Candy Crush


Candy Crush

by Maeryn Lamonte
Copyright © 2017

This one started as an entry to the Feb 2016 Crush Mini-Competition. The name came from the game (a former, temporary addiction) but the game has nothing to do with the story. As happens on occasions, the story kept growing, and I was only half way through when the competition deadline went whistling past. I persevered though.

I actually thought I hadn’t finished it, so it was a little surprise, when I dug it out earlier today, to find that it was complete, albeit that most of it seemed to have been written on my phone, which meant that parts were all but unreadable, thanks to the Autokorrect Nazis in my former piece of junk. For that, and many other reasons, I will never be tempted to buy a Widows phone again.

Anyway, I’ve spent an enjoyable day reacquainting myself with this little piece, and fixing (I hope) most if not all of the buggerups. I hope you all find it just as enjoyable. Please share your thoughts and feelings at the end. Remember, it takes twenty-six muscles to frown, four to smile, and only one to click on that comment button (then maybe one or two more to add some text). I really love hearing from you. Private messages are good if you want to stay anonymous.

-oOo-

Hi. My name is Colin, and I'm an addict. It's been, er..., 3... Yes about 3 seconds since my last hit.

There's a level of euphoria so intense, it's all but indistinguishable from terror. You’re suffused with a cold rush of adrenaline that numbs your brain, and you find it literally, and I do mean literally, all but impossible to breathe. I know, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but that's what it feels like.

So, what particular drug gives me that kind of high? Well, I imagine it's different for everyone, but for me currently – and for some time now - it's called Candy.

Yes, that's Candy with a big C, and no, this is no sugar rush. Candy is a girl, and she just walked into the room.

I tell you there's no high quite like the one love gives you.

"Hey," I manage to say. It's more of an exhalation than a spoken word, because that's all I can manage right now. You know, on account of barely being able to breathe, remember?

"Oh, hey Colin," she answers. The smile is friendly, but nothing more. I look for it every time, but as usual, there's no dilation of pupils, no hint of breathlessness in her voice

And this is when I start to come down from the high, when I have to, as they say, pay the piper.

Mere seconds from the moment I first see her to the moment I have to acknowledge to myself that what I hope to find in those deep dark eyes is still not there.

You see, it's all based on hope. Hope that something of what I'm feeling will one day be reflected back my way.

Hope springs eternal, they say. I have no idea where that comes from, but it describes me perfectly. I have no reason to hope, because every time I've crossed paths with Candy she's responded the same way, but every time I encounter her, that wellspring of hope gushes forth, and I find myself filling up with liquid joy, and looking for, hoping for... well, you know…

There is something there this time, but definitely not what I want to find. This time I think I can see a hint of pity in her eyes. Shit! Pity! That’s the last thing I want to see.

Crash and burn.

And just when you think things can't get any worse...

"Hey, babe." Craig appears from somewhere, leans in and plants a kiss on Candy's lips. "We still on for tonight? Oh, hey, Colin." The throwaway comment at the end pretty much comes out sounding like a vague afterthought, but I’ve known Craig for long enough now to know that it’s deliberate; a sort of warning. ‘I’ve got my eye on you, so watch it,’ sort of thing.

Craig and I used to be close, in fact we were best mates once. Then the day came when I told him how I felt about Candy.

"Well, make your move soon mate," he replied. "'Cos if you don't, I'm gonna."

And he did. Less than a week later.

I'd spent the best part of the week building up my courage, then the day came when I decided to make my move. I took my lunch to Candy's table and sat next to her, and while I was working my way past my usual paralysing terror, Craig walked over.

"Hey Candy," he said over my head. "That new Charlie Brown film is on at the Odeon. Do you fancy going this weekend?"

She’d looked at me, but I’d been too much in shock to respond. She waited a couple of seconds, then turned back to him.

"Okay," she’d answered, and that was that. That was last week. Since the weekend they've been pretty much inseparable, and I've found I just can't be in the same room when the two of them are together.

I struggle when it’s just him.

I turn to leave.

"Colin?"

I pause, but only because it’s Candy speaking. I'd do anything for Candy.

"I was wondering... Would you mind coming round to my house after school? There's something I'd like to talk to you about."

Craig gives her a suspicious look, but she squeezes him reassuringly around the waist.

Like I say, I'll do anything for Candy. Even walk, open eyed, into the friend zone. Love ought to be about wanting what's best for the other person more than getting what you want, and if this was what Candy wanted from me... It wasn't as if she was likely to fall in love with me any time soon, in any case.

"Sure," I reply.

"About five-thirty?"

"I'll be there." I grab my rucksack, give Craig a none-too-friendly look, and head off to class.

-oOo-

The door opened before I could knock. Candy stood there looking nervous, furtive even.

"Hey, Colin. Come in. Do you want a drink? I think we have some Coke in the fridge."

Under normal circumstances a Coke would have been nice, but there wasn't a lot normal about these circumstances. I shook my head. I wanted to know what this was about.

"Would you come upstairs to my bedroom? It's okay, my parents are out with my sister. It's not as if anyone will know."

I swallowed and tried to lick the dryness away from my lips. Candy led me to the stairs, but she must have sensed my hesitation. She paused.

"Do you trust me?" she asked.

"What?" I replied, rather adroitly.

"Do you trust me, that that I would never do anything to hurt you?"

Well she'd agreed to go out with Craig. That had hurt enough.

"I'm sorry things are weird between you and Craig. I know you used to be friends, and I hate that I'm the reason you're not anymore."

Can women read minds? After a moment's thought, I decided not. It wasn't my friendship with Craig I regretted losing most, and she'd have known that if she could see inside my head.

"Look," she continued. "just come upstairs okay? I promise you don't have anything to be afraid of."

So why was she so nervous?

Still, she'd asked me to come upstairs, and like I said, I couldn't deny her anything.

Her room was tastefully decorated. Yellow walls rather than the pinks and purples most girls her age seemed to prefer. Bed, desk, chest of drawers, wardrobe. A few framed pictures of bunnies and kittens, but no posters.

"So, what do your think?" She'd spotted me looking around.

"It feels like you," I said, sitting gingerly on the bed. She turned a puzzled expression my way. "It's very attractive, and just a little quirky. I don't know anyone at school who'd have pictures like that in their bedroom, but they suit the way you are. It's like they're there because you want them, rather than because all your friends have them. It's something I've always liked about you, you're your own person."

"Wow!" she exclaimed quietly. "You know, that's the most you've said to me in all the time I've known you."

Maybe that's what happens when you give up on hope. No more breathless anticipation, and your heart and mind belong to you again, albeit more than a little broken.

No need to say anything like that though.

"I think it's the first time you've asked my opinion on anything."

"Maybe." She turned and opened her wardrobe. "Maybe I should ask more often." She rummaged around in the dark recesses for a few seconds, then pulled out a couple of dresses. "Which do you prefer?"

Seriously? She'd asked me round to help her pick out an outfit for her date with my former best friend?

Still, here was an opportunity. The yellow dress struck me as a bit frumpy. If I could persuade her to go out with him looking like a school teacher, maybe Craig might lose interest.

"I like the blue one." I couldn't do that to her.

"Would you like to try it on?"

The question came right out of left field and hit me hard. I froze. Out of the corner of my eye I could see she couldn't look at me. At the floor, the walls, everywhere but at me. I could barely breath, so I waited.

The silence stretched out for a good chunk of forever before she spoke again.

"You never meet my twin brother, did you?"

It broke the spell. "I thought you said you had a sister."

"I do, but that's the point. She used to be my brother."

I waited again. This was getting too personal, too close to home.

"She - that is he back then - used to have this way about her. She was quiet and depressed a lot of the time. She couldn't talk to girls, especially the ones she really liked, and she didn't get on with boys for the most part. I think she had one close friend for a while, like you and Craig. There were other things as well, little things. I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but when I look at you, I'm reminded of the way she used to be."

My mouth was dry, and I had a lump in my throat the size of Everest. I felt like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck, and I could neither move nor speak.

"I wish you'd say something," she all but whispered, her voice wavering slightly.

"Tell..." I croaked, then paused, swallowed and started over. "Tell me more about your brother."

She gave me a long, searching look, but my face was a mask, as frozen as the rest of my body.

"We're not identical, I mean that goes without saying because we were born boy and girl, but we still had this connection. I don't know how to explain it, but it's always been like I could feel what he was feeling, you know?

"He wasn't annoying like my friends brothers were. I mean, yeah, he used to follow me around and stuff, which cramped my style, but I never felt he was trying to wind me up; he just wanted to be with me.

"Then on our seventh birthday party, it all came out. I had a lot of my friends over, and Josh’s one close friend couldn’t make it, so he was the only boy. My friends and I were all in party dresses, and my poor brother was stuck in shorts and a tee shirt. A few minutes after the party started he ran off. When we went looking for him, we found him lying on his bed, sobbing his eyes out.

"He wanted to know why he couldn't have a pretty dress like mine and the other girls, and he refused to come out and join the party."

"What happened?"

"Well, it was only a small party with about half a dozen of my friends, and they were all a good crowd, so I made them pinky swear never to tell anyone, and then I persuaded Mum to let Josh wear one of my dresses.

"I remember how he came alive. It was like he was a whole different person, happy, and playful and talkative. Honestly, you wouldn't have been able to pick him out from the rest of us girls.

"After that, things got weird for a while. My mum and dad spent a lot of time talking late into the night. I remember lying awake, listening to the low rumble of their voices. I could never hear what they were saying, and I probably wouldn't have understood much of it if I had, but I could tell they were worried.

"They took him to see our doctor, and he told them it was most probably a phase that Josh would grow out of in time. Mum and Dad put my brother back into his normal clothes, and he quickly became even more depressed and withdrawn than before.

"My parents stuck it out for a few years, but Josh didn't change. I remember, when I was eleven, overhearing them talking about how worried they were, that maybe he he might try and do something drastic.

"About a year ago, they took him to a different doctor, this time someone who had some experience in what Josh was going through. I wasn't there, so I don't know what he told them, but things started to change. Over the weekends and holidays, Josh would disappear, and Jenny take his place. Then a week or twoback, Josh disappeared completely."

"And you think I'm like that?"

"Not to the same degree maybe, but yeah. Are you going to tell me I'm wrong?"

I looked up to find her steady gaze staring defiantly back at me.

I shook my head, and the tension that had filled the room evaporated like morning mist.

"I wish I had your parents," I said, turning away.

I felt the springs in Candy's bed sink beside me, and a cool hand settled on my arm. She sat and waited.

"I was about six when I did something not so different with my folks. We were out at a family gathering or something, and I remember the way the girls stood around chatting and giggling, and I just felt that was where I belonged.

"Right then and there, I told my Mum and Dad I didn't want to be a boy anymore, and that I wanted to be one of the girls instead. Everyone laughed, especially the girls, and not in a kind way. My mum laughed as well, but more from embarrassment than anything. My dad went red with rage and dragged me out to the car, where he and Mum took turns going on at me about how I couldn't be a girl, and that I was never to embarrass them like that again.

"I didn't understand. When we got home, they sent me to my room without dinner, but that was fine by me because I wasn't hungry, and all I wanted was to be alone.

"After that I guess I just buried my feelings. I wasn't aware that they showed at all until you said just now. My parents' reaction scared me, so I never spoke about it again. I've tried to be what they want me to be, but most of the time, I just don't fit."

"So would you like to? Fit I mean."

"By putting on a dress? How’s that going to help me fit? It’d be like I was pretending to be something I’m not."

"Aren't you now?"

Tears sprang unexpectedly to my eyes. I hadn't cried since that day all those years ago, and now three short words had been enough to undermine walls it had taken me nearly a decade to build.

She pulled me into an embrace and I leant into her shoulder, allowing years of frustration and pain to pour out. Candy just held me and waited for the flood to subside.

"There's something Jenny said to me a few days ago," she murmured into my ear once I had calmed down. "You can't change the way you feel inside, any more than you can change the colour of your eyes, or the shape of your nose."

I sniffed. "There is such a thing as tinted contact lenses and plastic surgery, you know?"

"Sure, but the contact lenses only cover what's there, the same way you're trying to cover what's inside you. And as for plastic surgery, well the same applies. Maybe you can reshape the outside, but you're still the same inside. I don't know, maybe the nose thing isn't such a great analogy."

"It's not the same."

"How is it not? I mean, I can't fully appreciate what you're going through, because I've always been happy being the way I was born, but I know something of how Josh fought his issues. I know he tried so hard to be a boy, because the doctor said he should, because Mum and Dad asked him to, and I know how much easier things are for him now."

"And all that from parading about in a dress?"

"No. All that from accepting that she was a girl inside. All that from choosing to be who she was rather than who other people thought she should be.

"Putting on a dress doesn't mean anything unless you decide that you're the sort of person who should be wearing one."

"But..."

"But what, Colin? Can you see yourself living the rest of your life the way you are now? Or do you think that sooner or later you're going to want to do something about it? If that's the case, why no start now?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I was kind of hoping you could help me out with Jenny."

"In what way?" I had an inkling of where this was going, and I wasn’t sure I like it.

"Jenny's been having a whole new set off problems since she became my sister. I mean on the whole she's a lot happier seeing herself the way she always felt she should be. The difficulty now is that everyone else can too, and they're the ones who are struggling.

"She can't do much l about her body until she's legally an adult. Pretty much all she's allowed to do for now is take blockers to stop puberty from messing things up. Apart from that, underneath the clothes and makeup she's still got the body of a boy, and pretty much everyone knows it.

"No one outside of our family seems at all comfortable with a boy trying to be a girl, which is how they see her. The girls won’t spend time with her, and they definitely don't want her using their toilets and changing rooms, which I guess I can understand. Most of the boys treat her like a freak in a dress, even though they've been told not to, and certainly none of them wants to date her.

"For that matter, I'm not even sure she's decided whether she likes guys or girls."

"So, what is it you want me to do?"

"I was hoping you'd go out with her."

Something inside me recoiled.

Call me a hypocrite if you like, but you have to remember, I've spent most of my life trying to suppress exactly this thing inside me, plus, whatever my gender issues, I've never felt any attraction whatsoever to men.

Sure, you could argue that Jenny wasn't a man where it mattered, but then again, I could argue that she was, as far as my libido was concerned, and I couldn't do much about how that made me feel.

"It doesn't have to be a date," Candy said, doing the mind reading thing again. "I just want her to have a friend who understands what she's going through. I hoped you might be the right person to do that, but I guess I was wrong."

And there it was. Faced with the prospect of disappointing her, I found I couldn't. Like I may have already said, I'd do anything for Candy.

I stood and picked up the blue dress, held it in front of me and stepped over to the mirror. Something deep inside of me stirred, and very abruptly, I wasn't doing it for her any more.

"Is there somewhere I can change?" I asked.

Candy’s magic smile reappeared. She opened a drawer in her dresser and pulled out a couple of unopened packets of what looked like underwear. She handed them to me and made for the door.

"Call me when you're done," she said, her voice soft and gently smiling. "I'll be right outside."

Paranoia took over the moment the door closed. It's funny how your mood can be affected by the people around you. Candy's presence brought out the trusting side of me, but now I was alone, I thought of all the jerks at school who'd love to put one over on me. Craig was right at the top of the list.

He knew me well enough that maybe he had seen the same thing Candy had. Maybe she'd talked to him about me having this pronounced feminine side. It wouldn't be beyond him to set something like this up, possibly to show Candy that I wasn't boyfriend material and eliminate any competition I might offer.

I hunted around the room for hidden cameras, mobiles propped up with video running and the like. When I couldn't find anything suspicious, I chided myself for believing Candy might agree to something so underhand, I pulled the curtains closed, and set about undressing.

It had been so many years since I'd thought about doing anything remotely like this. Opportunities had presented themselves from time to time, but the memory of my parent's reaction all those years ago had haunted me and kept me from surrendering to temptation.

Until now.

One of the packets contained a lacy set off girl's underwear – a late developer’s bra with a little padding, and a pair of knickers. The bra, fortunately, was a front fastener, and once I'd untangled it and figured out how to put it on, it clipped into place quite easily. It felt strange having that tightness about my chest, but that was nothing to what happened when I slipped into the panties.

The sensation was overwhelming and unexpected, almost erotic. I would never have believed women's underwear could feel so soft, but more than that, when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I saw the me I'd always felt I should be. Maybe a little bulge down below where there shouldn't have been anything, but decidedly more female than male.

