****This story is rated PG-13 for language****
The suns were rising to the east; brilliant rays of light came over the desert sand as they ascended into the heavens. It would be another hot day on the planet Gunsmoke. Desert breezes blew the sand across the empty road, whispering as it went, that there would be a showdown at high noon, when the larger sun was immediately overhead. A man dressed in black walked down the street toting a large cross, wrapped in white bindings. He walked slowly, bending with the weight; his left shoulder drooped as if it had been hurt recently.
Behind him walked another man, dressed in a peculiar red coat, a black bag slung over his shoulder. He wore yellow sunglasses to protect his eyes from the glare of the suns. Looking up from the back of his friend, his eyes fell on the one odd building in the empty town. It rose above the city like a claw, fingers spread open, attached to each appendage a huge glass globe. There were three of them in all, like light bulbs, but the base was too large for even a man to wrap his arms around. They were silent and dark as if waiting for something.
The man in black turned to his partner. “Hey Vash, don’t you think we should be trying to find a car to follow the girls with?” He stopped walking and waited for Vash’s answer.
Vash nodded, “I’ll leave that in your hands, there’s something I need to do first.” He lifted his hand toward the odd building before them and looked over his sunglasses. “I think I know why I couldn’t feel Knives.”
“Oh,” came the response, followed by, “May protection of Almighty God be with you.”
One eye closed, and Vash replied, “Are you really a priest, or was that just something you and Knives thought up, Wolfwood?”
“Ouch,” the priest responded. “I am a registered priest…” Wolfwood smiled under his dark brows and added, “Of the PWS.”
Vash took off his sunglasses, “You’re a plant worshipper?” He rolled his eyes, “Oh that figures. What a perfect man for the job, no wonder Knives chose you specially.” After putting his sunglasses away, Vash repositioned his bag on his shoulder. “Is he there?”
“Probably,” Wolfwood said. “When he kills a town he’ll take the plants. They might already be gone.” He shook his head sadly, “Trust me Needlenoggin, I don’t like it any more than you do… I should try to find the remains of the villagers too. Once I do I’ll tell the Marshall and come back for you.” He pulled the cross back onto his shoulder and winced, “Maybe I’ll get a doctor to look at this too, I think there was one back in camp.”
“Okay,” Vash said. He turned without another word and went toward the plant. It was quiet without a town to support, the bulbs having no use to a town full of ghosts. Vash sighed to himself, it had been a long night not knowing where Meryl or Milly were. He had let Wolfwood rest once the bullet was removed and his wounds were bandaged. But he couldn’t sleep. They were out there somewhere. No matter how powerful his brother was Meryl could not have just disappeared. Besides, they’d taken the car, hadn’t they?
When Wolfwood woke, he told Vash about the letters in the post office, and suggested looking up the address, a little farmhouse at the edge of town where Milly and Meryl said they grew up. The house was empty, abandoned but for footprints in the dust. There were two sets, one larger, another smaller. The girls had been there, they had found the same empty house, a shell. There were no furnishings, no pictures on the wall; there was nothing to say that anyone had even lived there. But what did it mean? Were they pawns in Knives’ plan just as Monev had been? No! I refuse to believe that!
Pushing through the double doors that lead to a stairway, Vash walked up to the platform where the plants resided in their glass globes. He could feel the power radiating off of them as he came closer. They were still here. The plants knew he was there, they unfolded within the bulbs like feathery petals, fingers brushing the glass from the inside, pupil-less eyes and pointed ears. But they were not alone.
Vash drew his gun and stared down at his brother. Knives sat cross-legged on the platform, blue eyes twinkling in the sunlight. “Hey, Vash. Where’s your priest?”
“Where are they Knives?!” Vash yelled, eyes narrowed as he stepped up to his brother and set the barrel of the gun against Knives’ temple. “Tell me where they are. What did you do to them?”
Knives closed one eye and looked up at the gun. “I’ll ask you another question,” he said finally, “If you can answer it, then I’ll answer yours.”
“I’m not here to play games!” The response came through gritted teeth.
“Neither am I,” Knives said. He nodded to the nearest plant, “Since our last meeting, have you been using your powers?”
Vash withdrew his gun slightly, “And what if I have?”
Knives nodded slowly, “You used them on that whore, didn’t you?”
“I’ll kill you!” Vash cocked the gun, shoving it back into Knives’ head.
“Do it and you won’t find them,” Knives responded. “For now, they are under my control. If I pull away that control then Legato will kill them.” He smiled as Vash pulled his finger from the trigger, eyes worried, knowing his brother had the power to do just as promised. Knives continued, “I asked Legato to rip the slut apart from the inside, but he did not do it swiftly enough. I could see inside her, you know. You’ve been there, mended things, but did not restore them fully. Your power is not great enough.” He shrugged, “It will grow, in time. But I will not allow you to spend any more time with those…”
“Don’t say it,” Vash cut him off. “I answered your question, where are they?”
His brother nodded at the rising suns, “They’ve gone east. I’m conducting an experiment with the beastly one. She was bestowed power by our kind some time ago, and I wanted to see how far it could go.” His smile dimmed and he looked at his brother with cold blue eyes. “Don’t follow them Vash. She’ll kill you if you get too close.”
“They wouldn’t do that…”
Knives stood suddenly, taking Vash by surprise, pushed him into the plant, a hand on either side of his head. “Would they, Vash? Man created us to use us until we are drained of power and destroyed. It was what we were created for. Your precious women will do the same to you.” Knives put a hand on the side of Vash’s head and his green eyes went wide.
With a jerk, Knives plucked a hair from Vash’s head and held it out for his brother to see. “They’re doing it already, or haven’t you noticed?” The hair was solid black. “When it all turns black, you die. That’s how it is. You’re using your powers on them and it’s killing you. Slowly, but you will die.” He let the hair fall; it caught the breeze and disappeared off the edge of the platform. “But I’ve upped the stakes. The tall ones’ power was merely residing under her skin, much like Bluesummers’. I’ve released it now. I’m not exactly sure what will happen,” he pulled away from Vash, walked to the handrails and looked over the desert. “I’m experimenting on whether the effect will be the same on her as it was with Legato. He’s slowly being driven insane being around me. It’s a curious effect.”
Vash’s fingers grew sweaty on his gun. His whole body quaked with the effort to control the hatred that was growing within him. The proximity of his brother and the three plants already raised feathers long the base of his neck. He shuddered, trying to keep it in. “What will happen to her?”
“I’m not sure,” Knives responded. He turned, eyes sparkling, and brushed fingers against the glass of the plant that sat opposite. She eagerly pressed her long spindly fingers against the glass in return. The angelic form was smiling, even as a sudden surge of power pressed through her. Knives smiled and Vash watched in horror as suddenly the plant’s long flowing hair turned pitch black, and she fell into a gooey pile at the base of the glass. Knives pulled away, “But I’m sure it will be just as fascinating to watch.”
“You bastard!” Vash screamed, he pointed his gun at his brother, aimed, fired, and missed. Knives stood next to him now, one point to another, as if he had jumped through time. Vash backed away, startled. I couldn’t follow him… Like with Dominique. Is this where she got her power? His eyes narrowed, “What makes you think you’re so much better than the plant? She didn’t deserve to die…”
Knives held his hand up to Vash’s forehead, pushed him back into the plant behind them and his grin split open to reveal white teeth. “I didn’t kill her, brother,” he said finally. “I took her within me, took her power as my own.” Knives tilted his head to the side, “And being the loving brother that I am, I have a gift for you.”
The power that came off Knives nearly dropped Vash to the ground. He shook, trying to keep a control of himself, but his knees buckled, and just as he threatened to topple over, Knives grabbed him by the throat and pulled him up again. His brother pressed his left hand against the glass and the plant responded in kind. Vash tried to look over his shoulder, but he couldn’t, the power was too great, he couldn’t control it, he could feel it ripple over his skin. Suddenly there was a burst of power and Vash’s eyes went wide as he realized what Knives was doing.
Behind him, the plant turned into a black puddle and Knives withdrew. Vash staggered, but did not fall. There was something else inside him. He tried to speak, but the words came out croaked, and he sputtered, She’s in me… He sucked her out of the bulb and put her into me! His green eyes fell pained on Knives and his brother laughed. “A gift. They can do that for us, you know,” he went to the last plant, “if you start to wear out, your hair starts to blacken, you can take one of them and they will restore you.”
“But…” Vash spit out, his voice returning even as the power started to settle into him. He felt refreshed, and it horrified him. “What about Milly?”
Knives threw him a look, “Who?” He shook his head, “Oh yes, the beastly woman, she can do exactly the same to you, what I just did to the plants. But she won’t be able to control it.” Almost offhandedly, he took the last plant as his own, Vash couldn’t stop him, his feet wouldn’t move. What is Knives saying? That if I get near her she’ll suck me in too? He shivered and when the last angelic plant was destroyed, Knives added, “She’ll gather my power for me, and when she is done, I will come collect her.” He shrugged, “The source of her power is ancient, I have a feeling she might even turn into one of us before this whole thing is through.”
