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Sweet and Sour Stories: (Spook)tober Edition

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When you've already died once -- felt your heart stop and unfortunately start up again -- death doesn't scare you any more. It doesn't seem like anything special, either, like it does to other people. That puts you in a world apart -- or would, if being broken and put back together years too old hadn't already separated you.

Neither you nor Vash fear death, for good reason, what with his immortality and your vials. Yet, the two of you couldn't view the end of life more differently.

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Vash finds it ironic that he and Knives had talked so much of Eden as children, not knowing that they were living in it. Now, when he thinks of paradise, he imagines himself back in that time, alone on the ship with Knives and Rem.

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When he stands up too fast after a night sleeping on the ground, and doesn't stretch, his knees and hips crack and pop like those of a human ten years older. Makes me worry what it takes out of him to fight like he does, and how long he's gonna hold up like this. Makes me feel guilty for how much I love finally having someone who can keep up with me. It's not worth running his body ragged.

I can't say anything to him about it. All it would do is offend him. He won't quit following me any more than he'll quit smoking, and he refuses to talk about either.

So I let him follow, and age too fast, and keep his silence.

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How dare they. Vash, Legato, that stupid priest, all killing themselves a bit at a time, wishing they could finish the job, while my much more deserving sisters are having their lives taken from them. Humans might be too dense to understand, but I expected better from Vash. He really has let himself go native.

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I had waited two years for this, but it felt even longer.

On my seventeenth birthday, at dawn, Nicholas called me out to the practice fields, where we taught the boys at the Orphanage to shoot. I'd never seen Nicholas this alert and calm this early in the morning.

Frank Marlon was there, dragging a sled bearing a Punisher of my very own. Being an ordinary human, he could make a Punisher, but couldn't carry it alone.

My heart leapt. I was finally going to join my hero, my big brother Nicholas, as I'd been begging since he first started patrolling the world with the Angel of Death, protecting the weak and passing judgment on sinners.

I ran to Nicholas and flung my arms around him, my dignity as a newly minted adult forgotten. Nick patted my back, ,fondly. "Thank him," he replied, nodding to Frank. The gunsmith was looking on, with a smile like a cloudy day -- his smile only reached his lips, and a strange sadness passed across his eyes. I briefly wondered what was bothering him, then instantly forgot in my excitement over my new and forever weapon. "Thank you!" I cried fervently.

"Try it," Frank said with a small nod. I flipped the catch and flung it open, exposing a handful of small guns, the beginnings of what would become a vast armory, just like Nicholas'. They were small, perfectly balanced Berettas, with the safeties on, just like Nicholas used. I knew the guns were perfect, even before I took aim and shot three dummies in the head in a single smooth movement.

My eyes flicked to Nicholas and caught a look in his eyes that swelled my chest with pride.

He challenged me to shoot faster, more attentively, more precisely, to imagine the targets moving and anticipate their movement. By the time the practice session was done, I was breathing hard.

"I think you're ready to go on patrol with us," Nicholas finally said, and I beamed.

"Now remember," he said, "You're still young and hot headed. Everyone looks like a sinner or a mortal enemy. Try to shoot only in self defense for now, or when we tell you it's all right."

I rolled my eyes, not liking to be told what to do, and convinced my judgment was better than Nicholas imagined. Honestly, just because I was only seventeen didn't mean I was stupid or hot-headed...

"Promise me, Livio."

I scowled but nodded. "All right."

Nicholas nodded, with a satisfied smile spread across his face. "Good. Come on in and wash up, Melanie's making pancakes."

We almost never had pancakes. They were a treat for special occasions, such as birthdays and adoptions. I didn't need to be told twice.

As I wolfed down my pancakes, I made a resolution. I was going to wield my Punisher honorably. I was going to bring peace to the world. I was going to make Nicholas proud.

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"Hey! That tickles!" Vash shrieked as the flat of Knives' feathers grazed his cheek. The feathers had razor edges and a flat, soft underside. Knives' wings were spread out and he was tickling Vash with one wingtip.

