Just before the end of his half-day shift at work, Slate jogged down the ramp to the garage. “Callaghan!” he yelled. “Cal! Over here!”
One of the mechanics scooted out from underneath a truck. He was an impossibly lean man whose brown hair had sun-bleached patches in it. “Slate!” he yelled above the whine of the grinder. “About done for the day?”
Slate nodded. “How’s your family?”
“We’re doing great. Kitty just lost her first baby tooth!”
“Is she old enough for that already?”
“Six years old last month, man. Say, are you free tonight, or are you still doing stuff for your cousin’s wedding?”
“I’m free tonight. Where is this one?”
“Archways Ballroom. Know where it is?”
“Vaguely. I’ll ask my dad’s driver. He’ll know.”
“The drivers always know,” said Cal wisely. “You going to ask Gin?”
Slate shrugged. “Sure.”
“So that’s still going well?”
Slate shrugged again, this time with a half-smile. “I guess.”
“See you at 1900, then. I’ll leave your tickets at the door.”
Slate jogged back up the ramp to the lower level of the supply warehouse. The noise level decreased accordingly, so he was able to ask one of the guys at a normal volume, “Anything left for me to clear up?”
They all agreed that he was good to leave for the day. He went to his locker and grabbed his jacket before he jogged the length of the warehouse to the garage doors. Here, a young woman on duty was wiping grease off her hands with a rag. “Gin,” Slate said, “do you want to come with me to Lightning District for a dance tonight?”
“Another one of their dances,” the young woman said. “Sure, sounds fun. What time?”
“Starts at 1900. Cal is going to leave tickets at the door.”
“Want me to pick you up?”
Slate said, “Yes, please. It’s great, knowing somebody with her own transport.”
Gin threw the rag into the appropriate receptacle. “I’ll stop at your house at 1830. Can I stop in and say hello to your mom and dad while I’m there?”
“If they’re there, sure,” said Slate, “but they’ve turned all romantic lately, so there’s no telling.”
“That’s so sweet,” she laughed. “I like to think I’d still be all romantic with my husband when I’m middle-aged. See you tonight!”
Slate took his leave through the garage exit and cut across the grounds to the nearest trolley stop. He had it calculated to the minute and knew that his chosen route would put him at his parents’ house at 1150. He needed only about two minutes to go in, grab his present for Michael and Helena, and be on his way to the Tate house, which was on the way to Michael and Helena’s new home. The walk to the Tate house took twelve and a half minutes, assuming nobody stopped him to talk, and the walk from the Tate house to the newlyweds’ house took about nine minutes more.
He found Lyndon at the house, sitting in the window seat with Linnie. No one else seemed to be home, and Slate was on the verge of asking them what they were doing alone together in the house when he noticed Grandma Allimae nestled in one of the deeper armchairs, reading the newspaper. “Good morning, Grandma Allimae,” he said.
“Nearly good afternoon,” she said after a glance at the clock. “You had a half day, did you? These holidays. Everyone’s out gadding. These two have been keeping me entertained.”
Lyndon looked up. “Is it almost noon already? I promised I would only stay until you got here, Slate.”
“You can walk with me back to your house,” Slate said, “after I grab my present. Are you coming, Linnie?”
“No, I’ll stay here with Grandma Allimae.”
So Slate ended up accompanied by Lyndon Tate on his walk to the Tate house. “Has everyone else already delivered their presents?”
“Nearly. When we got back to our house from our visit, Rusza still wasn’t back. He left early this morning. To check on his guests, he said.”
When they arrived at the Tate house, it was to the news that Rusza still hadn’t returned from checking on his guests. Uncle Archet looked notably downcast. Slate’s own father looked as he always did, but Slate saw him put two cubes of sugar in his tea. Linnie’s observation came to mind: If he gets irritated by something, he adds sugar to his chamomile. Slate bent down between his parents’ chairs. “I’m going out tonight with Gin to a Lightning District dance, and she wants to stop in to greet you. Will you be home?”
His mother brightened immediately. “Oh, if Ginger is coming, I’ll make sure we are. Is everything still going…?”
Slate patted his mother’s hand. “Going well.”
