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Sand and Light

Episode 9: Fragile Flesh

Previously in "Sand and Light"... six years have passed since the battle between Vash and Knives, and in all that time Meryl Stryfe has not seen or heard from Vash the Stampede. But one day the Bernardelli Insurance Agency receives a report of Vash-like damage -- a small town in the desert, utterly destroyed. Meryl goes to investigate, and, to her horror, comes face to face with Knives in the ruins of the town.

Beyond the rocky crags on the distant horizon, blue light pulsed, flaring against the sky in irregular bursts. Meryl Stryfe lay awake and watched it, unable to sleep.

I wonder what that could be, Meryl thought; and she wondered, too, if Vash were somehow involved.

Somewhere in this world, she thought, there's got to be some bizarre phenomenon that that man's not involved in. But I have yet to see it.

She rolled over on her elbow and looked across the embers of the dying fire at her travelling companion -- a companion she hadn't wanted, the last person in the world Meryl would ever have expected to find sharing the heat of her lonely campfire under the stars. He was curled on himself, and sometimes a small whimper escaped him. All she could see was a tangle of blond hair.

He reminded her so much of Vash, even now. And when she had seen him from the top of the rubble heap... she had felt that clutch at her heart only once before, when she'd first seen Vash walking back toward her after his fight with Knives at Demetery. Relief and joy so great it was almost pain...

Then to have him turn around and see those expressionless blue eyes looking at her, out of a face that should have been Vash's... it was like a nightmare she couldn't wake up from...

As her hands had gone for the derringers, Meryl had heard a click behind her.

She stopped with her hands under her cape.

"Get those hands out where I can see 'em, sister," said the high-pitched girl's voice behind her.

Meryl raised her hands, slowly, very slowly. "You don't know what you're doing," she said, never taking her eyes off Knives, who stared back at her without moving. "That man over there... I know it sounds melodramatic, but I'm not kidding you -- he is the greatest threat to humanity in the world. He wants to--"

"Shut up! All of you people believe the rumors and lies. All you know is the legend, not the man. No one knows the real Vash but me."

"Vash?" Meryl repeated, astounded. "You idiot! You think this guy is Vash the Stampede?"

"Get your hands back up! Yes, I know he's supposed to be dead. It's only a lie spread by his enemies."

"Listen to me... whoever you are," Meryl said, holding her hands as high above her head as she could. No telling what kind of trigger-happy moron is behind me... How do I get myself into these things...? "I'll be first to agree with you about Vash the Stampede... about him not being all bad, just like you said. But don't you have eyes -- that isn't him! That's not the same man! Can't you see that?"

"What's your name, lady?"

Meryl sighed and launched into the spiel. "I'm with the Bernardelli Insurance Society. My name is Meryl Stryfe and this is my ass--" She stopped herself just in time. This is my associate Milly Thompson, she'd been about to say.

" 'This is my ass'? I can see that, thanks..."

Meryl gritted her teeth. "As I was trying to say when I was interrupted, this is my ass -- my ass -- my assignment, you deluded idiot. I'm investigating this disaster, so just get out of my way so I can do my job."

"Do you know what happened to this town?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out! So get out of my way so I can do my job!"

"Turn around, but slowly. Slowly!"

Meryl did so.

The person behind her was as young as she had sounded. A wide-brimmed hat shaded her freckled face from the sun; her sweat-stained shirt, open almost down to her negligible breasts, revealed a sunburned, protruding collarbone. Her knobby wrists stuck out between the frayed sleeves of the shirt and a pair of leather work gloves gripping a rifle that had to be older than the girl herself.

"I know you," the girl said, her eyes widening.


"I know you. I thought that name sounded familiar. Meryl... I was young then, but I'll never forget the people who saved my sister's life."

"I'm sorry," Meryl said. "I don't remember you."

"You don't? I guess I look different now. I was really little. It was on the bus after the sand steamer had its accident. There were these weird metal monsters..."

Meryl's eyes opened wide. "That little girl!"

"You were friends with Vash the Stampede then... him, and his other friend, the one who helped rescue my sister. I don't know why you want to hurt him. If you've been out in this sun too long, we have water and food. I'm Lamia."

