"No!" Meryl screamed again, throwing her hands up toward Neon, palms out. "Please! Don't—awk." Her plea was cut short with a yelp of pain as something seized her leg in a vise-grip. She looked down to see Vash's left hand wrapped tightly around her ankle as he stared up at her with an expression dangerously close to that terrifying fury she had seen in him the night before.
"Get out of the way!" he growled. Meryl ignored him, turning to face Neon again.
"Please," she said, again. "He hasn't killed any of your men—"
"Ma'am, look out!" shrieked Milly, her shrill warning echoing across the canyon. Meryl looked behind her to see a huge boulder crashing down from the canyon wall. She knew there was little she could do to protect Vash—to protect either of them—but she threw herself down over him anyway.
Vash pushed feebly at her shoulder with one hand, letting out a strangled, angry noise.
A shot echoed out in the dark, audible even over the strained sounds of the steamer's hull scraping against the jagged rocks. Instead of the crushing weight she expected, Meryl was pummeled by a hail of smaller chunks of rock and she grunted in surprise, trying to keep her knees and elbows from buckling and collapsing onto Vash.
He just made that angry noise again, squeezing her shoulder now instead of trying to push her away.
A few more scattered rocks struck Meryl's back and she knew she'd have even more bruises—but how were they not crushed under a ton of stone?
Coughing through the settling dust, Meryl managed to look up toward where Neon stood and she could see the laser pistol smoking in his hand, still pointed where she and Vash were lying. Meryl realized the man had destroyed the boulder in one shot, saving them both.
"That's what you get for jumping around like an acrobat in the shape you're in," Neon finished, holstering the pistol. Then he looked Meryl over appreciatively and grinned. "You should be thankful your woman would take such a risk for you."
"His what?" said Meryl, furious at the implication—again. She tried to scramble up to her feet, glaring at Neon, but she had barely raised herself to kneeling before Vash seized the front of her shirt and pulled her down again, her nose just iches from his. Meryl gasped as Vash took her face in both hands, holding her so tightly it hurt.
"Don't ever do that again!" he hissed, his eyes again so close to that fury. Meryl winced and put her hand over one of his as he shook her fiercely, saying, "I won't let you get—"
"Ma'am!" said Milly, appearing at Meryl's side and kneeling next to them. "Mr. Vash! Are you alright?" Milly pried Vash's hands from Meryl's face and his arms dropped limply to his sides as his head fell back against the metal plating of the deck.
Vash's eyes were clenched tightly shut now, but Meryl could still see his lips moving. Urgently she pulled herself closer again, desperate to hear the rest. She thought she could make out the words, "not for me," before Milly pushed her away.
"Let's get him back inside," said Milly quickly, gathering Vash in her arms, trying to wrangle all his spindly limbs. "Goodness, he's heavy," Milly noted, surprised. She struggled for a moment to get to her feet again, but then she was hurrying back to the relative safety of the passenger deck.
Meryl remained where she sat for a long moment, stunned, wondering what the hell had just happened. Don't ever do that again! Not for me…
The steamer scraped against the canyon wall again and knocked her sideways out of her reverie. Vash's revolver slid across the deck, almost into her hand, and Meryl picked it up as she stood. She nearly dropped it, unprepared for its weight, and caught it by the very end of the barrel. The overheated metal seared her palm and Meryl transferred the revolver quickly to the other hand as she hurried after Milly.
In the wake of the duel and now in the very imminent danger of the damaged steamer, something as insignificant as picking up a gun should not have weighed so heavily in Meryl's mind. But Vash's revolver sat resolutely solid and massive in her hand. She marveled at the weight of it, felt the heat of Vash's palm despite its absence, and when she wrapped her hand around the grip Meryl almost laughed to find that her index finger could reach nowhere near the trigger.
But then she was inside again and Milly had put Vash down in an empty corner and somehow the chaos inside the steamer was even louder than the noise of the canyon had been outside. By the time Meryl had crossed to where they were sitting, she could see Vash and Milly having some kind of argument.
"It's fine," grunted Vash, one hand clasped tight over his left side and the other pushing Milly's hands away. "The bullet went clean through, missed all the important parts."
