Author's Note: Sorry about the long wait! There's not much to say about this chapter. Also, thank you for your reviews!

Now let's move some chess pieces.

The End

a Trigun fanfiction


NEW MIAMI. AF0128-09-16. 19:15 PM.

Meryl disappeared after dinner. She seemed rather upset after the events of the afternoon, but Vash wasn't sure what upset her more – the Nebraskas or Heckel. An upset Meryl was no fun to be around, but he had something to tell her, so after he finished doing the dishes with Millie, he set out to look for her. He knocked on her door and listened carefully; he could hear the clicking of her typewriter, a familiar sound. She always seemed to be clacking away at her keys.

"Who is it?" she called.


There was a pause. "Come in," she said, but she sounded weary.

Vash opened the door and stepped in.

"Hey, you disappeared," he said.

"Yeah, I thought I'd take a leaf out of your book," she said, pressing enter. The typewriter clicked loudly and the carriage slid over. She turned around, and Vash tried to hide the hurt, but she must have seen it, because her eyebrows slid together in concern.

"Sorry," she said hastily. "I didn't mean that."

"It's all right. I deserved it."'

She looked down and picked at her fingernails before raising her head again. "So what is it?" she asked, evidently trying to sound casual after her slight.

"We were just wondering where you went," Vash told her, walking over to the bed. He pointed to it and she nodded, so he sat down. "And what was up with that guy earlier?" He laughed. "What did you do to him?"

"I didn't do anything to him," Meryl protested hotly. "Some guys were just causing trouble in a bar, and he – unnecessarily – jumped in and defended me or something – unnecessarily – and shot off his gun unnecessarily."

"Sounds unnecessarily annoying," teased Vash.

Meryl shot him a glare, but he just grinned back at her. She sighed.

"Yeah, well, he probably won't bother me anymore. You saw the way he bolted when he heard who you were."

Vash frowned. "Is that all I'm good for?" he asked, feigning hurt. "Chasing away men with my reputation?"

Meryl's eyes widened, full of panic, and she waved her hands. "No, no, that's not it at all!"

Vash laughed. "I'm teasing, Meryl," he said, grinning at her. "You don't need me for that. You're more than capable of chasing men away by yourself."

Meryl glared at him. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Now it was Vash's turn to backtrack. "N-nothing," he said. "I just meant that you could take care of yourself – "

"Sure! Right!" She spun her desk chair around and began to clack away furiously at her typewriter again.

Vash sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He'd come in here for a reason, and as usual, Meryl got him off topic.

"I'm leaving for July," he said at last. He saw her shoulders stiffen, and she stopped typing.

Her hands dropped to her lap, and she looked down. "Of course," she said, and Vash couldn't figure out why she sounded so sad. "Why are you going there?"

"They've been rebuilding it, and I want to see how it's doing," he said, smiling. A half-truth. July was as good a place to head as any, at this point.

Meryl nodded, still looking down. "Okay." Then she shook her head violently and turned in her chair with a pained look on her face, her eyes bright with tears. "But why now?" she cried. "After all this time, and you're leaving again?"

"Meryl," said Vash, surprised. "I'm not – " He stared at her in confusion. "I want you guys to come with me."

Meryl sat up straight, apparently taken aback. "W-what?" she croaked.

He frowned. "I want you guys to come with me," he repeated. "That is," he continued, nervously, "if you want to, 'cause it seems like you've got a nice set up here, and – "

"Come… come with you?" asked Meryl faintly.

Vash nodded, and Meryl was so pale that he thought she might faint, so he was ready to jump up any second to catch her, but instead she burst into tears. He jumped up anyway.

"Meryl, what – " he said, kneeling down next to her and gripping the back of her chair and the edge of her desk.

She buried her face in her hands. "I thought you were leaving again," she said, hiccupping. Then she laughed and rubbed her eyes. "God, look at me. I'm ridiculous. I've turned into such a crybaby."

Vash remembered telling her that once, and he felt instantly guilty. This was his fault, wasn't it? He'd disappeared on her so many times, often making her think he was dead, and because she cared – for whatever reason, he would never understand – it always hurt her more than he meant to. He thought he was protecting her, but he was really just abandoning her. It really wasn't fair of him. He should have tried harder.