Meryl cast a fearful look over her shoulder at Knives. At least she assumed it was Knives. There couldn't be two people in this world who looked like Vash ... could there? He was still just standing there, watching her. How creepy can you get? Meryl thought.

"Look... Lamia. That guy over there. Where did you meet him?"

Lamia smiled. "See? We're getting along better already. I picked him up by the side of the road. He asked for my help... to come here."

Meryl's face darkened. She saw it all clearly now... If Vash could cause such great damage with his Angel Arm, then what sort of evil could Knives do...? "Then he destroyed this town, and everyone in it! Surely you saw him do it..."

A shadow crossed Lamia's face and she raised the gun again. "Look, you've definitely been out in the sun too long. We only got here yesterday, and everything was already like this. Vash would never do such a thing!"

Shows what you know, sister, Meryl thought grimly. The real Vash had destroyed at least two towns this completely... and Knives was worse, far worse...

But getting shot by this trigger-happy little ditz wasn't going to help her find out what was going on around here. Over the past few years, Meryl had finally learned to keep her (literally) hair-trigger temper under control -- most of the time. She'd gotten a well-deserved raise and several commendations by keeping herself cool in the roughest situations. So she put on her brightest, most cheerful sucking-up-to-the-boss smile, and said, "I... apologize if there's been any misunderstandings." Hopefully Lamia would not notice that the word 'apologize' emerged through clenched teeth. "We got off on the wrong foot. I must have mistaken this man for someone else."

"You must have, because Mr. Vash is a good man and wouldn't hurt anyone."

"Oh, yeah, r--" Meryl choked on her rebellious temper and resumed the smile. "I mean, right, you're absolutely right. What was I thinking?"

She offered them both lunch from her supply of sandwiches. They found a shady place to sit and eat, Knives following Lamia like a puppy when she beckoned.

What is going on here...?

Lamia finally put the gun to one side, but kept a hand near it. Meryl handed her a sandwich, and, more reluctantly, gave Knives one as well. Her skin crawled when his fingers brushed hers. The fingertips were shockingly cold to the touch, as if he wasn't even alive, but a walking cadavar.

"Thank you," he said, the first words he had spoken to her.

Knives just ... thanked me?

Meryl mumbled a polite reply. Sitting this close to him, she had to apply massive willpower to avoid looking at him -- not just out of fear for what he might be doing when she looked away, but also because she saw Vash in every line of his body, and her eyes were drawn back to that, again and again.

She had no idea why it even mattered. Of course she didn't want to see Vash again. Of course not. He was a silly, goofy moron who always left destruction in his wake... well, okay, so it wasn't always his fault, but she certainly didn't want to be around that all day long, it simply wasn't safe ... and the way he went after women, positively disgusting...

Meryl realized to her horror that if she didn't think about something else, she was going to burst into tears. Her desperate gaze found Lamia. The teenager had tilted her hat back on her freckled forehead. She'd finished her sandwich in record time -- so had Knives, Meryl noticed -- and was licking the crumbs off her fingers in a completely unladylike manner.

"You never said what you two are doing here," Meryl said, and winced inwardly as Lamia's face, briefly friendly, closed down again. She hadn't meant to sound so accusing.

"That's right," Lamia said. "You're an insurance agent, aren't you? Your kind are paid to snoop into people's lives."

Meryl bristled. "I do not snoop! I investigate claims to protect the rights of ordinary people ... that's all."

"Is that just what you tell people, or do you really believe that crap?"

Meryl found that one of her hands was reaching under her cape for a derringer and stopped herself. She's just a mouthy kid.

A mouthy kid who had somehow stumbled onto the single most dangerous person on the planet, and didn't have a clue. It was like watching an infant fumble with a lighter and a stick of dynamite.

Meryl didn't know how Knives had gotten away from Vash. She could only hope and pray that Vash even still lived. Six years ago, she had walked away from the responsibility that she should have shared, and left Vash to carry the burden of his brother alone. Now she saw the consequences of turning her back. God, Vash might be wounded or dead because of her selfishness!

