"Excuse me, amigos. Last call," the bartender said.
"Just my luck." Melissa Mao gulped the last of her beer and slammed down the bottle with enough force to make the entire bar shake.
"Easy there, tiger," Kurz Weber said as he lunged to prevent his own beer from tipping over. He took a swig, stood up from the bar stool, reached into his pocket for his bill fold, and flipped through the impressive wad of cash.
"Hey there, big spender. You sure you want to flash your stack in a place like this?" Melissa teased.
"You gonna complain when I'm buying?"
"Hell no! You owe me big time. Remind me never to go on a recon assignment with you again," Melissa said, gesturing to her ribs. Her slinky summer dress disguised constellations of purple bruises. She couldn't wear anything with a waist band or take a deep breathe without getting light-headed from the pain. Fortunately, the six pack of Mexican beer was taking the edge off the discomfort.
"What are you complaining about? If I wasn't guarding you from the shadows, you'd be in worse shape. That guy knew what he was doing," Kurz shrugged as he tossed the pesos on the bar.
"And I don't?"
"Oh, you know all too well in those backless numbers you keep wearing out on assignment. If I'd never seen you in an AS, I would swear you were built for espionage."
Melissa jabbed him hard in the shoulder with her index finger. "Yeah yeah yeah. That big mouth of yours is my biggest problem."
Kurz threw up his hands in mock surrender. "I maintain, a cat blew my cover that time."
"Yeah, a big blond tomcat with a dumb haircut."
"Hey! The ladies love the tresses," Kurz flashed her a wide grin and ran a hand through his decidedly mullet-like locks.
"What ladies? You're going home solo again tonight, soldier." Melissa grabbed Kurz's beer and polished it off before gingerly standing up.
"You and me both." Kurz stopped when he saw the wince of pain cross his commanding officer's face. Without thinking, he reached out to take her arm. She pulled away like he was poisoned.
"Shit, I'm not helpless," Melissa hissed. She grabbed her handbag and started for the door. Kurz sighed and followed her.
Even though San Miguel was a tourist town, most bars closed down by midnight or earlier in the off-season. The majority of the shops they passed had already taken down their displays and pulled down the security gates. Likely, the rest of the crew on shore leave from the Tultha Da Daanan had already returned to the submarine or found a hotel room for the night. Any one left on the island would be picked up tomorrow morning at 6 am, and although nothing had been said out loud, everyone suspected that they would be headed out on a long, deep dive. Tessa usually tried to give the crew as much time on shore as possible before long missions. It could get stifling after six weeks underwater.
"Well you can't complain about that last mission too much," Kurz said when he caught up to his commanding officer. "Columbia was sure beautiful. I'll admit that guy wailed on you pretty hard when he figured out you were a spy, but the way you broke both his arm was just beautiful. Mission accomplished. We got the bad guy and a three day's shore leave to boot. You know we were scheduled for an AS debriefing."
"Ha! I got three day's medical leave and you got to tag along because everybody knows you're worthless without me."
"Ouch. And since when do we ever get any kind of leave? I guess they really only wanted to talk to Sousuke anyway, and he's taking finals in Tokyo. Unless we can figure out how to use the Lambda driver, you and I are last week's news, sister."
"God, do you have to be so depressing?" Melissa tripped on a bit of uneven pavement, and Kurz grabbed her arm, forgetting about her bruises. One gasp of pain was all it took to bring him back to his senses. He released her and backed away in a hurry.
Instead of clobbering him, Melissa grunted as she rubbed an ankle. "Damn, this is why I don't wear heels."
She kicked off her sandals, gathered them into one hand, and straightened slowly. A breeze from the ocean swept past, waving through her short black hair and blue sundress. She closed her eyes, grateful for the cool distraction from the bruising and the humid night.
Kurz put a hand on between her shoulder blades and asked, "You okay?"
"What's it to you?" Melissa exhaled, her eyes still closed.
