Jacinta, part 5

I grimaced as I walked into the shop, having to squint to adjust my eyes to the dim lighting within. The place felt like a dungeon, or worse yet, a bondage lair, with leather clothing and accessories adorning every wall and shelf.

"...Ophelia?" I asked nervously.

"I am behind the counter, Jacinta," Ophelia's voice called from the other side of the small shop. I took a deep breath as I walked through an aisle of dark-coloured, distressed-looking clothing before arriving at the counter, where my blue-haired, pale-skinned friend was stood in front of a black light that just highlighted the contrast between her skin and her hair.

"Oh, hi," an older man- maybe in his mid-thirties- said, and I was forced not to wince at the sight of the multiple piercings in the man's face, or the long, forked beard extending from his chin. "You must be Jacinta, Ophelia's talked a lot about you."

"...Ophelia's 'talked'?" I replied, making the pierced man giggle as my BFF rolled her eyes.

"Not much, I admit," the pierced man said. "I'm Darryl, Ophelia's manager. Nice to finally meet you!"

"Likewise," I replied as I exchanged a limp handshake with the bearded man. "You're... Not like the manager at the shop where I work."

"I bet," Darryl laughed. "Where do you work?"

"Oh, um, just at a newsagent near the shore," I replied. "Mostly get just older customers looking for a newspaper. The Mail, usually..."

"And the mere sight of me would give them a heart attack, heh," Darryl said with a laugh.

"Hell, most of them have a heart attack at the sight of ME," I sighed as I remembered some of the disapproving looks I'd received from some of the older men and women who had 'clocked' me during my time at the newsagent.

"Some people just can't accept that others needs to live their lives the way they see fit," Darryl sighed.

"That's why us 'different people' have to stick up for each other," I say, making both the people behind the counter smile. "On that topic, Ophelia, when's your shift end?"

"It just has," Darryl says.

"But my shift is not due to finish for another twenty minutes," Ophelia protested in her usual calm, stoic manner.

"I can hold the fort for the next twenty minutes," Darryl said with a grin. "Go on. Call it an early birthday present. Speaking of, happy birthday for Wednesday!" I grimace at Ophelia bristles at the mention of her upcoming birthday- it's not really a surprise that Ophelia hasn't told Darryl what a sensitive subject it is for her...

"Thank you," Ophelia replied coldly.

"Got anything planned?" Darryl asked. "It's a big one, your eighteenth... I know you're not really the type to go out on the razz, like, but, you know?"

"...Just staying in with family," Ophelia said, clearly getting more and more upset by Darryl's questions. "Thank you for the early finish."

"You're welcome," Darryl shrugged. "Make sure you're here nice and early next Saturday, last Saturday before Christmas and all that."

"I will make sure I am here on time," Ophelia said, before letting out a long sigh of frustration as we left the shop.

"You didn't tell him, then?" I asked, sighing as Ophelia shook her head. "Don't blame you, seeing how upset it made you. And, umm..."

"...Yes, Jacinta?" Ophelia asked.

"...When you say you'll be spending your birthday with family," I asked cautiously, "which- which 'family' do you mean?"

"My unimportant family," Ophelia sighed. "My biological one."

"...I really want to give you a hug now," I sighed sadly- though I felt a little better as the corners of my friend's mouth began to turn upward.

"You may consider it to be part of my birthday present if you do NOT give me a hug," Ophelia said, making me giggle as we headed toward the nearest bus stop.

One short ride later, the two of us were walking up the garden path toward Ophelia's house's front door, and with every step, I could sense my friend getting more and more uncomfortable. Naturally, I also felt uncomfortable at setting foot in the squalid house- but unlike Ophelia, this house wasn't also supposed to be my home.

"Good evening, mother," Ophelia said, trying desperately to hide the anxiety in her voice as she let us into the house.

"Wages!" Ophelia's mother demanded, holding out her hand without even rising from her chair- or even looking her daughter in the face. I felt my hands ball into fists as Ophelia withdrew £40- half the money she earned this week- from her vintage purse, placing it in her mother's hand before leading me up to her bedroom without exchanging another word with her mother.

"God, that makes me so angry," I spat as I kicked off my shoes and sat down cross-legged on Ophelia's bed, whilst she removed her torturously high stilettos and set about removing her elaborate make-up.

"She is the one who pays the bills," Ophelia sighed. "When my sisters lived here, they had to turn over ALL of their social security. As will Candice, once her baby is born."

"I still can't believe she's pregnant at fifteen," I sighed as I thought about Ophelia's younger sister- who was almost identical to her mother in attitude.

"I still can't believe it took her until fifteen to become pregnant," Ophelia sighed, blinking as she removed her fake eyelashes and her contact lenses.

"At least your mum didn't seem to notice me come in with you," I sighed. "THAT's an argument I didn't need..."

"My mother," Ophelia sighed. "A firm believer that immigrants have stolen her job, whilst never making any effort to actually acquire a job of her own. But I do not wish to discuss politics tonight."

"Or any night," I sighed, before groaning as I heard a loud yell from outside Ophelia's bedroom door.

"Mum!" Candice yelled, the spite evident in her voice. "Mandy's got the ladyboy here again!"

"What's he doin' in my house?" Ophelia's mother yelled, making me sigh.

"SHE is here as SHE is my friend," Ophelia replied in a raised voice, and for a second, I almost feared that Ophelia would get angry. Ophelia had difficulty expressing her emotions at the best of time, and I had never seen her actually get angry before- but I was sure I wouldn't want to be in her way if she ever did.

"HE is a freak and a- a- I don't want him in my house!" Ophelia's mother replied, and for a brief second, I almost thought I saw Ophelia's eye twitch, as though she was holding back a burning rage.

"She has such a way with words, doesn't she?" Ophelia asked, making me giggle.

"I've already texted dad," I sighed. "He'll be picking me up in a few minutes. There's- ugh. You know, you REALLY should move in with us, I mean, we can always get a sofa bed-"

"This is my home, for better or for worse," Ophelia interrupted.

"Would you mind telling me what constitutes 'for better'?" I retorted, frowning as my friend remained silent, unable to answer my question. "...Sorry."

"I shall see you tomorrow at college, Jacinta," Ophelia whispered.

"See you tomorrow, Ophelia," I whispered as my colourful friend flopped down on her bed, rolling over to face away from me- a sure sign that she was either already crying or would be before too long.

I sighed as I left Ophelia's bedroom, though I instantly grimaced when I came face to face with Ophelia's younger sister, whose mouth immediately contorted into a sadistic smile at the sight of me. Seconds later, Candice's gnawed, dirty fingernail was in my face, and she was doubled over in a fit of laughter. I felt something inside me snap at the sight of Candice's cruel, spiteful eyes, and despite the fact that I knew it would only make matters worse, I leaned in toward Candice and let rip with the loudest, fakest laugh I could manage, startling the teenaged girl into silence.