“Undo it,” Vash croaked. He placed one foot in front of the other, trying to get to Knives, but his legs were weak. The plant inside of him screamed, and he buckled under the weight of her pain. Above him Knives cackled.
“Oh yes, you will have to deal with that too… But you’ll get used to it just as I have.” He turned, pulled himself up to the railing and jumped up on it. Knives looked like a vulture about to take flight, “Oh, and as for the bitch, she’s mine now.” Suddenly he sprang and disappeared from the platform.
Vash scrambled to his feet to look over the side of the railing, but his brother was gone. The screaming subsided and he slumped to his knees. He had to stop it… Knives couldn’t get away with killing Milly… He would have to do something… He had to do it for Meryl, for Wolfwood, and for all of them. Vash closed his eyes, “But how?”
Milly clipped on her suspenders, the left side, the right, and then she pulled them over her shoulders. Straightening her white shirt under them, she looked at herself in the mirror. She was almost ready, all but the tie. Bending, she fished around in her suitcase until she pulled a dark red tie from her belongings and clipped it on. Milly smiled to herself. She’d never been able to tie a tie, and within the first month of living in December City, Meryl had bought her three different clip-on ties, stating that she wasn’t going to tie them any more.
Nodding, Milly walked out of the bathroom and looked at Meryl. Her petite friend was pounding away at her typewriter. She’d been at it for hours now, saying that she had to get the report in to work about Tin Town so that no one blamed Vash for the destruction of the city and its inhabitants. Milly sat down next to her and looked over her shoulder. “Is it done yet, Meryl?”
Meryl nodded slowly to herself, her eyes moving over to Milly. “Yes, almost…” Suddenly she threw her body over the typewriter and she glared at Milly, “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Reading the report,” Milly responded, reaching around Meryl to pull the sheet of paper out of the typewriter. “I think you spelled ‘golden locks’ wrong,” she said, a finger to her chin. Meryl flailed her arms, trying to grab the paper away from Milly, but couldn’t as Milly stood to tower over her. “Let me see, oh yes but that’s accurate… ‘His beautiful aqua eyes followed her backside as she leaned over…’ This is really good Meryl, have you ever considered becoming a romance novelist?”
“Give it back, Milly!” Meryl hopped, trying to grab the paper, but Milly held it up over her head. “Please…” With a chuckle, Milly gave Meryl back her “report”. Meryl clutched the paper to her chest and then grabbed for the stack of papers that sat next to the typewriter. She waved them in front of Milly and said, “These are the report, for your information.” Blushing, she added, “This was just something I’d started while I was waiting for you to get out of the bathroom.”
Milly nodded, “Sure, Meryl. It looks to me that you’re missing Mr. Vash more than you’ve been letting on these past two days.”
“I do not,” Meryl hissed at her. She was clutching the paper so close to her chest now that Milly swore if she could absorb it into her body she would have. “Besides, you know what Knives said to us. If we stay around that pointy-headed geek much longer then something bad might happen to you. And they always say that one should never let a man get in between a friendship because it’s just not worth it!”
“Not like we’ve been in our relationships long enough to have had experience in the matter,” Milly said thoughtfully, sitting down in the chair again. She reached across the table for a blank sheet of paper and started to fold it. “Really, Meryl, I miss Mr. Nicholas,” she paused, the last two days she’d finally decided if she had to use it his first name, that’s the only way she could do it, “And I think that if we just stay here for a few more days they’ll show up and…” Meryl hiccupped. Milly looked up at her, thinking to offer her a glass of water… “Oh Meryl, don’t cry.”
Meryl waved a hand in front of her face, “I’m not crying Milly.”
“It’s okay…” Milly pulled Meryl into a hug and held her as the little insurance girl choked back her tears. “You can cry. I don’t mind at all. But don’t worry, I’ve got good news for you.”
Looking up at Milly, Meryl sniffled, “Yeah?”
“Of course,” Milly said, “Mr. Vash is already on his way.” Jaw dropping open, Meryl started to stammer. Before she could get a word out Milly added, “I left a note for them in the last hotel.”
“You did what?” Meryl pulled back, “What made you do something like that? When did you have time? And how do you know they’ll even come to the right hotel?”
Milly looked thoughtful, “That could be a problem.” She smiled and patted Meryl on the shoulder, “It doesn’t matter, he’ll find us, and I can’t wait. I don’t know about you, Meryl, but I don’t believe a word that Blondie said. Sure, I’ve got my powers back and they’re a little bit stronger, but I really don’t think it will kill me to be around Mr. Vash… Or Nicholas…” She sighed contentedly, “I sure do miss him, Meryl. Ever since he joined us following Mr. Vash it’s like things have gotten even more fun. I felt like such a third wheel before…”
“But what if Knives was right? What if it will kill you?”
“I could have died a dozen times over since we started following Mr. Vash, and yet look, I’m still here aren’t I? I’d say we have better chances with them than without them.” She sat down at the table and finished folding the piece of paper into a little crane. “I’d imagine they’d be here any day now. Mr. Nicholas will come flying into town and just sweep me up into his arms and…”
A tear fell down Meryl’s cheek, “Oh Milly…”
Milly sighed, “I could use a mocha frosty crème about now.”
“I could use a good long shopping spree at the New Miami mall,” Meryl said.
Suddenly, Milly stood bolt upright and jumped onto the bed, “That’s ingenious, Meryl!” She hopped up and down and Meryl scrambled to get out of the way before she was trampled.
“What’s ingenious? What? I don’t get it!”
“We,” bounce, “should,” bounce, “go,” bounce, “to,” thud. Milly rubbed the back of her head and sat down on the bed, “Ouchie, I guess I’m too tall to do that.” She grimaced and finished her sentence, “New Miami, Meryl. We’re only about a day’s drive from there. Why not? We’re still on vacation!”
Meryl sat back down on the bed, “And what about Vash and Wolfwood?”
“They’ll catch up.”
With a smile, Meryl nodded, “Yeah… Why didn’t I think of that?”
“It’s a lemon,” Vash said to himself as he scuffed at the dirt. His heavy black leather boots scraped shapes in the sand and he’d back away from the marks he’d made in order to see them around his red coat. With a sigh, he turned to look at Wolfwood who sat beside the motorcycle. The priest’s coat and shirt hung over the seat in order to keep them from getting dirty. “So what you’re telling me is that the motorcycle you assured me would stand up to the drive, is basically, a lemon.”
Wolfwood didn’t bother to move out from under the cycle. He grunted and said something too quiet for the gunman to hear. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t hear you,” Vash said, putting his hands in his pockets as he watched the priest removing parts from the dead piece of machinery.
“I said, yes, it’s a lemon,” he responded, louder this time, turning his head to look at Vash up through the dark hair that covered his eyes. “And I’m sorry.”
Vash nodded, “That’s what I thought you said.” A smile breezed across his lips and he squatted down next to Wolfwood. “Can you fix it?”
The gunman stood again, “I’m glad to hear that because…”
“But not here and not now.” Vash turned to look at Wolfwood. The priest ran a hand through his hair and the sweat and oil made it stick back, “I could fix it if we had tools, but the engine is shot.” Obviously this was not what Vash wanted to hear and his hands dropped out of his pockets. He stood there looking at Wolfwood as the man stood and grabbed his shirt. “We’re going to have to walk.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.” Grabbing his bag from the motorcycle and threw it over his shoulder. Wolfwood pulled his cross onto his back and sighed.
“Which way, oh great and fearless leader?”
Vash pointed east, “That way. To New Miami.”
“That’s pretty specific, did Knives tell you?” The priest looked curious, even as he started to walk next to Vash toward their destination.
“No,” Vash responded. “But that’s where the plant ship crashed over a hundred years go.”
“Oh… And here I thought you were trailing them like a bloodhound or something,” Wolfwood replied after a moment, he smiled when Vash looked at him. “What? You had that look on your face like you smelled out a donut shop or something the entire time… How should I know?”
The gunman shook his head, “You might be a plant priest, but you really don’t know anything about us do you?”
Wolfwood shrugged, “I only know what I’m told. It’s not much, I’m afraid.” He tilted his head to look at Vash, “Is there something you want to tell me?” Suddenly, Vash stopped walking and he looked at the horizon. Vash wouldn’t have admitted it, but he really did look like a pointer, nose extended out in the direction of their hunt. “What is it Needlenoggin?”
“I can… Hear her,” Vash said, relief spreading over his face. He looked at Wolfwood, eyes wide, “I can hear Milly! And Meryl!” With a jump for joy, he grabbed Wolfwood’s shoulders, “They’re okay!”
