[Disclaimer: Cowboy Bebop was created by, and is copyrighted by Yadate Hajime in association with the legal entities Sunrise and Bandai. The characters are used without permission but no material profit of any kind is being made from the following work. Sunrise and Bandai reserve all rights to Cowboy Bebop material, but all of the situations unique to this work of fan fiction are property of the writer.  Bang.  Hiss.  Vroom…?]

[Note:  Takes place before 'Triangulation' and directly after 'Dog with Sharper Teeth'.  Another Bebop fic fueled by my Katie-Jane Garside obsession.]

Yesterday's Hymn

For a change, the bar's door was not only opened for someone else, but by a woman for two men.  They were an odd assortment, this trio.  The woman was an angelic beauty, so lovely that she was almost a caricature of herself.  The two men were equally noteworthy but for their state of dress, rather than attractiveness.  Covered in dirt and dry sweat, with rumpled filthy clothes, they didn't seem to belong with the woman. 

One of the men glared straight ahead from under a thatch of pale hair, while the other's mop of messy locks seemed to do everything but obscure the one amused ruddy brown eye that wasn't nearly swollen shut.  It was hard to say when they'd participated in the fight: they didn't carry its aura, but they wore its marks.

They didn't look like they could command any sort of respect in the shape they were in, but most of the weathered toughs in the room nodded gravely at the trio's entrance.  It was clear to the yet unaligned hooligans in the room that high-ranking members of the area's vital Dragon syndicate had just made a noteworthy but less than grand entrance.

Julia led the two far back into their regular bar to one of the dark booths with an equally dim hanging lamp.  Wordlessly, she slid into the red vinyl seat facing the door.  Despite hating to put his back to the door, Spike collapsed fully into the seat across from her.

It was a variation on their familiar seating arrangement, which was dictated by the complexities of the trio's relationships. Vicious, being both the least compromising and most paranoid of the group, always claimed a seat facing the front door. Julia, as Vicious' girlfriend, sat next to him. That meant Spike usually had an unenviable view of the kitchens or back wall and something to complain about.

There had been a moment a few days prior when Vicious commented that the more deadly gunmen came from the kitchens.  Spike had snorted that the most deadly gunmen sat across from you. Vicious had smirked his familiar malevolent expression, nodded, and agreed verbally while staring at him pointedly.  Then he'd glanced swiftly to his side. Spike didn't dissect the double-edged response at the time, but since noticing new dimensions to Julia's sapphire eyes he'd found the incident looping through his idle moments.

Tao of Seating aside, Vicious slid into his usual position, seeming to give no heed to Spike's altered position: more across from Julia than himself.  Considering the chemicals that had played in his veins and the recent work out he and Spike had labored under, it was safe to assume Vicious wasn't concerning himself beyond the mostly familiar trappings of the seating arrangement. Spike was too tired, but no longer too drunk, to care himself.  He kicked himself for being so paranoid; it wasn't his way.

Julia gave no indication what she noticed one way or the other. She fished one hand in the crumpled jacket Vicious had dropped between them and held the other out to Spike in a feminine motion that belied the calluses on her hands.

He sat up somewhat from his slouch and handed her his classic Zippo without thinking.  Julia withdrew the metal case Vicious kept his cigarettes in, preventing them from becoming as completely mangled as Spike's habitually were.

Julia considered the two objects in her hands and the relationships to the their owners' characters. She'd learned right away that while Spike was happy to bum cigarettes, few people actually earnestly asked to score any of his due to their dubious quality and condition. A light was much Spike's speed. Vicious, on the other hand, always had high quality cigarettes only she and Spike ever troubled him over. Spike only offered his to the introverted man, probably because Vicious seldom accepted them.

It was interesting, she decided while opening the case and slipping one of the paper cylinders out and between her full lips; Vicious seemed to load everything like a gun.  Cigarettes included.  Before she could close the case or light the one in her mouth, Spike's filthy hand was stealing two more from the stainless, yet dented, case.  He settled one behind his ear and stuck the other at a jaunty angle from his dry lips.

