Title: After the Fall

Author: Girl Interpreted

Betas: Abaddon Nox (after all these years, she still puts up with me)

Timeline: Post-anime (a few days after Vash returns to the girls with Knives in tow), with a crunchy manga topping

Pairings: Vash/Meryl, Millie/Wolfwood, Knives/I don't know that he's cut out for romance, or, you know, interaction with other sentient beings

Genre: Deep Space Planet Future Gun Action

Rating: T- for violence, language, sexual content

Archive: Please contact me for permission.

Disclaimer: Trigun, its characters and universe, are the intellectual property of their respective owners. I am merely borrowing for entertainment purposes. I make no claims of ownership, nor do I profit from my storytelling.

Summary: Last time: I know it's been a while, so here we go, from the top: Vash is gonna rescue Knives. Knives is gonna rescue Vash. (Difference of opinion on the definition of "rescue.") To this purpose, Vash brings Knives home to the girls. Also to this purpose, Knives kidnaps Meryl. Wolfwood is alive. Huzzah & Yay! Vash makes a valiant effort to recover Meryl from the clutches of his homicidal twin, but ends up with a gut fulla lead. Knives, trapped by unnamed emotions, feels compelled to save his brother and not kill Meryl. He takes his brother off into his desert fortress-of-solitude, 'cause Knives has stuff like that. After Vash is healed, Knives strikes a bargain: 5 years of my life for 5 years of yours. Vash has to convince Knives that humanity is the bestest before his turn is up, otherwise Knives is gonna have his BYOB xenocide. Vash leaves Knives behind in New Oregon (he'll be on his best behavior, right?) to find his favorite humans. One in particular. As one thing leads to another, Meryl and Vash find themselves in the lounge of a March-bound sandsteamer. Then they find themselves in each others' arms, on their way to more amorous activities, before they're interrupted by hijackers. Well, hell. Hijackers disarmed (and chasing Vash, whose plan somehow involved telling them who he is), Wolfwood and Millie take off in a jeep, followed by Vash and Meryl on a motorcycle. But, Vash can't drive a motorcycle! Not to worry: Meryl's more than equipped for the task. Where the hell did she learn to do that? After your run-of-the-mill jump from a motorcycle onto a moving truck, Vash threw Meryl into a moving jeep and concluded the scene with some impressive aerial acrobatics. That's right: he threw her. Don't think she'll be letting that one go anytime soon. So, now Wolfwood, Vash, Millie and Meryl are heading out into the desert, most likely, with the military on their heels.

A/N: It has been several years since I've updated this fic. I feel like that requires some sort of explanation to those who've been faithful readers up to this point. (If you are a new reader, please disregard this note and continue on to the text.) — I could tell you that I had been mortally wounded and was spending this time healing in a plant bulb, but not only would that be a lie, it would probably piss you off, so I'm going with the truth: I ran out of ideas. I had a vision for the ultimate destination, but the path got obscured, and I didn't know what to do. I waited, hoping that it would come to me, as it always had, but the longer I waited, the farther it got away from me. So frustrating: knowing where I wanted to end up, but unable to see the path to get there. Well, eventually, life got in the way, blah blah blah, and I did what I never thought I would: I left a story on hiatus. It has bothered me ever since, and I only hope that I can make it up to you now. Unfortunately, this first attempt at making it up to you has resulted in approximately 9000 words of nothing-interesting-happens-in-this-chapter. I'll do better next time. Probably. (And yes, I still overuse ellipsis, but I have given up the Oxford comma. Mostly.) Onward!

Chapter 16: Strategy

The game that evening was chess. Doc was, at times, almost pleasant to converse with. He didn't ask stupid questions, and actually possessed knowledge of topics Knives cared to hear about. Currently, he was describing his progress developing "lost" technology, and Knives found the human's ignorance and fumbling efforts terrifically amusing.

"Of course, Vash has been a godsend when it comes to making sense of the technology we're left with, but he describes his own knowledge as being quite limited." The doctor made a fairly bold, but ultimately useless, move with his knight, and Knives wondered if he knew he was going to lose in the next five moves.

"Yes, well, Vash never did have much interest in science." He relieved Doc of his second bishop.

The doctor laughed. "Yes, he was quite delighted with my book collection when he first arrived. Bypassed the science texts and went straight for the poetry. I've never seen anyone so happy to see a particular volume."

"Whitman?" he asked. The doctor nodded, and Knives was smiling before he could catch himself. "He's so predictable. His taste never evolves."

Doc had found that bringing Vash into a conversation with Knives was a very effective way to subtly disarm him, but if he pushed the topic too far, it inevitably produced the opposite effect. Knives had taken note of this particular tactic a while ago; regardless, he kept falling into the trap. He scowled a bit, and took out his displeasure on the doctor's king-side rook. "Check."

