13) Forever Broke

Spike grunted with discomfort as he manoeuvred his bandaged right foot over the threshold of yet another segment of corridor. Everything was sore, even parts of his body had not used to fight. And as if the torture of his injuries had not been bad enough, Faye's heavy-handed bedside manner had proven almost more than the infirm bounty hunter could take. If she had applied the bandages any tighter, he might have needed an amputation.

Spike wobbled for a moment. Reaching out, he grabbed the frame of the threshold with his right hand, only to receive a harsh reminder of why the appendage was splinted and bound. As he reeled away with a bark of pain, his left shoulder came up against the unyielding metal wall. Another bark of anguish and Spike finally, painfully regained his balance.

This had been happening all to often since earlier that evening. Getting around on a broken foot was a challenge, especially as his splinted hand and slung shoulder precluded the use of a crutch and the Bebop, for all its vast cargo and hangar space, did not accommodate a wheelchair. There were times when Spike had considering purchasing one for himself. Value for money would certainly be guaranteed.

Of course, as always, he had brought this upon himself. In his zeal to discover the reason for Steele's odd effect on him, he had thrown himself thoughtlessly into the grinder with nary a thought for the consequences. But then, Spike didn't *do* consequences. Never had.

Spike grimaced as he placed his bruised heel upon the floor for another painful step. For something he didn't *do*, these consequences certainly smarted.

Fortunately, Spike's skirmish with Steele had not been entirely fruitless. He felt that he was close to the answer. When he had looked into Steele's eyes as they had fought, if 'fight' was even the word for what had happened, he was sure he had seen something pertinent. But still, Spike remained unsure of just what that something was. The answers were never going to come that easily. Nothing ever did.

And so, Spike was now making the arduous journey to enlightenment - a lonely pilgrim with only his wounds for company.

As one might expect, Spike had found the path to the truth to be fraught with obstacles, the last of which now lay just ahead.

Ed was patrolling a short stretch of corridor outside the sitting room. The eccentric child had a balding broom hoisted over her shoulder like a rifle, and was marching back and forth repeating the words,

"Hup, two three four. Hup, two three four."

As always, Ein was in tow. The little dog trotted back and forth a couple of stubby-legged paces behind Edward, and was watching her intently. He appeared almost to be studying Ed, as if she were some petri-dish borne oddity. It certainly wouldn't have come as any surprise to find that Ed was some sort of strange lab experiment. But of course, Ein was just a dog, and dogs aren't intelligent enough to study experiments and such. That would just be silly.

Spike approached the armed guard, only to be confronted as he reached the doorway.

"Halt! Who goes there?" Ed barked, pointing her deadly broom at a defenceless Spike.

"Get out of the way, Ed." Spike sighed.

Edward's eyes narrowed with suspicion.

"What's the password?" she asked.

Spike growled softly with frustration.

"Get out of the way *now*, Ed." he replied.

Ed glared at Spike for some seconds before finally delivering her verdict.

"Password accepted." she said, grinning widely. "You may enter."

"Gee, thanks." Spike muttered.

Edward flung her firearm back over her shoulder and returned to her guard duty.

Meanwhile, Spike set about limping into the sitting room, cursing the individual whose idea it was to raise the bottom of every doorway on the ship as he went.

Entering the room, Spike's gaze fell upon his goal. On the left hand side of the room was sat Stainless Steele. The fighter was bound to the yellow armchair in which he sat, his bonds thread between the rails of the stairway for extra security. His head was lowered and his eyes closed as he appeared to trying to get some sleep.

The crew had earlier elected to transport Steele into custody the next

day. Or rather, Faye had elected to do so, since hers was the only pilot/ship team that consisted of two functioning members. She had thought it best not to risk her dwindling fuel supplies by flying without a decent night's sleep; a policy that even Spike had to admit was wise. Thus, Steele was to spend the meantime as the recipient of that very special Bebop hospitality.

As for the armed guard, Spike knew that that was for his benefit. Though Jet wouldn't admit to it, Ed had been put there because he didn't trust him with Steele; as well he might not, considering all that had happened. But Spike had no intention of releasing Steele, nor could he, as he now lacked the appendages for undoing knots. No, Spike was here for something else entirely.

