"The Insurance Girls Tell All"
Part 2 - "Wake Me Up Inside"
By Azalea

Rated PG-13

Chapter 1: Time to Go Already
Meryl:     Vash left the car for us. He was pretty determined to go on alone, for now, and I let myself submit to his wishes. The car was pretty beat up from some incident yesterday he hadn’t filled me completely in on-probably it had to do with Cain. Filling me in on his past was enough revelation for one day, I guess. I was in the driver’s seat, ready to go, when Milly came out, dragging Wolfwood’s heavy cross all by herself. “Help me put it in the back seat,” she requested.
        “You’re not-”
        “Mr. Vash said it was mine now so it’s mine now and I’m not leaving it behind.”
        I helped her load it in the car, then she got into the passenger seat. We had only drove a few feet when we passed by the church yard. “Wait! Stop!” Milly cried out.
        I tried not to sigh as I stopped the car. Milly clambered out and ran to her Nicholas’ grave. She hugged the wooden cross marking it. “Nicholas, we have to leave now,” I heard her say. “We have to leave your body behind…” Here she-unconsciously, I think-ran her hands up over her two breasts as though remembering some intimate moment she and Nicholas had shared. She sighed. “But, Nicholas, I know your soul lives on, and if you want to come with us in spirit, you’re always welcome.” She kissed the wooden cross, at the spot in the middle where Vash had carved Wolfwood’s name. “I’ll see you again someday. I know I will.”
        Then she trotted back to the car, but before she fully got in, I cried out, “Wait!” She looked at me curiously. “I need a turn, too,” I explained, scrambling out of the car and running to the grave.
        “Mr. Wolfwood,” I began, somehow shy. “Nicholas. I understand now. You were trying to protect Vash and I the only way you knew how. I’ve forgiven you. I’m really sorry it ended this way, without us even being able to speak once more. Well, um, maybe I’ll see you in the afterlife someday?” As Milly had done, I kissed the cross where his name was etched. “Goodbye, Nicholas D. Wolfwood,” I said, running a finger under the letters of his name.
        I trotted back to the car. Milly was smiling-I assume she was happy that I, too, was paying my respects to the man she had loved. “Okay, let’s go find Mr. Vash!” she exclaimed. “We won’t let the same fate happen to him!”
        “So, it’s not our jobs you’re so worried about,” I realized. “It’s him.”
        “Meryl, I don’t want you to lose your man, too!”
        “My man? I’m not in love-”
        She glared at me, her arms folded.
        “Okay,” I consented. “I love him more than I love my own life. You’re right.”
        She smiled.
        So we drove on, two gal pals on a road trip.

Milly:    Darn right I wasn’t going to let Meryl lose Vash! But, you know, I didn’t want to lose Vash, either. He was a dear friend and we had something special going between us that many males and females can’t have-it’s always romance and sex or nothing with them. With Vash and I, we could keep it platonic, and yet, there was a deep bond between us.
        Meryl wondered why I was so intent on seeing her enter a romantic relationship with Vash. “I thought it’d be too hard for you to bear,” she confessed as she drove.
        “I know, I only had Nicholas for a moment. But I don’t regret it. I don’t want you to miss your chance with Vash, and to see you happy would make me feel better.”
        “You’re being so brave,” Meryl remarked. “I don’t think I could be that brave.”
        I smiled wistfully. “Put on a brave face and the rest of you will follow!”
        “Your sister said that?”
        “No, I thought of it this morning.”
        I wished there had been time to lay about and mourn Nicholas, but there wasn’t. Life could be so hectic in those days. Nowadays, they’re nice enough to give you a few days off to recuperate from your loss.
        The car broke down, but thankfully near a town. The town we had just left. Tonim Town.
        There were other cars here and there, but we had no idea how to hot-wire a car. “We’re going to have to hoof it,” Meryl decided. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave the cross behind.”
        “Well, if he could carry it through the desert, so can I!”
        She was right. I had to be sensible, just as I was demanding she be. Vash’s life may have been depending on us. I prayed there would be a solution.
        “What’s that?” Meryl asked.
        “What’s what?”
        “That noise. It sounds like thomases braying.”
        That was odd, because we had not noted any sign of life in town, except wild birds. But no people, and no domesticated animals.
        We followed the noise to a deserted stable, and let ourselves in. In a row of stalls were four thomases. “When everyone else was lured out of town, they must have been stuck,” Meryl guessed.
        “We can take two of them, and let the rest go free! At least then they might have a chance for survival.”
        “Exactly my thinking. Let’s find some gear and saddle up.”
        Thank you, Lord, I prayed.

Melinda:     What happened when the Insurance Girls found Vash was not a happy reunion. He had to choose between saving their lives and sparing the life of the cruel Legato Bluesummers. And thus it was that Vash made his first kill. He was so traumatized that he fell into a prolonged, yet restless, sleep. Besides that, he had been wounded from a fight with another Gung-Ho Gun, Midvalley the Hornfreak, and the girls were forced to tend to him in the next small town they could find.

Chapter 2: Hope Springs Eternal
Milly:     In our small borrowed bit of housing, it was my turn to watch the sleeping Vash. I read somewhere that it helps to talk to unconscious people. And what was on my mind to talk about but Nicholas? “Oh, Mr. Vash, I don’t know if I’m handling things right. He told me to be brave and not to cry. He was never one to just mope-he moved on pretty quickly from the flying ship wreck. Well, I’ve tried to get back in action as quickly as I could.” I hung my head. “As though he never existed. But you know, he also said something else. He gave me our last kiss and said, ‘That’s because I want you to always remember that I love you.’ So he wants me to remember him. I want to remember him. We had so little time together in this life, the least I can do is give him more time in my memory.
        “But, Mr. Vash, I know we had to take action to save you. I couldn’t just sit and mope while you went and got yourself killed. I wouldn’t let that happen to you because you’re my friend, and I wouldn’t let that happen to Meryl because she loves you like I love Nicholas.” In a lower voice, I added, “I’m only telling you this because you’re asleep. When you’re awake, she’ll have to tell you.
        “Everybody says-well, Meryl says, anyway-that I’m being really good about this whole thing. But that’s all an effort on my part. Do you know how I really feel, Mr. Vash? What I’d really like to do is crawl under some rock in some canyon and stay there until I turned to dust. Or go back to Tonim Town and jump in Nicholas’ grave. I remember reading on Earth in ancient times, women used to throw themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. But that’s short-sighted, don’t you think? I know there will be good times again. Maybe even someone new, though I don’t like to think about that right now.”
        I took a deep breath. “I know I can be brave. I can be strong. But getting on with life doesn’t mean forgetting!
        “Is there someone in your life, Mr. Vash-someone you’ve never forgotten?”

