"Gunsmoke & Feathers Alternate Universe"
"Part 5 Lost Childhood"

By Ricki

Dear Mother, Father, Big big Sister...
          Dear Mother, Father, Big big sister, Middle big sister, Little big sister, Big big brother, Middle big brother, Little big brother, Dougie, Anri, Rodney, Mike, Sandra, Tim and Drake, how are you? I am fine.
         Ms. Meryl and I have been on the road for three months now following Vash the Stampede. As I’ve told you in my other letters, Mr. Vash isn’t at all like they say he is. Trouble follows him wherever he goes, but he never causes it. He’s very funny, but also a very good gunman, much like you Father. Mr. Vash has also taken a liking to Ms. Meryl. Although they revealed that they like each other, their relationship is on somewhat shaky ground. You see, even though Mr. Vash likes Ms. Meryl, he is also what some would call a “womanizer.”
         I have no doubts that Ms. Meryl will put him in his place, although for now she seems preoccupied with my own relationship. Yes, Little big sister, I have a boyfriend of my own. Mr. Nicholas D. Wolfwood is a man of the cloth (no little Sandra, he doesn’t sell pretty dresses). He’s a bit strange; he doesn’t act at all like our parish’s priest. He smokes, swears, and carries a huge gun that is in the shape of a cross! But, I find he makes me feel things no one else has.
         Oh! I’m sorry Father, when I can I will bring him to meet you. I am sure you’ll approve, no matter how strange he is. He really is the most kind man I have ever met, giving money to children and raising funds for an orphanage he runs about two hundred iles from December City. He has been traveling with us for about two months now and has helped us in all kinds of dangerous situations.
         Don’t worry; I have kept out of trouble. Ms. Meryl was kidnapped a few weeks ago, but I managed to save her from the outlaws. Mr. Vash and Mr. Wolfwood helped when Meryl ran away to the nearby town to clear her head from everything that had happened. After that Mr. Vash and her have been a couple. Also during that time Mr. Wolfwood and I admitted we had feelings for one another. We ran into the October City’s Risk Prevention Agent, Mr. Gardine, and he almost lost us our jobs! Luckily the same outlaws who kidnapped Ms. Meryl showed up and we were able to show him that we really are the only ones who could do the job.
         Now the four of us are headed back to December City. I’m writing from Old Chantilly, and we are leaving in the morning. I am sorry for such a short letter but we are headed out at sunrise. The trip to December City is a one hundred and fifty-ile drive south, but the car that Mr. Vash and Mr. Wolfwood drive is very fast and we should be there within a week. I will write you when we get back to the apartment. From there Ms. Meryl is talking about going on a vacation to come home, so I may get to see you all very soon!

Love your daughter, sister, cousin, and niece,

         The sound rumbled through the sky. It echoed over the sandy hills and shook the houses. Windows rattled, dogs barked, and people stirred in their beds. Thunder pierced through the deepest reaches of the soul, the inner chambers of fear and terror, a never-ending rumble. This was a world where no rain fell. No rain… Only sand storms… The rumbling thunder echoed through the cliffs as a wall of sand hit everything in its path leaving nothing. But this sound was different, a crack, and a slow rumbling sound of electricity.
         Meryl's eyes popped open but the dream did not cease. She shook her head, trying to clear it from the rumble, but the room shook and the windows rattled. Her head turned toward the shuttered glass, "Is it a sand storm? Or…" Her thoughts trailed off, thinking the impossible, she'd only heard stories about the electric bolts of lightning that rumbled through cloudy skies. She'd never seen it. The planet only had white fluffy clouds… The room was so dark. "What time is it?"
         Startled from her bed, Meryl walked past Milly's sleeping form and grimaced. Her friend could sleep through a typhoon. In fact, she had, many times over. Meryl shook her head, no use trying to wake her just yet; she'd investigate the noise herself. She passed Milly's bed to the window and pulled it open before setting a tentative hand on the shutters. The sound was growing louder; there was no doubt about it. If it were a sand storm it probably wouldn't be a good idea to open the window… Meryl shook her head; she had to prove that it wasn't the impossible; thinking it was thunder was only a memory of a silly story from her childhood.
         With one hand on each shutter, Meryl pushed them open to reveal the sunrise. It was still early, only the first of the two suns had started to rise; the other was still below the horizon. Her eyes took in the scenery from the fourth story window, and there, to the right of the sun was a cloud of dust and sand. The sound and the dust were coming closer to town, a mysterious cloud that was most definitely not thunder and wasn't even a sand storm.
         Meryl leaned against the windowsill. What is it then? Is it a caravan? Even caravans aren't this noisy usually. Are they outlaws? She shook her head; even outlaws had a code, never attack until noon. Wasn't that the reason why showdowns were always at high noon? She sighed, even as her breath was covered up by the sound of the rumbling and a crack… A crack of gunfire! Meryl leaned out of the window, her eyes squinting in the sunlight, she could see it now… Thomases! Hundreds of them! The strange lizard birds were stampeding!
         She turned and glanced toward Milly who hadn't moved with all of the noise. Her friend lay on her back, a hand up on the pillow next to her head, a pool of drool on the pillow beside her, and her feet stuck out of the bottom of the blanket. Meryl smiled briefly, before realizing that if she didn't do something and those thomases got into town they would create thousands of double dollars in insurance costs! The havoc they would create in such a small town… Meryl turned back toward the window. Other people had heard the noise; they were coming out of the buildings trying to figure out what was going on. Oh no! They could get injured or killed!
         Reaching for her traveling cloak, Meryl pulled it on even as she heard yelling below the window. Leaning her head out, she looked down to where two men dressed entirely in black came running out of the building. One of the men had dark hair, the other blond. The blond man had a gun drawn, the other was pointing back into town, he made a motion and the blond followed him down the street. Meryl leaned out farther, who were those guys? She shook her head; they'd come from the hotel… "Oh my goodness!" Meryl grabbed for her boots, trying to pull them on. It was Vash and Wolfwood for sure… And if the Humanoid Typhoon got into the mess than there was no telling what kind of damage he could get into!
         Without thinking, Meryl reached for her derringers, she'd have to get a thomas from the nearby stable and… Her eye caught a flash out the window, and she turned again to see Vash fly by on a thomas followed by Wolfwood. Meryl's jaw dropped open. She'd never seen Vash ride a thomas without falling off of it before! But there he was, riding with the wind, one hand lightly holding the reigns while his other held up his long colt, firing it into the air as he went. They were really going to try to stop the stampede…
         Meryl slid down onto her knees and peered out the window. She knew of what Vash was capable. He was called The Stampede himself… But to turn back a hundred thomases? Even with the priest's help, what did he think he could do? Vash had done some amazing things since they had first started traveling with him. At first he seemed like a run-of-the-mill dork, but the longer she stayed with him the more she had grown to love him. Sure, he didn't always know the right things to say, and his brother was a raving lunatic who was out to destroy mankind… Her eyes followed Vash until he and Wolfwood disappeared into the cloud of dust.
