Who Rings The Black Funeral Bell

Toll One: 'Dubito Ergo Cogito: A Strenuous Life with Its Eyes Shut Is a Kind of Wild Insanity.'

TrisakAminawn, 5/30/11; edited version posted 7/3/13

Long Author's Note on the placement in canon etc. follows at foot of chapter. You can skip it no harm, because I made sure the necessary context is provided in-text, but if you like to know exactly what's going on, feel free to scroll down.

I hereby formally recognize that I own nothing, and none of you are allowed to pay me for this. (Hahah.) Nightow and Madhouse, and probably Shounen Gahousha, have the rights to the planet herein depicted and its inhabitants. Also, thanks to my beta, SirGawainofCamelot. (And shoutout that you totally failed to notice I'd typoed our hero into Vash the Stamped. And Duly Addressed, one must assume.)

He who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not is a slave. ~William Drummond, Academical Questions

Since they'd rescued Lina from the Stampede impersonator, gotten Vash his symbolic haircut, and blown town before people could get used to the idea that their Eriks was the real Stampede, and decide whether that merited a lynching, Wolfwood and Vash had been traveling together for nine days.

In the course of which Vash had managed to: be assaulted by an insurance agent, meet up with whoever it was who'd replaced his left arm and red coat without Wolfwood managing to get a look at them, get himself mixed up in someone else's feud, and be thrown in jail and require rescue. The jailbreak accomplished, they'd taken Wolfwood's latest bike across the open desert, heading toward the empty town of Tomin and the crimson signature of Knives. They'd ridden, so far, as if the hounds of Hell were behind them (instead of before), as if they might be late to the end of the world (even though Wolfwood's gut told him that it would wait for them to arrive).

(He had no idea what Vash thought.)

The sun had crossed the sky and fallen, and risen, and fallen again without their pausing, before Wolfwood found that he seemed likely to join Vash in falling off the bike soon, and called a halt for the rest of the night, in the lee of the largest rock they'd seen for iles. This was dune country, out here, flat and endless. Some people said the dunelands were the buried bed of an ancient sea, when Gunsmoke had been a richer world thousands of years ago, long before men were stranded here with the tomas and the sandworms. Wolfwood thought that was romantic idiocy even if it was true.

They'd scratched out a bit of a camp, lit a low fire out of mostly tomas dung and old bones, for company more than for warmth, and now they were sitting on either side of it, Vash with his back against the lonely rock, Wolfwood on top of his roll of blanket with his cross at his back and Angelina II drawn up as a paltry sort of windbreak, letting the desert stretch out behind him. Both of them utterly exhausted, but equally unwilling to lie down and try to rest. Perhaps Vash, too, was avoiding dreams.

Wolfwood poked at the fire with his toe, took a drag at his cigarette, and left it where it was, his hand drifting down to land in his lap. He was so tired.

Wasn't like him to be getting dopey like this, after less than three days without sleep.

Wolfwood blamed it on old age, and then very nearly laughed at himself. Yeah, he felt old. He felt like he'd lived through a hundred years. He looked, at the very least, like an established adult. Nearly thirty.

Last month, he'd made it to the ripe old age of eighteen.

And you, he thought, looking across the fire at drowsy Vash, curled up kitten-harmless against the stone, you really are old. I've met your twin, and I've done my digging while you were hiding from yourself; you've really been in this sandy hellhole for a hundred years. A hundred and more. And if you knew what year I was born, you'd think I was a kid, even though that's wrong by everything but the numbers and you know me too well for it to make sense. So why am I the old one? He drew in a large lungful of smoke, feeling the cool burn of the nicotine hit and barely cut through the fatigue at all, and stared into the red heart of the fire.

Wolfwood had been abandoned soon after birth. He'd become a laboratory experiment when he was barely eleven.

Before he'd turned thirteen, he'd been an accomplished killer.

By fifteen, he had discovered a mission of his own: he believed Millions Knives could actually kill everyone in the world, and he meant to find the chance to kill him first. He'd shot Master C a week later. Stepped into his shoes. Taken up smoking, because his body literally wasn't going to last long enough for the cigarettes to do their damage, and he should take advantage where he could, right?

At sixteen, he had reencountered hope.

It wore a red coat and sometimes made him so angry he couldn't see straight. It was his magnificently backwards target, someone he had to keep safe on the malicious orders of someone he meant to destroy. It was, by now, his best friend.

