"And Feathers All Around"
By Susan

"Gunsmoke & Feathers" series, Part 3: This is a more serious continuation to "Milly to the Rescue." It fulfills the need to see Meryl and Vash together!!! Thank you thank you thank you! --Ricki

         He had been on her trail for days and had finally followed her to this small, near deserted town bordering the Great Desert. What a lousy place this was. When he had looked into the eyes of the people who existed here, they were dull and lifeless; they were just surviving, not thriving.
         He had walked up to the hotel desk and had given the attendant her description. He had been on edge for days, sensing he was drawing closer with each step and now, if stalled or hindered, he was, uncharacteristically ready to pull his gun out and shove it in someone's face. But in this instance, the old man with the weary eyes had looked up into eyes promising danger, and nodded. He hadn't lived this long without knowing the look of death if someone were stupid enough to get in the way of this young feller. He jerked his thumb in the direction of the stairs, mumbled a number and "end of the hall, nobody on that floor. Said she wanted a suite off by herself."
         The long days of pursuit have given him plenty of time to think. And he had realized something. The insurance girl he had tried so many times to ditch and evade.... He winced as he admitted to himself once again,... He needed her like a plant needed the sun... yes, he could finally admit it, he needed her and he couldn't let himself think about the possibility that he was too late.
         All the time that he had been trying to discourage her from traveling with him as being too dangerous for her, yet secretly he was glad when she persisted and he saw her face again. Even if the first thing she did was chew him out. Yes, he worried about her, what if Knives found out.... his blood ran cold. He couldn't let that happen. He HAD to send her away, for her own good. Funny, he didn't feel that same deep anxiety over Wolfwood or Milly even. Well, it couldn't be love, even though he worried about her when she wasn't around, thought about her all the time, and wondered what she was doing. He was just used to her face. She is a good friend, yes that was it, and I am used to her presence and... Another voice, the one he had been trying to avoid for days spoke up, You're pathetic! Something was trying to get his attention and he kept pushing it away. It had been trailing him as relentlessly as he had trailed Meryl across the sands through the little backwater towns. He was reluctant, afraid said the voice, to turn and face it so he just kept his face forward and his footprints behind him as he followed her path. And now, he had finally caught up with her.
         Vash stood outside her door, staring at the number. He was close; so close, he could feel her nearby. He placed a gloved hand on the door. He had knocked and he had tried calling her name. No answer. He had even tried the door, it was locked. He felt a wave of panic flow through him.
         Sensing time running out like sands draining away in an hourglass, he backed up and kicked the door in. He entered the room, taking in everything with a quick glance, the absence of Meryl, the drained bottle of Wicked Black Thunder on the table and an empty bottle of pills. He reached the table in two strides, picked up the bottle and read the label with a frown. It was what he had feared. He looked up at the bedroom door; she had to be in there. He moved across the room in a blur of inhuman speed.
         He tried the knob. It was locked too. He stepped back a few paces and kicked. No lock, no closed door was going to stop him. He would find her. He would stop her. He had to. He had been hunting her for days knowing he was getting closer with each town he had followed her through. But this last twenty-four hours he knew it was critical he reach her. He had felt the moment when she had turned a corner and made the decision.
         He moved through the door spying her immediately. She was curled up on her side on the bed; thank God she was still breathing! He could see the shallow rise and fall of her chest. His heart squeezed painfully in his chest as he saw how small and pale she looked. His eyes locked onto her unmoving figure.
         He slowly crossed over to the bed, unsure of what course of action he should take. If this were just the matter of pills and rotgut, all he had to do was make her vomit. But it was a combination of the soul-crushing pain and mental rape she had endured the week before that was at the heart of the problem. This was only one example of it but it would, inevitably, end up sucking the life out of her.
         He sat on the bed and reached over to gather her petite form up into his long arms, pulling her tightly to his chest. He lowered his cheek to nuzzle hers thankful that at the moment she was unconscious and couldn't react, after all he hadn't shaved in days. He lowered her so he could gaze at her features. She did look pale, more so than normal.
