"Gunsmoke & Feathers Alternate Universe"
"Part 8 Into the Future" Part 2

By Ricki, Susan, and Catherine

****This chapter is rated PG-13****
Chapter 4 is up! Per Catherine: this AU went off from the anime storyline at the Fifth Moon incident (no hole in the moon & Vash regained his memory instead of losing it again) so the girls have been with him nearly 2 years now - also, all of the GHGs are in different places under the circumstances. ^_^ Also in Ch. 4 there are two large sections written exclusively by Catherine - thank you my friend! I couldn't have done this without you and Susan! ^_^

Chapter 3
Four Travelers and One More
         Milly shivered in the cold. Earlier in the day they had started packing Brad’s ship outside and the wind whipped through her coat, but it was nothing in comparison to this cold. The cold sleep chamber was refrigerated to well below zero and even though Mr. Vash didn’t seem affected by it, Milly felt goose bumps on her arms, they shivered down her back and she made a noise that caused the gunman to turn and smile. She smiled back at him, but she’d have much rather stayed in the warmer parts of the ship, or better yet, she wanted desperately to get back on the ground. There wasn’t any life here but humans and most of them were in this dead sleep that just creeped her out.
         She shivered again and Vash looked over his shoulder, “Cold?” She nodded, hoping her lips weren’t turning blue. Why couldn’t Nicholas have been the one to bring her down here? At least he would have taken off his coat to give to her, or better yet, wrapped a warm arm around her. But no, it was Mr. Vash… Not like she had a problem with him, he was a terrific person… er, plant. But ever since she had almost killed him she hated to admit it but she was nervous around him. The last time they had been alone together was, goodness, back in her apartment in December, wasn’t it? So much had happened since then. He had really scared her then, but he rarely showed that side of himself since then, so perhaps whatever it was had dissolved. It was probably Meryl; she had a way of changing a man for the better. Milly was always completely jealous of Meryl’s ability to do that because she didn’t have the same power. Sure, she could read minds; move things telekinetically, but getting Wolfwood to stop smoking? She was just lucky that there wasn’t a place for him to buy cigarettes on this ship! He had already once looked up at her one night and pleaded with those silver eyes of his that he have just one… Luckily Milly had searched through every ounce of his possessions and had dumped them overboard, replacing each one with a candy or cookie item. Sure, he might get fat but that was better than dying of cancer!
          Now, on the day that they were about to leave, the Doc came into the open launch bay and asked to pull Milly off to the side. Nicholas had been next to her, but the little man was firm about speaking to her alone, and he took her over to the side and asked her if she would consider the surgery before they left. Milly shivered, she didn’t want to have an operation, even if it meant never having to hear Legato in her head… And she did… Too often… But here in the sky he couldn’t reach her so it had been a quiet blessing. But even knowing she would go back to it when she returned to the surface, there was too much at stake just to lose every single power she had… The Doc really wasn’t even sure if he could fix it all but he was willing to try. When she said no, he shook his head sadly and had been kind enough to give her a medicine that he said if the GeoPlant ever took over her body as it did Vash, she would be able to regain control of herself long enough to come back and have the surgery. Of course, he had given her one of his mysterious smiles, and not being able to read his eyes, she had no clue as to what it was, and being herself she didn’t think to read his mind.
          Then, as a favor he asked if she might do one last experiment for him. Since the last few had taught her a lot about her powers and apparently told the Doc a lot more about how humans and plants were similar… Milly still wasn’t quite sure what he meant about propagation of an independent species… But he said there was one thing he hoped she might do for him before she left, that it wouldn’t take very long. When she agreed, he called over Mr. Vash had asked him if he would take Milly down to one of the plant rooms to run the last experiment before they left. Milly agreed, if half-heartedly because Doc said that no human could come here with her so Meryl and Nicholas were stuck up on another level looking down at her through a glass observation room. She turned and looked up at where Vash said they would be, and sure enough, Nicholas was waving his hand at her and Meryl was pressed up against the glass, fogging it with her breath.
          Why they were headed through this room was beyond her because all of the other plants had been on lower levels. The ‘girls’ as she started calling them had been spread evenly through the ship in the four corners, but this room was smack-dab in the center. All she could see were the cold sleepers, except for a small utility building in the middle of the catwalk she had assumed was a janitor’s closet. But instead of passing this small room, the gunman stopped in front of a door in the side and placed his hand on a metallic panel. It lit up in a rainbow of colors when Vash pulled away and the panel beeped. The door opened and he stood to the side. “Well, here is it,” he said, waving a hand at her to usher her in. “Doc said you’d know what to do when you went in.” He took a step back and Milly looked at him curiously.
          “Are you okay Milly?” Vash inquired, looking down into her face and she nodded slowly.
          “I am, Mr. Vash… I just wish I didn’t have to go in here alone…” She took one last look up at her friends and waved before facing the door again. “Wish me luck?”
          Vash nodded, “Good luck.”
          Taking a deep breath, Milly went into the dark room and the door slid shut behind her silently, blanketing her in darkness. There was a hiss and a strange tingling sensation brushed across her face. She swallowed a hard rock that formed in her throat and she looked around. Slowly her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she could see what appeared to be a glass globe… “So this is what he wanted me to see,” she shivered, now more from the mystery of it than the cold. Taking one step after the other, she came up to the glass and peered in. From what she could see, there really wasn’t anything there. The plant bulb, or at least what she thought of like a flower bulb or bud before the plant revealed itself, wasn’t there. “Anyone home?”
          “Who’s there?”
          Spinning around on her heal, Milly turned to look at the source of the voice. A little boy sat on the floor of the room, hands wrapped around his knees, his eyes just barely visible over his knees. “You… I mean,” Milly stuttered, didn’t the Doc tell her that this was an experiment with one of the plants? “I mean, my name is Milly Thompson, hi.”
          “I’m Shin,” the little boy said to her. “How come you aren’t wearing a suit like Sensei?”
          Milly tried not to frown as she thought this question over, “A suit? Well, I am a girl so of course I…”
          “No, a protective suit, because of the gas content in this room,” Shin said, his face lifting out of curiosity. “Are you…” His eyes went wide and he stood up suddenly and came over to Milly and placed a hand upon hers. The boy’s fingers were ice cold and without thinking Milly wrapped hands around them to warm them. Are you one of the Kind?
          “The…” Now it was time for Milly’s eyes to go wide as she heard his voice within her head like Mr. Vash’s or… “You’re a plant!”
          “Aren’t you?”
          Shaking her head Milly looked around, “Why are you here all alone?” There was nothing but a small bed to one side where Shin probably slept, but nothing else…
          “I can’t leave,” he said slowly, “I can’t breathe the air outside.” Milly frowned at this; there wasn’t even a toilet in this tiny little room!
          “And your mother?”
          “Dead,” Shin replied without any intonation as if it didn’t bother him. “You never answered my question, Milly-san, why can you be in here without a suit?”
          Milly shrugged, “I don’t know myself. Although I was told that I have some plant in me… It’s kind of confusing.” She sat down on the floor and Shin watched her face curiously. She really wasn’t sure what to make of the situation, a little boy, a plant, like Mr. Vash and Knives… Doc had been hiding him, hadn’t he? But why? What was the purpose? Why didn’t he tell Mr. Vash? Why did he let her meet this little boy, and why did he speak Japanese? She shook her head, another question, why could she understand him? It was all because she was different, because she had a special quality within her that made her more then a human but less than a plant: something completely different. Although, as the days went on, it really didn’t bother her as much.
          “Can I ask you a question, Shin?”
          The little boy nodded and got down on his knees in front of her. “I guess. It’s kind of nice talking to you face to face.”
          “Doc… Sensei, he sent me in here to see you I guess, but he didn’t tell me why. Do you think there’s any reason he might?”
          Shin breathed out a long breath and it hung in the air and his eyes were distant. She saw now that they were very light colored, almost white with gray pupils and his hair was a light color as Mr. Vash’s. She realized that his features were strikingly like the plants within the bulbs rather than Vash or Blondie, almost like he wasn’t finished… He probably was just a plant, only with feet! The Doc took him out of the bulb, but like one of his older sisters he didn’t need to eat or do anything that a normal human could! This was very strange… Shin sighed and Milly’s attention focused on him again. “Sensei told me that one day he might be able to find out a way to get me out of here, do you think you could do that?”
          “I…” Milly shook her head, “I really don’t know how, Shin. At one time I could absorb plants from their globes and turn them into energy, but I couldn’t do that to you, and I just can’t do that any more thankfully.” She spit the last bit out quickly because the boy’s face was shocked for a moment at the revelation. The poor thing, he was all alone for who knows how long, no family to love him, no mother, and only the Doc probably knew about him… She grabbed his shoulders suddenly and he looked shocked, “Can I look inside you?”
          The little boy stuttered as if Milly had suggested cutting him open and Milly laughed, “No… I mean like look at your… Energy?” She couldn’t think of a better word for it because the word she used before, the ‘strings’ that connected everything together was a bit abstract. “I promise it won’t hurt.”
          Shin nodded, “Okay.”
          With a deep breath, Milly pressed her forehead up to the boy’s and let her mind wander into his, searching for those cords she found within Vash, within the other plants, within herself. They were energy; she figured that out after a long chat with Doc and one of the plants the day before. The strings within Shin were very similar to Abby’s, rather than Mr. Vash’s just as she had thought. They were in something of a tangle, and reaching out with her minds’ eye she placed gentle fingers on the tangle and suddenly Shin pulled away from her and her eyes snapped open. The boy was gasping for breath!
          Scooping him up in her arms, Milly ran to the door and pounded on it. From outside came a series of beeps and she threw herself and Shin out into the cold sleep chamber as the door opened. The little boy was taking in huge breaths, and Mr. Vash was standing in shock at them both, eyes and hands wide. Milly grinned, “Well, that didn’t take long did it?” She fell to her knees, the little plant still in her arms as he started breathing normally. Milly looked down at him and ran a hand over his forehead, his hair wasn’t white anymore, but a bluish-gray color, so similar to Wolfwood’s eyes...
          “You’ve been in there an hour,” Vash said to her, “And where did the boy come from?”
          Milly looked up at him, stunned, “An hour? It didn’t feel that long…” She looked down at Shin who was looking around the room with wide eyes, his first moment outside of the room he’d been born in. He looked up at her and his eyes were light blue now with black pupils. “It didn’t hurt all that much did it?”
          Shin shook his head, “Not at all but…” His mouth fell open as he saw just how big the room was they were in. “Wow.” He scrambled out of Milly’s arms and ran the length of the room and back again as Milly managed to get to her feet with Mr. Vash’s help. She had thought to look up at where Nicholas and Meryl were, but they disappeared the moment she came out into the chamber. Now they came running into the cold room as well, standing in awe of the little one.
          “He wasn’t finished,” Milly said with a smile when Shin grabbed her hand. The others were just wide-eyed, not sure what to make of this little boy. “He’s like Mr. Vash.” She grinned, “His name is Shin.”
          “He’s…” Vash closed his mouth and kneeled in front of the boy, looking him over. “He really is! Look Meryl!” He grabbed Meryl’s hand and dragged her over to look at Shin who didn’t seem at all frightened by the sudden attention. Instead he reached out and touched Vash’s face and the two had a moment where they were just in awe of one another until Milly giggled and pulled Shin up into her arms. Vash started to complain but she frowned at him.
          “It’s freezing in here! We need to get him some warm clothes and a nice bath and…” Milly looked over at Nicholas, “And I think I’d like to take him with us to the orphanage.”

         His head spinning, Vash sat in the co-pilot’s seat of Sweetness. Although his hands were flickering over the control panels, scanning the sensors that detected shifts in air currents and weather, his mind was constantly going over the implications another freeborn plant. While Milly and Meryl got Shin warmed up and ready for the trip, Vash tracked down Doc and cornered him in the medical bay. The little man’s eyes went wide when Vash picked him up his collar and put him on the table. “Why didn’t you tell me!” It wasn’t meant as a question, Vash was furious. All of the secrets he’d confided to the little doctor, all of the anguish and happy times; everything he’d shared with the only man he considered like a father… Only to be betrayed by him! “What were you going to do? Keep him in that room forever? Use him as a lab rat because I wouldn’t help your plant studies?”
         Doc merely shook his head slowly, his eyes returning to normal as he gently set his small hands on Vash’s and lifted them from his person. “It all happened too fast. Shin was born about a month ago, and when you and the others showed up I had to worry over Ms. Meryl and of course Miss Thompson as well…” He sat down on the table and looked up at Vash, “If I had told you about Shin, you would have ran in and gotten yourself hurt. That room was filled with argon and neon, and other gasses, no oxygen whatsoever, and you would have suffocated before you could get the door open again. You used to ask me why you weren’t born a human, but in truth you are closer to a human now than Miss Thompson.” He sighed, “I tested her, for some reason, whatever it is within her, it causes this shift in her body chemistry so she could breathe the air. We were very lucky that she could do anything at all for Shin! He might have remained in that room forever, with or without your eventual intervention.”
          Vash glanced over his shoulder. He just couldn’t get over the fact that not only was there yet another plant like him and his brother, but he was in the back of the ship, sitting between Nicholas and Milly, looking over pictures of the big girl as she told him stories of her brothers and sisters. This was… This was his brother! He spoke in a mixture of Japanese and English, but over the last few hours he dropped even the formal titles in return for English ones as if he were a computer, taking in every bit of information and processing it instantly. Was this how Rem experienced his and Knives’ childhood? Had they learned so quickly? Although he couldn’t remember all of the details, he had a feeling that maybe they had since he knew more than the crewmembers by the time he reached a year old.
          It all just fell in place, almost too conveniently, that they showed up right in time to save Shin. If Knives had never opened up the power residing within Milly she would not have been able to save him, and with the events that occurred… Vash completely believed Meryl’s story now that a mother he never knew orchestrated everything. “Lady Elf,” as Meryl called her, had set it all up, but to what ends? Had Retiva told the truth that another species needed their help against a greater evil? Vash didn’t want to think about it… Knives was a bigger threat at present, and they were on their way to face him.
          He wished that the little doctor, although curious about Shin’s development, had not been as willing to let Milly take the boy with them. Vash was at the same time against it but also for it because he didn’t want his little brother to be experimented on, and the safest way to make sure of that was if Shin stayed with him. But they were headed into the war zone, headed to Knives’ hideout, and a little boy would be in danger, no matter how many powers he might have being a plant. But then… As Vash looked over his shoulder he thought; did the boy have any powers besides the increased intelligence? Would he have an angel-arm like him as his brother? Could he sprout wings? Vash still couldn’t remember how he did that in the church… The power was still a mystery to him when it came to changing his physical appearance.
          However, the moment little Shin reached up and grabbed Vash by the hand and called him “onisan”, or big brother, Vash’s heart melted and he realized he really couldn’t leave the boy behind. Then there was the fact that Milly was adamant about ‘keeping’ him… Vash really wasn’t sure why the big girl wanted the boy along so much, but Meryl agreed with her, and Nicholas, the hard-nosed priest, even agreed full-heartedly, so it was decided.
          The next day, after everything was settled, Brad, now the happy boyfriend of Jessica - when had that happened? - took them back to New Oregon where they collected supplies and went back to Sweetness. All the while Shin was in utter amazement, asking questions about everything, learning instantly and chattering away happily, completely unaware that they were going on a dangerous mission that could get one of them, if not all of them, killed. Perhaps it was best he was in the eye of the storm, Vash thought, turning around again to look at Meryl as she was watching the control panel in front of them. If Knives found out about Shin aboard the SEEDS ship, he may have easily torn the floating city apart looking for him, and more lives would have been lost.
          “We’re almost there,” Meryl said suddenly, breaking Vash from his thoughts. He startled and looked around, Meryl glanced at him and smiled. He relaxed and smiled back, “You’ve been really jumpy lately,” Meryl noted. “It doesn’t have anything to do with Legato or your brother does it?”
          Vash shook his head, “No.” Come to think of it he hadn’t felt the presence of either of them since they left the town with the GeoPlant. Luckily nothing had come of that close call and he had decided it best not to call attention to it, however he wondered if Meryl and Milly had known Legato was there… “I was just thinking about what we were going to do with Shin… He’ll be a full grown adult in ten years.”
          “Obviously we can’t just drop him off with a stranger, he’ll have to stay with us,” Meryl said, a slow smile developing on her face. “You know, when things settle down…” She peered over her shoulder and a sigh came from her small ruby lips, “Vash, they look kind of like a family, don’t they?”
          The gunman nodded, “They do.” He couldn’t help but admit it as Milly and Wolfwood laughed and patted Shin on the back after he must have learned something new or said something right. “Do you think we could be like that?”
          Meryl’s eyes settled on him in a flash. Her violet orbs were soft and wanting, “You mean, like, get married?”
          Vash swallowed, his head dipped below his collar again. He knew Meryl hated it when she couldn’t see all of his face and he had a habit of mumbling when he did so, “I’d thought of it.” He brought a hand up to his hair and scratched his head, “Especially since the Doc said I was human enough to…” He felt a blush rise on his cheeks, he’d never bothered to ask the old doctor the question before, but when he said he was more human than Milly… He blurted it out without thinking and the little man grinned so broadly he looked like toad and said, “Ah, so that’s why you haven’t gotten rid of Ms. Meryl like all the other bounty hunters and insurance people…” Vash patted his cheeks hoping he wasn’t too red, waiting for Meryl’s reaction. She smiled and turned away so quickly that his heart dropped into his stomach.
          “Maybe?!” Vash squawked, drawing the attention of the trio in the back. He waved a hand at them to go back to what they were doing and then sunk down in his chair. Meryl didn’t turn to look at him again, what in the world was that woman thinking?! Why didn’t she answer him? What was her problem! She was supposed to be in love with him right? Weren’t women the ones who always wanted to get married and have children and live happily ever after? He was sure she’d thought something along those lines just the other day as they held hands… He never tried to read her mind, but from time to time the emotions came through their touch or when they were strong enough. So why just the ‘maybe’ from her now? He looked over at her again and when she didn’t look at him he grumped. Why were women so hard to understand all the time?
          Stupid, I’m so stupid! Why did I say that to her? I probably went too far… It was only a few months ago that she even forgave me for saying all those things to her… His chin sunk down into his coat again. Then again, she was pretty difficult then too. Guess I’ll just have to keep trying. A secret smile spread over his face and his aqua eyes brushed over Meryl, she was definitely worth the work.
          “We’re here,” Meryl said a moment later. “Brace for landing.”
          In front of them was a small white church with a cross on top and a large yard surrounded by a picket fence. Vash looked at it curiously, so this is the place where Wolfwood came from! He wouldn’t think that the Gung-ho Gun could come from such a beautiful little church like this, but there it was, as if out of a picture book from Earth. The yard was empty of children though, he had almost expected from the priest’s stories of the orphanage that there would be dozens of them playing in the yard.
          His heart in his throat, Vash had a sudden nagging feeling, and as he turned to look at the others, they too were alert, watching, necks craned. “Something’s wrong,” Meryl said as Sweetness touched down on the ground. “I can feel it.”
          The others nodded, but it was Nicholas who stood to attention first. “There’s two of them,” he said after a moment, “We’re going to have to be very careful now.”
          Vash frowned, “Two…”
          “Gung-ho Guns,” Wolfwood replied. “Their names are Evergreen the Chapel, and Caine the Longshot.” The priest took no time to secure his cross punisher firmly on his back, his bag in hand as he stepped up to the door. “They wouldn’t do anything without the word of Knives, so for now we’re safe, but by nightfall it could be another matter.”
          “How do you know all of this?” Milly asked, helping Shin get unbelted.
          Nicholas sighed, “Because it’s been this way since I left to follow Vash.”
          “And you didn’t tell us?” Meryl asked incredulously.
          “No, you didn’t need to get involved until now,” the priest put his hand up to the panel that opened the door, and it slid open silently. “Just get everyone inside and I’ll explain the rest.” Before he stepped out into the sun he said, “And keep Shin between you all, we don’t want them to report him to Knives right away.” Then he was gone and Vash and Meryl looked at one another.
          “What else hasn’t he been telling us?”
          Their attentions fell on Milly suddenly and the big girl just shrugged. “You know as much as I do.”
          Vash sighed and shook his head, unbuckling and reaching for his own supplies. “It doesn’t matter, Knives will know about the ship soon, that will be enough to bring him here, with or without knowledge of Shin. We’ll have to fortify the orphanage in the meantime.” He nodded to the girls, “I’ll go out first, Shin will be between you, we’d better get inside.”
          He stepped out into the sunshine, but it didn’t feel quite as warm as it had in the past.

