Disclaimer – Trigun and all its associated concepts belong to Yasuhiro Nightow. No money is being made, please don't sue. Spoilers for the manga included, mostly in the Author's Notes.

- x -

"They're coming for us!"

Never before in her twenty-odd years had she ever felt elation at hearing that phrase. Usually it meant a herd of stampeding thomases was incoming, or a gang was in town, or the two stone-faced auditors had appeared in the third floor elevator lobby of the Bernardelli branch office.

But today, this evening, it meant something else entirely, and for the umpteenth hundred time she raised her glass as the room raucously echoed the toast.

The man at her left shook his head as the shouts died down. "Praise the Lord and pass the peanuts."

She couldn't hide her smile, even at his half-hearted sardonic tone. Nicholas D. Wolfwood, priest and gunman, couldn't ruin this moment for her. Nothing could ruin this moment.

There was hope, where it had not ever occurred to her to hope before.

"Here you are," she almost sang out, passing the large, flat bowl half-full of shelled peanuts. There were containers everywhere, with pistachios, cashews, almonds, and other nuts she couldn't even identify. Plates containing crackers, chopped pieces of fruit, hard cheeses, and tiny squares of salmon pate made the rounds at intervals. Beer, the much more rare wine, and hard liquor flowed as bottles and flasks were passed freely around the crowd. She doubted there had ever been a party encompassing every family in this ship before; the mess hall was barely big enough to give them all space.

The priest took the offered dish, setting it down equidistant between the two of them and popping a few of the peanuts at his mouth. His aim was slightly off; one of them bounced off his upper lip and rolled down his chin before jauntily tumbling the rest of the way down the borrowed black sweater to land in his lap.

"Nuts," he muttered, crunching the ones that had made it in and staring down at the runaway a moment as though considering whether it was worth the effort of retrieving it.

"Yes, and now you have three of them!" Millie observed seriously from across the table, sloshing her alarmingly dark drink and spilling a bit on her hand. "Shucks," she added, bringing her hand up to her lips to slurp off the excess liquid.

Meryl had been in the act of taking a peanut herself, and so had already been turned in his direction. She couldn't help a snort of laughter at his wide-eyed look.

"What kind of girl are you?" he mumbled when he'd found his voice. He was still staring at Millie as though she'd sprouted a pair of horns from her ears, and Meryl grinned widely and took another pull of her beer.

"Isn't it weird how nuts are the thing that goes with alcohol?" Oblivious as ever, Millie picked one up and squinted it at a little. "I suppose if it was crackers, we could all make jokes about how everyone was crackers. Or spilled the crackers. Or got cracker in their eye."

"Who got cracker in their eye, giant girl?"

Possibly the largest beer stein she had ever seen clunked down on the table, followed closely by a tall blonde man with a –

With a tie. Around his head.

Meryl furrowed her brows, and wondered if he'd done that on purpose, or he'd been trying to put it on after he'd tied it and his forehead was as far as he'd gotten before his miniscule span of attention had been completely consumed.

Then she squinted again. Wait, that tie looked awfully familiar –

"Hi, Mr. Vash!" Millie squealed, crackers forgotten as she turned and wrapped her arms around the man. Despite his size, he was no match for a drunk and friendly Millie Thompson, and everything but his face disappeared in a sudden glomping of overcoat, arm, and hair.

"Uh, hi," he managed around fabric and exuberant Millie. "Still drinking, I see."

"Uh-huh," she confirmed happily, showing no signs of releasing him anytime soon. "And sempai too!"

"They're kicking our asses, Spikey," the priest grunted, nodding his chin at the forgotten drink in front of Millie. "You need to stop rubbing elbows and get serious. I can only drink so much."

Meryl felt one eyebrow crawl for her hairline. "Since when did drinking become a competitive team sport?"

Wolfwood turned to look at Meryl, his eyes dark and . . . but it was gone. "Since . . . ever."

"I, Vash the Stampede, have been lax in my duties!" With supreme effort, he managed to extricate his newly re-attached mechanical arm and point it ridiculously into the air. "This grievous error must be corrected at once! Unhand me, fair maiden, that I may defend my honor!"

Meryl stared at him a moment, wondering if she should say –

Naah. She wasn't that drunk.