Meryl:    Vash awoke after ten days-I was hoping he had slept all his anxiety off, but he seemed more angst-ridden than ever. We didn’t watch over him all the time-both Milly and I had had to take supplementary jobs, I as a waitress and Milly as a digger for the town’s new well.
        Vash had completely hit rock bottom. He’d just sit around-on the porch, in his room, on a rocky ledge-his expression wild-eyed and desperate, yet at the same time utterly exhausted. Ten days of sleep had not replenished him at all. I guess when you’re over a hundred years old you get world weary, even if you still have the constitution of a twenty-year old. Look at me, I’m nearly ninety now, and still not as old as he was then.
        Looking at him in this helpless state, I loved him more than ever.

Milly:     I hadn’t gotten any morning sickness, though I waited anxiously for it to come. My dearest sister, Heloise, who worked as a midwife, told me not all women get it. I hoped that was the case here.
        It was nearing half a month since my night of passion with Nicholas, and I was really concerned. I had been nursing-so to speak-a hope that I was pregnant. That our love had produced something to last besides memories and emotions.
        Heloise also said some women just know. They don’t need an outer sign to realize a child is growing inside them. I did feel, well, different-but that just might be from loving and losing Nicholas in itself, not a major change in my body like pregnancy.
        Meryl mentioned it being that time of the month for her, and I realized I was late in getting mine-with all our shared adventures, we two gals had gotten pretty much in sync. But I warned myself not to get my hopes up.
        When she and my mother were explaining the facts of life to me, Heloise told me when two people who are truly in love consummate that bond, they produce something eternal, even if they never have a child. She said that, I think, because she and her late husband hadn’t had the chance to have kids. But I believed what she said about love and eternity. So I told myself it did not matter if I carried Nicholas’ child. That did not lessen the love we had shared.
        Yet…well, this may sound silly, but to me, Nicholas had always seemed so virile. Even before we officially became lovers, I would stare at him while he was talking to somebody else, and get giddy with infatuation. He didn’t have to work at being sexy. I found him so full of masculine charm, I figured he must be quite capable of fathering a child.
        There was an unlicensed doctor in town, Dr. Lovell, who had helped Meryl with Vash when we first came into town. He checked in with us once in awhile, but Meryl, who had been trained in some basic first aid and medical procedures, was doing fine tending Vash otherwise. I decided to see if Dr. Lovell could help with my problem, and went to his house, nervously knocking on the door. It opened with a creak. I remembered some lines from one of the steamy romance novels my little big sister used to read. “He knocked, and she opened the door, and let him in.” Everything was making me so sexually uncomfortable today! No, it wasn’t Dr. Lovell himself making me feel vulnerable-he was of grandfatherly age, and a man I wouldn’t think of in a passionate way. “Dr. Lovell-”
        “Oh, Milly! Is Eriks doing okay?” Eriks is the alias we had given Vash, having been told it was the alias he used in Karsted City.
        “Meryl is taking good care of Mister Va--Eriks. He’s her baby, you know. What I’ve come to ask you about, um, well, I think I might be having a baby. Is there a way you can find out?”
        “Yeah, there’s a test I can run. Come in.” As I walked by him, he asked, “Eriks isn’t the-”
        “The man who might be a father is dead,” I explained. I wrung my hands. “But I want his child, I really do.”

Meryl:     It was noon and the well workers were taking something called a siesta-an extended break because of the heat. They would resume work later in the afternoon. I brought Milly a picnic lunch, and we sat in the town square.
        “It really does keep my mind off my problems, you know,” she said to me. I thought it odd that she kept saying the plural of problem, when she had just one main problem that I knew of-the loss of her man. “Working. I play mind games. I don’t think too hard..about him. It’s funny how you can get on with life.”
        I chuckled nervously. “I suppose.”
        “Some people like work even more than they like play,” she continued. “I know of some pregnant women who worked hard labor right until the day of labor. The other labor,” she clarified. “My Mom always worked the fields like that. She was right back at it the day after I was born.” She took a long sip of lemonade, then switched the subject back to Wolfwood. “I am going to miss him, though. I don’t know what it was about him, but I always loved him. I guess I’m being foolish.”
        I sensed there was more that she wanted to say. “Milly…”
        She stood up. “I have to check on something before getting back to work, ‘K?” Briskly, she walked away.
        What is it? I wondered. What’s wrong? What else is wrong?

Milly:     The news Dr. Lovell gave me was positive-I was pregnant! I was so happy I squealed and kissed him on the cheek. I took my time on the way back to the work site, strolling along instead of briskly walking. When had it happened, I wondered. Was it the first time we made love, because-well, because the first time is the first time, if that makes any sense. Or the second time, when I looked at him with all the love I felt inside, hoping he realized the extent of my devotion, and I saw a gleam in his eyes-the proverbial “when you were just a gleam in your father’s eyes”? Or maybe the third time, when the darkness had turned into dawn. The darkness could be his death, and the dawn the new life within me.
        “Gotta tell Meryl, gotta tell Meryl,” I whispered to myself. Wait! No, I was going to tell her-and Vash-together. I would know the right time.

