Raise Your Voice - WateredMyCrops (2024)

Chapter 1: Dog Days Are Over

Chapter Text

The interior of the shuttle was deafeningly loud as it descended. Clasps and cargo ties clanged off metal struts and the turbulence made the hull shriek. Meryl held onto her harness, wishing she had earplugs. It wasn’t her first trip in a shuttle, or even her tenth, but she never got used to the way her eyeballs vibrated in her skull. She sucked on a mint to fight against the nausea, praying for it to be over soon.

Poor Milly, though. It was always especially difficult for her. She had her eyes squeezed shut and chunky headphones on to block out some of the noise. Every so often Meryl would pick up a groan over the sound of the engine.

It was even worse than usual, since Brad was flying and not Doc. The teenager wasn’t a bad pilot, per se, but he was overenthusiastic and tended to hit turns and dives a little too hard. Meryl hoped he’d grow out of it.

The noise grew louder as they touched down, sand blasting against the hull. Hydraulics squealed as the landing gear took their bulk, pressing them down, down, down, until, with a worrying crunch, they stilled. Brad went through the post-flight checklist, hitting the switches in sequence to let the engine cool.

Meryl slapped the harness release on her chest and pitched forward, shoulders aching from where the straps had bitten into her. Milly was up, too, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes and bending back like a bow. She would feel better once she’d gotten into the fresh air. Their first shuttle ride Meryl had asked how she was feeling, and she’d replied “Like one popped corn.” Then she’d had to go put a damp washcloth on her face and lie down for an hour.

A loud hiss drew Meryl’s attention to the rear of the shuttle. Jessica, a lifelong flight veteran, was already up and opening the cargo bay, letting in a bright stripe of sunlight.

Meryl’s heart began to race. Months. Months of waiting, of not knowing. Months of research and study, of field visits and station maintenance and nightmares. Sleepless nights and panic attacks. Then, out of the blue, a call for help. An orphanage in danger. Wolfwood’s voice, husky and soft.

She’d rehearsed how this would go, of course. Written it all down in her little cream notebook and workshopped it with Milly at 2 A.M. whenever she’d woken up screaming and unable to breathe. She would unload the shuttle, keeping it casual until Vash finally said something to her. Give him just a taste of getting brushed off. Then she’d ask who the hell he thought he was.

The women walked down the cargo bay ramp, taking deep breaths of midmorning air. They had landed on one side of a low stone wall close to a whitewashed building. Over the main entrance a bronze bell caught the light. It seemed to be mostly made out of local materials - not much brought in from fabriPlants in big cities. That would be a monumental expense this far out. Dozens of children were gathered outside, most of them between two and ten, gawking at them. She saw a middle aged woman and an adolescent boy trying to keep them in line.

And there, off to the side, were Wolfwood and Vash.

Cigarette smoke wafted away from Wolfwood’s face and the tails of Vash’s coat fluttered in the wind. They had the unmitigated gall to stand there so casually, like nothing had changed. Sand slipped under Meryl’s boots and she corrected her stance just in time to vault over the wall. She hadn’t even noticed she’d started running. Her plans flew out of the window, scattering like a flock of doves. In that moment she was struck by how much she had missed Vash’s wide-eyed smile and Wolfwood’s crooked grin.

The thing about Meryl Stryfe was this: she’d been the pitcher for November University’s varsity baseball team for all four years. She had a hell of an arm, but importantly she also had a sprint that had won her team Regionals.

Vash’s smile turned alarmed as he realized that she wasn’t slowing down. He put his hands up as a shield, babbling “Meryl, hey, hey, Meryl, wait, slow down, wait, hEY STO-” She knocked him to the ground, forcing the air from him in an “OOHF.” The two of them slid in the dirt and Meryl straddled his chest, pinning him down as she grabbed fistfuls of his coat.

He blinked up at her in surprise, orange glasses askew. “Hey, Meryl,” he wheezed, still winded.

“You asshole!” she yelled. “You good-for-nothing jackass! You left! You just left and you didn’t even say goodbye to me and I’ve been worrying about you this whole time and you didn’t even talk to me on the phone! dickhe*d!” Her yelling had turned Vash’s eyes to saucers behind his glasses. “Three months! I just had to wait for you to decide that I got to know what had happened. Yuh-you’re such a, such a jerk, Va-ah-ash!”

Tears stung her eyes and dripped down her face. They splashed onto his glasses, glittering like jewels in the sunlight.

“I’m sorry, Meryl.” His voice was small and meek, and his fake smile seemed ready to collapse under its own weight.

She curled over, pressing her forehead to his chest. The leather of his coat creaked in her fists. “I’m sorry, Meryl,” he repeated, even quieter this time, and it was all too much. She let go of his coat and wrapped her arms around him as far as they could go. His breath hitched almost imperceptibly when she did. A moment later she felt him place his arms around her in a soft embrace.

“Jerk,” she muttered again.

“Sorry,” he said.

She pulled back to look at him, scowling. She was uncomfortable and punchy, and he wasn’t making it better.

“Aw, c’mon, Shortie, where’s my hu-OUGH.” Wolfwood had barely started to speak before he was hit by the beautiful woman-shaped freight steamer known as Milly Thompson.

“Oh God I kept thinking you’d died,” she wailed. “Don’t ever do that again, I thought I was gonna have a heart atta-ah-ah-ack.” Milly had executed a rolling maneuver that resulted in her holding an extremely stunned Wolfwood to her chest as she blubbered into the collar of his shirt. “And you!” she turned to glare wetly at Vash, “You made Meryl cry, so you better apologize, mister Vash, because what you did was hurtful!”

Vash stared at her, entirely caught off guard by her onslaught. “I’m sorry.”

Milly got that stubborn set to her jaw that indicated she wasn’t about to back down. “Don’t apologize to me, apologize to her.”

He turned back to her, hair scraping into the sand. “I’m sorry, Meryl.”

“For?”

“For leaving without saying goodbye.”

And?” This relentlessness was exactly what Meryl was talking about.

He swallowed, cheeks reddening in embarrassment. “And for making you cry. I am truly sorry, Meryl.”

Meryl stared down at him and indulged in watching him squirm. Then she flicked his earring, making him yelp. “Apology accepted. Don’t do that again, or I’m kicking your ass.”

Vash smiled, genuinely this time. “Okay.” She felt his chest start to hitch. At first she thought he was crying, but then she saw the crinkles around the edges of his eyes and the twist to his lip. He snorted, the motion making her bounce a little. It was infectious. To her right, Wolfwood was practically giggling, covering his face with his palm. A bandaged palm, she noted with slight unease. Milly interrupted her scrutiny by laughing and falling backwards, taking him with her so they sprawled on the ground in a heap. He slung an arm over to Meryl and pulled, rolling her into the middle of their pile.

As she looked into their faces, Meryl could see the naked relief there. They all seemed to share one unifying feeling. If she put it into words, it would be oh, thank goodness, it’s you. I missed you.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t hang around all day; they had work to do. Hopeland orphanage was still in danger, and it was up to them to get its residents to safety. Jessica and Brad had already started staging the shuttle, but they needed Meryl to finish unloading it.

The look of shock on Vash and Wolfwood’s faces as she drove her company truck onto the sand almost made the months of angst worth it.

Wolfwood came up to her as she hopped out, looking bewildered. “Shortie, why in the hell did you bring your sh*tbox?”

She thwacked him in the arm. “Firstly, it’s not a sh*tbox. It runs great and I take excellent care of it. Secondly, the four of us aren’t going to fit on your motorcycle, now are we?”

This drew Vash’s full attention. “The four of us?”

Meryl crossed her arms defensively. “Yes, the four of us. You still have to go find Knives.” It wasn’t a question, so she didn’t phrase it like one. “Milly and I are coming with you, and the van is the best option.”

The two men exchanged a brief look. Damn them and their nonverbal communication, it pissed her off. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Meryl,” Vash said, cautiously.

“Tough,” she replied, and strode towards the orphanage.

Heavy boots crunched the sand behind her. “Meryl, I’m serious, this isn’t safe.”

She whirled around. “Safe? Safe? This planet isn’t safe. Life isn’t safe. How naive do you think I am?” She glared at him, bringing her ironclad determination to bear. “I’m an adult, Vash, I can make my own decisions. And don’t you think for a second that running off and leaving again,” she jabbed him in the chest with her finger, “will push me away. I already have experience following you, remember? The only thing you’ll accomplish is pissing me off.”

He studied her, eyes half hidden behind the light reflecting off of his glasses. It had the effect of making him remote, almost clinical. Then he smiled ruefully, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I guess I can’t change your mind, huh?”

“Nope.” That…was way too easy. She didn’t believe he’d given up on wriggling his way out of this for a second. She was determined to keep an eye on him.

With the truck out of the shuttle they were clear to start packing. The visitors were introduced to Ms. Melanie, a kindly middle aged woman who Meryl was slightly shocked to learn had raised their ornery Wolfwood for half of his life. She shook Meryl’s hand enthusiastically, thanking her for her help, and that she was so happy to meet another friend of ‘Nico’s’.

“Nico?” Meryl whispered to him.

“Don’t even think about it, short stack.” He was blushing behind his sunglasses, though, and was clearly at ease around the orphanage’s caretaker.

As Meryl helped with the moving, she began to see the similarities between the two of them. Melanie clicked her tongue in irritation the same way that Wolfwood did, and the two of them even sighed the same. At one point they’d both called after a group of running kids with the exact same cadence and Meryl had to run out of the room before she burst out laughing. She had no idea how long it had been since he’d been back to the orphanage, but he blended into the flow of life at Hopeland as if he’d never left. As Meryl tried to navigate the corridors, dodging shrieking children, he’d appear like a ghost, offering to help. He knew all of the kids’ names, and seemed in possession of an endless well of patience.

When they were checking through the closets for the final time Meryl leaned heavily against a wall. “I have no idea how you keep up with all of them.”

Wolfwood, looking almost baby faced without his sunglasses, shrugged. “It’s not like I have much choice. If I don’t, the kids are left to fend for themselves, and that’s not an option.”

She wiped at her forehead with the back of her hand. “So, it doesn’t matter if you run yourself into the ground in the process?”

“Nope.”

Meryl hmmed. Not even back for a day and already she had to contend with self sacrificial bullsh*t. She remembered a quote from one of her college classes. “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

Wolfwood perked up. “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them,” he added. She gawked at him and he grinned. “What?”

“You know Shakespeare?” Her world tilted dangerously on its axis. Wolfwood was intelligent, that much she had known for a while, but he’d never seen like the type for declaiming. Or obscure ancient plays. How had he even gotten his hands on a copy of Hamlet in the first place?

He preened a little. “I am a man of many hidden depths, Shortie.” Then he winked.

She bubbled with questions, but knew that if she pressed now, it would take ages for him to open up again. Instead she laughed. “I knew that ‘Undertaker’ was a good nickname for you. Come on, Yorick, let’s go see who else needs help.”

He bumped his shoulder against hers as they walked. “That’s not even the right scene! Yorick and the gravediggers happens later.”

That was too much. “Oh my god.” She stopped and stared up at him. “Oh my god! I can’t believe it. Wolfwood, you’re a nerd!

“Am not!” He seemed genuinely offended.

“Oh you totally are! You can’t know that much Shakespeare from memory without being a nerd. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.”

They kept walking down the hall. “I’m not a nerd,” he huffed, hands in his pockets. “I’m cool.”

Meryl cackled. “I hate to break it to you, Undertaker, but cool people don’t have to say that they’re cool. Plus, you can be a nerd and be cool, it’s not mutually exclusive.”

He scowled, clearly upset that his carefully crafted facade had cracked so completely. “Ugh, fine, just don’t tell anyone.” He waved dismissively, and she spotted the small bandages on his hand that she had noticed earlier.

She caught it. “What happened? Are you okay?” His hand was large compared to hers. It was speckled with smaller cuts that had almost entirely healed.

Wolfwood gingerly pulled his hand back. “I’m fine, Shortie. Nothin’ for you to worry about.” He picked up the pace a little, a looming figure mantled in black and silver. She hadn’t even gotten a chance to ask about the new suit.

Melanie, Vash, and Milly got along like a house on fire. They were all naturally gregarious and giggly, and even as they hauled boxes and corralled kids they would crack jokes and shout stories through doorways. Meryl enjoyed listening to them, even as her arms strained under the weight of full suitcases.

The energy ramped up even higher when Jessica caught sight of Vash. Her crush on him had cooled somewhat after she’d asked Meryl what it was like traveling with him and Meryl had told her the truth. Still, she bounced right up to him, asking how he’d been, and how had his coat been working, did it need repairs? It was almost embarrassing to watch.

Vash was incredibly gentle with her. He obviously knew what was going on, but instead of freezing her out, he listened to her questions, giving the best answers he could. He praised her handiwork on his coat, saying that the kevlar weave was the best he’d ever come across. When she explained the science behind it as they carried boxes to the shuttle, he encouraged her to pursue her passion further as a materials engineer. It was funny, he reminded her of a teacher dealing with a lovestruck student. That thought had Meryl cringing as she remembered her own ill-advised crushes.

“So, I had the idea to use flat wound instead of round wound fibers to create a more cohesive and insulating surface-oh! I almost forgot, Luida gave me a special package to give to you, uh, let me go get it!” Jessica ran off to the co*ckpit and returned with a taped up box. Her braids waved behind her as she skidded to a stop in front of Vash, holding it out. “Uh, so, she said that she had been working on some things that you’d asked for, and she included a few extras in here, so here you go!”

He took it from her and tucked it under one arm. “Thanks, Jessica, I really appreciate you bringing this. Give my thanks to Luida, as well.”

She was obviously disappointed when he didn’t open it, but seemed to slingshot right back around. “Oh, you’re welcome, Vash!” She blushed under her freckles.

Meryl cleared her throat. “Uh, Jessica, I think that Brad could use some help in the kitchen. I’ve got it over here.” She bit the inside of her lip to stifle a snort as the girl huffed in annoyance. But Jessica was genuinely kind and inclined to help, so she raced off, braids trailing behind her.

When she’d left Vash leaned against the shuttle wall and sighed. “Thanks, Meryl, I owe you one.”

“Ohohoh, you owe me way more than one, mister.” She secured the stack of suitcases under a cargo net. He winced, but didn’t argue, which showed how keenly aware he was of this fact. “What’s in the box?”

A wicked little grin spread over his face. “Oh nothing. Just a special package. I’ll show you later.” Haltingly he started to laugh in fits and bursts, sounding like a cawing bird.

Hopeland orphanage, despite seeming to have an endless supply of kids pouring out of every nook and cranny, was remarkably well organized. Everything had apparently been packed the previous day, so the only work left to do was loading everything into the shuttle.

To Meryl’s absolute amazement, Wolfwood had pushed his motorcycle over and asked if they had space for it. “If we’re takin’ the truck then there’s no way to bring her along. Airship’s a safer place, if you have the room.”

Brad scribbled a few quick calculations on his notepad. Frowning, he said “We have the capacity, yes. But you understand that it’ll have to stay there long-term. You can’t request a shuttle every time you want to go for a joy ride.”

Wolfwood’s only response was to give him an exaggerated salute as he rolled the bike up the ramp.

That was the last thing they had to pack. Then it was time to say their goodbyes. Most of the children got buckled in safely with minimal crying until it was just Melanie and the older boy, Isaac. He’d been acting as a deputy the whole morning, and he had a serious set to his eyes that reminded Meryl strongly of his foster brother.

Melanie gently took Wolfwood’s hands in her own. “Alright, this is it, yes? We’re safe now, mijo, you can relax.”

He chuckled. “Don’t jinx it now, Ms. Melanie.”

“I’m not jinxing anything. You got us safe.” She brushed the black fringe away from his face with a work weathered hand, and suddenly Meryl felt like she was intruding on a very private moment. “There is something else I need you to do.”

Wolfwood straightened, showing the most deference to authority Meryl had ever seen from him. “What?”

Melanie smiled, though there were tears in her eyes. “I need you to come home again. Promise me, promise me you’ll come home again.”

“I promise.”

She wrapped him in her arms, tenderly petting his head. She whispered something to him that Meryl couldn’t quite catch but had Wolfwood chuckling wetly. As Melanie pulled away she kissed him on the cheek. “Te quiero mucho, Nico.”

Wolfwood swallowed. He was wearing his sunglasses, but Meryl could still see his eyes glimmering. “Yo también te quiero mucho, Ms. Melanie.” He watched her walk up the ramp, hands flexing at his sides.

Isaac was waiting. He walked up to Wolfwood, putting on a front of adolescent bravado to hide the way his fingers twisted together.

Reaching a hand into his pocket, Wolfwood produced the key to Angelina II. “I’m trustin’ you to take care of her while I’m gone, okay?” Isaac’s eyes went huge as he took the key. “Make sure she’s in workin’ order.”

Isaac blinked repeatedly, mouth working. “But, but, I don’t know how bikes work!”

“Then you’d better get studyin’,” Wolfwood said, and shot him a wink over the top of his sunglasses. “Besides, isn’t it better to keep her in the family?”

Isaac resolutely put the key in his pocket and nodded, squaring his shoulders. Wolfwood punched him lightly on the arm, smiling widely enough that his crooked teeth were visible. Something about this small, brotherly gesture broke Isaac’s resolve and he surged forward, hugging Wolfwood around his middle.

Wolfwood gently put his arms around Isaac in return, running a big hand over the back of his head. After several long seconds that squeezed Meryl’s heart, they broke apart. Then, for some reason entirely unknown to her, Isaac turned to Vash. He scowled as threateningly as his chubby cheeks would allow and said “If you hurt him I’m gonna kick your ass!”

“¡Isaac no le hables así!” Ms. Melanie scolded sharply. He slunk over to her as Vash solemnly held up his left hand and crossed his heart with his right. Wolfwood only threw back his head and laughed.

They waved as the hatch closed and the engine roared to life. Wind picked up around them, whipping sand into their faces and forcing them further back. Even as the shuttle raised into the sky they stayed, waving until it winked out of sight.

The four of them went back into the orphanage to take a well-earned break. It was barely noon, but they had been working hard all morning and decided to go ahead and use the supplies Melanie had insisted they keep in order to make lunch. It was a practical decision; some of the containers were already open and wouldn’t travel well, and the four of them wouldn’t have to spend as much on rations. As they stretched out in the kitchen Meryl had to ask. “So, did Luida give you any useful supplies?”

Vash was in the middle of a sandwich and made a “mph?” sound. He swallowed, then asked “Supplies?”

“Yeah, that box that Jasmine gave you. Did Luida make specialty tools?” The question of the box had been nagging at her all morning. That, and the thousand other questions she’d been dying to ask them, but she didn’t want to push too hard. She knew from experience that if she did she’d never get answers.

Vash stared at her blankly until something clicked in his mind. Then he grinned with too many teeth and an attitude that filled her with trepidation. “Meryl,” he began, and sh*t, she knew that tone, and it spelled danger. “Do you want to see my special package?”

“Why, what’s in it?”

Impossibly, his grin broadened. “So you do want to see it?”

She had backed herself into a corner. The only way out was through. “Okay-” and he was off like a shot. She turned to Milly and Wolfwood, both of whom were still eating their sandwiches. “I screwed up, didn’t I?”

Milly nodded solemnly. “I’m afraid so, Meryl.” She placed a calloused hand over Meryl’s own. “But I’ll stick with you until the end.”

“Thanks, Milly.”

Wolfwood was staring at the doorway in a state of flinch. The women followed his gaze and saw Vash peering around the frame, eyes dilated like a cat’s. Right, she’d forgotten they did that.

He breezed through, holding the cardboard box aloft. From his coat he pulled a multitool and theatrically sliced through the tape. One by one, he pulled out a sealed envelope, a small jar, several bottles of chemicals, and an embossed leather pouch. He placed all of these items on the table, lining them up in front of his half eaten sandwich.

Meryl examined the selection critically. “Is this it?”

Vash’s eyes were sparkling. “Oh no. Allow me to show you the piece de resistance. It’s designed to my exact specifications, something I asked for months ago. Now, it’s finally ready. Ladies, gentleman, behold!” And he held aloft a disembodied penis.

Milly choked on her sandwich and put her head on the table, shaking with laughter. Wolfwood stared in pure disbelief, slowly shifting to anger. Meryl had expected something like this.

She folded her hands together like she was doing a performance review. “What is that?”

Vash was beaming. “It’s my new packer! I lost the old one a while ago, so I asked Luida to make me a new one. It’s suuuuch a pain not to be able to stand to pee, especially during long drives, y’know?”

Meryl only breathed slowly out of her nose. Of course. She wasn’t even surprised. “Why are you showing this to us?”

“Because you wanted to see my special package.” He wiggled it at her and it jiggled obscenely. “Now you have.”

Milly had slid to the floor in a fit of hysterics and was beating her fist against the tiles. Wolfwood looked like he was pleading with God for some other explanation for the evidence of his senses. When no such explanation was forthcoming he dropped his head in his hands.

Noticing this display of despair, Vash leaned against Wolfwood, one arm over his shoulder, the other presenting the packer to him. “Well, Wolfwood, what do you think? It’s really nice, I must say! Look, look, it’s got a lot of details. The color’s excellent, too.”

“It’s a great dick, mister Vash,” Milly wheezed, curled up on the floor.

Vash bent in half sideways to look at her under the table. “Why, thank you, miss Milly! I’m very proud of it. I designed it myself, you know. It’s very nice to have a custom co*ck.”

A low, helpless moan escaped Wolfwood. This was his fatal mistake. Vash sprang up like a mechanical toy and rested his head on Wolfwood’s shoulder. “Aww, what’s the matter, preacher-man? Never seen a schlong before?” When he didn’t get a response, Vash started to poke him with the packer. “Hm? Am I offending your delicate sensibilities?

Wolfwood slid his hands halfway down his face and looked at Vash. Turned half away from her, Meryl could only make out parts of his expression, but it obviously had an effect on Vash. His smile froze somewhat, and he looked ready to pull back when Wolfwood got him in a headlock. As Vash writhed and squawked, waving the packer around as he tried to escape, Wolfwood only sighed. He had the face of a man at peace with his fate, despite being beaten with a plastic penis by a screaming outlaw.

Making a guess, Meryl asked “Why you?”

He shook his head. “No. Why him?” Then he finally released Vash, who stumbled away, hair an absolute wreck.

Milly surfaced for air. “You two are so goofy,” she said in between giggles. “Why did it take you so long to finally relax?”

Meryl tilted her head at her quizzically, and almost missed the two men tense up in surprise.

Milly was wasted in insurance; she would have made a killer investigative reporter. She wanted to coordinate their approach to figure out exactly what these two had been through, and what they were planning. With Meryl’s know-how and Milly’s cold reading skills, she was confident they’d crack within a week.

After lunch they decided to discuss their plans in the living room over a game of cards. It was too hot to travel, so they would probably set out the next day. However, when Vash returned with his pack of cards, it was to Wolfwood passed out on Milly’s shoulder. All of the stress of the evacuation must have finally caught up to him in a rush, leaving him snoring gently on the remarkably pristine white couch.

Milly pulled out a sheaf of letters from her greatcoat and balanced them on her knee. “I’ll cash up on my letter writing, it’s no problem,” she whispered.

Seeing Wolfwood relaxing on Milly’s shoulder just as Meryl herself often did filled her up with a strange tender emotion she couldn’t place. She caught Vash smiling at them with an unguarded softness that mirrored how she felt.

She gestured him over, not wanting to disturb Wolfwood’s much needed rest. When he was within earshot she whispered “Hey, can we talk?”

This was obviously the last thing he wanted if the smooth pleasantness of his face was any indication. He’d always been evasive and avoidant, but now there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. Meryl had picked her moment with precision. “Sure,” he said.

She led them outside onto the covered porch. The suns beat down mercilessly onto the courtyard, and the fold out solar array of Meryl’s truck glittered crystal blue. There was a low synth wood bench that they could both fit on, though Vash’s long legs had to fold up into awkward triangles.

