It was through a remarkable exercise of will that Meryl Stryfe opened her eyelids to the light and to the pain. Sight returned, and with it, the horrifying images of the scene around her, forcing their way through her retinas to be burned upon a mind still untouched by such tragedy. Milly's bruised and bloodied face lay close to hers, the town people collapsed all around them. And further up, Vash, standing stalk still in the same place he had been when she had lost consciousness. Sharp grey eyes narrowed at the hint of something unusual- something about the motionlessness of the humanoid typhoon was not right, not normal. It was a deception, his unmoving calm, for upon closer inspection it could be seen that he was being wracked from head to toe by barley perceptible tremors. Panic was brutally tamped down as Meryl rose shakily, recklessly shoving away the protests of her body. All she knew was she had to get to Vash. She had to help the man who had just saved her life. She stiffened as she drew near, the sight of what the gunmen's eyes were so perfectly intent on freezing her to the core. Legato was sprawled over the sand, wearing a smile that held a euphoric joy Nirvana would envy. He was dead. Her gaze immediately flew to the blonde man hovering over the corpse, shock almost stealing her speech.

"Vash." She croaked, her voice as scratchy and dry as the desert planet itself.

Suddenly, that tortured aqua horror was trained on her, leaving no air, no space between the almost tangible connection of their eyes.

"Meryl." His voice shook in time with his body, an entirely disturbing realization for the young woman standing behind him. "I...I ki...I ki..." And, as if those three attempts had depleted the last of his energy, his eyes rolled back, and his six foot frame tumbled to the earth. It was only by reaching out and locking her bruised arms around him that Meryl was able to spare him from more injury. Her tiny body took the brunt of the impact on hot sand, Vash landing gracelessly on top of her. Her limbs screamed in agony, earning a spring of tears, but Meryl did not regret her action.

"Meryl?" Milly's high pitched query had never been more welcome.

"Help, Milly." She pleaded breathlessly, hardly able to draw air into her lungs under the weight of the gunman. "Vash...he's in trouble."

The shake of the doctor's head was like a heavy blow. She could feel coldness seeping into her body, the steady thud of her heartbeat deafening all other noise save for the physician's sympathetic baritone.

"He's not improving."

"No way..." The news had her mindlessly mouthing words of denial. It had been two weeks already. He should be getting better! Not worse...

"What's wrong with Mr. Vash?" Milly's concerned voice was her anchor, dragging her back to the four yellowed plaster walls of the tiny room.

The doctor scratched his wiry beard. "I honestly don't know, missy. It's almost like he's ...given up."

Those words felt like the fear had been squeezing her insides since she had dragged Vash to this village. Meryl shut her eyes against the familiar sensation of being trapped- helpless. "So...he's just going to die?" It would've been easier to force razorblades through her teeth.

The doctor's eyes were light blue, and so compassionate; they so closely resembled Vash's it made her chest tighten with heartache. He did not immediately verbalize his response, but the click of his medical bag was louder than a gunshot.

"You might want to start making preparations." Was his solemn advice. Milly nodded, sparing Meryl the chore of acting calm. Meryl had not known that emotion in a long time.

"We'll call you if we need you again, doctor. Thank you for your help." Milly replied. How she managed those courteous expressions of etiquette, Meryl couldn't possibly understand. Right now there was only one thing she could grasp- Vash was dying. Dying.

It seemed like years to take the door to shut. Decades for Milly to cross the room and place her strong hands on slope of Meryl's shoulders. Eons of standing, watching the slow rise and fall of the dead mans' chest.

" be okay, Meryl?"

A little rallying, a little bravado for the sake of her partner. That much she could do for Milly. "I'll be okay, Milly. After all, he's not dead yet, is he? There's always hope."

Milly managed a timid smile. "You can cry if you want."

Meryl shut her eyes against the statement. Somehow, shoving the obvious out in the open like that had made the urge to weep return tenfold, its' hungry claws nearly shredding what was left of her dignity. "Thank you, Milly. There'll be enough time for that later, though."

A small nod from her partner and she withdrew, leaving Meryl alone with the comatose Vash. Slowly, painfully slow, Meryl pulled a stool up to his bedside, and perched herself on the edge, intending to watch over him until the very end. Come hell or high water, she would not leave this room, or him, until she was certain he was at peace.

The pinkish glow of twilight bled into the inky blackness of night, bringing shadows and doubts into the room Vash and Meryl occupied. Dark hours led to dark thoughts. Somewhere between the minute hand and the second hand, she knew she couldn't let him go. This man, this gentle, kind, selfless man could not be lost. She wouldn't be able to bear the weight of that. Meryl swallowed thickly around the tightness in her throat, a familiar heat building behind her eyes. She had been fighting it...for so long now.

The first tear, hot and salty, blazed a trail down her cheek. Others followed it in droves, and in her misery, she finally did what, until then, had only been a vague yearning she denied. Fitting her smaller palm into his, she slowly closed her cold fingers over his with a careful precision. Even in his unconscious state, the warmth and size of his hand sheltered her- protected her. Surrendering herself to the storm of her grief, that chaste, dry contact was Meryl's north star, her guiding force. She gripped it for dear life, wondering if she'd ever be able to release her grasp.

She had reached her peak of hopelessness, the whiplash of sorrow and fear making her bite back sobs, her eyes squeezed shut, head bent and resting on the striped mattress, her being aching for the man as ageless as the stars…maybe even the sky itself. Between her raw gasps a supplication was torn from her throat, more earnest than any prayer or wish she had ever uttered. "...please."

And, amazingly, she was answered. The lax roughness of Vash's fingers suddenly gained strength, closing over hers with a gentle force. She gasped sharply and whipped her head up, searching his face with tear-blurred eyes, desperate for any signs of consciousness. There were none, but she felt it still, his grip answering hers, as if he knew. He stirred slightly, and then, it was gone, his fingers going limp once more as his face relaxed back into his seemingly endless slumber.

"Vash." She bent close to his ear, her hand never leaving his. "If you can hear me…come back." Trembling fingers smoothed strands of hair colored sunlight, her mouth exhaling words to fall, fresh with fragile hope, against his ears.

"Please, Vash" her voice wobbled, "...hold on."

It was quiet in the cramped room, the moment between the minute hand and the second hand where she found Vash once again already ticked and spent, leaving no promises to ease its' passing. And yet, Meryl's watch never faltered, never moved, her hand curled steadfast against Vash's through the darkest hours of the night.

"Hey, Insurance Girl."

Meryl paused in her ministrations to seize the iodine, a distracted 'hm?' indicating that she was listening, even if she wasn't perfectly intent.

"Were you with me the night before I woke up?" Vash's question was quiet, as he was prone to being these days.

Meryl's hands abruptly stilled on his shoulder, hovering lightly over scarred and puckered skin, the tumbling ribbons of crisp bandages still clasped in one fist. That fist trembled gently against his body, a thick voice following it. "I...yes. How did you know?"

A ghost of a grin lit his face, a piece of the old Vash peeking out at her from the weary face of this newer, rawer Vash. He stayed quiet for a heartbeat, eyes focused somewhere in the distance. "I could feel your hold."