         Vash had saved her. He had followed her with those keen senses he possessed, the strange abilities that he had from his heritage… He'd pulled her back from the brink of killing herself and torn away the bindings that Legato placed within her head. Vash did all of this, even though his true mission was to find his brother once and for all and… Do what? Kill him? Meryl shook her head, in truth, even though she knew everything about him, from his age to the fact that he was a plant, she really didn't know what he'd do to Knives when he ran into him face to face. So far, only she had seen him, that terrifying twin with the cold blue eyes and the strange beauty mark under his right eye, so close to Vash…
         A perfect mirror of one another… Vash had come into her mind to pull off the bindings and yet Meryl had been afraid of him. He'd looked exactly like Knives. She ran, she fought, and she'd tried everything she could to disappear, but he'd convinced her of his true intentions. This was not the bloodthirsty killer, this was Vash… The Stampede.
         He was out there right now within that cloud of dust, being forever the hero. Meryl swallowed, she could hear the gunshots now as they rang through the night. She could see that there were other men on thomases as well. Herders must have started the stampede. On occasions she'd read about groups of men who captured the wild birds to tame, but she'd never seen them before. When the thomases spooked they were unable to slow them or turn them away from heading into town. But even now, as her violet eyes watched, Meryl could see that Vash and Wolfwood were turning them away. The birds were coming around, changing course, and as the rumbling shook the walls of the hotel, they made a curve back out into the desert.
         The herders waved thanks to Vash and Wolfwood as the two men rode back into town. Meryl jumped up from her place and dashed out the door and down the three flights of stairs… This was her hero; this was the man who could save the planet! He'd do it, and she'd be by his side! Her heart beat faster as she ran out of the hotel and into the street and yelled, "Vash!"
         It was so sudden that even Meryl wasn't sure what happened. One moment the gunman was on the thomas and smiled beneath his floppy hair, he lifted a hand to wave to her… The next moment he was on the ground, flat on his butt, his hand over his head still holding onto the reigns of the thomas, and the ugly bird was looking down at him. Vash threw out a few syllables of pain and the thomas started to nibble at his shaggy hair. He looked up at the bird. "What are you doing up there?"
         Meryl stopped dead where she stood. This was her hero… Wolfwood rode his thomas up next to Vash and looked down on him. "Hey Needlenoggin, how's the view?"
         "Just great," Vash said through his teeth. He looked like he would have been able to punch the priest if he'd been able to reach him. But his demeanor changed as he looked at Meryl. "Hey Insurance Girl… Uh, Meryl!"
         With a sigh, Meryl slumped forward. So much for the triumphant hero, this guy really is a run-of-the-mill dork… She started to look up at Vash again when Wolfwood called out, "Hey, are you and your lovely young friend ready to get going? We've got a long trip ahead of us." He put a hand to his hair and tugged at a strand as he looked at her.
         A sudden realization hit Meryl at that moment. In all of the rush she had forgotten to comb her hair! From every single memory of every single morning's routine, she knew what her hair looked like at that very moment. Throwing her hands up to her head Meryl dashed back toward the hotel. "We'll be ready in a bit…" Oh crap, now he's seen through my careful façade… She didn't even bother to glance back as she ran up to her hotel room and threw open the door.
         Milly was still sound asleep. Meryl sighed. Her friend could have slept through the destruction of July City… Meryl reached into her bag and grabbed a comb. "Milly! Wake up! Vash and Wolfwood are going to leave without us!" Meryl scrambled to the bathroom pulling the comb through her hair.
         "I was up late Meryl, let me sleep…" Came the response. The girl wrote last night. Milly wrote regularly, once a week, always on Tuesday night, you could set your calendar to it. Unfortunately for Meryl, she always had to do it at bedtime, and she usually got as little sleep as her friend did. The feeling of tiredness had already started to roll over her as the adrenalin from the thomas stampede wore off.
         "Come on Milly, I know you aren't a morning person, but they're waiting on us."
         Milly rolled over in bed and opened a blue eye. "I'm so tired Meryl, can't we sleep just a little longer?" She gave a great yawn bearing two perfect rows of teeth as if she'd never had a cavity in her entire life. Meryl rolled her eyes, the girl might not be able to capture men's attentions, but she had grooming habits no one else could beat. "What's the hurry anyway?"
         Meryl's hand dropped from her hair leaving the comb in its place. Her hair looked like a bird's nest this morning, it did every morning. She wondered why only Wolfwood said something about it. Of course Vash's hair was just as messed up, but he looked kind of sexy that way. He hadn't even worn his coat, but, come to think of it, she hadn't even noticed his scars. Of course who would with how fast it all happened…
         Milly didn't look much better this morning; there were dark circles under her eyes. "Milly, you stayed up all night writing home again, didn't you?"
         Milly nodded and pulled the sheets up over her face. "I'm sorry Meryl, but I hadn't written home in over a week. It's already Friday. I'm sure Mother and Father are getting worried." The sheets rustled as Milly rolled over in bed and pulled her legs up to her chest. When she did, her toes disappeared. Milly mumbled something to herself and heaved a sigh.
         The dark-haired insurance girl took the comb from her hair. "What did you say, Milly?"
         "Why haven't they written since we left December?" She repeated, pulling the sheet down from her face. "I don't know why I haven't received any letters. There should have been some when you got your check, right? When the mail caught up with us?" Milly's eyes were sorrowful like Meryl had never seen them. It suddenly worried her because the youngest Thompson never, ever, ever looked like that. Her friend had been a chipper little girl since they day they met. It was one of the reasons that Meryl had never complained to have Milly with her at all times because she was like the dessert after a meal, you just needed it sometimes.
         "Oh Milly," Meryl sat down on the edge of the bed and sighed, "Maybe the Post Office in December didn't forward them. There's bound to be a huge pile at the apartment." She nodded to herself, As well as a dozen bills…Probably.
          Milly sat up in bed, her eyes weren't furrowed as much as they had been a moment before, and the sparkle was slowly returning to them. "Do you really think so, Meryl?"
         "Of course!" Meryl stood up and gave Milly a hug. "Come on now, the sooner we get going, the sooner we'll be able to take that paid vacation Mr. Gardine mentioned in the letter he left us. We'll go home and see everyone, what do you think?"
         "That would be wonderful," Milly said, herself again, a grin spreading across her face and she hugged Meryl tighter.
         "Uh, Milly…"
         "Yes Meryl?"
         "You can let go now, I'm having trouble breathing."
         "Oops," Milly said, letting Meryl go suddenly. "Sorry about that. Sometimes I don't know my own strength." Meryl heaved a great breath and waved the comb in front of her face, trying to force more air into her lungs. When she'd finally managed to catch her breath again, she stood, and opened her mouth to speak… When a knock came at the door, "Oh no!" She spun on her heel and started combing her hair frantically as a voice came through the door.
         "Hey insurance girls!" Wolfwood rapped at the door again. "We've got to get going!"
