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You Want It Darker

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i. something to live for

It's hard to keep going.

You try to keep your routines. You put food into your body. You lie down at night and sleep, or try to sleep, until the sun rises again. You rise wearily in the gray pre-dawn light, smoke a cigarette, taste the stale nicotine on your lips from the night before, brush your teeth, rinse, repeat, leave the house. On a good day, you'll walk around town, wander the rain-washed streets, watch the eggshell sky reflecting in the oily puddles on the asphalt. You go to work. On a bad day, you won't. You'll lie in bed, wish you had changed your musty sheets, stare at the ceiling, smoke. You'll bring a bottle of liquor into bed with you. That never ends well. You can cry if you've had a lot to drink, though, and sometimes it feels good just to get that release. You try to forget.

***

It was better when Faye couldn't remember. With no memories to drag her down into sorrow, she spent each day in survival mode, hunting for food and shelter like the feral creature she had become. She had nothing to haunt her dreams, no guilty conscience, no guiding star.

And then that changed, and all of a sudden she had nothing but memories to drown her, cloud her mind, break her heart over and over again. Everyone she had ever loved was dead, or lost to distance or time, or simply out of reach.

Faye's life was easier now, at least. Waitressing in Ganymede was a hell of a lot less dangerous than bounty hunting. She served plates of pancakes, poured coffee, jotted down orders, flirted with customers for tips. When her shifts finished, she stood outside by the dumpsters and smoked with the cooks and the busboys. They didn't chat much. That was all right with Faye. Solitude suited her fine most of the time.

She lived alone in a small apartment by the wharf. The roof leaked when it rained and the paint was chipping, but it was cheap and the door locked tightly. The best part of the apartment was that the previous tenant had left an out-of-tune upright piano. The guy had been too lazy to get the thing moved. She didn't play it, but she sat at the bench and traced the keys thoughtfully.

For the first few months, she hadn't minded the loneliness. After work, she would come home and peel off her uniform and take a long shower until the water ran cold, rinsing the smell of cooking oil out of her hair. She would pull on her old yellow bathrobe and read paperbacks on the fire escape until she felt tired enough to sleep. There was a used bookstore nearby, and on her days off she liked to browse through old Earth novels, feeling a thrill of grief every time she came across a book that reminded her of her dad, something she could remember him reading over his coffee while her mom hummed along to the radio.

After a few months of this, Faye sighed into the mirror and admitted to herself that she needed the touch of another human before she shriveled up and died. It was almost pathetically easy for her to seduce the best-looking line cook from the diner back to her place one night; it was also easy to slip into the routine of having him around. His name was Benjy and he was sweet; tall and blue-eyed and gentle. The sex was fine, and it was comforting to have someone breathing nearby while she tossed and turned through the night. When she had nightmares and awoke gasping and sweating, he would roll over in his sleep and wrap his well-sculpted arms around her. In the mornings, she would pretend to sleep until he let himself out and left for his early shifts.

The moment that Faye heard the door click shut, she would rise and pull out a tattered notebook that she keep stashed underneath her mattress, the pages pressed flat and yellowing. It was just a place to hide a few photographs. She only had one of Spike. She stared at it until she felt as though her eyes would bore holes in the film. He smiled out at her, eyes half-lidded the way they would get when he'd been drinking. Faye didn't know who had taken the picture; Spike would never have let her approach him with a camera. She'd found the snapshot one day in a kitchen drawer and pocketed it stealthily.

Faye didn't have any photos of her parents. Sometimes their faces were branded in her mind's eye so strongly that she felt like they were about to materialize in front of her. Other times, she could barely recall the lilt of her mother's voice or the green of her father's eyes. Once, while Faye was in the shower, Benjy picked up her beta tape from her nightstand. She walked back into her bedroom with dripping hair to see him examining it curiously. Furious, she strode up to him and snatched it out of his large hands.

