A/N: This story is something of a mirror companion to "Isn't It Beautiful," in that it also takes place after the manga but has (what I think is) a much happier ending. I borrowed most of the imagery and concepts for Heaven from C.S. Lewis's novella The Great Divorce. Any actual theological statements are purely accidental.
Once again, much love to Kelpie the Thundergod for always being my Vashwood inspiration!
The Commonwealth of Stelvia, located some five hundred iles from the southern reaches of the Outer, was a curiosity among the cities of No Man's Land. It had begun its existence as a string of towns whose citizens had banded together as one people on the strength of a mutual political understanding. Despite the diminutiveness of its overall population, many of the planet's historians contended that this was a landmark achievement for the survivors of the Great Fall. Stelvia's reputation as a place of historical import had diminished over the years, however, so few people visited it, and it was now considered a smallish, sleepy town: a good place for people to settle down and retire, should the notion strike them.
It was mostly owing to the good nature of Stelvia's citizens that the plants here were among the first to be freed on No Man's Land: quietly, and without a fuss. This was primarily the reason for Vash the Stampede's arrival in town that morning; he had thought to pay his sisters a visit while he was in the area. Unfortunately, in the years since Knives's plan to exterminate humanity had been exposed – and thwarted – the bounty on his head had been reinstated. In the eyes of the Earth government, it didn't matter if Vash had driven himself to the brink of death to stop Knives. The two of them were twins, and that was reason enough for them to call out all the stops in his impending capture, including contracting some of the best professional killers around.
Which could only mean one thing: the town hadn't remained peaceful for long.
"This is Meryl Stryfe, currently on the scene with Vash the Stampede in the city of Stelvia, where the Grisham Gang is attempting to claim their biggest bounty yet – "
The shorter of the two insurance girls – because "reporter girls" didn't really have the same ring to it – was speaking into a microphone with somewhat uncharacteristic unflappability while absolute chaos reigned behind her. Her partner, Millie Thompson, kept an enormous camera trained on her as she spoke. Vash had only a moment to admire the two girls' chutzpah in the face of such danger before yet another hail of bullets sliced the air just behind him, prompting him to run for his life.
The antics had attracted a crowd of onlookers, many of whom could be seen either snapping pictures, jeering at the bounty hunters, or (if they were females in the age bracket of twelve to forty) declaring their undying love for Vash the Stampede. In addition to being a fugitive from the law, Vash was also something of a television celebrity, and his escapades were closely followed by much of No Man's Land's TV-watching populace. Although his hair was black as pitch now, it was impossible to miss the outlandish spikes and red coat that Vash the Stampede was said to always boast on his person.
"The Grisham Gang is closing in now," Meryl reported to the folks watching at home, an invisible – yet no less invested – audience. "They're armed to the teeth. Vash is outnumbered. Will he be able to get out of this one?"
The crowd behind her screamed out in the affirmative.
As was invariably the case when Vash was faced with bounty hunters, no one could quite discern what happened next. There was a small hurricane of bullets and projectiles as weapons everywhere were discharged at once, followed by a flurry of motion that left – somehow – each of the Stampede's foes incapacitated.
"Vash!" Meryl stopped dictating to the camera long enough to chide the outlaw. "There's one more of them behind you!"
"I know!" Vash whipped out his cybernetic limb and fired at the single unmolested bounty hunter attempting to sneak up behind him, who promptly dropped his weapon and fell flat on his face. The crowd erupted into cheers, and Vash turned to face the camera with a goofy grin, arranging the fingers of both hands into peace signs.
"Nice, Mister Vash!" Millie called out. "Now say, fuzzy pickles!" Behind her, Meryl sighed and slowly shook her head.
This was his life. Not a perfect one, but the best one he had known so far, after the untold decades of blood and suffering and loss. He had taken up his old role as a perpetual drifter, sans the torture that Knives had only been too happy to dole out; and all the while he allowed Millie and Meryl, his only real companions and the best friends he had ever known, to tag along. He never entirely lost his awareness of the void that had been left in him when Wolfwood died, but drinking – which he mostly did with the girls after one of these escapades – helped take the edge off the pain. On other nights pain did come, as raw and biting as it was inescapable, and he would curl up on his cot or by his campfire (wherever he was sleeping at the time) and cry for Nicholas D. Wolfwood.
