"Gunsmoke & Feathers Alternate Universe"
"Part 8 Into the Future"

By Ricki, Susan, and Catherine

****This story is rated PG****
Special thanks to Susan and Catherine - loyal writers, editors, friends and Trigun fans!! I couldn't write this story without you both! ^_^

Ch. 3-4 Ch. 5-6 Ch. 6-Epilogue

Chapter 1
Anything You Want... Anything At All
          Meryl closed her eyes and all she could see were stars, hundreds and thousands of stars in all directions. They were numbered and named and some of them had planets around them, some of them had long turned into black holes where the Snakes came from, a galaxy no human ever visited. She also saw a little planet that orbited dual suns, it was a hundred light years from a black hole, the destination of Sweetness' mother ship, the power of which flung it out into space to this tiny planet, to the sand, to the strange alien being who lived in a glass cage on this side of the door. It was there that all of her memories flooded back into reality, all of her piloting abilities resurfaced and knowledge of the past few years....
          When Meryl opened her eyes, she was in her bunk, staring up at a birthday card Milly made for her twenty-third birthday. Beside her Vash lay on the floor softly sleeping. He was hardly moving but for the fluttering of dreaming eyelids. She could fix Sweetness now; all of the problems the ship experienced after the crash were gone. She and Milly could just pick up and go back to Earth and it wouldn't even take long, maybe a few years in their cold sleep pods... Sure, she hated to sleep, but without the added propulsion from the black hole and the Snakes interference, the trip would be longer. But home! Now she knew exactly where it was, remembered every little detail of the apartments she and Milly kept on the space base on Alpha 2 Minor, the Christmas visits with Milly's huge family in Nebraska back on the planet. They could go back, back to the fight...
          She cast a lingering look at Vash's relaxed face as he slept. He looked so peaceful and sweet in his slumber. The desire to touch him was building as she let her eyes wander over his sleeping form. She could go back but did she want to? Even entertaining the thought was causing a painful constriction in her chest. Every thing she used to hold dear on the other side of the night sky may be gone, yet here lay an alien dressed in a red coat with the most beautiful deep sea green eyes that it made her knees weak when he gazed at her. Feeling the prick of tears stinging her eyes, she reached down and gently ran light fingertips over strands of Vash's yellow hair. A small smile played across the corners of her lips as she felt the soft locks flow over her fingers like golden sunlight. He was so exasperatingly adorable, so cute in that endearing puppy dog way... he was stirring! Hastily she slipped her hand back and stuck it under the covers ready to feign sleep if he woke. Barely cracking one eyelid, she looked at him and relaxed when she saw that he was still asleep. Unknowingly she smiled again as she watched him lick his lips while emitting a small whine. Vash was probably dreaming about donuts. She shook her head, what a goof.
          Returning to her previous thoughts, she sorted over and pondered the information she and Vash were putting together. From what Vash said the fight was over... Long over with now. The evening before, Vash told her that the planet was settled one hundred and thirty years ago. Apparently the ships were forced to go deep into space after a war lead to the destruction of all the colonies. In their desperate struggle to survive, even the Earth became a casualty. Very few records survived that conflict but from the pieces of information they shared, Vash was fairly sure it must have been the Human-Snake war. However, there was no proof one way or the other that Earth still existed, or that she could even go back there if it did.
          All of her friends and family were dead and gone, although perhaps they were cryogenically frozen somewhere in the remains of the migratory ships. Maybe her relatives were here somewhere... Maybe Milly's too?
          Sitting straight up in bed, Meryl hit her head on the bottom of the bunk above her and started cussing. Vash shot up to her side, concern radiating from every tense line in his body. "Are you okay Meryl?" He watched as she rubbed her head from the sudden bump and she nodded numbly. So much for not disturbing his sleep.
          "Fine, fine... But I think I need to research something."
          Vash pulled to his knees, leaning against the bed as Meryl watched him. “What do you need? I’ll get whatever it is,” his eyes were so intensely innocent Meryl felt her heart pounding. Whatever it is your heart desires, the phrase echoed in her head from some old romance novel and Vash was her knight in shining armor, ready to go on a quest to slay the dragon or find a golden apple. She turned her gaze from him, it wasn’t real was it? There wasn’t such a thing as knights and… She felt a large warm hand slip under her hand and hold it, her violet eyes swung back to look into his aqua ones. “Please, just tell me what you’re thinking otherwise I’ll be tempted to read your mind,” he smiled and lifted her hand to his lips, kissed it, and his eyes never once wavered behind that amused smile.
          “Don’t you dare,” she said, knowing he wouldn’t, but feeling she should put her foot down just in case. “I need access to a computer.” Meryl watched a strange expression flicker over Vash’s face, like a ghost had pressed cold fingers into the back of his neck and whispered in his ear. The light went from his eyes for a split second until he blinked and by then Meryl was frowning. “What’s wrong?”
          Vash shook his head, “Nothing… Just hearing you say you want a computer, I’m not used to it. There are only a handful of people on this planet outside of the plant engineers who even know what a computer is, little lone know how to use one.” He chuckled to himself, “I suppose everything is a bit different now isn’t it? You have memories of a time before even I existed… You have no idea how refreshing it is! How many years I wandered this planet thinking no one would ever believe my stories and yet… Now I’m having a tough time believing yours!” He sat back on his haunches, placing his chin on their hands. “It’ll be difficult getting to an active computer.”
          Meryl nodded slowly, “Yes, I suppose you’re right. The plant engineers probably removed any unnecessary information on the past from their hard drives, and there aren’t any SEEDS ships still active on the planet…”
          “There are,” Vash cut her off. “You just have to know where to find them. Luckily,” he said with a small smile and a twinkle in his eyes, “You’re talking to the only one on the planet who knows all of them.” He watched Meryl’s expression turn to one of doubt and laughed, “You think just because I’m a gunman who uses an old six-shooter that I don’t know how to use a computer? There’s still a lot about me you don’t know! A hundred and thirty years is a lot of stories!” He pulled away and stood up, towering over the bunk so Meryl had to lean out to see his face. “What time is it?”
          “I’m not sure, maybe noon? It’s hard to tell down here.” Meryl frowned looking around the room. That evening before the four had moved their belongings down the long staircase to where Sweetness was stored before setting up camp and going to bed. Milly and Wolfwood were in an adjoining room that looked identical to theirs, undoubtedly asleep still. For at least two hours after they settled down for the night Meryl went over her story with Vash and the others. Milly never asked any questions, she remained quiet, lips pursed, eyes down-turned in thought, maybe trying to remember the story herself. Wolfwood asked a few questions when the mention of Knives came up, but otherwise his eyes remained on Milly’s head. Vash had so many questions that by the time Milly and Wolfwood went to bed he was only half way through. Meryl was unable to ask him how he was, what was flickering past those haunted eyes from time to time as she mentioned the plants, mentioned them being from an alien source, and at one point, Vash mumbled, ‘The stories don’t match…’ After that he feel asleep.
          How long had they slept? As far as Meryl could remember Vash usually woke at 6am, she timed him once. She was usually up about five-thirty if someone gave her an actual alarm, but with the strange schedule and absolute lack of sunlight, she wasn’t sure. “I need to get a watch,” she muttered to herself. “I’m not even sure what day it is, what does it matter anyway?”
          Vash wasn’t paying any attention to her now, searching through the tall duffle bag he usually kept over his shoulder. Before now Meryl never paid it much attention, but now as he sifted through it, taking items out, she started to realize there was a treasure-trove of unknown information. Sure, she knew more about Vash then most people, but only surface information. What did he do in the past? Did he have girlfriends? Did he have friends? Did he have hobbies, likes, dislikes, a place he called home, a lucky pair of boxers? Vash was pulling sweatpants, t-shirts, boxers, comb, brushes, other toiletries, towels, and other normal things… Then came other items, a little key chain, an ink pen, a marker, a notebook, a pocketknife, a lighter, a little doll, until he finally came to the bottom when he pulled out an alarm clock. It was ticking merrily, although the quartz was broken, the time read five o’clock. “If I knew what day it was… We might be just in time or we may have to wait a month before…” Vash mumbled to himself, and then dropped the clock back into his bag. “We will have to get going right away or we’ll miss our chance.”
          Meryl looked at him, “What are you talking about?”
          He grinned, “You’ll see.”

