The first person Vash ever had sex with was Knives. They'd been alone together on the planet for a couple of months when they went through puberty. Despite their best efforts not to inflict it on each other, despite whatever private spaces they found, their telepathic connection broadcast it. They might be deaf to each other's philosophies, but they couldn't tune out the shouting of each other's physical need.
Vash found it very embarrassing, and he suspected Knives did too. Maybe it was to choke off the embarrassment that Knives came onto him that day. Vash had been sitting against a rock, aching to touch himself and not doing so because it was embarrassing with Knives just out of sight a boulder away.
Then, suddenly Knives was right up in his face with hand on his arm and a flank against his thigh. "How about we quit pretending it's not better with somebody else?"
Before Vash could respond, Knives kissed him, rough and poorly aimed.
Vash didn't want to touch Knives like that--except that his body kind of did. And you didn't say no to Knives. Knives always won. Everything about him left Vash feeling beaten. So he let Knives do what he wanted, let Knives's hands ignite his flesh, let Knives's mind scorch his mind; he didn't know how to refuse.
For a while, he forgot that this wasn't what he wanted. At the end of long hours of arguments, it was sometimes all they had.
But that all changed one night months later. That night, they must have spent an hour glued chest to chest, lost where mind and body blended, crushed by heaviness of their touching and their love. Vash only loved Knives during sex--or that's what he'd thought at first. As the months went by, he'd realized that the love that wracked him wasn't his love for Knives but rather Knives's for him: it set roots in him and choked his own awareness.
In the morning, the reality was always plain: Knives loved him, and he didn't love Knives, and they both knew it, and it made Vash ashamed. You were supposed to love your brother.
But in the night--that night--when they finally collapsed, sated, heart pounding in time to heart, it was almost peaceful. Then, Knives moved to roll off of Vash, and their flesh resisted, clinging. They had to peel themselves apart like an orange from its rind. Where they'd touched, pinpoints of blood oozed. Vash wiped at his chest, succeeding only in smearing the stain. He panicked. He sobbed. He drew his knees up and curled into a ball, wet and naked and terrified.
"Get a grip, Vash. It's just a little blood," said Knives, as if were the blood that had frightened him.
"Why do you have to be such a baby?" Knives demanded. "What's the big deal if we merge? We can separate again. I know we can. We started out as the same cell, and we separated."
Merging was the term they had coined--Knives had coined--back on the ship to describe what the science library called, "The ability to graft tissue or even a hemi-twin from one Plant onto another, much as the ancients grafted together different varieties of apple."
"I just don't want to merge," said Vash. "I just want to stay me. What's wrong with that?"
Knives's face over their cooking fire was ghoulish blocks of black and red. "What's wrong is it's denying your nature! It's like saying 'I don't want to breathe anymore,' or 'I don't want to walk anymore.' You're just running from what you are again. Plus, you're using this as an excuse not to do it with me."
"It's not an excuse," said Vash sullenly.
"You don't even want to be a Plant, do you? I bet you wish you were one of them. I bet you wish you'd come right out of Rem's womb, one of those damn, weak, slow, bumbling, terrified, pea-brained, parasitic things. I bet you wish you weren't even a twinning organism."
Vash kept his eyes on the fire. "They're not pea-brained."
"Fuck you." Knives's voice went so high and strained that Vash looked up in surprise, just in time to see him wipe his nose and stalk off.
"I'm sorry, Knives," Vash called after him. "I didn't mean to be mean." But he'd hurt him all the same.
Knives didn't touch him after that.
Some years later, Vash was helping out in Sunday school when the topic turned to Adam and Eve being fruitful and multiplying.
"But Miss Cooper--" Little Molly Reilly, as usual, shot her hand up. "If Adam and Eve were everybody's parents, then who did their kids marry?"
Amie Cooper smiled and looked unsure how to respond, so Vash stepped in. "It's a creation myth, Molly. It's a story. There weren't really just two humans to start with. The whole species evolved from earlier species, so they probably never had that small of a gene pool."
Molly stared at him, wide-eyed. "Miss Cooper, who did the kids marry?"
"Well, I guess--in the story--since there was nobody else was there, it was okay for them to marry each other."
