Meryl yawned, stretched and dropped lower in her seat. The Sand Dancer was probably the most comfortable vehicle in the entire planet, but even the softest pillow felt hard after sitting on it too long. She could feel her butt growing numb as she thought about it, until it almost felt like it was hurting. With a sigh, Meryl moved one cheek to the side and tried to sit that way, turning her face so that it pressed up against the headrest. Unfortunately, even that didn’t seem to help. Although… One eye opened as Meryl realized that for some reason, the car was stopped. Before, when it had been bouncing over the hills she hardly ever felt like her butt touched the seat, but now, now it was sitting as hard as a rock because they weren’t going anywhere. Why weren’t they moving?
Both eyes opened as she looked at Vash. He was sound asleep, facing her, his hands wrapped around his shoulders. She smiled; he looked just like a little boy. Pulling herself farther up into her seat, she turned to look back behind her. Milly and Wolfwood had their heads together as they leaned against one another, sound asleep. Well then, they had all needed a nap, hadn’t they? Getting up that early in order to leave town hadn’t done any of them a world of good after not being able to sleep properly with the news that had hit them.
It still didn’t make sense to her why Vash hadn’t woken her to change places. If he had been so tired, then why hadn’t he woken one of them? She looked down at him as his head slipped down toward the seat between them. He really didn’t look anything like an ace gunman, or humanoid typhoon, or a demon that had destroyed July City… When he was like this, even in that long red coat, with his sunglasses slipping off of his nose, he looked like he was a boy her age; a guy who should have been working as an apprentice to a Plant Engineer.
Meryl reached down and passed her fingers over his jaw line and smiled to herself. Vash already had a day’s worth of stubble growing and it felt scratchy against her fingers. But in a good way. It reminded her of her father… A not so pleasant thought. Meryl’s head turned and she looked out over the desert. The suns were starting to sink low in the sky. Vash must have stopped around dinnertime thinking they would eat, but since everyone was asleep he must have decided to take a nap too.
On the plus side, it meant that they weren’t in any danger, if he was sleeping so soundly like this. She looked back down at him and set a finger on one of his fallen locks and smoothed it back into place. How did he have this power over her? Never in her entire life had she ever fallen prey to a man before, not like this, no way! Milly’s father had taught her that the only safe man was one she could bring down with a shot from her derringer. She frowned; her own father had been an abusive drunk who’d beaten her mother near death. When she couldn’t take it any more, her mother had committed suicide and had taken the man with her, burning the house down where they slept.
Shaking her head, Meryl leaned back against the headrest. That’s all she remembered of them, how much she hated them for leaving her. Never again would she depend on another living soul. Not even the orphanage could keep her for long. But over time she had grown to count on Milly. Meryl closed her eyes. At least I’ll always have Milly. She was just about to try to shake herself from her dark mood when a warm hand wrapped around her fingers.
Meryl looked down at Vash. She hadn’t moved her hand after setting it on his head, and he’d reached up to hold it. One aqua eye was opened, looking up at her. “You okay Meryl?”
“Of course,” Meryl said suddenly, bringing a smile to her face even as she knew it was as fake as the ones that Vash often plastered on. “What makes you think that?”
“When you touch me…” Vash tapped a finger on her hand, “I can hear everything you think.”
“HEY!” Meryl pulled away suddenly as if she had been burned. She was burned! “How dare you read my mind? I thought we had a thorough discussion about such behavior, Mr. Stampede!” Vash sat up and slid the sunglasses back up his nose, then grabbed for her shoulders. Meryl tried to back away but there just wasn’t the room in the car that she’d hoped and he managed to pull her toward her.
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Vash said, planting a kiss on her forehead even as she tried to wrestle away from him. “And I normally have better control over it when you touch me, but I can’t help it when I’m sleeping!” He let her go gracefully and brought a finger to her cheek. Sometimes I hear words, but other times it’s more like I feel emotions.
Meryl blinked. Did I really just hear that in my head?
“Afraid so my dear,” Vash replied, pulling away from her. He leaned back against his door and pulled off his glasses. “I didn’t mean to pry, but you were sending off some pretty dark vibes, and when you do that it makes me worry.” His face was timid, questioning, worried, as he looked at her. Meryl didn’t want him to look at her like that. She was strong, self-assured and independent. She didn’t need a man to help her…
Violet eyes looked up at Vash and she sunk down in her seat. But she did need Vash. And he was worried about her. Why couldn’t she just let him be worried and spill her guts to someone who would listen to her? Meryl bit her lip as she looked at him, unable to speak, thinking desperately that maybe he would turn those cool green eyes away from her long enough for her to collect her thoughts. But he made no move to look away, and after a long while he reached out a hand and set it on her head. “Meryl, it’s okay. It will be okay, okay? I promise. You don’t have to tell me what’s bugging you, because even I don’t share everything that bothers me, but you know I’m here right?”
Meryl nodded slowly. “Vash…” She shook her head and looked down, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he said in return, his eyes finally turning now toward the back seat. “Hey, were you two awake the entire time?”
Head popping up, Meryl turned to look at Wolfwood and Milly. They each had one eye open for a mere second before closing them again, Wolfwood coughed out a fake snore and Milly mumbled to herself. “It’s too late, we’ve already seen you.”
Milly’s eyes opened, “Sorry Meryl.”
Wolfwood grinned but didn’t open his eyes, he snuggled down into Milly’s lap and her cheeks turned pink. “With all that racket, how can a man get any shut-eye?” He wrapped his arms around Milly’s waist, “Mmmm. You’re soft,” he replied and Milly was visibly startled, trying not to look down at him.
Meryl rolled her eyes, “If you don’t want him there…”
“No, it’s not that,” Milly said, putting a hand on the back of Meryl’s seat, “I just wanted to know why we’ve stopped. I thought you were in a hurry to get home.”