What She Doesn't Say
          Nicholas pulled himself higher up against the wall and looked over at Milly’s sleeping form. The others were outside the little ship, he heard them talking, most likely plotting some kind of thing which he was sure would put them into even more danger than they were already in. He smiled to himself, at least, for the time being, they were all safe and sound, and Milly was sleeping so soundly that she didn’t even wake up when he brushed a stray hair out of her eye and kissed her forehead. She really is beautiful when she’s sleeping, he thought and sat back down on the floor.
          The story the little insurance girl told that evening still went over in his mind and even how happy the big girl seemed, his worries grew even stronger. Knives… If he knew the plan for the twins and their mates, then she was in grave danger. No wonder he’d already tried to make a guinea pig out of her once. He wanted to protect her, but how? How when he at one time worked for the very monster who wanted to take her away from him.
          Wolfwood sighed. This was no good at all. He tried to sever the ties to his old boss and yet who was to say when Knives would pull the trump card… The orphanage. How long would it be safe now that Knives knew Nicholas was playing for the other team? Already they were in danger since he had been away too long… How were they? He didn’t even know. For now he worried only about Milly, but the kids… He told her a lot about his past, about the orphanage, but never that it was for their safety he followed Vash. Nick supposed the others all just figured the children were safe and sound somewhere otherwise he would never have left them. But the truth was Evergreen and Caine were still in the town, and the moment Knives gave the signal the two could destroy the entire town in a matter of moments and there would be nothing left to go back to. He squeezed his eyes shut, if they were gone, even Milly’s love would not be able to save him from what he would do.
          “You okay Mr.… Nicholas?” Milly rubbed her eyes as she looked at him, she yawned, and those blue eyes were red from lack of sleep. Her hair was a mess, it spread everywhere on the bunk, falling in snarls and rivulets over the pillow. She closed one eye, unable to get both of her eyes adjusted on him at one time and her mouth opened into a small smile. “Did you sleep okay? You have darker rings under your eyes then usual…”
          With a shrug the priest just brought his knees up to his chest and looked out the window. “I had a lot less sleep in the past, I’ll be fine. How about you?”
          “I had a very strange dream,” she said slowly, finally being able to open both eyes and she pulled out of the bunk and slid onto the floor next to him, her head was too tall to sit up comfortably on the bed, Nicholas noted. Milly shivered and he moved a leg and pulled her to sit between his legs, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. “I had this dream that I was wearing a big fluffy pink dress and was serving tea and crumpets…” She giggled, “I’ve never owned a pink dress, I hate pink.”
          Wolfwood chuckled in her ear and put his chin on her shoulder lightly, careful not to let it dig into her soft skin. She shivered again as his breath caught her ear, and he closed his eyes, smelling in her scent, wondering if it would last more then just these few moments. Without hesitation he nibbled on her ear and felt Milly’s temperature raise, she giggled and he could feel her arm lift as fingers lightly touched his face. “So what you’re saying is you want to see me in a pink dress?”
          “More like a white one,” Nicholas found himself saying, and his eyes opened. Did I just say that out loud?? Milly was looking at him with a softly shocked expression. “You know, when…” He trailed off and pulled her to look at him, “I don’t want to lose you. Do you think I’m being selfish? I want to marry you and have children.”
          Milly blinked at him, and she closed her eyes. “Yes, when this is over we will.”
          “You speak like you know,” the priest said, lifting her chin slightly, looking at her soft lips, waiting for the answer before kissing her. Milly’s eyes opened instead of answering him and she frowned, her expression distant. When had she become so cold? “Are you sure taking that GeoPlant…”
          “That’s silly, I’m just the same as I’ve ever been before,” she said but not very convincingly for either of them. “I want to marry you too, so it’ll happen right? I don’t need to know the future…” Milly smiled, the expression slipping a moment later. “Sure, I hear voices in my head. I have dreams; I have nightmares that come true. Legato is nearby, Knives wants me because some ancient plant wanted me to become his mate, I’ve received powers no human should ever have, I have fallen in love with a man who kills while carrying a cross… My family died hundreds of years ago on a planet I don’t even remember, the family I thought I had never existed, and I’m supposed to be a navigator on this little ship, trained to do something I can’t remember… And when it all comes down to it I know exactly what day it is. It’s Monday and I’m facing east.”
          Nicholas’ mouth slipped open without him realizing it. Everything that was on her mind at that very moment slipped out into the air between them and he knew it all right then and there. The shy and quiet insurance girl had just let it all slip out, and she was now bundling it all right back up inside of her as he watched. The walls were rising again, and he grabbed her cheeks, kissed her deeply and said, “Don’t pack it away again.”
          “You don’t want to hear what’s wrong with me,” she said. “Girls are confusing even to me and I am one. I don’t like dresses or make up or doing up my hair, I’ve seen things most people have never seen, been in more dangerous situations, and nearly killed Mr. Vash whose supposed to be immortal… I don’t want this, I should have stayed on the farm with my family, should have just married the first boy my parents set me up with, I shouldn’t have followed Meryl… But I worried about her, she was the first person who didn’t care that I was quiet, that I had thoughts hidden up in my head which would never come out, she didn’t mind that I wasn’t a boy-magnet, she liked me for my midnight pudding runs and my stories about my older brothers and sisters.” Milly slumped against him and wrapped her arms around his torso and started to cry. “I’m so afraid Nicholas. I just want to stay here with you in your arms, want to feel your warm hands on my back, I want you to tell me that everything will be okay, that we’ll go away from here. We’ll go to your orphanage and we’ll take care of the children and we’ll have a bunch more of our own, we’ll have a little white picket fence and a dog and a funny little cat and you’ll open a church and we’ll have Sunday brunch with everyone in the town. I’ll cook and mend socks and worry about getting the house cleaned after the kids have gone to bed, worry about getting the bills paid on time, worry about all of the things that two people worry about together…” Her voice trailed off in a choking cry that went on for a very long time after that.
          The priest held her as tight to him as he could, he would pull her into himself if he could. This big girl was just a girl, there was no denying that, and she had been so strong until now, but now it was… What could he do but hold her just like this? He would take her away to the orphanage, that’s what he’d do. He’d say goodbye to Needle Noggin and the little girl, and just go. They’d have to take care of Caine and Evergreen… But that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, and then if Knives ever showed up they would just… What could they do against him? He’d kill the bastard. He’d fight the madman as long and hard as he could as long as he kept the plant away from Milly. He wouldn’t have Milly, period.
          Milly’s sobs died down after a time, and he looked up as Meryl and Vash stood in the doorway with confused and concerned expressions. Milly was asleep, he could feel her breathing soften. So that’s why she was so open with him a few moments before, she was still half-asleep, and most likely would not remember most of the conversation they had when she woke the second time. He sighed; at least she would feel better now, more open, more like herself since she let it out. “She’s just tired,” he said after a moment. “So am I.”
          Vash nodded, “We are going to have to get going soon. We need to be in New Oregon by the first Friday of the month…”
          “Well, we aren’t going to make it,” Wolfwood said slowly. “It’s Monday, and New Oregon is nearly a week’s drive away.”
          Meryl frowned, “How do you know what day it is?”
          “This little clock, calendar, compass combo I have sleeping in my arms said so a few minutes ago.”
          “Oh,” Meryl looked up at Vash, “He’s right, we won’t make it. And I’m still not sure exactly why you’re keeping so quiet…”
          Vash put a finger on her lips and smiled wistfully, “It’s a secret,” he sing-songed. “But if that’s the case, we’ll never get there in time with any land vehicle. We’d need a ship to get there in time.”
          Wolfwood used a knuckle to wrap against the hull of the ship. “Um, aren’t you forgetting something? We’re sitting in a ship, right? I know I’m a hick from this time period, but I do know that much.”
          Meryl and Vash looked at each other and a grin spread over their faces. “For once, he’s right,” Vash said.
          “Hey!” An indignant Wolfwood protested.
          “I’ll get started right away,” Meryl disappeared with Vash behind her. Wolfwood started to wonder what it would be like to fly. Then his heart started to flutter; maybe it would be better if he’d just kept his mouth shut… Wasn’t flying kind of dangerous? This ship had already crashed once, right?
          “You, me, one big bowl of pudding…” Milly mumbled, half-asleep. “Hee hee, naked.”
          Eyes wide, Nicholas didn’t worry about flying after that.

All Seats in Their Upright Positions...
         “What about the flux?” Meryl said, looking up from the floor panel at Milly, busy looking over the gauges. The control panels were brightly lit, flashing merrily, most of the dials were green this time unlike the last time the two had been within their ship.
          Milly tapped the nearest gauge, the arrow was on the zero, and she shook her head, “Nothing Meryl. How about you Mr. Vash?” She cast a look over her shoulder at the empty cabinet where Vash was busy working connections. Both girls were amazed he could even figure them out, little lone make them work. As it was he’d already rerouted nearly the entire conduit system of the ship that once attached the power monitors to the ancient “plant” the girls had named Lima Bean.
          Meanwhile, Mr. Wolfwood was opening the way to the outside. A shaft of light fell down on them from over a thousand feet above; little pieces of debris littered the once clean floor of the plant room.
          “She worked before we had Lima Bean, so she’ll work now that it’s gone, I assure you,” Meryl said hastily. “I just wish you remembered something because we’re moving only half the speed we normally would have, even with Vash’s help.” The gunman glanced over his shoulder, a sharp snap issued from the wires he was working with and the lights within the ship flickered for a moment.
          “There! Fifty-percent!” Milly said triumphantly, “Whatever it is you just did Mr. Vash, keep going and we’ve got it!” She smiled, “You did tell me it needed to be at one hundred percent, right Meryl?” Milly waited for an answering nod from Meryl before going back to watching the dials. Meryl disappeared beneath the panel again, and a sound issued from the engine, the sound of a fan, and a few beeps from the control panel. “Oh, more green lights Meryl!”
          Meryl nodded to herself before saying out loud, “Good Milly, just let me know when they’re all green, okay?” She reached up into the paneling, trying to remember what the guys at the shop said to her about how the plant’s systems differed from their normal nuclear fusion generators. It had only been two months between receiving the plant and their crash in the desert and there were so many other memories jumbling up with her newly reacquired ones. “Vash, what’s the status of the generator?”
          “It looks okay… The breakdown hasn’t been very significant; I’d say only about two hundred years at the most. Should have plenty of power to get into the atmosphere if I can get the final connections… But everything is just so… Primitive.
          “I choose to ignore that,” Meryl huffed, following the laser optic lines to the semi-conductor and unhooking them, slowly re-hooking them to the older lines. She received another chirp from Milly, only two more red lights to go she reported. “How’s Mr. Wolfwood going on getting us our exit? Why don’t you go check?” Meryl could hear the tall girl’s footsteps bounding out of the ship and Meryl breathed a sigh of relief. Milly had been in the way the entire process, trying to be helpful, but her help was only becoming more aggravating… Meryl had leaned on Milly the entire time they went through the Academy. It had never occurred to her, until she tried to remember how the gauges worked, that Milly had merely been an extension of herself knowing the little nuances of Sweetness she never bothered to remember herself.
          Vash made a cough behind her and Meryl pulled out from the panel. He nodded to the gauge, “I got the last one to work. Shall we fire her up?” The gunman sat down in Milly’s navigation seat and Meryl had a twinge of guilt that she was betraying her friend… Only for a moment, as she sat in her own chair, started flipping switches as Vash easily settled into Milly’s normal routine.
          Meryl glanced at him out of the corner of her eye in wonder. How had he learned so much about flying? She was sure he mentioned being on a ship as a young boy... Or was there even more that he hadn’t told her? How did he know how to fly this ‘primitive’ ship anyway? She was on fire to ask him, but at the moment Sweetness was purring and the controls read all green, so her questions would remain unanswered. When there was time she was going to be asking some very specific and penetrating questions and she wasn’t going to let him goofy grin his way out of them either. She was giving him an appraising look when he turned to face her and caught it. Knowing the look for what it was, he grinned and said, “Later,” and turned back to feeding in navigational equations while removing old restriction codes and replacing them with new ones he was writing on the spur of the moment.
          Just then Milly and Wolfwood appeared at the door. “It’ll be a tight squeeze,” the priest said apologetically, positioning his cross punisher in an empty corner. “I ran out of ammo.” The explosions above had made little impact to those on the ground floor of the plant room, but there had been a deep rock layer to get through. “You should be able to make it though if you’re as good of a pilot as the big girl keeps making you out to be.” He wandered to an emergency seat and strapped himself in. “I sure hope you are…”
          Milly waved a hand, “Don’t be silly… You are good, right?” She frowned slightly, Milly had always believed Meryl could do everything, and for the most part Meryl proved her correct. Even at this point in time the big girl was guessing since she couldn’t really remember the details, but Meryl wasn’t about to let her down this late in the game. “Anyway, this should be a lot of fun, I’ve never flown before!” She put a hand to her mouth, “I mean…”
          “I know what you mean, Honey,” Nicholas said to her, helping her strap into the other emergency landing seat. “Now maybe we should just be quiet while they get us off the ground on whatever fools’ errand we’re going on.”
          Meryl glanced at the priest over her shoulder, his eyes were worried, always on Milly, and she wondered if maybe they should have just left them behind. Her friends would have been safer here, Knives had not shown any sign of interest with this plant facility, so he might not even know of it, especially now that the plant was gone. However, he was tracking Milly, it was something she couldn’t deny. And from the strange feeling even she was having in these last few hours, she knew Legato wasn’t far off either. Suddenly she was very glad that they had a ship, something Knives and the others didn’t have access to.
          “Alright, put all your tray tables up and your seats in their upright positions,” she said cheerily, although none of the others got the joke and looked at her in confusion. “Here we go,” Meryl shot, and grabbed the main controls, pulling the stick back toward her and Sweetness made a short hop upward and floated above the ground at five feet. “YES!”
          Vash was busy, his hands flickering over the keys to her left. “Keep her steady, the hole is about five feet to nine o’clock, you need to make adjustments to avoid hitting the ceiling.” He never looked up, his eyes were preoccupied as Meryl nodded and made the small adjustments, pulling back on the controls ever so slightly, the ship rose steadily into the air now, the cave floor disappearing below them. “Okay Meryl, one more foot to the right… Okay, good, here we go…” And suddenly, daylight streamed in on all sides, so bright! Multiple suns were up in the sky; it was mid-afternoon now on Tuesday. “Great job, now we need an altitude of about a thousand feet, then turn about ninety degrees…”
          Meryl heard Vash and did as he told, but her mind was elsewhere. This was the reason she always wanted to be a pilot, the absolute freedom of having her own ship. It wasn’t like having a car, they had barriers, had to follow roads… Even the hovercraft her parents owned was not like this… No, that was merely a pleasure-craft in comparison to Sweetness. It could take them away from this planet, away from the gunpowder and the sand… back to, back to where? Meryl sighed, even as Milly and Wolfwood made sounds of awe and surprise behind her. Yes, they were enjoying themselves as well. Only Vash seemed completely focused on the task ahead.
          “Heading locked, auto-pilot initiated,” Vash said after a moment and he lifted his warm aqua eyes to smile at Meryl. “You really are a good pilot. Much better then I was at your age.” He winked mysteriously and leaned back in his seat, his head turned to look over his shoulder at their two passengers who were completely enthralled with the ground far below. “I sometimes forget that most people on this planet have never flown before. They seem to be enjoying the view.”
          Nodding, Meryl smiled at Milly, her hands pressed up against the window. This was completely different than the last time they were in the ship when she was anxiously trying to get them situated after the crash, in control of running through the emergency landing procedures. But now Milly sat in utter amazement at such a simple thing as flying. “So what exactly are we meeting up with, Vash? I think it’s about time you let me know why we were in such a rush to get moving.”
          Vash turned his gaze toward her, giving Meryl one of his million-dollar “trust me” smiles. She frowned as he fiddled with one of the strands of hair that fell out of his recently spiked hairdo; purposely ignoring her. He’d made a specific effort that morning to dress in his normal red coat and spiked locks. Meryl knew he was avoiding her question as usual, but for what reason, she wasn’t sure. He was so infuriating at times! Why the suspense? What was it that he was hiding that they would discover in just a few hours anyway? Crossing her arms over her chest she wondered why men were so selfish sometimes. “I’m not being selfish,” Vash said, before realizing what he’d done and put his hands up to his mouth. “Oops.”
          “You! What did I tell you…”
          “It’s a ship! It didn’t crash Meryl, we’re going there,” he said, avoiding the inevitable fight after he read her mind. Meryl thought about continuing the argument, but what he said interested her too much. Vash continued when he saw she was letting it slide, “About thirty years ago they found me out in the sand… then after July gave me my arm, my clothes… It’s a bit beaten up after so many years, but the computers are all in working order and the people there live like they did on Earth before they came to this planet with all the modern technologies.” He closed his eyes, “It’s my home.”