Knives grinned broadly, exposing his teeth. Ever since he discovered his brother's interesting reactions, Knives had been tickling him mercilessly.

The feathers brushed against Vash's neck, leaving him writhing and convulsing, overpowered by the sensation and laughing so hard he could hardly breathe. It felt good at first, then quickly too much, and being out of control like this scared him. There was no end, no relief in sight.

"S-st-stop!" he forced out between laughs. Knives, face flushed with victory, moved his wingtip slowly and lightly. It only turned a constant, urgent burn into irregular, jumpy shivers.

"Stop! Please!"

"But you like it, don't you? You only laugh so hard when I tickle you."

"Knives, I mean it!" Vash yelled, a dangerous edge overtaking the whine in his voice.

Knives pulled back and folded his wings. "Now my turn! Ow!"

Vash punched him in the jaw.

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Sister Anastasia Teresa Confit of The Eye of Michael had never dreamed she'd see God. She'd awoken as the first sun began to rise, looking forward to a day of laundry, dipping candles, and rapping hapless novices on the knuckles.

Then the sky darkened like a harbinger of God's wrath. Something was passing overhead -- a great winged ship. All wings and heads, it traversed the heavens slowly, implacably, as unearthly as the will of God.

Suddenly, a force passed through her, yanking her to the ground. It felt simultaneously like the dread of looking up into the infinite stars; the residue of centuries of praying souls in a church; the spine prickling of a haunted place; and the doomed clarity of a helpless prisoner before the executioner.

The end of the world had come.

She hoped she was ready. She wished she'd studied more Scriptures, prayed more, saved more Plants from bondage.

She threw herself flat on her stomach on the ground, and shut her eyes. God was wreaking vengeance on the unbelievers. When all was quiet and calm as the air after a storm, she would open her eyes, knowing she'd be one of the few spared.

Her last thought as pain ripped through her was that this wasn't supposed to happen to her.

She hadn't expected to meet her Maker this way.

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There were too many teeth.

Way more teeth than a living creature had any business having.

The sandworm had just ripped through the floor as if it were tissue paper and was now staring at them.

Dr. Akira Slaughter took her mouth off of Vash's cock and screamed.

*Shh,* Vash warned her telepathically. *Don't startle it or it'll get mad at you.*

Simultaneously, Nick clapped a hand over her mouth. He was deep inside her and his hands grasped her hips; he had been pulling her towards him.

"Like it's not angry already! I bet it just tunneled in here to congratulate us for winning the lottery," Akira muttered, her voice muffled.

"What does it want? Sandworms don't usually make a habit of coming into inhabited cities," Nick mused.

*Ahem. I'm right here and I can hear you,* someone said. The voice was gravelly, as befit a creature that lived beneath the sand and burrowed through the earth with its mouth.

Nick's eyes widened and his mouth fell open. "Oh, shit. Zazie."

*The very same.* Was it just Akira's imagination, or did the creature sound amused?

"You're a...friend of Nick's?" Akira said, recovering quickly. I'd have expected Lord Vash to be friends with sand worms, but not with a human like Nick, she thought.

*There's a lot you don't know about him,* Zazie chuckled. *Starting with that 'normal human' bit.* Akira could have sworn that the creature was staring at Vash, and addressing him, too. Nick's face became a blank mask.

He was a metahuman, then? It made sense Vash wouldn't choose just any human as a right hand man.

Akira remembered where she was and what she'd been doing before Zazie made his dramatic entrance. "Can you go away for a minute while I put some clothes on?"

*Pity. I was hoping to join in the fun.*

Akira blushed, as did Vash. *He's kidding, right?* she thought. *Please tell me he's kidding...*

Nick looked about as thrilled with the idea as Akira was.

*Just a joke, lighten up! Not in this suit.* The worm bobbed as if trying to indicate itself. *Anyway, I just wanted to remind you good time guys and gal that a certain Millions Knives does not take kindly to those with designs on his brother's virtue. They tend not to live very long.*

Nick gave the creature a searching look, as if something informative would show on a worm's inhuman facial features, then glared at it. Vash looked as if he would rather be anywhere else.

