Normally Milly didn’t mind her Senpai’s typewriter. On occasion she thought it was just plain neat: it was a very handsome piece of machinery and she liked pressing the keys at random to hear them make that delicious click-click sound she liked. But she almost always succeeded in jamming it when she did that, which, coincidentally, was the only thing she could do that would genuinely make Senpai mad at her. It wasn’t fair. The keys never jammed when Senpai typed. Not even when she went full speed ahead, fingers flying and almost pounding the machine right into the desk or table or her knees or whatever she happened to use as a prop at the time.
In fact, pounding the ‘writer was exactly what Senpai was doing. Two days after the sand-steamer fiasco with Mr. Vash voicing intent to leave in the morning had sent Meryl into a flurry of activity. All the damage that B.D.N--or Mr. Glowy Shoulders, as Milly liked to think of him--had done to the steamer required them to fill out extensive damage reports on the incident since the Stampede had played no small part in everything. It didn’t matter that it hadn’t been his fault. When ever was it really his fault? she asked herself. They were both very glad that he received no terrible injuries during the whole ordeal with the duel, Senpai a strange mixture of nerves and relief as they’d tended to him, her eyes soft while simultaneously grumbling about all the trouble he caused, but now they weren’t quite so glad. Milly wished herself behind the concession stand again.
So Mr. Vash rested up from his wound and they slaved away, the wondrous typewriter working its magic, pounding out magically delicious, crisp reports that the people at Bernardelli would scan, note, and then forget-- except in the case if Senpai made a typo. That’d be biblical; the Chief might go so far as to bronze it. Milly had always appreciated her Senpai’s skill with the thing but this go-around Meryl seemed set on killing it along with them both as she typed with a masochistic vengeance. Milly massaged the ache in her wrist. It had been all she could do just to keep up. This assignment was nothing like they had had before. She wondered if it was the most fun she’d come across since she left the family farm for December or if it’d end up with them in the dirt: Meryl dead from a stress-induced heart attack, she from choking herself on her own customized pudding spoon to get away from it all. She hated the clerical work.
Senpai didn’t love the paperwork but could tolerate it much easier. Or that’s how it used to be. At this particular moment in time’s ticking, however, Meryl was forced to chug a train of coffee cups and scream out the words of her report while she typed it to keep from going over the brink. Milly didn’t like it. Senpai really was a very sweet, caring person under her professionalism; usually stress didn’t affect her that much. This case was something altogether different. The whole B.D.N. fiasco had rattled their nerves worse than they had thought because Meryl began acting so scary and Milly found that she couldn’t add the figures straight. She was too preoccupied wondering how long it would take her to reach her stun gun if Senpai went insane.
But muddle through they did. Over the hump! Senpai only had to finish the last report and type up the form letter to the Chief.
Milly twiddled her thumbs, mind nervous. The air in the room was hot with bottled up frustration. Being her Senpai’s bestest friend, more often than not after a hard day she would stay behind to give Meryl encouragement and a sympathetic shoulder, maybe they’d go out to a café and have some nice calming tea. One look at the gleam in Senpai’s eyes told Milly that her superior would not be wanting to suck down some Darjeeling in the aftermath of this monster. She’d want to do something illegal with her derringers, and since she, Milly, was the only other one in the room . . .
A good bestest friend knew when to give breathing space. What Senpai needed to do was pace around the room, imagine strangling someone, maybe punch a few pillows, and then get a nice sleep.
Thinking about what would make her frazzled nerves calm, Milly smiled wide. There was a bar not too far from their hotel. If it only served delicious sweet treats along with the equally sweet alcohol, as the saloon in her hometown did, she’d be in heaven. She hadn’t come across a place like that yet but hope springs eternal.
“Senpai, if you don’t need me here anymore I’m going to go out.”
Meryl grunted: “Don’t get drunk, Milly. Remember the limit. And take your flashlight with you.” That was a better reaction than Milly had dared to hope for. But--argh! After the party over the Nebraska family defeat--she’d gotten so tipsy--Senpai had forced her to swear never to drink beyond their established number. Too embarrassing for her, she said. She’s got memory like a cobra! Deadly in its sharpitude! Milly thought. She never could pull the wool over the eyes of her Senpai.
Down she rolled her shirtsleeves and picked up her duster on the way out the door. By the time she returned the air wouldn’t lay down so hot and the both of them could rest easy. Sleeping in hadn’t become an option, courtesy of Mr. Vash’s slippery ways and his desire to ditch them at each possible turn. It probably scared the wits out of him, not being able to shake them off for long. To her he was not so hard to track, actually, despite his mercurial nature. she didn’t know why.