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA-" I yelled, before abruptly stopping and staring deep into the now silent teenager's eyes.

"Fuh- fuckin' laughin' at fuckin'..." Candice grunted as she slinked toward her bedroom, leaving the landing of the house in deathly silence- silence that was broken only by the sound of a gentle giggle coming from behind my best friend's bedroom door...

Needless to say, Ophelia was in better spirits than usual the following day at college, and the day after that, though when Wednesday rolled around, bringing with it Ophelia's eighteenth birthday, she was once again morose as we walked into college together.

"Hi Ophelia," I said to the blue-haired girl, whose face was covered in its usual thick make-up... And what had come to be its usual frown. "I won't say 'you know what'..."

"Thank you, Jacinta," Ophelia replied.

"So..." I said hesitantly. "I'm- I'm guessing, you know, that- that today was, you know, exactly like it was 365 days ago? At your house, I mean?"

"There was no reason for it to be any different," Ophelia replied. "Other than that I had to make breakfast today for my mother and my sister."

"They couldn't get off their lazy arses to do it themselves?" I asked, making Ophelia giggle. By December 2014, I'd come to know Ophelia well enough that the usual 'your momma' jokes didn't offend her- quite the opposite, in fact.

"Candice cannot because she is with child," Ophelia replied.

"Two months pregnant," I retorted.

"And my mother could not as she is 'too depressed to do any work'," Ophelia said- though the sarcasm in her voice made it clear what she really felt about her mother's 'illness'.

"Come with me tonight," I said softly. "You deserve to spend your birthday with people who actually care about you."

"My mother would undoubtedly accuse me of being selfish if I did," Ophelia said in a cold voice.

"The only selfish person I know is her," I retorted, frowning as Ophelia gently shook her head.

"I will return to my own home tonight," Ophelia said with a twinge of regret.

"...Then I'll go with you," I immediately offered.

"I'm... Not sure that's such a good idea," Ophelia replied with a grimace. "After the way mum and Candice reacted to you on Sunday..."

"It's your party, isn't it?" I asked. "And you pay toward the upkeep of the house. I saw that with my own eyes. Surely that entitles you to some privileges?"

"Try telling that to my mother," Ophelia said, before letting out a long sigh. "You just took that as an invitation, did you not?"

"I did indeed," I said with a smug grin. "See you tonight, Ophelia!"

"See you tonight, Jacinta," Ophelia said, looking almost terrified as she headed to her class.

Naturally, I felt terrible for Ophelia all throughout the college day, and at lunchtime, I was all but prepared to take back the invitation (which I admittedly had issued to myself), but by then, Ophelia was a lot more confident than she had been earlier. So confident, in fact, that when we left college together, she was almost smiling at the prospect of going home.

"...Ophelia?" I asked as the two of us walked together to the nearest bus stop. "Are- are you okay?"

"I am fine, thank you Jacinta," Ophelia said in an unusually upbeat voice.

"It's just you're- you're- well, you know, happy..." I murmured.

"And why should I be unhappy?" Ophelia asked. "It is, after all, my birthday, is it not?"

"Yeah, but- we're going back to your house," I reminded my blue-haired friend.

"And why should that make me unhappy?" Ophelia asked. "Is it not the place where I should feel most comfortable?"

"Yeah, but-" I said, before sighing. "Ophelia, it's me you're talking to. You don't need to put on a brave front for me."

"I am not putting on a brave front for you, Jacinta," Ophelia said, before letting out a tired sigh. "I'm putting one on for me."

"O- Ophelia?" I asked.

"What you said before, it- it was right," Ophelia explained. "I should not be made to feel miserable, not on my birthday, not on any day. I am now legally an adult. I deserve to be respected as one."

"You've said a lot of 'should's and 'deserve's," I sighed. "Do- do you really believe that will happen?"

"...I want to," Ophelia whispered. "I have to believe that it will get better eventually." I wiped away a solitary tear at my friend's unexpected- and extremely uncharacteristic- confession, and I resolved at that point that no matter what, my friend would have my full support when confronting her family- even if- or rather, when- they decided to confront me instead.

Ophelia and I simultaneously took a deep breath as she unlocked her front door and we stepped inside, trying not to wince at the house's usual smell of rotten food and stale cigarette smoke.

"We have returned, mother," Ophelia announced, causing her mother and her sister to snort with laughter.

"What, think you're the fuckin' queen with this 'we'?" Ophelia's mother snorted. Ophelia and I both rolled our eyes at each other, but it didn't take long for us to tense up when Candice- cigarette in hand, despite being both fifteen years old and pregnant- looked up and saw the pair of us. Almost instantly, the sadistic smile she'd worn days earlier returned to her face.

"MUM!" Candice yelled at the top her lungs, despite the fact that her mother was sat just a few feet away from her. "MUM! THE GAY BOY'S HERE! MUM!"

"What's that fuckin' thing doing in my house!?" Ophelia's mother spat through her crooked, yellow teeth. "I want that thing out of my house now!"

"No," Ophelia said defiantly. "It is my birthday, and I choose to celebrate it with my best friend."

"It's a freak!" Ophelia's mother screeched. "Gay people cause floods! That politic-un said so!"

"Jacinta is not gay," Ophelia said, her defiance increasing with every word she spoke. "She is heterosexual, she is only attracted to men."

"All gays are fuckin' paedos!" Candice yelled. "It'll rape me when I'm not lookin'!"

"Ugh!" I instantly spat, causing Ophelia to suppress a giggle. "Trust me, I really, really won't!"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Candice growled.

"It means that Jacinta would rather copulate with a warthog," Ophelia said with a smug grin.

"What's a copper plate mean?" Candice retorted.

"If you don't get that thing out of my house now, I'm calling the police!" Ophelia's mother yelled, which made me giggle as I caught the distinct smell of the smoke coming off of her cigarette and realised that it was definitely not tobacco. "What yer fuckin' laughin' at?"

"Last time I checked, being LGBT wasn't a crime," I replied, glancing at the 'cigarette' in the older woman's hand.

"It is in this house!" Ophelia's mother shouted, spittle flying from her chapped lips.

"If Jacinta leaves, then I leave too," Ophelia said, causing my laughter to instantly stop. "Forever."

"O-Ophelia," I whispered. "What- what are you-"

"Fine!" Ophelia's mother yelled. "I never wanted yer anyway!"

"No, you only wanted the child benefits that come with having a child," Ophelia retorted.

"Yeah," my best friend's 'mother' spat. "And now yer eighteen I ain't gettin' them, so yer can sling yer hook!"

"Goodbye, then," Ophelia said, making my jaw drop. "I shall send someone around for my possessions in the next few days." I stood in shock as Ophelia turned her back and walked toward the front door of her house, before immediately following her, not wanting to be left alone with my friend's gruesome family. When I got outside, I wasn't surprised to find that Ophelia was already in tears, nor was I surprised that- despite her usual aversion to being touched- Ophelia eagerly returned the hug I gave her.

