Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by Yasuhiro Nightow, Yousuke Kuroda, Satoshi Nishimura, and various publishers including but not limited to Young King Comics, Madhouse and Pioneer Entertainment, and Victor Company of Japan. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Posted by: Elspeth, A.K.A. Elspethdixon

Ships:  None. *hides Volkswagen V and W symbol behind back *  Vash and Wolfwood are just friends.  Like Achilles and Patroclus, or Gabrielle and Xena.

* Author's note: this fic contains minor spoilers for the end of episode 21, "Out Of Time," and for a bit of Wolfwood background info revealed in episode 23, "Paradise."  Also, if you don't know who or what a "Knives" is, or have not yet seen Vash shirtless, you might miss a couple of allusions and receive an unpleasant surprise. *

Scars, Cigarettes, and Scripture.

"Everybody who touches me dies," Vash whispered, staring into the dancing flames in front of him.  The twisting shapes seemed to form pictures, faces.  He could see Brad, holding his hands out to him, Rem, her long, black hair blowing in the wind, countless others who had died around him over the years, in spite of, or sometimes because of, his attempts to save them.

                "Don't be so friggin' melodramatic, Tongari," Nick snorted.  "Next thing you know, you'll be going on about being cursed, or something.  I mean, I've touched you, and I'm still alive.  The short-haired girl pokes and prods at you all the time, and she's still around."

                "That's not what I meant."

                "I know."

                They were silent for a few moments, Vash still gazing into the fire, Nick lying on his back a few feet away, staring up at the sky.  Saving his night vision.

                "It's not always your fault, you know, Tongari," he ventured, after a bit.  "Sometimes, people's sins just catch up with them."

                "What sins did the people on that ship have?  What sins did Brad have?"  Nick was a little too fatalistic for his tastes sometimes.  There was always something you could do, always some way to avert disaster.  If he had just been a little faster, a little smarter, or, best of all, if he had not come in the first place, disaster need not have happened.

                "None worth dying for," Nick conceded.  "I hate being right," he muttered.  He pushed himself up on one elbow, glancing over at the bedrolls where the insurance girls lay sleeping, a half-circle of large rocks giving them a token privacy from the men.  "Looks like the girls are down for the count.  So, you ready to stop being a martyr and let me take a look at your side?"

                "What?"  Vash turned to look at him, outlined in profile with that ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips.  Nick had perfected the art of talking without removing that thing from his mouth.

                "Your side," Nick repeated.  "There's something wrong with it.  You've been moving funny all evening.  Not enough for the girls to notice, I'll give ya that, but still funny.  And I saw the way you were leaning on Brad when you came out of the ship."

                Damn.  He'd been hoping that no one would notice.  He was fairly confident that Hoppard hadn't actually broken anything--a broken rib would have resulted in sharp, stabbing pain, not the dull, stiff throb of bruises--and he wasn't actually bleeding.  At least, not much.  He should have remembered Nick's uncannily perceptive eyes.

                "I'm fine," Vash protested.  "Just a little bruised, is all."

                Nick took a deep drag on the cigarette, breathing out a stream of smoke that drifted upwards to mingle with the smoke from the campfire.  "I'm pretty sure your definition of fine isn't shared by any sane person on the planet.  Come on, take off that red coat and all that leather stuff and let me look."

                "I like my coat," Vash whined, attempting to change the subject.  "I just got it back.  I want to keep it."

                "What's wrong, Tongari?" Nick asked, smirking slightly.  "You shy?  Or," and here the smirk faded, "do you have some stupid notion that you deserve to suffer for not saving those people."

                For some reason, ideas that sounded perfectly reasonable inside his head always sounded silly when Nick voiced them.

                "It's not that," he tried to explain.  "It's just…"

                Nick cast his eyes heavenward for a moment, as if seeking some form of divine guidance, then rolled to his knees and bent over to start undoing the buttons on the front of Vash's coat.

                "Hey!" Vash yelped, swatting ineffectually at the other man's fingers.  "Stop it!"

                "Shhh," Nick hissed.  "You'll wake up the girls.  I waited 'til they were asleep 'cause I figured you didn't want to worry them, but if you don't care…"

                Vash "shushed," and sulkily allowed Nick to finish unfastening his coat.  Once the priest had gotten the red fabric open, exposing the leather bodysuit underneath, he stopped, apparently confounded.

