A violet-haired woman sighed heavily as a puff of cancerous smoke rose above her head. "Any luck on his whereabouts, Jet?" she collapsed dramatically onto the yellow couch.
"For the fifth time Faye, no," the burly, bald man grumbled, fumbling over keys of a computer. His frustration must be really getting to him. Faye's annoyance surely wasn't helping him concentrate either.
"This didn't take so long when Ed w-" she quickly cut herself off, turning her head to hide the redness flushing over her ivory complexion. Mentally kicking herself, she waited for a scolding. He continued typing as though he had heard nothing.
That's the way things worked around here. Certain names were just not mentioned. It had been a scant few months since their makeshift family of misfits split. Life continued on, but it just wasn't the same. Something was missing that could never be brought back.
Faye placed her hands behind her head, "I'm going to take a shower. Tell me if there's any progress on our bounty head." Jet mumbled an inaudible response, but she didn't bother to stick around to listen anyway.
The water was cold, but that didn't bother her. Not much of anything did. Her occasional outbursts were mere remnants of pent up anger. Fighting with Jet, in hopes of filling a void, didn't do any good to either of their moods.
"He was never patient with me anyway. Why am I still here?"
Her second discovery of the day was all Faye needed to assure herself that it wasn't going to be easy living today. She was out of cigarettes.
Grumbling to herself, she sauntered blearily into her meager bathroom. Scrubbing her face with chilled water, she stared unseeingly into her reflection. Adjusting the shower knobs to an agreeable temperature, her mind was replaying the memory that had invaded her sleep just moments ago.
"Why am I still here?"
The echoed sentence from days long past still held the same lost quality. Once again, there was no one who could answer it for her. She touched her forehead to the cool tiles of the shower's wall, willing the stale memories to wash away.
If she was an honest girl, she would admit that all this time she'd spent plotting, conniving, and manipulating her way in and out of trouble was merely an escape. As always, the infamous Faye Valentine was running away from her troubles, too chickenshit to face them head on. Luckily for her, Faye had nothing to do with the honesty business.
She easily slipped into the morning rituals she daily forced upon herself. Only briefly did her verdant eyes settle upon a worn leather bag sitting rather innocuously on a chair. She was familiar with every item that was so carefully - dare she say lovingly - tucked inside. For that reason alone, Faye went out of her way to avoid it. Shifting her hips to adorn form-fitting jeans, her rebellious eyes kept floating back to that bag. After suitably adjusting the white tanktop she'd worn in her slumber, Faye defiantly jutted out her chin and stalked into the bathroom once more. Focusing on applying her traditional make-up of scarlet lips and smoky eyes, Faye's eyebrow ticked in irritation.
This is ridiculous.
She took careful steps until her hesitant fingers reached her prey. Unzipping the bag in a flourish, she delved her hands in. Faye slipped her arms through the sleeves of her favorite shirt and tied the ends. The red was a bit duller than when she'd first picked it up, hell if she could remember when or where, but it was strangely comforting. It smelled of cigarette smoke and burnt food, reminding her of days spent on a converted fishing boat with a reluctant group of mavericks.
Almost reverently she smoothed back her bangs and donned a yellow headband. Fluffing her hair lightly, she tested a smile and seemed to find things suitable. Hopefully these relics would be enough to summon her old strength. She had a feeling that she'd need any help she could get today.
Suppressing the urge to chew on her lip, Faye calculated that she had enough woolongs to last a week on this dreadful planet. If she kept clear of trouble, she may even stay for that duration. After all, there was no use passing up a decent place to rest her head. The dingy hotel room's price didn't cause her to wince. The Red Dragon syndicate may have rebuilt itself to a portion of it's former glory, but they no longer held an interest in her. She had nothing to fear on this planet ever since...
Plum hair flared in a halo as she shook her head to dispel her dangerous thoughts. No, I dwell on the past enough as it is.
With determined steps, she headed for the packie she vaguely recalled spotting from the previous day only to stop short. Out of the corner of her eye a sign arrested her attention. It was nothing extraordinary, just a plain black and white sign plastered on a windowpane. It read "NOW HIRING" in big, bold letters. She snorted derisively. It's unlikely that Faye Valentine could conceivably desire a job, particularly with such meager wages.
Renewing her pace, she failed to notice a body in her path. Clashing shoulders with the stranger, Faye automatically muttered an obscenity as she turned around to confront them. Her voice ceased to function when she was greeted with the sight of cascading blonde hair, shimmering dreamily in the daylight.
Julia, her mind whispered in awe.
The blonde bombshell continued on her way, not bothering to check if her victim had tumbled to the ground or not. Trying to find her voice to say something, anything at all, Faye's mouth opened and closed rapidly, imitating a goldfish.
She's alive. How?
