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Dancing Mad

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"You did what?"

Meryl Stryfe, premier insurance claims investigator – or so she would like to think of herself, as opposed to "Vash the Stampede's babysitter" – slammed both hands down on the table, fixed her charge with an incredulous stare. The outlaw's customary breakfast of half a dozen donuts overturned from the force of the blow, and they went tumbling into his lap. Picking one up and brushing it off on his coat, he whined:

"Oh, come on, you're saying I can't even have any fun now?"

"This isn't about you having fun!" she retorted. "This is about you bringing the entire March Grand Hotel down around our ears!"

"I'll be good, I promise," he said, before popping the donut in his mouth.

"Even if that was true – which I highly doubt – how are the guests going to react when they realize that Vash the Stampede is skulking about the ballroom?"

"Well they won't know that I'm Vash," the gunman protested. "I went to the mayor using one of my brilliant aliases."

Millie Thompson, Meryl's statuesque partner, spoke up cheerfully. "Would that be Mister John Smith, Mister Vash?"

"That's the one," he said proudly, and Meryl had to resist the urge to leap across the table and strangle him.

The reason for her ire was very simple. After an exhausting eighteen-hour bus ride across the desert, the group had finally pulled into March City in the early hours of the morning. However, rather than head for an inn and the comfort of a warm bed, as common sense would dictate, the short girl had instead been forced to acquiesce to the demands of her two traveling partners, who insisted that they were starving to death even when she had clearly seen them sharing the last bag of pretzels not even thirty minutes ago. Allowing herself to be dragged – literally – over the pristine city roads, she had soon found herself in a kitschy diner. The small girl attempted to console herself with a pot of hot black coffee and a newspaper, while Vash went to use the bathroom.

When he came back, he announced that he was now one of the guards for the March City Annual Ball, the most prestigious black-tie event within five hundred iles. If the coffee cup had been anywhere near Meryl's lips at that moment, she would have drank from it and spit on him just out of spite.

"C'mon, it'll be fun," Vash was saying now, somehow making himself heard over the buzzing headache that filled her skull like static from an ancient radio. "I impressed the mayor so much with my sharpshooting that he hired me on the spot! And he got me a free suite in the hotel, plus two tickets to the party!" He pulled out a pair of golden tickets and waved them about proudly. "So you guys can come to the party, and keep an eye on me!"

That did sound nice. Still, Meryl wasn't going to be persuaded so easily. "We don't have anything to wear," she said, lowering her head until her forehead was touching the table. "I can't just show up to a ball in a pencil skirt and a cape! And poor Millie – all she has to wear is that giant poncho!"

"That's not all I'm wearing," Millie said helpfully, and the outlaw had to duck under the table just then to hide the rising blush in his neck and cheeks. Rather than deck him for being a pervert, however, Meryl just sighed.

"I guess, maybe... we could go to the department store and get something."

Millie smiled broadly. "Yeah, that sounds like fun, Sempai! And maybe we could put it down as a work-related expense!"

"Maybe," Meryl said, but she doubted it.

Millie stood in a corner of the expansive ballroom, trying to be inconspicuous, but failing due to her rather conspicuous size. When a waiter passed by bearing a large tray of champagne, Millie reached for her third glass of the bubblie. She didn't want to admit it, but she was beginning to feel awkward and bored. Out on the dance floor, couples twirled and glided gracefully as the live musicians that had been hired for the party began to transition into a waltz number. To pass the remaining time, she smoothed out her dress, which had wrinkled slightly, and played a bit with her hair, which Meryl had put in an updo for her.

Despite Sempai's initial reluctance to go clothes shopping, she had certainly thrown herself into the task as soon as they had reached the department store. In no time at all she had found an absolutely stunning yellow ballroom gown, made with material so soft that both girls marveled at the touch. Meryl had been hesitant about buying it – it was $$300, half of what she made in a week! – but Millie swore she'd regret it forever if she passed up this opportunity. Sempai mumbled something about killing Vash later for this, but she couldn't hide the sparkle in her eyes as the cashier rung up her purchase.

Millie had had a harder time of it, unfortunately. Back home her family had made all of her clothes by hand, and for a very good reason: it was almost impossible to find anything that fit her. Because of this, Millie didn't really like to go clothes shopping, despite all her outward professions of enthusiasm. She was happy for Sempai, of course – but she couldn't help feeling left out, all the same.

Sempai, bless her, had tried very hard to pretend that Millie's size wasn't a problem, and the two searched high and low for something that would fit her and not look like a tent. At last they stumbled upon an area that dealt solely in larger sizes for women's clothing, and also offered on-site hemming services. Millie felt herself gravitating towards an old-fashioned, but not inelegant, dinner dress, and Meryl waited patiently while the big girl put the dress on and then stood as still as possible for the benefit of the seamstress, who began to painstakingly take in the waist. When she had finished, both women stood back and admired her. "You look just like a princess, Millie," Meryl said. Millie had beamed.

She felt more like an ogre than a princess now. Three hours into the party, and no one had talked to her, let alone asked her to dance. Not that Millie knew how to dance, anyway. She did know a dance from back home exceptionally well, but Meryl had told her that the shag wasn't the kind of thing people did here. As for Meryl, the poor girl was being shuttled from one male admirer to another... but at least they were taking some kind of interest in her, even if their attentions were unwanted. Millie, for her part, only seemed to inspire fear in them. Every man who had approached the pair to ask Sempai for a dance had eyed the bigger girl with trepidation, as though she was some hulking bodyguard just looking for an excuse to tear them in half.

From within the circle of the arms of her latest dance partner, Meryl gazed out at Millie sadly. She hadn't wanted to take the men up on their offers, but the bigger girl had insisted she get out there and "let your hair down for once, Sempai!" Meryl's eyes met Millie's briefly, and her junior partner gave a huge smile and waved before Meryl found herself being swept into the crowd once more.

Millie drained her glass of champagne, which she realized left her with nothing to do except twiddle her thumbs until the waiter passed by again. She wondered if she should go to the dinner hall, but she wasn't really hungry, and besides, she didn't want to be needlessly taking food away from someone who might want it.

A familiar voice interrupted the monotony. "What are you doing here all by yourself?"

Millie looked up to see Vash standing there, regarding her with curiosity. "Oh, hi, Mister Vash," Millie said gaily. "Have you decided to take a break from your guard duties?"

"Heh, sort of," the gunslinger answered, placing a hand behind his head. "Actually, I'm so bored I decided to come out here. There hasn't been hide nor hair of any intruders so far." He laughed softly, then straightened up. "You look really pretty tonight, Millie."

"Thank you," Millie replied with a smile. "I think you look very nice too."

Vash looked confused. "But I'm just wearing the same clothes like always."

"Yes, and you always look nice. I thought now would be a good time to let you know."

"Oh..." The look of confusion melted away, to be replaced with one of gratitude. "Thank you. So what have you been up to?" he asked with a wave of his arm, indicating the entirety of the ballroom. "It doesn't seem like you to be standing on the sidelines like this."

"Oh, you know..." Millie's tone was light, but the gunman didn't miss the slightly crestfallen look in her eyes. "Drinking."

Vash frowned. "Drinking?"

"Yes, drinking."

"That's no good," he said. "I was going to ask you to dance with me, but if you're too sloshed..."

"It's just wine, Mister Vash," Millie said good-naturedly. "They don't serve hard liquor at these types of parties." That was something else Sempai had told her, which the big girl found disappointing.

Vash smiled and clasped his hands. "Great! In that case, would you care to join me for a waltz?"

"Gosh, I'd like to, Mister Vash, but it seems like you're asking because you feel sorry for me." He wasn't and she knew it, but the big girl feared making a fool of herself on the dance floor, and so she scrambled for any excuse to resist him.

In response, Vash turned on the charm – or at least, in his estimation, it was charm. Most women would have found his performance completely ridiculous, and not worthy of consideration. He bent down on one knee, held out his hands to her in supplication. "Non, vous j'aime, Mademoiselle! Voudriez-vous danser avec moi?"

Millie, for her part, wasn't most women, and she found the gunslinger's lack of charm to be oddly endearing. "Well, since you're asking so nicely..." She placed her empty glass on the floor, and her cheeks involuntarily flushed when she met Vash's enthusiastic gaze. "I guess I'll dance with you."

She let him lead her out onto the dance floor, where he slid his arm around her waist and grasped her hand delicately in his own. Before they could get moving, however, Millie confessed: "I don't really know how to waltz."

"It's okay," he said implacably, "just follow my lead," and then they were moving, hesitantly at first, and then faster, as the music around them swelled and an ineffable feeling of lightness crept into her legs and –

The heel of her shoe came down on his foot, hard.

Vash's high-pitched scream of pain turned the head of every partygoer in the room. The musicians came to a screeching halt right in the middle of Tchaikovsky's Waltz of the Flowers, momentarily stunned. On the other side of the room, Meryl could be seen turning white and gripping the fingers of her dance partner so tightly it was a small miracle they didn't come off in her hand.

Once his screams subsided and everyone else had returned to their business, the big girl tried to pull away from him. "I'm sorry, Mister Vash... I'll just be going now..." She kept her head down so he wouldn't see the shame that burned plainly in her face.