"Oh, my! Looks like I'm in quite a predicament," the doctor laughed. "You strike me as more science-minded. I suppose, if you chose to, you could advance our understanding of Lost Technology by a hundred years in the span of an afternoon."

Knives smirked. "Yes. I suppose I could."

The doctor smiled agreeably. He knew Knives wasn't going to offer so much as a hint, and also knew better than to ask for one. "Ah, too bad for me!" the doctor sighed. "I'll just have to keep going about it the old-fashioned way."

Jessica entered the office, preceded by a perfunctory little knock on the door. Knives was hungry and had been beginning to wonder where the hell she was.

"Good evening, Mr. Knives, Doc." She set down her burden and began arranging plates and utensils.

Knives looked up from the chessboard to the plate she was fixing for him. "What's that?" he asked.

"Stuffed peppers. Family specialty." She smiled broadly, obviously quite pleased with herself and expecting a word of praise.

Knives looked back at the board. "I hate peppers," he said calmly.

"Oh." Jessica froze, uncertain for a moment. Knives looked back up at her, wondering why she was still standing there. She forced a smile back in place and began to gather the plates. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know that. It shouldn't take me too long to fix something else. You've got to be pretty hungry by now, after all."

Knives said nothing more to her, getting impatient with the game, waiting for the doctor to make a move so he could finish up and start a new match. This one had become boring when he'd realized he was going to win nine moves ago. The doctor surprised Knives when he stopped Jessica's retreat by laying a hand on her wrist. "This looks absolutely delicious, Jessica. Knives and I are going to have quite the feast."

"Oh, but," Jessica hemmed, eyes flashing automatically to Knives. But Knives was looking at the doctor, the boldness of the human having produced in him a temporary state of dumb consternation.

The doctor continued to smile pleasantly. "Run along now, dear. We have everything we'll need for the rest of the evening." He then stood and physically shooed the girl from the room. She cast one last anxious look at Knives before disappearing.

Recovering, Knives demanded, "Why the hell did you do that? She doesn't have anything better to do! You don't actually think I'm going to eat..."

"Excuse me," Doc began diplomatically, after regaining his seat, "but I won't tolerate you treating that child in such an abhorrent manner. I thought her selfless nature would perhaps be a positive influence on you, but I won't have your improvement come at her expense."

Knives bristled at the patronizing tone. That thing? Positive influence, indeed. But still, he didn't want this to get out of hand, so he thought it best to warn, "You're going to want to be very careful, doctor."

"Or you'll do what, Millions? Carve me up?" Doc responded quite calmly, letting a bit of silence draw out as Knives was unable to offer an answer. Knives was reacting exactly as the doctor had predicted he would, muscles coiling with rage that had no where to go but into the glare he fixed on the man across from him. Doc gave him a moment before he continued. "That girl endured quite a loss when you had the ship attacked."

A small measure of the anger in Knives' features was supplanted by grim amusement. "And, so? If you're trying to arouse my sympathies, I'm going to be insulted."

Doc frowned softly, "Of course not. I know very well that you don't care about something like that."

"Then why bother telling me?"

"Well, dear boy, because someday you might care, and then you'll be glad you know," the doctor said, offering him a pleasant, all-purpose smile. "But really, if you plan on staying here, you're going to have to stop being such an arrogant, egotistic leech of a house guest."

He must have heard that incorrectly. Doc couldn't possibly just have... Knives had to avert his gaze and grip the sides of the table to prevent himself doing something rash and violent. It occurred to him that maybe he was being baited, but he couldn't see the point. How dare he... Like a child, an inferior! Bumbling, idiotic, pretentious, shriveled impostor of an elder! Nothing but a superstitious shaman pretending to be a scientist, and he calls me, ME, a LEECH... The anger was like static in his head, demanding its pound of flesh, but he didn't want to act on it, didn't want to lose control, didn't want... "Stop that," he said darkly, part warning, part plea.

"Are you beginning to see my point, Knives? You see how easily I provoked you? You are extremely logical, aside from your temper. So let me appeal to your rationality and ask that you see that rage for what it is: an enemy of your goals, of your logical mind. You cannot honestly believe that the majority of people will allow you to treat them as servants without making a fuss. If you continue to develop this method of interaction, you're going to find yourself in conflict, and we both know you're not equipped to resolve anything peacefully." Though he did not speak, Knives was able to respond to the appeal by subtly relaxing his muscles and resuming eye contact. Doc continued, "I'm merely suggesting that you try and be nice to her."

Knives raised an eyebrow at that. "Nice? To whom?"

"Yes! Nice! To Jessica. You know, attempt to be considerate of her feelings!"

Knives snorted a laugh. "Seriously? I'm not even nice to Vash."

