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The second-last practice went uneventfully, back to the usual tennis match of remarks going back and forth. I took it as a sign that he felt better.

On the last day of practice, however, I arrived only to find Sutton back in his button-down shirt and dress pants.

“What, you decided you can dance in couture after all?” I asked, tossing my duffel bag down.

“I never actually have a client practice on the last practice,” he replied, “By now I’m beyond confident in your ability and there’s no need to push you any further.”

My jaw dropped.

“You mean I could have slept in?”

He laughed, shaking his head.

“I’m going to take you to see one of my other shows instead. It’s a bit of a tradition.”

I looked down at my jeans and cardigan, feeling severely underdressed.

“Don’t worry,” he assured me, “You look fine. Perfectly fine.”

Sutton looked briefly like he wanted to bash his head against the wall but instead gestured to the door with a flourish.

“After you, my lady.”

I walked out, touching my hair anxiously. It was up in a braided crown around my head, more for convenience’s sake than style. Bea would probably be cursing me for not having a compact and some emergency makeup supplies on my person.

I couldn’t help it. As much as I tried, for her sake more than mine, when it came down to it I felt much more comfortable in sneakers and sans makeup than in patent pumps and with a caked up face.

Even when I dressed I didn’t go for trends or whatever was ‘in’. I just chose practical clothes that were also affordable.  

Bea called me a man in a woman’s body but I called myself logical. I would rather spend my time doing a bit of overtime than shopping, turning through rack after rack of jazzed up fabric. Clothes were clothes. In my eyes they were a necessity, not some crazy lifestyle. Groceries were also a necessity, and did you ever see people lining up to get their hands on designer oatmeal? It was centuries of marketing and glamorization that had made them a status symbol.

If Bea heard me say all that, she would bury me alive and dance on my grave. No kidding.

I sat in Sutton’s Ferrari for the third time, and I had to say it was nicer each time I saw it.

When we arrived, though, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a plain old auditorium, where I’d been expecting some huge and glitzy theatre. Raphael led me in and we sat in the front row, my curiosity more than piqued.

It suffices to say that the show was nothing like what I’d expected. The dancers were kids, anywhere from five to teens and of various ethnicities, performing a jazz routine set in 1920s Hollywood. They were good, really good, and it wasn’t hard to tell they’d spent a lot of time and invested a lot of energy into the project.

I found myself marveling at Sutton’s choreography; he managed to put everyone on stage at some point or another, the transitions were seamless and I very nearly felt like I was watching something out of Broadway. The costumes, set and music were all near-professional and I guessed that the money for them had come out of his pocket.

The auditorium was packed – not with high-society theatre lovers but who looked to be the families and friends of the children, ordinary people with huge smiles on their faces.

I was spellbound, not because of the technique or prowess, but because of the amazing atmosphere. The dancers had something I could only describe as soul.

When it ended I stood and clapped, and soon the entire auditorium was doing the same. I caught Sutton giving a discreet signal and watched as flowers rained down onto the stage.

The performers were laughing and bowing again and again, and I remembered that they were just kids. Someone offstage handed one of the oldest a mike and he walked to the front.

“Thank you all for coming out today to watch our production of Dreams in the Hills. All of the proceeds are going to the same organization that brought us here, Steps to a Better Place. Most of us up here can say we owe our lives to the program, and the man behind it all, Mr. Raphael Sutton!”

There was a round of applause, but the performers on stage quickly started chanting Raphael’s name, and one of the spotlights moved to fixate itself on him.

“Can’t let them down.” He said good-naturedly, before running the short distance to the stage and jumping onto it effortlessly.

He was handed the mike and turned to the audience, as composed as ever.

“Thank you, Niko. But I’m going to have to say that I’m not behind it all. I just had an idea, and it was this group that made it all happen.” He waited for the fresh round of applause to subside before continuing.

 “A good friend once told me that when life had been tough to her, she had learned to be tough back. But I saw more than that. I saw determination, commitment, and hard work. I saw that the circumstances didn’t make the person, but that they made themselves. Steps to a Better Place isn’t just about taking at-risk youth and putting them in dance shoes – it’s about giving them the chance to express themselves. And, as we have seen today, that chance was more than well-deserved. I’m beyond proud of you all.”

I watched as the performers swarmed around him in a group hug, and heard the crowd burst into applause again. I was clapping too, but I could hardly tell. I couldn’t help but smile.

He’d called me a good friend.

The End

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