Not so long to wait this time! Otherwise known as: I have a terrible problem with brevity, which is to say, I don't know how to achieve it. Well, I hope you enjoy--this part has a unicorn!
Part I of Turn of the Story
previous part of Turn of the Story
The elves might have forbidden them entrance to their territory, but that did not mean the commander was going to give up. One day Serene and Luke arrived at their lunch table looking very pleased with themselves indeed.
“What’s the good news?” asked Elliot, reaching for Serene’s hand.
“Commander Woodsinger is sending out a personally selected troop which she will lead herself to make a sweep of all the non-elven territory where the bandits have been spotted, hoping to catch a few,” said Serene. “And we’re on it.”
“Congratulations, my pearl, my diamond, my tiara of assorted gemstones,” said Elliot.
Serene took his hand and squeezed it. “We’re even going near the Forest of the Suicides, which is harpy territory.”
“Now that’s neat,” said Elliot, with actual interest.
“It’s not,” said Luke. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Who, me?” Elliot asked innocently. “I never think about anything.” He changed the subject to avoid discussion, and scowled at his reflection in his fork. “Is it crazy that I keep worrying about losing my hair?”
“You’d have to lose about half of it before anyone noticed,” said Luke.
“Age but shows the marks of character being displayed and life being lived,” Serene told him. “You live well and I like your character. So there’s no need to worry.”
It was adorable how hard she was trying to be sensitive for her human boyfriend. Elliot raised Serene’s hand to his lips and kissed it. Richard Plantgrown, passing by, made the sound of a whip cracking: Elliot did not know if it was for Elliot, because of the kiss, or for Serene because of what she’d said. He hoped it was for him. Serene bore enough and he hated seeing her, proud and not quite untouchable, bear more for his sake.
Elliot had taken much worse than this for no reason at all, and this was for her, for the best reason he knew. He didn’t care what anyone did to him.
Luke turned on the bench and looked at Richard. That was all he did. Richard put his full tray down on a random table and fled out of the door.
Serene had not deigned to look at Richard while he could see her, but she watched his retreating back with an expression that boded ill for Richard next time he entered the practice grounds.
“Yes,” Elliot said to Serene, electing to ignore the problem. “But how do you explain the baldness issue? Swift made an excellent point about the baldness issue!”
Elliot did not want to be left behind thinking about what could be happening to Serene and Luke out among the bandits. So he stole a warrior-training cloak and accompanied them, slinking in the back so that he could say honestly that neither of them had any idea he was there.
“Honestly, Serene and Luke had no idea I was here,” he said when he was discovered and dragged in front of the commander. “You can’t punish them because they had no idea I was here!”
Commander Woodsinger sat on a tree stump in the clearing where the cadets were putting up their tents, and her eyes said that she was considering awful things like execution or more tutoring.
“So I have just one cadet flagrantly disobeying my orders and in urgent need of discipline,” said the commander. “Wonderful.” She held up a hand to forestall Elliot’s protestations. “I believe that Cadet Chaos-of-Battle and Cadet Sunborn are not aware of your presence. I believe this since they are not currently in your presence.”
Elliot was about to protest—he was in a protesting mood—but at that point Serene and Luke arrived, looking windblown and worried.
“Right on cue!” said the commander. “I do not have the time to discipline you, Cadet Schafer, but for the entirety of this mission you will be under my eye.”
“No problem, commander!” said Elliot.
The commander’s order became a problem the very next day.
That night, though, Serene and Elliot had a tent to themselves, which they moved a little further away from the other tents, into the trees. Elliot had brought what papers he could on the reported sightings and robberies, and they went over them and whispered secrets in between discussing the movement of bandit groups.
“I don’t know why the commander thinks we can get the bandits when the group obviously moves from the elven to the human territories to escape justice from both. The only way to defeat them is to unite our forces.”
Except your mum is being a jerk, Elliot did not say.
“I don’t know why you came if you think this expedition won’t be any use,” Serene remarked.
Elliot pulled off his shirt, and once he had the hair under enough control that Serene could see, he winked. “Don’t you?”
“Don’t think you can get around me with your newly improved physique,” said Serene, and Elliot was torn between being flattered, surprised and wondering how much improvement it had required. Serene kissed him, so he settled on flattered, leaning into her and feeling her warm fingers tracing the lines of his abdomen. “Beauty is a delusion and a snare.”
She pushed him backward, and he fell laughing in firelight and tangled bedrolls. “Consider yourself snared,” he told her.
“It was very wrong of you to come,” Serene said later. Elliot’s head was resting on her stomach as he read. He heard the smile in her voice as she continued: “But I’m glad to have you here.”
Elliot smiled, and was still smiling as he pressed a kiss against her soft skin.
Serene was sent up with all the best archers into the trees, where they could surprise bandits from above. Elliot’s amazing grace, or lack thereof, meant he stayed on the ground with those best suited to swordwork, and lurked behind Luke.
Luke, as usual these days, was in a bad mood.
“—cannot believe you would be such a reckless idiot,” he said as they walked through the green hush of the forest. “I mean, I can, because it’s you, but—”
“Aw, someone’s cranky!” said Elliot. “Did someone not enjoy sharing a tent with the commander? I think she’s charming, personally.”
“Someone is only cranky because someone else is so full of—” Luke broke off, made one of his incomprehensible military gestures that sent cadets and the commander alike scurrying for cover, and with his free hand grabbed Elliot by the back of his tunic and bore him down into the undergrowth.
Elliot spat out leaves and dirt, lifted his head and glared reproachfully at Luke, who was lying on his front with his eyes scanning the skies.
“Quiet,” Luke whispered. “I think it’s harpies.”
