"Maw! There's that cat again!"
"Wa'll, catch the dang thing this time, yer good-fer-nuffin' brat, if yer wanna eat tonight."
"I'll catch it," Dicky promised, and he spit on his hands for luck, and scrambled up the adobe wall into the courtyard next door.
The black cat sat on the roof of the low, abandoned building, its tail curled around its haunches, and stared down at him. Dicky had never seen a cat as sleek and fat as this one. Most of the cats they caught were skin and bones, even skinnier and sicker than the people living in the alleys. This one looked like good eating.
Dicky had heard people say that black cats were unlucky. They tasted just the same as any other cat to him.
He hunted up a good, palm-sized piece of brick and lobbed it overhand. Dicky had a good throwing arm, honed to high accuracy by years of throwing rocks and other objects at anything that moved.
The cat just sat there, watching the missile arc toward it -- and then at the last minute, it casually stepped aside, not even seeming to move its body, just flowing like water. The rock clattered on the roof.
Dicky cursed under his breath and found another rock. He flung it again, and once again the cat waited until the last minute to step aside, with unbelievable speed.
Dicky gritted his teeth and gathered a small arsenal of stones, stuffing the many pockets of his ragged overalls. Then he seized hold of a windowframe and pulled his small body up over the lip of the roof.
The cat miawed and rose casually, tail in the air, and strolled to the peak of the roof.
"Oh no ya' don't," Dicky muttered, and started a barrage of rocks, gripping the roof tiles with his bare toes. The cat dodged the first few nimbly, with that same flowing-water way of moving, but eventually it jumped straight into the path of an oncoming chunk of adobe. The rock struck square on its shoulder with all the strength in Dicky's wiry arm. With an astonished yowl, it flew end-over-end. Dicky followed up his advantage with another quick throw and got it again, this time in the head. It vanished over the peak of the roof, leaving a smear of blood.
"Now I gotcha!" Dicky crowed, and scrambled up the roof, loose tiles cascading from under his feet. When he peered over the top, though, the cat was nowhere in sight. All he saw was an endless succession of roofs and courtyards similar to this one, lining the narrow, dusty streets.
"Damn, damn, damn," Dicky chanted. It didn't pay to go back to Maw empty-handed. Somehow, he was going to have to get something for the stewpot. Dicky sat on the roof and watched the occasional pedestrian walk by underneath. Then he saw something that made him sit up in astonishment.
"Don't look now, but that cat's following us again."
"Ignore it. That's what I always do."
Wolfwood looked over his shoulder.
"Vash, it's closer."
"Ignore it, I said."
"That thing gives me the creeps."
"It did me too, at first. I got used to it."
Wolfwood gave his travelling companion a long, sidelong look. "Just how long has it been following you, anyway?"
"I don't think I'd say following, exactly. It just seems to turn up wherever I go."
"I'd noticed that," Wolfwood said darkly. "It gives me the creeps."
"It's harmless. It's just a cat."
"Yeah, you'll be singing out of the other side of your face when it strangles us in our sleep."
"It's a cat. You're being paranoid."
Wolfwood took another, longer look over his shoulder. "Hey, Tongari, look at that. I think it's hurt."
Now Vash paused and turned around. "You're right. It's holding up one foot. Poor thing."
"Vash, don't even think about -- Va-- Vash, dammit! I can't take you anywhere!"
"Hey, insurance girls!"
"Honey, we're home," Wolfwood added, drawing a dirty look from Meryl Stryfe.
"Senpai, look!" Millie said. "It's that cat!"
"The cat? The one that follows us around?"
The girls crowded around to look.
"Oh, poor little thing," Millie said. "It's hurt."
"I think its leg is broken," Vash said. The cat nestled awkwardly in the crook of his arm, glaring at them all.
He hadn't had any trouble catching it. The cat had just sat there and let him pick it up, to Wolfwood's disgust.
"Vash, that damn thing probably has nine different kinds of fleas and internal parasites that science has never heard of."
"It looks perfectly healthy, except for its leg," Vash retorted. "Besides, it's one of God's little creatures, isn't it?"
"Isn't that sweet. Peace on earth, brotherly love and goodwill toward men. If you catch fleas from that thing, don't expect any sympathy from me."
Dicky lay flat on the roof of the building across the street, watching the people through the window.
He didn't think either of those guys had seen what he'd seen. One minute there'd been just two guys, foreigners from the look of them, walking down the street. The next minute, the cat was walking down the street after them. Or rather, limping. Dicky couldn't imagine where it had come from. Somehow, it must have jumped. Yeah, that's it. Jumped from a roof or something. But when he first saw it -- damned if it didn't look like the thing appeared out of thin air.
Maw'd whack him upside the head for talking such nonsense. The only thing worse than coming back empty-handed, he supposed, was coming back empty-handed and telling some kind of wild tale about a vanishing cat.