Until that moment I hadn't been aware of the burden I carried. A stress that had built over years, so slowly I'd barely been aware of it, slipped away utterly and instantaneously, and the release was almost orgasmic.

Even the lace trim made some difference. It didn't matter that it would be hidden under the dress, just knowing I was wearing something pretty next to my skin turned my insides to jelly, and I had to sit down.

The other packet contained a pair of sheer tights, which I gathered over my thumbs the way I'd seen my mum doing once or twice, and slid up my legs. How to describe that feeling. Soft and cool and constantly changing as the movement of my legs stretched the thin fabric in different places.

Last came the dress. It zipped up at the back, which made sense, because who wants to see the fastenings on your clothes, right? And the front's the bit most people look at. It took a bit of contortion to ease the zip all the way up and to close the fastening at the top, but the result was entirely worth it.

What small bulge I'd spotted between my legs disappeared in the folds of the skirts. The silken lining of the dress caressed my nylon clad legs in ways that lifted me to greater heights of delight. The weight of the garment hanging from my shoulders, and the space beneath the skirts left me with a feeling of gentle vulnerability that resonated with the female part of my soul.

Here was a new drug and a sensation that was so very nearly like the wonder I felt when Candy entered a room.

They're was a gentle knock and Candy came back in. I all but overdosed on my own endorphins.

"Sorry," she said. "You were taking so long I thought I should check on you. Wow, you look amazing."

She wasn't just saying that either; I did look amazing. I let her guide me to the chair in front of her dresser, and she started brushing my hair.

I've kept it as long as my parents will allow, which is just below shoulder length. From time to time someone will mistake me for a girl, which my dad keeps hoping will persuade me to have it cut, but each time it happens, I feel strangely warm inside. Now having Candy brush it out was one of the most intimate things I could imagine.

She clipped a couple of barrettes to my hair, which not only held it in place but added a little decoration, then she turned me to face her.

"Finishing touches," she whispered conspiratorially, and started to brush various sweet smelling powders onto my face. When she was done, she turned me back to the mirror, and I gasped.

I had never thought I'd look particularly feminine if I did something like this; it was one of the arguments I'd used to keep myself in line. I had certainly never suspected that I'd look beautiful.

She hunted out a few pieces of jewellery – a necklace and some bangles – then handed me a pair of kitten heels and a bag.

It felt like coming home. A memory of my grandad telling me what it was like returning to grandma at the end of the war bubbled to the surface. Not so much what he had said, but the look in his eyes as he relived it. An end to the hardship, and a returning to where things felt right.

"After that, I doubt I could have gone back to the fighting," he'd said. "The healing started the day I took your grandmother in my arms, and from that moment, nothing could have persuaded me to leave home again."

It would be presumptuous to say I knew how he felt, but I had a sense of it as I stood in front of the mirror. I'd been fighting my own internal war for years without fully realising the extent of my struggle, but now, as I took in the reflection of me wearing that dress, I knew there was no going back for me either.

Candy smiled at me. It was a smile to melt my heart, the most genuine she'd directed my way, and so nearly what I'd longed for since I'd first met her.

"You know, I'd be prepared to wear a dress every day for the rest of my life if it'd make you smile at me like that."

Now how come I could suddenly say things like that to her?

"Well," she said, brushing an errant hair behind one of my ears, "I'll admit you look seriously cute like that, but if you do wear a dress every day for the rest of your life, let it be because you want to, and not because it makes me smile.

"Do you trust me?" she asked, reprising her earlier question.

"I'm sitting in your bedroom wearing a dress," I replied. "How much trust do you want?"

"I want you to come with me downstairs." The sudden fright in my eyes must have been a picture. She bit back a smile and continued. "Look it's all very well hiding up here, but you're not going to feel fully female until you take this outside the bedroom. If its any consolation, were I to meet you for the first time right now, I'd believe you were a girl, no question."

It took some cajoling, but eventually she had her way. I'll say it again, I can't refuse Candy anything.

We made our way downstairs, and the sense of vulnerability the dress gave me magnified several times over.

It was terrifying.

It was delicious.

She grabbed us a Coke Zero each and we made our way through to the living room.

-oOo-

Small things. Like spotting the lipstick smear on the Coke can after I'd taken a sip. Like the ease with which we sat and chatted. Bring with her still filled my veins with ice cold adrenaline, but somehow now the dynamic had changed. I had nothing to prove, so there was no pressure to the talking. We chatted like BFFs for what seemed like hours.

There was the sound of a key turning in a lock.

"Oh shit!" Candy squeaked. "My parents are back."

There was nowhere to hide, no chance to run. I sat transfixed watching the door handle turn.

Candy's parents came into the house chatting happily, and struggling under the bulk of more bags than I'd ever seen two people carry. A young girl of about Candy's and my age followed quietly in their wake, her own arms overloaded with boxes of pizzas, and a stunned but contented look on her face. She was remarkably pretty, and looked quite a lot like her sister.

Candy grabbed my hand and dragged my limp form, unresisting, to its feet. I didn't have the strength to refuse, not that I would have, it being Candy and, well, you know...

She took a load of bags from her mum, and I followed her lead, helping her dad. We continued with unbroken stride towards the stairs.

"Hi sweetheart," Candy's mum said. "Who’s your friend?"

"Hey Mum. Looks like you had a successful expedition. Did you leave anything for anyone else?"

"Don't be cheeky, young lady," her dad said, "and answer your mother."

"This is..." Candy faltered. In all our chatting that afternoon we'd never referred to each other by name, so the issue of what to call me hadn't come up.

"Lauren," I said. It was a name I’d always liked, as much as I hated Colin in any case. "I'm kind of new in the area, and it turns out I share a lot of the same classes with Candy, so she invited me over. I hope it's okay for me to be here."

"Sure, why shouldn't it be?” Candy’s dad replied “We just had to go out shopping for some new clothes for our other daughter, Jenny, here. She's recently had a, er, change of lifestyle, so we've had to change her whole wardrobe to match. You know the way girls are?"

"Charles," Candy's mum said warningly. "You are somewhat outnumbered here you know?"

"Sorry Jane. Sorry Lauren, I didn't mean anything by it. Would you like to stay for dinner? We picked up some pizzas, as I'm sure you noticed, and we always seem to get too much."

"Thanks," I answered, "but my mum will have cooked, and she'd be upset if I called and said something now. I should get going sometime soon anyway. They'll be expecting me home about seven-thirty."

"Well, another time perhaps. It was nice to meet you, and thank you for helping with these bags."

"That's a lovely dress you're wearing," Candy's mum said, her eyes narrowing shrewdly. "It looks a lot like one of yours, Candy."

"It is," I said quickly. "Candy's, I mean. I'm not really into dresses, or at least I haven't been. Candy persuaded me to give it a go."

"Well, it looks quite lovely on you, dear. You should borrow it and show your parents. There aren't enough young girls making an effort to look pretty these days, and it definitely suits you."

"That's very kind of you, but I don't really know. My parents can be funny about things like that."

"No, you should," Candy said making gestures I didn't quite follow behind her parents' backs. "I'll get your stuff and walk you home."

"Er, I don't think so, young lady," Candy's dad said. "The pizzas are here now, and you at least are going to join us for the family meal. Lauren, would you mind if Candy brought your things to school tomorrow? Our food is getting cold."

"It'll only take me a second to grab Lauren's things Dad," Candy said.

"And that's a second colder our meal will be. I'm hungry, so come on all of you."

"My keys," I said making one last effort to dodge the oncoming train wreck.

"Aren't they in you're handbag? Didn't I see that downstairs?"

Which was how I found myself standing outside Candy's house wearing a dress, without my keys, without my wallet, even without my mobile.

-oOo-

I went through my options. I could wait for Candy's family to finish their meal, but that looked like it was going to take a while. I could call on a friend, but since losing Craig's friendship, I didn't really have anyone I could ask to help. If I tried Craig, he'd never let me live down this particular humiliation, so no dice there.

I could go back to Candy's house and come clean about who I was, but that might get Candy in trouble for having a boy home when everyone was out.

Which meant I could either wait until my parents went to bed themselves and incur their wrath for missing dinner, plus I'd have to figure a way of getting into my house without my keys, or I could face up to them.

The last one seemed to be my only viable option. It would open up old wounds, but maybe it was time to do just that anyway.

My house was ten minutes walk away from Candy's. Ten minutes I spent building my courage. I passed a few people, all of whom nodded and smiled, unsuspecting of who and what I really was. There was no doubt I could pass for a girl, but not with my own folks.

Eventually, I reached our front door. It had a Yale lock, so wouldn't open from the outside without a key. I took a deep breath and pressed the doorbell.

Mum answered the door.

"Yes?" she asked, looking at my curiously.

"Hello Mum," I said.

She looked at me puzzled for a moment, then her eyebrows shot up and she screamed and slammed the door in my face.

I swallowed. I could guess what was coming next.

The door opened again and my father looked me up and down, his face turning red then purple as his anger grew.

Silence stretched out, and I waited for the inevitable explosion.

"Can I come in, Dad?" I asked at last.

"Not like that you can't." His voice was measured, controlled, but wavering slightly as he fought for control.

"You could give me a chance to explain," I said.

"I don't think there's much to explain, is there? I mean how long have you been doing this behind our backs?"

"I haven't..."

"Don't lie to me." His voice rose, straining at the edge of control.

I had to leave before he made a scene and things became very public.

"I'm sorry," I said, and I was. Sorry that he couldn't be reasonable. Sorry that he wasn't prepared to talk. I couldn't say that though, otherwise I'd send him over the edge. I'd expected this to be bad, but not this bad.

I turned away and walked back the way I'd come. I could feel his eyes burning holes in my back, then the door slammed closed.

Well, I really did only have one option now. Whatever it meant for Candy, I had to come clean with her parents.

I made my way back towards their house.

-oOo-

This time I did get to knock. Candy's dad answered.

"Hello Lauren," he greeted me. "Is something wrong?"

"You could say that," I answered. "My parents weren't to pleased to see me in a dress. They wouldn't let me in, so I didn't really have anywhere to go. I'm sorry to disturb you."

"Nonsense, come in. Like I said, we've way more pizza than we need."

I'd held it together all the way to my home, through my mum and dad's reaction, and all the way back here. I was too used to holding my emotions in check, except it seemed the only thing I couldn't handle was kindness. I burst into tears.

Strong arms wrapped around me, and Candy’s father stood firm holding me until I regained control.

Eventually I ran out of tears and sniffed.

"I must look a fright," I said, vaguely aware of how crying affects makeup.

"Oh I don't know, I've always thought pandas were rather cute."

I laughed despite myself, and it felt strangely good, both to be so drained of emotion, and to laugh. "Look, come on in before the neighbours start talking."

I allowed myself to be led back into the house where I found three fresh pairs of concerned eyes looking at me.

"Candy, would you take your friend and help her clean up? Don't worry, this'll still be here when you get back."

She led me up to her room, sat me back in front of her dresser, then rummaged in a drawer for cotton buds and cleanser. It was as far as she could go before she sort of collapsed on the bed.

"I'm sorry Colin," she said, her own voice wavering. "This is all my fault. I persuaded you to put the dress on. I should have kept a better eye on the time, but I was having such a great time just talking to you. I should even have spoken up rather than let my dad push you out of the house like that. I wanted this to be something great for you, and now it's all messed up."

Now it was my turn to be supportive. I moved over to the bed and put my arm around her. Heartfelt dream realised for the male me, but all I cared about was comforting her.

She leaned into my shoulder and cried. I stroked her hair and tried to think of something to say.

"It's at least as much my fault as yours," I murmured. "Yes, you did suggest putting the dress on, but I did it because I wanted to. I didn't want the time we spent together downstairs to end either, and I could have asked when your parents were due home at any time. I didn't because I didn't want it to end either. As for saying something to your dad, if anyone's likely to be supportive of me like this, then it's your parents. I could have spoken up as easily as you."

She sniffed and rummaged in her sleeve for a tissue. "Not without getting me in trouble, you couldn't."

"Well, there is that I suppose. What's done is done though. I guess we should decide what to do now."

"We should sort out your face, and mine too, I imagine."

"Your eyes do look a bit puffy."

She laughed, but not with much heart. "You can be quite girly, you know?"

"I know. I've spent most of the last, I don't know how many years, trying to suppress it, but now you’ve given me a chance to let it out, and I think I like it."

She set to with the cleanser and cleared all the gunk of my face. When I looked in the mirror, I still saw girl-me looking back, just a little plainer.

"What do we do about the eyes? Mine are a little puffy as well."

"Usually just splashing a little cold water does the trick. Come, I'll show you."

And she did, and it worked. We were both just about back to a reasonable state, me sitting on the loo with the lid down, her leaning against the bath, when a call came from downstairs.

"Come on, I can't believe it's taking all this time."

"What should we say to your parents?" I asked.

"What do you want to say?"

"I want to tell them the truth, but I don't want to get you into trouble."

"Well that's what we'll do then, and if I get in trouble, that's my problem and not yours."

We headed downstairs to whatever awaited us.

-oOo-

"First things first," Mr Peters said. "Eat. You must be starving by now."

I wasn't actually. The kind of upset I got about this sort of thing seemed to mess up my metabolism something rotten. Still, I picked up a piece of pizza - the thinnest one I could find - and started nibbling.

"You girls," Mr Peters said. "It won't ruin your figure if you eat a bit more than that you know?"

"It's not that," I said. "I'm just too upset to be really hungry."

"Would you like to talk about it?" Mrs Peters asked.

"Yes, but its sort of complicated."

"I'll bet it is," Mr Peters said. "Would you mind if I phoned your parents to let them know you’re okay? You can sleep here tonight if you like. I'm sure Candy wouldn't mind sharing her room."

"That's kind of you, but erm," I looked at Candy who nodded. "Er, I think it would be more appropriate if I shared with Jenny. We're sort of the same you see?"

Mrs Peters nodded knowingly, while Mr Peters' eyebrows rose in comprehension. "Ah," he said. "The thot plickens. That's going to be a whole different conversation with your parents I suppose. What would you like me to say to them?"

"I'm not sure you'll have much of a chance to say anything, but if you tell them I'm okay and staying here, at least they'll know I'm safe, even if they don't care."

"Give your parents a little more credit than that please. I remember my own initial reaction to Jenny wasn't too positive.

"What's your name, if you don't mind me asking? I mean we'll call you Lauren if you prefer, but I should use your proper name when talking to your mum and dad."

"Colin, sir. Here, I'll dial my parents' number." I took the phone, dialed and handed it back.

"Good evening Mrs, er, I'm sorry I neglected to ask your son his last name. Thank you, Mrs Jenner. My name is Charles Peters, I'm the father of one of Colin's classmates. I'm phoning to let you know he's safe with us, and will be spending the night; I didn't want you to worry. No that's perfectly alright. I could give you our contact details if you like. Okay, if you're sure. Goodnight then."

He put the phone down and stared at it pensively for a few seconds.

"Well your mother sounds quite reasonable. Quiet, but otherwise caring. I did hear a few of your father's comments in the background though, and I understand the reason for your earlier comment. Perhaps you'd care to fill in a few more blanks for us, like what you were doing alone in my daughter's bedroom earlier today."

"That was me Daddy," Candy said. "I invited Colin over."

"Okay, can we get this straight? Are we calling you Colin or Lauren?"

"I'd prefer Lauren if you don't mind," I said. "I guess I was still Colin when she asked me though."

"You're not making a lot of sense," Mr Peters said. He turned to Candy "Why would you invite a boy round, especially while your mum and I were out, and why would you put him in a dress?"

"Daddy, I could tell he was like Josh was before..."

"Woah, back up a bit there. You invited him round because you thought he was like Josh? Like Jenny?"

"She was right though," I said. "She told me about you Jenny, I hope you don't mind. And I had a similar exchange with my parents when I was younger, only they didn't take it so well. I've buried the feelings since then, and when Candy offered me the chance to explore them... Well I wasn’t sure at first, but then I picked up the dress and it was like my whole perception changed. She suggested it, sure, but I only did it because it felt... right... better than the way I've felt for years.

"I don't know what you think happened, but most of the time we just sat around down here talking."

"Most of the time..."

