Soixante-Trois Airlines, part 22

“Sophie…” The brown-haired woman heard a distant voice coo, waking her from her slumber. “Sophie… Wake up, birthday girl!”

“Umf,” Sophie moaned as a pair of soft hands gently shook her awake. “My birthday’s not ‘will Wednesday, for god’s sake…”

“Yes, but we’re all at work on Wednesday,” Amy retorted. “We’re all off today, so we’re celebrating NOW. As in NOW. So up and at ‘em, birthday girl!” Despite her tiredness, Sophie couldn’t help but giggle at her friend’s enthusiasm, especially when she opened her eyes to discover that both Amy and Hayley (who was also intruding into her room) were dressed in their traditional Sunday garb of a pair of soft pink tights and a clingy black leotard.

Less than half an hour later, after showering and ensuring that her body was free of hair below her eyebrows, Sophie was clad in the same tight, clingy and yet comfortable and familiar uniform, which she covered with a light summer dress and her favourite pair of cute black flats. To Sophie, it was a perfectly ordinary thing to do on a Sunday morning when she wasn’t working, and yet, if you’d told her just twelve months ago that this would be her new normal, she’d have looked at you in a state of utter disbelief.

Eleven months ago, when Sophie first transformed herself into the woman she would become, she imagined that the only effect it would have on her life would be that it’d give her a good story and undercover experience to put on her CV. She thought she could put on the clothes, take them off and be unchanged. And while that may be true of her body, it was far from true about her mind. The young man who’d formerly been known as James had grown to truly embrace ‘his’ new identity to the extent that ‘she’ could no longer imagine living her life without the possibility of becoming ‘Sophie’, even if only on a temporary basis.

However, for Sophie, that would be easier said than done. She had hoped that when she told her parents about her ‘double life’, it would make her life easier, when it in fact had the opposite effect. Rather than embrace their new daughter and help her with her gender identity issues, they saw ‘Sophie’ as a trivial side-effect of her work, something to be discarded without a second thought once the job had been completed- which, ironically, had been Sophie’s exact attitude mere months earlier.

To make matters more complicated, Sophie couldn’t rely on her friends for any additional support either, as while they unconditionally accepted Sophie as a transgendered woman, they were unaware of all the circumstances surrounding the start of Sophie’s ‘transition’, and Sophie didn’t dare tell them out of fear of being labelled a fraud and losing the only true friends she had ever had. The only confidantes Sophie had were her friends Rachel and Amelie, though they had their own lives to lead, and her counsellor, though that was only for one hour a week. Even the knowledge that Sophie only had one month left of her agreement with Rachel didn’t reduce her stress at living her double life, as not only couldn’t she imagine life without ‘Sophie’ in it, she couldn’t imagine her life without Amy or Hayley in it, or Rachel, Amelie, Natalie, Zoe or any of her other friends, or getting dressed as a ballerina and dancing with her friends every Sunday morning, or going shopping for cute new shoes with her friends…

“Bonjour, mademoiselles!” The grinning face of Zoe Renou-Briggs said as she welcomed the three young women into her dance studio. “Natalie! We shall be needing the tutu after all, hehe!” Sophie cringed as she heard this- she was all too aware of the significance of the tutu, having witnessed it in action several times over the prior few months.

“Oh- really, no,” Sophie feebly pleaded. “Not on my account…”

“Absolument on your account!” Zoe said as Amy and Hayley giggled excitedly. “And because I want to see what the last ten months of my teaching have done, hehe! It is just a pity that you are not yet ready for pointe shoes!”

“I’m ready though!” Amy interrupted, fluttering her voluminous false eyelashes at the Frenchwoman. “Pweeeease?”

“I shall decide when you are ready!” Zoe said firmly, sighing and giggling at the ginger woman’s deep pout. “But Mademoiselle Connelly is for sure ready AND overdue for wearing the tutu! Now come along, we shall get you fitted!” Sophie sighed and let out a giggle of her own as she followed Zoe into one of the dance studio’s rear rooms, where Zoe’s wife was waiting with the extravagant pink tutu. Sophie was excited to wear the tutu, of course, but was also stressed by what it represented, as that coming Wednesday wasn’t just her 24th birthday, but was also her 1st as ‘Sophie’.

