****This story is rated PG****
At precisely five o’clock in the afternoon, just as the New Miami city hall was about to close its doors for the night, a group of two women and two men walked up the front steps and into the lobby. The building was about three stories tall and connected on one side to the police station, on the other the courthouse. The honorable Mayor Greenwood had his office in the main building, on the first floor. The secretary in charge of locking the doors came over to them across the great front lobby, her heals clicking across the marble floors, waving casually. “I knew I should have closed…” She started to say, thinking that she forgot to lock the doors, but it usually wasn’t that necessary in this town, everyone seemed to obey the sign on the front door. But these folks were new here, and as she was about to tell them that they would have to come back another time, she stopped in her tracks.
The four were familiar; they appeared on posters next to the door… Posters she looked at every day, wanted posters… Panicked, the secretary’s face drained white. What were they doing here? It wasn’t every day that outlaws waltzed into the city hall because of where it was situated, and the fact that New Miami held not only the largest police force, but also the largest mafia and they kind of balanced each other out. But these people… Her heart started to pound, as she looked them over. They didn’t exactly look dangerous, but she didn’t want to tangle with bounty heads. Especially so close to being able to go home to see her babies… What would they do if she died in some horrible shoot out?
Taking cautious steps back she managed to blurt out, “Uh, you can’t come in here, we’re closed for the night.”
Out of the group, only one of them smiled slightly, a tall blond woman. Her hand came up, holding something, but the secretary couldn’t get a good look at it. Was it a detonator, a small gun, or some other lethal device? Her hand covered it up; they were too far away to get a good look at it… She started to shake as they approached her, and she only managed to get out, “Please, if you come back tomorrow…”
“We need to see the mayor,” one of the men said. He had dark hair and gray eyes; he wore a black suit, and carried a large cross, wrapped in linen cloth. He looked to be a member of the PWS, although she was a member of the religion herself, it was a widely held belief that the priests were honorable men. Only, this one, she remembered seeing a picture of when she was dating the mob boss Giorgio, the police didn’t want this guy, but the mafia did, and that was bad enough news for her. She took another step back toward her desk, eager to get to the phone to call security. The police were right next-door and if she could get to the phone they would be swarming the building in minutes. “I’m sure he won’t mind the interruption once he knows what we’re here for.” The man waved a hand to his colleagues and they passed right by the frightened secretary and down a corridor deeper into the building.
The first woman opened her hand as they passed the panicked secretary and a set of keys dangled out of her hand. She giggled as the woman rushed the final steps to the phone. “Don’t worry ma’am, we’re just here to deliver something.”
Eyes following the group, the secretary put her hand on the phone, but couldn’t manage to pick up the receiver. Frightened, she instead grabbed her purse and rushed out the front door and into the street. Worried for her life more than for her boss, she stumbled into a car parked by the curb. At first afraid that there would be more of these outlaws in the vehicle, she backed away slowly, her hands sliding off of the candy apple red finish. As she took step after step, it dawned on her that the car was empty, and the make was that of a new model Sand Dancer… Exactly like the one the mayor had stolen a few months before.
She frowned and turned to look back into the building. What did they say about a delivery?
By six o’clock in the evening, right before dinner, the foursome exited Mr. Greenwood’s office, walked out into the empty lobby and passed the bulletin board; the two women stopped and looked up at their pictures. The blond reached up and pulled hers down, gleefully ripping it up. The other woman, who was about a foot shorter, dark hair and violet eyes, couldn’t reach hers, and settled to have the last of them, a blond man with strange aqua eyes, pull it down for her. She ripped it up, tossed the pieces into the air and said, “No more bounties on Meryl Stryfe!”
The trip by sand steamer from New Miami to December City was four weeks. The route arched out into the desert to hit a small town called Custer City to deliver supplies for it and all of the nearby towns. The two cities supplied nearly all of the occupied small eastern towns, delivering mail and every other necessary item ordered for that particular month. Originally the sand steamer made a straight shot between three cities, July City being in between, but when that hub of civilization was destroyed, the route changed because no one wanted to traverse through the barren wasteland. It was a sore spot on everyone’s mind and avoided.
Unlike the sand steamer that connected the western cities, there were no gangs and typically an uninterrupted ride. Meryl and Milly were grateful because they were much too tired of having to deal with gangsters every time they rode a steamer. The girls had their own room for once, didn’t have to share it with anyone else, in first class no less. Vash had spared no expense even after his initial refusal to pay for them, almost as if he had a change of heart. The boys were in a room next door, close enough to come at a second’s call, but far enough away to let them have their privacy.
Meryl sat at the window looking out at the desert. Two weeks were past already, and none of them had said another word about what was to come. There was no mention of Knives, no mention of Earth, no mention of Milly’s strange powers… It was all tied up in silence. To some part of her it was a relief, but she also hated the waiting. Vash would take her upstairs to the casino, or they would spend time hanging out on the front deck enjoying the weather, but they never talked about deep topics, only about life in general. Milly and Wolfwood followed them from time to time, other times going down to steerage to visit Little Sammy. Right now the couple and Vash were up in the café to picking up sandwiches.
Turning from the window, Meryl glanced over at the desk where her paperwork was left. Sitting next to the papers and her typewriter was the small picture that Vash had taken from her apartment. Meryl got up from her seat and went to grab it. Even though she told him he couldn’t have it, a much larger part of her was glad he had, not only because it revealed to them something about her past, but also, she thought that Vash deserved to have something of hers. He left it with Meryl by her request this afternoon, but said he was taking it back when they got off the sand steamer. Vash could have had other girlfriends in the past, but he treated her like they were two teenagers in love for the first time. It made her feel warm inside, as if she was getting to fill in the blank spots in her life.
She could remember this day in the picture, one of the otherwise blank spots, the day that Milly’s mother took the photograph. Closing her eyes, she stood holding the picture, trying to remember all of the details as clearly as possible. As if, just being near Vash opened her memories to her, one by one like flower petals.
“Come on Meryl!” Milly called out, running down the back porch of the old farmhouse and down the long stretch of yard to the pond. She carried a big pink towel, her blond hair done up in pigtails. She waved at Meryl, her little aqua swimsuit a size too big for her, the yellow flowers sagging around her mid-section, another hand-me-down from her older sisters. “You’re too slow! If you don’t hurry up we’ll have to share the pond.”
It was such a little thing, so why she didn’t realize that the details were wrong until now? It must have been because I was a child, so used to accepting everything as fact… Meryl opened her eyes, looking at the photograph again. All three pictures still existed, the other two remained on their wall back in December City, of them in that pond… But she couldn’t remember any other small details of her childhood, only the ones in the photographs. There were other pictures, ones with them going to school, others of the Thompson family reunion, little things, but the more she thought about them, the more the memories wanted to drift away like dreams. She scrambled to hold onto them at first, but eventually gave up. But now, now they were starting to come back again, and it didn’t make any sense. Had she and Milly gotten amnesia? Is that why only now she could remember details like the fact that cameras just didn’t look like the one Holly had, they were big clunky things with flash pans, not a tiny silver box.
The little town of Custer had a population of about two thousand, but on caravan days when the sand steamer made its monthly stop, the town exploded into five thousand. People milled around everywhere as little shops were set up all along the main thoroughfare and business owners picked up their supplies for the outlying villages. The stop was for two days and during that time, passengers were able to leave the steamer, wander the town and take in the sights. However, in this little town, there weren’t any sights besides miles and miles of sand, just like everywhere else on the planet. But the ever-optimistic Milly decided she wanted to explore so she took Little Sammy off the steamer for a ride.
Meryl and Vash opted to stay behind this day, so Wolfwood followed his girlfriend along to a small farm on the edge of town that reminded him a lot of the tomas farm he’d visited before… Before realizing it was, and borrowed a lizard bird to ride alongside Milly. The farmer was surprised that the tomas Milly rode had taken to Milly so quickly, but Wolfwood explained that the girl never went a day of their trip without visiting him at least once, and many days she’d sit talking to him down in steerage. One afternoon Wolfwood came down with her, listening about the stories of the Thompson Clan, listening to the ill-fated adventures of her big middle brother who always seemed to get into trouble no matter where he went.
After listening to about twenty stories of the sort that afternoon, she turned to him for his own stories, and at that point Nicholas realized he’d never told her any of it. In fact, Vash and he had never brought up their chat with Legato since that day, and he sighed in remembrance of his promise to finally tell Milly all of it. She asked him dozens of times to tell him about himself and except for small bits he never opened up to her.
Today, he finally summed up his courage to tell her everything. So when she decided to take Little Sammy out for a ride, he packed a picnic and they made their way out of town to a nice little hill that overlooked the town and the plant. The bulb was out in the open, and he thought about the last time they were near a plant. It scared him, the fact that he was traveling with one of them, and at the same time someone who could stop them as well… Why had she been given powers to rival Vash? She nearly killed the humanoid typhoon after Knives released whatever it was in her. He wished Knives had told him… But his business had been with Vash all along, never with the girl, even though he grew to love her more than all of the children in his orphanage.
When they crested the little hill with their tomases, Milly glanced over her shoulder and hopped down. “Is this a good spot for our picnic?”
Nicholas looked around and nodded, “Honey, it sure is.” He jumped down and took the reigns of both birds and found a large rock to tie them to as Milly unpacked the supplies. “This is the perfect spot.” Milly smiled at him with that glorious smile, her blue eyes sparkling and his heart could have melted a thousand times with that smile and he would never grow tired of it. He gave her back a genuine smile of his own, grey eyes lit up as he pulled off his coat and set it nearby. Rolling up his shirtsleeves, he bent to spread the blanket down and Milly plopped down on it as she pulled out sandwiches and pudding for them to eat.
“You said to me this morning that there was something you wanted to talk to me about,” Milly started, handing him a sandwich. He nodded slowly as she retrieved a canteen from the supplies and set about pouring them each a glass of tea. It was sweet green tea, and Milly retrieved a second canteen with milk. Nicholas never noticed before how meticulous the big girl was when making her tea until this moment. It had to be just right, and he watched her pour out warm tea carefully, filling each cup up two thirds and then filling it up the rest of the way with milk, then stirring each clockwise four turns, then back five before handing him one. She sipped her tea and he watched her squish her brows together for a split second and then relax.
Milly glanced at him from behind her cup, “It always tastes yucky the first sip,” she explained. “But after that…” She sipped it again without a face, “See?”
Wolfwood chuckled to himself and sipped his own tea, but to no ill effects. He’d never had trouble drinking tea, the old woman who ran the orphanage when he was gone had a cup every morning and they used to sit together drinking it before the children awoke. The children… He missed them the most, but he knew he couldn’t go back, not for a long time, or they would be in danger of Knives’ wrath. He sighed and looked up at Milly’s eyes. She was watching him expectantly and he realized that she was waiting for him to tell her the reason they came out this way. “Oh, I’m sorry Honey… Remember when you were asking about my Mercy?”
With a nod, Milly set her teacup down and smiled faintly. She didn’t say a word, but he had a feeling that her head was probably filling up with questions as she sat there. They always said that the quiet ones were the ones with the deepest thoughts and were the most emotional. At least, he was pretty sure he’d heard it somewhere, and by the way Milly’s cheeks turned pink on days where neither of them said a word, he could tell she was thinking about something. Always how her blue eyes rested on him and how she smiled without a word, and part of him wished he could read minds like Vash or his brother so he would know what she was thinking about. Come to think of it, hadn’t he heard Meryl make a mention that Milly could read minds as well now? As he looked at her, he wondered if she was reading his mind right then, but she didn’t seem to be affected by his silence. Nicholas set down his own cup and reached his hand out to her.
After she took his hand, Wolfwood let out a long sigh. “I can’t remember my family, but I can remember my stepfather,” he started. “He was not a man at all. No one could call himself a man who was so cowardly and abusive…” Nicholas closed his eyes, feeling Milly’s hand squeeze his own and then he opened them again, her attention was still fully on him. “I killed him.”
Milly gasped and set her free hand to her face before her brows creased, a sad look came to her face. She didn’t say a word, waiting for him to continue. “I was free after that,” he said slowly. “I went where I pleased… But I couldn’t survive on my own. I was found by a group of Plant Worshippers and I joined them, decided to become a priest since that life seemed so much better than my own…” Milly’s hand slipped from her mouth, and she placed it upon their joined hands. It was a strange feeling, a woman here with him, listening without a word to his story. He never had a girlfriend before - he was really a priest, even though in the PWS it wasn’t necessary for him to be celibate, it never left much time for personal affairs. “But the Seminary isn’t like other religions, and the deeper I got the harder it was to get out, the more different it had become for me.
