"We are so screwed," Lamia moaned. "We don't have anywhere near enough gas to get back to that last town, and we can't carry enough food and water to walk out."
Meryl opened her mouth to comment on whose fault it was that they were here in the first place then closed it again. It was time to stop blaming Lamia for this mess, time to admit that she herself bore an equal burden of guilt -- and that Lamia, in fact, had apparently been right about Knives. If the decision had been up to Meryl, she would have shot an innocent man.
She awkwardly patted Lamia's shoulder. She didn't offer cheerful platitudes because she knew Lamia was old enough, mature enough, to see right through them. They were in a lot of trouble, and Meryl had no idea how they were going to get out.
"Maybe there's a town closer than the one we came through," she offered. It was the only thing she could think of -- really the only option short of sitting here waiting for Legato to come back. She knew they would never find Legato and his hostages by searching the mountains. There was too much ground to cover. Meryl had no idea what she'd actually do when, or if, they reached civilization... but maybe they could find Vash, if nothing else...
"There wasn't any sign," Lamia said, but the bleakness was gone from her voice.
The two of them climbed up to the top of the Seeds ship to give them a better vantage point. They had a nice view of the desert from up here, clear and unimpeded. And utterly barren.
Well... perhaps not.
"Do you see that?" Lamia asked, pointing. "It looks like smoke, doesn't it?"
Meryl squinted. "It could be dust," she said uncertainly.
"It's smoke," Lamia said. "And where there's smoke, there's bound to be people! Maybe even a town."
"Way out here, it's just as likely to be bandits."
Lamia gave her another of those sullen glares. "Hey, this was your idea."
Meryl started to argue, but gave up. What other choice did they have?
They debated leaving the car, not knowing what sort of terrain they would encounter and also hoping to hide their trail in case Legato came back looking for them, but decided that their chances of survival were better with the car than without it. After all, it had held up pretty well on the trip in; all it had to do was get them out again.
"Knew I shoulda stolen a solar-powered one," Lamia murmured, rationing gas into the tank. Meryl forbore to comment.
They could still see the smoke, even from the ground, now that they knew which way to look. They unloaded most of the food to reduce the car's weight and improve their gas mileage, and Meryl filled their canteens.
"Now," she said, stowing the canteens in the trunk of the car. "What the heck do we do with the Genesis Machine?"
It was too big to fit in the car, and they still didn't know how to get it back into suitcase mode. Lamia suggested tying it on top of the car, but Meryl hated having it exposed where anyone -- "anyone" meaning "Tony" -- could see it. Finally they left it in the medical bay, concealing it as best they could in a dark corner and covering it with a sheet.
"I know this is a bad idea," Meryl said. "I mean, we know he can get in."
"Like it would be safer with us."
"Ready to go?"
"Not getting any younger," Lamia said.
Meryl took the first shift driving, while Lamia gazed moodily out the window. It was surprisingly difficult for them to force themselves to leave the relative safety and familiarity of the ship's immediate environs, heading out onto the open desert again. But soon the cliffs had swallowed the ship.
"I'm memorizing landmarks so we can find it again," Lamia said. "You'd better do that too."
"We won't be coming back this way, not for a while," Meryl said, but she found herself looking at the cliffs around them, trying to fix their appearance in her mind. Lamia was right. If this didn't pan out, for whatever reason, they at least had food and water at the ship.
The day wore on. They stopped to change drivers, eat lunch and drink some water. What I wouldn't give for a bath, Meryl thought ruefully, plucking at her sweat-drenched shirt. If we do find people out here, they'll probably take one whiff of us and run the other way!
For some reason, that launched one of her most precious memories -- the first time she'd seen Vash with his shirt off, right before things really started going to hell. Just out of the shower, his hair wet and tousled...
She could almost hear his voice, that gentle self-effacing voice.
It's not something I like girls to see. They'd probably run away.
And her reply:
I wouldn't run away.
But you did, didn't you, Meryl said to herself. You ran as far and as hard as you could. See what you get for running, little girl?
Oh, Vash, please don't be dead. Please let me see you again someday.
"Done?" Lamia asked, and Meryl nodded and wordlessly got in the car.
They came to a region of rough, broken country, where loose sand had deceptively smoothed out the terrain. They kept having to get out of the car and push it out of those sand-filled pits. By the time they were back on smoother ground, they'd lost sight of the smoke.
"I'm a good navigator," Lamia said, squinting at the sun. She was driving again. "I'll keep us going in the right direction."
And she did. The sun was setting behind the now-distant mountains when they finally got where they were going... and the sunset's blood-red light provided the perfect counterpoint for the scene of total devastation that greeted them.
The two girls climbed out of the car in silence, stunned by their shattered hopes as well as by the evidence of calamity around them. Bits of smoke still wafted from a charred metal skeleton that might once have been some kind of vehicle. They picked their way over blackened rocks, as the sun slipped beneath the edge of the world and shadows began to gather about them.
Lamia whispered, "Was it ... him?"
