Ashley, part 8

"Come on," George whispers, looking every bit as terrified as I am. "Mr. Jackson has said we can go into form early so that we- well, you- don't have the rest of the form staring at you."

"Okay," I whisper.

"Mr. Jackson your form tutor?" Megan- who has joined the 'convoy' of myself, George and Priya- asks.

"Yeah," I say as I take step after step on my quivering legs.

Despite the protection of three of my closest friends surrounding me, the walk to form is still the most terrifying experience of my life, as I walk past people whose faces I recognise, and who clearly recognise my face as they start to giggle excitedly at the sight of me in my skirt. By the time I arrive at form, our 'convoy' has attracted a lot of attention- almost thirty or forty kids from all years have followed us and actually have to be chased off by Mr. Jackson.

"Go on, get to your classes!" Our form tutor barks, scaring away the 'followers' I've gained. "You too, girls, thank you for your help." Megan and Priya both nod as they leave myself and George in the care of our form tutor.

"So much for getting here unnoticed," I moan.

"They'll learn to keep their noses out of where they don't belong," Mr. Jackson snorts confidently. "Come on in, you two. Sit at your normal desk. Ashley, I'll explain to the class first. Don't worry, I won't be parading you in front of the class, just sit at your desk as normal, I'll answer any questions that you don't want to, then we'll head on to the assembly. Okay?"

"Okay," I whisper, sitting at my desk as usual and fidgeting with my fingers as the rest of my class comes in. Needless to say, all of their eyes are turned in my direction, though any comments or giggles are discouraged by the angry glare Mr. Jackson gives each pupil as they walk through the door."

"Good morning," Mr. Jackson says after everyone has sat down. "I'm sure you've all noticed something different with one of the people in this class today. Ashley has taken the decision to live the rest of her life as a girl-" Mr. Jackson is interrupted by a laugh from one of the taller boys in the class, that makes me squirm and puts a truly furious expression on the teacher's face.

"Something funny, Chris?" Mr. Jackson asks, his tone of voice making it clear that he doesn't want to hear any more laughter.

"Well it's weird, innit?" Chris snorts. "Dressing up like a girl..."

"Why, exactly?" Mr. Jackson asks.

"Well, I dunno, but it's weird, innit?" Chris responds, the smile quickly fading from his face.

"Ashley isn't even the first transgendered student in the school," Mr. Jackson says as my nerves begin to settle. "Seems to be that it's not as 'weird' as you think. And if you can't come up with a better reason than 'because it is', maybe you should shut up BEFORE making any more hurtful comments?"

"Yes, Mr. Jackson," Chris mumbles, and I wince as one of the girls sat on the opposite side of the class to me raises her hand.

"Question, Chloe?" Mr. Jackson asks.

"Yeah," Chloe- who is one of the most popular girls in the year- responds. "Will he be let in the girls' toilets? Because I don't want to use them if he does!" I grimace at the use of the word 'he', but not as much as when all the girls in the class murmur in agreement.

"'She'," Mr. Jackson says firmly. "You address Ashley as 'she', not 'he' and most certainly not 'it'."

"But he's got a penis!" Chloe protests.

"And you've got detention this lunchtime," Mr. Jackson retorts.

"What!?" Chloe moans. "That's so unfair!"

"So is discriminating against Ashley," Mr. Jackson says, silencing the thirteen year old girl. "I'll answer your question as you asked it before deciding to verbally abuse Ashley. SHE will use non-gender specific toilets, such as the disabled toilet or the staff toilets, and will be permitted to use the girls' toilets next to the girls' changing room. She will also change in there for PE, and will do the same PE lessons as the girls. Eloise?"

"But that's not fair," Eloise- who had had her hand up- protests. "He- SHE's stronger than us, she'll be better than us girls at PE."

"She won't be on any school teams, or take part in sports day," Mr. Jackson replies, before sighing as yet another hand is raised. "What is it, Darren?"

"Can I get out of doing rugby if I say I'm a girl?" The short, skinny boy asks, and I find myself clenching my fists out of pure frustration.

"If you can get a doctor to diagnose you with a verifiable medical case of gender identity, then sure," the teacher says, before sighing tiredly as he sees another hand raised- my hand. "Would you like to say something, Ashley?"

"Please," I say in my soft, feminine voice, which earns giggles from the girls. After gaining permission to speak from Mr. Jackson, I continue.

"This wasn't a decision I made overnight," I explain. "It's something I've struggled with for my whole life. If I thought there was any way I could be happy with being a boy, I would have taken it. But there isn't. The ONLY way I can be happy is if I live my life as a girl. So that's what I've chosen to do." I grin as Mr. Jackson gives me a round of applause, which is joined in by George and a couple of the other kids in the class, but crucially not by any of the kids who asked questions, and not by any of the boys at all.

"Well said, Ashley," Mr. Jackson says with a wide smile. "Instead of your usual first lessons, we'll be having an assembly during the first period to discuss this change. In the meantime, I shouldn't need to explain this, but I will do so anyway- ANY form of discrimination or bullying that is directed toward Ashley as a result of her change will be punished severely. Am I making myself understood?" I start to calm down as everyone in the room starts to settle down, though there are still a LOT of eyes looking in my direction- and all of a sudden, , my tights feel clingier than ever...

All throughout the long walk from the class to our assembly, I hear my classmates whisper and giggle, but I keep my head held high, even as my arrival attracts some giggles and whispers from the other classes already present. I'm given a slight glimmer of hope, though as that not everyone in my year knows me, so some of the teenagers are clearly confused as to why people are giggling at the girl who just walked in- meaning that I clearly 'pass' as a girl. Well, for now, anyway...

"Good morning," Mrs. Houghton says. "I've called you all into an assembly today to announce a change to one of the students in your year." My hands feel like ice as our headteacher continues her announcement.

"Ashley Moore," Mrs. Houghton continues, "has taken the decision that she can no longer live as a boy, and has decided to live her life at home and attend school as a girl." I frown and try to choke back tears as the announcement is greeting by laughter from several of my fellow students, male and female, and I find myself desperately wishing that I had taken Mrs. Houghton's compromise agreement after all...

"Silence," Mrs. Houghton says firmly, immediately stopping the laughter. "I cannot express just how disappointed I am in that reaction. I had believed the school to have a tolerant and inclusive atmosphere. Clearly, I was wrong. But let me be VERY clear- anybody who discriminates against Ashley because of gender status will be subject to SEVERE punishment, up to and including permanent exclusion." The smile begins to return to my face as no one dares to question our headteacher the way they'd questioned Mr. Jackson.

"We have prepared a small video," Mrs. Houghton continues, clicking the mouse on her laptop. I feel myself shrinking into my chair as a video starts to play on the screen going into details about transgendered issues, and whilst I've no doubt that Mrs. McFarlane meant well, by the end of the video I'm surrounded by so many whispers and so much quiet giggling that I feel like some kind of freak in a circus show. I try to comfort myself with the knowledge that if I wasn't sat here dressed the way I am, I'd be so stressed that it'd be a struggle not to tear my own skin off.

Eventually, the assembly ends, and I almost feel relieved that I'm able to head to class, where at the very least I WON'T be the focus of attention. Or at the very least, I shouldn't be, but if the assembly is anything to go by, it'll be a miracle if anyone in the class gets any work done instead of spending their whole time staring at my skirt.

"I wouldn't worry too much, Ashley," Mr. Jackson says as we leave the assembly. "This time next week, people will have got used to it and moved onto the next 'thing'."

"I hope so," I reply as I head to my next lesson, and I immediately cringe as I enter the door, as it's Science- one of very few lessons that I DON'T take with George. Even worse, rather than the usual chairs found in every other classroom, the lab is filled with high stools that I'm forced to climb onto, and as I do so, virtually every pair of eyes is on me as my skirt starts to ride up and I desperately yank it down to try to avoid flashing my crotch to everyone in the room.

Once I'm sat and settled- as settled as you can be when everyone is staring at you, anyway- I start to get my books out when I hear whispering on my left- however, unlike all the other whispering, this actually appears to be directed at me.

"Ashley!" One of the girls whispers. "Hey, Ashley! Hey, come and sit with us!" I look quizzically over at the girls, but their smiles appear genuine, so I jump down from my stool- again, taking care not to let my skirt ride up- and walk over to their desk, only for them to immediately turn their back on me the second I arrive.

"Eww!" One of the other girls spits. "Get away from us, you freak!" My jaw drops open as I desperately think of a way to respond to their cruelty, but when nothing springs to mind, I simply turn my back to them, trying not to show them how upset I am.

When I arrive back at my original desk, though, I frown when I find another pupil- a boy this time- sat in my original seat. I frown as I head to one of the other free seats in the class, only for that stool to be shoved under the desk and held there, and by the time the teacher arrives to start the lesson, I'm still stood up and the entire class is almost in hysterics at my expense.

"What's happening?" Mr. Hughes sighs. "Ashley, why aren't you at your desk?"

"No one's letting me sit next to them," I say candidly, earning snorts from the other teenagers and a long sigh from my teacher, though he obviously knows why I'm not being allowed to sit down.

"There's a free seat next to Jessica, sit there," Mr. Hughes says, and I can't help but smile smugly as he points at the very seat I was denied right at the start of the lesson.

"Eww, I don't want him sitting next to me," Jessica- the girl who had made the original invitation- spits. "I'll catch gay or something!"

"What you'll 'catch' is a detention if you don't let him sit down," Mr. Hughes says, before grimacing. "Let HER sit down, I-" The teacher's correction, however, is too little, too late, as the entire class immediately bursts out into raucous laughter and both he and I start to furiously blush.

Virtually nothing gets done during the class. I try to focus on my work, but when you're faced on all sides by laughing faces, and the teacher is virtually powerless to stop it, there's only so much you can do, only so much you can drown out. By the time I arrive at the usual table for break, I'm almost in tears. The group hug I get from the other seven girls only goes so far to calming my nerves.

"Oh god, Ash..." Laura sighs. "Not- not gone well, then?"

"I hate school," I moan as I lean forward and rest my head on the table. "Everyone in that last fucking class..."

"Where was George?" Megan asks.

"In set 3, I'm in set 2," I sigh. "He's in the rest of my classes, at least."

"Ugh," Suriya spits. "Why does everyone have to be such a pain about this? So you're wearing a skirt. Big deal, so am I. So's everyone at this table!"

"You know why it's a big deal," I sigh.

"Yes, yes I do," Laura says, adding guilt to my misery.

"...Sorry," I mumble.

"Oh, YOU have nothing to be sorry about," Laura snorts. "It's every other cunt in your year that does."

"Whoa, language, Laura?" Priya chastises the blonde girl.

"I'm only saying what we're all thinking," Laura spits. "Let me guess, whispering behind your back, pointing and giggling, fake offers of friendship?"

"Yes, yes and yes," I sigh.

"I know the feeling," Laura sighs. "I was lucky, first day of school, first class I was in, Nicole, Suri and Harriet... I was sure when they invited me to sit with them they were just going to laugh at me."

"My dad WOULD have killed me if I did," Suriya says.

"And your sister, too!" Priya laughs as Harriet looks increasingly guilty.