Millie always seemed okay, but maybe she felt the same way and was just better at hiding it. Vash frowned, worried. He had apologized to Millie, too, as they were washing the dishes.

"It's all right, Mr. Vash," Millie had said. "I know you have your reasons. But we worry about you, you know. You're our friend, and who knows when you might disappear for good someday?" She had turned to him with a small smile. "We don't want to lose you. Especially Meryl. I think you should apologize to her the most."

He had been selfish. He'd only been thinking about how he wanted to protect them, how it would be easier if they were far away from him, out of danger, how they would be better off without him, but he had never actually considered their feelings. He supposed he had thought about it, but he had always ignored it, because safety was more important than the way they felt. After all, they were being irrational. It was dangerous to be around him.

He had thought that Meryl would realize that the night he lost control against Zazie and Legato, but she still stuck by him, and he was relieved. It was insane to be relieved, but he was. That must have been when he had finally decided to let them stay, he realized. That's why he made that promise, and why he was offering this option to them now.

The truth was, he didn't want to let them go either. They were the only friends he'd had in a long time. The only ones that had lasted, anyway. Most people avoided him when they found out who he was – or what he was. But these girls stayed. And that spoke volumes, more than the girls would ever need to say.

"I'm sorry," he said at last.

Meryl nodded and hiccupped. "Yeah," she said, an acceptance of his apology. She rubbed her eyes and then groaned. "Great, now my eyes are going to be puffy," she said.

"I'll get you some ice," Vash offered, standing up.

"No, it's okay – Wait." She swiveled her chair around and got up, heading for her dresser, keeping her head down. "I have something for you."

"Oh yeah," he said. She had mentioned that in town. "What is it?"

She pulled a large box out of the top drawer, wiped it off with her handkerchief, and turned around, still looking down. She gripped the box, tapping it nervously with her nails, and then walked forward and held it out.


Vash took it and, seeing that there were no markings on the box, opened it to find rows of .45s.

"It's kind of belated," Meryl explained. "I got them in May City, but you… I didn't have the chance to give them to you. They were on sale, and I know how you prefer to buy salmon sandwiches instead of bullets, so…" She twisted her handkerchief.

Vash rolled the bullets with his thumb, not sure what to say. "Thanks, insurance girl," he managed to say quietly.

Meryl finally looked up at him and he could see how red and tired her eyes were, even though she was glaring.

"For the last time," she said hotly, "we don't work for the insurance company anymore."

Vash smiled. "Sorry." He tried again. "Thanks, Meryl."

She blushed. "You're welcome," she mumbled.

They stood there in silence for a long time.

"Well," said Vash suddenly, loudly, "good night!" Before she could say anything, he turned and marched out of her room, closing the door behind him with a sigh. He stood just outside her door and looked down at the box in his hands. That was unexpected.

Vash sighed again, closing the box, and turned to walk down the hall, but when he looked up, Uncle Bennie was standing in his way with his hands on his hips. Vash jumped in surprise and nearly dropped the box of bullets.

"Uncle Bennie," he said, grinning nervously under the old man's glare. "What's up?"

Uncle Bennie grunted. "Indecent," he muttered, and then suddenly he reached up and grabbed Vash's ear.

"Ow ow ow!" cried Vash. "It's not what you think!"

"Oh no?" said Uncle Bennie in a low growl. "You were in Miss Meryl's bedroom, with the door closed, making her cry, and you're Vash the Stampede, the worst womanizer around, and it's not what I think?"

"That's – I – No, wait, that's not – "

Millie stepped out of the bathroom with her toothbrush in her mouth, looking down the hallway with wide eyes.

"Millie! Help me!" cried Vash.

Millie laughed and waved, and Vash felt betrayed until she pulled the toothbrush out and called after them.

"Have fun at the bar, Mr. Vash and Uncle Bennie!"

Vash stopped struggling and glanced up at Uncle Bennie, who grinned and winked.

