Vash looked her way, after a moment. "Hmm?"
"Never mind," Milly mumbled, and looked down at her lap. For a moment she lost herself in contemplation of Ellie's angelic face, serene in sleep.
They had wasted days wandering about the hills, looking for Knives... sticking close together, afraid to get out of each other's sight. Milly kept Ellie close to her the whole time, afraid to risk her daughter by exposing her to Knives, but much more afraid to leave her alone.
Finally they had to admit that they were getting nowhere. Knives had a whole world in which to hide. He could be anywhere.
Vash had sunk into a deep depression. He barely responded to Milly's ever-more-desperately-cheerful comments, and all he could talk about, it seemed to her, was how the whole cycle of death and destruction had begun all over again and it was all his fault.
Milly didn't think it was anywhere near that dire. Vash had caught Knives once, hadn't he? Couldn't he do it again?
"Yeah, but look how many people died or had their lives destroyed because of my search for Knives," Vash pointed out bitterly. "And I would never have found him at all if Wolfwood hadn't told me where he was... right before dying. I would never want to go through the search for Knives again... never... but now we have to. God help the world."
Being around Vash was really, really depressing these days. Still, Milly didn't want to leave him alone. He was her friend, after all.
They checked the bus schedules and found that two buses had gone through town on the day of Knives' disappearance -- one headed towards September and October City, the other going the other way, toward the part of the road that had become known as the July Bypass.
"He'd go back to July," Vash said, determined.
"How do you know, Mr. Vash?"
"It just suits Knives' demented sense of balance. I'd bet you money. Or your life."
Even Ellie was starting to pick up on Vash's depression and become even more moody and sullen than she already was -- which was saying a lot. Milly just sighed and grinned and tried to keep everybody's spirits up, when what she really wanted to do was kick everybody in the teeth.
Oh, how she wished Meryl were here. Meryl always knew what to do. Of course, half the time what Meryl did just made the situation worse, but at least she did something about it.
On the day they were going to catch the bus for July, Milly got up early and woke Ellie. Ignoring the little girl's whining about not wanting to get out of bed, Milly scrubbed and dressed her, then started off on the walk to the church.
"Mom... Mom, I don't wanna."
"Well, you're going to go say goodbye to your father," Milly retorted.
"Mom, Dad's in Heaven. That's just a stinky old church and it's really, really boring, and I don't care if Dad's dead 'cause he probably deserved it and--"
Ellie was yanked to a halt by her mother's iron-hard fist. Startled into silence, she looked up.
"Ellen Philomela Wolfwood Thompson," Milly snapped. "If I ever -- ever hear you talk that way about your father again, you will feel the backside of my hand. Do we understand each other, young lady?"
Ellie stared at her mother, and finally managed a very tiny, "Yes'm."
"Good. Come on." Milly started marching onwards toward the church. At first the only thought in her head was, Oh, God, I sound just like my mother! Then another little voice started to intercede, saying, Yes, and it works, doesn't it? She actually listened to me.
Inside the church, Milly let her daughter go after extracting a promise that Ellie would stay inside and not go out the door. Then she approached the altar, and hesitantly crossed herself. Milly's ideas on religion -- like those of most people on her melting-pot of a world -- would have confused, offended or just astounded most people on Old Earth. She believed wholeheartedly in a merciful, just, loving God, but she also believed that God had a wife named Hera and had, at one point, turned himself into a bull and stolen the sun from Valhalla... or something like that. She saw no conflict whatsoever between the idea of all souls going to Heaven when they die, and all souls being reborn into new bodies... or incarnating as nature spirits... or simply hanging around as ancestral guides. Milly was generally fervent about observing whatever religious customs she came into contact with, regardless of whether she had any idea what she was doing or why.
Of one thing, however, she was certain -- even more certain than she was about her belief in God. Milly knew beyond a doubt that wherever Wolfwood had gone after death, he was watching her; and she knew that he heard every word she said to him when she kneeled before the altar.
Today, she could find no words in her heart. After finally getting as close to him as she still could, she was going away again, and she might never come back.
For a long time, she just knelt on the stone floor, straining to feel the warmth of his love around her. Try as she might, all she could feel was the first oppressively hot breezes stirring through the open church door.
"Oh, Nicholas," she whispered.