"You are not fine!" argued Milly, still trying to open Vash's jacket to get a better look at the wound.
"Just give me a bandage, I'll see a medic later," said Vash, hissing through his teeth as the steamer was rocked by another collision with the canyon wall.
"I am a medic!" shrieked Milly.
"Enough," growled Meryl, losing her patience. She dropped the revolver in Vash's lap and knelt down, grabbing the collar of his jacket in both hands, leaning close to speak to him. "You better look me in the eye right now and promise me you'll survive with just a bandage, because I swear to god, if you die, I will hunt you down in the afterlife and beat the shit out of you, got it?"
From iches away, Vash looked stunned, mouth hanging open for a moment before he managed, "Ye—yeah, got it."
"And promise," Milly reminded him.
"I promise," said Vash, nodding, now staring at Meryl with the kind of calculating look she had seen from him before, but still couldn't interpret.
"Good," said Meryl, definitively. She stood and looked down at Milly, nodding. "Do it. I need you somewhere else." As Milly carefully covered the bullet wound with gauze and wrapped a bandage across Vash's chest and shoulder, Meryl relayed the information about Candice, and where Milly could find the injured girl and get her some better care than Meryl's sad field dressing.
By the end of the bandaging, Vash had gone pale and his face was drawn in an expression of pain, eyes shut tight.
Meryl looked up sharply as a crewman raced past them, shouting the alarm. He was out of her reach before she could even stand, but Meryl made a futile grab for him anyway.
"Milly, quick!" she said, but the younger woman had already stood and clotheslined the crewman with one arm. Meryl watched his legs fly up over his head as he landed, hard, on his back. Then she loomed over him and demanded, in a very deliberately growl, "What. Emergency."
The man stared up at her, bewildered and short of breath. "Brakes," he wheezed, finally. "Gone."
Milly's loud gasp covered Meryl's own hissed expletive—not again!—but Vash just started mumbling to himself.
"Mr. Vash?" Milly asked, clearly puzzled. "Are you—"
"It'll be okay," Vash interrupted, visibly relaxing as he leaned back against the wall of the corridor. He let out a sigh of relief, even as Meryl and Milly shared a worried glance.
"What do you mean?" asked Milly.
"He'll get the emergency brake," whispered Vash. "Manually, below decks."
"What—who will?" she demanded, alarmed. She watched Vash's whole body start to sag and realized he was moments from just passing out where he sat. She knelt down at Vash's side, taking his face in her hands. "Vash, hey, stay with me," she ordered. "Who were you talking to? Vash."
Meryl shook him, but his eyes had fallen shut and he slumped heavily against her.
"Vash!" she hissed. "Goddamn it." Meryl felt a stab of guilt as she dug her knuckle into Vash's side, right where he had been shot, but it had the intended result. Vash woke with a yelp and Milly actually slapped Meryl's hand away, letting out a horrified, "Ma'am!"
Meryl just took Vash's face in her hands again as he winced and blinked slowly up at her.
"Who were you talking to?" she demanded. "Where is he?"
"Below," said Vash, looking blearily confused and pained. "He'll get to the manual brake, it's okay." His eyes fell shut again and Meryl slapped the side of his face—gently at first, then more forcefully—until he met her gaze.
"No, Vash," said Meryl, shaking her head emphatically. "No, it's not okay, listen—Vash, look at me!" she demanded. Vash frowned, trying to focus on her face as he reached up to put his hand over hers, his fingers curling into her palm. "The emergency brake won't stop the steamer," she told him. "It'll just tear us in half."
Vash suddenly went rigid and, if possible, even more pale. "What?" he asked. His fingers dug painfully into her palm now and she winced, but didn't let go.
"Whoever you have down there," she said, "you have to tell him not to pull the brake."
"I—I can't," said Vash, eyes wide and horror-struck as he touched his ear with one hand. "He's out of range, the microphone…"
Meryl didn't know or care what that last sentence meant—mycrafone?—and her mind was reeling, trying to come up with some kind of plan to stop this.
"It's okay," Meryl lied—it's very, very not okay— "I'll go…I'll…" She tried to stand but Vash held tight to her hand and pulled her back down.
"How…how do you know about the brake?" he asked.