Cool air gushed welcome across her face upon her arrival outside. The bar--seedy, but not the seediest--beckoned to her with its lulling promise of good, stout beer, no, maybe a tasty freezy strawberry daiquiri with one of the little umbrellas, she loved those! She didn’t care that she couldn’t get plastered. The simple taste of the liquor sufficed, that’s what she liked best about drinking.
A few paces from the bar a sudden crash startled her. With a squeak she hauled out her flashlight and turned it upon the black cat that had knocked over a trashcan. It almost looked like it winked at her. Milly stepped back some in the shadows to regain her courage.
Another crash followed: the door of the bar flew open, cracking against the wall behind it, and there was an angry shriek. A flash of red catapulted outside before the wrath of a stocky bartender.
“Get the hell out! You damn drunks, you’re always bad for my business! Stop harassing my waitresses!”
“But I’m not done yet,” he whined. A bottle flew on after him, hitting him smack in the middle of the forehead with a wince-inducing pop. It must have been thick glass; it didn’t break. Mr. Vash then grabbed the bottle and tipped it over, sticking out his tongue and looking up into it like he’d find a gold brick up there. He looked about to cry until he found the cork had been replaced.
She saw Mr. Vash stumble some paces and then slump against the wall, still keeping the bottle in his mouth with a resolution, streams of liquor dribbling down his chin because his lips and hand trembled so. Not liking the hard smack he’d made against the rubble Milly hurried over to him. How hard had that bottle hit him?
“Mr. Vash! Are you all right?” She pointed her flashlight right in his face.
Vash’s scream came out muddled. “Argh! I’m blind! I can see the back of my retinas! Blind!” A sloppy smile. “Eh. Not so bad. Ah, my prayersh have finally been asnshwered.”
Milly cupped a hand over the beam, grimacing at her mistake and his hammered state. “Wow, you’re really drunk tonight, Mr. Vash. You’ve never been like this.”
“Aw, ish nothin’,” he insisted. He tilted back his head for another swig before giving a satisfied belch, tossing the bottle away and continuing: “I c’n do lots more than thish.”
The truth of that Milly couldn’t deny, thinking back to occasions in the past, of random bars they had encountered throughout Vash’s rather aimless wanderings, of the drinking games they’d played. Senpai was picky about liquor, she insisted that they not drink beyond two glasses maximum on the job but Milly, who really was no boozehound and could moderate well enough, sometimes found temptation too hard to resist, not thinking it fair that Mr. Vash got to buy all he wanted all the time. But what really broke her heart--he usually drank alone. No one should drink alone. Who could take you home afterwards if you couldn't do it yourself and stop you from doing overly stupid things? She knew from reports that she tended to do and say some downright goofy and childish things, but Senpai or one of siblings had always been around to make sure she didn't do anything regrettable. There was a fine line between them, Milly knew: Mr. Vash liked to have fun too, like she did . . .
He drank himself sick. Senpai once told her that people like him got drunk because they had something to hide. It must be something awfully painful that Mr. Vash hid for him to prefer the sickness of the stomach and dull head. Anybody could have known just from one glance at him that Mr. Vash didn’t have the right faculties to get back to the hotel on his own. His arms and legs were all rubbery.
Not wanting to upset him, Milly replied, “I know you can, Mr. Vash. I’ve seen it. But I guess you’re having a bit of an off night. Come on, I’ll help you to your room. You shouldn’t be out here like this. Some bad people might see you and mug you.”
“Already happened,” he slurred, yet he lifted his arms as she put away her light, stooping down to pick him up.
“Does it happen a lot?” Some morbid fascination prompted her. She had no business prying. Still, she knew very little about him and maybe if she learned the slightest thing it might make him feel a bit better. Shared woes are lighter woes, her big middle brother told her.
“Not t’often. I mess up sometimes, though.”
She lifted Vash up in her arms; she found him quite a bit heavier than she reckoned. What with that long coat and all. Still--his frame, what she could feel through that cloth, was rather thin and sad under her fingers and some places just felt--odd. She would swear that he was creaking so subtly, almost like a rusty door hinge. Creaking? His gangly legs dangled down to past her knees but he was also so small in her arms. Milly took a cautious first step. He winced.
“I’m sorry. I guess it’s going to be a bit rough.”
“ ‘S’allright. Didn’t drink enough.”
