This story follows the anime continuity rather than the manga, and is set after the final episode. Thus there are spoilers for the whole series.

The anime left questions unanswered and certain matters unresolved. Rather than attempting to cover everything explored throughout the course of the series, this story plays with one element. I can't say why I was inspired to write it, only that I was. May its telling recapture some small part of the enjoyment I took in watching the show.

The people and world of Trigun belong to the inestimable Yasuhiro Nightow and those who followed his manga to create the anime. This work of fanfiction can be blamed on no one but myself.

A Little Piece of Paradise

XmagicalX


Two years ago the strangers had come to Vista, and had yet to leave. Three of them, two woman and a man, no more unusual than any desert drifters, and since they were willing to work no one asked them any questions. The women were beginning to show gray but he still called them girls, because he couldn't really think of them otherwise, only now they found it flattery and giggled when he did.

Vista's plant had failed over a decade ago, as eventually they all would, but there was water running underground, and long before they lost the plant the people had enough foresight to sow seeds. Now trees had grown, more than just saplings, trunks stunted but still stretching bravely up to the harsh sun. The people of the town were beyond proud and protected their triumph zealously, fawned over the trees like parents with a sickly child, watered them with sweat and tears so sweet the salt didn't shrivel the roots.

The strangers worked in the glade with the same devotion as those born in Vista. The women hoed to keep the caked earth loose and helped build the sand-shield walls. The man trapped wormlings and released them in the deep desert, and pruned branches lest one plant inadvertently kill another with shade. He was the only one whose hands didn't shake when he set clippers to that fragile, precious greenery.

So the glade grew, lush, brilliant, the fall of leaves fertilizing the ground beneath so sand became soil, and every month the trees were taller. "They like you!" one of the women exclaimed cheerfully to their companion one day, and it did seem like when he walked through the copse the leaves whispered with more than the hot winds, and flower blooms turned to him as if to a third sun.

And maybe she guessed why, how his energies might sustain like a plant's. He remembered the green which had sprung up around his brother, which continued to grow now where he had secluded himself in the deepest desert. Growing even in the barren zones, where all life but theirs should be impossible. Something of what they were made the most desolate places viable. But when he mentioned this to the other woman, she only smiled and said, "I think the trees know the value of life, and who values life most."

Which he didn't answer, but smiled back. That night they partied at the town bar with the rest of Vista, and everyone toasted the good years since the day they had come.

The next morning other strangers arrived.

Vista was far from any major road or caravan route, and with its plant broken few saw reason to visit. So whenever anyone unknown drove into town, children were pulled from their street games to safety inside, and the town sheriff and his deputies would be the first to greet the newcomers.

Three months ago bandits had ridden in, gunshots cracking, grinning like wild dogs, intent on plunder. Then one man had seen the green beyond the houses, branches thrusting up behind the faded peaked roofs.

He had dismounted, walked toward the trees, and one of the sheriff's men had raised his rifle, but another stayed his hand. The bandit approached the first tree, a grubby, hardy fig. He reached one hand, trembling, toward the foliage--not to snap the slender branches, merely to stroke a single smooth leaf, and then he had fallen to his knees with tears on his cheeks. They learned later his family had labored for two generations to start a farm, on a plot of land with neither geoplant nor water. When his mother died from the dryness he left to find food and supplies, and ended up among the bandits. He cried at Vista's success where his family had failed, and he cried that it could be done at all on their cursed world, and he would not let his companions harm a single blade of grass, nor lay a hand on any of those who had nurtured that miracle.

Half the bandits left, without any loot. The other half remained in Vista, and the man who had cried, Dixon, sent a letter and summoned his father and his uncle and aunt and his two young sisters, to come farm where there was water and soil. They planted an oak in his mother's name, and vowed to help it grow to be the tallest of the grove.

The newest strangers were not bandits. When the sheriff stepped forward to meet them, the shortest man met him halfway and produced a paper stamped with a round seal, glittering gold in the sun. "We're from March," he said. "We have reason to believe you are harboring an enemy of the state."

The sheriff frowned, shifting his hat to scratch his shaggy salt-and-pepper hair. "May be as you say, but there's no one here who's done anyone harm."

"To you, perhaps, but you've been lucky. This man is dangerous, and if you allow him to remain your town may not last long."

The sheriff's sharp black eyes flickered over the official's stout form, then the two men flanking him. Both tall, dressed in the same black as their superior. One was built large and mountain-sturdy, with a lax, dim expression; the other was thin and angled as a stripped sapling, a brown-haired boy only barely reached his full height. Both held shotguns and likely had more artillery in their rusty square-car.

Eyeing them, the sheriff wondered if the real danger to his town might be from other than the unknown criminal. The March official saw this calculation in his face, shook his head to deny it. "We didn't come here to threaten; we're here to give you fair warning. Vash the Stampede is in the area, and this is the only town for iles."

A murmur passed through the crowd that had begun drifting from their houses to observe this confrontation. The sheriff rocked back on his heels, his arms folded over his leather vest. "Vash the Stampede?" he repeated. "Thought him long dead. Hasn't been an accusation laid on his head for well-nigh twenty years."

"Nonetheless, the statute of limitation for his crimes never expires. Make no mistake, he's still a dangerous man."

The sheriff snorted. "He must have a good set of spectacles by now. He's got to be at least sixty, if this is the same man who took out July and August." The official, whose pudgy face was becoming quite red with more than the sun, opened his mouth, but the sheriff raised a hand, leathery palm out. "Give us twenty-four hours. This is a small town. If your Stampede is here, we'll find him."