“Oh, I am glad. She’s such a pleasant, funny girl. I can’t imagine how she stayed single this long.”
“It might have something to do with the fact that she drives at all times like she’s driving an army ambulance off the field of battle,” Everard said dryly, “and mocks anyone who gets nervous about it “
Slate had to nod at that. “She is getting better, since her last court summons.”
“She’s wasted in the capital, Cora,” Everard continued. “She would be an asset out on the front lines.”
“But I’ve only just introduced her to Slate,” responded Coralie. “You don’t want me to transfer her hundreds of miles away while they’re still getting to know each other!”
“Slate, do you see this as leading to more than a friendship?”
Slate considered his father’s question for several seconds. “I can’t give you one hundred percent certainty, but I like her, and she seems to like me. Put it at an eighty percent yes. I wouldn’t mind a tour at the front. Plenty of supply work to do in any of the territories.”
“Just keep it in mind, Cora, until we see what happens with that other twenty percent, then,” Everard said.
“You two are so precise about the strangest things,” Grandma Apple said.
Coralie added, “And don’t I know it! I’d like to know exactly what that twenty percent is made of.”
“It isn’t my twenty percent,” Slate explained, “it’s hers. I like her. She’s just as you said, pleasant and funny, and she doesn’t seem to mind my quirks as a human thought sympathist. She likes my family and respects both of you. I’m certain I won’t find anyone like her anywhere.”
“Do you find her pretty?” Everard asked suddenly.
“Pretty? It wasn’t something that I considered at first. I don’t quite like the word pretty for Gin. It’s too frivolous a word. I would call her comely. Appearance and deportment, except when she’s behind the wheel. Then she’s a maniac. But that’s fun too.”
Uncle Archet was laughing by that point. “I hope the rest of us get to meet this ‘comely maniac’ soon.”
There was a general murmur of agreement, so Slate promised, “I’ll ask her to come to dinner sometime soon, when you can all come.”
Then conversation turned to the morning’s visit to Michael and Helena. Slate heard what everyone brought them for presents, as well as what had been left for them ahead of time by those who had known they wouldn’t be able to visit on the day. “It was lovely,” Uncle Archet said, “to see the two sets of dishes drying on the draining board again, like when Nirva and I were just married.”
“I did have a powerful sense of deja vu,” Aunt Hapzah said. “It seemed just like visiting you two when I was a girl.”
“I should get over there and give my present,” Slate said.
“What did you choose for them?” Grandma Apple asked.
“I sent away to South Territory for a bottle of—”
The side door swung open, and in walked Rusza and his girlfriend. “Morning,” he said. He looked nervous. He had under his arm a paper bag with its top rolled down. When the girl tried to cling to his other arm, he muttered something to her and removed himself from her grasp.
“Afternoon is more accurate,” said Everard. “You missed the family visit this morning.”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” Rusza replied with a look around the room, “but I remembered at the last minute that I forgot to pick out a present, so I had to do that first.”
“I picked it out,” the girl said. She seemed to think she would be praised for that.
Grandpa Gar said only, “It’s supposed to be a meaningful gift from someone who knows the couple well.”
There was an awkward silence. Then Slate said, “I should start on my way.” He picked up his present and went toward the front door.
Rusza was right at his heels. “Let’s go together.”
“But Rusza,” the girlfriend said, “I thought we were going to walk together.”
“We’re still walking together,” he said, ” just with one more person.”
“Two,” said Lyndon as he appeared at Rusza’s left side.
“Didn’t you go this morning?” Rusza asked.
“I’m going again.”
Slate saw what the boy was thinking and said, “That’s just sad.”
“What’s sad?” Rusza asked.
“You. You’ve hit the point where even a fourteen-year-old boy thinks he ought to chaperone you. This is without question the lowest you’ve ever gone.” Slate used the back of his free hand to push the girlfriend firmly two steps away from Rusza. Then, switching his present from left hand to right, he looped his arm around Rusza’s arm. “Custody complete.”
They started walking. After a few strides, Lyndon was under attack by the girlfriend trying to squeeze between him and Rusza, but Lyndon showed rare nerve. He took Rusza’s present from him and looped his arm around Rusza’s left arm, just as Slate had done at the other side, so that there was no room. The girlfriend was forced to walk beside Lyndon. She made an irritable noise.
