Stephanie, part 10

“You know, you look familiar,” the cashier says to me as she rings up my items. “Did you used to be on TV?”

“Umm… You must have me mistaken for someone else,” I reply in my soft, androgynous voice.

“Huh,” the cashier says. “I could’ve sworn I’ve seen your face somewhere before.”

“…Just got one of those faces, I guess!” I giggle as I bag my purchases and head out of the store, sighing as I examine the items in my bag- foundation, mascara, two colours of eye shadow and a tube of dark red lipstick.

In my other shopping bag, however, is a pair of baggy men’s jeans and two loose-fitting t-shirts.

When I left London two months ago, I was certain about who I was and who I wanted to be. I WAS Stephanie, I wanted to be Stephanie on a permanent basis… But the longer I stayed away, the easier it was for all my old doubts to return. I the back of my mind I can still feel ‘Steve’s presence. It’s much, much quieter than before, but it’s still there, and has been all the time.

This is despite the fact that on the same day I left London, I logged onto a ‘specialist’ website Jamie had recommended to me and placed an order - a small vial of pills that reads ‘oestrogen’ on the label. I’d been warned of the danger of self-medicating by both my friends and my counsellor, but my determination to become ‘Stephanie’ had been so great that I thought I knew better… Right up until the point I had that first pill on my tongue. I looked at myself in the mirror, and all of a sudden, I froze as all of my anxieties- as ‘Steve’- came rushing back. I spat out the pill and collapsed on my bed, groaning with frustration as I heard the niggling voice at the back of my head that said ‘you’re not a real woman, and you know you’re not’. As much as it pains me to admit it… Maybe Tom was right.

After a quick dinner at Subway (a year on my carefully-controlled diet has left me highly intolerant of fatty foods from places like McDonald’s), I head back to my hotel room, where my pill bottle is waiting for me on the bed where I left it. I carefully lay out the jeans and the t-shirts I bought next to the bottle, and sigh as I while away the evening staring at them, just as I’ve done for the past few nights I’ve been on the road.

Right now, I’m in no man’s- or rather, no woman’s- land. I’m dressed in a pair of short denim shorts, girly flip-flops and a low cut tank top. I’m wearing make-up and have my ‘special’ underwear (a control thong and a padded bra) on underneath. My hair is long, but tied back into an androgynous style and my legs and arms are smooth and hairless- but that’s as far as it goes. My femininity is literally skin-deep, as underneath, I’m a confused mess. I was so sure… But now, I’m more conflicted than ever.

I could start taking the pills tomorrow and completely abandon ‘Steve’ forever, or pull on the jeans, cut my hair short and say goodbye to ‘Stephanie’… But deep down, I know exactly what I’ll end up doing- nothing whatsoever, just as I’ve always done. I’ll just stay in ‘no person’s land’, not a man- but not truly a woman either.

Before I get into bed I put my pills away in my suitcase and fold my- ‘Steve’s- new clothes neatly before placing them back in the carrier bag. I compose a quick email to my parents to let them know I’m alright (I’ve configured my email account to direct any and all incoming mail to my spam folder so it doesn’t bother me) before changing into my pyjamas- an androgynous grey vest and pair of shorts- and climb under the sheets, where I lay awake for hours before finally getting to sleep.

I sleep in until after 9am- the hotel I’m staying in doesn’t offer a cooked breakfast- before getting up, getting dressed in the same clothes I wore yesterday, applying my typically restrained make-up (just mascara, eyeliner and foundation- not even any lipstick) and checking out of the hotel. My first stop, once I’m back on the streets of the crowded seaside town, is the same clothes store I went to yesterday, where I bought the jeans and t-shirts- all of which still have their labels attached to them.

“Hi,” I say to the woman behind the customer service desk. “I bought these yesterday for my, um, boyfriend, and they don’t fit, can I return them please?”

“Sure,” the cashier says as I present her with the clothes, my receipt and my debit card, which she hands back a few moments later with the money I spent yesterday refunded back onto it. This is at least the twelfth time I’ve done this- bought clothes for ‘Steve’ one day only to return them a day later- and every time I buy the clothes, the desire to hold onto them gets larger and larger…

After the clothes store, my next stop is the railway station, to continue my ‘grand tour’ of the UK. After I left London, my first stop was Birmingham, where I spent two days, before moving onto Coventry, eventually making my way right the way across the country to Norwich. I zig-zagged back and forth across the country until I reached Aberdeen, where I caught a train down to Penzance, ready to start the ‘zig-zag’ all over again. I’m currently in Brighton, and today I’m going to catch a train to Croydon- the closest I’ll have come to London since I left two months ago.

The train ride takes a mere fifty minutes, and my first destination once I’ve left the train is the local WH Smith, where I scan the newspaper and magazine racks as part of a habit I am trying hard to beat. The first time I stepped into a newsagent after my ‘departure’, I was immediately confronted by a picture of Out of Heaven- all five members, including myself- on the front cover of a teen magazine. The sight sent me into such a panic- it was as if my old life was stalking me- that I immediately turned and ran out of the shop, only to return a few minutes later and buy the magazine. Ever since, I’ve deliberately stayed off the internet to avoid exposing myself to any news about the band, though I can’t help but scan the news racks for images of the band every time I reach a new town- even though there doesn’t seem to have been any news about the band in well over a month, a run that continues today.

After a quick lunch, I head toward the hotel I’ve booked for tonight to check in and drop off my bag- and, of course, my pills. As I enter the reception area, however, I do a double-take- sat in one of the chairs in the hotel’s lounge is a tiny teenaged girl with shoulder-length blonde hair who looks a lot like Kayla- though why Kayla would be in Croydon is anyone’s guess. I ignore the girl and step up to the reception desk, stretching my slender arms as I set down my heavy bag.

“Hello, can I help you?” The receptionist asks.

“Yes, I’d like to check in, please,” I reply.

“Can I take your name, please?” The receptionist asks.

“Abbott,” I reply. “Caroline Abbott.” I’ve taken to using my middle name when booking hotels, reasoning that while the name ‘Stephanie Abbott’ is a name that will get people’s attention, so few people know my middle name that I can use it without attracting attention. As I was about to find out, though, that wasn’t necessarily true.

“Steph?” A familiar voice calls from behind me, causing me to freeze to the spot. “Ste- Stephanie Abbott?” I slowly turn round, my eyes wide, as I realise that the tiny blonde girl who looks like Kayla is, in fact, Kayla herself. I grab my suitcase and prepare to bolt, to make another run for it, before common sense takes over- where on Earth would I run to? The hotel’s toilets?

“…Hi,” I mumble, dragging my case over to the tiny blonde girl, who immediately launches herself at me and gives me a tight hug, which I happily reciprocate.

“I’m really, really pissed off at you,” Kayla whispers, making me laugh happily.

“Guess I’m done running,” I sigh. “How- how did you find me?”

“…Let’s talk over lunch,” Kayla says, making me giggle again as we head toward a nearby restaurant and order our food.

“How- how did you find me, anyway?” I ask as I pick away at my sandwich, despite not being hungry.

“My cousin works at Brighton railway station,” Kayla says. “She mentioned she saw someone who looked exactly like you buying a ticket to Croydon, I got on a train, figured you’d be staying in a hotel, and I know which hotel chain you prefer…”

“Are you sure you’re a singer or a detective?” I ask, making Kayla giggle.

“Okay, it was a thousand-to-one shot,” Kayla admits. “But I’ve had a lot of free time lately… All the band has, actually.” I blush and avoid Kayla’s gaze as the ‘collateral damage’ of my decision to leave suddenly becomes obvious.

“You- you didn’t, just, you know, carry on without me, or replace me?” I ask.

“How could we?” Kayla asks. “The band is Becca, Adeola, Kayla, Lauren and Stephanie. That’s as far as the public is concerned, as far as Joshua’s concerned… As far as I’M concerned.”

“How could I stay?” I ask. “How could I look into the eyes of people I’ve lied to for months and just act as if nothing’s happened?”

“You can look me in the eye, can’t you?” Kayla asks. “Steph… I’m not going to lie. You pissed off a lot of people when you did one. But you’re still part of the band- well, legally, anyway…”

“If I go back, I’m going to get roasted alive by Joshua,” I mumble.

“So… What?” Kayla asks. “You’re just going to keep running forever? Steph… at Becca’s birthday party, you said that the best thing about being a woman was the friendships that you’ve made. All of us- Becca, Lauren, everyone- even Joshua- we’re still your friends. Yes, they were angry when you left, but time has passed, they’ve calmed down… They just want you back.”

“…And Kurt?” I ask.

“…He’s moved on,” Kayla whispers, making me sigh. “Which is your own fault, and you know that.”

“Yes, I know…” I moan. “And I know I can’t keep running forever, but if I go back… I’d just be going back to get fired, to go back onto the unemployment line. I’ll be right back where I started, only this time, I won’t even know who I am, let alone who or what I want to be.”

“Other than someone who views self-pity as a lifestyle choice,” Kayla spits, taking me by surprise with her harshness. “If this was any ordinary job, then yes, you’d be fired without a question, but this ISN’T an ordinary job. You’re a public figure. People look up to you, they respect you. Even during your absence, the number of followers on your Facebook page went UP- and you owe each and every one of those fans an apology.”

“…I’m sorry,” I mumble.

“That’s one down,” Kayla says as I blink back tears. “I take it… I’m guessing you’re still not, you know, ‘properly’ transitioning?”

“The, you know, meeting with Tom…” I sigh. “It scrambled my brain, made me even less sure of myself than I was before. I mean, I WANT to be a girl, but- but- it’s like… It’s as though I know deep down that I CAN’T.”

“Have- have you had, you know, ‘Steve time’ since you left London?” Kayla asks.

“Not a second,” I say proudly. “Though I came close… There are loads of times I buy boy’s clothes, only to return them to the shop the following day.”

“It sounds to me like you’ve decided which gender you’d rather be,” Kayla says with a smile. “Those awesome legs of yours are proof enough!”

“If only it was that simple,” I sigh.

“I’m not going to pretend I know what you’re going through,” Kayla says. “Having a constant voice in your head telling you that you should be one thing when other parts of your body scream that you should be something else… In a way, it’s no wonder you ran away. Where, um, were you planning on going after Croydon?”

“I dunno,” I shrug. “I’ve just been getting on a train… Probably somewhere in Kent, Canterbury, maybe, or Dover…”

“And then on into Europe?” Kayla asks.

“I honestly don’t know,” I sigh. “Maybe…”

“I think there’s only one city you should go to next,” Kayla says, and with no counter-argument, I simply sigh and nod in agreement.

The train ride takes a mere half hour, and one quick tube ride later- complete with fans asking myself and Kayla for selfies- at the end of which I find myself outside the front door of the home in which I grew up. I hesitate before knocking- what am I meant to say to the parents I abandoned for the last two months? But I knock anyway, and when the door opens to reveal the shocked face of my mother, I immediately lose control and break down in a flood of tears, which only flow more freely as mum wraps me in a tight, loving hug.

“It’s about damned time!” Mum sniffles, tears flowing from her own eyes. Fifteen minutes later, mum, Kayla and I are sat in the lounge with hot, comforting cups of tea in our hands.

“I- I’m sorry I ran away,” I mumble, cringing as mum sniffles yet again.

“I just want to know why you ran,” mum sighs. “Whatever the problem was, we could work through it together!”

“Even though I’m a pathological liar?” I sigh. “Everything I achieved over the last year… It’s all built on a lie.”

“But you DID achieve it,” mum argues. “The record sales, the tour, all your fans, all your money… You earned every penny of it.”

“You auditioned and were accepted, same as everyone else,” Kayla says. “The same as ME. You have as much right to claim the fame and fortune as I have.”

“But I’m a member of a girl band who isn’t really a girl,” I moan.

“Well you could’ve fooled me,” mum says. “And you know what? You did. You made me really believe that you WERE a woman, and I’ve known you every second of your life!”

“…Sorry,” I mumble.

