a Cowboy Bebop fanfiction by Dejana Talis
-not to be used without permission-
I know I'm a nuisance to them. That's probably why I stay here.
Faye Valentine, a woman without a past. Plenty of women out there would love to have their history erased, to start fresh with no memory of years gone by, but that is just a fantasy. No slate is ever clean.
People seem to forget that without a past, you are utterly alone. No family. No old friends. When I first found myself on my own, with an unpayable debt forever barring me from society, I was lonely. I soon found that being alone is a luxury. You can do anything you want without having to worry about anyone else's life. There's just you, and only you, to suffer or benefit from whatever you do.
Why, then, am I aboard this old rust bucket called the Bebop, with a couple of lost losers who can't stand me? I guess sometimes even a wandering loner needs someone to remind her she's alive - even if she has to annoy the hell out of them first.
Of course, the Bebop crew obviously needs me, although they won't admit it. Those guys would lose themselves in their own depression if I weren't around to stir things up. There's Jet, owner of the Bebop, who somehow turned this broken-down heap into something liveable. It's obvious he's weathered a tough past, with his artificial left arm and a metal brace beneath his right eye where the socket was once smashed. He has an abrasive personality that matches his scarred face, and I can't imagine why he allows me to stay aboard. It can't be because of Spike. There's no way that carefree solitaire would ever put in a good word for me.
Never in what life I can remember have I met a man so comical and so sad as Spike Spiegel. Every other phrase out of his mouth is a tease or a joke, but the smile and sass never seem to reach his eyes. At the same time his entire body, from his mop of deep green hair to the blue boots on his feet, carries an aura of emptiness. It is as if all the life has drained out of him, no matter how hard he tries to hide it, and he is an empty shell. I doubt he knows I see this in him. I'm just Faye, after all, just some crazy money-chasing stowaway.
I don't know anything about Spike's past, but I'm always on the lookout for secret details. Perhaps I'll pick up some inside information that may come in handy someday. Eventually, I'll have had enough of this, and then I'll leave. Nothing good ever happened to me from trusting someone.
"Why is this door so small? I can hardly get through!" The bitter words are only the usual irritated act that I pull to avoid being embarrassed. I wrestle my parcels and purchases through the portal and stagger onto the catwalk. Money always seems to fly through my fingers somehow, as if it had wings. I wonder how much of my debt might be paid off by now if I actually saved some of it? Spending money, however, is so much more fun. It makes me feel alive, as if I had everything I could ever ask for.
The moment I step through the door, I feel it. The room is filled with frosty vibes that hit my exposed skin like a blast of arctic air, and I immediately forget my annoyance with the door. I look down over the railing of the catwalk. Both of the men whose lifestyle I've invaded are there. Jet, seated backwards on a chair, looks almost menacing, hunched over so that his large shoulder muscles nearly reach the top of his smooth pale head. Spike is standing casually, his right hand in the pocket of his blue suit pants, but the tension shows through in the clenched fist that hangs at his left side. Neither one speaks. Neither one moves. Neither one looks at the other.
"Uh, what's going on?"
"None of your business," Jet snaps in that gravely voice of his, although neither of the two men look up at me. It's all clear now; he and Spike were in the middle of an argument. When I first came aboard the Bebop - well, when they caught me - I thought they were an old partnership, a couple of friends who had worked together since they were on tricycles, that kind of thing. As it turned out, they hadn't known each other for very long, and it seemed there were still secrets they hadn't yet shared.
At the moment, however, none of that matters. Jet's tone has gotten under my skin and I'm not going to take that lying down. I am the outsider here, but I don't have to act like it. Besides, if they don't treat me as their comrade, I won't get a share of the bounties. "Hey! We're supposed to be a team here, you know!"
"Since when?" Jet shoots back, still not looking at me from where he sits leaning on the back of his chair. "You're just walking trouble, so stay out of it!" Ah, the downside to being an untrustworthy loner. I never get filled in on things outright; I have to investigate them for myself. Fortunately for me, I don't care whether or not I have friends. It's much easier being alone. You only have to worry about yourself.
"Fine," I chuckle, heading down the stairs to the main floor of the room. "Like I care." I know I walk perfectly. Being on my own in a strange world, certain skills are of more importance than others, and manipulation has always been my best friend. I've spent countless hours refining the way I move, and with the skimpy clothes I wear, well, it's enough to drive most men right into the palm of my hand. I've even met some women who would give anything and everything to see my curves walking around their ships...but these guys? No amount of swaying or tight shorts has ever made them bat an eye. Still, that doesn't stop me from trying. My every move is a perfectly crafted work of art.
Of course, it doesn't get any response from Spike or Jet this time either. The silence and chill in the room continues. Well, if they want to ignore signals, three can play at that game. It's clear the boys would like me to go away so they can finish arguing in private, so, obviously, I decide to stay.
I jump down to the lower floor nonchalantly and lean over the computer screen, my short violet hair hanging around my face. The image of a bounty head glows on the flat panel, which isn't unusual. What is unusual, however, is Spike and Jet arguing over a target. There must be something special about this one.
"So who's this guy? New hit?"
"Ask before you look." More acid from Jet. What is his problem? Spike still hasn't spoken.
"It's sitting right there," I snap, lifting my head to glare at the angular-faced man. He still doesn't look at me, and keeps staring down at his arms crossed over the back of his chair. "Lighten up!" I complain.
"Spike!" Jet finally moves, but it is to turn toward the younger man, who is strolling toward the entrance to the hangar without a word. "Wait a minute, Spike!" Jet stares after his partner, who disappears through the doorway. I drop my purchases on the couch and sidle around the furniture, taking a seat on the table in front of the computer screen to study the controvertial bounty head. Jet grumbles something unintelligible, but doesn't get up from his chair. They'll just have to stew in their anger a while longer, I guess. Not my problem.
