Rinnah found herself waking up with a shade over her eyes and then wondering what was wrong with her pillow. It was lumpy with a dip in the middle. It wasn’t a bad headrest as pillows go, but it wasn’t hers. Curious, she opened her eyes and blinked a few times before realizing she was looking up into someone’s palm. In specific, Milly’s palm. She was holding her hand over Rinnah’s face to keep the piercing light of the suns out of her eyes.
Shifting her eyes over, she could just see the bottom part of Milly’s face, up to the nose before the hand obstructed the rest of the view. A yawn came up starting from the toes working it‘s way up to her mouth. She covered it with a hand before it got away from her and then lifted her arms over her head in an automatic stretch. Since coming to this planet it seemed all she did was yawn, sleep, and stretch.
Hearing the yawn and then watching the slender arms go by her, Milly lifted her hand so she could see Rinnah‘s face and greeted her with a smile.
“Good morning.” Milly said. “It’s a beautiful day, no threat of sandstorms or typhoons.” She bent lower and giggled, “Except for the one in the front seat of course!”
“I heard that!” Came a hoarse voice.
“Heard what?” Asked a miserable sounding voice next to the first. “I didn’t say anything.”
“They’ve both drank way too much last night and are not feeling very well this morning.” Offered Milly, eyeing the two males in the front seat with sympathy. Rinnah hauled herself upright in her seat and also eyed the males. Milly leaned over and whispered close to her ear. “They got very rowdy last night. I believe they drank way more than what was good for them. I’m surprised they didn’t wake you up! You should have seen some of their antics! But they were also very funny.” She ended up giggling.
“Do tell.” Rinnah whispered back.
“Oh yes, you missed quite the party last night. Mr. Vash woke up wearing Nicholas’s jacket, Nicholas wore my coat, and you were wearing Mr. Vash’s coat!”
“What! How did that happen? I was totally out!” Rinnah was starting to get worried. How had she gotten involved in their drunken revelries? Cringing, she stared at the backs of two sets of suddenly tense shoulders. Dare she ask? Did she even want to know? With a quick shake of her head she decided she didn‘t.
“But if they are feeling so awful then why aren’t you driving?”
Milly leaned over and whispered out of the side of her mouth as if divulging a state secret. “I was... for a while.”
Even with the whisper Vash heard her and replied, “In a desert full of nothing but sand you were able to drive into the only rock there was for iles around! You had a whole desert from horizon to horizon and yet, still managed to nail it! I don’t know how you did it!”
Out of the side of her mouth Milly explained, “As Mr. Vash says, I was driving at the time and Mr. Vash was in the back not feeling good.”
“Hey!” Interrupted Rinnah starting to picture in her head where everyone was sitting but right now only had concern for one thing. “Where was I?” She really started to wonder when she saw Vash pinch the bridge of his nose between forefinger and thumb as if warding off a headache.
“Mr. Vash was in the back stretched out and so were you.”
Trying to imagine it she asked, mouth drying up with major misgivings, “As in... how?”
“Nothing happened dammit! Ow! My head, you shrieking fishwife! Besides, this is a car!”
“Fat lot you know! There’s plenty that can happen in a car!”
“Well not this time! You were out and I was sick! I’m still sick... of this conversation!”
“Do you people mind?” mumbled Wolfwood, clasping his head between his hands trying to keep his head from rolling off his shoulders.
“Well after hitting the rock, which didn’t even make you twitch, Mr. Vash made me come back here with you.
Milly rolled her eyes at the two men in the front seat and then back to Rinnah. “They did end up being sick behind some rocks. When they first woke up they were sick then felt better for awhile and then got sick again. That’s why they don’t feel very good right now.” She shook her head in a surprisingly good nature, as her long dark blond hair streamed out behind her... not a lot as Rinnah noticed that for the first time they were driving through the desert much slower than usual. It seemed even the car was moving lethargically as if it too was suffering from the effects of a hangover.
“You drank as much as we did if not more!” Vash’s rough voice sounding deeper than it usually did. “But I can’t figure out why it’s not effecting you.”
Then Nicholas spoke and his voice also sounded hoarse. “Vash. She has a drinking compartment, remember?” The priest was still holding his head with one hand, wearing his sunglasses and looking very pale. “And, for the love of God, stop screaming.”
“Milly is telling Rinnah about last night.”
“Oh.” Now Nicholas was beginning to look a little green around the edges. Rinnah forgot that while she gone to sleep the other three stayed up drinking Vash’s scotch. She wondered how many bottles he had stashed away for a special occasion. She eyed Milly. The men did sound worse for the wear, grim-lipped and irritable. On the other hand, Milly, bless her little alcohol sponge of a stomach, was sitting up straight with a smile and eyes that were bright and her color was looking good too. It was as if she didn‘t have a drop of alcohol at all. Rinnah wondered idly that maybe Milly was God’s favorite. Then with a grin continued the thought, if that was so, it couldn’t hurt to be sitting next to her.
Though it wasn’t noon yet, more like brunch time, Milly insisted they start looking for a place to stop for lunch. The people in the front seat were not enthusiastic about eating though the people in the back seat were all for it. When Milly suggested it again only with a little more force this time, Vash only grunted and Wolfwood clapped a hand over his mouth and scooted lower in his seat moaning.
Milly looked over at Rinnah and asked, “How about you?”
“I missed breakfast; I could eat es-worm-go at this point!” Milly giggled and both smiled ruefully as they heard Wolfwood retch over the side of the car.
A couple of hours later they found a circle of tall rocks to hide the car and themselves in. If one wanted to stay safe in the desert the best ways were to be constantly on the move. Stopping was unsafe so it was best to have a place to hide or some kind of camouflage. The only problem with that was that if someone was already camped out behind the rock your party wanted to camp behind.