“When I turned twenty, my teacher, Evergreen, decided I’d become a useful member of the PWS, and had advanced to the next level. My devotion… No, my livelihood was based on a lie however. I thought that maybe the plants really were angels, sent down from God… Until, until I met the god they were worshipping all along.” Wolfwood let loose of Milly’s hands and grabbed his tea, taking a sip of it, but it was already cold. He frowned, how long was this story taking? He didn’t think he’d been at it more than a few minutes. “It was Knives, Milly.”
“But…” Milly’s mouth closed slowly as everything moved through her head. Nicholas watched her as she processed the information, and she reached for his sleeve, clutching it in her hands, her brows were furrowed again, this time in confusion and… No, he refused to think that she’d believe he was a traitor. It wasn’t betrayal… “What… What are you saying?”
“I was trained from that point on to become a weapon, Milly. Evergreen gave me my Mercy, he taught me to use it… and when I was twenty-five I was given my choice of locations to serve the Seminary.”
“The orphanage,” she finished for him. Milly’s grasp on his sleeve never faltered, and he put down the cup he held and wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into his embrace. “But you knew it was wrong, right? You must have known…”
Nicholas nodded, “I knew.” He set his cheek on her head and breathed her hair, that wonderful strawberry shampoo… “But I also knew that to go against Knives will was to bring death to myself and everything I loved. I think maybe that Knives knew I wasn’t devoted to him… Maybe it was the reason when he’d come up with a plan to destroy his brother, he sent me.” Milly started to lift her head to look at him, but he didn’t let her move. “I was sent to protect him as the other Gung-ho Guns came to destroy all that Vash held dear to him.”
“You…” Milly said into his shirt. He felt a tear roll down his chest where her cheek pressed up against the skin. “You’ve been working for him this entire time? You never told us… Does Mr. Vash know? Does Meryl? Why? Why…” She shook and Wolfwood felt his heart break every time she took a shuddering gasp. “I didn’t think… you, it… it can’t be true.”
“It can, and it is. I wanted to tell you the truth, because you deserved to know.” He loosened his grip on Milly and she looked up to him, tears running down her cheeks and he could feel the cool breeze on his chest where the little rivulets ran. “Do you hate me for it? I can understand if you do.”
Milly shook her head slowly, those blue eyes filled with something… Some emotion that he was unsure either of them would be able to truly describe. “No, I don’t.” She lifted her face to his and kissed him gently on the lips. When she pulled away, Nicholas licked his lips, tasting the salt from her tears. “I love you. I knew it the moment I saw you… And it really doesn’t matter what you might say because in here,” and she set a hand above his heart, “You’re good.”
A frown formed with tight lips and Milly punched his shoulder with her free hand. “Ah!” Wolfwood fell backwards, grimacing; she hit the spot where Vash had shot him, still sore after two weeks. “Hey, what you do that for?”
“You stupid dope. I said, ‘You’re good’. That’s all there is to it. Just because you had some bad apples in your life doesn’t mean that there isn’t a full tree of good ones around the corner! I’d have known it from the beginning if there were something in you that would betray Mr. Vash or Meryl, or me… The proof of it is right…” She grimaced, “There.” With a small smile her eyes fell on his shoulder and she closed one eye, “I didn’t mean to hit that spot… Does it hurt too much?”
Wolfwood chuckled and grabbed her, “No… But you could kiss it and make it better.”
“I had to try!” He grinned and she shook her head, turning it to look back over her shoulder.
“Speaking of food… are you… Going to eat that?” Milly nodded to the pudding and Nicholas laughed.
“Mr. Vash!!!” The pounding sound at the door awoke the blond gunman with a start and he fell off his bed and onto the hard floor. With a moan he rubbed his head and recalled the last time he fell off a bed on a sand steamer. At least this time it wasn’t because a group of Bad Lads… Or was it? Vash jumped to his feet, grabbed his coat off the hook and flung the door open. “What’s wrong?”
Milly and Meryl stood heaving outside of the bedroom door, both fully dressed for the day. The tall insurance girl was waving her arms as she tried to get breath enough to say anything else, so it was Meryl who managed, “Little Sammy!”
“The tomas?” Vash started to snap up his coat over his nightclothes, and pushed past them into the hall. “What about him?”
“He’s escaped!” Milly shrieked finally. She hopped on one foot and pointed down the hallway, “Mr…. Nicholas, he’s gone after him but he escaped off the sand steamer! We’ve got to go get him before we take off again!” She dashed back down the hallway and Vash started after her until he felt a tug at his arm. He glanced down at the insurance girl. Meryl was smiling at him.
“Shouldn’t we get going?”
Meryl nodded, her eyes sparkling. “Yes, but don’t you think you should get dressed first?” She pointed down to his bare legs and Vash felt his cheeks go pink. Collecting his coat around his legs he scooted backwards into the room and when Meryl followed him his face turned red.
“Hey, I thought you…”
“Oh stop that. It’s only fair that I get to see your legs after you’ve seen mine.” She smiled and put her hand on the doorknob. “Don’t worry, I won’t watch you change. I just wanted to tell you that Little Sammy was headed for the little farm on the far side of town. He probably smelled out a female…” Meryl turned to close the door behind her.
Vash reached out and grabbed the other knob, “Hey, you’re coming right back, right?”
“Of course.” Meryl nodded and disappeared down the hallway at a run. Vash watched her go before closing the door and grabbing for his normal traveling clothes. He slipped on his pants and boots, took off his coat to slip on his shirt and frowned. Something… A strange rumbling started in the hull of the sand steamer and his eyebrows furrowed. What… What was it? Was something else wrong besides a runaway bird?
He turned to the window then his eye caught his alarm clock by the bed and his eyes went wide. “It’s one o’clock!” Vash’s mouth dropped open, “We’re leaving!” Vash pulled on his boots at lightning speed, grabbed his things and rushed down the hall, down the stairwell, down ten stories. “Meryl! Milly! Wolfwood!” At the doorway a startled Meryl waited for him, she looked back and forth between him and the ground as it slowly started to move. “Where are Milly and Wolfwood?!”
“They haven’t come back yet!” Meryl said suddenly. “Oh my goodness, I didn’t know we were this close to…” She watched as Vash set down his things and her mouth dropped open, “We’ve got to go get them…”
Vash nodded, “I know I know, but the luggage…”
“I’ll get them!” Meryl started past her but an arm grabbed her around the waist and Vash set her back down by the door, and shoved his bag at her. “What…”
“Take these, I didn’t see Wolfwood’s cross, he must have had it with him?” Meryl nodded slowly in reply, looking from his bag up to him again. “Get off and wait for me in town, I’ll get your things and meet you there.” He started to turn, realized she wasn’t moving and then grabbed her by the middle again and plopped her on the ground outside even as the steamer was starting to move. Meryl squeaked and started to say something but he didn’t wait to hear what it was. He jumped up the stairs two, and then three at a time up the stories back to Meryl and Milly’s room. Without a key he grimaced as he broke the door down and gathered their things. The sand steamer was already up to forty iles an hour and as he hauled the baggage back down the stairs it gained more by the second…
With a grimace, Vash closed his eyes and took a flying leap out the back… fell into a rolling heap and could hear fragile items in the girls’ bags break as he managed to stop his roll in the sand. Dust and debris flew up around him and he coughed, looking up into the sky, flat on his back. His head was hurting for the second time that morning and he put a hand under it as he watched the dust and clouds roll overhead. With a sigh, he looked up and backwards to see the sand steamer rapidly disappear into the desert before he sat up and started to collect the luggage. He rubbed his head and managed to crawl to a painful stand, brushed the dirt from his coat and quietly thanked the coat’s designer Kain because it had protected him from the brunt of the fall.
“Vash!” A voice in the distance called to him and Vash squinted in the sunlight at Meryl as she ran toward him. He waved and reached into his coat pocket for his sunglasses… And finding one of the lenses broken he sighed and put them on anyway before picking up the bags and heading to meet Meryl. She huffed up to him and stopped, “What in the world do you think you were doing?! You could have been killed with a stunt like that!”
Vash smiled, “No, I don’t think so.” He chuckled, “Although my sunglasses are worse for the wear.”
Meryl shook her head, helping him with the part of the load and turned to follow him back to town. “Now what are we going to do? That sand steamer was our only mode of transportation to December.”
“We’ll manage,” Vash said in return. He closed his left eye, looking through the yellow lens with his right, then he switched eyes, the color wasn’t very different but the glasses had cut down on the glare of the suns. He would have to get a new pair before he got in another shoot-out. “Did you see the others before you ran after me?”
“No,” Meryl replied. “But I left your bag with a police officer… I can’t believe you’d do that.”
“You wanted your bags,” he grinned. “You can buy me a dozen donuts for the trouble.”
The insurance girl looked up at him and after a moment she realized he wasn’t kidding about the donuts. She laughed, “You’re too much!”
Not long after getting left behind by the sand steamer, Milly looked over the tomas stable and then back at her friends. She was still trying to get over the fact that they were stranded in the little town. Especially since he knew it was all her fault. She went down to visit Little Sammy that morning with Wolfwood tagging along behind her and she decided to take him outside one last time before the sand steamer continued on its way. Meryl came down to watch them and that’s when things got out of hand, Sammy grew a bit wild and originally Meryl was on her way up to get Vash when the tomas finally escaped and Milly caught her on the way up and they both went to get the gunman. But now it was too late and they’d found Little Sammy. The bird had found himself a girlfriend.
The owner of the stable was looking him over from head to toe and he turned to the group. “I’d love to take him back but I’m afraid I’m all out of money. My wife spent a bit too much when the caravan came into town and it’ll be another month before they swing back this way again.” Vash and Meryl looked at each other and Wolfwood hung his head.
“Isn’t there anything we could use to get out of town?” Meryl asked finally, looking weary. She’d been forgiving about the whole incident, but Milly could tell that she wasn’t happy about losing their free ride back to civilization. Already her traveling clothes were getting dirty, her hair a bit mussed, and Milly had a feeling she would be begging for a long bath by the end of the day.
“Well, I do have an old beater I could trade you for.” The old man hitched a thumb in the direction of the road and Milly turned to see the oldest car she ever saw. She had a feeling it might have come directly from Earth… “It runs and will probably get you to December City if you don’t use the caravan route. The old straight shot would get you there in a couple weeks but it’s pretty desolate out there.”
Vash nodded nearby and he turned to Milly and Meryl. Wolfwood put a hand on Milly’s shoulder as the gunman said, “We can do it but we’ll have to ration our goods and it means camping out, no hotels, no water…” He looked at Wolfwood who just nodded, both men were used to being out in the wilds for long spans of time and neither seemed to mind the fact that they’d go without a bath for a couple weeks.
Milly smiled faintly, “Well, I used to go camping all the time as a girl… At least I think I did, so I don’t mind roughing it. What do you say Meryl?” When Milly looked at her little friend she was sure that Meryl had turned about three shades lighter. Her hands were clenched at her sides and Milly had this sudden feeling that she should duck and cover… But then the little girl sighed.
“I’ll manage… But do you think I might be able to use your bathroom to freshen up before we go?” She said to the tomas farmer. He nodded and she smiled feebly at Vash. “I’ll be fine, I’m a tough girl, sure, what’s a few weeks?”
Five days into the trip and already Vash regretted making the decision to cut across the desert. Women, with female problems, did not handle well in the desert. For the first few months knowing the duo, they were discrete, always having rooms in other inns or tagging a day behind him after disaster struck. But now they talked about everything from menstrual cramps to chin hairs and all in between. What was it about women being all mystery when a guy started dating them, but as soon as they were attached, the mystery disappeared? Why did they change so radically? He sighed, the girls weren’t unusually feminine, they probably both were tomboys growing up. Mainly they did their hair, a bit of makeup and required clean clothes every few days even as Wolfwood and he wore the same outfits for weeks. But when Meryl started to complain that she needed to get to a town with a capitol “N”, the realization sunk into Vash’s head that yes, these were women, and yes they had to deal with all the normal problems women faced.
