This story is for Tiggy Malvern, with love. Despite the fact that she's my Trigun beta, and has read it from every possible depraved angle, I couldn't possibly dedicate it to anyone else. Thanks for everything.

Nico

CHAPTER 1

Twilight, at the edge of the town called Perfidy.

Twilight, and the sky was the same.

It mirrored the skies of countless evenings before this one, conforming coolly to type, a halcyon cornflower blue inset with innumerable stars.

Yes, stars.

He paused, as always, to look.

On the periphery, he found himself lingering, playing for time.

Feeling the old mild dread rise up, somewhere in a deep and unformed place; the uneasy thought of walking into a strange town, reluctant to make contact with anything in it, for fear that it might hold some kind of inverted Midas touch.

It had been better, once, walking alone-- or walking ahead, trailing others in your wake-- before he had suddenly found himself walking beside. All at once, and all too swiftly, it had ruined him.

Vash refused to look behind him.

The wind had picked up, and picked up sand. He felt it blowing over his back, hostile, insistent, as the mercenary grains struck his face in a stinging chorus. It spun the tatty edges of his crimson coat out behind him like blood-red banners.

It was buffeting, chaotic, directionless. It had no origin, no objective, no destination.

Vash kept his eyes on the horizon.

The town was imminently near. There were no signs, as of yet, but he knew. He knew he had reached Perfidy by the feel of the ground.

There came a moment, once you had walked the sands for days uncounted, treacherous dunes giving way beneath your boots, when the endless loop was broken. The interminable pattern would shift, and the earth ceased to slide away from you.

Sometimes it happened abruptly, and sometimes it came about gradually, over hours. Your steps grew less laborious, less arduous, and faster- and you knew then that you were near town, because towns were never built on ephemera, not on flawed, faulted, shifting sand, they were built on that rarest of all oases-

"Terra firma," declared someone, nearly voicing his thoughts, and Vash looked up in surprise.

"Wolfwood," he exclaimed. "I didn't expect--

"Of course not," the priest agreed. "Neither did I."

He shook his head, smiling, shrugging.

"But- here we are, eh?"

Here indeed.

Here then, was the weather-beaten sign announcing that he had entered the outskirts of Perfidy- population 99- haphazardly nailed to a skewed post in the sand.

And here was Wolfwood, the sharp and fluid lines of his black suit carving his figure out of the surrounding element, the white slash of his wide and open collar setting off the tanned expanse of his neck and chest.

He stood as if he hung there, an elegant marionette, suspended in the very nitrogen and oxygen of the air.

The priest produced a cigarette from somewhere, from the minimal recesses of that black jacket, and Vash never wondered at their provision, or proliferance. Surely a man of the divine cloth would have such boundless resources- bottomless pockets full of slim white sticks to ignite and immolate in the name of small comforts.

He struck a match, cupping his long fingers around the flame protectively. The wind drew up fiercely around him, offended by his presumption, hell-bent on thwarting his efforts.

But no.

Nicholas D. Wolfwood would have his cigarette.

He drew inward, and the ashes set to glowing, a neon-red rose folding inward on itself, alight, alive.

His smile was diminutive, vaguely triumphant, and Vash smiled too.

"It's the small victories," he remarked.

Vash nodded, understanding perfectly.

Beyond Wolfwood, a small sand devil swirled lazily in the periphery, a microcosmic model of the onslaught to come.

The priest exhaled, looking at him expectantly.

The silence fell, repressed and withdrew, all in a short moment. Vash felt caught out, zeroed in. He marveled at the awkwardness of it all, even as it left him functionally mute, unsure of what to say.

"How'd you beat me?" he asked, brightly abrupt, scratching the back of his head.

Wolfwood shook out the match, deliberately, even though it had long since been extinguished by the wind.

"Don't try to bluff me. You can't. Remember?"

"I'm sorry," Vash broke in, wide-eyed, contrite. "I'm glad to see you- I really am."

Wolfwood had apparently decided to ignore the whole exchange, committing it to oblivion with a shrug of his well-hung shoulders. The suns were descending behind him, and the sky was emblazoned with violent streaks of color as the day met its demise.

He glanced around, taking a leisurely survey of the horizon.

"Still mad?" he asked, casually, taking a drag.

Vash blinked.

"About this morning?"

The priest nodded slowly.

"No," Vash said, deliberately. "No. I'm done being angry."

Wolfwood broke a grin.

"You don't say? That's great news," he exclaimed, surging into motion, clapping Vash on the stiff red leather of his shoulder, and tossing his cigarette, half-finished, into the sand. "I was going to take a room above the saloon. Want to bunk up?"

Vash felt a smile descending, just touching his lips, and the onset of welcome relief that came with it.

How quickly Wolfwood could disarm him.

"I could use a drink," he said, by way of acceptance.

"Couldn't we all," agreed the priest, shouldering his omnipresent luggage.

"Need a hand with that, Preacher-man?" Vash asked, amused. "I travel light."

Wolfwood shook his head good-naturedly.

"You travel light, Tongari, so I carry enough mercy for both of us."

Vash shrugged cheerfully.

"Suit yourself."

He knew well what mercy lay beneath the muslin trappings of the priest's strange burden, lashed down with leather straps and buckles. It had awed Vash, the first time, when he'd deftly unbound his weapon, the canvas falling away in a lost flutter of white, revealing unforgiving metal.

Score one for the arm of the Lord.