"Come on, Mr. Vash," said Uncle Bennie, still gripping his ear. "We're going to see how well you can hold your liquor."

EAGLE ROCK. AF0154-09-26. 11:37 AM.

Razlo had not gone back to sleep since Livio's visit with Julio at the new church a little more than two months ago, but he hadn't said much either. Mostly Livio just felt him moving about in the back of his mind, like having constant motion sickness. Sometimes it made Livio space out. Last week he had been making dinner when he suddenly felt dizzy and numb, and when he regained his wits, the water in the pot had completely boiled away. He didn't think the blackouts meant Razlo was taking over – it didn't feel like it had before – but it still made him uneasy. When he had spaced out during a game of hide and seek with the kids, he seriously considered leaving the orphanage. It wasn't safe to be around the kids if he was having Razlo episodes.

Razlo had never fully emerged, however, and for some reason, Livio got the feeling that he had no intention of doing so. Still, it was probably dangerous to stay.

Livio sighed and kicked at the sand. He was never going to be able to settle down. First Vash, then the Eye, and now Razlo… Why couldn't people just leave him alone?

At least the money they had gotten from their anonymous benefactor, Alex Saverem, would be there when Livio was gone. He hadn't told Melanie or Kari about it yet, but he would have to soon, because their donations were dwindling, and they needed to stretch them to the end of the year.

He told Melanie about his fight with Julio, and Melanie had been nagging him to go apologize for the last two months.

"Apologize?" said Livio, indignant. "He's the one who's getting mixed up in that cult."

Melanie had glared at him. "Then isn't that all the more reason to make up with him?"

That was true, and Livio could not put it off anymore. He needed to get Julio out of there, before they preyed on him like they had preyed on Livio and Nicholas, and probably so many other orphans with nowhere to go and no one to care.

So he set off early in the morning to see if he could convince Julio to come back, taking the car this time. He half-wished he would have walked, because he had no idea what he was going to say to Julio, or how he was going to say it, and the walk would have given him enough time to think.

Livio didn't drive right into town. Instead, he went around to the north of the town and parked just outside of the church's property, which had grown as it was being built. It was nearly done now, with only some final touches unfinished, but at least it hadn't gotten any more members. The people in town regarded the strangers with suspicion, mostly because the people had religion already, but partly because of the way the Eye of Michael operated. The Eye wasn't exactly welcoming to everyone.

The main building was at the foot of the bluffs, but there were a few buildings up top, overlooking the town. Livio got out of the car and stared up at the bluffs. That was the Eye's favorite place to put their buildings, so they could look down on people. It was so symbolic of their entire attitude that it made Livio sick to see it again. The reemerging pattern was disturbing.

Livio stood by the car for a moment, hesitating. He really didn't want to walk into the church again. They hadn't been too pleased with him the last time he was here, and Livio knew the Eye of Michael well enough to wonder if they were training assassins again. Sure, he might have been one once, but he was out of practice and he wasn't sure he could beat a trained assassin anymore. Would there be a reason for them to train assassins, anyway? Millions Knives had been the original reason for it, and now that he was gone – and not everyone in the church knew about him in the first place – there was no one to train assassins for.

Besides, this church seemed too big to do any of the covert stuff that Livio's order did. His order had been small and select, so they were privy to all the secrets, but a large following like this would be too hard to control if they all found out about the Plant experiments and assassin squads.

Still, what Julio had said was disturbing; he knew about the Plants' secret powers – or at least he was aware of the power's existence. That was something that had been kept quiet before. This church was so huge and had so many members, and they were telling everyone about it? That seemed rather haphazard. Maybe the church didn't know what they were doing.

Which, to Livio, was even scarier.

He sighed and began to walk toward the church. He couldn't put this off any longer.

There were a few members working on the landscaping outside – which meant pushing rocks around the desert landscape – and they all looked up as Livio approached. He didn't recognize any of them, but then again, he hadn't looked very carefully the first time. Julio wasn't among them, so Livio walked right past them into the front doors of the church. He automatically took off his hat when he entered, and looked around.

