The girl's body was achingly still.

The girl’s body was achingly still but for the bird-​​stir of her fluttering heart and the panic of her panting breath. Her frigid bravery shamed Vash a little, for he thought her fright would seem as shameful as nudity to her had she known he could hear. He was ashamed he had told her not to be afraid.

He stepped closer, murmuring, “I am Paul’s friend…”

He stepped closer.

A quiver ran over her, and he stopped as still as she. He was very near to her now, and his head far enough above her immobile head that she could only stare darkly up at him through her pale lashes. Nothing had a color in the cave but her blue eyes.

He swallowed loudly enough that he thought even she could hear. His heart fluttered out of her hearing.

Too late he understood that he had stepped too close to her.

Too late he understood that he had stepped too close to her. She was not the frightened, helpless little girl Osh’s distress had made her seem. She did not want comfort and aid and a gentle guide to show her the way home. It was not the night or the cave or the cold she feared, but him – but what he could do to her here.

He was too ashamed to step back and admit he knew, so he only straightened slowly, rocking his weight back onto his heels and leaning slightly away. Her eyes glittered as her gaze followed his head. He understood too late that he was only a black shadow to her, with the night at his back: a looming male form.

He was too ashamed to step back and admit he knew.

She quivered in some almost imperceptible way that paralyzed and pained him, like the ripples ringing outward from reeds when the wind scarcely blew. In her stillness she had the wracked grace of a bowed sapling strained into an arc by the weight of snow.

“And you must be Kr – ”

He must have moved.

She uncoiled and sprang and lashed him.

She uncoiled and sprang and lashed him, and the whack of her slight weight burst his heart like a rotten fruit. Its black splatter choked his throat, and a swarm of loosened wasps buzzed and needled hotly down his arm, bloating and shredding it as they fled stingers-​​down and flew.

The whack of her slight weight burst his heart like a rotten fruit.

Then he felt the flow and fever of pure, bright blood beneath his hand. He looked over his shoulder, searing a new pain into his chest, and saw the mirrored sky beside her head: a blade.

“You stabbed me!”

She glared at him, her eyes slitted until the blue irises were steely slivers. She moved now, snapping and swaying like a sapling in the wind, and every third breath she gasped choking through her mouth.

She glared at him.

“What are you trying to do?” he wailed. “Stab me through the heart?”

“Did I?” she squeaked and panted.

He felt oddly insulted. “No! I do have ribs, you know! But I am bleeding!”

Perhaps he expected her to lower her knife and apologize, or perhaps the pain simply made him surly, but her steadfast stare and the blade she aimed straightly at him infuriated him.

“Give me that!”

He lifted his left hand to snatch the knife neatly out of her right, but the sudden, wrenching pain in his chest made him groan, and his clumsy correction of the veer of his arm made his grip around her wrist rougher than he meant. 

He lifted her arm high, hissing through his teeth at the pain, and when she whipped and flailed frantically at his face and breast with the other, he caught it and yanked it aside too.

At once she went deathly still.

At once she went deathly still, like a rabbit grasped by its scruff and lifted. Stillness spread out from her body in rings, overlapping him, surrounding them both, until they met the silent walls of the cave, and everything was stone.

A stunned and bewildered Vash now found himself holding a girl spread-​​eagled against the cold wall of a cave, and with a searing-​​hot wound on his chest that gaped whenever he moved his aching arm, mouthing and sputtering lumpy blood that he could not concentrate to clot. He could not conceive how such excellent intentions as his could be so quickly and so utterly thwarted.

“Are you going to steal my blood?” the girl whispered, shivering.

“No, I am not going to steal your blood!” he groaned. “Just your knife!”

He wrenched the knife out of her hand, scarcely heeding any pain he might have caused her out of his desperate need to lower his arm and ease his own. With the other arm he slung her off.

All her cold bravery, all her tense grace, all her defiance shattered and snapped and slumped, and she whimpered and blubbered like a child, “Please don’t hurt me! Please, please!”

'Please don't hurt me!'

“I did not mean to hurt you!” he howled in exasperation. “You stabbed me with this!”

He brandished her own knife at her before tucking it into his belt, still slick with his own blood.

“I didn’t mean to!” she sobbed.

“It is lucky you did not or I suppose I would be dead!”

“Please don’t hurt me!”

“Nobody will hurt you!” he groaned.

He unbuttoned his collar and slipped his hand down into his coat.

