Stephanie, part 7

I have a wide grin on my face as I hold up the small, brightly-coloured CD case, turning my face so that each of the cameras can get a clear view of me- and, of course, the CD, which is the real star of the show.

I’m wearing a very slinky, silvery red- grey dress that has a halter neck and a short, tight skirt. My waist is taken in a couple of inches by an elasticated waist cincher and my chest is ‘enhanced’ by a strapless padded bra. My hairless legs are encased in thin, translucent tights and my feet are clad in red pumps with a four inch stiletto heel. My long, brown hair is styled to perfection, my make-up is immaculate- especially my glossy red lipstick- and my long fingernails are coated in a dark bronze colour. I have never felt more feminine or more glamorous than I do right now… And yet all I feel inside is conflicted.

Ever since I was a young boy I’ve dreamed of being able to dress like this, be loved for the woman I always wanted to be… And yet all I can think about is being that boy again, stripping off my dress and my heels, scrubbing away my make-up and crashing on my sofa at home, a pizza in one hand and a videogame in the other. But every time I have these feelings, they’re inevitably followed by yet another feeling- guilt.

There are literally thousands of women who would give their right arm to be where I am right now- and, undoubtedly, thousands of men as well. I have been accepted in my personal and professional life as a woman even despite my transgendered status, and the number of fans I have who support me vastly outnumber those who don’t. Anytime a transphobic comment appears on one of our YouTube videos, or on my Facebook or Twitter pages, it’s immediately reported by several of my fans and the person who made the comment is subjected to a verbal beatdown of epic proportions. I am a role model to teenage girls- transgendered and cisgendered- nationwide, and earning thousands of pounds each week from royalties and endorsements, enough for me to live very, very comfortably. It’s just a shame that deep down inside, I know that I’m a fraud.

Nine months ago, I was supposed to have started taking hormone replacement tablets that would transform my blood chemistry from male to female, but in truth, I haven’t taken a single tablet. I see my counsellor every week, who helps me manage my conflicted life, but she refuses to prescribe me oestrogen tablets (and I have asked for them on a couple of occasions), and I’m no closer to resolving the conflict that defines my life: do I want to be a man, or do I want to be a woman? My counsellor has advised me that ‘both’ is a viable option, but even she agrees that in my case, long-term, I’m eventually going to have to choose one way or the other.

“Steph! Over here!” One of the paparazzi shouts. I widen my grin and flash my brilliant white teeth for the man, who snaps photo after photo of me and the CD before turning his attention to another of my bandmates.

“Thank you all for coming!” Joshua- our manager- booms, momentarily silencing the noise of the camera shutters. “Over the last seven months these five beautiful young women have sung their hearts out…” I half-listen as Joshua introduces the official launch of our first album, but my mind soon wanders off completely to thoughts of ‘Steve’s life, only snapping back once Joshua finishes speaking and is greeted by a round of applause from the assembled press.

“Any questions?” Joshua asks with his trademark wide grin.

“Who came up with the title, ‘No More Lies’?” One of the reporters asks, making me wince even though the title was decided before my ‘revelation’ in the summer.

“That was actually my brother,” Becca says, sparing my blushes. “It’s one of the songs he wrote for the album, it was his favourite, my favourite, I think it’s Kayla’s favourite too…”

“Yeah,” the tiny blonde girl confirms. “We all had loads of fun recording it too, it was obvious it’d be our first single. First original single, anyway!”

“What’s it like inside the recording booth?” Another reporter asks. “The behind the scenes videos you put out make it look like a lot of fun, but I trust you all work hard?”

“I make sure they do!” Joshua says, making everyone laugh. “But the girls all get on fine, the band works because they’re all friends as well as colleagues!” I and the other four girls all nod in agreement, but the stares I receive from Kayla and Lauren tell me that they don’t agree fully with what Joshua is saying.

I’ve lived at home for the whole of the two and a half months since I was all but forced out of my flat, and during that time I’ve grown more and more distant from Lauren and Kayla. It’s clear that neither of them truly forgive me for ‘deceiving’ them no matter how much I apologise.

Alternatively, the reason they’re unwilling to forgive could be because of how close I’ve grown to the other two girls in the band. Becca, Adeola and I are now very much a ‘trio’. We go out clubbing almost every Friday night, we hang out at each other’s houses every opportunity we get, we exchange clothes and cosmetics, the two of them have even tried setting me up on dates with (in their eyes) suitable guys- none of which get beyond the first date stage, of course, but that doesn’t stop them from trying, especially since Adeola found herself (or rather, Becca found her) a seemingly steady boyfriend last month.

My family have been the strongest source of support, though. My parents were happy to ‘bite the bullet’ and treat our ‘reunion’ as a reconciliation despite the pain that it caused them to be thought of as ex-bigots. Mum in particular was happy to have me back living under her roof- as the youngest in the family, she’s always been somewhat over-protective of me. The same, however, can’t be said of my brothers.

“I have a question for Steph,” one of the reporters says, causing me to invisibly tense up.

“Shoot,” I say, trying to sound as relaxed as possible.

“Do you think any members of your family will buy the album?” The reporter asks. I force a smile onto my lips, but inside I’m burning with anger about the personal nature of the question.

“Umm, knowing my mum, she’ll probably buy a hundred copies!” I say, making everyone giggle. “I don’t think dad’s allowed to listen to music in his ambulance, but if he is I’ll make sure he gets a copy too. My brothers… Probably aren’t our target market!”

“Though they’re more than welcome to buy it they want, as is everyone else!” Joshua interjects, making everyone giggle.

“My brothers are DEFINITELY getting a copy for Christmas!” Lauren chuckles.

“…I can probably slip a CD into each of my brothers’ stockings too!” I say, making the crowd laugh even harder, even as my mind begins to scramble at the mention of my siblings.

From the very first second I first introduced ‘Stephanie’ to my brothers two months ago, my relationship with them changed forever. We were never especially close, due to the age difference between them and myself, but I always knew I could count on them if I was ever in any trouble. Now, however… I don’t even know what to think.

I’ve barely exchanged twenty words with Tom, my oldest brother, since I came out to him. Whenever we’re having a family dinner, he’ll happily to speak to my other brother or my parents, but every time his eyes catch a sight of my feminine face or body, he’ll immediately look elsewhere, at someone else, out a window, even at the floor, anything that ISN’T me.

Danny, on the other hand… I’ve always been closer to Danny than I was to Tom, even though there’s still a six year age gap, but since I came out, he’s been pestering me about my celebrity life (and, to a lesser extent, about my transition) on an almost daily basis, usually over Facebook. Whenever I get invited to a celebrity party or a promotional event and am asked to bring along a ‘plus one’, he inevitably fills that role and spends the whole evening trying to schmooze. Very often I’m left embarrassed by his efforts, but he always brushes it off as though nothing fazes him. And, of course, his personal support for me over the last couple of months has been invaluable. It’s just a shame he realises that and exploits it so much…

After the Q&A completes, the five of us pose for yet more photographs with our CD, before the press conference disperses and we’re escorted back to our plush dressing room to change back into more comfortable clothes, which for me means a tight, low-cut grey top and a straight denim skirt. As I slide the skirt up my legs I have to constantly remind myself just how much I enjoy being a woman, how much I fantasised about this when I was younger, how lucky I am to live the life I have and how lucky I am to be accepted for the person I always wanted to be… And yet I can’t stop wishing that the skirt was a comfortable, loose pair of jeans.

“This is it!” Becca squeaks excitedly. “Money, money, money!”

“When will we find out where it is in the charts?” Kayla asks as she strips off her slinky pink minidress in favour of a short grey pleated skirt and a dusky pink hoodie.

“Not for a week,” Adeola replies. “iTunes charts are updated almost constantly though, so we should see results on that pretty quickly!”

“What d’you reckon,” Becca laughs. “Top ten by Sunday?”

“We’d better be, all the promotional shit we’re doing!” Lauren says, making Kayla laugh and Becca and Adeola smirk.

“And I was just getting used to sleeping in my own bed,” I laugh, making Adeola give me a playful hug.

“Aww,” the tall, dark-skinned girl giggles. “And I was just getting used to sleeping ON my new man!”

“It’s such a hardship,” Lauren sarcastically laughs. “Getting to ride first class on a train, staying in a posh suite at a hotel, all at the agency’s expense…” I smirk as I follow the four girls out of the dressing room- past crowds of screaming fans who’ve come to see our launch and who relentlessly photograph us- and into a specially-converted minibus that’s been repainted with images of all five of us, much like the old London cab my ‘colleagues’ the Angels use. The minibus whisks us off to Euston station, where we head straight onto the first class section of a waiting train. A few hours later, we’re checking into one of Manchester’s poshest hotels, smiles on our faces despite our tiring day, and the promise of an even more tiring day tomorrow. After a very fancy, very expensive dinner, the five of us head up to our rooms, where I can finally relax for the first time all day.

Whenever the five of us stay at a hotel- which is increasingly often nowadays- we always have the same sleeping arrangements- Becca and Adeola share a room, Lauren and Kayla share a room, and I have a room to myself. Even though to the other four girls it seems like I’m isolating myself, this is a situation I’m very happy with- precisely because I AM isolating myself. In the past I’d had little sympathy for celebrities being constantly hounded by fans, reasoning that it was a small price to pay for their fame and fortune. Now that I’m on the ‘other side of the fence’, I realise just how precious alone time can be, especially as I can use the time to forget not just about being a celebrity… But I can forget all about my ‘dilemma’ as well.

After removing my make-up I thrust myself under the shower and let the hot water wash away all my stress, leaving my long brown hair clinging to my glistening, hairless body. I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and for the first time in a while, I smile a genuine smile. Here, in this one instant, I am not a woman. I’m not even a man. I’m neither Steve nor Steph… I’m just me. Genderless, free to be who and whatever I want to be.

I climb into bed just after 10pm after an evening in front of the television, and quickly fall asleep, the sheer androgyny of the room relaxing my mind and body much more than my own feminine bedroom at home.

