"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 8"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG-13
Rinnah and Dark Vash are the creations of Susan... original concept by deleria, Gunsmoke by Nightow-san.

Truth is Known in the Desert
       She arrived at the edge of the fire in time to hear Milly ask Wolfwood, “Do you think they’re okay? Should we go look for them?”

        Rinnah halted for a second to listen to the reply. “Honey, just let them be, if I am not mistaken they have some things to work out between them.”

        “No we don’t.”

        Rinnah stepped out of the darkness into the light startling them both. Her face grim, she glanced at the priest and Milly and walked over to the rock where she had left her plate. Ah, her plate was still there. The hybrid reached down with a word of thanks on her lips to pick up the plate. Putting on a show, she acted for all the world like she was just now returning from attending to certain bodily functions.

        Rinnah felt the weight of their stares as she sat down. Glancing up to find them staring at her with questioning expressions before becoming aware that they weren’t looking at her but down at her... Looking down also she turned a beautiful shade of crimson red. She hadn’t taken into consideration what the fight and er, other thing had done to her outfit. It was torn in the front revealing a part of her that she would much rather have covered up, thank you very much.

        Rinnah pulled the ripped section up even as she began taking stock of her outfit. One sleeve ripped up the seam to the elbow and the other hanging off the shoulder by a few threads. Underneath the ripped clothing she had scrapes, cuts, and bruises still forming on what skin was showing, especially around her wrists. How could she have walked all the way back and not have noticed this? Of course, it wasn’t exactly like she was in her right mind. She was still feeling weirdly fragmented and unhinged from earlier. Taking a moment to examine the skin showing she realized she was covered head to toe with dust and gritty sand. How was she going to explain this? Should she try to explain this? Rinnah put down her plate and nonchalantly gathered the tattered remains of her tunic and lifted it over the, ahem, exposed area. Now what? How was she going to keep it in place?

        Wolfwood didn’t realize he was staring until Milly’s elbow jabbed painfully into his side. The Big Girl had sharp elbows! He looked over to find her frowning at him shaking her head. Right. He looked down at his cup. I don’t see the near naked female sitting across from me. Nope, not at all. I don’t know what happened and I don’t want to know. Staring into his cup he felt the awkward silence deepen around them, a painful silence. However, Wolfwood refused to look up and break the tension with any feeble words he had. A wise man knows when he doesn’t have anything to say and that anything said would be akin to dancing naked in a skin-stripping sandstorm. Only a fool would do either and of the many things he was, he hadn’t survived this long by being a fool.

        Without looking up Rinnah coughed and then informed them, “Uh, we had a little difference of opinion.” She stared at her plate as if it was the most fascinating thing in the whole universe.

        Of course. Wolfwood should have been able to guess that. He and Vash had their share of disagreements in the past. Only his disagreements had never involved clothing being ripped off his body. He didn’t look up as Rinnah spoke. And he thought he was conflicted! He had nothing on these two. He wondered how Milly was doing with this. He was surprised she wasn’t saying anything and chanced to look at her out of the corner of his eye.

        Milly sat there unable to think or speak. Something was nudging at the edge of her mind, a horror of darkness trying to get her attention. She dodged its grasp, fixing her eyes and attention on Rinnah’s face. For the first time since getting to know Rinnah she appeared confused and unsure of herself. Milly wasn’t used to seeing this side of her. She got up and went to her bag of supplies. Finding what she was looking for she turned and studied her friend for a moment before crossing the distance between them. It was up to her to be the big sister for a change and take care of the younger.

        Rinnah realized how awkward it was going to be to use her fork, balance her plate and hold her shirt together all at the same time. She ignored the unasked questions hanging in the air and breathed a sigh of relief as the silence went unbroken. Until she heard a step to the side. Oh. Him. She didn’t look up, man these beans were fascinating, the texture, the shape, the smell! Milly had really outdone herself making them edible.

        Rinnah felt a presence kneel next to her and without looking she could tell from the light fragrance that it was Milly. She turned her head just a fraction to look at her and at what Milly held aloft in her hand. A threaded needle. Gently lifting Rinnah’s hand off the fabric, she began sewing together what ragged pieces she could hold together.

        Finally Milly shook her head, looked at Rinnah and whispered, “I’m not going to be able to sew this back together. But don’t worry, I have something that I made for you.“ Milly took the plate out of Rinnah’s hand, set it down and helped her to stand to her feet. Rinnah followed her across the camp to where Milly kept her backpack. She knelt and dug through her belongings to pull out a blue tunic.

        “I wasn’t going to give this to you now so it isn’t wrapped or anything.“ She gave the other woman an apologetic glance which wasn’t noticed. Rinnah was staring at the shirt Milly was holding up. It was beautiful! Blue with bronze trimming and diamond accents on the sleeves and one around the neck. The material looked light and airy, a good choice for this arid and hot planet. Rinnah reached out a tentative hand, awed with the gift and touched the fabric.

        “Thank you Milly, it’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!” She couldn’t take her eyes off the shirt.

        Noting Rinnah’s expression Milly smiled with a great deal of satisfaction. Holding it up she inspected it with a thoughtful look. “I think this will fit, but then I was pretty sure I got the measurements right. I took them one of the times you were asleep way back when you were going through that sleeping phase.“ Milly stood up and again took Rinnah’s hand and started for the rocks standing in the darkness at the edge of the camp. “It’s been harder working on this, than.... the other project because you and I are together most of the time.”

        Once they were safely from view, Rinnah pulled off her ruined shirt and dropped it at her feet, starting to shiver as the cold night air hit her skin causing goose bumps to form. Milly noticed and made haste to help pull the garment over her head.

        It finally dawned on Milly what had been pinching at the back of her brain trying to get her attention since Rinnah had first walked into the light of the fire. She had refused to allow herself to acknowledge it but the ugly suspicion reared up painfully demanding her attention. As she realized what she had been suspecting, Milly felt faint with the blood draining from her face. Even though she didn’t want to know, she needed to know the truth. She had known Mr. Vash too long; she knew what he was like. Was. Used to be. Not now. And she had seen the bruises on Rinnah and the torn clothes.

        A horror she tried to fend off was rising within her. Jaw suddenly tight from nerves and cold hands shaking, she forced herself to ask, “Um, when you and Mr. Vash, were, uh, out, um disagreeing, he, er, uh, he didn’t um... “ Finishing in a tear-choked whisper she asked, “He didn’t force you did he?”

        Rinnah staring off into a horizon she could barely discern under the full light of the moons, had no idea what was going through Milly’s mind and vaguely replied, “Huh? Oh no. Would that he had. That would have been easier to take.” She didn’t see the look cross Milly’s face or she would have been warned.

        “WHAT!! How could you even joke about something like that!” Something long held in check snapped in Milly and even as she reacted, she was surprised at herself. A sharp angry crack sounded and Rinnah’s head rocked to the side as she stumbled a step over. To say she wasn’t expecting the blow coming out of the blue like that was a definite understatement. Especially from Milly.

        Around the fire, both priest and outlaw snapped their heads up in alarm when they heard the crack of someone being hit. Both were halfway up to standing and chanced to look at each other across the fire. Halting mid-way up they both had the same idea and slowly, albeit reluctantly, sat back down again. Some instinct told them that this was between the two girls and neither would be happy with any interference from the males.

        I will never understand women... amazing creatures that they are, but never, ever understand them. Wolfwood picked up his cup and reached for the teapot that Milly had set on the edge of the grill sitting over the fire to keep the tea warm. He had some reservations but trusted that Milly knew what she was doing. His Honey had an uncanny ability to get to the root of issues with grace and kindness. Or, maybe in this case, a good punch across the face was needed. He really doubted that Rinnah had hit Milly. He took a sip. Good tea.