                "Um, that's a lot of leather."  He poked tentatively at one buckle.  "How do you get it off?"

                "Why don't you tell me, Oh-He-Who-Unbuttons-Other-People's-Coats?"

                "Shut-up and strip, Tongari."

                "Make me."  The moment the phrase left his mouth, Vash realized how childish it sounded.  Worse, Nick probably could make him.  He'd pinned him pretty effectively the day before, outside the ship.  Of course, Vash hadn't been fighting back very hard… but then, he hadn't been injured then, either.

                "Oh, Lord give me strength," Nick muttered.  "Leather.  Off.  Now."  He pointed a determined finger at Vash's chest.  "After that stunt you pulled when I found you, there's nothing I haven't seen, so you don't need to be modest."

                Vash gave up, resigning himself to the inevitable pitying gaze and sympathetic flinches his scars always seemed to elicit, and started shucking off the top half of his bodysuit.  His side pulled painfully as he struggled out of it, and he hissed between his teeth--something he was sure Nick did not fail to notice.

                The moment the clothing was over his head and on the ground, hands began running up his sides, prodding bruises and feeling at ribs with total disregard for scar tissue, brands, and metal bolts.  No one had ever touched him so casually, neither poking curiously at his various battle scars nor squeamishly avoiding them.

                Vash winced as Nick's fingers jabbed at a particularly sensitive rib, and the other man whistled.

                "That's one hell of a bruise you've got there."  He leaned closer, examining the purple and black discoloration and the long, shallow gash that ran through the middle of it, courtesy of one of Hoppard's bullets.  Vash could feel Nick's breath against his skin as he peered closely at his side, squinting in the flickering firelight.  Fortunately, the other man had temporarily gotten rid of his cigarette, so Vash didn't have to worry about being accidentally scorched.  "I'll borrow the big girl's first aid kit and put a bandage on that cut."

                Nick got to his feet in one smooth movement and glided over to Millie's pack, pulling the fastenings loose and sliding the little box of medical items out.  He could move like a shadow when he wanted to, one of the many things about him that didn't quite add up.  Who had trained him to move with such stealth, to shoot with such deadly accuracy, to kill with such disturbing ease?  Vash couldn't exactly blame the man for keeping secrets, not when he concealed so many of his own, but he did wonder occasionally why a man who claimed to be a priest had the reflexes of a gunman, and why Nick chose to follow him on what was becoming an increasingly dangerous mission.  He tried not to wonder too hard.

                Actually, Vash noted as Nick stepped cat-footed back into the circle of firelight, the other man was not moving quite as quietly or as smoothly as normal.  He limped a bit, favoring one leg, and stumbled ever so slightly a few times, as if too tired to take proper notice of the uneven ground.

                "Here."  Nick knelt down again, popping the catch and opening the first aid kit to reveal a tube of antibiotic ointment and a selection of bandages.  "I'll just put some of this on and slap a bandage on you.  I think I'll wrap your ribs, too, just to be safe."  He began smoothing clear, greasy cream carefully onto the edges of the wound, fingers gentle.  "Too bad I can't stitch this for you.  You'll probably end up with another scar."

                "No one will notice," Vash assured him.  He tried to ignore the sting of the antibiotic and the unusual feeling of hands on his bare skin.  Nick's inspection a few minutes before had hurt, but his touch now tickled, stirring up the urge to either grab him and tickle back, or flinch away.

                "I'll notice," Nick insisted.  "Or at least, I'll know it's there."  He grinned.  "Whenever somebody asks you how you got it, you can think of me."

                Vash tried to smile back, but he wasn't sure he succeeded.  He knew that, in the future, whenever he came across this particular scar, he'd remember not Nick, much as he'd prefer to, but that hallway full of corpses, mown down by Leonof's puppets, the agony that he had sensed from the dying plants, the look on Brad's face as his life blood poured out onto the sand.

                Nick must have guessed at the thoughts running through his head, because he tried to change the subject.  "You know, Tongari, this is gonna sound stupid, but I've been wondering something."

                "What?"  Vash seized on the chance to discuss something other than the day's events.