"And, of course, my dad threatened to kill me if I DIDN'T," the ginger girl spits. "Ashley, you tell me anyone who's making fun of you, and I'll make sure they regret it."

"You will not!" Priya retorts.

"Oh- don't be such a swot!" Harriet moans at the Indian girl.

"I'm a prefect, it's part of the job," Priya shrugs. "Ashley, not everyone in your year will be- well, what Laura said. And it's not like there aren't ways to play up your 'coolness'."

"Our connection to the Angels, for starters," Nicole suggests.

"The Angels are, like, done," Mia sighs. "Everyone's obsessed with this new 'Constellation' group."

"Which is, of course, transgender-free," Laura moans. "Priya's right, though. Not everyone in your year is gonna suck. There'll be some cool people, like George."

"Where is he, anyway?" Megan asks, concern spreading across her face as we become aware of a commotion not far from our table. As one, we all jump up and head over to the assembled crowd where, much to my horror, George is sprawled on the floor, his glasses broken and his mouth and nose bloodied, whilst Ryan Reid is stood over him with his knuckles covered in my friend's blood. Instinctively, I step in front of the towering bully to shield my friend, as does Megan, and I grind my teeth together as I brace myself for the inevitable...

"WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE!?" A loud, stern voice- which I recognise as belonging to Mr. Allen, one of the deputy headteachers- barks. "Ryan Reid, what a surprise. My office. NOW!" I breathe a sigh of relief as the huge boy walks away, but before he takes two steps, he turns and points a finger straight at my face.

"You're next, you fucking little freak," Ryan grunts in his barely-coherent voice.

"MOVE!" Mr. Allen yells mere inches from Ryan's ear, though the bully doesn't even flinch as he's marched off to receive his punishment. As the crowd starts to disperse, I feel tears form in my eyes.

"Oh god, George," I sob as my best friend moans in pain. Another wave of guilt washes over me, though, as my primary concern isn't for George's well-being, but for the fact that I'm not going to have anyone to sit with for the rest of the day- or possibly even longer, depending on how badly my friend is hurt.

"Easy, stand back," a teacher says as they help George to his feet and help him toward the first aid room.

"This is my fault," I whisper. “I shouldn’t have-“

“Don’t say that!” Megan hisses. “It’s no one’s fault but Ryan bloody Reid’s!”

“Megan’s right,” Laura whispers as the school bell rings to signal the start of the next lesson. “We- um, we’d better get to class. Ashley… Will- will you-“

“I don’t know,” I sigh as I stare at my skirt and wonder just how high a price my other friends will have to pay for it.

“We’ll see you at lunch,” Mia whispers, giving me a tight hug before heading to her next lesson with the other girls. Whilst the hug makes me feel better for a short while, it doesn’t solve my long-term problem, and when I sit down at my next desk for the next lesson, the empty space next to me just drives that home even harder.

As usual, I’m confronted by whispers all throughout the lesson, but at least this time I don’t have to fight for a place to sit down, and the teacher is actually able to control the class. And, much to my relief, the giggles that I’ve faced all day seem to have stopped. For a brief while, I wonder if Mr. Jackson is right and people are getting used to my new situation, but when I leave the class, I find out the real reason the giggles stopped- and I find myself wishing that they hadn’t.

“Hey, Ashley,” Niamh- one of the girls in my class- says cautiously as she approaches me. “We heard about what happened to George, that really sucks…”

“Yeah, it does,” I say, trying to suppress a smirk at how my feminine voice ISN’T making the other girls laugh.

“Some- someone told me that you actually, you know, tried to get between him and Ryan Reid…” Niamh mumbles.

“I- I just did it without thinking,” I mumble.

“Huh,” Niamh says before walking away, clearly deep in thought. At least she did try to make fun of me, I think to myself as I head to my usual lunch table, where the mood is extremely sombre.

“Hey Ashley,” Megan whispers. “Is- have you heard anything about George?”

“No,” I whisper. “He didn’t come back to class… Have- have you seen Ryan?”

“No, and we don’t want to,” Priya spits. “Hope they kick that piece of shit out.”

“I hope they lock him up,” Megan growls.

“Can the police arrest a fifteen year old?” Mia asks.

“He’s sixteen, actually,” Priya explains. “His birthday was in September. And yes, yes they can. Assuming George isn’t too afraid to press charges…”

“We’ll talk him into it, won’t we, Ashley?” Megan says, making my eyes go wide.

“Umm… I guess?” I splutter.

“We can’t let Ryan get away with this!” Megan says. “Ashley, just because you’re wearing a skirt now, it doesn’t mean you can become a wimp.”

“It’s the opposite,” Harriet says with a firm stare. “A skirt is a symbol of strength, women are better than men.”

“Not ALL women,” Laura spits as the sister of George’s attacker walks past our table and fixes all eight of us with very dark, angry stares.

“On your own today, Sam?” Nicole shouts at the blonde girl, who simply snorts in disgust at us before walking away.

“…That was NOT smart,” Megan sighs at Nicole.

“What?” The mousey-haired girl protests. “It’s not like she’s gonna do anything eight on one, is she?”

“You heard what Ryan said to Ashley, though,” Megan mumbles as I feel myself sinking further and further down in my seat.

“If she- or anyone- lays a finger on Ashley, I’ll snap it off,” Mia growls.

“Umm…” I say. “You DO know we’re not pretend boyfriend and girlfriend, right? You don’t have to stick up for me anymore…”

“What, I can’t stick up for one of my best girls?” Mia asks, making me- and everyone else at the table- giggle. It’s the first time all day that I’ve actually smiled, and it’s like a weight’s been lifted from my shoulders.

“There’s only one lesson to go, Ash, then it’s the weekend,” Suriya says with a sad smile.

“And then,” Laura says smugly, “we are going to do your hair, we’re going to do your make-up and your nails, and you’re not going to have to wash off ANY of it when you go home!” This time, I smile a wide, happy grin as I know Laura (and all the other girls, for that matter) has every intention of keeping her promise. All of the girls- even Mia, who’s only known the ‘real me’ a few weeks- have never had the slightest problem with treating me like a girl, even when I wasn’t wear a skirt.

As I sit down to start my final lesson of the day- once again alone, assuming you don’t count the whispers that have become my constant companion- my earlier anxieties start to fade away as I realise that no matter what anyone says, I’ll always have seven really good, really close friends who will stand by me no matter what. I just wish that a few of them could be in my year…

I breathe a long, loud sigh of relief when the bell rings just after 3pm to signify the end of the day, and the end of the week. The walk out to the car park feels like the longest walk of the day so far, though as with my final lesson, I’m accompanied by whispers but no giggles. New of George’s fight- well, ‘beating’, really- must have spread around the school fast. As I walk down the long corridor, it’s almost as though the other pupils are scared of me, but it’s plainly obvious that what they’re actually scared of is associating with me, just in case Ryan Reid hears about it…

“Hi Ashley!” Mum says I climb onto the passenger seat of her car, taking care not to let my skirt ride up before closing the door. “Good ‘first’ day at school?”

“Not really,” I moan, making mu frown. “Everywhere I went, people were whispering and giggling…”

“That’s terrible,” mum sighs. “But this is just the first day, I’m sure people will get used to it given enough time.”

“George got beaten up,” I say, making mu gasp. “Badly. Wasn’t in school the rest of the day, reckon he might have gone to the hospital.”

“What- what kind of scum would do that?” Mum spits.

“The same scum who then turned round and threatened me,” I moaned.

“If anyone lays a finger on you, they get expelled, don’t they?” Mum asks, and I nod in response. “So why would anyone do that?”

“How long has it been since you were a teenager?” I ask.

“Charming,” mum snorts in response. “But I suppose you’ve got a point, it HAS been a while I’ve been at school… And when I was at school, if one of the boys showed up wearing a skirt- not that I’m saying you’re a boy, Ashley, but-“

“I get it,” I sigh.

“And your REAL friends are standing by you, aren’t they?” Mum asks.

“I really don’t know what I’d do without them,” I sigh happily.

“Well fortunately, you won’t have to find out,” mum says. “Whose house are you going round to tomorrow?”

“Umm, Harriet’s, I think,” I reply.

“I’ll call Harriet’s mum, ask if she doesn’t mind us ‘hosting’ instead,” mum says, making me smile.

“Thanks,” I whisper.

“Least I could do for the girls who helped my special girl on her first day at school!” Mum says with a wide grin. “And we’re definitely going to have to get George a present as well, even if it’s only a ‘get well soon’ present…”

“Yeah,” I say quietly, my mood immediately darkened again by mention of my best male friend.

When we arrive home (after picking my sisters up first, of course) mum immediately rings George’s parents for an update on his condition, whilst I head upstairs to change. I let out a sigh of relief and a quiet giggle as I slide my itchy, clingy tights off of my soft, smooth legs, before pulling on an entirely different pair of opaque black tights, and exchanging my school uniform (which I put in the wash) for a short denim skirt and a red, girly sweater. This isn’t the first time I’ve dressed like this immediately after coming home from school, however, it is the first time I’ve left my bedroom dressed in this manner, and despite all that’s happened today, I have a grin on my face when I slump down onto the sofa, though my grin soon fades when I look to my right and see my dad’s stern face staring back at me.

“Your mum told me what happened at school today,” dad says. “With George. You’re lucky that wasn’t you.”

“I know,” I whisper.

“Well,” dad sighs. “There’s no going back now, I guess. Even if you did, you’d always be ‘the boy who wore a skirt to school’, that’s something no one will ever get over.”

“My friends got over it almost immediately,” I say.

“That’s because they’re your friends,” dad retorts. “Of course they’ll accept you, and even there you’re lucky that they do. You can’t expect someone who knew you as a boy to just accept you as a girl.”

“Mia did,” I shrug. “She didn’t have any idea I was a girl when we started hanging out and she’d only just started to be friends with Laura.”

“Exactly my point- FRIENDS,” dad says. “Did anyone who wasn’t part of that group even talk to you today? Did they even acknowledge your existence?”

“They did, actually,”” I retort with a smug grin.

“What did they talk about?” dad asks.

“…George’s fight,” I mumble, my grin instantly collapsing.

“I’m not enjoying this, you know,” dad says. “Watching you suffer. I only ever wanted what’s best for you. But you have to accept that you can’t simply show up somewhere in a skirt and expect all the girls to treat you like you’re their ‘sister’ or something. And now your decision is affecting other people as well.” As if on cue, the living room door bursts open and the grin returns to my face as Cassie and Bryony give me a big hug each before sitting down next to me on the sofa.

“You’re my big sister, Ashley!” Cassie squeaks excitedly. “And so are you, Bryony!”

“Yep!” Bryony laughs. “We’re ALL sisters!”

“…I’ll go and check on dinner,” dad mumbles as he slinks off to the kitchen. I giggle as I reach for my tablet computer, whilst Bryony and Cassie switch on the TV. Unsurprisingly, when I open up Facebook, the other seven girls are already deep in conversation- though that conversation pauses the second I enter the chat window.

‘Hey girlie Ashley!!!!!!!!’ Laura types, making me giggle.