Past Tense
         New Oregon was a little town with a lot of big problems. There were two arguing factions, and there had been ever since he came there the first time. From time to time he’d solve some problem, save someone, and it never failed that he’d end up in some dispute over a plant facility none of the families knew how to use and always gave up to the engineers in the end. This time Vash wondered if things might be different, but he wasn’t all that worried this time as Sweetness set down in an abandoned farmyard where Meryl and Milly hurried to hide it within the empty barn. He stretched, it was good to be back on solid ground, in a few hours they’d be up in the sky again, and Vash realized how much he enjoyed being on the ground, moving at his own pace with his own two feet.
          So many modern people, whether in the past or present, they always strove to be faster, to move ahead quicker, to be the best and to get where they were going no matter how far away it was. They used to call it the “rat race” Rem told him at one point, and then she’d laugh and say, “They might as well be chasing after cheese, because that’s all it is, just one fleeting appetizer after another, never ending.” Vash didn’t understand what she meant at first, but as time went on he realized that his slow paced lifestyle as a drifter was the exact opposite of Rem’s race. He liked it, knowing that he was dependent only upon himself. If he got there by foot then he could get back the same way. Too many times he had been stuck in uncomfortable circumstances, forever waiting upon someone else, and it irked him. Sure, he liked speed but the hurry up and wait aspect of life… Vash was sure he could live without, and for many years he did. At least until he met the insurance girls.
          Now they were in New Oregon, and there was a day left before the typhoon would blow into town and so would the SEEDS ship. He had, at one point, considered having Meryl fly Sweetness up to meet the ship, but remembered something the Doc told him once, that the defense system was still active, and any ship nearing it would be blown to pieces. Not wanting himself, or his friends in pieces, he decided they take the lift, even if it was dangerous.
          Wolfwood came up to Vash’s side, setting his belongings down next to them. His cross punisher left a long shadow across the ground. “I don’t like this city. The Polos…”
          “I know,” Vash said quietly. “Don’t tell the girls about it or they’ll want to get involved. We’ll just go into the city for an hour so I can talk to a friend of mine and we’ll wait here for the storm.”
          The priest gave him a sideward glance and nodded, “Okay, so long as you promise to keep your nose out of it. So who is this friend of yours we’re going to go meet?”
          “His name is Max Simon.”
          “The old tomas racer?” Wolfwood sounded skeptical and Vash looked over at him, surprised that the name was familiar with the priest. Nicholas looked over at his expression and slid his fingers into his front breast pocket. Instead of bringing out a cigarette, he pulled out a sucker and after unwrapping it slipped it between his lips. Milly certainly had a way with changing the man, Vash thought to himself before the priest continued. “I wanted to race myself at one point when I lived at the orphanage,” he said after a minute. “Old Max was everyone’s hero. He raced for ten years if I remember correctly before giving up the sport after one too many falls. So how do you know him?”
          Vash shrugged, “He lived on the ship with us until he realized that life there was fruitless and decided to come down to the planet and do something different. We were friends for many years and I’d stay with him when I came into town between trips.” He stretched again, taking a step back to turn and see the girls as they closed the huge barn doors and came toward them. “All set?”
          “I don’t think we’ll have any worries about anyone finding it,” Meryl said, taking the hand Vash offered her. “And if they do, they won’t know what to make of it I’m sure.”
          “It looks kinda like a huge tomas-pie,” Milly giggled. “So, where are we headed?”
          “There’s someone I want you both to meet before we go up to the ship. His name is Max and he’s the only one on the planet who keeps in direct contact with the ship. He’ll be able to tell us if the orbit has changed any, and notify them to expect us.” He started walking and after Milly put her arm in Wolfwood’s, they followed after.