Vash nodded beside her, “You’re right. It was my fault, my stomach started grumbling hours ago.” He smiled brightly, “So do you think you could get out those donuts Meryl packed away?”
“Next you’ll be asking to break into our emergency rations too,” Meryl grumbled beside him. She opened the car door and stepped out of the Sand Dancer. Her legs were stiff and she stretched as she stood. Arms over her head she said, “Oh does that feel better!”
Milly scrambled out after her, leaving Wolfwood grumbling in the back seat. She stretched too and smiled, “Well, I guess…” Her back cracked three times as she reached up toward the sky and a look of contentment crossed her face. “I guess we can stop for awhile, I am pretty hungry too.”
“Eat, sleep, eat, sleep,” Nicholas mumbled in the back seat. He had pulled himself from his own seat to look out over the door at the girls. “If I’d known this trip was going to be so peaceful, I would have asked to have done it a lot sooner.” He grinned to himself and plopped around in the back seat, stretching his legs out toward the other side. “I could get used to life like this.”
Meryl tapped Wolfwood’s head, “You lazy bum, get out and help us get set up. This isn’t a vacation you know. We’re going into dangerous territory. Knives and Legato are waiting for us, or don’t you remember? You act as if we’re going to visiting or something!” Nicholas turned his head to look at her, and for a moment, she swore, it was as if he was saying they were just visiting friends. She backed away and looked at Milly, but the big girl already had her head in the trunk. Milly and Vash were rooting around in the rations, arguing over who got what. “Well, anyway,” Meryl continued after a moment, Wolfwood’s expression still bugging her, “We should be rested, well fed, and in top condition before we get there, so I guess maybe we’ll camp here for awhile before moving on.”
“Sounds good to me,” Wolfwood said from the back seat.
Milly looked out around the hood of the trunk, “Hey Meryl, the apples are already starting to shrivel from the heat, you’d better take one.” She tossed one out to Meryl who caught it. Milly tossed a second, “Here, and this one is for Mr…. Wolfwood.”
With a sigh, Meryl dropped the apple into Nicholas’ lap. He huffed and looked up at her, “Hey, watch where you drop that… Ooh, an apple!” He rubbed it on his collar and took a bite out of it. “Mmm, this is really good.”
“And good for you,” Milly said from the back. “Do you want anything else Meryl?”
Meryl had wandered up to the hood of the Sand Dancer and pulled herself up onto the hot metal. She sighed and looked down at her apple. They still had a few more days before they reached Tin Town, and her heart beat faster with every passing day. Meryl tried to remind herself that everything would be okay. Milly hadn’t had any of her feelings, and Vash seemed to be content in their pace, so he was right, right? She bit into her apple and chewed it slowly. Nodding to herself she thought, It will be.
Marshall John N. Wilson was the leading negotiator of the December City office. He stood six and a half feels tall, dark short hair, piercing black eyes and a voice that could carry over miles. His short assistant Gregory looked up at him behind thick spectacles. “Chief?”
“Yes Gregory,” John said, looking down at the little frog of a man. For some time now he’d tried to get another to replace him, but for some reason he had trouble keeping assistants. It wasn’t easy what with the dozens of criminals running around on Gunsmoke. Even in his jurisdiction there were millions of double dollars tied up in rewards, not to mention the Humanoid Typhoon running around just inside the walls of the small town a mile away.
“Are you going in to negotiate? Because I mean, we should have brought a lot more firepower, don’t you think? This is the man who took out July City thirty years ago.” Gregory bounced on his toes and pushed his spectacles up on his nose. They slid down moments later and he pushed them up again. Every day like that, up and down.
John shook his head, “If this is the same man that destroyed July City then he’d be older then me,” he said, fiddling with the golden star that resided on his chest. “I’ve been keeping tabs on him since I was ten years old. He’s bound to be sixty by now, so I really doubt the man in the picture is one and the same.” Unfortunately, Gregory didn’t seem to accept this as an answer and he pulled out the multiple pictures that he kept in a file folder. The folder always remained under his arm, and John had grown to accept it as a part of his person.
“But look, look at this Chief.” The little man pulled out the two photos. One was the photo used for the wanted posters, the other, the newest one, taken only a week or so before by Tin Town’s sheriff before he was brutally murdered. The sheriff, and the picture, showed up in December only little over a week before, both in pieces. Taped back together, the pictures did look surprisingly close. “Sure, I mean, in this one he’s got shorter hair, and the mole is on the wrong side but I’m thinking it has something to do with developing the negative improperly…”
Ripping the folder from his assistant’s hands, John used a discriminating eye as he looked over the photos. They were black and white, hardly clear and mostly illegible over use and time. He threw the papers back and shook his head, “The reporters wanted to hear that we had a suspect, but I don’t believe it’s the same man. They’re two different guys that look similar. Maybe it’s Vash’s son, who knows? But it can’t be the same guy. You look at him like he’s a frickin immortal or something!”
Gregory was shuffling through the papers looking scared. He opened his mouth to say something in rebuttal when his eyes fell on something past the marshall. John frowned and turned to see a car, a red Sand Dancer, pulling up to their encampment. He reached for his holster and unbuckled it. No one should have been out this way; didn’t they listen to the news? All the radio stations had been blaring the story about Vash the Stampede for days now. And he wasn’t expecting any back up.
The Sand Dancer pulled to a stop in front of the marshall and he set his hand on his gun. “Turn off your car folks. I can’t let you pass.” His eyes scanned the front seat where two women sat. A woman with short dark hair sat behind the wheel next to her blond partner. In the back seat sat a man in a black suit with a strange cross, and his… “Would you please get out of the car?”
John tried not to stare as the fourth passenger pulled himself out of the car. Gregory came scrambling up behind the Marshall huffing, holding his folder between his hands. John glanced down at him, grabbed the papers and shuffled through them for the pictures. When he found the wanted poster, he held it up against the tall, blond, red-coated man. “Vash,” he muttered to himself. As sure as he was that the two pictures were not the same man, he was sure this man was the same as the one in the wanted poster he had been staring at for the last thirty years since July City’s destruction.