As hard as she'd tried to escape it, somehow Fate had landed that burden right back on top of her. And this time, Meryl thought, choking down a bite of sandwich that seemed to have turned to sand in her mouth -- this time, I won't let anybody down. I won't be selfish and try to go back to my old life. I'll follow this through to the end, no matter what it costs me.

"So," she said. "Where are you headed?"

It wasn't easy to convince Lamia to let Meryl come with them. Lamia still seemed to consider her some kind of armed madwoman. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black... Meryl thought darkly. She finally convinced Lamia by asking if she'd rather have Meryl wandering around somewhere nearby, armed, than right at hand where Lamia could keep an eye on her. Lamia relented.

"If you try to take my guns away, though, I'll kill you."

Throughout the argument, Knives merely stood by, watching with those oddly expressionless blue eyes. Meryl had never seen Knives with his eyes open; she'd only seen him after the fight with Vash, when he was unconscious. The blue eyes made him look at once more like Vash, and less.

Eventually Lamia told Meryl that the two of them had come out to the site of the destroyed village at Knives' behest. (She still insisted on calling him Vash, and Meryl gave up protesting; it was a waste of breath.) She'd found him wandering beside the road, alone and starving. He wanted to come here, but he couldn't say why. He didn't seem to know why, Lamia said.

"He's using you! Can't you see that?"

Lamia set her chin in a stubborn slant that Meryl was quickly learning to hate. "If you can't stop insulting Mr. Vash, then we'll just leave you here. Honestly! What did Mr. Vash ever do to you, to make you hate him so much?"

Shall I make a list...? "This guy, this isn't Vash. He may look a little bit like Vash, but I don't care what he told you--"

"He didn't have to tell me," Lamia snapped. "I know who he is. I will never forget the faces of the men who saved my sister. I will help him as long as he needs help. I owe it to my sister's memory."

"She's dead?" Meryl asked, startled and saddened at the memory of that little girl. For a moment she thought Lamia meant Knives had killed her sister.

"She died in one of the fevers. You probably didn't even hear about them." Lamia's contemptuous gaze raked over Meryl, who suddenly felt very self-conscious of her expensive office clothes. Meryl responded as she usually did when she felt guilty about something -- by glowering -- and Lamia looked away.

After a few minutes she spoke again. "We were going to leave here yesterday, but Mr. Vash wanted to stay. He thought something important might happen here. I don't know if he could have possibly meant you, though."

Even saving the world isn't worth dealing with this pain in the butt... "So has 'Mr. Vash' decreed that it's time to leave now?" Meryl retorted nastily.

"Yes. He told me this morning that we should go to March City. Something important is going to happen there."

"As important as the something that didn't happen here?"

Lamia glared at her. "Look, the only reason I'm letting you come along is because it's either that or shoot you. I really don't want to shoot you, so don't make me."

"Whatever happened to you to make you such a little bitch?"

"Back at you, sister."

Meryl clenched her teeth. "So... how are you planning to get to March City? Wait for the bus? Or walk?"

"Neither," Lamia said, with a coy smile.

She had a car. It was as beat-up and ancient as the rifle, and to start it she had to crank a makeshift starter consisting mostly of a battery and a screwdriver, but it did start with a rumbling cough. Meryl wondered where a girl as poor as Lamia would get a thing like this. Even an old car like this one cost a fortune.

"Well?" Lamia demanded. "You waiting for a rich sugar daddy to come along and give you a ride, sister? Don't see one coming. How about you?"

Meryl tossed her luggage in the back. Lamia had to duck, or it would have hit her in the head.

"Let's go, sister," Meryl snapped.

They traveled through the desert for two days, and during this time, Meryl grew more and more confused about Knives. She couldn't imagine anyone who seemed less like a homicidal maniac than this skinny guy with the haunted eyes, who huddled in his cloak while they drove through the miles of rolling sand and rock. He looked, and acted, as if he was starving to death. He didn't complain about it -- he hardly spoke at all, in fact -- but wolfed down any food that they put in front of him. The first evening Meryl spent with them, Lamia was toasting bread over their campfire on a long stick. Knives grabbed it off the stick as soon as she took it away from the fire, like a greedy child.

