i. baptism


Wolfwood was drunk when he suggested it. To his surprise, Vash acquiesced, and he seemed a little too eager, a little too bright-eyed, for someone who was supposed to be plastered. But Wolfwood had noticed that while it didn't seem to take a lot to get Vash drunk, he never quite lost his sharpness. It was like the alcohol made him sick, but didn't affect his brain. Which didn't make any sense, of course, but Vash didn't make sense most of the time.

They didn't have any water. Water was hard to find in this place, it was late at night, and what was he supposed to do, stagger downstairs and try to find a glass? No, whiskey would do. They didn't have salt either, but that was all right, since they didn't have an altar or even a church. God would just have to take what he could get.

It'd been a long time since he'd performed a baptism. He asked Vash to kneel on the floor, even though he wasn't sure if that was part of the protocol--but then, alcohol wasn't part of the protocol either. It all made sense when you were drunk, anyway. "I think yer s'posed t'pray som'ere 'n this," Wolfwood said, words slurred. "But you--"

"Our Father, who art in Heaven," Vash surprised him, eyes closed, his voice too steady for someone who'd consumed more than a few glasses of whiskey, several shots of vodka, and an unknown quantity of bourbon, "hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven." He hesitated, and then the pause lengthened and became a full stop. ". . . I don't remember the rest," he said, softly and sheepishly, with more than a touch of shame, and Wolfwood laughed just a little.

"Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," Wolfwood continued in a slow drawl. Vash was silent, and Wolfwood knew that he was listening, really listening, like someone who means to commit every word of this to heart. "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen."

"Amen," Vash repeated.

Wolfwood poured a good lick of whiskey into his palm and splashed it onto Vash's head, making him blink. "I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

For a moment, a suddenly much more sober Wolfwood wished he could do this properly, the way he did with the kids back home. They looked like little angels in their white smocks, waiting for their flick of consecrated water, and they always looked so happy and proud afterwards, like they actually felt that they were closer to God. He studied Vash again and tried to remember something. Something about children, and the suffering of.

"I thought you were supposed to do this with water," Vash said, blinking fuzzily up at Wolfwood.

"Yeah, well," Wolfwood replied in the overconfident manner of one who's had too much to drink, "'round here, we use alcohol to wash away our sins."



ii. penance


The portable confessional was made of plastic. Vash thought that maybe it had once been a doll's house that had been modified and painted over; you could see the original colors, where some of the paint had chipped off, and underneath that, bare plastic the color of bone.

"Try it on," Wolfwood suggested, smirking around his cigarette.

Vash looked at it doubtfully and peered at its interior. Wolfwood's portable confessional hadn't seen much use lately; it spent most of its time riding at the bottom of Vash's bag. Not that it was grimy or dusty or anything, but. . . well. Who know what lurked at the bottom of his bag? He tried it on anyway, even though he knew Wolfwood was joking. The hard peak flattened his hair as he felt his vision abruptly shut off, and the wall of the confessional pressed against his nose. It was dark, and he couldn't breathe properly. "How can you make people wear this?"

"Yeah, well, someone's gotta feed the kids." Wolfwood's voice seemed to come from far away. "But hey, for you, I'll make it free."

"No thanks," Vash said, and he moved to take the confessional off his head.

"Hey! I meant it, you know." Vash couldn't tell if Wolfwood was being serious or not; inside the confessional there was only blackness and the smell of gunpowder and smoke. "You can say anything you want, and I can't tell. Vow of silence and all."

Vash was silent, but it was because he was thinking. He felt the burden of his secrets, sometimes, heavy as Wolfwood's cross, and there had been times when the darkness of the confessional had been tempting. But he never had. It was too dangerous. Everything he touched always seemed to shatter and turn to dust beneath his fingers. But he trusted Wolfwood, because he trusted any man who loved children.

Sometimes he was afraid for Wolfwood, too.

"Have you ever confessed, Wolfwood?"

"Nope."

Vash found that he was surprised. He knew that Wolfwood wasn't exactly a model priest, but surely. . . "Why not?"

There was a rustle of clothing and the creak of weight resettling. But the voice was nonchalant. "I figure I don't have to explain myself to God. He knows. It's all taken care of. It's for the kids, you know?"

"Wolfwood. . ."

"Forget it," Wolfwood said hastily, yanking the confessional off Vash's head. He blinked dizzily in the sudden wash of light, temporarily blinded. When his eyes focused again, Wolfwood's back was to him. The priest was cramming the tiny church into the bag with a kind of angry viciousness, his jaw stiff.

"Wolfwood--" Vash tried again, this time apologetically.