It was built like any other church – high ceilings, arches, stained glass windows, long hallways – but it had the distinct style of the Eye of Michael, in all its Plant-worshipping glory. The stained glass windows featured Plants, and the open book on the pedestal at the back wall of the entrance room, which had two side doors that probably led into the sermon hall, was full of passages about Plants and their relationship with the gods. Livio walked toward it and flipped a few pages. He had never been interested in religious psychobabble, but this stuff was over the top crazy. Livio sighed and flipped a few pages back, ready to close the book when a picture caught his eye. He felt a chill as he stared at it. It was set in gold leaf, and it wasn't a very good picture, but Livio knew exactly who it was supposed to be. He shuddered and slammed the book closed.

"Can I help you, sir?"

Livio whirled around, still shaken by the image, and saw that an older man in a black robe had walked in behind him. He felt dizzy suddenly, and for a moment he thought the man looked like Chapel the Evergreen. Livio took a step back, bumping into the book's podium. The collision jolted him back, and he stared at the old man again. No, he looked nothing like Chapel. He was just an old man in a black robe.

"Yes," Livio croaked. "I'm looking for Julio."

The old man's brow furrowed for a moment and then smoothed out again. "Brother Julio is in the back. Who may I say is asking for him?"


The man's face brightened. "Oh, are you the Livio he talked so much about?"

"Maybe," Livio grunted.

The man examined Livio's face closely. "That's an interesting tattoo," he observed. "Where did you get it?"

Livio turned and put his hat back on, pulling it low over his eyes.

"I'll just wait outside," he said, stepping out before the man could say anything else. Razlo stirred, and Livio thought he might say something, but he stayed silent.

Livio waited on the front step for twenty minutes until someone finally appeared, and it wasn't even Julio. He was just about to give up and leave when another man, a younger one, opened the church doors and peeked outside, as though he wasn't allowed to leave the actual building.

"Are you Livio?" he asked, and Livio turned around to see the young man's heading protruding from between the crack in the doors.


"Come with me," he said, rather timidly.

Livio stared at him for a moment, and then walked over, and the young man held the door open for him, staying in the shadows. Livio followed him through one of the side doors, which connected to the back of the nave. They walked along the side aisle to another door, which led to a long hallway. It felt dark, even though there were lights on the ceiling, and as the young man led Livio down the hall, Livio felt a chill and Razlo stirred again.

The young man opened a door at the end of the hall, and the sunlight nearly blinded Livio as they walked outside again, this time near the back of the church. There were several buildings built on this side, in a wide circle, around the central area. It looked like a small town square – the buildings were probably housing units. The young man led him to a building near the middle of the circle, and told him to wait outside. He went in, but came back out immediately again.

"He's not back yet," said the young man, "but he will meet you out here when he returns."

"Fine," said Livio. The young man left him, and Livio looked around. The buildings all looked the same, and there were paths leading from a platform in the center to each of the front doors. One of the housing units wasn't finished; it didn't have a roof yet. Around the circle of houses, there was a tall fence. To keep outsiders out or members in? Livio sighed. That was a paranoid thing to think.

Well, you're a paranoid person, aren't you? said Razlo suddenly. It's a fair question.

Quiet, you, Livio growled. Razlo said nothing, but he quivered in a way that made Livio's head throb.

Livio wandered away from the doorstep to get a better look around. He was a little surprised that they had let him in, but then again, they hadn't really showed him anything important. Not that it would have mattered; they didn't know, but he already knew everything important.

Getting out of here was important, for starters.

After a long time, the door to Julio's dormitory building finally opened, and Livio glanced over his shoulder at the sound of the door's squeak. Julio was standing in the doorway, looking at Livio with a confused expression.

"Livio?" he said. "What are you doing here?"

Livio turned around fully and pushed his hat back a little.

"I came to see you," he said.

Julio frowned, and then smiled. "Melanie sent you, didn't she?"

Livio snorted. "Caught me red-handed." He hesitated. He was supposed to apologize, but he didn't feel like he did anything wrong. It would be an empty apology. But maybe his feelings weren't the point.