"I don't know. It could have been bandits," Meryl said, also dropping her voice. Twilight was gathering around them, and she kept jumping at shadows.
"Do you think they're gone?"
"Of course they're gone." They had to be gone. If they weren't gone, then she and Lamia were about to die horribly.
More horribly than dying of thirst in the desert...?
Lamia sank down on the ground in a quiet, closed-down despair. "This is it, then," she said. "We used up most of our gas getting here. We've barely got enough to make it back to the ship, if we're lucky. We'll have to walk..." She folded her arms on her knees and stared into the twilight.
"Maybe there's something around here we can use," Meryl said, refusing to give in to the depression that encroached on her soul like the nighttime shadows stealing away the light. "I don't see any bodies. It's possible that there are some survivors around."
"No one could have survived this."
"I'd rather do that than sit here feeling sorry for myself," Meryl retorted. She drew a derringer in each hand and started off into the darkness.
She'd gone maybe four steps when a great weight slammed into her from behind, knocking her flat to the ground. She felt a hand clamp around her arms and something hard and slick at her throat. "I'm really sorry about this," a voice said into her ear, "but I'm going to have to steal your car. No hard feelings, missy. Drop the guns, please."
"Missy? Get off me! I'll sue you!"
"Meryl?" Lamia was shouting, somewhere out of sight. "Meryl, it's a bandit! Get away from him and I'll shoot him! I don't want to hit you!"
"Meryl?" the bandit repeated in a voice of amazement, and let go of her. Meryl scuttled a few feet away before realizing that she knew that voice. She turned around, astonished.
The man was crouched on hands and knees in the sand, staring at her. Meryl stared back. He was filthy, stripped to the waist, and his hair was a shaggy mess falling almost to his shoulders. And she knew him.
"Lamia!" Meryl screamed. "Don't sh--"
The crack of the gunshot rolled across the hills and Wolfwood was knocked to the sand. "What the hell--?" he yelled, clutching at his leg. Blood seeped between his fingers.
Lamia was frantically chambering another bullet. "Next one goes through your heart unless you drop the knife right now--"
"Lamia! No! Stop! I know him! He's a friend of mine!" A dead friend, but compared to some of the things that have happened to me lately, this is almost normal...
Neither of them paid any attention to her. Wolfwood was cursing at Lamia in at least three different languages. Lamia showed no signs of lowering the rifle. "Don't make me shoot you through the mouth to shut you up," she said.
"Calm down!" Meryl stepped between them, thinking, with a feeling of unreality, Is this me playing PEACEMAKER? What's this world coming to?
Lamia reluctantly pointed the rifle towards the sand. "As long as he apologizes for those names he called me."
Wolfwood practically exploded. "APOLOGIZE? To you? You shot me, you little dipstick!"
The rifle came up again. "You attacked Meryl and tried to steal our car!"
"I didn't know I knew you people! Come to think of it," he added, his eyes narrowing, "I don't know you."
"You do know her," Meryl said, falling to her knees in the sand beside him. "You gave food to her and her sister, on the bus shortly after we met you... remember?"
"You're that kid?" Wolfwood said in disbelief.
"You're the priest?" Lamia said at the same time, and she added, "I don't remember you being such a bad-tempered bastard."
"What? You shot me! You're lucky to be alive! If I'd known you'd turn out to be such a little bitch, I would've let you starve."
"Is that right!" Lamia yelled, finger on the trigger.
"You two are like a couple of children," Meryl snapped.
"Oh, yeah, look who's talking," Wolfwood said. "The PMS Queen. Mistress of the highly caffienated sarcastic comeback."
"What are you talking about?" Meryl seized him by two fistfuls of hair and shook him. "I have learned -- to control -- my temper!"
Lamia started laughing. "Sounds to me like he knows you really well, Miss Meryl!"
"Oh, shut up." Meryl let go of Wolfwood's hair and he slumped back down.
"How bad are you hurt, anyway?"
"Dunno. Stings like hell."
Meryl bit her lip when she saw that his pants leg was soaked with blood. "I think -- I think the bullet went right through--"
"You have no idea," Wolfwood grumbled. "It's dark and you can't see a damn thing. You're just saying that."
"Were you always this annoying?" Meryl snapped.
"Your friend just shot me! Cut me some slack!"
"Sorry," Meryl said, and suddenly, to her own shock, she hugged him. His body was hard and thin, scraped and abraded, completely filthy, with dirty bandages tied around his forearms and hands. He stiffened in surprise, then hugged her back, hard.
It felt wonderful.
"I don't know how you survived," Meryl murmured into his hair. "But I'm glad to see you..."
"Good to see you too," he mumbled back. "What have you been up to these past six years, little insurance girl?"
Meryl pushed him gently away and wiped her eyes with her hand. "Not a lot. Got promoted -- a desk job."
Wolfwood grinned. "I always knew you'd be an administrator someday... if you could avoid annoying your bosses too much."
