"The Insurance Girls Tell All"
Part 1 - "Song of Solomon"
By Azalea

Rated PG-13

Chapter 1: Head on my Shoulder
Milly:     Nicholas was the first man to notice me. It seems that way, anyway. I guess it’s not true-like one time, when Meryl and I had first set out to find Vash, some guys in a bar made lewd comments at us. But times like that don’t count.
       I guess I looked all right, but I didn’t have a gorgeous face that stopped men in their tracks. I was too tall to appeal to most of them. Especially since my height made it hard to find feminine clothes my size-my mother didn’t sew, and goodness knows, with that many kids, she should have-so I took to wearing mostly men’s clothing early on.
        I don’t know why, but Nicholas saw past that right from the start. That time on the bus, the day we first met, he put me in a state of shock when he leaned against me and fell asleep. Most women would have thought he was getting fresh-after my initial discomfort, I felt too flattered to care. As the bus continued on, I began thinking how handsome he was. Why hadn’t I noticed it right from the moment we met? Well, given I still hadn’t known him for a whole day, you could excuse me for taking a few hours to really notice.
        Shortly thereafter, I must have fallen asleep myself, for the next thing I knew, I woke up to find him still resting on my shoulder. That physical closeness..it was making me feel emotionally close, too. I knew already I was falling. But would we ever even see each other again after today?
        He woke, and looked at me tenderly, as though we had just made love. Then the last traces of sleep vanished, and an expression of sheepishness replaced the sweetness. “Uh, how long have I been out?” he joked.
        “I’m really not sure.”
        “I hope I didn’t make your shoulder sore.”
        “It’s fine,” I said simply. It seemed like I should have said more, but I could not think of anything.
        From her seat across the narrow aisle, Meryl shook her fist at Nicholas. “You’re lucky! She should’ve whacked you one!”
        “Don’t mind her!” Vash insisted, lowering Meryl’s arm with his own, making her more irritable. “She’s just upset you stole her seat.”

Meryl:     We arrived in town, and Wolfwood and the three of us went our separate ways. Later, at Milly’s and my hotel room, I confronted her about the incident. “Proper young ladies do not let strange men sleep on their shoulders!"
        “Oh, but he seemed nice!”
        “You admitted he was a strange and unusual man!”
        “Yeah, but, I…” I think she was ready to burst into song.
        “You liked it, didn’t you?” I demanded.
        “Well, actually, yeah. I guess so.”
        “But, Meryl, you can’t tell me not to like something if it already happened and I already did like it,” she reasoned. “That’s impossible!”
        I stared at her incredulously for a moment. Then I held a hand to my forehead. “Oh, never mind!” Already, he had more sway over her than I did-and I was supposed to be her leader. A warning bell went off in my head-Wolfwood plus Milly equals trouble.

Melinda:     All the girls are crazy over the latest actor to play Wolfwood on screen. How do you think he compares to the original?

Milly:    I prefer my Nicholas, of course! He was handsome, yet not perfectly so. There was a little bit of goofiness to his looks, as if he were apologizing. Maybe saying something like “I know I’m hardly the ideal priest, but I’m having fun.” His black hair was shaggy-but, oh, how dramatic it looked blowing in the wind! There was a little stubble on his chin. He was a sloppy dresser, seldom bothering to button his shirt all the way. But I must admit, I enjoyed sneaking peeks at his chest.
        I like a bit of that imperfection in a man’s looks. Those who are perfectly gorgeous are a bit too, well, sweet, like candy you get tired of after only a couple of bites.

Melinda: (She handed me a green glass bottle of cologne, labeled Rarity.)

Milly: Here, sniff this. Isn’t it dreamy? This is what Nicholas always wore. I misplaced the original bottle. It took me forever to find that scent again. It really is a Rarity! When I did find it, and I took a sniff, it felt so nostalgic I cried.
        That’s something I miss about the old days. Every man wore cologne back then. And they smelled so good! A whiff could get me giddy…
        All us gals wore perfume, too. My favorite one to wear was Pure Snow. Meryl like something called Recollection, but she liked Pure Snow, too. Funny, I’ve never seen snow, but I imagine that’s what it must smell like!
        Well, back to Nicholas. Nicholas-at the time, I always addressed him as “Mr. Wolfwood” or even “Mr. Priest”-he was there for a couple more adventures we had-the kind we always seemed to have when Vash was around.
        One night, before a big quick draw contest, I was playing cards with Vash and Nicholas. Being tipsy, I had stripped my top half down to my camisole. I didn’t get completely naked as Meryl seems to think. Besides, although camisoles can be worn as underclothes, they are modest enough to sport as outerwear! My bra straps were peeking through, but I don’t know that that was such a big deal either. And I guess if you looked carefully, you could see the pattern of my bra underneath the camisole’s thin cloth. But I trust the two gentlemen would never have allowed me go so far as Meryl thinks. Although both of them were rather drunk and a bit interested in a show. Meryl put a robe on me, but I took it off again.
        “Mister Priest,” I declared.
        “You’re a priest.”
        He nodded slowly, wondering what I was getting at. “Yeah?”
        “Did you take any vows?”
        “Well, what kind do you mean?”
        “I mean, like vows to celibacy.”
        He shook his head. “No, in my church, priests can get married if they want.”
        I laughed, a bit too heartily. “That’s good.”
        “There are rules about abstinence, though,” he clarified.
        “Well, I think it’s good to abstain,” I declared, slamming my hand down on the table. “From alcohol! Um, and the other thing, too.” “From alcohol?” he wondered, incredulous.
        “Oh, yeah, that’s right, I’m drunk!” I cried, stretching my arms up over my head and laughing stupidly. The chair nearly tilted over.
        “Hey, whoa there, honey!” Nicholas exclaimed, nearly jumping out of his seat to make sure I didn’t fall over. But I was okay. He settled back down his chair. “Remind me never to get you drunk again.”
        Vash spoke up, his voice slurred. “Priests shouldn’t get girls or infamous legends such as myself drunk.”
        Nicholas grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, what was I thinking? Bad priest.”

Meryl:     You’ve all heard of the famous incident after the quick draw contest-where dozens of bad guys were going to jump Vash and Wolfwood, but Wolfwood shot them all down in what had to be called, despite it being in self defense, a rampage. He didn’t kill anyone, mind you, which makes me wonder why he ever had to kill anyone at all, if he was at good as Vash at sharpshooting. He could have just disarmed every bad guy that he met.

