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Sand and Light

Episode 20: Angel Arms




Six years after the end of the anime, Vash has been guarding his brother's unconscious body -- until Knives disappears into the desert. Now Vash's search for Knives has led him to November City where he finds Rem's last surviving relative, a son, Alex Saverem, who is now an old man. And then he gets the shock of his life -- Nicholas Wolfwood is alive.


Vash's breath stopped in his throat.

Black hair. Long black hair. Black jacket -- no crosses on the sleeves, he noted irrelevantly, insanely.

He watched, as if in slow motion, the other man's eyes come up -- slowly, slowly -- pause on Vash's red coat -- saw the eyes start to widen, saw that familiar gaze travel up the coat, over the gun arm, up to Vash's face --

Their eyes met, one pair turquoise as the ocean he'd never seen, the other clear blue-gray...

Alex Saverem, completely ignored by both men, straightened and brushed himself off. "So," he said. "I take it you two know each other."

But Vash couldn't move, couldn't take his eyes off Wolfwood.

"So I did..." Vash began hoarsely, and cleared his throat and went on, "So I did see you in March City."

Wolfwood looked startled. "You were there?"

"I was, I -- So... what -- what are you calling yourself these days?"

"Alex Daniels."

"Daniels... is that your middle name? Is that what the D stands for?"

"It's Daniel," Wolfwood admitted. "After my uncle."

"I never knew that. And Alex... for some reason I never even thought of looking for you under that name... Alex was the name I used, you know, when I..."

He trailed off. He couldn't breathe. Tears trickled freely from beneath his yellow sunglasses.

"I know," Wolfwood whispered. "I remember, Tongari. ... How'd you know I was using a pseudonym?"

"If you were using your real name, no matter where you went in this world, I would have found you."

Now Wolfwood looked stunned. "You looked for me?"

"Of course I looked for you! I -- Dammit -- Don't you know I can count my friends -- people who know who I really am, and still don't fear or hate me -- on the fingers of one hand? Do you think I'm not going to do everything in my power -- Even if it's beyond all logic or reason --"

"I'm sorry, Tongari," Wolfwood whispered.

Before he could stop himself or think about what he was doing, Vash crossed the room in two quick strides and hit him across the face as hard as he could. Alex Saverem jumped at the crack of flesh on flesh, bone on bone. Wolfwood was spun halfway around by the force of the blow.

"You bastard! Why didn't you let us know you were alive?"

Wolfwood raised his hand to his cheek, flexed his jaw to make sure nothing was broken. "Dammit, Tongari, that was uncalled for --"

"Uncalled for!" Vash looked around for something else to hit, but he couldn't exactly trash Alex Saverem's house, so he clenched his fist, feeling the throbbing begin around his knuckles. It hurt, but the pain was good. It gave him something to focus on. Something to believe in.

Alex Saverem peered curiously around Vash. "Who are you, boy, and what are you doing in my house?"

Wolfwood looked up, still rubbing his jaw. "Um. I'm Karen's son...."

Now it was Saverem's turn to look shocked -- and angry.

"My daughter and her children are dead. I don't know who you are, or how you found out --"

"I lived," Wolfwood said quickly. "I watched my brothers and sisters killed before my eyes, along with my parents. But I was hidden. They never saw me."

Alex Saverem studied his face; Vash watched them both. Somewhere in Wolfwood's eyes Saverem must have found the confirmation he sought, for he said softly, "Which of Karen's children are you?"

"Nicholas."

"All these years..." Alex Saverem breathed. "Why didn't you tell me...?"

Wolfwood smiled grimly, a little lopsided from the swelling in his jaw. "My uncle told me that you'd refused to have anything to do with me, because I killed the people who killed my parents. And after a while, I didn't want to see you, or anyone connected with my past. It was enough for me to move on."

"Daniel... You were with Daniel!"

"He stopped using that name a long time ago."

"I don't care what he called himself when he picked up the guns. He'll always be Daniel to me." Alex Saverem looked away. "He told me all Karen's children were dead..."

"Bastard," Wolfwood said between his teeth. "I'm not sorry he's dead. I'm glad I wasn't the one who killed him, though."

Alex Saverem, from the look on his face, was still trying to wrap his mind around the whole concept. He shook his head, and turned to Vash. "You look as if you need to sit down, young man."

"Sure," Vash said numbly, and sank into one of the chairs.

"My daughter," Saverem said, "may she rest in peace, used to say that nothing is solved on an empty stomach. I'll get us some tea and sandwiches."

"I'll help," Wolfwood said hastily, chasing him into the kitchen, still rubbing his jaw where Vash had hit him.

Vash was left alone in the living room. He wasn't sorry -- he wanted, needed, to be by himself for a few minutes. To think.

Wolfwood's alive.

We never found a body. There was no body.

But there was so much blood... how could he have survived? And where has he been all these years? Didn't he realize we'd want to know he was alive?

Fast on the heels of that thought came another one... Wait a minute. If Wolfwood is Alex Saverem's grandson...

...Alex is Rem's son...

...that means Wolfwood...

It was all too much. Vash hunched lower in the chair. He didn't want to deal with this, not on top of Legato coming back, on top of Knives missing, on top of the children's deaths and Angie's involvement... it was just too much.






"Put this there. No, not on top of that! How about the chair, maybe."

Wolfwood obeyed, helping his grandfather clean off a narrow section of counter for food preparation.

"So," Alex Saverem said conversationally, slicing pickles. "You're alive."

"Yeah," Wolfwood muttered, twisting a hunk of bread between his hands.

"Quit mauling the food. Looks like your friend out there didn't know that, either."

Wolfwood could still feel the ache in the side of his face where Vash had hit him. Vash had hit him! For a minute, he'd seen steel in Vash's eyes.

Sometimes I know why people are afraid of him, why he's called the Humanoid Typhoon. But ... he never used to be like that? Did he? Has it just been so long since I've seen him, or has he really changed, since I saw him last? There's something ... harder about him. Colder.

I guess he must have seen things, since I knew him. Lots of things. My death, and more. He killed Legato... at least that's what I heard, and that wasn't just another Typhoon rumor; there were eyewitnesses to it. Vash killed somebody! And he stopped Knives somehow...

It's crazy. As much as I used to want to slap him for the way he'd act, for always seeing the good in everybody, I guess I... I dunno... got used to him that way. It's strange to think that he might have changed.

It's strange to think of Vash being able to kill... and me refusing. Wolfwood half-smiled at the thought.

"Doubledollar for your thoughts," Saverem said.

"Hunh?"