My alarm wakes me at 5am and I groggily crawl out of bed, quickly washing my face before applying a light layer of make-up and pulling on my underwear (complete with the extra ‘shape’ that’s been added to the delicate garments). Even though yesterday’s skirt and top are still perfectly okay to wear, I still pick a fresh black miniskirt and figure-hugging red jumper out of my suitcase and slide them on over my figure, before slipping my feet into an uncomfortable pair of stilettos, touching up my nail polish, grabbing my handbag and heading down to meet the other girls at breakfast.

“Hey Steph!” Becca says happily as I approach hers and Adeola’s table.

“Hey girlies!” I respond tiredly. “Why are we doing BBC Breakfast today again? I mean, how many people actually get up this early on a Saturday morning?” I smirk as Adeola bursts out into a loud fit of laughter, one very reminiscent of her rich uncle.

“Us, sadly!” Becca giggles. “But it’s good publicity, it IS the most watched breakfast time show in the UK… And we need to grab every bit of publicity while we can!”

“You sound like my uncle!” Adeola teases, making Becca snort with laughter.

“Meh,” Becca shrugs. “I’m the oldest in the band, someone’s got to be the ‘big sister’, the responsible one…”

“And you’re saying that person is YOU?” Adeola teases, making Becca- and myself- laugh even harder.

“I’m hungry,” Becca says between laughs. “Come on, this place is self-bloody-service…”

“Where are Lauren and Kayla?” I ask as I follow Becca to the breakfast buffet that’s been laid out especially for the five of us.

“Dunno, haven’t seen them,” Becca shrugs as she grabs the largest croissant from the tray and dramatically takes a large bite out of it. “Their loss!” I force myself to laugh at Becca’s fake gluttony, but deep down, I still feel a twinge of regret that even after all this time, the band still has a schism running through it. Becca’s jealousy of Lauren isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be- the fact that we’re all paid equally and treated as equals by the media helps there- but it’s clear that she (and, to a lesser extent, Adeola) views herself as the real star of the band.

Lauren and Kayla do eventually join us fifteen minutes later, but sit at a different table to myself, Becca and Adeola (in fairness, 5 people around our table would’ve been a bit of a squeeze), before we all leave the hotel and jump into two waiting taxis to be ferried off to the studio in Salford. There, we once again change from our street clothes into the posh dresses transported to the North by Kellie (our PA) before having our make-up enhanced by the BBC’s professional make-up artists.

As I’m escorted onto the set I’m so familiar with- both from watching it on TV and from my previous visits- I’m surprised by just how calm I am. Prior to my first television appearance many months ago, I was terrified, but now, the prospect of going on-screen in front of millions of viewers, or on stage in front of thousands of fans, doesn’t trouble me in the slightest- even when I’m pretending to be a gender that I’m not, or at least not fully…

“Earlier this year,” Charlie- the presenter- says to the camera, “five young women from across the country came together to form a new girl band, which has taken the country by storm with such hits as ‘No More Lies’ and their debut single, a cover of Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’.”

“The girls have just released their first album,” Louise- Charlie’s co-host- continues, “and we’re very lucky to have them with us on the sofa this morning. Out of Heaven, welcome to BBC Breakfast!” The five of us all smile as the camera turns to face us and the large image of our CD on the screen behind us.

“Thanks,” all five of us reply in the quiet, professional manner we’ve been taught over the past few months. Once again, I start to tune out as questions are asked about our formation and the production of the album, most of which are answered by ‘big sister’ Becca. I’m once again forced back to attention, though, when I feel the presenters look squarely in my direction before asking their next question.

“Your band will be touring in the new year to support the album,” Charlie says, “but you’re currently on a whistle-stop publicity tour to celebrate its launch. How does it feel to spend so much time away from home when you’re just seventeen?” My mouth pops open to answer, before immediately shutting again as I remember that I’m actually nineteen years old… But the girl sat immediately next to me- and who the presenters were actually looking at- isn’t.

“…I do, umm, really miss home at times,” Kayla says as the eyes of the band turn to her. “Fortunately, I’ve got the best flat mate in the world to help me whenever I feel homesick!” Lauren and Kayla share a quick giggle as the presenters also chuckle with delight.

“There’s also talk that you’ll be doing a publicity tour of Europe in the near future,” Charlie asks. “Maybe even America.”

“That’s just a rumour at this stage,” Adeola chuckles as I hear Kayla’s breathing slowly return to normal after being put on the spot. For the rest of the interview- during which I thankfully don’t get asked any personal questions- all I can concentrate on is Kayla, and how she seems a lot more nervous than usual. Even as we’re changing back into our street clothes, she still seems quieter, more withdrawn than usual.

“Hey Kayla,” I quietly say to the tiny blonde girl. “Are- are you okay? You seemed kinda distant out there…”

“…Says the girl who didn’t answer ANY questions on set!” Kayla retorts with a playful smile. “Hope you don’t mind getting yet ANOTHER bollocking from Joshua for that!”

“Every interview I do, I get a question about my parents or my transition,” I say. “It’s their job to come to me, not the other way around!”

“Ooh, get you, Miss Diva!” Kayla says, making me giggle. “I dunno, maybe I’m just nervous about next Saturday…”

“It’s your eighteenth birthday,” I shrug. “Meant to be the happiest day of your life, isn’t it?"

“Yeah, I guess,” Kayla laughs as we hang up our slinky dresses for Kellie to wheel away. “Come on, one more interview today then we can finally go home!” I smile as I leave the studio with the four other girls and hop in a waiting taxi, which drives us the short distance to yet another TV studio, where we once again change into expensive, fashionable dresses and answer questions about our album. This time, I am asked a question about my ‘transition’- a generic one I must’ve answered a hundred times before- but once again, Kayla gets the lion’s share of the questions, and again, she looks uncomfortable being asked them. Maybe I’m not the only member of the band with something to hide…

After pulling on my miniskirt and jumper for the third time in eight hours, I- and the rest of the band- breathe a sigh of relief as we leave the studio and head back to Piccadilly station, our ‘work’ done for another day. Once again, we’re treated like royalty on our first-class rail trip back to London, where our specially-branded minibus is waiting to whisk us back to our respective homes.

“See you at Charlotte’s tonight!” Becca squeaks happily as the minibus drops me outside my home, with her and Adeola also giving me quick hugs before driving away. As I enter my home I breathe a sigh of relief, dropping my suitcase in the entrance hall before collapsing on the sofa, where I kick off my tiny flats and stare at my dark red toenails underneath my translucent tights.

“Afternoon, megastar!” Dad laughs as he sits down opposite me. “Just going to leave your case in the stairwell, then? Or are you going to summon one of your army of PAs to take it upstairs?”

“Give me a break, I had an early morning,” I moan, making dad chuckle.

“Heh, and here I was thinking that ‘Steph’ would be more responsible than ‘Steve’ ever was,” dad says. “You had dinner yet?”

“Yeah, on the train,” I say. “I’ll probably eat something before heading out tonight.”

“Yet another misconception,” dad chuckles. “That you moving back in would mean we’d see more of you than usual. Though if you’re going to be touring Europe and America…”

“That’s not even at the planning stage yet,” I say. “Mum still at work?”

“She’ll be back before you go,” dad says. “Think Danny said he’ll be dropping round too.”

“Ugh, no prizes for guessing why,” I moan.

“Oh come on,” dad says. “He IS your brother, surely you’re glad he’s taking an interest in your life?”

“He’s taking an interest in my FRIENDS,” I retort. “Lost count of the amount of times he’s struck out with Charlotte, and yet he keeps trying…”

“Your change was big news to him,” dad says softly. “People cope with the news in different ways- just look at Tom if you need any further proof.” I sigh as I remember my aloof oldest brother- though in truth, I’m not sure I know which reaction I prefer to my change, Tom’s or Danny’s.

“…I’ll go and put away my clothes,” I say, standing up and dragging my suitcase up the stairs to my bedroom. Once I’m unpacked, I collapse back on my bed with my smartphone in hand, scrolling through my twitter feed and all the tweets I’ve been sent by my 100 000+ followers. Every tweet I receive telling me what an inspiration I am, though, only makes me sigh sadly, and the sigh grows only deeper as I stare around at my pink, feminine surroundings. It would be so easy to just ‘decide’ to abandon my old male life. I would literally lose nothing from my personal or professional lives if I were to say goodbye to ‘Steve’ forever… And yet I just can’t let go of ‘him’.

After catching up on my twitter, I stretch my tired limbs before taking off my jumper and replacing it with a very flashy branded t-shirt, which I take a photo of for my Instagram. Such an ‘endorsement’ earns me several hundred pounds a time for mere seconds of effort- and I’m not sure whether that should make me happy or embarrassed, even though the other girls all have similar ‘deals’ in place (if all five of us ‘endorse’ the same thing at the same time- whether it’s clothes, make-up or even a gadget- it can earn us even more money).

Once I’m finished being a ‘walking billboard’, I strip off my t-shirt, my skirt and my tights and pull on my ‘party’ clothes for tonight- thick black tights, high-heeled knee-high boots and a short, long-sleeved lilac dress. Even since I started attending them seven months ago, the traditional Saturday ‘girls nights in’ have transformed into big weekly celebrity parties, not least because one of the ‘Angels’ is starring in this year’s series of Strictly Come Dancing, and doing really, really well to boot. Every week, there seems to be a new face at the party.

As I head downstairs to leave- taking extra care in my heels- I sigh as I see the figure at the bottom of the stairs and realise that there’ll be one more new face at tonight’s party.

“Hi sis!” Danny says happily, standing with his hands on his hips and a pout on his face.

“…What the fuck are you wearing?” I ask my brother, even though I can clearly see what he’s wearing- a knee-length black dress, black high-heeled shoes and a long brown wig. Other than the clothes and the wig, he’s made no attempt whatsoever to be convincingly female- he clearly hasn’t so much as shaved for the last 3 days.