Unsteady Relations
         Gray eyes nervously scanning the horizon, Wolfwood went up to the doors of the little white church, it was too quiet, not even a peep came from inside the doors. The children were always laughing or crying at this time of day, so why didn’t he hear a sound from them? There wasn’t anything suspicious, not on the ground, or the sky or… Nicholas glanced over his shoulder at the ship; did he scare them into hiding? Was it the ship that drove them into hiding? He sure hoped so because if that were the case it could easily be rectified.
         Milly and the others were coming up slowly behind him, Vash’s eyes scanning the horizon, sharply taking in things that may have been yarz and yarz away, Wolfwood assumed. If there was anyone out there the needle noggin would sense it first. Or perhaps Milly would, but she didn’t seem to be worried in the least, except for the glances to Shin who clutched at her coattails, fists white with the strain to keep up.
          Turning back to the door, he knocked on it, waiting for a reply, but receiving none, pushed his way into the door of his home. The inside of the church was just as empty as the outside, but he knew where the children and the nuns would be hiding. He set down his cross punisher and bag inside the front door and ushered the others inside. “Stay here in the foyer, I have to check on something.” Waving away any rebuffs from the others, he pulled out his pistol and unlocked the safety. “They should just be in the cellar hiding, and they’ll recognize my voice, but I should come at this slowly not to scare them.”
          “We’ll be right here,” Milly said softly, a hand on Shin’s shoulder. She turned to Vash and Meryl who were both nervously holding their guns now as well. “If anything is wrong call us right away, okay?”
          Nicholas nodded, “I will, Honey.” He held his pistol up near his face and turned the corner down the long hall to the chapel. He remembered how peaceful this church was when he was first assigned here. It had not been designed originally as a PWS church, and he never found out exactly what happened to the original congregation. Instead of creating a seminary to worship plants, he refurbished it as the orphanage, decided he’d revert it to the original religion and invited pastors and nuns to hold service every Sunday. People came as far as December for the sermons by a few of his associates. He’d only once preached a sermon in this church, it took him two full weeks to write it and the day after he stood up behind the pulpit, Evergreen returned for him and said he had a job to do for Knives. So close… Nicholas vowed when he returned he would teach again someday, teach the real gospel, not the gospel that the Gung-ho Guns had taught him. But if there were no people left…
          Swallowing, he peered through the stained glass on the doors to the sanctuary. It was a small room; hardly enough for a hundred people, but it was cozy and friendly. Seeing no movement through the colored glass, he pushed his left hand against the swinging doors and walked down the maroon carpet to the front. “Mel? Mary? Kids?” He called the names quietly first and then repeated them a bit louder, this time at the wall where a crucifix was nailed. Wolfwood made it himself when he first settled into the church, it didn’t have a figure on the cross, just the old wooden planks that were so hard to come by this far out in the desert. He always thought it was bad taste to have the savior hanging on the cross, like he had never risen from the dead…
          “Melanie?” This time he knocked on the wall and it made a hallow sound. Pressing his ear to the door he heard rustling behind the cross. “I’m coming in kids, it’s Nicholas!” Putting his fingers behind the cross he found the latch to the door and the middle portion of the wall swung open to reveal a stairway. “Are you all ok…”
          Wolfwood threw his hands up into the air, as he came face to face with a shotgun and an angry woman behind it. “It’s me Melanie!!” The shotgun’s nose came up just as fast as his hands had and Melanie fell to her knees.
          “Thank goodness! Oh I thought it was those horrible men…” She fanned herself and turned, “Everyone, look, Nick is back!” Suddenly a hoard of children came up out of the darkness and rushed him, giving him only enough time to holster his gun before a gasp of air was knocked out of him. Wolfwood fell to his back when a dozen children threw themselves out of hiding and started climbing all over him.
          “Hey, you’ve got to… Get off please! I missed you too… But I can’t breathe!” He gasped, trying to pull children off of him as the nuns made their way up the stairs, helping Melanie up and eventually pulling a child off of him at a time. When he was finally free of the little ones, Nicholas sat up. “Is everyone okay? No one was hurt were they?”
          Mary and Rebecca shook their heads, and Melanie reached out to pull Wolfwood to his feet. “We’re just fine Nicholas, but what’s going on? We just saw a great big ship land out front and…”
          “That would be me and my friends,” Nicholas responded. “It’s a long story, we can talk about it later when things get settled down, but they’re out in the hall waiting on my signal that everything is okay.”
          “Hey! Hey! There’s a kid out here and some people!” A pair of twins came cruising around the corner at full tilt, “We went out there but these weird people…” Nicholas was smiling even as his friends came into the chapel behind the boys.
          “Who’s weird?” Shin asked. He skipped ahead of Milly and the others, “Mr. Wolfwood, are these the children you said I should meet?”
          Nicholas nodded and put his hand on the little plant’s head. He turned to Melanie, “This is Melanie, our house-mother, the Sisters there are Mary and Rebecca,” the nuns nodded at their names, still collecting children and ushering them from the room, apparently back to chores or some other such task they were doing before the interruption. “You’ll get to meet all of the children at supper I think,” he ruffled Shin’s hair, “Mel, this is Shin.”
          “Oh my are you pale! Is he eating okay? Was he abandoned? Don’t tell me…” Melanie got down on her knees, poking and prodding the little boy, looking at teeth and eyes, all the while Shin, in return was prodding her and touching her dark hair. Melanie laughed as he looked in her mouth in return and gave him a great hug, “Oh is he precious!”
          Shin’s eyes went wide, “She’s fluffy,” he said over his shoulder, “Is this okay? Are we supposed to hug like this with strangers?”
          Milly laughed, “In this case I think it’s okay,” she walked up to Melanie and stuck her hand out. “Hi, I’m Milly Thompson.” Mel looked up at her and released Shin, “And no, he’s not abandoned, he’s with us.” The housemother took her hand and they shook heartily.
          The older woman got to her feet and put a hand on Shin’s shoulder, “Still, he’s undernourished and mighty pale, you haven’t been taking care of him very well…” She started to scold.
          “He’s not your ordinary child,” Wolfwood coughed, cutting her off. Melanie looked at him with a raised eyebrow… “Yeah, he’s one of them,” he hitched a thumb at Vash. The gunman and the little insurance girl were both fending off climbing children. One of the twins had gotten on Vash’s back and was playing with his multi-colored spiked hair, chattering to the other one about how hard it was, and wondering if it moved in the wind. Meryl had the other one clinging to her, looking under her cape, wondering over all of her derringers, trying to calculate how heavy it must be.
          Melanie’s eyes narrowed, “He’s the guy you went to follow, isn’t he? Knives’ brother…” She stepped up closer to him and he could smell yeast and flour on her, they must have interrupted preparations for dinner. “I thought he was dangerous.” Melanie had been the only convert from the PWS Wolfwood brought with him to the orphanage. She was about twenty years older than him and just as tired of the crap they were fed every single day. Never getting very high in the organization, Mel only learned of Knives and the plants from what Nicholas told her, until the day he left with Evergreen, she knew everything he had. Especially everything about the plants and the “god” of the PWS…
          “Hardly, he wouldn’t kill a fly,” Nicholas smiled, hoping that his expression conveyed the truth to his comment. The old housemother seemed content and she turned her attention to Milly.
          “And who’s this?”
          “Milly… Wait, I already did that,” Milly said, “I’m Nicholas’ fiancée… At least…”
          Wolfwood felt a blush rise to his face. Hearing her say it was just… It was like some kind of dream and he couldn’t stop the blood from rushing to his cheeks as she turned those blue eyes on him and smiled so brilliantly, puzzled whether it was the right phrase to say. “Yes, yes, you are,” he said finally, “Although I haven’t exactly proposed correctly yet.”
          “I should say,” Mel interrupted, “She doesn’t even have a ring, and you a priest! Goodness, I wonder what the…”
          “You know I was never a very good priest,” he smiled. “But Baptist pastors can marry…” Nicholas reached out his hand to Milly and she took it gently in her own, her grip was firm and warm. He was glad her fingers had warmed up, she was always so much more happy when she was warm he’d noted. “Anyway, I know we have a lot to catch up on and I think you were working on dinner?”
          Melanie nodded, “We were. Luckily I’d just gotten the bread rising by the time you all showed up, so it should be ready to bake now.” She brushed her hands over her skirt and looked down at Shin. “Would you like to help me, Shin? You can have the first piece off of the loaf.” The little plant nodded happily and took her proffered hand. Nicholas was surprised she’d dropped the fact that he wasn’t human so easily, although, to Mel, a child was a child, all equal in the eyes of the Lord. He smiled.
          “We’ll talk after dinner, if that’s okay. There’s a little matter of cleaning up first…” Melanie immediately caught his drift and disappeared with Shin out the side door. Wolfwood released Milly’s hand and closed the hidden panel, then turned and came down the aisle, taking Milly’s hand again and they came up to Meryl and Vash. The twins scattered with a look, and the couple breathed sighs of relief. “Apparently everything is quiet,” he said slowly, “But I think we should make preparations for a fight tonight.”
          “I was afraid you’d say that again,” Milly whispered, looking around. “This place is so pretty, I could stay here forever.” She blushed and squeezed his hand. His blush still hadn’t faded and his cheeks felt warm again, it was so nice to be here, with her, as if in a dream. But this dream could easily change into a nightmare if they weren’t careful.
          “We need to board up the windows,” Vash said. “That hidden room will be an advantage, at the first sign of trouble the children and women need to get down there…” He looked down at Meryl as he said that and the little insurance girl ruffled.
          “Oh no you don’t! If you fight we fight! Isn’t that right Milly?”
          Milly nodded, “I have to agree with Meryl on this one.” Her eyes weren’t exactly as convincing as her words, Nicholas noted, but she wouldn’t change her mind easily, he knew that. “Although… I think one of us should be in there with them just in case something happens, you know?” She smiled and Wolfwood breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness for the big girl, she always knew the right things to say. He wouldn’t have his future wife getting hurt before he could propose to her properly.
          “But Milly!” Meryl said, the little girl looked hurt. “I thought we were…”
          “I wasn’t saying you,” Milly said. “I mean I’ll stay here, someone should be here with Shin and the other children. A last line of defense is something I can do.”
          Meryl sulked for a moment, but then she breathed out a sigh, “Okay, I guess you’re right. But I’m not staying here, I never get to help and I don’t have the title Derringer Meryl for nothing!” She nodded to herself, apparently an inner battle was won and she looked up at Vash. “No arguing with me!”
          Vash put his hands up, “Okay…” He didn’t smile but he wasn’t complaining either.