“Thank goodness we found you, Marshall,” the dark haired woman said as she came out of the car to stand with the tall man. The other two were just as tall as they came to stand side by side in front of the car. The blond woman in particularly was much too tall; she was six feels tall, at least! “Tin Town, have you been able to secure it yet? Our family,” the woman continued, “Lives there and we came as soon as we heard the news.”
“Our?” Was all John could muster. His eyes never lost focus on the blond man.
The tall woman nodded, “Yes Sir, I’m Milly Thompson, and this is Meryl Stryfe. We grew up in this town and I’ve been very worried over their safety.” She nodded over her shoulder, “These are our boyfriends.”
“Boyfriends?” John said, shoving the wanted poster back at Gregory. “Do they have names?”
“Sure they do,” Ms. Stryfe said as she stepped forward. “Nicholas D. Wolfwood, and…” She narrowed her eyes as she looked at Vash, then turned and said, “Vash the Stampede.”
Gregory sputtered something next to John and he waved his hand to shush the short man. “Shut up Gregory. Go get me some coffee.” The little man hurried to comply and John put on his poker face. “Vash, eh? Well, I must say I can see a resemblance, but I’ve been told that Vash is residing in that town over there.” He pointed to the little town out in the desert. There were clouds of smoke billowing out from the roofs from recently burned houses. The little woman startled and the blond grabbed her around her shoulders in a hug to keep her from dashing toward the town. John looked at them; it sure did look like the women were telling the truth at least. Their eyes were filled with sadness as they looked at the destroyed town.
The man they called Vash came up to John and nodded. “I am Vash,” he said. “The man in that town is just posing as me.”
“According to the letter we were sent with the remains of the sheriff, it was him,” John argued. This really couldn’t be the man that destroyed July, could it? He wasn’t old at all, only about thirty, and didn’t look very imposing. Although he knew this was the guy, every pore of his body screamed it. “But you can tell me, if that’s not Vash, and you are, who is he?”
“His brother,” the man called Wolfwood said from the side. He had pulled out a cigarette and it sat unlit between his lips. “They’re twins.”
John nodded, well, that made some sense, but then a suspicion grew in his mind and he pulled his gun from its holster. Lifting it to the tall man’s chest, he said calmly, “So, I should just let you go join your brother? If you really are Vash the Stampede then I have to take you into custody for the murder of Count Revenant Vasquez and for the destruction of…”
Vash held up his palm to the gun barrel and looked at the marshall through yellow sunglasses. “I’m also the only one who can stop my brother. You can shoot me, but you’ll be vastly out-gunned if you don’t let my friends and I go into town and stop him.”
The marshall lowered his gun. Bullet holes, am I actually going to trust this guy? He holstered the gun and frowned. “You and your three little friends expect to just walk into that town and stop him, just like that? I’ve sent fifty men into that town and only one has returned alive. He only survived long enough to tell us that the others had been killed. This guy is dangerous. He’s requested a negotiator, and that’s why I’m here, because as far as we know, the women and children are still alive.”
Milly and Meryl looked at each other, and he could see the tall blond pull her arms tighter around her friend. She opened her mouth to speak and when he nodded she said, “Mr. Vash is the best negotiator ever Mr. Marshall. He’s never killed anyone and he’s always been able to get out of the tightest messes.”
“And what about July City? Or are you about to tell me your brother did that too?”
Vash pulled his sunglasses off and looked at John with the coldest green eyes. “I did that. I have no excuses that would satisfy you. If you have a grudge with me we can solve it later, but while we’re talking there are people who are in danger of their lives.” He put the sunglasses back on and waved a hand toward his companions, “Come on, we have to go.”
The group piled back into the car even as John tried to motion for them to stop. He didn’t bother to draw his gun, but instead just watched as Vash took the wheel, backed the car away from the camp and stopped for one last look at John. “We’ll come back when it’s safe for your men to move in, but don’t come until then.” He waved one gloved hand toward John and sped off in the direction of the town.
John stood watching them until Gregory came striding up with a cup of coffee in his hands. He sputtered, “Your, your, coffee, Chief. Uh, was that, was it Vash?”
“Yes, Gregory, I think it was.”
“And you let him go, even though he killed your family in July City? You’ve been trying to track him down since you were ten… Weren’t you? I mean, I thought that was why you became a Marshall, wasn’t it?”
The Marshall looked down at Gregory and grabbed the coffee from the little man’s hand. “Maybe so. But I’m going to trust him. My brother B.D. was right after all.”
Milly looked at the town and her heart was breaking. Everything she remembered was gone. The little grocery store was demolished. The library, the hardware store, even the saloon, was all gone. Farther into the town where the mayor’s mansion sat, there remained a grouping of buildings still intact. Her own home was at the other edge of town, beyond the mansion, and she wondered if the outlaws had left it alone as well. At least they had left the church. Her eyes focused on the tall spire of the church where a crow sat on the old silver cross.
How many days had she looked up at that old cross on her way to church? She felt that if it remained intact, then maybe the town still had hope. Yes, a town could always survive if they still had faith that good times would come again. Milly glanced over at Meryl, her eyes were focused not on the church, but down toward a burnt alleyway. “What is it Meryl?”
“I thought I heard something.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Wolfwood said behind them. Milly turned to look at him and grabbed his free hand. The other held the strap of his punisher. He looked down at their hands for a moment and squeezed it before adding, “In fact, this town is all too quiet, if you ask me.”
“He’s here,” Vash said, his gun was already out and loaded. “But I heard the noise too. I’ll go investigate.”
Wolfwood let loose of Milly’s hand, “Not without me you’re not.” He hurried off down the alley after Vash and the two girls looked at one another.
“We aren’t just going to let them go off without us are we?” Meryl said to her friend.