        Vash was lost in thought. He wondered who was hit and why it mattered to him. Two internal voices began an argument. She is so infuriating... and, and... attractive, no, not attractive, definitely not! Smell. Who knew smelling someone could be so... enticing. She’s so different from anyone I have ever met before. Now there’s a word for it. Different. Yeah, crazy different, not .... He stared at the rock where the girls disappeared. He could hear the murmur of voices but couldn’t make out any words. Half-plant. Half-human, not one or the other. She was uniquely herself, whatever that is! I want to... hold her. No I don’t! I want to protect her. No I don‘t! She thinks she is invincible, but she isn’t and I want to be there for her when she needs help. Why? In a way, she’s like Meryl, proud, independent... Meryl belongs to Knives now. Gone. He lowered his chin down onto arms crossed over one knee bent to his chest, watching the flames rise and fall. I wonder what she feels about... Maybe Rinnah could learn to... DAMMIT! No way! Don’t even go that direction with that hellcat! But he couldn’t stop the wondering thoughts.

        Eyes stinging with tears, Rinnah straightened up shocked and confused. She shook her head before putting a hand up to hold her stinging cheek and looking at Milly with glazed over eyes. “You don’t ever joke about something like that!” Milly said with palpable anger, a frown deepening on her brow.

        “Uh, okay.” Eyebrows knit together in bewilderment, Rinnah lightly massaged the tingling spot. What the hell had just happened? Tilting her head to the side, Rinnah looked at Milly with total lack of understanding. What was going on here?

        Oh, yeah, right, Milly thought she was joking but she wasn‘t, she was being serious. She would tell her that and straighten out the whole misunderstanding. “Hey, I wasn’t joking! I was serious!”

        A hand whipped through the air but this time Rinnah was ready for the swing and with a slight movement leaned away to watch Milly‘s hand pass by her face as if in slow motion.

        Not seeming to care if she had connected or not, Milly spit out, “And you NEVER wish for something like that to happen in place of something else. It’s the most awful, horrible thing that can happen.”

        Rinnah could see that Milly was very intent and serious about this subject. What were they talking about again? Oh, yeah, forcing, right. Geez, From now on I gotta start paying attention when people talk to me.

        Taking a step back away from Milly just in case she decided to take another swing at her again, Rinnah tried to explain. “Listen, I am not like most other women. This has just been the worst night... I can’t believe I lost... I lost a fight. I don’t lose fights. I have never lost a fight.”

        Bafflement and irritation mixed together as Milly fisted her hips and leaned forward to speak with blue eyes blazing. “Rinnah, what kind of woman are you that you can say that?” Milly was completely puzzled by this strange attitude. “I am not talking about losing some silly fight. It is being powerless and defenseless and not being able to do a thing about it! One’s dignity and personhood are stripped from them. That is more dreadful and terrible than losing a silly fight. You will get over losing.” She lowered her arms and tilted her head. Tears were starting to glisten in the corners of her eyes. An image of her best friend flashed through her mind and she shut it away with a pang growing her in heart.

        Rinnah didn’t like the way this conversation was going and certainly didn’t like the way it was making her feel, a little petty and shallow. Silly? “Fine then! My virtue is still intact. Happy now? And why are we even having this conversation?” She stretched her arms out to the sides in a questioning gesture. “He didn’t force me, okay, now let’s talk about something else!”

        Milly’s shoulders slumped and with a deep sigh said, “I’m sorry. I was worried about you. And for a long time now I have been worried about Mr. Vash. I have seen him changing from the child-like soul he used to be and it scares me. I... I.. don’t know what I would have done if he... had hurt... you.” The glistening tears were starting to overflow down her moon-touched cheeks, looking like tiny silver streams. At the sight a tight lump formed in Rinnah’s throat.

        For Milly the twisted mangle of long suppressed emotions of over a year broke through. All the worrying, fears, burdens and unshed tears over the loss of a friend poured out. Knowing her friend had been used as a human incubator and lost her life in the process, no one cared how Meryl felt or what she wanted, they just took her and used her. Now here was another friend she was powerless to help as she watched the spiraling descent into a person she didn’t recognize. Deep wrenching grief was finally acknowledged and Milly was too overcome to be surprised at how much it hurt, like razors slicing through her soul.

        Rinnah heard a catch in Milly’s throat which she pushed around until she was able to whisper in a hoarse voice, “Really Rinnah, he didn’t use to be like this. I wish you could have known him before... before... well, everything. He was so much fun to be around. I used to laugh all the time. He was so much like an overgrown kid. Yet serious when he needed to be. He would laugh and he had the goofiest smile and his eyes, they would just light up with happiness or cloud over with sorrow. He wasn’t afraid to show his feelings. He cried and laughed at the drop of a hat. And he did a lot of both, all the time!” She paused for a second and said, “I really miss the old Mr. Vash.” She started breathing heavily and a sob slipped out. Holding a fist to her lips and squeezing her eyes shut, another sob hiccupped up followed by more shuddering sobs.

        Rinnah stood for a second; not sure what to do but knowing something needed to be done. She wasn’t as good at this consoling business as Milly was. The one thing she knew was that she hated to see Milly cry like this. Her silent weeping was shaking her body head to toe. Finally she put her arm around Milly’s shoulders and pulled her close in a hug and let the woman’s trembling sobs flow over the both of them. Rinnah had no wisdom to offer Milly, all she could say in a soft whisper was, “I’m sorry Milly. I am so very sorry.”

        Becoming aware of her drippy nose, Milly reached into her pocket for a handkerchief and used it to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. Rinnah patted her on the back, no idea if this was what one did when comforting a friend, but she had seen people do this kind of thing before and it was the best she could think of to do.

        “Ready to go back?” She asked her tall friend and Milly looked at Rinnah with tears still glistening in her eyes and nose red but nodded.

        With a consoling arm around her friend they both came around the rock and approached the fire. Obviously the men had heard something as Rinnah noticed they both were looking elsewhere with intent gazes as if the ’elsewhere’ contained all the wisdom of the universe, or naked women. Take your pick.

        Rinnah humphed and got Nicholas to look up at her. She frowned down at him, nodded at Milly, stared at him with one eye closed and jerked her head at Milly again. Get the message, Mr. priest-man!

        Slowly he came over and as Rinnah let go received his woman with strong arms pulling her close into his embrace. He breathed into the hair covering her ear, stirring it gently with each puff of breath. “Milly, Honey? Are you alright?” She nodded into his shoulder but he could feel her weeping again and didn’t care that she was wetting his jacket with her tears.

        The hybrid thought back to her notion of earlier, that it would be difficult to leave these people. After tonight she wondered if she should reconsider. Maybe it wouldn’t be hard at all! She was getting attacked every which way she turned. What next, Nicholas threatening to smack her with his ridiculously large cross gun? Why not? Could this night get any stranger?

        Wolfwood was surprised, no stunned, no, astonished, no... Oh hell with it, he didn’t know what he was, he couldn’t figure out what was going on let alone how he was feeling about it. He had expected Milly to return supporting a weeping Rinnah, but here Milly was the one with the red swollen eyes.

        Milly buried her head deeper into his shoulder and wept. He bent his head down to her as he tenderly held her close to his heart, caressing her hair and murmuring his love into her ear. He realized again how very precious this woman he held was to him. His arms tightened around her even as his heart squeezed in pain as he listened and felt her sobbing against his chest.

        Rinnah started back to the spot where her plate sat but hesitated mid-step when she saw Vash sitting on the rock near hers. She couldn’t figure out why he would be sitting there, but decided not to show that it bothered her and continued to her seat.

        He watched Wolfwood comfort Milly as he waited for Rinnah to sit and retrieve her plate. He spoke breaking the silence that was beginning to hang heavy between them. “Beans are good tonight. Milly sure did a good job on them.”

