Jenny, Melinda, and Natalya have a new set of challenges as they adjust to being a somewhat unconventional 'family'. On top of that, Melinda and Jenny start to encounter some friction, since their work and school lives are diverging. Natalya is starting to feel – and act – more like a girl, including noticing boys. And there's a friend of Melinda's that is causing consternation to Jenny.
Note: There is not any transformation in this story, because it deals with the aftermath of transformations and the characters adjusting to their new lives and family situation. There is also the hint of yet another story involving Bikini Beach.
Note: This is the fifth in a series about Jenny, Melinda, and Natalya. In order, the other four stories are: Bikini Beach: The Handyman, Bikini Beach: The Sub, Bikini Beach: Dear Jenny, Bikini Beach: Cousin Trouble.
This story is copyright by the author. It is protected by licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Jenny paced nervously back and forth near the security exit at the airport. She paused long enough at one end to glance at the flight status board, and confirm that a flight had indeed landed, and thus, the passengers would be debarking. She glanced past the security checkpoint, looking, but in the scurrying mob of passengers coming and going, she didn't see who she was looking for. She frowned – why did it seem so busy today?
"Would you calm down a bit?" Natalya said as Jenny paced past the chair where Natalya was sitting, playing games or texting on her smartphone. "Her plane landed safely. She'll be here in a little bit."
"Aren't you at least a little excited to meet her finally?" Jenny asked, sounding a bit crass. She'd been doing nothing but talk about Melinda's imminent arrival for the past few days.
Natalya shrugged. "I guess," she answered noncommittally as she continued to text her friends.
Jenny winced. She was terribly afraid that Natalya was going to see Melinda as competition for Jenny's time, and wasn't going to give Melinda a chance. Natalya's reaction seemed to confirm that.
Jenny glanced one more time past the security point, and then turned to Natalya to try to talk to her. But she'd seen something, and did a double-take. She thought she saw Melinda walking toward the security exit, and – Jenny frowned – walking with a guy.
She looked again. It _was_ Melinda - and she was with a guy. From Melinda's expression, it was obvious that Melinda was quite happy, and smiling as she talked to the guy. While Jenny continued to watch, Melinda gave the guy a quick hug, and then turned toward the security exit, while the guy went toward the restrooms.
Jenny felt her heart race as Melinda walked toward her. She could see her lover scanning the crowd, and when she saw Jenny, Melinda's smile was brighter than the sun. Dragging her carry-on roller bag, she raced through the exit toward Jenny, beaming with happiness.
A step from Jenny, Melinda let go of her bag, allowing it to drop on the floor, as she reached out with both arms to wrap Jenny in an enthusiastic embrace. Melinda's lips sought Jenny's, and she passionately kissed her lover.
"Sheesh," Natalya commented acidly, "you two are making a scene! This is embarrassing."
"I don't care," Melinda commented to Natalya between kisses. "I missed you so much," she purred to Jenny as she reveled in the hug and kisses. Her eyes were watering from her joy.
"And I missed you," Jenny replied, equally enthusiastic. She let her arms drop until she caught Melinda's hands, and then leaned back slightly. "Look at you!" she said. "You look ... better than I remembered!"
Melinda grinned. She was wearing a pretty and very fashionable dress, probably the only passenger on her flight that was dressed up. Her sunglasses were atop her head, and her hair was done in a French braid. Triple-hoop earrings dangled from her ear, and from the embrace, Jenny knew that Melinda was wearing a new perfume.
"You're ... beautiful," Jenny said, sounding awestruck. "That's a very pretty dress, but you didn't have to dress up for me."
"Yes, I did," Melinda rebutted with a smile. "I wanted to look my best for you."
"You do," Jenny smiled. She wrapped her arm around Melinda's waist as she turned toward Natalya. The girl was still focused on her smartphone. "I'd like you to meet Natalya, my cousin."
Melinda stepped forward, her hand outstretched. "I'm pleased to meet you," she said warmly. "I've heard so much about you."
Natalya looked up from her phone as she took Melinda's hand. "I've heard a lot about you, too," she said. "Mostly all the kissy-kissy stuff you two were always Skyping."
Jenny frowned, but Melinda laughed off the girl's comment. "What did you expect?" she asked with a smile. "We love each other. Did you think we would end our calls with something like, 'Sincerely,' or 'Most cordially yours,' or something like that?"
Natalya looked at Melinda as if she wasn't quite sure how to take this newcomer. Melinda knew that she was being evaluated by the young lady in everything that she said and did, and that she _had_ to make a good impression.
"Your outfit is so cute," Jenny changed the subject. "It's new, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Melinda spun, showing off the dress with a carefree spirit. "Monique and Nichole helped me pick it out in Paris last weekend."
"Monique and Nichole?" Jenny didn't sound reassured. If anything, she sounded a bit suspicious – or jealous.
"They're two French girls who were in the program," Melinda explained. "They talked me into going to Paris with them for the weekend to do some shopping." She grinned. "Actually, it wasn't that hard to talk me into going with them."
"It sounds like the program was pretty well attended and pretty diverse," Jenny observed. There was a hint of something in her tone that sounded like she wasn't totally pleased.
"It was very international," Melinda explained. "It was a lot of fun."
"I'm glad you had a good time." Jenny definitely sounded envious, and perhaps a little hurt.
Melinda noticed. "But the best part," she said as she turned to Jenny and put her arms around Jenny's waist, "is coming home to you." She leaned forward and kissed Jenny again, slowly and passionately, trying her best to demonstrate to Jenny that her heart still belonged to the red-headed mechanic from Bikini Beach.
As the trio, Jenny, Melinda, and Natalya, stepped into the elevator, Melinda could barely contain herself. "So, what's this big surprise you've got for me?" she asked. Natalya was pulling Melinda's large suitcase, and Jenny was carrying a smaller one, leaving Melinda with only a carry-on bag in hand.
Jenny exchanged a knowing glance with Natalya, and then smiled at Melinda. "You'll see." She turned, blocking the control panel, as she pushed the button for her floor, and then turned back, positioning her body so Melinda couldn't see.
Jenny grinned. "You have to promise to keep your eyes shut."
Melinda frowned. "But ..."
"No buts," Jenny scolded her. "Hurry up and promise me!" She was watching the elevator's progress on the light panel.
"Okay, okay," Melinda gave in. "I'll keep my eyes shut."
Jenny grinned. "And I promise that you'll be very surprised."
As soon as the elevator stopped, Melinda closed her eyes. Jenny took her hand, and the trio walked slowly down the hall, with Jenny guiding Melinda, and Natalya following, towing the large suitcase.
When Melinda felt Jenny stop, she knew they had to be near the apartment. She was genuinely baffled by what Natalya and Jenny had planned. She knew something felt wrong – it was as if they'd taken a wrong turn in the condo. Then again, she reassured herself, she'd gotten used to the dorm in Europe for the last three months.
Melinda resisted the urge to open her eyes as she heard Jenny's key in the lock. The sound of the door opening seemed magnified, since it was one of her senses that wasn't blocked. Once again, Jenny walked forward, and Melinda followed inside, until Jenny stopped again.
"Okay," Jenny said gleefully, "open your eyes."
Melinda warily opened her eyes, but then, she couldn't help gasping in surprise as her eyes opened wide. "What ...?" she stammered. "This isn't ...."
"Surprise! It's our new condo," Jenny announced proudly.
Melinda let go of her small carry-on bag, and it thudded to the floor, as the shocked girl turned around slowly, her mouth hanging agape as she took in the main room. She recognized Jenny's furniture, but the room was much prettier, with contrasting colors on two walls of the main room, some very feminine curtains, and some lovely artwork hanging on the walls. Jenny's old condo had been noteworthy for how plain it was. This was noteworthy for the opposite reason – it was very fashionably decorated. She noted that the kitchen was bigger, and then she saw a small hall leading off the living room. "Is it ...?" she seemed almost afraid to ask.
"With Natalya living here," Jenny said proudly, "I needed to get a two bedroom condo. Grandmother and Ronnie Harris worked the deal, and voila – our new home!"
Melinda's hand came to her open mouth as she continued to stare. The corners of her eyes were moist. "You must have spent _hours_ doing this!" she said softly. She walked slowly, as if in a dream, to the hall, and gazed into the bathroom. It, too, was nicely appointed, with pastel towels, a floral décor on the shower curtain, and the aroma of potpourri. She looked in one room, and realized almost immediately that it had to be Natalya's. The floor was a bit messy, and the décor was a little less feminine than she'd seen so far. But it was the boy-star posters on the wall, the kind any teen or pre-teen girl would have in her room, that gave it away. She glanced over her shoulder, and saw Natalya look down, blushing.
Melinda turned to the other bedroom and took a step in. She gasped at the sight before her. A large four-poster bed, with a lacy ruffled skirt, a white lacy spread, and several pillows in white, light blue, and dark blue, dominated the room. Overhead, draped between the posts and down behind the headboard, hung a fabric, a sheer curtain that looked like a brocade in light and dark blues. A huge matching dresser, with a large dressing mirror, sat opposite the bed, and a small love seat squatted to one side. Melinda could see through the open door into the master bathroom, and two additional doors hinted of walk-in closets. Stunned, she walked back to where Jenny and Natalya waited.
"Do you ... like it?" Jenny asked hesitantly. She was worried that Melinda hadn't said any word of approval.
Melinda's head nodded slightly, and then she turned and wrapped Jenny in an enthusiastic embrace, her head resting on Jenny's shoulders as tears of happiness streamed down her cheeks. "It's beautiful!" Melinda replied. "It's ...." She shook her head slowly. "I don't know what to say!"
"We had a decorating party one weekend," Natalya explained. "Megan and Kelly came over to help paint, too. It was a lot of fun!"
"Yeah," Jenny admitted, a sheepish grin on her face. "Anya, Liz, the Boss – pretty much everyone came over to help. You know that I don't have much style when it comes to decorating."
"I wasn't going to say anything," Melinda laughed. "I think your style is just right." She let her arms drop, and she turned to Natalya. "Thank you, too," she said as she swept the young girl into a hug. "You're really helping make me feel that this is 'welcome home'."
Natalya stood rigidly, not sure how to react to Melinda's hug. After all, she'd only just met her in person, and her limited discussions had been only when Melinda was talking to Jenny.
"I bet you're tired after the flight," Jenny said.
Melinda straightened up and then eased herself into one of the wing chairs in the living room. "You know it. I've been up almost seventeen hours now, and on only a few hours of sleep. I think I want to unpack, take a quick shower, and go to bed."
Jenny raised her eyebrows suggestively, and then suddenly realized that Natalya was with them. "Let's get your suitcases unpacked, and then you can take a nice soak in the whirlpool tub. That should help you relax."
"There's a whirlpool here, too?" Melinda asked with delight. "Yeah," she purred, as she thought of a warm massaging soak in a tub, "that sounds like what I need."
Jenny moved behind the chair and started massaging Melinda's shoulders. "Nat," she spoke to her younger cousin as she kneaded Melinda's aching muscles, "aren't Megan and your friends usually at the park on Saturdays?"
Natalya looked warily at her. "Most of the time. Why?"
"It'd probably be more fun for you to play with them than to sit around and help unpack."
