Author: Celesma PM
Double-shot, in-series, V/Mi. When Vash is hired on as a guard at March City's most prestigious ball, will the Insurance Girls be able to keep him out of trouble? In a word: no.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Adventure - Vash & Milly - Chapters: 2 - Words: 16,598 - Reviews: 8 - Favs: 16 - Follows: 1 - Updated: 08-04-11 - Published: 07-23-11 - Status: Complete - id: 7210772
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: Just thought I'd warn for themes of racism ahead. Also, March is a large and prosperous city – at least in this fic – so law enforcement consists of actual police officers rather than a sherriff.
"My wife will die!"
They were four simple words, but the truth they conveyed left Vash and the insurance girls reeling. The boy who had delivered them now stood before the three of them sobbing, unable to manage comprehensible speech, nor to hold the barrel of the Remington steady. While he still had enough presence of mind to keep it pointed at his would-be apprehenders, he clearly wouldn't be able to hit the far side of a barn in his condition.
For a few minutes Vash and the girls were silent, letting him vent his anguish. Then Vash spoke.
"What's your name?"
The boy sniffed once, and in that moment he somehow managed to look even younger than his late teens. "It's... it's B-Brandon," he said clumsily. He didn't seem to be aware of the peculiarness of a robber giving personal information to someone who was trying to take him in.
"Brandon, are you and your wife in some kind of trouble?"
"My wife has nothing to do with this," Brandon quickly demurred. "I mean... I'm doing this for her, but she doesn't know about it. She can't know. It would break her heart..." His voice broke off with a sob.
"Why don't you start at the beginning," Vash said patiently. It amazed both of his companions that the outlaw could speak so conversationally with someone who had just threatened to kill them all. But then, seeing how anyone who had been marked for protection by Vash in the past had always survived their ordeals, maybe it wasn't so surprising.
The young man's face hardened, even as he struggled to speak. "Why... why should I tell you anything? You can't help me..."
"Maybe we can," Vash said. "And besides, this doesn't suit you. Young people should be out enjoying life, not getting themselves trapped in filthy alleys and waving stolen guns around."
A muscle in Brandon's face twitched, as though he would have taken full offense under less trying circumstances. Then his jaw set in resignation, and he began to tell the group his story.
"My wife and I were married last year," Brandon said, now speaking in considerably calmer tones. "Theresa and I grew up in the same orphanage, and for years we were all each other had. The town we lived in was small and pleasant enough, but no one wanted to adopt either of us, or even make much of an effort to care whether we lived or died. Even when we left the orphanage to start new lives for ourselves, we were never able to form any meaningful relationships with anyone. To cope, we fell back on our friendship – and eventually, in love."
He stopped, as if puzzled that he was starting off like this, but Vash was giving him an encouraging look, saying "Go on," and so he did.
"When we finally wed, apathy turned into hatred. The other villagers spat on us, hurled curses at us, refused us service. They treated both of us like dogs, but they were much worse to Theresa. You see..." Brandon drew a deep, shuddering breath. "She doesn't look the same as me. And people hated her for that."
The insurance girls exchanged confused looks, but Vash nodded knowingly, sadly. "You were a biracial couple."
"Yeah," Brandon said, but now he looked far away, as if reliving the torture that his beloved had been forced to endure, his features darkening with rage. Then he seemed to remember himself somewhat, and continued:
"We both raised money, planning to leave that horrible town, to find a place where we'd be accepted. And that's... that's when Theresa got sick." His voice hitched on the last word. "What she had – has – is terrible. She developed a high fever very quickly, and she was always out of breath. On the fifth day of her illness, she could no longer even get out of bed."
Millie's eyes shimmered with unchecked tears; the young man's display of emotion from earlier had been almost enough to bring her to this point, and now, to learn about this... she unconsciously opened her fingers to welcome those of her shorter partner, who was just as disquieted. The two of them stood there holding hands, seeking one another's strength. Unfortunately, Brandon's story was only about to get worse.
"We tried traditional treatments – you know, the catch-all stuff you get at the drugstores – but nothing was working. Meanwhile, her condition was slowly getting worse. I started to become afraid that whatever she had was going to kill her. I went to the village doctor, prepared to use all of the money I had saved to have him treat her, but he refused even to see her.
"I was desperate. I followed the man back to his house that same day and knelt on his doorstep, begging, but soon a mob arrived and dragged me away. They took me to the village limits, where they'd already dumped Theresa, as though she was just another pile of garbage to be disposed of. She lay there on the ground, too weak even to move. I – I couldn't do anything – " He raised a trembling hand to his face, his features contorted with grief. "The mob told us that if we weren't out of town within the hour, our blood would be running in the streets."
"That's horrible!" Millie interjected fiercely, her eyes bright with anger now as well as sympathy; her fingers tightened on Meryl's in an iron grip.
"It is, isn't it?" Brandon said, and now his lips were turning upward in a bitter smile. "And yet it was the same story in every place we visited. Not until we came to this city, three weeks later, did I find anyone who didn't want to lynch us outright for being together. Only now – " the bitter smile became a bitter laugh – "I didn't even have the money to have her admitted to the hospital!"
"And that's why you came to the ball tonight," Vash concluded gravely. "To get the money you needed."
"That's right," Brandon said. "There I was, slumped outside what had to be the seediest bar in the city, drinking myself into oblivion, when I overheard a group of men boasting about how rich they were going to be after they'd pulled off their 'first big heist.' They obviously couldn't be all that competent, discussing their plans in the open like that, but I was wasted and at the end of my rope. Even though it could have gotten me killed, I walked right up to them and pledged my services then and there."
He may have had more to say, but the opportunity never presented itself, as the sound of a police siren suddenly split the air, causing them all to start.
"Shit! The cops!" Brandon said, and now the barrel of the gun was back up and pointing at Vash and the insurance girls, the temporary bond of trust he'd formed with them shattered by the arrival of danger. Vash didn't waste time.