*I'll be going then. Ta ta!* The sandworm then ducked back down into the hole it had made and disappeared.

Akira, Vash, and Nick looked at each other. The mood had definitely been broken. If the sandworm hadn't ruined it, the mention of Millions Knives certainly had. They disentangled and began pulling on the underwear scattered around the bed. Akira, in black lace, wasn't surprised Vash favored tighty-whities but had been a little surprised Nick wore a thong.

Things had felt almost surreal even before the sandworm showed up. She had scarcely believed she was in bed with the closest thing Gunsmoke had to a god. Maybe it was too good to be true.

"Well," Akira dropped into the silence. "Are your nights normally this eventful?"

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Vash knew Wolfwood was going to die -- and, he learned after the Ark, soon. But there was all the difference between a year from now and bleeding out, right now, by his side.

He knew the moment he felt his hand squishing deep into flesh that should have resisted, as if his friend's back were turning to jelly. Nick tensed and looked away. Nick knew he knew.

It was hard to grasp that Nick was dying. After that fateful moment, it kept slipping away like soap in the bath. 

He couldn't be dying. Vash was here, so of course Nick would live.

But there was no time to think about it anyway; there was his old master to fight.
Vash woke up again in the dark, hearing his last words to Nick again and wishing he had said anything else.

He should have said goodbye.

He should have said, "I love you." He didn't even have to specify whether that was love for a friend, a brother, a would be lover -- it was all at once.

The only comfort was the light in Nick's eyes when he asked Vash to smile. For a moment, beneath the blood and gunpowder was the face that had complimented his smile three years ago. The expression that Nick only ever aimed at him.

Nick had said "I love you" in his own way. Vash could only hope his own eyes had done the same.

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The SEEDS ship was a shell of scorched metal, its once-shiny inside picked clean over a hundred years. One side gaped like a carcass ripped open by eager teeth. Many of the doors were torn out, the keypad locking mechanism out of power, useless. Such was life, devouring the old to make way for the new.

It still hurt to walk the halls and remember running down them, yelling "Tag! You're it!" It ached to see a bedroom, stripped down to a cell, like the room where Rem rocked them to sleep and told them bedtime stories.

It hurt to remember Knives -- his innocent gap-toothed grin; the way he cried over the spider's death in Charlotte's Web; the way he focused while reading so hard that the rest of the world disappeared. This was the Knives even amnesia couldn't take away. This was the Knives Vash had always loved, and always would.

If only his brother's heart hadn't decayed to be emptier than the ship.

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The two scouts approached each other, reared up, and greeted each other with pheromones and a vibration rippling through the ground.



They spoke each other's true names, complete with clicks impossible for human mouths to produce.

*What news?* Zazie asked the older colony. The two colonies were allies at the moment, and on neutral ground belonging to neither colony.

Zix began relating the latest happenings -- changes in where food could be found; the end of a disease that had been sweeping through the colony, and the visit of Vash the Stampede.

*The Neutral One is with us,* Zazie said. *He will likely visit you next. He brought a gift.*

*Still no luck persuading him to ally with us? Doesn't he know Zuzeet attacked us first?* Zix exclaimed.

*That sort of argument never changes his mind.* An irritated chitter came from the worm's mouth.

*Is he still eating our waste?* asked Zix.

*Yes. Did you know Plants get high on it?*

*Yes. Bizarre creatures.*

*He cleans up our nests, wanting nothing in return. We like that. It will be unfortunate when he leaves us. Much better to us than his brother.*

*It's too bad Millions Teeth will win in the end,* Zix complained, using the Plant's name translated into the sandworm's language, in which the closest word to "Knives" was "Teeth." *I would rather live alongside The Neutral One.*

*That's why I've allied with him. You should, too.* Zazie was young, and not as powerful as many of the nearby colonies, but he made up for that with political acumen.