The official nodded. "Though we'll also conduct our own investigation, of course."

The sheriff shrugged. "'Long as you keep out of the way of my people, and don't bother anyone. No interrogations, got that?" His black eyes gleamed. Fifteen years ago he had been a sharpshooter and a well-known outlaw himself, and while he had served his time and was now protecting the people he might once have hurt, one could still see the danger inherent in him. The official backed down, mumbling acquiescence, and instructed his men to show restraint. While the big one nodded obediently, the skinny boy looked at the sheriff with a sharpness just as dangerous for all his youth.

It was with that one in mind that when the sheriff addressed his hastily assembled posse, he warned, "Keep an eye on the city men. They say Vash is the target, but who knows what they really want out of this witch-hunt."

"You really think they're after Vash at all?" one of the men asked skeptically. "When no one's heard anything of him in two decades?"

"That's the reason I'm thinking to believe them," the sheriff replied. "They gotta be able to come up with better cover stories than that. If they are telling the truth...Vash was a holy terror in his day, and it's true they never caught him, nor ever confirmed any corpse was his."

"I heard they never even knew what the guy looked like for sure," a white-hair in back remarked. "So how is anyone supposed to know when they've found him?"

"Oh, it's easy, then--pick the face nobody knows, and that's him."

"Only faces I don't know around here are those city guys..." All chuckling amiably, the posse moved out to comb the streets, leaving the sheriff alone at his desk to await reports. He was pleased by how his people took this in stride, no panic evident. Leave the worry to him, best for all concerned. He could deal with the March folk. As for the problem of Vash...

Let it be a false alarm. If one-tenth the stories he had heard were true, he didn't stand a chance against the Humanoid Typhoon. Nor those suited city apes. And there was more at stake than just their town. Every man, woman, and child of Vista would give their lives for the trees, but against the Stampede that might not be enough.

He heard a polite cough. The sheriff looked up with a start, realizing he wasn't alone. Three of his posse had remained right outside his office door, and re-entered now at his acknowledging nod. The women looked extremely apprehensive, not to mention concerned, but the man was stoic. A striking expression on that face--the sheriff tried to recall if he had seen it before in the two years he had known this man. "Yes?" he encouraged politely--would never do to be rude to ladies. "How can I help you? Meryl?"

Meryl, the first before his desk, coughed again, awkwardly. "Actually we may be able to, ah, assist--"

"There's something you need to know, Rojer."

The sheriff blinked, surprised at the curt, even rude interruption. "Yeah, Red?"

"I don't want to cause trouble," the man before him said, "which is why we have to figure this out now, and I want to know what you think would be best."

"This about those city folk?" The sheriff squinted at the unusually serious shadows in one of his best deputy's eyes. "You got history with one of 'em? Wait, don't tell me--you're Vash the Stampede."

He started to laugh at his own joke, only to have it swallowed in the dead silence which fell after that statement. Choking on his chuckle, he looked at his deputies' faces, the man more grave than ever he had seen him, Meryl and Milly's expressions beyond apprehensive and into full-blown worry, with a defensive edge that made him nervous even though none of them had reached for weapons. Even though he had known them for two years.

He opened his mouth to speak, found his vocal chords paralyzed and had to swallow with a dry mouth to restore them. "You mean--you can't be saying--"

"I am Vash the Stampede." He said it serenely, straightforward, even sad, without bragging or bravado.

"Red, that's impossible," the sheriff said flatly, despite the twinge when he looked at the man and saw something there he had never noticed before, something which made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He tried to be reasonable. "Vash has been wanted for forty years, and you can't be thirty."

"I'm older than I look."

"Older than me? August was twenty years ago. July was twenty years before that. Besides..." True, he had seen things stranger than artificial youth, but..."Red, don't take this the wrong way, but I've known outlaws in my day. You may be good with a pistol but you ain't a gunman."

"You've never really seen me shoot."

"It's not how you handle a gun, it's what you do with it. I guess I should say, what Vash did with it. You're not a cold-blooded--"

"They were wrong about him." Meryl's eyes were blazing, her whole body vibrating with righteous anger. "The stories were wrong. They never knew who he really was at all."

He looked at her, fists clenched, gaze fiery. He looked at Milly, who wasn't crying but looked as though her eyes might well up at any time. And he thought about the last two years, which was really only as long as he had known these two ladies and their friend, though it felt like much longer. There weren't many people he would trust as he had trusted them since almost the first time he had laid eyes on them. He had liked their attitude from the day they had walked into Vista, parched and gray with dust but not begging for charity, willing to work for water, for food, for a place to rest...a place to live. In two years he had seen no sign that they had any concealed motivations, any wish for anything but peace and acceptance.

His instincts had told him he wasn't wrong. He still believed so, but now his gut was also insisting that this was no joke. Red--Vash--wasn't smiling as he usually did; his mouth had a grim set, and his eyes...

For a moment the slanting afternoon sunlight struck them at an odd angle, so they glowed like blue coals. But even when the sheriff stood to dispel the illusion, there was still something amiss in them. A weight, a seriousness he had never seen in any man--age, and all the wisdom and pain which comes from too many years passing. And the sheriff knew that this was no deception.

"All right," he said briskly. "You wanted my advice. You're going to go out there and, uh, look for yourself. Leave no rock unturned. And when the hunt's over and those city folk go home, we'll decide things from there. Okay by you, Vash?"

He said the name as casually as he could manage, a small test, and Red passed with flying colors, head jerking up as if it were something he hadn't heard for some time but couldn't help but respond to.