“So, Drunken Puking Girl,” Slate said, “what do you think you’re doing, going to visit Michael and Helena?”
“What did you call me?”
“Drunken Puking Girl,” Slate repeated. “You have a choice between that or Crotch Groping Girl.”
“My name is Irina Demyan,” she retorted.
“If you want me to remember your name, you’re going to have to make up for every impression you’ve made on me so far. I’ll tell you up front, that’s going to take a lot of work, because your initial impressions were so powerful.”
“Rusza,” she said, “are you going to let him talk that way to me? Do something!”
“I see,” Slate said before Rusza could reply, “your favorite method: get one of your admirers to beat up anyone who angers you. Just so you know, it won’t work this time either. Rusza has never been able to out-wrestle or out-box me.”
“That is true, Irina,” said Rusza, “but Slate, you shouldn’t—”
“Then use your sympathy on him,” Irina urged. “Your sympathy is supposed to be strong, isn’t it? Use that!”
“And that,” Slate said, “would get him arrested for assault. You don’t seem aware, Miss Demyan, that you are in a civilized city with laws. Perhaps Sawtooth Ridge, being a small frontier town, is more rough-and-tumble, but here, you can’t just incite a foolish young man to commit violence and expect to escape the penalties.”
“You’re so irritating! Stop talking!” the girl burst out. “You talk just like that mean old man!”
“I should,” Slate said. “He’s my dad. And if you try to slap me, as you’re thinking of doing, I warn you now, I’ll spit in your face just like Anion Cooper did.”
Rusza jerked his head around to gape, but he didn’t speak one word of the multitude of thoughts that suddenly abounded in his mind.
“That mean old man, he’s been talking ill of me,” the girl grumbled.
“No, he never mentions you,” Slate said. “I think it makes him slightly nauseated just to think about you. I’ve only heard that one story about you, and that was from Lieutenant Knox. It was just after Dad and his staff got back to town. Cooper was at our house the next morning to return a book, and it happened that Rusza’s name arose in conversation. It was just speculation over whether Rusza would tear himself away from Drunken Puking Girl to be here for his brother’s wedding. Cooper’s reply was, Don’t know, don’t care. I could see the repulsion in his thoughts, so I asked what had she done to offend him, because when I first met him, he was an easygoing, lighthearted kid who appreciated a pretty girl just as much as our Rusza here. Cooper wouldn’t talk about it, but later, Lieutenant Jock told me the story. It seems, Rusza, when you were on restrictions after going AWOL and were banned from going to a party, Drunken Puking Girl here tried to force Cooper to be her escort at the party. He refused, having been insulted by her thoroughly on a prior occasion, and told her that, with you unavailable, she should keep her distance from other young men. She insulted him and implied strongly that he should feel grateful for her condescension. When he still refused her, she slapped his face. He declared that he wouldn’t hit someone weaker than himself, so he spit in her face instead. At that point, Drunken Puking Girl tried without success to get her assembled admirers to beat Cooper up, but Cooper gave a fine speech, which Lieutenant Jock was able to recite verbatim— that’s how impressed he was by it— and left the party.”
“Wow,” said Lyndon, “I hadn’t heard that one.”
“It happened after Mom and Linnie went on to Fortress,” Slate told him. He looked at Rusza’s profile, but for a change he could not get a sense for the younger man’s thoughts.
They were within view of Michael and Helena’s new home by then, when the girl broke out crying. Rusza jerked toward her but was stopped by his arms because Slate and Lyndon would not let go. “That,” said Slate, “is what Grandma Allimae calls angry tantrum crying. You used to do it when you were little. She’ll stop once she understands that she won’t gain anything by it.”
The girl sobbed more loudly. Slate and Lyndon had to escort Rusza all the way to the front door and keep him restrained between them as Slate knocked.
Michael opened the door to them. “Welcome, come in,” he exclaimed, “it’s good to see you, Slate, Rusza… and you can come back as often as you like, Lyndon,” he added with a laugh. Then he looked past them. “Is that girl all right? She seems really upset.”
Helena brushed through their midst. She was carrying a glass of water.
