This story is winding down to a close, and I thank all of you who have kept up with it. I truly appreciate it. I also appreciate your patience while I worked on this chapter.
I hope you enjoy!
"Are you okay, Meryl?" Vash's voice was strained.
"Yes," Meryl responded automatically, turning towards his voice as she pushed herself off the wall.
Vash gave her a quick look up and down, searching for injuries. When he found none, his eyes softened, even as his body remained rigid. His left arm hung at his side, one finger of his gun hand lightly on the trigger. The shreds of his shirtsleeve were still floating to the ground.
He heaved a sigh, and the weapon disappeared back into his prosthesis with a series of clicks.
"Vash," she said softly, "will you be all right?"
She crossed the kitchen floor and exhaled in a soft rush when his arms came up and wrapped around her waist. Meryl returned the embrace fiercely.
She didn't know what to say. What could she say at a time like this?
Vash laughed bitterly. "You know… I would have put another bullet in him if he tried to hurt you."
Meryl stayed silent, but thought to herself that she'd never want to be the reason Vash had to hurt his brother.
:It wouldn't be your fault. Please believe that.:
Meryl began to nod in response, then looked up at Vash in surprise. This wasn't the first time Vash had responded to one of her thoughts, but it was the first time he had done it mentally.
"What happened to make him so angry? I didn't think he was that upset when I left," Meryl asked.
Vash sighed, and loosened his grip around her waist. Let's go sit down for a minute. I might as well tell Millie at the same time."
They left the kitchen, closing the front door on their way from where Knives left it flapping open. When they walked into the living room, Millie was yawning and rubbing her eyes.
"Goodness, what was all that racket?" She looked at her two friends with her ready smile, but it dimmed as she took in their tense expressions. "Oh dear. Knives didn't handle things very well, did he?"
Vash shook his head. Sitting on the couch, he pulled Meryl down after him and she leaned into his side.
Millie laid a hand on her protruding stomach, looking from one friend to the other in concern. "So what happened? You two were still talking when I decided to take a nap. I thought things were going well."
Vash frowned, picking his words carefully. "Well, Knives never believed I cared for him as much as he did for me. He thinks that because I choose to be around others that it means I don't ever want to be around him. Ever since we came back here, I've been trying to show him that isn't true.
"There's a way for plants to…I don't know what to call it. Share consciousness, I guess. It's something that allows access to your feelings and memories. He wanted to know for certain how I felt about him." He gave a short laugh. "It's funny; after all the horrible things he's done to me, I still knew he loved me. I do my best to avoid hurting him, and he's the one who's insecure.
"So he saw how I feel about him. And he saw how I feel about the two of you, and everyone else. I understand him feeling guilty, but I wasn't going to let him take it out on Meryl."
Meryl nodded, feeling the fabric of his shirt beneath her cheek. "So he saw everything?" She felt a burst of anger, and wondered how many of those metal implants Vash could stand to have ripped out. It was bad enough that Knives could feel her stronger emotions, but for him to have access to her private times with Vash…
Vash looked down at her and tipped her face towards him. He kissed her forehead and clasped her hands in his so she couldn't hit him. "Even if Knives wasn't completely disgusted by the idea of our…everything…I wouldn't have let him see any details. What he needed to sense was how happy the memories of our times together made me, not the memories themselves."
Millie hid a smile behind a sip of iced tea as Vash and Meryl fought a silent tug-of-war over her hands.
Meryl gave a last half-hearted yank, then gave up, grumbling. She could hit him later. "So is that when I came in?"
Vash nodded. "The whole experience was draining; that's why it took me so long to get back inside. I didn't realize you were back until he said something to you," he sighed. "Now I have no idea where he is or what he's doing."
Meryl frowned. "Are you worried he'll do something… unpleasant?"
Before Vash could answer, Millie spoke up. "I think Knives needs time to deal with what he's done. I have a feeling the last thing he'd want to do right now is make Vash more upset than he already has."
Meryl nodded. "He's been telling himself that everything he's done is for your own good all this time…but it's only in the past few months that he's seen how it affected you. Now he's got to deal with the consequences of his actions."
Knives ran blindly, not caring where he wound up. His mind was in disarray, Meryl's words and his recent view into Vash's mind combining to leave him more upset than he remembered being in decades.
And he had no one to blame but himself.