“Don’t apologise for being who you want to be!” Mum says. “Yes, you may have pretended at first, but just look at you! I’d have a hard time believing that you were ever a boy. You’re beautiful, Stephanie.”

“Less than two hours ago,” Kayla says, “you said to me- and I quote- ‘I want to be a girl’.”

“But that doesn’t mean I AM,” I say.

“Tell that to Jamie-Lee,” Kayla says. “Or Nikki, or any of the girls who work for Soixante-Trois, or the sisters who directed the Matrix… Yes, you have doubts. Anyone in your situation would, but the truth is that if you’re willing to make the commitment to truly become a woman, then you deserve to be treated just the same as, say, me or Lauren. And you HAD made that commitment. Well, before you spoke to your brother, anyway.”

“Tom is in a LOT of trouble,” mum says. “After you left, Kayla filled is in on what happened, how you’d finally made your decision, only for Tom to put doubts back in your head…”

“That just means the doubts were there all along,” I sigh.

“Maybe,” mum says. “But it certainly isn’t ‘Steve’ I see sat on my sofa right now, it’s ‘Stephanie’.”

“So… I’m just in denial?” I ask.

“The fact that you ran away for two months kinda hints at that,” Kayla says, making me giggle. “Hate to point this out, but there are a LOT of people who are going to want to talk to you now that you’re back…”

“You go,” mum whispers. “As long as at the end of the day, you come back home!”

“I’m done with running,” I say, sharing a smile with Kayla before heading upstairs to unpack and change. My bedroom is just as I left it two months ago, right down to the cosmetics that have been left in a pile on my dresser. I sigh as I sit down in front of the elaborate, mirrored furniture, before blowing the dust off of the cosmetics and using them to enhance my face- full silver eye shadow, thick mascara and eyeliner and a deep scarlet lipstick all go onto my face. In the past, Kayla and the girls have described their make-up as their ‘war paint’- and given who I’m inevitably going to have to talk to next, that description has never been more accurate.

With my face made-up, I strip off my sandals, shorts and top and reach into my top drawer for a pair of thin, translucent tights, smirking as I stretch the soft garment over my equally-smooth legs. As I reach into the drawer beneath my tights drawer for a silky, short-sleeved top, I muse on how there is one thing different about my room- there isn’t a single trace of ‘Steve’ anywhere in it, not even hidden away in any of my drawers.

With the top tightly clinging to what little curves I have, I reach into my wardrobe, smiling as I withdraw a very smart, very expensive, very red bespoke skirt suit. I step into the short skirt and smile as it hugs my legs tightly as I zip it up, before pulling on the jacket and fastening the single button, which enhances my narrow waist and (padded) chest. After slipping my feet into a pair of matching stiletto heels and grabbing my handbag, I spritz myself with some of my sweetest-smelling perfume, before staring at myself in my full-length mirror.

Right from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, I project a perfectly feminine figure. Mum’s right- I AM beautiful, if I saw any woman on the street who looked like I do now, I’d be gob smacked by how she looked… And yet, I can’t help but see ‘Steve’ poking through the cracks in my ‘disguise’.

“I’m ready,” I say as I slowly descend the stairs in my high heels (having spent two months getting used to wearing flats or sandals).

“Hot stuff!” Kayla giggles as I do a slow twirl in my suit. “Apart from your fingernails, of course, but there are things we can do about that at my flat, hehe!”

“Umm, okay,” I say. “Mum, I’ll, um, I’ll see you for dinner, okay?”

“Of course,” mum chuckles. “And good luck with your manager.”

“Thanks,” I giggle nervously. “Hope I don’t need it…”

After a quick pit stop at Kayla’s flat, where she paints my nails a deep red colour and changes into her own pink skirt suit, I find myself stood side-by-side with my tiny blonde friend outside the offices of Heavenly Talent- the exact same place where I met her over a year ago. I take a deep breath before coolly striding inside, trying to keep my cheeks from burning as seemingly everyone in the reception area pauses what they’re doing and stares in my direction.

“Hi, Ella,” I say to the brown-haired girl behind the reception desk. “Is- is Joshua in today? Um, please?”

“I’ll let him know you’re here,” Ella whispers, typing into her computer before gesturing toward Joshua’s office at the top of what looks to me like a long, foreboding flight of stairs. I gulp as I walk up the stairs, my legs getting shakier with every step I take, before I almost collapse completely as I enter the office of the furious-looking African gentleman. Much to my dismay, he’s not alone in his office, as also present- of all people- is Jamie-Lee Burke, the same woman who was supposed to be my mentor, but turned into the closest thing I have to a nemesis.

“Take a seat, Stephanie,” Joshua says in a cold, dark voice, and I gratefully accept, happy to take the weight off of my wobbly legs. “First of all, welcome back to London. Secondly, you and I have a LOT to talk about.”

“I understand,” I whisper. “And I’m sorry-“

“Save it,” Joshua says, before sighing. “Believe me, you’ll be doing a LOT of apologising before this day is out.” I blink back tears as I nod, but it isn’t Joshua’s anger that’s upsetting me the most.

“Can-“ I stutter. “If you don’t mind… I’d rather talk to you alone if I can, please?” Even though his angry facial expression doesn’t change, I still breathe a sigh of relief Joshua nods.

“Jamie, please leave us,” Joshua says in the quietest voice I have ever heard him use.

“But I should-“ Jamie-Lee protests, making me grimace.

“You’ll have a chance to speak later,” Joshua says, silencing the 24 year old woman. “For now, Stephanie and I need to speak privately.” Knowing better than to argue further, Jamie-Lee nods and leaves the office, but not before giving me a VERY dirty look. Once she’s closed the door behind her, I take a deep breath and prepare to lay out my case to Joshua, but I don’t get the opportunity as he almost literally leaps out of his chair.

“I do not like being lied to!” Joshua bellows, making me jump. “I never have, and I never will! But what I hate the most about being lied to… Is that you feel you can’t trust me enough to tell me the truth about your transition.”

“I- I’m sorry,” I sniffle.

“I don’t doubt that you are,” Joshua sighs, sitting down. “Running away the way that you did cost me money, a LOT of money.”

“I- I can repay-“ I meekly offer.

“But the money I lost is nothing compared to the money you and your bandmates have already made me,” Joshua says. “If you had left before the tour, Stephanie, we would NOT be having this conversation. As it is, we’ve lost recording days and some publicity opportunities, but nothing major, nothing that can’t be written off.”

“I see,” I whisper.

“Stephanie…” Joshua says, standing up again, but much, much calmer than before, “why did you apply for the band? I want honesty. Whatever the answer is doesn’t matter, as long as it’s true.”

“…As a challenge,” I mumble. “To see if I could… I wanted to see if I could pass as a woman, I always loved to sing, I saw your advert online… I never even thought I’d get a second audition, let alone this.”

“…You were the last member picked for the band,” Joshua said in a calm, quiet voice. “Becca and Adeola, as you know, didn’t audition, Kayla and Lauren were picked very quickly, but you… There were three girls vying for the final spot. It was Jamie who rooted for you, she was your biggest supporter, she got you into the band almost single-handedly.”

“Would- would you have hired me if you’d known the truth about me transitioning?” I ask.

“…Probably not,” Joshua concedes, making my heart sink. “However, I pride myself on being a champion of equality. The colour of your skin or the make-up of your DNA is not important to me, only your capacity for hard work. And you ARE a hard worker. Heh, you’d have to be to live this double life you apparently led at the start of the band!”

“…It was knackering,” I say, making Joshua chuckle.

“So weighing everything up…” Joshua sighs. “I AM glad I hired you for the band, and not just because you’re worth your weight in gold for publicity alone!” I smile, relieved that my ‘roasting’ has come to an end. “However…”

“Am- am I fired?” I ask.

“…I don’t know,” Joshua sighs. “You caused a lot of trouble from your disappearance. I want to believe that it will never happen again-“

“It won’t, I promise,” I plead.

“You also promised me, after the incident with your parents, that you’d stopped lying to me,” Joshua says. “Whether or not you decide to transition is less important than whether or not I feel I can trust you again.”

“I understand,” I whisper.

“On the other hand,” Joshua says, “you ARE still worth your weight in gold for publicity. Your fans love you- I believe you were mobbed for selfies on your way home, right?”

“…One or two,” I say with a coy smile.

“The public do not need to know the ‘truth’ about you,” Joshua states firmly. “The only people who know are your family, your friends in the band and some of the Angels. And I have sworn all of them to secrecy. And the last thing I need is you jumping ship to Spencer and Hall, they’ve been breathing down my neck enough in recent weeks!”

“If you’re going to decide,” I say, “I’d prefer you did it soon, either way, rather than keep me hanging on.”

“I understand that,” Joshua says. “As soon as I’ve reached my decision, I will let you know immediately.”

“Thank you,” I whisper.

“What I will do,” Joshua says, “is release all the money you earned during the tour. And there is a LOT of it. No need to compensate me for lost income during your absence- I knew when I started working with models and signers to expect the occasional wobbly!”

“This was a hell of a ‘wobble’, though,” I say.

“Yes, yes it was,” Joshua says. “I recommend you go home, relax in your own bed, talk to your family. I know your brother is very eager to see you.”

“…Which brother?” I ask apprehensively.

“Daniel,” Joshua says, making me breathe a sigh of relief. “He has become very close to the other Angel husbands, boyfriends and brothers. Has even asked to audition as a male model!”

“Modelling what, gas masks?” I ask, making Joshua throw his head and roar with laughter.

“I’ve missed you, Stephanie Abbott,” Joshua says warmly. “Now go! I’ll let you know the second I make my decision, I promise!” I grin as I leave the office, but my grin immediately falls when I see Jamie-Lee waiting for me at the top of the stairs.

“Long time no see,” Jamie-Lee says in a dark tone of voice.

“Hello, Jamie-Lee,” I say, my voice equally dark.

“Really, Steph?” Jamie-Lee asks. “Or should I say ‘Steve’? After all the times I stood up for you, gave you advice, made time for you… Only to find out that you’ve been lying to my face the whole time? No, not just lying to me, but lying to all your fans as well.”

“You don’t know the whole story,” I snort.

“And whose fault is that?” Jamie-Lee asks, leading to an awkward silence as we scowl at each other.

“If you’d excuse me, Miss ‘I’m the purest person in the world who’d never lie- oh no wait, I’ve lied plenty’,” I spit, bringing a look of pure fury to the blonde woman’s eyes. “My family are waiting for me.”

“They’ve been waiting for you for two months!” Jamie-Lee shouts after me as I leave the agency, scratching the back of my head with my middle finger so that she knows EXACTLY how I feel about her.

“What was that about?” Kayla asks as we head toward our waiting taxi.

“Ugh,” I spit. “Just- just nothing. “I guess I’d better go and see the others at some point today… Where’s Lauren today?”

“In Scotland all week,” Kayla explains. “With her family. Actually flew up there this morning. And no, we are NOT getting on a flight, I am officially not letting you leave London until this is sorted!”

“Jeez, when did you become my big sister?” I ask, making Kayla giggle.

“Hey, it’s my career too,” Kayla laughs. “I want the band back together, PROPERLY back together.”

“…And I’m the biggest obstacle stopping that from happening?” I ask.

“…The ONLY obstacle,” Kayla says, leading to an awkward silence that’s only broken as we’re getting out of the taxi back at my home.

“Hey,” the taxi driver- a West Indian man in his early forties- says. “You two are from that girl band, aren’t you? ‘Out of Heaven’ or something, right?”

“Yep!” Kayla giggles happily, before staring expectantly at me.

“Umm… Yeah, that’s us!” I say, forcing a happy smile onto my face.

“My daughters are huge fans of yours,” the cabbie says. “Would you mind recording a message for them? Their names are Alisha and Shauna.”

“Not at all!” Kayla giggles, taking the cabbie’s phone and holding it in the ‘selfie position’.

“Hi Alisha! Hi Shauna!” Kayla and I say simultaneously. “Thanks for being such awesome fans of ours, we hope to see you at one of our concerts soon!” After handing the phone back to the cabbie, we head into my home, where I collapse heavily onto the sofa, kicking off my heels and stretching my tired feet.

