Children of the Pebble
By "Clinesterton Beademung", with all of love.
Disclaimer: "Trigun" © its respective creators and owners. I do this for fun, not profit. So there.
Comments and criticism welcome.
Prologue – Goodbye, Vash the Stampede
Fill the glass. Raise it.
Part the lips. Tilt the head back.
Flick the wrist.
In a dark corner of a nowhere town's saloon, beyond the bright edge of a whirlwind of song and celebration, Meryl Stryfe coughed at the outrage the whiskey committed on her parched throat. Cigar fumes irritated her eyes and lungs, permeated her hair and clothing, and blended with the omnipresent reek of alcohol sweat. All around her jubilant townspeople pickled their brains with proficient skill. How Milly or anyone else could do this to herself was beyond Meryl's understanding.
Meryl poured another shot of the December City sipping whiskey she'd hounded the bartender for an hour to find. Getting drunk meant getting drunk in style and she wasn't about to settle for the Plant-waste popskull these hayseeds were sucking down. That round, hairy chiseler of a barkeep had charged her thirty double dollars, half a day of Milly's wages, for the only bottle in town.
"—largest in the territory—"
"—about LR? What if that commotion spreads—"
"—warn't him, no one's tetched 'nuff t' take a bullet fer—"
"—government pays double for natural water—"
"—old coot, she's sitting right over there—"
"—Feds'll send us a marshal, keep things—"
"—best if we all just keep our mouths shut about it—"
"—not asking her, just what I heard, so let her—"
"—leaving? Can't say I'd be sorry to see 'em—"
Meryl drained her glass in a single motion and slapped it on the table. She winced at the fire in her throat, blinked at the tears in her eyes.
Ingrates. Milly had all but dug the damn well herself for Federal minimum. Waiting tables for tips Meryl wouldn't have offered a street urchin running a lemonade stand hadn't added much to their finances, either. All so she and Milly could keep what remained of their travel money and leave this fleabite town behind, forever grateful to its generous citizens for the privilege of letting Vash live.
The neck of the green glass bottle chattered on the lip of Meryl's glass. Whiskey tears dribbled into the stained felt.
Seeing Milly happy again was a joy to behold, like an old friend long missed, and if Meryl's pleasure in her junior partner's new lease on life was tainted by the sense that Milly was pushing herself into it, Meryl had no inclination to add her own pressure and let Milly be shattered. In that moment, awash in the baptism of—what was the word?—rain, yes, the rain Milly and her colleagues freed from its underground prison, all pretense was gone, washed away, lost to the thirsty earth. Meryl basked in her friend's high spirits and dared to hope.
And just like that, there he was.
Breathless with pleasure at the smiling, waving, living sight of him she'd run to him, ready to go nuts on him as Milly put it, ready to jump into his arms and tell him everything, but he'd been carrying something. Someone.
A raucous cheer roiled the saloon's smoky air. The dance was over. Meryl poured another drink.
Until she and Milly resigned they were still Bernardelli agents and they were still on assignment. Whatever pains and sacrifices they'd suffered had been endured in the line of duty. Milly had to understand this. Indeed, her junior partner had exemplified her understanding on the occasion of her recent loss and beyond. It wasn't as if Meryl didn't appreciate the tipped balance of obligation between them.
Still a job, damn it. She and Milly were agents representing the interests of another and following Vash the Stampede was their primary responsibility. That's all. Nothing else. No regrets, no apologies. No words of parting or of reunion. It was our duty, Milly. Every assignment has to end, sometime. I have to let him go, you see that, don't you? Please tell me you understand. Please…
When Meryl lifted her forehead from her arm the bottle of whiskey lay on its side, pouring its contents across the table and onto the floor. Meryl tightened her open hand on the bottle's neck and set it upright. Milly paid so much for this. Be a shame to let it go to waste.
Meryl pushed back her chair, stood and corked the bottle. She followed the edge of the joyous storm to the swinging doors.
Dallons of puddled water in the street lent the air a chill unusual for a town so close to the equator. Drunken louts the bouncers had thrown from the saloon continued their fights in the mud, swinging the slow-motion punches of the inebriated.
One of the combatants whirled under the impact of such a blow and fell to his knees in front of Meryl.