Natalya frowned. "Why don't you just say that you want some time alone?" she asked caustically. "I'm not a little kid." She turned and stepped heavily toward her room. A few moments later, she was back, carrying her swimming gear in a small bag slung over her shoulder. "Any particular time you want me back?" she asked. Before a stunned Jenny could answer, Natalya stormed out the door, slamming it shut behind her.
Melinda raised one eyebrow. "I'm not sure we're off to a good start," she observed.
"Aw, she's okay," Jenny retorted quickly.
Melinda shook her head. "I'm not sure. You two were just starting to get along really well, and then, poof, I'm back." She sighed. "I wouldn’t' be surprised if she's feeling a bit like she's losing her special relationship with her cousin, after she finally found a bit of stability in her life."
"Ready?" Melinda called out from the kitchen toward Natalya's room.
"Just about," Natalya answered through her door.
"Are you sure about this?" Jenny didn't sound confident.
Melinda gulped. "I'm sure." Inwardly, she harbored the same doubts as Jenny. "I've had practice with a little sister, remember?"
"There's a difference between a little sister and this," Jenny reminded her. "Your little sister didn't lose everything, and have to start all over."
"Including becoming a girl?" Melinda asked softly so Natalya wouldn't hear. "On that count, I think we're _all_ even."
"Touché," Jenny chuckled.
"Besides, we need some time to get to know each other," Melinda continued. "She's had weeks with you, but I'm almost a total stranger." She wrapped her arms around Jenny. "All she really knows is that we love each other, and she may be afraid that I'm going to interfere with her relationship. The best thing is if we get that fear out of the way."
"By bribing her with a fancy dinner?"
Melinda smiled. "No. By getting to know each other, and letting her know that I can be her friend, too."
"Maybe," Jenny offered hopefully. "I hope it works."
"Remember what Anya said?" Melinda reminded Jenny. "It may take some time for her to get comfortable with me."
Jenny tried to smile. "Yeah. I hope she's using her 'sight' to make that prediction. We all need something to go right for a change."
Melinda lifted her arms to encircle Jenny's neck, and pulled her closer for a passionate kiss. "I hope you think _this_ is going right," she cooed.
"That's one," Jenny said as she pulled Melinda closer and kissed her again.
"Ahem," Natalya interrupted from the hallway. "When you two are done, I'm hungry." Her expression seemed to combine amusement, embarrassment, and possibly a little disgust at the overly-passionate display.
Melinda grabbed her purse and gave Jenny another quick kiss. "We'll be back in a bit. Do you want me to pick up something for you?"
Jenny shook her head. "Nah. Liz is coming by in a bit for some pizza."
Natalya was silent during the elevator ride, and the walk to the car. After Melinda started the motor, she turned to Natalya. "Do you have a preference for where we eat?" she asked with as warm a smile as she could muster.
Natalya shrugged. "Nope," she said simply.
Melinda suppressed a frown. Natalya wasn't opening up to her. "We can go anywhere, from Giordano's, if you want Italian, to Mexican or Chinese. I've been dying to try that new Japanese restaurant, Miyako. I hear the sukiyaki is to die for!"
Natalya shrugged again. "As long as I don't have to eat raw fish."
"Okay, Japanese it is, then." She pulled her car out into traffic. "Are you looking forward to starting school next week?" she asked, trying to be conversational.
"Nope," Natalya continued her string of curt answers.
"I heard that you've got some great new friends. Megan, Kelly, Ashley. I forgot the other ones. Won't it be fun to be with them every day in school?"
"The 'other ones' are Brooke, Lauren, and Sydney, and I see them almost every day in the park," Natalya countered. She sounded like she was offended at having to make small talk with Melinda.
"Why are you so down on me?" Melinda cut right to the point. "You've been almost rude since I got home."
"Oh?" Natalya sounded like she was trying to deny her actions.
"Yes," Melinda answered, trying to not sound stern or chiding, but hurt. Perhaps Natalya needed to know that she could hurt others the way others had hurt her.
"I hadn't noticed."
"Maybe you're afraid that I'm going to take Jenny away from you? That, just after you and she got things squared away, and it felt like your life was going smoothly, that I'm a threat to your new-found stability?"
Natalya's jaw dropped. "How ... how do you know?" she stammered.
Melinda smiled. "I have a little sister, remember?"
"Oh." Natalya lapsed into silence as she considered what Melinda had said.
Shortly, Melinda pulled into the parking lot of Miyako's restaurant. As they entered the restaurant, a businesswoman, who'd been discussing something with the maître-de, glanced their way. Her face lit up as she recognized Natalya.
"Hi, Natty," Ronnie Harris called enthusiastically as she rushed to give the girl a hug.
"Hi, Ronnie," Natalya answered with a warmth that made Melinda feel a little jealous.
Ronnie glanced at Melinda. They'd never met formally, but Ronnie was quick to put her facts together. "You must be Melinda," she said as she gave Melinda a hug. "I've heard so much about you."
Melinda was at a disadvantage. She knew precious little about Ronnie. "I hope it was good," she ventured.
Ronnie laughed. "The way Jenny talks about you is better than just good," she said. "How was your trip?"
"It was a lot of fun. Hard work, but we found time for some fun."
"I always enjoy traveling to Europe," Ronnie answered with a laugh. "And your new condo? I hope you like it."
Melinda's jaw dropped as she the pieces fell into place. "You're ... you ... it's _your_ condo building?"
Ronnie shrugged. "Yeah. So ... do you like it? I saw pictures of how Liz and Anya decorated it." She giggled. "If they'd have left it to Jenny, the walls would probably be bare white!"
Melinda smiled. "It's beautiful."
Ronnie glanced around, and saw two gentlemen watching her. "Well, I'd love to chat more, Natty, but I've got ...." She frowned. "Wait a second. They brought _me_ here to discuss _their_ proposal. I suppose I could chat more and make them squirm a little!" She laughed at the thought. "I suppose that would be rude, though." She gave Natalya another hug, and then rejoined her party.
"Natty?" Melinda asked, one eyebrow raised.
Natalya shrugged. "It's what she calls me."
"But you prefer Natalya?"
"My friends call me Natty. So does Ronnie. Grandmother and Anya call me Natalya. Doesn't matter a lot to me."
As soon as they were seated, in a booth for a little extra privacy, and had ordered their drinks – water for Melinda, and diet Coke for Natalya – Melinda glanced at the menu. She quickly made her selection, based on what friends had told her. "So, how are you adjusting?" she asked Natalya.
"It's a lot different than ... home," Natalya said softly. "A little warmer, so I can go to the park with my friends more."
"I like the warmer climate, too," Melinda echoed. "But I was talking more about ... other changes."
Natalya frowned. "I ... don't know what you're talking about," she said warily. "We haven't started school yet."
Melinda laughed softly. "I know all about the magic of Bikini Beach," she whispered.
"But ... but Anya said ...." Natalya was confused. "No-one knows!"
Melinda smiled knowingly. "I know, though. Like I said, I know about the magic. So, the question stands. How are you adjusting?"
Natalya frowned. "It's ... sometimes, it feels weird. Sometimes, when I look at boys, I feel ...." She shook her head. "I'm not supposed to like boys, am I?"
"You tell me," Melinda retorted. "It's _your_ bedroom with the boy star posters. I'm guessing that when you get together with your friends, you talk about boys a lot."
Natalya looked down, blushing. "Yeah," she admitted.
"And I bet that sometimes, you find yourself getting excited about maybe kissing a boy?" Melinda prompted further.
Natalya nodded silently.
"There's nothing wrong with that," Melinda said, her tone soothing. "Every girl grows up, feeling herself change, feeling herself starting to think about boys. It's normal."
"It's not normal to suddenly change from _being_ a boy to wanting to _kiss_ boys!" Natalya said, a bit angry.
Melinda laughed. "The magic changes your thoughts and feelings to match those of who you are _now_, which is a pre-teen girl, who _is_ interested in boys. But overall, is life better?"
Natalya started to answer, but caught herself. She thought for a moment. "Yeah. Mostly." She looked down. "I've got wonderful friends. I've got a wonderful cousin."
"But sometimes, you're scared, aren't you?"
Natalya looked straight into Melinda's eyes. "Are you a psychologist, too?" she asked brazenly.
Melinda laughed again. "No. I'm just someone who loves Jenny, and wants to be your friend."
"Are you afraid of shopping for bras?"
"No," Natalya admitted sheepishly. "Not when I'm with friends. But ... Jenny ... I don't think she likes it."
"Maybe Jenny is just afraid of how she can help you cope with growing up. I bet she hasn't talked to you about having periods, either, has she?"
"Uh, no. I suppose you will, though?"
Melinda smiled. "If you want. You have a few advantages on me, though. You'll get used to having boobs gradually as they grow. You have time to get used to the idea of having periods. I didn't."
Natalya wrinkled her brow as she tried to figure out Melinda's riddle. Suddenly, her eyes widened. "You ... you changed, too?" she asked, astounded. She saw Melinda's smile and nod. "Why?"
"Why did _you_ decide to change?" Melinda asked enigmatically. "We all have our own ... personal ... reasons."
"Is it because ... you love Jenny, but she's a lesbian?" Natalya asked cautiously.
Melinda chuckled. "That's only a part of it. True, I love Jenny dearly, and she makes me ...." She sighed contentedly as she thought of how she felt when Jenny was near. "She makes me feel warm and loved."
"Among other things," Natalya added sarcastically.
"I wasn't going to go there," Melinda grinned, "unless you want me to."
"Uh, no thanks. I'd rather not hear the details."
"A big part of the 'why' is that I never felt close to my dad. I have two older brothers, so I always felt like a spare. I was close to my mom, though." She took a sip of her soda. "I get along much better with my family now. In engineering, I actually have better job prospects than for male students. I got a better scholarship, too. I don't feel ... awkward ... around guys."
Melinda continued. "I started out being a substitute lifeguard, so I had to change for one day. That led to a two-week temporary job. After that, I changed back, but things ..." She shook her head at the memories, "things weren't working out. So I got a lifetime pass."
"How about girls? Did you like girls ... before?" Natalya shook her head. "But you said that ... your thoughts would change to match who you are now! So does that mean you _didn't_ like girls before?" She was genuinely puzzled by the seeming contradiction between her situation and Melinda's.
Melinda just smiled. "I liked girls. I still do, as a matter of fact. But as friends. I don't think I was gay, but ... I'm not really sure." She shrugged. "I never chased girls a lot – not like my cousin Al did, anyway."
"So that explains why, since you changed, you like girls more?"
Melinda shrugged, still smiling. "Maybe. All I know is that Jenny makes me feel warm and loved and happy. Isn't that enough?"
"But since I liked girls when I was a boy, then that's why I kind of like ... boys?" Natty speculated. Her voice was tentative, almost fearful.
"That's what I'd guess," Melinda answered with a smile. "But you know what the most important thing is?"
Natalya's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"That you and I are talking, and getting to know each other. That – I hope – you feel that I'm your friend and not a rival for Jenny's love and time."
Natalya smiled, for the first time since they'd left the apartment. "I think so."
"And, since I was a guy once," Melinda added with a sly grin, "I know how guys act, and what they do to get girls' attention. I can help you deal with that – like knowing when guys are sincere, and when they're just trying to ... you know."
Natalya scowled. "Not gonna happen," she said firmly.
Melinda laughed. "We'll see. I bet you _do_ think about boys, though – especially when you're with your friends. Right?"