The doctor ignored Knives' only partially accurate assertion. "Practice being nice to her, and perhaps, you'll eventually be able to treat other people with courtesy. And, in turn, they will be kind to you, and you'll be much less likely to find yourself in conflict. The secret, Millions, is that you don't actually have to like anyone to be nice to them. Just as an example, I don't particularly like you, and yet somehow, I manage. Don't tell me you can't do something that even an inferior being like myself can accomplish with ease. It's very simple! A very basic and effective strategy."

Knives was unconvinced. "What do you know about strategy?" He gestured to the chessboard. "I'm about to beat your..."

Doc picked up his knight and replaced it on the board with a decisive clack! "Checkmate." Knives' mouth fell open as he stared at his captured king. "You're so defensive that you cage yourself in, and you're hopeless once you think you've won," Doc said in way of an explanation. He began to gather the pieces and said, "Now. Eat your damn dinner."

Knives did not eat dinner, and had been so furious that he'd spent two hours afterwards pacing around the cold sleep chamber. Maybe there was some literal truth in that old expression of speech, "cool off", because eventually he was calm enough to think clearly. He had to reluctantly conclude Doc's argument had its merits. He had to at least learn the rules of social interaction among humans. He hadn't had a lot of people to practice with when he was a kid, and he'd been killing them, or using them to kill each other, ever since. So, he wasn't really sure how it was supposed to go if you needed to coexist. And that's exactly what he needed to do. It had been easier when he'd had Vash around as a buffer, but Vash was going to come back to him with a gaggle of humans all but guaranteed to engage him in all manner of horrifying interaction. And these humans weren't going to be like the Gung-ho Guns: obedient and respectful and killable. And, of course, it wasn't as if Vash would allow him to avoid them. The idiot's whole "reformation" agenda hinged on some twisted version of immersion therapy. Vash was going to have him waist deep in humanity for the duration of his term as king of the free-walkers. If he wanted any chance at making it through to his own reign, with the terms of their agreement (and his sanity) intact, Knives was going to have to get better at getting along.

And so, God help him, he was going to be... nice.

"Explain to me how a fully staffed sandsteamer allowed Vash the Stampede to jump ship and escape in a goddamned jeep!" she heard Lieutenant Colonel Irwin shouting as she reentered the outer office.

"I don't know, sir?" ventured the corporal in charge of the wires when it became clear the CO actually expected a response.

"Well, let's bloody well find out, shall we? Have we managed to get the Endurance's captain on the line yet? Anyone from March or September? I want to know how many accomplices he had. I want anyone who talked to them, anyone who saw them, detained and interviewed. Who do we have on that? And where in the hell is my aide-de-camp?"

"Captain. Sir," she said as she crossed the room.

"Sorry?" As he turned his attention toward her, the corporal resettled his headphones and turned back to his board, not unlike a rabbit hoping a hawk might lose track of him if he buried himself deeply enough in the grass.

"You don't have an aide-de-camp, sir," she clarified. "One must be ranked at least Brigadier General to be assigned an aide-de-camp. Ergo, 'Does anyone know the whereabouts of the Captain?' would be correct, whereas, 'Where the hell is my aide-de-camp?' is an arrogant misnomer, Lieutenant Colonel, sir." Before he could respond, she handed him the coffee mug held in her left hand, and flipped open the manila file she carried in her right. "We've received a few more detailed descriptions, and I believe we can positively identify both Vash the Stampede and Meryl Stryfe. They boarded separately, but a couple of witnesses have them leaving the ship's lounge together, not long before the hijacking. The crew say he fled the control room with another man, identity unknown: tall, dark hair, and... hmm, strange weapon." She handed the Lt. Colonel a sketch of the 'weapon' which, to his confusion, just looked like a cross. "The casino staff identified a man of the same description disarming several hijackers in the company of a tall blonde woman."

The Lt. Colonel held the mug, but had yet to drink from it. "Millie Thompson?"

She nodded. "Likely, considering September is her hometown, and her brother was married there not long before the Endurance put out for March."

"So, Special Agent Stryfe was in September." He paused, staring for a moment at nothing in particular as he finally took a draught from the mug. "Private Thrace," he said, redirecting his gaze to a young man behind the desk to his left.

"Sir, yes, sir!" the private responded, with a bit more immediacy and crispness than was strictly necessary.

"Get the specs on that jeep. See if you can find out how much juice was in the fuel cells. And Private Davies?"

"Sir, yes, sir!"

Lt. Colonel Irwin exhaled loudly as the private sat bolt upright in her seat. Her right hand looked as if it had been halfway committed to a salute before she thought better of it. "Will everyone stop acting like they're terrified of me?"

"They would if you'd stop shouting at them, sir," the Captain commented. He glared at her, but she continued, "This situation is not their fault."

"Josie," he began.

"Captain," she corrected, the first hint of anger entering her voice.