Melinda:     Something bad happened-the townspeople figured out Eriks’ secret identity. And, dragging him to the outskirts of town, they kicked him when he was down.

Meryl:    He was so pathetic he wouldn’t even lift a finger to help himself when them mob attacked him. He let them beat him and shoot at him, thinking somehow that he deserved it. Maybe he just wanted it to be over with-he didn’t believe in suicide, but it would be okay if he let the angry townsfolk kill him.

Melinda:     But you saved him, didn’t you?

Meryl:    I guess. I just talked the townsmen out of violence. Their spokesman let me lower his gun. I tried to further explain why Vash was a hero, not a villain. I can’t say that I made Vash the Stampede fanatics out of all of them, but at least they let us be from then on.
        Vash hugged me, but instead of enjoying the moment, I freaked when he held on too long and squeezed too hard. I whacked him on the head and stormed away.
        We didn’t apologize to each other; we just simply forgot the incident. The next morning, he had shaved and put his hair back up into its “needles”, and donned his red coat. I knew the time had come for him to face Knives.
        I almost told him then and there that I loved him, but Milly, bless her heart, interrupted. But it was a worthwhile interruption-she gave him Wolfwood’s cross to bring with him to battle. He would need it.
        Later, at lunch in the town square, I was fretting. “What if he doesn’t come back?”
        “Don’t think like that!” Milly advised. “He’ll come back.”
        “But-” I cut myself short. I shouldn’t remind her.
        “I know. Nicholas didn’t come back. But I knew in my heart that that was his fate. But I’ve got a good feeling about Mr. Vash. I really think he’s coming back.”
        “I hate to even say it, Milly, but I’m worried he won’t. I’m worried he’ll spend his last few minutes alone and never knowing how I’ve loved him.”
        “I didn’t get to be with Nicholas when he died,” she said, looking wistful. “But he knew how I felt, and we got to say a long goodbye.” She brushed a finger along her lips.
        “So this is what it’s like to be women in love,” I mused. “Sometimes I wish we never got this assignment. And that we never met them.”
        Milly disagreed. “I know my time with him was short, but I’m glad we had that night-and morning-alone.” She put a hand on her belly, but I was too foolish to realize the significance of it, just as I had been too foolish to realize the significance of her having talked about women in labor earlier. “And I’m glad for the times before that, when we were friends. He really was an amazing man, Meryl, and so isn’t Mr. Vash.”
        “Yeah, I know.”
        “I think you’re glad you know him.”
        I couldn’t answer. I stood there, staring off to the outskirts of town. Oh, Vash, I thought. Why did I let myself fall in love with you? How could this have happened?

Milly:     When we struck water ahead of schedule, the whole town rejoiced. Water sprayed everywhere, and kids frolicked in it. Actually, adults did, too. And I saw some poor cat floating in it. I myself rejoiced, for seeing a dry and dusty town spring forth with new life gave me hope that the joy of living wasn’t over for me yet.
        We were the only two in town to notice a man approaching from the wilderness. At first, we were both excited, but then unsure.
        “That’s..that’s Vash,” Meryl said hesitantly. “Isn’t it?”
        “I dunno. What’s that he’s carrying? It’s not Nicholas’ cross.”
        “I think it’s another person. He’s dressed differently or something-I think he dropped the coat.”
        “I guess he couldn’t carry the cross and the coat and the person all at once,” I reasoned.
        “That is Vash, isn’t it?” Meryl wondered again.
        The person neared town by several more feet. “It is him!” Meryl cried happily. I recognized him, too.
        We waved excitedly. Vash looked up, and smiled a greeting. It was a wonderful, carefree smile.
        Meryl ran to him, and I followed a few steps behind. Vash put his one free arm around her shoulders and squeezed, pulling her towards him. “Vash!” was all she could say.
        I waited for her to say more, but she just smiled. “Milly,” Vash greeted, breaking the moment’s silence.
        “Hi, Mr. Vash, I’m glad you’re okay!” I exclaimed.
        “Yeah, and from now on, everything’s gonna be alright,” he declared, then explained how his brother would need constant watch and care.
        Meryl didn’t confess her feelings to him that day. I was disappointed in her, but she said it had not been the appropriate time, with Vash so busy with his brother.
        Nor did she speak her mind to him the next day.

Milly:     It seemed every armed man in town was enlisted at some time or another to keep watch over the unconscious Knives. Not for medical reasons, mind you, but because if he woke up, he might cause trouble. During one of those times that Vash and I were freed up from the duty, I demanded we take a borrowed jeep and drive back to the scene of the battle. I just had to retrieve Nicholas’ cross. Thankfully, we found it, and drove quickly back to our little house in the little town.
        On the porch, Vash handed me the cross, and I hugged the cloth-covered metal before leaning it against the wall. Meryl stood in the doorway, peeking back at the room with Knives, although Dr. Lovell was watching Vash’s brother.
        “I’m sorry, Milly,” Vash apologized. “I didn’t mean to leave his cross behind without your permission, but I really couldn’t carry both it and Knives.”
        “It’s back now, Mr. Vash. That’s all that matters,” I said, fingering the rope that bound the cloth to the cross.
        “Please, Milly, drop the mister. Formalities really sound silly when we’ve known each other this long and been through this much together.”
        “Okay, Mis-Um, I mean, Vash.”
        “You know, Milly,” he began uncertainly.
        “You were right. Those verses you found were right. Wolfwood is still around. I felt his presence during the fight.”
        “Really?” I felt an exhilarating thrill of hope.
        “I even heard him speak to me. I know it wasn’t just my imagination, because in all the destruction, I lost sight of the cross and…” Vash paused, then laughed. “I heard him say, ‘It’s right next to you, use it, dammit!’ And sure enough, that’s where I found it.”
        I smiled contentedly. “Nicholas is watching over you.”
        “I’m sure he’s watching over you, too.” He shuffled his feet. “It was good to hear him one more time. There are some people in my life I’ll never forget, and he’s one of them.”
        It was the perfect opportunity for me to make my announcement. “Oh, none of us will ever forget Nicholas. And do you know why?”
        “Why, Milly?”
        “Because I’m carrying his child!”
        “Urrk!” I glanced back to see Meryl wide-eyed and panicked, and about ready to fall over.
        But Vash grinned, and held out his arms to embrace me. “Hey, congratulations!”
        “Thank you!”
        “This is good news?” Meryl asked.
        “Yeah!” both Vash and I exclaimed.
        Meryl looked confused for a moment, then walked over and joined the hug. “Okay, if you’re happy, I’m happy, too.”
        Happy. I realized then my life would still be a happy one. Someday, in Paradise, Nicholas and I would be reunited, but in the meantime, I had my other loved ones around me.