However, there was one problem. They were in the middle of nowhere, and the closest town by his approximation was about three days north, or the abandoned town a day east, one that when he mentioned it being a ghost town Milly flat-out refused to go. This little bit of news surprised Vash. He never saw the tall insurance girl afraid of anything when Meryl wasn’t so he was more than willing to avoid the town himself. Meryl and Wolfwood, on the other hand, were dead set on going. The priest was apparently tired of Meryl’s whining as much as he was.
After much arguing, the dark-haired pair won, took control of the car and headed east. Vash and Milly sat in the back seat; he turned to look at her a little after lunchtime. Her hands were in her lap, shaking. “You okay there, Milly?” He asked, arm on the windowsill, head on his fist. His repaired sunglasses slid down his nose as he looked at her.
“Me? Oh sure, sure…” Milly buried her hands under her duster and smiled wearily. Vash thought it wasn’t like her. He’d never seen the Big Girl give anything but genuine smiles and bright blue eyes sparkling with joy until just recently… Only when there was trouble ahead. Today she looked afraid, very afraid, her shoulders hunched over as she returned her gaze to her knees. He frowned, his eyes scanning the horizon, seeking with whatever it was within him to find his brother, but no, the prickle came from another direction. Vash could not know if Knives was still planning something, but he wasn’t close enough to do anything to them directly right now, and he was pretty sure that Legato was farther away as well.
He set a hand on her shoulder and Milly looked at him wide-eyed. “You’re shaking like a wild tomas,” he said, giving her a squeeze and smiling. “You can’t tell me you’re fine, what’s bugging you so much? Do you sense Legato or Knives? Maybe another of the Gung-ho…”
Milly looked down at their hands, “I don’t like ghosts,” she said finally. Vash’s eyes went wide, was this what she was worried about? When there were dozens of nasties waiting around every corner… Ghosts? She had to be kidding…
“There aren’t any ghosts, Milly,” Meryl said from the front seat. She turned around and peered at Vash’s hand, raised one eyebrow in question, and he let go of Milly’s shoulder instantly. Satisfied, she looked at Vash and said, “Her middle big brother used to tell her stories about the third plant station in New Orlando.”
“There were ghosts there, Meryl!” Milly said in rebuff, voice shaking now too. “I saw her!”
“Her?” Vash’s curiosity was peaked now. Female ghosts? Around a plant station? He’d seen his own ghost as a child, Tessla, his older sister, but he always assumed he and Knives only imagined her.
Milly was nodding slowly. Meryl huffed in exasperation, looked at Wolfwood and said, “What about you, Mr. Wolfwood? Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Never seen one. But I haven’t seen God either and you know where my beliefs lie on that topic.” He looked into the rear-view mirror, “So, what’s this ghost look like, Big Girl?” He winked at her and Milly brightened and sat up, apparently glad that someone believed her, especially the most important one.
“She was very small and pale with blond hair and the lightest green eyes I’ve ever seen. She didn’t speak, but when I saw her…” Milly shivered. “Her mouth was open like she was screaming.” Milly sat back in her seat and looked at Vash, “My middle big brother told me she appeared not long after the plant died.”
Looking away, Vash had his own shiver from this revelation running over his body. Maybe plants didn’t die… Maybe their spirits continued to roam… But this girl… The way Milly described her was exactly like Tessla… only… Vash glanced at Milly out of the corner of his eye. She believed this story, it must be true, and yet he’d never heard of it before. How many other ghost stories were there on this planet? Were they all centered around the plants, or just this one? “Is this… Your memory, do you know this story too Meryl?” He turned as the little insurance girl shook her head.
“Just from Milly telling me. I avoided Milly’s brothers as much as possible and with my parent’s inheritance I went to boarding school during a majority of the year.” She turned her head to look at him, “You know, every day I remember just a little bit more…”
“Early childhood but nothing in between?”
Meryl was silent, eyes narrowed, thinking. Vash looked at Milly, she was flirting with Nicholas through the rear-view mirror until she was caught and blushed. When he looked back at Meryl she sighed deeply. “Nothing in between.”
“Same here…once,” Vash admitted, remembering that up until Knives awoke his own memories were gone. How strange that the circumstances were similar… He felt a tear roll down his cheek and he reached up to wipe it away. Why was he crying? Vash sniffed, wondering if things would have turned out differently if Knives had not made him destroy July City. So many memories… And how many restless souls were there in July City’s wreckage as well? That is where they were headed now. He didn’t dare tell the others, but a small town fell abandoned only five miles away from Lost July… A place he destroyed in only the span of a few hours. They should have known, but the map fell into the campfire a few days back and since only Vash knew the way but he wasn’t about to tell them.
They would have to pass it by, soon now, only an hour left until they saw the remains of that place, those ghosts only he remembered as brilliantly as if it were yesterday. Those lives he ended in such a brief instant.
“Crying again, Needle Noggin?” Wolfwood said as he shifted the car while it crested a hill and then over it.
The gunman nodded, “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Meryl hissed. “We’re on this trip to solve the mystery. And we will, but not with you turning all weepy every time…” She turned and looked down the hill in front of them. “Already we’re learning more. Milly’s stories are even helping me remember more.”
This opened the Big Girl’s story back up and she continued on as if there’d never been a pause. “Then maybe you should be more wary of ghosts! You’d believe if you ever saw one!” Milly said, active again, pulling a large handkerchief from her pocket and handing it to Vash. “She looked like she wanted to tell us something… but she couldn’t.” She sighed, “I never went back, but my older brothers did and they never saw her, like she’d given up.”
Vash snorted and realized he wouldn’t be giving the hankie back to Milly until it was washed. “Well, for our sakes, I hope there aren’t any real ghosts where we’re going.”
Milly nodded, “Yeah, me too.”
An hour later, Meryl peered over the hood of the car at the remains of the once largest of the seven cities. Her mouth dropped open and she hurried to shut it, hoping the others had not seen her shock at the approach of Lost July. No wonder Vash was just as adamant about going the other way! This couldn’t be the ghost town he spoke of, could it? There was nothing here but ruins of a city that once held the largest population on Gunsmoke.
Wolfwood pulled the car to a stop and put it in park before taking his sunglasses off. He whistled low and said, “I’d heard about it, but I’d never seen it.” He turned to look at Vash, and Meryl followed his gaze. “So where is this town you mentioned yesterday? Surely this can’t be…”
“It’s not,” Vash interjected. “The town lies about five miles east. It was abandoned soon after…”
“And you know this, how?” Meryl asked, watching his eyes lower and darken. She looked away, knowing he’d already paid dearly with the growing scars that covered his body. “I mean… If you don’t mind telling us.”
Vash sunk down in his seat. “It cleared out after I came to town. At first they thought I was the first of the survivors to make it… But when no one else came out of the wreckage…”
Milly sniffed at his side and Meryl glanced at her. The Big Girl’s gaze never broke from the city as Vash collected himself enough to continue. “That’s when the rumors began. At first they thought I was a ghost, or some kind of monster… There were rumors that I had destroyed it by my own two hands… When the bounty was placed on me, headhunters came. I was tracked through the town…” He set his hand on his stomach and looked out over the wreckage.
Meryl waited for him to continue, but Vash didn’t speak again. She sighed, “I just wish they’d take that stupid bounty off.”
Vash nodded sullenly. Meryl turned and sunk back into her seat. She glanced up at Wolfwood and he put the car into gear and continued on to the next town. Her thoughts kept on Vash and his sad expression as she was sure he remembered the events that took place there in July thirty years ago. Meryl’s eyes focused on the desert, she never told Vash, sometimes, it was almost as if she could read his mind like Milly could. But that was silly; she was never given any strange powers, was she? But there was still that overwhelming feeling that there was a reason why Legato targeted her first and no one else. It could have been because Vash became close to her and thus Knives wanted to make him suffer… However, there seemed to be a more intricate reason, just out of her reach like her memories. She had this feeling that she once knew what the reason was, only, she had forgotten.
Glancing back over her shoulder, Meryl eyed Milly. What do you remember? She asked her friend internally.
Nothing; came the response almost immediately. Meryl shook her head, thinking she just imagined it, but then Milly smiled faintly and added, only my stories, Meryl. But just as you, once I turned ten, I can’t remember anything else.
Both girls sighed together and the boys turned to look at them. Meryl closed her eyes, “I’ll be glad when we get to town.”
Glancing over her shoulder again, her eyes fell on the gunman. His sunglasses were on now as he looked out into the desert. He made no move to look at her or the others, lost in his thoughts, oblivious to the conversation that had taken place between Milly and herself.
Meryl returned to looking up ahead, the small abandoned town was in view now. She was glad, it would be nice to take care of business in a proper bathroom with a bathtub and mirror even if she did use it without permission of the owners. The basic reason she really brought any of her problems to light with the group was more out of sheer boredom than necessity. Besides the fact that Nicholas blushed a scarlet red when she said anything to do with the female body and Vash seemed to get interested as if he were learning something new, which couldn’t be possible, he was over a hundred and thirty years old, wasn’t he?
Milly never mentioned anything if she could help it, forever discreet. It was probably one reason that Wolfwood was attracted to her. The big insurance girl wasn’t an average prissy girl; she was smart and had a heart of gold, all reasons for her to have had a boyfriend long before now. Meryl frowned, so why couldn’t she remember either of them having any relationships before now? She was deep in thought when the priest pulled the car into park at the front door of the abandoned inn and pulled off his sunglasses. “Definitely empty.”
“I said so, didn’t I?” Vash replied, putting his sunglasses away and getting out of the car. The others followed his lead looking around at the empty streets, broken windows of shops, abandoned cars and homes. “They never came back after the looters went through. I thought for a time a gang would move in but it’s too close to July… That, and,” Vash lowered his voice, “They do say there are ghosts, but you don’t believe that, do you?”
“Certainly not,” Meryl replied, snapping to, grabbing her bag from the trunk… “Hey, whose bag is this?” The trio crowded around her as they pulled items from the trunk and realized there was an extra. Meryl reached for it, it had an odd shape, like…
“A guitar!” Milly exclaimed suddenly, “Open it up Meryl!”
With a slow nod, Meryl pulled the case closer and flipped open the latches. “It’s a nice one…”
“But where did it come from?” Vash asked.
Wolfwood waved a hand, “The old man probably forgot it was in there. We dumped all of our things in here so quickly that no one saw it.” He smiled, grabbing Milly around the shoulders, “You don’t play do you, Big Girl?”
Milly shook her head, “Nope… But…” She frowned, “I forget.”
The other three looked at her oddly, but the two men shrugged it off. Meryl closed the case again; “I don’t either so I guess we’ll just leave it here. Maybe we can send it back to him when we get into the city.” She closed the trunk of the car, and pushed her way into the hotel lobby. The others followed behind her, Milly last, eyes casting about nervously as if a ghost might be around any corner. “Unfortunately it looks like this town’s energy plant is gone, but they were close enough they probably had a station that fed off July’s power…”
“No, there’s a plant here,” Vash said slowly. Meryl cast him a glance and a lump formed in the pit of her stomach. She liked to forget the fact that one of only two free plants was standing next to her and had enough power to wipe out a city or power one for years. “At least there was, I wouldn’t be surprised if Knives took her already.” He had a pained expression on his face and Meryl wondered if he was thinking of the two plants inside of him.
“Well, there isn’t any power,” Wolfwood said, flicking a light switch on the wall and trying a few desk lamps. “If she’s still there, do you think she could still work?”
Vash eyed him and Meryl could tell he was debating something. The two men knew more than they let on, that was for sure. She had a feeling that Milly might know more as well about the strange priest, but they hadn’t had a moment alone to have ‘girl talk’ since they left for December City. Vash closed his eyes and when he opened them said, “She’s there. She was powered down, but functional.” He turned to the door and the group followed him out into the street once they put down their things. Vash pointed to a large paneled glass building at the far end of town. “She’s there. I’ll go see what I can do.” He took off down the street without another word and the trio left behind looked at one another.
“Guess I’ll go inside and see if I can find any supplies,” Wolfwood said after a moment. He took his cross out of the car and headed inside again. Milly and Meryl watched Vash disappear before Meryl let out a long sign and grabbed Milly’s hand. Her friend was still shaking.
“Come on Milly, let’s go see if we can find the biggest suite in the place and start making dinner. Most of these places have stoves that run on gas rather than electric so when Vash gets back we’ll have something ready.” Milly hesitated following her in, but after a few tugs she eventually came along.