Inner Strength
         Trying not to bite her fingernails, Meryl walked from one side of the room where all of the children slept to the other. There were three main sections to the church she found out that afternoon as Vash, Wolfwood and a few of the older boys worked at boarding up the windows. The building was kind of a horseshoe shape with a large communal bedroom at one end, the sanctuary at the other, and in the middle: a kitchen, classrooms, bathrooms and various offices and nurseries. At the moment there were about fifteen children here under the care of three women. From her chat with Mary, the older of the two nuns, a man named Evergreen stopped into the church once a week on Thursdays so he was due in a few more days. Vash and Wolfwood didn’t seem convinced they’d have that long to wait.
         So instead of sleeping like Milly who snuggled in a bed with two little girls and Shin, Meryl was pacing the floor. Wolfwood was here in this room, watching alertly at the far window, Vash was in the sanctuary, and Melanie was standing guard in the kitchen. Originally Meryl had been there as well, but Mel told her she didn’t look so good, pale really, that she should get some sleep. Reluctantly, Meryl left the kitchen and thought about going to see Vash instead, but she decided she would try and take Mel’s advice instead. But she couldn’t sleep. Besides being tense over a possible attack by Knives’ men, something Vash said earlier that day was going through her mind.
          When they started the conversation of marriage, Meryl was pretty sure he was just joking around, but when she saw how serious he was, even to the mention of the possibility of children… She had to look away from him because a blush had crawled up her face and over her ears, and if it weren’t for her dark hair, Vash would have seen her scarlet colored ears. Meryl did not meant to confuse him, but it was a shock to have it mentioned so suddenly! They weren’t even in a position to date properly, in fact, they had never been on a date, but now he was thinking about marrying her? Of course she thought about it too but it seemed so far-fetched when there was more at stake than just their lives. There was a whole planet’s welfare to be considered… And she just wasn’t the same girl she was before she regained her memories.
          Meryl never considered herself a feminist, but in the circumstances she had a problem with the idea of marrying and settling down, allowing her husband to bring home the money while she stayed home with the children. She never even thought about having kids before that point! And when she decided to tell Vash that she loved him, it was under the assumption that she and he… Oh God… Another flush rose over her cheeks and she brushed out of the room into the hallway before the priest or one of the nuns saw her expression. She and Vash had… But… Meryl sunk to her knees with a sigh, It’s okay, I’ve had a period since then… But next time… Will there be a next time? He’ll have to… She bit her lip and wondered if she should talk to Milly. Shaking her head, Meryl pulled herself back onto her feet, a wee bit shakily, Mel was right, she was tired. No, Milly wouldn’t understand, she’s never… And all the other women here were nuns so they hadn’t either…
          She sighed and set her feet in motion again down the long corridor to the sanctuary. It would be best just to talk to Vash about it, wouldn’t it? That was part of being an adult, but Meryl didn’t feel much like one at the moment, she just wanted to be back home in her own bed under about fifteen covers with a flashlight and a romance novel. This was the real thing; she couldn’t deny that, even though the circumstances were right out of a science fiction novel.
          Walking past the front doors, Meryl glanced toward the ship; it looked ghostly in the moonlight. Amazing, simply amazing, she remembered the first day she saw Sweetness and took her for a test-drive. Love at first sight… But a different kind than she felt for Vash, no, he had to grow on her. As she stood looking at her first love, something sparkled off to the side, and she squinted. “What’s that?” Curiosity made her feet move forward, but only two steps before caution took over and she fell to her knees just as a bullet ripped through the front door, shattering the glass. “Not again!” Furious, Meryl grabbed her derringers, one in each hand and lunged for the front door. She lifted her head just enough to see through the broken window, surely Vash and Wolfwood would be here soon, but she was just so tired of them rushing in and saving the day all the time. Even Milly had more chances to save her hide. No, she thought, not again. I know I was a fighter pilot; I killed Snakes for a living, every day… I can take care of some freaks! She lifted a derringer and aimed toward the sparkle.
          There was a return of gunfire and Meryl ducked down just in time to see Vash and Wolfwood running from separate directions. Wolfwood was waving at something down the hall and Meryl realized that they had to provide cover fire for the children to get back to the sanctuary. Who came up with that stupid idea? Put the entrance to the hideout on the opposite side of the church! Vash came up near her, “You okay, Meryl?”
          “Yeah, my pride’s wounded, that’s all.” She frowned, grabbed two new derringers and squeezed off another shot. Turning to look, Milly was following the tail end of the group, Shin in tow, holding her coattails. He paused when he saw the others and Meryl bit her lip, she hoped he wouldn’t have had to deal with this part of being human… “Get going Shin!”
          He frowned, but instead of continuing with Milly, the little boy broke free and ran in the opposite direction. “Shin!” Vash jerked into motion, but before he could follow another round of shots hit the door and came through the broken windows. Meryl went into action; she shoved her hands at Vash and pushed him to go after his little brother.
          “Get him! Don’t worry about me, we’ll be fine.” She looked over at Wolfwood who looked ready to leave the church; his cross punisher was unwrapped and armed. But still Vash hesitated. “Go! Now that I don’t have to worry about Legato taking over my mind I’ll be fine! But that boy won’t be if you don’t go get…” A scream pierced the air, but it didn’t come from the direction Shin went… It came from the sanctuary… From a pair of lungs Meryl had heard all too often… “Milly!”
          “I’m coming!” Wolfwood changed plans instantly and disappeared after his fiancée and the children. Vash finally broke free in the other direction and Meryl took a deep breath. She was completely alone now, much to her chagrin, she was starting to doubt her decision to stay here in the dead zone. It was up to her now, and she had to think like a star-fighter again, get in the right mindset to fight an unseen enemy. The Snakes were a difficult species to battle, they had cloaking abilities, so fighting someone out in the dark desert shouldn’t be so hard.
          Think Meryl, she thought to herself. What did Mr. Wolfwood say about these guys? That evening after the children were put to bed he described two of the Gung-ho Guns. One, Caine, sniped from a distance. This must be him. Wolfwood mentioned he had cloaking abilities, so the glitter in the desert came from the bullet’s ignition out of the gun. She looked out the window, sure enough it was dark, but a moment later that sparkle, she ducked and a bullet sped thunked into the wood. Timing meant he was about… She did the math in her head; there was about five seconds between the shot when it reached her. There was enough time for her to get out the door, but the next shots would come closer together… Could she get to Sweetness? From there she could get the ship in the air and shoot him down… If the weapons array even worked anymore. Meryl gritted her teeth, no second chances if it didn’t work.
          “I can do this,” she said to herself, a little mantra, Meryl repeated it to herself and after putting away her derringers that were useless with the distance, she put her hand on the doorknob. With a deep breath, she got to her feet, flung open the door and ran at full tilt to her ship. She saw the sparkles in the distance, felt bullets breezing past her, and could hear them now… One ripped through her cape, but a second later she was at the ship, protected by the metal hull, the bullets clinging harmlessly off the opposite side.
          Meryl wanted to fall to her weak knees, but she knew she had more to do. Where was Vash? Wouldn’t he come once Shin was safe? What was taking him… No, you can’t always depend on him… She pressed the keypad on the ship and the door opened. Once inside she closed the door again and set to activating the ship, checking the weapon array… And much to her disappointment, they weren’t working… The lights that once were green were now red and even when she tried aiming the stupid things there was a clanking noise outside of the hull. Meryl swore a few space obscenities and realized with embarrassment that they were probably clogged with sand from the landing. She hadn’t even thought to check on them, of course Sweetness wasn’t designed for desert fighting; she was a space ship for goodness sake!
          “Now what?” Meryl scratched her head. As long as she was in the ship she was safe, but that wouldn’t help the others. She couldn’t run back, Caine was sure to get her. Meryl wasn’t close enough to use her guns on him, and not fast enough to sneak up because he knew where she was. Trapped, she thought to herself, I should have just stayed back in the church because now I can’t go anywhere! Groaning at herself and rubbing her head with her fists, she pounded her head against the control panel. “ARGGG!!”
          Now Vash would have to come to her rescue again… He’d never believe the stories she wanted to tell him about her gallant deeds in the war… Not if she couldn’t take care of one little sniper a hundred yards out. “Wait,” Meryl looked down at the control panel, still glowing merrily. She didn’t have to be that far out… she could get close enough to get him… if he had as long of a rifle as Wolfwood said, Caine would never be able to aim it upwards, she could set the ship on autopilot and just open a door and…
          Meryl’s hands flew over the controls in an instant and with one satisfying whirr, the ship took off up into the air. She turned Sweetness around to the direction she saw Caine, the plan clear in her head now. Although it was dark, under the light of the moons she could just barely make out an old pipeline that crossed the desert. It wasn’t pipe, it was a gun, and at the end, although she knew he was invisible, must be Caine… Meryl set the ship to hover, ran to the door, opening the hatch and peered cautiously down to the ground, derringers again in hand. “Come out Longshot!”
          There was a flicker at the far end of the pipeline and suddenly a dark man in a wide-brimmed hat appeared. He looked up at her but didn’t say a word. Meryl aimed her guns down at him. “Don’t move!” But he was moving, pulling something beneath a strange poncho… “I said, don’t move!!” She squeezed off a shot, it grazed his shoulder, she could see him flinch, but he was pulling smaller gun out now, raising it into the air. Meryl knew she should kill him… But all the words of Vash came into her mind and she just couldn’t, couldn’t kill this man who was out to kill her! After how many Snakes, how many battles… Now she couldn’t kill one lousy…
          Suddenly Caine’s gun fired, the sound was loud, close by, the bullet ripped through her arm and Meryl dropped her derringer. She screamed in anger, raised her other arm to shoot him, but it was too late, Sweetness dipped suddenly and Meryl was thrown from the ship.

         He stood at the pulpit, a bulging-eyed, top-hatted man in black, holding a green apple in his hand. The first sight of him brought a hush to the children, but it was Milly in the back, when she found Shin missing and this man Nicholas described in front of them, who screamed the warning. The children huddled in behind her and she held out a hand to him, palm out, ready to throw him back into the wall at any move… But so far he held no gun, no weapon of any kind, he just stood there with this bizarrely serene expression on his face as if waiting for someone. She knew he was waiting for. Nicholas, of course, his student came running in only a few seconds later, cross punisher ready for action. He came up to her side, his gray eyes never leaving Evergreen, although he said, “Is everyone okay?”
          Milly nodded, but even though he was here she wasn’t going to back down. Her arm was still extended in front of her, “I take it this is Chapel.”
          “You’ve changed,” the old man said, leaning over the pulpit now, the strange grin still on his face, as he seemed to be contemplating his apple. “Gained weight I see, Nicholas.”
          Wolfwood chuckled, “I stopped smoking.” Although I think I might have to beg Milly for one after this, he thought it so loudly Milly picked it up without trying. She thought back, I might just have to let you. He smiled with taunt lips and stepped forward. “What do you want?”
          “To see my student,” Evergreen said. He put his free hand to his face, pulling off the strange goggles that made his eyes look bulbous. Once removed he looked like a normal human being, brown eyes, older, but Milly wasn’t sure just how old for sure. “You’ve changed sides. Legato and the Master are not very pleased.”
          “Tell ‘em to shove it,” Nicholas spit back. “I don’t give a shit what they think anymore. I’ve come to set things right once and for all. And as soon as we’re done here, we’re coming for Knives and Legato.”
          Chapel shook his head, replacing his goggles. He set the apple down on the pulpit and his hands shot behind his back suddenly. Milly gasped, ready for the power to come to her fingertips, but she wasn’t fast enough, the old man pulled a split cross punisher out from behind him and crossed the two guns in front of his face… Her power cracked the podium, the apple fell to the ground, and Chapel was pushed back a few feet, but otherwise unharmed. Wolfwood jumped into action as Evergreen recovered to send a round of bullets into the sanctuary. The children screamed. “Run!” Milly said, remembering they were there suddenly, “Back to the foyer!” She held up her hands now, creating a force field around the back of the room, the bullets bounced off harmlessly. Whew, Milly thought, I wasn’t sure if that would work.
          The children and women were gone in an instant and Milly backed up. Wolfwood was now firing at his old teacher; they were set on each other now… A stained-glass window broke to the side and Wolfwood flung himself out. Chapel followed. Milly gasped, dropped the field and ran to the window. “Nicholas!” But he was gone out of sight now, she could no longer see where he went, but the gunfire came from the back of the church. Turning, she ran to the foyer where everyone was crouched down in hiding. Where did Shin go? Milly bit her lip; now afraid she made the wrong decision to bring the boy along… But shaking her head, she had eighteen other people to worry about now. The nuns were trying to hush the crying children; the others were quietly sitting in shock, looking up at her.
          “It’s okay… Nicholas got him out of the church, let’s get you to the safe place now…” She ushered them back into the sanctuary, let Melanie throw the latch the open the door, and the children piled down without a word. Milly hung back, her eyes scanning the room.
          “Come on Miss Thompson,” Mel said, pulling on her coat. Milly looked down at her, and with a frown, grabbed the door and shoved it closed on the group. She grabbed a broken piece of the pulpit and shoved it into place so they couldn’t follow her. She could hear pounding behind the wall.
          “I’m sorry everyone, I have to go back for Shin…” Milly took off at a run now, crossing the sanctuary out into the foyer, past the doorway where there was no longer gunfire, and Meryl was nowhere to be seen. But in the few seconds it took her to look outside, she saw that the little ship was gone too. Where was Mr. Vash? Were he and Meryl together? She gritted her teeth and kept running. Milly longed for the feeling of her stun gun in hand again, but she had left it in Sweetness… She spent so much time using her powers now that she hardly thought about it, but at this moment it would have been a comfort. When this is over I’m going back for that surgery and I’m going to be normal again, she thought to herself as she skidded to a halt in the main room of the orphanage.
          Mr. Vash was there, frantically searching for something. “Mr. Vash! What are you doing here?”
          He spun around, “Shin! I’ve checked every room between the foyer and here, so he had to come in here but he’s gone!” The gunman was frantic, “There’s no way out of here, is there? No other doors?”
          “There is, back there,” Milly pointed, and her mouth dropped open. It was only a little cubbyhole entrance for the children hidden in the corner; no wonder Vash didn’t see it. But it was wide open. “Oh Shin! What was that boy thinking?” She ran to the little door, Mr. Vash was there already, ducking down to go out the door. “But Mr. Vash! What about Meryl?”
          “Meryl! I left her…”
          “She wasn’t in the foyer and Sweetness is gone,” Milly gasped, “Oh Meryl!” She lunged for Vash, pulled him out of the cubbyhole and said, “GO GET HER NOW! I’ll get Shin!” The gunman didn’t argue with her, he disappeared instantly and Milly heaved a sigh of relief. She didn’t feel like Meryl was in danger, but, then again, neither had Vash… But she felt much better to have him going after her. Now, what to do about the little plant… What was Shin thinking; didn’t he realize it was dangerous? She crawled through the doorway out into the moonlight.

         Meryl felt like she was flying… Sweetness floated several yards above the ground; she could hit any time, fall right on the bastard and knock him flat… Her thoughts were disjointed as she fell, the pain in her shoulder so great that she thought she really had hit him when she thunked against something… A whoosh of air burst from her lungs, but otherwise she was fine… Meryl thought, well, maybe falling wasn’t so bad… I got him, I think… But when her eyes focused, she wasn’t on the ground; her hands and feet were still in the air, and instead of falling, she was lifted up slightly before being set down gently on the ground.
          The pain in her shoulder doubled her over and Meryl dropped the remaining derringer to the sand to clutch the bullet wound and stop the blood flow. Suddenly she wasn’t so groggy, she glanced around, where was Caine, and the better question, what just happened?
          Violet eyes shot in every direction until she saw someone spread out on the sand. Someone else was bending over the fallen body. Oh no… I’m dead aren’t I? I’m having one of those out-of-body experiences aren’t I?! But the pain ripped through her shoulder again and Meryl gasped, “No, can’t be dead…”
         “You aren’t,” a voice said near by. In the moonlight, she saw movement as the figure stood up from the ground. Meryl blinked, for a moment there she swore he had wings. But the next moment they were gone, “But Caine is.”
          “What?” Meryl started moving, trying to get to her feet, settling for a half-crawl, to come over to the fallen man, sure enough; it was Caine, wide brim hat on the ground next to him. She looked up at the man standing next to her; he was as tall as Vash, his features similar… “Who are you?”
          “Jonas,” he said with smile, eyes flickering to Caine. “I couldn’t quite let him kill one of the Ancestors, now could I?” He squatted down on the ground again, putting his hands to Caine’s neck. From up close, Meryl could see the sniper wore a mask.
          “Did you…” Meryl had no idea who this Jonas guy was, or what he was doing out here in the desert, or even how he saved her! Did he kill Caine? What happened between the time she fell from Sweetness and now? Speaking of which, she looked above, it was still there hovering. She wondered how it had become unsteady just moments before… But her attention went back to the stranger, “Did you just save me? Did you kill him? Is he dead? Who are you?”
          “Yes, I saved you. It was kinda my fault in the first place,” he continued to work at Caine’s mask, unzippering the back and said, “I didn’t kill him, I think he killed himself.” The mask came off and Meryl nearly retched… There was hardly anything left to Caine’s face but for two horribly disfigured eyes that must have been the reason he could see so well over such a distance. She turned as Jonas covered up his face, “Acid pill. Yes, he’s dead. That answers your third question. It’s alright, he’s covered up now.”
          Meryl spun on her feet and felt dizzy, too much blood loss, “And my last question…” She sunk to her knees and Jonas rushed over to her.
          “I already answered it, I’m Jonas…” He put his hand down on her shoulder, prying her blood-soaked fingers from the wound. “Got yourself shot… Then I threw off the balance of the hover and just screwed everything up.” From this close, even with how dizzy she was, Meryl could see he had silvery hair and… if she wasn’t mistaken, two different colored eyes, one violet, and the other green. She was sure it was the trick of the light… “Here, let me fix it,” he said finally, his fingers pressed into her wound and with a gasp, Meryl tried to shake him off, make the pain stop…
          Then suddenly it had. “What?” Meryl looked down at her shoulder as Jonas pulled away. She flexed her arm… The bullet hole was gone! “What did you do? How did you do it? What are you?”
          “I’m just like you,” he said with a smirk. “Human.” Jonas looked upward to Sweetness, “However, I don’t ask nearly as many questions.” He leaped suddenly and Meryl watched him with wide eyes as wings appeared at his back. He did have wings she hadn’t imagined it! Then a moment later, he boarded the ship and brought Sweetness down to the ground. At least, she was sure he did it, but when he didn’t return, Meryl went over to the ship and found Jonas was gone. Poof, without a trace!
          “What in the world just happened?” She asked herself, plopping down in her seat and looking down at the wound that wasn’t a wound anymore, just a bloody gaping hole in her traveling clothes. “Who in the world was he… Meryl’s mouth went slack until a sound thumped against the ship and she spun around to find Vash at the doorway.
          “Are you okay Meryl? What happened?”
          Meryl shook her head, “Caine killed himself… But… I can’t really tell you for sure what happened… I’m not quite sure myself.”