*I still think he cares only for Plants. I don't trust him.*

*Even if he'll get the humans off your back?*

*I certainly won't get in the way of that,* said Zix. *I'll watch and see what happens before I pick a side.*

*Suit yourself.* Zazie tossed its head.

The mood had turned cold. It was time to end the conversation.

*It's been a pleasure,* Zix said in a formal farewell.


*Until next time,* they sent.

The scouts tunneled away in opposite directions.

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Doc sighed as he replaced Vash's prosthetic arm for the third time that month. "You know, some day I won't be there to put you back together. Be more careful, won't you?"

Vash gave him a guilty grin. "No promises."

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Smilin' Bill McCall was gonna make history. Tomorrow, he told the other bar patrons, he was gonna be the first to catch Vash the Stampede.

Tall and thin, he had a cut sliced into the side of his mouth that made it look like he was always smiling. His teeth were stained with cheap tobacco. His hair and mustache showed threads of gray.

There were the usual cries of "sure, yeah right," but Bill had the whole bar's attention, and a small group gathered around him. Bill had a reputation, himself. Some said he had gone from bounty to bounty hunter, pardoned for bringing in Red Legs Harry Hill, who had been making a fool of the Feds for years.

"Why you?" someone dared to ask.

Bill spat tobacco juice in his general direction. "See, here's where the other bounty hunters went wrong. They chased 'im, but he's too smart fer that. What ya gotta do is be where he's *going* to be. So I been studyin' his habits. What he does when the other bounty hunters go after him. And I think I figgered it out."

"What?" said one of his stupider hangers-on, Harvey or Garvey or something. Bill reminded himself not to send Gharvey out on this delicate job.

"He never goes that far, like he's tryin' to minimize the damage. He sticks close an' hides in the commotion the hunters are makin'. He likes rooftops an' other high places. He'll go into crowds and yell that he saw Vash the Stampede go in one direction or other and then stroll off, the slippery varmint, congratulatin' himself. So this time, we ain't gonna let him play those dirty tricks."

The next day, Bill's "associates" were scattered across the roofs of New Bloomington at dawn, with sniper rifles and smaller guns and knives in case the Stampede sneaked up on them. Their ears were covered and stuffed with cotton wool as they awaited the sight of the bell ringing or a visual signal from one of the others. Bill himself stood at the center of town, waiting. He stood by the clock tower, a marvel of modern of engineering, with two of his best men stationed inside covering him. Any minute now, Vash the Stampede would show up for the duel.

It hadn't been hard to find him. Vash was standing around the hitching post at another bar down the street from Bill's favorite watering hole, all relaxed like he owned the place. Bill yelled something about revenge for killing his old auntie and challenged Vash to a duel. (No one knew if the claim was true. Bill never talked about his private life).

Sure enough, Vash arrived as the second sun was rising. As expected; Bill thought the man had a code of honor. The outlaw looked intimidating, with that stupid red coat swirling in the breeze, tails flapping like a flag. His eyes were obscured by thick yellow-orange glasses, and his face was grim. Bill knew the man would make an entrance, and he still found himself stepping back a pace. Vash the Stampede looked every inch the part of the notorious outlaw. Bill could only hope he looked like a serious challenger.

"Vash the Stampede," he said with a curt nod.

The bell began ringing, signaling the chase had begun.

"Three against one hardly seems fair," Vash said mildly, squinting up at the clock tower.

"Ya weren't smart enough ta bring yer own second 'n third?" Bill retorted. He knew that the men on the rooftops were focused on the center of the square, the closest ones with their crosshairs on Vash himself.

Vash shrugged. The men in the clock tower shot and missed by a hair. "Call off your men," he said. "I don't want anyone to get hurt."

"Tell that to July," Bill spat. To his surprise, Vash actually looked uncomfortable.

That was when everything went wrong. The others heard the shot and all began firing toward Vash. Bill had to step away from the outlaw toward the humiliating safety of the clock tower to avoid getting shot himself. He didn't think it would all go wrong so soon.

Of course, Vash managed to duck out of sight while Bill was glancing around trying to figure out what in tarnation had happened, and never did show up again.