          The walk into New Oregon was surprisingly peaceful, and Meryl enjoyed every moment of it. Vash seemed more like himself here then she’d seen him in a long time. Maybe it was the familiar territory, she wasn’t quite sure, but she did enjoy his change. It could have been as simple as the fact that he could wear his normal coat, his hair up, and the yellow sunglasses on his nose as he looked down at her. The glasses slid down his nose and he smiled, eyes crinkling up under his brows. She returned the smile and pushed her bangs from her eyes. “It’s really nice here.”
          “At least for the moment,” Wolfwood mumbled behind them. Meryl looked over her shoulder, but he made no effort to explain. Vash was still smiling, humming to himself as they walked. He started kicking a stone, and they took turns shooting it across the sand, seeing how many steps it took to get to the next stop. Meryl found herself taking nearly two steps to every one of his; even as he slowed down to make sure they never were out of sync. It amazed her that the tall gunman was so cautious now to keep her by his side. She remembered their first meeting, and later following him on her tomas, even then she had difficulty keeping up to his long stride. There were a few times he even outpaced her and Milly, disappeared for days on end, and then would just show up.
          She couldn’t quite remember the first time she knew she loved Vash. Maybe it was… Meryl squeezed his hand and his smile widened. When he was chasing after Marianne, she remembered how jealous she was that he was paying the pretty blonde attention and not her. And then later, when she saw his scars for the first time… Meryl realized maybe that was the beginning of it. Pity perhaps. Utter amazement that someone so amazing could have that many scars and not be dead, and pity that he was constantly chased by some unknown past that they couldn’t identify. And then they came to Augusta… Her heart screamed out when she saw the flapping red fabric in the wind, was he dead? Would she ever see him again? And then… There he was, and they watched in horror as someone forced him to use his angel arm… The samurai was there, and he stopped and looked at them, but he wasn’t the cause and ran off in fear … Maybe she should have as well.
          Vash reigned in control of his powers and Wolfwood showed up. Disaster averted, Meryl ran to Vash and put her arms around him, found at last. Only later did things sink in that he wasn’t human, that the reason he had so many scars and survived was because of some darker purpose… And the humanoid typhoon went on to explain, and tell her everything.
          When she told Vash what he meant to her… That was the deciding moment in both of their lives. Vash shot her down as simply as he could shoot a tin can at twenty yarz. She was crushed, utterly distraught because he was the first one who ever meant anything to her in her life. She never loved anyone, and to know that she could feel such an emotion for someone who could not return it, she felt like she would die. That next moment she wrote a letter to Bernadelli asking to be reassigned, Meryl couldn’t face Vash after that, no, how could she? She’d given him her heart, he rejected it, and every time she saw him again that rejection would echo within her heart… That echo turned into a scream as Legato found her. His words, his only words, “My master wants Vash the Stampede to suffer.” He knew what was on her mind when she and Milly found Vash… That she loved him, and he wanted to use that because he must have known what Vash thought inside as well… He’d die if Meryl did.
          With a shake of her head, Meryl quelled the thoughts. Now things were so different. Everything had changed so drastically over the year she was with the humanoid typhoon. Most of it for the better, although her head still swam with fear of Legato, of dying, and now the knowledge of everything in the past. But there were so many gaps still… She couldn’t remember what happened between joining the Academy and their final flight to Gunsmoke… What happened in that time span? Why couldn’t she remember it? That’s what bugged her the most, even now as Vash was sure they’d come up with some solution to the mystery, it bothered Meryl that the memories were removed for a reason. But what could her memories, the memories of a teenager on Earth, hold for someone other than herself? For all she could have been a study-hound, nose always in books, or maybe she had an affair with a teacher. Perhaps she worked for some top-secret project, but wouldn’t that have made some impact on her life afterwards? Did it have something to do with Lima Bean? She remembered clearly that Sweetness wasn’t always attached to the plant-like creature, but then, she couldn’t remember why.
          “You’ve got that look on your face,” Vash said, looking down out of the corner of his eye.
          Meryl waved a hand at him and smiled, “What do you mean, what look?” She realized he wasn’t buying it and shook her head, “It’s okay, nothing really, just thinking about things, that’s all.”
          Vash just nodded and looked ahead. If anyone knew how it was to be lost in thought, it was Vash, Meryl mused. He had about fifteen different expressions she still wasn’t entirely sure what they meant, and even Milly commented from time to time when another expression appeared. It had been quite a long time since the haunted expressions flickered over his face, and Meryl figured it was probably because he was able to speak his thoughts aloud now since they all knew what he was dealing with. Before he had to keep them all locked up inside, shadows that crossed his eyes where no longer quite as dark. Even now his expression was softened, even though she was worried how the past week’s events had changed him. There were things she knew he was hiding about his experience with the GeoPlant. He talked briefly about the names of his sisters, and how he no longer heard their screaming when he slept, but other than that, he was quiet. There must have been more, and if Meryl could read his mind she knew she would. He was hiding it all behind a goofy smile even as they walked up to the satellite radio station and into the main office.
          “Hello! We’ve come to see Max Simon, is he in?”
          The young man behind the desk looked up at them, then waved a hand, “Fifth door to the right, but be careful, he’s in one of his moods. Gets that way every time Jacqueline and her sisters breeze through town.” He moved his head to the side, “By the way, you folk just getting into town? Probably not a good idea to stay here unless you want to be stuck for a few days.”
          “That’s okay, we’re just passing through,” Wolfwood said from the hallway. He pointed a finger down the hall, “This way right?”
          With Vash in the lead, the group walked past the various office doors. “So, who’s Jacqueline?” Milly asked with curiosity.
          “A typhoon,” Vash said.
          “A sister of yours?”
          Vash started to laugh and Meryl had to hold a hand up to her mouth to stifle her own giggle. “No Milly… A real typhoon. Vash’s nickname is… just a nickname.”
          “Oh, how silly of me,” Milly said and she winked at Nicholas in such a way that Meryl wondered if she’d really known the answer all a long. She shook her head as they reached Mr. Simon’s office and Vash pushed his way into the room.
          Max was sitting at his desk; he had a big mustache and sideburns, a larger man in his fifties by the looks of it. But in good humor when he saw Vash enter the room. “Vash! How nice to see you! And you’ve brought friends.” He waved a hand toward them, “Come in! Make yourself at home, I know there aren’t too many seats…”
          “Hey Max,” Vash said, sitting on a stack of books to one side of the desk. “How’s Jacqueline’s progress, is she going to be here on time?”
          “By my watch, yes,” the old man responded, his eyes going over to their guests. “You going to introduce us, or shall I just sit here wondering who these strangers are?”
          Meryl extended a hand to Mr. Simon and introduced herself, then Milly and finally Wolfwood before she came to stand next to Vash who promptly wrapped his arm around her waist. It was an odd feeling, but natural. Max’s eyebrows shot up, “So, Meryl is your…”
          “Yeah, she is,” Vash said smiling. He leaned forward, “Don’t worry they know everything…”
          Simon’s eyebrow rose, “They do, do they?” His eyes fell on Meryl and she felt suddenly as if she were being sized up. What, was this guy like Vash’s father, he had to approve of anyone Vash dated? Meryl was about to say something when he said, “I take it she doesn’t know about Jessica.”
          “No… There’s nothing to know,” Vash said, cutting off any comments Meryl might have about this sudden mention of a girl no less. Was her comment about Vash’s clothing coming from a girlfriend all that far off base after all? No… Or… Vash had an odd look on his face and he said, “She was an orphan and I brought her back to the ship with me so she’d have someone to take care of her. I haven’t seen her since she was… six years old maybe?”
          “It’s been eight years,” Max said slowly, “And she hasn’t forgotten about you.”
          Vash shrugged, “I guess that’s only…”
          “You’ll see,” Mr. Simon said, waving his hand, suddenly anxious to change the subject. “So, have you warned them on how you’re going to be boarding?”
          With a grimace, the gunman shook his head, “No, I haven’t.”
          The old man’s eyes just twinkled. “They’ll just have to find out eh? Well, make sure you’re up top there at noon… Don’t be late, they’re expecting you.” He waved a hand, “I’m busy now, so if you don’t mind…” Vash stood, and pulled Meryl out with him, and the other two followed.
          “So, how are we going to be boarding?” Wolfwood asked the question they all had on their minds.
          “Oh don’t worry, you’ll see,” Vash said mysteriously.
          Milly bumped Meryl’s side and bent down to whisper in her ear, “I don’t think we’re going to like this, are we?”
          Meryl nodded slowly, “Probably not.”

Sky's the Limit
         “Oh no I’m not! You’ve got to be kidding!” Meryl screamed over the wind, hoping that Vash could hear her as she peered over the cliff’s edge. “I’m not going to jump off some cliff!”
         Vash was grinning, “You wanted to use the computer right? I’m not forcing you! Besides, I thought you trusted me!”
          “I might trust you but not some typhoon!”
          “I’ll hold your hand!” Vash said, extending his fingers to her, but Meryl shook her head staunchly.
          “If I do this I’ll do it on my own thank you!” She peered over her shoulder at the priest as he walked up to the cliff side next to Vash. He was wearing his dark sunglasses so she wasn’t sure what he was thinking but the line of his lips showed that he wasn’t afraid like she was, or his girlfriend. Milly stood next to Meryl’s side, her hand firmly pressing into her shoulder to where it started to hurt.
          “I’m not so sure about this…” Milly said into Meryl’s ear, it was said loudly but sounded like a whisper over the wind. Meryl looked into her friend’s blue eyes and her mouth turned down. “But I think since we’ve come this far…” Milly turned over her shoulder and they both watched as both Vash and Mr. Wolfwood disappeared over the cliff-side. There was screaming from both men and then suddenly the sound ended. The girls looked at one another. “Um…”
          “Well, if they were dead, we’d know, right?”
          Nodding slowly, the big insurance girl stood upright and took her hand off Meryl’s shoulder. “I guess we have to have faith right?” And suddenly she was gone as well, a shrill scream and then laughter as she was caught up into the typhoon. Now Meryl was alone, and probably only seconds left to make her decision.
          “First that stupid slide and now this! Why do I have a feeling it’s not going to lead to anything good!” Meryl held her breath and jumped off the cliff. The winds caught her up in an instant and she felt her stomach heave. Even the emergency jump procedures at the Academy had been nothing like this; falling upwards was nothing like going down. Now, her eyes open, Meryl scanned the sand and the wind for her final destination… It had to be around here somewhere… Vash said look for metal… But when her eyes caught it, she was too far away. “No!” Her breath hissed out in a scream as she lifted up and away. “I’m too light!” A child’s lost balloon… Disappearing… Meryl waved her hands, tried to swim through the wind and the sand, tried desperately anything to get…
          And suddenly a hand grabbed her own and Meryl gasped, turned her eyes… “Hold on!” Her eyes were jerked away from the mystery person and suddenly she was whipped end over end toward the rising metal platform. Vash and Wolfwood held out their hands to her and pulled her in. Milly was standing nearby laughing happily.
          “Isn’t this fun Meryl?!”
          Meryl slumped down onto the bottom of the platform and Vash sat down next to her. “Yeah, real fun.” She looked down at her hand, it was red and looked like it would soon bruise. Whoever it was out in the storm was very strong… But who? Or was she just imagining it? Maybe she was hallucinating, bumped her head… Meryl shook her hand and slumped over into Vash’s arms. “I’m not doing that again,” she said before passing out.

