Chari Ladoris, renowned theatrical director, frowned and tapped her foot on the floor.
‘I’m sorry, everyone,’ she said. ‘If it’s all right, we’ll wait a few more minutes for our straggler before we get started.’
Beverly Crusher nodded and smiled like the other six people gathered in the small theatre in the capital city of Hekaras II, but it was hard to push down her growing irritation. She’d been on the waiting list for seven years to take part in this - Chari Ladoris’ three-day drama workshop was famous throughout the quadrant - and on the very first day someone was already twenty minutes late and wasting everyone else’s time!
Beverly herself had been almost two hours early. She’d spent the time drinking coffee after coffee in the little theatre cafe. She wasn’t entirely used to it and now her head was buzzing a little.
At long last, the door flew open and a woman walked in. She was tall and dark-haired and she carried herself elegantly and smiled broadly - and Beverly recognised her at once. Her mouth opened.
‘Va...’ she said.
‘Veronica Taylor,’ said Vash smoothly, cutting Beverly off. ‘So sorry to be late - unavoidable delay. I hope you haven’t all been waiting on my account?’
She sat in the last unoccupied chair like it was a throne, and smiled around the circle. Beverly almost bit her tongue.
‘Yes, well,’ said Chari, ‘now that we’re all here, let’s introduce ourselves.’
They went around the circle in turn, and Beverly told them all her name and a little about herself. When they came to Vash she repeated her false name and some story about being an accountant and having an epiphany about the theatre being her true home. Beverly suppressed a snort.
They did some warm-up exercises. Vash gave every impression of enjoying herself. Beverly couldn’t get into the right frame of mind at all.
When they broke for a mid-morning snack, she pulled Vash aside and hissed:
‘What are you doing here and is it illegal?’
‘Oh, Beverly,’ Vash smiled easily, ‘my name’s Veronica. And there’s nothing to worry about.’
Under Beverly’s stern gaze she relented. ‘All right - but I can’t talk about it now. We’ll have lunch together, later.’
* * *
Lunch followed an intense morning of improvisation, discussion and exercises. When Chari told them to take an hour’s break, Beverly grabbed Vash’s hand and dragged her to the theatre cafe, and a quiet table in the corner.
‘Out with it,’ said Beverly. ‘Why are you here?’
Vash’s smile was disarming. ‘What makes you think I’m here for anything other than a chance to improve my acting skills and work with a famous director?’
‘Then why use a false name?’ Beverly asked.
‘Nothing gets past you, does it?’ Vash grinned. ‘All right, I’m here for another reason too. But I’m not at liberty to discuss it. You won’t give me away, will you, Beverly?’
Beverly sighed. She knew Vash was untrustworthy, but she was also charming and fun, and Beverly was on leave. And really it was none of her business until she had positive proof that something illegal was going on.
She sighed. ‘I suppose it would be premature to report you to the authorities.’
‘Ah, Beverly - you say the nicest things. Now, come on. Tell me how our Jean-Luc is getting on.’
Vash leaned forward on her elbows. And in spite herself, Beverly found herself catching her up on the news from the Enterprise. In return, Vash told her a few stories about her time travelling with Q.
Soon enough their hour was up, and they made their way back to the rehearsal room.
‘All right,’ said Chari, when they were sitting in a circle again, ‘most of you probably know that, at the end of these three days, we will be putting on a semi-improvised one-act play. Based on our work this morning, I’ve assigned you all some roles, and I’d like us to spend this afternoon getting to know those characters.’
Beverly sat up straighter, hands clasped around her knees.
‘I’ve looked at all of your suggestions,’ Chari continued, ‘and the play will be set in a hotel on Benzar where an important political conference and a major dance contest are happening over the same few days. Veronica, you’ll play a prize-winning dancer competing one last time before she retires. Beverly, you’ll play a minister of the Terran government, at the conference to feel out trade opportunities.’
She continued around the circle, assigning characters. Beverly was a little envious of the role Vash had been given, but there was still plenty of scope in the one she had been assigned, she supposed.
Once the roles were all given out, Chari split them into two groups of four to improvise encounters between their characters. Beverly and Vash were in the first group.
‘All right,’ said Chari. ‘You’re checking in at the hotel. You’re in the lobby. And... go!’
Beverly took a deep breath, trying to decide where to start, but a shriek surprised her before she could get going and Vash flew across the rehearsal space, flung her arms around her, and kissed her warmly on the mouth.