"Evenin, lil lady," said the man, doffing his hat. Streams of muddy water flowed over his face. His broken smile shone from his filthy face until his eyes lost focus and he tipped over to plop face down in the mire.
Meryl dodged the splash, amused at the unwitting flattery. It wasn't often she had men falling at her feet. At least the sheriff would give the poor pathetic fellow a warm place to sleep.
Milly sat on the front steps of their borrowed house, all but invisible in her gray work clothes. Meryl pointed at the hard hat dangling from the back of the rocking chair.
"Not a permanent career change for you, I take it," she said. Milly scooted over and made room for Meryl on the step.
"I'm not so sure I would mind digging wells for the rest of my life," Milly said. "But I can't stay here." The creak and crack of wood and rope under stress came from behind the house. "I don't think Mister Vash wants to stay here, either."
Meryl sat beside Milly and held the bottle on the step between her feet.
"He's talked to you?" Meryl said.
"I asked him what was wrong. He said he needed some time alone and so did you. I think I've circled this town about twenty times."
"Be glad you did. I haven't been much company lately. Nor has anyone else." Bastards. They could all go soak their heads and drown themselves in their brand new well.
"Did you hear anything at the saloon?" Milly said.
"No one believes it's him. What have you heard?"
"Not a word. The buzzards at the town dump weren't much company, either."
"Sorry. Stupid question." She handed the bottle to Milly. "Here. And thank you." Milly took it and frowned.
"You're welcome, Meryl, but I didn't—"
"Yes you did. I'll pay you back when we get home, okay?"
"Uh…okay." Milly stood, stepped up to the porch. "So, you want to come inside and have a last drink with me?"
"No, thanks, I've had enough." Maybe one too many, if the buzzing noise in her head was any indication. "This isn't our last ride into the sunset, you know. There'll be other assignments waiting for us when we get home. You know, when we get back to the office."
Milly looked down at her. Meryl picked at a fingernail.
"Gosh, I really am looking forward to it, now that I think about it. A cup of coffee at Jitter's sounds perfect—"
"Talk to him, Meryl," Milly said. Meryl shot to her feet.
"Talk to him! As if I have anything to say to that insensitive broomheaded—"
Milly patted Meryl's shoulder. "I saw it too. He'll understand, Meryl."
"Understand what? Milly—"
"Just talk to him." Milly went inside and vanished into the gloom.
A breeze moaned through the louvers of the half open door. Meryl's skin rose in goosebumps. Her cloak hung on a peg beside the doorway.
Meryl slammed the door shut. She returned to her place on the step and hugged herself against the cold.
Dusk gave way to night and Meryl yawned in welcome. The agreeable alcohol static in her mind lulled her chin onto the palm of her hand, led her elbow onto her knee. Whatever Vash was doing he was taking his time about it.
A falling star wounded the sky. Another. And another, not stars at all of course just crumbs of rock and metal burning up in the atmosphere, nothing more than burning garbage and how do you feel when you burn your garbage wonderful because everyone was saved with two shots left and the thing was kneeling in the street a helpless stray dog how grand to feel superior and all she had to do was go to the bedroom and open the door—
Pry open its mouth. Force the derringer in.
Draw the hammer back.
Pull the trigger.
Meryl's elbow slipped. Dizziness whirled at the edge of her vision as she caught herself against the steps. A nausea bubble rose from her stomach and burst in her chest.
She turned at the question, blinked at the yellow light around her, swallowed the acid on her tongue. The doorway framed a familiar masculine silhouette. She tottered to her feet.
"We're going for a walk, Vash. Come on." Meryl jumped down the steps and crossed the street. Mud sucked at her boots until she reached the alley between the First Independent Bank and the Loving Arms Hotel. Vash had spoiled her night vision and she banged her knee on a trashcan, startling a cat that darted between her feet and made her stumble. At the trail head she tripped on a stone and hit the ground on her hands.
Meryl cursed, picking flecks of gravel from her palms. Continue up the trail without a flashlight or a lantern and—just for fun—let Vash find her sprawled on the ground, unconscious and bleeding. What a great idea. Now all she had to do was stand here like an idiot until he followed her.