Chapter 3: Speak Now
Meryl:    Settling down for bed, Milly rubbed her tummy and sighed contentedly. I still had misgivings about her having that priest’s baby, but I was glad to see her the happiest she had been since his death.
        “Little one,” she cooed. “You are a present from Nicholas to me-a going away present, I guess. He gave you to me to keep me company, and to remind me of him. I love you already, and I don’t even know if you’re a boy or a girl!” She chuckled softly, then continued blabbering on in nonsense syllables. I fell asleep to this strange, ad-libbed language, wondering if I would be like this if I became a parent.

Milly:    The third day after Vash returned, we were all free for awhile-someone else was taking their watch with Knives. The three of us were now in the town square-Vash was sitting on a bench, and Meryl and I were by a store front and were looking at him.
        I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass Meryl by. “Meryl,” I said in a soft sing-song voice. “Isn’t there something you were going to tell Vash?”
        “Shush! It isn’t that easy!”
        “I know-but if I can do it, you certainly can.”
        She looked at me. “You were the one who spoke first?”
        “Uh-huh,” I replied, nodding my head enthusiastically. “We are independent, working women, and we don’t need to be tied to some dumb ol’ rule that we have to wait for men to speak first.”
        “You’re right.” Then she sighed and shook her head.

Meryl:     “Now, Meryl,” Milly insisted, looking as stern as she could.
        She grabbed me by the shoulders. “No more excuses, or one day it’s gonna be too late.”
        I nodded. Milly squeezed my shoulder, and I marched towards Vash, trembling and with my heart pounding in my ears. On that long walk over a short distance, I felt like an infant taking her first wobbly steps. How is it ever done, I wondered, that people are able to get from friendship to romance?
        Rising to his feet, Vash looked at me curiously. “What’s wrong, Meryl?”
        “I-” My voice got caught in my throat.
        “What?” he wondered, leaning down towards my face to hear me better.
        Pressing my lips against his cheek, I stole a quick kiss. “I love you, Vash,” I squeaked. Then, so he wouldn’t confuse my statement with just sisterly love, I added, “I’ve fallen in love with you.”
        There was a long moment of silence-at least, it seemed long--as I looked searchingly at him, waiting anxiously to see how he responded. “Really?” he asked simply. I prepared myself for heartbreak. Suddenly, he shouted, “THAT IS SO COOL!” Grabbing my hands, he spun me around and around as I shrieked in alarm. Didn’t he remember last time he tried something like this, I socked him in the head?
        Laughing like a maniac, he came to a stop. And I..well, I laughed, too, even as I nearly crumpled. Vash scooped me up in his arms, holding me like I was a baby. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he said. “I love you, too, Meryl. Can we get married now?”
        He looked at me with puppy dog eyes. “Please?”
        Milly walked up. “Vash, I think she needs time to think.”
        “I need to tell my family,” I said. “They should be invited.”
        “They don’t live on the other side of the planet, do they?” Vash fretted.
        “No, in December City.”
        Vash gently placed me on the ground. “Good, as soon as they get here, we’ll have the ceremony.”
        “Gee, that was fast,” Milly remarked, looking confused.
        “Don’t you talk,” I chided. “You didn’t even invite me to your wedding.”
        She blushed. “Nicholas and I were kinda in a hurry.”
        “Well, so am I!” Vash shouted, then added in a more level voice, “I mean, so are we.”
        “Don’t worry, Vash,” I said knowingly in a childish tone, pinching his cheek. “You won’t have to go without much longer.”
        He laughed nervously.
        Then he leaned down to kiss me, but I shyly turned my head.
        “Go on, Meryl, kiss him!” Milly encouraged.
        “But I did kiss him.”
        “On the lips this time!”
        “Yeah!” Vash agreed.
        “But I’ve never kissed anybody full on the lips before!”
        “There’s a first time for everything,” Vash uttered.
        “As my big sister would say,” Milly broke in. “There’s some things that just come naturally, so don’t worry!”
        I smiled in agreement, and let Vash’s lips meet mine. At first, I felt a sharp tingle, starting from my lips and rushing down to my toes. Swiftly after that came the heat, at what seemed like a temperature far above the fever point. But I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop kissing him and those soft, warm lips. I felt the pounding in my heart-that was nothing new-in the course of our adventures, there had been many situations that quickened my pulse. What was new was the pulsing in my nether regions.
        My knees buckled, but Vash caught me, pulling me to my feet and letting me rest a moment against his chest. I was ready to scold him for letting it get past one kiss. But when I looked at him, I saw his eyes were wet. And I realized how much this had meant to him. It hadn’t been about getting fresh; it had been about exchanging and expressing love. “I’ll walk you home,” he offered, holding out his arm.
        I looked around. Milly had wandered off; the suns were setting. “How long were we--?”
        Vash shrugged. “Hey, time flies when you’re with the one you love.”
        “Oh, Vash, you’re so sweet.”

        On the porch of the house Milly and I were staying at, we noticed the lights were off. “Guess Milly didn’t come right home,” I observed.
        “Meryl, do you think now that we’re engaged, that it’s okay-”
        Despite the feelings he had aroused in me, I still wanted to be a good girl. “Go home, Vash.”
        He held up his fingers in a peace symbol. “Gotcha! We’ll wait!” He beat his retreat.