Sputtering, Nicholas nodded, “Yeah? Yeah? Can you talk to them? Can you tell Milly I miss her?”
Vash closed his eyes and concentrated. He could hear their voices, just barely, as if they were merely echoes, the last one, just before the sound was gone completely. Too far away, they were still so far away… But he placed a couple thoughts on the wind, and Vash was pretty sure that Milly received them, even if Meryl didn’t. Aqua eyes opened and he looked at Wolfwood, “I can’t say it in words, but I think they’ll know.”
The priest smiled, “Good. Then we’d better hurry up and catch them, because I can’t wait to see my Honey again…”
“Did you feel that, Milly?” Meryl said as they packed the Sand Dancer. She looked around; it was a strange feeling, as if an emotion was about to swallow her up suddenly. It filled her up to the top and down again and when it was gone, she felt warm inside.
Milly nodded, “I think I did…” Closing the trunk to the Sand Dancer, Milly jumped into the passenger side and buckled herself in. “Love. Mr. Vash sent his love…” She waved a hand at herself, “To you I mean…” She blushed, “I mean, you love Mr. Vash and he loves me and…” Milly couldn’t believe herself, why do I get so tongue twisted? “And he sent Mr. Nicholas’ too… to me, not you.”
Meryl nodded, “Can you hear him? Talk to him? I mean, could you send something back, tell him that I love him too?”
“I’m sorry Meryl,” Milly responded. “They’re so far away…” She shook her head, “But you sure are pretty excited to know that they’re okay, especially since a few minutes ago you said we’d never be able to see them again.”
Meryl waved a hand at Milly and started the car, “I never said never… It’s just that we don’t know exactly what will happen when the two of you get near each other.” Milly giggled, and Meryl cast her a long look. “What’s so funny?”
Cough, choke, sputter, “I’m sorry Meryl, it’s just that… You really do love him don’t you? Seems to me that you aren’t willing to give him up just yet.”
“Of course not. You don’t suddenly have some designs on my boyfriend, do you?” Meryl threw the car into gear and stepped on the gas.
“No, no Meryl!” Milly laughed, her hair whipping out behind them as they sped into the desert. “I wouldn’t dream of hitting on Mr. Vash, he’s just not my type!” She set her arm out the window and smiled to herself. “I go for the tall dark and handsome ones…”
“Good,” Meryl said. She grinned, “I love it when you’re flustered.”
Milly sunk down in her seat, “You’re so mean.”
The city of New Miami was a casino and resort village all rolled up into one sprawling shopping center. In the middle of town sat the remains of a large SEEDS ship, half broken open, half converted into the only mall that had been built on the planet. It was about twenty-seven stories tall; using the power from about thirty plants in order to keep it open twenty-four hours a day. The rest of the city consisted of casinos, hotels, condominiums and restaurants. It was a rich city because of its tourist industry, but it was a dangerous city at night because with wealth came power, and everyone knew about the town’s underground.
Vash looked at the corral suspiciously. The last time he rode a thomas he’d been thrown off of it the moment he came to a halt. It wasn’t so much that he was worried about riding one, but stopping was a whole other matter. But unfortunately, in the first tiny village they came to there weren’t any cars or vehicles of any sort they could buy, only a small thomas farm. Wolfwood stood talking to the owner and they were examining one of the strange lizard birds. They were discussing the price for two birds plus supplies and Vash leaned over the fence, letting the priest figure out the details. As little as he wanted Wolfwood to get them stuck again as with the motorcycle, he also had to admit he didn’t know a thing about the birds. Apparently, Wolfwood had ridden them as a boy, in addition to learning how to shoot and operate that huge cross of his.
As Vash’s eyes scanned the corral, one of the thomases came up to nudge his elbow, and he looked at it curiously. “What are you looking at?”
The thomas nudged him again and cooed until Vash lifted his arm from the fence and set a hand on its head. The bird made a funny noise in its throat and tilted its head into him until Vash started to scratch and from then on out, Vash suddenly realized he’d made a friend. The thomas leaned into his fingers and cooed and gurgled until it was making so much noise that the owner and Wolfwood looked up from their business. “Hey Needlenoggin! What are you doing?”
“I… He likes it.”
“Oh you’ve got him now,” the owner said, walking over and grabbed the bird’s tag and made a note on the clipboard he was carrying. “I’ll get him and that other one saddled up for you gentlemen.” He wandered off into the barn, and Vash turned and held out a hand as if to stop him and looked back at the thomas.
“I thought you didn’t like them,” Nicholas said, chuckling.
Vash frowned, the thomas nudged his back until he had to turn to pet him again, “I’m not good with birds,” he murmured.
“Birds of a feather…” Wolfwood trailed off, patting the thomas on its neck, before reaching into his coat for a cigarette. “But you managed to make things a whole lot easier. I was afraid he wouldn’t sell us one after I mentioned you had trouble riding them.”
“Making them stop,” Vash corrected. “And I am not a bird.”
Wolfwood smirked as he lit his cigarette, “If the wings fit…”
The priest lifted his hands up in front of him and shook out the match. “Just consider yourself lucky, you may have been walking if it wasn’t for this stunt. I’ve never seen a thomas take to someone that quickly. Are you sure you’re not half bird?”
Vash rolled his eyes, “I’m ignoring that remark.” He walked away from the thomas and toward the stable; “It’s going to take us even longer to get to New Miami with the birds. We’ll have to stop and rest them from time to time and feed them, and where in the world are you going to store your cross while riding one?”
Wolfwood shrugged, “I’ll figure it out. Besides, we don’t have any other choice. Mr. Stalwart there says the next town is about a night’s trip from here and we can sell the thomases there and hop a sand steamer to New Miami.”
“Sand steamer?” Vash said, sticking his hands in his pockets, trying to ignore the thomas behind them, still cooing for attention. “Does he know the schedule? Because if we don’t catch it in time we may have to wait a month for the next one.”
“Already thought of that Needlenoggin, there is an hourly tour out to New Miami so no worries, we’ll be there before three o’clock.” Nicholas said, taking the cigarette from his mouth and letting the smoke out slowly. He looked at Vash, apparently awaiting a response from the gunman. Vash just frowned and waited for him to continue. “We’re talking about the biggest tourist city on the planet though, even when we do get there, how do you suppose we’ll find them?”
Frowning, Vash shook his head; “New Miami isn’t the safest town for two girls on their own. Hopefully we’ll just be able to find the Sand Dancer before someone else finds them.”
“Hey, you’re talking to someone who already knows, pal,” Wolfwood said. “But you also forget that my Honey has super powers and she’s with Derringer Meryl.” He grinned, stomping out his cigarette. “I can’t wait to see her in action again, kicking bad guy butt, sending them flying in all directions, and using those mind powers of her to throw them for a loop!” He waved his hands, trying to mimic what Milly had done during their fight with Legato a few weeks back. When he realized he looked foolish, because Vash was staring at him, he stopped and shrugged. “Who knows what she’ll do now that she has her powers back! Ah, that’s my girl,” Wolfwood added, chuckling to himself. “I loved her before, but I feel especially lucky that I have someone who can fend for herself. It’s really handy knowing what line of work we’re in.” He watched as Mr. Stalwart walked past them in order to bring the birds into the stable. He’d gotten a fairly decent price for everything, and as far as the thomas man said, they’d be able to fetch a nice price on the thomases when they got into the next town. Of course, that was if they managed to get the bird away from Vash.
As Mr. Stalwart passed by them with Vash’s thomas, it squealed and squawked, trying to break free to get to its new owner. Vash stood there with a frown curling his lips as if he’d decided that petting the thing a few minutes ago had been a bad idea. “Maybe it’s true that she can take care of herself,” Vash said after a moment, once the bird had been taken out of his sight. “But not against Knives. It worries me.”
Wolfwood looked out over the desert and leaned against the stable doors. “Have you felt him recently?”
“No,” Vash replied. “He didn’t come this way. I still don’t understand how he got this kind of power.” He shivered, the plant was quiet within him, but he knew the next time he used his powers that she would be awake again. Sure, Knives had healed him, but at what cost? Vash knew he’d never be able to do the same horrible thing… He’d not use the plants for selfish reasons. “He figured out where Milly got her powers and he’s using it to control her.”
Eyes turned to Vash, and Wolfwood ran a hand over his forehead, wiping the sweat from his brow. “What all did he tell you?”
Vash looked at the priest, “Her powers come from the plants. Knives opened up ‘time’ and made it so that she can draw her power from the same place he does. But that also means she can draw her powers from us… From me. That’s why Knives left so quickly and why before her power kicked in fully, he made them head off into the desert without us.” Vash’s aqua eyes were worried. “Knives didn’t stick around long and I think that means that she’ll weaken us by taking our power…”
“But can’t she just pull the plug?” Wolfwood tried to think about what he knew about the plants, about Vash and his brother, but he had to admit, even after growing up with more knowledge about the strange creatures than most, he really didn’t know anything.
