Shall We Dance?Author:
My brain is still too depression-mushy to cope with anything complicated so here is some fluff. Writing it managed to make me smile :-)
“And your name, sir?”
Avon sighs. This is the part that he dislikes most about the whole evening. Bad enough that the slim lines of this ridiculous clothing don’t conceal any weapon, or that his teleport bracelet has been confiscated (completely anachronistic, they insisted politely and made it clear that he simply wasn’t getting inside with it on his wrist), but now this lackey intends to announce his name- his real name, nothing else will do- to a room of two hundred strangers.
There is nothing else for it. “Kerr Avon,” he states, clearly, steps forward to the top of the short stairs leading down into the brightly lit room full of wealthy revellers as it is repeated loudly from behind him.
A satisfyingly large number of heads turn at the words. That’s something, at least. He greets the hostesses and their daughter, compliments them insincerely on the spectacular beauty of the room and their outfits (both are historically accurate but also hideous) and moves on towards the drinks table. A glass of water is all he wants right now. It’s three hours until the main event; he doesn’t intend to drop his guard for a second of any of it. The orchestra music swirls around him but he doesn’t recognise it. It might be genuinely Old Earth but he suspects it’s a fake, like everything else around him. They are a thousand light years from their origins tonight and a thousand years on from the people that they are pretending to be.
A few people want to talk to him. Irritatingly they mostly want to talk about Blake. They are both dull and distracting; he is monosyllabic at them and they gradually drift away, leaving him to observe the room. What he sees annoys him.
He might as well have been left the bracelet for all the difference it would have made to the authenticity of this event. He'd done some research (well, consulted Orac) on the appropriate fashions and he’s dressed in what Orac assures him has the unlikely name of top hat and tails but it looks like he and his hosts are the only ones who have bothered. There are hoops and bustles aplenty but few of the women have strayed far from the mainly asymmetric designs that have been de rigeur formal wear in the Federation for decades. The men are festooned in the current fashion for gold and silver buttons and braid without any logic or reference. And the materials!
A particularly egregious example had caught his eye as he made his entrance. He’d noticed that the wide brimmed hat didn’t so much as twitch at his name and she is still facing away from him now, just a few yards away. Bare skin gleams all the way down to below the small of her back, some way beyond the level of decency. The pure white material of the skirt clinging to the hips flares away to swirl in the perfect folds that can only be achieved with extraordinarily expensive single layer protein silkform. A huge white bow around the back of the neck, half obscured by the latticed hat, is probably merely decorative but Avon briefly amuses himself imagining pulling the temptingly flared ends and seeing the whole dress slither elegantly to the ballroom floor. The tissue thin material covering the hips leaves no room for doubt- underneath it the woman has to be naked.
He shakes himself mentally. He is not here to look at a woman's gown or even the rather elegantly proportioned body inside it. A person who so completely ignores her hosts' requests for appropriate costume is probably stupid anyway. That or remarkably arrogant.
As if on cue she whirls around to face him, hand up to hold her hat in place. Her smile is brilliant. “Kerr Avon. Don’t you look a picture!”
He's not at all surprised. He must have known unconsciously, all along.
“And President of the Federation,” she reminds him, delicately.
“Is that all? I swear it’s been months since you acquired a new title. Don't you have people enough to invent them for you?”
She shakes her head, still smiling. “I find it’s difficult to improve on President.”
“You could try God. I believe there's a vacancy.”
She tips her head slightly, acknowledgment. “Worship is superfluous, Avon. Absolute obedience is all that I need to command.”
He raises an eyebrow. “That dress suggests otherwise.”
“Do you like it?” She turns and it swirls from perfect fold to perfect fold. The top is high to the neck but narrow enough that he can see the clean white rise of her bosom on each side. He looks back to her face.
“It’s anachronistic and inappropriate,” he tells her. “Is that bow functional?”
“Doesn’t that make you a little vulnerable?”
“Who here would dare lay a finger on the dress of the President of the Federation? Yourself excluded, of course.”
“Myself excluded?” He glances around. “They do look a particularly spineless lot, don’t they? That’s the phenomenally rich for you. Always too much to lose.”
“There you are,” she says calmly. “We might be on a neutral planet, at the moment, but neither they nor their guests are suicidal.”
“A calculated risk, then.”
“My risks are always calculated.” Her voice is smooth and he feels a sudden impulse to shake her.
“Did you calculate for my presence, then?”