"But we barely got started," Vash protested, holding her fast. "You've never waltzed before, so you can't give up just because you're not perfect at it."

"It's not that, Mister Vash," Millie said, still attempting to extricate herself. "It's just... I'm going to hurt you if we keep going."

"I'm fine," the gunslinger insisted, even though tears continued to leak out of his eyes from his foot's first encounter with Millie's formidable high-heeled pumps. "At least, let's keep going until this song is over, okay?"

"Well... all right," the big girl said reluctantly.

He began to lead her through the steps of the dance again. Even though he moved much more slowly this time, and Millie tried very hard to match the gunslinger's movements, she still found herself stepping on his feet every few seconds. To his credit, Vash only winced silently, trying not to show how much pain he was in. When at long last the song ended, he didn't loosen his grip on her. Knowing it would be pointless to try to escape, the big girl stood there silently, wondered what was going to happen next.

"One more," he said softly, his breathing labored from withholding exclamations of agony. "Let's just do one more song."

Meryl's current dance partner was nothing short of obnoxious. In addition to wearing a gaudy yellow tuxedo and top hat, his breath was terrible, and he seemed to take immense joy in expounding endlessly on subjects she couldn't care less about. Also, he seemed only able to repeat the same four dance steps over and over, so that the two had barely made any headway on the dance floor.

Not even pretending to pay attention to his prattlings, Meryl's eyes idly swept over the length of the ballroom, where they finally came to settle on the forms of Vash and Millie dancing. Even though Vash was taking a lot of pain for his troubles – the bigger girl's clumsy movements fell out of step with his own, leading him to getting frequently kicked or stepped on – he seemed to be enjoying himself, all the same.

The man, realizing that yet another woman he was attempting to romance was growing bored with him, suddenly interrupted himself. "Hey, why do you keep looking back at the guy in the red coat?" he asked, a look of injured pride in his face. "You don't like him more than me, do you?"

Meryl looked away quickly. Millie looked happy, so the shorter girl should be happy too. After all, it wasn't as though she were – jealous – or anything so stupid as that. In fact, when this was all over, she thought she was going to march right up to Millie and remind her of Vash's reputation as a "womanizer." But not right now. Right now (provided that the broomhead behaved himself), Millie should be allowed to enjoy her evening.

I'm just trying to protect her, Meryl thought. But somehow the sentiment rang hollow, and she bit her lip, feeling suddenly and inexplicably guilty. Meanwhile, with his insecurities seemingly redressed, the man quickly launched back into a speech about the Outer's most profitable exports.

Millie had settled into a natural groove over time, her body obeying the unspoken commands of the strains of music that filled the air. Strangely enough, the music felt incredibly close by – close enough that she could feel it tickling her ears, in fact. After a few moments, she realized it was coming from her dancing partner. Vash was singing.

"So, on the second celestial evening... all the children of their pebbles joined hands and composed a waltz..."

His voice was soft and mellow, a far cry from the usual boisterous edge it held at any given moment. Millie closed her eyes, drank it in. Plunged into darkness, she found herself in a world occupied by nothing but the sound of his voice and an accompanying feeling of weightlessness. Moments later she joined in with him:

"So, on the third celestial evening... all the children of their waltz rippled across the world's face..."

"You know that song?" he asked, prompting her to open her eyes and return to reality somewhat.

"Oh, yes," she affirmed happily. "It's one of my very favorites. My mama would sing it to me when I was little, every time me and my family drove out to the middle of the desert to go stargazing on clear nights."

He smiled at her. "It's my favorite, too. Every time I hear it I want to dance, just like this. But I never had anyone to do it with until now."

"Gosh, that's a shame."

"Nah, it's okay," he said with an amicable shrug. He was far too self-dismissive, the big girl thought. "Especially since I have such a nice partner to dance with now."

"I've hardly been nice," Millie said sadly, adding: "I think that foot of yours is going to need bandages before the night is through."

"It's a small price to pay," Vash said, giving her a hearty wink. The soft, ethereal – romantic, even? – atmosphere dissipated in that moment, as the band started up a particularly dissonant, staccato-driven section of The Soldier's Tale.

"Goody! It's time for the ballroom tango!" Vash exclaimed with a whoop of glee. "I think this will be more up your alley, Big Girl."

Millie knew he was right, but she was still going to miss the measured, orderly steps of the waltz, along with the gunslinger's singing. She really did love that song, and his voice had been so gentle... shaking her head to clear away these confusing thoughts, Millie quickly afforded herself a glance around at the other couples. Tango was a more free-form style of dancing, wasn't it? Maybe she wouldn't have to take Mister Vash's lead on this one. At least that way she could definitely avoid hurting him.

One of the couples, who had clearly grown sick of all the waltzing from earlier and were now throwing themselves into the new style of dance with wild abandon, veered dangerously close to Vash and Millie. As Vash gripped the big girl around the waist and lifted her up effortlessly to avoid a run-in, the man leaned forward and brought his partner into a dip. Millie thought that looked like fun. Once she was back on her feet, she wasted no time: slinging her arm around Vash's waist, she dipped him until his spikes were just barely brushing the ballroom floor.

"Whoa," Vash laughed as he went down. "I wasn't expecting that!"

Millie giggled and brought him back up to face her. "I'm starting to really have fun now, Mister Vash."

"Me too," he said, looking at her happily. "I – " He stopped just then, and for a fraction of a second a deadly serious expression crossed his face. Millie felt a shiver travel up her spine, but when she blinked, his customary smile had returned. "I'm sorry," he said. "Could you excuse me for a second?"

"S-sure, Mister Vash," Millie said, shaken. "But what is it that you need to – "

He was already halfway across the room by the time she had finished her sentence. "Je suis dèsolé, je vous prie de me pardonner!" the gunslinger called back to her as he raced through the throngs of dancers. "À bientôt, cherie!"

"Er... bye," Millie said awkwardly, holding up her hand.

Her other hand she placed over her heart, in an attempt to steady the rapid-fire pulse that rocked her chest; and she realized, just then, that it had nothing to do with the mood whiplash from seconds ago, and everything to do with the dance they had just shared. Her cheeks burned with a strange fever. She didn't want Mister Vash to go.

Being around him then, it felt... really nice.

Oh, my.

Seconds after Millie had brought him out of the dip, Vash had caught sight of something that disturbed him. In a darkened corridor several hundred feels away – but not too far away to escape the notice of his keen eyes – a small group of men were clustered together, as though waiting for something. To anyone else, they would have looked innocent enough – all of the men were dressed in sharp-looking tuxedos and wearing identical, highly stylized masks, as though dressed to attend a masquerade function – but their minute, slightly jerky movements suggested uneasiness. Vash instantly knew they weren't supposed to be there. Then a glint of steel shone briefly from the pocket of one of the strangers' tailored suits, confirming what he already suspected.


Dammit. And just when me and the big girl were really starting to have a good time...

He excused himself, made his way through the dancing crowd, straight towards the hallway that was currently occupied by bandits.

What the hell is he doing? Meryl thought, at once irritated and relieved as Vash suddenly departed from the ballroom, leaving Millie alone in the middle of the dance floor. The nerve of him! You don't just leave someone high and dry like that. Once again her attention had wandered away from the man she was dancing with, whose name, she had learned through some improbable twist of fate, was Fred. Fred, as it turned out, was just as bad at the tango as he was at the waltz, so after a few minutes of stumbling around like a lunatic he had finally just given up and stood there, boasting of a college pedigree as long as her arm.

"And then I got my Master's at Pilgrim University in December – that's the equivalent of Harvard back on Earth, did you know that? – and then – " He stopped, visibly perturbed, when he saw that the short girl was paying him not an iota of attention. "You were looking at that guy again, weren't you! What is it about him, anyway? He's not even dressed properly for this occa – "

"Help! Help! Robbers! I've been kidnapped!"

Men dressed in matching masks and tuxedos suddenly filed into the room, creating a circle in the middle of the crowd. Each man had on him a fearsome-looking pistol, and Meryl wasn't much surprised to see that one of them had Vash in a headlock, the barrel of his pistol pressed into the outlaw's temple. Vash, for his part, continued to cry large, noisy tears, broadcasting to the entire room that – yes – there were robbers, and – yes – this was an Emergency Situation.

A man as round as he was tall, with salt-and-pepper hair – presumably the mayor, and the man who had bought Vash's services for the ball – wrung his hands, stared at the robbers in disbelief. "But, Mister John Smith!" he cried out in consternation. "You were supposed to be our ace gunman! How could this have happened?"

In response, Vash cried: "I want my mommy!"

"Let's get out of here, Mary!" Fred said, tugging at Meryl's shoulder, but she ignored him.

"Damn! Why does this always happen when you're around, Vash?" she muttered through clenched teeth, and before Fred could react at the mention of the Humanoid Typhoon's name, the short girl had withdrawn a single derringer that she had secretly attached to her thigh while freshening up at the hotel room. As she could really only take one weapon with her to the party, Meryl had opted for a Remington model rather than her single-shot standard issue. At least if she missed her target the first time, she'd get one more chance.