They sat in silence for a few moments as Meryl tried to compose herself. She’d been planning this moment in her head ever since he’d left, really. Now that it was here, she found herself at a bit of a loss. She had already abandoned her plan when she ran to him, and now she realized that instead of wanting to read him the riot act, she just wanted him to listen. And maybe to talk to her, too, if he could manage that.

Her stomach started to roil with unease. Without thinking she reached over and began to snap the buttons of his coat open and closed, a soothing haptic staccato that gave her an outlet for the buzzing energy in her hands. It was an old habit from their days of traveling together, even before they’d met Wolfwood. They would sit together, not saying anything, and she’d take the cuff of his coat and click the grommets open and shut. The leather of his coat under her fingers was familiar and calming, and she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed it until that moment. She half expected him to pull his hand away, or to make some irritating comment. But he didn’t. They sat there in silence, trying to regain a sense of normalcy as they watched the heat haze ripple like water.

She wondered what the ocean looked like.

“You left without saying goodbye.”

“I’m sorry.”

She rubbed her thumb over the outside of the button. It was embossed with a small wing design that almost made her shudder before she bit down hard on her tongue. “Why didn’t you see me again? It…it hurt my feelings, Vash.” Direct and to the point. That’s what Milly had advised, anyways.

He was staring at some fixed point in the distance, expression unreadable. After a long moment of silence he finally said “I didn’t think you’d want to see me. Not after…well.”

She knew what he meant. The immediate aftermath of the Dragon’s Nest incident was a blur. Meryl had spent nearly a week in an insomniac haze, and she had barely been able to close her eyes without seeing horrors. Some of those visions involved Vash, monstrous and looming. A massive thing made out of razor sharp feathers and pain that wouldn’t stop screaming. She hadn’t wanted to see him, it was true. The thought of him turned her bones to liquid and banished every thought from her head except run, hide! Even now, sitting so close to him was a challenge. It was easier with new surroundings and air that didn’t reek of gunpowder, but she still felt the urge to flee.

“I wanted to talk to you.” She began to snap the buttons again, desperate for some way to ground herself. “When you left I still had questions, and I was worried. I didn’t know where you were going, or how to get in contact with you if you needed help…” She fought to remember what she’d discussed with Milly. Emotions were so slippery and complicated. Wormy little things.

Vash scuffed a boot back and forth over the flagstones. He said “I thought you were afraid of me.”

“I was.” He went so still that for a moment she thought that he’d been turned to stone. She pressed on. “I was afraid of you. But my fear didn’t change the fact that you’re my friend.” Her nose stung and she realized with irritation that she was crying. “You scared me and then you left, and I had to try to understand it without you. It was just me and Milly, and Milly is…she’s wonderful, she’s just so amazing, but she hasn’t seen it. Not like we have.”

That was the core of it. There was something great and awful, awful in the archaic sense, that Vash had experienced, and that Meryl now shared. Two witnesses to something incomprehensible.

Vash was silent beside her, but she could almost feel his regret. Eventually he spoke. “You shouldn’t have had to see that.”

She rubbed at her eyes, annoyed that she’d started crying so easily. “That’s - uh - that’s not the point. I did see it. I saw July and I felt how much it hurt you. Exactly how much it hurt you, Vash.” He closed his eyes, mouth set in a grim line. She had to keep pushing. She couldn’t give up now. “I’m not blaming you, God, I’d never blame you for what happened-”

“It was my fault.”

“Will you let me finish!” He kept shrinking in on himself. God only knew what kind of abuse he was torturing himself with. Self-flagellating bastard. The words started to slip away from her, lost in a torrent of emotions. “Augh, hold on.” Reaching into a jumpsuit pocket, she pulled out her cream notebook, flipping through the pages until she came to the correct section. It was filled with tidy blue notes detailing how she felt, and what she wanted to say. Refocusing, she continued “I don’t blame you. However, you left while I was still hurt and confused, and you didn’t give me a chance to understand or to heal. Additionally, I know that you are your own person, but I was worried for you as a friend. I felt concerned for your wellbeing when you left.”

She paused, letting the words hopefully sink in. Vash was still motionless beside her. After what seemed like several minutes he murmured “What do you want me to do?”

She wrapped her hand around his. Her tears were running down her face and dripping into her mouth, hot and salty. Every breath she took shuddered and caught in her throat like it was trying to choke her. “I want to talk to the only person in the world who knows what my nightmares are like. I want to talk to my friend. If you can’t talk, then can you at least be here, with me?”

He made a small wounded sound, chin almost touching his knees. Then he nodded. The two of them stayed curled together on the bench, pressed against each other. If some of the tears that fell onto their joined hands weren’t Meryl’s, she wasn’t about to mention it.

Finally they sat up, though Meryl kept her shoulder resting against his arm. Vash glanced down at her notebook and co*cked a quizzical eyebrow. “Uh, Meryl? Did you, uh, did you write this down?”

She groaned. “I know, it’s weird, I know, but it’s the only way I can keep everything straight in my head! Otherwise everything gets scattered. It’s - just - aiyah! Words are easy. Feelings are…” she waved a hand through the air in an abstract gesture that hopefully conveyed the ineffable nature of emotions. “You know?”

Vash shook his head. “Nuh-uh. It’s, hm. It’s the opposite for me, I think? Feelings are straightforward. Words are so hard.” He made a face like he’d bitten a lemon.

“Damn.” No wonder trying to talk to him was always so difficult. Their ways of thinking were fundamentally opposite.

Just as she was about to despair, she heard Vash’s leathers creak. She looked over to see him holding out his fist, a slightly crooked smile on his face. “Meet in the middle?”

She nodded and bumped her fist against his.

Feeling dehydrated she stood, brushing dust off of her jumpsuit. “Well, we should head in and see how Wolfwood’s-” then she stopped. Vash had gone tense, focused on the horizon, but with purpose this time. Meryl followed his gaze and spotted a dark smudge growing larger and larger every second.

“Something’s wrong.” Vash rose and hurried inside, Meryl hot on his heels. He quickly strode to where Wolfwood was still napping on Milly’s shoulder and shook him awake. He came to with a start, sending some of Milly’s letters tumbling to the ground.

“Huhwuzzt?”

Vash’s face had gone stony. “Something’s wrong. Someone’s coming.”

That portentous statement had everyone running to get weapons. Wolfwood retrieved the Punisher and wasted no time freeing it from its wraps. Milly hefted her shining silver stun gun onto one shoulder and strapped extra bolts to quivers on her thighs. Meryl folded up the truck’s solar array and drove it behind the orphanage. Her heart was already thundering in her ears. She swept her cape over her shoulders, its comforting weight feeling like armor.

The four of them waited as the black car raced closer, closer. When it got near enough to become distinct, Wolfwood gave a strangled gasp. “No,” he breathed. “Please, God, no.”

“Undertaker?”

He snapped back to himself. “Get inside!” he roared. “All of you, get inside, now!”

Meryl was about to argue, but she saw the raw panic on his face. They raced into the orphanage, slamming the door shut and bracing themselves against a wall.

Peering through a crack in the blinds, Meryl watched as an impractically sleek black car pulled to a stop about two dozen yarz from the front door. Out of the driver’s side door stepped a massive man clad head to toe in black leather. He had a wild mane of silver hair and some strange skull mask that obscured the left side of his face.

The brutish man walked calmly to the rear passenger door and held it open. To Meryl’s utter shock the car’s other occupant was an old man in a wheelchair. Before she had the chance to puzzle it out, the driver had opened the trunk and retrieved two strange looking semi automatics, which he kept for himself.

He presented the old man with a Punisher.

Chapter 2: House of Wolves

Notes:

House of Wolves by My Chemical Romance
This one is buckets and buckets of blood throughout. Lots of gun violence and bodily trauma. Canon-typical, but canon gets rough. Also, Chapel makes comments about LR’s hearing and competence that are ableist.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The suns were high and hot above Livio as he stood in front of the old building. It had been a long drive from the Ark, nearly five days nonstop. That didn’t matter much. He was trained to operate at maximum efficiency with little sleep. He wasn’t worth much if he couldn’t. Master Chapel needed a weapon he could use at any time.

He assumed his place half a step behind Master Chapel and scanned his surroundings, Double Fangs resting easy in his hands. One low stone building with multiple windows, one main entrance, multiple rear doors, minimal defenses. At least four combatants, all armed. Two were their mission objectives. Eliminate the Punisher and retrieve the Stampede. Any others would be neutralized.

Master Chapel began to speak, so Livio listened. “I am disappointed, Nicholas. You had already proved yourself faithless when you made your pathetic attempt on my position, but I did not expect you to be cowardly as well.” Livio’s master tapped his fingers along the barrel of his Punisher. “To be quite honest with you, the first emotion I felt when I regained consciousness was shame. Shame that I had failed to teach you so utterly that you couldn’t even kill me.”

Chapel the Evergreen was a cold, gray man. Gray like gunmetal and morning frost. His skin had a cadaverous pallor, matching the sere flint of his eyes and the uniform steel of his hair and beard. His vestments, however, were a perfect black, giving him the appearance of a ghost in a shroud.

He sighed. “Not only are you incompetent on a base level that would have you whipped were you still a seminarian, I am told that you have a flair for the dramatic. Tell me, were Our Lord’s servants convinced that a green child was a senior member of the Eye, or did you put on a disguise?” Master Chapel sneered. “You always did enjoy pretending to be something that you’re not.”

There was no answer from inside the building. Despite the enhancements to his senses that the procedures had ensured, Livio was at a disadvantage. He had lost his left ear in…a training accident, and as a result his hearing was always slightly off. The suns beat down on him, making him sweat through his thick leathers. It was inconsequential. The environment would not affect his performance.

The Punisher’s continued silence seemed to irritate Master Chapel even further. “Would you stop hiding? I already had to face the humiliation of your aborted coup, and now I come to find you’ve sequestered yourself in your nursemaid’s skirts. You won’t win them any mercy, Nicholas. But you already know that.”

No response. Not even wind to stir the sand.

“Thanks to your singular pathetic foulness, the Eye of Michael itself is reduced to the same standing as any gang of thugs. I may have even been able to acknowledge your skills had you kept to your mission, but no. Was the role of Saint Judas beneath you? Holy callings are clearly not good enough for Nicholas the Punisher.” Master Chapel’s voice had turned mocking. “Or are you simply too stupid to understand basic seminary teachings?”

Livio knew better than to interrupt. He had been observing his surroundings. When he had approached in the car he had noticed strange dust swirls. Perhaps some other vehicle had been here earlier and taken the ch-

i

l

d

r

e

n.

FOCUS ON THE MISSION

Kill Nicholas the Punisher.

Retrieve Vash the Stampede. Alive and as unharmed as possible.

Neutralize all others.

Master Chapel leaned forward in his wheelchair, voice growing taut with impatience. “It’s not even your treachery and incompetence that truly annoys me, Nicholas. No, it’s the fact that you dragged my name through the dirt for two years. You masqueraded as me in front of Our Lord and his servants, reducing our standing in the eyes of outsiders! Not only that, you made a mockery of me to the other masters. Do you have any idea how hard I had to work to convince them to let me keep you, to give you opportunities and resources because I saw your promise? And instead you threw that all into my face.” He inhaled through his nose. “My only solace is that you were not my only disciple.”

The door opened.

Fingers hooked carelessly in the central firing mechanism, Nicholas the Punisher was the picture of insolent ease. He was dressed in something that approximated disciple blacks, but the boots, embroidery, and sunglasses were not regulation. He needed to change if he wanted to avoid a beating.

Livio blinked.

To his left, Master Chapel sighed dramatically. “Thank you for deciding to face me like an adult, Nicholas. I will spare you my opinions on your appearance, as it won’t matter for very long.”

The Punisher seemed to ignore Master Chapel, instead fixing his gaze on his brother disciple. He said “I’m so sorry I left you with him, Livio.”

That…was not expected. Clearly the Punisher was trying to gain his sympathy. It wouldn’t work. Livio was no fool.

Left with me? The Double Fang remained because he understands duty and-”

“Shut up,” the Punisher said.

It was so silent Livio could hear the sand trickle out of the rims of the car.

After a moment that stretched an eternity, Master Chapel ground out “You insolent-”

“I said ‘shut up’”, the Punisher repeated. His eyes bore into the Double Fang. “I was always planning on taking you with me, Livio. But then this mission came, and it was on top of a culling year…I thought I didn’t have any choice. I was always going to come back for you. Livio, we can get out.”

Master Chapel remained silent. It was the Double Fang’s turn to speak. “I understand loyalty. You have no claim to me.”

The Punisher regarded him a moment longer, black eyes behind black glass. Then he rested his weapon in the sand, reached into his jacket, and pulled out a lighter and a packet of cigarettes. He lit one, taking a deep drag and exhaling gray smoke.

“Perhaps we didn’t need to come, as you are apparently intent on self-destruction.” Master Chapel had leaned back in his wheelchair, lips pursed in disapproval.

The Punisher finally looked at him. “Shut the f*ck up you disgusting old man,” he snarled. He whipped his weapon out of the sand in the blink of an eye and opened fire.

Livio lunged around the wheelchair, shielding Chapel with his body. His master had brought his own Punisher in front of himself to block the salvo. In the same instant Livio snapped his Double Fangs up and fired bursts at Nicholas the Punisher’s legs and head. He rolled to the side, using his weapon to absorb the volley.

Behind him the door burst open and a man in red aimed a silver handgun at Livio. Their second target: Vash the Stampede.

“Don’t!” Nicholas barked. The Stampede pulled up short, not taking his eyes off of Livio. “Vash, stop, he’s my brother! I have to do this!”

The Stampede’s face was a grim mask as he stared Livio down. Finally he lowered his gun arm, though the hammer was still pulled back. In a voice that was surprisingly light, the Stampede replied “Don’t do anything stupid, Wolfwood.” He stood in the doorway, looking like fire.

Chapel had spun his wheelchair back to use the car as cover. “Awfully confident, aren’t we, Nicholas? Double Fang,” he gestured dismissively. “Finish him.”

Livio fired, forcing Nicholas away from the cover of the building. He kept low to the ground, keeping himself behind his Punisher. Nicholas kicked the barrel up, body still shielded by its bulk. It roared, Livio bracing himself for impact.

The bullets whizzed past, grazing hot lines along his skin. They tore into Chapel’s chair, forcing him back behind the car. Livio used the opening to take careful aim and sink shots into Nicholas’s unprotected thigh. They connected with a dull sound as blood spurted out onto the sand.

Nicholas pivoted, bringing the Punisher spinning around his shoulders to fire in reverse grip. “Stand down, Livio!” Bullets ripped into Livio’s arms, bruising his bones and severing his tendons. His hands spasmed, nearly dropping the Fangs.

His wounds were already closing when he charged at Nicholas, steam trailing behind him. Livio kicked him in the thigh, more blood squirting around his boot. Nicholas grunted and twirled the Punisher around his shoulders to crack Livio across the face and send him reeling. As he fell he fired center mass, hearing Nicholas wheeze as his flesh tore.

Livio rolled over his shoulder, neck snapping back into place as the serum in his blood put him back together. Nicholas had crouched down into a defensive stance, suit shiny with gore. He took the moment when Livio had moved away to fire at Chapel once again, forcing the master to steer his motorized chair quickly to the side.

“Impudent whelp!” he snapped. “Livio, stop fooling around and kill him before I am forced to make up for your incompetence once again.”

“Yes, Master Chapel.” Livio aimed for Nicholas’s head.

Nicholas raced forward, low and impossibly fast. Using his momentum, he swung the Punisher forward and fired in an arc that first cut a burning stripe across Livio’s chest, then thudded into Chapel. The master coughed in surprise as his shoulder jerked back in a red spray.

Sucking in a breath that stank like iron, Livio lunged at the Punisher, driving his fist into his middle and emptying his mag into his gut. Viscera spilled onto the sand and Nico retched blood into Livio’s face, eyes rolling in his head.

When had he gotten those crow’s feet?

A hand grabbed the back of Livio’s neck and pulled him in close. He felt the hard muzzle of a handgun pressed to his chest. Nico rasped “Survive, Livio” into his remaining ear. Then he-

He hurt.

Why did he always f*cking hurt?

His ear was ringing and he could smell gunpowder and gore. Alright, get up, no time to start bitching now. The sand under his knuckles was sticky with clotted blood, like coffee grounds.

He squinted against the light. The ringing started to subside and he could hear Master Chapel saying something, but couldn’t make it out yet.

He turned around and saw Nicholas the goddamn Punisher leaning against his weapon like it was some kind of walking stick, steaming like a tomas in heat, a glass ampoule of serum still clenched in his teeth. As he watched, he kicked up his weapon and aimed it at Master Chapel.

Razlo shot forward, twisted his whole body into a spring, and punched Nicholas through a wall.

He’d never liked that smug bastard.

Casually he flipped the Double Fangs in his hands, ready to finish the motherf*cker off. Why it had taken a mag and a half, he had no idea, but he wasn’t abou-

It hit Razlo like a blow and he brought the Fangs up to shield himself. They only got halfway before they shattered in his hands, the deep bang of a pistol echoing around him.

He whipped his head around and saw a monster. Under the high noon suns there should have been no shadows, but the face of the creature with the smoking silver gun was entirely hidden. It was like light didn’t want to touch it, too dark in a way that made it hard to look at. Only the radioactive blue of its eyes could be seen, filled with a hatred Razlo had hardly encountered before in his life. He slid into a crouch, fingers trembling.

“Tri-Punisher!” His master’s voice rang out, clear and steady. “You must kill Nicholas the Punisher and retrieve Vash the Stampede. Alive, and as unharmed as possible.” There was a teasing tone in his voice. “I assume that won’t be much of a challenge for you?”

Razlo glowed with pride. It didn’t matter if the other guy had botched the mission, he was the best operative the Eye had ever seen, a true disciple. “Of course not, Master.” He grinned, feeling his mouth start to water. “You’re one scary bastard, huh?” This directed at the creature, which was silent. “I’m scarier.”

He walked over to the car and flipped open the trunk. The creature had its pistol up, but didn’t shoot either Razlo or Master Chapel. Freaky thing was probably scared now that it didn’t have the Punisher to back it up.

From the trunk Razlo pulled the weapons that had given him his designation. Three full sized Punishers that fit his hands like he was born to hold them.

In a swooping motion he tore off his ragged black jacket, rolling his shoulders as the bionic arm activated. Holding the Punishers aloft he aimed for the red devil.

“Show me what you got!” The combatants tightened their grips on their triggers. Razlo felt himself tip forward, rushing headlong as the target fired the pist-

Bullets tore into Razlo, ripping chunks out of him. He looked up and saw Nicholas the Punisher leap off of the roof and spin through the air, machine gun firing as he turned into a one man mortar assault.

He slammed onto the roof of the car, windows bursting outwards. Behind his douchebag glasses his eyes were bloodshot and wild. Drool dripped from his snarling jaws. Still riding the serum high and dangerous as hell.

“About time you got your ass in gear,” Razlo chirped. His face felt almost split from his manic grin. This was a great day. Not only did he get to be the one to take down the legendary Humanoid Typhoon, but he could finally prove that he was the better disciple - no, the best. He quivered in anticipation, licking his teeth. “Let’s have some fun!”

He fired. The kickback pummeled his spine and galloped into his heart. His targets were fast f*cks and dodged with ease. Razlo was used to Nicholas’s acrobatics (oh how he’d gotten his ass kissed about it in the Eye), but Stampede bent like he had too many bones in him. He slid out of the way and twisted into knots, keeping Razlo in his sights the whole time.

Nicholas had beef with the Master, and that wasn’t gonna fly. He moved to keep Chapel behind him, and his targets split off to either side. This would’ve been a problem for anyone who wasn’t the Trip of Death, but he saw it as a great opportunity to show off. One gun each, and one to keep the Master safe, all three working in perfect synchronicity.

They exchanged fire, Nicholas laying down a continuous barrage. Stampede was a menace with that .45, shooting only sparingly but with surgical precision. One shot pinged off of the metal cap covering his missing ear, ringing his head like a bell.

Snarling, Razlo reversed the Punisher facing him and fired a rocket. It spiraled towards the Stampede, who was trapped in front of the building.

Just as he thought he was about to get the satisfaction of seeing that f*cker get blown to hell, the shell burst. Stampede shielded himself with his coat and Razlo whipped around to see who had interfered. Not Nicholas, the angle had been wrong.

Crouched behind cover was a woman holding a…a f*cking Derringer! Who the f*ck even used Derringers, might as well use a slingshot. He had to admire the balls on her, if nothing else. Her eyes were wide and fearful, but her jaw was set.

“Razlo!” He flinched under Master Chapel’s shout, still keeping Nicholas at bay. “Are you stupid as well as deaf? The Stampede must be captured alive! Do not fail me.”

Razlo gritted his teeth, shame washing over him. “Yes, Master Chapel.” He would not fail, he would not fail. He was better than all of them.

Chapel sighed. “Focus on Nicholas. I will handle the rest.” He leveled his Punisher at the woman’s cover. He had only started to hammer away at the flimsy plaster when the muzzle was knocked violently away. An X-shaped bolt buried itself in the sand.

The Master glowered at the woman with the stun gun who’d attacked him. “How touching,” he said, and charged her.

The Stampede screeched, that feeling of rage radiating off of him like fallout. He tried to shoot out Chapel’s wheels, but the bullets pinged harmlessly off.

Razlo wanted to go to him, compelled to protect his master. But he’d noticed that Stampede didn’t ever shoot to kill, and the two women didn’t stand a chance. And Master Chapel had given him orders.

The Punisher had been strafing towards Chapel, intent on sneaking up behind him. Razlo ran after him, turning all three of his own Punishers on the Eye’s golden boy.

He was about to cut him off at the knee when Nicholas turned on a double dime to charge Razlo. Twirling his Punisher like a baton, he punched holes in Razlo from his groin to his collarbone. Razlo thought he was going to split in half.

Push through it you weak little bitch!

He roared and slammed his hands together. He caught Nicholas’s gun between his own. Nowhere to go. The bionic arm reared, aiming at Nicholas’s head.

Nicholas grinned.

He fired the Punisher through Razlo’s hands. One was shredded but the other was on top of the rocket launcher and was just gone.

Razlo screamed.

Faster than he could follow, Nicholas danced behind him, yanking on an ammo belt and wrapping it around the bionic arm. Too late, he realized what he was about to do. Razlo tried to pull away, but Nicholas brought up his sidearm and fired.

The ammo belt exploded, severing the arm in a gout of blood and transmission fluid. Razlo retched. It hurt, it hurt so much and he had to endure it.

“Stay down!” Nicholas barked. Pink foam flecked the corners of his mouth. He hauled his gun onto his shoulder, leaving Razlo in the dust.

No.

No.

No no no no NO NO NO!

He couldn’t fail! He had to prove that he was worthy, that he was the best! Master Chapel had trained him, had saved him! He owed him everything!

The tips of Razlo’s splintered fingers were already steaming, the bones regrowing. He couldn’t waste any time, and grabbed a Punisher with his flensed hand, nerves screaming. The grip was tacky, like soap.

Maddened with pain, Razlo charged. He fired a wide spray, catching Nicholas in the calf and making him stumble. Shots cracked Razlo’s wrist, his elbow, his shoulder, like he was getting broken apart piece by piece.

Stampede!

Razlo swung the Punisher in an indiscriminate arc and cackled when he saw the red coat duck into the building. He heard shrieking as a section of roof caved in.

Spinning back to Nicholas, Razlo roared. He wanted to kill him and he wanted it to hurt. His left hand was still regrowing, and he had to peel his right off of the grip to force the skin to stop growing over the metal.

He grabbed Nicholas’s arm and squeezed. It burst in his hand, forcing Nicholas to drop his weapon.Then Razlo grabbed him by the scruff and kicked him in the ribs. And again. And again and again and again until Nicholas was gasping and unable to breathe.

Furious, Razlo flung him to the ground and he bounced. Only the whites of his eyes were visible as he spasmed, making a wet, sucking sound.

“Get up!” Razlo screamed. “I want you to be awake when I kill you!” He flexed his hands, both healed enough to use.

