Ian, part 9

“Come on, hand them over,” Lee insists, making the other four of us chuckle as we pass him our empty drinks cans.

“Seriously, man, can we at least see what it looks like?” Neil asks. “This project of yours that you’re working on?”

“Not until it’s a bit more complete,” Lee says. “Still annoyed I missed the deadline this May, don’t need you guys breaking it before it has a chance to compete!”

“Suit yourself,” I sigh. “You’ve got plenty of time to work on it this summer, though.”

“Yeah, assuming I want to spend all my time indoors this summer,” Lee retorts. “Which I don’t.”

“You just go ahead and betray your nerd heritage,” Rob laughs as he and his brother pack away the Xbox controllers we’ve spent all afternoon ‘using’.

“He’s got a point, though,” Neil says. “If this room wasn’t as well air-conditioned as it is…”

“Well, we’ll get plenty of ‘air conditioning’ tomorrow!” Rob laughs.

“And maybe even some female interest,” Neil says, making the rest of us laugh. “Well, ONE of us might, anyway…” Despite myself, I blush as the other guys give me a few playful shoves.

“Assuming you wouldn’t rather ‘go down under’,” Lee says, earning a less playful shove in response. “…Touched a nerve, have I? Not my fault I’m not going out with an Australian supermodel…”

“Hardly ‘going out’,” I feebly mumble in response. Though, I’m forced to admit to myself, they’re not THAT far wrong.

It’s been three and a half months since Abbey-Gayle’s birthday party, and in that time, I have made nine trips to London to see Ella, and she’s made two trips to see me, and on each occasion, the Australian girl and I have ended up having sex. And on every occasion, I have been surprised for two reasons- one, that the 5’ 10”, size 8 model with the 40” legs hadn’t found herself a stable boyfriend, and two, that she’d actually find a 5’ 7”, (for obvious reasons) feminine-looking guy like me attractive enough to have sex with.

That said though, ten months of flooding my veins with testosterone has gone a long way toward eliminating- or at the very least, disguising- my body’s natural femininity. And the guys aren’t wrong when they say I’m likely to get female attention when we go to the beach tomorrow. My arms and legs are muscular (and covered in fine, wispy hairs), my face is covered in a light haze of stubble and my short, blond hair is spiked into a fashionable hairstyle. I even have a fledgling six pack- though of course, I won’t be able to display it at the beach, not without also displaying the tight elastic bandage covering my chest- or worse yet, uncovering my chest completely. One thing this year at college has proved is that you can have as many muscles as you want, but when girls know that you have similar ‘equipment’ to them, they get turned off VERY quickly. At first, I could pass this off as me being part of an ‘uncool’ clique, but when these same girls began paying an interest to my three friends, I got the message very quickly, and many evenings saw me chomping down hard on my stuffed giraffe’s leg in a desperate attempt to ease my frustration.

Frustration not helped by the fact that every time we meet up, Ella inevitably posts a photo of the two of us on her Instagram or her Twitter page, and within 24 hours of those photos being uploaded, my ‘mother’ will have called my grandmother for an update on my life. She also called one other time, in the middle of May- but even then, it wasn't just to catch up. A few weeks after my first 'encounter' with Ella, I was invited down to London to participate in a photoshoot with eight other transgendered people (celebrity and non-celebrity alike) for the magazine of a Sunday newspaper. The sight of me interacting with the likes of Jamie-Lee Burke and Stephanie Abbott sent my mother into a frenzy- which was all the confirmation I needed that she never saw me as a child, only as a potential retirement plan. And naturally, the photoshoot did nothing to improve my popularity at college. If anything, it made me even LESS popular with everyone outside my close group of friends.

My 'mother' never calls at any other time, of course, and my ‘father’ never calls at all. Every time she calls, she always asks to speak to me, but I always decline- I have nothing to say to her, especially as it’s obvious that she still sees me more as a meal ticket than a son. Though as grandma has been quick to point out, she is more willing to see me as a son than a daughter…

What’s even more frustrating is that I’m pretty sure that without a childhood spent dancing, doing gymnastics and various other physical activities, I wouldn’t be as physically fit as I am now- and it’s obvious that my mum knows that too, going by grandma’s summaries of each call that she takes. She’d clearly prefer it if mum and I got along again, and there’s a part of me that wants that too… But on my terms. If mum wants ‘Ian the celebrity boyfriend’, then she’ll have to accept ‘Ian the gamer’ and ‘Ian the nerd’ as well, and I know her well enough to know that that will be a bridge too far. And I know dad well enough to know that with his mother still in the picture and controlling his life, ‘Ian the son’ will never be accepted in his house. It’s also telling that mum’s never come to visit us in Cardiff- though she’s often asked (and sometimes insisted) that we go and visit her. London IS where all the celebrities are, after all…

I’ve not had that much help from my new ‘mentor’, either. We’ve messaged each other a few times, though most of the time he’s messaged me I’ve got the impression that his wife pressured him into doing it- not least because he started one conversation by saying ‘Hey Ian, Jamie was wondering how you were and asked me to message you’. Other times he just messaged me to boast, what with him being a Chelsea fan and all. I guess guys just aren’t as comfortable talking about personal stuff with other guys. Then again, most ‘guys’ don’t boast to other guys about the fact that they’ve stopped menstruating…

The one source of comfort in my life, though, is that all these stresses are miles away in London, while I’m more settled than ever in my life in Cardiff. I passed my first year of college without any major hassle and have been accepted onto the next level of the course next year (and even had a look at studying graphic design at university), my job is going well and I’ve been promised additional hours from work (and therefore additional money), I still see my counsellor once a week (and they have been a BIG help at times) and obviously, I can count on my friends and my grandmother- the one member of my family whose love isn’t conditional- for support. Things aren’t bad in my life, certainly… But they could be a whole lot better.

As I head home, though, I pass several young women on their way into the city centre, each one wearing short, tight skirts, high-heeled shoes and a ton of make-up, and I’m reminded that my life could very easily be a whole lot WORSE than it is.

“Hello Ian!” Grandma greets me as I walk through the front door and collapse heavily on the sofa. “That’s right, you just rest while I wait on you hand and foot…”

“Sorry,” I mumble, slowly lifting my tired body off the sofa before heading to the kitchen to help the elderly woman prepare dinner. “Just, you know, long day…”

“Sitting on a sofa all day playing games? Very tiring,” grandma says with a derisive snort of laughter.

“I- never mind…” I sigh. As much as I love my grandmother, and as much as I rely on her support, she’s hardly the most sympathetic person in the world. Still, at least I know that unlike some members of my family, she actually cares about me as a person, rather than a pension fund…

As I get ready for bed, pulling on a loose t-shirt and a pair of shorts, I look at the stuffed giraffe sitting on my chest of drawers, who’s staring back at me with his big, cartoon eyes. There were some weeks, some months even, when I’d spend every night with one of his legs clamped between my teeth. It didn’t help matters then, and it certainly wouldn’t right now, but there’s a very large part of me that just wants to spend the rest of the night screaming away my frustrations.

When I wake up the following morning, however, my tensions are eased slightly by the warmth of the Sun shining through my bedroom window- and the knowledge that I’ll get to spend all day relaxing underneath it. No stress about my family, no stress about my gender, no stress about anything at all. Just me and my friends, on a beach, chilling out. The last time this happened, last year, I spent countless stressful hours barely covered by a tiny bikini, being ogled by several dozen meatheads on a Spanish beach, and by the end of that ‘holiday’ I was more stressed than ever. However, if it wasn’t for that experience, ‘Ian’ wouldn’t a full-time thing right now…

Despite the memory of last year, I have a smile on my face as I pull on a comfortable, loose pair of swim shorts that show off my toned legs (and more importantly, the fine hairs on them). After slipping my feet into a pair of pristine white trainers, I wrap my bandage around my chest, before pulling on a loose basketball-style tank top that shows off every inch of my arms, but thankfully keeps my chest hidden from view. The clothes are loose enough to obscure the unfortunate shape of my skeleton, but I still opt not to shave off the light fuzz that has grown on my face, earning a tut from my grandmother as I grab my backpack and head downstairs.

“You’d better have that shaved off before church tomorrow!” Grandma admonishes me.

“Yes, grandma,” I mumble, earning a sympathetic smile from the elderly woman.

“Just- you make sure you have fun today, okay?” Grandma says. “After the year you’ve had, you definitely deserve to be able to relax. It’s a pity that nice Australian girl couldn’t come up from London to spend the day with you today…” I grimace at grandma’s emphasis of the word ‘day’- on the occasions when Ella’s stayed overnight, she’s slept in my bed whilst I’ve slept on the sofa, as grandma doesn’t entirely approve of pre-marital sex, or sex before the age of eighteen (even though the legal age of consent in the UK is sixteen), or- even though she hasn’t outright said this and would probably deny it if asked- sex between two people with matching ‘sets’, like myself and Ella. Of course, Ella and I found a way to be together anyway during her visits, and grandma obviously knows this, but it’s just easier for both of us if we pretend that nothing happened.

“…Think that’s Rob’s car outside,” I mumble, breaking the awkward silence that had fallen over the room. “I’ll see you later this evening!”

“Take care, Ian!” Grandma shouts after me, waving as I leave the house and climb onto the back seat of the car.

“Hi Ian!” Rob says with a proud grin. “Like the wheels?”