Milly put a hand on his arm. "Come on, Vash-san," she said gravely, then to Meryl, "come on, Sempai," and the three left together.

His chair creaked noisily as the sheriff collapsed onto it. He wiped his hand across his brow and tried to convince himself that the sweat beading there was raised by the stifling midday heat.

* * *

The glade had been left for Vash, Meryl, and Milly's search. The rest of the posse was canvassing the town, questioning the citizens--only a formality, really, since most of them had known each other forever, and would certainly be aware of any neighbor harboring a fugitive from justice. But Vash and the girls had only been there for two years, people were remembering now, which made them still practically strangers, outsiders, and did anyone really know much about them...

They wouldn't hurt the trees, however, everyone was sure of that; they had put as much work into the forest as anyone--more, truth be told, though few were up to that much honesty. But no one objected to them poking around the grove, on the off-chance the legendary gunman was hiding amid the foliage and eating their few apples.

So Vash, Meryl, and Milly walked through the forest, not bothering to fake the futile hunt since no one was watching, but enjoying the sharp sweet scent of leaves and the cool of the shade. Without any observers besides her best friend, Meryl slipped her arm through Vash's and for a moment leaned her head against his shoulder, listened to the rustle of birds and wind in the branches overhead and wished this moment might last forever.

And then Milly screamed.

Not a full-blooded shriek, more of a yelp which didn't carry beyond the trees, but Vash and Meryl rushed to her side, Meryl slipping her hand under her coat to grasp a Derringer. Vash didn't reach for his own piece, but he didn't have to; he could have it in hand and aimed the instant he needed it.

Milly wasn't going for her the stun-gun slung across her back, however; instead she pointed with a trembling hand, the other pressed over her mouth, her face white as if she were seeing a ghost. Meryl stared. Before them, a tall, angular figure in black pushed off the tree he leaned against and straightened, one hand going to his lips to remove the cigarette hanging there, trailing a long faint plume of white smoke. "Good afternoon," he said casually.

It was the youngest of the men from the city.

Vash didn't hesitate. He marched forward, plucked the cigarette from the long fingers and threw it to the ground, stamping hard. "No smoking," he said severely. "Didn't you read the sign?"

The boy shook his head, uneven brown bangs falling into his eyes. "Nope."

"Ano, Vash--aa, Red-san, we haven't put up the sign yet," Meryl reminded him, sotto voce.

Vash was undeterred. "You should know better than to smoke by trees. They burn, you know. Besides, it's bad for your health."

"My health belongs to the city of March, and they couldn't give a damn about it. Why should I?" Neither the indifference nor the irony was fitting to a boy of his few years.

Milly, ever the big-sisterly sort--or did another reminder impel her now?--asked with straightforward sympathy, "You're an orphan?"

"Yeah, but don't let it bother you, neesan. Lived eighteen years without mother or father and it doesn't bother me. The orphanage did what it could. Not their fault that when the state needed expendable officers my name was first on the list."

"Expendable?" Meryl repeated.

The boy nodded. "The boss's line wasn't a joke. They really think Vash is here. Figured it was their responsibility to make some kind of attempt to catch him, to cover their asses later if everything goes up in smoke. But they knew if it's true we might not come back. And they knew we'd have a hard time of it anyway, being outsiders." Gray eyes studied them sharply. "You're not from this town either, are you." He stepped closer, moving with an easy grace at odds with his gawky limbs. His eyes were on Vash, with the kind of piercing focus a hawk lays on a desert rat. "You--" he began.

And someone screamed again, this time not Milly but someone outside the grove, and not cut off but joined by other cries of alarm.

They all ran from the wood back to town, the boy from the city pelting beside them. In the alley turning onto the main street they scooted to a halt, bumping into one another, and Vash waved the others back as he cautiously peeked around the corner.

The street was deserted except for the sheriff, three deputies, and a giant armored vehicle on treads planted square in the middle of the road before them. Dangerous steel cylinders, like polished cannons strung with black tubing, projected haphazardly from the tank's sides at all angles in every direction. On top of the vehicle several figures lounged, attired in garish red, yellow, and orange jackets, casually bearing large black-barreled rifles.

"This isn't good," remarked a voice in Vash's ear. The boy from the city had crept up beside him, nearly silently, and now was speculatively eyeing the vehicle and its passengers. "If I don't miss my guess, that's the Flame Gang."

"Furemu Gengu?" Meryl hissed behind them.

"There's been a reward out on them for over a year." The boy didn't twitch a muscle, storm-gray gaze locked on the situation in the street as he spoke. "Didn't think they were in the area, though. The last report put them in Dryspring, and that's a couple hundred iles west. How good is your sheriff, really? 'Cause I don't know nothing about Vash but these guys are bad news."

Even without his commentary, one could tell that easily from the size of their tank, and more tellingly the casual insolence with which the gang faced the sheriff's guns. "So what's this town got, old man?" the largest man on the tank drawled, champing on the thick unlit cigar in his mouth. "We saw the car from the city drive in--the feds don't drop by nowhere 'less they want something. So what d'ya have? Anything worth our while?"

"Only thing we got here for you boys is a bellyful of lead," the sheriff calmly returned. "You leave now and there won't be trouble. Otherwise," and he raised his pistol suggestively.

"You gonna take us all with that baby toy?" the boss scoffed.

"Maybe, maybe not," the sheriff replied, "but the sharpshooters behind all those shutters will pick off who I miss."