‘Hey girlies!!!!!!!’ I type, before my smile quickly fades. ‘Is there any update on George?’

‘He actually messaged me about half an hour ago,’ Megan types. ‘He’s in a lot of pain but nothing was broken. Well, apart from his glasses.’

‘I hope the school forces the Reids to pay for replacements,’ Priya types, her anger obvious from her words.

‘I still reckon it’s my fault,’ I type.

‘No no no no no!’ Suriya replies. ‘You’re not the one who made Ryan into a moron. He chose to act the way he did, so it’s his fault!

‘I guess,’ I type with a sigh.

‘Anyone with any brain cells will realise that you’re not hurting anyone by wearing a skirt,’ Mia types. ‘What’s it got to do with them, anyway?’ My smile returns as the message comes through- at the start of the year, she thought nothing of making fun of Laura and only stopped when she was threatened with punishment. For her to say this… I almost believe that anyone could be made to see sense. ALMOST anyone.

‘G2G girlies,’ Harriet types. ‘Mum’s calling me for dinner. See you all at ballet tonight?’

‘Well not ALL,’ I type.

‘Oh yes,’ Laura types with a string of smileys. ‘Have you told Miss Fullerton yet?’

‘Mum called her yesterday,’ I reply. ‘She said she’d have a new uniform ready for me to pick up.’

‘I’ll pick it up and keep it my house,’ Harriet types. ‘You can pick it up tomorrow.’

‘You can model it for us tomorrow!’ Mia types with a ‘kissy face’ smiley.

‘Lol,’ I reply. ‘Harriet, my mum was going to call yours, see if we can come round to my place tomorrow?’

‘Oh, okay,’ Harriet replies. ‘Works for me!’

‘Me too!’ The other girls all type, making me grin happily.

“Girls!” Mum yells from the kitchen. “Dinner’s ready!”

‘G2G girlies,’ I type. ‘See you all tomorrow!’ I grin as I receive a barrage of ‘see you’s and smileys in response.

‘And don’t forget, Ashley-‘ Harriet types before I log off. ‘A leotard is just as much a symbol of strength as a skirt!’

‘Umm, they make leotards for men, too,’ I retort. ‘Gymnasts, dancers…’

‘Exactly,’ Harriet types. ‘The only men who are strong and cool are the ones who wear leotards!’ I giggle as I logout of Facebook, before joining my parents and my siblings at the kitchen table.

“I’ve spoken to George’s parents,” mum says as I sit down. “He’s not seriously hurt, just a lot of bumps and bruises. He should be back at school on Monday.”

“Yeah, I was talking to the girls,” I reply. “He messaged Megan earlier.”

“Funny he’d message her and not you,” dad says, making me frown- though silently, I have to concede that dad has a point. As much as I value my seven girl friends, George is as important to me as any of them. He stood by me when I came out to my parents in May and has paid the price as a result. If I were in his position, I’d utterly hate me…

After dinner, I spend the rest of the evening watching TV before getting an early night. The girls don’t log onto Facebook again during the night as they have to stay late at ballet to rehearse for the upcoming recital, but before I go to bed I check Facebook anyway to see if George sent me a message, and much to my disappointment (but not my surprise), he hasn’t. I let out a long sigh as I switch off my bedroom light- my first school day as a schoolgirl has been nothing short of a disaster, and it’s hard to see how it can get any worse. That doesn’t mean it won’t get any worse, though…

“Ashley?” Mum asks as she gently knocks on my door, waking me from my slumber. “Come on Ashley, wake up! Your friends will be over in a bit, you don’t want to waste any of your Saturday, do you?”

“No,” I sigh as I get up, though I groan when I feel a familiar damp, sticky patch on the front of the panties I wore to bed. Fortunately, none of it soaked through to my nightdress, though that’s not to say that it won’t in future- and this is my only nightdress. Sure, I still have a pair of androgynous-looking boy pyjamas, but there’s no escaping the fact that they are just that- boy’s pyjamas.

Fortunately, after a quick, refreshing shower, I’m able to put the night’s ‘incident’ behind me as I pull on a clean pair of panties, a soft vest with a delicate trim and a pair of warm, ribbed black tights, before I grin wickedly as I step into my shortest denim skirt (though even that is just a few inches above my knee) and a fashionable long-sleeved striped top. Even though it’s my friends who are coming round today, they are still older girls so I do need to look the part. With this in mind, I also apply a little mascara and eyeliner before heading downstairs, smiling smugly as dad sighs at my appearance. Both Bryony and Cassie, of course, highly approve of my look, giving me tight hugs as I sit down.

“Good morning big sister Ashley!” Cassie squeaks, a wide grin plastered on her tiny face.

“Good morning little sister Cassie!” I reply with a girlish giggle. “And good morning little sister Bryony!”

“Good morning big sister Ashley!” Bryony replies with an equally girlish giggle. “And good morning little sister Cassie!”

“Good morning big sister Bryony!” Cassie squeaks as dad laughs tiredly.

“…This is going to be every weekend, isn’t it?” Dad sighs.

“Yes,” Bryony says with a smug grin. “Yes it is. And when Dorothy gets up, we’ll all say ‘good morning little sister Dorothy’ to her too!”

“I know when I’m not needed,” dad laughs as he heads through to the kitchen, but not before pausing to give gentle, loving cuddles to both of my sisters.

“Ashley…” Cassie asks after dad leaves. “Why didn’t he cuddle you?”

“It- it’s because I’m too old,” I reply. “I’m only a couple of inches shorter than dad.”

“I hope I NEVER get too big for cuddles!” Cassie squeaks, making myself and Bryony laugh.

“But you hope you get big enough to be a proper ballerina, right?” Bryony asks, laughing as Cassie nods.

“Just like Laura!” Cassie squeaks.

“You really look up to her, don’t you?” I ask, making Cassie nod enthusiastically.

“Miss Fullerton says that she might be helping to teach her next year!” Cassie squeaks. “She’s so pretty… Miss Fullerton is, too!”

“And Mademoiselle Renou as well?” I ask, giggling as Cassie nods.

“But not as pretty as Laura!” The six year old girl exclaims.

“You know…” I say with a sly grin. “Laura and her friends ARE coming round here today…” I giggle as Cassie’s eyes light up at the mention of her heroine.

“Will she be doing any dancing?” Cassie asks.

“You’re only allowed to dance in class, you know that,” Bryony retorts, dampening Cassie’s enthusiasm but not completely wiping the smile off her face.

However, when my friends arrive a short while later, the small pink leather bags that they’re all carrying hint that Cassie might just get wish after all.

“Hi Ashleyrina!” Laura squeaks, handing me a carrier bag before giving me a tight hug. “LOVE those tights, hehe!”

“Thanks!” I giggle, doing a quick twirl before looking in the carrier bag and sighing at the contents. “…I love your shorts, too!”

“Thanks!” Laura giggles, playfully wiggling her backside in her tight denim short shorts, only stopping when a familiar tiny girl comes into the hall as though summoned by my friend’s voice.

“Laura! Laura!” Cassie squeaks as she runs up to the fifteen year old girl.

“Hey Cassie!” Laura giggles, crouching down to give the tiny girl a gentle cuddle. “You’re looking GOOD! Are you still enjoying ballet?” Laura and I both giggle as Cassie enthusiastically nods.

“She literally doesn’t know how to talk about anything else,” I laugh as we return to the sofa, where I catch myself staring at Laura’s nylon-covered legs as she crosses one of the long, slender limbs over the other after sitting down. It actually takes me a while to remember that not only am I wearing tights of my own, but I’m wearing a skirt whilst my friend’s wearing shorts- meaning that if anything, I’m actually dressed more femininely than she is.

“Your sister’s going to be a proper ballerina herself, soon!” Laura says to Cassie, who giggles excitedly. “Would you like to see her in her new uniform?”

“Can I see you dance too, Laura?” Cassie asks, making myself and Laura both giggle.

“…Maybe later,” Laura giggles as she thrusts the carrier bag back into my hands. “First, I want to see your sister dance!”

“Aww,” Cassie says, making both myself and Laura grimace. Please, Cassie, not you too…

“Tell you what,” Laura says, “first we see your sister dance, then we’ll ALL dance together, okay?”

“…Mummy says I can’t wear my leotard when I’m not at ballet class,” Cassie mumbles, melting my heart once again.

“If she says anything, I’ll say it was my idea, okay?” I say, making Cassie nod and giggle, before jumping off the sofa and literally running upstairs to get changed.

“You too,” Laura laughs. “The others won’t be here for about half an hour, and you DO want to make sure it fits properly, right?” I smile as I head up to my bedroom with Laura following closely behind.

Once we’re in my room with the door shut, I unbutton my skirt and slowly step out of it, before watching in confusion as Laura starts stripping off her own clothes.

“Umm…” I mumble.

“It’s nothing you didn’t see last week,” Laura snorts as she peels her tights off her legs, giving me a perfect view of the thin rear strap of her thong disappearing between her buttocks. “Besides- and I’m going to repeat this as many times as I have to- we ARE both girls, aren’t we?”

“Well- yeah,” I say, removing my own tights and replacing them with the soft pink tights in the bag Laura brought with her.

“Your vest, too,” Laura says, before rolling her eyes and turning her back to me. “You know, when you’re changing for a recital, you won’t have the luxury of being able to change in private…”

“Yeah, because I’m going to be cast in recitals, aren’t I?” I retort.

“I was,” Laura shrugs. “You’ve been doing ballet since you were eleven, same as me. Think you were probably a few months younger than I was when you started.”

“But-“ I begin to retort, only to be cut off before I can say another word.

“And don’t say ‘I was doing boys’ ballet’,” Laura says. “If that was REALLY the case, Miss Fullerton wouldn’t be trying to get you into pointe shoes within three months, would she?”

“I guess not,” I whisper, stepping into the short-sleeved royal blue leotard from Laura’s bag and sighing happily as I stretch it over my body. “Okay, guess it’s my turn to turn my back…”

“Meh, do or don’t, your choice,” Laura snorts as she unclips her bra, barely giving me enough time to look away. “Ashley… I get changed in front of other girls all the time, don’t see why you’re being so shy about this!”

“Yeah, but-“ I say. “I think- I think I, um, I think I, you know, ‘like’ girls…”

“So does Harriet,” Laura shrugs. “Aww, I just realised, that’d make you like Nikki Thomas- wouldn’t it be cool if you met the love of your life in year 10, just like she did?”

“I’d be happy just to survive year 10,” I sigh, turning around to see Laura finish stretching her black camisole leotard over her slender frame, before removing the dainty gold chain she had clipped around her neck. With us both dressed, we tie each other’s hair back- Laura’s into a tight, elegant bun, whilst my hair (which isn’t long enough yet for a bun) is held back with an army of silver hair clips.

“Gorgeous and girly!” Laura giggles. “How’s the leo fit?”

“Perfect,” I reply, gently smoothing the stretchy fabric over my torso before following Laura down to the living room, where Cassie is already waiting for us in her own white tights and long-sleeved pink leotard. I giggle as Laura hands me a small hairbrush and gestures for me to sit down on the sofa next to my sister.

