Author's Note: This is a Vash/Meryl story, which takes place about eight years after the series. It's rated PG.
Thanks to Jaina, Alyson, and Imirag for beta assistance!
The road to Goodwater was seldom traveled, but on that day, a lone thomas kicked up the dust as it loped along, following the wheel marks of vehicles gone by. The rider slowed as the town came into view and let her weary thomas drop its pace to a gentle walk. She'd been riding hard since morning, just as she had since leaving the orphanage three days ago.
Ruby let the reins drop, trusting the thomas' innate water-sense to guide it into town. She squinted from beneath her battered old ten-dallon hat, examining the town she'd been riding towards. It looked to be pretty ordinary - the usual saloon, general store, and all-in-one barber/dentist/doctor's office were immediately recognizable. The only thing out of the ordinary was a rare splash of green around the well in the town square.
Milly had told her about the well a million times, and it reassured Ruby to know that she'd come to the right place. She made an effort to sit up straight in the saddle, regardless of her weariness, and met the few townsfolk she saw with a friendly hello as the thomas trotted eagerly up to the well.
She couldn't allow the thomas to drink from the well without permission, so she gave it the rest of the water in her canteen as she tied it up in front of the saloon. After a short deliberation, she left her rifle tied to the thomas. Milly had said the people here were reasonably friendly, and she still had the knife she carried in her boot, in case of trouble.
Inside, the saloon was much like any other: dark, dusty, and full of locals who turned to watch Ruby as she entered. Fortunately for her, Ruby looked more or less like anyone else trying to eke out an existence on their harsh planet. She was young, of medium build, and wore a blue work shirt and pair of oft-patched canvas pants over faded boots, along with a large tan hat. Beneath it, a few unruly strands of red hair peeked out, the feature she'd been named for.
Ruby made her way to the counter, nodding politely to the locals as she passed them. The bartender behind the counter was a big fellow, with thick, solid arms and a gut that suggested he'd had a long career of sampling the merchandise. "What'll it be?" he asked, as he swiped a rag over the counter.
"I'll take a beer," she replied, seating herself at one of the bar stools.
"Since you're new around here, you'll have to pay first," he said. Ruby dug a double-dollar out of her pocket and handed it over, and the bartender grabbed a mug off the shelf behind the bar and poured her drink.
There was silence between them for a moment, as Ruby washed the dust of the road out of her throat. Once she'd drunk about half the beer, she spoke. "I was wondering if you could help me," she suggested. "I have a message for someone in this town, but I'm not sure where she lives."
"I know everyone around here," he said, folding his arms over his chest. "Don't suppose you could make it worth my while?" Ruby produced another note from her pocket, this one a twenty, and slid it over the counter. The bartender brightened and asked, "Who's the message for?"
"A lady named Meryl Stryfe. Supposedly she's lived here for a while..." Ruby trailed off, as the ambient noise in the bar had stopped abruptly. The bartender looked serious, and pushed the banknote back towards Ruby.
"You'd be better off going back where you came from," he said with a frown. "That one doesn't cotton to visitors."
Ruby shook her head. "I have to deliver this message, Mister. It's an emergency."
"You really want to do this, don't you?" the bartender asked, sounding more than a little incredulous. When Ruby made no move to take her money back, he sighed and retrieved the twenty from where it lay on the counter. "All right, you seem serious about this, and it's your life on the line, not mine. Stryfe lives ten iles to the west, out by the canyon."
Ruby turned to go, but the bartender hailed her before she could get more than a few steps away. "A bit of advice?" he asked, and she turned to listen. "Don't bring your guns when you go to meet her. Doc'll charge extra if he has to ride out there to bring you back."
On the way out to Stryfe-san's home, Ruby considered the bartender's words. She'd met Milly's friend Meryl once, when she was young, perhaps six or seven years ago. She didn't remember much about her, other than that she'd been very kind to the children at the orphanage, just as Ruby would expect from someone that Milly liked so much. She certainly hadn't seemed like the kind of person who'd trigger a reaction like the one at the saloon.
Ruby frowned. Time could change a person - after all, she'd been a little girl when she'd met Stryfe-san, and she'd be eighteen in a few weeks. Even Milly had changed in that time, becoming ever so slightly more serious than the sometimes flighty woman she'd been when she first arrived at the orphanage. Still, Ruby found herself wondering about what those years had made of the woman she'd travelled to Goodwater to find.
The canyon was visible for quite a while before the house came into view. It wasn't more than 10 yarz wide, but the sides were sheer, and it extended for several iles in either direction. A small adobe house was situated in front of it, the rear wall just a yarz from the cliff edge, and Ruby assumed this to be the Stryfe residence.
The most impressive aspect of the place wasn't the house itself - it was the fence, a chest-high structure which seemed to have been built out of scrap metal. It created a remarkably wide perimeter around the house, leaving a buffer zone perhaps twenty yarz deep between the small gate in the center of the fence and the front door. Razor wire had been threaded between the haphazard slats of the fence, and Ruby was careful not to touch it as she tied her thomas to the gate.
True to the bartender's advice, she made sure to leave her rifle with the thomas before she opened the gate. She'd expected some sort of ominous creak from it, judging by appearance alone, but it opened smoothly, as if well-maintained. There wasn't much inside the fence, other than the house. It even appeared as if someone had cleared the usual rocks and cactus, leaving the ground inside the fence bare.