Ambling across the room, Spike reached the sofa and sat down on its side, facing Steele. He watched the fighter for a short while as he lingered on the cusp of sleep before speaking.

"Hey, Stainless." he said.

Steele stirred momentarily, and then slowly began to raise his head.

"Hmm?" he murmured distantly.

He then laid his half-closed eyes upon Spike.

"Oh, hey there, Spike." he said. "Is it time to go already?"

"Not yet." Spike replied. "I just thought you might like some company."

If there was one thing that Spike had learned about Steele, it was that he was starved of just that.

Stainless gave a gentle, if laboured smile, and shifted himself around slightly in his chair.

"That's good of you. But I'll tell you what I'd really like."

"What's that?"

Steele winced slightly.

"An aspirin." he said. "I can't remember the last time anyone hit me that hard."

Spike returned Steele's smile. From where he sat, he could just see the gauze that covered Steele's injury peeking around the left hand side of his head.

"Sorry about that," Spike said. "I'm afraid my shipmates and I don't share the same values."

"Don't worry about it." Steele assured him. "Besides, it looks like I'm the one who should be apologising to you."

Spike glanced down momentarily at his own infirmities.

"That's alright." Spike assured Steele back. "I'm getting kind of used to it."

"Accident prone, huh?" Steele chuckled.

Spike smiled enigmatically,

"Something like that." he said.

Steele smiled, and then glanced across to his right, where Ed was still pacing back and forth across the doorway.

"So, uh, how did you get past security?" he asked.

"Who, Ed? I had clearance."

"Interesting kid." Steele commented, clearly trying to be polite. "I take it she's not any of yours."

Spike shuddered at the very thought.

"Nope, she's a wild one." Spike replied.

"Guessed as much." Steele said. "Kind of reminds me of someone I knew from the business. He left shortly after I arrived in Earth, though."

Spike chose not to ask. The thought that there could be someone out there like Ed with the skills of a pit fighter was nightmarish indeed.

"You know," said Steele. "I'm not really too good with kids. I suppose it's because you tend not to see many where I work. It's not really a family environment."

The regret in Steele's voice was almost tangible.

"But, I guess you must be pretty good with 'em, what with looking after Ed and all."

"Yeah, you'd think so." Spike replied.

"You ever thought of having any of your own?" Steele asked.

Spike looked out the door to Ed. The young hacker had since abandoned her guard duties, and had begun to play with Ein. She was holding him beneath his forelimbs, and walking him around on his hind legs. While she seemed to be enjoying the activity immensely, the little dog almost looked embarrassed by the whole affair.

It was the sight of Edward's youthful joy and boundless sense of fun that prompted Spike to give an answer as frank and honest as any he had ever given. Turning back to Steele, he replied,

"I'd rather go another eleven rounds with you."

"C'mon Spike," Steele chortled. "It can't be that bad."

"Maybe." Spike conceded. "Certainly couldn't do any worse as a father than I did fighting you."

"Hey, don't beat yourself up." said Steele. "You know, those were some pretty impressive moves. What was that, Jeet Kun-Do?"

Spike smiled, being only too happy to have changed the subject.

"Good eye." he replied.

"Yeah, well I've seen all the styles over the years." Steele said, deflecting the praise with an embarrassed smirk. "Actually, with a little work, you might just make it the sport. Do you have any prostheses?"

Spike went to speak, but quickly caught his breath. Then, with an artificial offhandedness, he replied,

"None that I know of."

"Oh. Well, it's probably for the best." said Steele. "It's not a pleasant business. A kid like you shouldn't be getting mixed up with characters like me."

It was remarkable how naïve Steele was. Spike was unsure of whether to be astounded or disappointed by the fighter's poor judgement of character. Even now, after all that had happened, Steele still seemed to view him as the friendly fisherman who had opened his door to a lonely old man. Or maybe he had known all along, but had chosen to risk his freedom simply for the chance of a little company.

The conversation ebbed. The two men sat in silence, though not an awkward one. After a short time, Spike spoke up.

"You know, I've gotta say you're taking this pretty well."

"What, you mean being turned in?" Steele said.

