Chapter 1: Adieu
That's all he could detect.
A few minutes of intense focus, his eyes screwed shut (or he assumed they were; no room could be this dark without closed vision), and he could maybe detect a sound or two.
Or maybe he really was dead.
He pulled his eyelids open with as much focus as he could. Funny. He never thought eyelids could hurt.
As he attempted this, he knew for sure there was sound beyond his blind prison.
The room was a blur. A dark one at that, but the sound seemed crisper now that he fully realized he was indeed alive.
He supposed that was a sign of living.
The sound was a song. A soft bluesy tone; he wasn't sure he knew the song.
Or the singer.
He attempted to call out as he blinked rapidly. Whatever captor or caretaker that was nearby should know he was awake.
Did he even care?
His want of human company seemed primal, as though he'd been gone from this world quite a long time.
The humming faded in and out, accompanied by footsteps.
He assumed them to be footsteps, anyway.
A light clang or two.
And a scent.
It wafted to him and his mouth watered.
Or, he was sure it would have if he had the water in his system to even draw saliva from his mouth.
His call came out a sputtered cough.
'Real macho, Spike.'
He was sure the hum was of woman.
It was too soft to be a male's voice, but the key and pitch were perfect, if melancholy.
He recognized the tune now. It was Earth. Surely he was losing his grip on whatever sanity he thought he had, because Earth wasn't a song, but screw it. That's what he felt.
The humming had stopped.
"So it lives," the voice sang.
Sang, because a voice like that was far too warm to just speak. It was definitely a woman, a deep-voiced woman who's voice reminded him of earth and warmth and heat and comfort; she spoke with her soul.
But there was a pinch of enigmatic heartbreak.
Or maybe that was his hearing.
He attempted to speak again, but more sputtering was all that could be heard.
"You'll do best to watch yourself. A year-long coma does a lot to your finer details."
He still couldn't see, and that irritated him. He heard the woman shuffle, and soon he felt two hands propping his back against what he felt to be a sofa arm. Something cold pressed to his lips.
He complied as best he could, but he found her words to be far too true. His inner workings were still slumbering, despite his outer workings being in such intense pain.
After what felt to be an ocean run down his throat, he paused for breath.
"Glass isn't even half empty."
"You seem more like a half-full type of woman."
His first words back from the dead: a witty half-comeback half-pickup line. 'Still got it.'
She raised an eyebrow. He could see now. He'd never take water for granted again. He was expecting more of a reaction than an eyebrow, but perhaps it was difficult to take a remark like that seriously from a waking dead man.
"Funny," she commented flatly, no longer singing.
He could feel his ego deflate.
The smell reached his nose again, and his mouth watered in response. Really watered. Hungered.
"I suppose you'll be in want of food, then," she sang.
What an interesting tone.
"Food?" he questioned dumbly.
She rose from the coffee table she had been sitting upon and stalked to the kitchen. She was much shorter than he envisioned. Her voice made her seem tall and leggy, curvy and velvet, some Goddess of earth before earth had ever been.
This woman was short, albeit still quite curvaceous. Her black hair was long with a softness of darkness to it, and her bright brown eyes seemed to flicker with her change in voice. She swayed with some soundless melody, and her lips curved into silent smiles from thoughts he did not have privy to. She was young, no older than him to be sure, and probably the same age. As she stalked to the kitchen, or he assumed it to be the kitchen, he noticed something strange.
He had no clue who she was.
But she seemed intensely familiar.
He supposed if she had been caring for him for a year, though, that she would naturally seem familiar.
She returned momentarily, a bowl of loaded mashed potatoes in one hand and a spoon in the other.
She stumbled a bit as she crossed the threshold from the tiled kitchen to the carpeted living room.
"My apologies. I'm much less coordinated than I look."
She handed him the bowl and spoon. He attempted to sit further up, but failed, wincing at the intense effort. He finally realized he was covered in bandages, almost neck to toe, save for some convenient spots to release himself and wriggle his finer extremities. His fingers shook as he took the spoon, and his hand almost gave way with the weight of the bowl.
Fuck it hurt to live.
The woman chose to ignore his embarrassment and spoke. "If that doesn't send your stomach reeling, you're welcome to some meatloaf, too."