        The black-haired hybrid recognized it as an overture and stared at her plate trying to think of something witty to say in response. “Oh yes! They were, well, beanie... yes, very beanie.” Holy Hybrid did someone hit me with a stupid stick when I wasn’t looking!? Or did Milly knock the sense out of me instead of into me?

        “Rinnah, we need to talk....” He started and picked up his cup of tea wrapping long fingers around it.

        Luminous blue eyes widened as she turned fully to face him and said vehemently while waving a fork in his direction, “Oh no! No more talking, no more walks, no more fights, and no more of that, well whatever it was!” She leaned in close pointing the fork in his face, “Especially no more, ‘well, whatever‘! You got me!”

        “Wish I did.” He smirked back at her.

        Suspicious, she leaned away from him pulling her fork back with her, “What? What’s that supposed to mean?” Then straightening she replied, “And you better watch what you say, Milly’s in quite the mood tonight.” She wanted to add, and it’s all your fault! But that wouldn’t have been entirely true.

        He quirked an eyebrow at her, “Couldn’t help myself.”

        “Uh, huh... right.” She studied him through narrowed eyes. She trusted him about as far as she could throw him, which she discovered tonight, wasn’t far... Okay, be honest, try ‘Not At All‘. Now feeling cross she turned her attention to her plate. Her fickle appetite was gone again. Damn him. It’s all his fault. Oh yes, she liked the sound of that, it had a certain ring to it.

        Vash glanced at her as she stared down and took a sip out of his cup only to grimace. His tea was cold. Rubbing the back of his neck with his other hand he poured out the cold tea on the ground next to him. What was he going to do? She was a half-breed, an extremely irritating, no make that excruciatingly irritating half-breed.

        Rinnah had come bursting on the scene of their lives, in that bouncing, full of life, noisy, blunt, rude, outspoken way of hers and had disrupted everything. With her single-minded intent on enjoying every minute of life it was enough to get on one’s nerves and thoroughly rip them to shreds. Her child-like and immature exuberance daily assaulted his sanity. He couldn’t even begin to count all the times he had been teetering on the edge of feeling like he was about to lose what little patience he possessed. And don’t forget to mention the fact that trouble followed her around like a shadow in broad daylight. His jaw tightened.

        She was judgmental, self-righteous, impossible, speaking in riddles most of the time that left others wondering what the hell she was talking about, and had the audacity to get under his skin! Opinionated and curious as a cat. Damn, I hate her! She annoys the hell out of me! And knew it for a truth and untruth at the same time even as he thought it. He cursed. He wanted it to be true. The fact was, she was intriguing, fascinating, and he wanted to pull her into his arms and take her... Dammit, not again! He gritted his teeth until they ached.

        He started over. She was nosy, too intense at times, had incandescent blue eyes that shone like the fire of a distant star, a long nose, warm, soft lips.... arrggh! She wasn’t beautiful or voluptuous! She laughed too much and too easily at the smallest, stupidest things... She drove him crazy! Yet, if he was forced to be truthful he alternated between wanting to strangle the life out of her or enfold her in a tight embrace and not let her go. And with the passion that had been slowly swelling in him of late to capture her mouth in a long, deep kiss until her knees buckled… And the thing was, he damn well knew he could do it too! Just thinking about it was causing a tightening in his stomach. Damn, damn, damn!

        A hybrid. He didn’t think it was possible. The only other hybrid at the moment, if you could call it that, was Meryl. Knives was slowly turning....KNIVES! He about choked. Oh God. Knives could not know about this. He. Must. Not. Know. Vash broke out in a sweat as panic gripped him at the thought. Knives would experiment on her and use her as his own personal lab rat. Anger sweeping through him, he chanced a look out of the corner of his eye at the infernal, clueless walking female half-plant.

        Rinnah was watching Nicholas wiping tears off Milly’s face. Her heart squeezed with affection for the both of them. They reminded her so much of her parents and the love the two of them had shared. She sighed with quiet contentment. This was good. Her eyes followed them, lingering as Nicholas led Milly over to her seat and sat down with her.

        She sighed again. Her parents. Her heart lurched and she squeezed her suddenly stinging eyes shut as a million memories flooded through her mind at the speed of light. Almost dizzy with the intense sense of aloneness and loss she pushed back the broken grief as she let the last memory slip down into the darkness of yesterday before opening her eyes. Letting her eyes drop to her feet to give the two lovers across the fire a semblance of privacy, she figured that Milly might need time to recuperate. That was okay with her, she felt the need to recuperate herself and was prepared to stare for minutes or hours into the fire, however long that Milly needed of course. Just give me a second and I‘ll be fine too.

        Milly. Nicholas. So right. So good. What a treasure to have found friends like these. I am blessed all right. A soft smile touched her lips as she studied the fire, following the flames as they danced up and down.

        Rinnah was surprised when she heard the rustle of Milly’s coat and looked up to find her take the teapot off the fire with a hot pad. “I noticed you needed more tea Mr. Vash.” She leaned over with the pot ready to pour waiting for him to hold his cup level instead of dangling in his fingers.

        “Huh?” He looked up at Milly with a lifted brow until comprehension flooded in. “Oh, right.” And held up his cup so she could pour the steaming liquid in.

        Milly threw a quick glance at Rinnah, knowing better by now than to offer her any tea. Finished filling Vash’s cup, she carefully set the pot down on the grate over the fire and turned, to find Nicholas holding up his empty cup with a lopsided grin just for her. She fell in love with him all over again.

        Returning his smile with a brilliant one of her own she retrieved the teapot and filled his cup. Finished, she looked into those dark gray eyes fixed on her face. Her heart squeezed and her stomach flipped over doing somersaults of barely restrained delight basking in the knowledge that she was his beloved. How could a person hold so much love inside? She could feel it expanding the very horizon of her being. For once, Milly understood eternity because that’s what it would take to hold the love overflowing and flooding out of her for this dark-haired man with his slanted elfin eyes.

        With a contented sigh, she placed the teapot to warm by the fire again. Yes, only an eternity would be the proper holding place for this love because it was already spilling over the small confines of her soul. At the same time, it was stretching her, expanding areas of her heart enabling her to hold even more. It was a precious, wonderful and painful at the same time.

        Sitting down next to him, she leaned her head on his shoulder and felt his arm circle around behind her to pull her even closer. She looked up into eyes gone silver gray with emotion and he gave her another lopsided grin and her heart sped up. With just a smile he had this effect on her.

        Milly could have sat that way for minutes, hours, or forever except across the crackle of fire she heard, “Hey you two! There are other people sitting right here you know!”

        A musical laugh escaped from Milly’s smiling lips, “Sorry.” She held up a hand over her mouth as a giggle followed along with a light flush creeping up her cheeks. In that brief minute she had indeed forgotten about Vash and Rinnah. So unlike her.

        Milly looked across the fire at her two friends. The firelight danced across each face highlighting the evening’s conflict there. With a wince, she noted the mark across Rinnah’s cheek. Truly, she hadn’t meant to slap her and certainly not that hard! She wasn’t even sure where the emotion was coming from. All of a sudden it had just been there and overwhelmed her.

        “Rinnah?” Milly asked softly. Rinnah looked up into remorseful eyes. “I’m very sorry I slapped you. It was wrong of me. Can you forgive me?”

        Rinnah grinned. In truth, she had already forgotten it once the stinging had faded.

        “Milly. All is forgiven, besides it’s been a while since anyone has knocked some sense into me.” Rinnah didn’t respond when overhearing what she was sure no one was supposed to. “So that’s what it takes. I’ll have to keep that in mind.” Instead, she shot a dark look at him from the corner of her eye to let him know it wasn’t said as quietly as intended.