Once settled, Milly and Rinnah tied up a tarp stretching between several rocks to make a shaded place where the still weak and pale men could sit. They walked with a deliberate slowness and sat down with exaggerated care as if their bones were made of glass. She looked them over before shaking her head again in sympathy and turned to the vehicle to make lunch. Rinnah noticed that Vash wasn’t wearing his coat this morning and asked Milly about it.
“He had it on and then you had it on but when he tried to put it back on this morning, I wouldn‘t let him. I knew they both were going to be sick and I didn’t spend all that time and effort making him a coat for it to be covered in puke!” She said with a frown and hands on her hips, but not able to keep it in place for long let it turn into a smile as she gazed affectionately at both men, while Rinnah repeated the mantra of don’taskdon’taskdon’task to herself.
As they walked to the car together Rinnah inquired, “Do you have any of that ‘good-for-what-ails-you’ medicine that you made for me? Maybe that would help them.” Or, in their weakened condition, kill them.
“No, I don’t. And that’s a funny thing. There should have been half a pot left over but the next day I couldn’t find any of it.” Milly mused as she climbed up into the back bed. Moving some boxes over she found and pulled out a small satchel. Opening it she lifted out several bottles and a glass bowl.
“Now that you mention it, I can make them something else that should help. But here, start the fire and make some tea... “ Taking note of Rinnah giving her an one-eyed stare she quickly added, ”And some coffee.” A slight huff of breath and Rinnah grabbed the fire lantern used when they didn’t have fuel for making a fire and the fixings for tea and coffee.
Not too much later, Rinnah was handing the outlaw and priest each a cup of tea while she clutched her own cup of coffee like a drowning victim holding onto a life buoy. Both men received their cups apathetically and watched the steam rise with disinterest.
As if he were an old man, Wolfwood painfully pulled himself up to his feet and tottered there a moment even as Rinnah reached out a hand to steady him if he needed it. He held up a hand to indicate that he was doing okay but paled as the sudden shift made his head pound even harder. A pained expression crossed his face and he involuntary sucked in a breath as the throbbing pressure stabbed at his temples. The priest paused, waiting for the pain to recede before taking a sip of tea. He looked down at his cup in surprise.
“Hey, that’s actually good! I wonder what kind it is?” Rinnah shrugged both shoulders, she hadn’t noticed and it didn’t occur to her to ask Milly when given the tea fixings. Wolfwood looked up to where Milly was taking out packages and laying food out on four plates. Taking a breath, he started off in her direction, a little unsteady at first but walking with a more sure tread with each step he took.
Rinnah’s eyes followed him making sure he wouldn’t need help with his balance. Once she was satisfied he was doing fine; she sat down on the rock he had vacated.
“What are you up to?” Vash asked quietly, head still lowered between his shoulders looking down into his cup. His hair; the shockingly white hair that was still causing her to do double takes, wasn’t up in the usual spikes today. It looked much like him, sagging and tired, falling over his brow, around his face, and ears. Rinnah resisted the desire to reach other and run her fingers through it. It looked so unbelievably soft and with it flopping messily around his head like that he looked yummy. She winced. Did I just use the word ‘yummy’ to describe anything but a pastry item?
Forcing her attention back to the question, she noticed he had raised his head and was staring at her waiting for an answer. “What are you talking about?”
“The past several weeks you have been doing your best to avoid me. So the fact that you are sitting here means you are up to something.” He peered at her from under white bangs before dropping his gaze.
“What! Me? Up to something? Nonsense, I just strolled over to visit.” He snorted in disbelief even as Rinnah mentally recited the rules to herself, ‘No touching! ‘ and she did so want to touch. Not trusting herself she put her cup down and proceeded to sit on her hands. Can’t get into trouble that way. Rinnah thought to herself Why would he even care if I was avoiding him or not? “I’m surprised you noticed... er, I wasn‘t exactly avoiding as I was distancing...” She trailed off, that sounded lame even to her ears.
“I see. You don‘t deal with reality very well do you?” He pegged her with a bright aqua stare before taking another sip of tea, stared at it for a second and then took another healthy sip. Apparently it tasted good to him too.
Don’t deal with reality well? That’s an insult that’s what that was... which also, she hated to admit, was pretty darn close to the truth. Her unvoiced motto was, if you didn’t like reality then change it to suit you, within reason of course, she wasn’t a Knives-crazy control freak. Still though, it seemed like a pretty good motto in her opinion.
“Okay, okay. You make me nervous for some reason.” Rinnah didn’t see the quick surprised glance he gave her as she was looking down at her lap. “There, happy? I do know we have a little personal issue to deal with; and stop that snorting! Can’t you see that I am doing my best to be considerate and thoughtful and I am doing a damn wonderful job of it if you would just back off!“ Taking a breath she enunciated clearly for his benefit, “I am trying to act like a real friend here so cut me some slack all right!“
“Acting because you don’t know how. Well, at least you’re trying, I guess I should give you that.”
“That you’re trying to be a friend. Doesn’t seem to come naturally to you.”
“For your information I’m not too impressed by your friendship abilities. You haven‘t exactly wowed me in that department! What are you, the Anti-friend? Lecturing ME on not being a very good friend! I am a great friend! Ask anyone!”
“Right, I’ll ask Milly who thinks everyone is a friend she hasn’t met yet. That will be totally unbiased.”
“Well at least she’s biased in the RIGHT direction! You have been king of the grouch people since I first met you, why don‘t you do everyone a favor and abdicate!”
“Can’t. They already gave you the title of ‘monarch for life’.” The corners of his mouth were actually lifting in a smile.
He had the nerve to enjoy this! And when had he gotten so good at giving witty repartee‘? “I’ll have you know that I am a sweet, warm, caring, and sunshiny person, you star twit!“ It was getting harder to keep her hands under her, but it was a good thing she did, as she having a strong urge to smack him alongside his head. “You are impossible! All I came over here was for the purpose of asking you something.”
