Wolfwood looked over his shoulder into the backseat, where Meryl sat quietly, her head bowed, with Vash's head resting in her lap.
"How is he?"
"Still unconscious," Meryl said, looking up, trying to keep the tears out of her eyes and her voice.
Lamia beat her fist on the steering wheel. "Well, I guess we walk from here."
They got out into the stillness of the desert night.
"The question..." Lamia said, her voice sounding loud in the silence. "The question is, are we closer to the ship, or to this city that Wolfwood's spoken of?"
"The ship," Meryl said. "No doubt."
"Let's go, then."
Lamia and Meryl carried Vash's unconscious body between them, while Wolfwood limped along after them.
"How are you doing?" Meryl asked him belatedly.
"Oh, fine. Fine. Leg hurts like hell. Hands hurt like hell. Haven't slept in at least two days. I'm peachy."
"You haven't changed," she snapped, and then hesitated. "No... you have."
"You too, insurance girl. You too."
"So you want to tell me how you survived?" Meryl hesitated, shifting Vash's weight into a more comfortable position. "We all thought you were dead."
"Long story. Looong story."
"We have time."
So Wolfwood told his story, as they trekked across the desert sands. When he got to the part where he'd woke up in the ship, Meryl interrupted.
"Tell me again about this place?"
He did. Meryl and Lamia exchanged glances.
"What?" Wolfwood said.
"I think that's where we're going," Meryl said.
And it was. When they topped a small rise and saw the bulk of the wrecked Seeds ship, dwarfed by the cliff, Wolfwood stared.
"Well, I'll be damned. I wonder if Angie..."
"Angie?" Meryl prompted.
"Never mind. We promised to meet here, if we were ever separated. I wonder if she'll keep her promise..."
They carried Vash to the ship, and Wolfwood watched with interest when Meryl typed the password. "Wolfwood? My name?"
"Believe me," Meryl said. "That is the least of how weird it gets around here."
They took Vash to the medical bay, and between them, figured out how to use some of the more familiar equipment -- at least they could give him an IV, and they found a spray container labeled "SynSkin(TM)" that they used on the more badly burned areas.
"He's going to have a whole new scar collection, though," Wolfwood said. "Hey, anybody want to help me with my leg before I fall over?"
They doctored him, and then Meryl sat down by Vash's head, and stroked the hair out of his eyes. The remains of his hair, that is.
Meryl bent over Vash's face. No doubt about it. His hair was growing back. It was already a good inch long over most of the burned places.
"Hey," Wolfwood said. "What the heck...?"
Lamia had uncovered the Genesis Machine to make sure it was still present and accounted for. Wolfwood was staring at it.
"That's..." Wolfwood turned to her, and stared. "That's my uncle's gun."
"No, it's not," Lamia said. "It's the Genesis Machine."
"Miss Meryl, please explain to him."
Meryl didn't even look up from Vash. She was still smoothing back his spiky, scorched hair.
"Uh..." Wolfwood said, suddenly deciding that discretion was the better part of curiosity. "I think I'll go exploring. Make breakfast. Yeah. Sounds like a plan."
"I'll help you," Lamia said hastily.
"Nobody asked you."
"You got a problem with me or something?" Lamia demanded, shifting the rifle from hand to hand.
"Do you ever put that thing down?"
"I could put it down on your head. Hard."
Their voices faded away. Meryl grinned faintly. Obviously the temptation to yell at Lamia was not just an affliction that she herself suffered from. She hadn't said anything nasty to the girl in... oh, it must be hours now.
She'd had other things on her mind.
Her smile faded. She turned to Vash. His face was so pale... but looking closely, she saw that fresh pink skin had already begun to heal over the burned places. Like the hair growing back.
He heals fast, I guess. Come to think of it, he probably has to.
If he heals that fast, what kind of injuries must he have suffered to leave the scars I've seen?
Meryl touched Vash's forehead, and closed her eyes, lost in memories of Vash's many acts of courage and sacrifice. She was not aware of the tears dampening her closed lashes.
Lamia began telling Wolfwood her story while they made breakfast outside the ship.
He kept asking her to back up and explain things over again.
"I think I am starting to see," Lamia said, sulkily, "why ... Miss Meryl was so confused. That man in the ship does look an awful lot like Vash."
"He is Vash, you little twit."
"Vash is the man I found in the desert," Lamia snapped.
"Look, you yourself admitted that he didn't know who he was. Now you run into another guy who looks just the same, and does know who he is and says that he's Vash. Doesn't that suggest anything to --"
"He hasn't said anything yet. He's been unconscious ever since I've seen him. Quite frankly, all I have to go on is your word, and you don't exactly look like the most trustworthy sort."
"How on earth are you still alive?" Wolfwood said, staring at her.