The gang shifted uneasily, craning their necks at the surrounding buildings, but the boss didn't flinch. He tossed back his straggly ponytail, took a step back--retreating toward the hatch on the vehicle's top, as were his two cohorts. "Izzat so?" His voice rang out, too cheerfully, as he raised his fist to the sky. "Well then, we should give 'em a real target." He brought down his arm sharply, a clear signal to those inside the tank.

And fire roared from all of the tank's steel cannons, a sheet of boiling flame rising around the vehicle and lashing out to brush the buildings, flooding the street.

Vash was in motion before boss's hand had dropped. He knocked the deputies back and threw himself between the sheriff and the flames, before they died down had grabbed the man and carried more than dragged him to the meager sanctuary of the alley. Both men were coughing by the time they made it back. Meryl exclaimed wordlessly and beat out the embers charring the tail of Vash's gray coat, while Milly saw to the sheriff. His eyes were wide, not from the pain of his blistered face but naked shock, mirrored on all their countenances.

Fire was against a law so basic it was never even recorded in the books, a rule of survival in a world where wood was more precious than gold and no water existed to extinguish threatening blazes. Campfires were only made in the open desert and still carefully tended; in towns they were only for the prestigious and the desperate. Fire was not a weapon, never used in offenses by any sane individual. Now it lived, the newest comer to Vista, licking at the sun-warmed plaster walls, devouring the cloth-draped pavilions and oil-treated tarps as it began to gnaw at the timber frameworks of the wealthiest manors of the town.

Even as everyone shouted, the outlaws' tank rumbled forward, still belching gouts of flame like a medieval dragon. Cloaked by the yellow blaze and wavering heat, the gang had retreated to inside the vehicle, providing no targets and no access. Everyone stared, helpless--

Until a scream higher and more frantic than the rest cut over the melee. "Ketlin! Garett!"

The cry galvanized the sheriff. He scrambled to his feet, wits suddenly about him again. "That's Pauline!" Pauline LaClare was the town's water manager, one of the richest citizens. And that was Pauline's house, with all its fine, precision-cut, marvelously expensive wooden clapboard burning, awash with raging orange--and two small children peering out of the third story window, their thin high voices wailing over the crackling fire.

The sheriff made to charge out, only to be thrown against the alley wall by the city boy. Before the sheriff could knock him down for his troubles, the young man jerked his head toward the mouth of the alley, just as the gang's tank rumbled past. "Doesn't do anyone a damn bit of good if you're toasted or flattened," he spat.

But the sheriff had other concerns. "That--they're heading right for the trees!" He took an awkward step in the opposite direction, only to be paralyzed by another scream from Pauline. The children...

His agony of priorities was solved by Vash clapping his hands on Meryl and Milly's shoulders. "You help Rojer stop the fire and save those kids," he told the girls. "I'll take care of the gang."

Meryl and Milly had not a word of argument, simply nodded and tore for the LaClare house, pulling the sheriff after them. Confident of their success, Vash started after the tank's swathe of destruction--

To find the boy from the city keeping pace with him as he maneuvered down the trashed street. "Forget about me, Specs?" the kid snapped, undeterred by the run or smoke inhalation.

Vash stopped in momentary dismay. "'Specs'?"

The boy flicked a finger at Vash's round-framed sunglasses. "Sure you can see through all that ash on those, oldtimer?"

"Oldtimer?!"

"Hey," the kid smirked, "you're older than me."

Vash, who in all honesty had absolutely no grounds to refute that, was saved from responding by a terrified yell for help. Barely visible beyond the ring of fire, a couple had fallen in the street in their haste to escape, and now were trapped directly in the tank's path. The girl pulled at the guy's arm desperately, but when he tried to stand one leg folded under him, refusing to carry his weight. The gang drivers either ignorant or more likely uncaring, the vehicle thundered forward, bearing down on the pair while they struggled to rise.

Even as Vash lunged forward, the city boy barreled past him, squeezing through the narrow gap between the tank and the farther building wall and skidding under the impeding jet of fire. Without pausing to regain his footing he hefted the fallen man over one shoulder with a strength out of proportion to his thin frame and grabbed the girl's wrist with his free hand. His speed was nothing short of astounding, but not quick enough. The main flame-thrower jutting from the front of the tank sputtered and began to cough forth a pyre to char all three to ash.

In an imperceptible fraction of a second Vash had drawn his gun, taken careful aim, and fired. The bullet streamed through smoke and flame to strike the flame-thrower's barrel at precisely the right angle, not to pierce, but to bend the heat-softened metal. The crooked tube discharged its lethal blaze harmlessly up into the air, while the boy yanked the couple out of the tank's path and pushed them into the relative safety of Vista's general store.

"Thanks!" the kid shouted, waving through the smoke as Vash loped over to him. "Was that just a lucky shot, or..." He paused, looked at the silver gun in Vash's hand, then frowned with a quick shake of his head. "Jeeze, if it was that easy, why haven't you disabled all the fireguns by now?"

"You call that easy?" Vash wailed.

"No time for whining," reproached the other, "that thing's still heading for your trees. Gimme a boost."

"Eh?"

The brown-haired boy cupped his hands and mimed a toss. "With a running start I can get on top of it."

Vash studied the arrhythmic bursts of flame shooting from the tank, shook his head. "How about you give me a boost instead?"

"No way, geezer, you're too big!"

"Too big?" Vash started to asphyxiate on more than the smoke. "Geezer?!"