         The big insurance girl scrambled out of the bed, "I'm not even dressed!" She stumbled past Meryl and disappeared into the bathroom. The door slammed shut and Meryl dashed after her, finding it locked. She sighed and slumped against it, knowing it was no use; she'd have to do her hair without a mirror this morning.
         First it was the stampede, and now Milly… Meryl put a hand on her face and shook her head, "Here we go again."

December City
One Week Later
         "Ah! Civilization at last!" Meryl Stryfe exclaimed as she looked out over the stone buildings and paved streets that lay before them. The city of December was the biggest city on Gunsmoke, second only to the now destroyed July. How long had it been since she and Milly Thompson had set foot in their town? Months they had spent becoming the best darned insurance agents the Bernadelli's had, and for months now they had been on assignment following the one and only Humanoid Typhoon. Now they were home again, with the said typhoon following close behind them, and at his side the strangest priest the city had ever seen.
         "Do you think we should go back to our apartment or check in first?" Milly said, her eyes scanning the streets as she stepped out of the Sand Dancer. It was a miracle that the car had made it back into Old Chantilly, and even more of one that it had gotten them all the way back to December, nearly two hundred iles farther south. Meryl turned to look at her friend as she hefted her huge stun gun out of the trunk.
         "Well, according to the letter, if we want our paychecks and vacation, we'd better check in at work first." Meryl sighed to herself, scratching a stray itch on her head. The truth was, since the very short stay at Old Chantilly to fix the car; they hadn't had a decent shower or a bed to sleep in. As much of a paradise as this city was with the carefully planned sidewalks and trees planted in neat rows, their journey there had been nothing but empty stretches of sand and rocks for as far as the eye could see. "On second thought," Meryl admitted, "Maybe we should get cleaned up. I'm starting to smell like a thomas."
         "You can say that again," the Humanoid Typhoon said next to her.
         Meryl turned and looked up at the incredibly tall gunman wearing his red coat and his hair spiking up in all directions. "Vash!"
         "Well, you said it," Vash returned, a grin spreading across his face as he removed his strange yellow sunglasses. "And I have been wondering what your apartment looks like."
         "Probably decked out in doilies and pink flowers," the priest said over Vash's shoulder. He grinned, holding up a hand at the little insurance girl who was starting to steam. "I'm joking… Sheesh."
         "Mr. Wolfwood… Uh, I mean, Nicholas," Milly started, she hesitated a moment, a flush coming to her cheeks. Meryl grinned; even after all of the time they had spent together, her friend still couldn't call her boyfriend by his name on the first try. Of course, most of time, it was pretty hard for her to get Vash to call her by her first name. They'd been calling each other the same old names for months now, so it was hard changing suddenly. After getting flushed, Milly spit out a couple of consonants before continuing, "You really shouldn't tease Meryl like that. She is the one who's funding this little trip you know."
         The priest held up his hands in self-defense, "Okay, I'm sorry." He nodded to himself and reached into his front chest pocket for a cigarette, but from the frantic motions that followed, the group could see that he'd come up empty-handed. "Oh no, no, no this can't be… I restocked!" Wolfwood slumped forward as he found nothing to support his addiction. It didn't make sense that the man couldn't afford food half of the time, but he always seemed to have a pack of cigarettes handy.
         "Maybe you should quit," Milly said cheerfully next to him. She started to set a hand on his arm, then bit her lip and pulled away, sticking the hand in her pocket instead. She glanced over to Meryl for only a moment, then down to her pocket that contained a strange lump. Oh, so that's where they went. Only Meryl knew what Milly had done, She's trying, I'll give her that, she thought and nodded with Milly's assessment.
         "It is an annoying habit you've got there," Meryl said, but instantly received a death-look from the dark-haired priest. She took a step back, Whew, where'd that expression come from? With a sigh, she added, "There's a convenience store around the corner," Meryl pointed, her eyes coming down on a dirt-caked fingernail and hurried to hide it beneath her white traveling cloak. If I don't get a shower soon I think I'm going to have to kill myself. "Okay, so what's the plan? Our apartment is up there in that building." She nodded this time instead of pointing, "It's number 4B, is everyone coming up or are you going to stay out here catching flies?"
         Vash closed his mouth and looked at Meryl. He'd been gawking at a woman who walked by. The lady was dressed to the nines and his eyes kept following her, even though Meryl had gotten his attention. "Oh sorry," he said suddenly, "This town sure is beautiful, isn't it?"
         "The town, or its inhabitants?" Meryl said with a frown.
         "The town, the town, of course," He waved to the trees, the paved streets, the perfect stone buildings. "The only large city I've been in before was…" He trailed off. Meryl knew he was talking about July, but in her mind it probably hadn't been the perfectly civilized center that December was. Besides, it had been over thirty years now, long before she was born... It was strange to think about, that her boyfriend had not only lived over a hundred years, but also could destroy whole cities in a matter of minutes…
         "I'd forgotten how beautiful this place is," Milly murmured, coming up to Meryl now. Vash nodded with her as if to say, 'See? I was looking at the sights… Not that pretty hooker over there on the corner…'
         With a sigh, Meryl decided to let the subject drop. She'd known perfectly well that Vash was a womanizer even before they met him. He was a man, after all. Didn't they all look at pretty girls from time to time, even when with the woman they loved? Meryl hoped that he'd be different after all of the time he spent looking at her during their drive from Old Chantilly. Besides, most men wouldn't have been able to do what he did when I was in trouble, doesn't that show how much he loves me? She nodded, "Okay then, let's get up to the apartment… Uh, where's Wolfwood?"
         The priest was now about half a block away, heading toward the convenience store when they finally spotted him.
         "Mr. Priest… Uh, Nicholas!" Milly called after him, "Wait!"
         Wolfwood stopped and looked over his shoulder, "Hey, take my cross upstairs would ya? I'll be back in awhile." He waved his arm as he wandered down the block. Milly, Meryl and Vash looked at each other and then toward the Sand Dancer where Wolfwood's cross lay in the backseat.
         "I can't lift that thing," Meryl said quickly. He can just leave it there for all I care. She hurried up and grabbed her suitcase from the trunk.
         "I'm not taking it," Vash replied as he grabbed his own bag. Then he and Meryl both looked toward Milly who was pouting that Wolfwood had gone off without saying a word to her. The insurance girl sulked toward the car, and lifted the cross from the back seat with ease and put it on her back, then reached for her own bag from the trunk.
         Meryl and Vash looked at each other. Meryl knew she didn't have to read minds to know what Vash was thinking. How in the world can she do that? Not only did Milly have her stun gun slung over one shoulder, the cross over the other, now she was going to carry her own bag too? Meryl didn't let Milly take it but shoved the bag at Vash instead. "You've got enough there Milly," she said, looking around at the people passing them by walking dogs and children who were already starting to point. Although, she wasn't sure whether it was at Milly or the red-clad gunman. "I think Vash can carry an extra bag."