        “Well, still, it was the wrong thing to do and I am sorry....” She paused as she noticed Rinnah glare in Vash’s direction.

        Milly’s eyes traveled back and forth between Vash and Rinnah wondering if they had a clue even now. Probably not. She shrugged; it wasn’t her place to enlighten them unless they tried another stunt like tonight. Then she would make it her business.

        She sighed. There was too much going unsaid, and not just between Vash and Rinnah, but all of them. First though, someone needed to speak who had a burden of silence weighing on her.

        “Rinnah, wouldn’t you feel better if you shared your story now? After all, shared sorrows make them light, and shared joys all the more precious when the sharing is done amongst friends. At least that’s what my big middle sister used to say.”

        Mouth open, Rinnah stared at Milly with round eyes. She tried to say something but all that came out was a breathy, “Uhhh.”

        “Now Rinnah,” continued Milly in her sweet, lilting voice, “You have been going out at night, not so much lately, but you were and it was making Mr. Vash worry more than what’s good for him.”

        Everyone spoke at once.

        “I wasn’t worried about that she-imp....”

        “How did you know....”

        “I need a cigarette.”

        “Sneaking off in the dark....”

        “I was so careful....”

        “I need a drink.”

        “Suspicious behavior, who knows...”

        “Why didn’t you say.....”

        “In fact, I’ll take two drinks.”

        “Deceitful, trouble-making...”

        “I wouldn‘t do anything to ....”

        “No, I take that back, make it a bottle, a very large bottle.”

        Milly’s eyes danced in the gleam of the firelight. Holding up a hand to her mouth to cover her smile, she giggled again. People were always so amazed when she let them know she knew things they didn’t think she should know. Getting up she reached behind a rock, picked up a sack and pulled it into her lap. Humming, she rummaged through it until she found what she was looking for. She held up a couple of shot glasses with a soft exclamation of triumph. She set them down next to her carefully and then reached in to pull out a brown bottle that was placed with the glasses. Milly gave no indication that she noticed Wolfwood perked up with interest at the sight of the glasses and bottle.

        “It’s all very easy to explain.” She put her hands her lap and turned to Rinnah first. “I don’t sleep the entire night you know.”

        Rinnah shook her head. No, she didn’t know.

        “I sometimes wake up to hear puddings calling to me and the only thing to do is get up and eat one. Or two.” Milly tapped her chin thoughtfully with a finger as her eyes rolled in consideration. “Even three at times.” She looked back at the group. “It depends on the night and how empty my pudding compartment is.” She grinned at them.

        Rinnah slapped a hand over her face. She never even took into account Milly’s pudding addiction and that it might wake her up during the night while Rinnah was out and about on her nocturnal business.

        Laughing softly at Rinnah’s expression, she said, “So it wasn’t too hard to figure that you weren’t in the hotel room. I also noticed that you were gone for quite a while and it happened fairly often.”

        Handing one glass to Wolfwood who held it up with an awed expression on his face, Milly passed the other one to Vash who received his with a slightly skeptical expression.

        Wolfwood turned to her with one eyebrow raised and teasingly asked, “Do you take requests?”

        She shot back with a giggle, “Depends on the request and who is doing the requesting.”

        “Hey, hey! Stop it! Stop it right now before you go any further! Geez, can’t you two wait until you’re alone!”

        Milly grinned and poured Wolfwood a shot of amber colored liquid, got up and filled Vash’s for him. Upon finishing with Vash’s, she saw out of the corner of her eye Wolfwood lifting and wiggling his empty glass towards her.

        “Woo! Good hootch Big Girl!” He said in appreciation.

        She turned and filled it up again, then saw that Vash had emptied his also. Milly took a few steps over and refilled his only to find Wolfwood holding up his empty cup towards her yet again. They were drinking it so quickly like the desert sands thirstily soaking up any hint of moisture. Seeing where this was heading, her bent over with a crick in her back racing back and forth refilling glasses, she smiled and placed the bottle on the sand between the two men. Wolfwood reached and grabbed the neck of the bottle first. He filled up his glass with a smile before passing it to Vash.

        Rinnah eyed them for a moment before asking, “ What is it?”

        “Well, it doesn‘t have a proper name, but it is in whiskey family. I guess you could call it fake alcohol.” Both outlaw and priest looked down into their glasses at the same time to study their drinks with skeptical looks.

        “You know, I still don’t know what whiskey tastes like.” She said as she watched Milly get herself a larger glass, more tumbler size, than she had given Vash or Wolfwood. Both men noticed right away, looking back and forth from their glasses to hers in comparison and frowned in dissatisfaction.

        Milly acted like she didn‘t notice and replied to Rinnah, “Oh, you poor thing. Here, let me pour you a glass.”

        She reached back into the sack and pulled out another shot glass the same size as the ones the boys were drinking out of. On her way around the fire to Rinnah’s seat, she stopped by the bottle to fill the glass a third of the way up before handing it to Rinnah.

        Rinnah took it gingerly. It didn’t have the same color as the whiskey she had ordered at the saloon and it also smelled different too. She brought it up under her nose and took a deep whiff and was immediately gripped with the incredible sensation of her nose tingling and... sneezed and sneezed and kept sneezing, unable to stop. The sneezes shaking her body were causing the liquid to slosh against the sides of the glass until the liquid spilled out onto her hand and ground.

        Wolfwood came halfway up off of his rock shouting, “Save the hootch, she’s spilling it everywhere!” Though at this point there wasn’t much left to save, less than a swallow.

        Again and again she sneezed with the same result. She couldn’t stop sneezing, one shuddering exhalation coming right after the other, making her sputter and tear up with each one. At one point between attacks, she wiped tears away to find she was holding out an empty glass in front of her.

        A sound that Rinnah had never heard before froze her. She looked up to notice Nicholas and Milly turning with astonished faces to the source of the sound. She turned also and joined them in staring even as she started to sneeze again but fought desperately to control it. Vash was chuckling and a smile, albeit a small one, lifted the corners of his mouth as he watched Rinnah trying to control the next oncoming attack.

        The world must be coming to an end! She thought before another shudder overcame her. Wolfwood’s eyes near bugged out of his head and Milly’s mouth dropped open. Another chuckle and then Milly, Wolfwood and Vash chuckled together as they listened to Rinnah’s frenzied sneezing and her continued vain attempts to stop.

        Later, too much later to the hybrid’s thinking, the sneezing fit lifted and she could finally take a breath in through her nose without it tingling and itching, and most importantly, God be praised, without bringing on another sneezing attack. She looked up to find Milly there offering her a clean handkerchief to wipe her watering eyes and nose.

        In a clogged voice she muttered miserably, “I can’t believe this. I didn’t have this reaction before.” Feeling limp from the attack, she dabbed at her still drippy nose. It was amazing that sneezing could take so much out of a person.

        “Maybe you are allergic to it. And last time you didn’t try to suck it up your nose. Also, this is not exactly the real thing.” Milly replied sagely, tilting her head in remembrance.

        “It’s not!?” Wolfwood looked down at his glass with a wounded expression and then an accusing one at Milly. “What’s the deal Honey, trying to get me liquored up with fake stuff? It’s a travesty, that’s what it is!”

        Milly sat back down next to Wolfwood who was acting most put out and grumbling to himself.... “First she wants me to quit smoking, and then she is forcing fake liquor on me. A man can only take so much....”

        She patted his arm before turning her attention back to Rinnah. “Rinnah, are you ready now?”

        Rinnah took a long swallow out of her canteen and nodded.

        “Where do you want me to start?”

        Wolfwood broke in before anyone else had a chance to voice his or her questions.

        “Where are you from anyway?”

        Rinnah looked up at the night sky looking for the approximate section. There, in that direction. Slowly she stood to her feet, vaguely aware of the eyes on her, and pointed to a faint cluster of stars and said softly, “Second star to the right...”

