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Cowboy Blues

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just a madman, just a sad man/ i had no future until one day i met a man, i took his hand...

It’s been four months since the accident, and Spike Spiegel is hopelessly in debt to the Red Dragon Syndicate for his surgery, armed with nothing but a six shooter and a flask of bourbon, and happier than he’s ever been in his life. Only four months, and today he’s already becoming an enforcer. They say he’s the best sharpshooter in the bunch, and he knows it’s true. They say he can see things out of his right eye before they even happen. His lucky eye, he calls it. It’s certainly brought him luck.

And, “Today is an auspicious day,” Mao Yenrai is telling him. “I’ve been wanting to introduce you to the young man who will become your new partner. He will complement you well.” Spike can’t help but grin. His partner. It’ll be the first time anyone ever called him that. “I expect that you will both learn things from each other. Be wary of him, but watch him, let him be your teacher.”

One of the errand boys is at the door. “He’s here,” he says with a respectful bow.

“Early. Good. Bring him in.”

A few minutes later Spike meets the man they call Vicious. He knows exactly what Mao meant when he said Vicious complemented him. No, he’s not Spike’s complement, he’s Spike’s doppelganger - tall and lean, just like him, about Spike’s age, fingers with that same greedy twitch Spike has always had - except where Spike’s always been told he looks lazy, with sleepy, droopy eyes, Vicious gives Spike a glare so sharp and keen Spike has a feeling he’s always awake. Like he sleeps with one eye open.

Vicious brushes Spike’s shoulder as he walks by him to greet Mao, and he says something with his voice low, so only Spike can catch it.

“One thing you must remember,” Vicious says. “Do not trust me. I will betray you.”

“Trust is a funny thing,” Spike says with a shrug. “Every time I decide not to trust anyone, someone comes along and makes it difficult.”

Vicious doesn’t respond.

It’s not until Spike works with him out on the streets that he really sees Vicious. Their first assignment almost feels like a booby-trap - they’ve been sent in to infiltrate a small group of upstarts called the Eight Rats trying to start a rival business to the Red Dragon, knowing full well the cops (corrupt as they may be) are on the case. Even Mao will let the Rats fill Vicious and Spike both with holes before the Red Dragon will take the fault for them if they get ratted out.

But with Vicious by Spike’s side, it’s never even a question. Vicious is more than a partner - he’s like an extension of Spike’s body, like an extra pair of hands to hold his gun. When they find their way into the Rats’ nest, deep in the basement boiler room of an old warehouse, Vicious is covering every angle Spike misses, and Spike finds it’s easy to do the same. And more than that, he finds it’s easy to be drawn to this young man, all single-minded fervor and vicious drive, to want nothing more than to watch the way he works.

Vicious is a crack shot with a pistol, but he’s even better, Spike discovers, with a sword. He stabs a man right between the ribs and laughs an easy laugh, brazenly holding his blade up to the light and inspecting it before he slides it back into its sheath. He turns to Spike and winks, and Spike feels like he’s the one who’s been stabbed, stuck deep in the chest, where his heart’s just started playing a fast staccato beat.

When they’re back out at street level, Vicious pulls Spike - or Spike pulls him, he isn’t sure - into a back alley and presses him right against a wall. Then his hand is tangled in Vicious’ hair and their mouths are crashing together in a kiss, and all Spike can say afterwards is “is this what you meant when you said you’d betray me?”

Vicious says, “I have not even begun to betray you.”

He smiles and kisses Spike again, licking hungrily into his mouth.

The gloved hand that briefly cups Spike’s chin is wet with blood.

---

then she took my head, smashed it up, kept my young blood rising/ crushed me mercilessly, kept me going around so she don’t know i crave her so...

“Where’ve you been lately?” Spike is needling Vicious, jabbing him with an elbow as they share drinks at a dive bar. The place is run by an old friend of the syndicate, and so the guys playing pool and stuffing woolongs into the jukebox behind them are all their brethren. It’s a good place to go to feel free and easy. Terrible drinks though. “Finally find a girlfriend or something?” He means it as a joke. Spike’s the ladykiller between the two of them; Vicious is always too serious to snag a date, and Spike thinks his piercing look scares women off.

But Vicious nods curtly, and Spike sees something in his eyes that, in all the two years he’s known Vicious, he’s never seen before.

“There’s someone,” Vicious says.

“You?” Spike laughs out loud.

Vicious nods again. Spike starts to feel his mouth go dry. Is this disbelief he’s feeling, or jealousy?

He doesn’t know if he wants to know. He lifts his drink to try and wash it all away.

Spike first sees her outside the window, waving goodbye to Vicious from her car as he enters in his long coat. Her hair looks like spun gold, like something from a fairy tale. Her eyes look deeper than the vastness of space. You could fall into those eyes. Her movements are measured and perfect. Spike can see how even Vicious’ cold heart could love a woman like that. He thinks maybe he’s in love with her a little already.

Vicious slams open the door, grabs Spike by the jaw, and shakes him furiously, staring right into his face. “Are you looking at Julia?”

Spike smiles dreamily and pulls away. “Ah, so that’s her name. Julia.”

Vicious nearly growls at him. Then he kisses Spike right on the mouth - sharply, like he’s saying keep your eyes on the mark.

But Spike’s always had big eyes - bigger than his stomach, his mother used to say - and now they look in two different directions. So now he’s got one eye focused on Vicious, and one on her.

She visits him in a dimly lit izakaya where they always have the freshest seafood and where Spike thinks he’s never seen another woman in the hundreds of times he’s visited there. Vicious never goes here, so he has no idea how she found him. She sits right next to him and touches his hand.