“I think there is plenty we could talk about.” Again one aqua eye peered up at her from under a quirked white eyebrow.
“All right then,” she said through tight lips, “We can talk about certain things later, but NO walks!“
Rinnah shifted on hands starting to get uncomfortable so she pulled them out to grip her knees to keep them occupied.
“All right then, later. So what did you want to ask me about?”
“Meryl. I realized this morning that you didn’t say anything last night to Milly about her still being alive. Are you going to?” She watched his reaction. The cup he was lifting to his mouth was a few scant inches away when he froze. Starting up again, he took a slow swallow before lowering the cup. He looked at her with a gaze so stripped and naked that it caused her to catch her breath. Something incredibly deep and painful was being laid bare before her and despite her protestations of earlier, Rinnah was keenly aware of her shortcomings as a friend. She had no idea what to do or say. She prayed that he would say something and soon so it wouldn‘t fall in her lap. With a rueful sigh she chided herself, I am such a coward! Maybe I need to rethink my position on how wonderful I imagine myself to be. He makes me so angry I could just... just... something, something really... really... Oh crap, I can’t think of anything right now.
“I plan to, sometime.” He said softly. She looked back up at him startled from her thoughts. “Will you trust me to do it when I feel the time is right?”
Rinnah bit her lip as she studied him. Trust was risky. Trust could be the first step to the pain of betrayal, or it could be the first outstretched hand to a deeper friendship. She knew both sides and admittedly, had internal scars that were still tender from the past. The weight of his stare was heavy on her as if he knew something about scars. Prickly, aloof, critical, cynical, she just wanted to strangle him at times. Could she trust him with this? Rinnah, she could hear her father’s voice in her head, this really isn’t your burden to carry now, is it? Trust him and carry what is yours to carry. People fail, give him the grace to make his own mistakes as others have with you. She grimaced under the weight of the truth. Okay then. No, he wasn’t the easiest person in the world to trust but slowly she nodded. She would choose to trust him. A small smile spread across his lips. “Thanks.” He said in a whisper. And felt her heart beat faster and her face warm with pleasure.
In the meantime, Wolfwood was leaning against the car bed talking to Milly, or rather, letting her talk to him.
“Fruit..” Milly began as she placed dried preserves on each of the four plates.
“Dairy...” Pudding in small cans was also placed on the plates. Wolfwood didn’t have to look. He knew her too well. Her hand would be straying over another pudding container hesitantly hovering, fighting with herself. He decided to make it easy for her.
“Go ahead and take mine. I am sure that as a man of God I really don’t need the dairy, we priests live by faith after all.” He added morosely. The throbbing in his skull truly needed to be exorcised. He wished he were that kind of priest.
“Are you sure Wol... Nicholas?” With a note of happiness in her voice.
“I’m sure Honey. I know I am not going to eat it so you might as well enjoy it.”
“Thank you!” And giggled. He couldn’t help it. Even with the pain banging against his temples and trying to escape out of the top of his skull, he had to smile at being able to make her happy with this small gesture.
Turning back to the plates she placed her hands on her hips considering. “Protein...” And reached for the dried meat. Looking up and tapping her chin in thought she asked herself, “What else? Oh yes! Vegetables!” She lifted some sorry looking carrots out of a container along with leftover broccoli, the last of their fresh vegetables. Eyeing them critically she decided they were just on this side of being eatable. They were out of canned vegetables and fruit and even the preserved food was getting low.
She sighed; “we are definitely going to have to get to a town today or tomorrow. This is the lowest we have ever been on supplies.” She hopped down and turned to grab two plates, one she handed to Nicholas and then reached for the other one. Turning to Rinnah she called, “Rinnah, lunch is ready, could you come and get your plate?”
Rinnah came over in that graceful lively walk of hers that looked like her feet were barely touching the ground. Milly smiled. Rinnah’s moods were communicated through her every action. Rinnah couldn’t have a poker face or a poker body to save her life. Everything she felt was there on the surface for everyone to see. Handing the hybrid her plate she watched Wolfwood walk over to sit next to Vash and leaned to whisper, “I put something in their drinks to help them.” She jerked her head at some drinks sitting out. “Could you grab one?”
“Sure. But I thought the tea was the cure-all?”
“Oh no. What they don’t know is that just numbs the taste buds a little, but not enough so they noticed.”
“Gee Milly,” Rinnah said with a tinge of awe in her voice, “I didn’t know you knew so much about medicine and stuff. And you’re sneaky too!”
“Oh I don’t know anything about medicine...”
“Well that doesn’t inspire confidence.” She narrowed her eyes skeptically at her friend.
“But I can be sneaky if I need to be!” Milly returned with a playful smile.
“I’ll have to remember that about you!” Rinnah teased back.
Milly giggled, “There are a lot of Thompson relatives and we all appreciate a good drink. Sadly, some of us were born without that extra stomach compartment. So this is some great-aunt’s recipe for a cure-all that‘s been handed down. And that’s what I know.”
Walking over to where the men were halfheartedly picking at the food on their plates, Milly and Rinnah handed them the next phase of Milly’s cure-all for hangovers. Neither gave the cups another glance as they drank.
“Whew Big Girl, this stuff stinks.” Said Wolfwood as he peered into his cup but took an experimental sip. “But it doesn’t taste too bad. What is it?”
“A drink to help you not feel so icky.” She sat down and opened up the two pudding cans first. Vash had downed his drink and tilted his to look into the bottom of his cup with the same expression as Wolfwood, only with more suspicion than the priest. He looked up at Milly as if he suspected something but kept his thoughts to himself.
