Title: Vita, Poena, et Libertas
Author: Kaitlyne McLeod
Description: Major spoilers for Trigun. Knives' pov (if you don't know what a knives is, don't read this!) Anime based. Author's notes at end.
Disclaimer: These characters don't belong to me. They belong to Yasuhiro Nightow and various and a sundry others.
Vita, Poena, et Libertas
He leaves me during the day. Goes off to God knows where. There must be a town somewhere nearby, someplace that he can walk to and back from in one day. Sometimes he's only gone for a few hours. Sometimes it's nearing dusk when he comes back, and the shadows in the cave are long and red with the suns.
I don't know why he leaves. Maybe he has some purpose out there, or he's just trying to get away from me. Or maybe he understands how much I need to be left alone right now.
He's late. It's getting dark. There's a cloth hanging near the entrance, and though I can't see it, its shadow is dancing on the stone above my head. It almost seems to be growing as the minutes pass, some dark monster that will eventually swallow me whole. I watch the shadow for a long time, lying still, listening to it flap in the bursts of wind. It dances to its own music. I count out its beat in my head.
The shadow reaches the far wall. Normally he would have returned hours ago. I sit up and the pain hits me, takes my breath away. I fall back, appreciating that at least Vash had the decency to lay me on a thick mattress instead of the stone. My heart is quick in my throat, and sweat appears on my face, cooled by the wind. I close my eyes, concentrate on breathing, slow....in...out....in....out, until I can imagine the pain away. When I open them again dust is insulating my face, and the light is fading even more. I stare off to the left as far as I can see. The far wall is in shadows, but I can still make out the bundle of Vash's blankets, still lying where he kicked them aside this morning. Near them is a bowl of water. The cloth that had covered it lays a few feet away, and no doubt the water will need to be filtered again.
Okay, I'm ready. I breathe in deeply, move my left arm near my side and use it as a lever until I am propped on it and can turn my head to see the entrance.
The dancing cloth proves itself to be a blanket, hung still from one corner while the others flap noisily. The metal pin that had held the other side clanks occasionally against the stone of the entrance, but the sound is muted and gone as soon as it is there. He must have known it would be windy today. The precaution had failed however, and with my new vantage point I am able to see the thin layer of sand that covers the floor of the cave. In some places it looks like it might even be a few inches deep.
I push myself up the rest of the way. The world spins for a minute, and I'm afraid I'm going to fall over again. I close my eyes, focus again on breathing. It's dark out. Not completely pitch black yet, the sky is still a lighter blue around the edges, but it will be soon. There's a lamp beside the bowl. I stare at it, wondering if it's worth it, but knowing in a few minutes I'll want the light and I'd much rather find it now than have to stumble to it in the dark. I wonder where he is, if he's coming back at all. God it hurts so much just to breathe. How am I going to do this?
I pick up my left leg and swing it over the edge of the bed, am not surprised that I don't feel it as it thuds to the ground. The other moves much more smoothly. Already I can hardly see the silhouette of the bowl.
I'm crawling on the floor, my breath quick. I hadn't realized how much I want that light, but I'm moving towards it, more than I've moved in days, and I'm there before I notice the pain, and I'm sitting beside it and fumbling through the blankets for the matches that I know Vash keeps around here somewhere, and finding them as the last light is beginning to fade and I can barely see the strike plate.
The light is quick and warm, and I turn the dial to raise the oil soaked cloth higher, until the cave is filled with new dancing shadows to watch. I turn my back to the wall and lean against it, breathing easier, watching the entrance at first, but the sand stings my eyes and finally I close them.
I don't even hear him come in. I notice that the wind is gone and that he's tied back the blanket, and I know he sees me before he makes mention of it. Finally he walks inside, sets down his duffle bag, smiles that hideously fake smile of his and says, "Knives, you're up!"
I don't respond, not really sure that I can at this point. I try to sit up higher and wince.
"Hey now, be careful-" He's coming towards me.
I don't listen to him and push myself up higher. "Oh, fuck." The words are quiet but he heard them.
"Whoa there, take it easy." He's beside me now, helping me stand, holding me and dragging me to the bed. "You opened it back up again."
I don't look down, I can feel the warmth spreading over my torso. I lean my head back and close my eyes.
He's rummaging through his bag now, and he comes back with a roll of bandages. He frowns at the water in the bowl and pulls out a drinking cup. He shakes off the cloth on the floor, drapes it over the cup and begins sifting the water through it. "Sorry, but this is gonna take a minute."
I still don't speak. I don't have anything to say.
I'm getting lightheaded again, and this time I don't really care when I start to slump over. He's beside me and the touch of his hands on my skin is like spider webs. I'm cold again, and even the water he pours over me feels warm. I don't feel the pain. Soon I don't feel anything except the cold, and soon that's gone as well.
I'm awake again and he's gone. I must be getting better; it's getting easier to breathe. I try to sit up. The pain is there but not as bad as it has been. I clench my teeth and sit up all the way. Yes, this is definitely getting easier.
I wonder where he goes. I know why he brought me here. Out here, I'm the one who's lost. Out here, I have nothing but this cave and the sand outside. Out here, the wind blows away his tracks long before I could have any hope of following.
I've considered the idea already. Finding my way to that town, maybe even a vehicle and leaving before he has a chance to find me. Recuperating on my own terms, in my own world. But I know this desert. Know it well enough to know that I wouldn't make it far, not in the condition that I'm in, not with my leg. If I knew which direction, maybe I could do it, but out here there's nothing, and going the wrong way would be suicide.
For my part, I'm glad he's gone. Now I can stare at the shadows on the wall until he gets back.
I'm still sitting when he returns, and I can hear him coming from quite a ways off. He's whistling this time. At first it sounds like the wind. I can catch just the slightest hint of a song before it's swept away again. I can't make out the tune. I'm not sure he even knows.
He pushes aside the blanket that serves as our doorway and ducks inside, caked in sand. He shakes his arms and head and it sprays over the floor. "Now I remember why I used to wear a coat," he says. He sits on his bed, facing me. "Man, I'm glad to see you up. I was starting to get worried. You were out for a long time this time."
I nod at him.
For a few minutes there's only the sound of the wind, and then he speaks again, smiling that awful smile of his. "You should see it out there! The wind is worse than I've seen it in years. I could barely see coming back --"
"Cut the crap, Vash."
It's the most I've said to him in days.
The smile is gone immediately. He stares for a moment, and mutters an "okay."
He reaches into his bag and pulls out a covered plate, hands it to me. "I brought you some food."
I take it, open the foil lid. Pasta. "I thought you didn't expect me to be awake."
"I didn't, I brought it for myself. But since you are, I figure you need it more than I do."
I can accept that. I twirl the pasta around a fork, taste a bite. It isn't bad.
He pours water from his flask into my glass as well and pushes it towards me.
It feels good to be eating again, eating real food and not gruel. I'm not sure if it's all in my head or not, but I feel stronger as I eat it. More normal.
He's taking off his shirt, undoing the buttons one by one with tired fingers. I don't notice the bandage beneath it at first, not until he winces as he shrugs the shirt from his shoulders. "You're hurt."
He looks at me for a moment like I'm a fool. "Yeah, you shot me remember?"
He shakes the shirt and more sand falls to the floor. He looks at it hopelessly and then tosses it down as well.
"I didn't realize you were injured."
"You shot me. That's all. I've come through a lot worse than this."
Suddenly the pasta is bland in my mouth. I've only finished a few bites but I'm sure I can't eat anymore. I pass the plate back to him and he takes it gratefully, eating quickly. He almost seems content like that, leaning against the rough stone wall, eating after me in a way we haven't done since we were children. I know him better than that, though. I feel his pain. This man suffers.
"Why are you doing this?"
He looks up at
me, mouth full. "Doing what?"
He shrugs. "It just seemed like the right thing to do."
I lean back as well, resist the urge to wince. If he's as hurt as I know he is and he goes out everyday and does whatever it is that he does, I'll be damned if I'm going to show him how much I'm hurting right now.
"Vash, how old are we?"
"I don't know...I sorta stopped keeping count somewhere around a hundred twenty-five."
I actually laugh at that.
"But hey, at
least I'm the only person I know who's actually believed when I tell them I'm
Now he laughs. A true, full laugh. "Yeah, I guess it is. Same goes for you though."
"Hey, I had mine long for a few years back there. You wouldn't have recognized me. I decided it was too difficult to manage."
"Yeah, same here. It just...wasn't me." He takes another bite.
"Do you do it because of her?"
He's surprised by the question, I can tell. "At first" is what he says with his lips, but his mind says sometimes. "It was something that kept her alive. And then....later, after July, after the bounty, it was part of who I was. I guess I felt like changing it would be like...denying myself."
I wonder if he's ever spoken like this to anyone else. I would guess no.
"Is that why you brought me here? Because you didn't want to deny yourself?"
He shakes his head. He doesn't know.
"I can't be
the man you want me to be."
"Then what do you want from me?"
The look he gives is filled with pain. "I just want you to live."
It's after noon when I wake up the next day, and I'm surprised to find him there. He's sitting just outside the entrance, stirring a fire with a smoldering metal pole. A pot sits on the embers.
He looked back up to me. "Hey, I was just fixing some lunch. You hungry?"
I nod, and he kicks sand over the fire and brings the pot inside and pours the contents into two bowls. He smiles as he hands it to me. He actually looks happy.
"You're home early."
He nods. "Yeah, got lucky. Someone decided to pull a shift for me."
I bring a spoonful of the rice to my mouth, realize that he probably isn't working as a cook.
"Come on," he says, taking a bite of his own, "it's not that bad. I mean, I've made worse." I can't help a smile as he grimaces. "Okay, you're right, it sucks. But you try cooking out here with the sand blowing everywhere."
We hear the jeep at the same time and turn to the entrance. He's on his feet quickly. "Wait here." Yeah, like I'm gonna be going anywhere.
He steps past the blanket, and I can briefly see the jeep parked in front of us.
"I thought I said you shouldn't come here."
"If I didn't think it was important I wouldn't have come, now would I?" A woman. This is getting mildly interesting. I wouldn't have guessed that he had a love interest hidden out there in that town.
He still sounds annoyed, but it's softened now. "What happened?"
"It's your boss. He's having a royal fit back in town. Wallis didn't show up to work today. He called him up and apparently Wallis says he didn't know anything about working for you."
He's moved to lean against the wall; I can't see his shadow anymore. "Oh shit."
"Yeah, and now Loomis says that if you aren't back to work in an hour you're fired."
They are silent for a moment.
"It's still hurting you, isn't it?"
"Vash, if you keep working this way you're just going to make it worse. When you left yesterday you could barely move you're arm."
"I said I'm fine. I'll be okay. I just need to get my stuff together. Can you wait out here for me? I shouldn't be more than a few minutes."
"Is he awake?"
"And you're just going to leave him here?"
"I've been leaving him here for the past week and there hasn't been a problem."
"But what if he decides to leave? You can't leave him here unguarded."
"He's not going to leave."
"You can't know that!"
"What good would it do him? He knows that if he leaves I'd come after him again. And I have the advantage right now. He wouldn't be able to accomplish anything."
"It doesn't take long to kill a man."
"He wouldn't do that."
"How can you say that, Vash? Look at everything he's done already. To you, to all those people he killed. How can you say that he wouldn't do it again?"
"I don't know, Meryl. It's just...what good would it do him? Why bother the risk? Not when he knows I'd find him again."
"So you just plan to keep him here, imprisoned for the rest of his life."
There's a long pause. "I don't know. For as long as it takes."
"For what? For him to decide not to kill people? For him to stop being a threat? Come on, Vash, you and I both know the chances of that happening."
"I'm not trying to protect everyone else. I'm...trying to protect him."
"From himself. Now if you'll excuse me, my hour is going fast and I need to get my bag."
He comes inside, looks at me but diverts his eyes as soon as they meet my own. "I'm going to have to go for a little while. I'll try to be back soon."
He's pouring water for me, setting it beside my bed. He sits on his own and puts the flask in the bag, though I'm sure it's mostly empty by now. He looks at the rice as though debating whether or not it should join the flask. He looks back to me, smiles slightly. "You want this?"
I shake my head.
He rummages under the bed for a moment and appears holding an old shirt. He tears a strip from the bottom and dumps the rice onto it, wraps the cloth around it a few more times. I wonder if the shirt is clean. He grins again. "It can't make it any worse."
I see the woman coming inside before he does. "Vash, can you hurry up, we need to get going? Do you need any-"
Her voice trails away as she sees me. I can imagine what it must be like for her, seeing his double for the first time. Not just the features, those are similar enough, it's the way I sit, so identical to positions he takes, my movements so like his own. I know because I can remember how surreal it sometimes was. When we were young that look was something I was very familiar with. Even those who knew us best, even Rem, would sometimes stop and stare.
I reach out a hand, smile widely. "Hello, I don't believe we've met. I'm Knives."
She actually startles at the sound of my voice, gives the slightest jump, even takes a step backwards. By God she's afraid of me. That's a good feeling. One I hadn't realized I missed until now.
"I'm just gonna...go start up the jeep, I'll see you...in a minute."
She's gone as quickly as she entered. I can't help but give him a smirk.
He stands and goes out after her, sending a single thought my way. It's not that funny.
On the contrary, I think it's quite funny.
In the end, it was his statement that made me decide to leave. The implication that I was too afraid. Too weak. Weaker than him. Well, damn it I've spent my entire life not being afraid of him, of anyone, and I'm not ready to start now.
I drink from the glass of water he's left. I know I'll need it. I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it to the town, not sure if I'll even be able to find it, but I'll need the fluids if I want to have any hope of making it farther than a few feet. I push my leg off the bed again. I'm going to need something to walk with. There's no way I can make it like this.
I make it to the floor and start to crawl. I can see the metal pole right outside. Getting to it is easy. Standing up isn't. I grab onto the curtain and pull, digging the pole into the ground. The dizziness that has been gone for the past three days is back, but I hold on tightly with my hands, wait for it to pass. But then I'm standing, more than I have since the incident, not holding on to anything, simply my legs and my pole, freely. I stumble over to the bed, sit down again and reach underneath, searching for clothes, something with sleeves. I find nothing. Where that man has put them I have no idea. I pull the blanket around my shoulders. I'll need something to block the wind.
It's easier when I stand this time. I wonder what he's going to think when he comes back and I'm gone. I wonder if he'll be afraid.
At first I can still make out the tire tracks. The ruts are deeper than human footprints; the sands take longer to cover them over. But my movements are slow, and it's only a matter of time before those fade from view, too. The horizon is just a shimmer in the distance. Behind me the small cave, the cliff it is cut into. I hadn't realized until now how small that cliff really was. For awhile longer, I can follow it, check every few steps, keep it at the same angle behind me, follow the line to the town that way, but the wind picks up, the sand flies thicker, and soon I can't see the cliff either.
I'm not sure how long I wander out there. After awhile when there is nothing but desert and sky and suns, time stops, doesn't seem as important anymore. Steps are no longer tedious, simply one after the other. Thirst, heat, fade away. At least until I hear his voice.
"I'm glad I found you! I've been looking for over an hour."
No, there's no way. At first I think it's in my head. Then the world comes rushing back, the feel of the sand on my face, windblown, stinging. The suns are setting. So close to dark. How could I not have noticed? I take a few more steps. Maybe he'll leave me alone.
He's following me. I can feel him there.
"You can't make it to the town that way. There's nothing but desert for two hundred iles."
I keep walking. He's closer now. I can hear his steps in the shifting sand. "Will you just leave me alone!"
He's stopped. "I can't."
I turn to face him. "Why do you do this?" I'm shouting as loudly as my lungs will allow, and yet somehow it doesn't feel loud enough. The wind carries it away just like everything else. "Can't you see that I just want to be alone? Let me stay out here. I don't care if it kills me, just leave me alone!"
I don't need to see his face. I can feel what he's thinking, feel it so deeply inside of me. Somehow that makes it worse. At least when I'm myself I don't feel much of anything. I take a few more steps. He sits on the ground, arms propped on his knees. I walk more, and he does nothing.
The heaviness is getting worse. I let the blanket drop from my fingers and the wind sucks it away from me. It helps some, but the weakness is spreading. The pole slips from my fingers and is on the ground before I even realize I've let go. I can't keep my balance, and I fall to my knees. I know I can't make it up again.
I turn over, lay on my back in the sand. It billows across my face. I wonder how long it would take to bury me.
"Fine, take me back!"
He doesn't move. "Are you sure?"
"Yes I'm sure." I'm shouting to be heard over the wind. "You're just going to sit there until I pass out and take me back anyway, aren't you?"
He's standing over me. "Yes."
He reaches down, takes my hand, and pulls me upright. "Why?" My voice is barely a whisper. He wraps my arm around his shoulders, grips me around the waist. His answer is quieter even than mine, but his face, so close to mine, I can hear it.
"Because you're my brother."
By the time we stumble back to the cave three moons have risen, a bright night. The sand seems to glimmer with it. I wouldn't have expected to enjoy the sight of the black wall that I knew was our cliff, closer still the blacker hole of the cave. He walks me to the edge of my bed and I let go. My fingers are stiff and I haven't been able to feel them for hours now. I lean back, sighing heavily. Vash does the same and for a moment I'm tempted to laugh. It's another moment I remember from childhood, the two of us sitting together, then both speaking the same words, gesturing the same way. It was almost a game yet was never intentional. I don't think he's even noticed. I don't know that I have the energy to laugh anyway.
He's reaching into his bag, taking a long drink from his flask. I bet he's wishing it was alcoholic. I know I am. It's a long moment before he passes it to me, and I accept it. He didn't offer it first. I understand the meaning behind the subtlety. I made him go out there. He's not happy about it.
He reaches under his bed and tosses me a clean sheet. I take it but don't bother to lie down. I just sit and watch him.