"What the hell are you doing?! That's mine!" she'd yelled. "Never touch that again!"

"Okay! Geez! You don't have to bite my head off," he'd mumbled, shamefaced and awkward.

Jet emailed her occasionally. After she had first left, he wrote every other day or so, asking where she had gone and whether she would be reimbursing him for the fuel and food she'd taken. She mailed him some Woolongs in small amounts from different fake addresses until he dropped the issue, and now he only sent short, curt messages to ask whether she would return to work with him on various bounties.

New lead on escaped con out by Saturn moons. 300,000. Could use backup. You in?

Sometimes Jet mentioned Spike, and Faye would pretend like she hadn't noticed, pointedly replying to every other part of the message and ignoring any reference to their old shipmate. After a while, Jet got the hint.

***

It was a rainy Friday morning. Faye woke up with Benjy in her bed, her head pounding from a bottle of cheap Chianti the night before. Benjy rolled over and kissed her on the cheek, and she squeezed her eyes shut and pretended to sleep.

"Babe?" he murmured, running his hand over the dip of her narrow waist and across her hips. "Aren't you working morning shift today?"

She groaned and pushed his roaming hands away.

"Mmm. Yeah. Thanks," she rasped, climbing out of bed and pulling on her uniform: a black pencil skirt, a tight-fitting red polo shirt, an apron, and a stupid baseball cap. She imagined, as she often did, what her parents would think if they saw her like this, and suppressed a bitter giggle.

Benjy yawned and scratched his armpits and shaved his scruff over her cracked porcelain sink. The rain pattered on her windowpanes and cast watery shadows across her dusty wooden floor. Faye swigged orange juice out of the carton and waited until Benjy loped out of the bathroom, clean and boyish without his five o' clock shadow.

"Y'ready?" he asked, digging through her coat closet for an umbrella.

Faye nodded distractedly, wondering if it would be safe to keep her beta tape on the nightstand with the roof leaking the way it did. As Benjy pulled out the battered umbrella and laced up his shoes, Faye grabbed a plastic bag from out of her kitchen and darted back into the bedroom. She wrapped the beta tape in it securely and placed it under the mattress, next to her notebook of photographs. There. That ought to keep it dry.

"Ready," she called back, grabbing her thin raincoat and following Benjy out into the gloom.

***

The diner was already busy at 8 am, and Faye cast a resigned glance over the crowded booths and tables. Benjy gave her a peck on the cheek and hurried into the kitchen, tying his stained chef's around around his waist as he went.

Most of the customers today were fishermen, coming in ruddy-faced and damp after delivering their catches to the early morning markets. Faye wrinkled her nose at the smell of seaweed and fish guts as she darted around pouring steaming coffee into mugs. Outside the steamed-up windows, the rain intensified. Faye stared out at the palm trees whipping in the wind, their sodden fronds flying like streamers of black cellophane, and tried not to imagine the state of her leaky roof.

"Faye. Faaaye? Hey! Snap out of it!"

Startled, Faye jumped slightly, splashing some boiling coffee onto her wrist. She let out a yelp of pain and turned, cursing under her breath. Sandy, another waitress, stood before her. She was an over-perfumed blonde who got on Faye's nerves.

"What?" she hissed as Sandy stuck a few pieces of gum into her mouth and began chewing noisily. "Don't do that!"

"Geez. Sorry," Sandy replied petulantly, "it's just that there's some guy outside? And his zipcraft is like, taking up a lot of the spots and making the regulars mad? Can you go tell him to move?"

"Why do I have to do it?" Faye asked. "You do it."

Sandy gave her a mournful stare, patting her wispy hair.

"Faaaaaaaaye. Please? I just got my hair done last night and the curls would all come out. Pleeeeease?"