"No!" Lamia snapped, slapping his hand. Knives recoiled, dropping the bread, looking impossibly Vash-like with his wide, hurt blue eyes.

Meryl froze in the act of lifting her sandwich to her mouth. Her heart turned to ice. That idiot HIT Knives? We're all going to die now...

But Knives just said, in a very small voice, "I'm sorry."

Meryl dropped her sandwich.

"How many times have I told you?" Lamia scolded with big-sisterly scorn. "Ask politely when you want something. Don't just grab it."

"I'm sorry, Lamia. May I have some bread, please?"

Meryl could have sworn her eyes were about to pop out of her head and roll across the ground.

WHAT did he just say?

"That's all right. I'm not mad." Lamia picked up the bread, brushed it off and gave it back to him. "You've just gotta be polite to people, okay?"

"I'm trying," Knives said. "There are so many things to remember."

Meryl, blinking rapidly, picked up her sandwich and took a bite without even noticing the sand clinging to it.

What the hell kind of game is he playing?

Over the next couple of days, she watched Knives in disbelief. He seemed fascinated by everything -- rocks, sky, clouds, cactus. When they weren't driving, they had to watch him every minute or he'd wander off to stare at another fascinating bit of scenery, clutching his cloak around himself while his blank blue eyes took in everything around him.

As spellbound as Lamia obviously was, surely she couldn't have failed to notice that Knives behaved rather differently from the Vash she'd met years ago. This man could hardly tie his own shoelaces.

Meryl tried to bring it up casually one day while Knives had wandered off to investigate a rock. "Doesn't he seem a little... odd... to you?"

"He's much better now than he was," Lamia replied brightly. "When I found him wandering along the road, he couldn't even talk. He only seemed to know a few words. He's picked it up again very quickly, don't you think?"

"Ah," Meryl said. But... come to think of it... Knives seemed more fluent now than he'd been just a couple of days ago, when she met him. Could his sentences be a little more complicated, a bit less childlike?

Impossible! No one was that good an actor.

"Something terrible happened to him. I don't know what. He doesn't even remember what it was, the poor man."

"The poor man," Meryl echoed faintly.

The bright flashes over the distant horizon flared one final time and then stopped, leaving a colorful stain, the visual equivalent of the ringing in one's ears after an explosion. Meryl blinked her eyes to clear them, and looked back at Knives' side of the campfire -- and froze. He was gone. She hadn't even heard him get up. The man moved so damn quietly.

Meryl got up with a sigh and unwrapped her blanket. She looked up at the slim figure silhouetted against the stars on a small rise above their camp, the rifle across her knees. Lamia hadn't been able to sleep, either.

Lamia looked up at Meryl's movement and reflexively raised the rifle. She lowered it when she recognized Meryl, but not all the way. Lamia still didn't trust her. With good reason, if her goal is protecting Knives, Meryl thought.

"How is Mr. Vash?" Lamia asked.

Meryl glanced behind her at Knives' vacated tangle of blankets and realized that from her vantage point, in the dim light, Lamia couldn't tell that Knives was no longer wrapped in them. "Asleep, I think," she said. "I seem to have a bit of insomnia. I think I'll take a walk. Don't shoot anything without making sure of what you're shooting at, okay?" Trigger-happy idiot...

Lamia snorted and went back to watching the now-dark horizon.

Meryl slung her cape around her, feeling the comforting weight of the derringers, and left the camp. She would have liked company, out here in the dark -- anyone but Lamia's company. Whatever Knives had done to the girl's brain, he'd done it thoroughly. Meryl had no doubt that Lamia would be on Knives' side in any conflict that might arise. Heck, that girl could probably watch him gun down Meryl in cold blood and then find some way to rationalize it to herself and make "Vash" come out looking like the good guy.

Meryl wasn't sure why she herself was looking for Knives, except possibly that she felt safer wandering around in the dark than lying by the campfire not knowing where he was or what he was up to. Morbid visions danced in her head -- Knives sneaking up behind Lamia and strangling her, Knives standing over her own sleeping body, holding Lamia's rifle...

Meryl shuddered.

