Read Chapters 1-12 here. Chapter 13 picks up where Chapter 12 left off, so make sure you’ve read that one first!
I hope you enjoy. :)
The ballroom of the Grand Europa was just as Up remembered it: ritzy and opulent, the ceiling skyrocketing overhead, all chandeliers and pillars and dinner music floating through the air. All way out of his element. He cast a glance down at Taz, who looked as though she was about to vomit all over her priceless designer dress. It was undeniably strange to see her all done up like this, and probably even stranger for her. He had to admit, she was drop-dead gorgeous tonight, but then he thought the same when she was shining with sweat in the heat of battle. They reached the porter waiting at the door and handed him their invitation.
“Dr. and Mrs. Charles von Tuppington, of Alabama, Earth,” the porter announced as they entered the ballroom.
All eyes turned toward them, and Up couldn’t help but feel a surge of foolish pride as he led Taz down the grand stairs of the hall and into the colourful crowd of ambassadors below. Gentlemen stared, and ladies started to whisper. Mrs. von Tuppington was turning heads.
Taz had a look somewhere between bewilderment and terror on her face. “Smile, darling,” Up said out of the corner of his mouth. “You’re the centre of attention.”
“No es broma,” she whispered back, but plastered a smile on anyway.
They were led by yet another porter to one of the many well dressed round tables, their false names scripted in gold on place cards. China plates and far too many forks. The crowd began to filter to their seats, many people still casting glances in Taz’s direction.
“I think Alejandro may have done his job a little too well,” he said to her as they sat. “We’re supposed to blend in, not capture the notice of everyone in the room.”
“Well, excuse me,” she said, tugging angrily at the front of her dress. “Do you see the target?”
“Not yet,” he said, though the special lens he was wearing in his right eye was scanning continually for a match.
“OMDG, you have to tell me where you got your dress!”
A blonde and bubbly teenager in an elaborately sequined purple number squealed and plopped herself down next to Taz. Before Taz could do anything but blink in bewilderment, she continued.
“I’m February, the girl, not the month, I saw you come in and I’m, like, so psyched we’re sitting next to each other, I just know we’re going to be BFF’s before the night’s over.”
“Phillipa von Tuppington,” said Taz, after a moment, in a sort of Mexican-drawl hybrid. “This is my husband, U- Charles.”
“Ooh, he’s handsome, isn’t he? This is totally my first time at the ball, I can’t even handle it, I’m so excited! All the outfits – I just heart your dress so much. I knew I should have worn red, red would look so much better on me than you, don’t you think?”
Taz looked at Up for help, but if he said anything he was going to lose his carefully constructed pokerface. He held his tongue.
The teenager’s monologue was interrupted briefly as other guests joined them at the table and one of their Jovian hosts rose to the podium - the banquet was begun. February, not to be deterred for long, kept up a steady commentary throughout the endless speeches, mostly related to the fashion choices of the guests, but managing to slip in a few gleeful pieces of gossip here and there. Taz, at whom most of this was directed, nodded a lot, but her eyes were busy scanning the ballroom for the same signal Up was looking for.
Suddenly Taz’s leg pressed into his under the table, hard. Startled, he looked at her, and she flicked her eyes to the left, then turned back to February.
Up stood up. “Please excuse me. Duty calls.”
He walked in the direction she’d indicated, nodding hello at random people until finally the lens in his eye indicated their target – young, fit, and impeccably dressed, he was clearly human – and in possession of the information diamond they were looking for. He willed the man to look his way – if he could get eye contact, even for a few seconds, the lens should be able to identify him.
No dice. The target was engrossed in conversation with his lovely Jovian dinner partner, and Up had no choice but to pass him by. As he walked behind the man’s table, he let the pin-sized tracking device he was holding between his fingers casually drop into the pocket of the dinner jacket slung over his chair.
When Up returned to the dinner table, their first course had been served and Taz looked like she was ready to stab someone with her dessert fork. Under cover of February informing the lady on her other side all about the latest blow-drying techniques on Neptune, he bent close to Taz. “I’ve bugged him – it will activate if he leaves the hall. Keep your eye on him. We’ll have to see if we can get him on his own.”
“Lo tengo,” she said. “If I learn one more thing about this season’s preferred height for stilettos the knife tied to my leg is going straight through that girl’s eye, and I cannot be held responsible.”