"Inflation," Saverem added, and grinned. Wolfwood recognized that slightly crooked grin. He'd seen it in the mirror. It was rather creepy to see some of his own mannerisms reflected in another person. Is this what having family is like?

Since he seemed disinclined to answer, Saverem shrugged, and picked up a tray of sandwiches. "Get the teacups. Let's go feed your friend."

When they got back to the living room, though, Vash was fast asleep, huddled in the chair where they'd left him.

"Figures," Wolfwood muttered. "The big goof."

He didn't have the heart to wake him, though. Vash looked so... well, vulnerable sleeping like that, like an overgrown kid tired out after a long day. And he did look tired. His face was white and drawn, with dark smudges visible beneath the rims of his yellow sunglasses. Wolfwood felt a sudden surge of pity -- and guilt.

Wherever he's been for the last few years, it looks like it's been rough on him.

Saverem sat down at the desk and gestured for Wolfwood to get another chair. "Let him sleep. Looks like he could use it. So..." He stared at Wolfwood over the rim of his teacup. "What do you go by? Nick? Nicky?"

"Wolfwood, usually," he admitted. "Not many people use my first name."

"I refuse to call my grandson by his last name. Family has certain prerogatives, kid, and calling family members by their given names happens to be one of them. Nicholas it is."

"Why'd you bother asking, then?" Wolfwood demanded, taking a bite of a sandwich.

"Bit of a foul-tempered little bastard, aren't you," Saverem said. "I see you take after your father."

"My father?" He couldn't remember his father ever swearing or raising his voice. Of course, he had few memories of the man.

"Your father," Alex Saverem said thoughtfully, leaning back in his chair. He hadn't touched the food. His eyes gazed into the distance, into the past. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I loved that boy's grandmother, loved her like my own mother, but her grandson... ah. You've never met such an ill-mannered little brute in your life. It wasn't entirely his fault... his parents were dead, and Nadia'd done her best to raise him, but he got in with a bad crowd. He was a smart kid, and nice when he wasn't around his friends, but when they got together -- they raised hell around town, I'll tell you. When I caught Karen running around with that boy, I coulda disowned her. That's when I discovered that the girl had inherited my mother's steel backbone. I banned the kid from my house, so she just moved out."

Wolfwood tried to reconcile this with the mental image he had of his parents -- serene, gentle people. "What happened then?"

"What happens to everybody. Age mellows. Karen got a little wild for a while, but it wasn't really her, and when Steve saw that it had to be his rowdy friends or his girlfriend, he chose her. They bought some land outside of town and started a windplant farm. You were born on that farm."

Flames... smoke... the blackened rafters of the house where he'd lived all his life, stretching towards the sky like twisted fingers...

"I remember the farm," Wolfwood said.

"Thought you might. You weren't that young."

Near the door, Vash moaned and stirred in his sleep. "Augh... donuts... giant donuts... attacking..."

Alex Saverem looked over at him. "Probably ought to wake him up and let him eat."

"He could use it," Wolfwood said. "Skinny bastard, but I've never seen anybody eat like he does." He got up and went over, a trifle reluctantly, and laid his hand on Vash's shoulder, shook him gently. "Hey, Tongari --"

Vash snapped awake and the gun arm came up, unfolding, to press against Wolfwood's throat. An instant later, Vash saw who it was, and the gun folded away. "Sorry," he said.

"Don't worry about it," Wolfwood managed, through a suddenly dry throat. He'd been a heartbeat from being blown away -- by Vash! What had happened to Tongari to change him like this?

"We have food," Alex Saverem said.

"Donuts?" Vash asked hopefully.

"No... but there's a nice little shop down the street. I'll point it out when you leave."

"Oh. Thanks." Vash tucked into the sandwiches as if he hadn't eaten in weeks. Well, Wolfwood thought, maybe he hadn't.

"So what have you been up to lately, Tongari?" he asked.

He knew it was the wrong thing to say when Vash glared at him.

"I still haven't figured out if I'm going to forgive you for not being dead."

"Well, excuse me all to hell! If I'd known you were going to be that way about it, I would've bled to death just for you, Tongari."

"Boys, boys," Alex Saverem said.

"He's hardly a boy," Wolfwood said. "He's older than you, even if he doesn't look like it."

"What do you mean?" Saverem asked, looking at Vash curiously.

Vash glared again. "I was getting to that!"

"There's obviously a lot of explaining that needs to be done here," Saverem said. "Which one of you wants to go first?"

"Him," they said simultaneously, and then both of them glared at each other.

"Actually," Vash said after a moment, relenting, "unless your news involves a serial killer attempting to track you down, I'd better talk first because my story's sort of pressing. Although knowing you, I wouldn't be surprised if it does."

"Knowing you, Tongari, I'm not a bit surprised that yours does."

"Let Vash talk," Alex Saverem said. "We'll get to you, Nicholas."

Vash hesitated as attention in the room turned to him, and Wolfwood was a bit gratified to see that in spite of his harder edge, he still got bashful as a kid when everyone was looking at him.

"To begin with," he said, staring at the floor and speaking mostly to Alex Saverem, "I'm a Plant."

Wolfwood already knew that, but it was still startling hearing him say it.

"How is that possible?" Saverem said quietly. "I never saw a Plant that could walk as a man."

"I don't know. I only know that I'm here, and I am what I am. And my brother is what he is. Your mother raised us both on the ships..."

He told the story haltingly, in few words: how Knives had caused the crash that killed Rem and stranded humankind on this desert world, how he'd wandered in search of Knives, and found him, only to lose him again. The events at the Bad Lads' hideout, and Tony's mysterious powers that resembled Legato's -- Vash had to backtrack here and explain to Saverem who Legato was. Lucas's death, and Angie's revenge. Wolfwood flinched at this, remembering the sorrow in Angie's face.

"And now Tony is looking for you, Alex, if he lives -- and we've no reason to believe that he's dead. If Legato can come back from the dead, then..."

"How do you know that this guy's Legato?" Wolfwood challenged.

Vash turned on him, his eyes the knife-sharp outlaw's eyes. "You weren't there. I saw what he could do. No one but Legato has those abilities. Besides, he answered to the name... at least when he wasn't claiming to be Tony Blanchard."

"Look, before you met Legato, you would have said, ';No one has those powers.' Who knows, maybe Legato's not the only one that Knives warped in that way."

"I don't know," Vash said. "I don't know. Anyway, Alex, Tony is looking for the Genesis Machine, something that you apparently built."

Alex Saverem turned white. "The Genesis Machine... I haven't thought of it in so many years."

"Genesis Machine?" Wolfwood said. "What's that?"