"Fine!" he huffed with exasperation. Raising both arms he declared, "Captain Josephine Irwin, dearest and most honorable little sister," he turned to encompass the rest of the room, "assembled staff: I apologize for shouting. I am, as my sister implies, but does not say, an ass. I do appreciate your hard work and dedication." He concluded with a bow, his wrist turning over in a stylized flourish. He looked to Captain Irwin, who offered only a glare.

Satisfied with the few chuckles and notably more relaxed shoulders of his staff, the Lt. Colonel turned his attention back to the jumpy private. "Private Davies, as I was saying, if you would be so kind as to procure a map and a protractor, and once Private Thrace has provided you with the estimated distance they could have covered, draw us a circle encompassing every town, camp, and hovel they may have escaped to?"

"Of course, sir."

"And, Corporal Pierce?"

"Yes, sir."

"Keep on the media. It's bad enough the General authorized that bounty on Vash the Stampede. The last thing I want is the satellite broadcasting his escape. I don't want to get out there only to have to deal with a thousand civilian bounty hunters."


The Lt. Colonel offered his overworked wires operator a brief smile before turning to address the room. "Everyone, you know your jobs. There aren't too many places they could have gone that far out in the desert, but do not take it for granted that they'll be easy to scoop up. I want to know their exact location, and I want them completely surrounded before we move in. The higher-ups are going to be watching how we handle this. So, let's catch this bastard before I get demoted and we lose our deposit on this lovely office."

A collective, affirmative "Sir!" trailed on his heels as he walked to the far end of the room and through the door to the inner office. Captain Irwin followed.

"Well, that was professional," she said, once the door was closed.

He shrugged as he began to look for something in the jumble of paperwork strewn across his desk. "They'll be more efficient now that they're a bit more relaxed."

She picked up the coffee mug he'd absentmindedly put down, frowning at the ring it left on the corner of this week's shift reports. "Sir, you wouldn't have to relax them if you hadn't terrified them in the first place."

"Ah, well," he said, pausing to scan a document and then setting it aside, "that was so they'll take it seriously and won't slack off."

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "The Great Manipulator," she accused, taking a gulp from the coffee mug and then frowning down at its contents. "I make terrible coffee."

"Yes. Yes, you do," he replied, ignoring the 'Manipulator' comment, and forming a little pile of papers from the greater mess of his workspace. "But, for some reason, I like it."

"Sir, you have to use my rank when we're in uniform," she said, a bit more gently. "How can you expect anyone to take me seriously otherwise?"

"I know, I know- I'm an idiot," he sighed. "It's just hard to get used to having my kid sister as my aide-de-camp." She took a breath, but before she could voice the expected protestation, he put up his hands and continued, "I know, I know- I don't have an aide-de-camp. Captain. My right hand, my XO, my second-in-command, whatever. Everyone knows you're a stellar officer. I suspect a controlling majority of the staff would place you in charge if put to a vote, and they also knows we're siblings, so I don't see the harm..."

"People will suspect nepotism, sir," she countered.

"Quite right, Captain. What, with our father being a general and all, I can certainly see why your brother slipping up and using your given name is of primary concern to you in regards to rumors of favoritism."

"Lieutenant Colonel, we may both know how hard we worked for our positions, but there are plenty of others who don't and suspect the worst, which is why it's so important that we behave professionally. I certainly didn't ask to be placed under your command, but as long as I am..."

"Of course not, Captain. Our father had you assigned to me."

"What?" She shook her head and blinked a few times in rapid succession. "I'm sorry, sir, but...?"

He didn't look up from the papers he was still shuffling. "And thank God he did. Though, granted, I'm sure his motivation was to get you out of the field, and maybe piss me off a bit. But, lacking as I am, I really did need an exceptionally capable officer as my aide-de-camp. I needed at least one subordinate who can stand up to me when I'm being an ass, which is, as you know, often. You were the only one qualified. And it's not nepotism," he looked up at her for a moment before turning back to his growing stack of documents. "I couldn't do this without you. My whole office might fall apart if you took a sick day."

She considered him mutely for a long moment before stepping forward, snatching up a handful of paperwork from the rest of the mess. "You don't have an..."

"Yes, I know," he interrupted. "I don't technically have an aide-de-camp. I just really like the way it sounds. Don't you?"

This time she did not resist the urge to roll her eyes. She answered him with another question. "What are we looking for, sir?"

"Millie Thompson's paper trail. Stryfe was supposed to have ditched her partner and gone rogue. God, I'm still kicking myself for losing track of her after she left southern Cornelia!"

"I told you you were underestimating her, sir," Captain Irwin noted as she perused one of Special Agent Thompson's filed expense reports.

"That you did, Captain," he agreed. "I really thought I had her number, too. But, you should have seen her! She was this tiny little girl!" The Captain's withering glare cut short his complaint. He cleared his throat, and said, "Quite right, Captain. After all, you're a tiny little girl and... Ow! That's striking a superior officer!"