He removes his shirt, unwinds the bandages from his torso. They're caked in sweat and sand. How the sand ever reaches areas like that I have no idea, but it never fails. He throws them to the ground, a bit harder than is necessary I think. Yes, definitely not a happy Vash. He shakes the sand from his hair and lies down. His stomach growls and I realize that neither of us has eaten for some time. Exhaustion is outweighing my hunger however, and the thought of eating is slightly less than appealing.
He stretches out on the bed not even bothering to sweep away the sand that's accumulated there and fluff's his pillow. Firelight is dancing on his face, wispy shadows entwined with dark orange. I would consider turning up the flame if it wouldn't require moving.
"Aren't you going to bed?"
I shake my head slightly. "No. Not right now."
He stares at the ceiling, exasperated. It's nice to see him in that position for a change. "Aren't you tired?"
I shake my head again.
"Okay, you know what? I have to get up in a few hours and actually go to work, and I'd like to get some sleep."
He turns his head, stares at me. I give him a quick smile.
He props himself on an arm. "Why did you leave?"
"You didn't expect to keep me here forever, did you?"
He's sitting all the way now. The way he moves you wouldn't think he'd spent the past five hours walking through the desert.
"Is it because of what I said? Because I said you wouldn't leave? What were you trying to do, prove something?"
My smile is gone completely, and for a moment I'm at a loss for words. I've grown unaccustomed to being scolded, and the way he puts it makes me sound like a pathetic little boy.
"Why the hell shouldn't I leave? What's the point in staying here so you can keep me locked in a fucking cave all day while you go do God knows what in that town!"
"I don't keep you locked in here. There's not even a fucking door in this place!"
"Oh, okay, let's meddle in semantics. You keep me out in the middle of fucking nowhere, it's the same as a locked door. That desert is your deadbolt."
He's silent, leaning back against the wall.
"You have to admit I'm not exactly free to leave."
He wipes his hand across his face, voice soft again. "I know."
"And we see what happens when I do." He doesn't answer. I didn't expect him to. The statement is more for myself than for him.
He looks so tired now. Not just physically. Emotionally. The lines of his face seem deeper, his eyes ringed.
"What did you expect me to do, Knives?"
I know that he's not just talking about the desert.
"I mean, seriously, what did you think was going to happen?"
I look away as I answer. "I didn't expect to lose." A memory comes to me again. Playing a game of chess, the same words. I half expect Vash to shout "Ha! So you admit defeat!" as he had done then, dance around me laughing until I finally grab him by the collar of his shirt and Rem has to come in and break us apart. Instead he gives me a weak smile. "Yeah, I guess I didn't either."
He lies down again, sighs in a way that implies both comfort and fatigue. He links his hands and leans his head on them.
"What are you doing for them?"
"What do you
mean? Like what's my job?"
"I'm digging wells."
For a second I don't actually believe him, yet it explains a lot. "Why?"
"Because they need the water."
"They don't have a plant?"
He's leaning on his side. "Yeah, but the plants won't last forever. Half a dozen towns in this area have already been abandoned when the plants malfunction. They want to make sure they can live without it."
He seems proud of what they're doing. I look away.
"You have to admit, it's a good idea. They're becoming self-sufficient."
"You say that as though it forgives them for what they've done."
He rolls back onto his back. "Yeah, Knives, I do. But maybe that's because I don't see anything there to forgive."
"How can you say that? Look at what they've done to us! For hundreds of years, thousands. They destroy their own planet, enslave our relatives to make up for it, and take advantage of our abilities so they can live on a new planet that they will eventually destroy as they did the first one."
He sighs. Sighs as though I'm some hopeless child who just doesn't understand. "You know, Knives, I really don't understand you. Those people who did those things...that was a long time ago. Those people aren't around now. Sure they made mistakes, but hell don't we all?"
"Mistakes? How can you say it so lightly? They've destroyed everything they've ever come into contact with. They're doing it now. They can't even keep the plants alive, and they're just going to sap everything out of this planet. They don't even realize what they can have here and they're going to destroy it!"
"You don't know that, Knives." His voice is soft.
"Well based on the evidence it seems like a pretty good bet."
"You've tried to convince me of this before."
"And after all these years you still don't believe me? After all that they've done to you? My God, Vash, they've been doing it from the time you were a child."
When he speaks again I can barely hear his voice. "They're not all Steves you know."
I stare at him. "How can you say that? If anything I thought you'd have realized their true nature by now."
"They aren't all bad people. Yes, some of them, but not all of them. I've had friends. I've met people who were willing to sacrifice themselves to save another. Those people, those are the ones who make it worth the hope."
"Do you know what I've seen? I've seen people who don't give a damn about anyone else, who cheat and swindle and are willing to do anything for sixty billion goddamn double dollars."
"We aren't any different from them."
"Of course we are-"
"Don't give me any of the bullshit about how we're superior. We are the same as them. We are just as capable of destruction, of causing pain. And simply because you chose to surround yourself by the worst scum on this planet doesn't make you right, it makes you uninformed."
I lean back, crossing my arms over my chest. "The same could be said for you. You've spent your life believing meaningless ramblings of the most naïve person I've ever met."
He sits up, throws the blanket away from himself. He perches on the edge of the bed, fingers gripping the mattress.
"Look at me, Knives. What do you see?
I lift my eyes to his, meet them with the same intensity he offers me.
"Every scar on this body is here because of you. Because you hired people to come after me. Or because you put a fucking bounty on my head and they were trying to collect."
"Oh, now I think you're exaggerating. Surely I can't be held responsible for all of those."
He stares at me as though I haven't spoken at all. I watch his jaw clench, and he reaches to his left arm, grips it above the elbow, gives it a twist and pulls hard. He sets the arm on his lap, gestures towards me with the pinched stump.
"This one, you did this one yourself, you held the gun in your own hand!"
I give him a small shrug, can't help a smirk to go with it. I remember that day. I remember the smack his arm made hitting the ground.
"How can you tell me that we're better than they are when you are the exact same. Everything that you hate about them you are yourself." He throws he arm towards me. I catch it with one hand. It's heavier than I would have expected. I lay it across my lap.
He rests his forehead on his hand. "God, Knives why can't you realize that we aren't any different from them?"
"If you want to win sometimes you have to play the game by their rules."
His eyes snap up to meet mine.
"And what do you want to win, Knives? What's the point of all of this?"
"I want to right a wrong that was committed millions of years ago."
"Don't you realize that if it wasn't for them we wouldn't exist at all?"
"If it wasn't for them we wouldn't need to exist."
"We can't make that kind of decision! We aren't gods, Knives! You can't kill a whole species just because you believe we are some sort of sadistic saviors!"
"And what would you suggest we do, Vash? Coddle them? Pretend that nothing they have done is wrong? Wait until it happens again and it's too late to stop them? They should have been stopped long ago. They don't even deserve the opportunity that bitch gave them. Look at what they've already done. They haven't changed, they'll never change!"
"That isn't true, people can change! I've seen it all my life!" his voice begins to crack. "It can happen." I'm shocked to see how much it still hurts him to think about that man.
"Perhaps a person can change. But a single person doesn't make up for a species. And for every person who changes in a positive way, another person changes in a negative one. It cancels out until all that is left is the essence, the median. And that essence cannot be changed."
His face is creased as he looks towards me. My voice softens. "You can still join me if you want. We can still make things right. That's what you want isn't it? To make things right? And then after its done we can live here and make this world what it should have been, what it has the potential to be without them. We can have the paradise you've always wanted."
He stands, begins pacing quickly around the small alcove. "How can you even say that? You can't judge a person by the actions of others. There are good people in this world, people who deserve the chance to live, the opportunity-"
"People like Wolfwood?"
He stops dead in his tracks, glares at me as though my mentioning the name is some sort of sacrilege.
"You know, maybe you are right. Perhaps Wolfwood had a few...redeeming qualities. He was the most loyal man I've ever met."
"He betrayed you."
He says this as though he expects me to erupt in anger, shout "he DID?" with shock and contempt. My voice is calm, however. "I never said he was loyal to me. Perhaps you'd rather we adopt his principles? Maybe I would be willing to give you that alternative. I can bring them to you, you can decide which are worthy of living, which are worthy of passing on their 'righteousness.' I'd be willing to give them a generation, perhaps even two. See if you can prove me wrong."
"It isn't our choice to make!"
"Then whose choice is it? God's?"
He's chewing on his finger. "It's not ours."
"Well, Vash, I don't believe in God. I believe that if any being on this planet is worthy of making that kind of decision it is us. Look at the power we are capable of. Look at our lives."
"We can die just like they can, and you know it as well as I do."
"Really? Because it hasn't happened yet. For all we know we're immortal."
I don't really believe it and he knows it, but it's worth the frustration I can see building behind those eyes.
"How can you be so arrogant?"
The smile I give him now is the most genuine I've had in a long time. "I'm not arrogant. I'm just right."
"Give me my fucking arm back," he says reaching towards me. He grasps it before I have the chance to hold it out, slides it back into place. He leans over the side of his bed, comes up holding a pair of sunglasses. I wonder why he's even bothering with them; it's still completely dark outside. He doesn't seem to mind however and puts them on anyway. The firelight reflects off the lenses while he puts on his shirt.
"Are you going somewhere?"
"What the hell
difference does it make?"
"You know what, Knives? Do whatever the hell you want. I don't give a damn anymore. But I'm not going to sit here and listen to this shit."
He's gone before I can say another word. I wait a few minutes, until I'm sure he's gone and lay down, finally cover myself with the sheet. He says he doesn't give a damn but I know he does. I know that the only reason he left me here is because he knows I don't have the physical strength to try to leave again. Nonetheless I consider this a victory. I breathe deeply. Yes, I'm beginning to feel like myself again.
I'm awake shortly after dawn, when the cave begins to show the first hints of light. It's still hours before he returns.
I make the bed, surprised at how stiff my joints are, but in general moving smoothly again. I think I'm even beginning to regain some of the feeling in my left leg, I can swear that when I move I feel pain in the knee, fleeting but there. I don't think it's just wishful thinking.
It doesn't take me long to straighten my side of the cave. I've brushed the sand away from the bed, spread my sheet over it. I get the water bowl and set it on the bed beside me. It's nearly empty but it will do. I find a cloth in Vash's bag (am mildly amused that he left so quickly he has forgotten it) and soak it in the water. I begin washing it over my arms and torso. The water feels good, cool. As the sweat and grime rinses from my body I begin to feel even more myself.
It's a bright and clear day, and the wind that blows in past the curtain is coming from the north, slightly cooler than a southern breeze. It's midmorning and Vash still isn't back, so I pull his bag up beside me, going through the contents one by one. I have to admit that I've been curious about it for some time now, and finally satiating that curiosity makes me feel like a small boy again.
For the most part there is nothing interesting. A pajama shirt with long sleeves for the cooler nights, a pair of pants that he's obviously had for quite a few years; they are worn in several places. A comb. That makes me laugh. I've been living with him for several days now and still have yet to see him get ready in the morning; he's always gone before I wake up. I can remember though, when we were young, how he would spend close to an hour in front of the mirror in the mornings, determined to make his hair stand up the way that Rem had that first day, not wanting to ask for help. And he wondered why we all thought he was a mamma's boy.
At the bottom of the bag is a gun. That surprises me. That he would leave me here with any type of weapon seems quite irresponsible on his part. It's a revolver, an old one from the looks of it. Twenty-two. Not very powerful, but you don't need power if you know where to aim. I open the cylinder. No bullets. I search through the bag hoping that I might find some there, but he's smarter than that. On closer inspection I realize that the hammer is bent. I look down the line of it. No wonder he was stupid enough to leave it. It won't fire. With a little work, however, it does have some promise. I tuck it into the niche between my bed and the wall for safe keeping.
The item that pleases me most, however, is a book. Project Gallactica. The cover is worn, the colors on the front faded. He's had this for years. Books like this are hard to come by on this planet. This came from a ship. I flip it over, read the summary on the back.
Xeno Wright has spent the past ten years traveling from world to world as an interplanetary delegate for Earth's Project Gallactica. Until he comes into contact with the rasandas, an alien race who doesn't seem to understand the meaning of the word "peace". While a rescue team is assembled, Xeno must find a way to stay alive, and in the process try to prevent an interplanetary war.
I put the other contents back into the bag and throw it to his bed. It misses, bounces off and lands on the floor. I don't care, I make no effort to hide that I've gone through it. I lie back on the bed and begin to read.
I've made it through sixty pages by the time he returns. I hear the sound of the curtain moving in the back of my mind, though it takes me a second to recognize it. When I finally look away from the page he's standing there, glaring at me. He's been drinking. If smell is any indication, a lot.
He lies on his own bed. "Can you be careful with that?"
I would have expected him to return feeling better, calmer, but if anything he sounds angrier than he was when he left.
"Of course. I know how valuable an object like this is."
He covers his eyes with his arm. I return to my book.
By the time I've read three more pages he's snoring quietly. He's still sleeping when I'm halfway through the book an hour or so later. I can hear the sound of an engine from quite a ways off. I wonder if he's even going to wake up for it. Things could get interesting if he doesn't.
I lay the book beside me on the bed, sit up, trying not to make noise at first then realizing that the engine will wake him up before I do. I put my feet on the ground and am about to stand when he sits straight up. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I was just going to go greet our guests."
He squints as he looks towards the entrance, blinks his eyes a few times in a way that implies his drunk is going to turn into one hell of a hangover quite soon.
The engine stops quite a few yards from the entrance. What I wouldn't give to see his face right now, or the look on the girl's as she sees his anger.
He says nothing until the engine is completely silent. Even the wind is quiet today. When he speaks it carries.
"You know, I have this really distinct memory of telling both of you never to come here."
Ooh, there's two of them.
"And yet, despite the warnings I give, you choose not to listen. I am completely ignored and you show up at my door anyway."
He's walking towards them.
"Did it ever occur to either of you that maybe I have a reason for not wanting you here?"
One of the women speaks. I don't recognize the voice. "Maybe this was a bad idea. I think we should go."
The other one answers. "No, Millie, we came here for a good reason, we have nothing to be ashamed of. Vash, we were worried. You didn't come in to work today. We thought...something might have happened."
Curiosity is getting the better of me, and I'm tired of sitting behind a curtain while Vash gets to have all the fun. I stand, lean against the wall for support, and walk myself to the entrance. The taller woman is standing back beside the jeep. The shorter one takes a step closer to him. Wow. I wonder if she's purposely trying to irritate him or if she's just stupid. My money's on stupid.
"Are you even listening to me? I said you should leave. You shouldn't be here!"
The woman beside the jeep has her hand on the door handle. At least she seems smarter than her friend.
The shorter woman takes another step closer, but her voice has softened some. "Vash we were worried. Please don't be angry. We told you're boss that you were taking care of a sick relative. He's not happy but Millie agreed to work for you tomorrow if you are still gone, but Vash, please, at least tell us if you can't make it. We worry about you."
He nods. "I know Meryl, I'm sorry. I should have said something, it's not fair for you and Millie to have to take up the slack for me. But I don't want you coming back here. I have everything under control, you don't have to worry about anything."
Which I consider my cue. I step forward through the curtain, holding onto the wall still, trying to look like I'm not as dependent on it as I am. "Well, Vash, aren't you going to introduce me to your guests?"
He turns, glaring at me. "No, I'm not going to. Besides, they're just about to leave." I know that glare is still there as he turns around to say the last part.
The smaller woman comes even closer, eyes growing angry. "You know, Vash, I don't know what's gotten into you but this type of behavior just isn't acceptable. Millie and I stuck up for you today and instead of thanking us you are treating us like garbage. And aside from that, you've obviously been drinking, and I'm not sure that I consider that type of behavior to be exactly responsible all things considered."
I can see his jaw muscles tightening. He's fighting so hard not to say anything.
I stare at him hard, send a thought his way, making sure he gets it loud and clear. Wow, Vash, she's a bitch.
I feel his fist hit my face before I even knew he was going to do it. My head hits the stone behind me, hard, and the pain is immediate. My feet slip out from under me and I'm on the ground before I even realize for certain what has happened. It takes me a moment to regain my composure.
Apparently the girls are just as surprised as I am. The taller one has opened her door, is calling to her friend. "Come on, Meryl, I think its time to leave."
Meryl just stands, mouth hanging open.
He's shaking his hand at his side. At least it hurt him some as well. "I've been wanting to do that all day."
She walks closer to him, tugs on his shirt, whispering his name. She's wearing a trench coat today, long and tan, and beneath it I can see a holster at her waist, inside it a revolver that looks like it would be too high caliber for someone as small as her. He ignores her.
"If you ever do anything to hurt them-"
"What, Vash? You'll kill me? Don't make threats you can't keep."
The woman has a good grip on his shirt now.
My face is beginning to throb. "I wonder, Vash. Is this what happened with Legato? Threaten your girls and all the sudden all those moralistic ideals go flying out the window and you just cap him, right?"
I hear a clicking sound, so quick it takes me a moment to realize what it was. The arm gun. There and gone again so quickly I didn't see it. I look at the girls, wondering if they realize that he's even done anything. They just stare at me. The one by the jeep looks like she's about willing to come over and teach me a lesson or two herself. He's breathing heavily, the woman is holding onto his arm, holding him back. "I think you should leave," he says, teeth clenched. She nods, takes a few steps backwards. I think she finally is beginning to understand. The other woman is already inside the car, waiting. Meryl turns back to him as she gets behind the wheel. "Vash...be careful."
He gives a quick nod, turns back to me. I'm starting to seriously believe that I might have pushed him too far this time. I'm not in a good state to fight back if it comes to it. He grabs my arm, pulls me up hard, begins dragging me back inside. "What are you doing?" I try to keep the fear out of my voice but I'm not sure I'm successful.
"Wishing I'd left you back there in the desert."
I know he isn't talking about last night.
He leaves me in front of my bed, and I climb into it, lie down. My heart is thumping hard against my chest. He sits, rests his face in his hands. It's a long time before I speak again. By then I have control over myself. "Now what happens."