Her smile shows teeth, this time. “You are, as so frequently of late, a delightful surprise, Avon. But since you’re clearly here for the auction, I imagine that you won’t do anything to get yourself thrown out beforehand. You’ll just have to look but not touch.” The teeth gleam again. “Of course if my guards were here I’d have your eyes torn out for the temerity of looking at all.”
“There’s an old Earth saying. A cat may look at a King.”
“Is there?” Her frown is deliberate and perfectly executed. “What does it mean?”
“I have no idea. But it seems appropriate.”
She tilts her head on one side, her cool eyes considering him. “Do you dance, Avon?”
“Not while I’m watching for a knife in my back, which takes up a remarkably large percentage of my time.”
“But you can dance?”
It’s something he can do.
“I,” she says lightly, “would like to dance. I would also like to keep you where I can see you at all times this evening, Kerr Avon.”
He is tempted to refuse because refusing Servalan anything is a pleasure in itself, but he knows that he can’t afford to let her out of his sight either. Her guards are not in the room, he’s sure of that, but he would guess that they are waiting as close as the hosts will allow. Probably, and this is an uncomfortable thought, in close proximity to the shelf on which they had placed his teleport bracelet.
It is going to be a long time until the music is scheduled to stop and the auction of pre-spaceflight memorabilia starts. They can stand here trading snide comments for the whole evening or they can dance. Put that way, it seems that the woman has a point.
She knows his decision as soon as he does. A graceful hand is offered. “Shall we, then?”
A low profile, he’d told the others. He would get involved with nothing and no-one until the auction was underway. Now the President of the Federation is pacing beside him towards the dance floor, her hand resting lightly in the crook of his arm and every single person in the room appears to be watching them. She takes this as no more than her due, of course. He does not. The back of his neck itches from the unseen stares.
The dance floor is full of couples gyrating without much skill or any knowledge, and a dancing master trying to impose a little order and convey some simple instructions. Servalan strides through the mass to address him. Avon walks faster to keep up, trying not to look as if he is being dragged in her wake.
“A waltz, if you please.”
The music changes to something with an unusual time signature. Avon has no idea how one would dance to that. The other party-goers are abandoning the floor rapidly.
“Watch,” Servalan tells him, and she disengages to tuck herself firmly into the dancing master’s reluctant arms.
The man is terrified and it’s not improving his performance but the steps are in fact trivially easy. Avon watches through a score of iterations, noting the dips and turns, then steps forward to recover his partner, who is relinquished with haste.
“Interesting,” he tells her. “Surely not pre-spaceflight?”
“As it happens, yes it is.”
One hand is resting on the naked small of her back, the other is stretched out to clasp her outstretched fingers. Their faces nearly touch, cheek to cheek, as they twirl. He wasn’t aware that Old Earth had produced any dancing quite this intimate. Didn’t religion mean that that they were all supposed to be sexually repressed? This is virtually intercourse in public.
She dips backwards, her arm tight on his, and he supports her, admiring the grace of her neck, a little sorry that she hadn’t gone tonight for one of those sweeping necklines that she often favours.
“Your right hand should be a little higher,” she tells him. “If it stays where it is I will have to kill you.”
It’s an empty threat. She will kill him anyway if he gives her the opportunity. Still he moves his hand up her back a little.
“Thank you,” she says. And, a few seconds later, “Your life could have been like this, Kerr Avon, if you’d accepted my offer.”
“My life is like this. Right now, anyway.”
“And later? You’ll grab whatever it is you came for and scurry back to the Liberator, with my men at your heels, set to run for your life yet again. Can’t you think of better ways to end the evening?”
She’s wearing the faintest of rich perfumes. Her hand is warm inside his. They turn, and turn again.
“Not really. All the other possibilities seem to end quite rapidly in being quite dead. This way I have my ship, and my life.” He smiles at her. “You continually underestimate my attachment to both, Servalan.”
She wants the Liberator, destroyed or captured. She wants an end to the embarrassments that its crew have imposed or witnessed. She may, he supposes, genuinely want Kerr Avon as well, as a whim, as a challenge, as a diversion.
He isn’t stupid enough to think that being a diversion of Servalan’s would carry either an ounce of leverage or an iota of safety. He has his priorities and he’s not the sort of man to fret about impossibilities. He just dances, feeling her warm breath on his cheek, her smooth flesh under his hand, the way she curves around him, smiling.
“Get me up now, and get the ship out of here!”