"No, that's smacking my dumbass brother upside the head," she said coolly.

He smoothed out the hair at his crown, muttering, "And after all that talk about being professional in uniform."

"Sir, we were talking about something important. I suspect you might have been getting close to a point."

"Ah, yes! So, Thompson was supposed to be tracking Stryfe down. At least, that's what she's been reporting back to Bernardelli, but we didn't follow up, because she didn't seem like she had any promising leads. Thompson was in September for her brother's wedding, right?"

"Yes, sir," the Captain said, as she studied a postmark, "but how is it that Stryfe was in September, as well, unless they were in contact?"

"'In cahoots' is more likely." He ran a hand through his hair. "To be fair, from all reports, Thompson is a total ditz. Late over twenty times in a row, cited several times by superiors for failure as a result of ineptitude. Her direct superior told me she was— and I'm quoting here, Captain— 'a total screw-up.' The only account I ever heard in her favor was that she's the only person in the company who could tolerate being subordinate to 'Derringer' Stryfe." The Captain looked up from the document in her hands with a particularly knowing crease between her eyes. He stopped equivocating. "Oh, I screwed up on this one, Captain. I know it, okay? Damn. We got anyone we like in September?"

"There's a first lieutenant I trust..."

The door swung open, loudly colliding with the interior wall and effectively interrupting the Captain. Flinching at the sound, but continuing forward with purpose, Corporal Pierce entered the office. Without looking up, the Lt. Colonel said, "Hello, Corporeal, I see you've forgotten how to knock."

"Sir, sorry, sir," he apologized hastily, extending a document towards the Lt. Colonel, "but I knew you'd want to see this right away."

Lt. Colonel Irwin's gaze narrowed in irritated displeasure as his eyes scanned the page. "Brilliant. Just perfect."

"Sir?" the Captain ventured, wondering what could have happened now that would have him so vexed.

He handed her the copy of the wanted poster and the attached documents. "Captain, find out who the hell authorized a dead-or-alive bounty on Meryl Stryfe."

Knives was good at everything. To him, this was not a belief so much as an objective fact. Still, he attached a not inconsiderable degree of pride to his numerous talents, and the revelation that there were things that he was bad at, was a blow to his ego he wasn't keen to share. It especially bothered him (for reasons he refused to consider) that the skills he most lacked, Vash possessed in spades.

He'd made a list in his mind of the skills that most crucially required improvement if he'd any hope of making it through his five year truce with Vash. One: Managing one's temper. Two: Developing immunity to proximity to humans. The first task was annoying and frustrating, to the infuriating point of counterproductivity. The second task was repulsive to even consider. No, worse than that (though it was most certainly repugnant), it was akin to a betrayal of the tenets by which he'd lived the whole of his life. Something along the lines of: Thou shalt not suffer a human to live. So, the idea of even tolerating them was perfectly loathsome. He had to think of it as a challenge. He was doing this to prove that he could, that no ability was outside the scope of his aptitude. If he treated it as an exercise, he didn't have to hate himself for it.

Thus: Test Subject Zero, née 'Jessica'.

At first, it was clear that she'd expected Knives to be just like Vash. He'd quickly disabused her of this notion. Most of the initially curious residents of the ship had learned to avoid Vash's brother within the first week or two of his stay. Jessica, however, remained fascinated (she was obsessed with Vash, but maybe this preoccupation extended to all autonomous plants), and took to dropping off his meals, asking him questions, generally trying to engage him.

Knives had done all he could (outside of violence, because it's against the goddamned rules) to dissuade her feckless attempts to... to what? What the hell does this creature want from me? A pat on the head? A flea bath? After his "conversation" with Doc, however, he'd concluded, annoying as she was, she might actually be useful. He could practice tolerating her, and not getting angry enough to kill her. Granted, it was possible that Vash wouldn't have approved, but, in all fairness, she was practically volunteering for the job.

He started off slow. The first experiment was performed one evening as she dropped off his dinner. He said, "Thank you," and forced himself to smile. (At least, he was pretty sure he managed to smile. Despite the tremble from his clenched teeth, it felt like the corners of his mouth moved up a bit.) The human's reaction was more than he'd been prepared for. He'd known that if you gave a pet a treat, it might become so excited that it would bounce around at your feet. However, he dearly hoped she wasn't going to try to lick his face. He slammed the door on her bubbly, bowing form, cutting off a breathless litany of supplications – 'Oh, thank you, Mr. Knives! It's no trouble, not at all. It's my pleasure. If you ever want anything or need anything or anything at all, really, please...'