362 days earlier, ‘James’ had celebrated his 23rd birthday in much the same way as his previous 22- waking up in ‘his’ parents’ home, opening presents that included shaving sets, a new pair of jeans and a new watch, before working from home on various articles ‘he’ was writing and enjoying a special dinner prepared by ‘his’ mother, and ending the day by going to the local pub for a pint with ‘his’ father. Much like 'his' previous birthdays, James didn't spend much time with his friends or colleagues, but Sophie was confident that would be very different when it came to celebrating her 24th birthday, and the cheers she got from her friends when she stepped into the dance studio at the end of a long lesson wearing the voluminous pink tutu was all the proof she needed.

“Swit-swoo!” Amy cheered as Sophie posed for the class. “Come on Connelly, shake that booty!”

“Do people usually twerk in a tutu?” Ellen teased, making her girlfriend giggle.

“I know I don’t,” Sophie pouted, before breaking down in a fit of giggles. “Ahh… Never imagined I’d ever wear anything like THIS, hehe!”

“I never doubted it,” Amy said confidently as she retrieved her phone from her dance bag and began filming the tutu-clad woman.

“Never doubted that you’d wear it or that Sophie would wear it?” Hayley asked.

“Oh, both, definitely both,” Amy replied, before falling silent along with the rest of the crowd as Zoe lowered the lights within the studio and pressed play on her iPod.

As the gentle classical music began, Sophie found herself moving along with it almost like she was on autopilot. The ten months of dance classes that Sophie had taken had transformed her from a creature with two left feet into a graceful ballerina, and Sophie resolved that no matter what happened, she would always try to find a way to dance with her friends on Sunday mornings. As she had that thought, however, another unwelcome thought wormed its way into Sophie’s mind- how she’d have to explain to her friends that as they got more and more feminine, her body wouldn’t change at all. This thought was reinforced when the dance ended and the lights were raised to reveal that two extra people had snuck into the studio while Sophie was dancing.

“Bravissimo!” Jessica cheered, applauding alongside her grinning fiancée.

“Guess who’s just spent a week flying back and forth to Rome, then?” Amy teased, giggling as the blonde American woman playfully stuck her tongue out at her. “Seriously, though, you were AWESOME, Soph!”

“Aww, thanks!” Sophie giggled girlishly. “I didn’t see you two come in?”

“Because you were too busy concentrating on dancing, of course?” Zoe asked with a smirk.

“Well, of course!” Sophie replied with a giggle.

“I think what Sophie means,” Amelie interjected, “is that should you not be busy planning the most beautiful wedding of the year?”

“Oh- trust me, we are,” Paige said. “Now that I’m just about back on my feet anyway, heh. Kinda hard planning a wedding in Scotland when you live in London and you’re not exactly mobile.”

“Though we did catch a bit of trouble when we flew out to Minnesota at the start of the month for our holiday,” Jessica chuckled. “Kinda got asked why Paige can fly long-range but can’t, say, work on flights to Dublin or Paris.”

“That is surely silly!” Amelie snorted. “Sitting on your ass on a flight is less stress than working, surely?”

“Try telling management that,” Paige snorted. “No, really, please do, coming from you…?” The Scottish girl giggled as the billionaire’s daughter just sighed and playfully rolled her eyes.

“Mademois- ahem, madames et mademoiselles,” Zoe announced, giggling as she flashed the gold band on her own left hand. “I must lock the studio now. We do not want people stealing this tutu, do we?”

“Especially not the birthday girl herself!” Hayley teased, giggling as Sophie began to blush.

“Come on, I’ll help you get changed,” Natalie chuckled as she gently placed her hand on the almost-giddy Sophie’s nearly-bare back.

A short while later, the young women were walking the short distance across London to the coffee shop where Natalie worked, all of them having changed from their dancewear into their street clothes. Much to Sophie’s surprise, she found herself on a comedown after changing back into her summer dress, almost like wearing the tutu had been some kind of high- which she was only too happy to accept that it was. As she and her friends chatted, Sophie found herself feeling more and more at ease, to the point where she almost forgot that ‘James’ had ever existed…

“…Disappointed, sure,” Natalie shrugged. “But it’s still further than England have ever got all the time I’ve been alive. Well, apart from 1996, but I was, like, three back then, and it was the Euros, not the World Cup, so it shouldn’t count, right?”

“And KDB didn’t get injured, that’s the most important thing,” Ellen interjected.

“I’m surprised you two are still following the World Cup,” Sophie teased the two northern women.

“I dunno,” Amy giggled. “I’m willing to bet that their BETTER halves have told them they’re now cheering for a different country?”

“Not on my account,” Amelie said, shaking her head. “I am not the football mad woman that either of the sisters are. Or that my father is, ugh.”

