Well…we've come to the end. It's been a wonderful time writing this story. I also beat the two-year mark by about 28 days. Yay!Special thanks to Starzki, whose reviews have inspired me the most. You are my Bebop fic soul mate, I think.

More notes at the bottom. Enjoy the final chapter, everyone!

Disclaimer: I do not own Cowboy Bebop and am making to profit from this story.

Note: Chapter title taken from Yoko Kanno's "The Real Folk Blues."

-- Kites Without Strings -- Part Fifteen: Love Never Ever Fades Away

By Gundam Girl

Spike walked out of Julia's apartment building with a feeling he couldn't quite define. Part of it was exhilaration; that he was going through with this, that Julia was coming with him, that both of them would be free from the shackles the syndicate had clapped on them.

And then he spotted Vicious walking down the sidewalk, away from his black car, toward the place he had just exited. And he understood the other part of his feeling – Contempt.

Contempt that he had to do this, that he had to betray the only family he had ever had, to run with the woman he loved…all because of this man who would sooner kill them to soothe his own anger than let them love in peace.

"Spike," Vicious called, his voice betraying nothing. Spike smirked, not because he was happy to see his former friend, but because part of him wished the katana master would just go ahead and expose all of the hate he held for him. "Visiting Julia?"

"I was showing her my eye," lied Spike. "She told me before that she wanted to see it when the bandage was taken off."

"Hm." Standing only a couple feet away from him, Vicious gave Spike's eye a swift inspection himself. The rain had let up, giving them a reprieve, but Spike suspected it would be brief. "It looks well, but for the shade being darker."

A long time ago, Spike might have felt pleased that Vicious had noticed the subtle difference. It would have made him think what a good friend the pale-haired man was. Now he understood that Vicious was merely regarding him with the close scrutiny of an enemy. "Well, I get what I get, looks like," was all Spike said. "Are you going to visit Julia now too?"

"Yes. I finally have a mission for her." Vicious's eyes narrowed only the slightest bit when Spike's own gaze hardened. "Don't worry; it will be nothing dangerous for her. I also have confidence that she will perform well."

"She's very capable," Spike agreed. "Whatever you give her, she'll take it seriously."

"Do you believe she will want it?"

Spike had to school his expression into thoughtfulness although he knew the answer right away. "I believe…that she wants to be happy."

At that, Vicious allowed himself to smile. But the smooth upturning of lips was cold, and Spike thought if he touched Vicious now, he might feel the chill of the ice-water that seemed to run through Vicious's veins in the stead of warm blood. "Then you have just confirmed it for me. I'll see you tomorrow morning."

"Yeah," Spike replied under his breath. What it did Vicious mean, exactly? "I'll be there. I'll put on my best show yet."

The two men continued walking, and as they passed each other, side by side, Spike felt as though time stopped for half a second. And he knew it would be the last time he saw Vicious.

But he never looked back.

o0o

The sound of Vicious's footsteps was a metronome, and it kept the tempo of fate. Fate that came closer and closer to Julia as he climbed the stairs that took him to her door.

Julia couldn't hear him, couldn't hear anything beyond the thoughts swirling inside of her own head. She had the address Spike had given her still clenched between her fingers, which quaked slightly. She was sitting in a chair at her table facing the window, waiting for the skies to open again and drench Tharsus with its power.

She was lost behind a veil of happy illusions she fervidly wished would become reality soon. Maybe if she wished hard enough, she didn't even need a fairy godmother's help. But it seemed to the pessimistic part of her mind that it would take more than magic to give her a good life with Spike.

So lost behind this veil and these thoughts was she that Julia didn't register that her apartment door had opened. It wasn't until she felt the cool press of a gun's mouth to the side of her head that she even realized anyone had entered. However, she felt as though she had somehow expected it; she had expected it all to go wrong. And so she felt no need to look up at her would-be assassin.

"So. You were going to betray me?" came the frosty words from the equally frozen man. "Did you really think you could just leave?" A touch of heat was added to his voice this time, making the syllables steam.

A sort of panic seized her, and his name fell desperately from her lips. "Vicious…" She felt his eyes not on her, but on the address in her hands. Her bangs fell over her eyes, shielding her feelings from him. Because the answer was yes; she had started to believe…

"Keep dreaming, Julia," he advised lowly. "It's never going to happen." How would she react, he couldn't help but wonder, if he told her that Spike had just now given them away without knowing.