Slowly, Nicholas staggered to his feet. His stupid stupid stupid glasses were broken, pieces of them stuck in his face. With shaking hands he pulled his sidearm out of his thigh holster. Then he spat a long stream of sticky blood from swollen lips.

Like he wasn’t hurt at all, Nicholas the Punisher, first disciple of Master Chapel the Evergreen, raised his gun arm in a liquid smooth motion. Right past Razlo’s missing ear to where Master Chapel had been fending off the other three. Razlo knocked the muzzle away with his arm, disgusted that Nicholas was still trying to kill their master, even now.

Nicholas’s eyes, hazy with pain, sharpened. He grabbed the back of Razlo’s neck and his left arm and pulled, sweeping his left leg out from under him. The two of them went crashing to the ground, Nicholas twisting to be on top.

As they fell, Razlo heard the retort of a Punisher. Bullets whizzed over their heads. Right where they had been standing.

Where Razlo had been standing.

Nicholas was a heavy, hot, reeking weight on Razlo’s chest, panting into his ear. Shielding him from Master Chapel’s bullets.

He hauled himself to his feet, placing himself between Razlo and Master Chapel. Reached into his jacket and pulled out a vial of serum that he cracked between his teeth. Spat the glass onto the ground.

Said, “Get away from my brother.”

The battlefield was still as every eye was on Nicholas and Chapel.

Chapel sneered. “That’s not Livio, you idiot, that’s Razlo. Though they’re both equally useless.”

Razlo choked. “Master, I -”

“Shut up. You have proven yourself a failure and a waste of my time.” He aimed his bayoneted Punisher at them, rocket launcher at the ready. “I should have put both of you down years ago.”

Nicholas held his own Punisher aloft. Razlo looked up at him. His face was splattered in blood and coated in sand, steam curling around him. “I said get away from my brother.”

Chapel fired.

Nicholas rolled, the sand behind him exploding. He returned short, expert bursts to Chapel’s torso, the old man coughing in shock. They danced around each other, moving and striking like they’d agreed beforehand how this fight would go. Chapel’s chair spun to absorb bullets as he fired over his shoulder. Nicholas rolled to dodge then sprang backwards on his hands.

Chapel laughed. “Beautiful, Nicholas. You may be a treacherous dog, but at least you could always move so perfectly.

Razlo got to his feet. His mind was full of white hot noise. Master Chapel had tried to kill him. Master Chapel, who had taken him in, who had seen his potential, who had told him he was good.

And Nicholas had saved him. Stuck up, self-important, teacher’s pet Nicholas. The one who’d bandaged his hurts, even when he was Razlo and not Livio. Even when Nicholas had put those hurts there himself.

Wait. Hadn’t Chapel been the one to tell them to fight?

Chapel was flagging. What little healing factor he had wasn’t enough to keep up with Nicholas’s relentless assault. His seat was shiny red, glistening in the suns. “Just imagine what you could have accomplished had you stayed! I was grooming you for command, wasn’t that obvious? Together we would have ruled the Eye of Michael: Chapel the Evergreen and Nicholas the Punisher!”

Nicholas stood on the far side of the butte, the suns behind him. Haloed in sunlight he said, “I am not your weapon. I am Nicholas D Wolfwood, and I won’t let you hurt anyone else ever again.”

From his position behind Chapel, Razlo could see the chair’s hidden machine guns deploy. Nicholas wouldn’t see them in time. Chapel would kill him.

Razlo reached for his weapon and shot the Punisher out of Chapel’s hand. His master bellowed in rage and Razlo screamed “Run!”

Nicholas dodged just in time. The machine guns ripped through where he had been standing, shooting out the front panels of Chapel’s wheelchair.

Nicholas rolled into a kneeling position, gun braced on his shoulder.

He fired.

The sound of the bullets hitting the reinforced back of the chair reminded Razlo of the one time he’d heard rain. Drumming hard on the roof of Hopeland.

Chapel slumped forward.

Nicholas didn’t move. He stayed in a textbook firing position, as if he were waiting for the end of exercise command. Razlo couldn’t take his eyes off of the bent gray head. He shouldn’t have done that. Master Chapel was going to be so angry with him.

With a thunk like dropped luggage, the master’s Punisher fell onto the ground.

Legs shaking, Razlo walked forward. Red liquid was dripping from the bottom of the chair onto the sand. He moved in front of the chair.

Chapel sat dead, chest turned to meat. His face was slack, cold gray eyes dull. Blood dribbled out of his mouth, like he was drooling in his sleep.

Razlo barely noticed Nicholas walk over to join him. They stared at the dead man. Both weaponless.

“What do we do?” Razlo whispered.

Nico swallowed. “We can’t leave him. He might come back. Like last time.” He was staring at Chapel, like he was afraid to blink.

“Let’s burn him, then.” Razlo started and saw the Derringer woman, bruised and bloody, but alive. Her face was grim. “If we do, then you’ll know he’s not coming back. Can we do that, Wolfwood?”

It took several long moments for Nico to nod. When he did the woman and her friends pulled Chapel off of the chair and onto the ground. Razlo almost stopped them. They shouldn’t treat the master like that.

But he couldn’t manage to say anything.

He only watched as the Derringer woman and the stun gun woman walked away, and as the Stampede pushed the chair out of the way. He rifled through Chapel’s robes. This was incredibly disrespectful. Razlo should have killed him for it. The Stampede pulled out extra ammo and a few hidden sidearms, tossing them to the side. He also threw aside the master’s wallet. Razlo should have killed him for this, too.

He didn’t.

He only watched as the Derringer and the Stun Gun returned to douse the body with gasoline they’d siphoned from the master’s car.

Beside him, Nico pulled out a matchbook. The smell of magnesium was strong as the match flared to life in his hand. He passed the match to Razlo.

Razlo cupped the tiny flame in his hands, now fully healed. Livio would never know how badly he’d been hurt in this fight. Razlo had done his job.

He flicked the match onto the body.

Notes:

f*ck YEAH OLD MAN MURDER
I love LR they are everything to me. In this house we love Razlo. Sometimes you just have to punch your brother through a wall that's just how it is.
Wolfwood was kinda sh*tty in EOM but he was surviving. Probably gonna get into this more later.
Vash has gone full diablo mode: the thing in the manga where his face goes featureless is now canon and not just stylistic. He's also psychic blasting everyone with his emotions, hence the RAGE.
In return for accidentally locking them out of the fic for so long, Milly and Meryl get at least one cool moment per chapter. At LEAST.
Come celebrate the officially un-doomed Wolfwood with me!

Chapter 3: Ain't No Rest For the Wicked

Summary:

Wolfwood has a busy day

Notes:

Ain't No Rest for the Wicked by Cage the Elephant
Note: this chapter contains dissociation, a meltdown, internalized ableism, and mentions of alien cannibalism

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Nicholas woke with a start, body pulsing with pain. His head was full of sharp gravel and his tongue was covered in chalk. For a moment all he could do was lie there and tremble.

With effort, he pushed himself upright. The world spun dangerously and he held on, feeling the gorge rise in his throat. His guts were made out of cheesecloth.

When he was pretty sure that his face wasn’t about to melt off of his skull, he opened his eyes. He was sitting up in one of the dormitory beds in Hopeland. Bright morning sunlight streamed through the windows, showing walls covered in handprints and chalk doodles.

In the bed nearest to him was his little brother.

Nicholas stumbled to his feet, swaying and crashing into walls until he leaned against a window.

Outside he found the black smudge on the ground. He stared at it until his breath fogged up the glass.

Traitor.

Nicholas threw himself back from the window, landing hard on the floor. He stared at the ceiling, at the cracks in the plaster and the cobwebs in the corners.

Behind him, his brother still slept.

He stood up.

He was outside, a shovel in his hands. He was leaving the greenhouse, tiny stones cutting into his feet. Didn’t remember deciding to go to the greenhouse. But he had to get the shovel so he had gone and got the shovel.

He blinked and he was standing-

He was in front of-

On the ground there was-

He started to dig.

Nicholas jumped. Something had made a strange, sudden sound and it had startled him.

At his feet was a cracked bone. His shovel had hit it as he dug and it had splintered loudly.

Nicholas climbed out of the hole and scooped the bone out with the shovel. He placed it next to the rest of the body. But he wasn’t gentle enough and he dislodged more fingerbones that slid down into the shallow grave.

He stared at them. At the charred and tarry bits of flesh. At the melted buckles. At the cracked ribs.

At the hollow eyed skull.

They stared at each other as the suns continued to rise, both unblinking.

Nicholas slammed the shovel down on the empty, grinning skull. It crunched under the blade in a puff of ash.

Over and

Over and

Over

He brought the shovel down onto the head, the chest, the hands.

THE HANDS.

He didn’t know when he had started screaming but he couldn’t stop.

With a snap the handle broke, sending the shovel blade spinning off into the air. The sudden loss made him trip forward, burying the handle in the shattered ribs.

It didn’t look like a body anymore.

Nicholas threw back his head and howled his throat raw.

Milly found him standing in front of the body. Every sucking breath turned into a sob. His mouth was sticky. Too dehydrated to cry, he whimpered and moaned. She stood with him, gazing solemnly at the horizon until he quieted.

“There’s breakfast if you want some, and Vash got out a change of clothes so you can get cleaned up. How’s that sound?” Her big sky blue eyes were soft and steady.

He grunted.

“Okay, let’s get you back inside.”

After a shower that he mostly remembered, Nicholas picked his way through the collapsed living room. The front wall and part of the ceiling had fallen inward, letting in the sunlight. Through the doorway to the dining hall he could see the old fans still spinning. Small miracles. Unfortunately, that same grace hadn’t been extended to Ms. Melanie’s fancy couch she reserved for guests. There was a Nicholas shaped hole in the white upholstery from where Razlo had punched him through both it and the wall.

He heard a gasp behind him. His brother stood in the broken hallway, staring at Nicholas in shock. Then he scrambled forward, tripping over the broken masonry until he had a view of the courtyard.

Nicholas knew what he was looking at.

Livio - he knew it was Livio now - fell to his knees like a puppet with its strings cut. For several moments he only stared off into space.

Nicholas was sure to make enough noise as he walked over before putting a hand on Livio’s shoulder. Livio blinked up at him, dazed. “You’re ass nasty, go take a shower. There’s breakfast in the kitchen. I’ll wait for you here.”

Livio shook himself, eyes losing some of their glassiness. He was disgusting. His wild hair was matted with dried blood and bits of Nicholas’s guts, and he was crusty with sand. Not like Nicholas had been any better.

Woozily, Livio stood. He loomed over Nicholas, then twisted his fingers together and said “I don’t have any other clothes.”

Nicholas pointed down the hall with his lips. “Some a’the old work clothes’ll fit you. Just washed ‘em, too, so they don’t have that closet funk.” He gently pushed Livio towards the bathroom. “Go on, get. M’hungry.”

About ten minutes and a cigarette later, Livio returned. He was in a shirt that had been baggy on Vash but was tight on him, and he was combing his fingers through his tangled gray hair. “I don’t have a brush,” he said by way of explanation when he saw Nicholas looking. Then, “Since when d’you smoke?”

“Since nunya.” He flicked the butt away into the rubble. Livio frowned a little, but didn’t say anything. “I’ll give you a haircut later. C’mon.”

The brothers moseyed on into the kitchen, which smelled like what Nicholas thought heaven must smell like. He barely noticed Meryl scrape her chair back, tense as a tripwire, or Milly’s calming gesture. What caught his attention was the food. There was so damn much of it! Big bowls of salad and pasta and little dishes of chili sauce. His mouth was watering.

Vash stood over the stove, poking at a pan of rice with a long wooden spoon. Seemingly satisfied, he transferred it to a large plate, adding some tomatoes and cucumbers and a few fried eggs from another pan he’d been minding. After turning off the burners he finally looked over at them. His eyes were bloodshot, the shadows under them almost purple. He was the rare kind of tired where he shut down, unable to even pretend to smile.

In a flat voice he said, “I made rice.”

Nicholas crossed the kitchen in three long strides and wrapped his arms around Vash. Buried his face in the crook of his neck and squeezed him tight. He smelled like hair gel and machine oil and soap and God knew how many hours of cooking and Nicholas thought he might cry again.

Vash had stiffened at first, breath hitching. Then he hugged Nicholas with all his might, a quiet whimper escaping him. Softly, so only Nicholas would hear, he whispered, “I thought I was gonna lose you.”

Nicholas snuffled and, hell, he was crying again. “Not gettin’ rid of me that easy, needle-noggin.”

Vash only held him closer.

There was a tentative tap on his arm. He looked up to see Meryl fidgeting from foot to foot, Milly close behind her. “Hey, shortcake, whatcha-” Before he could finish, he was cut off by Meryl’s wiry arms wrapping tightly around him.

“Don’t ever do that again,” she said, sounding haggard.

He reached around to brush his fingers through her hair. “Wasn’t plannin’ on it.” Something deep in him ached as she held him, her hands balling up in his shirt and her whole body pressed against his. He hadn’t realized how badly he’d missed her until just now.

She peeled an arm off and made a flapping motion. Milly joined them, holding everyone close and resting her forehead against the crown of Nicholas’s head. Her breath was slow and steady, rising and falling against his back. In that moment they were the only people in the whole world, listening to each other’s breathing. Safe in each other’s arms.

Then Nicholas’s stomach growled loud enough to be heard down in Hopeland proper. He laughed a little, pulling away to help with the food. Up close, Vash’s pallor was even more pronounced, his red-rimmed eyes making him look ghostly.

“Holy hell, did you sleep at all?”

“No, but it wasn’t for want of trying on our part,” Meryl groused. She’d been sandwiched between the three of them, and her fine black hair was frizzy with static.

Milly scoffed. “Excuse you, miss Meryl, but I remember having to wrangle more than one person outta mister Nick’s room last night because some people don’t know how to let a body vest!”

This proclamation turned the aforementioned “some people” cherry red with embarrassment. Nicholas cackled as Milly continued, “At least three times I caught them just staring at you like you were a baby they were too scared to leave alone. I was worried you’d wake up and have a heart attack from seeing ghosts.” She rolled her eyes in fond exasperation. “It would’ve been cute if it hadn’t been so creepy.”

In the middle of his fits of laughter, Nicholas saw Livio waiting in the doorway. Better make things clear. “Hey, Livio, sit down and get somethin’ to eat. Needle-noggin’s a hell of a cook.”

Cautiously, Livio walked into the kitchen. He kept his shoulders hunched to make himself look smaller, though since he was as wide as Meryl was tall and had a whole head on Milly, it didn’t count for much. His chair creaked as he sat, fiddling with his hair.

As soon as he’d walked in Vash had stiffened almost imperceptibly. Meryl had stiffened very perceptibly, even going so far as to move her hand closer to one of the knives.

Thank God for Milly Thompson. She reached a hand over, beaming. “Nice to meet you, mister Livio! I’m Milly Thompson, your brother’s a good friend of mine. Would you like a hair tie?”

Mechanically, Livio shook Milly’s hand. Nicholas felt for him; it was deeply disorienting to be hit with a full battery of Thompson kindness. Livio said “Nice to meet you, Ms. Thompson. I don’t need a hair tie, thank you, though.”

“Just call me Milly, okay?”

“Yes’m.”

Finally taking pity on him, she released his hand and waited for the other two.

Meryl followed suit, offering her hand. “I’m Meryl Stryfe. Just ‘Meryl’ is fine. It’s nice to meet you, Livio. We’re all very close friends with Wolfwood.”

There was that classic Stryfe script, it’d been a minute since he’d been treated to one.

“Vash,” was all he offered, with a fake little smile and a wave. Nicholas stepped on his foot until he reached over to shake Livio’s hand. He was absolutely going to have to deal with that. But first…

“All right, enough chit chat, I’m starving.”

As it happened, Vash had made exactly enough for the five of them. Mostly because Nicholas and Livio went back for sevenths. Everything was the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted, and he made some noises that would’ve been embarrassing had he given a sh*t.

The rice was amazing. It had worm nymphs and pieces of tomas, and the fresh vegetables gave it a wonderful crunch. Nicholas spooned generous amounts of chili sauce onto each serving, loving how warm it made him feel. In between mouthfuls he managed “Damn, needle-noggin, this is great! I’ve never had rice made like this before. Did you learn it, or is it a Spikey special?”

Vash had gotten a strange look on his face as Nicholas complimented his cooking. “It’s called nasi goreng,” he said. “I learned how to make it when I was little.”

Nicholas took that statement and put it aside for safekeeping.

After they finished eating, Nicholas felt warm and fat and happy, and wanted to go to sleep again. He knew he couldn’t, though. Always something to do. Stretching, he ran through the checklist he kept in his mind, sorting things in order of importance and urgency. Satisfied, he stood, gently tapping Livio on the shoulder.

“C’mon, let’s get that rat’s nest offa your head.”

They set up in the bathroom, Livio on a chair in front of one of the mirrors, Nicholas behind him with a pair of scissors and some clippers he’d bummed off of Vash.

He held up a hank of tangled hair. “I’m gonna have to cut most of this off. You okay with that?”

Livio nodded. He’d been shy and subdued the whole morning, not saying much. Nicholas didn’t have the right to feel hurt by that. Instead he gingerly combed out the snarls as best he could, going slowly so as not to pull. Then he cut off big clumps of hair that fell to the floor in gray tumbles.

Livio had always been towheaded and tan, a sort of overall gold, but where the Eye’s enhancements had left Nicholas with crow’s feet and worry lines, Livio had gone prematurely gray.

The two brothers were silent as Nicholas worked, scissors snipping. He stopped to ask “Shorter?” and Livio only grunted affirmation.

Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore. “Remember when you cut my hair for picture day?”

Livio’s eyes flicked up to meet his in the mirror. One was ringed by a veiny tattoo, making the hazel of his iris hawkish. “Yeah. Ms. Melanie threw a fit over it.”

“Only ‘cause you stole her good scissors.”

“And ‘cause we were five,” Livio retorted.

Nicholas pulled more hair away from his face, deciding that bangs weren’t a good look for him. “You were six, and I was seven, actually.”

Livio blew some stray strands off of his nose. “Doesn’t change the fact that I nearly gave you a bald spot.”

Satisfied, Nicholas put down the scissors and reached for the clippers. “Still the best haircut I’ve ever gotten.”

He’d just clicked the button when Livio stood abruptly, hands clenched into fists. He breathed hard for a moment, giving Nicholas just enough time to turn the clippers off and worry before he rounded on him.

His big hazel eyes were brimming with tears. It was the same look Nicholas had seen a thousand times over. Crybaby Livio, with his wobbly lip and flushed cheeks. It had become increasingly rare over the years as Livio shut down in order to protect himself. But here, in Hopeland, Nicholas felt like no time had passed.

Which is why he asked “Big sad or small sad?” Automatic. Checking on his little brother. Just as he always had.

“Big,” Livio said. Then he enveloped Nicholas in a bone crushing hug. The collar of his shirt grew wet as Livio sobbed into him.

Those hands snapping his neck. The way those hands had hurt him just yesterday. Can’t trust him can’t trust him can’t trust him!

Nicholas shook. He shook as he held his brother and he shook as his brother incoherently rambled “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” and he shook as his own face grew wet. He ran his hand over the back of Livio’s head, mumbling nonsense “Shh, shh, s’alright,” because his head was empty of anything else.

When Livio pulled back, he rasped, “I’m so sorry, Nico,” and Nicholas cut him off.

“None a’that, now.” He squeezed his forearms. “You did what you had to. No, look at me.” Livio had shrunk in on himself, like a dog that expected to be kicked. “You stayed alive, and that’s all that matters.”

“I was gonna kill you!” Livio wailed.

The blood and the pain. A mag emptied into his gut. Falling apart and bleeding out.

“I’m right here, yeah?” Nicholas gently pressed Livio’s head to his shoulder. “I’m not goin’ anywhere, hermano. I’m right here.”

Eventually Livio sat back down, though he still sucked in big, teary breaths. Nicholas steadied himself and got the clippers again.

After cleaning up the back of his head a little, Nicholas figured that this was as good as it was gonna get. Livio’s new crew cut was iles better than the mangy mane he’d been sporting.

Working his way down his to-do list, Nicholas left Livio to have some privacy and went to check on the laundry. Because sweet mother of God, he could always count on the f*cking laundry to be there for him.

He didn’t mind it terribly, truth be told. The humid warmth and the clean smell. It was how constant it was, more than anything. So he wasn’t in a terrible mood when he saw his new suit laid out like a corpse in a casket, shot full of holes.

Nicholas stopped. Stared at it.

His new suit. The one he’d been given as a thank you gift in Rocille for getting the money from that bastard priest. The one with the silver embroidery that had made Vash say he cleaned up nice, made him feel a little handsome, even. The shirt with the wormshell buttons and no shiny wear spots yet. The nicest clothes he’d ever owned.

He started tapping his foot in agitation.

It was just clothes, it wasn’t a big deal.

Except.

Except it was, kind of. Because his old suit was so raggedy that it was barely holding together anymore. One wrong move and he’d be without a stitch. Except he was so used to wearing a black suit, it’s what he always wore, even if this one was a little fancier. And this meant he didn’t have a jacket, and he hated walking around without a jacket. What was he supposed to do, let everyone see where he kept his vials and his spare ammo? Just wear a shirt with no extra protection from people looking at him?

And speaking of people looking at him, his sunglasses were broken. And he wasn’t like needle-noggin, he didn’t carry spares. He rubbed at his arms. It was always so bright outside, wasn’t smart to go without. And…and he hated looking people in the eye. Hated them looking at him. Made him want to bare his teeth and bite, make them go away.

He wiped at his nose.

He could get new sunglasses and a new jacket.

It was fine.

When Milly came in to check on her and Meryl’s laundry, she found Nicholas rocking back and forth and beating his fists against his head as he stood over his destroyed suit.

“Mister Nick? What’s wrong?” He appreciated that she didn’t try to grab him immediately. That would’ve made him even more upset.

He pulled his hands down, embarrassed at being seen like this. “S’nothin’. M’fine.” His voice was thick and his eyes were red, so he resolutely kept his back to her. Couldn’t handle looking at her right now, anyways.

“You seem like you’re having a rough time. Can I help?” Her voice was soft, but not wheedlingly so. Like she wasn’t handling him with kid gloves. Made him feel like less of a goddamn child.

If you don’t want to be treated like a child, then stop acting like one.

“SHUT UP!”

Milly jumped, staring at him in surprise.

He shrank back, digging his fingers into his scalp. “Sorry, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. S’not…not you. M’just bein’, uh, crazy.” He was trembling. Why was he like this. Why wouldn’t it stop. Please, please please he just wanted it to stop.

She was giving him a long, steady look. There was no repulsion or fear in her face, nor pity. Finally, she spoke. “Hey, mister Nick, can you do me a favor?”

He was half hunched over and was torn between wanting to run and wanting to lash out. “What?”

“Can you let go of your head a little? I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

With effort, he loosened his grip. His scalp felt raw from where his nails had cut into it.

She smiled at him. “Thanks, I appreciate it. Now, do you wanna talk, or do you want me to leave you alone?”

Nicholas still felt like he was going to split in half, but he managed “M’fine.” It was probably his worst lie yet, but Milly didn’t call him on it.

“Okay, I’ll be here if you want anything,” she said, and moved around him to get her laundry.

It was weird. She wasn’t ignoring him, but she wasn’t staring at him, either. She was just acting like this was normal, and that he wasn’t losing his sh*t over something totally trivial.

He managed to last until she quite literally stepped around him, basket under one arm. Then he broke. “Suit’s ruined,” he mumbled.

She looked down at it. “Yeah, I don’t think we can fix it, sorry. I hate when my good clothes get ruined and I have to get new ones.” She started to hang the washing on the line.

Swallowing thickly, Nicholas continued, “Don’ have a jacket. Or sunglasses.”

She paused, head tilted to the side. “Hmmm, I see. It’s sh*tty when you can’t wear what you’re used to, huh? I know that whenever I don’t have my overcoat I have about ten minutes before I get upset, too.” Still, she treated him like an adult. No kiddie speak, no condescension, just understanding. He’d even kept rocking and she hadn’t pointed it out.