“I’m not sure,” Vash admitted, “But probably.” He shivered. “I won’t know for sure until I get there.”
“Aw man!” Wolfwood closed one eye and looked into the sky, “You’re teasing us aren’t you!” He waved a hand at God and then sighed. “Why couldn’t I have been the one to get all the powers? It would be nice to do something for her and not have to come crawling to you every time we needed help.”
Vash shook his head, “It’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Trust me.”
“Maybe…” Nicholas said, turning. “Ah! Mr. Stalwart, are we all ready to go?” The little man came through the doors with the two saddled thomases, on one he had strapped the cross punisher. How that little bird was able to carry the heavy weapon was far beyond Wolfwood. He smiled, “Thanks for getting them all packed up for us, my cross isn’t exactly light.”
“I noticed,” Mr. Stalwart said, handing over the reigns, and then cracked his back. “You’re one strange priest.” Wolfwood nodded. “Anyway, they’re all set for the trip. Just follow the setting suns and you’ll find town by the morning. The stable in Old Hope is on the north side of town, but you shouldn’t have trouble finding it, just follow the signs.” He waved a hand to them, “Good luck gentlemen, I’ve got to get back to work before the suns set.” Then the man disappeared into the stable.
Wolfwood patted his thomas on the neck before climbing aboard. Once he was comfortable in the saddle, he looked over to Vash. The gunman managed to get on his new thomas, but the bird was trying to look over its shoulder at Vash. Its neck brace didn’t want to cooperate and so the bird kept cooing in complaint. After a few minutes, Vash said, “Just be quiet,” and the bird calmed almost immediately.
With an eyebrow, Nicholas said, “How did you do that?”
Vash shrugged, “I’m not sure, but I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“What’s a horse?” Wolfwood asked.
The gunman shook his head, “Never mind.”
“I want chocolate pudding,” Milly said to the waitress. “And also vanilla, butterscotch, and um, banana too.” She leaned back; this was the life, sitting on the veranda of the Fifth Moon Delicatessen, overlooking the New Miami shopping mall. Under the table sat a day’s worth of purchases. Meryl had finally bought herself the Prada purse she’d been wanting. Milly had found some new shirts and suits for Wolfwood, and had them wrapped up until he met up with them. The day ended in quite the success, all but a nice dessert topper.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but we don’t have pudding,” the waitress said over her tray as she set down waters for the girls. “We don’t have dessert here,” she added, pulling out her tablet. “So what do you want from the menu?”
Meryl leaned over the table, “I’m sorry Milly, I didn’t know. I guess we’ll just have to pick something up on…”
“I want pudding,” Milly said, looking at the waitress. Oh no, this won’t do at all. She squinted her eyes slightly, and then added, “You’ll get me pudding, okay?”
The waitress stopped moving suddenly, her eyes falling on Milly’s own and she nodded, “Okay, pudding… Chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch and banana, coming right up. And for you, miss?”
Meryl looked from Milly to the waitress, then down to her menu and said, “A BLT.” The waitress nodded and disappeared into the kitchen. Meryl looked at Milly, “What did you just do?”
“Oh Meryl, whoever heard of a restaurant that doesn’t serve desserts? I just gave her a suggestion…” She smiled wickedly and Meryl looked like she was about to cross over the table. She stood up and put her hands between their glasses.
“You used your powers didn’t you?” She whispered fiercely.
Milly shook her head, “I merely suggested…”
“If she comes back here with…” Meryl turned and watched the waitress leave the kitchen with a coat and purse and walked out of the restaurant. “She’s not going to do what I think she is, is she?”
“What if she is?” Milly said, trying to fend for herself. “It’s not like I’m harming anything, Meryl. I just think that a restaurant should have dessert, and if they don’t, then maybe they’ll have to start. Don’t you think?” She crossed her hands on the table in front of her and smiled merrily. Use what you’ve got, that’s what Big Brother always used to say.
Sitting back in her chair, Meryl frowned. She picked up her water glass and sipped it, looking down at the shopping mall. The waitress passed out of the building and into a little pastry shop across the street. When she turned to Milly, she didn’t look very happy. “Milly, I know that you have these powers now, but I really don’t think you should be using them unless it’s an emergency. They aren’t safe. Just look at what Legato can do with them…”
The name of Yellow Eyes bit into Milly’s mind and it chewed away at her. For days now she’d been fighting him tooth and limb, even though her powers were stronger, he could still inch his way into her mind. He’d say things to her, things she didn’t dare tell Meryl about. His voice slowly grew faint until finally all he could do is make suggestions. This was something she worried would not stop. Milly bit her lip, “But Meryl, I wouldn’t ever do anything like that… I...” She shook her head and a worried look crossed her face. “I’m not sure why I did that, it just occurred to me that I could, and… Oh Meryl, do you think that I should apologize to her?” She looked down at the street where the waitress was already returning, “You know, after I have my pudding?”
“So what I was thinking Meryl, was that we could hit the convention about three o’clock and make sure we didn’t miss the tour,” Milly said as they looked over the schedule of events the hotel manager left in their room the night before. The PWS had a very large following in New Miami, mostly due to the fact that the majority of citizens were older and trying to find something to believe in that would get them into heaven. Milly didn’t believe in such nonsense, the plants were man-made, they weren’t all powerful… If they were, then why did they stay in the glass globes? She believed that God was the only way to get into heaven, and as of late she’d been doing a lot of praying…
“Are you still going on about seeing the plants?” Meryl said from the balcony. She wore a brand new white dress that had an oriental collar but flared out at the bottom. When she turned, the dress swished merrily and Meryl looked down at it gleefully. “Won’t Vash love this dress? I think I should save it until he gets into town, though…” She passed by Milly and walked into the bathroom to change.
Milly sat pouting. “You are avoiding the subject, Meryl.”
“I don’t really want to see the plants, Milly,” came the response. “And I don’t really think that you should go near them either. Besides, we have about seventeen more stories to that mall and I plan to cover every inch of that place before the boys get here.”
“But Meryl,” Milly whined, setting down the schedule and getting up to stand outside the bathroom door, “But they’re in the same building! Don’t you think you could just take a few minutes to out of shopping to go up and see them? I mean, it’s free…”
The bathroom door opened and Meryl stood there wearing a t-shirt and jeans. “If you want to go on your own, then that’s fine with me,” the little insurance girl said. “I’ll walk you there, then take off on my own for an hour while you go see them. How’s that?”
“But I thought you’d want to find out more about Vash’s sisters…” Milly looked down at Meryl and crossed her arms over her chest.
“I said, no, Milly.” Meryl turned off the bathroom light and passed her tall friend. She grabbed her purse and added; “I’ve told you already I don’t care what Vash is I still love him. I just don’t have a good feeling about it, which is a first for me. Usually you’re the one worrying over the little things.”
Milly shook her head, “I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. And I guess if I have to go alone, I will.” She nodded to herself and added, “Shall we go?”
“We shall,” Meryl agreed. When the pair got down to the lobby, there were a group of officers talking to the hotel manager. Meryl frowned, had something happened in the hotel that morning? She hadn’t heard any ruckus downstairs or in the hallways. Of course, this was a town of gambling and violence just came with the scenery. Maybe I should be surprised we hadn’t run into any trouble yet. Just wait until Vash the Stampede shows up in town! What a stir that will create! She chuckled to herself as they started to pass out into the street, only catching the words, “…stolen Sand Dancer…”
“Meryl,” Milly said suddenly as Meryl pushed her out into the street and started her on a very fast walk down the walk. “Uh, Meryl? What’s wrong?”
Meryl looked behind them; so far no one was following them. She swallowed and kept walking, only turning to answer her friend when they had gone another three blocks. “I think someone reported our car stolen.”
“Someone stole our car?” Milly asked, looking behind her at Meryl.
“Yes, we did!” Meryl put a hand to her face and shook her head. “I should have known it would happen eventually…”
Milly frowned, “I don’t get it Meryl, the only ones we could have stolen it from were Mr. Vash and Mr. Nicholas, so why would they report it?”
Meryl slumped forward, as smart as her friend was, sometimes Milly was as dense as a rock. “And where do you think they got the car, Milly? They stole it, which means the original owners are out looking for it. Guess the valet noticed that the car was stolen.” She moaned, still walking, Milly trailing behind her, cars and people passing them on the street. “Which means we can’t go back to our hotel room for awhile, and even then they’ll probably confiscate all of the stuff we just finished buying…”
Setting a hand on Meryl’s shoulder, Milly said, “Well, why don’t we just go back and explain what happened?”
“We can’t do that, Milly,” Meryl said. “They’ll arrest us.”
“Oh.” Milly stepped forward and fell in step next to Meryl. “So, what do we do?”
The little insurance girl shook her head, “I guess go to your convention and hope that by the time we get back we don’t have bounties on our heads like Vash does.”
