|Editor's Note: Catherine didn't give me an author's note this time around so I thought I'd do one for her. This story is a Milly/Wolfwood tie-in story that bridges the gap between Double Helix by Deleria and Blackfire & Gunsmoke by Susan-chan. It's a terrific story taking place in the months between. On a personal note I just love this story!! I was amazed at how well Catherine was able to bridge two different stories by using such an interesting point of view - her best work by far!! *GRINS* Thank you Catherine! (And if you like this one - make sure you read her other extras and stories on fanfiction.net under her Themis56 name... did I plug you good Catherine? ^_~)
All hospitals were alike. Milly was certain of that. In her brief existence in this world she had visited more infirmaries than was really necessary or beneficial for anyone’s mental health and every one of them--from the drab little clinic buildings back home in the boondocks to the gleaming white buildings in places like December--were incredibly depressing. They all had a similar layout, too, with the healthier patients up front or on the bottom floors while the bad cases were shoved away out of sight. The small rooms and tiny beds were bad enough, but having to wind ever deeper to the back of the place through twisty warren halls was downright claustrophobic. She eyed the low ceiling cracks in consternation. If this was the idea of making a place for sick people to get better, it was bad way to go about it, in her opinion. Why was everything so small and dark? A really good idea for a hospital, she thought, was to put them all outside and let them have some air and sunshine so that they wouldn’t be alone with their sad musings-did they want to give their patients the rickets or what? It wasn’t healthy.
Seeing where this all was going, Milly puffed out her cheeks, rubbing at her heavy eyes. The hard plastic of her chair hurt her back and the magazines in this waiting room were all old issues from five years ago. But it was not as if she was in the mood for reading. Her thoughts, always a bit flighty, were completely shot. She could not focus. Not for very long, anyway. How could she try to read when such awful things were happening in the rooms behind the swinging double doors not half a minute’s walk away? The flash of scalpels, metal being dug out of Mr. Wolfwood’s own living flesh; she wished that she knew what they were doing to him. She was no good in this kind of situation. She needed to either be bringing comfort to someone or being comforted.
Unfortunately, the only other person in the waiting room would not allow for either situation. Mr. Vash leaned back in his own uncomfy seat, looking more bored than anything else. Milly had no clue about why he was still around after the callous treatment he had given the priest as he lay wounded and helpless, but she was glad for the company. He had remained with her after all, staying behind when the doctors had wheeled Wolfwood away into emergency surgery. He hadn’t spoken much but it was better than being alone. She idly wondered what time it was; there was no clock in the room. It had felt like ages since Mr. Wolfwood had been taken away.
Her head jerked up at the sudden intrusion of a doctor’s footsteps. His face was grim and for a brief moment Milly knew dread, but with a second look it seemed that his eyes did not hold the news of death. But the news was not good either. She wrung her hands expectantly, looking up at him for the report.
“We’ve done the best that we can. He’s in poor shape, but at the moment he’s stable. We managed to remove all intrusive objects from his body and stop the bleeding. Unfortunately, Miss, Mr.-” he glanced down at the chart he held, “Wolfwood-has lost quite a bit of blood even with transfusions. He’s quite weak and in a comatose state. That lack of blood, compounded with all the bruises and contusions he received in whatever you people went through, has put great strain on his body. There is a chance he might not make it through the night. And if he does, I cannot guarantee that he will wake up. It all rests on his own body’s healing abilities now.”
Milly allowed a few seconds to digest the news, then nodded her understanding. “He’s one of the strongest people I know. If anyone can make it, he can.”
“It’s good that you have confidence in him. But, Miss, while I’m not saying you should give up hope, I don’t want to inspire any false confidence. If you had come only just a bit later, I assure you that he would be dead.”
“May we see him?” She asked.
“You may. We’ve put him in the ICU now. As I said, there’s nothing more that we can do for him except keep him comfortable and monitor his blood levels. He’s not conscious, of course, but it wouldn’t hurt for you two to be with him.”
The doctor ushered them into the ward where the direst cases were kept; I.V drips and beeping consoles everywhere. There were no real wall partitions in this section; bed areas were closed off with portable curtains. Everything was much quieter here, people speaking in voices not over a hush as if the sound would make a bad effect on the sick. The doctor brushed away the curtains of Wolfwood’s makeshift room.
Wolfwood lay inclined on his bed. Milly had seen him like that before, in the floating colony’s infirmary, but then he didn’t have the tubes stuck in his nose and his breathing was not so harsh, nor his complexion so sickly. It was fortunate that he didn’t have to be on a respirator, that much Milly was thankful for. She didn’t want to think of such a strong person relying on machinery just to fulfill the very basics of life. She hated to see him like this, so weak and sick and helpless. It was wrong.
“I’d like to stay with him,” she said.
The doctor gave her a look that spoke volumes about what he considered her mental state to be but nodded nonetheless. His mouth cracked open and he squawked, “Where’s your friend?”
Milly turned her head this way and that to see what had upset him so; it took her a few moments to realize that Vash had indeed gone missing. She wanted to yank out her hair, giving out a groan. She understood why Mr. Priest had sometimes been so testy with Mr. Vash in the past-his little habit of disappearing without so much as a by-your-leave was absolutely maddening. After a few breaths to calm down the scream of angst just begging to be released, she decided that she was no match for Mr. Vash and that she shouldn’t worry about what he was doing, trusting that he had his own drum beat to follow.
After assuring the doctor that the departure wasn’t of grave concern, she pulled up another uncomfortable chair next to the bed, staring down at the poor soul before her. Wolfwood’s skin was covered in dark bruises, so dark they were almost black. The wounds had been stitched up as neatly as the doctors had been able, but the surgical threads stood out, ugly, against the unhealthy pallor of his skin, and deep dark circles hung under his closed eyes. And the hospital gown they’d thrust him in was pea-soup green. She clenched her jaw. Here Mr. Priest was, so broken and helpless, and she had gotten out without a scratch, because he had wanted to protect her. It was simply not fair…
As Milly stared at him, she had the awareness that her innards didn’t tense up even in the slightest in anger or hurt as they had used to at his presence; they had still shuddered a little even when they had come to their truce prior to meeting the Body, trying to clean the slate and let things between them return to what they’d used to be like. But this time she had felt nothing of the sort, like a canker inside that had healed over. He had suffered too much-no matter how mad she’d been at him before, nobody with the tiniest bit of decency in them deserved this kind of pain. He had been so miserable for the longest time, far too long-it was out of joint. She could hold nothing against him now. For the first time since she learned everything she had peace in her soul where it concerned him. She felt…
Determination raced through her veins, steeling them. She reached out and cupped her hand on top of his. “I’ll take care of you,” she promised.