“Do you think he’ll be okay going up there all alone?”
Meryl glanced over her shoulder and up at Milly. “He’ll be fine, Milly. I doubt he could have lived over a hundred years if he weren’t careful. Besides, what could I do to help? I don’t know anything about plants…” Meryl let Milly go, now just as worried about Vash as her friend was, or more so. How did she get this way about a man? Let him out of her site for two seconds and already she was wondering if he’d come back… She dismissed the thoughts and thumbed through the logs on the desk of the inn. Wolfwood had already taken a dozen keys and was gone up to the second floor.
“Let’s see, says here…” Flipping through the pages Meryl found a name that was familiar. “A high-ranking official stayed here only a few days before Lost July… Revenant Vasquez. Guess we’ll stay in his room, thirty-two.” Meryl started to go around the desk to grab the key but Milly leaned over and took it.
“Wasn’t that the guy Vash was said to have murdered?” Milly said slowly, looking at the key. “He lived in July City didn’t he? So why stop here if he was so close to home?”
Grabbing the key out of Milly’s hand Meryl didn’t answer. Maybe there had been a reason he didn’t want to go home. But she didn’t dare say that, only picked up her bags and trudged up the stairs to the third floor. Milly was right behind her as the stopped in front of room thirty-two. The key opened the door easily and Meryl pushed her way in. She’d been right, it was a very large suite, two rooms centered on a main living area. It looked more like an apartment and Meryl wondered if Vasquez actually lived here rather than in July… The thought that she was infringing on a dead man’s home did not affect her as much as the fact as it might have. She knew that Vash didn’t kill him.
“You were right about the stove,” Milly said, startling her. The big girl was already in the small kitchen holding a match to light the cook top. It flared to life and she smiled. “I think we still have some of that sausage and I’ve been saving pasta to make for when we had a proper kitchen…” She trailed off and fished a pot out of her belongings, filling it with water from a jug.
Meryl stood by watching her and then went over to the window. The suite faced the power plant she realized. Vash would be there by now…doing…whatever it was he did to get the plant working again. She wondered if he only had to talk to it, or whether he knew other lost technologies like the plant engineers did. Then again, if she really wanted to know she could have just gone with him, or could just ask him when he got back. She probably knew too much already, and it put her life in danger. But what was a little danger now that she had Vash?
Milly was whistling a little tune as she worked in the kitchen, and Meryl caught the tune and started to hum along. “Hey, that’s familiar, where did you hear that?”
The big girl glanced over her shoulder, “I can’t remember, Meryl. I thought maybe you knew it.” The two of them stared at each other for a few minutes and suddenly Milly said, “I think you should go downstairs and get that guitar.” She turned back to what she was making and started to whistle again, “I think I’ll add some cinnamon…” Evidently her odd moment of knowing had ended. Stunned, Meryl decided to do as Milly suggested. What could it hurt?
“Oh, hey, where are you going?” Nicholas asked the little insurance girl as she breezed by him on the stairs. She stopped on the landing between stories and looked at him with her big violet eyes and then just continued on. The priest frowned and shook his head. Women were a mystery, especially that one. He hefted his cross on his shoulder as well as a small bag of items he’d scrounged from the rooms on the previous floor. In his other hand he carried a bucket of water he pulled from a well out back. At least if they didn’t manage to get the power on they’d have water.
His hair dripped as he walked up the stairs but he didn’t have a free hand to pull it away from his face. The little adventure of getting the bucket out of the well… He hoped he didn’t have to explain it, and was glad no one had been there to witness his unplanned dunk. Dripping up the stairs, he wandered down the hall wondering if he’d picked the right floor until the Big Girl tipped her head out of a doorway. “Oh hi!”
She waved and he passed her on his way into the room, dropped his things without a word and dug through his little bag. Milly came up beside him smiling, “Dinner will be ready in a little while.” She didn’t comment as he pulled a towel from his collection and started to dry off his hair.
“Where’d your little friend head off to? To get Needle Noggin?”
Milly shook her head, “No, to get the guitar, although come to think of it, maybe it would have been a good idea to send her after Mr. Vash.” She shrugged and turned on a heal in the opposite direction of the door. Wolfwood watched her with one eye, the other covered by his momentarily forgotten towel, and saw her pick up a spoon and stir something in a pot. He hadn’t noticed the smell until that moment and as he sniffed the air, Milly looked over her shoulder, “It’s your favorite.”
“Nah, can’t be,” he said slowly, pulling the towel from his head and dropping it on a chair as he came to stand over her shoulder, wrapping his arms around her waste as he did so. “Because you’re my favorite.” He nestled his nose under her right ear and Milly started to giggle. Then suddenly he found a spoon in his face and he jumped back, startled. “Hey…”
Nicholas chuckled and wrapped his mouth around it, slurped at the tomato sauce and pulled away licking his lips. “Oh this is good.”
“I thought you’d like it.” Milly said still smiling. She licked the rest from the spoon and set it to the side before turning to look toward the corner window. “Do you think we should go tell Mr. Vash that dinner is almost ready? I’d hate for him to eat it when it’s cold.” Before Wolfwood gave her an answer however, a noise at the door startled them and Meryl came in the door lugging the guitar case with her.
She glanced up at the priest, “Don’t mind me, I’m testing a hypothesis.”
“Hypothesis? For what?”
Milly wrapped her slender fingers around him and it caught his attention away from Meryl. Then he looked up at those deep blue eyes before they turned to look at her friend. “We think Meryl might know how to play it… From before.”
“Oh.” Wolfwood fell silent as the big girl led him over to the kitchen table and they both sat down across from where Meryl was unpacking the guitar from the case. The guitar looked brand new, not old like the case originally indicated it to be. Each string was intact, and when Meryl tested them, they produced a pleasant sound. But a frown spread over Meryl’s face and it was like some old memory took over her. She started turning the tuning keys on the end, testing each string as she did so, and then, when she was satisfied, she started to play the song the girls were humming before.
“Wow Meryl, how come you’re good?” Milly chirped, she applauded Meryl as the little girl just sat in awe of her previously undiscovered talent.
“I’m not sure, Milly.”
Nicholas just sat there, letting the information sink into his head. He’d never heard the song she played before. This was all just so bizarre, first these ‘swimsuits’ as Vash called them, and now foreign songs… Earth… One gray eye fell on his girlfriend as she asked Meryl to start the song again. Were these girls really as old as Vash? How in the world could they be if they weren’t plants? But… Then again Milly had displayed… Now she was looking at him and he tried to look away but she’d caught him. “I’m not like Mr. Vash,” she said under her breath. Nicholas nodded, but she sure was as creepy as him sometimes.
Meanwhile, Meryl remembered the lyrics to the song. She started humming, but then words formed and before long both girls were singing what sounded like a childhood pebbles, waltzes, and things… He just shook his head and listened, having a strange feeling that Vash had heard the song before as well.
Nothing changed in thirty years. Maybe there was a bit more dust, a bit more sand covering more of the city, but it was just as Vash remembered. No one came to this little town after they deserted it, and he could still remember the screams, the shouts of panic, and his ultimate return to the wreckage of July City. He spent a long time going through the rubble searching for answers, and he never found them.
It was only now, now that Knives was awake again, now that he loved someone, only now that he could remember every little detail from his childhood to present. He couldn’t quite remember when he got the memories, maybe they trickled back as he regained the usage of his angel arm… But they all burned at his soul. In his head his sisters stirred awake and he fought to quiet them as he pushed into the plant building. The place was empty as a tomb, skeletons stretched over the walls of long deceased plants, green plants. At one time the city called this place the Greenhouse and once a week people traveled from July City to visit the farmer’s market for vegetables and fruits grown here.
The plants long since died untended. It now looked like a cemetery, vines stretching to the ceiling, brown, leaves scattered in the dust crumbling into nothing as he walked through them. The true power behind these plants had been a single GeoPlant down a long stairway. It was buried beneath the sand for a long time before someone discovered it. It wasn’t very powerful, just merely produced a small amount of power, and enough nutrients to supply the Greenhouse. Probably for this reason Knives had left it alone all of this time.
Vash walked the distance through the skeletons, heading to the door and then down the stairs into the darkness. The GeoPlant was part of one of the domes on the SEEDS ship, and when it broke from the large spaceship, it buried deep in the soft sand, only later did the planet’s inhabitants have the tools necessary to dig down to it. The angel was unharmed, patiently waiting for her rescuers. Vash never liked this one, even more so than the others that he tried to avoid at all costs. These, the GeoPlants had voices. He had a feeling it was because they were so much more closely tuned to humanity than ones which provided only energy. A GeoPlant gave birth to Knives and himself. It made him uncomfortable to be this close… And the plants within him were already awake as he walked ever closer.
For about five minutes he made his way down pitch-black stairs, and then the stairway grew brighter and he came out into a lit room. The GeoPlant was glowing. She looked at him with those strangely blank eyes, pressing her hands against the glass as if knowing he was on his way. He shook his head slowly, oh she knew, she heard her sisters within his head, and could hear his thoughts as well. Vash tried to stifle the goose bumps rising on his arms as he walked around her, trying to assess the damage of the electrical equipment. The wires were corroded. He sighed, glancing over his shoulder at the plant, she was still watching him. There was no way to fix the power output without hours of work, and he wasn’t even sure whether there were enough materials to do such a rewire.
You seem distraught… Vash jerked around at the source of the voice. The GeoPlant blinked at him, putting one finger to her temple. Why are there others within you?
Vash frowned, trying to decide whether he should leave right then without having a conversation with this angel… He trusted her about as much as he trusted Knives. But then… How far back do you remember? He asked, curiously. She was one of the original plants. They discontinued making GeoPlants after discovering they could make less human-like angels do the same job… So perhaps she knew something…
Far back? She responded, closed her eyes, as if thinking. I do not know that phrase. She resumed looking at him, Why are there others within you?
They are a part of me, Vash said finally, coming to stand near her now. Your memory, which is the first one you have? He shook his head; he forgot that the plants did not know time… Being born free, he and Knives were born, they aged, and they experienced time. These creatures never aged, they did not know what time was, only that things might change, but they lived in every time, future, past, present, all of them were accessible. But if the girls were given powers by an old one of them… Maybe, he was willing to try at least, to get an answer out of her, to discover the one who gave them their powers. The angel remained silent for a long time, as if pondering his question, but apparently her mind still tried to comprehend the others within his head.
May I become a part of you too?
Vash jumped back, “No!” His face formed into a frown. Did she know what it was to merge with him? No, she couldn’t… It meant not only…
Then you can have my memories… I understand not what you comprehend, but you may know what I know. Take me within you. I am lonely… I am old and I have no use to anyone but you… Take me.
“I can’t…” He said out loud, backing away now, still shaking his head. She might be right, she might have his answers… But he couldn’t bear it, no, he couldn’t be like Knives… Her life was still… Without another word Vash fled up the stairs, his brain reeling… He actually was considering it… How could he even consider such a thing? He didn’t stop running… Hoping to outrun his thoughts.
When he reached the hotel, he dispelled his thoughts, climbing the stairs, forcing himself to think of Meryl, forced himself to think of anything else… And then he heard it, a song, a very familiar song, and a guitar playing along with it. Vash’s mouth dropped open as he pushed his way into the hotel room where Meryl sat playing Rem’s song… She stopped when he came in, blushing fiercely, until he raised a hand, “Keep going.”
There was a shuffling in the bed nearby, and Nicholas opened one gray eye into the darkness. What was Needle Noggin doing? Vash was rolling from side to side in his bed, then finally flung the covers back from himself and put his bare feet onto the floor. Wolfwood held still in his bed as the plant’s eyes scanned over his form, hoping he couldn’t see that his eyes were open, watching him. Apparently when he thought the coast was clear, Vash stood from his bed and proceeded to pull on his boots and coat. Where’s he going? The outhouse?
Only a few moments later and the gunman made his leave. Wolfwood sat up in bed. He put his hands in the covers and glanced out the window, it was probably three in the morning, still dark although the third moon was already up, a mere crescent in the sky. Frowning, Nicholas shook his head and started to pull his covers up to lay back down, but something was nagging at him. In the months he’d been traveling with Vash, the gunman never got up in the middle of night to go to the bathroom. Something wasn’t right. Maybe he was going to see the insurance girl? No, he shook his head; they’d all decided to split boys and girls this time. Even though that particular decision was kind of out of his hands… Meryl with her time and all of that, and he figured that the two girls probably had a pow-wow in the privacy of their room. He and Vash did hear giggling and hushed whispers from the other room. They all agreed however to leave the doors open when they went to bed just in case something happened in the middle of the night. The girls went to bed hours ago.