“That… Was unpleasant,” I sigh.

“It’s also out of the way,” Kayla says. “Who do you want to see next, Becca and Adeola?”

“I have another suggestion,” a familiar male voice calls from the kitchen, making me jump yet again. “What, no hug for your big brother?”

“…Hi, Danny,” I sigh, getting up and giving the young man a hug as he emerges from the darkened room. “How long have you been hiding in there?”

“I got here about ten minutes after you left,” Danny laughs. “Mum called me to tell me that you were back, so here I am!”

“Idiot,” Kayla says, making Danny laugh.

“Umm, whose brother is he again?” I ask, making Danny laugh even louder.

“You were gone for two months,” Danny shrugs. “I missed having a little sister, Kayla’s an only child…”

“Just as long as you’re not going out,” I snort. “THAT’S something I can live without.”

“Nah,” Kayla says, playfully grimacing at the thought. “Besides, I doubt Rob would approve…”

“Or Rachel!” Danny laughs.

“What- you’ve both hooked up with someone?” I ask. “God… How much exactly have I missed?”

“Tom and Amanda got married too,” Danny says, making my eyes go wide. “…Just kidding, heh!”

“Idiot,” I say, making Danny and Kayla laugh. “On- on the subject of Tom…”

“Yeah…” Danny grimaces. “He’s not happy that you missed his thirtieth last month. Think he was half-expecting you to walk through the front door any minute with a gift.”

“And when you say ‘me’,” I sigh, “do you mean ‘Steve’ or ‘Steph’?”

“…HE means ‘Steve’,” Danny sighs. “I, on the other hand, had no doubt that the next time I saw you, you’d be wearing a skirt!”

“He really never lost faith,” Kayla says. “Kept emailing you, even though you never responded.”

“I’d have called too, if you hadn’t changed your number,” Danny says.

“…Even though I’ve been lying for the last year?” I ask.

“You’re my baby sister,” Danny shrugs. “That pretty much gives you a free pass to do whatever you want.”

“You- you still see me as your sister?” I ask, tears forming in the corners of my eyes.

“Again,” Danny says, “wearing. A. Skirt.”

“…Thanks,” I say, my voice quivering with emotion.

“You’d better get changed,” Kayla whispers. “I’ve already texted Becca and Adeola, we’re, um, we’re going to meet up with them for coffee.” I sigh and nod, before heading upstairs, eagerly peeling off my sticky tights and suit, replacing them with a cute light blue crop top, a pleated grey miniskirt and wedge sandals. As I stare at myself in my mirror, I smirk at Danny’s simplistic view of the world- as far as everyone’s concerned, I AM a girl, simple as. It’s just a shame Tom isn’t so easily convinced… And neither am I.

After bidding Danny farewell with a hug (and a hug from Kayla, awkwardly enough), we jump into yet another taxi and soon find ourselves outside the vast, posh house that belongs to Becca’s parents, and once again, my knees start to tremble as I knock on the door- trembling that gets worse when it’ Becca herself who answers the door.

“Oh,” the brown-haired woman says as she sees me. “Hello, Steph.”

“Hi, um, Becca,” I mumble, leading to an awkward silence.

“…Welcome home,” Becca sighs, before giggling and giving me a quick hug. “I’m still really pissed off at you though, despite the hug.”

“Join the club!” Kayla giggles. “Is- is Addie here too?”

“Yeah,” Becca sighs. “Come on in, you two.” I smile as I follow Becca into her living room, where Adeola greets me with a tight, wordless hug.

“…Hi,” I say to the dark-skinned girl, who giggles happily before sitting down next to her BFF.

“I’m still really-“ Adeola says, before being interrupted.

“Pissed off at you,” Becca, Kayla and I finish Adeola’s sentence for her, making her giggle excitedly.

“Believe me, I understand,” I sigh. “I’m really pissed off at myself, too.”

“As pissed off as I am,” Becca says, “I am glad you’re back, and not just because it means that we can back to work!”

“Speaking of work,” Adeola says, “I’m guessing by Kayla’s suit that you’ve been to see my uncle? And that he’s pissed off at you too?”

“Are we- is the band, you know, now a foursome?” Becca whispers.

“Not yet,” I sigh.

“You do- you do want to stay in the band, though, right?” Adeola asks.

“Of course,” I say. “But it’s not up to me, it’s up to your uncle.”

“Man- oh, um, sorry,” Adeola says, before blushing.

“Honestly, forget it,” I sigh. “Believe me, I’m trying my hardest to.”

“Even though you recently spent time pretending to be a man?” Becca asks.

“Interesting choice of words,” I muse. “’Pretending to be a man’…”

“Well you were, weren’t you?” Becca asks. “I know obviously ‘Steve’ is part of who you were, but ‘Stephanie’s a bigger part, right? I mean, it’s not like you’re just cross-dressing as a hobby- not that there’s anything wrong with that- but you, you know, you spend virtually every money of every day as a woman, you’ve changed your name… Sounds like you’re a woman to me, regardless of whether or not you take medication.”

“What Becca said,” Adeola says with a confident smile.

“…It’s a little more complicated than that,” I sigh.

“Well however complicated it is, we’ll help you through it, right?” Becca says.

“Right!” Adeola and Kayla both cheer, bringing tears to my eyes.

“Thank you,” I sniffle, “thank you so much!” I giggle as I’m quickly drawn into a tight group hug.

“That’s what friends are for,” Adeola says. “But no more lies, okay?”

“Why, oh why did your brother have to write a song with THAT title?” I ask Becca, prompting yet another mass giggle.

Kayla and I stay at Becca’s house until early evening, where I’m filled in with everything that’s happened with the band during my absence- Stuart has been writing songs and the band have been recording solos and duets where possible, and whenever the band were needed for publicity purposes, Joshua would only ever send 2 or 3 of the girls along to try to disguise the fact that the band was no longer ‘whole’. Thanks to his skilled handling of the situation, the general public barely even noticed my absence- which makes me even more pessimistic about my chances of staying in the band.

“God,” Kayla moans as she straightens her transparent hosiery before getting in the waiting taxi. “Tights and June are an EVIL mix. Next time I see Joshua, remind me to go bare-legged!”

“Ugh, tell me about it,” I giggle. “Every ballet lesson last summer left me feeling like my crotch was a swimming pool…”

“That’s another thing you’ve been missing,” Kayla muses. “Only been having lessons on Wednesdays since you left.”

“…Sorry,” I say for what feels like the millionth time today.

“Will you be back at class on Wednesday?” Kayla asks.

“I- I dunno,” I sigh. “Need to sort my head out first, need to find out what Joshua’s going to do. He’s the one paying for the lessons after all, heh.”

“Get some rest,” Kayla advises. “I’ll call Lauren when I get in, let her know you’re back.”

“Thanks,” I whisper as the taxi drops me off at my home yet again. I open the front door with my key, and once again, I’m greeted by a tight hug from a member of my family- this time, my dad, who looks on the verge of tears himself.

“…Hi, dad,” I whisper, barely keeping my turbulent emotions under control.

“Stupid girl,” dad whispers, making me laugh. “Or should I say ‘stupid boy’?”

“I- I wish I knew,” I sigh. “I mean, I- I thought this was what I wanted, I was ready to fully transition, I really was, and then Tom-“

“Don’t blame everything on your brother!” Dad scoffs. “Though I admit he didn’t help matters. You’re still having doubts then, I take it?”

“Yes,” I sigh. “Though while I was away, I- I only wore girl’s clothes. I WANT to put ‘Steve’ behind me, I- I just can’t.”

“’Can’t’ or ‘won’t’?” dad asks, making me moan.

“…I really don’t know,” I sigh. “I’m really, really tired…”

“Get an early night,” dad advises. “Sleep on it, in your own bed, and you’ll feel better.” I nod, and after a quick, light dinner, I do just that, getting to bed just after 8:30pm and falling asleep almost the instant my head hits the pillow. This, of course, means that I’m awake early the following morning, getting up just after 6am and sighing happily as I shower and shave off what little body hair has grown over the last two months (frequently depilatory and waxing sessions have left my leg and arm hair extremely thing and patchy).

Once I’m sparkling clean, I apply a light layer of make-up and dress for the day in my usual control thong and a strapless padded bra, before pulling on a loose, knee-length sundress and the same wedges I wore yesterday. Once again, I stare at my reflection, looking at ‘Stephanie’ in all ‘her’ glory, and yet all I can see are the cracks of ‘Steve’ poking through underneath.

“Morning, Stephanie!” Mum beams as I walk down the stairs. “For god’s sake, did you really need to wear THOSE sandals when coming down the stairs? I’ve only just got you home, don’t want you breaking your neck…”

“Mum!” I protest. “I know how to walk in heels. And these aren’t even heels, they’re wedges.” Mum’s smile widens as I sit down at the breakfast table, unconsciously crossing one leg over the other in a highly feminine manner.

“Well they DO go very well with your dress,” mum says. “What do you have planned for today?”

“I dunno,” I sigh. “Suppose I’ve to go and talk to Tom at some point.”

“He can come to you,” mum says. “You don’t owe that boy anything.”

“Other than a thirtieth birthday present?” I ask. “Danny told me that he was expecting me to show up at his party. Well, he was expecting ‘Steve’ to show up, anyway…”

“Tom needs to accept that you’re his sister now,” mum says.

“Even when I myself haven’t?” I ask.

“Says the woman in the dress, heels- sorry, wedges- and nail polish!” Mum retorts. “Your father told me what you talked about last night, your desire to let go of ‘Steve’… I really believe you can do that, Stephanie, and I believe that the sooner you do so, the better. Are you still in contact with your counsellor?”

“Umm, yeah, I could call her, I guess,” I say.

“I’d make her your first call of the day,” mum advises. “See if you can get in for an appointment. And if you do talk to Tom… Remember that it’s YOUR life, not his.”

“I will,” I laugh as a bowl of sweet-smelling cereal is pushed under my nose. After eating, I spend the rest of the morning watching entertainment news on television, wondering if Out of Heaven are featured on any of the articles (they aren’t). Once the clock ticks 9am, I pick up the house phone and dial the number for my counsellor.

“Good morning, Dr Phillips’s office,” the voice on the other end- which I recognise as the doctor’s receptionist- says.

“Uh- hello,” I say nervously. “It’s, um, Stephanie, Stephanie Abbott… Is Dr Phillips free at any point today?”

“Oh, hello Miss Abbott,” the receptionist says, making me smirk at the use of the title ‘Miss’. “Dr Phillips has sessions all morning, but we can fit you in at 2pm if that’s okay?”

“Um, yeah, that’ll do,” I say.

“Great!” The receptionist says. “We’ll see you then.”

“Thanks,” I reply, hanging up the phone and sighing loudly. I have five hours to kill before my appointment, and a lot of people I still need to speak to… Most of whom I really don’t want to speak to.

“When are you seeing her?” Mum asks.

“This afternoon,” I say, grabbing my smartphone and opening up Facebook. “In the meantime, I still have a lot of explaining to get over and done with…”

A short while later, I walk into a small, posh coffee shop, inwardly sighing as I see the young couple sat waiting for me at one of the tables.

“Hi Stuart,” I say as I sit down opposite the couple. “Um, hi Jamie…”

“Hi Stephanie,” Jamie-Lee says coldly.

“Before you say it,” I sigh, “I get that you’re both pissed off with me-“

“’Pissed off’ doesn’t even begin to cover it!” Jamie-Lee snaps.

“Ladies,” Stuart says, calming us both down.

“At your audition, you looked everyone in the eye and said that you were a pre-operative transsexual,” Jamie-Lee says. “You’ve been lying to us for over a year. Frankly, it’s a wonder Joshua doesn’t sue you, let alone fire you…”

“You never asked me whether or not I was taking hormones,” I mumble.