Elliot propped himself up on one elbow in the dirt. “Harpies? Cool!”
Luke shoved his face back into the grass. “Not cool! Harpies are monsters, do you hear me? They are not like dwarves or even nymphs: they are death with wings. They are the owls to your mice. They rip with their claws, they swoop, and they kill, and once you are dead they rend the body until it is stinking offal, because mutilation of corpses is their beast’s idea of sport. And your dumb hair is a beacon. So don’t move a muscle, and don’t you dare even think of doing something stupid.”
Elliot sulked. He would keep still since Luke was in a tizzy, but if Luke thought that he could persuade Elliot to stay put when he got a chance to see mermaids rather than harpies, Luke had another think coming.
There was a rustle in the grass. Luke’s grip on Elliot’s nape tightened, but after a moment Elliot struggled free in a burst of relief and pleasure: it was Serene, dropped lightly from a branch. She moved, crouching, toward them. There was something small and dark, folded in her hand.
“I thought this might come in useful,” she whispered, and fitted a black woolen cap over Elliot’s head. Elliot smiled, not surprised by her brilliance but by her thoughtfulness, and she smiled back.
“Thanks, blossom,” he whispered, and though she looked puzzled to be called that she leaned toward him as he leaned toward her, for a brief sweet kiss in the crushed grass.
“Serene!” hissed Luke, whose eyes were determinedly fixed on the sky. “Do you see?”
Elliot squinted. He could see nothing except for fluffy non-menacing clouds. No… maybe something? Like a fleck on his glasses, if he wore glasses. Or like his imagination running wild.
“Two of them,” Serene whispered back. “Scouts. The scouts go in pairs. If we get them…”
Luke and Serene rose to their feet in one smooth matching movement, bows at the ready. Their bowstrings were taut, arms held at the exact same angle. They moved like two parts of a killing machine.
“They’ll never make the shot,” Dale whispered. “Not both of them. I can’t even see…”
They all saw then, the meeting of the scouts in the sky, a rush of wings that blotted out the sun for a moment, and at that very instant Luke and Serene took their shots.
The harpies tumbled from the sky, two dark marks growing larger and larger against the clouds as they streaked towards the earth. Elliot only ever saw them as dim, falling shapes: he was sorry for that.
“Ha!” said Elliot to Dale. “That was my girlfriend… killing a sentient creature. But for good reason and showing very praiseworthy athletic skill!”
The commander rose and gestured to them all to do likewise.
“Good eyes, Cadet Sunborn,” she said. “Good shooting, both of you. We cannot risk both harpies and bandits with a force this size. We will do one more sweep of the forest and return home. Chaos-of-Battle, back in the trees. Sunborn, I want you to take four men and pack up the camp as quickly and quietly as you can.”
“Commander!” said Luke. “What about—”
“I don’t want to be protected by incompetents!” Elliot exclaimed, and looked around at the faces of the assembled troop. “Uh, no offence, everybody.”
“I do not want to see another breach of discipline from any of you!” the commander thundered. “Cadet Schafer, you will stay by my side at all times. Go!”
Luke went. Serene went. Elliot fell in unhappily with the commander.
“Don’t be scared,” said Dale from behind him, marching in step. “Harpies are awful creatures, but there won’t be any more. And we can protect you, just as well as Luke. Well, maybe not quite as well as Luke, that was an amazing shot--”
“Serene’s shot was amazing too,” Elliot said grumpily.
“Um, ah, sure,” Dale agreed. “The point is, I’m right behind you, and I have reflexes like a ferret!”
“Go to the back of the squad, Cadet Wavechaser,” Commander Woodsinger said, with infinite weariness.
“I’m going to be slightly further behind you,” said Dale. “But not to worry!”
Elliot regarded the softly rustling wood with suspicion as they walked, and walked. The swaying leaves and the spring flowers had hidden harpies. He fully expected bandits next.
When he saw something shining among the leaves, he froze, expecting it to be a weapon.
A hush fell on their group as they realized that it was something entirely different.
There in the clearing up ahead was a unicorn.
It had a shape similar to a horse’s, but it was closer to the toy horse of a seven-year-old’s most fevered imagination than it was to any real animal. Its long, graceful lines seemed chased in silver, its mane and tail rippling in bright rivers and total defiance of gravity, and its horn was pearl. It turned and observed them with one tranquil dark eye, a pool that beckoned as well as shimmered, and Elliot took a step forward.
“Cadet Schafer,” said Commander Woodsinger, in a low, serious voice. “Be careful. Only people who are eligible may approach the unicorn.”
"Uh, because we think an animal is obsessed with a ridiculous social construct of purity based on who’s been touched where with what, as if people’s moral worth depends on what basically amounts to a game of Clue?" Elliot said. "Sure it is. Give me a break."
He took another step. The unicorn charged.
Elliot ran and Commander Woodsinger ran with him. Their troop scattered madly in every direction. Serene, beautiful athletic elven traitress that she was, was backflipping through the branches yards and yards away, and the others in the trees were following her. Elliot ran for another tree, feeling the unicorn’s hot breath on his back. He grabbed at a low hanging branch, pulled himself up, and then leaned down and looped his arm around Commander Woodsinger’s waist, lifting her off her feet.
If she hadn’t got hold of the branch and helped haul herself up, he might have dropped her on the creature. Accidentally impaling your commander on a unicorn was bound to lead to expulsion.
"Well lifted, Cadet," said the commander in a tone of faint surprise.
"Thanks," said Elliot. "Mean bullies make me exercise."