That had crept up on him, even if it had probably been inevitable. Wolfwood considered himself an ordinary man. He got along with people; he wasn't one of the freaks who came out of the lab cold-faced and maladjusted, or one of the ones who let doubts about their own natures distract them from thinking about their lives. He laughed, he drank, he gambled, he fought, he plotted, he performed funerals and the occasional marriage, he sent money to the old orphanage. He killed people. He hadn't had any friends since crybaby Livio.

But he was pretty sure he would die for Vash without giving himself time to hesitate.

He wasn't sure that he shouldn't just kill the man now.

Wolfwood knew exactly what Vash was. Or close enough to exactly. Well, no, he had no idea, not really, but he knew better than anyone else Vash had met since the Fall what he was, and what he could do, if he tried. He knew exactly how stupid Vash was, and had some idea how much of that stupidity was willful. He had no idea what to make of him. How did he do it? How did he survive all those years with even that painful fake smile, let alone the real one Wolfwood had seen every few days at least, the first time they'd traveled together, and from time to time even now? How did he keep making Wolfwood want to hope for things he'd given up on a lifetime ago?

He looked out into the darkness, and he thought: It doesn't take God for a miracle, people say. I don't know if I even believe in miracles. Not here, at least. Not on this awful planet. But occasionally there are amazing things. You make amazing things happen. You break the rules like nobody else in history, and sometimes you make me believe in your dream world, even though I know better. Even though I learned years ago the difference between wanting and doing. Somehow you and the big girl always do everything I can't. As if it's easy.

And even you ran away. You've always been running away, really. You're such a coward, Tongari. In this world, people can't be perfect. We're not gods. Even you. We can't save everyone. And some of us have to become devils, in order to save even a few of the rest. I've walked forward believing that for my whole life. You stand there, fighting without killing and saying with your whole body, with your whole soul that I made the wrong choice. How can you say that? Don't you know no one else is like you?

Don't you know we're just human?

…How have you survived all this time?

And how could I ever have dragged you back out into this world of death and gunpowder? I'm so…sorry, Vash.

I am. Because you were right to run. The pain is never going to stop. Pain I guess you've been dealing with for longer than anybody else, but pain your brother is going to keep sending more of, and more, battering you down. (Like he sent me, like he sent the message of the empty towns. He won't let you run any more. Would you still come with me, if you knew I belonged to him?)

Pain that may break you, any time now, no matter how strong you are, and double the threat against humanity until we aren't even the memory of dust on this seared world.

We've hurt you so badly without his even needing to encourage us.

And I am still almost sure you would try to stop me from killing that brother of yours if the two of us were the only things between him and a switch that would set off the slaughter of every human on Gunsmoke, because you would still want to find a way of saving him, too. That is beyond stupid. That is insane. Sometimes there have to be sacrifices. You must know what he is. I don't know what happened between you, but you have to know what he is. He's the monster, the demon to the saint you play at being. I heard about what you said to the girls in Inepril, before we met. The oath of forever August almost made you give up. Why are you looking for him? What do you plan to do?

I want to see. And it's my job to get you there in one piece, at the right time.

It's my job. I'm doing my job, until the moment I get the chance to put a bullet in his head.

I couldn't do it after the Fifth Moon. He smiled right at me and said, keep to your contract, find him and guard him and bring him safe to the end, knowing I could not pull that trigger, knowing he was too fucking powerful…but the time will come.

Legato has to be away or dead by that moment. Millions Knives has to be distracted. I'm actually counting on Vash for that, and I hate myself for it, but I'll take advantage and shoot his brother before his eyes anyway, just like all the other people I've killed and all the lies I've told.

Does it matter, what he'd think of that? If I can save everyone that way?

Wolfwood's eyes cut away, then, from the dark empty desert, to flash over Vash, who was drowsing against his rock with his mouth half-open, looking more like an angelic child than a gunman. And darted back into the darkness.

And he thought: Ever since that first day, you've understood, the way no one else ever did, because no one else but the two of us walks always through the smell of blood and gunpowder and still dives off moving buses to rescue little girls. Fighting together we are stronger than armies. We've laughed and meant it. We've saved people I wouldn't have been able to save if it had been just me. We've gotten drunk and teased the girls and saved each other's lives. You fall off the bike and get us into trouble and I have to spring you from jail, and I pour hot sauce on the wounds of insurance hitmen who try to kill you.