He's breathing heavily himself. I wonder momentarily if he's crying. He doesn't lift his head. "I don't know. Though right now digging a big hole in the middle of the desert and throwing you in seems like a pretty good idea."
I plan my answer carefully. I don't want to set him off like that again. Not yet. Not until I'm better prepared. "You know that I would find a way out."
"Yes, but it would probably take at least a few days. It would be a nice break."
Neither of us moves for a long time. It's a waiting game. I don't think he'll kill me. I really don't. Not anymore anyway. But he's holding the cards right now and he knows it. I may have started this game but right now he gets to decide how to end it.
After awhile I pick up the book again and start reading, but my eyes just scan the words; they don't sink in. I turn pages without being certain I've really read anything on them. My attention is still on that man sitting in the other bed, face in his hands. His breathing is more regular now.
"This isn't going to work."
I glance his direction, see that he's still sitting that way before diverting my eyes again. I start to open my mouth to say "what do you mean?" but stop myself. The atmosphere is still too unstable. Instead I simply reply, "What are you going to do?"
He finally lifts his head. His eyes are red, and he wipes his nose against the back of his hand. He has been crying. I set the book down.
"I'm still not really sure."
He's looking in my direction but his eyes see right through me.
"It just can't stay like this." His focuses back on me. "I won't let you do what you are trying to do."
I don't answer. I'm still not quite sure myself what I was trying to do. I just know how it felt to see him losing control for a change.
"I think you're going to have to agree to something here. I think what we both want right now is to survive. What comes later, I'm still not sure. But I think we need to agree...agree that this isn't going to work for either of us if we continue as we are going."
I run his words through my head, trying to decipher exactly what he's asking of me. I give him a slow nod.
"I think we both know that right now the decisions are mine to make."
I watch him carefully. He isn't comfortable with this, taking control this way.
"I didn't want to have to keep you imprisoned here. I didn't want to have to keep you locked up like some kind of animal. But you aren't giving me any other choice."
"You could let me go. I could agree to be a good little Knives and not hurt anyone. Find some nice little home in the desert with my trees away from them."
He stares at me hopefully for a moment, then his eyes darken. "That's not really funny."
"Okay I didn't want to have to do this but right now I can't think of any other choice. You're getting better and I can't trust your injuries to keep you here anymore."
He's tearing cloth bandages into long strips. He sits beside me on the bed. "Give me your hands."
I hold them out obediently. I don't know what else I can do. "I'm really sorry about this, Knives."
I don't acknowledge him. He wraps the strips tightly around my wrists, binding them together. He pulls my arms gently over my head, trying not to hurt me. My wounds are still tight and the muscles sore, but the position could be worse. I stare at the ceiling as he straps my arms to the frame of the bed. A few minutes later he gives them a few tugs and, confident that they are tight, moves to my feet. We say nothing. He only ties the right one. I guess he's decided the other isn't necessary. Soon I'm stretched out, flat on my back, unable to move more than a few inches. Enough to roll onto my side but not much more. "I'm sorry," he whispers again as he stands up and goes to his own bed. "It wasn't supposed to be this way."
Yes, I agree. It definitely wasn't supposed to be this way.
"Knives...Knives wake up." The voice is soft. I hear it but don't move. "Come on, I have to leave soon." Something moves against my chest. I try to roll over but my movements are impeded, my shoulders stiff, and I'm waking faster in somewhat of a panic as I realize that I can't move. The memories are quick to come back to me and I relax against the binds and open my eyes.
He's sitting beside me on the bed. "I thought you might want some breakfast."
He's already loosening the straps. I pull my hands free as his fingers are still working with the knots. He hands me a bowl of what smells like oatmeal.
"I'm not going to be leaving for another half an hour. I thought you might like a few minutes of freedom."
I eat quickly and watch as he finishes getting ready for work. When he finally comes back over to me and begins to replace the bindings, I make a single request. One that I know he will acquiesce to. "Is it okay if I read?"
He hesitates and then nods, making the length between my hands and the bed frame longer by a few centimeters. He puts the book into my hands.
"I'm surprised you like it. It's not the sort of thing I'd expect you to find interesting."
"I don't. But its' better than staring at the wall."
He nods, ties the last couple of knots and walks out.
I roll onto my stomach as soon as he's gone, start to examine the knots. He's good. More than that he knows me. Most of the knots are positioned such that I can't reach them with my fingers. But at least now I can see them. I learned quickly in the night that they were much too tightly woven to slip out of without looking. Not without dislocating my thumbs in any case, which isn't something I'm readily going to do.
The foremost knot rests centered on the back of my wrists. I catalogue the way the strands are looped. If I manage to get out I want to be able to put them back as well.
I twist my hands, trying to reach the ends of the cloth with my fingertips, but they can barely brush the edges and my fingertips are already beginning to tingle and lose feeling. I lean forward as far as I can, pulling against the rope on my foot. The extra centimeters help but my teeth are still too far from my hands to be of use.
I pick up the book lying beside me, prop it between my arms, lean it with my chin. It won't be easy. The only edge of the book stiff enough to possibly work is the spine, but if I can loosen that top knot I can get the rest. I begin to tip the book, keeping my breathing regular, patient.
The suns have risen high into the sky by the time the knot comes loose. I sigh deeply, rest for a few minutes. It feels good. My hands are no looser, but I feel that I have defeated him in a small sense. And now I have an added advantage. With the loop undone, I am now able to reach the ends with my fingertips.
I work more frantically now. I don't know how long he's going to be gone, but if past experience is any indication he could be back in anywhere from two hours to six. The knots come loose easier now. How did he ever seriously expect this to hold me for a full day? Finally they fall loose around me and I sit up, work on the ones around my foot. With free hands it comes loose in only a few minutes. I sit up. The air is warm in my lungs and I breathe it deeply.
I have one order of business that I feel must be taken care of immediately. I reach between the bed and the wall, fumble around until I feel cool metal against my skin. I pick up the gun hold it in my fingers, turn it over again. It's lightweight, much lighter than my old gun. I hold my arm out, aim at the wall across from me. It feels good. Different but good. I fall to the floor, not even bothering to walk along the wall, crawling is faster. I go about ten feet along the outer cliff and begin digging in the sand. Only about a foot. It doesn't have to be deep. He won't find it out here.
I cover the mound over, smooth the sand out. There aren't any visible markings on the cliff, but its better that way. He's an observant man, he'd notice if there were. And I can remember. I'm not worried about that.
I crawl back inside, dust the sand from myself before getting back into bed. Its only mid afternoon but I'm not going to take any chances tonight. He's going to realize the gun is gone. I don't want to give him any other reason to be suspicious. Retying the knots is easier than I had anticipated. I arrange them, keeping them slack and then giving a slow pull. The knots begin to come together as they had been. Slightly looser but close enough. I pick up the book and start reading. I want the gun to be as far away from my thoughts as it can be before he returns.
He's one of the most predictable people I've ever met. Though I have to give him credit that it did take him slightly longer to realize it was missing than I had anticipated.
He enters the cave, takes off his glasses and stares at me, still tied, lying on my stomach reading. "Where's the gun?"
At first it's just a question. Like he's not really angry about it at all. I roll onto my side, trying not to drop the book as I do so. "What gun?"
"You know damn well what gun."
I try to sit up, make somewhat of a show of it. "No. I don't."
"The one that was in my bag. The bag you got that book out of."
"I didn't see a gun."
He sits, grinds his teeth. "It was in here yesterday. I know it was. And now it's gone. You were the only one here. Who else could have taken it?"
"Don't you think if I'd found a gun I would have used it by now!"
He pauses as though trying to determine whether or not I'm telling the truth. I can almost feel him prodding around the edges of my mind. I push him away, think about Xeno, trapped in a prison of his own, of Commander Jackson fighting in the atmosphere of the alien planet. "It doesn't work."
Commander Jackson dodge the lasers when his ship can't exceed the speed of
light? "Right." I roll back over onto my stomach, open the
I do as he says. It isn't the easiest task with a bum leg and my hands still tied. Apparently not fast enough for him either. He pushes me off the bed, picks up my mattress. For some reason I'd always considered him one to have more patience than this. There's nothing under the bed but an extra sheet and sand. He sifts through both, puts the mattress back. His side of the room is more difficult. Blankets and bandages and towels. Dishes stacked under the bed, wrapped in more sheets. No real good place to hide a weapon however. He goes back outside, stares into the distance and around the cliff before coming back inside.
"Maybe someone you work with stole it."
"No. Not possible."
"And why not? Because they wouldn't do something like that to you?"
He glares at me and sits back down, defeated.
"Why were you keeping a gun that didn't work anyway?"
He leans against the wall and sighs. "Sentimental reasons."
He doesn't elaborate and I don't ask him
to. Instead I keep reading.
I nod, come to a sitting position again. He hands me a foil covered plate and a fork. He doesn't untie my hands this time.
He doesn't speak to me for the rest of the evening. For awhile I think he's forgotten about the gun, or at least come to the conclusion that I don't have it. Then he begins to clean the cave. Really clean it. He folds one of the sheets in fourths lengthwise, starts to sweep the sand back out the entrance. Finally he goes through his bag again, as if perhaps it might still be there and he's simply overlooked it.
He's finished cleaning as the second sun is setting. He leaves me, goes and sits outside on the sand, watches as the last light fades away.
I wake up in the middle of the night to pain. I'm sweating all over, my heart is racing. I can't tell where it's coming from at first, it feels like everywhere. I almost scream but hold it back.
After I start to really wake up the pain seems less consuming, more focused. Soon it's all in one spot. My leg. My left leg to be exact. This is an interesting turn of events. Suddenly the pain is more bearable as I realize the possible implications. I lay still longer, waiting for the pain to subside. Then I try to move my foot. If my brother can be digging wells less than a week after being seriously injured, then surely making my leg work cannot be too difficult a task. We share the same genes. He's just had more experience at being injured.
My foot wiggles, though the pain is intense again and I grit my teeth to keep from crying out. I can hear Vash's breathing across the room, so smooth, so regular. I close my eyes and am back on that ship again. He's lying next to me, the blankets tangled around his body and only half covering my own as always seemed to happen when we shared a bed. I listen to his breathing, the thin little whistle he makes with each inhale until I finally start to drift off myself.
The next day I can move my leg. It doesn't move well, but it moves.
I sit on the foot of my bed, arms already untied, legs still freed from the night before. I turn my ankle, rocking my foot from outside to inside, heel to toe. That joint is pretty flexible. Weak but flexible. My knee is a different story. I struggle to straighten it, but the joint is stiff, the muscles surrounding it not seeming to remember their function.
I work at it for at least an hour. The sweat pouring down my back is only partially from the heat, and I'm amazed to discover how much lower the suns have fallen when I finally stop. I fall back onto the bed, tie my hands back into place and take a much needed rest.
In three days I'm feeling comfortable enough to try walking. The pain has subsided considerably and I'm beginning to get back some of the range in my knee. I pause on the edge of the bed, hold my breath, and stand. On two feet not one. Two feet that I can feel.
The left leg is weaker than I had realized, but standing with my feet together I am easily able to compensate. I consider reaching for the wall and using it as a crutch, but resist the temptation. I want to do this as it is meant to be done. If it means falling on my face and crawling back to the bed then so be it.
I breathe deeply again, lift my left leg. The toe still drags along the ground, but the motion is there. Up, forward, down. I press my hands against my thigh, try to counterbalance myself as I step quickly with the right. I fall back to the bed.
Two steps. Two steps without the use of a crutch. Two steps isn't bad. Two steps is a starting point.
An hour later I can walk across the room.
The next day he wakes me up again before he leaves. Gives me food as he always does. Sandy rice for breakfast. I think the first thing I want to do when I get out of here is have a nice warm meal. A real meal, not what he brings me back in foil plates. Granted it's better than his cooking, but I miss sitting at a table. I miss wine. I miss meat.
"Lay down," he says quietly as he brings the strips of bandages to me. I comply, reaching down and moving my left leg forcibly with my arms before lying back on the bed. He ties me, checks to make sure they are secure, and turns to go out the door.
I'm working at the bandages as soon as he's gone. I want to see where he goes, make sure the direction is clear before the sand obliterates it. Fifteen minutes later I am free and walking to the curtain. I pull it aside, not worried that he might still be near enough to see me. This is more important.
I'm disappointed upon reaching the tracks however. The depressions in the sand are still perceptible, but even the light wind blowing is already destroying them. I sink to the ground, watch as they fade before me. I lay one hand beside the nearest one. Soon even it is covered with the thin layer.
I am Knives. I am smarter than this. I am smarter than him.
I hold onto the wall as I stand, count about ten feet and start to dig. The gun is closer to the surface than when I left it, which doesn't surprise me. This desert is like that. I sit against the wall again, hold it in my hand. I can fix this. I know I can. I've done much more difficult tasks in my day.
I walk back to the cave, examining the gun and not even really watching my steps. It's almost a quarter of an inch off center. I sit on the floor, knowing that the metal is too thick to really bend this way but also knowing it's worth a try. I put the hammer against the rock, my foot on top of the gun and my hand underneath to hold it in position as I put pressure on it. It doesn't give.
The hotplate Vash uses to cook our meals is still sitting outside. I grab the matches and my sheet and go back out, sit on the hot sand in front of it. There's still some sand on its top. He should really know better than to put it out that way, it's only going to damage the plate. I shake it away, feel that there's still quite a bit of fluid inside of it.
The plate takes three matches to light, but the fire burns a bright blue after only a few seconds. I wrap the barrel of the gun in the sheet and hold it over the flame until they touch only the hammer. It begins to grown warm and I wrap the sheet around a few more times.
After a minute I try the same trick I used before. It still doesn't bend. I'm wondering if the flame is going to be hot enough to make this work.
I hold it over the flame again, longer this time, until even through the layers my fingers are beginning to burn. I take it away again, press it against the stone floor behind me. This time I feel the metal slip. Just a fraction of a millimeter or so. I go back to the flame.
It only takes a few more tries before the hammer is lined back up with the firing pin and I'm confident that it will work again. I take a handful of sand and toss it onto the fire. It goes out immediately, and I give it a moment to cool before turning the knob on the side of the plate as well. Now all I need is bullets.
Hours of pacing the small cave are starting to pay off. In two days I can walk easily, my limp is barely noticeable. More than anything I'm pleased with my endurance. The knee still aches after half an hour, but the ache is dull and easily ignored. With luck I can make it to the town. It's just a matter of timing.
It's another three days before I see my opportunity. I wake up in the middle of the night, certain that something has woken me. The cave itself still pitch black. I lie awake for a few moments, listening, and then I realize that it's not a sound I should be listening for, it's silence. The wind has died. It's gone.
I can't fall back asleep. I know that the chance may be slim. The wind may come back at any time. But with luck I have a few hours. If I can make it there once I can make it there in any weather, I have no doubt.
He finally wakes up, stretches, rubs his eyes.
"Man, it's quiet out there."
He hasn't really spoken to me in days. I wonder if he's starting to forget that he's angry with me. "Yeah, it is. Spooky almost."
He stands at the entrance, pushes aside the curtain, stands framed in the new light. "It's been a long time since I've been out in the desert on a day like this. It's almost enough to make you forget that everything else even exists."
I don't respond. I know exactly what he means. It's why I've lived out here all along.
"It's so peaceful."
He finally turns away, looks at me curiously. "No wonder you're in a bad mood all the time. You never learned how to stop and enjoy life."
I open my mouth to argue with him, but stop when I see him smiling.
He reluctantly lets the curtain fall back into place behind him. "Hungry?"
"Not really." Honestly my stomach is so jumpy I'm not sure I could keep anything down anyway.
"Are you feeling okay?"
I nod. "Yeah, I'll be fine. It's probably just that stew you cooked yesterday."
He laughs. "Yeah, I think mine's still stuck in there somewhere too." He unties me anyway.
He washes up in front of the bowl, that little smile not leaving his face. I think its one of the few real smiles I've ever seen on him.
He shaves the stubble away from his face, and when he's finished offers me the razor for the first time since he's kept me tied. Even turns his back on me as he gets dressed.
I watch him as I wet my fingers and rub a thin film of soap over my own face. I go by feel, the motion so familiar that I don't need a mirror. He's putting wax in his hair, combing it and smoothing it with his fingers. I take the towel he offers, wipe the hair and soap from my face.
"You look better," he says, pats my cheek. On a normal day I would have grabbed that wrist and squeezed, made clear that such actions were unacceptable. Today, however, I tolerate it with only a look of minor annoyance, grip the razor by the blade and hand it back to him. "Thanks."
He folds it, gives it a spin before he sticks it in his pocket.
"How many times did you cut yourself before you got that right?"
"Never. Unless you count the time I dropped it on my foot. Cut straight through a new pair of boots."
He dips his fingers into the small tub of wax, runs it through his hair one last time.
"How much of that do you go through?"
He laughs. "A lot. It's okay though, I buy in bulk, get a discount."
He picks up the bandages that serve as my ropes. For a second I think he's actually going to leave without replacing them, but he sighs and walks back over to me. I hold out my hands before he asks for them. "Thanks for the razor."
He tugs at my hands after securing them, smiles. "Not a problem."
He puts on his sunglasses, snaps his fingers towards me as he walks out. "Maybe I'll bring something good back for dinner. Make up for last night."
"I'll be expecting it."
I lie still and count to five hundred before I let myself get up. I work the straps loose and reach under Vash's bed and find the old shirt he has underneath. The bottom edge is torn, but tucked in it simply looks old. The sleeves are short, but a few more minutes of going through his things and I return holding his pair of leather gloves. For the first time I am thankful that he ever wore anything this impractical. They might look ridiculous, but they'll protect me from the sun. Vash is smart and I've been lying in a cave for weeks. It wouldn't take him long to figure out I've been outside.