“You said last time I came along on Saturdays that this was a girls’ night,” Danny shrugs as mum and dad chuckle in the living room. “Is- is this offensive?”

“Phenomenally offensive,” I say as I follow my ‘brother’ into the living room, sighing as he collapses down in a chair with his legs spread wide.

“Honestly,” Danny sighs as he kicks off his heels. “I don’t know how you can walk in these things…”

“I didn’t start by walking in 5 inch heels,” I retort. “And I never said they were strictly girls’ nights, just that they were intended as a way for all of the girls to get together once a week and hang out. They just started off as girls’ nights, that’s all.”

“Soo… Lose the dress?” Danny asks.

“There’ll be at least two other transgendered girls there besides me,” I say. “Yes. Lose the damned dress. Where’d you get that, and the shoes, anyway?”

“Every father’s proudest moment,” dad laughs. “His two male-born children talking about where they got their shoes…”

“Don’t worry,” Danny chuckles. “This is purely for fun, not a lifestyle choice… Umm, not that that should be a cause of worry, umm…”

“Change,” I say, sending Danny scurrying up to the spare room to change into a pair of black jeans and a thick, comfortable-looking shirt.

“The wig too,” mum orders, making Danny cringe as he peels the long, artificial hair off of his head.

“And I got them the same place you used to,” Danny says. “Online, it’s amazing how quick and easy it is, especially with Amazon Prime. So… Can I come along tonight?”

“…As long as you behave yourself this time,” I say. “And before you try hitting on my friends again, remember that a lot of them are my age, some even younger, and you’re 26.”

“Yes, yes, I promise no ‘Jimmy Saville’…” Danny sighs. “Want a lift?”

“Please,” I say, giving mum and dad goodbye hugs before following Danny out to his car.

“Steph, I- I am sorry about the whole ‘dress’ thing,” Danny mumbles as we drive away. “I thought you’d find it funny, I dunno. You always did when you were, you know, ‘Steve’…”

“I was trying to hide what I, well, ‘really was’,” I reply. “Figured if I joined in the laughter, it’d disguise me better…”

“Well, at least you’ve got nothing to hide anymore!” Danny laughs.

“Yeah,” I giggle. If only that were true, though…

I giggle as I open the door to Charlotte’s vast mansion only to come face-to-face with Becca and Adeola, who both greet me with big hugs even though I only last saw them a few hours ago.

“Hey Steph!” Becca squeaks excitedly. “Hey Danny… We didn’t scare you off enough last time, then?”

“I fear no woman,” Danny smugly replies, making me roll my eyes.

“Hands off, they’re BOTH taken,” I say, making Danny laugh as he hangs up our coats and heads into the party.

“LOVE that dress,” Adeola giggles. “Would love the boots too, if I didn’t already have at least five pairs!”

“You really are so fashionable,” Becca says. “Can’t believe you were EVER a boy…”

“Yeah, some days I can’t believe it either!” I giggle as we head into the already-bustling party. As the night wears on and I drink more and more alcohol, my stress levels start to fall, before disappearing entirely as I feel more and more comfortable in myself, despite my brother's 'enthusiasm'. Becca’s right- so what if I used to be a boy? I LOVE wearing women’s clothing. I’ve loved it ever since I was little, and the fact that I’m able to wear a short dress, dark tights and high-heeled boots in public (not to mention nail polish and a copious amount of make-up) is a cause for celebration, not stress. The fact that, earlier today, I got paid just for wearing a girl’s t-shirt for less than five minutes should make me want to never be a boy ever again.

…And yet, as I wake up on Sunday morning, my head stinging from a nasty hangover, all I can think about doing is pulling on a pair of boxer short, a pair of jeans and a loose t-shirt and collapsing on my sofa, eating pizza and chocolate and playing on my Xbox.

“Ugh, what is wrong with me…” I moan in my ‘Steve’ voice- a voice I rarely get to use any more. After showering and spending half an hour laid on my bed, forgetting about all worries of gender and fame, I slowly peel myself off my bed and pull on my underwear (including a new pair of brown patterned tights), before applying a full face of make-up and pulling on a comfortable pleated miniskirt and a long-sleeved brown top. Normally, even in ‘Stephanie’ mode, I wouldn’t be as dressed up as I am if I wasn’t leaving the house (which today, I’m not). Today, however, is different, so I still need to keep up appearances, as proved just after breakfast when my doorbell rings and I open it to be greeted by the same smiling faces who greeted me at Charlotte’s house last night.

“Hey girlies!” I squeak happily as I greet Becca and Adeola with hugs, before leading them (and their bulging carrier bags of clothes and make-up) into the living room.

“Hey Steph!” Becca giggles. “Hi Mrs. Abbott, thanks for letting us ‘invade’ your house today!”

“Any friend of Stephanie’s is a friend of mine!” Mum laughs happily. “’Steve’ hardly ever had friends over when he was younger. ‘Steve’ hardly had any friends at school, come to think about it…”

“Yes, thank you, mum,” I say in an increasingly exasperated voice as Becca and Adeola loudly giggle.

“I’ll leave you three to it,” mum says as she heads to the kitchen. “Play nice!”

“Ugh,” I spit as I turn back to my two friends. “Really wish I still had my own place…”

“Aww, your mum’s nice!” Adeola says. “She’s no more embarrassing than my aunt.”

“Aww, I remember the first time I went round to your place,” Becca says, making Adeola cringe.

“Go on,” I say with an evil grin.

“Oh god, please don’t…” Adeola giggles.

“Your mum breaking out all the photo albums,” Becca says as her BFF buries her face in one of my cushions. “Little Adeola aged 4 in her fairy costume, aged 9 dressed as one of the Incredibles, aged 13 dancing in her school’s production of the Nutcracker…”

“Aged 19 shutting your mouth!” Adeola retorts, making Becca giggle uncontrollably. “It’s not like your parents don’t have photo albums full of you dressed as- oh, what was it again? Belle from Beauty and the Beast? Kinda appropriate as Riley’s, like, a foot taller than you…”

“Seven inches taller,” Becca retorts. “How about you, Steph? Any embarrassing photos we can coo over while we’re here?”

“Yeah,” I sigh. “Though- and this’ll sound weird- I really kinda wish my parents did have photos of me aged 4 dressed in a fairy costume…”

“Oh- god, Steph, I’m sorry…” Becca sighs, giving me a quick hug. “God, your mum actually mentioned it less than two minutes ago and I still forget…”

“There are times when even I forget!” I giggle, even though I know what I’m saying isn’t true. Becca and Adeola, however, believe me without reservation and giggle along with me, proving my mum right- as ‘Steve’, I never really did have any friends, even when at school. I’d have ‘mates’, people I’d hang around with to watch football and play videogames, but we weren’t even remotely close. Hell, three years on and I can barely even remember their surnames, but in Becca and Adeola- and even Lauren and Kayla- I can tell that I have real friends for life, and that makes ‘being Stephanie’ so much more enjoyable. I don’t even feel any physical attraction to the two of them, even though they are objectively very, very attractive and I am still chemically 100% male- the only ‘love’ I feel for them is that of one best friend for another.

The three of us spend the next hour and a half swapping clothes, gossiping about our other friends and generally relaxing after a long week of being celebrities. We even spend a while playing on my Xbox, even though we play the latest Worms game (Becca’s all-time favourite game) instead of a game I like such as Destiny or FIFA.

By the time 3pm rolls around, and the three of us are full from my mum’s cooked Sunday lunch, I genuinely don’t want either of the girls to leave, even though I’ll be seeing them again tomorrow morning.

“We should probably get going,” Adeola sighs as she checks her phone. “My aunt will start worrying if I don’t call home… Thanks for the dinner, Mrs. Abbott!”

“You’re very welcome, Adeola!” Mum says with a warm smile. “Do you girls want dropping off anywhere?”

“Please,” Becca replies. “But before we go, we do need to talk about this Saturday…”

“This Saturday?” I ask. “Oh, Kayla’s party?”

“Yep!” Becca says excitedly. “It’s her eighteenth, the most important birthday of all, and it’s our responsibility to make it the most memorable day of her life!” Even though you don’t like her that much? I think to myself.

“I take it we’re inviting all the usual,” Adeola says. “Who were those two new girls last night, the dark-haired one and the one with the teal hair and, like, 2 inch waist?”

“Nikki’s friends, I think,” Becca replies. “Meh, the more the merrier! Steph, have you got Kayla’s boyfriend on Facebook?”

“Umm, I’m pretty sure I used to,” I say. “I’ll have a look tonight. Have you settled on a theme for the party?”

“Sexy, successful girly singers!” Becca says, making myself and Adeola giggle excitedly.

“So… No costume for us, then?” I ask, making the two girls giggle happily.

“We really should get going,” Adeola sighs, standing up and giving me a tight hug. “My place next Sunday?”

“You got it!” I giggle.

“Thanks for having us, Mrs. Abbott,” Becca says as she, mum and Adeola head out of the house, leaving me alone with my thoughts. As easy as it would be for me to become Stephanie full-time and ‘lose’ Steve, it would be just as easy for me to become ‘Steve’ again full-time… Though I’d stand to lose even more.

I head to bed early- just after 10pm- after spending the rest of the day chatting with the girls on Facebook about Kayla’s party. Before I fall asleep, I open up iTunes on my phones and check the album charts. I smile when I see ‘No More Lies’ in 16th place, even though that’s not quite as high as Joshua would have liked, it’s still a decent performance for a debut album.

When I wake up, the first thing I do is check the album charts again- and ‘No More Lies’ has moved up overnight into 12th position, bringing a smile to my face that starts to fade when I realise that the band’s tour of America may be going ahead after all…

After showering, I apply my make-up and don my normal Monday morning attire of baby pink tights and a tight black leotard, ready for my private ballet lesson. After tying my hair back into a ponytail, I pull a short denim skirt and long-sleeved black top on over my dancewear, before grabbing my dance bag and heading downstairs to where the taxi is already waiting to pick me up.