"No, no, forget it," Wolfwood cut him off. He snatched his half-smoked cigarette out of his mouth and ground it out in the ashtray. "Hey, I'm out. I'm gonna go get some more, okay?"

The door clicked shut with an empty sound.



iii. the holy eucharist


"What the hell are we doing here?"

It was a rhetorical question. If the iles of crosses and tombstones below them weren't enough, the expression on Vash's face was. But Wolfwood was grumpy at having to detour all the way out here, and he was out of cigarettes, and he asked the question because it was expected of him, even though he already knew the answer.

"I always come here," Vash replied, uncharacteristically quiet and serious. Wolfwood always forgot how deep his voice could go. "Every year."

"Yeah? What for?" The dead are dead, Wolfwood wanted to say. No point in shedding tears over it. You need to move on, we have places to be. But he looked at the hundreds of graves, and he found he couldn't say any of that.

Vash didn't answer right away. Instead, he sat at the lip of the ridge that shielded the makeshift graveyard from the wind, as if unable (or unwilling, but Vash was always willing, and never unable) to descend. He produced a bottle of Wild Turkey from his pack and a packet of slightly squashed, stale donuts. Wolfwood wondered how they'd lasted this whole time.

"I came here once," Vash said, uncorking the bottle, "a long time ago." Wolfwood thought this was his way of repaying him for the detour. "There were farmers here, and they grew their own food. I thought I'd found a little piece of Heaven." He smiled, and it was painful to look at. Wolfwood knew how hard it was to make things grow without a Plant. Vash took a long pull from the bottle, then handed it over; Wolfwood took it and sat down. "A week after I left, almost everyone was killed."

"Who did it?" Wolfwood asked, after a long swallow.

"Bostalk," Vash murmured, taking a bite of donut. "He's in charge of a town near here. I saved his daughter from some men who wanted revenge."

"No shit?" Wolfwood handed the bottle back, and Vash gulped down more of the liquor without really paying attention. "That was big of you."

Vash looked up at the sky and held the bottle against one bent knee. "I couldn't save them, Wolfwood. If I'd just stayed one more week--"

"You might've died with them," Wolfwood interrupted him. Damn, he really wanted a cigarette. "You can't save everyone, Vash. You help someone in December, someone's dying in February."

Vash said nothing, only wrapped his arms around his knees and gazed down into the ridge. He looked very young.

"Why the hell are we here, Tongari?" Wolfwood asked quietly.

"I don't know."

You want to punish yourself for something you had no control over, Wolfwood thought. You never know when to let things go. He reclaimed the bottle. "Might as well drink to their health, then," he said. He took a good, long swallow, then poured the rest out into the sand, watching as the liquid fumbled and slithered its way down towards the graves. "C'mon, Tongari. Let's go."



iv. confirmation


When they actually had enough money for an inn room, it was usually reserved under Wolfwood's name. They couldn't very well get one under "Vash the Stampede," after all, and Vash was very bad at making up names. So Wolfwood would sign his name in the register, below the X's and unintelligible scrawls, while Vash wandered off somewhere.

Sometimes the hotel clerk would ask Wolfwood's name and write it down himself, because X's and illegible scribbles aren't very good for liabilities.

"What's yer name?" the clerk asked.

"Nicholas D. Wolfwood," Wolfwood replied.

"How d'you spell that?"

"Enn-Aye-See--" Wolfwood recited the first name, then the last name.

"The middle name, please."

A pause. ". . . Capital-Dee-Period," Wolfwood said, slowly.

"Thankee. Sign here, please."

Wolfwood signed while the clerk took his sweet time fishing a worn, scratched key out of a drawer and slid it across the counter. The tag read "7" in faded blue pen. "That'll be 55 double dollars up front, please."

Wolfwood grumbled, paid, collected Vash from behind the staircase where he was trying to pet a peculiar small, black cat, and hauled them both upstairs. He desperately wanted a shower and a nap; it'd been a long day, exacerbated by having to deal with a clerk who wanted to know how to spell a middle name that was only one letter long.

"Hey, Wolfwood," Vash said, "is your middle name really just 'D?'"

"Dunno," Wolfwood said, jiggling the key in the lock. The door wouldn't open. He cursed under his breath. "The church asked me to pick a new name for myself, so I just picked D." The lie was as familiar as black coffee. Or maybe it wasn't really a lie, but it was a truth that was easier to explain and easier to swallow.

"Oh. Why?"

Vash was unusually nosy today. "'cause it stands for lots of things." Wolfwood gave the door a sharp rap with the heel of his hand and it creaked open obediently. Then he had trouble getting the key out. He cursed again, a little louder this time. "Death. Damnation. Darkness."

