"Interjacence: The state of being between; a coming or lying between or among; intervention; also, that which lies between."
Even taking into account the nature of her companions, it was an unusual breakfast. Milly peered around the table as she chewed. Mr. Wolfwood, sitting to the left of her, was behaving relatively normally, cheerfully alternating between large mouthfuls of fresh donut and drags on an ever-present cigarette. What made Milly worry was the fact that Meryl, who sat on her other side, wasn't proclaiming her disgust at such habits, or looking annoyed, or really reacting at all. Instead, she was sipping her coffee—black coffee, without the usual cream and sugar that Meryl liked to garnish her caffeine with—and staring at some point in space above Wolfwood's left shoulder. She didn't look sick or upset, just deep in thought and slightly perturbed. Still, it worried Milly. Meryl was an unchanging rock, someone you could count on. If something was bothering her that much, then it had the potential to change the rotation of the world.
Milly wondered if it had something to do with Mr. Vash—or his absence. The seat across from Milly was unoccupied, and that bothered her more than anything else. The kitchen of the guesthouse they were staying at was in the center of the mini-suite, and the smell of fresh donuts wafted throughout the other rooms. Milly couldn't imagine a force on earth that would keep Vash from donuts. She reached out and snagged another one from the pile. They were good ones, too.
"Say, where's Vash?" Wolfwood asked suddenly, inadvertently echoing Milly's thoughts. "I appreciate actually getting a finger on these babies for once, but this isn't normal. Where was he all night, anyway?"
Meryl blinked, startled out of her reverie. "You mean he didn't come back to your room?"
Wolfwood shook his head. "I haven't seen him since yesterday, insurance girl."
"Seen who?" A voice came from the hall, and they all turned to see Vash standing in the doorway. "Are you spreading rumors about me?"
Inexplicably, Milly's alarm increased now that Vash was here, rather than the opposite. Vash looked fresh and awake as usual, his red coat clean and pressed, but—it was his voice. He tried to seem jovial, but sounded tired and somehow defeated—two things Milly knew that Vash never was. He was wearing his sunglasses, she realized. He didn't usually wear them indoors, but they sat atop the bridge of his nose and seemed to conceal his expression even more than usual.
"Nice of you to grace us with your presence, needle noggin," Wolfwood grinned. He grabbed a donut and threw it to Vash, who caught it instinctively. "The short one made breakfast for us. Don't worry, I checked them out. They're safe to eat."
Vash made a study of the donut. "No thanks. I'm not hungry." With that, he tossed it back onto the table and walked away towards his room.
Silence reigned over the room. "Well, that was interesting," Wolfwood said at last. "Do you think he's sick or something? Possibly insane?"
Milly turned to Meryl, who looked absolutely stricken. "Meryl, do you know why Mr. Vash is acting so strangely?" she asked.
Meryl shook her head, eyes glimmering with what looked like tears. "I--I don't--" Without finishing, she stood up and briskly strode out of the room.
"Okaaaaay," Wolfwood said. "I'm officially confused. How about you, big girl?"
Milly shook her head and stood up. "I don't know what's going on," she said, "But I'm going to find out."
When she entered their room, Milly found Meryl stretched out on her bed, her face buried in the pillow. "Meryl? Are you okay?"
"Oh, Milly," she groaned, her voice muffled by cotton and stuffing, "I really screwed up."
Immediately, Milly sat down and put a comforting hand on her friend's back. Growing up with as many siblings as Milly had, the Non-Threatening Comforting Confidante posture had become an instinctive reaction, along with the Scratch Their Eyes Out to Keep Your Stuff position. "It'll be okay, Meryl," she said gently.
"No, it won't!" Meryl rolled over and Milly noted with some shock that her eyes glimmered with tears. "Everything's wrong now! I'm so stupid. And completely unprofessional! Our assignment is ruined, we'll have to go home and get demoted, I'll be lucky if I don't get fired…"
"What?" Milly interrupted the other woman's rambling. "What's wrong with our assignment? What happened?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Meryl sniffed.
"Of course you do!" Milly said. "My big big sister always told me that telling someone about your problems always makes you feel better, even if they can't do anything. And she was right! You'll feel better if you talk about it."
Meryl looked away from the encouraging smile. "Well…"
"Come on, ma'am," Milly said. "You'll feel better if you share and besides, I'm not leaving this spot until you do." She planted her feet firmly on the floor and struck a resolute pose.
Meryl cracked a weak smile. "I…guess so…" she shook her head.
"I don't know where to begin. I guess I should start with last night…"
"What's eating you, needle noggin?" Wolfwood asked as he came into their shared room. Vash stood beside the window, looking outside, not moving.
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Vash, turning towards him. He smiled brightly. "I just went into town earlier and ate there, so--"
"Cut the crap, Vash," Wolfwood said sharply. "And lose the grin, too. It's sickening to look at when it's obvious you can't feel it."
The smile slipped from Vash's face and he looked at Wolfwood evenly. "All right. If I just tell you I'd like some time alone, will that be enough?"
"Nope." Wolfwood walked over to the closet and began rifling through his possessions. "Fact is, you need someone to talk to, needle noggin. If something's bothering you, you need to get it out of your system. You've upset the girls."
"That's too bad, but there's really nothing to talk about," Vash said, not looking at him.
"Meryl didn't seem to think so." Wolfwood watched Vash carefully out of the corner of his eye and was rewarded with—a twitch. Well, well. It's not much, but something is definitely on his mind. "Ah, here it is!" he cried after another few moments of searching. He crossed the room swiftly and attempted to drop his portable confessional over Vash's head.
"Oh, no," Vash backed away. "I am not confessing in that thing. It's silly. And dirty."
"Yeah, it is kind of dusty," Wolfwood peered at the miniature chapel. "Too few people are drawn to the salvation of their souls these days. It's a sad world we live in."
"Yeah, sure." Vash folded his arms across his chest. "What makes you so sure I have sins to confess?"
"I'm not," Wolfwood said. "But they say that confession is good for the soul for a reason, and I don't just mean in the sense of your immortal soul. I don't know what's made you so difficult all of a sudden, but among the members of our little party, two of us are clearly upset and two of us are completely confused as to why. I don't see harmony being restored until you work it out."
"Why does it matter?" asked Vash. "We each have our own reasons for what we do. The girls follow me because I'm their assignment." His voice seemed hollow somehow.