"You've got a choice to make," he said sternly. "Are you going to shoot us and try to outrun the cops yourself? Or are you going to let us help you?"
"I'd like to take that second option, but I can't believe that you'd help me," Brandon replied. "Besides, you're a guard, aren't you? Isn't it your job to take me in?"
"It is, but that's secondary to my duty as a human being. We're supposed to help each other out." Vash spoke quietly, but the sound of the sirens paled in comparison to the strength and conviction in his voice. "Please. Trust me. I want to help you."
His emerald-green eyes stared into Brandon's blue ones. Whatever the young man saw there must have convinced him of Vash's honesty, as the arm holding the derringer finally fell limply to his side. Without hesitation, Vash closed the few feels between them, took back the gun. Brandon didn't resist.
"Thank you," he said, and the kindness in the outlaw's voice somehow caused the young man's cheeks to burn with shame. "You're making the right decision." Then, without missing a beat:
"All right, ladies! Hop to!" The outlaw had reverted to the goofy demeanor that the insurance girls were more accustomed to seeing. He tossed the derringer back to Meryl, who caught it nimbly, and motioned to Millie to pick up her stun gun, who happily obliged. "We will now commence with Operation Get Out Of Jail Free Card! I'm going to go distract the cops. When you hear my signal, I want you to take Brandon to – "
"Signal? What signal?" Meryl interrupted irritably. While she was relieved to see the tension in the air bleeding out, she remained infuriated with the outlaw's needless silliness. "And why does your plan have such a ridiculous name?"
Pointedly ignoring her second question, Vash replied: "Trust me, you'll know when you hear it." The sirens continued to blare; they were getting close now. "Anyway, meet me behind that diner we went to this morning!" Before she could protest further, he turned around and raced down the alley.
Brandon looked at his retreating form, doubtful. "Can he really draw all those policemen away by himself?"
"I don't think that will be a problem," Meryl said, sighing ruefully. "He's Vash the Stampede, after all."
Brandon's reaction was instantaneous. "V-Vash – the – Stampede – "
"Oh, don't be that way," Millie said cheerfully, clapping a hand on the terrified boy's shoulder. "Mister Vash is awfully nice once you get to know him."
As Vash ran out into the open, he found himself staring down a small army of police officers, their guns drawn and ready for action. The mayor of March City was accompanying them, looking flustered but pleased.
"There you are, John Smith!" he said, still referring to the gunman by the ridiculously bland name he had chosen for himself. The officers moved to allow him to pass through their ranks to where Vash was standing, and he shook the gunman's hand. "I wanted to thank you for apprehending those robbers. Very unfortunate about the chandelier, but its loss is nothing compared to the havoc those fiends might have caused. They've all been carted off to the police station, but there is still one running around loose, as you well know. Were you able to find him?"
"I don't think it's him you should be worried about," Vash replied mysteriously. The mayor looked puzzled.
"Whatever do you mean?" he asked, adjusting his tie nervously.
"What I mean," Vash said, and now he spoke in a booming, intimidating voice, "is that my name is actually Vash the Stampede, and I'm going to raze this city to the ground!" With that, he produced his silver revolver and fired three times into an empty police cruiser behind him, causing it to explode. He stood there stolidly as flames shot out from the totaled car, his figure a menacing sillhouette against the bright orange backdrop that now caused the mayor and officers to stumble back, shielding their eyes.
After about thirty seconds, the fire began to die down. Tongues of flame continued to spring out from the skeleton of the car, but the initial dramatic effect it had was gone. Relative quiet resumed. Vash stayed where he was, trying to gauge the mood of the crowd of people in front of him.
The mayor looked appropriately terrified – his lips moved, but no sound other than a weak squeak came out – but the police were wearing city-issued helmets with visors, so he had no way of reading their expressions. Most of them were trembling slightly, so they were definitely frightened, but were they frightened enough?
This is the moment of truth, Vash thought, his body tensed in preparation of whatever was about to happen next. Are they going to run away, or are they going to try to arrest me?
It was as though a hailstorm had struck the city. The very next moment, Vash's eardrums were approaching rupture as over thirty revolvers discharged at once.
Neither! They're going to freaking KILL me!
Clumsily leaping out of the way before the bullets could strike him, Vash scrambled to his feet, began leading the officers away from the alley where his friends were hiding. As he did so, he gulped down air and let loose a long, hyena-like shriek of fear.
The ear-splitting scream rent the air around Brandon and the insurance girls, prompting them to grit their teeth in pain and clap their hands over their ears. They stayed firmly attached there, as an equally cacophonous symphony of gunfire erupted at the same time. After a full minute of this aural torture, the noise finally died away into the distance. They were alone.
"I... I think that was the signal," Meryl said. Her voice and body shook, like that of a drug addict going into withdrawal. Her bigger partner helped her to her feet; somehow, at some point, the short girl had crumpled to the ground without realizing it. Brandon, for his part, remained stock still, almost too afraid to move.
"Are you sure that's Vash the Stampede? He was rather..." He struggled to come up with a word. "Distraught."
"Absolutely positive," Millie said serenely, moving over to his side and stretching out a hand. "Now let's go, before they come back."
They were behind the diner now, loitering around some particularly foul-smelling dumpsters. Vash had been gone for almost twenty minutes. "Where is he?" Meryl wondered out loud, her tone irritated as well as worried. Meanwhile, Brandon was working up the courage to talk to Millie, apologize for groping her at the ball. At length, he turned to face the tall woman, who looked back at him questioningly.
"Ma'am... please forgive me for what I did to you during that robbery." Despite the boy's bitter outlook on life, he was loath to abandon the polite habits that had been drilled into him from his early days at the orphanage. "It was absolutely disgraceful, and I – "
"It's okay. You were just scared and desperate," Millie said, and the look she gave him then was so gentle that he felt like crying. "I would have been much more upset if your boss had shot you for disobeying orders, anyway."