The people in the building were all clustered around the injured cat. Their voices drifted across the street to Dicky.
"...think we should set it or something?"
"I know how to set broken bones!" Millie offered eagerly. The others all stared at her. "Well, I do. At least I've seen it done. Don't forget, I had ten brothers and sisters."
"Ten brothers and sisters?" Vash repeated.
Wolfwood nudged him. "Guess who the youngest was."
"We don't have anything to set it with, Millie," Meryl said. "It'll just have to get better on its own."
"We can at least make a bed. I need something soft... Hey, Bokushi-san, can I use your jacket?"
Vash stripped a sheet off one of the beds. "This will work, I think."
Millie helped him make the cat a nest against the wall. Vash lightly probed the cat's shoulder with his fingertips. The cat hissed softly when he touched the matted fur, but it didn't try to bite him. Millie stared at Vash with wide, concerned eyes.
"It's definitely broken. I don't think we could set it; all the damage seems to be in the shoulder. We'll just have to let it sleep."
"Oh, Vash, do you think it's in pain?"
"I'm sure it feels some pain," Vash said, stroking the top of the cat's head with two fingers. It closed its eyes. "It doesn't seem to be suffering much, though. Yes, that's it; just sleep, little friend."
Millie put out a hand to pet the cat as well.
Meryl and Wolfwood watched the scene from the other side of the room.
"Well, they're two of a kind," Meryl said, and turned her back. She sighed. "So there's another one to feed for a while."
"Another one? Does he do this often? Bring home strays, I mean?"
Meryl gave him a long-suffering look. "You have absolutely no idea what we've had to share our living quarters with since we've been travelling with Vash. At least the nest of orphaned baby robins didn't pee on the rug, like the puppy did. And then there's you..."
"What do you mean, and then there's me?"
Meryl stalked across the room to her typewriter. "Aargh! This is completely disrupting my workflow! I have to get the latest report finished before the mail leaves this afternoon."
"What do you mean, and then there's--"
"Never mind! Forget it."
After the men left, the room fell silent, with only the clatter of Meryl's typewriter keys breaking the hot, heavy stillness. Millie had gotten used to entertaining herself while her senpai wrote the reports, and she lay on her bed and idly stroked the cat. Their room doubled as bedroom and office; it was all they could afford.
"Senpai, what do you think we should name it?"
"I said, what do you think we should name the cat?"
Meryl rotated in her chair. One leg wobbled and threatened to fall off; she stabilized herself hastily by spreading out her feet. "You want to name it?"
"Everything's got to have a name," Millie defended herself.
"Hai, hai, whatever, Millie."
"But Senpai, what do you think is a good name?"
"Call it whatever you like, Millie. I'm trying to work over here."
Millie petted the cat's ears. It was curled into a ball, apparently asleep. "What about Kuroneko?"
"Black Cat? It's ... descriptive." Meryl cranked the last page out of the typewriter and pushed back her chair. The unstable leg fell off immediately, and the chair crashed to the dusty floor, but she was already standing up. "Millie, I'm going to go down and post this before the mail wagon leaves, okay? You keep an eye on, uh, Kuroneko."
"Hai, Senpai." Millie rolled over onto her stomach and crossed her hands under her chin. She heard the door close, and sighed, pushing lank strands of hair off her face. "It's so hot, Kuroneko-sama, don't you think?"
The cat miaowed and cracked open one green-gold eye, then the other.
"Oh, Kuroneko-sama, what beautiful eyes you have," Millie said, entranced.
The cat glanced at her and then raised its head, staring at the window. It got awkwardly to three legs, and arched its back, hissing.
"What's out there?" Millie asked. She rose and walked to the window, gazing out into the haze of a desert afternoon. "I don't see any--"
Her voice trailed off in a scream as the window disintegrated inward in a shower of glass fragments. Millie caught herself against the bedframe and raised her hand to her face, brushed away a trickle of blood where the flying glass had lacerated her cheek.
"Oooohh! Who did that? You'd better come out, you--"
Another rock sailed through the window, knocking more glass to the floor, and in its wake, a small dark shape that executed a neat back flip and landed on its feet.
"Why, you're just a boy. You can't be more than -- hunf!"
The boy had punched her in the stomach, jumping in the air in order to reach high enough. He leaped nimbly past her, onto the bed.
"Hey!" he cried, and whirled on Millie, who was lying half on and half off the bed, gasping. "Where's the cat, sister?"
"Hunhhh?" Millie managed.
"The cat! Where's that frikkin' cat?" He peered under the bed and around the room, while Millie pulled herself upright.