"Well it started off with her suggesting I put on the dress, then me agreeing to it, then me getting changed – with Candy outside the room of course. Then she did my makeup. That all probably took half an hour. The rest of the time we were down here."

"Would you like to add something?" he asked Candy.

"I hoped he could be a friend to Jenny. I know she's been having a tough time at her new school this week, and since I was so sure Colin, or Lauren rather, was like her, I thought two people going through the same sort of thing could be good for each other." She kept her head down, and played with her nails, sensing her father's displeasure.

"So, you knew Jenny wasn't having an easy time making friends, and you decided to make one for her? Did you have any thoughts about Colin when you were doing it?"

"Of course I did," she said loudly and indignantly.

"Keep your voice down young lady," he interrupted warningly.

"Sorry Daddy, but of course I did. Colin's my friend. I could see he was struggling too, and I thought it would be good for both of them."

"In fairness sir, she's right," I said. "I didn't really realise it myself, but I have been fighting with this for some years. I know it's opened up a can of worms and made things awkward with my parents, but it's still a good thing."

Mr Peters pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head gently. Mrs P decided it was time to intervene.

"Would anyone like something to drink? A cup of tea perhaps, or a hot chocolate?"

"I'd like a hot chocolate please Mum," Jenny said. It was the first time I'd heard her speak. A little quiet, but definitely girly.

"A hot chocolate sounds good," I added. "Yes please."

Candy nodded as well.

"Three hot chocolates then. How about you, dear? I don't think we're going to achieve anything more tonight anyway. Don't make decisions when you're angry, eh?".

"I'm not angry," he said, but the strain in his voice called him a liar. "Maybe a little frustrated though. You're right of course, sweetheart. And a cup of tea sounds wonderful.

"Jenny, would you be alright with Lauren sleeping in your room tonight?"

She gave me a speculative look. I don't blame her; I'd probably have thought twice under the circumstances. After a second or two, she smiled at me shyly. It was enough of an answer.

"Right," Mr P said. "I'm going to put the folding bed up in Jenny's room. Candy, since Lauren seems to fit your clothes so well, perhaps you'd lend her something to sleep in. It's getting late so you can all wash and change for bed. Drinks in ten minutes?" He looked at his wife for confirmation. We all made a move on her nod.

Jenny took the bathroom first while Candy offered me a choice of nightwear. I settled on a pink onesie much to her apparent approval. Mrs P provided me with a towel and flannel, and I washed next. Candy was last down, and all of us done within the ten minutes.

More or less.

Mr and Mrs Peters withdrew to the kitchen, possibly to give us space, possibly so they could discuss me in private, and Candy, Jenny and I settled into chatting. Candy and I filled Jenny in on all the details of what had happened that afternoon, and she showed us some of the fruits of her shopping expedition.

Honestly, if you'd asked me that morning what were the chances of me willingly participating in a discussion about clothes with a couple of girls, I'd have laughed in your face, and yet here I was doing just that. What's more, I was enjoying it.

Half an hour or so later, Mr P shooed us up to bed, and we ran giggling upstairs and crowded into the bathroom. Jenny dug out a fresh toothbrush for me – a pink one of course – and we carried on our conversation around mouthfuls of toothbrush and foaming toothpaste.

When we were done, Candy gave her sister a hug and kiss goodnight, then she drew me into a long and heartfelt embrace.

"Thank you," she murmured. "For being so amazing today. Thank you for trusting me, and for... well for everything."

She gave me a peck on the cheek and retreated to her own room, leaving me to wander, stunned and stupefied, into Jenny's room, and my own bed for the night.

It took Jen three or four hissed attempts to get my attention.

"You fancy her, don't you? My sister, I mean."

Well, who else?

"Yeah." Well, no sense in hiding it. I doubt she'd have believed me if I'd said anything else.

"Is that why you did all this? You know put on the dress and stuff. Is it for her benefit?"

"Not entirely," I said after a moment's consideration. "I mean, yeah, the only reason I came in the first place was because she asked me, and when she suggested putting on the dress, I'd have done that for her too. But then I picked it up and everything changed. When I put it on, I did it more for myself than anyone else."

"What about me? Would you go out with me for her sake?"

I could see where this was leading, and I needed to be honest.

"I think if she asked me to meet with you, I'd have done it it because she asked, but I wouldn't pretend to be your friend for her sake. We'd either end up being friends or not, and that would be between us."

"So how do you feel about me now? I mean, you know, with all this..."

"I think I'd like to be friends. I don't know about anything more, er, intimate though."

"I know what you mean. I think I feel the same about you, which doesn't feel quite right. I mean, here I am asking people to treat me like a girl, and the first person I meet who’s the same, and I feel all kind of uneasy."

"So, we could try hanging out as friends then. Go to the mall, maybe grab a bite to eat, go see a film, stuff like that..."

"Would you be wearing a dress too? 'Cos it would be weird being just friends if you looked like a guy."

"I'd want to wear a dress too." It was amazing how definite I felt about that.

"What about your parents? What if we bumped into some of your school friends? I mean I'm all the way out of the closet, so I don't have so much to lose."

"Well, my parents are going to have to learn to deal with this, 'cos after today it's not going away, and I guess the same will have to be true of my friends, not that I have many. I think Candy's pretty much it right now. I did have one other, but things have been weird between us since he started dating your sister."

"That douche? Honestly, I don't know what she sees in him."

"I think mainly it was his capacity to speak coherently in her presence."

"Hey, I was there earlier, and you were doing okay."

"Yeah, I don't know why, but I've only been able to talk to her since I put on a dress. Weird, huh?"

"Not really. I was kind of the same."

The door opened a crack and Mr Peters' head looked through.

"Come on you two," he said. "It's a school day tomorrow, and we're going to have to start earlier than normal to sort Lauren out."

"Sorry Dad," Jenny said, and I added my own apology.

"So, do you fancy going to the mall tomorrow evening?" she whispered as soon as the door closed again.

"Yeah, sounds good. It will depend on whether my dad will ever let me out of the house again, though, and I'll have to borrow some clothes."

Silence settled over the room, and I closed my eyes.

"You really are serious about this, aren't you?"

"Mmmmmn." Morpheus was wrapping me in his gentle embrace.

"You know Candy won't be there?"

"Yeah, she has a date with the douche."

Jenny stifled a giggle.

"I'm not doing this for your sister, Jenny. I would have, quite happily, I'd have done it for you too, but right now I actually need to do it for me."

This time the silence lasted until sleep took over.

-oOo-

I woke early, the unfamiliar surroundings and the delicious feel and smell of Candy's nightwear invading my morning dreams and lifting me towards consciousness. A stream of light peaking through between badly drawn curtains did the rest.

I eased out of bed and tiptoed past a gently snoring Jenny, into the bathroom. A murmur of subdued conversation drifted up from the below, and once I'd completed my first business of the day, I went in search of its source.

"Morning Lauren," Mrs Peters' sing-song greeting guided me towards the kitchen. "Cup of tea?"

"Thanks, that'll be lovely."

"We were just talking about you," Mr Peters said smiling.

"I'm sorry, I'm causing you a lot of trouble."

"Nonsense. Just because you're in trouble, doesn't mean you're the cause of it."

"It's not Candy's fault," I said, a little abruptly.

"I never said it was," Mr Peters replied. "Although she could have handled her part in the whole thing a little better.

"No, none of us gets to choose the way we are inside. Neither you nor Jenny chose to be the way you are, and neither your father nor I had much choice in the way we reacted."

"But you're so much cooler about this than my dad."

"Believe me I wasn't. It's a hard thing to accept, that your son is really your daughter. I really wasn’t happy to start with, and because of it, I nearly pushed Josh to..."

"It's alright dear." Mrs P put a comforting arm round him. "The important thing is that we did accept it, and in time to make a difference."

Mr Peters smiled at his wife and patted her hand. "Maybe this is a way I can make up for it, eh? Lauren. Colin – sorry but I'm going to have to get used to calling you that if I'm going to be able to help – would you mind if I talked to your parents?"

"I'm not sure what you could tell them that would make any difference, sir. Their minds are pretty set on this."

"Then it can't do any harm to talk, can it? Listen, if you change into your own clothes after you've had some breakfast, I'll take you home and see if I can't arrange to meet with your folks. At the very least, I can bear witness that it wasn't your fault you ended up going home in a dress yesterday."

"Haven't you just been saying there isn't anything wrong with my being in a dress?"

"Yes, I have, and there isn't. But given the choice, you'd have changed back before going home yesterday, wouldn't you?"

"I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not anymore, sir."

"No, and you shouldn't have to. But take it from someone who's been through this, you’re better off taking small steps at first."

I looked into his eyes and couldn't find any reason not to trust him.

"Alright," I said.

"Good. Breakfast then."

I hadn't noticed, but while we'd been talking, a selection of cereal boxes, jams and spreads had appeared on the table. Mrs P topped them of with a rack of toast and the long-promised cup of tea.

"Could I have some sugar, please?" I asked.

"I dare say, but could I ask you to try it without first? I rather pride myself on my tea, and I think you'll find it quite palatable without anything added."

I dutifully took a sip and tried to be polite, but there must have been something in my expression, because Mr Peters fought to hide a smile, and Mrs Peters made a sort of hmph noise before fetching a sugar bowl.

I can't help it if I have a sweet tooth.

-oOo-

It's hard to describe the feeling of being back in my clothes. Something like taking a bath then having to put back on the grubby, sweaty, stinking clothes you've been wearing all day. You don't realise how unpleasant they are until you return to them feeling clean yourself. In the same way, I didn't realise how much I had resented living as a boy until I had to go back to it.

I sat sullenly in the passenger seat of Mr Peters' Skoda, and gave him directions to my parents' house. Having Candy and Jenny come into the kitchen doing their version of the dawn of the dead didn't do much to lift my mood. By then I was back in my freshly laundered clothes, and feeling the weight of the world sitting on my shoulders.

It was hardly worth going by car. What had been a ten minute walk in kitten heels took less than one minute by in the Skoda, but then Mr Peters planned to carry on to his place of work after having talked to my mum and dad.

He rang the door bell end we waited together. He didn't seem phased by my change of mood, but then I suppose he’d experienced similar with Jenny.

Dad opened the door. He'd probably expected me on my own, from the thunder in his face, and he had to reel in his anger when faced with Mr Peters' calm expression.

"You'll be the bloke who rang last night," Dad said with little grace or gratitude. "Thank you for bringing him home; we can take it from here."

"Actually, I was hoping I could have a word with you." It was a wonder how Mr Peters could keep so calm.

"I have to get to work."

"So do I, but this will only take a minute. Colin, I imagine you have books and things to get together for school?"

Well, that gave me an excuse to duck into the house, even if it meant I wouldn’t get to hear what Mr Peters planned to say. I ran up to my room and decided that the first thing I needed was a quick change, freshly washed clothes or no. I stuffed the books and things I needed for the day's lessons, and rejoined my parents for what I expected to be the Spanish Inquisition.

The last thing I expected, in fact, was not to be given the Spanish Inquisition.

Mr Peters was still there, and had, it seemed, just finished talking. The fire in Dad's eyes hadn't exactly gone out, but it was banked and under control now. Mum's expression seemed to be an odd combination of relief and distress.

My dad always says he'll never understand women; that it's impossible for men to do so. Is that just an excuse for not trying, or is it further proof of what I am underneath the boy-skin?

You see, just looking at Mum in that moment gave me such an insight into her life. Marriage is a partnership, and in any partnership, there's one who leads and one who supports. Maybe roles switch from time to time, but both my parents were old fashioned, and that had put my mum in the supporting role for most of her life. If the partnership is what's important to you, then you choose to be supportive, even when you know the other person's wrong, and Dad, old fashioned as he was, held quite a few outdated opinions very strongly.

Being outdated, Dad’s opinions were challenged on a relatively regular basis, and being obstinate, he would go postal over it every time. So many of my memories of my dad have been of him haranguing some poor passer-by who happened to say something he didn’t agree with. And every time, Mum had the choice either of siding with him, regardless of what she thought, or leaving him isolated and so putting strain on their marriage.

So, she suffered with him, all the while feeling nervous and embarrassed because she knew he was wrong.

Now they'd been faced with a situation that challenged my dad's beliefs to their core, but had the possibility of putting me in a better place. The relief I saw in her face was – and this was evident in the way she looked at me – because here was something new that might give me a chance of finding happiness for once. As a mother that was a high priority for her. The distress was because they'd both been put in a position where they had to confront something they didn't want to, Dad especially, and Mum had some idea of the trouble that was likely to cause.

This was a crossroads for them, and Dad was the only one who could choose the one good path. More than that, Mum couldn't help him this time.

Hey, I said I understood it, not that I could explain it well, or in a few words.

I approached Mum and put a hand on her shoulder. When she looked at me, we exchanged more through our eyes than I've just managed in half a dozen paragraphs. She put her arms around me and we hugged each other. Dad looked on, fuming gently.

"So," Mr Peters said, breaking the spell, "I'll drop in later this evening, about six if that's okay with both of you. Colin, your parents have agreed that you can come around to ours straight from school this evening, so you can keep your date with Jenny."

It wasn't a date, but I guess his choice of words made it more acceptable to my father.

"Yes sir, thank you."

"Now I need to go or I'll make us all late. I think Candy and Jenny were going to wait for you at the bus stop. Mr and Mrs Jenner, it was a pleasure meeting you."

I broke away from Mums arms and followed him out, partly before Mum and especially Dad could stop me, partly so I could ask...

"Mr Peters, what did you say to them?"

"We'll talk later Colin," he said glancing at the door. Mum and Dad were still possibly in earshot. "For now we both need to scoot."

He put actions to his words, and so did I, realising the bus was due any minute.

It was waiting at the bus stop when I ran round the corner. I put in a fresh turn of speed and made it before the surly git behind the wheel closed the door on me. Nice to have something work out at least.

"I'm sure I have it in here somewhere," Jenny's familiar tones said.

"Well Miss, if you can't find it, I'll have to ask you to step off the bus. I have a schedule to keep."

Jobsworth, I thought, scrambling through the doors. My own bus pass was in my wallet and ready to hand.

"Oh, hi Colin," Jenny greeted me. "I can't seem to find my... Oh hang on, here it is."

She pulled her pass out and showed it to the driver, who was not best pleased. I bit back a smile as I followed Jenny back into the bus. It seemed that sometimes good luck can be fabricated.

Jenny's school was closer than Candy's and mine. She'd come to the same one as us when she’d been Josh, but had switched when she changed lifestyles in order to minimise fallout.

"Bye Colin," she said, standing up from the seat we’d shared. "I'll see you later"

Craig leaned in from the seat behind where he was sitting with Candy.

"You don't know who that is, don't you dude?"

"Yeah, she's Candy's sister, and my friend."

"She's Candy's brother, and a freak. You'll be one to if you hang out with him."

So much for fallout. I glowered at him. Behind him Candy's expression wasn’t too favorable either. 'Go on shithead,' I thought, 'dig a grave for yourself.'

School was... school, except everything seemed more of a struggle. It's hard carrying on as normal – sorry that should be 'normal', complete with finger quotes – when you're aware how much better things can be. Well, at least I had the evening to look forward to. Candy sought me out at lunchtime, but Craig came running after her, so I kind of shrugged and went off to sit by myself.

The school day finally reached its end, and we headed for the bus stop. Again, Craig and Candy shared a seat. I found one by myself and everyone else seemed repelled by my mood, so the seat beside me remained clear until half way home.

"Anyone sitting here?" Jenny asked.

I smiled up at her, except my smile froze when I caught sight of her.

"What happened?" I asked moving her hair out the way so I could look at her bruised face more clearly.

"Oh, you know. Some if the lads in my school decided it was time they let me know what they thought."

"Bastards!"

"No, that's what I thought. They... had different words in mind."

She was close to tears, and obviously didn't want to break down in front of the whole bus. I scooched over to make room for her.

"You think you had a bad day. We had quiche for lunch."

She laughed and was back in control again.

"So where should we go this evening?" I asked. More or less the only thing I could think of to take both our minds off her bruises.

She looked around at the people obviously earwigging at this sudden piece of developing gossip.

"Are you sure you want to talk about this here?"

"Look, as far as I'm concerned, we're friends. If people can't deal with that, then that's their problem, not mine, not ours."

"I don't know, I thought we could just hang out, you know look at shops and stuff."