“Laura, can’t you tie my bun?” Cassie asks, breaking my heart once again.

“Ehh…” Laura grimaces, before showing my sister her own hair. “Cassie, don’t you want a bun just like mine?” I giggle as Cassie nods enthusiastically- I know EXACTLY where this is going. “Well your sister tied my bun, so if you let her do yours, then we’ll look the same, won’t we?” My giggle becomes a full-fledged laugh as Cassie turns her back to me and I gently brush out her hair, before tying it back into a tiny bun that’s almost identical to my friend’s.

“You know,” Laura says, “ballet isn’t really about one person, it’s about a whole team of people working together.”

“Says the soloist,” I say, giggling as Laura sticks her tongue out at me in a very unladylike way!

“My point,” Laura says with a sarcastic snort, “is that you can’t be a great ballerina without listening to your teacher and working with the other students.”

“Okay,” Cassie says.

“And that goes at home as well in class,” Laura continues. “Your sister’s just as good a dancer as I am-“ I try to suppress a snort of laughter at Laura’s exaggeration- “so you should listen to her a LOT if you want to be the best ballerina you can be!”

“Yeah…” Cassie mumbles. “But- but Ashley used to be a boy, though…” Yet again, I feel my heart start to tear at my sister’s snub, but my smile returns when I see a knowing grin spread across Laura’s face.

“Maybe so,” Laura says, “but do you want to know a secret? I used to be a boy too.” Cassie’s jaw drops and her eyes go wider than I have ever seen them as she learns Laura’s ‘secret’- and then, much to my delight and amusement, she jumps off the sofa and gives me (or rather, my leg) the longest, tightest hug I have ever got.

“I love you so much Ashley!” Cassie squeaks, bouncing up and down with excitement.

“…I love you too,” I whisper, blinking back tears as Cassie climbs back on the sofa to watch Laura and I demonstrate some advanced ballet steps for her. Of course, Laura gets more applause than me, especially when she changes into an old pair of pointe shoes, but Cassie cheers at the end of my own solo ‘performance’, and when it comes time to Cassie to do some dancing, it’s my hand she holds onto for support, not Laura’s.

Eventually (and obviously, before mum returns from the shops) our ‘dance lesson’ ends and we return to our bedrooms to change back into our ‘day clothes’, with Laura once again feeling fully comfortable changing her underwear in front of me (though as before, I ensure my back is turned to make sure I don’t see anything I shouldn’t). Our six other friends arrive shortly afterwards (and as before, I get plenty of compliments on my choice of skirt), and with Bryony (who’s never going to pass up an opportunity to hang out with a group of older girls) and Cassie (who spends most of her time clinging to me, Laura or Suriya), our living room quickly turns into a haven of femininity. Normally, being ‘outnumbered’ nine to one by girls- even friends- would be enough to make me feel nervous, but dressed the way I am, accepted the way I am by my friends and my sisters… I feel more at ease now than I ever have been.

However, my stress begins to return when, after everyone has arrived, discussion turns to the topic of my best male friend- who WOULD be outnumbered ten-to-one if he were here. It quickly dawns on me that whilst George may accept and support my change, he himself has no interest in feminine activities and likely never will- and as such, the days when we used to hang out may be a thing of the past.

“…Anyway, he’s feeling better,” Megan says. “Sent me a message this morning after he got up. His parents are definitely looking to press charges against Ryan.”

“Good,” Priya spits. “Sooner he’s behind bars, the better.”

“Can they imprison a 16 year old?” Nicole asks.

“Juvenile detention centre,” Priya shrugs. “Surprised Ryan hasn’t already been in one of them.”

“They should lock him up and throw away the key,” Mia spits as the topic of Ryan- and by extension, his threat against me- makes me feel more and more tense.

“…I think we should change the subject,” Laura says quietly. “Don’t want to scare the little ones, after all…”

“I’m not scared,” Bryony says defiantly, though it’s clear she’s not being entirely true.

“I’m sure you’re not,” Laura laughs. “But I think we should talk about something else instead… Something like, say, hair, make-up, nail polish, that sort of thing…?” Everyone in the room giggles as Bryony and Cassie both nod enthusiastically.

“It probably won’t be as AMAZING as last weekend, but that’s no excuse for us not to try, right?” Nicole asks as she and Laura get out their make-up kits, and I take the hint to get my own supply of make-up and nail polish from my bedroom.

“Last weekend?” Cassie asks. “Ashley, did you get make-up done last weekend?”

“Umm, I did, yeah,” I reply.

“…But weren’t you still a boy last weekend?” Cassie asks, and yet again, I have to remind myself that her questions are the result of naivety and innocence, rather than malice.

“Cassie,” Laura says softly. “Would you like to know another secret?” Everyone giggles once again as Cassie enthusiastically nods. “Girls like me and your sister… We’ve ALWAYS been girls. It just takes a while for what we look like to catch up.”

“Okay!” Cassie squeaks happily as I head up to my bedroom, returning a short while later with my make-up kit, my nail polish collection and a wide, happy smile on my face.

By the time my friends leave, all of our faces- even Bryony’s and Cassie’s, albeit in a small way- have been enhanced by make-up, and all of us have colour on our finger and toenails (in my case, a dark blue polish that belongs to Harriet). Even though I know I’ll have to wash the make-up off at the end of the night, I’m comforted by two facts: firstly, that all my friends will as well, there being no such thing as ‘permanent make-up’; and secondly, that I can put on more make-up anytime I want. After all, girls wear make-up, and as today has proved, I am unquestionably a girl.

Of course, that doesn’t stop dad from sighing at my made-up face when he enters the living room after putting Dorothy and Eddy to bed, and his sighs only get louder when he sees the light make-up on my sisters’ faces.

“If you’re going to be a girl, you could at least be a good influence to your sisters,” dad sighs. “No point in asking if you’ve seen the QPR score, is there?”

“Nope!” I say with a smug smile on my light red lips.

“Fine,” dad sighs. “I hope you’ll wash that all off before you go to bed, and I don’t want to see you wearing any make-up tomorrow.”

“And why can’t I, a girl, wear make-up?” I ask, wincing at how confrontational I’m sounding.

“Because your grandparents and great-grandparents are coming over tomorrow,” dad says, making me frown whilst my sisters both gasp happily.

“Grandma and grandpa are coming tomorrow?” Cassie squeaks.

“They ALL are,” dad says. “But they’re coming to see Ashley. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll stick around long enough for you to say hi.” This seems to placate my sisters, both of whom utterly adore and are adored by our grandparents.

Of course, the real question is whether or not they'll love their newest granddaughter as much as they adore Bryony and Cassie (and Dorothy and Eddy, for that matter), and as I lay awake in bed later that night, I keep remembering the day of my birthday party over six months ago, when I properly came out to my father. His initial reaction was to threaten to take me away from my friends, to forbid me from ever living the life that I've come to love in a very short amount of time... And he's 35, he isn't even that old. Old-fashioned, maybe... So god only knows how my grandparents and great-grandparents will react.

As per dad's instructions, I skip make-up when I get up the following morning, though I do make sure to brush my hair out into a cute feminine bob that frames my face well. As I pick out my clothes for the day, I remember back to all the occasions when my sisters and I would dress up smartly for a special occasion. The one that sticks in my mind is my great-grandmother's eightieth birthday, three years ago. I was ten years old, and dad took great pride in taking me shopping to get my first 'proper' shirt to wear, along with my first ever tie. I hadn't thought anything of it until I returned home and saw Bryony happily dancing around in her smart dress, white dress and cute t-bar shoes. It was all I could not to burst out into tears at the sight of her when compared to me, and all throughout the party, my grandparents complimented me on how handsome I was, how big and strong I was getting... Whilst my sisters all received endless attention about how cute they were, how adorable... Even though we all probably received the same amount of attention time-wise, I'd never felt as jealous as I did that day, and it began to dawn on me precisely what I needed to make me feel truly happy.

Of course, If I attempted to recreate Bryony's look from that day, I'd just look silly- I'm thirteen, not seven, and at 5' 7", I'm taller than virtually every female relative I have. Rather than go for an 'adorable' look, I opt instead for 'smart and feminine', pulling on a pair of panties and a training bra instead of a vest, before stretching a pair of opaque black tights over my legs. I briefly consider stuffing my bra with tissue paper to give me more 'shape', though ultimately I think better of it (no need to get too over the top, after all). I complete my look by pulling on my smartest black skirt- a knee-length pencil-style skirt- a tight red sweater and a pair of cute black flats. My nail polish stays in place, of course- dad may have forbidden make-up, but he never said anything about nail polish.

"Morning," I say nervously as I walk down the stairs, taking extra care due to the unexpected tightness of my skirt.

"Morning Ashley!" Cassie squeaks, giving me a gentle hug. "Do you like my dress?" I let out a giggle as Cassie does a twirl for me- she's wearing the same dress Bryony wore during the party three years ago. Not the same type of dress, but the exact same dress, handed down from sister to sister in the same way that my skirt and sweater will be handed down to Bryony, then to Cassie, then to Dorothy... And maybe even to Eddy.

"I love it!" I giggle, before smiling at Bryony, whose dress is similar, but much more mature, of course. "I like yours too, Bryony! And yours, Dorothy!" Bryony smiles bashfully whilst our three year old sister laughs at the compliment.

"And we all like your skirt, don't we?" Bryony asks our two younger sisters, both of whom nod enthusiastically. "Can- can I have it? Um, when you don't want it anymore, I mean..."

"Of course you can!" I giggle, prompting a wide grin from the ten year old girl. "Enjoying having an older sister yet?"

"Oh yes!" Bryony laughs, earning a hug from me- though as we sit down at the breakfast table, our father's frown soon ends our giggles.

"I thought I said no make-up?" Dad growls.

"I'm not wearing any," I retort.

"Then what the- what do you call that muck on your fingers?" Dad asks. Jeez, I think to myself. Could you possibly be any more stuck in the past?

"It's nail polish," I shrug. "It's different to make-up."

"Well it had better be gone by the time your grandparents get here," dad snorts angrily.

"Do I have to remove mine too?" Cassie asks in a sad voice, bringing my smile back- now's your chance to show everyone how big a hypocrite you really are, father dear...

"Umm..." Dad splutters. "Umm... No. The nail polish can stay. On ALL of you." I smile smugly as I eat my breakfast, before heading to the sofa to try to relax ahead of my grandparents' arrival.

Of course, as the arrival of my grandparents comes closer, I feel less and less relaxed to the point that when the first knock comes on the door, I almost hyperventilate and mum has to lead me into the kitchen to calm down.

"Don't panic!" Mum urges. "Your grandparents and great-grandparents already know that this is who you are on the inside. All we're doing today is confirming it. Your father and I will talk to them first, then we'll show off their beautiful new granddaughter and great-granddaughter. Okay?"

"Okay," I whisper, clasping my hands together for support- but the sight of my dark blue fingernails only make me more nervous about the upcoming confrontation.