“No, you just volunteered that information every time since when we’ve asked,” Jamie-Lee spits. “Do you know how many transgendered people there are in London alone? Some estimates put it as high as ten thousand. Many of them are young girls who look up to you, see you as a role model. If they found out the truth, it would break their hearts.”

“Just because I don’t take hormones- YET- doesn’t make me any less transgendered!” I argue. “I’ve chosen to live life as a woman, I’ve committed to this life.”

“Except for the times when you dressed up as ‘Steve’,” Jamie-Lee says.

“Dr Phillips thinks I might be ‘bigendered’,” I retort. “We can’t all be as sure of our gender identity as the two of you.”

“No, but we can at least tell the truth about it,” Jamie-Lee says. “Did you know that Nikki’s going in for her SRS in two weeks’ time, and she nearly cancelled it because what you said and did made her question what she was doing?”

“…But she didn’t cancel it, did she?” I ask.

“No thanks to you,” Jamie-Lee spits.

“Jamie,” Stuart whispers, calming his fiancée down. “We’ve both been where Stephanie is, we’ve both been at that ‘stage’ of questioning whether or not we really want what we think we want. Some people just take longer to get through that stage than others, that’s all.”

“It doesn’t excuse the lies,” Jamie-Lee mumbles.

“No it doesn’t,” Stuart concurs. “But what’s done is done. You can’t undo the mistakes of the past- all you can do is forgive them.” I smirk inwardly as I remember exactly which ‘mistake’ Stuart is referring to- something a lot more personal that he had to forgive Jamie-Lee for.

“I guess,” Jamie-Lee sighs.

“We’re obviously never going to like each other,” I say. “And that’s okay, we don’t need to. Yes, I started out crossdressing as a hobby, but is it really too hard to believe that I grew into my life as Stephanie and now enjoy it so much that I genuinely want to be a woman full-time?”

“…I guess not,” Jamie-Lee mumbles. “And if Dr Phillips says you have a case of gender dysphoria, then I can believe HER.”

“I’m seeing her this afternoon,” I say smugly, before my smile falls. “Though I’m also going to see my brother.”

“Tom?” Stuart asks, sighing as I nod.

“…I hope that goes better than the last time you saw him,” Jamie-Lee whispers with a genuine smile. “Steph… I really wanted to be your friend, I really did, but after what you did… I can’t see it happening.”

“Fair enough,” I shrug, extending my hand for Jamie-Lee to shake. “But we don’t have to be enemies either. Acquaintances?”

“…Acquaintances,” Jamie-Lee whispers, lightly shaking my hand.

“You’re still invited to the wedding, of course,” Stuart says, making both myself and Jamie-Lee giggle.

“I’m SINGING at the wedding,” I say. “Hardly the same thing!”

“You going to see your brother now?” Stuart asks. “Because if you need a lift-“

“No,” I say. “Need to get something from home first…” Stuart and Jamie-Lee smile sadly as I leave the table and head straight back home, where I futilely try to mentally prepare myself for my next ‘meeting’.

A short while later, just after noon, I find myself in yet another coffee shop, only this one is part of a chain, and more importantly, is only a couple of doors away from my brother’s place of work. I smile and wave at the thirty year old man as he walks in the door, though the frown on his face when he sees me makes short work of my optimistic mood.

“Hi Tom,” I whisper as my brother sits down opposite me. “Um, long time no see…”

“Hello,” Tom says bluntly.

“Not sure which name to use?” I ask. “Use the name ‘Stephanie’. That’s what I’m legally called, that’s what I want to be called.”

“You’re still trying to convince yourself of that?” Tom asks. “Because I can tell just by looking at you that you’re not sure.”

“What is it that’s giving it away?” I ask sarcastically. “The dress, the shoes, the nail polish?”

“I’ve known you for twenty years, S-whatever,” Tom says.

“You never knew I used to cross-dress,” I retort. “You never knew I used to fantasise about wearing make-up, heels and dresses literally every day of my life.” The look of utter unease on Tom’s face almost makes me giggle, as for the first time in my life, I have him on the back foot.

“Just because you wear a skirt, it doesn’t make you a woman,” Tom says.

“No it doesn’t,” I concede. “But abandoning your masculinity, making a commitment to living life as a female, that DOES. In the two months I was away, I didn’t so much as wear a man’s sock.”

“But can you honestly say you’ve put ‘Steve’ all the way behind you?” Tom asks.

“…No,” I sigh. “But I want to, I really, really want to.”

“All that would be doing is running away again,” Tom says. “Only instead of physically running away, you’d just be running away from the identity you really want.”

“You’re not a fucking shrink, stop psychoanalysing me!” I retort. “My life as Stephanie has been so much better than my life as Steve, I have friends, a career… Even had a boyfriend I genuinely liked.”

“Even though said boyfriend used to be a woman?” Tom asks.

“So I’m attracted to transmen,” I shrug. “Would it have made a difference if I was a gay man?”

“YES,” Tom says. “At least then it’d still be, well, you!”

“This IS me!” I say, gesturing toward my dress.

“It’s not all of you,” Tom says, shaking his head. “Ste- S… Why did you bring your friends round to see me? You must have known what I was going to say.”

“…I wanted you to see the life that I’ve made for myself,” I say. “To show you Stephanie’s life, her friends… I wanted to convince you that this was what I really wanted.”

“Even though you haven’t convinced yourself?” Tom asks.

“I WANT to be a woman,” I mumble.

“Then why are you so torn up about this?” Tom says, before letting out a long sigh. “I’ve got to go now, got to get back to work.”

“Before you go,” I say, producing the tote bag I brought into the coffee shop, “I want to give you this. It’s your birthday presents, and, um, the goodie bag I promised I’d put together for Amanda. Are you two- are you still together?”

“Yeah,” Tom whispers with a nod as he takes the bag from me. “…Actually thinking of asking her to marry me.”

“Bit quick!” I exclaim, my eyes going wide.

“Well, when you’ve found the right person, you’ve found the right person,” Tom shrugs.

“Yeah,” I sigh. The question is… Is ‘Stephanie’ the right person for me?

My mind is still in turmoil a short while later as I enter the (mercifully air-conditioned) office of my counsellor and collapse down heavily on her plush chair. Fortunately, Dr. Phillips’s facial expression is one of kind acceptance, rather than the scowls I’ve become accustomed to over the past couple of days.

“…Are you really pissed off with me too?” I ask, making Beverly smile.

“No, of course not,” the middle-aged woman laughs. “Though I’d stay away from my daughter and her fiancée for a while, if I were you. Have people been saying that to you a lot since you’ve been back?”

“A bit,” I sigh. “But I guess it’s to be expected, running off the way I did didn’t really accomplish anything…”

“No it didn’t,” Dr Phillips concurs. “Did it at least help you clear your head and come to a decision regarding your gender identity?”

“I thought it would,” I sigh. “I thought it HAD, but I’ve just spoken to Tom again…”

“I’m sure you realise that you can’t live your life by what he says,” Beverly tells me. “Only you can make this decision, and it has to be based on what you want, not anyone else.”

“I know, I know,” I say. “But what he said, it- it really resonated with me, you know? I mean, I WANT to be Stephanie full-time, but- it’s like I have this little thing in my brain that’s stopping me.”

“Go on,” Beverly says.

“While I was away,” I say, “I bought some oestrogen tablets off of the internet. Don’t worry, I didn’t take any.”

“Good,” Beverly says firmly.

“But I was tempted, really tempted…” I say. “And then I thought about ‘Steve’. I didn’t take any male clothes with me on my ‘trip’, but when I got to a new city, I’d buy some men’s jeans and t-shirts and take them back to my hotel room… But I wouldn’t wear them or even try them on, and I’d return them the following day.”

“So you were presenting as female all throughout your trip?” Beverly asks.

“Every second of it,” I say with pride. “Even in bed, I only wore nightdresses.”

“Well that shows that you see female as your dominant gender,” Beverly says. “It’s something I’ve suspected for a long time.”

“’Dominant’ doesn’t mean ‘only’, though,” I moan. “And as I said, I WANT to be female full-time. Or rather… I want to want it.”

“You feel your life would be easier if you could just commit without regrets?” Beverly asks.

“Exactly that,” I sigh. “I mean, I make a GOOD woman. Certainly better than I am as a man.”

“You are visibly passable,” Beverly says. “But it takes more than that to really be a woman.”

“…Tom said the exact same thing when I spoke to him,” I sigh.

“Well he is correct,” Beverly says. “But as I was about to say, I believe that there is more to you being a woman than the clothes you wear. You have embraced the feminine lifestyle… You’re just having difficulty letting go of the masculine.”

“I have incorporated bits of the masculine lifestyle I liked into ‘Stephanie’s life,” I say. “I play videogames, I’ll watch football occasionally…”

“And that is commendable,” Beverly says. “So many people so completely reject their old gender identity that anything remotely masculine is looked down on.”

“And again, it’d be much easier if I could do just that,” I sigh. “I just wish I knew how…”

I spend the next 50 minutes baring my soul to my counsellor, going into detail about my trip around the UK and my feelings upon my return- and how I likely wouldn’t have returned if I hadn’t been forced to, something which greatly concerns her.

I return home to an empty house, which I’m thankful for as it means I can crash on the sofa and let out my frustrations in one long, loud scream that probably doesn’t do my vocal chords any good. I put on my Xbox for a quick game session- my first in months- but even that doesn’t feel as satisfying as it used to. After switching off my game, I try to relax by immersing myself in reality television, but I’m distracted after less than ten minutes by a new text message on my phone.

‘Hey Steph,’ the message, which is from Kayla, reads. ‘Just checking to see if you’ll be at ballet tomorrow, I know you said you’re not feeling up to it but it’d probably be good to get back into practice. Might be worth asking Krystie and Zoe for some refresher classes too, I know they’d be willing to help out, Krystie’s desperate to put us in pointe shoes for our next vid!’ I chuckle as I read the text message, before an unexpected wave of panic washes over me as I imagine what the dance lesson will be like, with me walking in in front of everyone- Jamie-Lee staring daggers at me, Nikki and her girlfriend staring at me with looks of utter contempt, all the other girls judging me with their eyes…

“No, no, Steph,” I say to myself as I close my eyes. “Thinking like that is what caused you to run away in the first place, they’re your friends, they won’t judge you… Then again, they are women- not just women, but models… No, no, can’t think that way, that’s sexist, sexist against my own gender, no less… The gender I want to be… Isn’t it?”

‘Or is it just proof that you don’t really want to belong to that gender?’ A voice creeps into the back of my head, a voice I’d hoped I’d long since left behind- ‘Steve’s voice.

“I will never wear another item of men’s clothing for as long as I live,” I say confidently. “Clothes are just clothes, they’re just pieces of fabric cut into different shapes.”

‘Then what does it matter what gender’s clothes you wear?’ ‘Steve’ asks.

“Just because you wear a skirt, it doesn’t make you a woman,” I say. “But just because you wear trousers, it doesn’t make you a man.”

‘Prove it,’ ‘Steve’ says, making me smile determinedly. Re-energised, I leap off my sofa and head to the nearest tube station, heading to the nearest clothes store whilst they’re still open. When I return home, I have in my hands two shopping bags- one with a pair of men’s jeans, one with two men’s t-shirts and a packet of boxer shorts. If I can wear these clothes but see only ‘Stephanie’ and not ‘Steve’, that will be all the proof I need.

With a spring in my step, I head up to the bathroom, where I scrub my face clean of make-up and remove my nail polish, before stripping off my clothes and staring at my naked reflection. If it wasn’t for my flat chest and my ‘appendage’, I could easily pass for female… But I could just as easily pass for male as well, despite my long hair and smooth, baby soft skin.

“It doesn’t matter how I look,” I say as I pull on a pair of boxer shorts and a pair of thick black socks. “It only matter how I feel. If I wear these clothes, I’ll be no different than any other woman who wears men’s clothes.”