She had never called him Nicholas while he was alive. It had always been Mr. Priest, and then once she felt more comfortable with him, Mr. Wolfwood. Never Nicholas. Not even once.
She regretted that, as she regretted so many other things.
"Nicholas, I think... It's strange, but I think I'm becoming attracted to Mr. Vash, just a little. I mean, I'd never do anything, of course. Not so much that I plan to remain faithful to you for the rest of my life. I mean, we really only had that one night..." She laughed, and her breath caught in her throat. "Even though I really believe you were the only man I ever loved. I know that sounds all silly and corny, and maybe I am just a silly girl for feeling that way. I have no idea how you felt about me. We never said... I love you. Not even once." Another regret, in a very long list. "But when you said how I was such a good healer... I kind of heard you say I love you, even though you didn't really ... Does that make any sense? I just wonder if you ever heard me say I love you back, even though I didn't.
"Oh, Nicholas, Vash is a nice man, a wonderful man, and I really love him, but I wouldn't ever let myself love him... like that. Vash is for my Senpai. I never understood why she just let him go. I mean, after what I'd seen and learned, about holding onto the people you care for because we might only have a little while... No, I never understood why she did that, Nicholas. I think maybe that one thing, more than anything else, more than Ellie or her promotion or anything, was what drove the wedge between Senpai and me. I don't think I could forgive her for that, just like I couldn't ever forgive Knives and Legato for taking your body before... before Mr. Vash came to the church. Isn't it funny how it's the little things that we stay mad at people for? I mean, I'm plenty mad at Knives and Legato for causing your death, but I think it almost would have been... well, not all right, but a little less wrong... if I'd gotten to hold you one last time, and say goodbye."
She lowered her head and caught her breath, fighting tears.
Milly raised her head and wiped her eyes. "Ellie? Hon? You okay?"
"Mom, that man..."
Milly sprang to her feet, reaching ineffectually for her stungun before remembering that she'd left it at home. "Where? Where?"
"That man. Mr. Vash. He's outside."
"Oh." Milly relaxed, and went to the door. Vash was outside, as Ellie had said, sitting on a boulder. He looked up when she and Ellie approached. For a moment, his eyes lingered on Ellie, looked away from her and then looked back curiously. Then he looked up at Milly.
"I started to come in," he said. "Then I heard you talking, and figured I'd better wait my turn. Don't worry, I didn't listen."
Milly smiled, forcing back the last vestiges of her tears. "It's your turn now. I'm... all done. It's time to leave. If I've forgotten something, I can't come back and say it, not this time." Consciously she echoed her own words to Meryl the last time they'd left this place, all those years ago. Vash hadn't heard that conversation, so he couldn't have known, but he smiled.
"Moving on," he said. "Finally."
"I hope so," Milly said suddenly, fervently. "I've had it with living my life half-expecting a dead man to walk back into it. I can't wear black forever, Vash, not over a ... well, it wasn't a one-night stand, not really, but I have to stop making more out of it than it really deserves. Don't I?"
Vash half-smiled. "I need to go say my own goodbyes, I think."
Milly nodded, and bowed her head. "Ellie? Do you want to say anything to your Daddy before we go?"
Ellie twisted her hands behind her and looked up at the church steeple bisecting the pale sky. "Yeah, I... Daddy, you made my Mom cry. And I hate you for making my Mom cry. I'll never forgive you."
She turned and ran out of the churchyard.
"Ellie!" Milly cried after her. "Ellie--" She turned to Vash, torn between anger at her daughter, and worry for her. "I'd better go get her."
"Milly." To her astonishment, Vash grabbed her hand, and held it -- gently, though, not hard. "She's only a kid, a sad kid who's trying to grow up a little too fast. Don't be too hard on her."
Milly gently but firmly pulled her hand back. "She's my daughter, Mr. Vash. I know you think I'm a ditz, but I can raise my daughter, at least."
Vash opened his mouth, started to say something, then shook his head and said with a little laugh, "If she's anything like her parents, I pity the guy that kid sets her heart on. And envy him."
With that, he got up and walked into the church.
Milly stared after him, then ran down the hill, looking for Ellie. She found her daughter sitting in the middle of the road, crying.