After a moment Spike's smooth voice, as impassive as ever, comes over the transmitter lying on the table. "Prepared for takeoff."
Through the transmitter we can both hear the metallic clanks of the Swordfish II uncoupling from its dock, the old racer's engines powering up with a growing roar. It seems the more impulsive partner is taking matters into his own hands.
"Spike? Shit." Jet swings around in the chair, his metallic left arm shooting out to snatch up the handheld intercom device. "I'm not gonna back you up," the older man snaps into it.
"Your call." The whine of engines reaches its peak and explodes into a powerful blast. The entire Bebop shudders, signaling the Swordfish II's departure.
"Dammit!" Jet curses, angrily punching a button to end the transmission. He bends forward in the orange chair, folding his arms on his knees. "That bullheaded..."
"Mao Yen Rai," I read, squinting my eyes slightly as the words flicker on the transparent display. "A 28 million bounty for murdering a crime boss. He's the head of a syndicate, huh?" After a moment, it sinks in. This target is bound to be surrounded by henchmen trained to protect him against any skilled assassin, let alone a humble bounty hunter. It's no wonder the boys were arguing about him.
"Whoa, THAT'S who you guys are after?" I exclaim incredulously, leaning one hand on my knee as I stare wide-eyed at the screen. Sure, Spike has skills, but a crime boss?
The display dissolves into static and the words disappear completely as the computer switches off with a faint beep. With a grunt of surprised annoyance I turn toward Jet, and discover the incriminating evidence in his hand: the remote switch. Well, that seals it. I can't let this go without getting in a dig of my own.
"What, you have a fight?" I ask with mock sympathy, leaning toward the owner of the Bebop with a smirk.
"Can it! You're being obnoxious," Jet mutters, glaring at the transmitter in his hand as if he could intimidate it into producing Spike's return.
I let out a satisfied chuckle at my minor victory, turning up my nose at the surly man. He's almost to the breaking point; just one more nudge...
"Really." One little word, but it makes all the difference.
"I said CAN IT!" Jet roars, slamming the intercom back down on the table with his heavy metal arm, a severe jolt. A single playing card slides off the deck beside me and sails to the floor.
"He can do whatever the hell he wants!" Radiating repressed frustration, Jet rises from his chair and stalks off toward the hangar bay, his metal-braced boots clanking against the floor.
"God, men are such babies!" I complain aloud, half to myself and half to Jet's departing form. Success; I get the last word. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the card lying face-down on the metal floor of the ship. Unable to resist a glimpse at the hand of Lady Luck, I bend down to pick up the fallen card. Beside me, the computer screen suddenly beeps and roars to life, the display flickering back into existence between the vertical projection bars.
"Are you there, Jet?" A small window appears on the flat panel, showing the image of an anxious-looking man in a tuxedo and glasses. "I've got something big!" he exclaims urgently.
"Something big?" I muse. Well, the boys took off, so, obviously they don't care, and I'm the one receiving the message... Whatever this insider information is, it's all mine! If Spike can handle this bounty head, so can I. Maybe I'll manage to catch the guy myself; all the more reward for me! I look down at the card in my hand to see what Lady Luck thinks of this.
Ace of spades.
A slight chill rolls through my body. I seem to remember that somewhere, long ago, I heard of an ancient meaning of this particular card, although I can not now imagine where or from whom.
The concert hall is a graceful monstrosity, a rising height of arches and tall stone statues. Transparent blue screens hover in the air overhead, rotating gently as they display the evening's program. This is definately the place. Even after all my experience I still feel slightly nervous, but I force myself to remain calm. It is only unfortunate circumstances of fate that keep me out of high society, after all. Someday I'll make it big, and then I'll spend all my time going to events like this instead of lurking around the solar system in a rusted old transport.
I bring the Red Tail smoothly down to the pavement directly in front of the wide staircase, parking it neatly in the center of the unloading zone. As I emerge from the gray ship, I notice I had cut off a limosine that had been pulling up to that spot and scattered several bystanders with the engine exhaust. Oh, well. They should have been more careful. I hold my head high as I smoothly ascend the staircase, keeping up the appearance of a well-to-do lady on her way to meet a special someone. Giving a few slight, indulgent nods to the scattered concertgoers around me, I approach the doors to the hall, which slide aside as I near them.
The inside of the concert hall is as excessively majestic as the outside, with tall pillars and high ceilings that are nearly invisible in the darkness above. The foyer is filled with elegantly-dressed ladies and their tuxedoed arm trophies. I look around and allow myself a small, satisfied smile; I've dressed perfectly, my low-cut crimson dress and creamy orange wrap a fitting blend with the riches surrounding me. When I bought the dress this morning I had no idea it would come in handy so soon.
"Madam, excuse me." A tall man in a white suit approaches, speaking politely but with the firm tones of authority. "I need to see your ticket for the concert, please."
"Ticket? Oh, I don't have any ticket," I reply smoothly. In the society of the rich, casual confidence is always the best policy. One must act entitled in order to be perceived as such. I've found my path into many a high-class event that way. It certainly did the trick with Jet's buddy back on the Bebop; a simple, confident assertion that I was one of the old man's comrades was enough for me to earn the information that was met for Jet's ears: Mao Yen Rai's purchase of box seats for this performance.
"W-well, then, I'm afraid I can't let you in, madam," the usher replies, but his voice is unsteady; he has been taken off-guard. Perfect. He will be looking for a plausible excuse to set his routine world back to rights.
"All right, but he's going to be very unhappy with you." The ultimate weapon - the threat of high-class anger. This sort of undercover threat won't work on everyone, but this man seems the type to take the bait. If I just remain confident, there should be no problem.
"Huh!?" Hook, line, and sinker.
