Kaidan gave that honeyed, throaty chuckle that did strange things to my insides. Over the course of our relationship I’d found myself doing things just to hear it that I would once have considered beneath my dignity.
I’d pulled goofy faces behind the back of Captain Anderson in Council meetings, danced a little jig of mockery during one of the ambassador’s tirades, and tried to juggle pistols in the Mako on the way to a tense mission. Though we’d all cracked up, high on adrenaline, when I’d dropped one and nearly shot Garrus in the leg, we decided that last little stunt had been a bad idea.
Maintenance hadn’t been too thrilled about patching the hole, either. The surprise factor had been worth all of the grief I’d taken, though. Kaidan gave me an excuse to crack the badass Spectre façade from time to time, to be a juvenile prankster more interested in a successful joke than saving the galaxy. Because I’d learned to loosen up with him I found it easier to do so with other people, letting go of some of that military rigidity behind which I’d so long hidden.
But it was a long way from practical jokes to wearing a scrap of a dress and attending a masquerade ball. His eyes sparkled behind his own mask, a wild affair that stretched from the corners of his mouth to a point a good two inches above his hairline, thus hiding his tell-tale waves and that dimple that made me want to nibble on him. He could have been any tall, fit Human on the Citadel.
I, on the other hand, was a woman with exposed scars and the sort of walk that would peg me as a marine the moment I moved, assuming I didn’t fall off my stupid heels at the first step. The other women I saw had grace I lacked utterly and had never particularly missed. They all looked like they could manage their shoes just fine. I felt like a complete idiot.
Yet when he slid his arm around my waist and leaned in to whisper, “You look amazing,” I nearly forgot about the dozens of others milling around us. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
It was. A huge pair of doors opened off to the right and people began making their way into the biggest room I’d ever seen outside of the Council Chambers. At least that vast space had been broken up railings and islands of plants.
Kaidan, his arm still around my waist, guided me into an echoing, empty space lined with bars and banquet tables that fairly groaned under the dishes laden with bite-sized tidbits. Music wafted from hidden speakers and I realized that my nightmare would come true; Kaidan expected me to dance.
Now, I dance all of the time. I do happy dances for all sorts of situations: after a good battle or a successful military negotiation or a particularly delightful personal interaction. But there’s a major difference between an impromptu expression of joy and a formal, public spectacle of choreography—in unaccustomed heels.
I didn’t know the steps of any popular dances and had never cared to learn them. And in these horrible shoes I would be far more likely to break an ankle than glide gracefully among the other guests. Yet a dance floor on which Joker could, in an emergency, land my ship loomed before me, filled with dark promise. A dozen musicians lined themselves up to provide a soundtrack for my torture at the far end.
Using my hip I shoved Kaidan to the right, forcing him out of the flow of traffic and into a quiet spot near the doors. The move unbalanced me on those stupid shoes but he kept me upright as he moved.
“What the hell are we doing here?” I hissed furiously at him. He only smiled and gave me a little squeeze, not at all offended by my tone. A wink and what little I could see of irritatingly cheerful face made it look like he was having a great time.
“I’m not dancing,” I said with finality, “and you can’t make me.” He had the gall to laugh. I considered burying the sharp toe of my left shoe in his groin but abandoned the idea of trying it a skirt that so limited maneuverability. A trip to the infirmary would get me out of here, but to seek medical attention in this outfit? Never!
“We’ll have to dance,” Kaidan said, distracting me from my imagined humiliation. I may have actually snarled at him a bit. He continued in a perfectly reasonable tone as though I had nodded pleasantly. “The dance floor is the best place to people-watch and that’s why we’re here.”
“Which anonymous, masked attendee are we intended to be watching?” I asked, gesturing to the crowd. While you could easily identify the species of a given person, particularly those fashionably-dressed Asari in their various tones of blue, I could hardly identify my would-be dance partner from five feet away, much less anyone else.
“We’re watching that Asari in the pink,” he said, nodding to someone in a mask so flamboyant that she’d be easy to spot even in this crowd. Shocking pink feathers nodded at least a foot over her head while a riot of color surrounded her eyes and stretched to either side of her face. Body paint to match decorated the exposed skin of her abdomen, fans of color curving around her lithe sides.
“Who the hell is that and what does she have to do with the Collectors?”
“You don’t recognize Sha’ira, the famed Consort of the Citadel?” he laughed. “And she has nothing to do with fruit baskets or bastards. You’re not my only assignment, you know.”
He nuzzled my neck for a moment. The feathers tickled but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of squirming. “I needed a date for cover,” he continued, “and I couldn’t wait to see you in that dress.”
