Henley got off the campus shuttle, wove his way clear of the other students. Some were flighty, unsure of where they were going; others were distracted by phone conversations, chittering happily into the smartphone they held flat in front of their faces. His focus gave him the slight edge he needed to make his way to the end of the platform and cross the street during a break in the cars, without waiting for the light. He smoothed his dark hair and looked around at the buildings.
Pizza place. Middle Eastern place. Coffee place, coffee place, coffee place. Another pizza place, then a Burger King, and then a Chinese restaurant with large posters that once must’ve been brilliant but were now fading to a near-uniform pink after years of sunshine. He picked a coffee shop at random, got something in a medium to rinse the cobwebs out of his skull from morning classes, then headed south toward the parkway, away from campus. No cars lined the streets here: everything was reserved for bikes, peds, and mass transit. Students with cars found this annoying, and sometimes they took their chances with cutting through. Sometimes they even got caught, as though any college student needed additional fees to cope with.
He sipped his coffee. It was a hot drink for a warm autumn afternoon, but he needed the stimulant. Some teachers believed in engaging the students and tripping them up with leading questions and humor, but that wasn’t the class he just left. To be fair, it wasn’t the professor’s fault: what else could he do with a class of 2,000 students but lecture without taking questions? Still, in a large room like that, the walls warmed by sunlight, everyone exhaling more than they needed to, it was a perfect recipe for knocking someone out, so, coffee to the rescue. He asked for it black, black, black, though he didn’t like the taste of it. What he liked was the reputation for drinking black-as-death coffee.
He looked down. Not that anyone could see that with the lid on.
Far in the distance, a train’s horn keened and heavy steel clanked against heavy steel. He wouldn’t find the train from the parkway, which was just a kind of frontage road that circled the campus. The only people who needed that were supply trucks for the student union and the labs, and the occasional professor using a hidden, staff-only parking lot. But on the other side of the parkway was a beautiful walking path that led through a section of forest. This forest was one of the prominent landmarks for campus, shown off on the website and all the promotional brochures, and Henley would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit it was a selling point. It looked like something out of a fairy tale, honestly, and that was throughout spring and summer. During autumn, right now, it was exploding with gorgeousness. Henley sipped his coffee, oversweetened to compensate, and grinned at the trees. He just felt lucky to be here.
Luckier still, he thought, as he crossed the street and dodged a bike and entered the park before the forest. There, a young blonde woman sat, long legs folded beneath a starchy linen skirt that barely covered her. She looked away, facing the breeze as she tugged lavish bolts of golden hair out of her face and behind her head. Her eyes squinted at the sun, narrow and merry, and she grinned a sharp, bright grin that radiated with its own light. Sunlight glowed on her shoulders, beneath the wide neck of her button-down dress. Bands of intricate lace stretch across her chest and upper arms, blurring the Nordic aspect with something on the Irish side.
A simple dress, a young woman like so many others, but heads turned as cars drove past and bikes drifted by silently. She sat in the middle of the park, legs folded, lost in her own thoughts as the wind got lodged in her hair. As well, she was around twenty feet tall, towering over the park’s visitors as she sat. Of course people would notice that.
A lean man in a vest, a goatee, and a Trilby sauntered up to her. He stood taller than her folded legs, and he called something up to her. The woman let a moment or two pass before turning toward him, but no sooner did she than her glacier-blue eyes picked out Henley, now entering the edge of the park.
“Sorry, I’m waiting for someone,” she said, smiling well over her solicitor’s head. She rolled to one side and drew her feet back to kneel.
The man in the hat turned, glanced around and picked out Henley. “Who, that jerk? Come on, you don’t want someone like him. Why don’t you give me a minute of your time, that’s all I’m asking.”
Henley bristled, but before he could react, the woman reached out and wrapped her fingers around the man’s waist, lifting him from the ground simply to hold him aloft. “That’s very rude of you. Fuck off, and stay fucked off.” She leaned to the side and tossed him gently to the ground, nearly out of the park.
He sprawled without grace, brushing his clothes furiously as he picked himself up. “It’s not fair. This is what I’m fucking into, and some asshole gets it.” The man immediately flinched and sprinted up the sidewalk as the woman made as if to rise to her feet.