"Now look here, little boy," she snapped in the closest she could manage to the tone her big sisters used to use on her. "You are a very rude little boy and if you don't sit down and stop being impolite and tell me what you're--"
"Shut up!" he yelled at her. Millie could feel a flush of fury spreading up her face. She didn't get mad very often, but this was the sort of mad that made her want to shoot something... She started to reach for her gun, which was leaning against the wall near the door. A sharp rock bounced off her arm, tearing her sleeve and leaving a trail of blood.
The boy cocked his arm back with another rock. "I'm real fast with these an' the next one'll hit your head, sister. Siddown an' shuddup. Betcha that cat went and disappeared again, didn't it? Well, I'm gonna find it an' take it back to Maw. I said siddown!"
Millie sat, furious with herself for taking orders from someone she could easily have picked up and thrown across the room. But what was I thinking, she thought; I can't shoot a kid!
There was something frightening about this kid, though. Millie believed there was a little bit of good in everybody, but this kid's little bit of goodness had to be buried under many, many layers of dirty, scowling street brat. His eyes were the scariest thing about him -- dark, flat and cold. Millie found herself flattening back against the bed as he walked toward her.
"Where's the cat, sister?"
"I -- I don't know -- and you, you shouldn't talk to people that way!" Millie forced her spine straight. I am not afraid of him! she thought.
The boy produced a knife from somewhere in his rags, keeping hold of the rock with his other hand. "I came to get the cat, lady, but it looks like you got some other nice things here. You got food? Money?"
"I-- I'm not giving it to someone who doesn't ask nicely!" Millie snapped.
They both spun about. The cat was in the window, crouched flat against the sill and staring wildly down at the drop to the street. Even for a healthy cat, that would have been quite a jump.
"Aha!" the boy crowed and, dropping his rock, lunged for the window. The cat started to jump a fraction of a second too late. The boy's grubby hand closed around its body. The cat hissed and struggled, but the boy gripped its neck and twisted sharply.
"No!" Millie screamed, half-rising.
The boy shook the limp little body, and dropped it. "So much f'r Mister Disappearin' Cat. Now where you got your money, lady?"
Millie stood staring at him. "You -- you -- you little hoodlum, you little delinquint -- how dare you kill a helpless creature like that! I don't care if you're a child! You're a bad child!"
"Hey!" the boy yelled as she went for her gun. He threw his rock and it glanced off her shoulder, but Millie hardly felt it. She spun around with her stungun in hand. The boy dropped the rock he was about to throw.
Millie was shaking with anger. "Now you -- you -- you bad little boy, you clean up this mess right now!"
"Make me, lady!"
She shot him. He flew backwards into the wall and crumpled to the floor, moaning.
"Oh!" Millie cried, lowering her gun. "Did I hurt you?"
The boy started to pick himself up shakily, stopped when she made a threatening move with the gun. "You're crazy, lady. Crazy."
"I'm called Stungun Millie," Millie snapped. She'd made up the name to impress Brilliant Dynamites Neon, but had discovered in their subsequent travels that having a fierce-sounding nickname made a better impression on the colorful frontier types that they often encountered.
The boy laughed. "Stungun Millie? That's the dumbest name I ever heard."
"Shut up!" Millie yelled at him. "I once -- I once shot a man over a can of pudding, so don't talk back to me!"
"You really are crazy."
"And you're mean! Why would you want to hurt a defenseless little cat?"
The boy laughed again, a cold hard sound. "You don't know much, do you, sister? You know what it's like to be hungry? That cat's going to taste pretty good."
"You're going to eat it?" Millie gasped in horror.
"Hey, sister, when it comes to some of the things I've eaten, cat is one of the best. Can't beat fresh meat. They don't have gourmet restaurants in my part of town, you know," he sneered.
"If you're hungry, I'll give you some food. All you have to do is ask nicely."
"I'd rather eat cat!" The boy looked sideways, and his eyes widened. "Hey, where'd it go?"
Millie looked too, fearing a trick, but the place where the cat's body had fallen in front of the window was empty.
"It -- it must have got kicked out of the way," she said, almost believing herself.
"This is nuts," the boy said. "I want outa here. Between a crazy lady with a gun and a ghost cat -- I'd rather have Maw whip me."
"Oh... wait," Millie said reluctantly. She kept the gun pointed at him with one hand -- the boy's eyes widened at that, but she didn't know why; it wasn't even a very big gun, compared to the one her big brother had taught her to use -- and scooped a loaf of bread off the table. It was going to be dinner, and Meryl would be mad, but well, Meryl got mad a lot, and she got over it pretty quickly. Millie tossed the bread to the boy.
"Please don't eat any cats tonight."
"Whatever," the boy muttered, sticking the loaf of bread into his rags. He picked up his knife and backed toward the window. "Look, I'm goin', I'm gone, okay, sister?"
"Stungun Millie. Right." Shaking his head, the boy jumped backwards out the window.