I pull them on, fasten the straps even though I don't really need to. I flex my fingers, get used to the feel of them. They don't move as well as the ones I had. They're thick, don't breathe well, but they are broken in. They may not have the same flexibility I am accustomed to but within a minute of flexing and clenching they are beginning to feel more like a part of my own hand.
I push aside the curtain. Just as I had anticipated his footprints are still visible. I look towards the horizon. Days like this you can see forever, but there must be a trick to the lay of the land because I cannot make out any semblance of a town out there. Not that it matters.
I dig through the sand and find the gun. It feels different through the gloves, but they fit around it easily. I let it fall to my side and begin to walk, careful at first to step into the depressions that his feet have left behind, but soon fall easily into the rhythm and I don't even have to watch after the first hundred yards.
I've been walking fifteen minutes when I begin to realize the secret to the topography that prevented me from finding this town before. The ground has been a gentle upslope to this point, but by now I can see the ridge of a large dune. When I make it to the top I can see the town down below in the narrow valley.
Finally the sand gives way to harder bedrock and packed mud roads. I take a deep breath as I step past the first building.
It's midmorning now and there aren't many people out. A few adults walk past me. One stares at me until I meet her gaze and turns away quickly.
A small girl is playing with a toy truck in the middle of the street, making vrooming noises as she traces tire tracks in the dust.
"Hi there, honey. Can you tell me where your daddy is?"
She smiles, points to a house nearby. "He's in there."
She stands up, tucks the truck against her chest and runs into the building. I follow behind her.
The house is clean, large for a town this size. The girl runs through another doorway. I wait for her. A few minutes later she comes back out followed by an older man. He's wiping his hands dry with a towel. "Is there something I can help you with?"
The girl is sitting on the floor. I sit on the sofa beside her. "Yes, as a matter of fact I think you can."
He puts the towel down, smiles until he comes closer. "Vash?"
His eyes narrow. "Who are you?"
"Who I am isn't important.
What is important is what you are going to do for me."
He's finally starting to show fear. "Abigail, go to your room."
"Abbey, honey, stay out here."
She looks between the two of us, starts to walk away. I hold out my leg, just enough to make it clear to him that I can block her path easily and get to her before he can. I never break eye contact with him. It only takes him a second to decide.
"Abigail, don't move. If I do this for you, you'll leave?"
"If I come back and you've so much as touched her, I'll blow your fucking brains out."
I smile slightly. "Look at me. You know who I am."
He shakes his head. "You aren't him. You can't be."
"But I look so familiar? I want you to really think about that, and then I decide if you think a bullet in the head would really stop me. I am capable of things that you can't even imagine, and if you want to keep this girl safe, then you'll be back here in seven minutes. Come back alone, don't tell anyone I am here, bring me back what I need. That's the agreement. Abbey here stays as collateral."
He nods, turns and runs out.
"Daddy?" The girl mumbles.
I pat her head. "It's okay, sweetie, your daddy is gonna be right back."
For a minute I think she's going to cry. I tighten my grip on the revolver, knowing I can probably knock her out in one blow if I need to, but she sits back down and hugs the truck again before starting to play.
His shirt is stained with sweat when he runs back in five minutes later. He looks for the girl first. She smiles up at him.
His hands are trembling as he hands me a box. I lift the lid.
"I was pretty sure it took .22s, but I got others just in case."
I nod. "You've done well." I load the gun in front of him. It would be simplest to just kill them both now, but I don't want to risk the attention it would cause. "If you tell anyone that I was here I guarantee that you and your entire family will be dead by morning.
He nods, picks up his little girl.
I pocket the rest of the bullets. "Thank you for your help. I knew you would come through." I wave a hand behind me as I leave.
He returns late again, but the evening is just as still as the day. His walk is tired, but he still smiles when he comes in. "Catch," he says and tosses a plate my way. It lands by me on the bed.
"What is it?"
He sits beside me, tugs at the knots. "Steak. Did you try to get out of these? They seem loose."
I shrug, smile myself. In fact it's difficult not to. "Can you blame me for trying? So steak? Seriously?"
He nods. "Yup. You look like you're feeling better."
I rub my wrists, pick up the plate. "Definitely. I'm starving."
"There's another surprise in there."
I peel away the foil lid. "Corn?" I have to admit, this is quite a surprise. Corn is something you can usually only find in the larger cities.
His smile broadens. The tension seems to melt from his face. "Yeah. They just got a shipment in a couple of days ago. It costs almost as much as the steak, but I thought it would be worth it."
I nod, genuinely impressed. "Thank you."
He throws me a knife and I catch it easily, begin slicing the meat. "Aren't you going to eat?"
"No, I already had something back in town. Right now I just want to rest."
God I missed the taste of meat. I eat slowly. When I close my eyes I can almost pretend I am already out of this hellhole, put the rest of it behind me. When I finish I set the plate on the floor. He sets it aside, sighs as he stands up and comes back over to me.
"I guess I might need to consider finding something stronger than this to hold you, huh?"
I hate the casual way he speaks about it. I lie back on the bed, trying not to sound as frustrated as I feel. "I'm still here, aren't I?"
He tightens the straps around my wrists, tighter than he has been.
"You're still going to let me read, aren't you?"
"You aren't going to try to get away again?"
"Are you really worried about it?"
He shrugs, adds some give to the ropes. "I just know I would have made it out by now."
He smiles. "Yup. And I still would have made it out by now."
"You've had more practice at this than I have."
"You're still my brother."
"Well, like I said, I'm still here aren't I?"
He nods, stares at me. For a minute I'm afraid he's going to see through me. I look to the book, focus on the worn cover, push away the thoughts of what I've really been doing for the past few days.
He turns it over in his hands. "You can't expect me to believe that you haven't finished this yet."
"Thirteen times actually."
"Not too bad, is it? Maybe tomorrow I can find something better to keep you entertained. I suppose you're going to want me to leave the light on, huh?"
"Can't really read without it."
"How long do you think the oil will last?"
I lean over and look at the small lamp. The amber liquid is almost gone. "Three, four hours max."
He nods, covers his eyes with his arm. "You don't mind if I sleep, do you?"
"Not in the least."
I open the book, turn pages every few minutes just for the semblance of it until I can hear his breathing start to even out. I listen to him for a few minutes before trying to get out of the bindings.
It isn't an easy task compared to my past experiences. The light is faint but deters me less than my fear of waking him. I know that I only have one chance if I have any hope of making this work.
I untie the last of the knots and sit up. The bed groans beneath me but I'm confident that particular sound will not alarm him; it's one that he has become accustomed to. I slide the mattress away from the wall, watch him as I reach behind it, feel cool steel.
I slide my fingers around it, squeeze the grip. My heart is in my throat and I smile and swallow it down.
I stand, walk over to his bedside. I never would have thought it would be this easy. He lays as he did when he fell asleep, right arm over his eyes, left hanging at his side. He breathes evenly through an open mouth. Firelight flickers against his skin. I grip the gun in both hands, hold it over his chest, centering it over what I know is his heart.
I match my breathing to his, calm, certain that my hands are steady and won't miss their mark and cock the hammer.
I know instinctively the moment he wakes up, dive towards the bed instead of away from it as I know he's expecting. I land kneeling across his legs, feel his gun as quick as mine against my shoulder. I fire before he has the chance to counter it.
He falls back hard, gun falling back to his side, finger still gripping the trigger, but I know he won't raise it again.
He reaches with his other hand to his chest, feeling for the wound as he gasps for breath. His hand flops against the fast spreading blood then lies still. I center myself above him, aim again. He turns his head enough to look up at me. I start to smile, finger on the trigger when I see those eyes, ringed in firelight.
God those eyes. How can he look at me like that? With such betrayal. After all that has happened between us how can he look at me now with hurt? His eyes roll back for a moment before he forces them open again. His lips move as if he's trying to say something, but he only emits a thin spray of blood. He tries to gasp and gives a small cough instead.
I try to squeeze but feel my fingers loosening instead. They feel numb, heavy. I can't look away from those eyes. I can't hear his thoughts right now but I don't need to, that hurt is filling my entire body. I drop the gun, lean over and grip his shoulders. "Vash?"
He opens his eyes again, struggles to breath. I realize that I can't leave him like this. "Vash?" I whisper again.
I hate how childlike I feel at this moment. I press my palms against the wound, looking around the room for anything that might be of help. I know that I can't take care of him like this. I don't have the equipment. I'm not convinced I could save him if I did.
His breathing is odd beneath my hands, the heartbeat beginning to grow irregular already. I remove them and the blood soaks faster into his shirt.
I pull him to a sitting position. His eyes are closed again but he's still trying to talk. There's no exit wound.
I lean over far enough to reach the bandages lying on my bed, make a packet out of some and then wind the others around his chest twice and tie them tightly.
He's growing limp as I hold him. He reaches for my shoulder, tries to keep himself in a sitting position, lifts his head enough to look me in the eyes again. I turn away before they reach mine, grip him around the waist and lift him over my shoulder as I stand. I stagger under his weight but quickly find the new center of balance.
The night is perfectly still as I run, the only sound my panting hot breath and my feet against the sliding sand. It is a dark night, only one moon low on some horizon, but I find my way easily.
His blood is soaking my back by the time I arrive at the town. He passed out long before.
I run through the empty streets, see a tavern at the end with lights still on.
"I need a doctor!"
The bar is nearly empty, only a handful of people. They turn towards me, stare blankly at first.
There's a table a couple of feet away. His arms flop loosely as I lay him on rough wood.
They're crowding closer now, curiosity getting the better of them. One man shouts, "It's Vash," and they come even closer.
"I need a doctor," I repeat, more commanding this time. Most of them just stare at me longer, but the bartender runs out the door and down the street.
I fall into the chair beside the table, turn Vash's head towards me, feel below his nose. There's no movement. I lay my hand on his chest, can feel the flutter of a heartbeat fast beneath it.
The bartender returns quickly, followed by another man, younger than I would have expected. He looks at Vash, feels for a pulse.
"This man's not breathing."
He looks at me, frowns. "There's nothing I can do."
"His heart is still beating."
He rests a hand on my shoulder. I shrug it away. "I'm sorry but this man needs a hospital. The nearest one is over sixty iles from here. He'd never make it."
I stand, stare the man in the eye. "Then take him back to your office, give him oxygen, and sew him up. You can do that, can't you?"
"I'm not equipped for surgery-"
"And I'm not going to let my brother die just because you aren't willing to try."
I walk back to the table. My heart beats harder as I see the blue his lips have turned in so little time. I slide an arm under his torso, another under his knees, lean back until he rests comfortably against me. "Where am I taking him?"
The man shakes his head, looks away.
"Now. Tell me. Where am I taking him?"
I walk towards the door and finally he comes after me, leads the way.
The office is only a few buildings away and he leads me to an examining room. I lay Vash on the metal table. He places a mask over Vash's face, takes my hand and puts it on the bulb and squeezes. "Keep doing that." He goes to the sink and starts washing his hands, calls upstairs to someone named Matthew.
A boy who can't be more than ten comes down, rubbing his eyes. "What is it, Dad?"
"Go wake up your mother, tell her I have a patient down here I need her to breathe for."
The boy nods. "Is that Mr. Vash?"
I squeeze again. Again. He's slipping on a pair of gloves. "Yes. Do you know his friends? The two girls?"
He takes the bulb from me, starts pumping the air himself. "You know where they are staying?"
"I think you should go tell them he's hurt. Bring them back here."
The boy nods again, runs back upstairs.
There's a waiting room outside. I move one of the chairs back into the examining room, make myself comfortable in the corner.
The doctor looks at me over his shoulder and I expect him to ask me to wait outside.
"He's lost a lot of blood. Do you know his type?"
"Can you go into that room, get me a bag out of the refrigerator? They're marked."
I go to the room as indicated, return with three bags of blood. I hand him one, lay the others between Vash's feet. "Just in case."
He smiles at me, feeds an IV into Vash's hand, hooks the bag to it. "Can you tell me what happened?"
"I shot him."
He pumps the bag a few more times before answering. "There's a good chance he's not going to make it. He's in shock. His left lung is collapsed. I can only guess as to the rest of the damage."
The man's wife appears from upstairs goes to the sink without question and starts to wash up.
"Just sew him up. He'll be fine."
His brow furrows and he looks away.
"He's made it through worse than this."
His wife takes the bag from him, begins the rhythmic pumping as her husband cuts away Vash's shirt. He wipes the blood away, sees the scars below it. "Good God." His wife gasps but says nothing. He works more frantically now, as though he is finally beginning to believe that he can save the man on his table. "This is going to be a long shot."
Less than half an hour later I hear the front door open. The boy comes in. "I brought them back, Dad. Do you need my help?"
"No, son. Go tell them I'll be out to talk to them as soon as I finish."
The girls push their way into the room, held back by the boy who stands with arms outstretched and a futile "You can't come in here!"
Millie sees him on the table looking only slightly less blue, chest opened as the doctor tries to remove the bullet and repair its damage. She lets out a small whimper, tears falling down her cheeks.
Meryl's eyes find me immediately. "What have you done to him!" She tries to push past the boy but he holds her back. I say nothing.
"I'm going to have to ask you to wait outside."
"Why is that man here!?" She isn't struggling with the boy anymore. The fight fades out of her voice as she gets a better look at Vash.
"Because he brought him here. Now please, if you want this man to have any hope of recovering you'll stop distracting me."
She steps back, nods an apology, takes Millie's arm as she leaves.
"How is he?" I ask the doctor.
He doesn't look up. "He's a fighter."
There's a clicking sound as the doctor lays the bullet on the table, offering a weary smile. "One step closer."
I nod, pleased. His wife switches hands, shakes out her left.
"Would you like me to take over for you?"
She squeezes the bulb. "No, I'm fine. If I need to I'll call Matthew back down." She has no intention of doing so, however. She yawns, exhausted, but she'll stay up all night doing this if she has to.
We can hear the footsteps outside and expect the knock. The doctor says nothing, continues working on Vash. The table is now waxed in a thin layer of blood. The woman checks Vash's blood pressure with her free hand. "80/45."
There's another knock.
The doctor is injecting Vash with something. Epinephrine maybe. The door opens and a man peeks timidly around the corner. "I'm sorry to interrupt doctor." He starts to leave but sees me, instead pushes the door open the rest of the way.
He's holding a gun, already cocked and pointed at my chest. "Excuse me,
"I'm very sorry about this but I'm going to have to ask you to come with me."
He's holding a pair of handcuff's in the other hand.
The doctor looks between the two of us. "Go ahead and finish up." I stand, move to follow the man at the door.
The doctor's eyes go back to Vash's opened chest. "I'll send word and let you know how if he makes it."
"I'm sure you will."
The man extends the handcuffs. "I'm going to have to ask you to put these on."
I stare at him for a moment and his grip on the gun tightens. I touch Vash's shoulder and hold out my hands.
Their stares follow me as I'm led across town, like I'm some kind of sideshow exhibit. I don't know how word spreads so quickly, but windows are flooded with lights. Most of the people have come out, stand on the streets to watch as I'm led by, not even attempting to be discreet. They chat quietly among themselves, but their voices carry easily in the still night. Is that the man who did it? Is it true, someone shot Vash the Stampede? I hear he killed him. Are you sure that's not him? Who is he? He looks so much like him.
I stare straight ahead, try to focus on the sound of my footsteps, but the words won't fade easily, and its not until we make it to the jail on the far side of town and the people finally begin to abandon their posts on the street that I am able to relax again.
The sheriff holsters his gun as he pushes open the door and leads me through a small entryway. The jail is small, three cells branching of the main room, a door marked "restrooms" sporting a male and female silhouette in place of the fourth. In the center of the room is a desk with two poorly upholstered chairs facing it.
The sheriff picks up a stack of papers, finds a set of keys underneath and leads me to the furthest cell.
"I'm going to have to apologize for the accommodations."
I step inside. "Actually this looks about the same as the place I've been staying."
The door slides closed behind me. I sit on the cot, wrap my arms around my knees and lean back against the bars.
The sheriff turns the key in the lock and sits behind the desk. "I just want you to know that I think it's ridiculous that they're making me hold you like this. I think I speak for this town when I say that we don't think a man should be put in jail for shooting Vash the Stampede. But those girls insist that you be kept here under armed watch until we know whether or not he's going to pull through. It doesn't look too good for him though, does it?"
"He'll be fine."
"Well you sound confident of that."
"Because I am."
He lights a cigarette, inhales deeply. "So you're his brother?"
"Wow. How it is that no one knew that the legendary Vash the Stampede had a brother? Especially considering the family resemblance."
"I haven't exactly spent my life surrounded by people."
"Can't say I blame you, what with him being as famous as he is."
He rests his feet on the desk, leans back in the chair. "I'm wishing the feds still had that fucking bounty posted on his head. I think we would have all turned him in a long time ago if they did. After all that man has put us through I think this town deserves a little compensation."
I rest my head against the bars. "What has he done?"
"What do you mean what has he done? The man's Vash the Stampede. He destroyed July and August. He put a hole in the fucking moon. Isn't that enough? With all the destruction that man's caused we deserve every penny of that reward."
"Do you really think you would ever have gotten it?"
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"The money. The sixty billion double dollars. You would never have been able to collect."
"How can you say that? The bounty's been posted for decades."
"Do you really think anyone would pay that much money just for one man's head? It's ridiculous."
"How the hell would you know?"
"Because I'm the one that had the bounty placed to begin with. And I guarantee that I never had any intention of paying it. Might have offered you a smaller fee for the trouble but I doubt anyone even has sixty billion double dollars to give away like that. It's not like its sitting in a bank somewhere waiting to be collected."
The cigarette is burning away but he doesn't notice. Ash falls from the tip onto the pile of papers. He taps the few remaining embers into the ash tray.
"I suppose I could have created it for you. I've been involved in a fair share of counterfeiting in my time. But do you realize what would happen if that much money were ever introduced into the economy? The dollar would be worthless. It would cost twelve thousand double dollars just to buy a loaf of bread."