He looked down at the unicorn. He saw, suddenly, that it wasn’t as lovely as he had thought at first. Its shiny horn was too sharp, and its eyes were red with the light of murder. It was the Venus flytrap of pretty ponies.
"I think your censorious attitude is absurd," Elliot told it. "And frankly, it’s creepy to be obsessed with other people’s sex lives."
The unicorn lowered its head, charged and rammed the tree, its horn plunged into the bark and then withdrawn. The leaves all shook as if they were in a storm and the trunk shuddered as if it had been struck by lightning.
"Cadet Schafer! Kindly stop antagonising the unicorn!"
"Don’t worry!" said Serene from the trees. "All of these young blushing men are unmarried, so I am certain a great many of them are pure!"
There was a long silence. Embarrassment reigned among the trees.
"How about you, Dale?" Elliot asked, desperate.
"Um—afraid I can’t help you," Dale muttered. "I met this guy, Adam Sunborn, when we were sent to aid the patrol on the Northern border…"
"Adam Sunborn!" Elliot exclaimed. "How could you, Dale? He is the worst!"
"He’s not the worst! He’s a Sunborn!" Dale exclaimed, shocked in return. "And it’s not—it’s not as if there’s a huge amount of choice in the Border guard, if you like… if you like guys."
Elliot shook his head sadly, making the leaves rustle around him. “You can do so much better.”
"Uh—thanks, Elliot!" Dale sounded gratified. After a pause, he ventured: "Commander, are you not… eligi-"
"I am forty-eight years old!" snapped Commander Woodsinger. "Ladies have needs, cadet."
"Not everybody wants to indulge in carnal passions at all," said Serene. "Take the sisters of the greenwood, who consider themselves married to the trees. Obviously there are no people dedicated to chastity and guarding the beautiful flower of their manhood in this company, however."
Elliot breathed out hard through his nose. He looked up at the rippling green canopy of the trees, and down at the enraged beast below. It pawed the ground, ripping out chunks of earth beneath its cloven hoof, and the sunlight shining through the trees lent a disturbing glitter to the point of its horn. Elliot looked hastily away.
"I didn’t want it to come to this," he informed the leaves. "But could somebody fetch Luke?"
"Cadet Schafer, I’m fairly certain that’s not going to help," said Commander Woodsinger. "I mean this in the most impersonal and professional way possible, but have you seen Luke Sunborn?”
“Yes,” Elliot said irritably. “Believe me, I don’t get it either. I have a theory he’s repressed as an act of rebellion against his family. I also have this scheme to shut him and Dale Wavechaser up in a cupboard. I admit, it’s not a terribly sophisticated scheme. It needs refining.”
The unicorn headbutted the tree even more vehemently. Everyone was a critic.
The commander took a deep breath. “Are you quite sure about Luke Sunborn’s current state of virtue?”
The commander raised her voice. “Could the cadet furthest away from the unicorn descend and request Cadet Sunborn to make his way to this section of the woods!”
The unicorn charged once more. From the heart of the tree came an alarming cracking sound.
“Extremely quickly,” the commander added.
It felt like a long time until Luke arrived, even though he came running and out of breath, and Elliot had more reason than anybody to know how fast Luke was.
Luke did not immediately dart to the rescue, though. Instead, when he saw the unicorn, he stopped moving altogether.
“Ah, Cadet Sunborn,” said Commander Woodsinger, with amazing aplomb for a woman stuck up a tree. “Thank you for your promptness. Cadet Schafer informed me that you might be possessed of the necessary qualities to deal with this situation.”
“… Did he,” Luke said, after a long, dark pause in which apparently all the blood in his body rushed to his ears. They were practically purple.
Elliot grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. The horror on Luke’s face only deepened.
“If you would, cadet,” said the commander.
Luke advanced on the unicorn. He took his time about it. Elliot thought it was frankly reprehensible that he was dragging his feet when there were lives at stake.
“Chop chop,” he called out.
“Shut up,” Luke ordered.
He edged closer to the unicorn. The unicorn had stopped ramming the tree. The animal was now cropping the grass in what Elliot found to be rather a coy manner. Its shining flanks heaved with another breath, like the movement of living pearl. Luke took one last step, and then rested his hand against the unicorn’s softly glowing side.
The unicorn did not turn and make Luke an instant victim of horn-based savagery. Elliot let out a breath in unison with Commander Woodsinger. Even the trees seemed to sigh relief.
The unicorn turned and Elliot sucked his breath back in, but the unicorn seemed to wish only to rest its chin against Luke’s shoulder.
“Oooh, it likes you,” Ellliot said.
“Shut up now and shut up forever,” said Luke.
“Cuddling with the unicorn is not a productive way to spend your time,” Commander Woodsinger observed, while Elliot snickered and Luke looked cruelly wronged and betrayed by the universe at large. “Can you manage to lead the unicorn away?”
“I can try,” Luke said in the hollow tones of one who had nothing but his duty left. He tugged at the unicorn’s mane. The unicorn lipped softly at his cheek. Elliot worried about an accidental affectionate skull impaling. “It’s not working,” Luke said, his voice taking on an edge of panic.
“I know what to do!” Elliot exclaimed. “In books, the virtuous maiden plucks a single golden hair from her head, and leads the unicorn as if on a leash.”
Luke gave him a look of loathing, and tugged at a handful of his own golden but admittedly quite short hair. “Thanks for the suggestion.”
“I’m just trying to be helpful, loser,” Elliot snapped.
“Try harder!” Luke snapped back.