His usual grace was gone, causing him to stumble and fall to his knees in the dust.
"Knives? Knives, is that you?"
He looked up dully, recognizing his name, but not the voice calling him. He wiped sweat from his forehead, heedless of the dirt he smeared on his face.
"Are you all right? Would you like to come in for a while?" The concerned voice was female.
He focused his eyes and realized who was speaking to him. It was Lara, one of the women who had fluttered around him during Vash's party.
She approached him cautiously; for all her twittering, she had enough sense not to violate his personal space. "You've scraped your hands. If you come in, I can clean that up for you so they don't get infected."
He ignored her outstretched hand, but stood up and looked around. He appeared to be in one of the outlying neighborhoods that had developed after the well's discovery. Lara stood wringing her hands in front of a two-story building. Her fidgeting increased as he stared at her.
Normally he would have ignored her and continued on his way. However, there was no plant nearby and he refused to allow himself to become as scarred as his brother. Knives inclined his head and followed the woman into the building.
He blinked a few times to adjust his eyes to the sudden change in light. He was surprised to find himself in a tavern. He had never deigned to go inside any human gathering place. He still felt edgy when he went to work at the well, and people there gave him as much space as they possibly could while still getting their work done.
"Luckily, it's not too busy yet," Lara chattered as she weaved through the tables and chairs on her way to the bar. "I can treat you up at the bar."
She took the first aid kit from behind the bar and began to wipe away the dirt and grit from his palm with a damp cloth. As she frowned in sympathy and apologized for the sting of the peroxide, Knives studied her.
She stood about medium height, with unusual dark red hair and golden skin tone. She had an open face with broad, high cheekbones, and he could sense nothing from her but genuine concern and curiosity.
He only ever noticed her in the back of the swarm that followed him due to her striking coloring, not because of anything she'd done. She had been content to watch him from a distance, unlike the rest who got far too close for his comfort. He learned from her chatter that she ran the bar with her cousins and an uncle, all of whom were late today.
Lara finished wrapping his hands with a cheery, "There you go! I hope it's not too tight."
Knives flexed his hands. The bandages were comfortable. "Thank you," he told her.
"Oh, you're welcome." She smiled. "I couldn't leave you outside like that. You looked so lost."
Knives said slowly, "I had a fight with my brother. I…I made him angry."
Lara walked around the bar to put the first aid kit back and made a sympathetic noise. "You and your brother are obviously close. It must be tough arguing with him." She pulled a glass from one of the shelves. "Would you like a drink? It's on the house."
Knives raised an eyebrow. He had no desire to become the idiot his brother did after a few shots, but he had to admit he was curious. At his curt nod, Lara filled a mug and handed it to him. She then watched, amazed as he tossed back the pint of beer like it was water.
After he shoved the mug back towards her, she filled it again, eyebrows raised in surprise. He drank this one more slowly, but the mug was still empty in a matter of minutes.
By now, others had begun to file into the tavern, and Lara greeted them with a smile and began drawing pints for her regulars. The men nodded at Knives, then took their mugs to a table and began to talk about their day. The noise level increased, but there was still an empty space around Knives at the bar. Unlike Vash, his very bearing demanded that his personal space be respected.
A bit worried, Lara started to write up the day's menu, making sure she stayed near him. Her cousins had arrived so she didn't need to keep an eye on everything. Her uncle had started in the kitchen, cooking for the hungry workers that filed in after sundown.
"I hate it," Knives said abruptly. Lara looked up, startled. She had more or less expected him to remain silent for the entire night. If she hadn't stayed so close to him, she might have had a problem hearing him over the murmur of the crowd.
"I hate fighting with him. I don't know why he has to be so unreasonable about everything."
Lara nodded, bemused. This was the most she had ever heard him speak.
"He just doesn't make sense sometimes." He frowned. Lara suppressed a smile; he probably had no idea how adorably grumpy he looked.
Knives looked down at his empty mug. Beer wasn't as bad as he had thought. But he didn't have much money…
"Lara!" A shrill female voice blared near his ear. "I can't believe you're keeping Knives here all to yourself!" A dark-haired woman pressed against his side.
He scowled; by only sheer force of will did he keep himself from shoving her to the floor. That cow had almost spilled his beer.
Lara smiled ruefully. "Hello, Elena."