Fred let out a rather girlish scream when he saw the gun, and he attempted to beat a hasty retreat, but was stopped by the sound of one of the bandits' guns going off. "Nobody move! This is a robbery!" he yelled, and before Meryl could point her derringer at him he had his own gun instantly trained on her. "You there, put that thing away, or you'll be the first to die!"

Meryl looked at Vash, whose tearful expression hadn't changed, but she knew the gunslinger well enough to realize that he probably had some sort of plan, and that it didn't include her getting shot. With an enormous sigh and a glare – not at the masked bandit, but at Vash – she dropped the derringer.

The man who had spoken – he seemed to be the ringleader of the group – remained in the middle of the circle, nodded at one of his cohorts, who strode up to the first line of couples and had them hand over their jewelry and wallets. Meryl felt terribly uneasy as the man's gun passed over each guest, prompting them to beg for mercy and place their valuables at his feet. Then she realized why:

Millie was in the front row of guests, exactly where Vash had left her.

The big girl trembled as the barrel of the robber's gun fell on her. "Hand it over," he said. "Cash, jewelry, whatever you've got."

"I... I don't have anything..." Millie kept her head down, and she barely spoke above a whisper.

"You're lying," the man said, but he sounded uncertain. After a moment in which neither of them said or did anything, the leader of the group spoke up.

"Search her," he said harshly. "And don't overlook any areas, if you know what I mean."

His cohort continued to hesitate. "But..."

"Just do it, idiot!" the leader said, waving his gun threateningly.

Slowly, shakily, the subordinate approached Millie. Still keeping his pistol aimed at her with one hand, the man reached forward with his other and began to awkwardly pat down Millie's body. At first he avoided Millie's "other areas," but when his boss gave him a dangerous grunt, he reluctantly placed his hand on her bosom. Meryl's fear and outrage became a palpable thing when she saw tears of humiliation shining in Millie's eyes.

Meryl turned to look back at Vash, who looked just as horrified as she did, but that didn't stop her from burning holes in him with her eyes. "You goddamn idiot!" she screamed at him. "If you're going to do something, do it!"

The robber holding Vash hostage, who mistakenly thought that he was the recipient of the short girl's ire, removed his gun from Vash's temple and pointed it at her. "Don't tell me what to do, you bit – "

His voice broke off into a choked gasp when Vash suddenly removed himself from the headlock with ease, wrapped his fingers tightly around the hand that was gripping the pistol. Before any of the other robbers could react – could realize what was even happening – he deftly swung the bandit's hand in a circle, squeezing the trigger every few seconds. With every shot that rang out, each robber gasped in turn as the weapon he had been wielding suddenly flew out his hands, clattering on the floor several feels away, far out of reach. Now disarmed and totally helpless, they turned to face Vash. The gunslinger released his hold on the bandit's hand, and said bandit quickly whirled around to point the gun in his face, squeeze the trigger –

It clicked, empty.

Giggling childishly at the bandit's disbelief, Vash picked up one of the wayward guns, fired a single shot into the ceiling. There was a precipitous creaking sound, and in a flash Meryl understood why Vash had waited so long to act: during the heist, the bandits had slowly but surely tightened the circle they made in the center of the room, seeking safety in numbers, until finally they were huddled against one another's backs.

Directly under the ballroom chandelier.

The robbers screamed and tried to run for it, but it was too late; in seconds the extravagant light fixture had come crashing down on their hapless bodies. At the same time, many of the masks peeled off of their faces, revealing countenances of varying degrees of ugliness. They began cursing with pain and struggling to free themselves from the wreckage, but were soon shrieking in terror when they saw Vash casually amble up to them, take back the silver revolver that he had allowed the lead bandit to steal from him in their initial scuffle.

All of this happened in the span of thirty seconds. The entire room was shocked into silence. Even Meryl was speechless: no matter how many times she saw him perform incredible stunts like this, she could never truly get used to it.

"Vash..." she finally managed to say, but Vash was already making his way over to Millie.

Millie couldn't seem to stop shaking, try as she might. The big girl had been stunned into paralysis at the appearance of the robbers, and their subsequent attempt to search her for valuables. She wiped at her eyes, which continued to water, and sobbed quietly. She could feel the eyes of the other guests on her.

Then strong arms were suddenly wrapping themselves around her, and she retreated into Mister Vash's warmth and scent, heedless of everything but the small, dark space between their bodies. Her knees buckled beneath her, and he gently guided her to the floor. She felt his hand cradling her head, stroking her hair, and she cried into his chest.

"Millie," he said softly. "I'm so sorry. I should have acted sooner..."

Millie didn't say anything, simply let herself be held. For what seemed an eternity they stayed like that, until finally Meryl's voice pierced the fog of oblivion they had wrapped around themselves:

"Vash, one of the robbers – he's getting away!"

Meryl smiled slightly as she watched Vash comfort Millie. The niggling feeling of jealousy – all right, I know when to call a spade a spade! – she'd been experiencing all evening was nothing compared to her overwhelming relief that her friend was going to be okay. Lost in these thoughts, the short girl didn't notice when the irrepressible Fred stole up next to her, and she yelped in surprise when he suddenly said, in a nasally whine:

"See, Mary, that guy doesn't even like you that way. He's obviously enamored with the large woman. So I say we get out of here, forget this whole ordeal, maybe find ourselves a nice hotel ro – "

Meryl's fist automatically shot out in response, caught Fred in the nose. She'd had more than enough of this moron for one night. The yellow-clad man reeled backwards, clutching his injured face, and began to unleash a litany of bizarre insults (among them "you insufferable harlot!") before running away sobbing.

Meryl reached down for her Remington. I will not shoot I will not shoot I will not shoot –

Before her fingers could close around the handle, however, a gloved hand suddenly shot out, snatching the gun away.

"Don't move," came a voice from above her. It was the man who had been forced to search Millie. In the confusion, he had managed to quietly free himself from the wreckage that had pinned down him and his comrades.

"You bastard," Meryl whispered, but she obeyed. There was a sound of footsteps trailing away from her, followed by the frightened moans of the guests. When she guessed that the man was safely out of earshot, she raised her head and sounded the alarm to Vash.

Vash wasted no time. With a final reassuring squeeze of Millie's shoulder, he was up on his feet and chasing the robber within seconds.

Bastard! I won't forgive you for what you did to Millie!

Anger and adrenaline fueled the outlaw's movements as he went tearing out of the ballroom and through the hotel's lobby; eventually he found himself outside in the frigid desert air. Barely taking notice of the cold, Vash turned his furious gaze in all directions, trying to make out which way the robber had gone.

"There!" Out of the corner of his eye, Vash spotted the robber attempting to surreptitiously sneak into a nearby bar. When the man realized he'd been spotted, he gave up on trying to disappear into a crowd and bolted behind the building. Vash followed him.

To the outlaw's increasing frustration, however, his quarry was equally motivated to stay out of his reach. Innocent passersby were shoved aside as the man ran in a zig-zag pattern, no doubt thinking that this would help throw off his pursuer. Vash was forced to catch the townspeople before they could crash painfully to the ground, wasting precious seconds in his chase. All the while, he never took his eyes off the robber. At long last, the man had no recourse but to abandon the crowd that he had been using to delay Vash and disappear into a more abandoned section of town.

Vash rounded another corner, beginning to despair that he would ever catch up in time, when Millie's voice suddenly rang out out of nowhere:


Without understanding why, the gunman instinctively ducked, only to gibber in comic disbelief when he saw the big girl standing on a nearby rooftop, expertly balancing her concussion gun on one shoulder. She cut a rather gorgeous figure as she stood there, still garbed in her ravishing blue dinner dress, but the outlaw didn't have time to appreciate the image as a metal cross suddenly shot out from the gun, straight towards her former assailant. With a yelp of fear and surprise, the man went down.

"That's for taking advantage of an innocent maiden!" Millie said in a voice that was disturbingly cheerful.

"Thanks, Big Girl!" Vash called up to Millie, who shot him a thumbs up by way of reply.

Unfortunately the man was fleet of foot, and he quickly regained his bearings, clambering to his feet and breaking for an adjoining alley. As Vash drew closer to where the man fell, he saw that his mask had fallen off when he had been struck by Millie's unique brand of ammunition. Seconds later, the outlaw was joined by both of the insurance girls, whom he motioned to stay behind him as he followed into the darkened alley.

There, at the alley's end, they encountered the robber, attempting to make one last stand with the stolen derringer. "Stay back!" he screamed, keeping it trained on them, albeit with a trembling hand.

"Vash," Meryl said, her voice hitching with surprise. "He's just a kid!"

"Huh?" Vash looked closer, and found that the short insurance girl was right. The robber had short, sandy-blond hair, and the pupils in his bright blue eyes constricted with a mounting sense of panic. He looked barely out of his teens. What in the world was he doing trying to rob a hotel? Vash wondered.

"Stay back, I said!" In response Vash quickly disarmed, letting his Colt fall to the sand, and he nodded at Millie, who did the same. The stun gun made a rather impressive crashing sound as it struck the ground, spooking the young robber, but not enough to make him either drop his weapon or start shooting.

With his hands held high in the air, Vash looked at the boy for a long time, his gaze gentle yet unwavering. After a moment, he began to take a few steps forward. The boy gasped, but said and did nothing.