"If that's what you want to do. I was wondering about a film. I hear the Charlie Brown movie's worth going to."

"Yeah, sure. Sounds good." Her mood was brightening, despite everything, and by the time we arrived at our stop, we were chatting happily.

Of course, things changed as soon as we were through the door of the Peters' house.

"Jenny!" Mrs Peters exclaimed. "What happened?"

"Oh, just some idiots at school. Colin, please don't take this the wrong way, but I've had enough of guys for one day. Would you mind if Lauren joined us?"

So, I found myself in Candy's room for the second time in two days. This time she just opened the wardrobe and let me pick.

I'd heard girls talk about the LBD, and Candy had one. I took it off its hanger and held it in front of me.

"A bit sexy for an evening out with a friend, don't you think?" Candy asked, smiling. "Besides, I was planning on wearing it for my date with Craig tonight."

"A bit sexy for a night out with a douche don't you think? Honestly Candy, I don't know what you see in him."

"Well he was a friend to you when no one else was, so there has to be some good in him."

I raised an eyebrow as I passed her the dress. Something in the tone of her voice warned me not to say any more.

"Maybe you could suggest something more appropriate," I said. "I'm pretty new at this still."

She pulled out a dress that was all lace and flounces, with a pretty floral pattern in warm reds and yellows.

"I know she always liked this one, and I know Mum and Dad bought her something similar, but with different colours. You can do the BFFs thing and go out in complimentary outfits."

"Seriously? Girls do that?"

"Sure. Trust me, she'll love it."

"Well, I've trusted you this far."

She handed me my underwear from the previous evening.

"You'll probably say they didn't need it, but I washed them last night."

"Thanks. Should I change here, or...?"

"Here's fine. I'll be downstairs." With that she ducked out of the room.

-oOo-

I don't know how it is girls get away with such outlandish clothes. The dress was longer, fuller in the skirt, frillier, way more girly than the one from the previous day, and if I'd possessed even the smallest dribble of testosterone in my body, it would have been raging against the indignity of it all. Instead I found myself feeling all the more excited as I slipped out of my clothes and into Candy's.

I primped and posed in front of the mirror; I couldn't help it. The dress was so overwhelmingly feminine that most of the girls I knew wouldn't have touched it with the proverbial ten footer, even for a bet, but for me, having never experienced a little girl phase, it filled me with an inexpressible delight.

I skipped downstairs to find Jenny's mum gently covering the bruises on her face with concealer. Her eyebrows shot up when she saw me, and she gave me an 'are you sure' look. Light returned to Jenny's eyes, and she danced out of her chair.

"You look amazing," she said. "Give us a twirl?"

I spun on the spot, luxuriating in the movement of the skirt. Somewhere about halfway round there was a flash of light, and I interrupted my spin, coming face to face with Candy's camera.

"Priceless," she said. Then in response to the expression on my face. "Don't worry. This is for my private collection. Very private."

Well, it was a little late to start having trust issues. I turned back to Jenny to see what she'd thought, but she'd run upstairs.

"This is alright isn't it?" I asked Mrs P, the nearest thing I had to an impartial advisor.

"It’s, er..."

"What's wrong with it?"

"It's a bit... I'm not sure. Unconventional?"

"In what way?"

"Well, it's... What can I say? Most girls your age have a tendency to wear shorter, more body forming styles."

"Yes, but that's not really a style I could pull off that easily. I don't have the curves for one thing, and it would show up the er, the differences I want to hide."

"I know. We had the same thoughts with Jenny. It's just that this is sort of heading towards the opposite extreme. I mean it's okay for parties, but I'm not sure if I’d wear it for a Friday night out."

Jenny came thundering back down the stairs wearing her version of the danger dress. Hers was in greens and yellows, but otherwise similar enough to put the two of us together. I could see what Mrs P meant about it being party wear though.

"Ooh, photo op!" Candy squealed, and my misgivings were lost in a blur of poses and cameras flashes.

Jenny was too delighted with the opportunity of wearing her frilly, as she called it, and after the day she'd had, I didn't feel like I could disappoint her.

Mrs Peters finished off covering her blemishes, and Candy grabbed her own make up kit to give me a do over. She sorted me out with a bag and shoes as before, and this time I made a point of transferring my wallet, keys and mobile straight away.

We were ready by five thirty, which was a bit early, but since Craig was coming to pick Candy up at six, the plan was for Jenny and me to go before he turned up. Good as I looked, there was little chance of fooling him close up, which was why we also planned to take a slightly longer bus ride to the mall on the other side of town.

Candy found me a jacket as well, and with some fear, but a whole lot more excitement and anticipation, Jenny and I headed out to the bus stop.

Mrs Peters insisted on giving me her phone number, "Just in case things don't turn out as you'd like," she said, and let us go, trying to suppress the look of reservation on her face.

Our bus passes were only good during school times, not that I'd have wanted to use mine dressed as was. Jenny and I were well into chatting as we paid and settled into our seats, so we weren't paying much attention to who else was on board. I remember feeling vaguely uneasy, but put it down to the slight paranoia that accompanied being in public wearing a dress. I thought I caught a glimpse of familiar features when we reached the first mall, but that just made me glad we were going on to the second one.

When we got there, I completely lost all my misgivings. Wandering around with Jenny was so much fun. She'd only been doing this a week or two longer than me, but that still made her the expert by comparison. She'd decided that the only way to pull it off was to be fearless, and that she definitely was.

We wandered around the place for ages, trying on clothes in some of the stores - something I'd never have had the guts to do if she hadn't dragged me bodily into the changing rooms first time. We turned heads, but that was more because our clothing stood out rather than any hint of our being male. Jenny was brazen. Shed walk up to people and ask them to take our photo, she took hold of my hand and assured me there was nothing gay about it, that BFFs did it all the time, she was loud and expansive, and no one suspected that we were anything more than a couple of slightly eccentric girls letting our hair down at the end of the week.

It took me a while to overcome the nerves, but before long I was joining in with her, and I can safely say, without fear of contradiction, that I've never enjoyed myself more.

The film was due to start at seven thirty, so about seven we found ourselves an speed-eatery and settled down with a couple of chicken sandwich things and a couple of milk shakes - strawberry of course, because, I mean, pink.

"You know," Jenny said starting wistfully at her sandwich. "If there's one thing I am going to miss, it's the food. A bacon double cheese burger is so much better than this."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. Chicken tastes so bland by comparison."

"Still, no pain, no gain, and it’s not like the gains don’t outstrip the pains? Thank you for coming out with me; I really need this."

"Yeah, I'm really sorry about what happened to you "

"It's okay."

It wasn't, but I wasn't gong to make a thing about it.

"So what should we do while we're waiting for the film?"

"Well, there's the arcade. They have that dancing game I've always wanted to try, but you know, it wouldn't have been cool for Josh to give it a go, and it's better with two."

"Oh, I don't dance."

"Yes you do, you just don't know it yet. Seriously, you have no idea how much fun it can be in a dress."

So yet again, I allowed myself to be led, and yet again she was right. In twenty minutes we spent way too much money - because face it, I was seriously crap - and came away having had more than our money's worth.

"Hey, Candy, isn't that your brother over there?"

And just like that the evening turned into a disaster.

The voice was Craig's, and intentionally loud. I recognised the undertone in it; it said he was about to have fun at someone's expense. No expertise in rocketry required to guess whose.

"Hey, and who's that with him?"

Heads were beginning to turn, first in his direction, then, following his gaze, in ours.

I kept my back to him, grabbed my jacket and purse, tried to leave.

"Colin?"

More delight than feigned surprise.

I turned to confront him.

"Well, this is a new look."

Everyone around us was smiling, laughing. None of them knew Jenny or me, but apparently none of them wanted to pass up on the free entertainment either.

"You know, everyone at school is going to love this."

Jenny's face was a study. She'd faced this sort of arsehole every day of the two weeks since she'd changed, but now it was me encountering it for the first time, facing the death of any credibility I might ever have had. She was reliving her own experiences, but this time from within my skin. After her earlier treatment that day, it was proving too much.

I placed a hand on her back and made to guide her past my former friend. Candy caught up with us just then. I'm not sure what had delayed her, but she was breathless and outraged when she arrived. She turned to Craig long enough to plant a stinging slap also across his face – certainly hard enough to turn his cheek red – then she joined me in guiding Jenny through the still laughing crowd.

We missed the bus, and the next one wasn't going to arrive for half an hour.

"Should we call your mum?" I asked.

"Yeah, I think so."

I dug out my mobile and dialled.

"Mrs Peters. I'm sorry, it's Lauren. Could you come and pick us up at the South Mall?"

"What's happened? Is Jenny okay?"

"She's a bit upset. One of my friends from school was here and recognised me. I guess I'm out too now, for better or for worse. Jenny looks like she's thinking about the worse."

"Okay, I'll be there in ten minutes. I'm am sorry Lauren."

"Well, the way things were going, it was bound to happen sooner our later. Thank you though."

I hung up and turned towards Candy's appreciative gaze.

"Thanks," she said.

"No sense in involving you. I mean it wasn't your fault, was it? How come you ended up here?"

"I don't really know. Craig got a text which made his eyes light up while we were waiting for the bus, then he asked for tickets here instead of the other place. When I asked him why, he just told me to wait and see. I spotted you guys when we came in, I mean you weren't exactly keeping a low profile were you?" She smiled her approval. "I was trying to distract Craig and direct him away, but I guess I only succeeded in doing that to myself."

"Well, you'd better make yourself scarce before your mum gets here."

"Yeah. I'm really sorry about this you know? If I'd known it was going to go this way, I'd never have started it."

"And I'd have missed out on all the good that's come of it. Candy, I don't regret this. After yesterday with my folks and today with Jenny, I’ve been left with no illusions of how crap things can be, but but despite that, I know it'll be worth it. It has to get worse before it gets better, but it will get better, I’m sure of it."

"Will it?" Jenny spoke for the first time since Craig had turned up.

"What?"

"I keep waiting for it to get better too, but just seems to keep getting worse. And now its all happening to you too." She burst into tears.

I pulled her into my arms and gestured for Candy to go with my chin. Jenny was still crying when Mrs Peters pulled up.

-oOo-

Mr Peters' Skoda was sitting in the drive when we arrived. Jenny disentangled herself from me and ran into the house. Nothing quite matches a father's love for his daughter, apparently.

It struck me that I hadn't felt anything unusual or repellant about embracing Jenny. It seemed the further I wandered into this alien landscape, the more I took its peculiarities for granted. To me Jenny was just an ordinary girl, pretty much the same as I was. Well, okay, not quite ordinary, either of us, but still girls enough that the aversion I'd felt yesterday at the thought of dating her was entirely gone.

Mrs Peters and I followed her into the house, finding Jen sitting in her dad's Lap with her head buried in his shoulder.

"Good evening Lauren," Mr Peters greeted me. “You look lovely this evening. I take it things didn't work out quite as planned?"

"You could say that, yeah. We bumped into someone who knew me from school, and he decided to make an issue out of things. From what he said, I imagine the whole school will know by Monday."

"I'm sorry, that really is unfortunate."

"It was going to happen sooner or later anyway. After what happened to Jenny at school today, I think it was all too much."

"Yes, Jane already told me all about that. We have some decisions to make on that front, but they're for when Jenny's in a better state, I think.

"On a slightly brighter note, I did speak to your parents tonight. Your father's still not particularly convinced, but I would say your mother is on your side. They've agreed to meet with the same doctor who sorted Jenny out for us. I also spoke with the doctor this evening, and he's agreed to see you all on Monday morning, which at least gives you a short reprieve from what awaits you at school."

"Thank you, sir. That is good news."

I settled into a chair and sat quietly, unsure what to do. Mrs Peters brought me a cup of tea – with sugar – and I sipped at it gratefully. The sweetness revived me a little, and by the time I'd finished, Jenny had calmed down.

Her mum took her upstairs to get ready for bed, and I was left sitting awkwardly with a brooding Mr Peters.

I had just about decided to go home when Candy waked in through the door.

"Another early return?" Mr Peters asked. "What went wrong with your evening, sweetheart?"

"Craig's an arsehole," she answered. "Not particularly sympathetic to people like Jenny and Lauren, so I dumped him."

"You told him about Jenny and Lauren?"

"No. Someone recognised them on the bus and sent him a text."

It was a masterful piece of half truth telling, all true, and yet almost totally misleading. I'd have to to watch that side of her.

"Well, alright. You can probably guess what happened to Lauren and Jenny then. Perhaps you'd help Lauren change back into Colin. I think we have a few things to discuss as a family. I hope you don't mind, Lauren."

"No sir. I was thinking about going anyway."

Candy led me upstairs where she helped me change back into my lesser self. The weight of the world descended and Candy looked at me sympathetically.

"You told me he was a douche, didn't you?"

I shrugged.

"I'll call you tomorrow. Maybe we can hang."

It helped to brighten the gloom, quite a lot actually. I smiled. She gave me a quick pick on the cheek, and that pretty much turned the whole cloud into silvery lining.

-oOo-

"So you've done enough poncing about like a nancy for one evening, have you?"

Ever the source of the encouraging word, my dad. Either this was about Mr Peters' visit, or...

"One of your school friends saw you on the bus with that Peters freak. He's been texting it around the neighbourhood, so unsurprisingly some of the parents thought they ought to let us know. What the hell were you thinking?"

"I..."

"You fucking weren't, were you? You didn't give a moment's thought to how this would affect your mother and me. You... Come back here, boy, I'm not finished."

I'd started towards the stairs when his rant began to build steam. There was no talking to him when he was like this, and I didn't have the energy to try.

I paused. A question had occurred to me.

"Could I ask just how much thought you've given to me over the past few years Dad? I mean have you even noticed how much I've been struggling?"

"Everyone has a crap time when they're young. It's part of growing up."

"I haven't noticed that with most of the people I know at school. Certainly not to the same degree. Tell me Dad, if you don't give a shit about me, why should I give a shit about you?"

I turned and headed up the stairs before he could come up with an answer. Not that I expected him to. I slammed my bedroom door and collapsed on my bed.

A gentle knock preceded my mothers head poking timidly into my room.

"Please don't be too hard on him; he is trying."

"Very trying," I replied, because it was expected.

"Can you try and think how hard this is for him?" She came into my room and perched on the edge of my bed.

"Can you imagine how hard it's been for me?"

"That's what I've been trying to do all evening. I'm sorry sweetheart, I had no idea."

"And he doesn't want to have an idea."

"Colin..."

"He called Jenny a freak."

“Who?”

"Mr and Mrs Peters other daughter. The one who's like me. That makes me a freak in his eyes too."

"Give him time, love, it's very hard on him."

"And in the meantime? He's not going to be happy if I keep on 'poncing about like a nancy', is he?"

"Give it till Monday, when we see the doctor. You know we're going to see the doctor on Monday, don't you?"

"Yes, Mr Peters told me."

"You know you gave me quite a shock yesterday?"

"I'm sorry, Mum."

"No, that's not what I meant. When I got over it, I actually thought you looked quite pretty."

"You should have seen me this evening."

"Why?"

"Hang on."

I grabbed my phone and texted Candy. Before I had a chance to explain what I was doing or why, my phone beeped in reply. I opened the one of Jenny and me and handed the phone across.

"Oh my, I see what you mean. Don't show this to you father whatever you do."

"I wasn't planning to."

"Is this...?"

"The Peters freak? Yeah."

"She doesn't look like a boy. Mind you, neither do you." She sat looking at the picture pensively. Something in me told me to wait. It didn't take long.

"I can't remember the last time I saw you smile like this. Does this really make you happy?"

"I don't know about makes me happy, Mum. It's more that it sort of completes me. It's like a wrongness is taken away, so happiness becomes an option. Then it’s being with my friends that make me happy."

"You mean this girl?"

"Jenny? Yes. And her sister."

"I thought there was another one. Didn't you go round to see someone else yesterday?"

"Candy, yeah. I'm not sure where I stand with her. I thought I was in love with her before yesterday, but now this seems to matter so much more."

"Well... Let's not rush things, eh? We'll see what the doctor has too say on Monday, and we'll take it from there."

She stood and made to leave.

"Mum?"

She turned.

"What if on Monday the doctor says it's okay for me to, er, to change, and Dad still isn't okay with it?"