"You've been traveling with Meryl," Wolfwood said, as if that explained everything, and then added, "I wouldn't even have thought there'd be enough left of the body to identify."
"Meryl," Wolfwood said, "has a low tolerance for annoying people. Real low. Record-breaking, actually."
"I should've shot you in the mouth."
Wolfwood mumbled something uncomplimentary, munching on his breakfast.
"I heard that! What kind of priest are you?"
Eventually Lamia went to take Meryl her breakfast. Meryl was still sitting on the edge of Vash's bed, staring at him.
"Uh, food," Lamia said, setting the tray gently on a countertop. "Food. Right here."
"Thanks," Meryl murmured, never looking up.
"Uh, right. 'Bye."
She went back out to the campfire, but Wolfwood was gone. "Now where is that idiot?" Lamia muttered, kicking sand onto the flames.
She returned to the ship, stared for a moment at the door, and wished they had some way to lock it.
All they really had to do was destroy the box with the typewriter keys, and nobody would be able to open the door. Of course, anyone who did such a thing would have to remain outside, with Tony. And everyone else would be stuck inside, like sardines in a can. Not a good situation.
Lamia sighed and opened the door.
Wolfwood was nowhere to be found. She even went into the Plant chamber looking for him, but the glowing thing did not acknowledge her presence, and she left quickly. It made her nervous, even though Vash had said it was safe.
No... not Vash. She had to remember that. She'd never in a million years admit that Meryl had been right... but...
Who was her friend from the desert, anyway?
Having nothing else to do, and trying to stop herself from thinking, she explored. On another level of the ship, she came upon a small domed chamber made of some transparent substance thicker and harder than glass, protruding from the ship's side. Standing in it, she had a good view of the canyon and surrounding area. Lamia stared up into the hills and fretted, thinking about Vash -- her Vash -- and the little girl in the grip of a madman.
We must help them, if they're even still alive. Somehow. But... how can we possibly fight than man...
Lamia shivered. Her joints still twinged where the intruder had forced them to bend in ways they were never designed.
Still halfheartedly looking for Wolfwood, she wandered deeper into the ship. Soon she realized that these corridors didn't look at all familiar. "Where am I now?" she muttered under her breath.
She came to a closed door, and opened it. The room beyond was entirely dark. Something glimmered -- some kind of machinery? Hundreds of little glimmers in the dark. Lamia sensed that the room was quite large. She reached inside the door, feeling around, and quite by accident, triggered a light switch.
For a moment she stood stock-still, unable to move, staring at what the light revealed. Then she screamed and slammed the door.
"Meryl! M-M-Miss Meryl!"
Meryl looked up in surprise. Vash was sleeping quietly, and Meryl had begun exploring the room again, looking for anything else she recognized, like aspirin. It was quite obvious, however, that the medical bay had had most of its useful components stripped out over the years -- along with almost anything small enough to carry.
Lamia burst in. She was carrying the rifle in both hands like a club. Her freckles stood out against her chalk-white skin. She stumbled to a halt and stared at Meryl as if she'd forgotten where she was.
"Lamia! What's wrong? Is it Tony?"
Lamia shook her head. "It's -- It's -- I -- There's...."
Then, to Meryl's utter shock, Lamia sank to her knees on the floor and began to cry in small, choked sobs of terror. She was on the verge of hysterics.
Meryl had never seen the tough orphan lose her head so completely. Drawn by sympathy, she sat down on the metal floor beside the girl and put an arm around her shoulders. "Lamia, shh, it's okay. What happened?"
Lamia looked up, sniffling, trying gamely to get control of herself. "Meryl, I found -- a -- a whole room full of --"
She almost broke down again.
"A room full of what?"
"Those monsters," Lamia whispered. "The monsters that tried to kill me and my sister."
"What monsters? What do you mean?"
Lamia looked up at her. For an instant she was young and vulnerable. "That -- that day in the desert... when -- when the bus driver found that priest, and, and those things -- those things tried to take my sister..."
Meryl's stomach jumped into her throat. Memories surged to the surface -- a hot desert day, years ago, and a desperate race to outrun those metal creations with the guns that could shoot so far, so fast. Vash had explained afterwards that they were only manmade devices, but she still remembered the fear, like watching something from a nightmare come to life.
"You mean... there's some of those here?" Her voice cracked embarrassingly, and she cleared her throat and got control of herself. No point in both of them falling apart.
"Out -- outside the ship?" Dammit, there her voice went again.
Lamia shook her head. "Inside," she whispered.
By fits and starts, Meryl got the story out of her. No wonder the poor kid was terrified. She'd come upon a whole roomful of the things. She'd closed the door before they saw her, she said, and ran away, fearing at each moment that she'd look around and see a forest of glowing red lights behind her...