"You don't have to do this," Vash said gravely, advancing slowly but surely towards the young man. "You don't look any older than seventeen. If you give yourself up now, I'm sure the judge will be lenient – "

"NO! I'm not going to jail!" the boy screamed, and this time he did fire the gun. Millie and Meryl both flinched, but Vash remained completely still. The bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the wall next to him.

"You have one more shot left," he said. "Do you really want to harm me or these young ladies, just to avoid jail time?"

"This isn't about me," the young man said through gritted teeth, his eyes narrowing with a resolve none of them could place. "If I have to kill all three of you, I will. Now let – me – through."

Vash was growing angry now. "What the hell is your problem? I'm offering you a peaceful way out of this. If you'd stop being a stubborn brat and just listen – "

"It's my wife!" the young man suddenly burst out, his voice taking on an edge of desperation. Vash blinked, stunned.

"Your wife? You're... married?"

"I can't let myself be taken in," the boy said, and now all three of them were shocked to see tears pouring down his face. "If... if I go to jail now... my wife... wife will die!"

Chapter Text

"My wife will die!"

They were four simple words, but the truth they conveyed left Vash and the insurance girls reeling. The boy who had spoken them stood before them now, sobbing, his fingers unsteady on the Remington's grip. While he still had the presence of mind to keep it trained on them, it was clear to everyone that he wouldn't be able to hit the far side of a barn in his condition.

For a few moments Vash and the girls were silent, letting him vent his anguish. Then Vash spoke.

"What's your name?"

The boy sniffed once. Somehow the gesture managed to make him look even younger than his late teens. "It's... it's B-Brandon."

"Brandon, are you and your wife in some kind of trouble?"

"My wife has nothing to do with this," Brandon quickly demurred. "I mean... I'm doing this for her, but she doesn't know about it. She can't know. It would break her heart..." His voice broke off in another sob.

"Why don't you start at the beginning," Vash said patiently. It amazed both of his companions that the outlaw could be so conversational with someone who had just threatened to kill them all. But then, seeing how anyone who had been marked for protection by Vash in the past had always survived their ordeals, maybe it wasn't so surprising.

The young man's face hardened, even as he struggled to speak. "Why... why should I tell you anything? You can't help me..."

"Maybe we can," Vash said. "And besides, this doesn't suit you. Young people should be out enjoying life, not getting themselves trapped in filthy alleys and waving stolen guns around."

A muscle in Brandon's face twitched, as though he would have taken full offense under less trying circumstances. Then he lowered the gun, jaw tightening in resignation, and he began to tell the group his story.

"My wife and I were married last year," Brandon said. He sounded a bit calmer, if no less on edge. "Theresa and I... we've known each other since we were kids. We were raised in the same orphanage. The town we lived in was pleasant enough, but no one wanted to adopt either of us – didn't even seem to care if we lived or died. Even when we grew up and left the orphanage to start new lives for ourselves, we were never able to form any meaningful relationships with anyone. To cope, we fell back on our friendship... and eventually, in love."

He stopped, as if puzzled that he was starting off like this, but Vash was giving him an encouraging look, saying "Go on," and so he did.

"Once we signed the papers and the marriage was official, suddenly people started noticing us. In a bad way. They spat on us... hurled curses at us... refused us service. They treated both of us like dogs, but they were much worse to Theresa. You see..." Brandon drew a deep, shuddering breath. "She doesn't look the same as me. And people hated her for that."

The insurance girls exchanged confused looks, but Vash nodded knowingly, sadly. "You were a biracial couple."

"Yeah," Brandon said, but now he looked far away, as if he was once more reliving the village's abuse, his features darkening with rage. Then he seemed to remember himself, and continued:

"We both raised money, planning to leave that horrible town, to find a place where we'd be accepted. And that's... that's when Theresa got sick." His voice hitched on the last word. "What she had – has – it's terrible. Her fever spiked over a matter of days, and she was always out of breath. The fifth day after she got sick, she could no longer even get out of bed."

Millie's eyes shimmered with unchecked tears. The young man's display of emotion alone had been nearly enough to bring her to this point, and now, to learn about this... she unconsciously opened her fingers to welcome those of her shorter partner, who was just as disquieted. The two of them stood there holding hands, seeking each other's strength. Unfortunately, it seemed that Brandon's story was only about to get worse.

"We tried traditional treatments – you know, the catch-all stuff you get at the drugstores – but nothing was working. Meanwhile, she just kept getting sicker and sicker. I was terrified that whatever she had was going to kill her. I went to the village doctor, prepared to use all of the money I had saved to have him treat her, but he refused even to see her.

"I was desperate. I followed the man back to his house that same day and knelt on his doorstep, begging, but a mob showed up and dragged me away. They took me to the village limits, where they'd already dumped Theresa, like she was just another pile of garbage. She lay there on the ground, too weak to move. I – I couldn't do anything – " He raised a trembling hand to his head, the youthful face contorted with grief. "The mob told us that if we weren't out of town within the hour, our blood would be running in the streets."

"That's horrible!" Millie interjected fiercely, her eyes bright with anger now as well as sympathy.

"It is, isn't it?" Brandon said, and now his lips were turning upward in a bitter smile. "And yet it was the same damn story, everywhere we went. It wasn't until we came to this city – nearly three weeks later – that I found anyone who didn't want to lynch us outright. Only now – " the bitter smile became a bitter laugh – "I didn't even have the money to get her admitted to the hospital!"

"And that's why you came to the ball tonight," Vash concluded gravely. "To get the money you needed."

Brandon dropped his hand. "That's right," he said. "There I was, slumped outside the seediest bar in the city, drinking myself into oblivion, when I overheard a group of men boasting about how rich they were going to be after they'd pulled off their first big heist. They obviously couldn't be all that competent, discussing their plans in the open like that, but I was wasted and at the end of my rope. Even though it could have gotten me killed, I walked right up to them and pledged my services then and there."

He may have had more to say, but they weren't about to hear it, as the sound of an approaching police siren suddenly split the air, making everyone jump.

"Shit! The cops!" Brandon said, and now the barrel of the gun swung back up, the fragile bond he'd formed with them shattering the instant danger reared its head. Vash didn't waste time.

"You've got a choice to make," he said sternly. "Are you going to shoot us and try to outrun the cops yourself? Or are you going to let us help you?"

"I'd like to take that second option, but I can't believe that you'd help me," Brandon replied. "Besides, you're a guard, aren't you? Isn't it your job to take me in?"

"It is, but that's secondary to my duty as a human being. We're supposed to help each other out." Vash spoke quietly, but the strength and conviction in his voice was impossible to ignore. "Please. Trust me. I want to help you."

His emerald-green eyes held Brandon's blue ones. Whatever the young man saw there must have convinced him of Vash's honesty, as the arm bearing the derringer finally fell limply to his side. Without hesitation, Vash closed the last few feels between them, took back the gun. Brandon didn't resist.

"Thank you," he said, and the kindness in the outlaw's voice made the young man's cheeks burn in shame. "You're making the right decision." Then, without missing a beat:

"All right, ladies! Hop to!" Vash clapped his hands in excitement, once more transforming into the goofball the insurance girls were more used to seeing. He tossed the derringer back to Meryl, who caught it nimbly, and motioned to Millie to pick up her stun gun, who happily obliged. "We will now commence with Operation Get Out Of Jail Free Card! I'm going to go distract the cops. When you hear my signal, I want you to take Brandon to – "

"Signal? What signal?" Meryl interrupted. While she was relieved to see that they'd reached some kind of resolution with Brandon, her patience for Vash's nonsense was at an all-time low. "And why does your plan have such a ridiculous name?"

Pointedly ignoring her second question, Vash replied: "Trust me, you'll know when you hear it." The sirens continued to blare; they were getting far too close for comfort. "Anyway, meet me behind that diner we went to this morning!" Before she could protest further, he turned on his heel and raced down the alley.

Brandon looked at his retreating form, doubtful. "Can he really draw all those policemen away by himself?"

"I don't think that will be a problem," Meryl said, sighing ruefully. "He's Vash the Stampede, after all."

Brandon's reaction was instantaneous. "V-Vash – the – Stampede – "

"Oh, don't be that way," Millie said cheerfully, clapping a hand on the terrified boy's shoulder. "Mister Vash is awfully nice once you get to know him."

As Vash ran out into the open, he found himself staring down a small army of police officers, their guns drawn and ready for action. The mayor of March City was with them, and the flustered expression on his wide face turned relieved when he saw Vash.

"There you are, John Smith!" he said, still referring to the gunman by his incredibly uninspired pseudonym. The officers moved to allow him to pass through their ranks to where Vash stood, and he shook the gunman's hand. "I wanted to thank you for apprehending those robbers. Unfortunate about the chandelier – very unfortunate, but the damages are nothing compared to what those fiends might have gotten away with. They've all been carted off to the police station, but there is still one running around loose, as you well know. Did you find him?"

"I don't think it's him you should be worried about," Vash replied mysteriously. The mayor looked puzzled.

"Whatever do you mean?" he asked, dropping Vash's hand to nervously adjust his tie.