"I believe…that she wants to be happy." As far as Vicious was concerned, if he did not make her happy, then no one would.

The quiet possessiveness with which he spoke angered her just enough to cast her worried eyes up into his. "Are you going to kill him?" she whispered.

"I won't." Vicious drew the gun away from her flesh and set down with a dull click on the table beside her. "You're going to do it for me."

Julia could hold back her gasp, and she jerked slightly toward him, silently begging him to be lying. It would be the first lie she would have welcomed from this demon. Fear clutched her heart and festered there.

Vicious smiled down at her, a smile full of victory he was assured he had gained. In his black suit and long scarf, he looked oddly like a preacher; one who worshipped the devil rather than God. "Either you kill him," he told her, "or both of you die. Those are your only options. You wanted a mission," he reminded her cruelly. "I have finally seen fit to give you one."

He walked away from her, his smile firmly in place, toward the door. In the last instant before he stepped out, Julia swiveled around. "What have you to possibly gain from this, Vicious!" The purity in her voice was like fresh air in the stale oxygen of the room.

Vicious paused, his hand on the doorknob to close the wood panel behind him. "I think you already know the answer to that. The question is what have you to gain?"

Julia stared, uncomprehending his words.

"Shall I tell you?" Vicious began to pull the door shut behind him. In an inch before it did so, he whispered one word:

"Freedom."

Alone in her apartment, Julia heard the thunder roll above the city. A streak of lightning fell across the sky and lit up the room for just a moment, like a revelation.

And Julia did received a revelation. When she was sure her legs would function correctly, she stood up from her chair and went to the window, tearing Spike's paper with her oddly steady fingers as she moved. She cupped the torn fragments and tilted her hands.

The shreds fell like the pieces of her broken heart to the cold, wet pavement below.

"I'm sorry, Spike," she murmured to the rain. "You'll have to watch your dream alone."

o0o

The next morning, syndicate agents from the Red Dragon Clan were gathering at, of all places, an auto junkyard. But Mao always knew what he was doing; the more ludicrous the pickup spot, the harder it would be for the ISSP to catch them red-handed.

The earliest arrivals were Vicious, Shin, and Lin. That was to be expected. Normally, Spike would have gotten at the location by now as well, and only the twins found this to be unusual.

"Spike did say he is coming, right, Vicious?" queried Lin to the silent older man. He still had Spike's actions from the day before heavily on his mind. "The will of the Van—"

"Spike will be coming," interrupted Vicious, his voice the slightest bit harsh. "But you should know that Spike's participation in the syndicate has never had anything to do with the will of the Van."

Lin fell silent, answering his brother's questioning look with an identical face that held only confusion.

Other members began showing up, their groups small so as not to attract attention from any people on the street outside the chain-link fence around the perimeter. Shin was about to take his turn to query Spike's presence, when the black-clad assembly heard a familiar buzzing in the air above them.

A red mono-racer was flying toward the junkyard. Vicious felt both of the twins relax behind him and, indeed, he could not help but form a smile of his own. But his happiness was caused by a completely hostile and loathing feeling.

The mono-racer hovered just above them. The looks of many agents' faces gave the impression that Spike might as well have been an expert knight, come to win the battle. If anyone had ever been an embodiment of hope in the Red Dragon Clan, it made sense for it to be Spike. And now, like Achilles, he came riding in his chariot…

And then the chariot exploded, and the mono-racer disappeared, replaced by spheres of flames and pillars of black smoke. Scraps of metal began to rain down upon the agents. Outbursts broke forth from many of the men.

Vicious's eyes hardened at the sight.

Standing by the window of her shop, Annie's hand had leapt to her mouth and the explosion in the middle of the city was reflected in her kind gaze.

Mao Yenrai's face was shadowed by the plume of smoke, which rose well in his sight from his office where Spike had been standing with him just the day before. His expression showed no surprise, no shock…only fierce determination. He did not believe the boy he had cared for was dead.

From her apartment, Julia was staring at the shards of the plane's windshield that glistened in the early morning light as they fell to the Mars ground below. Spike…What a charade you've turned all of this into.

On the street only a block away from the Tharsus Community Cemetery, Spike put the device that was part-remote control, part-detonator back into the pocket of his dark trench coat. His eyes were on his feet as he walked. If anyone had bothered to look, they would have noticed he was suspiciously the only person around that wasn't watching the show overhead.

