"Melding" and Blue's Family
Vash explains again, "No, it's not a 'dark elixir,' it's called a Prairie Oyster, and they really do work..."
Late in the afternoon a human comes in, with the wide, easygoing stance and sunburned face that says "farmer," wearing well-cared-for but worn, comfortable-looking clothes. He looks around and smiles when he finds Vash, making his way easily to the armadillo's table and saying, "Hullo, Vash!"
Vash looks up and smiles a little tiredly. "Odelay. You're... one of Blue's uncles, yeah?"
The fellow smiles and says, "Ayup, sure am. I'm Courtland." He offers Vash a hand to shake, seemingly not worried by the armadillo's armadillo-ness.
Vash stands up and shakes the man's hand firmly. "Right, I remember you. What's up? You want to have a seat?"
Courtland's handshake is also firm, his callused hand warm in Vash's. He says, "We were going to get together and play some cards. You still interested in joining us?"
Vash says, "Oh! Yeah, of course, you going right now?"
The man grins, "Everybody who usually plays is finally up, and if we're going to do it, we'd better get started, so I thought I'd come fetch you, yep. We've camped outside town."
Vash nods, "All right then, lead the way." He turns to Aykuh, "I'll see you later, yeah? I'll explain the drink then."
The dryad says, "Okay," rather dubiously, and then smiles, adding, "Have fun!" She turns and moves back off to other things, absently vanishing into the wooden wall. Courtland waves to her, then leads Vash out, making small talk along the way; mostly trivialities about, "Did you enjoy the Gather?" and, "Did you have some of the birch beer? It was very good this year," and such. The camp, when they arrive, is fairly substantial, with two big tents, and several wagons and horses gathered at one end. There are a couple of kids running around in the cold winter afternoon, but everyone else seems to be inside, out of the wind.
Vash says, "Wow. This is a pretty big encampment. You all live near to each other?"
The tents seem to be a cross between an army tent with full frame, and a yurt. They're round, with supports to give them rigidity, and about twenty feet across. There's a stove in the center of each one, which keep them nicely warm. They're made of a heavy skin of some sort. Flaps open in the top half around the central pillar and stovepipe. One of the tents is opened, opposite the wind, to let some air and light in. Bright blue, cool burning lamps of some sort -- globes hung in leather straps -- hang around the inside of the tent and keep it from being dark or gloomy.
Courtland says, "Well, 'near' being relative. We're all about a day's travel apart, presuming you make good time. We work together to keep fields and buildings up, and all meet at the Gathers. We're, oh, fifty to seventy miles east of here." He points at the tents, adding, "We use these in the summer, too, when we're working at the far points, so we don't have to go all the way back home, as well as for the Gather and other smaller family meetings. If it's not too snowy, we meet at one of the family's houses near solstice."
Vash nods quietly, looking around. This is impressive. Thought Blue said her family wasn't that well off. Maybe our standards are different... He nods to Courtland, "I see. You're all farmers, then? Big fields?"
Courtland says, "Well, it takes a lot of space to grow any really useful crops without disturbing too many of the dryads, y'know, so we have to move around a lot -- can't do too much in any one place. We've talked to some of our local tree folk, and they leave us some spaces, and we help them out when we can."
Vash nods. "Long as it's on good terms, seems fair." He smiles ruefully, "I'll tell you about the land dispute I got involved in, one day."
Courtland leads Vash over to one side of one of the big tents, saying, "Hey, that'd be great." He tells the others, "Hey, found Vash." He introduces, "Vash, this is my brother Ruben, Blue's father." Ruben smiles, "Hi, Vash."
Vash grins widely, "It's an honor to meet you. Blue's told me a lot about you." He offers the man his hand, mindful of the talons.
Ruben shakes the armadillo's hand and says, "It's good to meet you too, Vash." Courtland continues introducing, "Our brother Harting, and his wife Anita." Harting smiles and says, "Hi." Anita doesn't say anything, as she's dozing against her husband. She's the first who doesn't have the hearty look of someone who works the land, being thin and lithe, with dark hair. Courtland mentions, "Most folks call her Wolflady. She doesn't seem to mind."