“Hmm?” She looked down into his blurred eyes full of pain, they’d always been like that; she just never had gotten a view up so close. Her teeth ached at the sight.
“I’m hurting,” he said. “My side still hurts. My arm hurts--I hurt all over, Big Girl. Y’know, I can’t stand pain. I hate it. This’s the cheapest way I know how to get rid of it.”
“You don’t look like you feel much better, Mr. Vash.”
He grumbled some words that she couldn’t quite hear clearly over the crunching of cold sand beneath her heavy shoes but they sounded suspiciously like “Ah, whatta you know?”
Maybe that was true, Milly conceded silently, but just because she wasn’t brilliant didn’t mean that she was a dummy. Following the exhortations of her father to be honest in her dealings with people, repeated many times as she grew up, she felt obliged to tell him what she thought. She came to a halt so she could best put her nose right in his face to display her awesome sincerity. His eyebrows and eyes merged into a rather scary cyclopean mass and she craned her neck back. He looked rather terrified.
“I know, Mr. Vash, that either I’m smarter than I think I am or you’re a lot dumber than I gave you credit for.”
She continued walking. Drunken giggling erupted from the floppy mass she cradled, his neck drooping onto her shoulder like a wilted asparagus. “Oh, don’t I know‘t,” he chortled, eyes squeezed tight. “Ya got me. If I was really was smart, I wouldn’t be like thish.” He giggled some more into her shoulder-cape and his body trembled slightly. Once the spell had passed he lifted his head up again.
“Ya know,” his mouth opened and she wrinkled her nose at the cheap sourness of his breath, “I never really noticed before but you--you’re actually kinda cute.”
Milly stopped right there and debated whether or not to ignore him or throw him down on the ground so she could run away screaming, for this was not Mr. Vash! He never once commented on either of their looks before, not one flirtatious glance. She had never considered it odd for her own case; none of her co-workers or the men they’d met on their travels had commented on her looks before, not unless they were playing a joke. And why not? She’d accepted that she wasn’t a great beauty and she took no mind of such things. What defied logic was that he’d never noticed Senpai, so gorgeous and petite and with those purple eyes. Wait. She had to amend the flirtatious part. He didn’t sound so flirty as observational. But still, what an observation! Embarrasment tingled her cheeks.
“Mr. Vash, I know you’re drunk, but it isn’t nice to tease me. I don’t tease you!”
He barreled over her comments, blinking muddled and inquisitive green eyes to peer up closer. “Strange. You always looked kinda plain to me. But once I get a closer look--you’ve got some nice features. Can‘t catch ‘em unless I get a good view.” A smile wobbled over his face, the face she liked to put on when she saw a puppy or kitten playing. “Aw, are those three little freckles on your nose all in a straight line? So cuuuuute!” His smile flattened and the strangest expression yet came over him, a weird mixture of shock, gladness, and pain as if some ghost of a friend had brushed its fingers on the back of his neck. “You actually remind me a bit of someone. She wasn’t as tall as you, but your hair’s a bit like hers and the way you--” The efforts of his examinations must have proved too much for his poor inebriated body to handle because his face started to turn green. His cheeks bulged.
Posthaste she turned his head to the side and held him out further from her body than ever before, crying out, “Don’t you get sick on me!” She had more regard for her favorite duster than that. It had been her grandfather’s; it would be like throwing up on his grave. He wouldn’t mess it up!
He finished his little sick bout. She hoped the next unwary person coming this way wouldn’t be wearing any fancy shoes. She kept her eyes straight ahead, stepping gingerly around the puddle. Strangely enough the smacking sound of his lips caused her spine to curdle more than when he was outright vomiting. It must be horrible to be so sick. She was glad for her special toleration of hangovers: a mild headache and some queasiness the morning after, but she never once had gotten violently sick from drinking too much.
“Sorry,” he moaned.
“No harm done.” A chirp was a bit beyond her means at this point. It’d been a close call.
“Never mind what I said. I’m just an idiot sometimes, just like your partner says.” He smiled a self-deprecating smile.
She replayed his words; she had not liked something about them. They way his voice had grown so tinged with an unnamable but intense emotion at the end, right before he got sick, didn’t sit right with her. She couldn’t say what he had been thinking. It had been like he was--pretending with her. Now, she couldn’t abide that. She had grown up learning to try to see people as none other than themselves; to do otherwise was misleading and false. Chocolate pudding was chocolate and vanilla vanilla--to confuse them was to discredit them. Everyone said that idea was simple, yet she’d give up her stomach’s special beer and pudding sponge powers if she ever saw anyone who could actually adhere to that simple idea. And he--! She didn’t care if he was drunk.
