Who Rings The Black Funeral Bell

Toll Three: The Dream of a Soul Awake: Hope Is the Worst of Evils, For It Prolongs the Torment of Man

Hey, I bet no one expected this story to update! I had hopes for a complex divergent plot, but this is likely to be the end of it. Special thanks to inkydoo and iamfaraway for their awesome reviewing of both previous chapters. (And 'Dark Ichigo Kurosaki,' who wasn't logged in: thanks, I'm touched; this story is full of spoilers but it's about something that didn't actually happen; and as someone once said to me, why are you reading fanfic if you haven't finished the show!)

[Note, all, that the conversation Vash references at the very beginning of this chapter is (the official translation of) the manga version; in the anime the New Oregon feud was over satellite use-rights, since Madhouse Studios removed all the references they could to plants and gengineering. After I finished the anime the first time I was originally under the impression that Vash and Knives were infant space aliens who somehow got onto the SEEDs ship via the airlock. Or possibly minor gods. Space gods?]

"One should rather die than be betrayed. There is no deceit in death. It delivers precisely what it has promised. Betrayal, though ... betrayal is the willful slaughter of hope." ~S. Deitz

"You were messing with me, weren't you?" asked Vash, grinning, after he and Wolfwood had both split the desert silence with their laughter, as they recovered from the hilarity of relief. "When you were talking about the plant they dug up in New Oregon. You wanted to see what I would say."

"Well, Knives would have killed me for saying 'it,'" Wolfwood allowed. "I guess I was testing you. But mostly just messing with you, yeah." And Vash had just looked starry-eyed, moved that the excavated plant was still alive after a hundred years relying on untended systems. Wolfwood's excessively laborious observation that 'it' could produce anything you wanted depending on how you programmed 'it' had gone right by him without stirring a ripple.

He was kind of assuming independent plants need not apply as magic matter machines, or Vash wouldn't practically die of thirst so often.

"'It' is okay, really," said Vash, shrugging. "Don't think they mind. I would say 'she.' They're all girls."

"So why are you not a girl?" Wolfwood peered at him out of suddenly thoughtful eyes. "You're not a girl, are you? Those bulb chicks have really flat chests…"

"I'm a guy!" yelped Vash. "Totally, I swear! And I have no idea why. 'Why' us at all. You know?"

"Eh," agreed Wolfwood, flapping a hand. "Most people have no idea why them."

"Why you?" asked Vash. And it was one of those disconcerting changes of attitude to which he was so prone, his flustered face suddenly all smooth and inquisitive, with his yellow eyebrows pushed up high above abruptly ile-deep green eyes.

Wolfwood shrugged, and really wished he had a cigarette. Needed something to be busy with. His guns needed cleaning, probably, but this situation wasn't quite stable enough yet for that. He patted the breast of his jacket, and pulled out the flat flask of whiskey he had been nursing since the last town. "Me just because. Knives sicced me on you. I sicced me on Knives. The Eye sicced me on the world."

Vash's eyes flickered over the flask as if he wasn't even seeing it. As if Wolfwood had needed any more proof that things weren't really okay, not yet. Vash's drinking problem was even worse than his own. "So how did you…they just took you?"

Wolfwood's expression stretched, half-smirk, half-grimace. Ugh. He had let himself in for this. He'd just have to get through it. "They were churchmen, hey? Told the old lady I had potential. It was totally legal. They even meant it. But it wasn't really preaching talent they were looking for. You," he added, pointing the flask at Vash before beginning to twist the top off. "Dumbass. Are you actually the idiot brother? I've seen Knives do the kind of calculations that maybe four of the biggest university math chumps on the planet could handle without a computer, in his head. Fast." He took a conservative swig of whiskey and tossed the flask underhand to Vash.

Vash caught it automatically, not spilling a drop, and stared at its gleaming face abstractedly. "Yeah…" he acknowledged. "Yeah, I can do that, too." He frowned. "Or I could as a kid. I haven't really tried much in a while, except, you know, bullet vectors, and that's not exactly math."

"And what with all the knocks on the head and a hundred years of marinating your brain…" said Wolfwood, nodding toward the flask.

Vash's brow furrowed, and then he suddenly seemed to notice what he was holding and grinned. Took a swallow. "Hey!" he said. "This is good stuff!"