As she walked towards the door, the hairs on the back of Ruby's neck came to attention. She felt nervous and exposed, as if she was being watched, though the windows of the house showed no obvious presence. The feeling got stronger as she moved closer to the door. By the time she reached it, her nerves were screaming at her to run, and it took all the courage she had to knock at the door.
She'd knocked once, and was about to knock again when the door opened suddenly. Before she could blink, there was a derringer pointed at her nose. She raised both hands slowly in a gesture of surrender, noting as she did so that another of the small guns was aimed at her chest.
"Get off my land," the guns' owner snarled. Ruby looked up from the guns to find her, then had to look back down again, having overestimated the other woman's height. It would have been impossible to overstate her fury, however.
The woman before her was unmistakably Strfye-san, though her face was contorted with anger. One grey eye was narrowed, and Ruby felt distinctly uncomfortable under its fierce glare. The other was covered by a black eyepatch, and the woman's short, dark bangs could not quite obscure the jagged scar that disappeared behind it.
"Didn't you hear?" she asked, her mouth twisting into an even more impressive snarl. "Off!" She jabbed Ruby in the chest with a derringer for emphasis, but the other gun's aim stayed focused on her face.
Ruby tried to speak, but all the moisture seemed to have left her mouth. She swallowed beneath the other woman's constant gaze, and then found her voice once more. "I was sent to speak to you, Strfye-san," she began.
"Well, what is it?" was the testy reply. Ruby started to answer, but Stryfe-san cut her off. "If you want to walk away from this, it had better not be 'Where is Vash the Stampede', understand?"
Ruby nodded. "It's not anything like that... it's from a friend of yours."
"I haven't got any friends," she stated.
"From Milly. Milly Thompson?"
"Milly?" It seemed to Ruby that the hate left the other woman's eye for a moment, but it returned just as quickly. "You'd better be able to prove that," she growled.
Ruby was acutely grateful that she'd remembered to bring the token Milly had given her. "I can prove it," she said, and very slowly dipped her right hand into her pants pocket. "Here." She handed over the object, and Strfye-san lowered one of her derringers in order to accept it.
"A stungun shell," she muttered, examining it carefully. "Milly did send you." she agreed, and lowered the other gun. "Either that, or you killed her. Either way, we'd better go inside and talk." She moved back, allowing Ruby to enter the little house.
Stryfe-san waited for Ruby to go first, seemingly unwilling to turn her back to the younger woman. Ruby found it a little unnerving to walk into a stranger's house, and even more so when that stranger was at her back with at least two guns... but she'd given up control of the situation at the door, so she did her best to swallow her fear.
The house was even smaller than it had looked from the outside, thanks to the thick adobe walls. A short hallway led into a cramped dining or living room, which was almost entirely filled by a table and chairs. A portable radio sat on a small table by the door opposite the hallway, and beside it, a half-wall separated the living room from the kitchen. She could see a variety of dried foods hanging from the ceiling within: onion, bitterroot, garlic, chile, and at least one ham, among others.
The older woman seated herself at the table nearest the exit, and gestured for Ruby to sit across from her, close to the kitchen. She'd taken Stryfe-san's plain, button-up shirt for black, earlier, but in this light it was clearly a dark blue. A pair of jeans, work boots, and a dark mantle completed her outfit. Ruby wondered at the latter, until she caught a glimpse of metal from beneath, and concluded that it must hide the woman's guns.
"So, what's the message?" She seemed calm, but Ruby noticed that Stryfe-san kept her hands close to the mantle as she spoke, confirming her earlier suspicion.
"Milly asked me to bring you back to the orphanage, Stryfe-san," Ruby said politely. The other woman shook her head.
"Call me Meryl," she ordered. "And leaving is a bad idea... especially to go to the orphanage." Her eye darted to the windows, checking each in turn before returning to Ruby.
"It's an emergency, Stry- er, Meryl," she began, correcting herself under Meryl's renewed glare. "Milly said it was important. 'A matter of life and death', she said."
Meryl frowned at this. "It must be, to bring someone like me to an orphanage full of kids," she muttered. She stood, and walked briskly towards the kitchen.
"Meryl?" Ruby questioned, confused by the sudden movement.
"If this is an emergency, you must've ridden hard to get here, right?" the other woman asked gruffly. At Ruby's nod, she continued. "Here, eat this, and I'll tend to your thomas. We'll leave tomorrow morning."
Meryl returned from the kitchen, bearing a plateful of lukewarm huevos rancheros, which she deposited in front of Ruby along with a glass of water. Seconds later, the front door shut behind her. Ruby briefly considered poking around the house while she was gone, but decided she'd rather live, and started in on lunch instead.
Less than ten minutes later, the plate was empty, and Ruby felt a good deal stronger. The trail rations Milly'd given her weren't exactly filling - they were just enough to keep one going until better fare could be found. She was briefly surprised at the near-perfect quality of the water, before she remembered the town's name, and Milly's tales about the well. She sipped at the water for a while, but quickly grew anxious. She debated with herself briefly, before deciding that finding Meryl would probably be better than sitting around waiting.
Upon leaving via the front door, she immediately noticed that her thomas was no longer tied to the gate. Meryl had most likely taken care of it, and since stables were generally around the back of a house, she headed in that direction. A narrow, well-worn path led around the house to the rear, and Ruby followed it, wary of the oddly smooth ground between the path and the outer fence.
Ruby could hear Meryl before she could see her, though no words could be distinguished. She turned the corner of the house, and stopped short in surprise.
