Virtue and Valor

Virtue and Valor

Darren Conners was smart, articulate, contrarian, and — almost invariably — wrong. Naturally, I liked him. “I don’t think that’s fair at all,” I said, shaking my head sharply. “Tolkien didn’t despise learning, he was just awake to its dangers.”

“Can you expand on that, Drake?” Professor Somers asked.

“He was an Oxford don, the recognized expert on Beowulf, of all things. Esoteric stuff. If he had despised learning, he would have hated himself. There’s zero evidence for that.”

“There’s evidence all through the text!” Darren interjected.

Professor Somers held up a hand. “Hold tight, Darren. Let Drake finish.” The professor’s skill as a traffic cop was often required to moderate the spirited discussion in his 200-level seminar, The Academy of Fantasy: Variations of Virtue and Valor in Tolkien and Lewis.

The course helped fulfill a requirement for my English Literature degree, but I would have found a way to take it even if I was getting a degree in physics. There were only fifteen students in the class and we were all geeks. It was probably fair to say I was the biggest geek of all, if you are measuring on the SciFi/Fantasy geek scale. And in that classroom, for three blessed hours each week, that was the only scale that mattered.

“The text evidence is far more nuanced,” I said, responding to Darren’s objection. “Certainly he uses characters like Fëanor, Denethor, Saruman and Celebrimbor to show the dangers of the pursuit of knowledge when it’s not balanced with understanding, with wisdom. You might even throw Aulë in with that grouping. But Gandalf, Elrond and Faramir are all counterpoints, and if Aulë is in the first group, Yvanna should be in the second.”

Paige Dupree jumped in before Darren could formulate his rebuttal. “Even you’ve got to admit, Drake, that Tolkien had no use for what we might call academic learning. Think of the hapless chief herbalist of Minas Tirith, who knew all the ancient names for healing remedies, but didn’t know where to find any. Or the king’s knights in Farmer Giles of Ham, so wrapped up with heraldry and nonsense that they were surprised by the dragon.” Paige was a unicorn – a really good looking girl who was also a high geek and proud of it.

“I’d certainly agree that Tolkien has no use for pretension – but that’s not confined to academia,” I replied. “For instance, the Master Cook in Smith of Wooton Major — Nokes – is pompous, just like the herbalist in Return of the King, but he’s also ignorant. No-one would think of him as ‘learned.’” I enjoyed sparring with Paige in class, but outside of it, her vibrant personality and physical beauty left me feeling awkward and tongue-tied.

I loved the class. I had already read the primary source material for both authors multiple times; that was true of most of the people in the class, with the exception of the four or five who hadn’t encountered C.S. Lewis’ less-well-known space trilogy. I had also read some of the secondary works as well. But because everyone was both a geek and a fan, discussions were always fun.

I was on my way out fifteen minutes later when Paige stopped me. “Hey, Drake, wait up!”

I stopped, suddenly uncertain.

“You heading to another class, or do you have time for some coffee?”

“Uhh . . . no. I mean, yes. Yes to the coffee. No, I don’t have another class,” I stammered. Feeling, well, awkward. And tongue-tied.

Paige gave me a look that was hard to interpret. Friendly? Exasperated? Conspiratorial? Maybe some of all of them, in equal measure. I don’t know.

“Drake,” she finally said, “we’re going to go to Kitchener’s, we’re going to have some coffee, and we’re going to talk until you stop being nervous around me. I’m the same person, inside class and out!”

I’m sure I was blushing, and I didn’t manage a response before she took me firmly by the elbow and started walking away from the center of campus and towards the center of town.

I could only think of one way to redeem myself – the truth might actually have some utility in this embarrassing circumstance. “I’m sorry. I’ve always been shy around pretty girls, and you’re beautiful.”

She gave me a sideways look and said, “That’s either bad flattery or it’s very sweet. And I think I know you well enough to rule out the first option. You’re not that kind of an operator.”

“No,” I agreed with a chuckle. “I’m lucky if I can operate a cell phone.”

Paige had a musical laugh. Because, of course she did. On top of everything else.

She managed to divert me by talking about class, and once we were deep in the land of geek I was comfortable and even self-confident. I’m no Oxford don, but I know my shit when it comes to Tolkien and Lewis.