‘You keep believing that,’ ‘Steve’ replies sarcastically. I take several deep breaths before pulling on a t-shirt and the new pair of jeans, fastening them with a plain black belt. I close my eyes before turning to face the mirror, afraid of what I’ll see when I look into it. Whenever I’m dressed as ‘Stephanie’, I always see cracks of ‘Steve’ poking through. Now that I’m dressed as ‘Steve’, I should see at the very least cracks of ‘Stephanie’ poking through. I SHOULD see only Stephanie, with only the odd crack of ‘Steve’… But when I open my eyes and look into the mirror, I immediately break down in floods of tears.

‘I told you so,’ ‘Steve’ says in the mirror as I slump to the floor, bawling my eyes out. I was so sure… But there wasn’t so much as a trace of ‘Stephanie’ in my reflection.

I hide away in my bedroom for the rest of the day, keep ‘Steve’s clothes in place as I try to make sense of what I saw. I was so sure that ‘Stephanie’ was my ‘real’ identity. I’ve lived 98% of the last year as her. 100% of the last two months. But as ‘Steve’ said, wearing a skirt doesn’t make you a woman… No matter how much you might want it to.

Before I go to bed, I sit down in front of my dresser and tie my hair into an androgynous-looking ponytail, sighing as my reflection gets more and more male, more and more ‘Steve’.

‘You might as well,’ ‘Steve’ says as I pick up a pair of scissors from my dresser. ‘Just one snip, that’s all it takes…’ I blink back tears as I open the scissors and hold them to my ponytail. My hair took over a year to grow, but all it is is just another symbol of the lie I’ve told…

“No,” I say firmly, returning the scissors to the table and untying my hair. “If wearing a skirt doesn’t make you a woman, then having long hair CERTAINLY doesn’t.”

‘Nor does having short hair make you a man,’ Steve reminds me.

“Exactly,” I reply. “So my hair’s staying long.” I giggle as I pout at ‘Steve’s reflection, but when my pout fades, I sigh in frustration as all that’s left staring at me is the reflection of ‘Steve’ staring blankly back at me.

I sleep in my shorts, or at the very least, I try to, thanks to the turmoil my brain is in. When I wake up the following morning, the sensation of my loose shorts around my waist confuses me at first, as I’ve become so used to sleeping in a thong and a nightie, but the events of the previous evening soon come flooding back to me, leaving me almost hyperventilating as I throw back the covers and stare at my undeniably male body.

“No,” I whisper defiantly. “I don’t want this, I don’t want this! I. Can. Wear. What I damn well want.”

‘Then go ahead,’ ‘Steve’s voice says. ‘No one’s stopping you.’

“Exactly,” I say. “In fact, people EXPECT me to dress as a woman.” I smile as I peel off my shorts, and after a quick shower, I return to my room, smiling smugly as I apply a full face of make-up followed by one of my padded bras and control thongs. With every stroke of my hairbrush, I feel more and more feminine… And yet I can’t avoid looking at my reflection and seeing ‘Steve’.

“You know what?” I say defiantly. “I AM going to that ballet lesson today. I’m going to walk in there, with my head high, as the woman that I want to be. The woman that I KNOW I already am!”

‘Then go ahead,’ ‘Steve’s voice says. ‘No one’s stopping you.’ I smile as I reach into my dancewear drawer for a brand-new pair of pink ballet tights, giggling at the feeling of the soft material as it stretches over my soft, hairless legs. I step into a skin-tight black tank leotard and stretch the garment over my body, giggling girlishly as it clings to my body, before tying my hair into a severe ponytail and staring at my reflection in the mirror. I truly do look like any young woman, about to head off to her dance class… And yet as hard as I try not to, I still see ‘Steve’ reflected in the mirror. I frown as I cover up with a loose floral skirt, before pulling on a pair of pink, girly trainers, grabbing my dance bag and heading downstairs. Both my parents are still asleep following their night shifts, so I grab a quick breakfast before heading to the nearest tube station, emerging a few minutes later near the vast dance studio in which I haven’t set foot in ages.

“Here we go,” I say nervously as I slowly walk toward the front entrance of the building.

‘Go ahead,’ ‘Steve’s voice says in an almost mocking tone. ‘None one’s stopping you… Except yourself.’ I freeze as I stare through the glass doors of the studio at the young women milling about inside, and I suddenly realise just how out of place I am.

All of the women are clad identically to me, in pink tights and black leotards, but fundamentally, I know just how different they really are. They ARE women regardless of how they were born… But I’ll always be just a pretender, a man who likes wearing women’s clothing, never truly ‘one of the girls’ not matter how hard I try…

I hyperventilate as I literally run from the studio, heading back to the tube station where I compose myself and get on the next train to St. Pancras station. With a determined walk, I stride through the station’s vast concourse, not caring that I’m still wearing my dancewear, and head to the ticket machines, where I purchase a one-way ticket to Paris. As I head toward the train to France, however, I freeze.

‘Go ahead,’ ‘Steve’s voice mocks. ‘It’s the only way you’ll ever truly be free of me.’

“But you’ll always be waiting for me when I return,” I whisper.

‘Then I guess you’ll have to run away forever,’ ‘Steve’ says. I could certainly afford to, with the funds that Joshua’s released… But I know that running away forever will never solve anything. It certainly didn’t solve my problems two months ago, if anything, it’s made them worse. However, I can’t continue to live in the limbo I’m living in right now. It’s like the only choices I have are bad ones- and the only one that satisfies everyone apart from me will leave me mentally shredded…

Two hours later, having changed into a plain black skirt and an even plainer grey t-shirt, I found myself stood outside a building in London that I didn’t even know existed. Stepping inside the building is an even more terrifying prospect than stepping inside the dance studio- especially as I’m sure there are paparazzi hidden away nearby- but I know that it’s the only place I’m going to get any help.

“Hello,” the woman behind reception desk says politely as I step toward her. “Can I help you, miss?”

“Hello,” I say stoically. “My name is Stephanie Abbott, and I wish to have myself committed as I believe I am a danger to my own health and safety.” I grimace as the young woman stoically nods, before handing me a clipboard.

“If you could please fill this in to the best of your abilities,” the receptionist says in a calm, soothing voice. “Someone will be out to see you as soon as someone becomes available.” I nod as I take the questionnaire and sit down in one of the psychiatric hospital’s plush seats and scan through the questions until I come to one that makes me sigh.

‘Please state in full the nature of your mental distress,’ the question reads.

“Difficulty with my identity,” I mumble as I write in the box underneath the question. “Coming from a crisis with my gender identity. I want to be a woman, but I keep having masculine feelings that are causing me a lot of distress.” I pause before continuing, waiting for a thought from ‘Steve’ to pop into my head, but when nothing comes, I continue writing. “I have a male persona in my head who will often cause me anxieties about my transition and hold me back from living the life I really want.” Eat that, Steve, I think to myself. You won’t be around for long… My smile widens as a nurse approaches me and introduces herself.

“Hello, are you Stephanie?” The nurse- an oriental woman in her early twenties- asks. “I’m Linda, how are you feeling today?”

“Kinda relieved now that I am actually here, heh.” I say. “I know that must sound weird…”

“Not at all,” Linda says. “Are you done with your questionnaire?”

“Just about,” I say, handing Linda the questionnaire before following her into the bowels of the hospital. “I just- I just really need this sorting, I mean, urgently.”

“That’s what we’re here for,” Linda says with a smile. “We’re going to get you setup in a temporary room for now. You’ll have a room all to yourself, you’ll have a key as well, but for security and safety reasons, doctors will be able to let themselves into your room, uninvited if they think it’s necessary.”

“I understand,” I say as we enter the small, spartan room and drop my overnight bag on the bed.

“Do you have anyone we can contact?” Linda asks.

“Just my parents,” I say. “Oh, and my current counsellor, I’ve put her details on the form.”

“Okay,” Linda says, handing the questionnaire to an orderly outside my door. “I have to stay with you until a doctor becomes available, alright?”

“Alright,” I say as the enormity of the situation dawns on me- I am now officially a mental patient. God only knows what this will do for my career… But at least when I get out of here, ‘Steve’ should be a thing of the past. Either him or ‘Stephanie’, anyway…

Linda only remains with me for another fifteen minutes before she’s ‘relieved’ by a doctor, a kind-looking woman in her late forties.

“Hello,” the doctor says. “You must be Stephanie. I’m Doctor Kate Morgan, I’ll be doing your initial assessment.”

“Hi,” I mumble, limply shaking the doctor’s hand.

“I’ve read your questionnaire,” Dr Morgan says. “And I’ve contacted Dr Phillips to let her know you’re here, and asked her to forward your notes onto me. From your notes you’ve stated that you’re transgendered- what stage of your transition have you reached, please?”

“That’s a… long story,” I grimace.

I spend the next hour detailing everything that’s happened in my life, not holding anything back or embellishing the truth at any point. I explain the full circumstances behind my deceiving Joshua, Jamie-Lee and the rest of the band, my lifelong love of all things feminine, my meetings with Dr Phillips (and my lack of oestrogen), my anxiety about my growing fame and decreasing privacy, the circumstances surrounding my departure, return and aborted second departure and my ongoing conflict with ‘Steve’.

“I agree with you when you say it’s a long story,” Dr Morgan says, making me giggle. “I’m not an expert on transgendered studies but I do have some experience treating people who are transitioning. I will say though that you do appear to have some form of split personality, with your constant references to ‘Steve’ as though he were a different person, and you clearly have some degree of anxiety, so I can prescribe you a mild anti-anxiety medication now if you’d like?”

“…That would be good, please,” I say.

“As you’ve come here voluntarily, you can leave anytime you want,” Dr Morgan says. “However, you wouldn’t have come here unless you had serious problems you needed to work through. When you checked yourself in, you said that you believed you were a danger to yourself- how so, exactly?”

“Because I was just about to run away again,” I say. “And if I’d gone… I genuinely don’t think I’d ever have returned. I want ‘Steve’ gone, and I’m not going to do that by myself, or even once a week talking to Dr Phillips… It’s something I need sorted NOW, or at the very least, as soon as possible.”

“I understand,” Dr Morgan says. “I’m going to draw up a timetable for you, make sure that you see me or one of my colleagues one on one at least once a day whilst you’re in here.”

“Thank you,” I whisper.

“I’ll also get in touch with Dr Phillips, see if she can come to some of your sessions as well,” Dr Morgan says. “In the meantime, make sure you take your anti-anxiety medication. Mealtimes are listed on the notice on your door. They will be in a communal area, but it is well-supervised, and most of the patients here do tend to keep to themselves so you won’t get any trouble.”

“I understand,” I whisper nervously.

“I know this may seem scary,” Dr Morgan says. “But you have to believe me when I say that we are going to dedicate ourselves to helping you work through your problems so that you can leave here sooner, rather than later. But we will need you to do your own fair share of hard work as well, okay?”

“Whatever it takes,” I reply.

“Good girl,” Dr Morgan says. “That was the right pronoun, right?”

“Definitely,” I say with a giggle. The doctor soon departs, leaving me alone with my thoughts. Normally, when alone, I’d be playing on either my phone or my iPad, but I surrendered all electronic devices at the front desk when I checked in, meaning there’s no escaping from the upcoming confrontation with my male side.

“Come on, ‘Steve’,” I whisper. “Let’s be having you…” As much as I try to focus my mind, however, ‘Steve’ remains eerily silent. This is nothing new- all throughout my two-month journey, he never ‘spoke’ to me, only appearing as a vague feeling at the back of my mind that directed me to do various things, such as buying male clothing. It’s almost as though ‘he’ is lulling me into a false sense of security, trying to convince me that I’m better, that I don’t need to stay in the hospital, but I know that the second I return to my old life, he’ll return, and with a vengeance.

Hours pass as I think through what Dr Morgan said to me, and what I’ll say to her at our next meeting, before the clock on my besides table beeps to let me know that it’s time for dinner. After changing into a comfortable, knee-length cotton dress from my overnight bag, I head to the dining area where, as promised, there is plenty of space- much more than I expected, in fact, as the place is virtually deserted. After I’m issued my first dose of anti-anxiety medicine, I grab a tray and get my dinner- just a plain chicken meal- before sitting down at one of the empty tables. I’m only able to take a few bites, however, before I’m interrupted by a figure looming over me.