"Look, Julio, I'm sorry about what I said," he began. "I was out of line – "

"It's all right, Livio," said Julio, interrupting with a smile. "No apology is necessary. A lot of people don't understand the church, and that's okay. I'm just glad you came back by. I didn't want anything like that to ruin our friendship."

Livio was taken aback. "Right," he said.

Julio grinned. "Well, do you want me to show you around? I'm done with my work for today." He stepped out of the dormitory, having stood in the doorway the entire conversation, and tapped his toes on the ground to fit his sandals into place.

"What kind of work?" asked Livio.

Julio shrugged. "Just some paperwork," he said, evasively. "To tell you the truth, I've been too busy to think too much about our fight, but Father Tosh said I should, because it's important to remember where you come from."

"I'm hardly part of where you come from," said Livio. "I've only been working with the orphanage for three years."

"Yes, but you were friends with big brother Nicholas, so it feels more like you've been around longer." Julio smiled up at him.

"I guess so," muttered Livio. He looked up at the bluffs overlooking the church buildings, and pointed. "So what are those buildings up there for?"

Julio shrugged. "Just the hospital."

"Weird place to put a hospital. Isn't that a little out of the way?"

Julio frowned, and Livio knew he was pushing it, but he had to know what the Eye was up to.

"There are some labs, too," said Julio.

"Labs for what?" he asked, his voice shaking

Julio shrugged. "For some medical procedures. You know, immunity vaccines and some procedures still in development."

Livio tried to stay calm, but Razlo was making his head feel like a whirlwind, and he was finding it difficult to do so.

"Julio," he said seriously, "what kind of experiments are they doing?"

Julio frowned again. "They haven't told me yet," he said. "I'm not completely initiated." He stared up at Livio, his brow furrowed. "I never said anything about experiments. You seem to know a lot about the Eye of Michael, Livio."

Livio stared back at him. Julio was right, after all; he did know a lot about the Eye of Michael. But not everything, he remembered. There were some things that even he wasn't privy to. Still, he knew he didn't want Julio or himself involved in it ever again. But what could he tell Julio to get him out of here? The truth?

The truth was too painful to reveal. It might destroy everything he had.

A half-truth might be good enough.

"A friend of mine got involved with the Eye of Michael a long time ago," said Livio, quietly. "When he came back… he was… changed. The Eye of Michael destroyed him, Julio. Their experiments killed him, and if they're experimenting again, it means they haven't learned their lesson. You have to leave," he found himself pleading. Not again… I won't lose you like I did Nicholas.

Julio stared at him blankly.

"Who was this… friend?" he asked slowly.

"You met him once, when you were small. You wouldn't remember," said Livio, another half-lie. Julio had met Nicholas – and himself – more than once, and he most certainly could remember them.

Julio frowned and put his hands on his hips. "Well, I don't know, Livio," he said. "I think that even if they messed up the experiments before, they've fixed it now. And they're not dangerous."

"Trust me," growled Livio, "they are, whether they've 'fixed' them or not. Julio, don't get involved in this."

"You can't tell me what to do, Livio," Julio said sharply.

Livio backed down. He was losing him. Had the Eye gotten to him so deeply already?

"Father Tosh said that people would try to make sure we didn't succeed," said Julio. "People are afraid of what they don't understand."

"I'm not afraid of this," said Livio.

Yes you are, said Razlo incredulously.

"Yes you are," said Julio. "Just because your friend died doesn't mean it the Eye of Michael's fault. Maybe he wasn't a true believer."

Well, that was true, said Razlo.

"The experiments killed him," growled Livio, ignoring Razlo. "They ruined his life."

Julio's expression darkened, and Livio decided it was time to go. Razlo was getting restless, and Julio wasn't going to budge. The Eye had already gotten to him; they had already managed to prey on someone else who had felt lost their entire life.

"I'm leaving," said Livio.

"Fine," said Julio.

"No," snapped Livio, "I mean I'm leaving the orphanage."

Julio's eyes widened, and Livio was pleased to see some regret. "Why?" he asked with a small whine, as though he was still a little boy looking up to Livio.