         How could he help her? How could he save her? He wasn't sure, he just knew he had to. If only he had the mental power Knives did. The irony was not lost on him. Here he was envying Knives. What a switch.
         Holding her close to him like this he could feel her breathing, feel her heartbeat, feel her living, but not for long if he didn't do something soon. Think! He commanded himself. There's got to be something I can do!
         He knew that in no way was he on the same level as Knives or Legato in the mental powers department, but even he, in his limited way could feel the great bleeding slash and burn Legato had left like a bloody trail in Meryl's mind. So deep, it was pouring out of her like an arterial wound gushing out lifeblood. He realized with a start that he needed the touch, the contact of skin to be able to penetrate the tortured and violated layers left in the wake of the mind rape and join with her in turning the tide of the devouring dark.
         He gently placed herr back on the bed. How long did he have? Was she already losing ground? He struggled to submerge the growing panic that threatened to override the calm he so desperately needed.
         Finally, with a deep breath, he sat down next to her, took off his glove and placed his index and middle finger of his true hand on her temple. There! The spark of her being, he could feel it even stronger, a tiny thread of Meryl hiding deep within, the embodiment of all of who and what she was, her essence, her soul. But it also felt so small and helpless, and damn, was she turning away?
         "Insurance Gir... .. er, Meryl?"
         He could feel her withdrawing.
         "NO, Meryl!" He shouted into her mind, "Come back!"
         She ignored him.
         Dismayed he called out after her again.
         Obviously she wasn't going to help him help her. Could he blame her after the things he had said to her when she had been the courageous one to open her heart and soul to him... hoping, afraid to hope, expectant and... and... Then out of his mouth all his stupid, ill-considered words that had left her in tears and fleeing the room, fleeing him.
         He leaned forward and touched his lips to her cheek, whispering her name.....
         ...and his aqua-colored eyes flew open wide and fingers fell away from her temple in surprise at the response! Oh but she was angry! He had dared to disturb her as she was trying to sink down to embrace the cold dark promising death. He lost no time in replacing his fingers and lips on her cheek. This time she was ready for him and sent a chilly, Go AWAY Vash! at him. He smiled. This was a good sign.
         He was now at the entrance of her mind but couldn't go any further unless she opened the door herself. He hurled a lifeline of thought after her, "Fight Meryl, fight back, fight me, just don't roll over and give up!" A mental growl rumbled through her mind at him, Please just leave me alone! But he had her attention, and before she disappeared, showed her how he could help her cleanse her system of the poison and help her start the healing process for her damaged mind. But he needed her to let him and to help him help her.
         EAT SAND!
         Despite the response he was encouraged. That's the Insurance Girl I know! But just as swiftly hid it so she couldn't feel it. It was working! She was closer to the surface and if she were just a wee bit closer he could grab her and hold her there although he was still concerned about the cooperation angle of the plan. Could he talk her into it? He couldn't go any deeper than he was without her opening the way for him. He just wasn't that powerful or expert at moving around in someone else's mind. Hell, sometimes he had trouble moving around in his own. He wanted her to let him in so they would work together. Although she wasn't sounding like she was even in the same neighborhood as cooperate. Okay, that may take a little bit more work...
         A snarl. That's good. Then she withdrew. That's bad.
         "Come back out and we can work through this ..."
         "...Like adults? Is that what you were going to say?" He winced. Just one of the many hasty and ill-advised things he had lectured her about when trying to get her to see how blasted out of the question a relationship would be.
         "Meryl, be reasonable..." Wrong thing, dammit, that was the wrong thing to say and he knew it even as it left his mind. Why was his "mouth" allowed to roam around loose without a keeper?!
         He heard it then, a raspberry, and a really heartfelt one with oodles of spit.
         "Very funny, now why don't we just talk about this....."
         No answer.
         He sighed. And thought about what he could do. Then it came to him, deal with one problem instead of trying to take them both on at the same time. He couldn't help her in the healing of her soul by force. A blending or a partnership was needed here. What worried him was she was if she was trying this hard to die, would that speed up the process? He didn't know. He didn't want to find out. All right then, it's hurling time! And exited from the edge of her mind.