Later, when everything was packed away, the girls sat in the shade with the men as they took unscheduled naps. Milly forgot to mention the sleepy effect that it had on the drinker.
Several minutes after finishing their drinks the men started yawning. Vash stabbed a glare at Milly and started to say something but before he could his eyes drooped shut. He half-leaned and half-fell against the rock behind him. Wolfwood was already out still sitting up but Milly sat next to him before gently lowering him until his head was pillowed in her lap. With a soft smile playing about her lips and eyes tender with emotion she ran her fingers through his hair and brushed his bangs back.
Rinnah wasn’t about to do the same but she did ease Vash back so that he was lying down also. She went and got her poncho from the vehicle. Folding it up it made a nice pillow and she lifted up his head to slide the poncho underneath as a cushion for him. Crouched on her haunches next to him she warred with her rules. Then grinned, rules were made to be broken... sometimes! Besides, this time she knew he was out cold, so what could it hurt!
“Go on Rinnah, you know you want to.” Rinnah about jumped out of her skin, she had forgotten that Milly was right there. Turning her head she saw a cross of a mischievous and sympathetic look on Milly’s face. She gave her a wane smile in return. Was she so blatantly obvious?
Looking down into the sleeping face of the gunman she threw rule number one to the winds for the time being. Reaching out, she hesitated briefly. With the way her luck had been going recently she would just barely touch him and his eyes would snap open and catch her in the act. Slowly and lightly she placed a cautious palm to cup his cheek and felt a quiver run up and down her spine to lodge in her stomach. Eyes wide she looked up at Milly to see if she had seen the effect. Milly was grinning at her along with giving her a wise all-knowing look. It was really irritating. With an eyebrow raised, Rinnah returned her attention to the sleeping plant with a sigh. His face was smoothed out from all frown lines and when his mouth wasn’t turned down, it was really quite... Okay, time to back away, but she couldn’t bring herself to remove her hand. All she could do was stare.
“Hmmmm?” She tore her gaze from his face to look up at Milly.
“Do you really think we will be able to beat Knives? I mean, he’s got all this manpower and plant power behind him.”
Rinnah gave her trademark quirky grin that meant she was about to say something Milly knew she was going to have a hard time understanding. “Sure we will Milly, good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise !”
Milly tilted her head in contemplation and then shook it. “Just wondering.” She looked down at Nicholas’s face. She could still see the faint lines of stress and pain left there from the battles over the past couple of years. He had been through so much, carried heavy burdens, and walked through too many dark valleys. He deserved peace. And if defeating Knives was the way she could help him find it, then she would do everything in her power to see that Knives was brought down. Maybe, in their day, they could know a form, a taste of the peace and love Vash always used to shout about.
Looking up with a new sense of determination filling her, she stated firmly to Rinnah, “You’re right. Of course we will!”
Lowering her gaze again she watched her beloved’s sleeping face for a moment before bending down to place a quick kiss on his forehead. “Yes, we will.” She whispered to him. “Good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise.” Wondering what a creek was and what it’s rising could possibly mean.
An hour later, two groggy men woke up from their forced naptime grumpy and out of sorts. Neither was happy to hear about the effects of the drink but reluctantly admitted they did feel better. After taking down the shade and packing it up everyone piled into the vehicle with Wolfwood taking his turn in the driver’s seat for the next leg of the journey.
As they were driving off, Wolfwood cast a quick glance at Milly who was sitting next to him in the front seat and asked, “You, uh, didn’t do.. uh anything while we were out did you?”
“Like what Mr. Priest?” Asked Milly, turning to him with eyes round and innocent.
“Oh, like... never mind. “ Upon waking he just had this prickly feeling that something was going on from the way the girls were acting. “Forget I brought it up.”
“Okay.” Giving him a wide smile before resuming her study of the landscape.
“Women are amazing and,... frightening.” Wolfwood said over his shoulder to Vash who had his arms crossed over his chest suspiciously eyeing Rinnah while she looked off into the distance ignoring his stare.
Vash frowned, his eyes an indistinct color through the yellow lenses of his sunglasses. The once small twinge of unease was slowly but steadily growing stronger as they neared the town of Last Chance. Vash always trusted his intuitive sense. Many times over the years it had warned him of coming trouble. Something was going to happen, either now or later but it was coming today. He was sure of it.
It being his turn to drive, he glanced in the rearview mirror, glad to see the girls engrossed in telling stories of family members and comparing which of them had the crazier aunt. Rinnah was just barely winning with tales of Great-Aunt Celeste with Milly close behind with Aunt Bitsy the six and half foot tall tap dancing, nose-whistling, thomas-lifter. Milly was quick to make sure that Rinnah didn’t think her aunt stole thomases, but actually lifted two at a time in her circus act. Great-Aunt Celeste won only because she could juggle cats, sparklers, and flowerpots while doing an Irish jig in the dark. Wolfwood had started to ask how did anyone know she could do all that if it was dark but was totally ignored. He finally decided it was one of those times the best and safest thing to do was to just stay out of the conversation altogether.
It all started out with Rinnah inquiring about every member of the Thompson clan and Milly wanting to know all about the Blackstocks. It was a long recitation on either side and took every bit of Milly’s attention to keep track of whom she had talked about and who she hadn’t. It also took all of Rinnah’s attention and ability to process the new information and cross reference it with what she had already known before her own recitation of her family tree. Hence, Vash and Wolfwood were ignored every time they tried to insert a comment into the conversation.
Wolfwood had grumped and adjusted his sunglasses, “I don’t think they would notice if we both leaped naked on the front hood of the car shooting our guns while singing dance hall ditties.”