“Perhaps some other article belonging to you?” Serene called out from the leaves. “Loath though I am to suggest you compromise your modesty in any way by disrobing…”
Elliot kept thinking that there must a limit to how scandalized Luke could seem about this situation, on a scale from slight-social-faux-pas to nudist-at-the-vicar’s-tea-party. Luke was currently at Victorian-aunt-time-traveled-to-a-strip-c
Luke pulled off the blue jumper his dad had knitted for him at Christmas. It was immediately clear to everyone that it had been almost two years of continuous physical exercise since the time Luke used to go swimming in the lake and get swarmed by girls.
There was a thump and a flutter of falling leaves, like a small localized storm of greenery. Dale Wavechaser had fallen out of his tree.
Elliot began to laugh so hard he was afraid he was going to fall out of the tree himself. He stopped laughing when the unicorn gave an equine snarl, and tried to turn in Dale’s direction.
“Nonono,” said Luke, hastily looping his jumper around the unicorn’s pale gleaming neck and tying the blue woolen sleeves tight. “Don’t do that. Take deep breaths. Uh, find your center. Nice horsie.”
“Wow, he’s trying to use my yoga routine on a unicorn,” Elliot remarked.
“What is yoga?” asked Commander Woodsinger. “Never mind, cadet, I have the sneaking suspicion that I will not care.”
“Come on, please let this be over, nice horsie,” muttered Luke, and the unicorn began to trot obligingly to keep up with Luke’s fast pace, through the trees and away.
“Well, no harm done except the upholding of harmful moral values by a cranky equine,” said Elliot, and slid gratefully from his branch to the ground.
“Cadet Schafer, get back in the tr—” the commander began furiously, but her voice was obscured by the thunder of hooves and the sound of those hooves ripping turf as the unicorn charged back.
The creature was a blur of white and silver, the sound it made a scream: Luke’s scream back was almost birdlike. Elliot scrabbled for a branch but there was none in reach.
Luke was a blur, faster than the unicorn. He had to vault over the animal: he jumped between them.
There was a horrible moment when Elliot slipped out from between Luke and the tree and Elliot saw blood on Luke’s shoulder.
“Are you okay?” he asked in stark terror. Even the unicorn was still, as if in confusion.
Luke’s eyes had been shut, but they opened. “Yes,” he said in a small, tight voice. “Get back in the tree.”
The murderous beast danced back an uncertain step, and Elliot saw that what Luke had said was true. The unicorn had stopped its lunge just in time. It was just a graze.
Elliot got back in the tree. They all stayed up in the tree for a long time after Luke led the unicorn away by the rags of his jumper, probably longer than they needed to. The only person who spoke was Serene, who asked Elliot quietly if he was all right.
“He’s perfectly well, not that he deserves to be,” snapped the commander before Elliot could reply. “Now be quiet.”
Luke and his small squad came back, Luke wearing a spare war cadet’s uniform top and keeping his head down. Everyone descended from the trees.
“Walk with me, Cadet Schafer,” said the commander, and they walked at the front of the troop.
Elliot walked with his eyes on the horizon, watching for the Border camp. The commander spoke to him as they marched, and her words fell like blows. He concentrated on walking and not stumbling.
“You were not supposed to be on this expedition,” said the commander. “That is not because I blindly follow military protocol, but because it was necessary that everyone on this trip have military training and be able to defend themselves. Are you able to defend yourself?”
“No,” said Elliot, and when the commander gave him an inquiring look he spoke louder. “No.”
“That means that other people have to put their lives at risk to defend you,” the commander said. “That is why you are forbidden to come on these missions, no matter how clever you think you are or how much you believe the rules should not apply to you. For the sake of other people’s lives. Do you understand now, or does someone have to actually die?”
“I understand,” Elliot said through his teeth. He thought he might be sick.
“And you will never, ever come on another military foray without my express permission?”
“I won’t,” said Elliot. His mouth was dry. “I swear.”
As soon as they arrived back at the Border camp, the commander dismissed Elliot, and he could at last go find Luke and Serene.
They had not even gone to their cabins yet, but were standing sorting through the weapons from their packs and putting the dull ones aside. They looked up as he approached. Luke’s expression was not particularly pleasant. Elliot had been thinking of what he should say, how he could apologize or thank him, but a brainwave occurred to him: something good had happened today, and reminding Luke of that would surely cheer him up.
“So Dale Wavechaser fell out of a tree,” said Elliot, making significant gestures with his eyebrows alone.
Luke appeared unimpressed. “I suppose you think people falling out of trees and getting hurt is funny too.”
“No,” said Elliot. “Well, yes, in this specific instance, because of reasons. Him falling out of a tree is great for you.”
“Elliot, why would I want people to fall out of trees?”
Elliot abandoned this clearly unproductive line of reasoning.
“You saved him from a unicorn,” Elliot urged. “I mean, in that you saved us all. As lines go, that one’s bound to be a winner. It has novelty on its side! Go talk to him!”
Luke turned a baleful gaze upon him. “I have never ever been so embarrassed in my whole life,” he said. “And it’s your fault. I am going to bed.”
“Luke,” Serene said, “you have absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. Rather, you should feel proud that despite the urgings of your manly nature you have kept your virtue intact!”
“It’s like seven thirty, loser,” Elliot pointed out.
“And I may never get up!” Luke shouted over his shoulder.
“What I just said was disrespectful and I’m sorry,” Serene said after a moment’s pause.
Elliot took her hand, lacing her fingers with his own. “That’s okay, baby, I’m pretty comfortable with being a wanton.”
He looked over to Serene with a smile, but she was not looking at him. She was looking off into the distance and the pin-scratch mark between her brows, Elliot knew, would have been frantic worry on a human face.
“Elliot, those other boys on the mission,” she said slowly, and Elliot’s shoulders relaxed because it was not about them. “None of them were saving themselves?”