A sound at the doorway tore away her attention from the priest and she looked up to see Vash set down the Punisher and their bags in a corner of the room. “Looks like we’ll be here for a while,” he grunted. Milly couldn’t manage a smile but did feel some of her anxiety siphon away with his arrival. No matter what, she always knew that despite all the danger he attracted, staying next to Mr. Vash was actually one of the safest places a body could be, right in the eye of the Typhoon where everything was clear.
“That’s a good idea,” she said rather absently, standing up and brushing off the sand from the Punisher’s canvas wrapping. “Mr. Priest will need a new suit when he wakes up.” The old nickname came out without her thinking. It aggravated her when Mr. Vash arched a brow ever so slightly at the word ‘when.’
Vash did not retrieve a chair for himself but reclined right down on the frigid floor, arms crossed behind his head for a pillow, eyes closing. “You should get some rest yourself. If you can sleep over the sound of that damned beeping, that is.” She opened her mouth to protest the very notion of sleeping when Wolfwood was in such dire need of a support group-she firmly believed that comatose people could on some level understand spoken words and that it might make the priest more at ease if someone stayed up with him, talked to him.
Using that uncanny sense that made Milly wonder sometimes if the Plant had some sort of mental powers, Vash answered the unspoken reply. “There’s no good in depriving yourself of sleep on his account. You can yap at him in the morning if you want, but for now it’s better if you try to rest. We’ve both had a hard day and you’ll be in no condition to coddle anyone if you don’t take care of yourself. You’re right next to him, you’ll know if something happens.”
Leave it to the mention of sleep to point out how tired she was. Milly fought a valiant struggle against the jaw-splitting yawn building up inside her, willing her teeth to glue shut, but she couldn’t do it. Interpreting the yawn as a concession of defeat Milly sulkily trudged to her suitcase and opened it, rifling through her few articles to find the fluffiest piece of clothing she owned to use as a cushion/pillow; a night in the chair would be unbearable without some padding. As her hands sifted through the cloth something dropped from one of her sleeves, falling to a soft landing that made no sound. She would not have noticed it if it hadn’t glinted a strange way in the light. Milly picked it up and the world wavered before her eyes at the prick of pain in her finger and at the recognition of what the item was.
A sewing needle-thin, bright red nail.
Memories unbidden of the Crimson Nail tore into her mind. It had been he . . . she? …who had hurt Wolfwood so badly as he was protecting her from those nails. That cruel, sick smile that grinned the widest when blood was spilled and people were in pain. Milly threw the nail into the trash can and sucked at the drop of blood budding out from the prick on her finger, face screwed up in the image of a little girl’s. If she never saw Elendira again, it would not be long enough.
“Relax,” Vash’s voice cut through the fear. “They don’t go after wounded prey. It’s definitely not their style.”
Giving up hope on ever learning how Mr. Vash did things like that, Milly sighed and selected a shirt for her pillow, placing it against the between the curve of her back and the chair. She tilted her chin to rest down on her chest; trying to block out all external stimuli to get some much needed reprieve. She really was dead tired. But even with Vash’s assurances, she had nightmares, dreaming of sharp, deadly nails that fell down from the sky like bloody rain upon them all.
Two days later Milly found her fitful chair-sleep startled by the entrance of a nurse who was going to do the routine check, change the drip if needed, and move Wolfwood’s body around to prevent bedsores. The mundane actions so distracted Milly that she forgot about Vash and missed his packing of his travel tote. Only when she saw him move after the departing nurse did she realize what he had in mind. She had an inkling that he might have been planning to do this, but to see it happen right in her very sight made the notion somehow inconceivable.
“Wait, wait, where are you going?”
Milly had always thought that Mr. Vash had been fairly fond of her and had continued to be so despite the terrible trials following Meryl’s abduction, but now, judging from the flat look of annoyance his green eyes gave her, she had to wonder if the past year had destroyed everything Vash had built out of their old group. “I’m going away.”
“But-Mr. Priest is--”
He swung his knapsack over his shoulder without a care. “He’ll make it. The first night was the only one I wasn’t sure of. Now I know. He’s tough-he’ll recover. And don’t worry. Like I said, they don’t come after wounded prey. If they were going to do anything in the near future, they’d have done it by now. I suspect that Knives and the others have their attention diverted elsewhere. Probably licking their wounds. You should be left alone.”
Confusion! “Yet you stayed, Mr. Vash.”
“To tell you the truth, I was worried about the last two nights. They’re vindictive, especially Crimson Nail. But I think that you gave almost as good as you got in that fight. They need to regroup as well. And I’m their main target; you’re both beneath their notice now.”
She settled a very strong gaze upon him, willing that for once someone would give her a straight answer that was free of half-truths and secrets. “Do you think we’ll really be safe?”
“For the moment, yeah. But I’d be lying if I said you two would never be bothered again. None of them are happy with Chapel, as you can probably figure. And as for you: your safety depends on how far Knives wants to continue his efforts. He may want to find another breeder to speed up the process. Oh, did you know, Milly that you were considered, along with Meryl, to be the first test subject as well?”
Milly felt like someone had beaten her within an inch of her life, the numbness spreading all throughout her skin. She had known that their job had been a sham, but this-she swallowed down the bile of terror forming in the back of throat. He had to be lying. She was too big and clumsy to be chosen for a thing like that, she wasn’t special in any way except maybe her height and strength. But he had to be playing her false. Yet the notion twisted in her mind and brought on a new sense of pain when she went over in her head all the things Meryl must have endured and replaced her old partner with herself. It made her sick all around.
Vash continued: “So I would be on my guard if I were you. You should be all right, though…” His eyes flickered with unseen knowledge. “Chapel should be recovered by then if anything does happen. He can take care of you.”
She couldn’t stand it anymore. “But why won’t you stay to help until then? How can you do this to us?” She had the pitch of a scream in her voice; consideration for Wolfwood and the other patients in the ward made the volume low. “We’re your friends, we never abandoned you!”