         Leaving her there he strode out the bedroom and front door. He took a moment and thought about the arrangement of the hotel and seemingly, to anyone if they had been standing there, disappeared. In a moment of time he was racing around the hotel kitchen rummaging through drawers, cabinets, and the cooler until he was satisfied he had found everything he needed. He ignored the cook and his sputtering protests. He started to leave but turned to swoop a glass and spoon off a nearby table, Just in case she doesn't have any then I won't have to come back. Again, he disappeared and left the cook gaping at where he had been.
         He reentered her suite and put down all the ingredients he had borrowed, okay, took. He would pay for them later. He began mixing quickly but with care and precision. Then, from the depths of an inner pocket, he pulled out a tiny seed. It was a medicine he used only for himself but decided it would help in this situation. He lifted an eyebrow considering the chemical reaction it would produce and the female physiology. Normally in a human his seed-pill would be inert but he could unleash the chemical reaction with a touch, an energy push and then, the desired effect. Working the formula through in his mind first, he took into account the reaction once mixed with the acids of the stomach, the natural 'urp' effects of the ingredients he had ransacked out the kitchen, and yes, his pill. It would be a complicated and a little risky as he had never tried this out on a human before, but used in the right way it would absorb most, but not all, of the poison. In short, it was like a tiny sponge and band aid at the same time. It would still mean that everything would have to come out in a rather unpleasant manner. As the smell wafted up from the mixture he made a face, if he wasn't so worried and pressed for time he could even make it taste better than it was going to taste, as it was, it was going to be vile.
         He contemplated the seed-pill before crushing it between his fingers and blew away the hull. Tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth in concentration, he crunched the seed, considered a moment before taking one tiny piece and dropping it into the concoction of stomach heaving fun. He stirred the mixture with a mirthless smile. If this didn't make her puke she was less human than he was.
         He held the glass up to the light, watching the contents dissolve. Rubbing the back of his head with his hand, he wished Wolfwood were here to say a little blessing over it. Then a thought occurred to him and he looked down at his coat. He put down the noxious smelling tea. He knew he wasn't going to come out of this unscathed but there was no reason for it to get splattered too, who knew where the nearest dry cleaner was located in this sparsely populated leaping off point into nowhere. Bullet holes were one thing, puke was another. Removing it, he tossed it over a chair and upon reflection, slid his gun out of its holster. With an expert flick of his wrist he popped it open and shook out the bullets into his hand before returning it. Then unbuckling his gun belt he hid it under the folds of his coat. Just in case someone came in there was no sense in advertising. He picked up the tea looked at her door and sighed. He knew this would work, he just hoped it worked as well as intended.
         In a few quick strides he was standing next to her bed gazing down at her too still form.
         Forcing a cheerful tone, he said loudly, "Okay Insurance Girl! I brought you some tea." He set the "tea" on the nightstand and knelt by her side.
         "Uhhhhmph, gugggle." At least that was what her mumbling sounding like as he slipped an arm under her shoulders and lifted her up. Once he had her somewhat upright, he touched her temple.
         "Are YOU still here? Go away!"
         "I've come to..."
         "I don't care why you've come, go away!"
         "Just give me a chance to ex..."
         "Did you knock?"
         "Simple question, 'Did you knock?'"
         "Well, you weren't in a posi...."
         "Uh huh, thought so. Leave!"
         "Ooookay, how's this?" And thought at her, "*knock, knock*"
         BITE ME
         Oh he was thinking about it...
         A raging whirlwind thrust at him, Go away, You're bothering me! And gave him another mental shove for good measure.
         Whoa! Pretty feisty for a dying woman!
         "I know what will help your mood (besides coffee and chocolate which he didn't have) some soothing tea." He added for good measure, "Milly made it." I'm shameless. "C'mon, drink up!" As he held the cup to her lips. They parted a little and he was grateful he had invoked Milly's name or he didn't think she would have even done that little bit for him, not the way she was feeling about him right now. He dribbled a little of the foul-smelling concoction through her barely parted lips and watched some of it slide out the side of her mouth.