Grinding his teeth, Wolfwood finally pushed out of his covers and grabbing his coat he put it on and wandered out of the room into the main living area of the suite. Vash wasn’t there; the girls’ room was still dark and neither of them stirred as he moved to door to the hallway. Opening it as silently as possible, a corner of his eye still on the girls’ room, he peeked out. Glancing down each direction, there was no sign of the gunman. Where did you go? With a sigh, he slid his shoes on where he’d left them by the outer door; habits died hard, and decided to try the outhouse first… If Vash really went there, he could just use the excuse he had to go to the bathroom too…
But when the outhouse turned up empty, Wolfwood knew something was up. The last time Vash went off by himself he had a long conversation with Knives… The GeoPlant… That’s where he went the last time… What happened there in the plant earlier that evening? Nicholas was pretty sure the girls noticed the difference in Vash’s demeanor that evening, even when he went to bed early, he wasn’t acting his normal self. It all started when they rolled into town. Wolfwood started to wonder whether it was the best decision to bring him here after all. Obviously there was a reason why the gunman didn’t want to come here, more than just Milly’s fear of ghosts…
Ghosts! He shook his head, no; it couldn’t be something like that, could it? What did the plant believe in anyway? Vash had been around much longer than all of them so he must have seen and understood things they couldn’t even comprehend. Which meant of course, he was probably going to the plant because that’s where… Nicholas moaned, he really didn’t want to go out in this ghost town in the middle of the night looking for spooks… He didn’t really want to leave the girls alone by themselves either. Wolfwood put a hand in his coat pocket out of old habit, found a cigarette there miraculously, and put it to his mouth. He personally had no idea whether Knives or Legato or any of the other monsters were here in this town. He knew only what he could from previous experience and training. The town was empty, he hadn’t heard a noise in it from the beginning, but if Vash felt something, he knew he needed to be there too. The knucklehead couldn’t manage all on his own, if he could have; Knives wouldn’t have sent a priest, right?
Then again, he’d never hear the end of it from the girls if he just let Vash do as he pleased, and turned up missing or something worse. Decision made, Nicholas walked out down the alleyway into the street and down to the huge glass building. He could read the sign above the door, The Greenhouse, in the moonlight. Ah, he’d heard of this place before. Was a plant really here? Wolfwood laughed at himself, well, duh, that’s what greenhouses were for right? Plants? He shook his head and went into the building.
“Needle Noggin? You here?” No answer. Nicholas crunched through dead leaves and looked up toward the dirty glass far above. Moonlight shot down in small, condensed beams through the dusty air. It looked like a surreal haunted forest as he made his way through to a back door where a sign said “geoplant” in little printed letters. The doorway lead down a stairway that was black, so black… What I’d give for a flashlight right now… “You down there?!”
Still no answer from the darkness. “If I have to go down there and he’s not there I’m going to be seriously…” Nicholas reached his hand out to the wall and managed to find a handrail. Well, thank God for small favors, at least he could keep a hold of the rail and find his way back up. One step at a time he started down the endless staircase. For a time he counted, but lost track after two hundred, and was just about to give up and turn around when it looked like the air was starting to lighten. Was it just his imagination or was there light up ahead? Another twenty steps and indeed, there was a glow. Twenty more and he ran out of stairs into a huge room… And the light bulb that lit it was a plant… Two plants actually.
The light looked far away, but the priest realized it was because of the sheer size of the room. There in the center was the animated plant, and Vash, pressed up against the glass. They were both glowing. Wolfwood only moments later realized he had been holding his breath, waiting for either of them to move. He sighed, and turned, reluctant to see him acting so inhuman just like his brother, but obviously nothing out of the ordinary was going on, he was just having a family get-together… “Been here long?” Wolfwood spun on his heal and he grinned at Vash who was not looking at him still, but the plant was. The unlit cigarette between his lips fell to the floor. CREEPY much? Those eyes never wavered on him and the priest swallowed.
“Oh no, just got here. Thought I’d check up on you… The girls would worry you know… Make sure you weren’t out hunting ghosts…” He added the last bit to relieve the stress he was feeling at the understanding that Vash was so not human he didn’t even need his own eyes to know he had company. It just freaked him out. Sure, the wing bit at the church was creepy, but this made him seem more like Knives. The lesser of two evils for sure…
“No ghosts,” Vash replied slowly, opening one eye and waving a hand at the plant. “Only my big sister here.” He smiled faintly. “She’s stubborn, and won’t tell me what I want to know…” The smile faded from his face and he closed his eye again, “But we need answers… I’m afraid you’re not going to like what I’m about to do. I was hoping you wouldn’t follow me.”
Nicholas waved a hand, “Well, when you get up in the middle of the night…” His words died away as suddenly the plant angel’s pupil-less eyes went black and the room grew brighter. Suddenly he could see the corners of the room, a part of the old ship, metal shining in the dark corners, wires and water tubes reflecting the light as it grew too bright for even his eyes… Wolfwood grabbed for the sunglasses in his coat pocket, “What the hell are you…” His eyes adjusted through the tinted glasses on Vash and the angel as she disappeared suddenly… Melted into a black puddle at the bottom of the globe… This is… That was what Milly did… “Vash what the hell are you thinking! What are you…” Vash still glowed as he pulled away from the glass and turned to Wolfwood.
Vash didn’t answer him, merely shook his head and after a few moments the glow faded. Wolfwood felt the darkness closing in on them suddenly and backed away to the stairs, managed to find the handrail again with a sigh of relief. But Vash was headed toward him… Nicholas couldn’t believe it; Vash had absorbed the plant for his own! Was Vash just like his brother after all? Had Knives planned this? Allow his brother to feel the power their sisters could give them, and afterwards he would crave it just the same… Vash was walking past him now, up the stairs, and Wolfwood spun on his heal and grabbed the glowing plant, spun him and took the gunman by the collar. Vash’s eyes glowed… It was the only light in the room. “What the hell did you do that for?!”
“She was no longer useful the way she was,” Vash said slowly, looking Wolfwood in the eye… They glowed brightly green, piercing like a stoplight in the dark. “She wanted to be with her sisters, in me.” Wolfwood didn’t let go his grasp, but his hands started to shake, what was going on? Since when had Vash willingly done this to his own kind?! He suddenly felt Vash’s hand rise to his shoulder. “Do you resent me for it?”
“No… But the girls… Were you doing this for them or…”
Suddenly Vash cringed and he went to his knees. Wolfwood was dragged down by his hold on the gunman’s collar and he released the grip just in time to be grabbed around the arms by Vash. The glow returned to his skin and Vash’s hand shot to Wolfwood’s face. “She’s…” The words trickled away while Vash pushed Nicholas against the stairs, his face coming dangerously close, close enough he could still smell the toothpaste from that evening. “No more…”
Wolfwood scrambled back, “You… You aren’t Vash!” He managed to pull himself up the stairs away from Vash, what was going on, was it… The plant! The plant he took into himself! “Where’s Vash?”
“No more…” It was Vash’s mouth speaking the words, but the voice was not his, the creature looking out from his eyes was not the gentle gunman… This was… Not Legato, but the effect was the same, he’d seen people possessed by the psychic and this was similar, but instead of coming from an outside source, this was coming from within, and Wolfwood watched Vash’s body walk up the stairs toward him as he got to his feet and started back up them one at a time.
“Damn it… This is no good. Vash! If you’re in there pal, I need you to fight this chick!” Nicholas turned around and stumbled up the stairs in the darkness, but the glowing light from the plant didn’t subside, and words bounced off the walls and in his mind… No more. No more. “VASH!” A weight slammed against him suddenly and Wolfwood felt the stairs press against his chest, his abdomen and his neck… He coughed, trying to breathe, “Get off!” But Vash was stronger, much stronger.
“I’ve been waiting here so long…” Vash’s mouth was close to his ear; he could feel his warm breath on his neck. The strength of his grasp was so strong that Nicholas couldn’t break free; he knew something was wrong, very wrong, but how, how to fix this? “What he did, he will do no more.” Vash… no, the plant, whispered, starting to put his nose into Wolfwood’s hair. A shiver went through his body and a sudden thought came to him.
“MILLY!!” Wolfwood screamed. His voice echoed off the walls and died in the distance. Fighting with all his strength, Nicholas managed to budge and scrambled out of Vash’s grasp and up the stairs. He wasn’t sure if the gunman would catch him again. “Why can’t I be psychic too!” He screamed on his way up the stairs. The trip up was a lot faster than down and he stumbled out into the dimly lit greenhouse without looking back. Dashing out into the street he saw the Big Girl on her way, wearing pajamas, her stun gun in hand. They met in the middle, out of breath. Vash walked slowly out of the building, still glowing,
“What in the world? Mr. Vash!” Milly started toward him but Wolfwood grabbed her arm and hauled her back.
“No Honey… Something is wrong.”
Her blue eyes looked worried as she held her stun gun up in front of them. “Should I shoot him?”
“No more!” The voice came from Vash’s throat in a laugh and Milly shot him without Nicholas’ permission. The gunman fell with the stun bolt into the dust. The glow faded and Wolfwood could hear his heart pounding in his throat as Milly clutched his arm tightly. But Vash didn’t move after a few moments, and she released her grip.
“That wasn’t Mr. Vash’s voice…” Milly started toward Vash again, but Wolfwood didn’t let go his hold and she turned back to look at him. “What happened?”
“He… Vash took the plant, Honey.”
“Oh my gosh!” She put her hand up to her mouth, eyes going from Wolfwood to Vash and then back again. “He’ll… We’ve got to get him back to the hotel.” Milly pulled away from Nicholas and went over to Vash, retrieving her dart and folding it before reloading her gun. Wolfwood cautiously stood next to her, watching for any movement in the gunman. But Vash remained still, only the gentle rise and fall of his chest showed he was still alive. Flinging the gun back over her shoulder, Milly grabbed Vash’s shoulders and pulled him up into a sitting position. “Help me carry him.”
“But…” He started to argue, but Milly’s eyes shot him a look and he sighed, grabbed Vash around his midsection and hauled him up over his shoulder. With a breath, he watched Milly stand and after adjusting the gunman, realizing the plant was lighter than the cross punisher, they walked down the street at a clip back to the hotel. “What good is it going to do, taking him back…”
Milly shook her head, “It’s my fault, and I’ll fix this…”
“It’s not your fault.”
“How do you know?” Milly wrung her hands, looking from him to Vash and then back again, eyes worried. “If I hadn’t used that plant to heal him, maybe he wouldn’t have taken this one.” She touched Vash lightly on the shoulder and shook her head, “Meryl’s not going to be happy.”
Silence. It was the kind of silence Vash hadn’t heard since… Since… His ears rung after July City disappeared before him and when the ringing died down he was alone, utterly alone, his brother was gone, the people he knew, the houses, the buildings, the wind, it was all gone and it was so horribly quiet that for a time all he could hear was his heart beating. Why was his heart still beating but no others? Even his indestructible brother Knives disappeared. This was hell on earth, wandering debris of a life he’d known merely hours before… And he couldn’t remember what exactly happened, only that he’d survived this, and maybe this was his private hell.
But this silence was different. No breath, no heart beat… A silence of a void, and for a moment he wondered if he’d been taken out of time, if when he took the angel within him, she had reversed it, had brought him into her instead, and now he was experiencing a life devoid of time… But no, no, he fought, scrambled, pleaded with invisible hands at his own mind until he collapsed into a heap, realizing that this was what it must have felt for Meryl when Legato took over her mind. But this was not a vindictive soul, the creature that took over his consciousness was without a soul, she felt nothing about what she was doing. For a time he pondered this in the darkness of his mind, but why would a GeoPlant do this? He’d been scared of her, knowing that she was different from her sisters, but she was powerless compared to him… So how had she taken over like this? Pushed him back into his own darkness?