Ten minutes later, Knives was surrounded by women, all cooing over his bandaged hands and more than eager to spend their hard-earned money to buy him alcohol. But as stupid as they were, it seemed even they knew better than to crowd him too much.
He took a sip, watching them over the rim of his mug. Two of them argued over who would get to sit next to him, while another shouted for a menu to order him a snack. Lara seemed amused and resigned all at once, while Elena ordered him another beer to apologize for jostling him when she arrived.
Knives woke up in a darkened room, sprawled over a couch. The window was barely cracked, but the finger of sunlight streaming in through the shade told him it was at least midmorning. He sat up gingerly. It seemed best to avoid any sudden movements with such an uncertain stomach and aching head.
As his vision cleared, he realized that the room he was in contained two more couches, occupied by snoring bodies. A door in the corner led to a small bathroom, which he gratefully used. Another door led to the main room of the tavern, which was empty at this time of day.
He heaved a sigh, and tried to remember how he ended up passing out in the tavern. He remembered the women showing up and then…lots and lots of beer.
:So, you're finally awake:
Knives smirked. :You couldn't resist keeping an eye on me, could you:
:I was worried about you. I didn't know where you'd go.:
:Or what I'd do, or who I'd slaughter…:
A mental sigh. :I was worried about you: he repeated. :Are you going to work this afternoon:
:I will be there.:
:Well, make sure you thank Lara for all her help last night.:
Knives frowned. How much had Vash been watching?
Vash laughed. :Well, you didn't think she carried you to bed last night, do you? It'll all come back to you. We'll have to go out drinking ourselves sometime. I'll see you later.:
Knives felt odd. Vash did not seem to be angry with him anymore, but for some reason he was still unwilling to go home. He was hungry, but he knew he had no money left after last night's indulgence. Perhaps he would go see the two old women. He would have to listen to them babble in exchange for the food, but he had grown used to tuning them out.
Approaching the home, he saw a flustered Sandra flying down the stairs. She looked relieved at his arrival, which puzzled him.
Sandra stopped in front of him and laid a hand on his arm. For once, the contact did not make his skin crawl.
"Are you all right?" she asked anxiously. "You don't look well."
Knives nodded woodenly. " I- I am fine, Sandra. I did not sleep well."
"Well, I'm glad to see you."
Knives looked up sharply. No one was ever glad to see him. As he looked more closely at the woman holding his arm, he realized that the worry in her eyes was too great to have been caused by his haggard appearance.
"Is something wrong?"
"Yes! Millie came by a few hours ago. She seemed fine, a little on edge maybe, but that was it. But then…"
Knives paled, and quickly forgot his own problems. When he stretched his senses into the house, he was almost bowled over by the sense of anxiety and pressure coming from inside.
"Millie…is in labor?" he asked.
Sandra barely nodded before he raced into the house to find the two old women comforting Millie with tea and matter-of-fact words.
Three faces turned to face him, wearing identical expressions of relief.
"Boy!" Blanche barked. "Millie's having the baby. Help us with her to the hospital."
Millie smiled at him, although she was wincing with discomfort from the labor pains.
The next few minutes were a blur. Any of the former Gung-Ho Guns would have been in shock to see Knives following orders so well. Millie was soon tucked in the truck along and they took off for the doctor's office in the center of town. It was not far, but Sandra and Knives were the only ones capable of walking the distance.
The truck only sat four people, so Knives was relegated to the back after helping Blanche and Millie into the cab. His head was swimming as Millie's pain and the baby's agitation grew.
Knives was out of the truck bed almost before the vehicle skidded to a stop in front of the doctor's office. He yanked the front door open and scooped Millie up as if she weighed nothing.
"Don't drop her, dammit!" Ida Myrtle yelled as she leaned out the window. "If you drop her, I'll beat you over the head with my walker!"
"She doesn't mean that, Knives," Millie said breathlessly as Knives took the front steps of the office two at a time.
He grunted. He knew she meant it.
They burst into the waiting room, and the receptionist's eyes widened at the picture made by a very pregnant Millie and the flustered Knives.
Knives' own eyes were darting back and forth and his hair was mussed. "Doctor!" he shouted.
The doctor came out of an examination room and nodded. "Take her to the third room on the left. I'll be just a moment."
Knives gave the doctor an incredulous look. How stupid were these humans, anyway? "She's having a baby, you cretin!"