“And let’s be fair, what’s not to like about a 12 year old Vauxhall Corsa?” Lee says, laughing as Rob gives him the middle finger in the rear view mirror.

“Bit small,” I comment, chuckling as I get a middle finger of my own.

“Parents wouldn’t go over £1000,” Rob explains. “Though the insurance is what really cost the most… technically, this is my dad’s car, I’m just a named driver. Otherwise it’d have cost about £5000 insuring it, heh.”

“Yeah, we’ve all seen that episode of Top Gear,” Neil laughs from his seat next to Rob. “Not exactly a chick magnet, to be fair…”

“Right, well, when you all pass your driving tests, then you can buy something better,” Rob snorts. “Oh wait- you haven’t passed them yet.”

“Yeah, not all of us have rich parents with well-paying jobs who can pay for lessons for us,” Lee reminds our driver.

“Not all of us have parents,” I mumble, grimacing as the atmosphere inside the car immediately darkens. “Umm, anyway…”

“Anyway,” Neil says, letting out a long sigh. “It’ll get us to the beach, which makes the car good enough, right?”

“’Course,” Lee shrugs.

“Yep!” I say with a grin.

“Might even pick us up some chicks,” Lee says.

“As long as they don’t mind riding back in the boot,” I say, making the car chuckle as we head toward Barry Island beach, which is, predictably, packed with sun worshippers when we arrive. So packed, in fact, that we haven’t even found a spot to set up when a group of three bikini-clad girls, who look about the same age as us, walk past with sly grins on their faces. There, but for the grace of god… I think to myself.

“Hello ladies,” Neil mutters to himself- though only, it should be pointed out, once the girls are out of earshot.

“Oh please,” Lee snorts. “Like they were smiling at YOU!”

“You never know,” Neil laughs as the four of us set up our beach towels and coolers full of food and drinks.

“No, we can guess, though,” Rob laughs, pointing at my upper arms.

“…What?” I protest.

“Ian, you’ve just volunteered to be wingman for the three of us today,” Lee laughs. “I call first dibs!”

“Why am I the ‘wingman’?” I moan. “…Suppose I want one of the girls for myself?” The odds of this are unlikely, admittedly, but I can’t help but wonder why I’m being automatically sidelined by my friends

“’Cause you already have a girlfriend,” Neil replies, making me roll my eyes. At least I’m not being ‘sidelined’ for the obvious reason…

“Ella is not, I repeat, NOT my girlfriend,” I say, sighing at my friends’ laughter. “We’re just friends.”

“With or without ‘benefits’?” Lee asks, laughing harder as a family-sized packet of crisps hits him square in the face.

“None of your fucking business,” I grunt.

“Well, either way, plenty of ‘benefits’ to be had today,” Neil laughs.

“Yeah, guys…” Rob grimaces. “Not sure we should be using the word ‘benefits’ when one of us has, you know, technically been-”

“It’s okay,” I shrug, even though Neil & Lee’s attitude is beginning to grate. Just because I no longer consider myself a woman, it doesn’t mean I automatically approve of objectifying them, especially not Ella. Even though the only thing Ella and I have in common is the ‘benefit’ the guys are talking about...

“Better to be an idiot staring at girls than be a girl being stared at by idiots, then?” Lee asks in his typically blunt manner.

“Infinitely better,” I laugh, taking a seat on the warm sand and covering my body with sunscreen. “I’ve already had more fun today than I did last year in Spain.”

“You’re probably being checked out as much,” Neil laughs. “Maybe even more, I know you’ve deleted most of the pictures of ‘Kayleigh-Ann’ and banned us from looking for them, but-“

“Nah, trust me, last year was worse,” I sigh.

“Because of who was doing the checking out or how much of it there was?” Lee asks, making me snort and roll my eyes.

“Both,” I sigh again. “That’s the worst thing about testosterone, your sex drive REALLY shifts up a few gears.”

“Well, fortunately,” Rob laughs, “you’ve got plenty of opportunities for a ‘test drive’ today!”

“Assuming you’ll still be allowed to go ‘Waltzing Matilda’ afterwards,” Lee laughs as he peels off his shirt and lays down a few feet away from me.

“Enough euphemisms, for god’s sake,” I moan, slipping on my sunglasses and trying to relax.

However, as much as my brain may want to chill out, the testosterone flowing through my veins is constantly drawing my attention toward the numerous bikini and swimsuit-clad beauties roaming the beach- and every time any of them even glance in my direction, my heart starts to beat faster. When they smile at me, it’s like my entire body begins to tremble. I try to engross myself in my kindle to distract me from my libido, but even the writing of Iain M Banks isn’t enough to keep me focussed when I see one girl in particular who’s wearing a cutaway pink swimsuit and a wide-brimmed sun hat, and whose smile actually makes me shiver with excitement as she walks past with her two friends.

The girl is petite, barely 5’ 2” tall, and has long hair the colour of fire that cascades over her shoulders. Her pale-skinned face and upper arms are covered with freckles, and her smile causes her cheeks to dimple and her deep blue eyes to sparkle. Even when you take into account the celebrities I’ve met, many of whom are professional models, this girl is still easily the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. And as guilty as the thought makes me, she’s more beautiful even than Ella…

“Guys,” Neil laughs, pointing at me and making me roll my eyes.

“Which one?” Lee asks. “The blonde, the brunette or the ginge?”

“…The ginge,” I confess, trying not to blush as the other guys playfully jeer me.

“What’s stopping you?” Rob asks. “She’s clearly into you, like every other girl on this beach…”

“Yeah, grow a little confidence!” Neil laughs, making me remember the lesson Ella taught me back in the Spring- that confidence is the most attractive quality a man can possess…

“Alright then,” I say, standing up. “Wingmen?”

“Seriously?” Lee asks, grinning as I nod. “Okay then! Dibs on the brunette!”

“I’ll take the blonde, then,” Neil says, standing up and following myself and Lee to the ice cream stand where the three girls are stood. “Rob, watch our stuff, okay?”

“Will do,” Rob laughs as the three of us take several deep breaths before stepping up to the counter where the girls have just ordered their frozen treats.

“We’ve got these,” I say with a confident grin, handing a five pound note to the vendor.

“Umm, excuse me?” The ginger girl snorts. “We CAN pay for our own ice cream, thank you very much.” Stay confident, Ian… I think to myself.

“Yeah, I’m sure you CAN,” I retort. “Doesn’t mean you SHOULD, right?” Much to my relief, the girl simply nods at the vendor, who accepts my money. She is so into me…

“Thanks,” the ginger girl says, trying not to blush.

“I- I’m Ian, by the way,” I say. “Ian Freeman. This is Neil and Lee.”

“Hi,” my two friends nervously wave at the other two girls, who smile and wave back.

“I’m Hannah,” the ginger girl says, and it might be my imagination, but it almost looks like she’s blushing herself…

“Cool,” I say with a nervous giggle as I lead Hannah away from the rest of the group. “So, like… Hannah Dexter? You know, from the Angels?”

“Can’t say I’m a fan,” Hannah says, screwing up her nose in an almost painfully cute way. “Always hated reality TV, phoneys…” Wow, this girl just gets better and better…

“So…” I ask. “What- what types of TV do you watch?” Please don’t ask me the same question, I think to myself. Don’t want to start off this conversation by admitting to being a Star Trek fan…

“…Doctor Who,” Hannah confesses, blushing hard underneath her wide-brimmed hat. “I know, I must sound like a total nerd…”

“Not at all,” I say, holding my hand up in a Vulcan salute that makes Hannah giggle excitedly.

“Oh wow,” Hannah giggles. “God, sorry…”

“What for?” I ask with a wide grin.

“For- ugh, I dunno,” Hannah laughs. “I thought that you were, you know, some kind of airhead for liking the Angels. Jodie and Emma- my friends over there- are obsessed with them, heh.”

“Yeah, I know a few people like that,” I giggle. One of whom hopefully won’t hate me for exploiting the ‘open’ aspect of our ‘open relationship’…

“I actually…” Hannah grimaces, “Actually… Went to a convention in costume last year.”

“Really?” I ask. “Who did you go as?”

“Amy Pond,” Hannah says. “I know, I’d need stilts to be as tall as Karen Gillan. But I have the hair, so, you know…”

“Obvious choice,” I say, making the ginger girl giggle. I take a deep breath before asking the ‘make or break’ question. “So, umm… Do- do you have a boyfriend?”

“…Nah,” Hannah says, shaking her head and blushing again. “No guy I know would be interested in a short, ginger nerd… The college I go to is full of leggy, 5’ 10” models, heh.” Like someone I know, I think to myself as I’m gripped by a pang of guilt. Still, if Ella wanted to be exclusive with me, she should’ve asked…

“Yeah, I’m not exactly Mr. Popularity at my college either, heh,” I say. “So, umm, what are you studying?”

“Digital art,” Hannah says. Not that different from my course, I think to myself. Could we be any more compatible?

“Graphic design,” I say.

“Really?” Hannah asks. “I’d have picked you more for a sporty subject, like athletics, or maybe basketball…” I giggle as a sly smile spreads across Hannah’s face. “I can’t believe for one second that you don’t have girls hanging off you everywhere you go, Trekkie or not!”

“I’m only 5’ 7”,” I shrug, before taking a deep breath. Might as well get it over and done with now, she couldn’t be flirting any harder, she’s obviously interested… “…And I kinda have- kinda have, you know, a ‘dark secret’…”

“Oh?” Hannah teases. “Now I’m intrigued… Let me guess, you’re not really Welsh?”

