There was a stand of trees on top of the hill. Melanie liked to think of it as a copse, because she liked the word copse. Like many words she encountered in her reading, though, she was not fully certain she knew exactly how it intersected with the real world, and so while she was perfectly happy to call it a copse in her head, she would have blushed to say it out loud in case it was actually a grove.
In fact, her message to Jennifer had bidden the other girl to simply meet her in the place in the trees… though she hadn’t used the word “bidden”, as it was another tricky one. She was never sure if it sounded more like a command or an invitation.
Despite all this uncertainty, though Jennifer had come to the place in the trees. She hung back at the edge of it, uncertainly. Melanie saw the smile that lit up her face before she quickly recomposed it. She saw the reflexive movement of the shoulders and arms, quickly suppressed, and in that moment she made a decision… things might always be strange between Jennifer and her, but she wouldn’t let them become strained, if she could help it.
“Oh, give me a hug,” she said, holding out her own arms. “We were almost family, once, and it’s been ages since I saw you.”
“How was the homecoming?” Jennifer asked after they’d parted.
“Oh, it was… muted,” Melanie said. “My family is good at ignoring things, but the thing about ignoring the elephant in the room is that an elephant-shaped void in the parlor is just as conspicuous as the elephant would be.”
“I see your analogies are getting better… now, what is it you wanted to tell me?” Jennifer asked. “And why are we meeting in a clump of trees inside an old cow pasture?”
“It’s where I would always come to be alone, growing up,” Melanie said. “So it seemed like a good place for a private conversation.”
“You don’t have any brothers and sisters,” Jennifer said. “What were you coming here to get away from?”
“Expectations,” Melanie said.
“I can understand that.”
“But I don’t know if you do,” Melanie said. “Or, I think maybe you have your own understanding of it, which is different from mine. I didn’t… I wasn’t trying to escape the life my parents expected from me, just to slip outside the weight of it all for a little while, every once in a while. I’m not… that is to say, I wouldn’t ultimately like to do anything that would be disappointing to them, in the long run. I would like to end up as someone they can be proud of. I just would sometimes like to be able to step off the path they’ve charted for me for a while, though ultimately I have no quarrel with the destination.”
“Well, I have no real hope of living the life my parents would chart for me, but as I’m the youngest of three girls I hardly think they’ll notice when I don’t,” Jennifer said. “But I don’t think you came here to talk about me, or even yourself.”
“I didn’t,” Melanie said. “It’s Samuel I wanted to tell you about.”
“He hasn’t asked you out, has he?”
“No, not as such,” Melanie said. “And not anything you might term the opposite, either. What he said to me is rather unrelated to affairs of the heart entirely.”
“As much as I love it when you talk like old books,” Jennifer said, “I really wish you’d spit it out. The suspense is killing me.”
“I’m sorry,” Melanie said. “I’m working my way around to it, in my head, and it’s making me ramble… but the fact is, Samuel has confessed to me that he’s… he is… that is, he’s not entirely human.”
“He’s elfin, isn’t he?” Jennifer said. “I thought so when I saw his picture, though I’m sure the angle made everything more angular.”
“He isn’t!” Melanie said. “Or if he has some slight degree of elven blood, it doesn’t come to bear on what he told me.”
“In order to explain this, I should perhaps explain first that he told me because he feared it would come to light anyway, as in order to save his grades he needed to explain why the troubles on campus were particularly troubling to him,” Melanie said. “Which is to say, the strong possibility… certainty, actually, now… that they were being carried out by a demon.”
“That would trouble anyone,” Jennifer said. “Oh, but he’s an orphan… were his parents killed by demons?”
“His father may well have been,” Melanie said. “His mother… was one, or possibly half of one. He doesn’t know.”
“Apparently, as demons were made in the images of men, it can be difficult to determine the exact proportion… our kinds blend together in more unusual ways than most races. He didn’t know himself what he carried in his blood until the onset of maturity.”
“He’s part demon?”
“Yes, to some degree,” Melanie said.
“And he explained this to his teachers?”
“Did they not know?”
“Some of them may have,” Melanie said. “The admissions board knew, but it was meant to be confidential.”
“How can a part demon attend university?”
“Well, he’s part human,” Melanie said. “There are half-elves enrolled in the university as well, and dwarven features are not uncommon in Prax… you wouldn’t expect them so far from the mountains, but apparently underground lakes are common in the region, and so there are clusters of…”
“But actual demons!”
“Actual human, too,” Melanie said.
“And you don’t seem… well, you’re pale and shaking, but you don’t seem… I don’t know what you seem!”