        That had been my sexual awakening. Now I know a lot of today’s young people might find that hard to believe, that is, it not happening to me until well into my twenties. But society was different back then. More prudish, unlike today’s sex saturated pop culture that bombards kids until they’re ready to do it just after reaching puberty. Back then, it was easier for a girl to keep a clean mind and clean body well into adulthood. Oh, I knew all the basics of the facts of life, I had just never felt that kind of overpowering physical desire before.

Chapter 4: Repercussions
Milly:     I was glad and heartened when a new pastor arrived in town. Maybe he could confirm Nicholas’ and my marriage before the baby was born!
        The new pastor was Duncan Shepherd, a gentle-looking young man with curly red hair and blue-green eyes. His wife, Laurie, was blond, petite, and oh-so-sweet. I was sure I wouldn’t have any problems talking to them.
        Sometimes I doubted my marriage myself, although I had been there when those heartfelt vows were taken. I still went by the last name Thompson-what else could I do? Meryl still called me Milly Thompson. Only Vash, sweetheart that he was, would ever call me Mrs. Wolfwood. It just pleased him to no end that part of his dead friend was living on in me. He still called me just Milly, too-he liked to alternate.

        I met with the Shepherds in their small cabin. It had one main room, with a bed to one side, and a kitchen table to the other. Duncan and I spoke, seated around the table, while Laurie shyly kept quiet, just smiling a lot.
        “I was ready to keep my promise to him of ‘’til death do us part’, no matter how long it took!” I insisted. “Unfortunately, it didn’t take very long. He was gunned down the very next day by the Gung-Ho Guns.”
        Duncan grimaced. “That’s a sad way to go. Reverend Wolfwood sure had a way of getting into trouble.” I was so happy and hopeful-Duncan had actually met Nicholas a handful of times!
        “You can think of it that way,” I declared. “But I think of him as a Christian soldier fighting on the front lines. And the front line is always the most dangerous.”
        “Yeah, that’s true. He didn’t always live as Christlike as possible, but he was willing to take a stand and endanger his life.”
        “Well, can you help me?”
        “I’ll try, Milly. But you must realize the way my church usually does marriage confirmation is to get a signature from both parties, and unfortunately-”
        I hung my head. “Oh.”
        “I’m sure we can think of something!” he consoled me. “You’re welcome to stay for dinner,” he offered, almost as an after thought. “It should be ready to come out of the oven any second,” Laurie informed me. Which was funny, because I hadn’t smelled anything cooking.
        Laurie took the bird out of the oven. “How come this is still cold?” She thought for several moments, then slapping her forehead, practically screamed, “I forgot to turn the oven on!” She put the bird back in and turned a switch. “Sorry, Milly, it may still be another hour.”
        “You’re still welcome to stay,” Duncan said.
        “Could I get you anything to drink in the meantime?” Laurie asked, her cheeks red.
        “Well, I could use a glass of water,” I said.
        “Consider it done!” She filled a glass from the tap. As she was handing it to me, she tipped it, spilling about a third on my lap. “Oh, I’m sorry, Milly! I am being such a goof today.” She looked for a hand towel, and not finding one quickly, excused herself to go get a bath towel.
        “Actually, she’s like this every day,” Duncan said in a hushed voice. “But that’s what I love about her-my scatterbrained sweetheart.”
        I smiled at his affection-and because next to Laurie, maybe I didn’t look like such a ditz!

Meryl:     “I wonder where Milly is,” I fretted aloud, pacing in the house we shared. “Hope she isn’t gonna be up all night talking to some preacher man again.”

Milly:     I met again with Duncan and Laurie back at their cabin. They stood outside the door as I approached, and I could tell by the expressions on their faces that they had bad news. “Milly, the council refuses to make your marriage official,” Duncan reported.
        I hung my head.
        “However,” he continued. “I did successfully argue against them charging you with fornication.”
        “So I’m not married, and yet, I’m not, not a…” I swallowed hard, holding back tears.
        “It doesn’t make sense, I know,” Laurie said consolingly.
        “I’m not some harlot!” I insisted. “It wasn’t like that at all.”
        “They just don’t know ‘cause they weren’t there,” Laurie told me.
        “Actually…” I sniffed. “I’m glad they weren’t there.”
        She blushed. “Oh, well, that’s true. I didn’t think of that.”
        I sighed. “I’m going to be an unwed mother.” Nicholas’ words of concern rang in my head: And where does that leave you? What if I got you pregnant? People aren’t gonna believe we were married, and they’ll treat you like dirt.
        Then Laurie, bless her heart, said something similar to what I had replied to Nicholas. “Don’t worry, Milly. They may put you down, but you know your true character.”

Milly:     On top of that bad news, sometimes I, stun gun at the ready, had to take my turn at guarding Knives. While I watched, I thought I myself should kill Knives while he was unconscious. After all, he had been at least indirectly, if not directly, responsible for my Nicholas’ death. The way I felt, it might as well have been Knives who pulled the trigger and mortally wounded my man.
        Vash was asking a lot to want me to help take care of his brother. But someone had to watch him or he might find the strength to get up and hurt more people. As I sat there, I would think of my own siblings-if one of them turned to crime and murder, wouldn’t I still want to help them?