Milly:     I think we were all shocked at Nicholas’ taking everyone down, but no one died, you know. And part of me was just in awe. Whether what he did was good or bad, this was one incredible man.

Meryl: To be honest, there were times I thought Wolfwood was no less than a madman.

Milly:     Nicholas took off after the tournament, and Vash, Meryl, and I ended up joining a caravan on the way to Demislad. In the caravan trailer, stopped briefly before reaching its destination, I sighed. “Thinking about Mr. Wolfwood?” Meryl asked.
        I was startled. “How did you know?”
        She smiled. “I think you like him.”
        “Well, of course, I like him! Why, don’t you like him?”
        “Oh, I don’t really mean like. I mean love.”
        “Do I love Mr. Wolfwood? Why, I don’t know!”
        “Maybe you just have a crush on him.”
        “I do get to feeling giddy when he’s near,” I admitted. I looked around, making sure Vash wasn’t here, then I turned back to her. “Meryl, do you love Mr. Vash?”
        She sat bolt upright. “What, him? You’ve got to be kidding! The man is a moron!”
        “You do always get flustered when he’s near.”
        “What’s that supposed to mean?”
        “Just an observation.”
        “I don’t love him. I despise him.”
        I looked at her with pure disbelief.
        “Okay, maybe despise is too strong a word..Can we talk about something else now?”

Milly: When I woke up the next morning, after a sweet dream about Nicholas, I knew I really was in love. But why would any man fall in love with me?
        I ran into him again at the caravan canteen. Oh, how my heart beat with excitement! I hardly even noticed when he snapped at me for moving his chess pieces. We had such an adventure together, helping two young lovers escape persecution.
        Then Nicholas went away again. I wanted to see him some more, but I did not feel all that sad. At least, that’s what I told myself. After all, we had not started anything more than a friendship, officially speaking. Besides, I knew in my heart we’d hear from him again.
        Actually, to tell the truth, I missed him something terrible.

Chapter 2: Catastrophe after Catastrophe
Melinda:     The Fifth Moon. Augusta. The effects were felt all over this world. And who was the finger of blame pointed at? Vash the Stampede. And he would indeed admit to these acts of destruction, though his biographer, and Meryl and Milly, too, of course, say he wasn’t to blame. It was the work of Legato Bluesummers, manipulating Vash’s “Angel Arm”. I still am not sure exactly what an Angel Arm is, but I do know it can unleash deadly force, like the nuclear bombs of the Old World, destroying entire cities in moments.
        The Insurance Girls weren’t with Vash when it happened, but they sensed the electricity in the air. They knew something catastrophic would soon happen. Meryl was in anguish worrying about Vash-the man she claimed to hate. She told me about how desperate she was to get to Vash, how Milly had to drag her away, literally kicking and screaming. But finally, the dust began to settle on Augusta, and the two office ladies returned to the site...

Meryl:     Standing in the ruins of a once proud city, Milly suddenly exclaimed, “It’s him!”
        My heart skipped a beat as I looked up. I would forgive him; he would tell me what happened and I would forgive him. Oh, it wasn’t my him. It was her him. Wolfwood, picking through the rubble. But what was he doing here?
        He saw us-well, saw Milly mostly, and called out, “Honey!” She clambered over fallen bricks to reach him, and they hugged. I’m not sure either of them realized he blurted out “honey” instead of her name. Milly had for the moment forgotten about catastrophe and was smiling at him, her eyes shining as brightly as the North Stars. All this damage, all those people rendered homeless, and all she could see…I sighed. Would I be any different if I spotted Vash? Seeing them embrace made me ache.
        Wolfwood and we two compared notes, but I don’t think he was telling us everything. He vowed to make it his mission to find Vash. We gave him our office card to contact us or Bernadelli if he did, but I don’t think he even intended to let us know.
        I was devastated when Bernadelli sent us back to the main office in December City. We were no longer to accompany Vash. I guess you could say my heart was broken. I knew I would miss him.
        Those days back at the office were spent on edge, waiting for news from or about Vash. It was a combination of both not being able to forget and refusing to let go that kept me in a state of waiting. Karen would needle me mercilessly, but I didn’t care.
        I’m ashamed to say that my friendship with Milly reverted to a more casual one, though I spoke with her every workday and some weekends. She was sharing a flat with a sister or two, and I lived alone in an apartment of my own. I used to like living alone. Now it was more like living lonely.
        Then we found out Vash was on the roam again. Thankfully, Bernadelli reversed its hands off policy, and teamed up Milly and I again. Soon, we boarded a sand steamer and were on our way to New Oregon.

Melinda:     To make it short, the steamer got hijacked. Vash prevented a man from killing in revenge, but got multiple bruises to the face when the man repeatedly hit him. Don’t ask how these two events are related-it’s too complicated! Meryl and Milly whisked Vash to the outskirts of town…