Honestly. Speaking as a professional, that was a terrible assassination attempt. Meryl probably led them to underestimate you.

Way to go, short girl. Big girl, too; I recognized that low barrel report and those impact wounds. Miss you both, somehow. Better off without us, though.

I'll bring him back to you. If I can. When this is all over, if I've killed Knives, if, hah, we're both still alive, I think that's what I'll do. I'll bring Vash to you, and see if you can fix him. He won't want to look at me. I'll have betrayed him. Knives will make sure to tell him that all along I was following orders. I don't know what they're plotting. I never have. The Guns weren't really formed to kill Vash. They weren't really killed for failing. It's all a dumb show, meant to break him, and break him they very nearly did.

I know it wasn't Rai-dei's fault, what happened; he didn't have the power to make Vash use whatever put that hole in the moon, but he'd earned death a hundred ways before he ever met the Humanoid Typhoon, and killing him would have relieved my feelings even if it hadn't been my orders, and even if the dumb shit hadn't been expecting me to work with him to put Vash down like a mad mutant dog. As if he was the monster. As if anyone could kill him against his will.

If we'd found him then, though, and I'd tried to kill him, I know he would have let me.

It makes me angry.

He deserves better than that. And he shouldn't let the world get away with the crap it pulls. He should have killed Knives a hundred years ago, when whatever happened, happened.

He's my pal. That much isn't complicated. I want to protect him. I can't even stop hurting him.

Wolfwood closed his eyes against sudden pain. He was aware that at some point his thoughts had jolted a little out of their familiar circles, but he didn't stop the thought that came louder than usual in the reddish darkness of eyelids closed against fire: What if I'm wrong?

What if he couldn't kill Knives this way? It wasn't as if the maniac didn't know just what he was planning to do with his position. It wasn't as if Wolfwood weren't sure they were using him in the first place. What if being Chapel was useless now, and he would be better off just Wolfwood, and…but always the kids. He couldn't betray them as long as the organization kept its power, because they had the kids back home hostage. And even if he snuck those kids out and hid them successfully, which he doubted he could do even alone, and no way if he brought accident-prone Vash along, even then the rest of the Guns could butcher some other kids and know it would half-kill him to know they'd done it. All the children in the world were hostage, because he hadn't hidden his own weaknesses well enough.

Love was definitely a weakness, in an assassin. But he would never have survived this long without it, without the kids keeping his soul from being shivered completely and blowing away on the desert wind. So he understood about Vash, and he'd never tell him to stop caring because even if loving the whole world seemed like seven distinct kinds of suicide it made him Vash.

He cared about Wolfwood. It was going to be another nail in his coffin when they told him the truth.

What if this didn't work? What was he going to say if this didn't work? If he'd done all this to his best friend, Saint of Stupidity Vash the Stampede, for nothing, what was he going to say if he came up in front of some celestial court after the genocide conspiracy slaughtered him, and the court wanted to know why he'd done such a thing? And more important, what could he possibly say to Vash?

Wolfwood thought: Why hasn't he asked?

Vash had never told him about Knives. Wolfwood had no acceptable reason to know about Knives or his connection to Vash. But here they were, driving to see about the empty town signed Knives, which he'd called a man's name when it was more obviously a word for cutting implements. And Vash hadn't asked. He must have guessed some of it. He didn't want to know. He knew he couldn't take whatever the truth was, because if it were innocent Wolfwood would already have told him.

Vash didn't want to know. And that just made Wolfwood angrier, angrier than anything except the way Vash kept not getting it about killing, because that was him all over, that running and hiding, that vein of cowardice that seemed to run to the very heart of the bravest man he'd ever known, and he hated that. Hated that Vash couldn't bring himself to do what was necessary, even for the love that defined him. Hated that he couldn't rely on Vash all that much more than Vash could rely on him, and him a knowing traitor.

Snake in the grass. He turned the term over his head a few times. He'd seen grass sometimes, in geo-plants, although most geo-plant space was dedicated to productive agriculture, but snakes had not made it to Gunsmoke, so he'd never seen one. He imagined they were like very small sandworms, and he felt like a very small sandworm sometimes.

He'd heard that one of the Guns could control sandworms, or was controlled by sandworms, or something. It had been a very vague rumor. It was obviously about the Beast, though.