"I don't believe that."
He stands, walks to the front of my cell. His hand shudders as he speaks to me, dropping more ashes onto the floor.
"You know, I don't think you'll mind me saying this, seeing as how you're the one who shot him, but I hope he dies back there on that table. That's one man the world would be better off without."
I'm on my feet before he registers that I've even moved, slipped my hands through the bars. I grab him by the neck, squeeze and pull upwards until he's standing on his tiptoes. "I made a mistake. So sue me."
The cigarette falls silently to the floor and he claws at my arms. My grip tightens. I can feel his heartbeat quicken beneath my fingertips. I smile as he starts to lose consciousness. "My brother is probably the only thing on this planet that can save you."
The front door opens. "Knives!"
I drop him as soon as I hear the sound. "He'll live."
He starts to recover almost immediately, brings himself to all fours, coughing as Meryl rushes to his side. She helps him to his feet. "You." he coughs again. "You are just like him!"
I sit with my back to them again, turn my head to watch. She wraps her arms around his shoulder. "You should go get some water."
"And leave you here with him?"
She holds up a gun of her own. "Don't worry, if he tries anything I'll shoot him."
The man coughs again, leaves the room.
"How is he?"
"The doctor just finished. He's still not breathing. There was a lot of blood in his lungs and there's a good chance that he could end up with pneumonia, if he even makes it through the night."
"He's not giving up on him though?"
"No. Not yet. He's even ordered a ventilator from the hospital in April. It should be here in a couple of days at the latest. Until then we're going to keep doing it by hand."
She wraps her arms tightly around her chest. "I want you to know that if he dies I'll come back here and kill you myself."
I have no doubt. "He won't die."
"Did you listen to a single word that I just said?"
"He's Vash the fucking Stampede, Meryl. Do you really think that a single gunshot wound could bring him down?"
"That's what you planned isn't it?"
"He's dead, Knives. For all intents and purposes he's already dead. He can't breathe, his heartbeat is barely stable. It's a miracle he made it through the surgery at all. The only thing keeping him alive is the fact that we're pumping air into him, and even with that he's not getting enough oxygen. You can tell just by looking at him. Even if he pulls through all this, do you realize what could happen? He may never be the same Vash."
I won't look at her. I can hear tears in her voice.
"Surely you've seen his body. You've seen what he's been through. Do you seriously think that he's made it through these years without facing worse than this? He's going to be okay."
"Okay. Fine, Knives. If you have to keep telling yourself that so that you don't feel guilty about what you've done then go ahead. Keep it up."
I can't answer her.
The sheriff comes back in holding a glass of water. "You know, if the Stampede dies I'm gonna see that they hang your ass."
Meryl turns back to face him. "Oh don't even complain. I told you that man was dangerous and you chose not to listen to me, you're just as much at fault as he is."
I can't resist a smile. The sheriff pauses mid sip, eyes wide. Her heels are sharp on the floor as she leaves.
The sheriff rests his gun on the desk, rubs his neck, already beginning to bruise. When I turn my eyes to face him he looks away.
In my dreams we are children again. In the rec room, playing hide and seek. I can smell the grass, the scent of wet dirt. The scent of living things. I take a step forward, lean my hand against the rough bark of a tree. Mud squishes between my bare toes, but my grimace is replaced by a smile as I see him still sitting cross-legged in the clearing, eyes closed and counting. I look up the tree, trying to decide whether or not he will notice me in the branches. I wipe my foot against the grass, I know he'll track the mud, and run silently through the small grove, shoes bouncing against my back. I find the bushes a hundred yards from the door that serves as "base" and crouch behind them. Out here it isn't how well you hide that counts. It's whether or not you can make it to base without getting caught.
He stands, looks around, concentrating. I suppress a giggle. He follows my trail into the grove. I wait until his back is turned and he's staring at my footprint in the mud before I take off.
He hears me and takes the chase, leg's pumping until we both dive for the door, laughing. I reach it before he touches me and we sit together for a moment to catch our breath.
"I almost had you."
"You thought you could follow the mud, didn't you?"
He grins. "I knew where you were hiding. You're turn."
He waits for me to sit in the clearing and close my eyes before running off. I try to follow the sound of his steps over my counting, but he's gone towards the grove and I can't hear them anymore.
I reach 100, stand and follow him to the center of the trees. There's no sign of him. Vaaash, where are you hiding?
In the tree right behind you.
I smile and take another step forward, hold my breath. Sometimes if he's close enough I can hear his breathing. I close my eyes, picture Steve in my head, put him in a large green dress and think the picture to Vash. I hear a small giggle to my left. Sounds like he might really be in a tree. I add a large straw hat with a feather and send him that one as well, listen for his laugh.
I wait a moment, hear nothing, take a few steps closer. Vash?
It's so quiet. I feel my heartbeat quicken, walk towards the back of the grove. Vash?
I still can't hear him. I call his name aloud and still get no answer. I want to pretend I don't care, but the panic is spreading. As if I don't find him I never will. I'm running through the trees, pushing aside branches. "Vash this isn't funny, come out!"
The silence seems to get deeper. The ever present hum of the ship fades away, and suddenly I begin to feel that maybe he's not the one who has disappeared. I call out again, more persistent, giving in to the fear. The grass is perfectly still; even the leaves overhead are silent. I sit on the ground, wrap my arms around myself, feeling tears in my eyes. I wipe them away with my hand, but they keep coming. The fear becomes all encompassing in the way it only can in dreams and his name is still in my mind when I wake up.
The door creaks as it opens, followed closely by the click of heels on hard flooring and suddenly I am very awake. My heart beats faster as she enters the room. I tell myself that it was just a dream. Then I close my eyes and search for my brother in the darkness behind them as I haven't in so long.
She's talking now to the person at the desk. Not the sheriff anymore. I push their voices away, focus on the darkness until they fade completely, try to feel for the connection. At first there is nothing, only that darkness more complete than the dream. When we were children this would have been so much easier. We could feel each other from anywhere in the ship, simply know that the other was there. Now it's harder, and whether it's the years or lack of practice or the differences that separate us, the connection is difficult to find.
I envision a cord reaching out from me into that distance and begin to walk down it, holding onto it tightly until finally somewhere in that almost meditative state I can feel a twinge on the cord, the quiver of a heartbeat on the other end, rhythmic.
I abandon the imagery, no longer needing it and try to explore his mind, his feelings. I can't go deeply anymore, and my head is already beginning to throb with the effort.
I sit up, try not to wince at the light from the suns. She's still talking to the other person, just a kid. I'd be surprised if the boy has ever even shaved. She sees me move and waves a hand at the kid in a way that I know means that she's going to do what she wants anyway. That kid won't stop her and she knows it.
"How is he doing?"
"He's still not breathing, but his blood pressure is stable. His has a fever though and the doctor is worried about infection. He is giving him antibiotics."
I close my eyes again, try to focus deeper, but still come up with nothing but the feeling of his presence. I smile slightly as the dream finally begins to be pushed away.
"The doctor is surprised he made it through the night."
"He's a good doctor." I open my eyes for only a moment as I speak, close them again.
In the concentration I forget that she is there, remember and open my eyes. She's staring at me. "What are you doing?"
I focus on the opposite wall, try to keep the connection open.
"Can you feel him?"
I almost lose it completely. I guess the look I give is answer enough.
She comes closer to the bars, holds onto one with her hand. "Is he in pain?"
"I don't know." It's fading quickly now. "I don't think so."
"What can you tell?"
"That he's alive." I let the thread unravel. The throbbing loses some of its intensity but continues behind my eyes.
"Isn't that enough?" I rub my temples lightly. The pain is subsiding, but I have a feeling it will be a few hours before it is completely gone. "It was easier when we were children."
"Can you hear his thoughts?"
I look back up at her. "Only when he wants me to."
"That day, when he hit you. What did you say to him?"
I smile slightly. "You don't want to know."
"You threatened us didn't you?"
"No. I simply said what I knew would make him angriest at the moment."
She let's go of the bar, clenches her hands at her sides. "How is it possible that the two of you can be so completely different?"
"That's where you're wrong. We're exactly the same." I look towards the window. She's about to say something. She's angry with me and I know that it will only be a moment before she sorts through that anger to find actual words to express it. "Are you going to be leaving now?"
She has to pause, think to answer the question. "Why?"
"You came to give me an update on how he's doing. You've done that. Now you can leave."
"That's not why I came. I came to make sure you hadn't killed the guard while I was gone."
"Obviously I didn't."
"Well, surely you can understand my concern considering what happened last night."
"I didn't kill him."
"You would have."
"I doubt he would have been missed."
"I'm sure you don't keep up with things like this, but that man has three children and a wife to support."
I suppose it won't really do any good to explain to her that having children doesn't necessarily qualify someone as worthy of living.
"I heard what he said. About Vash."
I slump against the wall. "If you heard then you probably wish you hadn't walked in that door when you did."
"I walked in that door for a reason. Just because he said that doesn't mean he deserved to die."
"You hate him as much as I do, Meryl."
"He's never even really met Vash. You can't condemn a person for ignorance."
"Can't I? Aren't you sick of it? Aren't you tired of them never giving him a chance? Look at what he does for them. He's spent his whole fucking life trying to stick up for them, living for them, and look at how they treat him. It's despicable."
"So you think that's a good enough reason to kill everybody?"
"No, I think the fact that humans are parasitic leeches that destroy everything they come in contact with is good enough reason to kill everybody."
"God, Knives, didn't you ever have a friend? Didn't you ever once in your life have somebody that you could depend on? Someone you trusted? Who cared about you for who you were?"
I see no reason to answer that.
"Damn it, Knives, we aren't all like that. Yes it frustrates the hell out of me to see the way that they treat him. Yes I hate them sometimes. But it isn't a reason to kill someone."
I watch her closely. "You would have me killed."
She leans back slightly. She wasn't expecting that one.
"You told me so yourself."
There's fire in her eyes again. "Yes, I would. You are dangerous. You have no respect for life. Vash should never have trusted you."
"He believes I deserve a second chance."
"I might be friends with him but it doesn't mean I have to subscribe to all of his beliefs."
"He would be very offended to hear that from you."
"You tried to kill him! If that isn't proof enough that he should have let you die then what is?"
"I suppose the fact that I didn't counts for nothing?"
"No, it doesn't."
"Then why don't you just do it? You have a gun. I'm behind bars. Why not just shoot?"
She unfurls her fists. "Because it's Vash's decision to make not mine."
"You and I both know that isn't true. You won't do it because if you know it would upset him. Do you want to know the difference between you and me, Meryl?"
"The difference is that I am not afraid to act on what I believe. That I am willing to do what I know is right no matter what those around me think. I disagree with him too. And I don't give a fuck that it offends him. You won't kill me because you are afraid of what Vash would think of you. You're afraid to see the way that he would look at you."
"You know nothing about me."
"I've spent more years of my life studying humanity than you have spent on this planet. I understand you more than you could possibly imagine."
"I'm not convinced you have the mental capacity to understand humanity. Now I didn't come here to argue with you about this. Honestly I don't give a damn what you have to say about any of it."
She turns towards the door.
"So I'll be seeing you again tomorrow?"
She doesn't turn back to me, just raises a hand and gestures at me with one finger before the door slams closed behind her.
The next day she disregards the man at the desk entirely, walks straight to my cell, holds onto the bars and looks at me with eyes that are almost desperate.
"I need to know why you did it."
I tuck a leg beneath myself, rest my hands in my lap. I finally look back at her, meet her eyes. "Because he was keeping me tied up. I thought it was the only way I could be free."
"No, not that. I mean why did you do it all. Why did you kill so many people? Destroy so many lives?"
I breathe deeply, look out my window. It's a long time before I answer. "Because I came to realize at a very young age that humans are innately cruel and destructive creatures."
"But something must have happened to make you decide that. You weren't born this way."
"Why do you want to know this?"
She takes a few steps backwards while I'm speaking, grabs a chair and drags it in front of me, sits down and leans forward. "I need to understand. I need to understand what happened between the two of you, to the two of you."
I sigh, look away again. "How much do you know?"
She lowers her voice. "I know that you destroyed the ships. That you crashed us on this planet."
"You know what we are?"
She hesitates but nods. I look towards the man at the desk. "Ask him to leave."
She studies me, even wearier this time. She doesn't take her eyes from me as she speaks to him. "Excuse me, sir-"
He's on his feet already. "No, ma'am, I can't do it."
"I'll take full responsibility for anything that happens. You can sit right outside if you want. Please?" She smiles sweetly at him.
He hesitates again. I considering offering him a smile and a wave but really don't think it will help. Finally he sighs, starts to walk towards the door. "I'll wait right outside. If he does anything-and I mean anything-threatening you just call out, okay?"
She nods and waits for the door to latch before turning back to me.
"If you want to know about our childhood why didn't you ask him?"
"He's not exactly open about things like that."
"And you expect me to be?"
"You asked the guard to leave, didn't you?"
"And what makes you so certain that wasn't so I could kill you without his interference?"
Her eyes narrow and for a minute I think she's going to leave. Instead she just stares at me. "I'm willing to take that chance. Like you said before. You're locked up and I have a gun."
"Why hasn't he told you?"
"He doesn't talk about these things. You have no idea what it took to get the little out of him that I did. And even then...he doesn't go into details."
"I thought you knew him well."
"That's one thing I've learned about Vash. No one knows him well."
I nod, look away from her before beginning. "They never accepted us. I suppose you could say it began with that. Rem did. But Rem was different. She was young, naïve. Very naïve. I realized very quickly that Vash and I were more sophisticated than her. Well, I had thought Vash was. I found out later that I was wrong about that. But then again Vash always did have a proclivity towards denial. To the best of them we were dogs meant to be trained, and to the others creatures not worthy of living. I could never understand how we, obviously having greater intelligence and mental capabilities could not be viewed as having worth."
"So you decided to destroy everyone based on a few people treating you badly?"
"You seriously think I'm that petty, don't you? I said that was the beginning. I decided to perform an...experiment if you will. I wanted to see if people were willing to treat us that way how they would treat each other. And they proved me right. Have you ever studied Freud, Meryl?"
She shakes her head.
"Freud posed that human beings are instinctively, innately aggressive, ruled mostly by thanatos, the death instinct. I have come to realize that this is true. I got the first hint of it on that ship. Humanity isn't merely destructive to nature and 'lesser beings' and each other...they are destructive to themselves. You might try to hide behind self-righteous false morals or ignorance or any number of things, but at the root of it all, you are nothing more than an over-developed id; aggressive, angry, and self-serving."
Her shoulders slump, her voice weak. "You made that entire decision based only on what you'd seen of a few subjects in a few short years?"
"I admit that looking back it was rather rash. I could have waited until we found a more suitable planet. And I should have anticipated that Vash would become so fixated on Rem after losing her. As they say, hindsight is twenty/twenty." I finally face her again. "I don't regret anything I have done. I told you I spent years studying humanity, and I meant it. Everything I've learned up 'til now has proven me correct."
She sighs, looks away. "Was she your mother?"
"If anyone could be considered our mother it would have been her."
"Is that why Vash was so hurt when she died?"
"Vash was hurt because he searched for acceptance and she was the only one who ever offered him any. When it's all you have...you cling to it."
"You must not have felt she accepted you if you killed her."
"Is that what he told you? That I killed her? No, she killed herself. She made a bad decision. I was going to let her live."
"Because I knew how Vash felt about her. I wanted him to be happy. Though the fact that she seemed innocent did weigh on that. If he had been attached to Steve I would have been less generous."
"But you were willing to let her live. Whether for Vash or not, that means that you don't believe everyone is corrupt."
"You don't seem to understand, Meryl. The ones who aren't will destroy themselves."
"I can't believe that."
"That doesn't surprise me."
Her eyes are filling with tears. "I've known too many people who are good people."
"Meryl why are you asking me this?"
"I wanted to understand. I thought-"
"You thought I would have some sob story and then you could explain why I was wrong and make it all better? You won't be able to understand me. There is a reason why we were never accepted. It's because we aren't like you."
"Vash is human, no matter what you choose to call him."
"He might seem that way to you but that's because it's what he's spent his life trying to be. But it isn't who he is. One of these days he'll accept that."
"And what? Denounce humanity?"
I smile. "Vash? Have you ever even met my brother? No...Vash would never denounce humanity. As much as I'd like him to I've known that for years. But I would like to see him stop denouncing himself. Have you seen him today?"
She nods. The tears are already gone from her eyes. "Yeah, I just came from there. He's breathing. The doctor took him off the ventilator about four hours ago."
My smile widens. "Good. You should have told me sooner."
"You say that you want him to be true to himself but you don't live up to your own expectations. You pretend not to worry but it's obvious that you do."
I nod slightly. "Logic tells me I shouldn't worry."
"This isn't about logic."
My nod is stronger this time. I push the rationale away and let myself feel for a moment the emotions that lie beneath it. "I'm afraid of losing him."
She's opening her mouth to speak already, but when I answer she hesitates.
"The way you'd asked the question I would have expected that you were already aware of its answer."
She gives her head the slightest shake. "No, I did I just...didn't expect you to admit it."
Quite honestly neither did I. "You should not make assumptions about me. You don't know me well enough."
I offer a slight smile. "You should call the guard back in."
She stands, puts the chair against the far wall. She glances at her watch. "You're right, I didn't realize we'd been talking this long. I'll go get him."
"I'd suggest screaming loudly that I'm trying to murder you."
She doesn't laugh, and I didn't really expect her to. "I would but he'd probably shoot me on accident."
"Are you coming back tomorrow?"
"I don't really have a choice."
"Thanks for bringing me word on my brother."
She looks back at me quickly as she opens the door. Mutters a soft, "You're welcome," and lets the guard back in the room.
Her smile is gone when I see her again; her eyes are worried, almost hurt. The tension sweeps over me in a wave, and I know even if I tried to focus it would take more effort than I could make to find him in the midst of it. "How is he?"