"Colin." I winced at the name, couldn't help it. "Colin," she repeated firmly, "there's no sense in worrying about problems that don't exist yet. If it does come to that, well he'll just have to figure it out on his own. You and me, we're okay, and if this is what you need, then I'm with you."

"You've always taken Dad's side before though."

She sighed. "My mother brought me up to believe that a woman's place is by her man's side, which means supporting him no matter what. I know he can be quite opinionated, but he is my husband, and your father. For that he deserves our respect.

"There are limits though, and if he persists in fighting this at the continued expense of your well-being, well, I suppose he's going to discover just how far I’m prepared to go. I understand, from what Mr Peters said, that we are at a critical point in your life at present."

"You mean with the blockers thing?"

"Yes. I've never been a great fan of drugs, but I don't know that we have an option here. Your father was late starting puberty, which is probably one of the reasons for his stubbornness. When you’re the only kid in class whose voice hasn't broken, I imagine it can be quite tough. He didn’t start changing until he was fifteen or sixteen, so I imagine you're getting close too.

"Look sweetheart, we'll see this doctor and hear what he has to say. If he puts you on the blocker thingies, then as I understand it, it's not an irreversible change, just one that gives us time to think. Then we work on this as a family, hopefully like the Peters'."

"They're a nice family, aren't they Mum?"

"Well, I've only met Mr Peters, but if Mrs Peters is only half so nice, then yes I imagine so. This other friend of yours, Candy isn't it? Are you sure she's not having fun with you at your expense?"

"I'm sure, Mum. She'd being really cool about this. She said she would text me tomorrow."

"Alright. Well if you end up going round theirs and exploring your feminine side again, could you at least stay out of the public eye, if only for your father's sake?"

"I promise."

She closed the door on the way out, and I lay quietly, thinking about things. My phone buzzed.

"You okay?" Candy's text asked.

"Yeah. How's Jenny?"

"She went to bed. Family conference tomorrow. Probably means what do we do about Jen. I'll call you after, see if you can come round."

"I'd like that. Need to keep a low profile though. Dad not too happy."

"No prob. We can hang about the house. Think Jen's had enough of the outside world anyways."

"See you tomorrow then."

"Yeah. Thanks for everything Lauren. OXO."

Hugs and kisses. Was that just a girl thing, or something more? Did I still want the something more if I was going to become a girl? This was confusing. I sent her a smiley face and put my phone away.

I had homework for the weekend, so I worked on that until bedtime. Better to get it out of the way just in case there was an option for being Lauren on Sunday.

-oOo-

Saturday morning dragged. I finished my homework assignments after breakfast, then wasted several minutes looking for something to watch on tv. It seems the more channels, the less they're was worth watching though, and after ten minutes I gave up.

The lawn needed mowing, so I figured I'd have a go at rebuilding bridges with Dad. He didn't say anything, but the storm clouds dissipated a little, so I figured it was time well spent.

Eventually lunchtime came, along with the awaited text.

"Come over when you can."

"Do you mind if I go over to the Peters'?" I asked.

Dad gave me a suspicious look, but Mum beat him to it with an answer.

"Sure, love. Have you got any homework?"

"All done." Another good reason to get it out of the way early.

"Okay dear. Have fun, and don't be back too late."

Dad looked like he wanted to say something, but I gave Mum a peck on the cheek and ran for the door. He can be alright, my dad, and he is most of the time. This wasn't most of the time though, and I didn't want to give him the choice.

At the Peters' house, Candy asked her parents, "Is it alright if Lauren comes round?"

Both she and Jenny did big eyes, and Mr and Mrs Peters gave in, laughing.

"It's probably for the best anyway. We have something we'd like to talk to you about, and it's probably more appropriate we share it with Lauren rather than Colin."

So, I found myself upstairs again, this time in Jenny's room, and trying on something she'd never worn. She'd given me the pick of her wardrobe, and I chose a yellow summer dress. All her clothes seemed to have full skirts, most likely to hide things that need to be hidden, and also most likely why I was digging into her hoard rather than Candy's. They're was new underwear too, straight from the packet.

It was weird dressing with Jenny in the room. I felt self-conscious until she rather shyly lifted her own skirt to show me the bulge. It was the first genuine indication I'd had of her condition.

It did the trick though. 'I'll show you mine if you show me yours' helped seal our friendship, and reassured each of us we were facing the same thing together.

Jenny also gave me access to her jewellery box and brushed my hair into a high ponytail. It was a little short but with luck I'd be growing it soon.

Downstairs, the rest of the Peters family were waiting. Smiles and compliments greeted our return, as well as a cup of tea. Mr Peters' face turned serious.

"As you can imagine, we were both rather concerned with what happened to Jennifer yesterday, both at school and in the evening. No, we don't blame you. Far from it, in fact. As we understand things, you received the brunt of the attack, and yet you had the presence of mind to walk away from it and call Jane, for which we are very grateful.

"The thing is, the reason we moved Jenny to a different school after she changed was so that she could start over, make some new friends who weren't upset by knowing who she had been. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but yesterday showed that it's not working out.

"The school assured us that they could provide a welcoming environment for someone with Jenny's condition, but the beating she received yesterday, well it turns out just to be the top of the iceberg; the bit that shows. Jenny told us today how deep her alienation has been at her new school. The degree to which she has been bullied by the other girls there. Girls tend to use psychological means to destroy one another, which doesn't leave such evident marks as the boys' approach, so we didn't know how far it had gone until Jenny told us today. It may even have been the girls who goaded the boys into their attack.

"Anyway, we've decided, for her sake, to withdraw her from that school, but unfortunately that doesn't leave us with many options. I know Jenny wouldn't consider changing back, and I can see something of the same in you, if you don't mind me saying. You're far too eager to put on a dress when you come round – something I don't really understand, but I have learned to respect – and you seem far happier as Lauren than as your other self.

"We've talked about moving away, but that would be difficult with my work, plus both Candy and Jane have friends here. Besides, there's nothing to say things would be better where we moved to. We've thought about home schooling, but that's a big commitment. So that pretty much leaves us with the option of sending her back to your school.

"She won't be going back immediately. We've decided she needs at least a week off, and it's here that we need to say a few things to you.

"We don't know where your own journey is going to take you, and we certainly don't want you to feel pressured into doing anything that is wrong for you, but we appreciate that you have been a good friend to both our daughters, especially over these last couple of days, and we’d like to show you something of that appreciation.

"Whatever the outcome of your meeting with the doctor on Monday, we'd like you to know you're welcome to pursue your exploration of your feminine side with the whole-hearted support of both our daughters, and their wardrobes. Whether that involves staying in the house or going out is entirely up to you.

"What we would like to ask you though, is that you continue to be a friend to Jenny. I’m almost certain you'll say you will in any case, but you should bear in mind that you may end up sharing her ostracism.”

“There’s no question, sir. Jenny and I are friends, whether she wants me to be or not. As for the ostracism, there aren’t many people at school I get on with in any case. If Jenny were to come back, she’d double the number of people I actually like being with.

“Besides, if I am able to come out in the same way as Jenny, it’ll help us both if we have each other.”

"Thank you. You don't know how much peace of mind that gives us. Candy can bring home any work she needs to do to keep up to date over the next week or so, but we did wonder if Lauren might like to be a regular study buddy. We'll sort things out with your parents of course."

"Yeah, I'd like that a lot."

"We also wondered if you and your parents would like to join us for lunch tomorrow, and when we say you, we mean Lauren, of course."

"Er, I'm not sure that's such a great idea, sir. When Dad saw me in a dress a couple of days ago, he lost his rag big time. Then last night he said some really mean things about both Jen and me. I'm not sure how he'd react if he saw the two of us together."

"Well, I won't say it's without risk, but I still think it's worth trying." He looked over at Jen.

Who shrugged. "I'm used to people being mean to me, so if you think it's with doing, I'm in."

Candy nodded in agreement. "Let him see the three of us together and try and work which of us was born a girl. I bet he can't."

Mrs Peters nodded but didn't say anything.

"So what do you say Lauren? Your parents really ought to experience what it's like to have a daughter for real before they talk to Dr Edwards."

"Well, okay I guess, but I still think it'll go pear-shaped."

"And now we're aware of this, and forewarned is forearmed.

"Anyway, that's the serious business over, almost in any case. I’d just like to wrap things up by saying, if you do choose to follow the same path as Jenny, you have a guarantee of our support and help in any way.

"Enough, go and play, or chat or whatever it is you girls do in your spare time. I'd like to read my newspaper."

"I'll bring some drinks and snacks through in a little while," Mrs Peters said. "I'd like to show my husband how much I appreciate him before he gets lost in the day's news."

She reached her arms around his neck and planted a passionate kiss on his lips, eliciting cries of 'euw' from both Candy and Jen. They beat a hasty retreat upstairs with me following.

We spent the afternoon going through Jen's and Candy's wardrobes, figuring out which styles worked best for me. They also spent some time experimenting with my hair. It was a bit of a shaggy mess, but they had it looking quite reasonable by the thirteenth or fourteenth attempt.

Mrs P appeared with the promised refreshments. Diet Cokes and brownies. The twins wanted to paint my nails, but I didn't want to risk angering my dad any more than I had to, so we compromised with me learning by doing their's, and then promising to let them sort Lauren out properly for tomorrow’s lunch.

The afternoon disappeared all too quick, and soon enough it was time for me to climb back into the drab and depressing world of Colin Jenner. I thanked the Peters' for looking after me and Candy walked me home.

"You know, this should be the other way round, don't you?"

"What a girl walking home with her girl friend, instead of a girl walking home with her girl friend?"

"That doesn't make sense."

"So why bring it up?"

"You know what I mean."

"Yes, and so do you, so let it drop, girl friend."

"Just one bit of clarification. Do you mean girl friend as in a friend who's a girl, or do you mean girlfriend girlfriend?"

"Well that kind of depends on you, doesn't it?"

"It kind of depends on both of us. I mean if I do end up becoming Lauren full time, where's that likely to leave us?"

"Will I'm kind of hoping you do become Lauren, because I think she's a lot more fun than Colin ever was. She's happier, and she's a lot easier to talk to."

"You're kind of talking to Colin now you know."

"Am I? It feels like I'm talking to Lauren in drag. Colin wouldn't be able to talk so freely with me."

A smile climbed onto my lips despite what else I might have been feeling.

"So, assuming that Lauren is going to be about a lot more, where does that leave us?"

"Well, as far as I'm concerned, were friends whatever happens in our in the future. And... if you feel like trying something more... intimate..." She was turning very coy. "I'd say I've just about had my fill of guys right now, and I'm open to exploring something a little different."

She'd stopped, and since we were holding hands - something I'd barely registered - she swung me round to face her.

"So usually it's the guy who makes the first move," she said.

"Which leaves us in a bit of an awkward position if I'm Lauren in drag."

"Yeah."

"We could both, you know, make that first move together."

I have never felt so alive. It felt like electricity was dancing through the air. That same old breathlessness I'd felt in Candy's presence was back, only this time she shared it.

"I wish..." She reached up and stoked my cheek gently.

"What?" I asked putting my hand on her arm and pulling her gently closer.

"You'll think its stupid." Her face was close enough I could feel her breath on my lips.

"Try me anyway." My other hand was up, cupping her chin and lifting it gently.

"I wish you were wearing a dress."

Our lips meet with the softest of caresses. My eyes closed and the world melted away.

"Tomorrow," I said as we separated.

"Yeah, tomorrow. Does that answer your question, girlfriend?"

"I should say."

We we kissed again, then walked the last few yards to my front door.

-oOo-

I was so far beyond nervous. Forget the long-tailed cat and the rocking chairs, I felt like a rabbit in the valley of road kill.

So much had happened in such a short time. First there was that kiss, then I'd gone home to find Mum was sitting, waiting. Dad was down the pub with his cronies as usual, but Mum spotted something was up the moment she saw me.

"You look like you had a good evening."

"Candy," I said through my dreamy smile. "She kissed me."

"And Candy is?"

"The Peters’ other daughter. The one who was born right."

"Colin, tell me you're not doing this over a girl."

"No, of course not. I mean it was her who invited me round and suggested I put on one of her dresses, but..."

"She what?"

"This is coming out wrong. Mum, will you let me try and get it straight?"

"Okay, but..."

"No buts, Mum. Hear me out, then you can say whatever you like."

"Okay." She folded her hands in her lap and waited.

"Okay, so yes I was in love with Candy, but then Craig asked her out first, so I knew I didn't have a chance with her."

"Is that why you and Craig fell out?"

"Mum!"

"Sorry."

"Okay, yes it was. I told Craig I fancied her, and he went and asked her out anyway, right in front of me, right before I was going to.

"Anyway, Candy invited me round to her house on Thursday, and I figured what the hell, at least we could be friends. Anyway, we talked, and she told me about Jenny and said she'd seen me acting a lot like her, so she wondered if I might be the same. She wanted Jenny to have a friend, and she hoped I'd have things in common with her.

"It was a crazy idea, but she was right. I picked up the dress, and everything felt like it clicked into place. I'd probably have put it on for her anyway, but when I picked it up, all I wanted to do was put it on for me.

"You remember that time when I was about six or seven? I've been fighting this since then, and so well even I didn't even know I was fighting it. Candy kind of opened up something in me that I'd locked away, and Mum, I don't regret it."

She looked at me with such sadness. She looked like she was busting to say something, but she kept her promise.

"On Friday, I dressed up again and went out with Jenny. It was a mix of being a friend to someone who was like me, and me doing some self exploration. Whoever it was texted those pictures around on Friday also sent one to Craig , so he followed us to the South Mall, where he confronted us and made fun of us, so much so that Candy dumped him on the spot. Since then, in fact since this all started, all I've expected from Candy was friendship, but then she walked home with me this evening, and we talked, and, well, one thing led to another."

"Oh Colin. You can't have it both ways you know? Either you get the girl, our you get to be one. You can't have both."

"Why not?"

"Why... Listen to yourself. You think your father's struggling to cope with having a son who thinks he's a daughter, wait till he hears that his new daughter is a lesbian."

"Mum, Candy said she's had enough of guys. Craig was one disappointment too many. So why can't I be what she needs right now? Why can't we both help each other figure out what's right?"

"This won't end well, Colin. Do not let your father find out about this latest thing, or things really will go off the rails. Will you at least promise me you'll take this slowly? Think about it. Really think, before you do this. This is the trouble when you start to compromise standards. You let one go, and the rest follow."

"And what if the standards are wrong, Mum?"

She gave me a long stare, holding back her response until she had herself under control.

"I'm going to let that slide, because I know you're under a lot of stress right now. Maybe you're right, maybe our standards do need revising, but who are you to decide what they should be?

"You should get an early night anyway. Sleep on it. You probably know this, but Mr Peters called to invite us all to lunch tomorrow. They've asked for you to go over early, so get your head down. I'm afraid you're not getting a lie in tomorrow."

So I went to bed. I didn’t see Dad, neither when he got in later that evening, because I was already asleep, nor when I woke the next morning, because both he and Mum were. I left the house really early, with muffled snores coming through their bedroom door.

Jenny and Candy took me straight upstairs as soon as I arrived. They gave me a dressing gown and pushed me into the bathroom with instructions to wash myself and my hair with their stuff. It smelt amazing, and so did I by the time I was done.

Next, they gave me some underwear to put on, and sat me down while they attacked my hair, eyebrows, nails, face. Mrs Peters looked after my hair, trimming some of the split ends and drying it with a gentle wave that gave it a lot more mobility, and body. Then she trimmed my eyebrows shaping them without thinning them too much. Candy and Jenny attacked my nails in the meantime, Candy taking the fingers and Jenny the toes, until they were all coated in an attractive opalescent pink.

Next, Mrs Peters set to work on my face. No foundation because apparently, I had skin most girls would kill for. She did something to my eyes that made them stand out, added a little shading to my cheeks to sharpen and heighten them, and finally she added some lip gloss which somehow made my lips fuller.

Finally, they helped me into one of Jenny's new dresses. Again, frilly and fussy enough to fill me with cool delight, and a lot fuller than anything I'd worn until now. When they stood me in front of the mirror, I didn't recognise myself.

"Don't go yet Mum," Candy said. "I think you need to refill her lipstick."

"Why? I don't see anything wrong with it."

Candy put her arms around me and kissed me long and hard. When she withdrew, she gave me a critical look.

"It's a bit smudged," she said.