Meryl: I was leading Vash away from the city when Milly ran ahead of me, pouncing on Wolfwood, whom we had not seen since Augusta. “Whee!”
        “Umphh!” Wolfwood grunted, falling to the ground. He could have injured himself on the rocky terrain. “Say, will you look where you’re going?” he shouted angrily.
        “Oh, I’m sorry,” Milly squeaked, her hands folded together pensively.
        Wolfwood smiled, and held up an arm so Milly could help him to his feet. “Ah, forget it. I can’t stay mad at someone like you. Good to see ya, honey.”
        “You found Vash and didn’t tell us,” I scolded, as the priest dusted himself off.
        “Hey, it hasn’t been that long since I found him,” he defended.
        “Meryl,” Vash broke in.
        I turned my head. “Huh?”
        “I wanted to lay low.” He sat down, staring off moodily over the town.
        Wolfwood scolded Vash, then made the pretense of leaving. As I sat down next to Vash, Milly also made herself scarce.
        “Long time, no see,” Vash said to me flatly.
        “Yeah,” I said nervously. He didn’t appear happy about the reunion, much to my disappointment. We sat together, gazing down at the town of New Oregon. He was so sullen and brooding.
        “You should be happy,” I said finally. “No one was killed. You won.”
        “I must look like hell,” he remarked.
        “Is that what you’re worried about?” My mind flashed back to him shirtless, his multitude of scars lay bare, saying to Milly and I, “It’s not exactly something I like girls to see. I think many of them would run away.” Was he embarrassed that we had seen him with his face swollen and bruised?
        “I guess I’m just sore about having my face used as a punching bag.” He winced. “Sore in more ways than one. Though I suppose I really can’t blame that guy, after his daughter was killed in such a terrible manner. I can only imagine how that feels.” Sounding surprised at himself, he added, “I’ve never had any children of my own.”
        “Do you want to?”
        “I don’t know that that’s a good idea.”
        I looked at him curiously.
        “You already know the reason why,” he told me, answering my question before it was asked. Then he turned it around on me. “Do you want children? Someday?”
        “I can take it or leave it,” I replied. I was staring ahead, but I could feel his eyes studying me. “If my future husband wants one, I guess I’ll give him one, and see how that works out before having any more.”
        “I think you’d make a great mother!” he declared.
        I turned in his direction. “Why’s that?”
        He smiled impishly. “Because you’re always bossing me around!”
        “Oh, I oughtta smack you one!” I snapped, but I was glad to see him joking and smiling. “But you’ve had enough abuse for one day, so I’ll skip it.”
        “Go on and hit me,” he encouraged. “One more won’t hurt.” It could have been a jest, but I could see he had returned to being sullen.
        “Vash-you broke the cycle of violence between two families,” I told him. “Maybe now their feud will end.”
        “It’d be nice to think so, wouldn’t it?” Vash returned in a soft, nearly timid tone. When he wasn’t bellowing about something, his voice was so kind and gentle, so easy on my ears. I had missed that voice so much.

Melinda:     Vash and Wolfwood’s next adventure (sans the Insurance Girls) was aboard the last remaining Project Seeds spaceship, still flying in the atmosphere. Although both men tried valiantly to save the ship, the Gung-Ho Guns prevailed and the ship plummeted from the sky. The crashing ship was like nothing the office ladies had ever seen before. Blocking out the sky, it was frightening. Milly and Meryl just wanted to hide under a bed like a couple of cats. But the girls knew they would find Vash, and maybe even Wolfwood, at the crash site. What they didn’t know was that they would find a bunch of newly homeless-and clueless-“settlers”.

Milly:     I saw Nicholas lying in the sand, and at first I thought it was strange for him to relax, then I realized he was hurt. I ran up to him and fell into a kneeling position beside him. “Mr. Wolfwood!”
        He smiled. “Ah, my angel of mercy.”
        “Can you get up?”
        “I don’t think I should.”
        “Oh!” I said solemnly. “Back injury.” I glanced down and, seeing his bloody leg, winced.
        “That’s nothing,” he assured me.

        His back injury ended up being only temporary-it would clear up in a couple of days. The leg wound was cleaned and bandaged, and it caused no long term harm, either. Vash wasn’t seriously wounded, either, except emotionally. A young man named Brad had died taking bullets for him.
        Residents of New Oregon intermingled with the former spaceship dwellers. Even though they had just been hit by Typhoon Jacqueline, they were convinced to help the reluctant newcomers. The two parties could help each other, actually.
        A camp was set up, and one evening, the four of us were sitting around one of many fires. A young woman named Jessica, who looked more like a child, also joined in. From what I gathered, she was either Brad’s sweetie, or imagined she was Vash’s girlfriend. Meryl would have given her the cold shoulder, but she realized this was no time for jealousy.
        I shivered-it was a cold night. Nicholas placed a blanket around my shoulders, then extended it to fit over his as well, wrapping the cloth around us. “Yeah, you’re my angel of mercy, aren’t you?”
        I giggled as he put his hand on my waist to pull me closer. Meryl looked up. “It’s nothing,” I explained. She couldn’t see-for all she knew, he was behaving lewdly under the covers, but I didn’t think he was.
        Jessica looked wistful. Vash just looked miserable.
        The air was solemn, but I still relished the nearness of Nicholas’ body, and felt aglow with love. It’s funny, but I still wasn’t sure how he felt. I guess it’s like that with love-no matter how obvious the signs, you don’t know how your darling feels until he says those three big words.

        Being with him like that was wonderful, despite the tragedy of the surroundings. Oh, he had to be the most incredible man on the planet! Well, Meryl insists that that title belongs to Vash, and Vash the Stampede is, admittedly, the most legendary man on the planet. But though I once thought I was developing a crush on Vash, when Nicholas came along, my heart went to him instead.
        Nicholas was handsome, he was heroic, he was big-hearted, he was holy. Although he had some habits peculiar to a priest! He sure was different from the reverend back in my home town!
        I finally asked him about it, the night before we drove into Keybos. We picked a cave to spend the night. While Vash and Meryl were preparing the inside, I walked outside to where Nicholas was taking a cigarette break. “Are you staying with us this time, Mr. Wolfwood?”
        “I may tag along a little while longer.”
        “I don’t like it when you go away,” I said, on one hand, hoping my romantic feelings showed through, on the other hand, hoping he thought I was just talking to him friend to friend.
        “I have work to do, you know that.”
        “You could collect money for the orphanage with us. Mr. Vash doesn’t have a job to speak of, and Meryl and I-all we do is follow him around from town to town. And that’s what you do-go from town to town. And besides, Mr. Vash needs a buddy.”
        Nicholas stared at the ground, kicking a pebble. “Vash isn’t wandering aimlessly. He has his own problems he has to take care of.”
        “Well, you always have a place with us, you know.”
        “Did Vash and Meryl tell you you could say that?”
        “Well, no, but I’m sure-”
        “Never mind. It’s good to know that regardless.” He put the cigarette back to his mouth.
        “Why do you do that?”
        He pulled the cigarette from his lips. “What? Why do I smoke if I’m a priest?” he asked knowingly.
        “Yeah, I was wondering why you drink, too, but I drink sometimes, so I guess it doesn’t matter.”
        He explained, “The way I see it, Milly, being a Christian’s not about obeying every verse with total strictness. It’s doing something to make the world a better place, and relying on Christ to cover your sins.”
        I smiled. “Yeah.”
        He continued, “Vash isn’t a preacher, but he’s probably holier than me. But the problem with Vash is he’s too idealistic.”
        “What do you mean, Mr. Wolfwood?”
        “He thinks there’s always an alternative to fatal force. The problem is, there’s a lot of people on this planet who aren’t about to talk things out peacefully. Gunfire is the only law they understand. I’m not saying I like it, but that’s just the way it is.”
        “In this day and age,” I began slowly, trying to recap what he said. “A priest has to be a warrior.”
        He grinned at me, and I felt my heart beat faster. “A warrior, hey? I like that. Ha-Nicholas D. Wolfwood, priest and warrior.”
        “Onward, Christian soldier!” I shouted. Then, quieting down, I asked again, “So why do you smoke?”
        “Ahh-at first, it was to rebel against the man who raised me. But I got hooked on it. Besides, gives me something to do on my long treks through the desert.”
        “I’m not judging you,” I insisted. “My father and two of my brothers smoke, so I’m used to-” I stopped. Used to kissing men who smoke, is what I had wanted to say. “Used to it,” I finished instead, rather lamely.
        He looked at me curiously, then asked, “So, where’s it say in the Bible not to smoke?”
        “Well, it’s just not a healthy habit.”
        “True-but it also acts as a sexual suppressant.”
        “It does?”
        “Yeah. So every priest should probably smoke-in order to keep his chastity.”
        I laughed. “You’re funny.”
        “You think I’m kidding?” he asked, one side of his mouth curling up slightly. “And about swearing-all it says is don’t take God’s name in vain. That means so-called bad words without religious connotation are fair game. And it seems to me it’s okay to drink as long as you don’t become a drunkard.” He turned the spotlight around on me. “Do you think priests should be celibate?” he asked bluntly.
        “Well, I think there’s certain rules-”
        “I mean get married. I’m not talking about fooling around.”
        “Oh! No, I don’t see why they should be denied love..unless that’s what they want. And besides, people who are denied a way to, um…” I tried to think of the phrasing. “…Let it out end up doing crazy things. Like molesting boys. Not that you would ever do that,” I added hurriedly.
        “I would never hurt a child,” he said solemnly, and despite what would happen in the near future, I am sure he meant that.
        “I know. You’re a very intriguing man, Mr. Wolfwood. I’ve never met anyone quite like you. You’re even more..interesting..than Vash.”
        He gazed at me and smiled. I smiled back, holding his stare for a second or two. And I think, at that moment, although we said nothing, that both of us knew how the other felt, that we were in love. Deep down anyway-on the surface, we were still unsure that our love could be returned.
        Before we could say another word, Meryl told us supper was ready.