Spike paused in his strides at the sound of someone whimpering. Turning his head to the right, he realized he had stopped in front of a flower vendor. But the vendor was only a little boy, no more than nine or ten years old. His eyes were large and frightened as they stayed trained on the "accident."

Taking a drag on his cigarette, Spike smiled. "Hey."

The boy yelled in surprise, jerking to look at his addressor, breathing rapidly.

"Sorry to scare you, kid." Spike almost chuckled. He had, after all, just frightened the boy by both his abrupt call and the explosion a minute ago. "I need one of those." He pointed to a bucket of long-stemmed red roses, their blooms closed against the rain falling on them.

The boy stared for a second, then smiled with much joy. "Of course! Thank you." He took Spike's money graciously and passed him the single flower with enthusiasm Spike had rarely ever seen.

"Thanks yourself." He turned away and continued his path toward the graveyard. He made it there and stood in the middle paved walkway in the center of the fenced area. He passed his fingers lightly over the rose's vibrant petals, feeling their softness and wondering how long it would be before Julia followed him here. He couldn't expect her right away…just leaving her apartment as soon as Spike "died" would bring far too much suspicion.

He knew, of course, that this whole incident would bring a world of trouble to Mao and the Red Dragon Clan. The ISSP would surely start an investigation before night fell. The Longs would be horribly indecisive for a few days. Vicious would be furious. Annie would be horror-struck. And Shin and Lin would feel abandoned for awhile.

But each of them, those who loved him and those who didn't, would recover from the loss of him. He was willing to hurt people for the woman he loved. And he was showing it right now.

Two more hours passed. Spike was fine with that; there were still hours left in the day, and Julia would surely be here soon. He seated himself on the bench just inside the cemetery, making sure the collar of his coat was pulled up to hide his neck and face.

He was on his ninth cigarette by the time the town clock chimed six in the evening. Damn, the woman was making him nervous. And she was giving him cancer.

By eight, he was soaking wet. The rain had poured down at seven and had drenched him with its fierce wrath. He'd seen five ISSP cars zoom past him, and three black cars that he was fairly certain belonged to the Red Dragon syndicate. He was out of cigarettes, and his lighter was too wet to work.

At a quarter before ten, Spike was ready to stomp all the way to her apartment and pound on the door, screaming her name with a voice as frenzied as he felt. But just as he stepped outside the gate of the graveyard, a plain red car pulled up in front of him.

His heart stuttered. Julia…

The window closest to him was rolled down, and Spike saw a large man look out at him. He was balding on top of his head, but he still had a thick black beard on his jaw that curves up to his temples and slashed under his cheekbones. "Hey." The man stuck an arm out of the window and Spike realized within two seconds that it was a cybernetic implant. "You okay, kid? Do you need a ride?"

Spike stared at the man for a few seconds, wishing he had his other eye so he would be able to study him more carefully. Mainly however, his eye was focused on the vehicle the man was driving. "Is that your car?" he asked, his voice sounding oddly detached to his own ears.

"This? Nah," said the man, scratching under a metal plate near his eye. "I'm renting it while I'm in town. I'm waiting on some repairs to my ship. You're all wet though. You sure you don't need a ride?"

Spike found his way into the passenger seat, though his steps did not seem to be his own. "Can you take me someplace specific?"

"Sure, just give me directions. I'm not really familiar with Tharsus."

Spike directed him to Julia's place and then half-listened to the man as they rode through town. The best part of this generous man's lift was that he got a cigarette out of him.

"…some kind crash in the city, I heard? A mono-racer going up. Man, I tell you, we never got any shit like that in Ganymede."

"Ganymede?" Spike stared at the dash board, his face stony. Julia had been born on Ganymede.

"Yeah, the only excitement there was a second-rate casino, but even that placed closed down a few years ago. They bulldozed it right into the ground." The man turned onto Julia's street. Spike didn't even wait for the car to completely stop before he jumped out and bounded toward her apartment building's door. "Hey, kid! Are you—" But his voice was cut off and Spike slammed into the place.

He stormed up the stairs two at a time and knew even then how much he was risking. Vicious could have gotten to her, could have used her to trap him, to lure him back in. He'd done it before to other agents that had tried to cut loose.