“No- well, kinda…” I grimace. “My father was English, but that’s not-“

“You…” Hannah interrupts. “You… Take a regular dance class?”

“Well- ugh. Used to, but no, that’s not it,” I sigh.

“Go on…” Hannah giggles. “I won’t judge, I promise!”

“Well- okay,” I giggle, reassured by the ginger girl’s warm smile. “I- I’m… I’m transgendered. I was born a girl, but I’m transitioning to male.” My stomach churns as Hannah’s smile immediately fades, to be replaced by a look of shock.

“Oh my god,” Hannah breathes, her shocked expression quickly making way for one of disgust. “Oh my god! You- that-“

“Hannah,” I sigh.

“Ew, just- just get away from me, you freak!” Hannah spits, attracting the attention of several nearby holidaygoers. “You- that- that’s disgusting! You’re really a girl!?”

“I WAS a girl,” I protest as I feel my blood pressure start to rise at the injustice of Hannah’s reaction. All the things we have in common, and this is the one deal-breaker…

“Same difference, freak!” Hannah spits. “Jodie! Emma! Get away from the freaks! We’re leaving!” I watch, my mouth agape, as Hannah takes her friends away from Lee and Neil- despite the fact that they were clearly getting along well- and marches away from the beach.

“What- what the hell was that!?” Neil asks.

“A small minded, bigoted BITCH!” I yell after the quickly-vanishing ginger girl. “That’s what that was!”

“Oh- mate…” Neil sighs.

“Why’d you even tell her?” Lee asks. “You were getting on so well…”

“…It’d be a hell of a thing to try to explain while we were getting into bed, wouldn’t it?” I retort, forcing the usually sarcastic boy to quietly concede the point. “’Be open and up front’, that’s what I’ve always been told. So fucking much for THAT!”

“Come on, mate,” Lee whispers, gently escorting me back toward our ‘spot’. “Plenty more fish, etc.”

“I hate fish,” I spit.

“Plenty more… burgers?” Neil suggests.

“Better a burger than a hot dog, right?” Lee asks, and despite myself, I’m forced to chuckle at his double entendre.

“You can be actually funny when you want to be, then?” I ask, making Lee snort with laughter.

“Stopped clocks are right twice a day,” Neil says, laughing as Lee gives him a playful shove.

“Struck out, then?” Rob asks as we crash back down on the towels next to him.

“Sensitive topic, mate,” Lee mutters, making me sigh as he slyly points in my direction.

“What? No, really?” Rob asks. “Oh, mate, I am so-“

“Trust me, you’re the last people who should apologise,” I spit. “But you can find another wingman.”

“Mate,” Neil says softly. “Before they found out about- well, you know… They WERE interested. Not everyone’s going to be so small-brained.”

“Ella isn’t,” Rob reminds me. “And as someone who’s seen photos of her, trust me when I say that she could easily have any guy she-“

“Enough,” I growl, silencing my friends.

“Just trying to help, mate,” Rob mumbles.

“I know,” I sigh. “And I’m sorry if I’m bringing everyone down, it’s just- gah, I dunno.”

“Nah, you’ve got nothing to apologise about either,” Lee shrugs. “Those bitches aren’t worth the time or effort, mate.”

“Just lay back, enjoy the sun, and try to relax,” Rob advises, handing me a can of ice-cold Coke that successfully cools my boiling temper.

“And let me have that can when you’re done with it,” Lee says, laughing as everyone pelts him with their empty cans.

I stay laid on my back for the rest of the day, not moving despite the considerable amount of female attention I get. I’m sure that Neil is right, that many of the girls would be okay with me being transgendered, but after what happened with Hannah, the last thing I want to do right now is open myself up for the kind of abuse I received. And yet, I know that there are plenty of people in the world in my position who have it much worse than me, who don’t have the friends I do who are willing to ‘catch’ me after such a brutal rejection, and who certainly don’t have someone like Ella who’s willing to listen to their woes- and do a lot more than just ‘listen’, if I wanted…

I arrive home just after 5pm, and after saying hi to grandma, I head upstairs to put away my things, change into slightly warmer clothes… And spend a good five minutes with my giraffe’s leg clamped between my teeth. Fortunately, grandma sympathises with me fully when I explain what happened over dinner.

“What a disgraceful young woman!” The elderly woman spits after I finish my recap of the day. “It sounds to me like you’re much better off having nothing to do with her at all!”

“Oh- definitely,” I reply. “It still hurts so much, though… Kinda- kinda like when grandma Walker, at Christmas, umm…”

“Another woman whose behaviour is a disgrace,” grandma growls as she remembers the moment when my father’s mother stated, in all sincerity, that she would rather I was dead than transgendered.

“Still, on the plus side, I’m probably never going to see Hannah again,” I shrug.

“Exactly,” grandma says with a proud smile. “And I know you’re strong enough to move past this, Ian. Now eat up! Want to keep that strength up, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” I laugh as I finish off my filling (and very tasty) cottage pie.

Despite my stress, my giraffe’s leg stays out of my mouth for the rest of the evening, and I head to bed early, hoping that a good night’s sleep will help ease my anxiety- especially as I’m woken early the next day by grandma, insisting that I get ready for church as quick as I can. Despite the warmth outside, I still dress in plain black trousers, a smart, long-sleeved shirt and a tie (and I of course shave what little facial have I've grown over the last week), before climbing onto the passenger seat of grandma’s car and heading to the small, ornate building where we spend every Sunday morning.

“You look very smart, Ian!” Grandma says with a proud grin as we take our seats on the hard wooden pews.

“Thanks,” I say, forcing a smile onto my face.

“I do hope you’ve put that awful girl out of your mind,” grandma says.

“…Mentioning her doesn’t help,” I retort, grimacing as grandma gives me a light whack on the shoulder with her hymn book.

“…I don’t suppose it does,” the elderly woman concedes. “Maybe… Maybe you should talk to your Australian friend about it? Maybe see if she’d like to come and stay for a couple of nights, perhaps?” I momentarily frown in confusion, before a smile spreads across my face- given grandma’s attitude toward Ella and I, specifically our ‘hobby’, she must be REALLY concerned to make an offer like that…

“I’ll message her when we get home,” I say with a smile as Reverend Stubbs arrives to begin the service.

45 minutes later, as we’re leaving the church, I shake Reverend Stubbs’s hand as always, but today, the young priest is seemingly able to sense that all isn’t as it should be with me right now.

“Hello Ian,” Reverend Stubbs says cautiously. “You enjoying your summer holiday so far?”

“Yeah,” I half-lie, grimacing as grandma gives me another whack with her hymn book. “…Mostly.”

“I think Ian could use a one to one chat,” grandma says, making my cheeks redden.

“…Come on,” Reverend Stubbs says, leading me to one of the pews where we take a seat. “What’s happened?”

“Ugh,” I spit. “It- it’s just a girl I was talking to yesterday. We were at the beach, we got chatting, she seemed REALLY into me…”

“I think I can figure out the rest,” Reverend Stubbs says softly.

“Kinda ruined my whole day,” I sigh. “Maybe ruined my whole holiday…”

“Only if you let it,” Reverend Stubbs says. “’Carpe Diem’ might not be a biblical quote but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good one. You can let this girl make you miserable, or you can choose to forgive and forget and move on. Obviously I’m going to advocate for ‘forgiveness’ but I can appreciate how it doesn’t happen automatically. And before you say anything, yes, I know how depression isn’t something you can beat in a snap by simply ‘getting over it’.”

“Let me guess: God doesn’t give us anything we can’t deal with?” I ask.

“…I’ll admit, the suicide rate in this country is kinda a convincing counter-argument to that phrase,” Reverend Stubbs mumbles. “But I prefer the phrase ‘God doesn’t give us anything we can deal with… Provided we have the right help’. You have friends and family, Ian. I consider myself to be in the first category. Sometimes, all you need to do is ask.”

“And… And if the person I’m ‘asking’ is someone with whom I have regular casual sex?” I ask, grimacing as the young priest starts to fidget.

“Unlike most people who wear one of these,” Reverend Stubbs says, pointing to his collar, “I like to think that God’s more interested in what you put in your heart, rather than where you put, well, you know. As long as you have love and friendship in your heart, that’s the important thing.”

“Even for those who call me a freak?” I ask.

“Okay, love, friendship and forgiveness,” Reverend Stubbs concedes. “I’m not saying that you should reach out to people like that. But don’t get so worked up that you end up hating the girl. That’s a vicious cycle that does no one any good.”

“…Thanks,” I mumble. “I won’t.”

“Good lad,” Reverend Stubbs says. “I’ll let you get off, got to get changed out of my dress, heh!”

“I’ve got to get to work,” I say with a chuckle. “Thanks for the talk.”

“That’s what friends are for,” Reverend Stubbs says as I get up and head to where grandma is stood with a proud smile on her face.

“Did talking to the vicar help?” Grandma asks.

“Yes,” I concede with a light chuckle. “Can you drop me off at work on the way home, please?”

“Of course,” grandma chuckles as we get back into her car.

A short while later- after changing from my smart shirt and tie into the branded polo shirt of the shop where I work- I let out a sigh of relief as I take my place behind my regular till, staring at the relative emptiness of the store.

“Sometimes I wonder why we even bother opening in summer,” Dean- my supervisor- laughs.

“…Cause the kids are off school?” I ask.