Wolfwood looked around at the city. It had been years since he’d been to New Miami, and at the time he’d promised never to come back. There were still some unpaid debts, a few unhappy creditors, and he was pretty sure that if didn’t play his cards straight he’d get caught. But as he looked at Vash, he wasn’t going to say a thing about it. Nicholas knew he wasn’t going to be a sore thumb in this town, even carrying his cross punisher. No, the thumb would be the gunman with the spiky blond hair and the brilliant red coat. People were already looking at him as they had in December City. Sure, this town might have been ablaze with flashy people, women from the casino wearing feather boas and sequins, men in bright purple suits with fedoras… But Vash still stood out.
Especially since he was dragging along a thomas that chirped and cooed every time the gunman’s aqua eyes turned its way. Nicholas sighed; he was amazed that the conductor of the sand steamer allowed them to bring the bird aboard. Vash hadn’t been able to part with it for some reason, probably to do with the fact that it kept escaping the paddock they’d put it in while they were selling it. Then again, maybe there was another reason, Wolfwood wasn’t sure. But somehow, they had to get rid of the thing because it was drawing even more attention since people just didn’t ride thomases into New Miami!
“Needlenoggin,” he started finally, deciding that this was the perfect time to set ground rules before they got into trouble because of the humanoid typhoon. “You’ve got to ditch the bird.”
Vash nodded, “I know… But shouldn’t we find the girls first?”
“We aren’t going to get very far toting a bird around this city, we aren’t members of the circus you know. People will start to ask questions, and then there’s a matter of your coat.” Wolfwood glanced around at the city and spotted just the right place, a fancy hotel with not only a restaurant but also a gift shop… “How about there? We can get some clothes that blend in a bit better, and the front desk should be able to tell us where we can stash the bird.”
The gunman pouted, “I thought you liked my coat.”
“When did I say that? Do you want every bounty hunter in this city after you by nightfall? Meryl was right when she had you change in December City. Only this place is a lot more…”
“I know,” Vash cut him off. “Okay, you win.” He waved toward the hotel, “To the Hopping Thomas Inn it is.” Wolfwood nodded and headed to the hotel, Vash trailing behind with the thomas, both men taking it slowly over the busy street. Suddenly, he heard a squeal and honking, and Nicholas turned to see Vash pulling the thomas out of the way of a tow truck.
“Sorry about that!” Vash called, waving at the driver who passed by with a shiny car that looked suspiciously like… “It’s our Sand Dancer!” Vash yelled, waving at Wolfwood and the car and glancing at the thomas, not knowing what to do.
Wolfwood grabbed Vash before he went after it, “We know where it’s going Needlenoggin, no need to follow it. The girls must be around here somewhere.” He jerked a thumb at the hotel where a police car sat out front and two officers were eating donuts. “Let’s ask them about the car.”
Vash nodded, “All right.” They finished crossing the street and the gunman waved to the nearest police officer. “Excuse me gentlemen, but what’s going on here?”
The police officers looked Vash the Stampede up and down and then looked at the priest beside him and then to each other. Wolfwood ground his teeth, maybe this isn’t such a good idea, Needlenoggin’s picture is probably hanging at every station in every dump of a town on the planet… But before he could say anything to the gunman that maybe he’d suggested the wrong thing, the first police officer set down his donut. “Got ourselves car thieves, gentlemen.” The officer wiped his powdered fingers on his uniform and reached into the car. “There’s been a reward for that car for quite some time now, and just this morning the valet of this hotel here reported it. The car was checked in under the names Milly Thompson and Meryl Stryfe, they checked in about a day ago.”
When the officer pulled out of the car he had photographs, “They disappeared this morning and haven’t been back since. I think they caught onto us, but we have all of their belongings up in the room. I’m sure they’ll be back.” He handed over the photos and Wolfwood grimaced, it was their girls all right, and they were being blamed for the theft that… He looked at Vash. They’re being blamed for our crime! He winced even as the officer continued, “But in case they aren’t back there’s a bounty on their heads now.”
“A bounty?” Vash asked, handing back the pictures. The two men looked at each other, and Wolfwood could just tell that Needlenoggin was just eating it up that he wasn’t the only one who was wanted for a crime. “How much is it?”
The second police officer licked his fingers and said, “You two bounty-hunters or something?”
“Maybe,” Wolfwood said. “How much?”
“Forty-thousand double dollars a piece,” the first officer responded. “The car belonged to our honorable mayor Mr. Greenwood. It was stolen when he was visiting his relatives out of town. Even though he’s got the car back, it’s in pretty rough shape and he wants the culprits to be responsible.”
Wolfwood’s grimace didn’t fade. He looked at Vash and said through clenched teeth, “Well then, I guess we’ll have to go look for them, won’t we? If you don’t mind, we have to go now…” With a nod to Vash, he turned and started into the hotel. Then the thought occurred to him, “Guess you’ll have to stay out here until I can figure out what to do with the thomas.”
Vash nodded and turned back to the police officers, “Excuse me, but where did you get those donuts?”
Meryl looked around bleakly at the horde of plant worshippers. It was her final decision to stick with Milly, and even though she hated to admit it, shopping was now not the best place to stay hidden from the police. Already they’d passed a satellite radio alerting the town to two new bounties, for one Milly Thompson and one Meryl Stryfe. Meryl couldn’t believe her luck. Sure, maybe Vash and Wolfwood had stolen the car in order to save her, but couldn’t they have stolen one that hadn’t belonged to the mayor of New Miami? To top it off she was being blamed for it, and didn’t like it one bit.
Luckily, the police seemed to steer clear of the PWS, and Meryl couldn’t blame them. She seemed to recall that Bernadelli had dealings with them, something to do with as long as the Seminary paid its dues, the insurance company wouldn’t investigate too deeply in their matters. The little insurance girl always thought that it was mighty suspicious, but she was not going to complain because that was her job… Although, maybe now that she was a wanted woman, it wouldn’t be for long.
She moaned and Milly looked down at her. “What’s wrong Meryl?” Meryl clasped her head in her hands and shook it fiercely. The tall girl added, “Pretend I didn’t ask that question. I already have an idea.”
“Milly, remind me when we see our boyfriends to kill them, okay?”
Milly nodded, “Will do, Meryl.” Her eyes scanned the crowd as they waited to be let into the huge plant facility. There were guards everywhere, people dressed in robes, others in suits much like Wolfwood’s, others who looked like they were homeless wearing only rags. “There sure are a lot of members, aren’t there Meryl?”
Meryl glanced around and said, “Yeah, I guess there are.” She took them in one by one. It was amazing how any kind of religion could bring people by the droves. This one was an especially odd religion, and she hadn’t really known much about it until their tour about an hour ago. These were people who prayed and spent their lives looking forward to a plant bringing them redemption. Meryl had to admit, it was better than some of the religions she’d seen, at least there was visible proof of their angels. But still, she never considered Vash or his brother as almighty saviors or anything. It gave her the creeps to think that if they were here right now that Knives might be worshipped as a king. The sheer power of it scared her.
“I don’t like it here, Milly,” Meryl said quietly so only her friend could hear. Milly frowned, blue eyes surprised.
“Why is that Meryl?” The small insurance girl was about to answer when suddenly Milly called out, “Hey! That’s the young man who recruited me! Hi!” She was waving furiously at a young boy, no older than 15 or so; with strange blue eyes that were so light they looked almost white. Meryl swore his pupils looked like slits, but when she turned they were just ordinary. The boy waved and wandered over.
“Hi Miss Thompson, how’s it going?” He nodded to Milly and then looked straight at Meryl. It felt as if someone had walked over her grave and Meryl could feel goose bumps rising on her arms. “This must be that friend of yours you told me so much about.” The boy extended a hand, “Name’s Zazie.”
Meryl reluctantly took Zazie’s hand and shook it quickly. She shivered. His skin felt like something was crawling under the surface. “Yeah, nice, I’m Meryl,” she said. Must be my imagination right? There can’t be anything wrong with this kid, can there? He’s just a nice young man like Milly said…
“Glad to see you came,” he said after a moment, turning to Milly again. “Gotta run though if you have any questions, my friend Dominique can help you out.” Zazie waved over a tall woman who had long dark hair. She wore gunslinger’s clothes, a cowboy hat, and leather boots. The only thing strange about her was she wore an eye patch. “Hey Dominique, these are those girls the boss… I mean, I told you about,” he corrected himself and said, “Keep an eye on them, will you?”
“Sure,” the woman responded in a silky voice. She looked down at Meryl with her one good eye, but she didn’t smile like everyone else they had met did. “If you come with me I’ll get you up front,” she said as Zazie disappeared.
Milly clapped her hands joyfully, “Oh this will be so much fun! Do you think I’ll be able to touch one?”