         "Ooops. Lucky for you I... er.. Milly made plenty!" And he thought he heard a whisper of a thought speed by. "I can handle this myself!"
         He stared at her in shock. THIS was handling it? Through gritted teeth he thought back to her, "Now see here Meryl, I admit the way I handled th....
         "PAIN, SHAME ,WEAKNESS, SO DAMNED WEAK, ANGER!!!" Rolled over him with such intensity he nearly dropped the glass. She was splintering, trying to find a part of herself that could hold and deal with the pain. That wasn't good. After the wave passed over, small sob of a whisper, "I can't live with this! It hurts too much!" And faded away into the background.
         "Meryl, I want you to live...."
         A stronger voice spoke near him, "Always what YOU want!"
         This could be going better than it was.
         Despite the rebuff, an odd feeling of protectiveness almost like a possessive feeling for her was rising in him and it had a personal feel to it, not just because she was human like Rem, or a friend, but almost... well, he just needed her, that's all.
         Putting down the glass he firmly pressed on a spot on her throat and jaw, and sent a command along the nerves. When she opened her mouth wide enough he snatched the glass and he poured more tea in while watching it with a worried frown. She only needs a small amount, some of it has to be getting to her stomach!
         Again with false cheer he announced, "Meryl, here it comes, more of Milly's delicious tea. Please swallow."
         "Doan wanna." She replied thickly. But he sent the command again and down went the whole mouthful. He repeated this a couple more times before feeling satisfied that she actually had enough in her.
         He got another whiff of odor from the glass and held it away from his nose. Of some satisfaction to him was the fact that it wasn't his seed-pill that was causing the horrific stink and taste. This had to be churning around down there. He should start working on getting her into the bathroom because things were going to get messy real quick. But first he touched her temple again. He drew energy from his being, a little glow of light and threw it over the mutilated and raw ruin of the area the utterly ruthless mind reaver had plowed through. He may not be able to go down and find the original wound but he could throw a cover and hope it held long enough to finish getting rid of the booze and pills. With mindful awareness of her pain and trauma he wrapped the light wall around and drew it closed. After seeing the damage he couldn't help asking himself why had they done this to Meryl. He knew Knives; he never did anything unless he had a reason. He shrugged that aside for now and bent to the task at hand.
         He set the glass back on the nightstand and leaned over to scoop Meryl up. He thought wonderingly she sure is a tiny thing when the 'sure is a tiny thing' interrupted his thoughts. He halted as he listened again.
         "I am done being polite!" And sent a wave of pain that staggered him. She was grabbing a hold and channeling the rippling aftereffects of the trauma at him. She really shouldn't be able to do that.
         He replied, "You're pretty bitchy before you've had your first cup of coffee." Then he added, "That stuff will stunt your growth you know."
         If thoughts had hands he would have been slapped. Sure is touchy about someone making remarks about her lack of stature.
         "Well then, come out and tell me all about it!"
         As if sensing a trap, she shrank back away from him, diving down deep. He muttered an oath after her... He would have to fall... er have a really smart woman for a friend! So close! He just wished she would come back and fight.
         Okay then, he if he had timed this just right.... He scooped her up, ready for any attack but none came, and headed for the john. He pushed the door open with his foot and lifted his elbow to turn on the light. Good, they had a shower, even if it was narrow but that would actually work for him better than a larger one. He set Meryl on her feet while trying to support her and pushed the curtain aside with his free hand . As he tried to stand her up under the shower head, he took note with a downward turn of his lips, that he would probably be getting very wet also. He wasn't looking forward to that. She kept sliding down and he would lift her up again and, hell with it and with a grunt of frustration he finally just squatted and let her fall over his shoulder. Ah, that was better! as he stood back up. He was able to reach the knobs now. With a quick twist of his wrist the water shot out and he backed away from the cold spray. Twisting his head, he searched for a towel. Good, they had one in here. The one thing he knew about women was that most were prone to modesty. You could save a woman from a fiery plunge to her death in a howling sandstorm, would she thank you? Not if she didn't a have stitch on! Maybe somewhere down the line, 'oh by the way, now that I am dressed, thanks for saving my life'. Women were strange like that.