"God, Ophelia..." I sighed. "You- you shouldn't have stood up for me like that, I should've left, I-"

"No," Ophelia said, wiping her tears from her eyes and taking as deep a breath as her corset would allow. "I wanted you there. I like you a lot more than I have ever liked any member of my family."

"But- but to actually invite them to kick you out like that?" I asked. "Ophelia, that was-"

"No more than you would do for me," Ophelia whispered. "No more than you DID do for me at the start of the year, when you rejected Jamie-Lee in favour of me."

"Umm... Those circumstances were a LOT different," I said. "I just turned down the friendship of a bunch of airheads, I didn't risk homelessness!"

"You stood up for me no matter what," Ophelia announced as she caught her breath and led me on the short walk toward my home. "As I shall always do for you."

"Oh- god, Ophelia..." I sighed as my arms instinctively reached to encircle her waist.

"One hug will be enough for tonight," Ophelia said, making me giggle as we continued onwards. "Would you please ask your father if he would mind me staying overnight at your house?"

"Of course," I said as I pulled my phone out of my pocket and dialled the number for home.

Needless to say, dad didn't mind Ophelia staying overnight- or, indeed, for as long as she wanted.

"Kicked out on your eighteenth birthday," dad spat. "That's just- that's just heinous! Obviously, stay as long as you need, I'll take you to get your stuff at the weekend."

"That is most generous," Ophelia replied. "Thank you, Mike. I shall try my best not to be a burden to you or to Jacinta."

"Trust me, you'll NEVER be a burden to me," I said, making Ophelia genuinely smile.

"What my daughter said," Mike shrugged. "And besides, it'll only be until you go off to university in September." My own smile faded as I was abruptly reminded that in just a few months' time, the friendship I'd come to rely on so much would either be a long-distance one- difficult for someone as social media-phobic as Ophelia- or would cease to exist altogether.

"In the meantime, though," dad said, reaching behind his chair and producing a small gift-wrapped package. "Happy birthday, Ophelia."

"Oh- oh I couldn't-" Ophelia protested, before being immediately silenced.

"Yes you can," dad said firmly. "Now open it." Ophelia smiled as she opened the package, and gasped when she saw the collection of multi-coloured lipsticks within.

"It's perfect," Ophelia said with a sniffle. "Thank you so much, Mike."

"More where that came from at Christmas," dad said with a proud grin.

"...And plenty for me too, I hope?" I asked, giggling as dad playfully threw a cushion at me.

"When it's your birthday, yes," dad laughed as the three of us whiled away the evening relaxing and chatting- though every time the topic of conversation shifted to Ophelia's impending university study, I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable.

My discomfort must have been obvious, too, because when Ophelia excused herself to get ready for bed, dad turned to me with a look of concern on his face.

"Okay, let's have it," dad sighed.

"Let's have 'what'?" I retorted.

"Jacinta..." Dad sighed. "Ever since you started transitioning, you've- you've been happier than I've ever seen you. You're more relaxed, more confident... More 'alive' than you ever were as Jason. And I love seeing you like that, I really do."

"Okay..." I said.

"But tonight, you- you've been frowning a lot," dad continued. "Probably for the first time since you started living life as a girl, and I think I know why. You don't want to lose Ophelia, do you?"

"That- ugh, no..." I sighed.

"Do- do you love her?" Dad asked.

"Yes," I confessed. "But not- not as, you know, a lover... She's like the sister I never had. We're like, I dunno, Rachel and Monica, or Charlotte Hutchinson and Jamie-Lee Burke, or Ant and Dec, you know?"

"I think I get it," dad said softly. "...Ant and Dec? Really?" Dad laughed as I 'forcefully returned' the cushion he'd earlier thrown at me. "But seriously though, why aren't you looking at university as well? Your grades aren't THAT bad, are they?"

"I dunno," I sighed. "It's probably too late now anyway. And besides, I- I don't want, umm..."

"You don't want... What?" Dad asked.

"I don't- I don't want to leave you all alone," I sighed.

"Oh- Jacinta..." Dad sighed, rising from his chair to sit next to me and give my hand a supportive squeeze. "You can't live your life around my- for want of a better word- schedule. You have to be your own person."

"But-" I said, barely getting that one word out before dad continued.

"And besides," dad whispered. "Your mum wouldn't want you to hold yourself back on my account. I know I don't."

"...Not fair, mentioning mum like that," I mumbled.

"Maybe not," dad conceded. "But it's true, though. Your mum only ever wanted the best for you. So do I. She'd be over the moon if she saw how happy you've been these last four months. I know that I am. And she'd be over the moon if you went to university. I know I would be. Are you SURE you've left it too late?"

"I- I dunno," I sighed. "Maybe. Probably. I- I haven't actually looked into it, you know?"

"Now might be a good time to start," dad advised as Ophelia returned, wearing a nightgown I was happy to lend her, along with one other unexpected item of clothing. "...You really wear a corset to bed?"

"It is not laced as tightly as it was during the daytime," Ophelia explained. "It is merely for comfort purposes."

"If you say so," dad sighed. "We'll let you get comfortable on the sofa. Happy birthday again, Ophelia!"

"Thank you, Mike," Ophelia said as she laid down on our large sofa and pulled a blanket over her slender body. "And thank you, Jacinta."

"No, no, thank YOU," I whispered as I followed dad upstairs. "...Thanks, dad."

"Thanks, Jacinta," dad said with a chuckle. "And don't forget what we were talking about."

"I won't, I promise," I replied.

And I didn't forget... Though I didn't exactly go out of my way to look into it, either. Every time I looked at the university application process (which I hadn't missed out on, it turns out) I thought about dad all alone in our house with only mum's ashes to keep him company, and I paused. After all, what kind of princess abandons the king in his time of need? Sure, dad had said he'd be alright, but that's what fathers are supposed to say, and I knew for a fact that he was lonelier than he let on. Why else would he be so eager for Ophelia to move in with us?

These feelings were only enhanced eight days after Ophelia's birthday on Christmas Day, which the three of us celebrated together as though we'd always been a family. Although her present pile was the smallest of the three of us, Ophelia still received a generous amount of gifts from me and my father, certainly more than she would have if she still lived with her 'family'. As promised, dad dropped round to Ophelia's mother's home to collect her possessions, and actually enquired about Ophelia's Christmas presents, only to be told that Ophelia's mother and sisters had drank it all (they'd apparently decided that as Ophelia was eighteen, all she wanted for Christmas- and probably from life in general- was booze). Sometimes I wonder who the real 'Cinderella' of this 'story' is- me or Ophelia...

Needless to say, after returning from the Lowes' house, dad also jumped underneath the shower for about forty minutes and put all of his clothing (even his belt) in the wash. Then, once it was 'clean', he put the clothes in the wash again, just to make extra sure.