“He in Moscow then, I take it?” Natalie asked.

“And invited me and my brothers and sisters to go as well,” Amelie scoffed. “I will not go to a country that treats LGBT people so badly. Putin is a small man, no more than any other bully. And so is the orange-“

“No, please!” Paige chuckled from behind the group. “Still taking painkillers and they do NOT mix with booze!”

“Ah, you’re lucky we don’t serve alcohol this early at the shop,” Natalie chuckled. “And you DO know I’m going to be studying politics at university starting in September, right? This might be one of the last sober conversations we ever have, hehe!”

“Maybe we should solve the problem by changing the topic,” Jessica suggested with a confident grin. “Is Laura working today?”

“This weekend yes, next weekend no,” Natalie replied with a smirk. “This Friday coming’s her P-R-O-M, and she’s kinda worked up about it, heh.”

“Ah- yep,” Jessica giggled. “And I think we all know why, if prom over here is anything like it is back home, heh!”

“Really?” Natalie asked. “We’re gossiping about a sixteen year old’s sex life?”

“You would rather talk about ours?” Amelie asked, linking fingers with her girlfriend and giggling as Natalie pretended to retch.

“Eurgh- ew- no thank you!” Natalie spat, which only intensified Amelie and Ellen’s giggles.

“It is lucky I know this is because of your sister and not of homophobia,” Amelie said with a smug grin.

“She were just as bad after my prom,” Ellen teased as her sister sighed and shook her head. “Both of them, actually. Didn’t speak to me for a week after the Year 11 prom, after the Year 13 prom she were on me to let her wear my dress, hehe!”

“And I hope you let her!” Amy said. “Dunno whether or not they have prom in France but you might be the only person out of all of us that’s actually worn a prom dress!”

“It has started to become a thing in France,” Amelie explained. “Of course, at the school where I went, everyone's parents were so rich as to afford a formal dance by themselves. It was almost like what you would call a debutante ball. I felt like I was at a market.”

“At least you got to wear a dress for it,” Hayley sighed. “Nothing LESS comfortable than a full tuxedo in this weather. Or ever.” Sophie found herself nodding in agreement with her friend, though as she thought back to her own prom, she realised she only had fond memories of it.

Like Ellen, ‘James’ had attended two proms- one after finishing his GCSEs and one after his A-levels. The first prom, when he was sixteen, was little more than a glorified school disco, held in the school hall, but the second prom, when he was eighteen, was much more special than that. A hotel was booked, limousines were rented and the school spent hundreds of pounds on decorations and gifts, but all James wore was the same smart suit he’d worn to the first prom two years earlier. The girls, however, had gone all out- hair, dresses, make-up, nails, the works. At the time, James couldn’t understand why the girls- including his own at the time girlfriend- were getting so excited, but as Sophie listened to her friends’ tales of frustration and envy, she began to understand, and much to her surprise, began to feel twinges of envy herself. She also wondered what her ex-girlfriend would think if she could her the way she was dressed at that particular moment…

“…Hayley’s prom was a few weeks ago,” Jessica said, snapping Sophie out of her daydream. “Think my parents are in a state of shock that she’s already eighteen, heh. Gonna be heartbroken when she moves to Minnesota next month for college.”

“I sometimes wonder whether or not our Hayley is really over eighteen,” Amy teased, earning a playful shove from her brown-haired flat mate.

“Just for that, YOU can buy the wine for tonight, since I’m obviously not old enough!” Hayley pouted.

“Where is everyone watching the ga- erm, I mean, the match tonight?” Jessica asked.

“We shall be at Charlotte’s house,” Zoe replied with a smug grin. “With Bastille Day going yesterday I have convinced her to use blue decorations today, hehe!”

“Helps that neither of us have work tomorrow morning, heh!” Natalie said, chuckling as she earned jeers from those in the group who did have to work the following morning- a group that didn’t include Sophie. “Anyone else who’s not got an early morning tomorrow?”

“We’re both at work tomorrow,” Amy replied, gesturing to herself and Hayley. "Think 'little Rachel' is as well, hence why she wasn't at dance this morning."

“Miss Connelly, on the other hand…” Hayley teased, making the subject of her teasing blush.

“I still have an early morning tomorrow,” Sophie mumbled. “Got, umm, my counsellor first thing.”

“Meh, it’s not like you need to be up at 5am for that,” Natalie shrugged.