If someone had asked him if he was truly happy, he would not have been able to answer honestly. But for the most part, life wasn't... unpleasant.
He was still mugging for the camera when one of the bounty hunters – a thin, scraggly guy, probably the least regarded among his crew – decided that if he couldn't kill the Humanoid Typhoon, he was going to at least make him suffer. Realizing that the outlaw shared a rapport with the girls who were filming him, he rose to his feet, reached into his filthy pockets and produced his last weapon: a set of high-level explosives.
Too late, Vash saw the movement out of the corner of his eye. He cried out for the man to stop, but he threw back his arm and heaved the volley of bombs at the girls with all the strength he could muster. The crowd's cheers turned to screams.
There was a moment when time seemed to stand still; Vash could see the expressions of the two girls – his girls – with perfect clarity. Meryl froze where she stood, gazed at her oncoming death as though her brain could not properly register what was happening. Millie, while no less shocked, seemed to instinctively understand that there would be no escaping the threat this time. Although it was really a useless gesture, she dropped the camera and threw her arms around her sempai, attempting to use her own body to protect her.
Vash lunged forward, knowing that it was already too late, he wasn't going to make it. As he willed his body to stretch to impossible proportions, he could feel the stirrings of an alien power just beneath his skin, like a long-buried creature clamoring to be freed from its tomb.
God please no I already lost Nicholas I'm not going to lose them too –
Feathers billowed endlessly before his eyes, and he realized that several fully-erect angel wings had erupted from one of his outstretched arms. Without stopping to consider the terrible implications of using the last of his power, he willed the organic shield forward, so that the hail of bombs exploded against it. He didn't even feel the pain as the explosives ripped massive holes in the wings, exposing the trembling forms of the insurance girls – terrified, but unharmed. It took everything in his power to remain upright as the feathers swirled around him, preparing for a possible second onslaught.
He needn't have worried about that. The bounty hunters, for their parts, experienced a special terror of their own when they saw what their prey – now a most inappropriate word – was capable of. "That – that monster!" the man who had thrown the bombs cried in a strangled voice, and he beat a hasty retreat. No one moved to stop him. After exchanging horrified looks, the others presently followed suit, leaving Vash alone with the girls and the crowd of onlookers.
"Vash," Meryl said, shaking violently. For a moment he thought she was scared of him, but she had dealt with that fear a long time ago. "Oh, God. Are you okay?"
"I don't know," he tried to say in a joking voice, "do I look okay?" But all he could manage was a meaty gargle, and seconds later he was vomiting blood onto the sand. At the same time, freshets of blood began to issue from his eyes and nose. This couldn't be solely from the injuries he'd sustained. It couldn't –
"Oh, God!" Meryl screamed. "What's happening to him?"
Millie's eyes shone with horrified understanding. "His hair was black, Sempai. It was black..."
There was a fantastic amount of blood. Vash stared down at it impassively. The sand beneath him grew slick with his own fluids, seemed to slough downward, and he found himself falling into it headlong. The angel wings crumpled on top of his helpless body.
This is it, he thought, his mind clouding over as each of his organs began to shut down, as though the same form of cancer had spread to each of them. I'm internally hemorrhaging. I'm in my own Last Run. Oh, the irony: to be done in by one's own biology, rather than the hundreds of bounty hunters that had pursued him for the last two decades!
From somewhere a million iles away, he heard sobbing. Meryl was crying. Meryl was crying for him. Millie's face had become an ashen mask of pain, and the two of them held on to Vash in what he knew were to be his last moments on this planet. He could feel their tears dripping on his face, as endless as the torrent of blood that his body had disgorged.
Oh shit, oh damn, he thought, even as the last of his strength left him and his vision failed. I never wanted you girls to see this. I'm sorry...
The light winked out of his eyes then, and Vash the Stampede – the scourge of the desert, the Devil's Helper, the calamity-harboring Humanoid Typhoon – died.
He awoke on a bus.
