Chapter 1: 02:05 – The Goldberg Variation
Vash is a lousy driver. He's also a lousy rider and just generally lousy at any form of transportation, including the ones where he isn't expected to do anything other than sit on his ass and not interfere. The sight of his beloved Angelina's wreckage makes Wolfwood consider leaving Vash's chewed up living carcass to the sand worms, but then he thinks about his contract and thinks about the orphans and thinks about how he doesn't really want to see Vash firmly lodged in the mouth of a sand worm as much as he wants to just kick the everloving crap out of him – for the motorcycle and other issues – and so he drags him to the nearest hotel and then locks himself up in his room with a hefty amount of tobacco.
Deep breaths. Deep breaths.
There's no pretty way to say it: the guy is a moron. (And even if there was a pretty way to say it, Wolfwood would still find a way to sneak in an insult, just on general principle.)
He wouldn't have fired, he said.
I would have retreated, he said.
And then he had the nerve to call him a coward.
So the guy who retreats is a hero, and the guy who attacks is a coward, and you smack the guy that watches your back, and not the one that shoots at it? Really, don't shower me with all of your gratitude at once, you jerk.
Wolfwood knows that Vash can act the part of a complete dumbass with painstaking authenticity, but sometimes he has to wonder whether that authenticity comes from the fact that it's not an act at all. There are certain things in life that shouldn't need explaining. Things like why turning your back on an assassin is a bad idea, and why busting a cap in his brow before he gets the drop on you is a good one. How someone could survive a year, let alone what's probably over a century on the Outer without knowing the basic facts of life like that was beyond Wolfwood. Or at least he preferred not to think about the how.
The human body is 70 percent water and 30 percent... well, not water. Wolfwood's biology schooling over at the Eye of Michael didn't exactly extend much beyond which organs to aim for in order to ensure instant death. Assuming Vash can be classified as something that's even in the same zip code as human (and the jury's still out on that one), his body is more like 70 percent iron and 30 percent parts-that-will-soon-be-replaced-with-iron. If he ever walked past a lifting magnet, he'd probably get half of his internal organs ripped out of his torso. And he'd probably survive that, too – the monster – at least long enough to lecture Wolfwood on the virtues of lifting magnets and how it's entirely possible that they could one day decide not to attract metal, if given a proper chance to reform.
People can change, that much is true. But in the end, it all comes down to math. Probabilities. One life in exchange for two, for five, for five hundred. Chances that someone will buy into your juvenile hippie philosophy against chances that they won't. And Wolfwood would rather carry the blood of a thousand would-be murderers on his hands, than the life of a single innocent that died because he hesitated to pull the trigger when presented with the opportunity.
Math. Rationality. Common sense. How could someone intelligent enough to calculate bullet trajectories with mathematical precision think any differently? How many people would be alive today, how many kids born if the idiot did the rational thing and iced that nut-job brother of his the minute he started exhibiting homicidal tendencies? Hell, how many would be alive if he sucked on that muzzle and blew his own brains out afterwards? Certainly everyone that ever died because he knocked some random, murderous scumbag out of the path a stray bullet. Certainly not the rapist bastard he saved from the vengeance he so very much deserved.
Certainly not Wolfwood, who would have met a rather pathetic end if Vash hadn't taken the right bus at the right time and spotted his sorry dehydrated corpse with those keen, inhuman eyes of his – not that it would have been much of a loss for humanity. Then again, if Knives had just dropped dead sometime in the distant past, Wolfwood never would have been on his way to Jenora Rock on that fateful day in the first place. He probably would have been more concerned with things like getting into some girl's pants, or getting his chest hair to come out faster or something. He would have been a kid, maybe. Maybe not. It's too complicated. It doesn't matter.
What matters is making a choice and making it when it counts. Cry over it all you want later, but pull the damn trigger when it starts looking like a trigger needs to be pulled, you stupid immature hypocrite.
Crying and begging and stripping and singing about genocide (for God's sake) might have worked on the sort of losers Vash has been pitted against so far, but there's not a chance in hell it's going to work on the Gung Ho Guns – to speak nothing of that creep Legato and the monster that calls Vash a brother.
Just how far are you prepared to take this bullshit tactic of yours? What if you get killed, you idiot? Can you even get killed? Can Knives? What does it take? What if the lives of every man, woman and child on this planet end up depending on your ability to suck it up and get over your childish principles? Will you be able to sleep the night your brother decides to rain judgment on your precious humans, knowing you could have stopped it all?
Ah, screw it.
Thinking about what makes Vash tick is like trying to cure a hangover with more booze. It may look like you're getting somewhere at first, but it's really just a matter of time before you end up back at square one and worse off for trying. And it apparently makes you leave fist-shaped indentations in hotel tables, too. Damn, but he's gonna need to learn to keep his temper in check if he means to carry through with this contract.