By the time we arrived at the outdoor seating area at Kitchener’s, our discussion had turned to Tolkien and Lewis’ views of the relative merits of virtues that are typically viewed as feminine or masculine. Paige was saying, “Their heroes consistently show pity, mercy, and skill at healing. I’d say Lewis was far more likely to simply assign those characteristics to his female characters. Tolkien was more daring. For example . . . .”

I touched her arm. “Hold that thought; let’s order first.”

“Right!” She looked inside and said “Excellent –The Prince is making the coffee today!”

I gave her a puzzled look, but stepped inside and up to the counter. “Salaam alykum, Hamza,” I said to the tall Moroccan at the espresso machine.

He returned my smile, gleaming white teeth in a spare, ink-black face. “Good morning, Drake.” He was friendly, but, as always, very formal. “Your pronunciation is definitely improving. Salaam alykum to you, too. And to your friend.”

We ordered our drinks and paid Jack, another regular who had the register. “Drake! Good to see you! And Paige, too!” Jack had a great smile.

Three minutes later we were sitting outside with 16 ounces of coffee. “Prince?” I asked Paige, making it a question.

The Prince,” she replied, correcting me. “Everyone calls him that — he just seems like he ought to be in a palace, you know. Regal.” She gave me a look, then quirked a half-smile. “But naturally, you don’t call him that.”

“I’d never heard it. But . . . no. I don’t think I would. Hamza doesn’t have much use for princes.”

She nodded slowly, giving me a thoughtful, appraising look. “I’ll remember that, next time.”

We got over that awkwardness like any good pair of geeks would, by returning to our purely academic discussion.

Paige elaborated on her earlier argument. “Maybe the best example of what I’m talking about is the comparison between Boromir and Faramir. Boromir has all of the classic male characteristics, both good and bad. He’s strong, decisive, courageous, self-assured, headstrong, ambitious, and arrogant. But he fails, while Faramir, whose more nuanced, more feminine nature alienates his father, passes the test.”

“Maybe.” I wasn’t convinced, though. “But remember, Faramir also was a war leader, with everything that goes with that. He had to excel at both. He was allowed to have that gentler side — that more feminine side, if you want to look at it that way — only because he also adhered to the masculine ideal. Same’s true of Aragorn. And, to be fair to Lewis, he did something similar with Edmund.”

“That argument doesn’t really work for Elrond, though. He’s consistently portrayed as a healer.”

I shook my head. “In the main text of the Lord of the Rings, sure. But he was thousands of years old by then. He was Gil-Galad’s second-in-command throughout the Second Age, and had an independent command in Eriador several times.”

Paige was about to respond when she checked herself, cocked her head and said, “Okay, let’s say that’s fair. But what about YOU? If you were writing the story, would Faramir or Elrond have to be a war leader? What sort of characters would come out looking good? And which wouldn’t?”

“Me?” I said. “Why . . . I mean. What does it matter?” I was stammering again.

“Drake,” Paige said, “It matters because you matter.”

I hoped I didn’t look as dumbfounded as I was feeling. I closed my gaping mouth, took a deep breath and asked the first question that popped into my head. “Why do I matter?”

“Why are you so convinced that you don’t?” she countered. “You’re a nice, decent person. Always polite. Seriously brainy. Smartest guy – or girl – in the room. Even I’ll admit that.” She shot me a grin and added, “Much as it pains me. But you never rub anyone’s nose in it. When you’re talking about things you know, you’re articulate, thoughtful, persuasive – even passionate. Why isn’t that enough?”

“Because it never has been,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. I tried to take it back. “I’m sorry, that was . . . “

She cut me off by saying, “Heartfelt. Now, Drake: tell me why you said it. What did you mean?”

I stared at her, unable to formulate a response. She reached over and touched my wrist gently.

“I’m right here. I’m not going to run away. Tell me why you don’t think you matter.” Her eyes – kind, golden eyes – held me gently.

I tried to answer Paige’s question as I would if it involved a character in a story. Or maybe a person in real life, so long as it was someone else. Anyone else. “Because, like Tolkien and Lewis, I value love, compassion, kindness, mercy, service. And I don’t think . . . .” I couldn’t finish the sentence. I just sat there, trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t invite ridicule.