In the wind, in the dress, in this tourist-trap of a town, she looked like an ordinary woman on vacation, not a gritty AS pilot with deadly combat skills.
"I may be sleeping alone, but it's worth it to leave with the most beautiful woman on the island," Kurz said in a low voice.
"Don't get any ideas," Melissa shot back.
"The way you look tonight would give any straight man ideas."
"Keep it up and I may forget all the reasons I should be kicking your ass right now," Melissa replied.
Kurz spotted a shop with the lights still on, and the old man clerk dozing in his lawn chair by the door.
"Let me continue on the path to redemption. Wait here," Kurz squeezed her shoulder and jogged over to the shop.
Melissa savored the breeze and the stars until he returned.
"For you," he said and put a thick cigar into one of her hands and a small bottle of quality sipping tequila into the other.
"This better be a Cuban," Melissa said, holding up the cigar.
"What else? The guy said we can hang out on the pier. The police don't usually patrol until later," Kurz said, pointing down to the ocean.
A few minutes later, they had claimed a patch of wall to sit and watch the waves slip in and out of the straggles of rocks below. Lighting the cigars in the breeze took a bit of doing, and Melissa laughed as Kurz repeatedly singed his fingers with the flickering matches. It was worth the effort.
"This is the good life," Melissa sighed. Smoke ringed around her face and dispersed in the wind.
Kurz took a tug from the bottle and offered it to her. "Not bad at all," he said.
Melissa raised the bottle to her lips and enjoyed a gulp. "It'd be better if you quit leering at me," she said.
"You wore the dress, sweetheart," Kurz quipped. He leaned back to check on the stars- and possibly to get out of slapping distance, but Melissa only laughed.
"Only you guys look good in those regulation jumpsuits."
"So you're saying I look good in a jumpsuit..."
"Shut up, Kurz."
For some time, the rhythmic rushing of the water spoke for them.
On the far side of the plaza, a group of drunken American college students broke the serenity of the scene.
"Aww, look at them!" one of the girls cried out.
She tugged on the sleeve of a hefty surfer-type, and he paused to squint into the darkness toward the pier.
"Damn, she's a fox! Good job, dude!" he hollered. The rest of the group stopped have a look as well.
"OOOH! He's not bad either," a girl with a long ponytail whooped.
"Better than me?" another jeered.
"Maybe just a little," she teased.
"Is she your girl?" the sufer guy shouted at Kurz.
"Answer that, and you're dead," Melissa seethed in a low voice.
"Cause if she isn't, I'll take her!" the surfer guy continued.
"Kiss her!" the pony-tailed girl shouted.
"Do nothing of the sort," Melissa hissed.
Kurz looked back at the gang of youths and gave an exaggerated shrug. "Sorry, guys."
"If you won't, I will!" the surfer guy announced and began striding across the plaza. The group roared their approval.
"I can't wait for it, buddy," Melissa snarled, her hands tightening into fists.
"Um, sis?" Kurz pointed to a pair of uniformed police officers entering the plaza and headed their way.
The youths started up a chant, "KISS HER! KISS HER!", while the surfer guy paused to make a show of applying chapstick and then continued swaggering towards the pier.
The police picked up their pace.
"Any ideas? I'd rather not deal with cops, and I'd sure as hell like to avoid dealing with the captain after the cops," Kurz said through a forced smile. He patted his concealed weapon. Melissa nodded. They were both carrying hidden, non-commercial weapons. Anyone with minimal training could spot it, and police are known for asking questions.
Melissa considered her options. "Dammit, if you breathe a word of this to anyone, I will kill you," she threatened, and then she grabbed Kurz and kissed him.
A cheer went up from the teens, and the officers changed their route to intercept them instead. The surfer guy gave a great performance of mock defeat and rejoined his group just in time to earn a police escort. "Aw, c'mon, man. We're just at the hostel around the corner! We'll be good," Melissa heard him say. She exhaled a sigh of relief and tried to pull away from the stunned Kurz, but he pulled roughly back against him.