I didn't resent Ophelia for the attention she was getting, of course- quite the opposite, actually. She HAD had a terrible first eighteen years of her life. She deserved better, and if it meant that I had to make some sacrifices, then I was more than okay with that, because it meant that I would have my 'sister' in my life.

Over the Christmas holiday, Ophelia and I grew even closer than we had been before. I'd worried that having Ophelia around on a permanent basis might mean that I'd eventually grow sick of her, but if anything, I grew even fonder of the blue-haired girl- which made the thought of losing her come September even more heart-wrenching. Almost has heart-wrenching as the thought of leaving dad all alone.

I was caught between a rock and a hard place, and true to form, I did the only thing I can do when faced with an impossible decision- nothing. I allowed the deadline to pass, thinking that once the decision was taken out of my hands, I wouldn't fret over it so much. Naturally, I was completely wrong in thinking this- if anything, it made me fret even more- and my new, expanded family were quick to pick up on this as early as the day after the deadline for applications.

"So then," I asked, trying not to sound TOO interested as Ophelia and I painted each other's nails. "Where have you applied to?"

"Four places," Ophelia said. "Salford, Bath and Leeds. My preferred choice, however, is the London College of Fashion."

"...Didn't fancy Brighton Uni, then?" I asked.

"It did not appeal to me in the same way as the other universities," Ophelia explained. "And I have no particular connection to this city." Not even me? I thought to myself.

"...London's close enough," I mumbled. "And it'll obviously be better, umm, connected than the other cities..."

"It will," Ophelia said. "So where have you applied to, Jacinta?" I frowned as Ophelia asked me the question, obviously not knowing about my decision- or rather, my lack of decision.

"I, umm, haven't applied anywhere," I mumbled.

"Don't you want to go to university?" Ophelia asked.

"It's not that I don't want to go," I explained. "It's just... Ugh, I dunno. You say you have no connection to this city. I only have connections to this city. And I'm the only connection for someone else in this city..."

"You don't want to leave your father alone by himself," Ophelia whispered. "It IS understandable, Jacinta."

"I'm all he has," I sighed. "And I know he'll never try to find another girlfriend, he barely has any friends from work... And after all he's done to support me, I- I owe him everything. I mean, don't get me wrong, I owe you everything as well. I mean, I- I love you, Ophelia. Like a sister, I mean. You're like the sister I never had..."

"You're like the sister I always wanted," Ophelia whispered. "And I love you too, Jacinta. Like a sister. But we must all follow our own paths. With any luck, my path will lead me towards London."

"Whereas my path's leading me around in a circle?" I asked as Ophelia finished applying the deep red polish to my nails, and I began coating her extra-long talons with her preferred metallic blue colour.

"Only you can determine where your fate shall lead you, Jacinta," my 'sister' said.

"Yeah, I'll get back to you when I figure out where the hell that is," I sighed.

"If you ever require any help, you know that all you need to do is ask," Ophelia said softly. "However, in the meantime, I have been invited to an interview at the London College of Fashion next Wednesday. I would like it if you were to attend with me."

"Umm, kinda got my own course to worry about?" I reminded my BFF.

"A course you do not intend to use to enter higher education," Ophelia retorted, before her face dramatically softened. "...Please, Jacinta? I've- I've never actually travelled away from home by myself before..." I let out a long sigh as the blue-haired girl seemingly pleaded at me with her eyes.

"Fine," I said, before a smile spread across my face. "Decided what you're wearing yet?"

"Naturally," Ophelia replied with a smile as wide as my own.

The following week, Ophelia and I boarded a train bound for London, and both of us drew a lot of attention from the other passengers. The one thing about going out in public with a woman like Ophelia is that few people will pay attention to a 5' 10" broad-shouldered woman, when they can instead pay attention to the blue-haired woman wearing a custom-made suit made out of shiny blue satin. Everything about Ophelia's suit for the day was tweaked to scream 'individual'.

Her jacket was fitted (having obviously been made to her exact measurements), opened just low enough to show the top of the (also homemade) lace bodysuit- underneath which she of course wore one of her tightest corsets, and on top of which she wore a wide belt of the same fabric. Her skirt was knee-length and extremely straight, hugging her figure closely. If it wasn't for the rear kick pleat, I doubted that Ophelia would even be able to walk. The 5" spike-heeled stilettos she wore on her feat did nothing to ease my worries. When you added in her lace gloves, her two pairs of tights (a pair of blue fishnets on top of a shiny taupe pair) and her usual extreme make-up, there was literally no way anyone could ignore the vision that was Ophelia Love.

Needless to say, I felt comparatively underdressed in my striped grey turtleneck, button-fronted knee-length denim skirt, opaque black tights and black flats.

"I SO want that suit," I whispered as we took our seats on the train, making my BFF giggle.

"It takes a certain look to be able to make a suit of this nature work," Ophelia replied as she rested her vintage handbag on the table in front of us. "Not that I am saying that you are not feminine, of course. I merely meant-"

"I know," I said with a smile.

"If you would like me to make you a suit, then I would be more than happy to," Ophelia said. "Your body type would be more suited to an A-line skirt than a pencil skirt, though. This is not a criticism, just a desire as a designer to make the suit as suitable- and, of course, as feminine- as possible."

"Sure, I understand," I reassured my friend. "I haven't really got a posh suit, come to think about it. I haven't really got a smart skirt... I wore trousers to my interview with the newsagent, heh."

"You have my sympathies for having to wear trousers," Ophelia said, making us both giggle. "But I must ask- to what interview would you wear your new suit?"

Naturally, I had no answer for Ophelia. Even after we arrived in London (and surprised the hell out of the commuters on the tube) I didn't have an answer, and as I looked around the campus whilst Ophelia attended her interview, I realised that I'd spent so much time obsessing over becoming Jacinta, that I had no idea what I wanted Jacinta to become. I was reminded of a quote from The Dark Knight- I was like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it. The thing was, I had caught my car. Five months earlier. I just didn't know where I wanted to drive it. Ophelia had a direction, a path she was powering along in top gear. I truly was going around in circles. It was all well and good saying I'd stay in Brighton to keep dad company, but would he really have wanted to me to do that at the expense of my own life?

Worse yet, would mum have wanted that?

I was so twisted up in my own thoughts as I perused the university's library that I didn't notice the young woman stood staring at me until she coughed, causing me to nearly jump out of my skin.

"Oh- god, sorry," the brown-haired girl said, looking almost as anxious as I did. "I- I didn't mean to startle you, but- but you kinda looked a little lost..."

"Yeah, that'd be one way of putting it," I sighed.

"Are- are you here for the interviews?" The girl asked.

"Umm, no, just accompanying a friend," I replied. "I- I am allowed to be here, right? I mean, they just gave me this badge at reception and didn't ask-"

"Yeah, yeah, you're fine," the girl said. "So, umm, your interview next week, then?"

"No," I sighed. "Didn't apply. And missed the deadline now anyway. I- I dunno, maybe uni just isn't for me."

