[Disclaimer: Cowboy Bebop and all affiliated trademarks are copyright of Sunrise Bandai.  I only have claim to the situations those copyrighted materials act within.  Yay me.]

[There's a line in Ballad that seemed… out of place.  That and I'm a huge fan of all three tragic characters.  (And would you believe this was written entirely in an e-mail program?)]

Dog with Sharper Teeth

It was entirely too hot and humid.  Heat waves were still distorting the asphalt and sidewalks under the late afternoon sun.  People were moving slowly, tempers were short, and the neighborhood racket was occasionally punctuated with solitary gunshots.  The heat even seemed to warp the occasional siren as it faded in and out as emergency vehicles sped to blood and fire. 

The boys were intoxicated on either liquor or drugs.  Julia sat back against the somewhat cool bricks of a shadowed factory wall and watched her shirtless cohorts with a contented smile and a half-smoked cigarette.  Spike was typical in his laughter and amusing verbal abuse as Vicious labored under her convertible, changing the oil or something.

If not for the liquor she would have done it herself, though, considering what Vicious had swallowed earlier, she wasn't convinced letting him touch the car was such a good idea.  The real reason she hadn't insisted they take their paws off her precious car was the sight of Spike with his shirt stuck in a back pocket like a misplaced tail and her ivory skinned boyfriend with smears of oil striping him like war paint.  She was hazy-drunk and the boys were attractive and amusing.

The radio was much too loud; the bass was rocking the car and vibrating what windowpanes were left in the derelict building providing Julia her shade.  If not for the alcohol, Spike wouldn't have spun the dial as far up as he had.  However, liquor and his good sense were never on speaking terms.  He glanced back and saw Julia's hazy smile as she watched him play quick draw while abusing Vicious' mechanical prowess.  He didn't expect his good sense would be coming home for a while. 

He didn't even notice the locals, from an equally derelict concrete building across from their shade building, yelling at them to turn the music down.  Instead, he noticed the occasional glimpses of Vicious' legs jittering involuntarily with either the music or chemicals.

The concrete under Vicious' bare back and the engine above him created a furnace that was baking him alive.  Vicious didn't really care, he rarely cared about anything, but the chemical cocktail he'd downed after the gunfight of the previous hour was contributing to… feelings.  The alcohol slowed him down, but the Red Eye offshoot was speeding him up.  It was one hell of a biological roller coaster and it was contributing to a general melting of his frigid edge.

His skin was reddening under the motor oil, while the oil was sloughed off by profuse sweat.  Habitual paranoia, heightened by the illegal intake, kept him periodically wiping off his raw hands on his sweat soaked slacks so he could pat his gun occasionally.  Still, he felt good, listening to the quality of Spike's chattering, since he couldn't make out the content for the pounding bass.  It helped that from his position on the ground he had a view of Julia's sweat soaked tank top he supposed only he knew of.

If not for the radio, view, and chemicals, he would have noticed the approaching locals instead of just checking the proximity of his gun.

Julia sucked on her cigarette, drawing the smoke deep into her lungs when she finally saw the group of men with an assortment of pipes and heavy tools.  They were sweating under the oppressive heat, just as shirtless as her cohorts, but in varying degrees of fitness.  On the suaveness scale, they weren't even on the same planet as her boys.

"Spike," she called, not really thinking he'd hear her for the music blaring out of her precious car.  "Neighborhood committee."

Spike doubted he could ever be too distracted to not notice Julia.  He didn't make out what she said, but he got the right idea from her eyes.  "Vicious," he kicked the pale man's closest shin none-too-lightly, "You don't call plumbers to help with a car; you call mechanics."  However, Vicious didn't react to the stimulus.  With a smile and a shrug, Spike turned back to the approaching men.

One of the men, tall of frame and broad of chest, pointed at the offensive radio with a pipe.  "Turn it down."

Grinning helplessly, Spike returned glibly, "I'm sorry, what was that?  The radio's too loud."

Against the brick wall, Julia chuckled despite herself.  There was probably no man in the solar system as naturally annoying as Spike Spiegel.

The men took Spike's affront as a calculated annoyance, which wasn't far from the truth, and a few shouted for the radio to be turned down or they would turn it down themselves and dismember Spike in the process.  The fluffy-haired man gave them an indifferent expression, his hands spreading out in feigned helplessness.  "What?  You'll have to speak up."