Vash lifted a corner of his mouth remembering the comment, until once again his warning itch flared up. The closer they were getting to town the more frequently it was acting up. Then it happened again and this time it was stronger than a tingle, it was more like a jolt. Now an uneasy prickle crossed his shoulder blades crawling up his spine into his brain to ferment there. Trouble. He hated this. They needed supplies and this town was the nearest. In and out, check the plant facility, get supplies and they would be gone. At least it wasn’t an imminent buzz yet. He scanned the horizon; it didn’t hurt to be cautious especially considering they had already had trouble before.
Wolfwood was looking off into the distance on his side of the car so, unobtrusively as possible, Vash reached over and with a forefinger poked the priest in the arm to get his attention.
Feeling the poke, Wolfwood turned surprised, but knowing right away something was up. Vash wouldn’t touch him unless it was important. He looked down on the seat between them to see Vash had formed his hand into the shape of a gun and then pointed to Wolfwood. He gave a slight nod to show his understanding and then threw a quick look behind him at the girls. It didn’t look like he needed to worry; they had their heads so close together they were nearly touching.
With a slow movement so it wasn‘t obvious, he reached for and pulled out the gun he carried on him, checked it and then placed it within easy reach. His cross punisher was in the back storage section behind the girls. If he wanted it, he would have to climb back and forth over them to get it and probably thump one of them in the head on the way back. That’s the problem with hauling around such a huge weapon, it’s hard to be sneaky. Right away both girls would be suspicious and want to know what was going on. He didn’t know what was going on but Vash was having one of his warning flashes and that was good enough for him. With a grimace, he considered the thought that maybe he should start carrying it next to him at all times.
Much to Vash and Wolfwood’s relief, they reached the town without incident. Still that warning was jingling at the back of his mind although muted but still, Vash could feel a headache coming on. His nerves were jumping, stretched, and his whole body tingled as if from an infestation of sand mites crawling around underneath his clothes.
As they arrived in front of one of the town’s hotels, he leaped out as soon as he was able to bring the vehicle to a stop. The others, being stiff from the long ride, were slower, stretching and retrieving things they wanted to bring with them.
Rinnah was leaning over reaching for her stuff when Vash circled one long arm around her waist and hauled her out of the car.
“Hey!” She protested as she was unceremoniously dumped on her feet.
Vash didn‘t look at her as he spoke to the other two, “Wolfwood, Milly, don’t unpack. Get a list of what we need ready and ask directions for the nearest store. Be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Something’s not right here but I don’t know what it is yet.”
Milly and Wolfwood each gave a nod, determined expressions filling their faces, and then began scanning up and down the street for anything out of place. They trusted Vash’s sense in this.
Grabbing Rinnah round her elbow he started off down the street practically dragging her behind him. She had to trot to keep up with his long ground-eating strides. She didn’t object though. She had seen the clandestine signaling between Vash and Wolfwood earlier.
“We’ll go and see what the family gossip is. I am wondering if something new is going on.”
All she could do was utter a breathless, “Kay.”
Obviously he was a little on edge which was starting to make her feel a little jumpy also. Rinnah wasn’t sure if she was being influenced by his mood or not, but she was getting that twitchy feeling between her shoulder blades like they were being watched.
It didn’t take them long to reach the plant facility as Vash had been to Last Chance before and knew where it was located. That was before he had found out that it was deep in Knive’s territory. This time the idea was to sneak in, get what they needed, and sneak out without calling attention to themselves. Vash admitted to himself that he really didn’t think they would find out anything useful but his gut reaction told him that somehow Knives was pulling a noose around them. If he could figure out how then it would be a simple matter to avoid it. He hoped.
When they had finally arrived and were standing in front of a bulb, Vash looked up at the plant angel’s spherical home. He mused on the fact that had fate gone a different direction he might very well have been the one living caged in a bulb. Face blank, not allowing any hint to show through of what he was feeling or thinking, he continued to gaze up until he became aware of the weight of that woman’s stare resting on him. Lowering his eyes to her he saw concern there and that surprised him. Ignoring her look he gestured for her to begin listening in.
She pulled up her cloaking glamour before sending her ‘pathic self up into the plant family link.
She tilted her head as she eavesdropped on.... Nothing.
“There’s no chatter or gossip. There’s no noise of any kind. It’s as quiet as a tomb in there.”
Rubbing his chin Vash considered. “Wonder what that means.“
“Don’t know.” Puzzled, she studied the globe before suggesting “maybe I should climb up higher and take a look around.”
“Climb up?” He shot a look over at the platform then swept his gaze around the room at the scattered technicians and some visitors. Climbing up would call attention to themselves that he was trying to avoid. He did notice that the crowd was starting to thin out a bit since it was mid-afternoon and the hottest part of the day.
“Not really climb, that’s just the way I always think of how I have to connect up with your oh so pleasant sisters in order to have a conversation with them.”
Closing her eyes she sent her ‘pathic self up higher and deeper into the plant family link.
The silence was positively eerie.
Usually she was inundated by the link buzzing with communication and news from up and down the line.
She slid her ‘pathic self out, reaching, searching for any presence of a plant angel especially the ones that were here in the facility. They were physically present but not registering mentally. Odd.
Was it a plant family holiday? Where was everyone?
Not sure what to do, she decided to go up the link further, something she had not previously done in her other connections. Searching along one avenue of communication, she thought she heard a whisper of a voice. Slowing, she stopped to listen and saw a small link she would have otherwise passed by. She set a soft mental touch on it and found a hum of current passing through. Curious at this first sign of activity, she followed it and heard what was like a mental whisper echoing down it.
She drifted toward the voice.
Another snatch of a whisper and an answering voice and then it was gone. From the intonations it sounded like a private conversation between two beings.
Even as she thought about checking it out she felt herself being moved in that direction. Like sitting in a stream that was taking her closer all she had to do was float on the current. A mental tide. How unusual.
And nearly ran into him.
Rinnah was astonished.