Milly pulled out her stun gun, “No way.” Taking the safety off her gun, she followed Vash and Wolfwood into the darkened alley. The smell of burnt wood and other materials stung her nose as they walked. The buildings had burnt very recently. For some reason they had not burned completely through, as if someone had put out the fires. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but something seemed false about this fire. After all, she and Meryl had spent their first two years at Bernadelli as fire investigators before managing to receive Risk Prevention status. They’d only worked that kind of work three months before being assigned to Vash. “This doesn’t feel quite right,” Milly said finally as her eyes fell on Meryl.
“You’re right,” Meryl replied. “It’s as if these were controlled fires. More like the damage of a high powered explosion that burned hot and fast but not long enough to take the buildings down to the ground.” Her violet eyes went from the building to Vash and Wolfwood. The boys had stopped to look at something and when they caught up, Vash was saying something not to the priest, but to the building.
“What is it, Mr. Vash?” Milly said as they approached. Vash stooped and pulled out a disheveled little boy from the rubble. His face was covered in soot, and tears left trails down his cheeks. “Oh my!” Milly went up to the Vash, dropping her stun gun and grabbed the little boy from her arms. “Are you okay? Oh my, you are brave! Are you hurt? Where is your family?”
The little boy sniffed and started to sob into Milly’s arms. Meryl stood next to her and frowned. “Well, Marshall Wilson was right, at least some of the children must be alive.” She put a comforting hand on the boy’s shoulder, “Where are the others? We’re here to help if you let us.”
“They’re… They’re in the church,” the little boy sputtered out. “Don’t take me back! I just want my mommy, I want to go home!” Milly’s eyes narrowed and she handed the boy over to Meryl.
Vash nodded when she turned to look at him. “Something isn’t right. This feels like Legato’s doing.”
Meryl rolled her eyes, “Come on, he’s just a little boy…”
“And you are Meryl Stryfe,” the little boy said suddenly. He looked up at Meryl with blank eyes and her mouth fell open. “Your friend there is Milly Thompson. We’ve come into town looking for you. We now know much about you,” the boy continued, and Meryl looked like she was about to drop him.
Milly shook her head, “He’s being controlled.”
“I knew it,” Vash said, “Legato. Show yourself.”
The little boy laughed. The sound echoed through the alley and out into the street. “Come find us. My Master awaits you. Your friend intrigues him and me. I want to play with her.” The boy’s vacant eyes fell on Milly. “We will leave this town and its inhabitants for Miss Thompson.”
Milly opened her mouth to speak, but it was Wolfwood who spoke first, “We won’t do anything of the sort.” He wrapped an arm around Milly and squeezed her. She looked into his face and could see a trace of worry in his expression. His embrace was tight, as if to let her go would mean allowing Yellow Eyes and Blondie to get her. She shivered in his grasp and he looked down at her. “It’s non-negotiable.”
“Ah, but that is what we wanted you here for,” Yellow Eyes continued through the boy. “Our request was for a negotiator. If you are not willing to cooperate,” the boy spasmed suddenly, his eyes rolled back in his head as Meryl watched on afraid.
“WAIT!” Milly screamed, grabbing the boy from Meryl. He shook and moaned as he was being torn apart from the inside out. She had to do something. Her power had to work for this, it couldn’t just leave her at the moment she needed it, could it? “Stop hurting the boy,” she said, closing her eyes and pulling internally at every thread of power she could muster within her. The strands were there, behind her eyes, they were like clear spider webs, fragile to the touch, and as she reached for them, they crumbled. Panting, Milly opened her eyes, the boy stopped shaking, but not from her own power, but from Yellow Eyes pulling back.
“Your powers have been cut off by my Master,” he said, a smile playing over the boy’s face. “You will not harm us again, but we will find uses for them. Join us and you shall know power that you have never felt before! We will be glorious together, My Pet.” Milly gasped for air, she couldn’t pull the power… She couldn’t touch it. Even now she could feel it withdrawing inside of her until she felt her insides would be pulled out with it. He was gaining control. The boy fell from her arms to the ground. He stood up, dusted himself off and laughed. “Now you see what we can do to you. Join us and it will stop.”
“NO!” Vash said, his eyes shining dangerously behind his sunglasses. His own power was rippling over his skin. He turned to Wolfwood; “We must find them before it’s too late. He’s in the mansion, I can feel it.”
Wolfwood nodded, although Milly could tell through the pain in her head that he was reluctant to leave her. Meryl reached out for her friend, “What are we going to do?”
“Go,” Milly replied, breathless, still in control of her mouth. Yellow Eyes was powerful, but she still had something, some power remained within her that could fight. “I’ll be alright… But you’ll have to move quickly.” Milly sunk to her knees, reaching for Meryl’s hand. Her friend grabbed it tightly, unable to do anything but watch. “Stay with me Meryl. He can’t make me move yet, I’ve still got control of my body…”
Wolfwood reached a hand out toward them, hesitated, and instead swung his cross punisher from his shoulder, clicking a buckle that unwrapped the menacing gun. “Don’t worry Milly, we’ll be back soon.” He and Vash ran from the alley and headed in the direction of the mansion.
Milly looked after him until her eyes fell on the boy. His eyes were focused suddenly. He screamed and dashed from the alley. “Wait,” Milly extended her hand, the searing pain in her head still numbing, but she could move. She looked up at Meryl, “We have to follow him. He’ll get killed.”
“But we should stay here,” Meryl said, “Vash would want us to stay put.”
“And when have you ever listened to Mr. Vash?” Milly said, closing her eyes as Yellow Eyes’ broke another barrier in her head. How had they blocked her powers? What had they learned in this town that had given them the power to control her? She felt helpless now. Her only hope was that Vash and Nicholas would be fast enough to stop him before he broke into her mind and raped her like he had Meryl. Weakly, she managed to get to her feet, picking up her stun gun as she did so. Meryl stuttered a complaint but Milly shook her head, suddenly wishing she had a more dangerous gun. “He’s going to the church. Even Blondie wouldn’t desecrate the building. You saw. I think the other children are there too.”