Crimson flushed across Natalya's cheeks, and she looked down, embarrassed. "Kind of," she said softly. She looked up at Melinda with an almost pleading look in her eyes. "And ... I'm scared of how I was going to handle boys. I mean, it's not like Jenny knows how to help with that subject, does she? And ... I don't either."
Melinda smiled. "Then we'll help you learn, okay? Besides, you've got some wonderful friends to grow up with you, right?"
The young man glanced around the bustling, noisy cafeteria of the student center uneasily. He didn't seem comfortable in the crowd of students, until he spotted a lone figure at a table. His expression relaxed visibly. "Hi, Melinda," he called as he strode briskly to her table. The young man was about twenty-two, with wavy brown hair. It was obvious that he worked out to keep in shape, and with his ruggedly-handsome looks, he could have been a movie star. The only thing that detracted from his Hollywood looks was the pair of wire-frame glasses perched on his nose.
"Hi, Paul," she answered as she rose from her chair. She gave him a quick hug, and then sat down as he took a seat. "How are classes going?"
Paul Davis laughed. "After this summer - boring."
Melinda smiled and nodded. "I was afraid it was just me."
"No, it was everyone who went. Leslie said the same thing," Paul added.
"So what did you do between getting home and starting classes again?"
Paul shrugged. "Just hung out."
Melinda noticed something about his demeanor. "Something is bothering you, isn't it?"
"Why ... do you say that?" Paul asked, suddenly sounding nervous.
Melinda smiled. "Only because you, Leslie, and I hung out together for three months in Europe. That was long enough to get to know you, and to be able to sense when something is wrong."
Paul dropped his head. "I ... can't talk about it," he said softly.
Melinda put her hand on his arm. "You can tell me," she said soothingly. "We're friends, remember?"
Paul shook his head, and glanced around. "I can't talk ... here."
"Okay, then let's go to the deli to get some lunch, where we can talk a little more privately," Melinda suggested.
"Okay." Paul sounded nervous at the suggestion.
After they got their deli orders and sat down, Paul tried to avoid the earlier topic. "Have you decided on a senior project yet?" he asked.
Melinda laughed. "Nice try, but we could have talked about that in the student union building." She took a sip of her soda. "So what's on your mind?"
Paul sighed. "I'm just ... not sure."
"Are you ... suggesting something?" Melinda asked cautiously.
Paul's eyes widened. "No!" he answered quickly. "I mean, you're nice, but ..." He set his elbow on the table, and supported his forehead in his open hand as he shook his head slowly. His eyes were closed as he thought of what to say and how to say it.
"You're not attracted to me, are you?" Melinda asked. "We talked about that this summer."
Paul sighed. "I know. I mean, you're nice looking, but ..."
"Are you gay?" Melinda asked bluntly.
Paul shook his head silently. "No," he said after a pause. "There's just something about you that's ... different. Understanding. Sympathetic. I find it easy to talk to you." He looked up and chuckled. "And I know you're taken."
Paul's chuckle turned into an outright laugh. "Everyone at the school knew you are absolutely ga-ga over Jenny – whoever she is."
"I thought I was being discrete."
"Hardly," Paul said with a wry smile. "And from the way you describe her, she must be something very special and wonderful."
Melinda smiled at the thought of her Jenny. "She is," she said wistfully. After a moment, she wrinkled her brow. "It's kind of a letdown, though."
"Finding out that someone doesn't think you're attractive," Melinda laughed.
Paul's eyes widened in shock. "I didn't say .... I mean, you are..." He stopped, wondering what to say next. "You are pretty, but to me, it's a 'good friend' thing, not romantic. You're someone I can talk to, without worrying about ... things."
"Oh." Melinda sounded relieved that she didn't have to worry about Paul trying to win her affections. "So, what _do_ you find attractive in a girl?"
Paul didn't have to think. "A bit taller than average, very fit and trim. Modest figure. Nice long brown hair, and big, soft, brown eyes. Cute girl-next-door looks. That's the kind of girl I'd want ...." His words trailed off into a mumble.
Melinda smiled. "That sounds like Kathleen."
Paul nodded. "Yeah."
"Have you asked her out?"
Paul shook his head, looking down. "I ... can't."
The halls of the middle school bustled with noise as a seemingly countless horde of boys and girls swarmed to and from their classrooms, either heading to the cafeteria for lunch, or on their way back to classes. Megan, Kelly, and Natalya were among them, coming from their history class, and heading to lunch.
As she put her book in her locker, Megan glanced at Natalya. "I wish you wouldn't show off in class," she said with mock anger in her voice.
"Yeah," Kelly added, smiling. "It makes the rest of us look bad."
Natalya wasn't sure at first if her friends were joking. "I wasn't ... I mean...," she sputtered.
"Just kidding," Megan added quickly. "I wish I had your brains. It'd make homework so much easier."
It was Natalya's turn to laugh. "If you saw how much time Jenny makes me study, you wouldn't wish for it."
Kelly closed her locker and joined Megan and Natalya walking toward the cafeteria. "You make it sound like she's a tyrant!" she joked.
Natalya smiled. "No. She just wants to make sure I don't mess up." In her head, she was thinking, "again," but didn't say it out loud. Her friends wouldn't understand – or, even worse, wouldn't want to be associated with her.
"Hi, Megan," a boy's voice called out behind the girls.
The three turned. It was Jeff Watson, a boy they shared a class with, with his friend Eric beside him. The two were inseparable, having been best friends since they were little. "Hi, Jeff. Hi, Eric," Megan answered, her voice suddenly demure and shy.
"My folks are letting me have a 'back to school' party this weekend at the Fun Zone. I hope you can come," Jeff said casually.
"Depends," Megan was playing coy. "Who's going to be there?"
Eric saw Megan glance at him, and he seemed a little embarrassed.
"The usual - you," he said, looking at Kelly, and then Megan, "Ashley, Lauren, and Sydney, if they want to come. The usual guys." Jeff turned very deliberately toward Natalya, as if she was the only person there. "And you, too," he said to Natalya, his voice suddenly unsteady and wavering. "You're new, aren't you?"
Natalya smiled. "Yeah. I moved here this summer."
"I figured, since I haven't seen you before." Jeff sounded like he was hanging on Natty's every word. His attention, clearly, was riveted on her.
"Ahem," a voice sang out behind them. "Aren't you students supposed to be going somewhere?"
All five spun, and immediately recognized Mrs. Jackson, their homeroom teacher. "Yes, ma'am," Megan, Kelly, and Natalya all said at once.
"We're on our way to lunch," Kelly added.
"Then I suggest you get there. You know the rules about dawdling in the hallways." Mrs. Jackson was known to be a very strict teacher; she looked like she came from the days that paddling was still allowed in school for rules infractions, and that she missed those 'glory days'. The intimidating look had its effect.
"Yes, ma'am," the girls all replied quickly, before they turned and scurried down the hall toward the lunchroom, with Eric and Jeff behind them, but visibly not walking with them.
Despite the fact that all of the boys and girls knew that the attractions to the opposite sex were starting, there was still enough shyness, at their ages, to not want to be seen 'hanging out with the girls or boys' – a fact that was especially true for the boys.
For a brief moment, Natalya thought that if Mrs. Jackson wore her hair down and wavy, and got rid of her glasses, she'd be a rather attractive woman. Well, add a little makeup, too. And as suddenly as that thought had come, it vanished, leaving Natalya smiling to herself at how thorough Grandmother's magic was.
As they stood in line, trays in hand, Natalya glanced over her shoulder and saw Jeff looking at her. She felt ... strange, like part of her hated the idea of a boy being attracted to her, and part of her was highly flattered to be on the receiving end of his attention. She found herself smiling, and giving him a quick tiny wave, before she turned back to the serving line.
"Oh, good," Kelly said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Tuna noodle slop, again."
"At least it's not eggplant parmesan," Megan countered. "That stuff was awful!"
Natalya laughed. It had been the same up north – none of the students liked the cafeteria food. "It can't be as bad as what they served at my last school," she said, trying to be lighthearted.
"As if you'd notice the food today," Kelly rebutted.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Kelly and Megan laughed. "Only that you look like you've got the hots for Jeff," Kelly said.
"I do not!" Natalya's response was short and sharp, to let her friends know unequivocally that she wasn't interested in Jeff.
"I saw you staring at him and waving," Kelly teased.
"And you do have to admit," Megan said in a dreamy voice, "he is kind of cute."
Natalya's anger was swept away in an instant as Megan's words landed in her brain. "Yeah," she said wistfully, before she realized what she was saying. As soon as she said it, though, she regretted letting the word slip from her mouth.
"You _do_ have the hots for him!" Kelly said triumphantly.
"Shut up and get your slop," Natalya replied in a curt voice. She was embarrassed both by discovering how she felt when Jeff was paying attention to her, and by the teasing from her friends.
The three girls carried their trays to a small table in the corner of the lunchroom.
"I thought," Kelly began as they dug into their food, "that you wanted a guy with tats and a hot car."
"Yeah," Megan added with a sly smile. "What happened to the guy with the rebel look?"
Natalya laughed. "I guess I spent too much timing hanging out with you girls this summer," she replied quickly. "You domesticated me!"
"Can I sit here?" Lauren asked as she approached the table.
"Sure," Megan answered cheerfully. "It's too bad, though, that Sydney and Ashley don't have lunch at the same time. Then it would be just like the summer!"
"Except that we're missing Brooke," Lauren said as she sat down.
"Where is Brooke, anyway?" Natalya asked, suddenly curious as to why the seventh girl in their little circle wasn't present.
"She goes to St. Theresa's Catholic School," Lauren explained, her tone a bit chiding, as if Natalya should have known. As soon as she saw Natalya's expression, however, Lauren realized her mistake. "I'm sorry," she apologized quickly. "I guess I forgot that you're new in school here. It must be because we spent so much time together at the park this summer!" she added with a giggle.
"Daddy wanted me to go to St. Theresa's," Megan said casually.
"Why didn't you?"
"Daddy said it was because Mom spent too much on our memberships to the park," she giggled. "I think it's because I begged them not to put me in a different school from you guys. But both Mom and Daddy keep saying that I'll go there for high school."
"Natalya," Lauren said softly, as she noticed that Natty wasn't paying any attention, but was, instead, staring across the lunchroom. She followed Natty's gaze, and saw Jeff Watson looking back at her with puppy-dog eyes.
"There she goes with the goo-goo eyes at Jeff, again!" Kelly laughed.
"Somebody likes Jeff Watson," Megan chimed in a sing-song voice.
"No, I don't!" Natalya rebutted sharply. "I haven't even really met him!"
Kids poured from every doorway out of the school building as the end-of-school bell rang, trying to be heard above the sudden cacophony of excited students. Some raced to the buses, some dawdled near the carpool pickup, and some began to walk home.
Megan, Kelly, and Natty were in-between. They were going to walk to Megan's house, which was close to Kelly's, and Jenny would pick up Natty at Megan's once she got off work.
"Hey, Megan, wait up!"
The girls stopped and turned, spying the boys running to catch up. Jeff and Eric were accompanied this time by their friend Doug Chambers.
"Oh, look, Natalya," Kelly teased softly so as not to be heard, "it's your boyfriend."
"Shut up!" Natty hissed back, while trying to smile at the boys.
"Hi," Jeff said as he stopped trotting. "You never told me your name." He was talking directly to Natalya.