As the length of Vash's absence grew in proportion to Knives' restlessness, and his sisters took to speaking in riddles and responding to each of his inquiries with 'Ask your brother', he found that practicing his "people skills" was an almost welcome distraction. And Jessica eventually proved to be an ideal test subject. She was suitably annoying, which stretched the limits of his endurance to an extent that the surprisingly tolerable presence of the Doc was unable to achieve. Unless, of course, the bastard is TRYING to piss me off. Conversely, she was submissive and docile to a degree sufficient to prevent pushing him over the edge. He told her to shut up, and she did. He ordered her to leave his sight, and she did. Perfect.

Knives had been of the opinion that his human tolerance training was progressing quite adequately, but after a while he wasn't so sure. Oddly enough, it was the very qualities he had believed would make her presence endurable, which he was beginning to find intolerable. Her bubbly 'tee hee' laugh, her inability to play any card game aside from Old Maid, her penchant for asking the same questions (mostly about Vash) over and over and over again, the fact that she started every sentence with the word "Oh" – he had believed these attributes to be the real challenge, beyond annoying. But, actually, nothing about any of that was beyond annoying. They were pristine examples of Annoying personified, but in the end, just irksome, certainly not important enough to inspire murderous intent.

Strange, he had thought her eagerness to please, along with her biddable personality, would make her presence easier to suffer, and yet, the more time in which he was subjected to her company, the more it was those very qualities he found he couldn't stand. He was about ready to give up on the whole thing, to console himself with the fact that he was at least quite skilled at tolerating the company of one human (Doc). Perhaps, he should just be satisfied with that, and work on more troublesome humans at a yet to be determined future date. Really, this whole magnificent failure of an experiment was that tiny doctor's fault to begin with.

Screw being nice.

In the periphery of his vision he could see Jessica look up at him, expectantly, at least once within every ninety second interval. He was holding a book, occasionally turning pages, but it wasn't interesting and he wasn't really bothering to read.

Doc had suggested that Knives attempt to be considerate of her feelings, and the execution of this bit of advice had required him to, firstly, consider that she had feelings, and, secondly, to induce what they might be. It became immediately clear that the manner in which he'd previously dealt with her was abysmal within the guidelines of human interaction. He tried to be nicer, but of course he wasn't very good at it. He'd shout at her, or say something cruel. That was all fine and good. The issue was her behavior. She never got angry. Never retaliated. Just simpered and fawned and... Ugh! It's disgusting! Doc had spoken of her "selfless" nature, and it was quite literally true: she didn't seem to possess a 'self,' at least not one that required any respect.

He reflected that Vash's pet human wouldn't have put up with it. She would have shouted right back at him. She would have invented quite a few creative invectives in response to his verbal abuse. And if she'd wanted to say something to him, she'd probably just have said it, instead of glancing up hopefully every few seconds. Comparative to Vash's, his own trained human was distinctly lacking in moxie.

He snapped the book shut and turned to the human sitting across his breakfast table from him. "What?" he demanded.

She set her knitting down in her lap, giving him her full gaze and looking perfectly delighted that he was paying attention to her. It was actually quite nauseating. "Oh, it's nothing really. Can I get you more tea? Or maybe something to eat? Or...?"

"No. Thank you," he interrupted. He was actually a little proud of the 'thank you.' Despite how difficult she was making it, and his own internal dialogue on the futility of the exercise, he was still managing to be fairly nice. Okay. So what else? "What are you working on?" There. He'd asked her something about herself. Humans seemed to find this to be a particularly nice gesture.

"Oh, this?" She glanced down at the pile of scarlet-red yarn in her lap. "I'm making you a sweater. Red. Your favorite color."

"Wow. That's..." utterly horrifying"...I'm fairly certain that's Vash's favorite color. I'm sure he'd like it."

"Oh." He wondered, for a moment, if she was capable of speech if she didn't begin with 'Oh'. "No. Vash, well. See, I don't think he'll want it."

Well, I certainly don't. "I'm sure he will. I don't need a sweater, and I make it a point never to wear anything red."

"Oh." For the love of... "But you're brothers."

"Very astute."

"So, shouldn't you like the same things? I mean, Vash always liked me, and I thought we'd get married someday, but this last time he came home with you, and I told him how I felt and he told me that since he's known me since I was a baby I'm like a little sister to him, and so I thought you might..." she trailed off, looking down at her hands in her lap, blushing crimson.

He had been gaping at her silently since she began her breathless tirade, and when she concluded, he had to rewind it a few times in his head before he could begin to understand that he was... he was... I'm a substitute for Vash?

Knives took a deep growl of a breath and started checking off on his fingers: "Tea. Peppers. Red sweaters. Red anything. Rye blend, flowers, pets, transcendental poetry, you." She blinked at him in obvious confusion, her mouth eventually beginning to form the shape indicating she was going to say 'Oh' again. He continued speaking before she could abuse his ears with the sound. "That is a list of just some of the things Vash loves and I hate."