         "It's okay Meryl," Milly started to say, but turned her eyes down the street to where Wolfwood had disappeared. She sighed, "I've been asking him to quit, you know? It's not good for him." The insurance girl looked about to cry, and Meryl was started to worry that she'd be pounced by her weepy tall friend when Milly reached into her coat pocket and produced the half-empty pack of cigarettes. She grinned.
         "Oh, so he was right after all," Vash said, settling Milly's bag on his shoulder along with his own. "I didn't think I'd lost count…" He nodded to Milly, "You're sneaky."
         Milly grinned wider. "I am, aren't I?"
         "Ahem," Meryl said from the doorway of the apartment, "Are you two coming up or am I going to have to hold this door open all afternoon?"
         Vash and Milly looked at each other. They smiled and Vash waved the girl in front of him toward the door. She dumped the pack of cigarettes in the trash as she walked up the apartment, "Guess I'll just have to try harder."
         Meryl smiled, "That's the spirit."

          Vash stood outside the door of Meryl’s apartment. He leaned against the wall, glanced toward the door, then down the hallway at a little toddler staring up at him in interest, and watched his mother grab him up in a hurry and drag him into the apartment. Vash sighed, and knocked at the door, “Uh, can I come in yet?”
         “No!” The reply came from the other side of the door and there was another shuffling of feet. Vash shook his head, and glanced down the hallway. The mother’s head peered from the doorway and Vash watched as she took in his long red coat and suddenly wished that he wasn’t in such a populated area. He’d probably have every bounty hunter in the city after him before day’s end now… He smiled and waggled his fingers at the woman and she disappeared.
         “What did you do this time?” Wolfwood said as he came up the stairs. He had an unlit cigarette between his lips as he looked at the gunman in curiosity.
         “I didn’t do anything,” Vash replied, hitching a thumb at the door. “I come up the stairs and Meryl and Milly get in the door, then slam it in my face. I heard Milly crying a minute ago…” His eyebrows furrowed, “I almost busted the door down but…” He nodded toward the neighbor; “I don’t think that would be such a good idea with so many people around.”
         Wolfwood’s own brows furrowed as he came up to the door. It was obvious to Vash that the news didn’t bode well with his friend. He strode up to the door and rapped at it, “Honey? Are you okay in there? Can we come in?”
         The door opened suddenly and Milly peered out, her eyes red, but she smiled and said, “Not yet. We didn’t exactly leave this place tidy…” She shut the door on him quite suddenly and Vash watched the priest slump against the opposite doorway.
         “Guess you should have taken longer at the store,” Vash said, thumbing the snaps on his jacket. He popped the first few open, and then re-snapped them again, back and forth. His head leaned back toward the door; “You were the ones who invited us up! If I knew you weren’t going to let us in we could have gone down the street to a hotel!”
         Meryl opened the door and looked up at Vash. “All right, good grief.”
         “About time, I’m sure everyone in the city knows I’m here now,” His gaze turned to the woman down the hallway who was now looking at him with a phone to her ear, the cord stretched taut back through the doorway. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to be hanging around in town for long.”
         The insurance girl popped her head out the door and yelled, “Mrs. Hubbard, hello! Milly and I just got back; do you think you can stop staring at our boyfriends now? You’re making Vash nervous.” The woman turned three shades of red and Vash could hear her saying his name as she slammed the door behind her. Meryl looked back up at him, “Is that better?”
         “I think you may have just made it worse,” Wolfwood mused as he pushed his way past her. Meryl made a motion to complain but Vash followed the priest through the door and by then it was too late.
         Although, once they were in the apartment, Vash couldn’t quite figure out why the big insurance girl had started to cry. There wasn’t any smell so there hadn’t been a forgotten pet or anything… There didn’t seem to be any open letters relating bad news either. The truth was the apartment was so sparse that he wondered if the girls had lived there more than a month, if that. There was a couch, a few chairs, a table, two typewriters, and through a small hallway he could see two bedrooms that looked like they had only a bed and a dresser apiece. There weren’t knickknacks, no frills, only a few pictures hanging on the wall that were tacked there haphazardly.
         Meryl ran past him and slammed the door to one of the bedrooms, “We’ve got so much to do in the next few hours,” she picked up the handle to her suitcase and wheeled it toward the door. “Milly, are you ready with your laundry yet? You should get started on it while I take a shower…”
         Vash and Wolfwood looked at each other for a moment, and then down at their own clothes. “You don’t suppose we could get ours cleaned too?”
         Before Meryl could answer, Milly wandered by from her bedroom with a pile of clothing higher than her head and she said something behind them, then stopped, lowered the clothing, and said clearly, “Just get your bags and come downstairs to the laundry room with me. I’ve got plenty of c-cents.” She readjusted her pile, grabbed Meryl’s bag, and walked past them toward the door, “Well, what are you just standing there for?”
         Wolfwood jumped into movement, taking the cigarette from his mouth and shoving it into his breast pocket before grabbing the door and following Milly out into the hallway. Vash handed Wolfwood his bag, and the priest nodded before closing the door behind them.
         He stood watching Meryl for a moment before saying, “What’s going on?”
         Alone now, he figured maybe he could get Meryl to talk to him. Since they left Old Chantilly she had been quiet, avoiding him almost, spending much of her time in Milly’s company. The two girls sat in the backseat of the Sand Dancer the entire drive, and Vash had to look at her through the rear-view mirror. Her eyes turned from the mirror every time he looked at her. It was a hard week to have someone he cared about treating him as if nothing had happened.
         Meryl shrugged, “I’m fine.” She shook her head and pulled off her traveling coat and set it on the chair. “It’s Milly I’m worried about…”
         An eyebrow rose as Vash looked at her, “I thought I heard her crying a bit ago…”
         The dark-haired insurance girl lowered her head and peered at him through her hair, “You haven’t noticed?” Vash shrugged and Meryl sighed, “Of course you wouldn’t notice. She hasn’t received any mail from home since we started following you. I told her it was simply because the mail was piling up here…” Meryl waved a hand, “Obviously there’s none here.”
         “You haven’t gotten any mail either, have you?”
         Turning, Meryl slumped down into the chair she’d hung her coat on. “No, but my family… I don’t have anyone to write to but Milly’s family, they adopted me after my parents… But Milly writes home once a week. She’s got a huge family,” Meryl waved toward the wall where the pictures were tacked haphazardly. “You’d think one of them would have written.”
         Vash wandered over to the photographs. He really had never talked much to the insurance girls about their past lives. He’d never really had a need to. For the first few months they were nothing more than tag-alongs, a bit of an inconvenience, but he’d never taken it personally. The truth was, as time went by, he realized that Meryl knew more about him than he knew about her, or Milly.
         There were dozens of pictures. A young Milly with a nine other siblings, Milly with her father, Milly and Meryl in school uniform, Meryl with Milly’s sisters, Milly covered in mud with the neighborhood boys, Meryl in a swimsuit when she was eight… Vash reached for the picture when suddenly Meryl hissed, “Don’t you dare…” He pulled his hand back and turned to smile at her. She frowned, “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but you can’t have it. Those are all of the pictures we have. I told Milly I didn’t want her to hang that one but she said as long as she had her own picture up, I might as well have mine too.” She waved toward the wall and Vash turned and nodded as he saw that indeed, Milly had herself in a swimsuit, hair drenched over her face, she was about seven years old, her two front teeth were missing.