“Oh, that’s good,” said Michael. “Helena will take care of her. She must be thirsty, with all that cry—”
Helena went straight to the girl and tossed the water from the glass into the girl’s face.
The four men gawked at Helena as she said, “You should be ashamed of yourself, pitching a fit at your age. Come inside, and stop making an exhibition of yourself.” She took the girl by the arm and marched her past the men, into the house.
When the men caught up, Helena was handing the girl a kitchen towel to dry her face. The girl was lamenting, “Why is everyone here so mean to me!”
“We might as well ask, why are you so self-centered, demanding, and lewd?” Slate replied.
“Slate Locke,” said Helena briskly, “you aren’t helping. Miss Demyan, you have behaved in an appalling way from the first moment you arrived. You disrupted the bride’s vigil with your attempt to sneak into Rusza’s bed and do lewd things, and you were absolutely shameful at our wedding party. Getting drunk and fairly rutting on the dance floor with Rusza,” she said with rising wrath, “and then vomiting on my mother-in-law! Why do you suppose any of us should indulge you and praise you after that? You should be relieved that any of us still allow you to set foot in our homes! Now, what have you to say for yourself?”
Irina stared with her mouth open until Helena finished. Then, grudgingly, she said, “I’m sorry I threw up on the old lady.”
Helena sighed. “Do you really have to get to the point of public humiliation before you admit to being in the wrong? You’re a pretty girl on the outside. It’s such a shame the inside doesn’t match.” She sighed.
Michael was eager to move past the confrontation. “Are you finished with work already, Slate?”
Slate nodded. “This is the slack season, so the admins are letting us take half days if we want. Here.” He handed his present to Michael.
Michael opened the long, slim box. “Oh, Helena, look at this. Where did you get it, Slate?”
“I sent away for it. One of the supply guys in Current-town owed me a favor, and I asked him to acquire it for me. I remembered hearing that you used to like this when you visited your mom’s people as a kid,” he said to Michael, “and I made a guess that Helena, being from the south, might have had it sometimes too.”
“Orange liqueur!” Helena exclaimed. “I haven’t seen a bottle of orange liqueur in years!”
“Grandmama Penelope sometimes gave me a glass of one part this to three parts sparkling water,” Michael reminisced to her, “once I was eleven and grew past five feet tall. It made me feel so grownup. “
“You were an early bloomer, were you?” Helena teased. “Thank you so much, Slate. We’ll enjoy talking about the south when we drink this.”
“I thought it would be something you could both share as a common memory,” he said.
“I brought something…” Rusza showed a strong reluctance to go on, but Lyndon handed the brown bag to Helena.
“I picked it out,” said Drunken Puking Girl, albeit with less confidence than the last time.
Helena opened the bag and lifted out a small ceramic figurine of two kittens tussling on a ground of pansies.
“Aren’t they dear?” the girl said.
“This is… very cute,” Helena said. “Thank you for thinking of us, Rusza.”
Rusza turned his face away from her. “Let’s go back, Irina,” he said quietly.
The girl started forward eagerly to grab his arm, but Lyndon was there first. “Still in custody,” he insisted in a soft but stubborn voice.
“We’ll chaperone them back to the Tate main house,” Slate said. “You two won’t mind being alone together for a while, will you?” He smiled at the way Michael immediately put his arm around Helena’s waist.
On the walk back, Slate had an idea. “You like parties, don’t you, Drunken Puking Girl? You and Rusza should come with me tonight. I’m going to a dance in Lightning District.”
“Yes. You don’t have tickets, but the mezzanine is open for spectators for free.”
“Oh, Rusza, let’s go,” she urged.
Rusza looked at Slate first, clearly wondering at his motive for extending the invitation. But the girl kept urging him, so he said, “All right, if you want to go.”
“Be at Mom and Dad’s house by 1830,” Slate said. “That’s when I’m getting picked up.” He saw the three younger people to the front porch of the Tate house, where Rusza’s Yeardley grandparents took over his custody. Slate’s parents were there too, and they excused themselves to walk with Slate back to their own house. None of them were in a talkative mood, so it was a quiet walk. They arrived to find that Linnie had made a light lunch with enough for Slate to join them.