"That may be true," Wolfwood said, placing the chapel on the bedside desk. "But you're also their friend. I'd have thought even you would've noticed that by now."
Vash's expression didn't change. "Why do you want to know so badly?"
Wolfwood spread his arms. "I'm a priest. It's my duty to help lost souls such as yourself. Besides, do you want Milly to come confront you? She'll yell at you until she gets hoarse and then make you buy her a case of pudding to make up for it."
Vash sighed. "I'm really not comfortable with sharing this with you, Wolfwood."
"Then talk to the cat," Wolfwood pointed to the furry black creature that was sunning itself on the windowsill. "I'll just sit here and meditate and not hear anything you don't want me to." At that, he tossed himself onto his bed and seemed to begin a serious study of the cracks in the ceiling.
Vash sat down and stared at his hands. After a few minutes, he
sighed and began to speak
The night before was quiet and still, but not everyone was sleeping. Meryl shuffled toward the kitchen as silently as possible. She was thankful that for once in all of their travels, they'd found a place to stay that had this amenity. She needed it tonight. Though she'd retired to her respective bed at the same time as the others—Wolfwood, of course, staying up a few extra minutes for one last cigarette—Meryl had stared at the ceiling in the dark for nearly an hour before concluding that sleep was not coming anytime soon. Hopefully, a cup of tea would help her relax enough to get a few hours of shut-eye before dawn came.
In the silence of the moment, the creaking of the other kitchen door—the one that opened outside—stood out like alarm bells to Meryl's ears. Without thinking, she leapt forward and delivered the hardest punch she could. She heard an "oof" and leapt for the light switch, cursing the fact that all of her derringers were in the bedroom. She was far from helpless, though. Whoever had chosen to break into their little temporary home had better be—
"Vash?" She blinked in surprise as her eyes adjusted to the light, revealing a tall, spiky-haired man who was currently moaning in pain and clutching his stomach. "Vash! What in the world are you doing creeping in here at this hour?" she demanded.
"Geez, did you have to hit me so hard?" he groaned.
"I thought you were a robber! What were you doing out so late anyways?" she asked as she extended a hand.
"Thanks," he said, hoisting himself to his feet. He made a show of dusting himself off, all wounded dignity. "I was shopping, if you must know."
"Couldn't that wait until morning?" She noticed for the first time that Vash had dropped a large brown bag and bent to pick it up.
He shrugged. "I couldn't really sleep, and I was hungry, so—hey! That's my stuff!"
"Hush, you'll wake up Milly and Wolfwood," she said as she dumped his purchases onto the table, conveniently ignoring the volume she'd reached when he entered. "Flour, milk, eggs…you want to bake?"
"They don't have donuts in this town and it's been over a week since I've had any and I just couldn't get to sleep tonight," he said pleadingly. "I thought if I made some of my own, I'd be able to relax and fall asleep. You don't want me to be exhausted tomorrow, do you?"
"As long as you're not getting us into more trouble, I don't really care," she retorted. "Where did you find a store open this late?"
He turned slightly pink and avoided her eyes. "I sort of didn't."
She felt her fingers twitch and again cursed the fact that she had no guns handy. "Please tell me you didn't break into a store just so you could have donuts!"
"I left money on the counter!" he said indignantly. "Probably more than the stuff is worth, too. Come on, I was desperate!"
She sighed. "Vash, sometimes I'm sure that you just can't get any worse. Then you go and prove me wrong. If you were going to go to all that trouble, why didn't you at least take a package of ready-made donuts?" She began to spread out his gathered ingredients and pull a few bowls and spoons from the shelves.
He shrugged. "I like them fresh. Uh…what are you doing?" He hovered behind her uncertainly.
"Do you want to make them or not?" She asked. "Do you even know how to make donuts?"
"Not really," He admitted. "I was just going to wing it. They can't be that hard. Why do you want to help?"
"Oh, thanks a lot." She scowled at him. "If that's your idea of a welcome, then I think I'll just go back to my tea."
"No! That's okay, I don't mind. I mean, ah…I should probably just shut up now, shouldn't I?" He said.
"So why are you up?" He asked, hopping up to sit on the counter.
"The same as you," She sighed. "I'm not usually an insomniac, but I'm just not tired tonight. This might be a dumb idea," she shot him a look, "but at least it'll give us both something to do."
He watched her work for a few minutes before speaking again. "How do you know how to make donuts?" he asked.
"My parents taught me. I'm no chef, but I can cook well enough to get by. It's a practical skill to have out here," she said.
"Well, why didn't you ever tell me? I wouldn't have had to be deprived all this time!" He widened his eyes and sniffled in a `poor me' expression.
"The way you gorge when you *do* get them, you're hardly deprived," she sniffed. "Besides, I don't need you all over me, panting for me to make you donuts all the time. I am not your personal chef."
"How long until they're done?" he asked hopefully.
"I don't know! However long it takes," she said, trying not to let the exasperation completely fill her voice. "If you help, it'll go faster."
He nodded. "Sure. What do I do?"
"Here, break these and mix them in." She handed him the half-dozen eggs. For once, Vash was exceedingly gentle and managed to crack them open and pour them into the first bowl without dripping any of the raw insides. He also managed to pour in the correct amount of flour without dropping the bag and turning them both white. Of course, donuts were very important to him, she reasoned. It figured that they would be one of the few things that could get him to act so carefully.
"So why don't you ever try to cook?" she asked after a moment. "You've spent a lot of time wandering around the desert. It seems like something you'd pick up after a while."
"Me?" He looked surprised. "Well, I do what I have to to survive, but I'm really not someone you want near your food."
"You're doing all right now," she pointed out as she mixed flour, milk, and yeast in another bowl.
"Donuts are different," he protested. "Once time I ruined potatoes."
"How did you manage that?"
"Well, I'd wrapped then in foil and left them in the fire to cook. I figured I might as well clean and oil my gun while I waited for them to finish," he said. "Except I spilled some gun oil and when I got up to check the potatoes I slipped and almost landed in the fire and sort of set my hair on fire."
"Your hair?!" She choked back laughter at the imagined sight of Vash hysterically running around with a head of flame.
"Just the top part," he added hastily. "But then I couldn't find my water right away and by the time I put the fire out and got back to the potatoes, they were mostly ash." He shrugged. "That's why I don't like to cook much."
"I see," she snickered a little. "That is understandable. I don't know why I'm surprised, though. That certainly sounds like something you'd do."