Beverly drew back, her eyes wide. Her lips tingled.
‘How long has it been?’ Vash asked. ‘I didn’t expect to see you again after... you know...’
Through a fog of surprise, Beverly remembered that they were acting.
‘It’s been... a while,’ she said.
It wasn’t a particularly clever response, but it would do.
Vash chattered away about their fictitious shared romantic history, and Beverly decided that her character probably hadn’t wanted these sorts of complications just when she was in the middle of something important. She held back, giving monosyllabic responses, her eyes darting around the room for an escape route. One of the others approached them and started to talk. Beverly reacted with relief, Vash rolled her eyes and folded her arms and glared.
‘I love it!’ said Chari. ‘Inspired, Veronica! We’ll definitely work this into the play. And Beverly, excellent job, I love what you’re doing.’
The other group took their turn, and then they did the same thing again in different combinations. Beverly had the opportunity to watch Vash with some of the others and - she was finally beginning to notice now that she’d calmed down and settled in a little - Vash was a good actor. Very good, in fact. Beverly began to wonder if she could persuade her to come and stay on the Enterprise for a few weeks and be in a play. Jean-Luc would be furious. It might be fun.
Too quickly, the day was over. Already a third of the way through the workshop and Beverly felt as though it had barely begun. She said her goodbyes to the others, and looked around for Vash - but she was already gone.
Beverly certainly wasn’t disappointed, just... surprised. She would have expected Vash to at least stay long enough to exchange a few words. But of course it didn’t matter.
Some of the others were going for drinks together, but Beverly decided to go back to her hotel and do some work on her character. By midnight she had ten pages of handwritten notes about everything from motivations to history to favourite foods. And she couldn’t get Vash out of her mind.
* * *
In spite of her abrupt departure the night before, Vash was perfectly on time when they started the next morning. She winked at Beverly.
If anything, the second day was more intense than the first. Everyone knew their characters and they had a rough idea of where the narrative was going to go, which made room for them to experiment and explore. As well as her romance storyline with Vash, Beverly’s character was involved in a government conspiracy, and much of the day was spent working on that with half of the group, while across the room Vash and the others perfected the dance contest portion of the play.
At lunchtime nobody wanted to stop working, so they replicated sandwiches in the cafe and ate them in bites between scenes. Beverly barely had time to exchange pleasantries with Vash, they were just both too busy.
When the day ended, Vash disappeared again, as quickly as she had the day before. Beverly sighed, shrugged, and followed the others out.
On the street outside the theatre, she suddenly remembered that she had left her favourite scarf in the rehearsal room. She wasn’t sure if the theatre had a self-cleaning cycle and she didn’t want the scarf to get caught up in it before tomorrow, so she turned and went back, muttering reproach to herself for her forgetfulness.
Vash was in the otherwise empty rehearsal room. She was holding some sort of scanner, moving it slowly in a circle.
‘What are you looking for?’ Beverly asked.
Vash jumped. ‘Nothing. What are you doing back here?’
‘Forgot my scarf,’ Beverly found it on a window sill and picked it up.
‘Well, you have it now,’ said Vash. ‘Don’t let me keep you!’
Beverly took a few steps closer, and Vash backed away a little.
‘If it’s so innocent, why can’t you tell me?’ Beverly asked.
‘I didn’t say it was innocent, I just said it wasn’t illegal,’ Vash said.
Beverly closed the distance between them in three long strides and grabbed at the scanner. The door behind them creaked open. Beverly turned, losing her grip on the scanner, and Vash slipped it nearly inside her sleeve.
Chari was in the doorway, watching them.
‘What are you two doing?’ she asked.
‘Oh,’ said Vash, ‘we had a wonderful idea for the play and we wanted to try it out a bit before we showed you tomorrow, but since you’re here... tell her, Beverly!’
Beverly glared at Vash, at a loss. They were still standing close together, Beverly’s hand on Vash’s in the air, after she had tried to take the scanner.
‘It’s... a dance!’ said Beverly. It was the first thing that had come into her head.
Vash nodded. ‘That’s right. A dance! A... tango. It’s symbolic.’
Chari beamed. ‘That sounds wonderful! I was coming to lock up, but I suppose I can trust the two of you with the key if you need more time. Here, look after them and bring them back first thing tomorrow.’
She handed Vash a black access key - the same one she’d been using to open all the doors in the theatre.
‘See you in the morning!’ she said, with a cheery wave.
‘Well, now we have to actually come up with a tango,’ Vash said, after she had gone. ‘Can you dance?’