"Sure it is. Watch it, though, I think my salary is cutting off soon."

Vash almost choked on his second gulp. Swallowed it carefully. "Knives has been paying you?"

"Well, yeah, Spikey. Mercenary assassins don't come all that cheap, even when you hire them as babysitters. The Eye takes most of it, and I send most of the rest to the old lady, but did you really think I was funding this trip by preaching?"

Vash shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, I always get by. I don't have a job or anything."

"Yeah, well, people give you stuff, because you're your spiky self. That doesn't work for everybody. Neither does killing people," he added judiciously, before realizing it hadn't been the smartest choice of words. He scowled at himself. On the one hand, he didn't want Vash to hate him, but on the other he kept poking at the sore place, prodding Vash with I'm the enemy, I'm the evil, I'm everything you don't believe in except possibly suicide, refusing to believe that he had really gotten away with it.

He couldn't possibly have gotten away with it.

He had been so sure of Vash's hatred that this forgiveness was almost offensive in existing.

"It's a specialized profession, you could say," he added. Vash's face had closed up. "Come on, Vash. Give me a hard time about it so I can stop waiting."

"You already know everything I'd say, Wolfwood."

Wolfwood swallowed. So that was it. The other shoe had dropped. Vash had…disowned him. Friends still, maybe, if he didn't keep pushing it. But not Vash's responsibility. Saving the priest who went to extremes had been important. Saving the hit man was apparently too much of a project.

He'd given up on him at last.

"Vash," he said, before realizing that he'd already decided he wasn't going to ask the outlaw to forgive him for the truth, and there was nothing else to say on that score except give me another chance. He looked into the sand. "Never mind. Fine. I do know. Stop arguing it if you want. You were driving me crazy anyway. I don't care how good you make it sound, impossible is impossible." You make impossible things happen, said his own voice in his head. He had not realized how much he had been counting on Vash and his faith in the impossible.

Wolfwood was the snake in the grass. He betrayed everyone. Somehow. Always. Trying to set just one of those treacheries right had been a stupid idea. A terrible idea. He was much too tangled up in lies to get out of it now.

But for just long enough to destroy everything he'd worked and bled and sacrificed for, he'd hoped. Like an idiot, he'd hoped. Hope wore a red coat.

They said that those who had never hoped could never despair.

Vash shrugged on the other side of the fire, a ripple of crimson, and Wolfwood hated him. "It's up to you," the gunman said. "It's always been up to you."

Wolfwood grabbed a fistful of sand. The only other thing he might have brought to hand to stabilize himself was his Punisher, and he didn't think he should grab that just now. Shouldn't. Mustn't. Couldn't. "I'm…doing…my…best," he growled. "For the world. For you. I refuse to believe that taking care of my own soul is more important than all those lives."

"That's not—" said Vash. Broke off. Stared at Wolfwood, who raised his head to stare back. "Is that what you think I'm doing?"

Putting himself first. Valuing his own…purity more than the lives he could be saving by dirtying it. "Hell, Spikey," said Wolfwood, "I don't know. I guess I'll wait and see what you do when there are really only two choices." He knew Vash's answer to 'kill or be killed.' The wrong answer. The stupid answer. But 'kill or let be killed' was a much, much harder question…for Vash.

For Wolfwood, it had always been easy.

Maybe too easy. It wasn't as if taking the easy way out was a good thing.

But you had to make a choice. Not to choose is also a choice, and usually the wrong one, and life is too short to waste any of it on stupid hesitations.

Even for Vash, time still ran away at the same speed. Even if it didn't quite touch him.

"Tongari," Wolfwood said, the sand trickling away through his fingers as he tightened his fist steadily around the shrinking handful. "In these hundred years…have you really managed to find a third way and save everyone every time? Or have you sometimes let the people you were protecting get killed because you couldn't make the choice?" He glanced up at Vash, whose face was taut. Silent. Narrowed his eyes. "That's what I thought. In fact, I'm starting to believe that's the whole story of your life." He threw away the last of the sand. "Tch. Do you have any idea how many people Knives has killed since you let him get away from you alive?"

"How did you know about that?" Vash asked it so quickly, and in such surprise, that it was Wolfwood's turn to stare.