"This one's definitely coming out of your wallet, Needle-noggin," he says to the table and then lights another cigarette.
The windows on this place sure could use a cleaning, considering what they charge for a night. The crash left him looking crappy enough, even without the complementary dust and snot stains he can see on his reflection.
And wasn't the damn cigarette pack almost full half an hour ago?
Not everything is Vash's fault, really. Of course it isn't. But pretending that it is sure makes it easier for Wolfwood to look himself in the eye right now.
Chapter 2: 03: 06 - A Summer Cottage in the Sky
Wolfwood only has one dream, and it's not a pleasant one. There are subtle variations on the theme, but the punchline is always the same: he can never go home. It's not exactly the sort of dream a guy can look forward to, and that's pretty much the only upside to not being able to get any shuteye over the beeping of various hospital machinery he and Vash have been hooked up to for the past couple of days.
And, as if the downside of his brain not getting any of its much-needed rest wasn't enough, he gets the additional blessing of discovering that Vash, apparently, never shuts up. Even when he's sleeping.
Rem. He murmurs that woman's name every once in a while, even when he's fully awake. Murmurs it in the same way people murmur oh, god. And the way it rolls off his tongue now, as he sleeps all curled up and compact and tucked in like a little kid tells Wolfwood it's not the name of a dead girlfriend.
He won't ask, but it does make him wonder. When you grow up in an orphanage, you learn to recognize that tone of voice.
It's things like that that sometimes make it easy to forget Vash is not the least bit wet behind the ears. The looks help, too, of course. With mussed hair and that stupid flannel hospital gown, he looks two times younger than he usually looks, which is probably about ten times younger than he actually is. Or something along those lines. It's hard to keep track of math when you get tangled up in descriptions like that, but the point is, there is a strong discrepancy between how old he looks and acts and how old he really is, and that's probably part of the reason why Wolfwood sometimes underestimates his worldliness. And that has got to take the cake, coming from a teenager residing in the body of a 30-something year old man. 40-something, on those days when he's hungover and skips shaving.
Wolfwood had done his homework after the Fifth Moon incident. You can't exactly expect to dig up a birth certificate on someone like Vash, but you certainly can expect to find some records of his hijincks, even from before he had a bounty on his head. If one were to put those records together, it wouldn't be too far fetched to assume Vash is at least as old as human life on this planet. At least a hundred and fifty. But when he calls out to Rem in that tiny little voice, it's plain to see that he's no more a hundred and fifty than Wolfwood is eighteen. It's just numbers and, well, numbers are sometimes bullshit.
The truth of the matter is, they've both cheated time, only in different ways. Vash is kind of like a kid that never grew up and Wolfwood is kind of like an adult that was never a kid, and that probably explains why they're drawn together to the point of clashing. It's something you can't help, like gravity. But it's there, and under different circumstances, Wolfwood wouldn't be as hesitant to call himself Vash's friend. Of course, he can't do that with a straight face as long as he remains on Knives' payroll.
It's all a circus act, really. Wolfwood is just your regular scrawny little kid from Nowhere, New Alabama that got sold into a circus before he learned how to crawl and taught how to walk on a highwire before he learned how to do it on the ground. He has his little balancing pole and two different prizes hanging on either side of it, but he can't get one without losing the other and he'll lose both if he slips and falls. He'll lose himself either way, that much is just physics.
It's all in the balance. That's why it's called a balancing act. That's why he couldn't tell Vash even if he wanted to.
Still, he's aware that sometimes the things he says and does make something click in Vash's head. It's almost an audible click. Like a puzzle falling into place, like flipping a switch after tumbling through pitch darkness, like the sound of cocking a gun and the feeling you get when it's coming from behind your head. Click. Vash is not really a moron, after all, and Wolfwood knows there's a lot of clicking going on in that spiky head at any given moment. It's just that he doesn't almost-hear all of those clicks, but he definitely almost-hears the clicks that click because more truth had accidentally spilled from him, and now he's that much closer to falling off his proverbial highwire.
He thought he heard a click just after Gray the Ninelives crashed Leonoff's opening performance two days ago. Time had stopped – like Wolfwood imagined it usually does when the ground you're standing on disintegrates to reveal a creature several times your size, with a murderous aura thick enough to walk on – and that one long, timeless moment was filled with nothing but Vash giving him a very meaningful look. It was a look that could have been saying many things, not all of them pleasant and comforting. I'm on to you. We're screwed. You look fat from this perspective. All in all, something Wolfwood wouldn't want to hear. Something that, for some reason, suddenly made proving his loyalty a lot more important than surviving to tell the tale.
