Pre-fic notes:

1) I swear I don't know how this "year between updates" thing happened.  Let's say I was kidnapped by elves or something, because it's less embarrassing that way.

2) Many thanks to Arafel for beta'ing this.  You're very good at pointing out all the BS I need to lose.  ^_^

3) This chapter involves some fudging of medical technology.  Nothing drastic; just don't feel the need to point out that things might not happen exactly this way in real life.  Well, I won't be offended if you do, but odds are great that I already know.  Besides, it's centuries in the future.  They can have whatever wacky technology I say they can.  AHAHAHA AUTHOR POWER!

Erm, anyway.  Feedback is lovely and appreciated.

Misconception

Chapter Four

"Vash?  It's time.  Are you ready?"

Vash grinned, errant joyful tears escaping down his cheeks.  So this was it, the moment they'd been awaiting for months.  His baby was about to enter the world.  "Ready," he managed.

Doc turned his attention back to the expectant mother.  "All right, Meryl, it's time for you to push.  Just a little longer and you'll have your baby."  She just nodded, eyes pinched shut with effort.  "That's good.  You're getting closer…there's the head!"  Doc's cry of success indicated the end of her trials and she fell back, breathing heavily.

Vash closed his own eyes, suddenly overcome with dizziness.  This was it.  Their new life as a family had arrived.  There was no turning back.

It felt wonderful.

Doc was very still, looking down at the bundle in his arms, and Vash's impatience got the better of him.  "Can I hold her?  Is it all right?"  Doc didn't move. Then it struck Vash—other than the sound of Meryl's breathing, the room was silent.  "Isn't she supposed to cry?"

Slowly, Doc turned to face him, and his haunted expression caused Vash's stomach to clench.  He looked at his daughter.  She was tiny, pink, and perfect; and she wasn't breathing.

Doc shook his head.  "I'm so sorry, Vash.  The differences…they must have been too great…"

A great animal wail burst from Vash's throat.  He took the baby from Doc's unresisting arms and clasped her to his chest as if he could somehow share his own life force with the child.

She was so tiny, but she could have grown up strong and intelligent and beautiful.  All their hopes, everything they'd planned for…gone with the life that had fled this newborn body.

A soft sigh and a loud beeping from the monitors tore Vash's attention from his grief.  Meryl was slumped sideways, her face slack.  It was only then that Vash saw the great quantity of blood staining the sheets around her.

"No…"  The whisper slipped out from between Vash's lips and he found that even as Doc sprang into action, he could not move.  "Not you too…please, don't leave me…"

The room began to swirl around him and he fell to his knees.  The inner warmth that he'd felt since Meryl came into his life dissipated and he knew that he had been a fool to believe that it could ever be different for him - only this time, the aching loneliness was worse because he knew just how precious was the life he'd lost…

Vash jerked upright, awakening to Meryl's warm and living presence next to him.  Hardly daring to believe that it had only been a nightmare, Vash rested his shaking hand against her back.  The tremors were evident and uncontrollable so he removed it, not wanting to awaken her, but it was too late.

"Vash?"  Meryl opened her eyes a crack.  "What's wrong?"

"It's nothing."  He tried to keep his voice calm and regular.  "Just a bad dream."

"Is it time to get up?"

"No, it's not morning yet.  Go back to sleep."

"All right…"  She snuggled into her pillow.  A little while later, her breathing became slow and regular, and he knew she was asleep again.

He lay back but didn't try to sleep.  No way was he going to risk a repeat performance of the dream.  The realization that his dream could  come true was worse.

Vash stared at the ceiling, wishing his precognition would improve with his night vision.  Doc's warning had not been idle caution.  He didn't want to think about what would happen if the baby didn't survive and he lost Meryl, too.  He knew how he would feel.  Losing the baby and Meryl now would crush him more than anything Knives had ever done.

***

As dawn broke, there were very few people awake and active on the ship.  Doc was one of them.  Inside his office, his desk was strewn with files.  After a shower, preparation of the medical equipment, and two cups of coffee, he was alert enough to study his literature before there was a knock at the door.  He smiled.  Perfect timing.

"Come on in, Vash, Meryl," Doc called, and the couple entered.  Meryl's shoulders were hunched with tension, and Vash was missing his usual pleasant expression. 

"I hope this isn't too early for you, but the sooner we get this sorted out, the better," Doc said.  "Would either of you like something to drink?  I've got coffee, juice…"

The idea of a liquid breakfast perked Vash up somewhat—just by looking at his eyes, Doc could tell the man had gotten less even less sleep than he had—but Meryl hovered uncertainly.  "Dr. Wu, if you don't mind, I'd rather we get on with this."