Chapter 2
A Matter of Asking the Right Questions
         Rubbing her eyes, Milly looked and looked again at the huge ship that loomed out of the eye of the typhoon. It was real, absolutely real, a ship in the middle of a sandstorm, partially broken but working. It looked like heaven here, and Nicholas grabbed her around her shoulders as they approached. “Are we dead?” She shook her own head at the question, it was silly, if it were heaven she wouldn’t be going to a space ship but on firm ground, but she would have Nicholas there, so at least that part was right. Milly peered down to the floor of the lift where Meryl was still passed out.
          Vash was holding the little insurance girl in his arms, right glove off as he brushed her hair off of her face with his fingers, stroking her head. He glanced up when Milly said something and he smiled, “It’s quite the sight isn’t it? I was unconscious when I first came up here too… I guess it’s better that way for her anyway,” he said slowly before gently resting his hand on Meryl’s forehead and caressing her along her hairline. “Wake up Meryl, we’re past the scary part now.”
          The little insurance girl’s eyes flickered open and she sat up suddenly. “Where, when, how, why, who… Huh?” She got to her knees, then to her feet, her hands on the railing of the lift, eyes just above, peering at the ship in front of them. “Woah.”
          “Really eloquent first words there,” Vash quipped, pulling on his glove before putting his hand on a knee to help him stand. “You probably shouldn’t have gotten up so fast, I think you may have gotten a concussion, there’s a big bump on your head, and your wrist may be broken.”
          Meryl looked down at her hand, and Milly went over to stand next to her. “Does it hurt?”
          “Not too much,” came the reply, but Meryl put her left hand onto the bump on her head and winced. “Ow, that hurts more.”
          “That’s good,” Milly said with a sigh. She was a bit worried that Meryl had been a goner when she just floated off into the blowing sand like a kite. Then they heard a thump and the boys reached out to grab her from thin air, like she had been transported instantly from one place to another. “I kept telling Mr. Vash he should wake you up but he kept saying that it was better if you slept during our ride…” Milly trailed off as Nicholas placed a hand on her shoulder and she glanced up at him. Vash joined Meryl a moment later and she smiled, it was nice that they were all here together, to experience this for the first time, well, except for Mr. Vash.
          The lift came to a rest at a platform, and Vash opened a latch on the side and grabbed Meryl around the waist, lifting her onto the ship before turning around to give Milly a hand. She took it and took a step up, followed by the priest. When they were off, the lift sunk out of sight. Milly’s heart started to pound, how were they going to get down from here? She never thought of that, if they had to jump into thin air in a typhoon to board the lift, would they have to jump off it on their way down too? Suddenly she didn’t want to be there, or at least nowhere near the edge, and she hastily stepped to the doorway that loomed in front of them.
          Vash and Meryl came up behind her, followed by Wolfwood who took her hand in his own. It was strong and warm, she was glad because all the circulation had suddenly gone from her fingers and they were icicles. When Vash came to the door he waved a hand in the air at what seemed like nothing, but suddenly the huge hangar doors opened in one slow smooth motion. “They have cameras on all the exterior doors,” the gunman explained when he saw Milly’s amazed expression.
          After that, they entered onto yet another lift, this one at least was connected to something, and when the doors closed, it rose swiftly into the ship. “Now, it’s been a long time since anyone from the outside has been here…” Vash was looking down at Meryl with an embarrassed expression, which was actually a unique one she had to add to the fifteen expressions Meryl was always talking about. Number sixteen, she said in her head to Meryl and her friend looked over her shoulder and nodded in agreement. Wonder what this one means? He kinda looks like my Big Big Brother did when he brought a girlfriend home to meet… Oh. Meryl’s eyes turned to Vash. “There could be some uneasy feelings toward you all, so don’t be offended, and don’t,” and Vash looked at Wolfwood as he added, “Argue with anyone because we need their help and if you get angry it will exacerbate things.”
          “Me? Argue?” Nicholas said with a lift of his eyebrows. “Whatever you say Needle Noggin,” he continued, “Besides, when have I been anything but…”
          Milly shot him a look and the priest smiled behind his sunglasses. She wished he would take the darn things off, and at the thought she slipped them from his nose and stuffed them into her coat pocket with one of the spare cups of pudding and the spoon she always kept there. Recovering from his surprise, Wolfwood went to grab for them back but Milly grabbed his hand instead and pulled his face to hers, “I can’t see your beautiful gray eyes behind those silly looking things. I’ll let you wear them outside when we leave, okay?” She smiled and kissed him on his nose and he sighed, knowing there wasn’t time to argue.
          When the elevator stopped, the inner doors opened, and there in the hallway stood the tiniest man Milly had ever seen. He stood maybe three feet in height, tanned skin, like leather, eyes so slitted she couldn’t be sure whether they were open or not, he wore a tailored lab coat, and shoes. Behind him stood a young man about Vash’s height, dark blond hair done up in some ancient hairdo, the muscle no doubt, looking like a high-school bully, a dark frown on his face. Milly smiled at him giving her best first impression but the man scowled at her and at the others. She decided that she wouldn’t give up on him just yet, but turned her glow at the little man who returned her smile. “Vash! Welcome home my boy!”
          “Doc! Long time eh?”
          “Too long, it’s been eight years, what kept you? We’ve been worried, the girls on level fifteen have been working on new recipes for you to try out, and Johnson down on two has been having trouble with Sophia recently.” Doc smiled at him and waved at Milly and the others. “Who are your friends?”
          Vash nodded, “This is Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson from Bernadelli Insurance Society, they’ve been following me for awhile since I hit the satellite… This is Nicholas D. Wolfwood, he’s been helping with Knives…” Vash trailed, his famous dark expression crossing his face and Milly realized suddenly he must have been thinking of his brother all those months ago in the jail cell… It was the Knives expression… She made a mental note as Vash continued, “Meryl and I…” He blushed.
          “Nice to meet you,” Meryl seeing Vash’s sudden shyness, stepped up quickly, her own face was a bit flushed as if she were meeting Vash’s father for the first time, and Milly wondered how close to the truth that might be. “And your names?”
          “Call him Doc, everyone does,” the tall man said, still frowning. “I’m Brad, don’t call me.” He turned, “We should get going, there’s work to be done.”
          Doc waved a hand at him, “Don’t worry about him, he’s always been a bit shy around strangers.”
          “Yeah, he’s just radiating shyness all over the place,” muttered Wolfwood so that only Milly heard and for it, she gave him a jab in the ribs with her elbow even as she bit her lip to stop the smile that wanted to form in response to his comment.
          The little man looked over his shoulder as Brad walked away down the hall and then waved a hand at them to bend in closer and he said, “And he’s been anguishing over telling Jessica how he feels for her… He refuses to tell her until she stops talking about Vash.”
          Meryl and Milly looked over at Vash, and he stood straight suddenly, “But she’s only… what, how old is she now?”
          “She’s fourteen and still in love with you as much as she was when she was six. She’s been working with the ladies on seventy learning to sew your coats.” He was still smiling as the others stood up straight again. “The only reason she’s not down here right now is because she saw Miss Meryl on the monitors.” He pointed at Meryl and walked up to Vash, elbowed his leg, “You sly fox, you finally hooked one!”
          Vash chuckled and put a hand to his head, “Not really, more like she hooked me.” Meryl nodded firmly and the little doctor laughed heartily. “So this girl, it’s just puppy love or…” She waved her bruised hand at him to continue.
          Instead of answering Doc came over to her, reached up and touched her hand and when she startled back with a yip, he frowned. Milly didn’t realize the little man could do such a thing; he seemed like an eternally happy spirit. But apparently he could get down to business, “Where did you get the bruise? Are you hurt anywhere else?”
          Meryl opened her mouth, most likely to deny her pain but Vash cut in for her, “She’s got a nasty bump on her head and she may have a concussion, and the wrist may be broken, she took a nasty spill getting on the lift…”
          “You could have called ahead and I’d have had Brad come get you instead of doing something so reckless,” Doc snapped at him. Milly, Nicholas and Meryl looked at Vash, they all had one thing on their mind…
          “We didn’t have to come on the lift?!”
          Vash ducked his head and slid his glasses up on his nose, the majority of his face hidden behind his collar, “Uh, no… But it was the fastest way…”
          Meryl raised her hand to punch him no doubt, but her face suddenly screwed up and Milly lunged out and caught her before she fainted again. “Goodness Meryl, this isn’t like you…” She picked up Meryl in her arms and Doc’s eyes were open wide, a bizarre look for him, they went back to normal a moment later and he waved down the hallway.
          “Come, we must take her to the sick bay right away, she may indeed have a concussion…”

          Wolfwood frowned. He was stuck outside again. What was with this? Why couldn’t he be in the infirmary with Vash and the girls? Okay, sure, nothing was wrong with him, the doctor examined him first, so he was kicked out in good health. Doc promised Vash would follow suit after his check up as well, but it had been a good fifteen minutes, surely Needle Noggin wasn’t in that bad of shape? Meryl was in x-ray and for some reason the Doc wanted to talk to Milly too. So why was he outside? Milly had not even stuck up for him when he argued that they were engaged anyway and… Of course, he had to admit, they hadn’t had any relations other than kissing… and how much he wanted to do more with her! But…
          Leaning against the wall with his cross punisher, he took out a little box that Milly had passed him before he was heaved out into the hall. It was the shape of a cigarette box, but longer and heavier and for a moment he wondered if they were small cigars… But when he finally looked at the box they were little stick cookies and he sighed. She’d have him over his addiction in no time now. As it was he couldn’t even really remember the last time he’d smoked, her words repeating in his head, ‘Bad for the baby…’
          He opened the package of the cookies and slipped one of the chocolate covered sticks into his mouth and just let it rest on his lip like his favorite vice. At least these were about the same circumference. Wolfwood looked down the hallway and caught the eyes of a girl, her hair done up in braids. He waved a hand and shook the box at her, “You like chocolate?”
          “Yeah,” she said slowly, but held back, turned around to look at something. From the doorway where she stood, Brad came out and they walked together toward him. Brad was still scowling, but the expression was softer now, and he kept looking down at the girl. When they came up to the priest, Brad’s eyes fell on his wrapped gun, but the girl’s eyes fell on his box of chocolates. “Can I…”
          Wolfwood nodded, “Go right on ahead.” He smiled around his own cookie, took it out of his mouth and said, “You must be Jessica. I’m Nick.”
          “You don’t come from around here… But these are so good!” Jessica squealed and grabbed another one and shoved it up at Brad. “Try it, it’s so yummy, they don’t make anything like this here, what are they?”
          “Pocky,” Nicholas responded, “Milly… My girlfriend… fiancée…” He wasn’t really sure what to call her at the moment, it was an odd feeling being a priest and having a woman in his life, but the expressions of the couple didn’t seem affected by it, “She’s always getting me to try something new so I’ll stop smoking.”
          Jessica nodded, “Nasty habit I’ve heard, they don’t have things like that up here.” Then her eyes went to the doorway behind him… Nicholas turned and realized that the door was opening.
          Vash backed out, “I’ll be right out here by the door now, so when she wakes up… If you need any help waking her up… Let me know okay? Right out here.” He took a step to turn around and suddenly the girl in the hall squealed and threw herself at him. “Hey, um, Miss… I…” Vash stuttered as Jessica nearly climbed him and was giggling saying his name over and over.
          Brad was turning about fifteen shades of red, and he turned his face as Wolfwood looked at him. He wanted to argue that Brad couldn’t be angry over the girl’s affections since according to Doc, Brad never told her how he felt. She could like whomever she wanted, even Vash. Then again, Brad was a bit taller than Nicholas so he decided not to add in his two c-cents in case he had a bite as bad as his bark. “Jessica,” Brad said under his breath, “I don’t think his girlfriend would appreciate it if she caught you hanging off of him…”
          “You… You have a…” Jessica slid off of him, her face screwed up, “Damn it!! You promised me, you promised!” She screeched out the last word and grabbed Brad’s arm. He was already grumbling at her about her swearing and Vash was rubbing the back of his head with a shocked innocent look and grimaced.
          “Jessica you were… I didn’t mean it, you were six!” Air blew out of his lungs and Vash fell backwards after a punch landed in his stomach. He landed hard on the floor hissing, “Ow ow ow ow!”
          From the sidelines, Wolfwood was trying not to chuckle as he had seen Brad jump in and slam into the gunman, still steaming while Jessica started to cry and cling to him like Vash was the enemy. When Vash started to pout he really did start to chuckle, but the laughter died the moment Jessica grabbed his box of Pocky and took off down the hallway.
          “Hey!” Nicholas yelled after her, “Those are mine!” They really were bullies! Punching Vash and taking his chocolate! Brad huffed and started to turn, “And you have to tell her you like her! If she was happy with you like our girlfriends are with us we wouldn’t have had this difference in opinion!”
          Brad winced as if he’d been hit in the stomach himself before running after Jessica. With a sigh, Wolfwood turned and offered a hand to the fallen gunman. “Here, let me help you up. Knowing you, you probably caused that fight so you could get back in there.” He hitched a thumb at the infirmary doors.
          Vash grinned, “That obvious huh? Didn’t work?”
          “No, or I would have tried it myself.” They chuckled and the two of them leaned against the wall on either side of the wall. “Well, this is familiar.”
          “Yup, outside waiting to get in again. I’m thinking we should do it to them one of these days really soon. See how they like it!”
          Wolfwood extended his hand to Vash, “It’s a deal.” Vash took it and shook heartily.
          “A deal.”
          “So, what was this ‘promise’ you made with Jessica?” Wolfwood asked and Vash grimaced.