"I know, son. But I need to prepare first. Take her in the birthing room and get her comfortable. The nurse will help you."
An older woman with gray-streaked black hair came running down the hall. "Bring her here, dear. We'll have her set up shortly."
Knives followed close on her heels as she strode purposefully to the birthing room. The cheerful room might as well have been a mud hut for all Knives noticed. In a flurry of activity, Millie was settled into a hospital bed while Knives slumped in a chair against one of the walls. Millie's discomfort was turning to pain, and the baby's distress was rising.
Isaiah David was cramped, hot, and confused, and he was not happy about it. Knives tried to calm him, but he was so overwhelmed himself that he wasn't able to do a very good job.
After Millie's vitals were checked, all there was left to do was wait and monitor her progress.
"Now what?" Knives asked the nurse. "Isn't something else supposed to be happening?"
"Now, Vash," she soothed, "it takes a long time for babies to be born. Millie is doing quite well."
Millie giggled from her bed. "That's not Vash, that's his brother—Knives!" The last word was blown out on a strong exhale. She couldn't blame the woman for mistaking the twins. With his eyes wide and his face alternating between terror, anger and absolute confusion, he had never resembled his brother so much as he did right now.
The terror and anger were quickly giving way, and Knives felt sick. Millie was doing an admirable job suppressing her discomfort, but the boy had no such consideration.
"Knives," Millie suggested, "could you get your brother and Meryl, please? I'd feel better if they were here."
Knives rose to unsteady feet and nodded; glad of something that got him the hell out of that room. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
With that he staggered out of the room. Once in the hallway, he felt better, although to his surprise, he felt both patients' stress levels rise sharply. He shook off his aching head and wordlessly called for his brother as he walked out of the doctor's office and down the street.
:I know. I can hear you. We're on our way. Meryl's getting Millie's things.:
Knives blinked. Had the experience rattled him so much that he could not sense his own brother?
In about ten minutes, Vash and Meryl hurried around the corner into view, Meryl keeping good pace despite her short legs.
Vash slowed once he got to his brother's side, but Meryl charged ahead to the hospital.
"Which room?" she yelled.
"Third on the left," Knives responded. She flew past him and up the stairs.
"Why aren't you going with her?" Knives asked.
"Because you're going to pass out if you don't calm down," Vash said. He set Millie's suitcase on the ground and caught his breath.
"So much pain," Knives murmured, even as he let Vash propel him forward towards a seat on the steps of the doctor's office.
"And women do this all the time," Vash said.
"I'd rather be shot," Knives said firmly. A bit of the color was coming back to his face.
The two brothers sat outside for a while, giving Knives time to regain his composure. The suns dipped below the horizon, leaving a thin line of fire across the sky while they sat in silence. Finally, Knives turned to look at his brother, and Vash stretched his arms above his head, watching the outline of his hands against the evening sky.
"Do you want to go back in?" Vash asked. "I'll be there to help calm Isaiah."
Knives nodded, not trusting his voice.
Milly's delivery room was controlled chaos. The men were ushered back out after Knives kept barking, "What sort of place of healing is this? She is no better than when she got here!"
"Shut up, Knives!" Meryl snapped. "You're not helping!"
The same motherly nurse that Knives had met upon his arrival took each man by the arm and steered them out the door. "Boys, labor is an intense process and it often takes hours. Now, Millie needs to stay as relaxed as possible, so if you can't stay calm for her, it's best if you just wait outside."
With those firm words, she pressed them onto a bench in the hall and hurried back into the delivery room. Knives felt he should be offended at the way that woman dared speak to him but he couldn't seem to manage it. The waves of pain and stress coming from the small room were making him sick.
Vash sent as many calming and soothing thoughts to the baby as he could, but little Wolfwood wasn't cooperating. Isaiah responded to his overtures with waves of emotion that would have translated to swears if the baby's vocabulary had advanced that far. At one point, Vash could have sworn he heard the echo of Wolfwood screaming "What the fuck?" in the baby's frantic queries.
Vash tried again. :You have to come out. You can't stay in there.:
Isaiah sent a questioning thought.
:Yep, me and Knives will be here. We'll help your mommy get through this.:
They went back into the delivery room a few hours later when Millie began to scream. Meryl was holding back cries of her own; Millie had a hell of a grip.