I remain in the kitchen for another half an hour whilst all of my elderly relatives arrive, though it seems like an eternity. Eventually, I hear the voice of my mother calling me through to the living room. I take a deep breath and step out into the packed room, trying to force a smile on my face as I feel eleven pairs of eyes staring at me.

"Ugh," Grandpa Harry (my mother's mother's father) spits, making me bite my lip to keep myself from crying. Grandma Catherine- Grandpa Harry’s wife- simply remains silent, staring at me with a combination of disgust and disbelief in her eyes.

"No," Grandpa Greg (my mother's father's father) growls. "No, no, no! I won't allow this!"

"There's nothing you can do about this, grandpa," mum says. "We've got documentation, medical certificates, the lot. Medically speaking, Ashley IS a girl. We all have to learn to accept this." I can't help but smile as mum looks subtly in dad's direction as she talks about acceptance.

"Over my dead body!" Grandpa Greg snaps, before standing up and heading toward the door. "Come on Eleanor, we're leaving!"

"I'll drive you home, dad," Grandpa Alan (my mother's father) snarls, casting a VERY disapproving look at me that makes me need to lean against a wall for support.

"Dad..." Mum whispers, almost looking like she's about to start crying herself.

"I'll come back once I've driven your grandparents home," Grandpa Alan says. "We have NOT finished here."

"Can- can I say something?" Grandma Jo- my father's mother- says before anybody is able to leave.

"...Go on," Grandpa Alan says, and I shiver as Grandma Jo stares straight in my direction.

"Come here, Ashley," Grandma Jo says, and I try to compose myself as I walk toward the 59 year old woman, wincing at the tightness of my skirt- something that had previously only been a source of joy to me.

"G-grandma?" I whisper in a tiny, feeble voice.

"What I want to say," Grandma Jo says, "it that it's about time." My jaw drops in shock and confusion as Grandma Jo wraps me in a tight, loving hug- a hug I'm happy to reciprocate.

"If this is what you really want," Grandpa Chris says, "then we'll support you. Because that's what grandparents are supposed to do. Isn't it, everyone?" I smile as I share an awkward hug with my grandfather, though inside, I'm still being torn apart- not least by the fact that my paternal grandparents are being infinitely more accepting than my father is.

"Not when they take your great-grandson and put him in a bloody skirt!" Grandpa Greg snaps. "How can you look at him and support that?"

"Her," mum says with a nervous, shaky voice. "The correct way to address Ashley is 'her'."

"I repeat- Over. My. Dead. Body!" Grandpa Greg growls, and inside me, something snaps as my nerves give way for a pure, fiery anger.

"So you'd rather I killed myself, is that it?" I yell, making everyone in the room stop and stare in shock. "Because if I have to go back to being a boy, I will!"

"You don't know what you're talking about!" Grandma Eleanor spits.

"I do!" I plead as tears start to trickle down my cheek.

"Oh for god's sake, stop crying!" Grandpa Harry snorts. "You. Are. Not. A. Girl!"

"She looks like one from where I'm sat," Grandma Hazel (my father's mother's mother, and at 83, the oldest of all my relatives) says with a confident smile.

"...Hazel?" Grandma Eleanor says. "Are you seriously telling me you approve of this?"

"I am indeed," Grandma Hazel says. "And I'll thank you not to shout at my great-granddaughter, who is a clever and beautiful young woman!"

"No. He. Isn't!" Grandpa Harry yells.

"Don't you yell at me, Harry Portman!" Grandma Hazel growls.

"Fine, then, we'll leave!" Grandpa Harry spits, before turning and facing my father with a look of pure venom in his eyes. "I knew you were never good enough for our Claire!"

"And don't you dare speak to my grandson like that!" Grandma Hazel growls in a voice so fearsome, it even makes me shiver. This time, Grandpa Harry has no comeback, instead slinking off, followed by the rest of my grandparents and great-grandparents on my mother's side.

"...Thank you, grandma," dad mumbles in a quiet, shame-filled voice after everyone has left.

"No need to thank me," Grandma Hazel laughs. "You're the one bringing up Ashley, and from what I can tell, you're doing a very good job of it."

"But he- she- Ashley is still, you know, wearing a- a-" dad splutters.

"It's called a skirt, dear," Grandma Hazel says, making Grandma Jo giggle. "And it looks very smart on her. Andrew... You ARE supporting Ashley through her transition, aren't you?"

"...People never did this sort of thing in your day," dad sighs, earning a stern stare from his grandmother.

"Well maybe they should have done," Grandma Hazel says. "You heard what Ashley said, if I was told to choose between burying my great-grandson or watching him become a woman, I know which one I'd prefer!"

"He- SHE wasn't being serious," dad mumbles.

"How do you know?" I ask, making dad's face turn red with shame. "Can you read my mind? I told you last week how much it hurt to be a boy."

"And how do you feel now, Ashley?" Grandma Jo asks.

"...Free," I reply. "For the first time in my life, I honestly feel free, like I don't have to hide who I am."

"And you'll never have to hide it again," Grandma Hazel says confidently. "It's a good job I haven't bought any of your Christmas presents yet!" I giggle bashfully as Grandpa Chris and Grandma Jo nod in agreement.

"It's going to be different this year," Grandma Jo nods. "Having FOUR granddaughters to buy for instead of three..."

"Oh yes!" Grandma Hazel says with a happy giggle. "And where are your other three little treasures?"

"Girls," dad yells, the smile slowly returning to his face. Mere seconds later, the door opens and Cassie literally runs through it with her arms outstretched for a hug- which Grandma Hazel is only too happy to provide, whilst Bryony and Dorothy give hugs to Grandma Jo and Grandpa Chris respectively.

"Don't you all look so beautiful and grown up?" Grandma Hazel says in a happy, proud voice. "Jo, get a few photos of my four beautiful great-granddaughters on your phone for me, would you?"

"Of course," Grandma Jo says, taking out her smartphone and photographing me and my sisters in our smart outfits as I can't stop grinning. I started today thinking I'd be universally rejected by everyone- instead, I'm probably now closer to Grandma Hazel, Grandpa Chris and Grandma Jo than I've ever been.

"You- you shouldn't forget Eddy," dad says in a quiet, cautious voice.

"You're right, we shouldn't," Grandma Hazel says as mum gently hands me the tiny baby boy and my siblings and I pose for yet more photographs.

After handing Eddy back to mum, I sit down on the floor, surrounded by my siblings, and try to relax as talk moves away from my transition and toward the happier topic of Christmas, which is a mere four weeks away. Of course, this doesn't stop my sisters from getting excited, and when my grandparents and great-grandmother strongly hint that for the first time ever, I'll be getting what I REALLY want, I start to get a little excited too!

Of course, my excitement is short-lived, as less than an hour later, a knock comes from the front door, signalling Grandpa Alan and Grandma Wendy (my mother's parents)'s return to the home- and their facial expressions give away the fact that they are still VERY upset by my news.

"Mum, dad..." Mum says quietly. "I know this must upset you, but you have-"

"This doesn't just upset me," Grandpa Alan growls, "it offends me!"

"Well then here's an idea for you, Alan," Grandpa Chris snorts. "Try joining the rest of us in the 21st century sometime."

"And what is THAT supposed to mean?" Grandpa Alan snaps, making me wince as I see tears start to form in all of my sisters' eyes.

"It's supposed to mean," Grandpa Chris retorts, "that Ashley has been diagnosed with a recognised medical condition that means that she- yes, SHE- is incapable of living life as a boy. This sort of thing happens all the time. Now it's happened to our family. So I suggest you learn to live with it."

"Didn't you see how upset it made our parents?" Grandma Wendy asks, gesturing to herself and Grandpa Alan.

"Their problem," Grandma Jo scoffs as Grandma Hazel looks on with pride.

"Dad," mum says with a shaky voice. "This is real. This is happening. You need to accept it." Grandpa Alan takes a deep breath as he considers his next response, leading to an awkward pause that's broken by the most unlikely source.

"Grandpa..." Cassie sniffles in a tiny, scared voice. "Why do you hate Ashley so much?"

"Oh- Cassie..." Grandpa Alan sighs, sitting down next to the tiny girl and giving her a cuddle. "We don't hate Ashley, of course we don't, but you have to understand, what he- what- what Ashley's done, it- it isn't normal, okay?"

"So- so are you saying that Ashley shouldn't be a girl?" Cassie asks, her face falling at the thought of losing her latest sister.

"Well- don't you miss your brother?" Grandma Wendy asks.

"No, Ashley hasn't gone anywhere, she's just my sister now, that's all," Cassie responds, and I feel my heart start to melt at the unconditional love she's showing.

"She's got a point," mum says, making Grandpa Alan and Grandma Wendy sigh heavily.

"...Fine," Grandpa Alan says. "You're obviously not forcing Ashley, and it's not hurting anyone... Just- just- fine. If this is the way it's got to be, we won't interfere. We can't encourage this, obviously, but we won't interfere either."

"Thank you," mum whispers.

"Does this mean that Ashley can still be a girl?" Cassie asks, cheering as Grandma Wendy nods in reply. "Yay! I love my big sister Ashley!" I giggle as I sit down next to Cassie and give her a gentle cuddle, before finally relaxing as talk returns to the upcoming festive season.

Our grandparents (and great-grandparent) don't leave until almost 4pm, by which point I'm so emotionally drained that all I want to do is climb into bed and sleep for the next week.

"Cheer up," mum laughs as I relax on the sofa. "At least it's all over and done with now. Go upstairs and take off your nail polish, you don't want to be told off for that at school tomorrow!" I laugh as I head upstairs, though mum's reminder is the last thing I needed. After a stressful weekend, I've got an inevitably stressful week at school tomorrow... And the Reids will inevitably be waiting for me when I get there.

Fortunately, when I arrive at school on Monday morning- dressed, of course, in my blouse, skirt and tights- it's my seven amazing friends who greet me, rather than Sam or Ryan. After the usual round of hugs and discussion about the weekend- during which I remain quiet about the confrontation with my grandparents- I head to form, where my eighth friend is waiting for me. Whilst he smiles when I sit down next to him, it's clear from his face- especially the cuts and bruises on it- that he's not really THAT pleased to see me.

"Alright, mate?" George asks tiredly.

"Hi," I reply. "Are- how are, um, how are you feeling?"

"Ehh," George shrugs- which is clearly meant to mean 'terrible'.

"I- I'm sorry this happened," I whisper.

"You didn't force that big lump of shit to punch me," George shrugs.

"But he wouldn't have done if I wasn't dressed like this," I sigh as I feel a figure loom over our table.

"You're still wearing a skirt, then," Chloe spits.

"So are you," I retort.

"Yeah, but I AM a girl," Chloe says.

"So am I," I retort.

"But I haven't got a penis," Chloe snorts.

"Chloe, why are you out of your seat?" Mr. Jackson asks as he arrives to start form. Silently, my tormentor returns to her seat, though she makes a point of staring at me all throughout the lesson, which just makes me more and more tense until by the time we head to our first lesson, I feel like I'm about to explode- and the school week has only barely started.

"Mate," George whispers as I stare at Chloe and her posse heading to their next class. "Leave it."

"Why? They won't," I spit as I catch up with the girls and block their path.

