A/N: So, since the last time I published a chapter, I've blown through THREE laptops, I've changed careers several times (government worker to construction worker to graphic designer back to government worker), I've pursued some cool, creative pursuits, I've ventured to distant lands and back, and other stuff. Lots of other stuff. In this time, my girl Jaya Mitai finished her story Fulgor, and my girl SmutWithPlot is about to update her story Tension (if you haven't read either of these, you should), and I've pretty much been mainlining Trigun for about a week.
I've been meditating on how to continue the story since my initial hard drive failure in 2010 and I lost all the chapters I had been working on, but about three weeks ago I regained new excitement for the story. I've just needed a moment to sit down and write another installment. So...here it is. As I'm now an old-timer in the fandom, I hope there are also some other old-timers around to appreciate the new update. If there aren't though, whatevs. Completion of a multi-chapter fic of this length is likely its own reward. (And if you happen to be new to the story, welcome!)
SUPER THANKS TO EVERYONE WHO HAS REVIEWED! :) :) :)
Meryl's throat was closing up. She had never been in this position in her life, and she found herself iching closer and closer to a full-blown panic attack with each passing second. She fought for control over her warring emotions, but she never thought this would happen to her. She never thought she'd get caught. She hadn't really thought of the consequences at all in regards to her involvement with Vash. She didn't realize anyone was watching.
As she looked up into the angry face of the man before her, though, she knew she was wrong. Dead wrong.
"Stryfe! Now is not the time to play dumb." Her boss pinned her with his eyes, a furious expression on his face. "We have all the evidence we need."
Meryl's heart began thumping even faster now. She was sitting in her boss's office at the Bernardelli Insurance Agency Headquarters in the City of December, but this meeting to tender her resignation was not going as planned. In fact, she was pretty sure she was going to prison. "Evidence? What are you talking about?"
Her boss sighed. "Fine, if you want to play that game, then fine." He pulled open the top drawer of his desk, pulled out a folder, and threw it down in front of her. The folder landed on the desk right in front of Meryl, and some of the photographs from inside slid out. Her hands were shaky as she moved to pick them up.
They were photographs of her. They were from the steamer.
She giggled manically. "Sir, this looks like a young girl. Much younger than me. I rode in on bus, and I have the cancelled ti-" She stopped cold as her boss lifted her battered, old pink suitcase up from behind his desk.
"Can it, agent," he said. "We know it was you."
Meryl broke out in a cold sweat. "Sir, I...I can explain."
Now it was her boss's turn to laugh. "You can explain? You can explain how you boarded a sand steamer using false identifica-no identification, you bribed a sandsteamer officer, which is, in and of itself, a class C misdemeanor. You boarded fully intending to help a man, who by all accounts - except for yours - is responsible for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of deaths, break out of federal custody." He paused, too furious to continue. Finally, he found words again. "YOU KNOW THAT'S A CAPITAL OFFENCE, AGENT."
Meryl was speechless. Was this the end for her?
"You've been aiding this man, this fugitive, for years, and only now have I seen what lengths you'll go to to get this Humanoid Typhoon out of trouble." He finally laughed at the absurdity of it all. "And then you just waltz into my office with your resignation letter and you expect everything to just disappear?"
He waited a few moments for her to answer, but she couldn't find any words.
"Well, Stryfe, things like this don't just disappear!" he shouted as he slammed both of his fists on his desk in renewed anger.
Meryl spoke up. "I guess I will be remanded to the custody of the federal marshal, then," she stated without emotion.
Her boss just looked at her. "Are you nuts? Do you have any idea what they would do to you in a federal penitentiary? Furthermore, do you have any idea what would happen to me for covering for you?"
Meryl finally looked up to meet his gaze. "Covering...for me?"
Her boss shook his head. "Do you know how much trouble it has been to keep you and Thompson on this case? This whole thing has been trouble. I've been having to justify my decisions to shareholders, to federal agents, to the government, just about everybody who has the power to shut this entire organization down. They all think it's a reckless plan to have two agents follow such a calamity across the planet." He stopped to catch his breath before shouting, "AND IT IS!"
Meryl was still incredibly confused by the turn in conversation. "Sir, I don't understand. Why not recall me and Milly back to Headquarters and send a specialist to take care of the problem?"
The boss sat down and sank into his leather chair. "Don't you think I've tried that before, Stryfe?" He sighed. "We've sent out dozens of special agents to take care of the Stampede. Invariably, these agents come back not only maimed, but with a change of heart and a newfound appreciation for life. Even if they do make a full recovery, they're compromised. They can't do their jobs anymore. This Vash character is more dangerous to our assassins than our assassins are to him!"
She would have laughed at the thought of Vash reforming every assassin he met if she weren't still trying to figure out what was going on. "Well, then, why do you even cover damage caused by Vash?"
Her boss sighed again. "Stryfe, you know we are the only insurance agency big enough - no, stupid enough - to cover damage caused by The Humanoid Typhoon. The problem is that we have had to pay out so much money in the past over damages caused by that walking disaster that those policies are the only thing keeping this company afloat right now. If we stop offering coverage, we'll go under." The boss rubbed his eyes and Meryl saw for the first time how much pressure this man was under. "A few months ago, when things got a little more quiet, we started selling VTS policies again. We're pulling money in hand over fist. We need this revenue, Stryfe. Without it, we go under."
