Suppose, by chance, you met someone really famous. Suppose this happened on a planet where fame and natural disasters are measured in the same units. Suppose this person had several nicknames, all of which indicated that just surviving eye-contact with him is something to tell your grandchildren about.
Suppose he bought you lunch and shot the breeze with you like you've been friends since kindergarten.
What would you make of that situation? If this guy is the most dangerous guy on the planet and you're sitting there munching on sandwiches with him like it's no big deal, does that make you just as dangerous by default? Does he know that you're dangerous because he sized up that big cross you haul around and figured out that it's not mercy that thing is full of? Does he treat you like a pal because you remind him of his dead little brother? Does he have a split personality and you expect him to rip out your esophagus the moment you order a whiskey, cause, well, his old man was a nasty drunk and the only way his gentle little boy could deal with the beatings was by inventing a murderous alter-ego?
Is he just a really nice guy with a really bad reputation? Is that even possible?
Apart from the red coat and the blond hair, and whatever else you can tell about a man just by looking at his mugshot, Vash the Stampede is nothing at all like I imagined. No horns peeking out from under that ridiculous hairdo, no gravity-defying coattails, no ominous chanting every time you look him in the eye. He's a very personable fellow, actually. More personable than a lot of people I've met that had far more reason to be personable to strangers. And the only intimidating thing I've noticed about him so far is his appetite.
He points to an abandoned piece of salmon sandwich on my plate. "Are you gonna eat that?" The words come out garbled, since he hasn't even finished chewing on the last bite of his own helping.
I put out my cigarette and nudge the plate toward him. "Nah, help yourself."
"No need to thank me, you're the one who's buying after all!"
"I guess you're right," he says, and then laughs in a pitch you don't expect to hear coming out a grown man's mouth, or at least out of the mouth of anyone who expects to be taken seriously in life.
"So tell me, Mr. Typhoon," I venture, "are you always this friendly to everyone? Cause if you are, I have to wonder whether these horror stories about you aren't just old wives' tales."
A beat. His eyes narrow, or... shorten, or something, and suddenly that split personality theory is starting to sound like it had some merit. In a flash, his hand slips under the table and I don't have to look down there to know he's got a gun trained at me. My right hand was already under the table, making it easy for me to inconspicuously do the same with my gun while trying to maintain the sort of a face an actual unarmed priest would have if he had just managed to piss off Vash the Stampede. The scared shitless face, which is in my case – not to brag, but – probably kind of rusty. When he speaks, his voice is an octave lower than before and and lacks any kind of inflection.
"Watch it, mister. I don't appreciate being second-guessed."
The look he gives me could push your eyeballs through the back of your head. I decide then and there that it's a shame we haven't had this conversation while he still had a bounty on his head, because what I'm about to do would have made me a very rich man back then.
And then a sudden explosion of the same frivolous laughter from before stops me from pulling the trigger. His hand emerges from under the table, and what I thought was a revolver turns out to be a finger gun. A freaking finger gun.
"You totally fell for it," he says, still laughing, and then pretend-shoots me as I sit there slack-jawed.
The waitress comes around to pick up the plates and he orders two beers without asking what I want. I would have preferred something stronger, but as they say, beggars can't choosers. Vash sinks back into his chair, once again all gangly and harmless-looking.
"To answer your question: yeah, why wouldn't I?"
I stare at him in a manner that obviously makes him feel he should elaborate.
"It's always better to be friendly to people, don't you think?"
He says it with a childish enthusiasm that makes my face soften immediately. "Yeah, it sure is."
The waitress brings the beers and the both of us down them in one swig, as if it was an unspoken challenge of sorts. Between two men who had just met, it usually is. Vash wipes the foam from his mouth and smiles.
"And what about you, preacher-man?"
I light a cigarette – last one I have – and crush the pack. "What about me?"
He would be looking at the gun in my pocket, if a table (and a pocket) didn't stand between it and his eyes. "Are you always that quick to draw? Because if you are, I'll have to assume you're not a priest at all."
Well, now it makes sense. The son of a bitch pulled that prank to test me. I try to act all innocent-like, but something tells me I might as well drop all acts from this point on.
I take the gun out and spin it around my finger with a practiced amount of clumsiness. "What, this thing?" And then I give him my best idiot grin to top it off. "It's just for self-protection. To tell you the truth, I probably would have missed, even at this range."
"'s that so?"
The idiot grin still in place, I scratch the back of my head. I notice people tend do that when they're trying to come across as incompetent. "Yeah."
Yeah. I suspect he knows better than to trust people who pepper their sentences with words like "frankly", and "honestly" and "to tell you the truth" – after all, this is an adult I'm talking to – but he drops the matter and orders another round of drinks, like he doesn't really care either way.
"So, this church of yours... where is it?"
"December." I flick the ash off my cigarette and decide against getting into details. "Well, thereabouts, anyway."
"That far away? What brings you all the way out here, then?"
"There's this church in Jeonora Rock... I guess you could say I'm on a pilgrimage."