Now, preventing deaths, as such, never really clashed with Wolfwood's self-appointed purpose in life – quite the contrary. But preventing them at the cost of his own life somewhat does. After all, he's a man with a mission. He has places to go and megalomaniacs to kill and he can't very well do that if he's dead. It would be a different story if he could count on someone to step into his shoes, but someone has yet to give him any reason to believe Knives would be successfully deep-sixed, as opposed to dealt with in a less permanent manner, in the event of Wolfwood not being alive to make sure of it.
To cut a long story short, he can't afford to die. Not yet. He can't afford to waste time, either.
Still, knowing all of that, he put his life on the line just because the look Vash gave him was that disconcerting. What's even more disconcerting is the thought that disconcerting looks from Vash now apparently make Wolfwood do things he otherwise wouldn't have done. And it wasn't until ten minutes ago that he even realized what that look was really telling him. That it wasn't what he had feared at all.
I get it now. People will die if we lose this battle. Do what you have to do.
Just before sinking into what don't exactly look like pleasant dreams about a woman Wolfwood's not going to be asking any questions about, Vash actually thanked him. The same guy who had, not a week ago, made him look inward and closely examine the multicolored galaxy of stains on his soul, was actually telling him thanks for killing in so many words.
The only problem was, Wolfwood was neither pleased with receiving his gratitude, nor convinced that effectively winning the argument they started after Rai-Dei was something to feel good about. But that's just what happens when a cynic starts buying into idealism. You start to doubt yourself. You become unsure. And that's just about the worst frame of mind a man on a mission could possibly have.
There's a lot of things Wolfwood has been unsure of lately, but he is sure of this: Vash is a fucking infection. Unless your conscience is neatly sealed away in a water-tight container somewhere south of Remorselessville, he's gonna be getting into every little crack in the armor with that martyrdom crap of his. It's beyond annoying, but...
...what else can you expect from a guy that says home and thinks of a place that is, literally, up in the clouds?
Chapter 3: 06:05 - Two to the Heart, Two to the Head
It's all there in the good book, as they say. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the Sun.
The actors come and go, but the parts are eternal. Perhaps in an instance of typecasting, Wolfwood was hired for the role of Judas. Vash, being the hero, is naturally Jesus, although, having gotten to know some of his life story, Wolfwood would sooner peg him as the Job to Knives' Satan. After all, there was probably a good reason why the Big Man didn't give his only begotten son a nuke for an arm. And then the Christ sprouted wings made of deformed unborn babies and wiped Golgotha off the map. It might have made his character a bit easier to relate to, but everyone would forget what a great guy Jesus really was just as soon as they read that.
Knives, on his part, would probably fancy himself the Almighty, or, at the very least, the Adam to Vash's Eve. Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. It's a scary thought. If Vash and Knives were born identical, which one of them stayed closer to their true nature? It's a question that keeps Wolfwood awake at night.
Sometimes, he is afraid of Vash, afraid that the same poison runs through his veins, lulled only by occasional specks of happiness in an otherwise tortured existence. Afraid that, one of these days, the pain will become so overwhelming, so white-hot that all those tiny specks of color will fade against it. It's when his thoughts happen to drift into this direction that Wolfwood is tempted to empty several magazines into his protégé's back, just in case.
It would be so easy, too, because Vash never turns around. He lets Wolfwood hover behind him with a pistol aimed squarely at the back of his spiky head, and turns to greet him with feigned surprise only after Wolfwood has already changed his mind. That face is all curves and dimples, all carefully laid in a configuration ostensibly parading as ignorance, but obviously a different expression altogether. The mask of a man who is terrified of betrayal, but trusts just the same. A dumbass. A saint. Both and neither, as well as something in between, just like every other false dichotomy in the puzzle of Vash's existence.
Later, as they sit on the outskirts of a likely inbred nowhere little town, having been pelted with rocks and chased away with pitchforks, Wolfwood thinks to himself that he's finally hit rock bottom, and then somehow managed to go downhill from there.
Friends don't shoot friends in the back.
And they are friends, aren't they? Why else would Wolfwood be bothered by the fact that Vash walked into a church on a Sunday morning with Monday's whiskey supply in his pocket? Why does he feel the need to say something to him, something wise and soothing that Vash might have had a chance to hear, had he not been denied that one moment of solace? Probably because he'd just end up putting a foot in his mouth, but still. He wants to, and for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with either his official gig in the Guns or his pet project of saving mankind.
But, really, what do you say to someone who has just retrieved a vivid recollection of wiping a quarter of a million people off the planet? Especially if that someone happens to be a person who goes so far as to regard roadkill with a sad hesitation that is entirely unsuitable for a starving adult. Shit happens? At least it's not raining? Not that it ever does on this planet, but if it did, Wolfwood is sure Vash would have his private little rain cloud following him around, shooting lighting up his ass just to remind him that things always can and will get worse.