"Well," Meryl began, "my resignation should be welcomed, then. You can just assign another agent to the case and all will be well," she reasoned.
"Don't be foolish, Stryfe!" her boss shouted. "There are no agents in this organization who are interested in taking this case! They've seen your reports. They know what going to the Outer is like. They don't want to leave their comfortable, plush jobs in the city to comb through the desert looking for a walking disaster! Hell, half the agents here think you've been brainwashed into being one of The Stampede's minions! They're also painfully aware that every other agent who has gone out to follow Vash has come back maimed from getting in the crossfire of all the bounty hunters who are always trailing the guy." He calmed down for a second. "So, you see Stryfe, there are no options: you are the only agent for the job."
Meryl was downright speechless, again. This whole conversation had been a whirlwind. Just five minutes ago, she was sure she would be sent off to prison, only to find out she had the ultimate job security. She was about to speak when someone suddenly stepped into the office.
The last person Meryl thought she'd see in the office popped his head in. "Is everything okay in here?" Vash asked. Meryl could see Karen outside the office and hear her telling Vash to get out.
Embarrassment flared through her mind, but just as quickly she found anger coursing through her veins, and she was shouting before her boss could even say anything. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!"
Vash looked a bit hurt, "I was just…"
"Is that," her boss asked, suddenly losing the blustery facade entirely, "is that him?"
Meryl was about to lose it. "GO OUTSIDE AND WAIT!"
"But, but, but…" Vash tried to reply, but Meryl was already pushing him out of the office.
"IT CAN WAIT," she shouted as she pushed his head outside the room and shut the door in his face. She then turned to her boss and plastered what she hoped was a serene smile on her face. "I'm so sorry for that intrusion, sir. I promise it won't happen again."
Her boss was completely flabbergasted. "He...he lets you talk to him that way?" he asked in total disbelief.
Meryl blushed, but her expression was one of complete irritation. "That's the only way he'll listen!"
Her boss ran a hand through his hair to get his bearings. "Look, just get him out of here. I don't need any of the other agents finding out who he is and causing a riot. You know we're practically sitting on top of the cavalry, here!"
"Understood, sir," Meryl replied. "Is this meeting over?" She almost turned to leave, but before she could, he spoke up.
"One more thing, Stryfe." Her boss reached into another drawer and pulled out an envelope. "I received a letter from your mother and was instructed to give this to you when you returned to headquarters." He held the envelope out to her, and she took it quickly. "Now the meeting is over. Get him out of here."
She looked at the envelope. "Thank you, sir." She turned and left the office without another word.
As soon as Meryl left the office, she realized she had another situation on her hands: Karen seemed to be a bit taken with her gunman. "So, is this young man coming with us to lunch, Meryl?" Vash, for his part, looked extremely uncomfortable and embarrassed by the attention he was getting from Meryl's coworker.
Meryl looked at her old friend with a feeling of sincere regret. "I'm sorry, Karen, there has been a change of plans. I've been reassigned effective immediately, so I have to cancel our lunch plans."
Meryl looked at Vash, who had just raised his eyebrows so high, they looked to be part of his hairline. She shrugged at him, and he grinned at her. Then he remembered something and gave her a stern look that said, we need to go.
Meryl turned as Karen sighed. "Oh, that's disappointing. Well, you're not going to even tell me his guy's name? It not like you to have a gentleman caller at work, Meryl."
"Come on," Vash said. "We've got to get out of here." He started walking toward the back stairwell.
Meryl looked back to Karen. "Let's just call him...an occupational hazard," she said with a smile. Then she turned quickly to follow Vash down the stairwell.
Karen laughed a moment at the predicament her friend had found herself in. So Meryl had snagged a man doing fieldwork. That was an impressive feat. Karen herself assumed the only people out there would be bounty hunters and Vash the Stampede himself…
A cold chill ran through Karen as she thought about the man she had just seen. Yes, his hair was different, but she changed her hair color all the time. He was tall, and he was lanky, and...and he was Vash the Stampede.
In a panic, she leaned over and pressed the silent alarm underneath her desk.
"What are you doing here, Vash?" Meryl shouted as she climbed down stairs.
Vash sighed. "I came here to save you!"
"God damn it, Vash, not again!" She shook her head. "What is it this time?"
Vash quickly ran through the story about the Jeep that sped off after her bus and his experience with Ms. Kenley. Meryl thought back and did remember a vehicle following the bus, but when she disembarked from the bus, they had been apprehended by some federal agents and she didn't stop to see what was going on because she wanted to get to the office as soon as possible.
"How did you know to look for me at the office?" she asked as she paused on a landing.
Vash took her hand and continued to lead her down the stairs. "I didn't. I tracked the bus driver down and he said you'd left without incident, so I got directions to your office and asked people along the way if they'd seen a short woman in a white cloak and purple leggings. They all remembered you and nobody had seen you get into trouble."
Meryl looked incredulous. "They remembered me?"
Vash nodded his head. "Yeah, people think red stands out, but nobody wears white on this planet. And when both suns are up, your clothes are practically blinding." He laughed as she swatted at him.
They reached the ground floor. "Oh please," Meryl finally retorted. "Fine, so you found me. I'm safe. What do we do now?"
Meryl pushed open the door to the stairwell, only to be confronted by twenty federal agents with their guns trained on the doorway. Before she could even move, they had already taken aim.
And this story is officially made of cliffhangers. Review please! :)