Saverem shook his head. "I ... have to think. What to tell you. How best to tell you... particularly you, Vash. Nicholas, why don't you tell your story. I need to think."

Vash continued staring at him, but finally turned to Wolfwood. "I want to hear this too. All of it."

It hurt, to have Vash acting so cold towards him. He hadn't thought it would, but it did. Wolfwood wondered if what had gone wrong between them could ever be made right.

Maybe it could if you hadn't run for six years, nitwit. Well, time to face the music.

"It's not a long story," he said. "Nothing like Tonga-- like Vash's. I guess I'll start from the beginning, too -- my family was wiped out by gunmen when I was a little kid. You know that, grandfather. I later..." He drew a deep breath. "With my uncle's help, I tracked them down and killed them. I was seven. I still don't know why --"

He broke off at an intake of breath from Vash, and looked over at him. Vash was looking at him with the oddest expression -- a sort of the-pieces-are-coming-together look.

"Got a question, Tongari?"

Vash waved a hand, still with that strange look on his face. "No... no. Go on."

"Anyway... the woman that Vash mentioned, Angie -- Angelina -- saved me from the people who killed my parents. She lived with us and later became my uncle's girlfriend. Lucas... a cousin I barely had a chance to know... anyway, it's over now." He shook his head to clear it. "I worked for the same people who employed my uncle Chap -- Daniel. The people Vash was telling you about, grandfather. Legato and Knives. In the end, I betrayed them. They... wanted me to kill Vash. I wouldn't."

He was aware of Vash listening intently, and realized that Vash probably had never known what really happened, that day six years ago.

"I fought with my uncle Daniel, and won. It was the first time I ever managed to beat him. He could have killed me, but he didn't. But Legato..." He paused before he could make himself continue. The memories were still fresh and sharp, even after all these years. "Legato took control of my uncle's body and forced him to shoot me in the back. I told Vash where to find Knives... and I left... expecting to die.

"But Angie found me. Uncle Daniel had told her about the fight with me, she later said. Daniel thought he'd killed me, so she went looking for my body... but I was still alive. Angie had a vehicle... a flying machine. She and Daniel used it to travel with the Gung-Ho Guns... Legato's gang. It's tough to describe. I don't remember it very well... I was hardly conscious at the time. But that vehicle can cross in minutes distances that would take a man on foot hours. She took me out into the desert, to a crashed ship she knew about. There, she used lost technology to save my life. She stayed with me for a few days, but one morning I woke and she was gone. I couldn't find her anywhere, and I didn't want to stay in the ship, so I wound up walking out. Almost died in the desert. I was just lucky that two prospectors found me and took me to the nearest town. When they asked what my name was... I just made one up. Alex Daniels."

Now he was avoiding Vash's still-intent gaze. "When I was strong enough, I tried to find out what had happened after I disappeared. I learned that Legato was dead and, according to the rumors, so was Vash the Stampede. I figured it wasn't true... I couldn't see Tongari dying that easy. But there was nothing I could do to help any more. So I just ... wandered. I only know two ways to make a living -- killing people, and preaching. One I wouldn't do any more, and the other... I didn't feel I had any right. So I got odd jobs and lived the life of Alex Daniels, migrant worker. Until I met a girl named Sand, who is a Plant..."

He went on telling them about Sand, feeling the words come easier now. He still couldn't bring himself to meet Vash's eyes. No matter what he saw there -- anger, condemnation, forgiveness, pity -- he didn't think he could handle it.

"So you brought her to me, hoping I could help her," Alex Saverem said.

"Yes. But I didn't know Tongari was going to be here. I guess he might be able to help her better than you can..."

He risked a glance at Vash's face, and saw that it was expressionless. He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.

"I don't know," Vash said. "I... don't know what's going on with the Plants lately. The one in March City overloaded and killed at least one of the townspeople before dying. The rest of them are upset and agitated, and now the one here won't talk to me. I don't know if I'll be any more helpful to Sand than anybody else."

"It sounds like she's in a bad way, though," Saverem said.

Wolfwood nodded. "She hardly eats or sleeps. She's so tired that she'll nod off sitting on the back of my bike, but then at night I'll wake up and see her staring at the stars, wide awake. This morning..." He hesitated, unsure if it was a betrayal of Sand to tell them about this. But, dammit, she was sick! "I saw her talking to herself. She acted sunstruck, but we hadn't even been out in the sun all day. When I went up to her, she didn't seem to know what she was doing there."

"Is this some sickness you recognize?" Saverem asked Vash.

Vash shook his head. "But then understand, Knives and I are the only ones like ourselves that I've ever met. The thought that there's someone else like me -- it's incredible. I've never had anything like that happen, but it doesn't mean anything. Maybe I've just never caught that particular germ."

"Could we go see her tonight?" Saverem asked Wolfwood. "You seem quite worried."

"I wouldn't mind. I left her at one of the hotels in town. When I left ... it was like she thought she was saying goodbye to me forever. She might be sicker than she looks."

The old man set his teacup aside and rose. "Let's go, then!"

They headed out the door. At Vash's quiet reminder, Alex Saverem locked the door behind them. It wasn't until they were on the street, heading towards the hotel, that an odd thought crossed Wolfwood's mind -- Alex had deflected the conversation neatly, and had not brought up the subject of the Genesis Machine again.






Pounding on her door woke Angie out of a light, restless sleep.

"Ugh. Coming, coming." A glance out the window told her that it was the middle of the night. She pulled on some clothes and staggered over to the door. "Vash, is that you?"

But it wasn't -- it was Hikari. He looked tousled and anxious. "Angie, hi. Sorry to wake you up. Did you check on Sand like I asked you to?"

Angie nodded. "I just looked in and she was asleep, so I didn't bother her. Why, what's wrong? Has she gotten sicker?"

"No," Wolfwood said. "She's gone. She'd stuffed a pillow under her blanket so it would look like she was in the bed. Did you actually see her, or just look in from the door?"

"From the door." Angie's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, Hikari! You don't think she's wandering around somewhere, delirious..."

"If she's delirious, why'd she take the trouble to make it look like she was still here? Doesn't sound like a delirious person to me. Vash and my grandfather are downstairs --"

"Oh, you found him! And you've met Vash! Isn't he a nice person? Just a minute, let me get my shoes on."

She followed him downstairs. When they entered the lobby, Alex Saverem was speaking softly to Vash in the corner. Angie stopped short at the look on Vash's face -- he was chalk white, his blue-green eyes standing out like marbles against the pale skin. Glancing sideways at Wolfwood, she saw that he'd noticed it too.

Saverem looked up and stopped speaking when he saw them. Vash smiled, but it was a slightly strained smile. "Hi, Angie. This is Alex Saverem."