Cigarettes forgotten, Faye gaped for a while longer yet. Once she had her facial features schooled into control, she took chase of the woman from the past. Julia wore a long, black trench coat, her black boots clicking on the tar. The pace wasn't slow, but Faye matched her step for step. It wasn't hard to pursue the bobbing head of spilling honey. Each time her foot touched the pavement, it caused a corresponding ripple to travel through it's flaxen length. Faye scowled darkly, but kept her distance, all the while her thoughts surged violently.
What is she doing here? Where is she going? I thought she was dead. Why is she alive? Could Spi--
Faye immediately squashed the faint flutter in her heart. There was no point in wishful thinking, hope would only lead to another disappointment. Her stomach felt as hard as a rock, and her heavy steps jostled her insides uncomfortably. Cursing softly under her breath, she slowly regained her composure, eyes never straying from her target.
This can't really be her. Jet said she is dead. If it is her, I'll kill her and then everything will be as it should.
Julia seemed oblivious to her menacing shadow trailing several yards behind as she disappeared into a building. It was a very old edifice, considering that it was made of brick. The rust red was covered in layers of graffiti. It was at least 6 stories tall, but looked mostly devoid of life. It gave off the creepy, skin-crawling vibe that all condemned buildings seem to emanate. She could imagine the fire escapes that must zigzag along the back.
The cold of the doorknob seeped into her hand, snapping her back into the reality of the situation.
She was on Mars, following a ghost. The ghost of her deceased comrade's should-be-equally-dead lover, to be more precise. She was about to walk into what was probably her tenement, unannounced, and do what? Demand an explanation? More than a year may have passed, but there was little doubt that she wouldn't be recognized. What will she do? What will she say?
Maybe I should just forget I saw anything. Go back to my room, pack my things, and leave.
And go where?
The door was closed behind her and she was staring up a flight of stairs. She looked around for any signs of foul play.
Why wasn't the door locked?
Recalling that Julia didn't unlock the front door for herself, Faye decided not to worry over it. Intently listening to the soft cursing a few flights above, she stealthily made her way up. A jumble of keys rang in the stairwell. Faye peeked around the last corner just in time to see the heel of a black boot disappear through another door.
Creeping up slowly, straining to hear any movement, Faye pressed her ear firmly against the unrelenting wood. From within came a voice, but it was too sonorous in pitch to be a woman. She held her breath and listened further, but the words inside were too muffled to decipher.
Well, I can't go in now. It's foolish to bust in on an ex-syndicate member, nevermind one with company.
Frowning fretfully, she ticked off a list of her options one by one. She didn't bring any sort of equipment that would be useful for spying. This meant no device to alert her if anyone left the apartment. No microphone or camera to plant. She didn't have enough money to rent a nearby bed. There was no way in hell she'd sit in a stairwell all day. There didn't seem to be a feasible location for a stake-out, unless she wanted to sit out in the open. She would have to sneak around back and scale the fire escape, not that it sounded promising. The building didn't look well tended after.
Faye backtracked to the exit. Not wanting to waste any time, she walked briskly around the architecture. After picking her way through discarded furniture and trash crammed into a tight alleyway, she reached the backside. Glancing upward, she had to bite her tongue to cut off a shriek of frustration. Of course the damn structure wouldn't be intact. Steps were either missing or rusted through in spots. Judging by it's sorry state, the entire thing would collapse if anyone were to set foot on it.
Faye kicked the remains of what could be an vintage air conditioning unit, "Damn it! Isn't this a fire hazard or something?"
After debating with herself for a couple minutes, she came to the conclusion that she had no choice but to wait outside. Morosely, she returned to the sunlight beyond the alley. Spotting a conveniently positioned bench across the street, she sat. With a heavy sigh she idly wondered how she was to pass the time.
If only I had a magazine or something... I could have picked one up along with some cigarettes if she waited a few minutes more before barreling into me.
Julia shouldn't be here. Her death was the catalyst, the reason why Spike sought out Vicious. He knew he was going to die. He stood so close, their noses almost touching, but it wasn't him. His hollow eyes bore right through her. If she hadn't felt his warm breath on her, she'd think he was already dead to the world. In a way, he probably was.
She grumbled incoherent thoughts to herself irritably. Instead of chewing on her nails, she settled for shredding the leaf she held.
Originally she had blamed herself for what happened. She didn't have to tell Spike about seeing Julia. She could have stopped him on the ship, maybe shot him in the leg or something. She could have followed him as she had when he fought that mad man, Pierrot. Eventually she had to resign herself to the knowledge that she had no choice. Spike would have left anyway or Vicious would have relentlessly hunted him down. If she believed in such a thing, she would have called it fate.