He unbuttoned his collar and slid his hand down into his coat in search of the source of his pain. The slippery lips of the wound scarcely hurt when he stroked them, but they lay in an ominous hollow where bands of muscle had been shorn. The pain burned deep against his ribs, where his probing fingers dared not go, and his arm was swelling and growing numb, replacing all sensation with only a tingling, burning ache.

He wiped his bloody fingers on his hip and turned to scowl his irritation at the girl, but she cringed at even this slight movement. The hand she lifted in feeble self-​​defense stilled and shamed him. In the dark her white palm appeared blue.

In the dark her white palm appeared blue.

He remembered then how icy it had been in his grip, and in spite of his wound he thought it lucky he had come when he did. If he had found her at dawn, he might have found her dead. And if Osh had found her instead…


She squeaked and snuffled like a mouse pinned beneath a taloned foot. His very voice frightened her. He needed Osh to teach him how to talk to such a girl. All he knew to do was to try to make things easier in his self-​​deprecating way.

“I cannot wait until Paul hears about this,” he grumbled. “This is just what Cat tried to do to him, you know.”

He paused and waited until Kraaia lowered her blue hands and leaned back, listening. She fit her unfurling form to the stone like flowing water, camouflaging herself with stillness and dark, until only her pale face shone out from the wall like a new god.

Kraaia lowered her blue hands and leaned, listening.

“She whipped out a knife and attacked him the first time they met,” Vash explained. “In a cave, as it happens. But naturally he did not get so much as a scratch. That insufferable goat will be holding this over me for as long as I live.”

Kraaia giggled shortly like a splash of water.

“Oh, you find that funny?” Vash huffed.

“Can I tell him?” she begged. Her true voice – if this was her true voice at last – was low and throaty like a boy’s, but silty-​​smooth.

“Suppose we don’t tell him at all?” he asked hopefully.

“No, I want to tell him!” she gushed. “Or at least be there when you tell him! How I stabbed Vash Almighty!”

She laughed deeply but stopped short when she saw him rub his throbbing shoulder.

“Are you hurt bad?” she asked worriedly. “Shus can fix it, can’t he?”

Vash grunted at a spasm of pain as he rocked his shoulder back, but she took it for a reply.

“I didn’t mean it,” she whimpered. “I was just going to kill myself if you tried to hurt me, but I didn’t think you would let me – ”

“Kill yourself?” he gasped.

“So you wouldn’t hurt me. Or you could only hurt me after I was dead, which I wouldn’t care.”

Vash’s right arm fell as numbly at his side as the left, and he stared.

Did she never look up?

Unfaltering, unhesitating, this little girl – scarcely shoulder-​​height beside such giants as Osh and he – threaded narrow paths through canyons of danger and death. Did she never look up?

In reply to his silence, she muttered, “I didn’t think it was really you. That seemed like just a little bit too much coincidence to me.”

“It isn’t coincidence at all, since I was looking for you. Where’s Rua?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged.

Vash gaped at her, struck speechless by her apparent unconcern.

“Why?” she asked. “Didn’t she come home?”

“Did she go home?”

“I don’t know. I was already gone.” When he said no more, she explained, “I took off as soon as she got far out into the field. By the time I got my coat and boots and all, I didn’t think she would hear me any more.”

“Didn’t you leave together?”

She said simply, “No.”

Vash’s heart began to pound again, painfully, with fear for Lasrua and some slight anger for Kraaia. Such lack of concern was unbecoming when the death and danger were not one’s own.

“She was following a baby deer out to see if she could find its mother,” she explained. “She told me to stay in the house, but that was wasted breath,” she laughed.

'That was wasted breath.'

“A baby deer,” Vash frowned.

“You know: a fawn,” she shrugged. “It was in the side yard this morning.”

“A fawn,” he said coldly.

“Whatever you want to call it,” she muttered.

He knew then that she was lying, but she was also shivering and blowing onto her blue hands. Even if he went out again to search for Lasrua, he would at least have to keep this girl warm.

She was also shivering and blowing onto her blue hands.

“Would it be wasted breath if I told you to stay here while I go out for wood?”

Kraaia lowered her head. “I already brought some wood in here,” she mumbled. “But it’s wet. I couldn’t get it lit.”

“You know how to make fires?”

“Of course I know how to make fires!” she flared. “You think I’m a baby or what? I run away all the time! I’m going to burn Cat’s house down around her head if she makes me mad! And – and poison the well,” she concluded softly.

She folded her arms over her chest and looked down.

She folded her arms over her chest and looked down.