Vash’s gaze rested heavy on Wolfwood in his bed. “Friends. Something tells me that a man who tries to ingratiate himself to you, make him your buddy, and then works for your brother who wants everything killed on the side isn’t the best friend. Need I remind you, Milly, of the role he played in her fate?”
“And he suffered for it! He tried to make it right again! Mr. Wolfwood’s done wrong, Mr. Vash, but after everything he’s gone through and done to help--”
Vash threw back his shoulders, popping them with a grunt, raising his eyes towards the dirty speckled ceiling. His face collapsed into an expression that was nothing but sadness; tears glittered in the corners of his eyes and for that moment he looked like the man he used to be, hurting for everyone and everything. “Milly, I can’t do this. I can’t save anyone now. I wasn’t able to protect Meryl; what makes you think that I can keep the both of you safe? I’m too tired to deal with this crap any longer. I need space and time to regroup, or else I won’t be of any use to you. So please, respect my decision and let me cope with this the only way that I can. Do you understand me? I cannot protect you.”
Milly clutched at her cheeks in her alternately outraged and sad daze; the knowledge that Mr. Vash was leaving her alone, all alone with nobody except these cold doctors and the burden of looking at Wolfwood every day as she helped care for him alone until he woke up and got released left her dumb and she could not say a word more to ask him to stay. She watched while he took a thoughtful pause as he turned the doorknob.
“You’ll make it,” he said. “Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if you two showed up at my doorstep one of these days. I can’t ever get rid of trouble, it seems. Bye.” And with that, the door clicked.
For a long while Milly, having sat lamely down in her chair, sat and stared at the door, hands folded tight in her lap. She didn’t know what it was she looked for; there were so many things she wanted that she couldn’t have. She wished that someone or something that wasn’t a doctor would walk through that door and change everything for the better, make things good again. Of course, no such thing happened.
Out the corner of her vision Milly took note that Wolfwood’s stubble had grown out considerably, past the five o’ clock shadow stage and into a very light goatee that, although it was not polite to point out such a thing so bluntly, looked awful on him. Some people just weren’t meant to wear beards. Here was a task that would do him a great service and keep her mind occupied with other things so she didn’t have to think about the emptiness around her. She asked a razor from the next nurse that entered and received one in due time. She gently stirred up a lather using a bar of soap, an old coffee mug, and some water from the sink, spreading it with care around his mouth and on his chin using her fingers. After she had dabbed all the required area to her liking, she began to shave away the hairs, taking greatest effort to neither cut, nick, nor even scrape the skin. It took quite a bit of concentration to be so careful and it was a rather long process, she laboring over his prone form, the tip of her tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth like a little child stacking blocks. In the end she didn’t quite shave the very bottom of his chin because she couldn’t imagine Mr. Priest without a little stubble-she had always found the few scraggly hairs that he sported rather charming.
Admiring her handiwork, Milly passed a hand over the smooth new skin, liking the feel of it. She regarded him with a sigh. “Well, Mr. Priest, it looks like it’s just you and me from now on.”
Coughing--one of the ugliest sounds a human being could ever make, chock full of the presence of germs and warm sputum and so harsh and pitiful. Milly was getting fed up with coughing. As of late she had become an unnaturally light sleeper (she longed for the old days when she could sleep through anything) and the hacking of the other patients, beyond the walls as they were, would not let her rest in her uncomfortable chair. It was maddening. The instant she felt herself drift away someone would cough. Open would snap her eyes. After a few moments she would bend her head again. Then--a cough! It was enough to make her wish that she could sleep outside but she could not leave Wolfwood’s bedside. The doctors said that he was finally out of the danger zone, yet in the dark it was easy to fear for a relapse. She swore to herself that until his eyes were open and he could move his big toe without dying, she would stay right where she was. Nicholas deserved at least that much.
In the morning, Wolfwood’s condition had improved so very much that the doctor decided that he needed no further blood transfusions; for while Milly knew that he was far from his best shape, he had enough blood that his heart could pump freely. It was reported to her that the possibility of his returning to consciousness was very high, that if things went on a lucky course then he might wake up as early as that very day. They could not explain why he had made such a miraculous recovery in so little time, nor could Milly help them, though she did not tell them about the vial she’d administered. They’d probably raise hoopla and yell at her for stupidity and tampering with patients, which she simply did not feel like standing up to-she disliked being yelled at.
The doctor’s predictions came true that same afternoon. Milly had been going through Wolfwood’s messy black hair with a comb and a pair of scissors, trimming bangs that had grown down into his eyes and had gotten too long in the back and cutting out the more stubborn sand-mixed tangles with prejudice. She really did not know why she was taking such precautions about his appearance, but she thought it would somehow improve his morale when he woke up. When you looked good you felt good, and when you felt good you looked even better . . . now she had herself confused with circular logic…
It had been while she’d been wrangling with her own twisty brain that the head of hair started to move underneath her hands, almost causing her to poke his skull with her scissors; lucky for him that they were so dull that they couldn’t even cut through butter. He gave out a grunt at the poke which only served to startle her more, dropping both comb and scissors onto the floor, leaving them forgotten as she gawked at the Lazarus, who looked rather disoriented, blinking about the room with foggy eyes. He frowned but then the muscles of his face smoothed out when he caught sight of her.
“Hey there,” he croaked.
“Hiya,” came her soft reply, and she bent down to retrieve the dropped items. She resumed coming through his hair patiently, waiting for the expected barrage of questions.
The first one was, “Where the hell are we?” And she explained the situation, what had happened and how they’d got him there. “You almost died,” she whispered. “But you got better pretty quick.”
“Now what do you mean by that?”
Knowing that he deserved the whole truth, Milly, not so sure of herself and how he’d take her snooping around in his clothes, reached out to fiddle with one of he curtains. “I looked through your jacket, Mr. Priest, and I found a little bottle of something. It didn’t have any warnings on it and I was panicky, so I made you swallow it.”
Silence reigned between them, interrupted only by the unheeded swish of the curtains Milly still batted idly at, a dead silence that made her teeth ache. She wondered how badly she could screw up the rest of her life because she was getting to be an expert at it.