“Saving which part of themselves exactly?” Elliot asked. Serene looked put out with herself for putting it wrong, and Elliot grinned. “I know what you meant. Well, I suppose we’re all on the young side, but given that they’re in military training and constantly exposed to mortal danger—I’ve read about emotions running high, and life-affirming…”
He trailed off. He had never considered that Serene had kissed him for the second and more frenzied time after the library attack, that they had come together after the battle. He had not applied what he’d read to his own life. Elliot glanced at Serene again, nervously, unable to look at her steadily but likewise unable to stop looking back.
Serene still looked worried. “None of them want to wait and be courted?”
“Well, we’re all definitely too young to get married!” said Elliot. “But they might get married later on. It’s not like you’re disqualified from being married if you’ve dated before.”
“Oh,” said Serene. “Oh, I see, of course. Of course, that makes perfect sense.” She gave Elliot a small smile, dazzling as a single ray of light on snow. “Of course they might change their minds later, and of course nobody should be disqualified.”
She squeezed Elliot’s hand. Elliot felt the impulse to go with it, to smile at her, to not raise a question or face a challenge, but he had never gone with that kind of impulse before in his life and he did not know how to do it now. He did not know how to let anything rest.
“Change their minds?” he asked. “Do you think that dating is—a whole different thing from courting?”
Serene’s head tilted interrogatively, and then he felt her hand in his, her whole body, go still.
“It isn’t,” continued Elliot, speaking with difficulty. “Dating can be casual, but it isn’t always. Sometimes people who are dating get married, and sometimes they don’t. It’s a way of—testing out a relationship. We have dating instead of courting, not as well as.”
“Oh,” said Serene, the sound abrupt and terrible, and then with gathering anger: “That shouldn’t be how it works. That is totally confusing and inefficient!”
“This isn’t a humorous cultural difference, is it,” said Elliot. “We shouldn’t be talking about this in public, should we?”
Serene took a breath and Elliot almost thought that she might brush this off, instead of him: almost wanted her to. But his Serene had never been lacking in courage.
“No, we shouldn’t,” she told him, squaring her shoulders. “Let us go discuss it in your cabin.”
They went. They did not speak again until they were in the narrow confines of the wooden cabin where he had spent his first night in the Borderlands, wondering what he had done by deciding to stay for her. It was so different from being with her at the start of this, with no walls and both of them free under a night sky filled with stars and possibility.
“I’m so sorry, Elliot,” said Serene, as soon as she had shut the door on them. “I got it all wrong from the start. This was much more difficult than I thought it would be—it should be easier than this to—”
“Don’t be sorry,” said Elliot. “I’m not sorry. And don’t talk to me about what should be easy. I’ve never had anything be easy in my whole life. I don’t want easy. I wouldn’t know what to do with easy if I had it.”
Serene was pacing the cabin floor and not listening at all. “You’ve been insulted because you were with me—not just my mother, but the mistakes I’ve made, and I heard people whispering, I know what things my cousin must have—and all the time--”
“I don’t care!” said Elliot. “I got insulted a few times? Don’t act like it’s never happened to me before. I know it’s happened to you before. And as for the other stuff, what your mother and your cousin said, even the stuff you said sometimes, do you think the humans do it any better? Do you think I want to make a girl feel the same way I’ve been feeling? Relationships are difficult. Every world I know of is messed up. ”
He spoke as quickly as he could, desperate to convince her. He had messed up: in two worlds full of blundering and flaws he was always the one who made the worst mistakes, the one who ruined everything he touched. He remembered how Serene and Luke had read out his love letters to an army troop. How stupid could he be? Had he really thought Serene would do that, if she knew he’d meant them?
She didn’t know, just as Luke hadn’t known and Myra hadn’t known. But he could tell her. He would tell her now.
“I am—I’m serious about you,” Elliot said. “I’m not saying that any of this is easy. And you can—there could be years before you decide what you want. There will be more insults and more misunderstandings. I know that. But I… I really love you,” he said. “And I think we have a chance of making it work. If you love me back, enough to work through every difficulty, the way I love you.”
Serene was silent for a long time. Her pallor was alarming: she was white as salt, white as exposed bone. There was so much pain in her face that she almost looked like a different person. She almost looked human.
Elliot felt his heart sinking in that cold silence, as if he had thrown it like a stone into a deep dark pool.
He had to look away. He stared at the wooden walls, which bore the marks of countless knives thrown by countless careless children who had not known what they were getting into.
“You don’t,” he said, quietly.
“I do!” said Serene. It came out as a cry, like someone had hurt her when she was already injured.
Elliot lifted his eyes to her face, but hope died when he saw the expression she was wearing. There was too much pain in it for any possibility of falling into each others’ arms.
“I love you very dearly,” said Serene. “I would gladly die for you. But the kind of love needed for courtship…”
“It’s fine if you don’t feel ready for courtship,” Elliot broke in,
He hated himself for being so pathetic. He wished he could be nobody at all, as long as he could stop being himself and feeling like this.
“I don’t think I could ever feel it,” Serene continued doggedly, as if she had never spoken.
“Not for me,” Elliot finished for her, when she could not seem to. They could both hear the bitterness in his voice. “I’ll stop,” Elliot said. “I won’t be any more trouble. I won’t keep bothering you with—with feelings that aren’t your responsibility. But I need—I need to hear you say it. Could you just look at me and say it.”
Serene was a soldier, before she was anything else. She was brave and never backed down from a challenge. She met his eyes when she spoke, and he saw how sorry she was to say it.
“I do not think I could ever feel that way about you.”