Meryl stood at the stable doors, her back to Ruby, scooping feed into a muzzle bag for the thomas. Though the words were still a mystery, she was unmistakably singing, some old tune that was vaguely familiar to Ruby. Meryl strapped the feed bag to the facemask of Ruby's thomas, and it munched contentedly. Another thomas, presumably Meryl's, bumped the top of its mask against its owner's hands, in a gesture of perfect trust.
Just for a moment, Ruby could see the woman she'd briefly known as a child, standing there in the dust. The next second, the illusion was shattered, as some small sound she'd made caused the older woman to turn, a scowl on her face.
"You're done eating?" Meryl asked, but didn't wait for an answer before brushing past Ruby, headed for the front of the house. The younger girl followed slowly, slightly puzzled by the abrupt change in Meryl's mood.
When she arrived at the front door, Meryl was already inside, and seemed to be packing for their trip. "How long is this emergency going to take?" she asked, tossing a few sets of spare clothes into a ludicrously incongruous pink suitcase.
"Milly didn't say," Ruby answered nervously. "A couple days? A week, maybe?"
The other woman made a sound of agreement, and added a few more days' worth of shirts to the pile. "You might want to clean that gun of yours," she said, though her tone of voice made it clear that this was not a debatable suggestion. "We might need it."
The rest of the evening passed without incident - Ruby cleaned her gun and sharpened up her boot knife, while Meryl packed for the journey ahead. They shared a simple meal of ham and fried potato, and then retired, Meryl to the bedroom, and Ruby to a small room that Meryl apparently used for storage. It was equipped with a rather shabby old futon, but Ruby was far too tired to mind, and soon dropped off into dreamless sleep.
She was woken by Meryl quite early, just as the first sun was coming up over the horizon. By the time they'd eaten, loaded up their luggage, and double-checked the thomases' tack, however, the second was well on its way into the sky. Meryl was impatient, since they were already planning to stop in Goodwater and pick up a few extra canteens, so the pair wasted no more time before heading for town.
As the thomases made their way past the general store, Ruby noticed a bit of commotion in front of the saloon. A small group of mounted men seemed to be arguing good-naturedly amongst themselves, the movement of their thomases kicking up a small cloud of dust. She turned to mention this to Meryl, but the other woman was gone, vanished without a trace.
Ruby was still glancing helplessly about when the first of the men reached her. He was a big fellow, and the double-barreled shotgun strapped across his back served to make him even more intimidating. He pulled his thomas to a halt and leaned over to stare at Ruby for a long, terrifying moment.
"That's not her, stupid," another of the men called. "They say she's as short as her temper, and that one's as tall as Bill, here. Besides, can't you see she's got two good eyes?" The first man grunted in reply, but didn't take his eyes off Ruby for another harrowing few seconds. Then, suddenly, he was gone, his thomas ambling down the street after his compatriots.
Once the men were out of sight, Meryl emerged from the nearest alley, derringers at the ready. "Let's go get the water and leave," she ordered, and Ruby was more than happy to follow. On the way to the well, however, something occurred to her.
"Bounty hunters... they were looking for you, right?" she asked. "Aren't you worried about your house?"
"No. I checked my traps before we left. They can't get in, and they'll only hurt themselves if they try. I'll ask Doc to go pick them up later," Meryl replied, as she filled their spare canteens with fresh well water. Ruby stood watch over the thomases while Meryl stopped by the doctor's office, and then they were on their way once more.
The journey itself was uneventful. Meryl had packed plenty of food and water, but she also insisted that they avoid towns entirely. Ruby found it frustrating to camp in the desert not an ile from a warm hotel bed, especially after riding all day in the stifling heat. Even so, after the near-incident with the bounty hunters, she had to admit that caution was warranted.
Once they were within fifty iles of December, the road grew busy, filling with people on their way to or from the city. Meryl's nervousness was palpable, and she readily agreed when Ruby suggested camping until nightfall, when the crowds usually thinned. The two found a slightly shady spot an ile off the road, and relaxed until the suns went down.
When they rejoined the road, only a few people were still traveling. After a few iles' travel, they reached the smaller road that led to the orphanage, and left the others behind entirely. Meryl's mood seemed to lighten, though their pace did not, as neither of them were willing to delay the trip more than was necessary. One break and a little more than a day later, they'd reached their destination.
Ruby was intensely grateful to see the orphanage again. She'd never been so far from home before, and the familiar sight of the dirt yard and old wooden fence was quite comforting. A few of the youngest kids were outside, chasing a little black cat to and fro, and a small group of their elders were playing marbles on the hard-packed dirt in front of the porch.
One of them glanced up at Ruby, then hurried over to welcome her. "You're back!" she cried happily. "Who's this?"
"This is Stryfe-san, a friend of Milly's," Ruby replied.
The little girl waved one grubby hand. "My name's Kelly," she said. Ruby cleared her throat, and the girl hastily added, "Nice to meetcha." Meryl nodded in reply.
"Don't forget your manners, Kelly," Ruby chided. "Please go tell Milly that we're back." As the girl dashed off into the house, Ruby added, "We're in luck. They'll be serving dinner in a couple of hours, so there's still time to set out some extra plates for us."
Meryl paid this small talk no mind, however. She hopped down from her thomas, watching the front door intently. It opened, and Kelly came through, leading Milly by the hand. The two old friends stood watching each other for a few seconds, before Milly ran forward and enveloped Meryl in a bear hug, the enthusiasm of which was so great that the smaller woman's boots left the ground entirely.