Milly:     Whether I was guilty of sin or not in regards to my unofficial marriage to and night of passion with Nicholas, I suffered the consequences. Nicholas had been right to worry about my reputation.
        When he first died, I couldn’t bear to mention it in my letters to family and friends. But when I found out I was pregnant-well, word about that would get around sooner or later, so I might as well have been straight about it. I wrote something like this:
        “I mentioned before our sometimes companion, the priest Nicholas D. Wolfwood. I don’t think I made it quite clear in previous letters, but I was in love with him. Was? Actually, I still love him and always will. Did you notice I was talking in the past tense? My dear Nicholas has already met his end, unfortunately. He was shot down.
        “I am mourning like a widow. You see, Nicholas and I took vows to each other the night before. We became husband and wife. We were stranded in a ghost town, so we couldn’t take official vows in a church. But since he was a priest, I told him it was in his authority to marry us.
        “I have just found out I am pregnant. I am happy about this, for I will always have a reminder of our love. I hope you will be happy for me, too.”
        Darn my honesty about our unofficial vows. Opinion was divided amongst my loved ones back home. They called it the “Milly Issue”. Half of them nearly disowned me for committing fornication with, of all people, a man of God. Some say, like a shameless hussy, I seduced him. I had thought they knew me better than that. Some say it was he who seduced me-I don’t know where they got that idea, either. It’s not seduction or fornication if we take vows of marriage to each other, is it?
        We were a tight knit family, so the rejection and scorn in these letters shocked me. But then, we had also always been conservative, frowning on things like sexual sin. Their letters were so heartbreaking. Here a few excerpts:
        From Middle Big Brother: “Girl, you need to get back to the Bible. Fall upon your knees before the Lord, and confess your sins. In His mercy, He will forgive you, but only if you repent. I don’t care if your lover was a priest, he was a false prophet or he would not have had relations with you. Aren’t priests supposed to be celibate anyway?”
        From Little Big Sister: “Listen, Milly, I know of this drug that when you take it, it induces a miscarriage. Please, you must not give birth to this baby!!!”
        From the best friend of my childhood: “You have behaved so foolishly! I’m ashamed of you! Consider our friendship over!”
        The letter from Little Big Brother was similar: “I will be cordial to you at family reunions, but only for our parents’ sake.”
        Middle Big Sister wrote, “You were always the baby of the family, sweet and innocent. How could you do something like this?”
        And from Mom herself: “I know this will be hard, but you must give the baby up for adoption. Please, it will be best for it and you. Then come home. Obviously, you are not ready for the big world.”
        Not ready for the big world? I had experienced and lived through so much. I had had dangerous adventures the likes of which none of my family could imagine. And I had handled it. No, I would not give up my child and return home. I had been an adult for several years now. With all these nasty or in the least misguided letters, I was so afraid to open the one from Heloise, my favorite sister whose advice I often quoted to others. But she said, “Dearest sister, How are you? When are you expecting and where will you be staying at that time? I will try to visit you before the child comes. I can’t believe my baby sister is having a baby! I am so excited for you!
        “P.S.: Don’t let what anyone else says get you down-their words have power only if you let them.”

Meryl:     While Milly was having trouble writing to her family, so was I, trying to explain my engagement. I must have typed a hundred drafts before I created a letter that I thought suitable to send to my parents:
        “Dear Mom and Dad,
        “I am engaged and want you to come to my wedding…
        “…Now here I must warn you to brace yourselves, because the man I am marrying is none other than Vash the Stampede. Now, before you have a fit, let me remind you of what I said before. Vash is not the man the rumors and myths portray him as. They say he is a cold killer. Well, he’s not cold-he’s the sweetest man I know. And he’s not a killer-he only killed once, and that was just to save Milly and I. Even then, he felt terribly guilty and sad afterwards…”
        I almost added that I was a grown woman, and I was going to marry him whether they approved of it or not.
        I brought the envelope out to the mailbox. Milly was there with a stack of her “Milly Monthly” letters to home. “My family thinks I’m a harlot, but I’m writing them nice, friendly letters anyway!” she announced cheerily.
        “Well, Milly, that’s, um, your prerogative,” I said lamely.
        “My big big brother said it’s good my ‘preacher boyfriend’ is dead, or he would’ve killed him himself.” She giggled lightly.
        “What’s so funny about that?” I wondered, concerned she was losing her sanity.
        “Nicholas was an ace gunman,” Milly reminded me. “My big big brother wouldn’t have had a chance against him!”
        “I suppose not,” I replied solemnly. Poor Milly, being alienated from her beloved family! I felt a twinge of guilt for having ignored my family for so long.
        “Don’t worry about me, Meryl. You may not know this because you’re an only child, but brothers and sisters can be like that. I don’t know about blood being thicker than water. I think sometimes you get along better with friends. But my family will forgive me. Someday. I don’t think it’ll be too far down the road.”

Chapter 5: Cold Feet
Meryl:     One day, Vash and I were sitting on the porch, thinking about our wedding plans. “What are you worried about?” I asked him.
        “It’s just-I’m not sure of my race’s history. How long it takes for us to age. When you’re an old woman, I could still look like this. And when you die, I could live five hundred years longer.”
        I was silent for a moment, looking at my shoes. Finally, I spoke. “When I was young, I had a kitten. It was my baby, but while I was still a kid, it grew up into a cat. And while I was a teenager, it died of old age. Pets have such short life times compared to their owners, but that doesn’t stop people from taking them into their lives, and loving them.”
        “What about if we have children? Hell, I don’t even know if I can have children. But if we did, he or she might not be human.”
        “Time will tell. And as for my aging-when I’m young, I can be your lover. When I’m older, I can be like a mother. I can still be your companion, just in a different way. We’ll take things as they come along.”
        “Are you sure that’s wise?”
        “Look, all I know is, I don’t want to lose you. If I gave you up now, I could never live with myself, knowing I let you get away.”

Meryl:     Those were big words on my part. Not long after, I was second guessing my decision to marry Vash. It started the night when I woke up in a cold sweat. What was that dream I had been having? Mrs. Vash the Stampede. Not Meryl anymore. Just an extension of my husband. No career-just being a wife.
        I talked to Milly about it. “Were you hurt before in your past?” she asked me, sitting down beside me on the porch.
        “No. I had a couple of crushes, but I never told them.”
        She smiled slyly. “That sounds typical. But you’re not gonna let this one get away, are you?”
        I sighed. “I don’t want to, but-I’m so used to my independence. I don’t want to suddenly give up my job and become a housewife.”
        “I don’t think Vash would do that to you.”
        “He might.”
        “Well, you’ve always been able to handle him. You’ll talk him out of it.” She held up a finger, a new idea suddenly occurring to her. “Besides, Vash doesn’t have a job to speak of, so somebody’s got to be the breadwinner!”
        I grinned. “You’ve got a point there.” But my fears and dread were not allayed. “But besides that, sometimes I think the only reason Vash wants to marry me is so he has someone to screw!”
        “Oh, Meryl, that’s just silly talk!”