Beverly grinned. ‘Can I? Let’s find a computer terminal and choose some music.’
There was a terminal in the corner, and it turned out the theatre’s music library was extensive. They chose a tango written by a Bolian composer in the 22nd century and set to work.
Beverly had been wondering how they would play the scene where her character finally gave in to her longings and rekindled her affair with Vash’s character, but this was ideal - the dramatic piano and nostalgic, yearning strings were the perfect vehicle. Vash would lead first, tempting Beverly closer, gently persuading, reminding her of all they had shared - and then, suddenly, Beverly would take the lead, throwing caution to the wind, taking Vash by surprise with the ferocity of her passion.
‘All right,’ said Vash at last. ‘Let’s run the whole thing through.’
Beverly nodded, and set the music to play once they were in position.
The music started. Beverly waited eight long beats as Vash’s hand moved slowly to her shoulder and up to her face, and then they were dancing - first circling one another slowly without touching except for the warm hand still on her cheek, and then Vash’s fingers meeting hers as they finally stepped together, Vash’s palm against her waist to steady her as she spun, Vash’s eyes gazing into hers as their feet drew patterns on the floor. Beverly twirled, and she wasn’t sure if the pounding of her heart belonged to her character or to her. When she stiffened in indecision, Vash’s free foot swept Beverly’s around with her and they changed direction, moving backwards now in quick little steps, and then slowing again for a close embrace, and Beverly fell into Vash’s arms and let herself be pulled across the floor.
Then Beverly was leading, driving them faster, with a harmony between them now that had been absent at the beginning of the dance. Beverly’s right hand was on Vash’s back, and her left clasped Vash’s right tightly. They sank almost to the ground, free legs stretched out behind them, and then came up again, pulling one another closer. And then they were whirling, Vash’s leg curled around Beverly’s thigh, her foot brushing Beverly’s knee, and then Beverly dipped her so low, Vash’s hair almost brushed the floor, and then a final burst of quick, almost running steps, and they finished with their arms tight around each other, just as the music ended in a last powerful chord.
Beverly could hardly catch her breath. She licked her lips, still holding Vash close. She could feel both of their hearts beating. She was afraid to speak, afraid to move in case whatever was happening in this moment stopped happening. Vash leaned closer, shifted her arm on Beverly’s waist...
And the scanner dropped out of her sleeve and skittered onto the floor. Beverly had all but forgotten what they had been doing here in the first place, but the noise startled her and she stepped back, suddenly chilly away from Vash’s embrace.
She picked up the scanner. ‘What are you looking for?’ she asked.
Vash sighed. ‘It’s a necklace,’ she said. ‘It belonged to a Ktarian queen, seven hundred years ago. It was stolen from the museum there in the revolution in the last century and I was employed to discreetly track it down. I managed to trace it as far as the previous owner of this theatre, and there are rumours that he hid it somewhere in here.’
‘But you haven’t seen any sign of it yet?’
‘No. But now I have something that might make it easier...’
She waved the keys that Chari had left with them earlier, and grinned.
‘You should get out of here,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t want you to get into any trouble.’
‘And miss the chance to find a missing royal heirloom? What do you take me for?’
So they looked together, although Vash wouldn’t let Beverly operate the scanner. The key gave them access to every part of the theatre, including the storage rooms full of old sets and costumes. Beverly wanted to stay and explore but Vash was single-minded. They worked their way methodically up to the attic.
‘Nothing’s coming up on the scanner,’ said Vash.
Beverly peered over her shoulder.
‘What’s that?’ she said. ‘That place where the scanner isn’t returning any results. Could it be some kind of shielding?’
‘It could,’ said Vash.
Once they had found it, it was easy enough to disable the shield. The necklace was in a box, on a velvet cushion. It was made of several dozen native Ktarian gemstones.
‘It’s stunning,’ said Beverly, leaning closer to look.
‘I’m sure the Ktarians will be glad to have it back,’ said Vash. ‘I should get it to them as soon as possible.’
‘Wait,’ said Beverly, ‘surely you don’t mean you’re leaving? What about the play?’
‘That was just my cover, remember?’ said Vash.
‘But aren’t you having fun? You know I waited seven years to attend this workshop? You can’t drop out before the performance! What about my narrative arc?’
Vash considered. ‘It does seem unkind to leave you without a dance partner.’
‘Very unkind,’ agreed Beverly.
The Ktarians would just have to wait one more day.