“Are you any closer to getting the magic medicine?” Paige asked with a smile, which caused Sophie to bite her lip nervously. “I mean hormones, obviously?”

“Oh- umm, not yet…” Sophie replied, her cheeks turning a bright red colour. “We, umm, we’re still- erm, this is, you know, kinda private?” And also never likely to happen, because I’ve been lying to you since day one, Sophie mentally continued.

“Oh- sure, I get it, I really do,” Paige said. “It’s not like I go around flashing my vagina at everyone now, heh!”

“Not EVERYONE,” Jessica teased as she wrapped her arm around her fiancée’s waist. “We’d be there tonight but Paris beckons for me tomorrow, heh. And no matter what happens tonight, that will NOT be a fun flight.”

“Kinda glad I’ve got Malaga tomorrow, heh,” Ellen chuckled.

“Athens here, so up extra early,” Amy chuckled as Sophie relaxed, happy that the spotlight was no longer on her and her ‘pretend transition’.

As much as she enjoyed her life as ‘Sophie’, the thought of taking medication to physical alter her body and her brain chemistry- or, worse yet, undergoing surgery- didn’t appeal to her. Natalie served as an example to Sophie that she didn’t need hormones in order to be as ‘real’ a woman as any of the other girls in the group. Sophie just wished she didn’t have to keep lying to her friends about ‘her’ true origins…

After the girls’ lunch at the coffee shop, Sophie, Amy and Hayley headed back to their flat, where the latter two women relaxed on their sofa while Sophie headed to her bedroom to get ready for her night out.

“I still can’t believe you let Natalie twist your arm so easily,” Amy teased.

“I still can’t believe you needed your arm twisting to go to a party at Charlotte’s!” Hayley giggled as Sophie sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Two nights in a row is a lot,” Sophie replied. “But I AM off work tomorrow, hehe!”

“It’s not so much ‘two parties in two nights’ that’s the issue,” Amy said with a smug grin, “but ‘three parties in five nights’, right Soph?”

“I’ve told you I don’t want a fuss made,” Sophie said with a long, heavy sigh. “I’d have hoped being at work Wednesday and Thursday would’ve dissuaded you from doing anything?”

“I’m off work Wednesday and Thursday,” Amy retorted.

“I’m off work all week apart from tomorrow,” Hayley giggled. “You are NOT getting away with this, Miss Connelly!”

“Doesn’t look like it,” Sophie sighed.

“I suppose I do kinda get why you’re a bit down on your birthday,” Hayley said. “’Cause it’s like, the first one without your parents, right?”

“Yep,” Sophie said with a genuine sigh- Hayley was right, but not for the reasons she thought.

“I know the feeling,” Hayley whispered.

“It just sucks that you two had to deal with that from your families,” Amy sighed. “Makes me appreciate just how lucky I was, you know? Though I still reckon my dad wishes he could, you know, have a beer and watch the match with me, like we did last time out.”

“Yeah,” Sophie sighed as she remembered back to four years earlier, when ‘James’ and his father had watched the final of the previous World Cup in a local pub.

“I doubt my dad would be interested in watching the final,” Hayley snorted, making Amy sigh and smile sympathetically.

“If it’s any consolation,” Amy sighed, “you’re far from the only person whose dad isn’t likely to watch football with them.” The three women all fidgeted uncomfortably and contemplated their family lives as an awkward silence filled the flat.

“…Wine?” Hayley suggested, instantly bringing a smile back to Amy’s face.

“Thought you’d never ask!” The ginger girl giggled, relaxing back onto the sofa as her young flat mate went to fetch a bottle and a corkscrew.

As Amy and Hayley drank their wine, Sophie mused on the conversation that they’d had, particularly the memory of how she and her father had watched the previous World Cup final together as father and son. Whilst Sophie knew that her father would understand why she couldn’t watch that night’s final with him, she still felt guilty, and a large part of her longed to scrub away the make-up, pull on a pair of jeans and head down to the pub with her dad- but a much larger part of her wanted to keep on the light dress she was wearing and to put on more make-up. With a sigh, Sophie reached into her handbag for her phone, and- after clearing her throat and trying to remember her ‘James’ voice- dialled her parents’ home number.

“Hello?” The unmistakable sound of Sophie’s father’s voice asked from the other end of the line.

“Hi dad,” ‘James’ replied.

“Oh, hello son!” Mr. Connolly said, audibly perking up at the sound of his only child’s voice. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I- umm, just wondering if you’ll be watching tonight?” James asked.