The titanic young woman frowned and drew a long, therapeutic breath, shaking her mane of golden tresses about her sculpted jaw and cheekbones. “I’m so sorry you had to hear that. You did nothing to deserve that.”
He shrugged. “I guess that happens to you a lot, then?”
“All the time,” she said hollowly. “All the Goddess-damned time.” She screwed up her face and summoned a smile that increased in warmth. “I’m sorry! Let’s talk about something else. Hi, Henley! You came.”
He laughed, walking up beside her lap. Now her head was only just over his own; he fastidiously avoided staring at the slim breasts that poked at him proudly through the linen dress. “What, you didn’t think I would? Who’s gonna throw away the chance to make out with a giantess?”
Her head reared for a second and she blinked a couple times, before throwing her head back and bellowing with laughter. Henley watched her throat churning behind a thin layer of creamy flesh, radiant in the afternoon sun. “You’re such an asshole. I don’t make out on the first date. I just grab anyone I want, whenever I’m horny, and use them to get off. They usually don’t survive,” she added, flaring her eyes, “and I eat the ones that let me down. What do you think about that?”
“I think you just told me we’re on a date.” He rocked on his heels. “Holy wow, you blush easily.”
The titaness laughed behind her fingers. “You are such a dick.”
“Nice to see you too, uh… oh, yeah, I wanted to ask about your name.”
She canted to the side again, stretching out her long legs across the manicured lawn. She bent at the waist, running her palms over her shins, which—Henley noticed—were meticulously shaven this time. “What about it?”
Even bending over, folding herself in half, she was still taller than him. Her face hovered in space before him, her blue eyes shining, her lips parted as she awaited his question. He peeled the corrugated sleeve off his cup of coffee to help the heat shock his hands and break the trance she was forming over him, with this simple gesture.
“Well, you introduced yourself as Eileen, but your email said something like…” He pulled his phone out of his back pocket and thumbed through screens. “Éibhlín.”
The large woman snorted and rolled her eyes. “Nice attempt, but it is actually pronounced Eileen, not Aib-ha-lynn. I guess you never took Gaelic.”
He pulled in his lips for an abashed grin. “Ignorant American, guilty as charged. Never had a reason to before, uh… now.”
Éibhlín raised a slim eyebrow at him and grinned back. “It really is nice to see you. I’m glad you came out.”
“Seriously, I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”
“Oh? How come?” Slowly she drew up her knees and pushed off the ground to stand before him. Her feet were bound in plain sandals of heavy leather and iron trim. She dusted lawn and dirt off her legs and smoothed out her dress, its skirt coming down to mid-thigh. Henley’s heart shivered at the sight, and he looked down at her sandals rather than accidentally peer up the hem just over his head. As with everything else, her thighs glowed brilliantly in the sunlight.
It took so much work to draw his breath, calm down, and control his voice. “It’s just an unusual experience,” he croaked, then cleared his throat to continue. “I’d heard about the Big Ag students last year, but I wasn’t curious, I guess. I didn’t know what people were talking about. I thought it was like Big Pharma or some other kind of corporate interest.”
She nodded, then tilted her head toward the forest. “Shall we?” He stumbled after her as she started walking, but she caught herself after a couple long strides. “I’m so sorry. Sometimes I forget,” she said with a quietness and gentleness that contrasted with her raw physical presence.
“Sorry for what? You don’t have to be sorry.” He found it much easier to match Éibhlín’s stride as she adjusted to slow half-steps.
“I didn’t want to make you feel bad. I wasn’t showing off or teaching you a lesson or anything.”
“Ah,” Henley said, casting a knowing smile up the length of her arm. “This is also a conversation you have all the time with people, huh?”
“All the freakin’ time.” She laughed. “I could tell you stories for hours.”
The titaness headed toward a dirt path that led to an opening in the trees; she held a hand out and, reluctantly, he took the lead. It was probably better that way. “I hope you will. I’d really like to hear all about it.”
“I don’t want to bore you. Or complain.”