Vash grins a little. "We've met."
Courtland nods and adds, "This is our brother Craigh." Craigh gives Vash a hard look and a slight frown, saying only, "Hello."
Vash nods carefully. "Hello. Don't believe we've met."
Craigh shrugs, "I saw you at the Gather with Blue. She seemed happy with that." He doesn't look like he is, but he doesn't say anything more. Courtland says, "Uh. Right," and gestures to another man. This one is obviously older, his hair very thin and very white. He's a little thinner than the others, although healthy looking and still observing the world with sharp blue eyes, following every nuance. Courtland says, "This is our father, Fontain. Dad, this is Vash, Blue's sweetie, the Hero."
Vash grins self-consciously and bows a little, offering the older man his hand. "Honor to meet you, señor."
The old man smiles and shakes Vash's hand with a sure but gentle grip, "Nice to meet you too, Vash. We've heard a lot about your adventures." His voice is quiet and he seems confident of himself.
Vash smiles a little. "Adventures are what happen while you're making other plans. I'm just glad everything's worked out."
Fontain just smiles, and settles back. Craigh hmphs and says, "So, we going to play?" Looking at Vash, he asks, "Anybody told you what we're playing?"
Vash says, "Actually no. What are we playing?"
Craigh says, "Three handed Canasta," as if that will explain everything. Ruben chuckles and asks, "Have you played that before?"
Vash grins lopsidedly and says, "Maybe I should just hand over my money right now."
Ruben chuckles, "Oh, we don't play for money. This is just a friendly game." He then settles in and tries to explain the rules. Courtland comes up with three decks of cards, and begins to shuffle them all together. Vash follows along as best he can, nodding periodically. I'm gonna feel quite the fool if I get killed here. Or at least, quite the alien...
Basically the game consists of trying to make 'melds' of runs of cards, working with a partner, somewhat like bridge. Courtland offers to partner with Vash, while Craigh and Harting, and Fontain and Ruben make up pairs. Cards are dealt and Fontain wins the start, so he does so. Play moves around the group of men as they sit in the tent in an easy circle, partners tending to be near each other so they can use a shared discard area.
The rules aren't too complex, but it becomes obvious that the strategy is. Craigh seems happy to beat anyone he can at any point, while Courtland seems more worried about keeping an eye on Vash. Vash lets Courtland make most of the command decisions, concerning himself mainly with the basic rules.
Fontain finishes a meld, and asks, "So, Vash, I hear you're from some kind of foreign country." With a twinkle -- or is it a glint? -- in his eye, he adds, "Haven't seen many folks like you around, myself. Where do you hail from?"
Vash smiles a little. "Well, the honest truth, señor, is a little tough to explain... but I'm not from the Crossroads." He puzzles over his hand for a moment, trying to come up with a discard, then says, "I work for a Company, and we found this... Gate. They started sending people through. The first ones through, well, I guess they ended up in Azteka, because only one of 'em made it back, but he brought back a load full of diamonds in the hold of their ship."
He discards a card, then adds, "So my Company decided to see where the profit was... you know how merchants are." He grins a little. "They sent me and my crew through, and we ended up here. Of course, before we could really do anything pertaining to the mission, Drekaris stole our ship... but I'm sure you all know that story already."
Craigh plays a card on one of his team's melds, draws, and then asks, "So you're just here to find money for this company?"
Vash shrugs. "I'm just a scout. An explorer. I don't know much about money... I used to be a soldier. We're here to find people that might want to trade with the Company for things they can't normally get elsewhere. Personally... I'd love to just stay here and forget them. Crossroads is, in a lot of ways, much nicer than the place I was born. But I've got a mission I was entrusted with, and I can't just forget it because it's convenient for me."
Craigh seems satisfied with that, and Ruben says "You consider your responsibility to this company important? Will they be wanting you back?"
Vash says, "I don't know that. I can't say. We, my crew and I, we were sent for two reasons. We're tougher than any of the humans in the company. More importantly, though... we're more expendable. People like me and the others, we weren't always free. We are now, sure, but... we're still second-class citizens, back home. They'll want the ship, of course. I don't know what they'll want to do with us. But I'm not going to abandon Blue. Not for the Company's sake. Not for anyone's."