Vash switched places with her, figuring that even Millie couldn't crush his prosthesis.
"Come on, Millie. You can do this; you're doing so well! Come on, partner." Meryl urged, wiping the sweat from her friend's forehead.
Millie broke off in the middle of another scream. "I can't! I can't!" she whimpered. "I want Mr. Wolfwood."
"I know, Millie, I know." Meryl brushed away some of the strands of hair plastered to Millie's face, doing what she could to make her more comfortable.
On the other side of the bed, Vash swallowed around the lump in his throat and bent over to press his forehead against Millie's temple. "Come on, big girl. You've been strong enough to support us all when we needed it, and I know you can do this," he murmured.
"Keep pushing, Millie, you're doing great," the doctor ordered. "Catch your breath while we wait for the next contraction."
It was harrowing; Millie screamed as she pushed, then whimpered for her child's father in between contractions, as she tried to catch her breath.
Finally, the nurse called, "I can see the head! You can do it, honey, not much more to go!"
Knives took one look at the baby coming out of Millie's body, and passed out against the wall.
"I see the shoulders! One last big push, Millie, come on!"
Millie's beet-red face contorted with effort as she bore down.
With Millie's last effort, the baby's shoulders came out and the nurse was able to pull Isaiah David the rest of the way into the world.
For a moment, the only sound was Millie's harsh breathing, and then her son's cry broke through the air. The tension in the room dissipated, and happy sobs and laughter were heard from all. Meryl and Vash carefully embraced Millie from either side.
The doctor cut the cord and the nurse cleaned the baby while the doctor dealt with the afterbirth.
"My baby," Millie said weakly. "May I see him?"
With a broad smile, the nurse came around the side of the bed, reaching over Meryl. "Here you are, Millie. A healthy baby boy."
As Millie cried tears of joy, Vash and Meryl looked across the bed at each other with soft smiles.
While Millie slept and Vash helped resuscitate his brother in a room across the hall, ("Legato used to dream about the gates of hell, Vash, and I swear, that's what it looked like!"), Meryl was holding baby Isaiah.
Now that he was asleep, his face had relaxed from the stress of birth. Translucent eyelids were lowered over cloudy dark eyes. His tiny head was covered with dark fuzz, and his features were baby soft. He didn't resemble either of his parents at the moment.
"You're a pretty lucky guy, you know that?" Meryl said softly. "You've got the best mommy in the world. And a big friendly family; the rest of the Thompsons will love you."
She looked up at a noise in the doorway. Vash was standing there with a tender look. He walked over and traced a finger over the baby's head. Isaiah's mouth puckered for a moment, but he didn't awaken.
"You know what else? You've got an aunt and uncle here who will tell you about what a good man your daddy was. We'll make sure you have all the choices he tried to give other children." Vash smiled as he spoke.
Meryl blinked back tears, and pressed a kiss to the baby's head. "Ready?" she asked.
He nodded. As she stood up, he took the baby from her and held him close before placing him back in his crib. They left the room quietly in order not to wake Millie.
The moons were well up in the sky as they made their way back to the house. Since they had never finished unpacking the truck, they went back to the old place. Meryl automatically went to the room she shared with Millie and undressed. She was so tired that she could barely keep her eyes open.
"Meryl?" Vash called through the door. "Can I come in?"
"Of course," she yawned.
He came in, wearing his usual raggedy sweats. "Do you mind if we, well…"
Meryl gave a wry grin. "I'm not really up to anything tonight, Vash."
"No, I meant just sleep. Together. That's all." He stumbled over the words.
She smiled. "I'd really like that." She pulled back the covers, and he turned off the light before making his way across the dark room to her bed.
Vash slid into bed behind her, and pulled her up close against him. She was tired enough to go straight to sleep, but Vash held himself so rigidly that it was impossible to relax.
"What's wrong?" she asked sleepily.
Vash was silent for a moment before pulling her tighter against him. "I miss him so much."
Meryl turned in his arms and traced a hand down his cheek, finding it wet with tears.
"I know. I miss him too." She stroked Vash's hair as he sobbed in her arms. After a while, his sniffles began to die away, and she felt his body truly relax. His breathing evened out, and Meryl knew he was falling asleep.
"He's a beautiful baby, isn't he?" Vash asked drowsily.
"He is. Just like his parents."