"What I mean," Vash said, and now he spoke in a voice that was loud enough for everyone to hear, "is that my name is actually Vash the Stampede, and I'm going to raze this city to the ground!" With that, he produced his silver revolver and fired three times into an empty police cruiser behind him, causing it to explode. He stood there stolidly as flames shot out from the totaled car, his figure a menacing silhouette against the bright orange backdrop that now caused the mayor and officers to stumble back, shielding their eyes.

After about thirty seconds, the fire began to die down. Tongues of flame continued to spring out from the skeleton of the car, but the initial dramatic effect it had was gone. Relative quiet resumed. Vash stayed where he was, trying to gauge the mood of the crowd before him.

The mayor looked appropriately terrified – his lips moved, but no sound other than a weak squeak came out – but the police were wearing city-issued helmets with visors, so he had no way of reading their expressions. Most of them were trembling slightly, so they were definitely scared, but were they scared enough?

This is the moment of truth, Vash thought, his body tense. Are they going to run away, or are they going to try to arrest me?

It was as though a hailstorm had struck the city. The very next moment, Vash's eardrums were approaching rupture as over thirty revolvers discharged at once.

Neither! They're going to freaking KILL me!

Clumsily leaping out of the way before he could turn into swiss cheese, Vash scrambled to his feet and began leading the officers away from the alley where his friends were hiding. As he did so, he gulped down air and let loose a long, hyena-like shriek of fear.


The girls and their new companion had no trouble hearing the sound – for obvious reasons – gritting their teeth and clapping their hands over their ears to avoid going deaf. This proved to be a fortuitous gesture, as an equally cacophonous explosion of gunfire erupted at the same time. A full minute later the aural torture ceased, and the noise finally died away into the distance. They were alone.

"I... I think that was the signal," Meryl said. Her face had gone completely white. Brandon, for his part, remained stock still, almost too afraid to move.

"Are you sure that's Vash the Stampede? He sounded..." He struggled to come up with a word. "Distraught."

"Absolutely positive," Millie said serenely, moving over to his side and stretching out a hand. "Now let's go, before they come back."

They were behind the diner now, loitering around some particularly filthy dumpsters. Vash had been gone for almost twenty minutes. "Where is he?" Meryl wondered aloud, her tone irritated as well as worried. Meanwhile, Brandon was working up the courage to talk to Millie alone – namely, to apologize for groping her. At length he turned to face the tall woman, who looked back at him questioningly.

"Ma'am... please forgive me for what I did to you back there." He bowed his head. "It was absolutely disgraceful, and I – "

"It's okay. You were just scared and desperate," Millie said, and the look she gave him then was so compassionate that he felt like crying. "I would have been much more upset if your boss had shot you for disobeying orders, anyway."

"I don't deserve your kindness," Brandon murmured, but then she went on to add, tittering:

"Besides, I got you pretty good with that gun, didn't I? I think that's payback enough."

"...If you say so," Brandon said at last. Remind me never to get her mad at me...

"By the way, my name isn't Ma'am. It's Millie!" She forked a thumb over her shoulder at Meryl. "And over there is Sempai – I mean, Meryl."

"It's nice to meet both of you," Brandon said honestly.

"Hey, Brandon! Insurance girls!"

Vash came bounding up to them. They'd been expecting him to have a more disheveled appearance – a few extra bullet holes in his coat, maybe some singed hair – but he looked relatively unharmed. It was what he was carrying that held their attention.

"Um. Vash?" Meryl asked, dumbfounded. "What are you doing with our stuff?"

Vash's duffel bag was strapped to his back, and in one arm he carried a large, nondescript purse that belonged to Millie. In the other, he was hoisting Meryl's pink suitcase. He slammed all three pieces of luggage down with a heavy sigh, then collapsed to the ground himself, shuddering like a human noodle.

"I realized that we'd never be able to go back to the hotel room if I revealed myself," he said between labored breaths. He had been running for a long time. "So I went back and got our things."

"Oh..." Meryl brought a hand to her mouth, surprised by the outlaw's foresight.

Tears of indignation formed in Vash's eyes. "Aren't either of you going to thank me?" he cried. "Do you have any idea how ridiculous I looked, running around with your girly luggage? When I came out of our room, half the cops were laughing too hard to even shoot at me!"

Millie couldn't help laughing herself – he could be so silly, even without trying! – but she quickly restrained herself. "Thanks so much, Mister Vash," she said. "That couldn't have been easy."

"Yeah... thanks, Vash," Meryl said.

Vash sat there for a few moments, still struggling to catch his breath, then gestured towards the diner. "Well, it looks like Operation Get Out Of Jail Free Card was a success. Now does someone want to go in there and buy me some pancakes? Because I think I deserve it."

"It sounds like your wife has contracted hantavirus," Vash said.

Brandon looked back at him in mute astonishment, while Millie and Meryl struggled to understand his statement. The gunman had asked Brandon to describe his wife's symptoms in more detail. Not only was she short of breath, Vash learned, she was also suffering from muscle aches, chills, and – most recently – a persistent dry cough.

After a moment, the short girl voiced her confusion. "Hantavirus? What's that?"

"It's a disease that existed back on the deserts of Earth," Vash explained. "Originally, it was a serious infection that caused the heart, lungs, and kidneys to fail. People who contracted the disease usually died within a few weeks, if left untreated." Anticipating Brandon's horrified reaction, he quickly added:

"The variant of the disease is a little different on this planet, though. Here, it seems to take much longer for the disease to cause organ failure... you said it's been almost a month now, right?" Brandon gave an unsteady nod. "Then there's still a chance to save her."

He fell silent, apparently thinking to himself. Meryl knew she shouldn't interrupt his ruminations, but she couldn't contain herself. There was still so much unknown about their home planet, yet the outlaw spoke as if he had practically lived there at one point. It was unnerving, to say the least.

"Vash... how could you possibly know any of this?"

"Hm?" Vash looked at her – a little absentmindedly, she thought – and then he gave her a slight smile. "I... uh... read it in a book?"

"That's not an answer!" The short girl prepared to launch herself (and her fists) at Vash, but was stopped by the sound of Millie's giggles. "And it's not funny, either!" she snapped at her friend.

Millie tried to stifle her giggles, but when she looked up to see Mister Vash winking at her, she gave up on the attempt altogether. Ever since the episode with the Nebraska Family at Inepril, when Sempai had been forced to admit that Mister Vash was – well – Mister Vash, the short girl had been full of questions about the outlaw's knowledge and abilities. Mister Vash, clearly not willing to give up his secrets, but not willing to be impolite and ignore her, either, had finally taken to responding that he "read it in a book." This angered Sempai to no end, but was terribly funny for Vash and Millie.

"Is there a cure for hantavirus?" Brandon asked anxiously.

"Not as such, no," Vash admitted. "But natural recovery is possible, with the help of certain treatments." He thought for a moment. "She's going to need ribavirin."


"An antiviral medication for the kidneys. It will keep them from failing, and also help keep her alive."

"So... I just need to get this medicine for her?"

"Yes, but there are two problems with that," Vash said uneasily. "The first is that you aren't going to find it in any pharmacy. You'd have to go directly to the source for that."

Meryl started. "The source? You mean... the plant?"

"Yeah," Vash said, nodding. "Medications for rare illnesses are created on an as-needed basis. Rather than stocking medicine that will probably expire before it's really needed, pharmacies wait until customers come in requesting the medicine. Then they contact the local plant facility to have it made for them."

"Gosh," Millie said, "I never knew the plants made our medicine! That's neat!"

"Well, where else could it have come from, Millie?" Meryl said. "We're not exactly living in the land of plenty, here." Vash was beginning to sense how disconcerted she was, although he couldn't suss out the cause. He made a mental note to ask her about it later.

"I don't know, Sempai. I guess I just never really thought about it." Millie scratched her head. Her pretty updo was starting to unravel, Vash noted sadly. "I wonder how the plants know how to make all those different things?"

"It's simple, really," Vash said. "At least in theory. When plants were created, they were designed to respond to certain 'codes' that would signify the type of item that was needed of them. It seems that we lost most of the codes in the Great Fall, but basic commodities like bread and water made it through okay. Humanity is still discovering new codes every day, sheerly though trial and error." He smiled to himself, marveling once again at the eternal ingenuity of the human race. "We probably haven't even scratched the surface of what the plants are capable of, really. Last I heard, the plant in December was said to be up to five thousand plus codes."

"How exactly do the codes function?" Brandon asked.

"Well..." Vash wasn't sure how to break it down. "They're basically strings of information that are fed into the bulb and absorbed by the plant. The plant changes its molecular structure based on the code it's given, in order to successfully recreate the item. Of course, different codes will give you different items."

"Oh," Millie said, awed. "So that's how the plants work, Sempai?"

"Well... yes, that's correct," Meryl said, still looking flustered. Instead of turning her feelings inward, however, she whirled on the gunslinger, pinned him with a piercing stare. "But how would you know any of that? You're not a plant technician."

"No, I'm not," Vash admitted, scratching his neck, "but you aren't either, Meryl. How is it that you know about the codes?"

Meryl stiffened. After a few seconds she muttered, "My father was a plant engineer," then crossed her arms, making it exceedingly clear that that was all she was willing to say on the matter.