"There's no time, let's do this!" The kid shoved Vash forward, then took off down the street, pulling a pistol as he ran. He gestured for Vash to pass him with a sharp wave as he took aim with his other hand and, still running, fired off two rapid shots at the rear flame-thrower. The first blasted straight into the barrel, destroying the sparking mechanism; the second bullet perforated the fuel tube, so instead of a conflagration only a trickle of oil leaked out. As he jogged into place, Vash observed the kid out of the corner of his eye. Even under ordinary conditions that was fancy shooting; taking into account the obscuring smoke and fire and the tank's speed, his abilities were approaching the fantastic.

Then the kid hollered "Heads up!" and he was dashing toward Vash, and Vash sighed, crouched and cupped his hands. The boy sprinted to him and slammed his boots into the linked fingers without missing a step. Vash launched him up, noting that he indeed didn't weigh much. The kid twisted deftly to avoid a column of fire angled toward the sky, and then Vash lost sight of him through the flames.

Jogging after the vehicle, he heard triple gunshots. Then the tank's round steel hatch-top came flying up, arcing over the smoke to land spinning at Vash's feet. Over the earthshaking rumble of the engine the kid's voice shouted, "Stop the vehicle, now! This is the law!"

The vehicle jerked, reversed for an instant, then ground to a halt as the blazing throwers died. A mere moment later the kid's head popped out of the hatchway on top. "Chikusho!" he swore. "There's only two guys in here!"

"Emergency exit--there they go." Through the fading eddies of smoke Vash pointed to three figures booking it around the corner. "You take care of these," and he cocked his head at the stopped tank. "I'll get them." Without offering a chance for disagreement he raced after the escapees.

They might have been criminal but they weren't stupid. Knowing in a town this small everyone's face was familiar to everyone else, they didn't attempt to seek refuge in any of the houses along the dusty street. Instead they fled straight to the one feasible hiding place--the glade.

Vash caught up with the slowest at the edge of the trees, tackled him before the man saw him coming and with a bit of twine from his longcoat's pocket trussed him like a rebellious thomas in the time it took him to blink. Leaving the felon in the shade of their largest chestnut, he sought the trail of the other two. Broken branches clearly marked one's progress; the other was either right on his heels or more canny about hiding his tracks.

He heard a twig snap behind him, spun and found his gun aimed between the eyes of the boy from the city. The kid raised his hands in mild alarm. "Just me," he said. "So there's two loose here?"

"Go back to town," Vash dismissed him, lowering his piece. "Help with the fire; I can handle them."

"Boss and Mitch came out of hiding, they got the tank covered," the kid said easily. "And your sheriff and those two chicks won't let anything burn to the ground. I can watch your back."

"I don't need--" Vash began, then heard a rustle behind him, dropped to the ground as a bullet whizzed past his ear. He raised his gun to return fire--

Only to have the boy grab his wrist. "We take them alive," he said firmly.

Vash stared at him. "I'm not going to kill them," he replied, studying the boy now glaring at him with such irrefutable force. "But you weren't..."

"We might want to question them. Besides," and the kid looked away as he spoke, so the clustered leaves of the underbrush muffled his words, "I don't kill. Enough death in this world already, no point adding to it." He risked a look back, noticed Vash's widening smile and snarled, "What?"

The blond ducked his head, lost the grin. "I was wrong about you," he confessed, seriously and meaning it. "You're not a boy; you're a man."

"And you're a nut," the kid informed him, rolling his eyes. "Now let's get these guys before they torch your trees."

They moved deeper into the shaded grove, their steps synchronized and so silent that Vash knew that snapped twig had been no accident, but a deliberate signal of his presence. Whatever the brown-haired man might say, he had a respect for Vash, at least for his skills...which could, worrisomely, mean his true identity was guessed...

A tug on his arm disrupted that line of thought. Peeking past the tangled scrub before them, he spotted one of their targets, crouched under an elm clutching his rifle with both hands. His wide eyes darted from side to side at every rustle of leaves.

The boy jerked his head to the left; Vash indicated a circling motion with his gun, and they both nodded agreement. Slipping noiselessly through the bramble, they swiftly circled around to either side of the man, then pounced him. He went down but not without a struggle, the kid getting a clip on the jaw from a flailing boot, and Vash winning a bite on the hand as he muzzled the man. They made short work of tying and gagging their capture, after which the boy straightened up, brushing his hands dismissively. "One down," he began to say, and then his angled gray eyes widened. His mouth opened in a shout of warning, "Behind you!" as he threw himself forward.

Vash, still crouched and shaking his wounded hand--when would he learn to grab with the artificial one in these cases?--whirled around to see the revolver barrel gleaming in a stray beam of sunlight piercing the veil of foliage. Then the glimpse was cut off by a narrow figure in black which slammed into him, sending them both tumbling to the forest floor.

A gunshot cracked loudly as they fell, and Vash felt the kid's braced body sag on top of him, sudden dead weight, with a telling liquid warmth seeping onto his gray coat to stain his own chest scarlet.

"Wolfwood!" Vash shouted. He rolled the kid over, only spared a glance at his abruptly too-white face before he launched himself at the shooter. The remaining gang member squeezed off his next four shots in quick succession; Vash easily dodged each one, twisting like a sidewinder through the screaming paths of the bullets to slam his fist into the man's jaw. The outlaw dropped like a sack of rocks, and Vash let him lie there, out for the count, dashing back to his victim's side.

He was confronted by a pair of astonished gray eyes, narrowed with pain but clear. The kid was trying to sit up, one hand pressed to his shoulder to staunch the blood as he struggled to lever himself up. Vash gently but firmly pushed him down again, peeled back the black jacket to examine the damage.