Meryl relaxed when a flashlight beam flickered against the obstacle course alley's walls and grew to a ragged ellipse that approached until it touched her feet. Hating herself for it she exaggerated the pain in her knee, affecting a limp.
"It's a moonless night," Vash said. "Here." He handed her the flashlight and draped a folded blanket over her shoulders. "Climbing this trail in the dark would've been dangerous."
"Tell me about it." Vash pointed the light at the trail. His footsteps crunched on gravel. Meryl didn't move. The knucklehead hadn't noticed she was hurt, even if she were pretending. The crunching stopped.
Meryl crossed her arms. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
"Huh? Like what?"
"Like how to be a—oh, never mind." She took his right arm, rested one hand in the crook of his elbow, wrapped the other around the taut muscle above it. "The least you could do is help an injured lady up this rough trail."
"Sorry. I didn't think you were that hurt. In fact, you looked like you were faking it."
"Don't even start, Mister Humanoid Typhoon. You're not going to try anything funny, are you?"
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"You'd better not. Just because I was glad to see you safe and sound doesn't mean you can get fresh with me, got it?"
"Good." She patted his arm. If that wasn't plain enough for him, he really was an idiot.
At the top Meryl cleared a spot and knelt. Vash sat beside her and when he turned off the flashlight Meryl was struck blind. Except for the pale glow in the saloon windows behind them, no city lights shone anywhere within the horizon's tattered circle. The bluff and the world had become a void.
Meryl waited, uneasy for the first time in Vash's silent presence. This was him, the real Vash, as he was now. She'd known it ever since New Oregon in the calm aftermath of their chaotic reunion, tending his hurt while the day faded to night, until Milly's discreet coughing made an end to the magic. This was him, but the spell was broken.
"You're leaving, aren't you?" she said.
"Tonight. I've been waiting for a chance to tell you."
Meryl clenched her hands until her knuckles cracked.
"You're cold," she said.
"I don't mean to be."
"No, I—I mean, it's cold out here. You must be freezing."
"No you're not." Meryl rose on her knees, let the blanket fall open and wrapped one edge around his shoulders. "Hypothermia kills, right?"
"You're the one who's shivering."
"Look, never mind that, okay? Just remember to keep your hands to yourself." Meryl held the ends of the blanket together. The temperature rose but she didn't stop shaking. The air was warmer this far away from the village but the night promised to be a chilly one. Vash wasn't helping.
Meryl scooted closer to him.
"So…on the first evening a pebble…from somewhere out of nowhere…falls upon the dreaming world."
That song must be a thousand years old, Meryl thought, surprised to find herself singing at all, as if the composer's spirit had entered her body and used her voice. All she knew, all anyone knew, was that it was written on Earth.
On a night like this, Meryl realized as another meteor burned and died. On the edge of despair, this was a night and a world to hope.
Meryl followed the deep scar on his hand with her finger.
"On the second celestial evening…"
She stroked his forearm, hard and warm as cast bronze.
"All the children of the pebble…"
Life and promise pulsed under the smooth expanse of his chest.
But metal can be cold, so very cold.
"And composed a—I can't do this." Meryl rose and let the blanket slip from her shoulders. She clapped her arms around her body.
"Why? I can't just sit there and make a fool of myself, and that's all I'm doing." Meryl kicked at a rock and stumbled. "Vash, I have so much to tell you, but now…" She paced in a circle, heedless of the night.
"Please watch where you're going."
"Oh, I know, you're probably thinking about all those women you can grope and flirt with now that you're free of me. Free of that annoying little insurance girl at last. Isn't that right?"
"Why would I be free of you?"
Meryl threw up her hands.
"Well, don't you want to be? You've done nothing but ignore me today, and tomorrow you'll run off with…with—Vash, you once asked me to make a choice. I've been trying to tell you I made that choice the minute you left to go after him—that monster—"
A heavy sigh. "That's why I have to leave."
"You don't say. What were you expecting, teary-eyed adoration? Maybe me falling at your feet?" Meryl jabbed a finger at darkness. "No, you were the one who turned your back on me. You were the one who walked past me without a single word and left me to stand there in the street like a fool. You were the one who gave me the silent treatment, remember?"
"And you can't think of a reason?"