“No, like I said, this is an entirely new world for me. I’d really like to hear your side of it. I mean, I wouldn’t hear it anywhere else, would I?” He glanced over his shoulder to smile at her, but only found her bare knees churning against each other. Glancing up at her required him to really crane his neck back, and he figured he probably shouldn’t do this too many more times. “I definitely wouldn’t ask any of your coworkers.”
He heard a large sigh explode above him. “They’re supposed to be friends, but yeah, you’re right. They’re not up for conversation with your people. They resent the work they have to do, and believe me, I get to hear all about that.”
“So why do you guys… I mean, your people… bother with it at all? Why don’t you take over the world or something?”
The heavy footsteps stopped pounding into the ground behind him. Henley turned to look up at her: her lips were clamped and she was looking away. “Because that’s what dominant species do, right? They just conquer anyone weaker than themselves, to gain all the resources for themselves.”
“Hey, uh. I’m sorry if I said something offensive.”
“No, no, you’re right.”
“I’m going to make these mistakes. I apologize in advance, but I’ll really try to—”
She looked down at him. The canopy of red, brown, and orange leaves blazed gloriously behind her head—even at her height, she stood below the old-growth forest—and her elfin features turned sharp. “That’s your species, all right? That’s what your people do. You’re the conquerors, the enslavers, the colonists. My kind has never been interested in that at all.”
“Wow, I’m really sorry. I didn’t—”
“Because we could, you’re right. If we wanted to, there would be nothing you could do to stop us…” Éibhlín looked up suddenly, and her dress swelled with a long, deep breath. Despite the heat behind her words, Henley admired the underside of her powerful jaw. “Oh, my Goddess, I am so sorry, Henley. I didn’t mean to go off like that, not on you.”
He reached out to console her, but didn’t feel he knew her well enough to caress her calf. “No, really, it’s okay. I’m speaking out of ignorance. I have a lot to learn, I’m ready for that.”
“I appreciate that, but you didn’t deserve that.”
“Another one of those recurring topics, I assume.”
Henley jumped back as her thigh tightened, just overhead, and one crude but effective sandal lifted off the turf and swung forward; he anticipated her pace and walked on, listening. “Do you think it’s always going to be like this?”
“Like what?” He sipped his coffee, trying to appear nonchalant, and struggled to conceal scalding his lip.
“Just a struggle. Like, maybe there’s a reason my people don’t interact with yours like this. Casually.”
“I don’t think it has to be like anything,” he said quickly. “I think this can be whatever we want to make it.”
“Yes, there are going to be triggers. Maybe you’ll make a short joke someday.”
“What’s a short joke?”
“Okay, or maybe I’ll say something else thoughtless and naive that reminds you of an unpleasant exchange.”
“That’s going to be exhausting.” Éibhlín ducked through an archway of low trees, stepping no closer than a couple meters to her company.
“Maybe for you. You’ve been through all of this before. All I can do is ask you to be patient with me, because it’s all fresh and new and exciting for me.”
Her eyes lit up abruptly as she was surprised by her own laughter. “Fresh and new and exciting?”
He grinned up at her. “Honestly. This is exciting for me. I only hope I don’t bore you to death, I really don’t have anything going on.”
“Shut up.” She lifted her foot and gently, very gently, plowed her big toe between his shoulder blades. He stumbled and fell but saved his coffee. She watched him roll to his back, onto the carpet of fallen leaves beside the walkway. “You’ve got something very important going on, that hardly anyone else does, from what I’ve seen.” Her huge head turned back and forth as Éibhlín scanned the path, and then she bit her lip and dropped to her knees.
Bare knees of soft skin pummeled the earth like boulders. Lips of thick, moist soil drove up around her knees, on either side of Henley’s legs. The hem of her dress fluttered over his jeans; her dress stretched like a course cliff face leading up to the jewel of her expression. “What’s… what’s that,” he said, his mouth suddenly dry.
Éibhlín sat upon her heels and rested her large hands upon her large thighs. “Two things. Curiosity is the big one. Most of the little people we interact with aren’t curious about us. They’re scared, and they’d rather make up stories about us than ask us about anything. You’re full of questions, and you’re open to learning.”
