Title: After the Fall
Author: Girl.Interpreted
Timeline: Post-anime (a few days after Vash returns to the girls with Knives in tow), with a manga topping
Pairings: Vash/Meryl, Millie/Wolfwood, Knives/wouldn't-you-like-to-know
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi/Romance/Action/Adventure/Perhaps mildly Hentai in later chapters
Rating: T- for violence, language, sexual content (starting mild- I'll warn you if it starts to get spicy)
Archive: Please contact me for permission.
Disclaimer: Trigun, its characters and universe, are the intellectual property of their respective owners. I am merely borrowing for entertainment purposes. I make no claims of ownership, nor do I profit from my storytelling.

Summary: It's becoming apparent that Vash didn't have much of a plan as to how he was going to save Knives, apart from kicking his ass and lugging him back to the insurance girls. Hmm... maybe he should have kept that gun. Speaking of insurance girls, he didn't really have a plan for what he was going to do about Meryl, either. Oh, I'm sure it will all work out. I mean, all he has to do is reform his genocidal sociopathic twin, sort out his feelings for Meryl, save humanity, save the plants, and live happily ever after by the credo of Love and Peace... yeah, right.

Chapter 1: Terribly Beautiful
"Gentlemen," Meryl Stryfe began her practiced speech as she cleared the empty glasses, "we're closing up now, so you know the old saying: You don't have to go home, but..."

Two men sat at the small table, one small-framed and blond, the other large and dark. The little guy didn't seem too out of it, but the big one? Woo, was he ever plastered. "Hey, honey," he slurred, blinking dazedly beneath his sweaty brow, "you're pretty."

"Well, that makes one of us," Meryl dead-panned.

The big guy started guffawing like it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. He drew back his hand, and Meryl braced herself for the slap on the ass that would necessitate the introduction of her tray with the top of his head. Before his thick, clammy palm could find it's target though, the man's companion slapped him across the back of his head.

"Idiot!" the little man seethed before turning his nervous expression towards Meryl. "Miss Stryfe, please forgive Ivan. He's just had a few too many and he doesn't know what he's doing." The flustered bar patron then rose from his seat and grabbed Ivan's arm, jerking him away from the table. "We'll be going now, and thank you for patience and hospitality," he continued, while shoving twenty double-dollars in the tip-cup on her tray. "Please have a lovely evening, and I do hope you won't hold this little incident against us."

Meryl watched, dumbfounded, as a grumbling Ivan was dragged toward the door. His friend pulled him closer and whispered something. Ivan turned his gaze back to where Meryl stood, his eyes widening into something approximating fright. "Sorry! Sorry miss!" he shouted, just as they disappeared though the door.

Meryl stood and blinked. What the...?

"I can tell from your expression that you must not have heard about what happened last night," a pretty woman in her forties stopped wiping the bar and grinned conspiratorially at Meryl.

"Rosana." Sam McLeod drew his wife's name out into a warning.

The McLeods had been running this bar together for over a decade. Meryl had been working for the couple for a few months now, ever since she and Millie had brought Vash back from LR Town. In that time, Meryl had become quite fond of them and the kind, parental way in which they treated her. Sam (known as Mac) was a reserved and proud man. Rosana was caring, doting, and the biggest gossip Meryl had ever met.

"What happened last night? What was that all about?" Meryl set her tray on the bar.

"Well, I guess Ivan hasn't heard that you're the Stampede's woman," Rosana laughed.

"I'm what?!" Meryl practically screamed in the woman's face. A litany of further questions frothed at her tongue, but it seemed she was too shocked to form words. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. When her eyes reopened they flashed an angry glare at the bar's proprietor. "Mac, what do you know about this?"

"Hold on now, Meryl." The man waved his hands placatingly between them. "It's nothing to get excited about. Vash was in here last night, and he simply suggested that the fellas...aah...be careful regarding their behaviour...towards you."

"Oh now, Mac, you're not doing the story justice," Rosana brought Meryl's attention back around before she could demand further details. "Oh Meryl, it was so romantic."

"Romantic?" Meryl gulped.

