lost upon him that she ran with the same speed and grace all their kind possessed. Once clear of the overhang, she leapt up into the air, unfurling huge white glowing wings behind her and gracefully spiraled up toward the ceiling.

        Knives ran after her forming a long scythe out of the top of his left shoulder with which to cut her in two.

The Error of One's Ways

       Elendira smiled coldly as the elevator softly bounced to a halt. Soon she would face her prey and destroy them; no more toying, no more game playing. These two irritants seemed to have charmed lives. No matter how many perilous situations they found themselves in they always seemed to squirm out of them by the skin of their teeth. Now they were good as dead for the Grim Reaper in the guise of the Crimson Nail had found and cornered them.

        Elendira reached into the folds of her finely tailored suit coat and touched the two slender spikes in their specially handcrafted pockets. They were both small, about the length of her hand but telescoped out to whatever length she desired.

        Elendira rarely carried a gun and even more rare were those times she would use one. More dangerous to those who faced her were the nails of any shape and size that the Gung Ho Gun used as her weapon of choice. The Crimson Nail armed with only a long, narrow spike was more lethal than those desperadoes pulling out guns the size of canons. Indeed, the damage she inflicted upon others at such a fast rate of speed with those sharp rods was said to be unnatural. A grim smile clung to her lips before she slid a tongue over them in anticipation of the upcoming slaughter.

        The doors opened and she started to rush out but after a couple of steps slowed to halt in her tracks. Her eyes widened at the spectacle. There, directly in front of her, an incredible battle was being waged. Seeing the blurred action of the encounter made the Crimson Nail’s lips stretch in a jubilant smile as elation flooded her being. The Master was battling... the Brother!

        Awed, she watched the blur of motion as the two figures fought. One was flying and the Master was slicing the air with his blades at a fantastical and unbelievable speed! The impression left on the one watching the fight was of feathers, blades, and flaring blue light.

        If Elendira didn‘t know better, it appeared to be the graceful, if frenzied, dance between two angels. One was the Master of course, which was immediately evident as he would pause for a blink of the eye before racing or dodging the other opponent. However the other was harder to see. This plant was obscured by the huge pumping wings sprouting and shedding glowing feathers all over the place and veiled the person in the center from the view of those who were watching on the sidelines.

        Squinting and trying to make out the other combatant, Elendira lifted a hand to her brow to block out the blaze of the flaring light. As blows, looking more like complicated dance movements, fell and landed, she didn’t realize that a most unbecoming frown was pulling her carefully manicured eyebrows together. The speeding whirl of limbs and graceful movement was looking less and less like a fight except for when she caught fleeting glimpses of Knives‘ face. There was blood streaming from his nose and mouth and he was definitely looking wearier than she had ever seen him. The rage though, that was even more frightening. Never had Elendira witnessed that kind of anger coming from him and she had seen him become angry on a number of occasions. The plant rarely let it show on his face though.

        It was then the Crimson Nail looked up and was able to see the opponent when the plant paused mid-air after gaining altitude. The cross dresser’s eyes went round at the sight as she got her first good look at the opponent. It was the female half-plant! Instantly Elendira’s mouth turned down and she reached for her retractable nails.

        This was not covered in the plan! She couldn’t let the female half-plant wear out the Master before his brother showed up! The Master needed all his strength so that the two brothers would be on the same level of strength and endurance. This could not be allowed to happen. However it was easy to turn the tide of battle with an easy fling of one of the nails in her clenched hands. This was a good day to go plant hunting.

        Lifting her arm, she took sight of the flying hybrid who was dodging and swooping around, under, and between the many gigantic blades slicing the air from Knives’ transformed left arm and across his shoulders. They came close, so close as to cut strands of hair off her head or snip feathers in two, but never close enough to draw blood.

        The timing was perfect, the hybrid was too engaged in the battle to notice an attack from elsewhere until it was far too late. With no further thought Elendira aimed and hurled the nail.

        A cry of pain echoed in the cavern and Gung Ho Gun permitted herself a small smile of satisfaction, especially when the feathered woman went tumbling to the ground with a spike through a shoulder. Deciding not to take any chances, for the hybrid was already on her feet pulling out the nail with a soft cry, she readied the other nail to throw. This time the target would be the heart.

        She saw Knives whip his head over to look at her through narrowed eyes. She knew that look. It would be best to make the shot and then her getaway. It was a relief when his eyes turned back to study the grounded half-plant.