"Oh, I see," Vash said. He started to turn away, but she suddenly yanked him back by the sleeve of his coat. "Hey, wait! You still didn't answer my question! Where'd you get your information?"

"I read it in a book." The short insurance girl looked like she was about to tear her hair out. Millie came up and squeezed her shoulder in a conciliatory gesture. "Now, now, Sempai..."

Brandon spoke timidly, breaking up the trio's antics. "So, uh, Mister Stampede..."

"Please, call me Vash," the gunslinger said. He wilted slightly under the fire-breathing stare Meryl was leveling at him.

"Er, Vash," the young man said. "You're saying pharmacies don't carry the medicine, but if they can just request it from the plant facility, then that doesn't matter, right? I don't see why we can't just go to one and ask – "

The comical look of fear on Vash's face vanished, and Brandon stopped, afraid of what he was about to say next.

"That leads us to the second problem," he said sadly. "The plant facility can't create ribavirin, because no one has ever discovered the code for it. That information was lost in the Great Fall."

"All right, boys," Rem says, handing a sheet of paper to each of the brothers seated at the captain's desk. "The crew is going to need extra help programming the plants this week, so I've created a list of the items we're going to be making. Underneath each item, I want you to write down the corresponding code. Once you've finished, I'll grade your lists to see how well you did. Think of it as a little competition."

"What does the winner get?" one of the boys asks. Rem smiles at him, and his heart melts in childlike wonder at her beauty.

"It can be whatever you want, Vash."

"Okay! I'm gonna ask for donuts, then!"

Knives grins at Vash, patting his shoulder-length hair. "That's if you win. As for me, I want a kaleidoscope."

"No way you can beat me!" Vash laughs. "I have a much better memory than you."

"Think of it as a friendly competition," Rem cautions, but she's still smiling. The twins focus their attention on the papers in front of them. Even though they're seated right next to each other, neither bothers shielding his paper from the other's view. The concept of cheating is still foreign to them.

Vash looks at the first item on the list. It's ribavirin. He wracks his brain, trying to remember...

"Mister Vash, are you all right?"

Millie was waving her hand in front of him. He blinked, shaken from his reverie. He hadn't realized that he'd been standing there with his eyes closed for the last minute or so. "Oh, I'm sorry. I was just thinking..."

"Thinking about what?"

"Well..." Vash grinned sheepishly and clutched the back of his neck. "I think I might actually know the code for ribavirin."

The three of them just stared back at him. Meryl, especially, was too stunned to even think of launching another interrogation. It was Brandon who finally broke the silence.

"Incredible," he breathed, his expression a perfect replica of Meryl's. "You really are a legend."

"That's wonderful, Mister Vash!" Millie exclaimed, her cheeks ruddy with excitement. "Let's go down to the plant facility right now!"

"Oh no you don't," Vash said, and although he wasn't aware of it, his voice had grown particularly protective. "I'm doing this alone. Messing around with a plant is serious business."

"And what if the cops find you out there?" Meryl growled. "I'm not about to bail your ass out of jail on the company dime."

"I'm not going to get caught," Vash said, but he knew a lost cause when he saw one: Meryl was already grasping the handle of her pink suitcase and looking at him expectantly, while Millie hefted her stun gun over her shoulder with a smile. "Okay, never mind..."

It was simple enough to get to the plant facility; the roads were surprisingly clear of policemen, and moving under the cover of darkness afforded them a certain measure of safety against anyone who might have recognized them. After they had walked about fifteen blocks, they were there, staring up at the impressive – and imposing – structure.

"Just a sec," Vash said. The others waited outside as he entered the building. Seconds later, surprised and angry voices boomed out from behind the doors, and they could hear the sounds of an ensuing scuffle. Vash's maniacal laughter – clearly he was getting carried away with whatever he was doing in there – followed promptly.

Then, silence. The outlaw came out, looking rather satisfied with himself.

"That takes care of the guards."

They were now in the heart of the plant facility. They had encountered more guards along the way, but Vash made short work of them, either sweeping their heads together like they were a pair of cymbals, or administering a strange technique – it looked almost as though he were pinching their necks – that made them fall instantly unconscious. Brandon marveled that he didn't once use his gun.

"That's just his way," Millie explained, looking at the gunman warmly. Vash blushed, before saying:

"The plant is just down this hallway. I'll go get the medicine. It shouldn't be more than ten minutes. You guys just stay put here and, uh... make sure those guards don't wake up any time soon," he finished lamely.

"Can't we come with you, Mister Vash?" Millie asked.

Vash opened his mouth to answer, but Meryl smoothly interjected, realizing that she didn't want to hear any more of his impossible knowledge. It was beginning to disturb her, the things he knew. "We really shouldn't, Millie. We might get plant sickness if something goes wrong."

"Plant sickness?" Millie's brow creased in confusion. "What's that?"

Vash could have explained it, but he kept his mouth shut. He knew Meryl's true feelings now, and it saddened him. Meryl continued: "When the plant is in active use, its energy levels spike considerably. This energy typically escapes into the atmosphere. The equipment surrounding the bulb keeps the plant's energy levels in check, but were it to ever fail, the resulting pressure would either suffocate or severely damage anyone too close to the bulb. Plant engineers risk their life every day," she added softly, and Vash and Millie wondered if she was thinking about her father. "There are no safeguards against plant sickness."

Brandon looked pale. "Vash... you don't have to do this. If you give me the code, I'll go in there and – "

"You don't know how to work the computers," Vash said, dismissing him curtly. "And besides, I don't want anyone else getting hurt over this."

"She's my wife, dammit," Brandon said, and an argument might have broken out but for the sound of heavily booted feet approaching them.

"Y-you!" One of the plant engineers, a bespectacled man wearing a cumbersome safety suit, had emerged from a nearby doorway, and now he stopped, pointing at them with a shaky finger. "I don't recognize you four! Wh-where's your ID?"

For a moment they were frozen; no one knew what to do. Then Vash snarled:

"How's this for ID? I'm Vash the Stampede, and if you don't get out of here in the next five seconds, I'm going to eat you!"

The man didn't need to be told twice. With a scream, he made for the nearest exit and disappeared. They watched him go mutely.

"I guess... I'll be going now," Vash murmured when it became apparent no one was going to say anything. "Any objections?" He looked pointedly at Brandon, who by this point had conceded defeat. Meryl rubbed her throbbing temples, shaking her head slowly.

"This is so far from damage control that I think I just became a wanted criminal." Behind her, Brandon began to apologize profusely, but Millie cut him off with a well-placed jab of her elbow. "Just don't blow anything up in there, okay, Vash?"

"Um... I'll try not to?" Vash turned to go, but Meryl stopped him with another word.

"Vash... please be careful." There was true fear in her voice now – the fear of one who understood the gravity of the situation in a way that no one else could. "I – we – don't want anything to happen to you."

"Meryl..." Vash looked back at her, astonished. Despite everything, Meryl really did care about him. He tended to forget that sometimes.

He smiled at her. "Thanks. I will."

"Mister Vash, wait!"

Vash had progressed deeper into the plant facility when he heard Millie call out to him. He turned around to see the big girl running towards him, her dress hitched up around her thighs to avoid tripping. Her tights had run in several places, and at the sight of her bare skin the gunman had an instant – and very inappropriate – reaction. He blushed furiously, thanked whatever gods there were that he was still wearing his coat. "Millie... you, ah, shouldn't be here... dangerous..." Now he was having trouble thinking.

The scared look on the big girl's face shortly brought him back to his senses, though. "Mister Vash, are you sure you're going to be okay?"

"Trust me, I'll be fine. Remember, back at Inepril? I got stuck in the plant facility when it was about to blow sky-high, and nothing catastrophic happened."

"I'm still wondering how you did that," Millie said, and he blanched. There was no suspicion in her tone, though: only curiosity. Then she nodded once, decisive. "Okay. I'll leave it to you, then."

She didn't leave right away, however, instinctively feeling that he wanted to say something else to her.

Vash's eyes were sad. "Hey, Millie... about earlier, at the party... I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I understand why you did things the way you did, and it turned out all right in the end, didn't it? Besides, Brandon was just as sorry as you are." Millie smiled brightly at him. That innocent look of her always seemed to do him in.

"I'll try," he said weakly. "Now you really should be getting back, Millie." He turned away from her, began to resume his trek towards the plant.

Behind him, he could hear Millie calling out cheerfully: "Good luck, Mister Vash!"

He didn't see her smile straighten seconds later, didn't see the paramount look of worry steal over her face like the thunderclouds that had once existed back on Earth, blotting out the light and heat of the sun.

"Hey, little sister," Vash said as he drew closer to the giant bulb, its cloudy blue surface broken only by the soft veins of electricity that ran through it. He placed his hand upon the glass, which remained cold in spite of the heat generated by the machines that continually worked to sustain the microcosm of life within. He felt completely at peace in the presence of the creature that he knew slept inside. "It's been a while, huh?"

At length, the clouds on the bulb's surface parted as a hand, bone-white and possessed of long, elegant fingers, appeared on the other side of the glass. Moments after that, the bulb sister came into full view.

"In fact, it's been so long I don't even remember your name!" Vash said jovially, instantly breaking the serene atmosphere. The bulb sister's eyes widened in surprise. "Now, what was it again... Pamela? Agnes? Jane? Or maybe you're Rachel..." The plant's eyes went on to narrow in anger as he ticked off names.