Meryl started to shoot back an annoyed reply, but Lamia interrupted. "This is all happy and sappy and everything, but in case you hadn't noticed, we've got serious problems to worry about."
"You've got problems?" Wolfwood waved his hand at his leg. "This hurts like hell, you know. I think the only reason I'm not screaming my head off is that I've gotten used to being in extreme physical discomfort over the last day and a half. I don't suppose you have first aid supplies in your car, do you? And food? Water? It isn't just for myself," he added.
"There's someone else here?" Meryl asked.
Wolfwood bowed his head and his shaggy hair hid his face in the moonlight. "Meryl, I don't know how to prepare you for what you're about to see. Help me up, huh?"
She got him to his feet, leaning heavily on her. He was unable to put any weight on his leg. "I don't believe this," Wolfwood muttered. "I survived hand-to-hand combat with Knives only to get shot by this little idiot."
Lamia played with one of the bullets from the rifle, walking it over her knuckles. "Don't tempt me, priest-man."
"We do have a first-aid kit," Meryl said, helping him to the car. He leaned against the fender while she dug in the back.
"And water?" he asked hopefully.
Meryl handed him a canteen. "My God, your fingers are freezing. And you're shaking."
"I think I'm going into shock," he said, and drank. His hands were shaking so badly he could hardly hold the canteen. Meryl had to help him.
"For cryin' out loud," Lamia said, thrusting a blanket in Wolfwood's direction. "It's going to be cold out here soon. We don't want to have to carry you."
"Th-thanks for the concern," he said sarcastically, wrapping it around his shoulders.
"I'll fix your leg," Meryl said, starting to kneel on the sand. "Sit down! If you're actually going into shock, you'll just make it worse standing up like that."
He sat, but took the bandages out of her hands. "Look, I can do that. You -- you've got somewhere else to go. Someone else to take water to. You shouldn't be tending me when there's another hurt worse than I am."
Meryl stared at him. She read the bad news in his eyes. "It's Vash, isn't it?" she whispered.
Wolfwood nodded, using his knife to tear away at the leg of his pants. "He's been badly burned. He's hanging on, but he's sinking... We had very little water, no food, no blankets. I've been trying to figure out whether to walk for help, but I figured I wouldn't make it in my condition. When I heard your engine, I thought my prayers had been answered." There was an ironic weight on his words.
"So if you were trying to steal our car, why didn't you just take it when we walked away?" Lamia inquired, leaning against the vehicle.
Wolfwood chuckled faintly. "Hey, I tried! I couldn't hotwire it with my hands like this. Figured I'd have to find the owners and try to take the keys by force. Uh, Meryl? You okay?"
Meryl was standing, but she didn't remember getting to her feet. "Where is he?" Her voice seemed to come from very far away.
Wolfwood pointed. "There's a little crevice under those rocks. Sheltered from the sun and wind. That's where we've been-- hey, you're not listening."
Meryl had picked up a canteen in one hand and a blanket in the other, and started in the direction Wolfwood had pointed.
"Hey, you want me to come with you?" Lamia called.
"No!" Meryl shot over her shoulder. "I can handle this."
"Fine. I'll help you." Lamia leaned the rifle against the car and bent over Wolfwood with a look of glee on her face.
"No! Meryl! For the love of God! Don't leave me alone with HER!"
Meryl paid no attention. Her steps came faster and faster, until she was running, the canteen bumping against her side, short hair whipping in the desert wind.
Vash! Vash! Please wait for me --
What am I doing?
She skidded to a halt.
This is stupid. I'm helping out an injured friend, no, not even a friend, an acquaintance, yes, that's it. Injured through his own stupidity, I'm sure. He probably doesn't deserve my help, but I'll help anyway, because I -- because I--
Because it's my fault.
My fault for leaving.
Meryl didn't notice the tears running down her cheeks and drying in the wind.
Oh, Vash, I'm so sorry...
She found him lying at the base of the rocks, where Wolfwood had indicated. He was covered with a black leather jacket -- must be Wolfwood's, Meryl thought, since it didn't look like anything Vash would wear. She couldn't see much of him, just some scruffy blond hair, very pale in the moonlight. What she could see of his arms and legs were wrapped with crude bandages like Wolfwood's.
Meryl bent over him, and bit her lip when she saw his face, fresh tears welling up in her eyes and blurring the horrifying damage. His hair... burned partly away... his skin... charred and peeling...
Who could have done this?
But she knew. She knew.
I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.
"Vash," she called softly.
He stirred a little, mumbled something through cracked and swollen lips.
"Vash. It's me. Meryl Stryfe. Remember me?" Her voice broke. What if he didn't remember her at all? What if she'd never meant anything to him... what if he'd forgotten her as soon as she left?
His lips moved again, and she leaned closer. One word.
"No. Meryl. I'm here to help you." She swallowed her tears behind her pride, and held the canteen to his lips, poured out little drips of water. It doesn't matter if he has forgotten me. All that matters now is getting him well... "Drink for me, Vash. It'll be all right. You'll be all right. I promise."