"You at sixth form at the moment?" The girl asked. "At an FE college?"

"Yeah," I replied. "Studying fashion photography. Nearly applied here, but- guess I'm just too attached to my hometown."

"Well if you change your mind, LCF does a GREAT fashion photography course," the girl said with a smile. "I should know, graduated with a first last year, hehe!"

"Cool!" I laughed. "But, you know, the deadline..."

"There are usually a few spaces left in clearing," the girl shrugged. "You can always apply in the summer. Anyway, I've, umm, I've got to go, I'm meant to be in charge of making sure everyone gets to where they need to be today. But you never know, I'm applying to do a masters here next year, maybe we'll run into each other again!"

"Yeah..." I said as I watched the shorter girl walk off to greet another smartly-dressed teenager. I should've been stressed out- the decision that I thought had been taken out of my hands had been thrust straight back into them. It was like I'd been thrown a lifeline, and I knew I shouldn't squander it.

Little did the girl- or for that matter, I myself- know that in that one brief conversation, she was indeed helping me make sure I got to where I needed to be.

Naturally, Ophelia was quietly confident as she strolled out of the interview. Her face may have worn its usual stoic expression, but I could tell from the twinkle in her eyes that she knew the interview went well.

"You want to start looking at flats before heading home, then?" I asked my friend, who simply giggled and rolled her eyes.

"I do not know yet whether or not I have been accepted," Ophelia said. "However I feel that it is a distinct possibility!"

"Great," I said, forcing a smile on my face as I contemplated the prospect of life without my 'sister'. "D'you know when you'll find out?"

"It can sometimes take weeks for the letter to come through," Ophelia said as we headed back to the tube station, again attracting the attention we had en route to the university.

"Well you worked day and night on that portfolio," I said. "They can't ignore THAT."

"I should hope not," Ophelia replied. "And thank you again for your assistance in compiling the portfolio. Sometimes I thoroughly despise my brain..."

"You can't help the way you were born any more than I can," I shrugged.

"I wish there was a way to repay you for the help," Ophelia said.

"Oh- believe me, you have," I chuckled. "Helping you with a few spelling and grammar checks is nothing compared to- well, to this." Ophelia giggled as I gestured to my skirt and top. "If it wasn't for you, I'm pretty sure I'd never have had the courage to go outside wearing this. I'd probably never have ever worn anything like this at all..."

"You are very welcome, Jacinta," Ophelia said with a grin as we boards our tube train.

"...So weeks, eh?" I asked. "I'll keep all my fingers crossed..." Crossed for what, exactly, I couldn't say- but as it turns out, they weren't crossed for long.

On the morning of Monday the 2nd of February 2015, I woke up at 7am as usual to get ready for college, but there was one significant change to me. I had gone to bed the previous night as an eighteen year old girl, and woken up as a nineteen year old girl. It was my first ever birthday as 'Jacinta', and I couldn't have been more excited for the day- until I went downstairs to see a massive pile of presents on the sofa, which made my excitement levels grow even higher!

"Oh my god!" I squeaked. "This- this is too much..."

"Bollocks it is," dad laughed, rising from his chair to give me a hug and a paternal kiss on my forehead. "'Jacinta' didn't get anything for her first eighteen birthdays. Only fair she gets spoiled on her nineteenth, right Ophelia?"

"Absolutely, Mike," Ophelia said, holding her arms open with a wide grin on her already made-up face. I giggle as I slowly stroll into her arms, wrapping her in a tight hug as she practically squeezes the life out of me!

"I hardly know where to start," I chuckled as I sat down next to the massive pile, idly fiddling with the presents (virtually all of which seemed to be clothes of some description).

"WHEN to start would be a better question," dad said, rudely snatching the present out of my hands and tossing it back onto the pile. "As most of the things on that pile will need trying on, they can wait until after college."

"Aw- but dad..." I pouted, making both my father and my 'sister' roll their eyes at me!

"...Okay, fine," dad sighed, handing me a package that obviously had a rigid box under the wrapping paper (and as such obviously wasn't clothes). I didn't need to be told twice to tear off the wrapping paper, and when I did, I sighed happily at that I saw inside the box.

"These are PERFECT," I said, taking out the pair of fashionable 4" wedge-heeled sandals. "You, Ophelia?"

"Me, actually," dad said. "I kinda overheard you one day, telling Ophelia that you preferred wedges to heels..." My father's speech was interrupted when I jumped off the sofa and wrapped him a long, tight hug.

"Thanks," I whispered, blinking back tears.

"...It's just a pair of shoes, Jacinta," dad chuckled.

"To you, maybe," I retorted. "I, um, I should probably get ready for college..."

"We both should," Ophelia said, following me to my bedroom as I changed into my outfit for the day- my typical look of long-sleeved bodysuit, sheer black tights, ankle-length skirt and ankle boots.

"This is so unbelievable," I whispered as I applied my make-up for the day and brushed out my hair, making sure that the cute fringe I'd been growing was perfectly symmetrical.

"I do not see why," Ophelia retorted. "Did you not get many feminine presents at Christmas?"

"Well- yes, I guess," I sighed. "But I never get THAT many presents for my birthday. It was always the same old crap- jeans, deodorant, vouchers..."

"I do not wish to spoil the surprise," Ophelia said, "but there is a very good chance that you may receive cans of deodorant for this birthday as well."

"...Cans of Lynx Africa?" I retorted, making my BFF giggle.

"...No," Ophelia bluntly retorted, before giggling again. "And some of it may technically be perfume rather than deodorant."

"Even better," I said with a grin. "Hope dad didn't spend TOO much, though..."

"Many of the presents are from me," Ophelia said.

"...I hope you didn't spend too much either!" I laughed. "God... After all you've both done for me the past few months, I'm going to feel guilty just opening ONE present, heh..."

"Then you will just have to spoil your father and I on our birthdays," Ophelia said.

"'Your father and I'," I snorted. "No offence, Ophelia, but if you were my stepmother, I'd probably have myself committed. To an asylum in Antarctica." I sighed as rather than blush and apologise- as the old Ophelia would've done, as 'Amanda' would've done- my friend instead stood up, took my bottle of HRT pills from my dresser and popped one onto her hand.

"Do not sass back to your stepmother," Ophelia said, shoving the pill in my face. "Have you taken your tablet yet today?"

"YES," I replied, shaking my head as Ophelia giggled and returned the pill to its bottle. "I do it first thing every morning, you know that."

"I am sorry," Ophelia giggled as she carefully replaced the pill bottle on my dresser. "But that was a joke I could not resist making."

"Eh, no offence taken," I sighed. "Come on, sooner we get to college, sooner I can get home to open my presents!"

"Indeed!" Ophelia said, her smile not fading as we grabbed our coats and headed out of the door. "Today is a first and a last- your first birthday as Jacinta, and your last as a full-time student..." And my first and last with my sister, I thought to myself.