By the time she got Ellie back home, cleaned her up and fed her, most of the morning had slipped away. Milly stuffed a few more items of clothing into her suitcase. Most of her belongings were still at home, stored at her parents' house. Her worldly possessions, and Ellie's, had been compressed to one suitcase apiece.
It was a strangely free way to live... and sad, rootless. All she'd ever wanted was a nice husband and a little house with a white picket fence and a garden, like her sisters all had. She had never planned to become a nomad -- or a single mother.
But I wouldn't trade you for all the picket fences in the world, Milly thought, looking at her daughter playing in the block of sunlight falling through the window.
She'd said her goodbyes to her landlady the previous night. The old woman warned her to be careful traveling out July way... the Bad Lads gang were said to be operating out there. They'd almost dropped out of sight for years, only to reappear recently with a new leader -- a ruthless man called the Fire Engineer -- and an agenda for making trouble.
"I'll be careful," Milly promised. She did not mention that she and Meryl had met the Bad Lads years ago. Her past, like Vash's, was shrouded in secrecy these days.
And so they traveled, the three of them...
They did not find Knives in July -- only the old ruins with sand drifting over them from the desert. Erosion had begun to sculpt the buildings in weird patterns. Vash was even quieter by the time they left and headed on to May City. They did not find Knives in May, either, and as they got on a bus heading towards March, Vash said softly to Milly, "We've really lost him, you know. He could be almost anywhere in the world by now. I've spent ... more time than you would believe, doing this exact thing. Drifting from town to town, looking for clues or rumors. Finding nothing. This aimless wandering isn't the way to do it."
"I don't know any other way to do it," Milly said simply.
Vash sighed. "That's the big problem, isn't it? Neither do I."
"Well, let's look on the positive side," Milly offered hopefully. "At least we haven't destroyed any towns yet!"
The look Vash gave her would have done Knives proud.
He didn't say anything else to her, except for the occasional monosyllable or grunt, on the entire trip to March City. At first Milly thought he was mad at her, but eventually she reassured herself that he was merely depressed again. Oh, it's probably partly my fault, she thought, gazing out the window at the low afternoon suns. But he seems to get depressed whether I'm here or not, so I shouldn't feel too bad...
When they got off the bus in March, Vash seemed to have worked partway through whatever new mental torture he had devised for himself, at least to the point of becoming interested in his surroundings again. Particularly in Ellie. On the walk to their hotel, he kept watching the little girl whenever he appeared to think that Milly was looking elsewhere.
"Are you all right, Mr. Vash?" Milly asked him at last.
"Yeah, I'm fine. It's just..." He shook his head, and gave her a tired grin. "You would not believe who your daughter looks like to me. It must be the heat."
He didn't say anything else about it, and they checked into their hotel. Vash had one room, and Milly and Ellie an adjoining one, as usual -- a strange, ghostly echo of the old days when Milly and Meryl had had their double room next to Vash and Wolfwood's.
Meryl... Milly lay awake in the stifling darkness, too hot to sleep, and thought about her Senpai. Where was Meryl right now? What was she doing? Probably in a nice, air-conditioned office... no, it was night, so she was probably safely asleep in bed. Maybe she'd found a boyfriend after all... Milly felt a jealous twinge at that thought, not for herself but for Vash; but she reasoned that if Vash really wanted Senpai, he surely had had ample opportunity to track her down at the Bernardelli offices and tell her how he felt.
Maybe it was all in my head, all along. Maybe there was never anything between Vash and Senpai at all... maybe I just wanted there to be something, because I liked them both so much.
Do I still want there to be something between them?
She turned that question over and over in her head, and couldn't find a satisfactory answer by the time she fell asleep.
It was still dark when Milly woke up. For a moment she couldn't figure out what had awakened her. Then she became aware of pounding at the door.
"What is it?" she called, pulling her dress over her head, right on top of her pajamas. She had no trouble finding her shoes in the dark -- but it wasn't dark; a blue light was streaming through the window.
Milly recognized that kind of light. It was the light that had filled Inepral City as the Plant had gone out of control. The light that had shone above Augusta as the city dissolved into dust...
"Vash!" she screamed, fumbling for Ellie, who was frightened and crying. "Vash, do you see that?"
"I see it!" he shouted through the door. "It's coming from the Plant!"