“I have some errands I need to take care of before tonight,” Slate told his parents. “I should warn you, I’m taking Rusza and his drunken puking girl to the dance tonight.”
“Why?” Linnie exclaimed.
“I want to show that girl something.”
“I hope Ginger doesn’t mind,” Coralie said doubtfully, “having those two on your date.”
“They won’t be with us, except for the ride there,” Slate said. “They don’t have tickets.”
“I hope,” said Everard, “that Cooper doesn’t mind.”
“Will he be there?” Coralie sounded worried.
“That’s what I want to show her,” Slate said. “He will have tickets. They won’t get near him.”
“How are you so sure he’s going to be there?” Linnie asked.
“I only ended up with tickets because one of the mechanics at work found out he and I both know Cooper,” Slate said, “and he said Cooper and his family never miss one of these New Year’s dances. They have season tickets. From what Cal said, Cooper is always in demand among the young ladies of Lightning District.”
So it happened that Slate returned to his parents’ house at 1820 to find Rusza and Irina sitting on the front steps. They were huddled together, but in this instance it was not from lust but from cold. The temperature was well below freezing, and Rusza was radiating heat to keep them both warm. Slate didn’t need to ask why they were on the front steps. He stepped carefully around them and let himself inside. “How did the vote go?” he asked Larimar.
“Unanimous,” Larimar replied.
“Even Mom,” marveled Slate. “That’s really pathetic.”
There was a screech of tires outside.
“Gin is here,” Slate announced. He turned back to open the front door as Gin came up the walk. “It’s fine,” he said, “just step around them if they’re in your way.” He offered her his hand, because her high heels seemed to be troubling her.
“Who are they, and why are they sitting outside at this hour?” Gin asked.
“They are Rusza Tate and his girlfriend,” Slate said as he shut the door, “and they’re sitting outside because the girlfriend has offended every member of my family to the extent that none of them want her in the house. May I impose on you to let them ride to the Archways Ballroom with us?”
“Sure thing,” said Gin, “but even Mother Locke? I didn’t think that was possible.”
“It does take effort and persistence,” Slate said. He led her through to the family room. “Mom, Dad.”
Gin went forward to shake hands with Everard. “Father Locke, how are you?”
“Healthy,” he replied.
Coralie stood to give Gin a light hug. “You look lovely tonight, Ginger! Slate, have you told her she looks lovely?”
“Not yet, Mom. I do have something for her, though.” He went to the kitchen and retrieved Gin’s corsage, a white rose with faint pink edges. “I thought this would work with any color.”
“That is so charming,” Gin said. “Thanks.” With Coralie’s help, she pinned it to the lapel of her sleek black suit-dress.
“Perfect,” Coralie said. “I hope you two have a wonderful evening.”
Slate opened the front door. “We’re going now,” he told the two outcasts.
Gin got into the driver’s seat of the truck she had restored herself. She reached down and removed her high heels. “Slate, do you mind holding onto these while I drive? They throw off my angle on the pedals, and that makes it harder to control the truck.”
“And no one wants that,” Slate replied in all seriousness. He accepted the shoes. “Put your seatbelts on,” he commanded the two in the back seat.
Then Gin started the engine, put the truck in gear, and sped away from the curb with a squeal of tires. “I didn’t get the chance to say it yet,” she said over the engine’s roar, “but you look very sharp tonight, Slate. It’s nice to see you in something other than uniform for a change.”
“I would say—” Slate braced himself against the door as she took a hard left turn. “I would say the same of you,” he continued, “but somehow you manage to look equally comely in whatever you wear.”
Gin laughed. “I’m glad to hear it, but I made a special effort tonight. Doesn’t it show?”
“Yes,” Slate yelled as the tires squealed again. “I like seeing all these different Gins, and this one is already one of my favorites.”
It took far less than the twenty-five minutes Slate had allotted for the drive to the ballroom. Gin pulled up in the circular driveway of the three-story, brilliantly-lit building that housed the ballroom. Valet parking was offered, so Gin got out when Slate did. The back door opened to let Rusza slide out, and he turned back to help the girl descend to the pavement. They both seemed shaky.