He looked down at the ground, and sighed.

"Well, I'd be lying if I said I was overjoyed about it. But, I can appreciate that you and your friends need to make a living. Besides, it would be pretty hypocritical of me to complain. It's not like I haven't done worse things for money."

"Hey, you had to make a living too." Spike pointed out.

"No." Steele asserted, taking Spike a little by surprise. "I didn't have to do what I did. I was never forced to kill all those men."

For the first time, Steele was showing regret for all that he had done. Spike was unsure whether to defend him, or to let him speak. Quickly, he decided on the former.

"Those guys knew what they were getting into. They. . ."

"That's not the point." Steele interrupted.

He then paused, and calmed himself slightly.

"I've been fighting for a good forty years now." he confided. "You know, when I first started out, it wasn't for the love of the sport. God, I hadn't even seen a pit-fight, let alone been in one. But I needed somewhere to go. I needed somewhere. . . I needed somewhere to hide."

Steele looked down at the ground, his expression being describable as nothing other than shame.

"You want to know why I've gone so long without being beaten?" he asked solemnly.

Spike did not reply. His response was to continue to listen intently.

Steele looked up. Peering straight into Spike's eyes, he gave an answer that the bounty hunter would not soon forget.

"It's because I'm a coward."

Spike had to fight to contain a look of astonishment.

"When I first arrived in the pit-fighting world, I fought for my survival." Steele went on. "Turned out fighting was a talent of mine. I'd always been a big guy, but until the first time I stepped into the ring for the talent scouts, I'd never even thrown a punch. But once they saw what I could do to a man if was backed into a corner, they couldn't wait to sign me up. The metal forearms were their idea. I think they were inspired after they saw what I did to the poor guy they stuck me in the ring with."

Steele was baring his soul, and had not needed much cajoling to do so. This was a story that had been written over the course of forty long years in a world not fit for most civilised people, and that had had no outlet until this moment. Though Spike's restrained exchanges with Jet had left him ill prepared for this outpouring, he could not help but feel he should listen. He owed the old fighter that much.

"After that, I was in." Steele continued. "Every week, I'd walk out into an arena, fight for my life, and then walk out. For years, I killed and I killed, and just shrugged it off. The guys knew what they were getting into, and they'd have done the same to me given half the chance. But after a while it started to work on my mind, the faces of the other fighters, looking at me in the seconds before I ended their lives. At times it was almost more than I could bear. That's why I needed Stainless Steele, that *thing* you see step into the ring, it's not me, not really. It's just something I hide behind, because I couldn't face the reality of what I was doing."

"You could have left." Spike said.

"No, I was under contract. There was no way out." Steele paused. "Well, there was one way. All I had to do was to let my guard down, just once. That's all it would have taken. After that, there'd have been no contract that could bind me. Fact is most of the scars I have are from those times when I came closest to doing just that. But when it came down to it, I was too scared. I didn't want to die, so I killed instead. I was too afraid to face my death, just like I was too afraid to face my life."

Steele looked away, and gave a sad chuckle.

"I can't believe it." he said softly, sounding more as if he was speaking to himself than to Spike. "I can't believe I've been running for forty years."

Losing his composure for a second, Spike allowed a cast of confusion to come over his face. It was this expression that Steele responded to upon turning to face him.

"That's why I got into the business," he said. "I was running from my life, my real life. I had. . . some pretty serious problems. I mean, I could have resolved them, right there and then. But I didn't. I turned tail and I ran."

For an instant, Spike considered asking what had happened. But he quickly changed his mind, realising how he would receive that same question were the roles reversed.

"For the longest time after, I told myself that I'd left it all behind. I convinced my self that life was gone - dead and buried. And, after twenty years of convincing, I guess I just wasn't ready for the day that my old life really did die."

Realisation, sharp and penetrating like a guilt-edge dagger, pierced Spike's consciousness. He understood.

"Something happened, something that ended it all without my ever being there." Steele said distantly, as if simultaneously reliving the event in his mind. "And then I was stranded. Stuck in a life I had never wanted, with nowhere to go, and nothing to go back to."