Natty felt her heart flutter. "I'm Natalya. Natalya Michaels," she said, fighting the odd feeling in her heart. "I moved here this summer."
"That's a nice name," Jeff answered, as if he wasn't quite sure how to continue the conversation. "So how do you know Megan and Kelly?"
Megan laughed. "We all hung out together at the water park a lot."
"Oh." Jeff didn't even glance at Megan and Kelly. "You didn't say if you were going to come to my party or not."
"What _girls_ are going to be there?" Kelly asked. "Is _Robin_ going to come?" She had a most unpleasant look on her face when she mentioned Robin's name.
The boys laughed. "As if! She's too good for us, or at least, that's how she acts."
"How about your older brother Jim?" Megan asked hopefully.
"Yeah, he's coming."
Natalya noticed a look of delight in Megan's expression, and a look of disappointment on Eric's face. "What about our other friends – Lauren, and Sydney, and Ashley?"
"And bring Brooke, too," Eric suggested, "if she's not busy."
"Okay, we'll have to see if we can work it into our busy social calendars," Kelly said with a grin. "You didn't tell us when it is, though."
"Oh," Jeff seemed to have been lost in thought. "It's Saturday afternoon, at three."
"At the Fun Zone," Megan added, "right?"
"I'll have to check," Natalya cautioned. "Jenny might have other plans for me."
"But since her girlfriend got home," Kelly sounded hopeful, "maybe she'd like some time without you around! We could all get together and spend the morning shopping, and then go to the party."
"And we could have a sleepover at my house!" Megan added with delight.
Natalya smiled. She'd spent the night with Megan a couple of times during the summer, and liked the idea. "I'll check."
"Okay," Jeff said without taking his eyes from Natalya. In fact, if the other girls had been wearing clown noses and funny hats, Natalya didn't think Jeff would have noticed. "I hope you can come."
As the girls walked home, the boys having departed their own way, Natalya glanced at Megan. "What is the Fun Zone, anyway?"
"Only the best place to hang out," Megan replied.
"Until you get older and can go to Shell Game," Kelly added.
"Yeah," Megan agreed.
"So what's there? It sounds like some kind of funhouse amusement thing."
Kelly nodded. "They've got a ton of games and stuff. Laser tag, indoor miniature golf, bowling, arcades, pool tables, foosball tables – just tons of stuff."
"Out back, they've got another miniature golf course, and go-carts," Megan added. "The boys like the batting cages."
"And sodas and ice cream and stuff, too," Kelly continued. "They make the world's best banana splits!"
"Sounds like fun."
"It is!" Kelly and Megan replied together.
"How was school?" Melinda asked as soon as Natty came in the door.
Natty shrugged. "It was okay." She trudged back to her room, her backpack slung over one shoulder. With a resounding thud, the backpack dropped on her desk.
"Please don't drop your books like that," Jenny called, trying not to sound like a nag.
"K," Natty called. In a moment, she was back in the kitchen, getting herself a glass of lemonade from the refrigerator.
"Anything interesting?" Jenny asked.
Natty shrugged. "There's a back-to-school party on Saturday," she reported.
"Who's going to be there?" Jenny continued her interrogation. "Any boys?"
"Yeah, some," Natty answered. "But it's at a place called Fun Zone, so it's not like a late-night party at someone's house. And then we want to have a sleepover at Megan's."
"Sounds like a busy weekend," Melinda commented.
"I'm not so sure if you should be going to a party with boys," Jenny said cautiously.
"Fun Zone is a great place for kids," Melinda commented. "I used to hang out there all the time when I was ... younger." She didn't want to say "a little kid" for fear of offending Natty. "I think it'd be okay for her to go."
Jenny scowled at Melinda. "I think _I'm_ her custodian," she said angrily.
"Okay," Melinda quickly said, trying to calm Jenny down. She wasn't quite sure why, but Jenny had taken offense to her suggestion. "I just want to be helpful if I can." For some reason, Jenny seemed quite edgy.
"Sorry," Jenny said, but she didn't sound genuinely remorseful. She turned to Natty. "Why don't we run out and get some ice cream?" She looked up at Melinda. "Do you want to come?"
Melinda glanced at her watch. "No. I've got a couple of things to do."
"Okay." Jenny grabbed her keys and purse and, with Natty beside her, walked out the door.
Jenny was sure that someone else was in their apartment as she opened the door. She could clearly hear a voice other than Melinda's. "Hello?" she called uneasily.
"Hi," Melinda replied to her, glancing around the corner from the computer desk. "Just a sec, hon." She turned back to the computer. "Jenny is home, so I have to go. I'll call back another time?"
"Of course, mon amie," the voice sang out from the computer. It was heavily accented, and female.
"Tell Nicole I said hi," Melinda added. "Adieu, mon chere amie,"
Curious, Jenny glanced at the computer screen. As expected, Melinda was using Skype, and she got a quick glance at the friend's image before the conversation ended. "Who was that?" she asked, trying to sound merely curious.
Melinda turned, smiling. "That was Monique, my friend from the summer institute," she answered easily. Seeing Jenny's curious expression, she pulled out her cell phone. "Let me show you a picture of us in Paris," she said. Judging by Jenny's reaction, she suspected that Jenny was a bit jealous.
Jenny looked at the picture. In the background, the Arc de Triomphe stood majestically, while Melinda smiled in the center of the picture. On her sides were two nice-looking girls, each kissing one of Melinda's cheek playfully as the group hammed for the camera.
"That's Nicole, on the right, and Monique on the left," Melinda explained.
"Friendly, aren't they?" Jenny asked. Though she tried to prevent it, some sarcasm slipped into her words. The two girls in the picture had classically pretty Gallic features.
"You're jealous, aren't you?" Melinda said with a playful smile.
"No," Jenny replied quickly. Her expression betrayed her true feelings, thoughts her words couldn’t hide. "Maybe some."
Melinda realized that Jenny _was_ jealous. She stood up and put her arms around Jenny's neck. "You shouldn't be," she said, and then she kissed Jenny. "They're friends, but you are my love." She kissed Jenny again, with more feeling.
"Okay," Jenny said hesitantly. She wanted to believe Melinda, but something inside her felt wrong, and it was just enough that she didn't sound convinced.
Natalya sprawled on the sofa in a most unladylike pose. The television screen flickered, but the sound was muted. Melinda sat in the chair, in a more graceful position, turned to talk to Natty.
"So what happened today?" Melinda insisted. "And I'm not going to take a nonsense answer. You're acting too ... different for something _not_ to have happened."
Natty shrugged. "Nothing special happened," she replied.
"Is it a boy?" Melinda asked with a knowing smile.
"You can tell me," Melinda reminded Natalya. "I watched Beth go through the same things, remember?"
"I'm not your little sister," Natty countered. "She started off being a girl. I didn't, remember?"
"True," Melinda conceded, "but you have a girl's body, and girl hormones are kicking in, and Grandmother gave you girl's memories and skills. With all that, I'd say it's a foregone conclusion that, sooner or later, you're going to start finding boys attractive."
Natalya lowered her gaze. "I _shouldn't_ feel like this!"
"But you do, and, unless I miss the mark, you kind of like it, don't you?"
Natty nodded. "Did you ever feel like that? Before, I mean?"
"I never felt my heart go pitter-pat over a girl, if that's what you mean." Melinda looked thoughtful. "I guess Grandmother was right – maybe I always was gay and hadn't yet discovered it."
"So how do you know what it feels like, then?" Natty asked defensively.
Melinda grinned. "Because I felt it when I met Jenny." She heard the door open, indicating that Jenny was home. Melinda knew that Jenny would be sorting the mail and washing up from her workday. "Even when I was a guy, she was very attractive, and made me feel ... warm and tingly."
"I feel like I'm stuck between two worlds," Natty commented morosely.
Melinda laughed. "I know what _that's_ like. Sometimes, for a while, it got really interesting with my dad and brothers, because I had my old 'guy' memories, and new 'girl' memories as well. Sometimes, I'd say or do something that fit with my 'guy' memories, and it didn't fit. Sometimes, it felt like I was in a dream, and dreaming that I was dreaming."
Natty smiled. "Yeah, that's how I feel sometimes, too."
"So, why did you change?" Melinda asked.
"I'm sure Jenny told you," Natty replied.
Melinda smiled. "Jenny told me what you told her. She didn't tell me what you were thinking, though."
"I don't know. I guess I didn't have any reason to stay," Natty answered after a long pause.
"You know, you could have used your experiences as a girl to learn how to be a better boy," Melinda suggested.
"Yeah. Grandmother said the same thing to me. So did Anya."
"But?" Melinda let the question hang.
"With everything that happened," Natty explained, and Melinda noted that she wiped at a tear, "I felt like I _had_ to start over. Megan is a wonderful friend, and I'd never had a friend like her before. Or Kelly, or Sydney, or Lauren, or the others."
"You still could have tried."
Natty shook her head. "You don't understand. All my memories as Alex weren't good. I fought with my parents all the time. I tried drugs, I was in trouble, I was a bad student. I didn't _have_ any good memories. But when I was Alexandra, for the first time, I found some _nice_ memories. Doing things with mom," she wiped at her tears again, this time in vain, "having Daddy call me his princess and do nice things instead of yelling at me for getting in trouble." She shook her head. "I don't want the bad memories. I _need_ good memories to remember ... Mom and Daddy ..."
Melinda moved to the sofa and wrapped Natty in a warm embrace. "I think I understand."
"But now, with the ... boy thing, I don't know how I'm supposed to feel."
"You feel how you want to feel," Melinda said. "Now, I think Jenny said you can have a few minutes of TV every night, but not before your homework is done, right?"
"Yeah," Natty complained.
"Okay, so shut it off and help me finish dinner, and then you can finish your homework." Melinda stood up and walked to the kitchen, where Jenny was sitting at the table going through the large stack of mail.
"Something smells delicious," Jenny commented.
"Just a little something I whipped up," Melinda said with a smile. She hugged Jenny from behind, nuzzling around Jenny's neck and ear. "I'm glad you're home."
"So am I," Jenny purred. "What's for dinner?"
Melinda continued to nibble at Jenny's ear. "You are, my love," she cooed.
Jenny turned in Melinda's arms and gave her a proper kiss. "Now, what's for dinner?"
Melinda smiled. "Is this a fifties sitcom? I'm the wife who stays home with the kids and cooks dinner?" She laughed. "For you, I'd be happy doing that."
Jenny grinned. "And I'd do the same for you."
"For your information, I made a cream-cheese stuffed chicken breast, breaded and seasoned with Italian herbs. I'll slice that over a bed of lettuce, and I made some wild rice to go with it, lightly buttered, of course, and sprinkled with a little paprika."
"That sounds fabulous." Jenny gave Melinda another kiss.
"Natty, can you come and help set the table?" Melinda called out.
Natalya came out with a smile and gave Jenny and Melinda a hug. "Sure," she said, sounding a lot more cheerful than she had a few minutes ago.
Jenny sighed heavily as she sat down on the sofa. "Natty's in bed – finally."
Melinda laughed. "Some nights, she really doesn't want to go to bed, does she?" She leaned over, resting her shoulder on Jenny's shoulder and purring contentedly.
"She told me that she had an interesting day at school."
"Oh?" Jenny's brow furrowed slightly.
"Yeah," Melinda said lightly. "She's starting to feel the effects of her 'female' memories and hormones."