"I have to find someone," he said. "I have some business with him. I'll be gone a while, if not forever, so don't forget where you came from and take care of the orphanage for me. And promise me something."

Julio looked like he was about to cry. "What?"

Livio clapped his hands on both of Julio's shoulders. "If you get in too deep," said Livio quietly, "or if you have any doubts about the Eye of Michael, get out as fast as you can. And bring the orphanage with you. Just run."

"Livio, what – "

"I'll try to come back," said Livio. He turned away and pulled his hat low over his eyes again. "But I can't make any promises."

Before Julio could argue, Livio walked away.

Melanie and Kari weren't happy to hear the news, and they didn't understand, but Livio couldn't explain it to them. He sat them down at the dinner table after the children had gone to bed.

"I have to leave," he said.

"What?" said Kari, shocked. "Why?"

"Because something's come up and I need to go. I'm really sorry to do this to you, but you can manage without me, right? You have before."

"But…" Kari looked worried. "You're part of our family now."

Livio wasn't sure what to say. He'd only been with them for three years, but he supposed that was a long time, especially for as long as he had left to live, which he didn't think was much longer. But he'd spent every waking moment with them, and now they did feel like family. He had a family again. And now he had to leave.

"It has something to do with your past, doesn't it?" said Melanie suddenly. Kari looked at her, shocked, and Melanie continued. "And the reason you and Nicholas aged so quickly."

Livio stared at her, wide-eyed. Obviously there was no hiding Nicholas's identity from her, but he had never claimed to be the Livio from so long ago.

"You are the Livio from back then, aren't you?" said Melanie wearily. "You think I'd forget?"

"I should have changed my name," Livio mumbled.

Melanie laughed softly. "It wouldn't have helped. What happened to you and and Nicholas?"

Livio sighed.

"The least you could do is tell us a little, since you're leaving us," Melanie pointed out.

Livio glared at her. A guilt trip? Really? Well, it worked.

"I won't tell you everything," he said, "because it's dangerous. But we got mixed up with the wrong crowd. We bet on the wrong Thomas." He thought for a moment and chuckled. "Well, Nick was actually on the right side, he just got in over his head. I… I totally screwed up." He leaned his elbow on the table and put his hand over his face, trying to hide an ashamed smile. He really had screwed up. But he couldn't fix it now. He could just try to prevent anything like that from happening again.

"How old was he when it came to the end?" asked Melanie. "He looked so different."

"He was nineteen," Livio said, frowning. "I'm nineteen now." He looked up. "How old do I look?"

"Thirty-five," said Melanie. "Maybe older."

Livio chuckled again. That was what he expected. It was hard to tell for himself because he felt a mix of ages; he felt so old at the same time as feeling so young. And that damn Vash the Stampede never ages. Karma, I guess, but then I don't know where that puts Knives.

"Can't you tell us anything?" asked Kari, her face twisted in desperation. "Where you're going?"

"I'm sorry," he said, "but this is the only way to keep you safe. It's better if you don't know where I'm going, or why."

Melanie stared at him for a long moment, apparently thinking hard. "You're still a child, aren't you?" she said, and Livio's eyes widened in confusion. Melanie sighed. "Maybe all men are. You always make a dramatic exit, saying you have to go off on some big journey, like it's the end of the world. I guess you're still a teenager, after all, in spite of everything you've gone through."

Livio said nothing. He couldn't argue that he wasn't a child anymore.

"Are you coming back?" asked Kari quietly.

Livio glanced at her and then looked at his hands. "I don't know," he answered, just as quietly. "I don't know how much longer I have, and this… this may be deep."

"Can you at least make us a promise like Nicholas did?" asked Melanie, sounding as old as she was. "Can you promise to try to come back?"

Livio smiled sadly. He knew what she meant. She knew he wasn't coming back. But sometimes it was better to have hope than no hope at all.

He sighed. "Only if you welcome me home with confetti."

He pulled a bag together, while Kari fretted about him, trying to convince him to stay. When he started to put the bag in the car, Melanie stopped him.

"Oh no," she said fiercely, "you're not taking the car. This is the orphanage's car, and you can't take it with you."