“You son of a bitch!” I exclaimed, fighting down the urge to elbow that grin off his face. My head filled with images of the high-toned brothel she ran, the immense bed to which she’d tried to lead me before I’d even been named a Spectre. A dozen people turned their feathered faces toward us. I lowered my voice again. “How long have you been ‘working’ with her?”
The smile dropped away without any physical intervention on my part. “Hey, no,” he said softly. “You know me better than that.” I felt a little bad at his dejected body language. Maybe I’d been too hasty.
“But she knows some secrets even the Shadow Broker doesn’t. You made quite an impression on her and she agreed to work with us after you…,” he gestured obliquely, “died. With so much swept under the rug we needed all of the sympathetic ears we could get.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Don’t change the subject,” I said. “Just how does she pass information if you don’t ‘visit’ her?”
Kaidan’s smile crept back. “Through intermediaries,” he answered. “I haven’t even spoken to her directly for over a year.” He tightened the arm still around my waist. “It was a long, long two years.”
I rested my head on his shoulder for a moment, careful not to knock my mask askew. I’d been afraid to ask if he’d been with anyone while I’d been lying, desiccated and broken, on a table somewhere “enjoying” Miranda’s creepy but effective ministrations. I could hardly expect him to swear off other women for the rest of his life just because I’d died.
He brought my attention back to the current situation. “We’re just here to flag contacts.”
A sigh approximately the size of Luna released my frustrations and I stood back, taking his hand. “Let’s just not move any more than necessary,” I said. “These shoes are a death trap.” I cursed the mask he wore for hiding the dimple I adored as he pulled me toward him again. How I’d missed that face, its quirks more familiar even than my own.
He leaned in and kissed me, a faint brush of his lips more loving than any expression of passion could have been. I resigned myself to sucking up yet another indignity and let him lead my barely-clad body toward the riot of color swirling into the room. This double-agent lark was less fun than the vids made it out to be.
Though we never spoke to the Consort neither were we ever far from her. When she mingled among the crowd sampling the feast, Kaidan and I popped bite-sized bits of whatever was to hand into our mouths and he fiddled with his mask, surreptitiously sending images to some team that would follow and identify the people to whom she spoke.
And when she accepted the invitation of another guest to dance, we danced as well. Disgraced or not, she was remarkably popular which meant that we spent far more time than I’d have liked out on the floor.
The first time Kaidan all but hauled me into the swirl of color by my hand like a balky pet. “Can’t we just stand here?” I whined in a last-ditch effort to avert my fate. “I can see fine.” He firmly refused and before I knew it I was tottering in his arms, Sha’ira forgotten in my self-conscious awkwardness.
“Relax,” Kaidan said. “Stay on your toes and just move where I take you.” The man positively glided, damn him. I’d admiringly watched him move in dozens of battles and I’d danced with him a hundred times, both with and without Garrus. But I hadn’t known he could be so smooth.
“Put your hand on my shoulder,” he said, “and when I say ‘now’ run a finger around my ear while you press that little button on my mask.” The romantic feeling shattered when reality ran smack into it. I did as he asked, presuming we were sending more information to whoever waited.
Once that was done we sank back into comfortable silence. With anyone else I would have fought for control. With Kaidan I just closed my eyes and let him and the music do what they would.
“I got your present,” he whispered into my ear some unknowable time later, an interlude I’d spent breathing in that familiar scent, reveling in the feel of his muscles under my hands and his hands on my body. His warming breath recalled me reluctantly to our situation. “Come on up and see it sometime?”
I chuckled. “I thought you’d never ask.” I wondered what he'd done with the tiny Shepard and Kaidan in the box and hoped it was something deliciously naughty. Then I remembered that he was making me dance in public and restored what scowl I could manage while wrapped in his arms. The result felt less furious and more content than I'd intended but it would have to do.
We swayed and wandered for the rest of the night, my feet increasingly complaining about the unnatural position into which they were forced. When we actually danced I forgot my discomfort in following Kaidan’s lead through steps I’d never have been able to perform without him. But I could still see the disdainful looks of the elegant ladies that had probably never shot a mech in the head at fifty-three meters or crawled through eight inches of slime to set explosives on some shithole of a planet with mercs trying to shoot them in the ass every time they bent over.
Sha’ira met dozens of people of several different species and Kaidan positioned us to catch a glimpse of them all. It was a whirlwind of color, feathers, and body paint between the formal black of the men. I’d been to military dress balls, emphasis on the military and very little on the ball, but this was something else entirely. This was a social shark tank, judgments made based on criteria about which I could not care less.
Yet the anonymity of the mask freed me. By the end of the night I’d decided that everyone could think what they liked. They’d never know this galumphing clod was Shepard, savior of the galaxy, returned from death to finish the job.