                "Why a grating?"  Nick pressed the last corner of the bandage into place with adhesive tape, then reached up to draw one finger lightly across the criss-crossed strips of metal on the left side of Vash's chest.  "I mean, what sort of injury would require you to have a friggin' metal grating implanted in your flesh.  I know it's none of my business, but a grating?"

                "I can't remember."  Vash kept his eyes down as he made the excuse, not wanting to meet Nick's smoky blue gaze.  It sounded like an evasion, he knew.  "Really, I can't.  There's this month-long gap in my memory, and at the end of it, I wake up with this."  He gestured at his chest.  "I can't even remember what happened to me, or where I was when it happened."

                "So, it's from twenty years ago?"  Nick kept his eyes averted as well, returning the roll of bandaging to the first aid kit.  Both of them knew what he was referring to, though Vash was grateful that he didn't actually say it out loud.

                "No, it's older than that, actually.  I've got more than one gap in my memory.  I think.  What did you say your name was again?"  When in doubt, crack a joke.  It almost always distracted people, and usually distracted the joker as well.

                "Oh."  Nick paused for a moment, then looked back up into Vash's eyes.  His pupils were round and large in the dim light, and his irises dark.  He scooped up the bottle of whiskey he'd offered Vash earlier and extended it again, with a little quirk to his eyebrows that seemed to say 'Aren't you glad I didn't use this for antiseptic?'  "Which one did you get first?  That is, if you can remember."

                "That one," Vash pointed, before remembering that his right kneepad was covering the remnants of the old scrape up.  "There's a scar on my knee, somewhere under there.  I was really little, and I tripped and fell against the bulkhead--the wall, I mean, and my, uh, someone, got me to stop crying and helped fix it up."  Blue eyes peering at him from behind a fall of white-blonde hair, and a child's voice asking, "Brother, are you alright?  Let me fix it for you."  Hands with bandaids and hydrogen peroxide.  "Steve pushed you, didn't he?  I saw him.  The bastard!  No, hey, Vash, don't cry.  Never let them see you cry.  There, look, it's stopped bleeding."  He accepted the bottle from Nick, closing his eyes and drinking one burning swallow, letting it chase the memories away.  "Not real dramatic, huh?" 

                "Not really."  Nick produced another cigarette from somewhere and held the end in the fire to light it.  "I've got a scar on one thigh," he offered, as he slid the new cigarette between his lips.

                "Yeah?"  Vash prompted.

                "I was smoking, and I fell asleep holding the cigarette, and, well, let's just say I didn't stay asleep for very long."

                Vash started snickering before he could stop himself.  "That's really lame, Nick."

                "Yeah, I know."

                "You could have set the sheets on fire and killed yourself."

                "I know, already."  Nick was beginning to sound annoyed.

                "You really ought to stop smoking."

                Nick took a deep drag on the cigarette and purposefully blew the smoke into Vash's face.  "Or what?  I'll get lung cancer by the time I'm sixty?"  He smirked, a slightly rueful expression.  "I've got to live to see sixty first.  Anyway, I like smoking.  It's relaxing, almost like meditating."

                "It's relaxing because it's got noxious, addictive chemicals in it," Vash reminded him.

                "And of course, alcohol doesn't."  The little, sarcastic prod was gentle, but it was a prod, nonetheless.

                "Nope."  Vash extended the whisky bottle back towards Nick with an innocent, helpful expression on his face.  "Which is why you should drink some more of this before I take care of your leg."

                The look on Nick's face was priceless.  Obviously, he'd thought his own version of the 'I'm fine, it's nothing, really' act would go unnoticed.  Now, it was payback time.

                "What about my leg?"  Nick tried to look innocent, an expression he'd never been able to pull off as easily as Vash. 

                "Something gave you that limp.  You didn't have it yesterday."  Vash grinned, still cheerful, still helpful.  "Take off your trousers and let me have a look."

                "No way!"

                "Hey, you've seen me.  Fair's fair."

                A brief argument ensued, and a few minutes later a visibly sulking priest sat cigarette-less and stripped to his boxers next to the fire, while a still half-clothed Humanoid Typhoon inspected his leg.

                "Why didn't you tell somebody that you'd been shot, you imbecile?"

                "Because I'm fine."