        “And straight on ‘til morning.” Vash supplied in a quiet voice. She turned her head to him surprised he knew that.

        “What?” Asked Wolfwood with a puzzled frown. “I don’t get it.” He looked over at Milly who had the same expression on her face. She looked back at him and shrugged.

        Rinnah smiled at their confusion. “Sorry. I was born and raised on New Earth. My father was human and my mother was Antressla, a plantoid race.....” Eyes went from wide, wider, to impossibly round and dropped mouths as she told them of her childhood and home. When she was finished Milly and Wolfwood could only stare trying to sort it all out. Even Vash was deep in contemplation.

        “Okay.... okay... you’re a plant too.” Said Wolfwood trying to get it straight in his head. New Earth... humans living someplace besides this sandy rock. It boggled the mind.

        “Half! And half-human. A hybrid.”

        Wolfwood nodded, forgetting what he was going to ask, but definitely marking it for future reference that she was a little touchy about being called a plant.

        “Do you have an angel arm too?” Milly asked eyes bright and awed though out of the corner of her eye she s noticed that Vash had stiffened at the question.

        “Eh? Angel what?”

        “Angel arm where you arm transforms into a big light canon sort of thing.”

        Rinnah stared at Milly as if she had suddenly sprouted a giant pair of mouse ears on top of her head and wiggled them at her.

        “Er, no.” She replied, breaking her stare. “My arms don’t turn into anything. Actually the theory is that I’m not supposed to be able to do anything at all.”

        “Why?” Wolfwood had a cigarette out but for the first time she first met him, he didn’t seem interested in lighting it.

        “Antressla come in all shades and hues of blond and those of us born black-haired hybrids haven’t exhibited any signs of possessing mental abilities. All we had were the physical and speed of our plant parent. Also, more often than not, black-hairs don’t usually survive birth and the Antressla have a term for those who do, called, ‘born dead’. Rellyn and me weren’t supposed to survive infancy, but look, here I am!” Raising arms wide out to her sides in a ‘behold’ gesture.

        “Rellyn? Who is Rellyn?”

        Rinnah winced. She didn’t want to talk about her twin. It had just slipped out. Only thing to do, resume the story and get it over with as quickly as possible.

        When she was finished and feeling slightly out of breath, Wolfwood turned to study Milly a second, “Before we go any further in this relationship do you have an evil twin I need to know about ?”

        Milly laughed in response and said, “No, I am the youngest. I am my own twin.”

        Three sets of eyes glazed over as they tried to decipher that remark before deciding it was impossible. They chalked it up to another ‘milly-ism’.

        Rinnah started again with the story of her joining the academy and the war between Antressla and the united earth colonies, her academy days and the rise to rank of captain with her own ship.

        Near the end Vash interrupted in disbelief with his first question. “YOU? They made you a captain?! That’s unbelievable! You don’t seem the type. Bossy, unstable, opinionated, do it my way, yes, but the ability to command, no.”

        Irritated, since there was truth in the observation, but she wasn’t going to admit it to him, she ignored him and went on filling them in on the history of the Year of Assassinations. The admirals and captains ranks had been decimated by the Antressla wave of assassinations to the point that they were promoting everyone, even janitors. Rinnah knew she wasn’t command material and she would never have made captain, let alone bus boy in the galley, except for the events of that year. Bringing her tale to an end, she finished with “... and so I just followed the voices I heard until I ended up here. I can hear them but they can’t hear me and I can talk to them. Not that some of them are worth talking to. Some of them are real Class-A shrews.”

        “Hey!” Piped up Milly, “Rinnah could you take me for a ride in Peapod?....OH!” An idea exploded behind her eyes causing them to glow, “Could you,” The enormity of it was taking her breath away, “take me to visit other planets?” Her voice was awed.

        Rinnah hated to break the news to her. “Sorry Milly. I’m stuck here. Some trigger-happy psycho shot it full of holes forcing me to crash. May his tiny tattered soul rot in hell. After that I blew it up per regs.” After talking so much, her mouth was dry. Reaching down she found her canteen and unscrewed the lid.

        “Regs?” Questioned Milly with tilted head.

        “Er, when landing on a planet with inhabitants of unknown origins or affiliations do not leave anything behind you that can alert the populace to your presence or give them any information about our technology. That sort of thing.”

        “Shucks. I so wanted to go for a ride.” She said, disappointment written all over her face. She turned her face to the sky with eyes shining. “It would be like having wings. I would be flying. I’ve always wanted to fly. I wonder what it would be like to have wings?”

        Vash looked over at Rinnah. She was choking and sputtering on a gulp of water. He reached over and whacked her on the back which only had the effect of tipping her off her seat.

        Gasping for air as she levered herself upright, and yelled shaking her fist at him, “Jerk! What’d you do that for!”

        “You were choking, that’s what one does...”

        “You idiot! That’s NOT ‘what one does’ for someone who is choking!” She was still stinging from his remarks of earlier.

        He shrugged, not the least apologetic. With a glare at him she climbed back up on her rock. The plant was infuriating!

        Milly sighed and leaned on Wolfwood. Those two were so cute. And then remembered. Wings. What would it be like to be able to fly?

        “I know Honey. If I had wings I would give them to you.” He smiled down at her.

        She returning his smile she replied, forgetting again, “Mr. Priest! I didn’t know you could read minds!”

        He scrunched his eyes shut. “Please, Nicholas or Wolfwood, Honey.”

        Contritely, she said, “Sorry,... Nicholas. But if you could read my thoughts right now, you would hear so much more than that.”

        “Wow.” He opened his eyes to gaze into her wide blue eyes. “You say the most incredible things, you know that? I wish I could read your mind.”

        “I don’t care, as long as you can read my heart.... and really, I don’t care if I don’t have wings... Loving you makes me feel like flying.”

        Vash and Rinnah couldn’t help themselves both grimaced at the remarks and at the cooing the two were doing as they snuggled even closer together, which didn’t seem possible. They were already so close that air molecules would have had a hard time trying to squeeze between them.

        Milly smiled at Nicholas and then sighed. That’s when she noticed her now empty tumbler. She needed a drink. Reaching past Wolfwood she grabbed the half-empty bottle that had been forgotten in the course of Rinnah’s story telling. Bypassing the glass altogether she upended and began chugging it as her sweetie’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head.

        “Hey there Honey, have some respect for the hootch. You need to take it easy with that stuff.” He grabbed for the bottle and pulled it away from her before she could drain it. Holding it up to the light he observed the level was half of what it was before she starting sucking it down.

        “Ah. That was good. Pass it back.”

        “Uh huh. Not for a while anyway.” He put the bottle out of her reach ignoring the pout she turned on him.

        An idea fermenting at the back of Rinnah’s mind for some time now came bubbling up. The reading minds remark brought it up to the surface. She looked at Nicholas and Milly, evaluating and assessing before deciding to speak up. They deserved to be together without anyone else’s meddling in their lives... or minds. Human minds were hard to enter and intermingle with, but it could be done. She could do it, and for these two, she would do it.

        “Uh, Nicholas?” And silently cursed the hesitant tone of her voice.

        Neither Milly or Nicholas gave indication that they noticed as they looked over at her.

        “Ummm, I have been thinking...” Again, that note of uncertainty crept into her voice and this time they heard and it caught their attention. Questioningly they looked at her and she could also feel Vash’s penetrating stare come to rest on her. She shifted uncomfortably. Now she had their undivided attention. Nothing for it but to continue full steam ahead.

        “I know you once were a... member of Knives’ little organization...” Nicholas snorted and she plowed on, “and reported to a mind tender, er... what do you call it here, mind shark? Mind pimp? What?”