“It’s all right, Mr. Vash. But I’d appreciate it if you didn’t confuse me again. It’s fun to have a good imagination but I’m a person. You shouldn’t do that with real people. If you have to do it, please do it with someone else.” She noticed his face and smiled to lessen the sting some. “Senpai’s right. You’re just a big broom head!”
“I can be a baby at times,” he acknowledged.
A playful smile twisted her lips as she pouted them out. “Aww, does li’l Vashy got ‘de sniffoos? Beddy-booze time for Vashie!”
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll buy you lotsa of pudding and sweets when we go off for May City if you never, ever do that again.”
The glow from the neon hit their faces at their arrival in front of the hotel’s main entrance. Because there were some stairs to climb Milly elected to stop to give Mr. Vash a breather.
“You’ve been so nice to me all this time,” he whispered, his thick tongue obviously straining not to slur over his words. “You never doubted or made fun of me. I haven’t given you my thanks. So, you have my gratitude. Even if it‘s only--”
Underneath his voice was a tone of longing, a wishing for something that could be easily given but was very rarely shown to him. He was odd, weird, goofy, a tad unstable, and he wouldn’t willingly hurt any one of God’s creatures to save his or any others’ lives--she could relate to that. Except for this: she knew exactly what she wanted out of life. Mr. Vash didn’t seem to have a clue. He spun out of control wherever he went, always on the move and getting in trouble, always unhappy. She couldn’t figure out why it was so hard for people to give him a little respect and kindness when he was so sad. Senpai cared too, cared a lot more than she would have liked to show, but what good was concern when you didn’t follow up on it? At least Senpai’s tender mercies were improving--she wasn’t hitting him so much now or snapping at him. Once they both got over the rocky hump of a botched first impression things would be fine between them. Milly had hope for that and hoped it‘d happen soon; it wasn‘t easy trying to mediate and she couldn’t be everyone‘s best friend. But still, the problem lay at the present moment. Until relations between all three of them grew smooth, she had to do right by Mr. Vash. In his miserable present condition a small act or word would help, even a little. And, she learned in this business, a little more was more than it seemed--and now she had herself confused. She shook out her muddled head, readjusting him in her arms. She didn’t relish going up those stairs.
“It’s just not the job, Mr. Vash. Jobs come and go for us. Senpai and I deal with sad people all the time, people who’ve lost their homes or their businesses; they’re just blurbs on paper for lots of people, but to us people like you are very real. I can say for both of us, Mr. Vash, that we care very much what happens to you, just like we tried to care for the others we’ve served. And that’s why we’re the most qualified for this job.”
Vash didn’t respond. He’d finally passed out. And, she noted, he was drooling on her shoulder cape. That gave as good incentive as any to haul him up through the lobby and up the stairs to his room, taking it slower once she got to their floor because she had a bad feeling that Senpai, already stressed from the paperwork, would do something very horrible if she woke and saw her subordinate carrying their target like so. She turbo-tiptoed down the hall to his room, cringing, but met with no apocalypse. His door was unlocked. She guessed that he carried all his money with him so he didn’t think he had anything left in his room worth stealing.
She laid him upon his bed, fluffing his pillow, shifting his coat around so it wouldn’t bunch itself uncomfortably around him. After recalling his bad tolerance of hangovers she tiptoed back to her room, Meryl dead to the world and not giving out a snort at the sounds of ruffling for their first-aid kit, bringing back some aspirin. The pills stood on the nightstand accompanied by the faithful tall glass of water. The moment he lunged out of bed and got back from discussing his case of dry heaves with the john, she proudly deduced, they would be right there waiting for him.
The spot where the bottle had hit him was beginning to discolor some. Milly, noting it with a frown, decided on her last order of business. She reached into the complimentary ice bucket and swathed some cubes in a hand-towel and secured it on the bad spot with some medical tape. Beautiful!
‘Well done, old bean!’ she thought, patting herself on the head. Looking at him lying there, she felt a lazy thread of sleep creeping through her as well. She rubbed at her back a tad ruefully. All this effort had fatigued her and just the sight of his sleepy form grew heavy on her eyes. She slipped out back to the room she and Senpai shared.
It wasn’t until she already climbed into her bed that she remembered that she hadn’t gotten even one mouthful of liquor that night.