Milly finished hanging things up and tapped her finger on her chin. “Tell you what. I think we need supplies, and your brother definitely needs clothes, so we can stop in town and get you a jacket and some sunglasses. How’s that sound?”

“Sounds good.”

She smiled her big sunshine smile at him, the one he never felt like he deserved. “Great! In the meantime, do you want to borrow my sunglasses? They’re not the same, but maybe they’ll help.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out bronze tinted aviators.

Nicholas took them, clumsy with exhaustion. “Thanks, big girl,” he mumbled, fumbling them on. The lenses were lighter than he was used to, and a different shape, but just having the layer of protection made him feel less raw.

“Why, mister priest, you look so handsome! Maybe I should lend you my clothes more often.” Milly batted her eyelashes at him playfully and Nicholas finally cracked a smile, feeling himself blush.

“Sorry for bein’ crazy at you.”

She put down her washing and took his hand in hers, stroking his knuckles with her thumb. “Wolfwood, you’ve gotta be more gentle with yourself, okay? Besides, you’ve earned a little bein’ crazy.” Then she winked at him, and he didn’t feel quite so terrible anymore.

With the glasses, the outline of a plan to get new clothes, and Milly’s reassurance, he was able to fall back into the easy rhythm of soap and scrubbing.

Together the two of them finished the laundry and headed back to the kitchen to reconvene. Livio had been helping with the dishes as Meryl delicately grilled him for details about himself. Nicholas really hadn’t been expecting anything different. Vash put what little leftovers they had away, perhaps for dinner or breakfast. He still looked terrible, but managed a smile when he saw Milly and Nicholas.

They all looked terrible, really. The bags under Meryl’s eyes were more pronounced, Milly was wan despite her upbeat attitude, and Nicholas and Livio still looked beat to hell, despite everything.

He did what Ms. Melanie would’ve told him to do in the first place, and made everyone coffee.

They all sat at the kitchen table, sipping at their mugs, and trying to find a way to break the awkward silence.

It was Meryl who bit the bullet. “What’s our plan?”

Everyone looked at Vash, who looked at Nicholas. They had a brief, intense silent conversation where they mostly glared at each other with varying levels of eyebrow. Nicholas said “Well, we’ve gotta finish taking care of the Eye of Michael. If we leave them alone they’ll just be trouble for us later.”

This made Livio very uncomfortable. “Uh, I don’t think you have to worry about that.”

“What do you mean?”

Livio wrapped his hands around his mug and stared into it for a long moment. “There is no more Eye of Michael. There’s nobody left.”

Nicholas leaned closer to Livio. “What do you mean?” he repeated.

Livio tried to make himself small. “When…when you left, M - uh. He got really angry.” His eyes flickered over to the front of the kitchen, where Nicholas knew…he knew what he was watching for. “After he recovered, he, um…Nico, it wasn’t your fault.” Livio blurted the last part out in a rush.

“Tell me.” He didn’t have to be told. He knew.

His brother took a shuddering breath in. “He said, uh, he said that he couldn’t trust anyone. That everyone was a traitor. So. So,” he swallowed. “He killed everyone. We killed everyone.” His voice had gone down to a whisper. “There’s no one left.”

Nicholas didn’t know how to feel about that. The Eye of Michael were a bunch of murderous, torturing child stealers. He’d spent a decade trapped with them, struggling to survive as all around him, kids just as innocent as any from Hopeland had been devoured. But Brother Felix had always slipped him extra rations when he was on kitchen duty, and Brother Luke had taught him backflips in between sparring sessions. Even mean f*ckers like Brother Paul had taught him how to stay alive.

He did know how to feel about his brother, though. He put an arm around Livio’s shoulder and said “You’re here. You’re alive, and you’re out. That’s all that matters. Right?”

Livio nodded, more as a response to Nicholas’s prompting than out of any conviction.

He released Livio’s shoulders and leaned back, trying to look nonchalant. “Well, in that case, ball’s in your court, needle-noggin.” Vash looked confused, so Nicholas elaborated. “Still gotta stop Knives.”

Vash got stony, the same way he always did when his brother was discussed. It made them look like twins. “I’ve been avoiding him for too long. It’s time for me to face him.”

“Wait, hold on, what?” Meryl interrupted, incredulous. “Are you just going to walk right up to him? Is that seriously your plan?”

“Meryl, please understand, the longer I make him wait, the more people he’ll hurt.”

“So?” She leaned over the table. “He’s going to hurt people anyway, Vash. He’s just dangling that over your head to make you rush so you don’t come up with an actual plan.”

“Meryl’s right,” Milly said. “Plus, Knives is the one choosing to hurt people, not you. He’s trying to make you feel like it’s your fault.”

Nicholas caught the split second flicker of something cross Vash’s face before he rubbed the back of his head and laughed sheepishly. “Aw man, you insurance girls really don’t hold back, huh? Well, if you have any suggestions, I’m all ears.”

Meryl frowned, the corners of her eyes tightening as she pulled out her notebook. “First, we need information. What is Knives planning?” She waited, expectantly. When no one answered, she said “Oh come on, you must know something.

Vash continued to give her his best dumb puppy face.

She sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Okay, how can we find out what Knives is planning? Is there anyone who might talk?”

“Well,” Nicholas began, then stopped when Meryl locked on to him. “I mean, it’s a long shot, and I have a feelin’ no one here’s gonna like it.”

“Wolfwood, the suspense is killing me,” Meryl deadpanned.

He groaned. “Well, I mean, I could try asking…Zazie.”

The table exploded.

“What?!”

“Absolutely not.”

“How is that even an option at all?”

“Wait, like Zazie the Beast?”

Nicholas threw his hands up in surrender. “Fine, fine! It was just a suggestion, no need to bite my head off.”

Milly had a fierce scowl on her face. “Wolfwood, I think that’s a bad idea. It’s very dangerous, and who knows what a meal with it would look like.”

“Oh, come on, there’s no harm in asking.” Zazie sat on the kitchen counter, grinning cheerfully. It wiggled its fingers at them. “Hi, Wolfwood.”

Chairs banged against the floor as everyone rose to their feet. There was a mechanical clanking as Vash’s gun arm activated, pointed directly at Zazie. Milly shielded Meryl with her body; unarmed but ready for a fight.

Nicholas put his fingers in his mouth and whistled one loud blast to get everyone’s attention. Milly flinched and covered her ears, glaring at him. “Everyone calm down!” he barked. “Spikey, put that thing away, dammit!”

“Oh, we don’t mind,” Zazie said, nonplussed. “Any injury you could do to us would be inconvenient at worst, and we already know that you don’t like us.” It hadn’t moved from its spot on the counter, chin in its hands.

For a moment, Nicholas thought he might have to make Vash stand down by force. His eyes were fixed on Zazie, fangs bared in a snarl. Then he flexed his arm, retracting the gun with a series of snaps.

“Tell them,” he said. “Tell them what you did.”

“Fine,” it sighed, rolling its eyes. This dismissive gesture seemed to increase the feeling of malice radiating off of Vash like heat from a stove. “In our defense, how were we supposed to know that you’re not interchangeable?”

“Huh?” Meryl asked, peeking out from behind Milly.

“To avoid a very long and very complicated discussion about biology, psychology, and spirituality, we’ll simplify and say that every worm is every other worm all at once,” it said. “Each worm has its own experiences, but they are shared by all. You call this form,” it gestured to itself, “Zazie, but that is not correct. We are all Zazie. From the smallest larva to the oldest Grand Worm, and stretching back eons. We are the entirety of our species, all at once.”

“Woah,” Meryl said. She’d gotten out her notebook and was writing this down while keeping her eyes fixed on Zazie.

It preened at the attention, hair fluttering as if moved by a breeze. “About time a human showed interest in us. Anyways,” it continued, “We’re sure you can excuse us for assuming that you were the same.”

“No, I can’t,” Vash said, voice steely. “Tell them what you did.”

It turned to Nicholas. “Do you remember the oath we swore to you?”

Oath? Oath. He racked his brain. “You swore that all information you have given to me and will give to me is truthful. You swore on the divine rite of autocannibalism.” Maybe there had been some utility in forced memorization after all.

Zazie inclined its head. Up close and in the light of day, he saw that it had huge compound eyes, the light making them look catlike. “It is our most holy rite. This planet, the stone and sky of it, is uncompromising, even to us. We have survived here for millions of years, and that kind of survival requires sacrifice. During times of drought or famine or disease, we would determine which parts of us would be least likely to survive, and we would cull them. Thus there would be less of a burden upon the whole, and the cycle would continue.”

“Oh my god,” Meryl breathed. “You eat each other.”

It set its shoulders, regal and serene. “No, Meryl Stryfe, we eat ourselves. We have lived for millions of years and we have died trillions of times. Our mistake was in assuming humans are the same.”

It looked out of the window for a moment, contemplative. “When you crashed here, we saw your suffering. How ill-adapted you were. How much you struggled. There were so many settlements, and so few resources. Springs that only had enough water for two years, cliffs on the brink of collapse, well, you know how it goes. So we acted as we always have.”

“Carlyle,” Vash intoned with a voice like ice. “Pridemont. Rosemary. Chesterton. Scarborough. Little Blessing. Angelica. Haven. Rust Town. Avery. Taroma. Sunshine Valley. Ten thousand people.”

Zazie met his gaze solemnly. “We did not know. We were trying to help.”

“Ten thousand people.”

“We are sorry.”

This apology snapped Vash out of his rage. He stepped back, clearly on shakier ground now. “Then…then why are you helping Knives destroy humanity?”

Zazie gave Nicholas a quizzical glance. “You didn’t tell him?”

He sighed and pulled up a chair, not wanting to have to stand anymore. “It’s been a long f*cking week. Didn’t have much of a chance.”

Zazie flopped its arms over its legs. “Well, we were trying to get more information on humans and Plants, and since somebody refused to talk to us, Knives was our only option. That plan, however, has obviously “gone up in flames”, if we’re using that correctly.” It slid off the counter and started aimlessly going through the cabinets.

“Zazie,” Nicholas said, feeling a headache start to build, “Please start making sense.”

It turned its head 180 degrees to look back at him. “We thought we were. Knives was very upset by whatever was in that note, and he took it out on us, spoilt brat. Treating us like we’re his lackeys. Called us ‘traitor’ as he sliced us apart. So now we are…re-evaluating our position.” It turned its head back around and continued rummaging.

Meryl leaned forward eagerly, though Milly put a concerned hand around her waist. “So does this mean you’re not working for Knives anymore?”

Seeing this steamercrash happening in slow motion, Nicholas blurted out “It never worked for Knives. It was trying to decide whether humans or Plants are the better option, right?”

Zazie had a hand on the refrigerator door and was giving the whole table a look of contempt. “Close. Our goal is to determine if cohabitation with one or both of your species is possible. All of our actions have always been to that end. Ooh, can we eat this?” It had a container of rice in its hand.

“It’s got worm in it,” Vash said. Zazie continued to stare at him, and he relented with a “Sure.”

“Want some coffee?” Nicholas asked. Best to be polite.

“No, but we will take milk and sugar, thank you.”

As Nicholas got it a mug, Meryl continued her interview. “You never worked for Knives, but you did help him, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, would you help us?”

It extended a proboscis to sip its mug. “We have been helping you.”

“Sending people to kill us is a strange way of helpin’,” Nicholas snarked. He caught Livio’s wounded look and muttered “Sorry.”

“We didn’t do that! Knives read your note and cut us to ribbons, and that is all we know,” it protested, indignant. “We helped you yesterday. Humans from the town would have investigated, so we created…” it made a series of chittering worm sounds, then snapped its fingers. “An illusion! Yes, we made an illusion, so the humans didn’t see the fight, and they didn’t get hurt.” It smiled, way too wide and with way too many chelicerae. “This is your home, Wolfwood. And we wanted to show that we understand humans more, Stampede.”

Zazie’s words fell heavily on the kitchen. It continued to sip its sugary drink, apparently oblivious, while the rest of the aliens at the table were lost in thought.

“Zazie,” Meryl said, slowly, “Would you be willing to help us stop Knives?”

“Why should we?”

She thought, chewing on her lip. “Knives only cares about himself. Whatever kind of world he tries to build, it won’t be one that has worms in it.”

“We know that.” Zazie threw one leg over the other, very clearly imitating Nicholas’s preferred posture. “You haven’t answered our question. Why should we help you?”

Meryl’s dark eyes were clear when she said “If you help us, we’ll make sure that you’re always involved in the future of this planet. Humans and worms will work together, and you will be respected as the original inhabitants.”

“Humans and worms,” it hummed, turning to Vash. “What about Plants?”

Vash flinched.

Nicholas knew why. Despite everything, he’d never been called a Plant in front of so many people. Especially not the girls.

Then he nodded curtly. “Plants will respect worms and your sovereignty. There won’t be any conflict. ”

It flapped a long white sleeve at him. “Oh we don’t mind a little conflict, that’s part of life! As long as we are respected, we can live with misunderstandings from time to time. It’s like the humans say: ‘pobody’s nerfect’!”

Livio choked on his coffee, doubling over as he tried to muffle his snorting laughter.

Nicholas clapped his hands together. “Great! So, what do you know about Knives’s plans?”

“Oh, very little. We were never involved in his schemes. However,” it held up a finger, “We think that the human doctor would know more, and we know how you can get to him.”

“Do you mean Doc Conrad?” Livio had recovered from his laughing fit and was frowning at Zazie.

“Sure, if that’s his name. He has a lab close to the north pole, and he is currently there alone. We can draw it on a map, if you want.”

Meryl almost bolted out of the kitchen to get the map, returning slightly out of breath. Zazie marked a spot high to the north, tucked into a glacier.

“Well sh*t,” Nicholas said. “Now we’ve all gotta get new clothes.”

Zazie left as abruptly as it had arrived. It did take the last of the rice, though, which Nicholas honestly thought was funny.

With a destination and a purpose, they all packed into Meryl’s van. Nicholas got sandwiched in the middle of the backseat, in between Vash and Livio. It wasn’t as cramped as he thought it might be, and there was something comforting about being so close to the two of them.

Milly rode shotgun - or, rather, stun gun, the big thing braced against the footwell. She had out the maps, cheerfully chatting with Meryl about their route. Meryl pulled out from behind the orphanage in a spray of sand and turned on the radio.

The rumble of the engine, the warmth of the suns, the chatter all around him, all of these things worked together to wrap Nicholas in a haze of relaxation. He felt his eyelids droop as he leaned against Vash’s shoulder.

“Get some rest,” Vash murmured into his ear. “We’ve got you, Wolfwood.” He laced their fingers together, gently rubbing his thumb along Nicholas’s knuckles.

He fell asleep, his family around him.

Notes:

oh my god this is a beast of a chapter. wolfwood grabbed the mic and kept going "AND ANOTHER THING" i love this about him

Chapter 4: Everything Is Going Great

Summary:

The team starts their journey north, and everything is fine.

Notes:

Everything Is Going Great by Tiny Stills
Content warning: this chapter has mentioned/implied csa and cult abuse

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Mornings on No Man’s Land were always cold, but far to the northern latitudes they were nearly unbearable. The air was crystal clear and gelid, freezing the lungs with each breath. No birds wheeled in the sky, no lizards warmed themselves on the icy stones, and the only worms were squat, hardy crawlers with hides thick enough to endure the cold.

Near the foot of a towering mesa was a small campsite. It consisted of a large van that had clearly seen some action, though it was well cared for. Strapped to the top of the van were several cloth wrapped crosses, three with missing pieces. A thick tent used one side of the van as a wall, attached like a limpet. Smoke wafted out of a pipe emerging from the top of the tent, creating a thin, gray flag.

Inside the tent were five people curled up around a central stove, in puffy sleeping bags that just showed their faces. All but one were asleep.

Vash really hated camping. He’d said it before and he’d say it again. There was no better guarantee for sore joints and screaming muscles than spending the night curled up on the cold ground. The farther north they’d gotten, the harder it had been to wake up at his usual time, the chill making him uncharacteristically groggy and clumsy.

He could have slept in the van, Milly had offered, but that would have meant leaving everyone else exposed. Besides, he didn’t need any special treatment, he had dealt with worse. One person sleeping in the van just felt selfish, anyway. Why should he hog the comfortable interior?

It would have also meant being away from Wolfwood, and he couldn’t do that. Not after he almost lost him. He couldn’t even sleep anymore unless he could hear Wolfwood’s breathing.

If Vash was going to be selfish, he’d rather be selfish like this.

He blinked drowsily, curled up in his sleeping bag. Next to him, Wolfwood breathed slow and deep, face smoothed by sleep. It was only 4:33, after all. Vash needed to get up and stretch if he had any hope of surviving yet another day crammed into Meryl’s old company van.

Vash put his big girl panties on and made himself get up. The outside of the tent was so disgustingly cold that he didn’t dare take off his coat, the ache in his implants nearly making him retch. He bitched and moaned in his head as he stretched, wondering why Conrad had to put his secret lab at the north pole. And why they were all going there. And why he hadn’t been able to get any peace and quiet for the past two days.

Punchy and frosty, he debated going for a jog to clear his head and stretch his legs. Then he remembered Livio, sleeping at the edge of the tent.

It felt like every time he blinked he saw Wolfwood vomiting blood into Livio’s face.

Vash decided to do high kicks instead.

At 5:27, Livio stumbled out of the tent, wild eyed and disoriented. Bad nightmare, probably. His eyes landed on Vash, finishing his last set of handstand presses.

Before Vash could even pick out a smile to wear, Livio went rigid, like the blood had frozen solid in him. He stammered “Good morning! Uh, training, right, absolutely, good call, I’ll, uh, I’ll check the perimeter and leave you to it, sir.” Then he turned around and set off at a jog, not giving Vash time to open his mouth.

Rocking back onto his feet, Vash wasn’t sure which part unsettled him more; Livio running away from him, or Livio calling him sir.

Like an immutable law of the universe, Wolfwood woke up at 6:00. He emerged from the tent scruffyheaded and sleep soft, rosary in one hand and lighter in the other. Vash let him be, understanding the importance of a morning ritual. For his part, he was doing Colt drills, the rapidly rising suns making the metal in his muscles ping in pain as it expanded. The dramatic temperature shifts made him uncoordinated, so he focused on the fundamentals.

Click went the trigger. Clack went the beads. For a few minutes, it was like nothing had changed at all.

Then Wolfwood flicked the butt of his cigarette to the side and asked “Y’seen Livio?” and the illusion shattered.

Vash holstered the Colt and took a sip of water from his canteen. “He woke up about half an hour ago and went for a run. He said he was checking the perimeter, but I think he wanted to get away from me.”

“No sh*t, way you’ve been actin’ around him.”

Vash made a face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Wolfwood leveled an unamused glare at Vash, made cutting by the bags under his eyes . “Cut the crap. You’ve barely said two words to him, you hardly leave me alone with him - which is bullsh*t, by the way - and these have been your fakest smiles yet. He thinks you hate him.” He turned and started to unload the cooking supplies.

“I don’t hate him-”

“Then quit treatin’ him like he’s gonna bite!” Wolfwood retorted, face pinched in consternation.

Joining him by the supplies, Vash lowered his voice so they’d have less chance of being overheard. “I’m just worried. Wolfwood, he tried to kill you!”

“Wow, thanks, must’ve forgotten that,” he deadpanned. He jerked his head for Vash to follow him as he carried the stove away from the van. “Listen, needle-noggin, it’s…” he trailed off for a moment, thinking. “Remember when we met?”

Vash set down the bag of food and nodded.

“Remember how f*cking bizarre I was?”

“You weren’t-” Wolfwood sighed and closed his eyes, mouth a flat line. “Okay, yeah, I remember.”

2 years, 6 months, and 18 days ago, Meryl had hit a man with her van. This same van, actually. The man said he was a traveling priest, but he was a very obvious liar. Vash had been endeared by how stupendously bad he was at lying. His statements all overblown, his mannerisms too big, too theatrical, like someone running a shell game. Except instead of trying to guess where the marble was, Vash kept guessing where the truth of this man was. Which aphorism concealed a genuine belief, which awkward laugh had real humor in it, which exaggerated jump covered a flinch. This lying, puzzle of a man quickly became someone Vash considered a friend because of his strangeness, not in spite of it. And because he’d taken one look at Vash and known he was a liar, too.

The camp stove snapped on and Wolfwood started rifling through the bag for ingredients. “When Shortie hit me with that damn car, I was two weeks out, tops. First time talkin’ to anyone who wasn’t a child-stealing assassin in eight years.”

Vash stayed very still and tried very hard not to break anything.

Wolfwood put water on to boil and passed Vash some vegetables to cut. At least Wolfwood was letting him help with breakfast instead of trying to do it all himself. “That’s where Livio is right now, ‘cept he’s got it even worse, ‘cause he was in for longer and he’s always been awkward as the day is long.” He poured a little of the hot water into a bowl with harina de maíz, kneading a dough with his square brown fingers. “You gotta let him be weird, needle-noggin, or else he’ll keep actin’ like a kicked dog for the rest of his life.”

He was right, of course. Livio had a blank ticket, just like everyone else. Vash was wrong to try to deny it to him. “Sorry, Wolfwood.”

He slid the vegetables into a pan right as Wolfwood flicked him gently on the ear. “If I had a double dollar for every time you said ‘sorry’ I’d be richer than a water baron. Just be your needle-nogginiest self and he’ll relax in no time.”

Vash raised an eyebrow, feeling a smile tugging at his lips. “Oh yeah?”

Wolfwood shrugged. “Well, you won me over, didn’t you?” Not even his ashen pallor could disguise his blush.

It made Vash want to kiss him very badly.

Before he had decided whether or not to ask if he could, Livio rounded a hill, footfalls totally silent. He slowed to a stop in front of the stove, sweat dripping down his forehead.

Like flipping a switch, Wolfwood became Big Brother Nico. “Mornin’, Liv! How was your run?”

Livio didn’t seem to notice the shift. “Good, everything within a two ile radius is clear, and I didn’t see any other travelers.” He stood stiffly to attention, looking uncertainly down at them.

Wolfwood started to roll the dough into little balls before patting them flat. “Great! Now go wash, there’s no way in hell I’m spending the rest of the day snorting your stank. Breakfast’ll be ready soon.”

Scooting the bowl closer, Vash helped.

Meryl and Milly woke up not too long after. It was funny; Vash had traveled with them for just as long as he’d traveled with Wolfwood, if not longer, but not in such close proximity. Hotel rooms and steamer cabins, always space. Now they were all getting very well acquainted with each other’s habits. The way Milly was fully awake and ready to go, smiling bright and chatterboxy as she made coffee. Contrasted against Meryl’s monosyllabic grunts and bedhead that looked like a ball of soot. How everyone had to crowd around the washbasin so they could shave. Vash had never seen Meryl’s wispy little mustache before, or Milly’s copper fuzz, but he found that he liked being close enough to have the chance to.

The five of them gathered around the camp stove for breakfast, dressed and mostly ready for the day.

“So,” Meryl began, hands wrapped around her second cup of coffee, “here’s the plan. There’s a town called Tunnage about a five hour drive from here. It’s the northernmost settlement, so we should get whatever supplies we need today and leave tomorrow. Based on the location Zazie gave us, it’ll still be another day before we reach Conrad. That’s assuming the weather holds, though. There are a lot of storms close to the pole, so we need to be careful of our timing, but the van is well insulated, so we should be able to deal with anything that comes our way. Any questions?”

Meryl Stryfe. Vash had missed her so much he thought he might pass out. Wolfwood had once called her a bullet of a woman, and he was right. She picked her goal and then ran straight toward it, and god help you if you got in her way.

He hadn’t wanted to leave her.

She’d said she wanted to come with him, and that had been what he’d so desperately wanted to hear, it hadn't been fair. It felt like a test. Sitting here, across from her and Milly, Vash couldn’t shake the suspicion that he’d failed.