"I don't deserve your kindness," Brandon murmured, but then she went on to add, tittering:
"Besides, I got you pretty good with that gun, didn't I? I think that's payback enough."
"...If you say so," Brandon said at last. Remind me never to get her mad at me...
"By the way, my name isn't 'Ma'am.' It's Millie." She forked a thumb over her shoulder at Meryl. "And over there is Sempai – I mean, Meryl."
"It's nice to meet both of you," Brandon said honestly.
"Hey, Brandon! Insurance girls!"
Vash suddenly appeared in their field of vision. They'd been expecting him to have a more disheveled appearance – a few extra bullet holes in his coat, maybe some singed hair – but he looked relatively unharmed. It was what he was carrying that held their attention.
"Um. Vash?" Meryl asked, dumbfounded. "What are you doing with our stuff?"
Vash's duffel bag was strapped to his back, and in one arm he carried a large, nondescript purse that belonged to Millie. In the other, he was carrying Meryl's pink suitcase. He set all three pieces of luggage down on the ground with a heavy sigh, then sank to the ground himself.
"I realized that we'd never be able to go back to the hotel room if I revealed myself," he said between labored breaths. He had been running for a long time. "So I went back and got our things."
"Oh..." Meryl brought a hand to her mouth, surprised by the outlaw's foresight.
"Aren't either of you going to thank me?" Vash said, large tears of indignation gathering at the corners of his eyes. "Do you have any idea how ridiculous I looked, running around with your girly luggage? When I came out of our room, half the cops were laughing too hard to even shoot at me!"
Millie couldn't help laughing herself – he could be so silly, even without trying! – but she quickly restrained herself. "Thanks so much, Mister Vash," she said. "That couldn't have been easy."
"Yeah... thanks, Vash," Meryl said.
Vash sat there for a few moments, still struggling to catch his breath, then gestured towards the diner. "Well, it looks like Operation Get Out Of Jail Free Card was a success. Now does someone want to go in there and buy me some pancakes? Because I think I deserve it."
"It sounds like your wife has contracted hantavirus," Vash said.
Brandon looked back at him in mute astonishment, while Millie and Meryl struggled to understand his statement. The gunman had asked Brandon to describe his wife's symptoms in more detail. In addition to shortness of breath, she suffered from muscle aches, chills, and most recently, a persistent dry cough.
After a moment, the short girl voiced her confusion. "Hantavirus? What's that?"
"It's a disease that existed back on the deserts of Earth," Vash explained. "Originally, it was a serious infection that caused the heart, lungs, and kidneys to fail. People who contracted the disease usually died within a few weeks, if left untreated." Anticipating Brandon's horrified reaction, he quickly added:
"The variant of the disease is a little different on this planet, though. Here, it seems to take much longer for the disease to cause organ failure... you said it's been almost a month now, right?" Brandon nodded unsteadily. "Then there's still a chance to save her."
He fell silent, apparently thinking to himself. Meryl knew she shouldn't interrupt his ruminations, but she simply couldn't contain her incredulity. There was still so much unknown about their home planet, yet the outlaw spoke as if he had practically lived there at one point. It was unnerving, to say the least.
"Vash... how could you possibly know any of this?"
"Hm?" Vash looked at her – a little absentmindedly, she thought – and then he gave her a slight smile. "I... uh... read it in a book?"
"That's not an answer!" The short girl prepared to launch herself at Vash, but was stopped by the sound of Millie's giggles. "And it's not funny, either!" she said, directing her anger at the big girl, but without the accompanying violence.
Millie tried to stifle her giggles, but when she looked up to see Mister Vash winking at her, she gave up on the attempt altogether. Ever since the episode with the Nebraska Family at Inepril, when Sempai had been forced to admit that Mister Vash was – well – Mister Vash, the short girl had been full of questions about the outlaw's knowledge and abilities. Mister Vash, clearly not willing to give up his secrets, but not willing to be impolite and ignore her, either, had finally taken to responding that he "read it in a book." This angered Sempai to no end, but was terribly funny for Vash and Millie.
"Is there a cure for hantavirus?" Brandon asked anxiously.
"Not as such, no," Vash admitted. "But natural recovery is possible, with the help of certain treatments." He thought for a moment. "She's going to need ribavirin."
"An antiviral medication for the kidneys. It will keep them from failing, and also help keep her alive."
"So... I just need to get this medicine for her?"
"Yes, but there are two problems with that," Vash said uneasily. "The first is that you aren't going to find it in any pharmacy. You'd have to go directly to the source for that."
Meryl started. "The source? You mean... the plant?"
"Yeah," Vash said, nodding. "Medications for rare illnesses are created on an as-needed basis. Rather than stocking medicine that will probably expire before it's really needed, pharmacies wait until customers come in requesting the medicine. Then they contact the local plant facility to have it made for them."
"Gosh," Millie said, "I never knew the plants made our medicine! That's neat!"
"Well, where else could it have come from, Millie?" Meryl said. "We're not exactly living in the land of plenty, here." By now the short girl was looking severely discomfited, but Vash couldn't tell why. He made a mental note to ask her about it later.
"I don't know, Sempai. I guess I just never really thought about it." Millie scratched her head. Her pretty updo was starting to unravel, Vash noted sadly. "I wonder how the plants know how to make all those different things?"
"It's simple, really," Vash said. "At least in theory. When plants were created, they were designed to respond to certain 'codes' that would signify the type of item that was needed of them. It seems that we lost most of the codes in the Great Fall, but basic commodities like bread and water made it through okay. Humanity is still discovering new codes every day, sheerly though trial and error." He smiled to himself, marveling once again at the ingenuity and persistence of the human race. "We probably haven't even scratched the surface of what the plants are capable of, really. Last I heard, the plant in December was said to be up to five thousand plus codes."
"How exactly do the codes function?" Brandon asked.