Ah. That's what that heavenly scent was.
He nodded and attempted to say thanks before coughing.
"Take it easy there, Spike. You've been out for a year. Your stomach's the size of a baseball, and your throat is still dry and broken."
She remained stoic, staring him right in his eyes, his different eyes.
"Who are you?" he finally asked.
She smiled sweetly, but with a cryptic air. "Mai."
"That didn't answer my question."
"You're finally alive and the first things you want to do are hit on me, eat, and question my hospitality? Just like a man."
There was no malice or irritation in her voice, just amusement.
"Well, all things considered, you seem to know a hell of a lot more about me than the reverse."
His voice was still scratched and weak.
"Spike Spiegel, age 28, last survivor of the Red Dragon Syndicate, ex-bounty hunter, favors the Jericho, and loves his mono-racer more than any sane man should." She closed we eyes as if in a trance. "You're not far from home here."
But she seemed so familiar.
"Well? Are you well enough for meatloaf?"
"Depends. Is it poisoned?"
She laughed. It was warm, like her, inviting, infectious.
"Believe me, should there have been a want of me to kill you, I would have done it on those church steps a year ago, or poisoned you in your sleep, not waited until your conscious hours to leave you questioning whatever death you should have had."
He sobered, but smiled. As much as he could, at least.
She arose from the table to return to the kitchen, reappearing moments later with a bowl of meatloaf.
'Beef. I go and die and end up with a first meal of beef. The hell did I go wrong in life with Jet?'
hat sank in.
Funny how you forget the physical life when you've been in a dream for so long.
"Is it real?" she asked.
He snapped back.
"Is it real? The dream?"
A woman after his own soul, if those existed.
He chuckled. "When you've died as much as I have, nothing's real. The dream is never ending for me, it seems."
She was solemnly silent, but she spoke after a moment. "Sometimes you're ready to open that door, but the timing's not quite right."
Yeah. Cryptic. He kinda' liked her, but she knew too much.
It bothered him.
The rest of the evening was silent, save for the run of water for the dishes, and later, for her shower. He wondered if he should try to do the same, but his legs were too weak. He took to attempting stretches.
Sometime in the late evening, she entered the living room again, her long tresses damp and her skin smelling of lavender. A tank top adorned her busty torso, and a tiny pair of shorts covered her pleasing hips. She had something in her mouth, and smoke rose from it.
He almost asked to bum one off her, but decided he'd at least go the rest of the night without further inhibiting his recovery.
She glided to the kitchen, this time without tripping, and returned with a glass of water and a handful of pills.
"Here. I suspect you're quite capable of masking and hiding it, but I know that you're body is screaming." She handed him the painkillers, placed the water on the table and returned to her room, peering over her shoulder briefly to bid him good night.
He opted for pain.
He hadn't felt alive in a very long time.
She seemed so incredibly familiar.
He dreamed. Really dreamed. Of Julia. Of Vicious. Of Annie. Of Mao. Jet and the Bebop. Edward and Ein. And Faye.
He saw Julia fall in slow motion, each second draining life from her, but as she fell into his arms, the strange woman took her place. Or maybe it was Annie. Or Mao.
That was it.
He awoke with a start, cursing quietly as he gripped his side in agony. Too much pain.
He had been having this dream for a month since he had awoken in this dark empty house on this leather couch he now called his bed.
Every time he awoke, the dream was as fleeting as it was enlightening.
She seemed so damn familiar.
The digital clock on the wall near the front door informed it was 2:23 AM, and that dead men should be sleeping.
The front door creaked open, and Spike feigned slumber.
She walked in, huffing a bit, a com pressed to her ear. "Some lead. You almost got me killed."
He couldn't hear the other voice. She and her com were too far away.
"Yeah, I know he's the big name bounty, and I'm sure I could catch him without a hitch, but I told you I'm not interested in Syndicate hunting. Too risky. Not worth it."
That seemed to be about something different.
"I'll talk the lead over with you tomorrow."
She walked into the living room, hanging her leather coat on the hook under the clock.
He needed to know more. His body was better, and this sounded like trouble.
He was itching for trouble.
"Before you inquire, I'm a hunter, not a cop."
He opened his eyes. "Well, if you'd be willing to take this mangled thing as your partner, I'd be much obliged."