"Ha ha! Just kidding! I know you're Eliza," the outlaw guffawed. Eliza didn't seem to appreciate the humor, and Vash winced as he felt a headache coming on. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry! Just please don't do that. I've already had a trying day as it is."

He explained the situation to his sister. While she couldn't communicate back in words, what she did use to talk was more effective – impressions of images, snippets of voices and music, and an expanding swell of emotions flooded Vash's consciousness. She was deeply unhappy that a human had been forced to hurt someone to save someone he loved. She didn't understand the concept of parties or money or dancing, so she mostly glossed over those parts of his story, but she did understand things like sick and die, and she didn't want either of those things happening to a human. She was ecstatic when she learned that she could help.

"The code is for ribavirin," Vash told her. "It's very important that I get the medicine back to Brandon as soon as possible. I'm going to input the code now, if that's all right with you." He walked over to the computer terminal located at one corner of the bulb and began to type on the keyboard.

It wasn't all right, as it turned out, and she tried to explain to him, but her brother's anxiety over the sick human's fate was in equal measure to her own, and he inadvertently blocked her mental signals to him. She tried to catch his attention through the warbling vocalizations that only plants were capable of, but that didn't work either. A dismayed expression crossed Vash's face when the computer suddenly gave a flat beep.

"It's... rejecting the code?" A series of irritated chirps issued from the plant's throat, as though she was a long-suffering teacher trying to explain something simple to a failing student.

"What? You mean the crew never even programmed you to accept the code?" Frustrated, Vash spun around, leaned his back against the computer monitor. "Oh, that's right," he said after a moment, listening. "You were never a medical plant to begin with, so they would probably only program you to make more common medicine."

His brow furrowed, and he began massaging his temples in a circular motion. "So now what am I supposed to do?" he groaned. If the SEEDS ship had remained intact into the present day, he might have been able to use the onboard equipment to program the code into Eliza himself, but it was about fifty years too late for that. And time was running out.

There had to be a way to retrieve the medicine. There had to be. Brandon was counting on him. He couldn't bear to return empty-handed, let another innocent person die.

"Wait," he said suddenly. "Wait." An idea was beginning to take shape in his head. It was a long shot, and it would put considerable strain on both himself and his sister, but it was their only option at this point. He turned to look at her. "Hey, Liz," he said. When the plant growled at him, he quickly corrected himself. "Er, Eliza. What if we did this? What if I was somehow able to convey the exact components and structure of the medicine to you? Would you be able to create it then?"

The plant made a sound that seemed to express doubt, but she wasn't totally dismissive of the idea.

"I'd have to get in there with you, of course. Unlike Knives, my telepathy isn't all that good. We have to be in as close proximity to each other as possible. Are you all right with that?"

The plant gazed at him with her unblinking, beetle-black eyes, then nodded slowly.

"Great!" Vash said, grinning. "I knew there was a reason I liked you best." Eliza gave the psychic equivalent of an eyeroll, and he laughed. "Yeah, I guess flattery isn't going to get me anywhere, is it?"

Vash stripped off his obtrusive red duster, leaving him in just his black body suit. He walked up to the bulb's glass surface and placed his hand upon it. It began to disappear as he pushed inward, until finally he could see it floating in the dark, ethereal fluid on the other side. He paused just then, his arm slowly sinking into the bulb like a spoon in hot oatmeal.

"One more thing, sis," Vash said. His voice was solemn. "I've seen a lot of the outside world. There's... there's a lot of scary images in my head. I'm going to try really hard to keep them out of yours, but I still need you to focus completely on my instructions. Don't panic if you see anything you shouldn't, okay?"

Eliza chirped her affirmation.

Vash smiled. "Good girl." Then: "Okay, here I come," and the rest of his body followed suit, disappearing through the bulb's surface as though it was an enchanted looking glass.

Millie remained in the hallway, mentally vacillating between following Mister Vash anyway – she was terribly worried about him – and returning to Sempai and Brandon. After long moments in which she bit her lip, undecided, the big girl finally gathered her nerve and raced off in the direction that Vash had taken.

Fortunately the corridors were fairly straightforward and easy to navigate – no confounding labyrinths here, as she'd feared – and at length she found herself in front of the doors that gave onto the room housing the facility's plant. She hesitated only for a second before pushing her way inside.

I won't get in Mister Vash's way, she thought. I'm just going to have a quick peek to make sure he's all right, and then I'll be on my way.

The room was spacious, yet stuffy. Millie found she had trouble taking complete breaths, and sweat immediately sprang to her forehead. She supposed this was owing to the fact that the plant was wide awake: multiple contraptions surrounding the bulb in the room's center were humming with life and generating thick puffs of steam, which perhaps signified that it was hard at work making the medicine that Brandon needed. But where was Mister Vash?

She moved further into the room, despite her body's protestations. Slowly closing the distance between herself and the massive bulb, which was curiously dark in spite of the active machinery, she took steady, carefully measured breaths.

She needn't have bothered. The breath was ripped from her throat when, seconds later, the darkness lifted and she could clearly see the suspended, many-winged form of the plant that slept within the bulb. Millie gazed at it in awe. She'd never seen a plant before, and now she could say without a doubt that it was one of the most beautiful creatures she had ever seen. Despite its ferocious appearance – its closed eyes were framed by too-long lashes, fangs curled from its lips like misplaced horns, and tiny, vaguely humanoid forms clung to its body – it looked like an angel to her in every way.

"Hello," she said, reverently.

Then its wings shifted, and she saw that it wasn't alone.

Floating there, his arms wrapped around the plant's bare chest, his eyes closed just as tightly, was Mister Vash. The greeting died on Millie's lips, and panic suddenly took hold of her. Her first thought was that the outlaw had accidentally fallen in and was drowning, but that was ridiculous: there were no openings anywhere on the bulb's surface, and besides, Mister Vash looked like he was breathing just fine. Her panic instead veered off into a completely different direction: Just who, or what, was Mister Vash?

The big girl froze, unable to run away or call out to him, when a series of tremors suddenly rocked the room, sent her sprawling to the floor. Jagged sparks of electricity initiated a violent dance around the bulb, and the machines surrounding it rumbled deeply, as if in mounting disapproval of her presence here. Both Mister Vash and the plant disappeared in a brilliant flash of light that filled the bulb and left her eyes watering. The steam grew thicker, more suffocating.

All thoughts banished completely from her mind, Millie rose to her feet and ran as quickly as her high-heeled shoes would allow her.

She was halfway down the main hallway when an awesome wave of pressure billowed forward, driving her helplessly to her knees. The big girl moaned and clung weakly to the wall. Every part of her body – from her torso to her legs, to even the long strands of hair that fell lankly in her face – felt as though it weighed a thousand pounds. Plant sickness, she thought, suddenly comprehending. The difficulty she'd had breathing in the plant room was nothing compared to what she was feeling now; far from merely responding sluggishly to her commands to breathe, they didn't seem to be working at all. Millie knew that if she wasn't up and moving in about five seconds she was probably going to die here.

With what little strength she had left, she managed to draw herself up to her full height, but she still couldn't put one foot in front of the other; both of them felt as heavy as lead. Growing light-headed, knowing she was going to pass out soon, the big girl began to despair, when suddenly the violent pressure in the air dissipated as quickly as it had first appeared. All the effort she'd put in trying to move forward was immediately unleashed, as her left foot struck the floor with enough force to stub her toe. Muffling a cry of pain, Millie staggered forward, didn't stop moving until she had reached the room where Sempai and Brandon, their faces drawn in worry and expectation, were waiting.

"There you are, Millie," Meryl said as soon as she caught sight of her tall partner. "What took so long? What's Vash up to?"

"Don't... know..." Millie sank to the floor next to Sempai, trying to catch her breath. Brandon went over to her side, knelt down next to her.

"Are you all right?" he asked, a note of concern in his voice.

"I-I'm fine," she stammered.

"Are you sure?" Now Meryl was there as well, placing her hand on Millie's forehead. "You look like you've been running a marathon." Her features suddenly grew suspicious. "Millie, what were you doing in there? It's almost like you have pla – "

Don't say it! "Gosh, Sempai, don't be silly!" Millie said, laughing, which quickly regressed to coughing. "Mister Vash – cough, cough – told me to hurry back – cough, cough – so I came here just as fast as I could!"

"But then why were you wearing your heels? You could've gotten here faster without them."

"I guess I just forgot about them." If Vash was the master of wearing fake smiles, Millie was at least the silver cup champion. "In fact, that's why it took me so long to get here, because I tripped on them and fell."

Meryl didn't look like she bought Millie's story, but she remained quiet, and all three of them stared down the hallway that led into the bowels of the plant facility.

Vash emerged from the bulb, his blond hair plastered to his face and his limbs trembling spasmodically.

"It is freaking cold in there!" he screeched once he had fully freed himself, his arms tightly hugging his chest. "Sis, how do you stand it?"

The plant curled into a ball and floated to the center of the bulb, not bothering to dignify his question with a response. Vash shook his head back and forth, trying to restore his hair to its former glorious (in his opinion) spikes, but nothing doing. Instead, he quickly donned his red coat, retreating into its warmth, then approached the cabin where the items that Eliza created were supposed to generate.