“Ex-excuse me?” The feminine voice, which belongs to a woman in her early forties, asks. “Do- would you mind if I sat with you?” I hesitate, nervously scanning the woman and the rest of room for any possible threats, but it’s clear from her demeanour that she isn’t interested in harming me, only talking to me. The presence of an orderly less than fifteen feet away from my table is another comfort.

“Sure,” I say. “I- I’m Stephanie, Stephanie Abbott.”

“I know,” the woman giggles offering me her unusually large hand to shake. “Janet, Janet Cole.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say. “Guess word’s got around about the new ‘inmate’, huh?”

“Aww, are you feeling a little nervous?” Janet asks, smiling sympathetically as I nod. “Don’t be, it’s not like it is in the movies. Everybody here’s really friendly, we’re here because we’re like you- we want to get better. Though I am surprised to see a famous superstar in this room!”

“Hardly a superstar,” I mumble.

“I dunno,” Janet giggles. “I have a fifteen year old daughter who definitely thinks you’re a superstar, you and the rest of your band- Rebecca, Adeola, Kayla and…”

“Lauren,” I say with a giggle of my own. “If you let me have your address, I can see about getting together a goody bag of stuff for her, if you’d like?”

“That… Might not be such a good idea,” Janet grimaces. “I’m… I’m not really speaking to my family. We had a large falling out, that’s kinda why I’m in here.”

“Oh no,” I sigh sympathetically. “I’m sorry to hear that. I- I won’t pry if you don’t want to tell me anything more-“

“No, it’s okay,” Janet interrupts. “You of all people, I can confide in. The reason I’m estranged from my family, my wife and my children… Is because nine months ago, my name was ‘John’.”

“You- you’re transgendered?” I ask.

“Aww,” Janet giggles. “Thanks for suggesting that it’s not THAT obvious! But yes, I spent the first forty-one years of my life as a man… Or at least, pretending to be one.”

“…I know the feeling,” I sigh, even though my ‘pretense’ is the exact opposite of Janet’s.

“I’ve basically cross-dressed my entire life,” Janet says. “First seriously started getting into it when I went to uni in the early nineties. GREAT time to be a crossdresser, by the way, as we were just coming out of the eighties so we had power suits, leotards, big hair and extreme make-up everywhere… Some weekends I wouldn’t go home, I’d spend the whole time as a woman. Even went to a few gay bars, hooked up with a few guys…”

“So… What happened?” I ask.

“I graduated,” Janet sighs. “That was 1994, I moved back to London, got a job, fell in love, got married, had two kids… I thought crossdressing was just a part of my life but as I got older, the urge just got greater and greater… I started dressing again six years ago, in private, but every time I dressed, I wanted more. And I don’t just mean in duration, it wasn’t enough for me to look like a woman, or even feel like a woman… I wanted to BE a woman. I mean really, really become one.”

“Go on,” I whisper, not caring that my diner is getting cold.

“Obviously I follow all the news online,” Janet says. “About that Caitlyn woman in America, about you and your friend Jamie-Lee… I took the plunge, and last August sat my family down and explained to them, calmly and rationally, that I needed to live my life as a woman.”

“…I know THAT talk,” I say. “Though I don’t have any children of my own…”

“My son did NOT take it well,” Janet sighs, tears forming in her eyes. “He looked at me like I was some form of freak… My wife immediately demanded a divorce, made it clear that I’d never have any contact with my children ever again. I tried to explain it to them rationally, but- but.” I give Janet’s hand a gentle squeeze as she breaks down.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I shouldn’t have asked…”

“No,” Janet sniffles. “The doctors say it’s good to talk… Especially to someone who knows what it’s like to go through what I did. So, my family leave me, I start living full-time as a woman, I go back to work, and obviously, they don’t have any choice but to accept me as a woman, but I can tell they think I’m a freak too, my friends refused to have anything to do with me… Three weeks ago, I tried to take my own life.”

“Oh my god,” I gasp.

“Long story short, I fail in my attempt, I get sectioned, here I am,” Janet says. “I’m on pretty heavy-duty anti-depressants, but I’ve been taken off of HRT until I’m ‘stable’… I know this must sound silly, I mean, you’ve been living as a woman longer than I have, right?”

“Not that much longer,” I mumble. “And it doesn’t sound silly at all.”

“That’s kind of you to say,” Janet says with a smile. “I- I’m sorry, your food’s getting cold…”

“I’m not that hungry,” I say, picking at the remains of my food.

“I shouldn’t have interrupted your meal,” Janet sighs. “It’s okay, I’ll leave you in peace.” I force a smile on my face as Janet leaves to eat her dinner at a different table, but I leave my food unfinished before returning to my room, where I collapse on my bed. Janet’s story has had a profound impact on me, and not just because of how emotional it is. Listening to someone bare their soul about how their gender identity has separated them from literally everything they hold dear… It makes me realise just pathetic I truly am.

Janet had to endure a constant urge for forty years- twice as long as I’ve been alive- and had to hide who she truly was out of fear of being rejected, and when she finally did come out, she was rejected… Whereas I’ve never been given anything other than love and acceptance by virtually everyone I know. My parents bend over backwards to accept ‘Stephanie’, I’m closer to Danny than I ever was as ‘Steve’ and my friends- and they truly ARE my friends- all unconditionally accept me and include me as just another one of the girls. Sure, Jamie may not like me much, but that’s more my fault than hers, and as for Tom… He’s a very small problem compared to what Janet has had to endure.

At Becca’s birthday party, Danny asked me the question ‘what was the best thing about being a girl?’, and I’d answered ‘all the great friends I made’. The way I turned my back on them, the way I lied to them, the way I ran away… I don’t deserve to have friends like them, especially considering how hard things have been for Janet, who is a genuinely nice, friendly person. Even the action of admitting myself to this hospital is an act of running away from the people who love me the most.

I barely sleep through the night, only getting a couple of hours at the very most, and I eventually get up shortly after the sun rises, laying awake in bed until 7am, when I dress in the same clothes I wore yesterday and head to breakfast. After a quick (but filling) bowl of corn flakes, I hang around in the dining hall, hoping to speak to Janet again after our discussion last night, but my plans are thwarted when I’m approached by an orderly.

“Excuse me, Miss Abbott?” The orderly politely asks. “It’s time for your appointment with Dr Morgan.”

“But-“ I protest, before sighing. “Okay.” I follow the orderly down a corridor, stopping outside the office where my counsellor is already sat waiting for me.

“Hello Stephanie,” Dr Morgan says as I sit down, unconsciously sweeping my dress under me and crossing my legs as I do so. “Did you get much sleep last night?”

“Not really,” I sigh.

“That’s understandable,” Dr Morgan says. “First night in an unfamiliar bed, after all.”

“It’s not just that,” I say. “With my job I stay away a lot, I’ve grown used to sleeping in hotel beds… I had to over the last two months, heh. No, it was something else keeping me up last night.”

“Go on,” Dr Morgan says softly.

“Last night, over dinner, I talked to another patient, an older transgendered woman called Janet,” I explain.

“Yeah, I know Janet,” Dr Morgan says.

“She told me her story,” I continue. “And I just felt… Pathetic. I mean here I am, I’m rich, I’m famous, and I’m taking up a bed that could be used by someone who actually NEEDS it…”

“Just because someone else has problems, it doesn’t trivialise yours,” Dr Morgan says. “If I thought you weren’t in need of this treatment I’d have already discharged you.”

“I’m running away from my problems again just by being here,” I moan. “What I really need to do is talk to my friends, explain myself, try to make them understand.”

“And how would you do that?” Dr Morgan asks.

“…I don’t know,” I confess.

“Exactly,” Dr Morgan says with a warm smile. “It’s common for people to feel better just by reaching out and getting the treatment, but you yourself said that you thought your problems would return if you left immediately.”

“Yeah, I know,” I sigh.

“What I want to get to the root of,” Dr Morgan says, “is both your desire to live full-time as a woman, and your ongoing desire to be Steve. As I’m sure you’re aware, these two desires don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

“Yes,” I say. “Dr Phillips did say I was likely ‘bigendered’. I just- I just don’t want to be. I really would rather be female.”

“And yet,” Dr Morgan says, “’Steve’s constant presence in your mind hints that that might not subconsciously be the case. Stephanie… To begin to get better, you need to accept the fact that you might truly be bigendered- or even, ultimately, male-gendered in the long run.”

“But all my fans see me as female,” I whine. “My friends, my family-“

“Whilst you’re in this building, all that matters is what YOU want,” Dr Morgan says. “Your friends, family and fans can wait.”

“…Okay,” I whisper. “I should’ve come here two months ago when I ran away…”

“Well, that’s definitely true,” Dr Morgan says, prompting a light chuckle from me. “And that’s as good a place as any to begin. Why did you run away, what thoughts were running through your mind when you left?”

“Fear,” I confess. “Anxiety… I was convinced that my manager would fire me from the band, I thought that if I didn’t see him, I wouldn’t get fired.”

“Even though by running, you were separating yourself from the job you wished to preserve?” Dr Morgan asks.

“…I guess so,” I sigh. “My manager’s REALLY intimidating, though. Dr Morgan laughs at my quip as I continue spilling my guts to her. Unlike my timed appointments with Dr Phillips, this meeting is open-ended, meaning we end when Dr Morgan decides our time is up, which doesn’t happen until well into the middle of the morning. I return to my bedroom feeling relieved to have talked through my problems and laid out all my thought processes, but I’m no closer to answering my ‘big question’- Steve, Stephanie or both?

I lay down on my bed and close my eyes, trying to get some of the sleep I was denied last night, but I’m interrupted after just fifteen minutes by a buzz from the room’s intercom.

“He-hello?” I hesitantly ask.

“Miss Abbott?” The receptionist asks. “You have a visitor here to see you.” Nervously, I leave my room and head to the reception area, where I breathe a sigh of relief as I see Danny sat, clutching another bulging overnight bag in his hands.

“Hi,” I laugh, giving my brother a tight hug. “Thanks for coming…”

“Anything for my little sister,” Danny says. “Honestly never expected I’d put you in a place like this, though…”

“Oh- shut up,” I laugh, giving Danny a playful shove. “Nah, it’s all my own doing, being in here… It was either here or ‘never seen again’.”

“I know which one of those options I’d prefer you chose,” Danny whispers. “Um, I’ve got some more clothes in this bag, all, you know, Steph’s clothes… Also got some toiletries, a little make-up too…”

“Thanks,” I say. “And yes, ‘Steph’s clothes’ is what I’d prefer. Tried to convince myself that all my clothes were ‘Steph’s clothes’, even if they were like what you’re wearing now…”

“…And?” Danny asks.

“’Steve’ disagreed,” I sigh.

“’Steve’ was always a little moron,” Danny says. “’Steph’ is much, much cooler.”

“I doubt our other brother would agree with you,” I mumble.

“Well then he’s wrong,” Danny says. “And don’t worry about Tom, mum and dad are REALLY coming down hard on him.”

“How- how are mum and dad?” I ask quietly.

“Concerned,” Danny whispers. “But happy that you’re getting the help that you need.”

“And have you heard from anyone in the band?” I ask. “Or Joshua, or Jamie-Lee…”

“No,” Danny mumbles. “I’ll- I’ll text Stuart once I get out of here, see if he knows anything.”

“Thanks,” I whisper, before suddenly remembering something. “Could- could you bring in a goody bag next time you come? Of the band, I mean…”

“Umm, can do,” Danny says. “Why, have you met a fan in here?”

“Kind of…” I say, before bidding Danny farewell and returning to my room. After a quick lunch, during which I take my anti-anxiety pill and again wait futilely for Janet’s arrival, I head back to Dr Morgan’s office for another counselling session, only to find an unexpected face also sat in the office.

“Hello, Stephanie,” Dr Phillips says, greeting me with a light handshake.

“Umm, hi,” I say, trying to get over the surprise of seeing her alongside Dr Morgan.