"What do you want?" Chloe snorts.

"I don't want anything," I reply. "YOU'RE the one who's been staring at me all morning."

"Yeah, 'cause you're a boy in a skirt!" Chloe spits.

"So... What?" I retort. "You think that if you stare at me long enough, my skirt will magically change into a pair of trousers?"

"I dunno," Chloe replies as she forces her way past me.

"Then maybe you should stop staring!" I yell, before heading to the next class with George.

"Mate..." George whispers. "That'll only make things worse."

"People need to learn that this isn't going anywhere," I say, gesturing to my skirt. "And nor am I, no matter what anyone says or does."

“I wouldn't be so sure,” George says, gesturing to his damaged face. “They can do a LOT.” I remain quiet, as George is of course right, but I can't give in to the fear of physical harm. Harriet's right when she says that a skirt is a symbol of strength. If I took it off... I'd be a coward.

With George sat next to me, the first lesson passes by without incident. Even the whispers and giggles that have threatened to become my constant companions are almost non-existent, and I begin to believe that maybe, just maybe, the other kids are getting used to my presence... But then I remember which lesson I have next, and any hope of normality is dashed after George enters the boys' changing rooms, leaving me waiting outside the entrance of the girls' changing rooms.

“Ah, hello Ashley,” Miss Edwards- my PE teacher for the rest of this term- says. “Obviously we can't let you into the girls' changing room, but you know which toilets you can use to change, right? Or would you rather change in my office?”

“No, umm, I mean, yeah, the toilets will be fine,” I say. “Laura- Laura White showed me which ones.”

“Good,” Miss Edwards replies. “And you have your PE kit with you?”

“Yep!” I say with a nervous giggle, making the normally stern teacher smile kindly.

“There’s no need to be so nervous,” Miss Edwards says. “I'll work with you closely for the first two lessons just to get you up to speed. We're not doing anything I don't think you'll be capable of- I leave that to the girls on the team!” I smile as I walk away, heading to the one set of girls' toilets in the school that I'm actually allowed to use.

As I pull on the dark red shorts and plain white t-shirt that make up my PE kit, I muse on how this will be the first time since my diagnosis that I'll have worn an item of clothing that wasn't open bottomed like a skirt or dress, and as I see the girls at the front of the queue to the gymnasium all dressed in their multi-coloured leotards, I suddenly feel very self-conscious.

A quick glance behind me, though, confirms that I'm far from out of place in the class. For every one girl that's wearing a leotard, there are six that are dressed identically to me- and a quick look out the window at the boys all heading to the rugby field is enough to confirm that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Just because they're shorts, rather than a skirt or a leotard, it doesn't make them any less feminine.

...And at the end of the lesson, I feel more positive than ever when Miss Edwards catches up to me on the stairs with a wide grin on her face.

“You know,” the young PE teacher says, “you were a lot better than I expected. You sure you've never done gymnastics in the past?”

“Never,” I say, shaking my head. “Never had the opportunity, heh. For obvious reasons. It's probably all the ballet I've been doing.”

“Yeah...” Miss Edwards says. “Ashley- obviously, we won't be allowed to put you on the team or enter any competitions, but... If you, you know, want to come along to the club, you're more than welcome. And you'd get your own leotard, be able to wear it in lessons...”

“I'll- I'll think about it, thanks,” I say with a happy grin.

“Well if you do want to come along, just tell Laura and Suriya and they'll help you out, I'm sure they will,” Miss Edwards says. “It's such a pity you didn't start your change earlier, if you were just a few inches shorter you'd have made a perfect gymnast, and I'd have been able to 'sell' you to the other schools like I did with Laura...”

I grin widely as I head back to my 'private changing room' to pull my uniform back on- the school's gymnastics team is a huge source of pride for everyone in the school, not just the gymnasts or the teachers, so for me to be compared to them is a real compliment. The smiles the other girls give me- having obviously been as impressed by my skills as the teacher was- tell me that maybe, just maybe, things are starting to look up.

Unlike last Friday, I have a smile on my face as I walk up to my friends' table, and this change doesn't go unnoticed.

“Ooh,” Nicole teases as I sit down, sweeping my skirt underneath me without even thinking about what I'm doing. “Looks like someone enjoys gymnastics a hell of a lot more than SHE enjoyed rugby!”

“What GIRL wouldn't?” I retort, earning giggles from the whole table. “Where- where's George? The boys normally get out of the changing rooms faster than we- faster than the girl- no, I was right first time. Faster than WE do.”

“I dunno,” Megan says. “Think he might be keeping his distance, because of Ryan... The wimp.”

“Now hang on,” Priya protests. “George was hurt really badly, it's only natural that he should be scared. I know I would be.”

“Ashley's still sat here,” Megan retorts, making my eyes go wide as I'm unwittingly dragged into the argument. “She has more reason to be scared than anyone. And besides, didn't you say that Ryan was suspended all week?”

“And placed in isolation for the rest of the term when he gets back, yes,” Priya says. “Doesn't give you the right to make fun of someone you claim to be your boyfriend.”

“He said he'd stand by Ashley, but he's nowhere to be seen,” Megan shrugs.

“He IS standing by me,” I say. “Well, sitting by me. In form and in every class he can. He deserves to be given a break.”

“Meh, if you say so,” Megan shrugs, earning disapproving stares from the whole table- not just me. “If he wants to be stronger maybe he should take a leaf out of Harriet and Ashley's book and wear a skirt to school.”

“Huh, didn't know you wanted to 'join my team',” Harriet giggles.

“I don't,” Megan retorts. “I never said I wanted George to become a girl, just to wear a skirt once or twice. There's a difference between a girl and a boy who wears a skirt, isn't there Ashley, Laura?”

“Hell yeah!” Laura and I cheer simultaneously. Just like there's a difference between wearing a pair of shorts for gymnastics or a pair of shorts for rugby, I think to myself- which reminds me of my latest bit of good news.

“Speaking of- well, not really, but close enough,” I say. “Someone at this table may have been offer-” I don't get the chance to finish my sentence, as before I can get the words out, my head explodes in a ball of pain and I find myself laid flat on my back, the only clear image I can see being Samantha Reid brandishing a high heeled shoe that has blood on its heel- undoubtedly my blood.

I barely get my arms up to my face to defend myself from Sam's second swing, though by now my head is swimming so much and my vision is so blurred that I don't even know if her second swing made contact, let alone where it hit, and all I can think about is protecting my head from any further blows.

The next thing I'm aware of, I'm in the back of an ambulance with one of my teachers looking down on me, her face a mixture of concern and fear- and much to my dismay, my blazer, skirt and tights are spattered with blood.

"Wha- where-" I stammer.

"It's okay Ashley, don’t try to move," Miss Collins- the teacher, who normally takes history class- says softly. "You were attacked at school, but you're safe now. We're on our way to the hospital, I've called your father and he'll meet you there."

"Dad? No..." I weakly moan as memories of the attack- and more importantly, my attacker- come flooding back to me. "Sam- Sam Reid-"

"Has almost certainly set foot in the school for the very last time," Miss Collins says, making me smile contentedly. "Both girls are going to be SEVERELY punished."

"Yeah," I laugh, before my face screws up in confusion. "Both- both girls?"

"Harriet Cooper," Miss Collins says matter-of-factly, as though reminding me of something I should know. "She beat Sam almost half to death after she attacked you. She's been suspended too, and the school's looking toward permanently excluding both of them."

"What- no, not Harriet..." I moan as the pain in my head intensifies.

"Just lay back, try not to worry," Miss Collins says. "We'll be at the hospital soon." I weakly nod, but all I can think about is Harriet, who, next to Laura, has become 'girl Ashley's biggest cheerleader. She could be about to be thrown out of the school... And it's all my fault for wearing a skirt. A skirt that's almost certainly going to be permanently stained by my own blood.

After we arrive at the hospital, I'm taken to a small room where my wound is cleaned, before I'm injected with a local anaesthetic (that brings tears to my eyes) and my wound is stitched up and a bandage placed over it. As the doctor is finishing treating me, dad bursts through the door- and much to my surprise, he wraps me in a long, tight hug that makes me start to bawl my eyes out.

"Oh god, Ashley..." Dad moans, almost on the verge of tears himself.

"Dad..." I sniffle. "This- this is all my-"

"Don't," dad says. "This is NOT your fault. You-" dad turns to Miss Collins, startling the young woman. "I hope you'll kick the little shit who did this to my so- hope you'll kick them out so hard they'll go into orbit!"

"Don't worry, Mr. Moore, the school takes hate crimes of this nature VERY seriously," Miss Collins replies. "Though I do have to ask whether or not you'll be pressing criminal charges."

"Is the Pope Catholic?" Dad snorts. "Yes, I'll be pressing charges!"

"I don't have any children," Miss Collins says, "but if I were in your position I'd definitely do the same. Am I okay to leave Ashley with you?"

"Yes, of course," dad says. "Thank you for coming to the hospital with Ashley."

"She's one of our most inspirational pupils," Miss Collins says. "Get well soon, Ashley."

"Th-thanks, Miss Collins," I weakly mumble, blinking back more tears as dad sits down next to me.

"How bad's the damage?" Dad asks.

"It looks worse than it is," the doctor says with a kind smile. "Just a few stitches, a couple of days' rest and your daughter will be right as rain."

"Will- will it scar?" I ask, blinking back yet more tears as the doctor solemnly nods.

"It will leave a scar at first," the doctor replies, making me moan. "It will fade with time, and you will of course be able to disguise it with make-up." I moan further as the mention of make-up makes dad bristle.

"When can I take hi- when can I take Ashley home?" Dad asks.

"We want to keep her in overnight for observation," the doctor says. "Have you brought a change of clothes and some pyjamas?"

"Yeah, I-" dad says, reaching into the carrier bag he brought before pausing. "Umm, no, actually, I don't have any nightclothes... I'll be back in about half an hour. Ashley, will you be okay with the doctor?" Dad smiles as I nod, still barely able to contain my tears.

"Hurry back," I whisper, making dad smile as he leaves the room.

"You're a very brave young woman," the doctor says as she hands me the (admittedly feminine) pair of jeans and t-shirt from dad's bag and turns her back to allow me to change. "If you don't mind me asking, how long- how long have you, umm..."

"Just over a week," I whisper. "You were going to ask 'how long have I been transitioning, right?"

"Yeah," the doctor whispers. "I- I'm sorry if it was a sensitive subject-"

"It's okay," I shrug as I pull on the jeans and the t-shirt and sigh as how ordinary, how boyish I look- and feel. With my hair scraped back away from my make-up free face, it's almost like I'm back to square one- but I at least wasn't getting assaulted when I was at square one...

With me patched up, I'm taken to a ward to get settled in. Dad returns just over an hour later with a second carrier bag, and even though it contains my trusty grey nightdress, I don't greet my father with a smile as I know that when he arrived at the hospital earlier in the day, he DID have pyjamas with him- the wrong kind.

"Here you go," dad says with a smile on his face, which is undoubtedly the result of him seeing me wearing trousers for the first time in almost a week.

"Dad," I sigh. "I know you had my old boy pyjamas with you the first time you came."

