Disclaimer: I do not own Cowboy Bebop or any of the characters therein.

1) Paint Your Wagon.

Mao stood at the centre of the ring, scratching nervously at his left leg. Looking around, he tried to make out some of the faces that were looking back at him from the darkened stands so he could properly gauge their mood. However, the contrast in light levels between the brightly spotlighted ring and the murky surroundings made it impossible to pick out all but the most vague of facial features. One thing Mao could gauge though, was the discontented mumblings that were emanating from beyond the cinderblock boundaries of the ring area. The crowd was becoming restless. Swallowing hard, he raised the cordless microphone that he held in his right hand to his mouth.

"Ladies and Gentleman." Mao's voice rang out around the temporary arena. "We apologise for the delay. The competitors are engaged in some last minute warming up and I can assure you they will be ready momentarily. I'm sure you'll agree with me when I say that a bout of this magnitude is well worth the wait. And remember, this evening's proceedings are brought to you by the Blue Rat Alliance, in association with Skyfall Spring Water, 'A sprinkle of moon dust in every bottle'."

Mao let his arm fall loose at his side and, once he was sure the mike was sufficiently far from his face, gave a soft sigh. He was pretty sure he had just bought himself another two or three minutes. Also, the eleven o'clock beer rounds had just finished, so everyone probably still had something in their glasses. Though he had seen crowds turn ugly enough to throw glassware at a ring announcer, he had yet to see one that would waste perfectly good beer in the process.

"Psst, Mao." There came a strong whisper from behind.

Mao looked over his shoulder. His addresser was a tall, slender man, dressed in T-shirt and jeans and equipped with a microphone headset. He was standing in a gap in the ring wall, which led into a corridor that ran beneath the temporary seating.

"Psst, Mao." he repeated. "Mao, get over here."

He then began to gesture strongly for Mao to come over. Turning back to the crowd, Mao raised his microphone once more.

"Excuse me for just a second, folks." he said in the most confident, professional manner he could. "It looks like something's going on in the back. Just sit tight and we may have some action for you in just a few moments."

Lowering the mike, Mao turned and trotted across the sandy surface of the ring to the entranceway.

"What is it, Cheech?" he asked hopefully as he reached his colleague. "Is he ready yet?"

"The hell he is." Cheech snapped, his anxiety getting the better of him. "He's still in his dressing room. We think he might be meditating or somethin'."

"Well he'd better get out here soon, or this crowd's gonna tear fuckin' my face off!" Mao barked in return.

"I dunno what to tell you." Cheech shrugged. "He won't answer his door or nothin'."

Mao bared his teeth as his frustration began to mount.

"Well what the hell are you telling me for?"

Cheech broke eye contact with Mao, and took a deep breath.

"Uh. . . I was kinda hopin' you'd go and call him out."

"What?!" Mao shouted, almost loud enough to be audible over the mike at his side. "Why don't you go and call him out?"

"I already knocked twice." Cheech replied. "Shouted though the door once, too."

"Well, can't you shout him again?" Mao asked.

Cheech's eyebrows shot skywards at the suggestion.

"No fuckin' way, man." he said, quite categorically. "I heard he once punched some guy's head clean off his fuckin' shoulders, just for callin' him to the ring five minutes early."

"Yeah, well you shouldn't believe everything you hear." said Mao, and then he paused for a moment. "And besides, why should I stick my neck out?"

"Well I figured you'd be alright," Cheech informed Mao, rubbing the back of his head nervously. "Since you sorta know him, 'n' all."

"Know him!" Mao exclaimed. "Wha' d' y' mean I know him? I met him, once, getting off the bus this morning. Look man, find some other idiot to go get him, 'cause if you think I'm gonna go back there and my brains spread up the goddamn wall, then you got another thing comin'!"

"Fine!" Cheech shouted back. "You go back out there, and you tell them there ain't gonna be a fight. And while you're at it, why don't you tell there that there ain't no refunds neither?"