"It's now or never," he breathed, and he threw the cabin door open.

To his delight, a pile of capsules sat there waiting for him. "You did it!" he yelled in ecstasy, sweeping them into a small leather bag he kept in his coat. "You did it, sis, you really did it, I'm so proud of you!"

The plant pushed herself back towards the edge of the bulb, beaming with pride. Vash strode up to her and planted a noisy kiss on the glass in front of her face. If plants could blush, he thought, he supposed that's what she'd be doing right now.

Vash didn't waste any time. He made for the room's exit, stopping there for a moment to look back at her with brotherly affection. "Thanks, sis. Because of you, a human is going to live."

The plant closed her eyes in contentment. That was all she had ever wanted.

"Vash!" Meryl gasped when the outlaw came tearing down the hallway. Brandon, who had been kneeling next to Millie, rose to his feet with an expression that was at once hopeful and terrified. For obvious reasons, Millie stayed where she was. She'd managed to hide the worst of her symptomsher breathing was back to normal, more or less but her hair and dress were done for, and the heel had broken off one of her shoes when she'd been trying to escape through the hallway. She sure hoped Mister Vash wouldn't notice. She had a feeling he'd be terribly upset with her if he knew what she had done.

"Hey, guys," Vash said, and already he was pulling the knapsack out of his coat to give to Brandon, when Meryl interjected:

"You mind telling us what the hell you were doing in there, Vash? And why are you all wet?"

"Does it really matter right now?" Vash said with a sigh. Meryl took the hint and backed off. Vash handed the bag to Brandon, then reached back into his pockets and pulled out a giant wad of double dollars. He shoved them into Brandon's arms, who sputtered incredulously. "What – what are you – "

"Your wife needs oxygen," Vash said sternly. "Make sure that's the first thing the doctors know once you've brought her to the ER. If they see the money upfront, they'll be more receptive to using electricity-consuming devices to save her."

"But... but don't you need – "

To his surprise, Vash burst into laughter. "Of course not! The guy in charge of the ball was loaded, so this was his payment to me for the guard work. Besides, I am but a pursuer of the Mayfly of Love, the Hunter of Peace! What need would I have for material – "

Meryl quelled him with a furious look, and he coughed, suddenly serious again. "Er, but yes. Very important," he said. "As for the medicine, there's enough here to last you a few months. Your wife needs to take all of it, twice a day with food. With the ribavirin and oxygen working on her, she should be able to leave the hospital in a week."

"Thank you," Brandon whispered. "All of you." He bowed his head, screwing his eyes shut, but it did nothing to stop the sudden flow of tears. "Because of you three, I... I can believe in people again."

Vash and the girls looked back at him, questions lingering in their eyes.

"I was starting to hate people because of their prejudice," Brandon explained. "When they drove my wife and I out of town, just because we weren't from the same race, it was like... it was like something in me died. That feeling only got worse, the more towns we visited and the more people rejected us... until finally, I was nothing more than an empty shell. Not only could I justify robbing innocent people, but I even vowed to kill them if they got in my way."

He looked at Vash, and he was smiling now. "I'm glad I didn't shoot you, Vash. You've given me back my heart." He surprised them all when he suddenly dropped the money and the bag and embraced Vash. The outlaw started, his green eyes wide, and then he smiled and wrapped his long arms around the young man's shoulders.

Millie felt a curious warmth coursing through her veins, and her spirit felt lifted, as though her body were being buoyed by a gentle breeze. She glanced over at Sempai, and wasn't surprised to see the shorter woman wiping away a tear. After all, she adored happy endings as much as Millie did.

Hi, Maggie nee-san, Millie wrote in her large, friendly handwriting upon the final pages of the Millie Monthly. Of all her siblings, she was especially close to her big sister Maggie, who had practically raised her from infancy, and given her all of her best pudding recipes, besides. How are you doing? I'm doing just perfectly fine. Oh, I know you asked me for a picture of Mister Vash, so here you go! She used a paper clip to attach a small color photo of herself, Sempai, and Vash to the letter. The picture had been taken during their time at the March City Ball. She proceeded to relate to her sister the entire story, pointedly leaving out the part where she had discovered Mister Vash floating in the plant bulb. She was surprised to find that she had dripped a few tears onto the paper when she got to the part where Vash had given Brandon the money and medicine.

You know, there's a lot of awfully mean rumors floating out there about Mister Vash, but I don't want you to be taken in by them, Millie wrote. Not that you would, I mean you're my big sis, you're way smarter than me, but still. Don't you think it's awfully unfair of people to judge him like that without even getting to know him first? Mister Vash is so nice, and generous, and good with kids, and he's not too bad with a gun either!

She reached for another sheaf of paper, but she didn't continue writing right away. Instead, her expression turned thoughtful as her pen hovered over the paper.

But you know... there's a lot I don't understand about Mister Vash. He has so many different faces. Do you know what I mean? I'm not sure I know what I mean either, but I've seen him act so happy, playing with the kids or drinking with me and Sempai, and other times I've seen him so serious it made my blood run cold. Sometimes he's sad, and I don't know the reason why. And then sometimes...

She thought back to the beauty of the plant, how she'd perceived it as a magnificent angel. Mister Vash had been in there with it.

Was he an angel, too?

Sometimes I get this feeling about Mister Vash, like there's something in him that's bigger than me, bigger than all of us. And...

Sometimes it scares me. Just a little.

"So... you wanna continue where we left off?"

Millie looked up, startled out of her thoughts. She was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest in a corner of the room, one they'd registered at a seedy-looking motel on the outskirts of March. She was still wearing her dress, but it was in a state of positive disarray, and her hair was sweaty and bedraggled.

"You're really going to dance at this hour?" Meryl groaned. "You've got some nerve." But her tone was mild, and Millie knew her sempai was secretly proud of Vash for all the good he'd done tonight.

"Why not? I'm not tired. And it's not like you can sleep anyway," he said mischievously, gesturing to the paper-thin walls of their room, behind which they could hear the raucous laughter of a group of poker players.

"It's your fault we're in this dump to begin with!" the short girl thundered, but Vash chose not to answer her. He turned to Millie.

"Well? How about it, Miss Millie?"

She looked at him mutely, still afraid, still not knowing what to think, not about tonight, and not about him. But he was holding his hand out to her, and looking at her with such kindness in his eyes –

Millie's expression softened. I've been a right fool, is what I think. Whatever secret life Mister Vash led, whatever it was that he actually was – some trippy alien, or an angel, or an interplanetary traveler from Dimension X – he still lived to help people, and he meant every darned second of it, up to and including the part where he had embraced that despairing young man, reignited the flame of hope within him.

And this moment – these eyes – they were also part of him, and they were real. Millie remembered the warmth of his embrace at the ball, and she wasn't afraid anymore. She trusted him.

"Okay, Mister Vash. But can I leave the high heels this time?"

"Sure thing," he said, pulling her up to her feet. Then, with a laugh: "Just don't try to hurt me too much, 'kay?"

"I'm not making any promises," she returned, just as cheerfully.

But you know what, big sis? I think in the end, somehow, all of those people are Mister Vash. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

"You know, you're really getting the hang of this."

This said to her after they had danced for well over twenty minutes. Meryl had been watching them from the moth-eaten couch, but it had been an awfully long night for the more straight-laced insurance girl, and her head began to droop. Soon after, she was snoring softly.

"I know. I didn't even step on your feet once this time!"

"Hey, now," he cautioned, but his eyes still regarded her warmly. "You're gonna jinx us."

"That's okay," she said, and suddenly half her face disappeared in a jaw-cracking yawn. "I'm getting tired, anyway..." Without giving it much thought, she placed her head on Mister Vash's shoulder, completely missing the look of surprise that flitted across his face. The steps of the dance began to slow, until finally it was just him standing there, one very exhausted insurance claims investigator practically making a vertical bed out of his tall frame.

"Let's get you to bed," he said, but she no longer heard him. He led her into an adjacent bedroom, where he tucked her under the covers, still fully clothed. Then he returned to the living room, picked up Meryl, and lowered her next to her slumbering co-worker.

He stood there looking at them fondly for a long time: his Insurance Girls. Funny how instantaneous and complete his attachment to them had been. They were a pain in the ass, to be sure, but they were both really very nice girls, and he looked forward to a new adventure with them every day. Meryl was a firecracker, loud and ill-tempered, but you didn't have to look hard to find the heart of gold underneath.

"And you," he said, stroking Millie's hair, "you're really troublesome. You're making me feel things I've never felt before. I know that's a cliche, but then again, I am the Hunter of Peace."

He thought he'd better stop before he went any further. He didn't think it would end well. Not as long as Knives was still around to play target practice with the people he cared about. He considered that someday he would have to leave them for their own good, but he really didn't want to think about that right now. Right now things were still peaceful – or relatively so – and he had friends. He wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible.

As Vash had given away all his money to the young would-be robber, they had only had enough to afford a room with a single bed. That was fine by the outlaw. He stretched out, settled deeply into the couch's smelly cushions, and was soon off and dreaming of donuts.