"...Sorry," dad mumbles. "I just- I just thought-"

"You thought that because someone smashed my face in for wearing a skirt, I'd never want to wear one again?" I ask, making dad nod shamefully.

"I- I'm sorry, Ashley," dad sighs. "But you do have to admit, if you weren't wearing a skirt, you wouldn't be in hospital now."

"Maybe, maybe not," I say, before letting out a loud sigh of my own. "...Okay, maybe not. Go on, tell me you told me so..."

"Never," dad whispers. "Ashley... Boy or girl, seeing you like this makes me want to cry and tear the little shit who did this limb from limb. You're my child, and you've been hurt, and no matter what, you NEVER deserve this. Even if you went to school in a damned tutu, you wouldn't deserve this."

"...Thanks," I whisper.

"But you do have a decision to make," dad says. "Ashley... I'm never going to deny you the right to be who you want to be. I've said that before and I'll repeat it as many times as you want. When you're sixteen and you want to take full hormones, go to college as a girl... I'll support you. I'll even try to accept you, though I can't guarantee I'll ever really be able to."

"I know," I say.

"But that's three years away," dad says. "In the meantime, you have to decide what you'll do for school. Go back to school in a skirt and there's no guarantee that this won't happen again. In fact, you might get hurt even worse."

"But you yourself said," I retort, "I'll always be 'the boy who went to school wearing a skirt'. I can't not have done that."

"No you can't," dad concedes. "But if you wear trousers, even girls' trousers... You'll paint less of a 'target' on yourself. Mrs. Houghton's compromise isn't that bad, when you think about it. And at weekends and at home, you can be as girly as you want."

"I'll think about it," I mumble, rolling over on my bed to try to get dad to leave me alone.

"I- I have to head home," dad mumbles. "Got to help your mum with your sisters, and Eddy... I'll be back tomorrow morning to pick you up, okay?"

"Okay," I say. "See you tomorrow, dad."

"See you tomorrow," dad says. "I- I love you, Ashley. Don't ever doubt that."

"Goodbye, dad," I whisper as I try to control my emotions and think through my situation in a calm manner.

In the long run, all Mrs. Houghton's compromise means is that I wear trousers to school instead of a skirt. And like dad says, they can be girls' trousers- god knows the jeans I'm wearing now feel WAY different to 'boy Ashley's, and I can always wear the underwear- well, apart from the tights, obviously... Then again, if I do take the compromise, I'll be admitting defeat, admitting that I'm weak, too weak to wear the symbol of strength that is my school skirt... And letting down all my friends in the process- especially Harriet, who's risked expulsion simply to stand up for me. And it's not like I'll be seeing Sam again, at least, not for a long time... But dad's right to say that she won't be the only person at school who feels the way she does about me...

By the time dad comes to collect me the following morning, I'm no closer to making a decision than I was when he left me. Obviously, I'm being kept off of school today, meaning that after being discharged, I'm taken straight home, where I'm greeted by an unexpected face on my doorstep.

"Hi," Harriet says, waving nervously at me as her mum looks on disapprovingly.

"Hi!" I say with a wide, genuine grin, giving the ginger girl a gentle hug before leading her and her mother into our home. "What are you doing here?"

"Suspended," Harriet mumbles in a shame-filled voice. "For the rest of the week at least. School are still deciding whether to make it permanent."

"Is this for giving that evil Sam girl a beating?" dad asks, snorting with laughter as Harriet nods. "Well if you want someone to speak to the school on your behalf, just ask."

"Thanks, Mr. Moore," Harriet says, as I suddenly notice that two of her fingers are bandaged together.

"What- what happened to your hand?" I ask.

"I, uh..." Harriet mumbles. "I kinda- kinda sprained a finger... When punching Sam."

"Oh my god," I whisper.

"She was- ugh," Harriet spits. "After she hit you the first time, she actually laughed before swinging again and I- I just saw you bleeding on the floor, her holding that shoe and laughing and I- I just saw red. I knocked her to the ground and I just couldn't stop hitting her... Took all of the other six girls to drag me off her in the end."

"Good," dad says, earning a disapproving stare from Harriet's mother. "I'm sorry, but after what that girl did to my Ashley, I have absolutely ZERO sympathy for her!"

"Well I'm sure a lot of people will feel that way about Harriet, too!" Mrs. Cooper growls. "She is going to spend the rest of the week doing a LOT of chores, broken finger or no broken finger! The only reason we're here is because she begged to see you, to make sure you're okay. Now that we've done that, we'll be going."

"Well either way, you're welcome in this house anytime," dad says with a warm smile that Harriet reciprocates.

"Thanks," Harriet whispers before turning to me. "Before I go, Ash, what's with the jeans?"

"...Just what I wore at the hospital, why?" I reply.

"Nothing," Harriet says with a sweet smile whilst gesturing to her own knee-length denim skirt. "Just wondered whether you'd forgotten what a symbol of strength looks like, that's all." I smile as Harriet and her mother leave, though once they're gone, I immediately turn to face my father with a defiant look in my eyes.

"Really couldn't have brought a skirt to the hospital?" I ask.

"It's cold on the wards," dad shrugs. "Thought you'd want something warm to cover your legs."

"You mean, something like a pair of tights?" I reply.

"Wearing a pair of trousers isn't going to kill you," dad says.

"It's not going to turn me back into a boy either," I retort.

"Maybe not," dad says. "But if you're going to take Mrs. Houghton's compromise, you'd better get used to wearing them again."

"'If'," I snort, before heading upstairs to exchange my jeans for a pair of black tights and a skirt similar to Harriet's, the sight of which makes dad roll his eyes as I return to the living room.

"Ashley..." dad sighs. "I just don't want you to get hurt again, okay? Honestly, this week has felt like it's lasted a month, and that's just for me. I can't imagine what it must feel like for you."

"I will NOT go back to being a boy," I say, straightening my tights before sitting down. "I've earned the right to wear this."

The same could be said of that bandage on your head," dad says, before heading into the kitchen and leaving me alone with my baby brother, who's happily playing away in his playpen.

"God, Eddy," I sigh at the tiny boy. "You'll never know the old Ashley, I guess. Maybe dad's right, and I am selfish to deprive you of an older brother... Even though I promise I'll be the best older sister I can be." Eddy's sudden tears- undoubtedly at the sight of my bandage- along with Harriet's uncertain future at school are an unwanted reminder that 'girl Ashley's presence has resulted in other people getting hurt- and maybe I am selfish for continuing the charade.

Despite what my friends keep telling me, the truth is that I'll NEVER be a girl- at least not 100%. I'll never have a womb, I'll never have ovaries, I'll always have a Y chromosome... At best I'll be a boy who took a lot of pills and had a lot of plastic surgery to make himself- HIMself- resemble a girl as closely as possible. Then again, you could technically say the same thing about Laura, and she makes a VERY convincing girl. A beautiful girl, even...

And one thing's for certain... I'll never be as beautiful as Laura or any other girl, not with an ugly scar above my eye. And whilst I may eventually gain the acceptance of my father, the same can't be said of the rest of my family. If I went back to being a boy, then I'm sure they'd eventually forgive me, but obviously, my friends at school wouldn't. After the beating he took, George may not even forgive me for giving up so easily, even if it did mean that he'd get his 'best mate' back. And for all dad's talk of 'you can transition fully when you're sixteen and you start college'... I may not even be in touch with any of my friends by that time. They'll all have left school a year earlier than me- two years earlier, in Priya's case- so I may even face the possibility of having to make whole new friends when I go to college- friends who may not be as accepting of 'girl Ashley' as Laura and co.

I manage to calm Eddy down by singing to him and turning my face to make sure he can't see my bandage, and I spend the rest of the afternoon trying to relax, watching TV and catching up on homework and trying to enjoy the fact that I'm sat wearing clothes that are 100% female, right down to my underwear... But the stress of my decision is almost overwhelming. The fact that I've had to make it twice in as many weeks is the worst part- how many more times am I going to face this identity crisis?

Matters are unwittingly made worse at 3:30pm when a knock comes from my front door, and I open it only to be greeted by a tight hug from the school's other transgendered girl.

"Hey Ash!" Laura squeaks happily, before letting herself into my house and sitting down on my sofa, elegantly crossing one slender, nylon-covered leg over the other.

"Hey Laura," I sigh.

"Oh, hi Laura," dad says, poking his head in from the kitchen. "Sorry, but Ashley's really not feeling up to visitors right now..."

"Thanks for telling me what I'm thinking, dad," I retort, making dad sigh and Laura giggle. "...Though he is kinda right... And no offence, but- but you're really the LAST person I want to see right now."

"Aww," Laura says with an upset pout. "Why, exactly?"

"Because-" I reply, before letting out a long sigh. "Because I'm not sure I really want to be a girl anymore." Rather than get angry or critical, Laura surprised me by giving me a long, friendly hug.

"Because of what happened with Sam?" Laura asks. "You needn't worry about her. I heard from Priya earlier today. She and her brother are gone. Done with the school 100%. Finished. Expelled. Gone and good riddance."

"...And Harriet?" I ask, making Laura sigh sadly.

"...Back next Monday," Laura mumbles. "But on a final warning. She REALLY went to town on Sam. They say Sam might even need plastic surgery, Harriet beat her that badly. They were even thinking of pressing criminal charges against Harriet, but then they realised that you'd have to press charges against Sam..."

"None of which would've happened if I hadn't worn a skirt to school," I sigh.

"She'd have just gone after me sooner or later," Laura says.

"Not necessarily," I shrug. "I mean, you ARE a girl. You're way more girly than I am, and you always will be..."

"Thanks," Laura says with a sad smile. "Even though I know that wasn't intended as a compliment. Ash... You're as much a girl as I am. And I'm as much a girl as Harriet, or Nicole, or Suriya... And you're sat on the sofa wearing a skirt. That kinda tells me you know what you're decision's going to be."

"But how many more people am I going to hurt?" I sniffle.

"No one," Laura says confidently. "Because you haven't hurt anyone. Anyone 'hurt' by your decision is hurt by their own actions."

"Even Harriet?" I ask, making Laura frown, before sighing.

"...Yes, even Harriet," the fifteen year old girl sighs. "She chose to beat Sam to a pulp. She didn't have to, but she did anyway. And I'm not going to waste any tears on Sam, but- but you can't blame yourself for either of them, Sam or Harriet. Come back to school in a skirt, Ashley."

"So I can get a matching scar on the other side of my head?" I ask, making Laura frown.

"I can't guarantee we'll be able to protect you," Laura says. "But we will always be there for you."

"Until the end of year 11, when you'll leave and I'll be alone at the school," I say, making Laura moan with frustration.

"God, Ashley..." Laura sighs. "No, we can't magically make you older or us younger. Yes, the 'excellent eight' won't be together forever. Hell, because of Priya we won't be an 'eight' by this time next year, let alone two years from now. Speaking of, you are coming to her birthday on Friday, right?"

"Of course," I say, before letting out a sigh. "Yes, I'll be wearing a dress."

"Good," Laura says with a smug grin. "I- I should let you get your rest now. Got ballet tonight, the big recital's coming up..."