As if in response to his statement, the flash of a memory swept over him: He was looking up at Rem as she handed him a candy-floss apple. That stupid smile on her face. As if it were a monumental reward, a once in a lifetime treat. He'd given it to Vash, because he knew it was one of his brother's favorites. Knives had never, ever liked caramel apples. Rem should have known that.

Knives shook the remembrance and took a moment to account for Jessica. Her lip was quivering and her eyes were brimming with tears. "You... you hate me?"

"Good for you," he responded with false brightness, "your listening comprehension has really improved." He was being cruel on purpose, anything but nice, and he couldn't care less how she felt. Really. "Now get out, would you? I'm..." Something caught his ear and silenced him.

Soon after Vash's departure, Knives had installed some dozen-odd satellite receivers in his living quarters. Some broadcast commercial stations, some trade, and some military. They played at all times, at the same constant volume, low enough that with the dissonant overlap of different music and talk, a human (like Jessica) would hear nothing but quietly buzzing chaos. Knives, of course, heard everything that happened on every station, but he didn't have to give any of it particular, conscious attention. That is, until they began to broadcast something of note. Something he had been waiting for. Something to do with Vash.

Three of the military stations were discussing the escape of Vash the Stampede from a March-bound sandsteamer. Knives absorbed the details from the various wavelengths simultaneously, along with the fact that the Humanoid Typhoon's current whereabouts were unknown. Well, at least his brother hadn't been captured. But, to Knives' profound vexation, it got worse. The civilian stations were announcing an eighty million double-dollar bounty on Meryl Stryfe, former insurance agent, currently wanted dead or alive for "crimes against the Federation."

Knives was seething and swearing, even as he tore apart the bookshelf looking for the atlas, even as he was already planning his response. "And how the hell did this happen? I was expecting to hear news of alleged Stampede sightings, bounty hunters catching some half-wit impostor! But this! Moron! I told him to stay out of trouble! Of course not! All of Vash's debacles require a grand stage! And what's with the pet human? How did she end up complicating this mess? I mean, more than she already has-"

Knives paused, realizing that he could not pack a bag, read a map, curse Vash, and figure out a way to fix this. At least, not simultaneously. He pinched the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger and took a slow breath. He noticed his hands were shaking a little, the palms damp, and rubbed them dry against his pants. When he looked up, he found Jessica standing in the middle of the room, eyes wide with her knitting clutched against her chest. "What are you... Has something happened to Vash?" she asked.

Of course. Not being able to hear the satellite reports, she had no idea why he'd suddenly jumped out of his seat, and started tearing around his single occupancy like a tornado on a mission, shouting and cursing the whole time. She only knew that something was terribly wrong. She was frightened, vulnerable. She was, he realized, looking to him for reassurance.

Stupid human. Did she miss the part where I'm not my bleeding-heart nursemaid of a brother? I REALLY don't have time for this shit. "Go get Doc!" he ordered, and when she didn't move immediately, he shouted, "NOW!" He threw his arm out, pointing toward the door. She cringed backward, as if anticipating a blow, but nodded her compliance before darting from the room.

To fucking hell with being nice! When I get Vash back, he can be nice enough for the both of us.

Knives had the atlas open to the page he wanted, studying the location on the map that corresponded with the military coordinates of the site of Vash's hasty disembarkation. The sandsteamer had been about to enter a fairly narrow pass called 'Montfernand Combe'.

The atlas was Knives' own creation, a combination of human cartography, and his own efforts to record the location of every last plant, as well as keeping track of the human populations that were parasitically pushing his race (and therefore, their own, the fucking gormless maggots) toward extinction. He was, therefore, quite certain of its accuracy.

Montfernand Combe ran north to south, and the sandsteamer had been approaching from the south, meaning Vash would have found himself in the open desert remains of an ancient floodplain. There wasn't a plant for hundreds of iles in any direction but north. The combe itself contained no plants, but there were a few scattered at higher ground, on both the east and west rims. Knives remembered this place now. The plants were fairly isolated out there, several had been weakened in the Fall. The humans had been overambitious, tried to establish settlements that were far too large, and one by one, seven plants had been submitted to the Last Run, slaves dead beneath the whip.

Both rims were scattered with the ruins of dead cities, half buried beneath the sand. There were only two plants still living and working, one on each side of the combe. Vash could use the ruins for cover, but he'd most likely have to visit one of the two extant settlements for supplies before he'd be able to move on. No. He absolutely would. Vash was traveling with humans, and he'd require an absurd amount of constant food and water to keep that delicate and needy breed alive. So, which side would he choose, east or west?