        In a flat voice Wolfwood said, “We don’t call it anything because he is the only human I know that can do what he does.”

        “Uh, okay. Well, whatever he is, still he has had access to your mind. So, if you are okay with this, I would like to enter your mind and make sure there are no hooks left over that can be used against you in the future. I wouldn‘t do anything else or look at anything else. It would be too hard anyway. I can‘t stay in human minds long at all; too much effort.”

        Wolfwood paled, staring at her in horror as he considered the danger if such an implication were indeed true.

        A furious scowl descended his brow and he said, “I don’t care if you have to pry my head open with a can opener and crawl inside, get in here and make sure there’s nothing connecting me to that yellowed-eye creep of a pseudo-human!” Then his brow cleared as something occurred to him. “Um, will this hurt?”

        She chuckled, “Not for you, just maybe feel like ants are crawling around the top of your head. For me, it will be more... uncomfortable.” She came to kneel next to him.

        “What do you need me to do?”

        “Well I am going to place my hand on your head and then enter but I want your permission first.”

        “Yes.” He said emphatically, “Do it!”

        Rinnah nodded, then looked at Milly and Vash. Milly was concerned but was determined as Wolfwood that he be free from the creepy human’s influence.

        Vash was strangely silent but thinking furiously. I hope she knows what she is doing. This is not some parlor trick that she is attempting here. If she were one of us, it would streak her hair in the Hair Darkening Effect but the damn woman already has hair as black as the devil’s heart. He felt an anxiousness that surprised him as he watched her gently place her hand on Wolfwood’s head. He had an irrational urge to snatch her back before she linked up. He was one of the very few that knew how dangerous this could be. He shifted uneasily on his rock, eyes shifting back and forth between Wolfwood and Rinnah, until they came to rest on her, watching warily.

        Wolfwood felt a twinge of apprehension but that was being overridden by the frantic desire to be free of anything and everything that had to do with that slime Legato. If there was so much as a whisker of a thought that could link him with Knives, he wanted it dealt with, now. He was more than ready to be his own man and not answer to anyone else.

        Milly didn’t know if she should touch Nicholas or not and decided on not, in case that threw Rinnah off at all. She had never thought that Legato could still be with them like a shadow that one walked around with all day but didn’t pay attention to. He is such a big meanie! Milly felt an uncharacteristic wish that Legato would do them all a favor and drop dead. She rarely wished anyone ill, but she was beginning to believe that Knives and his servant were the exception to the rule of her ’live and let live’ life motto. It anyone ever tried her philosophy of life to the breaking point, it was these two insane individuals!

        Rinnah felt the level of tension rising around her and with a little effort managed to block it as she concentrated on the friend before her. Whispering to him because speaking would take too much effort at the moment, she informed him, “I am going to place my head on you now, and you should feel something like tingling sensation.” She rested her hand on his black hair and left her eyes drift shut. She concentrated pulling up from her ’pathic well.

        It was difficult for her to cross the distance from her mind to a human mind and this time was no different. Like boring through dense rock with a toothpick. Still, she was able to connect and made a little pathway and entered. She felt beads of sweat starting to trickle down her back and along the sides of her face. Ignoring the sensation, she brought her full attention to finding a connecting link between them. Finding it, she rushed in being as careful as she could so as not to cause any damage.

        Knowing she had little time, she dove in searching for anything that appeared out of the ordinary. When she came to what appeared as black strings she instinctively knew they had to be the leftovers from the previous mind touches. She found several places where dark cobwebs spread across certain areas. These were easily wiped away, but it was the hook she found that presented a problem. Then she hit upon it.

        In a raspy voice she instructed, “Milly, place your hand on Nicholas or around him please.” Milly obeyed instantly, not questioning the request while Vash quirked an eyebrow up. What was she up to now?

        Ah. There it was. The warm, life-giving and affirming power of love. Yes, that was what she needed. So many poked fun at it as an old-fashioned value that wasn’t worth much, but she knew better. Love was a power to be reckoned with and just what she needed heal this wounded breach. It was so easy to touch, like a river coursing between the two of them whether they could feel it or not. She leaned into it, gathered some and threw it at the hook. Rinnah felt like giving a huge whoop of triumph as she watched it dissolve and the line attached to it fall away. Then she gathered more, it was like a river stretching from one end of forever to the next, there were no limits on this, and erected a barrier of protection around his mind. None, no one, not ever her, could get in unless he gave them permission. Again, the exultation of triumph flooded through her. Love, set, and match! In your face Knives!

        Rinnah easily slid out of Wolfwood’s mind to find herself falling backwards before strong hands caught and lifted her, pulling her up to support her against his chest. Surprised Rinnah looked up to see blue-green eyes peering down intently at her. She was speechless. Think of something!

        “I’m... I’m fine.” She whispered hoarsely. Ahhhh.... She just wanted to turn until she was facing him and bury her nose in his shirt. I am turning into some kind of weird scent-fetish freak, she thought with disgust. She could feel his heartbeat next to her and felt a flushing heat where his skin and hers came into contact. Oh, this is no good, this won’t do at all! Breaking rule number one here. Trying to distract herself from his nearness she began thinking to herself, I need to tell him I came up with some rules, really good ones. Rules to live by, yup, nice rules, great rules, wonderful rules, rules that would take home awards. Them kind of rules. She sniffed. Oh dear. He smelled so good.

        Catching her again as she struggled, trying to sit up on her own and failed, he leaned to whisper near her ear causing shivers to run up and down her spine, “Definitely fine. I don‘t know why I didn‘t see it before.” And let a chuckle escape as a spreading blush colored her cheeks. He helped her sit up and steadied her with a hand on her back. With a large mental smile he could tell that it made her nervous to have him so close to her and that pleased him to no end.

        Dizzy... earth... tilting sideways. Rinnah was disoriented, feeling like she was sitting up straight but the planet was listing to the side at an angle and yet, to be so painfully aware of the male presence behind her. He was near enough she could still feel his body heat. He is doing it on purpose, I just know he is!

        Ignoring Vash as best she could she managed to ask, “How,... how are you feeling Nicholas?” Observing with a growing smile that Milly’s arms were around him and he was returning the hug with enthusiasm. Oh yeah, you can’t tell they are in love! Finally they let go of each other but clasped hands.

        Wolfwood turned to Rinnah with a grin and said, “It tickled.”

        She returned his smile, “For you maybe.”

        “Oooooo.” Started Milly, eyes widening. “Can you do that for Mr. Vash too?”

        “Uh..” It wouldn’t have occurred to her. Already disconcerted by the question she was further disturbed to feel his warm hands on her shoulders as he turned her around to look at him.

        “Can you?” He doubted anything was there but knowing how manipulative his brother was he wouldn’t put it past him. There had been quite a few times in the past century when Knives could have plenty of opportunities to tamper with his mind.

        An eyebrow went up in amazement, “You want me to?”

        Vash decided in a split second and it surprised him and everyone else there too considering his reclusive attitude of late.


        Not sure what to say because that wasn’t the answer she had been expecting, she just breathed out, “Okay.” And rocked up onto her knees. Rubbing her palms on her thighs to wipe off the perspiration, she hesitated a moment.

        He frowned at her although internally he was amused at her reaction. “Is something the matter?”

        “What? Oh, oh no. Everything is just fine.” I hope. “Okay, close your eyes...”

        “Do I need to?” He never realized that being difficult could provide so much entertainment as he saw her face wash over with irritation and rising frustration.

        Milly’s eyes bounced back and forth between Vash and Rinnah. Even now. She sighed. Why couldn’t they just behave and not have to go through all this push and shove like two little children on a playground. Really, they both were being so immature.