"Well..." Vash thought to himself about how best to explain it to them. "They're basically strings of information that are fed into the bulb and absorbed by the plant. The plant changes its molecular structure based on the code it's given, in order to successfully recreate the item. Of course, different codes will give you different items."
"Oh," Millie said, awed. "So that's how the plants work, Sempai?"
"Well... yes, that's correct," Meryl said, still looking flustered. Instead of turning her feelings inward, however, she whirled on the gunslinger, pegged him with a piercing stare. "But how would you know any of that? You're not a plant technician."
"No, I'm not," Vash admitted, scratching his neck, "but you aren't either, Meryl. How is it that you know about the codes?"
Meryl stiffened. After a few seconds she muttered, "My father was a plant engineer," then crossed her arms, making it exceedingly clear that that was all she was willing to say on the matter.
"Oh, I see," Vash said. He started to turn away from her, when she suddenly yanked him back by the sleeve of his coat. "Hey, wait! You still didn't answer my question! Where'd you get your information?"
"I read it in a book." The short insurance girl looked like she was about to tear her hair out. Millie moved over to her partner's side, squeezed her shoulder in a conciliatory gesture. "Now, now, Sempai..."
Brandon spoke timidly, breaking up the trio's antics. "So, uh, Mister Stampede..."
"Please, call me Vash," the gunslinger said. He wilted slightly under the fire-breathing stare Meryl was leveling at him.
"Er, Vash," the young man said. "You're saying pharmacies don't carry the medicine, but if they can just request it from the plant facility, then that doesn't matter, right? I don't see why we can't just go to one and ask – "
The comical look of fear on Vash's face quickly disappeared, and Brandon stopped, afraid of the gunslinger's next words.
"That leads us to the second problem," he said sadly. "The plant facility can't create ribavirin, because no one has ever discovered the code for it. That information was lost in the Great Fall."
"All right, boys," Rem says, handing a sheet of paper to each of the brothers seated at the captain's desk. "The crew is going to need extra help programming the plants this week, so I've created a list of the items we're going to be making. Underneath each item, I want you to write down the corresponding code. Once you've finished, I'll grade your lists to see how well you did. Think of it as a little competition."
"What does the winner get?" one of the boys asks. Rem smiles at him, and his heart melts in childlike wonder at her beauty.
"It can be whatever you want, Vash."
"Okay! I'm gonna ask for donuts, then!"
Knives grins at Vash, patting his shoulder-length hair. "That's if you win. As for me, I want a kaleidoscope."
"No way you can beat me!" Vash laughs. "I have a much better memory than you."
"Think of it as a friendly competition," Rem cautions, but she's still smiling. The twins focus their attention on the papers in front of them. Even though they're seated right next to each other, neither bothers shielding his paper from the other's view. The concept of cheating is still foreign to them.
Vash looks at the first item on the list. It's ribavirin. He wracks his brain, trying to remember...
"Mister Vash, are you all right?"
Millie was waving her hand in front of him. He blinked, shaken from his reverie. He hadn't realized that he'd been standing there with his eyes closed for the last two or three minutes. "Oh, I'm sorry. I was just thinking..."
"Thinking about what?"
"Well..." Vash grinned sheepishly, placed a hand behind his neck. "I think I might actually know the code for ribavirin."
The three of them just stared back at him. Meryl, in particular, was too stunned even to ask how he could have possibly known something like that. She stood there as if paralyzed, regarded the outlaw with quiet amazement. Finally, Brandon spoke.
"Incredible," he said softly, his expression a perfect replica of Meryl's. "You really are the legendary outlaw."
"That's wonderful, Mister Vash!" Millie exclaimed, her cheeks ruddy with excitement. "Let's go down to the plant facility right now!"
"Oh no you don't," Vash said, and although he wasn't aware of it, his voice had grown particularly protective. "I'm doing this alone. Messing around with a plant is serious business."
"And what if the cops find you out there?" Meryl growled, abruptly recovering from her earlier shock. "I'm not about to bail your ass out of jail on the company dime."
"I'm not going to get caught," Vash said, but he knew a lost cause when he saw one: Meryl was already grasping the handle of her pink suitcase and looking at him expectantly, while Millie gave her stun gun a once-over, intending to have it in tip-top condition in the event that they ran into a cop on the way there. "Okay, never mind..."
It was a simple matter to get to the plant facility; the roads were surprisingly clear of policemen, and the darkness afforded them a temporary measure of safety against anyone who might have recognized them. After they had walked about fifteen blocks, they were there, staring up at the impressive – and imposing – structure.
"Just a sec," Vash said. The others waited outside as he entered the building. Seconds later, surprised and angry voices floated out through the front doors, and they could hear the sounds of a scuffle beginning to ensue. Vash's maniacal laughter – clearly he was getting carried away with whatever he was doing in there – followed.
Then, silence. The outlaw came out, looking rather satisfied with himself.
"That takes care of the guards."
They were now in the heart of the plant facility. They had encountered more guards along the way, but Vash made short work of them, either sweeping their heads together, as though they were a pair of cymbals, or administering a strange technique – it looked almost as though he were pinching their necks – that made them fall instantly unconscious. Brandon marveled that he didn't once use his gun.
"That's just his way," Millie explained, looking at the gunman warmly. Vash blushed, before saying:
"The plant is just down this hallway. I'll go get the medicine. It shouldn't be more than ten minutes. You guys just stay put here and, uh... make sure those guards don't wake up any time soon," he finished lamely.
"Can't we come with you, Mister Vash?" Millie asked.
Vash opened his mouth to answer, but Meryl smoothly interjected, realizing that she didn't want to hear any more of his impossible knowledge. It was beginning to disturb her, the things he knew. "We really shouldn't, Millie. We might get plant sickness if something goes wrong."
"Plant sickness?" Millie's brow creased in confusion. "What's that?"