                Fine was something of an overstatement.  The small, neat hole in Nick's thigh didn't seem to have bled much--Vash had a queasy suspicion that Nick had shoved the end of a lit cigarette into it to make it stop, since the surrounding burn didn't seem to have any power grains in it--but there was no matching exit wound on the other side of his leg.

                "I think the bullet's still in there," Vash announced. 

                "It can stay there," Nick insisted.  "It's fine where it is.  You've got half a scrapyard's worth of metal in you."

                "But you could get gangrene," Vash protested.  "What if the Gung Ho Guns poison their bullets?"

                "They don't."

                "How do you know?"

                Nick shrugged.  Obviously, he was willing to take his chances with the bullet rather than suffer through the lengthy and painful process of having it pulled out.  Vash, however, wasn't willing to take chances.  It was his fault that Nick was hurt.  Under normal circumstances, he'd never even have heard of Grey the Nine Lives.  The giant cyborg had been after Vash the Stampede, not Nicolas D. Wolfwood.  Nick had simply been in the way.

                "I'll pull it out for you," Vash volunteered.  "It should take too long.  I've done this before.  And doing it to someone else ought to be easier."

                Nick gave him a slightly wild-eyed look.  Clearly, he didn't fully trust Vash's medical skills.

                "I let you poke and prod at me," Vash reminded him.  "And a bullet's a little more serious than a bruise.  It looks like it really hurts.  I bet it would hurt less if the bullet was out."

                With a muttered comment that Vash didn't quite catch but which he would have bet money was profane, Nick thrust the first aid kit at him, shoving the white box ungraciously into his hands and turning his face away. 

                Vash reopened the box and began sorting through it.  On top were the bandages and antibiotic ointment Nick had used on him.  Beneath were headache pills, cough lozenges, an assortment of arcane feminine things whose purpose he didn't really want to guess at, and, finally, a pair of tweezers.  He held the little silver implement up triumphantly, and pulled the knife from the sole of his right boot for use as a probe.

                Nick cut his eyes sideways at the knife, glowing in the firelight like something molten, and stiffened.

                "It's not going to hurt that much," Vash lied.  "Really, it's just like having a splinter taken out."

                "Stick those things in the fire first."  Nick gestured at the knife and tweezers.  "I don't want to catch some sort of septic infection off of them."  He lifted the whiskey bottle to his lips and took a long swallow.  "This sort of thing is supposed to be done by a doctor, you know.  A doctor with good painkillers."

                "Sorry," Vash apologized, as he used his left hand to hold the tips of the tweezers and blade of the knife in the flames. 

                "Doesn't that hurt?"  Nick was watching the flames dance perilously close to Vash's fingers with fascination, temporarily distracted from the prospect of the upcoming impromptu surgery.

                "Oh, no."  Vash tried a small smile.  Showing Nick that there were advantages to having a cybernetic hand.  That he didn't need to be pitied for being 'maimed'. "No pain receptors there.  I can't feel anything below my shoulder but pressure."

                Nick shook his head.  "It just looks so damn real.  I keep forgetting.  I mean, I see you use your second gun and still I forget."  His lips twitched.  "'God must have saved us.'  Real smooth excuse.  I should have figured it out back then."  Funny, that he could quote Vash's exact words from two years ago, in spite of the long months that had passed in between.  Still, it had been a rather memorable situation.  Vash could still see the look on Nick's face when he had realized that he'd lept off a bus to confront an army of killer robots and forgotten to bring along a weapon.  Of course, he had gone along anyway.  That was when Vash had known.  Sometimes a person could gain access to your heart in a single moment.  There might not be any such thing as love at first sight, but there was such a thing as instant friendship.

                "It's not exactly the sort of thing most people would expect."  Vash pulled the implements back from the fire, waiting for them to cool off.  "Come over here where the light's better.  I'm going to need to see what I'm doing."

                Nick shifted position, until he was barely a foot away from Vash, their knees touching.  Vash set his left hand on Nick's shoulder to brace himself and leaned close for a better view, the knife ready in his right hand.

                Nick hissed as the slender knifepoint poked into the hole in his thigh, his hands tightening into fists.  Vash could feel the muscles beneath his hands locking up and trembling.  Fortunately, the bullet hadn't gone in very deep.  It had only penetrated an inch or so, stopping well short of bone.