        Starting to take a step forward and with eyes locked on the wounded hybrid, she heard a growling noise near her.

        “Oh no you don’t!”

        A weight encircled her waist and carried Elendira several yarz to the side. Fury swept through her being, how dare anyone touch her person without permission!

        As soon as both Meryl and Milly had seen the nail pierce Rinnah’s shoulder they didn’t have to be told what had just happened. With indignant cries they turned and saw the victorious grin spreading across the Crimson Nail’s face as she readied another nail. With a low growl of anger, Milly ran and launched herself through the air.

        The tall blonde collided heavily with the cross dresser, easily knocking her off of her feet. If she had been aware that the Crimson Nail was in the room with them, she would have attacked earlier. Neither she nor Meryl heard the sounding chime indicating that the elevator had arrived again.

        The two rolled a couple of times in an furious tangle before Milly got the upper hand and found herself sitting on a red-faced and seething Elendira.

        From her flattened position on the floor, the cross dresser saw an infuriated tall woman looming over her. The tall blonde was sitting on top of her! Slowly her eyes climbed the duster up to a very familiar and hated face. A face that was staring down at her with accusing righteous fury filling her eyes. Elendira showed her teeth in a frosty smile. The insufferable piece of trash not only had the audacity to touch her but was sitting on top of her in a superior position!? This was not to be tolerated! The airhead had surely signed her death warrant in spite of her feeble attempt to save her friend. Eyes alight with hatred and malice she swung the spike that was still in her hand up toward Milly‘s heart.

        It would have plunged deep into the tall woman’s chest except Elendira’s wrist was caught firmly and tightly in the tall girl’s left hand. It was so quick and unexpected that the cross dresser couldn’t have been more shaken and astounded if one of her nails sat up and began speaking to her. The tall half-wit was not only stronger than she looked but quick too! Turning stunned eyes from the hand encasing her wrist, she looked up to see a fist descending with the force of a sandsteamer behind it. Elendira knew no more as everything went black around her. She didn’t even hear the nail fall from her hand to the floor with a metallic clang.

        “Milly! Are you all right?” Meryl dashed over and grabbed her friend under the armpits trying to pull her off of the unconscious Crimson Nail. It would have been a futile attempt except that Milly allowed herself to be lifted up and even helped in Meryl’s effort to get her away from the most notorious of the Gung Ho Guns.

        Rising, she let Meryl tug her back over to the console. Then her friend disappeared into the next room and returned with several items. Some she placed on the console and then indicated the chair for Milly to sit in. Suddenly exhausted, Milly didn’t argue but sank into the chair to watch Meryl with weary eyes.

        First Meryl took what looked like white strips of plastic and moving back to the cross dresser’s side, kneeled and circled both of Elendira’s wrists with them. Then she touched something on the side and the wristbands lit up with a greenish light.

        Returning to Milly‘s side, she explained, “They are restraints. When the prisoner wakes up the restraints emit a very limited but specific field making them feel lethargic. So we should be okay if she revives anytime soon.” With a grim look, “I have seen them used often enough and was even threatened with them myself a time or two.”

        “Knives is a big fat meanie!“ Milly started out with a frown but quickly melted as she went on, “But good thinking Meryl!” And promptly slid off the chair onto the floor.

        Meryl gasped and tried to halt the slide but was unsuccessful. She kneeled down next to her friend and began patting Milly’s wrists and speaking to her, imploring her to wake up. Of all the things to happen! Meryl blinked back tears as she softly patted Milly’s cheeks. This was the first time she truly felt helpless and her mind was blank on what she could do to help Milly.

        “Please be okay Milly, please!” Meryl couldn’t begin to think what was wrong with her friend until Milly sighed, smacked her lips and murmured, “Why thank you, pudding would be nice.” Then, with another smack of her lips, she turned on her side and curled up into a ball. She had fainted, from the stress of the past few days or pregnancy or both, who knew?

        Meryl stared down at her, totally dumbfounded and then sagged in relief. Milly wasn’t hurt after all. After making sure Milly was comfortable she turned her attention back to the fight that was still raging. Even though the action was going so fast she couldn’t see the individual blows, she could tell that the two were a little more even now that Rinnah was injured and unable to fly for the time being.