Her bruises sent out a shock wave of pain through her body, and she almost screamed. She raised her fist to clobber Kurz, but just then, he shifted his kisses to her throat and she could see the flashlights of another set of police officers as they came up along the sidewalk next to the very wall on which she and Kurz were sitting. They must had come from behind her, drawn by the same commotion that brought the first pair on patrol.
Kurz kissed his way to her ear and whispered, "Better make this convincing."
She nodded slightly and didn't protest when he kissed her full on the mouth. His eyes were closed, and she could feel his gun digging into her battered ribs. Her own piece, which she had strapped to her thigh, was covered by his hand. His thumb traced lazy circles on the soft inner part of her thigh, just above her hem. Even though heavy eyelids, she could see the police flashlights pass over them. She clutched at Kurz's shirtfront, pulling him closer. An officer gave a knowing chuckle. "Buenos noches, lovebirds," the other said softly, and to the great relief of the awkward couple, the men continued on.
Kurz made a move to break away, but Melissa put her hand into his hair and moved his head to the side. She could see the officers just down the sidewalk from them, lighting cigarettes until the streetlamp. One settled in against the wall.
"They aren't going anywhere," she breathed into his ear.
He nuzzled her and whispered back, "There's a hotel just ahead."
She nodded, catching his plan. With a girlish giggle, she hopped down from the wall and smoothed her dress coyly, shifting to hide her weapon in the shadows. Kurz hopped down after her and wound an arm around her waist. To anyone watching, they looked like a couple in the sunshine of new love. Melissa gasped as he bumped into her bruises but managed a very un-military giggle to cover. She moved Kurz's hand down to her hip, which was considerably less purple than her ribs, and slipped her arm around his waist, too.
"Oopsy-daisy," Kurz said a little too loudly. He turned them around to pick up Melissa's sandals and their bottle of tequila.
Melissa pretended to trip on the sidewalk as they turned again. Feigning like the average drunken honeymooners, they started for the hotel. Neither of them failed to notice the officers leave their impromptu post under the streetlight to follow them, so when the clerk at the desk sadly announced only one room, not two, was available, Kurz threw some money at him and took the key without protest. Not until they were safely inside the room did Melissa and Kurz break the act.
Kurz collapsed, spread eagle on the king-sized bed. "Man, I thought we were supposed to be on vacation," he complained.
Melissa came up for air after downing a third of the bottle. "No kidding," she said, tossing the bottle, which he easily caught. "If you-"
"Yeah yeah yeah. If I tell any one, you'll have my head on a stake," he said, sitting up to take a swig.
"It's a shame, too. You actually did some decent undercover work back there for once in your miserable life," Melissa said, tossing her shoes in the corner and then heading to the bathroom to splash water on her face.
"Oh yeah, because acting like I enjoy sucking face with a beautiful woman is such hard work," Kurz said loudly to be heard over the running water.
"Let it drop, ya creep," she yelled back.
"No can do, sis. I'm going to dream of those lips tonight." Kurz was already retreating when Melissa calmly stepped out of the bathroom with a towel half covering her eyes, but she still walloped him a good one.
Then she sighed and sunk down onto the bed.
"What? Hitting me finally lost its flavor?"
"Not that, you idiot. This whole thing. Everything. First, we get stuck on all these lame recon missions, then our debriefing on the AS gets cancelled because Sousuke won't leave Tokyo, now Tessa's giving us shore leave out of pity. I didn't bust my hump all these years to be some decoy in a skimpy get-up. Why do I get the feeling that we're just yesterday's used condom?"
Kurz polished off the bottle and set it on the nightstand. The clock read 12:48. Only five more hours until the pick-up.
"Welcome to my life, babe. At least you have command experience to fall back on when the AS system goes Lambda or bust. My options are those drugs that the Amalgam guys were on or early death on the field. You'd cry at my funeral, right?"