"That's right, HIM," I emphasize, tossing my head back slightly to make sure the dim light catches my green eyes. There's always been something in my emerald gaze that throws men off-balance. "Balcony, first box?" Titling my head downward, I glance up at the usher in a conspiratorial manner. "You know who." The usher gasps in realization.
"Mao Yen R-" I press a gloved finger to his lips, smirking at him knowingly. I can sense him sizing me up, taking in the brilliant green earrings and blood-red silk bow in my hair, adding me to the list of wealthy elite he carries in his mind. Of course, the earrings are glass, and the bow is an imitation textile, but there is no need for him to know that.
"Can you park my zip craft? It's out front." Throwing everything I have into one final show of confidence, I sweep past him, releasing my grip on the large key to the Red Tail. "Thanks." Left without a choice in the matter, the usher reflexively catches the falling key and lets me pass without any further objection.
After a short search, I find my target. I stall for a while, examining the art displays that hang on the walls and spending an extensive period in the restroom until all the concertgoers have taken their seats and the performance has begun. Once all the prying eyes have vanished, I hurry up the stairs, along red carpets beneath golden chandeliers. A few more minutes and that beautiful bounty is all mine. The boys will be impressed. Jealous, of course, but impressed; I'll be able to get a hand in on more missions after tonight. I pass through the row of closed boxes until I reach my destination, the only guarded door in the hallway.
"Is this Mister Mao Yen Rai's box?" I ask the young man who stands beside the mahogany double doors. "I looked all over for it," I ramble as an apology for my lateness. I have the plan all worked out; I've been sent by a rival syndicate, as both an ambassador and a gift for the evening, and I'm here to set up a meeting between the bosses. "Actually, I-"
"Yes, We've been waiting for you," the angular-faced blond man cuts in. He steps aside immediately, clearing my path to the maroon doors, which open before me.
What? Now it is my turn to be caught off-guard. They've been waiting for me? Something's wrong, terribly wrong. I need to get out of here and come up with a new plan. I search for words, any excuse to leave this place - and stiffen as the cold hard barrel of a gun presses into the small of my back. I feel the presence of another man behind me, a second guard I had not noticed before.
"We request that you remain quiet during the performance," the man behind me says. His voice is calm, but to emphasize his point he prods me sharply with his firearm, effectively silencing any urge I may have had to scream. A sick, clammy dread rises in my stomach. The weapon is very cold, very steady, and very real. Some kind of plot is afoot and I've found myself right in the middle of it. I'm in way over my head here, but the worst thing I can do is panic. I steel my face and narrow my eyes, banishing any look of uncertainty in favor of wary annoyance. As they firmly usher me inside the box, darkened and filled with a deep red glow of safety lights on rouge plush upholstery, my mind works furiously. What is going on? What do they want with me?
Out of habit I search my surroundings for exits, but of course, box seats have only one. The performance is in progress, and as I am prodded toward the front of the box a large man comes into view, under the spotlight at the center of the stage far below. He is singing a flowing melody in a lovely tenor, but at the moment the music is the last thing on my mind.
The center seat is occupied, and a wrinkled profile of sagging skin is visible around the edge of the chair's back. With a weapon at my spine I can not stop myself from quaking slightly, beads of cold sweat appearing on my forehead, but I can not afford to lose confidence now. I bite my lip, preparing myself. If I'm going to die, I at least want answers first.
"Mao-taijin, what's the reason for this?" I ask quietly, but firmly. As far as anyone knows, I am an innocent bystander, abducted at gunpoint.
"No need to speak," one of the men interrupts from behind me, "Miss Valentine." At this, I whirl around to stare at the speaker, unable to suppress my gasp of shock. I barely know myself; most of my life's memories are a distant blur. I've gone to great lengths to keep my name, my face, a mystery. How do these strangers, these criminals, know who I am?
"We've done a very thorough background check on you," the blond man continues, his pale face ghostly in the dim light. He lifts his right arm, and the key to my Red Tail is in his hand. I suck in my breath in horror, the fear within me mounting into a growing storm that I find it increasingly difficult to control.
"Rest assured, you'll be held in a very secure location," the man says in a smug voice that is anything but reassuring. "Please, take your seat." I have little choice but to comply. Gazing over the edge of the balcony, I fight my frantic flight instincts. There is not even a hanging curtain I could slide down, if I even had the strength or agility to do so. Three stories below, the tenor climbs to a penultimate note, the orchestra rises behind him, and he lifts his arm and reaches imploringly toward the ceiling. At this moment, I too wish I could be taken up into the heavens by angels.
Defeated and helpless, I slide between Mao Yen Rai's seat and the empty chair beside it, and plop down into the vacant seat in a far less ladylike manner than usual. How dare he? What am I to him? I turn my head to get my first glimpse of the man who has taken me prisoner.
There he sits, in the chair beside mine, the same face I saw on the computer display aboard the Bebop. Mao Yen Rai. At my first glance the alarming red catches my eye, blazing its color of warning directly into my brain. Then I take in the chalky pallor of the skin, the gaping mouth, the wide open eyes staring blankly. He is dead, long since dead, and thick crimson blood covers his neck and cheek. All thoughts of the bounty disappear from my mind as bile rises in my throat, thrust upward by the raging fear that now blazes as an inferno within my stomach. Mao Yen Rai is supposed to be the boss of these men, and they've killed him. I've wandered blindly into an internal coup.
"You're trembling." A new voice, and one I will never forget, that seals itself into my nightmares forever. The very sound of this icy voice sends shivers up my spine and I whip my head around, anxious to put the speaker in front of my eyes rather than behind me.
He does not look at me, but I still feel as if his eyes have bored straight into my soul and out the other side, leaving a raw gaping wound that no time may heal. His profile is sharp and cruel as he gazes down at the floor far below us, his eyes buried in shadow, wisps of long dusky hair hanging chaotically about his face. This is truly the face of the devil.