Paige said, “No-one thinks less of men who have those qualities, Drake. You have to know that.”

No, I couldn’t hide behind a literary analogy. Paige was too sharp. But I suddenly, and very uncharacteristically, felt an overwhelming desire to just be open about my desires. Her steady, gentle gaze gave me courage.

I took the plunge. “I know. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not remotely ‘masculine’ as our society understands it. I disagree with society on that, but I’m just one guy. I don’t make the rules. And that’s why I don’t matter.”

“But YOU think you’re right, and society’s wrong?”

I hunted for the trap, the unkindness, that might be in her question.

I couldn’t find it.

“Yes,” I said simply. “I do. There’s nothing wrong with traditionally masculine virtues or aesthetics, but they shouldn’t be the measure of a man’s value, any more than femininity, as currently understood, should be the measure of a woman’s.”

“Do other people have to agree with you, for you to matter?”

I thought about this one too, turning it this way and that, before answering, “In theory, no; in reality . . . it’s hard to sustain a position against the weight of a whole society’s expectations.”

“Eowyn did,” she responded, “when she dressed like a warrior and went to fight the Witch King. Defying the conventions was part of what made her heroic. You don’t dress like any guy I know. So why aren’t you?”

My look today was as androgynous as usual. Mid-length hair, a lime-green tank covered by a checkered flannel shirt – unbuttoned – and jeans that were pristine, tapered, and pretty tight. Nothing designed for women, but for sure, seriously not typical for a guy. In another world, Paige’s question might have made sense. But in this one?

“You KNOW why.”

She leaned back and regarded me levelly. “Spell it out for me, Drake.”

“Because a woman putting on war gear and taking a man’s part is SEEN as heroic. A man who dresses in a neutral way isn’t, and a man that dresses or acts like a woman is seen as flat-out pathetic.”

“That only makes sense if women, and women’s roles, are inferior. Do you think that’s true?” she challenged.

“I guess I’d say the relative value of the virtues we associate with men and women are dependent on circumstance. For instance, Tolkien is describing an all-out war — an existential struggle of good and evil. The traditional masculine virtues of courage, sacrifice, decisiveness, pure physical strength and military skill were necessarily paramount.”

“Nonsense! The entire story arc of the trilogy revolves around rejection of the masculine characteristics of power, control, and dominance — not just the ring, but the temptation to simply oppose force with force. The physically weak hobbits, especially Sam, who’s always shown as caring and supportive, are the heroes of the story. Just like Bilbo is the hero in The Hobbit and Lucy is the real hero of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe! In fact . . . .”

She was about to go on, equally impassioned, when she stopped herself, chuckled ruefully, and wagged a finger at me. “I see what you did there, Drake, and it almost worked! Don’t try to wiggle away. Let’s stay focused on our society. Here. Today. Do you think women’s traditional virtues — or aesthetics, for that matter — are inferior in our world?

“I don’t. But, Paige, don’t you see? That’s why my view doesn’t matter. Because our society does, in every imaginable way! Even girls aspire to be masculine now. Like turning Galadriel into some sort of action figure. Whatever.”

She grimaced at my reference to the new Amazon series set in the Second Age of Middle Earth. We both had strong opinions about it.

But I shook my head. “I mean, it’s fine. Really. It’s wonderful that girls feel free to explore traditionally masculine roles, virtues and aesthetics. But if boys aren’t equally free to aspire to be feminine, it sends the message that feminine virtues and aesthetics are only for women who can’t cut it. That leaves us completely unbalanced as a society. Without the feminine virtues — without caring, compassion, nurturing, mercy — masculinity becomes toxic.”

“I think you’re underestimating how much “power girls” still have to exemplify feminine aesthetic ideals. So long as you’re hot, you can do whatever you like.” She brushed her hand as if dismissing a quibble. “But even with that caveat, isn’t your point a pretty good principle to stand on?”

“Sure,” I replied. “But again, I seem to be a minority of one in my view.”

“And that’s not good enough?”

I couldn’t meet her eyes. But . . . no, it’s not enough.

“Would it matter to you if one other person agreed with you?” She added softly, “if I agreed with you?”