“I see. That actually saved my life, Honey, so I thank you.” A tired grin perked his face, but Milly, still turned away and stunned, did not see it. “There didn’t happen to be another vial in that pocket, was there?” At her negative answer he fisted the blanket and grumbled, “Must have broken the other one in the fight. Would’ve been lots easier.” Milly finally hazarded him a peep from beneath the swath of her hair, as grumbling was a much better response than yelling or stone silence.
“What was that stuff, Mr. Wolfwood?”
“It was given to me. You thought right; it is a medicine, though it only works for me and a few other people.” Milly resumed combing his hair, resigning to the knowledge that no elaboration to the answer was forthcoming.
“I don’t see Vash,” Milly’s hand hitched upon a tangle and yanked it harder than she intended. He winced. Not trusting herself with such pain-causing instruments at the turn the conversation was taking, Milly quietly put them aside.
“He’s not here, Mr. Priest. He left a few days ago. I don’t think he’s coming back to us.”
“Dammit,” he swore, his features tightening. Milly figured he must have still been very sore and he was just now crashing into the fist wave. “So he ran off with his tail between his legs, eh? Do you know where he was going?”
“He didn’t tell me.”
Wolfwood took a swallow and his eyes darted around the room as if he were searching for a manual on tact and delicacy and, seeing he was on his own, cleared his throat and said in the most gentle tone she’d heard from him, “What about Meryl?”
At the sound of that name something inside her gave way to the ocean-roiling current that lay just below the surface and Milly burst into tears, sobbing out that she was dead and that they hadn’t been able to save her.
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes, Mr. Vash told me so,” she bawled. Helpless, Wolfwood regarded her with firmly pursed lips, knowing that no words he could say would comfort the wound from the harsh truth, the weight of which hadn’t hit her until then, that in spite of how hard she tried and or how nice she was to other people, sometimes virtue and doing one’s best just simply was not enough to get what you wanted most of out this world, no matter how good the intentions were. The fat tears rolled down the bridge of her nose and dripped onto her lap; with what looked like a mighty effort for him, Wolfwood reached up with a hand, wavering, and rather clumsily wiped at the drops. Lack of coordination aside, Milly liked the warm feel of them on her face. Keeping the hand close up against her cheek she fought to curb the tears to an ebb.
“Honey, I am so sorry for that.”
“It’s okay,” she managed. “I-I’ve just got to think about where we go from here. I’m totally at a loss.”
“We’ve been over this once before, Milly, and really my mind hasn’t changed much. I’d be much more at ease if you just went on home.”
Her reaction was the one he’d been anticipating. “That’s a very selfish thing to say! I can’t leave you here all alone. I’m not going to abandon you, no matter what you say or how much better you think it would be for both of us. If you just want to rot away here without anyone to care for you, you better hope for something else because that won’t happen!”
“Well, then what do you plan to do?” He asked, voice and face calm as the still dunes on the moon-filled nights.
Indignation helped her to think on her feet much quicker than usual, so Milly came up with an answer to that cool inquiry in a snap. “First of all, I’m going to help you get better and on your feet. And then-I, I guess that then I’ll do my best to follow Mr. Vash and try to meet up with him. It may take a while, but I can catch him. We-- I’ve done it before. It’s actually not too difficult; you just have to read the papers from cover to cover. He normally does something unusual that doesn’t get front-page news, and they usually don’t name him in the blurbs, but you can tell it’s him. I’m a master at that kind of thing now.”
“You plan to go alone,” he deadpanned, leaving the words hanging in the chasm between statement and question. Milly bit at her lower lip in her search for the proper response. She did not understand why he was being so vague, and on purpose too! “I was planning to do that,” she admitted, “because I do not want you to almost die again, Mr. Priest. You have done so much that I think it’s unfair to ask any more of you. Meryl wasn’t your best friend, after all, and you and Mr. Vash aren’t on the best of terms right now. It would be better if you just lay low for a while. A few thugs may come after you, but it wouldn’t be anything you couldn’t handle-Mr. Vash and I will probably distract them. But. . .” she raised up a single finger, “that’s the same thing you told ME to do. So that’s selfish too, and you know that I know that. So then-you can come along with me, Mr. Wolfwood, if you really want to. When you get better, that is.”
The look of satisfaction on his face brought about an epiphany and Milly gave him a feigned glare, crossing her arms over her chest, reaching up a hand to wipe away the last vestiges of wetness from her face. “Oh, you’re a sly one, Mr. Priest.”
“What can I say, Honey? You needed a push in the right direction,” he grinned.
The grin faded as he looked over to the Punisher. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I knew you were out there all alone. You’re strong, Milly, but no match for a Gung-Ho Gun. Just give me some time to heal, Honey, and we can get going. Do you have any inkling of where he might end up, though? Where his final destination might be?”
Milly rolled her eyes up in her usual expression of contemplation, tapping the bottom of her chin (She liked to think the tapping helped the blood course through her head better) whilst recollections of Vash’s voice and sound appeared before her. “I can’t say for sure,” she said after some moments, “but back then, before he left, he said-Mr. Priest, I think he might be returning to the old floating ship, the one where Miss Luida is.”
Wolfwood nodded. “Figures. He always goes there when he needs to regroup. That’s probably our best bet, and even if he’s not there we can at least get some help and information.” He raised a hand to his chest in reflex, frowning when he came up empty. “Damn, I need a smoke.”
“You can’t smoke in here!” she cried. She ignored his suffering look and continued, “But that’s where we should go. First we get you all better, and then we can somehow get a vehicle and move on to a bigger town. This place is a bit too small to really help us move quickly. And we need better supplies.”
“Sounds like you’ve gone through this process many times before,” Wolfwood remarked, eyes hooded with oncoming fatigue. Milly pulled up the covers around him.
“Of course! I’m one of the creepy stalker Insurance Girls, remember? I had to think about this kind of stuff all the time. But don’t you worry about a thing. Just sleep and leave everything to me.”