His presence was coming across to her as very solid and concrete as if his physical self had immersed itself in the plant link along with his mental self. To be this tangible would take some power, where was he getting it? And how come she hadn’t sensed him before nearly bumping into him? Had he been cloaking too? She hadn’t seen any evidence that plant angels could even do that or why they would need to. Maybe because he wasn’t contained to a bulb or maybe because he was male, or, oh hell, she was just guessing, she didn’t know. Save the speculations for later.
So, he was actually present and not just a projection of his mental presence. With a start she noted that she was too. She was aware of feeling in her arms and legs. Reaching over she pinched her arm and was surprised to find it hurt. Freaky. Yet, she mused, he didn’t seem to be able to see her. Which was a good thing that meant her cloak was still in effect.
Briefly she glanced at the male plant before starting to turn away. Something felt very wrong here. She should leave, but an urge to stay warred within her. Then her eyes bounced back to Knives and what she saw stopped her in her tracks.
Vash’s brother, the deranged absorber of plant sisters and card-carrying mammal hater, was talking with a plant angel. In all his insane glory. Curiosity held her as she noted he looked so much like Vash, except his black hair was shorter with white blond streaks in it. He also didn’t have scars at least what skin the ship’s suit he was wearing didn’t cover up. She craned her neck trying for a better look when he turned his head in her direction sensing something amiss. She did notice that unlike Vash he had blue eyes, hard, cold blue eyes.
She was glad to see he couldn’t penetrate her cloak but he still was able to sense something.
Rinnah kept absolutely still as his gaze swept over the area where she was at. Finally, with a snort, he turned away.
He turned his attention back to the sister he was talking with, calming her panic over something Rinnah couldn’t make out from where she was. She let herself drift closer. Her mouth about dropped when she realized that the dread mass murderer, psycho plant was speaking tenderly to the agitated angel easing her fears. Knock me over with a microbe! Knives, capable of a tender emotion?! Could it be possible that he may be capable of, and dare I say it, love? She gave herself a shake, reminding herself who it was before her. Nah, not possible. He’s faking it. Even serial killers have families. It’s all just a pretense. He’s all sweet and nice as long as things are going his way. Soon as he loses control over a situation or person the real monster will rise up.
Then curiosity overcame her.
She had to peek.
Slowly she circled him, seeing his attention centered on his sister, preoccupied and unshielded. Rinnah merged her thoughts with his, light as a cloud on a breeze and gasped to find herself buffeted in a maelstrom of strong and conflicting emotions and thoughts warring with each other. As in a stormy sea, wave after wave hit her whirling her one way and then another, leaving her dizzy and breathless.
Not bothering to be subtle or careful, she burst out with a twinge of panic.
Starting away she felt herself yanked back within touching distance of the male plant that had her frantically digging her heels in to avoid. Twisting and turning, invisible cords were being wrapped around her chest pulling tight, holding her in place. It was so tight that she was finding it difficult to breathe, which shouldn’t be an issue in this place.
Rinnah looked up.
Knives was looking at where she was standing.
Correction. He was looking at her. Damn.
Someone had once told her that ignorance of her heritage and abilities would come back to haunt her. In the joining of minds she must have lost her cloaking glamour. Telling herself to calm down, that it couldn’t be all that bad if all he could do was look. There was a small seed of doubt though she couldn’t squelch.
“*YOU!*” He shouted into her mind through the link.
She winced. Ouch! That had hurt. Geez, what was he yelling for, she was standing right here! “*Yep. It’s me, how did you know?*” With a pointing finger flipping back and forth between him and the now disappearing plant angel he had been speaking to, she asked, “*Did I come at a bad time?*”
He turned to face her straight on and the fact that his anger was escalating into fury was not lost on her at all.
Smiling, she waved thinking at him in return, “*Nice place you have here. No, don’t bother getting up, I’ll just show myself out.*”
Just as she took a step backward, he took several steps forward and reached out to grab her. Rinnah wasn’t worried, not too much. His hands would probably pass right through her like ghost hands. She hoped. She was beginning to think that this was not a good time to not be sure about what might happen and what would happen.
To her great astonishment and dismay, his hands came down on her shoulders, his fingers digging in painfully. He didn’t seem at all surprised but rather as if he had been expecting this.
This was not good. Not good at all. The situation had taken a decided turn for the worse. This isn’t right! He‘s the evil, despicable villain! I’m on the good guy side! She wondered how this was possible.
That last thought must have leaked out as he answered, “*My sisters are loaning me power. Also, you are close by you fool human which makes it easier for me. This has turned out better than I expected. As stupid as all your kind, you entered a trap.*”
He was pulling her closer and smirking as he did so.
“*I promised you that I would make you despair of life. I will fill your days with unending torment you pathetic vermin.*”
“*My knees are shaking O king of the daffodil people!*” She replied, mouth in gear before thinking.
A wild wind tore at her as his anger flared. He practically spit at her, “*You will die!*”
“*Yes, but not today!*” And slammed bottom of her palm under his chin and the other into his gut. “*It works both ways!*” He was not expecting her to attack him but why not? Did he think that she was just going to stand here and let him manhandle her!? “*Stupid plant!*” Rinnah thought that part at him with some force hoping he heard it even as he gasped and bent over.
She was immediately released from his grip as he clutched his stomach with one hand and his head with other. Serves him right! The invisible cord entwined around her body holding her anchored there slowly dissolved, freeing her to move.
Rinnah didn’t know, didn’t care, wasn’t interested in how all of this was possible. She just wanted out. What mattered was that it worked and she let herself fall back towards her physical self where he couldn’t follow. Holy Hybrid, she hoped not!
Rinnah could feel herself stumbling and falling, legs strangely crumbling beneath her. One by one she cut the links with the plant family in a clumsy rush to get free from the hostile environment.