"Hey, it was an accident!" he said indignantly. "What about you?"
She blinked. "What about me?"
"I told you an embarrassing story about me, now you have to do the same," he pointed out in a reasonable tone. "There has to be one time you did something silly."
"Uh…here, mix these together." Abruptly she shoved her bowls towards him.
Obediently (for once, she thought), he did so, but the slightly devious grin didn't leave his face. "I'm waaiiting," he drawled.
"What makes you think I have anything to tell?" she stalled desperately. "You know me. Nothing interesting really happens to me if it's not some trouble you stirred up."
"Well, you are blushing. That's a pretty good indication," he grinned. "It's so cute."
"Oh, shut up!" To her mortification, Meryl felt heat spread across her face. She probably looked like a tomato. "At least I got my teenaged foolishness out of the way while I *was* a teenager! You're long past the age to do so many stupid things!"
"And you still owe me a story."
"Fine." She gritted her teeth and tried not to wipe the cheeky grin off his face. "But it stays in this room."
"Well…on one of our first assignments together, there was a party going on in the bar attached to the hotel. Milly somehow convinced me to join in and I got a little drunk."
"You?" Vash nearly crushed the wad of dough he was rolling between his fingers in shock. "Meryl `Alcohol Is Evil' Stryfe? Wow."
"I do not think alcohol is evil. I just think someone should be capable of rational thought when the rest of you act like lunatics." She scowled at him. "Besides, I wasn't finished. There was a band at the bar, and they were holding a singing contest."
"Don't tell me you entered!" Vash was practically chortling with glee.
"No," she replied, shaking her head. "I won. That is, if the trophy I found in my room the next morning was any indication. The actual memory is rather unclear." She waited for Vash's snickers to subside. "So that's my embarrassing story. Satisfied?"
"It's definitely better than I expected," he said. "No wonder you don't drink if that's what happens when you let loose."
"I just like to stay in control of myself," she insisted. "Most of the time it's the only thing I can do." She handed him some more dough. "Here, start rolling these into shape."
"What? Oh," he took the dough and did as she said. "So it bothers you, not being in control?"
"Well…yes. I'm sure you've noticed that before," she admitted. "When things get out of control, people get hurt. That's part of the reason why I started working for Bernardelli's. I thought, if I could just force the world into some semblance of order, I could help people who don't have any control. I was sure that all it would take was hard work and dedication. After following you around for so long, though…I'm not so sure." She shook her head. "So if I can't control any of the crazy situations we end up in with you, I can at least keep a clear head myself."
Rolling dough side by side, she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. She had never imagined revealing so much of herself to Vash, of all people, but there was something comfortable and safe about the atmosphere in the kitchen that made it all right. He seemed to actually want to listen to her, instead of bouncing all concern off the shell of buffoonery like usual. If that was so, maybe he'd answer a personal question as well.
"How do you do it, Vash?" she asked. "How do you live with so many people coming after you for no reason, never knowing what will happen next? It's crazy."
"I guess I'm used to it," he replied, and there was no pretension or mirth in his voice, just simple honesty. "I don't know if I've ever been in control my whole life. I can't stand it when people are harmed because of me," he continued, and Meryl knew that they were both picturing the rubble of Augusta, "but I guess a peaceful, uneventful life isn't part of my destiny."
"Don't say that." She touched his shoulder with just a ghost of hesitation. "The future isn't set in stone. You never know what will happen. All we can do is try and make it a better world for everyone." As she spoke, she realized that Vash was looking at her with the strangest expression; half-smiling, half-looking like he wanted to cry. "What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Oh, nothing," he murmured, and looked down at the tray of rolled dough. "What do we do with these now? Put them in the oven?"
"They don't go in the oven," she said. "Donuts are fried, not baked. But we can do that easily with some hot oil." She poured some into a metal pot as she did spoke. "Besides, they need a little time to rise before we can finish them.
"Okay," he said, plopping down in a chair. "What's your favorite color?
"Huh?" She blinked, surprised at the sudden shift in conversation.
"It's a game," he said. "Something to do while we wait. I pick a question, you have to answer, then you get to ask me something." He hesitated. "Uh, we can stay away from private things if you want."
"All right." She sat down beside him. "Favorite color…I guess I like green now."
"Was it different before?"
"Something like that." She hid a small smile. "I guess I don't need to ask what yours is-"
"Blue," he interrupted her.
"Not red? With your coat, I always thought…"
"No." He shook his head. "That's…something else. But I like blue." He looked her in the eye as he said the last sentence and Meryl suddenly felt a bit lightheaded for some reason.
"It's still your turn," he prodded her.
"Oh, right. Well then…what's your favorite drink?" she was filled with sudden inspiration. "You've certainly tried enough to be able to tell."
"Oh, that's easy. A strawberry daiquiri with extra strawberries," he replied.
Meryl considered holding back her giggles, but decided it would be a wasted effort. "You're kidding," she snickered.
"What? What's wrong with that?" he asked, ducking his head. "Strawberries are good, and so tasty with liquor…"
"It's just…I expected it to be a little harder," she explained. "Who would believe that Vash the Stampede likes a girlie drink?"
"It's not girlie!" he piped up indignantly. "All right, what's your favorite drink then?"
"Straight tequila," she said promptly.
"Now you're just trying to make me look bad," he pouted.
"No, it's good," she said. "My brother decided to teach me how to drink when I turned sixteen, and a bottle of tequila was all he could find. We didn't have any lime available, so he just gave it to me straight. I threw up for three hours the next day, but I got rather attached to it. Plus, it was always good for impressing other idiot teenagers at the time."
Vash looked bemused. "Just when I think I've got you figured out…" he murmured.
"Oh, like you're one to talk," she retorted. "You've never been exactly open and honest about yourself, either."
"So ask me what you want to know." He laid his hands on the table, palms up. Nothing hidden.
"When…" her throat threatened to close over, and she coughed to clear it. "When did you first fire a gun?"
Vash looked away, and Meryl wondered if she should apologize or stay quiet or just leave. "It was a long time ago," he said at last. "I was young. It was…an accident. I couldn't handle it, and I ran." He looked back at her. "That's another reason red isn't my favorite color. It always reminds me of his blood."
She bit her lip. "Then why do you always wear it?"
"It just looks so great on me!" he grinned and batted his eyelashes at her adorably, and just like that the open, serious Vash was gone. It was almost enough to make her wonder if he'd ever really been there or if she'd just imagined it.