         Wolfwood lead Chapel away from the church, away from the children into the relative safety of the desert. Only, the desert around there was fairly empty, no rock outcroppings but on the other side, and a cliff to the east. He dogged another round of gunfire, held his punisher up to block yet another, and then stopped and returned fire. “You don’t have to do this!” He said, although he didn’t really believe it, part of him was starting to agree with Vash’s anti-kill policy. It took days for Milly to get over him killing the Cyclops, even though she didn’t say anything out loud, he knew she was thinking about it, the way her eyes grew sad when he looked at her. Maybe the hope they could stop this fight without any casualties was as much for Milly as for Needle Noggin.
         “I’m only doing as ordered, Nicholas!” Chapel shot back, both with words and bullets. Nicholas ran for the back of the church, back toward the strange rock formations that grew there from some ancient river or ocean. He could hear his teacher’s pounding footsteps behind him as he flung himself behind one, turned his cross punisher around and opened up the rocket launcher. “Every moment you hesitate you lose a little bit of your life,” Evergreen called; the rock formation in front of him shook and the top shattered, hit by a rocket.
          Nicholas dashed out from the rock as it crumbled and aimed, firing his own rocket. It hit Evergreen’s punisher, threw him back into a ball of fire, smoke and dust. Chapel disappeared into the sand and Wolfwood breathed a sigh. “Every moment I hesitate, it can save another life,” he called out as the smoke cleared and Evergreen started to get to his feet. He frowned, “Stay down. You can just walk away right now… Do you even know how it is to be happy unless you’re fighting?”
          The old priest didn’t reply, his hat was knocked off and he was pulling up one half of his cross. The other was in pieces on the ground. He lifted it into position. “That girl you were with… Do you know what the Master intends to do with her? She’s his… Don’t you understand, Nicholas? You’re going to lose unless you come back to us.”
          “I won’t lose her!” Wolfwood swung his punisher over his shoulder, turning it around and throwing it to the ground off to the side, opening the latch to reveal the pistols stored there. He lifted out two, aiming them for his old teacher. “But I don’t have to kill you either.”
          “Fool!” Evergreen spat. His finger hovered on the trigger but didn’t move. “From the very beginning that girl and the Master were created for one another. Not only are you betraying us but you are also betraying the destiny of this planet and its inhabitants! Ten years of training… Wasted!” His finger twitched but a sound caught them off guard… Both men’s attention was caught by something in the sky. Wolfwood saw what looked like a huge bird in the sky. It flew over the sky like a black shadow and for a moment his heart skipped, was it Leonof? The old puppet master used birds…
          Gunfire and Wolfwood fell to his knees. The searing pain ripped through his left leg and he dropped his gun. “Damn it!” He swore, his eyes on Evergreen once again. Stupid bastard… He never played fair, always catching me when my guard was down. Nicholas got to his feet shakily, eying Evergreen. “You going to finish me off now or what?” Chapel sneered, his finger came down on the trigger again and Wolfwood flung himself backwards, his hands catching the top of his cross to complete the flip. Landing too hard on his right leg he fell onto his knees painfully again, but shielded behind the punisher. The bullets whizzed by harmlessly, but Wolfwood couldn’t return fire, the pain searing through his leg was almost too much with the impact of the jump.
          “I see I will not be able to convince you,” Evergreen replied slowly. He came forward now, lowering his gun only slightly to make up for the proximity to his student. “It was a waste of time, but I guess we must all learn from our mistakes.” He looked down on Wolfwood now; the sneer was almost enough to make Wolfwood want to rip his face off. “And you shall learn from yours, in hell.” His finger came down on the trigger…
          Only to find the business end of the pistol Nicholas carried on his person against midsection. It was Wolfwood’s chance to smile, “Sorry, I know I will be forgiven of my sins.” His eyes turned dark and he fired. The blood from Chapel’s stomach sprayed across Wolfwood’s face as he fell backwards. The half-cross landed harmlessly to the side as Evergreen choked and sputtered, coughing up blood. Wolfwood climbed to his feet slowly, his gun still aimed at his old teacher. He frowned, limping over to his side. “I’m sorry, but I will no longer be an assassin for Knives. No more killing…” Evergreen sputtered, started to lift his gun again and Wolfwood squeezed the final shot.
          “Damn it,” he fell to his knees and cried.

         Jonas leaned up against a rock outcropping and put his hands in his pockets. He sighed. This was all too much… He’d nearly gotten himself killed in the crossfire between Wolfwood and Evergreen, and although things were going just as the Mother said they would, it pained him to see the priest fall to his knees nearby. His heart ached and he dashed into hiding. They spotted him; he caused Wolfwood to get hurt, so now he had no other choice but to return. He saved Meryl twice, and he wasn’t supposed to even touch her at all during this trip. Shaking his head, he peered around the rock. The girl named Milly left the church; she was calling for someone, looking around the yard for a lost child no doubt. For a moment he wondered what child it was, but a sudden tug at his shirt caused him to spin and look down at a small gray-haired boy.
          The boy looked indignant, “What are you doing here, Jonas? I thought you were leaving. She knows you’ve been messing with the Ancestors and she’s not happy about it.”
          “So I helped Meryl get onto the elevator, the girl is feather-weight, she would never have made it on her own.” He scratched his chin, “But yeah, I’m going, getting spotted was a mistake I know I need to atone for.” Jonas put a hand on Shin’s head. “Nice to see you’re out.”
          “Yeah…” Shin shook his head, looking around the rock. “She’s looking for me.”
          Jonas nodded, “Yeah, Squirt, I think she is. You shouldn’t have run off like that.”
          “I had to talk to you, brother,” Shin said, smiling now. “On this side.”
          With a chuckle, Jonas ruffled the boy’s hair. “Okay, you’ve seen me now, get back to Milly or she’s going to freak. I’ve heard that she can get downright violent if you get her angry…”
          “She wouldn’t,” Shin started, then he bit his lip, “But I did see Mel spank a boy for being out of line earlier, he really wailed…” He looked up at Jonas; “You’d let her do that to me?”
          “You’re mean.”
          Jonas just shrugged, his eyes sparkling. “And you’re a Squirt, but lucky for you, you get to talk to Gramps and Gran… So get back there before I ask to change places with you!” He bent down and swatted at Shin’s rump and the boy squawked and ran out to meet Milly. Alone again, Jonas chuckled, it wasn’t so bad really, even though he messed up things and the Mother would certainly have a punishment ready for him… At least he’d had a chance to talk to Gran. He smiled and sidestepped back out of time.

Finding Hope
         The first thing Vash noticed when he came into the little ship where Meryl sat was the smell. The air smelled of gunpowder and blood, but it also smelled of ozone… He looked around, a frown cresting his brow as Meryl sat in stunned silence in the pilot’s seat, fingering a hole in her shirt. Vash made mention of it the moment he came in but she had not said a word about it, just that she had to think something over and could he just wait for her for a time? Vash attended to the dead body of Caine and placed him in the back hatch of the little ship so that they could take him to the church for a proper burial. His heart hurt when he saw that the Gung-ho Gun committed suicide, but at the moment it was hurting him even more that Meryl was being affected by something much deeper. He wanted, desperately he wanted to read her mind, to find out why she was so silent, but he didn’t dare, besides, hadn’t he always wanted to be human? This was how it was for mortals right?
          When he had finished cleaning up, he sat down in the seat beside her and they remained this way for a short time until Meryl started up Sweetness again and headed back to the church. Still, it was all in silence and smell, and Vash wondered what exactly happened. Bullets were fired; he found Meryl’s derringers on the ground unloaded, and Caine’s small sidearm still warm. But Meryl was frustratingly silent, her shoulder was bloody but unharmed, she had been in a firefight the first time since Little Arcadia… And there was this strange scent in the air that Vash couldn’t figure out. The smell was like after a thunderstorm… They had heat lightning from time to time on the planet, although most of the population on Gunsmoke lived far away from the electric storms that swept the far side, but he and Knives traveled there once, and it smelled like that… He smelled the same thing in the sandstorm a few days ago as well…
          Meryl sat down Sweetness outside the church, closer this time, she was getting better at piloting it every time she did it as if becoming more like the star-fighter Captain she told him that she was at one time. He wondered if this Meryl was different than the one who fell in love with him… Was that why she was so stubborn about the question of marriage he posed to her? When her memories returned, had she remembered some old love, some old vow… Had she been opposed to marriage? Vash sighed inwardly and looked at her, she still looked the same but her countenance was stronger, more sure of herself; he knew she would no longer be kidnapped by his brother and his goons. Meryl was a fighter… But would she fight him too?
          The little insurance girl stood up out of her chair and started to exit the little ship, and when she did this without saying another word Vash grabbed her arm and she swung her body to face him, raising a hand as she did so. His eyes widened in disbelief, and so did Meryl’s. Those violet eyes were filled with grief and shock and she lowered her fist in a sudden movement, and then looked down at it as if it were foreign to her. “I’m sorry… I didn’t… You startled me.”
          “What happened Meryl?” Vash wrapped his fingers around her wrist and reached for her other hand and pulled her to him. “Tell me. You’re keeping something from me.”
          “Read my mind, find out for yourself,” Meryl snapped, she gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, “Do it.”
          “I won’t,” he replied sadly. “This isn’t like you.”
          Meryl sank to her knees and buried her head in his lap. “I don’t know what I’m like anymore!” She didn’t cry, just wrapped her arms around his legs, her face buried in his coat. “I would have killed him Vash… I was planning on killing him like I did long ago but… I couldn’t, I just couldn’t do it because that’s how I’ve been here, on this planet. I wouldn’t kill someone, but I can remember killing. Do you know how that feels? No…” She looked up at him, eyebrows knitted in anger, “You don’t kill anyone… Do you?”
          Vash grabbed Meryl under the armpits and hoisted her up to look at him face to face. “You don’t know what I’ve done,” he looked into her eyes for a long time. She didn’t waver, didn’t blink, waiting for an answer he wasn’t sure he had… He wasn’t even sure what her question was. “Tell me, Meryl, which of these two people do you want to be? The fighter or the insurance agent? The killer or the person who protects life?”
          Head slumping forward, Meryl reached her hands out to him, touching his shoulders and Vash pulled her into his lap and embraced her. She heaved a breath in his coat and started to cry. He shivered and felt tears come to his own eyes. “If you need help, I’ll put in my vote,” Vash put his hand under her chin, a tear running down his leather glove causing a dark streak through the dust of wear. Meryl didn’t open her eyes, squeezing them shut from the tears, from her weakness, or whatever she chose to believe this sadness was. “I want the insurance girl who was brave enough to follow me into hell and tell me she loved me.”
          Leaning down he brushed his lips gently across hers. She opened her eyes briefly like amethyst jewels sparkling through tears and then closing them again Meryl returned the kiss. When she pulled away to breathe, Meryl curled her legs up into his lap and nestled into his arms as a child would. “I think I’d like to be the girl you want me to be…” Her left hand clutched his coat and she felt so small and so helpless in his arms, so like a little girl that Vash knew she was when he first met her that he wanted to hold her like that forever… Forever… The word echoed in his head and he knew it carried over into the air between them because Meryl looked up at him at that moment, startled. “Were you serious about what…”
          The little girl was blushing, Vash couldn’t believe it, but here she was, this beautiful… woman whom he loved so much, so strong moments before but so open to him now, looking at her with pink in her cheeks. “You said that you could… You could… That we might be able to…” Meryl slapped her face, shook her head a few times and then blurted, “We could have children together, right?”
          Vash felt the blush rising up his neck and he leaned his head back in the chair to look at the ceiling. “Yeah, I did. I asked the Doc just before we left… I just…” He lowered his head again and Meryl was looking at him, still uneasy with the topic it seemed, but listening intently, “When I saw Shin come out of there and the way you doted on him I realized how good of a mother you would be, and I wondered what it would be like to… be a father.”
          Meryl smiled, “You really think I would be a good mother?”
          “Of course!” Vash grinned.
          “Even though I’m a murderer?”
          Vash’s smile faded. “Stop it, Meryl. You aren’t, no more than I am… I… Don’t you want a family Meryl? Don’t you want to be happy for once? Are you so content in this war that when we’ve taken care of Knives that you’ll go in search for another fight somewhere?” He pulled her tight, “Damn it, Meryl, I want to see an end to this, I want to hope for better things, for happiness and joy and love… But if you’re unwilling to let this go then…”
          “I want to marry you,” Meryl said finally.
          “What?” Vash pulled her back from him and looked down at her face.
          “I said, I want to be your wife. I want to hope too. I just… I just don’t want there to be any more doubts about who I am or who I was… Or doubts… Doubts…” Meryl choked on her words and then said with a sob, “I don’t want to doubt what I feel for you is only because of some plan that was made for me over a hundred years ago!”
          Sitting in stunned silence, Vash couldn’t move. He couldn’t blink, he couldn’t breathe, and for a moment he wondered if his heart would shatter. So this… This was what it was all about from the very moment Meryl regained her memories, she wasn’t sure if she loved him or if it was some… “No… It’s not because of that.”
          “And how do you know?”
          “Because… If that were true than Milly would love my brother instead of Wolfwood. Why toy with one heart and not the other?” He nodded to himself; it had to be the truth. He couldn’t imagine his own mother, or whoever this ‘Lady Elf’ was as Meryl called her, could be so cruel. Not even Knives could toy with human emotions like that. It was something his brother would never understand, he couldn’t fathom love because he had never experienced it. Even the plants, those sisters he had met, they didn’t feel love, so how would they understand it enough to manipulate it? “Your love for me is as real as my love is for you.” He kissed her again, this time deepening the kiss until Meryl relaxed in his arms.
          When Meryl pulled away finally, she stretched out her legs and gently let herself down onto the floor to stand next to him. “There’s something else I need to tell you, Vash.” The little girl reached for his hand and taking it, she pulled him from his seat. He complied, not quite sure what she had in mind. “This hole,” Meryl fingered the bloodied spot on her shoulder, “Was from a bullet only about ten minutes before you found me.”
          Vash reached out and touched the spot and knew that confusion crossed his face. “What… What are you trying to tell me, Meryl?”
          “It was healed…” She lowered her hand, “I don’t know how he did it Vash, but he saved my life and I think he saved my life before out in the sandstorm. One moment he wasn’t there, then the next he was, a young man, maybe my age, or a little younger with long gray hair. He had different colored eyes, the right one green, and the left, purple… He called himself Jonas. I… I felt almost like I knew him, but…”
          “Are you sure it wasn’t a dream…”
          “Yes!” Meryl jabbed Vash in the gut, “You see the hole, it’s right here, and there’s so much blood,” she let loose his hand and pulled up her shirt, showing him rivulets of dried blood down her shoulder, soaked into her bra and down her perfectly shaped stomach. Then, in a sudden fit of modesty, she pulled her shirt back down and said, “And he had wings… They grew right out of his back like he was an angel or something.”
          Vash’s mouth dropped open, “Wings?” This struck a cord with him… He could do it… He wasn’t sure how, but he could… Meryl never saw it, and he’d never been able to do it again since the church… “You mean, like feathers?”
         “Duh!” Meryl rolled her eyes. “Feathers, wings, you know, jump up in the air, fly around… He told me he was human, but just how could a human do that? It was the weirdest thing…” She grabbed Vash’s hand again, “Maybe I really was imagining it, but I can’t even deny the facts, there are too many of them, and I’ve seen some pretty weird things.” Meryl smiled, “Like you… In fact, a lot like you… he kinda looked like you in a way too,” she was thoughtful for a moment and shook her head.
          “I’m too tired to think straight…” She pulled at Vash’s hand and he followed as she headed toward her cabin. When the door slid open at her touch, Meryl turned and looked up at him, “It’ll be cramped but at least we’ll be free of little kids.” She smiled, “At least… Until we have some of our own.”
          Vash closed the door behind them and typed in the code to lock the ship without another word.