At the grand foyer, Slate said to the attendant, “Two tickets should be on hold under the name Callaghan Barron, for Slate Locke.”
“Right here,” confirmed the attendant as he pulled two tickets from a box of tickets. He tore them in half, put one half in a cashier’s box and gave the other half to Slate.
Pocketing the ticket stubs, Slate said to the younger couple, “That staircase takes you up to the mezzanine. Try not to get yourselves kicked out for public indecency, please.”
Rusza blushed dark red.
Offering Gin his hand, Slate walked with her to the ballroom entrance. He showed his two ticket stubs and received a special blue stamp on the back of his hand. Gin received one also, and they were allowed to pass through to the coat check. From there, they entered the spacious ballroom.
A few people had arrived before them, and others were arriving with increasing frequency behind them. Slate surveyed the faces. “There’s Cal,” he said.
“Slate!” Cal waved them over. His wife, also named Ginger, stood next to him, holding the hand of their six-year-old daughter Katherine, usually called Kitty. “And Amery! You make a handsome pair! Don’t they, Ginge?”
“A very handsome couple,” said Ginger Barron.
Slate shook hands with Mrs. Barron and squatted down to look little Kitty Barron in the eyes. “Your dad says you lost your first baby tooth. Congratulations.”
The daughter of Callaghan Barron was not shy. She grinned, displaying proudly the gap in her upper front teeth. “Yep!”
Mrs. Barron was saying, “Ginger Amery… you’re the one Cal says has such a gift for engines, aren’t you?”
“Mineral sympathy,” said Gin. “I can sense where there’s weaknesses or corrosion.”
“Don’t let her fool you, Ginge,” said Cal. “She knows just how much you can demand from an engine, and how to get it to give just a little more.”
“Let’s not talk work here,” Gin said. “While we’re waiting to dance, let’s meet new people. I hardly get a chance to make new acquaintances outside the garage.”
“Are the Coopers here yet?” Slate asked.
“Should be, any minute now,” said Cal.
Slate gave the mezzanine a surreptitious glance. It was easy to spot Rusza, with his red hair. He and the girl were at the railing, looking down at the ballroom and talking. The girl was clinging again. Slate returned his attention to his own companion. In high heels, Gin was almost an inch taller than he was. She wobbled suddenly, and Slate put his arm around her waist for a few seconds to steady her.
“I’m not used to heels,” she said, blushing.
Slate released his hold around her waist and held out his hand. “Would it help to lean until you get used to them?”
She rested her hand on top of his. “Thanks.” She was still blushing, but she didn’t seem to be harboring any thought of letting go, even if she did get her balance.
As they circulated amongst the other early arrivals, Slate saw Anion Cooper entering in a small crowd that appeared to be composed of children and young women. Cooper was carrying a little girl in his arms as the little girl admired the stamp on her hand.
Cal started steering in that direction. “Evening to you, Cooper family,” he called out.
The little girl with Cooper wriggled until Cooper set her on her feet. Then she ran to join hands with Kitty Barron, and the two danced in a circle.
“Rada’s finally allowed to come this year,” Cooper said with a laugh, “so she wants to get her dancing started as soon as possible.” Then he noticed Slate. “Mom, this is one of Father Locke’s sons, Slate Locke.”
One among the crowd of women separated herself out to shake Slate’s hand. “Young Mr. Locke, I’m pleased to meet you. Your father has done so much for my Anion. I’m so grateful. I hear Anion is continuing on with the next class also! It’s so exciting.”
Slate made an appropriate reply to Mrs. Cooper and was handed over to a small man hidden in the feminine crowd. “Mr. Cooper,” Slate said.
“I got a letter from your father’s office,” said Mr. Cooper, “praising our Anion as a promising trainee. It made me so proud.”
“As you should be.” Slate noted that Anion Cooper had been pulled away by a group of four young women. “I know for a certainty that Dad’s lieutenant, Jokulle Knox, is also impressed with him. He was just telling me so not long ago.”
“We were worried when Anion brought up the possibility of enlisting,” said Mr. Cooper, “seeing how we only put in the request for leadership training because someone said Anion might make an elder candidate one day. Now he’s talking about army intelligence and front-line work!”
“Do you object?”