“Of course!” Mr. Connolly chuckled. “Should be a good match, even if it should be England in it instead of Croatia. Are you planning on watching it too?”

“Yep,” James replied. “I was- heh, I was remembering four years ago, when you took me down the pub to watch Germany-Argentina.”

“Yeah, that was a good night, even if it was a late one!” Mr. Connolly chuckled, before his voice grew considerably more sombre. “That’s probably not going to happen this year though, not with where you’re working now.”

“You know it’s only a short-term-“ James protested.

“Yes, I know, I know,” Mr. Connolly said. “Doesn’t mean I don’t miss watching football with my son, though!” No reason you couldn’t watch it with your daughter, Sophie thought to herself.

“And we will again,” James reassured his father. “Hell, the finals of the Euros in 2020 are at Wembley, we could even go watch it, you know, in person?”

“…That’d be nice,” Mr. Connolly said with a chuckle. “As long as you are appropriately dressed. Still can’t look at those photos you sent, of that party on Facebook…”

“Well- yeah,” James mumbled.

“Speaking of parties,” Mr. Connolly said, his mood perking up again, “What time will you be over on Wednesday?”

“Ah- umm, that’s- that’s another reason I called,” James mumbled. “I- I’m kinda, you know, working that day…”

“’Working’,” Mr. Connolly snorted. “Couldn’t even give you your birthday off to be yourself?”

“It’s just the way the shifts fall,” James semi-lied. “And I’m guessing you don’t want me to come around after work?”

“You guessed right,” Mr. Connolly snorted. “Thank god this ‘job’ of yours is only going to be for another month, eh?”

“Yep, you said it,” James replied with a forced chuckle. “I- I should be able to come by, umm, at the weekend?”

“I guess that’ll have to do,” Mr. Connolly sighed. “I’ll let your mother know. She’ll be disappointed, but she’ll understand, you’re a grown man, you have your own life to lead. Even if it isn’t really YOUR life.”

“Yep,” James said quietly. “I- I’ll see you around, dad.”

“See you around,” Mr. Connolly replied in a sad voice. “And as I won’t see you before, have as good a birthday as you can, son.”

“Sure,” James whispered. “Bye, dad.”

“Bye,” Mr. Connolly grunted, hanging up the phone and eliciting a long, slow moan from his child.

Sophie hated having to lie to her father, but knew that the alternative was much, much worse. As long as he believed that Sophie was simply undercover for a story, he wouldn’t be happy, but would at least be tolerant, but if he ever found out that Sophie harboured thoughts of living life as a woman after finishing her expose? Sophie shuddered at the prospect. It wasn’t a problem she had to face immediately, but the deadline for her story was coming up fast, and she knew that if she asked Rachel for another extension, she would get suspicious- but not as suspicious as her parents. However, even they wouldn’t be as suspicious as Amy and Hayley would be if Sophie were to suddenly disappear from their lives…

With a sigh, Sophie pulled on her favourite light denim jacket, grabbed her handbag and left the flat, bound for the nearest tube station. She still had several weeks to go and was determined to enjoy all of them- even her birthday, despite the fact that she knew she’d be more stressed on that day than any others…

“Bienvenue!” Charlotte giggled as she opened the door of her vast mansion and invited Sophie inside.

“Merci!” Sophie giggled. “Thanks for the invite tonight, heh.”

“My pleasure,” Charlotte said. “Any friend of Nat’s is a friend of mine. Because, of course, you can…?”

“Never have too many friends!” Sophie giggled in response, even as her stomach churned at the prospect of revealing her ‘true self’ to her friends.

However, as Sophie entered the vast main room of the house, she found herself almost instantly relaxing as she realised that the men and women present were indeed her friends. No one had forced them to make friends with her, they’d done so of their own free will. Even millionaire celebrities like Charlotte Hartley were only too happy to welcome Sophie into their home. Sophie wondered whether or not they’d be so willing to accept ‘James’…

Sophie stayed at the party until late in the evening, arriving back at her flat long after Amy and Hayley had gone to bed. Sophie was still asleep the following morning when her flat mates left the house to travel to work, taking care not to disturb the sleeping woman as they left.

“Last day before a week of freedom, then?” Amy teased her younger flat mate, who rolled her eyes in response.

“A heard-earned week of freedom!” Hayley replied with a smug grin. “And it’s not like you don’t have two weeks booked off in September!”