Ruben relaxes a little at this. The game continues for a moment before Harting asks quietly, "So how did you meet Blue, anyway?" His words seem to rouse his sweetie a little and she shifts slightly, opening her eyes and listening. She may have been listening all along.
Vash grins a little. "Turns out that Zildjian from the Silver Egg was an old acquaintance. After we started hanging around there, some of the students flocked in wanting to draw us and record us for posterity." He chuckles a little. "Touch, too, in Doug's case." He shakes his head and grins, "It figures that the meekest person in my crew ends up hitched to a troll."
Harting smiles, "The artist in her probably was thrilled, yes. Beyond that, what did you like about her?"
Vash smiles sheepishly, discarding a card. "Well..." He lays his hand on the table, palm up. "Back home, I was a security officer. I made sure that important people in the company got from here to there safely. A bodyguard. But not one of my charges ever shook hands with me. Obvious reasons, right?" He withdraws it again. "And, well," he raps his shoulder-plate once, "-this too. Nobody really gets too close to the armadillos, back home. We got a bad reputation. Blue, she ran right up and wanted to see how they overlap; how the plates work. Wasn't afraid at all. More importantly, wasn't disgusted. I'm a little banged up here and there, to make things worse."
Craig mutters, "You would approve, Harting," followed by something too quiet to hear. Harting looks down unhappily.
Vash says, softly, "You got a problem with Blue's occupation, yeah? Or you got a problem with me?" His tone is not angry, just asking a question. "I'd like to get it all out in the open right now, if that's the case. I don't like to whisper."
At the other brother's comment Anita sits up more fully, and glares at Craigh through narrowed eyes. Her posture suggests that she'd flatten her ears in anger if she were in that kind of shape at the moment, and she snaps, "Craigh, if you've got a problem with me or with Vash, just say something, all right?" Craigh just looks sour. The Wolflady hisses, "I know you don't like me, Craigh. I don't understand why not, and never have. Have I ever embarrassed the family? Have I ever let Harting down? Or any of you? Am I not the best hunter in the family? Don't I contribute? What is your problem?"
Harting speaks up, "Vash is a Hero, Craigh. And he's got a position in a foreign company and is hunting with the people from Karlstrasse, who seem pleased to have him. And Blue is very happy."
Vash folds his cards and sets them down. He just waits, hands folded on the table. "You don't need to defend me," he says quietly, "If Craigh has a problem with me, he can tell me to my face. Like I said, I don't like to whisper. I'll defend myself if there's a problem here. Thank you, though," he adds softly, "I appreciate it."
Craigh says testily, "I'm just worried about my niece. I don't see why family keep falling for these... people." The last word sounds as if he can hardly believe it.
Ruben says, "Perhaps it's because they're worthy people?" Courtland adds, "Darn right, Craigh. Knock it off. I haven't seen anyone bringing anyone unpleasant here, although I'm not counting yourself."
Fontain says, "Now, family, please relax." He says to Craigh, "You know, son, Anita's been around a while, and looks like Vash will be too. Seems like you can decide to be happy about that or not, but that's up to you." He plays his cards and finishes with, "I think we'd all like you better if you were happy."
Craigh quiets, but continues to look sour. Ruben sighs, "What would grandma have said, Craigh?" Courtland, seeing no immediate resolution to what may be a years-old stress, says, "So, Vash, do you like children? Have you met Mica, Marta, Cammie, and Stephan?"
Vash grins. "Yes, I've met them... they came looking for us at the Gather. They've got a lot of energy. They seem like good kids."
Anita grins, "The twins are... hard to keep up with. Even for me." Courtland asks, "Do you plan on having any of your own?" Ruben listens to this curiously.
Vash says, "Well... I don't know if we can. I mean, I know how important it is here... but I don't know if... I'm able to. This kind of relationship, it just never happens back home. Nobody really knows, I guess, except the ones that made us... and they're long gone. I'd love to give her children, if that's what she wanted." He sighs quietly. "I'd give her the sun if she asked."