         “Do you think something has happened to her family?” Vash said as he turned from the gallery of Meryl and Milly’s life. He hadn’t realized until this point that the two had grown up together. They acted like it, sure, but he’d always assumed they had met at Bernadelli. “Or to yours, for that matter?”
         Meryl shook her head, “I don’t know for sure, Vash…” She stood. “But we’re going to head home in a few days to find out. I need to take a shower before I go into the office, but from there I’m going to get my check, fill out the paperwork for our vacation and head there right away.” She disappeared into her bedroom, and Vash peered around the corner, hoping for a peak, but she closed the door on him. Vash shrugged and sat down in the chair Meryl had vacated. “You really don’t have to come with us if you don’t want to,” Meryl said from behind the door. “But I promised Milly that we’d go. Even if nothing is wrong there, we’ve been meaning to go home to check out some things since before we were assigned to you.”
         She came out from her room with a white blouse, tan skirt and jacket on hangers. These were obviously not her traveling clothes they were office attire. Vash blinked, he’d only seen Meryl in a few outfits, but he couldn’t really imagine her in a uniform. “It might be a good idea if I came,” he said, shaking his thoughts from Meryl’s clothing. Doesn’t really matter what Meryl wears, she always looks good… “Besides, I mean, isn’t that what a… boyfriend, is for?” He spit out that last bit; it felt strange on his tongue. He felt kind of like a schoolboy suddenly. The idea of a hundred year old plant gunman having a girlfriend for the first time was a bit strange on every level.
         Meryl disappeared into the bathroom this time, “Do what you want.”
         Vash slumped into his chair. That wasn’t exactly the reaction he’d hoped to receive. His eyes skimmed the room as he could hear the water start in the bathroom. She could have invited me to take a bath with her…

          Wolfwood yawned from his chair as he watched the dryer. Milly was pressing his shirt nearby. “I think it’s done, what do you think?” She lifted the dress shirt for him to look at, then lowered it and blushed. Truth was, Nick noticed that she blushed every time he took his shirt off, and he really never got tired of it. He nodded to her, “It’s perfect Honey. It really didn’t need ironing, it’s kind of wash and wear.”
         “And wear and wear…” Milly trailed off and tossed it on his head. “Don’t you have a spare suit or something? You should be glad I’m good with bleach, that thing was nearly yellow…”
         Pulling the shirt from his head, he smiled up at her, “I don’t put my money into material possessions you know.” He pulled it on around him and buttoned it, making sure that it didn’t cover his entire chest until Milly had looked at him and turned another shade of deeper pink. Job done, he pulled his jacket on again and crossed his legs. She really was easy, wasn’t she? It was cute. He’d never had anyone look at him like that before.
         “You could stop using your double dollars on cigarettes and buy yourself another shirt,” she said suddenly and smiled at him as he gave her the look of any hooked smoker when asked to quit. Milly shrugged, “A girl can try, can’t she?”
         The buzzer on the dryer went off and Milly went to open it up. She reached in and dragged out a pair of slacks, “Well, anyway, looks like we’re finished. Mr. Vash’s clothes are all dry now.” Milly shook out the slacks, folded them, went back for a shirt, and waved it at the priest. “See, even Mr. Vash has an extra set of clothes.”
         Nick brushed back his hair from his eyes. “We’ll go shopping before we leave, will that make you feel better?” He received a glowing smile in return and he chuckled to himself as Milly started to talk about all of the different places where she needed to take him shopping. He didn’t pay her much attention; his thoughts were on her graceful movements as she folded Vash’s clothing. She’d turn and reach into the dryer and he watched her backside… His tanned cheeks turned a shade darker and he let his hair fall over his eyes. Goodness, I love this girl. No other had made him blush like this; no other had captured his attention. He’d been too busy… He didn’t have time for a girlfriend. He didn’t even really know how to treat one…
         “Okay, let’s get back upstairs and see if Meryl and Mr. Vash are finished! I’m dying for a shower myself.” She looked at Wolfwood and smiled, “And you should have probably taken one too before putting on that clean shirt.”
         “Should I take it off?” Wolfwood started to peel off his jacket again when Milly reached out a hand.
         “Uh, no, you don’t have to do that.” Now she was five shades darker. How’d she do that? She was as red as an apple now. Did he really make her feel that way? It was a curious reaction.
         Wolfwood nodded, “Okay then,” he grabbed up the empty bags and followed Milly up the stairs. “Do you think it will take long at the office?”
         Milly looked over her shoulder at him, “No, I don’t think so. But I know the vacation forms might take a little while…” Her expression darkened and she continued up the stairs.
         Frowning, Nick followed her. He hadn’t been able to get it out of her why she had been crying when they got into the apartment. She just smiled and said that she had been happy to be home, however briefly. Wolfwood had taken her word for it, but he didn’t really believe her, her expression was too sad. How had she become this sad? Was it because of him? He hadn’t done something wrong, had he? With a sigh, he thought about reaching for a cigarette, and then shook his head, Maybe I should quit.

The Bernadelli Insurance Society
          Karen’s mouth dropped open about two seconds after Meryl and Milly walked into the office. The girls were dressed in uniform, clean, neatly pressed; they looked as if they’d never stepped out of the office at all. But that wasn’t what drew her attention it was the tall drinks of water that followed Milly and Meryl.
          Gina leaned over beside Karen, “Just who are those two?” Shrugging, Karen stood from her desk, the truth was, she was just as curious. Their boss had mentioned the fact that the two Risk Prevention agents were coming in that week to collect their paychecks, but no one had mentioned they would have guests with them.
          Smiling, Karen looked the two gentlemen over as Meryl and Milly waved at her. The two girls started to rummage through their desks as the men looked on. Who were these guys? The dark haired one wore a black suit with silver cross-shaped cufflinks. He was kind of on the tanned side, and when he said something to Milly is was in a southern accent. His friend however, he was something altogether. Tall, skinny, blond hair falling around his eyes, he wore tan slacks and a white shirt. He also wore a black glove on his left hand, which made her even more curious. The man turned to look at her and his eyes… Karen looked over at Gina; Goodness, does he have turquoise eyes?
         “Hey Meryl, who are your friends?”
         Meryl looked up at Karen from her desk. “Oh, them? That’s Nicholas D. Wolfwood, and this is…” She blushed and said, “My boyfriend.”
         “Does your boyfriend have a name?” Gina asked from her desk. Karen gave her a look and Gina scrunched down in her seat, as if she wouldn’t know the answer five minutes after the girls left anyway.
         Opening her mouth to answer, Meryl was cut off by her said boyfriend. “Eriks,” he said simply and looked back at Meryl. “Hey Meryl, do you think I should get life insurance?”