Faye rolled her eyes, but she didn't have the energy for an argument. At least she could take a quick smoke break. Grumbling to herself, she pulled out her lighter and cigarettes, struggling to ignite her cigarette in the wet wind. Sheets of rain pelted the asphalt, and she could hear waves crashing in the distance. She peered around the flooded parking lot. Sure enough, a sleek red zipcraft was parked haphazardly across four spots, dripping pools of strong-smelling oil onto the pavement from somewhere deep within its machinery.

Faye frowned. She ground out her cigarette beneath her foot. Gazed thoughtfully at it for a moment.

Pulling her baseball cap tightly around her ears, she strode out into the rain and began walking with a calm, purposeful gait. She felt no panic, no turmoil, no emotion; only a clear and decisive need to go home immediately.

Once Faye got home, soaking wet and shivering, she stripped off her uniform and took a two-hour-long bath. She applied three different face masks and filed her long nails down to stumps. She cooked a plate of fried eggs and threw it out after one bite. Just as she had feared, her roof was leaking spectacularly, and she set out every pan she owned to catch the rainwater. The steady dripping put her in a kind of trance, and she wrapped and re-wrapped her beta tape in the plastic bag several times.

As usual, Benjy knocked on her door around sunset, and she let him in wordlessly, collapsing on the couch as he hovered around her.

"Um...are you sick?" he asked hesitantly. "They were pretty mad you just took off like that..."

Faye made a noncommittal noise and didn't meet his eyes.

"Yeah, I think I have...food poisoning or something. I came home and puked my guts out."

Benjy only gave her a sidelong look before loping into the kitchen to dig through her fridge.

 

***

The next morning the rain finally cleared, and a weak sun emerged from behind the heavy clouds. Faye slunk back to the diner and endured a twenty-minute tirade from Mr. Lee, the grouchy, elderly manager. She winced as flecks of spittle flew from Mr. Lee's mouth as he harangued her. Luckily for her, the diner was perpetually understaffed, and although Mr. Lee threatened to fire her if she ever left in the middle of another shift, he couldn't afford to lose an employee.

Faye mixed up orders all morning, bringing a sizzling plate of bacon to an irate Buddhist monk and a pink cherry souffle covered with glitter sprinkles to a table of leather-clad bikers.

"Sorry, sorry," she snapped, scrambling back into the kitchen to try again. Sandy tittered from across the room, and Faye resisted the urge to throw a pile of hot dog buns at her. Benjy glanced up at her as she stalked into the dingy kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron and snatching up the correct orders. He called something to her, but it was lost in the clamor of the kitchen.

During the midmorning lull between breakfast and lunch, Faye sat on the back stoop and smoked with Benjy. He trailed a large hand over her skirt-covered thigh, grinning shyly at her, but she brushed his hand away distractedly.

"What?" he said, wounded.

"I'm just...not feeling well," she murmured. It wasn't a lie, after all.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Benjy crossing his arms across his chest and tapping his foot. From the parking lot, Faye heard the low rumble of an engine, and she froze, cocking her head to listen. Was it...?

"What's your deal?" Benjy asked, watching her.

"Uh," Faye said, balling up her apron in her fists, "I think I have to go. I think...it's a debt collector. Can you cover for me?"

Benjy's face darkened. She had told him an abbreviated version of her long history of debts, and although she shaved off a few zeros from the truth, he had an idea of just how far gone she was.

"What do you want me to tell Lee, then?"

"Can you just make something up?" Faye said, already turning to go. "I gotta go."

"Faye!" Benjy called as she scuttled away. She saw a flash of red steel out of the corner of her eye as she passed the parking lot, and she broke out into a sort of crouching jog.

Once she was several blocks away, she slowed to a walk, wincing as her work shoes rubbed blisters into her ankles.

She felt curiously detached from herself as she limped the rest of the way home. Who was this cowardly person, sneaking around this way? Digging through bargain bins of paperbacks and wearing a baseball cap and serving tacos to truck drivers? She wasn't ashamed of her current life, exactly. That wasn't the problem.

