The place hadn't changed much over the last six years. Maybe it was a little brighter, a little cleaner. Sometimes he helped out... put on a fresh coat of paint, washed the floor, replaced a pane of glass, whatever the priests told him needed to be done. They all knew him now. They knew he always left something in the offering box, and lit a single candle and went away.
The floor had long since been washed clean of every trace of blood, but he could still trace its outlines in his mind, and knelt on that place, as he always did.
So much blood. There had been so much blood. No human being could lose that much blood and live.
He told himself that often, and most of the time, he believed himself.
Sometimes he came here because he needed someone to talk to, and that was more and more often lately. He could not shake the uneasiness haunting his soul. Often he woke from terrifying dreams that he could not remember, shaking and sweaty. Sometimes he found his gaze going to the horizon for no reason, staring toward July. Yesterday he had looked down at his right hand to find that the skin had turned white as a dead man's, and softly spiky with feathers around the fingertips... terrified, he fought back the light he feared so much, until his hand was normal flesh and bone again...
Something was happening.
"Do you feel it too, Wolfwood?" he whispered, gazing at the candlelight flickering on the altar. "It's been six years since you died. Are you still watching us? Do you ever think of us, in whatever place you've gone..."
Six years to the day, he thought. A lot has changed since then. A lot hasn't...
His head came up.
He knew that voice, and it brought a smile to his face, even though the once-chirpy voice had lost much of its youthful vigor, become calmer, more controlled. He looked over his shoulder at the sole occupant of the pews.
She wore a black veil and her head was bowed, but she raised it when he looked her way.
"Didn't you see me, Mr. Vash? You walked right by!"
He had seen her, but hadn't recognized her with the veil, and didn't want to intrude on whatever private grief she bore.
"I'm sorry, Milly -- I had a lot on my mind."
Milly laughed, just as she used to, and came over to hug him.
"Vash! It's been so long. Do you come here a lot?"
"Sometimes. When I need to think things through, or ... talk to someone. Do you?"
"Sometimes," she said, her blue eyes darkening with the briefest shadow. She giggled. "It's amazing we haven't run into each other!"
"Big world," Vash agreed, smiling. Suddenly the smile fell from his face and he gripped her arm.
"Mr. Vash? What's wrong?"
"Get behind me," he whispered. "There's someone over there... by the door. I heard them move."
To his surprise, she only laughed. "I know. Ellie! Stop sneaking around and come out! You're scaring Mr. Vash."
A hesitation, then a shock of spiky black hair appeared over one of the pews.
"Mom! I'm chasin' bandits."
"Ellie, Mr. Vash is an old friend of Mommie's. Come over here and meet him."
Ellie skulked out from behind the pew. Vash's breath caught in his throat. Milly has a child? And he knew whose child... he would have known even without seeing the unruly black hair, the piercing blue eyes glaring defiantly at the world.
"Ellie, say hello to Mr. Vash."
"'Lo," Ellie mumbled, kicking at the floor. "C'n I be excused?"
"Honey, be polite."
"C'n I be excused, please." The child peeked up at Vash through her bangs, with cool blue eyes so familiar that the old pain, never quite gone, constricted Vash's heart. "Nice to meetcha," she added in a burst of magnanimity.
"Nice to meet you, too," Vash said.
"Why don't we all go outside in the sun?" Milly asked. "If you'd like to, Mr. Vash. If you're finished."
"I think I've done everything I need to do in here."
Ellie ran outside ahead of them, and immediately vanished into the rocks around the church door.
"Watch out for snakes! And don't get too much sun!" Milly called after her, ineffectually. She looked over at Vash, and smiled an apology. "She's going through a difficult time, I think. She's a very good child, really."
"I don't doubt it," Vash said.
They wandered away from the church. Vash kept stealing glances at Milly, trying not to seem as if he was staring. She seemed to have aged much more than six years since he had last seen her, but rather than making her haggard, the tracks of too many years and too much pain had given her face the mature, ageless beauty that only a few women achieve. He never would have thought to see that look on Milly's face. Her hair was still long, but pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail beneath the veil.
"Her name is Ellen, meaning light," Milly said after a while.
"She looks a lot like him." Vash winced as the words left his mouth. Way to go, Mr. Tact.
Milly just smiled, and her smile too had lost its carefree joy and gained a new maturity, no less sad for all its beauty. "More so every day."