"Nice to meet you," Angie said, but she kept looking at Vash, and wondered what they'd been talking about.

Wolfwood explained the situation briefly to Vash and Alex Saverem.

Alex Saverem offered to help them look for her. "I have a car. It'll be faster than walking."

"Why don't Vash and I get the flyer?" Angie offered. "We'll be able to cover even more ground in that."

So the four of them went out into the dark night, Wolfwood went with his grandfather, somewhat reluctantly, and Angie with Vash.

The two of them walked out of town -- just the two of them, as they had walked in, but Angie sensed that the situation was going to change. Regardless of what happened to their little group, she knew that her solo days of traveling with Vash were over, and she found that she regretted it.

"You know him," she said, finally, searching for some conversation topic.

"Hmm? Who?"

"Hikari. Wolfwood. You know him."

"What makes you say that?" Vash said, a bit too quickly.

Angie hesitated, thinking. "It's just... the way you two interact. You don't act like strangers. Granted, you don't exactly act like friends... but I can tell you know him."

"Yes," Vash said shortly. "I did, once."

He didn't seem to want to elaborate, so Angie walked in silence.

They wandered around in the dark for some time before locating the rock pile where they'd stashed the flyer. Angie felt oddly safer, more right, once they were off the ground and aloft. At least this way, they could outrun anything that tried to attack them.

Vash leaned his elbows on the steering console, and gazed off at the distant glimmer of dawn on the horizon, the wind whipping his spiky hair. Angie wondered what he was thinking about, what strange and painful past he and Hikari shared. But it wasn't her place to ask.

Finally Vash said, "I think I know how to defeat Tony."

"Huh?" Tony was, for once, the farthest thing from Angie's mind.

Vash turned to look at her. His face had settled into a cool, distant mask, and she found herself thinking that maybe he could be the legendary outlaw, after all.

"Did you notice him hesitate?" Vash said. "In the cave, when he was talking to us about Nadia. He actually stuttered. I saw the same thing before, on top of that mountain. Both times, he was talking about his former life -- about Nadia, about the ship."

"I didn't notice it," Angie said. "I wasn't... paying attention to that. But now that you mention it..." She frowned. "He would get pretty spacy whenever he'd talk about her. Which wasn't often. I don't know, I just thought it was a difficult subject for him to talk about."

"Yet his whole life's been obsessed with her, as far as I can tell," Vash said. "Is that recent, that hesitation? Or has he always been like that?"

"I don't know. I think it's recent, but I was so young, before. I really don't remember." Angie stared at him, head cocked on one side. "What are you thinking?"

"Just that... I've told you before that Tony reminds me of someone I once knew. Someone I thought was dead. Now I'm starting to wonder. It's almost like... he's two people in one body. Sometimes he's pretty clearly Tony. At least he claims to be Tony. His reactions are different. His movements are different. And then sometimes..." Vash trailed off.

"What are you getting at? You think he has a split personality, or something?"

" ';Or something' is probably more like it. I really don't know. I do think that the hesitation's real, though. Sometimes he actually confuses himself about who he is. I think the way to cripple him is to capitalize on that confusion. Make it worse. It's a horrible thing to do to someone..."

Angie gave him a disbelieving stare, thinking he was joking, but he appeared to be perfectly serious. You're ... something else again, Vash. After all we've been through, after all you've seen Tony do, you still don't like the thought of hurting him, let alone killing him.

But that's all right. You don't have to. I'll do it myself if we ever run into him again.

"It's a thought," Vash said, shrugging.

"If he can really... control people's movements, then it may be all we have," Angie said. "Is that what we should do, then? Try to get him talking about Nadia?"

"It's when he shifts gears between his life now, and his previous life on the ship. I suspect the trick is to get him to think about both at the same time."

He lapsed into silence and so did Angie, thinking about what he'd told her.

In silence, they canvassed the area in the pre-dawn sunshine and eventually ran into Wolfwood and Alex Saverem. The two of them were in a beat-up old Jeep.

"So we just look until we find her," Saverem said. "She's a sick kid -- she couldn't have gone too far, eh?"

Wolfwood looked unconvinced, and, Angie thought, so did Vash.

"That's right," she said. "Until we find her."






"Doubledollar for your thoughts," Saverem said.

Wolfwood rested his head in his hands. The melodramatic gesture was hard to pull off in the jolting Jeep, but he tried. "Would you quit saying that?"

"Sorry." His grandfather stared out at the horizon. "So... you care a lot about this girl, huh?"

Wolfwood shrugged. "I dunno. She's tough not to like. She tries so hard. I don't know."

"And that man, too."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Wolfwood snapped, staring out at the landscape. His long hair whipped behind him, tangling in the wind.

"Vash. You're hurt by what you see as his refusal to forgive you."

"By what I see as -- okay, old man. I'd rather ride with Vash than with you. Hell, I'd rather ride with Knives. Pull over right now."

Alex Saverem did no such thing. "I know it's hard for you to get along with people, but I can be as stubborn as you can, kid."

Wolfwood started to make an angry retort, then sighed and leaned his elbow on the rim of the Jeep's door. "Look. I haven't meant to be a bastard with you. I'm perfectly polite to most people. I don't know what it is about you -- and Vash -- that brings out the jerk in me. It's like things pop into my head and I just ... say them."

Alex Saverem gave him a look, at once startled and understanding. "That's called having family, boy. That's how you treat family."

"What -- you behave like an asshole towards them? No wonder this world is so screwed up."

"You really have no idea," Saverem said thoughtfully, looking back at the rough road. "You've never experienced it, have you?"

"I had Uncle Chapel."

"Somehow," Saverem said dryly, "I doubt if your relationship with Daniel could be described in strictly family-oriented terms."

"You seem like a nice guy," Wolfwood said. "How the heck did you raise such a total jerk, anyway?"

Saverem smiled, soft and sad. "That just shows, yet again, how little you understand about family, Nicholas. You don't shape your children, no matter what anyone says. You try... and then they go and do their own thing, and you wonder why. For a long time, I blamed myself for Daniel's actions, until I realized that I did everything I could. He was who he was."

I only know that I'm here, and I am what I am, Vash had said.

Wolfwood sighed deeply and wondered why his thoughts kept slipping back to Vash, in spite of his efforts to keep his mind on Sand's predicament.

He was distracted by the flyer drifting out of the west and hovering beside the Jeep. Angie was flying it, with Vash sitting on the back. "We found her!" Angie cried triumphantly.

"You did?" Wolfwood said, half standing up in the Jeep. "So why isn't she with you?"