Chapter 3: Alternative Conversation
Meryl:     At and around Keybos, there was quite an adventure. Plucky orphans. Angry townspeople. And ravenous giant worms. Vash figured out one kid named Bete was behind it, and disabled the apparatus he used to control the worms. On the tall building’s roof top, as Vash talked to Bete-or Zazie the Beast, as he preferred to be called-I felt hope that even the darkest souls could find redemption. Then, before Zazie could decide to surrender or not, he was gunned down.

Milly:     As Zazie fell, I suddenly realized I hadn’t seen Nicholas around. He wasn’t the one who shot Zazie, was he? Please don’t be Mr. Wolfwood, please don’t be Mr. Wolfwood, I thought desperately. We all looked over-there he was, his cross gun smoking.
        Vash marched over to where he was. “Why, Wolfwood?” he snarled. I have to admit, I wanted to know why myself.
        It seemed so unreal. He had always loved children, and acted as their guardian and protector. I could give countless examples, many from earlier that very day. Now he had killed one and traumatized the rest. He must have had some reason.
        Some reason Vash would never understand.
        I don’t like confrontations and arguments. I don’t like being part of one. I don’t like even being witness to one-I get the same knife-in-heart tingle I do as if I was participating. But I can’t turn away-my ears are somehow fascinated by hearing the others argue. Such as Vash and Nicholas. They really tore into each other.
        I still couldn’t believe it had happened. I wanted to go back in time to not long ago when the four of us-Nicholas and I, and Vash and Meryl-had been cruising in a car, Nicholas and I joking with each other, and Vash and Meryl quietly enjoying each other’s company in the back. We had never been more a quartet than that moment, never more like family. In my heart, that’s how we’ll always stay.
        Nicholas walked away, quietly, fallen from grace and no doubt fearing that if he didn’t leave our gang, he would be thrown out. His eyes-I will never forget his eyes-he refused to lock them with mine, seeing me and quickly looking away, ashamed. At that moment, his eyes held no rage, no bloodlust, no indignation-just sorrow. And despair.
        My heart ached. I felt no anger against him. I just felt sorry for him.
        I looked for Nicholas before we left town. Some guy said he had sold him a used motorcycle, and I knew he had left town without us.

        The ride to the next town was, for the most part, in unbearable silence. Vash, his sunglasses on, drove, and Meryl sat up front with him. I lay in the back, sighing a lot.
        “You shouldn’t worry about him,” Meryl advised me after one particularly long and loud sigh. “He knows how to look out for himself,” she said with traces of bitterness. “He always has.”
        “I wish you wouldn’t-” I began.
        “What? Put him down? Milly, it’s not like he’s innocent until proven guilty. We all saw what he did. And don’t forget, not only did he gun down a kid, he hit Vash, in case you’ve forgotten!”
        “Meryl..” Vash interrupted gently.
        “Yes, Vash?”
        “I don’t want to talk about it right now,” he explained quietly.
        “But you’re not-”
        “I don’t want to hear about it right now,” Vash rephrased.
        “All right,” Meryl agreed meekly, and closed her mouth.
        The silence was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Meryl:     The town was silent except for the wind. Vash was certain that all of the former residents-every man, woman, child-apparently, even every pet-was now dead. The author of the crime, Knives, had left his bloody signature in the center of town on a monument. In helpless anguish, all Vash could do was shoot at the slab, as though killing Knives in effigy.
        I did not know what to do. I had never seen such a desperate grief. Here was a man I had seen many sides of-goofy and idiotic, and self-assured and determined. Now he was hurting, in deeper pain than I could imagine. I wanted to comfort him, but how? How could I ease that great a pain even a little?
        Warily, I placed a hand on his shoulder. “Vash, what can I do?” I asked timidly. “How can I help?”
        For a second, I thought I saw a mischievous gleam in his eyes, but it faded before I even had a chance to ascertain it was there. Vash gestured at the name on the rock. “All this-it’s his fault. Even yesterday-that wasn’t Wolfwood’s fault. Everything goes back to Knives.”
        “But how can I-?”
        “Stay back when I tell you to,” he replied angrily. “Don’t follow when I tell you not to.”
        “But I’m afraid I can’t do that-it’s my job.” It seemed to me we had had this conversation before.
        “Yeah, well, I’m sure your job description never included getting killed to save people a few dollars on insurance premiums.”
        I could have snapped at him for trying to order me around, but I didn’t have the heart. I just sighed.
        “Just…look, just go back to Milly right now,” he said sullenly. “Thanks for the help, but I’d rather be alone, all right?”
        I decided not to get offended. Reluctantly, I nodded and backed away. This is why I’m so scared to console people when they’re in moods like this, I thought.