"Who are you? Tell me!" I insist, my mind etching every detail of his appearance into my memory.
My terror is complete. I want to scream, but all I can manage is a gasp as my eyes widen to the point where they begin to sting in protest. I stare at the man, nightmare and devil incarnate, and I know I have become a pawn in a widespread and dangerous game. I have never been involved in any syndicate, but I know this name, as do most anonymous creatures of the social underground. Vicious, the terror of the Red Dragon syndicate, the brilliant madman who is the epitome of all that is evil. His legend lives although few have seen his face and survived.
And I am at his mercy.
After the performance, I am escorted out a back door and into a waiting armored Stingray. It is a short flight to our destination, an old ruined town outside the city. My captors pull me out of the ship and the pilot, who I never see, takes off with it over the surrounding fields. We've landed in a large courtyard of broken flagstones on a hill, beside an enormous cathedral.
The building looks ancient and run-down, its stones cracked and worn and its surroundings overgrown. Tall steeples reach toward the overcast sky, cawing ravens circling endlessly around their peaks. Arched windows cover the face and walls of the building, and at the center, an enormous circular stained-glass window drinks in the fading light of the late afternoon. I only have a few moments to take in my surroundings before my captors push me toward the open doors at the front of the building.
As the men pull me inside, I can't help but wonder about the ruined structure, built as a house of prayer. Even inside, the stones and marble are chipped and damaged, and debris litters the red-and-black tiled floor. What hopes and dreams must've gone into this place of worship? What happened to the people who created those dreams? What shattered memories have long since faded into dust, leaving only the husk of a dead building, now a hideout for criminals?
Vicious leads the way into the darkened cathedral, a cursed and fallen angel entering the ruined corpse of a building. A jet-black raven shifts its wings restlessly on his shoulder, its charcoal feathers mingling with the man's faded cobalt hair. The dust and gloom of the worn building envelops us in a cloak of the misery of the long-forgotten.
More stained-glass windows line the walls, these multicolored images tall and thin. Shafts of pastel light give the interior of the building a dusky glow, illuminating the low shapes of rows of pews marching toward the front of the sanctuary. Vicious marches forward, away from the rest of us, one arm raised in a signal, and I hear the faint sound of shuffling feet. There are other syndicate men here, lots of them, lurking in the darkness.
The other two men push me off to the left side of the cathedral, guiding me behind a row of marble pillars that disappear into the darkness high above. The blond man pushes me down beside some exposed girders in the wall and pulls my arms over my head, locking my wrists together behind the rusted metal bars. I'm left sitting on the ground, my arms stretched above me.
Without a word, Vicious moves off into the gloom, the raven on his shoulder stretching its wings and taking off into the shadows with a cry. I glare up at the other two men, daring them with my eyes to try something. I am in their power, and most men are after only one thing. If it comes to that, they will not find me as defenseless as they might expect.
"What do you want from me?" I demand.
"Isn't it obvious, Miss Valentine? You're the bait," the tall man I've come to think of as the door guard replies. "We know you're not involved with any of our rivals, so don't worry. Once we've caught our prey, you will be free to go."
I find that difficult to believe. The door guard has a gentle voice that invokes trust, but it carries the slightly forced edge of a practiced performance. His blond comrade's expression is hard and crisp, and I know there will be no mercy found here. Still, where there is life, there is hope.
So, I'm merely bait for their target. Why me, though? Even in a universe filled with roaming loners, I'm still a lost soul, as isolated as it gets. Who are they after, and what possible connection could I have to anyone that important? Unless...do they know something I don't? Is their target...a relative, family I have no memory of? A long-forgotten friend?
Someone sets a computer console in front of me and switches it on. The display fizzles to life and a communications program loads, asking for a destination.
"Now, contact your comrades, Miss Valentine." Another man props a card against the computer, on which a set of coordinates and a time is written. "Tell them to come here and collect you. An appropriate fee will be decided when we meet."
The Bebop crew? Boy, are these guys going to be disappointed. There's no way Spike and Jet will go out of their way for someone like me; an unwanted passenger who does nothing but irritate them. Asking for ransom is just the icing on the cake. Inside I want to chuckle, but the looks on my captors' faces are dead serious, and I shudder. Once they discover there is no one in this entire universe who will jump to my rescue, I will be of no further use to them. Oh well, there's no harm in trying to convince my fellow bounty hunters. At the very least, it will delay my death. The thought of having to depend on others to save me is repulsive; I don't need any more debt, especially of that kind. In this situation, however, I have no choice but to cut my losses. If it comes to debt, I'll simply cut out on those I owe, as I've always done.
I give my captors the identification code to contact the Bebop. The computer display brightens, and a video channel connects, showing me a familiar scene. The dull gray interior of the den with its obnoxious orange furnishings have never looked more comforting, or more far away. The Bebop crew may not be my friends, but they're all I have. As the faces of the two men in the room turn toward the screen curiously, I can't help but giggle, embarrassed by my predicament.
"I kinda got myself caught," I admit, hoping to draw out some sympathy with a shy downward angle of my chin. No such luck.
"Wha??" Jet's eyes widen and his mouth drops open in shock, his exasperation obvious even on the small and unsteady display.
"Yeah, they want you to come and pick me up?" I continue hopefully. "Either you show up at the place they specify, or my life is over." Whether it's true or not, there's no harm in a little exaggeration. It will probably take much more to convince the boys to comply. I raise my eyes to the ceiling, trying to look pitiful and helpless. "The arrival time is-"
"Who asked you to go off on your own?" Jet snaps, cutting me off. Just as I expected, the old hardass. He approaches the console and leans in to glare at me, his sharp expression nearly taking up the entire display.