"She's getting interested in boys?" Jenny sounded suddenly concerned.
"Yeah, and one in particular who noticed her."
"She didn't tell me." Jenny's body stiffened. "She should have."
"I guess she's not very comfortable talking about it," Melinda noted.
Jenny sat upright, her features stern. "What's that supposed to mean? That she can't talk to me?"
Melinda noted Jenny's sudden change of mood. She straightened herself and put her hand on Jenny's shoulder, trying to comfort and soothe her. "She didn't want to talk to me about it, either!" she said, trying to reassure Jenny. "I had to practically drag it out of her."
Jenny leaned back slowly, and Melinda moved her head back to Jenny's shoulder. Despite appearances, Jenny was not relaxed; Melinda could feel the tension in Jenny.
"How was my favorite park today?" Melinda tried to steer the conversation away from something that seemed sensitive to Jenny.
"Same old, same old," Jenny said in a neutral tone. "Liz and I went off-site for lunch today."
Melinda smiled. "Good. I always liked getting a break from the park. Where'd you go?"
Jenny was looking straight ahead, her eyes narrowed and her jaw tense. "We went to the sub shop. You know the one – over by campus?"
"I really like that place," Melinda commented.
"That's pretty obvious," Jenny said. Her tone was getting less civil, and a bit angrier. "You eat there often enough."
"True," Melinda didn't pick up on Jenny's tone. "There aren't a lot of places I like near campus, though."
"I saw you there today," Jenny's tone was again, carefully neutral.
This time, Melinda couldn't help picking up the hint. "Oh?"
"Yeah. You were having lunch with that guy from the summer institute," Jenny's voice sounded almost accusatory. "Again."
"Oh, you mean Paul," Melinda was sensing the source of Jenny's discontent. "He's a friend, and we study together sometimes."
"So you're studying with him every night you're out late?"
Melinda straightened herself, a frown appearing on her face. "What are you implying?" she demanded of Jenny. "Paul is just a friend."
Jenny was angry at a lot of things, and that was clouding her judgment. "I heard what you told Natty," she accused. "That you found me attractive when you were a guy. That means that you probably have some 'bi' feelings now, too!"
"Are you suggesting that I'm ... romantically involved with Paul?" It was Melinda's turn to sound – and feel – angry.
Jenny scowled. "You said it, not me."
"He's just a friend!" Melinda said defensively.
"A friend you hug in the airport? A friend you're always going to lunch with, or 'studying' with?"
"I suppose you think I was being too 'friendly' with Nicole and Monique, too!" Melinda stood up, suddenly not wanting to sit next to Jenny.
"It's just strange how you're never talking to them when I'm around, and whenever I come in, you have to hang up so quickly! And whatever you're saying to them in French, too!" She stood so she could confront Melinda, toe to toe.
"I suppose you're angry that I'm trying to help with Natty, too!"
"I'm her guardian!" Jenny yelled. "Not you!"
"You don't trust me. Not with Paul, not with Nicole or Monique, not with Natty! Who _do_ you trust me with?" She turned and stomped to the bedroom, slamming the door shut behind herself.
Jenny stood by the sofa, her jaw set and her lips pursed, and a scowl on her face. She didn't know what had happened, but she knew that she wasn't happy.
In a few moments, Melinda emerged from the bedroom, a small suitcase in one hand, and her backpack of books slung over one shoulder. Her eyes were moist, and her makeup was smudged and tear-streaked. She stomped to the door.
"Wait," Jenny suddenly realized what was happening. She was still angry, but she realized that Melinda was leaving, and she didn't want to see her go.
"If you can't trust me, then I'm not sure I belong here!" Melinda cried, just before she stepped through the door and slammed it shut. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she ran to the elevator, anxious to get out of the building before Jenny decided to follow her.
As soon as the door opened, Melinda ran inside, wrapping her arms around her mother and placing her head on her mom's shoulder. The tears which had mostly stopped flowed anew, and Melinda sobbed audibly as she desperately clung to her mother.
"Is something wrong, honey?" Joan Fishcher knew her daughter wouldn't be crying like this if something wasn't wrong. It was up to her to find out what, while she offered support.
"Mom," Melinda cried, "we ... had a ... fight!" She was practically bawling. "She ... doesn't ... trust me!" she stammered between her sobs.
"Yeah," Melinda cried,.
"Shh," Joan said soothingly as she let Melinda cry on her shoulder. She gently stroked Melinda's head. "It'll be all right."
"No, it won't!" Melinda sobbed. "She ... yelled at me - for trying to help Natty!"
"Honey," Joan's voice was a soothing balm, "Jenny has gone through a lot of changes in her life lately. She ... you _both_ ... have a lot of adjusting to do."
"But she doesn't trust me!" Melinda repeated. "She accused me of having a fling with a friend at school! And she is jealous of time I spend talking to my friends Nicole and Monique!"
"Listen to me, dear," Joan eased Melinda down into a kitchen chair, and then took a seat herself. "Jenny discovered that she's gay, and then her life was turned upside down when Natalya came to live with her. From what I gather, it was a pretty rough couple of weeks."
"But ... Natty's such a good girl," Melinda protested. There was something in her mother's choice of words that set off alarms in Melinda's head.
"Well, Natalya lost her parents, and had a lot of grief to deal with. Jenny's been dealing with all the paperwork and hassles of the estate, and then moving to a new apartment, on top of work." She smiled knowingly. "And Natalya has had some significant changes to go through, too."
"But nothing. After you and Jenny started your relationship, you got the fellowship to go to Europe for the summer. After she'd lost you once, do you think that maybe Jenny was terrified of losing you again?"
Melinda nodded, wiping at her tears. "Yeah, I suppose," she said softly.
"Besides, you have your own major adjustments that you're dealing with," Joan said soothingly as she continued to stroke her daughter's head.
Melinda's eyes widened, but she didn't move her head. "I'm not sure I follow."
Joan smiled. "You started a relationship that's gay, and I'm sure you never expected to fall for Jenny. Your studies are keeping you quite busy this year. You've got new friends at school."
"Yeah," Melinda said softly.
"And I'm sure you never considered the challenges of suddenly being a woman."
Melinda's head snapped up, and she stared, open-mouthed, at her mother. Reality was supposed to have been changed, and no-one was supposed to know.
Joan smiled at her daughter. "Yes, I know what you did."
"But ...how?" Melinda was genuinely baffled, and a bit scared. If her mom knew, then who _else_ knew?
"When you and Jenny were starting your relationship, I decided that I should understand who Jenny was. I had a very nice conversation with the old woman you worked for."
"But ... Grandmother said that when the magic changed me, reality changed, and that only her, Anya, me, and Jenny would ever know!"
"When I talked to her, she did some kind of spell that helped me remember the past when you were a boy, and to understand _why_ you'd decided to change. She said there would come a day when it would be important for me to know, so I could help you."
Joan continued in a non-judgmental voice, "You know, you could have talked to me about everything."
"I didn't think you would have believed me if I would have told you," Melinda said softly. "And I thought you'd be disappointed."
"I probably wouldn't have believed you," Joan said with a smile, "but you could have worked with your boss to help me understand and believe. And there's no way you could disappoint me," she replied. "I'm very happy to have another daughter. The most important thing to me, though, is that _you_ are happy."
"But ... isn't it confusing ... to you?"
"A bit," Joan said. "But if you remember, you were always closer to me than to your father. You weren't as fond of hunting and rough games as your older brothers. And you were great help in the kitchen!"
"Lots of chefs are male!" Melinda countered in a huff. She resented the implication that Mitch had been some kind of sissy-boy.
"I wasn't trying to say that you were effeminate," Joan quickly added. "It's just that, of all you kids, you are the one most comfortable with yourself, and probably the best able to adjust to this type of ... change. Your brothers and your sister couldn't adjust as well as you."
"Does Dad know?" Melinda asked hesitantly.
Joan smiled. "No. It's our little secret."
"Thanks, Mom," Melinda said softly as she hugged her mother.
"Now, let's talk about what happened and what _you_ can do to make things better."
"What are we going to do about Jenny?" Anya asked as she sat in the office, at her own desk, totaling receipts from the day.
Grandmother looked up from what she was doing. She'd been on the computer – perhaps looking at new equipment or options. She shook her head. "I don't know. But I am getting a little tired of the melodrama that seems to surround her."
"She's a great mechanic and handy-person," Anya defended her friend.
Grandmother smiled. "I never said she wasn't. It just seems that, lately, there's always something going on in her life." She stared thoughtfully at Anya for a few moments. "What do you think is the problem this time?"
"She and Melinda had a big fight," Anya answered.
"That's obvious." Grandmother wasn't trying to sound sarcastic, but she couldn't help it.
"I've tried talking with her about it, but she won't talk." Anya shook her head. "Melinda moved out, and is upset, Jenny is heartbroken, Natalya is acting up. It seems like it's all falling apart for Jenny."
"So," the old woman asked, a smile creeping onto her face, "what are you going to do?"
"Moi?" Anya feigned innocence. She'd learned, long ago, that with Grandmother's magic, she couldn't fool her. She gave up trying. "Liz is going to watch Natalya for the night, and I'm going with Jenny for dinner." She smiled and glanced at the door. "In fact, Jenny just finished shutting down the pumps, and is on her way to the office as we speak."
A few minutes later, just as Anya was shutting down her computer, Jenny walked in the office. Anya looked up, a cheery smile on her face. "Ready to go?" she asked.
Jenny frowned, and she shook her head. "I don't know if this is a good idea," she said, hesitantly. "I don't want to leave Natalya alone, and she always has homework to do."
"Liz is perfectly capable of ensuring that she gets that done," Anya replied. "She won't be alone." She grinned. "Any more excuses?"
Jenny shook her head. "I guess you've covered all the bases," she acknowledged.
"Every once in a while, we _all_ need a break," Anya said. She stood and walked toward the main door, the one that opened to the parking lot. "I'll drive."
"Suits me," Jenny said half-heartedly. "Unless you and Grandmother want to pay for gas." Jenny drove a pickup that belonged to the park, and she was always conscious about using park resources for personal use.
"I'll be paying either way," Anya laughed, "so that isn't a factor. But my car is a little more fun to drive."
As they walked out of the office, the setting sun casting a reddish hue on Anya's brunette hair and making Jenny's long red hair seem almost alive with fire, Jenny looked at Anya's car. It was parked beneath a lamp, but the top was down and the car was unusually free of bird droppings.
"How do you ...?" Jenny started to ask in amazement, but then she shook her head, smiling. "You probably have some kind of spell that keeps bird poop off the car, don't you?"
Anya grinned. "Magic can be useful at times." She crawled behind the wheel. "So, where do you want to eat? Miyakos? The Firehouse?"
Jenny flinched visibly when Anya mentioned the Firehouse restaurant. It had been her and Melinda's favorite spot. "I'm not that hungry. How about something light?"
"Soup and salad, maybe?"
Jenny nodded. "Yeah. That sounds good."
The ride was in silence; Jenny was unwilling to say much. Only after they'd got their food and sat down did she talk. "I suppose you heard," Jenny said softly. "Or read my mind."
Anya's expression reflected the hurt she felt from Jenny's words. "Jenny," she said, "you know I haven't read your mind in ... a long time. I don't do that to friends."
"Oh." Jenny was ashamed of what she'd implied.