“Feel likes centuries away, September,” Amy sighed. “Especially in this heat! God, I am SO glad I’m losing weight and don’t need this corset doing up so tightly…”

“Ugh, tell me about it,” Hayley spat. “Thank god it’s Brussels today and not somewhere like Malaga."

"Though after Saturday, it still won't be fun," Amy snorted.

"Ugh, true," Hayley sighed. "At least it's a short flight."

“Yeah, gotta feel sorry for the girls on grey route,” Amy sighed. “Thank god they don’t fly there from London.”

“Not that either of us would be able to, anyway,” Hayley said, making her flat mate smirk.

“Who’d have thought that having the wrong genitals could be a good thing?” Amy giggled. “So… Got anything planned for the rest of the week?”

“Oh- I dunno,” Hayley shrugged. “Just, you know, hanging around…”

“Umm… Hayley?” Amy said, a concerned look spreading across her face. “Are- are you okay? ‘Cause I’ve lived with you for a year now, I kinda know when you’re not telling me the whole story…”

“What?” Hayley protested. “I just haven’t made any plans yet, that’s all. I had the leave available, and I had to use it by the start of August or I’d have lost it, you know?”

“Fair enough,” Amy shrugged, taken aback by her friend’s sudden defensiveness.

“And it’s not like you haven’t had your ‘mysterious trips’,” Hayley sniped. “Such as last Christmas?”

“I said ‘fair enough’, okay?” Amy protested, bristling at the mention of her own ‘secret trip’. “Jeez, sor-ry!”

“…No, I’m sorry,” Hayley sighed. “But- but it IS private, you know?”

“Oh- believe me, I know,” Amy sighed. “I won’t bring it up again, I promise.”

“Thanks,” Hayley whispered.

“But if you DO need to talk, you know I’ll listen, right?” Amy asked.

"Of course," Hayley whispered.

"And make sure you're back in time for Sophie's birthday!" Amy playfully cautioned, even though her friend's body language made it clear she wasn't interested in 'playing'.

“Sure,” Hayley mumbled, though secretly, she had no intention of telling Amy, or anyone else, what she had planned for her week off- even though she knew they would support her in her decision.

Two months earlier, Hayley had received the shock of her life when she logged on to Facebook to find a friend request waiting for her from a person called ‘Denise Fisher’. Hayley had never known anyone by the name of ‘Denise Fisher’, and it took Hayley several seconds to realise that the name was suspiciously similar to ‘Dennis Fisher’, her father’s name- and the face in the profile picture looked suspiciously similar to her father as well.

Hayley had almost dropped her phone when the revelation dawned on her that the friend request was indeed from the parent she’d not heard from in almost six years. Hayley had wasted no time in accepting the friend request, and mere seconds later she received a message.

‘Hello Hayley,’ the message read, making the young woman’s heart skip a beat despite its plainness.

‘Hi,’ Hayley replied, typing and deleting the word ‘dad’ a dozen times before finally sending the message.

‘How are you doing?’ Denise asked. ‘I see you’re working as a flight attendant now? That must be exciting!’

‘Yeah,’ Hayley replied as a million questions swam through her head. Why did Denise wait so long to make contact? Had she tried, but not been able to? How did she know about Hayley’s transition?

‘I can tell you’re surprised by my making contact,’ Denise typed, making Hayley snort with laughter.

‘Just a bit,’ Hayley replied.

‘I wouldn’t blame you for being angry at me,’ Denise typed. ‘I’m sure you have a million questions you want to ask me, but I want you to know that I never stopped loving you, or your brother. And I’m sure you must understand why I did what I had to do.’

‘If I’m honest I was almost ready to come out myself before you did,’ Hayley typed after a long pause. ‘If it hadn’t been for mum having a fit I probably would’ve done. And I don’t hate you dad.’ Hayley hesitated before sending the message, wondering how Denise would react to being called ‘dad’ for what would have been the first time in six years. Would she see it as an unwelcome reminder of the gender she struggled with for so long, or would she see it as a welcome reminder that no matter what gender she lived as, she would always be Hayley’s parent?

‘That’s good to hear,’ Denise replied, eliciting a sigh of relief from her daughter.

‘Where are you living now?’ Hayley asked. ‘Still in Nottingham?’

‘Had to move after I came out,’ Denise explained. ‘To get away from your mother’s family. I’m now living in Bristol.’

‘I’m in London,’ Hayley replied, before painstakingly composing her next message one letter at time. ‘Don’t usually get the chance to get away much, but I’d like to meet up with you some time.’