“Exactly,” Dean snorts. “They’re more likely to come in during the week rather than the weekend. Still, we get paid to stand here regardless, so we can’t really complain. How’d your trip to the beach go yesterday?”

“Ugh, somewhere between ‘crap’ and ‘evil’,” I spit.

“Oh, mate,” Dean sighs. “What happened?”

“Got chatting to a girl,” I sigh. “Thought I was in with a chance, figured I’d better tell her about- well, you know- sooner rather than later… Turns out it was better to tell her sooner rather than later, that way I don’t end up wasting time on a total bigot.”

“God,” Dean spits. “Some people…”

“The one thing is that it is ‘some’ people and not ‘most’ people. Ooh, speaking of…” I’m forced to grin as the front door of the shop suddenly opens to reveal Rob and his brother, both of whom suppress giggles as they see me standing behind the till.

“Hi guys!” Dean- who is well acquainted with the brothers- yells. “What you after today?”

“Hey Dean,” Rob replies. “Got the new Spiderman Funkos in?”

“Not yet,” Dean sighs. “Reckon we’ll get them in the delivery tomorrow though.”

“Eh, fair enough,” Rob sighs, before turning to me with an awkward look on his face. “How- how you doing after yesterday, Ian?”

“Been better,” I shrug. “Just want to put it behind… Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me…”

“What?” Dean and Rob both ask, following my gaze to the front door of the shop. There, large as life, is the ginger-haired form of the girl who so cruelly insulted me at the beach yesterday- though obviously her swimsuit has been replaced by a short black skirt and a t-shirt bearing the face of a Cyberman. It’s clear that she immediately recognises me, too- though the look in her eyes isn’t one of anger, or scorn, but one of extreme discomfort, and maybe even a little shame…

“Her?” Dean whispers to me, sighing as I nod. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” I say, trying not to bite my lip as Hannah picks a few packets of Pokemon cards off a shelf before approaching my till.

“Hi,” Hannah mumbles.

“Hi,” I whisper as we both desperately try to avoid eye contact. “Did- did you find everything you’re looking for?”

“Yeah,” Hannah mumbles. Any time you want to apologise… I think to myself.

“Would you like a bag?” I ask in a hoarse voice, barely louder than a whisper.

“No,” Hannah mutters, her cheeks quickly turning bright red.

“Thanks,” I mumble as Hannah quickly grabs her purchases and all but bolts out of the store. Once she’s out of sight, I let out a long sigh and slump forward onto the counter, trying to stop my whole body from shivering with nerves.

“Goddd…” I moan.

“Mate, go in the back, take a breather,” Dean says softly.

“I’m fine,” I insist.

“You’re not,” Dean says bluntly, before letting out a long sigh of his own. “She- she comes in quite a bit. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed her before…”

“Easier to notice someone where they’re wearing a skin-tight swimsuit,” Rob says, earning a glare from me that soon turns into a sigh and a nod.

“God knows I know THAT’s true,” I sigh. “From both sides, heh.”

“She’s usually so sweet,” Dean muses. “Hard to believe she can be so bigoted.”

“Believe it,” I snort. “…Think I will take that break, actually…”

“Take your time, mate,” Dean says. “We’re quiet enough, can manage without you for a bit.”

“Thanks,” I whisper, saying goodbye to Rob and his brother before heading to the back room, where I let out a long, frustrated moan. If only I had my giraffe here… Doubt it’d get away with biting off the leg of one of the Minecraft soft toys in the back room. At least Hannah didn’t come in here and immediately confront me- then again, she WAS outnumbered, and I know Dean well enough to know that he wouldn’t hesitate to ban someone from the store for the way she behaved yesterday. That still didn’t make it any less stressful to be staring her in the face less than 24 hours later, though…

After ten minutes, I’ve just about calmed myself back down, but even though I know Hannah is unlikely to return- possibly ever- I’m still reluctant to head back out onto the shop floor. We’re allowed to take up to half an hour for our lunch breaks on a Saturday, and even though it’s early, it’s also still very quiet, so I stick my head around the door to let Dean know I’ll be taking my lunch now- a decision he obviously doesn’t have a problem with. Rather than reach into my jacket pocket for my lunch, though, I instead grab my phone, and open up the messaging app. I immediately grin when I see which name is on top of the ‘online’ list, before composing a message to said person.

‘Hey Ella!’ I type with a smiling emoji.

‘Hi Ian!’ Ella types, followed by several grinning and one ‘kissing’ emoji. ‘How was the beach day? That was yesterday, right?’ Way to go straight for an open wound, I think to myself, before chastising myself as I realise that Ella doesn’t have any way of knowing about Hannah.

‘Three letters: KMN,’ I reply with a sad emoji.

‘Oh no!’ Ella replies, followed by a string of emojis including several hugging ones. ‘What happened?’ Yeah… I think to myself. This could take some explaining…

‘You know how we’re kinda in a ‘friends with benefits’ relationship, right?’ I ask after typing and deleting almost a dozen similarly-worded sentences.

‘Yes…’ Ella replies.

‘So if either of us meet someone we like, we don’t feel that we need to, you know, stay with each other?’ I ask.

‘Did you meet someone yesterday, Ian?’ Ella asks. ‘Because it’s okay if you did, like you said, we’re not obliged to stay together. If anything it’s my ego that’s most hurt as I thought I’d find someone else first lol.’

‘Have you been looking?’ I hastily type, momentarily forgetting all about Hannah.

‘Not seriously,’ Ella replies. ‘I’m happy not being in a committed relationship for now, and you are surprisingly good in bed!’ I roll my eyes at the winking emoji that follows Ella’s message.

‘Surprisingly?’ I retort.

‘Well- you know, right?’ Ella types.

‘For a guy without a dick?’ I ask, laughing at the blushing emoji I get in response.

‘Just means you REALLY know your way around down there!’ Ella types with a winking emoji, which I reply to with a grinning one. ‘Still feeling like KMN?’ Actually… No I’m not, I think to myself.

‘Not as much as I was ten minutes ago,’ I confess.

‘I spread happiness wherever I go,’ Ella replies. ‘So what did happen yesterday, then?’

‘So much for spreading happiness,’ I reply with a ‘sticking out tongue emoji’

‘So sue me for being curious,’ Ella retorts. ‘Just want to scope out my competition, that’s all. And if it upsets you, I’ll just have to cheer you up again!’

‘Lol,’ I reply. ‘And hardly ‘competition’. We were at the beach, I saw this girl, we got chatting, turns out we had a lot in common.’

‘By which you mean you’re both nerds?’ Ella asks with a ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji.

‘Exactly,’ I reply with the smuggest emoji I can find, that earns a ‘laughing’ emoji in response from Ella. ‘Turns out there’s one thing we don’t have in common, though- that girl was a massive, MASSIVE transphobe.’

‘Ew,’ Ella types with an angry emoji.

‘That’s what she said when I told her,’ I reply, which earns another hugging emoji from Ella. ‘Kinda ruined the rest of the day. And even better, she just came into the shop about twenty minutes ago.’

‘OMG!’ Ella types. ‘Like your life wasn’t stupidly unfair as it is!’

‘So yeah, really feeling sorry for myself right now,’ I type.

‘You’re entitled to under the circs,’ Ella types. ‘Even if you are a BOY! Which means you need to get over it soon!’

‘And how am I supposed to do that?’ I ask with another smug emoji.

‘Oh, you know how,’ Ella types with a smug emoji of her own. ‘And you know where, too!’

‘Lol,’ I reply with a grinning emoji. ‘You know, grandma actually said you could come and stay with us for a few days if you want. Even got the impression that she’d be okay with us sleeping together.’

‘Miracles do happen!’ Ella replies with a winking emoji. ‘Can’t really get away this coming week though, got work every day apart from tomorrow. Especially Tuesday night…’

‘What’s happening Tuesday night?’ I reply.

‘OMG you total BOY!’ Ella types with an ‘eye rolling’ emoji. ‘The what you call football but is actually soccer match? The one that’s been plugged on the Angels’ Facebook page for weeks?’

‘I don’t really follow that page,’ I reply with a ‘blushing’ emoji.

‘BOY,’ Ella retorts with a winking emoji. ‘You know Joshua benedict bought that soccer club a few months ago, right?’

‘No,’ I reply. ‘And don’t say BOY as it’s about football so I probably should know. And I don’t take ‘boy’ as an insult anyway, so there!’ Fortunately, my ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji gets a ‘laughing’ one in response.

‘He bought this club called Acton Rovers, who are in the National League, I think, and he’s hosting a celebrity match between the girls to promote the new season that’s coming up. It’ll be England vs the rest of the world.’

‘And you’ll be on team rest of the world, I take it?’ I ask.

‘Duh,’ Ella replies with a winking emoji and one in the shape of the Australian flag.’ You’d better be rooting for RotW too!’

‘Duh,’ I reply, followed by an emoji shaped like the Welsh flag.

‘Sooooooooo…’ Ella types. ‘Should I try to get you a ticket? I know your friend Stuart will be there, so will Reuben and the other guys. It’ll definitely take your mind off things.’

‘Yeah, go on then,’ I type, earning a ‘grinning’ emoji from Ella. ‘You said you’re not at work tomorrow?’

‘Nope!’ Ella types with a grinning emoji.’ Tomorrow and Tuesday I am all yours!’