"Oh, come on, now!" I protest. I can't help but be irritated at Jet's cold attitude. I'm a damsel in distress, doesn't he even understand basic chivalry? I expected some reluctance, but not as immediate as this. "We're comrades, right?"
"You brought this on yourself, so deal with it yourself! We're busy!" Jet leans forward, his arm reaching for the keyboard. Even without seeing the panel I know he's about to cut the transmission.
"No!" I cry out, desperation leaking into my voice. There is no more time for acting as the anticipation of refusal becomes a chilling reality. I hate to look weak, but the facts are painfully clear - if he ends this transmission, his bearded and scarred face may be the last I'll ever see. "Wait, Jet!" I'll be alone, surrounded by enemies, in a strange place with no way out, alone, helpless-
"Where are you?" another voice asks. A dark, fuzzy smear slides across the screen, erasing Jet's chiseled image, and my heart skips a beat - has the connection been lost? - but the blur resolves itself into a disarrayed mass of forest-green hair. I blink in disbelief as Spike leans forward, his smooth face rising into view. His hand is on Jet's arm, stopping him. I blink in disbelief, taken aback. Spike's expression is serious and solemn; this is no joke, no illusion.
"You mean you're really going to come for me?" I exclaim, my face brightening. I know the men can see how worried I was, and how relieved I am now, but I don't care. The bitter fear thriving within me ebbs a little.
"Well, it's possible," Spike replies, his expression softening into his usual cocky smile. "I've got my reasons, so don't take it personal." This is the Spike I know; unwilling to admit he actually cares about anyone, making everything a lighthearted game. Yet, perhaps it is only the distortion of the flickering screen, but I think I see something in his eyes, something strange...as if he knew exactly what my fate would be if he did not act.
"Spike!" Jet protests, but it is too late for that. I relay the message on the card, giving the younger man the coordinates and arrival time. As soon as I utter the last syllable of relevant information, of of my captors leans down and ends the transmission.
"No time for small talk?" I ask lightly, trying to cling to the shreds of lingering levity that remain from my brief conversation with Spike. There is no answer. Without the light of the computer display, the gloom of the old cathedral returns, settling around me in a cloak of despair. All I can do is hope that somehow Lady Luck will lead me out of this mess.
Although I'm surrounded by armed strangers, I'm left alone with my thoughts. No matter how hard I try, my mind continues to circle around one question. Why us? My captors said I was bait for a larger fish, but who? A cold, clammy unease settles within me. Obviously, this is a trap for my rescuer; why didn't I see that before? I've just condemned Spike to certain capture. Wait, am I feeling guilty about this? Swiftly I force the unwanted emotion away. Better him than me.
Still, I can't help but wonder what Spike's role in the plot will be. Surely they must intend to use him as bait for their true target, some important individual no doubt, but who could that be, and why?
As the meeting time approaches, Vicious moves away from the group and disappears into the gloom, moving toward the front of the sanctuary. There is a growing tension in the air, a sense of anticipation, of preparation for what is about to happen.
The blond man approaches and reaches around behind me, so close I can feel the warmth of his body. He wears no cologne or aftershave; in fact, he carries no scent at all. A benefit for walking unseen, I suspect.
"Don't try anything stupid," he instructs me. With an almost inhuman swiftness he unlocks the cuff around one of my wrists and pulls both my arms forward, releasing me from the rusted girder. Roughly he hauls me to my feet and swings me around, pulling my arms behind me and locking them together again.
"Good girl. Now, be quiet, or else," he hisses in my ear, pulling me back against him as he presses the barrel of his gun into my kidneys. His controlling attitude is irritating, but with my life at stake I have no choice but to comply. I'm a survivor, and that's what I will do. Survive.
After a period of silent stillness that seems like an eternity, the sound of soft footsteps reaches my ears. The tapping of shoes on stones takes on a slight echo as the visitor enters the cathedral and moves toward the center aisle, the steps growing closer and closer. I peer into the gloom ahead of me, trying not to move or even tremble as the metal shaft at my back reminds me to keep still.
Soon, he appears. Spike's thin lanky form moves into view, strolling between the rows of pews, moving across my field of vision. He stops in the center of my view and looks around, but the area where I am being held, to Spike's left, is completely cloaked in darkness and he does not see me. The rouge glow of the dying sun pours in behind him and I can see his outline clearly. His collar is turned up, and only his ears and the sharp angle of his nose are visible to me, along with the whiteness of his eyes. Even from this distance I can see his narrowed eyes, shining with intensity in the dim light.
He is here to rescue me, and he's going to die. I don't even know where that thought comes from; it's more likely that Spike will be used as bait for a bigger target, but my mind flies back to the fallen card aboard the Bebop. The ace of spades, the card of death. Although I'm the one standing in the dark with a weapon pressed against my spine, I am suddenly afraid for Spike. He does not deserve this end. Sure, since the moment we met we've bickered and fought, but he never treated me with unmerited cruelty. And he came for me; he is here now. For my sake he got involved in a dangerous situation that did not concern him. I hope with all my heart that I will have the opportunity to thank him.
I hear another set of footsteps, approaching Spike from the front of the sanctuary, but all I can see is the green-haired man standing framed by two tall pillars.
"When angels are forced out of heaven, they become devils." It is Vicious' voice, echoing powerfully in the quiet cathedral. "You agree, don't you, Spike?" He knows Spike's name, and I am certain I have never said it aloud. Did these guys run background checks on the entire Bebop crew?
"I'm just watching a bad dream I never wake up from," Spike replies casually. Always, that calm, smooth tone, that easygoing manner. At the moment I am too nervous to wonder what he is talking about. I want to cry out a warning, to scream out the identity of Spike's opponent so he will not be caught unaware.
"I'll wake you up right now," Vicious continues, but Spike's attitude does not change. How can he stay so calm? Does he know something that gives him confidence, or does he merely think he does?
