Jet sleepily turned on his vid screen to check on today's bounties, his piping cup of tea in hand. The familiar Mexican cowboy and scantily-clad ditzy blonde were bantering about the latest buzz in the bounty hunter community. "Hey there, cowboys! Another fake painting was discovered yesterday on Mars at the Tharsis City Art Museum. Authorities are sure it's the work of renowned art counterfeiter Jillian Arainai, sometimes called 'The Master'."
A candid picture of a young brunette woman, no older than 25, came up on the screen. "She doesn't look like a criminal at all," Jet muttered to himself, intrigued.
"Don't let that angel face fool you, though!" the blonde warned. "She's responsible for over 8 million woolongs in loss and damages. Oh my! There's even been a murder that's been possibly linked to her syndicate." Jet had heard enough. He downloaded the info and set the Bebop on a new course for Mars, browsing through the details as he sipped his tea.
Spike wandered by wrapped in a blanket, his eyes half-closed and a crinkled cigarette hanging from his lip. "You got something?" he asked, evidently having noticed the ship's engines firing up and leaving orbit around Io. Jet watched him search lazily through the folds of the blanket for a match to light his first smoke of the day, but ultimately give up when he came up empty. Noticing his friend's plight, Jet pulled a match from his pocket and handed it to him.
"Yeah. An art counterfeiter on Mars," Jet said as Spike dragged the match across the bulkhead. He watched as it burst into a bright flame, until Spike's hands surrounded it to light his cigarette.
He let out a long sigh after taking a drag. "A counterfeiter, huh. Great. Easy money, but boring work."
"Might not be as straightforward as you think, Spike," Jet said, holding up the screen so he could see her picture.
"A girl?" Spike said, his interest piqued. "She doesn't look much like a master criminal."
"That's what I thought too."
"Hmm," Spike said pensively, taking the vid screen from Jet.
Spike hated being on Mars. Tharsis City was full of too many bad memories around every dark corner, and he had to be careful not to be seen. He was supposed to be dead, after all. But the emptiness in his stomach was his driving force for going through with this mission, as dangerous as it was to be back on his home planet. With the money he made from this mark, he planned to buy a whole fridge full of various meats, enough to feed him for months. Though he knew it likely wouldn't last that long with the speed at which Faye could lose money, and he wasn't cold enough to let any of his crewmates go hungry when it really came down to it, even Faye. Still, it was nice to dream.
"Now Spike, when you get there, don't go charging in without me," Jet's voice came over the Swordfish's comm. "Wait until I get there. This woman is not one to be trifled with, from what I've heard, and we don't know how many goons she'll have."
"Wouldn't dream of it, Jet." His old friend was too cautious for his liking most of the time, but he didn't feel like getting in an argument right now. It's easier to seek forgiveness later.
Spike landed his ship in an abandoned lot a few blocks away from where their research suggested Arainai's base of operations was located. They'd had to call on every old connection Spike could safely use to get the information. It had better be worth it, he thought as he strolled cautiously down the dimly lit street. Tharsis hadn't changed much in the years since he'd left. Things on this side of town were still dumpy and sketchy as ever. In a weird way he felt at home, then tried quickly to shake that notion once he realized it.
He stood at the corner of a nearby building, waiting for Jet and smoking a cigarette. Spike scoped out the derelict school he was about to sneak into, noticing a little room at the back with the glow of a small desk lamp. It was as good a place as any to start. By the time he'd finished his cigarette, Jet still wasn't there yet, and Spike had gotten bored. From what he'd seen, there didn't seem to be too much activity going on at this place, and he wondered if their intel had been correct. "Only one way to find out," he muttered to himself, flicking the cigarette butt into a corner.
That one room with the light on seemed to be sealed up pretty tight, but an adjacent one had a small window with an old broken lock that he was able to slip through unnoticed. He looked around in the darkness, allowing his sharp eyes some time to adjust. He was in a janitorial closet, he figured, from the brooms and cleaning supplies on the shelves. The door was slightly ajar, permitting him to sneak out into the hallway. Two guards sat beside the door to the target, crouched around a student's desk they used as a table to play cards and pass the time.
"Full house," the one with his back to Spike said confidently, laying down his hand. "Read 'em and weep." The other lifted his head with a scowl to say something to his friend, but noticed Spike behind him coming fast upon them from the shadows. His eyes doubled in size and he let out a yelp of a warning as Spike shoved the first guy forward, smashing his nose into the sturdy desk and knocking him out cold. He twirled around and kicked the second goon in the face, his head connecting hard with the wall.