Wolfwood chuckled beside her, and she let the oddly companionable atmosphere wrap comfortably around her shoulders. Millie immediately relinquished control of Vash's body back to him, facing forward and serious, with both her hands flat on the tabletop, her drink between them. Vash immediately copied her posture, though his glass was quite a bit larger than hers.

Then his hand shot forward, and rotated the stein so that the handle was facing to his left. He replaced his hand, palm-down on the table, and glared very seriously at Meryl.

She shook her head. "You've got to be kidding me. I'm not going to –"

"We will do battle, short girl!" he announced in a booming voice. "Your glass is in proportion with your size, as is mine! The contest is fair! I have you now!"

She gaped at him, wondering if this was the same man that had leapt, weapon-less and armor-less, directly into what should have been a fatal storm of bullets for her not hours ago. It had taken Doc the better part of two hours to repair and replace the bionics again, and he and Wolfwood had reappeared just in time to hear the news –

Wolfwood tossed another peanut at his mouth, then coughed something that sounded decidedly like "Chickenshit."

Before she knew what she was doing, she mirrored Millie across the table. The priest was definitely laughing at her, and he leaned his elbows on the table with his double-shot a little haphazardly towards his right.

"This contest will be decided on the count of three!" Vash declared, lowering his chin to glare at his three competitors through his eyebrows. His eyes were a little glazed, which ruined the look somewhat, but it was still serious enough that she didn't laugh at him outright.

The tie dangling by his right ear was very distracting, however. Meryl inspected it again, now almost certain it was Millie's spare.

How had he gotten his hands on it . . .?

"ONETWOTHREE!" he shrieked, bringing his face to the stein rather than the other way around.

Despite herself, Meryl immediately started chugging. She'd been planning to continue drinking her beer like a normal person to ruin their fun, but . . . it was like Brad said. What's a little overindulgence once in a while?

Wolfwood was the obvious winner, since his drink was quite a bit smaller. It packed a much more significant punch, but he was able to keep it down with nothing more than a modest cough. Meryl beat Millie, but just. The taller girl and Vash slammed their glasses down simultaneously.

Then they traded a deadly look.

"I guess I'll get the next round while I can still stand," Wolfwood offered, rising beside Meryl. Both of them were startled when Millie also shot to her feet, a horrified look on her face. Vash was so shocked by the violent shattering of eye contact that he fell backwards off the bench, his feet waving in the air.

Millie paid him no attention. "Mr. Priest! You dropped your nut!"

As there was no ongoing toast, nor the sluggish drunken echoing of one, the mess had settled to a dull roar. Millie's shocked and ear-splitting announcement did not fail to attract the attention of every single person in a three-table radius. Wolfwood cast a look around, assessed the situation, then let his head fall back to stare at the ceiling.

"Lord, you have sent this demon to punish me for my gluttony, haven't you."

"Doesn't gluttony only count for food?" the tall girl inquired, then hiccupped.

Wolfwood's lips continued moving, but the sudden roar of laughter drowned out his mutterings. He turned, shoulders slumped, and Millie clumsily trotted around the table and grabbed his slack arm, hauling him towards one of the doors from which the booze and food came.

Meryl turned back to the table, shaking her head, and watched the Humanoid Typhoon, the Sixty Billion Double-dollar Man, the infamous gunman Vash the Stampede, pick his drunken ass up off the floor. He got about as far as being able to rest his chin on the top of the table, and from there decided that a rest was in order. His hair was still spikey but the tips were drooping a bit, making him look a bit like a wilting cabbage. His slightly dulled blue eyes stared at his empty stein a moment in confusion, as though he couldn't remember what had happened to its contents.

Then his eyes glassily drifted to her, and he smiled.

"Hey, Insurance Girl," he greeted, his head bobbing up and down as he spoke. His chin kept contact with the tabletop, as though his neck was too tired to hold up his empty skull. The tie was apparently caught on something on the side of the tabletop, or possibly on the bench below, and forced him to tilt his head slightly to his right. "What's up?"

She found herself chuckling, for once not upset with his antics. She wasn't even sure if he was actually drunk or not, but something told her this time, it might not be affected.

"Not much," she replied, propping her chin in her hands. "Thanks to you," she added softly.

If she had said something like "Stop blowing up hotel rooms," or "You're being a broom-headed idiot," she was certain he wouldn't have been able to make it out over the noise of so many celebrating people. And truth be told, she couldn't be sure he'd really heard. Maybe he read her lips.

