---No Such Thing---
Margot Berthier's body was covered in scars.
Duroc watched with interest as he sucked back the taste of an old cigar, its smoke trail rising and curling against the low ceiling. She'd secured them a private hab, a miracle given the circumstances, but he pretty much knew that nobody was willing to cross the beauty with the very big beast always waiting two steps behind her. And Margot was beautiful, he mused, but it wasn't the kind of stereotyped exact-copy beauty that littered Maya. No, he thought. Margot's was the kind of beauty that a wolf possessed, a tiger; a creature able to rip your throat out with minimal effort, minimal movement, minimal remorse. Always graceful, never off-guard. He admired that about her.
"Duroc, are you...oh, for fuck's sake, get your kit together. We're needed on the docks ten minutes ago."
"Aye aye, Margie." The Dogface saluted with a broad grin. "You too, eh? You're looking a little bare there.”
He easily ducked the thrown ashtray, and when he looked up again, she had left to get her own supplies ready. They had a job to do.
“My god. I'm so happy that's over and done with.” She clipped her “th” sounds short, made them sound like Ts. “Every time that bastard Van Zant asks for a Mirage team, he makes it clear we're just the 'backup'. Just the cavalry. You'd better damn well believe we're the cavalry, having to pull those tete-de-merde rangers out of trouble. Each and every time!”
“You act like I'm not there to hear it, Margie.” Duroc said with a low chuckle. He moved to light up another cigar, then thought better of it – they were taking refuge near an old gasoline-powered generator, after all. The thing chugged hard, but it kept the camp's power running.
“Just...” She waved her hands in exasperation. “Talking to myself.”
“Yeah.” Her companion snorted, then flashed her a toothy smile. “Hey, let's get your mind off that Americano. What's the next job? Where's the mighty high command sending us now?”
Margot either didn't see his miming a quick hit, or ignored it.
“What'ya mean, nowhere?” Duroc's hackles rose, and he stood upright to a very intimidating seven-foot-two. Here was a man who could become like the ferocious werewolves of old if pushed too far, all fangs and muscle and reflexes quicker than even posthumans could match. Margot just looked up at him, coldly.
“Nowhere. With completion of this last mission, we have been given leave to...” She shrugged. “Take leave.”
“What, like a break from the action?” He scoffed. “I don't believe it. As in, downtime? No such thing, for those like us. What the hell would we do with ourselves? Everyone knows you take a break, the killer instinct is gone like that.” And he snapped his fingers in front of his face for emphasis.
“Look, Duroc, I don't like it any more than you do.” She sighed all the way down to her bones, which did wonderful things despite her armoured vest. “But orders are orders. It's time to take a break.”
“Well shit piss fuck.” He hit the tank next to him, and it echoed with a loud clang. “What the hell are we going to do now?”
Dawn's sun shone a brilliant gold overhead, as birds chirped freely and businesspeople rushed to and fro down the streets of Marienbourg. There hadn't been reports of an Antipode attack for weeks, and the population was bustling in prepration for the arrival of a trade delegation from Bourak in two days time. It was to take place in the Palais des Etoiles, a convention centre designed to accommodate the most wealthy of off-planet visitors.
Margot sat in a cafe, her eyes on the Palais des Etoiles and her chin on her hand.
“You look silly in a dress, Margie.” Duroc offered, upending his glass of beer and draining it in three large gulps.
“Shut the fuck up.” She grumbled, sighing as she turned her eyes from the convention centre. “I couldn't exactly wear fatigues out on the streets of Marienbourg, could I? Sidelines mean sidelines, Duroc. We sit, we eat, we watch life go by.”
“We could do something else.” The huge man wiggled his eyebrows, and Margot rolled her eyes. “Or... we could see what's going on at the Palais. That's open for visitors, isn't it? You've been giving looks to that place all lunch. I'm getting jealous.”
“No. It's state business, and we haven't been invited.” Her hand absently moved a spoon in circles, dragging the edge across the red checkered tablecloth that protested with a soft scraping sound.
“Oh come on. There's no harm in us just going in to take a quick walk around.” Duroc grinned. “Plus, even if we couldn't get in the normal way, we could just...”
“Not one word.”
“Ok then,” He didn't miss a beat. “You just chat up one of the guards and we get an hour to take in the sights. I mean, have you seen those legs of yours in that dress, woman? If I were a wolf right now, I'd howl for the whole street to hear.”