Her fingers were still on my wrist and her warm eyes still held mine. I thought of all the characters I had read about, in all the books that had been my solace and refuge for as long as I could remember. What would Beren say, or Thingol, or Aragorn?

“With you at my side, Paige,” I said, “I would stand against the whole world.”

“Now,” she said with a truly lovely smile, “that sounds like progress! So tell me . . . what social rules would you break, if I was there to back you up? What would you like to do? Be concrete.”

Again, I saw no sign of mockery. She seemed to be genuine. But this was really where the rubber met the road. Would she REALLY accept me, if she knew? How much did I have to lose?

Desperately trying to control my stammer, I started with the easy things. The safe things. “I would smile at people and not feel self-conscious. I would tell people how I feel . . . not just what I think. I’d hug people when they were sad – or when they were celebrating.” A bit more daringly, I said, “I’d cry if I felt like crying, and I wouldn’t care who saw me.”

The more I said, the more I wanted to say. My nervousness disappeared as feelings swirled and swelled like a spring flood, crashing into the dam I had so carefully built to contain my feelings, overtopping it completely.

“I’d dance with my whole body and put my heart into it. Sing, for the pure joy of singing! Watch a sappy rom-com in my PJs with a big bowl of popcorn. Order froofy drinks in a bar. I might throw on a dress, just to feel pretty. Paint my nails, do my hair, and go to class. Why not?” I threw up my hands. “God! I’d be free, you know? The conventions we use to define what’s right for a guy are just so suffocating!”

Her expression, thank God, didn’t change. Instead, she said, “I can see where they would be. Everything you mentioned certainly seems like a positive good, or in the case of the aesthetic choices, harmless. Not sure why people make such a big deal about it. But I’m curious: do you think you’re trans?”

Something deep inside me relaxed – an emotional coil that had been wound tight for so long I’d forgotten what it felt like NOT to feel the tension. I couldn’t believe I had bared my soul like that, but . . . she hadn’t run, or scoffed. Or even laughed. She’d just asked a follow-up question that was, under the circumstances, pretty reasonable. It’s one I’d asked myself often enough when I was younger.

I shook my head firmly. “No, I’m male. I don’t hate my body or feel misgendered. I just disagree with society about what flows from the fact of my biological sex.”

“That’s what I thought.” In response to my raised eyebrow, she said, “I don’t really get a female vibe from you. Probably because you seem to be such a ‘head’ type, I guess. Thinking all the time. Abstract. Logical. Aesthetics, of course, are a completely different matter.”

“Yeah, they are.” I sighed. “But aesthetics matter. Women aren’t attracted to ‘pretty’ men. And I can’t gripe about it. After all, I’m not attracted to women who present a masculine aesthetic.”

“I assume you aren’t attracted to men either,” she said.


Again she nodded. “Yeah, I figured you wouldn’t have been so tongue-tied if you weren’t attracted to girls.” I blushed again and she just squeezed my hand and said, “It’s okay. Really, it’s sweet.”

She cocked her head and gave me a thoughtful look. “I’m curious, though, whether your shyness was just generic, or did it have something to do with me?”

“I’m always shy around pretty girls. The prettier they are, the more tongue-tied I get.” I looked at her and tried a smile, and hoped it wasn’t gruesome. “In your case, it’s a wonder I can talk at all.”

She laughed, drank some coffee, and just looked at me with those amazing eyes.

But as the silence stretched, I started to panic. She wasn’t saying anything. Is she waiting for me to do something? Should I ask her out? But, she might just be friendly! I tried to cover my panic by taking a sip from my coffee, but in my nervousness I squeezed the paper cup too hard, the lid popped off, and coffee sloshed onto the table. God damn it!

As I tried to get the lid back on and mop up the mess with the useless little paper napkins coffee shops always have, she said, “Relax, Drake. You don’t need to do anything. We’re good. But . . . Would you like to go to a movie together? Or maybe go out for dinner? Sometime? It doesn’t have to be today.” She sounded uncertain. . . even, oddly, vulnerable.

“You’re serious?” I asked. “After what I told you? This . . . this isn’t . . . .”

I couldn’t go on. She said, gently, “a joke? A trick? No. I wouldn’t do something like that. To anyone, much less to you.”

