'Rise and shine, cariño. You've got an incoming communication.'
The cool, slightly metallic voice drifted out of the communicator on his wrist and he convulsed as he was pulled out of his dreams with a jerk like a noose snapping taught. There was sweat running down his brow and his jaw ached in a way that it only did from holding back screams.
Jesse McCree unclenched his teeth and drew in a gasping breath, his eyes darting around his room. It was exactly the same as it had been when he'd closed his eyes. There was a pile of clothes in the corner that he hadn't had the time or the energy to send through the sanitizer. The shelf on the wall still had three very dog-eared books on it and his hat hung on the corner, as tattered as the books. They were small, cramped quarters, but the room felt safe in its solidness.
Nothing had changed and he clung to that, using it like a lifeline as he rolled over and fumbled for the clock on the table next to him.
3:23 AM, ST
"Gorram it," he swore. That meant he'd had exactly two hours and ten minutes of sleep. Just enough to keep him up and running but not enough to run well. "Tell them to call back when I'm less likely to hunt 'em down for wakin' me."
It wasn't as though he'd get back to sleep now, not with the nightmares he knew were waiting for him there.
'It's Braden on Line 3. He says it's about a job.'
"I hate Line 3. I'm goin' to have it disabled next time we're landside so folks can't call at ungodly hours."
'I've traced his signal to Three Hills and the time there is ten at night. It's only ungodly for you.'
"Just like most things. Must be a Monday," he muttered as he swung his legs over the side of his cot and wondered if his head currently hurt more or less than it usually did.
More, he decided. It probably had something to do with the six fingers of whiskey he'd downed in the hopes that it would help him sleep a little longer than usual. The haze of it still lingered at the back of his brain, promising a softer world with less to worry about.
Sadly reality had come knocking dark and early and it sounded like a call on Line 3.
"Did you put him on hold?" He asked as he struggled into the closest pair of pants – the same ones he'd kicked off the night before. There was a hole in one of the knees and a stain on the other from a splash of spilled whiskey.
"He best not expect me to pretty up for him," Jesse growled as he punched the door button and stepped over the pile of clothes into the hall without bothering to smooth back his tousled hair or put on a shirt. None of them were clean enough to want on his skin anyway.
Empty space flecked with stars stretched out before him through the treated glass ceiling and he followed it down the short passage and into the cockpit. If his little room was his den, the cockpit was his open sky. He collapsed into the chair with a groan, shifting until his body found the familiar curves in the worn leather. The padding had shifted enough over the years that it had grown thin in some places and tight in others until it fit only him.
"Where're we at?" He punched his code into the control panel in front of him and ignored the flashing red light at his elbow that indicated that someone was waiting for him to accept their transmission.
'Three hours and ten minutes from the Murphy Protostar on Shadow's dark side.'
They were running, always running. It was almost funny that he had all of space practically to himself and still couldn't manage to get away. Fuel, food, and parts were all that kept him anywhere close to civilization rather than taking off into the black just to see what was in it.
Jesse leaned his head against the back of the seat and looked up, searching for the empty places between the distant stars.
"What're we doin' out here, Som," he whispered.
'I don't know, Jessito. Whatever it is, we've been doing it for a long time.'
He punched the flashing button before he could think better of it. When a man started asking questions like that, it was time to get himself well and truly grounded.
"You best have a good reason for usin' this line, Braden. I ain't in the mood t' deal with you or whatever scheme you've cooked up after that last one."
"Lovely to talk to you as well, McCree. It's been too long. Have I mentioned lately that I detest your waiting music?" Braden's voice was as cool and slick as an oil spill and just as dirty. His image flickered to life on the screen – a middle aged man who looked like he should be in a well-cushioned office doing tax reports. What hair he had was carefully slicked back and there was a pinched look about him that told Jesse loud and clear that Braden had most definitely not been enjoying the banjo music.
"Yeah, I reckon you did last time you called. It's why I kept it on sweetheart – just for you."
Braden's lip curled. "Charming. I somehow manage to keep forgetting what an unsophisticated piece of back-planet trash you are. One would think that after this many years of...association I would stop being surprised."
"One would," Jesse agreed, making sure to scratch his bare chest where Braden could see it. "'Course, most folk would just call it 'rustic charm'."
"We both know better, McCree. Any charm you once had has long been lost to empty space, just like you'll be one day."
"The rest of your hair seems to have headed that way already, Braden. I'll give it my regards when I get there, huh?" Even the pixelated image hadn't been enough to hide the dealer's quickly receding hairline from Jesse's eyes. "Tell you what, I got the number of this pretty hat maker. I'm sure she'd be able to set you up with somethin' prettier than that shiny top you're sportin'. Unless you like those guards of yours usin' it like a mirror."
A dark, angry flush began to creep up Braden's neck and into his cheeks. "You think you're so clever –"
"I know I'm clever," Jesse interrupted him as he propped his feet on the console, trying to get more comfortable. "It's why you keep callin'. Now tell me why you've got me out of my very comfy bed or get the fuck off my screen. I got better things t' be lookin' at than you – like the backsides of my eyelids."
Braden was silent for a moment and Jesse knew that the man was wondering if he should disconnect the communication or not. It had happened on more than one occasion when Jesse hadn't been able to resist needling the dealer a little bit too far. It had cost him what would probably have been very lucrative jobs, but driving Braden ever closer to an aneurysm was worth it.
Evidently 'not disconnecting the communication' won today because the man on Jesse's screen took a deep breath, slicked back his already flat hair, and managed to collect himself.
"I have a job for you. I offered it around, but no one else would take it."
Jesse reach over onto the panel next to him and plucked a cigar out of the metal cup there. He rolled it back and forth between his fingers without lighting it, teasing himself with it.