That night, they gathered in the bar to complain and point fingers. "Who gave that signal to shoot?"

Everyone pointed at Gharvey, who looked fixin' to piss himself with fright.

Bill had planned everything out so perfectly, wrapped up every loose end he could think of, but either he'd forgotten to get word to Gharvey he wasn't to participate in this one, or the man had shown up anyway.

Either way, Gharvey had blown all of their chances at capturing Vash the Stampede.

"Next time, do as I say." With that, Bill stepped up to the hapless man and shot him point-blank in the head. Everyone but the bartender cheered.

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Meryl raised her eyebrows at the donut bouquet in Vash's hands and the hopeful grin on his face. "Is this supposed to impress me?" she asked. "You're the one who likes donuts."

"I'm sorry, do you not want it?" Disappointment and hope fought an epic battle on Vash's face.

Meryl glowered at him and sighed. "All yours. You're still paying me back for that perfume."

Vash had been telling a story in the hotel room, complete with dramatic re-enactments, when he knocked the bottle off the table, breaking it. As Meryl watched in horror, the entire bottle had spilled into the carpet. The room now stank of lavender.

Vash turned out the pockets of his coat, none of which contained a single c-cent.

Meryl threw up her arms, muttering something about "broom-headed idiots," and left the room.

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Vash was walking through an unfamiliar desert when an insect tried to fly up his nose. He waved his arms to push it away. "Ow! Hey!" he yelped.

Instead of flying away, the insect nimbly evaded his flailing arms and zoomed into his ear. Vash felt like it was trying to burrow in towards his brain. He shook his head trying to dislodge it from his ear, wondering if he was going to die of an insect eating his brain from the inside. It would be a ridiculous, stupid death. Knives would say that was fitting. Then again, if Knives had been here, he probably would've thought of some way to drive the insect away before it was too late.

Suddenly Vash felt something in his mind, pushing against his consciousness as if looking for a vulnerable place to tunnel in. He hadn't felt anything like that since he left Knives. He pushed back. *Knives, fuck off!*

There was no reply. Instead, Vash felt something like little feet clambering over the surface of his mind, prodding, pushing.

He felt an urge to move his foot, for no apparent reason. Now Knives was trying to control his body.

Vash pulled his consciousness inward and then let it burst outward in the mental equivalent of a sneeze, something Knives hated. At the same time, automatically, he shook his head.

It worked. He was alone in his head.

Something fell out of his ear. Bending down to look, Vash saw it was the corpse of the insect. Had it been connected to that bizarre mental attack he'd just experienced? Had Vash pushed it out while trying to defend himself?

There was a rumble and the earth beneath Vash trembled. A sandworm was coming towards him, fast. He began to run, but the vibrations made him stumble and fall.

This day was getting worse and worse.

The toothy head of a sandworm shot up before him.

"Um, sorry, I didn't know this was your territory," Vash said in his calmest, gentlest voice. "I'll just be going now, aheheheh." He began backing away.

A low, gravelly telepathic voice, full of clicks and hums, addressed him. *Greetings. Who are you? What are you?*

*I'm Vash. You can speak telepathically? I'm so sorry!*

The creature bobbed up and down and its voice sounded perplexed. *For what?*

*All this time, I could've been talking to your kind, if I'd known.*

*Normal humans don't talk to us, even in their own language. Nor do they care to try.*

*I'm...not exactly a human,* Vash admitted.

*I suppose we should extend the same apology.* The worm bowed its head slightly. *We are Zrazik. We did not know you could communicate with us when we sent our scout to take you as a host.*


*A body to be in, like this worm.*

So that telepathic attack had been exactly what it felt like. What a bizarre situation: worms using insects to take control of other creatures' bodies.

Even if Zrazik hadn't apologized, Vash estimated the odds were good it wouldn't try to take over his body again. Other worms, though, might be another story, and he really didn't want to experience another mental attack. When the adrenaline wore off, eventually, he'd be left shaking.