Courtland smiles at that, and Ruben relaxes a little. The game continues to Craigh, who says curtly, "May I go out?" His partner, Fontain, looks at his hand and at the face-up cards, then says only, "No." Ruben says to Vash, "Can you tell us about your family? Any brothers or sisters? Do you come from a big family?"
Vash grins, relaxing a bit. "Yeah. Yeah, I come from a big family. Um... we're born in quads. There's always four siblings. I got three brothers, and my dad has three. His father..." Vash smiles broadly at broaching a favorite topic, "My grandfather, now he was a real Hero."
Courtland says, "Well, so are you!" Ruben says, "Tell us about him."
Vash grins and shakes his head. "I can't compare myself to him. His name was Juan-Miguel Ramos Montoya. He was one of my first influences... way back when, in the country I'm from, one of their states decided to break off, make themselves independent. A war started. They made us, the armadillos, to fight that war, 'cause we're suited to the terrain down there. My grandfather was descended from that batch... tough old man. All kinds of stories about him. He and his men got captured once, and he dug them outta the prison camp with his bare claws, yeah? Said he clung to the bottom of a boat all the way up the Colorado River on the way back, to avoid being seen from above..." Vash goes on a few moments, telling some of the more entertaining stories about his grandfather and his grandfather's brothers, then his father's quad, "...and then there's me and my three brothers."
Ruben asks thoughtfully, "You have live brothers? I presume parents, too. Are you going to miss them? Do you think they'll ever make it here to see us? Would you have them stay if they could? Would they want to?"
Vash nods. "Yeah, three brothers." He grins a little, "Actually... yes, I do miss them. I can't really speak for them, but I'd like to think they'd like it here. I'd love to find a way to bring them here. I'd love for them to stay, if they wanted. Maybe if the Company finds a way to open up a trade route, I can find a way to get them here."
Ruben adds curiously, "I heard you know Karlstrasse's Lamia, Zildjian. How did you meet her?"
Vash says, "Well, she knew our pilot and, as it happens, one of her ancestors knew my grandfather. I was surprised to see her... Lamia and Armadillo, back home, have a lot of bad history. But we got that buried. Matter of fact, I'm hoping my crew and I can help her out with getting through the winter, soon."
On his turn, again, Craigh asks, "May I go out?" This time Fontain says, "Yep," to his son. Courtland says, "Uh-oh." Ruben asks, "What are you going to do for her?"
Vash says, "Well... the cold's no good for her. Slows her body down. She can't even get up, most mornings. We got some portable heaters and emergency blankets and stuff that I think will help her get up and around in the mornings, at least until we find something better to regulate her temperature. She's a snake, you know? Cold-blooded. Winter's real hard on her. But she's been doing a lot of good here, so we're gonna try and pay her back for that. Besides, she's a friend. Can't leave a friend in trouble like that."
Harting says, "Oh, that's not so good. It'll get cold this winter, although not quite this early." Anita adds, "There's often a cold snap around the Gather for a week or so." Ruben nods at the idea of not leaving a friend in trouble. It's clear he likes that.
It's about this point that some women come in, talking to one another. Blue is among them, looking kind of tired. It gets a little busy again, as Aunt Schmida and some nieces -- Louise and Krista -- and Aunt Tina and Blue's mother Tara come in. Vash looks up at the new entries and smiles as Blue enters, although he finds himself hard pressed to remember all the names again. Tina, settling by Craigh, asks, "Are you still at this game?"
Fontain plays out the rest of his cards, as his partner had played his all out too, and answers, "Nope, we're done." Ruben asks, "How's the Wise Woman?"
Blue goes over and hugs Vash, "Did they eat you alive, sweetie?" Anita grins, "He looks tough to me." Courtland says, "Well, Vash, looks like Fontain and Craigh won it." Harting comments, "Fontain often does." The old man just smiles a little, "Experience, I guess."
Vash grins, hugging Blue, "I don't think I can beat your grandfather. He's as tough as mine."