‘I AM at work tomorrow,’ I type with a sad emoji, earning one from Ella in response. ‘I’m on until 5pm, but I can always get a late train to London.’

‘Only leaving enough time for the important stuff?’ Ella types with a winking emoji.

‘Blame my boss,’ I retort with a ‘sticking out tongue’ emoji. ‘Speaking of, my break’s almost over, got to get back to work now.’

‘Aww,’ Ella types with a sad emoji, followed by a ‘hugging’ one. ‘Will give you one of those for real tomorrow!’

‘Can’t wait!’ I type with a grinning emoji. ‘See you tomorrow!’

‘Bye Ian!’ Ella types as I put my phone back in my coat pocket and head back out to finish my shift- though the smile on my face doesn’t go unnoticed by my boss, or by my friends, who are still in the store.

“No prizes for guessing who put that smile back on his face,” Rob teases, making me roll my eyes as I head back behind my till.

“What are you still doing here?” I ask.

“Is that any way to talk to a customer?” Rob retorts, looking toward my supervisor, who just laughs as I roll my eyes again. “And we haven’t been here the whole time, we popped out for lunch and just wanted to make sure that you’re okay.”

“D’aww,” Dean teases, making me roll my eyes for what feels like the millionth time today.

“…I’m fine,” I say.

“Though you won’t be around the next few days?” Rob asks.

“…Maybe not on Tuesday or Wednesday,” I mumble, trying not to blush as my friends good-naturedly laugh at me.

“Good job you’re not scheduled in on either day,” Dean laughs. “But you are today, so stop yacking and get some prices on those games that were traded in this morning.”

“Yes sir,” I say with a sarcastic chuckle as I start scanning the games into the till.

Naturally, grandma was okay with my impromptu trip to London when I told her about it- just like all the previous times I’d headed down there- and for the first time in a while, I went to bed that night without even once feeling the urge to wrap my teeth about my giraffe’s leg.

Work the following day went as smoothly as I’ve ever known it to go. Naturally, Hannah doesn’t show up at any point during the day, meaning that I stay relaxed throughout the morning- even when Lee and his unwanted comments show up- and excited throughout the afternoon. By the time the shop shuts at 5:30pm, I’m practically bouncing up and down with excitement, which only grows when Dean drops me off at Cardiff Central station.

Just over two hours later, my train arrives at London Paddington station, and immediately as I step onto the platform, I grin when I see a familiar tall, blonde figure approach me, wrapping me in a tight hug and actually lifting me off my feet!

“Hi Ian!” Ella giggles as she puts me down. “I’m sorry, I know you told me not to do that anymore…”

“I’ll let you off this one time,” I giggle as I link fingers with the tall girl- who is, of course, also wearing wedge heels to boost her height to over six feet- and head out into the station car park, where we climb into her shiny new Renault Clio.

“Like the new wheels?” Ella asks.

“Very nice,” I say with a quiet chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” Ella asks.

“Oh- nothing,” I sigh. “It’s just that you’re not my only friend who’s just got a new car. This is a lot nicer than Rob’s, though…”

“Well, I’m guessing ‘Rob’ doesn’t have a very well-paid career modelling tights!” Ella giggles.

“That’s a given, and thank you for the mental image,” I reply, making Ella giggle even more.

“Ah, you’re welcome,” Ella laughs. “So… How you holding up? After the weekend, I mean, god knows I-“

“I’m okay,” I half-lie. “I can put it behind me, move on…”

“…But?” Ella probes, making me sigh heavily.

“…But I’m always going to be paranoid that literally everyone I meet will be the same way,” I moan. “That I’ll never find someone who accepts me for who I am. Who I REALLY am.”

“Who says you haven’t?” Ella asks in a soft voice that makes me grin widely. “I mean, okay, we’re not TECHNICALLY boyfriend and girlfriend, and we don’t have a hell of a lot in common, but- but I don’t see you as any other than a guy. A cute guy too, seeing how much your muscles have grown since last time I saw you!”

“Thanks,” I mumble, blushing despite my best efforts.

“And I’m speaking as someone who knew ‘Kayleigh-Ann’,” Ella says. “No offence, but I’d NEVER have slept with her!”

“Umm…” I say. “We ARE the same person, kinda.”

“Exactly,” Ella says with a smug grin. “’Kinda’. You have changed a lot this last year, and for the better.”

“Not everyone would agree,” I sigh.

“Well those people don’t deserve to have an opinion,” Ella says. “Do you know how many transgendered people will be playing in the match tomorrow? Not just present, but actually playing? Including substitutes, TEN. Out of thirty-two. And these women aren’t all white, aren’t all the same religion, aren’t all the same orientation, aren’t all the same nationality- obviously, hehe!”

“…Point?” I ask, making the Australian girl roll her eyes.

“The point,” Ella says firmly, “is that if you’re looking for somewhere to belong, somewhere where you won’t be judged no matter what, a ‘family’ who’ll love you unconditionally… You might have already walked away from it.”

“What ‘walked away’?” I retort. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Difference between a booty call and truly being part of a community,” Ella shrugs. “You could be a part of this community any time you wanted, you know?”

“…You know who you sound like, right?” I mumble, causing Ella to gasp and her eyes to go wide.

“Oh- jeez, sorry!” The Australian girl grimaces, moaning in embarrassment. “Sorry, sorry, sorry… Jeez, sometimes I forget about your mum, I’m so, so sorr-“

“Forget about it,” I said in a cold voice. “Really, PLEASE forget about it.”

“Will do,” Ella whispers, her cheeks turning red as we drive back to her home in silence.

Fortunately, once we arrive at the small house, the smile on Ella’s grandmother’s face (and the cups of tea she makes for us) eases helps to ease the tension.

“Thanks, grandma,” Ella says, taking her mug of tea as we sit down together on the sofa.

“Thanks,” I say with a shy smile.

“Thank you for coming down for the match tomorrow!” Ella’s grandmother chuckles. “Didn’t think I’d see you again until Ella’s birthday later in the month, you must be spending a fortune on train fares…”

“I have a railcard,” I shrug. “And I’m getting plenty of hours at the shop over the summer holiday.”

“I hope you’re getting the chance to relax, too!” Ella’s grandmother chuckles.

“…When I can,” I reply. “Hoping to relax a lot during this visit.” I try not to grimace as the tall blonde girl sat next to me giggles- she clearly has her own idea of what she finds ‘relaxing’.

“Well, I’m sure you will,” Ella’s grandmother says. “God knows it’s Ella who’ll be doing all the hard work tomorrow night.” This time, it’s my turn to giggle as Ella nearly chokes on her tea- her mind is still clearly on one thing only…

“Ah yes, the football match,” I say with a grin.

“You technically could root for both England and the rest of the world, couldn’t you?” Ella’s grandmother asks. “Technically, so could Ella.”

“I doubt my brothers would ever forgive me if I started rooting for England, heh,” Ella chuckles, coughing to try to get her voice back to normal.

“I doubt my friends would forgive me,” I laugh. “We went to see Wales vs England in February, in the Six Nations, and my friends- who are all 100% Welsh- were a bit unhappy at the comeback England made, and with me being half-English, they barely spoke to me for a week afterward...” I grimace as my tale causes an unexpected awkward silence to fill the room.

“Anyway,” Ella says, it’s getting pretty late, and we’ve both had a long day…

“Ah, yes,” Ella’s grandmother says with a knowing- if cautious- smile. “You two get your ‘rest’.”

“Thanks, grandma!” Ella giggles, finishing her tea before grabbing my hand and leading me up to her bedroom.

Naturally, once the door closes, our lips quickly join together and our hands strip each other of our clothing...

Less than half an hour later, the two of us lay next to each other under the cool sheets on Ella’s bed, our bodies slick with sweat both from the summer heat and our strenuous activity. As I feel a bead of sweat trickle between my legs, though, I grimace at the feel of it rolling over my most sensitive organ, an organ Ella expertly manipulated just now- but an organ that a boy just shouldn't have.

“What’s up, babe?” Ella asks, rolling over and looking me in the eye. “Normally that ‘loosens’ you up a LOT…”

“Ugh, it- I did enjoy it,” I say, trying not to sigh. “A LOT. Really. But... It just, you know, kinda hammers it home? That no matter what I say or do, my name might be ‘Ian’ but I’m just NOT a boy…”

“No,” Ella says firmly. “Ian- ugh. Just listen, okay. Your name IS Ian and you ARE a boy. I told you already, I’d never have done with ‘Kayleigh-Ann’ what we just did. I’m not a lesbian. I only ‘like’ boys. I ‘like’ you. Therefore, you’re a boy. Simple as.”

“A boy with boobs and a vagina,” I retort.

“Doesn’t mean I didn't orgasm a LOT just now,” Ella says. “It’s not about what you’ve got, it’s about what you do with it. And trust me, I know a few guys who you could teach a thing or two to!”

“Yeah,” I grimace. “I’d rather not think about ‘sex’ and ‘guys’ in the same sentence, if you don’t mind.”

“Fair enough,” Ella shrugs. “Do you know what that makes you?”

“What?” I ask.

“A heterosexual BOY,” Ella laughs, giving my muscular body a tight squeeze. “So roll over and go to sleep. Unless, of course, you’d prefer…” I twitch with pleasure as Ella's fingers once again stroke my pulsing, sensitive 'area' and take a deep breath to ready myself for what will inevitably come next...