"What's your rush, Vicious? After all, it's been a long time." My blood runs cold. Impossible. He knows Vicious? A bloodthirsty syndicate killer? How can this be? It's true I don't really know anything about Spike's past...and he does have amazing, unreal fighting skills...but...
"Are you pleading for your life?" I still can't see Vicious, but I can feel him, somehow I can sense him like a predator waiting to spring, intense and barely restrained.
"Hardly," Spike replies, still unshaken. "Begging doesn't work on you, remember? Even if it's coming from a man who took you in and made you what you are." His voice is smug now, his tone accusing.
"Perhaps, but he was a beast who lost his fangs," the unseen Vicious answers. My breath catches in my throat and I struggle to stay quiet. They're talking about Mao Yen Rai. They both knew him, intimately. "That's why he had to die, Spike. And that's why you have to die."
In that moment, I know. Spike is the target. Vicious has no intention of letting him leave this place alive. I almost feel my heart stop in my chest.
I let a small gasp escape my lips.
Spike whirls around like lightning, raising his gun in my direction as the blond man pushes me forward and snarls in my ear. Before I can blink, my captor has his weapon pressed against my right temple, just above my ear, and we are standing in the light. Spike sees me, but his narrowed and intense expression does not change.
I stare at the green-haired man, my eyes accusing. It is all clear now, the truth cemented by the steady aim of his gun made true by years of practice. Spike...is...a renegade. A fugitive from the Red Dragon syndicate. A former tool of organized crime.
"Now, we'd like you to drop the gun slowly," my captor says in a smug voice. The ring of metal at the tip of his gun barrel presses into my skin, and I stand, frozen, staring into the muzzle of another firearm. I have never seen Spike look so cold. The light, laughter, and even the cynicism is gone from his eyes, replaced by an intensity that leaves no room for emotion. He stares straight ahead over the barrel of his gun, his aim straight and true, unwavering.
So, this is the kind of man he is. I meet his narrowed gaze with my own, refusing to show fear even with two firearms pointed at my head. If, after all, Spike is truly a cold-blooded killer at heart, so be it. I will not give him the satisfaction of seeing my weakness. I stare defiantly into the face of death, those cold eyes hovering over the shining barrel of a gun beneath a halo of green hair, and somehow I feel betrayed.
"What's wrong?" the blond man behind me asks after a long moment. "If you don't comply-"
Spike pulls the trigger.
My heart skips a beat as the gun's sharp report echoes around the cathedral, answered by a sickening crack just behind my ear. The gun barrel at my temple vanishes, the rough hand disappears from my wrist, and the man beside me jerks back with a grunt. Blood splatters across my face. With a cry of shock I turn toward the source, and see my captor falling, thick red liquid spurting from his forehead.
The cathedral explodes into gunfire. The sound is deafening as bullets spray across the darkness, ricocheting wildly from marble pillars and tiled floors. Spike vanishes almost instantly, taking cover somewhere. Someone fires an exploding shell and a pew bursts into splinters, but I hear footsteps running away in the darkness. He is alive.
I duck back against the pillars behind me as the firefight blazes, the rapid erratic sprays of semiautomatic gunfire interrupted by single, calculated shots from the assassin-turned-bounty hunter. My mind is reeling; in vain I recall the smirking face that had appeared at my blackjack table and try to match it up with the image of the cold killer I saw only a moment ago.
As I dash toward one of the stone columns, a spray of bullets rains down around me and I cringe, waiting for the sharp sting of a hit, but miraculously I am unhurt.
"Be careful!" I yell automatically, a reflex to finding my life in danger, although I know it's silly. A body tumbles down from above and I jerk back as it lands an arm's length in front of me. I can't help but look down at the limp form lying in a spreading pool of blood. The man's life was over long before he fell, a bullet wound running neatly through his chest. Spike's work.
A former syndicate hound...and yet, he is no criminal. Spike is not like Vicious. Spike has a soul. He came here to rescue me from men who were once his comrades. No one in this entire confused universe understands better than I that no matter what lies in a person's past, they always deserve a second chance at life.
Spike may be skilled, but he is far outnumbered, and Vicious is lurking somewhere in the shadows. There is nothing I can do for him as I am, trapped in an evening gown and heels with my hands cuffed behind my back. I have to get out of here.
Keeping to the wall behind the pillars, I run for the open wooden doors as fast as I can manage in my unstable shoes, gunshots and shells bursting all around me. Somehow I'm able to make it without getting shot or tripping, even without my arms for balance, and the embrace of the russet sun welcomes me as I finally get out of the gloomy cathedral.
As I had hoped, the Swordfish II sits at the bottom of the tall stone staircase leading up to the cathedral. The old racing ship is now my best friend. As I hurry toward the top of the stairs, an explosion shakes the ground beneath me. I whirl around, and a cloud of dust rolls out from the tall cathedral doors. Spike... I hope he's all right, but there isn't any time to stop and wonder.
Kicking off my high-heeled shoes, I race down the cold stone steps as fast as I dare, the skirt of my dress clinging to my legs. When I reach the rose-colored ship, its wings folded to the sky in landing position, I bend down and slide my handcuffed wrists behind my thighs and down to my knees. There are many reasons why I'm careful to keep my body trim, and this skill has always come in handy. By sitting on the ground I'm able to work my wrists around my feet, and at last, my arms are in front of me.
For once, I don't worry about protecting my dress.
Now I'm able to climb up to the cockpit of the Swordfish II and open the hatch. I try to take comfort in the fact that as long as the firefight still rages in the cathedral behind me, Spike is still alive. Another explosion rocks the ground as I throw myself over the rim of the cockpit and reach for the transmitter. With shaking hands I punch the button to contact the Bebop again and again.