Dominique nodded, “Sure.” She turned and went into the crowd, Milly following behind gleefully, even as Meryl trailed after them. This wasn’t good. She knew it wasn’t. Meryl wasn’t sure why she was feeling this way, but for some reason these friends of Milly’s were creeping her out. But Milly hasn’t said a thing about them. Isn’t that proof enough that there isn’t anything wrong? She’s always had feelings about bad people in the past, she’s never been wrong, not even once. So why do I get such a bad feeling about this when she hasn’t said a thing? Meryl pushed her way past a few men in suits with crosses on their sleeves and felt mighty paranoid. Suddenly it felt like the whole world was out to get her and the only one who could stop it was nowhere in sight… Vash, where are you?
Vash looked at Wolfwood behind his yellow glasses. “So, why is it that I have to change clothes, but you can stay in your suit?” He frowned. Nicholas had picked out the strangest get-up this side of May City, a white shirt, grey vest and slacks, and white gloves. After taking time to pat down his hair, Vash looked in the mirror, “I look like a bookie.”
“Perfect,” Wolfwood said. He grinned as he collected the girl’s things from their room. It had been cordoned off by the police, but not guarded, so they broke in and started collecting the dozens of bags and items that the girls would otherwise lose if caught. “As for myself, while you were selling that thomas to settle down, I found out that there is a PWS convention in town. So I guess I’m dressed for the occasion. I’m positive that’s where they’ve headed,” he held up a convention schedule, “Plus I found this.”
Reaching for the schedule, Vash looked through it. “The plant tour is at three.” He looked around, “What time is it?”
“About a quarter to,” Wolfwood replied, shuffling through a bag and finding a dozen wrapped packages that were addressed to him. “Oh look at this, Milly went shopping for me.” He rattled the box, “Sounds like a new shirt.”
Vash grabbed the box from him and shoved it back in the bag. “We don’t have time for this. Grab the rest of their things and let’s get it into our room. If the tour is at three, we’d better get there…” He frowned, knowing full well that if Milly were to touch one of the plants, something disastrous could happen. A shiver flowed over his shoulder blades. The proximity to that many plants made him nervous. He hadn’t been around that many of them for a long time, and even knowing what he was, he’d made a point of avoiding them when he could.
Once they’d settled the insurance girls’ things in the room, the two hopped a trolley to the mall and looked up at the huge remains of the old SEEDS ship. This one, this particular ship was the one on which Knives had based all of his hopes for creating a paradise. He’d made sure this one survived nearly intact. Humans settled here out of necessity. The power created from the plants supplied not only electricity but they also made dozens of industrial and consumer products. Even Milly’s supply of pudding cups came from these plants. Knives was understandably pissed off about that discovery. And if everything worked the way his brother wanted… He’d get his revenge soon enough.
If even one plant were destroyed, the city would suffer, and so would other cities in the vicinity. He looked over at Wolfwood and slid the glasses farther up his nose. Vash looked at Wolfwood’s cross, and patted his vest pocket for his gun. It was an odd feeling, he wasn’t used to the shoulder harness that Wolfwood supplied him. He wondered offhandedly whether or not he’d be able to pull it as quickly and cursed himself for not practicing before they came.
Wolfwood took off into the building first and Vash followed behind. For once, he was merely a visitor in this town. There was never a time he’d spent more than a few hours in New Miami, and that had been years ago. It was soon after Knives awakened from his coma after July City. Vash hated his brother for what Knives made him do. But when he’d requested to see him again, Vash complied. They met here, in New Miami. That is when Knives reminded him of what he was, awakened his powers once again, and then disappeared. It wasn’t until Meryl’s kidnapping that he’d heard from Knives again.
Vash turned to look at Wolfwood and jumped into the elevator. “Sorry about that.”
“What’s going on? You’ve been zoning out ever since we left the hotel.” Nicholas’ eyes shifted over the other passengers in the elevator, and once he was content, added, “Is there someone in mind?”
“No,” Vash returned, catching Wolfwood’s hint on whether he’d been able to hear from Milly and Meryl. He concentrated again as he had when they’d found the girls’ room, but still he was unable to hear them. Vash could however feel the plants. He could hear their chatter, feel the plant within him trying to communicate with her sisters and then settle into brooding. Vash closed his eyes, if there were a way to set you free, I would, he thought. Especially if you could help me hear Meryl.
The elevator pulled to a stop and Wolfwood set his hand out, “Oh hey, this is our floor. Come on.” They pushed out of the elevator and into a huge crowd of people. The PWS were here, everywhere in every size and shape. Vash looked out over them in awe. He’d heard of these people from Knives years ago, knew that of all of the humans these were the ones that Knives would save for last. ‘They might have their uses,’ Knives said as they looked over the plants in New Miami. ‘It’s nice to be God.’ Vash’s eyes narrowed, ‘You aren’t God, Knives.’ The plant worshippers scared him. There were so many of them and when enough fanatic people came together…
“Hey, get down!” Wolfwood pushed Vash’s head down and squatted beside him.
“What…. What is it?” Vash tried to look in the direction Nicholas was, but couldn’t see anything due to the crowd. “Hey, do you mind?”
Wolfwood shushed him, “Quiet, I just saw two of the Gung-ho Guns… And they’re with Milly and Meryl.”
Vash scrambled from the priest’s grasp in time to get a quick look at the girls before they disappeared into the crowd. “We, we should go…” He put his hand in his vest and wrapped his fingers around his gun.
“Are you crazy?” Wolfwood grabbed Vash’s arm and pulled him in the opposite direction, even as Vash tried to follow after them. “I know you’ve never met Zazie, but that’s Dominique. Remember her? You know, the Demon’s Eye? She nearly killed you the last time, or have you forgotten?”
Shaking his head, Vash followed Wolfwood to a small area where a few people were squabbling over whether the New Miami angels were prettier than December’s. “I remember who she is,” Vash replied, “But I also beat her last time. I know what makes her tick. She wouldn’t be able to do anything in this crowd…” He trailed off and added, “I think.”
“It’s just a good thing they didn’t see you, or we would have found out,” Nicholas said. He craned his neck around as the argument behind them rose to strangely high levels, “Hey, cut it out. Everyone knows that the New Miami angels are prettier…” The group of people looked up at him and they fell quiet. Wolfwood turned, seemingly pleased that he’d gotten them to shut up until one of them spoke up.
“Hey, you’re a priest aren’t you?”
Wolfwood nodded, “Yeah, something you want?”
“Is it true what they’re saying, that there are free-born plants?” A woman asked the question. She wore a bandana around her head and smoothed her dress over her knees when he looked at her. “I’ve heard the priests saying that there are two plants wandering around Gunsmoke… That they were the reason July City was destroyed.”
The priest glanced at Vash for a moment, and the gunman looked at him, willing him to drop the topic of conversation. It was making Vash nervous, talking about him and his brother as if he weren’t standing right there. When Wolfwood looked back he said, “If there are free-born plants, it must have been because God decided there was too much corruption in the city. I’m kind of surprised that they haven’t come here and destroyed New Miami as well.”
Silence. The group fell silent and a couple of them nodded. Vash wasn’t sure what to say to the priest beside him. How could he respond to that remark? Suddenly he realized that he’d definitely have to sit down with the priest and have a good long talk. There was a lot about his friend that he didn’t know. It kind of freaked him out.
Meryl nearly ran into Milly when they stopped walking, now at the head of the line to get in to see the plants. Milly grabbed Meryl around the shoulders, “This is so exciting! Don’t you think Meryl?” Meryl nodded numbly, scanning the crowd. Her only saving grace was the fact that there weren’t any police to be seen, and it didn’t look like anyone had recognized them from the wanted posters that were undoubtedly being placed around the town at that very moment.
With a hand, Meryl reached up and pulled on Milly’s duster. The tall girl looked down at her. “Milly. I want to get your honest opinion here, because you’ve never been wrong about this before, but, are you absolutely sure that you aren’t getting a bad feeling about all of this?” This answer, Meryl realized, would be the proof she needed to tell whether Milly was still being controlled by Legato. She almost didn’t want to hear the answer, but she knew she had to, that somehow she had to have faith that her friend was still in control of her own powers and that nothing had changed…
Milly bent down to Meryl’s ear and said, “We’re in big trouble, Meryl…” When she did, she looked over her shoulder at Dominique and said, “Excuse us, I have to go visit the little girl’s room.” She dragged Meryl out of the hall and into a smaller foyer, then down a hallway. When they were finally alone, Milly took Meryl’s shoulders and said, “He’s quiet now, but I’m not sure for how long.”
Frowning, Meryl put a hand on Milly’s arm, “Who, who’s quiet?”
“Yellow Eyes,” Milly responded, looking down the hallway and back again before saying, “He’s been whispering for days now. I couldn’t tell you because…” she looked crestfallen, “I knew he’d hear me. But luckily he can’t hear us this close to the plants. I’m sure it’s because he can hear them and their chatter. It’s part of the reason I’ve wanted to come here… The other part is for something else.”