"Does it matter right now?" demanded Meryl, peeling Vash's fingers from around her wrist. She was startled when his grip only tightened and he dragged her closer.
"Yes," he said, hoarsely, staring into her eyes so fiercely Meryl almost forgot to breathe. "Tell me how—"
Both his words and his grip faltered as the steamer shook violently again, and Meryl took the opportunity to pull herself free of Vash's grasp and scramble out of reach.
"Milly, get to Candice," Meryl ordered. "You—" she pointed to Vash, "stay here." She emphasized her point by stabbing her finger vehemently in his direction again. "I'll be back, quick as I can," she told them, turning to run through the crowd.
The duel between Vash and Neon seemed to have put the whole hijacking operation into disorder and Meryl was able to slip away from the main deck without any BadLads noticing. When she reached the nearest staircase, Meryl took one last glance back at Vash. Even from this distance she could see him still staring at her, wide-eyed. Unnerved, she looked away, and ran.
Meryl didn't know how much of a head start Vash's ally had, but she desperately needed to beat him to the emergency brake. The lower decks of the steamer remained as empty as they had been when she and Milly were making her way up and she was glad not to meet any interference.
As she neared the rear of the steamer Meryl suddenly heard loud, angry voices and she slid to a halt before turning the next corner. She took a quick glance and was relieved to see four men in steward uniforms, some crewmen who had somehow managed to avoid the earlier round-up by the BadLads.
She ran toward them now, about to call out and ask for their help in preventing the brake, but realized in horror that they were standing over another figure—a child, a boy—and they were kicking him.
"Hey!" shouted Meryl, sprinting the remaining distance. "Hey, stop it!" She lost her footing for a moment and glanced down to see she had stepped on a faded set of wrinkled blueprints on the floor.
The boy was curled up in a fetal position, crying out as the man nearest Meryl brought his foot down, hard, on his side. She grabbed the man's arm and pulled him back a step. "What the hell is wrong with you?" she demanded.
"This isn't your problem," he said, pushing Meryl back so roughly she fell hard on ass and elbows. Before Meryl could do so much as scowl, the boy, now no longer the center of attention, had leapt to his feet, looking incredulous.
"You hit a girl!" he shouted. He drew back his fist and threw a wild haymaker that still managed to hit Meryl's assailant squarely on the jaw. The man stumbled back, knocking into the other crewmen, and the boy used the opportunity to dive forward and collect the crumpled blueprints from the floor. He grabbed Meryl under the arm and hauled her to her feet. "Run!" said the boy, as the crewmen got themselves sorted out again.
Meryl ran after the boy, but he had long legs and none of her injuries and she fell behind after a few quick corners and corridors.
"Wait!" she called, at this point almost breathless. "We lost them, you can stop running." The boy looked back over his shoulder and stopped, his sneakers squeaking on the metal flooring. He looked at her warily and Meryl wondered what he was thinking.
"Who are you?" he asked, finally.
Meryl ignored his question and took a wild guess. "Are you working with Vash?" When the boy just looked puzzled, Meryl rolled her eyes. "Blond. Red jacket." She waved her hands erratically over her head. "Crazy hair."
Recognition dawned. "Oh!" said the boy. "Yeah."
The steamer gave another great lurch, throwing them both to the ground, and the boy seemed to come to his senses.
"I have to stop the steamer!" he said, leaping to his feet. "The brakes are out, but there's a manual override."
"I know," said Meryl. The boy offered his hand and she took it, standing again. "But it won't work, it'll just tear us in half."
"What do you mean, 'You know' ?" asked the boy, skeptical. He held up the blueprints, shaking them in her face. "My dad built this steamer, I know—"
"I shoveled coal on the S.S. Gunsmoke for a year," snarled Meryl. "And only a year." She put heavy emphasis on the words. "Believe me when I tell you that the brake will just destroy us."
The boy's eyes went wide and his lips mouthed the word, "Gunsmoke?"
Another collision shook the steamer and put an end to their argument.
"Look," said Meryl, thinking fast. "You can't pull the brake without shutting off the engines."