‘I’d like that too,’ Denise typed, followed by a smiling emoji that made Hayley giggle.

Over the following few weeks, the two women regularly communicated on Facebook, filling each other in on the goings-on in their lives and trying to reconnect as parent and child. Eventually, a free week of leave became available, which Hayley eagerly snapped up, and plans were made for her to visit Bristol to see her parent face-to-face for the first time in what felt like forever.

Hayley tried to shake off her nerves about her impending reunion as she served her customers on their flight from England to Belgium, but every time she saw a family travelling together, she felt herself tense up. Their Facebook conversations were all well and good, but Hayley wondered if she’d have anything to say to Denise- or if she’d end up driving her away yet again…

“Ah, good morning, Sophie!” Dr Phillips said as the brown-haired woman walked into her office, dress in her usual attire of tight hipster jeans, a skinny t-shirt and fashionable low-heeled ankle boots. “I trust it was a good night last night?”

“Yeah, not bad, thanks,” Sophie replied with a smile. “Didn’t drink too much as I knew I was getting up early today.”

“My daughter and her wife could learn from you,” Dr Phillips said with a tired chuckle as she glanced at the picture of the two brides that took pride of place on her desk. “It's one of the 'husband and boyfriend's birthday today so Nikki will be up a lot earlier than she'd want to be, heh. On a not unrelated note, are you looking forward to Wednesday?”

“…I’m glad you brought that up,” Sophie said with a tired chuckle as she sat down on one of the office’s comfortable chairs. “It’s kinda what I mainly want to talk about today.”

“I had a feeling it might be,” Dr Phillips said. “Birthdays can be especially stressful for transgendered people, especially your first birthday in your new gender.”

“Even if it’s also my last birthday in the new gender?” Sophie asked. “Because, umm, I’m probably not going to be ‘Sophie’ this time next year, not, umm…”

“I knew what you meant,” Dr Phillips said with a sympathetic smile. “Though I’m still not entirely convinced you will be ‘James’ this time next year.”

“…No, me neither,” Sophie conceded with a heavy sigh. “But it’s been, you know, on my mind a lot lately, for obvious reasons.”

“You’re almost at the end of your ‘deal’ with Rachel,” Dr Phillips said with a nod. “Have you thought about what you’ll do once you’ve finished your story and handed it over to her?”

“A little, maybe,” Sophie sighed. “I mean, I DO still have this job- well, until they find out I wrote the expose, anyway. Though I could always see if Rachel wanted to publish it in her name?”

“It’s funny you’re thinking of ways to remain with the airline,” Dr Phillips mused. “I would have thought you would want to find a way to advance your career in journalism, and the expose would be the perfect way to do that?”

“It- well, yes, it would,” Sophie said. “But the airline, umm, pays a lot better than I ever earned as a freelance journalist, and it’s not THAT bad a workplace…”

“Even the uniform?” Dr Phillips asked, smiling sympathetically as Sophie bit her lip. “Like I’ve told you countless times, there is nothing wrong in feeling the way you’re feeling.”

“Even though my main feeling is that I feel like a fraud?” Sophie asked.

“In what way do you feel fraudulent?” Dr Phillips asked.

“My parents think I’m just being female for a job, nothing more,” Sophie replied. “My friends think this is who I really am, that I’ve left ‘James’ in the past, never to return.”

“And what do you think?” Dr Phillips asked. “That’s the most important thing of all.”

“I- I don’t even know what I think,” Sophie moaned. “James, Sophie… Some days it’s like they’re the same person, some days one is completely alien to the other.”

“Then let me rephrase the question,” Dr Phillips said. “What do you want? Where- or rather, who- do you want to be twelve months from now? And don’t answer ‘I don’t know’. Give me the first answer that comes into your head- who do you want to be this time next year?”

“I want-“ Sophie said, before sighing. “I want to have the choice to be either ‘James’ or ‘Sophie’.”

“And that’s fine,” Dr Phillips said reassuringly. “Being bigendered or gender fluid is just as valid as being transgendered.”

“But,” Sophie continued, “I also want my parents and my friends to accept my choice- or even that I have a choice.”

“Well, I admit that’s easier said than done,” Dr Phillips conceded. “And I can see how your birthday will be a stressful time, with both family and friends wanting to celebrate with you.”

“Amy and Hayley have threatened to throw me a party,” Sophie chuckled. “Part of the reason I’m working Wednesday and Thursday, trying to avoid the problem.”

“But you don’t know for sure that you’ll be rejected by everyone if you tell them the truth,” Dr Phillips said.