"So what happened?"
Jenny shook her head as she finished a bite of salad. "I wish I knew. Then I'd know how to fix it."
"What were you arguing about?" Anya prodded.
"I don't know," Jenny was nearly in tears at the painful memories. "She was helping Natalya, and she ... I guess I might have told her to butt out, because I'm her legal guardian."
Anya sighed. "I really don't think she was trying to take your place, but was trying to help out and take some of the burden off you. Did you think of that?"
Jenny considered Anya's words. "No, I guess not." She reflected for another moment. "I guess I owe her an apology," she admitted.
"That's a start. But I get the feeling that there's more to this."
Jenny looked at her salad for a few seconds, before she looked back up at Anya. "She's ... she's different. Ever since summer school, she's always flirting and chatting with her French girlfriends, or that ... guy ... from college."
"You're jealous?" Anya suggested.
Jenny looked up, her eyes ablaze, but she paused to consider the words, and the fire went out. "Maybe." She looked down again. "Melinda said the same thing."
"It's normal to have friends," Anya said calmly. "That's no reason to be jealous."
"She's changing," Jenny said as she wiped a tear from her eye. "She's ... making new friends, and spending time with them, and ... I'm being left out."
Anya put her hand gently on Jenny's arm. "Jenny," she said in a soothing, sympathetic voice, "if Melinda has a friend, it doesn't mean that she loves you any less."
"She told Natty," Jenny said, wiping at her eyes, "that she found me attractive even when she was a guy. That means that she's bi, doesn't it? And that means that she might find some guy more attractive than me!"
Anya shook her head. "Maybe, but I doubt it. Has Melinda ever lied to you?"
"No," Jenny replied. She was starting to feel ashamed that she'd doubted Melinda.
"You were always kind of a loner, weren't you?" Anya asked simply.
Jenny nodded. "Yeah."
"So it's hard when you're not the sole focus of Melinda's attention, right?" Again, Jenny nodded. "And that could lead to feelings of rejection, or even distrust?"
Jenny started to nod in response, but she suddenly gasped and looked up at Anya, her eyes wide. "She said that, too."
Anya _was_ sensing more, but not through her magic. Instead, her intuition told her. "Are you feeling a little ... guilty ... because of her decision?" she proposed tentatively. "Are you thinking that Melinda changed just for you, and you're afraid that maybe she resents you a little?"
Jenny started to object, but she shut her mouth and dropped her gaze. After several awkward moments of silence, she lifted her head back to look at Anya. Slowly, she nodded. "Maybe," she whispered.
"Is it okay, Mom?" Megan begged of her mother.
"Please?" the girls added their voices to the plea.
Megan's mom frowned. "This is supposed to be a girls' sleepover, not a pool party."
Megan ratcheted up her arguments. "We promise they'll leave before nine," she added.
"It's like Jeff's birthday party this afternoon moved to our pool."
"We can ask Jeff's parents to stay if you'd like," Kelly added, "to help chaperone."
Megan's mom sighed. "I don't have enough snacks for you girls _and_ for a bunch of boys, too!" she argued.
"That's okay," Megan countered quickly. "There was a lot of food left from the party, and Jeff said his parents can bring that to add to what we've got."
Megan's mom rolled her eyes. "Why do I get the feeling that I'm going to lose this argument?" she asked rhetorically.
"So they can?" Megan asked for confirmation, excitement in her voice.
"Yes, but on the conditions you already agreed to. They have to leave before nine. At least one other set of parents has to come to help chaperone. And Jeff's family brings extra food and snacks."
"Thanks, Mom," Megan said with excitement as she practically leaped into her mom's arms with a hug. As she was doing so, Kelly was already texting the boys.
Within a half hour, the chaos that was a sleepover and pool party with five girls had been transformed into total anarchy with five girls and five boys. The noise and splashing around the pool seemed to increase by the minute as the youth partied.
As Natalya swam across the pool, a dark shape suddenly loomed above her, falling quickly. She glanced up just in time to see a boy, his arms clasped around his updrawn knees, plunge into the water and cause a massive splash. The wave crashed over her head, and she swallowed a fair bit of water. Gasping and sputtering, she turned to see a boy's head poke up from the water, an ear-to-ear grin on his face. "Got you!" he taunted Natty. It was Jeff Watson.
She frowned, but then quickly responded. She grasped his arm and pulled herself close to him. Releasing his arm, she put both hands on his shoulders and pulled her body up above him, forcing him to slip beneath the water.
Natty backed away a couple of feet and waited. Presently, Jeff pulled his head back above the surface. "Got you," she taunted right back.
Jeff splashed water in her face, and Natty countered. "Give up?" she asked with a laugh.
"Race you to the diving board," Jeff countered, unwilling to admit defeat, but still wanting to play. He had a slight head start.
Natty flipped her body and began to swim after him. The pool was too small for her to catch him, and there was a nagging voice in the back of her mind that said she shouldn't try to outdo Jeff at everything. Jeff won pretty easily.
"You're a pretty good swimmer," Jeff said as he rested for a moment at the pool's edge, his arms perched on the pool deck and his body half out of the water.
Natty allowed herself to float in the water, with one hand holding the pool's edge. "I told you, we spent a lot of time at the water park this summer."
"Yeah," Jeff said, smiling. "It must be a great water park."
"It is," Natty said with an enigmatic smile. "My cousin Jenny works there, and since I live with her, it's convenient."
"Oh." Jeff levered himself up out of the water. "I bet you can't dive as well as I can, though."
Natty laughed as she pulled herself up. "How about if we just see?"
Jeff started with a simple swan dive. Natty watched, suddenly worried. He was good. His position in the dive was nearly flawless, and his entry into the water was very clean. He surfaced and swam to the pool edge. "Beat that!" he said triumphantly.
Natty felt her competitive spirit taking over. She stuck her tongue out at him, playfully, and then climbed up onto the board. She stepped to the end, tentatively testing to see how much spring the board had, and then backed up. After drawing a deep breath, she stepped forward, bounced, and did a simple dive, but in the pike position. Her entry wasn't quite as clean as Jeff's had been, but she was satisfied.
"Not bad, for a beginner," Jeff taunted her as she climbed out of the water. He did a one-and-a-half forward dive, in the tuck position. Again, his form was good, but he over-rotated and splashed quite a bit on the entry.
Natty stepped to the board, aware that, by now, everyone else was watching. She thought of what she wanted to do, but as she looked around, she felt very self-conscious, and fear started to grip her.
"Come on, Natty," Megan urged her. "You can do it."
Natty closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and then opened her eyes again. She took a few steps, got a good bounce from the board, and did a one-and-a-half reverse dive in the pike position. Her entry was almost perfect. As she surfaced, she was grinning, and she pumped her fist in the air, signifying her delight with the dive.
As she looked around, though, her delight vanished. Jeff looked particularly crestfallen, and he slowly, quietly, rose from the pool and went inside the house. Suddenly, her victory seemed hollow.
Natty glided to the edge of the pool and pulled herself out. She knew Kelly, Megan, and Sydney were congratulating her on her dive, but she didn't feel like celebrating. She grabbed a towel from the chair, wrapped it around herself, and walked into the house.
Jeff was making a production out of pouring himself some soda. He glanced up at her, and Natty saw the hurt in his eyes. Until the diving contest, they'd been having fun, but by beating him diving, she'd bruised his male ego.
"You're good," Natty said softly. "Diving, I mean." Why was she trying to be nice to him? Were Kelly and Megan right? Was she 'hot' for him? She felt the turmoil of mixed emotions churning within her.
"You're better," Jeff said curtly.
"At the park, Coach Lisa held a lot of diving seminars this summer. There's also this kind of shy girl a little older than me - her name is Mel - and she gave me a lot of tips. She's really good." Natty shrugged. "I guess I just had a lot of practice."
"Are you going to dive on the high school team?" Jeff asked. He sounded a little less defensive, but only a little.
"Coach Lisa wants me to," Natty answered softly. She found herself slowly moving closer to Jeff, until she was beside him at the kitchen counter.
"At least the boys don't compete with the girls in diving," Jeff said. The hurt in his voice was still plain to hear.
"I'm ... sorry," Natty said softly. "I didn't mean to embarrass you ... in front of your friends."
"No big deal." Jeff tried to put on the macho male face, making light of the event. He wasn't really succeeding, though.
"Sometimes," Natty continued softly, "I just get carried away. Jenny would tell you that I'm too competitive." She looked down at the counter. "I ... don't want you ... to be mad at me."
"I'm ... not mad at you," Jeff answered slowly.
Natty looked up at him, and saw him gazing at her. Slowly, before she fully realized what he was doing, he bent forward, and then he kissed her.
Natty almost recoiled in shock at what Jeff was doing, but part of her felt warm and tingly when his lips touched hers. After only a momentary kiss, she felt breathless and, inwardly, excited. At the same time, she felt confused, and betrayed by her thoughts and hormones. She wanted him to kiss her again.
"Ahem." The voice behind them startled both Jeff and Natty. They turned, guilty looks on their faces. It was Megan's mom, standing in the doorway, leaning against the door frame with her arms crossed.
Jeff grabbed his soda and scurried from the room like a frightened puppy, leaving Natty in the kitchen with Megan's mom.
"It's not ..." she started to protest, wondering how she was going to talk her way out of this. In fact, she didn't even know how long Megan's mom had been watching her.
"It looked like he simply gave you a kiss to accept your apology," Megan's mom said with a bemused expression.
"I ... shouldn't have ...." Natty was confused, and tears started welling up in the corners of her eyes.
Megan's mom crossed the room and gave Natty a hug. "It's okay, dear," she said soothingly. "Girls your age start to discover that boys don't have 'cooties', and the same for boys. It's normal to be confused when you start liking a boy."
"But ...." Natty was worried, and still confused – more so than Megan's mom knew.
"Shh. I know it's got to be hard, growing into a young woman without a mother. I know Jenny does her best, but sometimes, she just doesn't understand, does she?"
Natty shook her head, confirming what Megan's mom suspected.
"I won't tell. Now dry your eyes, and go back out and have fun."
"So just where were you after you beat Jeff diving?" Kelly demanded. The other girls, sitting on the floor around the now-silent TV in the darkened family room, nodded their agreement with the demand.
Natty looked down, feeling both angry and embarrassed. She hadn't expected this subject to come up.
"Yeah," Lauren chimed in. "After Jeff went in the house, looking like a whipped puppy, you disappeared, too!"
"I ... I had to go to the restroom," Natty protested feebly.
"Sure," Kelly countered with more than a hint of disbelief in her voice. "When he came back out, he looked like he was the happiest guy in the world! What did you do, kiss and make up?"
Natty was glad the lights were dimmed; she hoped the others couldn't see her cheeks burning red. "No. I had to use the restroom."
"At least you apologized to him, didn't you?" Megan suggested.
Megan's mom had been standing silently in the shadows of a doorway, unseen to the girls as she listened in. She took this moment to step forward. "Megan, can you and Natalya go make sure all the dishes and trash are cleaned up from around the pool?"
"Aw, mom!" Megan protested. "We just got settled down."
"No 'buts', Megan," her mom said firmly. "We don't want that stray dog to start thinking our yard is the neighborhood diner, so go."
Grudgingly, Megan stood up and shuffled toward the patio. Natalya rose as well, and as she followed Megan, she saw Megan's mom give her a quick wink.