The next several weeks passed very slowly in Milly’s mind, yet it seemed that when Wolfwood at last reached the point of being able to walk normally while carrying the Punisher that too much time had passed. Days filled with her ascertaining that Wolfwood went about his therapy as prescribed, helping him walk about when his legs were abnormally stiff, easing him into adjusting back to the familiar weight of the Punisher, administering him medicines and rubbing his back and legs if the pain grew too much for him to handle, and every night they both were very fatigued, a bone-tired exhaustion that didn’t make sleep itself come easy. In addition to that there was always the problem of finding money. Milly feared that she would have to take up some kind of job so that they could rent a car, as there wasn’t even a Tomas farm near, and stock up on ammo and other goods, things that did not come cheap. At her voicing the idea, however, Wolfwood staunchly refused that she add more burdens to her life. He said that he had a trusted contact that could wire them money and also give them information on Knives’ initial movements so that they would know what places to avoid. To this Milly, who wasn’t really keen on working all day and not being around to assist with the priest’s recovery, agreed, though she did wonder.
Wolfwood proved his uncanny resilience and in about a month’s time had fully mastered the art of moving around at ease with the Punisher strapped to his back; his aim also did not seem to have suffered from his forced sabbatical. He had been released from the hospital clinic long before but it turned out that lodging was not much of a problem during the wait for the money; Milly found a kindly farming family who offered to let out a used but clean and empty of animals barn for the two to live in for the remainder of their stay. With some clearing out of the top loft, fresh bedding, a few quilts to hang on the wall, and a table equipped with a lantern, the place was quite pleasant and cozy, reminding her of her own family’s barn, smelling of sweet hay and sand. She had the sense that Wolfwood would have liked something more elaborate and not so farmy, but it kept out the night chills so few complaints were forthcoming from him. More often than not he was too fatigued from the daily exercises to gripe much anyway.
The money came slowly-Wolfwood said that the contact was pretty far off and probably had to go by sneaky ways so not to be tracked-but as soon as it did things went by speedily. There was something to be said about the ease one could move when your possessions could fit into one or two suitcases. They rented a second-hand car, dirty and what had scarred upholstery but showed no signs of an engine that would explode, and the two travelers departed the small town abruptly as they had arrived.
Subsequent to perusing a map of the area, Milly and Wolfwood mutually agreed that the best place to go to was the medium-sized settlement of Steam Junction, noted for its sandsteamer freight lines. Normally a town based on such an important and lucrative commodity as sandsteamer routes would have been a huge, bustling town, but Steam Junction did not so much focus on the trade of goods rather as on being a place where one line began and one ended-it was a sort of truck stop and weigh station where freight was shifted from one steamer to another. A few goods trickled out, of course, and the town was better off than some; only the seven major cities outmatched it. But if you weren’t one of the Seven Cities then you were a homey, watered-down looking establishment at best. Yet for this reason they chose the town as their goal: it was big enough and had many avenues of transportation open to them but small enough for efficiency and a lack of traffic-causing hustle and bustle. The drive there took several days and was uneventful yet pleasant. Not much conversation occurred between the two for lack of stimulation-there were only so many ways that you could comment on how BLUE the sky was today or what kind of funny shape a certain dune reminded you of (“Look, Mr. Priest, that one looks like an upside-down sand raccoon with googly glasses! Or maybe a squashed pomegranate.” “So it does, Honey.”) but it was a pleasant silence. Milly felt somewhat content.
Upon reaching Steam Junction the first order of business, as the custom went for drifters such as they, to find an inn. The one chosen was a decent-seeming place, a bit worn and crackled at the edges but what building wasn’t? Much to their appreciation of awkwardness was the fact that the clerk mentioned the only kind of room they could afford had but a single bed. A big bed, yes, but the number was what was important and it was a big fat ONE. Yes, she and the priest had shared close quarters before, but always on separate beds, pallets, sleeping bags, et cetera. It was not that she had any real objections to Wolfwood’s company, which she had grown to so rely on, but a bed-it was just too forward sounding. Thus with an embarrassed and thumping heart Milly hauled her luggage to the specified room.
Inside the inn room they were sharing was a mirror which had glass of such poor quality that everything it reflected had a yellowish tinge, the color of bad teeth, and the surface had warped some, a subtle defect but obvious when one looked in it and saw that their nose had bumps never before seen or that their forehead was considerably larger than it had used to be. It hung on the wall across from the room’s single bed and so was prominent in Milly’s view; she could see it at almost every angle she turned as she unpacked her possessions and put away Wolfwood’s luggage for him. He had said while she checked in that he had an unquenchable need for his lung-killing vice and had gone out to find a place that sold cigarettes. Normally she would have gone into the predictable spiel about how bad they were for his convalescent self but she knew that he could find scant little comfort in anything else and concluded that their mental effects outweighed the physical detriments. Besides, she thought, he was probably immune to the stupid things anyway, his lungs still all nice and pink . . . Ah, for some reason the mirror began to mock her, glinting enticingly in the background. The only way she could entirely block it out was if she turned her full back to it. Perhaps it was some innate female curiosity about how she’d held up the past weeks, for she hadn’t looked at her reflection in a long while, not even when she had the rare opportunity to bathe herself, a luxury she had not taken advantage of for a few days. She wanted to know what she would see in the imperfect glass.
The young woman stepped up close to the mirror, looking deep within, scrutinizing her face and hair. She blinked an eye, and the girl in the glass blinked back. She stuck out her tongue and waggled it; the other Milly stuck out her own tongue and waggled it too. Yes, it was definitely she in there.
She didn’t want it to be that way. The girl in the mirror, with her grungy, unwashed hair and the eyes that had such a hard shine to them to make them look white, that was not the person she should have been. This was not the Milly Thompson who had grown up in a loving, loud, large family who’d taught her that true friendship and love conquered all things, the Milly who had been joyous and cheerful and who had been the best friend of Derringer Meryl Stryfe as they worked at going over claims and visiting disaster areas, who had tracked down the Humanoid Typhoon with a merry heart and had gained his friendship, met a mysterious priest only to…
Where had that girl gone?
Milly thought about what had happened inside herself during those horrid months, after she learned who Wolfwood had really been. She had grown so hard inside, so icy, that she couldn’t feel like she used to. She had known Wolfwood had been suffering because of her meanness (it wasn’t really hate, she decided later) and coldness but she hadn’t cared, feeling his torment had been just. And then she had stopped being able to read Mr. Vash like she had used to. His withdrawal into himself had been tricky enough, but not entirely uncrackable, yet she had felt nothing for that stony face that had matched her heart. She wondered why she had gone so hard--maybe it was a defense for her psyche, already bruised enough by Meryl’s disappearance. Wolfwood’s deception and Vash’s change would have been tolerable had Meryl been there; she’d relied too much on her best friend, took too much strength from her presence that she couldn’t be without it and not find another way to cope. She would have succumbed to despair otherwise.