*I didn't mean to kill your scout,* Vash said. *Say, could you tell others of your kind not to send scouts after me? Um, I really don't like killing.*

The worm cocked its head to the side and stared at him as if trying to determine whether that was a threat or an earnest request, and gently brushed against his mind. Vash reinforced his mental barriers.

*That seems reasonable. We can pass on the message to our neighbors and allies.*

*Thank you.* This was one of the stranger things he'd thanked someone for doing.

The worm glanced up at the sky. *It's time we return to our nest. You are welcome to pass through our territory, Vash. We will watch you and guard you while you're here.*

*Thank you,* Vash said, although he imagined that being watched over was for Zrazik's benefit, not his own. *What are the boundaries of your territory, by the way?*

Zrazik sent an impression of a map. Unfortunately, it was three-dimensional, mainly tactile and vibratory, and consisted almost entirely of underground space. Vash thanked Zrazik anyway.

*Farewell, Vash.*

*Farewell, Zrazik.* Vash figured the worm would be most comfortable if he imitated its speaking style.

Zrazik dived back into its tunnel, and the rumble of its passage soon faded away.

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"I can't believe you got me into this," Wolfwood grumbled as he and Vash approached the old, broken-down mansion that was currently the home base of a slaver gang.

"Sweet Betsy needed us." The slavers had kidnapped her aging parents. If it had been young siblings, Wolfwood would be more enthusiastic about their mission.

"Can't say no to a pretty face, huh?"

Vash gave a big, dopey grin. Wolfwood rolled his eyes. "So what's the plan, anyway?"

"We go in, explain why we're here, and ask them to let her parents go. Easy."

"That's it? Just ask them? I'm sure this plan has never worked, ever."

"You'll see," Vash said. "Do you trust me?"

"Yeah..." If only Vash could trust him.

The men posted in each window pulled out their guns. A warning. Vash put his hands up and continued walking toward the front door. It went utterly against the grain, but Wolfwood did the same. The men watched them suspiciously but did not target them. As Vash and Wolfwood approached speaking distance, one of them called out, "Who goes there?"

"I'm Pierre and this is my friend..."

"Father Lupine," Wolfwood added.

"Sweet Betsy Pike tells us you have her parents here with you. We'd like to speak with them and bring them home."

The men looked at each other in disbelief for a moment, and mouthing words and pantomiming facial expressions, they silently tried to decide if he was really that big an idiot.

One of the men laughed.

"Aw, no, I'm serious," Vash said, pouting.

The man abruptly stopped laughing and they all drew their guns. "No," said the biggest one, who seemed like the leader. In Wolfwood's experience, the biggest one generally was.

"Aww, man! Really?" Vash whined. "But they've been here a couple days now and I bet they really, really want to go home."

The men pointed their guns at Vash, watching Wolfwood warily.

Wolfwood woondered when Vash was going to abandon this stupid plan and move on to Plan B, although that would probably be just as stupid.

"That's too bad," Vash said. "Looks like we're going to have to do this the hard way."

The men laughed at him. "Oh no! What're you gonna do? Say please?"

Vash stood still, suddenly looking like he was straining all over, as if something were trying to burst out of him. Suddenly, wings emerged from his coat, beating the air so hard Wolfwood could feel it where he stood a few feet away. Four guns went off at once, and the wings batted the bullets away, letting them plummet harmlessly to the ground. Wolfwood stepped back involuntarily. He wasn't sure what he'd expected, but it certainly wasn't this.

Vash beat his wings and lifted off, floating a few feet off the ground. The very air around him was charged with foreboding. It made Wolfwood's hair stand on end and set his teeth on edge, though he knew what was happening. The terrified men screamed and dropped their guns. "Angel!" one screamed. "Demon!" two others cried.

To Vash, they pleaded, "Okay! Okay! Take them! Just don't kill us!"


The men tripped over each other in their haste to obey. They dragged out an elderly man and woman by the collars around their necks, followed by several other aged folk, chained together.

"Are you Christine and Charlie Pike?" Vash said in a somewhat less booming voice.

The couple nodded, terrified.

"Come on. We'll bring you all home."