Tara tells Ruben, "Oh, she's doing well. She says the vixen who came with Vash knows some amazing things she's eager to learn. We stocked up on that good tea that's so helpful for the monthly pains. Generally a nice visit." Blue nods at Vash's statement, asking, "Would you like to go off and find Douglas or Sakura?" She looks hopefully at him.
Vash smiles, "Sure, if that's okay with the others...?" He glances toward Fontain, then adds, "I should find Sakura; I should be there for her clan fostering. I need to know what she's doing."
The twins burst in from the darkening outside, talking quickly and vaguely alternating, "Wow, it's getting cold tonight," and, "Did you hear that the Wise Woman said I was taller than she thought I'd be?" and, "Oooh! Hi, Vash!" and, "Granpa Fontain! Did you know it's our birthday next month? We almost forgot." Mica, who's found Vash says, "Yeah! It's our birthday soon, Vash! We'll be seven whole years old!" Marta nods energetically, then adds, "How old are you, Vash?"
Vash smiles a little. "I'm sixteen. But armadillo years and human years are a little different."
The adults don't quite know what to make of this. Craigh looks stunned, and Courtland repeats, "Sixteen?" Only Wolflady is together enough to ask, "Different how, Vash?" At this, Harting gets kind of an Oh! look, but doesn't say anything. Mica's eyes widen, "Only sixteen!?" She thinks for a moment, then bounces into Vash's lap, "Vash, Vash, wait for us, okay? -and then you can marry all three of us!" Marta nods solemnly. Mica beams, bouncing excitedly in Vash's lap. Blue still looks a bit... floored.
Vash thinks to himself a moment. Whoops. Now you've done it. It's always the little things that kill you. Very little, in this case... "Um... like I said, we were made, in the beginning, and were considered throwaways. There was also the problem of getting enough of us combat-ready in time to meet the demand- oof- so... we develop very quickly. Douglas is the only member of my crew over twenty. He's actually middle-aged by our standards. Even though he doesn't act like it." He smiles sheepishly. "Um... my years, in terms of how I developed, are about twice normal. So... if I were human, I'd be thirty-two."
The twins chorus a disappointed, "Awwwww!" and Marta adds softly, "Don't you like us too?"
Vash smiles and hugs the twins gently. "No, I like you both very much."
The twins look reassured, Marta leaning against him and Mica throttling him with her usual enthusiasm in hugging. Anita grins, "Got yourself an old man, Blue!" Fontain and his sons stop and think about this. Courtland finally smiles, "Well, we won't worry about her robbing the cradle, then," but it comes out a little weak. Blue pulls her wits back together, and says again, "So, love, shall we go?"
Vash very carefully attempts to keep his eyes from bugging out while disengaging Mica from his throat. "Yeah, we should probably go... thank you all, it was good to get to know you all a little better." Get me out of here, Blue, before I do any more damage.
Goodbyes are passed around with more or less politeness as Blue disentangles Vash from more family conversation, and they make their exit. Rather well timed is a remark from Anita, almost certainly put so that Blue and Vash were on their way out but still in earshot, "And, since you asked, Craigh, not once did he smell like he was lying. Nice fellow."
Vash shakes his head a little, one arm curled around Blue's waist as they leave. "Well," he murmurs, "I think I've really shot myself in the ass this time, my dear."
Blue leads Vash back to her place, unless he seems intent on finding the others. "Oh, I doubt it. Uncle Craigh is always funny about different people. If Aunt Wolflady and Granpa Fontain like you, then you did fine." She gives him a walking hug, then adds, "As long as you still like me after having met them, I don't care."
Vash mms. "I suppose they do. I hope so. It wasn't Craigh I was worried about... I've dealt with people just like him every day back home. It was the age thing. I really should have just said thirty-two."
Blue says, "Don't worry about it, love. What's done is done. Let's go relax. I don't know about you, but I've had enough hard questions for one day." She sighs. Apparently the visit at the Wise Woman's was full of them for her.
Vash nods. "You seem pretty tired. C'mon, we'll curl up for a while and you can tell me about it."
Last modified: 2002-Feb-12 15:48:05
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