A/N: Apologies and thanks, yet again, to all you stubborn fans intent on keeping me writing, despite the fact it has been OVER A YEAR since my last update. As I said before, barring disaster, I will never abandon this story. I have too much invested in it. Can't promise regular updates, but hey. Life happens. I've been stuck on this chapter forever, but I finally sat down and plowed through (with some help from the lovely Inkydoo) and the going is smoother from here.

People who've been waiting the whole year might want to brush up on the last chapter; it flows from one to the next pretty much instantly.


Episode 8: And Between the Wasteland & Sky, Part 2

"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?

"You idiot."

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 bits."

"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.

"Emergency!"

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. 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."

Meryl froze.

"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.

"Stop it!" shouted Meryl, sprinting the remaining distance. She lost her footing for a moment and glanced down to see 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 threw a punch (a lousy punch, but still), managing 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 him, 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."

"But—"

"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, almost knocking her backward, but she found her balance and clambered up the few steps to the foreman's platform near the room's entrance.

A heavy brass bell hung high on the wall and Meryl had to climb onto the low rung of the railing that framed the platform in order to reach it. The bell was used to gain everyone's attention in such a noisy room, and it worked.

Dozens of faces turned to hers as she shouted, "We're headed for a drop-off and the brakes are gone! We need to slow the engines!"

For a moment there was stunned silence as people tried to make sense of what Meryl had told them. Frustrated, she opened her mouth to say it again but she was blindsided by harsh memories tied to a voice she recognized immediately.

"Meryl?"

Her mouth went dry—drier than it already was in all this heat—and her head spun as she looked back into a face she had never expected to see again, a face she hadn't seen since the last time a steamer had been crashing down around her ears, when she woke up in his bed instead of…

"Clark," she croaked in reply. But there wasn't time to dwell on the past, she needed help now, and knew he could be what she needed. He was foreman now, Meryl could see the designation on his coal-blackened shirt, and she knew the rest of the men would listen to him. "We have to slow the engines," she told him, her voice raw from yelling in the extreme heat.

Clark stared back at her for only one shocked instant before turning to bark orders at his men.

"We gotta slow her down!" he bellowed. "Cut the heat and drain the boilers!"

Meryl hopped the railing at the foreman's platform and landed hard on the deck below. She raced to the sandbin near the rear of the room and seized a heavy shovel in both hands. Clark appeared at her side, but Meryl said nothing and kept her attention solidly on her shovel as she dug it deep into the sandbin.

She lifted a 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.

Finally it seemed Clark couldn't bear the silence any longer. "What happened to you?" he asked, between panting breaths. He followed Meryl back to the sandbin for yet another shovel-load. "You just disappeared after Alex died—"

"Now's not really the best time, Clark!" Meryl snapped, almost sagging under the weight of an over-full shovel-load. When had she gotten this weak?

"Fires are out!" called one of Clark's men.

"Drain 'em!" Clark ordered, dropping the shovel.

"I can't," said a different man, stationed up at the foreman's platform. "The controls are fried!"

Meryl finally met Clark's eye and they shared an expression 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 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 actually hear the water 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 her hands burned against the floor 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," said Meryl, breathless. "He pulled the brake!"

"What?" asked Clark, baffled.

"I need to get Vash, Milly," Meryl said frantically, anxiety fueling her now. She scrambled up to her feet again, saying, "They're forward of the engines, up on the passenger decks!"

"You can't get there in time," said Clark, shaking his head. He grabbed her elbow and tried to pull her around. "We have to go back, you know how this ends!"

Meryl yanked her arm out of Clark's grasp and shouted, "I won't leave them!"

"But there's no time—"

"I won't!"

"Meryl," said Clark, desperately. "You couldn't have saved him."

Meryl spun on her heel and slapped Clark across the face.

"Don't you dare," she hissed, and Clark looked back at her, almost scared at her reaction. Looking scared like the last time, thrown out of bed in the middle of the night, not knowing what had happed, running back to Alex, running until the floor disappeared into mid-air, looking out at nothing, finding half the steamer just gone, and Alex with it, and their room and her books, just gone…

"Meryl!" Clark had her by the shoulders now and he was shaking her.

"I should have been there!" Meryl shouted, guilt and fury and fear all warring for control of her emotions. "I should have been with him! Not with you!"

"Then you'd be dead," Clark said, his voice almost pleading now as he tried to lead her away again. Then they were both thrown unexpectedly against the corridor wall, strangely as though something had collided with them, knocking the steamer sideways. Meryl's body couldn't stand much more abuse and she lay where she fell, unmoving.

After a few minutes of lying still, breathing slowly, taking stock of all her injuries—did anything not hurt?—Meryl eventually realized that the steamer had actually stopped. There had been no deafening screech of metal tearing apart, no shuddering to a halt that had heralded the split of the steamer last time. Meryl had to conclude—thank god—that they were still in one piece.

But how?

She heard movement nearby and knew Clark was alright (or at least ambulatory).

"Meryl?" he called.

It only took Meryl a few moments to decide that she didn't want to talk anymore, and took the easy way out: she played dead.

"Meryl?" Clark said, again, his voice closer this time. Then: "Oh god—Meryl? Meryl!" She felt his hands touch her face, incredibly gently despite being so rough and worn from hard labor in the boiler room. Then his fingers found the pulse in her neck and Meryl heard him let out a juddering sigh of relief that bordered on a choked sob. Clark pulled her up into a tight embrace, burying his face in her shoulder whispering a muffled, "Thank god." Then she was shocked to feel his lips pressed gently to the skin of her neck. "I can't lose you again."