       Rinnah gasped at the pain shooting through her shoulder. Stumbling to her feet, she reached up and grasped the shaft of the spear and pulled. After removing the it, she threw it off to the side, far enough away that Knives couldn’t easily pick the nail up and stab her with it. Damn, that really hurt like hell! Gritting her teeth she pulled in her wings, absorbing them into the cellular structure designed for them, in pockets in certain areas on her back, thighs and calves. Amazingly it was getting easier each time she attempted the maneuver.

        During that space of time, Knives wasn’t waiting for her to marshal her strength. He too had done some absorbing until just one lethal blade was left. Raising it high into the air he brought it down with the intention of slicing one of her limbs off. His goal wasn’t to kill her, as much as it pained him to admit it, he still needed her. It was his preference to incapacitate her enough that he could get her back into a bulb. Although this time he would have to put her into a normal plant bulb until another one could be grown. Yet another setback!

        The blade was high in the air and the target was one of her legs. He brought it down so fast that it was hard to detect the swift descent of the guillotine action. The blade landed, but not where he was intended. It hit and sank several feet into the stone floor where the hybrid had been. She was gone.

        “Have to do better than that plant boy!” Said a voice off to the side.

        Knives turned to look and saw, first a fist, then stars. The fist slammed one more time into his face but on the third time he was able to block the last strike while he staggered backward. Since the blade was still sunk into the ground it kept him from falling over and he used it to pull himself upright before retracting it into his skin. After that he formed scores of small to large knives up and down his arms. His face tightened into a menacing scowl, eyes flaring blue in their sockets. Only chuckling met the fierce visage that he presented.

        “Not impressed, ya freaking can opener.” The hybrid stood with fists on hips, eyes ablaze in cold blue fury to match his own.

        The enraged male plant could tell he was weakening and he couldn’t afford to lose. Instantly several more sharp swords and blades reared up from his flesh, each with their own wicked point. There was no choice, if he couldn’t pin her to the ground with one of his flesh knives or sweeping pendulum-shaped blades he would have to use his mental ability in tandem with the seed in his arm that boosted his physical power.

        Having practiced for decades using the energizing seed located in his left forearm, Knives reached for that power along with a mental attack. In the next moment he was staggering in place from a furious backlash action.

        “Felicitations from Rinnah Blackfire to you oh dull Knives! Oh, no need to thank me, consider it an early birthday present.”

        Knives could barely get his eyes open, the pain in his head was a hot, spiking shard ripping through his mind. In a purely reflexive action, he tried to use his mental abilities again, only this time he found himself on his knees, gasping from the pain. He looked at her through half-opened eyes and wondered why she didn’t press the attack, he would have had he been her and he was obviously wide open. He stared at her puzzled when she gave him cheery wave and grin while waiting for him to recuperate.

        Off to the side, Milly snorted, licked her lips and then opened her light blue eyes. Meryl was at her side instantly.

        “Milly,” she asked softly, “Are you okay? Please say you are okay.”

        The tall blonde looked up at Meryl from the corner of her eye and blinked before answering, “I am okay Meryl. What happened?”

        Meryl felt a great weight rise from her chest. “I don’t know, you just sort of slumped over. Maybe you fainted.” She helped Milly to sit up.

        “Are you sure you are okay?” Meryl asked again worriedly.

        “I’m just dandy, Meryl!” She spied the two combatants still spinning and whirling around each other like small typhoons. “Gee, did I miss anything? Look at them go, it’s almost like they are playing tag with each other. Kind of hard to tell who is winning though.”

        “I wish they were playing tag,” Meryl muttered as she looked over at the two fighting plants and shook her head, “I am worried about him Milly, he’s just not acting like normal.”

        “Good, maybe no one will get killed then.”

        Meryl sighed, Milly didn’t understand but then after everything she had heard and had experienced herself, Knives really did deserve a smack down. Then why did her heart ache so badly for him? She and Milly helped each other to their feet as they watched what looked like two forces of nature collide and dance around each other.

        “It would be kind of pretty if I knew they weren’t trying to pound each other into a bloody pulp.”

        Meryl just grunted. Her eyes were locked on the scene in front of her trying to make out what was happening. It was then that they broke apart, coming to a standstill while facing each other. Both were breathing hard and eyeing each other with resolute determination.

        The air between the two contestants fairly crackled with unseen energies and then Knives staggered back as if he had been hit. Meryl and Milly looked at each other and then back to the scene confused. The male plant grabbed his head like someone had just hit him alongside the skull.

        “That’s odd. Rinnah didn’t hit him.”

        “Yeah...” Meryl murmured, not able to take her eyes off of the embattled plant.