“No, not if he feels this strongly on it. We’ll worry, of course, but he’s getting the best training. He’s already so much stronger! Anion, show them how much stronger you are!”
Cooper turned and grinned. “Stand straight, Sunny.” He put his hands at the waist of a girl who looked almost exactly like him. “Hup!” He lifted her up and held her aloft for several seconds before setting her lightly on her feet.
Little Rada came running. “Lift me too,” she begged.
Anion Cooper picked her up and threw her almost four feet in the air. “Hup!” He caught her easily as she giggled.
“Anion,” said one of the other girls in the group, “can you lift me too?”
“Aida Randel,” he said, “you know that wouldn’t be proper. But I’ll dance the first dance with you, if you want.”
One of the other girls said, “Aida, that’s sly! Anion, can I have the second dance?”
“Right, that’s Aida for the first and Clarissa for the second,” he said, “but I can’t promise any further out than that, or I won’t be able to keep the names in order.”
“Don’t get a big head, Anion Cooper,” said another girl.
“Ah, so you don’t want to dance with me, Phoebe Willis. I’ll make a note of that.”
“I didn’t say that,” Miss Willis protested, making her friends giggle.
The music started up. Anion Cooper held out his hand to the first girl, Aida Randel. Slate escorted Gin after them. “I didn’t think to ask, but will you be all right, dancing in such a narrow skirt?” Slate asked.
“As long as you don’t let me down,” Gin said, “I’ll be fine.”
Slate had been to dances before, several of them on the scale of this one, but having Gin’s blushing, laughing face before him made this one better than the rest. He danced the first four dances with her without a break. They only sat down because the fifth dance was a couple’s dance.
Cooper landed near them. He too had been in all four dances, never with the same partner twice. “They’re going to wear me out,” he said with a grin.
“None of them is the special one?” asked Gin kindly.
“They’re all school friends or my sister Sunny’s friends,” he said. “We haven’t been introduced. Newly-minted Private Anion Cooper, at your service, miss. Are you Slate’s girlfriend? I didn’t know you had a girlfriend, Slate.”
“Are you?” Slate asked Gin. “I mean, will you be?”
Her face turned pink again, and she took his hand. “If you want. I wasn’t sure you felt that way.”
“Then, yes,” said Slate, “this is my girlfriend, Ginger Amery. Gin, Cooper is one of Dad’s students.”
“Wait,” said Cooper. “Did you just now ask her to be your girlfriend, and then go straight on to talk to me, as if it was just any other moment? Human thought sympathists,” he said in laughing exasperation. “I don’t get how the world looks to you, but you’re supposed to make something of that kind of moment, you know?”
Slate experienced a blank moment. Then, recalling his parents’ example, he took Gin’s hand and raised it to his lips. “Thank you for agreeing.”
Gin laughed. She took that same hand and caressed Slate’s cheek. “You’re welcome, Slate Locke.”
Little Rada Cooper appeared at the table. “Anion, I don’ wanna go home.”
Cooper set her on his lap. “You know the rules, Rada. Until you’re ten, you can only stay for the first hour. If I dance one dance with you, will you go home with Grandma like a good girl, without a fuss?” He stood up with the little girl perched on his right forearm. He took one of her hands with his free hand and started to waltz her around in circles at the side of the dance floor.
One of his admirers was standing nearby and said, “Anion is such a good brother! Isn’t he a good brother, Sunny?”
“He’s okay,” the sister said. “He’s grown up a lot since he went into service. He isn’t as annoying as he used to be.” She looked to Slate. “Mr. Locke, you’ll say thanks to your dad for us, won’t you? He has done a lot to improve Anion.”
“I’ll tell him you said so.”
At the end of that dance, Anion delivered his youngest sister over to their grandmother to take home. He came back to the table where Slate and Gin sat. “Let me rest my feet a few minutes,” he sighed as he dropped onto an empty chair.
“You’ll get your break,” said Slate. “The next two are couples’ dances.”
“Good.” He glanced from Slate to Gin. “Why are you two resting? You’re a couple now, aren’t you?”
Gin laughed. “See how surprised he is. Did you forget, Slate?”