“Mornin’, darling,” the cabbie- a slightly overweight man in his mid-forties- says as I slide onto the back seat. “Hey, aren’t you Steph Abbott?”

“Umm, yep, that’s me!” I say with a smile.

“Thought I recognised the name!” The cabbie chuckles in his thick London accent. “I’ve got a 14 year old daughter who’s a huge fan of yours, she’s been listening to your album all weekend… Is it true that you used to be a bloke?”

“’Umm, ‘fraid so,” I reply with a grimace.

“Nah, nothing to apologise about,” the cabbie says. “It’s 2015, it’s just a fact of life that some people choose to switch their genders. If it makes you more comfortable being a woman, then that’s what you should be. Those UKIP dickheads who say that gays cause floods and earthquakes, they’re the ones who oughta be rounded up and exiled somewhere. Syria would be my first choice there!” I force out a giggle as the cabbie keeps chatting.

“There are worse things you can do with your genitals I suppose,” the cabbie laughs. “Shoving them in a dead pig, for starters, heh!”

“If you say so,” I reply.

“What I don’t get are the people who can’t decide what they are,” the cabbie says, making me shudder. “I mean, you’re either a man or a woman, right? And if you’re born on the wrong side, like you are, then you switch to the right one, right? You don’t just keep hopping backward and forward, or pick one of these so-called ‘non-binary’ options, right?”

“Right,” I reply, my voice tinged with nerves.

“The way I see it,” the cabbie continues, “men dress up as women for three reasons. One, they’re having a laugh; two, they get some sort of perverted kick out of it; three, they’d rather live their life as a woman. And you’re obviously in number three, number one’s basically harmless, and those who prefer number two, well, as long as they keep it to themselves, right?”

“Umm, I guess,” I say.

“You guess?” The cabbie replies. “Meh, I suppose you only hang out with other ‘number three’s. And you all take those hormone pills that shrink your genitals and turn you into a woman, right?” This cabbie really likes saying the word ‘genitals’, I quietly muse.

“Yeah,” I reply. “Kinda kills your sex drive.” Not that I had much of one to begin with…

“You’re probably better off without it,” the cabbie chuckles as we pull up outside the dance studio. “Your agency’s paid me in advance for this so there’s no charge to you, but can I ask a favour? Can you record a video message to my daughter? Her name’s Bethany.”

“Sure,” I say as the cabbie pulls out his smartphone and points it at me. “Hi Bethany, this is Steph from Out of Heaven, umm, thanks for buying our album, really hope you enjoy it! Bye!” I grin widely and wave as the cabbie lowers his phone and drive away, leaving me to enter the studio where my four friends are already waiting for us. I giggle when I see that Adeola has changed into a baby pink tutu and her pointe shoes and is dancing an excerpt of the Nutcracker, just as Becca had described yesterday morning.

“Misty Copeland, eat your heart out!” Adeola giggles as she finishes her routine.

“Where’s Krystie?” I ask, confused by the absence of our usual teacher.

“At the hospital,” Becca explains. “She’s fine, she’s just having a check-up after that throat infection she got last month, can’t be too careful with her asthma, etc. etc. So instead, you’ve got me and Addie teaching you today!”

“Umm, okay,” Lauren says, clearly unconvinced by our bandmates’ teaching ability.

“Don’t be like that,” Adeola giggles. “We’ve both been studying ballet for fifteen years, we can easily show you the basics. So, places, please!” I have a smile on my face as I take my place at the barre, but I can tell that Lauren and Kayla are far from happy about being taught by Becca and Adeola.

At the end of the lesson, however, our collective mood improves when we all open iTunes on our phone and discover that our album is still holding steady at 12th in the charts, and customer reviews so far are very positive, averaging 3.9 out of 5. The main criticism so far is a lack of variety in the songs, which was a deliberate design choice by our producer- opting to ‘play it safe’ for the first album rather than experiment too much with our sound. No doubt he’ll be challenging us more for inevitable second album!

After a quick coffee to celebrate our success, another fleet of taxis arrives to take us home (fortunately without an interrogation this time!), where I collapse on the sofa, still dressed in my dancewear, my skirt and my top. Yesterday, in the company of my friends, I’d have thought nothing of being dressed the way I am, but not that I’m all by myself, I suddenly feel… Absurd. I’m a nineteen year old man pretending to be a twelve year old girl, wearing ballet tights, a stretchy leotard and a short denim skirt, not to mention make-up and nail polish…

I close my eyes and take several deep breaths, reminding myself over and over that this IS my dream. This IS something I want, something I’ve always wanted… And yet I can’t shake the feeling that my life is fundamentally… Wrong. Like I’m living a fantasy, and it can’t last…

I head upstairs and slowly, methodically strip off my clothes- my top first, followed by my skirt, my leotard and my tights, leaving me stood in just my padded bra and tight thong. I don’t even wear a girdle any more, my waist has grown so slim thanks to my diet and exercise regime. I sigh as I unclip my bra and let it fall to the ground, before slowly sliding my thong down my legs and stepping out of it, standing fully naked in the cool air of my bedroom. After removing my dark nail polish with the strong-smelling solvent, I sit down- still naked- in front of my dresser and remove all of my make-up, until the only thing that stares back at me from my mirror is a plain, albeit effeminate, nineteen year old boy.

I reach into the back of my bottom drawer for a pair of loose, cotton boxer shorts and slide them up my legs, followed by a pair of baggy jeans and a loose-fitting red t-shirt. After scraping my hair out of my face, I stand before my full-length mirror and admire ‘Steve’s reflection for the first time in ages. And yet, as ‘free’ as I feel to once again be the boy I was, inside I feel… Empty. ‘Steve’ has no friends, no career, hardly any family… And no life. When other people think of me, they all inevitably think of Stephanie- even the people who knew Steve. And yet, no matter what, I simply can’t let go of ‘Steve’…

I perch on the end of my bed for half an hour, closing my eyes and absorbing the feelings provided by ‘Steve’s clothes- feelings of comfort, familiarity, warmth… Feelings of home, like I’ve returned from a long holiday and can finally relax. But still, deep down inside, I know that ‘Steve’ has nothing except these feelings of comfort.

After twenty minutes, I get up and start to head downstairs, when I’m surprised by a sudden knock from the door.

“Wh-who is it?” I ask in ‘Stephanie’s voice. They surely couldn’t be here to see ‘Steve’, as far as everyone’s concerned, ‘Steve’ no longer exists…

“It’s Jamie,” the person on my doorstep replies. Shit! I think to myself. Why did she have to drop round, couldn’t she have rung?

“Hang on,” I say. “I- I’ve just got out of the shower, let me get dressed…”

“Okay, but don’t take too long, it’s cold out here!” Jamie replies as I approach a state of panic. I hastily strip off ‘Steve’s clothes and stuff them under my mattress, before pulling on a clean bra and thong and the skirt and top I was wearing earlier. I catch a brief glance of my make-up free face in the mirror and grimace at how androgynous my face looks- Jamie’s sure to comment on it, but I did say I was just in the shower, so hopefully it won’t attract too many comments… Though the fact that I certainly don’t smell like I’ve been in the shower might attract comment, so before I answer the door, I lift my top and cover my torso in my sweet-smelling girl’s deodorant before skipping downstairs and answering the door, forcing a smile on my face to match the one on the face of my self-appointed ‘mentor’.

“Hey Steph!” Jamie giggles as she follows me into the living room. “Got the house to yourself this morning?” As if you didn’t already know… I think to myself.

“Yeah, mum and dad are both at work,” I reply. “Just been at ballet, figured I’d make the most of the morning off and relax…”

“Definitely recommend that, seeing how busy you’ll be with promotion for the next few days!” Jamie giggles as she smoothes her short skirt over her crossed legs.

“Why- why have you dropped round, anyway?” I ask, hoping not sound too confrontational. “Aren’t you supposed to be nursing your fiancé back to health?”

“Mmm,” Jamie giggles coyly. “He’s recovering just fine, he’s just about up to walking normally now. Can’t wait until he’s able to move around normally…” I keep my forced smile on my face as Jamie describes her relationship with Stuart. My own fleeting feelings for the now post-operative transman may have vanished a long time ago, but it still grates to hear Jamie boast of her ‘perfect life’ with him.

“Speaking of,” Jamie says, snapping me back to attention, “You just passed the nine month mark on HRT, didn’t you?”

“Umm, nearly,” I say, trying to remember the date I claimed I’d started taking oestrogen.

“You MUST be feeling the effects by now,” Jamie says. “I was nineteen when I started HRT, nine months on I felt like a completely different person. Not that I was much of a ‘person’ beforehand, heh.”

“Yeah, I’m really starting to feel the difference,” I say, hoping that Jamie doesn’t see through my obvious lie.

“Really?” Jamie asks. “Because up close, you don’t seem all that different physically…” I smile darkly as Jamie’s REAL reason for visiting me in person is revealed.

“Oestrogen affects different people in different ways,” I shrug. “Didn’t you say that your physical changes were really slow too?”

“A little,” Jamie retorts. “Nine months after starting HRT I got these done,” Jamie gestures at her small-ish, perky breasts, which I awkwardly glance at before my ‘mentor’ continues talking. “Word of advice: do NOT do that right now. You’ll be in and out of hospital for months, heh.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” I say, making Jamie giggle.

“I’d recommend ‘bottom’ SRS to anyone, though,” Jamie says. “You honestly have no idea how amazing it feels to be ‘complete’. Have you talked to Dr Phillips about it yet?”

“Umm, no, it’s a little early for it, isn’t it?” I ask.

“Meh, a little, I guess,” Jamie shrugs. “How’s planning coming for Kayla’s birthday on Saturday?”

“Good,” I say. “Becca’s taking the lead on that one.”

“Hmm, okay,” Jamie mutters. “It’s just that we’re probably going to record it for the next series of the Angels… I know you girls technically aren’t part of the ‘Angels’ but viewing figures for series 2 weren’t great, so we figure a bit of fresh blood should bump them up a bit!”

“Well, as I said, it’s your fiancé’s sister you should talk to there,” I reply.