That would have been fine. Just so long as he didn't find out that it was something else. That Julia had—

He burst into her apartment, chest heaving from running up all those stairs. Everything was the same. That silly fish sculpture was still at the window. There was a tea kettle sitting on the cold stove. He lunged for the bedroom, only to find it the same state, with the one exception that her closet door was open and half the clothes in it – for the most part, the warmest ones – were gone. He went to her bathroom and saw that nearly all the contents of her medicine cabinet were missing as well. And when he finally went back to the kitchen, he saw that the coat rack next to the door was empty of her coat.

Spike emerged from the apartment building five minutes later. The rain continued to drop on him mercilessly. Almost at once, Spike felt the feeling return to his limbs as the shock slowly subsided; he realized with not so much as a start that he was still holding the rose he had bought her. It was the only beautiful thing around him. In his lack of awareness, one of the thorn's had dug into his palm, making it bleed a thin stream down his hand.

He let it fall to the icy cement beneath his feet, right in the center of a water puddle. It caused the edges to ripple.

The man was still sitting in his rented car and was now looking at him with a heap of concern in his gaze. "Hey, kid… If you want, I can—you know—drop you off somewhere else."

Spike nodded, although he didn't have a goddamn clue where that somewhere else might be. He didn't have a single place to go. He'd given up his entire life in one day – all for a woman who had simply vanished like the shyest phantom.

With a last drag on the gift cigarette, he dropped it too. It fell to join the rose as he stepped back toward the car and joined the man.

They drove in silence. Spike noticed after a minute that they were headed for the space port. Suddenly, the man spoke up. "Listen, kid… Well, starting off. What's your name?"

He didn't know how strongly he could speak right now, but his voice came out surprisingly clear, if void of any emotion whatsoever. "Spike. Spike Speigel."

"Well, Spike Speigel!" The man was trying overly hard to make himself sound cheerful. "I'm Jet Black. And well… Aw, hell, I don't normally do this. Listen, I'm a bounty hunter. I've only been at it for a few months, but I've been thinking about looking for a partner. You seem like an okay guy. You interested?"

Spike was silent for a moment. "A bounty hunter?"

"Yeah, you know…cowboys. You find some criminals and get paid for bringin' em in. I used to be with the ISSP, but I kicked that beat about a year ago now." Jet smiled, but there was no naivety about his expression. "So? You in?"

Spike didn't look at him and just kept staring at his lap. After a minute or maybe even two as they finally pulled into the space port perimeter, he felt himself smile. "I could maybe be a bounty hunter," he muttered.

Jet looked satisfied. "You got some kinda spirit, Spike. I think you're just holding it back for right now. Thing is, if you come with me, I only got a ship. I don't have an extra plane for you or anything."

"That's okay. I got one of my own. Actually," Spike told him with the ghost of a grin, "it's parked inside the port right now. I had…plans for it. But they're changed now."

Jet was too pleased with the prospect of having a partner to notice the sudden dejection in Spike's tone. "Well, you'll have that. So then. Whaddya say? Partners?" He held up his replacement hand.

Spike shook it with the same hand that had been punctured by the thorn. Both injuries, though one life-lasting and one very minor, represented parts of their pasts that would be left covered. As he touched Jet's hand, he was barraged with visions of Vicious, of Julia, of Annie, Mao, and the twins, and he knew that these images would keep burning themselves into his mind, making his heart ache.

He was hated by the man he had once called his closest friend. He had been left by the only person he had ever truly wanted. The person he was still in love with.

He wouldn't forget. He didn't even want to forget. And one day he was going to get all the answers he needed. But for now… Spike met Jet Black's eyes and gave him a genuine smile.

"Partners."

See You Later, Cowboys

o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o

And from here, as we all know, Spike goes on to a life of hunger, women with attitude, children, dogs…basically life as usual on the Bebop.

I can't possibly thank you all for being such a perfect audience for this fic. Every review was encouraging and helpful, and it was a wonderful ride. This won't be my last appearance in the Cowboy Bebop world. I've actually got a fic planned for Jet's past concerning Elisa, but it may not happen for a while.

If you haven't seen them, I have two one-shots for Cowboy Bebop, "Begin" (a story at Vicious's point of view toward Spike) and "Over and Over" which is the brief story of how Julia meets Gren on Callisto. Feel free to check them out! I'd love to hear from you on them.

Again, thank you all so much for reading. Please do leave a final review for this fic. I'd love to know everyone's views on the ending. Good? Bad? Let me know!

Be well,

GG