Lamia was starting to calm down now. "But they didn't move at all when you opened the door?" Meryl asked.
Lamia shook her head. "It was like they were asleep."
Meryl was thinking, thinking hard -- remembering how, after Vash and Wolfwood had disappeared (fallen into that hole in the ground, as it turned out), the metal monsters had stopped chasing them. Going back to look for their missing companions, Meryl and Millie had seen several of the creatures lying on the ground, still as if dead.
At the time, Meryl had not understood. But she'd learned a lot, since then, about technology. A whole lot. The things that Vash had told her about the metal things, after getting him back on the bus, had made no sense at the time, but now she was beginning to understand. He'd said the creatures weren't alive. They were -- what had he said? Guardians. And when they realized that there was nothing to protect, they had stopped trying.
Another memory sprang into her head... a night during their travels with Wolfwood, when they'd all had a little too much to drink, and Vash and Millie had already passed out, but she and Wolfwood were still awake. He'd started talking about that place under the ground that he'd seen with Vash, rambling drunkenly about colorful lights and metal surfaces.
He had been describing a ship.
That's what that big hole in the ground was! There was a ship under there! Isn't it just like that stupid spiky-headed coward, to not tell us about it.... and that's what those things were, Meryl thought, amazed and gratified as it all came together in her head. Those things are guardians of the ships. So it's not surprising there are some of them here! I wonder if they could help protect us from Tony?
"Meryl?" Lamia said.
"Can you find your way back to the place where you found them?" Meryl asked.
Lamia recoiled. "What?"
She almost went over the edge again when Meryl started explaining her plan, but eventually, she began to understand what Meryl was saying. Reluctantly, Meryl left Vash alone, sleeping peacefully in the medical bay, and followed Lamia out into the corridor.
They looked for Wolfwood first, but there was no sign of him.
"You don't have any idea where he is?"
Lamia shook her head. "I told him about what had happened to us. I got up to the part where we found the Genesis Machine, and then I went to take you some food. When I came back, he was gone."
"When we found the Gen -- oh." Meryl put her hand over her mouth. "The people in the caskets. Oh, no. I didn't even think..."
"You think that's where he is?" Lamia shuddered. "How disgusting. Should we go get him?"
Meryl hesitated, then shook her head. "No. We can do this by ourselves. We shouldn't."
They retraced Lamia's steps. Lamia grew more and more hesitant as they approached the room she'd found, and started hiding behind Meryl, gripping the rifle tightly. By the time they got to the door, Lamia looked like she was ready to flee down the corridor at the drop of a pin.
Meryl opened the door. It wasn't dark. The light had stayed on after Lamia had fled, and it revealed a square, utilitarian metal room, obviously a storage bay of some kind. From wall to wall it was filled with those unmoving metal hulks.
Lamia squeaked in fear, and shrank behind Meryl. But Meryl stood still, staring up at the strange, jointed limbs of the nearest ones. She felt a little fear, but mostly just curiosity.
It's true, she thought. They're just like cars or doors. They don't act independently. They just do what they're told.
Still, she felt rather relieved when she closed the door and could no longer see them. Lamia sighed and leaned against the wall.
"They won't hurt us," Meryl said.
"So you say," Lamia retorted.
There was nothing to do now, though, but find someone who knew how to operate them -- Vash, or possibly Wolfwood.
"Why didn't Tony ever use them?" Lamia wondered, as they walked back along the corridors. "Surely he knew about them."
Meryl shrugged. "I don't know."
Lamia showed Meryl the viewport she'd discovered, and the two women sat there for a little while, staring out across the desert. It was oddly companionable. When Meryl turned to Lamia to speak, though, she found the girl curled up comfortably on the floor, ever-present rifle resting against her limp hand, asleep.
Meryl smiled slightly. "Just like a cat," she said softly, aloud, and then took a quick look around to make sure there weren't any actual cats in the room.
"Now you're just being silly," Meryl told herself.
Leaving Lamia sleeping, she went down to check on Vash. He was also still asleep. Meryl sat on the edge of the bed. Her fingers itched to type, and she thought suddenly, My report!
How long had it been since she'd checked into the office? Goodness, it'd be a miracle if she still had a job. Meryl jumped to her feet, looking around frantically for her typewriter, and then she remembered where it was. In her luggage. In the car. In the middle of the desert.
"Shit," she said aloud, and sank back down onto the bed. She didn't even have hot water to make coffee. She looked down at her dusty, sweat-stained clothes -- whatever had happened to keeping her outfit neat and pressed, even in the middle of an investigation?
I've changed, Meryl thought. I've changed more than I would have thought possible.
Her eyes drifted to Vash.
He's part of the reason. And Wolfwood, and Lamia, and even Knives. Somehow my life has drifted out of control... yet I don't feel the fear, the sense of loss, that I would have expected. What's happening to me?