Milly:     In the house Meryl and I had adopted, the electricity was still running, the plumbing still functioning-indeed, it was like that all over town, as if the people were coming back any time now. We found a fully stocked kitchen and pantry, and set about making sandwiches.
        I was thinking of Nicholas all the while. I felt shame now for my love of a man who had done such a deed as killing a kid. But the other part of me rationalized his act. I had to talk to him, get him to tell me what he was feeling. I steeled my heart-I was determined to love him no matter what.
        Meryl may not have made the sandwiches with Nicholas in mind, but when she left to check on Vash, I decided they were going to him. I could just hear what Meryl would have to say: “I hope you’re not going to see Mr. Wolfwood.”
        I stuck my chin up in the air, and said resolutely to myself, “Regardless of what he did, he still needs to eat.” I left a note on the table. “I may be awhile,” I told her in it. “He may need to talk.”
        Heading over, I felt anxious. What would his mood be? Still, in a way, I suppose I was blissfully ignorant, not knowing the fate that would await him tomorrow. Nor knowing what the two of us would do that night. My life would be forever changed.
        But I had to see him. He had run away, ashamed. He needed somebody, someone who wouldn’t judge, to draw him out of his shell and bring him back into society. Show him he still had a home he could return to. Or else he would just keep on running.

Milly:     Nicholas was sullen; he was angry-but when I begged him to eat the sandwiches, he shyly asked me to dine with him. “I would be more than happy to stay and eat with you, Mr. Wolfwood,” I agreed, pulling up a chair near the bed he was sitting on.
        “Please-call me Nicholas.”
        “Okay, Mr. Wolfwood,” I said hesitantly.
        “We’ve been friends long enough. I want to hear you call me Nicholas.” He was desperately insistent.
        “Nicholas,” I repeated, and giggled nervously.
        He smiled with genuine gratefulness. “Now doesn’t that sound nicer than Mr. Wolfwood?”
        I nodded, and took a sandwich in my hand. “Nicholas is a beautiful name.”
        “Milly,” he said. “Is that short for Millicent?”
        “Yeah,” I replied, blushing. “But I don’t like that name. It sounds snooty..well, to me anyway.”
        “C’mon, it’s pretty!”
        “I suppose. It sounds like the name of some rich girl.” This came out sounding rather garbled, for my mouth was full at the time. Bad-mannered me!
        “But you’re not a rich girl.”
        “No. My family..we weren’t dirt poor, but with so many children, money was spread thin sometimes.”
        We ate in silence a moment, then Nicholas asked me, “What did you do with the orphans?”
        “We left them in the care of the townspeople,” I answered. “There wasn’t much else we could do. They promised to take care of them.”
        “I’d say send them to my orphanage, but I doubt any of those kids trusts me now.”
        “Mister, er, Nicholas, who takes care of the orphanage when you’re away? You’ve been gone an awfully long time.”
        “An elderly couple from the church, and their daughter. Grown daughter. You’re right, I have been gone an awful long time.”
        “I’d like to see this place.”
        “Ah, you would? I’d be glad to have you come along.”

Chapter 4: Confessions

        I looked around the dwelling Nicholas had chosen to camp out in. It was small. The bedroom/living area was pretty basic-no special decorative touches. I wandered into an even smaller bathroom, and then into another bedroom, which looked like it had been converted from storage space. This one at least had some feminine touches, like pink paint on one wall, and floral wallpaper on another. I opened a wooden wardrobe and pulled out a dress. It was light green with dark green velvet shoulders. Holding it up in front of me, I noticed to my amazement that it was my length. Closing the door, I tried it on, then ran out to Nicholas. “Look what I found!” I squealed.
        His eyes lit up. “You look very pretty. That color’s good on you.”
        I shyly looked away, then ran back into the female’s bedroom. I changed back into my clothes, well, minus my duster, shoes, and tie, but checked out more of her attire to see if it was my size.
        “You ought to take some of them with you,” Nicholas suggested, when I returned to the front room.
        “Oh, I couldn’t do that!”
        “It’s not stealing, Milly,” he said, perhaps taking my cue and kicking off his own footwear. “Unfortunately, none of these people are ever coming back.”
        “I’m still not sure I feel right about it.” Still, I went back to her room, checking out a chest of drawers. It amused me to find several pair of pajamas the same cut as my own.
        I showed one pair to Nicholas. “I think I’ll keep these.”
        He smiled. “All those pretty dresses, and you want to keep a pair of pajamas just like the ones you already have.”
        “Well, she has more than one pair,” I rationalized. “She won’t miss them if she comes back.”
        “Milly, she’s not-”
        “Please, Mr. Wolfwood. I just like to imagine she would, even if she won’t, ‘k?”
        “Okay, Milly, I understand.”
        “I wonder if she was very much like me, and what became of her.” I put the pajamas on the window shelf, then I sat down facing Nicholas. He had one of his pistols in his hand. I didn’t know why. He must have gotten it out while I was exploring the wardrobe.
        “Vash must think I’m bloodthirsty,” he said carefully. “But I don’t kill for thrills. It may seem I’m a bit, well, gung-ho, but I’ve always tried to act with justice. So, Milly, do you think I was wrong?”
        I was startled by his directness. “I already said-”
        “No, I want to know what you really think.”
        “I don’t think you’re a murderer,” I said carefully, sweeping my bangs out of my eyes. “He did threaten us with his guns.”
        “You didn’t fully answer my question.” His eyes bore into me. I returned his stare and he looked away.
        “I wish you had waited a second longer,” I mumbled.
        “That’s what I thought.” Suddenly, he pointed his gun at his skull.
        “Don’t do that!” I cried.
        He remained silent, but did not pull the trigger. His hand was trembling.
        “You’re bluffing,” I guessed, trying to sound sure of myself. “Like that time with Julius and Moore in Demislad.”
        “What do I have to bluff about? In one moment, I’ve ruined my entire life.”
        “No, you have-”
        “No kid’s ever gonna trust me again.”
        “How would they know?”
        “They’ll find out. Believe me, they’ll find out. Word’ll spread from one town to the next. I’ll be an ogre. I’ll never be able to work in an orphanage again.”
        “I told them why,” I blurted. “When the children asked why, I reminded them that Bete had been ready to shoot Mr. Vash and Meryl.”
        “I’ve lost them, too,” he mourned, still refusing to lower the gun. “You’re the only friend I have left. They hate me, don’t they?”
        “They don’t hate you!” I insisted. To be truthful, I added, “Meryl’s mad right now, but she doesn’t hold on to grudges forever. Mr. Vash, well, he’s more sad than anything.”
        “Yeah, I saw him today. We didn’t say anything. He just looked at me like some dog.” He lowered the gun for a second, but that just gave me false hope. He raised it again, testing how sticking it down his throat would work.
        “Isn’t suicide a sin in your church?” I demanded. “It sure is in mine!”
        He took the gun from his mouth and put it back to his skull. “Yeah, it is. But look at me. My very existence is blasphemy to the church. And yesterday, dragging my cross as I left the scene of the crime-I probably turned all those kids off Christ for life!”
        “But it wasn’t a crime,” I argued. “Most courts in this land would excuse you as having done it in defense of your friends.”
        “Yeah, well, my friends took offense at that. I should’ve waited. Waited just a second longer to see what that kid was going to do.”
        “By then, it may have been too late,” I reasoned.
        He sighed.
        “Please put the gun down, Nich--Nicholas.”
        “Are you that sure things’ll get better?”
        “My big sister taught me when you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up.”
        He lowered the gun to his lap. Gently, I pried it out of his hand, and put it on the window ledge.