"Was it the money?"
Braden's laugh rung hollow. "No. No, the money is good. Enough to tempt fools, certainly. It's a bad job though. The chances of pulling it off properly are slimmer than a beggar's pocketbook."
"Sounds like my kind of job," Jesse admitted. If the money was good enough, of course. One of his engines had started to wear itself thin and it was only a matter of time before he'd have to stop flying and go planetside for repairs. Costly repairs.
"McCree." Braden's voice had a hard edge to it that caught Jesse's attention. "This isn't like the other jobs I've sent your way. I'm only telling you because you're the hardest fucker in the whole damn verse to catch, and that's what this needs. I don't know how many tricks you have up your sleeve, but you'll need all of them for this is you want to walk out of this alive."
"Commission must be good on your end to try to sell me like this, Braden. I'd be touched 'cept I don't want to use the word and your name in the same sentence. Gives me the willies just thinkin' about it."
"On second thoughts, maybe you'll get killed and save me the trouble of paying someone to do it for me."
"Always knew you cared. Shoot it over and I'll decide how suicidal I'm feelin'."
He hit the 'Disconnect' button with his heel before Braden could insult him again and the sudden lack of buzzing whine from the communicator made his ears ring.
"Alright Som, let's see this death job. I'm feelin' a little reckless."
'You're feeling reckless because it's 3:48 in the morning, cariño. I will bring up the summary as soon as it is – ah, it has arrived. How unusually prompt.'
"Must be important for him not t' dangle it over our heads like a scrap," Jesse said darkly as he pulled his feet off the console and leaned forward to see the screen. Although to be fair, it had been a full month since he last saw a living soul in the flesh and he was starting to feel a bit like a hungry dog.
A single slide of information sprang to life, the text flickering slightly from its long journey through space.
---Assigned By: S. Braden
---Assigned To: J. McCree
---Details: Infiltrate the Shimada residence on Sihnon undetected. Acquire one H. Shimada. Transport to target's destination of choice. Avoid capture by the Sihnon Council or any known associates at all costs.
---Payment: 20.000.000 Credits, Untraceable. Delivered upon arrival at destination.
The cigar fell from Jesse's nerveless fingers and rolled under his chair.
"Shit," he drawled, letting the word roll over his tongue like he was going to ask it out to dinner. "That's a whole lotta zeroes." That kind of cash could replace every damn piece on his ship ten times over and stock it up so well that he wouldn't have to touch the ground for a year if he didn't want to.
'It came with an image attachment of the target.'
"Hell, bring it on up. Might as well see who'd pay that much to be stolen away from their own kin. I betcha two credits it's some princess trying to get away from a marriage or somethin' – oh."
The image that replaced the text was definitely not that of a princess.
'I believe that you now owe me a total of five thousand six hundred and twenty two credits, having just lost that bet.'
"You're a cold-hearted bitch, Som. Hurtin' a man right where it counts – his wallet." Jesse leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees while he looked at the image file. It had clearly been pulled from some sort of legal record, because there was nothing natural about having to pose like that except for a license of some sort. A dark haired man looked up at him from his screen, slashing brows drawn low over dark eyes. There were splashes of white at his temples and his long hair had been tied back in an elegant horse tail. His beard was short and carefully trimmed to a point. He looked tired. Angry. Visibly bitter.
Jesse rubbed his hand across his suddenly dry mouth.
The son of a bitch was also handsome enough to make Jesse wish that he'd bothered to brush his hair just to look at his picture. No space slob liked him had a right to be in the same room as something like that.
'Jessito, I know what you're thinking.'
"I don't reckon you do Som, but lay it down for me anyway."
'It's a job with a high payout, but there's also a reason no one has accepted it yet. Sihnon is one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced planets in the system.'
"And the Shimadas rule Sihnon, I know. That stinkin' family has fingers in every pie that matters and half of them are the kind that I wouldn't want to be caught eatin'. I've got a couple brains left." He tapped the screen and the image pulsed wildly for a moment before stabilizing. His finger rested next to the man's digital cheek, but didn't touch it. "What I'm curious about is why Mister H. Shimada here is so eager to ditch that life of luxury."
'If you are caught trying to aid in his escape, you will not survive long enough to see what the inside of one of their cells looks like. The Shimada family is not known to be forgiving with those who slight them.'
Jesse flipped back to the information slide, banishing the image of H. Shimada. He couldn't think clearly with the man glaring up at him like that.
"How far is it to Sihnon?"
"I'm just askin' outta idle curiosity! It's not like I was contemplatin' actually takin' the job. I like breathin' too much to do somethin' like that." He casually leaned forward and began poking idly at the buttons by the screen.
'Jesse, you just pressed the button to accept the job.'
"My finger slipped!" He cried dramatically. "I'm innocent I tell you! You'll never take me alive!"
'I should jettison you through the airlock, cabrón! You're going to get yourself killed and then what will you do?'
Jesse settled back in his seat with a grin. "Be dead, I expect. Sounds pretty relaxin' right now. Might as well do one last job first. Besides." He thumped the arm of the chair with a grin. There was something stirring in his chest, something that felt more alive than anything had in months. Years, maybe. He'd done enough smuggling jobs, escorts, body guarding, and heists to last a life time. Maybe a rescue was just what he needed. "What's livin' without a little danger?"
"Since when do we do 'safe'?"
A loud sigh crackled over the communicator, heavy with aggravation. 'We're two weeks from Sihnon, and it'll take me all of it to build you convincing enough credentials to get in without getting shot before you take one step.'
"You do what you need to do, Sweetheart."
Jesse McCree put his feet back up on the console of his ship and tilted his head back so that he could look up through the glass.
The black space between the stars didn't seem quite so dark right now.