"Shut up and listen!" Meryl snapped. "We can't get to the engines from here, not in time to do any good, but I can get to the boiler room. I'll shut it all down, that'll start slowing the engines, at least. You'll be able to feel it." The boy looked overwhelmed, but nodded. "So you get to the brake, but don't pull it 'til the last minute!"
"Okay," he said, nodding again.
"Give me your shoes," Meryl ordered. The boy didn't respond immediately, clearly baffled by her demand. "Your shoes! I'm not walking barefoot into a boiler room! You can get an insulated heavy-suit later, you'll be fine!"
"Oh," said the boy, meekly. "Right." He dutifully toed out of his shoes and Meryl stepped into them. They were too large by at least two sizes, but at least they were something. Then he just stood there, staring at her.
"Well?"Meryl hollered. "GO!" The boy jumped in alarm, then turned to run in the opposite direction. She heard his stocking feet thudding against the plate metal floor as he disappeared around the corner, and could only pray he would do as she said.
Her own feet made even louder thud noises, and she made her steps as quickly and carefully as she could, not wanting to trip in the boy's over-large shoes. It wasn't long until she found herself at the boiler room, back again after so many long years…
The massive metal door was open—thank god, she wouldn't have to pull the damn thing free herself—and Meryl ran inside. The swell of heat was intense and she squinted against the scalding, dry air, trying to get her bearings.
She turned at the sound of her name, looking instinctively up at the foreman's platform, and felt a sudden stab of long-buried guilt as she recognized the man there. But it was instantly forgotten in the surge of overwhelming relief at his presence.
"Clark," Meryl breathed, almost laughing as she called up to him. "Thank god it's you!"
"What the hell are you doing here?" Clark asked, bewildered.
"We're crashing again!" she shouted. The steamer bucked under them as if to lend credence to her words.
"Oh, I hadn't noticed," he snapped. "We lost contact with the bridge twenty minutes ago—"
"I know," Meryl cut in. "The mains are out, and someone is already headed for the emergency brake."
Clark went white, hissing, "Shit!" Then he addressed the rest of the crewmen present (most of whom had turned to watch when Meryl first appeared): "Cut the heat and drain the boilers!" A few men moved to follow their foreman's orders, hesitantly, but most just looked confused. Clark swore again and jumped over the railing of the raised platform, landing heavily on the floor below, just a few feet from where Meryl stood.
"Do it, now!" Clark bellowed.
Every man there jumped into action and Meryl joined them, racing to the sandbin near the far wall. Clark was close on her heels and she passed him a shovel before taking one for herself, digging the blade deep into the sand. Her muscles screamed in protest as she lifted a heavy scoop of sand and hauled it across the floor to the nearest coal fire.
"Open it!" Meryl shouted, and the man nearest her did as she bade him. She unloaded the sand onto the coals and immediately turned for another load. Clark was right behind her, and two other men joined them, ferrying sand to cover the coals and keep the heat from the boilers above.
After a few shovel-loads, Meryl realized Clark was grinning at her, apparently despite the seriousness of their situation.
"What?" demanded Meryl, breathless from the effort of hauling the sand.
"It's just good to see you," Clark told her, laughing.
"Are you kidding me?" she wheezed, in disbelief at his sense of timing.
"I mean," said Clark, between panting breaths, "after Alex died, I thought you'd never set foot—"
"Now's not really the best time, Clark!" Meryl snapped, but it was too late. Just the sound of his name brought all the old guilt bubbling up to the surface, even through the ever-present panic at the whole situation around her.
"Fires are out!" called one of Clark's men.
"Drain 'em!" Clark ordered, dropping the shovel.
"I can't," said a different man, now stationed up at the foreman's platform. "The controls are fried!"
Meryl finally met Clark's eye and they shared a look of hopeless resignation.
"Meryl, the safety valves…"
"I know," growled Meryl.
Whatever fool architect designed the Humpback steamers—the boy's father, apparently—had gone for efficiency of space, but didn't know a damn thing about engineering. For one thing, the boilers were set in a line, port-to-starboard, instead of parallel to the direction of travel, fore and aft; that meant any blowout would unbalance the ship until another boiler had shut down on the other side, and that could take half an hour at the least.