Answer, please, answer!
"Hello?" Even Jet's rough, irritated voice, distorted by the transmitter, is a welcome sound. Heedless of my awkward position, bending over the side of the ship half in and half out of the cockpit, I cling to the intercom as if it were a lifeline.
"Oh god! Jet!" I cry into the device, unable to hide the urgent terror pounding through my veins. "It's Spike, he's-"
"Tough!" The transmitter beeps. The connection's been cut.
Shit! How can Jet be so stubborn and arrogant at a time like this? I search the cockpit with my eyes, and then my hands, checking every nook and cranny, but Spike didn't leave even a single weapon behind. I push myself up and slide back down to the ground, landing awkwardly on my bare feet. Without a weapon, there is nothing more I can do to help Spike. Lady Luck has smiled upon me, but it seems she will not show her face to a thin man with a dark past. I collapse to the ground beside the Swordfish II, left to wait alone, helpless, and wonder who will emerge from the cathedral alive.
The hills and stones echo with gunfire, and my heart is racing. What is Spike doing in there? Why hasn't he escaped yet? It seems an eternity since I left him; what kind of mission does he think he's on? That stubborn fool. I fidget restlessly on the cold stones as more bullets ricochet off the marble inside the cathedral. Dammit, I might be some unwanted passenger, but Spike and Jet are partners.
Jumping back to my feet, I scale the side of the Swordfish II again and snatch up the transmitter, jumping back to the ground with the device in hand. I stab the button with my finger.
"Oh, so you're too good to talk to me now!?" I yell at the intercom, but only static answers me. "Come on, you selfish bastard! Pick up, dammit!" I press the stupid little red button until my finger turns white. I pound on the device with my fist. Still no reply.
With a cry of frustration, I hurl the transmitter against the side of the Swordfish II, and it clatters to the ground. Shaking from head to toe I flop down beside the ship, running my bound hands through my hair in frustration. Never trust a man. Never, ever trust a man. Every crash and crack that sounds in the cathedral makes my entire body jerk convulsively. Then, quite suddenly, everything goes silent.
There is a long moment of utter stillness, an eerie quiet that freezes my blood, and I hold my breath.
Another heart-stopping pause.
High above me something shatters, the sharp burst of sound an echoing blast into the sky. I jerk my head upward and raise my eyes to the roof of the cathedral. A lower corner of the structure's large round stained-glass window has exploded, shards erupting into the air in a shower of color. The splinters of glass shine in the fading light as they burst outward, tumbling forth from the surrounding window, spinning toward the ground. The air seems filled with whirling crystal, shining violet in the dying sunlight. At the center of it all is a large, dark figure, surrounded by sparkling glass fragments.
My breath catches in my throat. It is a man, a tall thin man, his brown coat rippling around him as he falls toward the flagstones below. His long, angular limbs flail weakly in the wind and his head falls back, the shining shards surrounding him in a cloud of light that catches his short forest-green hair.
It is foolish, hopeless, but I am already running, my feet finding each step perfectly although my eyes stay locked on the plummeting body high above me in its aura of shattered glass. There is liquid in that cloud as well, dark liquid that seems to rise from the man's torso as he falls.
I am running, but I am still so far away. The moment seems like an eternity, the distance a mile, and gravity pulls him toward the broken stones below faster than I could ever hope to run. His long coat is thrown outward, his arms widespread, and he seems almost to be flying, soaring to the ground amongst multicolored pieces of heaven.
Suddenly, a plume of white fire bursts forth through the hole in the stained glass. A tremendous explosion decimates the entire window in a roar of fire, flames and smoke billowing outward from the round hole in the cathedral wall. Ash and flame joins the tumbling glass, surrounding Spike in a corona of flickering red, orange, and white. The light is blinding, and I stagger to a stop, losing sight of the tumbling figure above me.
The thunder of engines bursts into my world, hitting my ears so suddenly that I wonder why I didn't hear it sooner. The metallic hulk of Jet's Hammerhead soars between me and the cathedral on the hill, flying on its side with the cockpit facing the stairs.
Jet. He came; he came after all. It seems the tough-skinned man does indeed have a sense of loyalty to his comrades.
The ship drifts past me, flying oddly slow as glass and glowing embers ricochet off its hull, the wind of its wake yanking at my dress and hair and nearly pulling me off my feet. In an instant it has passed, and Spike is gone.
I spin around, following the rumble of the Hammerhead's engines, and discover the ship settling to the ground beside the red racer. A dark figure lies on the Hammerhead's flat nose, the wind tossing its hair and clothing about haphazardly. With a choked cry I dash forward, back down the stairs toward the two ships as fragments of glass and ash rain down around me. The Hammerhead touches ground, but Jet does not cut the engines. As I run toward it I catch a glimpse of the bearded man through the transparent hatch. He is yelling something, but I don't need to make out the words.
As quickly as I can, I climb up the side of Jet's ship and haul my body onto the nose, beside Spike's motionless form. The engines of the Hammerhead roar again, and I lie flat on the prow of the ship as it slowly rises into the air. I don't bother looking back to see if anyone is chasing us; I have to concentrate on not falling off and place all my trust in Jet to get us out of here.
Jet turns out to be a better pilot than I'd expected. The ship stays steady as we glide over the planet's surface, away from the darkened and destroyed cathedral. For a long time I lie still as the landscape rolls away beneath the Hammerhead, the wind whipping my hair into my eyes. I can barely breathe; dread is choking my throat, my eyes are blurry and I can't make them focus. Every cell in my body is sharply conscious of the motionless form sprawled only an arm's length from me.
He's not moving. He's not speaking. Was it already too late? I can't wait any longer to find out. I push myself up, carefully steadying myself as I absorb the ship's inertia. Once I've found a balance I lean against the wind and crawl over to Spike, my muscles quaking and threatening to give out.