Vash could have explained it, but he kept his mouth shut. He knew Meryl's true feelings, and it saddened him. Meryl continued: "When the plant is in active use, its energy levels spike considerably. This energy typically escapes into the atmosphere. The equipment surrounding the bulb keeps the plant's energy levels in check, but were it to ever fail, the resulting pressure would either suffocate or severely damage anyone too close to the bulb. Plant engineers risk their life every day," she added softly, and Vash and Millie wondered if she was thinking about her father. "There are no safeguards against plant sickness."
Brandon looked pale. "Vash... you don't have to do this. If you give me the code, I'll go in there and – "
"You don't know how to work the computers," Vash said, dismissing him curtly. "And besides, I don't want anyone else getting hurt over this."
"She's my wife, dammit," Brandon said defiantly, and an argument might have broken out but for the sound of heavily booted feet approaching them.
"Y-you!" The plant engineer, a bespectacled man wearing a cumbersome safety suit, had emerged from a nearby doorway, and now he stopped, pointed at them with a shaky finger. "I don't recognize you four! W-where's your ID?"
For a moment they were frozen; no one knew what to do. Then Vash snarled:
"How's this for ID? I'm Vash the Stampede, and if you don't get out of here in the next five seconds, I'm going to eat you!"
The man didn't need to be told twice. With a scream, he exited through a door on the side of the room opposite them. They watched him go mutely.
"I guess... I'll be going now," Vash murmured when it became apparent no one was going to say anything. "Any objections?" He looked pointedly at Brandon, who by this point had conceded defeat. Meryl placed a hand on her forehead, shaking it slowly.
"This is so far from damage control that I think I just became a wanted criminal." Behind her, Brandon began to apologize profusely, but Millie cut him off with a well-placed jab of her elbow. "Just don't blow anything up in there, okay, Vash?"
"Um... I'll try not to?" Vash turned to go, but Meryl stopped him with another word.
"Vash... please be careful." There was true fear in her voice now – the fear of one who understood the gravity of the situation in a way that no one else could. "I – we – don't want anything to happen to you."
"Meryl..." Vash looked back at her in astonishment. Despite everything, Meryl really did care about him. He tended to forget that sometimes, even as she herself tried to keep her concern hidden from him. He smiled at her. "Thanks. I will."
"Mister Vash, wait!"
Vash had progressed deeper into the plant facility when he heard Millie call out to him. He turned around to see the big girl running toward him, her dress hitched up around her thighs to avoid tripping. Her tights had run in several places, and at the sight of her bare skin the gunman had an instant – and very inappropriate – reaction. He blushed furiously, thanked whatever gods there were that he was still wearing his coat. "Millie... you, ah, shouldn't be here... dangerous..." Now he was having trouble thinking.
The scared look on the big girl's face served to bring him to his senses, however. "Mister Vash, are you sure you're going to be okay?"
"Trust me, I'll be fine. Remember, back at Inepril? I got stuck in the plant facility when it was about to blow sky-high, and nothing catastrophic happened."
"I'm still wondering how you did that," Millie said, and he blanched. There was no suspicion in her tone, though: only curiosity. Then she nodded. "Okay. I'll leave it to you, then."
She didn't leave right away, however, instinctively feeling that he wanted to say something else to her.
Vash's eyes were sad. "Hey, Millie... about earlier, at the party... I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I understand why you did things the way you did, and it turned out all right in the end, didn't it? Besides, Brandon was just as sorry as you are." Millie smiled brightly at him. That innocent look of her always seemed to do him in.
"I'll try," he said weakly. "Now you really should be getting back, Millie." He turned away from her, began to resume his trek toward the plant.
Behind him, he could hear Millie calling out cheerfully: "Good luck, Mister Vash!"
He didn't see her smile straighten seconds later, didn't see the paramount look of worry steal over her face like the thunderclouds that had once existed back on Earth, blotting out the light and heat of the sun.
"Hey, little sister," Vash said as he drew closer to the giant bulb, its cloudy blue surface broken only by the soft veins of electricity that ran through it. He placed his hand upon the glass, which remained cold in spite of the heat generated by the machines that continually worked to sustain the microcosm of life within. He felt completely at peace in the presence of the creature that he knew slept inside. "It's been a while, huh?"
At length, the clouds on the bulb's surface parted as a hand, bone-white and possessed of long, elegant fingers, appeared on the other side of the glass. Moments after that, the bulb sister came into full view.
"In fact, it's been so long I don't even remember your name!" Vash said jovially, instantly breaking the serene atmosphere. The bulb sister's eyes widened in surprise. "Now, what was it again... Pamela? Agnes? Jane? Or maybe you're Rachel..." The plant's eyes went on to narrow in anger as he ticked off names.
"Ha ha! Just kidding! I know you're Eliza," the outlaw guffawed. Eliza didn't seem to appreciate the humor, and Vash winced as he felt a headache coming on. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry! Just please don't do that. I've already had a trying day as it is."
He explained the situation to his sister. While she couldn't communicate back in words, what she did use to talk was more effective – impressions of images, snippets of voices and music, and an expanding swell of emotions flooded Vash's consciousness. She was deeply unhappy that a human had been forced to hurt someone to save someone he loved. She didn't understand the concept of parties or money or dancing, so she mostly glossed over those parts of his story, but she did understand things like sick and die, and she didn't want either of those things happening to a human. She was ecstatic when she learned that she could help.
"The code is for ribavirin," Vash told her. "It's very important that I get the medicine back to Brandon as soon as possible. I'm going to input the code now, if that's all right with you." He walked over to the computer terminal located at one corner of the bulb and began to type on the keyboard.
It wasn't all right, and she tried to explain that to him, but her brother's anxiety over the sick human's fate was in equal measure to her own, and he inadvertently blocked her mental signals to him. She tried to catch his attention through the warbling vocalizations that only plants were capable of, but that didn't work either. A dismayed expression crossed Vash's face when the computer suddenly gave a flat beep.