Meryl nodded with a breath, pulling a derringer out of her cloak. “I hope you’re right Milly, because I have this strange feeling this is a trap.”
“You and me both,” Milly admitted. “But we can’t just stay here and do nothing. I’m sure Vash and Nicholas would understand.” She smiled to herself, before wincing as another strand of power broke in her head. “What do you know, I managed to say his name without stuttering.”
Meryl held Milly’s hand even as she twitched from the pain of Legato entering her mind. Meryl knew what it felt like, but she hadn’t been able to hold up a fight. She closed her eyes feeling Milly’s grasp weaken as the neared the church. Hurry up, Vash, she pleaded silently. The church was just as she remembered it, tall stained glass windows set in the white washed walls, dark wooden shingles, and that tall spire that reached toward God. Meryl shivered, where was God in all of this while her friend was suffering? Milly would say he was the only thing saving her now, Meryl knew her too well.
The doors were wide open, and Meryl held her derringer out in front of her. “I don’t like the looks of this.” Milly dropped to her knees and Meryl gasped, “Milly!”
“I’m all right Meryl,” Milly managed to say, scrambling to her feet again and climbing the steps of the church. “We have to move on.” Meryl watched helplessly, wondering whether Milly was being controlled by Legato even now. She seemed to be herself, but with every step Milly clutched her head in pain and jerked as if she were a puppet.
Meryl dashed up the stairs after her and passed Milly through the church doors. She froze. Milly came behind her and set a hand on Meryl’s shoulder. Her fingers dug into Meryl’s skin and that is the moment Meryl realized her friend had finally lost control. “Milly…”
“I’m sorry Meryl,” she said suddenly, pushing Meryl forward into the church. The doors slammed behind them. Meryl turned to see two children standing guard in front of the doors. Her eyes returned to the front of the church where a tall man with short white blond hair stood behind the pulpit. Milly’s hands pushed Meryl toward the man, and reluctantly Meryl went.
“My negotiators have arrived,” Knives said.
Vash clutched his head as they reached the mansion. He screamed in agony, grasping for an end to the sudden pain that seared through his skull. Wolfwood stood nearby, watching in horror, until the gunman righted himself. “Is that Legato? Is he here?” His reply came as a sullen nod.
“He’s here all right…” Vash cocked his gun and threw a kick at the doors. They flew open, revealing an empty foyer. “Legato!”
“Maybe he’s upstairs…” Wolfwood trailed off and pointed up a tall staircase that led up to the second level. Vash’s eyes focused toward the direction the priest pointed and fell on the white-clad, blue haired demon. “Uh, maybe I should rephrase that,” Wolfwood said slowly.
“You’ve arrived,” Legato remarked, a smile spread across his lips and up through his one visible yellow eye. “But you are too late. My Master is taming my pet as we speak.” His smile disappeared and Wolfwood fell to the floor. Vash lifted his gun toward Legato and fired off a shot. It grazed the man’s cheek, and Legato put his hand up to the scratch. He looked at the blood curiously, “Now that wasn’t very a very good housewarming gift.”
His eye narrowed and Wolfwood got to his feet. He opened the grenade launcher and pressed it against Vash’s back. Vash’s eyes narrowed in response and Wolfwood’s gun lowered. “Hey, are you doing this Vash?” Wolfwood said hesitantly, obviously not liking the fact that he wasn’t in control of his own body.
Vash nodded, “You don’t know whom you are dealing with,” he said to Legato.
“My Master’s brother may be strong,” Legato purred, “But your friend is also under his control. Chapel isn’t allowed to kill you, are you?” Legato winked at Wolfwood and Vash’s eyes narrowed.
“Is that true, Wolfwood?”
The priest bit his lip, “Sorry Needlenoggin. I couldn’t exactly come up with a good time to tell you. But I wouldn’t do anything to harm Milly or Meryl… You have my word.” The tip of his gun lowered until it touched the floor of the mansion. “Where are they, Bluesummers?”
“Do you think I’d tell you?” Legato waved a hand toward the door. “My Master has given me strict orders to keep you away from them until he has finished the negotiations.” Slowly, Legato took a step down the stairs and sat down. He kept that one menacing yellow eye on them at all times. Vash frowned, turning, knowing that Legato wouldn’t be able to kill him, Knives wouldn’t allow it.
But as he turned, Wolfwood’s gun lifted again. “I’m not doing this…” Nicholas said, a worried expression crossing his face as his finger tightened on the trigger.
“You won’t be leaving,” Legato said from behind them. “Not until my Master is finished.”
Vash growled, “And what makes you think that I’ll just let him ‘negotiate’ while I stand here?” He pointed his gun at Wolfwood’s shoulder, “I’m sorry about this.”
“Me too,” Wolfwood said, closing his eyes. “Do what you have to do Needlenoggin.” Vash fired and the bullet ripped through Nick’s shoulder. Blood splattered against the white doors as he fell backwards. The grenade launcher fired, and debris fell down around Legato as he laughed. Vash ran from the mansion. He had to get to the church. He had to save Milly and Meryl. Wolfwood understood that, even to the point of being shot. Vash flinched at the thought, he hadn’t wanted to hurt his friend, but had there been any other way? He shook his head as he ran, this was not the time to be dealing with logistics; he had to get to Knives before he destroyed Milly and Meryl. He would deal with the priest later.
Milly looked up at Knives, her hands, her body, her mind, none of it was hers to control now. It was as if she were a passenger in a car, unable to do anything other than watch. When the final threads, the final barriers had been broken within her mind, she realized it had not been Legato controlling her. It had been Knives. His power was as great as Vash had told her, and although she had not believed him, now she did. Know she knew without a doubt that the only reason she’d been able to take him down was because of the element of surprise. And the fact that somehow he’d figured out where her power came from.