“That won't be necessary.” Margot said curtly, but even without his unusual senses he could detect her mild flushing reaction to flattery. Like an animal, though, the weakness didn't show for long. “I have a friend who works there. But let's not stay long, hmm? I very much dislike walking around in heels. I have no idea how it's done, and I look stupid.”
“Suit yourself.” Duroc shrugged, and dropped a wad of bills on the table as they stood up to go.
“So, is this a date?” Duroc grinned as they walked up the busy streets towards the Palais des Etoiles. Most people got out of his way; most people knew what a Dog-Face was even though they'd never been close enough to see one.
“Pardonne?” She didn't look at him, but the rhythmic clicking of her heels on the tarmac shuffled for a split-second. Ah, thank god for these senses of his.
“You know. Lunch in a fancy cafe, you in a dress and shoes, a casual stroll down the streets of Marienbourg. No gunfire, no bombs or flechettes or grenades going off. It seems like we're on a date, Margie.” He let the cigar smoke curl out of his nostrils in lazy arcs. “Not that I'm complaining. Not at all. Dios mio, those legs.”
She scoffed, just a tiny snorting sound. “Keep on dreaming, sargeant. We are on leave, nothing more. And whom I choose to spend my time with is my business, nobody else's, hmm?”
“Like I said,” He chomped down on the cigar with a boyish grin, which looked far more intimidating than it was intended to. “Not complaining. So when's this thing happening, over at the Palais?”
“Two days from now, the FeydTechnologies delegates from Bourak, the heart of Haqqislam, will be meeting with certain delegates from our government to discuss the tariffs on trade through the current space elevator in Matr.” Margot raised her eyebrows. It sounded like she had memorized some official brief or something.
“So it's a meeting about throwing down an orbital elevator in Merovingia.” Duroc sucked in a deep breath of cigar smoke and immediately hacked once, twice, and that was it. The look in his eyes, though, was intense. “I'll bet you a thousand fucking francs that something crooked will be going down at that meeting. Either in it or behind closed doors. Goddamn it, Margie, I'd love to be there. Just imagine the heat this meeting's gonna bring.”
“We're on leave, Duroc.” Margot replied, but even she was distracted. Her eyes were fixed on the Palais des Etoiles, which rose above them, its soft curves arcing up to the sky. The entire surface was done in coloured plexiglass surfaces, turning the golden light of the sun into a thousand different hues that danced across her vision. Then she hesitated, looking up at him instead. “But you may be right. I think it can't hurt to have a look first, hmm?”
“That's the spirit, Margie.” The dog-face grinned, then ground out the smouldering tip of his cigar on the rim of a silver-coloured waste bin before they entered.
The atrium of the Palais des Etoiles was just as brilliant as the building's surface. The walls all curved in gentle slopes to the ceiling (which was more an intersection of lines than anything else), and works of art from all over the Sphere displayed themselves prominently in large glass showcases embedded into the very floors. Here was a Montresor, a painting of amazing colour and brightness, a depiction of sunset over Marienbourg. There, a Graves, the sculptor's idealized man expressed in jagged lines and hidden energy, poised for movement. Ha, and they had said that Dog-Faces were stupid, Duroc chuckled to himself as he strolled through the atrium. He could appreciate art. And there was the brightest piece of all, an original Berthier, all legs and scars and movement like a feral cat, even when they were supposed to be “on leave”. On leave, my ass. No such thing.
“Hey! Margie!” He bellowed across the atrium-slash-gallery, and she turned to give him a sharp look. Even her movement was fluid, conserving maximum energy in case of need, keeping all exits in her field of vision. He was so caught up in her that he almost forgot the glares of the other visitors – it had turned out to be open to the public, at least for another day.
“Shush. I can hear you.” She moved across the sheer floorpanes with a clicking of heels. “What is it? Have you found something?”
“No, but way to be quick on the trigger.” He smirked a little, tapping his foot against the floorpane he was currently standing on. It was a Silencio; an abstract painting of Varuna, the water-planet of the pampered PanOceanian elite. “Say, you think of of these came in lately? They'd be a great place to hide a bomb or two. Or maybe a virus? You remember what happened to those poor Inner-Sphere buggers back on Paradiso.”
“Yes, I do.” She said in a harsh whisper. “And it is a valid theory. The explosives, that is. Not the virus.” People had stopped looking at them, more or less, but a Dog-Face always attracted attention wherever he went. “That kind of technology does not exist in the Sphere, as far as I know. And I hope to God that it never does.”
“Well, ok then. Bombs could be a go. What else?” He shrugged his shoulders.