"I missed you so much, Senpai," Milly said warmly. "Welcome back." Meryl simply buried her face in her friend's old tan coat and hugged back.
"I missed you too," she said, once Milly had put her back down. "I'm glad to see you again... even if it is for an emergency." Milly's smile only grew, and Meryl seemed confused by this. "What's this all about, anyway?" she asked, her eye narrowing questioningly.
"We'll go inside, and I'll tell you all about it, OK?" Milly suggested. "Dinner's just started cooking, but I'll put on a pot of Ceylon tea for us." She glanced in Ruby's direction, and then added, "You did a great job, Ruby. You can join us, if you like." Ruby nodded, eager to find out why she'd been sent to fetch Meryl on such short notice.
The kitchen was huge, and boasted an equally large table, at which the entire orphanage could sit comfortably for meals. There was a large pot on the stove, bubbling quietly to itself. It lent the room a savory scent of spiced meat, and it made Ruby's mouth water. Milly and Meryl sat, while Ruby put on a pot of tea for the three of them.
"So, what's going on?" Meryl said, getting straight to the point. Milly fidgeted a bit, glancing past her towards the living room.
"Well, you see," she said rather loudly, but failed to continue.
"I see what?" Meryl asked, annoyance creeping into her tone. "Milly, what's -"
A small sound came from behind her, and she broke off, drawing her derringers even as she turned. Milly made a noise of protest, and then all was still, as Meryl and the newcomer stared at each other.
"Vash-san?" Meryl murmured, "What..." she trailed off, guns forgotten at her sides. The tall man in the doorway seemed equally preoccupied, gazing at Meryl intently, as if the answer to some question of great import could be found in her features. His hair was blonde, and he wore it in an odd spiky style, which clashed a bit with the simple white shirt and khaki pants he wore.
"Insurance girl," he said quietly, and opened his arms, as if to welcome her. Meryl stared at him for a moment, and then approached cautiously.
"You're really here, aren't you?" she asked, looking up at him with an unreadable expression on her face.
He faltered for a moment, perhaps surprised that she hadn't reacted more strongly, and then smiled and said gently, "Of course I am. How could I leave a good woman like you behind?"
Meryl gave a choked little sound of pain or joy or laughter, and threw herself at him, derringers and all. He enfolded her in a tight hug, and she returned the gesture, her forgotten guns meeting at his back.
"I missed you," he said, smiling down at her.
She leaned her forehead against his chest, and muttered, "I missed you too." Then, glancing up at his face, "Where the hell have you been?" she growled, her brows beetling in frustration.
"Insurance girl," he began, and then winced when she made as if to hit him. She had to pause to stow her guns, and he relaxed as she did so... only to jump in surprise when she did hit him, thumping her fist against his chest.
"I haven't worked insurance in seven years," she said. "And you've been gone for that long, and now you're back, and you still can't call me by my name?" She delivered a withering glare. "Bastard." The corners of her mouth twitched a bit, betraying the half-seriousness of the statement.
Even so, his face fell. "Insu - Meryl. I'm sorry," he said, hugging her once more. She allowed him to do so, though she stood stiffly in his arms for a moment before returning his embrace.
"Why didn't you come back?" she asked, her voice weighty with hurt, and with her need for understanding. "I waited for you - we both did, Milly and I, but you never came back."
"I'm so sorry," he whispered, squeezing her reassuringly. "I wanted to, I wanted it so much - but I couldn't. My brother..." His last sentence was suffused with pain, and Ruby wondered at the source of it.
"Your brother?" Meryl asked, gazing up at him. "What happened?"
"Come and sit down," he replied, pulling one of the chairs out for her. "I'll tell you everything. You and Milly deserve to hear."
Ruby poured some of Milly's best Ceylon tea, and the four of them sat down at one end of the well-worn table. Vash blew on his tea to cool it, and then began to speak.
"After I left the two of you, I went to my brother's home in the desert, and we fought. I won, but I had to hurt him badly to do so. Afterwards, I meant to take him back to town with me, but he woke up faster than I'd thought. He refused to go to town - he said he wouldn't live with filthy humans.
"I ignored him at first... I thought maybe I could talk him out of it on the way back. I was wrong. When we got close to town, he killed someone, an old man who lived out at the edge of town. I'd taken Knives' gun away, but his mind was still intact, and he used his power to kill."
"Like Legato?" Milly asked.
Vash nodded, and went on. "I couldn't stop him in time, and I was afraid to hurt him anymore, he was already hurt so badly... I took him back to the desert, and even though the fight had destroyed most of the oasis he'd built, there was enough left to stay in while he got better."
"Wait," Meryl interrupted. "Knives built an oasis?"
Vash nodded. "He called it his Eden. That's why he wanted to kill everyone, so he and I could live there with the Plants. He wanted to make the whole world like that." He paused, but Meryl didn't add anything to this, so he continued.
"I made a little shelter there, and bandaged him up as best I could. I was going to go back to town for supplies... and to see you, too. But before I left, he told me that if I went there again, he'd destroy it. We fought about it, and I was going to go anyway, but..." he trailed off, staring at his hands.
Meryl laid a hand on his shoulder. "Take your time, Vash-san."
He nodded gratefully, and then continued. "When I got ready to leave, Knives told me that if I did - if I talked to any humans, or even thought of the two of you too much... he'd kill you, and Milly, too."
The little woman gave a growl. "He knew about us?"
"He and I were always connected somehow. When we were little, I always knew what he was thinking... though that changed," Vash replied, his voice taking on a bit of a bitter edge for the last sentence. "I guess it never changed, for him."