        He told me of his past, how he was orphaned and left with an uncle who abused him-verbally and physically, even sexually at times-he wasn’t raped in the sense of being penetrated, but he was handled in places he shouldn’t have been. Who could have blamed young Nick for killing his guardian? I told him this, too, was self defense.
        Then he told me of his mentor, Chapel the Evergreen, who raised him to be a marksman and priest, in that order. “He deserves to be called a man of God even less than me,” Nicholas remarked. “He taught me to preach the Word of God, but he also taught me to shoot first, ask questions later. All in the name of frontier justice. You remember reading in the Bible about the Pharisees?”
        I nodded.
        “Well, he’s like that. Very holy on the outside-inside..that’s another story. You know, Christ came down harder on the Pharisees than any other group of people. That’s why I try to be open about my vices . Call me what you will, at least I’m not a hypocrite.”
        “Did you get any love growing up?”
        He shrugged. “Not much.”
        “Yet somehow, in spite of all this-”
        “I became all mixed up.”
        “No. In spite of how you were raised, you ended up with a good heart. That’s pretty amazing.”
        He chose to ignore my compliment; at least, he seemed to. Instead, he continued, “I found some love at the orphanage. But sometimes it’s best not to get too personal. There was this one little girl, Ramona. She was eight years old. Very sweet. But she got sick and there was nothing I could do to help her. I remember, when she knew death was moments away, she asked me to hold her until..until she passed through to the other side. I never get over that. She lost her parents, and then she herself died.”
        “But she’s in Paradise, right? And hopefully with her parents.”
        “Yeah, you can look at death that way,” Nicholas said thoughtfully. “But somehow, it’s still tragic. I may be there, too, sooner than you think.”
        “What do you mean?” I demanded, alarmed.
        “The Gung-Ho Guns-”
        “They’re after you?”
        “Milly…” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I am one.”
        I gasped.
        “Chapel joined them a long time ago. They lured him in by promising they would purge the world of evil and make a fresh start. I tried to stay away from them as much as I could, but now they’ve got the orphanage in a vise.” His speech sounded like sobbing. “I’ve tried to throw a wrench in their plans every opportunity I’ve had, but..there’s only so much I can do.”
        “What are they making you do?”
        He sniffed, and then continued with false calm. “They want me to bring Vash to their leader. Just to talk, they said. I should have known better than to believe that. Chapel just told me this morning to kill Vash.”
        “You won’t do that?” I asked hopefully.
        He shook his head. “I can’t. But I can’t refuse, either. Anyone who goes against Legato’s will dies, and dies horribly. Zazie was a Gung-Ho Gun. That’s why I shot him. I knew it was his mission to kill Vash. Unless…” He drew in a breath. “Unless you and Vash and Meryl talked him out of it. Maybe he wasn’t evil. Maybe he was caught in a vise, just like me.” He looked heavenward. “Oh, God, what have I done?”
        “He may have shot Mr. Vash quicker than any of us could have reacted,” I offered.
        “No, Milly. I should’ve waited a second longer.”
        “But then like you said, he may have been killed anyway.”
        “That’s a moot point.”
        “Well…” I thought hard. “You know, just because Mr. Vash says something doesn’t mean you have to believe it. And follow it. He’s not Jesus, you know.”
        Nicholas smiled. “Not unless Jesus got stoned drunk at the wedding at Cana.”
        “Or played peeping Tom with Mary Magdalene.”
        Nicholas snorted. “Yeah, Vash is just a flawed being like the rest of us.” He sighed. “But he’s still more like Christ than I’ll ever be.”
        “You’re a good man, Mist-” I caught myself. “-Nicholas.” Again, I was amazed that he had turned out as good as he had, with bad men trying to tempt him from youth. Essentially, it was because he was a free spirit. The Gung-Ho Guns tried to turn him into a cold-blooded murderer; the priests tried to turn him into a polished saint. In the end, he learned from both of their styles, combining things in his own way.
        He smiled sadly. “You’re very sweet, Milly.” He shook his head. “But I’m dirt. I’m not worthy to shine Vash’s shoes.” He looked at the cross on one of his cuffs, running a finger down its length. He stood up suddenly, tearing the jacket off and throwing it on the floor. “Ah, why do I even bother wearing this thing? I am a hypocrite!”
        He sat down and sighed. “You know the stupidest thing about all this? Taking Zazie’s life isn’t even what hurts me most. It’s that I’ve lost Vash. All I wanted was to save that bastard’s life. Instead, I just killed our friendship.”
        “You love Mr. Vash, don’t you?”
        “What are you, nuts?”
        “I mean friend to friend you love him.”
        He rested a hand on his fist. Finally, he muttered, “Yeah, but don’t tell him I said so.”
        “Well, okay, but maybe if you told him what you told me…”
        He shook his head sadly. “He’d never understand.” With the half-unbuttoned, loose white shirt, dark pants, and his shaggy black hair, he now looked like a swashbuckling prince from one of the old planet’s fairy tales. Except I didn’t recall any of them ever being as angst-ridden as he was then.
        “Mr. Vash may have chewed you out the other day, but generally speaking, he’s really not that judgmental,” I remarked. “He’s more concerned with his own behavior and if he breaks one of his rules, rather than if other people break one of his rules.”
        “Well, he sure gave me a sermon yesterday.”
        “You may think he did that because he hates you now, but I think it shows he loves you.”
        “What are you talking about?”
        “He wants you to be his brother. To share his ideals.”
        “He doesn’t want me to end up like the brother he already has,” Nicholas said, realization dawning in his voice.
        “What bro-?”
        “Aah, if he wants to, he’ll tell you. But I still don’t get that guy,” Nicholas mumbled. “I care about him, but I don’t get him. A lot of people in this day and age only understand the point of a gun, not sitting down and talking about things. It’d be nice if they did talk, but they don’t. So..so I’ve become a killer.”