“Patience, my dear,” Up said, digging in to his portion of unidentifiable pate with enthusiasm. “There’s only eleven more courses to go.”
She kicked him under the table, and he winced, ever so slightly.
The dinner lasted for hours, and consisted of several unrecognizable delicacies from across the galaxy. “Hijo de puta!” exclaimed Taz loudly when their seventh course was unveiled, a pulsing lime green Uranian version of lobster in the shell. The table fell silent, and several of the ladies looked up in shock.
Up laughed uneasily and patted Taz’s arm. “My wife’s family originally hails from Mexico,” he said in explanation. “Sometimes the Spanish just bursts out when you least expect it – one of the many things I love about her.”
“Awww,” said February. “You two are just so cute.”
Taz looked at Up with a searching expression in her eyes, and didn’t say another word for the rest of the meal. He wondered what it was that he’d said.
The guests hovered, cocktails in hand, as the tables were cleared for the dancing portion of the evening. A seventeen-piece interspecies band was set up on the stage, and soon the music began and the dance floor started to fill. Taz and Up stayed close to the bar, making sure their target stayed within sight lines.
It certainly qualified as one of the strangest nights of Taz’s life. She now knew more about hem length and eyelash curlers than she ever thought possible, and refraining from breaking the nose of the next gross old man who leered at her was becoming more and more difficult as the night wore on. She was grateful for Up’s polarizing presence - even in a tux he looked like the kind of man you wouldn’t want to mess with - she just wasn’t used to having to rely on him for that. Normally her reputation spoke for itself.
“And I hear,” said February, who they hadn’t managed to escape yet, “That you two are just totally stellar ballroom dancers, is that right? Like, last year’s state champions?”
How do you hear these things? Did Tripp send out a press release? Taz wondered, but simply said, “We’re not really that-”
“Whatever!” February said. “You, like, have to show off, it’s what we do here! Charles, ask this woman to dance, before someone else does, will you?”
With a bit of a smirk, Up obediently held out his hand, and together they moved toward the dance floor. After several hours of February, a moment to hear herself think would be a welcome relief.
Up was much improved since their disastrous first dance lesson, and it was a good thing too, because they continued to draw attention from all corners of the room. They kept it simple, a waltz, and took turns keeping an eye on their target, who seemed to be spending most of his time flirting with the locals. After a while, Taz stopped concentrating on her footwork and almost began to enjoy herself. She looked at Up, and was surprised to find him smiling down at her.
“We’re not so bad, are we?” he said, and she didn’t know how to respond, because she didn’t know what he meant: at dancing, at going undercover, at being a couple?
“No,” she said softly. “We’re not so bad.”
They held their eye contact, and it wasn’t hard this time, it was the most natural thing in the world to be looking into those blue eyes she knew so well as they spun around the dance floor. Up opened his mouth, and looked as though he was about to say something else, but then someone cleared their throat directly behind her.
Taz turned, and found herself face to face with their target.
“I’m truly sorry to interrupt,” he said, in a perfect British accent. “But may I cut in?”
Does he know? was her first thought. She looked at Up, who looked like he was having similar suspicions. The sandy-haired man smiled hopefully. “I was only hoping to have a chance to dance with the most beautiful woman at the ball – with her husband’s permission, of course,” he added, nodding at Up.
Up looked very much like he wanted to say no. Taz put her hand on his arm. “It’s fine, mi amor,” she said. “You can share me for one dance.” This could be our chance to get the information, she tried to tell him with her eyes.
He seemed to understand, and gestured his assent. Taz watched him stalk across the floor and lean against the bar, a sullen look on his face. The sandy-haired man held his hand out to her. “Shall we dance, my lady?”
Taz was suddenly grateful for Madame LaViolet and her relentless lessons because this man knew what he was doing and it was all she could do to match him, keeping her movements smooth and her face serene as they twirled across the floor. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, Mr -”
“Brown, Jasper Brown,” he said, although the lens in her eye was telling her based on his retinal scan that it was actually Goldstein, Leonhard Goldstein, a high-ranking civilian G.L.E.E. employee. “And you must forgive my fervour, Mrs. von Tuppington, but I’m quite intoxicated by you. Your husband shouldn’t be so quick to give you away.”