"Gosh darn it, Rosana! You're embarrassing the girl."

"You hush, Mac. I'm doing no such thing. Nothing to be embarrassed about, being in love. Why I remember when you were that fiery concerning me. Slugged Timmy Baron in the jaw for asking me to dance..."

"Tim Baron was an arrogant coward who didn't deserve to tread the same ground as you, let alone...!"

"Please," Meryl raised a hand to cut off Mac's indignant tirade. "Last night. Spill."

"Well," Rosana began, leaning forward on the bar, "Mr. Vash came in last night around eight or nine o'clock... Was it eight or nine, Mac?"

"Nine," he sighed impatiently.

"Okay, right. So he came in and sat at the bar, pleasant as ever. Just chattin' away with all the diggers from the well. And Anthony Trivolli... you know him, Meryl."

"Um..." Meryl began uncertainly.

"The creep who you bent a tray over last Thursday," Mac supplied.

"Oh," Meryl nodded in recognition, remembering the smarmy bastard who acted like he was the only game in town.

"That Anthony," Rosana shook her head, "I thank God his poor mother isn't alive to see the way he carries on. Some men think a good-looking face gives them free license to act however they please. Anyway, dear, I'm sorry to say he said some things he shouldn't have."

Meryl's eyes narrowed, "What things?"

Rosana hesitated and her husband came to her rescue, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Things that are not meant for the tender ears of young ladies."

"Please, Mac!" Meryl fumed. "I may be young, but I'm certainly not tender. What did he say?"

"It doesn't bear repeating, dear," Rosana stated firmly. "Suffice to say that it involved you, and it was talk you wouldn't hear in polite conversation."

Meryl felt her hands fist at her sides. "That lecherous, gross..."

"Well, that's not the point," Rosana interrupted the furious woman's invective. "The point is that Mr. Vash heard all this going on and he stands up from the bar and walks right over to Anthony and tells him- all nice and calm and pleasant, mind you- that he should think about what he's going to say before he says it and maybe he wants to take back the things he said regarding you."

"What happened then?" Meryl asked, somewhat breathlessly.

Mac snorted a mirthless laugh. "Anthony told Vash to go fuck himself."

"He did not!" Meryl gasped.

"He did!" Rosana vigorously nodded her head. "And before I could even get my wits about me, Mr. Vash hit Anthony right in the face, and before Anthony could even fall down, Mr. Vash caught him by the collar with the same hand and pulled him back up!"

"It was so fast," Mac added. "He moved so fast I could hardly follow him."

"So Mr. Vash- oh, and this is the best part, Meryl- he says, loud enough for everybody to hear... oh, and I want to say it exactly how he did- he says, 'Meryl Stryfe is my girl. You touch her, or upset her, even think poorly of her- you will answer to me.'" Rosana finished her story with a dreamy smile, as her husband stood behind her merely shaking his head.

"He...he.." Meryl sputtered, "He. Did. What!?" She turned her gaze from Rosana's contented face to Mac, who only offered her a shrug. Meryl groaned and buried her face in her hands. "Oh Mac! I'm so sorry he caused trouble for you!"

Mac laughed and slapped her on the back. "What are you sorry about? Do you know how much money I'm gonna save if you're not bending a tray over some knucklehead's skull every shift? Besides, it's about time someone forced those children to behave. No, I don't mind at all, Meryl."

"But what was he thinking!?" Meryl ran her hands through her hair and fisted it at the roots. "Of all the stupid, pea-brained, half-hatched..."

Mac chuckled good-naturedly. "Don't be too hard on the boy, Meryl. I remember being young and in love, and well... sometimes a man acts before thinking things through. There's no harm done, and I'm sure he's just looking out for you."

"You don't understand," Meryl responded. "He's not in love! I'm not with him! I'm sure he just said that so the guys won't bother me, but I can take care of myself! Damn it! Why is he such a pain in the ass?"

"Oh," Rosana answered with surprise. "Still, he must care for you a great deal."

"Vash cares a great deal for everyone." Meryl laid her head despondently on the bar. "I mean, how could he be in love with me? He's in love with the whole world and everyone in it."