The slavers let go of the ropes and fled back into the building.

It took a few minutes for Wolfwood to calm the freed slaves down enough to persuade them they were not doomed, but saved. He removed their collars and led them away while Vash floated overhead, projecting menace at the slavers. No one pursued them.

No one was crazy enough to tangle with Vash like this.

When the slavers were well out of sight, Wolfwood commented, "Y'know, you forgot to mention a little detail of your plan..."

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Knives returned from the bathroom to the cabin to find Vash staring at him, looking curious but guarded. “What?”

“Why do you have one of those comics in your bag? I thought you hated them.”

Knives’ heart raced anxiously. It was the comic he’d shown Vash that featured the two of them in a sexual relationship. Knives didn’t need his brother to see he’d hung onto it.

“I do! I’m keeping it for evidence.”

He hoped Vash hadn’t noticed the stuck-together pages.

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After Nick died, there was always a sense something was missing. It felt like when he first lost his arm and wondered why everything felt wrong until he tried to use his hand. Now, when Vash awoke there was no grumbling or smell of black coffee. His life lacked ready quips, the smell of cigarettes, and the feeling of someone beside him, moving in tandem or guarding his back. There was no drunken laugh, no breaking down motorcycle, no one working alongside him cleaning and polishing guns. His bed was empty and cold.

Vash didn't have the luxury of paying attention to his feelings until the world was saved, and then Knives was gone, too. Vash had never realized how much Knives' feelings had resonated in his head until he felt the profound silence their absence left behind. It felt like part of his mind had been amputated.

That was the part of grief humans didn't talk about. The emptiness, the feeling that was not a feeling. That moment where you realize you are a mattress with the imprint of another on you, indelibly. The wonder of seeing the impression clearly for the first time, and the fear that it will fade. (After all, he had forever to forget).

Did humans not experience all this, or did they just lack ready words?

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Meryl thought the barrage of questions would never end. She'd been called into the Chief's office upon arriving at work almost two hours before to discuss a "special project."

"How much -- I'm sorry I have to ask this, but how much does the sight of blood distress you?" the Chief asked.

Meryl didn't see how this question was relevant to a Bernardelli assignment. "I may be female, but the sight of blood doesn't bother me. Nor does the word blood, for that matter," she couldn't resist adding. No one else would talk to the Chief in such a way, but the Chief actually liked her, saying she was like the daughter he'd never had.

The Chief's mouth turned upward in amusement as he ticked a box on the form in his hands. He sat back and put his arms behind his head with a satisfied sigh. "That was the last question," he said. "Congratulations, you hereby qualify to take on the most important, and most dangerous, assignment Bernardelli has given in my lifetime."

"What about Millie?" They made an inseparable unit, all the more so when there was danger.

"I've already interviewed her, and she qualifies. I didn't even have to fudge anything. She'll be joining you."

A few days later, Meryl and Millie were on the trail of Vash the Stampede.

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Elendira's bones were strong from withstanding sticks, stones, and steel-toed boots. She'd been called a failure as a man, then as a woman. She did not easily break a nail, even before she adopted her signature weapon.

It was Knives who suggested she design an outfit and a signature weapon. "Think of how comic books resonate with people. Think of Batman's batarangs and Spider Man's webshooters. That's how you start a legend, so the humans will whisper your name in dread."

(Legato chose first, mounting what he claimed to be his former captor's skull upon a fence of spikes on his coat. Elendira laughed when she first saw it. Never again. Legato also insisted the Gung Ho Guns follow Knives' advice. He asked Elendira to offer her fashion expertise to help the Gung Ho Guns develop their "looks," but she made herself scarce).

She didn't care about the Guns; they were all irrelevant distractions from Knives' will. (Certainly, Elendira had nothing to do with Dominique's nondescript trench coat).

The only significant rival to Elendira was Legato. Elendira had been by Knives' side long before the Gung Ho Guns and would remain long after the last one perished. She would be one of the last ones left alive. She would endure, as she always had, and outlast those less worthy of Knives' favor.