Part 2

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Five years ago...

Christopher Ralston closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of the perfectly manicured grass beneath his perfectly polished dress shoes. Under his elbow, the handle of his ceremonial saber dug slightly into his waist, but he still carried it proudly. This, along with the red sash he wore, were both signs of his senior class status. On the sleeve of his crisp gray dress coat, the embroidered insignia designated his class rank as First Captain; the leader of his class.

He gripped his white dress cap in his left white-gloved hand as the West Point Chaplain gave the benediction over his graduating class. The week had seemed endless with its receptions, reviews, banquets, and parades; all of which he participated with pride. Pride in his own accomplishments over the last four years and pride in his fellow cadets' accomplishments as well. He was proud to lead this group of men and women; these newly commissioned Second Lieutenants in the United States Army.

A small smile appeared on his handsome face as his heart swelled with emotion, but then it began to ache. He stood in the same place his father had stood, twenty-three years earlier. Chris knew his father would have been so proud of him, if he were still alive. As it was, he saw his mother sitting in the stands nearby with friends. She'd also been here twenty-three years ago, a bystander then as now, watching her fiancé graduate with honors. It had been a bittersweet week for both of them.

The chaplain finished speaking and Chris looked up to the commandant of cadets, who appeared serious, but Chris could see the delight in the older man's eyes as he looked out on the graduating class. At the appointed time, Chris replaced his dress cap and received the order to dismiss his class. After a crisp about-face, he looked out on his classmates, his chest swelling once again with emotion.

"Class! Re-" He gave the customary pause. "-cover!"

The class replaced their caps and Chris felt the excitement building.

"Class!" he shouted in his deep, baritone voice, and then grinned. "Dis...missed!"

Immediately, the sky above the almost one thousand cadets darkened slightly as the same number of caps were thrown high in the air in celebration, as had been done for well over a hundred years. Chris contributed his own cap to the melee, tossing it out toward his left where the children in attendance rushed onto the field to win their prize for surviving the tedious ceremonies of the week: a cadet's cap to keep.

The mass of humanity increased as parents and loved ones hurried in behind the children, searching for—and locating—their sons and daughters, fiancés and friends, brothers and sisters, granddaughters and grandsons.

Chris was hugged and back-patted for twenty minutes before he finally located his mother.

She gazed up at him, hands on his cheeks and love in her eyes. The tears streaming down her cheeks mirrored his own. "I'm so proud of you, my son."

"Thanks, mom," he said, his voice cracking, and gathered her into his arms for a bear hug. She laughed and hugged him hard back.

*****

Sixteen-year-old Sabrina Mansfield giggled with her friend as they hurried through the crowd of the dance festival in Western Massachusetts. Music sounded up ahead, announcing that they were late for the outdoor performance of the local dance school. Sabrina grasped the program in her hand and dodged around an older couple to keep up. She stopped short when she saw the dancers on the elevated stage. They wore elaborate, brightly colored costumes and danced in unison to the beat of the drums from the corner of the stage.

Her mouth opened in awe at the intricate gymnastics and enthusiastic rhythms. She'd been training as a classical ballet dancer since she was four and while she preferred the strictness of the Russian heritage she'd been taught, she couldn't deny the excitement of the music and drums that surrounded her. Feet stomped, hands clapped to the heavy beat. A female dancer jumped from the shoulders of a tall man and the audience let out a collective "Ah!" as she landed a perfect, and nearly soundless, landing.

After the music came to its thrilling conclusion, Sabrina joined the hundreds of other people around her with cheers and applause.

"They were amazing!" she exclaimed to Beth, who stood next to her. Beth, a fellow dancer of the same age at the Boston Ballet's summer program, looked as astonished as Sabrina felt. They had connected during the past weeks over the shared experience of their first time in Boston. Both had danced most of their lives and been top of their classes back home, though Beth was from Oklahoma and Sabrina from Arizona.

"I know!" Beth agreed, her pale blue eyes sparkling with excitement. Her fiery red hair shined in the sunlight as she nodded enthusiastically.

Sabrina grinned and continued applauding as the crowd cheered for the lead dancers. She gazed up at the dancers, wondering if someday she'd garner the same enthusiastic applause.

As the noise began to die down she began to turn away, but something caught her attention. Or rather, someone. A young man stood on the other side of the stage staring at her. He was tall, wearing the uniform of an Army officer and he took her breath away.

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