         The man named Nicholas laughed and nodded, “Yeah, me too. What do you think?”
         “I think we could help you that,” Karen replied, coming over to them. She extended her hand to Eriks, “Hi, my name is Karen.”
         Eriks shook her hand and let it go quicker than she would have expected. Karen wasn’t used to having men treating her so abruptly, she was tall, blond, and beautiful… She turned to Nicholas and the shake was hearty but just as short. Wow, these guys really are dating Meryl and Milly. Karen was about to ask how long they had been dating when Meryl turned
suddenly; “Is the boss in? We need to talk to him about our vacation time.”
         Karen shrugged, “Sure, he’s in the office as usual. I heard you had quite the fiasco with Vash the Stampede near Old Chantilly. Mr. Gardine from October came into town as white as a ghost and said that by no means should they assign any other agents to his case because it was too dangerous.” She titled her head to the side, “So, where is the Humanoid Typhoon anyway?”
         Milly looked up from her desk and her eyes glanced over toward Eriks and she quickly looked over to Karen. “Oh, we’re keeping an eye on him.”
         “Is that so?” Gina said from her desk gleaning another look from Karen. It wasn’t as if the whole room wasn’t listening to their conversation anyway. “I’d say taking a vacation isn’t exactly ‘keeping an eye on him’, or am I wrong?”
         “Gina,” Meryl said hurriedly, “If I told you where Vash was at this very moment you probably wouldn’t believe me.” Her eyes were directed at Eriks momentarily as well until she looked up to see Mr. B coming out of the office. “Boss, Milly and I have come for our paychecks.”
         “Oh yes,” Mr. B said and he waved them into the office. “Come in, we’ll get your paperwork filled out. I’m amazed you’ve lasted this long without asking for a vacation… You do understand that your life insurance policies don’t cover damage by the Humanoid Typhoon…” His voice trailed off as Milly and Meryl disappeared into his office.
         Karen turned to look at the two luscious pieces of meat that were left behind. “So, boys…”
Butterscotch, Vanilla, Banana, and Chocolate
          Milly leaned back in her chair. She looked out the window into the street and could see the dozens of people walking past on their way into the movie theater. Friday night and everyone was dressed in their Sunday finest, couples holding hands and children dancing in the line holding balls of cotton candy. She turned and looked over at Nicholas as he sat across from her at the table. The little café they sat at served all the best desserts a city could offer. Vash and Meryl had offered to buy dessert after their stop at work. The Bernadelli office was only around the corner. She and Meryl used to come to this little café every night after work and sit there for hours drinking coffee, eating pudding and talking about how nice it would be to bring their boyfriends there someday.
         Now, here they were, boyfriends in tow, but somehow the victory seemed empty. She’d been worrying about home. Until they had talked about coming back to December, Milly hadn’t even thought about the fact that the letters from home had stopped coming. The more she thought about it, the more she doubted that she’d ever received letters. There were none around the apartment, only the photos that were on the wall above her desk.
         The city of December also reminded her of that morning she and Meryl had woken in the apartment not knowing where they were. Even though she remembered living there for nearly a year before getting the job at Bernadelli, and all of the time afterwards, the place seemed foreign to her. She knew that Meryl thought the same thing, but they hadn’t talked about it much since they were assigned to watching Vash. Finding out what the truth was scared them both, especially now that Milly’s own ‘feelings’ about things had developed so far as to give her telekinetic powers.
         With a shiver, Milly leaned an elbow on the table and Wolfwood looked up from the menu. “Did you know that they serve fifteen different flavors of pudding?” He held up a hand, “Wait… Never mind.” Nick smiled, “Hey, I’ll give you a double dollar if you can name them all in thirty seconds or less.”
         Milly brightened; he really did know how to cheer her up didn’t he? A smile spread over her lips, “Ready to start timing me?” Wolfwood glanced down at his wrist, frowned, realizing that he didn’t wear a watch… In fact, none of them did, and then glanced up over behind the counter to a clock that hung there.
         “Okay, ready… Go.”
         “Butterscotch, vanilla, banana, chocolate, caramel, lemon, lime, pistachio, strawberry, cherry, coffee, orange, cinnamon, raspberry, and peach. And, if you’re especially nice to the owner, he’ll mix the flavors.” She twiddled her thumbs and Wolfwood looked back at her as he fished in his pocket for the double dollar.
         “You win.” He handed her the bill, “Seven seconds…” He leaned over the table, “And do they all have meanings behind them?” Milly almost opened her mouth to tell him that in fact they did all have meanings when Meryl and Vash sat down at the table with them with about ten different desserts including at least five different puddings.
         “He apparently missed us, Milly,” Meryl started, setting the bowls of pudding in front of Milly. “He gave us all of the pudding for free, as well as my coffee. Oh and he mixed the flavors like you always ask for…” She also handed her a mille feuille cake, and a mocha frosty cream. “Then he added these on when I said we weren’t going to be in town for long.”
         Milly stood up and waved at the owner, “Hey Henry, thanks a lot! You’re desserts are the best in all of Gunsmoke and I’ve been all over now!” The owner waved back as Milly sat down again. “Wow Meryl, do you think there’s enough for you and the guys?” She looked at the single plates in front of her friends. Vash’s was stacked with five different kinds of donuts, Meryl had a banana sundae, and Wolfwood had a thick slice of chocolate cake. “Because I don’t plan on sharing!”
         “We don’t expect you to,” Meryl said, digging into her sundae. “I think we all know not to get between a girl and her pudding.” She smiled as Vash bit into a powdered donut and got sugar on his nose. “Aw, how cute is that?”
         Vash looked at her, “What?” Meryl and Milly looked at each other and started laughing. Wolfwood looked up from his cake and chuckled as well. Vash looked at them amusedly and rubbed off the sugar with the back of his hand. “I think I deserve donuts after you left us with those vultures.”
         Milly finished her first bowl of caramel pudding and started on the chocolate, “Do you mean Gina and Karen?”
         “Yes,” Vash said already on his second donut. “I really don’t need ten different types of insurance… I almost wanted to tell them who I was so they’d leave me alone!” He licked his fingers and glanced over to Meryl. “I’m glad you suggested changing into normal clothes when we came out.”
         With a spoon in her mouth, Milly looked over to Meryl. Her friend has other reasons for having Vash dress to blend in. Meryl told her while Vash was in the shower that if they didn’t do something he’d have every girl in town after him. There never seemed to be enough cute eligible males in December, they’d already figured that out for the months they remained single during insurance training. It didn’t help that this particular cute eligible male was her boyfriend, and a famous gunman to boot.
         “Well, I’m glad you listened to me for once. Just imagine what would have happened if you went walking around like an outlaw.” Meryl took a sip of her coffee and looked over at the movie theater. “December is famous for making news of everything. They have constant newsreels across the street and they make movies in town. Any time there are stars there’s bound to be plenty of gossip. Remember when Karen started dating Lance Talon?”