The following morning, my eyelids slowly flutter open, only to be greeted by the sight of a long, twisted mass of platinum blonde hair. It’s a sight I was very used to in the past, of course, but it comes as a bit of a surprise now- until I remember exactly whose head the hair is attached to. I smile as I remember last night’s ‘half time talk’- Ella may be stereotypically blunt in the way she speaks, but she’s not wrong, and the fact that she’s still in bed next to me if proof of that. It doesn’t change the fact, though, that as I wrap my hands around Ella's soft breasts, I'm reminded of my own…

“Hands off…” Ella giggles as she slowly stirs.

“Really?” I ask.

“Even when you’ve got boobs of your own, you’re still obsessed with mine,” Ella laughs, making me grimace and immediately withdraw my hands.

“…Sorry,” I mumble as I roll over, turning my back to the Australian girl.

“Oh- jeez, no, I’M sorry,” Ella sighs, snuggling against my back. “Sometimes forget where ‘the line’s drawn…”

“It’s okay,” I mumble.

“Have you- have you, you know…” Ella hesitantly asks. “Thought about cutting them off? I mean, getting surgery?”

“Sometimes,” I say. “I mean, they really are the only thing ‘holding me back’… No one pays attention to a man without a bulge in his trousers, but a man with breasts…”

“You could always gain about 50 kilos, that’d disguise them,” Ella shrugs, making me look at her with a bemused look on her face. “Okay, it’d mean that we’d have to split up, but still…”

“I like my 32 inch waistline, thank you very much,” I retort. “And besides, cutting them off is the one thing there’s no going back from, it’s like, a step you can’t ‘un-take’.”

“Not without several kilos of silicone, anyway,” Ella says. “Have you spoken to Stuart about this? Someone who knows what you’re going through? Or Kelly’s boyfriend, Kurt I think his name is?”

“I don’t… Really speak to him that much,” I grimace. “Certainly not about, you know, ‘sensitive’ stuff…”

“Ugh, BOY,” Ella moans, rolling onto her back and letting out an exasperated moan.

“Take that as a compliment,” I say with a snort of laughter.

“This time, you shouldn’t,” Ella sighs. “You’re in a great position, you know? You’ve got a mentor who’s had all his surgeries, who can help you through all the tough decisions. God knows I’ve never had any desire to chop my own tits off so I’m not going to be any help there.”

“I know,” I sigh. "But does that really mean I can't wish I had more?"

"Of course it doesn't," Ella says softly. "It just means that you shouldn't push away the support that you DO have. Stuart will be at the match tonight, so you'll be able to chat with him there."

"Assuming he doesn't mock me for being a Gunners fan," I snort.

"Well if he does," Ella says with a smug grin, "you can mock him for supporting the England side tonight, when the rest of the world team is going to kick their arses all across London, hehe!"

"I'll hold you to that," I laugh as I climb out of bed and head to Ella's bathroom to get washed ahead of the day- an action that makes Ella roll her eyes when I return a mere five minutes later to get dressed.

"Wish there was a way girls could get ready in five minutes flat," Ella snorts as I wrap my bandage around my chest. "And I know you don't want to talk about it, but that does NOT look comfortable."

"It sucks," I sigh. "But all the alternatives suck more." Ella smiles sympathetically as I pull on my pants, socks, jeans and a comfortable t-shirt, before laying back down on the bed and watching as Ella heads to the bathroom, returning fifteen minutes later to fix her make-up before pulling on her own underwear and selecting an outfit for the day ahead.

"Am I boring you?" Ella teases as she throws four identical-looking short skirts on the bed and spends what feels like an age deciding which one to wear.

"Yes, but don't sweat it," I reply, laughing as one of the skirts hits me in the face. "What do you want to do today?"

"First, I've got to head to work," Ella sighs, finally settling on a short black pencil skirt and following up with a pair of black high-heeled shoes. "Hence the smart clothes, heh! I'm only getting new headshots done, though, shouldn't take more than 45 minutes so you can come along if you want?"

"Umm, sure," I shrug. "Where is it, a studio?"

"Yeah, the one in the Heavenly Talent offices," Ella replies, frowning with confusion as I visibly shudder. "...What's up?"

"Nothing," I reply, before letting out a long, pained sigh. "You know, if my mum saw me walk into that place, she'd probably jump for joy..."

"Is- is that necessarily a bad thing, though?" Ella asks. "I read that magazine article, you WERE really good in it. Why not take advantage of that fame? It's not going to last forever, you know."

"I'd rather it didn't last at all," I moan. "I like my life in Cardiff, I've got friends, family, no, you know, 'pressure'... I can just kick back, eat and drink what I want and spend the whole evening playing videogames rather than dressing up in some stupid costume and hang out with a bunch of airheads..."

"Getting kinda hard not to take this personally," Ella says, making me wince.

"Sorry," I mumble. "I didn't mean you personally, it's just- you know? Having to keep up appearances, put on a smile when inside I'm screaming in frustration... What was my entire childhood. I don't want to have to keep doing that."

"...I thought that was the reason you wrapped that bandage around your tits," Ella says, making me sigh yet again. "And didn't you say before that your mum would be just as happy with you being a male model?"

"That's not the point," I say. "I want to be my own person. I want- I want my mum to accept no matter what I choose to do in life. I spent a whole week earlier in the year laying out a design for a board game me and my friends made. Mum would be sick if she found out about that. If she's okay with that, then- and only then- I'll be okay going to a modelling agency."

"That- that's absolutely fair," Ella concedes with a quiet nod of her head. "Sometimes I kinda forget that not everyone wants to be rich and famous, heh."

"I'll settle for 'rich'," I say. "The guy who created Minecraft was a run of the mill programmer eight years ago, now he's a billionaire and hardly ever talks to anyone, just sits around all day playing videogames."

"Meh, whatever floats your boat," Ella shrugs. "Personally, I like people seeing my face, the more the better! Speaking of which, we need to get moving!"

I grin as I follow Ella down to her car, though my grin soon fades as we make our way through the busy streets of central London and soon find ourselves outside the modern-looking offices of Heavenly Talent. The presence of a bright pink London taxi in the parking spot next to ours does nothing to ease my tension as I follow Ella into the building.

"Wonder which one of them's here today," Ella muses, before giggling as she walks up to the reception desk. "Good morning, Ella!"

"Good morning, Ella!" The brown-haired receptionist says with a giggle of her own.

"That's not confusing at all," I say, earning yet more giggles from the two young women.

"Everything's ready for you in the studio," the receptionist says, earning a smile from Ella- my Ella. "I'll let them know you're here. Have fun!"

"Oh, I will!" My Ella says before leading me through to the studio, where I'm greeted by an unexpected face.

"Oh, hi Ian!" Jacinta- one of the transgendered women who was on the photoshoot with me- says with a wide grin. "Didn't realise I'd be doing TWO sets of headshots today..."

"Umm, hi..." I say nervously. "I'm, umm, I'm just here with Ella..."

"Oh really?" Jacinta asks, making me blush as she winks at the two of us.

"Ian's been having a bit of a bad week, that's all," Ella says, rolling her eyes at the brown-haired woman's teasing. "Actually, it's something the two of you could probably talk about, umm, you know?" I try not to blush as a look of realisation spreads across Jacinta's face- it's obvious that her life has had just as many 'trials' as my own.

"Of course," Jacinta whispers. "First things first, of course, I'm not getting paid to sit around gabbing! And I REALLY want to impress Joshua this summer, hopefully land me a job for after I graduate..."

"Make me look extra-gorgeous and I'll put in a good word for you!" Ella giggles as she gives her make-up one long, final check before sitting on the stool that's been prepared for her.

"If only it was THAT easy," Jacinta retorted, making the Australian girl giggle.

Thirty minutes later, during which Ella's face is photographed from virtually every angle imaginable and with every facial expression imaginable, Jacinta declares the photography session done. I approach the brown-haired girl as she connects her camera to her laptop, hoping to talk about what happened with Hannah at the beach, but before I'm able to say a single word, we're interrupted by a sudden, very loud voice coming from the side of the room.

"Ella Henry!" The voice booms, momentarily startling the three of us. "I hope Jacinta is making you look as beautiful as you truly are!"

"Doing my best, boss!" Jacinta giggles, making the dark-skinned middle-aged man roar with laughter.

"To make Ella look beautiful is the easiest job in the world, you are lucky I even pay you at all!" The man says in a playful voice, before his grin widens as he sees me standing to one side. "Ah, Ian Freeman! I wondered when I would see you inside my building! Jacinta, get your camera ready, you have more photographs to take!"

"Oh, I-" I stammer, my whole body tensing up. "I'm- I'm not here to be a model, I'm- I'm just here with Ella..."

"What have you to lose?" The man asks with a chuckle. "I am not offering you a contract! Just let Jacinta take your photograph!" As the tall man speaks, I can almost hear my mother's voice say the exact same words. The same words when she took me to my first ballet class, to my first gymnastics competition, to my first commercial audition... On every occasion, I'd been too afraid to say 'no'. Now, I'm too afraid to say anything...

"Joshua," Ella whispers, leading the tall, intimidating man away from me to speak privately as I start to shiver with fear.

"Ian," Jacinta whispers, "are- are you okay?" Before I can answer, Joshua returns to me with a look of contrition on his face.

"I apologise for putting you on the spot like that, Ian," Joshua says in a quiet voice. "Please take this in case you change your mind." I force a smile on my face as the tall man hands me his business card, before turning to face Ella, his wide grin fully restored. "As for you young lady, you had better be ready for tonight!"