"I know!" Milly shouted. Finally she got Ellie into her clothes and opened the door. Somewhat to her surprise, Vash was still standing there. "Do you know what's causing it?"
"The Plant's agitated," Vash said, "but I can't tell why."
Milly breathed a single word: "Knives?"
"I don't know. I can't tell."
"Can you ... ask it?" The idea of talking with Plants was still quite bizarre to Milly, but she had some idea that Vash could do it.
"I'm going to. I was waiting for the two of you."
"Us?" Milly said, surprised. "I thought you'd insist that we stay here."
"Do you want to?" Vash asked dryly.
"Actually, if you'd told me to stay, I'd probably yell at you and follow you anyway," Milly admitted.
"Figures. You're getting more like Meryl every day, Stungun Milly. But no... while it bothers the heck out of me to have the two of you come with me to face Knives or God knows what's over there, it bothers me a lot more to leave you here."
"Because of Knives?"
"No," Vash said grimly. "Because if there's an ... accident... the only safe place in this entire city might be right next to me."
Milly didn't have to ask what he meant by an accident. She followed him outside.
The streets were in chaos. Half the town, it seemed, was running toward the Plant (which seemed an utterly ridiculous course of action to Milly, although she realized that she was about to do the same thing), while the other half were, more sensibly, running away. The weird blue light gave the confusion a slow, dreamlike quality.
"Hey, you!" Vash caught the arm of the nearest man. "What's going on here?"
"Vash the Stampede ... the outlaw ... attacking the Plant! Humanoid Typhoon ... we're doomed ... run ... help ..." He fainted.
"Hmmm," Vash said thoughtfully, lowering the man to the ground. "This brings back some memories... It's been a while since this kind of thing happened to me. Frankly, I didn't miss it."
"I don't know why trouble seems to follow you like it does," Milly complained, pulling a protesting Ellie close to her.
"Follow me? What are you talking about?" As he spoke, they were working their way closer to the Plant, pushing through the crowds of people. "Nothing like this ever seems to happen to me when you Insurance Girls aren't ... around ..."
He had half turned around, looking behind him.
"Milly..." There was a very strange look in Vash's eyes, a look Milly had never seen before. "Did you see those two people? I just bumped into the girl... and the guy with her... he..."
"Mr. Vash?" Milly peered into his face, ghostly in the blue light. "You're okay, aren't you?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I am. I'm sorry, Milly. First the thing with Ellie earlier, now this... Maybe I really am losing my mind, that's --"
"Vash! Shh!" Milly raised her hand urgently. "Do you hear that?"
"I hear a lot of things."
"Someone crying." Actually, it was more like hysterical, screaming sobs.
Vash nodded, his face paling, and the two of them started toward the sound. They didn't have to go far before they came upon the man slumped on the ground, a woman crouched over him, weeping wildly. The crowd around them had cleared out to leave an open area in their immediate vicinity, with the onlookers standing awkwardly, with an air of wanting to do something but having no idea what to do. A thick, scorched smell made Milly couch.
"Milly," Vash said, his voice abrupt, almost rough. "Cover Ellie's face. If you love your daughter, don't let her look at ... that."
"Why? What...?" But she'd already done it. When Vash got serious like that, it meant things were really urgent.
"Hey! Hey, Mom, what's goin' on?"
"Shh. It's okay. Mr. Vash is taking care of things." She had already figured out why he didn't want her to let Ellie see the body. From what little she could see, the man on the ground had been very, very badly burned.
Vash approached the woman and bent over her shoulder. Milly heard him ask her what had happened. She screamed something incoherent at him. He asked again, in the same quiet voice, and this time she gave him some kind of answer. Milly could tell nothing from Vash's stance, but he came back toward her with great strides.
"Milly! We have to get to the Plant now! Stay behind me... okay?" With that, he turned and started to run toward the Plant.
"Mr. Vash! Hey! Wait!" The crowd was thinner here, and she could break into a jog, following him.
Which was when Milly realized that Ellie had wriggled out of her grasp.
She looked around in terror, then, looking back, found that she'd lost sight of Vash as well.
"Oh... oh..." Milly stood in the middle of the street, trying to come up with words strong enough to express her fear, upset and frustration. "Oh... fuck!"