There he lies, thin and pale and still as stone, the brown coat beneath him flapping in the wind. His face is turned away from me, and the mass of dark hair, usually puffy and chaotic, is matted down with blood. Glass peppers his ashen skin, piercing his clothing in countless places, and what is not cut and bleeding is burned and covered in dust. There is blood everywhere, soaking into my dress, covering my hands as I search for Spike's wrist, pulling back the cuff of his blue suit coat.
I hold my breath, stilling every muscle in my body, but not the slightest flutter of a pulse beats beneath my questing fingers. I feel faint. The world spins around me as my lungs forget to breathe.
No, it can't be!
I reach out with my red, dripping hands and carefully turn Spike's face toward me. His now-bloodied cheek is pale and cold beneath my palm, his skin deathly pale, and his eyes are closed.
Damn you, Spike, who said you could die!? I haven't finished chewing you out for eating the last orange! Don't you dare take the easy way out, you coward! Don't you dare lay this guilt on me! I'm not...ready...for this...
In desperation I seize Spike by the shoulders and haul his prone body into my arms, my shackled hands sliding around his neck as his head lolls limply into my lap. Fighting against the confinement of the handcuffs, I probe the cool flesh of his throat with my fingertips.
There, I find it; the distant throbbing of a stubborn heart not yet ready to give up. He is alive.
Relief floods my body, making me numb from my head to my toes, and I fall back against the metal of the Hammerhead's hull. Gasping for air, I pull Spike against me and wind my fingers into the cloth of his blue suit, the fabric already stiffening as the blood dries. Turning my face toward the sky I watch the clouds rush by overhead. A sense of calm settles over me as I clutch Spike's thin, pale form, his short olive hair brushing against my shoulder. All emotion, all thought fades away, save for the roar of the Hammerhead's engines and the fallen green bird lying bleeding and broken in my arms.
"Jet... How did you know Spike was...falling?"
"I didn't - but I know Spike. If there's an explosion, he's in the center of it."
Back aboard the Bebop, a laser cutter makes short work of the handcuffs on my wrists. The Swordfish II and the Red Tail are collected from where they were left on the planet. I will need to have a new key made for the Red Tail, but both ships are otherwise undamaged.
Spike remains unconscious for three days. Jet spends hours removing the shards of glass from his flesh, then bandages him from head to toe. The man is a mess of cuts, bruises, and burns, and he has a deep stab wound in his shoulder and a bullet in his gut, but he is alive.
I watch over him as he sleeps, a white mummy lying immobile on the orange couch aboard the Bebop. I play cards in a mechanical, automatic manner, but my eyes watch him, gradually memorizing every angle of his face, every feature I can discern through the bandages. Jet does not disturb me, does not question me, content to remain ignorant of the details.
Who is this man, this Spike Spiegel? A deadly danger to those who cross him, no doubt, but I have seen there is a heart within. What kind of person can live through the kind of horrors he must have participated in, probably even enjoyed, and emerge from it all with a soul that still cares about others? A soul that can still trust another person, can still believe in bonds and comraderie? Perhaps there is something to be said for friendship and companionship after all. I never did anything to earn his kindness, and yet he still came for me. He still risked his life to avenge an old friend and protect a new one.
By the third day, I have begun to relax. Whatever Spike was in the past, he is not that person now. This is a man I can believe in, perhaps even...trust. I hum absently to myself as I deal the cards once again, some old tune that seems familiar and yet strange, like so many things. It's a pleasant little song, whatever it is, and I wonder if my tone is improving. Casually I glance up at the man lying on the couch, like so many times before.
Spike's eyes are open.
At last. What a relief. I shift the deck of cards to one hand and lean forward toward the injured man, resting my forearms on my knees.
"You're finally up, huh?" I say quietly, trying to be considerate of his injuries, the poor shattered man. "You slept too much," I tease gently, "you've been asleep three days."
Spike blinks, as if trying to take it all in, realizing how much time has passed.
"Yeah, I was starting to worry about you," I admit. "Hey, you should be grateful to me for staying here." I can't let him think I've gone too soft. After all, if I'm going to treat him as if his past never happened, I can't change my behavior either. Maybe I'll ease up on him a little bit, but our relationship just wouldn't be the same without a little smarm.
With a grunt of effort, Spike musters all his strength and bends his left arm, beckoning for me to come closer. I stand up and hurry across the room to him as he lowers his bandaged arm back to his side. My heart flutters a little in my chest. After all we've been through together, what will he say to me? Is it possible Spike is finally ready to let a little tenderness shine through? Will he have some kind words for me at last?
Bending down, I kneel beside the couch and lean in close to the injured man, turning my head to move my ear as close to Spike's bandaged face as possible. His words will be muffled by the dressings, and I don't want to miss a precious syllable. There; a quietly muttered phrase...
"You sing off-key."
Even with his mouth and throat bound, Spike's insulting words are painfully clear. I raise my head and glare at him, my lips curling into a furious snarl. How dare he? After all this, after everything I've done for him, his first words to me are an insult? And to think I was starting to believe he had a soft bone in his nasty little body! That cruel, heartless bastard!
In one swift motion I yank the pillow out from beneath Spike's head and clobber him right in the chest with it as hard as I can. Feathers and playing cards fly everywhere, and I am rewarded with a satisfying holler of pain from my helpless nemesis.
Throwing the burst pillow on Spike's bandaged chest, I stalk away from him and out of the room, my entire body stiff with fury. I am still gnashing my teeth as I pass Jet in the doorway, disgust pulsing through my veins.
Nothing ever changes, least of all smug reckless bounty hunters.
Cowboy Bebop and its associated characters and canon are the property of Hajime Yadate and Sunrise, Inc.
The English adaptation of the anime belongs to Bandai.