Elliot drew in a long shuddering breath. He’d asked for it, as he had asked to be hit once when he thought she and Luke might be dead. “I understand.”
He was about to turn away, never mind that he was in his own cabin. He was sick of this whole world. He had flayed himself in front of her, and he didn’t have to suffer through this any more, not for a single moment longer. He was going to leave.
But something else occurred to him, with a hundred times the force that it had in the library, when it was a fear and not his reality. She said she loved him, and nobody had ever loved him before. He couldn’t lose that, even if she loved him so much less than he had hoped.
He didn’t have anyone else.
He swallowed: he tasted bitterness in his mouth and felt as though he was swallowing something broken, sharp splinters all the way down.
“Thank you for being honest,” he said finally. “That’s best, isn’t it?”
Serene nodded. “Yes.”
This was diplomacy, as he’d played it with the elves and the general. The first yes was the most important. It meant another yes would follow, each one more easy than the last.
“We’re friends, and that’s what is most important, right?”
“Right,” said Serene, and almost smiled.
“So you—made a mistake, and I got—carried away. Better to end it now, before anyone’s feelings are too hurt. I don’t want to mess up our friendship. I know you don’t either.”
“Of course I don’t,” said Serene. “Elliot. You’re absolutely right.”
Elliot wanted to smash things, wanted to shout things at her until she hurt as much as he did. But he couldn’t hurt her as much as she had hurt him. He didn’t have that kind of power over her, and that was not her fault: it was his.
He went and leaned against the knife-scarred wall, looked out of the window where night was falling on the Border camp.
He heard her approach him, walking softly. He looked down at her, and she was standing very close to him. She leaned into him and kissed him on the cheek. He put his arm around her waist and thought: I will never hold her like this again.
“I’m so sorry,” Serene whispered. “But thank you for understanding.”
“What are friends for, am I right?” Elliot asked. He made himself smile: it felt like his face was a stiff piece of paper, and he had folded it sharply in half. “I’m sorry for going overboard. Let’s go back to how it was before.”
“Yes,” said Serene. “It will be just like it was before.”
It was nothing like it was before. He had never lied to her before, never acted a part to convince her: she was the only person who had ever liked him before he learned, however poorly, to be tactful and hide some portion of who he was. He felt as if he was losing that, as well as her, as he watched her walk out the door of his cabin.
The next day at lunch, Elliot decided to get the news out before Serene could. Serene was looking hesitant, opening and shutting her mouth a little like a coy goldfish, and Luke was still sulking over the horrific indignity of a unicorn seeing his bod. Elliot had no pity for either of them. There was an empty space where he might have felt sorry, or amused, or even fond: he just had to keep going despite the emptiness.
“Serene and I decided to call it quits while there were no hard feelings on either side,” Elliot said. “Pass the butter.”
Luke sat frozen, only his eyes moving. His gaze was flicking back and forth between them, as if there was an invisible racquet sending his pupils bouncing back and forth across the tennis court of his eyes. Eventually, Serene passed Elliot the butter. He accepted it.
“I know what you must be thinking, right?” Elliot asked. “You must be kicking yourself that you didn’t place any bets on how long it would last.”
“I wouldn’t make bets about my swordsister’s love life,” said Luke. He had been using the term ‘swordsister’ since Serene’s mother had denied it to him.
Serene pushed her shoulder gratefully against Luke’s and, after an instant, they started talking casually about archery. Luke relaxed. He did not leave and go to practice anything: he stayed where he was all through lunchtime, and he looked pleased, glad to have a situation that Luke-Everything-Goes-Right-For-Me-Sunbor
Serene was sitting on Luke’s side of the table: from now on, Elliot supposed she always would be.
Luke and Serene continued to make Elliot exercise, which was the despair cherry on the sundae of misery that was his life, and he had to go along with it because he had promised Serene that everything would be like it was before.
Besides, what was the point of doing anything else? He would just make Serene unhappy and he could not make her love him. Luke would just triumph and potentially find his unhappiness hilarious. He could freeze them both out and have no friends at all. That would be worse than this.
He didn’t know how to be blatantly miserable. He never had, through all the long years of childhood knowing that nobody cared what he was feeling. Even if he worked out how to show what he felt, he would only put people off. He knew, from long experience, that he was too much trouble as it was.
At least the late spring had turned cold, rather than mellowing into summer, so they used the indoor practice rooms and Elliot was spared the outdoors. That meant he took every possible opportunity to sit down and read. It wasn’t like that was unusual behavior for him: neither of them would think there was anything wrong with that.
“All I want you to do is watch this and try to replicate it,” Luke ordered.
“I’m not going to hurt anyone,” Elliot said stubbornly, clinging to his book like a life raft in a sea of violence.
“It’s a defensive move,” Serene explained.
“Like so,” said Luke. “Watch.”
Serene grabbed both of Luke’s wrists, and Luke hooked a foot around her ankles and pushed forward, sending Serene stumbling backward and bracing his other foot to keep his balance. Since it was Luke, he was able to catch Serene before she fell. Since it was Serene, obviously she had let him accomplish the whole move, and obviously she had trusted him to catch her before he fell. She grinned up at him and he grinned down at her: both of them content, uncomplicated, secure and first place with each other forever and ever.
“Were you watching, Elliot?” Luke asked.
Elliot raised his book to hide his face and said, cheerfully: “I was not!”
As summer drew in, everyone was always determined to show off their athletic prowess to prove their absolute dedication and that they would not be slack during the holidays. Elliot was so looking forward to being slack over the holidays. He was not going to move a muscle, and he was going to be wrapped up near a radiator, and he would not have to see Serene’s relief that the situation was resolved and he would not almost get anyone killed. He would not have to try so hard because his father would not notice anything he did, and perhaps he would finally stop feeling cold.