          “Well this is strange,” Doc said to Milly as he went through her vitals on his chart. At the start of her little physical he just looked at the surface, looking for bruises, but she had a safe jump, and actually the ride in the air was about the most fun she’d ever had in her life… At least, the life she could remember. But then when she started talking about the fact that she couldn’t remember her family’s history for his records, he started prying into her amnesia, and before long he was taking blood and other tests on machines she didn’t even know existed, little lone know what their functions were for. One machine showed her from the inside out and back again, and she could see her heart beating and blood flowing. Doc used another machine and attached it to her brain, and then yet another one showed the functions of her brain working and it was on this machine that he was pressing buttons on and moving switches. “Your brain is functioning at seventy percent its capacity…”
          “Is that bad?” Milly asked hesitantly, when she used to get a seventy on tests at Bernadelli she usually had to retake them. But the Doc was laughing.
          “No, a normal human brain works around twenty to thirty. For some reason you’ve got parts that shouldn’t be working and areas that should be aren’t…” He looked over at her, “Which is probably the cause of your memory loss. But this part,” and he pointed at a red spot on the map of her brain, “I’ve only seen one other person use, and that’s Vash.”
          “What’s it doing?” Milly glanced over her shoulder at Meryl who was resting peacefully with an IV in her arm. Apparently the bump had been serious enough to justify pumping medication into her. But the Doc said she’d be fine in a couple of hours because their medicine was much more advanced then those on the planet. She believed him now after being able to see into her own body without cutting herself open or having an x-ray…
          “Well, there was always debate because it’s a very hypothetical science… It’s the part that functions on the sixth sense… Psychic ability.”
          Milly lifted an eyebrow at him, “Oh? Is that all?”
          Doc’s squint grew even tighter and she wasn’t sure he could really see her at all… “You know you have psychic ability?” Milly nodded. He glanced over his shoulder, “What other strange behavior have you experienced?”
          “I can, or at least I could, merge with plants like Mr. Vash’s sisters…” She gritted her teeth, “I’m sorry, I’m a freak really… But it all started only about six months ago after I met Mr. Vash and his brother… Then suddenly I could move objects from yards away and I could feel when Meryl was nearby, and then I could talk to her in my head, and then Knives…” Milly sighed, glanced at Meryl and then willed herself to continue because she knew she could trust the little man, “He opened up something inside of me that Mr. Vash said was put in me a long time ago when we came to the planet, and then suddenly if I touched a plant I’d suck her right up like a vacuum, and I nearly killed Mr. Vash… But then I learned how to take the power and put it back, and we ran across this strange angel a few days ago and Mr. Vash went into a coma so I got her out, and I think she’s inside me still…” Milly squinted at the picture of her brain, wondering where the humanoid’s aunt inside her could possibly be.
          Doc was standing there in a kind of shock, but slowly he nodded to himself, “I’ll continue to look through your charts to see if I can figure it out… This is a strange piece of information you’ve told me.”
          “Yeah, I know, I’m…” Milly shook her head, “Do you think you’ll be able to fix it?”
          “That, my dear, I won’t be able to answer for a time.”
          Milly bit her lip, “Would be okay if I went out to Nicholas then?”
          The little man nodded, smiling again, “Of course. When you go out ask Vash if he’d show you were the galley is so you can get something to eat and then he can get you two a place to sleep. Your friend should be fine in a few hours and I’ll bring her to you.” Happily, Milly pulled on her clothes again and started toward the door, but at the last second, she hung back, wringing her hands in a freak of bashfulness, but a question formed suddenly that threatened to give her no peace until she brought it to the light. The Doc turned, sensing her hesitation. "What is the matter, my dear?" His benign face, clear and full of the promise of the future, untied her tongue.
          "I was just, just wondering, Mr. Doctor… Um, even though I have these special traits...ah, the thing is, will… Will I be able to have children?"
          The Doc's face almost was lost in its many deep wrinkles that his smile produced; he had a dry, pleasant chuckle of a laugh, but laugh at her he did. "Do you have plans for the future, Ms. Thompson?"
          Milly was certain that her blush was going to make her cheeks explode. If she'd known that she was going to be teased about it, no matter how gentle the ribbing came, she would never have spoken a word in the first place; this was not a laughing matter to her. Oh, sure, men could joke about things like that, but for a genteel lady of good upbringing…
          The Doc took pity on her. "From the preliminary scans, I saw nothing abnormal about… Certain parts. Even through all those years in stasis and the abilities you possess, I'm fairly certain that everything's survived intact and functional. But you won't know for sure unless you try, won't you, my dear?"
          Milly wished then that the Doc wasn't so small and cute and nice, it would have been so much easier on her conscience if she'd smacked him. At least the news was promising. She smiled at him and, shaking out her duster self-consciously, she walked out of the room with all the dignity her poor embarrassed ego was capable of.

Good Morning Sunshine
         Vash rubbed his eyes and looked over at the bed nearby. Meryl was still sleeping soundly hours after Doc said she would awake. Finally the little man said Meryl’s sleeping had more to do with mental stress rather than by her concussion. Physically she was healed thanks to the futuristic medicine they had in the ship. Vash himself experienced the many levels of this, including a brand new gun arm that Doc said was just finished a few days before, waiting for his return, knowing an eventual mishap would probably call for an improved side-arm, pun intended. The new arm wasn’t clunky; it felt like real skin, the only seams were on his bicep and around his thumb where the gun extended. He opened and closed the fingers now, so smooth, like a real hand… Like his real hand, which was now solidly attached to his enemy… Vash shuddered and pulled himself out of the bed, feet setting on the warmed metal floor.
          There was so much more he wanted to tell Meryl, so many stories he could tell her, and so many new stories to create with her as well. The future… Vash sighed, padded across the floor to Meryl’s bed and sat down next to her. He could feel her warm body next to his leg and he longed to run his fingers along her thigh as he had the first time he realized he loved her. At the time he couldn’t bear to trust his own feelings. She wasn’t like the other girls he ran into on his journeys, girls like Jessica who became enamored of him, or those who avoided him at all costs. She wasn’t just a transient who would breeze out of his life in a few days, and he knew that if she ever caught him, he’d be trapped forever. And it happened just as he suspected.
          Meryl was a special someone, he had to admit that, and he wanted to be with her now as long as he could. But how long would she live? He’d outlive her, wouldn’t he? She’d grow old and die in his arms, and even though it had pained him to tell her just that with all of the other things he told her… Vash could still remember her warm arms around him, remember the feeling in his heart when she appeared before him as his angel arm threatened to overpower him. She brought him strength and he managed to stop the power from destroying everything as it had in July City. Meryl looked into his eyes and he knew she wanted to tell him something, but even he couldn’t allow those feelings to surface, they went on as they had before, until the little girl said, “I don’t want you to go without me, Vash, I love you.”
          His heart pounded and he shook his head, he couldn’t… She couldn’t, they just couldn’t. “Didn’t you see what almost happened?” Bitterness and an underlying fear had raged up so abruptly and overwhelmingly that he had nearly spit out those words, and the rest of the flood came pouring out unbidden. “I don’t want you around, I don’t need you! In fact, it would be better for all of us if you would just stop following me everywhere!” There had been more, much more, but that was the gist of it. He closed in eyes as the painful memory of that moment in time as it came back to him in all its gory detail. Regret was a sour tang in the back of his throat. He wondered if he could ever up make it up to Meryl for the stinging pain of those words as they fell like an acid rain on her dark head. Her shoulders had slumped and her eyes had gone round with astonishment a split second before the hurt had registered. Yes, she was crushed; he could see it in her eyes. But what a strong soul! She summed up all of her courage, put her business face on once again and left the room. Vash told himself she was just an acquaintance, that he couldn’t and didn’t have feelings for her… But even now as he looked down on her sweet sleeping form, he knew that he loved her entirely, from the top of her head to the tip of her neatly painted toenails.
          He watched her chest rise as her lips parted slightly. She had to be okay; he frowned in concentration willing there to be nothing wrong with her. He knew now that she was everything to him. He would risk anything for her, do anything... All he wanted was for her to wake up and be all right. He resisted the urge to scoop her up and sit her in his lap and clasp her tightly to his chest listening to every beat of her heart and cover her face in tender kisses.
          Vash groaned, placing elbows on thighs lowered his head into his hands and whispered to himself, “Ah Stampede, you got it bad, but then you wouldn’t have it any other way.”
          Even if she were to die in his arms someday, he knew it would be worth seeing all of her smiles, hearing her laughter, sharing and making so many more memories with her, much better ones than these, the ones that hurt her, the ones that hurt them all… Better ones once he decided what they would do about Knives, what they could do about Legato, when everything could be… No, nothing could be normal, not when she came from a past he’d only heard vague stories of from Rem or his immortality, if that’s what it truly was. They’d make one heck of a husband and wife, talking about spaceships and aliens and things, wouldn’t they? Vash chuckled, “We’ll make it work, right Meryl?”
          “Make what work?” She asked drowsily, looking at him. Vash jumped out of his skin, fell off the bed, and clambered back up on his knees, to rest his arms on her bed and levered himself up so he could look down into her face. Meryl was giggling, but her eyes were wide in disbelief that Vash could be startled so easily. “Goodness, you look like you just saw a ghost. Are you okay?”
          “I should be asking you the same question!” He reached out and put a hand on her head, “No fever, good. Did you sleep enough? Do you need painkillers? Shall I get Doc back?”
          “I could use coffee,” Meryl said, holding his hand with a quick, soft touch, acknowledging his concern before and pulling herself up into a sitting position. “And breakfast too… I’m starving.” Vash started to move away to get what she wanted, but suddenly he felt that small hand wrap around the elastic of his sweatpants and cold fingers on his back. Puzzled, he turned to look at Meryl. “Wait a second.”
          Vash turned, concern again flaring up within him, “What is it Meryl?”
          “Where are Milly and Wolfwood?” Meryl removed her hand and started pushing up the pillows so she could recline. Then she patted the bed next to her. “Sit down.”
          Obedient, Vash sat, found Meryl’s arm around his stomach and her head on his chest. He wrapped his right arm around her and said, “They’re just fine, and I’d imagine they’ll be in the galley about now getting breakfast. Doc is down with the plants puzzling out Milly’s strange brain functions.”
          “Something isn’t right?”
          “You could say that, he’s comparing her readings to Abby on Deck two… The plant…” Vash felt awkward using his sister’s names, they all had names, he just never realized it until recently that not only the ones here, but the ones who were never called their names outside of the globes, or outside of the dimension they came from… He frowned, what Retiva told him didn’t match Meryl’s, and he realized only too late the GeoPlant lied to him… Lied! There were a lot of things that he didn’t know about his sisters. In fact, it also started make an odd sort of sense why his brother was like that as well… Where did they come from really? Meryl said they were part of an alien race, and if they weren’t engineered by human beings that meant they could have the range of emotions and personalities as humans could… Imagine! A race of plants like Retiva said! Vash wondered if that part was at least true. “Apparently they have similar traits. He had them talking early this morning… The Doc got a lot of valuable information about the similarities of humans and plants, even more so than with me… So he’s been working steadily at getting the answers for Milly in return.”
          Meryl nodded slowly, “I’m glad to hear that. So they’re all busy huh?”
          “Yeah, are you sure you don’t want me to go get that coffee?”
          “No, not right now,” Meryl’s nose was buried in his shirt; he could feel her eyes open and close through the thin material. She was so warm against him. He brushed his free fingers against her cheek; with Doc’s new arm he could now feel her soft skin. She eyed his hand and then looked up at him, “This is new isn’t it?” Vash nodded. She put her hands on his arm, “It feels real.”
          “Yeah, they do good work here.” He smiled and wrapped his arms securely around her. “They supply everything I need here… You wondered where I got all of my clothing and supplies, well, this is it. These people are my family, they take care of me and I keep their secret safe. I’ve been hoping I would be able to bring you here someday. I wish we could stay here forever, just like this.”
          He could feel Meryl relax in his arms, “Yeah, that would be nice… Except.”
          “At this moment, no ‘excepts’,” he countered her. Meryl looked up at him, “And don’t argue with me, Meryl Stryfe of the Bernadelli Insurance Society, because you might win and I don’t want you to right now.” Vash’s darkening aqua eyes studied her expression for a second before bending his head down to meet hers lips, touching softly at first before pressing harder to kiss her slowly and fully as she responded to his lips with a matching eagerness. Taking advantage of the willing invitation he felt coming from her hands, her mouth, her body, he deepened the kiss. He could feel her hands under his shirt now, sliding over the scars on his side, lightly tracing each one before moving on causing a delicious shiver to run through him. Vash pulled her tighter into his arms, and with one hand let caressing fingertips move slowly up and down her spine before coming to rest in that spot on the back of her neck underneath her hair. Responding to his touch she leaned into him, lifting one hand to play with the hair behind his ears. Going with the moment, he relaxed, sinking back on the pillows, drawing Meryl down with him. He broke the kiss only to give her an opportunity to breathe but when she tried to speak he covered her mouth with his own again determined not to give her another chance to get a word in edgewise. From what followed, he had a feeling Meryl didn’t seem to have a problem with that.