The sensation of suffocating was growing stronger and soon she was panting trying to suck in air to her starved lungs. Feeling herself being shaken she opened blurry eyes. A quick glance told her that Vash was bending over with a worried look on his face and he was the one shaking her. How sweet. He’s worried about me. Wish I could breathe.
Rinnah was in desperate need of oxygen, painfully so, but couldn’t force her lungs to pull in a breath of air to save her life.
With vision going dark at the edges Rinnah felt fingers pulling on her chin, tilt her head back while nose was painfully pinched and felt lips pressed down on hers. Breath was being blown in her mouth and down to expand her lungs. Then a painful compression against her chest pushing the air back out. This was repeated several times until she was able to gasp out, “Kay!” Wasn’t one supposed to be totally unconscious for mouth to mouth? Despite the seriousness of the situation all she could think was stupid backwater planet, they really need to get their first aid knowledge updated.
Vision coming back, she looked up to see blue-green eyes filled with concern. As soon as he noticed she was aware, Vash’s face went blank and his eyes hardened. She made a small breathy “hhheeennnnnn” noise in the back of her throat. She closed her eyes again and tried to breathe slowly and evenly. A groan came next. Now her stomach wasn’t feeling too good.
With eyes still closed, she experimented by trying to lift her head up off the floor and was filled with disquiet to find it barely moved. Then someone was picking her up and holding her vertical against something solid. Once again she opened her eyes to look around. All she saw was black... She was blind! Panic turned to relief until she realized she was within eyelash distance from Vash’s black suit with her forehead leaning in the crook of his shoulder. Vash had his long arms wrapped tightly around her, holding her up against him.
She tried to move her head from where it rested only to have it flop backwards. Now staring up at the ceiling with neck bent in a very uncomfortable position Rinnah found out, to her dismay, she was powerless to do anything about it.
The hybrid felt a hand cradle and lift her head upright. The only control she had was the ability to move her eyes. She sighed, the relief at having her neck and head upright again was wonderful! He tilted her head a little so he could look down into her face.
Meeting a quizzical aqua gaze she informed him, “I don’t feel so good.”
He studied her face a moment then said, “You don’t look so good either.”
“For once we are in agreement.” The room was whirling about her at a dizzy pace. “But would you please stop spinning around!”
“We’re not moving.”
“We’re not? Are you sure? Because it feels like we’re moving.”
“No, we‘re not.”
“My head doesn’t believe you.”
“When does it ever?”
“In fact, my stomach doesn’t believe you either.”
“Don’t you even....” He started with narrowed, wary eyes.
“What, is this the only tux you own?”
The sound of teeth grinding reached her ears.
Taking a couple of deep breaths she felt her stomach settling down to tolerable levels.
“I’m starting to feel better.”
“I’ll alert the media.”
“Boy, you sure know how to show a girl a good time!”
“Next time it will be a boring candlelight dinner.” Vash responded dryly.
Vash had a sense of humor! Who knew? “Hey! You’re being funny! I didn’t know you had it in you! Do it again!”
He rolled his eyes.
Looking around she recognized her surroundings, “Oh; we’re at the plant harpy house. Polly wanna a cracker?” She muttered as her head fell back against his shoulder again.
She felt his chest heave with a sigh.
“When ‘just now’?”
“In the link.”
“Well?” He prompted. His voice dangerous and low.
“What.... Dammit woman!”
“Knives.” She said, remembering.
She felt his chest expand with a sucked in breath and his arms tighten in surprise. Unpleasantly tight.
“Not good news, eh?” She managed to breathe out.
“Knives?” His turn.
“Oh forget it! I’m not playing anymore!”
Not quite as rigid as he had been, he said, “We’d better get back to the vehicle.”
“Okay. But you can let go now. I’m fine.”
“Of course you are.... Try standing on your own.”
“You mean I’m not?”
“No. You’re not.”
Rinnah tried to lift an arm to push herself off but it refused to move, hanging limply at her side. Then she tried to push herself up on her legs only to have them collapse underneath her like a rag dolls. This was a ghastly turn of events. She cursed her legs and tried again with the same result. Feeling enraged at the betrayal of her rebellious limbs, she let out curses corrosive enough to singe the feathers of the angels, make them cover their ears and moan in embarrassment. There weren’t enough words to express her dismay, disgust, and anger at being so helpless and dependent. Finally running out of curses she heaved a fuming hiss of frustration from between her teeth.
“Finished?” If nothing else she sure was creative.
“Huh? Oh... yeah.” She said, lips set in a thin line, eyebrows lowered in displeasure.
“Want me to carry you?”
Picturing herself slung over his shoulder like a sack of grain, she blurted out, “NO! I’ll be fine. Er, just prop me up against that wall over there. You go on back and I’ll join you later once I get my sea legs under me again.” She indicated the wall she was talking about by rolling her eyes at the designated spot. “Right. That wall, right over there.” She rolled her eyes in the specified direction again to make sure he understood.
“Like hell I will.”
Without waiting for permission he wasn’t going to get, he bent over, caught her behind the knees with a scooping arm and swung her up in his arms. She scowled at him as fiercely as she could, having to settle for imagining the skin on his face melting and peeling back from the force of her glare. He wasn’t acting too intimidated. Too bad, it was one of her best glares. Then she scowled at the boneless way her arms and legs hung down uselessly.
“You can tell me what happened on the way back to the car.” He ordered in a tone of voice that said he wouldn’t tolerate any more nonsense.
Rinnah decided she would rather be propped up against the wall.
Vash listened as he carried her. She recited her encounter with his brother, what she could remember of it, with a lively cheerfulness that made him suspicious.
He wondered what it all meant. He was pretty sure she didn’t realize just yet the significance of the nature of this so-called impromptu meeting with Knives. Nothing with Knives was by accident or a chance meeting. This meant something.