The kids tittered. Vash began to feel ill.
That afternoon, he shut himself in the library and did research. He started by looking up commentary on Adam and Eve. This eventually brought him to the keyword, "incest," which led him to a variety of fascinating places. There was a man named Oedipus who gouged his eyes out after realizing he'd been sleeping with his mother. And King Arthur and his sister had an evil son who killed him. And a woman named Myrrha, who seduced her father, was apparently in the Eighth Circle of Hell.
Oh damn, he thought. Oh damn, oh damn.
He went for a walk in the desert where no one else was. After going a couple of iles, he fell on his knees and threw up.
If you were a decent person, you didn't have sex with your brother. And Vash had known; he had always known that sleeping with Knives felt wrong.
But no one had ever explained that to them. Rem hadn't--why should she? It would have seemed self-evident to her. And it hadn't been prime subject matter in the children's books she read them. They learned about the genetic perils of inbreeding, of course. But that hadn't been an issue for the two of them in the desert. It wasn't as if they were going to breed with each other.
In the back of his mind, he hear Knives's disapproving voice: "You're thinking like a human."
Vash remembered the night their skin had merged. Who knew what their Plant bodies conjoined could do? He doubled over and retched again.
Plants were different. Vash knew that intellectually; their physical nature was different from humans', and Knives would say it was silly to ask them to conform to taboos designed for human physicality, and he'd be right. But Knives was also right that, in his heart, Vash wished he were human.
If Vash were to describe his love life in one word, he would probably have said "difficult." Yet here and there, there had been nights of bliss in the arms of people he'd dearly loved. He liked sex the way humans did it. He liked that wet, close intimacy that, nonetheless, never crossed the bounds of selfhood. He didn't have to fear that he would cease to be himself. He liked, too, that he was genetically too different to get any human pregnant. His body, his mind remained wholly his own. It was a safe ecstasy--though "ecstasy" seemed an odd word for it. It originally meant "outside the body," but that wasn't what humans were like.
Plants were like that.
In lost July, Knives had described the explosion of Plant energy as an "amazing release." He'd said, "It swallows everything." He'd said, "It blows away all reason."
And he'd been right about that too. That release, that loss, that ec-stasy had been orgasmic to the force an atomic bomb. It had been an erasure of self. Old literature talked about orgasm as a "death." It had been a death. It had been 100,000 deaths. It had been the death of Vash's innocence.
And if the release of Plant energy were analogous to sex--as it surely was for Knives--then, Knives had raped him repeatedly. In July, he probably hadn't meant to. He'd sincerely wanted Vash to discover his Plant nature; he hadn't seen it as a violation.
Later he'd known exactly what he was doing: those times he'd put his hands on Vash and made him lose himself, made his flesh escape, forced his acts of creation, like the sisters in his Arm.
When Vash had regained his memories of July, the sisters weren't the foremost of the horror. But as the weeks went by, their faces refused to leave him: the sisters growing out him. His hemi-twins? His daughters? Were they always there inside of him? Was he denying them life by compressing himself in his human form? Did they have minds of their own in those few living moments when his flesh gave birth to their brains? He ought to have been able to read the sisters' minds--if they had minds--but in those moments, he himself scarcely clung to consciousness, and he couldn't feel a thing except torrential energy.
He hated the knowledge that they lived in him, like some sort of perpetual, uncompletable, forced pregnancy. He hated Knives for forcing him to know it. He hated himself for his hatred. He wished he weren't so afraid of being a Plant.
In the liberation of the Plants, some of the sisters had fallen to the ground far away from the others and never been hooked back up. By the time people stumbled across them, they were usually dead. But a few showed surprising resilience and lingered.
In the first year after they'd been depowered, Vash and Knives went on several missions to track down the lost sisters whose minds feebly called to theirs. They even managed to transport one back to a colony and save her. That day they smiled at each other, the first real smile they had shared since Rem.
Today, however, they weren't smiling. The sister they'd found, like most of them, was already black haired and half necrotic. They couldn't do anything but help her finish dying. Knives lay down naked beside the principal hemi-twin and put his arms around her. Her long, emaciated arm crept around his back. He rested a hand on one of the infant hemi-twins growing from her back and caressed its wings.