Henley wanted to say he was all about learning, it was his highest priority, and a real pleasure besides. Instead, he worked his jaw soundlessly for a while, coughed, and asked in a raspy voice what the second thing was.
Her cheeks plumped with her wide grin. “Politeness. Other people sneak glances up my skirt or talk to my chest, if I’m sitting down. You’ve been so, so careful never to look up anywhere impolite.” Her teeth glinted as she plucked at the hem of her skirt and lifted it briefly.
When she lowered it, Henley had tossed his coffee to the side and rolled over, covering his face. “Nice of you to notice,” his muffed voice said. Éibhlín howled with laughter and reached down. Her thick fingers squeezed under his arms, without any resistance at all, yet her grip was gentle as she lifted him from the ground and stood him upon the path. She murmured for him to hold on, and before he knew what was happening, her wide hand swatted his butt gently as she brushed him clean of leaves.
“There, nice and pretty.” She sat back and tilted her head. “I hope that wasn’t too embarrassing for you.”
He stood in the middle of the path, with thick, dark trees pushing themselves from ground on all sides, staring up at the large woman in the plain linen dress with the wide, low neck and poofy half-sleeves. Fragments of bluest cyan peeked through the rumpled canopy of fire, and the breeze was heavy and rich with wood, leaves, and soil. And coffee.
Words raced out of his mouth before he could form a thought. “I think I’m in love and please keep me forever.”
They sat and stood there for a while. Éibhlín chewed her bottom lip with large, clean teeth. Henley forced his lungs to take in a breath when the rest of his brain shut down in shock. “Maybe on the second date,” she said at last.
“I’m so sorry.” Again, he blurted his words. “I’m so sorry. That was… I don’t know what that was.”
“It’s okay, Henny, really.”
“I’m so sorry, and… what did you call me?”
She grinned upon him, her eyes squinting jovially. “I know you hate that. I wanted to snap you out of it.”
“Snap me out?”
“It was either that, or I’d have to backhand you. You wouldn’t want that.”
“No, I…” The world was spinning rapidly around Henley, though it seemed to be slowing down now. “I’m really sorry. I’m kind of a spaz sometimes.”
Éibhlín reached across the space between them, gently covering his chest in her palm, winding her long fingers across his back. “It’s okay, really. My kind tends to bring out strong emotions in your kind. All right?” She smoothed his brown hair with her thumb.
He closed his eyes and swayed on his feet as her broad thumb print rubbed into his skull like an affectionate pillow. Had she not cupped him in her hand, he probably would have collapsed. “I take it back. You can keep me. I’m sorry for nothing.”
She laughed and stood up again. Abruptly Henley shouted, “Hey, fuck off! Get the fuck out of here!” Despite her relative size, she flinched at his ferocity, but realized he wasn’t looking at her at all. He was shouting between her legs. Turning, she found a couple students laughing, taking pictures of her as they retreated down the path and out of the woods. “Goddess damn it. I’m so sorry, Éibhlín. I’m so sorry you’ve got to deal with this shit all the time.”
She groaned and gestured for him to take the lead again, this time heading back the way they came. “It’s just gonna happen. It’s just a fact of life, this disrespect. Don’t worry, I don’t feel like a freak.”
“Because…” Éibhlín paused and searched for words, then gave up. “We’re not the same species. If we were all people, then yes, they’d make me feel like a freak among them. But we’re just different animals altogether. Except we’re not animals,” she added quietly.
Her tone gave Henley to understand that his natural follow-up question was not wanted in this moment. It was okay, they had time. All questions would be answered in the fullness of time, probably. “Well, I don’t like my people either. They just give me new reasons to hate them every day.”
“Don’t be like that.” The titaness followed him in silence for a while. “Hey, can I ask something maybe weird?”
“Would it be awkward if I picked you up and carried you, when we walk around?”
Henley thought about that, struggling to picture it. “It might be. I’m sorry.” Quickly she said that was okay and it was a rude question. “No, no, not at all. Just let me think about it. Maybe on the second date, okay?”
He could’ve sworn he felt a wave of heat rise up behind him, dissipate immediately. “Sounds good, Henny.”