But he was still sore and not looking forward to five whole bastard hours stuck in that tiny back seat, so he put his misgivings on a shelf for a moment. Tried to appreciate the 661666166 lemon honey shine of her earrings and the confidence in her voice. Tried to ignore the graze on her cheek and the way she gingerly held herself to avoid putting pressure on her battered ribs.

Livio raised his hand. “Excuse me, Ms. Meryl?” A kicked dog, huh.

“Just ‘Meryl’, Livio.”

He quickly and sheepishly lowered his hand. “Right, sorry, Meryl. Uh, my guns are pretty badly damaged, and I’ll need a weaponsmith to fix them. I, uh, I mean, I’m not blaming you, of course not, and I know that it’ll be expensive, but, uh, I want to be useful, and I’m good with the Double Fangs (youprobablydon’twannahearthat), so I can watch your back, and if there’s any trouble with money I’ll gladly work it off, I’m going to pull my weight of course-”

Vash was thankful that Milly interrupted, because he didn’t know where “letting him be weird” ended and “watching him flounder” began, but suspected they’d reached the latter.

“Oh, getting your guns fixed up is a great idea, Livio! We should all make sure our gear is in tip top shape. It’s like my daddy always says: opportunity is the intersection of preparation and f*ck.”

Livio and Vash found sudden kinship as they both went poker-faced, but Meryl and Milly only giggled. “Luck! I meant luck! Oh hell, sorry, y’all, I get tongue-tied real easy, especially this early in the morning. If you’re ever confused just axe.”

Sunlight glittered off of Meryl’s earrings as she laughed, a silverbell sound. “You’re fine, Milly, it’s part of your charm.” She gave Milly a quick peck on the lips -. “Based on my information, Tunnage should have good metalworkers at the very least. It’s the site of a really big crash, and the town is made of the hull pieces.”

Wolfwood, constantly in motion, poured Livio another cup of coffee. “Yeah, we’re not gonna make you run around unarmed, that’d be f*cked up. Worst-case, we’ll get you a sidearm until we can find someone good.”

The ticket to the future is always blank. Vash took a nonchalant bite of his tortilla and said “I’m no gunsmith, but I know a thing or two. Maybe I could help?”

If Vash hadn’t spent so much time around Wolfwood, he was sure he would have missed the quick flinch and the way Livio looked him over, like he wasn’t sure if this was a trap. “Oh, thank you kindly, Mr. Vash.”

Hm. Maybe it would help Livio to loosen up? Vash snorted. “Wow, ‘sir’ and ‘mister’ in one day! I guess I’m just one of the guys, huh?” He put his chin in his hands and smiled guilelessly at him, batting his lashes.

Meryl smacked him in the arm with her notebook. “Will you stop that! Livio, he’s being a twerp, don’t answer him.” Vash pouted, miffed that she’d ruined their game.

As Livio looked slightly lost, Wolfwood leaned over and explained “He’s like me. Well, kinda. Mostly less handsome and more annoying.” Vash blew a raspberry. Entirely unappreciative, the pack of them.

Livio seemed to consider this, then shrugged and returned to his breakfast. “In any case, I’d appreciate any help you’d be willin’ to offer.”

Vash thought he might be able to like Livio.

Five hours. Five mind-numbing, joint-aching, sweat-itching hours stuck in Meryl’s van. The suns had banished the cold, which was great! Then they had turned the cramped vehicle into a convection oven, which was the worst. Vash was sweaty under his coat, but he didn’t want to take it off in case of danger, and because there was a fine layer of grit on all the seats, and if it got into the creases of his undersuit he’d have to shred it with his teeth.

It was made worse by Wolfwood’s insistence on chain smoking even in the confined space. The first day hadn’t been as bad, since he’d fallen asleep on Vash’s shoulder for hours, but then he’d jolted awake and lit a cigarette with no regard to the other passengers. They couldn’t roll down the windows, because if they did, they all got coated in dust.

Vash would crawl naked through hell for Wolfwood, but that didn’t change that he still got queasy when he had to huff second hand smoke all day long. He would often catch Milly’s eye in the side mirror and they’d exchange a look of shared suffering.

Eventually it had gotten so bad that she’d started crying, the smell too much to handle, and they worked out a system of designated smoke breaks. During these times Vash would leap out of the van, doing cartwheels and handsprings just to get even a little of his juice out.

Being in the van was like the logic problem with the chicken, the fox, and the wheat. Milly couldn’t sit next to Wolfwood in the van because the heat made her extra sensitive to the stale cigarette smell, only Milly and Wolfwood could sit next to Livio without radiating discomfort, Meryl and Wolfwood couldn’t be in the front together unless everyone was willing to be subjected to their bickering, and Vash couldn’t drive.

It was a miracle that they managed it at all.

Tunnage was one of the strangest towns Vash had ever been in. The buildings were all made out of the old SEEDS hull that had splintered into the ground, sharp and glinting even after all this time. Causeways ran in between the spires, casting thick stripes of shadow. A person could walk from one end of town to the other and never touch the ground. Vash, used to wide open spaces, felt a little claustrophobic.

Meryl parked the van and set off to gather some information. Vash flollopped out onto the rocky ground, his body too sore to work properly. Trusting the others to cover him for a few minutes, he cracked every joint he had, just to be indulgent. As he pulled his arms back to pop his ribs he saw Livio staring at him in horror.

Vash winked.

A few minutes later, Meryl emerged from the nearest spire. She was wearing sturdy coveralls and heavy boots, so different from her sleek white suit. Instead of hiding her Derringers in her cape, she had half a dozen of them on shoulder holsters that criss-crossed her chest and back. Another half dozen ringed her waist, above where her coverall top was tied around her hips. When she put away her clothes for the night he had noticed thigh and ankle holsters, too, but those were concealed under the loose olive fabric.

Part of him missed the familiar and stylish ensemble, but he had to admit she looked badass as she strode towards the van, blue sunglasses glinting in the light. Sweat bled through her gray tank top, and the suns had tanned her bare chest and arms.

“Right. I got us a place to stay tonight, and a place to park the van so we won’t have to worry about things getting stolen.” She pulled out her notebook from a pocket. “I’ve made my list of things we need to get, but if you can think of anything else we need, let me know now before we set off.”

“Donuts?” Said with the intention of annoying her.

Meryl rolled her eyes. “I mean vital supplies. Things we’ll need to survive.”

“Oh, but, Meryl, donuts are vital! They’re an important part of a balanced diet, and the carbohydrates will keep us warm as we brave the glacier.” As he talked, he lowered his voice and puffed out his chest like a daring adventurer.

“Uh huh,” Meryl said with exaggerated skepticism, crossing her arms. “I assume that means you’ll share?” Her lip was twitching with a barely suppressed smile.

Vash clasped his hands together, the picture of perfect sincerity. “Oh yes of course, Meryl! But please understand, in that case we’d need to get enough donuts for everyone to fully appreciate their benefits.”

She stepped up to him, giving him a playful look over the top of her sunglasses. “Well, Mr. Donut Expert, how many would that be?”

“A gross.”

“A gross?”

“Yep. 144 donuts. Minimum.” Ooh, 144. Strawberry cream flavored.

They stared at each other. Meryl was very obviously biting the inside of her cheek as her shoulders shook, determined not to break first. Vash felt his face crumpling like newspaper until he finally wheezed, bracing his hands on his thighs. She snorted, loud and unprettily, and he fully fell to his knees as he cackled.

“You dipsh*t,” she gasped.

He grinned up at her and let her shove her hand in his face, squishing his glasses into his cheek. Her fingers were callused and warm where they weren’t covered by her black leather gloves, and they tickled. God, he’d missed her. He wondered if -.

“Hey, what’s with the comedy routine over here?”

Wolfwood! Wolfwood! Wolfwood! Vash twisted around to see Wolfwood standing over them with his hands on his hips. His jacket and sunglasses had been destroyed in the fight, so he looked strange and exposed in his white shirt and Milly’s bronze aviators. The pale lenses meant that Vash could see the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, though, so something about silver linings.

“Hey, Wolfwood! I was just asking Vash if he had anything he wanted to add to the shopping list.” Meryl’s cheeks had gone pink from laughing.

“Lemme guess: donuts.”

“Wow, a mind reader and an undertaker, too. I haven’t met many men like you,” she teased. “Seriously, though, do you need anything?”

Sobering, Wolfwood stared into the middle distance. “I need at least 500 rounds for the Punisher, the medkit doesn’t have enough chemical wound sealant or sutures, at least double the amount of fuel you think we’ll need, triple the amount of water you think we’ll need, and a week’s worth of MREs,” he said. “To start.”

Meryl shot Vash a “can you believe this guy?” look. “I know,” she said. “I made all of the calculations for our supplies based on travel time and carrying capacity. See?” She held out the notebook.

Wolfwood took it, scrutinizing it with more care than Meryl’s competence warranted. He handed it back to her. “Right. Just wanted to double check. Livio still needs his guns repaired, though, so we can go do that while y’all pick this up. Plus, we can pick up ammo, too. Couple’a boxes of .45s for the two of you, some stun gun bolts for the big girl. Livio and I use the same caliber, so I’ll just triple that.”

“I can come with you,” Vash offered, rising to his feet.

“Nah, we’re good. This is more to get, so it’s better if you go with the girls. Besides, I think he needs a little breathing room. Thanks for the offer, needle-noggin. Meet at the outfitters in an hour?” Wolfwood waved as he walked to Livio. He patted his brother on the shoulder and they both headed into the town.

Vash watched them go.

xk = -cos(xpi/n), k = 0,...,n;

D00 = (2n2 + 1)/6 , Dnn = -(2n2 + 1)/6 ,

Dij = { -xi/(2(1-xi2)) , i = j,

(ci/cj) ((-1)i+j/(xi - xj)) , i =/= j,

“He’ll be fine,” Meryl said. Her voice was controlled, but the fear came through anyways. “He’s got the Punisher. He’ll be fine.”

“Yeah,” Vash said. “He’ll be fine.”

Vash, Meryl, and Milly spent the next hour shopping for the necessary supplies. Since Tunnage was in such an inhospitable place, it had plenty. Surprisingly reasonable prices, too. It was a little disorienting going up and down the spires instead of wandering along the streets, like the horizontal and the vertical had been swapped.

They decided to drop things off at the van before meeting up at the outfitter’s. No point in carrying things longer than necessary.

Meryl and Milly’s van was parked in a fenced off lot behind the spire that held the bar and hotel. A bored guard glanced at the ticket Meryl had before waving them through the gate.

It was a bright, hot afternoon. The temperature at the poles was always extreme; it’s why Vash hardly ever came there. He always felt more dehydrated after getting injured, too, so it was weighing on him.

The three of them hadn’t talked much while shopping, just focused on getting what they needed, but the quiet hadn’t been remarkable in the hustle and bustle. In the empty lot it felt suffocating. Vash didn’t know how to break it, or even if he particularly wanted to. He stacked MREs in the trunk and gritted his teeth against an oncoming headache. It was worse than the bullet wound. That he could ignore, at least.

The van rocked slightly. Vash glanced up and saw Milly braced against the side, head bowed. He finished putting away the rations and scooched over to lean beside her. Up close he saw her pinched forehead and the tremble in her lips.

“Milly?” Meryl rounded the front of the van, forehead wrinkled in concern. “Mills? What’s wrong?”

“He almost died!” Her voice was ragged, like she’d been screaming for hours. “Wolfwood almost died and we all watched it happen and now he’s acting like it’s nothing! I saw his insides, oh God, I saw his insides.” She slid down the side of the van, hugging her knees to her chest and rocking back and forth.

Vash felt the horror that he’d been shoving down surge back up and threaten to choke him. They’d all seen his insides. They’d seen him break and bleed beyond the point where any normal man would have died. Over and over, and they couldn’t do anything. At first, Vash had stayed back out of respect for Wolfwood. Then it had been all he could do to keep Milly and Meryl alive.

He sat down, wincing. His calf still stung from where Chapel had shot him. Meryl joined them, completing their little circle. She had a haunted expression on her face, her hands shaking.

The glacier loomed on the horizon. There would be a lot of carbon dioxide in that ice, Vash thought. Like Mars, all the way back orbiting Sol. He wondered if it would taste like soda water.

Meryl’s hands were clenched into fists on her knees, knuckles white. Her shoulders made a stiff line, bracing herself against whatever the world threw at her next. She shouldn’t have to endure all of this. It was too much to ask.

Taking a page from Wolfwood’s book, he placed his hand palm up in the space between them. An offer, not a demand.

The movement brought her back to herself. She squeezed his hand so tightly she would have broken his fingers if she hadn’t been holding his prosthetic.

The immediate aftermath of the fight had been…hard. Wolfwood had been far, far away in his mind, barely responding when spoken to. They’d ushered him and Razlo inside, hoping to get them cleaned up, but both men had fainted almost as soon as they’d crossed the threshold and had to be carried to the dormitory.

Vash had wanted to stay, to watch over Wolfwood, but Milly had seen the blood trickling from his leg and demanded that he tend to his wounds. They’d huddled in the bathroom, picking out bits of grit and shrapnel. Daubed iodine and bandaged bloody flesh.

Only the night before, Vash had sat in this same bathroom and listened as Wolfwood tried to exorcize the ghost of the man who now lay burned to ash. Wolfwood had told him as much as he was able, but it hadn’t been necessary. Vash knew. Knew from the moment he’d needed to tell Wolfwood he could stop.

It was Meryl who broke the silence. “Was that Wolfwood’s…teacher?” She rejected “teacher” even as she said it, voice faltering.

“That’s what it sounded like,” Milly said, the debris bowl going clink as she dropped a sliver of metal into it. “Something like that.”

Moments ticked by.

“Milly,” Meryl began. “I, um, I’m an only child, so I know that I don’t understand, but, why was Wolfwood still trying to help Raz-uh-Liv-his brother even though he was trying to kill him? Isn’t there a limit on how hurt you should get for your family?”

Eint = -(GM1M2)/(2R1)

(d2N)/(dtdM) ~= 24(2pi)½((GMlnA)/(sigma rc2))Redge3n(M)

T1 ~= [54(2/pi)½lnA((sigma Rc3)/rc4)(rhogal/rhocluster)]-1 ~= 0.24 x 109yr((rc250kpc)4/(Rc50kpc)3)(1000kms-1/sigma)((M/L)cl/(M/L)gal)

Milly took a shuddering breath. “It’s complicated. We don’t know what Wolfwood was thinking, since he didn’t talk to us, but he was scared of that man, Chapel. I think he was trying to get his brother away.”

“But his brother was listening to Chapel,” Meryl retorted. “He didn’t seem to want to get away.”

“He did at the end.”

Meryl scoffed. “Yeah, after he nearly killed Wolfwood twice.” Her voice was harsh with an almost-realized grief.

Milly’s face was compassionate and gentle. “People are complicated, honey. We don’t know what happened-“

“Chapel hurt him. Hurt Wolfwood. When he was a kid.” Huh. Vash hadn’t meant to say that. His mouth opened on its own and the words spilled out.

The look Meryl gave him was confused. “Yeah, I gathered as much.”

“Meryl,” Vash said. “He hurt him.”

“Jesus Christ,” Milly whispered, putting her hands over her mouth.

Blinking rapidly, Meryl furrowed her brow in concentration, trying to puzzle out Vash’s meaning. Then it hit her. “You mean he-? Oh my god. Oh my god.” She balled her hands into fists. “If he wasn’t already dead I would kill the bastard myself.”

Vash was so tired. “Meryl-“

“I would!” Righteous fury blazed from her like a white hot star. “Vash, he hurt our Wolfwood!”

He hurt their Wolfwood.

Vash dug his nails into his palm.

“We all care about Wolfwood, Meryl, but I’m gonna ask you to take a breath for me, okay, honey?” Milly held out a calming hand. “That man’s dead and gone, and he can’t hurt anybody no more. But Wolfwood’s still here, and he needs us. We can’t help him if we’re too hurt to help ourselves, right?” She met Meryl’s eyes, then Vash’s. “Best thing to do right now is to get ourselves patched up, get some rest, and then tomorrow we’ll be able to think. Sound good?”

They nodded.

“Okay.” Milly seemed to relax a little. She took Meryl’s hand and kissed her knuckles, then reached toward Vash, pausing before she actually touched. “May I?”

Hm. “Oh, sure.”

Her hand was warm on his bare shoulder, and her touch was light. “You kept us safe, Vash. Thank you.”

He was confused. “Of course. I wasn’t gonna let you insurance girls get hurt.”

Milly’s eyes were as blue as the noon sky. “I know. It was still hard. You got hurt.” She glanced at his bare calf, the bandage already pink with blood. “Thank you.” Her thumb rubbed lightly over his shoulder, petting the big suture scar.

“She’s right. Thank you, Vash.”

The bathroom was made out of locally sourced tile. Nothing from any Plant; that was obvious from the irregularities and the coloration. Some mix of silicates, though the scarcity of water on the planet would’ve made manufacturing difficult.

“M.” He said.

“Has he said anything to you?”

“Hm?” With effort, Vash pulled himself back to the present. Milly had calmed down, but she looked faded. Meryl was looking at him expectantly. “Not really. He’s been too busy taking care of Livio.”

“Aiyah!” Meryl slapped her knee in irritation. She hadn’t let go of his hand. “He won’t f*cking stop! Every time I think he’s finally going to rest, then I turn around for five minutes and when I come back he’s doing some bullsh*t like checking the suspension or plotting a new route or sewing the goddamn seat cushions! It’s driving me crazy!” Pleadingly, she turned to Vash. “Please tell me you know some way to get him to stop.”

He grimaced. “I wish.”

She threw back her head and groaned. “And Livio? We’re just supposed to trust him now? I know he’s Wolfwood’s brother, but he almost killed him! And Wolfwood’s just wandering around with him like he’s not dangerous! That’s so stupid!”

“Meryl, honey, I love you, but I’m gonna need you to take a breath, okay?” Milly interrupted her tirade. “I know you’re worried about him. We’re all worried about him, and we all love him-”

 
* * * ' * . * ' . * * ' * *' * * ' . * | / '. | | ' | ' * \* \ \ / ' \ '* | | * |* * * * `. \ | * / * ' . \ | \ / * *' * ' \ \ '. | -._ ` / * ' ' ``._ * ' . ' * *\* * . (r/V) ~= nAnB((4sqrt(2))/sqrt(3mr)sqrt(E0)((S(E0))/(kT))e-(3E0)/(kT) . ** ' * `-._ . _..:=' * . ' * * * . _.:--' * . . * .-' * . ' . ' * * . * ___.-=--..-._ * ' ' * * * _.' .' `. ' * * * *_.-' .' `. * .' `._ * ' ' ' . . `. . . * ` * ' ' . . * . * * * . '

“-but he’s his own person. We can’t make him do anything he doesn’t want to do, that wouldn’t be right. All we can do is be there for him.”

“But Livio-“

“Is Wolfwood’s brother, and Wolfwood is choosing to trust him,” Milly interrupted. “It’s not right to control who a person decides to be around. Even if we don’t think it’s safe.”

Vash privately disagreed, but didn’t want to get involved in this argument.

“So you agree that Livio’s dangerous?” Meryl pressed

Milly pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. “Of course he’s dangerous. Everyone in this van is dangerous.” Her voice had taken on an uncharacteristically aggravated edge. “And before you ask, of course I’m scared for Wolfwood. But he’s asking us to trust him. We need to respect that.”

Meryl opened and shut her mouth a few times, trying to find something to say. “What…what do we do? Milly, how do we keep him safe?”

“We can’t. That’d be the same as controlling him. The best we can do is to watch his back, like we’ve always done. Besides, doesn’t Livio deserve a second chance? What do you think, Vash?”

Oh he was not expecting to be included in this conversation. “Yeah. Of course. We’ll keep an eye on him.” As if he hadn’t been doing that already.

That might have been the incorrect response. Those clear eyes regarded him, not judgmentally, but completely, taking in the whole of him.

Like he was a bug under a microscope.

They finished packing the supplies and left the lot for the outfitter’s. It was in the same spire as the general store, just a few floors above. When they arrived, Milly and Meryl made good on their decision to trust Wolfwood’s judgment, encouraging Livio to try on different outfits. Meryl was especially enthusiastic, offering a steady commentary that managed to get Livio to chuckle shyly a few times.

Vash lingered by the door. The shop smelled like leather and cloth, warm and comforting. He was going to content himself with just loitering as the others picked out new clothes, but then he remembered exactly how cold it was supposed to get, and started looking for an overcoat with a hood. Preferably something red.

All of the different fabric was nice to run his hand over, at least. It had been a long time since he’d shopped for clothes, so the novelty was distracting. After several minutes of squeezing himself into different garments, his search finally turned up an electric blue greatcoat with a cowl that snapped across his face. While it definitely wasn’t red, it was the best he was going to get.

It was also tragically expensive, so he hoped that they’d be able to get a group discount.

Livio joined him at the counter, dressed in a less tattered version of his black leathers and carrying his cold weather gear. Milly and Meryl had already set their selections off to the side, so the only thing left to do was to wait for Wolfwood.

He emerged from the changing room, head held high. “Well, whaddya think?”

The new jacket was black, like any Wolfwood jacket should be, with silver thread and black ribbon looping over and around each other to create intricate embroidered designs. It fit perfectly, emphasizing the breadth of his shoulders and hugging his waist. It was clearly even better quality than the one from Rocille, lovely a gift as that had been. This one was wormsilk from the look of it, thick and matte. Square black sunglasses perched on the high bridge of his nose, hiding his soft, gorgeous eyes.

Vash smiled. “There’s our preacher-man.” He felt a little smug that despite the return of Wolfwood’s armor, he could still make him blush.

There wasn’t much for tourists to do in Tunnage, unfortunately, so they decided to head back to the spire that held the bar and the hotel to kill some time.

Their trip to the outfitter’s had, in fact, been guttingly expensive, but they had watched Milly haggle the shopkeep down over a hundred double dollars through friendliness alone. This meant that they had a little leftover change to spend on drinks, which Vash was intensely happy about. He nursed his whiskey as cards were shuffled and the table was drawn into a hand of poker. It was a nice way to spend a quiet afternoon.

Or it would have been. What they didn’t count on was that Tunnage’s residents were also bored out of their minds, and there was nowhere else to go once the suns set at 5:32. Exactly 17 minutes after Vash and company sat down.

The bar exploded into noise, their table swamped on all sides by people desperate for some fun. Food and drink was passed around, and soon the ancient ship began to reverberate with voices.

Milly winced and pulled out some earplugs from a pocket, then gave the table a thumbs up. Livio goggled at everything around him, looking so lost that Vash wanted to laugh. Then he remembered.

They had my brother.

He hurt me.

He poured Livio another shot.

Vash was trying to be friendly with Livio, but he had no idea where to start, since there was no cat and mouse “I know that you know that I know that you know but we won’t say anything” that had driven his rel-!!!*%*%()#@)$([[\&@)*#&@--.:\&!!*#*&++*@?#(()()

>>>LOUD SOUND<<<

“-ash? Are you okay?” 2281 asked.

“[80 Hz],” he said. Smacked like a tuning fork.

“Huh?”

He tried again. “Waughggggh.” If he blinked hard enough, he might get the taste of 80HZ VERY LOUD out of his ears. Decided it was boneless time for a while and put his head on the table.

“I think it’s just an amp. There’s a band, we’re safe.” 2281’s voice was taut and phthalo with weariness.

Thumbs up.

“Want some water, mister Vash?” 63 set a glass down next to his hand.

YES water yes yes water. Reached for the glass and gulped it down and was disappointed when it was gone. Put his head back down.

“You good, needle-noggin?” Oh his 516 so safe so good.

Nodded. Felt world blueshift and needed to sit down. He was already sitting.

“You sure? We can bring the bottle upstairs and take a breather.” Gentle voice.

His 516 who needed to rest. To be taken care of and held.

He closed his eyes and focused.

Omega0 = 1 - (E0/E*)

ln(E0 - Ec) = ln[E*(omegac - omega0)] = Da + Y

Raise Your Voice - WateredMyCrops (1)

He had been sung into the wrong shape, all fuzzyloose like static electricity. Only thing for it was to sing himself back. His brain didn’t know this, but his body did.