"It's... rejecting the code?" A series of irritated chirps issued from the plant's throat, as though she was a long-suffering teacher trying to explain something simple to a particularly inattentive student.
"What? You mean the crew never even programmed you to accept the code?" Frustrated, Vash spun around, leaned his back against the computer monitor. "Oh, that's right," he said after a moment, listening. "You were never a medical plant to begin with, so they would probably only program you for more common remedies."
His brow furrowed, and he began massaging his temples in a circular motion. "So now what am I supposed to do?" he groaned. If the SEEDS ship had remained intact into the present day, he might have been able to use the onboard equipment to program the code into Eliza himself, but it was about fifty years too late for that. And time was running out.
There had to be a way to retrieve the medicine. There had to be. Brandon was counting on him. He couldn't bear to return empty-handed, let another innocent person die.
"Wait," he said suddenly. "Wait." An idea was beginning to take shape in his head. It was a long shot, and it would put considerable strain on both himself and his sister, but it was their only option at this point. He turned to look at her. "Hey, Liz," he said. When the plant growled at him, he quickly corrected himself. "Er, Eliza. What if we did this? What if I was somehow able to convey the exact components and structure of the medicine to you? Would you be able to create it then?"
The plant made a sound that seemed to express doubt, but she wasn't totally dismissive of the idea.
"I'd have to get in there with you, of course. Unlike Knives, my telepathy isn't all that good. We have to be in as close proximity to each other as possible. Are you all right with that?"
The plant gazed at him with her unblinking, beetle-black eyes, then nodded slowly.
"Great!" Vash said, grinning. "I knew there was a reason I liked you best." Eliza gave the psychic equivalent of an eyeroll, and he laughed. "Yeah, I guess flattery isn't going to get me anywhere, is it?"
Vash stripped off his obtrusive red duster, leaving him in just his black body suit. He walked up to the bulb's glass surface and placed his hand upon it. It began to disappear as he pushed inward, until finally he could see it floating in the dark, ethereal fluid on the other side. He paused just then, his arm slowly sinking into the bulb like a spoon in hot oatmeal.
"One more thing, sis," Vash said. His voice was solemn. "I've seen a lot of the outside world. There's... there's a lot of scary images in my head. I'm going to try really hard to keep them out of yours, but I still need you to focus completely on my instructions. Don't freak out if you see anything you shouldn't, okay?"
Eliza chirped her affirmation.
Vash smiled. "Good girl." Then: "Okay, here I come," and the rest of his body followed suit, disappearing through the bulb's surface as though it was an enchanted looking glass.
Millie remained in the hallway, mentally vacillating between following Mister Vash anyway – she was terribly worried about him – and returning to Sempai and Brandon. After long moments in which she bit her lip, undecided, the big girl finally gathered her nerve and raced off in the direction that Vash had taken.
Fortunately the corridors were fairly straightforward and easy to navigate – no confounding labyrinths here, as she'd feared – and at length she found herself in front of the door that led into the room housing the facility's plant. She hesitated only for a second before pushing her way inside.
I won't get in Mister Vash's way, she thought. I'm just going to have a quick peek to make sure he's all right, and then I'll be on my way.
The room was spacious, yet stuffy. Millie found she had trouble taking complete breaths, and sweat immediately sprang to her forehead. She supposed this was owing to the fact that the plant was wide awake: multiple contraptions surrounding the bulb in the room's center were humming with life and generating thick puffs of steam, which perhaps signified that it was hard at work making the medicine that Brandon needed. But where was Mister Vash?
She moved further into the room, despite her body's protestations. Slowly closing the distance between herself and the massive bulb, which was curiously dark in spite of the active machinery, she took steady, carefully measured breaths.
She needn't have bothered. The breath was ripped from her throat when, seconds later, the darkness lifted and she could clearly see the suspended, many-winged form of the plant that slept within the bulb. Millie gazed at it in awe. She'd never seen a plant before, and now she could say without a doubt that it was one of the most beautiful creatures she had ever seen. Despite its ferocious appearance – its closed eyes were framed by too-long lashes, fangs curled from its lips like misplaced horns, and tiny, vaguely humanoid forms clung to its body – it looked like an angel to her in every way.
"Hello," she said, reverently.
Then its wings shifted, and she saw that it wasn't alone.
Floating there, his arms wrapped around the plant's bare chest, his eyes closed just as tightly, was Mister Vash. The greeting died on Millie's lips, and panic suddenly took hold of her. Her first thought was that the outlaw had accidentally fallen in and was drowning, but that was ridiculous: there were no openings anywhere on the bulb's surface, and besides, Mister Vash looked like he was breathing just fine. Her panic instead veered off into a completely different direction: Just who, or what, was Mister Vash?
The big girl froze, unable to run away or call out to him, when a series of tremors suddenly rocked the room, sent her sprawling to the floor. Jagged sparks of electricity initiated a violent dance around the bulb, and the machines surrounding it rumbled deeply, as if in mounting disapproval of her presence here. Both Mister Vash and the plant disappeared in a brilliant flash of light that filled the bulb and left her eyes watering. The steam grew thicker, more suffocating.
All thoughts banished completely from her mind, Millie rose to her feet and ran as quickly as her high-heeled shoes would allow her.
She was halfway down the main hallway when an awesome wave of pressure billowed forward, driving her helplessly to her knees. The big girl moaned and clung weakly to the wall. Every part of her body – from her torso to her legs, to even the long strands of hair that fell lankly in her face – felt as though it weighed a thousand pounds. Plant sickness, she thought, suddenly comprehending. The difficulty she'd had breathing in the plant room was nothing compared to what she was feeling now; far from merely responding sluggishly to her commands to breathe, they didn't seem to be working at all. Millie knew that if she wasn't up and moving in about five seconds she was probably going to die here.