“Assuming we were not on leave,” She paused, “and also assuming that we had any jurisdiction to operate here...”
“Yeah, yeah, assuming all that shit.” Duroc waved it off, flashing a grin. “I mean important stuff.”
She gave a dry laugh. “Yes. Assuming all of that, I would first inquire about the way things regularly work here. Which guards rotate when, who is responsible for all of the art, where will the meeting be held, all of these things.”
Duroc just gave her a look, a quick look that was more of a dare than anything. She sighed.
“I will take the rotation, you will take the art?”
“Sounds good, Margie. Sounds abso-fucking-good.”
“How did we get into this?” Margot shouted over the rapid crack-crack of YAMS Orobas rifles as they discharged in their general direction.
“I dunno, but it sure is fun!” Duroc, still in his menacing seven-foot-two human shape, flashed her a grin as they rounded a corner. “And what's with the shoes? Nobody ever taught you to run in high heels?”
“Fuck these things!” She thrust her shoes up at him, one hand gripping both heels. “And fuck this plan of yours, Duroc!”
“How was I supposed to know that the Giraldez Corp was using the last day as a chance to set up their ambush? How was I supposed to know that they were posing as wait staff? Goddammit, Margie, you're the spy! I'm just the goddamn muscle!”
“And here they come again!” She hissed at him, barely making herself heard over the rapid chatter of the combi-rifles. “And all I've got to fight with are these shoes! Merde de dieu, <insert expletives here, add crème sur?>”
“Seen you do more with less, Margie.” Duroc winked as they skidded for cover behind a ornately-carved stone pillar that had been gifted to Merovingia by the Tohaa Delegation. It had been a priceless heirloom belonging to the <XYZ> family, who had donated it out of gratitude for the sacrifice of Merovingian troops during the rescue of <XYZ>.
One rapid-first burst of caseless ammunition later, and it was nothing but swiss cheese.
“Not a safe place to hide!” Margot shouted as they fled to the next objet d'art, which soon followed the pillar on its journey to a dark and ruined future. “We need to find some place to strike back, ambush those PMCs soldiers! Catch them by surprise!”
“Couldn't hear you, Margie!” The Dog-Face shouted back over the scream of bullets that perforated the wall behind them. “Are you saying you want me to go wolf? But we're on leave!”
“No such thing!” She hollered back, and Duroc's lips pulled back in a feral grin. No such thing indeed. Not for people like them.
“On it, then.” He laughed, standing to greet the Giraldez troops as they circled into the room. “Hello little kitties. Time to play with the big bad wolf.”
The PMC troops shared a look, one tiny moment of hesitation, and then six combi-rifles opened fire.
“God, that was exhilirating.” Duroc breathed out, turning to his partner in the middle of his pacing. “Ya?”
Margot sat in the cold steel seat, smack in the middle of the cold featureless room. It was a miracle that they'd let Duroc come in with her. Then again, the alternative would have ended in a few dozen limbs strewn about the Palais des Etoiles' lobby, and for that she didn't begrudge them their choice.
“You realize the damage we've caused.”
“Of course I do. Probably millions of francs worth of damage.” Duroc flashed another of his devil-may-care grins. “But hey, the elevator plan is saved. No more shifty PMC waiting to ambush the trade delegation, huh? We did good, Margie. Pat yourself on the back.”
“True,” She paused, turning to look at him, one arm draped over the back of the seat. “And also, today we discovered that high heels have a practical use after all.” That arm moved back and forth, miming a stabbing motion. Her partner laughed.
“So what, they're going to come and chew us out and bill the government for the wrecked artwork?”
“We're operating as private citizens, Duroc.” Margot gave him a look. “It's a wonder if we're not taken to some secret prison, never mind billed for the damages.”
“Well fuck. You save the country's freaking future, you take a few bullets...and all you get is a kick in the nuts and a hefty bill from your own people?”
“Well, tell you what. Let's make another bet. And fuck francs, because if this goes down the way you say, neither of us will have any of those for the rest of our lives.”
Margot laughed a bit bitterly. “Sure. Fine. What is the bet?”
“We make it out of this debt-free, we somehow manage to slap the damages on the all high and mighty command structure, then you throw this old dog a bone.”
“How's that?” She cocked an eyebrow, one finger absently tracing the bandaged wound on her left arm where there would soon be a new scar.
“We go out. For real. You and me, on a date.” He flashed her his biggest grin.
“No such thing.” She replied.
Then they looked at each other, and laughed.