Avon arrives on the teleport pad, without his hat but with the small metal flange tightly in his hand. The ship moves, just ahead of Servalan’s, and they make a perfectly serviceable attempt at running away.
“Did you have a good evening?” Cally asks.
“Yes,” he says, without having to think about it. “Orac, is that the right thing?”
“That is the tuning device, yes, if that “thing” is what you are referring to.”
“How much did it cost?” Tarrant asks.
“Four thousand credits. It was labelled as an unidentified piece of Old Earth machinery. Rubbish, in other words.”
“Is that all? Brilliant!” Vila does a little leap in the air.
“I had to spend rather more than that, though. Servalan was there. I couldn’t let her know what it was we were after, so I had to bid on rather a lot of things.”
“How much more?” Vila asks, suspiciously.
“Around seven million.”
He doesn’t bother listening to the protests. He’s expected all this. “Of course, Servalan had to bid on everything too, if she wanted to stop me getting it.”
“So how much did she spend?”
He smiles. “Somewhere in the region of fifty million, I believe. And from what I could see it was mostly junk.” He’d enjoyed watching her triumphant expression as she outbid him the first time, and the second, and her gradual realisation around the third that he was running up the price of every lot just to keep her bidding.
“Where’s our seven million credit’s worth of stuff then?” Vila demands.
“I was in a bit of a rush to leave. People were shooting at me, so I grabbed the bit I’d come for and left the rest. I’ll get a message back, tell them to re-auction it and keep the proceeds for us. We might get some of it back, eventually.”
Tarrant takes the metal, frowning. “Is this really worth seven million credits?”
“If Orac needs it to keep functioning, I imagine it is.”
He kicks off his shoes, wincing. “Sore feet,” he explains to the curious glances. “Very uncomfortable shoes.”
“You lost your hat,” Dayna says. She sounds amused about something.
“Yes.” He’s a little sorry about that, actually. Not that he intended to wear it again, but he’d have liked to bring it home, not leave it in Servalan’s hand. He wonders briefly what she’ll do with it, then snorts at himself. Servalan will discard it without a moment’s thought. That’s what she does.
The screen in front of him flashes on and he glances at it. He catches himself before he is foolish enough to ask what it is; he can see that perfectly well. An image of a man in black and a woman in white, holding each other rather close. He glances up- they are watching him, waiting for his response. They’ve all clearly seen this already.
“Where did this come from?”
“Local news report. We picked it up about twenty minutes ago. I imagine it will be spread across most of the galaxy soon.” Tarrant has the cheek to sound challenging. “Do you want to venture an explanation, Avon?”
“The explanation is obvious, surely? We were dancing. The alternative was spending all evening trying to kill each other, which wasn’t going to happen since both of us were unarmed and in a room ringed with someone else’s security. Needs must, Tarrant. It is fortunate that at least I can dance, rather well.”
“Dancing.” Tarrant sounds unimpressed. “Not selling us out, then?”
“If I was selling you out you’d be dead by now. Believe me, Servalan’s charms pale into insignificance compared to what the Liberator can provide. I can sleep tonight safe in the knowledge that no-one on this ship intends to kill me.”
He stretches. “Talking of which, I’ve had a fairly strenuous evening, taking one thing with another. I’m off to sleep.” He leaves the picture up on the screen. He’s not ashamed of it, not in the slightest.
“Has the Liberator got away?”
“Yes Madam President.” The captain cringes. She really wishes that he wouldn’t. The Liberator always gets away; it’s faster than any of her ships. She has long since given up on the wasteful practice of executing her people in response, except when her mood is particularly bad.
Her mood is not particularly bad this evening, despite the fact that she has been maneuvered into frittering away far too much money on valueless memorabilia. The piece that she went for is at least now hers. She is still holding Avon’s black felt hat; she brushes some white dust away from the rim, the consequence of the brief shooting match in the corridors.
Back in her quarters she places the hat on a hat stand next to her own extensive collection. She’ll decide what to do with it later. For now she stands in front of the full length antique silver mirror that was the reason for attending the ball and auction.
“Some time soon,” she promises her reflection, smiling, as she tugs on the bow behind her neck and the dress slithers soundlessly to ripples on the floor. Humming the tune of the waltz, she admires her naked body briefly, imagining for a moment another pair of eyes upon her. It has not been a perfect evening, but it has not been a bad one, she decides, easing her feet out of the delicate heels and contemplating a slight blister. After all, with the future of the galaxy resting on her shoulders she so seldom gets to dance any more.