With what little strength she had left, she managed to draw herself up to her full height, but she still couldn't put one foot in front of the other; both of them felt as heavy as lead. Growing light-headed, knowing she was going to pass out soon, the big girl began to despair, when suddenly the violent pressure in the air dissipated as quickly as it had first appeared. All the effort she'd put in trying to move forward was immediately unleashed, as her left foot struck the floor with enough force to stub her toe. Muffling a cry of pain, Millie staggered forward, didn't stop moving until she had reached the room where Sempai and Brandon, their faces drawn in worry and expectation, were waiting.
"There you are, Millie," Meryl said as soon as she caught sight of her tall partner. "What took so long? What's Vash up to?"
"Don't... know..." Millie sank to the floor next to Sempai, trying to catch her breath. Brandon walked over to her side, knelt down next to her.
"Are you all right?" he asked, a note of concern in his voice.
"I-I'm fine," she stammered.
"Are you sure?" Now Meryl was there as well, putting her hand on Millie's forehead. "You look like you've been running a marathon." Her features suddenly grew suspicious. "Millie, what were you doing in there? It's almost like you have pla – "
Don't say it! "Gosh, Sempai, don't be silly!" Millie said, laughing, which quickly regressed to coughing. "Mister Vash – cough, cough – told me to hurry back – cough, cough – so I came here just as fast as I could!"
"But then why were you wearing your heels? You could've gotten here faster without them."
"I guess I just forgot about them." If Vash was the master of wearing fake smiles, Millie was at least the silver cup champion. "In fact, that's why it took me so long to get here, because I tripped on them and fell."
Meryl didn't look like she bought Millie's story, but she remained quiet, and all three of them stared down the hallway that led into the bowels of the plant facility.
Vash emerged from the bulb, his blonde hair plastered to his face and his limbs trembling spasmodically.
"It is freaking cold in there!" he screeched once he had fully freed himself, his arms tightly hugging his chest. "Sis, how do you stand it?"
The plant curled into a ball and floated toward the center of the bulb, not bothering to dignify his question with a response. Vash shook his head back and forth, trying to restore his hair to its former glorious (in his opinion) spikes, but nothing doing. Instead, he quickly donned his red coat, retreating into its warmth, then approached the cabin where items that Eliza created would typically generate.
"It's now or never," he breathed, and then he threw the cabin door open.
To his delight, a pile of capsules sat there waiting for him. "You did it!" he yelled in ecstasy, gathering them into a small leather bag he kept in his coat. "You did it, sis, you really did it, I'm so proud of you!"
The plant pushed herself back toward the edge of the bulb, beaming with pride. Vash strode up to her and planted a noisy kiss on the glass in front of her face. If plants could blush, he thought, he supposed that's what she'd be doing right now.
Vash didn't waste any time. He rushed towards the room's exit, stopped there momentarily to look back at her with brotherly affection. "Thanks, sis. Because of you, a human is going to live."
The plant closed her eyes in contentment. That was all she had ever wanted.
"Vash!" Meryl breathed when the outlaw suddenly came tearing down the hallway. Brandon, who had been kneeling next to Millie, leaped to his feet with an expression that was both hopeful and terrified. For obvious reasons, Millie stayed where she was. She'd managed to hide the worst of her symptoms – her breathing was back to normal, more or less – but her hair and dress were done for, and the heel had broken off one of her shoes when she'd been trying to escape through the hallway. She sure hoped Mister Vash wouldn't notice. She had a feeling he'd be terribly angry with her if he knew what she had done.
"Hey, guys," Vash said, and he was already pulling the knapsack out of his coat to give to Brandon, when Meryl interjected:
"You mind telling us what the hell you were doing in there, Vash? And why are you all wet?"
"Does it really matter right now?" Vash said with a sigh. Meryl took the hint and backed off. Vash handed the bag to Brandon, then reached back into his pockets and pulled out a giant wad of double dollars. He shoved them into Brandon's arms, who sputtered incredulously. "What – what are you – "
"Your wife needs oxygen," Vash said sternly. "Make sure that's the first thing the doctors know once you've brought her to the ER. If they see the money upfront, they'll be more receptive to using electricity-consuming devices to save her."
"But... but don't you need – "
To his surprise, Vash burst into laughter. "Of course not! The guy in charge of the ball was loaded, so this was his payment to me for the guard work. Besides, I am but a pursuer of the Mayfly of Love, the Hunter of Peace! What need would I have for material – "
Meryl quelled him with a furious look, and he coughed, suddenly serious again. "Er, but yes. Very important," he said. "As for the medicine, there's enough here to last for a few months. Your wife needs to take all of it, twice a day with food. With the ribavirin and oxygen working on her, she should be able to leave the hospital in a week."
"Thank you," Brandon said, his eyes shining with tears. "All of you." He bent his head, screwed his eyes shut, but it did nothing to stop the liquid flow of his agony and relief. "Because of you three, I... I can believe in people again."
Vash and the girls looked back at him, questions lingering in their eyes.
"I grew to hate other humans because of their prejudice," Brandon explained. "When they drove my wife and I out of town, just because we weren't from the same race, I felt my heart shatter. It only worsened when we continued to be rejected in all of the small towns we visited. Because of that, I became a shell of myself. Not only could I justify robbing innocent people, but I even vowed to kill them if they got in my way."
He looked at Vash, and he was smiling now. "I'm glad I didn't shoot you, Vash. You've given me back my heart." He surprised them all when he suddenly dropped the money and the bag and embraced Vash. The gunman started, his green eyes wide, then he smiled and wrapped his long arms around the young man's shoulders.
Millie felt warmth coursing through her entire body, and her spirit felt lifted, as though her body were being buoyed by a gentle breeze. She looked over at Sempai, and wasn't surprised to see that the shorter woman was wiping away a tear. After all, she adored happy endings as much as Millie did.