“You’d like to know, wouldn’t you?” Knives said slowly, leaning out over the pulpit, blue eyes taking a long cold look at the girls. Meryl shivered in front of Milly and she wanted to hug her friend, to do something to end her fear like she had before. At least Legato was not here, he was occupied elsewhere. That man had mind raped Meryl, not this man. This man would not lower himself to do such menial tasks such as that. “Exactly,” Knives said in reply to Milly’s thoughts. “But this is much more interesting, because now I have you, and we can sit down for a chat.”
Meryl quaked, her knees buckling. “What the..?” She sat down on the ground and Milly followed. Knives was controlling them both now. It didn’t seem to bother him at all. The power came easily to him. He smiled and stepped down from the stage to kneel in front of them. “Vash, where are you?” Meryl said between her teeth.
Knives winked at her. “Oh he’ll be here shortly, I assure you. My brother is too much of a goody-goody to leave me alone with anyone for long.” His hand reached out and he touched Milly’s chin, “Now, be a good girl and agree to be Legato’s pet. I’ll let her go free if you do.”
“Never!” Milly spat, having control over her mouth suddenly. “I don’t know how you managed to block my power, but the moment I get it back I’ll rip your…” Her mouth closed and she couldn’t speak. Instead she thought it fiercely …off and shove it down your throat.
“My goodness, what a tongue you have,” Knives hissed. “Good thing your little friend didn’t hear that last comment. She’s quite the spitfire.” He sat back on his haunches and looked them over. “I’m not sure what Vash sees in you. You’re roaches to me. My poor brother has been greatly deceived by your kind for a very long time. Has he told you how long?” Knives nodded as he retrieved the information from their heads. “He’s told you, and you told her. How quaint. And yet you still follow him around as his obedient little whore? Pitiful. But what’s more pitiful is this loss of memory you have.”
He squinted and pulled Milly’s face toward him. If I could just open my mouth I’d… Milly thought, fighting through the darkness that was even now starting to consume her mind. She had a feeling that Meryl was doing the same thing, calling for Vash, willing him to come and save them. I wanted to save her, but now I can’t, I’m not strong enough. Where are you Nicholas? What’s taking you and Mr. Vash so long?
“Legato is holding them for me,” Knives answered. He smirked, “You are very intriguing to me. And where your powers come from, even more so. Especially since you seem to be as out of place in time as my brother and I.” Knives leaned forward and Milly couldn’t close her eyes as he planted a long kiss on her mouth. No, only Nicholas is allowed to do that! “I want that power for my own, but I can’t just yet, you aren’t ready.” He pulled away from her and looked at Meryl.
“I don’t have much time. So I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you your powers back. You can go find the answers you are looking for and report them back to me. Then, when I am satisfied, I’ll take what I want from you.” Knives’ eyes narrowed, “He’s on his way.”
“And what…” Meryl said suddenly, her voice returned, “Makes you think that we’ll do anything you say! Vash will stop you…”
Knives lunged for Meryl and pushed her to the ground. Milly screamed, “No!” Knives threw a glance at her and quieted her again. He looked at Meryl through those cold blue eyes, and ran his tongue across her cheek.
“Because you are going to leave Vash. I know how he adores you… But if you don’t, every minute that she is around him, her powers will grow until they consume her.” Knives pushed away from her and stood up. “Your power comes from my kind. Now that I have opened the barrier of time, you will become one of us the longer you stay around us.” He shrugged, “I’m not actually sure if it will work, maybe it will just kill you.” Knives laughed, “Either way, you’ll have to stay away from Vash and I will get what I want.”
“You evil sadistic son of a…” Meryl spit out before he cut her off.
“This has been amusing, but I have to go. I’m not ready to deal with my brother just yet.” He nodded to them and everything turned black.
Wolfwood climbed out of the pile of debris. His shoulder was killing him, but he’d live. Legato had long ago disappeared, off to follow his master to the ends of the earth. Nicholas sighed, he had meant to tell Vash about his part in the whole thing, why Knives never seemed to bother him like he did the girls. The timing had never been right. And now Vash knew and he would tell Meryl and undoubtedly Milly as well. Milly. Wolfwood thought, his heart aching even as he thought her name. Would she accept the fact that he’d been working for Knives this whole time? It wasn’t as if… He wasn’t a bad guy; he wasn’t like Legato, or the other Gung Ho Guns… His job was to protect Vash, so could he really be considered a bad guy?
Hauling his cross punisher to his good shoulder, Wolfwood hobbled outside. The pain from Vash’s bullet throbbed and he grimaced. At least he hadn’t shot him in the leg; otherwise he might have bled to death, unable to crawl out from the mansion’s remains. But where were they? It had been a good hour since Vash left to save the girls. If Milly knew about his condition, wouldn’t she have come running?
As for that, why hadn’t she come running after sending Knives flying like she had before? Surely her powers would work for him now too, right? She loved him back, didn’t she? Wolfwood frowned; maybe she didn’t have the same feelings for him like he’d thought. He’d never been good with girls. Not like he’d had much of a chance, training under Evergreen after killing his stepfather had taken every moment he had. There was no room for women, even when he’d gone in search of Vash. His life had led up to one thing, protect Needlenoggin at all costs, and don’t let anything get in his way.
But he loved Milly. Didn’t matter that they had been traveling with her only for a few months. He wanted to be with her, to hold her and protect her. Now, he didn’t know where she was, leaving Vash to protect her for him. Shit, he swore to himself, why couldn’t I have been the one to go save her? I shouldn’t have left her alone. As he walked, he could feel the blood dribbling down his arm. At least then maybe I wouldn’t have gotten shot either.