         He tried to decide how to approach the problem of achieving his goal of getting Meryl wet while staying as dry as he could himself because several things were going to happen at once. He shifted Meryl on his shoulder as he thought about the flow of events he was assuming and hoping would happen.
         "Okay Insurance Girl, are you ready for the puke fest to start?" He thought a grin at her.
         Silence. His heart lurched.
         Nothing.... No something, he concentrated and panicked, her system was starting to shut down faster than he had anticipated.
         Aqua eyes hardened and he dumped her into the shower, drenching her; the desired result, and himself, which wasn't. Damn, that's cold! As it soaked his face and hair. But in order for his seed-pill to work, everything had to work just so and then a push to unleash it. Everything seemed to be falling into place.
         He frowned at her through the spray hoping for her natural lively spirit to engage. "Live!" You have to want to live Meryl!" He held her pinned up against the corner with a hand on her shoulder and one on her hip. He gritted his teeth against the cold, in all of his planning he had not anticipated that he would get this wet or this cold. Well, here we go! Things were going to quickly get interesting, smelly, but interesting. Holding her under the cold water, he found the inactive chemical string and touched it, and as folk say, "All hell broke loose."
         He barely made it out of the way but was still splattered when Meryl began projectile vomiting along with swinging her fists, shivering, kicking, spitting, clawing and yelling profanity. She alternated activities but some of the time she tried to do all of them at once. Vash turned his head away, to avoid her fists, the vomit, and less ably, the cold water and cursing.
         At one point he chanced to look down at her knowing she was about ready to come out. Oops. And looked down at her toes, no, that wouldn't work either, and settled for gazing at the top of her head. Who would have thought a nightshirt would be so revealing? Now the challenge, she was coming to with a vengeance. It was hard enough to hold her up when she was dead weight, but now her feet were wet and kept slipping out from under her. He tried to keep a hold on her so she wouldn't fall but also keep himself from getting hit. He had to dodge fists that before had been flailing about wildly but now, more often then not, connecting and had some sting to it. On top of everything else, she was wet and struggling making it hard to keep a gentlemanly handhold on her. Any other time perhaps....
         "Let me out of here Vash!" In a near scream of rage followed by a mental tirade. What a surprise to learn she had a mouth on her!
         "Okay then, stop hitting and make yourself useful. Turn off the water, you're not the only one who's not enjoying this!"
         Surprising him, she did. His shoulders sagged with relief. Brrrr, plants don't like the cold! He decided that since she was feeling so spunky he could let go.
         She stumbled forward but he caught her before she fell on her nose. He pulled her to him as her wet feet tried to slide out from under her again. He stepped back, supporting her with one arm wrapped around her waist and groped for the towel hanging on the rack behind him.
         "Uhhhhhh." She said.
         He grabbed at the towel, lurched sideways as she crumpled forward, pushing on him just enough and over they went. His head bounced on the hard floor and he saw stars. Okay, that hurt. He glanced down to check on Meryl. She was slumped on his chest, eyes closed. She should be getting her energy back on and off in the next half hour or so but it would come and go in spurts. He sighed. Usually I don't mind nearly naked women throwing me to the ground. But this isn't what I had in mind. He stretched up and grabbed the edge of the towel, pulled it until it fell over Meryl's back. He grumped. Logistics, why did it always come down to logistics? Now what? She looked like she could sack out on him for the rest of the day. He tried to get a look at her face but only ended up getting a good whiff of her breath. He crinkled his nose. Ugh. What I don't do for the woman I... and stopped himself and finished with am friends with."
         She was coming around! As Wolfwood would say, "Praise the Lord!" He craned his neck to watch as her eyes fluttered and then stayed open. Awareness along with puzzlement filled her eyes as she lifted her head to look at her surroundings. Feeling his chest heave with relief, Meryl turned her attention upward towards his face to see him grinning at her with twinkling eyes.
