Five years, and Wolfwood still couldn't shake the feeling that he was in someone else's skin. Every night, instead of praying to God as he should have been, he lay in the dark and prayed to the body. The large, gun-calloused hands would start with the delicate lines around his eyes and mouth and then move down the sinewy musculature of his shoulders, arms, chest, stomach, thighs. He prayed every night that the body didn't give up on him, that it let him finish what he had started. The fingers of his right hand were judgment, the fingers of his left were forgiveness, and when he slept his teeth ground out the litany.
Nicholas heaved the bag off his shoulder and it clattered and crashed as it hit the ground. He'd taken every empty bottle he could find from the bar at the inn and not given anything by way of answer when asked why he wanted them. He pulled six from the bag and lined them up along a fence rail. He walked away from them, and at fifty paces turned back around and gave his eyes some time to adjust to the small figures in the semi-darkness. Just the lips of the bottles, where the glass flared and reflected the moonlight, were visible. They were impossible targets. He lowered the hand gun and aimed. Fired. There was the loud shattering noise of breaking glass and the lip disappeared and left the empty black behind. One down, fifty-six to go.
One, two, three steady rounds from the handgun. Each satisfying shatter and muffled fall into the dirt only left him feeling a little emptier than before, as if the loss of each bullet left another hole in him. He pressed his free hand to the back of his neck. Sweat dripped from his hair and soaked through the collar of his shirt. His jacket felt too heavy, it weighed his arms down. Nicholas took it off and laid it in the dust. He set up six more bottles and then returned to his spot. He raised his arm to aim, and three of the bottles shattered before he got a shot off. Slowly, he lowered his gun. When the footsteps approached him from behind he lowered his head as well.
"Spikey," he said.
Vash stopped beside him and looked over the damage. The pieces of glass reflected the moon and mimicked the stars. Two fathomless skies with the two of them caught in between. "Seems this thing isn't as far off target as I thought it was." He turned the gun over in his hands and studied it. Nicholas knew that Vash was studying him instead, even though he wasn't looking at him.
"What are you doing here?" Each word forced its way through Nicholas' teeth, fighting for purchase in the open air.
Vash looked up at the fifth moon. "Thinking, you?"
Nicholas sniffed in disgust. He raised his gun again and shattered the remaining three bottles before he holstered the weapon and began to walk away. "Not thinking.”
It was late, and it was dark, but it wasn't as dark as he felt. Very rarely did the five moons ever meet on a cycle that allowed for total blackness. Nicholas hadn't stripped for bed yet. He sat in his shirt sleeves in a chair in the corner and rested his large hands between his knees. Not his large hands. His hands would be seventeen, maybe a little less smooth than a child's, and they would never have done the things these hands had. For the first time since this had begun, he didn't feel the need to pray.
He suddenly had more fear of being naked and alone than he did of any retribution from God. It was childish of him, and not befitting of a member of the Eye of Michael. But there, alone in the dark, who would ever know? It wasn't like God had been listening. There was a knock at the door and Nicholas sighed. Of course, he would know.
Nicholas didn't answer, but that had never stopped Vash before. When he came in he was carrying a bottle of liquor in one hand and two tumblers in another. "Well then Preacher man, how about a little hair of the dog?" He smiled, and Nicholas glared at him. Vash had absolutely no right to smile under those or any other circumstances. Not after all that he was responsible for, not considering where they were going.
Nicholas winced when Vash turned on the light. He was sure that no one had used the term 'hair of the dog' in at least a hundred years, and he was reminded suddenly, that Vash too wasn't what he seemed. The only difference between them was one of years. Vash's body was all his own. It was deceptively young but, if Knives was to be believed, it bared the scars of at least 150 years of life on that god forsaken planet.
"You know, Spikey," Nicholas said. He tilted his chair forward as he stood up and let the back legs bang back against the wooden floor before he dragged it over to the table and straddled it backwards. He opened the bottle of liquor, poured one of the glasses full to the brim, and pushed it across to Vash. Then he took a long swig directly from the bottle. When he finished he wiped the back of his mouth with his left hand. It was forgiven. "You and me, we're the same."
Vash looked into his glass and tried to figure out how to pick it up without spilling any. "How do you figure?"
"Because neither of us, is who we are." Nicholas took another long swig and wiped his mouth again with the back of his left hand. It was almost like praying. His body would forgive him.
"And who aren't you?" Vash asked.
Nicholas stared at the bottle and determined that he was going to need a lot more alcohol before he could even begin to figure an answer to that question. "I'm not a Christian. And I'm not a killer." He looked Vash in the eyes. What he found there made his chest tighten and told him that Vash had known that all along.
"It must be hard," Vash said quietly, "to realize that you are not the things you've used to define yourself for your whole life." Nicholas upended the bottle again and Vash leaned forward and took a small drink from his own cup.
That night, half drunk and still in his shirt and pants, Wolfwood laid down atop his sheets and fell asleep without praying. Vash didn't move from his spot at the table until Nicholas woke again the next morning.