Those solemn words marked the end of Steele's story, and in more ways than one. Spike could see now that it was not a distain for hypocrisy that kept Steele from bemoaning his situation. The sad fact was, he didn't care. He didn't care whether he lived out a comfortable retirement, or spent his the rest of his days trudging about the courtyard of some hellish penal colony. Either one would be a prison to him, an endless cell with no bars to bend and no walls to breach.

Steele gave a gentle smile.

"Listen to me," he said. "Boring some poor youngster with my sob story. I really have become an old man."

"I like a good story every now and again." Spike said.

True enough, since most of his and Jet's emotionally stunted tête-à-têtes comprised stories and fables, employed to prevent any expression of feeling.

"I should hire some hack to write my life story." Steele chortled softly.

He then sighed wearily, and lowered his head.

"Listen, Spike, it's getting kind of late. I really should get some sleep, so if it's all the same to you. . ."

Spike gave his trademark skewed smile.

"No problem. I think it's time I headed off anyway." he said.

Then, remembering a conversation he had once had with Steele, he continued.

"The folks are probably getting worried."

Steele yawned, and face creased up into a half-hearted smile.

"Thanks, kid. Oh, and could you do me a favour?" he asked, already near sleep.

"Sure thing, Stainless."

"On your way out, could you try and make sure no one sees you? It wouldn't look good if I was just letting people waltz in and out of my dressing room without at least crippling them."

Spike returned Steele's smile. It seemed the old man's memory was as sharp as ever.

"No problem." he replied.

Spike then levered himself off the sofa, and steadily began to limp towards the door. As he reached the threshold, he glanced back over his shoulder. There he saw Steele, his head lowered and eyes closed, very much the way he had found him moments earlier.

Allowing the his gaze to linger, Spike uttered the words,

"Good night, Stainless."

And with that he exited the room, leaving behind a man who had been a prominent part of his past and, if he did not heed the warnings, could one day be his future.


Spike lay awake on his bed, staring up at the ceiling of his shoebox of a bedroom. The air conditioning on the ship was beginning to fail due to the near exhausted fuel supply, and as a result the air on the Bebop had become warm and humid, making it difficult to sleep. Also, Spike's injuries were still causing him great discomfort, as the bounty hunters' dwindling funds could not cover painkillers.

As uncomfortable as all this was, it was still an improvement over the past week. During that time, he had lost a great deal of sleep over his now resolved issues with Steele. In particular, he no longer felt any regret at being responsible for the fighter's capture, since his resulting incarceration would be no worse than life on the outside. Not that Spike was pleased about Steele's predicament, he was just happy to be relieved of the responsibility. Wasn't that always the way?

As he stared up at the bland, rust brown bulkheads, he listened to the ambient hums and clanks of the sleeping Bebop as she rocked gently in her crib of water, soothed by the lullaby of a softly lamenting sea.

Spike noticed something odd. There was a new sound lurking amid the familiar mumblings of the ships systems - a regular thumping sound. Spike listened to the sound with a partial curiosity, wondering only casually where they could be coming from. As the thumps continued to come, he began to count them. Slowly, the monotonous pounding began to lull Spike into a light sleep.

The thumping stopped. Spike was aware enough of this to pull himself back from the brink of unconsciousness. Then, realising that the sound was most probably only that of another of the ships systems starving to death, he closed his eyes and began to fall the rest of the way. . .

Spike sat bolt upright, much to the consternation of his many ailments. He winced for a moment, and then turned his attention to that which had roused him. A thunderous roar was resonating through the ship's hull, rattling all of her steadily failing innards. The sound was worrying familiar.

Twisting himself around, Spike placed his feet on the floor and laboriously hauled himself to his feet. But even as he did this, the sound was beginning to recede, vanishing slowly into the night from which it had burst so rudely.

Spike levered himself upright, and began to make his way to the door; a token gesture, since it was likely already too late.


With a groan of effort, Spike turned down the short stretch of corridor that led to the sitting room. The roar that had stirred him from his rest had since dissipated, and now the ambience was once again dominated by the restful muttering of the Bebop's systems.

Looking down this latest length of corridor, he saw Faye. Clad in knee- length nightshirt, and stood with her back turned and fists rested on her hips, she was staring through the doorway of the sitting room, which lay at the end of the hallway.