"I couldn't put you two in danger. You're the only friends I've ever had, except... the only friends I had left," he amended. Ruby noticed that he glanced at Milly as he did so, but the big woman simply nodded.
"What happened then, Vash-san?" she asked, encouraging him to continue.
"Well, Knives got better very fast. I kept trying to make him see, to take care of him the way Rem told me to, but he just wouldn't listen. Every time I thought about leaving, he'd remind me of you, and that your lives were in the balance... so I told myself, 'At least he isn't killing anyone now', and I stayed with him.
"He and I built a home there, and repaired the oasis. I guess it was a good place, but it didn't seem that way, because he was always thinking, worrying about the humans. I think he was afraid, in a way. Afraid that people would come and hate him, like when we were small, and afraid that they'd mess up the planet again, like on Earth.
"I tried to help him, but things just got worse. Sometimes he wouldn't talk to me at all... he'd just go and stare at the Plants he'd stolen when he was building the oasis. I tried to speak to them about him, but they couldn't understand him any better than I could.
"Years went by like that, just the two of us, and the oasis got a lot bigger. People started to notice it, and it was all I could do to convince him to erase their memories and send them back into the desert, rather than killing them.
"It was around that time, when he started talking about the Plants more than about people. He had this theory, that he and I could become energy beings, like they are. I didn't understand what he meant - I thought it was a metaphor, or another pipe dream, or..." his voice faded out again, and the four of them sat in silence for a moment, before he found the strength to continue.
"I don't know what I thought. That he was crazy, mostly... but I didn't realize how bad it was. One day, about half a year ago, I went out to get food from the oasis. When I got back, I found him lying out in the sand. He'd given off all the rest of his power, in order to kill himself. So he'd be energy, you know?" He laughed, a nervous, hurting sound, and rubbed his face with one hand.
"Vash-san," Milly murmured, and reached over to squeeze his hand. "I'm so sorry."
Vash blinked in surprise. "Why? He would have killed you..."
Milly shook her head. "I know, but he was still your family. That's important. Don't you miss him?"
Vash sighed. "I think... I think the brother I knew died when we were still kids. I tried so hard, but I couldn't take care of him. Maybe it's my fault, that he died... but I'm just glad I could keep him from hurting anybody else."
There was another long moment of painful silence, before Milly stood. "It's almost time for dinner, everyone!" she cried brightly, though anyone could see the pain in her eyes. "Ruby, please go tell the children to come in and wash up."
Ruby did as she was bade, glancing back to see Milly tending the pot on the stove, as the other two shared a quiet hug.
Dinner was a simple affair - pulled pork and roasted potatoes, with fresh tortillas and homemade salsa. The children were more subdued than usual, and many of them spent the meal staring openly at Meryl's eyepatch, or at Vash's hair. After everyone was finished, Milly took the littler ones off to the living room for a story.
"Tell us a good one!" they clamored. "Yeah, with gun fights!" another child cried.
"All right," she replied kindly. "How about the story of Vash the Stampede and the Quick Draw Tournament?"
The blond man seemed shocked by this, though Meryl took it in stride. "You're a hero to them, you know that? She's told them all about you, and Wolfwood, too."
"And you?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I'm not a hero."
He smiled sadly. "You know, I think you are." She flushed, and dropped her face.
"You don't know... all the things that happened between then and now," she said sadly.
"Will you tell me about it?" he asked earnestly, and Meryl's head snapped up again, her eye searching his face.
"You really want to hear it?" At his nod, she smiled, just barely. "All right. It's hot in here, let's go sit on the porch." The two stood, and walked the short distance to the front door, leaving it open so the cool evening breeze could enter.
Ruby wanted very much to hear the story, but she also knew when she wasn't wanted, and this was definitely one of those times. She compromised by scooting her chair a little closer to the door, close enough to hear without being too obvious. Unfortunately, she could also hear and see Milly and the children from where she was sitting, but she didn't think she could get any closer without raising Meryl's ire, so she settled in to listen as best she could.
The two stood for a while in the doorway, looking out into the yard. Ruby could see that one of the moons was already out, casting a subtle light over the world. This allowed her to see Vash and Meryl, at least as silhouettes, as they walked out to the edge of the porch and sat.
"So," Vash began tentatively. Meryl paused for a moment, then nodded and began to tell her story.
"So... Right after you left, Milly and the well crew hit water. After that, the townspeople weren't so upset at us for having brought you to town. I guess maybe they thought we were good luck, because it was easy for us to find a cheap place to stay while we waited for you to come back." She paused here, and took a deep, bracing breath before continuing.
"When you never..." She shook her head, and started again. "When you didn't come back, Milly and I went to search for you. We didn't find anything, though, and the Chief kept asking for our final report. I didn't want to file it. It was like burying you, I guess... like admitting you weren't coming back."
"I avoided it for months, but Milly finally sat me down and made me write it out. She said it would help... and it really did, in a lot of ways. It gave me something to do, and it was good to get it down on paper. Theraputic, I guess," she said with a bitter chuckle. "On top of that, it was something I needed to do. I had to tell your story to someone, even if it was just the boss."
"When I mailed it off, the Chief was already asking us to come back to December. Milly wanted to go, I think... to see her family again, and I wanted to go and ask the Chief if I could stay in Goodwater." Vash looked up in surprise.
"Good water?" he asked.