"Donuts," Vash supplied. "Dessert. Dracula."

"Drak-yu what?"

"Never mind," Vash said quickly. He reached over and closed his fingers around the key, shifted it just slightly, and it pulled free.

Wolfwood scowled, grumbled some more, and entered the room. It was an inn room like an awful lot of inn rooms they'd been in: tatty wood floor with sand seeping between the boards, one ancient bed, and a small table with two chairs. Vash trailed behind, still carrying the key in one black-gloved fist. Wolfwood shrugged off his jacket, tossed it on the bed, and began to unbutton his shirt. "And what about you, huh? 'Vash'--that's a funny name. And 'the Stampede' is just a nickname, right?"

"Maybe," Vash said glibly. "But you know, in French, my name means 'cow.' So 'the Stampede' makes sense, right?"

". . . if your parents were French and had a weird sense of humor, yeah."

"Hey, you guessed it! My parents were really crazy, you know, they were both vegans and when they had me, they really wanted me to take after them but go a step farther and turn the entire world that way--so that's why they called me 'the Stampede,' too, they really believed in the power and strength of the cow--and then--"

"Shut up," Wolfwood interrupted him, one hand clapped over his face. "Just--shut up."

"All right!" Vash's voice was a little too chirpy. "I'll go out and get us some food."

The door clicked shut and Wolfwood lifted his hand from his face. Vash was gone, all right. But he'd taken the key with him, so that meant he was coming back. Vash knew better than to try and ditch Wolfwood by now, anyway. Not that he hadn't tried, several times, early in their travels.

"Cow the Stampede," Wolfwood muttered as he threw his shirt on the bed. "Idiot."



v. matrimony


"Stay back, I'm warning you!"

Vash held up both hands placatingly as he did a little jig, avoiding the bullets that kicked up dirt around his feet. "Wait!" he yelped. "I--I come in peace!"

"That's what they all say!" the nun hollered back from the top window of the little orphanage. Vash thought it strangely resembled Wolfwood's portable confessional. "Now scram! We don't need your likes around here!"

"But I know Wolfwood! Nicholas D. Wolfwood!"

Suddenly, loud silence. Then the front door creaked open and a multitude of little round faces peered out, wide-eyed and smudged with dirt.

"You know Mr. Nicholas?" asked the oldest, a girl who looked around ten or eleven.

Vash breathed a sigh of relief. "Yeah," he said. "I know Mr. Nicholas."

Those must have been the magic words, because Vash was knocked over by a wave of small children. The nun screamed something in the background, but Vash couldn't hear. He was being pelted with questions--"Did he say anything about us?" "Do you have a letter from Mr. Nicholas?" "Did you bring us any presents?" "Want to play with us?" "When's Mr. Nicholas coming back?"

"Hey, hey, back off!" Vash said, laughing. "Lemme up. I think I'd better talk to--um--"

Before Vash could ask who he was supposed to talk to, a nun had swooped down on the children and pulled them off, scolding them all the while. "Honestly! I taught you better than that, children--imagine what Mr. Nicholas would say if he'd seen your behavior just now! Apologize to the nice gentleman." Vash could hardly believe she'd been firing a rifle at him only minutes before; she was a small, bookish sort of woman, with large glasses and a mild face.

"I'm sorry," chorused the children.

"Hey, it's all right!" Vash said, standing up and dusting himself off. "I haven't had that enthusiastic a greeting in a long time."

"Where's Mr. Nicholas?" asked one of the boys.

"Yeah!" piped up another child. "Where's Mr. Nicholas? When's he coming back?"

None of the children knew how to read Vash's face, and they didn't see the way his smile crumbled a little at the edges, or how it didn't quite reach his eyes. But the nun seemed to have sharp eyes--or she had Wolfwood's eyes, maybe--and shushed them. "I'm sure he's tired after coming such a long way," she said. "Let him rest first, and then I'm sure he'll tell us whatever we want to know."

"Thank you," Vash said, gratefully.

They ushered him inside. The nun insisted on giving him some of their spare attire. Vash protested, but the nun wouldn't take no for an answer; Mr. Wolfwood's spare clothes would probably fit him. At this, Vash fell silent and accepted the pile of clothing she gave him. He came out of the shower in a loose white shirt and black jeans, and the nun whisked his dirty clothing away. She made no remark about the color or style, only said that she'd have it clean and ready for him whenever he wanted to leave.

"Now," she said, "the children are out back playing. I expect you'll want to speak frankly."