He cleared his throat. "Do you -- still work for Bernardelli's?"
Milly shook her head. "No. I couldn't handle the overtime and traveling anymore, not with a small child. I got a job as a live-in nurse for an old lady, a friend of the family, back home. But she... passed on... a few months ago, so I came back here."
"You live here?" Vash asked, surprised. "I mean... I'd think this place would have so many bad memories for you." He bit his lip. Strike two, Mr. Tact.
Milly looked down at her hands. "It does, but... good ones too. I think I grew up here. I changed so much... I never really found the me that I used to be, after I left here. I think maybe I came back to try to get in touch with my younger self." She looked up at him, her blue eyes a little too bright. "Does that make sense?"
"More than you know," Vash said.
"I never understood..." Milly twisted her skirt in her hands, over and over. "I never understood why they took his body. Knives and Legato. I think I forgave them for killing him... and I forgave him for dying... but I never really forgave them for that. Isn't that silly? But... it hurts, Mr. Vash, that I can't take my daughter to see her father's grave."
"I never understood that, either," Vash said. "It makes it harder to accept, I think. Not having something to bury, I mean..."
Milly nodded, and looked around automatically for her daughter, locating her not too far away. "So... what have you been doing, Mr. Vash?"
"Traveling. Like always. Here, there, everywhere."
"What about..." Her voice dropped. "Mr. Knives? Is he...?"
Vash sighed and gazed at the distant hills. "He's asleep. He hasn't awoken in the last six years, not even once. He doesn't eat... he doesn't drink... yet he doesn't waste away. I guess he'll wake up when he's ready, and not before."
"I wonder if a doctor could help him."
Vash looked away. "I doubt it. This is beyond any medical science on this world... maybe on any world. People like Knives and ... I mean, people like Knives... have a different physiology than people like you."
His unfinished sentence hung in the air: People like Knives and me...
"But you need to eat, don't you, Mr. Vash?" Milly asked hesitantly.
He gave her a quick smile, his happy-friendly smile, the one Wolfwood had once commented on... "I eat, I drink, I use the bathroom, just like you. I'm not any different from you, Milly."
But I am. She knows it, and Meryl knows it, alone of any other people on this world.
"I was meaning to ask you," he said. "Have you heard from.... I mean..."
Milly shook her head. "Not in a while. After I left the agency... well, Senpai doesn't write letters much, you know. She still traveled a lot, and we kind of just fell out of touch with each other... you know how it is."
"So she was still working for the agency, last time you saw her."
"Yes," Milly agreed. "And she wasn't married, Mr. Vash. She didn't have anyone at all."
Vash didn't miss the little glance she gave him, seeking a reaction. He didn't really have one at all, except a bit of sadness. He'd thought that Meryl, of all of them, had the best chance of being able to live a normal life after all they'd been through. But maybe a husband and kids weren't Meryl's idea of a normal life. As much as she claimed to hate adventure, Vash thought that she'd become slightly addicted to it, during their travels together.
Still, he had to admit to a slight hope, now dashed... that if Milly was here, Meryl might not be far away...
"So, I suppose you'll be leaving soon," Milly said.
"Yes, probably. You?"
"Probably. I'm just renting a place here. I don't think I want to raise Ellie so close to... you know."
Milly started to say something, stopped, started again, stopped. Vash had never seen her so hesitant to say something. Finally she blurted out, "You know, I don't have a job right now."
"I think you mentioned something like that."
"You wouldn't happen to... need help?"
Vash looked at her in amazement.
"I have some experience as a caretaker," she said defensively.
"I know, but... I thought you didn't want a traveling life for Ellie. You know I have to keep moving."
"That was when she was little. She's old enough now. Besides, I'll be moving on soon, anyway. But it's dangerous for a woman and a little girl to travel alone."
Vash couldn't help laughing. "I've seen you fire that stungun! Somehow I feel more sorry for any bandits who try to pick on you..."
"Mr. Vash, that's just mean!"
"I just wanted to help." She stared at the ground, sticking out her lower lip like a child, and for a moment looked almost like the old Milly.
She's tired of being alone, Vash realized. And I am, too...
"Actually, now that I think about it, I could use some help," he said. "I would have mentioned it, but I didn't want to impose."