“But . . . why?”

“Why what?” She looked puzzled.

“Why would you want to go out with me? God, Paige! Look at you!”

“Umm . . . I do know what I look like. So?” She shook her head, puzzled. “Sorry, I’m just not following you.”

“Really? You’re gorgeous! How could you possibly . . . I mean. Jesus! Seriously?”

“Can’t you just accept that I’m attracted to you?”

My mouth was hanging open and I snapped it closed. The spilled coffee was forgotten. “Paige, I . . . I’m sorry. I’m just dealing with a lot of years of rejections, from girls not half as amazing as you are. Not a quarter! I’m . . . I mean, I’ll do better. I’ll try.” I stopped stammering and ground my explanations to a stop, convinced that I had completely screwed everything up.

She looked momentarily exasperated, then thoughtful. The silence stretched again, but this time she grew very serious. Apparently reaching a decision, she said, “You aren’t the only person with bad memories, Drake.” All the warmth had left her voice and it sounded, suddenly, bloodless. Almost chilling.

She put her coffee down carefully. Precisely. I became aware that her hands were trembling. It was almost unnoticeable, and she covered it by twining her fingers together. “Okay,” she said, her voice low. “You trusted me, so I’ll trust you. I was raped when I was sixteen. A sophomore.” Her fingers were clenched so tight they were turning white.

“Oh, my God! Paige!” I managed to keep my voice down, but I was shocked to my core. This sunny, vibrant, intelligent woman . . . ?

She kept going, every word sounding like it was dragged up from hell itself by brute and uncompromising force. “It was an older boy – I knew him – and he got off. He said, she said. You know how it is. I haven’t . . . I mean, ever since then, I haven’t been able to even think about dating. Guys, that is. I tried, with other women, but . . . but I guess I don’t hit that way. I wish I did. So, I figured, fine. I just won’t. I’ve got friends. Maybe . . . maybe that’s enough.”

She looked up, and her beautiful eyes were filled with remembered pain and present anguish. “But God, Drake. I still want more, don’t you see? I don’t want that asshole to ruin my life forever! But I need . . . I need someone who can understand. Who can let me set the pace. Someone who can be strong enough to help me, but wise enough to give me space when I need it.”

In the face of her hurt and her need, my navel gazing seemed positively juvenile. “Paige,” I said softly. “My hand is here, if holding it will help.” I put it on the table, palm up. An invitation. “And I’m here, if my being here will help. As a friend, always. As for more . . . well. Let’s just take that as it comes. Only when — only if — you’re ready.”

She was silent a long time, just looking at me. Weighing my words. Slowly, the haunted look began to fade from her eyes. She unclenched her fingers and brought her right hand to rest gently on my upturned palm. “Thank you,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper.

I simply sat, and held her hand, and tried my very hardest to just be present for her. To speak with my touch. With my eyes. And, even with those, to speak softly. Very softly.

People came and went, and I paid no attention to them. Their conversations, their laughter, faded into white noise, like the buzzing of bees or the sound of highway traffic, heard from a distance. I might have been Elwë Singolo, lost in the glade of Nan Elmoth, dead to the world outside as centuries passed. All of my attention was focused on Paige.

On my friend, who was hurting.

The sun was pleasantly warm in the outdoor area – a bit of Indian Summer. Half her face was sun-drenched, the other half in shadow. I was aware, as never before, of every line of her features. The set of her eyes, the delicate arch of her brows. The pale, pale blush on her cheeks, and the shape of her full lips. The lightest of breezes caused her bangs to flutter. From across the table, I was aware of her scent — fresh, clean, and perfect. What was it? I didn’t know.

After what felt like a very long time, she said, “You see? I don’t know many people — much less, any men — who could have just sat here with me like that. Who wouldn’t try to fix whatever’s wrong with me. You see people. Listen to them.” She smiled softly. “And you don’t even understand why I’m attracted to you?”

I shook my head. “No, I really don’t. If you are, I’m astonished.” But I returned her smile and added, “and glad, of course. Very, very glad.”