Finding Peace
         “Shin! Shin, where are you!” Milly searched the yard in a panic, there was no sign of the young boy on the side of the church where he exited, and she came around the side where she had heard gunshots only moments before. Wolfwood was here somewhere nearby. Now things were quiet, but did that mean someone was wounded, dead, or were they taking moments to collect themselves, to talk something out, she wasn’t sure what the silence meant, but it was eerie under the twin moons, her calls echoing over the desert. “Shin!”
         Suddenly there was movement, blue eyes flashed in the direction of the strange rock formations in the distance, and the little boy came running, stumbling in his yellow pajamas. “Miss Milly!” She fell to her knees as he came up to her and she grabbed him, pulled him into a hug.
          “Oh I was so worried! Where did you go? Why did you go? Why did you run, it’s so dangerous out here…” She ran her fingers through his silver hair, trying not to cry, so glad that she found this little body, this little boy who had never seen death or fighting before. He never saw the dangers; never saw the tragedy that followed them, the horrible things… He’s never seen what you can do, a voice echoed in her head and Milly pushed Shin back suddenly.
          Shin’s eyes were confused, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to run, but I didn’t understand what was going on. Was it wrong? I’m sorry,” he started to put his arms around her again but Legato’s voice rung clear in Milly’s head, Yes… Take the boy… He’d be a sweet treat for the Master.
          “No…” Milly kept Shin at arm’s length and stood. “It’s okay, Shin, I’m okay, you’ll be fine. Let’s just get you inside, okay?” She looked around. There wasn’t a sign of Yellow Eyes, she wasn’t sure where he was, couldn’t feel him nearby, most likely he used one of the Gung-ho Guns as an antennae. Bastard, leave me alone! She thought fiercely, taking Shin by the hand and starting back toward the building when she heard a gunshot. It echoed over the hills and she stopped walking, looked around, over there, to the other side of the building: there. A moment later and another shot followed, and suddenly she heard no more voices, felt no more infringement upon her brain from Yellow Eyes. He’d lost his last transmitter nearby. She shivered and looked down at Shin. “It’ll be okay, but I need you to go back inside, I need to go check on something.”
          The little plant looked up at her in the moonlight, he almost shone he was so brilliant and new. She wanted to hold him, to care for him, she wanted a child of her own, but she didn’t want to ever put him in harm’s way. Milly smiled down at him and Shin nodded, “Okay Miss Milly, be careful okay?” He took off running and entered the little children’s door and disappeared. How could she ever have a child while all of this was going on? The little children in the orphanage needed Wolfwood, needed someone to take care of them, but not when someone could come and kill them… Not while Blondie still lived. Neither of them were safe, but she knew that Mr. Vash would never be able to kill his brother, but would the ever be safe?
          Dispelling the dark thoughts, Milly started in long strides toward the corner of the building where she heard the last gunshot. Standing now at the corner, she took a deep breath and leaned her head around the side of the building, her eyes fell upon two men upon the ground, one heaving on his knees, the other flat on his back not moving. “Nicholas!” Dashing now, Milly flung herself to the ground next to him. He gazed up at her with horror in his eyes, and then he turned and vomited. “Oh my…” Milly put her hands on him, “Are you okay?” Something felt wet under her fingers, and she lifted her hand, it came away dripping in blood. “You’ve been shot!”
          Wolfwood put his left arm up against his mouth, wiping it clean, tears still falling down his face as he reached up to grab her bloodied hand. “I’m fine, Honey. I’ll be fine.”
          “You’re so stubborn! Let me help you up, come on now…” But his hand was firm on hers and he wasn’t moving. His gray eyes were dark, almost black in the night. She didn’t move, he was as terrified as she felt. Trying to break his gaze, she looked over at the fallen man, “Is he dead?” Nicholas nodded. It made sense now, no wonder she couldn’t hear Legato’s voice now, she was almost grateful that he was dead… She shivered, “I’m sorry, but thank you…”
          Wolfwood’s hand loosened his grip. “I… No… You mustn’t thank me.” He grabbed her now with both hands, pulling Milly to her knees, the pain came over his face in waves, but she could tell he was ignoring it. Milly could feel his hands tighten on her shoulders, “I’m not going to do this again. Vash was right… Killing… I can’t kill… He was the only man I ever thought of as a father…” Nicholas cringed, burying his face in her chest. He sobbed. Milly wrapped her arms around him.
          “I’m…” She couldn’t speak. Her pillar had crumbled in front of her eyes. But she didn’t love him any less. Instead… “I love you, Nicholas, no matter what you did… I want to be your family now, I want to be here with you forever…” His sobbing never ceased as she held him. “We’ll help Mr. Vash finish this once and for all. They won’t haunt us any more. We’ll find peace… I promise.”

Chapter 4
Morning Chores
         The next morning the suns came up, the children were out in the yard playing, and except for the broken pulpit and window in the sanctuary, everything was pretty much normal. There were however, on a more somber note, some tasks that the adults had to do behind closed doors. Vash sat in one of the pews, his hands clasped on his knees, staring up at the wooden cross at the front. After boarding up the windows to the right of the room, he took a break now, thinking about the previous night’s events. The nuns were in a small room to the left, preparing the bodies for burial. He let out a sigh, the day shouldn’t be so bright, shouldn’t be so beautiful as it was, not when two people lost their lives that evening. But on this planet, the weather didn’t cooperate with emotions.
          Vash remembered a story Rem told him. He was very young at the time so he didn’t really understand what she was saying until a while later. “Vash,” she said, “I used to have someone I loved very much, but he died. Do you remember seeing what rain is in the holos you watched? When someone dies on Earth, the skies cry too.” She said this after Knives killed the spider in the web. It made him wonder if the Earth understood the humans, and whether Gunsmoke cared or not that people were dying upon its surface. Not that he believed in a sentient planet, but rather, did God care about these little people on this planet? Did he see out this far into space? Why didn’t the skies rain down when someone died?
          His aqua eyes focused on the cross. Sinners died this night but did they not also have the right to be mourned? Vash put his hands on his face, feeling the cool leather gloves against his skin, so smooth to the touch. He had run out of tears today, his allotment used up perhaps as he sat there in silence wondering how much longer this would go on. How many more men would Knives send to die? How many more sinners would give their lives unforgiven? No, Vash thought, squeezing his eyes shut, I won’t let him send any more. We’re going to stop him now, even if I have to go by myself to do it. He would, without the girls, without Wolfwood, he’d do it… Vash stood abruptly; he could go and face Knives, leave right now while everyone was safe…
          “Where are you going?” Vash turned, Meryl stood by the side door. “You got up suddenly, are you okay?” She closed the door quietly behind her and then turned her beautiful lilac eyes on him. “Did I startle you?”
          “I think I’m going to finish this alone,” he replied slowly, knowing that the little girls’ wrath would be on him now… But she only smiled.
          “Okay, I’ll let you clean up the room on your own. Mary and Rebecca are almost finished, they’ll be ready for your help to take care of the burial when you’re done.” Meryl smiled faintly and Vash wondered if she really had known what he meant or not. “I’m going to see how Milly and Wolfwood are and then, I believe Miss Melanie wanted my help to make lunch for the little ones.”
          She came over to him, so small, so fragile, but so strong. Vash was still amazed that after everything happened she could smile, she could look up at him with love in her eyes… Meryl reached up a hand to his shoulder, used it to steady herself as she got up on the pew and wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling his head into her soft chest. “Thank you for last night,” she said slowly. “I’m glad that you will be with me when we finally solve this last piece of the puzzle.” Meryl kissed the top of his head and then pulled away, hopped down to the floor and waved over her shoulder. “I’ll see you at lunch, Vash.”
          When Meryl was gone, Vash just stared after her and looked up at the ceiling, a chuckle coming to his throat. “That woman… I don’t know how she knew, but she knew… She knew exactly how to convince me to stay, she always does.” Shaking his head, he laughed and decided to get back to work on the repairs.

Right As Rain

         Wolfwood cringed as he pulled himself up in bed. The little room he took for himself in the orphanage was smaller than many of the hotel rooms they stayed in during their travels. However, he never really needed much room before this. The room had one window across from the door and was probably used as an office at one time, though it had a large closet he converted into a bathroom when he first took over. The bed was pushed up against the window, and now, sitting up, he could see a few of the children playing tag out in the yard where only twelve hours before he and Evergreen fought.
          Next to the bed were a small nightstand, a chair, and a dresser upon the wall next to the bathroom door. A mirror hung on the back of the door and he could see his face was scratched up from jumping out of the broken stained glass window. Lifting his good arm to touch the scratches, he grimaced again. Milly said she would go and get him salve from one of the nurseries to doctor them, but she was gone too long and he got antsy laying in the bed when there were so many things he could be doing.
          Unfortunately, his leg, even with the bullet removed and wound stitched up, was painful to move. Of course the women here all knew him too well, and instead of letting him help in the chores, restricted him to his bedroom for the remainder of the day. What a waste of time! He had repairs to make, paperwork to do from his absence, the weekend was coming and Wolfwood knew there would be questions from the congregation if they saw he was back and wounded, the church in shambles…
          “Hey!” A knock at his window made Nicholas startle, turn too suddenly to the noise and he ground his teeth from the pain in his leg. His eyes fell on a youngster with gray hair, and he sighed. “Hi Mr. Nicholas! Are you feeling okay?” Shin asked through the glass window. Wolfwood nodded and carefully unlocked the window and opened it.
          “I heard that you decided to take a detour from the rest of the group last night,” he said to the boy, his face showing how serious he was, eyes dark under his long brows. “It’s not safe to…”
          Shin looked down and nodded slowly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t get hurt though, see? And this morning I’ve made a bunch of new friends.” He waved to a group of children who were playing dodge ball in the yard. “Are you okay? I heard you were shot.”
          Wolfwood shrugged his shoulders, not a good idea, his whole body was sore, making the pain flare up and he gritted his teeth. “I’m fine, Milly went to get some pain killers and she should be back any time now. I think she probably ran into the little insurance girl and forgot me.” He rubbed his arm and pressed his lips into a smile for the little plant. “I’m supposed to be in quarantine for the rest of the day.”
          The little boy nodded, “I’ve been through that before… But everything’s fixable…” He started to reach his hand into the window toward Wolfwood, but suddenly the children behind him called and Shin smiled and waved, “Gotta go! Talk to you later!” He disappeared into a swarm of children and was gone. Nicholas dropped his smile, and it turned into a thoughtful frown. What did he mean, “fixable?”
          Questions like that one remained unanswered when the big girl bounced into the room again wearing a pretty green spring dress, her hair back in a ribbon. “Oh good you’re up, I was wondering if you’d go back to sleep on me. Sorry I took so long but Rebecca gave me an old dress of hers to wear and I thought I’d try it on. I don’t like dresses but I thought you might like to see it.” She smiled and closed the door behind her, setting a tray with pills, a glass of water, and salve onto the bed. “How are you feeling?” Milly didn’t wait for his answer before giving him a quick kiss on the cheek and sitting down next to him.
          “I’m… Just fine, actually. You know, I’m sure I’m good enough to get up and help with the funeral… Say a few words, something…” Nicholas said as she shoved the glass of water at him. He scooped the pills off the tray, swallowed them down with the water and started to move his legs off the bed, suppressing his urge to scream from moving the wounded appendage. “See? Right as rain…”
          “You shouldn’t be on it or you’ll tear open the wound like Miss Mary said. Besides, Mr. Vash isn’t ready for the service yet, not for another few hours he said, they still have to dig the graves.” Milly took the lid off of the salve and started applying it to the scratches on his face. She was so gentle and the tips of her fingers were cold to the touch, it made the stinging a bit more bearable. “I don’t think they would have a problem with you saying something,” Milly finished after a moment. She continued to dab each individual scratch then started down his neck. The feeling of her fingers sent a shiver down his back; that was a new sensation, no other girl could do that to him. When she couldn’t find any more visible scratches she sat back and smiled. “You really are a good man just like I thought you were from the very beginning.”
          Nicholas lifted his good arm and wrapped his fingers around her wrist. “Did you have any doubts?”
          “No,” Milly said. She seemed more like herself today, smiling the entire time, happy to be with him. “But when you started to doubt yourself, I was worrying you’d convince yourself otherwise.” She moved her wrist out of his hand and entwined her fingers in his. They sat looking into each other’s eyes for a few minutes and Wolfwood was just so amazed at how crystal blue hers were. She was just so beautiful, hair falling around her face in the usual manner, eyes bright, and a smile on her pink lips. There was no darkness hiding behind her expression, no haunted glances over her shoulder, no blank glares as if she was thinking very hard about something. This was the girl he was first attracted to on the bus to May City, the one he knew if he laid his head on her shoulder she would have no objections.
          “How are you doing, anyway?” Nicholas said, playing with her soft, smooth fingers. She’d been biting the nails, he noticed at a glance, but they were scrubbed and filed, all but the index, which looked freshly chewed and rough. “You’re so happy today that it makes my heart glad to see you like this, especially after…” Wolfwood trailed off, he didn’t want to bring up the previous events, but in truth, normally his love became worse after a fight where someone was killed, not the other way around.
          Milly took a deep breath and shrugged, blinking her eyes slowly before turning them to the window. “After they died the voices in my head went quiet…” The moment passed and she grinned, “So actually I’m better than normal, much better! I’m pretty right as rain too…” Milly pressed a finger to her lips and became thoughtful, “Maybe I should ask Meryl what that saying means, and I think it has something to do with Earth…”
          “Oh!!” Milly suddenly jumped at something and stood up off the bed. “I forgot all about it until now! You said that you saw plate with my family name on it, didn’t you? Where was it? That’s what we came here for in the first place and I’d forgotten all about it until now…”
          Nicholas laughed, closing his eyes in thought, “It’s at the back of the sanctuary on the built-in table. It normally remains hidden because Mary likes to put a tablecloth and flowers over it…” He opened his eyes again to find he was talking to an empty room. “Honey?”