Most importantly, the boilers were lined up side-by-side, instead of back-to back; this wasn't all that important in the general management of the boilers, which were operated in sequence by the controls at the foreman's station. But all the manual controls, the safety valves to drain the boilers, were set far back along the side of the long cylindrical boilers so they could be operated individually in case of emergency. Aligned side-by side, it was almost impossible to reach the safety valves, and someone had to make their way between the hot iron boilers to do it.
And Meryl was the smallest.
She could hear Clark ordering the rest of his men out of the room as she made her way carefully between two massive boilers, desperate to keep from touching either of them. The steamer's constant rocking and bucking was only making it more difficult and terrifying; the last thing she wanted was to be knocked into the searing iron and be horribly burned.
Meryl reached the first manual valve release and pulled it, wincing at the heat against her palm. She could hear the water in the boiler flushing away, travelling down through a giant pipe that would spit it onto the sand behind the steamer. Then she could hear the whine of metal becoming rapidly over-heated without the water to take most of the load.
A moment later Meryl was back from between the first boilers and just as quickly gone again between the next two. Her hair was clinging to her skull, sticking to the sweat at her brow line, and she pushed it out of her eyes.
Definitely in need of a haircut.
She'd ask Milly for a trim soon, if they all survived this.
Repeating the process, one by one, sliding between the boilers to drain them manually, Meryl felt her adrenaline-fueled strength waning. The steamer was slowing, but it was still scraping the side of the cliff in a jarring staccato.
"Meryl, we've done all we can, we're running out of time," Clark was shouting.
"I can do it," Meryl argued, stubbornly. "Just two more." She was panting, burning, hardly able to breathe the scalding hot air, beginning to feel faint.
"Get your ass out here, now!" Clark demanded.
When Meryl finally stumbled out from between the last two boilers, she fell and the floor was like fire under her palms when she tried to catch herself. Clark seized her around the middle and hauled her effortlessly up into his arms before racing for the door.
She wasn't sure she had energy left to stand, much less to run, so Meryl made no argument about being carried. Then the steamer gave one giant lurch under Clark's feet, the most violent yet, and sent the both of them sprawling.
"That's the brake!" shouted Meryl, as each of them got to their feet again.
"Then we go back," said Clark, definitively. "You know how this ends!"
She did know, and she remembered everything now, seeing it all in sickening detail: being thrown out of bed in the middle of the night, not knowing what had happened, running to find Alex, running until the floor disappeared into mid-air, looking out at nothing, finding half the steamer just gone.
Meryl was half-torn from the memory as Clark grabbed hold of her arm and started pulling her away. She tried to regain her bearings, remember where she was, what was happening now. Clark was leading her back toward the rear of the steamer, but something made her pause and she tried to remember why.
Realization struck her violently and she gasped.
Vash and Milly!
Meryl froze, panicking. No—Milly was safe, taking care of Candice, just aft and a few decks above where Meryl was now.
But Vash was up on B deck, right where she'd left him, forward of the engines.
"Stop!" Meryl told Clark, pulling away from him. "I have someone on the foredeck—"
"There's no time!" interrupted Clark.
"I'm not just going to let him die!" argued Meryl. "Not again!"
"Meryl!" growled Clark, seizing her suddenly by the shoulders. "You didn't let Alex die! We didn't even know he was in the engine room!"
"But he shouldn't have been there," said Meryl, her voice cracking. "It was my fault he was there!" She tried to push Clark away, but he held firmly to her shoulders.
"And it was just as much mine!" he replied. "But there's nothing we can do about that now, and there's nothing we can do for your friend, either. We have to go back."
Before Meryl could argue further they were both thrown unexpectedly sideways, slamming hard against the corridor wall. Meryl fell in a heap and lay there, motionless, watching her vision go black and trying hard just to keep breathing when everything hurt.
When she could see again, Meryl was looking up into Clark's face from where her head rested in his lap. Relief flooded his features as she blinked up at him, and Meryl realized she must have passed out for some length of time, because the steamer was completely still beneath them.
"What happened?" she asked, managing to sit up shakily.
"I don't know," he told her. "We've stopped, but it didn't feel like…"
"Like last time?" Meryl prompted, and Clark shook his head.
"I don't think she split," he said, almost hopefully.