        “You’re not-”
        “I’m a bloodthirsty killer!” he shouted. “I deserve to be a Gung-Ho Gun. I’m no better than any of them. I’m a bad and evil man.”
        “No, you’re not!” I insisted. “An evil or bad man wouldn’t start an orphanage. Or defend people and communities. The other day, you protected me and that boy from those sand creatures, at the risk of your own life. An evil man wouldn’t do that.”
        “You see the world through rose-colored glasses, Milly.”
        It was my turn to shout. “Now listen here-I know everyone thinks of me as ditzy, but I’m just as capable of making up my mind as anyone else!”
        “Yes, you are. My apologies.” He stood. “But you haven’t changed my mind. I can’t live with myself like this,” he said sullenly, pacing. “If you want to leave now, I understand.”
        “But Mist-Nicholas, you’ve forgotten about all the good you do.”
        “What good?”
        “I just told you.”
        “What good, Milly?”
        I listed as many more specific examples as I could think of-how he had fought with Vash to prevent disaster and tragedy, and I reminded him of his kindness to people and children that he had met. He listened, still pacing, but said nothing. When I finished, he shook his head. “I dunno, Milly. I don’t know that that’s enough to cancel out the bad.”
        “Silly, don’t you remember your Bible training? It’s God’s forgiveness that matters, not if our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds.”
        “Ah, you’re right,” he admitted, but he sounded reluctant, as though being miserable forever was what he actually wanted. I guess one could say Nicholas had been acting pathetically this whole conversation, but I was not repulsed. And though my heart went out to him, I appreciated seeing this more naked side to him. He wasn’t all toughness. He was able to cry, and thankfully so, for he had a lot of pain built up inside.
        “Nicholas, you’re a hero,” I said.
        With a sour expression, he waved the notion aside. “I’m a bad guy,” he mumbled.
        I stood up and faced him, stopping him in his tracks. I had to tell him, and not keep it from him any longer. I put my hands on his shoulders. “Nicholas,” I began, my voice quavering. “You’re my hero. Nothing you do and nothing anyone says is ever going to change that. I love you. I always have loved you. And I always will.”
        He was silent for a moment, but kept his gaze locked with mine. Then he softly-almost mumbling--replied, “I love you, too, honey. It hurts me.”
        I inched my lips closer to his. “This won’t hurt,” I assured him. He grunted; it sounded like a mild protest, but he fully returned my kiss.
        We gazed at each other. Nicholas’ eyes were wide, and his mouth slightly open. He looked so stunned, and so vulnerable and helpless. I was amazed by the fact that I had caused these feelings in him. All I could think of to do to make things right was kiss him again.
        His arms wrapped around me, and pulled me in right against him. I could feel so much of him. Our lips joined a third time, a fourth time. I still couldn’t believe this was happening. There was a desperation or urgency to his kisses. It frightened me, but I liked it. Involuntarily, I moaned.
        He pulled away. Again, his eyes met mine. They had gone from having a sad look to glowing with a primal lust. A heat such as I had never felt before washed over me. I wanted him. All this once good and chaste girl could think about was sex. “Lie with me,” he asked, pressing his lips against my ear, whispering as though he hoped God wouldn’t hear.
        I felt my heart beat in my throat. “Okay,” I squeaked, slipping my suspenders off my shoulders.
        He tore off his shirt. I fell to the mattress, and he collapsed on top of me. As he kissed my neck, my hands caressed his back; it felt as heated as I felt inside. He had just begun to unbutton my shirt, when he stopped, gasping.
        “What’s wrong?” I asked. He glanced over at his cross, leaning against the wall. “I can’t. The Cross!”
        “Well, put it outside!”
        “Milly, I know I smoke and drink and all that, but I do take my religion at least a little seriously!”
        I stood up, buttoning my shirt back up to the top, and leaving my suspenders hanging. “You’re right.” The moment was gone. So I thought.
        “I’m sorry, Milly. I got too friendly.”
        “Don’t be sorry. I didn’t try to stop you, so it’s equally my fault.” I never doubted that we both loved each other, but I knew something else was playing a part here-our own inner pain. All the rage and despair he had been feeling needed an outlet. And he could work out a lot of his frustrations if we made love. And so could I. In simpler times, we would have shared one kiss and started a chaste and proper courtship. But now we wanted declaration and consummation all in the same hour. I knew he realized this, that part of his desire came from angst, and that is why he apologized.
        I myself did not have a lot of problems singling me out, but I was carrying around a lot of angst, too, for I felt his pain. And it wasn’t just him I felt badly for-I felt for Vash, who was going through hell with no end in sight, and for Meryl, who did not know how to help Vash. So even though I tried to put on a cheery face, how could I not feel troubled, with all my friends’ problems surrounding me?
        “Milly, there a lot of sins I’ve committed, especially lately,” Nicholas said, looking at the cross. “I don’t want to add fornication to the list.”
        “What we started doing,” he explained.
        “That’s like adultery, right?”
        “Yeah. A lot like.”
        “I know what it is, and that it’s wrong,” I clarified. “I just never heard of it by that name before.” I sighed. “You’re right-my parents didn’t raise me to be such a girl.”
        “I don’t want to ruin your reputation,” Nicholas said, gazing at his feet. “It’s just that I need you so much right now. If only-” He turned to me. “Milly, I know this is sudden, but we have been through a lot together…”
        “Will you marry me?”
        “Of course I will!” I exclaimed with an ecstatic shriek, hugging him.
        “Don’t you need to think about it?” he asked cautiously.
        “No!” I insisted, hopping on foot and then the other. “I’m sure I’m sure!”