"Gotta say," remarked the kid, panting, "those were some moves."

Vash glanced to his face, saw no hint of sarcasm. "Well, practice makes perfect." He released a sigh of pure relief as he rocked back on his heels. "The bullet went through, and it's a clean wound. You're going to be okay."

"Was hoping for that," the kid replied with a tight grin. "Been shot before, figure that was worse than this."

From the depths of his coat pockets Vash took out a roll of bandages and tore off several strips. "Mmm...where were you shot before?" he asked as he began to expertly wrap the wound, temporary measures until the town doctor saw to him.

"Uh...foot once. And my arm was grazed." His lips were taut enough to blanche of color. "Boss said that was my fault...turned my back on a guy I hadn't shot dead. But I got mostly out of the way...that time." He shut his eyes, his breath shuddering. "Guess this hurts more...'least it doesn't feel like dying."

"You aren't," Vash assured him, patting his uninjured shoulder, for comfort and to hold him down if he was inclined to try to sit up again. Through the trees he could hear the crackle of approaching footsteps, recognized Meryl and Milly's treads among the others. "Over here!" he called.

"Sound like...cavalry's comin'," the kid mumbled, resistance finally subsiding as he sank down onto the bloodsoaked ground. Vash, peering through the trees and waving to catch the eyes of the approaching assistance, felt long fingers wrap around his wrist. He looked down. The kid's eyes were gray slits, starting to glaze, but still locked on him, unwavering as if there were some internal impetus, unfazed by pain, which would not break that focus. "We made a good team," he rasped, voice almost gone.

Vash nodded, grinning, and did not look away. "Yeah."

"...Gotta do it again sometime, Tongari," the kid breathed, and then before Vash could do more than blink, just as Meryl and Milly burst through the underbrush and froze at the sight before them, the gray eyes rolled back and the hand relaxed its grip to drop limply to the forest floor.

* * *

He awoke under crisp, clean sheets in a warm, low-lit room. For a moment he wondered if the forest, with its sweet scent and shifting patterns of green-strained sunlight, had been another one of his dreams. Then he turned his head on the white pillow, felt the twinge of pain stab through his shoulder under the stiff bandages, and found two bright teal eyes meeting his.

The blond man by his bed leaned forward, wooden chair legs thunking against the floor. "Good morning!" he caroled. "How're you feeling?"

"Not dead," he rasped. His tongue was dry but workable. "Guess that's a plus."

"Doc says you'll be up and about in no time." The man hesitated, only a second. "Thank you, for saving my life and all."

He snorted, made an attempt to rise and decided better of it, so only glared at the other man instead. "Like hell I did. You could've dodged that shot. You probably knew the other guy was there before I did."

"Maybe."

It gave him an odd jolt of pleasure, to get an honest answer. A level of trust he wasn't expecting, yet somehow craved. "Hell, I probably should be thanking you--think you did save my life." He shifted, stifling a groan as his injured shoulder burned. Looked direct into those strange-hued eyes. "Hey. Back there. You--when the gun went off, you shouted something, I thought. Like you were yelling at me, only it wasn't my name."

"Ah..." Now it was the other man's turn to shrug uncomfortably. "Heat of the moment. I was surprised. Sort of, um, well, I don't know your name..."

"So you just shouted the first one that came to mind?" He had to chuckle, even if it hurt. "You're a real one. Wish I knew what. It's Lobos, by the way. Victor Lobos." Closing his eyes briefly, he leaned back into the pillow. "So you got the gang."

"They're being taken to March tomorrow."

"And your town didn't burn down."

"No," the blond man said. "Thank you."

"Hey, it's my job, right? Have to pay the medicine man. Stitches don't come cheap." The doctor here must be good, though. He didn't even remember getting sewed up.

For that matter he didn't remember getting brought here, just the forest, cool dirt under his hand, softer than sand; green leaves blurring, voices fading even as they approached. One voice, high, quiet with worry. A twinge of memory drifted through his mind...cradled close..."Did she carry me?"

"What? Who?"

"Bringing me here. Your friend. The big girl." She had, he recalled half-awaking in her arms, sturdy and yet so gentle. Safe there, even in pain. Comforted.

It reminded him of something--she reminded him of someone, but he didn't know who. He had no recollections of his mother; she had died before she ever held him. But he had her picture, a file photo of a petite, black-eyed, curly-haired woman. She looked nothing like that lady, this man's friend. And yet he knew her.

Just as he knew this man, this man he had never met before yesterday. "You know, the boss told me to keep an eye on you. You and your two girlfriends. He ordered me to watch you. That's why I was in the glade. You guys made him suspicious."

"Us? Really?" Was that real surprise, or assumed?

Assumed, he decided. No amazement shone in those serious aqua eyes. "I knew you weren't from around here. I can always tell an outsider. And there's something about you..."

"What?" There was curiosity in the question, but now he didn't even pretend to be startled.

He laughed, just to see if it would throw the man off-guard. It didn't. "It's just this feeling I get from you, that I can't make sense of. It's like you're on a search. I don't mean the hunt for Vash the Stampede, but you're looking for something. But why would you be looking for anything? You've already found this place. I've dreamed all my life of finding a place like this. A little piece of paradise. Isn't that enough for anyone?"

"No." He said it low, but oddly fierce. "Not only a little piece. It's enough for these people. But not for everyone."

"Everyone? Everyone can't have paradise. There isn't enough."