Mao was then reminded of the discontented crowd, and the look of anger dissolved from his face.

"So what's it gonna be?" Cheech asked. "It's either him or the crowd. You've gotta face one of 'em, 'cause I sure as hell ain't gonna."

Mao knew there was only one choice here, though he dreaded having to make it. It was days like these that he regretted ever having fallen into this line of work. Taking a consoling lung-full of warm, smoky air, he made the only decision he could.

"I guess I'll go get him, then." he said.

"Cool." smiled Cheech, and then slapped Mao on the back. "You got five minutes."

Mao gave a deliberately insincere smile in return, and then pushed past his less than esteemed colleague.

Making his way down the poorly lit corridor, Mao passed by a succession of characters. These ranged from the caterers and teamsters hired to deal with the ancillary tasks involved in such an event, to the various wives and girlfriends of the fighters around whom this whole occasion revolved. The fighters themselves were all safely tucked away behind the doors of the makeshift dressing rooms that lined the corridors of this usually derelict building. That was, all the fighters save one.

Along his route Mao encountered one of the two competitors from the main event. The tall, well-muscled individual was dressed in blue boxing shorts, and had a long platted ponytail that hung down his back from an otherwise bald head. He was stood with his back to one wall of the corridor, and was throwing a succession of lightning fast punches and kicks at thin air. One particularly distinguishing feature was his right leg. For below his knee, the limb was entirely artificial. The metallic extremity flashed and glinted in the dim light as it was repeatedly thrust into the air ahead of its owner.

The fighter cast a brief glance at Mao as he approached, and then continued with his last minute training.

"You gonna get him now?" he enquired.

"Yeah." Mao replied. "You'd better go get ready."

The fighter snorted, and thumbed his nose.

"I am ready. Now get him out here, or I'll go do it myself."

Mao didn't respond to this empty posturing, and just walked by without a second glance. He was unconcerned about whether this snubbing would be greeted with offence since the fighter would most likely be dead within ten minutes anyway.

Reaching a junction in the corridor, Mao stopped. His destination lay just around the corner. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and gathered his composure.

"Okay," he muttered to himself. "Let's do this."

Mao turned the corner and was confronted by a short stretch of corridor, which ended with a door. Upon its face was taped a piece of white paper with the word 'Steele' scrawled upon it in barely legible handwriting. Mao took the few paces to the door and quickly knocked on it, before he could change his mind.

"Mr Steele?" he called, gingerly. "It's time to go, Mr Steele."

There was no answer. Steeling himself, Mao tried again.

"Mr Steele. The match is due to start now."

Again, there was no reply. Mao was becoming anxious. Cheech's little horror story was still fresh in his mind, and he was afraid that his persistence could earn him a starring role in a similar tale. But then again, there could be an even worse fate in store if he failed to give the audience what they wanted. His employers would not tolerate bad press.

Mao sighed. He knew what he had to do.

"Third time's the charm." he said, and knocked once more. "Mr Steele! Mr Steele, you have to come out now. It's time for your. . ."

Mao cut himself off with a sharp gasp. The door swung open.

***Session somewhere between 9 and 24: Suicide Is Stainless.***

Jet ran the fine spray of beige paint across the vertical metal surface a few more times, watching closely as the last few streaks of naked metal were gradually covered. Once he was happy that he had good coverage he released the button on the canister, causing the sparse brown haze to dry up. He then placed the can on the wooden workbench at his side, and pulled the fume mask from over his mouth. Stroking his uncomfortably ruffled beard, Jet leaned forward to make one last examination of his workmanship.

"Ah, a work of art." he said to himself, smiling with satisfaction.

The art of which he spoke was the repair work he had been engaged in for the last couple of days, and his canvas the hangar door of the Bebop. The door was slightly raised, allowing a narrow slither of warm sunlight to trickle into the otherwise dim hangar. The sun's glow had imparted pleasing warmth upon Jet's boots as he had been working. That and the gentle rocking of the hull had made for a particularly relaxing working environment; a rare luxury on this 'ship of lost souls', as Jet would sometimes refer to it in the privacy of his own mind.