“Spike Spiegel,” she says. Her voice is smoky and resonant. “Vicious is a terrible man. I know his heart, and it’s not like yours.”

Why was she telling him this? “Does he treat you bad?”

She looks up at the ceiling and takes out a cigarette. Spike holds out his own and lights hers off the tip.

“He treats me like any complicated man in love would. I’ve had a lot of lovers, and few of them were good men,” she goes on. “My heart can handle him without breaking. I’m not sure yours can.” That wasn’t what he expected.

She touches his hand again.

“What makes you think he’s the one who’s breaking my heart?” Spike says, and looks right at her, flashes her a quick grin. “You’re playing with fire, touching a man’s hand over and over like that. Be careful, now.”

She smiles back at him.

Not long after, she’s smiling again, lips curving up against his bare collarbone. That’s a secret smile, something no one’s going to know about but the two of them.

---

meet me in the city and everything is so fine...

The three of them make the worst holidaymakers. Julia is too poised to relax and let her guard down, Vicious is too serious, and Spike’s too jittery. But the syndicate’s had a wild success thanks to their efforts, crushing the rival Fireflies and turning their profits into gold, so it’s the one chance they’ve got to celebrate.

Julia’s car is as red as her lipstick and it slides easy down the highway into the still-dark morning. Julia rolls the roof down, Vicious has an arm draped around her shoulder like a warning, and Spike is sprawled lazily across the backseat. He flicks his lighter and watches the flames fight against the wind. It’s inevitable the wind will win, in the end, but it keeps him amused.

Things get off to an early start in the Martian cities. They catch the food carts setting up at the crack of dawn so they snag the day’s best catch, then by noon the drink starts to flow and doesn’t stop. Julia wants to go to a casino so they follow her, Vicious standing in the shadows like a bodyguard while she plays the tables and Spike lets the slots devour his earnings. He turns his eyes when Julia starts playing impulsively and a crowd gathers. Vicious starts watching when she starts winning.

“Oh you’re a fool, letting her spend your money like that,” Spike jokes, slapping Vicious on the back with a big grin as Julia goes off to get them the finest bottle of champagne in the bar and a plate of raw oysters on ice.

“She’s never spent a penny of my money,” Vicious says, laughing right back at him with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “It’s all her own. She won’t let a man buy her things. She’s not that kind of woman.”

She’s not your kind of woman, is what Spike knows Vicious is telling him, even if that’s not what he’s saying.

“She’s one of a kind, I’ll give you that,” Spike says.

“You’re in love with her.” Vicious doesn’t look at him.

“Everyone’s in love with her,” Spike says by way of agreement. “Look at the way they watch her.”

“And she loves only me.” Vicious says it like an incantation, like saying it will make it true. “I suppose I am a lucky man.”

“If that’s true, I could have used some of that luck at the slots,” Spike says, turning out his pockets with a sigh.

“You always gamble too little. The machines are rigged that way. The more you risk, the more you win. But you seem content to throw away your scraps and be happy with it.”

“Waste of time getting upset over it.” Spike shrugs.

Julia comes back with the champagne, and the rest of the day disappears into the bottle - that bottle and the many that come after it, at a series of bars and casinos that each end where another begins. Spike has no idea what he’s gambled and whether he’s even made off with a profit, though he doubts it.

They check in to a hotel with a flashing neon sign and Julia watches Spike and Vicious lazily kiss while she takes off her heels on the bed, stretching one bare leg out in front of them.

“I’ll let you make love to her,” Vicious says, his hand on Spike’s neck. “I know you want to. As long as I’m here to watch.”

Julia laughs at him, even though she wasn’t the one he was talking to. “We both know you’ve never had to let me do anything. I take what I want, when I want it.” She glances over at Spike, the words she isn’t saying every bit as powerful as the words she is. “That’s why drinks are on me today.”

“What do you want?” Vicious asks her. “Right now?”

She stretches out her other leg. “Both of my men.”

Spike and Vicious have always been each other’s complement, each other’s mirror image. So it isn’t really a surprise that they should want the same woman, is it?

That 3 AM should find them lying on opposite sides of the same bed?

That Spike isn’t sure which one of them he wants more?

Julia’s fingers slide into his hand, and he smiles, and shuts his eyes.

---

A bit later, when Spike gets back from buying a soda, Vicious and Julia are in the room with the chain on the door. It couldn’t be clearer they don’t want him there. So he climbs up the fire escape to the roof and lights up a cigarette, letting the buzz soothe his hangover.

Spike has the feeling that’ll be the only time Vicious ever gets drunk enough to let the two of them have him at once. Or have each other. Or...it all muddles in his fuzzy head and floats away.

Up in the sky it’s still dark out, and Spike thinks not for the first time about what it would be like to leave the surface. He remembers hearing somewhere that the only way to get a ship out of the atmosphere is to achieve escape velocity, to push back harder than gravity’s pull. He’d need to push pretty hard to get him out of here. Sure, he’s paid off his debts for the surgery and then some, but there are things he owes that aren’t so easy to make good on.

It is the first time he starts wondering if he could take her with him, someday down the line. That thought plants itself deep inside him somewhere. And maybe it’s a bad idea, but he’s going to let it grow. After all, Vicious said it - Spike always gambles too little.

But for now, he’s fine with his dreams heading skyward while he stays grounded. He glances into the window where he can see Julia’s gold hair flash. Or maybe that’s the light in Vicious’ sharp eyes. It’s not so bad if his heart is contained in that little room, so long as he gets those little moments to set it free.

No, he thinks, as his cigarette traces a lazy ladder to the stars: it’s not so bad at all.

see you, space cowboy...