“No, but I didn’t make the connection.” He looked out at the dancers. “I’ve never tried the slow dances.”
“We’ll figure it out together,” Gin said. “Come on!” She pulled him out to the floor.
The evening sped past. Slate learned that Gin was rather clumsy but had a good sense of humor about her mistakes. He also learned that her fingertips were callused but her wrists were soft and smooth. When the last dance was announced, he told her, “I wish this went on longer.”
“I don’t know if my feet could stand the strain,” she admitted. “These are new shoes.”
“Are your feet in pain? I’ve been selfish,” he said. “Should we sit down?”
“No, I have the rest of the night to rest my feet. I only have right now to dance with you.” So they finished the night out with a polonaise, in a stately procession with many other pairs of dancers, and ended on applause from the mezzanine.
On the way through the foyer, Gin asked, “Shouldn’t we find our passengers? Don’t tell me: you forgot we brought them.”
Slate admitted it with some surprise. “I haven’t enjoyed myself this much in a long time. Where are they?” He looked up at the mezzanine staircase. So many people were descending that he couldn’t see if Rusza was in their midst. He went to the attendant’s desk and said, “I am looking for the young couple who arrived with us.” He described Rusza and the girl.
“I remember them,” said the attendant. “They’re in our jail.”
“Jail,” Gin exclaimed, but Slate knew what the man meant. He walked to the side hallway, where the restrooms were, and stood at the entrance to a moderate-sized alcove. “I’ve come to bail those two,” he told the man standing guard. “Besides that, the dance just finished.”
“Good,” said the guard. “It’s no fun, babysitting.” He stood up, folded his newspaper, and announced, “All of you heard the man. Dance is finished. You’re free to go.”
A small crowd of young people filed out of the alcove. Rusza and the girl stopped in front of Slate, who asked, “When did you try to sneak in?”
“I saw that little Cooper,” said the girl, “I even called out to him, but he wouldn’t look up and answer me. Such a big head because he got a lot of plain little girls to dance with him,” she scoffed. “So I was going to give him a piece of my mind, but the stupid doorman wouldn’t let me past.”
Slate looked to Rusza, who said, “About half an hour ago.”
“I see.” Slate led them back to where Gin was waiting. “Found them. They tried to sneak in without a ticket, so they ended up under supervision, to make sure they didn’t do it again.”
“Oh, is that what they meant by jail,” she said in relief.
When the parking valet brought Gin’s truck, she got in and handed her shoes to Slate again. “Ow, they’re a little tender,” she groaned. “But it was so worth it.” She flashed a cheeky grin at Slate and depressed the accelerator to the floor.
At his parents’ house, Slate got out. “Good night,” he said to Gin.
Rusza got out too. “We can walk to my house from here,” he began.
“Gin, can I ask you for a favor? Could you drop his girlfriend at the Orchard Inn? That’s where she and her mother are staying.”
“I sure can,” Gin said playfully. “Now you owe me a favor. I’ll be sure to save it for something good.” This seemed to please her inordinately. Almost before Rusza shut his door completely, the truck launched again.
“Good night,” Slate told Rusza. He saw that the boy had something on his mind, but he was too tired to look more closely.
He didn’t need to. Rusza said, “I saw, earlier… did you ask Miss Amery…?”
“To be my girlfriend? Yes.”
“Congratulations,” Rusza said.
“This is only the first step for us, so save your congratulations for the announcement of something more permanent,” Slate said. “Asking a girl to be your girlfriend isn’t like asking her to marry you. It isn’t a free pass to touch each other as much as you want, nor to direct each other’s lives.” Slate went indoors, leaving Rusza outside.
His parents were the only ones still up. Slate had intruded upon one of their romantic moments. “I won’t stay long,” he said, “but I thought I should tell you that Gin agreed to be my girlfriend this evening at the dance.”
“Slate, that’s wonderful!” Coralie said. She got up from Everard’s lap and came to hug Slate.
“A good first step,” said Everard. He too hugged Slate. “I look forward to seeing where this takes you, and what you learn from it.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay here tonight? It’s so late.”
Slate replied to his mother’s offer, “It’s hardly past 2230 hours, Mom. I can get to my apartment on the late line in less than half an hour.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Good night.”