"Yeah. They renamed the entire town, after the well. I wanted to stay there and wait for you, just in case... in case you came back, and you needed me." This last was spoken softly, almost too quiet for Ruby to hear. She shifted in her chair, leaning towards the door so as not to miss anything.
"When we got to December, the Chief was angrier than I thought he'd be. He hadn't understood the report - not really. In a way, I understand that - he must've thought I was crazy. Hell, I even thought I was crazy, for a while there."
"Anyway, when I asked to take a leave of absence to stay in Goodwater, he wouldn't listen. He ordered me to stay, to forget about 'that nonsense'. I lost my temper, and I said some things I probably shouldn't have. The whole thing escalated into a shouting match, and when Milly tried to back me up, they fired us both. Tossed us out of the office on our asses, no less."
"By that time, I was so mad that Bernardelli could burn for all I cared, but I still felt terrible for Milly. It was her first job, and she liked it so much... she trusted me, and I ruined it for her. She wouldn't hear any of that, though - she said she was planning to quit anyway, so she could take care of Wolfwood-san's orphanage."
"I don't know if he asked that of her, or not... they were awfully close, there, at the end. Sometimes I wonder about that. Really, though, I think she just wanted to have something to remember him by, something he cared about. Either way, we came out here to check it out."
"As it turned out, the kids were living all alone, with the older ones scraping together whatever food they could find. I guess Wolfwood-san was all they had... it was pretty awful. Milly set it right, though." Ruby could hear the proud smile in the small woman's voice.
"I stayed, for a while. It was nice enough, but I couldn't stop thinking of you, and what might happen if you came back, and I wasn't there. Then one day, Milly showed me the newspaper, and my report was in it, right there on the front page. Somebody at Bernardelli leaked it, and then some fool reporter printed it in the December Suns."
"Really?" Vash exclaimed. "The Suns?" Ruby was equally impressed. The December Suns was the largest publication on the planet, and each copy was carefully passed from hand to hand, through nearly every town.
Meryl snarled in reply. "Milly thought it'd be a good thing. She said that everybody would read it, and understand what you were really like... but they were all just like the Chief! Everyone just saw your name at the top and thought of that bounty. It was all anyone could talk about: where you might be, and how great it'd be to blow your head off." Meryl punched the wood of the porch in anger. "It made me sick to see it... I even got into a few fights around here, trying to beat sense into their heads, but it didn't change anything."
"Finally, I couldn't take it anymore, and I rode back to Goodwater. When I got there, though... they were waiting for me." She paused, a long, quiet moment in which Ruby strained to catch any sound she might give.
"They?" Vash asked gently, and reached out to give Meryl's hand a reassuring squeeze.
"Bounty hunters," she answered. "It's funny, I never thought - I was such a fool. They all wanted that money, wanted it enough to kill for it, and yet I never once thought they might try to get to you through me. And with my name right there on the front page... so stupid," she hissed.
"I guess I did pretty well, considering. There were five of them, and I wasn't ready at all - they caught me on my way into town, while I was already tired. Took out my thomas right away, so I hid behind it and tried to fight back. If they'd wanted to kill me, they could've... but they wanted you, so they pulled their punches."
"I got four of them, but the fifth got behind me." She laughed ruefully, choking briefly on the sound. "He brought a knife to a gun fight... bastard took out my eye, can you believe it?" Meryl was crying soundlessly, the light of the moons catching on her tears. Even her dead eye wept, as if it remembered pain, though sight had been lost.
"It just got worse," she groaned, leaning her forehead into one of her hands, as if it were a heavy thing. "They wouldn't stop coming... and when they couldn't take me, they'd kill the poor locals, until the mayor finally asked me to leave. I moved out to the desert, and they still came, I couldn't even leave the house..."
Vash leaned forward to brush her tears away, and then embraced her gently, murmuring something into her hair. Ruby couldn't quite catch the words, and somehow she was grateful for it. She'd come to hear the story, but things had turned so personal... she stood, meaning to retreat further into the house, when Vash's voice stopped her.
"I'm sorry," he sighed, his arms still around his friend's shoulders. "So sorry, I wanted to come back to you..." he trailed off, and Ruby could see that he shed tears of his own. He said something else, then, something too quiet to hear. Meryl stared into his face for a moment in shock, before her half-laugh broke the silence.
"You're kidding." When he didn't move to deny his words, she stood, and paced a few short steps, scrubbing at her tear-streaked face. It was a long time before she spoke again.
"I was going to tell you, you know. When you came back... Milly said I ought to..." Fresh tears started, and Vash stood as well, moving forward to hold her once more.
"Will you tell me now?" he asked, his voice almost inaudible. She watched his face briefly, before letting her face drop under his gaze.
"I don't know if I can," she said sadly. He reached out, lifting her chin with utmost care.
"Maybe you don't have to," he admitted, closing the distance between them. Ruby caught the small flinch Meryl gave, but the small woman gave no ground, and her lips met Vash's in a tiny, tentative kiss.
"Will you stay?" Meryl asked, need and desperation showing in her voice.
"I can't," he began, and forged onward, though Meryl's face crumpled. "I can't stay here, with all these children around. You, of all people, can understand that, right?" He paused, and then went on. "I'm leaving tomorrow morning." Her face worked through several emotions, disbelief and pain foremost among them, before finally settling on anger.
"You came back, and you told me... and now you're not even staying?" she snarled, her fist striking at his shoulder. "I don't believe this!"