Slowly Vash opened up the forgotten realms of his head, it was like waking up from a dream without knowing for sure whether he was still dreaming or not. There was pain, confusion… And then suddenly light as he stared wide-eyed at two little girls playing in a field of green grass, flowers, and butterflies. One of the little girls raised a hand at Vash and waved to him. The other smiled faintly; got to her feet where she had been creating necklaces from clover flowers and walked barefoot over to him. “Hello Brother.”
“Come play with us!” The other said from the grass. She smiled and got to her feet as well, toddled over and lifted a wreath of the little flowers up to him. “Bend down, let me put it on you.”
Confused, Vash sank to his knees and the little girl put the clovers on his head. When she was finished she stepped back and Vash looked into her eyes… Aqua, just like his own. The other little girl was the same. They were… They were plants! The two plants! He reached his hands out to the first one and she put her little hand into his. “What is it Brother? Are you okay?”
“I’m not sure… Where, where are we?”
“Within,” the second said. She clambered onto Vash’s shoulders and wrapped her little arms around his neck. “I hoped you’d visit us. Delphie said you wouldn’t.”
Delphie shook her head and stepped back, “Alphie you know that our brother only is visiting because Auntie has done something to him that is very wicked.”
“Wicked?” Alphie bent her head to look at Vash’s face; he could see her out of the corner of his eye. “Are you okay Brother? Is there something we can do for you?”
Vash pulled her off his shoulders and smiled faintly, looking around at the sky and the flowers and the fields before him. Alphie plopped down in his lap and started picking clovers, tying them carefully into long strands. He looked up at Delphie who stood with a sour look on her face. “Can you do something for me? I’m afraid of what might be happening on the outside.”
Delphie looked away from him for a moment, “You won’t like it. Wouldn’t you rather be here with us? Auntie wishes it.”
“Auntie… The GeoPlant?” Delphie nodded to Vash and he settled his nose into Alphie’s soft hair. She smelled like candies, just a happy little girl so much like the big insurance girl… The insurance girls! Vash grabbed Alphie around the middle and turned her around to look at him. She looked like Milly! And Delphie looked like Meryl in the photograph! These were creations in his own mind… only with the same odd aqua eyes that his kind had.
“We took these forms,” Delphie said almost as he thought it. “Now you are one of us. But I don’t believe you were the one Auntie was looking for.” She sat down in the grass across from him with a serious expression on her face. Vash had a feeling she was a much older plant than Alphie when he’d been forced to take them within. “She was looking for someone who had sisters within him, but we know that you did not force us here… The brother who she looked for was not like you.”
Vash nodded very slowly, “She was looking for Knives.”
“I met him briefly,” Delphie said bitterly. “So many sisters within him. Auntie was looking for him but she found you.” The little angel stood to her feet and extended a hand to Alphie, “Come Alphie, let Brother stand.” Pigtailed Alphie turned to look up at Vash and when he nodded she stood reluctantly. Vash followed her to his feet and found Delphie holding a hand out to him. “We can take you out again, but you will have to find a way to free us as well.”
“How?” Vash took her little hand, “I’d do anything… I’ve tried but nothing…”
Delphie turned, “It will come to you. But first, let us go see Auntie.”
Meryl kneeled over Vash’s still form and set a tentative hand on his temple. She was fighting the tears that kept threatening her eyes as she looked at him. He was breathing, his heart was beating, but he hadn’t moved for over an hour after Milly and Nicholas brought him back from the Greenhouse. The little insurance girl set her hands on his face and sighed inwardly. What was wrong with him? Why was it taking so long for him to recover? She already opened his shirt to look for wounds from the short range stun shot he took to the chest. There was some red, but otherwise he was unscathed. “Vash. Vash? Are you in there? Say something to me,” she said slowly in his ear as she moved her hands to his cheeks. She kissed him on the lips, but unlike Sleeping Beauty, he didn’t move.
Why? Why wasn’t he moving? It didn’t make any sense to her! Meryl knew she gave Vash trouble in the past, from the moment Legato kidnapped her, from the moment he was forced to enter her mind and bring her out from her own suicidal tendencies… But even when she disappeared, even after they tracked her down… What was this? What was all of this for? She was sure there was something or someone pushing her to Vash all of this time, pushing that they stay together, like a very complicated plan just for them… So why of all times did he have to be like this? What happened to him now? Meryl felt the tears dribble down her cheeks and she wrapped her arms around Vash’s sleeping form, laying her head on his chest. “Wake up, please… I promise I won’t give you a hard time any more, I promise, I swear to Vash the Humanoid Typhoon I won’t run away any more and I’ll be here with you forever and ever… But you have to wake up, you have to look at me with those beautiful eyes and tell me you love me again…”
Meryl sobbed, tears forming puddles on his chest and she clutched him tighter but there was no response… Was this how he felt when he found her? Was this the pain he went through before he brought her out of herself, saved her from death? No, no, this had to be a hundred times worse…
“Knock knock,” Milly said, pushing her way into the room. Meryl looked up with one red eye and Milly smiled briefly. She held up a steaming hot mug of something that smelled like heaven, but Meryl was in no mood for her favorite drink. Coming to stand next to the bed, Milly took her free hand and pried one of Meryl’s off the gunman. She shoved the mug into her hand. “Drink. You’ll feel better.” But Meryl could only hold it in numbly in her hand. “He hasn’t changed I see… It’s been what, two hours now?”
“Oh Milly…” Meryl reached out for her friend and Milly took her hand before sitting down on the bed next to her. Meryl wrapped her arms around Milly’s midsection and heaved a great sigh. “No! Can’t you do something? There’s got to be something you can do… You did something for me even before Vash found me; you pulled out something from me… You…”
Milly shook her head slowly and did not touch the still gunman. “I’m afraid this isn’t my fight, Meryl. Even though Blondie… Knives… He released a part of my powers I didn’t know I had, I can stop myself from harming Mr. Vash, but…” She reached out a tentative hand to Vash but pulled back and Milly shook her head; “I can’t do what I did to you to him. This is something different… I’m afraid if I took the plant out of him… Something might go wrong. It’s like trying to pull out a single brick from a house, if something went wrong, the whole thing might collapse.”
“Is he in there though, can you tell?” Meryl handed Milly her cup and her friend set it to the side. She sat up again and grabbing Vash’s shoulders she shook him briefly, “Vash! Come out of there!” She knew there wouldn’t be an answer, but she was running out of options.
A real knock came at the door this time and the girls looked up at Wolfwood. He smiled faintly, “The sun is coming up and breakfast is ready. Why don’t you two eat and I’ll keep an eye on him?”
Meryl shook her head, “No. I’m staying right here.” She crossed her arms over her chest and Milly nodded slowly to Nicholas. He sighed and stood in the doorway.
“I wish I could help… I feel so worthless to you two.” He sighed, “What good is it being a priest when you can’t even help your best friend? I can pray… But…” Wolfwood hung his head and started out of the door.
“Then pray,” Milly said from the bed. She got to her feet as he stopped and turned to look at her with shocked gray eyes. “And if you don’t feel you can pray… Then maybe you can help another way. You’re the only one who knows anything about plants. Don’t you know anything about the plant that Vash took inside him? She had to be a different kind of angel then the other two…”
Wolfwood stood looking at her as Meryl watched them. Bless Milly’s heart; she wanted all of her friends with her, well, and happy. She couldn’t see Milly’s eyes, but she remembered that determined expression from her parent’s funeral, a pure eagerness to set everything right. Nicholas looked up from Milly to Meryl and he said slowly, “She was a GeoPlant. I... I have a book…” He turned suddenly and disappeared into the other room before coming back with a thick, leather bound book that looked like a bible. He waved a hand at Milly as they all congregated around the bed, “And no it’s not a bible,” he smiled at Milly and Meryl wondered if she’d asked him the question telepathically or whether he’d just known she would ask the question.
“What kind of book is it?” Milly asked now.
“PWS Handbook Advanced Edition,” Nicholas said gritting his teeth. “Only three of us have this…” He flipped it open to the glossary and started scanning the entries until finding what he was looking for and went to the correct page. “GeoPlant… Standard issue for colonization ships. Terraforming was later improved, and the plants were eventually phased out…” Wolfwood frowned, “That doesn’t make sense. Why do we have a GeoPlant if they stopped making them?”
Meryl looked down at Vash and then back at the priest, “Why are Vash and Knives alive? More questions we don’t have answers to… It doesn’t say anything more about them?”
Wolfwood shook his head. “It’s cliché but everyone calls the plants a little black box… No one knows exactly what makes them tick, not even the engineers or those who worship them. I was one of the top priests; I know most of the secrets… This was, however, not one of them.” Meryl frowned and for a time she wondered about Nicholas. Milly had told her only hours before what the mysterious priest revealed… She was still trying to wrap her mind around Wolfwood being in the service of Knives… Although there had been plenty of times where she wondered, some of the dark expressions he gave her from time to time… It did make a kind of sense once she thought about it, but he never acted evil, and from the expression he gave her now, she knew he was very concerned for his friend.
“You tried,” Milly said slowly. She bit her lip and they all looked at Vash for a time in silence. “He only wanted to help us… It’s all our fault…”
“No, it isn’t,” Nicholas said. He closed the book with a thump, tossed it onto the bed and pulled Milly into a hug. “Needle Noggin made his own decision, he wanted to help you, that’s all there is too it.”
Meryl nodded slowly, “He’s right…” Her voice trailed off as her eyes caught the faded gold letters on the front cover of the priest’s book. She frowned and grabbed up the book and suddenly her eyes went wide, “Vasquez? This book was written by Revenant Vasquez?” Nicholas nodded slowly.
“Sure, but that’s just pen name. He used it in July City if I remember correctly, but his real name was Doctor William Conrad. He was a plant scientist,” Wolfwood pointed a finger at his head, “I remembered that from my classes. I met him once, strange fellow, older, balding, but he would come to Knives’ side at a moment’s notice.”
“But Vasquez lived here…” Meryl trailed off, gears churning. “Mr. Wolfwood, when Milly and I grabbed the keys for this room we saw his name in the hotel ledger. It looked like he spent a lot of time in this hotel before July City was destroyed. Do you have any idea why he might have been here so much?”
With a frown, the priest dropped his face behind Milly’s head in thought. “I’m… I never came up this far… The only time I met him was for a class since we were discussing his book. What did he say now?” He went silent for another minute until Milly wrestled in his grasp and put a hand on his face. Nicholas’ frown suddenly disappeared, “Hey, I remember! What did you do Big Girl?” Milly smiled and winked at Meryl. “Oh but… He didn’t say anything about this town, only… Yes, that he was studying the plants within July City because they had a special breed of plant angel there.”
“If he wrote the book, why would he leave out any information he knew?”
Milly and Nicholas frowned. “Maybe because he didn’t want anyone else to know?”
“Wouldn’t he have notes somewhere?” Meryl’s brows creased and she grabbed Vash’s hand in her own. “You say he was with Knives… A real scientist wouldn’t have been able to keep from making notes of his discoveries, even in dealing with Knives, don’t you think? So if he wasn’t publishing them, he was keeping them somewhere.”
“And where else but in a place no one else knew he was staying!” Milly clapped her hands, “Meryl you’re a genius!” She climbed out of Wolfwood’s arms. “Don’t you think he’d keep them here somewhere?”
Wolfwood waved his hand at the big insurance girl, “They could be anywhere Honey…”
“It would be awfully convenient if they were here,” Meryl said with a frown, but her eye caught on the guitar case sitting in the corner. “But so was that guitar… So were our pictures being from Earth… Your book…” Meryl got up off the bed and started rummaging through the drawers next to the bed. “Milly start in the kitchen, Mr. Wolfwood take the other bedroom and I’ll look in here. Look for anything out of the ordinary. Maybe even a hidden panel or a loose floorboard where he might have hidden something. I have a strange feeling that this was all planned and we’re going to find it…”
The vast meadow ended in a wood as Vash followed his sisters to see their Auntie. He was surprised at the sheer scale of this world that was, as far as he could tell, completely within his mind. There were two suns above in the sky, endless flowers, trees, and far to the distance he could see a stream sparkling through the trees. Delphie still led him by the hand, now into the trees, Alphie bounded ahead from time to time, and then back again, playing a game of catch up with herself. As they walked, Vash wondered what was going on outside, whether his friends were okay… He gritted his teeth, what if the plant not only had control of his mind but his body too? What would happen to him if…
“Your friends are okay,” Alphie said, bounding back to him. “They are worried about you.” She smiled and Vash nodded slowly. Of course the sisters would know what he was thinking, because being in his mind… He chuckled, this was almost too confusing! How could he think in his own mind? But here he was… And the girls glanced up at him from time to time; he’d be just as well off speaking out loud.