Her day had started like all the others since she'd been abducted and forced into this arrangement, and nothing until that point in the evening had made Jillian think it would end any differently than all the others. But the crashing in the hallway outside her 'cell' was sure to herald something different to the usual routine. Good or bad, hell, at least it was different. As much as she loved art, this had been her life for who knows how long. Get up or be beaten, paint, eat scraps, paint, eat slightly bigger scraps for dinner, then paint until she was allowed to sleep. Every day went on like that, and she had long ago lost track of how long it had been. The only thing that kept her going some days was the thought of him. Once, she had even been allowed to see him briefly, but that was a really long time ago now.
She wished she could get up and hide from this obvious intruder. But she was tied to that horrid chair, a chain locked securely around her waist so she could still have use of her hands and arms to paint and sketch. The explanation her brain had immediately come up with was that a rival syndicate had gotten wind of her whereabouts and wanted to take her for themselves. The lock on the door was being opened, and she quickly looked around for some kind of weapon, but all she had within reach was art supplies. She sighed frustratingly and grabbed her palette, covered in the evening's tints and shades. The knob clicked, and a hand carrying a gun appeared at the crack in the door. Before he was even completely in the room, she flung the palette at where she anticipated his head would be by the time the palette reached the doorway. It connected, and for a moment all she saw was a tall, lean man in a dark blue leisure suit with a painting palette stuck to the side of his face.
"Aw, come on," he complained in a deep voice, knocking it away and examining the pigment on his fingers.
"What do you want?" Jillian asked, feigning a commanding presence, until it fell apart when he turned his dark mop of a head in her direction, along with his gun. "Are you here to kill me?" Her voice quavered slightly, and she inhaled sharply at the end of her question.
"Only if you get paint on this suit," he grumbled sarcastically, wiping his hand on a nearby piece of cloth. "Why are you chained to that chair? And locked in this room? You are Jillian Arainai, right?"
"Yeah," she said slowly, confused. "How do you know who I am?"
"You're supposed to be the one in charge of this whole counterfeiting racket," he said, "But from where I'm standing it looks like they had it all wrong."
"What? Who are you? What do you want with me?"
"Name's Spike. I'm a bounty hunter," he said coolly, putting away his pistol. "I'll untie you if you tell me what's going on."
She nodded, her brow knitted. She had little reason to, but she trusted him. His chestnut eyes just had a soothing quality in them that put her at ease. Jill took a deep breath and began her story. "I was just an artist. My boyfriend, Dameon, well, he was never the brightest crayon in the box, and he kind of had a gambling problem. He got in with a bad crowd, and owed some nasty people lots of money. I guess they saw an opportunity to make some of it back, because they took me in the middle of the night and said I had to make counterfeit paintings for them or they'd kill him. So that's what I do, day in and day out, until his debt is paid."
"Apparently you're pretty good, too," Spike said, nodding at the landscape she'd been working on as he began to undo her bonds. "Your captors have made almost 8 million woolong from your work."
"What?! You're kidding, right?" That was way more than he owed, even with interest.
"Nope," Spike assured her, finally freeing her and casually leaning on the big teacher's desk where all of her art supplies were strewn. She stood, stretching herself out, thankful to be able to move again. Even leaning on the desk, she noticed he was taller than her.
"Great—" she began to say, until Spike held up a finger and his head turned to the door. In the next couple seconds, he'd removed his gun from its holster again and crossed the room to stand behind the door. Jill had heard a noise too, and ducked behind the desk while grabbing a couple of full paint tubes.
Jet cursed Spike silently. Why couldn't that kid ever follow the plan and wait for backup? The new intel he'd gotten, assumingly after Spike had left his ship and gone in all cavalier like usual, would have made this whole mission pointless. He better not have gotten himself into trouble. Again.
He found a window around the back with a broken lock, and figured he could sneak in that way. The window had been a little smaller than he originally thought, however, and caught on the pocket of his gray jumpsuit. He'd tumbled ungracefully into a closet, knocking a mop off the wall. Jet grumbled and got up, peeking out the door down the hallway. There were a couple of guards lying senseless on the floor, in front of the room he'd figured was his best bet at finding his partner. Following the trail of destruction is usually a pretty safe bet when tailing Spike.
Cautiously, he entered the doorway to find it empty. Or so he thought. A girl in a sleeveless shirt popped up from behind the large desk in the middle of the room and threw something at him, and simultaneously he heard Spike's gravelly voice calmly say his name off to his left. That had distracted him to the point where he didn't recoil fast enough to dodge the metallic tube of paint chucked at him. It hit his right temple, and he winced and growled, "Oww! Hey!"
"No, it's okay, he's with me," Spike chuckled, informing his new friend, who slowly lowered the second tube of paint in her hand. "Jill, meet my partner, Jet."