"You need to lay low a few more months; your head is still too pricey."
He was suddenly tired of secrets.
He'd been conscious a month and had learned nothing new. They never spoke much beyond his first day awake apart from social requirements regarding food and showers.
"Besides, you're still not strong enough to fight, swimming bird."
Over the edge.
He was in her face in a matter of seconds. She didn't move, her strange cigarette hanging from the edge of her lip precariously.
But he sobered quickly.
"Let me bum one."
She chuckled. "I don't deal in cancer sticks."
He looked at her quizzically.
She handed him one of her cigarettes from her jacket pocket, retrieving it slowly from the hooked garment as if to help him understand her words.
"But you smoke them all the time."
"No. I don't deal in cancer sticks."
She leant him her lighter. As he lit up and inhaled, he finally caught her drift. "So, tell me, hippie hunter, who are you?"
She walked to her room, gliding and somber. She stood in the doorway but a moment. "Mai Yenrai."
And as the door shut behind her, Spike's joint dropped to the floor.
They were silent after that. Another month passed, and Spike was mostly mobile. His fighting skills were slowly returning, but he was upset to find his limbs in lesser shape than they should have been. One too many deaths, he concluded. Mai revealed bits and pieces here and there. "You were always my father's favorite," she mused over Vodka. Spike talked about his many deaths; she talked about her many lives. Three bottles, mostly consumed by Spike, and the two were numb to the pains of living.
She was a lightweight. He carried her to her bed after that drinking session. That's when he really noticed things. Her wedding ring, the king-sized bed too large for her, the sleeping shirt several sizes too large.
He supposed she had a story, too.
They were relatively cordial, but she was around a lot less after that night. More bounties, it seemed. Sometimes she was gone for days, but she always had fresh groceries and liquor and cannabis cigarettes about; she explicitly told Spike no Nicotine or cancer sticks. She advocated against the things quite strongly.
Another month, and Spike was a year and quarter dead to the world. He was getting antsy, but after Mai revealed a 50 Million Woolong bounty on his head, he decided it wasn't worth his trouble.
He was sleeping soundly that night, but something quiet woke him. The bathroom light was on. She had been gone for two weeks this time.
He heard her cursing, and he could feel her wince through the door.
Caring not for propriety and social protocol, he opened the door slowly.
She was stitching herself together. She was sitting on the counter, her back against the mirror, her bloodied shirt rolled up over her breasts. She held her abdomen taut as her other hand, shaking and tired, stitched an eleven inch vertical gash over her left rib cage.
She hadn't noticed him.
He walked in, and, using the toilet as his seat, took the needle from her trembling fingers. Silently, he stitched her wound as she looked away, a slight blush over her face.
"You've got blood left to blush? I never put you for the modest type."
She said nothing, but continued to look away.
"There. All done. Not too bad, actually."
"I can take care of myself." It sounded more like she was reassuring herself more than making a statement.
"Well, I slept on your couch for a year; the least I can do is patch you up."
He left, and as he sat on what was slowly becoming his permanent bed, he could hear a faint "thank you," from the bathroom.
He smirked to himself, "The least I can do for an old friend."
The next morning was quiet. Mai cooked eggs and bacon, prodding at her plate more than eating, and downing painkillers like candy.
"You don't owe me," she said.
"Just because of dad. Or saving you. Or whatever."
She was... different.
He changed tactics. "Who was he?"
She feigned stupidity and looked at him blankly.
"That ring. Who is he?" he asked again, altering the question in an attempt to get a different reaction.
"A memory, almost." She seemed lost.
"I'm heading out today. A big bounty just came in. Might be a chase."
He could swear she was saying good-bye.
"I've left this place to you in my absence. Not sure when I'll be back. There's ammo and guns under the sink." She walked to the TV stand, pulling a lockbox from under it, "and I believe these are yours."
The Jericho. And the ignition key to the Swordfish.
He was walking down memory lane.
"So, you're running, huh?"
She chuckled; it seemed hollow, but hopeful. "This wound wasn't from any run-of-the-mill bounty, and he's out for me. I rather not stick around. I'll come back when the smoke clears."
She would leave with nothing but her Glock, shades, and unbearable burden. "And Spike?"
"His name is Roy."