She sat down again, reflecting on the events of the past six years... and most particularly on the last few days. Her mind drifted to the chamber of bones, and to Wolfwood.
He couldn't possibly be down there... with those dead people... could he?
Meryl got up, cast a look at Vash to be sure that he was all right, and then left the medical bay.
The walk down into the bowels of the ship seemed shorter than she remembered, but maybe it was just because she was getting used to it. She picked her way among the bones, and soon she came upon the intact capsules with the dead family... and Wolfwood.
He was sitting in front of the row of intact capsules. Just sitting, his hands resting on his knees, staring up at them. He seemed entirely lost in some inner world.
Suddenly Meryl realized that it had been a mistake to come down here. If Wolfwood wanted companionship, he would have sought it. She wanted only to walk away without saying anything, but she took a step backwards and bumped into a pile of bones. She caught them before they fell over, but not before one clattered onto the floor.
Wolfwood looked around at her. He had a strange, dazed expression.
"Ah..." Meryl said. "It's a bit of a shock down here, isn't it? You should have seen my face --"
"They're my family," Wolfwood said.
Meryl couldn't speak. His eyes were strange, distant... dead.
"My family. My mom and dad, my brother and sister... my great grandmother... even that boy was my nephew."
He looked back up at the bodies.
"Um..." Meryl said. She wished she hadn't come down here. She could almost feel the tension radiating off this man like a flood of dark, cool water. Something in him was winding up tighter and tighter.
"I've been here before... to this ship, I mean... but I never came down here. Never even knew this existed."
"I, uh..." Meryl swallowed.
Wolfwood's eyes were distant and something dark and cold had come into his face. Suddenly Lamia was afraid of him.
"You didn't tell me about this," he asked quietly. "Did you know?"
"I..." Meryl hesitated, and looked away. "I knew they were here, if that's what you mean. I didn't know before... I mean, I..." She trailed off.
"Who did this?"
"There was a man..." Meryl said. Wolfwood's eyes fixed and held her. She wanted to back away; hell, she wanted to run.
"I don't know his name. He -- he had yellow eyes, he..." She stared at the floor. "It was the man you told us about. Tony. It had to have been."
"Tony," Wolfwood breathed. "The bastard with Legato's powers."
"He does have powers like that," Meryl said. "I felt it. He froze me in my tracks."
Wolfwood sank back against the capsule containing Lucas's body. He was white.
"So," he whispered. "It begins again. We never got to finish it the last time, Legato, like we should have. This isn't Vash's fight. It's mine."
Rem. Alex. Chapel. Wolfwood. Ellie.
Five generations of the family, inextricably entwined with Vash's own life. Just as his dream had said.
He drifted in a gray limbo, contemplating the strange intermingling between the fates of Rem... Tony... Nadia... Alex... Wolfwood... himself.
And someone else. Someone trying to talk to him in a soft blue light. He felt it reaching out to him, familiar yet strange, and shrank away, afraid to sink too deeply into unconsciousness, where the blue light waited for him.
Between life and death, he hovered, waiting. Not waiting for anything. Just waiting.
Voices came and went. He knew some of them, but he didn't want to think deeply enough to figure out whose voices they were. He remembered only enough to know that coming back to the real world meant pain, and he didn't want any more of that.
Pain. Loss. Your fault. Always your fault...
"Time to wake up, Tongari."
No, Vash thought, withdrawing further into himself. That voice stirred faint memories, evoked emotions of friendship, affection -- and betrayal, loss.
If living means always hurting, then I don't want to live...
"Come on, Tongari. Don't leave me alone with these women. Have some mercy."
I had mercy on my enemies, and people died because of it. My sins are too great to bear...
"Besides, if you don't come back, the insurance girl will cry. You don't want that, do you?"
The insurance girl...
More memories. Good ones. Bad ones. Had he heard another voice among the ceaseless blur of voices while he slept...? A familiar voice...?
"And then she'll probably find some way of blaming me for it, and make my life miserable. Come on, Tongari. You can hear me. Open your eyes."
At first everything was blurry and gray, just like the world of his dreams. Then he started to resolve shapes. In his weakened state, he was hit with a powerful sense of deja vu. He thought he was five years old, laying in the medical bay of the Seeds ship. Then he woke up a little further, and realized that he was in the medical bay of the ship. A ship.
"Welcome back, Tongari."
Vash turned his head to the side. Wolfwood was grinning at him.
"How long --" His voice was a hoarse whisper. He licked his lips and tried again. "How long have I been--?"
"About a day. Not too long." Wolfwood leaned forward. "How're you feeling?"
Vash blinked, raised his arm and found IV tubes dangling from it. "Been better."
"I thought I might have dreamed it..." Vash whispered. "You're really alive, huh?"