"That's two questions for you, I get an extra one this time."
"Go ahead." She tried not to be nervous about what he'd come up with next. She'd pretty much blown the "no personal questions" rule right out of the water, though that hadn't been her intention.
"How do you walk around with fifty guns in your cloak?" He looked truly curious. "Derringers are lightweight, but that many of them has to add up. And you're so little."
"Little?! I am not little, you're just…freakishly tall!" she sputtered.
"Okay, okay, you're not little," Vash agreed hastily. "You still have to answer the question, though."
She shrugged. "Practice. I started out with fifteen, then added five more, then went to twenty-five, and so on. It's not that difficult. I'm more interested in how Wolfwood manages to lug around that enormous cross of his. It's got to be over a hundred pounds at least."
He nodded. "Okay…second question…why do you wear your hair short?"
"That's a stupid question," she sniffed. "Why do you wear yours like a hedgehog? It's convenient and easy to care for, that's all. What does it matter how long my hair is?"
"It doesn't!" He rushed to placate her. "Honestly, it doesn't. I was just curious. Mine sticks up this way no matter what I do to it, so I don't have room to criticize. Besides, I like your hair."
With growing horror at her own body's betrayal, Meryl fought back a blush once more. "Your hair really sticks up like that on its own?" she queried. "That's hard to believe. I've never seen anyone's hair do that without some kind of gel."
"Well, it does get kind of floppy at night," he said. "But when I brush it in the morning, it just kind of stays up. The only time it ever hasn't was when it was long."
"You, with long hair?" She grinned at the image. "I can't picture that."
"It was almost past my shoulders. Ask Wolfwood, he'll tell you." Vash grinned back. "I like it better this way, though. It may be strange, but long hair can be kind of a pain, too. I think you've got the right idea. When Lina finally cut it for me, I was actually relieved."
"Lina?" she queried.
"Oh, right, I never told you about her. I stayed with her and her grandmother while I was…missing," he explained, smiling fondly at the memory. "She was a great kid. You'd have liked her. And her grandmother was very kind."
"I see." She stood up and picked up the pot of oil. "We'd better start heating this up while they rise," she said stiffly.
"Meryl?" he asked, sounding surprised at the sudden thickness in her voice. "Are you okay?" She heard him stand up when she didn't answer, but she still didn't turn around. She just set the stove timer, set the pot on the heated panel and stood there until she felt him touch her arm.
"Nothing's wrong, I'm absolutely fine!" she said in a tone that sounded too-cheerful even to her untrained ears. Vash just kept looking at her, concern written all over his face, and she felt a hot wetness well up behind her eyes.
"What's wrong?" he asked softly.
She struggled to find the words and at the same time keep the unwanted, unexpected tears from spilling down her cheeks. "You never asked about us," she said at last.
"Milly and me," she said, and tried not to look right at his eyes. "You never asked about what we did or where we were or *how* we were when you were gone. You just disappeared and reappeared and acted like nothing ever happened. Like it didn't affect us, too."
"Oh…I guess…I thought that you'd go back to December and do your jobs," he said. "I thought you'd be happy to not have to roam all over the place anymore."
"Well, you thought wrong!" A rebellious droplet escaped her eye, and she blinked furiously to keep any more from falling. "We stayed around for weeks, did you know that? After Augusta…after the society decided to declare you an act of God that didn't require monitoring…we stayed. We looked for you in the rubble until we had to return to December and even then I was nearly censured and Milly was scrubbing the floors for weeks. And when no word of you came, we even started wondering if you were dead! But no, Vash the Stampede can't die. But apparently he can run off and start a new life with a new name and pal around with kids and grandmas for *months* without sending a single letter to his friends to let them at least know he's okay. Not one damn letter!"
Silence followed her nearly-shouted words. Silence that lasted a little too long. "Oh, forget it," she snapped. "I shouldn't be surprised. With all the fun you were having, why would you even remember a couple of tagalong insurance girls who just annoy you—"
"I wasn't happy." His statement was quiet and simple, and it stopped her cold. "Living with Lina and her grandmother was…I needed it. And they were wonderful people. But in all the time I stayed there, I wasn't happy."
"Because I was hiding," he said. "Because I was too afraid to go back and see the horror and misery that came about at my hands. Vash the Stampede isn't a fearsome outlaw, he's a lousy coward who's too scared to go back to his friends and see if they'll look at him with fear or disgust." He bowed his head. "It was a haven for me, but it was also a cave where I could hide. I didn't forget you, Meryl, not you or Milly or Wolfwood. All I could do was think about you and how I'd just left all of you, but there wasn't anything I could do. You'd be safer without me around. I wanted to see you all again, but that would have just dragged everyone into the mess of my life all over again. I was hoping that you'd be able to get on with your lives and have some peace for once. So I never wrote."
"Oh, Vash." She stepped closer to him and reached out to touch his chest. "You're so stupid."
"Well, that's what everyone keeps telling me." His laugh was watery.
She shook her head. "Do you even listen to yourself? You spout off about never having control in your life and then you go and blame yourself when people do things to you that aren't your fault. You really do have straw for brains."
"It's not that simple, though," he said.
"I know." She took his hand and squeezed it. "But that's why we're here, you dumb idiot. To help you figure out what to do when it's too much for just one person. That's what friends do."
"Yeah." He smiled wistfully. "But it's still hard."
"I know. But we keep going," she murmured.
"Yeah." He squeezed her hand back and smiled at her, and Meryl suddenly realized how close together they were. He touched her cheek with his other hand; it was the artificial one, but it felt just as soft against her cheek. "Meryl…"
"Shhh," she whispered, and looked up at the half-lidded eyes in his face which, despite his height and her lack thereof, was suddenly much closer to her own. Close enough that she could feel his soft breath against her lips. Arms snaked around her waist to hold her as he drew his lips closer to hers, and—stopped. Through a haze of unreality, Meryl realized what they were about to do, and what it would change. She was fairly certain that it was against all of Bernardelli's policies, to say nothing of their unspoken group dynamics.
She didn't care.
She closed the gap and kissed him.
His lips were soft, and so was the kiss. For an instant after their lips touched, he went absolutely still. Time seemed to stop as they both adjusted to this sudden paradigm shift. Then his eyes fluttered completely closed and he kissed her in return.