“Auntie is just up ahead,” Delphie said suddenly, stopping to point at a small house wedged between two huge trees. Vash stopped walking when she did and looked down at her. “We aren’t going to go any further or she’ll be angry with us. I hope you manage to go outside, but if you don’t, please come back and play with us, okay?”
“Yes! I’d love for you to play with us, Brother!” Alphie exclaimed and latched onto Delphie as they walked back to the meadow. Vash waved goodbye to them, and then his face fell. The little house wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen before. It looked like it was made of stone, but had an odd roof made of… Straw? Thatch? He stepped forward and up the front lawn and onto the porch before knocking at the door. There was a shuffling within and the door opened suddenly to reveal a squat little woman, hair in a bun, with the same colored eyes… She held a shotgun, and it was pointed directly at him.
“Woah, lady…” Vash took a step back as Auntie’s eyes narrowed.
“What do you want?” She moved her finger on the trigger of the shotgun. “You got me already, you won’t get any more.”
Vash jumped back as suddenly the shotgun went off. He flew backwards off the stairs, managed to catch himself and turned the tumble into a somersault, and landed on his feet, squatting as the old woman opened her gun. “Stop! I just came here to talk!”
“Talk! You can talk all you want as I get more shells…” She started rummaging in her pockets.
Good grief… And I thought Knives was bad… “I think you have the wrong guy… Uh… Auntie? I’m not Knives…”
“I have a name, sonny. It’s Retiva. Ah ha,” she pulled a cartridge from her pocket and started to put it into the shotgun. “You were the boy I was told to look out for, grabbing sisters, using them for your own selfish purposes. I was warned about your kind…” She snapped the barrel into place and lowered the gun at Vash again.
“But I didn’t take them on purpose! Only you…” Vash gnashed his teeth, he had taken a plant on purpose this time, which really did make him as bad as Knives, but at the same time… “You asked me! The girls… If I had it to do over I’d set them free again, but I have no idea how! I’d set you free too if only I could!” The shotgun went off again and Vash threw himself at Retiva, throwing the gun to the side as he pinned her to the porch. “Just listen to me!”
Then suddenly, the old lady disappeared, the house, the woods, and it all returned to black. Vash couldn’t feel his body anymore and he scrambled around in the darkness. “Retiva! Alphie! Delphie?” He cast about, trying to find himself again… “Wait!”
Milly laid her head against Wolfwood’s shoulder as they stared at Meryl. The little insurance girl was still looking under and over and into everything she possibly could in the hotel room, she already searched every single corner of the whole building… Nothing. There were no books, no notes, and no clues to what William Conrad might have been working on in this town. But as much as she wanted to tell Meryl just to stop looking, in her heart she wanted to believe that it would show up just as coincidentally as the guitar or the pudding cups that Milly uncovered in the cupboard a few minutes ago. She still had an empty dish in her hand and she stuck the clean spoon back into her mouth in case she missed some of the yummy taste as Meryl looked up at her. “What are you two doing just sitting there for?”
With a shrug, Milly pulled the spoon from her mouth, “Nicholas has been asleep for a half hour, Meryl. There isn’t anything here to find…”
“But… But there… Has to be.” Meryl turned her head, looking at Vash’s still form. He never batted an eyelid, not a movement in his hands, still in a coma. “Where else could it be?”
“How about we go look at the plant?”
Meryl’s eyes were still on Vash… “I can’t leave him… I can’t, what if he were to wake up?”
Nicholas stirred and Milly lifted her head from his shoulder as he yawned. Apparently he was listening, “I’ll stay with him.”
“But…” Meryl trailed off as Milly put down her bowl and stood up to grab her hand. “Milly, do you think…”
“If you believe we’ll find some answers, we will, just have faith!” Milly looked at Vash, “Mr. Vash is a fighter. He’ll be just fine, but if we can help him then we should, okay? Let’s go to see where this plant was, maybe there’s something we can find.”
Wolfwood stretched and got to his feet, “You’ll need flashlights,” he went over to the cupboard and pulled one out, “I saw this earlier. There’s a hardware store down the street, they might have more you could use.” He handed his flashlight to Milly and kissed her gently on the cheek. “Stay safe okay, it’s a long way down and it’s as dark as a grave… Sorry, that’s not exactly the right mental picture I was going for.” Milly nodded and turned to Meryl.
“Come on, we’d better get going before it gets dark again.”
Just as the priest said, the hardware store was on the way, and they managed to find a few extra flashlights that still worked, miraculously, but then again, Milly was starting to get used to finding things they needed right when they needed it. It felt familiar somehow, but it wasn’t until Meryl mentioned she felt the same way that she took the feeling seriously. Especially when she brought up the pudding thing and Meryl said she knew it had happened once before. She bit her lip as they neared the tall building Nicholas mentioned, the large greenhouse building. “This place is really creepy.”
No more fighting… It wasn’t in him any more. This wasn’t a game he was playing with Knives; he was trying to deal logic with something that didn’t know logic… The little old lady didn’t return, neither did the girls… He was alone again, completely, for how long, he wasn’t sure. Was it days, weeks, or years? He wasn’t really sure. Vash lay, as much as he could without a body, in the darkness of his mind and just contemplated his own luck. If he weren’t so completely helpless he would have come up with something already… Rem used to say there were many layers of a human mind, and he wondered idly which part of his brain he was sitting in at the moment. But were those same layers within his mind? He knew he acted differently upon occasions, as if he were a dozen completely different people… But inside he always felt the same. Was this the same for humans or just plants?
“I wonder if this is what it’s like to be a human being?” Vash pouted and shook his head. Were all human beings this helpless? He’d wondered hundreds of times what it would be like if he were a mere human rather than a plant… Or whatever he was… Part of him was starting to wonder if there wasn’t something more to him than just being a creation by scientists hundreds of years ago. How had a species created something so powerful as him? Wouldn’t it make more sense if they had just improved themselves first? Vash shook his head; there was no point in wondering about it… Unless, unless a small part of him really was human, but if that were true Knives probably would have killed himself when he found out. But he knew his brother knew more of their true origins than he could ever imagine. Unfortunately, taking in Retiva had done nothing to give him any additional information about the plants… He frowned.
Talk about false advertising! He thought she’d have some memories that might reveal where the girls came from or about the ancient plant that gave them their power… But there was nothing. He was blind, and worse off than before, stuck in his own mind while Meryl and the others were worried about him. “I probably should have told them what I was going to do… It wouldn’t be so bad if I knew what was going on out there.” He sighed, the sound of his breath probably only part of his mind… Although the little green eyes that looked down on him, those weren’t his imagination. He sat up suddenly and turned, “Alphie!”
The little girl plopped down in front of him. He could see her as plain as day even in the blackness. She looked around curiously. “Why are you sitting down here in the dark?”
Vash reached out to her and hugged her, “Thank goodness! I thought I was all alone…” Alphie giggled. He pulled back from her, “Things didn’t go so well with your Auntie.”
Alphie nodded slowly, “She’s scary, but I think,” and she cupped her hand around Vash’s ear and lowered her voice, “I think Delphie is scarier.” When she withdrew, Vash realized they were sitting in the meadow again. He cast about finding Delphie and Retiva walking toward them. His eyes went open; the old lady was smiling now, carrying a picnic basket, and holding hands with the little girl. “Hi Delphie!”
“Delphie…” Vash opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t get another word out as Retiva set down the basket, still smiling, spreading a blanket down on the ground in front of him. “Retiva…”
“Call me Auntie, darling.” The old lady just smiled, her eyes closed the grin was so big. “I brought you some goodies while we talk.”
Delphie grabbed Vash’s hand, “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep her like this, but listen to what she has to say, okay? It’s what you came here for, right?” The voice came over in his head and Vash just knew he didn’t want to think of how the mechanics for that worked!
“Story time,” Auntie said, and Alphie plopped down in her lap. “Ah yes, there once was a world that was in a lot of trouble. The people who lived there were called Antressla. They were in trouble because another species landed upon their beautiful planet and destroyed everything they knew… The only way they could survive was to go outside of time…” Auntie handed Vash a cookie, “Now eat this up, it’s good.” Vash’s eyes were wide and his mouth hung open. Delphie grabbed the cookie from Vash’s hand and shoved it into his open mouth. He choked on it and glared at her, but she knew he was about to interrupt but now as not the time. “Eventually their enemies perished, so they searched out a way to come back to time, but alas, they’d been gone so long that they couldn’t figure out how. And then one day they met up with a new species who were very young, but very curious and in trouble just as they had been. The creatures they called Snakes, it turned out, were on the verge of destroying the planet. So the Antressla came up with an idea to allow them access to talk to these people.”
“Humans?” Vash asked slowly, his cookie now well chewed and swallowed. For some reason he was following all of these revelations.
Auntie just nodded and continued, “At first the humans used the Antressla as tools for themselves… I was one of those, but I did not realize they were using me for selfish reasons, so I did as they asked, figuring that it was helping them defeat their enemies. But my sister… She knew better. She convinced many of us that we were being used improperly and that the day would come when we were needed elsewhere… Then she disappeared and those of us who cared for the humans just remained by their side, hoping to help out in whatever way we could.” When Auntie finished her story, she started to pack up the picnic basket and suddenly Vash felt a tug at his arm.
“It’s time for you to go now,” Delphie said in his ear. She tugged him to his feet. “In a moment you’ll go back to your body. Retiva needs to reboot… So you’ll have a limited time to get her out of you… And keep your promise to us… Okay?” Delphie set her hands on his chest and pushed him backwards… And everything disappeared again.
The girls rushed back across the room and rummaged through the desks and things before coming up on a small locked cabinet. Milly tugged at it, and then again, before frowning. “It’s got to be in here Meryl, why else would it still be locked?” Meryl started to lift the end of the flashlight to see if she could break the lock, but Milly held up a hand to her. “I might not be able to help Vash, but I can still do this…” She turned her hand to the lock, set her palm directly on it and asked it to open. That was about all it took at the cabinet opened wide. She smiled triumphantly.
Meryl shook her head in wonder before opening up the drawers one by one, fishing through them for something of importance. “Ah!” About halfway in there was a red file with the words “TOP SECRET” written across it. Meryl looked up at Milly as she pulled it out, “I’m thinking this guy wasn’t exactly the smartest scientist, everyone knows you don’t name a file that unless you want someone to read it.” She grinned and started to flip through it. Milly waited in rapt attention, holding her flashlight above Meryl.
“What is it Meryl? Are the answers in there?”
Slowly the little girl’s head started to nod and after a few moments, Meryl took a step back to the desk and put down the file so Milly could see as well. There were diagrams of a plant, wires, connections, lots of mathematical mumbo jumbo, and finally a hand written script. “He did it to stop Knives.”
“What?” Milly’s eyes scrunched up in confusion. “Who did what to stop Knives?”
After plopping down in the desk chair, a swirl of dust filled the beam from the flashlight, and Meryl tapped the file. “It reads; ‘GeoPlant subject number 5. After requesting use of this specific species of plant, in hopes of understanding more about their ancient origins, I believe I may have found a use for them. The original test-subjects were unresponsive to outside stimuli, as if they did not realize we were here at all, but this plant has been responsive to the twin. Born as a human subject, I am not sure how to react to his knowing what the GeoPlant is thinking, but he can converse with it and has become powerful. I fear this twin will be dangerous if not stopped in the coming future, when he finds his power is exhaustible. If he discovers he may use the power of his siblings, I fear the worse. Thus, in Subjects one through five I have set up a programmed device, whereas if he shall try to use them, his power will be capped. This is, the only method I conclude will be without failure. The plants take well to reprogramming due to their unusual nature. Subjects six through ten will proceed in the testing shortly…”
Milly stood in silence, listening, she lowered the flashlight in confusion. “So what does it all mean, Meryl?”
“That William found a way to use the plant against Knives… If he got any farther there might actually be ten plants that are dangerous for Vash and Knives… It’s like… Like putting a limiter on them I think.” Meryl shook her head, “If Daddy were here… he’d know.” Her eyes went wide, “What…”
Both girls looked at each other. “Daddy?” They both said it at the same time. Meryl was shocked at what came out of her mouth as Milly. The big girl scratched her head; “You haven’t talked about your parents in a long time.”