"Ugh, ballet," I spit. "I was really looking forward to starting girl classes tomorrow, too..."

"...Is your head THAT bad that you can't go?" Laura asks.

"No, I can balance fine," I say. "It's just- ugh, never mind."

"Message received," Laura sighs. "When are you next seeing Doctor Williamson?"

"Tonight," I say.

"Good," Laura replies. "Kinda wish I could go with you... But she'll be able to help you out. She should be able, anyway. Back at school tomorrow?"

"Should be," I say as I see Laura out. "See you tomorrow."

"See you tomorrow, Ashley," Laura says, and I let out a long, frustrated moan as she goes, before heading up to my room, stripping off my skirt and my tights and changing back into the jeans I was wearing earlier today.

After fastening the tight trousers, I take a long look at myself in the mirror, and I honestly don't know what I see. When I got my diagnosis I was so confident, so certain that I could just pull on a skirt and pirouette off into the sunset and never look back... I should've known that the reality would be very different. As much as I prefer life as a girl to life as a boy... The fact is that life as a girl is harder. MUCH harder, and not just when people are swinging shoes at my face. If I 'quit', if I took the compromise, or even went back to being a full-time boy, I'd have it a lot easier, especially with my GCSEs starting next year.

...But I know that even that isn't going to be a walk in the park. I'll always be 'the boy who wore a skirt to school', and I'll always be the boy who wants to wear a skirt to school. And I'll be letting down my friends, setting myself up for endless stress for the rest of my life... Why couldn't I have just been born as a girl?

"Hello Ashley," Dr Williamson says as I walk into her office, accompanied by both my parents. All the adults in the room have a concerned look on their face, which is undoubtedly caused by the bandage on my face- and the jeans still wrapped around my legs. "I heard about what happened... I'm sorry."

"It's okay," I mumble. "Doctors say it'll leave a scar..."

"It's a sad fact of life that there are some small-minded people out there who simply can't accept that people like you NEED to live their lives as the opposite gender to which they were born," Dr Williamson sighs. "I wish I could tell you that this will never happen again. But we all know that would be a lie."

"I know," I mumble. "I- I'm not sure I want to go on. Being a girl, I mean."

"Ashley..." Dr Williamson sighs. "I wouldn't have issued you with a diagnosis of GID or written a prescription for anti-androgens- which are ready to pick up, by the way- if I didn't feel that you NEEDED them. We don't give out these diagnoses on a whim, despite what some people might think." I glance over to my right, where dad is sat looking at the floor with a look of pure shame on his face.

"...I'm scared," I whimper, earning a gentle hug from my mother.

"All transgendered people feel scared at one point or another during their transition," Dr Williamson says. "Scared of the changes that will happen to their bodies, scared of how family or friends will react, scared of physical consequences too."

"Sometimes," dad says, turning to face me, "I think you just looked at the clothes your friends were wearing and got so obsessed with them you didn't think about the other consequences. Am I right?" I blink back tears as I nod- my girly life had been such a dream come true that I almost believed it was a dream, when of course, reality will be a lot harsher.

"Ashley," Dr Williamson says softly, "I can't make this decision for you. Nor can your parents. You have to decide what it is that you really want. But I'll repeat what I said last week- in the long run, denying who you really are inside will only be psychologically damaging to you."

"What can we do to help her?" Dad asks.

"Simply be her mum and dad," Dr Williamson replies. "Support her decisions and love her no matter what."

"We'll always do that," mum says confidently as Dr Williamson continues to ask about my feelings over the last few days at school and at home, my wins (including gymnastics class) and my losses (such as my grandparents).

Before I leave the office, I turn to Dr Williamson with one final concern in my mind- probably the thing that's worrying me the most.

"I- I know I have a decision to make," I sigh. "But I don't want to have to keep making decisions every week about what I want."

"That's perfectly understandable," Dr Williamson replies. "But the truth is, no matter what you decide, there will be a part of you that will always wonder if you made the right decision."

"How do I shut that part of me up?" I ask.

"By trying your hardest to make sure that the decision you made is the right one," Dr Williamson says with a smile. "You're not the first person to come in here unsure of what they want, you're not the first person I've seen who's suffered physically as a result of their choice, and you'd be far from the first person who reversed their decision to transition, if that's what you decided you wanted."

"...Laura never reversed her decision, though," I mumble, making mum and dad sigh with frustration.

"Well, obviously I can't break confidentiality," Dr Williamson says. "But I will say that Laura's just like any other teenager- confident and insecure at the same time."

"But she's a ballerina, a cheerleader," I moan. "She's all the things I want to be... And she's popular. She has friends."

"YOU have friends," mum replies. "The same friends, and they love you just as much as they do Laura."

"...And there's no reason you can't be all those things Laura is," dad mumbles.

"No reason at all," Dr Williamson says, and while I nod in response, I'm a long way from convinced.

After returning home, I head up to my bedroom, where I switch on my tablet computer, but before I login to Facebook, I change my mind and switch the tablet off. If I asked the girls for advice, all they'd say is 'you must remain a girl'. A week ago, that'd be all the advice I need, but now, with my head split open and me trembling in fear at returning to school tomorrow... I honestly don't know what I want to hear. Which is why I let out a long groan when dad enters my room with a clean bandage for my head.

"Hi Ashley," dad whispers. "Just- just need to-"

"I know," I whisper, turning my head to allow dad to get to work. "I know what decision you'd rather I made about what I did tomorrow..."

"Ashley..." Dad sighs.

"You say you hate seeing me hurt, but deep down, you must be loving the thought that you might get your son back," I spit, making dad growl angrily.

"Stop it!" Dad snaps. "Just- just- no, Ashley. I am loving exactly nothing about this. I don't love having to see your forehead split open, I don't love seeing you so miserable, and I don't- I don't love-"

"You don't love me?" I ask, tears forming in my eyes.

"...I don't love the fact that you hate me," dad whispers. "Yes. I'd rather have a son than a daughter. And as much as I love your sisters... I'd rather have five sons than one son and four daughters. Or two sons and three daughters. But as a parent, I don't have that luxury. My job is to love all the children I have equally."

"Your 'job'," I snort.

"And I wouldn't trade any of the five of you in for anything," dad says. "Especially not you, Ashley. Boy or girl, you're still out firstborn. That makes you special, and it always will."

"...Thanks," I whisper. "And I- I don't hate you. I just- I just hate you that can't accept me."

"All I can do is try my best," dad sighs as he finishes changing my dressing. "So, have you decided on what you'll wear to school tomorrow? Your mum's finished washing and ironing your skirt, and we've got most of the blood off your blazer."

"I- I don't know," I sigh. "Don't even know if I want to go into school tomorrow..."

"You can't keep missing days, not with your GCSEs just around the corner," dad says. "And you've got your first dance class tomorrow- well, sort-of first, anyway..."

"I just- I just wish I could, you know, just get on with it," I sigh. "Why couldn't I just have been born a girl?"

"Because sometimes life is unfair," dad sighs. "And we've got to work extra hard to get what we want. But in the end, you alone have to decide- is getting what you want worth the effort?"

"I- I don't know," I sigh. "I mean, with Sam Reid gone from school, hopefully I won't get any more of these." Dad laughs as I point to the wound on my head. "But I'm always going to get teased, whispered and giggled at... And then in year 11, none of my friends will be there anymore."

"Your sister will be, though," dad says. "Not that you're to use her as a human shield, you understand. And George will always be your friend."

"Even after I got him beaten up?" I snort, making dad chuckle.

"You know, he actually called yesterday, while you were in hospital?" Dad replies. "Wanted to see how you were. Or wanted to compare scars, I dunno. You've really got a friend for life in him. If my best friend at school suddenly turned into a girl, I'd have run a mile."

"You don't say," I retort, making dad chuckle.

"You've got friends for life in all of them," dad says. "Even when they've gone their separate ways, I reckon you'll stay in touch with each other. And go on reunions, nights out, hen nights, all those things that girls do."

"Assuming I'll still be a girl by then," I sigh.

"Well, that IS the big question, isn't it?" Dad asks. "I can't make the decision for you. God knows you wouldn't want me too, heh. All I can do is- well, no actually, there IS one other thing I can do. Wait right there." I stare at dad in confusion as he leaves my bedroom, returning a short while later with a large rectangular package in his hand.

"Umm..." I say as he hands me the heavy box.

"It's your advent calendar this year," dad says. "I know, it's not December for another couple of days, so you can't actually open any of the doors yet, but I figured you'd like to see it."

"Umm... Okay," I say as I open the package- and the sight of what's inside nearly makes me cry.

Last year, my advent calendar was 'Lego Star Wars' themed. Every day, I'd get a new robot toy to build, so that by Christmas Eve, I'd have an entire Lego Star Wars playset. This year, however, my advent calendar is everything I've dreamed of. Instead of Lego, or even chocolate, behind each door of the advent calendar is a different piece of make-up, from lipstick to eyeliner pencils to even nail polish.

"Thank you," I whisper between sniffles, before reaching forward and surprising dad with a long, tight hug.

"Don't expect this every year," dad laughs, awkwardly wriggling out of my hug. "And keep it in here, we don't want your sisters getting hold of it, and we ESPECIALLY don't want Eddy going anywhere near it!"

"...Because you're afraid it'll make him like me?" I ask.

"No," dad retorts, "because he's less than a year old and will probably try to eat the make-up." I giggle at dad's joke, before putting the advent calendar on my chest of drawers, where I can't stop staring at it, excited about the goodies contained within.

"Any closer to your decision?" Dad asks, making me smile confidently.

"Yeah," I say with a grin. "Thank you. You probably don't know but this- just this- it means a lot to me, you know?"

"I had a feeling it might," dad says with a smug grin. "Get some rest, Ashley." Awkwardly, dad leans in toward me and gives me a gentle kiss on my forehead, just as he's done with my sisters so many times in the past.

The next morning, I wake up with a wide smile on my face, a smile that only gets wider as I pull on a comfortable pair of panties, a lace-trimmed vest and a trusty pair of thick grey tights, before stepping into my clean skirt, fastening my blouse and tie around me and pulling on my blazer. Dad's efforts to clean the blazer were better than he made out- the only trace of blood are a few spots above the buttons (which are, of course, on the left of the garment).

After laying out the pink tights and tight blue leotard I'll be wearing later tonight at ballet, I slip my feet into my tiny black flats, grab my school bag and head downstairs, where my sisters all greet me with happy, giggling hugs- which is also how I'm greeted by my friends at school- well, apart from Harriet, of course.

Just because I've had a setback, it doesn't mean that I should give up on my dream- on any of my dreams. Dad's starting to come to love 'girl Ashley', I have sisters who adore 'girl Ashley', I have true friends who will be in my heart for the rest of my life... And those who aren't on 'girl Ashley's side yet, well, they'll just be left behind.

Harriet was right, a skirt is a symbol of strength, as is make-up, nail polish, tights, leotards, long hair... And more importantly, they're also a symbol of ME. I am Ashley Moore. I am a girl. I am proud to be a girl. And if you knock me down, I'll just get back up again, girlier than ever!

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