Meryl practically had to stand on her toes to reach her arms around his neck, but he obligingly bent his head down further, allowing her access and conveniently letting him begin another kiss before the first had really ended. Locking her wrists together, she pulled him as close as she could. She captured his lower lip between hers and was halfway between nibbling it and sucking on it gently when she felt his warm lips part. His tongue ran along her lips, gently tasting them and retreating. She opened her own mouth and for another moment they just stood there, holding each other and sharing breath.
"Vash…" against his lips.
"Don't." He kissed her once more and tightened his arms around her. He opened his mouth to her again and Meryl felt like melting when his tongue met hers
She was kissing Vash. Not something she could forget, locked in his embrace as she was, but it was strange to believe that it was Vash whose tongue was gently caressing hers, whose lips were a warm center of the universe. She ran her tongue lightly along his teeth before deepening the kiss yet again and tasting him as well. It was funny; if she'd ever thought about it in late night moments that were sure to be denied the next day, she'd always imagined that Vash would taste like donuts, his mouth permanently sweetened from the powdered sugar, but he just tasted…like Vash. There was no word for it.
Pressed together, alone in the kitchen, time seemed to cease to exist. The entire world consisted of Vash's arms and his increasingly hungry kisses. After an indefinable amount of time had passed, Vash suddenly shifted position and clasped her tightly to his chest, lifting her feet right off the floor. She would have squeaked in surprise if her lips hadn't been so firmly pressed against his. "Mmtable," he murmured, taking an instant to get breath before diving back into the kiss.
Immediately, Meryl understood. Vash was a good foot taller than she was, and then some; it was only natural that his neck would start to ache after leaning towards her for such an extended period of time. Held partially aloft by his strong arms, she wrapped her legs around his waist for better purchase as he hauled her towards the old wooden table. The kitchen was small and it might have been faster to simply separate for a moment and walk across the room, but who was she to argue with the Humanoid Typhoon? Besides, this was a lot more fun.
Vash set her down carefully on the grained surface. He remained standing, leaning into her as they continued to kiss, her legs splayed to either side of him. This certainly was a lot more practical. Slowly, he slid his lips from hers and began placing feather-light kisses across her cheek. He paused to nip at her earlobe before continuing down her neck. She shivered and pulled his head closer. She ran her fingers through his hair as he kissed below her jaw, something she'd always wanted to do but never thought she'd get the chance to. It was silky against her fingertips. She ran her hands down the straight line of Vash's spine and felt him shiver in return. He ceased his caresses then and buried his face in her neck, trembling. She just wrapped her arms around his shoulders and held him close enough that she could feel both of their heartbeats racing.
How had this started? Where would it stop? Meryl found that she didn't particularly care about either answer. With a rush of emotion, she pulled him to her once more and kissed him fiercely. He responded eagerly until she was no longer sure where he stopped and she began. It was almost as if her body was moving without her permission when she felt herself leaning backwards onto the table, pulling Vash with her. She needed to stop this, a small voice in the back of her mind cried, before it went too far. Hell, the weight of his body on top of hers was a good indication that it already had. And the small table wasn't exactly a place they could…and Milly or Wolfwood would surely be perturbed if they went back to one of the bedrooms…but Vash showed no sign of ceasing his insistent kisses and as she felt his hand work its way under her blouse and up her side she knew that she didn't want him to stop.
A sudden loud buzzing noise put an end to her predicament. Vash fairly flew off her and leapt to silence the squalling stove buzzer. Meryl struggled to sit up as she adjusted to being ripped away from the intoxicating world they'd been in. Silently, she pressed her fingers to her lips, which were somewhat swollen. She quickly removed her hand as Vash turned back to face her. She smiled hesitantly, but he looked at her with the strangest expression, almost as if he didn't recognize her. As if he hadn't been attempting to ravish her on the kitchen table a minute before. She hopped down from the table, her legs wobbling slightly. "I guess the oil's done."
"I guess," he echoed.
"I don't think Milly or Wolfwood woke up," she said, trying to fill the suddenly awkward silence. She risked a glance up at his face and cursed herself for feeling so out of place. He'd just been kissing her like he was lost in the desert and she was water, though only the slightest flushing of his cheeks hinted at that; she felt like she'd just run a marathon. It was a little late for shyness, yet there it was. There was distance in Vash's eyes that hadn't been there before. "I guess we should finish these," she said for lack of anything else to do. She reached out to the heated pot but as she did, the still-bubbling oil made a popping sound and seemed to spit some of the liquid onto her hand. White-hot pain streaked through her nerve endings and with a hiss, she grabbed for the sink and ran cold water over the burn.
"Let me see it." Not un-gently, Vash took her hand and held it close to his face to examine. He ran a finger lightly over the reddened flesh and Meryl shivered; from pain or pleasure, she wasn't sure which. Meryl wanted to tell him that it was fine, she was fine, and they could get back to what they were doing if it was all right with him, but something held her back. Vash, never the easiest person to read in terms of honest emotion, was fairly radiating keep-away vibes. "I'm sorry," he said.
"What? Vash, I'm fine," she assured him, ignoring the pain. She probably should've kept running water over her hand, but this was more important. "It's just a stupid burn, practically nothing."
"No, you don't understand," he said. "I'm really, really sorry." He gazed into her eyes intently and in his, Meryl saw a desperation and a sorrow that made her want to weep. "I made a mistake…I'm sorry," he repeated.
Meryl shook her head. "I don't understand. What's got you so spooked? You didn't do anything wrong, Vash, I wanted—"
"No!" he practically shouted. "I can't…you…" Without another word, he turned on his heel and fled the kitchen the way he'd come in. Meryl stared after him; by the time she managed to make her feet move, he was gone. Slowly, she drifted back to the table where the tray of dough still lay, knocked to one side. She placed a hand on the wood. It was still warm.
"What the hell just happened?" she wondered aloud.
There was no one to answer her.
Meryl stared at the wall, not wanting to see Milly's reaction to her story. "So that's what happened last night."
"Oh, Meryl! That's so sad!" Meryl turned and was surprised to see Milly sniffling piteously. "How could Mr. Vash just walk out and leave you like that? And you had to make all those donuts on your own, too!"
Meryl relaxed. She should've realized that her friend would only be supportive, not shocked and disdainful as she'd feared. "It's okay, Milly, really," she said, and wondered how she'd gotten into the position of comforter, instead of the other way around.
"No, it's not!" Milly shot back angrily. "It's not right that Vash should take advantage of you and then run off without an explanation! It's not right that he should make you cry! Do you want me to teach him a lesson?" She reached for the stungun, which leaned against the wall.