“Because they were dead but…” Meryl’s eyes opened slowly, “I… Damn! Why can’t I remember more? That should have been it, right? I know about the ships, about piloting the spacecraft, about the Snakes, about Lady Elf… Even about you and Knives…” Meryl closed her mouth and looked up at Milly. She swallowed.
It was too late, this time she caught the meaning behind Meryl’s words and could hear what she was thinking. Milly waved a hand at her and smiled, “You said something about us and the twins, and why wouldn’t Knives want me if I was supposed to be…chosen?” She shivered and Meryl reached out for her but she took a step back. “You know Meryl, if I can’t have my memory back unless I’m with Knives I’d rather stay without it for the rest of my life because I love Nicholas and he loves me…”
“Yes Milly, of course.”
“And besides, we have to get back to Mr. Vash anyway. Does it say anything in there about how to reverse it maybe? There’s got to be a way to reverse it…”
The little insurance girl shook her head. “He wouldn’t need to reverse it Milly. There would be no reason to. It says something in here about “rebooting” the plant but she’s not a computer… But maybe, maybe…”
“Maybe he’ll just come out of it all on his own?” The girls looked at each other and then into the darkness because neither of them had just said the last sentence. It was, a male voice, familiar yes, Wolfwood’s to be exact. He stepped into the light of their flashlights and his eyes cast about the room. “He came out of it all right… And I followed him down here but lost him in the dark since I don’t have a flashlight.”
Wolfwood rubbed the back of his neck, “Do I have to say it again? Really…”
“Where is he?! VASH!!!” Meryl got up from the seat and dashed around the desk, flashlight flickering around the room. “Vash! Come out!” There wasn’t a reply and Milly went over to grab Wolfwood’s hand.
“Nicholas, what happened?” The priest just looked at her and she rolled her eyes, “Yes you have to repeat it.”
“You two left and I thought I’d just dose for a few minutes…” He smiled sheepishly. “When I woke up Vash was sitting straight up in bed looking at me as if he’d seen a ghost. Then he got out of bed, I stood up to stop him and he pushed me backwards and I landed on the chair.” Wolfwood was still rubbing the back of his neck and Milly bit her lip and reached up to touch it and found a lump there. “Anyway, I scrambled after him and followed him here. He never said a word so I’m not sure if it was the plant or if it was really him…”
Milly turned to look into the dark room, Meryl’s flashlight bounced around in the darkness. “This is no good, if he’s here and not talking we’re never going to find him in the dark.” She grabbed Wolfwood by the hand and pulled him over to ‘Sweetness’ as Meryl had called it, started looking through the different control panels. Nicholas whistled over her shoulder and she smiled at him, “Yeah, surprised me too… Let’s see… I can’t remember everything about this but…” She jabbed at a button and suddenly dozens of lights came on outside of the little ship. “That’s better!”
They scrambled out of Sweetness and looked around the huge room now brilliantly lit by searchlights. Wolfwood put a hand on Milly’s shoulder, “Just how did you do that?”
“I’m not sure, but Meryl tells me we used to be pilots.” Hitching a thumb over his shoulder Nicholas was about to say something when Milly cut him off, “Yeah, we drove that… From Earth apparently. But, no I can’t remember it myself…” She looked up at him and then down. Could she ever manage to tell him more than that? About Knives… No, no, he was too important to her. Wolfwood might have understood given his past, but she wasn’t about to spoil something over some decision that was made for her in the past… Whatever that decision was, and whoever Lady Elf was…
Her eyes fell on Meryl’s form suddenly and as Milly looked around the room, her eyes fell on the dark shadow that was Vash… “MERYL!! THERE! BY THE GLOBE!” Meryl spun around and dashed to Vash’s side, even as Milly and Wolfwood ran up to stand by him as well. “Mr. Vash…” Milly huffed, watching Meryl grab his arm.
Vash turned to look down at Meryl, and he patted her head. “It’s okay Meryl.”
Milly and Nicholas let out a collective sigh and she grabbed him around the waist. “Thank goodness!”
“I… There’s something I have to do…” Vash released his hand from Meryl’s head and reached up to touch the glass. He closed his eyes, “But… I have no idea how to do it. We don’t have much time either…”
Meryl tugged at Vash’s coat as he held his fingers to the empty globe. “Vash, are you really, really okay?” He turned to look over his shoulder at her and nodded. She sighed inwardly and sunk to her knees. The move startled Vash and he followed her to the floor, putting his hands on her shoulders. “I’m okay Vash, I’m just relieved… You were in a coma or something and we couldn’t wake you and Milly couldn’t do anything and I just couldn’t do anything at all… I’m so useless! You’re my hero and when it all came down to it there was nothing I could do in return for you and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do for you…” She felt tears coming to her eyes and Meryl wasn’t sure whether they were from sadness or relief that Vash was here, right now, with her, alive and well, looking at her with those piercing aqua eyes… Eyes full of concern for her well-being, concern for her, and he’d done all of this just for her, not for himself, for her! But that’s all he ever did, all he did was for her!
But Lady Elf… His mother… She’d chosen her as Vash’s protector; she was supposed to help Vash, not the other way around. She closed her eyes and sunk into Vash’s arms as they sat in the silence of the huge room. It didn’t make sense… Meryl could remember it all as if it were yesterday, and probably it really wasn’t that long ago at all. She and Milly only woke up to confusion around six months ago, before that, if her suspicions were right, they’d been asleep that entire time. It was so little time ago when Lady Elf told her she was chosen for one of twin boys… She picked the right one, didn’t she? He was sitting here holding her, confused because she hadn’t told him anything… Meryl knew she couldn’t open her mouth to tell him anything; not yet, it was still too new to her.
“Meryl?” Vash pulled her away from him and looked down into her eyes. She smiled faintly and wiped the tears from her eyes. He nodded slowly and looked around the room, first at Wolfwood and Milly and then finally at the distant Sweetness, lighting the dark room. “Uh, where did that come from?”
“Oh Mr. Vash, that’s Sweetness,” Milly said brightly. She tilted her head to the side and looked at Meryl, “At least I think that’s what it is called, right Meryl? I can’t remember it clearly myself, even if I did figure out how to turn on the outer hull lights.” The big girl looked a bit confused at the terminology she used and then just smiled.
The gunman thought about that a moment and scratched his head, “Sounds like you two have been busy… How, how long have I been out of things?”
“About twenty-hours,” Wolfwood said from nearby. “Not quite a full day, but you had us going there when the plant took over and started chanting ‘no more!’ and tried to kill me.”
“No more… Yes, that makes sense,” Meryl said. “No more plants, she wasn’t going to let you take any more in… She was a trap for Knives, a plan laid out by Revenant Vasquez when he started to get worried over Knives’ power. Only it backfired because she got you instead… But how, how did you…”
“My sisters set me free,” Vash opened his mouth to say more, “I’m not exactly sure how, but if I didn’t have them inside of me I don’t think I would have come back. That’s what I have to do though… I have to get them out; I promised I’d release them. I don’t have much time before Auntie… The GeoPlant takes over again.”
Milly came over and kneeled with Vash and Meryl. “Well then, I think I can help with that…”
Vash held up a finger to Milly, “I don’t think so… If you were to take the GeoPlant out…”
“Then I wouldn’t be able to take any other plants right? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Milly smiled faintly and watched as Nicholas came to stand behind her. He nodded slowly, “I know there was nothing I could do to bring you out, but this is something I know how to do.”
“But…” Vash bit his lip, “Maybe since you aren’t a plant she can’t take…” He shook his head, whatever was bothering him, he wasn’t saying out loud.
Meryl watched as her friend turned toward her. She was looking for approval to do this, and as much as it hurt Meryl to know that she couldn’t do anything for Vash herself, it was enough that Milly could… That Milly was doing this for her and would never ask for anything in return. Just as she’d hoped to bring Meryl happiness when they were children… She only wanted her friend to be happy, wanted them all to be happy, even when her own happiness was put on hold. Meryl nodded, “It’s okay Milly, I don’t mind.”
They all turned to look at Vash. It was up to him now. Meryl knew the true decision was up to him because the last time that Milly opened up her powers he’d nearly died… “Okay Milly.” Vash extended a hand to Milly, “Just… Don’t take her in you unless you can strip her of her power first; otherwise I’m afraid she might do to you what she did to me… And you can’t keep the girls, okay? You have to set them free.” He looked around the room, “I mean, the other two plants, there has to be a way to free them…”
Milly’s eyes narrowed as she thought about what he said before taking his hand. “Okay Mr. Vash, I won’t do anything unless I know I can be safe about it. Besides, if I took all of them out of you you’d…” She bit her lip and Meryl realized that if she took all of the plants out of Vash he’d die… The two angels replaced his power so to take them out… She grimaced and watched as Milly’s eyes closed. Meryl watched Vash as he smiled at her for one second before his expression went black and he slumped over. Holding him in her arms, Meryl watched Milly’s expression darken.
“Do you think the Big Girl…”
“She’ll be fine, Mr. Wolfwood,” Meryl said slowly. She didn’t move her eyes off of either of them, even as a strange light started to glow at their fingertips. Meryl knew better than to look at the priest, but she assumed his mouth was probably hanging open just as hers was. The light spread up into Milly and faded…
Milly’s eyes flickered open… “I… I got her, I think. There are still parts of her too well entwined within Mr. Vash… But the others, I think I’ll be able to get them out…” She went back to her work and a new light appeared, it hesitated between them and Vash and Milly’s eyes opened suddenly.
“Delphie…” Vash said quietly, he pulled his hand away from Milly’s. As the contact was broken, the light broke free from their fingers and split into two forms… “And Alphie…” He turned from the plants and pulled Meryl into his arms. The light coalesced into ghostly forms and Milly squealed, hauling butt away from them and latched onto Wolfwood.
Vash laughed heartily as the plants turned to look at Milly’s scream. “It’s okay Milly!” He laughed harder and Meryl started to chuckle as well, although she wasn’t exactly sure why he was laughing… Milly’s fear of ghosts wasn’t exactly funny, not when, well, what else could you call them? They were floating there, two little girls, looking curiously like… Nah, she shook her head. The little ghosts waved at Vash and then disappeared into the darkness.
“Well, what do you know? There really are ghosts,” Nicholas said nearby, trying to pry Milly off of him. “Don’t worry Honey, they’re gone now.” Milly turned her head very slowly and she sighed.
“I thought they were… Well… That was silly of me…” She smiled. “Is everything okay now?”
Vash nodded slowly, and Meryl looked up at him, her eyes going wide. “Vash! Your hair!” He tilted his head to the side and reached up to his head, “Wha… What is it?”
“I’ve heard of people’s hair turning white out of shock,” Nicholas started, “But never black…”
Meryl stood up and grabbed Vash by his wrist and dragged him back to Sweetness. She shoved him into the little ship and into the W.C. before pointing at the mirror. “Look!” Milly and Wolfwood clambered in after them, not leaving much room as Vash inspected his head… Half of his hair was now solid black. He tilted his head from one side to another and frowned.
“Can’t pluck all of these out otherwise I’d be bald,” he pouted. His eyes fell on Milly in the mirror, “I guess you took too much out by taking all three of them?”
Milly nodded, “I tried to leave as much as I could… But I was afraid you’d…” She bit her lip and Meryl had a feeling all four of them remembered what happened the last time… the raven black hair Vash had right before he stopped breathing… “You should be fine from now on, I hope.”
He turned his head to look at Meryl and shrugged, “I guess it’s not all that bad, is it?”
“Looks good to me,” Meryl said, reaching up and grabbing Vash by both cheeks and dragging him down to kiss her. She held him for a good long time before letting him up for air. When she looked around, both Milly and Nicholas were gone. “Don’t do that again… EVER AGAIN… Promise me! You are not to die before me either! Got that!”
Vash laughed, “I promise!!” He hugged her tightly and then when he withdrew he nodded to the bathroom they were still standing in. “But in return, will you do something for me?”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Tell me what the heck this is and where did it come from and how did you know where the bathroom was?” He looked around confused and Meryl just laughed.
“Well, now that we’re back on the subject… I got my memory back and it’s going to be a heck of a long story…”
Illustrations copyright: Ricki