Naturally, that thought coloured the way I felt all day at college. I should've been happy- well, as happy as I could be in a place where I had literally only one friend- with it being my birthday, but all I could think about was the family that I was almost certainly going to lose... And the family I already had lost.

I've no doubt my mum would've given me a slap on the back of the head and told me to stop feeling so sorry for myself, but that was much easier said than done. I'd come a long way with dad and Ophelia's help, but I'd be guaranteed to lose the full-time assistance of one of them within a matter of months, and I still had a long way to go. As I gazed into the mirror of one of the college's toilets, I realised just how far I had to go.

With my long brown hair, my carefully-applied make-up and my overwhelmingly feminine clothing, I undoubtedly passed for female from a distance, and close-up, it was hard to tell that there was anything 'different' about me unless you knew what you were looking for. Even underneath my clothes and my make-up, my body was changing. Six months on oestrogen had started to redistribute my weight from my waist to my backside and my hips, meaning I no longer wore the extra padding I'd bought to give myself extra 'figure' down there. I still wore a padded bra, but even that was becoming less and less necessary with each passing day. My skin was soft, smooth and blemish-free, and it felt that even my hands and my face were becoming more feminine. And yet, as I looked at myself in the mirror, all I saw was what everyone else at college saw- a boy who wanted to be a girl, and a girl who wouldn't be anywhere near as feminine as she was without the help of her hyper-feminine best friend.

I'd no idea how long I was lost in thought as I examined my appearance, but I reckon I'd have been there forever if I hadn't been interrupted by a fellow student opening the door to the toilet block and startling me.

"Who- oh- shit, sorry," I moaned, packing away my make-up and getting ready to leave. "I'll get out of your way..."

"There's no rush," the other girl- a girl on my course called Cassie- replied.

"Yeah, don't need to be accused of being a pervert for being 'somewhere I don't belong'," I snorted.

"'Somewhere you don't belong'?" Cassie snorted. "What, are you supposed to take a dump in the car park or something? Don't worry, Jacinta, I'm not going to go complaining because there's someone with a dick in the girls' toilets."

"Umm... Okay," I said hesitantly.

"I mean, that- well, you know..." Cassie mumbled hesitantly. "That 'thing' is covered by a pair of tights and a skirt, right?"

"...And the gusset of a bodysuit," I said, making the blonde girl giggle.

"Thought so," Cassie said. "So as far as I'm concerned, you have as much right to be here as I do. Anyone else who has a problem, well, THEY can go and take a dump in the car park, hehe!"

"Thanks," I said with a giggle. "You probably don't realise it, but that's probably the best present I've received all day..."

"Present?" Cassie asked. "Is- is it your birthday?"

"Guilty as charged," I playfully sighed, earning a squeak of delight from the blonde girl.

"Oh, that's so cool!" Cassie giggled. "Oh my god- is it- is it your first since you came out?"

"Yep!" I laughed.

"Even cooler!" Cassie squeaked, finishing her 'business' before washing her hands. "Well, I hope you have fun tonight, whatever you're doing to celebrate. Think I might have cause to celebrate too..."

"Oh?" I asked.

"Got a text from my mum," Cassie said. "There's a letter waiting for me when I get home from Leeds College of Art..."

"Heh," I said, trying not to sigh at being reminded yet again of my impossible decision. "Well, good luck..."

"Thanks!" Cassie giggled, giving me a playful hug as we left the toilets. "And happy birthday!"

"Thanks," I said, letting out an invisible sigh as we headed back to class.

I forced a smile on my face as I met up with Ophelia for our trip back home, though the promise of presents when I got home soon made the smile genuine- especially when I opened them to find dresses, skirts, more shoes, cute girly tops, bodysuits, even some ('dad-friendly') underwear, all of which I modelled for my father and my sister (well, apart from the underwear, anyway). The best outfit I received, however, was the bespoke suit Ophelia had made me. As she promised, it had a knee-length A-line skirt and a fitted jacket that 'hugged' my torso closely and showed off my fledgling curves to their fullest. As I modelled the suit (and the matching heeled shoes) for my family, I let out a genuine giggle as I did a twirl and felt the skirt whip around my nylon-covered thighs.

"This is so cool," I sighed happily, placing one hand on my hip as dad took a photograph of me. "Thank you both SO much for this..."

"Thank you for being such an amazing daughter!" Dad laughed, giving me a hug before sitting back down in his chair. "You know, that suit really- well, pun not intended- suits you, Jacinta?"

"Thanks," I said as I played with the hem of the suit's skirt. "Kinda feel like a stewardess, though..."

"You would make a wonderful air stewardess," Ophelia said with a warm smile. "I believe there is a flight company in France that hires stewardesses who are mostly transgendered, actually."

"I read that somewhere too," dad concurs. "Soixante-Neuf Airlines or something. Not the sort of name you'd willingly send your daughter to..."

"It's Soixante-TROIS," I corrected my father. "After the year it was founded, I think."

"You know about them, then?" Ophelia asked. "I believe it would be a good career for you, Jacinta."

"...Don't speak French, or any other language," I sighed. "That's one of the entry requirements."

"So- so you have been looking, then?" Dad asked. "For jobs for after you finish college?"

"...A bit," I sighed, sitting down on the sofa and pressing my knees tightly together. "I- I dunno. I'm still not sure exactly what it is I want to do, I mean, I enjoy photography, but I dunno if that's all I want to be... Kinda need to go to university if I want to work for, like, a magazine or an agency..."

"Your grades are good enough, aren't they?" Dad asked, smiling as I nodded. "Thought about applying somewhere through clearing?"

"...A bit," I shrugged.

"Yeah, that's always been the issue, hasn't it?" Dad sighed, startling me with his sudden hostility. "You always do things 'a bit'. I can count on two fingers the amount of times you went all-out with something. When you told me that you were gay and when you told me that I had a daughter. And you know what?"

"What?" I asked.

"Both of those things worked out," dad said bluntly. "For the better. For the VERY better. And you need to make a decision soon. Neither of us can make it for you."

"Yes yes yes, I know," I sigh, leaning back on the sofa and groaning. "Can- can I please just celebrate being nineteen for one day before laying out plans for what I'll be doing when I'm ninety?"

"Of course," dad whispered, rising from his chair to finish preparing my birthday dinner as I change out of my suit and back into the bodysuit and skirt I'd worn earlier in the day.

The topic of my future employment (or lack thereof) was off the table for the rest of the day, and for a while, I was able to relax... Though that 'while' turned out to be just 24 hours, as when Ophelia and I returned home from college the following day, Ophelia found a letter waiting for her with the initial 'UAL' on them- 'UAL' standing for 'University of the Arts London', the 'parent' university of the London College of Fashion.

Thirty seconds after opening the envelope, Ophelia was literally whooping with excitement, while I tried my hardest to look happy for my friend. However, when dad took over and began to offer his help to Ophelia in looking for student accommodation in London, and to drive her up on her first day, my stomach began to sink. Even the promise of having Ophelia home to live with us during the holidays didn't console the fact that for the second time in my life, I'd started a countdown that would end with the inevitable departure of a family member.