She couldn’t bear to look at this stranger any longer. Milly launched herself on the queen-sized bed, buried her head in the pillows and squeezed her eyes shut. Oh, she berated herself, how could she have been such a bad friend? Her eyelids pressed together the tighter as she rode out the pain and shame. A few seconds passed. The torrent passed by and she crested over the worst part quickly, as she was resilient. Though she still ached, she could turn her mind away to channel the bad emotions away, tuck them out of sight.
As usually happened when she was left to herself and was unhappy, Milly’s thoughts turned to ones of the long-gone past, of her little farming village and all the family that lived there, of Meryl, of everything that she had done wrong that, if she hadn’t goofed, might have made things turn out differently. She supposed that there would be a time when the memories became fond and were no longer painful, but apparently that threshold hadn’t been reached at this point. Meryl was dead. People everywhere were dying. Gracious, at this point in time her own family probably thought she herself had died, she hadn’t come home in so long and might not come back at all--that was the ultimate death mark to her family, not coming back. She was alive now but what did it matter when she was dead to her own parents and siblings and all the other relatives? The solution of just sending a letter of some sort in the morning did not present itself to her; her fevered mind could only think of the here and now. Her breaths came out shallow. Her throat constricted. Her pulse pounded in her ears, drowning out everything, including the sound of returning footsteps. She wanted her sisters. She wanted her brothers--
“Hey, now, what’s wrong?” Warm hands rested on her shoulder blades, squeezing them. “That’s no way for you to act.”
She put her hands up to her mouth, gnawing at her thumb. “I want my Daddy,” she confessed.
He hesitated over her, astounded at the non sequitur response. “Honey.”
Rolling over so that her back was to him and she faced the wall, Milly continued, unable to stop the words. She never was one for masking her desires. “I-I want my Mama. I want my family. I want Meryl back. Mr. Priest, why can’t things go back to the way they were? We were so happy. Why did things have to change so badly?” She placed her arms over her face. She felt too ashamed to face him. The bed mattress shifted underneath her and her body slid back down a bit into a sudden incline. Warmth caressed her back, reaching its fingers through the thick covering of duster and shirt.
“Listen, Honey,” Nicholas sighed. “There’s nothing wrong with being sad. You’ve had a lot thrust on you, stuff you certainly don’t deserve, and it’s tough. You’ve adapted well, I’m proud of you, but I know that this isn’t how you’ve lived or what you want with your life. But you’ve got to keep it up. You know the kind of people we’re going up against. If you let them get to you, they’ll tear you apart inside. We’ve come much too far. Do you want to throw it all away?”
“No,” she sniffled. His voice spanned over to her, almost like a physical rope, deep and tinged with a hint of a drawl that made her feel the slightest bit drowsy. “You’re right. And I’m sorry. I just felt very sad just now. You know, Mr. Priest,” something inside her started to cause her skin to feel flush, “I’m really glad that you came with me. It would’ve been lots harder without you. In fact, you’ve done so much for me, and-and I’ve treated you so badly. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
Wolfwood did not speak a word, yet a sense of relieved elation thrilled calmly throughout Milly’s being. Something that she’d been mulling over since the days in the hospital dropped its final piece into place, and she saw clearly. She would not end up like Mr. Vash-that way was no solution for her. The events in the past had made her strong, but she’d lost sight of herself-it was no crime to not let the past haunt you like it did Mr. Vash and Mr. Priest. She had tried to do what was right, tried her very best; and no matter if she’d failed, she could at least rest secure in the knowledge that she HAD made the effort. That was the best anyone could do. She realized that to keep clutching on to the old bitterness would gain her nothing. There had to be another way…a way that would let her be herself yet not forget... And it was then that she realized that while Meryl was gone and the fact still brought her to tears on occasion, they had shared a friendship that existed in so many memories that Meryl would never really die. As long as she kept those memories, they would be together forever, and yet she could still move on and look to the front with a purpose. All of the hardness inside her that had been slowly dissolving, starting when she and Wolfwood had decided to make peace before visiting the Body, melted and forged itself into a more potent strength that all true survivors possessed.
Quite suddenly, the force of the realizations left Milly very tired. She took a deep breath, awaiting the response, if any, he would give her.
At last Wolfwood did speak, in a timbre she was unfamiliar with. “I accept it.” The bed shifted some more as he stretched his entire length beside her, kicking off his shoes. “You know, I didn’t think it’d end up this well.”
“I think,” she said after a pause, “if you sit down and talk about your troubles, that it goes a long way in healing. Mr. Vash and his brother should try that tack one day.”
“Yeah,” he breathed; Milly became foggily aware of his face burying shallowly into the back of her hair at the nape. Breath tickled the fine strands against her neck. It was a good feeling, unexpectedly so. She was a bit confused.
“Mr. Priest? You okay?”
“I dunno,” he murmured with a thick tongue, moving again so that he leaned a ways over her, looking down. He reached down and started brushing at her bangs, moving his palm over the back of her head and down to her shoulder blades. “Damn, Honey, why do you have to be so damn cute?”
“You really think so?” she asked, hoping for an affirmative answer; such was the reply she received.
“Of course. Couldn’t you tell?”
“Well,” she hedged, head a bit giddy at the compliments, “guys say all kinds of stuff.”
He buried his head back into her hair, inhaling deep. “I’m not some regular guy. I don’t give out false compliments.”
Milly’s insides became wonderful and syrupy, a pleasant heat coursing through her cheeks, chest, and legs; it was something she had not experienced before, but it made her feel the best she had in ages. She couldn’t think anything coherent except to mull over how warm and good everything was, and her body sought of its own accord to see if things could get better. She turned to face him and drew him up into her arms, crossing over his back to clutch the backs of his lapels.
A weight descended upon her and then Milly found that she could not tell where her legs ended and his began. Wolfwood pressed his face into the crook of her neck, she felt the nerves tingle as the soft contact of his dry lips, and she idly wondered through the haze if he could feel the pulse in the thick artery there. Her heart was certainly beating hard enough, her blood seeming to feel thicker. Another new yet not unpleasant sensation.