                Nick turned his face away as Vash began sliding the tweezers into the wound.  As makeshift forceps, they left something to be desired.  Pulling the thing out was going to take a bit of work.

                "Think about something else," Vash advised, as he tried to get a grip on the flattened bit of metal.  "Like Millie naked."

                 "I've never seen her naked," Nick muttered.  "The only person here I've seen naked is you.  Ow!  That hurts!"

                "Then think about me naked.  Whatever."

                "Jesus H. Christ!  Ow, ow, oowww!"

                "Shhh.  I'm almost finished.  I swear.  Try reciting something, like the colonization charter."

                "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness," Nick forced out through his teeth.  Sweat was breaking out on his face, and his eyes were closed.  "According unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity--Hurry up, damn you.  Wash me throughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me…"

                Vash tuned out the sound of Nick's voice, muttering the archaic words like some sort of magic charm against pain, and focused all his attention on the bits of metal in his hand.  He had it now, just a few more yanks…

                "Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, and my tongue shall sing aloud of your righteousness, O God of my salvati--ow!"

Almost got it…  Vash kept his head bent to his task, flinching a little as a slow trickle of blood started up from the wound.  Above him, Nick had finished the first poem and started on a new one.

                "Plead my cause, O Lord, with those that strive against me: fight against those that fight against me. Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me... Are you done yet?  Let their way be dark and slippery, and let the angel of the Lord persecute them…"

                "There!"  Vash held the bullet up triumphantly.  "All done."

                "It took you long enough."  Nick broke off his recitation and snatched the bullet out of Vash's hands, inspecting it.  "Pretty small caliber for such a big guy."

                "If it were one of mine, I think it would have broken your femur."

                "Well, then, thanks for not shooting me by accident.  Though it probably would have hurt less."  Nick's voice still sounded strangled, and one of his hands was now pressed against the bleeding hole in his thigh.  "Just like having a splinter taken out, you said.  A splinter the size of fucking August."

                "Sorry."  Vash didn't look up, concentrating on fishing the little tube of antibiotics out of the first aid kit again.  He didn't want to think about August right now.  Sky City was enough to deal with at the moment.  "You're going to have to move your hand, if I'm going to put a bandage on."

                Nick pulled his hand away, wiping the blood off his fingers with a handful of extra gauze.  "I might be wrong, but I thought the point of this little scene was supposed to be me taking care of you."

                "You don't need to do that," Vash answered absentmindedly, as he carefully laid a square of gauze across the entry wound in Nick's leg and began taping down the edges.

                "Oh yeah?"  Nick raised his eyebrows and gave Vash a look.  "You need a constant babysitter, Tongari.  Trouble follows you around like a puppy on a leash."  He shook his head.  "Just look at the things you get into when I'm not there to knock some sense into you or guard your back.  Why are you snickering like that?"

                "I'm just imagining Legato on a leash."  Legato, in fact, with floppy puppy ears sticking out of that shaggy, blue hair, and a pink collar around his neck.  It was a surprisingly entertaining mental image.  Of course, in reality, a leash would do nothing to limit Legato's power or make that creepy smile any less disturbing.  And if he did wear a collar, it would probably have spikes on it.

                "Legato on a leash."  Nick choked, snorting with laughter.  "With long, floppy puppy ears, and his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.  Chewing on a bone." 

                Vash blinked.  "I think you read my mind."

                "And, and Leonof would have a long, fluffy tail, and that huge bastard who shot me would be a bulldog.  With a giant leather collar covered with spikes, all tied up on a choke chain."  Nick was gasping hysterically by this point.   "Bad doggie.  No treat for you."

                It really wasn't all that funny, but somehow Vash found himself laughing as well.  The sound of Nick's laughter was infectious, and soon the two of them were practically howling, comparing each of the unpleasant gunmen, gangs, and homicidal machines they had faced together to some sort of canine.  The high point came when Nick decided that the guardian robots the two had fought when they had first met had been a pack of rabid hyenas.  Very ugly hyenas.