"Know…what?" He took the bait Vash hadn't meant to cast, pressed at this story like he'd pressed for his lecture a minute ago, sat forward a little because Vash had the data that no one else on the planet carried, that Wolfwood had never had a chance to gather, about what lay behind the blond terror lurking in the shadows of the world. "What happened?"

Vash shook his head. "I almost…the first night after the Fall, after he killed….so many people, I got a big rock, and I almost k-killed him in his sleep. I was so angry. He was so dangerous." His head dropped, he stared at his hands. "But I couldn't. I just…couldn't. The spider…and the butterfly…"

"The butterfly?" There were no butterflies on Gunsmoke. There were no flowers, not really. And yet the words survived, passed down through the generations along with things like river and rain, like the devil and the deep blue sea.

Vash and his hands kept eye contact, and Wolfwood watched as his…assignment …fished words from somewhere deep in his chest and shared with Wolfwood, actually answered a question for once in his goddamned life. Maybe he thought he owed Wolfwood a few answers. (He owed Wolfwood nothing. He owed Wolfwood everything.) "That's…what he believed. You can't save them both. The spider has to eat, so if you go around freeing butterflies the spiders will starve, even if you don't kill them right there. So you have to kill the spiders if you want to save the butterflies." He shot Wolfwood a smile with not even a pretense of joy in it, and only a flash of humor. "He believes you're all spiders."

Well. That was…that actually made it look like for all his being a crazy genocidal bastard, Knives was saner than Vash.

"But he's wrong," said Vash, and the desperate faith in the words scared Wolfwood down to his bones. "He's wrong. I decided that...so many years ago. People always have the opportunity to change. There's always a way to live without hurting anyone. People have many different ways of thinking, but there's a way…somewhere, there's always a way to save everybody. Knives is wrong. It's wrong to kill people."

And Wolfwood knew then that he would never try to convince Vash to kill again.

Because if Vash became like him, if Vash accepted the role of the demon and began to sacrifice people, it would mean he had sacrificed his faith in humanity. His stupid, vain hope that everyone could live together in peace. His reason for not being Knives.

"He was kind, you know?" Vash was crying again. "He was…so gentle. He believed more than I ever did that…people would accept us, he wanted it more. I was the one who knew it would take work. He said it would be okay because there was no difference in our hearts. So it hurt him so much. And then he became…someone else."

Wolfwood…had never imagined hearing this, and didn't want to. It was easier if Knives was just a monster. He didn't want to consider Knives in pain, Knives breaking, Knives making sacrifices to the greater good the same way that he did. The same as him. The same as him. But information…information was crucial. If Tongari was giving it, he had to get all he could. "What hurt him?" What hurt that terrible creature, that monster, your other half that I sometimes think I see there in place of you when you surprise me? What turned a gentle little monster into him?

And is that the real reason you've let him go so far? Because you were children together?

"Tessla," whispered Vash. As if the name might shatter the world by being spoken. This might be hurting him even more than Wolfwood's truth. Even though he'd carried it so long. Who cared? It didn't matter. It didn't matter.

The truth of Tessla. "The girl who came before us. We found the research notes. The body." Vash closed his eyes. His voice was almost raw, and Wolfwood knew it had been unfair of him to ask, that Vash had never even considered repeating this to anyone, and that he should probably be grateful or humble or relieved or even annoyed, but he just felt so cold. "They…cut her, and tested her, and tested her, until she got so many cancers, and then they dissected her body once she died. She learned to talk, but they didn't stop. She wasn't even a year old. That's why Rem hid us. She protected us." He shook himself out of his reverie, looked up at Wolfwood. "I can't choose again," he said. "We almost chose to die, after we found her, found the body in its pieces, but Rem stopped us. Stopped me twice. Knives chose to kill. I chose…to believe in Rem. Believe in people. I can't choose again."

"Why?" asked Wolfwood. His voice cracking slightly. Vash blinked. "Why?" he demanded again. "Why do you believe in us? It was humans who carved all those scars into you, wasn't it? For taking away our prey, or for the bounty on your head, or out of stupid fear…why would you ever fight for us?"

Vash bit his lip. "Because…Rem. Because I…I can't see people be hurt…I have to." He closed his eyes. "Even when I was Eriks, and making myself do nothing about that gang because I didn't think I could do enough and if I did I'd have to give Lena and grandma up, you saw, I couldn't let…anything happen in front of me."