It was odd to think like this. He had never wanted to go back before.
He could not help thinking of Peter’s father, who could never go back.
They had a day of contests, showing off what they had learned. Serene and Luke won basically everything, as they usually did. Elliot clapped and cheered for every win of Serene’s, as he always had and always would: there were always so many people watching who would not applaud an elf, or who did not like to see a woman win. Everybody always clapped long and hard for Luke, so Elliot felt there was absolutely no need to join in: when it was Luke’s turn he made sure to always be buried in his book and not to let anyone catch him when he looked up.
Commander Woodsinger even handed out little prizes to encourage morale, which Commander Raeburn would never have thought of doing. Elliot was amused to see the absolute dismay on Dale Wavechaser’s face when given the third prize of a book.
They had an impromptu celebration that night, lighting bonfires and sitting around on log benches chattering about their summer plans.
Luke and Serene were on the bench opposite, talking quietly with their heads bowed together. Elliot was staring into the bonfire, when he was startled by Dale appearing behind him and clearing his throat. Elliot turned his head and looked behind him.
“Hey,” said Dale. “It’s your birthday over the summer, right?”
“Yes?” said Elliot, puzzled, but remembering he had to stay in good with Dale and trying to be polite.
“Rotten to have a birthday over the summer with no-one around,” said Dale, waving the book vaguely over Elliot’s shoulder. “Fancy this as an early birthday present? Believe me, I don’t want it.”
Elliot actually felt so confused he was almost disoriented. It was a confused gratitude, so he said the right stuff, but he almost stammered: “Y—yeah, thanks, Dale,” and he actually twisted around, put his arm around Dale’s neck and kissed him on the cheek. As if he was four years old, how embarrassing, but that was how he felt: reduced to being a kid and with even less idea of how to behave than usual.
Dale looked surprised but pleased. “Glad you like it,” he said, and with a friendly nod to Luke and Serene, he jogged off back to his friends.
“That’s weird: I hardly know him,” Elliot announced, since Luke—who everybody liked—was hardly going to understand that Elliot had to pave the way for his presence in someone’s life, and it would be too humiliating to explain it.
“What a kind action,” said Serene, and jostled Luke in a comradely way. “A sweet temper and good looks: all anyone could look for in a paramour.”
“He could get the wrong idea,” Luke said, in a hard voice. Elliot looked up from his book to see Luke glaring.
It was lucky that snarking at Luke was habit by now: Elliot remembered a line from a book he’d read once, that habit was second nature, and nature stronger than the first. It was a comfort, to have a natural expression rather than one he had to pin on.
He raised his eyebrows and smirked. “You don’t have to be jealous. I’m not going to steal your boyfriend. I told you, I barely know him.”
“If you want a book—” said Luke.
Elliot hunched his shoulders. “I’ve got one,” he snapped. He smoothed a hand over the leather ridges of the spine, the uneven cover, and then opened it. It was cheap paper, for a book in the Borderlands where books were rarer and more precious. It was also a history book, and from the very first page Elliot could see that the so-called history was biased and inaccurate. He kept reading.
Nobody had ever given him a birthday present before.
Elliot avoided Myra for the few weeks until the end of the year: she might or might not be sympathetic, and he did not know which would be worse. It took enough energy to pretend for Serene and Luke. Elliot avoided most people. Elliot still had to teach his thirteen year olds, though. It was during one of his lessons that he broke for the only time.
He stopped in the middle of talking about the fauna of this new world, and said: “I can’t help but wonder… why I’m not teaching any of you anything about mathematics.”
All their little faces looked blank. Except for Cyril Leigh, who was a bit of a delicate plant, and who already looked alarmed.
“Or German or French or Japanese or any of the languages that might be useful in the real world. You’re not going to have evidence you completed school. You definitely won’t be able to attend universities. And of course you not only won’t learn anything about coding or computer programs, but you will end up hopelessly behind on and possibly alarmed by technology.”
There was something savage in Elliot’s voice. Even he could hear it. Cyril was swaying.
“Has it ever occurred to you all that the books about magical worlds in our world might be lures? Shiny toys dangled in front of children so we go ooooh, mermaids, oooh, unicorns, oooh, harpies—“
“Nobody goes ‘oooh, harpies,’” said Miriam Price. “Harpies kill you.”
“Unicorns are no picnic either but that’s not my point,” Elliot snapped. “We’re shown all this stuff we were trained to want, shown the great adventure, and we jump at it like the dazzled fools we are. We’re too young to know any better, to know that we won’t triumph and be heroes, that we won’t be returned to the other world as if no time had passed, that the lies in the stories aren’t about mermaids or unicorns or harpies—the lies are about us. The lies are that we might be good enough, and we might get out. We could fail at everything we try to do here and then we would still never be able to go back home. Even if we wanted to.”
A silence had descended on the little group. Nobody seemed inclined to make any further helpful points about harpies.
“Look at you,” Elliot said softly. “How am I supposed to teach you? We’re all in a glittering trap, and too stupid to even realize it.”
Cyril wavered and then burst into tears, the sound shattering the scared hush, and then as if on cue Luke’s voice came from the door.
“What’s a trap? Why is a kid crying?”
“Pull yourself together, Cyril!” Elliot snapped.
Luke strode into the room and went to Cyril’s desk. He put an arm around him, sweet and concerned, and Cyril immediately flung his arms around Luke’s neck and wept into his shoulder. All the other students leaned toward Luke, like plants yearning in the direction of the sun.
Elliot was getting a headache. “Okay,” he said. “Class dismissed. I mean it. Get out!”