Just then we were interrupted by a petite young woman with feathery, raven-black hair and a shy smile. “I’m sorry to intrude. You both looked so . . . I don’t know — focused? — just then. I hope you don’t mind, but you were sitting so still I couldn’t resist sketching you. Normally I just keep these in my sketchpad, but I wanted you to have it.” She put the sketch down on the table between us – mercifully, far from my coffee spill!

I looked at it and gaped. “Oh . . . my . . . How extraordinary!” I had just spent an eternity looking at Paige’s perfect face, and there it was, breathtaking, captured in amazing detail with an economy of strokes.

The expressions, the posture, were all ours, caught in our moment of intense and wordless communion. But the setting and attire were all done in a high fantasy style. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she’d drawn a picture of Aragorn and Arwen at Rivendell. “How did you know . . . ?”

She blushed. “You were kind of having a big Lord of the Rings discussion when you walked in. I loved those movies – the scenery and the costumes were just so amazing.”

“It’s stunning.” Paige’s voice was filled with wonder. “I never saw myself like that . . . but, wow. You sure captured how I see Drake.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed, remembering. “You must be Teri — Jack’s girlfriend!”

For an instant she looked strangely frightened, but then she smiled. It was an interesting thing to watch — tentatively at first, then breathtakingly bright. “Yeah. Yeah, I am!”

To Paige, I said, “Jack was talking to me just the other day — raving about his amazing girlfriend’s art.” Turning my attention back to Teri, I said, “You should have heard him! But he mentioned that you sketch people here sometimes.”

She bobbed her head, self-consciously. “Sometimes. It’s . . . I guess it’s just my thing.”

Paige rose gracefully and took Teri’s hands. “Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s beautiful. Will you join us? Once Drake’s got his coffee cleaned up” — she shot me a teasing smile — “we’ll have plenty of room.”

Teri shook her head, a mixture of shyness and regret on her fine features. “No, I’ve got to be going. But maybe I’ll see you around, sometime.”

“I’d like that,” Paige said, smiling.

I got up as well, and surprisingly Teri gave me a hug.

Close to my ear, she whispered, “good luck!” Then she stepped back, gave a wave and a smile to Jack, who was standing behind the counter inside, and was off.

“What an extraordinary gift,” Paige said, watching as Teri walked off down the street.

“In both senses of the word,” I said, looking at the drawing. “Do I really look this way, to you?”

She smiled. “Yes. The setting’s straight out of Peter Jackson, but . . . you really can’t tell, looking at it, whether you’re a man or a woman, between your face, your hair, and the cut of your robes. You’re just . . . beautiful. Lovely.”

I took that in. Teri, I was quite sure, was a transwoman; Jack hadn’t said anything, but there were a few tells — a bit of an Adam’s Apple; the way she kept her voice so light. She wouldn’t have made me look so beautiful as some kind of a joke. And there was nothing humorous in the depiction. To the contrary— it’s how I wished I could look. How I might choose to look, in a better, more balanced world.

Still, there was a more pressing issue to think about. “Paige . . . If that’s how you see me, I’m . . . honestly, I’m flattered. But are you alright with it? Really alright?”

She took my hand again. “Yes. Really. I . . . look, I don’t know if this will work. But I think . . . .” She looked at the sketch again. “No, I’m sure — that I’d at least like to find out.”

She picked up the sketch and rolled it carefully. Then she freed her hair from the elastic band that had held it in a loose ponytail, and used the band to secure the sketch. “We can make a copy at the library.” After a moment’s pause, she said, “Drake?”


“Will you walk me home?” Her voice was tentative. Hesitant.

I looked at her closely. “Are you sure?”

She took my elbow and steered me out to the street. “You don’t need to keep asking that. Really. I’m not sure about anything, except that I want to try. And as part of that, I want to give you space to put down your barriers and be the person you want to be — the person Teri sketched just now, maybe.”

I nodded slowly. “Okay, Paige. I’ll try. I don’t know if I can do it. But I’ll try. For you.”

“You’re a remarkable person,” she responded. “Even if you're wrong about Faramir. Definitely feminine traits — it’s how he bonded so well with Eowyn, at the end.”

“You’re seeing Faramir through the lens of the movies. It’s one of the places I wasn’t satisfied with Jackson’s work. I’ll grant you that Faramir comes across as, I don’t know, soft, in the movies, but that’s really not in the text . . . .”