"'Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it,'" quoted Wolfwood quietly. He grinned when Vash glanced up at him. "Proverbs 3:27. So you're okay there. You're a complete soft touch. You never don't help. But all it takes to help evil is to do nothing against it. You really need to decide what to do about Knives."

Yes, it was awful of him. Putting responsibility back on Vash after that. But it was a responsibility he'd been dodging for decades, and Wolfwood hadn't been able to take it anymore, the weight of the thin desert air around them. Maybe some people could have made it better, somehow, or hugged their broken monster friend who they'd betrayed just like they did everyone else, or kept drawing out the poison until they both reached some kind of miracle freedom point, but he'd just reminded Vash that he was the good guy and cut out. It had to be enough.

The air was breathable again.

Vash sighed. Stared a long time up at the stars. At last he asked, "can you take me to him?"

"Yeah," Wolfwood admitted. "I can. But we won't win. He has too many Guns left."

Vash looked sharply at him. "Are you saying I should wait to meet Knives until he's killed off all his own helpers for me?"

"Pretty much," Wolfwood admitted. Damn it, 'frontal assault' was actually a pretty Spikey plan, now that he thought about it, but not quite the mad brilliance he'd been hoping for when he'd shared all.

But then, Vash was a tactician, not a strategist. "He's still got Ninelives, Gauntlet, Beast, Hornfreak, and the Puppetmaster in reserve, along with whoever else the Eye has assigned to him. And there's supposed to be a hidden Thirteenth somewhere, stronger than anyone, the Crimson Nail. I can take between one and two of those guys at once. Possibly three if I just have to keep them busy and I'm not needed later. I don't think you can handle the rest on your own. With Legato there. And Knives."

"Well," said Vash after a moment. "He's down by Chapel at least."

Wolfwood snorted, meaning to say something about when optimism became stupidity, but then something about the look on Vash's face…. "Tongari, no. No, that is not going to work. You can't just convince his subordinates that they should stop attacking you for the good of the world. They knew what they were joining. They don't care about the world. For the chance to kill more and become stronger they traded away their 'humanity.' And most of them know they're dead men walking. Knives doesn't let go until he kills you. You have nothing to offer them." He caught himself; he'd said too much; hopefully the stuff directly hammering in the point had been emphatic enough that Vash would pass over the pieces Wolfwood should have let lie.

"So why are you here?" his friend asked.

Better than it could have been. But not good. Personal. Too damn personal. The walls were all falling down and he'd never be safe again. (Not that he was ever safe, but an hour ago he'd still thought this at least would never happen. Vash would never see him.) He had an answer ready, though. A true one. "Because I 'knew' I was joining a genocide society to kill its leader. Plus, I'm kind of a fringe member. Never hung around headquarters "

"You are not a dead man walking."

Damn. He caught it. "Save it. What I want to make sure of is that the kids aren't goners."

Vash shifted. "Do you know why every member of the Gung-Ho Guns joined?"

Wolfwood frowned. He wished. "No. No, I don't know much. I've met most of them. They know I'm always late to things. I know what they look like. It's not a close working environment."

"So how do you know it won't work? You might not even be the only infiltrator."

Wolfwood saw the arrayed demons of Knives' entourage in his mind, and bit down on his cigarette hard. "Stop dreaming, Spikey."

"Why?" asked Vash brightly. "Dreaming is important. Think, in fifteen years maybe I'll be stopping by your orphanage. I'll be outside helping some of the kids re-paint the picket fence white, and you'll be sitting inside teaching some of the little ones to read."

I'll be lying inside embalmed more likely, Wolfwood thought. And almost said it, and added, this body of mine isn't going to take me to forty. I'm the exact fucking opposite of you.

But he didn't. He smiled a little. He said, "yeah. That'll be nice." Because there were only so many times he could blast the smile off Vash's face before it came to mind that puppy-kicking had never really been one of his hobbies. Apocalyptic puppy more so. Vash wanted to talk about a future for him? He should be allowed to. And if you ignored the fact of Knives and the Gung-Ho Guns and the Eye, he might be around in fifteen years. He'd be an old man by then, an old man in his early thirties, and he hated the idea of that a little less if the old-man him was leaning over a school table teaching an orphan girl to read.