                "Just how much of that whiskey did you drink before I started fixing your leg?" Vash gasped out, when the laughter had died down.  Millie and Meryl were, miraculously, still asleep--or possibly ignoring them and pretending to be asleep.  Probably asleep.  There was no way Meryl would miss an opportunity to humiliate him by reminding everyone of the time he had let Elizabeth, the pretty plant engineer, call him "Spot."

                "Not that much, I swear.  I don't know why it was so funny.  It just was."  Nick started chuckling again.  "Woof, woof."

                "Oh, shut up.  No, Nick please, don't make me laugh anymore.  It's making my side hurt."

                Nick immediately stopped imitating the imaginary puppy-Legato, looking guilty.  Which only made him look even more like an imaginary puppy Gung Ho Gun--one who had been caught misbehaving.  Somehow, Vash managed to keep this image from sending him off into a new round of laughter.

                "You're an idiot," he informed his friend, as he held one hand against the new bandage on his ribs.

                "You're a bad influence on me," Nick returned.  "You've got me acting almost as goofy as you do.  Next thing you know, I'll be crying all the time and refusing to kill people."

                "I do not cry all the time," Vash protested. 

                Nick didn't even bother replying to that.  He merely smirked, in that infuriating "I know all your secrets" way he had.

                Vash experienced a brief surge of desire to pounce on Nick and wrestle him into submission, put him in a headlock, and rub his knuckles back and forth in that black hair until the bastard begged for mercy.  But that would only have made his side hurt, and started Nick's leg bleeding again, and gotten sand everywhere, so he settled for simply giving Nick's shoulder a gentle shove.

                "Hey, be careful, will you?  I'm injured."

                "Not in the shoulder."  Vash punctuated his words with another tap of his fist, too light to do anything more than annoy.

                "I might as well be." Nick made a face.  "You try firing a grenade launcher from your shoulder sometime, and see how your muscles feel."

                "It's God's way of telling you that you shouldn't use grenade launchers on people.  What kind of priest has his own grenade launcher?"  He tried for an air of reproof, but probably failed to pull it off.  He knew first hand--okay, really bad pun, Vash--how much damage repeated recoils could exact on one's muscles.  There were times when he profoundly wished that his left shoulder were as devoid of pain-sensitive nerve endings as the rest of his left arm.  After a particularly intense firefight--such as today's--it usually felt as if someone had been slamming it repeatedly with a hammer.

                "The kind that hangs around you and has an interest in self-preservation." 

                "Yeah, because trouble follows me like a puppy dog."

                "Damn right."  Nick reached up and rubbed at his shoulder.  "And I've got to carry my luggage around tomorrow, too.  On this leg.  Damn.  And don't you dare tell me it's my fault for carrying around so many weapons, or I'll hurt you."

                "Ooh, scary."  Vash nodded at Nick's shoulder.  "You want me to get that."

                "You gonna give me a seductive and sexy back rub?"  Nick arched his eyebrows, grinning in a particularly irritating way.

                "I could give you a seductive and sexy punch in the face."  Vash raised one fist threateningly.

                Nick made a show of being scared, raising his arm as if to fend Vash off.  "The evil outlaw is threatening me.  Don't hurt me or I'll sue."

                "So, you want the punch, then."

                "Naw, I'll take the back rub.  And I won't even tell the short-haired girl that you're cheating on her."

                "Hey!  Do you want help or not?"  Vash tried to sound threatening, but had an unhappy suspicion that the words had come out sounding more like a yelping whine than anything else.  A suspicion that was confirmed by the slight curve of Nick's lips.  He knew he'd scored a point with the remark about Meryl, whose firmly-denied but still evident interest in Vash was becoming increasingly obvious of late.  Why did he try so hard to be annoying?  Granted, arguments with Nick were always a good distraction from more worrying problems, and exchanging insults with him could actually be kind of fun sometimes, but still…

                "Sorry."   Nick did not sound very sorry, but Vash decided to let the matter drop.  Instead of reviving the subject of Millie, which hadn't succeeded in getting a rise out of Nick yet but which he was firmly convinced would eventually, Vash slid around behind Nick and placed his hands over his friend's shoulders, thumbs against the muscles at the base of his neck. 

                Nick's muscles were hard as rocks, drawn tight with tension, and he groaned deep in his throat when Vash began to work on them, exerting as much force as he dared.  "Does that hurt?"