"Tough to kill. Like you, Tongari."
Vash sighed. "Still haven't got tired of calling me that, I see."
Wolfwood laughed. "You should see yourself. You're spikier than ever after spending the day in a hospital bed, needle-noggin."
Vash touched his shaggy hair, fingered it. On one side it was long enough to flop over, and on the other side, very short and spiky.
"I'd better go tell the girls you're awake. Meryl hasn't slept since we brought you here. I finally got her to go eat something, but she made me promise to watch you."
He got up, then hesitated, reached out awkwardly and touched Vash's arm. It wasn't much. Wolfwood wasn't a man who had any experience or ability at affectionate gestures. Slightly embarrassed, he withdrew his hand and tipped his sunglasses down over his eyes, hiding whatever might have been there.
"See you later, Tongari," he said, and left.
Vash grinned up at the ceiling.
Alone now, he stretched, testing out the limitations of his healing body. Everything was tender, but nothing hurt badly. He wasn't too surprised that the damage from the burns was already healing, though he could tell he would have more scars. His fast healing ability had saved his life more than once, but it did have its limits. And he wondered if without the technology on the ship, even his body would have been able to bounce back from the burns and dehydration.
The problems of being bound to a physical form, he mused. Was this why the Plants rejected physical bodies in favor of the light? Or was there another reason?
Suddenly Vash became aware that he was no longer alone. He turned his head slightly. Meryl stood in the doorway.
Vash's brief sense of peace fled. Meryl was here. He hadn't dreamed it. And he wasn't sure if he wanted to see her or not.
She looked smaller than he remembered, or maybe it was just the room, because it was so huge. Even the doorway was big, eight or nine feet tall at least, easily tall enough to accommodate someone Vash's height and leave room to spare. Meryl looked like a child with all that space around her.
Like Millie, like Wolfwood, she was almost the same, but not quite. Like them, she had aged. Grown. Matured. Her hair was still short, and brushed limply against her cheeks, as if it hadn't been combed or washed in a while. She still wore a tan cape, either the same one or a similar one, though it was torn and stained from travel.
She wasn't tidy. That's what was different about her. Mussed hair, stained clothes, dark smudges like bruises under her eyes.
Vash knew then that he did want to see her -- he wanted to see her more than anything in the world. And he was also afraid. He knew she was going to yell at him, and he didn't think he could take that right now.
Meryl was looking around the room, anywhere but at Vash, and when she became aware of him looking at her, she jumped and made a show of studying the doorframe.
"Nice doors they have here," she said. "Yes. Very different from the ... doors back home. Very... doorlike."
"Do you want to come in and sit down?" Vash offered.
"Certainly," Meryl said primly. She came and perched on the edge of the bed next to Vash's, still looking at everything but him.
She certainly doesn't seem very pleased to see me, Vash thought. Well, I can hardly blame her. It's been six years. Maybe she expected me to write.
He couldn't help looking at her, since she was still looking away. Up close he could see that, as with Millie, the passing years had blossomed Meryl. The sharp, pointed face of the brash young woman he'd met had softened and firmed. A few fine lines had formed around her eyes, and Vash felt a sharp pain twist his heart. Age was the curse of the mortal ... but the curse of the immortal was worse: to watch everything you loved age, and finally die.
He didn't want to think about Meryl dying. Ever.
"What are you staring at, pointy head?" Meryl demanded.
"I was just noticing that you're getting a few wrinkles -- ow!" Another of Vash's curses was painful honesty. Literally painful, at times.
"Have you no sense?" Meryl snapped, pulling back her fist from bopping him on the head.
"I'm sorry," Meryl said, immediately contrite. "Did I hurt you?"
Vash paused in mid-snivel. Had Meryl just apologized?
"Not really," he said cautiously.
"Too bad," Meryl retorted, a shutter slamming down in her briefly worried eyes, and hit him again.
"Ow! Hey, if I said you're hurting me, would you stop?"
"Only if you stop insulting the way I look."
"I'd never insult the way you look, Meryl. I like the way you look."
"You do?" Meryl's voice faltered, then came back, stronger. "As if I care."
"I know, I know. You don't care what anyone thinks. That's fine. I like that about you, Meryl."
Meryl looked away, but he didn't feel the hard edge that he had when she'd walked into the room.
"Soooo. Where are we?"
"I'd think you'd know," Meryl said. "It is lost technology, after all. Don't you know about every piece of it on the planet?"
"This looks like a..." Vash waved his hand around at all the equipment. A ship, he'd started to say, but she probably didn't know that word...
"It's a ship," Meryl said, and Vash gave her a startled look. "A crashed ship. Lamia and I found it, along with..." She shook her head. "Lamia and I found it."
"She's -- do you remember those little girls you and Wolfwood helped after the sand steamer crash? She's one of them. All grown up now."