"Meryl," he replied, bearing her blows patiently. "I can't stay, you know that. But I - if it's okay with you, that is..." His boots scuffed aimlessly at the thin layer of sand on the porch, and he seemed unwilling to meet her eyes.
"Vash?" she asked, a tiny sliver of hope in a voice full of weariness.
He spoke without looking up. "If you want to go, I'd like to take you with me."
She was silent for a second, and then, "Do you think it'd work out?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "But I want to try." He glanced up, smiling sadly. "I miss you."
"Same here, you silly fool," she murmured, and reached out to hold him. "Same here."
They grew close again, and Ruby turned to go, unwilling to intrude any longer. She walked back to the living room, seated herself by the smallest of the children, and listened to the end of Milly's story.
When it came time to put the kids to bed, Meryl and Vash were still on the porch, leaning on each other silently. Ruby declined to disturb them, and Milly seemed equally determined to give them some time. An hour later, after beds had been made and lullabies sung, Ruby and Milly retired to their rooms, leaving the two alone outside.
Ruby woke not more than a few hours later, having slept fitfully. Her throat was dry, so she crept out to the kitchen for a nightcap. Just as she turned the corner into the kitchen, a small sound in the hallway made her turn back. She peeked around the edge of the corner, and was just able to see the door of the spare room they'd set aside for Vash.
It was open a bit, sending a slender rectangle of light against the opposite wall of the dark corridor. Meryl stood before it, clad in an oversized shirt, and Ruby was glad she hadn't barged around the corner. She could just see Vash standing in the doorway, and the two stood silently for a moment before exchanging a few muffled words. Then, Vash let the door open wider, and Meryl slipped inside.
The soft sound of the door closing brought Ruby back to her senses, and she turned, only to run into Milly a few feet inside the kitchen. The big woman had a cup of pudding in one hand and a mug in the other, and somehow managed not to spill either as she recovered from meeting Ruby so suddenly.
"What are you doing up so late?" Milly asked kindly.
"I was looking for something to drink," she answered, giving the liquor cabinet a longing look.
"Here, grab a glass, you can have some of this," Milly said, gesturing with her mug. Ruby did so with a tinge of disappointment - she hadn't been looking for warm milk! Milly sat down at the table, poured about half the mug's contents into the glass, and returned it. Sure enough, it looked like milk... but it smelled like alcohol, and one taste put a comfortable warmth in Ruby's gut.
"What is this?" she asked curiously, taking another sip as she sat down across from Milly.
"White Russian, with extra vodka," Milly grinned. "There's nothing better for a good night's sleep." She raised her mug in a toast. "To Vash-san and Senpai," Milly offered, and Ruby echoed the gesture.
A quiet moment was passed, while the both of them sipped their drinks, and then, "So, what'd you hear? You were eavesdropping, right?"
Ruby blushed. "I didn't mean to, but..." she trailed off, knowing that she couldn't offer any valid excuse. Milly just smiled.
"Don't worry about it. I was just about to go shove Senpai into his room, but I guess they worked things out themselves," she said, and then helped herself to a heaping spoonful of pudding.
"Er, isn't this... a little fast?" Ruby asked timidly. Milly seemed to consider this for a moment.
"Before Vash-san left, Senpai told me how much she cared for him. She said she couldn't tell him before he left, though - she didn't want it to stop him from doing what he needed to do. She never said, but I think maybe he dropped a few hints about it, too. She was awful confident that he'd come back. That's why it hurt so much when he didn't..."
There was a long pause, in which Milly knocked back the rest of her drink. "I think this is just what they need, actually," she mused, before standing up and patting Ruby solidly on the shoulder. "Don't worry about them too much," she advised. "They're both grown ups, and they've had eight years to think this over. They'll be fine." She yawned mightily, stretching her arms out over her head. "I'm going to turn in, all right?" At Ruby's nod, she gave a sleepy "Goodnight" and disappeared down the hall.
Ruby sat alone for a while, nursing her drink and mulling over what Milly'd said. Milly always did have a sense for how other people felt... and she probably knew Vash and Meryl better than anyone else on the planet. Besides, she mused, she made one hell of a nightcap.
Her mind at ease, Ruby gathered her glass and Milly's mug, rinsed them out in the sink, and then headed back to her room. As she passed Vash's temporary quarters, her ears caught a rhythmic thumping sound from within. Blushing all the way to her neck, she hurried the rest of the way to her room before she could hear anything even more embarrassing.
The next morning, Milly woke her early, to help prepare for Vash and Meryl's departure. Ruby was grateful for it, though she was still a bit tired from her ride through the desert. The last few days had been the strangest she'd yet seen, and she was curious to see the affair out to its end.
They allowed their guests to sleep in late, but the children had no such luxury. She and Milly spent the first few hours of their day with the kids, bathing and dressing those who weren't old enough to do so on their own, and then fixing breakfast.
Vash and Meryl showed up just as they were putting out the plates, drawn by the tempting smell of freshly fried egg and sausages. They were both dressed for the road, though their damp hair suggested that they'd just finished their morning showers. Ruby made sure to give them a little extra of the eggs, since it might be some time before they had another opportunity to eat fresh food. They seemed aware of this as well, and tucked in eagerly.
The first few minutes of the meal passed in silence, broken only by the sounds of good food being thoroughly enjoyed. Once everyone seemed to have settled in, though, Milly cleared her throat.
"So, did you two have a good night?" she asked innocently. Both Meryl and Vash stopped eating abruptly, though Ruby could swear she saw a faint blush behind Meryl's glare.