"Light me."

Blue eyes settled on the mischievous face across from her.  The dirt dusting his nose and smeared across his forehead only added to his charm.  Spike was exactly the type to get away with murder with his charm as an alibi.  Which was why she lit her cigarette and snapped the lighter shut.  She could afford to play; Vicious seemed to be in a chemical hangover induced coma.

The beginnings of a catty exchanges came up to provide Vicious' hangover an annoying backdrop, but was nipped in the bud by the appearance of a matched set of young me with pool cues.  The only way to tell them apart was the concern one wore and the questions on the other boy's lips.

Shin was quick with his question, excitement sparkling in his tone.  The three assumed it was Shin, anyway, as he was more to the point than his brother.  "What happened to you?"

Spike lifted his free hand across his face, smearing the dirt into splotch vaguely resembling pre-disaster Antarctica.  "Vicious can't tell the difference between an oil plug and a transmission cap."  Spike was shameless.

Vicious ignored the barb.  He looked up through his pale hair at an on-coming waitress equipped with a pad of paper.  Before she arrived he held three fingers up at shoulder height.  Stooping in her tracks, the woman nodded and turned back the way she came.  If he'd even noticed the twins, he gave no indication, but no one doubted for a second that he had.

"Spike decided to pick a fight with a bunch of locals."  Julia was merciless, the look she turned on Spike was just short of murder.  Vicious was beginning to come around.  She didn't know anymore: was Spike being careless or was she living in fear of growing attraction?

Lin seemed mildly torn between fetching them a first aid kit and hand towels.  "A fist fight?  There's so much dirt...!"

            Turning her attention to the warmer half of the twins, Julia reached across the still quiet Vicious and patted the worried boy's hand.  "We don't look good, do we?"  She smiled distantly and stood up, apologizing faintly to Vicious as she stepped over his knees to gain the floor.  "Don't worry, Lin, most of the dirt is from the road; they had to push my car to a service station." 

Julia headed to the bathroom as the twins choked on the image of Spike and Vicious, sweating under the sweltering sun and dirt, pushing a sabotaged version of Julia's normally intimidating red monster.

"You're joking," Shin sputtered, while Lin looked uncomfortably between Vicious and Spike.

"I wish," Spike snorted, shooting a disapproving glance at Julia's back: Vicious was proving utterly unresponsive.  "Ever notice the lack of service stations in our territory?"

The boys shook their heads no with mounting incredulity.

"Me, either."  Spike sighed, extending one of his pilfered cigarettes to Shin.  The younger man took the cigarette in his thin fingers, though he wasn't intent on smoking anything he got from Spike.  Still, not wanting to risk being disrespectful in front of Vicious, he held it between his lips and lit it.  "That's my last one, by the way."

Shin glowered slightly at the obvious hint, but instead of reminding his superior that he hadn't actually asked for the cigarette, he reached into one of his pockets and withdrew his own pack.  He hesitated a moment when he realized the cigarette he was smoking was actually far better than Spike usually carried.  His mouth opened to comment on the strangeness of the situation only to notice the silver cigarette case near Vicious' hand.  He swallowed lightly and handed the pack to Spike.  "Keep it."

The sly grin he received for his trouble proved the outcome of the exchange had worked out exactly as Spike had intended.  "Good man.  I won't forget this the next time I have to fill out a progress report on your performance."

The younger boy resumed his glower.  "You don't do that."

The reply didn't phase Spike in the least.  "True," he smiled dismissively, glancing meaningfully at his uncommunicative partner, "but I know who does."

"How far did you push the car?"  Lin asked, ignoring his brother's attempts to not choke on a lungful of smoke.  He kept stealing glances at Vicious for any indication of denial, but searching the lean man's impassive face as he stared past Spike only convinced the young man all the more.  Vicious was only unkempt in public on the way back from messy altercations.