"Wow," Vash murmured. "What's she like?"
"You'll ... have to meet her. She defies description."
"Lamia," Vash repeated.
"Yes. Look, you'll meet her. Nevermind about that. How are you?"
She asked how I am? To my face? Man, she really has changed, hasn't she?
"Better than I was."
"Do you need anything? Water?"
"Wolfwood brought me some."
Meryl folded her hands in her lap and stared at them.
"I think I--"
"What are you-"
They started to speak at the same time. There was a brief, awkward moment of silence. Vash laughed. "You go ahead."
"I - I was just - going to mention -- my God, your hair!"
"My hair?" Great, yet another crack about my spiky hair? I get plenty of that from Wolfwood...
"It's grown back. Almost all of it. How is that possible?"
Vash half-grinned. "You have no idea how fast my hair grows. I have to cut it once a week, at least."
"But ... but it was all burned off. And your face..." She stared at it. "Looks like you're going to have a few more scars, but you're almost all healed. I can't believe it."
"I heal fast. I think it's my..." He trailed off.
Awkwardness sat heavily between them. Vash noticed that the covers of the bed Meryl was sitting on were rumpled, as if someone had been spending a lot of time there lately.
Did you really stay with me, Meryl?
"I was wondering --"
"So how did you --"
Once again they'd started talking at the same time. They fell silent again. Vash looked out of the corner of his eye at Meryl and saw that she was smiling.
"Your turn," Meryl said.
Vash shook his head. "I don't even know where to begin. I never thought I'd run into you out here."
Meryl laughed shortly. "I never would have expected to be here."
"What exactly are you doing here, anyway?"
Meryl sighed. "I was kidnapped by a teenage hoodlum with a crush on your brother."
"A -- what? On my which?"
Meryl raised her hand. "Hold the questions until after the story."
So she told him what had been happening to her over the past few days. Vash listened in growing amazement.
"Vash, I don't know how to explain it. He's ... changed. There's something different about him. And after talking to Wolfwood and hearing his story, I got to thinking... No, you'll laugh at me."
"I wouldn't laugh at you," Vash said quietly.
Meryl looked up. A brief smile flickered about her lips. "No... you wouldn't, would you? It's a feeling I got shortly after I met Knives again. Like something had gone out of him. Like ... I don't know how to explain this... like whatever made him Knives had left. That shadow. That badness. I wonder if maybe it... went into Sand?"
Vash blinked. "How do you know about Sand?"
Meryl gave him a glare. "Look, you may have been unconscious, but I've been awake. Wolfwood has filled me in on what's been happening to you two lately."
"Oh." Vash settled back on his pillows. "What you said... about Knives' evil going into Sand... That's almost in so many words what Sand told me. Knives, I mean. Only I hadn't reasoned out... what it really meant for Knives, then. It means he might actually be ... someone I could talk to. Someone I could care about."
"But he's with Tony now," Meryl said. "Knives... and Ellie." She clenched her fists. "I haven't told Wolfwood about Ellie and I told Lamia not to tell him. He's not in great shape either. The last thing we need is Wolfwood charging off into the hills to rescue her, and you know he will. If Tony doesn't get him, then he'll fall off a cliff and break his fool neck or something."
Vash blinked. "Uh... I told him."
"Told him," Vash said, wincing. "That he has a daughter."
"Not that, you spiky-haired moron, though that's bad enough. About Ellie being with Tony."
Vash froze. "Ellie's with -- oh, hold on. You just said that, didn't you?"
"You mean you weren't LISTENING?"
"I'm ... sort of listening." He'd actually been too busy thinking about Knives, trying to reason out the situation with Knives, to listen to the last part of her story.
"Oh, WHY do I bother?" Meryl stared up at the ceiling.
"Wait," Vash said. Now he was starting to think about her story, start to put it together. "You said you found a piece of the Genesis Machine --"
"Well, that's what Knives said it was."
"Tony has the other half," Vash said.
Meryl's hand flew to her mouth. "Are you sure?"
"I saw it," Vash said. "A white suitcase."
"That unfolds into a cross? Like Wolfwood's, only double barreled?"
"I don't know. I never saw it do that."
Meryl got up and began pacing frantically. "Now we have to keep the part we have away from him!"
"It doesn't make sense, though." Vash raised himself to a sitting position in bed, watching her pace. "I could see Tony wanting to get hold of the Genesis Machine... Tony Blanchard, that is, the Seeds ship captain. But if Tony is Legato, or if he's working for Knives -- it doesn't make sense at all. The Genesis Machine only kills Plants. Its purpose is to create a paradise for humans. There's no way Knives would want something like that, unless he wanted to destroy it, and he'd need the cooperation of a Plant who was willing to die. He'd never do that."