"So we make it bigger."

Just like that. As if it were the simplest answer, the obvious solution. Victor laughed again, this time because he couldn't help it. Not in derision. But because it was so simple. So beautifully obvious that he wondered if it might be truth after all. "I've had this dream," he found himself saying. "I want to start an orphanage. Like where I grew up, only better. A place where kids can play, and not be scared or hungry. A place with trees everywhere."

He looked, but the other man wasn't smirking at the fantasy, only nodded gravely. What would even this one say, though, if he understood that 'dream' wasn't a figure of speech, that for as long as Victor Lobos could remember, there were nights he would close his eyes and be there, in a green world, with children around him, and his friends...those friends he didn't know, except his soul did. Would that be enough to surprise this man, to know that he walked in another's dreams? To know that he had seen the four of them together there, laughing with children in an Eden which should not exist, could not exist, only...

I'd like to find that place--but the thought was not his own thought, and when he glanced over he thought he saw something in the far reaches of those teal eyes, a flash like lightning through storm clouds, illuminating everything for one instant of clarity before he blinked.

"So," Lobos said, casually. "You know anywhere like that?"

The man spoke no answer, but suddenly smiled, not wide but bright. He hadn't meant it as a joke, but he had no choice but to return that smile, shaking his head as he did. "Boss was wrong about you." The man cocked his head inquiringly, and Victor shrugged. "That's the first time I've really seen you smile. A legendary gunman who did such brutal things couldn't smile, not like that. Not from the heart."

He laughed at himself before the other man could. "But I'm crazy. I know you. I think I know you, though I don't even know your name."

"Vash," the man said quietly. "It's Vash."

"Vash," he repeated slowly, as if he hadn't already guessed. As if he hadn't already known. "You know, there's an infamous outlaw with that name. A legendary gunman."

"So I've been told." Vash stood. "You should rest. Or do you want to talk to your boss first?"

"No." Victor closed his eyes. "He can wait. I'm tired now." He settled back against the pillow. "So, will I see you tomorrow?"

But there was no response, and when he opened his eyes, the door was already closing behind the blond man.

* * *

"What are you going to do?" the sheriff asked.

The city official and his one sound man were seeing to preparing the five captured gang members for transportation to March and whatever justice was due to them. At least the destruction of Vista wasn't to be added to their crimes. They had lost a couple buildings to the fire, but no lives, and all embers were extinguished under sand thanks to the sheriff's quick organization of a shovel brigade.

With his deputies busy overseeing the town's reparation, the sheriff's office was empty except for Vash, Meryl, and Milly. In this confidence the sheriff confronted the Stampede. "What're your plans now?"

"Well, I'll be leaving, of course--" Vash began.

Only to be stopped by the sheriff's raised hand. "What's this 'of course'?" he demanded. "You've been here for two years, never caused worse than an evening's disturbance, helped us out far more, both the people and the trees. Whatever your reputation was, you've become one of us. Even if everyone did find out who you really are, I don't think they'd ride you out on the rails--I sure ain't gonna."

Vash smiled slightly, said sincerely, "Thank you. That's..." He looked on the verge of blubbering, but Meryl snapped him out of it by bouncing one of her Derringers off his skull. Immediately he returned to the point. "But if anyone even suspects, it will be dangerous for me to stay. Not for me, for you--city officials are one thing, but if bounty hunters start showing up, or someone looking for a challenge..."

"The stories about him being behind the destruction of certain places aren't entirely made up," Meryl interjected.

"We can handle a few--" the sheriff started to argue.

"But more than that," Vash said over him, "it's time for me to go. I've stayed here longer than I've stayed anywhere in my life, but it had to end sometime--I'm finding my path, and I have to walk it, or there was no point to me looking. I think I helped this town, but there's other places I might...I know how to raise trees now. I'd like to see them..." His smile was abashed, the shy, open grin of a small child. "I need to know if I can make a hope real. So I have to go."

"I see," the sheriff said, though he didn't, but he didn't try to stop Vash from leaving. However, as Meryl and Milly made to follow the tall man out, he asked, "Ladies?"

"Yes, Olsen-san?" Meryl said politely as they paused and turned back to him.

He nodded towards the door. "Will you be going with him? Because you're welcome here. Miss Meryl, you're my best deputy, most responsible I've ever had. And Miss Milly, even if the whole town didn't love you just for being who you are, no one can make that old irrigation pump work like you can, or hoe so much in a day. You'll be sore missed."

Milly beamed, her eyes crinkling shut with happiness. Meryl's smile was more subdued. "Thank you," she said. "I like it here, but I'm staying with Vash-san. It's difficult to explain, but...once you begin walking with him, you can't just stop. I've seen too much to settle now. As long as I'm able, I'll follow him."

"And I'll follow them," Milly said cheerfully. "That's where I'm supposed to be!" She opened her eyes, bright and clear, younger than her weather-tanned face and yet wiser as well. "You don't really know Vash-san--neither we do, but that's why we follow him, because we know enough that we need to find out more. Because if we don't, maybe nobody would."

"Mou, Milly," Meryl protested, "you're getting as bad as him at that serious nonsense!" She sounded as if she were teasing, but the sheriff knew a joke when he heard one, and no one was cracking up. You don't laugh at truth.

He knew then that there were no words that would change anything. So he spoke no more then, and resigned himself, when the time came, to saying goodbye.