His smile widened into a full-blown grin, and she didn't bite back her sigh in time.

"Thanks for what? You started drinking before I did!" he pointed out, glancing back at his empty beer stein with a very sad look. "I wonder how Wolfwood's going to refill it if he didn't take it with him . . ."

"I think he's going to get us all the same thing, to level the playing field," she noted dryly, and he made a face.

"Awww! But beer before liquor, never sicker . . ."

She pretended to gape at him. "So you do know what drinking to excess results in! Could have fooled me!"

He sighed, his cheeks puffing out slightly with the gust. "You're mean, insurance girl," he noted. "I've had my share of . . ." He trailed off, and his grin faded. "Actually, I guess that's not really true," he murmured, and then his face disappeared. For a moment, she thought maybe he'd just given up and was now laying on the floor, but after a moment the languishing mohawk reappeared, and Vash actually managed to sit properly on the long bench.

"I guess I hold my liquor pretty well." The chipper look was back, as though the solemn Vash had never been. Meryl flashed him a little smile, but again she wondered. Just who was this man sitting across from her?

The comfortable fog enveloping her was starting to burn away, and she clung to it with all her strength. "How long have you known that they were trying to contact Earth?" The topic of the night had to be a safe one, right?

He shifted the stein so it wasn't in his line of sight of Meryl. "A while. A few weeks after they found me, actually." His eyes turned a little inward as he remembered. "I happened to see a power consumption chart and wondered where all of it was going."

"Happened to see," she echoed with a knowing smile. "You mean you went looking."

He grinned sheepishly. "Well, yeah," he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck with his bionic hand. She watched him, recognizing the gesture and at the same time wondering. He'd grabbed her with that hand several times, always with a controlled amount of pressure. What would it feel like to rub your neck and not feel the touch with your fingers?

"Can you- that is to say, I-I was just wondering-" What was her problem? It was an innocent question, right? He was pretty easy-going about all those scars, but what about his arm? He'd never said how he'd lost it, but surely it had been in one of the fights that had so badly damaged the rest of him?

"Whoo, Wolfwood said you ladies were drinking pretty heavily, but I never thought he was serious!" Vash teased her stuttering. "Are you drunk, Insurance Girl?"

"No!"

He flinched back from the anger and self-righteous authority in her tone, and she growled at him. "I was just going to ask," she continued, "if it's not too personal, whether you can feel with-with your left hand."

He stared at her, then drew the mechanical hand from behind his neck and stared at it. He wiggled all the fingers in turn, then rotated his hand so his palm was facing her, and wiggled them again in a 'hello' gesture. She shook her head, half-grinning.

"Yeah, I can," he finally answered, and his tone was light. Nothing indicating that she was treading on thin ice, or asking him anything he wasn't comfortable with answering. "Doc has the bionics tied back to live nerves, so I could control the mechanism better." He tapped the beer stein. "Also, so I wouldn't accidentally break too many bar glasses."

"You break entire bars," she retorted, staring at her own empty glass. Damn. What was taking those two so long?

Then her eyes widened.

She stared at him, guilt suddenly pouring through her. So when that . . . those two henchmen that were all that remained of Gray the Ninelives shot him, shot off his arm – it had hurt. It wasn't just like breaking a toaster.

He'd lost his coat as a distraction to get them out of harm's way, and then he'd thrown himself at those bullets and lost his arm again.

He seemed to go through them pretty regularly, she thought to herself. It wasn't the first time she'd seen him lose the mechanized limb – the first time had been far more shocking, because she hadn't realized at that point it wasn't a real arm. Millie had told her about running out into the street to see the limb dangling from his real arm by the chain and handcuffs.

While the big girl had been certain her 'hand' would leap from her throat, Meryl was pretty sure she would have been sick. It had been weird enough seeing him without it, and even worse, the scars and the metal and-

"Hey."

Meryl blinked, reality jarring back as she realized he was touching the hand her chin was resting in with the aforementioned metal fingers. "Double-dollar for your thoughts."

She started, sucking in a quick breath to speak and almost choking on it. When she got control of her throat again, he was back in exactly the same position as before, chin resting in the embrace of a hand that he'd probably lost god-knew-how-many-times.

"You probably don't have a double-dollar," her brain volunteered, defensive sarcasm kicking in as she floundered in unknown territory.