"You seem very sure that your brother means no harm to the Plants."
"Of course not! Look, Knives is a psychopath, but only towards humans. All that he's done, he's done for the good of our kind."
"The good of your kind," Meryl repeated. "Look, how do you know that? Nothing you've told me has given me any indication of that." She began to tick off on her fingers. "He caused the crash of the ships, right? That could have killed all the Plants! If it had happened the way he wanted, then he would have committed genocide on his entire people."
"Shit," Vash muttered, staring at his hands, clasped in his lap. "I never thought about that. But he's been so ... so committed to..."
"To what? Killing humanity, all right. To protect the Plants, he says. What has he ever done for the Plants? From what Wolfwood has told me, he experimented on them to create a new body for himself, killing many in the process. If he feels the Plants are so oppressed by humanity, why hasn't he tried to free any of them? All he did was sit out in the desert, plotting the downfall of humankind. He's obsessed, he's crazy, and he doesn't care about the Plants any more than he does about humans."
"You don't know him," Vash said softly. "I've known him longer than you've been alive, Meryl."
Meryl spun on him, her cape swirling about her, eyes hot with anger.
"Stop reminding me! This entire conversation -- it's been 'Plants' this, 'I'm a zillion years old' that. Stop making me think about you being different from me!"
"I am different, Meryl."
"I don't care!" Meryl screamed.
There was a brief pause. They stared at each other. Meryl's chest rose and fell with short gasps for air.
Suddenly Vash realized, a good deal too late, that he was naked from the waist up. "Uh..." He reached for the sheet.
"Oh stop it," Meryl snapped. "I've seen it all before, okay? Every damned scar. Stop hiding who you are from me!"
"I'm sorry, Meryl. I don't understand why you -- I mean, what did I do to piss you off this time, anyway?"
"You are so infuriating!" Meryl turned her head away, biting her lips, and Vash saw, in absolute shock, that her eyes were brimming over with tears. "Don't you even -- doesn't it even matter --"
"Of course. Of course it does." He was babbling, not even sure what he was saying, just wanting her to stop crying. "Meryl. Meryl, please don't cry."
He stood up without thinking about it, trailing IV wires and a sheet half wrapped around him like a mummy's shroud; swayed through a wave of dizziness, then felt better, and put an arm around her shoulders.
Meryl shivered, then, reluctantly, leaned against him.
It felt very... right. Vash remembered how she'd reminded him of Rem before, but just at this moment, she didn't remind him of Rem at all. Her body was a tiny warm lump against him. She was so small. He could crush her with one hand.
He could crush her heart, he realized, with less than that.
Vash laid his head on top of hers, his cheek against her soft hair. Meryl shivered.
He didn't want to say anything. Didn't want words to shatter this. Their entire relationship up until now had been based, it seemed, on fighting, on hurting each other. Now the two of them were suspended somehow in time, between one harsh word and the next. He wanted the moment to stretch out as long as it could.
But nothing lasts forever, Vash knew. Meryl gave him a little push, not hard, just enough to indicate that she wanted to get herself back together, and he withdrew his arm from her shoulders.
"Put some clothes on, buddy," she muttered, looking away.
Vash snugged the sheet more tightly around his hips, blushing right to the roots of his shaggy, regrown hair. "I don't have any. They burned up."
He started wandering around the medical bay, towing the IV stand. Meryl followed, curious.
"What are you looking for?" she asked.
"Food synthesizer. Aren't you hungry?"
"I am hungry, but... what's a food syth -- sythensizer?"
"Synthesizer. It's how people used to eat on the ships. Aha, here's one." Vash touched the buttons lightly. "Hmm, the ship's galley's been powered down. I'll have to warm it up. As long as there's no damage, though, it should be fine. The raw materials for the food are just syn-proteins and starches. They keep forever."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." Meryl sighed. "But that's just usual, isn't it."
"Look, as soon as it warms up, I'll show you how to work it. There's thousands of pre-programmed meals... drinks..."
"Coffee?" Meryl asked hopefully.
"Sure. Hundreds of flavors."
"Hundreds of flavors of COFFEE?"
"Wait until you taste espresso." Then he eyed her for a moment, and muttered, "Uh, maybe we'd better leave that one alone."
"So how long is it going to take that thing to warm up? I'm hungry now."
"A little while," Vash said. "We could find some clothes for me -- bound to be something in one of the lockers -- and then go look for the others."
Meryl smiled. "Sure. Uh... will you be okay walking around?"
"I think so. I'm just a little unsteady... could use some support..."
Meryl slipped an arm around his waist. "Is this better?"
Wolfwood and Lamia were eating beside a low fire when Meryl and a limping Vash approached them.
"Nice to see you up and about, Tongari," Wolfwood said, raising an eyebrow. "You do heal fast, don't you? My God, your skin's mostly grown back, even."