* * *

The March official was ready to leave the next morning. After conferring with the doctor and learning his deputy Lobos wouldn't be in a condition to travel for several days yet, he decided to leave the boy in Vista to recuperate. It was important that the Flame Gang members be secured in the city prison as soon as possible, in case the rest of their group had any plans for rescue. He ordered the five prisoners loaded into the square-car at sunrise; the sheriff summoned some of his deputies to assist.

The official noted that the three who most involved in the capture of the gang were not among those assisting. He was about to ask the sheriff about their whereabouts when he spotted the young man and his two lady friends next door to the jail, by the town thomas pen. Approaching, he overheard their negotiations with the coopmaster, "It's no big deal, Red, just take the fourth. You've paid me enough for those three, and it'll give you a mount to trade off if you exhaust one of the others--"

"Going on a trip?" the official inquired, regarding them through narrowed eyes. "Yesterday too much for you?"

"Yes, well, we like quiet towns," the tall blond mumbled.

"Where are you going?" asked the official, deceptively light. "We're leaving within a few hours--we might give you a lift."

"We'll be fine," the smaller women said, courteous but curt.

"So where are you heading?" the official pressed. He could see the sheriff discreetly observing the altercation from his position by the square-car, but paid him no heed. There was something questionable about these three, he was sure of it. Especially the tall young man. The town's sheriff might covering for his deputies; he had possibly tried to get them out of the way yesterday. And now there was this suspiciously quick departure, to who knows where--

"I can guess," said a new voice. Victor Lobos approached, wan in the bright sun and holding one arm awkwardly to his bandaged side, black coat draped over his shoulders. But he stood straight and tall, and nodded to his boss without wincing. His gaze did not leave the blond man, however. "I bet they're going into the mountains first of all, to root out the rest of the Flame Gang before they do anymore damage."

The blond winced. "Well..."

"Is that true?" The official looked from his man to the other, frowning when he saw no dissent from him or the ladies. "That's no job for amateur bounty hunters."

"Oh, I think they know what they're doing," Lobos said. "But if you're really worried, I can go with them. Travel along, make sure they don't run into any trouble. And I can keep an eye out for Vash the Stampede while I'm at it. Would that work?"

"We never agreed--" the petite woman began, but her friend stopped her simply by laying a hand on her arm. The tall woman's eyes were wide, and almost tearing up, so intently were they fixed on Victor Lobos, as if seeing something there invisible to everyone save her...

And the blond man didn't look as one would expect an outlaw to feel at the suggestion of a federal escort, annoyed or uneasy, but rather relieved--more than that, almost joyful, as if he had wanted to make the suggestion himself but hadn't dared.

"That would be acceptable," the official said finally.

"In that case, we won't be leaving for several days at least," the dark-haired woman took charge, as Victor stumbled suddenly, his white face going even paler. "You, back to bed," she ordered in no uncertain terms. "You'll need to heal a little longer before you're up to riding a thomas."

"Now look what you've done," the blond man sniped, even as he put a steadying arm around Lobos's shoulders. "We were telling everyone we were leaving tonight."

"That's hardly my fault," Lobos returned, as the other man began helping him back to the hospice, "you could have just waited for me, Tongari!"

"Tongari?" the blond echoed, his tone odd.

"Would you prefer Spike?"

"Spike!?"

"You know," the official murmured to himself as he watched their progress across the street, "I'm almost starting to feel sorry for that boy..."

* * *

Three days later they were ready to go. They packed few belongings. Vash had given most of the books and tools he had accumulated to everyone who wanted them, keeping only a couple souvenirs, like his deputy's star and the dog Edgar's daughter had carved from a fallen branch. Meryl and Milly had a couple bags apiece, but not so much as to overburden their thomases. Lobos had little more than the shirt on his back and a single pack.

Most of Vista gathered in the main street to wish them farewell. The sheriff helped the ladies mount their thomases, then held Vash's stirrup as he clambered up. "Never much cared for riding," the blond man mumbled as he gathered the reins in a white-knuckled fist.

"If you ever get tired of life on a thomas's back," the sheriff said quietly, "remember you've always got a home in Vista."

The other man glanced down, and looking up into those bottomless aqua eyes the sheriff felt for an instant what it must be like to drown, to be lost in soft, cool water. "I'd be honored to call this place home," Vash said. "It's been a while."

"The honor is ours," the sheriff said, and then added, even softer, "Thank you for coming here, Vash the Stampede."

Then he slapped the thomas's rump, and grinned at it loped off after the others, Vash clutching the saddle horn for dear life. His quick-footed beast set the pace; the others jogged behind him, Meryl and Milly with the easy carriage of experience riders, Lobos--well, he looked as if he would rather be in an auto, but hung on with grim obstinacy and urged his thomas to keep after the others, determined not to fall behind.

The people of Vista waved to them all, shouting goodbyes, and many had tears in their eyes as they stood in the street, watching until the four rode out of sight over the mountain crest. Even after Victor Lobos's thomas finally disappeared into the foothills, the sheriff still kept gazing out over that truncated horizon, squinting his eyes against the sun shining painfully bright off the sand.

Once you begin walking with him, you can't just stop.

He thought about what Meryl had said, and he thought of how long Vash must have walked already, and he wondered if the boy Lobos had any idea what he was getting himself into. Then he remembered Vash's expression when the kid had volunteered to join them, and the irony with which he had suggested he could look for the Stampede along the way, the jest in his voice that the sheriff had heard even if the official had missed it. And he recalled the way Lobos looked at all of them, Vash and Meryl and Milly, with such strange familiarity.

And the sheriff thought that maybe, somehow, the kid knew exactly what he had signed on for, after all.

owari