"Then we should get topside," said Meryl. "Find out what happened."
"Okay. Can you walk?" Clark asked, standing up beside Meryl and offering her his hand.
"I think…" Meryl began, taking his hand and trying to shift her weight forward and onto her feet. She just slithered sideways into another heap. "No," she finished, lamely.
To his credit, Clark didn't quite laugh at her, and he lifted her into his arms again. She put one arm around his shoulders and slumped into his embrace, closing her eyes and letting the steady pace of his feet on the deck lull her into a half-sleep, at least. As they moved higher into the passenger decks it got louder and louder around them and through her exhaustion Meryl heard it only vaguely, hundreds of voices, calling for family members or demanding answers from anyone who would listen.
"Hey, wait—here, give her to me."
This voice was close, and clear, and Meryl felt another pair of arms slide beneath her before Clark tightened his grip and pulled her away.
"Oy!" he said, aggressively. "Who the hell are you?"
"Vash?" Meryl asked, opening her eyes as she finally recognized the voice.
Instantly she regretted not letting him finish that sentence; he's her what, exactly?
"It's alright, Clark, he's alright," Meryl assured him, reaching out to put a hand on Vash's shoulder. "You can put me down now."
Clark just gave her a skeptical look and Meryl scowled.
"I'm fine," she said, and when Clark still wouldn't set her down, she wriggled stubbornly out of his grasp. She landed unsteady on her feet and would have fallen to the floor again if both men hadn't hurried to catch her.
Clark caught her elbows and Vash caught her waist from behind, and the next moment a heavy red jacket was settling around her shoulders, so quickly that she didn't know how Vash could have managed to get it off himself first. His long arms wrapped loosely around her middle to pull the jacket shut in front, and he left one hand planted against her stomach.
Meryl was surprised to find she didn't really mind the continued presence of Vash's hand. At least he'd be there to catch her the next time her legs gave out…
Clark had taken a startled step backward, watching this whole process with raised eyebrows, and his eyes lingered on Vash's hand for a moment. Then he looked up, past Meryl, and she watched his face take on a cautiously curious expression.
If Vash's gaze gave any answer, Meryl couldn't tell. He just stayed still and silent at her back, and Clark shrugged, apparently unconcerned with the other man's presence.
"I'm glad you were here," Clark told Meryl. "And got to me in time. Who knows what would have happened without you…"
"Yeah," Meryl said, noncommittally. She didn't really want to think about those particular outcomes and looked away, down at her feet. Absently, she realized that she had lost her borrowed shoes at some point and wondered how she hadn't noticed.
"You gonna be alright?" Clark asked.
Meryl looked up again and nodded. "Yeah," she said again. "I'll be fine."
There was an awkward silence for a few moments, and then Clark spoke, quietly. "About what we said down there—"
"Forget it," interrupted Meryl, quickly. The last thing she wanted right now was to dredge up any more of the past, especially in front of Vash.
"No," Clark pressed. "We never really talked about what happened, and we're both clearly carrying a lot of—"
"You're foreman," Meryl said, pointedly. "You need to see to the engines."
"They can wait ten goddamn minutes," said Clark, exasperated. "The Gunsmoke was six years ago, Meryl, and still blaming yourself now isn't going to bring him back. We both loved him, and we both fucked up, but it's time to let go." He glanced up over her head again and seemed to quirk a small smile as he said, "It's time to move on."
Clark reached out to put a hand on Meryl's shoulder, then leaned down to kiss her on the cheek.
Vash's hand suddenly tensed against Meryl's stomach and she found herself drawn backward the remaining few iches between them, until her back rested against his chest. Heat radiated from him through the jacket she wore and Meryl's breath hitched at what felt like such an oddly possessive gesture.
"Take care, Meryl," said Clark, now definitely smiling. "It was good to see you again." He turned away and was almost immediately swallowed by a crowd of half a dozen crewmen, asking him what the hell was going on.
Meryl sighed, glad not to be part of that conversation, and for a while she stayed where she was, leaning back against Vash's chest. He didn't seem to mind, or at least he made no objection, but eventually Meryl began to feel a slight tremor accompanying the pressure of Vash's hand on her stomach.