Like working a lump of clay, Vash molded himself into the right size and shape and frequency again. Gradually, he felt less concerned about possibly phasing through the floor, which was always a good sign.

Feeling like the antiderivative of hungover, he peeled his head off the table. Everyone was staring at him in naked concern. It made the shadows under their eyes and the tension in their shoulders even more apparent.

They shouldn’t have to deal with this.

He picked his soggiest, rubberiest grin and put it on. “Kids these days with their music, am I right?”

Truthfully, the music was very good. Now that Vash was settled, it pulsed in his ribs just so, like a deep tissue massage. It reminded him of the song that had been playing when Wolfwood had asked him to dance.

There wouldn’t be any dancing tonight. Wolfwood and Livio both sat with their backs to the wall and the entrances in clear sight, and the whole table jumped every time someone dropped a glass, Vash included. He was too stretched thin to do much more than fake a smile and sip his cheap whiskey.

It was Meryl who called it. They had mostly finished a tray of deep fried something or other when the table by the door yelled excitedly, causing Milly to stab through her plate in alarm.

“Alright, I’m done.” She stood and slapped a few double dollars on the table. “I need to shower, then I’m going to enjoy sleeping in a bed.”

They rose and followed her, no one reluctant to leave the boisterous bar.

After managing to eke out a little spot of privacy in the communal shower long enough to get clean, Vash retreated to the room he was sharing with Wolfwood.

Wolfwood, who still hadn’t f*cking stopped.

He had performed his typical sweep of the room, doing that thing where he rambled about nothing in particular, half here and half gone.

“Shortie got us pretty well situated, don'tcha think? Cramped, yeah, but at least we’re inside for the night. I mean, Jesus, did you see that ice? I’m not looking forward to the last leg of this trip, I tell you what.” He shook out the blanket before frowning at it. Quickly, he replaced it, striding past Vash and out of the room. “Hold on, I’ve got an idea.”

Vash chased after him. “Where are you going?”

Wolfwood knocked on Meryl and Milly’s door. “I’m just going out to the van, I’ll be right back.”

Meryl opened the door. “Wolfwood, why do you need to go to the van?”

He was self satisfied as he pointed down the stairs with his thumb. “Shortie, come help me with somethin’, I figured out how we’re gonna stay warm tonight, but I need the keys.”

“Wha-?” Milly stumbled to the doorway, already in her pajamas and clearly half asleep.

“Hey, big girl! Sorry to wake you, I was just askin’ Shortie here for the keys to the van so we don’t freeze tonight.”

Milly blinked at him, then sighed. “Lemme get my stoat.”

“What’s going on?” Livio leaned out of his door, alerted by the talking.

Wolfwood spun towards him. “Perfect! C’mon, help me carry sh*t.”

He took his posse with him, leaving Meryl and Vash standing in the hallway, slightly stunned.

“Are you sure you can’t make him stop?” she asked.

“Meryl, I did everything in my power to get him to slow down, and he still managed to almost get heat stroke twice in one week.”

They sighed as one.

“Then it’s a good thing he’s got us taking care of him,” Meryl said, and held out her fist.

Meryl Goddamn Stryfe.

He bumped it.

When Wolfwood returned he was hauling the camping blankets and grinning like he’d won first place. “Here, no need to freeze our asses off when we’ve already got extra gear.”

“Thanks, Wolfwood.” Vash hadn’t been looking forward to sleeping in the metal spire, so this was a pleasant surprise.

Wolfwood paused in his distribution of blankets. “‘Course, needle-noggin.”

“Hey, Wolfwood, wait a minute.” Meryl caught him before he could bolt. “I was thinking about what we were talking about the other day, and I thought you might like to read this. It’s one of my favorites.” She handed him a small, blue paperback with birds on the cover.

All of Wolfwood’s momentum came to a grinding halt as he held the book in his hands. “Thanks, Shortie. Uh, when do you want it back?”

Meryl tilted her head in confusion. “It’s for you. Keep it.”

He slowly pressed the book to his chest. “Thanks.”

The book had the effect of subduing Wolfwood as the two of them went back to their room. He kept glancing at it as he laid the extra blankets on the bed and took off his shoes. Whatever nerves he’d been trying to suppress with all of his fussing seemed to have caught him at last.

There was no chair in the room, and Vash was tired, so he sat next to Wolfwood on the bed, making the other man start. “You can read if you want, I don’t mind.”

Wolfwood’s new sunglasses were on the nightstand, so Vash could see every flicker of unease in his eyes. He huffed a laugh. “Yeah, I might.”

Puzzled and increasingly concerned, Vash tried to figure out what had Wolfwood so jumpy.

When it finally hit him, he felt sick.

It was the first time they’d be sharing a bed since Chapel died.

He collected his calm. “Wolfwood, I will never make you do anything you don’t want to do. I promise.” Tried to keep his voice soft but firm.

The responding flinch confirmed that Vash had hit his mark. He stammered “I know, Spikey, I know you’re not…you’ve been…good. To me. But I’ll get over it, I’m not gonna…tease forever, don’t worry.”

Rage.

Vash placed his palms flat on his knees and breathed. “Wolfwood.”

“Yeah?” He sounded small and scared, like he expected Vash to hit him. Vash wanted to scream.

“Do you remember what you told me before you kissed me?” It still felt unreal. He’d shown Wolfwood his greedy, grasping core, bared his shame and his wanting because Wolfwood had asked. And Wolfwood had taken him in his hands and kissed him.

“Uh…I, uh, I told you to stop assuming you know what I want.”

Vash nodded. “I’ve been trying to do that.” He caught Wolfwood’s eye and held it. “Could you do the same for me?”

Wolfwood looked like someone had turned off his personal gravity. “W-what?”

“I don’t want to have sex with you.”

Dozens of emotions raced across Wolfwood’s face. He opened and shut his mouth, starting and stopping any number of sentences. Finally, he settled on “Why not?”

Which was such a curveball that Vash couldn’t stop himself from making a face.

“I, I mean, is it, aren’t you, sh*t, did I-”

“It’s not you,” he interrupted. “I just don’t want to.” He couldn’t, even if he did.

Wolfwood still had the face of a man trying to defuse a bomb. “But, you have, haven’t you?”

Vash suppressed every instinct to make a sarcastic comment. “Yes.”

“Then-”

“Not my thing.” He hated this. He hated every soul scorching second of this. He wanted to weep. He wanted to tear himself in half. Yet he endured it. He bared the most vulnerable parts of himself for the sake of the man beside him

Hunched over like he expected a beating, Wolfwood pressed “But, aren’t we supposed-”

I choose what I do with my body,” Vash snapped.

f*ck. Goddamn f*cking hell. He had been so careful to keep himself under control.

His stump hurt.

Vash took a steadying breath through his nose and turned to apologize to Wolfwood.

The words froze on his lips. Wolfwood had straightened, his shoulders no longer bunched around his ears. His eyes were filled with a recognition that cut Vash to his core.

“Then, what do we do?”

Vash smiled weakly. “Whatever we want.”

Wolfwood stood and crossed to the window. Vash let him go, curling around his knees.

After 12.6 minutes, Wolfwood turned back. The little green moon was low and full, and its light outlined him in the color of a new leaf. Vash stood automatically, trying to shake off the memory that clung to his back.

“So…” Wolfwood began, then trailed off. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, a subtle nervous tic. He walked over to Vash, holding himself too carefully to actually be casual. “So,” he tried again, “does this mean…er, uh, we don’t…can…” he swallowed. He took another step, so they were almost touching, and Vash had to hold himself back from reaching out. Wolfwood needed to do this at his own pace.

Too close, Wolfwood looked away, his long lashes shadowing eyes big and dark enough for Vash to willingly drown in. As if he hadn’t already. “I can just kiss you?”

Vash’s words abandoned him. His tongue felt thick and useless, and all he could do was nod.

Wolfwood kissed him. And it was just as impossible and just as perfect as the first time.

Vash leaned into him. Wolfwood’s stubble rasped against his cheek, his lips, just like the gentle burr of his voice or the calluses on his hands. Even though it had happened before, he still couldn’t believe that he was kissing Wolfwood. Brave, kind, beautiful, incredible Wolfwood.

Vash didn’t understand why people called it “falling”. This felt like flying.

Wanting, needing to touch, Vash carefully, carefully slid his arms around Wolfwood’s waist. He kept his prosthetic hooked around his hips as his right hand slowly traced a path up his back.

Wolfwood shivered down the length of his spine, Vash feeling every tremor. He gasped into Vash’s mouth, and he was gone, gone, gone. He knew he was starting to shake, to hum and rumble, but he couldn’t help it. Vash licked at Wolfwood’s lips, softly, not wanting to force him. It was all he could do to not beg please, please, please.

He didn’t need to beg. Wolfwood let their kiss deepen, his mouth warm and ashy and perfect. Heat blossomed in Vash’s cheeks and curled along his collarbones, flowering in his belly.

Trembling hands gently held his waist. His skin thrummed at the touch, sweet enough to sing him undone. He knew Wolfwood wouldn’t. Which made it all the sweeter.

They parted, Wolfwood’s breath tickling Vash’s nose. He was blushing, dark and velvety. Vash slowly brought his hand forward, brushing his knuckles against Wolfwood’s face and running his fingers along his ear.

“Is this good?” Please, please, let it be good. Let him be good.

Wolfwood smiled, shy but sincere. “It’s good, needle-nohh.”

Vash pulled his hand back, alarmed. “Sorry.”

“Huh?”

“You said ‘no’.”

Against all odds, Wolfwood got even redder. “No, I didn’t.”

Then what…oh. Oh. Vash’s eyes went wide. Good sound. Cautiously, he returned his hand to Wolfwood’s face. He squirmed, embarrassed, then nuzzled into his palm. Vash had no idea that Wolfwood’s ears were so soft. He brought his cheek next to Wolfwood’s, breathed in the scent of cigarettes and soap. Felt a tear run down on his face, and wasn’t sure who’s it was.

They held each other for a long time.

Pain made Vash’s stump spasm and he grunted involuntarily.

“Needle-noggin?” Wolfwood pulled away, concerned. “What’s the matter?”

Vash shivered. “I think the cold’s getting to me.”

As if a spell had been broken, Wolfwood noticed the cold, too. “f*ck, it’s freezing.” After a moment’s hesitation, he tugged Vash toward the bed.

Vash’s stump was sending shooting pain into his back. “I’ll be right there.” He reached into his shirt and unhooked the clasps holding his prosthetic on, the separation stinging. Then he shimmied a thick sock over his stump before tying back his shirt and diving under the covers.

Wolfwood pulled him close to his side. “Okay, c’mere Vash the Spaceheater, it’s chilly.”

“Get me out of your pit!” Vash wiggled his head out of the blanket, gasping for air. “It’s bad enough I’m stuck with you all day in that van, at least don’t suffocate me in my sleep.”

“Like you’re one to talk. You smell like double quarters and hair gel.”

“Better that than cigarettes and ass!”

“Oh yeah, Spikey? At least I have an ass.”

They wrestled and kicked at each other, doing their best to stay under the blankets and out of the chill. They must have been too loud, though, because Meryl banged on their shared wall and yelled at them to shut up. This only encouraged them to pull faces without fear of reprisal.

It wasn’t too long before they got tired, though. Despite being only 8:24, they’d had a long day and hadn’t been sleeping well. Wolfwood picked up the book Meryl had given him, flipping open to the first page.

Hesitantly, he reached his arm around Vash’s shoulders, eyes fixed on the page. Slowly, he started to run his fingers through Vash’s hair, which was like honeysuckle sunlight. It made his eyes droop in contentment, but they snapped open again when he rumbled so loudly he was sure Meryl would bang on their wall again.

“Sorry,” he said, automatically.

“Hm? The hell’re you apologizin’ for now?” Wolfwood looked up from his book, but he was still tracing lines through Vash’s hair, so against all odds he must not have noticed.

Vash fidgeted, embarrassed. “The…oh, come on, Wolfwood, I know you can hear it.”

Wolfwood blinked at him, brow furrowed in total confusion. Then he scruffed his hand through Vash’s hair. “Shaddup.” He returned to his book, frowning in exasperation.

They lay awkwardly for several long moments. There was nowhere to go and Vash hated that.

“I like it. It’s you.”

He went very still.

Wolfwood was still petting him, pushing his fingers through his hair and gently raking his blunt nails across his scalp.

I like it. It’s you. I like it. It’s you. I like it. It’s you. The words rang Vash like a bell, were made the totality of his self.

He fell asleep with them still chiming in his ears.

Lightning.

It flashed across the sky in white hot lances, illuminating the cracked open shell of the ship. Plant bulbs glowed otherworldly blue where they dotted the hull like alveoli. Some had been shattered on impact, their fluid dripping down, down, down to the sand below.

The air was filled with screaming.

Vash lurched to his feet without thinking. Purpose pulled him like a lodestone, commanding him to go, help. The sand was sticky and red, but he couldn’t find anyone, he couldn’t see. The pleas of the dying, human and Plant alike, filled his head, blurring his vision.

Irrelevant. Inconsequential.

GO.
HELP.

He went. Burned his hands as he tried to shift through the rubble, scorched his lungs as he called to survivors, but no one responded.

“Oi, needle-noggin! Over here! We found someone!” Wolfwood’s voice echoed faintly over the wreckage.

Vash sprinted, stretched out as far as he could go. He crested a dune and saw Wolfwood, Meryl, and Milly all struggling to lift a shattered piece of hull off of the fractured bulb of a Plant.

He lept down, boots slamming into the sand. Together they heaved, dislodging the rubble. They breathed a sigh of relief as they saw that the Plant would survive. She smiled at him in her bulb, markings shimmering in gratitude.

Vash turned to his friends. They were battered, but alive. They would help. Now that they were here, everything would be okay.

“Huh?” Meryl looked down at her stomach, confused by the undulating knifepoint protruding from between her hands.

Before Vash could even speak, the three of them were whisked away into the darkness, their screams cut suddenly, brutally short.

“You’re still serving humans?”

He couldn’t move.

The voice was cool and almost laughing as it whispered in his ear. “Why, Vash?” A body pressed against his back. “When you have so much power?”

His gate opened.

Thunder rolled across the blackness.

Vash woke in a cold sweat to the feeling of arms around him and he lunged away, hitting the floor with a thud. His limbs were tangled in blankets and he pulled them off with his hands - his hand. Where was his other hand? Frantically, he struggled to his feet.

“Hey, needle-noggin, it’s okay, you’re okay.”

Wolfwood?

He was in a metal room - the hotel. The spire. Tunnage, the lab, Milly, Meryl, Wolfwood. Alive, alive, alive. Wolfwood was sitting up in the cramped little bed, staring at Vash with his big dark eyes.

Vash remembered how to breathe.

When he felt in control of himself again, he grabbed his prosthetic off the nightstand, nearly jamming it over the sock in his haste. The connection sent a flare of pain through his left side, but it was real. He was real, this was real.

“The girls knocked on our door a few minutes ago, said it’s time to get going, but you were still asleep.” Wolfwood hadn’t moved from the bed. “Do you need a minute?”

Wolfwood, here, alive. Milly and Meryl, here, alive. It wasn’t real. He was fine.

He shook his head.

Everything was fine.

Notes:

:3
Team Red really is just a bunch of neurodivergent people stuck in a van together. RIP
Credits and explanation:
1.Differential equations for an indefinitely large matrix. This is an absolute pain to do longform, and requires a lot of concentration, so it's Vash's way of trying to stay calm.(https://tobydriscoll.net/fnc-julia/bvp/diffmats.html)
2. Simulation of galactic cannibalism. When 2 galaxies collide, it's theorized that the black hole at the center of one will consume the black hole at the center of the other. I'm sure that's not thematically relevant. (https://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1978ApJ...224..320H)
3. Rate of stellar nucleosynthesis. The heart of a star. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stellar_nucleosynthesis#Key_reactions)
4. ASCII explosion by Igbeard (https://www.asciiart.eu/holiday-and-events/fireworks)
5. Concrete acoustic emissions. The ambient noise created by a building. (https://www.ndt.net/article/jae/papers/25-021.pdf)
6. Reinforced carbon-carbon production and structure. The outer layer of the space shuttle. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1359835X16303451)
7. The book that Meryl gives Wolfwood is, of course, This is How You Lose the Time War

P.S. There was something in that dream that was prophetic, but I'm not telling you which part.

Chapter 5: Daddy Lessons

Notes:

Daddy Lessons by Beyonce
This chapter has gun violence and a brief scene of tending a bullet wound

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

There had been a grand total of 26 kids on the Thompson family ranch when Milly was little, including siblings, cousins, niblings, fosters, et cetera. So it was safe to say that she was used to not having an abundance of personal space. Hell, she’d never had a room to herself until she went off and joined Bernardelli, well after she left the college dorms. Still, three solid days of being crammed in a tiny van with four other adults were starting to wear on her. They were all rotating out as much as they could, but it was never quite comfortable. Especially not for the poor soul who ended up squashed in the middle of the backseat.

Who, at that moment, happened to be Milly.

Smushed between Livio on her left and Vash on her right, she felt her size. It was a little unfair, in her opinion, to have the three biggest people in the backseat all at once, but Wolfwood needed a break, and Meryl was particular about driving. They bickered playfully, like a married couple in an old book. It was sweet to watch, but she reckoned they had maybe another hour before it got dangerously heated and everybody had to swap again.

Speaking of the heat, it was as if passing north of Tunnage had finally stripped them of the warmth they’d known their whole lives. The suns’ brightness still washed the landscape, but it was pale and harsh. The chill crept in through the metal doors.

She knew Vash didn’t handle the cold well, but he was so damn awkward around Livio that she had decided against offering the center seat to him. Plus, he fidgeted. Milly didn’t know how much patience Livio had for wormy-squirmy outlaws, but it didn’t bother her.

Livio was very quiet and still. Almost like a big piece of luggage, he didn’t move around, and he only spoke when spoken to. He reminded her of Wolfwood when they’d first found him. Like he thought he was going to get hit if he acted out.

She was debating how to pull him into a conversation, but ultimately didn’t need to.

“Oh you are so full of sh*t.”

“Am not! The production I saw had Cordelia and the Fool played by the same person, which makes total sense thematically.”

Wolfwood snorted. “So what if it ‘makes total sense thematically’? It’s not in the book-”

“It’s a play,” Meryl corrected. “Plays are oh, you know, performed? Which was absolutely a part of Shakespeare’s original intent-”

“Obstacle ahead!” Livio shouted.

Meryl jerked her attention back towards the ground and cursed as she swerved around a chunk of rock twice the size of their car. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” he said weakly.

Meryl glanced in the rearview mirror. “Do you have any opinions on King Lear, Livio?”

He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “Nah, I was never into that nerd sh*t, that was all Nico.” Registering what he’d said, he clapped his hand over his mouth, sputtering, “I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with it! I just never was a big reader, y’know?”

Wolfwood shook his head in mock betrayal. “Called a nerd by my own brother.”

Keeping her eyes on the road this time, Meryl snorted. “You are a nerd.”

“Wha-! I just read it! You’re the one who has f*ckin’... stagecraft opinions, Shortie! That makes you double the nerd, at least.”

“Put down the shovel, hermano.”

As the three of them started their playful banter, Milly turned her attention to Vash. He had his face propped up with one hand, elbow against the door. His smile was thin, superficial. Gun to her head, she’d call it obligatory rather than content.

It bothered her, seeing him like this. Not like it was anything new; she could count on one hand the number of times she’d seen him when he wasn’t pretending. Still, she’d hoped that after everything he’d finally drop the act.

The pale light of the suns shone against his profile, making his hair glow gold and sable. He was certainly handsome, that was clear as day, but she was driven to distraction by the distance he put between himself and the rest of them. Damn rude of him, not letting her appreciate a good looking man in peace.

“Milly, back me up here!” Meryl whined, drawing her attention.

She dragged herself back to the conversation. “What am I backing you up on?”

Meryl glanced at her in the rearview mirror, eyes luminous and lovely. “You’ve studied plays and theater, tell him,” here she playfully shoved Wolfwood, who shoved her back, causing the van to swerve a little, “that I’m right about everything.”

Milly grinned. “Oh, now I’m supposed to say you’re right about everything, Meryl?”

“Yes, because you’re my girlfriend and you love me?” Meryl’s cheeks were dimpling and rosy with her happy blush. She always looked so pretty when she was having fun.

“Is that how that works? I don’t remember that being part of the agreement,” she teased. “Besides, what about Wolfwood?”

Wolfwood frowned as he turned to look at her, opening his mouth to ask a question.

He was interrupted by Meryl’s suddenly curt voice. “Vehicles to the left, coming up fast.”

Everyone snapped to attention. Milly twisted around to the windows, looking for trouble.

Livio had a better view and beat her to it. “Five vehicles, moving in an inverted V formation. Definitely bandits, just look at the paint job.”

“Who even runs this far north?” Wolfwood had unclipped his seatbelt to crane over Meryl’s shoulder, hunched like a black bird of prey.

“Devildogs, maybe,” Meryl guessed. “They’re a smaller group, mostly picking off trade caravans. That’s definitely a raiding party.”

“They must think we’re easy prey.” Milly’s heart was starting to race. She knew the tone in her love’s voice.

Meryl grinned, knife-sharp and hungry. “Let’s set them straight.”

The raiding party was gaining on them, fast. Everyone moved to get their game faces on, swiftly unholstering weapons. Wolfwood tried climbing out of the side window to get to the Punisher, but Milly only smiled at him, telling him that she had this handled.

She popped the roof hatch, the cold air slapping her face and whipping her hair. Her stun gun made a satisfying clunk as she rested it on the roof, gleaming brilliant silver.

God help her, she felt alive.

“Any sign that they’re slowing down?” Meryl called from the driver’s seat.

“No, ma’am, doesn’t look like they scare easy,” Livio replied. He was leaning out of the window, arm hooked around a luggage railing, freshly fixed guns in his hands.

Milly tapped him on the bicep, knowing he had trouble hearing. “I appreciate the help, Livio, but I’m gonna need you to get down so I don’t bust a hole in your head, okay?”

He studied her gun, seeming to understand how lethal it would be at such close range. Obediently, he scooted back down. She didn’t doubt that the two Hopelanders were more than capable, but she and Meryl had a system. Besides, the boys should get to see the two of them in action.

Closer, closer, the hunting party raced towards them. Two outrider bikes, two attack cars, and one slow, armored truck to haul away the goods. Common formation. Milly kept her eyes fixed on them, barely paying attention to the muffled words in the cabin below.

Vash popped his head up, the wind grabbing at his hair and coat. “Okay, the plan is to lose them in the glacier up ahead. Once they see we’re prepared to fight back, they should run. Plus, I don’t like the look of the sky.” He nodded towards the darkening horizon.

Milly’s pulse was a drumbeat in her ears. “Got it. I’m sure we’ll be fine. After all, we’ve got the legendary Vash the Stampede on our side.” She winked at him playfully.

He had his orange glasses on, so she couldn’t be sure, but she thought he blinked at her in surprise. She laughed.

Below her, she heard the speakers thump to life.

The bikes came on them fast. They swerved around and ahead, gauging their cargo and firepower. Milly let them buzz about, not bothering to waste bolts. They peeled off, reporting back to their party.

Around them the sky got darker, darker, darker. Not fifteen minutes earlier it had been cloudless and pale blue, but now it was gunmetal gray and darkening to pitch. The air tasted wet in a way she’d only felt once before.

It was going to rain.

Meryl drove them into the dark. The headlights blinked on, yellow on gray, right as the attack cars came within firing distance. Each car had harpoons mounted on the front, meant to snare prey.

Well, that was plain rude!

Milly tapped her foot twice on the rung she was using to balance, signaling that she was taking aim and needed a smooth ride.

She waited until their attackers steadied, betting on their greed. Their headlights nearly blinded her, rendering the harpoons into skeletal outlines.

She fired. The heavy bolts crumpled one of the harpoon guns into so much useless scrap. Her attack made the car swerve, wheels skidding.

The other car fired, sending its harpoon shuddering into the chassis. They jolted back, feeling the drag of the anchoring car.