With a sigh, he continued on down the street to the church. The town was empty. If there had been survivors they were all gone now. He shook his head; Knives probably hadn’t left anyone alive. There would be a pile of bodies somewhere courtesy of Legato. Would Milly’s family be among the bodies? He cringed at the thought of them coming all the way here, unable to save the huge pile of relatives she’d been writing to on a weekly basis…
His eyes fell on something nearby, and Wolfwood propped his punisher against the doorframe of a building. The Tin Town Post Office was still intact. “Will wonders never cease?” Clutching his shoulder with his now free hand, Wolfwood wandered into the building. At least he’d find out where all of those letters had been going. There had to be a box somewhere… His eyes scanned the long rows of shelves behind the counter. Little towns like this one always kept the mail until the family came into town to pick it up. The names… Nicholas scanned the names until he found Thompson, near the bottom, and he had to bend over the desk to see it.
There, in the box, sat hundreds of letters, neatly stacked, covered in dust. His heart sank. “No wonder she hadn’t been getting any mail.” Wolfwood shook his head sadly, and turned to lean against the desk. He pulled his hand off his shoulder and looked down at the blood that covered it. Without regard for his once clean shirt, he reached into his breast pocket for a cigarette. Setting it to his lips, he returned to the pocket for a match, but found none, and settled for the dry paper taste on his tongue.
With a sigh, his hand back on his shoulder, Wolfwood staggered from the building, pulled his cross back over his shoulder and started walking to the church. He wouldn’t tell her. She’d be heartbroken if she found out no one had come to collect the mail in, was it a year, two years? How much mail did they keep before emptying the box, only for it to start filling up again? Had she never received a letter the entire time? Wolfwood shook his head, he knew when Vash had mentioned the absence of letters that something was strange, but what did it mean?
“I’ll get her to tell me,” Nicholas said to himself. “I’ll tell her the truth and get her to tell me what’s going on, just like I should have back at the apartment. If there is one thing I know, one can not have a relationship without being honest with one another!” He smiled to himself and continued on his slow bleeding walk.
Vash closed his eyes, holding back the tears that were desperately trying to escape. His hands pressed up against the pew where he sat, knuckles sore from the pressure. They were gone. He couldn’t explain what had happened, how they disappeared from his senses, but one minute he could feel them within the church, and the next… Vash choked, tears cascading down his cheeks. His strength melted away from him and his body shuddered. “Meryl…” he sobbed. “Where are you?”
The moment Vash had stepped into the church he knew that Knives had been there. Feathers prickled over his arms and back, the power radiated off his brother like heat off the desert sand. Vash could only try to control his power when he was around Knives, and often times without success. The first time his power had been released was in July City. Since then, he had only just come to understand it little by little. He was a plant, he knew what he was capable of, but other than that he knew nothing. Where did they come from? Did they have a limit to their power? Would Knives really be able to destroy every human on the planet?
But even as the feathers pushed their way through his coat and spread down his arms, he knew that Knives had done something terrible. He’d used his power to do something, but he couldn’t tell what. All he knew, was as he fell to his knees in the empty church, was that Meryl and Milly were gone, and he didn’t know where they were.
Two huge wings sprang from Vash’s back as he crawled to his feet and managed to slump into a pew. “God…” Vash looked up at the figure suspended from the cross behind the pulpit. “Where are they?” For a long time he stared, trying to hear the answers in his head, tried to hear Meryl’s voice, calling out for him, somewhere out in the desert, like he had before. Shuttering, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the picture he’d taken from Meryl’s apartment. She probably would have been angry if she knew he’d taken the picture of her in the bathing suit. “Where are you?” He clutched the picture to his chest and leaned forward on his seat.
“You look like an angel praying,” Wolfwood said behind him, dropping his cross to the ground. He stumbled down the aisle and sat down next to Vash. “Where’s Milly?”
The tears rolled down Vash’s face even harder as he tried to regain control of his powers. He couldn’t, he wouldn’t, he didn’t want to. Somewhere within him he knew he held the power to find them. He had to… But something was different this time. Before he could track Meryl easily, but now, it was as if Knives had taken them, not far away, but to a different time, to… “Meryl…” Vash cried out again, and he pounded his fist into the pew. The wood shattered and flew in all directions.
Wolfwood jumped away, “Wow, Needlenoggin, what’s wrong? Where are the girls?” He turned and looked back the way he’d come, his eyes fell upon two dead children at either side of the door. He shook his head and a tear ran down his cheek. Vash spun, standing now, and put his hands on Wolfwood’s lapel. His huge ominous wings hovered over them. “Where are they?! If you really are working for Knives, then tell me where he took them, where he took Meryl!” He thrust the picture towards Wolfwood, “I can’t find them, this is all I have!”
“I…” the priest shook his head, “I don’t know Vash. I thought they were with you. I let you shoot me so you could go protect them, or have you forgotten?” He held up his blood stained hand and Vash fell to the floor in front of him.
With a sigh, Wolfwood knelt next to him, “You’ve got to get a hold of yourself.” He set his hand on Vash’s shoulder, “Just look at you, you can’t even control you powers enough to remain yourself, little lone find the girls.”
Vash’s eyes lifted to Wolfwood’s. For once, he was right. The priest did really care about them; it wasn’t just his brother’s orders. Nicholas loved Milly and the expression on his face told Vash that he wouldn’t be able to find her without his help. They needed each other to find the girls. They would save them, they would bring them back, and they would stop Knives. “You’re right,” he said finally, allowing his power to settle, to collect, and to pull it back within him. The feathers disappeared, and he slumped upon the floor.
“That’s better,” Wolfwood said, and grimacing, he looked down to the crumpled photograph of Meryl. “Hey that’s weird, what’s she wearing?”
“What do you mean? It’s a swim suit.”
Wolfwood thrust it under Vash’s nose, “You’re talking Earth-speak, my friend. What’s a swim suit?”
“Ah…” Vash grabbed the photograph and something occurred to him as he looked at it. This picture of Meryl wasn’t from this planet. She was standing in a pond, trees reflected on the surface of the water. Only the very rich were able to have swimming pools on this planet, but this was an honest to goodness pond… “This is from Earth.”