When the handful of irate locals attacked Spike, Julia wasn't even slightly worried about him.  She pulled her gun and prepared to defend, not him, but her car should any of the thugs get too close to it.  Spike was nothing but trouble, but, then, trouble was something she usually enjoyed.

Spike supposed he could use some good sense, but since it wasn't taking him back yet, he made do with monkey sense.  He dodged between the men, some of which even knew how to fight, parted the jungle of metal weaponry, and began the ass kicking he was thrilled to deliver.

Unfortunately, liquor wasn't such a good fighting companion.  It couldn't replace Vicious as a fighting partner.  It let several jabs in, not to mention the occasional knee or elbow that Vicious would only let land on Spike for the sake of a thin smile.

Under the car, Vicious was staring fixedly at the vibration of the engine as the bass thumped rhythmically from the speakers.  His leg was vibrating out of time to the rapid beat but his heart seemed to be in synch.  It wasn't all that interesting and he still didn't care, but he did notice that at some point somebody had kicked his shin.  He wasn't sure when it happened: an hour ago or a second?

Thinking very little, but taken with the desire to retaliate, the pale man wiped his hands off on his slacks again and gripped his gun.  Peering through toxic sweat, stripes of oil, and damp hair, he observed the tangle of legs struggling and writhing near his own.  More than once, he noticed people trip up on his still shaking limbs, but he didn't feel it.  It wasn't a problem that he didn't know which foot had kicked him; he'd get it just the same.

Blinking back stinging sweat from his white-fringed eyes.  He brought his pistol to bear.  He would have preferred the cold sheen of his katana, but it wouldn't work from under the car.  He didn't presently even know where it was anyway.  Or where he was, exactly, other than under a car, shooting somebody's leg.

He squeezed the trigger gently, taking care to aim at the legs to his far right.  They were a safe distance from Julia and her wet tank top.

Spike's eyes widened considerably despite the swelling beginning to force one of them shut.  Though he was hardly down, he was quite battered and amply bruised.  Even so, he wasn't expecting a line of bullets to erupt from underneath Julia's obscenely red convertible.

One by one, from his right, his opponents were dropping on the ground, kneecaps and shins obliterated by the cruel hollow points Spike's closest friend employed.  Knowing Vicious' tactics, Spike surged backwards, knocking himself heels-over-head into the convertible's back seat.  The pale man was efficiently sweeping his gun across the scene from right to left.

The pistol's report was like a particularly nasty, though familiar, conversation with an old friend.  Julia smiled ruefully at the sight of Vicious' filthy, raw hand as it swept steadily right to left.  The bullets, when they did not rip through flesh and bone in a spray of debris, pounded and shattered the bricks to her left.  A disconcerting trail was coming closer and closer to her.  But she didn't mind; Vicious preferred her company than the lack of it.  And he'd promised to take Spike and her to dinner after he'd changed her oil... or something.

Not that he needed to be reminded of her presence, but Julia was too drunk to take chances and leaned down, bring her shoulders in and boosting her rather perfect bust out.  She wasn't so drunk that she didn't know what Vicious' drug and alcohol-affected mind allowed him to appreciate.

The local assailants were screaming and running, as none of them were foolish enough to carry guns on them.  Pipes and tools could get you flattened but guns got you dead.  Vicious did not concern himself with the fallen, only continued his arc of prescribed violence.  His eyes preceded his arm, tracking forward to find a target as he continued squeezing the trigger.  When his pale gaze collided with the enhanced view Julia was offering, his eyes stopped tracking forward but his gun did not.

Spike untangled himself from the knot of his own limbs he had fallen into in his mostly drunken stupor.  The radio was loud, drowning most of the sounds of the gunshots, which he noticed with growing incredulity, were perfectly in keeping with the beat of the song blaring out of the speakers.  He filed the information away for future Vicious-baiting.

Peering over the side of the door, Spike couldn't restrain his laughter.  Those of the neighborhood welcoming committee that could run, were running, those that couldn't run, were limping and crawling, those that couldn't limp or crawl were trying to stop their bleeding.  And Vicious was still shooting even though the legs that were still good were ahead of his steady clip.

The laughter died in his throat, though, when he looked back at Vicious' future path of explosions.  There was something distinctly humor-killing about the swell of breasts, glistening in the fading sunlight in an almost surreal parody of some schoolboy fantasy.  He'd admired Julia from the first day he'd clapped eyes on her leather-clad figure, but the view was almost too much for him.  He wondered passingly what Vicious would do if he saw such a thing, which, obviously, he probably saw quite often.  Spike frowned.