The Padre's Letter

         Meryl shook her head in amused, and befuddled, amazement. “You’re right, it really is a Thompson.” She traced the engraved brass plate on the table, looking at the words, not only had there been a Thompson here but he built the church they were standing in. The date was year 20 of the new calendar. “Do you have any ideas about what happened to them, Miss Melanie?” She turned to look at the older woman sitting on a chair nearby.
          Melanie was wiping flour from her hands onto her apron as she looked up at them. “I started working here in… What year was it now?” Meryl could tell she was working the math in her head. “Ten years ago, but the church was abandoned when Nicholas and I started the orphanage.”
          “Was there anyone of that name living nearby? It’s kind of important to me, you know? My family could still be here somewhere.” Milly asked, turning pleading eyes to Mel.
          “I’m sorry we’re putting you on the spot like this…” Meryl added.
          The older woman shook her head, “You aren’t inconveniencing me at all, and actually it’s uplifting that you two are here. My Nicholas hasn’t been this happy in ages; I haven’t seen him smile like that in… Goodness, I don’t remember him ever smiling like that, and the children just love Mr. Vash.” She smiled broadly and laughed, “I’m amazed he isn’t dead-run ragged. You two have saved the children, the church, and our hearts. Trying to remember something from the past as a reward is simply not enough on my part.” She raised a finger in the air, “I remember when I first came here an old pastor visited from town, he was probably seventy years old back then, but from time to time I get a letter from him.”
          Standing, Melanie smoothed out her apron and motioned the girls to follow. They went through the side door of the sanctuary that led into a small hallway to the kitchen, then past that to the offices. Melanie’s room was nearest the main section of the orphanage and she allowed them entrance to her small but cheerfully decorated bedroom. “Just give me a second, I can’t remember when he wrote me last because it has been awhile. I’ve always assumed the old Padre died…” Mel went over to a chest and opened it, searched for a moment and came out with a bundle of letters. “Ah, okay it was written two years ago, but if you figure out where he is, it’s possible he may know about your family.” She handed over the bundle to Meryl.
          “There’s no return address,” she noted out loud, lifting the letter so that Milly could see the envelope over her shoulder.
          Her friend was quiet, eyes wide with interest, and placing a hand on Meryl’s shoulder, Milly said, “Go on Meryl, read it. Maybe there’s something in there.”
          “Okay, hold on.” She looked up at Melanie, “Is it okay?” Receiving a nod from the older woman, Meryl opened the last letter she received and unfolded it careful so as not to rip the fragile paper. The script was small and neat, the handwriting of a man who wrote in the margins of Bibles. “Dear Miss Melanie,” she started to read, “I had the fortune of coming across a young man the other day who inquired of your health, and since I had not written a correspondence to you in quite some time I saw it fit to do so today. My apologies I cannot give you a return address for I am on the move at present. The young man introduced himself as a member of the PWS, and though I do not hold much esteem for this group, he had bright eyes and a clever smile, calling himself Nicholas. I seem to remember the boy from your orphanage, although he has aged quite a bit from the young upstart who helped you fix up the old chapel. I see God in this boy and wished his travels were for the service of the church. He assured me they were, that he was looking for another young man I had the pleasure of meeting in my own travels. Our paths crossed just two days past and I pointed him in the right direction and off he went. It is very nice to see young people joining forces for good of the church.” Meryl stopped reading, “If Nicholas ran into him, do you think he was asking for Vash?”
          Melanie shrugged her shoulders, “The old Padre always used too old of an English for me to follow most of the time, but it could be.” She waved a hand, “Well, my bread should be ready for the oven now, I suspect you’ll both be ready for the picnic this evening? Normally we don’t eat outside near dark but I thought it would be proper to hold some kind of wake for the deceased.” With that, she left the two girls alone.
          Meryl motioned for Milly to sit down next to her on Mel’s bed and she looked at the bottom of the letter she read, trying to find a name. “He only signed it ‘Padre.’ I wonder what his real name was…” She sifted through the envelopes, “And there’s no return addresses. I think we hit another dead end, Milly.”
          Without a word, her friend lay back on the bed to look at the ceiling. “It’s okay Meryl, just knowing that my family lived here somewhere… You know, it kind of makes me feel at home. Ever since we woke up that morning in the apartment feeling out of place, I really haven’t felt comfortable anywhere.”
          “I know,” Meryl slumped back on the bed next to Milly and set the letters beside her on the bed. “Isn’t it funny that even though our memories were replaced we knew that the apartment wasn’t real? Our jobs, our lives, the people we met, it was all set up to fool us. I have no idea how she did it, I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to set it all up.” She turned her head to look at her friend and reached out for her hand.
          Milly startled, then smiled, squeezed her friend’s hand. “But we were always real, our friendship has always been real from the very beginning hasn’t it? What can you remember, Meryl? Do you remember the first time we met? I remember your parents bringing you over. I think our fathers went to school together, didn’t they?”
          Nodding, Meryl agreed. “Although we weren’t really friends at the start. I thought you were annoying when I first met you.” She grinned at Milly’s expression but the look softened and Milly laughed.
          “Yeah, I guess you really did.”
          “I did! You were always talking about your older brothers and sisters, and I kept asking you, ‘Milly, what do you do? What do you like?’ and you’d say, ‘Well my big middle sister likes…’ it wasn’t until I moved in that you started talking about yourself.” Meryl shook her head, still smiling and reached for the open letter and lifted it up in front of her face to read. “My dear Miss Melanie, forgive an old man’s ramblings, but I had a peculiar experience the day I ran into the two men I mentioned to you. The first man, I never caught his name, but he was a bright and able youth who helped me save my bag from a group of bandits at the entrance to the great city of December.”
          Meryl sat up abruptly, “Milly… If this was Vash, he was in December around the time we appeared in the city…”
          “I’m listening Meryl, what does it say?”
          “After he saved my belongings I asked him to join me for dinner at a small local inn that stubbornly clung to old traditions against the modern styling of the city. He said that he would and we sat and had a fine time conversing on old Earth traditions. I was surprised such a young man would be able to speak of Earth in such a way, but he said he had learned it from his mother, a woman he named as Rem Saverem. The name was familiar to me. A close friend of my father’s was the woman’s fiancée until he died in the war, shortly before the project brought us to this small dust bowl planet. I am curious that he looks much too young to be a son of a woman who grew up on Earth with my very own father, but I didn’t pry the information out of him. What he did tell me he said after having a few drinks, so I was not sure how much of it foretold the truth.”
          Milly turned onto her side, propping up her head on her hand. “That definitely sounds like Mr. Vash doesn’t it?”
          Meryl nodded, “He’s mentioned a woman named Rem before. Usually in his sleep… I wonder,” shaking her head, she went back to reading, her mind more on thinking about talking to Vash rather than what she was reading, but after a moment she stumbled over a word and her mind clicked back onto the subject. She stopped and backtracked a line or two. “It was on that night as I helped the young man back to his hotel room that I saw something I’ll never forget in my lifetime on this planet. I’ve lived in the northern parts on occasions but I have never seen such a light show as I saw this night. While the poor youngster disgorged his stomach within an alley, a bright light shot over the sky in colors too numerous to mention like a cloak being drawn over the city. I will never forget it because it descended upon a block nearby and disappeared. The young man perked up the instant it was gone, turned to me with a very disturbed look on his face and said that he needed to leave the city. He became immediately sober and left my company with a worried wave and I never saw him again.”
          Shaking her head, Meryl sighed, folding up the letter once more. When she put the letter back into the envelope, the postmark caught her eye and she held it up in front of Milly’s face. “If I’m doing my math right, the night he saw those lights was the night we appeared in December City. Which means…”
          “Mr. Vash was in our town… Like it was all planned to the moment, wasn’t it Meryl?”
          “Yeah, I think it was.” She frowned, “Although I don’t think it’s fair to us, do you?”
          Milly stretched her arms out toward the ceiling. “I don’t know Meryl, everything has worked out just the way it should, don’t you think?” She sat up, and looked down on her friend. “Except for Nicholas…”
          “You don’t call him ‘mister’ anymore,” Meryl said suddenly, thinking about it. “You said he asked you to marry him didn’t you?”
          “Yeah, but he doesn’t want to make it official until he can propose properly, but he said that we’ll get married here and live with the children.” She smiled brightly, “Don’t you think that’s grand Meryl? I’ve never… You know, I never once thought I’d ever meet anyone. I really didn’t plan on ever getting married because guys just never looked at me the way he does. Now I couldn’t imagine being without him. And you’ve got Mr. Vash so… Hey, are you two doing okay?”
          Meryl smiled, “Yes, actually, we are… And…” Blushing, Meryl realized she never told Milly her own good news. She was kind of worried that Milly would no longer allow her own relationship to take precedence if she did, and it was Milly’s time to shine… “I think it’s getting more serious between us too,” she said finally, not mentioning Vash’s proposal. Meryl knew that if Milly found out she’d rush to get her married, but it was her wedding to Nicholas that Meryl wanted to concentrate on first.
          “I see,” Milly said thoughtfully, giving her a knowing look and Meryl wondered if… No, she wouldn’t have read my mind right then, would she? “Well now,” Milly said, getting to her feet. “We have a picnic to attend to! I don’t know about you but I’m starving! Plus I heard mention of pudding and I haven’t had a good bowl of pudding in… Well, you know what, I can’t remember when I had any last and I think it’s far past time that I fill up again because you never can tell when we’ll be able to sit down and have a good meal again.”
          “I think you’re right,” she replied, “It’s good to have a good meal before going into battle.” Sitting up, Meryl packed the letters together again and put them into the trunk Melanie pulled them from, and followed Milly out into the hall to dinner. “Let’s hope this one is our last to win the war.”


         Laughing, Milly breezed in through the door of Wolfwood’s old room, small rivulets of sweat beading down her neck and her bright face gasping for air. She began to do a little jig of excitement right in the middle of the carpet, Wolfwood watching her bemusedly as he reclined, arms crossed, against the doorsill. I can’t imagine where she gets all that extra energy from; a full day of playing with the orphans, especially on their ‘sugar-high’ days, always leaves me near exhausted by the time the suns go down. Milly caught his thoughts and smiled brighter.
          Giggling, still giddy, she brushed at her rather disheveled clothing. “Oh, that was some of most fun I’ve had in ages! I feel more alive then I have in… Well, I don’t know when! I could go on for hours more if the children didn’t have to go to bed!”
          “That’s easy for you to say,” Wolfwood smirked, “you weren’t the one put in the full nelson back there after having your leg shot up.” He grimaced, but Milly knew he was exaggerating.
          “Oh, you loved it,” she shot back, still smiling. “But I didn’t know that you were so flexible, Nicholas.”
          The smirk he sent her had a rather devilish gleam of evil in it. “Just practicing for the future, Honey.”
          At once the expected blush erupted in her cheeks, just as he’d planned it, and Milly knew that even she wasn’t proof against his mischief. Although she was surprised he snapped back to better than normal so quickly. For a time she worried he might never recover. He was used to killing that was how… Milly patted her cheeks, this was no time to get down, she was having the time of her life now and she knew Nicholas was as well. She guessed she only had to be thankful she’d been spared from his chiding for so long. Nothing like the old home folk to bring out the devil in him! “Oh, you’re horrible!”
          His laughter only increased her blush so Milly had to move away. She turned to the window, parting the curtain with her deft fingers to look out at the sliver of the setting orphan sun, the blood red rays cutting through the panes and checkering her face. Her eyes searched for the direction in which Tin Town lay. “I’m certain Mother and Father would love you. Grandpa is a bit up in years so he’s a bit cranky and not all there, he tried to whip a tractor once, and my brothers are a bit overprotective but once they get to meet you I’m sure they…”
          A hand slapped up to her mouth. She didn’t know how she could even think of letting old dead habits resurface after all this time, knowing what she knew. She supposed the happy, brawling atmosphere of the orphanage, feeling too much like her old home… Especially knowing that memory of her family was here; it had caught her up and made her forget. She wracked through the memories that remained to her, but they felt stained and worn, hazy, and she could not tell which were from old Earth and which ones were the manufactured Gunsmoke ones, or were they all lies, how many brothers and sisters did she have, did she have a crazy uncle Frank or a crazy aunt Francine? But even if she did have some distant relatives that survived the Great Fall out there, they were still not the ones she had left behind. She didn’t know them. She’d been gone too long and now… So was this how Nicholas felt?
          Milly bit the end of her nails, chewing them off ragged. I’ve got to stop doing this! Meryl’s going to have my hide when she sees them… “Well,” she attempted to chirp, “Never mind. I guess then we won’t have to worry about any feuds between in-laws! And we won’t have to send out so many invitations or spend so much on the wedding, we can actually fit everyone inside the church that way!” Her fingers curled around the cloth over her chest, gripping it with white knuckles; something felt diseased inside her and she wanted to be able to rip it out so the root of all the pain would go away.
          She knew that Wolfwood was utterly at a loss behind her. He recognized the pain flitting across her face, knew it all too well, but there was little he could do to comfort her despite his profession. What could he say that wouldn’t give any false sympathy? The very limited experience he had with family had not turned out well and while he could smoke himself to death in the pity that life had played him such a bum trick for not providing him a family, the lack of relatives gave him no pain. He hadn’t known them and told her so. His only family was here, in this orphanage with children that came and went, a few friends that knew him, and now her. She was glad that he thought of her as family now, because she thought the same way. “It’s okay, I know that you’re trying…”
          Nicholas gave her an odd look at Milly slapped at her mouth again, “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… I think I was just read your mind again. This is just too hard… Maybe I should have gotten that surgery after all. Why can’t I just be normal?”
          The tall girl put her hands up to her cheeks as if that would physically stave off the tears that threatened. “Why do you love me so much when I’m so weird anyway?” The warmth of Wolfwood’s arm curled around her shoulders to her opposite ear where he began to idly play with the lanky strands hanging near her jawbone.
          “I know it must be hard,” he murmured against her neck. She shifted her eyes to look at him but his face was obscured by the black fall of his thick bangs. He needed to trim them; he needed a bit of a shave too. His chin hairs had gotten long again. He continued, “But I think we’re a lot alike. I’m not a very good priest, all in all, Honey. I’m usually the one who needs to be on his knees in the confessional, not the other way around. I’ve got more to confess than any man rightly should. But wishing that won’t change anything. My job’s my job, and here I am. Whatever you tell me, I’ll never stop loving you, and I won’t charge you a c-cent either.”
          She regarded the top of his head, nestled against her shoulder and neck, for a very long time. It would be almost a sin, she decided, not to take what he offered. That would be like throwing back the two coins the poor woman gave as alms.
          “I told you I hear voices in my head,” she whispered. “It’s Legato. He talks to me every chance he gets, Nicholas. He says… He says the most horrible things to me. He calls me filthy names. I can usually fight against him but he occasionally gets at one or two memories and he makes them so horrible and twisted. I hardly even recognize myself anymore; I look at myself when I just started with Bernadelli and I hardly know who it is.” Her lips curled into a grimace. “I hate this! Meryl’s so sure about what we used to be like, but I don’t know. I can’t even trust myself to think that anything’s real anymore. It hurts!”
          Wolfwood waited until he was certain that she did not plan on saying more. He curled a strand of her hair around his finger almost idly, breath warm against her neck. “Honey, I’m so sorry but there’s a lot of things you said that I just can’t help with. However, maybe once we meet Knives and Legato, something will come up that will put all those doubts to rest. We just gotta trust in that. The answers won’t come easy or all at once, but I think that in the end we’ll find out what we need to know.”
          His other arm wound around her waist and pulled her close up against him. “You’re right,” Milly sighed, mentally gauging how lanky and wiry and hard he felt against her back as compared to her father and brothers, all of whom were brawny but also so robust and soft. Nicholas could give them a run for the money in the height department, though.
          “We always have to go through such trouble,” she grumped, trying to ignore the tickles in her tummy as he started nuzzling behind her ear.
          “Life never was easy,” he answered.
          He stopped moving his head against her skin so he could look up in her filmy blue eyes; he had never seen a look like that in them before and didn’t know what to make of it. Her fingers reached to brush across his face. “Nicholas, how long do you think we’ll be staying here?”
          Wolfwood, had to take some time to cut through the tangles and come up with an answer. His expression was tired; no doubt he was still in pain from being shot, whether or not he admitted it. “Don’t know, really. One or two more days, I guess. Probably no more than that.”
          “That’s not much time.”
          “No, it isn’t,” he agreed softly, his heart beating at an increasingly rapid pace in a faint hope. She can’t possibly be thinking what I think she is, but it would be real nice if she were, although I’m a bit apprehensive… Must be so many years in the seminary… But I can’t lie to myself; I’m not the best priest. We’re as good as engaged so it wouldn’t be a sin would it? Her parents can’t argue… But…
          “Well then, we have to use what time we can!” Milly said, trying to ignore the thoughts going through Wolfwood’s mind, not letting them make her blush. I want to do this as much as you do, she thought to him, but not so he could hear her. It was the first time she ever wanted to be with a man in this way and she could feel goose bumps rise on her arms with anxiety. She leaned in close to his face, pressing a light kiss on the bridge of his nose. “I’d like to spend most of it with you.”
          Wolfwood wheeled around on his heel, making her panic for a moment that she’d said the wrong thing; she exhaled softly as she watched him fiddling with the lock on the door. “Trust me, this is the only way to keep ‘em out for sure,” he explained, grunting as he fought the contrary springs. “I can’t tell you how many times one of the kids barged in here before I finished shaving or hadn’t got my pants on all the way. Just a warning in advice, Honey. There isn’t much privacy here.” He won his battle and turned, shrugging off his jacket, discarding it over the back of a chair. “But I don’t think we’ll be bothered tonight.”
          Milly managed a shaky laugh, face beaming and flushed in the dying light. She teased the ribbon from around her hair, combing it out for a moment before turning her attention on removing the light jacket of her sundress from around her shoulders and arms. She kicked off her shoes and socks and bent over to arrange them nicely under the window. If she said she didn’t feel a bit self-conscious then she would have called herself a filthy liar… She was just so tall and her shoulders too broad to be feminine. She had some curves but working as a farm girl, or at least that what her memories said she had been, had given her no mean amount of muscle. And she’d always had such a big chest! She hated being top heavy, relatively speaking. Most guys she knew liked a big chest, one reason why she liked wearing baggy clothes was that boys didn’t talk to the space below her chin all the time, but what if he didn’t like them like that? What if he gawked? Would he start stuttering, drool, or even explode? THE AWKWARDITY! She wanted to throw her hands up the heavens and wail.
          The tip of Wolfwood’s calloused finger lightly traced the outline of her bicep; his hand curled around the circumference of her arm and moved up and down, forming gooseflesh.
          “You’re so damn nice,” he grated, eyes almost bashful. He had already removed his dress shirt. Milly tried not to stare even as he was looking her over. “I’m glad that you wear those baggy clothes and don’t strip down too often when you’re drunk. I don’t want anyone else to know how pretty you really are.”
          “Don’t worry about that,” she had to giggle. “I’ve been called gorilla-girl more times than I care to remember!”
          “ ‘Gorilla-girl,’ huh?” His face hardened but he continued to caress her, his hand now sweeping across her collarbones. “Well, let foolish mouths talk. More enjoyment for me.”
          Milly felt very warm all in her face, chest, and tummy at his words and she moved in to bring her face up to his chest, wrapping her arms all around him, burying her face in the hard skin and pressing a kiss there. That made him shudder. He smelled like cigarettes and coffee and gunpowder and children. “I always thought you were awful handsome, Nicholas.”
          Dark eyes smiled and he kissed her with more fervor than she had ever gotten from him, hands moving through her hair, pressing her mouth closer to his. He tasted better now that he’d cut down so much on his cigarettes, although that evening, as promised, she allowed him one for good behavior. How much better now that he was starting to become hooked on candy! Milly felt queasy as Nicholas leaned her back onto the bed, careful to avoid hurting his wounded leg further. She tried to ignore the twitches of pain his face made as they arranged themselves on the small bed, knowing that he was ignoring the pain too. Oh I do love this man!
          The next thing Milly knew, they were both cuddled up on his bed. Wolfwood came up for some air; he used the breather to reach over and turn out the light with one hand, the other resting on the laces on the front of her sundress.
          “You know, Nicholas, I was wondering.” Milly whispered in the dark, twining her legs with his.
          "Remember when we were helping that dancing girl escape?"
          He had to pause a moment for that before the image of a girl who danced like a thomas with its tail cut off entered his mind. "You mean Moore."
          "Remember what that one lady said as we were trying to get her away from those men?"
          Once more Wolfwood had to stop the movements of his hands as he considered. He blanched. "Oh, Honey...NO."
          Milly leaned up to kiss him. "Come on, darling! I've changed my mind. Sextuplets aren't out of the question."
          The protests died in his throat. He couldn't think so well now. One, two, six kids at one pop...what did it really matter? Anything was good.