          In another part of the ship, Milly and Jessica sat in the galley kitchen peeling potatoes. The ship was so huge there were at least ten different kitchens and Milly had spent half of the night going through them looking for pudding. Waiting for Meryl to wake up she’d gone through even her emergency stash and with an empty pudding compartment, she ran into Jessica. It was nearly four in the morning when she stumbled into the kitchen and heard a sobbing in the corner. Immediately springing into action as her big middle sister would do, Milly went over to comfort the young girl with her boy problems. Apparently Jessica had spent a few of her years clinging to Vash as a child until she couldn’t think of being with anyone else. Milly initially thought that Jessica merely had a simple crush, but as morning came, she started to understand why Jessica was so enamored of the humanoid typhoon. They fell asleep in the kitchen and a few hours later the chef recruited them to peel potatoes.
          Not long after, Wolfwood and Brad came dashing into the kitchen, out of breath, desperate to find their loved ones after searching the ship for a few hours. When they finally found the girls, the two had become fairly good friends, which pleased Milly to no end because she knew they were a lot alike. Now Nicholas was nearby playing a game of chess with the sour-faced Brad and losing, by the look on his face. Milly giggled as she recognized the expression, and turned back to her task at hand. “Boys are so cute when they’re flustered, don’t you think?”
          “Yeah,” Jessica said slowly, “Vash used to…” She frowned, leaned over and whispered, “Milly, can I ask you something?”
          The tall insurance girl nodded, “Sure, what?”
          “How do you know the difference between like and love?” Jessica glanced over her shoulder at Brad, “It’s just that, I always loved Vash because well, he’s always on my mind, but then Brad’s always… We grew up together and I always beat him up. Then one day he stopped talking to me except for once and awhile and he always acts weird around me. I was annoyed at first and then I just got kind of bugged by him because the girls kept saying it’s because he liked me, and why didn’t I see it? How did you know when Nick…”
          “I just knew,” Milly said, her eyes going over to Wolfwood again. Not losing anymore, lost. They were setting up a new game now. “But my circumstances were different than yours, I didn’t grow up around him… Do you really think that your love for Mr. Vash is love in the romantic sense or more like love for an older brother? Could you kiss him?”
          Jessica grew red in the face at the thought and shook her braids, “No. He’s just so… He’s different now, and the way I see him look at Miss Meryl… But I couldn’t do that with Brad either…” When she said it her blush grew deeper, she finally said, “But maybe…”
          Milly smiled, “There really are a lot of different kinds of loves you know, and it’s easy to get them confused, at least that’s what my little big sister always used to say. She’d say, ‘Love doesn’t always come when you want it to, and sometimes it comes when you don’t, but it comes, and you always have room for it, no matter what the circumstances ‘cause God gave us a big enough heart to take all the love we can get and give it back a hundred times. The hard part is giving it to the right people so we don’t get hurt when they can’t return it back, ‘cause sometimes even though we can love a lot of people, God made it so we don’t love everyone otherwise the world would be too perfect, so we have heartaches once in awhile, but it’s okay, ‘cause someone, somewhere and someday will love you so much you won’t hurt anymore. You just have to let them when they come.’ And I think that this is just what’s going on, Jessica, Mr. Vash loves you because he love so many people, but I think Brad loves you just a bit more.” Milly looked over her shoulder again at Wolfwood and smiled, “If you can love someone who loves you just a little bit, then that love multiplies and before you know it no one else matters anymore. That’s what happened with me and Nicholas.”
          “Do you really think that Brad loves me that much?” Jessica asked, setting her potato down into pot of water. “He’s never said anything.”
          Milly giggled, “Boys are like that, usually they love you so much they can’t handle it and they freeze up…”
          “Like a computer with too much input!” The little girl brightened, and although Milly had no idea what she was talking about she nodded enthusiastically.
          “But don’t worry,” Milly continued, “I think if you don’t mention Mr. Vash he’ll tell you before you know it.” She smiled brightly and shrugged, “Or he’ll tell you when something bad is about to happen, like Nicholas did… But I think it would be better for the first way if you ask me.”
          “Yeah, I think you’re right,” Jessica agreed. “Thanks Milly.”
          “No problem at all, just as my Big Big Sister said, ‘Never hold back in matters of the heart.’” Milly sighed, leaned back and said loud enough for the room to hear, “That reminds me, I wonder if Meryl and Mr. Vash are awake yet? I heard that Doc went up to check on them about an hour ago and said he needed to leave them alone for a while longer… I wonder…” She shrugged, “I thought Meryl wanted to use a computer so she could find our relatives. I guess she wasn’t in that much of a hurry after all.” Milly smiled to herself, it was probably because it was the first time in a long time that Vash and Meryl had time by themselves. Shouldn’t rush them… But even she wanted to know what was going on inside of her own head, and if finding out about their own past helped with that, she was kind of eager to find out herself.
          “Well, if they aren’t down in a little while,” Wolfwood said from across the room, “I’ll go get them, because I’m tired of losing over here!” He smiled at Milly and she nodded.
          “I sure hope she’ll be able to figure out the computers like she says she can, because I’m afraid I had enough trouble trying to figure out that lost technology toilet last night!!”