“Well, okay,” Jamie says. “It’s just that when we hired you, Lauren and Kayla, it was partly because you got on so well at the auditions and interviews. You actually met Kayla before your first audition, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I reply. “Think we were back-to-back.”

“You were definitely the same day,” Jamie replies. “Joshua’s main concern with putting a band together to be the ‘singing Angels’ was that they should naturally become friends rather than forcing them together, which can cause friction, which ISN’T good for business, etc. etc.”

“Doesn’t that include Becca and Adeola?” I ask.

“Well, yes, obviously,” Jamie retorts. “Meh, I guess as long as someone’s on top of it, it’s fine. So, what’ve you got planned for the rest of the day?”

“Relaxing!” I giggle. “Might watch some TV, play on my Xbox…”

“Well, if that’s your idea of ‘relaxing’,” Jamie giggles. “I have a much better afternoon planned, and you’re welcome to join me if you want… If that’s what you REALLY want…”

“Umm, what did you have planned?” I ask, making Jamie giggle excitedly.

Four hours later, I return home looking like the very picture of feminine beauty. Jamie’s ‘much better’ afternoon turned out to be a spa treatment and a makeover, meaning my body spent the whole afternoon being beautified in ways I never imagined. I had a deep tissue massage, an exfoliation treatment, a mud bath, a full facial treatment including an organic face mask, my eyebrows were reshaped, my nails shaped and polished and my make-up professionally applied. My hair was washed and re-washed and given countless nourishing treatments, leaving it looking rich and shiny. I started this afternoon wanting a chance to be ‘Steve’ even if it’s for just a little while, but I’m now more ‘Steph’ than I’ve ever been before. Even as I while away the evening playing on my Xbox, I feel more ‘Steph’ than ‘Steve’.

The following morning, I touch up my professional makeover as best I can before pulling a very chic short dress out of my wardrobe and pulling it on over my ‘enhanced’ figure. After pulling on a thin pair of black tights, I slip my feet into a pair of extra-high heeled platform stilettos, before giving my mum a kiss goodbye and jumping in the waiting taxi. As part of the album’s ‘publicity tour’ we’ve all been given individual interviews to maximise our exposure, so this morning I’m visiting the offices of one of the UK’s largest LGBT community websites. I barely take five steps into the reception area before I’ve had three copies of our album shoved in my face, which I happily sign for the excited fans. Six more autographs and four selfies later, I finally reach the small office where I’ll be interviewed.

“Hi, you must be Steph- well, obviously your Steph!” The interviewer, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, says, greeting me with a loose handshake. “Do you mind being called ‘Steph’ or would you prefer ‘Stephanie’ or ‘Miss Abbott’?” Or ‘Steve’, or ‘Mr. Abbott’…

“Steph will be fine,” I say as I elegantly sit down in the plush chair.

“I’m Tracey,” the interviewer says as she sits down, smoothing her tight pencil skirt beneath her. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the whole interview ‘drill’ by now, I ask a few questions about the album, the band, you’ve probably done it in your sleep, hehe!”

“Yeah,” I chuckle.

“Before we start though, I LOVE those shoes!” Tracey gushes. “I’ve been looking for a pair like those for ages… Please tell me they’re affordable and from a website?”

“£200 and from Regent Street, I’m afraid,” I giggle as I playfully wiggle the expensive, painful footwear.

“Ah well,” Tracey shrugs. “When I started transitioning ten years ago they never made shoes like that, I’m happy with my ‘regular’ stilettos, though!”

“I- I’m sorry, ‘transitioning’?” I ask, confused by Tracey’s revelation.

“Yes, and thank you for not being able to tell!” Tracey laughs. “Started transitioning in 2004 when I was 23, SRS four years later, two years after that I married the guy of my dreams and last year we adopted a little girl called Ellie!”

“Um, congratulations!” I say, examining Tracey for any sign that she was ever male and finding nothing.

“I’ve got to tell you, breastfeeding is an AMAZING experience,” Tracey gushes. “I’d recommend it to anyone, I really would. Well- maybe not when you’re only nineteen, hehe! But that’s enough about me, we’re here to talk about you!” I giggle, but all of a sudden I’m a lot more nervous. I’m inevitably going to be asked questions about my transition- I always am- but this time I’m going to be asked them by a woman who’s been through the whole process herself, who’s had ‘the operation’ and is even a wife and a mother…

Sure enough, after fifteen minutes of questions about the album- all of which is being recorded as well for the website’s YouTube channel- the topic changes to one of a more personal nature.

“I understand you’ve only been transitioning for less than a year, is that correct?” Tracey asks, making me quietly gulp.

“Yeah,” I reply. “I started oestrogen just after my nineteenth birthday, haven’t really had any other treatments, no surgeries apart from laser hair removal.”

“How have you found it?” Tracey asks. “I know from personal experience that during the first year of HRT, you undergo some huge changes.”

“It’s been, um, challenging,” I say as I hastily recall all the information and testimonials I’ve read on transgender support websites and blogs. “My mood seems to go up and down a lot, some days are REALLY bad- you know, it’s hard just getting out of bed. Other days I’m on such a rush I can stay awake all night, only to crash again the following day.” I smirk as I realise that what I’m saying- about my volatile mood- really isn’t that far from the truth.

“But do you ever regret the decision to transition?” Tracey asks.

“Never, not for a second,” I lie. “You need to be true to whoever you are inside. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it because it IS available. It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s worth the effort in the end to be who you truly want to be.”

“And last, but not least,” Tracey says with a wicked sparkle in her eyes, “your bandmate Adeola Benedict was recently seen out on more than one occasion with a very fit-looking young man. Is love also on the horizon for Steph?”

“No, no no no,” I giggle. “I’m not looking right now- things are complicated enough in my life, hehe! But if love were to find me, I wouldn’t say no to Mr. Right!” Tracey and I both giggle girlishly, before Tracey offers me her hand and we share another limp, feminine handshake.

“Stephanie Abbott, thank you for your time!” Tracey says.

“And… Cut,” the cameraman says as Tracey and I stand up and she leads me out of the office building.

“Sooo,” Tracey teases. “MISTER Right?”

“Huh?” I reply.

“Well,” Tracey says, “I’m a bit of an Angels enthusiast, I know your friend Nikki recently got engaged to another girl, I didn’t know whether or not you were, you know, ‘L’ like her. But you said ‘Mister’ Right, so…” I briefly pause as I replay the interview in my head only to realise, to my horror, that Tracey’s correct- I DID say ‘Mister’ Right.

“Well, um, ‘Miss’ Right would also be acceptable,” I mumble. “Provided she- or, I guess, he- is really, really, um, right…” I blush slightly as Tracey keeps giggling all the way to the office’s front entrance.

“Well, thanks for coming down,” Tracey says as we head out into the cool October air. “Hopefully we’ll see you back here soon!”

“I’d like that,” I say with a smile, though in truth, I’d be just as happy to never meet Tracey again. Sure, she’s a very nice, very friendly person, but that’s just the point- she’s a constant reminder that I’m neither of those things. She’s lived the life I’m pretending to live, undergone the stress and mental anguish of living as a gender she wasn’t, of coming out to her family, or trying to make a new life for herself in her new gender… She, and people like her, are the true role models, not frauds like me.

As if to hammer home the point even more, my phone rings within an hour of me arriving home- and the screen shows that the caller is the same woman who pestered me at my home yesterday.

“Hi Jamie!” I say down the phone in as enthusiastic a voice as I can manage.

“Hi Steph!” Jamie squeaks back. “Just thought you might want to know that your interview’s just gone live on their YouTube channel!”

“What- already?” I ask. “I only left there a couple of hours ago…”

“Welcome to the digital age, I guess!” Jamie giggles. “How did you find Tracey? She’s interviewed me a few times in the past, both before and after my SRS, she’s always very friendly.”

“Yeah, she’s cool,” I reply. “Did you know she and her husband adopted a daughter and she actually breastfeeds her?”

“Think I saw it on her twitter,” Jamie replies. “The adoption, that is, not the other thing! Anyway, I just called to say you came across really well in the interview. Your dress was a great choice- you’ve got a real eye for fashion.”

“Thanks,” I giggle nervously. “Umm, not that I’m ungrateful or anything, but you don’t normally call me after an interview…”

“Yeah,” Jamie concedes, “but after yesterday I was kinda worried you were feeling a little down, that’s why I took you for some pampering, and in the interview you did look a little, you know, ‘forced’…”

“Honestly, I’m okay,” I say. “Just a pretty heavy workload, that’s all.”

“Well, you’re getting paid to be a superstar,” Jamie laughs. “So suck it up and slap a smile on your face!”

“Will do,” I giggle, hopefully convincing Jamie.

“Also, before I go,” Jamie says with a playful tone to her voice, “I may have heard this before, but I never, you know, really realised that you were, you know, a heterosexual girl…”

“Ehh…” I grimace. “I’m more ‘hetero in name only’,” I reply. “I did also mention that I’m happily single and not looking, didn’t I?”

“You did indeed,” Jamie concedes. “But if you ever do start, you know, looking, let me know, I’m sure Sarah and her friends have, like, a hundred cute boys at their uni who’ll give their right arm for a date with a celebrity singer!”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I giggle.

“Got to go now,” Jamie sighs. “Got a recovering fiancé to fawn over, hehe! Talk to you soon, Steph.”

“You too, Jamie,” I reply before clicking off the phone. I don’t whether or not to believe Jamie when she says that she was ‘kinda worried’ about me, or whether she was using the interview as an excuse to check up on me again, but either way I’m happy that the conversation has ended and I can relax for the next couple of hours, before having to enter ‘celebrity mode’ yet again for a further two telephone interviews this evening- both of which thankfully go without a hitch, though the same personal questions are asked and the same rehearsed responses are given each time.