"You'd better come," Vash said.

The dark tone of his voice sent a chill through Wolfwood. "Is she all right?"

"She... won't talk to us," Vash said. "She's walking, though. We think she might listen to you."

Vash and Saverem, in the Jeep, followed the flyer out into the open desert. Finally, around midday, they caught up to her -- a child, alone, her tiny figure dwarfed by the mountains rising in the distance. The heat-shimmers distorted her small figure and made her seem insubstantial as glass, as if they could see the desert right through her body.

Alex Saverem pulled the jeep alongside her. Sand trudged along, her head bowed, her hair whipping across her face in the hot wind. She ignored them.

Wolfwood leaned across Alex, who gave him a look of annoyance. "Hey, little lady -- want a ride?"

Sand didn't look up.

"Stop the car," Vash said quietly to Alex, who did.

When the rumble of the engine died, the only sounds were the soft chuff-chuffing of Sand's steady footsteps as she kept walking, slogging through the loose sand, drawing farther away from them. The flyer settled gently to the desert floor and Vash and Angie got off, as Wolfwood and Alex Saverem climbed out of the Jeep. They all started walking after her.

"Hey," Wolfwood said softly. "Hey, Sand."

Finally she stopped and turned around. He was shocked when he saw her face. Had it been this gaunt, this haggard, when he last saw her in November City? It was like a skull with skin drawn tightly across the bones. Her eyes burned from shadowed sockets, strangely bright, glittering in the sun with a heat like fever or fire.

"What are you doing, following me?" she demanded. Her voice rasped in her throat; from the sound of it, she'd had no water throughout the blazing desert morning. "Why can't you take a hint?"

"Hint? What hint? You just disappeared. For all I knew, something horrible had happened to you."

For a moment, a flicker of something passed across her sunken eyes... some softer emotion, gone and buried in an instant. Then her face twisted as if with pain, and when she spoke again her voice was harsher, deeper -- like a stranger's voice. "If you don't get out of here, something horrible is going to happen to you, Alex... and I don't want that."

Wolfwood took a step backward... and that was when he noticed something strange. Sand had always been shorter than him, hadn't she? A lot shorter. But now, he didn't even have to bend his neck to look into her eyes.

Her strange, angry eyes.

A warning bell began to go off, deep in his brain.

"I said go away," Sand said, bowing her head. Her wild blond hair fell across her face, hiding it, and she began to shiver, wrapping her thin arms around herself. Wolfwood moved to touch her shoulder and she screamed, "Go away!"

"Sand?" Angie said, from behind Wolfwood. "Sand, honey, remember me? We want to help you."

Wolfwood rested his hand on Sand's arm -- and then recoiled with a sharp cry of astonishment and pain. Her skin was burning hot; it was like touching a furnace.

"Wolfwood? What's wrong?" he heard Vash say.

Wolfwood ignored him. "Sand... you're sick, kiddo. You're really sick. Come on, we're going to take you somewhere we can help you."

"I don't need help."

That voice... it came from Sand's lips, it had to, though her face was still bowed and hidden. But it wasn't a girl's voice. It wasn't a child's voice.

"Sand?" Wolfwood whispered.

Sand raised her head slowly. The wind whipped the hair away from her face. Her eyes were blank holes in her head, filled with blue flame, and her skeletal face was twisted into a horrible grin.

Wolfwood took a step backward, and then, as she moved towards him, another step. The features were the same... it was Sand, it had to be... but the way she stood, the way she moved... some deep part of his brain was screaming You've seen this person before, you know who this is, you just won't admit it...

"You betrayed me," Sand said, in that horribly familiar adult's voice, and laughed, the soft chuckle of a madman.

Wolfwood took another step backward, and another, staring into her glowing eyes, mesmerized like a mouse in front of a snake.

"Wolfwood!" A hand seized his shoulder and wrenched him away from Sand so violently it felt like it nearly dislocated the bones. His feet actually left the ground, and he fell in a heap on the rocks and got a mouthful of gravel. Only one person was that strong... Wolfwood pushed himself up on his elbows, wincing, and saw Vash standing between himself and Sand. He realized with a shock that Sand was almost as tall as Vash now.

"You," Vash said quietly. "This is where you went."

Sand was still grinning. "Did you miss me that much?"

Wolfwood jumped at a sudden, soft touch on his arm. He looked up into Angie's worried face. Alex was behind her.

"What's going on?" Angie whispered. "Is she all right?"

No, Wolfwood wanted to say, she's not all right, she's somehow channeling a madman who's out to destroy the entire human race. But he didn't know how to explain to them; he couldn't even begin to explain to himself. He had no idea why he believed it, except that he trusted his senses, and his senses were telling him something that his common sense couldn't rationalize.

Somehow, beyond all comprehension, Sand was Knives.






"You," Vash whispered.

"Me," Knives said, in Sand's soft, feminine voice, and grinned like a madman, Sand's lips curling back from small white teeth.

"This isn't possible," Vash whispered.

"What's wrong? Don't you know your own brother?" Sand's head tilted back in laughter -- Knives' laugh.

"How -- how did you do this? How did you take over this girl?"

Knives was still grinning broadly. "There is no girl. There is only a body... a body for me."

"There is a girl," Vash insisted. "What mind controls this body?"

"Mine," Knives said.

"Wolfwood said --"

"Wolfwood! You trust that traitor, do you? He'll get what's coming to him..."

"Stay away from my friends," Vash snarled. "Tell me what's going on, Knives. Tell me who this girl is."

"What do you mean, ';who?' You act as if this body can move independently, think independently. This body was made, brother -- made just for me."

"What?" Vash said.

Knives shrugged, with Sand's shoulders. "When you came to me in Demetery, I'd already understood that I might not win that fight. If I didn't, there had to be a Plan B. I've always been the cautious one, haven't I?"

"So -- so this girl is --"

"I had a laboratory," Knives said. "I had human technicians, totally under my control. Or so I thought. And I had Plant material... and I began to grow new bodies. But you came upon me too soon. The process was not done. When you attacked me, defeated me, I tried to flee into those new bodies. But the backlash of power was too great. It destroyed most of them."

"You killed -- you killed children -- of our kind --"

"There were no children! Don't be ridiculous! Only genetic material designed to create a host for me. But one was developed enough to survive. The explosion killed all of the technicians except two women -- and those women took the surviving child and fled into the desert with her."

"Sand..." Vash whispered.

"There is no Sand! What you call Sand was manufactured in a laboratory. I've had some difficulty finding my way around this new brain, and fighting my way past the spontaneously-generated electrical impulses of this new brain --"

"What you call electrical impulses is a personality called Sand. A good person. She grew up in the desert. She has a right to survive."