"Well, this is new," Mrs P said, guiding me back to the seat. She wiped away the smudges with some cotton wool. "When did this happen?"

"Yesterday," Candy said, leaning into the mirror to sort out her own lips.

"Please," I said. "My dad can't know. Mum thinks this would be a definite step too far for him. I'm not sure she's okay with it either."

"I have to say I agree," Mrs P said, reapplying the lip gloss. "Let’s fight our monsters one at a time. Alright, we are done here. Everyone downstairs, we have guests to prepare for."

"Would you give me a minute please?" I asked.

"A bit of a knee trembler, was it?" Mrs P grinned at me. "Reminds me of the first time Candy and Jen’s father kissed me." She grinned evilly at her daughters who were running away with their hands over their ears, crying ‘euw’ over and over.

So that was how we passed the morning. With everyone appropriately dressed, we all hung aprons around our necks, and set about various tasks, ranging from hoovering to dusting to laying the table to chopping veg. By rights I should have hated it, but as a joint effort, it was loads of fun.

We finished ten minutes before my parents were due, doffed the aprons, and that left me standing nervously by, awaiting the inevitable disaster. The morning had been too busy, too full of company to allow me to worry, which meant that everything I’d stored up for today hit me in one go.

The doorbell rang and Candy went to answer it. We’d agreed this earlier as my dad would have taken any excuse to back out of this, and either Jenny or I greeting him would have been enough to give him just that. Mrs Peters was busy in the kitchen and Mr Peters very wisely had hidden in his den while the women in his life did their thing.

"Hello Mr and Mrs Jenner," Candy's vice drifted through to us. "I'm Candy, please come in."

I looked around for somewhere to run and Jenny grabbed me by the elbow. Mum and Dad came through clutching the obligatory flowers and bottle of wine.

Dad stopped when he saw me – us that is. His jaw dropped, then set in a rictus. Not a sight I'd care to set again if I could help it.

"Hello Daddy," I said shyly.

"What is this?" He said through gritted teeth.

"A little bit of subterfuge on our part," Mr Peters replied, emerging from his study carrying two open bottles of beer. "For which I hope you will forgive me." He indicated to Candy to take the flowers and wine, and offered one of the beers to my father.

"Please, you're here now, and Jane and the girls have gone to a lot of trouble. Something I wish I'd had before this all started with Jenny was a chance to get to know her as a girl before we went to see the doctor. Come through to my study and let's talk a bit."

He put his arm around my dad's shoulder and guided him through. Apparently he hadn't just been hiding in his study, just preparing the welcome.

Mrs Peters appeared from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. She saw the flowers and took them from Candy.

"These are lovely, thank you so much. Jenny would you get a vase of water, love?"

Jenny let go of me and hurried off. Mum was staring at me with wide eyes. I'm afraid I wasn’t doing all the Peters' efforts justice, as I just stood there feeling self conscious.

"Hi Mum," I managed at last.

Candy helped her to a chair and she sat numbly, still staring.

"Is this alright?" I asked.

She shook her head, then seemed to come to her senses a little and nodded.

"I never realised," she said. "I mean you looked pretty enough before, but..."

Jenny reappeared with the vase. She put it on the table, then came over and gave me a push. I walked over to Mum, who opened her arms.

-oOo-

Lunch went passably well after that. When Dad reappeared with Mr Peters, he seemed a little calmer. He didn't say a word through lunch, but kept starting at me. It made me horribly nervous, but I managed to eat some of what was on my plate, and without dropping any of it on me.

Mr and Mrs Peters kept the conversation going with a few comments from Candy and Jen. I was way too nervous to speak, and Mum was too stunned. Whatever Dad was thinking, he kept to himself.

I helped to clear the dessert plates, and Mrs P asked if anyone wanted a tea or coffee.

"Thank you," Dad said standing up, "but I think we should be going. It was a lovely meal, but..."

"Wouldn't you like to spend some time with Lauren?" Mrs Peters asked.

"Lauren? Who's Lauren?" My dad was either being dense or obtuse. It's hard to tell which as he does both so well.

"I am Daddy."

"Don't call me that. Why Lauren?"

"Because Colin doesn't seem right when I'm like this, and because I like the name."

He shook his head. "I really don't know what I could say to you right now. Come on Margaret."

"Actually, I'd like to spend some time with Lauren."

"His name is Colin. Putting him in a dress isn't going to change the fact that he is our son."

"Neither is putting her in trousers going to change the fact that she's quite probably our daughter."

"What are you talking about woman? Honestly, you talk some rubbish sometimes."

"Michael, please."

"No! Come on. I've had enough of this farce."

"Well I haven't. Neither do I think its a farce. I'll have a coffee thank you Jane."

Dad stood fuming for a moment, then made for the door with Mr Peters following. I heard Dad's voice raised in anger, but not quite intelligible through the door.

When Mr Peters reappeared, his lips were pursed angrily.

"I'm sorry," Mum said. "He can be very stubborn sometimes. What did he say to you?"

"I'm not sure where to start. It was a rather unpleasant stream of vitriol directed at every one of us, your son and my daughters in particular."

"Yes, that's how he reacts when things don't go his way. He sort of lashes out. He's usually a little better if I side with him, but I couldn't this time."

"Do you think he’ll come with you tomorrow?"

"I hope so, though I may have pushed him a little far this time."

"It's not your fault, Mum."

"Perhaps not, at least not entirely, but all these years I've taken your father's side over yours, when I've known I shouldn't..." She sniffed.

"It's okay Mum."

"No it's not. But it will be, sweetheart. Whatever you need, and regardless of what your father decides, we'll sort it out."

I put my arms around her. It seemed the right thing to do, and it opened the floodgates.

A short while later, Mrs Peters appeared with a coffee for Mum and a tea for me. I hadn't asked for anything, but then sometimes it's nice to get something without asking.

Mum pulled herself together a little and we talked. I mean really talked. She asked questions and let me answer them without passing comment. It was a little unnerving, like when the scary music starts on a horror movie and you know something horrible's going to happen, only it didn't, and it carried on not happening until I started to get used to it.

There was an odd look in Mum's eye too, like she was expecting something from me which never came.

After about an hour she'd run out of questions and I'd run out of words. We sat quietly, aware of the silence elsewhere in the house. Someone else's house, and they'd just left us to get on with it; given us all the space we needed.

"Did they go out?" Mum asked.

"I don't think so."

A quick search revealed Mr and Mrs Peters pottering in the garden – it was a warm sunny day after all – and Candy and Jen sitting in Candy's room chatting.

"It's safe to come out now," I told them. Mum had gone outside to deliver similar news to our hosts.

"We'd better be getting back," Mum said, "but thank you for a delightful lunch, and all the more for giving us space to talk. Michael may have gone down the pub, but just in case he's at home waiting for us, we'd better go."

"Give me five minutes to change, Mum."

"What? Oh gosh, yes. You know I've become quite used to you looking like that in the past hour, I'd all but forgotten."

It was the usual struggle, climbing back into Colin. He'd never been a good fit, but now it was like I'd outgrown him by a couple of sizes. I tried to put on a smile as I came back down the stairs, but somehow I couldn't pull it off.

"There's my son," Mum said wistfully. "You know, I've been looking for you all afternoon, since we got here in fact, and now that I've found you, I could almost wish I hadn't."

I did manage a genuine smile at that, albeit a rather weak one. We walked home in silence, me trudging along under my own personal storm cloud, Mum looking on speculatively. We were twenty yards from our front door when Mum stopped.

"You're really not putting this on, are you?"

"What?"

"The mood. It's like you're two different people. I wondered if you were putting on an act to convince us, but you really aren't. This is how you naturally are as Colin. I don’t think you're even aware of it are you?"

"I know I feel wrong like this, and it gets in the way of everything, nearly."

"Nearly?"

"Not Candy, and don't say anything please, Mum. I know it's complicated all to hell like this, but please let us work it out."

She nodded. "We'd better be getting inside."

"Ah, the traitors come crawling back," Dad's voice rang through from the lounge. The TV was blaring some hideous sporting noise, some motor sport of some kind with screaming engines. Dad wasn't even particularly into motor racing, but it was probably the best the crappy Sunday afternoon schedule had to offer.

Mum inclined her head toward the kitchen, and I followed her through. She didn't so much as say a word to Dad, and once more I followed her lead.

The kettle went on and I pulled down the mugs and the teapot. Mum made the tea, but only poured out two cups, one of which she offered to me.

We sat down and waited. We chatted quietly and waited. It took ten minutes.

"So, where's my tea then?" Dad asked from the doorway .

"It's in the pot," Mum said, "though I dare say it'll be stewed by now."

Dad scowled. "Don't you go making this my fault," he said. "You're the ones who stayed behind with Mr and Mrs Dysfunctional and their kids."

Mum shook her head, while I tried to make myself small. Mum and Dad rarely argued, but when they did, it tended to be semi-apocalyptic.

"You really are unbelievable, aren't you," Mum said. "The Peters' offer to help, and all you can do is insult them."

"Help?" Dad's voice was already going up in both pitch and volume. "Sure, they bloody helped. They helped turn our son into the ultimate pansy. Do you really expect me to be grateful for that?"

"And it's all about you, isn't it? You're so totally self-obsessed that anything gets in the way with how you think things should be, and suddenly everyone else is wrong."

"You don't know what you're fucking talking about, woman."

Mum snorted. "I have a damned sight better idea than you. Does it even occur to you, when everyone around you disagrees, that maybe you might be in the wrong every once in a while?"

"I don't believe this. There is no talking to you sometimes."

"Why? Because sometimes I disagree with you? Well here's news for you. That's going to happen a bit more often from now on. I'm done with agreeing with you just to keep the peace."

"You've gone fucking crazy."

"No, I've just gone fucking sane. Crazy's where I've just come back from."

"I can't handle this. I'm going down the pub."

"In search of a few inferior brains who might take your side? You're a miserable coward, you know? You can’t give me one reason why I'm wrong, and you won't admit that you are, so you run away."

"I suggest you take the time to think things through. I'll expect an apology when I get back."

He retreated into the hall.

"Expect to be disappointed," Mum yelled after him. "You come back late or drunk and the door will be bolted."

His head reappeared. "You fucking dare."

"Dinner will be at seven," Mum said, her voice returning to normal. "If you want any, you won't be late, and I'll expect an apology."

"For what?"

"Why don't we see if you can figure that out." Mum smiled sweetly, and Dad's expression darkened even further.

Seconds later, the door slammed, and Mum settled unsteadily into a chair.

"Well," she breathed. "That was... invigorating."

I poured Mum a fresh cup of tea, and she gave me a brittle smile.

-oOo-

I thought I’d been nervous at the Peters' yesterday. It was nothing to what I felt in the doctor's waiting room.

Dad didn't come home for dinner, which wasn't a surprise, though it was a disappointment. He eventually reappeared shortly before midnight, after Mum and I had gone to bed.

My bedroom was at the back of the house, but even I heard him yelling. Mum opened her window and asked what he wanted. Dad's reply was muffled and slurred, but Mum's was clear enough.

"I believe I told you what the consequences would be if you came back late or drink, or did you think that if you did both that would cancel things out?"

The exchange went on, with Dad getting quite noisy again. Eventually Mum closed the window, and Dad slept in the car.

Mum took him a coffee in the morning, and left the door open. Eventually he came in looking disheveled and exhausted. He showered and changed, and joined us for breakfast, though he kept silent throughout. Whether he was exhausted or still pissed off with us, I'm not sure, but neither of us minded the silence. It was a damned sight better than yesterday's ranting.

He’d driven us to the doctor's appointment, still without opening his mouth, and we were shown straight in. The doctor had wanted to talk to me first, asking all sorts of questions, some of which seemed totally irrelevant. I answered honestly, as Mr Peters had advised me to do, and after about an hour, he seemed to come to a decision.

He showed me out, and asked my parents in, which left me in the waiting room, twitching nervously and wondering what was being said in my absence.

After what seemed like forever, the door opened again, and I was asked to join my parents in the doctor's office.

"This is, er, rarely straightforward," he began.

I looked at my parents. Mum's eyes shone with unshed tears, and Dad's face was set in an unreadable rictus.

"Gender identity is one of the most recent aspects of the human condition to be given a public airing, and despite evidence to suggest that it has been with us throughout all of human history, and in all cultures, it is probably one of the least understood. In that regard I would say by everyone, including those affected.

"The current thinking is that in some individuals, the brain develops differently from the body, that there are, and always have been, men and women, boys and girls, whose minds work more in a way that associates with the opposite gender than their own.

"Some cultures revere such people and consider them to be a blessing. Most, including our own unfortunately, do not. The common opinion throughout our own history has been that boys should be boys, and girls, girls."

"Too bloody right," my dad muttered, drawing looks from both the doctor and my mum.

"What we have discovered," the doctor continued emphatically, "is that those with a degree of, shall we say crossover, don't have a choice in the way they are.

"Colin is a prime example of this. From an early age, he associated more strongly with girls than with boys, not something we can blame on his environment as I believe he is an only child, and you certainly, Mr Jenner, have offered him no encouragement to investigate this side of his personality."

"Of course I bloody haven't. Why would I want my son," he emphasised the word, "to behave like a girl?"

"That's just the point though. Because of your influence, he has tried to fight his nature, and yet despite his efforts, it has emerged."

"Thanks to a bloody family of perverts messing with his mind."

"No Mr Jenner, because it was in your, er, son's mind in the first place. This is a genuine condition, sir, and one accepted by the vast majority of my profession."

"Not all of them though."

"No, not all of them," the doctor sighed, "and yet the dissenters are unable to come up with evidence to support their side of the argument.

"And have you?"

"There are genetic studies that show a correlation, there have been autopsies on transgendered individuals which show parts of the brain that have developed differently. The evidence is there Mr Jenner, but unfortunately there is no test to confirm the presence of this condition in a living person."

"So, this could still be bullshit you're telling us?"

"Psychological testing is an accepted means of identifying this tendency, and Colin, shows all the signs."

"Psychological tests can be tricked."

"Which is why we put checks into the test. By my analysis, you're son answered all my questions truthfully, and without telling me what he thought I wanted to hear, and he came across as overwhelmingly transgendered."

"Well, you'll excuse me for wanting a second opinion."

"Of course. You're entitled to one if you wish, however in the meantime I would recommend that Colin go on testosterone blockers."

"Over my dead body."

"Mr Jenner, Colin is entering puberty. This brings about physiological changes that could be detrimental to his future well being, should my opinion be upheld."

"Well, he's not having them, and that's final."

"Except it's not just up to you, dear, is it? I believe you only need one parent to give consent?"

"Margaret, I'm warning you."

"No Michael, I'm done with being pushed around by you, and you're the one that's being unreasonable here.

"Doctor, am I right that the effect of blockers doesn't have to be permanent?"

"Yes. Mrs Jenner. If the second opinion you seek disagrees with mine, or if Colin changes his mind, we can take him off the pills and normal puberty will assert itself rapidly enough. If we do nothing though, the changes will be considerably harder to reverse, and with less effect."

"Then go ahead and fill out the prescription. I'll see that he gets them."

"Margaret, if you do this, I'll..."

"You'll what? Honestly, I don't care. Do what you like. My priority is the welfare of my child, and so bloody well should yours be."

"You'll have him in dresses next."

"Yes, if he likes. She rather. Get it through your thick, sodding skull. This is real, this is happening and it is bloody well bigger than your almighty fucking ego for once. My apologies, doctor."

"Quite alright Mrs Jenner. Perhaps I could have a few last words alone with, er, Colin."

My parents filed out, their argument continuing on as a muffled backdrop through the waiting room door.

"Colin, I would like you to understand that this is your decision. Not your mother's, certainly not your father's, and not even your friends'. You've been dealt a poor hand, but it's up to you how you choose to play it. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I think so sir."

"For now, you have to get used to the drugs I’m going to put you on. They will stop any further physical development for now, but they aren't a long-term solution. You may have some side effects such as lethargy, mild depression, almost certainly a suppression of your sex drive, though I don’t believe you’ve experienced that yet. Possibly night sweats and hot and cold flushes. If you find yourself struggling with any of the changes, you must tell your mother and come back to see me.

"Also, you need to know for sure whether you want to live your life as a man or a woman, and there will be consequences either way. You're already very familiar with how life will be if you choose to stay as a man, and you probably have some idea of what it’s like as a girl from your friend, but there's nothing quite like first hand experience. I won't lie to you, it won't be pleasant because there are way too many people in this world like your father, but if you're thinking of going that route, you should get some first hand experience, and sooner rather than later.