The first thing he noticed was just how comfortable he felt. He could hear the distinct rumbling of the bus's tires and knew that it was moving, but there was no turbulence of any kind, and the sensation was like that of being transported on a feather. The other thing he noticed was that his body seemed completely intact. That was impossible. After all, wasn't he supposed to be dead? After taking stock of every limb and every stitch of clothing (even fingering his scars through his coat to make sure they were all there), Vash looked around, at an absolute loss for what to do. He seemed to be sitting in the back of the bus. He wasn't alone on this journey; two or three passengers occupied each of the seats in front of him, and a little girl was sitting next to him. What's more, the bus was long and luxurious – much more so than the shabby vehicles he'd seen and rode in the past – and it very nearly resembled a train to him.
Rem said she dreamed about a train once. Could it be that what's left of my brain is dreaming too? But why would I dream about a bus?
His confusion was compounded by the fact that many of the other people on the bus were talking and laughing, as though they were on some kind of day trip. They didn't seem like dreams to him. His eyes were also drawn to the presence of an intense, yet formless light situated in the front of the bus: specifically, in the driver's seat.
"Excuse me," he asked the little girl sitting next to him. "Do you know where this bus is headed?"
The little girl giggled. "I don't know," she said, "but my Mama's supposed to be there. I'm so excited!"
"Your mother is there?" Vash repeated in confusion. Then: "How did you come to be on this bus?"
The girl's smile never faltered. "I got on it, silly!"
Vash decided that maybe this wasn't the best line of questioning. Instead, he turned to look out one of the large windows that lined the walls of the bus. To his immense surprise, there was nothing to see out there – only an endless expanse of whiteness, as though the bus were suspended in an enormous bank of clouds.
Can I really be dead? he wondered. But then, who ever heard of dead people waking up on a flying bus?
After he had pondered for a few more minutes, the girl nudged him. "Hey," she said. "We're here!"
"We are?" Vash said stupidly, and he turned to look.
The bus windows gave on to a view of open sky, open land. Vash was even more shocked to see that the land was covered with fresh, green grass. It was just like something out of the Rec Room in which he'd spent most of his childhood, and yet something about it suggested that it was far more magnificent than that. Vash couldn't begin to know where he was. Soon the bus came to a stop, and Vash found himself filing down the aisle with the other passengers. He had just enough time to catch a glimpse of the driver's face – a face filled with light, whose features he was instantly unable to remember – before he was ushered through the door.
Vash stepped out of the door on rubbery legs. The one thing he noticed right away was just how difficult it was to maneuver on the grass, which seemed to him as hard as diamonds. The sharpest of the blades even managed to pierce his sturdy leather boots as he attempted to take a few steps forward, and they scraped against his skin painfully. His own body felt woefully insubstantial. Behind him, people were exiting the bus in mass droves; and Vash watched as the little girl he had talked to earlier stepped right out onto the grass and raced out of sight, laughing the whole way.
"Excuse me," Vash said again, thinking to speak to the driver now. "But – ?"
When he turned around, the driver had vanished. Only the bus remained.
He turned back to survey his surroundings once more. Far from being merely a meadow, the landscape held towering trees as well as flowers of all varieties. There were sunflowers, roses, hydrangeas, and (Rem's favorite) geraniums; and all of them were imbued with the same ethereal quality of denseness. The light was bright, shot through with shimmery rainbow patches. Despite the fierceness of the light, there was only one sun. He regarded it with naked amazement. In the same moment, he heard – or thought he heard – singing from far off. The sound was distant, with a dreamlike quality. When he turned in that direction, he saw an enormous set of mountains ringing the horizon. He felt a terrible, aching need just then, as though he needed to head for those mountains above all else; but at the same time, he dreaded it.
What is this place? he wondered again.
As he took in the mountain ranges in the distance – a distance that seemed as though he should not be able to see over it, even with his advanced eyesight – he was swept by a feeling of hugeness. Like he had taken some back door exit out of the universe, and now he was in... well, whatever was outside of that. Trying to imagine it was like trying to behold a million apples in his mind's eye, and he soon gave up.
Gingerly, he tested the grass again. It was no easier to walk on than it had been before. Vash exhaled in frustration. At this rate, it would take him decades to reach the mountains. Maybe I should just get back on the bus...
"There's a reason for that, you know," said a voice: a voice every bit as rich and deep as the rolling green fields that stretched away in every direction. Vash was sure he had never heard it before, and yet it couldn't be more familiar. "This place is more solid – more Real – than what you left. But don't worry. I imagine you'll be incorporated soon enough."