The Bebop was currently afloat in a small harbour on the coast of Southern Old Asia on Earth. Such stop offs were rare for the ship, as certain denizens were not entirely enamoured with the little blue has-been of a planet. However, certain incidents during the pursuit of their last bounty head had made this stop more of a necessity than a luxury.

Jet picked up a rag from the bench and began to wipe the residual paint from his hands. As he did so, a voice came from behind him,

"You finished yet?"

Jet grunted as his smile of satisfaction turned into a frown of disgruntlement.

"Yeah, no thanks to you." he stated, without looking away from the glistening wet paint.

There followed the sound of several footfalls upon the metal deck plates, and then Spike materialised alongside him. Leaning over from just next to the tarp that protected the floor, he made his own inspection of the fresh paint job.

"Took you long enough." he said.

Jet shot an angry look at Spike only to find that, as always, he had lit cigarette hanging loosely from between his lips.

"Hey!" Jet exclaimed, snatching the fuming stick from his partner's mouth. "Don't you know that that can damage the paint?"

He then dropped the cigarette to the ground and stamped it out. Spike groaned softly, and briefly looked at Jet as he might a nagging spouse. This just maddened Jet further.

"Don't look at me like that, Spike." he warned. "I'm in a bad enough mood with you as it is."

"Don't tell me your still crying over a little scratched paintwork." Spike sighed.

Jet's eyes widened.

"Scratched paintwork?" he echoed. "Spike, you shot two dozen holes in the hangar door. And you managed to wing the Hammerhead in the process."

"Look, I already told you it was an accident." Spike explained wearily. "We were fighting in a debris field. You know how awkward it is to manoeuvre and aim at close quarters."

"Yeah, I know." Jet conceded, reluctantly. "But would it have been so hard to just stop firing when the Bebop came into your line of sight?"

"Hey, you know how I get lost in the moment sometimes." Spike said, coolly. "Anyway, we caught the guy, didn't we? And the bounty covered the cost of the repairs."

"Barely." Jet grumbled. "And that's another thing we need to discuss."

At this, Spike sighed deeply, and inserted his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket. Blindly he fumbled around the lone box of cigarettes that it contained, and extracted the first cigarette of which he could get hold. He then removed it from his pocket, placed it in his mouth, and awaited whatever scolding he was about to receive.

"Now, I realise that you're physically incapable of not causing heavy property damage when you chase a bounty head, and I can appreciate that." Jet explained in as understanding a tone as his mood would allow. "But couldn't you at least try to weight the amount of damage you do by the size of the bounty you're chasing? Y'know, so we have something left over at the end for food and for fuel, and for any other stuff we might need to stay alive."

Spike delved back into his jacket, this time extracting a silver cigarette lighter. He then turned and began to walk away. Jet turned around and watched as he passed by the neatly folded away Swordfish.

"Well, Spike?" he called after him. "Are you gonna answer me or not?"

Spike lit the lighter, causing a faint orange glow to be projected against the wall of the dimly lit hangar.

"Big Shot's back on in a minute." he replied eventually, continuing into the shadows.

"Spike!" Jet barked.

Spike stopped. There was a loud click as he shut the lid of the lighter. The orange glow was extinguished, and a thin wisp of smoke emerged from beyond Spike's away-facing head. He then plucked the cigarette from his mouth and held it away from his face.

"No promises." he said.

Spike then replaced the cigarette, and melted into the darkness.

Jet took a weary breath of the now slightly tainted sea air, and looked back to the hangar door.

"Non-committal." he observed. "I guess it was the best I could've hoped for."

He then gave a muted gasp of horror as he noticed a trace of ash that had become lodged in the tacky paint.

"Aw, Spike. . ." he lamented.