Meryl looked at Milly’s blue eyes. They were disturbed and her features showed that Milly was scared to death of something that Legato was going to make her do. “What, what is it Milly? Why are we here? What is he making you do?”
Milly looked back the way they came, “The plants, Meryl. He wants me to touch them. But I’m not sure what the reason is. All I know is Blondie wants it that way, and that’s what we’ve come here to do. I know he was controlling you, and I hadn’t been able to break the connection until now.” She threw her fists into the opposite wall, her head rested against it, and she hiccupped. “I’m so sorry Meryl, I wasn’t strong enough to stop him from making us do this. And now… I can feel the power growing inside of me. The closer I get to the plants, the more I want to see them, and the more I want to…”
“What is it Milly? Tell me! We can get out of here right now, we don’t have to follow his orders any more.” Meryl turned her body to face the exit, and found her feet planted to the floor. “Uh…” One foot in front of another, that’s it… Nothing. When she looked back the way they came she had no problem moving. “Damn it.”
“I’m the same way,” Milly admitted. “Blondie planted it in us. When he opened up the power he set us on a one-way course to…” she shivered, “I don’t know what.” Tears fell down her cheeks as she looked at Meryl. “What do we do Meryl? I… I can’t save us.”
Meryl closed her eyes, “I can’t either…” Her eyes snapped open, “But I know who can.” She grabbed Milly’s coat, “Milly, call Vash. He’s got to be nearby now, somewhere. Call him, or call Wolfwood, get a hold of them. You said your powers are stronger now, which means you should be able to…”
“I’ve tried already,” Milly said. “I can’t.”
“No! I won’t take that for an answer!” Meryl said, shaking her friend in rage. “I’ll do it then! Vash!! Vash where are you?” She closed her eyes tightly, Vash you have to come get us because we’re in a lot of trouble… The plants Vash, he’s going to have her do something to the plants!! Tears came to her eyes and she sunk down onto the floor, “Vash… Please…”
“Mr. Vash?” Milly said above her.
Meryl looked up at her friend, “Yes Milly… Who else did you think I was talking about…” Her eyes fell suddenly on two men who were coming up the hallway toward them. “Vash?” His clothes were different, his hair different, but it was him, it was really him, and here he was! She choked back tears and couldn’t move. “Oh Vash…”
“Nicholas!” Milly yelled suddenly, her feet weren’t stuck to the floor and she dashed into the priest’s arms and kissed him, then again and again. “Oh thank goodness you’re here!” She clasped her arms around him and didn’t seem like she’d planned on letting him go any time soon.
Vash walked up to Meryl and she swallowed, “Nice get-up.”
“Hello Insurance Girl,” he said with a sly smile. The gunman lifted his yellow sunglasses off his face and said, “Shh… I’m in disguise.” He winked and before she could say anything scooped her into his arms. “Meryl… Are you okay? I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner.” Meryl buried her face into Vash’s chest, her arms around his shoulders. She could smell the new grey leather vest he wore, could feel his arms press her closer into him and finally he lifted her up to his face and kissed her. She fell into his kiss as if she’d gone years without the pressure of his lips, without the tenderness of his embrace… It was almost unbelievable; here he was, with her, now, moments after she asked for him to come…
Meryl pulled away from the kiss and looked into his green blue eyes and said, “What took you so long?”
A pained look crossed his features, “I had some family matters to attend to,” he said after a moment, setting her down on the floor again. “We’ve got to get Milly out of here.” He looked at the tall insurance girl and Meryl followed his glance. “He’s sent her here to absorb them.”
“To what?” Meryl asked, watching as Wolfwood rustled his fingers through Milly’s bangs and then wrapped his hands around her head to pull her into another kiss. “What do you mean absorb them?”
Vash set a hand gently on her shoulder, “If she touches even one…” He pulled Meryl back a step and turned her to look at him. His eyes were so pained she wanted to cry. “There’s something I need to do first,” he said, taking the glove off of his right hand and setting it gently on her temple. “I’ve got to break the tie to Knives.”
Meryl nodded and closed her eyes. “Do it.”
Milly watched Vash and Meryl and turned her eyes to Wolfwood. He smiled gently, “I wish I could do the same thing for you Honey.” Milly nodded, she knew that there was nothing he could do, but she still loved him. It didn’t matter that he had any powers, it was enough that he was here with her right now. For the time being she was free of Yellow Eyes and Blondie, for the most part, although she still could not turn toward the exit.
A scream pierced the hallway, and Meryl looked up in horror. She couldn’t see through the thronging crowd, couldn’t see where she was going, only could see her hand still clutched tightly in Vash’s as they ran. Wolfwood was ahead of them somewhere, pushing people out of the way with his cross punisher. The gun was unwrapped now and many of the people were throwing themselves out of the way to avoid it. “Milly!” Meryl yelled into the huge plant chamber. She shivered, the plants had revealed themselves and she felt sick to her stomach. Sure, she’d heard about what they looked like, but she’d never really seen one… The mass of pulsating cherub bodies made her stomach turn.
Up above, on the nearest platform, two people were pulling a third toward the plant. Meryl screamed, “Vash! Vash! She’s up there!” Vash didn’t have to look at where she was pointing; he looked up and pulled his gun, letting go of her arm.
“EVERYONE DOWN!!” He screamed, letting loose the round into the air and reloading even as people screamed and ducked. The next volley of shots hit near the platform, “Let her go!”
Meryl pulled out her derringers, pushing through the crowd, “Get out of my way!” Wolfwood was already climbing the metal stairs to get to Milly; his gun was aimed at the Gung-ho Guns. Meryl ran after him, aiming her guns at whoever got in her way. Vash trailed after her now, although his outfit might not have caused panic in the crowd, but the large silver gun did.
“Hurry!” Vash yelled, even as he stopped to reload again. “Don’t let her touch the plant!”
Without another glance over her shoulder, Meryl pounded up the metal stairs after Wolfwood. His gun was pointed at Dominique; apparently the greater of two evils, and Meryl came up next to him, lowering her derringers on Zazie. “Let her go, NOW.”
Zazie stepped back. He looked at Dominique and shrugged, “Sorry, toots. You’re on your own.” He ran off the platform and slipped into the crowd. Meryl moved her derringers to Dominique now, the boy wasn’t important. Without having the two hired guns shoving Milly to the plant, it would all be over. Meryl frowned; she could kill the bitch, right here and now. Sure, maybe Vash couldn’t do it, but she could, and she’d save Milly…
A hand settled on Meryl’s shoulder and she looked up suddenly to see Vash beside her. Meryl bit her lip, Damn it, I can’t kill her with Vash here… He lowered his gun at Dominique as well. “I thought I told you to wear a dress the next time I saw you.”
Dominique sneered, “You shouldn’t have left me alive.” She grabbed Milly’s hand and shoved it toward the plant. “Don’t worry, thanks to you, I can obey Knives’ bidding. Once this girl takes one of them, she won’t be able to stop.”
Meryl fired a shot at Dominique, it hit her in the shoulder, and she cringed, letting loose of Milly. Suddenly Dominique wasn’t standing next to Milly, but at Meryl’s side. Meryl didn’t have time to open her mouth, it happened so quickly. Dominique’s gun went off near her chest and Meryl flew backwards, toppling down the stairs. There was yelling and Meryl wondered if she was dying…
“Meryl!” And then Vash was there, holding her in his arms. “Are you okay? I didn’t mean to push you down the stairs…” He looked sorry, eyes pained, and she looked up at him curiously.
“Am I dead?”
Vash chuckled, “Not yet.” He pulled her to her feet and that’s when Meryl saw the red spot on his shoulder as it spread into the white cloth of his shirt. He grimaced, “Don’t worry, I’ll live.” The gunman’s eyes focused on Dominique, Milly and Wolfwood. The priest couldn’t fire his cross punisher, he was too close to Milly and the plant. “I think he needs help,” Vash said.
Meryl pulled out a new set of derringers, but even as she did, the plant within the huge glass globe was unfolding. It opened like so many flower petals, feathers forming lacy patterns in the clear bulb. Then the plant itself appeared, she looked like… Like an elf, Meryl mused, and she blinked. What’s an elf? But the long graceful ears and the flowing hair, the pupil-less eyes… They all looked familiar to her somehow. But I’ve never seen a plant before today… Meryl found that she couldn’t move, nailed to the spot, enthralled by the angel within the glass.
“Please no…” Milly made the last attempt to stop from touching the glass. But as her fingers touched the smooth surface, she knew there was nothing she could do. The plant was descending. It came down to her, curious, eyes void of emotion, and yet Milly knew what she was thinking. She wanted to see the human with the strange powers, ones so close to her own. Tears rolled down Milly’s face, “No…” Now one could move as the plant pressed her fingers opposite the glass.