He turned in the direction of the voice and saw something that left his body feeling even more boneless than before. Nicholas D. Wolfwood rose from the deepening shadows of a tree that seemed to lunge towards infinity in the sky, walked towards Vash with his hands in the pockets of his untidy suit. His appearance remained unchanged from when he had died, but there was something undoubtedly different about him. The difference was that the grass actually bent where he stepped on it, and a slight breeze stirred up from the movements of his limbs. Even the light bounced gaily off of his mop of unruly black hair.
"I've been waitin' for you under this tree for an eternity," he said with a scowl, but there was no strength to the scowl, and his eyes glowed with the same benevolent warmth that seemed to exude from every molecule of this place. "Knowing your track record, I figured you woulda got your dumb ass killed way before now."
Vash tried to say Nicholas's name and couldn't. All he could do was mouth it wordlessly.
"Yeah, I know," Nicholas said. "I was surprised to be here too. I figured I was headed for, you know... the other place."
Vash began to cry, and he sank to his knees. The diamond-hard blades of grass bit into his skin and drew blood, but he took no notice of it. Despite the incredible environment and the accompanying ache in his soul, he had not truly begun to think of this place as Heaven until Wolfwood had showed up; and now that he was here, the outlaw was utterly overwhelmed.
"Oh geez, don't start with that," Wolfwood said, his discomfort palpable. "You know," he said, trying for a joke, "I thought people were supposed to get better-looking when they got here. You look like the butt end of one of my cigarettes, Tongari."
That was what did it – hearing that old nickname, that same demeaning manner that Wolfwood always had of speaking to him – and soon Vash was laughing through his tears. "Do – do they even let you smoke here?" he sputtered, but before Wolfwood could answer, he had already thrown his arms around the priest's neck, hugging him tightly. Compared to the solid presence of Wolfwood's body, Vash was like a ghost, but that didn't matter to him. He drank in the super-enhanced sensations that resulted from touching Wolfwood: the feel of his cheek against his own, the breath beating softly on his shoulder, the tousled black hair that was tickling his nose.
"Come on, you know I don't go in for that sharing and caring crap," Nicholas said, but all Tough Guy pretenses had been dropped: he was hugging Vash back. Vash sank into his body as the priest's strong arms came up and encircled him.
"Wolfwood, when you died," Vash started to say, trembling, feeling that he would not be able to let go for a thousand more ages, "I... I should have known what you were going to do. I'm so sorry – "
"It just figures," Wolfwood said, laughing in his ear, and Vash thought the sound was wonderful. "You finally end up in the Eden we both always dreamed about, and the first thing you do is start blaming yourself for things that couldn't be helped. We both knew my days were numbered no matter what happened, Tongari. And besides, I was the one who ran off without telling you. If anything, you made my death meaningful."
Vash grew silent. After several minutes had elapsed, he forced himself to step back and really look at the priest for the first time.
"I'm so happy you're alive, Wolfwood," he said. "Even if this is still all just something I dreamed up, I just... I wanted to see you again so badly."
"Well, I'm alive, at any rate," the priest drawled back, sounding even more amused now, "but you – you're still dead. You gotta start walking around and getting incorporated, or you'll just be stuck the way you are."
"I – I don't follow – ?"
Wolfwood sighed, as if he couldn't believe the other man's idiocy. "Just look at yourself, Tongari. I can practically see through you. This isn't a dream," he emphasized when Vash continued to look at him in bewilderment. Then his tone softened.
"In life I was your guide, Tongari," Wolfwood said, his eyes locked with Vash's in an intense gaze. "That's why I've been waiting for you. I've been waiting to guide you to your final destination."
Vash searched his heart and knew it was true. That deep, keening cry for the mountains he'd felt ever since he first caught sight of them... it was as though he had been born to go there. In the end this country was his home, wasn't it? But that couldn't be, because he was abominable, a sinner –
"Lead the way," Vash said softly, determined to keep such thoughts at bay.