"No!" Meryl said quickly. "It's okay, Milly. I don't think violence is going to help in this case."
Milly looked surprised. "If you say so, Meryl." She paused. "What are you going to say to Mr. Vash when you see him?"
"I don't know, Milly," Meryl said. "I really don't know. Right now, though, I think I'm going to take a nap."
"All right," Milly nodded. She got up to leave but stopped when she reached the door. "Meryl?"
"The donuts were really good."
"…and that's what happened," Vash finished speaking, still staring at the patterns of cracks on the ceiling.
Wolfwood took a thoughtful drag on his cigarette before speaking. "I have a question."
"What is it?" Vash asked wearily. He should have known that Wolfwood wouldn't simply listen and then let the matter drop.
"Why didn't you just come back to our room? I'm a heavy sleeper, it wouldn't have bothered me."
"WOLFWOOD!" Vash sat bolt upright, jaw dropped nearly to his bellybutton.
Wolfwood shrugged. "I'm just thinking in practical terms," he said. He flicked the ash off the end of his cigarette. "So you got busy with the insurance girl on the kitchen table. I was just eating there, so ew, but other than that, what's the problem?"
"What's the…did you even hear a word I just said?" Vash sputtered.
"Of course. You were enjoying yourself, she sounds like she was having fun as well, and then you freak out and run off," Wolfwood said. "It's good that you told me. Now, if you don't want her to hit you when you apologize, you've got to—"
"Apologize?" Vash interrupted.
"What, you weren't going to?" Wolfwood raised an eyebrow. "That doesn't sound very smart to me after the stunt you pulled, Vash. Whatever your reasons, you don't treat a lady that way."
"If I was smart, I wouldn't have gotten into this situation in the first place." Vash jumped to his feet. "Besides, you're a priest. What do you know about how to treat a lady?"
Wolfwood stood up as well. "I know that you don't just grope a woman and then leave her like an idiot," he snapped, shaking a lecturing finger in Vash's face. "You're going to have to talk to her again at some point, Vash. If you don't want to come away from the experience injured, the best way to do it is start with an apology."
"I know." Vash's shoulders slumped. "I do know that. But…what am I supposed to say after that?"
"That's up to you," Wolfwood said. "Do you love her?"
Vash was quiet for a long time. "I don't know," he said at last. "Besides, it's not that simple. My life…isn't normal. It's dangerous. There are things about me that she wouldn't want to know. I don't want to see her get hurt."
"Well…" Wolfwood paused to light another cigarette. "Here's what I think. I'm not a matchmaker, Vash. What you choose to do with your love life is none of my concern. But I do know people. Housewife or outlaw or even insurance girl, people are the same. People feel, and feelings don't go away just because you want them to. If you feel something for her, you've got to deal with it one way or the other." He put his hand on Vash's shoulder and looked him directly in the eyes. "If you don't want to get involved in anything, say so. If you want to tear off your clothes and do a back flip into her bed, that's fine too. Whatever you do, just be honest. You'll both get hurt if you're not." He stubbed his cigarette out on his bedside desk. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I want to head into town and see if I can find some spare parts for Angelina."
Vash waited until he was certain that Wolfwood was gone before resignedly getting up. If he was going to say something to try and smooth things over with Meryl, the time was now, before things got more awkward…if that was even possible. He certainly hadn't been helping things. But…what exactly was he going to say? "I'm sorry I went completely insane and kissed you last night, and I want to forget that it ever happened?" That wasn't quite true. "I'm glad you had fun, but I was completely repulsed and have decided to chase after men from now on"? That *definitely* wasn't true. The corners of Vash's lips moved up in a small smile at the memory of being in her arms. At the time, he hadn't been thinking about what a mess it was going to cause. In fact, he hadn't been thinking of much else besides how good she felt and how right it felt to be with her, until he'd gotten a chance to think clearly and realize what a bad idea it was. How was he supposed to communicate any of this without insulting her? Wolfwood's advice was all well and good until it actually came down to taking it, Vash decided.
Well, there was no helping it now. He knocked lightly on the door of Meryl's and Milly's room. "Meryl? Are you there? It's me." No answer. He opened the door a crack. "Meryl? Oh—"
She lay stretched out on one of the beds, completely asleep. She was facing him, her cheek pillowed on her hands. Wisps of black hair fell into her face, fluttering softly with her light, even breathing. Traces of what looked suspiciously like tear streaks ran from her eyes.
She looked beautiful…and very sad.
Vash shut the door very quietly. He couldn't do it now. She hadn't gotten much sleep, and she needed her rest. He wouldn't want her to get sick or anything. Right.
It was then that Vash felt the barrel of a gun poke into his back. He froze. "Um…hello?"
"Turn around slowly, Mr. Vash," a familiar voice said. He did so. Standing there, stun gun brought to bear, was Milly. Her usual cheery smile had been replaced by a fierce scowl. "You hurt Meryl," she said sternly.
All feeling threatened to leave Vash's extremities. He gulped nervously. The only times he'd seen her look even close to this angry were when she was denied pudding. "Hi, Milly," he said weakly. "Listen, it's not what you think—"
"Shut up." She aimed the gun at his face. He shut. "You left her to make all those donuts all by herself. You were mean to her at breakfast. You made her cry!" She jabbed him in stomach with the gun. "It's not right that Meryl should cry over a jerk like you! I think you need to apologize to her right now!"
"That's what I was just about to do," Vash said desperately.
Milly blinked and lowered the gun. "Oh. Why didn't you say so?"
Vash sighed in relief. Non-lethal though it was, that piece of Milly's could really hurt. "I tried to, anyways," he said. "But she's asleep. I didn't want to wake her."
"You're not just trying to avoid her, are you?" she frowned at him again.
"No, I swear." he held up his hands and tried to look as innocent as possible.
"You better not forget," she warned him. "I don't like seeing Meryl sad, Mr. Vash."
"I don't either." He bowed his head. "She really cried?"
Milly nodded. "She wouldn't like it if she knew I told you. She cried after you disappeared, too."
"I didn't know that."
"She didn't want you to." Milly looked uncomfortable. "I've probably said too much, but you needed to know. She does care about you, Mr. Vash."
"I care about her, too. I don't want to hurt her. But…I just don't know…" he trailed off. "Milly, have you ever wished you could go back and do things different? Make it better?"
