Masquerade Pt. 1: Wolfwood; The Pain of Hope

Author's Notes: This is the first of what's going to be a six-part story. I've had this idea in my head forever. (Forever equals many months. I'm so lazy!) Each part will stand alone, and will deal with one character (Millie, Wolfwood, Meryl, Vash, Legato, Knives) and the person they are behind the 'mask' they put on to hide their feelings, whether from others or from themselves. LOL, if I haven't bored everyone to death, here goes the story. Oh, and the disclaimer! I don't and could never in my wildest dreams hope to own Trigun.


"Mr. Priest man, are you listening?" Millie animatedly spun around and poked Nicholas D. Wolfwood on the arm. "Hellooo..." She drew the word out until he looked her way, and responded to his gaze with a bright smile. He returned the same one, but much dimmer.

The sand outside of the little ice-cream vendor's shade was hot enough to blister one's skin on contact. Wolfwood swore to the skies that he had been dragged into this. He supposed it was his fault that he'd stayed to ask the big girl if she was going with Meryl and Vash to the ask directions, though. The tall insurance girl had grabbed his arm and insisted on getting some ice cream to take the bite off of the heat.

Three iced puddings later, and well into the fourth, Wolfwood wondered if it had been such a good idea.

He sighed. Sunglasses glinted over his eyes in the bright afternoon light of the suns, and he stared through the dark lenses to the children scampering barefooted across the ground. They'd been born into this hell, into this wretched heat, like most of the people here. Their feet were calloused and used to the damning temperatures, their bodies adapted to the constant, glaring sunlight.

Adaptation.

One of mankind's best traits, but at the same time one of its worst features. People...could adapt to anything if you gave them time. Heat...pain...loneliness. Murder...violence. Fear.

A rough leather ball was kicked back and forth around little feet. Giggles punctuated the air.

Even the gentlest soul could be hardened to suffering.

Any of these smiling children could end up like him. One moment was all it took to tear a life apart. Happiness could blow away like the sand in the wind. He'd always wanted to stand in front of them to keep that from happening.

Another poke. "Aww, aren't they so sweet! You think they'd like some ice cream too, Mr. Priest?"

He shrugged, grinning twistedly as he chewed at an unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Her smile was big, too, but it was genuine, something he couldn't usually manage.

"Why don't you go ask them? I hope they can join us! My big big sister says the only thing better than enjoying something sweet is letting other people do it! Does that make any sense to you? It didn't to me for a long time but then I got it! I like to see the children smile, don't you, Mr. Priest?"

Wolfwood dredged up a grin and let it slide onto his face, glinting around the cigarette clutched in his mouth. "Yeah." It was true. He loved to see children smile. It reminded him that there were still things truly alive on this planet.

"Are you going to ask?" Millie messily slurped a spoonful of pudding, gingerly clutching the spoon between two fingers. Her eyes blinked at him happily from the side. She seemed oddly persistent to lug him out of this darkness.

He stood, shaking his head at her persistence. Shielding his eyes from the sun's glare despite the sunglassses' protection, he walked out to the group of children. One rushed in front of him just as he stopped, and the child skidded, shocked at his sudden appearance. Another boy launched the ball forward with a fast kick. The child right ahead of him, off-balance, would not be able to catch it. It would hit him straight in the face.

If nothing else, Wolfwood's experiences had sharpened his instincts. He reached forward and caught the ball just as the gaping little boy plopped down at his feet.

The boy gasped and scrambled up, sliding back in the dust and sand. Wolfwood moved forward to stop him, but then he realized that he must be a pretty scary sight. A solemn man in a black suit with dark glasses.

He took the shades off and smiled at the children. "Hey, you guys have been busy for a while. You need nourishment. So how about some ice cream?"

The tallest of the kids stepped forward and the others huddled behind him. Despite their eager eyes, the leader spoke warily. "We're not supposed to go with people we don't know."

"Oh," Wolfwood said. "That's okay, then." He shrugged, turned around, and walked away. Just as he expected, a multitude of tiny footsteps crept across the sand behind him. The smile was real this time, and it stayed on his face until he arrived, at which point he turned around. Not questioning the boys' contradictory actions, he simply said, "What flavor?"

They all chose varying flavors, many mixed, and more than one begged an extra scoop out of the soft-hearted ice cream man. Cons in the making, these kids were. The cold caution he'd seen earlier was gone as they sat on the sand , wiggling their toes and desperately licking at hands and cones in an attempt to keep every last drop to themselves. The little group butted elbows and "borrowed" bites, ending in two fallen scoops, which Millie happily replaced. She looked over at Wolfwood while the children squabbled. "You're smiling again," she said. Her tone of voice made it a happy accusation.

Wolfwood glanced over and laughed quietly.

"It's nice," she said.

"Hmm?"

"You smile lots, but they're sort of dry. You know like how you go to buy pudding and then it tastes funny because the people who sell it add water so they don't have to give so much pudding away?"

"Um...what?" Wolfwood said.

"That's how your smiles are." Millie nodded firmly. She licked a streak of pudding off of her finger. "Or maybe not quite like that." Her smile melted away. "They're so sad..and afraid. It makes me sad, too."

Wolfwood froze.

The sound of wind blowing and the bubbling of children's laughter faded in his mind, and he only heard Millie's voice when she spoke softly, each word like an electric jolt. "What are you afraid of, Mr. Priest?"

Damn. This girl was too perceptive.

What was he afraid of?

He was afraid of failure. He was afraid of hope. He was afraid that his life had been lived on incorrect assumptions, afraid that no matter what he did in the future, he'd never be able to make up for the sins he'd committed in his past, afraid that redemption was much too far for a mere human like himself to reach. For all the things he'd done...

But most of all, he was afraid of trying. Afraid of dying. Absolution was but a leap to take, and yet he was too damned afraid to fall.

He smiled, shaking the thoughts from his mind. "Nothing. Why do you say that?"

Millie sighed as her eyes caught on his stretched smile. She absently stirred her pudding. "No reason," she said brightly.

Concern showed on her face as clearly as the clouds in the sky. She held the spoon loosely in her fingers and let it drop into the now empty bowl.

"Hey, don't worry," Wolfwood smiled and put his arm around her shoulder. She stiffened in surprise, but she caught his smile and didn't seem to mind so much. "Let's go and see if those two lovebirds have got the directions to Tonim yet, shall we?" he said.

He lit the cigarette between his lips. He'd thought fleetingly about quitting, but it was one of the only pleasures on this rock, so he didn't see why he should. Smoking was as familiar to him as the hot, dry winds that ravaged this sandy ground. Besides, uncertainty and doubt only brought hesitation. He couldn't afford that. For now, until he saw what he needed to do, he'd just continue living as he'd learned to over the years. There wasn't any better way than that. Breathing a lungful of smoke out to the wind, he stood.

Wolfwood bid farewell to the children and told them to stay out of trouble. They just wiggled their toes and kicked up sand, baring toothless smiles at him as he waved them away.

He felt the emptiness recede, if only for a moment. The memories would return later, but for now...it was bearable.

And anyway, redemption might be closer than he thought.

Perhaps he could reach it.


Notes: Thanks for reading! Also, thanks to Sugar Pill for the constructive crit! Is my Wolfwood IC? (huggles Wolfwood) Anyway, I hope to be able to put up another chapter soon. Please review? Reviews are always greatly appreciated. (puts reviewers in a jar and loves them to death) But I won't put you in a jar...promise.