They did leave, even though they seemed loath to leave Luke with an obvious madman. Luke did not seem especially concerned for his own safety. He leaned back in the chair Cyril had been sitting in and watched Elliot with a frown on his face.
“I thought I’d get you for your training, since we don’t want you getting soft over the summer—”
“I’m not going to do that anymore,” Elliot said flatly.
Luke paused for a moment, evidently decided there was no point arguing when Elliot was in a mood, and continued: “I thought I’d see what your classes were like. I didn’t think there would be children crying!”
“Oh yeah, it happens every class,” Elliot lied. “You didn’t think it was funny?”
“No,” Luke said slowly. “Because children were crying.”
“Huh,” said Elliot. “Well, no surprise that you have no sense of humor.”
He busied himself with cleaning the blackboard, the marks of chalk blurring and then lost against the black. He saw that they were fitting back into their usual roles, Elliot making children cry and Luke comforting them. He had enjoyed being the nice one, the one who could afford to be kind. It was easy to be generous, when you had something to give. He missed being happy.
Luke cleared his throat. “About the summer. If you want, I guess it would be okay if—”
“I don’t have any reason to come anymore, do I?” Elliot asked casually.
Luke was silent for a moment, then he laughed shortly. “Wait until you’re asked. I wasn’t inviting you to my place. I was going to say something, um, quite different.”
“Oh?” said Elliot, and left a deliberate, expectant pause for Luke to fill.
Luke did not, but in the pause Elliot found the time to feel ashamed. Luke hadn’t hurt him. Luke hadn’t done anything wrong. It was nice of him, in a misguided way, to take pity on Elliot.
He wanted to be kind to Luke, even if he didn’t feel there was much kindness left in him, and any kindness there was he fiercely wanted to save for himself. But that wasn’t how friendship worked, was it?
“Well, whatever,” said Elliot, more gently. “I misunderstood. Anyway, it would be a bit awkward, wouldn’t it? Better to have some space. And I’ll have a lot to do this summer: get reacquainted with computers and phones and jeans--” Luke made a face—“make some sort of large chart with a life plan on it, possibly using a projector—”
“I don’t think your life plan should include teaching,” Luke remarked blandly.
“You’re hilarious, loser,” said Elliot, rolling his eyes. “Well, see you next year. I have to go see the commander now.”
He headed for Commander Woodsinger’s tower, because he did not want to be instantly caught out in his fib. He went up to the top of the tower and looked outside. He had been sitting there for a couple of hours, thinking, when he heard the sound of firm footsteps on stone, and looked up to see the dark serious face of the commander.
“Cadet Schafer. A few of the students you were teaching have announced that they are leaving the Borderlands, and do not plan to return after the summer.”
“Whoops,” said Elliot. “Sorry ’bout that. I did try to tell you me tutoring was not the best idea in the world.”
“I am glad of it,” said Commander Woodsinger. “I do not want to have cadets who are not committed to their cause. I am not in the business of trapping children.”
Elliot bit his lip. “I believe that. You’re not. You wouldn’t.”
Others in this world might. He didn’t know what expression he wore, but he guessed how desolate he must look when the commander’s expression changed. He hardly recognized the emotion, it was so unfamiliar on her face. She looked uncomfortable.
“Cadet Schafer, if you come up to my tower for any sort of—reassurance, I have to tell you that I am not a—maternal person. I am a soldier, and I do not desire a personal relationship with any of my cadets.”
He must be so obviously, desperately pathetic, to make her feel she had to say that. There was no need: Elliot had never thought she liked him or anything.
“Of course, commander.”
Commander Woodsinger cleared her throat. “I will see you next year, cadet.”
She did not wait for a response, but turned and made her way back to her office. Elliot had made no attempt to give one.
He stared out at the expanse of green, at the brimming blue where the mermaids swam and the deeper green of the forests where harpies flew. He thought of the commander saying that nobody understood the Borderlands, and thought of everything here that he had not seen. He did not know if it was enough to stay for, mermaids and a challenge.
He did have one more thing to stay for—but that was not true, because he did not have much any more.
He saw, down at the dusty ground at the foot of the tower that was their training camp, two figures he could not possibly mistake. As Elliot watched and they walked, Luke put his arm around Serene’s shoulders. That was not usual for them: Serene might be upset. Elliot had no doubt she would get over it.
The other students who were leaving probably had more to go back to than he did. But if he went back and stayed, he could create a life there. He could build something real in the world where he had been born. He was smart enough to make up for the lost time, he hoped, but if he stayed two more years he did not know if he could do it. Time was passing, he was losing hope and losing ground there and he did not know what he was doing here. Either way, he would lose.
He didn’t have an answer. He tried to distract himself with a more cheerful thought.
He’d already figured out that he definitely was not made for a life of tragic celibacy. He was so lonely, and obviously no good at friendship. He hoped, with an embarrassed hope mingled with fear, that he was all right in bed. He thought he could pay attention, and see what the next girl wanted and try to give it to her. He thought that quite possibly his previous experience meant he would be uniquely qualified to understand how difficult it could be, being someone’s girlfriend, all the small indignities that you suffered when you were trying to be intimate with someone trained to believe you were not altogether their equal. He could be careful not to hurt her, and careful to be fair with her. He thought that he might manage to be really great with his next girlfriend.
Later Elliot was to think this was a typical example of the way his plans usually went. He had not planned at all for what actually happened next: that instead, he got a boyfriend.
next part of Turn of the Story
- Current Location:the london centre for mishaps
- Current Mood: chipper
- Current Music:this meant more to you than it did to me/I was full of doubts and you believed