"Go team everyone but England!" Ella cheers, making herself and Joshua laugh as Jacinta playfully boos them.

"I shall see you both tonight," Joshua says to Ella and Jacinta, before subtly smiling at me and leaving the studio.

"Ian..." Jacinta says with a look of real concern on her face. Are- are you alright? You looked like you were going to pass out..."

"I probably was, heh," I sigh, slumping heavily into a nearby chair.

"I've NEVER seen Joshua back down like that, ever," Jacinta says. "What- what did you say to him, Ella?"

"Erm..." Ella grimaces as she looks at me, clearly looking for my permission to speak.

"It's okay," I whisper hoarsely.

"Ian..." Ella says quietly. "Kinda... Kinda doesn't have a great relationship with his parents. They were, like, TOTAL stage moms. Pushed him completely into being a celebrity, like, a model, or an actor- actress- whatever. Really did a number on him, you know, mentally... Did- did I get it right?"

"Apart from one thing," I spit. "Only my mum is a 'stage mom'. My dad is basically a lump of flesh occupying space and not doing much else."

"Shit, that sounds AWFUL," Jacinta sighs. "I'm so sorry to hear that."

"That's why it makes me tense just being here," I sigh. "I know that if I took up Joshua's offer, I'd get my mum breathing down my neck yet again, even if I am just TALKING to him..."

"I promise my camera won't go anywhere near you," Jacinta says softly. "Though if you ever did want a career in front of the camera, Heavenly Talent really is the best agency in the country, especially for, you know, people like us..."

"Yeah, I'd heard that," I mumble. "I just- I just don't want to make mum think that she's 'won', you know?"

"I think I understand," Jacinta whispers. "Has she- has she been, you know... About your transition?"

"At first," I sigh. "Then I started hanging out with Ella, and going to your parties, and now all of a sudden it's like she's always had and loved having a son. I know I should probably be grateful, but still..."

"No, you've got every right to be pissed off about that," Jacinta says softly. "Didn't even know it was possible to be a 'fair weather parent'..."

"If she accepts me when I'm watching Star Trek and playing board games with my friends, THEN I'll talk to her. Not before."

"I don't mean anything by this," Jacinta says hesitantly, "but- but it just seems so weird that you being transgendered ISN'T the major sticking point of that relationship, you know?"

"Oh trust me, no offence taken," I say with a snort of laughter. "I've got enough rejection THERE from my family too... Not to mention from every other part of society, heh."

"I've heard that FtMs often have it as bad as MtFs," Jacinta says softly. "Sometimes find that hard to believe, you know, 'cause you guys pass better than us girls, but still..."

"But still, no one should have to go through shit like this just to be the person they truly are inside," Ella says, making myself and Jacinta smile.

"You- you know Stuart, don't you?" Jacinta asks. "Stuart Milton?"

"Yes..." I reply. "We message each other occasionally, why?"

"Seems like he's the best person to speak to about this sort of thing," Jacinta shrugs. "He'll be at the match tonight-"

"Yeah, I- I know, thanks," I interrupt, trying my best not to sound irritated with the young woman.

"...Okay then," Jacinta says with a grimace. "Guess I'll see you two there, then!"

"Yep!" Ella says with a forced grin as she leads me out of the studio, before letting out a long sigh.

"I wasn't trying to be rude to her, honestly," I mumble.

"I know," Ella sighs- though despite her words, she's still clearly irritated with me. "You know who that guy was, right?"

"Joshua Benedict, right?" I reply. "Manager of Heavenly Talent?"

"OWNER of Heavenly Talent," Ella says with a quiet chuckle. "You've basically just been given the business card of a guy with a net worth of about £50 million."

"He's THAT rich?" I ask, trying to wrap my head around how earning that much money is even possible in one lifetime.

"Why d'you think he can afford to buy a football club?" Ella giggles. "Come on, want to get some lunch, I need to be at the ground early this afternoon."

"To warm up?" I naively ask.

"To not miss any or the pre-match publicity!" Ella laughs. "The match is being streamed live on the internet, there'll be a lot of press there..."

"Silly me," I mumble as I follow Ella to lunch, where she naturally doesn't stop talking about the match and the potential boost it could be to her career.

After lunch- with Ella still enthusing about the match- we head out toward the west of London, and the football ground where the teams will be playing tonight. Naturally, the second we arrive, we're pestered by photographers and reporters, and despite hiding my face underneath my trusty Arsenal cap, I still feel my tension almost reach boiling point once we're inside the ground.

"Well, got to love you and leave you here," Ella giggles. "Only GIRLS allowed inside the changing rooms, hehe!"

"Yeah," I mumble. "Umm, where- where are, umm, you know..."

"The men?" Ella asks with a giggle. "Probably up in the stands somewhere, talking to the club's ACTUAL players before we all have our photos taken with them, probably. I'll see you after the game, okay?"

"Sure," I say, smiling as Ella disappears into the loud changing room and I walk through the cramped corridors toward the stands.

As the stadium is small- only having a capacity of 8000- it's not hard to spot the group of men walking around the stands with the kitted-out players. I try to remain quiet as I walk up to the back of them, which should be an easy task given that I'm 5' 7" and most of them are over six feet tall, but as I approach the back of the group, my presence is almost immediately noticed.

"Oh, hey Ian!" A tall man with a beard and a ponytail says with a wide grin. "Stu! Your 'Nikki's here!" I try not to blush at the unusual nickname I've apparently been given as my 'mentor' approaches me and shakes my hand.

"Hi Ian!" Stuart says, trying (and failing) not to sound awkward. "When'd you get here?"

"Just now," I say. "Came up with Ella." This time, the murmurs of approval this gets me from the other men does cause me to blush.

"I bet," Stuart laughs. "Hate the hat by the way."

"Oh, piss off, Stu," one of the other men- a tall, dark-skinned man- laughs.

"I will do if you ever win anything," Stuart retorts, before turning back to my now hatless face. "Thought you weren't coming down for the game?"

"Last minute change of plans," I shrug. "Kinda needed to get out of Cardiff for a while, there- there was kinda a, umm, incident..."

"This sounds like a sensitive thing," the man with the ponytail says to the rest of the group. "You two take a seat, you can catch us up if you want to chat."

"Sure," Stuart says, leading me to a seat and sitting me down. "So... Wassup?"

"It's not my you know what starting again, so you don't need to look so scared," I say, making my 'mentor' laugh. "Testosterone's definitely agreeing with me, heh."

"I can tell," Stuart laughs, pointing at my bulging biceps. "I never got mine that big. Then again, I was only lifting a guitar, rather than lifting weights, heh."

"That's not the only thing I'm, well, 'picking up'," I chuckle. "Or at least, trying to..."

"Girl trouble, then?" Stuart asks. "I thought you and Ella were getting serious?"

"Oh- no, no no," I reply. "Far from it, we're still, you know, casual, friends with benefits... So I'm looking at other girls, one in particular catches my eye. A really, really cute girl with ginger hair, freckles, pale skin, she's a lot shorter than me, which is an advantage over Ella..."

"Don't need to ask what happened next, do I?" Stuart grimaces, sighing as I shake my head and try to suppress both tears and a frustrated scream. "Mate, I wish I had decent advice for you. There'll always be shitheads out there. But not every girl in the world is a shithead. You might get lucky- so to speak- with the next girl you ask out. She may even be THE one. Unlikely, I know, but you can't let one setback turn you into a monk."

"I know that, I do," I sigh. "But I'm, you know, 'played one, lost one'."

"There are ways around that," Stuart says. "If you're that desperate, use a dating app or something. Hell, there are even dating apps for transgendered people. Even for geeky trans people. I'm surprised that wasn't more of a turn-off than being trans, if I'm being blunt."

"Actually the girl was a huge geek," I half-laugh, half-sigh. "Huge Doctor Who fan, even came into my game shop to buy Pokemon cards."

"Ah, I used to collect those," Stuart laughs. "Didn't know they still made those. Anyway, we're getting off-topic. Don't let one 'loss' get you down, no matter how much it hurts. You'll have better, and you'll have worse. And correct me if I'm wrong, but last night, you DID have sex with an 18 year old six foot tall underwear model, didn't you?"

"Well- yes," I sigh.

"And I'm guessing it was her you came to London to see and not me, right?" Stuart asks.

"Again, yes," I say, making the older transman snigger.

"Sounds to me then that you're doing okay," Stuart shrugs. "I reckon you and Ella could be REALLY good together if you got serious."

"Yeah, well, that's not going to happen," I sigh. "She lives here in London, I live in Cardiff..."

"You could always come to live here," Stuart shrugs. "For university if nothing else. I lived away from home for uni, loved just about every second of it. AND I met plenty of, you know, 'accepting' girls as well. And another major plus side is that you'll have a ready-made 'adopted family' that you can slot into seamlessly."

"...I dunno," I sigh. "It's not that easy, I mean, my mother, my grandmother... Ugh. Sometimes feels like I live two lives as it is, my Cardiff life and my London life... I've only just got over living two lives- one male, one female..."

"I understand," Stuart shrugs, standing up and leading me back to the main group. "You have to transition in your own way, that's perfectly understandable. I'll always be just a Facebook message away anytime you want to chat, mate. And I promise no one's going to try to induct you into the 'Order of the Halo' or anything, heh."