"Er, yeah, it was good - great!" Vash amended, before Meryl could turn the glare on him as well. "Really great! The bed was... sturdy." The adults and near-adults around the table fell into embarrassed silence, though the kids paid it no mind.
"Vash," Meryl hissed, and he gave a yelp that marked him as the recipient of a swift kick under the table. Milly giggled.
"Well, it's good to know you'll be... rested. For your trip." Meryl scowled, and Vash took the opportunity to change the subject.
"For our trip," he mused. "It's probably best if we leave soon. It's so nice here, I'd love to stay forever, but you know we can't," he finished with a sigh. Milly nodded.
"I know. You'll always be welcome here, though. And maybe, if you can send letters from where you're living, you could write?"
Meryl had been quiet for a while, but here she spoke. "I'll send you a letter every month, if I can, Milly. I promise."
"There aren't any post offices where we're going," Vash said softly.
"I know!" she replied, with perhaps more vehemence than was necessary. "I'll think of something." No one seemed inclined to disagree, and they finished their meal in uncomfortable silence.
Vash and Meryl seemed anxious to begin their trip, so Ruby and Milly left the dishes to the older children and worked to load up the thomases. Vash had arrived on foot, so Milly had set aside the orphanage's best thomas for his return journey. She'd refused to hear his protests on the matter, insisting that it was the least she could do for him, after all they'd been through. He'd been gracious enough to accept, after a bit of initial resistance.
Meryl's steed seemed eager to go, and Vash's loaner had picked up the anticipatory mood. The two of them paced in their corrals, making it tough for Ruby to secure Vash and Meryl's baggage. Neither of them had had much in the way of luggage, but Milly had gifted them with some food and essential kitchen supplies with which to begin their household. In the end, the thomases each bore a solid load.
Once everything was tied down, they led the thomases out to the gate at the front of the orphanage. Vash and Meryl were sitting on the porch, hand in hand, watching the kids play in the dusty yard. At Milly's wave, they stood and headed leisurely over to the gate. Now that the time had come to leave, neither seemed willing to rush things, preferring to savor their last few moments among friends.
Thus, Ruby watched as the three of them chatted together for a while, letting words of no real import substitute for things unsaid. Meryl promised once again to send letters, and Milly extended another invitation for them to return someday. Vash and Meryl seemed to understand the impossibility of such an offer, yet they accepted it kindly, as a token of the friendship between them.
"We'll see you again someday, Milly," Meryl lied, blinking back tears. Her next words bore the ring of truth, though. "I'll miss you."
"Senpai..." the big woman murmured. "I'll never forget you." She paused, letting her emotions settle, and then added, "Take care of Vash-san, all right?"
"I promise," she replied, and the two of them embraced one last time, before Vash stepped forward to say his goodbyes.
"Thanks again, Big Girl," he said, offering his hand. Milly shook it, and then pulled him into another hug.
"Promise me you'll take care of her," she pleaded, as a few tears belied her smile.
"You know I will," he promised, patting her back gently. "We'll be fine, okay?" Milly gave what was probably meant as an agreeing sound, though it came out more like a sob. Meryl stepped forward and embraced her, too, and the three of them stood like that for a long time, together beneath the suns.
Then, as if by some signal, the moment was broken, and they each stood alone again. Milly sniffled into Vash's handkerchief, and Meryl spoke soft, comforting words, but for the first time, the atmosphere between them was one of resolution.
There'd been a fire in the city when Ruby was young, and at first the people struggled to fight with it. Once it became obvious that it was a hopeless battle, though, they simply let it burn. The wordless, regretful surrender she'd seen that night was the closest analogue she had to this.
She watched, silent, as Vash recovered his handkerchief, and Meryl gave her friend one last hug. When it was broken, Milly moved to stand beside Ruby on the porch, leaving Vash and Meryl by the gate.
"'Bye, Senpai, Vash-san," she called again.
"Goodbye, Milly," Meryl replied, as she settled into the thomas' saddle. Vash seemed to be having a good deal of trouble with his steed, but he took a moment out to call a goodbye of his own as he wobbled back and forth. Meryl watched him with a bemused expression, before reaching over and taking the reins. The beast immediately calmed, and she led it through the gate.
Meryl and Vash turned and waved, before heading off into the west. Ruby waved back briefly, before letting her hand drop. Milly wagged her hand back and forth through the air above her head, as if the tiny breeze created by her goodbye could dry the tears that had started to fall once more. She waved like that for minutes, until Vash and Meryl could no longer be seen against the horizon.
They never looked back.
Milly squinted after them, and let her hand drop, forgotten at her side. She murmured something under her breath, so softly that Ruby couldn't hear.
"What?" she asked.
The reply was still quiet, but this time, Ruby could make it out. "All journeys come with meetings and partings... and reunions."
"Huh?" she asked, unenlightened. Milly did not respond, though she sighed when Ruby put an arm around her shoulder. "Do you think we'll see them again?"
The look on Milly's face made Ruby regret the question, but it could not be unasked. "No," Milly said sadly. "No. They're on a journey, now, but they just had their last reunion."
Ruby nodded. "Let's go inside, okay?" she suggested. They did so, leaving only the sun and wind to watch over the fading footprints by the gate.
"Ano hi ano toki ano basho de kimi ni aenakattara
Bokura wa itsumademo mishiranu futari no mama." - ODA Kazumasa, "Love Story wa totsuzen ni".
"If I can't meet you on that day, at that time, at that place
We will stay like two strangers forever."