He nodded.  "Certainly, my dear.  If you'll follow me."

Doc's office, small and crammed with files of medical histories and precious texts, was not a practical space for the examination of patients.  A side door led to a sterile-looking room that held an examination table as well as a counter and cabinet that held all the tools Doc normally needed.  Meryl sat on the very edge of the table and Vash stood next to her, their hands tightly clasped.

"I spent some time looking your medical file, Vash," Doc began.  "When he lived here for a period of time, he was gracious enough to let me do some research on the nature of his physiology," he explained to Meryl.  "Vash is not human, but the question of why he has the appearance of a normal man rather than that of his kind has always perplexed me.  Though we know little about the physical bodies of the bulb-bound plants, I was able to learn more about Vash.  He has a heart, lungs, and a nervous system like humans do, though he is not identical."  He smiled.  "Forgive me for rambling.  In any case, I can't begin to speculate on a plant/human pregnancy until I've examined you, Meryl."  He selected a thermometer from the array of neatly-arranged instruments on the counter.  "Open wide?"

"Doctor, shouldn't we move on?" said Meryl.  "I'm not sick.  I just want to know if my baby will be all right."

"And I intend on finding the answer," Doc said gently.  "But the earlier the pregnancy, the less there is to learn.  "Initially," he amended, when Vash opened his mouth to protest.  "Developing babies generally take care of themselves; my patient is the mother, and that's where I want to begin."  He gestured again with the thermometer.  "If you don't mind?"

The tension and worry that lined the atmosphere were not hidden Doc's routine inspection.  He did his best to help the young couple relax, keeping conversation light, and learned that Meryl's temperature was normal, her weight was healthy for a woman of her age and height, she was free of throat irritation, and her pregnancy symptoms fit those of a woman in her first trimester.  It all seemed normal. 

"This doesn't tell you much, does it?" Vash asked as they continued.

"It tells me that there is nothing obviously amiss here," Doc answered.  "But no, I still can't give a prognosis for the future of the pregnancy."

Meryl looked dismayed.  "Isn't there anything we can do?"

"There is," Doc answered.  "Here on the ship, we're fortunate enough to have access to procedures and equipment that our ancestors took for granted.  Come with me and I'll show you what I mean."

***

Jessica slammed her pencil down against the notebook.  The whole assignment was stupid.  She didn't blame Doc for adding to the junior education curriculum, but to double her homework was .unfair, especially when it meant she had to stay up all night studying and then get up at this ungodly hour to finish before class.  The geography of the planet, the weather patterns, the social customs…  She strongly suspected that her teacher had made up a few in the last category. 

Jessica understood that people were frightened of the "dirt-walkers." She wasn't crazy about the idea herself, but people who had acted as representatives for the ship's small earthbound community established near the crash site had come away cautiously optimistic.  That wouldn't happen if the people `below' were as strange as the ship-folk imagined.  Besides, Vash had lived among them for a long time and he was fine.  Vash would want her to be brave.

Jessica wondered what he was doing right now.  She'd been wondering that a lot lately.  She seemed to be one of the only people who still cared.  As difficult as things were, now, the ship was beginning to prosper—was Vash?  Was he alive, unhurt?

Even as she thought his name, a snippet of conversation from the corridor floated in, making her wonder if someone had read her thoughts.

"…Vash…"

"He's back?  But why would…"

"…don't know, but Jenson said…"

Jessica's eyes widened at the second voice's statement, and she jumped to her feet and threw open the door.  "What are you talking about?" she demanded.

One of the men, whom she recognized as a friend of her father's, stared at her in surprise.  "Jessica?  What – "

"Did you say Vash?" she interrupted.  "Did he come back?  Is he here?"

His expression hardened.  "Yeah, he's here, and that's not a good thing," he said.  "Jessie, you stay away from him.  After what happened the last time he came back, the last thing you need is to be around him – hey!"

Ignoring his warning, Jessica whirled around, slamming the door in his face.  Vash!  Homework forgotten, she gave in to the urge to jump up and down.  She'd always felt bad that she never got to say goodbye the last time he'd left—at least, not the way she wanted to..  She'd have to get started on a gift for him.  What if he needed a new coat?  Or maybe some home cooking?  It had probably been a long time since he'd had a woman's touch.