His hands glided all over the front of her coat, unworking the buttons of her duster while she could only stare up at the ceiling, smoothing fingers through his hair and delighting in the feel of his stubble against skin. His legs further entangled with hers and his hips pressed down. His voice had become raspy. “Oh, Honey, I think. . .”
She buried her face into the crown of his head, taking in the smoke mixed with cologne scent of him. She wanted to ask him further about his unfinished speech but choked on the words, as if some force were diverting all her energy away from her throat and head. He began to nip at the skin and the room gained a strange tint as her vision rippled. The heat of the clothes and the sheets was becoming uncomfortable; but she did not mind so much. It felt so nice and all her troubles were lost in this supreme state of well-being. For that time it was as if nobody existed but them. Mister Vash and all the ills that followed him and were caused by him fled away.
So stunned was she by the syrupiness that she was hardly aware of the first button her shirt being undone. Through the lull a small thread of panic wound its way into her, and it said that if she didn’t do something and put her foot down soon, she wouldn’t be able to stop things if they went too far. It was not the right place-it was so very easy to fall into this sort of thing when times were hard, but in the end the nice feelings were not compensation enough for added complications down the road. She was certain that her affections for him were true, but she was uncertain and definitely did not want to be responsible for more undue grief. They should not be clinging together out of desperation alone-more time was needed after their fresh start to let things take the course...
Forcing her determination out of the sweet miasma, Milly propped her back against the headboard and kept one hand on Wolfwood’s shoulder to show that she was not offended while rearranging her shirt and suspenders with the free hand. She gulped down a few breaths, wishing that a window to the cool desert night air were open.
“That’s enough for tonight,” she whispered.
“But honey . . . We may not have much more time together like this when we really start looking for Vash.” His eyes indicated that he thought himself more than unjustly deprived.
“I know, dear, but we must be patient. I’m here, you’re here, and we’ll both be around tomorrow, or so I hope! I’m with you now. I won’t be leaving anytime soon. And we’re both young!” She patted the pillow beside hers. “So just lie down and relax. Tomorrow’s a big day and we’ll search for a way to find Mr. Vash. We’ll find him soon enough. My inner Milly tells me so.”
“Never steers you wrong, does it?” He asked, brow arched.
“Most of the time, nope,” she chirped. Wolfwood shook his head and did as she bid, laying his head on the pillow, tossing his removed jacket from the covers onto the floor. One arm reached out and drew her waist next to his, so they lay on their backs side by side.
“You know that’d I die for you, Honey,” he said, voice tinged with the fuzz of sleep.
“I know. But you won’t have to,” she murmured in answer.
The body heat and the aftershocks of the encounter formed a cocoon around her, quickly drawing her up into the first sleep she had that was dreamless and free from nightmares and regrets.
Both Milly and Wolfwood decided that it was preferable to reach the ship colony with all possible speed; they knew Vash’s vagabondish ways and thought it best not to try their luck in assuming he would stay at the ship for an extended period of time, if he even went there at all. And in the worst case, if they arrived and Vash had come but left, they at least would be in territory well disposed towards them. Since Wolfwood’s series of Angelinas had a bad history of breaking down when they were most needed, they had no funds for a good car (their old one had almost given out before their arrival in Steam Junction and highly dubious was the hope that it could last all the way to Melca), and Tomases being too slow, the only feasible alternative was to travel by Sandsteamer--the town had a station for all classes and routes were more flexible than at most stops. Milly had thought they’d hit upon the perfect solution when Wolfwood had to gently break the facts of life to her.
“Honey, if we can’t rent, let alone buy another car, how in God’s name do you think we can get tickets on such short notice? Our car’s a junker and won’t give us much money if we do sell it.”
With the reflection of experience Milly had only crinkled up her eyes in her most mysteriously optimistic smile and assured him that she knew exactly how they would manage to get aboard a steamer that could take them to Melca.
“How are you doing back there, Mr. Priest?” Milly, stationed at the concession stand counter and beaming candy sparkles, called cheerfully over her shoulder towards the grill area while she packaged up a meal for some children. A very sweaty Wolfwood glared up from the meat patties he was flipping; his voice was choked. “Never better, HON.”
“Melca Border,” Wolfwood said through the smoke coming through his teeth. “This brings back memories.”
“Sure does,” Milly chirped, dancing a little towards the station where the pulley vehicles stopped. “Me and Meryl--” her grin tightened, “went up this way when we first came to the ship. We tried to bring our Tomases up with us--that was kinda gross. And then we crashed in on you, Mr. Priest!”
Wolfwood grinned at the remembrance of his unusual salvation. “Oh yeah, I remember. Hard to forget something like that. Say, Honey, how did you manage to get to where I was, anyways?”
“Oh, when we first got off onto the ship, there was nobody around. We thought that was very strange, but when we heard the gunshots below I just blew a hole through the nearest downwards ventilation shaft and down we went!”
They were both grinning when the transport deliberately creaked down on its cable to the platform and they boarded. Milly idly watched out the window during their wobbly ascent, gazing down upon the powdery sea of sand below; the transport seemed to wobble more than the first time she went up in it, maybe due to the lack of distressed Tomases and the bodily discharges that came as a result of that distress, or maybe because she had been so excited by the novelty of the ride that she didn’t notice the precarious pendulum sway. The winds blew much harder over vast cliffs such as these. To clear her fears she thought about what had happened that day when she and Meryl found Mr. Vash again. It was strange that nowadays she looked back on it with a deranged sort of fondness--yes, the trip down had been pretty fun, she’d been yelling her head off with the excitement in her tummy, but the scene that unfurled later had not been particularly nice. Mr. Priest, despite the goofy stunned look on his face at her greeting, had almost gotten killed by Ninelives and had received broken ribs and numerous contusions. She remembered seeing blood everywhere, that huge corpse with its ribs blown apart and the meat sticking to the bones. She’d squealed, looked away, staunchly held down her lunch, and quite hastily piggy-backed Wolfwood, cross and all, out of the room towards an exit. Not his most dignified departure, but she had to get out of there before she and Meryl got sick from the smell and sight.
And now she considered it one of the good old times-- Mr. Priest had been rather abashed. It almost brought on a smile.
A crowd gathered to receive them once the transport reached the ship’s belly. Many of the people grumbled and did not look overly pleased to renew their acquaintance; Milly thought she noticed some of them had strange bulges under their vests and coats and others had weapons drawn outright. In her peripheral vision Wolfwood’s hand tightened on the strap of his Punisher.