We were, once again, in our geeky comfort zone, easing the tension that had grown almost unbearable. The internal terrain of our prior discussion was extremely difficult ground for both of us, and it was a bit of a relief to step back.

Our lively — to us, anyhow! — academic conversation took us through block after block of generic student housing, boxwood hedges and sections of grass designed for ease of care by commercial equipment. The not-very-interesting part of town.

None of that mattered. My entire being was thrumming with excitement. I was walking with not just “a girl,” but with Paige. And Paige knew my darkest secrets and hadn’t turned away. At least, not yet.

Her unit was on the third floor of a block of nondescript apartments owned by the university. There was an elevator, but apparently it would take much longer. It was a two-bedroom unit, but her roommate went home Thursdays after her last class. We were alone.

She shut the door behind us.

I stood in the middle of the common area, once more struck dumb. What comes next? How . . .

No doubt seeing my rising panic, Paige touched my arm and said, “Relax. Have a seat.”

I took a seat at one end of the couch, and she took the other.

“Okay,” she said. “When I asked about specifics— things that you might do, if you weren’t bound by our society’s ideas of what guys are supposed to be like, you mentioned being more free with your emotions, doing activities that are more associated with women, and being free to dress in an overtly feminine way anytime you felt like it. Right?”

My face was red. Flaming red. “Yes. I mean, hypothetically . . . .”

She cut me off. “Stop. Don’t be embarrassed. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look or feel pretty. I won’t think any less of you.”

“But . . . will you . . . could you . . . ah.” My embarrassment was killing me, but I ground it out. “Could you be attracted to me?”

“Do you mean, could I still be attracted to you?” She smiled mischievously, but then put a hand on my knee. “I don’t know, Drake. I wish I did. But I want to experience who you are, without all of your protective filters. I can’t . . . I mean . . . I want to know you. Not some curated version of you. Does that make any sense?”

It actually made a lot of sense. Given the trauma she had experienced, I could understand why it was so important to her that I not try to hide who I am. She needed truth from me . . . even if, in the end, that truth caused her to turn away. Can I do it, though?

Quietly, as much to myself as to Paige, I said, “Yes.”

She reached over and squeezed my hand. “Drake, I promise you this. Even if I’m not romantically attracted to your feminine side, I will absolutely, positively, be your fiercest friend and supporter. Okay?”

I took a deep breath and said, “And if that’s all that happens, it’s a thousand times more than I could have imagined when I walked into class today. I won’t push you romantically, but don’t think it’s because I’m not interested.”

She rose. “Okay then. I’m tense, but you’re like a fully-wound catapult. How about you do something really feminine, and go take a bath? Soak for a while, and I’ll get some things together for you. I want to see how you look, when you allow yourself to be pretty.”

So I shortly found myself in an old 1950s style soaker tub, encased in bubbles and a floral scent. I regularly shave my body and facial hair, but I was happy to borrow Paige’s razor and freshen the job. When I was done I just sat for a moment, trying to relax. It was hard. The bath felt wonderful, but I was worried sick about what would come later. How could she accept me?

There was a discreet knock on the door and Paige asked, “Are you decently covered with bubbles?”

I laughed at her formulation and said that I was. She came in with a fluffy towel and a short, pale blue robe. After hanging them where I could reach them easily, she asked if she could wash my hair.

“You don’t need to do that,” I said, embarrassed but also excited by the prospect.

“I know that, silly,” she said. “I want to.”

She had me sink the back of my head into the water. When I brought it back up, she lathered in a pleasant-smelling shampoo. With her long, tapered fingers, she worked the foam into my scalp, paying particular attention to my temples. It was so sensual, so . . . intimate. I felt like I should purr.

She had me dunk and rinse, then she repeated the process with conditioner. This time her scalp massage went on for a solid five minutes, while her thumbs dug into knots at the base of my skull that I hadn’t even known were there. This time, she dispersed the foam by slowly pouring warm water onto my head from a 12-ounce plastic cup she kept by the bath.

When she was done, she cupped a hand around one of my cheeks, then said “take your time. When you’re ready, dry off, use the hairdryer and brush, then put on the robe and come join me.”