Benjy didn't come by that night, and Faye didn't blame him.

She laid in bed awake for a long time before drifting into a sleep punctuated with uneasy half-dreams; shadowy forms crossing her vision, a faint breeze whispering across the curtains.

***

2071

Silence. The whirring of the metal fan.

"I don't want to do this."

Jet paused, ran his mechanical hand over his bald head.

"Are you even listening to me?"

A wordless nod. The cherry of her cigarette tip, glowing in the darkness.

"I don't like this."

He sighed in resignation; he knew when Faye had him beat. When she held all the cards.

"Pick me up once you have her. I'll get him and see if there's anything we can do. Don't get your hopes up."

"I know. They're not," she said, her voice brittle.

***

A week passed uneventfully at the diner, and Faye felt a sliver of relief emerge. Benjy came over again after a few days, seeming content to forget her strange behavior entirely. Faye hid her beta and her photographs more securely underneath her mattress and feigned ignorance when Benjy complained about the lumpy bed.

On Tuesday night, they sat side-by-side on her mildewed couch and ate Chinese takeout. The rain was back, plunking sporadically into her array of pots and pans.

"You wanna have dinner with my mom next week?" Benjy asked her through a mouthful of fried rice. Faye stopped chewing and gave him an incredulous stare.

"Uh," Faye said, poking at her noodles.

Benjy popped an egg roll into his mouth and swallowed the whole thing without chewing.

"Come on! It'll be fun. Her new boyfriend is loaded and he'll take us somewhere great. How's Tuesday night?"

"I...can't do it."

"Wednesday, then? You're not working, right?"

Faye blinked.

"No. I just...I can't. Tuesday, Wednesday, not ever. I can't meet your mom."

Benjy rolled his eyes.

"Oh, come on. We can get lobster. Sea rat. Champagne. Whatever."

Faye pursed her lips in annoyance, but she had to admit that it didn't sound too terrible. It had been ages since she had eaten anything good. The Chinese takeout was dry and flavorless, and she had been craving Dom Perignon...She blew out an exasperated sigh and threw up her hands in defeat.

"Fine. Okay. Wednesday?"

Benjy beamed at her and squeezed her upper thigh.

***

Faye Valentine didn't meet mothers. Faye Valentine didn't even have a mother. But Faye Leung did.

One day at a grocery store, all in a blinding rush of certainty, she finally recalled her name. It had been driving her crazy for the last couple of weeks, and the rush of remembrance was so intense that she dropped a jar of pickled bamboo shoots, the glass shattering onto the tile floor and splashing gloopy liquid everywhere.

Her real name, before the accident and the cryosleep and the bounty hunting and the Bebop. She used it now, although she frequently forgot about it and ignored calls of Miss Leung, looking around for some other invisible woman whenever her name was called out at the bank, at the doctor's office, anywhere she needed to provide a handle.

She was from Singapore. Her parents were professors: her mother an art historian, her father an expert in French literature. As for Faye, she would have been a concert pianist, or at the very least a music teacher at a nice university; at the time of the accident they'd been traveling as a family to one of her conservatory auditions. Her parents had loved her.

The explosion killed them both instantly. Faye remembered that in the grocery store, too, somewhere between the produce section and the checkout. She vomited into a plastic bag and went home without buying anything.

***

2071

Her communicator crackled to life. Jet's face filled the screen.

"Got her?"

"Yeah.

"She's gone? You're sure?"

"Yeah."

Jet's face was unreadable. A long moment passed before she worked up the courage to ask the next question.

"You find him yet?"

Through the blur of the static onscreen, she watched his hard face crumple into tears as he nodded, and she felt an abyss open inside of her. So it had happened at last.

"We should bury them together, then," Faye said, her heart throbbing painfully in her throat.

"We won't be able to do that."

Faye winced and looked away.

"Oh. Is...is there nothing left to...use?"