Rosana's brow creased in gentle question. "I don't think I follow, dear."

Meryl sighed. "I mean, that I'm really not anything special. We're just friends is all. Vash is the kind of man who would do anything to protect anyone. If it had been Millie that Anthony was talking about, or any other woman for that matter, he would have done the same thing. It's just how he is."

Mac shared a skeptical look with his wife before addressing Meryl, "You know, it's late. You should get home, Meryl."

The young woman rose tiredly from her seat at the bar. "Yeah, thanks for letting me know what's up, you guys. I'll see you tomorrow." She gathered her cloak from a hook by the door on her way out.

"Night, Meryl! Get home safe!" Rosana called as the girl disappeared through the doorframe. After a beat, when she was sure that Meryl was out of earshot, she turned to her husband and asked, "You buy that for a second?"

Mac laughed, drawing his wife into his arms. "I think she does."

"Oh, but how can she be so dense? That man is obviously in love with her."

"I should be asking you that question. You didn't believe that I was in love with you for a long time." Mac quirked an eyebrow at her. "Remember?"

Rosana pouted teasingly. "You weren't nearly that obvious, dear."

By the time she neared the house she shared with Millie, Vash, and now, Knives, Meryl had a really good rage working. So what if Vash was trying to protect her? So what if the thought of him standing up to that jerk gave her a funny (though not unpleasant) feeling in her stomach? This was irrelevant, and weak, and... and... how dare he!? She didn't need him making a scene at her place of work! Scaring the clientèle, and... and.. lying!

Meryl allowed herself to be furious. It was the only way she was going to be able to face him and not embarrass herself. Stupid! Don't be stupid, Meryl!

The moons were new, and in the blackness they cast, she nearly stumbled over Millie. "Sempai! Careful!" Millie caught her with one long arm. She took her friend's hand and walked her onto their porch, lighting a lantern that sat on the railing. "Meryl why are you so upset?"

The junior agent wiped the tears from Meryl's cheeks; she hadn't realized she was crying. "Oh Millie, I," Meryl laughed in spite of herself, "I don't even know. It's silly, really. Vash..."

Millie's brow knotted in annoyance. "What did he do? Did he make you cry again, Meryl?"

"Oh, nothing like that, Millie. He just threatened some guys at the bar..."

"Oh that."

"What do you mean, 'oh that'? You knew about this?" Meryl's voice rose a notch in anger.

"Of course, silly." The big smile returned to Millie's face. "I work at the well remember?"

"Oh yeah."

"But why would you be crying about that, Sempai?"

Meryl hesitated before answering. Why did it bother her so much? A large part of her wanted to lie, or at least ignore the truth. She was tough. She was nobody's toy, nobody's fool. That was it. Looking into the open, honest face of her best friend, she felt her insides soften and fall.

"He told everyone that I was his, Millie. And for a second, when I heard about what he said, I believed it, wanted to believe it... I just feel so stupid!" She kicked herself as she collapsed in sobs, hating that she was so fragile.

"Oh but, Meryl," Millie started, her face etched with tenderness, "you are."

"'Are' what?"

"His." The crying woman stilled, and looked up at Millie with shivering eyes. "Well, aren't you, Meryl? He's certainly yours."

"Millie, what are you saying?"

"Jeez, Sempai," Millie rolled her eyes, "are you really that dense? Mr. Vash loves you."

Meryl crossed her arms and looked away. "Don't be stupid, Millie."

"No, Meryl! You're being stupid!" The anger in her friend's voice surprised Meryl. The mask of unshakable optimistic cheer fell away from Millie's face, replaced by something harder and wiser. She could only look back at the woman in dumb shock. "There is a man inside keeping watch over his unconscious brother, who- I'll remind you- the last time we checked, was dead set on the extermination of the human race. Vash is the only thing that stands between us and Knives. He's going to save him. I'm certain of it. I wouldn't have agreed to have Knives here otherwise. But Vash has a long road ahead of him. He's scared and he's lonely and he needs you! I don't know what you're so frightened of, and I sure hope you'll talk to me about it, but right now you need to put that aside." Millie's face softened as her eye-eating smile overtook her features. "My big big sister always says that you shouldn't hold back on matters of the heart. So, get your cute butt in there and talk to him. Okay?"