They had stopped for the night, and were drinking again, because it was what Nicholas did second best. When their eyes met over the table he shuddered involuntarily, as he always did when his mind was numbed by liquor, and he thought about their color and their true age. He could almost feel them on the skin under his clothing. He wanted to tell Vash to stop looking at him, because of what it did to him, but instead he said, "Do you ever feel like you don't belong in your skin?"
"No," Vash replied, and took another slow drink. "My skin and my scars are the only things I've ever known for sure. Though, I suppose you have some sort of faith worked out where you know more about me than even I do."
Wolfwood shook his head and looked away. "No." Vash didn't know if it was 'No, I don't presume to know you', or even worse, 'No, there is no faith'. He knew either answer would make him feel hollow inside.
It was one of the few hotel rooms with an intact mirror and he had been lucky enough to get it. It had been a long time since he had had a chance to study the body. It changed so rapidly, it was impossible to create an accurate map of it at any given time. He stood in the dark, naked, and ran rough fingers over his chest and tried to determine if the coloring or the tightness of the skin was any different. He was expecting the knock, but he didn't answer it. Vash never left without looking in on him anyway, so it hardly mattered.
When the door opened the light from the hallway outside cut across Nicholas and made every part of his body that it touched glow and seem youthful. He stared at it and absentmindedly rubbed his forefinger over the skin under his left nipple until it felt warm. He tried to will it to stay that way.
"What are you doing?" Vash said. His voice broke through the silence, a yearned for yet unwelcome intruder, and he sounded uncomfortable. It seemed so out of character for him it made Nicholas want to laugh.
Instead, Nicholas pursed his lips against the warm feeling that rose through his body and answered, "Praying." He continued to let his fingers slide up and down and in and out of the notches of his rib cage that poked through the skin. "How old are you Vash?"
"I don't know anymore." It wasn't a lie. Vash could guess, and it might even be an educated one, but there had been too many years between the beginning and now to be able to make an accurate count. "How old are you?"
Nicholas was quiet for a long moment. He stared at Vash's reflection in the mirror and dropped his hands away from his body. "Seventeen." Vash closed the door and the darkness swept in on them. Nicholas looked down at his hands and tried to remember what they had looked like four years ago. That was what they should look like now.
Something clicked for Vash. The pieces of the puzzle that was Nicholas D. Wolfwood fell into place. He suddenly understood his friend's melancholy, stubbornness, and bouts of drinking. His righteous ideas were born of someone who, even though he had seen much, had not seen enough. Vash sighed and sat down on the floor at the foot of Nicholas' bed with his back to him. "Is that why you asked about my body before?"
"I was...never give enough time," Nicholas answered, distracted.
Vash stared resolutely at the wall in front of him and tried not to think about Nicholas' skin and what it must feel like, whether it seemed seventeen or eighty or a hundred and ten. "The amount of time hardly matters."
Nicholas made a rough, noncommittal noise in the back of his throat. He walked around Vash to the chair where he had draped his clothing and pulled his pants back on. Then he lowered himself next to Vash and leaned back so that his head was resting on the sheets at the foot of the bed. They sat in silence and didn't touch. Neither of them slept.
There was no inn that night. It had been too far to the next town and there was nothing around them but the sand and the night sky and the cold wind. Nicholas pulled a blanket from the saddlebag on his bike and offered it to Vash.
"You'll freeze," Vash said.
"C'mon Spikey, what do you think I'm made of?" Nicholas smiled his wry, half smile and Vash accepted it. He forgot, most of the time, that he was still dealing with a kid.
Nicholas started a fire and bunched his jacket under his head. He lay down immediately and closed his eyes while Vash stayed awake. It had become his habit to wait until Nicholas had gone to sleep. He was about to nod off himself when he heard Nicholas begin to whimper. He was curled up into a tight ball with his back to the night, eyes screwed shut and grinding his teeth. Vash moved closer to him. He reached out tentatively and touched Nicholas. Nicholas was shaking. Feeling foolish for having accepted it in the first place, Vash spread the blanket over Nicholas and waited. But the shaking didn't stop and he was still pulled in on himself so tight that it made Vash's muscles ache to look at it.
Vash closed his eyes and tried to remember what Rem would have done in a time like this. Rem would have lain down with him, gathered him in her arms and whispered soothing words into his ear. Vash was sure that no matter what his actual feelings for Nicholas were, if the preacher woke up with Vash wrapped around him, he was sure he'd wake up with a gun to his head. If he was lucky, it wouldn't be the Punisher.
He reached out and placed his hand on Nicholas' forehead and smoothed his hair back. Eventually, Nicholas stopped shivering. Vash pulled his hand away and Nicholas began to mumble louder. Vash decided that there were some things worthy of an unceremonious execution and curled up on the ground behind Nicholas and rested his forehead between Nicholas' shoulder blades. He wrapped his hands around himself so that they didn't move into any inappropriate places in his sleep. It didn't seem to matter though, as long as Nicholas was being touched, he calmed down enough to rest.
"Fuck, Vash!" Vash was pushed over onto his back. He opened his eyes and squinted against the sun.