                "Yeah, but don't stop." Nick leaned back into the pressure, and Vash found himself becoming increasingly absorbed in his task, focusing narrowing down as it had earlier, until all he noticed was the feel of Nick's muscles slowly relaxing, and the touch of slightly chilled skin under his right hand.  Even so, it was a few minutes before he realized that that skin was not as smooth as it appeared.  Then his right thumb glided across a line of raised flesh, and his fingers went still.

                Scattered across Nick's shoulder blades were a double-handful of scars, so thin and faded that he hadn't noticed them before.  Vash, who considered himself something of an expert on scar tissue, could tell that they were at least a decade and a half old.  Maybe even two decades, which meant that Nick must have been a child when he'd sustained the original injury.

                "What are these?"

                "What're what?"  Nick twisted his head around, trying to see over his shoulder.  "Why did you stop?"

                "These scars."  Vash traced a finger along the longest of them.  "Here."

                "Oh.  Those."  Nick was staring forward again, face turned away from Vash.  "I'd almost forgotten about them.  They're from a belt."

                "From a what?"  Vash could hear his voice rising on the last word.  It didn't take a genius to figure out the implications behind that simple statement.

                "Shhh.  You'll wake up the girls.  A belt.  You know, like some people hit kids with?"  Nick swung around to face him, suddenly looking cold in the night breeze.  He mimed slashing with something.

                "Who-" Vash had barely gotten the beginning of the question out before Nick cut him off.

                "It doesn't matter.  He's dead now.  He can never hurt anyone again.  Never."

                Vash instantly decided that he didn't want to ask how the man had died.  There was something truly disturbing in Nick's voice as he said the words, an eerie sing-song quality, as if it was a phrase he'd repeated to himself countless times.  "How old were you?" he asked instead.


                "When he died."

                "Seven, maybe eight."  Nick shrugged, then rolled his neck back and forth.  "Seven, I think.  Thanks, Tongari.  It actually doesn't hurt anymore."

                Seven.  Suddenly, a number of little oddities about Nick became much clearer.  Some people killed spiders to save butterflies, and some butterflies became spiders to save themselves.

                "Aren't you tired yet?" Nick asked him.  The phrase 'Can we please not talk about this?' was clearly audible beneath his words.  "It's cold, and it's late, and we've got to move on tomorrow."  He reached for his discarded white shirt, shrugging back into it and buttoning it closed.  The trousers followed, covering the bandage on his thigh, until all traces of scars and injury were concealed.  Black, like red, was a good color for hiding bloodstains.

                Vash eyed the leather straps and buckles that served as his own shirt, and decided to leave them off for a bit longer.  Getting back into the thing was just too much work at the moment.  He shifted his eyes back to the fire, feeling the solid presence of Nick at his right side.  Red, gold, and orange danced against the velvet blackness of the night, holding the dessert cold at bay.  It was like leaves carved out of flame.  A little imagination could turn the column of sparks dancing up through the smoke into flower petals, floating on the wind.  It could also turn the red flickering into blood, and the golden embers into Legato's eyes.  Too much imagination was not always a good thing.

                "Those poems you were saying earlier," Vash ventured, pulling his eyes away from the hypnotic flame shapes and focusing instead on the fourth moon, silvery and clean in the distance.  A smooth, white marble, unblemished by craters or holes.  "What are they?  Do you know any more?  Something that's not as sad, without the smiting part?"  'Come on, Nick,' he urged the other man silently.  'Distract me.  Give me something other than my failures to think about.  Give yourself something to think about other than whoever put those marks on your back.'

                "Poems?"  Nick had retrieved the bottle of whiskey and was now leaning against a rock next to Vash, head tipped back and eyes staring upward, a repetition of his posture earlier in the evening.  "Those were psalms.  They're from the Bible.  Most of them are about smiting, or forgiveness, or celebration."  He paused, breathing in a lung full of smoke.  "They're from old Earth, the place the colony ships came from.  There's all sorts of funny things in them, like cedars, and oceans, and rams, and places that don't exist anymore."  His voice had gone distant, exhaustion, alcohol, and pain finally catching up to him.  "I never learned the colonization charter," he half-explained.  "I got taught by mean nuns who made me memorize scripture."  He broke off, and yawned, eyes closing for a second.  "I didn't realize I remembered so many."