She frowned as she thought of the possible reaction to her reunion with Vash.  After the—what had happened—so many people were concerned about her, like they expected her to break under the weight of it all.  They just didn't understand.  It wasn't Vash's fault.  If anything, it was hers, for getting caught.  How Jessica felt, and how she knew Vash must feel back, had nothing to do with the bad things.  He made her happy.  How could that be bad?  Just thinking about him made her feel better than she had since Brad—since what happened.  They were being silly, that was all.  They weren't important.  Vash was important.

She nodded firmly.  Everything would be fine when she saw Vash again.

***

Meryl took a deep breath.  She needed to focus.  This wasn't a big deal; it was just a normal procedure.  She would be fine if she could relax.  That's what Doc said.

Oh, hell, who was she kidding?  She was going to die.

"How are you doing?" Vash asked. Meryl tried to smile, but she wasn't sure how convincing it was from someone lying flat on her back.

"I'll be fine," she said.  "This will help us, right?"

Vash smoothed back her bangs and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead.  "It will," he said.  "I trust Doc.  It won't take too long, and I'll be right outside the whole time."

"Outside?  Why can't you stay with me?"  Meryl hated the quaver in her voice, but no matter how much reassurance Vash gave her, the opening at the end of the platform she lay on looked like nothing so much as a mouth, ready for a feeding.  Or a tomb.  She suppressed a shudder.

Doc's arrival interrupted them.  "The machine is prepared.  Are you ready?"

"Doctor, why can't Vash stay here?" Meryl asked.

"I'm sorry, Meryl.  I wish that was an option."  Doc looked regretful.  "But I'm afraid that the machine generates a powerful magnetic field when in use.  Vash would find himself pinned to its side."

"I'd take off my arm, but, well…"  Vash waved a hand up and down his body, indicating the various bits of metal that peppered it.  Meryl scowled.  She hated that damn grate.  It had scraped sensitive skin more than once.

"This will take about an hour," Doc said.  "I know that's a long time to lie still, but if the procedure is successful, we'll have an image of the fetus."

"And you'll be able to tell if it's normal?" Vash asked.

"That's my hope," Doc replied.  "But we'll have to wait and see.  I want to proceed very cautiously."  He turned to Meryl.  "Are you ready, my dear?"

She nodded.  "Whenever you are."

Meryl regretted her show of confidence once she was inside the machine.  She'd never been claustrophobic, but once she was surrounded by the unyielding walls of the tube, forbidden to escape or even move…

She flinched when the first loud clunking noise echoed in the tube, signaling the start of the imaging scan.  Calm down, she scolded herself.  Vash would never let anything bad happen to you.  She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing.  It's for the baby.  For the baby…

The next hour passed with excruciating slowness.  Telling herself that her fears were baseless didn't work; being inside the imaging machine felt too much like being trapped in some dangerous cage.  By the time the noises stopped and the table she lay on moved out of the machine, Meryl could feel the raw weals her nails had dug into her palms.  Doc's face was the most wonderful sight in the world when it appeared above her.

"Are you okay?"  Vash's worried face was the second most wonderful as he appeared and helped her sit up.  "How do you feel?  Do you need anything?  Are you thirsty?"

Meryl turned away, rubbing her temples.  His hovering was making her claustrophobic again.  "Vash, I'm fine.  Just…give me a minute."

Doc offered a glass of water and two pills.  "Here's some aspirin if the noises gave you a headache.  It's a common reaction."

She took the pills gratefully.  "So what happens now?"

"I'll need some time to process and review the results," Doc said.  "I'd like to meet with you again in the morning.  Until then, you're free to do as you like.  Vash, perhaps you could show her around the ship."

Vash looked uncomfortable, but nodded.  "Sure.  That sounds good."

Once she was dressed and ready, Vash led her through the mazelike corridors of the ship.  Neither of them seemed to have much to say.  There wasn't much she could say until they knew more. 

"There's not a lot to see here," Vash said.  "There are places for people to eat, to gather, to rest.  It's pretty much the same as on the ground, just enclosed."

"Where did you live when you were here?" Meryl asked.

"Up a few levels, not too far from our room.  It gave me some solitude, but back then people wouldn't leave me alone for too long without inviting me to do something.  It was nice."

She reached for his hand and squeezed.  "I'm sorry you don't have that anymore.  They don't know what they're missing."

He squeezed back.  "Don't worry.  I've got a lot more now."  They reached a wide set of metal doors.  "Oh hey, you might be interested in this."  Vash reached out to press a button, and the doors slid into the wall.  "This is the ship's library.  Well, one station of it."