“I’m more afraid for him than I am of him, Jennifer, and that’s the plain truth,” Melanie said. “Beyond that, I can’t tell you what I’m feeling, and that’s not because of any secrecy or falsehood on my part, but because I don’t know.”
“How you feel about a demon?”
“How I feel about a man… a good one, I suppose… who is also, in part a demon,” Melanie said. “If I had known from the beginning, I suppose I would have avoided him from the start and then avoided the whole problem… and a host of other problems that have followed from my association with him. But if I could warn my younger self at the start of last semester… I don’t know. I don’t know that I’d give up what I’ve gained for the sake of avoiding a little trouble.”
“What have you gained?”
“A friend,” Melanie said. “And I mean a real one… why, there were girls I was friendly enough with in high school, and who I would have been quick to name as friends, but who I have not thought often of since graduation, and who I doubt have given me much thought, either. I don’t think I gave much thought to what makes a friend before I met Samuel.”
“You said in your letter that you needed one,” Jennifer said. “If you were being truthful and careful with your word choice, you didn’t just mean someone to listen, then. Not if friendship means so much to you now.”
“It does, and I did… I did mean that, I mean,” Melanie said. “I don’t want to… lead you on, Jennifer, but I’m sincere in my offer of friendship.”
“I’d thought that maybe you just said that because you needed someone to talk to,” Jennifer said. “Since you were so set against seeing me in person before that.”
“Well, I was, and I was foolish to be so,” Melanie said. “But the shock made me reconsider things, and I would like to be your friend in earnest, not just because I thought you were the only one I could possibly talk to about Samuel’s revelation..”
“You’d be even more foolish if you thought that, then,” Jennifer said.
“What do you mean?”
“You already knew someone you could talk to,” she said. “Or at least, you know somebody who already knows the secret. I don’t know how easy he’d be to talk about it with.”
“My darling older brother,” Jennifer said. “How else do you explain his actions, as you described them? His sudden dislike of Samuel, his avoidance of him… and his insistence that you avoid him as well. What else could have caused that?”
“But why didn’t he say anything?”
“Maybe because, like you, he got to know Samuel first as a person?” Jennifer said. “Maybe he liked him well enough to not want to make trouble for him, but couldn’t trust him enough to be around him, or wish to see you around him?”
“Well, Samuel has never been less than honorable around me… I’d trust his company before I’d trust that of any unknown man, and many that I know,” Melanie said.
“I love how old-fashioned and poetic you can be,” Jennifer said.
“I’m from an old-fashioned family,” Melanie said.
“I suppose that’s why I haven’t got a chance with you, isn’t it?”
Melanie paused. This was another moment like the hug one, she could tell. She imagined that Jennifer would respect her wishes if she put certain topics off-limits, but she also imagined that would put their friendship into a different category if she did. How could they trust each other to tell the truth when part of the truth lay unspoken between them?
“I honestly can’t imagine that you would anyway,” Melanie said “I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. I don’t think it’s that I’m old-fashioned. I mean, your family isn’t like mine, but you keep your… self… secret from them.”
“It’s called lesbianism, and I’m sure you’ved read the term, even if you haven’t heard it,” Jennifer said a little sharply.
“Yes, I suppose I have read of it, though I’ve never heard it, much less spoken it aloud,” Melanie said.
“You know what? Neither have I,” Jennifer said. She laughed. “It feels strange, saying it. Like standing in your mother’s shoes when you’re just a tyke… I know what I feel, but I think if I looked at myself in the mirror when I said it I’d feel like a kid playing dress-up.”
“You think you might grow out of it, then.”
“No, silly, I think I need to grow into it,” Jennifer said. “It’s a big word. Les-bi-an. I think it’ll fit me just fine, one day.
“Most of the stories I’ve read on the subject, it seems to be a phase,” Melanie said.
“Who writes these stories?”
“Women, mostly… I, uh, assume they… that is, they seem to know what they’re talking about,” Melanie said.
“Who publishes them, then?” Jennifer said. “It can’t be much of a phase if the people who’ve supposedly outgrown it are still writing about it. Anyway, what are you doing reading lesbian romances?”
“I… like old books,” Melanie said.
“Yes, but it’s hardly literature, is it?” Jennifer said. “I can’t imagine there’s many windswept moors or enchanted castles in them.”
“One finds all sorts of things in a used book store, and sometimes I’m in a mood for something I haven’t ever seen before. And one of them said on the cover, uh, ‘LIKE NOTHING YOU’VE EVER SEEN BEFORE!’ It was bigger than the title, even. They all have covers like that. It’s pure pap fiction, really, but, well… it is like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere. And… compelling in its own way. Sensational. I didn’t believe a word of it was true, or possible, at first. But once I was aware of the concept, I started picking up certain… oblique references… in more traditional literature. Spinster aunts, that sort of thing. And I’m sure you’ve noticed old Ms. Gretel and her, uh, widowed sister.”