His grin was wide, and too cheerful to be sincere. "Heh! You're right, I probably don't. Oh well. Luida usually gives me a few thousand as a parting gift when I leave, so maybe you can spot me till then?"

"I spot you too much as it is," she muttered, and then stopped again. She spotted the gunman money, yes, but twice he'd given up that arm to spot her. Catch her. Protect her. Once because she was too stupid to listen, and earlier that night –

"I'm sorry. That it hurt," she heard herself say, her voice stronger than she thought it would be. "I'm sorry that you had to suffer to protect m-me and Millie."

He looked stunned, an expression that was quickly covered with another cheerful smile. He really was buzzed, she realized suddenly. Usually that change from stunned to smiling happened too quickly for the human eye to see.

"Don't be," he laughed in a high-pitched voice. "Why, it was nothing! I would have done it for the lowliest dog in the lands, it was an honor to –"

"Does it . . . hurt every time?"

She'd actually just wanted to interrupt him before he embarrassed her into a puddle, but she could have bitten her tongue off when she heard what she said. Of course it does, you moron, she mentally berated herself.

Vash broke off his loud and booming monologue and really looked at her. "It's nothing, really," he said in what he probably thought was a reassuring voice, but one that broke her heart. "I'm used to it. Just ask Doc. I go through these things like . . . like . . . ints of beer!" he finished lamely. And cast a rather melancholy look at his still-empty stein.

It hit her like a ton of bricks. Maybe that was why he drank. To dull the pain of all those injuries. Or the memory of them. She couldn't imagine the agony of getting one of her arms shot off, but to have experienced it over and over again – and her sitting here reminding him of it!

"I'm sorry," she started, waving her hands in a dismissive motion. God, if she could take back the last five minutes - "I shouldn't have asked, I don't know what I was thinking! I'm going to see what's taking them so long-"

"It's okay," he murmured, catching her hand as she started to stand to leave the table. "Besides, it's not like they could have gotten lost, Meryl."

Meryl. He'd just called her Meryl.

The man that had called her 'idiot' before he'd used her first name.

And he was holding her hand.

She froze, staring at him, and at his gentle tug, she sat stiffly. Something changed in the depths of his eyes, something sad, and he dropped his hand back to the table.

"It doesn't hurt as much as it used to," he offered with an empty smile. "And right now it doesn't hurt at all." He waggled it around to prove the point, almost knocking an empty glass off the table. "Really, don't worry about it."

Meryl just nodded, finding the whorls in the wood of the table suddenly very interesting. She wanted to change the subject desperately, but she was afraid that would just upset him more. "Did you lose it . . . in a gunfight?" It wasn't as though she could stick her foot any farther into her mouth at this point, and she and Millie had both been wondering about it since the day Monev the Gale had shot it off-

If his expression changed, she didn't see it.

"No," was all he said.

And that was when she knew, without a doubt, that they'd never have this conversation again. He probably would tell her what happened, if she asked, because he was under the influence, and she was less sober than she'd like, and they were pretending that it was all okay because anything else would result in tears.

She almost died not four hours ago. So had he. Right after he'd nearly died a day prior. Beneath the sleeve of his real arm was a thick bandage, a new scar.

Couldn't a single day pass without that man accruing more pain? Was that why he hid behind that loony mask? So that he could sneak into other people's expressions of happiness and joy without disrupting it? So he could sort of participate by proxy?

"Thank you," she said softly.

"Told ya," a louder voice said smugly, and suddenly Meryl found herself being shoved almost off the bench.

"WAKE UP, SEMPAI!" Millie chirped directly into her ear, and Meryl couldn't bite back a yelp of surprise.

"I'm awake!" she shouted, though if Millie had a problem with the volume she didn't mention it.

"Good! You two looked so serious, I was just sure you must have been falling asleep! And we have two more rounds we have to drink up!"

Meryl looked up sharply, only then realizing that between the two of them, the tall girl and the equally tall priest were carrying over a dozen glasses of something too dark to be beer.

Wait . . .

"Two rounds? But why do you have . . . sixteen glasses?" And how . . .

"Because we all have two hands, sempai!" Millie answered, as though it were the most obvious thing anyone had ever asked her. "So we needed four glasses each to drink two rounds!"