        A wry grin was sitting on Wolfwood’s face as he watched the same thing Milly was. His thought was why didn’t they just come together already and get over all the fighting they were doing? It was obvious to him they were made for each other, at least, the Vash he knew now. They both are going to end up wound tighter then ten-day old clocks at this rate. He rubbed a hand over his face, I guess it just isn’t easy for some folk, but I have never seen any having it as difficult as these two.

        “Well...?” Questioned Vash, leaning in a little towards her.

        “Okay, just close your eyes because I said so, you dim bulb!” She almost jumped when he laughed but did what she asked. Just when she was used to him being one way, he was acting all strange-like on her.

        “Are you ready?” *Broom headed star twister!*

        “Anytime you are.” *Black-haired she-snake!*

        “I am going to put my hand...”

        “I heard it all the first time, and yes, you have my permission.”



        Milly grew exasperated and snapped out, “Stop it you two. No, you don’t have to be saying anything out loud but we can hear you anyway! Now stop fighting and start to...” She waved her hand around in a vague circle; “...do what needs to be done.” Really. Some children needed to be monitored every minute. She could feel Nicholas’s body moving trying to keep his chuckling from escalating to laughter. She shook her head at the vexation they all were putting her through. She was just about ready to crack heads together. Crossing her arms she gave the hybrid and gunman a glare, daring them to annoy her any further.

        Vash closed his eyes and quieted his mind making it receptive while Rinnah placed her hand on the side of his black upswept hair and closed her eyes also.

        It was so much easier to establish a pathway between her and Vash. She didn’t even have to exert herself; for one thing, she found a line of familiarity laid down and ready to use.

        The hybrid settled in and took a look around... and saw it.

        A connection, not a link, not a line or a path, but the size of a great freaking bridge! And it was not merely mental. It was lodged, woven into the warp and woof of the fabric of his very being. With regret she backed away. This was nothing she could break or heal this connection with his brother. Neither was this Knives’ doing. This was from their very conception. Only death could sunder this.

        She looked around as something else tugged at her for her attention. Over there. A void, calling without hope of ever being heard, without sound, without a voice. It was also a place of residual power only drained and careworn. She floated up to it and reached out a hand to touch the edge of the darkness. It was so cold it burned the fingertip she had used. Snatching back her hand, she shook it trying to tell herself that her finger wasn’t really hurting. This wasn’t really her finger just an image she was using.... blah and blah. It didn’t work. She held her finger to her mouth and sucked on it. It still felt like she had laid it against a hot coal.

        Rinnah studied the blackness. It didn’t give off an air of being evil or dangerous. No, it appeared more like it was deeply etched around the edges but now was hollow and empty. What if she... should she? Sure, of course she would.

        She reached deep into the well of her inherited abilities and power and pulled from reserves and this time she wasn’t taking no for an answer. She wasn’t stressed, distracted, or worn out from a battle now, and she insisted on being obeyed. Pour into this!

        Slowly, oh so slowly, the power came across the link and fell into the dark hole. Healing mode engaged and life seeped from one being into another, until she felt near depleted. Not totally empty, she was smart enough to keep some reserves for herself, still, she knew it was time to back out. That’s when she heard a soft gasp just as she was easing out, back into herself.

        And she became aware of tipping over and being caught. This time when she opened her eyes it was Nicholas’s face staring down into hers with a worried look.

        “Mr. Vash!”

        With Nicholas’s help Rinnah managed to sit up and swivel her head in the direction Milly was staring.

        Oh no. Had she done that? What had she done? She raised a hand and covered her mouth in a most uncharacteristic ’uh-oh’ gesture.

        Lowering her hand slowly she asked tentatively, “Are you okay?”

        Milly was pulling Vash up into a sitting position. He groaned and lifted a hand to rub across his forehead. Eyes fluttered and raised to open position and then noticed everyone’s eyes glued to him, or rather, to his hair. But what was scary was Rinnah. She was apologizing, or attempting to.

        “Sor... sor... sor... Sorry! I..., I’m....I..., sor... sor..Sorry. Really, really... sorry!” She finally squeaked out, her gaze never breaking from his hair.

        “What!” He growled. What had the exasperating, half-breed plant woman done now?

        Milly backed away without dropping her eyes and reached into a bag and pulled out a small mirror. She returned to Vash’s side and held it up before his face. At first skeptical he peered into it. Then he saw what they were seeing. Grabbing it out of her hands he lifted it and held it at various angles to study his hair in the reflection.

        A stunned expression on his face, he lowered the mirror and turned to Rinnah who stammered again, “Sor.. sorry! Rea..., real.... really sor..., sorry! I...I ...don’t.. know....uh... I... it... was.” This was pretty pathetic. She couldn’t get her brain to engage. Say something intelligent, or just say something that made sense! “I.. uh, noticed that... you seemed a... well, empty so I, er, just filled up the hole a wee a bit really. Not much at all.” She blew out a breath and remembered that Twila’s hair had transformed from black to white too. She had forgotten all about that since that was not her objective at the time, just accepting it as some weird byproduct of extracting the angel out of her bulb. Rinnah hadn’t been trying to change the color of a plant‘s hair, it was a surprise then as much as it was now. Somehow the hair color must be connected to energy levels. Covering her mouth with a hand with eyes still wide, memories of Twila’s extraction flashed through her mind.

        Vash stared at her for a moment, and then reacted in a way that none of them had anticipated. He chuckled. This was too good to be true! Energy flowed from the top of him to the bottom, he felt life moving through him in a way that had been missing for so long now that he took it for granted. Force and vigor like an electric current rushed throughout his frame reviving him in a way like he hadn‘t felt since before the fight with Knives. He was one up on Knives now; Knives with his still black hair and depleted energy. He tried to picture Knives’ reaction to this little development. He laughed outright, shoulders shaking. His uptight, rigid brother would break and shatter from the shock of seeing Vash’s changed hair color for the first time. The image of Knive’s shocked and baffled face in his mind made him laugh louder.

        Rinnah observed his reaction with horror. Oh no. Whatever it was had affected his mind. He was cracking up. “Quick, somebody slap him!” Yelled Rinnah and Milly acted on it promptly. A loud crack split the night and Vash was thrown backward a few feet from the force of Milly’s slap. Stunned, he grabbed his cheek cursing as he glared at Milly.

        “What was that for!?” He shouted at her while struggling to sit up.

        In her defense, Milly pointed at Rinnah, “She said to.”

        Vash sat up and transferred his glare to her, “Why the hell did you tell her to do that?!”

        Instantly contrite, Rinnah realized she had made another mistake in misjudging his reaction. With embarrassment coloring her cheeks she explained, “I thought you were losing it.” Definitely going to have to go back and retake that battlefield psych class!

        “Next time you think I am, as you so quaintly put it, ‘losing it’, do me a favor and stop thinking!” He roared at her while holding his still stinging cheek.

        Everyone was quiet for a moment, and then he started chuckling again as he looked at her. Okay, now he was losing it. Her hand twitched, she wanted to slap him. She couldn’t help it. Rinnah had never seen Vash laugh before. It was totally out of character but she had to admit the smile did look good on him.

        “You idiot. I was laughing because you restored the damage from the Hair Darkening Effect. It’s something that Knives has been trying to figure out a way to reverse for years now, and here you come waltzing in and....”

        He stopped and his face lost all expression as he realized something. If Knives thought there was a cure for the Hair Darkening Effect he would scour the face of the planet looking for it. He would pay any price to obtain it. He looked at Rinnah, the only known cure for the HDE. Unbelievable. Incredible. He studied her a moment, her vivid blue eyes matching his aqua ones without wavering. Eyes so vibrant and brilliant and totally, utterly clueless to the unparalleled ruthlessness that Knives‘ was capable of.

        Looking at each one in turn said in a voice gone quiet and serious, “I don’t know how Rinnah did that, but that is something we need to keep a secret between us. No one else is to know about this.”