"Thanks," she whispered as she passed by the older woman.
She and Megan went around the patio, with Natty carrying a garbage bag, checking for trash and food scraps. Just as her mom had predicted, Megan found enough garbage that would have attracted the stray.
"So," Megan asked in private as the two girls continued their chore, "did he kiss you?"
"Megan!" Natty protested, "You're as bad as Kelly and Lauren!"
"Just between us," she repeated. She crossed her heart with one hand. "Promise!"
Natty thought for only the briefest of moments. Megan _was_ her very best friend, after all. "Yeah," she admitted softly.
"I knew it!" Megan crowed triumphantly. "I knew he kissed you, just from the way he acted when he came back outside." She grinned. "He's really got the hots for you!"
"I ... shouldn't have," Natty stammered, feeling her eyes moisten. She couldn't tell Megan the real reason – that until recently, she'd been a boy, and that it still didn't seem quite right for her to be kissing Jeff. At the same time, she felt a tingle inside her heart when she thought about Jeff kissing her.
"He _really_ likes you," Megan said, reaching out to hold Natty's hand in a friendly and reassuring way. "It's pretty obvious."
"Does he?" Natty's question and tone of voice betrayed her own interest in Jeff.
"Yeah." She sighed. "I wish there was a boy _that_ interested in me."
Natty held out the garbage bag for Megan to deposit a paper plate she'd retrieved from under the picnic table. "What do you think of Eric?" she asked simply.
"Eric?" Megan turned, open-mouthed with surprise.
"He's kind of quiet," Megan answered. "And he's kind of cute. But I don't think he even knows I exist."
Natty laughed. "You didn't notice that he was looking at you most of the time we were at Fun Zone? You didn't notice that he was showing off for you in the pool?"
"He was?" Megan seemed genuinely surprised – and delighted. "So, what was it like when Jeff kissed you?"
Natty realized that Megan was genuinely curious, and thus had probably never gotten a kiss from a boy. "You know when someone gives you a shock – how you can sometimes feel it through your whole body?"
"It's like a shock?" Megan seemed disappointed by the comparison.
"No, not like that," Natty quickly replied. "It's warm and tingly and ...," she felt a renewed thrill as she recalled the experience, "wonderful, and the feeling went through my whole body, like a shock does." She smiled. "It was as unexpected as a shock, too!"
"Maybe someday I'll know what it feels like," Megan said wistfully. She wasn't nearly as self-confident around boys as she was with her friends.
Natalya laughed. "You will. And probably sooner than you expect!" She suddenly realized how emotionally vulnerable she was if the other girls learned of her kiss. "You promised not to tell, right?"
Megan nodded solemnly. "I promised."
Natty gave her a hug. "Thanks."
Megan smiled. "What are best friends for?"
"You're kind of quiet today," Jenny said to Natalya as the two walked through the park, past the lagoon.
"I'm just tired," Natty replied. "Sleepover last night, remember?"
Jenny chuckled. "You've slept over at Megan's before and you weren't so tired, and you weren’t this quiet. What's up?" She turned off the main path toward one of the pump houses.
"Nothing much," Natty answered. She sounded nervous, and it was obvious.
"Something's going on," Jenny said. "I know when something's bothering you."
"No, it's nothing." Natty's words and tone were uncertain.
Jenny squatted down beside a pump. "Get me the three-quarter socket, and a three-quarter combination wrench." She examined the housing of the pump. "So was it something at the Fun Zone, or at the sleepover?"
Natty pulled the requested tools from Jenny's kit. Working with Jenny was, in her opinion, one of the best parts of living next to the park and having Jenny work here. Natty was already learning about wiring and electric motors and pumps. "Uh, both, kind of." She handed Jenny the socket and wrench.
"Thanks," Jenny acknowledged. She put the wrench on a bolt, and slipped the socket on the matching nut on the opposite side of the pump housing. "Hold the wrench, okay?"
"K," Natty replied. She already knew the drill; Jenny was going to open the pump housing, which meant that eight bolts had to be unbolted, which in turn meant that Natty would be counter-holding the wrench. It would take all her weight and then some against the wrench if the bolt was really tight; once, late in the summer, she'd been lifted off the floor like a rag doll while trying to hold the wrench.
With an audible crack, the nut broke free of its grip. "Next one," Jenny said tersely. She moved the socket, while Natty moved the wrench. "What happened?"
"Uh," Natty was clearly trying to stall, but unsuccessfully, "a boy is interested in me," she mumbled.
"Oh?" Jenny grimaced as she put her weight into the bolt, and it came free. "Next one."
"Yeah," Natty admitted as she moved her wrench. "Hold it a sec," she suddenly said as she adjusted the position of the wrench. "Okay."
"And?" Jenny grunted as she put her weight on the ratchet.
Natty shrugged. "You know how it is," she said, trying not to talk directly about the topic.
"I'm sure it's different for you," Jenny stammered. "Next bolt," she added.
"I'm confused," Natty finally admitted. "I mean, he's nice, and he's cute." She looked up suddenly. "I shouldn't be noticing that he's cute!" she protested.
"Yes, you should," Jenny said with a smile. "Grandmother said you'd have normal girl feelings, and starting to like boys is one of them."
"Yeah, but ...." Natty shook her head. "It's confusing."
Jenny grimaced as she cracked the last bolt free. "You've got to go with your feelings," she said as she wiped some sweat from her brow.
"But ... you don't know what it's like," Natty protested. She sat back, and looked like she was nearly in tears. "I'm ... I _was_ ... a boy! Now I ... kissed a boy!" she cried. "You got to grow up as a girl, and didn't have the ... change ... to deal with."
Jenny winced visibly. "Uh," she stammered, "Natty, that's not quite true."
Natty frowned. "You're not making sense."
Jenny sat back on her heels. "Natty, I know _exactly_ what you're going through ... with the change."
Natty's eyes widened. "You mean ...?"
Jenny nodded slowly. "You know your uncle Jim?"
"You're not his daughter?"
Jenny shook her head. "Grandmother gave me a chance to get a good honest job, to get my feet back on the ground." She sighed. "I ... got back thirty years of life."
"You're ... Uncle Jim?" Natty asked incredulously.
Jenny simply nodded as she started to disconnect the outlet pipe so she'd have room to open the pump.
"You ... got a better life – like me?" Natty asked slowly, her voice quavering with uncertainty.
"I got thirty years back," Jenny said. "So you see, I _do_ understand what you're going through."
"Except that you aren't attracted to boys," Natty observed.
"No," Jenny admitted. "I spent my whole life as Jim, wondering if I was gay or not. I never really was attracted to girls."
"So you don't understand how I feel with ... Jeff," Natty sounded sad, like her hopes of support and understanding had been dashed.
"I'm sorry, hon," Jenny said as she leaned over and gave Natty a hug. "I don't understand, and I can't help." She leaned back a bit, and tried to smile. " But I know someone who can."
"Anya," Jenny answered. "She's always made time to talk with you, hasn't she?"
"Yeah." Natty wiped her eye. "She's a friend."
"That'll help." Jenny turned back to the pump. "Now, let's get the new seal in this pump so we can get the ride back in service."
"Okay." Natty turned back to the toolbox. "Pry bar?" she asked.
Jenny smiled. "You're learning pretty quickly. Are you after my job, someday, maybe?"
Natty grinned. "You seem to like it."
"Yeah," Jenny agreed. She took the pry bar and started separating the pump housing. "I've got a pretty good life – now."
"Except for Melinda leaving," Natty offered timidly.
Jenny froze, her lip trembling. "Yeah, except for Melinda leaving."
Anya put down her phone and nodded to Jenny. "Okay, she's expecting me to meet her for lunch."
Jenny smiled nervously. "Thanks," she acknowledged.
Anya walked over and sat beside Jenny on the sofa. "Nervous?" she asked as she put her hand on Jenny's shoulder for reassurance.
Jenny nodded. "Yeah," she admitted. "We haven't talked since ...."
"It'll be okay," Anya said confidently. "Take as long as you need." She saw that Jenny was hesitant, and stalling. "Now go, before you're late," she urged.
Jenny nodded. With a final glance over her shoulder, she left the office building and strode toward the company pickup.
A few minutes later, she walked into the deli, pausing to speak to the hostess. The girl pointed to a booth, and, after thanking her, Jenny walked nervously toward the booth.
"Hi," she said meekly as she slid into the seat.
Melinda's eyes widened in surprise. "Hi," she said hesitantly. "I ... expected Anya."
Jenny nodded. "She ... kind of pushed me to talk to you."
"I hope you're glad that she did," Melinda suggested.
"It was hard," Jenny admitted. "But ... I need to tell you that I'm ... sorry, and that I hope you can forgive me for being stupid and jealous."
Melinda felt her eyes watering. "Oh, Jenny," she started.
"I miss you," Jenny sobbed, "and I need you." She wiped at her tears. "I was so stupid!"
Melinda reached across the table and put her hands on Jenny's. "Of course I forgive you," she said simply. "I missed you so much, too!"
"I ... was so jealous," Jenny admitted, "because I was feeling ... guilty about you getting the lifetime pass."
"Jenny," Melinda said softly, "you have _nothing_ to feel guilty about."
"I felt like ... you were leaving me," Jenny continued. "You had so much fun at the summer institute, and you're spending time studying with your friends. I felt like ... you're growing, and I'm not, and I'm slowly losing you." She looked down, ashamed of what she'd had to admit.
"Jenny, I love _you_, and no-one else!" Melinda insisted. "I love you for who you are, not what you know or don't know, or can do! That's not changing!"
"But ... when you graduate, you'll get job offers from all over, and ...."
Melinda suddenly understood. "Jenny," she said, waiting until Jenny looked up at her. "Listen to me. If, and it's a very big if, we ever part, I won't regret getting the pass. It was for me, not for you. But I don't _want_ to ever part. I'd take a job picking up garbage at the park to stay with you!"
"Shhh. Grandmother let my mom know what had happened, and Mom and I have had a lot of talks in the past few days. I did it for _me_, because of who I was." She paused, trying to sort her thoughts and words. "I'm happier – mostly. You don't have any reason to feel guilty."
"The first time I ... changed, Grandmother helped me understand a lot about who I was – inside, that the outside didn't matter. I guess that's what freed me to change into what I really was inside – even if I didn't know it."
Jenny wiped her eyes. "I _want_ to believe you," she said softly, "but ... the way you act around your new friends," she looked down, feeling uncertain, "I feel like I’m being shut out."
Melinda nodded. "I think I understand. And maybe I was being insensitive to you when I was dealing with my new friends. I'm sorry if I made you feel like I was paying more attention to my friends. I need to be more attentive to you, so you know that you're first in my thoughts and in my heart."
"I wish I hadn't said ... some of what I said," Jenny sobbed. "I wish we hadn't had the fight. I miss you."
"I miss you, too." Melinda wiped at her tears with one hand, while the other rested on Jenny's hands on the table.
"I want you to ... I _need_ you to move back in. I can't raise Natty without you. I can't be happy without you!" Jenny's tears were flowing freely. "I love you, and I want you with me."
"Are you sure about this?" Melinda was pouring water into the glasses at the table; it was set for four people,
"I'm sure," Jenny said with confidence. "If he's your friend, then I can at least get to know him so I'm not jealous."