"What the hell are you doing?" Nicholas was shouting, but he didn't have a weapon as far as Vash could tell, which was promising. "What do I look like to you?" Nicholas was moving about in fits of nervous energy. He folded the blanket and buried the fire, walking in long concentric circles that held none of the efficiency of his usual movement. Vash sat up and caught a hold of Nicholas' wrist as he walked by. Nicholas tried to pull it away, but Vash held tight. He looked him in the eye and Nicholas looked back, challenging him. Vash pulled Nicholas down and touched the back of his hand to Nicholas' forehead. Nicholas closed his eyes. Vash brushed the hair back and Nicholas shuddered.
"Spikey," Nicholas pleaded. His voice was low and exhausted. Vash let go of Nicholas and stepped away. Nicholas stood with his eyes closed for a few minutes more, and then he began to move about again. He double checked the remains of the fire and closed up the saddle bags before mounting his bike. He started it, and Vash stood back, wondering if he was about to be left behind. Nicholas flipped his sunglasses down and stared off into the horizon. "Well, you coming Spikey?”
That night they found a proper town, but Nicholas only arranged for one room. "Wolfwood?" Vash stood outside of the door and looked in as Nicholas propped the Punisher up against the wall.
"Yeah?" Nicholas was smiling manically and moving with even less efficiency than he had that morning. His mouth was wide, but his eyes were dark, and he had so far avoided the subject of waking up with Vash next to him.
"How come I don't get a room?"
Nicholas stopped fidgeting with the Punisher's straps and turned to look at Vash. "When was the last time you actually slept in a room of your own?"
"Hey!" Vash was indignant at the question. He wanted to tell Nicholas that it was his entire fault anyway, for coming along and partnering up with him and becoming just another person that would end up dying because of him if Vash didn't keep a proper eye out. Nicholas just stared at him with impassive eyes. Vash scratched the back of his neck and gave him a lopsided smile. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"Anyway, we'll save money this way. It's not like we're rolling in it, or really have a way to come by more." He didn't look Vash in the eye when he said it. "I'm going out." Nicholas checked the handgun in the holster under his jacket and then brushed against Vash on his way out the door. "Do whatever you like."
Vash wandered about the room, not sure of what to do, and noted that it now distinctly lacked Nicholas' presence unlike any room ever had before. This, he felt, was probably sentimental of him. He had been in many rooms without Nicholas over his lifetime, a great many before Nicholas was even born, and none of them had felt like this. Perhaps Knives was right.
When he heard the reports from Nicholas' gun he settled himself in the corner and closed his eyes, letting the steady sound of rounds spent lull him into something akin to non-consciousness, but not sleep. Being a gunman was what Nicholas did best. Vash would have liked to have joined him, but he was afraid to scare him off like he had the first time, and he knew Nicholas needed this outlet. He also didn't want to have to look at the fire in Nicholas' eyes, because Nicholas became a different person with a weapon in his hand. Vash didn't want to feel hunted later as he comforted his sleeping friend.
Vash was curled up in the corner when Nicholas came in, finally feeling worn out and like he could lie down without vibrating to death. He removed his clothing and crawled between the sheets. He closed his eyes and listened for any sound that would indicate that Vash was awake. When he heard none, he began his prayer. His hands were hesitating over his stomach when there was a dip in the mattress. Nicholas remained quiet for some time before opening his eyes. When he did, he saw that Vash was watching him from the foot of the bed. He was shirtless, and Nicholas could make out every scar and metal plate in the moonlight.
Vash half smiled, but then seemed to think better of it. "You talk in your sleep."
"You touch people when they're sleeping. Bastard."
"It calmed you."
"I'm always calm." Nicholas studied Vash, and then he sat up and reached a hand out and touched Vash's back. Vash didn't flinch away from the touch as Nicholas had assumed he would, as Nicholas did when people reached for him. Vash sat very still and watched Nicholas' fingers as they traveled his body. "Is this the price you pay for knowing who you are?" It seemed improbable to Nicholas, that anyone would continue living in a way that caused him that much damage.
"You could say that."
Reverently, Nicholas leaned further forward and brushed his lips against the gash on Vash's bicep. Vash laid his hand on Nicholas' forehead, pushing the hair back again and baptizing him in hope and fear and the need to exist. Nicholas closed his eyes. He felt hesitant hands on his shoulders.
Vash ran his fingers over Nicholas' arms and chest, mimicking the motions he had seen Nicholas do over and over again, in wakefulness and in sleep. "Why?"
"To try and understand who I've become, because I don't feel like it's who I should be, or even who I am. This," Nicholas' voice caught in this throat. "This isn't me."
Vash remained silent and moved closer to Nicholas on the bed. Nicholas began his ritual anew, but this time he pressed his hands to Vash's temple and traced the lines around his mouth. Vash's body was a remnant of a time long ago when God had been listening and the very planet they inhabited wasn't hell. That night, Nicholas prayed to Vash's body. Vash's scars were the rosary, his hands forgiveness, his heart beat, the litany.