Manny could be certain that the sound of fresh, deadly stems spreading across his thorax was the scariest sound he'd ever heard. And it was still going.
He raised his head - as much as he could - and he looked at the flower already blooming from his chest, right above where his heart used to be. That damned Hector had great aim, not that it would make any difference if the dart had hit any other bone.
Grunting, he raised his hand and tried to grasp the flower and pull it off. It barely bulged, and it was no surprise considering he didn't even have the strength to stand up. Only a few petals were pulled off instead.
She loves me, she loves me not...
Manny sighed deeply as his head fell back on the ground. He had failed. Due to a single moment of poor judgement, he had lost everyone's tickets and been sprouted himself.
The only consolation was that, at least, the souls he'd vowed to protect were far away from Hector and Olivia. Meche and Glottis would join them - but would they move on?
He wanted that for them, for her. But he knew with the tickets lost, she wouldn't leave the Angelitos or the rest of them behind.
He closed his eyes and thought of the last moment he had of her. No, not her fight with Hector's raven, but her surprised joy, the deep relief at holding her Number Nine ticket in her hand. The short moment of hesitation, when she'd looked back at him before riding the escalator to the station. He'd known, from the first moment they decided to come back to El Marrow, that he wouldn't be going back with her, that he would be taking the long road all over again. Yet still, he was prepared for it. As long as the others could be safe.
He grunted in pain when the vine spread farther, hooking into another rib. An hour, Hector had said? An hour of this?
His eyes snapped open when he heard quick footsteps. He turned his head, and there she was. He would recognize her anywhere.
"Meche?" he whispered.
"Manny! ¡Dios mío!" She ran as she recognized him too, falling down on her knees next to him. Her hands shook as they hovered over the flower on his chest. "Did Hector...?"
Manny didn't even have the courage to nod. "You don't happen to have... an ax on you?"
"I'm sorry," she said. "We tried to follow Olivia's car with Glottis, but we had no idea where she'd taken you, we searched around..."
"I'm so sorry." She reached under him and raised his upper body on her arms. His hood fell back, and Meche touched the back of his head, leaning closer to him.
He had once wondered why Lola hadn't tried to run away, why she'd stayed so long on the top of that lighthouse instead of trying to get out and get help.
He could now see why, as he all but collapsed on Meche as she held him close.
"You have to go..." he said. "The tickets... Olivia has them. She has Salvador too..."
"I can't leave you here," she whispered, her breath falling warm on his forehead.
"It won't... matter... where I'm buried... Please..."
"No," she said and sniffed, taking his hand in hers. "Manny, it's going too slow."
"Hector... he said it's... slow-acting..."
Her face straightened as she looked at the flower. "That gives us time, then," she said, her voice becoming steadier.
"Do you have your scythe on you?"
"No." What was she thinking? She had to run...
She took a deep breath, then let it out. "I won't let this happen."
He looked at her determined face. "What are you... doing?"
"This may hurt," she said, putting him down gently. She grabbed the flower, managing to pull it off with a grunt.
"It's not... enough..."
"I know, you sillyhead." Without another word, she pulled open his cloak, then ripped his shirt open in haste.
A chill run down Manny's spine when he saw the vines spread around two of his ribs, looking about to pierce through two more.
Meche pulled off as many vines as she could, exposing the two infected bones. They watched in horror as more vines grew from the green spots where sproutella had seeped in.
"Okay, this will hurt."
"Shut up." She took off her hat and put her hands inside it, using it as a massive, protective glove. She wrapped her hands around one of the infected ribs, then prepared to put all her weight onto it. She looked at Manny. "Ready?"
Could he ever be ready for this?
He nodded nevertheless.
Meche nodded back, then pushed.
Manny pushed his head back against the ground, holding back the scream as he heard the known creaking sound.
He couldn't hold it by the time the first crack was heard - and felt.
He buried his fingers in the soil around him, completely forgetting the corpses that it probably consisted of, while Meche pushed, and pushed... until a definite crack was heard.
Breathing heavily, Manny saw Meche take the broken, sprouting rib away and throw it on the ground away from them.
"One more," Meche said, wrapping her hands around the other rib.
Swallowing a plea to give him a bit more time, he let her break it off as he screamed.
Then it was over.
Panting herself, Meche threw away the bone and her hat, then promptly wrapped her arms around him, holding him close. "You'll be alright," she said.
He could still feel a bit sore where his ribs used to be, but the pain of sprouting was gone completely. "Thank you," he whispered.
Meche still held him as she pulled back a bit, smiling at him. "Do you remember?"
"What?" he said, feeling a smile on his face too.
"When we first met? You told me there was a chance I could save you." She placed her hand on his cheek.
He leaned into her touch, wrapping his hand around hers. "You've already done that."
She let out a giggle, that sweet, innocent sound she'd rarely let out during that difficult past year, then leaned in and kissed him.
His other hand moved to gently cup her cheek as he lost himself in the kiss. It was soft, and passionate, and happy.
She pulled away, resting her forehead on his, still smiling. "You're such a sap, Mister Calavera."
He allowed himself a few more seconds to hold her and bask in her affection, before he focused on the task at hand. "Now, how about we go get those tickets back?"
Meche nodded, standing up and giving her hand to him. "Glottis is waiting for us. If we sneak up on Olivia we can take away her gun and the suitcase."
He took her hand and held it even after he'd stood up. "Let's do this, then."