Livio nodded. "You're right," he said. "You guys need it more than I do." He slung his bag over his shoulder and Melanie's jaw dropped. Apparently she had thought that he wouldn't go if he didn't have the car.

"But why so suddenly?" cried Kari. "Why not wait a few days to prepare?"

"It's too urgent. I can't wait."

"Please don't leave…" Kari broke down and fell to the ground.

Livio felt hot guilt fill his stomach, but he couldn't stay now.

"I'm sorry," he said. "You guys can survive without me, though." He smiled, and then turned to Melanie.

"Melanie, there's $$148,000 in the bank account," he said, and Melanie blanched.

"Are you serious?" she said faintly. "Where did you get that money?"

Livio shook his head. "I don't know. A check came in the mail two months ago. I kept it a secret because I thought it should only be used for emergencies. So now if you need it, it's there."

He turned away, only to be stopped by every single child in the orphanage, all standing in between the desert and Livio. They all had tears in their eyes, and Livio felt his heart squeeze.

"Oh jeez," he said. "Come here, all of you." He knelt down, and they all rushed forward and hugged him, crying. He glared over his shoulder at Melanie and Kari, who whistled innocently.

After he had given each kid an individual hug (and some duplicates, because a few kept cutting in line), Livio readjusted his pack and turned to Kari and Melanie.

"Well, take care."

Kari's lower lip trembled, and she leapt forward into Livio's arms, hugging him tightly around his ribs, and Livio found that he couldn't breathe.

"You come back, okay?" she said through her sobs.

Livio heard Razlo sigh, so he slowly peeled Kari off.

"I can't make any promises," he said, holding her away by her shoulders, "but I'll try."

"No," she muttered, rather childishly, gripping his arms, "promise."

He looked up at Melanie. "I'm sorry about this," he said, hoping she could hear his sincerity. He really hated to do this to them, but he couldn't wait any longer.

Melanie crossed her arms. "If you're really sorry, you'd stay," she said, but then her eyes softened. "Just take care of yourself, okay?"

He nodded and turned away.

"We love you, Livio," said Melanie. "Don't forget that."

He stopped, but didn't turn around. He felt the tears well up, but he couldn't let them see. He steeled himself and took a step forward, walking into the desert.

He had to find Vash the Stampede.

NEW MIAMI. AF0154-09-27. 19:36 PM.

Chronica had tracked Vash for one hundred iles out of Holt City, and then lost his trail. To make matters worse, she started to hear rumors of his appearance in the exact opposite direction, though from the rumors it appeared that he was heading in her direction anyway.

Out of frustration, she walked into New Santiago to speak to one of the Plants, but it wasn't very receptive.

Do you know where Vash the Stampede is?

The Plant sent back a familiarity wave, which told Chronica that the Plant at least knew who he was.

Yes, our brother, Chronica agreed. Do you know where he is?

The answer had been neither affirmative nor negative. Instead, the Plant just stared at her blankly, and then turned upside down, as though trying to see Chronica in a different way. Then she settled back into hibernation, effectively dismissing Chronica.

So overall, the visit was fruitless. Chronica was stuck. How had she lost his trail anyway? How had Vash evaded her? She supposed it was because he had spent the last one hundred and some years on this planet. He had the home terrain advantage.

At last, she had gotten wind of an appearance further East, out toward the edge of the West Desert area, so she had begun to head that way.

And then she picked up his trail.

According to a man in New Miami, who had reported the sighting to the Earth Federation immediately, Vash the Stampede had stayed in New Miami for a week before leaving. And Chronica was only three days behind him.

She waited long enough to read the reports, which made her job a lot easier, because they included a mention of his possible destination.

Chronica called for back-up to be sent to July immediately, to await further instructions. The General confirmed the order, and Chronica felt that things were finally going right.

Now all the pieces were in motion toward July.

Note: Dunno about you, but I like metafiction. Also, I really like writing about Livio. I hope I can give him more "screen time" in the future.

Hmm... This was kind of a transitional chapter. It's like the The Two Towers of this story.