         Milly nodded, “Oh yes, she was on the newsreels every day. They followed her every move, it was incredible, like we were working with a real star.” She pushed her second bowl away and started on the lemon and lime, “But the moment he dumped her and started going with someone else she was just Karen again.”
         Wolfwood looked up from his finished plate, “She dated Lance Talon?”
         Vash’s eyebrow raised, “Who’s Lance Talon?”
         Meryl, Milly and Wolfwood all looked at Vash like he’d sprouted wings. “You don’t know who Lance Talon is?”
         The legendary gunman shook his head. Meryl shrugged, “I guess being the most famous person on the planet makes it okay that you don’t know the ‘nobodies’ right? He’s only the most popular movie star in the entire planet… Of course I guess you’d have to live in one of the two big cities because the little towns don’t have movie theaters.”
         “I’ve seen movies,” Vash said in rebuff. “But they were all from Earth.” The three looked at him in curiosity. He lowered his head, “Guess you wouldn’t have seen those…”
         Milly scraped the bottom of her bowl, “Anyway, it’s just a good thing that no one knows who you are because otherwise I think the entire town would be swamped with reporters and paparazzi.” She pulled over her cake; she was saving the vanilla pudding for last. Always best to leave the best for last just so the taste remained on the tongue as long as possible. “Do you think we might have time to go over and watch the newsreels tonight, Meryl? I’ve really missed seeing the news. I’m sure there will be something about… Eriks on there, wouldn’t that be a hoot?”
         Nicholas laughed, “I think that would be mighty funny.”
         “Why am I funny?” Vash finished his last donut and looked at the empty plate longingly, as if another donut would somehow spontaneously appear.
         “Oh, it’s not you exactly,” Meryl said, grabbing his hand and squeezing it. Milly noticed that Vash perked up immediately upon her friend’s touch. “But I think it would be fun to see what silly things they are making up about you.” She nodded to Milly, “When you get done there we’ll go catch the next round, I think they’re even playing the newest Talon movie at nine. I’d say with our raises we could afford to splurge.”
         “Goody!” Milly sipped at her mocha frosty cream and clapped her hands. “Yeah! I love going to the movies!”
Tin Town Blues
          “Today in the news…” The narrator’s voice came over loud and clear as Meryl sat down in her seat. Vash sat next to her in the darkened room, Milly on her other side, and Wolfwood on the end. Somehow she’d been conned into paying for the four of them, plus a candy bar for Nicholas who was in the process of sharing it with Milly and making a mess of it.
         Meryl glanced up at the screen. They had positioned themselves in the balcony near the back where it was darkest, but there weren’t that many people in the theater to worry about being spotted. She’d doubted there would be any footage of the elusive gunman, but one could never tell. She had been on one of these reels once soon after she and Milly had solved their first insurance scam. Didn’t matter that it had been just a single incident with a young arsonist, the moment she appeared on the screen there were a dozen teenage boys surrounding her and they had to make a quick escape. Milly had been especially disappointed that she couldn’t go to the theater for two weeks afterwards.
         “The rest of the Nebraska family is waiting for transfer from Little Arcadia,” the newsreel droned on and Meryl yawned. Vash stretched next to her and cleverly placed his arm around her shoulder. She sighed and leaned into him. Her attention was only half on the screen when Milly elbowed her.
         “Meryl, look, that’s us!” She waved toward the screen and Meryl sunk lower in her chair. The filmmakers had found old photos of them as the narrator talked about the insurance investigators who managed to stop the Nebraskas from destroying yet another city. Milly scooted down in her chair, “It sure was lucky that you didn’t miss with your derringer, just imagine what might have happened!” She gave her friend a thumbs up and looked over at Wolfwood, “Can you believe that Meryl did that all by herself?”
         Vash squeezed Meryl’s shoulders and she looked up at him, “You did a good job,” he said, winking. Meryl nodded briefly and glanced around the theater. Luckily it was fairly empty at this hour and not many knew she was back in town. As it was, she was starting to get kind of nervous about the publicity. If anyone knew that I was here with Vash the Stampede…
         The reels jumped to older news and Meryl closed her eyes. It was nice here she had to admit. Almost normal. How strange, she mused, that we could have something this close to a normal life even under all of the circumstances! The little insurance girl started to feel drowsy as snuggled into Vash’s embrace. She could hear Wolfwood and Milly giggling over the chocolate bar and the narrator continued on in his deep voice, it was almost soothing… Meryl hadn’t realized how tired she was…
         Her eyes popped open as Vash’s embrace suddenly stiffened, and Meryl sat up, “What is it?” She looked up at the gunman who nodded toward the screen. How long had I been asleep? Meryl looked over at Wolfwood and Milly who were sound asleep next to her. Apparently only Vash had stayed awake long enough to see what was… Her eyes slowly focused on the screen in front of her. “Oh no…”
         “Yeah, didn’t you say you lived in Tin Town?”
         Meryl set her hands on the seat in front of her and her knuckles went white. It was her town, the town where she and Milly had grown up… There, right in front of her face on the screen. The voice was hardly audible over Meryl’s pounding heart. “Vash the Stampede has been seen in Tin Town… The city has been laid to waste after he passed through. It is surely a horrible day for the inhabitants. There are very few survivors we’re told. The Humanoid Typhoon’s goons have set up within the mayor’s office and no one can get within five iles of the town. December City’s leading Marshall, John Wilson is headed there with the cavalry in order to put an end to the situation.” The pictures flashed from the city to the Marshall, and continued with an interview where the pompous man said something about taking control of the city again, and then he held up a picture. “We will get the Humanoid Typhoon this time, we now have a positive identity on him.”
         “Uh… Vash?”
         Vash nodded slowly as he and Meryl looked at one another. They had seen the picture, and it wasn’t him, but it was the one person who looked the closest to him in the entire planet; his twin brother. Neither of them had to say it, the name was unspoken between them. Knives.
Hair Tonic
          The Sand Dancer was packed before dawn. December City was as empty as a ghost at this time of day, except for the milk delivery truck that passed by every morning in time for breakfast. Even the newsies wouldn’t be up for another hour or two.
          Milly looked out the window with heavy eyes. She’d really wanted to take Mr. Priest… Nicholas, shopping to get some new clothes. The shirt she’d cleaned for him had been not only dirty but also full of holes, missing buttons, and snags. How had he survived so long with so many wounds? Milly smiled to herself as she thought about it. For some reason he didn’t have any scars like Vash did, even though when the two were together they seemed to get in some of the worst firefights imaginable.
         Nope, Wolfwood… Yes, that’s easier to call him than by his first name, she thought to herself. Wolfwood didn’t have any scars at all along that smooth beautifully tanned skin. He was the pure definition of man, muscles just the right size, color, shape, strength, he was the perfect height, an inch taller than herself, and so lanky… The way his dark hair fell over his eyes, and when he pushed it back those beautiful brown eyes could pierce straight into her soul… Except he didn’t. Wolfwood was always restrained when it came to his affections, and even as Milly would watch Meryl and Vash holding hands, the most she’d get out of the priest was a peck on the cheek.