"Just down the street to the garage Annie's uncle runs," Spike replied, folding his arms behind his head.  "Don't think the man's on the Dragon payroll, but it shouldn't hurt to give him a bit of business, especially since Julia's so picky about that beast."

As if Spike had suddenly spoken the magic word, Vicious finally came out of his trance, snapping his wintery gaze on his partner.  The other three men jumped slightly at the sudden reaction, but Vicious turned his head just as quickly to focus his attention on the returning waitress and the three glasses she bore.  With slow grace, he withdrew a cigarette from his case and picked up Spike's Zippo.  He lit up as she slid three paper coasters on the table and followed them up with drinks.  Spike and Julia's beers, and Vicious' whiskey: the usual suspects. 

            "Shin.  Lin."  He finally murmured tonelessly. "Take a walk."

            Startled by the command after his long silence and intimidated by his attitude, the two bowed sketchily and retreated behind the business-like waitress.  Lin kept looking over his shoulder as if to apologize for his inquisitiveness, but Spike waved him off with a warm smile.  He turned back to his partner and sighed deeply.  Vicious could be such a cold bastard, no wonder the Van called him a snake.

"You don't have to be as cold as a snake," Spike accused quietly when the two were sufficiently far away and his partner had sucked a deep breath on his cigarette.  He stared at the pack of cigarettes Shin had passed him before giving Vicious the same benefit of his mahogany gaze.

"A snake only sees heat," Vicious murmured through a mouthful of smoke.  "If he should warm up, perhaps he will become blind with his own heat."

The answer was everything Spike didn't want to hear.  He struggled for a reply that didn't reveal more than he felt.  "And then he'll bite everything, including himself?"

Cold eyes, set in a pale face, flicked from the amber liquid in one slender hand.  The man's colorless lips did not move to make a reply, but Spike could tell Vicious was considering something.  The unreadable eyes didn't need to look one way or the other.  Spike knew.

"Ever have a pet?"

Spike's eyebrow quirked.  The level stare did not change, leaving Spike no choice but to assume Vicious was asking a serious question.

"Sure," he finally commented, pulling out another cigarette and lighting it off the previous.  "So?"

Vicious lifted the whiskey to his lips, sipping slowly, but never taking his eyes off his partner.  He replaced the glass on the table with casual purpose.  "You never actually saw it get bigger because you were together the whole time.  You only knew it grew, because you remember what it first looked like in the beginning.  But one day, you find you can't pick it up anymore, it's too big."

From Vicious, the observation carried the weight and tone of a sermon.  Vicious had always been somber, only seeming to live in the heat of battle, like it was the only thing to warm his cold blood.  Still, in the last couple of weeks, the small amount of warmth he'd allowed his partner seemed to be dropping back to the absolute zero from when they first met. 

The content of his message had a particular meaning for Spike, but figuring out what situation it was being applied to wasn't easy.  Could it be Vicious was applying it to him?  Was he too big to carry?  Or was it just that he was becoming hard to control?  He wished it meant that Vicious' emotions were growing, but it was anything of the nature.

A strong suck on the cigarette filled Spike's lungs full of smoke.  When he replied, his words were almost lost in the haze.  Only his partner would be able to hear the resigned note, even if he wouldn't know what it was.

"Which is worse?  The dog that gets too big to carry or the man who didn't notice?"

The corners of Vicious' eyes wrinkled slightly, but the thinning of his lips was hardly much of a smile.  Maybe it would have been several months earlier.  "They both carry their own burden.  They'll both suffer for it."

Spike rolled his eyes, "Now you're just being a prick.  The dog can't help getting bigger."

Vicious' pseudo smile stretched a bit more.  "It isn't fair?"

Brown eyes flashed at the unsaid challenge.  "No, Vicious, it isn't.  Maybe the man should have gotten a terrier."

"He'd be better off without a dog," Vicious returned soberly, "one never knows when it might bite the hand that feeds it."