"It's not too late to do that," she pointed out.
He nodded. "Yeah. You're right."
"Of course!" she grinned at him. "Just make sure you *do* makes things right. I still have this." With that, she tossed the stun gun over one shoulder and left.
Milly was right, he knew. So was Wolfwood. It wasn't right that Meryl had cried over someone like him. He could hardly even imagine it. A tearful Meryl was more foreign to him than a nicotine-free Wolfwood. It sent his personal world spinning off its axis. He wanted to make it right. He would make it right.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen any time soon. Whether she was napping or avoiding him, Meryl didn't emerge from her room until dinnertime. "Hi, Meryl!" Milly called as she entered the kitchen. "You're just in time for stew. Mr. Wolfwood helped me with it. It's really good!"
"Sounds great," Meryl replied, and sat down in the only unclaimed seat--the one directly across from Vash. Their eyes met for a moment, then they both looked away. The kitchen was quiet as Milly ladled her stew into everyone's bowls and they began to eat.
"What a great stew this is!" Wolfwood exclaimed enthusiastically. "Better than the one my dearly departed Aunt Harriet used to make. Has anyone ever told you you should be a master chef?" he asked Milly.
"Oh, Mr. Priest, you're so silly," she giggled.
"I speak only the good Lord's truth," he replied winningly, and turned to Vash. "Aren't women wonderful? Why, if I hadn't taken my holy vows to God, I'd have loved to settle down with a special lady. Good thing you don't have that problem, eh, Vash?"
Vash gave the priest his best death glare, which had no effect. He couldn't see his own face, but he was sure it was close to purple. He didn't dare look at Meryl. "They're just wonderful," he said, gritting his teeth.
"That they are." Wolfwood grinned unrepentantly, then smacked his forehead with the butt of his hand. "Oh, geez, I can't believe I forgot! We have to say grace over our meal!"
"Since when have you ever cared about saying grace?" Vash asked. "With you it's just eat and go as fast as you can."
"We must all strive to improve our spiritual selves," Wolfwood sniffed. "Vash, would you care to lead us in thanks?"
"Why me?" He raised an eyebrow.
"Well, you are the head of the table," Wolfwood said, and Vash nearly choked. "You're in charge of our little expedition. It's only proper." He paused at the expression on Vash's face. "Or maybe I should do it," he concluded. He reached his hands out and Vash grudgingly took his and Milly's to complete the circle. "Dear Lord, we pray to you to give our thanks for Your protection and for this meal," Wolfwood said loudly, his eyes closed. "Bless this table we sit at and the meal we take from it; keep this table safe from harm that it may offer others the same nourishment. Keep this table intact so that others may gather around it in the bonds of love and friendship. Make this table strong so it will not bow under pressure; let it always be a gathering place for those who care about each other to relax and take comfort from their loved ones' presence. In thy name we pray, Amen."
Vash wondered if there was a limit to how red his face could get, and if it would just start melting once he reached it. His embarrassment was interrupted by the sound of Meryl's chair scraping on the floor as she pushed it back and stood up. "I'm sorry, Milly, but I'm not very hungry after all," she said. "I think I'll go out and get some air now, so if you'll excuse me…" She exited the kitchen without looking back.
Silence reigned after she left. Even Wolfwood's grin slipped. Vash caught his eyes and held it. "You shouldn't have done that, Wolfwood," he said evenly. "It's one thing to tease me, but you didn't need to embarrass her like that. I'm sure she feels uncomfortable enough as it is."
Wolfwood nodded, his expression sobered. "There's a reason for that, you know."
Vash looked away. "I know."
"You should probably go say something to her."
Vash sat for a moment longer, then stood up and followed Meryl's path. Wolfwood watched him leave, but was then distracted by Milly's hand as it struck the back of his head. "Hey! What was that for?"
"That wasn't very nice," she said. "Even if he says it's okay, teasing him like that wasn't something a friend should do."
"I'm sorry," Wolfwood said contritely, and grinned. "Even if it was fun. What can I do to redeem myself in your eyes, big girl?"
"Well…" her eyes gleamed. "We are out of pudding."
Meryl heard him coming, but she didn't walk away or even react to his presence. She just wrapped her arms around her knees and continued looking up at the stars. He stopped behind her, as if to give her a chance to make the first move or send him away. She said nothing and after a moment he sat down beside her on the porch steps. She pointedly kept her gaze ahead and upwards. He said nothing, but she had a feeling that her lack of reaction was making him uncomfortable. Well, good. He deserved it. She didn't care, anyways.
At least, that's what she could tell herself.
She rested her chin on her knees. "You told him, didn't you?" she spoke at last.
"Yeah," he sighed. "He didn't really give me much choice. I'm sorry."
"Don't be." Her words were careful, considered. "It's not like I'm ashamed."
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see his slide to her in surprise, green and beautiful even in the half-light the moons gave them. "You're not?"
"Should I be?" She tried not to let a trace of sarcasm seep into her words, but it did anyways.
He was silent for a long moment. "I owe you an apology," he said. "For more than just telling Wolfwood, I mean. I'm sorry."
"Sorry," she repeated. "That's a great word. But here's something I want to know--sorry for *what* exactly?"
"Huh? For—for running off like that, both times." He fumbled to find the words. "I shouldn't have just left. It was…rude."
"That's one word for it," she murmured. "Is that all you're sorry for?"
He just looked away.
"Look at me, Vash," she said sharply. "We kissed. It happened. That's not going to change. Trust me, I've had the whole day to think about it."
"I know," he said. "I know we did. I just don't know what to say to you."
"You could start with an explanation," she said. "I may not have a lot of experience but I do know that the last guy I kissed didn't stammer an apology and run away from me afterwards. That's not exactly soothing to my ego."
"Don't think that way." He shook his head. "It's not you. It's me."
She rolled her eyes. "Please spare me the clichés."
"I mean it," he insisted. "This was my fault. I'm the one who got…carried away. This is all my fault."
She lowered her eyes. "So you do regret it." Before he could respond, she looked up at him once more. "Where do we go from here?"
"I guess I was hoping you'd have the answer to that," he said softly.
"Right." She snorted. "What are we, then, Vash? Acquaintances? Friends? Clearly, not lovers."
He winced at her biting tone. "Is that what you wanted?"