Don't Tell Anyone

         Sitting on the back stoop of the orphanage, Shin sighed to himself. He knew it wasn’t like a child to sit and mope about things, but he got up early just so he could breathe in the morning air and act the way he wanted to. Those children in the orphanage were just normal, they weren’t plants, didn’t have to deal with the hazards of time travel… Shin closed his eyes and remembered how cold the inside of the bulb was, how horrible it was to be stuck in a half-formed body… The Mother said it was necessary, that they had to make sure everything was scheduled just perfectly, but time travel wasn’t perfect, even for a powerful being such as she. For a month he was stuck halfway in this time, halfway out, and all of him wanting to be back home with his mother and father. Shin told himself he had to be strong, had to do this for the welfare of the entire planet, but he was only ten years old! It wasn’t bad at first, knowing that Jonas was around, but now he was gone onto the next step and Shin felt more alone than he had ever felt.
          The suns were coming up, heating the desert sands. Behind him, the screen door that led into the kitchen squeaked open and the priest stepped out next to him. “Mind if I sit?” Shin nodded slowly, trying to remember how to act, how to speak to him. He cringed as Mr. Wolfwood made a sound of pain as he sat down on the porch, his leg still bad days later. “You mind if I smoke?”
          Shin shook his head, “It’s okay.” Out of the corner of his eye, the priest took a crumpled cigarette from his pocket and placed it to his lips.
          “Don’t tell Milly,” he said through pursed lips, lighting a match, “She’d kill me if she knew I was smoking next to a kid, but I’m downwind so…”
          “I’ll be fine,” Shin said, putting his elbows on his knees, watching the suns. “You’re leaving today aren’t you?”
          Wolfwood nodded, “Yeah, we are.”
          “But your leg…”
          Shin’s response was merely a shrug from the man who took a drag on his cigarette and looked up into the sky. He sighed smokily and took the cancer-stick from his lips. “We can’t stay here forever, Squirt, as much as I would like to.” Shin’s eyes widened and he turned his head to look at Wolfwood. Only his brother ever called him Squirt… Although, he’d gotten the nickname elsewhere… “But if this all plays out the way Needle Noggin hopes we’ll be back before the end of the week for you.”
          “So you are leaving me here…”
          “Too dangerous where we’re going. I wish I could say otherwise but… Let’s just say your uncle isn’t the sort that would leave someone like you alone for long. Knives would love to know someone like you existed so he could open you up to find out how you ticked.” Wolfwood took the cigarette and put it out on the dusty porch before turning to him. “Melanie and the children aren’t that bad, are they?”
          “No,” the boy smiled, “Actually I never had friends before so it’s…” He trailed off, was that giving too much away? He never had friends even in the time he came from because of how different he was. It was one of the reasons he was so eager to go with Jonas to help the Mother. If something happened to him, only his family would be sad… Shin turned, “There’s something I would like to do, if you would let me,” he said to the priest.
          Wolfwood shrugged, “I can’t promise you anything, but what is it?”
          Shin bit his lip and reached out his fingers to Mr. Wolfwood’s bad leg. The priest was silent, watching with those cold gray eyes of his, curiosity filling them but also… Trust? It seemed that way to Shin who didn’t hesitate to place his hand on the spot where he could feel the bandages below the priest’s trousers. “It might hurt a little…” Then, closing his eyes, he said something of a silent prayer, something he learned from Jonas when they had accidentally hurt a thomas while shooting tin cans with Gramps. The priest hissed, and Shin opened his eyes, “I’m sorry, I…”
          Eyes wide, Wolfwood placed a hand on Shin’s shoulder. “It’s…” Nicholas extended his leg, bent it back again and he bent down to roll up his pant leg, pulled the bandages off and stared, wide-eyed at a completely healthy piece of flesh. “You, you can heal!”
          “Please… Don’t tell anyone!” Shin said, waving his hands. “If they knew… Please, it’s between the two of us, okay?” He knew that the Mother would get him for sure if she knew what he just did, but he couldn’t bear to let his new friends leave when they weren’t all ready for the battle to come. Wolfwood stood, testing his healed leg and shaking his head in amusement. “I’m really serious, just…”
          Wolfwood nodded to him, “Don’t worry Squirt, as long as you promise not to tell the Big Girl about my smoking, I won’t tell on you.” He extended a hand, “Is it a deal?”
          Shin grinned, “It’s a deal!”

Sweet Goodbyes

         “Are you sure we can’t take her with us?” Meryl pouted, looking out the car window at Sweetness. Melanie supplied the group with the old car out into the desert, they were packed and ready to go before noon, and after saying goodbye to all of the children, Wolfwood started the car and they sped off toward Knives’ hideout. Meryl looked back in longing at her space ship, not knowing whether she’d ever see it again.
          Vash chuckled beside her and reached for her hand. Lifting it to his lips, he pressed a quick soft kiss there but didn't release his hold. Keeping a firm grasp, he entwined his fingers with hers, examining them. Meryl wondered what he was thinking as he lowered their clasped hands to his chest and pressed them tight against his coat. A moment later a melancholy expression appeared on his face, softening his features so that she nearly forgot all about her ship until he said, “You act like you’re leaving your best friend behind.” He let go of her hand, almost disappointed.
          Meryl bit her lip. “Well…” She tilted her head to the side, wondering if he’d let them go back and get her pride and joy so they could take her with them if she said yes, but looking into his ocean-colored eyes, she figured he wouldn’t. “I just don’t see why this car is going to be more stealthy in sneaking up on Knives rather than taking my ship, that’s all.”
          “Perhaps, but if anything happened to us, would you want Knives to use it for his own purposes? Could you imagine what he’d do with a ship like that?” Vash asked. Meryl slouched down into the seat with ill grace. They’d had the argument earlier that day already. She didn’t win and that was that. “At least this way if we don’t return within the week Melanie can self-destruct it like we showed her.”
          Her heart fluttered when Vash talked about destroying her beautiful ship, but Meryl just nodded slowly. She understood even as it made her heart squeeze painfully in her chest and she looked back out the window at the receding orphanage and her hidden ship. It was for the best, really it was… Logically she knew it had to be done, but in her heart of hearts she was unconvinced… She just hoped they would make it back in a week to retrieve her. Turning from the window she looked up at Milly and Wolfwood in the front seat. They were getting along surprisingly well, happily chatting about… sextuplets? Meryl just shook her head in amazement of those two; they didn’t act at all like they were going to a battle, more like a wedding, or a family reunion. Nicholas laughed suddenly, looking into the rear-view mirror, “So what do you think, shall we name the first boy and girl Meryl and Vash after you two?”
          Milly was giggling, “I know! That’s two of the six, then of course a little Nick, a Milly, then the last two…” She waved a hand back at Meryl, “What about the last two Meryl? A boy name and a girl name?”
          “How about Alex and Rem?” Meryl said, she really didn’t care about names all that much, those were the first two to come to her mind. Of course she had started to think about what to name her own children… But she flushed thinking about it, intent on thinking about Milly’s children instead. Turning to Vash, she started to say, “What would you…” But Vash had a strange look on his face, lost in thought. “Is it Knives?” She whispered, suddenly worried they were about to be attacked.
          Vash turned to her, startled, “No… Those names…”
          Meryl put a hand to her mouth, the names came to her mind so easily, and she forgot that they were names Vash mentioned from time to time. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...”
          “No, it’s okay,” he cut her off. “It’s my fault. I haven’t told you.” She worried for a moment that Vash would cry, his eyes were so sad as he looked down at her, but then a smile formed on his lips, “Actually I’d be honored if you named your children after them,” he said over his shoulder to Milly and Nicholas. Milly smiled in the front seat and turned around, giving them as much privacy as they could afford in this little car.
          “Doc told me that she saved the planet,” Meryl started, hoping now to get to the bottom of this woman’s name Vash spoke in his dreams. “I never asked because you left the room so quickly…”
          Vash took a deep breath. “She raised Knives and I as children. Rem wasn’t a scientist. She was a botanist. They brought her along to help terraform the planet they were going to settle on. She loved geraniums… She found us, raised us, and taught us everything we knew. Rem used to joke that she had a green thumb for raising plants.” He smiled wistfully. “But from time to time she got sad, her fiancée died, and instead of moping about it, she joined SEEDS. She mentioned his name only a few times, and I always thought of him as this brother or father I never knew. His name was Alex.”
          “And what happened to Rem?” Meryl watched Vash’s eyes darken like a cloud passing over the sun, and he related her the story of Knives’ causing the Big Fall, and her sacrifice to save the people on the ships. When he was finished, he sat back in his seat, closing his eyes. The car was silent, Milly and Wolfwood were listening when he started his story, and now they looked to one another without so much as a word.
          For a long time they drove like this, the only sounds were the car’s engine, and the wheels thumping over the gravel and stones. Finally, from the front seat, Milly said, “I’m glad she saved everyone. I think it would be a good name for one of our sextuplets, what do you say, Dear?”
          Wolfwood nodded, “I think so too.”
          Meryl’s eyes stayed on Vash’s still form, eyes closed in thought. A small smile came to his lips and he opened his eyes, reaching out for her hand that she gave him. “I don’t think I understood plants the way she did. She raised us like humans, whether or not Knives accepted it, I think she knew us better than anyone else. What we are… We aren’t any different on the inside. Plants can love, they can lie, they can kill, we might be physically different, but we’re so much the same… I owe it all to her that we’ve come this far, and I owe it to her to finish the work she started with Knives.”
          “We’ll help you,” Meryl said, receiving nods from the front seat. “Whatever you decide to do with your brother, we’ll be behind you all the way.”
          “Thank you, all of you,” Vash said. He stretched in his seat, repositioning himself, and Meryl watched him in amazement that he could take it all so well. She wondered if there was ever a time in which Vash refused help, thinking that he was the only one who could stop his brother. They had all proved him wrong on that account, and Meryl had a feeling that he would never again deny the help given to him, even if it could end innocent lives.
          Turning to look out into the desert now, Meryl nibbled on her finger for a moment in thought. The sand was deeper here, blowing dunes rather than rocky cliffs. It was a place they called the “Endless Sea” for obvious reasons, the dunes looked like waves on the ocean, and Meryl knew that someone from Earth originally named it. It looked like the biggest darn beach she’d ever been to when she still lived on the planet rather than the little space colony she and Milly moved to when they were teenagers. That beach just went on and on until reaching one last dune and suddenly there was sparkling blue water as far as the eye could see. Meryl glanced at Vash, wishing she could show him something like that. She squeezed his hand and he looked down at her curiously. “Is something wrong?”
          Meryl shook her head, “No. I was just thinking about going back to Earth someday. I just wish I knew that something was out there still… There was so much beauty there…” She sighed and leaned against his shoulder and Vash put his hand on her head.
          “Show me.”
          Closing her eyes, Meryl let Vash wander through her new memories, walk on the beach, see the ocean, run through the trees of a forest, sit on the back porch of Milly’s farm, fly through the black skies to their old apartment… Suddenly the car slammed to a halt, flinging both Meryl and Vash into the front seats, eyes snapping open. “What happened?!” Meryl didn’t have time to receive a verbal answer when gunfire erupted in front of them and Vash pushed her down suddenly, crushing her face into the back seat. “Let me up! What’s going on? Who are they?”
          “Damn it, I didn’t feel them!” Vash swore, bringing out his long colt, Meryl could see it shimmer even as he let her go to aim his gun in front of the car. Milly’s eyes were wide as she peered at Meryl from between the two front seats. “On the count of three we’re getting out of the car and getting behind it!” Vash hissed, sending off a volley of bullets. “Wolfwood, pop the trunk.”
          Without a word the priest followed directions and Vash reloaded his gun, “Three…”
          All four doors swung open at the same time. “Two.”
          Meryl turned her body so she could dash from the vehicle. “One!” All four of them dashed out from the car, and scrambling through the sand they got to the back of the car. Meryl stumbled into Milly who clung to her while Wolfwood pulled his cross punisher from the trunk, a series of snaps later he lowered it to return fire with Vash. When the boys were out of the way, Milly reached into the trunk for her stun gun. Meryl pulled out her derringers.
          “Who are they, Milly? I can’t see…” She ducked down below the car and saw at least four sets of feet and legs in front of them.
          Milly got to her feet and climbed into the trunk, reached above it and fired a stun. Meryl saw one of the men fall to the ground and aiming a shot under the car he shuddered suddenly, grabbing at his leg. “It’s Yellow-eyes’ men,” Milly said as a reply. “They’re being controlled by him so please don’t kill them…” She ducked down into the trunk again and Meryl got to her knees. “Blondie’s got a force-field of sorts around here… That’s why we didn’t feel them until now… And… I can’t seem to use my powers to force them back.” Milly didn’t seem all that disappointed that she had to use her stun gun again, Meryl noted.
          The boys left the cover of the car then and Milly and Meryl watched them disappear. Shots were fired; someone screamed in pain, and moments later all was silence. Looking at her friend, Meryl silently asked Milly whether they should check what happened, and with a nod, they both peered out from their hiding spots. Vash and Wolfwood were bending to look at the fallen men. Milly hopped down from the trunk and Meryl followed her out into the open. “Are they okay?”
          “Just stunned, Honey,” Wolfwood replied. He waved at the girls, “Go get the rope from the back, we’ll tie them up so we won’t have to worry about them sneaking up on us later.” Milly dashed back to the car, but Meryl’s eyes were on Vash now, he was still hunched over one of the men.
          “What’s wrong?”
          Vash was frowning; he looked up at her with a dark expression. “This one was already dead. It’s one of Legato’s messengers.” He pulled himself back to his feet and scanning the horizon, pulled his sunglasses from his coat. Meryl knew it was business time now… She pulled out a loaded gun after replacing the used one and looked around. “How close is he?”
          “Close. And so is Knives.” Vash raised his hand, “Over the hill, there. They have company too…” He looked down at her, “Are you sure you want to come with us? I’m not sure if I’ll be able to…”
          Meryl’s frown caused him to stop. “If you’re thinking you’ll have to protect me, think again.” A small, amused twitch reached Vash’s lips and he nodded.
          “I won’t say any more, but I don’t want to say I told you so when this is all over,” Vash received an answering nod and he glanced over to Milly and Wolfwood as they tied up the men who were still alive. “However, if Legato wears us out…”
          “We can’t let him,” Nicholas said as he dragged the bodies toward the car. “We’ll split up, take the girls with you and I’ll handle Legato.” When the bodies were lined up against the car, he picked up his cross punisher again and put it on his shoulder. “Go ahead and face Knives…”
          “Oh no you don’t,” Milly said, a deep frown crossing her face. Meryl was surprised that such a sour look could cross her friend’s face. “Don’t you think for one second I’m going to leave you out in this desert to die alone… I’m going to stay with you and Meryl and Mr. Vash can go ahead. I’ve managed against Yellow Eyes before; he really doesn’t scare me anymore. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine Meryl.” She said this last bit with her blue eyes cold as ice.
          Meryl shivered, “But your powers…”
          “I’ll be fine. And as for you… What about your leg? You just got shot… That should be reason enough for you to need help…”
          Wolfwood wasn’t having it and he started to argue, “Honey! You need to be with them… Needle Noggin can protect you better… My leg’s fine anyway so…” There was a sudden movement from Milly and the priest’s eyes rolled up into the back of his head and Meryl and Vash gasped. Milly swooped an arm underneath Nicholas’s back as he started to crumple, putting the other underneath the crook of his legs, holding him as if he weighed no more than a four-year-old child. Vash and Meryl would have giggled if the situation hadn’t been so dire. Instead Meryl’s mouth just dropped open as she watched her best friend’s resolve. This was a part of her she hadn’t seen since they were fighting the Snakes…