Months passed as Ophelia prepared for her life in London, labouring away to get her grades up to their very highest, while I did the same, partly in case I did decide to apply for a university place in clearing, and partly to distract myself from the fact that my life was about to change, and I had no other friends, no other family, no job... No Prince Charming...

As spring changed into summer, though, college commitments finally eased off. Our final assignments were submitted, and all that was left was to wait for our grades to come through. Well, that was all that was left for Ophelia, at any rate- I still had little idea exactly what it was I'd be doing with my grades, whatever they turned out to be...

"Good morning, Jacinta!" Ophelia yelled, waking me from my slumber and pulling back the curtains to let the warm July sun shine into my bedroom.

"Mmph," I moaned as I slowly blinked my eyes open. "Why, exactly?"

"Because you and I are two young women with more spare time and energy than we know what to do with," Ophelia said. "And there is something I have wanted to do for a very long time as a way to repay you for your hospitality."

"...Why am I suddenly nervous?" I asked, making my 'sister' roll her eyes.

"Get up and shower," Ophelia ordered. "And make sure you wash your hair. You'll be needing it for what we have planned today."

"I'll be needing... My hair?" I asked, confused as Ophelia shoved me toward the shower.

When I emerged fifteen minutes later with a towel wrapped around my growing chest and another around my long, brown hair, I found Ophelia stood at my dressing table, her long teal-coloured hair (she'd got bored of blue by May) tied back into a ponytail and hidden underneath a white hat, while her corseted figure was hidden underneath a white tunic dress and her legs were covered with opaque white tights (and, of course, matching platform heels) despite the outside heat.

"...So, nurse or hairdresser?" I asked as I slipped on the thong that had been offered to me.

"Beauty therapist," Ophelia said, sitting me down in front of my dresser before untying my towel and fussing with my hair. "As neither you nor I can afford a proper spa treatment, and your father has guaranteed us the use of the house for the whole day, I felt it was only fitting to give you the makeover you deserved."

"Well, okay, but-" I said, before pausing as my eyes went wide. "Wait, wait, YOU'RE giving me a makeover?"

"Yes, I, Ophelia Cassiopeia Love, am giving you a makeover," Ophelia said matter-of-factly as she began to tie my hair into tight, slender braids.

"I'm going to end up looking like a cliché, aren't I?" I sighed. "I don't want to be a drag queen. I mean, no offence to drag queens, but- but I just want to look like, you know, a girl."

"And are you implying that I do not look like a girl?" Ophelia asked. "Or are you implying that I look like a drag queen?"

"Well- no..." I sighed.

"Nor will you," Ophelia assured me. "You shall, however, look unique and individual. By which I of course mean that you will look uniquely feminine, and individually feminine."

"Feminine like you?" I asked.

"If that is what you wish," Ophelia replied, finishing her work on my hair and moving on to covering my face in a thick layer of gold-themed make-up. "However, what I had planned was giving you your own unique, individual look."

"So... Not exactly like you?" I asked.

"Why would you want to look like me?" Ophelia replied.

"...Kinda going down a 'self-loathing' route here, Ophelia," I retorted, making the colourful girl roll her eyes yet again.

"I am me," Ophelia said. "You are you. I should look like me, and you should look like you."

"Even though neither look is exactly what you'd call 'normal'?" I asked.

"Why on Earth would I want to be normal?" Ophelia asked, making us both giggle happily.

"Normal isn't always bad," I mused as my beautician finished my make-up and glued extra-long gold-coloured false nails to my fingertips. "If I was a 'normal' girl, I probably wouldn't still be single..."

"Then you and I will have to redefine what 'normal' is," Ophelia said matter-of-factly, ignoring my derisive snort of laughter. "I fail to see why we cannot do this, you and I."

"Two versus seven billion?" I retorted. "Don't fancy those odds..."

"Nothing's impossible," Ophelia said, finishing my nails and ordering me to stand up. "You may remove your towel now, Jacinta."

"Umm... And flash my tits at you?" I asked.

"It is nothing I have not seen before," Ophelia said.

"They're growing so fast I'm not sure I'VE seen them before," I retorted. "...Okay, fine... Guess I should be thankful that I even HAVE tits to be shy about..."

"You certainly have changed a lot in the last eleven months," Ophelia said, producing a long-line corset from my bed and giggling as I groaned at the sight of it.

"So I'm going to follow SOME of your style, then?" I sighed, moaning as I fastened the heavy garment in front of me.

"You shall be unique," Ophelia explained. "Very few people wear corsets anymore."

"Can't imagine why," I snorted, wincing as each pull of the laces narrowed my waist further. "I hope I'll have something to fill these cups a little more?"

"Of course," Ophelia said, passing me padding to put on top of my budding breasts before holding out a pair of dark stockings for me to step into.

"Really?" I asked. "Stockings instead of tights?"

"I always feel happier when I'm wearing stockings instead of tights," Ophelia explained. "I feel more... Fashionable this way."

"And less likely to sweat a swimming pool into your crotch?" I asked, laughing as Ophelia gave the laces of my corset a swift yank.

"...That too," Ophelia giggled, before allowing me to step into the short, lacy dress she'd made for this occasion. With a short skirt that barely covered my stocking tops, cap sleeves and a low-cut neck that showed off far more cleavage than I actually had, it was one of the most beautiful dresses I had ever seen, let alone worn.

"Gorgeous," I sighed, before my eyes widened in horror at the footwear Ophelia produced for me. "What. The fuck. Are those!?"

"...NOT the shoes that you will be wearing today," Ophelia giggled, handing me one of the shoes to examine. The shoes were heeled- boy were they heeled- but rather than the rest of the weight being supported on the ball of the foot, the shoes were curved so that the wearer would be walking on the tips of their toes, with their feet pointed straight downward, almost like a ballerina's.

"These are called ballet heels," Ophelia explained as she sat down on my bed and replaced one of her platform shoes with the painful-looking device. "They are obviously not designed for everyday use. But they do make for some... Extreme fashion statements."

"Can you even walk in those?" I asked, examining my sister's pointed foot with her.

"With the proper training and practice," Ophelia replied. "Training and practice that I, sadly, do not have. However, when I go to university, hopefully I shall meet someone with the necessary... Training..." I bit my gold-coloured lip as mention of Ophelia's imminent departure quickly lowered the mood in the room.

"...Anyway," I said. "Where are my actual shoes?"

"Here," Ophelia said, handing me a pair of only slightly more comfortable-looking platform stilettos, which I dutifully attached to my feet.

"Guess I won't be able to repay you for this day," I laughed as I fastened the dainty ankle straps on the shoes. "Or 'get you back' for it, which sounds, you know, more appropriate..."