Vash wanted to control him. That had gotten under his skin since forever, really. Of course, Vash's evil twin and cadre wanted to control him, too, and were fairly smugly secure they did. But the parts of him they claimed and controlled were things he had given up owning years ago. Things the Eye of Michael had taken away from him along with his orphan's remainder of innocence and even the remotest chance of living to see forty. Losses he was resigned to.

What Vash wanted to own was his soul.

It was ugly and tattered but it was still his, and he'd preserved it like grim death through years of training, of killing, of accepting commands. And if he had ever given his loyalty to Vash, if he'd said, beyond his already given 'nobody does that to my buddy'—screw the past, I'm your brother now or count on me, if he'd gone from wild half-spoken friendship to something sworn, then he would have been expected to act on it in another way than taking care of Vash. The free plant would want to take away the only choice that had been left to him.

The right to decide when someone had to die.

He would not give his soul away even to Vash. He would not be owned where he could help it. He would not change one master for another. If he were ever to foreswear the Eye and Knives and his dark and bloody life, with them would go all he was and had been, all he'd managed to carve out, all his freedoms and choices. And he was his own man, for all he was twisted by one and hired by the other and could not separate himself, or shake away the commands. He had taken his career in the Eye into his own hands and used them to get close to Knives, whom he only obeyed so he could kill him. Whatever they believed, they did not own Wolfwood. At the heart of it all, he was his own.

And if he gave up all that shadow and blood and the strength of secrecy, he would belong to Vash.

No wonder Vash didn't ask him how he knew what he knew.

If this had been before August and the Fifth Moon, Wolfwood reflected, he wouldn't have had to blame the not-asking, the intentional not-knowing, on cowardice. Vash would have not-asked with a knowing smile, and it would have been because even though he knew there was a secret, he trusted Wolfwood. Even now, when he teased that Wolfwood kept things from him and fair was fair, he was trusting that those were secrets safe enough to leave. Or that Wolfwood had at least a good reason for keeping them. No one had ever trusted Wolfwood before.

Untrue. The younger children at the orphanage had trusted him. Some children still trusted him, from time to time. No other adult had ever trusted Wolfwood.

Never been much opportunity, had there? He was only eighteen.

And anyway, Vash was not an adult.

Though he wasn't a child, either, not really, not at all, though it might make things simpler if he had been. Because how could Wolfwood betray a child?

He told himself: You know you would. One child for a hundred children, for the tens of thousands all over the planet. You'd sacrifice him if he were the baby Jesus himself, if you had to. That's the way you've always lived. Make the hard choice, Nicholas, because no one can do it for you.

Sacrificing Vash, if I have to do it (I have already done it, twice at least) may be the hardest choice I have ever made. I can still do it.

I don't want to!

And Wolfwood thought: When has it mattered what I wanted?

And Wolfwood thought: Always. Remember the first time I was shot, when I was still a kid, and learned I wanted to live? I want to protect all the children. I want to see Millions Knives dead. I want Vash to be happy.

Which the hell of those is the most impossible?

And Wolfwood thought: I know who's good at impossible things. I know he can't help me with the last of them, and I suspect he won't with the second, despite demonstrated need, but the kids. He understands about kids.

And he knows about secrets. (Incredibly.) He wouldn't give away anything that would get a child killed.

If I tell him one thing, I'll have to tell it all, won't I?

Maybe not. Maybe if I give up on being forgiven, because that's not the point anyway, and I just tell him what I think he has to know, if I don't explain myself, if I don't apologize, if I don't promise anything. He'll have to let me stay with him for the sake of the children, and not let his brother know that he knows, and maybe the more information he has the more likely he'll find one of his impossible solutions, because steering him hasn't been good enough so far. And maybe the two of us can win this, if we start actually working together.

And he thought: Will Vash be able to work with me once it's all out in the open? He's not trained to operate with people he hates. He does it all from the heart.

He really didn't know. Vash forgave people, or he destroyed them. Sure, they all made it out alive, but the unforgiven were eviscerated one way or another once he'd gone at them with prejudice. Wolfwood had never seen a middle ground. And either way, he went away afterward and left them to live their lives. Wolfwood only had himself and the girls as reference pool for Vash and long-term relationships, which did indicate that Vash got around his compulsion to shake people off and run for the hills, whenever they got too close, by not thinking about it.