Meryl found herself nodding as she stood, making her way into the house. As if on autopilot she prepared a plate of food in the kitchen. Ever since Wolfwood's death something about Millie was changing. It was as if more and more of her true self was being revealed to Meryl, and she was discovering just how uncannily perceptive and wise her junior partner could be. Meryl trusted her, and wanted to believe her. She picked up the reheated plate of pasta and started up the stairs, her courage growing with each step.

Vash the Stampede sat in a hard-backed chair, leaning over his brother's bed. He tried to force his awareness outward, to seek his brother's consciousness within the folds of the sleeping form's mind. No good. He just didn't have enough practice at this. Maybe he should take some of the three hours of physical conditioning he did each morning, and contribute a little more to the three seconds dedicated to meditation. Either Knives was blocking him, or he was so deep in healing sleep that he couldn't be reached.

Vash smiled. Knives looked- dare he say it- peaceful. With his features relaxed in sleep, he was soft, gentle. Like the kind brother he remembered. The one who loved people so much he couldn't wait for them to wake up. To find out what they were like. To be friends. Vash took his brother's hand and whispered, "I missed you, jerkface."

A shy knock brought his attention to the door. "Come in."

"Hey." Meryl took a step into the room. In one hand she held a plate of food, but the other hand remained on the doorknob, as if she wasn't sure she was staying.

"What's for dinner?" He turned in his chair so that he could face her. Releasing the doorknob, she crossed the space between them and set the plate down on the small table beside him. He leaned over to take a deep whiff of the spaghetti and sauce. "Mmm. Smells good, short girl... ow! Hey! What was that for?"

Meryl glared at the outlaw who was holding the spot on the back of his head where her fist had most recently made contact. "Do you really have to ask?"

Vash brought his hand further down, to the back of his neck, and rubbed in that nervous gesture of his. "Oh... heard about that did you?"

"What were you thinking Vash?"

"Can't have your good name sullied. I mean, nobody talks badly about my insurance girls, right?" Vash gave her his best smile. The foolproof grin that had never failed to keep him out of trouble: Goofy. Sheepish. Adorable. Irresistable.

"Don't do that." The look she gave him then knocked the air from his lungs. Tearful. Honest. Adorable. Irresistable. "Don't give me that empty smile, Vash. I can't stand to look at it."

She stood there, in that ridiculous bar uniform, daring him to shut her out. Just try it. Her arms were crossed, not like she was angry, but like she was holding onto herself. And her eyes. Wet, but not crying. No, Meryl wouldn't let herself cry as long as she could help it. Those shimmering eyes- gray, no, lavender- locked on his face, trembling but not breaking away. He'd never seen anything so strong, so vulnerable. And before he knew what was happening he felt his features slip into something real. A soft smile fell easily into place.

"Hey, Vash."

"Hey, Meryl."

Meryl let her arms fall to her sides and offered the gunman an expression that was somewhere between a smile and a smirk. Noticing that she was looking for a place to sit, Vash moved to an unoccupied corner of his brother's bed and offered her the chair. Meryl settled herself, thankful that the chair was still warm from where he was sitting. The skirt on her uniform from the bar was really too short, and the backs of her bare legs touched the wood as she sat. "So what's with the stunt you pulled last night, Vash? I mean, I've never seen you resort to violence unless there wasn't another option. Just seems out of character."

Vash sighed, deep and frustrated. He ran his prosthetic fingers through his unkempt hair. "I keep wondering about that myself. I was just so- I don't know- angry. I didn't even feel like myself. I broke the guy's nose."

The hand Meryl brought to her mouth couldn't stifle her laugh. "You broke his nose?"

"It's not funny Meryl!" Vash protested, though he was laughing as well.