        Wolfwood nodded. He could just imagine what Knives would do... no, on the other hand, this was something that Knives had lusted after for so long now that he didn’t know what Knives would do. The plant was insane for power. Just thinking about it was causing a heavy lump of dread to form in his stomach. Definitely, this was something that would be the group’s little secret.

        Milly nodded too. Mr. Knives shouldn’t know about this, he was a very immoral man, plant, er whatever. Past experience showed that he was not nice to be around. He didn’t care about anyone else except himself and was a very evil being, yes he was and there was no telling what he would do if he found out that Rinnah could do this.

        Rinnah yawned. Knives could go thresh himself.

        Vash caught her yawning and asked, “How do you feel?”

        “Oh just tired. Think I’ll turn in for the night.”

        “That’s all?!” He asked incredulously as she got on all fours and made as if to crawl over to her bedding.

        “WAIT!” Everyone halted and turned towards Milly. She got up and ran over to the car and pulled out a package and hurried back.

        She came and stood next to Vash. Suddenly she seemed shy as she placed the package on his lap. She stepped back, a blush crossing her face and her eyes down.

        “What’s this Milly?” Asked Vash as he looked over the package with a red bow on it.

        “I made it for you Mr. Vash. I gave Rinnah her gift tonight so I might as well give you yours. I was waiting for the right time, but I think this is the right time. Go ahead and open it.”

        Totally taken aback, Vash looked at her for a moment face unreadable. Then he looked at the wrapped box sitting in his lap and slowly undid the bow and lifted the lid off.

        Rinnah had sat back up to watch. She knew what it was and was prepared to buffet him alongside the head if he didn’t appreciate it with the proper degree of respect and gratitude that it deserved. Wolfwood looked on with a smile. Milly had confided in him when she had finished the coat, making him promise to keep it a secret.

        Slowly the paper came off in layers and there in his lap, in the center was a black coat with pewter buttons. He stared into the box for a moment, stunned before lifting it up by the shoulders to get a better look. He was astounded beyond words at the gift. It wasn’t red and to be truthful, he was glad it wasn’t. He didn’t think he could wear red at this point in time. Although it did have some red trim here and there, but that was okay. He stood up and swung the coat over his shoulders with Milly helping him slide his arms into the sleeves and with the buttons, buckles and clasps. Then she stood back to get a better view of him.

        After finishing the last buckle he stepped back to give them all a good look. In that instant his appearance changed dramatically. All Milly, Wolfwood and Rinnah could do was gape at him. The Vash they were used to was gone, transformed into a dark, mysterious outsider. The black coat made this suddenly sinister stranger in front of them look as if he had shadows sitting on his shoulders like dark birds of night. In contrast, his hair gleamed under the light of the moons like sharp shards of otherworldly white. All eyes took in the usual leather boots and were irresistibly drawn up the lines of the long black coat to the crystalline white hair as if it glowed with a magical radiance from within.

        All Wolfwood could think was that if Vash was hard to live with before, he was going to be even more difficult now. What was Milly thinking? This gift was practically rewarding him to be dark and inscrutable. The priest studied Vash from the top of his shimmering hair to the toes of his old black boots. The black coat gave him the air of being more enigmatic, unknowable and dangerous and the shine off his gleaming white hair gave him an ethereal touch. Wonderful. He could use a drink. He looked around wondering where he had set that bottle.

        Milly held up both hands to her mouth in amazed surprise. Mr. Vash looked. well, he just looked.... Not to be messed with. No sir. At the next town the girls were going to drool over him and the men were going to be jealous. Oh, don’t forget handsome. So different from the blond hair and red coat, but still, oh so intriguing, one couldn’t help but stare at him. She nodded to herself. He was going to draw every eye to him when he entered a room. He looked... what was the word Rinnah had used once upon a time, it seemed like eons ago now. Cool and dashing. Yes, that was it. She smiled to herself, proud of the outcome. She didn’t need to have

anyone tell her, because she knew, she had done good!

        Rinnah’s groaned to herself. Oh my god! First the smell and now this! Life was just so damned unfair! She cast a glance at her bedding. It was only a few feet but it seemed like on the other side of the desert. She was bone tired. She sighed. New rule, don’t even look at the plant!

        Vash looked down and despite himself, was pleased with the coat. It fit perfectly and was much like his other one in length and shape. He walked over to Milly whose eyes were huge and tearing up.

        He grabbed her up in a great hug and whispered in her ear, “Thank you. What a friend you have been to me. I can’t think of a better gift!” And set her down gently but giving her an extra squeeze before letting go and stepping back.

        “Great. You look wonderful. It’s been one heck of an evening. Okay then, no more gifts, no more sneezing, and definitely no more hair coloring! I’m going to bed.” Rinnah grumped without looking at him.

        In less time than it takes to blink, he swooped down on her and gathered her up so quickly all she had time to do was breathe out a startled “Eh!”. He swung her around once, chuckling at eyes gone wide as saucers. Setting her down on her feet she swayed in the grip of his arms, knees shaking and nearly collapsing. He felt her starting to go down and held her upright while smiling down at her astonished face.

        “Uh... uh..” She tried, totally speechless as she looked up into his grin. Not giving her a chance to say anything else he scooped her up in his arms again and took the two long strides to her bedding and gently deposited her there before turning to clap Wolfwood on the back.

        Wolfwood was chuckling also. The look on Rinnah’s face was... He stopped when he saw Milly frowning at him in warning. Oops. Some kind of girl thing going on here. Look away, pretend you didn’t see anything. He let out a sigh of relief when Vash spoke and interrupted Milly’s look.

        “Wolfwood. I have several bottles of excellent scotch tucked away that I have been saving for a special occasion and getting a new coat is as good a reason as any! How about you and I having a drink to celebrate. It feels like something should be celebrated here and,” With a tip of the head in Rinnah’s direction, “I am feeling better and more energetic than I have felt in a very long time!”

        Wolfwood was not going to disagree. This was quite a speech from Vash considering how tight-lipped he had been over the past year. He certainly was not one to turn down a peace offering from a friend. Now this is how a man apologizes!

        “Vash, the mark of a great man is someone who shares his good hootch with a friend. As a man of the cloth it is my calling to affirm the greatness within and encourage it, for the good of all of course. Bring on the scotch!”

        “Hey! What about me! I like good scotch too!” Milly asked mournfully with huge eyes and hands clasped in front of her in a pleading gesture.

        “Okay,” but turning to Wolfwood Vash added, “But you have to be responsible for her clothes staying on.”

        “Vash, I can only do my best. You know the Big Girl has a mind of her own.”

        Rinnah closed her eyes and silently groaned to herself. He hadn’t been feeling ‘energetic’ earlier in the evening during the fight!? This is a test, right? Even as she started in on a list of complaints to the Holy Hybrid, she fell into a deep sleep.

        She didn’t wake up when the suns came up the next day and even slept through the breaking down and packing of the camp. The smells of breakfast also didn’t cause her to twitch. It was a unanimous decision to let her sleep. The only thing they did was to make sure that someone was close by to make sure she didn’t stop breathing like last time.

        Wolfwood voiced his opinion, “I know I’m not a doctor, but it doesn’t look to me like she is in the same state as she was last time she went through her sleeping jag.” Milly and Vash nodded agreement with him.

        It wasn’t until she felt herself being carried to the car that Rinnah managed to crack open an eyelid mildly surprised to find who was so tenderly carrying her. The white hair sure did make him look different and it was not just white but gleaming white. It’s like looking into the sun, look too long and you could go blind. White hair was going to take some getting used to. Her eyelids drifted shut and she was asleep before she was laid in the back seat, head pillowed on Milly’s lap.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 9
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