But if Spike had been aware that Julia was alive, things would have gone a little differently. They would have run, but they would have had a chance.
Faye's resentment bloomed until her hands shook with contained rage. Julia no longer belonged in this world. She had no right to be alive when Spike had died avenging her. Tears threatened to blur her vision and she blinked them back. The leaf suitably destroyed, she twisted the red material of her shirt, keeping her hands preoccupied.
It wasn't right. Julia couldn't be alive. Her mind must be playing tricks on her. There was no other explanation. Her nightly visions must be taking a harsher toll than she had originally speculated. How could they not when it was apparent that they were now present even in the waking world?
Besides, why would Julia walk here anyway? When they met, Julia had a beauty of a car.
Perhaps she was still in hiding. God knows a classic like that isn't the least bit inconspicuous.
Then again, why would she hide on Mars? Vicious may be gone, but she left the syndicate. That's considered treason punishable by execution. The Red Dragon may have partially collapsed due to Vicious' sudden rise and fall, but it still held great power and influence.
Or what if she's thinking of this all the wrong way? With Spike and Vicious killing eachother off, Julia could finally claim the top spot for herself.
Faye almost laughed at herself. Though she didn't know the first thing about this modern day Helen of Troy, she couldn't imagine Julia as power hungry. She seemed so sad, but in an ethereal sense that transcended the mundane money-grubbing struggles of man. With such a compelling nature, who needed to command an entire syndicate single-handedly? Playing people against one another felt too dirty and low for the picture of perfection the mystery woman portrayed. Though Faye was an example of how you should never judge a book by it's cover, she couldn't help but want to believe that it wasn't so in Julia's case.
Didn't Spike once say that not all women are like her? Now she was sure that Spike had been talking about Julia. Though she wasn't aware of it from the beginning, Spike had always compared her to Julia. Faye realized that she dressed rather provocatively, but that was part of her edge. He had no right to call her a wench and treat her like she meant nothing. She had to play hard to survive in this chaotic age. If Julia was so damn wonderful, then how come she was here now without Spike? God damn asshole thought he'd die a martyr for tragic romance, but now it seems to have been in vain. Juliet had feigned her own death, but had yet to follow her Romeo by taking a dagger to her chest.
And why hadn't she? Spike must have been holding a torch for her all those years he had spent bounty hunting, perhaps longer. He wouldn't have left them if his precious Julia wasn't so special. He decided to be with her even in death, but she didn't die.
Faye unbound her hands, taking extra care to smooth out the wrinkles in the fabric. She must have looked like an idiot, mentally arguing with herself. Holding her breath, Faye looked up sharply as a door swung open and buoyant laughter filled the air
A couple emerged from the exit. A man with wavy, black hair, just long enough to conceal his eyes, smiled broadly. He wore torn jeans and a faded denim jacket. He held out the crook of his arm, allowing a pale, slender limb to slip through. Tossing flaxen locks aside, the woman smiled in return. She took dainty steps, hips swaying in favor of the heels she wore. No longer dressed in all black, she must have changed into this ensemble of a pale green dress and white-strapped shoes.
She's not Julia.
The masculine voice she had heard when eavesdropping earlier must belong to this man. She watched as they strolled down the street together, heading in the direction Faye had followed the girl from.
She should have felt relieved. Her ire just moments before had no reason to remain. She could go back and not worry about the consequences of one of the dead rising. So why is it that all she felt was crushing disappointment?
It was definitely time for a cigarette.
She wore dark blue jeans that hugged her hips perfectly. From within the folds of a slightly, over-sized red shirt peeped out a plain white tank top. Her sanguine lips, shaped like a small bow-tied ribbon, stood out starkly on her pale features. On the crown of her head, a yellow hairband was almost entirely concealed by the locks that fell to brush just below her clavicle. Her purple hair immediately reminded me of the violets my mother used to grow.
The vixen strutted over, hips rolling sinuously. She paid no heed to the many sets of eyes that captured her every movement. Instead, she took a stool at the corner of the bar, as far from the rest of the crowd as the space would allow. I ignored the anxious flutter in my throat and approached her, "What's your poison, sugah?"
It wasn't until the woman looked directly at me that I noticed the startling green of her eyes. They were living emeralds shining dazzlingly. She smiled wanly and gestured to a bottle of whiskey. Grabbing the bottle and a glass, I plastered on a friendly smile hoping it would hide the stun I had experienced from her locking stare, "I haven't seen you in these parts before, miss. What's your name?"
"Name? I've had so many names," she flapped her small, white hand in a dismissing gesture. Looking at it, I thought of the delicate paper cranes my older brother taught me to make as a child.
I stole another look at her magnetic gaze, it was difficult to suppress a gasp. As I turned away to replace the bottle, I took the opportunity to frown while she couldn't see. Her eyes were beautiful, but they held a piercing sorrow that was almost physically painful to behold.