"With a little help from lost technology," Vash said. He sat down stiffly by the fire. "You bunch shouldn't be out here. It isn't safe."
"Nowhere to make a fire inside," Lamia said through a mouthful. "Ain't gonna eat my food cold."
"You don't have to," Vash said. "There are machines on the ship that can make food for us. I'm warming one up."
"Really?" Lamia said eagerly. "Damn, I wish we'd known about those days ago!" She stuck out a slightly greasy hand. "Mister Vash. I still dunno if it's really you, but it's good to meet you at last."
Vash shook her hand.
"Uh, Tongari," Wolfwood said. "What the heck are you wearing?"
Vash looked down at himself. The only clothing of any kind he and Meryl been able to find were some Seeds survival suits, of the sort Vash and Knives had been wearing when they crashed in the desert. However, the suits were too tight-fitting for Vash to wear on his still-healing torso. So they'd cut one of the suits off at the waist, and then rigged a sort of toga to cover his torso from one of the sheets.
The general effect was not something that was going to be walking down a fashion runway anytime soon, particularly in combination with Vash's patchwork of scars, healing burns, and wilder-than-usual hair.
"What do you mean?" Vash said, looking blank.
"Look, let's get inside the ship," Meryl said. "I don't like being out here."
They extinguished the fire and retreated inside. Vash led the way back to the medical bay, where the food processors had warmed up and Vash treated the group to Earth cuisine: hamburgers and donuts. While they ate, they talked -- going over the details of the stories they hadn't quite shared.
"...and then that guy, Tony I guess his name is -- vanished into the hills with Ellie and ... Knives," Lamia said.
Wolfwood went pale. "With Ellie?"
"Well, yeah. Hey --!"
Wolfwood launched himself at Lamia. Meryl caught him and held him back. He turned on her.
"Why didn't you -- how could you --"
"Calm down!" Meryl said. "I thought you'd do something stupid if you found out."
"Oh... wait," Lamia said, puzzling it out. "You'd be... oh. Sorry. I forgot."
"That creep has my daughter!"
"Settle down," Vash said. Wolfwood whirled on him.
"And YOU! I feel like it's one giant conspiracy! Let's keep Wolfwood in the dark about everything --"
He said more, but Vash didn't hear it. Suddenly he had a splitting headache. He slumped, raising his hand to his head. Meryl said his name with concern, but Vash was only aware of another voice, speaking inside his brain. If it could even be called a voice. It spoke directly to the depths of his mind. It was frightened. It cried out.
"What's wrong?" Lamia was saying, and Meryl had her hand on his shoulder.
"The Plant..." Vash said. "It's afraid. It says someone is approaching."
"Oh, great," Meryl muttered.
"Hope it's Tony," Wolfwood muttered, smacking his fist into his palm.
Lamia led the way to the observation deck. The four of them walked out to the edge of the observation area, and looked down across the panorama of desert. None of them paid the slightest attention to a small black cat weaving in and out among their ankles; slightly put out, the cat went and curled up in a corner with an annoyed "Mya."
"I see someone out there!" Lamia cried.
Vash squinted. "Three people. Oh, wow, I think that's..."
"Oh my god." Wolfwood shrank behind Vash. "Hide me."
"...Millie," Vash finished. "What? Why?"
"Look," Wolfwood said. "If you hit me, and she" (looking at Lamia) "shot me, God knows what SHE'LL do to me." He hesitated. "It's really Millie?"
"What in the world is she doing out here?" Meryl said.
"Are you sure?" Wolfwood said from behind Vash.
"Yes," Vash snapped, nettled. "Stop using me for a stungun shield. She can't even see us."
"I can see her now," Meryl said. "Yes, it is! And she's got Ellie with her!"
"And another woman," Lamia said.
"Angie," Wolfwood said, coming reluctantly out from behind Vash. "That's Angie! She's alive!" And Ellie...
"Look behind them," Lamia said quietly.
The others followed her pointing finger, from the small group of figures toiling across the desert floor, up and up, to three small figures silhouetted against the top of the cliff behind them.
The small group on top of the cliff stood looking down at the ship. Knives was held by no tangible bond to the others, but he was hunched, holding his arm, where the blood on his sleeve had dried dark and flaky.
Sand was holding the stump of her arm against her side. Her face was drawn with pain, but the eyes were bright, intense.
"Legato, can you stop them?"
Tony shook his head. "They're too far away."
Of all three of them, wounded though they were, he looked perhaps the worst -- as if only willpower kept him from collapsing. Sand seemed unconcerned.
"It doesn't matter, then. We'll get them all together. They have no hope of keeping us out... and they're all together."
"Just the two of you," Knives said.
Sand looked at him quietly. "And you ... fragile shell that I used to wear.