Sharp brrap, brrap bursts of fire from her right as Livio shot first at the car holding them back, then at the buzzing bikes. They were vaulting over the van, using the rocky slopes to either side of the path. Meryl steered deeper into the glacier.

“Get down!”

Milly flattened herself against the roof, using her stun gun as a shield. There was a loud pop as a grenade burst overhead. Shrapnel cut into her arms and shoulders. Two more deep bangs and a scream as Vash shot out the tires on the bike that had lobbed the grenade. It spun, flinging the rider into the dark.

“Thanks, Vash!”

He twisted around to look at her, back bending more than it should have been able to. Behind his orange glasses, she could see his eyes glowing.

He gave her a tight smile.

“Nice one, needle-noggin!” Wolfwood was being slightly less foolish, keeping most of himself in the car. He couldn’t do as much with just his pistol, but kept the attack car at bay whenever it came too close.

Another brrap and the van lurched forward. Livio had cut the cable holding them back.

Droplets of water pattered against Milly’s face.

For a brief moment, the valley was still as everyone’s attention turned to the sky.

Then the rain slammed into them like a backhand slap. Visibility dropped and her ears were filled with roaring. The remaining bike slipped on a sudden patch of mud and spun out, headlight fluttering in the dark.

The attack cars were undeterred. They flanked the van, the gunners pouring out of the windows. Milly and Livio took on the one to the right, Milly sending bolts into the windshield and the exposed muzzles of the guns. Livio’s semis made neat little sewing machine holes in the car’s makeshift armor.

It swerved off, and Milly turned to deal with the one remaining.

Lightning screamed across the sky.

There was a crack and a grunt. Vash slumped forward, too limp. As if in a dream, she watched him slide out of the car.

Milly dropped her stun gun and lunged for him. Caught his wrist.

A huge wall of muddy ice loomed up out of the dark. Milly heard Meryl bellow as she swerved hard to avoid it. The car began to spin. Milly was half out of the hatch.

Vash’s dead weight pulled them from the car. Milly slammed to the ground, mud filling her nose and mouth. She could barely feel Vash’s hand in her own. The icy chill numbed her hand and weakened her grip. Scrabbling through the mud, Milly looped her arms around Vash’s shoulders, hauling him upright, keeping his head above water.

The water kept coming, sweeping her legs out from underneath her. They whirled away, slamming into rocks. The headlights vanished into the rushing storm, leaving them in pitch black. Muddy water forced its way into her lungs, making her spit and heave. Every breath threatened to smother her, strangle her with mud and rain. Panic grabbed her limbs, sending her heart galloping. She forced herself to focus on Vash’s limp body.

Milly tightened her grip on him. She wouldn’t let him go.

Sudden flashes of lightning blinded and disoriented her, roaring thunder deafened her. Lost in the rushing water and the total darkness, Milly started to panic, sure that they were headed for an invisible cliff. The next time they hit a rock she grabbed onto it, fingers scrabbling. Her arms strained as she pulled them up and out of the water.

Safely on a ledge, Milly coughed, spitting up gritty water. She pulled a small flashlight from her coat, fumbling it on. It didn’t do much to illuminate their surroundings, but it was better than nothing.

Laid out on the rock, Vash glowed faintly, face slack.

Milly had spent the past three months holding Meryl close while she screamed and wept because of him.

Was he dangerous like this?

Could he hurt her, too?

Like she cared. Milly had a tomas, Bluebell, that she’d raised from an egg. When Milly was sixteen, Bluebell had panicked and kicked her in the thigh. Her claws had cut through to her femoral artery, leaving her bleeding in the dust until one of her siblings had chanced across her and saved her life. It had taken Milly nearly a year to feel safe around Bluebell again. Any time she’d try to get close, she felt the foot-long scar start to hurt.

When she left for college, Bluebell lowed like she was dying.

This was more complicated, she knew that, but she also knew that Vash would put himself six feet under before purposefully doing her harm. And like hell was she going to leave him here to die.

Milly put the flashlight in her mouth and scooped him into her arms. He flopped like a ragdoll, face slack. She hated not knowing if she was making his injury worse, but the water was rising fast. Getting desperate, she cast around for something, anything, there! The beam of her flashlight just barely caught the outline of a cave a few yarz up.

She slung him over her shoulder and began to climb.

Panting, she heaved them both into the little cave. It was dry enough away from the damp entrance. Milly kept her flashlight in her mouth as she rolled Vash onto his back.

He was chalk pale, the glowing lines pulsing in his face sending dread-prickles down her spine. But she was a Thompson and had been raised better than that, so she peeled off her sodden greatcoat and tied back her hair.

All of the fiddly little snaps and buckles on his coat would’ve been difficult to navigate even without hands made uncertain by the wet and cold, but she managed to shimmy him out of it. As she did, she found the trouble: a bullet lodged in his upper back, right by his left shoulder blade. It looked like it had pinged painfully off his armor, and was keeping his arm bent at an odd angle, unable to lower it. The wound was oozing blood that was molten to the touch.

Biting down on her alarm, she checked for a pulse. The clammy skin under his jaw yielded only a persistent thrum, like an engine. His chest rose and fell faintly, so he was alive. Only thing that mattered.

Milly went back to her coat for the small medkit she carried with her. “Sorry, Vash,” she said, then gripped the bullet with a pair of forceps.

The screech that filled the cave turned her teeth inside out. Before she could start to shake the ringing, stinging pain from her ears, Vash was kicking away, scrabbling in the dust. Wild eyed and panting, he looked ready to run until he recognized her.

Then, true to form, he began babbling apologies.

“Milly? sh*t, f*ck, sorry, I’m so sorry, are you okay? Where are we? Where’s the van? The others? How-owowow ah sh*tf*ck balls that hurts wait sh*t did I hurt you? I’m so-”

Milly scrunched up her face real tight and let it go, and when she did, everything was back where it was supposed to be. “Vash?”

“Yeah?”

“Hello!”

“Hello!”

She smiled, glad that she could still pull him out of a spiral with that trick. “To answer your questions: I’m fine, we’re in a cave, I don’t know where the van is, or the others, because we fell out, because you got shot.”

“Oh! That’s bad.”

“Yes, but that’s something we can fix.” She gestured to her medkit. “I’ve got lots of first aid training, so I can get you patched up in no time.”

His expression subtly, but unmistakably, slammed closed. The smile he plastered on was so fake it almost made Milly tear up. “Right. Thanks! I’ll let you get to it.” He shuffled so his back was to her, head slightly bowed.

The tension in his shoulders was unmistakable.

How to do this…

Right.

Milly laid out the tools in the order she’d need them. The little lantern Vash had told her to pull out of his coat illuminated the cave better than the flashlight, and most importantly, let her talk.

“Okay, Vash, there’s a bullet right under your left shoulder blade, so I’m going to try to get that out, sound good?”

He hitched a dead little laugh. “As opposed to what, leaving it in?”

“If you’d rather someone else did this.”

Silence. Then, “No, I trust your capable hands, Miss Thompson.”

She decided to play along, hoping it would make him feel better. “I appreciate your vote of confidence, Mister the Stampede. Now, I think I need to unzip your top a little to get to the bullet, is that okay?”

Vash’s voice was slightly taut with pain as he said “Do whatever you have to do.”

She hmmed and found the zipper. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long enough to open enough to get at the wound without opening all the way, so she let Vash know and undid it completely. He didn’t move as it hung loose around his shoulders. She kept talking him through the motions of suture and swab, though his responses became more monosyllabic.

Finally, she covered the wound with a bandage, smoothing down the medical tape. “Do you want me to zip you back up?”

A curt nod was all she got. He didn’t flinch as she redid the zipper on his tight top, both tense and scarily pliant. She had never seen him like this before, but the look on his face reminded her of a doll’s. Unmoving. Blank.

There were times when Meryl looked like this. It always scared her.

Milly laid their coats out to dry, sitting across from him and in front of the little lantern. His hair was lank, plastered down over his head from the rain. He looked at her from where he was hunched over on himself. “You hurt?”

“Mm, nope! It was pretty soft where we landed, so I might get a few bruises, but that’s all.”

“Good.” His voice was monotone.

Tired. That’s how she would describe him, if pressed. Too tired to put on the little show he usually did. “Now all we have to do is wait for the storm to pass.”

No response.

“Do you like chess?”

A nod.

She tried to beam bright enough for them both. “Great! I’ve played Meryl so much we can almost predict what the other’s gonna do before she does it. I’ve been hoping to ask the rest of you to play for a while.” She reached for her coat, retrieving the mini chess set she’d gotten as a going away present.

The rain roared on outside, blowing cold air into the cave. By the light of a dinky little lantern, they played chess at the top of the world.

Vash was good, and his style was refreshing. He kept his eyes trained on the board, moving the pieces quickly. The first time Milly beat him, he blinked, once, in surprise. When he just grabbed the pieces to begin again, she smiled softly.

They kept playing in silence, Vash clearly not in any hurry to break it. Curled up, with his arms crossed on his bent legs despite his fresh injury. When they’d finish a game, or Milly would take her time to think through a move, he’d peek up at her, eyes blue as tomas feathers. Bit by bit, the tension had bled out of him, relaxing his shoulders. She even caught him tapping his feet in some kind of rhythm, but quiet, soft. The frozen mask on his face had mellowed, too. Still blank, but in a soft, genuine way. Like Vash wasn’t putting on a show. Was just letting himself be.

Oh, there you are, Milly thought. I was wondering when I’d be able to see you again. I missed you. I like you like this, you know. When you’re not trying to be anyone else. Just you.

She got him in mate in seven moves, that time.

When the storm finally broke, they were dozing fitfully in a corner, huddled together for warmth. Vash was leaning against her, clammy and too cold. Milly was just barely awake enough to hear the screech of brakes. Voices drew them to the front of the cave, peering down to see Meryl leap out of the van, Wolfwood hot on her heels.

“Hey, up here!” she called, waving at them as they scrambled frantically up the slope.

Meryl vaulted over the ledge and slammed into Milly, wrapping her in her arms. “Oh my god, Mills, babe, are you okay? Are you hurt?” The bags under her eyes were dark and heavy, and she’d chewed her lip raw.

“No, honey, I’m fine, I’m mmmf!” Milly was cut off as Meryl kissed her hard. Her mouth was warm and soft against hers, and she seemed ready to suck Milly’s tongue out of her head in relief. Milly threaded her fingers up through the hair at Meryl’s nape, shifting her head to the side to kiss her proper. She gently pressed her teeth into Meryl’s lips like she knew she liked, and was rewarded with a squeak and a shudder.

They parted with a pop, Milly running her thumbs across Meryl’s sunken cheeks. “Hey, sweetheart, it’s good to see-”

“I was so worried! Oh my god, I thought you’d, you’d…” she trembled and started to cover Milly’s face in kisses.

Milly hugged her, running a hand over her back. She glanced over at Vash, and saw Wolfwood wrapped around him, face buried in the crook of his neck. She could just barely make out low murmurs, and Vash repeating “Sorry…I’m sorry.”

Wolfwood snapped his head up, brow pinched in worry. “Stop…just, stop.” Then he leaned forward and kissed Vash on the lips.

Aw, that was sweet.

She closed her eyes and melted into Meryl’s kisses.

When she could finally let Milly go, Meryl exclaimed “We were worried sick! Oh my god, what happened?”

“Vash got shot-”

WHAT?!” from Meryl and Wolfwood, simultaneously.

“In the shoulder, let me finish, please and thank you!” Milly said, almost laughing from their identical looks of shocked concern. “I got him patched up and then we played chess.”

“But what about you?”

Milly shrugged, still pinned by Meryl. “I couldn’t let him fall out of the van all on his lonesome, now could I?”

Wolfwood reached around her shoulders and pulled her in close. He murmured in her ear, “You scared the bejeesus out of us, big girl.”

Milly had been called “big girl” by a lot of different people over the years. Usually it was someone giving her a once over and a whistle, all “wow, you’re a big girl, ain’t ya?” And she was. She was a big girl and she stood out, feeling like there was too much of her to be anything except awkward. But she liked the way Wolfwood said it. There wasn’t any mockery or gawkery in his voice. He said it like he loved her.

She loved him, too.

It was late afternoon, the ground outside still bogged down with mud. They all agreed to stay in the cave until morning. As they unloaded the camping gear, Meryl and Wolfwood forced the two of them to stay put, swaddling them in thick blankets and setting up the stove.

Livio shyly offered them steaming mugs of coffee. “I’m real glad you’re okay.” He had a manner that reminded Milly of some of the big ranch boys back home. The sweet ones who talked soft and made themselves smaller so as not to scare folks.

Milly wrapped her chilled hands around the cup. “Thank you kindly, Livio. I appreciate you.”

“Thanks, Livio.” Vash echoed. He was still clearly out of it, but at least he remembered his manners. Livio didn’t deserve the cold shoulder Vash had been giving him, even though she understood why.

She didn’t imagine Wolfwood’s insides as hard as she could.

Now that they were getting taken care of, Milly felt the stress that had been keeping her upright melt away into her boots. She changed into warm clothes and let the others baby her. Vash clearly felt obligated to help, but he was in no state to move, so she tried to keep him in place by asking the other three about the fight. They chattered on, Meryl and Wolfwood coming alive as they recounted first how they drove off the bandits, then their desperate search. The looks they exchanged made Milly wonder if something had happened, but figured she’d find out soon enough.

They got the tent set up in the cave, leaving the van at the foot of the cliff. A few hands of cards and a hearty meal later, Milly sank into deep, warm sleep.

She was woken by the sound of an argument. Usually she was a pretty sound sleeper, but lately her nerves had been worn down. Meryl said she twitched in her sleep, kind of like a puppy dreaming of chasing tomas chicks.

Meryl wasn’t next to her. She rubbed her eyes, sitting up in the dark tent. Wolfwood and Vash were gone, too. So was Vash’s sleeping bag.

Milly ran out of the tent.

The other three were standing a few feet away, voices low and angry. Vash was dressed, duffle bag slung over one shoulder.

“What’s going on?”

They all turned to look at her, faces twisted up in hurt. Meryl and Wolfwood were still in pajamas, eyes shiny.

Milly felt a little hollow. “Mister Vash? Where’re you goin’?”

He turned away, and didn’t speak.

“Wait a sec-”

“Jus’ more a’the same bullsh*t-”

“You said, you promised, Vash. I thought you’d listen to me this time-”

“Please, I have to do this, there’s no other way-”

“Don’t you f*cking dare tell me-”

“What, so I can’t handle myself? I’m not strong enough?”

“That’s not-”

Clap clap clapclapclap!

They stopped. Milly hadn’t exactly meant to do that. It was what she’d do when her siblings were arguing.

Well…

Well, it worked, didn't it?

“I’ve only got two ears, so I can’t follow three people talking at once. Mister Vash, where’re you goin’?” Her voice was firm. To her ears she sounded a lot like her momma and honestly didn’t know how to feel about that. As the other two opened their mouths again, she repeated, “Just Mister Vash, please.”

His face was grim and set. “I’m going to face Knives. Don’t try to-”

“Thank you for telling me,” she interrupted. “Mister Nick, what’s botherin’ you?”

Wolfwood gave her a disgusted look. “What’s botherin’ me? Spikey’s f*ckin’ runnin’ off in the middle of the night again, that’s what’s f*ckin’ botherin’ me!”

“Okay. I see why that would make you upset. Miss Meryl, what’s makin’ you upset?”

“Wh-Milly, you’re kidding me, right?” When Milly didn’t yield, she threw her hands up. “I’m upset because he’s leaving even though he promised he wouldn’t! That’s why I’m f*cking upset!” Meryl’s voice cracked and she choked down a sob.

Seeing her people like this broke her heart. “Okay, let’s talk about it.” When they all opened their mouths to argue, she held up a finger. “Now wait! We’re not gonna get anywhere by yellin’ over each other, and it’s too damn cold out here. We’re all adults, so let’s cheat each other like adults.” She gestured back towards the tent.

Vash was hesitant. “Milly, please, I don’t-”

She cut him off. “Mister Vash, I am asking you to come inside and sit down for a few minutes while we have a discussion, is that too much to ask?” she said curtly. “Now I don’t know what you’re tryna do, runnin’ off in the middle of the night, but I swear to god if you rabbit on me now I’ll, I’ll…”

“You’ll what?” He asked, a little unkindly.

“I’ll cry!”

This shut him up. He walked back into the tent, stubborn ornery old bastard. They followed him, the warmth melting Milly’s toes.

Livio was sitting up, looking spooked. As soon as he saw the four of them he must’ve picked up on the fight brewing.

“Uh, I’ll, uh, I’ll go wait in the van.” Then he made tracks.

She appreciated this about him.

The tent was too low for everyone to stand comfortably, so they sat in a rough circle. Milly pulled out canteens and a roll of toilet paper, setting them in the middle of the circle. Then she grabbed the pillow out of her sleeping bag, her one concession to comfort on the road. As she did, she took long, steadying breaths.

God help her, she loved these f*cking idiots, she really did, but they made her life hard sometimes. Didn’t have the sense god gave a lizard, a one of them, leaving her to keep the peace. Why she was the one who was supposed to tell them how they felt, she’d never know…She breathed in deep through her nose. Now wasn’t the time for this.

She returned to the circle, the pillow clutched to her chest. “Alright,” she began, “this is how this is gonna go. Everybody’s upset, and we’ve got a lot to deal with, so we’re gonna take turns talkin’, and we’re gonna listen to each other.” She held up the pillow. “This is the talking pillow. If you’ve got the pillow, you get to talk. If you don’t have the pillow, you gotta listen.” There were other rules, but she wanted to start simple. She wasn’t too optimistic about her chances, anyways.

“How do we get the…the pillow when we want it?” Meryl asked condescendingly.

“You raise your hand.”

Wolfwood was worrying a cigarette between his teeth. “Is all this kiddie sh*t necessary?”

Milly fixed him with her best glare. “Mister Nick I know you’re not catchin’ an attitude with me when I’m tryna to be helpful.” He scowled at her as she continued. “I come from a big family, and like any family, we fight. So this is how we make sure everyone gets heard when there’s so many of us.”

“You use a pillow.”

A muscle worked in Milly’s jaw. “Y’all’re gonna treat me with respect, am I clear?” They nodded, in varying states of irritation. “Right. Vash, you go first.” She passed him the pillow.

He held it flippantly in one hand. “Sure. I, uh, I’m leaving to face Knives.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Is that it?”

She didn’t sink to his level. “Why do you want to leave?”

“Because I need to deal with him-”

“We came up with a plan, Vash!” Meryl interrupted.

“Meryl, please let him finish, then you can have the pillow.” Milly said.

Meryl rolled her eyes. “Milly, how is this supposed to actually help?”

“We need to take turns so everyone can talk, but it doesn’t work if we don’t all make it work,” she said. “Please, can you try?”

Meryl sat back with a huff and crossed her arms.

Vash continued. “I need to face Knives. The longer I make him wait, the more people he’ll hurt. Whatever Conrad might know, he’s not going to tell us, and then we’ll be at the north pole for no reason, and he’ll destroy another town, and then what?” He tossed the pillow to the center of the circle, dismissively.

Meryl lunged for it. “Then we have more information instead of running into his trap like an idiot! We already talked about this, Vash, he’s going to do whatever he wants, and our best chance of actually stopping him is by coming up with a plan.”

Vash whipped his head to face her. “What’s our plan? Get Conrad to talk? He won’t. This whole thing is a wild tomas chase, the only thing it’ll accomplish is putting you in harm’s way.”

Meryl made a strangled noise of indignation. “‘Putting us in harm’s way’? You’re not ‘putting’ us anywhere, Vash. We can handle ourselves.”

“No, you can’t,” he said. “You obviously can’t handle yourselves, not around Knives, and you shouldn’t have to, anyways. He’s my responsibility, so I’ll deal with him.”

“Your responsibility,” Wolfwood scoffed. “And how, exactly, are you going to face up to your responsibility? I know you don’t have a plan, because you never have a plan. You just run right on in without thinkin’.”

“I’m not trying to get myself killed-”

“Oh bull f*cking sh*t.” Wolfwood snapped. “You’ve never done anything but.”

His words hung heavy over them.

He sucked in a watery breath as he kept going. “And you were just going to leave us here! What was I supposed to do when I woke up and found you gone?” Even though he was curled up on himself, shoulders hunched and face turned away, Milly could see the tears dripping down under the lenses of his glasses.

Vash’s voice was deceptively calm as he said “It doesn’t matter-”

“f*ck you it doesnt matter!” Wolfwood snarled. “Do…do we not matter?”

“That’s not what I meant-”

“What could you have possibly meant?” Wolfwood half sobbed, before he stood to face away from them.

A glimmer of fear had come into Vash’s eyes. “I meant that it matters what happens to you, to all of you. You have people who need you to come back.”

“What about us, Vash?” Milly asked, letting the hurt creep into her voice. This wasn’t going the way it was supposed to go. She didn’t know how to fix it. She didn’t know what they needed. She couldn’t let it fall apart. “We need you to come back, too.”

He blinked rapidly. “But, but I…but I can’t put you in danger, I can’t do that to you!”

Meryl gulped down some of the water and wiped tears off of her face. “Vash…Knives is going to try to hurt you, too. How can you expect us to be okay with that?”

Vash’s shoulders were rigid with tension. “Meryl, this is my fault, so I have to stop-“

Meryl leapt to her feet. “Vash,” she said, voice brittle with fury, “never say that what happened to you was your fault.”

Vash had gone stock-still. “Mer-“

“I know he’s your brother,” she said. “But when I see him, I’m going to kill him for what he did to you.”

Vash stared up at her like a cornered animal.

Milly seized her chance. “Vash, we’re all here because we chose to be. We want to help you.”

The whites were fully visible around Vash’s irises when he looked at her. Then he blinked, laughing drily. “Ahaha, that’s a funny way to put it.”

Milly pushed through the hot, stinging upset and asked “What are you talking about?”

His eyes were still unnatural wide as he said “I just mean that it’s kinda disingenuous to say that you don’t have any ulterior motive for following me, insurance girl.”

Wolfwood turned back, arms crossed protectively over his chest. “What about me, then?”

Vash didn’t spare him a glance. “I wasn’t talking about you.”

The well of hurt in Wolfwood’s eyes seemed bottomless.

Milly and Meryl exchanged a look. “Vash…”

“I mean, damn, I don’t know what the cutthroat world of insurance looks like, but you should both definitely get whatever raise you’re aiming for,” he said, as airy and dismissive as if he’d been talking about the weather. “You’re both employee of the year material, really!”

“We don’t work for Bernardelli anymore.” Meryl said.

The smile froze on his face.

“Do you seriously think that they’d let us haul the van onto a spaceship and then drive to the north f*cking pole,” Meryl rasped, voice hoarse from crying.

“But-“

“Listen to me. You absolute asshole. We’re going to go with you no matter what. Even if you did manage to run off tonight we would have just followed you.” Her fists were clenched at her sides, face filled with iron resolve. “There’s no way we’d let you do this alone.”

“Why?”

The question threw everyone off balance.

“Why would you do that?” He kept searching their faces for answers, looking lost and strangely small. “Why would you put yourselves in so much danger? And Knives is…,” he made a little choking sound. “Knives is worse.”

Milly couldn't stop herself from leaning in. “Vash, we’re your friends.”

“But why?” He clambered to his feet, voice growing shaky. “Why are you around me?”

Wolfwood flinched. “Did you think that I didn’t, that I don’t…did you think I was lying to you?” Behind his sunglasses, his eyes were filled with betrayal and hurt. “That I was using you?”

Vash’s face fell into a look of pure horror. “No, no, never, but, but I don’t…I don’t…”

“I already told you you're my friend,” Meryl said. “Did you think I was lying, too?”

Like some gruesome puppet, Milly watched as Vash contorted his face into a wide smile.

“Wow,” he said, “I really messed up, huh? Ahahahahaha, dang! At least I’m not the one with questionable taste!”

Milly finally got to her feet. “Don’t do that.”

“Hm?” He spun on his heel to face her. “Do what?”