When I wake up the following morning, it’s actually a relief to pull on my pink tights and my black leotard ahead of my second ballet lesson of the week, as it’s a guarantee that for the next couple of hours, I’ll be out of the public eye. However, since the ‘group’ lesson for all the various ‘Angel’ groups was moved to a Wednesday, it also means that I won’t be able to escape the accusing eye of my ‘mentor’.

“Hey Steph!” Jamie says with a warm smile as I arrive at the dance studio and strip off the short black dress that I’d pulled on over my dancewear.

“Hey Jamie,” I giggle. “Can’t seem to get away from you nowadays!”

“Meh, I’ve just got a lot of time free,” Jamie shrugs. “Joshua’s booking me as little as possible so I can spend time with Stuart while he recovers… Unlike you, ‘Miss Media Darling’!”

“Ah, jealousy will get you every time,” I say, making Jamie laugh even harder.

“Meh, touché,” my mentor laughs. “I AM worried about you, though… Even though you knew what you were getting yourself into when you joined the band, it’s still a pretty heavy workload you’ve been landed with. Do you talk to Beverly about it?”

“A little,” I reply. “I’m actually going there today after ballet, I’ll have to make sure to bring it up then.”

“Cool,” Jamie replies. “Fancy some, you know, moral support?” I do a double take as Jamie makes her offer- that surely can’t be simple ‘concern’…

“Umm, thanks but no thanks,” I reply. “My sessions… They’re kinda like a sanctuary, you know? Even here I kinda have a ‘public face’ on, there… I can drop everything, be the real ‘me’…”

“I dunno,” Jamie muses. “I’d kinda like to meet the ‘real you’!” I’m sure you would, you sneaky cow…

“…Maybe some other time,” I say, making Jamie giggle as Krystie ties the hair of Jamie, me and our friend Nikki into tight buns before starting our lesson.

“Sorry I couldn’t make it on Monday,” Krystie announces to the class. “As much money as my body makes me, I really wish it was put together a bit better!”

“It’s okay,” Becca giggles. “I kinda liked being a teacher, reckon these three might be ready for pointe shoes soon…” I giggle at Becca’s joke, though my smile soon falls when I see Lauren and Kayla glare at the dark-haired girl.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Krystie retorts, making Becca giggle bashfully. “Okay, let’s get this started, don’t want to keep the uni girls from their books…” I smile as I take my place at the barre and begin my stretches and steps. Whilst I’m still far from the most graceful person in the world- and I still feel slightly ridiculous wearing skin-tight clothing in a room full of other women- ballet has greatly helped me with my posture over the last few months. I now have a naturally feminine walk (especially in heels), my body language is feminine, even when I sit down I keep my knees pressed together, just like a woman- though the shortness of my skirts may be the main reason for that.

Even as I change from my dancewear into a pair of black tights and my dress from earlier this morning, my ‘motions’ are feminine and elegant. Come to think of it, even when I pull on my jeans when I’m having ‘Steve time’, I do it in a feminine way…

“I’m thinking Becca may not be too far off the mark,” Krystie says as she comes skipping toward me. “You’ve really improved a lot in the last six months, reckon you’ll knock it out the park next week, when you start the rehearsals for your next video.”

“Hopefully your choreography won’t be TOO hard, though!” I retort, making Krystie laugh.

“I’m not giving you anything you can’t do,” our dance teacher replies. “Though if you do get pointe shoes before the end of 2016, I am going to HAVE to include that in a music video! All five of you en pointe at the same time… That’ll be a video that people won’t forget in a hurry!”

“That video of the six of us doing the Nutcracker for your 21st has got, like, millions of hits on YouTube,” Jamie says, making Krystie laugh. “Steph, you sure you don’t want ‘moral support’ when you go and see Beverly?”

“Positive,” I say.

“Sorry for eavesdropping,” Sarah- my counsellor’s daughter and one of our close friends- says. “Did you just say you were going to see my mum today?”

“Yeah,” I reply, grimacing at how my psychiatry appointments have suddenly become a topic for public debate. “I’m going there now, actually.”

“Oh, okay,” Sarah says. “Can you tell her I’ll be late home tonight? Me and Lauren- sorry, OUR Lauren- need to hit the books pretty hard…”

“Can’t you just call her and tell her?” I ask.

“I don’t know when she’s with a patient,” Sarah says, visibly taken aback by my response. “Don’t want to interrupt her…”

“Oh, um, sure, I can pass on the message,” I say, conscious that I don’t want to offend the young woman.

“Thanks Steph!” Sarah giggles, before skipping away.

“Any other messages anyone wants passing on?” I ask, making Jamie and Krystie snort with laughter.

“Oh, leave Sarah alone, she’s cool,” Krystie chuckles.

“And is designing my wedding dress!” Jamie giggles. “If she’s not too busy with uni work… And if I’m not too busy with uni work, hehe! How about you, Steph? Ever had any ambitions to be a college girl?”

“Eh, not really,” I say. “I hear Becca talk about it from time to time, but I figure I’d only want a degree to get a job, and I already have a job…”

“Take it from someone who’s been there, done that for the last two years,” Krystie laughs. “’Celebrity’ is a lifestyle, not just a job!”

“Says the woman who not only has a job, but did said job less than fifteen minutes ago!” Jamie giggles.

“This isn’t a job, it’s a hobby I get paid for!” Krystie retorts, sticking her tongue out at my ‘mentor’.

“Do you fill in a tax return?” Jamie asks. “Do you have a business name, business insurance, an accountant? Do you make several hundred pounds a week- net- from teaching ballet in this place?”

“…Yes to all of the above,” Krystie says, before breaking down in a fit of giggles. “Oh- sorry, Steph, here we are gabbing and you need to get away…”

“Last chance for some ‘moral support’!” Jamie says with an expectant smile.

“…Maybe some other time,” I say, making Jamie giggle as I leave the dance studio and jump in a waiting taxi, which speeds me on my way to the place that is rapidly becoming my only true ‘sanctuary’ in the world.

“Hi Stephanie,” Beverly says as I step through the door of her posh office.

“Sorry I’m a bit late, ballet overran a little,” I say. “Speaking of late, you daughter told me to tell you she’ll be late home tonight.”

“Ugh, I swear that girl has no idea how to use voicemail,” Beverly chuckles as I elegantly sit down in her soft, comfortable chair. “Sorry you got used as a carrier pigeon! Other than ferrying messages back and forth, how have things been over the past few days?”

“Good,” I say.

“Really?” Beverly asks.

“Well… Could be better, I guess,” I sigh. “Monday I had a ‘Steve’ session…”

“How did you feel once you were dressed in your old clothes?” Beverly asks.

“…Strange,” I say. “It felt right, but at the same time, it felt wrong, it’s like, I don’t know who the ‘real me’ is anymore, ‘Steve’ or ‘Steph’…”

“I’m not going to be able to answer that question for you,” Beverly says. “Only you can determine that, though this is of course nothing you haven’t heard a hundred times before.”

“It’s like ‘Steve’ isn’t real anymore,” I say.

“In a way, he isn’t,” Beverly advises. “Legally, your first name is now ‘Stephanie’. Your bank account is in that name, your passport is in that name, your income tax is paid in that name…”

“Thanks for the reminder,” I sigh.

“The point I’m trying to make,” Beverly says, “is that you’re not going through anything that any other transgendered person goes through- it’s natural to feel some sort of mourning for the former personality.”

“But I’m not transgendered,” I say.

“You have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria,” Beverly retorts. “You were born male, and yet you’re sitting here in front of me wearing a dress, tights, make-up, nail polish…”

“So why don’t I FEEL transgendered?” I moan.

“That’s a question we’ll have to explore together,” Beverly replies.

Once again, I leave the office an hour later, no closer to answering my questions of resolving my stress over who I truly am. I’ve been told that Beverly is one of the best specialists in the whole country when it comes to transgender issues, but I’m willing to bet even she has never had a case as frustrating as mine. I try to put all thoughts of stress out of my head as I jump into yet another taxi, which takes me straight to my next ‘appointment’. Even though I’ve only been on the go for a few hours, I’ve not had a chance to rest or relax, but I force a smile on my face as I step out of the taxi and into the brightly-coloured building housing my next appointment.

“Hi!” The girl at the front desk- who looks even younger than me- enthuses as I approach. “Miss Abbott, please, follow me!”

“Thanks,” I say, taken aback slightly by the girl’s enthusiasm.

“We’ve had the album playing all day,” the girl continues. “We were so excited when you agreed to do the interview with us, I mean, we are just a silly little student magazine…”

“It’s my pleasure, really,” I say, making the girl giggle.

“We actually asked for all five of you,” the girl says. “But you were always our first choice!”

“Thanks,” I repeat.

“After the interview,” the girl asks nervously, “would, umm, would you- would you mind signing a few autographs?”

“Sure,” I say, making the girl giggle excitedly even as I grimace at the realisation that I’m giving one word answers to what she’s saying. “Sorry, just didn’t get much sleep last night, umm, can- can I use your toilet, please?”

“Sure,” the girl says. “Just follow me…” I nod and smile as the girl leads me to the college’s ladies’ restroom.

“Umm,” I say, pausing before entering the brightly-lit room. “Do- do you have a disabled toilet?”

“Oh, whatever, it’s a girls’ toilet, you’re a girl, right?” My ‘escort’ says with a shrug.

“Right,” I giggle as I enter one of the cubicles. It’s hardly the first time I’ve ever used an actual ladies’ toilet, but I’ve become so used to using the disabled facilities that the thought of going into a ladies’ toilet as though it were normal is a strange one… But the thought of going into a men’s toilet is simply unthinkable. Even in ‘Steve’ mode I sit down to pee, and have done since I was sixteen in an effort to add just a little bit of femininity to my everyday life… Is Beverly right? Could I somehow be truly transgendered without even noticing?

After I ‘finish’, making sure to thoroughly wash my hands afterwards with the sweet-smelling soap provided, I head into the small room where I’m interviewed by another girl who looks barely older than sixteen. After twenty minutes of the usual questions and the usual answers, I follow my interviewer into the college’s dining hall, where I spend the next half hour signing autographs and posing for selfies. My ‘escort’ makes a point of introducing me to two young women, both of whom are transitioning from male to female. I spend a nerve-wracking five minutes talking to them about my ‘transition’, giving them details of things that haven’t happened and listening to their stories, before I’m finally allowed to leave the college and head home.