The priest stood up, “So you’re saying…”
“I’m not sure, ” Vash replied, looking at Nicholas with only one eye open. His eye settled on Wolfwood’s bleeding shoulder, and he stood as well. “We don’t have time for this, we should get that wound sewed up.” He sighed and added, “Sorry about that.”
Wolfwood nodded, “Yes, I know. Still, I wish you hadn’t shot me.”
“And I wish you had told me the truth about Knives.”
“Guess it’s my turn to apologize,” he started to continue when Vash pulled them both to their feet and picked up the cross punisher. The gun was so shiny he could see his own reflection in the steel. “Hey, you don’t have to take that…” He didn’t look at Wolfwood, his reflection had startled him, there were more black hairs now; they seemed to be popping up every time he used his powers. With a tug, he pulled each one out and sighed.
“Least I can do.” He wandered out the door and down the church steps. Wolfwood fell into step behind him. “First thing we do is get the car, get you sewed up…” His words trailed off as he looked down the street. “Uh, Wolfwood?”
The priest stopped beside him, “Yeah Needlenoggin, what is it?”
“Didn’t we park the car over there?”
Wolfwood’s jaw dropped open, “Your girlfriend took my car again, didn’t she?”
Vash looked at him, “Who said it was your car?”
“Okay, we lifted it together, so it’s our car, but that still doesn’t account for the fact that Meryl has taken it again, does it?” Wolfwood sighed. “At least now we’ll know how to track her, just follow the tire tracks.”
The humanoid typhoon nodded, “Now all we have to do is find another car…”
Rain pounded at the windows. Soft tapping rain slid down the glass in streaks washing away the endless sand. Sand. Hills, valleys, cliffs and canyons of sand and rocks spread as far as the eye could see. Rain did not fall here. Clouds in the atmosphere never filled with enough moisture to create storms. They billowed up during the night and disappeared by late afternoon. But the sound… The sound of rain… How could it be raining?
Meryl’s eyes snapped open and her head swung toward the windows. The two smallest moons were going down. It was almost morning; the sky was already brightening with the oncoming suns. But the rain… Where had the rain come from? There had never been rain on this planet. She’d never heard it before. But Meryl remembered. How? How could she remember something that never happened? Sure, she’d heard of the stories from old Earth, but how could she remember something she’d never heard?
She rolled over, the dream having completely woken her now. Meryl had been losing sleep lately, but most of the time it was because of the thoughts still locked deep within her brain. She had scars, that no matter how Vash and Milly had tried, they would never be able to remove. Legato had done this to her, and he was still out there, somewhere, waiting to get to them… Night after night she lost sleep, tossing and turning, those yellow eyes appearing every time she closed her eyes.
Milly was awake next to her, her eyes were focused out the windows as well, and slowly she turned to look at Meryl. “You awake Meryl?”
“Yeah, I am.” Meryl pulled herself up to a sitting position. “I was dreaming.”
“You too?” Milly’s eyes went to the windows again. “It was raining, wasn’t it?”
Meryl’s eyes went wide for a moment until she remembered her friend’s strange talent. As of late it was starting to grow stronger. It was impossible, and yet… Knives had told them he would give her powers she never imagined… And her friend’s powers had become more powerful, but she knew that they would eventually kill her, or turn her into a plant herself, if they couldn’t stop it. “There’s never been rain here, Milly.”
“I know.” The big girl’s normally happy expression grew distant. Meryl had noticed this particular thing had started to occur more often as well after they had left the boys two weeks before. “Do you think we’re doing the right thing? I mean, leaving Mr. Vash and Nicholas? I really think they could have helped.”
“We can’t very well get rid of them, they’ll follow in time. But the longer we’re around Vash the harder it is for you to control your power, you know that.” Meryl looked down at the blankets. They were brown with white polka dots. Who had decorated this place anyway? She shook her head; this wasn’t the time to allow her thoughts to stray. There was too much at stake.
“I guess you’re right,” Milly said, her normal expression returning. “But he loves you, and I know he misses you greatly.”
“Hey, don’t you think I know that?” Meryl closed her eyes. “It doesn’t matter. What matters now are finding out what Knives knows, tracking down what’s killing you and stopping it for good. Then we’ll deal with Vash and Wolfwood… I know you miss him too. ”
“But what will we do if they catch up?” Milly’s eyes fell. Neither of them had wanted to leave Vash and Wolfwood behind, but they had lost time somehow. One moment they’d been in the church, and the next moment in an empty house at the edge of town, the Sand Dancer parked out front, engine on. A voice spoke in Meryl’s head, telling her that this is where they thought they’d grown up, but it was as if no one had been there in years… Then Legato forced them to leave, take the Sand Dancer and drive east… “They might not trust us knowing there might be something dark behind it… They know that Yellow Eyes has controlled us before…”
“Legato, Milly. He has a name.”
Milly lowered her head, “I don’t want to say it.”
Meryl sighed; the truth was she didn’t want to speak it either. Vash would have told them if they were afraid of his name that would give him all the more power to control their minds. What worried Meryl was that she’d never truly been afraid of him before, until he appeared all too suddenly behind the Post Office clerk, one yellow eye showing beneath the dark hair… She shivered. “Legato Bluesummers, isn’t as powerful as you are now, Milly … we can’t be afraid.”
Milly bit her lip. “I’m not Meryl. But there’s a lot of power in a name, and I’m afraid if I say it he’ll visit us all that much sooner.” She pulled the blankets up around her and hugged them tightly. “Meryl?”
“Do you think we’ll ever be happy?”
Meryl started to say no, but stopped herself. The truth was, now that she loved someone and he loved her back, anything had become possible. Right? “We will Milly.”
“I hoped you’d say that,” Milly settled back into bed and said, “And Meryl?”
“Do you think we’ll find out what really happened to us?”
Meryl looked at the last moon as it set, “I don’t really know Milly.”