"There is no Sand! Look at me, Brother! Tell me you see this ';Sand' when you look in my eyes."

Vash met those awful, glowing blue eyes. Then Knives took his hand from under Sand's cloak, and Vash saw what he held.

The situation had just gotten worse.

"I do not need this to do what I must do," Knives whispered, holding the silver gun that had been Vash's. "But with this -- I have control. I am no longer at the mercy of the power we possess -- I control it totally. See... see what I can do, in this new, young, powerful body... see what you could be, brother.

"See what happens," Knives whispered in Sand's voice. "See what happens to those who betray me."

He raised his hand, with the gun in it, and the gun melted like butter, and blue light surged from his hand. Energy crackled around his hand. It was the Angel Arm -- and yet it wasn't, for he was more fully in control of that destructive energy than Vash had ever been. And Knives lowered the arm, and in its target --

Wolfwood. Angie. Alex Saverem.

The light rolled across them. Vash had brief moments of horror -- Angie trying to shield Wolfwood with her own body, though it was hopeless... Alex Saverem kneeling, preparing to meet his fate in silence...

Then their bodies dissolved in flames.

Vash screamed incoherently. Without knowing how it happened, he found himself with his mechanical hand was gripping Sand's throat, lifting her off the ground. His other arm rippled with light around its edges, thrust up under her chin.

Sand's small lips just smiled at him with Knives' superior smile.

One part of his mind was screaming at him: There's a child in there! An innocent child! Don't hurt her!

Another part screamed: If you'd killed Knives six years ago, none of this would have happened! Angie! Alex! Wolfwood -- dead again because of you!

"You won't hurt me, brother. We are one."

"I will never be one with you!" Vash screamed.

Knives wrenched his new, smaller body free, and together the two of them tumbled down a short, rocky slope and plowed into the sand at the bottom. Knives struggled free first, and fell onto Vash's chest. Blue light still crackled around the Angel Arm.

"Take that back!" he cried. "We're brothers! You can't deny it!"

"No," Vash gasped. "I will never accept that. I am not like you!"

"We are one!" Knives screamed, his lighter girls' voice slipping into a falsetto. "We need no one else!"

"I don't need you!" Vash shouted. "Down through the years, you've destroyed everything that ever meant anything to me! How could I believe you'd change? I never want to see you again!"

Knives gasped in anger, in pain. He brought Sand's small hand to press against Vash's face. Sparks crackled around the fingers.

"Take that back!"

"Never!" Vash cried. "I wanted to love you -- I tried, God, Knives, I tried! For Rem! For you! For myself! But I can't! There is nothing in you to love!"

Knives cried out, and blue light flared across the knuckles of Sand's hand -- crackled in Vash's hair, on his skin, in his clothes.

Vash screamed with the pain of the flash burns -- down his side, down his face.

Tears ran down Sand's cheeks. "I assure you, brother, this hurts me more than it hurts you," Knives said in Sand's agonized voice. "Sometimes one has no choice but to punish... you'll be grateful to me someday, just as you'll be grateful to me for wiping out the last of Rem's children, and ending the travesty that she has created on this world."

"Never," Vash gasped through gritted teeth. "Burn me all you like -- kill me if you want -- you are no kin of mine, Knives!"

Knives shrieked in rage -- and was there hurt also? Betrayal? Then a last bolt of agony blazed across Vash's scalp, and he passed out.






Blue light. Shock. Heat.

Death.

No....

Wolfwood had seen the Angel Arm in action before. He'd seen it blow a hole in the moon. He never thought he'd see it up close -- and survive.

Yet here he was, lying on his back, with Angie on top of him.

"Angie?" Wolfwood murmured.

For a moment he was terrified that she was dead -- but then her brown lashes flickered. "Hikari?" she murmured.

"Angie! You okay?"

"My skin stings a little. That's it, I think."

There is no way, Wolfwood thought. This has got to be some kind of weird afterlife. Ouch... make that some kind of afterlife with a rock digging into my ass. There's no way we could have survived that.

Angie sat up slowly, and so did he, as she got her weight off him. And stared.

Around him and Angie, there was a perfect semicircle of untouched sand and rocks. In every direction, the rocks were black and churned as if tossed and torn by a giant hand.

Alex Saverem's blackened body lay among the rocks.

There was no question of him being alive. There was barely enough left to identify the body.

Yet we're alive... why?

Wolfwood became aware of voices, shouting down the hill. "Hang on," he murmured to Angie, and crept to the edge.

He saw Vash, lying on his back -- and Sand crouching on top of him with blue light flaring around her hands.

No. Not Sand, he reminded himself. Knives.

God... it looked like she was burning Vash to death.

If he'd had a gun, he would have just shot her -- whether or not he was a pacifist now, whether or not she was a child, or a friend. Wolfwood understood, as Vash didn't, that Knives was far too dangerous to live. As long as he was in this world, people would continue to die. People like Alex Saverem...

Vash appeared to be unconscious, but still Sand kept blasting him, her eyes wide and glowing blue. Vash's hair was smoldering.

Knives is going to kill him this time, really going to kill him. Whatever it was that Tongari said to him, it looks like he's lost it...

Wolfwood ran down the hill and tackled the child's body from behind.

They rolled over and over together on the rocks. Wolfwood gasped with the pain of flashback from the fires still flaring around her body. He expected to be engulfed in flames, but nothing happened. They broke apart and Sand rolled away, crouching, staring at him with those glowing blue eyes that contained not a trace of humanity.

And suddenly Wolfwood understood how he'd survived the fire that killed Angie and Alex; why he was still alive, even now, face to face with a madman who should have been able to destroy him with a touch.

Sand.

Knives appeared to come to the same understanding.

"That little bitch! She won't let me kill you! You -- the last child of Rem --"

"Bite me," Wolfwood snapped.

"Bastard," Knives snarled, the word ugly on Sand's pert, pretty mouth. "Traitor. If she won't let me kill you directly -- then Legato can do it for me. I know where you are now."

He scrambled up the hill. "Hey!" Wolfwood yelled, running after.

He got to the top to find Knives with Angie's arm gripped in his.

"Now then," he said to her. "You're going to fly me out of here. I don't have time to figure out that machine on my own. Got that?"

Wolfwood stared at Angie. And Angie, who'd spent a lifetime bowing her head and surviving, simply nodded.

Survival.

Knives half-led, half-dragged Angie to the flyer. The two of them climbed onto it, and Angie took the controls, staring down.

"Angie!" Wolfwood yelled.

There was no response. The flyer rose into the air and sped off into the distance.