"Course not. Though you may have done him a favor. If you hadn't broken his nose, I would have broken his skull." She paused, noticing his smile was a little sad. "So, what though? You decided to tell the whole town we're shacking-up?"

"You know, technically we are shacking-up: You live here, I live here..."

She crossed her arms. "Don't get cute."

"Get cute? I thought I already was." Her hand curled into a fist and Vash quickly raised his hands in a cease-fire. "Fine, fine. The men in this town tolerate me. Some may even like me. But they're afraid of me, just the same. They won't dare touch what they perceive to be mine."

Meryl could feel the angry little muscles in her jaw popping. "I'm not chattel, Vash."

"I know that. I'm sorry. It just..." He took a deep breath and fixed her with an imploring gaze. Though she was angry, Meryl couldn't help but wonder how a pair of eyes could be such equal parts of blue and green. "It just came out."

"Okay." Meryl broke eye contact and brushed imaginary lint from her skirt. Eager for a subject change, she asked, "How's Knives?"

"Still completely out of it. he won't be awake for a long time, and I don't even know how long it'll be before I can contact him mentally."

Vash had explained the mental connection he shared with his brother, and also Knives' abilities with telepathy and mind-control to the girls. He seemed to think that having a period of time, where he could speak with Knives mind-to-mind before he was physically conscious, was the key to reforming him. When Meryl asked how long he thought this window of opportunity would last, Vash got vague and Meryl got apprehensive. Now, she felt a little guilty, but she was relieved that Knives was so out of it. Having a powerful, ill-intentioned telepath in the house, mobile or not, made her less than comfortable. Don't freak out. Don't get mad. You're here for Vash, remember? He's lonely and scared and whatever else Millie said, and you trust him, and everything is going to be fine. Still, she had to ask, "How can you be sure he's not going to wake up soon?"

"When we get hurt badly we have to sleep it off. It's like our bodies require all available energy to fix the damage. You remember I was out for ten days that time?" Meryl nodded her head as Vash absentmindedly adjusted the blanket covering his twin. "Well, Knives is hurt worse. I shattered both his femurs where the bullets hit, and sent a bullet through each scapula. Bone takes awhile and a lot of energy to heal. Plus... I'm sure the whole thing..." Vash hesitated, studying his brother's face. "The look on his face before he passed out... I'm sure the fight and its outcome were emotionally traumatic."

"Oh." Meryl had never had a conversation with Vash that was as honest as this one. She supposed she should be glad that he wasn't being coy, or hiding behind feigned ignorance. Afterall, hadn't she practically demanded his sincerity? Even so, his sincerity made him seem vulnerable, and seeing him vulnerable made her feel vulnerable, and feeling vulnerable made her feel defensive... She kept thinking about what Millie had told her on the porch: "He's certainly yours... He needs you."

Oh, she wished she could be angry about something again. Or, if there was something she could do, a situation she could control and handle and fix. As it was, with him sitting across from her, looking at her with concern (and, huh, his eyes are just a little bit more blue than they are green), with his hair soft and falling across his forehead, and his shoulder bleeding through his t-shirt, Meryl was certain she was about to have a full blown panic attack. Wait a minute. Shoulder bleeding through...?

"Vash, you're bleeding." She pointed.

"Huh? Oh damn." Vash grabbed the shirt at the collar and pulled it over his head, turning his neck to inspect the wound. "This one's in a weird spot. It keeps opening back up."

"Here, let me." Meryl rose and collected some of the supplies Vash kept in the room for changing Knives' bandages. Sitting back down, she pulled her chair closer to Vash and began unwrapping the old gauze. "This is the ugliest bandaging job I've ever seen," she scolded.

Vash nervously scratched the back of his neck with his free arm. "You'd think I would've gotten good at it after all these years of getting shot up, huh?"

Meryl paused in her work long enough to glance up at him. "Bullshit, Vash. Knives' bandages are perfect. Better than I could do. You just don't extend the same care to yourself."

Oops, she had him. It seemed like it was getting harder and harder to slip things past her. She was just so damned perceptive when she let herself be. And Millie? Forget it. She could pin him with a look, just a look, and he was suddenly very aware of two facts: One, Millie was just as good at feigning ignorance as he was, if not better, and she'd been doing it all along. Two, he wasn't fooling her, not one little bit, and she was just about done indulging him.