"Right, I think that's all I have to say for now. Do you have any questions?"

"What if my dad finds a doctor who disagrees with you?"

"Then come back to me and I'll put you in touch with two who agree with me. The majority of the medical profession would support my diagnosis."

"What if my parents won't let me try being a girl?"

"That's not up to me, I'm afraid. Your parents are ultimately responsible for your well being. I suspect you'll find your mother supporting you though, regardless of what your father decides."

"How will I know if this is the right thing for me?"

"Ultimately only you will be able to answer that question. I said you'd been dealt a poor hand, and I meant it. Your choices are either to carry on as male and cope with the sense of feeling wrong I’m sure you’re already aware of, or make the change and cope with some of the people you meet responding poorly to you. There’s a down side to both, and only you can decide which of the two you cope with better.

"That is a highly simplistic answer. The actual decision is somewhat more complex, but I'll be referring you to a gender therapist who will talk through your concerns and help you make the best decision for yourself."

I fell silent. There was such a lot to think about, and all the new thoughts were creating a log-jam in my mind.

"Okay," the doctor said, standing up. "If you can't think of anything more, I have other patients to see. I'll be happy to talk to you again if you have any concerns, and do let your mum know if you have an adverse reaction to the drugs I've prescribed."

I let him guide me out of his office to where my parents were waiting. From their body language, they hadn't resolved their differences. The doctor handed Mum a prescription sheet, and we left.

"What did the doctor tell you, sweety?" Mum asked once we were on the road home.

"He said that the decision here should be mine."

"You'll wait till we have a second opinion," Dad said. "I don't trust that quack any further than I could throw him."

"That's because he disagreed with your opinion," Mum said, and the argument started again.

I didn't like it when Dad drove angry, and Mum wasn't doing much to help his mood. I waited until we were stopped at some traffic lights.

"Enough!" I yelled loud enough to shut them both up. "The doctor said this should be my decision, and I've decided I want to take the blockers starting as soon as possible. I'll listen to a second opinion, Dad, if you'll listen to a third and fourth, but I'm doing this. I also want to try living as a girl..."

"Over my dead body!" Dad screeched away from the lights as they turned green.

"Over all our dead bodies if you keep driving like this," Mum said, which really wasn't helpful as Dad hated to be criticised.

Fortunately for all of us, this was one of the rare occasions when there was a policeman around when you wanted one. A siren sounded behind us and Dad pulled into the side, cursing.

Dad was lucky; the policeman was in a good mood. He said that no laws had actually been broken, but that the one on reckless driving had been bent a bit out of shape. He told Dad to drive more carefully, and that this time he'd let us off with a warning. He then made a point of following us for a mile or so, which forced Dad to calm down. I didn't say anything more the rest of the way home, and neither did Mum, fortunately. By the time we reached the house, I had my arguments lined up.

"Dad," I said as we all climbed out of the car. "This is my life, not yours, and I will live it the way that's right for me. You may think you know what's best, but you don't know what its like being me. If you care, then listen to me and believe me when I say I need to do this."

"And what about your mother and me? If you weren't such an ungrateful, selfish little bastard, you'd give a moment's thought to how your actions affect us."

"Do you think I haven't? This all started for me when I was six, and for the past eight years I've been trying to do it your way. I can't do it any more. I can't live like that."

"And as far as I'm concerned, you don't have to." Mum rested a hand on my shoulder. "Michael, it's time we did something for our son, our daughter, and as far as I'm concerned, were going to do it whether you like it or not."

"Fine. If that's the way you want to play it, fuck off the both of you. I've tried to do what's right, but if you won't listen to me, go and do it on your own."

"Oh no," Mum replied, her voice quiet and dangerous. "That's not the way this is going to work. If you don't want to be part of this then fine, that's your decision, but were not moving out."

"It's my fucking house."

"It's our 'fucking house, and if you want to contest ownership in the courts, bring it on. I'm quite happy to stand by the judge's decision."

He stared at her in impotent fury. It was below the belt and Mum knew full well.

"Look Michael, it doesn't have to be this way. I don't want you to move out..."

"Then why don't you go then?"

"You know what I mean. For better or for worse, remember?"

"Love, honour and obey, remember?"

I told you my parents were old fashioned.

"Fine," she said, visibly deflating. "I've done that for as long as I could, and most of the time thinking you were wrong. I can't do it any more. If that's a deal breaker for you, I'm sorry.

"Michael, I love you, and I always will, but don't ask me to choose been our marriage and our child."

He shook his head, turned and walked out. A moment later the car started and he was gone.

-oOo-

Mum cried most of the night. I know because I lay awake listening to her. After a while, I went through to her room and lay on the bed next to her. She kept her back to me, and didn't say anything. She tried to be quiet, but I could still hear her, feel her sobs shaking the bed.

I've never felt so wretched in my life.

We both got up early the next morning. We hadn't slept, but we weren't likely to.

Mum made tea and were sat in the empty silence.

"I could say I changed my mind," I offered.

"Don't you dare," she answered. "If we let him win with this, we'll never have our way again."

"So, what do we do?"

"Were stick with the original plan. We get your pills and we go shopping."

"But if Dad's gone, we won't have much spare cash."

"I have a little squirrelled away. Well get by, and my daughter is not going to start her new life without clothes."

So that's what we did. It wasn't as enjoyable as I'd have liked, but it's not called retail therapy for nothing. By lunchtime we had as many bags as the two of us could manage between us on the bus, and we both felt a lot better.

Mum made lunch while I put my things away and changed, and I spent my first afternoon at home in a skirt. There was no sense of euphoria like I'd experienced at Candy's, but that was hardly surprising given the circumstances.

Candy! I was the worst friend ever! Boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever, I was failing badly. She'd be in class now, so I sent her a text apologising and saying I'd call later, love Lauren.

I didn't want to leave Mum on her own, so I didn't suggest going to the Peters' for a study session. I'd catch up with Candy and Jenny soon enough.

Mum spent the afternoon making calls. Some were business, as in calling the school to let them know I wouldn't be in that week and that I’d be restarting the following week as a girl. Some were to her friends, seeking what support she could find. Others were mixed, getting advice from other friends on how to handle her separation.

She seemed distracted enough by her activities, so I snuck upstairs and read ahead a chapter or two in my maths text book. Call me weird, but maths calms me. I think it's the sense of control it gives me. I was in the middle of an awkward piece of algebra when my phone went off.

"Hey girlfriend, what's new?"

Candy! She must be between lessons.

"Hiya. I'm sorry I didn't call yesterday, but things got a little intense."

"In what way?"

"Well Dad didn't take the doctor's recommendation too well."

"So, Lauren is coming to stay?" Her voice bubbled with excitement and delight.

"Yeah, you're talking to her now, but..." I let my sentence trail off. It worried me how she would take this.

"But?" she prompted.

"Mum and Dad ended up having this massive argument and he's walked out on us. I don't think he's coming back."

"No! That’s awful!"

"Yeah. I know he can be an arsehole sometimes, but he's my dad. Mum cried all night."

"That's so terrible. What did he say?"

So I gave a blow by blow from the doctor's surgery to the point he walked out. Candy made sympathetic noises throughout, and by the end I was crying gently.

"Listen," Candy said once I was done. "I'm late for my last class, but I'll call you in an hour, and I'm coming straight round after school."

"You don't have to do that."

"Yeah I kind of do. I'll see you soon okay? Hang in there."

I'd been hanging in there, but talking about it had opened the flood gates. I continued to cry into my pillow until the door to my room eased open.

"They're not waterproof you know?"

I managed a laugh and wiped the worst of the tears away with the heel of my hand.

Mum handed me a mug of tea and perched on the bed.

"How do you cope?" I asked. "It must be a hundred times worse for you."

"I have my friends to help me. Besides, it's early days yet. He may come back to us."

"But..."

"Hope gives you strength," she interrupted me. "Don't talk yourself out of having it. Your Dad's a good man underneath it all. How are you doing?"

"Okay, I suppose. I just talked to Candy."

"I heard your mobile. Have you spoken to Jenny yet?"

"I don't have her number."

"You do have Mrs Peters' though, don't you? I spoke to her a minute ago, I think Jenny would appreciate a call."

She stood up.

"Is it okay if Candy comes round after school?"

"Of course, dear. Jenny too if she wants."

So I called Jenny, well, Mrs Peters, and she passed me onto Jenny, and I told her about everything that had happened. And the tears flowed again, and again I felt better. This was something I'd missed all my life, the catharsis of talking a problem through to a sympathetic ear.

"So, what are you doing now?" Jenny asked once all was said that needed saying.

"Taking to you, silly."

"Hey, silly yourself. You know what I mean. What were you doing before you phoned."

"I was working on some algebra."

"God, I hate algebra. I really don't get it."

"Do you want to come round and we can work on it together?"

"Would that be okay? Your mum wouldn't mind?"

"Mum suggested it. Candy's coming after school as well."

"Oh, well maybe tomorrow then."

"What?"

"I was working on history anyway. Look, I know about you and Candy... and it's great, I'm totally cool with it. I'd just rather not be a third wheel, yeah?"

"Oh. I thought Candy was just being, you know, a friend, kind of."

"I think you'll find she may want to be a little more than just a friend. Hey, like I said I'm totally cool with it. Just, would you be able to come round here tomorrow?"

"I don't know. I don't want to leave my mum. You could come here though."

"Okay. I'll talk to my mum and see what she says."

She hung up and I reflected on our conversation. It was weird, because we really hadn't said much worth saying, but just talking and sharing felt so good. It was like kind of finding out what each other wanted so that you could want it too, sort of getting in sync with each other. It wasn't something I'd ever had as Colin.

I took my empty mug downstairs, the algebra abandoned. Time to try out this new discovery.

Mum was sitting in the lounge, starting at a blank TV screen. I sat next to her, and she smiled wearily back at me.

"So, Jenny wants to get together tomorrow so we can do some school work."

"That's good. Are you going to the Peters'?"

"Actually, I suggested Jen come here. Is that alright?"

Her smile broadened a little. "I'll be okay, Lauren. You don't have to be around all the time."

"I know, but I just feel better."

"She can come tomorrow, but you go to hers on Thursday. I'll need some space by then. Friday I've booked you in to have your hair done."

"What?"

"No daughter of mine is going out in public with a shaggy mop like that. Don't worry, I know you like it long, and it does suit you. This'll just be tidying it up."

"Okay."

"Don't get your hopes up, but Marge said she’d see what she could do about squeezing is both in for a bit of pampering."

"What do you mean?"

"You'll find out if she has room for us. I don't want to get you excited if there's a chance it may not happen, and Fridays do tend to be busy."

We chatted about all sorts of nothing for the rest of the afternoon. I could tell it was doing her good, and I could feel it lifting my spirits as well.

The doorbell sounded.

"That'll be your friend. I don't mind you being up in your room together, but don't make me regret it."

I gave Mum a parting 'butter wouldn't melt in my mouth' smile, and answered the door...

...to a highly energetic hug.

"Are you okay? I've been so worried about you. Let me look at you. Wow, you look amazing. When did you get that skirt? Could I borrow it sometime?"

I'd almost forgotten I was wearing a skirt. It felt so normal even after such a short time.

"Mum took me shopping this morning. I have loads more upstairs. Sure, you can borrow it. I men I've borrowed your stuff enough recently."

I led her up to my room, and what started out as a fashion show turned into another sharing of inconsequentialities, and eventually into a more intimate and physical sharing.

Mum had the good sense to knock when she brought us some drinks a while later. It gave us a few moments to sort ourselves out and move a respectable distance apart, but I don't think we fooled anyone. Mum's look was inscrutable.

"Your mother called," she said to Candy. "They're coming round in about half an hour. I hope you two are going to clear this mess up."

We looked around sheepishly at all my new clothes strewn about the room. Mum laughed. It was a good sound to hear, and it brought a smile to my own lips.

"Clear it up," she said with as much severity as she could manage – which wasn't much. She turned muttering just loud enough to be heard. "Girls!"

-oOo-

The Peters' turned up with dinner. It was a sort of stew in a slow cooker, which got plugged in while Mum and Mrs Peters worked on some things to go with it. Candy and I dragged Jenny up to my room, and the recently tidied clothes had another airing, before being put away properly this time. Mr Peters hid behind his newspaper in the lounge for most of the evening, but he seemed happy enough to do so with my mum chatting happily to his wife, and the three of us girls giggling and squealing.

The next day Jenny and I spent in my room. We read history and geography texts to each other, and I took her through everything I knew about algebra, until it started clicking with her. That evening we were invited to the Peters' house for tea, and Mum made a strawberry cheesecake as her contribution. Thursday Jenny and I worked on our French in the morning, giggling uncontrollably at each other's appalling accents, and spent the afternoon trying to understand the chemistry assignment Candy had brought home for us.

Friday morning had me feeling nervous as I let Mum's hairdresser loose on my luscious locks. The end result was worth it though. It looked about as long as it had been, but now I had a fringe, and the rest of it looked neat and framed my face so much better. It was a giant stride into girlhood, as was what came next. Marge had found – or made – time in her schedule, and Mum and I sat back and let her junior staff work on our nails, both fingers and toes. I left with mine coated with the same – or similar – opalescent pink that Candy had put on them on Sunday.

We followed the treat with a few other town based errands, and headed home for lunch. I spent the afternoon working with Jenny again, and in the evening Mum and I had our first meal alone together since Dad left.

It's funny how quickly you can adapt to changes in life. I mean we felt Dad's absence, which is hardly surprising since he wasn't exactly a shy and retiring person, but life went on.

The weekend passed without Dad making contact, even to say where he was staying. I caught Mum looking wistfully at the phone from time to time, but overall we got by. Candy and Jenny came round lots and we planned or strategy for Monday morning.

-oOo-

Monday morning came. I was so nervous I was almost sick, in fact I was tempted to tell Mum I was too sick to go in, but Jenny was starting back today as well, and I couldn't leave her to face the school alone.

We’d both decided on skirts for our first day back, and had deliberately chosen clothes that were both complementary and about as girly as we each possessed. Not so much on the frills and lace, but definitely colour and style.

It was stupid. I'd been out dressed as a girl all week, even in town. No one had so much as batted an eye. And yet here I was shaking like a leaf.

I walked to the Peters' house where Jenny and Candy were waiting. We were all nervous. Mrs Peters had offered to drive us in, but this was going to be the first of many days, and we’d decided to start off as we meant to go on.

The crowd on the bus met us with jeers, wolf whistles and whispered insults. Jenny and I sat together, not expecting anyone to want to include us. Candy sat across the aisle.

By chance, or maybe design, Craig sat in front of us. He turned with a vicious leer on his face.

"So what, are you two an item now? Two queer boys together?"

"Actually," Candy said leaning across and kissing me on the lips. "We're an item. Jenny's available if you're interested, however I don't think she's into narcissistic pigs like you."

"You've gone lesbo on us, have you Candy?"

"Well, it took you to turn me off men," she answered. "And I should thank you for that, because I’ve never felt more loved."

Craig turned to me. "What about you, poofter? You so much of a girl you need another girl to fight your battles for you?"

"No, I'm happy enough to do that myself, but I wouldn't want to stop my girlfriend when she's on a roll. I hope you’re not too disappointed, but you know, you're really not my type."

"And just what is your type, gaybo? Do you like it up the arse, do you?"

"My type would be someone with class and character. As for the other, last time I checked Candy didn't have anything she could stick to my arse."

Everyone laughed. I looked at Candy apologetically, but she was smiling as well. The only person who wasn't was Craig. How had I ever been so stupid as to think him a friend?

Eventually, the bus arrived outside the school gates and my nerves skyrocketed. A quick glance at Jenny confirmed that she had seen what awaited us too, and she was equally terror-struck.

Somehow news of our return to school had leaked. A crowd awaited us at the school gates, and they looked ugly.

"Oh fuck," Jenny said so quietly only I heard her.

"Show no fear," I said without conviction. "Let's show them we have the guts to make it in this world."

"How? By letting them spread them all over the place?"

I grinned. Somehow, I managed to make it to my feet without my legs giving way under me.

"Something like that."