"This is my first time here," she added as an afterthought, more to herself than for my benefit. I mused over how one would never have guessed from her imposing entrance.
"So what brings you to The Elysian Tavern?"
"I followed a ghost, but it turned out to be my imagination."
She smiled again, but this time it had a hint of self-mocking warmth, "It's nothing a stiff drink won't fix."
"Anything else I can do for you, Violet?"
"Violet, heh... Nah, I think I'm all set for now."
She sipped her drink slowly, seeming to relish the burning trail that lingered down her throat. It took a while for the furtive glances from around the joint to abate, but eventually things quieted down to it's natural lull.
I, on the other hand, found myself standing close by. Polishing each glass with a small rag, I awaited for her to beckon me. She didn't keep me waiting for too long. She tapped her finger on the bar, signaling for me to refill her glass. I obliged without a word and was pleased when she spoke.
"You asked for my name, but didn't tell me yours."
"Beth..." She held the "th" longer than necessary, testing it's sound on her tongue. "Short for Bethany I assume?"
I wrinkled my nose in distaste, "Only my mother called me that. I never liked it."
"Beth it is then," she nodded absently. Tilting her head back abruptly, she took a swig of her hard liquor.
"So... where'd you see this ghost?"
"She bumped into me not too far from here."
"Bumped into you? I thought you can't feel ghosts."
"Me too, but at the time I couldn't think of what else it could possibly be."
I hadn't noticed anything beyond her face until she moved to place a slim, white object between her luscious lips. Blinking at the sudden appearance of the cigarette, I fumbled for a booklet of matches. After the first two failed to flare to life, I lifted a third to touch the end of her tobacco. As she leaned in for the initial intake of smoke, I marveled over how in comparison to her origami hands my own looked awkward and cumbersome.
"I knew her from a past life, she's been dead for well over a year now."
"Oh, what did you do?"
"I told you, I followed her."
My eyes grew wide incredulously, "She's not here, is she?"
She chuckled. I couldn't stop the smile that tugged my lips, proud as I was to amuse her.
"No, I followed her to some apartment building. Turned out that it was someone else all along."
I nodded empathetically, "You must have been disappointed."
She turned quick enough for her wine-colored hair to fly over one shoulder, "What makes you say that?"
Her reaction made me nervous, but I couldn't look away from her entrancing eyes, "I would imagine that you would have been happy to see an old friend."
"Old friend..." The luminous glow of her eyes dulled fractionally, lending her a faraway look, "Yes, I guess I was disappointed."
I got the feeling that she was straying off topic. Fearing that I couldn't follow her down this train of thought, I quickly changed the subject, "Seeing as how you're not a local, are you here for business or pleasure?"
"A new beginning."
"I came here for a new beginning," she pulled out a wallet from somewhere inside her sleeve.
Briefly wondering how she managed to carry it safely, I waved her money away. "It's on the house, just make sure you come by for another visit," I winked, jerking my thumb to a nearby admirer, "I think you're good for business."
She smirked, but offered no argument. After securing her wallet back in it's place, she gulped down the last of her drink and she slid off her stool. "Thanks Beth, I'll see you around."
"Take care, Violet."
It felt so odd when the bartender had asked for her name. It was as though she didn't know who she should be. She'd worn so many masks, played so many characters, but she could make it here. She would build a new life out of the shambles of her last. She didn't have to be happy, but for once she would be herself. A combination of the old Faye and all the versions she played.
She exited the bar, relieved when the weighty tingle of being watched had faded. She sauntered down the street until she reached Ida's Tandoor. The jingle of a bell as she opened the door was the only warning before she was bombarded by the potent smell of exotic spices. Inhaling deeply, the heavy aroma carried her in further, her step almost involuntary. Looking about, she noticed paintings decorating every wall, depicting legends of Old India. Wrenching her eyes from a particularly fascinating portrayal of Vishnu in lotus, she slipped toward the display window. She tore down a sign, smirking at the bold lettering, "HELP WANTED."
So this is the culprit, she mused.
"Excuse me, miss? Can I help you?"
Faye whirled around, eyes wild until they settled on the diminutive form of a woman. She was wrapped in green robes, the edges embroidered in complex Indian designs with gold thread. Faye blushed, ashamed that she had been caught doing the heinous crime of defiling their window. She held up the sign weakly, "You need help?"
Though her face was hidden beneath a veil, it was easy to judge that the woman was older by the wrinkles creasing around eyes as copper as pennies. There was no accusatory look in those coin-eyes, but instead they twinkled with some secret amusement, "Yes, we're in need of a new waitress."
Smiling pleasantly, Faye extended her hand, "Hi, I'm Violet."