------------------------------------- --------------------------------- ---- --------------------------

Spike marched the last few yards to the door of the lounge, hands clasped behind his head, and turned into the doorway just in time to hear the gunshot that heralded the return of Big Shot after 'a short message from our sponsors'. Stepping over the threshold, he noticed that the room had changed slightly since he had left to grace Jet with his presence, albeit briefly. The lights had been dimmed slightly, and there was an attractive, rather revealingly clothed woman lying flat out across the far couch.

Spike did not greet this sight with the pleased surprise that many men might.

"You have a room for a reason, Faye." he said with a quiet indignation.

Faye opened one eye, and glanced at Spike. She then looked back up at the ceiling and closed the eye once more.

"It was stuffy in there." she informed him, sounding almost as if she was surprised he did not know.

She then shifted around on the couch to attain maximum comfort, and let out a relaxed sigh.

This sort of lethargic behaviour had been a prominent feature of the last couple of days. With the Bebop grounded until the damage to the hull could be fixed and the engine refuelled, the crew had been left stranded on Earth. What was worse, they had no money to speak of, and no money to spend was tantamount to no reason to leave the ship. With things being the way they were, it hadn't taken long for certain bounty hunters to start getting under each other's feet.

Spike dropped his hands from behind his head and turned his cigarette down at the ground.

"I was sitting there." he grumbled between his teeth.

"You left this seat unattended." Faye replied, this time without opening an eye. "I'm just exercising the right of salvage. You know, the one with the finders and the keepers?"

"I'm not kidding, Faye." Spike said, beginning to get a little frustrated by her childish behaviour. "I was sitting there."

Faye opened an eye again, indicating that she had to some small degree taken Spike's warning seriously.

"Relax, Spike." she said. "Why can't you just sit on the other chair? Seriously, I'm beginning to think you're going stir crazy from being stuck in this bucket."

Spike grunted, and stuffed his hands into his pockets.

"You should be glad Jet wasn't here to hear you say that." he commented.

He then looked down at the chair nearest him. True enough, he could sit there if he wanted to. However, he preferred not to sit with his back to the door. It was an idiosyncrasy he had developed during 'happier' days, before his time on the Bebop, and had had trouble shaking off. What was also true was that being confined to the ship was affecting his mood somewhat. While being on a spaceship that was actually in space afforded one unparalleled freedom, being on one that was pasted to a planet by gravity was a very, very different matter. Of course, Spike did not say any such thing, as he reserved openly agreeing with Faye for only the most extreme of circumstances.

Lacking the energy or the desire to continue his feud with Faye, Spike opted for changing the subject instead.

"So, did I miss anything?" he said as he rounded the nearest chair.

Faye yawned, and then answered,

"Not unless you were planning to buy a sulphur mine on Io, or a methane farm on Neptune."

Spike adopted a flat expression as he planted his backside into the plastic upholstery of his chair.

"No thanks." he said, and then cast a glance at Ein who was lying on his side at the foot of the stairs to his right. "This place smells bad enough as it is."

Spike slouched down into his chair, causing the back of his jacket to grumble loudly as it was dragged across the rubbery surface of the upholstery. He hated that sound. He then hoisted his right foot up and dropped it wearily onto the table. The surprise jolt caused the TV picture jump and roll. The startled contraption continued to fret for a few seconds before finally calming down.

It seemed that Faye had taken the liberty of turning down the volume on the set to aid her in her beauty sleep. Spike was not especially concerned by this however, as today's 'menu' did not appear terribly appetising. He didn't really feel like trawling Jupiter for smugglers, or fishing around Uranus for pirates anyway. And even if he did, there was no way it was going to happen any time soon. Without the money for fuel, the Bebop and her crew were confined to hunting bounties on Earth, of which there seemed to be precious few.

Uninterested in the procession of unviable bounties, Spike consoled himself by watching the show's female presenter as she bounced and jiggled. However, he was finding it hard to concentrate on these fascinating motions due to a rather irritating sound that was emanating from beyond Faye's couch. This frantic clicking was interfering with Spike's viewing pleasure, and it was beginning to work on his already fraying nerves.