As I sit down in the taxi, though, I remember the smiles on the faces of the girls I met today, especially the two transgendered girls, and a smile slowly starts to creep over my own face as I realise that for them, meeting me almost certainly meant more to them than to the other girls. Regardless of how I personally feel, they see me as a role model- someone who, like them, is living as the opposite gender to the one they were born into, and making a success out of their life. By seeing me succeed, it makes them believe that they can as well, that their ‘status’ isn’t a barrier to them leading a fulfilling life… I give them confidence, in much the same way Jamie gave me confidence when I first auditioned for the band… If I walk away from ‘Stephanie’, I risk shattering that confidence, but at the same time, if I walk away from ‘Steve’, it’ll shatter MY confidence.

I collapse hard on the sofa as I return home, glad that I’ve only been booked in for one interview today. A quick look at the clock tells me that mum and dad won’t be back for another three hours, meaning I have the house all to myself until then. If I wanted, I could have some ‘Steve’ time right now… But all I want to do is relax, and after my unexpected visit from Jamie on Monday, if I took ‘Steve’ time, I’d be constantly ‘looking over my shoulder’, worried that someone might come home and I’d have some awkward questions to answer, but if I stay in my dress and my tights, no one would even blink as it’d be nothing out of the ordinary. And it’s not like the clothes are uncomfortable- quite the opposite, in fact…

I take advantage of my lazy evening by relaxing on the sofa until late into the evening, allowing the stress to leave my body as I watch TV with my parents. As predicted, not a single comment is made about my appearance by either of my parents, even with most of my nylon-covered legs, my expertly made-up face and my professionally manicured nails on display for the whole evening. The total ‘indifference’ of my parents causes me to relax so much that by the time I head to bed and peel off my tights, the revelation that I’ve had them on for over twelve hours and only barely noticed them all day causes me to pause with shock. The sight and feel of my legs in tights- something that would previously cause my heart to flutter with excitement- is now so ordinary I barely even notice when it happens for well over half a day. It’s as if women’s clothing has become such a part of my life that it no longer has any ‘pull’ over me.

…Unlike the folded t-shirts and pairs of jeans at the back of my drawer that I stare at with the same longing with which I used to stare at my collection of skirts and dresses- a collection that used to live in the very same drawer. I let out a long sigh, before closing the drawer, pulling on my light, frilly nightie and climbing into bed.

Thursday's 'work' consists of much the same as every other day this week- being asked the same questions about our album and giving the same answers- though thankfully this time we're being interviewed as a group. Our 'destination' for today is This Morning- the same TV show where we made our 'debut' a few months ago, but what feels like a whole other lifetime. Back then, all five of us were nervous, inexperienced girls- now we're seasoned media veterans, and are more 'women' than 'girls'. Even I'm more 'woman' than 'girl' nowadays, and certainly much more 'woman' than either 'man' or 'boy'...

"Come on..." Becca moans as she switches her phone back on, having changed from her 'TV' dress back into a comfortable black skirt and patterned top.

"Desperate to see Riley's latest text?" I ask the brown-haired girl, who sticks her tongue out at me.

"Desperate to see the charts!" Becca replies. "I didn't get the chance on the taxi over here..."

"We were eighth before I went to bed last night," Lauren says. "God, I really hope we crack the top five..."

"How many sales do we need before we get a silver disc?" I ask, making the other four girls giggle.

"Bit early to be worrying about that!" Adeola chuckles. "But for the record, it's 60K. 100K is gold, 300K is platinum."

"If I get a silver record," Becca giggles, "I swear I will spend the rest of my life polishing it. Aah!" Adeola, Lauren, Kayla and I all jump as Becca startles us with a high-pitched wail.

"What? What is it?" Lauren asks. "Are we top five?"

"Fifth!" Becca squeaks excitedly. "We're fifth!" My jaw drops at the news- a position of fifth means that we're on course to sell over twenty thousand copies of our album within the first week of it being on sale, an incredible achievement for our debut.

"This is so awesome!" Kayla gasps as she reads the information from Becca's screen. "We should go out somewhere, you know, somewhere special for lunch, to celebrate!"

"Ah, I'd love to," Becca grimaces. "Kinda already made plans, though..." Becca's eyes roll as her phone bleeps with a new text message notification. "...And that would be 'Mr. Plans' right now! Maybe tomorrow, after the signing?"

"Okay, sure," Kayla shrugs.

"Well, I'm free for lunch," Lauren says with a smile. "Shall we call it a double-header?"

"Sure!" Kayla says with a giggle as she and Lauren leave the dressing room, leaving me, Becca and Adeola by ourselves.

"Charming," I say as I carefully fold away my dress and pull on the knee-length pencil skirt I'd worn to the studio.

"It's particularly charming as we're going shopping for her birthday party on Saturday," Adeola snorts.

"You know," Becca says. "We don't need three people to do the shopping, so if you wanted to go after them, you could. It'd be a good chance for you three to catch up, talking about things..."

"...And let slip you're planning a huge party?" I ask, making Becca grin.

"Who says you're not a REAL girl?" Becca giggles. "Now go, go! Don't let them get too far away!" I giggle as I leave the dressing room, quickly catching up to the two girls.

"Hey girlies!" I say, momentarily startling Lauren and Kayla. "I'm free and in a mood to celebrate, want to make it a triple-header?" I pause, internally grimacing as Lauren and Kayla consider my request. Whilst my relationship with them hasn't been destroyed as such, it has been a while since we last hung out together...

"Sure," Lauren shrugs. "The stepsisters too busy for you, then?" I bite my tongue as I want to tell Kayla about the party immediately and defuse the tension, but I know that there's bound to be a better time to do that.

"They don't tell me who I can and can't hang out with," I retort. "Besides, it's been ages since we last went anywhere, just the three of us..."

"Meh, if you want," Lauren says. I force a smile on my face as I follow the two young women out to our waiting taxi, even though I know the lunch will be awkward, especially since Lauren's gradual 'demotion' from being the 'face' of the band in the eyes of the press. She still gets plenty of individual coverage, and even sang the national anthem before the Scotland vs America World Cup match last month, but it's obvious that she's not happy at us other girls taking back some of what she sees as her limelight.

The lunch passes as awkwardly as I'd predicted, with Lauren and Kayla constantly talking about their boyfriends and gossiping about Becca and Adeola, despite the danger of someone overhearing us in what is a very public restaurant and leaking news of our 'lack of cohesion' to the press. Even as we gossip like old friends, however, it's clear that to Lauren and Kayla, the band is still very much 'us' and 'them' rather than just 'us', so as we go to leave the restaurant, I play my trump card.

"You know," I say with a coy smile, "it really is a shame Becca and Adeola couldn't join us for lunch."

"What, so they could lord over the three of us as usual?" Lauren spits.

"Only when they're not too busy planning a massive, fancy party for Kayla on Saturday," I shrug, making Kayla's jaw drop.

"Wh-what?" The tiny blonde girl asks. "I- I thought Jamie and Charlotte were planning that, as always?"

"Nope," I say smugly. "Becca and Adeola are doing it all themselves. Well, with a tiny bit of help from me."

"That- that's so cool!" Kayla squeaks, before sighing. "Kinda wish I hadn't been so nasty about them now..."

"They're probably only doing it to get onto your good side," Lauren says.

"Well, it's working!" Kayla giggles as the two girls head to their taxi whilst I get into mine. With all the stress in my life right now, the other four girls being at loggerheads is a worry I can live without, so if this party can help to ease that tension, it's very welcome. Assuming Lauren will allow Kayla to grow closer to Becca and Adeola, of course...

My fears are allayed the following day, however, when the five of us travel to the HMV on Oxford Street to sign copies of our CD, and all of us have wide, obviously genuine smiles on our faces. Kayla's demeanour couldn't make it any more obvious that she knows about Becca & Adeola's plans, and the two dark-haired girls very obviously know that she knows, and Kayla knows that they know that she knows... But none of them care. Even Lauren seems happy despite not being the centre of attention, and I'm definitely relieved that the tension that's plagued the band since day one finally seems to be disappearing.

Eventually, after signing enough autographs to make my wrist sore for weeks, the five of us are escorted out of the store and into the band's converted minibus, still wearing our fancy short dresses, extra-high stilettos and excessive make-up. Even though we're all tired, the fact that there were so many people there just to see us leaves us exhilarated, eager to get back to work and produce more music for our fans.

"Okay," Becca says once we all get our breath back. "How about now, we go somewhere special for lunch, to celebrate the fact that all five of us are sexy, successful and super-famous?"

"Sounds amazing," Lauren sighs. "But I am absolutely knackered and I'd give just anything to get out of this dress and these shoes and into a comfy pair of jeans..."

"Yeah... You're not alone there!" I tiredly say, internally grimacing as I realise exactly what it is I just said.

"By 'jeans' I hope you two mean 'girly hipsters'?" Adeola teases.

"Are there any other kind of jeans?" I ask, making the other four girls giggle, much to my relief.

"How about," Becca says, "we all go back to your flat, order take-out and watch Netflix for the rest of the evening?"

"What about girls' night out?" I ask, even though Becca's plan sounds like the best thing I've heard all week.

"Not all of us can go, so it wouldn't be fair," Becca shrugs. "Even though it is Kayla's fault for being seventeen years and 364 days old."

"Blame my parents for not inducing earlier," Kayla retorts, making Becca giggle.

"Next Friday, though, next Friday is going to be EPIC, you have my word!" Becca says, making all of us giggle yet again.

"Alright then," Adeola says. "We three saddos will go home to our parents' homes and change, and meet you at your place in an hour?"

"You're not saddos for still living with your parents," Lauren shrugs. "God knows my parents still think I should move back with them and commute 600 miles each day!"