No, if he wanted to kill us, he'd just kill us. He must have something in mind, and he needs us for part of it. Then he'll kill us.

In the meantime, Knives was doing such a good impression of a lost, confused amnesiac that he even had her halfway believing him sometimes. Even knowing what the man was like, what he'd put Vash through.

He's good. I'll admit that. He's very good.

No, I can't allow myself to be sidetracked. I'm not an ordinary person, I'm an agent of the Bernardelli Insurance Society, and I have a job to do!

She saw him as a slight movement in the darkness, the flick of a ragged cloak fluttering in the desert wind. He was sitting on top of a rocky outcrop, staring in the direction of the now-vanished flashes of light. He did not seem aware of her. Meryl approached him as quietly as she knew how, her shoes treading softly on the sand. Less than fifty feet separated them now.

Meryl felt the weight of the derringers bumping against her hips. Her hand stole to the butt of one of the guns. Even in the dark, such a shot would be easy for her. And it would all be over -- the fear, the running, the ever-present knowledge that the world was not safe as long as Knives was in it. The burden would be gone from Vash ... if Vash still lived.

And if Vash hated her for killing his brother ... then it would be her sin to bear. It would be worth the cost to herself, if she could free the world of this menace.

Meryl drew her gun.

Forty feet between them. Thirty.

She was close enough now that she could have made the shot with her eyes closed, depending only upon his soft, light breathing to guide her aim.

Surely he had to know she was there. It was some kind of trick, trying to draw her out only to kill her in some horribly slow and painful way. Maybe he was twisting her mind as he had twisted Lamia's. Meryl shuddered, her stomach clenching with the loathing that she felt for this man. She gripped the gun in both hands to stop their trembling.

One shot. One bullet.

Still he didn't move. Several strands of impossibly pale hair brushed his neck, blown by the wind. He sighed, and Meryl stiffened, but he only bowed his head lower to rest on his raised knees.

Meryl recognized, then, the soft halting sounds in his breathing: he was crying.

Faking. He's faking. It's all some kind of trick. It has to be.

This isn't Vash. This is Knives. Knives!

Meryl, damn you, this isn't Vash!

And even if it had been Vash... she still shouldn't have been sitting down next to him, and putting her hand on his shoulder...

"Are you all right?" Meryl asked, cursing herself for a fool.

Knives slowly raised his head and looked at her. His face glistened in the moonlight. "My head hurts."

"I -- uh, I have some aspirin, back at the camp." Actually they were PMS pills, but they worked on headaches too.

He almost smiled. "I don't think it would help, but thank you."

It's a trick. It's a trap. Everything you feel right now -- he's making you feel it!

Damn him...

Meryl rubbed his shoulder in what she halfway hoped was a comforting fashion. She could feel the bones through the skin.

"You don't like me, do you?" Knives said.

"I --" Meryl floundered.

"I don't know why." He looked down at his knees. "I can feel the hate coming from you, and I don't know why. Lamia doesn't feel that way, but the way she does feel, it's ... I don't know what to think of it. She admires me, it's -- I'd almost rather have the hate I feel from you."

Meryl didn't know what to say.

Knives rubbed at his forehead. "I just don't know what to do. The only thing I've ever known... is being confused and hurting ... it's like my brain is being torn apart. I just want it to stop." His eyes filled with tears. "I just want it to stop..."

Meryl wanted to scream at him: Stop it! Stop acting like Vash! Stop looking like Vash! Stop making me think about Vash!

Instead she let him fall against her, his tears soaking her shoulder. "Don't ... now see here, don't..." Meryl stammered, awkwardly trying to pat his back. Finally she gave up and put her arms around him, resting her face in his sweat-damp hair. He smelled warm and dusty -- as she imagined Vash might smell ... Meryl closed her eyes, amazed at the pain and longing that swept across her. She wanted the man in her arms to be Vash... with all her heart, with everything in her, she wanted it.

But he wasn't, no matter what Lamia believed. Vash was gone. Meryl had abandoned him to a responsibility that should have been hers to share, and she would never see him again.

Meryl buried her face in Knives' tousled blond hair, and added her tears to his.

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