Meryl and the Computer
         “Damn contraption!” Meryl shouted and pulled a derringer from her pocket, lowering it at the screen, only seconds before a hand grabbed the back of her chair, pulling it backwards and the bullet hit the ceiling harmlessly. “What did you do that for?!” Meryl hissed at the person who stood over her fallen chair. Milly’s hair was pulling off of her shoulders and into her face as she looked at her friend. Meryl’s derringer was still in her hand but now thankfully unloaded.
          “Now Meryl, I don’t think that shooting the computer would help things, at least I’m pretty sure.” Milly turned and looked through her hair over her shoulder to Vash and he nodded, eyes wide at the sudden display of aggression that Meryl had shown toward the helpless machine. “Now, what is it that is giving you problems, because I’m pretty sure Mr. Vash might be able to fix it? You certainly aren’t in any condition to be fighting with the thing… It would probably win.”
          Meryl growled from her spot on the floor and climbed up out of her seat, putting her derringer away. “I’m going to destroy this thing…” She lunged for the screen and was pulled neatly off her feet by Vash, holding her under her arms as she strained forward toward the offending machine.
          Shaking a fist at it she fumed, “I’ve been at this for two hours and there isn’t one single piece of information about our families or our military installment, it’s like none of it ever existed!! I can’t believe that, it’s got to be some glitch in this stupid machine…” Meryl dropped her arms and Vash set her calmly on her feet even as he kept a wary hand wrapped around one arm just in case she had another fit of aggression. Milly bent to retrieve the tipped chair. “We couldn’t have just appeared out of no where… There had to have been records no matter how long ago, because there is mention of the war once I entered my security codes… But nothing about missing ships, nothing about… Us or our families!”
          Flustered, she turned and pushed her face into Vash’s chest and just stood with her nose against his warm fleece-covered chest. He looked from the computer, then down to her and slowly wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “What if we talk to the Doc? Maybe he could…”
          “Nope,” the Doc said as he walked in from an adjoining room, apparently having heard the gunfire, and sat down in the chair Meryl abandoned. He was so much shorter than the little insurance girl that the seat was a bit large for him, but he managed, typing away at the keyboard. “Vash, do you remember when we found the information about Rem’s family?”
          Vash nodded slowly and Meryl looked up at him, there was that mention of Rem again… Someday she had to talk to Vash about her, but the question would have to wait as she turned her head to look at the Doc. He waved for Vash to come over and the gunman stood over his chair looking at the screen. Meryl trailed behind, Milly putting a hand on her shoulder. “Do you think the info might be in the same place? It was top secret at the time, I can’t even remember for sure how I found it…” Although, even as he said it, Vash leaned over the Doc and started to tap at the keyboard himself at lightning speed until the screen flashed red and a password box appeared.
          “I didn’t even come across that,” Meryl said, eyes wide with appreciation for her beau. Up until the last year or so she had thought he was just a bumbling goody-goody, so when did he become a computer geek too? She smiled to herself, remembering some of the guys in her class at the academy, they were, for all intensive purposes, geniuses, but they had the people skills of a rock. For a moment this gunman who stood next to her reminded her of a boyfriend from long ago who was a master at computer games but when it came to a date he failed even holding the door open for her. Would Vash have been like those nerds if he weren’t a plant and grew up when she did on Earth?
          She shook her head as Vash started a series of passwords, eventually taking the chair from the Doc, and even Milly was standing in awe watching his prowess, fingers easily going faster than a hundred words a minute as he wrote a dummy program to decrypt the password protect. Within a few more minutes a picture appeared of a middle-aged man with sculpted cheeks. Vasquez was the name and Vash leaned back in his chair, “There’s the guy Rem was related to.”
          “Revenant Vasquez?!” Milly gasped and even Meryl couldn’t help but draw breath as they looked over Vash’s shoulders. “He’s the one who stayed in the hotel room, who found Sweetness… It’s got to be connected somehow, doesn’t it, Meryl?”
          Meryl nodded slowly, “What other files are there, Vash?”
          “Plant engineers,” he said slowly, pulling up very long list of names. “Every single one either came over on the SEEDS ships or were trained by someone who was. As far as I could come up with the first time I saw these files, for the first twenty years they kept very strict supervision over those who could see to the plants and all of them were listed here…” Vash trailed off, as he pulled up a picture of someone very near and dear to him…. “Rem…” He choked and didn’t say anything more as he put a hand to his face and backed out of his seat. “I’m sorry…”
          Watching him leave, Meryl and Milly looked at one another, and then back to the screen. The Doc sat back down in the chair. “Don’t worry about him young ladies, he’ll be fine in a minute or two.”
          “I know she was like a mother to Vash but…” Meryl started and the Doc turned.
          “She was his entire life up until I suppose he met you,” he said slowly, smiling with his eyes closed in that strange foxish way. “Like Jessica with Vash, only in reverse. Rem Saverem also saved the ships from crashing onto this planet and destroying us all, so I suppose we are all indebted to her.” The Doc pointed at the screen, “She was very beautiful, wasn’t she?”
          “Looks kind of like you,” Milly said half-heartedly. “Is there anything else?”
          “Some of these files were from Earth, like the one on Rem, they were created about the time I suppose you and your friend here were living on the planet. But not all of the planet’s records were stored on this ship, mainly only those pertinent to the residents aboard. Most of the ships were like that, the most important facts were on every computer, but detail-specific ones were on individual ships.” He crossed his arms over his chest as his face was screwed up in thought.
          Meryl sighed, “So what you’re saying is that there probably isn’t any record of our lives on this ship because they didn’t have anything to do with anyone here? It’s a lost cause…” She looked over at Milly who had an expression like she would cry, after all, this expedition was partly for her sake, and even though Milly couldn’t understand the severity of the issue without her memory, she was still affected by it. About to reach out and pat Milly on the arm, Meryl was caught off-guard when the Doc looked up at her.
          “I never said it was completely a lost cause, Miss Meryl.”
          “What do you mean?”
          Doc waved a hand at the computer, “Just because this computer doesn’t have the information you need, doesn’t mean that there isn’t another ship out there that does. Vash knows the other ships that are still functional on this planet and he could take you to them if you asked, but it would take too much time to simply search them one by one. You would have to pin-point the information you need on what ship and track it down.” He turned back to the screen and closed the file on Rem. “I have here somewhere a list of all the occupants of every ship… If you could find one that was a relative, coworker or acquaintance, find the ship they were on, then maybe you could find out more.”
          “It’s a long shot,” Meryl said slowly, “But I guess I’ll try anything at this point.” When the Doc brought up the list he stood from the chair and allowed her to sit. He let himself out of the room and Milly came over Meryl’s shoulder as they started scanning the list for any familiar names.
          “Where should we look first?” Milly asked before turning to look at the doorway, “I wonder what’s taking Mr. Wolfwood…” She giggled, old habits died hard apparently, “So long because I sent him out for pudding a half hour ago.”
          Meryl shook her head, “If I didn’t know any better you’re more yourself than you’ve been in months,” she looked up at her friend. This was actually the first time the two girls were able to talk one on one in over a week, and it kind of saddened Meryl to think that she hadn’t been the one to cheer up her friend. Milly had become very sober and quiet since their first encounter with Legato, even when she put on a happy face despite the circumstances. Meryl could tell the difference right away of course. No one knew the ins and outs of Milly more than Meryl did, she knew when to say what and when not to say anything at all. Of course Milly always did the same for her, it was a sign of true friendship. “I’m glad,” Meryl said after a moment, “Because I was really starting to worry about you.”
          “I know Meryl,” Milly said, she glanced around the room and found another chair and dragged it over to sit next to the little insurance girl. “I think a weight was lifted off me, at least it feels like it, something I said to Nicholas a few nights ago… Yellow eyes was getting pretty close to us…”
          “Yeah, I felt it too.”
          Milly nodded. “But now I don’t feel him at all and the Doc’s been testing some things and he thinks he’s pinpointed the source of this strange power I have. He said that he’d be willing to do a surgery if I wanted to be normal again. I told him I would think about it, that and I kind of wanted to talk to Nicholas about it…” She leaned toward Meryl with her bright blue eyes and said, “He wants to marry me.”
          Meryl nearly fell out of her chair, “He WHAT?”
          “Yeah, I know!” Milly clapped her hands, “I wasn’t really shocked when he said it because we’ve both been thinking about it for awhile now, at least, I think since about the time I ran into the Bernadelli Office out in the desert on our way to find you. I knew he loved me but… Well, we really haven’t had time to talk about it much actually.” She sat back in her chair and just smiled. “I don’t really care if we do find out about my past or not, because you know, it’s behind me, and it’s my future that’s important now.”
          “Milly…” Meryl smiled warmly at her friend and sighed. If only she could be so secure in her future with Vash as Milly seemed to be with Wolfwood. At least the two of them were human… She and Vash were two completely different species! Not that it made a big difference… He was built just like a normal man… Well, maybe better… He was a plant, but she loved him and he loved her, so that was really all that mattered. She wasn’t really sure if they could marry and have children like Milly and the priest, but maybe that too in time, once Knives was out of the picture.
          “Do you think,” she said slowly after a moment, “That maybe we should just stop…”
          “Stop!” Milly shouted suddenly. She leaned forward, pointing rapidly at the screen, “A Thompson! Look there!” Apparently Meryl had been scrolling the screen without realizing, and the ever-watchful Milly had been still scanning the contents as she did so. Lifting her hand suddenly from the keyboard, Meryl stared wide-eyed at the name, sure enough; Milly was right on the money. Milly leaned forward, “Bring it up Meryl!”
          Doing as ordered, Meryl clicked the name and the picture flared up, a blue eyed, blond haired male in his early thirties when the photo was taken. The name was Richard Thompson, and Milly shook her head slowly as they read the information about him. Suddenly she waved her hands and sat back from the computer. “He wasn’t any of your brothers, although he does have a similar look to him…”
          “Little Tommy! As I live and breathe he’s got to be Little Tommy’s son or grandson!” Milly stood up and did a little dance on one foot and bent over to read Richard’s history, “There it is! Grandson! Little Richard Thompson is my great, great, great nephew! I knew it!”
          “Well, maybe we shouldn’t just stop here then?” With a quick smile, Meryl realized that they’d come to far to just stop the search there, especially when they might be able to find out more about Milly’s past. From the look on the big girl’s face, she looked elated to find out that the memories she had were not all fashioned to suit some hoax. She pulled up another file and started scanning the contents as well. “Said he had two children, but this file was updated a hundred years ago, so there’s no way to know for sure if they’re still alive somewhere.” The door slid open behind them and Vash returned with Wolfwood following closely behind him.
          “Here’s your pudding, Honey,” he said, proffering a cup and spoon to Milly. Milly ran up and kissed him on the lips and he staggered, “Wow, that’s quite a thank you.”
          Milly danced around him, “No silly, I found a lost relative!”
          “May have found one,” the little insurance girl corrected. Vash came up to stand behind her and put a strong comforting hand on her shoulder. “Doc said we might be able to find the ship one of our relatives were on and look up information there, which might give us some indication of what happened in our past, or in this case, Milly’s past.” She looked up at Vash, not a great view, she could see his nose hairs from this angle, and the fact he hadn’t shaved the bottom of his chin in a couple days. His eyes were settled firmly on the screen. She wondered what he had been thinking when he saw Rem’s picture on the screen. Part of her wished she had not let Doc take the file down so quickly… Maybe Vash would tell her, wouldn’t he?
          “His last known residence was a town called Grandial… I believe it is still in existence, about…”
          “A hundred iles north of December,” Wolfwood finished for him. “That’s where my orphanage is. Who’re we talking about?”
          Milly and Meryl’s mouths dropped open and when Milly managed to close hers again she said, “A Thompson! Do you know of any Thompson’s in Grandial?”
          Nicholas scratched his chin. His little hairs were getting a bit long too, Meryl noted, goodness, did no one shave anymore? The priest tilted his head to the side in thought. “Well, now that you mention it, there was a plaque of some sort on the church that had the name Thompson on it. Does that help?”
          “Oh it might!” Milly bounced around Wolfwood, grabbing his hands and swinging him around in a circle. “We need to go there!”
          Vash puckered his lips and looked down at Meryl finally, “There was a ship near there if I remember correctly,” he turned to Wolfwood, “Hey, how many plants are nearby your orphanage?”
          “Two were thrown off from the larger ship that became December,” the priest replied as he finally managed to settle the bouncing Milly down by wrapping his arms around her shoulders from behind and holding her in place. She started into her pudding then and fell into humming. “But, I’ve heard that there was a scout ship someone found out there once...” He trailed off as if uncomfortable about the topic suddenly.
          “That would be it,” Vash said slowly. “I haven’t been out that way in nearly a hundred years but it sounds about right… However…” His expression turned into a frown, “That’s where Knives took me to make our guns.” Meryl noted that Vash’s free hand rested on his .45 as he continued, “I’ve always suspected that Knives returned there later.” His piercing aqua eyes turned suddenly to the black-suited man in the corner.
          Wolfwood’s expression grew dark; “I was wondering when you might ask me about his location…” He hid his face in Milly’s blond hair and said, “I can take you there. It really isn’t that far from the orphanage.”
          Vash’s hand tightened on Meryl’s shoulder. “I think it’s time we pay a visit to my brother, once and for all.”

Into The Future: Part 2
Back to Part 7: Best Laid Plans

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