As Spike ambled down the corridor, the object of Faye's attention came into view. The chair in which Steele had once sat was now vacant, and displaced from its original resting place. Further, the stair rails to which the fighter had been bound were now broken and bent, reaching away from their old bindings as if trying to grasp at their fleeing captive. Periodically Faye would release an expletive or two, most probably directed at Steele or at her own bad luck.

Faye looked over her shoulder as she heard the rhythmic thumping of Spike's plastered foot against the deck plates.

"So how 'bout it Spike," she said, scowling viciously. "Was this your doing?"

Spike waited until he had moved up along side Faye before he replied.

"Sure Faye," he said. "I bent the bars with my own bare hands."

Faye glanced at Spike's heavily bound arm and hand, and huffed loudly at her failed attempt to find a scapegoat.

"I still wouldn't have put it past you." she said, looking back at the scene of the escape.

"I think you can blame shoddy metal work for this one." Spike said. "Jet really needs to treat the ship for rust once in a while."

"Are you kidding?" Faye replied. "The rust is all that keeps this bucket together. And besides, I think some of the blame should fall to our armed guard."

Faye turned around, a cue that was followed by Spike. There they found Ed, sitting with her back against the wall, her broom across her lap and Ein at her side. Both were fast asleep.

Faye approached the snoozing hacker.

"Thanks for raising the alarm, Ed." she drawled, and prodded Ed in the thigh with her slippered foot.

Edward grinned inanely in her sleep.

"It was Ed's pleasure." she replied.

The words that tumbled from Ed's mouth were followed by a large drop of saliva, adding to a pool that had formed at her side.

"Gross." Faye commented. "No wonder we have a rust problem."

"So where's Jet?" Spike asked.

"I don't know." Faye replied. "Probably in the hangar already."

With that, Spike turned and began to slowly make his way to the hangar. Faye followed, keeping pace with him as he accelerated to a steady crawl. This modest pace suited them both, since neither was especially looking forward to finding Jet.


Spike hoisted his foot over the threshold, and then allowed it to drop painfully onto the floor of the hangar. As he entered, he could see Jet standing at the far end of the room with his back turned. The eldest bounty hunter appeared to be staring at the hangar door with his hands clasped across the top of his head. However, Spike was unable to see why Jet was so engrossed by the door due to the dim lighting brought on by the ship's power shortage.

Faye entered the hangar after Spike, and the two began to steadily make their way towards their colleague.

"Hey, Jet." Spike called as he drew closer.

There was no reply.

"Hey, Jet." Spike repeated, this time a little more forcefully.

Having allowed Spike to test the water, Faye added,

"Hey Jet, are you alright?"

Still there was no response. And as Spike and Faye closed in on Jet, they began to see why he was so dumbfounded.

The hangar door, freshly repaired and painted little more than a week earlier, now bore a host of distinctly fist shaped dents. This certainly explained the thumping that had been heard a short time ago.

Drawing up at Jet's left and right respectively, Faye and Spike examined the full extent of the damage. There were around two-dozen deep dents in all, ranging from waste to head height. The most interesting thing of all was that the dents seemed to form a pattern - a series of four letters.

"C-U-S-C." Spike read under his breath.

Faye moved to her left and thumped the panel to open the access hatch. The door slid back, allowing a wave a cool, moist night air to wash into the hangar; a refreshing sensation after a night spent in the humid confines of the Bebop. Peering outside, she hissed,

"Shit. I knew we should have siphoned his fuel."

She drew her head back inside, and moved back up along side Jet, choosing to leave the door open and enjoy the natural air conditioning.

"I'm going after him." she stated, then turned and paced purposefully towards the Redtail, which now headed up the queue of small ships.

"Don't bother." Spike said. "You haven't got the fuel to catch him. And beside, the hangar door will never roll all the way up with those dents in it.

Faye stared at Spike, searching for an argument against his advice. But none came.

Groaning loudly, she folded her arms and turned her scowling face towards the hangar doors.

"So, what do you suppose it means?" she grumbled. "I recon he's taunting us."

"Silly Faye-Faye." Edward's drowsy voice came.