"Thanks," I whisper. "Still dunno if I'm going to, you know, get the 'Fellowship' tattoo when I'm eighteen... Kinda feel like I should, but- I dunno."

"Don't feel pressured to do anything you don't want to," Stuart says. "That's good advice for anyone trans or cisgendered."

"Yeah," I laugh as I gaze down at the various celebrities having their photographs taken on the pitch.

"On that note though, but I definitely owe you thanks for pointing me to Pandemic Legacy," Stuart says with a grin. "Just finished that last month. Had LOADS of fun, heh."

"Oh, was it you who pointed us to Pandemic?" The man with the ponytail asks, smiling as I nod. "Oh, mate, thanks for that, me and Krys loved every second!"

"You and- and Krys?" I ask. "Krystie Fullerton? The Angel?"

"My fiancée, soon to be the mother of my child, yes," the man with the ponytail laughs. "What, just 'cause she's a model, dancer and celebrity, it means she can't enjoy a board game?"

"Hannah Dexter played every round of it too," Stuart says. "She got REALLY into it."

"Wish my mum knew that, her head would probably explode," I say, earning laughs from the rest of the men as we head back to the lounge to wait for the start of the match, where I quickly find myself lost in thought.

Maybe London isn't such a bad option after all? Sure, my original 'clique' was intolerable. Georgie was a total airhead, Brooke was little better, Abbey-Gayle was ego and ambition personified and Ella... Sometimes I wonder whether Ella and I would be as 'compatible' as Stuart seems to think we would be. She certainly wouldn't play a board game, no matter how much celebrity endorsement it has. Whatever I feel for her, I'll always have to wear a 'mask' around her, and I've had enough 'masks' to last me a lifetime. I can really kick back and relax around the guys in Cardiff, and grandma will always support me, strict as she can be at times.

But no one in Cardiff can offer me the specialised support I can get here in London. And no girl in Cardiff will even touch me, let alone do what Ella and I regularly do, that's for certain. As testosterone changes my body more and more, I become more and more 'active' in bed, and I know Ella's more than satisfied with my 'performances'. I even have a 'big brother' in London... But I also have other family in London. Family I ran away from and didn't look back. Maybe my mother is sincere in wanting to get to know her son, though. Maybe it is me she's interested in, rather than my media profile. Maybe she will meet my 'conditions' and I'll get the best of both worlds after all. Like Stuart says, just because Hannah rejected me, it doesn't mean that every girl in the world is going to be as bigoted as her, and just because my mum was initially angry at my choice to transition, it doesn't mean she's so closed minded that she'll reject me forever- even despite the evidence of the last seventeen years of my life...

The actual football match, when it starts, proves to be a welcome distraction from my life, especially as 'rest of the world' ends up winning 2-0, giving me a chance to gloat over the other men, all but two of whom are purely English. Ella giving me a 'victory kiss' (and the promise of much more) before getting changed certainly puts a smile on my face, and for the first time in a very long time, I feel wholly relaxed as I head out into the car park with my mentor and my new friends... Only to freeze with tension when I look across the car park and see the one face I was not hoping to see today.

"Hello, Ian!" My 'mother' says, a wide grin on her face as she approaches me. Obviously one of the plastic celebrities she follows tweeted my picture, or something...

"What are you doing here?" I say, recoiling with fear.

"I'm here to see you, of course!" Mum lies. She's obviously only here to see me interact with the celebrities. "Have you been making friends today?"

"Come straight out and ask it, then," I say in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

"What do you mean?" Mum asks, her fake happiness quickly making way for her usual facial expression of barely-restrained contempt.

"The last time you saw me," I growl, "you tried to get a judge to force me to return to London and go back to living as a girl!" I try not to shudder as this revelation draws the interest of many in the car park- including my mentor.

"...Well I've seen the error of my ways," mum says, though her smug tone of voice betrays her obvious lie.

"You've seen me socialising with celebrities, more like," I spit. "When I go home- HOME- to Wales, I'm going to crash on the sofa, eat a microwaved burger and watch four back to back episodes of Star Trek on Netflix. Still want to see me?"

"Good question," Stuart says, standing next to me with his arms crossed as a look of pure fury flickers in my mother's eyes.

"...Yes," mum mumbles in a voice I can barely hear.

"Then I'm going to make a call to my friends and we're going to play Dungeons and Dragons," I say, trying not to smile smugly as mum shudders with anger. "And I won't come back to London for a while, at least two weeks. Still interested?"

"Yes," mum says, and I can't help but roll my eyes at her obvious lie.

"No, no you're not," I spit. "You're only here tonight because you think that I'm suddenly going to become an Angel, or a famous model, or an actress, that I'm going to come crawling back to you and let you live the rest of your life off my 'fame'. Well guess what? Earlier today, Joshua Benedict himself offered me an audition to become one of his models."

"That- that's great!" Mum beams, making me growl with frustration.

"And I turned him DOWN," I say proudly.

"You- you what!?" Mum snaps, her anger finally out in the open for all to see.

"I said 'thanks, but no thanks'," I say. "Everything you want for me, I. DON'T. WANT. Ever since I was born you've treated me less like your child and more like your pet project!"

"How dare you!" Mum growls, advancing on me with a look of pure fury on her face, only to stop when Stuart and several of his friends- male and female- stand beside me. "You're a fine one to talk! You're not really transgendered, you're only using it as an excuse, some childish attempt to hurt me! Well I know what's best for you, Kayleigh-Ann! Whether you're a boy or a girl, you will come home and do as you're told!"

"Now your true colours come out," I spit. "I'm going home. TO CARDIFF! Where I belong, far away from you!"

"How dare you speak to me like that, after all I did for you as a child!" Mum growls. "All the acting lessons, all the dance lessons, all the money wasted!"

"WOW," an unexpected voice interrupts, and I turn my head to see the unexpected sight of Charlotte Hartley- probably the most famous person here tonight- standing next to me, shaking her head. "Just- wow."

"...Well, that's easy for you to say, you're a millionaire," mum mumbles, clearly uncomfortable arguing with someone she views as her 'superior'.

"It's easy for me to say," Charlotte says, "because I'm a mother. And if my son grows up to be half as good a person as Ian, then I will consider myself to have been a success as a mother."

"But you can spend whatever you like on your son, money means nothing to you!" My mother pleads.

"Being a parent isn't about how much money you spend," Charlotte says. "It's about how much love you give your child. How much unconditional love."

"And it seems to me," Stuart interjects, "that your love for Ian is VERY conditional."

"She could have been so much," mum says, tears flowing from her eyes.

"HE could've been so much," Stuart says. "HIS name is Ian, and HE is a boy. No- HE is a MAN."

"Mmph," mum moans, holding her hand to her forehead in a way that makes me boil with rage. "See what you've done, Kayleigh-Ann?"

"I think you should go now," Charlotte says, her and Stuart each placing a supportive hand on my shoulders. Silently, mum returns to her car and drives away, and the second she goes, I bend double, almost hyperventilating with stress.

"Let it out, mate," Stuart whispers, leading me to his car and sitting me in the passenger seat.

"If you need to cry, then you cry," Charlotte whispers, and I don't need to be told twice.

"I- I want to go home," I sob.

"We'll get you back to Ella's, mate," Stuart says softly.

"No, I-" I say, before letting out a long, pained sigh. "I want to go back to Cardiff. Now."

"...Can't exactly drive you there," Stuart says with an awkward chuckle. "But do- do you want me to drop you at the station? Are trains even running this late?"

"Last one leaves at half eleven," the tall man with the ponytail says softly. "Plenty of time. I can run him there in my van, no problem."

"No, it's okay," Stuart sighs, getting in the driver's seat of his car. "Can you run Jamie home, please? I'm sure she'll understand."

"Sure, mate," the ponytailed man whispers as Ella comes running up to the car.

"Ian?" Ella asks. "What's going on? Why are you in Stuart's car?"

"I- I need to go home," I moan. "I- I'm not sure I'll be coming back anytime soon."

"But- but my birthday's in two weeks-" Ella protests.

"Goodbye, Ella," I sniffle as Stuart drives away from the football stadium and the stunned crowd.

"I know you don't want to hear anything right now, mate," Stuart says, "but don't be too hasty there. You really, truly can never have too many friends."

"But only if they genuinely like me for who I truly am," I retort. And god knows, I think to myself, Ella's a lot more like my mum than she is like Rob, Neil or Lee...

After picking up my suitcase from Ella's grandmother- who is of course concerned by my sudden departure- Stuart drives me to Paddington station, where I while away the rest of the night waiting for my train, wondering whether or not I could have done anything differently, or said anything differently to my mum.

It's almost 3am by the time I arrive home, but grandma is still awake (albeit in bed) when I walk through the front door, surprising me with a stern look on her face.

"G- grandma?" I ask.

"I had an interesting phone call earlier in the night," grandma says. "From your mother."

"...She told you what happened, then?" I ask.

"She told me her side of what happened," grandma sighs. "I don't doubt she exaggerated some parts."

"Probably exaggerated most of it," I spit, shrinking as grandma regards me with an angry scowl.

"Get some sleep, Ian," grandma says. "We'll talk in the morning. Assuming you've calmed down enough, of course."

"Yes, grandma," I mumble as I head through to my bedroom, change into my pyjamas and climb into bed, my stuffed giraffe's leg clamped firmly between my teeth as I cry myself to sleep.

Why is it, every time I think things are going well, I get set right back to square one?

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