Meryl's guts twisted up in guilt. She had never known Clark actually cared for her like this, that she had ever been more than just another sexual conquest, and discovering it this way seemed unfair, to both of them. But it was too late to reveal herself now, so she let him gather her up in his arms and start walking.

She didn't know where he was going, and she didn't really care. Meryl had been counting the decks climbed when Clark first started walking, but she lost track as the steady pace of his feet and even beats of his heart lulled her into at least a half-sleep. She hardly heard anything happening outside Clark's arms, even as things became louder and more frantic around them as they moved higher and higher into the passenger decks.

Women were screaming, looking for their husbands and children, and crewmembers were hailing Clark, asking for information. Meryl heard their voices only as though from a distance as Clark turned each of them away. She wondered now where he was taking her.

"Wait—here, give her to me."

This voice was clearer, and Meryl felt another hand on her shoulder before Clark tightened his grip and turned away, pulling her out of the other man's reach.

"Hey!" he said, aggressively. "Who the hell are you?"

"I'm—I…I'm her—"

"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?

Clark was clearly shocked to find her so easily awakened, and Meryl felt that stab of guilt again, hoping… Hoping he didn't think she had done exactly what she did.

"It's okay, Clark," said Meryl, trying to push her way out of his arms. "You can put me down." He did so, very reluctantly, and when she immediately lost her balance both men jumped forward to catch her, which resulted in neither of them doing very well at it. For her part, Meryl clutched at Vash's arms and Clark backed off.

The next moment Vash was wrapping her in his jacket, so quickly that she didn't know how he could have managed to get it off himself first. Meryl held it around her shoulders and breathed in Vash's scent, letting it out again in a calming sigh.

She watched Clark's gaze shift from her face to Vash, over her shoulder, looking at the other man with an expression of cautious distrust. Then he looked back to her and she watched his eyes searching hers for something, she didn't know what.

Finally, Clark asked, "Why did you run away?"

"Now?" said Meryl, in weary disbelief. "You want to do this now?"

"Yeah," he replied, heatedly. "In case I don't see you for another six years!"

Meryl scowled and massaged her aching forehead.

"Alex was dead, the Gunsmoke was dead," she spat bitterly. "What was left for me there?"

"Me," said Clark, and now he looked so genuinely hurt that Meryl's earlier feelings of guilt returned tenfold. She looked away.

"I didn't know," she murmured. "My whole life had just…crashed to pieces. You know how Alex felt about me being there, anyway. So I left." Now Meryl could practically see a hundred more questions forming in Clark's mind, and she didn't want to answer any of them.

"You're foreman, Clark," said Meryl, quietly. "You need to see to the engines, and to your men."

Clark looked at her sadly. "Just…don't disappear again. Please."

He bent down toward her suddenly and Meryl panicked, stepping backward to collide with Vash. She rebounded off his chest but Vash reached around to catch her with a hand on her stomach, falling back a pace and pulling her with him.

Meryl found her balance again, but Vash still held his hand flat to her belly, as though to steady her. Inexplicably, Meryl realized she didn't mind.

Clark hesitated at her reaction, and Meryl saw him glance down at Vash's hand. Finally Clark finished his original motion, bending to kiss her cheek.

Vash's hand 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.

When Clark drew back, he was staring at Vash with another cautious, uncertain expression and Meryl wondered what he was seeing in Vash now. Clark just looked down at her again and said, "Please, Meryl. We should talk." He turned and walked away, almost instantly surrounded by crewmen demanding answers.

Meryl watched him go in silence.

After a long moment, Vash spoke. "So you were on the Gunsmoke," he said, his voice unusually soft.

Meryl nodded without turning to face him. If she was honest, she enjoyed having him there, pressed up warm and solidly to her back.

"And you lost someone," he continued.

"Yeah," she replied, equally quietly.

"I'm sorry," said Vash.

Meryl was about to say, "It's okay," only something was wrong. Vash hadn't said, 'I'm sorry' the way people did at funerals, or when they hear something terrible has happened. He didn't say, 'I'm sorry' with the detached insincerity of someone too far removed from the tragedy.

He said, 'I'm sorry.'

And he meant it.

She turned to face Vash, pulling away from the comfort of his embrace, abruptly recalling all those rumors, the whispers that the Humanoid Typhoon had stowed away somewhere aboard the Gunsmoke on that voyage.

"You were…" Meryl's mouth went dry and she swallowed hard. "You pulled the brake?"

"I'm sorry," Vash said, again. His words were genuine and heartfelt, but his face was blank and his eyes seemed to look through her without seeing.

Still trying to make sense of this sudden realization, Meryl took a step backward and her heel caught the hem of Vash's long jacket, pulling it off her shoulders. On the next step she stumbled, and after too long without any real rest, after too much strain, Meryl's body finally gave out. She crumpled like a rag doll and Vash stepped forward to catch her.

She was slipping away into unconsciousness and Vash was laying her gently on the floor, cradling her head carefully as the last of her body to reach the hard metal surface.

Vash stooped to collect his jacket, and the last thing Meryl saw before her vision faded was black boots, red jacket, blond hair. Walking away.