Now that he thought about it, this situation, this closeness to the insurance girls (especially one in particular's immeadiate physical closeness), was getting s-c-a-r-y.

He watched Meryl as she finished bandaging his shoulder. She was leaning close so that she could reach him. One of his knees was situated just between hers. Gah, stupid short skirt. He could smell her hair- bar smoke, her shampoo, her sweat. It was incredibly and inexplicably appealing.

"There." Meryl applied a small square of tape to hold the gauze and wrapping in place. Her fingers stayed frozen for a moment, and then her brow creased as if she was thinking about something serious. Vash was about to ask her what was wrong, when her fingers began moving. She touched a spot on his chest where two planes of skin met in a raised ridge of scar tissue. He shivered and forced himself not to pull away as she traced the fissure with light fingers, down his abdomen and back up until her palm rested over his heart.

Vash watched her brows knot together in a way that seemed almost painful. Her mouth set in a line, he could see her jaw clench and unclench. Her eyes were shining, surface tension and resolve just barely keeping her tears in place. She blinked once and they made their silent descent down her cheeks. "Meryl?"

"Terrible." She barely breathed the word, not moving her eyes from where they were fixed. She was staring at his chest, his body, his scars. Suddenly, he'd never felt so naked. Nevermind that all he'd taken off was his shirt. He thought about the time he'd stripped down and barked like a dog to protect Lina. Nope. He defenitely felt a lot more exposed right now. He nervously gripped her hand, meaning to remove it from his chest, but she spoke again. "Beautiful."

He froze. Meryl looked up at him. Her heather eyes blinked out a steady line of tears beneath her dark lashes. She sniffled a little and smiled. So sweet and sad. "You're so very beautiful, Vash." He stopped breathing. He was vaguely aware that he was still holding her hand against his chest, as her other hand reached out and curled gently behind his neck. He could feel her tears on his cheek as she kissed him. Not on the mouth. Not on the cheek. Her lips met his face in that place just next to the corner of his mouth. They lingered there for a moment, and he was very aware that if he just turned his head a little...

But he stayed stock-still. His eyes squeezed shut and he felt his own tears falling. Meryl pulled back and he started breathing again in a shaky sob. Before he could speak she was up and half-way to the door. "You should eat your food before it gets any colder," she noted, her back facing him.

"Wait!" He found his voice and cleared his throat as she turned to face him. "You, um, working tomorrow night?"

There was going to be a town-wide festival the next night, to celebrate the water that had been tapped at the well. There was going to be drinking and games and music. Meryl had requested not to work at Millie's insistence. The big girl had worked hard at coaxing that water from the earth, and she wanted to celebrate with her best friend and partner. "I'm working the lunch shift, but I'll be done by five. Why?"

"Well, I," Vash hesitated, scratching the back of his neck nervously once again. He looked at the floor as he spoke, "I, um, thought that you might like to go into town with, uh, me? You know, lemme buy you a drink or something?"

I know that Vash the Stampede is not asking me on a date. That would be perfectly insane. "Well, I was planning on going in with Mille. I figured you'd come."

"Of course!" Vash laughed nervously. "Big girl put her blood, sweat, and tears into that well, afterall. I'm sure it's gonna be a lot of fun."

"Yeah." Meryl paused uncertainly. "Well, goodnight then, Vash."

Meryl noted with displeasure that his normal, idiotic grin was back on his face, erasing anything genuine. She'd lost him. You're such a coward, Meryl. "Night, short girl! And thanks for the grub and the bandage!"

Vash stared at the door for a long moment after Meryl had closed it. His heart was thumping loudly in his ears. He turned to watch his brother sleep and breathed out hard, as if trying to force the anxiety from his body. He could still feel the ghost of Meryl's lips on his face. He experimentally ran his tongue over the spot, and came back with the taste of her lip gloss.

"Oh, man." He shook his head and asked, "What the hell am I doing?"