Her eyes go strangely blank as she speaks, but I relax immediately. "Do you think I could talk this guy into letting me out of here long enough to go see him?"
She looks away quickly, unintentionally, voice even more direct. "He doesn't want to see you. He told me so himself."
I'm amazed that words can sting as much as these, and yet I'm not surprised by them, not really. "Yes, well that does sound like Vash. He's always been one to run from his problems rather than confronting them." They are harsher than I had intended.
"You fucking shot him, Knives. He tried so hard not to kill you and you shot him. You have no right to be angry about this."
"So he's just planning on leaving me here like this?"
"If I have any say in it he'll leave you here to rot or let the law deal with you. I guarantee they won't be as lenient as he is."
"Well this isn't fucking up to you, Meryl." I'm on my feet, so much taller than her this way but she doesn't shy away.
"I don't know what he plans to do." She walks towards the door, stops before, stares me down as she speaks to the guard. "Make sure he's never left alone. And stay armed. You'll need it."
Shadows are odd things...the way that they move, grow, fade in and out of existence. When I lay on the bed facing the window all I can see is the sky and those shadows and the light reflected on the packed mud ceiling. Those shadows are long, robust. The sky behind them glows a dark red. Earlier those rays lay across my chest, warm, but now they grow weaker. The wind that blows through the window is cool. The hair on my arms stands against it but I don't cover myself, just let it brush over me, stare at that red, those shadows, in constant battle. For now the shadows will win.
The door to the outside opens, but I have felt his proximity already. As his footsteps echo down the hallway my eyes drift to the door. He opens it, speaking to another man I've never seen, laughing as he comes in. His eyes see me on the bed, and for just a moment they seem hurt and he looks away, thanks the man at the door for his concern.
He's still weak but he's trying to hide it. It's in the way he walks, his steps not quite sure. The stiff way he holds himself betrays the pain. I look to the window again, the deeper red, the longer shadows. Another gust blows across my face, gets caught in my hair and moves away.
He stops in front of my cell. The guard comes to his feet. It's the kid again, and he stammers as he speaks. "Mr. Vash, sir, I'm glad to see you doing better. I just wanted to tell you that we did as asked and kept Mr. Knives under armed guard to be sure that he wouldn't escape."
Vash leans against the bars, smiles. I don't suppose it would be worth mentioning to him that if you had wanted you would have made it out of here whether he was armed or not.
I shake my head slightly.
"How have they been treating you here?"
I rise to a sitting position, turn to face him.
His smile wavers for just a second, then returns. "Man, have they been feeding you? You look like crap."
"I don't need to be fed like a dog in a cage."
That frown threatens to come out again. Knives, you should really eat. What about if I brought you something?
"Why don't you take me out of here instead?"
His eyes break from mine. "Are you kidding? The doctor didn't even want me to come down here. But I'll try to get you out soon. As soon as I can convince the doctor that I'm well enough to leave."
I know that it has nothing to do with the doctor. If Vash feels himself well enough to leave, Vash will leave. A smile can't hide frailty. I don't answer, find myself staring at the wall, the dark shadows that creep there in greater and greater numbers.
Get the fuck out of my head.
I look out the window, the red turning to blue.
Neither of us speaks, and when he finally does his voice hasn't lost the falseness. "I guess it is getting late, don't want the doctor to have to come looking for me. I'll come back sometime soon and see how you're doing."
I'm silent still, eyes not leaving the window. He leaves without waiting on an answer, probably knowing that he would not receive one. When I know he can't see me anymore I turn my head, watch him go through that door. I lie back on the cot, stare up at the shadows that have all but taken over the room. With a flip of a switch the desk lamp is turned on and they change position, settling into their new homes for the night. I pull the blanket up to my waist, cover my eyes with my arm. It's amazing how little there is to push away.
I'm startled awake by a sound I can't quite pinpoint. I'm opening my eyes when I hear it again, softer this time, a clap.
"Come on, Sunshine, time to wake up. We've got to get going."
I roll onto my side, squinting at the light as I try to focus on him. "What?"
He smiles, leans against the bars, twirls a small key on his finger. "I'm bustin' you out of here." The sheriff stands a few feet behind him, holding his own set of keys in his hands.
I sit up, run a hand through my hair as I yawn. "Really?"
"Yup, just finished talking it over with the sheriff here."
The sheriff doesn't look at me. "Yeah and I want to make sure you keep up your part of the bargain."
Vash nods, smile fading as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small roll of bills. "Here ya go. This should cover everything right?"
The sheriff takes the money, counts the bills before pocketing them. "Yeah. You have an hour and a half and I want you out of this town for good. If I ever see either one of you back here I won't be afraid to shoot first and ask questions later."
He walks over to the cell, finally looks me straight in the eye as he turns the key in the lock. "That goes especially for you."
I say nothing, step for the first time in over a week from behind the bars. Vash rests a hand on my back, gives me the slightest nudge.
The sheriff stands still. His abhorrence of me has actually seems to overcome the fear that's kept him away since that first night. Vash pushes me out the door, offers a wave and a quick, "Thanks again, Sheriff. I really do appreciate it," as we leave.
As soon as we're out he sighs, slows his pace. "Well I'll bet you're glad to be away from there. I have a room not far from here. We can stop there, give you a chance to clean up before we have to be leaving."
I nod, wishing that I could hide the handcuffs around my wrist. The people on the street stop and stare as we walk past. I can hear their whispers begin as soon as they leave their range of sight.
"Just ignore them."
Easier said than done. He leans closer. "Think of it this way, Knives. We're the most interesting thing that's happened in this town in years. Can you really blame them?"
"You've really spent years of your life living with this?"
He nods, doesn't really look to me as he talks, keeps his voice low. "Yeah. After awhile you just try to accept it."
He smiles at an older woman as he walks by, tips his head to her. "Hello, Hilda, its nice to see you're feeling better."
She offers a strained smile and walks a little faster.
I step aside to let someone pass, hold the handcuffs closer to my body. "I've generally considered myself quite good at blending in with a crowd."
He chuckles, tugs on my arm as he turns into an alley. "Yeah, I've never been much for blending into a crowd have I?"
We walk down the alley a few more feet before stopping in front of a door marked with a faded red sign reading "Staff Entrance Only". He knocks lightly. I look back towards the street, expecting to see them staring down the alley, but the people already seem to have forgotten that we were even there. After a moment the door opens. The woman who answers is tiny, face creased with age, her hair a decent balance of salt and pepper.
She steps aside to let us through, eyes me skeptically at first, but when she looks back towards Vash her eyes are trusting.
"Thanks again, Mildred for doing this for me."
"I told you already there's no need thanking me. It's better this way anyway, the other customers' don't need to know that you're here. Your girlfriends went out shortly after you left, said to tell you they'd finish with the preparations."
He starts going up a short flight of stairs. "I guess I'd better hurry then. You don't want to see the temper on those two when they have to wait on me."
The stairway is dark, dingy, but when he finally opens the door at the end of the narrow corridor, the hallway it opens into is bright, clear. The walls are whitewashed, the floor recently mopped tile. Even the light that filters through the sheer curtains seems whiter, cleaner.
He pulls a key out of his pocket and opens the closest door.
The room itself is much larger than I had anticipated. There is a dining area with a small round table, already set with food in covered plates. The dining room opens into a living room, complete with a couch and armchair and radio on a wooden table.
Vash steps inside, motions towards two other doors. "There's a private bathroom through here, and the bedroom is in here." He opens the doors as he speaks, and though the rooms are small, for a hotel they are almost extravagant. Especially for a town of this size.
"You must have spent a fortune on this."
He shakes his head, smiles. "Mildred has one of the best restaurants I've ever eaten at downstairs. Let's just say I've been a loyal customer since we arrived. Now let's see what the girls left us for breakfast."
He uncovers the dishes closest too him. The scent of syrup is overwhelming and my stomach clutches, somewhere between nauseated and starving. I move to sit down quickly in front of my own.
Waffles. With syrup. And eggs. It's been so long since I've even thought of food like this. Vash takes a bite of waffle, wipes the syrup from his lips with the back of his hand. "Oh, you want me to get those?"
At first I don't register what he's referring too, but he points to the cuffs with his fork. I nod, hold out my hands. He pulls out the same small key he'd been twirling before, turns it in the lock.
They fall to the table and he moves them aside and pours tea from a pitcher into both our glasses. I rotate my wrists, enjoying the renewed flexibility. "Thanks."
"Not a problem," he says through a mouthful of food.
I cut the waffle with my fork, bring a bite of it to my lips. Again I'm almost nauseated, but as soon as the first bite is swallowed the feeling is gone and pure hunger takes over. I cut another slice, wipe my lips with a cloth napkin. "Where are we going?"
Vash rests his fork against the plate, expression serious. No, not serious. Determined. "Somewhere I should have gone a long time ago."
He nods, slightly surprised. "I need to tell them about...what happened to him. I doubt they know."
Probably not. When people like Wolfwood die, the authorities don't look for a next of kin. "Are you sure you want to take me along for that?"
He smiles weakly. The pain is still there. Knowing Vash it will be a long time before he can think of that man without it. "What do you expect me to do? Leave you here? Just because you don't want
to hang around a bunch of children for a week?"
"Well yeah I was hoping." Actually, being forced to deal with the children seems almost a fair trade for not having to spend another week in that jail.
"Trust me if it were up to the girls I would. But no, you're coming with us. I'm not leaving you here alone."
"Are you sure you want to have me around a bunch of children?"
He sips his tea, smiles at me. "You aren't getting out of this one, Knives."
I nod. "I thought not."
I eat slowly and he's finished long before I am. He stands from the table, walks to the window in the living room, watches the street below. He seems anxious, and it takes me a moment to realize the reason. I finally push my chair away from the table and he looks back to me, smiles again. "Are you finished? Why don't you go ahead and take a shower, get yourself cleaned up. We still have plenty of time."
I nod, open the bathroom door. He waits at the window for another moment before coming back. I've closed the door halfway as I undress, and he pushes it open, points to the towels hanging obviously from a rack. "There's clean towels there for you to use. A razor in the cabinet." I nod, understanding that the point of the gesture was not so much to inform as to tell me in not so many words to leave the door open. He's not a stupid man.
I finish undressing, step into the small square box that serves as a shower and turn on the spray. Its cold at first, but in heat like this cold is welcomed. I tip my head under it, lean against the wall as the water courses over me. I missed the smell of water.
I take my time, washing the last of the sand from my hair, rinsing away the filth that's accumulated over the past week with nothing but a sink to rinse in. My hand pauses over the scar on my chest, fingers brush over the puckered flesh. I feel for its twin in my shoulder, look down at my leg where the water pours around the risen tissue. They won't fade quickly. Scars like that take time to heal. It seems odd however, to see them on my flesh.
I finally turn the handle and the water stops. I pull the curtain open, reach for the towel, kick my dirty clothes away with a toe as I shake the water from my hair and towel dry.
I finally stop in front of the mirror, wipe the surface clean before wrapping the towel around my waist. The fog only smears, but with the door open the steam clears out quickly and the streaks shrivel into nothingness.
I shave away the thin beard, look at myself for the first time in a month. My hair has grown, much more than I had realized. Damp, it almost reaches my chin. It looks so much like his. Even the shades match. I reach up, touch my cheeks. I've lost weight, and yet even that is identical. Only the darker circles under my eyes, the thicker lines bordering them, stand out. I shake my hair free and run my hands through it, smooth it back away from my face, look from my reflection to him, sitting at the table, gazing into space.
He senses me. "There's a set of clothes in the bedroom for you to change into."
I open the bedroom door, know enough to leave it open as I change. There's a new pair of pants on the bed, dull grey but not faded, a light blue shirt to go with them. I'm buttoning the shirt as he walks to me, stands in the door frame. "Is the blue okay? I didn't know if you still liked it or not."
I nod, open my mouth to reply when there is a knock on the door.
He motions me to come closer, calls, "Just a minute," to whoever's on the other side. He picks up the handcuffs and I hold out my arms.
"What are you doing in there, Vash, we don't have all day."
I smile weakly as I tuck in the shirt. At least she is just as antagonistic towards him.
He unlocks the door. "Geez Meryl, you say that like you've been waiting all day."
"Are you ready to go?"
He gathers my dirty clothes, stuffs them into his bag.
"You don't have that taken care of yet? You've had more than enough time to get ready."
"What ever happened to 'Good morning, Vash, nice to see you, Vash.'?"
She simply glares at him.
"Well why don't you two come in while I get the rest of my stuff together. It shouldn't take more than a minute. That's not too long is it?"
She comes inside, stands beside the table. Millie follows her, sits behind her in the chair Vash had previously occupied. They don't speak. Meryl watches me like a hawk with an expression that makes it clear that if I so much as move wrong she isn't afraid to hurt me. Millie stares at me until I meet her gaze and looks away quickly, embarrassed. I must look even more like him than I had realized to get such a response from her.
It takes Vash less than his allotted minute to return, and he stands beside me. "I'm ready? You guy's ready?"
Meryl sighs. "Yes of course we're ready. We have the car waiting downstairs."
Meryl leads the way back out the corridor to the back stairs.
"So does anyone know how far it is to December?"
"Almost four hundred iles I think,"
"More like three fifty, Millie," Meryl corrects.
"Wouldn't it be faster to bypass the city?"
The three of them turn, stare up at me. The girls are silent. It's clear that I'm not a welcome member in the conversation. Finally Vash speaks. "The girls have some business to take care of in December. So we're going to stop there first. Meryl, did you already check out with Mildred?"
"Yes, Vash. Over an hour ago."
He rests a hand on her shoulder. "Then why don't you two take him to the car and I'll go check out."
She looks up at him, hesitates, and finally says, "Come on, Knives, we're parked right out front."
We exit into the same alley and they lead me to the front of the building. The car is the same one that visited the cave. The metal is free of paint, just the dull grey of oxidized steel. The trunk isn't latched, tied instead with two lengths of rope. Meryl walks to the driver's side. "You can sit in the back."
I make myself comfortable but the two of them keep standing beside the car, waiting on Vash, finally opening their doors as he approaches. Meryl slips the key into the ignition and turns it as Vash runs towards the car. It sputters but doesn't turn over, and she hits the dashboard, curses under her breath and tries again. Vash doesn't slow, puts a hand on the door and jumps it, smiles as he sits beside me.
"I swear, Vash if this car breaks down before we make it there you're going to be the one walking back for help, got that?"
She pulls into the street before he has a chance to answer. She's not always like that you know.
Yes she is.
He winces as she hits a bump. "Are you sure you don't want me to drive?"
Already the wind is whipping around us, and her voice barely travels back. "What? So you can get us all killed?"
He leans back in the seat.
You're certain they have to come with us?
He laughs. "Yeah I'm sure. Besides it's their job."
The evening air is cool as we begin to draw near the city. The winds are calmer in this part of the desert; the sand moves slowly in its wake. The hum of the car is just a low vibration beneath the air rushing past me. It's not silent, but it's consistent. Peaceful.
Vash sleeps beside me, head rested against the seat back, mouth hanging slightly open. The short one is in the front, turned slightly sideways in her seat, head tucked against her hands. In her sleep she almost looks serene, the bitterness less evident on her features.
We pass another behemoth outcropping and from behind the indistinct undulation of the horizon the profile of buildings finally begin to emerge. Millie's eyes follow them and she sighs.
A few minutes later I can make out the silhouette of a sign, dingy and no longer legible, but out here there is only one place that sign can mark. She slows and turns the wheel.
I nudge Vash's foot, but he doesn't wake. Vash.
He doesn't answer, doesn't show that he's even heard me. Vash, wake up. He almost looks puzzled for a moment as he opens his eyes, blinks at me.
"We're almost there."
He looks away, stretches his arms, still not quite certain what's going on until he looks to the east and sees the buildings. He sits a little straighter, watches them grow.
After a moment he leans forward, touches Meryl's arm. She jumps as she wakes. "You're home," he whispers. She looks to the city, smiles.
The buildings are tall, some of the tallest on this world, and the tall ones stretch to the edges of the town. We enter below them like some great arch, a passage to a much more ancient land.
The illusion fades, however, as we reach the center of the city. Adobe and brick are replaced with towers of concrete and steel. These buildings were designed by an architect, someone with enough knowledge to create an echo of the structures on earth, but the shadows are no match for the originals. Ionic columns are interspersed haphazardly with modern facades, and though they may be impressive, they lack the unity to be called beautiful.
The sidewalks are crowded; half a dozen other cars make their way down the streets. She finally pulls to a stop in front of one of the larger buildings, puts the vehicle in park and gets out, opens my door for me before walking to the sidewalk. I follow, look up at the large cement stairway as Meryl speaks.
"Okay, Vash, you know where you're going right? Down that way until you reach 13th, then turn right and go three blocks-"
He waves a hand. "I know where we're going, don't worry about it."
She eyes him wearily and then nods. "Okay, I'm leaving it up to you to get us checked in. We shouldn't be too long. And Vash, do me a favor? Try not to draw attention to yourself, okay? If my boss finds out I brought you here I'll lose my job. And-oh God, Knives."
She shrugs the trench coat from her shoulders, folds it lengthwise. I'm somewhat surprised to see that she appears to be unarmed beneath it. "Hold out your hands."
I don't respond immediately, and she waits silently until I do, loops the coat over them.
"There, that's better. Okay we'll see you back in a bit?"
Vash tilts his head, sighs. "Yes, we'll come right back here and pick you up. You don't want to have to wait."
I half expect her to be angry with him, but instead she smiles slightly. "Good. And Vash? Park on the next street over. I don't want anyone from the office to see you."
He stands straighter, salutes. "Aye, aye, Captain."
She smiles again. "Come on, Millie, we don't want to be too late, we know how cranky the boss can be when he's working overtime."