        Knives swayed on his feet. What had the half-plant done to him? He knew it was her, all one had to do was look at that lighthearted grin of hers like a child who has just pulled off an impish trick, to know that.

        “You, will never see the light of day again!” Knives glared at her through red-rimmed eyes.

        She lifted a finger and wagged it at him, “Ah, ah, ah, make certain to secure your tray and return your chair to its upright position.”

        Knives blinked, then promised himself the next thing operated on would be her vocal cords. In response to his thought, a flesh-knife shot out from his bicep to spear her in the leg, except she evaded the attack by hopping and skipping off to the side. He was getting tired of this wretched female.

        The hybrid came streaking in with eyes blazing before barely slowing to spin on one leg and land kicks so fast on his legs and torso that it appeared to the naked eye as one slamming hit. It was enough to throw Knives off-balance and she spun again only this time in the opposite direction to pop him quickly in the ribs then up to the chin. Before his chin bounced back she reached for him.

        “I hate Monday mornings, don‘t you?”

        He didn’t even have time to snarl a threat before he was sailing through the air over her head. However he had presence of mind to pull in his blades as he crashed to the ground, his knees scraping on the stone floor as he slid for a ways before coming to a halt. Looking up he gave her a fierce look but she grinned cheekily back at him. Power erupted from him at the flaring of his anger but she dashed to the side in time to avoid the descending spike that landed where she had been standing.

        Rinnah knew that she was a bit faster, for the time being, but she was getting slower. It was important she didn’t get so close that he could grab her in a clinch. She was fairly certain that he didn’t realize that she wasn’t as strong as he was but it wasn’t something the hybrid was banking on or intended for him to find out. Speed and a certain flair for verbalizing her ire were all she needed right now.

        Panting heavily, his head tortured from the raw pounding within, he saw flickers of light exploding in front of his eyes. Knives tried again to reach out with this mind and once again pain detonated in his brain until he was grabbing the sides of his head with trembling hands. Slowly his vision came back along with his other senses but there was a lingering throbbing at his temples to remind him that what had just happened was real and wasn‘t merely his imagination.

        Knives got to his feet, feeling a great deal of disquiet. It was like expecting a limb to be there and discovering it wasn’t.

        “Hurts, doesn‘t it?”

        He looked up to see the half-plant standing yarz away from him with a triumphant smile on her face and arms crossed in front of her.

        “What did you do to me?!” he snarled at her, rage ripping through him as he clenched his hands into tight fists.

        “Remember the whole hair restoration thing?” here she lifted a hand to point a finger and made small circles in the air in the direction of his head.

        The fuming plant didn’t give a sign that he had heard, only stared with eyes filled with hate.

        “Sure you do.” She smiled pleasantly back at him. “I just had a quick look-see around and planted something in your little garden of joy. All without you knowing of course.”

        Rinnah stopped, Knives could have been a statue carved out of stone he was so motionless. Quirking an eyebrow up she informed him, “You can’t use your mind powers on anyone.”

        As his eyes narrowed in disbelief and suspicion, she added, “Yeah, you are so paranoid that you can’t believe what I am saying is the truth. Thought you had me there didn‘t you, well I don‘t take kindly to me and my friends being stalked, kidnapped, and threatened! And not to mention the worst cup of coffee I have ever had in my life!”

        Shaking her head in mock sadness for second before she continued, “You will be able to ‘receive’ when someone of your race mindspeaks you and you can communicate back if their mind is receptive to you, but you will not be able to forcibly take over anyone’s mind or read it. I think it’s only fair, don’t you? We return you now to your regularly scheduled program. Have a nice day.”

        Rinnah turned to leave. Suddenly the lust for revenge was gone along with the battle fever. Now, she only wanted to be with her friends and... And... The thought burst through with startling clarity, she wanted to see Vash so bad she could almost taste it. She had missed him like crazy. Great. Just freaking great.

        Except someone wasn’t through with the battle.

        She stopped, her back still toward him. She didn’t need to hear him to know that he was going to attack again.

        “*I really don’t want to do this anymore Knives. Can’t we just make nice-nice in the sandbox now?*” she sent into his mind and waited, arms hanging loosely at her side in a relaxed position. She knew he would try another mental assault, mainly to see if she was telling the truth since he was having a problem accepting the reality of the situation. Then would come a physical assault once he realized that he couldn’t attack or control her mentally.