“I asked Dr Phillips to come along to offer support to both of us,” Dr Morgan explains. “And I thought having a familiar face might help. If you feel crowded, however, or you’d prefer that one or more of us left-“

“No, no, it’s okay,” I say.

“Dr Morgan’s explained to me what you’ve been talking about,” Dr Phillips says. “She’s explained to me about your personification of ‘Steve’, and that you have a desire to expunge ‘Steve’ from yourself.”

“Getting rid of him isn’t the problem,” I say. “Ensuring that he stays gone, on the other hand…”

“Many transgendered people- most of them, in fact- do go through something similar to what you’re going through,” Dr Phillips explains. “Before you left on your trip, you explained to me how you felt that ‘Steve’ was a part of yourself you felt you couldn’t let go of, and now that you have what I truly believe is a genuine desire to rid yourself of ‘him’, you feel unable to, rather than unwilling to, am I right?”

“I must sound like a right mess,” I snort.

“Not at all,” Dr Phillips replies. “People often forget just how psychologically challenging it can be to change gender. Psychologically devastating, in some cases.”

“Even when you’re rich and famous?” I ask.

“If anything that might make it even more challenging,” Dr Morgan interjects. “As you’ve had to transition whilst in the public eye. Is it any wonder pop stars often go off the rails the way they do?”

“Or ‘on the rails’, in my case,” I say, making the two middle-aged women laugh. “On the topic of the public eye, is- is there any news about, um, me-“

“I’m not going to answer that,” Dr Phillips interrupts, shaking her head. “You can’t get better if you’re worrying about that, sorry, Stephanie.”

“Are- are the Angels and their friends saying anything?” I ask. “I know your daughter-“

“I’m not going to answer that question either, I’m afraid,” Dr Phillips says.

“Stephanie,” Dr Morgan says in a soft voice. “All of that can wait. You need to focus on yourself first and foremost.”

“…I guess,” I sigh as our counselling session gets truly underway with talk of how I ‘converse’ with ‘Steve’.

After another long, open-ended session, I head to the dinner hall for dinner, smiling when, after picking up my meal, I see the familiar face of Janet walk into the hall. I smile and wave at her, my smile widening as she waves back and sits down opposite me after getting her own meal.

“First night done then,” Janet says with an air of nervousness in her voice. “How- how is everything, you know, going?”

“…We’re getting there,” I sigh. “We’re still just talking about things, rather than actually doing things.”

“There’s a lot of that at the start,” Janet says softly. “But you have to trust that every step is a step in the right direction, no matter how small.”

“I do,” I whisper. “Janet… I actually looked for you, you know? At breakfast and lunch…”

“We must eat at different times,” Janet shrugs. “I can only eat around my sessions.”

“Well I’m glad we’re speaking now,” I say with a smile, before the wave of guilt I felt yesterday washes over me again. “Janet… There is- there’s something I need to tell you.”

“Don’t tell me- you were born a man, right?” Janet asks, making me giggle.

“It’s not even THAT simple,” I sigh. “Janet, I- I’m not actually a transsexual… I’m not transitioning, not taking oestrogen…” I grimace, bracing myself for an angry response, only to frown in confusion as Janet just stares at me, her smile not even wavering.

“…And?” Janet asks.

“Um, doesn’t it, you know, concern you?” I ask. “I mean, I’m a fraud… Sometimes I even wear MEN’s clothing.”

“You’re wearing a dress now, aren’t you?” Janet asks. “Steph… Just because you’re not taking oestrogen, just because you sometimes wear trousers, it doesn’t make you any less a woman.”

“But- aren’t you offended?” I ask. “I mean, sometimes I even THINK that I’m a man, I can’t get those thoughts out of my head-“

“Hence why you’re here,” Janet interrupts in a soft, motherly voice. “And as for being offended… I spent too long being on the other side of the ‘offence fence’. It doesn’t matter to me how you live your life as it’s precisely that- YOUR life.”

“Even though I’ve told the public, all my fans that I’m transitioning?” I ask.

“Their problem,” Janet shrugs. “I mean, you ARE wearing a dress, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes…” I say.

“You wear make-up, women’s underwear, fancy female costumes, right?” Janet asks, smiling as I nod. “You sound like a woman to me.”

“But I don’t FEEL like a woman,” I moan.

“None of us girls do, at first,” Janet whispers. “If you really, truly want to be a woman, then it WILL happen. Take it from someone who’s been where you are.”

“Thank you,” I whisper as Janet squeezes my hand supportively.

After I finish my meal, I head back to Dr Morgan’s office, where the counsellor is waiting for me, alone this time.

“Hi,” I say with a smile as I sit down.

“Hello, Stephanie,” Dr Morgan says. “You’re looking happier this evening, did you have a good dinner?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I spoke to Janet again, we had a good chat… I’m kinda feeling a little better about myself, about my identity, about ‘Steve’ and ‘Stephanie’… Though I guess the happy pills could be helping too.”

“They’re not so much ‘happy pills’ as medication to prevent you from getting too worked up,” Dr Morgan says. “Stephanie, I want to start delving into what’s making you anxious, making you unwell, and given what you just said about ‘Steve’ and ‘Stephanie’, that’s where I want to start.”

“Umm, okay,” I say.

“You’ve said that ‘Steve’ manifests as a separate personality, like a voice in the back of your head, right?” Dr Morgan asks.

“Yeah,” I say hesitantly. “Like- like a constant reminder of who I used to be, constantly trying to steer me away from being ‘Stephanie’.”

“Is what the voice says distinct?” Dr Morgan asks. “Like, can you actually hear the words that are being said?”

“I don’t hallucinate hearing them,” I reply. “It’s more like a ‘feeling’, a sensation that I can usually put into words fairly easily. It’s not like he constantly goes on and on at me.”

“Okay,” Dr Morgan nods. “You need to understand, of course, that ‘Steve’ is just a manifestation of your subconscious, and as such, is just a part of your own personality.”

“Logically, I do realise that,” I say. “It’s just… Difficult to ignore him. It. Whatever.”

“What I want to try,” Dr Morgan says, “is to understand ‘Steve’, to try to rationalise ‘his’ thought processes in a way to control them, and reintegrate them into your own thought processes.”

“Supposing I don’t want to reintegrate them?” I ask.

“I did say that you need to be prepared for the fact that we may not be able to get rid of ‘Steve’,” Dr Morgan says softly. “’He’ is a part of you.” I sigh and close my eyes, before nodding my head.

“I understand,” I say. “What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to think back to a time when you and ‘Steve’ were disagreeing,” Dr Morgan says. I lean back and take a deep breath, before responding.

“Got one,” I say. “It was Tuesday evening, I had the urge to dress as ‘Steve’, I thought that if I did, it’d be no different than any other woman wearing a man’s clothes.”

“And what did ‘Steve’ think?” Dr Morgan asks.

“He-“ I stammer as I try to remember back to the evening, and ‘Steve’s egging me on. “He, um, he encouraged me to dress, to try to prove me wrong…”

“But what did ‘Steve’ THINK?” Dr Morgan asks.

“…He was doubtful,” I say, shocked by the revelation. “He, um, he thought that it’d be proof that I wanted to be a man again.”

“So were you also doubtful?” Dr Morgan asks.

“I- I guess I was…” I sigh. “I was so determined to prove that I was now 100% female, but I guess there was a part of me that worried that I’d be wrong. A part of me- a part of that had doubts…”

“There isn’t a single person alive, transgendered or cisgendered, that hasn’t doubted themselves at one point or another,” Dr Morgan reassures me. “It’s how we deal with these doubts that makes the difference.” I smile a wide, goofy smile as Dr Morgan lays out the future steps for me to take to cope with any doubt I have in the future- steps that don’t involve ‘Steve’.

When I return to my room after the end of the session, I feel renewed, rejuvenated. Once again, I have difficulty sleeping, but this time it’s because I’m focussing so hard on Dr Morgan’s words of wisdom, and when I enter her office the following morning for our next session, I have a smile on my face and a spring in my step.

I spend the next five days working through my troubles with the help of Dr Morgan, and slowly, but surely, I begin to feel better about myself. Of course, it’s not smooth sailing- there are plenty of bumps along the way, plenty of times when I would get frustrated or upset, but Dr Morgan (and, when she’s free, Dr Phillips) always guided me through my treatment calmly and professionally- and my dinnertime chats with Janet have become something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

“I want you to go back to when you first applied for the band,” Dr Morgan says as I close my eyes and mentally take myself back to the moment when I discovered and filled in the online application form. “How are you feeling in this moment?”

“Anxious,” I say calmly. “Excited… It’ll be the first time I’ve ever gone outside for a prolonged period as ‘Stephanie’.”

“And what does ‘Steve’ think about this?” Dr Morgan asks as I concentrate.

“…Excited,” I say, surprised. “’Steve’ always wanted to know what it was like to live life as a woman…” I open my eyes as yet another revelation washes over me. “Heh, it was ‘Steve’ all along who wanted to become ‘Stephanie’… All this time, I’ve just been holding myself back.”

“And now that you realise that, how do you feel?” Dr Morgan asks.

“…Free,” I say with a snort of laughter. “It’s like, now I know what’s holding me back, I can easily overcome it, do what I want and be whoever I want.”

“I’m glad,” Dr Morgan says, sporting a wide grin and grabbing a form from a nearby pile. “This, Stephanie, is your discharge form.”

“My- my discharge papers?” I ask. “Already?”

“I’m not giving you a clean bill of mental health,” Dr Morgan clarifies. “I’m not saying that you don’t still need treatment, quite the opposite- I’m enclosing a recommendation that you start seeing Dr Phillips twice a week, and I will want to see you myself at least once a fortnight to check up on how you’re doing.”

“I understand,” I whisper.

“And I will recommend more residential treatment if I feel that you’re regressing,” Dr Morgan continues. “But as of right now, I believe that the best place for you to get your treatment is at home, surrounded by friends and family.”

“…Even though I’m inevitably going to have to face work?” I ask. “And I don’t just mean singing, and dealing with my bosses, I wouldn’t be surprised if every tabloid in the UK has photos of me coming in here…”

“I’m also enclosing a fit for work note,” Dr Morgan says with a sad smile. “Give it to your employer, it’ll show that you’re not well enough to do any work for two weeks. If you feel up to it before then, then by all means, and if you think you need another note, talk to me or Dr Phillips, and we’ll issue you with one.”

“…It’s kinda like you can’t wait to get rid of me,” I laugh.

“All I want is what’s best for you, Stephanie,” Dr Morgan says. “No one comes into one of these places if they can avoid it. And you yourself said that by coming in here, you were running away from friends and family. I truly believe now that you’re strong enough to face them.”

“Thanks,” I chuckle. “I’m still really nervous, though- I still don’t know whether or not I’ll have a job to go back to.”

“But…?” Dr Morgan asks. “This IS something we’ve talked about, Stephanie.”

“But…” I say. “Even if I don’t sing with the band anymore, I do still have the name ‘Stephanie Abbott’ that I can market myself and capitalise on. And a lot, a LOT of money from my time in the band.”

“Exactly,” Dr Morgan says with a smile. “Would you like me to call your parents to come and pick you up?”

“Please,” I say. “But there’s one person I need to see first…”

I have a smile on my face as I knock on the plain wooden door (accompanied by an orderly, as patients aren’t allowed into each other’s rooms), a smile that widens when the room’s occupant opens the door.

“Stephanie?” Janet asks with a smile of her own. “What are you doing here?”

“I- I came to say goodbye,” I say, tears welling in my eyes despite myself. “I just got discharged…”

“Oh- that- that’s great!” Janet laughs, though I can tell she’s nearly tearing up herself. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, Steph, I really am.”

“I really, really couldn’t have done it without you,” I whisper.

“I’m pretty sure it was the doctors who treated you, not me!” Janet giggles, wiping a tear from her eye.

“You opened my eyes,” I say as a tear trickles down my own cheeks. “Made me realise that I don’t have to define myself by what other people think… God, if I’m crying now imagine what I’ll be like when I’m actually on oestrogen…” Janet and I both laugh as we share a hug. “Make sure you stay in touch, okay?”