Faye and Spike both looked around to find Ed standing unsteadily behind them. The hacker was swayed gently from side to side with an unconscious Ein draped over her head like a living night hat.

"That's a message for Spike-person." she confided, her eyes still shut.

Spike looked back at the cryptic message, and smiled slightly as he realised what it meant.

"Whatever, Ed." Faye said, and then looked at Spike. "So I guess this means we're back to square one now, huh?"

At that moment, a cool gust of wind blew in from outside. It was accompanied by the sound of flapping paper, coming from just outside the doorway. Both Faye and Spike noticed the sound, but it was the nearer and less infirm Faye that went to investigate.

Examining the area outside the door, she noticed an object resting against the hull. Kneeling down she plucked the object, a thick and rather worn looking book, from the ground. Then, standing up, she turned and re-entered the hangar.

"What's this?" Faye said softly as she began to thumb through the thick, discoloured pages.

Before she could study more closely the contents of the book, it was scooped from her grasped abruptly by a bandaged, though extraordinarily quick hand.

"Hey!" she snapped.

Spike ignored Faye's protest, and began to examine the book himself. From the red and black marbled cover and the heavily taped spine, he quickly realised to his astonishment that this was the same scrapbook that he had found that evening in Steele's dressing room. Resting the book's spine on his good hand, he began to turn the pages carefully with his bandaged one.

They were all there. Just as before, every page bore two newspaper clippings describing fights from earlier in Steele's career, accompanied by notes for future improvements to his training regime.

A thought occurred to Spike. Tipping the book, he skipped to the final page. Sure enough, the last of the tome's thick, discoloured leaves bore the clippings from the fighter's last two fights; his thrashing of Tiger Po, and what the headline suggested to be a rout of Sabre Khan. A note followed the first of these, suggesting work to improve reflexes. The final clipping bore no addendum.

A second thought occurred to Spike. Hastily, he tipped the book again this time flicking to the front inside cover. However, he did not find what he had expected - the tiny news clipping that he had not had the chance to read when first he found this book. All that remained to signal its existence was a small, dark rectangle where it had once been, and some dried glue residue. It seemed that that was the only memory from the scrapbook that Steele was interested in keeping.

It didn't matter. Spike had a feeling he knew what it was.

There was a piece of paper taped to the top of the cover, though. A short note, scrawled hastily onto a ragged scrap of white paper, it read, 'Guess I'm still not ready to let my guard down'.

Spike smiled to himself.

"Well I'm glad you're happy." Faye griped. "Let's see if you can still smile when we're starving to death."

"I don't think that's gonna be a problem." Spike said, looking up at Faye.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"There's a lot of people out there who would pay a good few Woolongs for a collector's item like this." Spike looked down at the book. "I think Steele knew that."

"For that piece of crap?" Faye said, sceptically. "Remind me to write him a thank you note."

Without retort, Spike turned from the sarcastic Faye to a sleepy Edward.

"So Ed," he said. "You want to go put this on the internet?"

Ed yawned loudly.

"Edward will do it tomorrow." she replied.

Ed then turned, and began to beat a winding path out of the hangar.

"I'm going back to bed." Faye said, resignedly. "It's bad enough that I have to die of starvation. The last thing I need is to show up to my funeral with bags under my eyes."

With that she turned and followed Ed towards the door, albeit following slightly straighter course.

Of course, Faye was worried over nothing. In Spike's experience, a piece of memorabilia like that he held would be snapped up very quickly. Perversely, it might even be worth more than Steele's bounty. Though there was no way to know for sure, Spike felt certain that this was Steele's way of saying thank you. Even in light of all that had happened, he still seemed appreciative of having been invited into the Bebop family, and for being relieved of his loneliness, even if it was only for a little while.

Spike yawned as it dawned on him just how little sleep he had had.

"I guess I should hit the sack too." he said, and turned for the door. "Good night, Jet."

Jet did not respond, though. He just continued to stare slack-jawed at his battered hangar door, hands still clasped across his bald head.

Spike glanced over his shoulder, and read Steele's final message one last time. And, with that trademark, skewed smile of his, he uttered softly,

"So long, Stainless."


See you, Space Cowboy. . .