"I don't know!" she cried, and stood up. She started walking. Left with few other alternatives, he followed. "I don't know what I want," she continued angrily. "All I know is that last night you made me feel something and it seemed right and now you're telling me I was wrong or it doesn't matter and you're just…a jerk!" She swung a fist at him, which he caught in his hand. They stared at each other, her hand in his, and he was reaching out with his other when she pulled away. "Don't," she warned him. "Not when you don't mean anything by it."
"I don't want to hurt you," he said helplessly.
"Yes, well…nice time to think of it." She brushed her bangs away from her eyes. "Look, I don't want Milly or Wolfwood to feel uncomfortable with the situation. So…I guess we should just try to act normally around each other?"
"It's up to you," he said. "It is your assignment, after all."
Her face flickered, darkened, and she looked away. The night breeze suddenly seemed a great deal more chilling. "Of course. My assignment." She turned back towards the house, her eyes carefully avoiding his. "I think I'd start our next report, so--"
"Meryl, wait," Vash grabbed her wrist. "It wouldn't work," he said desperately. "It's not that I don't care about you, but look at me. I'm Vash the Stampede; I'm an outlaw. People are afraid of me. There are thousands of people on this planet who'd love to turn me in or kill me for the bounty money. You're smart and beautiful and you deserve a better life than I could give you."
Her face crumpled for a moment, but then anger replaced anguish. "You're such an idiot," she said, pulling her arm away. "No, I take that back. You're not an idiot. You're a coward."
"What?" Vash blinked in surprise.
"A coward," she repeated firmly. "You push me away because you want me to be safe? Bull. You just want to feel safe yourself. You're scared of me. You're scared to imagine what could happen if you actually let your guard down and admit that you feel something."
He winced, then straightened his shoulders resolutely. "You don't understand," he said. "You've never been a target before; you've only been caught in the crossfire between me and whatever bounty hunter was after me, and that's been bad enough. Do you think that wouldn't change if you were with me? People would be glad to use someone I was close to against me."
"Oh, right," she scoffed. "What difference does it make if I'm in danger because of my job or in danger because I want to be with you? It's all the same in the end. And whether the danger is too great or not is my decision to make, Vash, not yours."
"That's not all." He stepped away from her. "I'm called the Stampede for a reason. People get hurt around me. There are things in my past you don't know about, things that--"
"--don't matter to me," she interrupted. "I'm not stupid. I know you have a past, and I know that I *don't* know all about it. Maybe I never will. So I don't know the Stampede. So what? I know you, Vash. You're the one I care about. The past doesn't matter." She stepped closer to him and tried touch his cheek, but he turned around swiftly.
"Yes. It. Does." His eyes were burning and his voice was quietly intense. "It does matter. So many terrible things have happened because of me. I'd give anything to go back and change things but that doesn't make me any less responsible. I can't change what I've done, and I can't change who I am. You deserve someone better than me."
"I don't want someone else," she said simply. "I'm not a child, Vash. I understand everything you've told me. But don't you see? You don't need to change who you are because, no matter what you've done, you are a good person. You know how to pick yourself up and keep moving after you've been hurt, and that's already more than many people can do. We all make mistakes, but you can't give into them." She smiled up at him through a glimmer of tears. "I'm scared, too, you know."
"Why?" he whispered.
"I've never been in love before." The words slipped out before she knew what she was saying. His eyes widened in response, but he didn't move. "I'm scared to lean on you because I won't be able to catch myself if I fall. I'm scared to get too close because you might see all the things I don't like about myself and decide it's not worth it." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm scared to let go because this thing I'm feeling is so big, so intense, that I know I can't predict it and I can't control it. But I'm more scared of what will happen if I pretend it doesn't exist." She shook her head. "Vash, if you want to lie to yourself and imagine you don't feel anything so you don't get hurt…well, that's your business. I prefer to be honest with myself." Without waiting for him to respond, she turned and walked back towards the house, with each step half-expecting to hear him call her name or rush to catch up with her. When she reached the door, she looked back to see him standing right where she'd left him.
Maybe it was better that way.
Wolfwood had wisely made himself scarce inside. Milly sat at the table, sipping a cup of tea. Waiting for her. "Meryl, are you okay?" she asked.
Meryl nodded. "I'm fine, Milly. Really, everything's okay." She had never worn a smile that felt so false.
"Oh, Meryl." Milly shook her head and stood up to embrace her
friend. "You've always been such a terrible liar."
Vash looked away as she left him. If he watched, it might be too hard for him not to catch her and take her in his arms and never let go.
Is she right, Rem? he asked the night sky silently. Am I afraid to love her? No matter what she said, there was still so much that she couldn't possibly have taken into consideration. She didn't understand who--and what--he really was. Everything he'd learned about himself said that his lifetime would far outspan that of an average human. Not that Meryl was even remotely average; he didn't want her to be. But would it be right to spend their lives together when they wouldn't run equal courses?
Then there was Knives, the brother he had yet to confront. As much as she wanted to understand, there was no way she could make an honest decision about what she wanted without knowing everything that had happened and everything that must happen between them. Vash had to keep moving, to keep searching until he found Knives and ended the bloodshed for good. He had no other choice; the responsibility was his alone. He had to show his misguided twin that humanity was worthy of more than extermination.
And yet…Vash knew, somehow, that if Meryl were to go away tomorrow, there would be no point to any of it. Could he take this step with her? Was it fair to either of them to do so?
Could he live with himself if he didn't?
He waited for the night to give him an answer, but there was only silence.
Thanks to Kiri for the encouragement and excellent betareading and Grey for the grammar assist. Many thanks and snugglies to Jingu, who indulged my geeky whims and drew some excellent illustrations for this story. They can be found at http://spots.flatland.com/slice/jinguj/gallery/vameridon.jpg and http://spots.flatland.com/slice/jinguj/gallery/onthetable.jpg.
And from Kiri, a few rejected titles for this fic (yes, I considered some of them. It was a pain in the butt coming up with one):
"On the Edge"
"Mack With Her or You'll Have to Buy Me More Pudding"
"Ew, I Ate There"
"How to Make Good Donuts"
"Doing Donuts on the Table Instead of in the Parking Lot"
"Jaina Kicks Bootah in DDR But What Does That Have to Do With This Fic?" (Nope, I didn't prompt her on that
"Table Manners" from Val.
By the way, the recipe for "delicious homemade donuts" that I used for this fic (not that the recipe was that important, but as I know nothing about making donuts, I decided research was a good thing) can be found at http://home.thirdage.com/Family/cdonna/index5.html. God bless the internet.