Millie gasped and ran to the window. The boy had landed on his feet in the street, very like a cat himself. As she watched, he rolled, picked himself up and ran away.
Millie sighed and looked around for the body of the poor little cat. She would have to bury it outside of town. Wherever she looked, though, she couldn't find it. It wasn't in front of the window or under the table or under the bed--
"Kuroneko-sama?" Millie cried in disbelief. The cat was sitting in front of the door, its tail curled about its haunches. As she watched in amazement, it put out one small paw and scratched the door.
"Oh, Kuroneko-sama! He didn't kill you after all!" Millie threw aside the gun and ran to fall to her knees beside the cat. It looked up at her with its deep green eyes, and miaowed again.
"You want out? But little cat, you're hurt, and that mean boy is out there. He might hurt you again."
"I guess you know what's best," Millie said, and she pushed the door open a crack. The cat sauntered out into the hall. It walked easily, not favoring its hurt leg at all, as if it had never been injured.
"Be careful, Kuroneko-sama. Watch out for boys with rocks!"
The cat looked back at her, and miaowed one more time. Then it wandered away down the hall and vanished down the stairs.
Millie remembered, then, the heavy door at the bottom of the stairs. The cat could not possibly push it open. "Kuroneko-sama, wait!" She ran after it, long hair flying, and ran headlong into Wolfwood at the top of the stairs.
"Easy there, big girl," he said, disintangling himself.
"Bokushi-san! Did you see Kuroneko-sama?"
"Lord Black Cat?" Wolfwood asked, amused. "Vash's cat, you mean? Did it get out?"
"He asked to be let out, but he can't get out through the door." Millie looked past him, down the stairs. Wolfwood looked too.
"I don't see any cat."
"He must have gone out past you, when you opened the door."
"Maybe. I didn't see any cat, but whatever." Wolfwood shrugged. "So it's feeling better, huh?"
"Yes, he wasn't limping at all."
"Guess its leg wasn't broken after all. So much for Vash the Cat Doctor and Meryl the Wonder Vet. Where's miss short, dark and stressed-out, anyhow?"
Millie giggled. "You mean Meryl? She went to mail her report. Oh!" Her hand flew to her mouth. "I'd better clean up before she gets back, or she'll be mad at me. I already gave away our dinner."
"To the cat?"
"No, to the little boy. Oh, Bokushi-san, you don't suppose Kuroneko-sama's hungry, do you? I wonder if he can find food out there?"
"It looked well fed to me. Uh, what little boy?"
"The little boy with the knife," Millie said, leading him back down the hall.
"He broke the window and tried to steal Kuroneko-sama, but he didn't."
"There's a big dent in the wall where I shot him. Meryl won't be happy about that, 'cause we'll probably have to pay extra for the room."
"You girls certainly lead an interesting life."
"Oh, I don't think so," Millie said. "It was a very ordinary life, really, until we met Vash."
"Is that right," Wolfwood said dryly. The sarcasm seemed to pass right over her head.
He helped her pick up the broken glass, and stood at the window for a moment, looking down into the street.
"If you're worried about that boy coming back, Vash or I could stay here to keep an eye on you."
"Oh, no," Millie said. "I'm not worried at all. I hope that little boy is okay, though."
"From the sound of things, he can take care of himself." Wolfwood turned back from the window, and grinned at her. "Hey, there's Meryl and Vash."
Millie joined him. The two were in front of the town's small post office, down the street a short way. Through the shimmering heat on the sidewalk, it was difficult to tell what they were doing. Vash had gone down to one knee in the street. Meryl stood behind him, bending over.
"That's funny," Millie said. "It doesn't look like she's yelling at him. That's unusual."
"Hey, check it out. There's the cat."
And so it was. Vash was trying to entice it closer, but it sat and regarded him, swishing its black tail. Then, with a leap of amazing speed, it was on top of the post office roof, and then it was over the roof and gone. Vash tilted his head back to watch it go. Meryl thrust her hands in her pockets and leaned against the side of the post office.
"Looks like your Kuroneko-sama is going to be fine."
Millie chewed on her lip. "I really did think that its leg was broken. So did Vash."
"It appears to have made a miraculous recovery."
"I guess so," Millie said dubiously.
Wolfwood shook his head, and stepped away from the window. "So -- good news, right? Cat's gonna be okay. Let's go get something to drink and celebrate."
Millie jumped up and clapped her hands, like a little girl. "Oh, yes!"
"C'mon, big girl. Let's go get Meryl and Vash."
As they left, Wolfwood glanced over his shoulder, at the jagged ends of glass in the window. Some nutcases in this town, all right.
He shut the door.
Behind the door, the shadows in the room lengthened as the sun sank toward twilight. And softly, from the darkness under the bed...