If she had to watch him do this for much longer she thought she was going to throw up. “Come back. Please. You don’t have to hide from us.”

Vash’s smile started to crack. “I’m right here!” His voice was wavering.

Milly took a step toward him.

He took a step back.

The expression on his face was agonizing to look at. A fragile little smile the only thing holding back the hurt in his eyes.

“Don’t you know how much we care about you?”

Milly had been raised around a lot of love. It came part and parcel with being a Thompson. There’d never been a day in her life when she didn’t know she was loved, and she’d been taught to share that love with others. That’s just what you did.

So when she saw Vash looking like he didn't believe her, she couldn’t stop the “Oh, honey,” that tumbled from her mouth.

Vash broke.

He sobbed, once, before shutting his mouth with a snap. Tears threatened to spill over his eyelids. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. I’m, uhm, I’m sorry, Milly.” He pressed against the wall of the tent, never taking his eyes off of them.

“Needle-noggin?”

“Vash?”

His legs shook. “Sorry, Milly.” He said again. “I’m gonna make you cry.”

He ran out of the tent and into the night.

Notes:

There he goes again!

Chapter 6: Summertime

Summary:

Summertime by MCR

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The tent flaps waved in the cold night air. A single small lamp lit the sand colored canvas. It swayed in the wind, casting flickering shadows.

Meryl turned her back on the night and went to her partners.

Milly knelt in the sand, crying heavily, with Wolfwood wrapped around her shoulders like a blanket. He held the side of her face with his hand, her tears pooling in his palm.

“Hey now,” he said. “Don’t cry, sweetheart. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“He’s gone!” she whimpered. “I couldn’t do it right and he’s gone.” Shining tears tracked over her flushed cheeks and mixed with the clear strands of snot she kept futilely wiping away. As the tears dripped from her chin, they made dark splotches on her bright yellow pajama pants. “I couldn’t keep him and now he’s…” she broke off, desperately trying to choke down her sobs.

Meryl sat back on her heels and reached out to them both, laying one hand on Milly’s head and the other on Wolfwood’s arm. “You did everything right, babe. You did everything right, it’s not your fault, I promise.”

“She’s right. You were perfect.” Wolfwood’s voice was watery and thin, his lip trembling slightly. “He’s always doing this. Always…always running off cuz he knows he f*cked up.”

“I don’t care!” Milly hiccuped. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “We’ve got to get him back. We’ve got to help him.” She turned her red-rimmed eyes on Meryl, who ached at the sight of her partner in so much distress. “He’s hurting so much.”

Meryl’s chest filled with lead. She reflected, not for the first time, how intimate it was to have your nightmares made out of someone else’s fears. Instead of giving her some kind of perverse thrill, though, it only made her tired.

She steadied herself and wiped away Milly’s tears with the tips of her fingers, feeling her misery-hot cheeks. “Yes. He is. But he’s also an adult who can make his own decisions, and I love you. I want to make sure you’re doing alright, okay, Mills?”

“But…but he’s gone-”

“Yeah, and we’re going to go after him.” Wolfwood interrupted. “First, you’re gonna catch your breath.” He pressed into her, foreheads touching. “You did good, big girl. He’s just…” he trailed off.

“He’s hurting. Like you said.” Meryl finished.

It was an explanation, not an excuse. She moved her hand from Wolfwood’s bicep to his cheek, scruffy with stubble. “He shouldn’t have said any of that to you, Undertaker. It was cruel of him.” She watched a tremor pass over his face. He was always so fragile, like ceramic laced with hairline fractures. Held together by stress and habit more than structural integrity. Meryl wanted them all to be safe and whole. If she couldn’t manage that, though, she’d settle for a soft place to break together.

Wolfwood blinked, tears dripping over his eyelids. They gave his jet eyes a glassy, almost gemlike quality. His stubble was rough under her palm, and crows feet lined his eyes.

She could never forget how young he was.

“I’m, uh, I’m fine, Shortie-”

“You’re not fine!” Milly interrupted, startling them both. “Wolfwood, honey, he should not have talked to you like that!” Her eyes were red and raw from crying, turning her irises fever blue. “Yeah, he’s going through a lot, but so’re you. You don’t walk to your partner like that, at least if you want to keep them for long.” Her brows were furrowed and her jaw was set in a way that was so uniquely and unmistakably Milly Thompson that Meryl felt a little more grounded just looking at her. “God knows I love him, but he has not treated you well, either of you!”

Meryl rubbed at her sandy eyes with the heel of her hand. “Milly, he didn’t mean to give me those memories-”

“That’s not what I mean. He left you!” She drew Meryl and Wolfwood into her arms, nuzzling the tops of their heads.

A tremor started in the tips of Meryl’s left fingers. She made a fist to fight against the now familiar pins and needles feeling. “I think,” she began hesitantly. “I think he doesn’t feel like he can stay.”

Milly’s eyes snapped to her as she pushed herself back. “Is this something you think, or something you know?” she asked.

She had been absolutely wasted in insurance. When Meryl found the fools who had tossed her to Bernardelli’s troublemaker division, she’d kick them in the shins. “Something I know.”

“Wait, wait a damn minute. Shortie, how much do you remember?” Wolfwood wiped at his eyes roughly with the back of his hand, trying to look more collected than he clearly was. “You said that you didn’t have anythin’ specific.”

“I don’t,” Meryl said. “It’s complicated. I don’t have the memories? Or, rather, I do, but only the parts that are the emotions?” She pinched her brow, feeling the headache that always accompanied accessing Vash’s transplanted memories start to build. “Whatever his reactions would be, that’s how I react now. Right now, I want to run.”

The first week after… After. Had been hellish. She barely knew if she was sleeping or waking. Slipping in and out of consciousness, not sure what was real and what wasn’t. The memories melted out of her mind like dripping wax. Smeared. Blurred.

The narrative of the thing was gone now. The word-shape of it too slippery and fog-faint to grasp.

What the hell was a word-shape? Meryl squeezed her eyes shut and practiced her breathing techniques, forcing herself not to get lost again. If she wasn’t careful, she’d fall back and inward, lost in the labyrinth that Vash had carved into her.

Meryl wondered if she died that day. Not all the way, not entirely, but a little death that remade her. She woke up that morning Meryl Stryfe, November University graduate magna cum laude and Bernardelli insurance agent. Then her mind had been flayed open and carved with alien memories. It wasn’t long before the details faded, blurred. She could no longer recall any of the actual events, even when she tried. It was like remembering a dream; always fainter with each attempt.

The feelings behind them, though, they took hold of her, overwrote her own instincts and desires. She found herself waking early in the morning itching to exercise. She wanted to drink more than she ever had before. She jumped at the strangest, most inexplicable shadows. It had taken months of practice to get her aim back. It had shifted, like her body was expecting a heavier gun and a longer arm. When she was tired and not thinking, she’d completely lose balance, assuming a different center of gravity.

The first time she’d tried to share a bed with Milly she’d blacked out and come back to herself screaming her throat raw.

Meryl wondered if this was what being haunted felt like.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go get him.”

The three of them headed into the night. Vash’s tracks were clear in the thick mud, and the stars were bright enough to see by. Livio poked his head out of the truck, cautiously curious. Wolfwood walked over to him, and the brothers exchanged a few words that were too quiet and too far away for Meryl to hear.

Milly gently rubbed a hand over her back, and she leaned into the touch.

They crunched through the frosty mud. Vash couldn’t handle the cold at all, so the only urgency was finding him before he froze. He wasn’t going to outrun them now.

Their suspicions proved correct when after only a quarter ile they found their collective, mutual headache curled into a ball.

All of his markings shining.

Meryl took three steps back and threw up.

She groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose as tightly as she could. Milly wordlessly passed her a canteen and she rinsed out her mouth, spitting onto the ground. Every time she blinked she saw strobing, white hot pain, felt feathers piercing her skin.

Panic and bile rose in her throat. She started to shake again, like a rabbit in front of a hawk.

Meryl gritted her teeth and stood.

She turned back to Vash. He was still curled into a little ball, peeking out over his crossed arms. His eyes were glowing, because they did that. She cared about Vash, and his eyes glowed, and that was normal for him.

If she kept reminding herself, maybe that would be enough.

Beside her, Wolfwood rolled his shoulders like he was squaring up for a fight. “Alright, I’ve dealt with him when he’s like this, so don’t worry. I’ll see if I can get him talking again, then you can speak your peace.”

Meryl blinked rapidly in alarm. “What do you mean, you’ve dealt with him like this?”

In the dim light of the stars, she could only see the faint glimmer of his eyes as he looked uncomfortably into the distance. “Well. Uh.” He turned away.

“Wolfwood,” she said, voice low. “Please. Do not add to my stress right now.”

“We had an argument and he, uh, he kinda freaked out, but we dealt with it.” He turned back to her, sheepish and shy. “You helped. Your advice. I would’ve been lost without it.”

Meryl was slammed with a vertiginous rush of emotions too complex to parse. Milly steadied her with one arm, stopping her from falling.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh. I didn’t know.”

He shrugged. “I didn’t tell you.”

That made her laugh. “Okay, Undertaker, why don’t you show me what you can do?”

Wolfwood nodded once, firmly, and started to walk over to Vash before that blonde head popped up. “You don’t have to,” he said. “I can hear you.”

Once Wolfwood landed from his eight foot vertical leap, Milly tugged him close. “That’s good to hear, mister Vash,” she said. “‘Cause we’ve got to talk to you.”

Instead of shrinking back, or getting ready to run again, Vash looked defeated. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“Why?” Meryl asked bluntly. She kicked herself for not being kinder, not being gentler. It was always so hard for her to know what tone to take. She wasn’t Milly. She wasn’t Wolfwood, or Vash. She wasn’t very good with people. She wasn’t good at nice.

Vash took a shuddering breath. “I’m sorry that I ran off, I’m sorry I said all of those things-”

“Vash,” Meryl interrupted, “I’m not mad at you.”

“Why not?” he asked. “You should be.”

She sighed. “Are we doing this? Okay, fine. You running off like that was callous. All of the things that you said to us were intentionally cruel. Yet, we’re here! You didn’t scare us off, despite your best efforts.” She set her mouth in a firm line and stepped forward, reminding herself that she was safe, and that he wasn’t going to hurt her. Not this time. “You didn’t convince us that this is a uniquely dangerous mission because life is dangerous, Vash. At any moment anything could happen and we could all get killed or worse. Yes, fighting Knives is dangerous. Why don’t you get that we understand that?”

Vash’s face went still the way it did when he was actually experiencing an emotion. Meryl knew because she’d begun to do the same, in direct opposition to her lifelong inability to keep anything hidden. The change had deeply unsettled Milly, who then treated Meryl like a bomb that was about to go off. The one silver lining was that she wasn’t thrown off by his sudden, preternatural stillness. It meant she was getting through to him.

He said “You shouldn’t have to risk your lives because of me.”

Meryl liked being prepared. She’d had three months to construct her argument. She’d taken notes. “Who says we’re doing this for you?” She countered. “Knives is an existential threat to the whole planet, and last time I checked, I live here. Besides, I couldn’t live with the thought of being able to help people and choosing not to.” She crossed her arms, challenging him to come up with a counterargument.

Before Vash could even speak, Milly rose to the occasion like a gorgeous debate champion. “And anyways,” she said in her light, sweet voice that was impossible not to fall in love with, “what if we were doing this for you?”

It was a beautifully laid trap, and Vash walked right into it. “Then I’d recommend you raise your standards.”

Milly stared at him for a long, appraising moment before saying, “Mister Vash, you know you’re not a bad person, right?” When he opened his mouth to argue, she cut him off. “No, I know bad people. I know I don’t always seem smart, but can you at least believe that I’m smart enough to know bad people?” She shook her head. “How long have we known each other?”

“About three years, but-“

“Do you really think that I'm so stupid that I’d be around you for three whole years without realizing that you’re no good?” She frowned. “That’s a little insulting, Mister Vash.”

Something complicated was happening on Vash’s face that involved a lot of subtle twitches around his eyes. “Ive still done bad things-“

“And?” The three of them asked in unison. The knowledge that they were a unified front made Meryl feel safer, more confident.

Wolfwood reached into his overcoat and pulled out his packet of cigarettes. “You’re not the only one who’s done bad things, needle-noggin.” He lit the cigarette with a snap of his wrist, breathing deep. “You sayin’ we’re a couple’a doomed bastards? Harsh.”

Vash grimaced. “That’s not what I mean and you know it. What I’ve done is unforgivable, Wolfwood.”

Wolfwood’s eyes were distant glimmers of light in the darkness. “Vash. Look me in the eye and tell me that you’re a monster.” His voice was soft like wind blowing over the sand. “Tell me that you’re worse than Chapel.”

“You know what I did,” Vash said.

“And you know what he did,” he replied. “I want you to say that what he did wasn’t as bad as you trying to stop Knives.” He was deathly still, seeming to suck the air from Meryl’s lungs. “I want you to say that to me.”

Vash shook his head. “It’s, that’s not, I, I’ve done things, I’ve hurt people, I’m, I’m not good, you don’t understand, you don’t know.”

“Vash,” Meryl interrupted gently. “What do you think I don’t know?”

“Meryl, it’s-”

“You drink when you’re sad,” she said. “But not as much as when you think you can get away with it, like when you’re with other people. You love donuts, but really it’s any cheap carbs you can get, since they’re filling. The smell of frying makes you happy. The cold hurts so much that you start getting nauseated almost as soon as the temperature drops. Kites make you feel guilty. And…” she trailed off for a moment before committing. “You don’t let people touch you because it reminds you of your brother.”

She wished she never had to see the expression on Vash’s face. The repulsion. The shame. The abject terror. His boots were already scrabbling in the mud in an unconscious effort to escape.

“No.” He shook his head. “No, no, no.” His breathing came ragged. “Meryl, please.”

She knelt in front of him and held out her hand.

He stared at it, uncomprehending. His eyes flicked back up to hers, and she had to steel herself against the sudden shock from being so close to him. He kept shaking his head, too consumed by fear to make sense of the situation.

“Vash,” she said, and he flinched away from the sound of his name like he’d been shot, “it wasn’t your fault.”

“Needle-noggin?” Meryl looked over her shoulder to see Wolfwood, face stricken. He took a few steps forward as if sleepwalking. “Did…it was your brother?”

Meryl felt the clawing, aching, violation and knew Vash felt it, too. She swallowed. “Wolfwood…he was…it was…” she felt herself shake, and saw that Vash was moving the exact same way. Mirrored sensations. They had both been sculpted into the same shape by the same awful hand. “He hurt him.” Then her mouth clicked shut and she could say no more.

Wolfwood’s face twisted in agony. He walked forward before slumping to the ground, shoulders hunched.

“Wolfwuh…” Vash wheezed, breath stolen by terror. “I’m sor-”

Wolfwood raised his head and his eyes were dry. He reached out a hand and cupped the side of Vash’s face. Vash froze, body still spasming involuntarily. “He’s not gonna hurt you again. We’re not gonna let him.” A desperate light shone in his dark eyes.

Vash shook his head. “N nn nuh, nuh, wuh, wuh-”

“We’re not gonna let him touch you again, needle-noggin, none of us.” His voice was taut and thick with emotion. “You don’t have to be scared of him anymore.”

“I know what it was like, Vash,” Meryl said. “I feel it every day. I know.” She reached out her hand and pressed it to the center of his chest.

She did. While she knew that Knives hadn’t hurt her, she still bore that scar. She still couldn’t stand anyone, even sweet, perfect Milly touching her back.

The part of her that was still incontrovertibly Meryl Stryfe was screaming at her to run before she got hurt again. Before what little of her that was left was completely obliterated.

She closed her eyes and breathed.

She reached down, deep down. Past all of the layered and carved parts of her that were Vash, past all of her fears and her misgivings. Past her regrets and shames. She found the core of what made her who she was.

She grabbed it with both hands.

“M, mm, Mer, suh, suh, suh, sorry, please, please, sorry,” Vash was rambling, begging, trapped between her and Wolfwood with nowhere to go. “Sorrysorrysorrysorry-”

“I love you.”

He went still.

“You never take anything seriously except when it’s the worst possible time and you want to run, and I love you. You throw yourself into danger with absolutely no regard for your safety or my peace of mind, and I love you. You spend days doing nothing but playing with kids and doing odd jobs for people. When I see you doing that, I want you to have a peaceful life. I want it so badly it hurts, Vash. I…I want that life for you, and for Wolfwood, and for Milly, and for me, if you’ll have me.” She could feel the tears gathering in her eyes and angrily wiped them away. She wasn’t going to stop until she’d said what she needed to say. “And before you say anything, yes, I am still scared of you, and yes, you hurt me. And I love you.”

She was leaning forward, fingers splayed over his chest. The strange thrumming was muffled by his layers, but it still made her want to rip her hand away. Instead, she dug her boots into the mud and brought all of her stubbornness to bear.

“You’re the most bullheaded, most aggravating, most caring, most kind person I have ever met. Do you have any idea how much I love your smile? Your laugh?”

“You do have a nice laugh,” Wolfwood mumbled. He blinked, his cheeks damp, shocked at himself. His chest heaved as he drew in breath. “I, I, uhm.” He turned his head away, burying his face in the crook of Meryl’s neck. She felt his mouth move and his breath hot against her, though the words were too quiet to hear. Then he tensed like he was afraid he was going to be hit. She reached around and ran her free hand through his hair.

Milly settled to Meryl’s left, leaning their shoulders together. “It breaks our hearts to see you hurting so much. We’re not going to leave you alone, honey.”

Vash flinched violently at the pet name. He finally managed to stammer out “But, but, why?”

Milly gave him that radiant smile that Meryl adored. “Because we love you, silly tomas.”

He was shaking his head, refusing to look at them. “No, no no, can’t, not supposed to.”

Meryl had kept her hand splayed on his chest the whole time. “Vash. Please understand me. I know you. I know everything you’ve ever wanted to keep hidden away. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” Doubt started to eat away at her insides. “Is…is this too much? Do you not want-”

His head snapped up, and she sharply bit off her last word. She wanted to run. Faced with him and his eyes and his markings and his terrible droning noise from her nightmares she wanted to flee. Yet a deeper compulsion rooted her to the spot. The need to know.

With what seemed to be a titanic effort, he prised his jaws apart. His words came out a whisper. “I want.” Then he broke eye contact again and curled in on himself, around her hand. She felt the puffs of his breath, hot in the icy night as he whispered “This. You.” He swallowed, jaw taut. “Us.”

It was as if a rope had finally snapped somewhere, out in the vastness. Vash’s admission sent a shudder through the four of them, and they drew breath at the same time. They murmured affirmations to each other. “This, this is okay?” “Yeah, yeah.” Curled together in a little ball of hurt and relief, desperate for the comfort of each other’s embrace. Vash had gone boneless, eyes glazed over as he twitched periodically. Meryl wanted so desperately to reach out and wrap her arms around him.

She couldn’t.

A warm, familiar hand smoothed Meryl’s hair away from her forehead. “Hey, honey, how are you doing?”

Meryl leaned into Milly’s touch. “Managing,” she murmured. She shouldn’t have bothered; Vash’s ears were sharp and he’d hear her anyway. Still, she always tried to be polite.

Milly hummed and kissed her forehead. “You’re so strong, Meryl. You’re so incredible.”

“So are you.” Meryl craned her head up to look into Milly’s sky blue eyes. “You kept us together even when we were falling apart, and you’ve always been there for me. You’re amazing, babe. I don’t know what we’d do without you.”

“Shortie’s right.” Wolfwood finally peeled himself off of Meryl’s shoulder to peek at them. He’d left his sunglasses in the tent, so his sad liquid eyes sparkled in the dark. One hand still cupped Vash’s cheek, a thumb petting his mole. “You’re kind and you’ve got a heart as big as the sky. We’d be lost without you.”

The weight of holding everyone together must have finally caught up with her, and all of the bottled up tears came spilling out.

“‘M sorry, Milly,” Vash slurred from where he was slumped against the rock wall. He looked alarmingly dissociated and Meryl realized with a start that he’d been out in the cold for far too long. “Made you cry. Sorry.”

Milly shook her head, gulping lungfuls of air. “Can’t. Can’t, cant, cant.” She pressed her forehead into Vash’s shoulder as she whimpered. He seemed shocked and confused as to why she’d turn to him for comfort at all.

Milly sucked in a soggy breath and held Vash’s face with both hands. “You listen to me, Vash the Stampede,” she said. “You gotta be nicer to yourself, alright? Stop talkin’ bad about yourself and actin’ like you’re no good cause I can’t stand it.” She sniffled, brushing the hair back from his forehead. “I love this man, and I don’t like when you’re mean to him.”

Vash’s face crumpled like wet tissue paper. Meryl had seen/felt him cry plenty of times, but she realized how guarded he must have been. He was an ugly crier. As Milly wrapped him in her arms, tears dribbled down his chin and onto the muddy ground.

And still, she couldn’t go to him.

She smelled cigarette smoke as Wolfwood hugged her. “You’re good, Shortie,” he rasped. “You’re so damn good. Don’t you ever forget that.”

She closed her eyes and let herself be held.

After only a few minutes, they headed back. It was freezing out on the glacier, and Meryl had to keep fighting back waves of nausea. Vash couldn’t stand, made too unsteady from crying. Without a word, Wolfwood scooped him into his arms as easily as if he’d been carrying a sack of laundry. Both Vash and Milly protested, but Wolfwood hushed them, cradling Vash to his chest.

Meryl’s teeth were chattering by the time they got back to the tent, and Vash was barely responding. Wolfwood set him down onto the ground, fiddling with the buttons and snaps on his muddy coat. In the light of the small lamp, Meryl could see Vash’s unfocused, reddened eyes. He was pale and clammy where she pulled off his undersuit, able to touch him now that his markings were unlit.

Milly heated some water on the little stove, adding some hard wormhoney candies to melt into a weak tea. This she passed to Vash, who held onto it without seeming to notice. At their gentle urging, he drank, and the color slowly returned to his cheeks.

Wolfwood had briefly excused himself to go talk to Livio. Meryl was pleasantly, selfishly surprised when he returned alone.

“Said he’s good in the van,” Wolfwood reported. It was a little hard to tell because of the way the cold had made his cheeks dark, but Meryl would swear he was blushing.

It had been a group effort to fold all of Vash’s lankiness into his pajamas. He protested weakly and ineffectually, shivering too hard to do anything but finally let himself get taken care of.

They laid their sleeping bags out next to each other, even closer than they usually did in the small tent.

Meryl looked down at Vash. He was bundled in his sleeping bag, an extra blanket thrown on top of him to try to stave off the cold. His messy blonde mop fell into his eyes.

Almost without thinking, she smoothed his hair away from his forehead. He blinked up at her, brow furrowed.

“Will you stay?” she asked.

His face creased in pain and he turned away. “I’ll try,” he whispered.

It was all she could hope for.

Before she could think better of it, she laid down next to him, burrowing into her own sleeping bag. He was still facing away from her, and she could see the black hair that grew from the nape of his neck to his temples. The hard lines of his shoulders, the glint of his earring, the edges of scars. She had never slept next to him like this before. Never been close enough to see the way his stubble prickled along his jaw, or smell the ozone-metal of his body.

If she listened, very carefully, she could just make out the faint sound of humming.

She tentatively placed her arm on his. He stiffened, then leaned into her. He shakily covered her hand with his, still cold and clammy. On her other side, she felt Wolfwood curl around her, his cheek scratching her neck as he nuzzled against her. Milly laid to Vash’s right, reaching across him to rest on Meryl’s arm.

Together, finally, they fell asleep.

Notes:

oh god thank you for your patience with this one, it was a doozy to write. i got slammed with writer's block and life stuff so i hope you enjoy, even though it's shorter. next time (please, god, in less than multiple calendar months) we meet team red's final party member!
Edit: OH MY GOD??? The amazing eezybree made fanart already bc we’re sharing one braincell https://www.tumblr.com/needle-noggins/747253028879548416/what-immortal-hand-or-eye-killed-me-again-and

Raise Your Voice - WateredMyCrops (2024)

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