Lo que un desgraciado, thought Taz. What a creep. “You flatter me, Mr. Brown.”
The music changed, and a salsa rhythm crept in to the music.
“I hear some Mexican in your voice,” The false Mr. Brown said. “So should I assume that you are familiar with this dance?”
She matched his steps, right-left-right, left-right-left. Even after all these years, it was a part of her, all those nights her mama had spent teaching her to salsa for her quinceañera. Mr. Brown certainly knew what he was doing. He pulled her closer and they tested each other, each step growing more complex, check forward, side step, spot turn. As he spun her, she saw that others nearby had stopped to watch them. Up was still standing darkly at the bar, his arms crossed, his gaze on her.
Taz was getting out of breath, and no closer to figuring out where Mr. Brown was keeping the information diamond. As the music built to a feverish pitch, she found herself being turned and dipped, suddenly looking at the world upside down, and the small crowd that had gathered burst into applause.
Pulling her upright again, Mr. Brown bowed. “Do let me know if you’re ever in need of a new dance partner for the championships,” he said, kissing her lightly on the hand, and disappeared into the crowd.
Taz was flushed, and feeling stupid. At least now they had his identity. She made her way back to the bar where Up stood before anyone else could ask her to dance. He didn’t look very happy.
“It’s getting awfully hot in here, isn’t it, sweetheart?” he said loudly. “Let’s go for a walk.”
She followed him out of the ballroom, Up leading them toward the wide stone balcony overlooking the gardens. They stood and leaned against the rail, taking in the view. Couples walked the garden paths, holding hands, giggling as they snuck into bushes.
“Nice moves,” Up said, his eyes fixed on the garden.
“I tried to teach you once, remember?” she said, feeling inexplicably frustrated with him. Why was he acting like she’d done something wrong?
Then she saw their target, Mr. Brown, walking along next to a blue, winged ambassador from the planet of Zambuki. Up’s tracking device must have alerted him that they’d be coming this way. He held out a small ear bud. She put it in, and suddenly her ear was filled with a whispered conversation too far away to hear.
“You have the diamond?”
“Yes, it’s here, as arranged. But-”
“No buts, you agreed-”
“Shut up and listen for a second. I think the Rangers are here.”
Taz and Up looked at each other.
“The Starship Rangers?”
“That couple from Earth, the doctor and his wife? They’ve never been to the ball before. I tried to get a read on the woman while we were dancing but her retinal scan came up blank.”
So that was why he’d cut in - of course he would have a lens scanner, too. Luckily Tripp had thought to wipe their official records before sending them here.
“I don’t think they’re a real couple, I think they’re Rangers undercover -”
They continued to argue, but Taz stopped listening. Mr. Brown and his associate were looking at them now, high above on the balcony, and a flicker of anxiety trembled on Up’s face. The traitor suspected, but he didn’t have proof. They had to convince him that they really were Dr. and Mrs. von Tuppington – somehow.
“Kiss me,” she said.
Up’s eyebrows jumped up to his hairline. “What?”
It was the only way. “Don’t be stupid, just do it, Up!” she said, in a voice all her own.
A question in his eyes, Up leaned down and tentatively caught her lips with his.
Well, that wasn’t going to fool anyone.
Taz reached up and threaded her hands through his hair, deepening the kiss, pulling him closer. Her senses seemed to be wide awake and she noticed a million new things about him at once – like how soft his hair felt between her fingers, how his moustache tickled, how he smelled freshly washed and tasted like mint and chocolate from dessert – but then he was kissing her back and she forgot everything but his arms wrapped around her, his strong hands moving on her back, his warm mouth on hers. She pressed closer to him, her body demanding it, and felt him groan just a little against her lips.
Up moved his hands to either side of her face and then his kiss was suddenly gentle, intimate. He drew back, ever so slightly, and when she opened her eyes all she could see was the blue of his. A flood of feelings assaulted her.
“Isn’t this precious? What a digital Polaroid moment.”
Reality came cascading back, and it was sharp as glass. Over Up’s shoulder, Taz could see several figures in black raising zappers in their direction. From the look on his face, Up was seeing the same thing behind her.
They were surrounded.
His brain still reeling from Taz’s kiss – and holy hell, what a kiss – Up didn’t move as he took in their situation, his hands still cupping her face, hers wrapped around his neck. There were at least a dozen, if Taz was seeing the same thing he was, each aiming a zapper directly at them. He felt his own weapons pressing against the small of his back, underneath his jacket. How could he get to them without the others seeing?