Vash had always lacked Knives's sense of ease with Plants, but he sat beside the other mature hemi-twin, little more than arms and legs growing from the placental core. He took her hand, fighting a twinge of revulsion when the hand gripped his back. It felt like holding hands with a dismembered corpse--but that was human thinking. He stroked her fingers, and leaned his mind into the sister's thoughts, which were pain and exhaustion and increasingly far away.
But she recognized him. Wordlessly, she thought, So he is here too--the Other One. That's what he was to her, but the feeling held affection. They are both with me--Him and the Other One. We are almost-one-not-alone-again.
Over everything, Knives radiated his warmth.
They held her till her life ebbed out, then burned her remains and retired to the bed rolls by their campfire.
When the first grounded sister they'd found had died, Knives had howled as if to pour out his soul. And if he hadn't been depowered, he probably would have, Vash reflected. It had hurt Vash to see that. It hurt differently now to see Knives despondent, as if he'd lost even the will for indignation.
"It'll be nice to get back to town tomorrow," said Vash to have something to say.
Knives looked at him, long and steadily, eyes glinting out of dark hollows. After a while he said quietly, "So you can muck around at farming and babysitting and fucking your humans?"
He always put it like that, as if Vash had ten women hanging out in a harem, instead of, well, no one.
"Meryl and I broke up." He felt ridiculous discussing his dating life with Knives, and at the same time, ridiculous to balk at discussing his dating life with his own brother.
Knives's eyes widened a little. "Good. Seeing you play at being her husband was making me kind of queasy."
"I didn't--" Vash broke off. Did Knives know how near the bullseye he'd hit? "We never made any promises. Give me credit, at least, for knowing better than that."
But that wasn't true. Though they'd never agreed to spend their future together, it had been perfectly obvious that's what Meryl had expected. It was what she had been raised to want, what fit her systematic mind. It wasn't something Vash could give, that single dedication. He belonged to too many others to ever vow himself to her.
That was probably why the only person, in recent years, he'd really paired up with had been Wolfwood. Wolfwood, too, had belonged to too many to belong to any one. And when they'd fought side by side, they could fight as one to protect their many.
And when part of their oneness had died--
But that wasn't--and shouldn't be--Meryl's life, and he should have done what he usually did and just pretended not to see her feelings until she gave up and found someone else. Instead, he'd let himself succumb to her love because he was lonely and tired and wanting to be touched and needing some reservoir of solace in the night in order to face Knives every morning. Vash loved her, but he loved her like the wind; she had nothing to hold on to. In the end, he had bruised up her heart, as he ought to have known--had known--he would. They said they were still friends. Maybe they really could be in five years, in ten years, when the wounds were less fresh.
Knives didn't care about any of that.
"You'll always be alone with them," Knives said.
"Less now," said Vash, "now I'm not so different from them."
Knives shot him a venomous glance. "Yes, it's what you always wanted: not to be a Plant anymore, not to do any of the things you were born to do." He fell silent, his eyes inward. "I want to merge with you."
Vash fought down the surge of adrenaline telling him to flee. "I don't think we can anymore--"
"I know we can't," snapped Knives. "That door is closed." He laughed. "Though we both know it was never really open. I've always been alone in here." He touched a hand to his head. "Just a hemi-twin, an amputee. How dare you leave me like that, with only pieces of myself."
It was true, thought Vash. Plants were twinning organisms, and a Plant without its others was just a body dissected, like Tessla. He wiped at a tear that had slipped down his face.
"It just scared me, Knives. You scared me." He sat up, breathed till the tears backed off. From the corner of his eye, he saw Knives sit up too. "But I'm here now. I won't go away again." He looked up to see Knives frowning at him.
With a certain force of will, he moved to Knives's side and hugged him, folding him in close as Knives had held the dying sister. Knives's arms, in turn, clenched Vash. They were like Vash's arms: the same shape, the same strength, the same weakness left over after all the power they'd spent. Vash buried his face against Knives's neck; his skin smelled like Vash's skin.
"I won't go," he repeated. "We'll be together with the sisters. We'll be together and keep them safe." The soul was many and, for the sake of its many, must learn to be one.