"Is she still at it?" he asked Faye, wearily.

"Fifteen hours straight." she replied. "Those goggles are gonna fuse to her face if she doesn't quit soon. Mind you, Ed is the only one around here who hasn't been in a bad mood recently."

Spike sighed.

"My kingdom for a hobby."

If only everyone were so easily entertained.

"You could try going out for a while." Faye suggested. "Fresh air might do you some good. And besides, that storm cloud that's been following you around can't be good for my complexion."

"Ach, there's nothing to see on this mud ball." Spike complained. "Not unless you like derelict buildings and craters."

"Wheeeee!" a shrill cry came from behind the couch.

Faye waited for it to die down before replying.

"Suit yourself. But if you're going to insist on brooding, could you at least do it quietly? I need to catch up on my beauty sleep."

"What, you only get twelve hours last night?" Spike sniped.

However, his jibe went unanswered. This just served to darken Spike's mood. There was nothing to do on this planet, not even bating Faye.

"Potatoes!" Ed's joyous voice rang out once more. "Potatoes! It's Potatoes! Yaaaay!"

This cry was accompanied by the brief flailing of two stringy arms above the back of the sofa. These were then quickly retracted, and the frenzied clicking began anew.

"Well, at least someone around here is having a good time." Spike observed.

He then returned his attention to the television set. Unfortunately, the buoyant Judy had been replaced by yet another set of stats for yet another all too distant bounty. Now that there was nothing worth watching on the screen, Spike tried to listen to the output of the speakers instead. Too lazy to lean forward and raise the volume, he strained his ears to hear what was being said. Slowly, the false Mexican strains of Punch became audible.

". . . and then he flushed all twenty of them down a public toilet! No wonder the police have deemed this bad hombre worthy of six big fat zeros!"

"Charming." Muttered Spike.

The shot then reverted to the presenters who, as always, were decked in gaudy, historically inaccurate cowboy garb.

"Well, that's all we have time for today, Cowpokes." squeaked Judy. "Tune in tomorrow for. . ."

"Now, hold on there, Judy." Punch interrupted his co-presenter. "Ain't you forgetting something?"

Judy turned to him with a poorly feigned look of surprise.

"Why, whatever do you mean, Punch?"

"It's the last day of the month, and you know what that means." Punch replied.

Judy gasped, and there followed a dramatic pause. Suddenly, the words Bonus Bounty flashed across the screen in large, old west style lettering. A chorus of voices shouting the same, and a riot of six-shooter gunshots accompanied this.

"That's right!" Punch exclaimed into the camera. "It's time for the monthly bonus bounty."

"Yesuree." Judy concurred. "This month we've got a right humdinger for you. Last seen on Earth, this big, bad outlaw is something of a collector's item."

"Yeah, and you'd better move quickly, because this could be your last chance before he goes underground for good." Punch took over.

This piqued Spike's interest. This was the first bounty that had actually been within reach, and could prove to be his ticket of this paltry rock. Also, after money, the biggest reward of bounty hunting was notoriety, and by the sound of it, this bounty head could be quite a reputation booster. Leaning forward, Spike listened more closely.

"This guy is a legendary syndicate pit-fighter, whose last known whereabouts were somewhere in Eastern Old Europe." Punch continued.

"Legendary. . . pit-fighter?" Spike repeated the words.

His eyes-widened slightly, as he began to suspect that he already knew whom they were talking about.

"He's getting' on in years now," Judy picked up where Punch left off. "And rumour has it that his retirement fight's gonna be sometime in the next couple of weeks."

"Come on." Spike muttered. "Get to the point."

"But don't let the modest reward fool you, this guy is as tough as they come." Judy warned. "He goes by the handle of. . ."

Then a mug shot flashed up on the screen. Spike's jaw loosened, allowing his smouldering cigarette to escape his lips and tumble to the floor. His suspicion was confirmed. As he stared into the screen, he uttered in unison with the presenter,

"Stainless Steele."