Well, it's a half-truth, at least. I'm not sure anything less than that would cut it with this guy. "What about you, what's your business there?"
He looks at me like you'd look at a kid that's trying to steal your wallet: amused because you know it'll never work, but curious to see how far the little rascal's gonna push it anyway. Like wherever he's going is supposed to be all important and secretive and unmentionable just because it's him that's going there.
I grin. "It's only fair."
The waitress brings another round of drinks. He stares at his own in a way that makes me think that maybe there are actual reasons he doesn't want to answer the question, after all. Eventually, he does, though.
"I'm looking for someone."
There's a finality to his tone that implies he's done talking about this particular matter, but like the kid with the wallet, I just can't help pushing it. "A friend of yours?"
The word falls from his mouth like lead. I look at his face, and then the sleeve tied around the remains of his left arm and... it might not be related, but this guy he's looking for definitely took something from him. Something much more than just a limb, probably.
"I see. Is there anything I can do to help?"
He looks at me with a mixture of surprise and gratitude in his eyes, kind of like someone who hasn't been offered help very often in his life. My lips stretch of their own accord. It's nice to be looked at like you stand out in a good way.
"Well, you did technically save my life. Twice, if you count buying me lunch!"
He smiles – the genuine article, not his usual bad cover version of it – but as he mulls it over, his face melts into something unreadable and he looks away.
"Nah, I don't wanna get anyone else involved in this. It's too dangerous."
Sounds like my kind of a gig. I don't say it, of course, but his eyes snap back to me like I actually did. What is with this guy? Can he really see through me that easily?
He stares into my eyes for a long moment, like he's searching for some seal of authenticity, some Made-In-Such-and-Such stamp in there, and then – apparently satisfied that he had found it – says a name that stops the breath in my throat.
"Legato. His name is Legato."
Before he can say anything more (and before I have to say anything back to him, thank God), the girls he's traveling with storm into the inn and tell us we better move unless we feel like walking all the way to Jeonora Rock. The Serious Business Vash promptly disappears, and the person left sitting in his chair starts freaking out, all screams and flailing, as if he was being paid for the performance. He tells the girls to go stall the bus driver while he settles the tab, and gets smacked by the midget girl as a result. Then the girls go do as he said, anyway. I step outside. Putting a bit of buffer between us sounds like a good idea at this particular moment.
I reach for my breast pocket, but then I remember I'm out of smokes. Crap.
Legato Bluesummers. I haven't met him yet, but from the stories I've heard (torture, cannibalism – top drawer psycho traits, really), I somehow doubt there will be any pleasure in making his acquaintance. If Vash is looking to settle a score with my future employer, there's no doubt his name will somehow figure into my next contract. And if it figures into my contract the same way names usually figure into my contracts, well... It sure would have been funny if he took the finger gun joke too far and I actually killed him here today. Would have done wonders for my advertising.
I turn around. Vash throws something at me and I catch it – it's a pack of cigarettes. I stare at it, and then at him; I probably would have asked him to borrow me money to buy them anyway, but I can't help feeling kind of stunned by the fact that I didn't have to.
"It's not your brand, but it's all they sell in there," he explains.
"That's okay." I give him a slap on the back, all friendly-like. Like chances that I'm going to be blowing his brains out in a day or two hadn't gone through the roof with that name he gave me. "Thanks, you're a lifesaver!"
"No biggie. I just didn't wanna worry about you spending your last money on those and then starving to death."
We start walking towards the bus and his pace tells me that the he isn't nearly as worried about missing the ride as he led the girls to believe.
"What you did back there with those urchins," he says, "that was really nice. Not many people would have done that."
"Aw, shucks. Not many people would have done a lot of things. Like buying a stranger lunch and a pack of smokes."
"Well, we're not strangers any more, are we?"
It's really just a standard offhand reply, but I stop to consider it anyway. It could be bad for business if it turned out that he was right.
"You know, Vash, you really ought to be more careful," I say, fully aware that I probably sound like his mother. "I was this close to shooting your knee off back there." Well, if his mother was a gunslinger and her idea of discipline was busting caps in his major joints, which, judging by his reputation as a marksman, doesn't sound all that unfathomable.
He chuckles in a melody that might as well be called Get Outta Here.
"No, you weren't."
The professional in me takes offense to his dismissal.
"What makes you so sure?"
"You said it yourself," he replies, all matter-of-factly, "you would have missed."
There's conviction in his voice, and lots of it, but no color. It's like he's just absolutely certain that he wouldn't have been shot, but the reason he's certain could be anything from you wouldn't have fired to I'm a better shot to you would have missed on purpose to I have magical bullet-stopping powers. I don't know what my face looks like as I'm processing all of this, but it's probably hilarious, because he's laughing right at it. And then he goes and throws my words back at me, like he owns them now.
"Smile, Wolfwood. You look better when you smile."
So I smile.
Yes, this is how I spend what little free time I have these days :'-(