"So—so I wasn't exactly thrilled out of my mind to see Knives. What did you expect? Do you blame me?"
"Knives isn't safe here. That's all I'm going to say."
"You're goddamn right he isn't safe here. He's killed millions of people, Vash. Millions! You told me that yourself. How could any rational person not want him dead, knowing that? Take care of him? Let me save you the trouble and just shoot him in the knees and drag him into the desert to rot, or shoot him through both eyes and let the sand roaches have him, assuming they're not that picky, or maybe I should just walk back to the house and spare him all that pain with a single bullet!"
"You wouldn't be the first to want that."
"When you went to July, remember, when you went to find a relative of this Rem of yours, only to find Knives had killed him? Well how many of those people he murdered would've been my relatives, or Milly's relatives? How many relatives and friends will we never meet and love and learn from because they were killed before they were born?"
"I don't know," Vash said. Exasperation rose in his voice. "I don't know, I can't answer that but please, at least listen to me." Meryl felt his hands on her shoulders.
"Leave me alone." Meryl twisted and jerked away from him. "Vash, those people came only God knows how far to start a new life away from Earth. They left it so far behind—"
"Meryl, watch where you're—"
"That no one knows where it is anymore. They did it—"
"—going, you're getting too close to—"
"—believing they had a chance—"
"—the edge. Meryl, stop."
"—only they never did."
"And it's all because of—"
"I said don't move!"
Meryl froze, shocked from her fury by the authority in his voice. A breeze floated up her legs. One foot balanced on a pointed stone. She moved her other foot and the edge of the bluff crumbled under her toe. The soft echo of finality was a long time returning.
"I'm behind you, coming closer, just stay still."
"Right behind you now, reaching my arm around you…gotcha!"
Vash jerked her backward. Her legs lost their strength and she sagged to the ground. He released the pressure on her waist.
"Vash…I'm so sorry," she said, her voice hoarse.
She grabbed his shirt and wadded the fabric in her fists.
"I've ruined everything. How can you not hate me after that?"
"How could I? Hate destroys. That's all it does."
"Promise me, Vash," she said. "Promise me that wherever you take him he can never escape. Never, you understand?"
"I promise, Meryl. I give you my word."
Meryl nodded. One good man's promise would have to be enough.
"You know, when Milly said I should go nuts on you, I don't think this is what she had in mind."
"I have a feeling she's smarter than both of us."
"I have a feeling you're right."
Meryl stood and flipped the blanket around his shoulders. Light from the distant saloon windows spilled into the street and onto the men who struggled in the mud. She now understood Milly's appreciation for the heady warmth that had filled her, understood how men and women could abandon civility and sanity to know such heat again and again.
"I didn't drag you up here to play damsel in distress, you know," she said.
"Good. I was getting tired of that game."
Meryl had never consumed so much alcohol so fast in one sitting, so perhaps it was the alcohol that distorted her memories, or perhaps it wasn't the booze at all, but here in the cool, dark present the panting, gasping pleasure of seeing him again overwhelmed her, only he was smiling, welcoming, real, alone.
Caress his cheek. Cup his face in her hands.
Part the lips. Tilt the head back.
"Wow," Vash said.
"Was that good?"
"Better than a shot of—what's so funny?"
"Hey, watch the hair."
"I don't think it's ever been this spiky before."
"At least I've discovered a way to keep you quiet."
"Yeah? You just try it, Mister Va—mm. Mhmm…" Meryl allowed Vash to lower her body until she was seated sidesaddle on his thigh. She was going to owe Milly more than thirty double dollars when this was over.
When this was over. Meryl liked the sound of that. With luck, Vash the Stampede would die forever once they returned to December. Funny, now that Meryl thought about it. The fake final report had been Milly's idea, too. That girl wouldn't lie to save her soul.
Meryl slid from Vash's leg onto the ground. She lay back, guided by Vash's arm. When Meryl squeezed her thighs together and caught Vash's leg between her knees, it occurred to Meryl that it might be her own soul that would need saving. Tomorrow, Vash would be gone.
"Vash…wait. No. Stop."
"What's wrong? Am I hurting you?"
"No. No, you're not hurting me."
"Then what is it? I'm a little confused here."