Hi, Maggie nee-san, Millie wrote in her large, friendly handwriting upon the final pages of the Millie Monthly. Of all her siblings, she was especially close to her big sister Maggie, who had practically raised her from infancy, and given her all of her best pudding recipes, besides. How are you doing? I'm doing just perfectly fine. Oh, I know you asked me for a picture of Mister Vash, so here you go! She used a paper clip to attach a small color photo of herself, Sempai, and Vash to the letter. The picture had been taken during their time at the March City Ball. She proceeded to relate to her sister the entire story, pointedly leaving out the part where she had discovered Mister Vash floating in the plant bulb. She was surprised to find that she had dripped a few tears onto the paper when she got to the part where Vash had given Brandon the money and medicine.
You know, there's a lot of awfully mean rumors floating out there about Mister Vash, but I don't want you to be taken in by them, Millie wrote. Not that you would, I mean you're my big sis, you're way smarter than me, but still. Don't you think it's awfully unfair of people to judge him like that without even getting to know him first? Mister Vash is so nice, and generous, and good with kids, and he's not too bad with a gun either!
She reached for another sheaf of paper, but she didn't continue writing right away. Instead, her expression turned thoughtful as her pen hovered over the paper.
But you know... there's a lot I don't understand about Mister Vash. He has so many different faces. Do you know what I mean? I'm not sure I know what I mean either, but I've seen him act so happy, playing with the kids or drinking with me and Sempai, and other times I've seen him so serious it made my blood run cold. Sometimes he's sad, and I don't know the reason why. And then sometimes...
She thought back to the beauty of the plant, how she'd perceived it as a magnificent angel. Mister Vash had been in there with it.
Was he an angel, too?
Sometimes I get this feeling about Mister Vash, like there's something in him that's bigger than me, bigger than all of us. And...
Sometimes it scares me. Just a little.
"So... you wanna continue where we left off?"
Millie looked up, startled out of her thoughts. She was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest in a corner of the room, one they'd registered at a seedy-looking motel on the outskirts of March. She was still wearing her dress, but it was in a state of positive disarray, and her hair was sweaty and disheveled.
"You're really going to dance at this hour?" Meryl groaned. "You've got some nerve." But her tone was mild, and Millie knew it was because her sempai was secretly proud of the outlaw for the good he'd done tonight.
"Why not? I'm not tired. And it's not like you can sleep anyway," he said mischievously, gesturing to the paper-thin walls of their room, behind which they could hear the raucous laughter of a group of poker players.
"It's your fault we're in this dump to begin with!" the short girl thundered, but Vash chose not to answer her. He turned to Millie.
"Well? How about it, Miss Millie?"
She looked at him mutely, still afraid, still not knowing what to think, not about tonight, and not about him. But he was holding his hand out to her, and looking at her with such kindness in his eyes –
Millie's expression softened. I've been a right fool, is what I think. Whatever secret life Mister Vash led, whatever it was that he actually was – some trippy alien, or an angel, or an interplanetary traveler from Dimension X – he still lived to help people, and he meant every darned second of it, up to and including the part where he had embraced that despairing young man, reignited the flame of hope within him.
And this moment – these eyes – they were also part of him, and they were real. Millie remembered the warmth of his embrace at the ball, and she wasn't afraid anymore. She trusted him.
"Okay, Mister Vash. But can I leave the high heels this time?"
"Sure thing," he said, pulling her up to her feet. Then, with a laugh: "Just don't try to hurt me too much, 'kay?"
"I'm not making any promises," she returned, just as cheerfully.
But you know what, big sis? I think in the end, somehow, all of those people are Mister Vash. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
"You know, you're really getting the hang of this."
This said to her after they had danced for well over twenty minutes. Meryl had been watching them from the moth-eaten couch, but it had been an awfully long night for the typically straight-laced insurance girl, and her head began to droop. Soon after, she was snoring softly.
"I know. I didn't even step on your feet once this time!"
"Hey, now," he cautioned, but his eyes still regarded her warmly. "You're gonna jinx us."
"That's okay," she said, and suddenly half her face disappeared in a jaw-cracking yawn. "I'm getting tired, anyway..." Without giving it much thought, she placed her head on Mister Vash's shoulder, completely missing the look of surprise that flitted across his face. The steps of the dance began to slow, until finally it was just him standing there, one very exhausted insurance claims investigator practically making a vertical bed out of his tall frame.
"Let's get you to bed," he said, but she no longer heard him. He led her into an adjacent bedroom, where he tucked her under the covers, still fully clothed. Then he returned to the living room, picked up Meryl, and deposited her next to her slumbering co-worker.
He stood there looking at them fondly for a long time: his Insurance Girls. Funny how instantaneous and complete his attachment to them had been. They were a pain in the ass, to be sure, but they were both really very nice girls, and he looked forward to a new adventure with them every day. Meryl was a firecracker, loud and ill-tempered, but you didn't have to look hard to find the heart of gold underneath.
"And you," he said, stroking Millie's hair, "you're really troublesome. You're making me feel things I've never felt before. I know that's a cliche, but then again, I am the Hunter of Peace."
He thought he'd better stop before he went any further. He didn't think it would end well. Not as long as Knives was still around to play target practice with the people he cared about. He considered that someday he would have to leave them for their own good, but he really didn't want to think about that right now. Right now things were still peaceful – or relatively so – and he had friends. He wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible.
As Vash had given away all his money to the young would-be robber, they had only had enough to afford a room with a single bed. That was fine by the outlaw. He stretched out, settled deeply into the couch's smelly cushions, and was soon off and dreaming of donuts.
A/N: I hope I didn't make Meryl too grumpy here! I tried to achieve a brother/sister dynamic between her and Vash, with her playing the role of the bossy big sister. (Poor Vash! D:) Plus, it's kind of hard for me to write a story where he isn't returning her feelings (it's the Vash/Meryl shipper in me, I guess).
Also, sorry if this has continuity errors – obviously I made up stuff whole cloth about how the plants work, so please don't kill me if the manga had an explanation. The stuff about hantavirus I googled, so it's quite possible that I fudged a few medical facts without realizing it. Thanks for reading!