They stepped off and Milly raised her open hands. “Hi!” She tried to chirp, not quite succeeding yet still sounding more cheerful than really was proper.
Rustles undulated through the crowd as a tall, stern-faced woman stepped to the fore, unsmiling but with eyes that had a softness. “Well. We meet again, Mr. Wolfwood, Ms. Thompson.”
“Hello, Miss Luida,” Milly replied together with the priest’s nod, happy to see a dependable face.
Luida didn’t smile, but then again she rarely ever smiled. “I trust you’re here for a good reason? The people have grown more wary about outsiders since the events that transpired the list time we had visitors.”
“That wasn’t our fault,” Wolfwood said levelly. “But we’re looking for Vash.”
“I thought as much,” Luida responded with a nod. “And you’re in luck. He arrived about a week ago and is still here. You almost missed him, though, since he told me that he plans on leaving tomorrow.”
Milly wheeled a grin upon Wolfwood and cried, “Oh, what luck Mr. Priest! We caught him!”
Luida nodded to the crowd, which reluctantly dispersed under her commanding gaze, and the three began walking together. Luida turned that same dark gaze upon Milly, though the softness had returned as well. “I cannot say for sure if he will be happy to see you. He is not the Vash that we know. Something has made him cold; he doesn‘t willingly speak to anyone, not even me. He just barged in and demanded a new arm and coat and got very angry when Kain said he didn’t have the materials for a new one. What happened in the last few months, Ms. Thompson?”
“It’s a very bad story,” Milly hedged, eyes down.
Luida’s voice was gentle: “I know it must have been so, but I’d like to know more particulars. It was very distressing for us that he was so changed. It’s like he doesn’t want to be a part of this family anymore, after all these years. Why?”
“Listen, she doesn’t--” Wolfwood started
“I was not asking you, young man. I know what you are, now, and I’m sure the truth about you helped make Vash the way he is. But that alone couldn’t have changed him so. Please tell me, my dear.” She turned a gentle smile upon her.
Milly’s tongue felt frozen in her mouth as she tried to recount the past without crying. “He lost a good friend, Miss Luida. At least that was what started it.”
“Ms. Meryl, wasn’t it? She’s not with you,” came the compassionate sigh. Milly couldn’t speak or see through the bottled up tears. “It still stings?”
“She was my bestest friend,” Milly croaked. “And then Knives used her as a--a thing and killed her. All this stuff with Knives, Meryl, and the Gung-Ho Guns hurt him, Miss Luida. We went through a lot of bad situations.”
“Used Miss Meryl, you say?”
“He used her as incubator for a seedling,” Wolfwood supplied coldly.
Luida’s eyes narrowed. “Very grave news indeed. That is a matter of much concern; and Knives is still at large. No wonder he’s changed--even the initial implications are overwhelming.”
Wolfwood and Luida started to discuss the seedling and what Knives planned to do with it, but Milly didn’t care. Only thirty seconds in and they’d forgotten Meryl completely. Another surge of tears hit her eyelids and her nose started to run again, but the cause came from a different emotion, an emotion that caused her legs to seize up and fists clench. She yelled.
“I don’t want to hear about that stupid seedling! Meryl--she--he killed her! And all you can talk about is that damned seedling and Knives! Why don’t you care?”
“Honey--” Wolfwood reached out his hand but Luida marched ahead of him, stopping right in front of Milly’s dripping nose. The two were about the same height so Milly was treated the rare spectacle of another female looking her in the eyes. “Miss Thompson, I truly am sorry for your loss. But as sad as it is, your friend is dead. Her sufferings are over and God willing she’s gone to a much better place. Let me assure you, you are in much more pain than she is at this moment. But matters of much greater importance lie in the balance here. Knives has the potential to become much more powerful and his aims have come far closer than they ever had. So please stop crying and focus on what’s important at the present. If you don’t, you won’t be mourning long because you’ll have joined her. Understand?”
Like a petulant child Milly tilted her head away but held her tears in check. “Good. Now if you’ll please follow me. We can get you both accommodated and then I’ll send you to Vash. This way.” Luida receded down the hall, leaving the remainder to walk slowly behind.
“That old hag,” Wolfwood frowned. Milly, still frowning at the floor, felt the rough fingers combing gently through her wind-blown hair, somehow not managing to hurt her even when they hit snags. “But she’s right, Honey. Remember what you promised. But it’s okay.”
His hand fell to rest on her shoulder, squeezing, and Milly found a smile.
“Say, Miss Luida,” she called out, “where can we find Mr. Vash after we’ve rested up some?”
Luida quirked up one side of her face in a wry glance. “He’s where he always goes when he comes back here: the cold-sleep room.”
Vash the Stampede, not a stitch of warm clothing on him, stood in the middle of the cold-sleep chamber’s vast cylinder. Just like Miss Luida had said. He seemed almost lifeless, he was so still and his eyes shut so deeply, that if it weren’t for the faint puff of vapor seeping from his lips Milly would have started checking for a pulse. His skin was very pale and Milly flinched to see the slight blue tinge to his mouth and cheeks. He looked like one of the sleepers in the ceiling of glass that arched above them all, white faces peering out unseeing. Yet she didn’t want to disturb him; the expression on his face was the most content and peaceful she had seen on him for a long while and Milly felt guilty for having to rouse him and bring all the ugly emotions to the surface. She snuggled up closer in her duster, licking her lips silently.
Over the subsequent months Milly found herself getting frustrated about the whole coat business. The three of them were traveling all over the planet, it seemed, but having the worst luck about finding any sympathetic plants: either they were so far gone that they weren’t much help, they were hostile, or Knives had taken them. And traveling now had become so hard with Mr. Vash in control-he drove them along at a furious pace, tempered with fear and the need to beat the clock, so that they never stayed in any place long enough to buy suitable supplies for a new coat. Not that she would have had much time to work on one, anyway, the way Mr. Vash the Slavedriver kept pushing them. It made her long for the days when it was just her and Meryl, or her and Mr. Priest. She and Mr. Priest had so little time together now . . . she desperately wanted to tell him how she really felt about him, but Vash’s pace and snappy attitude always killed the mood. Heck, he haunted them like some kind of love-hating specter even in the rare times when they were alone.