New Oregon was north, but the combe ended before one would have to cross, so Knives couldn't use his knowledge of Vash's ultimate destination as an indicator. The west rim was the obvious choice if the only factor considered was access to transportation and more habitable settlements. But, despite his own repeated assertions to the contrary, Knives knew Vash wasn't an idiot. He'd know the Cavalry would be eager to use this slip up to capture him. They'd, of course, station men in both towns, but the number of troops they could quickly deploy to such an out of the way location would be limited, so they'd focus their efforts on whichever of the two they thought more likely. That would be the one on the west rim: Kanan Town. If Vash anticipated this, he'd be heading for the east rim, for the town of Morrel. Unless, of course, Vash decided the benefits of the west rim outweighed the risk of running into the Cavalry's main force. And wouldn't it be just like him to think he could take them on and escape before they caught him? Or maybe, Vash would think that the military would know that he would know that the west was the obvious choice and that he would likely go east to avoid them, so they would go east to outwit him, so in order to double-outwit them he would go...

"This is just stupid!" Knives threw himself into a chair and placed his elbows on the atlas, pressing his eyes against the heels of his hands. Try as he might, Knives had never been able to find a method behind Vash's madness. And within moments of trying to imitate Vash's emotional and reckless method of decision making, Knives found himself chasing thoughts that didn't make any goddamned sense. And I forgot about the humans. No doubt they'll be acting as advisory cabinet and he'll be listening.

Knives briefly considered how much more difficult his campaign to systematically orchestrate Vash's misery would have been had his brother not been such a skilled architect of his own destruction. Knives certainly couldn't be blamed for any tragedy that befell Vash this time. No, this was all his own fault, his own doing, his own... Where the hell are you! I can't help you if I can't find you. But maybe he could find him. Knives lifted his face from the heels of his hands and blinked away the spots. It was a long way off, much farther than he'd ever tried to make contact before, but this was Vash. Vash, whose mind had been linked with his own before they'd even been born. It was possible. It was more than possible if Vash was looking for him too.

He took a deep breath, sat up straight, let his arms hang limp, his hands heavy in his lap, closed his eyes, and listened. He wasn't listening with his ears, but that was the closest of the five senses to which he could compare. And as he listened, he was calling, reaching out, knowing that if Vash was doing the same, they would instinctively find each other. He reached farther, stretching, pushing beyond what was comfortable into what was beginning to threaten pain. That sensation of stretching bit by bit morphed into tearing. Dizzy, disoriented, vertigo— but he could go a little farther, just a little bit more. And suddenly in his mind was an image, like elastic being pulled tightly over a blade, stretching white just before it... SNAP!

Knives didn't know if the sound was only in his head. It was so loud, such a sickening pop, that he was convinced for a moment that something in his body had really broken. His mind recoiled on itself, with a sensation of distance and speed that actually made his stomach drop. It felt like his brain violently collided with the back of his skull. He tried to look around him, to open his eyes and get his bearings, but the light was hot pain. Pain pain pain pain the world is pain is... The pain in his head was so excruciating, he was actually going to be... immediately and violently sick.

Knives groped for the tabletop, struggling to stand, to get his feet under him, overturning the chair. He managed to turn himself around, and gripped the counter on either side of the kitchen sink. His stomach contracted with enough force to have doubled him over without the support of the counter, and the accompanying stab that shot through his skull brought tears to his eyes.

Though he was almost surprised he hadn't been turned inside-out, the worst of the pain seemed to have left his body along with his breakfast. It took him a few moments afterwards to reestablish the even pace of his breathing, to remember a world that didn't exist in a pinpoint of physical agony. With hands that trembled slightly, he turned the faucet on and rinsed his mouth a few times, splashed some of the cold water on his face.

Well, that was dumb. Why had he pushed it that far?

He righted the chair and sat back down at the table, intending to try the atlas again, but he found himself laying his head down on its pages instead. He's not looking for me. He's in trouble, and he's not looking for me. Why was that so upsetting? He noticed he was chewing on his lower lip and stopped himself, sitting up with a sigh. He stared at the map, chin resting on his steepled hands. East or west? Kanan or Morrel? Damn it, Knives, think! You're a fucking genius, moron! Think!

He hadn't bothered to shut the door after Jessica left, and Doc now appeared in its frame. "What's going on? Something about Vash? I was making some adjustments to one of the plants, and Jessica was hysterical by the time she found me, so..."

Knives didn't answer, because he'd stopped listening. Adjustments to the plants? Oh. Oh! Flush with epiphany, he knocked the chair over again in his hurry to stand. He pushed past the doctor, commanding, "Stay right here until I get back."

They knew. He didn't know how, but they did. They knew about plants in settlements iles and iles away from them. Somehow, they weren't bound by distance like he was. They knew. They had to know. And this time, he wasn't leaving until he got a straight answer.

The cocky self-assurance Knives had nurtured on his way to the plant faltered when he came to a halt before the bulb to find his sister already by the surface of the glass, waiting for him. To his embarrassment, something uncertain and pleading sneaked into his voice, and when he spoke it was with all the forceful resolve of a child asking for an advance on his allowance, but not really expecting a positive response. "You can help me find Vash, right?"

To his relief, she smiled.