“Oh, yes,” Jennifer said. “You have got to take me to these stores… I think my adolescent years would have been a bit better if I’d known of the possibility.”
“How did you not?”
“Well, it’s hard to know what you’re hungry for when you’ve never tasted it before,” Jennifer said.
“I could let you have the books,” Melanie said. “I mean, I don’t think you’re likely to find a store that specializes in that sort of thing around here, so it’s anybody’s guess when you’d be able to find anything…”
“Jennifer, you’ve been such a friend to me already and I’m afraid I’ve treated you terribly at every turn,” Melanie said. “How else can I prove my friendship to you?”
“Melanie, dear Melanie, you don’t have to,” Jennifer said. “But I appreciate the effort, all the same. And I haven’t been as honest with you as you think.”
“I don’t mind that you didn’t tell me,” Melanie said. “I can tell it was hard, even though you said it was killing you not to.”
“It was, but that’s not what I mean,” Jennifer said. “I… have something that belongs to you. What you might call ‘a garment of an intimate nature’.”
“…I always thought Brett had taken those,” Melanie said. “How did you…?”
“He did!” Jennifer said. “And when I took them from him… liberated, you might say… I had every intention of giving it back. Really, truthfully. But then I kept it for a while, and then a while longer. But I swear they’re in the same condition that you left them.”
“I’m not sure I could wear them again,” Melanie said.
“I don’t think I could keep them now,” Jennifer said. “And, anyway… while it’s a relief to be talking to someone about this, I doubt you’ve said everything you had to say about Samuel. What are you going to do about him?”
“Well, he was afraid that the word would get around… there have been rumors as it is, so certainly someone who knows is talking about it… and he wouldn’t be able to return next year,” Melanie said. “But he said he wanted me to know either way. And it was near the end of the semester, so we’ll be spending months apart either way, and so if I decided I couldn’t stand to be around him anymore I could just come back and not seek him out again. It would just be like we were two people who connected briefly during our freshman year and then grew apart over the summer break, as must happen often.”
“That sounds awfully cold, coming from you,” Jennifer said. “I know you have a mercenary streak in your emotional dealings, Melanie… and I say that as someone who… loves you anyway… but I can’t imagine you taking such a calculating approach.”
“I didn’t,” Melanie said. “Jennifer, that’s what he said to me… he was laying out an escape route for me, in case I didn’t want to see him again. So there would be no scene, I suppose… or perhaps so he could pretend we had just grown apart.”
“I can’t picture you with someone so… practical… about everything,” Jennifer said. “And I know you aren’t ‘together’, but I mean, I can’t see you side-by-side with him.”
“I don’t think he is practical about everything,” Melanie said. “I think he aspires to be, but he has a heart and he has a soul, and there’s plenty of old poetry in it no matter how desperately he tries to obscure it.”
“You sound like you’ve already made up your mind.”
“Well, of course I have,” Melanie said. “I’ve seen him afraid, and I’ve seen him in pain… I’ve seen him in fear of more pain, even, and I would have to be heartless to reject him after that.”
“I don’t suppose he could be so practical as to be counting on that?”
“Well, you know him better than I do,” Jennifer said. “I suppose I have no reason to be jealous of him, though, seeing as we are both nothing more than friends to you.”
“I should say not,” Melanie said. “And even when I return to school and to him, I’ll continue to write to you. More often than before, even.”
“Will you? That seems like a bit of waste, to me,” Jennifer said. “I’d think you’d want to find yourself a different correspondent for next year.”
“Jennifer North, where is this bitter streak coming from all of a sudden?” Melanie asked.
“Who’s bitter?” Jennifer asked, breaking into a grin. “I just mean it’s silly to write letters to someone you might well be sharing a dormitory with… or had you forgotten that I just graduated and will be starting college myself in the fall?”
“And you’re going to Magisterius?”
“Yes, and it’s been set for ages… my parents were all for it, on the basis that Brett will be able to look out for me until my senior year,” Jennifer said. “I’m sorry, I thought it had come up around the dinner table at least once when you were there.”
“It… probably did,” Melanie said. “But…”
“But you didn’t pay much attention to the tagalong little sister,” Jennifer said. “And I’m sure you would have filed it away under ‘tagging along’. It’s okay.”
“I’m… surprised you’re able to admire me as much as you do, Jennifer.”
“Oh, don’t put words in my mouth,” Jennifer said. “I like you, Melanie. I never said I admire you.”
“Well, however I feel about you… I think I could come to admire you very much.”
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