Wolfwood, stunned, stared at the place where they'd vanished. Then he drew a deep breath.

Tongari...

He scrambled back down the hill.

Vash hadn't moved. He lay still as the dead, and Wolfwood had to feel for a pulse to make sure that he was really alive. When he turned Vash's head and saw the extent of the damage, he sucked in his breath.

"Shit, Tongari..."

Vash's hair was burned away in clumps, and the skin beneath ranged from an angry red like a bad sunburn, to blisters and charred whitish patches. Parts of his clothing were burned away, the red coat completely ruined. The most chilling aspect of the damage was that it had been deliberately inflicted to cause pain. At least the attack against himself, Angie and Alex, while callous, had not been sadistic like this.

"When I catch up to that bastard, I swear I'm going to kill him. Sand or not."

The pain of his own burns was catching up to him, and his head swam in the heat of the sun. He dragged Vash into the shade of some rocks, trying to be careful not to hurt him further, and limped over to the Jeep to see what had survived the fire.

His dismay grew with each step towards the blackened, still-smoking skeleton of the vehicle. The Jeep was gone beyond repair, along with anything Angie and Alex had been carrying. All they had left was the small canteen Wolfwood carried at his hip, the knife in his leg sheath, and whatever Vash might have.

"Knives may as well not bother sending Legato," Wolfwood murmured. "We'll be dead soon anyway."

Small scavenger lizards were drifting around Alex's body, drawn by the smell of burned meat but still repelled by the scent of fire. Wolfwood threw rocks at them and chased them away.

I can't save anyone, not even myself.

He needed to bury his grandfather, but his first duty was to the living. He returned to the little pool of shade under the rocks, half-afraid that Vash might have died in his absence, but his friend was still breathing shallowly.

I know you're hard to kill, Tongari. You've proven it time and again. Now you need to prove it one more time, okay?

The worst dangers with burns, he knew, were dehydration and infection. And, let's see, they were in the middle of the desert with almost no water and nothing sterile to use for bandages. Beyond that, he didn't have a clue how to even begin applying first aid. The only burn victims he could remember were some homeless children who'd been burned in a warehouse fire while he was living at the orphanage. Some of the worst-injured had screamed for days before dying...

But others had survived, he recalled, helped by wet cloths, bedrest, painkillers and lots of liquids. He had none of those.

He took off his shirt and tore it into strips, using his knife for assistance when his burned hands were unable to part the fabric. At least the bandages, if not sterile, would help prevent water loss through the burned areas and contamination by sand and dust. He only bandaged the worst wounds, but ran out of shirt strips anyway and had to ease off Vash's coat and use some pieces of that, too.

After tending Vash's wounds, he turned to himself. His burns were not that bad, mostly on his forearms which appeared to have taken the brunt of Knives' instinctive backlash when Wolfwood had tackled him. He bandaged himself from some of the remaining strips of Vash's coat.

His long hair was a worse casualty than his flesh. Patches of it had been burned away, leaving a ragged mess that hung almost to his waist in places and was burned down to his scalp in others. He hacked at what was left with his knife until he'd gotten rid of most of the scorched places and no longer smelled like a stray dog that had been set on fire. He ran his hand through the shorn mess, which was just long enough to brush his shoulders. Strange to have shorter hair again after these past few years. Well, easy come, easy go.

If they made it through the day's heat with their inadequate supply of water, they were going to be in trouble once again when night came. The desert nights were cold, and all they had to keep warm between them was Wolfwood's jacket and the rags of Vash's red coat. I guess we'll worry about staying alive until then, and cross that bridge when we get there, Wolfwood thought, drinking sparingly of the warm water in his canteen.

He checked on Vash one final time and then went to bury the last remaining member of his family, alone. He improvised a shovel from a piece of the destroyed jeep, but was unable to do more than scoop out a shallow hole from the rocky soil.

Even in death, this planet rejects us, Wolfwood thought. He combed the area for rocks of a size he could carry, and buried the body beneath a crude cairn. From more pieces of the jeep, and a strap off Vash's coat, he fashioned a cross and used more rocks to prop it up above the pathetic grave.

Often he'd seen such crosses, in his travels through the desert. People died all the time out here, for all sorts of reasons. And somehow, each time, the living managed to find enough strength to bury their dead... perhaps succumbing themselves, several iles onward.

Wolfwood sat on the cairn and smoked one of his last cigarettes, thinking morbid thoughts while the ash slowly burned down. The sun slanted long and red across the desert, and the heat was no longer so intense.

Soon we'll wish for the heat, he thought. He had a brief desire to dig up the body and see if any of his grandfather's clothes could be salvaged... He shook off the urge. The dead deserved what little respect he could still manage.

I can no longer intercede for your soul, but at least I can leave your mortal remains in peace.

Eventually he went back to Vash. Even Vash's unconscious company was better than being alone with the dead. He sat and watched the shadows creep slowly across the desert, and the light begin to fade.

How far did we come, driving? How long would it take me to walk it? Days, at least.

Vash moaned suddenly, and turned his head.

"Tongari! How are you feeling?"

"Thirsty..." Vash whispered.

Wolfwood held the canteen to his lips, feeling guilty for drinking earlier, wasting precious water.

But he's dying, and you're alive, the darker part of his soul whispered. The living take care of themselves, and leave the dead to themselves...

He isn't dying. I won't accept that.

"Tongari? Can you hear me?"

"Alex..." Vash breathed, and for just one moment Wolfwood thought Vash was addressing him, until he realized Vash must mean Alex Saverem.

"He's dead, Tongari. I'm sorry."

"Angie...?"

"She... Knives took her."

Vash sighed, and closed his eyes. Wolfwood continued to sit beside him. He could think of nothing else to do.

"Cursed," Vash mumbled at last.

"What? I didn't catch that."

"Cursed." Vash's eyelids fluttered. "Rem, and Alex. Cursed..."

"Tongari, you're babbling." After a moment's silence, Wolfwood said, "So you... really knew my great-grandmother, huh?"

Vash half-smiled. "Yes. Rem..."

"What was she like?"

"A good person," Vash whispered.

"Like my grandfather."

"Yes. Like Alex."

Good people don't last too long in this world, Wolfwood thought bitterly.

"Hey, Tongari," he said at last. "Speaking of my grandfather... I have a question."

"Go for it," Vash mumbled.

"Personal question."

"Doesn't matter now."

He decided to let that go. "What were you and Grandfather talking about, in the hotel, when I came downstairs with Angie?"

Vash hesitated a moment, then said softly, "The Genesis Machine."