This was going to demand thinking. Lord of Hosts, pass him a kind remembrance.

You couldn't hesitate forever.

Wolfwood took a breath and raised his chin. An inch of accumulated ash dropped off his cigarette, and the end flared, and bit burning into his lip, it had grown so short while he sat thinking. He spat the butt out, swearing, and rubbed at his mouth. It was a tiny wound. It would be gone in a few minutes. Wolfwood turned to the Humanoid Typhoon.

Vash had woken up again, maybe at the cursing but he thought somewhat earlier, and was returning his look with the smooth face and deep, open eyes that Wolfwood hadn't seen since before the Fifth Moon, since Vash's heart had broken again, since he had dragged the Stampede out of his hidey-hole and made him face the universe. This was the Vash he'd missed most, even more than his drinking buddy and fighting partner, the Vash he'd thought might be dead, the Vash he was most ashamed in front of. He held his breath, expecting his friend, his victim, to blink and send it away again and bring out one of his false faces, or remember his own shame.

"Hey, Tongari," he said quietly, casually, delicately, hoping against hope not to shatter the moment and his own resolve.

This would change everything. It would destroy all his plans and risk everything he'd been protecting, and probably lose him his best friend. But his plans weren't going to work, and he wouldn't be able to take care of Vash through a lie forever. And at least this way, he decided when it happened. It had always been going to happen. He wasn't a coward, like Vash. And he wasn't kind.

Wolfwood thought: I will take care of you kids. No matter what it costs, I won't let you pay for this. I am not sacrificing you for him.

All he was sacrificing was secrecy. No matter what. They would never have to pay for his choices.

"Hm?" said Vash. He smiled a little, a very little. Distant as lost Earth, he was, and looking right through Wolfwood as if he already knew everything, understood everything, and so obviously fragile, and hardly looking like an idiot at all. What Wolfwood had to say was going to mess him up all over again. But he had to find out some time. And if he told him now, it wouldn't get him killed when someone told him in the middle of battle: Oh, yes, Wolfwood, Nicholas D. You mean Chapel, don't you? He kept such a good eye on you for us.

Wolfwood licked the shrinking blister on his lower lip. Telling Vash now was taking a weapon from the enemy. The Humanoid Typhoon was so young and so old, and such a fool, and so torn up inside, and Wolfwood had seen enough to know that he was going to die some really stupid way sooner or later, but it shouldn't be that way, on the prongs of Wolfwood's lies. And he was still a legend for a reason. He only had to screw up once for it to end forever…but so far, Vash the Stampede could get out of the worst situations imaginable.

Time to show him a few more bars of the cage.

The priest shook another cigarette into his hand, and held it into the fire to light. When it smoldered, he raised it, drew in a mouthful of smoke, and sat back to look at Vash, blowing out a silver-grey stream. "I think," he said, even as his nerve failed, "I'd better tell you some things."

"It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment." ~Cicero.

The promised context/canon Note: This story follows a mixed canon. Manga backstories for everybody, because they're just that much better. Anime storyline up through the Fifth Moon incident, because it flows better and there's more of it. And everyone knows it better. Trigun Maximum version of reality afterward, except on the crucial point that in the anime Vash doesn't ask Wolfwood who he really is, or how he knows stuff like Knives' name, whereas in chapter two of Maximum he does, and Wolfwood blows him off grandly, and again in chapter eight. In our story, he hasn't outright asked.

This is set to happen pretty much instead of the manga fight with Rai-dei, who in this mixed canon is already dead, and thus unavailable for combat. Wolfwood kills him both times, but in the manga it's right in front of Vash, to protect him, prompting an epic blowout and my single favorite panel of Trigun. (Which is now the story image.) They don't really come to much of a resolution.

In this continuity, Wolfwood shot Rai-dei in the ruins of August, as in the anime, and Vash doesn't know about it. And of course, if Wolfwood actually goes through with explaining himself to Vash, we'll be wading into an AU.

For anime-only fans who read Bell anyway, the only important difference you might be missing is that manga!Wolfwood was an experimental subject in developing the Eye of Michael's enhancement treatments, which yield a body that both heals and ages at an accelerated rate.

So that's the end of chapter one. Wolfwood has finished thinking. Chapter two is almost ready to post, and if I get some decent feedback I'll put it up fairly soon. Review?