"Try taking your hand out from under my dress." Vash obeyed. Meryl laced her top closed. The swift sound of a zipper told her how close she'd come to another kind of ledge.
"So am I," he said.
"Don't say it like that."
"Hey, don't you worry about me. Three hours under a cold shower and I'll be fine."
"Would you just stop? This is no picnic for me, either." Meryl smoothed her skirt over her thighs. She leaned forward, laced her fingers behind Vash's neck, and put her lips close to his ear. "Not here. Not like this."
"One night stands aren't my thing, either, insurance girl. A two or three night stand, maybe, but not a one—ow! What was that for?"
"That's for all the girls you're going to flirt with while you're gone. Now help me with this blanket."
When the blanket was folded, Vash turned on the flashlight.
"Here, hold this," he said.
"Why? Can't a big strong man like you carry a little—what! What on earth are you doing?"
"You're hurt, aren't you?"
"Vash, you put me down right this instant before I—"
"Can't have an injured lady walk down this dangerous trail by herself, now can I?"
A protest formed on Meryl's lips but it gave way to a happy laugh when Vash spun her around. At the saloon another dance roared into life. When they reached the house Vash lowered her onto the porch.
"I will see you again, won't I?" she said, daring to hope.
"Given our history, insurance girl, I think it's a cast iron certainty."
Meryl tugged on his shirt and pulled him closer. She explained Milly's plan to submit a false final report.
"And if you make me a liar I'll shoot you myself, you hear me?"
"Loud and clear."
Meryl leaned her forehead on his chest. "I'm no good at goodbye," she said.
"Then don't say it."
Meryl let Vash put his arms around her. His body was warm, but when it was plain that she and Vash could freeze to death standing on the porch, Meryl tiptoed up for a final chaste kiss and entered the house without fear. She dressed for bed and curled up under her blankets.
"Goodbye, Vash the Stampede," she said, and slept.
Outside the girls' bedroom door, a legendary outlaw stood his own lonely vigil to the sound of Milly's quiet crying.
Vash crossed his arms and yawned. While it was possible Milly was weeping in her sleep Vash couldn't risk waking her. He didn't dare move his brother unless both the girls were fully unconscious. He'd told Meryl too much and she'd wanted to kill Knives in cold blood. That alone justified the journey he was about to take.
"But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep." Generations of humankind would live and die on this planet before it became the wonderland that old Earth poet had known in verity and in verse. The few geo-Plants that survived the Fall, undistracted by their siblings' need to provide water, food, and energy, worked with all their might, but only the great-great-great grandchildren of those who were themselves children would see this world as a remote simulacrum of the planet that nurtured their race.
Damn you, Knives. If not for you this world would be an Eden by now.
Not for us, whispered Knives's mind, as if from the bottom of a dry, dead well. Not for us. For themselves.
Time was short. Vash pressed his ear to the door. Deep sleep had allayed the big girl's grief at last. Vash left the girls to their slumber and lifted Knives from his bed.
Outside, Vash lowered his brother onto the crude travois in front of the porch. The primitive sled wasn't much to look at, but building it had required ingenuity on his part and he didn't mind patting himself on the back for his efforts. Vash hoped the girls would be out of town before the owner of the hardware store took inventory.
Vash checked his provisions, dallon jugs of water and white canvas, and threaded his arms through the leather straps attached to the head of the travois. For the thirty-second time he searched the duster and cloak he'd liberated from a saddlebag on the edge of town. The maps he needed were still in their pockets. The water wouldn't be enough to get him where he was going in a straight line course. Thanks to Doc he wouldn't have to.
Mud squished through the tread of his boots as Vash pushed forward. West would be the fastest way out of town.
Half an hour later Vash stopped for a sip of water. On a night like this the brightest stars were brilliant enough to cast faint shadows, but the town itself was lost to the emptiness. If this wind held his trail would be gone by morning.
The meteors continued their intermittent display of fiery death. Humans found them beautiful. Perhaps it was coincidence that the trajectories of these falling fragments were consistent with a standard orbital insertion. Perhaps not.
Only the insurance girl made the horror bearable. The skids of the travois scraped arcs through the sand as Vash turned north.
Well, it's back—and better than ever, I hope. Let me know what you think.