Vash nodded wearily, suddenly feeling very old. But he'd wanted to do this, needed to do this, before. . . before. . .

"Wolfwood--Nicholas--" the name tasted strange in his mouth, Vash thought, "is--that is, he's--"

"--dead," the nun finished.

Vash nodded.

". . . I expected as much," she said quietly, "when his letter didn't come. He writes every month, to tell us where he is. But he didn't send a letter this time. I thought he might be in trouble."

"I'm sorry," Vash choked slightly on the words. "It was my fault. If I--"

"Don't be silly," the nun retorted. "Nicholas made his own choices."

Vash said nothing.

One of the girls tumbled into the room, and her face brightened when she saw Vash at the table. "Wanna play with us, Mister?"

"Now, Lois--"

"Sure!" Vash said, his face radiating nothing but cheer. "But you don't have to call me Mister; my name's Vash. What're you guys playing?"

"We're getting married!" She grabbed him by the hand. "C'mon, Mr. Vash!"

Vash allowed himself to be dragged out of the building and into the backyard, where seemingly endless numbers of children were running around. The oldest girl seemed to be orchestrating the "marriage," or whatever it was; she had a small crowd of girls around her, with a few boys who looked as if they'd much rather be play-fighting or racing.

"Is he going to play?" she asked with what seemed like only vague interest.

"Yeah!"

The girls flocked around Vash, all talking at once. "Ooo, ooo, I wanna marry him!" "No, I do!" "Nuh uh, I called dibs!" "No way, I asked him first!" "Eula, what do you think?"

Eula seemed to be the name of the girl in charge. She looked thoughtful for a few moments, and then declared, "You can all marry him. S'only fair."

"Yaaayy!"

Before Vash knew what had hit him, he was whirled through the multi-marriage--with Eula reciting purely made-up vows--and had eight "rings" made from dandelion stems on his fingers. He was still dazed when the nun called the children in for lunch and remained outside, staring at his hands with slightly glassy eyes.

"How long will you be staying, Mr. Vash?"

"Not very long," Vash murmured, lowering his hands. "I--I have to go somewhere. But--but if I can, I'll try to write every month. And I'll send money. The kids don't even have to know. I'll sign the letters 'Mr. Nicholas.'"

"Mr. Vash--"

"Just Vash is all right," he said. "Really."

"It's really not necessary, Mr. Vash."

"Of course it is." Vash held up his hands and grinned plaintively. "I have to be a good husband, don't I?"

The nun just gave him a severe look. "Come inside, Mr. Vash. Lunch is ready."



vi. ordination


When they needed something, they ran to Rem. If Vash suffered a scrape or a fall, if Knives had a question that needed answering, they'd look to her. It made her feel happy to know that she was needed and loved in this way. She felt responsible for the children she'd insisted on saving, and she was glad that they looked up to her as a mother--even Knives, who had always been a little more aloof than his twin. But though she tried to favor neither of them, she had to admit that her bond with Vash was a little tighter. Vash needed her. Knives was more mature (not, she was hasty to add, that Vash was immature, but perhaps he was not as emotionally developed as Knives, who seemed a few mental steps ahead of Vash),more independent, and more capable of dealing with things on his own. But she loved them both.

After a while, though, she noticed that they came to her less with his problems. At first it bothered her, but she admitted to herself that they were, after all, growing up, and didn't need her as much anymore. That didn't mean they didn't still love her, or that she didn't love them. It concerned her, though, that Vash didn't seem to be as effusive as usual. Knives was usually a bit restrained, but Vash was a bubble of energy. He always smiled when he saw Rem, but she thought his smile seemed empty lately. It broke her heart. His smiles had always been sincere before.

One time, she caught him alone, staring out the window in the lounge. There was nothing but stars out there, as usual. He had one palm pressed against the glass, and his breath left frost against the pane.

"Vash?" she said, "is there something wrong? You've been so quiet lately."

"No, nothing's wrong," he said, looking over his shoulder at her. His smile was fake.

"Vash," she said, surprised at the way her voice trembled a little, "please don't lie to me."

The smile trembled, went loose, and finally fell. Rem saw Vash's eyes begin to fill with tears, and she rushed towards him so that he could crumple against her, crying into her shirt as if he were three months old with a skinned knee all over again. She brought them both to one of the couches.

"It's okay," she murmured, "it's okay, it's okay. Shh, shh, it's all right."

"It's Steve," Vash mumbled, when the tears had ceased. "He--he comes around when we're trying to help, and he hits us, and he calls us monsters and--and says we don't belong here, and that we should just die--I didn't want to tell you because you'd worry, and--"

Rem's face tightened. She'd known that Steve didn't like the twins--she was no fool--but to think that he'd stoop to beating children. . .