Everyone else had dashed off the bus as soon as it stopped, presumably in search of a decent vantage from which to observe our imminent demise. Only Candy and Jen remained behind with me. We squared our shoulders and made for the door.

The air was filled with jeering, which grew louder the instant someone recognised Jen and me as the objects of their hate. Candy walked ahead of us, trying to cut a path through the angry crowd.

I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and spun in time to see an egg flying towards us. It was heading straight for Jenny. Too fast and too close for me to do much about it, I did the only thing I could think of. I stepped in front of it.

The crowd cheered as the egg erupted against my temple, spilling its contents across my face and hair. Jenny and Candy swung around as they realised something had happened, but I had already identified my assailant, and I was charging through the crowd towards him.

He was about a foot and a half taller than me, and outweighed me by a factor of four or five. The crowd fell silent as I stopped in front of him, wiping the worst of the egg from my face with my bare hands.

"I should probably be angry," I spoke softly into the sudden quiet, "but really I'm not. If anything, I feel sorry for you.

"Are you really so outraged by what my friend and I are doing that you feel justified in intimidating children you don't even know, and throwing eggs at them?"

The big man looked away sheepishly. Several others in the crowd seemed to find their shoes to be of absorbing interest.

"We're studying American history at present. I don't suppose any of you have heard of the Little Rock Nine? No? well, they were a group of nine African American students back in the nineteen fifties, who dared to go to an all-white school in Little Rock in Arkansas, after it was deemed that segregation in schools was illegal.

"They faced crowds like this every day when they went to school, and for the same reason. Prejudice.

"Have any of you bothered to ask yourselves why you're so upset about this? How is it that we are harming you?

"Have any of you bothered to wonder why we're even doing this? None of us has any choice over our nature. All my friend and I are doing is the same as anyone else here; trying to find a way to be happy and content.

"What right do you have to insist we live our lives the way you think we should? You're here because it would be easier for you if we toed the line and behaved like everyone else, but who are you to judge the decisions we make? How can you understand what it is that pushes us to do this? And without understanding, what right do you have to judge us as you do?

"I have felt like a girl since my earliest memories, and my friend Jenny is the same. If we'd been born in girls’ bodies, you'd have no more issue with us than you would with any other girl. In fact you'd be encouraging us to dress like this. But because of an accident of birth that made us boys – physically at least – you don't think we should have the right to feel comfortable in our own bodies.

"You've decided that we're monsters because we're following our nature. I think it’s far more likely that you're the ones acting like monsters because you won't allow us to. You've decided the way things should be, and we don't have any say in it. You know, that sounds an awful lot like the kind of behaviour we were learning about in Little Rock, Arkansas over fifty years ago. It's depressing to think we're no better now than we were then.

"Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to clean up before my first class."

I took Jenny by the elbow and guided her, with Candy following us, through the silent crowd and into school.

-oOo-

The rest of the day passed in a surreal haze. News of my confrontation at the school gates preceded me wherever I went, the story growing with each retelling until in true Chinese whisper style, I had the stature of a super hero, or perhaps super heroine.

People looked at me differently, both students and teachers. Colin had been a nobody, but somehow I was afforded respect, and by association, so was Jenny.

Jenny and I shared many of the same classes, the school thinking it better to keep the potential sources of trouble together, but at lunchtime Candy joined us. We'd barely sat down when a group of girls who'd never so much as looked at me before came over.

"Can we join you?" one of them asked shyly.

I looked at Candy and Jenny, both of whom shrugged.

"Sure, if you like."

"I'm Brandy, this is Lisa, Katie and Julia."

Each gave a smile or a little wave at the mention of her name.

"I imagine you know Candy," I said doing our introductions in return. "This is her sister, Jenny, and I'm Lauren."

Inwardly I braced myself. Brandy wasn't known for her tact, and I fully expected her next words to ruin this whole encounter.

She surprised me.

"You were so cool today, what you said to that guy. I wish I was as brave."

"Thank you," I managed after the shortest of pauses. "I guess none of us knows how we'll react until we have to. I was, er, kind of terrified."

"That's not how I heard it," Katie – no, Lisa – said. "I heard you marched up to this guy who was ten times bigger than you, and you made him cry, just by saying something to him! How do you do that?"

I was too stunned to answer. Candy wasn't though.

"She made him see the truth of what he was doing. I don't think he was quite as big as you say though, and I don't actually remember him crying."

"Well I'm just saying what I heard," Lisa said defensively.

"Well it was really brave anyway," Brandy said, dismissing the details. "I heard a rumour that you two are an item. Does that mean you are both lesbos? Or does it really count, with you not really being a girl?"

And there it was. Brandy being Brandy.

"What? What did I say?"

What was weird was we were all looking at her. Not just Jenny, Candy and me, but Lisa, Katie and Julia too.

"Please excuse her," Julia said. "She really doesn't realise what she's saying half the time."

"I'm only curious," Brandy said defensively.

"I think," I said, deciding to give Brandy the benefit of the doubt, "that they're going to have to come up with a whole new set of terms to describe people like us.

"I mean right now I don't know what I am or what I'm going to want to be. Probably more than anything, I know I don't want to be a man."

"Yeah, I hear you sister." This from Brandy, more or less confirming Julia's comment.

"Who'd want to be," Katie said, contributing for the first time.

"The thing is, I don't really have the option of being a woman either. I mean medical science can do some pretty amazing things, and I've been able to do something to stop the testosterone from messing up my body, but I'll always have XY chromosomes, I'll never be able to give birth to children. At best, I'll be a close lookalike."

"That sucks," Julia said.

"It does, but you know, we can't expect to have everything we want out of life. Some people are born blind or deaf or without limbs..."

"Or ugly," Brandy said, drawing reproving looks from most of us round the table.

"Did I do it again?" she asked morosely.

"Kinda," said Julia.

"Ugly's kind of on a level where Jenny and I are right now," I said.

"I don't think you're ugly," Katie said quietly. "In fact, I think you're both quite pretty." She blushed.

"Hands off this one," Candy said, putting a possessive hand on my arm, "she's mine".

Katie and Jen shared shy glances, and I thought I caught a glimmer of a spark. I filed that away for future reflection.

"I'm not sure Lauren meant that exactly," Julia said, "did you?"

"Not exactly. I mean, I quite like the way I look right now."

"Mm. Me too," Candy added.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that the way Jen and I were when we were Josh and Colin is a little like being born blind. I mean the two don't compare really, but there's still a sense of being trapped in a life you hate. Of being told all the things you can't have that you know will bring you some sense of fulfilment by well meaning people who don't understand what it is to be you.

"This transition is kind of the equivalent of a blind person trading her blindness for ugliness. I mean if that was your choice, you'd do it, right?"

They all nodded. Well most of them. Brandy didn't seem entirely convinced.

"There are consequences to every decision. Our blind person gets her sight, but then has to cope with everyone recoiling from her ugliness. Jen and I get to feel comfortable in our own skins, but we have to deal with dickheads like that bloke this morning.

"Our lives have more possibilities, but we have to realise and accept they still don't have as many as most people enjoy. Our formerly blind person can travel the world, have adventures, that kind of thing, but she's never likely to find a Prince Charming who'll fall in love with her and take her to her happily ever after. If she accepts that, she can get more out of life by focusing on the things she can have.

"Jen and I will never be mothers, we'll probably find that all of the good guys are just a little bit put off by who we used to be, that kind of thing. But, you know, maybe there is a different kind of life we can enjoy.

"Trying to fit into being male didn't work for us, maybe when we've had a chance to try it for a while, we'll find that being female doesn't either. It'll probably be a lot closer, but maybe there's something out there that nobody's thought of yet that will be just right for Jen and me."

"I don't get it," Brandy said, definitely the stereotypical ditz, but likeable all the same. "Are you saying you're really a girl or a boy?"

"I think what I'm saying is I'm not not exactly either, though maybe a little of both. It's going to take me a while to figure it out, but at least I have a chance of doing so now, especially when I have people who care for me."

Candy squeezed my arm. There wasn't time for much else as the bell went for the end of lunch.

-oOo-

The afternoon passed in the same surreal haze, with way too many people staring and too few saying anything. At the end of the day it seemed odd that no one had said or done anything unpleasant to me since the incident at the gates. Well, there was Brandy, but that didn't really count.

On the bus, I sat with Jen and Candy as I had before. I could feel eyes boring into me from every direction, but again, no one spoke, not even to each other. Even Craig seemed lost in a world of his own.

We climbed off near to the Peters' house, and stood awkwardly for a moment.

Jen broke the spell by wrapping me in a tight hug. It felt nice. None of the worries of homoeroticism that would have accompanied two guys doing the same. I hugged her back without reservation.

"Thank you," she said. "Today gave me the first hint of hope that I've felt since I changed."

"Hey, as long as we have each other, we have hope, right?"

"Yeah," she sniffed. "In a totally platonic way though, right?" She glanced nervously at Candy who smiled.

"Yeah," she said. "You can share, sis, but not everything." She grabbed my arm and tugged me out of Jenny's grasp.

Jenny took her cue and headed for home. Candy kept hold of my arm and pulled me in the direction of mine.

"So," she said after a long and very pregnant silence, "what you said at lunch?"

"Which bit, and what about it??

"I guess pretty much all of it."

"Okay. What about it?"

"Well..."

"Well what?"

"It's just... I don't know. This is difficult."

"Says the girl who asked a boy she barely knew if he wanted to try on her clothes. Candy, you specialise in difficult."

"I suppose "

"So..."

"I think I'm falling in love with you."

"Well, that's hardly a problem; you must know I'm crazy about you."

"Yeah, I do. It's just that... I don't know, I’m a bit confused."

"Join the club."

"You're not helping."

"Sorry."

Our walk had slowed to a crawl. I stopped and Candy turned towards me.

"I liked Colin, but he was a bit pathetic."

"No argument, I guess."

"And I think Lauren is truly amazing."

"So, the problem is..."

"I started this. I suggested you put on a dress. I wanted my sister to have a friend, and truth be told I think I'd already decided I fancied you as a girl. I know what you say about this and everything, but, you know, a lot of shit stuff's happened to you in a week. Your dad walking out, the arseholes at school today. I'm worried that I'm doing this for me and not thinking what's best for you."

I blinked a couple of times. This was seriously advanced girl-think, and, while I followed the twisted illogic, sort of, I didn't have the oestrogen to respond entirely like a girl myself.

"Well, that's a relief," I said at last. "I thought you were going to tell me you were into girls or something."

She half laughed, half sobbed. "Will you be serious for a minute?"

I engaged serious mode. "Candy, I can't speak for your motives, but I can for my own, and you know what I have to say about them, except maybe not all.

"There have been consequences to my own actions as well that have left me feeling selfish. It really sucks that my dad left, but most of all because of Mum. The thing is, you know what she's taught me? What I choose to do may influence other people, but ultimately they make their own decisions.

"The thing between Mum and Dad had been there for a lot of years. True, it may have continued to be there if I hadn't put on a dress, but I'm not sure if it isn't better this way, even if it is hard. The thing with me putting on your clothes was the same. Buried, dormant, causing me so much stress that I was, to use your words, a bit pathetic. It might have stayed that way if you hadn't prompted me, but in the end, the decision was mine, and I don't regret it. I certainly don't blame you for any of the shitty consequences, any more than Mum blames me."

Apparently, it was the right thing to say. The way she kissed me told me so. One or two nearby curtains were twitching by the time we came up for air, and we deemed it sensible to resumed progress towards my home before we brought about the end of civilization. We did so holding hands even so.

"I have a question," I announced as we turned into my road.

"Mmm?"

"We're not exactly lesbians, are we? I mean what would you call us?"

She put on a thoughtful face for a few seconds. "How about lovers? Love defies convention, after all."

"Works for me," I said, though my heart suddenly wasn't in it.

Our car was in our drive. Dad was back

-oOo-

"I'd better go," Candy said. "Call me later?"

"Of course."

She kissed me briefly, then gave me a quick once over. "You'll do," she said. "Thank Heaven for smudge proof lipstick, eh?"

I smiled weakly then pulled her into a long embrace. It was more for my comfort than hers, which she understood, and held onto me until I withdrew.

"It'll be okay," she said, going for convincing and just about achieving hopeful.

I offered her my brittle smile again and made for the door. Halfway there, I turned and looked back. Candy still stood watching, her arms wrapped tightly around her torso.

Enough. I rummaged in my bag for my keys, missing pockets for pretty much the first time.

"In here love," Mum called from the kitchen. It's kind of hard sneaking into our house, especially if someone's waiting for you

Tentatively, I stuck my head through the door. Mum and Dad sat opposite each other at the kitchen table, each with a mug of tea. I barely recognised my father. His eyes were red and swollen, and all of his usual arrogance was gone. He looked up at me with such uncertainty in his eyes...

"I'm sorry," he said; two words I've never heard come from his lips. "It's been all over the news all day. You might have been talking to me, what you said."

I looked over at Mum, whose eyes were shining, but she had a serenity about her which took away most of my own fear.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Outside the school gates. That guy who threw the egg. What you said to him."

I looked at Mum again. "I don't understand," I said.

"There were reporters," Mum told me. "Cameras too. They filmed it all, recorded every word you said. Like your father says, they've been playing it all day."

"I have never felt more ashamed," Dad said, "nor more proud. Ashamed of the way I've acted towards both of you, but especially to you, Lauren. Proud because of the way you stood up to that man, that whole crowd. Proud and ashamed because of what you said.

"I know I don't have the right to ask this, but I'd like to make it up to you. Both of you. Would you let me come back?"

I looked at Mum, who gave me the gentlest of nods. A single tear escaped her eyes, and she brushed at it nervously.

I ran to my dad and buried my face in his chest, wrapping my arms as far around his body as I could. I felt his arms go around me, his lips on the top of my head. I couldn't remember the last time he'd held me. No that was a lie, I could. He hadn't done so since the first time I'd said I wanted to be a girl. The dam gave way completely and years of pent up emotion poured out.

I felt him shaking with his own sobs. I felt Mum's arms as she joined the embrace. I lost all track of time for a while.

-oOo-

Later, Dad and I sat together on the sofa, me curled up and leaning on him. The news was on the telly.

"You know," he said. "I could get used to having a daughter. Especially one with your courage."

The report from the school had just begun, and I watched my own egg covered face. I'd never noticed the cameras, and they had been very close.

"You know, I'm surprised none of your friends have texted you."

Candy!

I grabbed my bag and hunted for my phone. We weren't allowed to have them on in school, and somehow, I'd left mine switched off when we came home. Partly the distraction of everyone looking at me, partly having Candy so close.

It threw out a meddley of different noises as it reestablished connection. Emails, texts, missed calls. I opened the call function. Jenny had tried twice, Candy five times. I guessed they'd both be in the other lists as well. I tried Candy's entry and held the phone up to my ear. Smiling apologetically at Dad, I stepped out into the hallway.

"Hi. I'm sorry. My phone was off, and..."

"Never mind,” she said impatiently. "Tell me. You've been crying, I can hear it."

"Yeah, but its good. Dad saw me on the news. Did you know I was on the news?"

"Are you kidding? Everybody knows!"

"Oh. Okay. Anyway, Dad came round to say sorry. He's back for good, I think. He just told me he could get used to having a daughter."

"I told you it’d be okay," she said, but I could hear the relief in her voice.

"Could you tell Jenny I'm sorry I didn't call her back?"

"I will when she gets off her phone. She called Katie when you didn't answer straight away. Did you know they swapped phone numbers at lunchtime? Anyway, they've been talking solid for the last half hour."

"I had a feeling about them. I wonder how the school will cope with two trans semi-lesbo couples."

"Is that what we're calling ourselves now?"

"Okay, you come up with something then."

“I thought I did.”

The call degenerated into girl talk and couple talk, and I retired to the privacy of my room. When we were done, which took a good half hour and only stopped when she was called away to dinner, I set about answering the texts and emails, starting with the people who’d already declared themselves our friends.

The last one I looked at was a message from Craig. It read simply, "I've been a dick."

I sent back, "Yes you have. What are you going to do about it?"

"Say sorry?"

"Good start, but you've a way to go."

"I know. Hey, if you and Candy ever split up, let me know."

Still a dick, but you have to make allowances for some people.

Mum just called. I gotta go eat.

-oOo-

Now it's your turn. You see that little comment link down there on the left? Go on, give it a click. You know you want to...



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