Meryl:     I walked up to Vash, who was on his favorite bench in the town square. His eyes lit up when he saw me, and he smiled. My heart ached, and I sighed.
        “Sit down,” he said, patting the space next to him.
        “No, I can’t stay,” I said. “I have to leave you.”
        “Where are you going? Did Bernadelli transfer you?”
        “No, it’s not that kind of leaving. I-I can’t marry you, Vash!” Tears punctuated my last words.
        He stood up and grasped my shoulders. “Why, Meryl?” My mind flashbacked to when he had confronted Wolfwood over the killing of Zazie. “Why, Wolfwood?” is what he demanded. He had felt so betrayed. As he did now. And I was the one who had done it.
        I pulled away. “Don’t ask why!” I shrieked. “I just can’t! I can’t be your little wife!” I fled across the street to avoid further conflict.
        His powers of deduction were very keen. “Meryl, this has nothing to do with me, does it?” Vash yelled after me. “This is about something some other guys did to their wives! Well, don’t blame me!”
        I bumped into Milly at the general store front. She had her arms folded and was regarding me sternly. “Hmmpph!” was all she said, and she strode away.

        I wondered if I had been fair to Vash-no, I hadn’t. And with all the pain he’d already experienced in life, how could I do this to him? But could I really sacrifice my freedom?
        Later that day, I returned to the town square, I saw Vash, his back to my direction-he was still sitting on the bench, moping.
        A blond and buxom woman in a tight, leather skirt sauntered by. She leaned over Vash, her breasts nearly toppling out, and whispered something in his ear.
        “No, thanks,” he said. “I already have a woman, Meryl.”
        “But she’s such a plain Jane!” the lady protested. “She could never do you as good as me!”
        “Just let it rest,” Vash said, as gently as possible. “I’m taken.”
        “All right,” the woman said with a sigh, and walked on.
        Maybe he did indeed love me for me, I realized, and wasn’t marrying me just to get sex. How could I have been so vain to think I was the only woman who could offer him that?
        Rather disinterestedly, Vash watched the hussy go, and he must have seen me out of the corner of his eye. He stood up, and marched towards me. I wanted to flee, but was paralyzed.
        As he stepped onto the porch, I backed away until the wall of the store prevented me from going further. He rested a hand above me, leaning his weight against the wall, and trapping me. I expected an angry confrontation. Instead, he hung his head so that I could not even look into his eyes. “Don’t go,” he simply asked. Then he looked up, his pleading eyes-those infinite, beautiful blue pools--penetrating into my soul. “I’ll do anything.”
        No one had eyes as breathtaking as his. Was I a fool for ever having turned away from them? “Oh, Vash,” I whimpered. “Oh, Vash, I’m so sorry. I’m so scared.”
        “What are you scared about?”
        “I’m afraid of..of losing me.”
        He looked puzzled.
        “Of not being an individual anymore. Not being Meryl Stryfe anymore. Just Mrs. Vash the Stampede.”
        He still looked confused.
        I glanced in the store. It was empty, except for Josie, the clerk, who was sweeping and was more interested in the music on her headphones. I led Vash inside, so we could have a little privacy. “In the church I grew up in, they had a directory of members they would hand out. The women weren’t listed as Mary or Lisa or whatever their names were. They were listed as Mrs. John Smith or Mrs. Howard Brown, as though all they were were extensions of their husbands.”
        Vash smiled. “I think I understand. Don’t worry-you can keep your name. I don’t have a last name to give you, and Meryl the Stampede sounds stupid.”
        “I know what the Bible says about the man being the head of the household,” I rambled frantically. “Fine. I don’t need to be the one in charge. But most men take advantage of that rule so they can lord it over the woman. I don’t want to be a half-human, existing only in my husband’s shadow.”
        Vash was looking out the window, and motioned for me to come over. Outside, I could see women milling about on the street, going about their business. “Look out there,” Vash said. “Do you see any half-humans?”
        “No,” I replied with hesitation. “But of course, you wouldn’t see them as half-humans, you being..who you are.” With the last words, I came to a realization. I turned to Vash. “You..you wouldn’t.”
        He smiled. “No, I wouldn’t. And besides, Meryl, you’re an incredible woman, and I couldn’t diminish that even if I wanted to.”
        “What about my career? Can I have a say in things?”
        “Well, of course you can! See, all you needed to do was ask, not run away!”
        “I’m sorry, Vash. I panicked.”
        “So is the wedding still on?”
        I smiled. “Well, I would hate to have my parents come all this way for nothing.”
        He enclosed me in his arms. We stood in an embrace for a long time, he gently rocking me. After all that worrying, I realized this was where I was meant to be after all.
        “Meryl,” he said finally.
        “Can we celebrate by going to my room and-”
        “Aww!” He pulled away.
        “Hey, I didn’t say you had to stop holding me.”
        He drew me back into his arms. “Hey, you know the only thing that comes between us right now?”
        This time I pulled away. “Vash, be patient! It’s not all that far away. But-”
        “But what?”
        I smiled. “Thanks for turning down that hussy a few minutes ago.”
        “Not a problem. I once turned away two free hookers by pretending to pass out.”
        “You’re not as bad as your reputation, are you?”
        He shrugged.