Melinda smiled and gave Jenny a quick kiss on her cheek. "Thanks," she purred.
"If having company is what it takes to have you cook like this," Natty called over her shoulder from the computer desk, "I vote we have Melinda's friends over every night!"
"Are you done with your homework?" Jenny replied sharply.
"Just about," Natty called back, a little less enthusiastically.
"So you can take a break and help get the food to the table, right?" Jenny said with a wink toward Melinda.
"Aw," Natty answered, expectedly, as she shuffled from the computer desk to the dining area. "I have to do this every night!" She trudged into the kitchen and got some napkins. "I wish I had a little brother or sister so I didn't have to do everything!"
Melinda laughed. "We could fix that," she said, raising her eyebrows suggestively toward Jenny, "but then you'd have to add a few years of baby diapers and mess until the baby was old enough to help with chores."
"No thanks," Natty frowned at Melinda.
When the doorbell rang, Melinda and Natty had their hands full, so Jenny turned to the door. "I'll get it," she said sweetly. Jenny took a quick glance through the security peephole, and then opened the door. "Hi," she said, trying to continue sounding sweet. "You must be Paul. I've heard a lot about you."
"And you must be Jenny," Paul answered warmly. "Melinda doesn't talk about anything _but_ you."
Jenny gave Paul a quick hug in greeting, and led him into their apartment. He was carrying a basket of flowers and a bottle of wine.
Melinda set down the pan she'd been carrying and greeted Paul with a hug. "You shouldn't have," she said, chiding him as she saw the flowers and wine.
Paul smiled. "I know, but, well, I figured that a nice centerpiece would brighten the table, and my grandpa taught me that you can't have dinner without wine!"
Melinda took the floral arrangement and handed it to Natty, who placed it in the center of the table. It was a colorful, summer arrangement, with two candles in the center of assorted mums, carnations, asters, and other cheery flowers. Jenny noted that there were no roses or other flowers that could be interpreted as romantic.
"And since you wouldn't tell me what you were cooking," Paul teased Melinda, "I had to guess at the wine. I hope that a red wine is okay."
Jenny took the bottle when Paul offered it to her. She whistled at the label. "Are you trying to impress us or something? This is a pretty fancy Cabernet!"
Paul laughed. "Truthfully, my cousin Sam manages a liquor store. I get it at a big discount."
Jenny took the bottle to the kitchen to open it. "Good, because I wouldn't want you to go to a lot of expense on our behalf! We're pretty easy to impress."
"I just put the rolls in," Melinda explained, "so we've got a few minutes before dinner. How about a little wine before we eat?"
Jenny smiled. "That's what I was thinking, too, but since I didn't know your dinner plans, I couldn't tell how long until everything was done." She inhaled the aromas in the kitchen. "It smells wonderful, though." After pouring three glasses of wine, she carried them out to Melinda and Paul, and then got her own glass. "Every time Melinda cooks, I'm in heaven. She's a fantastic cook."
Paul laughed. "You should have seen her with Monique and Nicole in Paris! The three of them got going in the kitchen, and I was the only one to taste and eat! They wanted me to pick who was the best cook!"
"And I won, too, didn't I?" Melinda said confidently.
"I honestly couldn't tell. There was so much, I lost track of who cooked what!" Paul answered with a chuckle.
"They're not here, so you could at least have lied to make me feel better," Melinda protested with a wry grin.
After a bit, the timer rang, and Melinda scurried into the kitchen. A moment later, she called out, "Everything's ready. Natty, can you help me set the food out so we can eat?"
"Mmm," Jenny purred as she inhaled the delightful aromas. "What's the treat for the night?"
Melinda removed the lid with a flourish. "Hungarian paprika chicken, with wild rice."
"You see what I have to put up with?" Jenny asked Paul, teasing Melinda.
After they'd eaten, including the dessert Melinda had made, Natalya started to clean up the dishes but Jenny interrupted her. "I'll get the dishes tonight, hon," she said. "Why don't you go finish your homework so you can talk to Megan or watch TV?"
After Natalya retired to her bedroom, Paul, Melinda, and Jenny moved to the living area. Paul was very obvious in sitting in a wing chair so that Melinda and Jenny sit together on one of the sofas. Jenny smiled to herself at the way Paul was making certain that she wouldn't get even the slightest hint of romantic attraction to Melinda on his part.
"I take it you had a lot of fun this summer, too?" Jenny started the conversation.
"It was very busy," Paul said, "but it was worth it."
Melinda noted a tone of uneasiness to Paul's words, like something wasn't quite right. "You're still having a hard time about things, aren't you?"
Paul's eyes narrowed, and he glanced uneasily at Jenny. "I'm ... not sure," he said hesitantly.
Melinda smiled. "Have you asked Kathleen out yet? What'd she say?"
Paul's expression fell. "I ... couldn't. She's so beautiful, and I'm ...." He looked up suddenly. "Why are you bringing this up now?"
Melinda reached out and patted his hand. "It's because we're friends," she said.
"How is it that you can talk so easily with Melinda and I," Jenny asked, "but you can't talk to the girl you are attracted to?"
"I don't know," Paul said softly. "It's ... different."
"How?" Jenny asked simply. "She's a woman, just like the two of us."
"I guess I've always been kind of shy around girls," Paul replied. "I get tongue-tied and don't know what to say."
"But you did fine at the institute this summer. I don't see you having problems talking to other women on campus," Melinda observed.
"I don't know how to act, or what to say, around a woman I'm attracted to," Paul corrected himself. "I never have." He shook his head slowly. "I wish I understood women better, so I'd know how to approach her."
Jenny turned to Melinda, a curious smile on her face, and her eyebrows raised. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Melinda nodded. "If you _really_ want to know how a woman thinks and feels, Paul, I think we can arrange something."
Paul glanced at Jenny, and then at Melinda. "You're not making any sense."
"It's a three-day weekend, right?" Melinda asked.
"Yeah, but ...."
"If you _really_ want to understand a woman, then meet us tomorrow next door, at the entrance gate of the water park,"
Paul tried to understand, but failed. "I don't get it."
Melinda smiled. "I'll call a couple of the girls to come, and we'll make a day of it, okay?"
Paul frowned. "I don't know. You won't ask Kathleen to come, will you?"
"If I know Melinda," Jenny grinned, "and I do, then she _will_ invite Kathleen, and you'll have a chance to get to know her without her worrying about you being attracted to her."
"Trust us," Melinda added. "You'll have a great time, you'll get to understand women, and you'll get to know Kathleen. What more do you want?"
Paul sighed, and then he nodded slowly. "Okay. I'll meet you tomorrow. Nine?"
A while later, after Paul had left, Jenny wrapped her arms around Melinda's waist. "I'm sorry I didn't trust you," she said apologetically.
Melinda gave Jenny a quick kiss. "And with Nicole and Monique?"
Jenny nodded slowly. "Yeah, I guess so." She let her gaze drop. "I sometimes feel ... insecure. Like you're growing and going places and meeting people, and I'm not."
Melinda lifted Jenny's chin. "Next time I get a trip somewhere, we'll make arrangements for Anya or Liz to take care of Natty, and you can come with me for a getaway." She kissed Jenny again.
"And just so you don't worry," Melinda added, "Nicole is engaged, and Monique is steadily dating – guys. Neither has any interest in me, except as a friend, and the same is true for me."
"Thanks – for clearing that up." Jenny sighed. "I feel bad for doubting you."
Melinda chuckled. "Mom said that you and I would have our arguments and fights. She said the most important thing is that we remember that we love each other, and always work through the problems."
"Hamburgers are done!" Natalya called from the balcony, where she was cooking burgers on a small grill. Expertly, she put the burgers onto a plate, arranged neatly as if the display would be judged.
"Everything's ready here, too," Jenny said as she glanced over the table. Everything was ready – a basket held warm hamburger buns, the condiments were arranged around the center, and a bowl of fresh potato salad. Three places were set around the table.
Behind Jenny, in the kitchen, Melinda was finishing pouring lemonade into glasses. "I love it when everything comes together so well."
As Natty set the plate of burgers on the table, Melinda set down the drinks. Then the two joined Jenny sitting.
It took a few minutes for the girls to prepare their custom burgers, and then Jenny took a bite. "Mmm. This is good. You're turning into as good a cook as Melinda," she complimented Natty.
"Thanks," Natty said humbly. "But I doubt I'll ever be as good as she is."
"You'll probably be a _much_ better chef than I am," Melinda replied with a smile.
After a few bites, Melinda noticed that Natty seemed to be fidgeting a bit. "Okay, Natty," she challenged the girl, "what's up?"
Natalya winced visibly. "Uh, nothing," she stammered.
Jenny shook her head. "I'm not buying it. What's bugging you?"
Natty looked at Melinda, her eyes pleading for support. "Since there's no school on Monday, some of us were going to get together at Fun Zone – if it's okay with you."
Jenny's eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. "I figured you girls would spend the day at the park."
"Well, we might – in the morning," Natty admitted softly, "but, well, ...."
"Ah," Jenny understood. "The boys will be there, too, right?"
Natty looked down and nodded. "Yeah,"
"I see," Jenny sounded very skeptical.
"Please?" Natty begged, looking up and showing the puppy-dog pleading eyes.
"I don't know," Jenny said slowly. "You're kind of young to be hanging out with boys, aren't you?"
Natty looked at Melinda, hoping to get some moral support. But Melinda was biting her tongue, mindful of the last time she and Jenny had disagreed about what was good for Natty.
Melinda looked at Jenny, and saw that she was torn. She wanted to be a good parent to Natty, but she was on unknown territory, and it showed in her expression.
"What do you think," Jenny pointedly asked Melinda. "What did your parents do with your little sister?"
Melinda breathed a sigh of relief. "As long as it's during the day, they would have let Beth go. After all, she's growing and getting interested in boys, so ...."
Jenny closed her eyes for a moment. "Yeah, that's what I figured." She shook her head slightly. "You know I don't have any experience with this."
Melinda laughed. "Neither do I." She glanced at Natalya.
"Don't look at me," Natty chuckled. "I'm new to this girl thing, too!"
"Why can't the whole group get together for a day at the park?" Jenny asked.
"Jen," Natty chided her, "if ... Jeff goes to the park, what's the point? He won't be a boy!"
"And you like it when he kisses you, right?" Melinda suggested.
Natalya's blush was all the answer that was needed.
Jenny sighed. "I know that you've got to grow up and become your own young lady. It's just ... hard. I don't know what you need, sometimes, and I don't know what to do."
Natalya looked at Jenny, her eyes soft and sympathetic. "Maybe you need to trust me to not do anything stupid, and to talk to someone when I'm confused."
Melinda looked at Jenny, offering a supporting expression.
"It's going to be hard," Jenny admitted softly. "But I promise I'll try."
"We can't protect her from everything," Melinda acknowledged. "She's going to grow up, and we can't control everything she does."
"I know," Jenny said. She looked at Melinda. "And I promise that I'll listen to your advice, and not try to be the one in charge."
Melinda put her hand on Jenny's atop the table. "Thank you," she said simply. "And if you forget, I'm sure Natty and I can remind you."
Jenny nodded. "I guess that's what the boss meant when she said it would be challenging," she guffawed suddenly.
"As long as we remember the important things first, like we love each other," Melinda suggested.
"And that we're family," Natty added with a smile, "even if it's a very strange one!"
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