"Oh, hi Jet. Sorry about throwing stuff at you."
"No problem," he replied, rubbing his head where it still stung. He looked at Spike, his face covered in paint. "What'd she throw at you, the painting?"
His partner just narrowed his eyes, and continued on, unphased. "She's been framed, Jet."
"I know. If you hadn't rushed in without me, again, you would've heard me telling you all about it over the comms. I had my old buddy Holling look into it as a favor, and he just got back to me after we'd last talked. I know the whole story: her boyfriend got into hot water with these guys over some debts, and pretty much sold her into slavery to cover his own ass."
"What?!" Jill exclaimed, sinking back into her chair. "No, he wouldn't do that!" Jet exchanged a quick glance with Spike, suddenly aware he had said too much too quickly. As she held her face in her paint-smeared hands, quietly sobbing, both men slowly made their way over to her and the big desk.
"It's true, I'm afraid," Jet said softly, putting a metallic hand on her trembling shoulder. She looked up at him, her big greenish eyes dripping with tears and sorrow.
"What do I do now?" Jillian asked him, wiping her face. "They'll find me again if I stay on Mars."
Spike turned to him, his back to the sobbing girl. "We can't just leave her here, Jet."
His words surprised the weathered bounty hunter, as Spike was not one to happily agree to another mouth to feed, much less ask for it. "I have no intention of leaving her here. The syndicate has made a lot of money off this one. They're not likely to just let her go without a fight," Jet agreed, then turned to her. "You can come with us. We'll take you anywhere in the system you want to go."
Jill sniffled and said, "That's really kind of you guys, but I don't want to be a burden."
"Well, it's that or we can just turn you in for the money, I suppose…" Jet teased.
"No thanks!" she said, cheering up from the joke. Then, swallowing hard, she added, "I would really appreciate it if you could help me find Dameon. I've got to hear what he has to say… and I have a few choice words for him, too. I can cook! Or clean, or do whatever I can to help you guys out in return."
"That'd be great, if we had any food," Spike chimed in.
"Ooh, I should still have a little bit of money in a hidden account! I had to keep it secret from Dameon or he would've just lost it all anyway. Let me buy you guys dinner! It's the least I can do after you rescued me from this horrible life of monotony." Jet heard Spike's stomach growl, undoubtedly from the thought of a hot steak meal, knowing him.
"Deal," Jet and Spike agreed. She grinned and quickly gathered up a few things off her desk in a little cloth bag.
Jill and Spike made their way to his small red ship under Jet's insistence. He'd told her he was afraid that either one of them could draw unwanted attention at the Tharsis market. She had trusted him with access to her secret account, perhaps a little too easily, but that was her nature. It had gotten her into trouble on many occasions. Especially in relationships.
Spike's little converted racing ship, the Swordfish II he'd called it, was really only a one-person vessel, but he claimed she could also fit and he would still be able to fly it. She climbed in nervously, having not been to space in a really long time and never in a craft so small. Spike slid himself in front of her, so that he could reach the controls, and started up the ship. She couldn't help but put an arm around his waist and bury her face in his dark, fluffy, green-tinged hair when he fired the thrusters and they took off for the sky. She took deep breaths to try to calm her nerves, but it only served as a distraction, causing Spike's scent to fill her mind and deflect her thoughts. Her grip on him relaxed only after they'd broke atmo and all she could see out of the cockpit was stars. "Wow," she whispered in awe.
"Haven't ever been off-planet, huh," Spike observed keenly.
"Not since I was really young. My parents eventually decided Earth wasn't a great place to raise a kid, with the daily rock showers being a constant threat and all. So we left for Tharsis City."
"Aren't they going to worry about you?"
She swallowed. "No. They… were murdered several years ago." She could feel his entire body stiffen against her.
"I'm sorry," he said sincerely.
"It's okay. You didn't know. So where are you from, Spike?"
He took a moment to answer. "Mars," he finally said, flatly.
She could sense an underlying story there, but his obvious hesitation made her not press it further. The last thing she wanted to do was make her rescuer uncomfortable. "Oh, that's cool," she said, then quickly added, "I like your ship, Spike."
"Heh, thanks." He seemed relieved she'd deflected the conversation, and relaxed.
Jill had always been fairly intuitive and empathetic, easily finding common ground with most people. She still wasn't quite sure what that would turn out to be with him yet, but she was undoubtedly intrigued by Spike. He was different than most people she had known on Mars. Though he hadn't said a whole lot since she'd met him, she could tell he had a sharp intellect, and was obviously physically capable from the way he took out those two guards at her door. But what captivated her the most about him was his eyes. A deep and soulful auburn, they often looked as though his mind was light years away.