"Don't argue with her, short stuff," a rough voice grated in Meryl's ear, and she tried not to flinch when the priest resumed his place next to her, carefully dumping his armload of glasses onto the table and shoving four of them in front of her.

"Besides, you're not nearly as much fun as you were an hour ago," he added quietly, as Millie yanked Vash's head closer by the tie and loudly inspected him to make sure he was still awake as well. "You've been slowing down."

She sniffed and eyed the liquid in the glass. Obviously he'd let Millie choose their poison. Oi, the priest had a lot to learn.

"I'm plenty of fun," she retorted nastily. "And soon it will be time for bed, so it seemed like a good time to sober up."

She complimented herself on a safe, logical answer before noticing that three pairs of eyes were staring at her as though they'd never seen anything like her before.

"Uh, Insurance Girl?" Vash asked tentatively, raising his hand like a nervous schoolboy. He interpreted her narrow-eyed look for permission to speak, because he continued after a moment. "Why would you sober up before you went to bed?"

"Because sleeping and passing out are not the same thing!"

Vash exchanged a confused look with Wolfwood, while Millie just grinned sloppily. "But of course they're not, sempai!"

Meryl shook her head. "You kids have a good time," she wished them with a genuine smile, gathering herself to stand.

Someone stepped on her toes, lightly, beneath the table.

Meryl paused, noting that Millie was leaning a little to her left, towards Vash. Which meant that her feet would have been sitting to her right, thus too far away to have accidentally stepped on her –

She glanced at Vash, and was surprised to see an open plea in his eyes.

"Oh, don't go, sempai!" Millie cried out plaintively, reaching across the table to catch Meryl's folded hands and nearly knocking over half their drinks in the process. "It'll be fun! You might win!"

"God forbid you have a good time," the priest added piously.

But she didn't look at either of them.

Vash grinned at her goofily, but beneath it was something else. "Come on, short girl! You beat me last round, but I was just being polite."

Wolfwood snorted loudly. "Keep dreaming, Spikey. She can probably drink you under the table. She's uptight enough . . ."

She broke eye contact, suddenly realizing she was staring. Hadn't she just been thinking about overindulging once in a while . . . ?

Meryl sighed in defeat, and the foot that was sitting atop hers tapped lightly, then withdrew.

"Fine," she grumbled, but it was halfhearted. She reached out and gathered two of the int glasses from the set of four in front of her, and sniffed the liquid suspiciously. "What is this?"

"It's called a Hydraulic cocktail," Millie volunteered happily, obviously quite pleased at having brow-beaten Meryl into staying.

"Alcohol," the priest added helpfully.

"No actual hydraulic fluid," Vash assured her. "Probably."

Meryl took a deep breath, shaking her head. "I will probably want to kill you all tomorrow for talking me into this."

"Okay!" Millie agreed, wrapping her hands around her own pair of glasses. "Now remember, this next round you have to double-fist it!"

There was a moment of silence, in which Vash turned the same color crimson as the stripe on the tie around his head. Meryl bit her lower lip as the rough voice beside her started muttering something she decided to interpret as a prayer.

"Right, Millie," she managed in a fairly level voice, and tried not to grin.

- x -

Author's Notes: This is Inkydoo's fic present for going ridiculously out of her way to encourage me both with Fulgor and to read the manga, and then spending god knows how many hours answering all my questions.

I hope you like it, Inkydoo!

And thank you. ;)

This was set in the mangaverse, at the beginning of TriMax Vol. 4. The ship, Luida, Doc, et al are celebrating the confirmation packet they received from Earth, acknowledging that they had received signal and confirming a fleet was on its way to Gunsmoke to rescue them. I thought it was awfully rude, in the following issue, that Meryl and Millie left the boys in the desert and almost killed them. For those that haven't read it, Vash and Wolfwood leave the ship the very next morning without telling the insurance girls they're leaving. Apparently Wolfwood bought a lemon of a bike, and the girls catch up in a jeep only to leave our boys chasing after them through the desert.

(This leads to possibly the funniest thing in the manga, which is Vash and Wolfwood laying in beds like desiccated corpses with IV lines, while the girls are talking to their doctor. Both Vash and Wolfwood are thinking simultaneously "You two are worse than demons!")

So I figure if Wolfwood and Vash got the girls tanked prior to leaving, they'd think the boys had done it on purpose to discourage their following, and that could explain why they were SO very angry.