"We shall enjoy today," Ophelia announced, removing her ballet shoe and slipping her feet back into her 'normal' shoes. "Where shall we go?"

"Seriously?" I asked, standing up and trying to get steady on my stilt-like shoes. "You dressed like that and me dressed like this?"

"You would rather dress 'normally'?" Ophelia asked, and despite myself, a wide grin crept across my face.

Naturally, we attracted a lot of stares, and even some frowns and snorts of disapproval on our short walk through the city centre in our 'costumes', and as we ate lunch, and went shopping in Ophelia's favourite charity shops... By the time we arrived home, though, we were both glad to slip our aching feet out of our torturously high-heeled shoes!

"You don't fancy slipping on your ballet shoes and trying that, then?" I asked Ophelia, who giggled in response.

"Black shoes do not go with my mainly white outfit," my sister retorted. "You must admit though, today WAS fun."

"Immense fun," I laughed. "And I don't just mean the clothes, or the make-up... I mean us hanging out together."

"I meant that too," Ophelia whispered, turning to me with a smile on her face. "And I am sure we will have many such days again, during the holidays, or if you choose to visit London..."

"Assuming you don't get a better best friend in London," I say, frowning as Ophelia remained silent. "Or a boyfriend..."

"I am not the one obsessed with finding 'Prince Charming'," Ophelia reminded me. "Though London is a much larger city, I have no doubt that there may be SOMEONE there who might meet my requirements... I doubt, however, that I will find someone as willing to wear the type of corset, dress and shoes that you are wearing now..."

"Well, you never know..." I mused.

"If I have read her blog correctly, I believe that Nikki Thomas's partner may even be on the same course as me," Ophelia said, piquing my interest.

"...Really?" I asked.

"You have seen the pictures on her blog," Ophelia replied. "Many of the dresses she is modelling were designed and made by her partner."

"...Cool," I shrugged as the indecision I'd felt all year began to reach boiling point. "Do- do you want something to drink?"

"Please," Ophelia said as I slowly rose from my chair (my corset still hindering my movement). "Maybe we will become friends on Facebook..."

"Facebook!?" I snorted. "You hate Facebook!"

"I despise Facebook," Ophelia said. "But if it is the only way that we will be able to communicate whilst I am in London..." Ugh, I thought to myself. I don't want to be the reason Ophelia's forced to sign up for Facebook... As I glanced back into the living room, though, my eyes were drawn to the urn sat by the fireplace. Do I want to be the reason dad spends the rest of his life alone with only a collection of ashes for company, though?

Naturally, when dad arrived home, he was somewhat confused by my appearance (even more confused than I was when I saw myself in the mirror for the first time), but shrugged it off in the way he'd consistently done for the previous eleven months. As Ophelia made dinner for the three of us (we took it in turns to cook), I turned to the middle-aged man with a serious look on my face.

"Dad," I whispered.

"Jacinta...?" dad replied.

"What... What are you planning on doing the next few years?" I asked.

"...Umm," dad replied. "I- I'm not the one who's unemployed."

"No- ugh, I didn't mean like in a job..." I sighed.

"Jacinta..." Dad said softly. "What- what is this about?"

"I need-" I stammered. "I need- I need to know that you'd be okay if- if I, you know, left..."

"Planning on going somewhere?" Dad asked.

"...London," I mumbled. "For university... There are places in clearing at Ophelia's university, on the- on the photography course..."

"Then you should go," dad said bluntly, catching me by surprise.

"But- but-" I stammered.

"Jacinta..." Dad sighed. "Just looking at you is all I need to know that it's where you belong. That Ophelia is who you belong with, that London is where you'll find your life, friends... Maybe even that man you're so obviously desperate for!"

"But you-" I babbled. "You've lost- you've lost everything! Your parents, your wife... Your son..."

"NO!" Dad said firmly, making me jump. "Don't ever say I 'lost my son'. Because I didn't. My son... 'He' did with 'his' life precisely what 'he' wanted. And I will always have nothing but love and respect for that decision. And the same applies for my daughter, whom I love and respect just as much. Don't ever, EVER put my happiness before yours, Jacinta. It's my job to be your parent, not the other way around."

"...But you'll be lonely," I mumbled. "Alone in this house..."

"I will make friends," dad sighed. "I will hang out with work colleagues more. Go to more football games. Take up darts, I dunno. All I know is that I could never live with myself if I thought that you were holding yourself back on my account. And I know that she'd feel the exact same way." I blinked back tears as dad gently caressed the lid of mum's urn.

"Thanks," I sniffled.

"Will it take some time to adjust?" Dad asked. "At first, yes. But I guarantee it'll be more of a change for you than it would ever be for me. So if you need to go to London- well, I'll drive you there myself. You and Ophelia."

"... You really are the best dad in the world," I sniffed as I rose from my chair and gave my father a long, tight hug.

"And you're the best daughter in the world," dad whispered, giving me a kiss on the forehead. "I'll always love you, Jacinta, no matter what city you're living in. Never forget that. And I'll only ever be a phone call away."

"Thanks," I whispered, my voice growing hoarse with emotion.

"But first things first," dad said. "You need to prepare for an interview, right?"

"Right!" I chuckled as I sat back in my chair, happy that my decision was- for now- made.

A few weeks later, I strode into the same office that Ophelia visited in January, dressed in the suit that Ophelia had made me for my birthday. In my arms was a portfolio of all my photography assignments, and in my stomach were a flock of butterflies... Butterflies that I later realised were completely unnecessary, when I was unconditionally accepted onto the fashion photography course at the London College of Fashion.

On the Saturday of the 26th of September 2015, dad drove myself and Ophelia up to the tiny, cramped flat that would be our London base for the next few months as we embarked on our courses. Naturally, there were plenty of tears, even some from dad- and even a few from Ophelia! Our offer to dad to stay over anytime he wanted was 'politely' refused (I believe his exact words were 'I'd rather sleep on a bed of nails than on the floor of a student shithole'), and that night, for the first time ever, I fell asleep as an independent woman. Three years of anxiety, two years of confiding in Ophelia and thirteen months of living life as Jacinta had all boiled down to that one night when I was finally flying free- though as the gentle snoring of my sister in the adjacent bed reminded me, even though I was free, I wasn't alone. I never had to be alone again if I didn't want to be- I would always have my family with me, blood-related or otherwise.

And now, as I stand in front of the main entrance of the London College of Fashion, my bag bulging with books and stationery, my stomach full of excitement and anticipation, and my body covered in a modest black miniskirt and jumper, I feel like I can take on the world.

"Ready?" I ask my sister, who has eschewed 'modest' in favour of one of her homemade dresses, multiple petticoats, teal-coloured tights, spike-heeled stilettos and, of course, a tight-laced corset.

"I am ready for anything," Ophelia replies. "New experiences, new knowledge, new friends..."

"Maybe even a Prince Charming," I wistfully muse, before confidently striding into the building with a wide smile on my face. "Okay, let's go!"



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