“Dr. von Tuppington,” came the same snide voice. It was their sandy-haired target, sounding slightly out of breath but rather pleased with himself. “I was hoping we’d have a chance to meet again tonight. But then, that’s not really your name, is it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir,” Up bluffed as Taz slowly, discreetly slid her hands down his chest, and beneath his jacket to his back. “My wife and I-”
“Did a very good job of convincing the bimbos in there of your little act,” the traitor continued. “But not me, I’m afraid. Though you are a wonderful dancer, darling.”
Taz’s hands had found both zappers holstered at his waist. She moved her leg forward imperceptibly, and he could just make out the outline of the knife she’d strapped to her thigh beneath the red fabric of her dress. He was going to have to be fast.
“So now, let’s not make a fuss about this, no need to disrupt the party. If you’ll just come with us-”
Up ducked down as Taz pulled the zappers from his belt and swung them around to face the enemies on either side, letting out a battle cry as she began to fire. They scattered, taken by surprise. Crouching at her waist, Up slid his hand up her leg until he found the knife. Swinging himself around, he stood so that they were back to back, and looked for a target as she continued firing.
“Shit, Taz, why couldn’t you have fit a zapper under there, too?”
She laughed, the light of the lasers dancing across her face. The enemies were firing back, and the sandy-haired target was creeping away toward the ballroom, where the music had stopped. Up’s lens was still showing the information diamond in his pocket.
Up took careful aim and threw Taz’s knife.
It sunk deep into the back of the man’s thigh, as Up had meant it to, and he stumbled and fell to the ground with a cry as the doors of the ballroom swung open. A crowd of astounded ambassadors had gathered, looking at shock at the scene on the balcony.
The blasting stopped, and Up looked at Taz. “No more juice,” she said, shaking the useless zappers and dropping them to the ground. She had managed to take out all of the dark-clad henchmen, who now lay motionless on the ground.
“Were those set to stun?” he asked. “They may be traitors, but they’re still human.”
“No sé, they’re your zappers, Up.”
As they turned to him, the sandy-haired man, clutching his leg, scrabbled upright and grabbed the nearest partygoer.
“Like, ew, don’t touch me!”
It was February. The traitor pulled a zapper from his own pocket and pressed it into her neck.
“I get through, the girl doesn’t get hurt.”
The teenager’s frightened eyes looked from Up to Taz. He didn’t know what to do. They had no weapons left. But they couldn’t let him get away with the information diamond.
“Phillipa, girlfriend,” said February shakily, as the zapper pressed farther still into the side of her neck. “Three and a quarter inches is totally deadly, right?”
This meant absolutely nothing to Up, but understanding dawned on Taz’s face. Before anyone could move, she bent and tugged a shiny black stiletto from her foot.
The traitor never saw it coming.
There had never been a more eventful Galactic Ambassador’s Ball. G.L.E.E. backup arrived to haul the traitor and his slowly waking henchmen away, and the information diamond was taken into secure custody. Feed reporters swarmed, and cameras flashed as February bid Taz, or Phillipa, as she insisted on calling her, a tearful goodbye. She was having a little trouble wrapping her head around the whole dual-identity Starship Ranger business.
“You ever think of joining?” Taz said. “You were pretty ballsy out there on the balcony. And they could use a few more girls going through those Academy hallways.”
“Me, a Starship Ranger?” February’s eyes filled with wonder. “Well, I have always been interested in schi-ency things, you know.”
Up waited a few metres away, well away from the clamouring reporters. Taz was barefoot, her dressed scorched and her elegant hairstyle tumbled down, and she looked better than ever. He wanted to kiss her again, but she wasn’t Mrs. von Tuppington anymore. The charade was over.
“We didn’t exactly do things quietly, did we?” he said as she approached.
“Tripp is going to kill us,” she agreed. “But he can’t say we didn’t get the job done.”
They both fell silent, and there was a question hanging between them, but Up didn’t know how to ask it.
“Okay, Commander, transport’s ready to go,” an ensign said, and they turned toward the waiting ship.
The question remained unasked.
Read Chapter 14 here.
I love you all for reading. Your thoughts?