        “You better get back to Meryl. As soon as we can get out of this town, we’ll find someone to marry us.”
        I stepped into my shoes and opened the door. “Yeah, I suppose I better get back to Meryl. Are you going to be all right?” I asked, standing in the doorway.
        He smiled and caressed my cheek. “I will now.” But I knew he needed to be loved-in every way possible.
        I started walking away. I glanced back to see him standing in the doorway, watching me protectively. I smiled and waved. The wind blew and made me shiver, yet I felt hot inside. Cold and warmth, all at once-it made me feel woozy, as if I had chills and a fever. But the wind reminded me that I had forgotten my duster. Oh, and my tie! I turned back.
        Already anticipating what I needed, Nicholas dashed to the other room and retrieved my duster and tie. As he handed them to me, I gazed at his half-undressed body, hoping he wasn’t too cold. But, wow, how sexy he was!
        Then an idea sparked in my head, perhaps the most outlandish idea I’ve ever had. “Nicholas?”
        He paused his attempt to close the door. “Yeah, honey?”
        “You’re a priest, right?”
        “Well, why don’t you marry us yourself?”
        He raised an eyebrow, looking at me as though I were insane. “Milly, I never heard of a priest marrying himself.”
        “That doesn’t mean it’s not allowed! Why, I’ve read all the Bible before, even the Begats, and I don’t recall it being a sin. And I’ve heard of similar cases before,” I argued fervently. “Couples in isolated towns with no resident priest make vows to each other, and when the preacher comes to town, they have him confirm it.”
        “That’s still got to be the craziest thing I’ve ever heard come in.” He took me by the arm and led me over the threshold. “It’s cold outside.”
        A shaft of moonlight was shining through the window, framing the cross. Nicholas knelt down in front of it, not facing it directly, but positioned sideways. He gestured for me to do the same. After stepping back out of my shoes, I did, slowly, facing him. His left hand clutched my right, and his right hand my left hand. I felt so excited that I wanted to cry out.
        When he spoke, it was not to me. “God, I never thought I’d find someone like Milly. I wasn’t even looking for love, but things like these happen when you least expect it. I fought it a little, but soon I didn’t even want to fight anymore. I’m willing to commit to taking her as my wife, and staying true to her always.”
        I smiled. My eyes were brimming with unshed tears. He looked at me. I realized he wanted me to state my commitment. I guess I had been expecting him to lead us in the standard vows, but, heck, those are so boring and routine anyway. “I, um…” I began, then turned my head shyly.
        “Go ahead,” he gently prodded. “It’s okay. Just speak what’s on your mind.”
        “Dear God,” I prayed aloud, with my eyes open. “I love Nicholas-he is a good and wonderful man, no matter what he says about himself.” Here Nicholas looked humbly at the floor. “And…and…I promise to love, obey, and be true to him until, until…” Here it wasn’t shyness causing me to stall.
        “Until death do us part,” Nicholas completed.
        “Yeah,” I said. I hadn’t wanted to bring up death with the possibility being so real and so soon.
        He stood up, and I followed his lead. “I know pronounce us man and wife.”
        “Um, you may now kiss the bride,” I announced.
        He drew me into his arms, and passionately pressed his lips on my mouth.
        We stood in the moonlight, holding each other. “Nicholas, I’m scared,” I confessed.
        “Yeah, me, too.” He temporarily eased out of my arms, and went to the window. “Better close the curtains-don’t want Vash peeping in.”
        I giggled. “Or Meryl.” He came back to me, standing in front of me expectantly. I ran a hand over his chest, exploring it. Some guys look funny with their shirts off, but he really did have a fine body. He shivered at my touch. We kissed twice, quickly but tenderly.
        Once again, his hand went to my shirt buttons, his fingers lingering a little longer than it took to unfasten each one. “I’m not holding myself back this time,” he promised.
        “My dearest sister told me to never hold back in matters of the heart,” I said quietly.
        “Let me know if I hurt you.”
        “She also told me it always hurts a little the first time.” I let my shirt fall.
        “You sure have a lot of layers of clothing.”
        “It’s a woman’s prerogative, here in this lawless land,” I said, more loudly, taking off my camisole. “Keeps the bad guys from getting to her as fast. But that doesn’t apply to you. You’re a good guy.” I reached behind me to unfasten my bra, and tossed it on the floor. “Oh, yeah, that feels good!” I exclaimed, stretching my arms up over my head. “You have no idea how restrictive a woman’s clothes can be!” He gazed at me, smiling. “What are you looking at? Oh,” I said, realizing I was half naked.
        “‘You are tall like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its bunches of fruit,’” he recited.
        “What??” I demanded.
        “Song of Solomon,” he explained with a sheepish grin.
        “Oh, in the Bible, yeah.” I slipped out of the bottom half of my clothing.
        “‘I will climb up the palm tree and take hold of its fruit,’” he continued.
        “Um, sure, you’ll get plenty of opportunity for that!” I wondered why they never preached that text as part of the Sunday sermon!
        “In plainer language, I knew you were hiding something neat under those clothes!”
        I took hold of the top of his pants. “And I bet you’re hiding something neat under here!”

Meryl:     All this time, I was doing nothing much, staying in the abandoned home we had temporarily adopted as our own. Wondering where Milly was. True, she said she might be late. Should I worry? There wasn’t anyone else in town but the four of us..that I knew of. It wasn’t like there were robbers and rapists prowling about. But it was such a creepy place.
        I fell upon a bed, not lying vertically, but horizontally across its width, my feet dangling over the side. I sighed, staring up at the ceiling, and unintentionally fell asleep, fully dressed. Little did I know then that Milly was also in bed, but she was naked, and not alone.

Insurance Girls Pt1 - Ch. 5-8

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