         Did it have something to do with the fact that he was a man of the cloth? Milly shook her head, no, there was something else, was it her? She’d never had a boyfriend before, at least one that she liked back as much as she did Wolfwood. Sure, when she was younger there were guys all over her because she was like them, tall, muscular and ready to do any job a boy could do. But none of them really knew her… And if memory served, which she really wasn’t sure it did, that past might not even be her own.
         As her eyes settled on the Sand Dancer, where Meryl was making last minute preparations, Milly felt an arm wrap around her waist. She turned suddenly and Wolfwood was there, his eyes shimmering. “Good morning Honey,” he said in a quiet whisper. Wrapping both arms around her he smiled as Milly bit her bottom lip. That quiet southern drawl of his, just barely a touch of something foreign made him all the more attractive. Maybe they just didn’t have enough time alone together. Wolfwood pouted, “Hey, you aren’t blushing.”
         Milly nodded slowly, “Too sleepy…”
         “Yeah, the blood’s got to get to the brain before it can get to the cheeks,” quipped Vash behind them. Milly and Wolfwood turned and the tall gunman smiled. “Hey Wolfwood, would you mind taking these bags down to Meryl?” He held out two grocery bags as the priest turned, his hands leaving Milly as he did. She frowned, just when I was starting to get some attention…
         “Why can’t you take it down to her, Needlenoggin?”
         Vash looked at Wolfwood under his hair then shook his head, “I’ve gotta get this out of my eyes and I thought Milly could show me where they kept the hair tonic.” He thrust the bags at Wolfwood, grabbed Milly’s hand and dragged her into the bathroom before anyone could say another word. When the door was closed they could hear Wolfwood say a few words of protest before he stomped out of the apartment.
         “What was that for?” Milly pouted, she grabbed the cabinet door and pulled out the hair styling supplies. The stupid gunman couldn’t have just asked could he? “You could have found these for yourself, and now it will take me another week to get him to…” When she turned, Vash was standing right in front of her, looking through bangs with his piercing green eyes. “Uh, Mr. Vash? Is something wrong?”
         He nodded, “You… You haven’t been having any feelings about your town being taken over…” His words were cut off as Milly shoved a bottle of hair tonic at him.
         Milly turned away from him and started toward the door, “Meryl’s going to worry and she’s going to come in here and see this and get angry,” she said as she reached for the knob. Milly wasn’t exactly sure where Meryl would do if she caught them in the bathroom together, but she figured there might be derringers involved. She had her hand on the knob when Vash grabbed her arm. Something prickled at her skin. It felt oddly familiar, as if she could remember a similar feeling from her past. Milly looked down at his bare hand and it felt as if electricity was running across her skin.
         “This is serious, Milly. Knives is dangerous. You might have been able to defeat him once but it won’t happen again. When Meryl was kidnapped you felt the same thing I did, but there isn’t anything this time is there?” He let her go and started to open up the bottle. Vash turned to the mirror but his eyes were still on her. The feeling chilled her to the bone. How could he be so funny one moment and so serious and scary the next? “You haven’t felt anything since the your last run-in with Legato have you?”
         The insurance girl opened the bathroom door and started to walk out, but she stopped. Vash had a point; she had to admit to herself. If her family were in danger, wouldn’t she feel it just like she had with Meryl? In fact, she hadn’t felt anything recently; there were no premonitions, no sudden worries or special powers. She was just Milly. “No Mr. Vash, I don’t feel anything. It probably means there isn’t anything to worry about.”
         “Or it means that someone’s blocking your power.”
         Milly stopped from leaving the bathroom and looked at Vash over her shoulder. “I don’t even know where it comes from, so how can it be blocked?”
         “It comes from the same place mine does… Where Legato’s does… Where Knives’ does. From the plants.” He slicked his hair up a bit at a time, working the tonic through his blond strands. As Vash pulled the back of his hair up he turned his head in the mirror and plucked out a black hair.
         Shaking her head, Milly closed her eyes, “I know I’m not like you. Neither is Yellow Eyes.”
         “No, you’re human. But Legato wasn’t just born with powers either.”
         “So where did they come from?”
         Vash turned to look at Milly and his eyes were cold. “Knives. And I have a feeling he’s the one blocking you. If he’s doing this then he’s serious about killing you now.”
         Milly swallowed. She backed out of the bathroom slowly. “Well, I have news for you,” she said as Vash followed her. Milly pulled her stun gun from beneath her coat, “I won’t go without a fight. Even if he is blocking my powers. Meryl and Wolfwood will help.” She nodded, “What about you?”
         “He’s my brother, I don’t have a choice.”
         “That’s what I thought,” Milly said, putting her gun away again. She smiled grimly, “Well, I guess we’d better get going then shouldn’t we?”
         Vash nodded, “I’ll be right behind you.” He turned and went back into the bathroom as Milly walked out of the apartment and down toward the car. Vash’s words seeped into her, and as little as she wanted to think about it, she had to admit, he was probably right. Someone was blocking her powers, and if it was Blondie, then she was going to have some problems. Was he really the one who gave Yellow Eyes the power? If he did then had he figured out who gave her the power as well? What if it had something to do with her home? Was something there?
         As Milly came out of the apartment Meryl came over with a map. Meryl was talking, even as Milly realized she hadn’t been paying attention, “…is about three hundred iles from here and even taking the main trade routes will be rough, but Vash and Wolfwood are coming with us so I don’t think we’ll have any problem taking turns driving straight through…
         “Are you listening to me, Milly?”
         The tall girl shook her head, “No Meryl, I’m not.” At least she hadn’t worried why Milly had been alone so long with Vash. It was good to know that she was as perky as ever after having her morning cup of coffee. Milly smiled at the thought before her eyes drooped and she remembered that she wasn’t.
         “Well then I guess you’ll have to take the first turn sleeping I guess…” Meryl sat Milly down in the backseat and closed the door on her. Wolfwood took that as his cue to jump into the seat next to her, in the middle, his cross punisher was already sitting next to the door. Meryl frowned, “You were going to sit up front with Vash.”
         Wolfwood shook his head, “I’d think you and Needlenoggin would want to spend some quality time together…” He grinned brightly, twiddling his fingers at the approaching gunman. Vash was dressed to impress, completely snapped, hair as hard as a rock, sunglasses over his eyes, boots shined, and a serious expression on his face. He pulled off his sunglasses at Wolfwood’s remark, “Why would you want to spend quality time with me?”
         Milly giggled nervously in the back seat. She’d had enough “quality” time with Vash to last her a lifetime. If she never had to be alone with him again, she was starting to think she wouldn’t mind it. As much as she noticed his strange mood change, it was even creepier when he noticed hers. Wolfwood, Meryl and Vash all looked at her. Her eyes were closed and she was still laughing, tears rolling down her face suddenly. Oh no, I can’t stop… No one knew what to say, even as she said, “You’re so silly Mr. Vash…” Then she buried her face in Wolfwood’s shoulder and continued to laugh until she fell asleep.

Lost Childhood: Page 2

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