I've Been Waiting For You

         “I really didn’t want to do that,” Milly sighed, hazarding her resolve to look down at Wolfwood’s closed eyes. “Hopefully I’ll be able to apologize later.” Unusually grave eyes, now a brighter blue, fell upon the couple. “I meant what I said, Meryl, Mr. Vash. Please don’t try to talk me out of this like he did.”
          “Milly…” Vash began, but she matched his glare.
          “Mr. Vash, I know that you’re only looking out for my safety. But I’m the only one who can best Yellow Eyes on his own turf without killing him and you know it. You could beat him, maybe, but you’d have to kill him in the end. Do you think you could handle it? You have enough baggage as it is, and it really ticks Meryl off when you’re depressed. Besides, you need all your energy to face Knives.” Her knees began to shake as she gently set Wolfwood down in the most comfortable spot she could find, pillowed against a dune.
          “You’re scared,” Meryl whispered, eyes welling up with tears. Vash, expression unreadable, placed an arm around her shoulders.
          Milly felt her own set of tears sting her cheeks. “Yes. Yellow Eyes is scary… Plus he’s so much bigger and stronger than me. But after months of his whisperings, I think I can match him mentally. Of course, if we both resort to physical stuff then he has an advantage.”
          “You shouldn’t do this,” Vash deadpanned; Milly wasn’t quite sure if he was planning to do the same thing to her what she did to Nicholas. She loved Mr. Vash for his nobility and desire to take the brunt of people’s pain, but it was a bit conceited the way he insisted on doing it all the time, even when other people wanted to help him with his burden. For the first time ever, it nettled her, and she saw why Nicholas sometimes went off on Mr. Vash’s case. She whirled on him.
          “Selfish!” She grated out. “Mr. Vash, you are just like Meryl sometimes. You have one of the most annoying hero complexes I know of. You think everything’s your responsibility, your fault. Talk about egocentric!” A similar conversation from somewhere niggled her brain. “You are just scared because for once, things are beyond your control and it is freaking you out. Nobody controls all things all the time... unless you're God, which, might I add, you aren’t. It’s time you realized you have your own limitations. Plant doesn’t equal divine, Mr. Vash. So let me do what I have to do and I’ll let you do what you must. You’re my friend, not my babysitter.”
          Vash stumbled back a few paces, eyes wide, and Milly almost felt a giggle bubble up. I must have pole-axed him good. Meryl just stared at her somewhat blankly as if revisiting some distant past. She then shook her dark head, taking Vash’s arm.
          “Let’s go, Vash. She’s right; we have no more time for this. Have some faith.”
          Mr. Vash seemed to regain his bearings as the former steel cast over his face and he pulled out his Long Colt. “Right. He’s beyond there.” His eyes softened. “Good luck, Milly.”
          She managed to give a feeble V-sign. “Thanks, Mr. Vash. You too.”
          Meryl walked up to her and they fastened each other in a tight hug. “Now, Milly, I expect you to win this thing! Don’t you dare die on me!” The little insurance girl choked out.
          “You know I won’t, Meryl.”
          They disengaged from each other, stepping backwards; Milly waved as she watched Meryl turn back toward Vash and the two started running away from her at a jog. She heaved a deep sigh, trying to collect her thoughts the outburst had scattered, her eyes falling on Nicholas’s unconscious form. She had made it so that he wouldn’t awake for a while. Milly leaned down to give him a kiss on the lips. As she straightened up she felt the recognizable flare of pain singe down her spine. Yellow Eyes was very close. She moved as far away from the dune that sheltered Wolfwood as possible, not wanting him to be inadvertently hit by whatever got thrown down, when she saw him standing on the crest of another dune, arms across his chest and one yellow eye glaring down at her.
          “You’ve arrived,” he said, face smoothly contorting into that awful cadaverous smile.
          “Hey,” she grunted. It was rude of her, but this man did so many horrible things in the past, had treated Meryl so cruelly, that she couldn’t quite muster up the energy to even fake civility.
          The smile never faltered. “You seek to cause great harm to the Master. You know that is one thing I cannot allow…” He lifted his right arm and flexed his hand; his long, elegant fingers coalescing curved black claw-like blades at the tips, dreadful and glossy. He licked each of them lazily, clattering them her way, and his face suddenly turned hard and frozen into a deep scowl, eyes glittering. “You must know, it still surprises me to no end that such a miserable, dim-witted, pathetic creature like YOU was given such powers. It disgusts me to think of it. They’re wasted on you.” Spittle frothed at his lips, flecking them as he trembled to keep in the violence under his shell. “I will kill you now. It is the Master’s orders…”
          “I doubt that…” Milly barely caught the slight tingle in her brain; she immediately shielded her mind in a near panic, cursing herself. He had almost mind-raped her from the get go and she let it happen! Being within Knives’ mind-barrier field wasn’t helping either. If she weren’t so scared she’s have kicked herself. Instead she concentrated on thickening her own barrier as quickly as she could, taking no small amount of pleasure in seeing Legato’s face lose that smile. He felt him scratching at the front door of her mind, and then tearing at it, but even with Knives’ hindrances she had full control of her own mind. She could still feel what he was thinking: murderous thoughts all, full of hatred and violence . . .
          “You’ve grown stronger, it seems,” he said.
          “I think so,” Milly replied slowly. “And you’re dying of jealously because I’m the first person you’ve come across who can do the same things you can. Sorry to spoil your sense of self-importance, ninny-knickers!” She even stuck out her tongue. Oh, very mature of you, Milly. It’s like kindergarten all over again.
          Legato’s yellow eyes burned; had she hit a nerve? “You will cease your childish antics soon enough. I will punish you first, as you deserve, whether mentally or physically, the choice is yours. My powers encompass both.” The next thing, he had disappeared in a gust of sand and wind. She whipped her head around, desperately seeking him out…THERE! But she knew that she would not dodge in time; a clawed hand raked across her left shoulder as she dove into a roll, pain exploding her vision. Milly gasped for breath, looking up from her spot to watch Legato lick his claws again; the claws seemed to be dripping with something. Then she felt the wetness seep through her damaged coat.
          Before she had time to regain her wits and act, Legato shifted once more and stood right in front of her, eye shimmering with unholy delight when he gave her a swift yet almost gentle shove backwards, seizing her leg in one hand.
          “And then when the Master has judged you and I am done,” he intoned, his voice almost gleeful if he could even feel such a thing, “you will be begging for death, just as I do.” He smoothed his other hand down her leg to rest in the crook of her knee. He gave it a sudden crank. Milly heard the pop before she felt the awful pain screech inside her as he worked the dislocated joint, severing tendons and ligaments. He might have gone so far as to fray the edges of the two jointed bones but she was in no position to determine that. The pain made her scream, threatening to eat her alive.
          Swimming through the hazy miasma between sleep and awake, Milly felt her resolve steel, something that happened inside her from time to time. No. I cannot let him beat me. They depend on me. Nicholas, Meryl, Mr. Vash, they need me to finish this. Hold on for all you hold dear! She delved deep into her mind, summoning up a net to cocoon around the pain centers. The agony decreased to a numb throbbing and she drew out her power along the damaged limb.
          Kicking out her free leg she caught Legato, dumbfounded by her sudden lack of pain, in the side, sending him flying. A feral growl rumbled in her throat, her eyes felt like they were burning, and she walked in an ominous gait towards him, trying not to think of how badly she was further hurting her leg with each grinding noise that popped in her ears or of the stickiness soaking her shoulder. She would give no more chances to catch her off guard, instead she plunged into a mental as well as physical attack, and sending psychic blows to his mind while punching the daylights out of him, her fists landing on his ribs.
          With a howl Legato managed to throw her off. They stared at each other a long moment, panting hard, circling each other like wild cats in a feud.
          “You bitch,” he snarled. It almost amused Milly; she thought that Legato didn’t care enough about himself to really get angry, but there it was. She must really have a way of ticking him off.
          “Poor baby,” she cooed.
          Legato howled again, hurtling himself at her full speed; once again she barely had time to defend herself from his attack. But instead of withdrawing for another foray, Legato smirked and held his position, grinding his own powers up against her own, like two shields clanging together. Their energies and minds clashed, sending up visible streaks of sparks in between them, some of them scalding her cheeks and nose but she didn’t dare concentrate on them. Milly lifted up her arms to brace herself but she felt her defenses give way… He was too experienced and he was too physically bigger and stronger than she was… And something was still weighing down on her powers, if only she could break through!
          An arc of light flashed in her eyes and brought a fresh searing pain as Milly landed hard on her back a few paces away. Her mind literally felt bruised, the power seeping out from her control little by little. This was bad. She couldn’t afford to let her only means of defense bleed away. Sand coughed out of her mouth and Milly could barely focus on the approaching psychic, just a patch of white and blue. He got so close that she could see his grim smile and knew that he was grinning to keep in the rage.
          “I’m going to take you to the Master for judgment. But first, just for being so annoying and bringing me pain, you will suffer what I first did to your friend. I’ll leave nothing untouched!” A push at her mind and Milly knew he was going to break in. Panic bubbled up once more but she could only let sand dribble out the corner of her mouth and lie there, staring.
          A blue eye dilated as she felt the control of her power slipping, going beyond her reach. It seemed to have a specific direction, though; it seemed to span itself straight towards the cruelly beautiful face above her, filtering from her pupil to his.
          Suddenly it was like a veil was lifted, almost immediately Milly felt that her powers were restored, however she wasn’t sure of the cause. The gold contracted in Legato’s eyes and stepped away from her as if something burned him, his face grimacing. Now it was her turn. She had a hold of him now. The span kept on going through the blank pupil straight into his brain; she didn’t want to go in there but the pain and confusion would not allow her to stop. Her breath hitched at what she saw there.
          The world of Legato’s mind was completely shattered, cobwebbed all over like a broken mirror with no rhyme or reason to anything. Patches of dark pooled in the madness. She cried out… The painful empty aching brokenness of his very mind and soul, destroyed beyond repair, made her ill to her very stomach. With sickening clarity she saw that Legato Bluesummers was completely lost. Not in a million years could she piece back everything together or fill up those voids. No wonder he was so nasty . . . there was nothing left of him except a deep abiding hate for humankind, a mindless hate that could never been unraveled. He no longer even wanted his own happiness anymore; he’d given himself up totally to another’s wishes and only sought to bring torment to others, to destroy the joy that he could never know.
          She felt right sorry for him.
          Get out. I don’t want you here, his voice commanded; it sounded like it was afraid. Afraid? Ashamed? Maybe he was getting a taste of how Meryl felt . . . the implications of what she was doing made Milly feel like throwing up. She shouldn’t be here. She turned away and closed her mental eyes.
          A strange sensation forced her to look again and she noticed a green thread glowing throughout the shattered world, seemingly keeping everything together, haphazard as the arrangement was. That green thread looked familiar. Ah! Knives had put one just like it in her!
          I will leave, she said in his mind, and I won’t kill you. But I will make sure that you never harm anyone again. I’m going to take away your power forever. Without further ado she reached out and snapped the thread. A huge roar engulfed her, a roar of loss and powerlessness.
          When she felt the sun on her face, Milly opened one eye, watching dumbly while Legato clutched at his head and screamed murder. He utterly lost look on his face, hopeless like a trapped animal. You can’t stand it, can you? A new wave of pity hit her; she did wrong. But it had been the only way . . .
          “I’ll kill you,” Legato gurgled, thrashing towards her. And she knew he could do it: the process of totally severing his powers would take a few minutes and he could still do some damage to her mentally, and that wasn’t included the fact that he was in slightly better shape than she was and still was perfectly capable of killing her. Milly tightened her throat.
          Suddenly, the Yellow-eyed monster thrashed, his back bent backwards and Milly could hear a snapping sound as his spine was broken in half. Her eyes went wide with his death dance, his eyes bulging in pain and surprise until he dropped down into the sand, his blood pooling around his shocked open mouth. “Thank you, Master…” He gurgled with his last breath.
          Milly looked up now, her eyes wide as she saw the killer. Knives lowered his hand. “Garbage.” He started toward Milly, “It is no longer time for games, and we have an engagement to attend to.” He stood over her with a haughty smile.
          Blondie’s eyes lifted to something behind Milly, and she could hear sand shifting behind her. “Chapel, so nice of you to join us.”
          Wolfwood ran up to her, propping the base of his punisher in the sand as he knelt beside her. “Knives! Don’t you dare touch her!”
          Knives gave him an amused look, “Why would I do such a thing?”
          “Honey! Honey!” A rough hand cradled her face. “Are you all right? Answer me!”
          “Hi, Nicholas…” Milly managed to rasp out. “I’m glad…you’re here. I did a bad thing…”
          “Don’t talk nonsense,” he snapped, face ashen. “The bastard tried to kill you. You did nothing except defend yourself. Oh God, your leg…” He started tearing off pieces of his shirt to use as bindings. Her eyes were on Vash’s brother, cold sky-blue eyes looking down on them. Where are Vash and Meryl? She wondered, pain searing her through her body. Another form came to stand near Knives, but before she could see whom it was, the sky started swirling in Milly’s vision as the physical pain and exhaustion finally caught up to her, the mental trauma and bruised mind throbbed, and she unceremoniously fainted.

Part 3 - Chapter 5
Into The Future: Part 1 (Back)

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