Vash swayed unexpectedly to the right and pulled Meryl with him, off-balance. Alarmed, she wrapped her left arm across his, gripping his elbow, holding him more tightly against her body, but she couldn't do anything to steady them. Vash managed a jarring step sideways to stop them falling and he grunted in clear distress, giving Meryl a brief, reflexive squeeze around the middle.
When his grip lessened, Meryl peeled Vash's arm from her waist and spun to face him, making a strangled little noise of shock at the sight of him. His jacket had been hiding the hurried bandaging Milly had performed earlier, but now she could see the white fabric stained red, wet and shining with fresh blood.
"Goddammit, Vash," Meryl hissed, her fingers hovering iches away from the bullet wound in his side, unsure what she should do. "You said you'd see a medic! Have you just been standing around waiting for me, bleeding out?" She was so angry at him for this, for his Idiocy, but she could hear only panic in her own voice. "You need a surgeon, we need to get to a sickbay, now." Meryl glanced around, recognizing the area around them as an aft passenger salon, and tried to recall where they could find the nearest sickbay.
"You were on the S. S. Gunsmoke," said Vash.
"What? Oh. Yes," said Meryl, managing to process his comment even as she turned a slow circle, looking for the exit that would lead them in the right direction. "Ah, there," she said, pointing to a crowded corner, and she put the other hand on Vash's elbow, leading him gently forward. "Come on."
"That's how you knew about the brake," Vash went on, unresponsive to Meryl's efforts to move him.
"Vash, please," Meryl begged, now grasping his right wrist with both hands, walking backwards and trying to pull him with her. She didn't have the strength left to make any serious headway and could feel herself tiring from the useless exertion. Glancing up at Vash, ready to make another plea to move, dammit, Meryl was startled at the expression looking back at her.
Vash's face was passive, nearly blank, save for a hardness around his eyes that Meryl couldn't quite read.
"That's what happened then," said Vash. He swayed again but still refused to move his feet, despite Meryl's clearly growing panic and irritation. "The brake destroyed the steamer."
"It doesn't matter," Meryl snapped. She was getting desperate now; Vash wasn't going to be standing much longer at this rate, and she sure as hell couldn't carry him. She could barely stay upright herself. "You're bleeding, badly, and we need to move, now! Why are you so fixated on this?" she demanded, glaring up at him.
Vash winced, bodily, and for a moment Meryl was afraid his injury was finally going to bring him down before she could make any forward progress. Instead, Vash just shook his head, blank expression giving way to something much more pained.
"Because I did it," he whispered. "It was me."
Meryl froze, both hands still wrapped around Vash's wrist but no longer pulling. Her brief flare of anger at his stubbornness had turned abruptly to shock as she suddenly recalled all the rumors from that voyage, the whispers that the Humanoid Typhoon had stowed away somewhere aboard the Gunsmoke.
"You pulled the brake," breathed Meryl, the quiet accusation escaping her lips before she could think better of it. Vash cringed away from her again and she panicked. "Vash, no," she said, quickly. "You don't understand…"
He tried to pull his hand from her grasp but Meryl held tightly to it, unwilling to let him leave her now, and Vash inadvertently tugged her forward. She accidentally trod on the hem of the long jacket still draped around her body and the heavy red fabric tightened across her shoulders, pulling her down.
One knee buckled under even this slight pressure and Meryl fell sideways into Vash. Finally pushed to the breaking point, Meryl's body just gave out and Vash had to put one arm under her shoulders to catch her as she went limp. He reached out with his free hand to collect the jacket still tucked half under Meryl's body and threw it over his opposite shoulder before slipping his other arm under her knees, lifting her feet from the ground.
Vash gave a pained grunt through gritted teeth and faltered, nearly dropping her. Meryl didn't even have the energy to protest this new strain on his injury as he carried her to the nearest seating area, along the starboard bulkhead, and lay her body across four empty seats, carefully cradling her head until Meryl felt the scratchy upholstery fabric against her cheek.
Meryl saw Vash now through heavy-lidded eyes that grew heavier every moment, watching as he struggled to pull on the red duster and button up the front before turning away. The last thing Meryl saw before she passed out was black boots, red jacket, blond hair. Disappearing into the crowd.