Meryl craned her neck, looking around for anything familiar.  Instead of the long stacks that filled the December Public Library, this large, sterile-looking room held rows of desks and monitors with keyboards in front of them, like some strange version of her trusty typewriter.  "I don't see any books."

"Oh, there aren't any."

She resisted the urge to smack him.  It wasn't his fault she didn't understand.  "Then how is it a library?"

"Come here and sit down.  I'll show you," Vash said, gesturing to one of the work stations.

He showed her how to start it up.  "It works like this," he explained.  "Instead of having to find the book you want and then page through it to find the right information, you type what you want in this box.  The computer will provide a list of books and encyclopedias that have what you want.  You can also search for a specific title or author.  You try now."

Meryl placed her fingers lightly on the keys.  They were much smoother and closer together than those on her typewriter.  "I just type what I want to know about?"

"Right.  It's easy."

"What should I ask for?"

"Anything.  It doesn't matter."

One key at a time, Meryl typed the only thing that was on her mind --`pregnancy'.  Her eyes widened as the search results filled the screen.  "Oh my…how do they fit this much inside this little box?"  She felt silly as soon as she asked the question, and was grateful when Vash didn't laugh.

"Rem told me that when they decided to go into space for Project SEEDS, they wanted to take as much of their knowledge with them as they could, including literature and history.  They didn't want to make the same mistakes that they did on earth.  But millions of books would be heavy, and ink fades.  Computers have a way of storing the same information on microchips, which are tiny pieces inside the computers.  Even though this isn't a printed library, the ship's database has all of the same information, and you can access it from any workstation on the ship."  Vash looked sad.  "We've lost so much since the Great Fall," he said.  "I have to hope that that can change.  Maybe one day we'll recover all the technology we lost."

"Maybe."  Meryl began scrolling through the information on the screen.  "Right now I want to get some kind of idea of what's ahead of us."  She screwed her face up in frustration.  "Not that this is going to have any insight on our situation."

"Hey."  Vash placed his hand upon hers.  "It's going to be all right, you'll see.  There's no one better than Doc to help us.  The best place for the baby is right here."

Meryl leaned against his shoulder.  "When you say it like that, it's easier to believe," she said wistfully.

"Believe it.  We're going to have our baby and we're going to build a family.  Just the three of us."

A gasp and the clatter of something hitting the floor drew their attention to the library's doorway and the girl standing in it.  "Jessica," Vash said.  "Hi.  We didn't hear you come in."

Jessica didn't smile.  "You…"

"Er, sorry I didn't come see you yet."  Vash shifted in his seat.  "We got in last night and it's been kind of busy today…hello?"

"How could you?"  Her voice was barely audible.

Vash blinked.  "What?"

"How could  you?"  Jessica shrieked.  "They said you were back, and I thought you would want to see me, and you're here with her!"  She pointed at Meryl, who had the sudden feeling that if looks could kill, she would be a stain on the floor.

"She has a name," Vash said.  "Jessica, this is Meryl. She's my—well—we're together."

"I heard," Jessica said.  "I don't believe this.  I defended you, I told everyone what happened wasn't your fault, I waited  for you and you just forgot about me!"  She wiped tears from her face with the back of her hand.  "I loved you," she whispered.

"Jessica…"  Vash paused.  "Jessica, I care about you a lot.  You know I'll always think of this place as home.  But Meryl is part of my life now.  You're a great kid; you don't need a crush on a guy like me anyway."  He reached out to her, but she slapped his hand away.

"Don't touch me," Jessica hissed.  "Just leave me alone!"  She spun on her heel and ran out the door.

Vash moved as if to follow her, then knelt down to examine what she'd dropped.  A plate and a pile of cookies lay strewn across the floor.  Slowly, he placed them back on the plate and returned to Meryl.  "I didn't expect that," he said.  "I knew she had a crush on me, but I thought she'd be over that."

"I've seen her before," Meryl said.  "When the ship crashed.  It was her friend that died, wasn't it."

Vash nodded.  "Yeah."  There was a long moment of silence.  "I'm sorry you had to hear that."

Meryl put her hand on his shoulder.  "It's all right," she said.  "I think we should go, though."

"We don't have to go because she upset you.  You have as much a right to be here as I do."

"It's not that."  Meryl placed a hand over her mouth.  "It's just that I think I'm going to throw up again."

They went.