                "They're really pretty," Vash offered, leaning back to share the rock.  He scooped his coat up with one hand and spread the heavy cloth over the pair of them, insulation from the dessert night, and slid the bottle from Nick's hand.  It wasn't very good whiskey, but it was better than nothing, and after a while, you didn't notice the taste anymore.  "Kind of sad and violent, but beautiful at the same time."  Sort of like Nick, really.  Except that Nick wasn't really beautiful.  Certain things about him were; the look on his face when he spoke to kids, the delicateness of his hands when he reloaded and oiled the weapons in his considerable arsenal, the dark, smokey grey-blue of his eyes…  But there was still that nose, and the cigarettes, and the fact that he never seemed to remember to shave on a regular basis.  And the secrets, whatever they were.  Vash had a feeling that some of those secrets were very, very ugly indeed.  Nick would reveal where the scars on his back came from, but he wouldn't explain where he'd been during the past two years.  Deep down, Vash suspected that he probably didn't really want to know.  He might not like the answer.

                Nick sighed, and sent his cigarette spiraling out into the night.  He slung one arm around Vash's shoulders and leaned his head back against the stone.  His fingers were resting against the metal that marked the beginning of Vash's fake arm.  He didn't seem to mind.

                "Here's one for you.  A happy one.  'The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside cool waters and restores my soul.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil…"

                Vash closed his eyes and listened.  He fell asleep before Nick was finished.


                He awoke sometime later to the sound of voices.  Voices, close by, practically on top of him.  His body stiffened for a second, getting ready to jump up, to dodge, to run, before he recognized the source of the sounds.  Only the insurance girls.  Not a threat.  He kept his eyes closed and tried to regain his lost slumber.

                He was warm, his head against something firm but soft enough to be comfortable, and he could feel the heat of sunlight red against his closed eyelids.  He kept still, sensing that, though he was comfortable enough for now, movement would reawaken the pain in stiff muscles and bruised ribs.

                "Wake them up, Millie.  It's time to go."

                "But just look at them, Sempai.  They're so cute when they're asleep."

                "Yes, because for once, their mouths are shut.  Stop drooling over that priest and wake them up."

                Vash found himself wishing sleepily that Meryl would be quiet.  He was just starting drift off again, and her snarls were interfering.  Also, though he wasn't really paying attention to her words, he had a vague feeling that he'd just been insulted somehow.  Really, she just wasn't a morning person.

                Millie, however, was very much a morning person, and her voice was bright and cheery as she continued to contribute to the sleep-preventing noise.

                "Come on, Sempai.  You can't say that's not cute."

                "Fine.  Mr. Wolfwood's snoring is absolutely adorable.  You can marry him someday and listen to it all night long.  For now, just wake them up.  I'm going to pack."  Footsteps began striding away, then paused.  "What's your first aid kit doing out?"

                "You just don't want to admit that you think Mr. Vash is good looking."

                "I do not!" Meryl howled.  Okay, now Vash knew he was being insulted.  She could be as loud as she wanted.  He wasn't going to wake up.  Nope, not waking up.  He hadn't been this comfortable in weeks.  "Nothing about that man is in any way shape or form attractive!"

                The comfortable thing he was leaning against stirred, and an indistinct voice spoke from somewhere near his ear, breath stirring his hair.  "Oh Lord, smite her."  Then, louder, "Will you shut up.  You're going to wake him up.  C'mon, just--" a yawn, "let him sleep a little longer, 'kay?"  Another yawn, and then the breathing by his ear evened out and deepened again.  Vash took advantage of the insurance girls' subsequent silence, and fell asleep again.


* Note: The two psalms Nick recites while Vash extracts the bullet from his leg are psalm 51 (a psalm of penance, usually said at the beginning of Lent), and psalm 35.  The one he recites to Vash near the end of the story is, of course, psalm 23.  The numerical significance did not occur to me until the scene was already written.  The text for the psalms is taken from the Episcopal/Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. *

Thank you to everyone who reviewed "Mercy" and "Victory."  * grins * I love writing Nick—it's the perfect opportunity to use all of those fun religious allusions that no other character would ever plausibly make.  I sort of scared myself with the Legato piece, though.