"I'm totally, stone-cold serious," Kurz sighed and sank back down on his back on the bed.
Melissa took off her weapon and needlessly began checking it.
"Hey, Mel. You ever think about leaving Mithril?" Kurz asked.
"Are you kidding? Who doesn't?"
"So why do you stick around?"
Melissa finished putting the gun back together and clicked the magazine back. She set it by the bed, fished her cigarettes out of her bag, and went to open the balcony door.
"Why do you?" she called over her shoulder. Kurz shrugged, got up, and followed her onto the balcony. The moon was just rising.
"So I can be near that sweet ass, babe."
Melissa flipped him off without turning around.
"To be honest," he continued in a serious tone, "I thought I'd wash out by now. When I started, it was just for fun, you know."
He leaned against the railing and helped himself to a cigarette. Melissa shook her head.
"I always knew I wanted to fight," she said.
"And that's it?"
"I dunno know," she replied, her eyes fixed on the water. "Maybe Sousuke's got the right idea. Find someone who gets you and run with it. Go back to civilian life and try to start over."
"And he's the one with the promising future as a pilot. Lucky bastard," Kurz observed.
They went quiet for a heavy moment.
"Sucks that I hate drugs," Kurz broke in as they flicked the spend cigarettes into the pool below.
"It sucks that you finished the bottle, you depressing sack of shit."
"Sucks that I'm going to tell everyone back at HQ that you let me feel up your leg."
Melissa punched him hard in the shoulder. "Sucks I'll have to fake tears at your funeral."
"Maybe they'll give me a promotion in death for doing the impossible- making out with the ice queen Melissa Mao."
Melissa's punches were falling fast and furious now.
Kurz retreated to the bed and grabbed a pillow to fend off her attacks. "Ouch! Look on the bright side! It's proof-positive that you're not a dyke. Ow! Don't hurt the face!"
"Too bad you still suck at hand-to-hand."
"Too bad I've learned a thing or two." Kurz struck out and landed a solid thump to Melissa's gut, totally forgetting her wounds. Her world went white and fizzy with pain, and she slumped over.
"Shit! I'm so sorry, Mel. Are you crying? You can kill me if you want. I'd let you-"
In a flash, she had him pinned down on the mattress, a forearm pressed to his throat.
"I've killed a man for less," she wheezed.
Kurz raised his hands on surrender. "I know it. I'm dying here."
Melissa made an aggravated noise, sat back, and raised her own hands. "It's cool. That wasn't a bad move, for a sucker shot. Quit being such a downer."
"Not a chance. Tonight's it for me. I've got a job that I was born for and I made out with the hottest chick I've ever know, and tomorrow it'll be back to watching Black Technology make me about as useful as a slingshot. The only thing I'll be kissing is my ass good-bye." He reached up and tucked a stray bit of dark hair back behind her ear.
Melissa glared at him. "Are you drunk?"
"I wish," Kurz snapped back.
"Good." And then she leaned over kissed him, good and hard on the mouth. Kurz was so shocked that he barely had the sense to kiss her back.
"You know I've always had it bad for you, right?" he breathed between kisses.
"Don't talk too much or you'll make me regret this," she whispered. With the skill of a professional, she stripped off his shirt to disarm him. The gun was digging into her bruises. Then, she tossed off her dress.
The sight of her damaged torso would have frightened a lesser soldier. Kurz traced over the purple and black continents of swollen flesh with wonder.
"You're the best I've ever seen," he said with sincerity.
"Tell anyone and I'll kill you," she threatened as she reached for his belt, but he found her lips and drew her into a long kiss to slow her down, to make it last until the last minute before the pick-up. Getting a minute of privacy on a submarine was next to impossible, and it could be months until he could touch her again, if she even let him touch her again.
"Relax, beautiful. Who's gonna believe this?"