         He gave a small wave, "Helloooooo!"
         "Vash, you goof, what the hell are you doing?"
         "Breaking your fall."
         "Huh?" As the realization that they were horizontal and not vertical dawned on her. She exploded to her feet. Ha! The wonder drug worked!
         "I think someone is feeling better, but you may want to cover up." As he gestured at her. Her balance was still off kilter and she nearly tipped over onto him but managed to catch herself at the last possible second.
         She responded to the first part of his statement in a hoarse whisper which was all she could manage at the moment through her sore throat. "BETTER! I believe I told you to leave me alone. I don't FEEL better, I feel enraged and further...."
         The jerk! He wasn't listening. She watched his eyes, why,... he wasn't even looking at her! The nerve! And followed his gaze downward... and yelped! Crap! She grabbed her shirt in both hands and pulled away from her chest. With increasing agitation her eyes darted around the room taking in the empty towel racks with a glance.
         "Behind you on the floor."
         She twisted and caught up the towel and wrapped it around her shoulders before stepping around him. He got up and started to follow her out.
         "NO!" In a voice that brooked no disobedience. He stopped in his tracks. Knives could learn a thing or two from her.
         "You stay here. I'll let you know when you can come out." Plenty of attitude for someone who was so recently puking her guts out, he thought sourly.
         "There's nothing to do in here!"
         "Wash your hands!"
         Nothing fun anyway.
         "This will only take a minute." He sat down on the only seat in the room and leaned an elbow on his thigh to rest his chin on his fist. Intriguing rustling noises followed a thump and then more rustling. This is really boring. I'm a century if I'm a day and look where I am! Sitting on the john waiting for a girl to get dressed and we didn't even...
         The door opened. "You can come out now."
         She was dressed in her usual white outfit, but noted with interest, without the dark leggings. Hey, Meryl has nice looking legs; he lifted his head off his fist and sat up straight, no let me amend that, very nice looking legs and wondered why he had never noticed before.
         "Because you were always ogling the drop-dead gorgeous, hourglass figure women or running around being shot at."
         He gaped at her and his hand dropped in amazement. Had she read his mind?
         "I can read your face, doofus!"
         She waved her hand about her head, "Oooooo, I know, I may not be a plant with all-powerful abilities but I am not a complete moron!"
         Wisdom spoke up and he decided to heed it so bit his lip to keep from pointing out how moronic he thought suicide was. He was glad he didn't when she lowered her arms and gave him the first genuine smile he had seen from her in a while. Then she paled and lurched against the doorframe, clutching it for support even so it looked like she was going to slide down. He was beside her in a flash, reaching for her elbows to steady her. She gave him a grateful smile and her eyes warmed, so did a funny feeling in his chest. Then she nodded at the sink. "I have to brush my teeth, before some mold crawls out of my mouth. It feels like I ate a rancid..." She shot him a suspicious look. He looked up and away.
         "By the way," She asked casually dropping her eyes, "What was in that tea?"
         "Oh a little of this, a little of that. Don't worry, it was perfectly safe, normal, everyday ingredients that one can find in any kitchen." He didn't see the need to mention the extra ingredient he had added. He also would keep to himself the state of decay some of these everyday ingredients were in. Some things were not meant to be shared.
         Helping her over to the sink he kept a light hand under her elbow as she quickly brushed her teeth. Full strength wasn't quite all there yet. When she was done she gestured weakly toward the door. He looked her over estimating the distance through the bedroom to the table in the dining area. Without a word of warning he scooped her up and edged out the door sideways with her squawking a weak protest.
         As he went through the bedroom he felt compelled to point out to her, "Hold still for a minute, you are not going to make it on your own. Just be reasonable.... Oh bullet holes; he had used that word again! He winced as they entered the dining area. Mental note, surefire way to piss a woman off, tells her she's not being reasonable. Sure enough, here it came.
"And Feathers All Around" Page 2

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