She giggles, waves to us and the two make their way up the stairs to the entrance of the building. Vash jumps the door again, more gracefully this time, and takes his place behind the wheel. I sit beside him as he adjusts the seat. "God, how did that girl get so tall?"
I shrug, adjust the trench coat so it lies flat against my legs. He smiles, revs the engine. "Ready to go?"
I don't answer and he pulls into the street, speeding past the crowds of people. At this point, I'm not sure he even knows the meaning of the word inconspicuous.
The sign out front marks the building a hotel, proclaims that they offer clean rooms, dining, and the cheapest rates in town. Not likely to be true, considering the chances of a single establishment qualifying for all three. We walk into the large foyer.
"Want to wait here while I get us checked in?"
I nod and he goes to the counter. I stand by the glass, watching the throngs of people as they walk past. We are out of place in a city like this. Only Meryl's coat seems to match the stylish, tailored people who walk past. I unfold a wrinkle of it, pull the edges higher to be sure that the metal on my wrists is covered. I'm not sure why I bother, though. Watching as they march past, they don't even look our way. True to a city. Arrogant bastards. It's as though the only thing that matters to any of them is what is happening to them at that particular moment. I could probably be walking down the streets with the cuffs uncovered and not even get a second glance. The smaller towns are where things like that stand out. Here, in the cities, it's just turn your head and keep on walking. Feigned ignorance.
"All set. Let's go pick up the girls."
I break myself away from those people, nod compliantly.
He parks on a street parallel to the building as told. It's getting dark enough that the crowds are starting to thin. Vash jumps onto the hood. I walk to stand beside him, not minding that it means standing in the middle of the street. I lean against the jeep, still warm from the engine's heat, listen to the tinks of cooling metal.
The air has cooled considerably in just the short time since we've arrived. The suns are low on the horizon, massive bleeding orbs behind the dark silhouettes of buildings. I don't look to him when I speak, instead watch their steady descent. "You've been here before?"
It takes a moment for his stare to break away from the sunset. "Hm? Oh...yeah. It's been a long time though."
For a few moments we are both silent. "See that building over there?"
He points to a structure a block and a half away. I nod.
"When I was first here that building was the edge of town." His voice softens slightly. "It was before the naming of the cities."
The streetlamps flicker on one at a time. "That was a long time ago."
"It's amazing that it could have grown so much. It doesn't feel like the same place, does it?"
I shake my head, despite the fact that the last time I was here the city was already growing into the monstrosity it has become.
"When were you here?"
I shift my weight between feet, lean back against the car. "About forty years ago. I stayed here on business."
"I probably don't want to know what kind of business, do I?"
I smile slightly. "No, probably not."
He watches the building opposite us. "I wonder how much longer they're going to be."
I shrug. "What are they doing in there?"
"Talking to their boss I presume."
"What are they telling him?"
He leans back, sighs quietly. "I don't know. I don't keep track of what they tell their boss about me....but probably that I'm dead."
My eyes are questioning as I look to him.
He smiles slightly, pulls out his sunglasses and slips them on. "The girls are coming."
They run quickly across the street. His smile broadens. "What took you so long? We've been waiting out here forever."
Meryl holds out a hand. "I'll drive us to the hotel."
He twirls the keys, catches them in his palm. "No way, sweetcheeks. You gave me the keys, you think I'm going to let you have them back that easily?
He opens the door, turns the key in the ignition. The car purrs back to life. "Coming?"
"Shotgun!" Millie shouts, and Meryl finally sighs, opens the back door for me, and joins us.
Vash walks back to the car carrying awashed-out, red ten-gallon canister, removes the contents of the trunk to set it into place. I sit in the back seat, watching the suns rise as the rest finish preparing for the trip.
Meryl stands to the side, unfolding a map. She holds it closer to her face, squints.
"Vash are you sure it's even on this map? I don't see it."
He grunts as he lifts the second canister. "That's what the man inside said. Every outpost for a four hundred ile radius."
"I've looked at the whole thing. It could be this dot here..."
He stands next to her, looks over her shoulder. "No, that's just a dot. It should be marked."
"Well I don't see anything marked."
He lifts the canister into the back. The car dips slightly with its weight. "Let me take a look at it."
She hands it over, taps her foot impatiently. "Maybe we should just go back inside and ask for directions."
"The man in there didn't know where it was, either, Meryl. That's why he gave us the map."
She takes it back, frown deepening. Millie leans against the hood, folds her arms across her chest. "Maybe we could ask your family, Meryl. They might know."
She shakes her head. "No, this isn't the sort of place they would know about."
"I know how to get there."
The three turn to face me.
"If we leave the way we came in and drive north there's a road for about a hundred and forty iles. After that it's northeast through the desert for much of the way, but it's mostly bedrock out there, the car should be able to make it without any trouble."
Meryl looks back up at me, closes the map. "And how would you know?"
"I've been there before."
There is a moment of silence where the tension hangs heavily in the air. Finally Vash smiles, takes the map from her. "Well, that solves the problem. Can you show us where it is on the map?"
Meryl hangs back as he opens the map in front of me.
She was right, there's hardly anything on it. I point to a spot above the city. "It's around here."
Millie leans over the map as well. I point to a thin line that trails north of the city. "This is the main road."
"That's a road?"
I nod to her. "Not much of one, but yeah."
Vash takes the map back, examines it. "There isn't a road that goes all the way through?"
I shake my head. "There probably used to be. Not many people travel out this way. There's a road once you start getting closer, but if there was ever one in between it was wiped out years ago."
Vash begins to fold the map. "Well what are we waiting for then, let's go"
Meryl doesn't move. "I still think we should ask for directions."
Vash tosses the last of our belongings into the trunk, begins to tie it closed again. "We know which way to go, so there isn't a problem."
"No offense, Vash, but I don't trust him that much."
He pulls one of the ropes tight, pauses in tying it as he looks up at her, expression serious. I'm not sure that he really trusts me much himself, though he obviously doesn't seem to approve of the fact that she is questioning me so openly. He answers quietly. "I do."
"There's a lot of desert out there, Vash. We have a limited supply of gas and nothing in between, no way to call for help. I don't want to get out there just to find out that this was all some setup."
I face forward in the seat.
Millie frowns slightly. "I have to agree with Meryl, Vash. What if he's wrong?"
I see him look at me from the corner of my eye. I speak when he starts to open his mouth. "We can sit here and argue about it if you like, or go try to find someone in this town who knows what the hell you're talking about, but either way if we keep this up much longer it's going to be dark before we get there, and I personally do not want to be stuck in the middle of the desert tonight."
Vash finishes off the last of the knots. "He's right. We've already wasted more time on this than we should have. We have enough supplies that if we do get lost we can stay the night. And we should have enough gas to get us back here without any trouble. If we go and he's wrong then tomorrow morning we turn around and go back the way we came."
He opens the driver's side door, turns on the ignition. The girls both hesitate, but the look he gives them says that he's made his decision. Meryl reluctantly climbs in beside me.
You'd better be right on this.
He drives for the next few hours in relative silence. The main road is sand covered at points but the car covers the distance without any difficulty. When we get closer to the turn off I start watching the horizon. I doubt there will be a sign marking it. Finally in the distance I can see the outline of an outcropping, three pillars.
He glances at me in the rearview mirror. Are you sure?
Yeah. See the pillars?
He looks to horizon. Yeah.
Follow that. About thirty iles past it is where the road picks back up.
He nods, turns the car as instructed. The girls look up, watch anxiously as we turn away from the road and enter into the mouth of the open desert.
He drives until the pillars are obvious on the horizon, looks away from the sand long enough to speak. "I'm getting tired, anyone else want to drive?"
Meryl moves from her position scrunched against the door, leans forward and holds out a hand. "I do!"
He slows the car to a stop and she opens the door. He climbs over the front seats to join me.
"Gosh, Vash didn't you ever learn to use a door?"
He smiles at her. "Just follow that outcropping of rocks, there should be a road a few iles past."
She looks into the distance. "The three?"
He nods and she starts driving again. He leans back against the seat, closes his eyes.
They're very trusting of you.
Yeah, and hopefully I'm not giving them any reason not to be.
I don't answer immediately, watch as she brings the car up to speed. Even she is cautious out here, driving through the thin sands. I make sure that she is following the outcropping and finally turn back him.
She loves you, you know.
He sighs, opens his eyes and stares out into the distance. Yeah, I know.
Do you love her?
He hesitates. I don't know.
How can you not know something like that?
He finally looks back at me. I can't be what she wants me to be.
I'm not convinced that he even knows what she wants from him, but I nod anyway. She threatened to kill me, you know. If you didn't make it.
He actually laughs slightly. Yeah, that doesn't surprise me. Though the one you'd really have needed to worry about is the tall one.
Yeah, that girl packs one hell of a punch. You don't want to get on her bad side.
I look at the woman in the front seat. She's calmed considerably and now studies the open deserts. She's afraid of me.
He laughs again. Millie? No. She hates you. She doesn't say anything to you about it out of respect for me. Give her time though; she'll warm up to you. She's already starting to. She's not one to hold a grudge.
I'm not particularly certain that I want her to warm up to me. I see Meryl's eyes in the rearview mirror, watching us. "What are you two talking about back there?"
I hold back a laugh. Vash leans forward between the seats. "Your driving."
She smiles. "You have a problem with my driving? You're the one that handed over the keys buddy."
"Yeah, but do you have to hit every bump in the road? A fellow can't get any sleep back here."
She doesn't respond, turns the wheel slightly, being sure that the next bump is hit hard enough to shake our seats. Even Millie laughs.
Vash has renewed his position as driver when we finally start getting close enough to see the structure. The girls are visibly relieved, and I have to admit that I am too. It's already getting close to dark, and they were right about this part of the desert; there's hardly anything out here, and once the light is gone finding any type of landmark is nearly impossible.
As we get closer the road becomes more distinct, and the last couple of iles the sand has even been cleared away from it, as though someone has come out with a sweeper truck.
The orphanage is made up of a series of buildings, most small and weathered, showing their age. The most impressive however is the main building of the complex, a large cathedral-like structure that's at least forty feet high, complete with a stained glass rose window. Part of it likely holds a chapel, though it almost seems a waste to offer such an extravagant church for so small a group of people.
The place seems deserted at first, perfectly silent but for the wind. We get out of the car, stand beside it and stretch our legs. I can see a few children running between two of the buildings. They are older kids, at least ten or eleven, and a few moments later an older woman follows after them, walking much slower. She sees us and let's the children go.
Vash begins to walk towards her, and the girls hesitate, unsure as to whether or not they are supposed to follow. Instead we wait.
The woman meets him halfway between the car and the cathedral, wraps her arms around herself and rubs them through the long sleeves of her dress as though it is cold. She looks at him questioningly, though her eyes already know the answers.
"He's not coming back is he?"
It's almost a statement. Vash is somewhat taken aback by her bluntness, though I doubt she notices.
He shakes his head, offers a sympathetic, "No."
"I didn't think he would. He's never gone for this long without sending word."
"Don't be. How did it happen?"
She looks away as she asks. He hesitates, as though unsure of how to answer. When he does he looks away as well. "He was protecting his friends."
They don't make eye contact again. She hugs herself tighter. "I need to go talk to my superior. And we'll have to let the children know. I suppose you were planning on staying the night?"
She looks in my direction. I don't recall meeting her, but the look she gives me is less than inviting.
"I'm going to have to ask you to wait out here."
He nods again, looks back at us as she walks away. The girls make their way to him, and after a moment I follow.
Meryl is the first to break the silence.
"So now what do we do?"
He shrugs, leans against the wall. "We wait out here."
On the other side of the door is a plaque of carved stone. Millie stands in front of it, traces the letters with one hand. "They'll let us stay, won't they?"
"I don't see why they wouldn't."
The girls both look my direction but say nothing. I ignore them. Millie goes back to the sign, reads the letters on it in a lilting voice. "Pace in ire. That doesn't make any sense."
Meryl turns, looks at the words herself. I stand behind them. "Pa-kay. It's a hard c. Pa-kay in i-ray is the proper pronunciation. It's Latin. It means go in peace."
Vash joins us. "It's an old language they used to speak on Earth. I didn't know you spoke Latin. Where did you learn?"
"The computers. They had files on over two hundred languages."
Millie's eyes widen. "Do you know all of them?"
I give a slight laugh. "No. I'm fluent in eight. Bits and pieces of a few more."
Even Meryl looks slightly taken aback. "I didn't even know there were that many languages spoken on this planet."
"There aren't. Only six," Vash says.
"Seven," I correct. "There's one family in April that speaks Korean."
He leans against the wall. "Really? I didn't know that. Parles-tu français?"
"Oui. Spricht du Deutsch ?
"Ich weiss bischen Deutsch."
"Nihongo hanaseru ka?"
He smiles. "Not a clue. What's that one?"
Millie claps her hands together. "Say something else!"
I smile, instead speak softly. "She's back."
They turn the direction of my eyes, see the woman standing in the door frame. She is younger than I had realized, probably not much older than the girls, but her face is weary. "You can come inside now."
We follow her into a thin hallway lined with half-open doors. She lowers her voice. "I'm going to have to ask you to be quiet and not wander around. The children are just finishing up with dinner and then we're going to send them to bed."
Meryl nods. "Yes, ma'am. You don't have to worry about us. I didn't catch your name."
The woman continues down the hall. "Shirley."
I can hear children talking, voices intermingled into a single resonance. The sound grows louder as we approach the open doors of the dining hall. The children sit at long tables. A woman claps twice, again, and most of the children quiet and look up at her. "Children. I have something important I need to discuss with you and I need everyone's attention."
We pass and the room quiets. When she finally talks again her voice is too muffled to hear. The woman leads us out a back door, beneath a covered breezeway to a smaller building a few feet away.
"I'm sorry but this is the best we can do in terms of accommodations. We weren't expecting visitors. The rooms aren't much but the sheets are clean."
We enter into a house, complete with a kitchen and sizeable living area with three worn couches. Five more doors branch off the main room. She opens one. "This is Janice's room, but she is going to be in town for the next few days, and I don't think she'd mind you staying here. It isn't much, but I'll bring in an extra cot."
She walks down a few more doors, opens that one as well. The room is sparse, a single bed, walls bare except for the pale outline where a cross once hung. There is a thin layer of dust covering the dresser and bedposts, the stale smell of stagnant air. She props the glass window open. "We haven't used this one in awhile, but it will have to do." She opens the closet, tugs on a stack of thin cotton blankets, hands a set to the girls and tosses another onto the bed. "The bathroom is two doors down. There's running water, but I should warn you, it won't offer you much, the pump isn't very strong and we've been having problems with it for the past few weeks."
Vash traces a letter "v" in the dust on the dresser with a finger. He pulls it away, blows the grey fluff into the air. "I can try to tinker with it while we're here if you'd like."
She nods at him. "That would be nice. It's difficult to get a repairman out here. I'll go get the cots. Have you eaten already?"
Vash shakes his head.
"I'll have someone bring dinner in for you then as well."
"Do you think I could have a word with...Adele, is it? Tonight?"
"We brought some supplies. And I'd like to discuss a few things with her in person if that's alright."
"I guess that would be alright. I'll let her know that you want to speak with her."
"Is it alright if we go ahead and unload the jeep?"
She nods. "Yes, just try not to disturb the children."
By the time we've unloaded everything she has returned with food. A teenage boy is setting up the second cot in the bedroom that will serve as mine and Vash's. Shirley beckons Vash to follow her.
It's completely dark outside, and the night beyond the uncovered windows is seamless. I wait for the boy to leave before sliding Meryl's coat from my hands and offering it back to her. The two girls have already sat down to their bowls of soup, and I join them at the small coffee table, eat quickly in silence.
Vash still hasn't returned by the time we finish. Millie takes the bowls out to the kitchen sink. When she returns she stretches, yawns. "I'm so exhausted."
Meryl echoes the yawn with a smaller one. "It's all the traveling. For some reason it always manages to do that to you."
"How much longer do you think Mr. Vash will be?"
"I think I'm going to go ahead and turn in. Are you coming Meryl?"
She shakes her head, yawns again. "No, I'll wait on Vash to come back. You can have the bed if you'd like."
Millie grins, closes the door behind her.
"You can go to bed you know."
She leans back against the thick couch. "Knives, you and I both know that I don't trust you nearly as much as Vash does. I'm not going to leave you alone in this place for one second."
I lean back. "I may not be in that prison anymore but you sure as hell can't tell."
She lowers her voice to match my own. "You aren't a free man, Knives."
"I know, but do you have to keep fucking reminding me?"
I look out the window into the darkness beyond. "I wasn't lying when I told you I'd been here before. I didn't go killing any of the children then did I?"
"Probably because it was more convenient for you not to at the time."
I can't deny the truth of that statement. "Have you always been this much of a bitch?"
She meets my stare head on. "What can I say, you bring out the best in me."
I stand, walk towards the bedroom.
"Where do you think you're going?"
I spread the blanket out over the bed, kick my shoes off and slide them beneath it. "You aren't the only one who spent the whole fucking day in a car. I'm tired. I'm going to get some sleep. If you're that concerned about it then you can sit over there and watch me."
I'm not really expecting her too, but she follows me, sits on the cot. I lie down, roll onto my side and face the wall. I wish that the situation was different, that I could teach her a good lesson in humility. I sigh. More than anything I wish that I could have at least a little bit of control back.
I consider slipping out of the handcuffs, knocking her unconscious and leaving before they have a chance to stop me. I adjust my head on the pillow. No. Vash was right. I could have left at anytime. I made a choice to stay here and follow him. And I'm staying until I can understand why.
I'm still lying awake when I hear the front door groan as Vash returns. The cot squeaks as Meryl stands.
"Hey what are you doing in here?" he says quietly.
"Just wanted to keep an eye on him 'til you got back."
"Thanks. Why don't you go get some rest? You look tired."
She leaves the room and he sighs as he sits.