        “Meryl,” whispered Milly, as they watched the two. Rinnah was facing them while her back was to Knives. Milly didn’t think that was such a sensible thing to do. “What are they doing?” She was relieved when Rinnah turned to face Knives again.

        “I don’t know, I haven’t a clue,” Meryl whispered back, worry edging her voice. Knives and Rinnah were just standing there staring at each other and it couldn’t be good whatever it was. She was worried for Knives, he was looking drained and weary, but despite that, he was in a towering rage. Meryl couldn’t even begin to guess what that might mean.

        Rinnah slowly turned to face Knives and holding up her palms toward him at shoulder height, she asked softly, “Aren’t you tired Knives?”

        “You will be defeated..”

        “I didn’t mean that... aren’t you tired of pretending? You have been raging against all those who could or would love you for so long. How intelligent is that, doesn‘t it hurt to keep doing that? To hold onto the hate while the anger you feel is starting to dissolve into something faded and cheap? It’s the tarnished anger of knowing that Vash was right all these years, and worse, a lowly human was right. What‘s her name again... oh yeah, Rem.”

        Rinnah watched his eyes flare up at that but he held his silence. “Life is precious. And who taught her that do you think? Did she come up with it on her own? Maybe, but you know what sealed it in stone so it was an unshakeable belief in her life?” She tilted her head to the side, eyes vibrantly blue, “She was taught it by the very tragedy that ripped a hole inside of your soul. However, her response to the heartbreak was very different than your choice of how to live your life.” She stared at him for a moment, watching the play of emotions crossing his face, from disbelief to fear to rage and finally a mixture combining into an implacable stone hard expression.

        She spoke quietly, “Why do you want to be like the worst of them? Are they that powerful Knives? Are you so desperately afraid of humans that you must imitate them?”

        Knives’ eyes went wide and then she saw panic. He was trying his level best to attack her mind and was realizing that he couldn’t. When he doubled over she knew the pain of the backlash was too much for him.

        “They... Deserve.... To... Die...” he panted from his bent position down on one knee, clutching his mid-section. “I... am not... like... them!” He hissed out as he looked up at her from under his light-colored brows.

        “Congratulations there Sparky, you’ve done them one better by becoming worse. Way to show ‘em how it‘s done!”

        Rinnah bent over also, placing her hands on knees until she was on the same level with him so he wouldn’t have to strain so much to look up at her. “In the dark valley of heartbreak, a human bested you by walking out with a purified soul, and you, you sad sack of waste, will end up bloated with the stink of bitter loneliness, the very thing you were always afraid of the most.”

        She studied the tight, bunched muscles along his back. One of two things was going to happen soon, he was going to implode or explode. “Life’s a bitch, ain’t it Knives? I’m sorry that happened to you, especially as a kid, that really, really sucks. But, however, it stops here. I am not going to let you continue to take out your little tantrum on others.”

        When she had entered his mind to restore the depleted energy and thereby turning his hair back to it’s original color, many things that were a puzzle to her were explained. Things she wasn’t intent on seeing, didn’t want to see and even tried to avoid, but the hurt and pain of carrying these inner wounds for so many years were vividly sharp and everywhere in his mind. And, they were taking a toll on him. Knives really didn’t like being the way he was. Surprisingly, he was the gentler and more sensitive of the twins and the descent into madness had been his only escape from the disillusionment and pain over knowing how his sister had been dissected into many different pieces.

        Rinnah wasn’t a mind healer, she didn’t have a clue as in how to help him, but she hoped that he could get help even though it was quite a backlog of misery and pain that he had been carrying for too long a time. She wished it were as easy as slapping an inner band-aid on the festering cancer that had plagued him but nothing was ever that simple. She sighed, even if she didn’t know how to help him, the one thing she did know was that he was going to launch an attack soon, within seconds she would guess.

        When he had attacked before it was because his reasons were altruistic in regards to saving his kind. Now he was intent on inflicting some real damage in exchange for the words that cut through his pain with a different kind of pain, one of truth. With a slow regal dignity, Knives straightened up and pinned his hard gaze on the female half-plant.

        She studied the tensing muscles and the rigid stance. Oh yes, when he attacked next, it would be for more personal reasons. She blew out a puff of air that stirred her bangs if ever so slightly. Star holes but her shoulder hurt!

        Knives roared and his back, shoulder and arm formed one huge blade, moving with blinding speed toward the patiently waiting hybrid.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 35 - THE END!
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