Meryl:     That was always something I wondered about-his sexual and romantic past. I didn’t know if he had had any lovers before me-I mean, he must have, having lived so long, and with his libido. I know his patchwork body of scars made him shy about revealing his flesh to potential lovers, but he couldn’t have always had those scars.
        But being over a hundred years old, he could have already had a wife, who grew old and died. The only significant woman from his past that he had ever mentioned was Rem, and she was more like mother/mentor/teacher to him. He was just a child when she died, so they had never had sexual relations.
        His being a humanoid and so long-lived might mean something else, though-maybe it took him decades before he even awakened to sexual thoughts. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part.
        If I asked him, his memory might prove faulty. He gained a lot of his memory back in the days leading up to his confrontation with Knives, but he claimed his memory was still sketchy. Well, a hundred plus years-that is too much to keep track of. I can’t remember things I did last week.
        Not even Vash’s biographer would be able to get him to divulge much about past girlfriends. He mentioned some recent girls-that is to say, recent meaning since I knew him-but those girls he never touched even though he wanted to. I don’t know that they count.
        I suppose I was cowardly for not asking him all the details of his past romances, but I didn’t really want to know. Most of the time, my ignorance was blissful, and I didn’t mind not knowing. The most he ever said to me was he hadn’t been married before, and as for other sexual or romantic experiences, “it’s not as bad as you think.” But once in awhile, I would think of it, and wonder who had had him before, and feel disturbed.

Chapter 6: The Ceremony Nears
Meryl:     Mr. and Mrs. Stryfe, my parents, had come for the ceremony. I left them in the kitchen, then went to find Vash. Unsuccessful, I returned to the kitchen to find Vash there, entertaining them. “Hey, I can balance a salt shaker on my tongue!” he exclaimed, picking one up off the table and doing just that.
        “Bravo!” my Dad cried.
        “Oh, sheesh!” I put my hand to my forehead. “What the heck does he think he’s doing?”
        “Oh, there you are, Meryl!” my Mom chirped.
        “Mm-” Vash lost control of his tongue and the salt shaker fell to the floor. It didn’t break, but salt did scatter all over the place.
        “Mom, Dad, this is-” I began.
        “We know,” Mom interrupted. “It’s Vash.”
        I was expecting some friction between them and him, not this jolly camaraderie. “You know? You’re not, um, afraid of him or anything?”
        “You told us in your letters that he was a good man, and that’s good enough for us.”
        “Meryl, we were the ones who taught you to never trust rumors until you get to know the real person,” Dad reminded me.
        “And now that we’ve met him,” Mom continued. “We know the only thing he’s a danger to is salt shakers.”
        “And we found out he’s talented with his tongue,” Dad added.
        Mom looked at me pointedly. “That could come in handy in bed.”
        “Mom!” I knew my face must be really red because I could feel the heat radiating from it.
        “Meryl embarrasses easily,” my Mom explained to Vash.
        Vash put an arm around my shoulders. “Yeah, I know!” he replied, laughing. “She takes things much too seriously.”
        I growled.
        “Aw, come on, honey,” Vash encouraged. “I like them and they like me-that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
        I relaxed my taut shoulders. “Yeah, I guess. I just didn’t expect this to turn into a game of ‘Let’s Make Meryl Blush’.”
        As soon as I said that, I knew it had been a mistake. My parents and Vash looked at each other and laughed evilly. From then on, whenever they got together, they never failed to play jokes on me or make jokes at my expense.

Meryl:     One day, Vash took me out to meet the express bus, which was making a stop in town. “I hope you don’t mind, but I also invited my family here for the wedding.”
        “But I thought your only relative was your brother.”
        Out of the crowd of disembarking passengers, a tomboy broke free and ran to Vash, shouting the name, “Eriks!”
        Vash caught her as she took a flying leap into his arms. “Lina! Where’s your Grandma?”
        “Oh, she’s coming. Just a bit more slowly.” Lina turned around and waved. “Grandma! Over here!”
        In a minute, an elderly woman joined us. “Lina, Grandma Sheryl, this is Meryl, my fiancée. Meryl, this is Lina and Sheryl. They took care of me after the Augusta tragedy.”
        “Oh,” I said. “Then I must thank you for saving my husband-to-be.”
        “It was no problem,” Sheryl told me. “We enjoyed having him live with us.”
        “I’m just glad we’re together again!” Lina exclaimed. “I really thought we’d never see you again, Eriks. I mean, Vash.”
        “Oh, you can still call me Eriks if you want to. I’m thinking of dropping the name Vash so I can settle down to a peaceful life.”
        “Really?” I wondered.
        “I didn’t tell you?”
        I shook my head.
        “If you don’t like the name, let me know,” he told me, in a way that let me know he would consider my opinion seriously.
        “All right.”
        He turned back to Sheryl and Lina. “Well, let’s get you settled in town.”
        We walked back to the town square. “What happened to that interesting priest fellow you left town with?” Grandma Sheryl wondered.
        Vash sighed, and pointed skyward. “Gone to a heavenly flock.”
        “Oh, that’s too bad.”
        “Really? He’s dead?” Lina asked. “Oh, that’s sad! He helped rescue me and he also helped comfort me when the bandits humiliated Eriks.”
        “Vash was real broken up about his passing,” I explained.
        “I just feel more sorry for his widow,” Vash remarked.
        “I didn’t realize he was married,” Sheryl said.
        “To my best friend, Milly,” I informed her, looking ahead to the center of town. “Oh, there she is now!”
        Milly was leaning down towards the ground. “Look, everyone, puppies!” she exclaimed with a smile. Lina and Vash ran ahead to see the little dogs.
        “Well, she seems to be doing alright,” Sheryl observed.
        “Yeah, things are getting better for all of us,” I agreed.

Meryl:     However taken aback I might have been about Lina, I was quickly won over. One night, she was helping me wash and dry dishes, and she said, “He mentioned you once.”
        “When he was pretending to be Eriks?”
        “Yeah-he didn’t talk a lot about his past, of course, but I asked him about any girlfriends he might have had. He said, ‘There was this woman, Meryl. I was never sure how I felt about her, but sometimes I thought we had something going.’”
        “Really? That’s intriguing. I didn’t realize he had feelings for me back then.”

Insurance Girls Tell All - Part 2: Ch. 7-9

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