The gun never wavered, its course was always exact.  Vicious' eyes, however, were occupied though his hand continued on autopilot.  How could he look away when the setting sun was making the sheen of sweat over her skin glisten in such a fascinating, though somewhat absurd, way?  The chemicals he'd imbibed only enhanced the vision sevenfold.

A bullet shattered on the left side of Julia's head, but she declined flinching.  There was no doubt Vicious would spare her life; he didn't throw things away that didn't displease him.  Few enough things didn't displease him as it was.  Her rueful smile didn't fade in the least.  She couldn't see his face, but his legs had stopped shaking.  The next shot shattered with the bricks on her right, inches from her head.

Spike couldn't help but be impressed with Julia's lack of surprise when the roses of brick and bullet bloomed on either side of her sleek golden hair.  He wasn't certain he could be that controlled.

Vicious was still methodically squeezing the trigger even after the clip was empty.  It was a small mercy he had run out of bullets before the rear driver's side tire was blown out.  A mercy Julia might have thanked the gods for if she'd opted to believe in them.

"Vicious," Spike commented, swinging his torso over the car door, bringing his chest against the sleek paint and chrome and his head against the barrel of a gun.  "You can stop shooting."

The gun hammer impacted against the empty chamber a few more times for good measure. 

Spike sighed and flopped back into the leather seats.  "No sense of humor, Julia." 

Julia shrugged and stood up, flipping her blond hair behind her in a shimmering wave of rich gold.  "What?"

Another sigh left Spike more exasperated than before.  His hand drifted to the radio and his dexterous fingers flicked the retro knob so both sound and power evaporated from the system.  Another click sounded underneath the vehicle, before Spike heard the rustle of movement heralding Vicious' appearance.  It was by far the most unkempt appearances he'd seen the cold man make that did not involve a body count.  He was slick with sweat, grime, and underneath the dirt, his skin was reddened.  His dress slacks only emphasized his disheveled state.

"Where's my sword?"

"You are not getting in my car like that," Julia smirked, brushing gravel and other debris from Vicious' back.  She threw a mild glance over his pale shoulder at Spike, "Get your feet off the leather and your hands away from the radio."

With the attitude of a babysitter saddled with two obnoxious brats, Julia reached into the back seat and retrieved shoulder holsters and an undershirt.  "You two need to learn to control yourselves."  She pulled up short, thrusting a holster at Spike.  "Strike that; you need to learn to control yourself.  Put your shirt on, your bruises are beginning to show."

Catching on quickly, Spike grinned despite his swollen eye, but still managed to look penitent.  "But, Julia, Vicious started it."

Vicious scowled and took his shirt from Julia's hand.  "Sword?"

Before he could pull the shirt over his head, Julia took a hold of it.  She didn't look him in the eye as she remarked quietly, "You're filthy, wait a moment."

"Good thing you've got somebody to keep you clean," Spike teased his friend, though, inside he felt as if he was somehow lying.  Not for the first time, Spike's heart constricted painfully as he watched Julia even though she was only retrieving a hand towel from her purse.

"Hear the pot," Vicious returned, a faint trace of humor in his somber voice, "calling the kettle black."

No words of retaliation shot back; Spike couldn't dispute the claim.  He waited quietly as Vicious began wiping the oil and dirt from his chest and stomach.  When Julia began to turn to him, Spike pulled his own shirt from his back pocket and pulled it over his mop of dark hair.  A smirk played across her lips when he gave her a sly wink, but some brief emotion in her eyes caught his attention.  When he couldn't define it he let it go and wished the combat was still going.  It was better to notice your enemies than be confused by your friends.

"That's better," she nodded, "but your eye looks awful."

"The kind words of a concerned friend.  So where are we going for dinner?"  Spike asked, his attention suddenly drawn blessedly to a growling stomach.  "You said you'd buy, Vicious."

Vicious shrugged into his shirt and took his holster from Julia's long-fingered hands.  "Somewhere quiet; the chemicals are winding down… and you look like hell."

The snort was predictable.  "Do you have any idea what you look like right now?"

"Like a beast," Vicious smiled slightly, eyes narrowed in rare satisfaction, "among beasts."

Julia rolled her eyes and pointed at the pile of jackets in the backseat.  They had worn them earlier for a bit of work, when being too hot wasn't a choice.  "Your fang is under there."