Wolfwood obliged, slung one strong arm beneath Vash's significantly weaker one. The gunslinger leaned against him, thankful for the assistance and for Wolfwood's nearness. The two men trudged slowly over the grass, as if Vash was a toddler learning to take his first steps. He supposed that wasn't too far from the truth. He idly recited some bit of scripture he'd remembered over the years: Except as ye become as a little child –
Walking over the grass hurt. It hurt a lot. At length Vash looked down at his feet, and he wasn't surprised to see that they were bleeding. Each labored movement of his limbs left him feeling as though he had run a marathon. The sun suddenly seemed harsh, its light and heat casting down on him mercilessly. He fisted away beads of sweat from his forehead.
"Do you want to take a break?" Wolfwood asked, sensing his condition.
What did he think he was doing? No matter what Wolfwood said, he had still died because of him. What's more, he'd even made the priest waste his precious time in Paradise waiting around for him to show up. He was deeply moved by Wolfwood's commitment to him, but even such gratitude seemed shameful. Moreover, how could he hope to face the other people in the mountains, once they learned the breadth and width of his wrongdoing? Like the people of July, for instance. Or every single innocent person that Knives had killed because of his neglect.
I can't do this. It isn't right. I'll just go back on the bus –
"Wolfwood, you..." Vash drew a shuddering breath, and he struggled to stay on his feet. Blood pounded in his head, like a drumbeat sounding out his condemnation: Liar. Murderer. Monster. "You should go on without me. I'm not going to make it."
"It's just nerves," Wolfwood said. "Everyone gets them when they first come here. Trust me, you'll acclimate as we go on." He held out his arm, but Vash didn't take it. Nicholas looked at him for a moment, uncomprehending, but soon the light of recognition dawned in his eyes.
"You don't think you deserve to be here, do you," Wolfwood said. His tone was accusing. "You think you're beyond things like redemption or forgiveness or – happiness. You fucking moron." He scowled. Then breath puffed out from between his lips in a resigned sigh. "But I guess I'm a hypocrite. I mean, it took Rem months just to get my feet incorporated, to say nothing of the rest of my body."
"Rem?" Vash repeated in shock. "You saw Rem?"
"Yep," he said noncommittally. "She was waiting for me when I got here..." He paused, his expression suddenly possessed of a strange fragility, as though the experience had touched him deeply. Moments later he said: "Well, I don't have time to wait around for you to start believing in yourself. So I'll just do this instead."
His hands came up and rested on Vash's face. They were rough and calloused, but also gentle: they traced unknown patterns on his skin, perfectly recreating the feeling of the otherworldly breeze breathing on him like a mother. Vash tried weakly to pull away, but Wolfwood's strength was irresistible. He drew the gunslinger's face to his own and kissed him.
Vash had often fantasized about this moment, but his dreams had never felt so good, nor so alive. At first he hesitated, but then he leaned into the kiss, becoming intensely aware of a dewy scent as his feet suddenly sank into the ground and crushed blades of grass underneath. The scent rose and mingled with the ashy taste of Wolfwood's mouth. The weight of over a hundred years of suffering lifted from Vash's shoulders in the same moment, and he was soon weeping again, harder than ever. In response, Wolfwood held him closer.
"You belong here, Spikey," he whispered into his hair. "You, more than anyone. Don't fight it anymore. No one cares if you're not human, or about what you think you did in the past. Rem, the girls, everyone you ever lost to murder or accident or old age... they all love you.
"And I," he said at last. "I love you. And if that's not good enough for you, then you can just march your ass back onto that damned bus." His tone was joking, however – the kiss, he knew, had already done its work. As Vash cried and continued to cling to Nicholas like a lost child, his body grew more and more corporeal: the colors of his coat shone with ineffable clarity, with Red, and his grip was soon so strong that he was tearing holes in the priest's jacket. In their old life Wolfwood might have snarled and smacked the gunslinger for ruining his clothes, but here he only smiled and tipped Vash's head up so he could kiss him again.
Vash exulted in the pure feeling of joy that washed over him, and when their lips finally parted, he said: "Hey, Nick... I love you too."
"I sort of gathered that, idiot," said Wolfwood. "And don't call me Nick."
"It looks like you're up for another journey," Wolfwood said, his smile growing more pronounced. He extended his arm. "C'mon. Rem's waiting for you up in those mountains. Let's go find her, Tongari."
Vash took it, and together the two of them advanced towards the joyful voices echoing from the top of the mountains, towards the promise of an everlasting morning.