That wasn't at all what Wolfwood had expected. "The Genesis Machine? What IS a Genesis Machine, Tongari?"

"That's what Alex told me," Vash whispered. "It's something he built. Something to carry out Rem's final wishes."

"Which were?"

"To create an Eden on this world."

"Oh? Is that a bad thing?"

"Eden is evil if it can only be created by destroying what should not be destroyed."

Wolfwood waited.

"The Genesis Machine..." Vash hesitated, wet his lips and went on. "The Genesis Machine will remake this world in the image of the world that we left -- that you left, you humans. Not that world as it was when humanity fled it, a poisoned, sterile void. No... A warm, wet world, filled with hope for life. Alex Saverem discovered a way to make this happen."

"How?" Wolfwood asked quietly. He could not even imagine such a thing.

"It draws upon the power of the Plants. But the energy the Machine requires is so great... it would require every Plant on this world. It would use them up. Kill them."

Wolfwood hesitated, trying to wrap his mind around this idea as well.

"Every one? Even you?"

"I don't know," Vash whispered.

"Oh," Wolfwood said softly. "I can see why he didn't want to use it."

"Yes... Alex understood that the survival of one species is not worth the extinction of another. And so he locked it away..."

"Why didn't he destroy it? I mean, something that powerful..."

"He couldn't." Vash's voice had gotten faint and hoarse. "The Genesis Machine binds up so much energy that only a Plant can destroy it. But it would cost that Plant's life to do such a thing. And none of them will."

Shit, Wolfwood thought, thinking of Vash's general personality, and the sort of things that he was likely to do for strangers. If Vash ever gets near this thing... guess what he's going to try to do.

Providing Vash survived the night, of course.

Wolfwood gave him another drink of water. "Look, just rest for a while, ';kay?"

"Not yet..." Vash whispered. "There is something else I haven't told you. I didn't mean to keep it from you. I didn't know... I thought she should tell you herself, but..."

His voice trailed off.

"Tongari?" Wolfwood prompted. "Still with me?"

Vash stared off into the distance. "Yes. Thinking. It's about Milly."

"How is she?" Wolfwood asked, trying not to think of her, of the warm blue eyes, the soft hands...

"She's ... changed, but in a good way," Vash murmured. "She's grown. Matured. She's..."

"Yes?"

"She has a child."

Wolfwood waited for the impact of that to really hit him. Strangely, it didn't seem to. So Milly had moved on with her life and found someone else. It was what he'd wanted her to do, what he'd hoped she'd do. There was a dull, empty sadness, but not despair.

I knew I couldn't walk back into her life after all these years. I really shouldn't be disappointed.

"What's he like, Tongari? Her husband?"

"Husband?"

"Yeah, the kid's father. Are they married?"

"The father," Vash said softly. "The father is you."

Shock, again.

"That isn't possible. Only the one night..."

"Sometimes once is all it takes," Vash said, a hint of a smile on his burned face.

"Tell me -- my God!" Wolfwood ran his hand through his ragged hair. "Tell me about her. Everything about her. What's she look like? What's her name?"

"Ellie. Her name is Ellie."

He talked, haltingly, speaking of the spirited child with the shaggy black hair. And Wolfwood listened, trying to imagine her, a child with his hair and Milly's eyes. So strange....

Finally Vash was silent for so long that Wolfwood said, "Tongari?"

Another moment passed, and then Vash whispered, so faintly that Wolfwood could barely hear him, "I have a favor to ask."

"Go ahead."

"I want... to confess," Vash whispered.

"Confess? Confess what?"

"My sins," Vash whispered. "I can't die... with all that I've done on my soul. Please."

"I'm not giving you last rites, you bastard. You're not going to die."

"Please."

"I'm not a priest any more. God, Tongari, you know the things I've done. What could you possibly have to confess to me?"

"Please. I need this... Nicholas. Before I can close my eyes."

It was the first time that Vash had ever called him by his first name.

"All right," Wolfwood whispered. "If you need to talk, I'll listen, okay? Not as a priest. As your friend."

Vash began to speak... haltingly, pausing often for breath. He spoke of the ships, and Project Seeds, and Wolfwood's great-grandmother's death. Wolfwood listened in wonder, captivated despite himself by the description of places beyond this world that he had never seen -- and awestruck by Vash's part in all of this. He had known some of it before, and heard more in Alex Saverem's living room. But he had never heard the whole thing. He suspected that no other living human being had heard the whole thing.

I knew you and Knives weren't human... because Knives told me what the two of you were. But I never really understood what that meant ... until now...

As he sat quietly in the desert night, listening to Vash's long litany of what Vash perceived to be his own sins, Wolfwood understood confession for the first time. It didn't matter that he had given up his vocation, that he no longer had the moral authority to intercede with God on a person's behalf. That wasn't why people confessed to priests. Oh, maybe some of them went out of duty, and some went for fear of their mortal soul. But mostly, they just needed to have someone to listen -- someone who wouldn't hate them, someone who wouldn't tell another living soul.

I can do that for you, at least, Tongari.

Vash finally wound to a close, with Alex's death and the deaths of the children at the Bad Lads' hideout. His voice trailed off into silence. Wolfwood stirred, stretching his cramping leg. He had not moved throughout Vash's confession.

"I can't absolve you, Tongari," Wolfwood said softly. "I don't have that right anymore. The only authority I have anymore is authority over my own soul... so the only kind of absolution I can give is to tell you that I don't blame you for anything that happened. That's all I can offer."

Vash smiled faintly.

"You have no idea what a rare and precious thing that is," he whispered, his voice a thin thread barely loud enough to hear. "You have no idea what it means... after all the years of hiding who and what I am, to know that one person, at least, knows the truth and doesn't hate me. The spirit of your great-grandmother lives on in you, Wolfwood."

"Yeah," Wolfwood murmured. "That's what Knives seems to be afraid of."

Vash's eyes opened a bit wider. "Please... don't stay here. You aren't safe. Get out. Maybe you will have to face them again someday... but at least make it a time and place of your own choosing, when you aren't tired and hurt and weaponless. Don't throw your life away. Your daughter needs her father."

"Ellie..." He breathed the name of the child who carried his blood, the child he'd never seen.

Vash's aquamarine eyes stared vacantly at the canopy of stars overhead, and suddenly he smiled again. "Rem..."

"What are you talking about now, Tongari?"

The eyes had focused, but there was only empty air in the place he was looking. "Rem... I knew I'd see you again. I've wanted... for all this time, I've wanted..."

"Tongari, you're hallucinating. There's nobody there."

Vash only smiled, and closed his eyes.

"Tongari? Dammit, Tongari. Vash...!"



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