"We're going to have to do something about that woman."
He hesitates before answering. "Yeah, okay. I'll have a talk with her in the morning."
I don't say anything else, lie awake until the last of the frustration is finally outweighed by exhaustion.
The entire complex is filled with the sounds of children shortly after daybreak. They run outside the windows, laughs and shouts trailing behind them. I sit on the bed in the closed room until I hear the doors open and close and I know that at least some of the others have left before venturing out into the living area.
Vash stands by himself, looking at the line of photographs hanging on the wall, colors faded from the sunlight that filters through the windows. "I talked to Meryl."
"How did that go?"
He finally looks my way. "She's not very happy about it. She thinks I'm being careless and naïve for trusting you. Told me again all the reasons why I shouldn't have brought you here to begin with."
"And you told her...?"
He sighs. "That it's my decision to make and not hers. And that she should have a little more faith in my judgment."
I stand beside him, look at the picture. It's a large group shot, only five adults and at least fifty children. I recognize Shirley almost immediately, though she looks much younger in this picture. In the back stands Wolfwood, holding a small girl off the ground so that she is taller than the other children.
"You said that you were here before."
"Because people are more likely to follow orders when you hold something like their family in your hands."
He frowns. If he doesn't want to know the truth then he should not ask the question.
"What were his orders."
"To protect you."
"I thought you sent them to kill me."
My voice is flat. "I never wanted you dead." I walk into the kitchen, pour myself a glass of water.
Perhaps he has taken the hint that I don't want to discuss it anymore. In any case he let's the topic drop.
"I'm going to go help the girls with breakfast. Do you want me to bring you back anything?"
I shake my head.
"I'm assuming that I can trust you to be here when I get back."
"Bright eyed and bushy tailed, as the saying goes."
I spend the next couple of days in the small bare room behind a closed door. Meryl hasn't spoken to me or attempted to keep me under twenty-four hour surveillance since she spoke with Vash, though this is likely mostly due to the efforts I have put into avoiding her.
On the third day however, I come to a realization. I have hung the thin blanket over the window to block the view, and the only place the light reaches through freely is the two uncovered inches at the top. I can't see the children outside but I can hear them again. Their unceasing chatter is audible for much of the day. I'm sitting on the bed and a thought occurs to me. I wish I had Vash's book.
As soon as the thought suggests itself I'm already pushing it away. I look around the room. Only my shoes beneath the bed and the rumpled sheets show that anyone has even stayed here. It is smaller than the cave, than the jail cell even. When I look at the window I begin to feel claustrophobic. Even the blanket hung there, waving in the gentle wind, is like being back there.
There is nothing keeping me here. There is no one standing guard, no lock holding me in. Nothing but myself. I go to the door, take hold of the knob and turn it.
The building is deserted, though I've known that already. I go to the front door, open that one as well, stand at the entrance. It's early afternoon and most of the children are still inside. A small group plays baseball in front of the cathedral. Vash stands in the middle of them, tossing the ball to the boy holding the metal pole they are using as a bat. The ball comes in slow, but the child hesitates, misses.
"That was a good try! Next time swing the bat sooner okay?"
The boy nods. The catcher returns the ball to Vash. He waves and I nod at him before disappearing around the corner of the building.
"Hey, Seth, take over as pitcher for a few minutes okay?"
He runs quietly through the sand, catches up to me before I've reached the far corner. Sweat drips down his face, but he smiles. "Hey. Nice to see you decided to come out."
"Yeah. Where are the girls?"
"Inside doing something. I'm not really sure. Hey, you wanna play? We could use another man."
I smile, shake my head slowly.
He laughs. "Yeah, I didn't think you would. I'm gonna go get back to the game. Stay close okay?"
I nod, finish my circuit of the buildings before finding a place behind my own that is semi-quiet to lie down , feeling the suns full on my face. When I close my eyes I can almost imagine the scent of grass around me, hear the whisper of trees on the wind.
For the next couple of days I explore the older buildings, find an old shed with a jeep that's in worse shape than ours. I open the hood, work for a few hours taking apart the engine. Vash finds me sitting at a worktable with parts spread out around me.
"Hey I've been looking all over for you."
"Well you found me."
He comes over, picks up a nut, tosses it into the air and catches it again. "Fixing the car for them?"
Way to be observant, Vash. "Yeah."
"That's nice of you, I'm sure they'll appreciate it."
"It's something to do."
"So how's it coming?"
"Needs a new carburetor. There's a part over there, not quite right but I think I can make it work."
He nods, rests his elbows on the table and leans back against it. "Want to help me work on the water pump later?"
"I already took care of that."
"Yeah. I decided I wanted a real shower."
He smiles. "Well, thanks anyway. Saved me the trouble. Come find me sometime in the next couple of hours. The girls will still be gone, I'll let you out of those long enough to get that shower."
"I'm going to go help the kids get washed up. It's about time for their snack."
He heads back out into the complex and I go back to the engine.
It's evening the next day before I finish it. I touch two wires together and it sputters, finally turns over. I let it run for a few minutes until I'm sure that the makeshift carburetor seems to be working. I turn it back off and close the hood.
I open the door of the shack wider, sit in its frame and let the breeze blow over me. Vash stands a few feet away, talking to a group of children. A few run by without looking my way.
One of the smaller boys walks past, stops and doubles back. He can't be more than six years old, face streaked with sand. "Do you want to play with me?"
He puts his hands on his hips, pouts at me. "Why are you always playing with him but you won't play with us?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, kid."
He motions to Vash. "He says you're playing cops and robbers. If you play with me I'll let you be the cop. It's mean that he always makes you be the robber."
"I don't want to play."
He jumps, claps his hands together like he's praying. "Pleeaase?"
I don't answer but he doesn't leave. "How about this? Go get me the keys to these handcuffs and I'll play with you."
He runs straight to Vash, not seeming to understand that subtlety was the desired technique. "Mr. Vash, he said he'd play with me if I brought him the keys."
He looks back at me. "Did you really expect this to work?"
He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a key, gives it to the boy and tousles his light mop of already disheveled hair before patting his back and sending him to me.
The boy puts it in my hand, squats down in front of me and watches as I fumble with the lock. "Can I try?"
I try to insert the key again myself, but realize the child is probably at a better angle than I am. I put it in his hand. He holds it delicately, sticks his tongue out as he leans over my hands and tries to slip it into the hole. After a second it goes in, and he gives it a turn. The cuff falls free. I take the key back and release the other side.
The kid grabs my hand in his own rough fingers, begins to pull me toward the front where the other children are playing. I pull away. He turns around, stomps one foot against the ground. "You promised!"
I look to Vash.
Hey, a promise is a promise.
I look back down at the child. "I don't really want to play right now."
He looks like he's getting ready to cry, and Vash finally comes over, squats in front of him. "He's just tired Sean, he's been working all day. Why don't you go play with the other kids and maybe Mr. Knives will play with you tomorrow to make up for it, okay?"
He considers for a moment, then apparently decides that it isn't worth his time to fight over, mutters an "okay!" and runs off to join the others.
I give the handcuffs to Vash, follow him to the top of a large dune where we can sit and still see the children below. "Thanks."
"It wasn't a problem. He's just playing you anyway."
The girls are below us, tossing a large ball back and forth between the younger ones.
The breeze is cool, and I close my eyes, lean back on my hands. We sit that way for a few minutes, silent. When I finally look over to him he watches them below with a smile.
"You're really happy here, aren't you?"
He nods. The smile doesn't leave his face. "Yeah, I am." I can feel him pushing at the edges of my thoughts. I let down the barriers to make it easier for him to get through. "And you're conflicted."
I look into the distance. "Yeah, that's one way to put it."
One of the children falls, starts to cry. Meryl stands him up, dusts the sand from his pants.
"I hate kids."
He laughs. "I know."
"Why did you bring me here? Did you think that being around the children would suddenly change my mind about everything?"
He picks up a handful of sand, lets it sift through his fingers. It makes a small cone below. "I already told you why we came here."
"There's more to it than that. This isn't some fairytale. I'm not going to miraculously change by being in the presence of a bunch of dirty-faced children."
He looks down at the pile of sand as the last of it runs from his palm. "No, I didn't think you would. But I did think it would be good for you."
His eyes leave the sand and he leans back. The wind is already blowing the cone flat. He watches the children below us. Three of them have taken the ball and now play by themselves in the dwindling light. The others have joined the girls in a game of tag. When he speaks again his voice is soft.
"Do you see that boy down there? The one in the blue?"
He gestures absentmindedly. I pick out the one he's talking about, a little older than Sean.
"His entire family was killed in a bank robbery. He was shot and left for dead."
The boy in question is tagged and turns on a heel, chases after the others.
"What's the point?"
"After everything he's been through, he's going to be okay. He's down there playing with the other kids, laughing. This place is gonna give him a second chance despite all that."
He pauses, listens to the laughter as it is carried up to us. For a second he seems content again.
"He's not the only one with a story like that. Benji down there, he's the older boy with the red shirt. His mom died when he was just an infant. He lived on the street for six years with his older sister before Wolfwood found them. And Susanne, the one with the ponytails, her parents were killed in an automobile accident when she was only three. All of the kids here have a story like that."
I rest an arm on my knee. "Why are you telling me this?"
"They're survivors, Knives.
After all the things these kids have been through, they're still here,
they're still trying."
"I've asked myself that question more times than you can imagine." He hesitates and I chance a glance his way. His eyes are closed, thoughtful. I wonder if there are tears forming beneath those lids. "I think it's hope. Hope that they can make their lives better, that they can offer their children better lives. They're learning, Knives. They are learning love and acceptance and responsibility and how to overcome. This place teaches them that. Because of that, most of these kids are going to make it. They deserve that chance, Knives. They've been through so much already; they deserve the chance to make things better."
I can't answer, and the conversation fades away, but the silence is easy. It feels right, sitting with him like this. It's the first time since we were children that I can recall being around him without tension. It seems a long time before he speaks again, but the suns, only slightly lower in the sky, betray the time.
"You flatter yourself, you know. By thinking that you were the reason we came here."
"What do you mean?"
"We came here for her, too." He nods towards Millie. "She's pregnant."
I'm somewhat surprised by the information, but my face doesn't show it.
"She only just found out herself about a week ago, she hasn't told many people yet. But I thought you should know."
"Who's the father?"
For a moment the wind blows the shouts from below up to us. "Wolfwood."
I can't answer immediately, and he laughs. "You thought I was going to say it was me, didn't you?"
I shake my head. "No, I thought....Wolfwood? Are you serious?" He nods. "That's one man I never thought would reproduce."
He laughs harder. "Well he never claimed to be a good priest."
I honestly think I would be less surprised to find out it was Vash's child. It's almost impossible to imagine a man like Wolfwood, someone who knew better than most the hardships of living, would even consider bringing a child into a world such as this.
"Is she going to be okay?"
I watch them play below. Now, paying attention to it, his statement seems obvious. The way Millie is so natural compared to the stiffness of Meryl's interactions, as though she's half afraid of losing control. Finally I speak again.
"I'm sorry I shot you."
He smiles, laughs a little bit under his breath. "Yeah. I'm sorry I shot you, too."
"I didn't want it to end like that."
His smile fades. "It didn't."
I nod. "It's getting late. I think I'm going to head back."
I hold out a hand, palm up, nod toward the handcuffs. He waves me away. "Don't worry about it."
"The girls won't like that."
He looks me in the eye. "I'll take care of the girls, don't worry about them."
I stand, brush the sand away from my legs. "Thanks."
He goes back to watching the children. "Goodnight."
I stand over him, for some reason not quite wanting to leave. "Goodnight."
I'm lying in bed when he returns, unable to sleep in the waning light. I lean my head back, look at the darkness above the curtain. He's talking with the girls when he comes in, laughing, wishing them a goodnight. I close my eyes when he enters and he doesn't ask if I'm still awake, undresses and lies on the cot.
I listen to the sounds of the house settling in the night, the wind blowing in through crevices in the window frame. Finally I come to a decision and stand.
I pull back the curtain, stare out into that darkness, so absolute. It never seems quite so dark once you are out in it though, only from here, where there are lights for it to contrast with. I don't look to him lying on the bed, just listen to the sound of his breathing and finally turn away and walk out the door.
There are pint-sized canisters in the kitchen cabinets and I take out a few, careful not to make more noise than necessary. I fill them with water, find a length of rope in one of the closets and tie them together, hang them over my back. I hesitate for a moment as I touch my hand to the door knob. It creaks softly as I open it and I expect him to come out and stop me, but the room is silent. The door latches with only a faint click.
The complex is eerily silent around as I walk through it; most of the indoor lights are already turned off with the exception of a few in the cathedral. I walk by it without worrying that anyone inside will see me.
A few hundred feet down the road I am far enough away to make out the three pillars in the distance, just a dark shadow against a darker sky, a place where the stars disappear. I start to walk towards them. I only have to make it a hundred and twenty iles to the nearest outpost. I breathe deeply and start walking.
It's four months before I see him again. The day is bright, clear; the wind isn't strong enough to pick up the sand. I sit inside the metal hull of the ship, facing the opening that was torn into it years ago. I hear him outside, watch his shadow appear in the doorway before he leans a hand on it, smiles in at me.
"Hey, I thought I'd find you out here."
"I'm surprised it took you this long."
"I had other business to take care of. Man, I'm surprised this place is still in this good of shape."
"You should have seen it when I got here. I spent three weeks digging it back out of the sand."
"Is the plant still functioning?"
I nod. "I've taken good care of her."
On the table in front of me lie the pieces of a gun. I pick up the barrel, run a cloth through it, give it a twist.
"Mind if I sit down?"
I shake my head and he sits in the chair opposite me, sets his bag on the floor.
"So are you here to take me back?"
He shakes his head. "No. I don't see any reason to. You have been keeping out of trouble haven't you?"
"I haven't killed anyone if that's what you're asking."
He nods. "So what have you been doing since I saw you last?"
"I can see that. What are you doing with them?"
I can sense the slightest apprehension behind that smile.
"I figure if I can't kill them I may as well provide them with the means to do it themselves."
His smile falters. "That isn't funny."
I run the cloth through the barrel again. "I needed money. It seemed like as good a way of getting it as any."
"What happened to the old counterfeiting business?"
My eyes widen slightly and he laughs. "Come on, Knives, I'm not stupid. You might have been good but you weren't that good. Besides, you signed your work."
I smile, remember the old paper bills, my name written microscopically in the tiny line that bordered them. "I didn't think anyone would notice. In any case I lost the equipment and haven't had a chance to replace it yet."
"Well when you do I know a group of kids who could benefit from it."
I set the gun down, rest my hands in my lap. "You may not have noticed, Vash, but I'm not exactly the type to make charitable contributions."
He picks up the barrel, twirls it in his fingers. "Whether you meant to or not you've been supporting those kids for the past couple of years. I see no reason to stop now."
"So if I pay you off, you'll let me stay out here, that's what you're saying."
He smiles. "Something like that."
I lean over, take the metal from his fingers, set it on the counter beside me.
"So you're making guns, huh? Have one I could see?"
I open a drawer below the counter, pull out a revolver and set it in front of him. He picks it up, turns it over in his hands. "This is a good gun. Mind if I give it a go?"
I shake my head, stand and follow him outside. I have a piece of metal set up about twenty feet away, marked precisely. The center is already dotted with bullet holes; a couple have strayed near the edges. He stands away from it, aims the gun, but hesitates, looks back to me. "This doesn't have any um...special features, does it?"
I shake my head, watch as he aims again, fires off five shots rapidly. The hole in the center of the target widens and he lets his arm fall, walks back over to me.
"You've gotten better."
"Well, I'm not a kid anymore."
He nods. "Mind if I keep this?"
I shake my head, sit back behind the table. Are you staying?
"No, I've got to be going soon. It's a long walk back to town. I just thought I'd stop by, see how you were doing."
"Make sure I was staying out of trouble."
He laughs. "Yeah, that too."
I look away. "How are the girls?"
He leans against the doorframe. "Last I heard they're good. Millie's going to stay out at the orphanage for awhile. She really likes it there. And Meryl's back in December. I don't hear from her very often, she isn't much for writing."
"Neither are you."
"No, I guess I'm not."
He turns his head, looks back out at the desert. "I should really get going."
"Are you coming back?"
He doesn't answer immediately. "Yeah, I'll come back."
I nod, smooth a cloth on the table and set the parts back on it.
He starts to leave, calls behind him, "I'll be seeing you soon. Thanks again for the gun!"
I look out the doorframe, watch him walk away until he becomes one with the shimmering horizon.
Author's Notes: Wow, did you actually read this far? Kudos to you! Technical stuff then personal stuff. First of all, I should probably mention that Knives' description of Freudian psychology is less than accurate. While Freud does include the thanatos in his theory and does stress that the id is the primary motivator in humans, Knives stresses the importance of both of these much more than Freud does, not to mention totally ignoring other key aspects of the theory. If you are interested in learning more about Freud's theory just send me an email and I'll be glad to help you find some good information.
Translation of rambling in other languages:
"Do you speak French?"
"Yes. Do you speak German?"
"I speak a little German."
"Can you speak Japanese?"
Said in the respective languages of course. As for personal stuff, I have to thank a few people here for helping me out with this. Thanks Eric for knowing the answer to all of my questions. J You rock. Thanks to Kevin for being around when this thing had no plot whatsoever and helping me come up with one. Thanks to anime girl and hitomi for helping me with the languages. Thanks to Zach and Gabe for actually reading parts of this while it was being written and offering suggestions. And thanks to anyone else who listened to me ramble about this (basically anyone who has ever talked to me for more than five minutes on instant messenger. ;) ) You know who you are and I can guarantee that you helped IMMENSELY. Thankies to all of you. Hope you enjoyed the story. Feedback is always welcomed, good, bad, whichever. I appreciate criticism but don't take well to flaming, so feel free to tell me you didn't like it, just be constructive about it.