I opened my eyes to smile at her. “I’ll be out in five,” I promised. She smiled and left.

I got up a minute later and followed her instructions. My shoulder-length hair, blow-dried, fluffed up quite a bit, and I promised myself I’d get it trimmed soon. Paige’s robe came to my knees; the material was soft but also absorbent.

I stood for a moment by the bathroom door, too afraid to move. But my friend was waiting, and I was not going to force her to draw me out. So I opened the door, and Paige beckoned me to her bedroom.

“I’ve laid some things out for you to wear,” she said. “You’ve worn lingerie before?” The inflection made the question entirely practical and non-threatening. She just needed to know whether I needed any help.

“I have,” I admitted, feeling incredibly self-conscious. “I can manage.”

“How about make-up?”

“I’m not Monet, but I can handle the basics.”

“Which is probably more than Monet could do,” she teased. “There’s some moisturizer, foundation, blush, eyeshadow, mascara and lipstick on the top of the dresser. Help yourself. I’ll be in the common room when you’re ready.” Again she left, giving me privacy to get dressed.

The lingerie was a very pale pink. A lacy bra and full panty, plus a silky camisole with delicate trim. Nude control-top pantyhose completed the underwear. I started with the panties, thrilling as I slid them up my smooth legs and settled them where they belonged. Yes, I had done this before – many times – but never where anyone might see me.

I hooked myself into the pretty bra. It was the least practical item of clothing for a man, but I did love the way it made me feel. The cami and pantyhose followed, each item intensely feminine. At this point I paused to apply the makeup Paige had provided and checked the results in the mirror.

Finally, I stepped into the dress she had laid out. It was a floral pattern, all yellows and spring green with dashes of pink and lavender. Three quarter sleeves, a u-shaped neckline, and a very full skirt. I reached behind me and zipped up. The top was empty, of course, but I wasn’t trying to pass or look like a woman. I just wanted to look like a feminine version of me.

I felt divine. I knew I didn’t look THAT good. But I was pretty and I felt it. Now, however, it was show time. I told myself firmly that Paige wouldn’t reject me as a person, and that’s all that mattered.

But I knew that wasn’t the truth.

No, I didn’t just want to be friends. I wanted more than that — much more. But I promised myself that I would do nothing to make her regret trusting me. Where we went was in her hands. So I opened the door and walked, with as much confidence as I could muster, into the other room.

Paige rose, slowly. She was looking at me closely, and her eyes were hard to read.

I stopped, uncertain. What if . . . ?

She raised both hands, palms up, inviting me to come take them.

I advanced into the room, tentatively. Hesitantly. Finally I put my hands in hers and raised my eyes to meet her gaze.

“You clean up pretty!” Her voice was soft and touched, once again, with wonder.

I looked in her golden eyes and said, “Do you . . . do you like it?”

She pulled me closer and kissed me, her lip gloss blending with mine. Releasing my hands, she caressed my back, her palms gliding over the dress she had lent me, electric.

I dissolved in the sensations of the moment. The smell of her hair, the taste of her lips, the warmth of her eyes. . . . I was never more alive than I had been. Though my arms remained at my sides, passive, my lips responded to her kiss like the whole of my soul was embodied in them, eager to communicate my innermost feelings. My utmost truth.

Eventually, she broke the kiss and leaned her forehead against mine, her eyes closed. Absorbing the moment.

“Yes.” She opened her eyes and pulled back so that she could look at me directly. “I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know how I’d react to you, like this. It took a different kind of strength and courage – a woman’s kind, maybe – to walk through that door, just now. When you came out, so beautiful, so perfect, so vulnerable and trusting, I knew. I just knew.”

She kissed me again, then stepped back, smiling. “NOW are you ready to stand against the world? I promise, you won’t stand alone!”

The end

Author’s note: To anyone feeling a teensy touch of deja vu, I apologize. There are a lot of thematic similarities between this story and Logan’s Ride, the story I posted a week ago. But Drake is significantly older than Logan, has had more years to figure himself out, and has reached conclusions that are different from where Logan appears to be heading. This story also layers on the additional complication of romantic relationships, which Logan mercifully had not yet had to face. Gender, sex, and sexual orientation are complex and tangled things!

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