Wolfwood leaned against the metal grating of the platform. Of any place they could have chosen to come this morning, it had to be here again, in front of the huge glass globes, with those strange creatures behind the glass. He wasn’t wearing his suit. It felt, somehow, not right any more. He didn’t want to be associated with the plant worshippers any more, or with Knives, for that matter. Nicholas shook his head; he’d wear his suit again… The pullover and jeans weren’t exactly his style. But they made it easier to blend in. Besides, these were what Milly bought him, and he was proud to have a girlfriend with a good sense of style… Then again, maybe the other insurance girl helped her. The short one seemed to have a slightly more updated look to her.
At the moment, Meryl was wearing a white dress with an Asian-style collar. The dress flared out around the bottom, and she swished in it as she walked past with Vash. He smiled down at her, wearing a dress shirt and slacks, sans the vest and glasses that made him look like a bookie. It wasn’t like he could wear the getup anyway; it had holes and bloodstains now.
But it was Milly… Milly he most admired at this moment. She was in an honest to goodness dress. Milly stared up at the clear glass globe and turned to look at Wolfwood. She smiled and the smile extended up to her eyes and they glittered in the sunlight that came from cracks in the ship above. The dress she wore was simple, just a light blue to match her eyes, but it fit her figure perfectly and made her look like the girl he always thought she could look like when she wasn’t wearing ties and suspenders.
“What are you looking at?” She asked, stretching out a hand for him to take.
Wolfwood smiled, “You Honey. I was just thinking how nice it would be to get you out of that dress…” Ah, there was that blush, it covered her face in a most tempting shade of pink that he wanted to kiss every inch of it. Unfortunately, where they were at the moment, would not allow for such temptations. Next time I get her alone… He thought eagerly to himself and Milly turned darker. “Hey, you weren’t reading my thoughts just then were you?”
Milly shook her head, “No, but I could see by the look on your face what you were thinking.” She pulled him close to her and brushed her lips near his, “I was thinking the same thing.”
“Hey you two,” a voice came from behind them, and Wolfwood turned to look at Meryl and Vash. Meryl placed her hands on her hips, “Man, what is it with you two? You’re always hanging all over each other… Get a room.”
“We were just talking about that,” Nicholas replied with a sly grin. “I think maybe we should, you know right now…” He trailed off as Milly pulled him up to the plant instead of down the stair. “Uh, what are you doing?”
Suddenly Vash and Meryl were next to him as well. “Do you know what you’re doing?” Vash said hurriedly. He started to step forward, but Milly turned and smiled at him.
“It’s okay Mr. Vash. I can control it now…” She placed fingers on the glass and the plant glowed, but did not uncurl, did not respond more than that to her touch. “See?” She turned and grabbed Wolfwood’s hand. “I’m sorry I dragged you all back up here again… I just wanted to… To make sure.”
“What a relief,” Meryl sighed beside them. Her face lit up, “Well, what do you say we finish our shopping spree now?”
Wolfwood looked at the girls and then at Vash. “Um, I don’t suppose you’ll let us sit this one out, do you?”
Milly giggled at his side, “That’s silly. Of course you’re going to come with us. We need someone to hold all of our packages.” She pulled at his arm and they headed down the stairs. Behind him he could hear Vash and Meryl chuckling. Milly looked over her shoulder, “But first, I need pudding. And lots of it. I have a requirement of five helpings a day and by my calculations I’m behind two days’ worth.”
“Whatever you wish,” Wolfwood responded. He smiled to himself. She was back. His Milly was back. All of her. This wasn’t the powerful warrior, not the pained girl wondering where her family was… This was Milly, the loving, wonderful, delightful, ever pleasant, pudding-crazed girl that he loved. “I’m yours to command,” he added following her down the stairs. As long as she doesn’t ask me to give up cigarettes completely, he thought to himself. Then again, maybe I could make that sacrifice too.
“You’d better,” Milly said over her shoulder, “Because it’s a nasty habit.” She smiled slyly as he looked at her. Okay, so maybe she’s not completely the same… “But you love me anyways,” Milly added for him as they headed to the food court.
“So, uh what are we going to do about the bounties on our heads?” Meryl asked the group as she spooned a banana sundae into her mouth. She looked around to the others. Up until this point they hadn’t much thought about it. After the incident with the plants, the four of them crashed out in the boy’s room. The commotion pulled the police officers from the front door, and they were all but forgotten the next morning. Still, no matter if the police had given up, there was still a matter of bounty hunters and the fact that if the news spread to December City they’d lose their jobs.
“Oh yeah, I’d completely forgotten about that,” Milly said around her spoon. She was already on her seventh bowl of pudding and counting. Wolfwood bought her two at a time and promised that as long as she kept eating them, he’d keep on buying them. “I think it’s about time that the true culprits stepped forth, don’t you think Meryl?”
Vash and Wolfwood looked at one another, then at the girls. “You want us to do what?” Wolfwood shook his head, “No way, I don’t want to go to prison.”
“Do you think we do?” Meryl hissed at him. “You’re the only one without a bounty on your head at this table. It’s a good thing that with all the commotion yesterday that no one is bothering to come look for us. Otherwise you’d be visiting Milly in jail about now for a crime you committed.” Her eyes turned to Vash. “WELL?”
His aqua eyes twinkled. “I don’t know, your idea about turning in Wolfwood was pretty good to me.”
The gunman shrugged, “Well, you were the one who decided to steal that car. You were the one who said ‘this is the way to travel’… So I’d say it would only be fair if you served the time.” He stuck a whole donut in his mouth at one time and moaned in delight. “Dis is so goob.”
“You’re all against me, aren’t you?” Wolfwood pouted until Milly patted his hand. She held the spoon in the other.
“I have an idea,” Milly said after a moment. “You said that the mayor only wanted to have us arrested because the car was damaged right?” She pulled over the next bowl of pudding and added, “What if we get him a new car? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?”
Meryl set her chin on a hand, “And where do you suppose we’ll get the money to buy a brand new car?”
“Oh, I didn’t think about that.”
Wolfwood coughed and the threesome looked at him. He frowned, “I do have an idea… But I really wasn’t going to say anything, because…” The priest trailed off and reached into his pocket and produced a wad of bills. He handed them over to Milly and everyone looked at him like he’d struck oil or something.
“How..?” Vash said, pulling the donut he was about to eat from his mouth. “No, you didn’t…”
“I… I didn’t want to, but you know, being poor and all, and with all that money sitting around…” He grimaced and said, “I took it… I took it from Tin Town. But it’s really yours Milly, in the letters… The letters you’ve been writing home, all of that money, it wasn’t claimed and I thought, well, she should have this, or maybe I could take care of you with it…” He closed his eyes, waiting for the punishment to be handed down. “There’s about a three thousand double dollars worth.” After a moment, he didn’t receive any harsh words or remarks from either of the girls and he opened his eyes.
Meryl sighed. Milly was clutching the money in her arms tears pouring down her cheeks. “Now look what you did.”
Wolfwood stuttered, “But, I mean… I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“It’s okay,” Milly stammered. “I just… They didn’t get any of them, did they? They don’t exist do they?” She threw the money down on the table and wrapped her arms around Wolfwood. “Where is my family? Why do I remember all of this if it didn’t happen? Where do we come from?”
“From Earb,” Vash said through a donut. Milly, Meryl, and Wolfwood looked at him. He swallowed, brushed the powder off of his fingers and reached into his pocket. “I’ve been meaning to show you this since Wolfwood pointed it out to me.” He pulled the photograph he’d stolen from Meryl’s apartment and set it on the table in front of her. Tapping it with one finger he said, “Look at what you’re wearing.”
Meryl shrugged, “It’s a swimsuit. So what?”
Vash nodded, “And where are you standing?”
“In a pond.”
“There are no ponds on Gunsmoke,” Wolfwood added, looking down at Milly. He grabbed a napkin off the table and wiped her cheeks with it. Meryl watched them and then looked down at the picture again.
“It’s Earth?” Meryl picked up the photograph and what she saw suddenly sunk in. There weren’t swimsuits on Gunsmoke because there were no standing lakes, rivers or ponds. Only the very rich even had pools, but she and Milly grew up on a farm. They didn’t have… They had a pond, didn’t they? But there were no ponds around that house in Tin Town; there were no trees either… “It really is Earth.” Meryl’s mouth dropped open and she shoved the photograph at Milly.
“But I don’t ever remember being on Earth,” Milly said, sniffling, blowing her nose into the napkin. “I think I’d remember if I had.”
Meryl rolled her eyes, “Well, that’s the point Milly. Besides, it’s been a hundred and thirty years since the ships crashed here… So where were we all that time?” She looked at each of her friends until her eyes fell on Vash. He shrugged.
“Guess we’re just going to have to find out won’t we?”
“I guess we will…” Meryl trailed off as Milly handed her the picture once again. “Earth eh?”