Milly looked up, her eyes bright again. "When can we leave?"
"Whenever you're ready," Vash said.
Milly smiled. "Will a few days be enough? I have some things to tie up around here."
"Like I said, whenever you're ready."
"Where are you staying?"
He pointed down into the town.
"That big red house?"
"No, the white one next to it."
Milly giggled. "Vash... I'm staying in the red one!"
He stared at her in amazement. "We must have passed each other dozens of times."
"Both wrapped up in our own worlds," Milly said.
She called for her daughter, and the three of them walked home. The shadows were lengthening into evening.
"You're sure about this?" Vash said. "You want your daughter to live the life of a vagabond?"
"Doing something useful to help others?" Milly retorted. "I can't think of anything I'd rather see her doing."
They parted ways in front of the two houses. "Tomorrow?" Milly said. "I need to do some shopping for the trip. You could come along. I don't mind."
Vash ran over his options in his head. Shopping with Milly... or staring at Knives' unresponsive form. Tough choice. Milly did have a slight edge, though.
"Better be more like ten."
"You still like to sleep in, I see."
"Now that Senpai's not around to nag me."
They stood and stared at each other in the gathering dusk.
"Well, good night," said Milly.
They both stood there. Ellie held onto her mother's hand, watching the adults, confused.
Vash cleared his throat. "Unless the two of you would like to have dinner with me."
"Oh, how wonderful!" Milly cried. "We'd love that! Doesn't that sound nice, Ellie?"
"Yes'm," Ellie mumbled, in a tone that sounded as if she'd rather eat live lizards.
Vash floundered. "Of course... it's been a while since I've cooked for more than just myself..."
Milly smiled. "I'll help."
They went upstairs to Vash's rented rooms, and Vash lit a lamp while Milly looked around for a place to sit, finally settling on the bed. Ellie climbed up beside her.
"I'm sorry it's not much..."
Milly laughed, and it sounded almost like her old laugh. "Oh, we've been in much worse places than this, haven't we, Mr. Vash?"
Vash slowly answered her grin with one of his own. "Remember that fleabag hotel in Dromden Village?"
"Oh, the one where the rats ate Meryl's shoes during the night?"
"No, that was in May City. I think..."
They both laughed. Ellie, bored, had wandered over to investigate the window. "Oh, honey, be careful!" Milly cried, running to retrieve her.
"Mom! I'm not a baby!"
Watching them, Vash realized that he felt... good. For the first time since he could remember -- in years, maybe -- he really felt good. Happy. Light. And as always, whenever a pleasant mood began descending onto him, he thought instantly of the one thing that could destroy his happiness forever.
"I'd better go check on Knives."
Milly nodded. "I'll look around and start some dinner."
Vash went out into the darkened hall, refusing her offer of a light. Alone, he paused for a moment, leaning his forehead against the wall.
He had invited her back here as a friend... hadn't he?
He wasn't quite sure, and that bothered him.
Deep down, he realized that he still thought of Milly as Wolfwood's girl. He knew, intellectually, that Wolfwood was never coming back, and he supported the whole idea of Milly getting on with her life. If he'd discovered that she was married, he would have felt nothing but happiness for her; in face, finding out that she wasn't saddened him in much the same way that Meryl being single saddened him. He would have loved to see either of them find happiness with anyone else.
In Milly's case, anyone but him. He just didn't think he could do it and look at himself in the mirror.
He'd just been alone so long...
The last thing poor Milly needs is you messing with her head because you're horny, he griped at himself, pushing open the door to Knives' room.
The light... it had to be a trick of the light...
But the glow of the sunset through the window did not lie. The bed was rumpled, unkempt -- and empty.
Vash flattened himself against the door. Horror gripped his heart with bitter cold hands. He had to stop himself from looking over his shoulder... positive that Knives lurked in every shadow of the dark hallway, every corner of the bedroom...
He'd been so sure that he'd know. So positive that he would feel Knives' reawakened presence in the world that he had begun leaving him alone for longer and longer lengths of time. He hadn't even locked the door of the bedroom!
Oh, you fool, Vash berated himself. You utter, absolute fool.
To leave him alive because killing him would have broken your heart...
It's going to begin again now, Vash you fool. Remember the killings? The destruction? July? Augusta? The Gung-ho Guns? Brad? Wolfwood?
It's all going to begin again...