"Knives--at first Knives said we should be patient. He said stuff about sacrifice, and how we have to put up with it until they accept us," Vash sniffled, "but Steve just keeps hitting us. I'm scared to be anywhere by myself, but Knives--" Vash shivered, "--Knives looks different, lately." He looked up at Rem. "What should I do, Rem?"

"I think--" Rem paused and bit her lip. Joey liked to talk about what a great mother she was, but really, what did she know? She deliberated carefully, and then said, "What do you think you should do, Vash?"

"I don't know," Vash admitted, looking down. "I mean, it's not fair, what he's doing. I don't blame Knives for being angry. But--but it's not right to want to hurt him, is it?"

Rem shook her head. "That makes you just as bad as him, doesn't it?" Vash nodded. "You need to forgive him, then. I know you didn't do anything wrong," she went on, as she saw Vash open his mouth to protest, "but hurting him back, yelling at him won't solve anything, will it?" She watched Vash shake his head. "Violence never solved anything. It just creates more hurt and violence. So you need to forgive him, and keep on forgiving him, even if he hurts you again."

"But--but can't you make him stop?" Vash's lip trembled.

She'd hoped that he wouldn't ask that. Mothers aren't omnipotent, either. "We'll talk to him," she said gently, "but people need to figure out their mistakes on their own. But if he--or anyone else--hurts you, you need to tell me, okay?" When Vash nodded, she bent and kissed him on the forehead. "Let's find Knives and see if he's okay."




vii. last rites


Vash had a number of morning rituals.

When he opened his eyes, he'd blink a few times and stretch. Then he'd sit up and meditate on the subject of life, love, and peace. This took approximately five seconds. There wasn't much to meditate on, after all. He was a simple man.

Then he would stretch. Not the cat-stretch that he did just after waking up--that was just to work out the kinks from sleeping. This stretching was to limber up for the day, whose activities might include cooking, strolling, playing with the neighborhood children, and running away from whatever bounty hunter was after his head that day. He'd touch his toes while sitting, then while standing, stretch the hamstrings, then the quads, then the calves. He'd test the gun-arm, too, but only briefly; checking it for wear, tear, or stiffness was something he generally did at night, so that he could oil or repair it before he went to bed. Then it was time for push-ups, sit-ups, and handstands.

Afterwards, Vash would do some training exercises. He had several routines that he practiced depending on the size and structure of the room and how he felt that morning. If there was the proper kind of ceiling fixture, he'd hang washers and practice firing through them, with and without the blindfold. If there wasn't, he'd practice balancing dishware or eggs on the gun. If he was feeling particularly sharp, he'd do both simultaneously. Once he'd worked up a good sweat, he'd take a shower, shave, and put on the red coat. Then he'd scrounge up something for breakfast, after which he'd brush his teeth and check out.

Today, however, was different.

He actually meditated for more than five seconds. He was no longer, he reflected, such a simple man. So besides meditating on life, love, and peace, he included the subjects of redemption, remembrance, and death.

He took extra care in stretching and put every ounce of concentration into his training, making sure to challenge himself as much as he could. He did not drop a single glass or egg, and the bullets went straight through the center of each washer, with and without the blindfold. He skipped the crunches, push-ups, and handstands. Then he showered and shaved.

Boy, he really needed that shave.

He slicked up his hair (it felt strange, having it off his neck again) and put on the red coat that Meryl had mended. He tested his gun arm. He slid the Colt into its holster.

He wrote a letter. He began it, "Dear Kids" and went on to say that he might not write any more letters for a long time because he was very busy, but that didn't mean he'd forgotten them and they'd better be good, and here was some extra money just in case. He signed it "Mr. Nicholas" and left it on the table with instructions to Milly to mail it after he left.

Then he went downstairs and found breakfast.

He thought he should be more nervous, but he wasn't. In fact, he felt unusually calm and collected, as if some serenity had finally crept into his needle-noggin. So he had his usual hearty breakfast and brushed his teeth. There was no need to check out of the building because it belonged to him, in a sense. It belonged to Meryl and Milly, anyway. It was a place to come back to, if he came back at all.

Milly was waiting outside with a present of sorts. "I think he'd want you to have it!" she chirped.

"It's heavy," he remarked, when she handed it to him.

She beamed. "That's because it's so full of mercy!"

Vash smiled and nodded, and hoisted it onto his back the way he'd seen Wolfwood do it so many times before. He was ready.

He strode out into the blinding desert.



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