"Ah, the joys of being the youngest," I say, making Lauren giggle.

"It's a date," Becca says. "See you there in an hour. And I am NOT a saddo!"

"Oh, like you haven't said the exact same thing a million times before!" Adeola retorts, making all of us giggle as we're dropped off at our respective homes, before the minibus returns and collects Becca, Adeola and myself and drops us off at the flat that used to be my home for many months.

"Is this weird?" Adeola asks as we enter the posh apartment. "I mean, it IS your former home, right?"

"A little," I shrug. "Kinda miss my independence... You two never thought about moving in together?"

"Sometimes," Becca shrugs. "Doubt my dad would cope well, especially since he's now retired."

"Oh whatever," Adeola says. "He's got that nephew of yours to play with, hasn't he?"

"Yeah, I guess," Becca sighs. "How about we look into this in the new year? The three of us, getting a place together?"

"Whoa, what?" I ask. "I'm going to be living with you too?"

"You're the one who said 'I miss my independence'!" Becca giggles. "And besides, I can hardly swap clothes with Miss six-foot amazon, can I?"

"Five foot nine and size ten, thank you very much," Adeola retorts, making me and Becca laugh as we crash on the sofa, glasses of wine in our hands, comfortable thick tights and denim skirts covering our legs and a bevy of shows to choose from on the big-screen TV.

Becca, Adeola and I remain at the apartment until after 10pm, gossiping about our family and (where applicable) our boyfriends. To my surprise and delight, Becca and Adeola make no effort to dominate the conversation, listening intently to everything Lauren, Kayla and I have to say and only talking when it's their turn. As I leave the apartment, I feel more a part of the band than ever.

And yet, when I arrive home, I stare longingly at the jeans in the back of my drawer- the jeans I nearly wore instead of the skirt currently hanging from my waist- and I know that as long as my 'conflict' continues, I'll never truly be 'one of the girls'.

I wake up the following morning and am relieved to finally have a day free from work. After sending a quick 'happy birthday' text to Kayla, I shower and apply my make-up, before pulling on a pair of black tights, a short black skirt and a long-sleeved red top. After selecting a dress and a pair of suicidally high heels for tonight's party, I head downstairs and crash on the sofa, making dad chuckle at my fatigue.

"Thought singers did all their work at the weekend," dad snorts.

"Joshua doesn't like making people work on their birthdays," I retort. "We'll be back at it tomorrow, though, and two more interviews on Monday..."

"Well, enjoy your fame while it lasts," dad advises. "Because it won't last forever! Speaking of birthdays, it's your birthday in a few months, and Christmas a few weeks before that. Just struck me that this'll be 'Stephanie's first ever Christmas and birthday... Put any thought into what you want, yet?" Peace on Earth, goodwill toward mankind and a resolution to my fucking stress, please, I sarcastically think to myself.

"...Not really," I reply. "I'll get back to you when I think of something."

"Well we're already getting in small stuff," dad says. "It's exciting, you know? For me and your mother, normally for small Christmas presents we get three of everything and give them to you and your brothers- Lynx sets, shaving kits, bundles of pants and socks... Guess we're going to have to be a bit more 'adventurous' this year!"

"Yep!" I reply, even though there's a very large part of me that's longing for the presents that dad just described. Any further conversation is prevented, however, when a knock comes from our front door.

"That'll be Becca," I sigh. "I probably won't be back before you guys go out..."

"We're both at work from 8pm, so I should hope not!" Dad chuckles. "You have fun tonight, don't drink too much, and don't end up in bed with any random men!" Fat chance... I think to myself.

"No promises," I retort, making dad chuckle as I grab my party outfit and follow Becca out to the minibus.

Eight hours later- after helping Becca and Adeola set up for the party- I use one of the mansion's spare rooms to change into the slinky dark red dress and uncomfortable shoes, before heading downstairs to where the party is just getting started. Unsurprisingly, the guest of honour is one of the first to arrive, and is greeted with big hugs from Becca, Adeola and myself.

"Happy birthday, miss finally-an-adult!" Becca giggles as Kayla laughs excitedly. "Even though you still look only twelve!"

"Yeah, well this still-looks-only-twelve year old can finally get HAMMERED!" Kayla laughs, taking a glass of champagne from a nearby tray

"Take it easy, you've got Friday night for that!" Lauren laughs.

"Plus your mother's coming to the party tonight," Adeola laughs. "Trust me- you do NOT want to go there!" Kayla giggles excitedly as she leads the four of us into the large main room, where the party eventually gets into full swing, with Joshua announcing the sales figures for the album (18 000 copies in one week- a decent amount for a debut album) and Kayla's mum making a speech that deeply embarrasses the blonde girl. As the party wears on, however, I can't help but notice that the birthday girl looking more and more distant, before eventually heading out of the party room and into the adjoining kitchen, where I find her staring at her half-empty glass of champagne.

"Hey," I whisper to the depressed-looking girl. "You- you okay?"

"Alcohol sucks," Kayla sighs. "It tastes horrible and I feel horrible."

"How many glasses have you had?" I ask, before shaking my head. "Never mind, you weigh, like, three stone and your system's not used to it... Is the booze really all that's up?"

"No," Kayla says, letting out an even longer sigh. "Steph, I- I can't do this anymore..."

"Can't do what?" I ask.

"This!" Kayla shouts. "This whole thing, the dresses, the press... I always thought for my eighteenth I'd be out somewhere celebrating with my friends, not being filmed for some reality TV show... None of my friends are even here..."

"We're here," I say, sitting down next to Kayla. "We're your friends. We care about you, we really do."

"None of my friends from Southampton came," Kayla moans.

"Did you invite them?" I ask.

"A couple," Kayla sighs. "I've barely even spoken to them since I moved to London, I've been so busy."

"What about your boyfriend?" I ask. "Has he got here yet?" Much to my surprise and dismay, Kayla immediately breaks down in floods of tears, causing me to awkwardly reach forward and give her a gentle hug.

"We split up weeks ago," Kayla wails.

"I- I thought you were talking about him just last night..." I say.

"I didn't want to seem like a loser," Kayla moans. "In front of you and the other girls... He dumped me, said he was 'intimidated by my fame' but a few weeks later I saw him out with one of my other friends in Southampton..."

"Oh, that really, really sucks," I say, hugging Kayla yet again. "You deserve better than that arsehole anyway."

"It's like," Kayla continues, "I've been looking forward to today for ages but now that it's here, I realise that the only thing I've got in my life is this band..."

"I know how you feel," I sigh.

"Really, Steph?" Kayla asks. "Do you really know how it feels to completely abandon your comfort zone and live every day pretending to be something you don't really want to be, when all you want to do is just run home and curl up in bed and forget about the whole thing?" I look into Kayla's eyes and try to think of a response beyond the obvious, truthful one, but the sheer look of anger in Kayla's eyes tells me that the truth is the only response that will do in this case, regardless of the consequences.

"Yes, Kayla," I say. "Yes I do know how it feels."

"How?" Kayla sighs sarcastically.

"Because I'm not transsexual," I say, making Kayla's face screw up in confusion.

"Umm, what?" Kayla asks.

"I- I'm not transsexual," I repeat, my whole body shaking as I make my 'confession'.

"No, wait, let me get this straight," Kayla says. "You- you were born male, right?"

"Right," I say.

"But you're wearing a dress, make-up and heels, right?" Kayla asks.

"Right," I repeat.

"And you live life as a woman?" Kayla asks.

"Again, right," I say.

"And you're taking hormones to turn you into a woman, right?" Kayla asks.

"Wrong," I say, making Kayla's jaw drop. "I- I never have. When I auditioned for the band, when we met, that first day... That was the first time I'd ever even worn women's clothes for more than an hour at a time."

"But- but-" Kayla stutters.

"I'd been unemployed for months," I say. "I'd always loved dressing up as a woman, I wanted to see if I could pass as a woman... I never for once imagined that it'd lead to this."

"So- so you've been lying to everyone this whole time?" Kayla asks.

"...Not fully," I say. "As time wore on, I grew to love living life as a woman, but... I always have this nagging feeling in the back of my mind, I always miss being a man."

"So- so what are you really?" Kayla asks. "A man or a woman?"

"What are you really?" I retort. "A national celebrity or a lost teenaged girl living away from home?" Kayla shoots me a truly evil stare, before closing her eyes and sighing.

"...Both," Kayla moans.

"So am I," I sigh. "You're the first person I've told this, well, apart from my counsellor. If Joshua found out, or Jamie..."

"I won't tell, I promise," Kayla says. "You- you must really trust me to have told me this."

"As I said," I reply with a smile, "you're my friend. And you told me something confidential, seems only fair to return the favour."

"If- if you had to choose," Kayla says, before pausing as I hold up my hand.

"I already know what you're going to ask<" I say. "And the truth is: I don't know. Male, female... Both have their pros, both have their cons. I'd be lying, though, if I said that being in the band WASN'T the biggest 'pro' of being a woman."

"So you don't want to leave the band?" Kayla asks.

"Never," I say. "These few months have been some of the best of my life... Just a shame they've also been some of the most stressful."

"I couldn't agree with you more," Kayla laughs. "Thank you."

"For what?" I ask.

"For showing me what a true friend is," Kayla says, before leaning in and giving me a soft kiss on the cheek. "Come on, people will start to wonder about us..." I smile as I follow Kayla back out into the party, where she starts mingling more with the guests and having a much better time- as do I.

I didn't go into the party expecting to find a new 'confidante', but I'm glad I'll be leaving it closer to Kayla than I've ever been. The fact that she would unquestioningly keep my secret shows just what a good friend she is- a friend much better than any 'Steve' ever had.

I'm no closer to making my 'ultimate decision'- but at least I'll have the support of one friend, regardless of what I choose. Someday, I may even be able to trust more people with my secret. I may even be able to trust people like Jamie with it, but for now, I have at least got rid of some of the stress the secret has been causing. Today, my future seems just a tiny bit less uncertain.



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