It did not escape his notice, or his amusement, that Vash's imagination had settled fifteen-years-on Wolfwood down, but not himself. Maybe after a hundred years of wandering around, he couldn't really imagine himself living any other way, even if he was free to.

Or maybe, Wolfwood thought, Lina and her grandmother impinging guiltily on his mind, it just hurt too much to think about it right now.

Actually, he'd thought Vash never thought about the future—he doesn't, Wolfwood thought suddenly, looking at his crazy friend's bright smile; fake, obviously, but this time even faker than he'd realized. He wanted Wolfwood to look toward the future. He wasn't making any effort for himself.

Manipulative bastard.

"You'll take care of the kids for me?" he asked. "Once I'm gone." He held up a hand. "Upupup. No. Saying we do this thing, make it work, I probably won't make it out, and if I do you'll still outlive me. So. I'm going to leave some kids behind. You'll make sure they're okay for me?"

"Wolfwood—" Vash wasn't smiling anymore.

"Will you do that for me, Vash? Promise?"

"I am not going to let you die." And that was unexpectedly serious, so serious Wolfwood was sitting with gunman and outlaw and inhuman power, not the broom-headed idiot walking disaster area, and he wondered if Vash knew how like Knives he looked when he did that. (Felt nothing like, except for the rush of power against his face, which was like what Knives had pumped out constantly all of the two times they'd met.)

He set his teeth against the force of it. "Don't be stupid. Everybody dies." Except, just maybe, you. And your brother. A hundred years young.

If you can just dodge the bullets long enough.

"Yes. Maybe. I guess. But you aren't going to die to this, Wolfwood. I'm not going to let you."

"I'm not who you should be protecting," growled Wolfwood, anxious that Vash not stake too much of his own peace of mind on Wolfwood's survival, because he, Wolfwood, couldn't fight at his best if he had to bear in mind that Vash would be undermined if he fell. And then…oh. Vash knew that. Knew that Wolfwood was counting on Vash's power and wanted him fighting at maximum efficiency, and was using that to pressure Wolfwood into protecting himself. Vash was turning his own little manipulation with the hostage children back on him. The devious little sandworm.

He was also completely sincere.

Hmph. So now Wolfwood had to choose his death carefully. The only acceptable ones were now those in contexts where Vash would get angry about it instead of sad. Terrific.

(It looked like Vash really would mourn him. He had always kind of wished somebody would, and known he'd burned too many bridges, but dammit, Vash thought he was ten years older than he really was and expected him to have a normal human life span and this was so damn stupid.)

Way to trap him. The Eye and Knives considered his death their possession, as well. Practically everyone did.

"You aren't the boss of me, Tongari." And Vash grimaced acknowledgement of this in such a way that Wolfwood realized he'd connected the word 'boss' with 'Knives,' who was technically his employer, but no need to get into the detailed conventions of the assassin business life. "I control my own death."

He didn't give Vash time to respond to that, but stood up with a hiss. "I don't know about you, but I was wiped out before we started talking. I'm going to sleep." He retrieved a blanket from the saddlebags, wrapped himself in it, and lay down with his back to the fire, and to Vash. His face to his cross-Punisher, and the cool, parched night wind. After a moment, he heard Vash draw his own traveling blanket from his duffel, and settle at the base of the stone.

The priest lay there listening to the fire burn down and smelling the last remnants of his cigarette char away, his hands with their invisible bloodstains folded against his chest only inches from his weapon, and had begun to fall asleep already when he heard Vash say softly, "G'night, Wolfwood."

Wolfwood smiled into the darkness. "Yeah, ya moron," he replied. "You too."

And that ends the original scene.

As you may have noticed, chapters one, two, and three could easily have respectively been titled Thought, Laughter, and Hope. If there is a Chapter Four it will be called 'Whence Then Evil: All Things Truly Wicked Start from an Innocence.' It is much more likely to come about if you give me lots of feedback about what you would like to see happen from here, and/or feedback generally so I know it's worth the effort of threshing out.

Also known as, pretty please review! (Especially if you have the story on alert and haven't said anything yet, since you ten must see something worthwhile about it, and I wanna know what.)

"It's all one thing - both tend into one scope -
To live upon Tobacco and on Hope,
The one's but smoke…the other is but wind…"
~Sir Robert Aytoun of Kincaldie, Sonnet on Tobacco