He's starting to get it now, to really get the reason behind that imitation of happiness. Clichés don't come out of nowhere, and whomever came up with the old smile and the world smiles with you probably wasn't trying to say that putting a couple of muscles to work somehow magically makes the whole world a happier place. No. Misery is contagious. Misery loves company. That's why an unhappy man is nobody's friend and that's why true pain is pain that isn't shared.
That's why Wolfwood hates to see Vash smile his fake plastic smile, and, at the same time, remembers it fondly every time he gets a peek at the face behind that mask. It's the sort of face that would, if he could help it, have no business being glued to Vash's head. The sort of face that makes Wolfwood flick rubber bands, along with assorted childish insults in Vash's general direction, hoping to piss him off enough to forget his misery, even for a split second. It never works, and, when all is said and done, it's really not fair that everyone else gets to enjoy the antics of a slapstick hellion in perpetual puberty, while he gets stuck with a depressed alcoholic on a guilt trip.
So much for being perceptive. Enjoy the show, Wolfwood.
Misery loves company, and so Wolfwood isn't all that surprised to find his thoughts turning more and more to himself, the more time he spends with Vash. To the funerals he caused and then presided over, to the orphans he would mar with the stench of death if he ever again dared go near them, to the fact that he occasionally contemplates rewarding unconditional trust with a bullet to the back. He knows that he's supposed to feel bad about some of these things, but can't quite bring himself to care, and, well... That does make him feel kind of shitty.
Once upon a time, he, too, had clung fiercely to guilt and self-loathing, for no reason other than the fact that it was the only slice of humanity he had left in him. Everything else – his innocence, his compassion, his future hopes and dreams – was replaced, scab for scab, with Chapel's "enhancements". The Eye of Michael isn't a Christian church in any conventional sense of the word, but they sure know how to sell certain elements of the dogma that just happen to compliment their brainwashing methods the best. The nature of flesh is sin. Nowhere is that more obvious than in that God forsaken hellhole he and Livio "grew up" in. It wasn't a life Wolfwood had chosen, but it was his alone, and there was no way around the fact that he did some horrible things in order to stay alive. He killed because he wanted to live, and at some point realized that the only reason he was still alive was because the problems his continued existence was causing needed to be fixed.
Maybe that's also the real reason why Vash is still alive and scarred right down to the cellular level. He, too, has a body that's not entirely his own. And though he might not have been forced into it the same way Wolfwood was, in the end, he didn't have any more say in the matter. A point could be made of this, but Wolfwood knows that it's not going to make Vash beat himself up any less over losing it in July.
Another unconvincing point could alsobe made of the fact that it's not guns, metallic or organic, that kill, but the finger that pulls the trigger. Is Vash's Colt, having saved countless lives and never taken a single one, somehow evil by default? Would the same weapon be evil if it fell into Wolfwood's hands? Intentions count for a lot. Then again, for all of Chapel's good intentions, the Punisher might as well have been forged in the fires of hell, along with the very body Wolfwood currently inhabits. But does all that automatically mean that nothing good can ever come of it? Not even Wolfwood is that cynical.
Still, there's too many variables in that equation and no way to ever know whether you got all of your answers right. That's why Wolfwood was never particularly concerned with accountability. Retribution and even absolution are reserved for the self-absorbed. Prevention is the only thing he was ever interested in. For instance, his decision to kill Chapel had nothing at all to do with the seething hatred he felt for the bastard. Not even Vash would believe him if he said that, but it's the truth. Chapel was just the first in line of faceless, nameless obstacles on Wolfwood's path to Millions Knives. The day he fired that bullet, Wolfwood decided to regard all obstacles that way because the threat that Knives posed was too real, and he simply could not afford to bring his conscience along for the ride.
In retrospect, that was, perhaps, his ultimate folly.
Wolfwood was never concerned with accountability, but he had known from the start that he would have blood on his hands if he decided not to betray Vash, and Knives slaughtered his orphanage because of it. What he didn't know, what he didn't want to know, was that the choice is never that simple. The toughest choices in life are invariably choices between two wrongs, and the reason humans were given a conscience to begin with was to help them make a decision they can live with as humans. Vash with his twisted alien DNA seems to understand that better than Wolfwood ever did, and that's just another bullet on the list of things that have been making Wolfwood feel kind of shitty as of late.
In the end, he knows that he won't be able to avoid letting someone down. Maybe then he'll get interested in retribution and absolution and all those things Needle-noggin' probably ponders with that godawful look on his face. Or maybe he'll be way too dead to care.
Wolfwood would like to believe there's life beyond all this crap, but with the way things have been going lately, that's a level of optimism he just can't afford. He'd like to believe he'll live to see Vash smile and mean it, because that smile really does make the world seem like a better place. That's probably precisely where the core of their differences lies.
The truth is, even if Wolfwood did live to see better days, he probably wouldn't know what to do with them.