I walked with 216894 toward the music of Ramona’s party.  From the corner of my eye, I could see him fidgeting the whole way.

            “Relax,” I told him, offering him an encouraging smile.  “Ramona invited the whole apartment complex – you won’t be the only stranger there.”

            He sighed.  “I can’t help being nervous,” he replied.

            Once we walked into the restaurant, Ramona waved us over to the far side of the room, a crowd of dancing people between us.  We skirted the crowd to get to her and Leslie, who stood beside her with a drink in their hand.

            Leslie smiled at me as we approached, then glanced at 216894.  “Who’d you bring?!” they asked over the music.

            “It’s one of the new tenants at our complex!” Ramona interjected.

            I flinched as one of the instruments blared a particularly high note.  Rubbing the ear the noise had pierced, I edged as far away from the band nearby as I could without leaving the little group.  By the time I was settled into a more comfortable spot, 216894 was already in the middle of a conversation with Leslie.

            “Why are you so interested?” Leslie asked.

            “Well, Imadkgihaedjagkalwedsjghjidsk!” 216894 replied.

            After a pause, Leslie gave him a forced smile, patted him on the shoulder and said, “Ramona’s the birthday girl, talk to her more!”  Then they walked away, looking over their shoulder at 216894 with narrowed eyes.

            Ramona and I shared a confused glance.  For once, I wasn’t the only one who had missed something.

            “Don’t mind them too much!” Ramona told 216894.  I wandered away from them, picking my way through the table of refreshments provided by the restaurant, trying to ignore the discomfort of all the noise pounding against my ears.  It was probably a little over an hour before it became too much for me to bear.  I needed to get away from the blaring music.

            I slipped out of the restaurant, leaning against the wall by the door with a sigh of relief.  A cool, light breeze blew through the street – rain would be coming soon.  I looked up at the stars glittering down from the sky, an occasional wisp of cloud passing by.  Even when the streets were lined with gas lamps, I could still see far more stars than when I’d lived in the System.

            “Hey,” Leslie called.

            I looked over to see their head sticking out the door.

            “What are you doing out here?” they asked.

            “Nothing,” I replied with a shrug.  “It’s just a little loud in there.”

            “Yeah, parties can get that way sometimes.”  Leslie stepped out, joining me beside the wall.  “Care to dance?” they asked when a new song began.

            I blinked.  “What?”

            “I’m asking if you want to dance with me.”

            They stretched out their hand to me, a small grin on their face as they waited for my answer.

            “Um,” I began, “I don’t really – ”

            “What?  The System never taught you about dancing either?”

            “She did.  Just…not to this.”

            “Then it’ll be my pleasure to teach you.”

            “Huh?  Leslie!”  They’d grabbed my hands and dragged me out onto the middle of the cobblestone street.

            “See, it’s easy,” they said.  “One, two. One, two. One, two.”

            I watched their feet while we danced, trying to keep up with the rhythm, Leslie holding onto my hands all the while.  The song ended and another began, but Leslie’s feet didn’t move.

Slowly, my gaze lifted up to them, the fire from the streetlamps gleaming in their eyes.  The music and laughter faded away. I brushed a lock of their black hair behind their ear; Leslie smiled.

They began to lean forward.

            “Leslie!” Ramona cried.  We glanced over to see her hanging halfway out the door.  “Whejakwmdhaueidnhredimgnd?!”

            “And party’s over,” Leslie proclaimed, dropping my hands to pick up Ramona from the floor.

            My shoulders sagged as I watched Leslie walk back into the restaurant with Ramona slung over one arm.

To be continued…

Episode 22