Vash looked down at her, mouth set in a straight tense line, and she felt his stare and looked up, returning it without breaking the flow of her story before looking back down again. The half-plant female kept wandering off the topic to talk about inconsequential chatter. Looking back down again as she babbled away he had a small revelation. The annoying woman was doing it on purpose, trying to distract him. And here he had formed the opinion she had flighty moments that one just had to ride out. Huh. Little minx. A corner of his mouth quirked up in amusement.
Coming around the corner onto the street where the car was parked in front of the hotel, he spotted Milly and Wolfwood standing by the car keeping watch with vigilant eyes.
Vash felt a tight knot release when he saw they were all right. After their experience at the plant facility, he had almost expected to find them collapsed and bleeding out their lives in the dirt. First that little internal sensor had him jumpy and then the unexpected visit from Knives.
When Wolfwood and Milly spotted Vash the same relief was evident on their faces too until they noticed that he was carrying Rinnah. Both dashed toward him. As they got close enough they heard her talking in normal tones. Noticing them Rinnah grinned and managed a wobbly wave. Milly was still concerned but Wolfwood figured that since she was smiling and talking then she was okay. Not walking, but okay.
“Rinnah woman,” Chuckled Wolfwood, “what have you done to yourself now? I swear you get the strangest ailments of anyone I know.”
“Tell me about it.” Muttered Vash.
Milly was practically dancing around Vash trying to get a good look at Rinnah. Finally, he stopped so she could inspect her without tripping either one of them or both in the process of her inspection.
Milly leaned over her, felt her forehead with “tsking” noises.
“I’m fine Milly, really I am...”
Vash interrupted, “Except you stopped breathing again.”
“Rinnah! That’s not fine! That’s a bad thing!” Milly remonstrated her friend. Satisfied for the moment, they started walking again.
“I’m breathing just fine now. Vash jump-started me.”
Two pairs of questioning eyes shot up to meet Vash’s forbidding ones, daring them both to ask.
“...See, I can use my arms now...” She fanned an arm in the air showing off her dexterity.
“...And my legs are beginning to tingle...”
“Well Vash does have that effect on women!” Wolfwood broke in grinning and not at all daunted by the glower Vash leveled at him from over Rinnah’s head. Milly poked him. He grinned all the wider.
However, Rinnah went beet red mid-wave. Noticing, Vash almost smiled. For once she was on the receiving end.
By then they had arrived at the car.
In a tight voice she said, “Could you put me down?” He was surprised to find that he was reluctant to. It had felt right holding her close like that and the way she had fit in his arms.
Instead he asked, “Where?’
“In the car please.”
“Since you are actually being pleasant for a change...” Vash gently and carefully set her in the back seat while she looked every where and anywhere but at him. Milly took it all in at a glance with a nod of satisfaction.
Vash explained, “She had a run in with Knives while in the link.”
“Damn! It’s a wonder he didn’t fry her mind.” Turning to look at Rinnah, face softening, Wolfwood continued, “Girl, Someone up there must like you. I’ve never seen anyone come out alive after clashing with Knives.”
“Yep, Someone up there does like me!”
Wolfwood laughed and replied, “Hey, if you got any pull see if you can get Knives put on a black list.”
Milly exclaimed, “This is serious! I mean, Knives, after all!” Still horrified at the close call. “I don’t want to lose another friend.”
Looking up into Milly’s distressed face grabbed her friend’s hand and gave it a little shake, “Milly, he caught me off guard but it won’t happen again....”
“Damn straight it won’t!” Looking down at her grimly Vash went on in a firm voice, “You are not doing this anymore. We’re done. I’m done.” Then bending down nose to nose before she had a chance to open her mouth to protest. “And don’t say ‘I’m fine!’ when you can‘t even walk!” Fuming, Rinnah snapped her mouth shut with a frown as he straightened back up still glaring at her.
A bullet whizzed a few inches to the side of Vash’s head.
Several things happened at once. Vash reached over the car door pushing Rinnah down into the seat while pulling his gun out in a blinding blur. Wolfwood grabbed and threw Milly to the other side of the car and also had his gun out in a one smooth motion. Returning fire, Vash covered Wolfwood and moved with him as he ran to get the cross out of the back of the car.
Quickly recovering from the surprise of suddenly being thrown through the air and landing, Milly had her gun out and was returning fire too.
Damn. Rinnah touched her gun. Nothing wrong with her arms although her hands still felt a little numb. Experimenting, she flexed her legs. Not as numb as they used to be just a few minutes ago. Absently digging her nails along her thighs, she scratched at the tingle racing up and down them. Almost.
A voice flung a command at her; “you sit your ass right there and don’t move!”
Rinnah crossed her arms and grumped I never get to have any fun!
“Several up there and more from that direction.” She heard Wolfwood say to Vash.
Vash must have nodded, as she didn’t hear him answer, but he did say, “Milly you stay here and keep Rinnah covered.”
“Ready?” Vash asked Wolfwood.
“Let’s go before they scratch the paint job on our baby.”
Rinnah heard footsteps receding into the distance.
This was a most odious situation, sitting here helpless when everything in her screamed to be in the middle of the fray helping her friends.
“Need any help Milly?” She asked hopefully as another shot winged by.
“NO! You stay there like Mr. Vash said and don’t move. Please Rinnah, for once be good.” She begged. Milly was thankful now that Vash had insisted on the top of the line model with the modification of an extra layer of armor.
“Fine then!” Rinnah replied sullenly.
Then sniffed. Someone, no two someones were here. And one of them wasn’t smelling all that pleasant.
“Not now Rinnah! I’m a little busy.”
“Get unbusy because we have company.”
Eyes widening in surprised horror, Rinnah watched Milly stand straight up and drop her gun in the dirt by her feet.
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