“I will,” Janet laughs. “Might actually give me an excuse to sign up for Facebook now, heh!”

“I’ll see you round, Janet,” I say as the orderly escorts me back to my room. “You hot, girly woman, you!” Janet smiles as I disappear back down the corridor, and after quickly packing my things away into my two bags, I find myself sat in the reception area of the hospital, the same place I entered almost a week ago feeling nervous, scared and like my world was about to end. I’m still nervous, of course, and the fear doesn’t go away… But I now know that my world isn’t ending, it’s just beginning.

My dad arrives a mere twenty minutes later, giving me a big hug before sitting me back down in one of the reception chairs and letting out a long sigh as he looks at me.

“You know,” dad sighs, “we could have worked this out WITHOUT you going into a nuthouse.”

“I really wish that was true,” I chuckle. “But I really do feel a lot better now.”

“Good,” dad laughs, giving my shoulder a quick squeeze. “Steph… You should know that there ARE some press waiting outside.”

“Ugh,” I spit. “I figured there would be... Has- has Joshua-“

“Don’t worry about him,” dad says. “Just take a deep breath and hold your head high as you go outside, okay? I’m literally parked just outside, it’ll only be a few feet’s walk. We’ll do this together, okay?”

“Okay,” I say with a nod. As we head toward the front door, however, I hesitate, and I feel a familiar ‘voice’ beginning to form in the back of my head.

‘No,’ I think, interrupting ‘Steve’ before he can ‘talk’. ‘Yes, there are press outside, but all I have to do is walk to dad’s car, get in, and then I can go home. No one’s going to hurt me, no one’s going to make me panic, no one’s going to make me run back into this place because I’m. Not. Going. To.’

Nevertheless, I still grimace as I’m bombarded by flashbulbs during the short walk from the hospital entrance to dad’s car. However, I follow dad’s advice and I keep my head held high, not breaking my stride or answering any of the questions that are fired at me as I sit down in the car and buckle my seatbelt. Seconds later, dad sits down next to me, and we begin making our way through the packed streets of London toward our home.

“Okay,” dad sighs. “That was worse than I was expecting. Sorry about that, Steph.”

“It wasn’t too bad,” I say with a smile. “And now it’s over, so no need to worry about it anymore, right?”

“Right,” dad says. Of course, I’m not 100% right in what I say as I have to fight through another scrum of paparazzi as I arrive back at my home, but once I’m through my front door, I breathe a sigh of relief and collapse heavily onto my sofa as dad takes my bags back to my bedroom.

“Stephanie?” Mum asks. “Is that you?”

“It’s me,” I say, greeting my mother with a long, tight hug.

“Well, I’m just glad you’re back,” mum sighs. “And I hope you’re feeling better? Not in any mood to run away again?"

“Never again,” I say, giggling as mum gives me yet another hug. “Has- has anyone from the band-“

“Worry about that tomorrow,” mum says. “You just rest tonight, relax, eat some dinner and play on your Xbox.”

“Now that I can do!” I giggle as I relax back down on the sofa.

I do all of the things mum mentioned over the course of the evening, but before heading to bed, I check my iPad, laughing as I login to Facebook to discover hundreds of unread notifications, most from my personal fan page- virtually all of which are messages saying ‘get well soon’. A quick check of my twitter and Instagram feed reveals the same throng of well-wishers, and despite the advice of my parents- and Dr Morgan- I go a quick google search for myself, discovering various online news articles showing photographs of me checking myself into the hospital last Wednesday. Gratifyingly, though, virtually all the comments on said articles are along the lines of ‘poor girl’ and ‘get well soon’, though a couple do say things along the lines of ‘every man who thinks they’re a woman belongs in a psychiatric hospital’.

“No,” I say to myself before ‘Steve’ has the chance to comment’. “We only need to go there thanks to people like you, scum.” I smile defiantly as I put my iPad away and climb into bed, sighing at the familiar sensation of my soft cotton nightdress wrapping around me as I turn over.

I’m awoken the following morning just after 7:30am by a loud banging from the front door. Knowing that dad’s home, I roll back over in bed and try to get back to sleep, but once the door is opened, I hear a voice that gets me out of bed very quick.

“Mr. Abbott!” The familiar African voice bellows. “Is my heavenly singer inside?” He’s still referring to me as ‘his’ singer, I think to myself. That’s a good sign…

“I’m here,” I yell, pulling on a dressing gown and quickly skipping down the stairs. “Um, h-hi, Joshua.”

“Stephanie,” Joshua says with a calm smile.

“Um, sit down, please,” I say nervously. “Sorry I’m not dressed…”

“Just because I wear a suit to bed, doesn’t mean you should too!” Joshua laughs as he lowers himself onto the sofa next to me. “Stephanie… You’ve put me in a bit of a difficult position.”

“…Sorry,” I mumble.

“As I’m sure you know, your presence in the band has earned us a lot of publicity,” Joshua says. “GOOD publicity. Even though my own niece is in the band, you were always the most unfireable member.”

“I’m not liking the use of the word ‘were’,” I say, biting my lip nervously.

“Your actions over the last few months would try any employer,” Joshua says in a much quieter, much more sombre voice. “Discovering the truth about your transition, then your disappearance… And now your hospitalisation.”

“I- I’m sorry,” I whisper. “If it would make it easier, I- I could quit the band, save you from having to fire me. If you’d prefer, I mean…”

“It might make it easier on me,” Joshua concedes. “But the band isn’t all about me. Whilst you were in hospital, Kayla called me several times a day to check up on you. I know she called your parents as well. Lauren even returned home early from Scotland when she heard the news. The other members of the band consider themselves to be a fivesome. I know better than to argue with them about this.”

“So… I’m not fired?” I ask.

“The position in the band is yours if you want it,” Joshua says. “But I expect you to be on your best behaviour, Stephanie. No more running away. No more erratic behaviour. And No. More. Lies!”

“…Thanks,” I say with a laugh. “I supposed I’d better tell the band, next…”

“Yes you had!” Joshua exclaims. “They are coming to the office today at 10:30am. I expect you to be there too. Dressed properly!”

“I’ll be there,” I say with a weak smile. "What- what do we tell the public? They still think I'm transitioning- I mean, properly transitioning..."

"They won't ask, and we won't tell," Joshua says. "I'll leave you to get ready. You only have three hours, after all!"

"Hilarious," I giggle as Joshua leaves the house, laughing every step of the way.

Sure enough, at 10:30am exactly, I’m stood in Joshua’s office wearing a full face of make-up, my short, tight red skirt suit and my favourite red stiletto heels. Sat in front of me are a number of women dressed in their own best suits- not just the four other women in the band, but also all six of the Angels, along with Nikki, Stuart and Joshua's nephew Jonathan.

“Girls, guys,” I say nervously. “As I’m sure you know, last Wednesday, I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital. This is because I really felt I needed immediate professional help, both due to dealing with fame, and dealing with my transition.”

“I thought you WEREN’T transitioning?” Jamie-Lee asks, before wilting under a glare from Joshua.

“From a certain perspective, I’m not,” I reply. “But that doesn’t mean I haven’t chosen to live life full-time as a woman, a life I intend to continue living. When I auditioned for the band, it was merely to see whether or not I could. I never expected to get a second audition, let alone this… I am truly sorry I led you all on. I really do consider all of you to be my friends… And with your permission, I’d like that to continue. I promise there will be no more lies, not one.” I smile happily as Kayla raises from her seat, walks straight toward me and wraps me in as tight a hug as her short, slender arms will allow.

“I forgive you,” Kayla says in a loud, dramatic voice. “And I’m glad you’re my friend.”

“…I forgive you too,” Lauren whispers, giving me a hesitant hug.

“It wouldn’t be ‘Out of Heaven’ without you,” Becca says as she and Adeola also give me a hug.

“Soo…” Nikki asks. “Are you, you know, going to start taking oestrogen? Or look toward SRS?”

“I really need to talk that over with your future mother-in-law first,” I say. “But ultimately… I’d like to, yeah.”

“You’d better still be coming tomorrow morning!” Krystie says, making me giggle.

“Just try and stop me,” I say, making everyone in the room laugh- everyone, that is, except for Jamie-Lee.

“And then right back here to start making more beautiful music!” Joshua laughs.

“I just… Want to thank you all for your continued support,” I whisper. “It really means a lot to me.”

“Now get back to work!” Joshua booms, making everyone in the room laugh as we depart. On the way out, however, I make a point of grabbing the one person in the room who wasn’t smiling as she left.

“Jamie,” I whisper, making the blonde, blue-suited woman stop in her tracks.

“What is it, Steph?” Jamie asks, clearly exasperated at having to speak to me.

“I feel… I owe you a bigger apology than anyone else,” I say.

“Apology accepted,” Jamie mumbles, before turning and walking away.

“…Fair enough, then,” I sigh.

“She is a model,” Joshua laughs, giving me a firm pat on the shoulder. “She has that temperament. Give her time.”

“Will do,” I say. “And thank you again, thank you for letting me keep my job.”

“I expect you to work as hard as possible!” Joshua booms. “Starting tomorrow. You enjoy the rest of the day, Stephanie.”

“Thanks,” I whisper as I leave the office and jump in a taxi that takes me straight to my next appointment.

I straighten my skirt as I leave the taxi and head up into the posh office where my counsellor is waiting for me with a wide grin on her face.

“Hello, Stephanie!” Dr Phillips beams as I sit down. “I’m glad to see the smile’s back on your face, at least. Dr Morgan emailed me your discharge report and I've been reading it- it looks like your time in the hospital did you a lot of good."

"It did," I say. "I feel a lot happier with myself, a lot more, I dunno, 'secure' about who I am and what I want."

"I hope Dr Morgan did explain that there's still a lot of work ahead for you?" Dr Phillips says.

"And how," I sigh. "I still haven't seen Tom since I got out- and frankly, I don't want to, either."

"You can't avoid him forever," Dr Phillips says, making me sigh as I nod. "But for now, it's probably best if you kept out of his way. How did things go with Joshua?"

"Still employed," I say, making Dr Phillips chuckle supportively. "Though only barely... There's a part of me that wants to get straight back into it, but I know that things will never be the same again."

"Indeed they won't," Dr Phillips nods.

"...And I'm one of those things," I say. "Maybe the time has finally come for me to, well, 'change'."

"If you're referring to oestrogen," Dr Phillips says, "then I strongly disagree, at least for the time being. You've been through a lot, Stephanie. The changes that oestrogen can cause can be devastating, and I'm not willing to put you through that until I'm satisfied that you're ready. And I expect you to throw away those pills you bought from the internet, too!"

"...Will do," I sigh. "I really am committed to living life full-time as a woman, though."

"I really believe you are," Dr Phillips says. "And I really believe that one day, I will write you a prescription for oestrogen. You just have to accept that that day isn't today."

"Okay," I say, making Dr Phillips smile before the session moves on to discussing, once again, what Dr Morgan and I discussed whilst I was in the hospital.

The following morning, clad in my pink tights, black leotard and flimsy summer dress, I stride confidently into the dance studio to take my place alongside my friends at the barre. Any thoughts or voices at the back of my head telling me to run are silenced, banished without mercy or regret. What I said to Dr Phillips was true- I AM committed to this life. Running away from it was the single biggest mistake I ever made, and it's a mistake I don't intend to ever repeat.

And yet, as I look around at my friends, and the way they look at me, I know that things will truly never be the same again. I've lost a lot of trust. I've turned some friends into outright enemies. And my family is splintered- though that, at least, isn't entirely my fault.

Maybe Dr Phillips is right, and I shouldn't be thinking about hormones right now. I have a lot of work and family time to catch up on. And whilst Kurt's obviously out of my life for good, it doesn't mean that I can't find myself another handsome transman to get my metaphorical claws into. The only thing I know for certain about my life, is that from now on, it's Stephanie or bust.

'Steve' is where he belongs- in my past. And that's where he's going to stay.

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