Dinner with Merilee was a delight. Merilee suggested a nearby pub style restaurant one of her friends had recommended. “They have great taco’s there,” she said with a grin, “you like Mexican, don’t you?:”
“I like tacos. I’m not sure how Mexican they are since they seem to be a popular item in restaurants with black beer and Irish names.”
They both laughed as they made their way to a table. They were able to find an alcove with a small table and two plush chairs set nearly side by side. Dante asked Merilee if she would like to share a bottle of wine with dinner. “Are you kidding,” she responded with a coquettish smile, “tacos and wine. That’s almost an oxymoron. I’d prefer a good sized tankard of cold beer, thank you, and not the black stuff, please.”
“Your wish is my command,” returned Dante showing a playful grin
The server approached to take their order. “Two tankards of house ale and the biggest taco plate you have and load it up with everything.”
Within moments of ordering, they were tapping beer mugs together followed by a lubricating swig of the cool clear amber fluid and the tone of the evening was set.
When the tacos arrived, the two of them roared with laughter. Dante had asked for the biggest taco plate the restaurant offered and they were more than accommodated. It was humongous! Conversation stopped as they dug in, fighting each other for the cheesiest chips. Well, maybe not. To be fair, Merilee was more interested in the guacamole and sour cream. Dante went for the cheese.
It may have been an enormous plate of tacos, but Dante had the appetite. Merilee did her share, consuming about a quarter of what was there. Dante ate the rest. Finished, they sat back and lifted their drinks in a second toast.
They polished off a second tankard of beer throughout an evening mixed with laughter and revelation. Dante told Merilee of his early life in a hippie commune while she confessed her less than exciting life growing up in the suburbs with an older sister, a younger brother, a father who loved monster trucks and a mother who calmly looked after them all.
Although astonished, she could only laugh to hear Dante’s stories of the dangers of physical activity according to his parents. She showed him the scar on her knee she got when she fell while sprinting in a high school track meet. She told him how she shrugged off cheerleading, her sister’s specialty in favor of athletics. Dante told her how he had to sneak into the gym to watch the volleyball team practice, she had captained her volleyball team to a second place finish in a state tournament. She jumped up and gave an animated description of the game point. Jumping back from the chair, she called out, “mine,” and crouched, extending her arms and shrugging upward.
She grinned at Dante as she intoned, “reception,” then twisted sideways, throwing her arms up above her head and flicked her wrists. She leaned towards Dante, “That was set,” then she leaped up in the air and swung her hand from behind her ear, then turned to Dante again, “that was spike and point,” and she added as she sat down, suddenly aware of others in the restaurant looking at her, “and that is one beer too many,” and then she roared with laughter again.
Dante couldn’t resist and joined in, and for a few brief moments the restaurant was filled with laughter. “Guess I know how to play volleyball, now,” he said.
“Bit more to it than that,” was Merilee’s response, and they both laughed some more.
Then Dante stopped. The room returned to normal. There was some distant laughter and sounds of conversation. None of it related to them. “Well,” grinned Merilee, “that’s how we ended up with silver at the state championships; Regal Davis, a private school, won gold and the championship trophy.”
“Too bad,” said Dante.
“Nah, they always won. I think that was their third of fourth year in a row,” Merilee shook her head, “And now, I think it’s time to go home.”
At that moment Dante fell in love.
The evening had been wonderful for both, but now it had come to an end. Because of what happened the last time, they both decided that it would be best to go their separate ways. Perhaps next time, but they both agreed it was a great evening and well worth repeating. They kissed goodbye at the door of Merilee’s Uber. The kiss lingered and Merilee hugged Dante, who wasn’t quite sure what he should do, so he lightly patted her back. Moments later, she was off, and Dante nearly danced all the way home.
Back at his apartment, Dante could barely contain his joy. The evening had been perfect, more than he could ever have expected. He was so happy he found himself humming the last song he had heard as he left the restaurant with Merilee. He flopped down on the bed, still humming, and that’s how he appeared on the pallet in purgatory, humming. Still humming, he jumped to his feet, ready for action. He felt good, and it showed. Astrada couldn’t help but be impressed by his verve in all his practice engagements. Before long, most of his opponents were icing bruises and bandaging elbows and wrists.
When Tauren showed up to find to how things went for Dante at the office that day, combat practice was finished and Dante was working out on his own. Astrada couldn’t restrain her tongue and blurted out that whatever was motivating Dante, he sure looked like a champion, besting all the sparring partners one after another. It surprised Tauren to hear Astrada speaking so positively about her charge. This was a first, and Tauren recognized a major breakthrough had occurred. This was good news. He approached Dante to see if there was any more interesting news and there was.
Dante was able to explain how he had turned down the job. His cheerful demeanor and a smear of what Tauren immediately knew to be lipstick on his cheek told him much more. Dante was energized in a way he had never been before. While Tauren was well aware Dante’s forming a relationship back on earth was problematic and could lead to trouble when battle was imminent, it could also inspire the champion in a more personal, less pedantic way. He had discouraged Dante from taking the promotion; he would remain silent on this and just observe.
Astrada was feeling generous towards her champion after watching him dispatch one after the other of his practice opponents with incredible ease. She sent him home early. It surprised him to learn that he didn’t want to go. He expressed that to Astrada who replied, “all the available sparring partners are busy treating the aches and bruises you’ve already given them. Do you think they would be ready to get beaten up again so soon? Go home. Give them a day to heal.”
Time off was rare, especially when Astrada was in charge, which was always, so Dante jumped at the chance and was soon back in his own bed, fast asleep.