Jet let out a strange barking laugh before panning the communicator to his left. Behind him, wedged into the passenger seat of the Hammerhead, was a crumpled figure in a bloodied trench coat. Even with the poor reception, Faye could detect a slight but indisputable rise and fall of breath.

"No. Faye. The motherfucker isn't dead yet. I'm taking him to the Dragon's doctor. He's going to need surgery, and about a gallon of blood, and maybe a few new organs, but I'll be damned if he's - "

Faye snapped off the communicator without a second thought.

***

Wednesday morning dawned cool and windy. It was Faye's day off from work, and she spent an enjoyable morning in the garment district, shopping for something to wear to dinner that night. She settled on a vibrant red silk qipao-style dress, and she haggled fiercely with the tailor until it cost about the same as a cup of coffee. She left the store grinning like a cat with a bird in its mouth, the tailor muttering darkly under his breath.

Faye remembered arguing with her mother over a very similar dress, lifetimes ago. "It's too tight for the recital," her mother had said. "Everyone will stare at your legs." Faye had lost the argument and performed her Beethoven sonata in a pantsuit instead, feeling frumpy and irritated. After the recital, her parents had taken her out for chili crab, and Faye deliberately dumped spoonfuls of black vinegar onto the lapel and crotch of the suit so she could take it off.

Benjy called to say that they would pick her up at 7. The day grew cold and blustery. Faye skipped breakfast and lunch so that she would be able to cram as much lobster and wine into her slim frame as possible. The dress was tight, but damn it, she'd get her money's worth. Well, Benjy's mother's money's worth, she amended.

By 6, Faye had finished shellacking her face with makeup and twisting her hair into an elegant updo. She wriggled into her dress and surveyed herself in the mirror with satisfaction. Perfect. Elegant enough to fit into any high-society crowd. With a pang of longing, she wondered if Benjy's mom was the gambling type.

She lounged around the apartment, thumbing through her paperbacks to kill time and trying to quell her growing apprehension. Was this a terrible idea? What if Benjy took this to mean that they were some kind of item? She shuddered and contemplated picking up the phone to cancel the whole thing. But the lobster...and good champagne...not the stuff at the gas station she could actually afford...No, she could be a girlfriend for a night. Look cute, shut up, oh, no, I couldn't possibly eat another bite! Oh, well, if you insist! Faye squared her shoulders and nodded firmly. It had to be done.

An engine rumbled outside around 6:55, and Faye stood to unlatch her door, smoothing the front of her dress and tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear. Three heavy knocks thudded on the door.

"Coming, coming," she called, grabbing her purse and slipping on her heels. She clattered over to the door, and as she passed her kitchen window, she saw a glint of red steel. Shaking her head as if to clear it, she closed her eyes firmly for a moment. She took a deep breath and opened her eyes a fraction of an inch.

The Swordfish was parked ten feet away from her apartment door. As she registered the sight, eyes widening with shock, another zipcraft pulled up alongside the Swordfish, and Benjy tumbled out of the passenger door like an excited puppy, dressed in an ill-fitting brown suit. He opened the driver's door and helped his mother down from her seat. She was about three heads shorter than her son and three times as wide, dressed head to toe in expensive furs.

Three more knocks echoed through her apartment, more insistently this time.

Faye's dress was too tight to run in, and if she walked into her bedroom to change she would run out of time. Benjy had a spare key now and would let himself in to look for her at some point. She grabbed a peanut-butter-covered steak knife and tore a deep slit up the side of the dress, exposing most of her left thigh. Kicking off her stilettos, she shoved on a pair of house slippers and began to unlatch the kitchen window. The humidity in her apartment had swollen and warped the wood of the windowsill, and it wouldn't budge for a few tense seconds. She heard raised voices outside, but the wind had grown so fierce that she couldn't understand what they were saying. Sweating and cursing, she wrenched the window open at last, hoisted herself through it, and fell six feet into the fly-covered dumpster below.