“I can be pretty sure about my dad, the comments he’s been making,” Sophie snorted. “It’s clear he’s disappointed in me even for, you know, ‘pretending to pretend’. If he found out I actually liked this?”

“Then how about your friends?” Dr Phillips asked. “They know you’re not on HRT and identify as bigendered, right?”

“Well- yes,” Sophie mumbled. “But how am I meant to tell them that the only reason I’m ‘Sophie’ is because I’m spying on them to write a book?”

“But is that the only reason, though?” Dr Phillips asked. “It may have been to begin with, and if you had no intention of remaining as ‘Sophie’, then you could simply walk away without any regrets. But the fact that you want to stay as ‘Sophie’- even if only on a part-time basis- should be enough proof to your friends that you’re sincere, shouldn’t it?”

“Well- maybe, I guess?” Sophie whined. “The fact is though, I never cross-dressed before ‘Sophie’ began. Never even thought about it, and the only reason ‘Sophie’ began was to get dirt on the airline.”

“You’d be surprised how many transwomen get their start the exact same way,” Dr Phillips said softly. “Many of whom start HRT and some of whom even go ‘all the way’- not that that means you should feel obliged to, of course.”

“Well- okay,” Sophie mumbled. “Are- are you suggesting I like, make some big announcement at my party or something?”

“I wouldn’t say THAT exactly,” Dr Phillips replied, “but if you tell them calmly, rationally, I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“And if they don’t?” Sophie asked.

“Then you have to question whether or not they were ‘true’ friends to begin with,” Dr Phillips said, sitting back in her chair and adding to her notes.

Sophie left the counselling session 45 minutes later with a lot on her mind. As always, Dr Phillips’s advice had been wise, but Sophie still felt as far from a decision as she had been at the start of the day. As the counsellor repeatedly reminded Sophie, her job wasn’t to do her thinking for her, but to guide her into making her own mind up. And while Sophie logically felt that coming clean to her friends was the right move, there was still a little voice at the back of her mind going through all the worst case scenarios.

Sophie was lost in thought as passed through the waiting area en route to the office’s exit, so much so that she was almost at the door when she realised that one of the women in the waiting area was calling her name- and that the woman in question was none other than the famous singer Stephanie Abbott.

“Sophie?” Stephanie asked, confused by the brown-haired flight attendant’s apparent daydream. “Hey, Sophie, you okay?”

“Hmm?” Sophie replied, confused why someone as rich and famous as Stephanie would want to talk to her. “Umm, sorry Steph, I was miles away…”

“Yeah, you looked it!” Stephanie chuckled. “Though to be fair I have a lot to think about after every time I see Beverly, heh. You got a sec?”

“Umm- sure!” Sophie chuckled. “Got nowhere else to be, heh!”

“I’ll try not to take that personally!” Stephanie giggled. “But you looked REALLY lost in thought there, is- is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Sophie replied, before sighing. “Not really… Kinda- kinda got a tough choice coming up soon.”

“Ugh, had my fair share of those,” Stephanie said with a tired laugh. “One piece of advice: do NOT try running away from your problems. They always catch up with you in the end.” Sophie nodded as she remembered the stories she’d read about Stephanie’s prior struggles with her mental health- and the anecdotes she’d heard from those who had witnessed it firsthand.

“Wasn’t planning to,” Sophie replied. “Even if I do have access to aircraft going everywhere in Europe, heh.”

“SO glad I didn’t,” Stephanie said with a snort of laughter.

“So you’re happy with the way things worked out?” Sophie asked.

“…Yes,” Stephanie replied after a few seconds’ thought. “On the whole, things definitely worked out for the best. Though it’s easy to say that, being rich and famous, heh. My only regret is that I wasn’t honest to my friends and family from the very start. Would’ve saved a LOT of headaches if I was.”

“Yeah,” Sophie mumbled, her mind wandering again as the door at the end of the corridor opened and her counsellor poked her head out.

“Looks like this is me,” Stephanie chuckled. “See you around, Soph- and sorry we can’t make it on Wednesday, got a TV appearance the next say so, well, yeah.”

“Wednesday?” Sophie asked.

“Umm, your birthday?” Stephanie giggled. “You really DO have a lot on your mind, heh!”

“I guess,” Sophie shrugged, standing and exchanging a gentle hug with the famous singer as they went their separate ways.

Sophie contemplated both Dr Phillips’s and Stephanie’s advice on her way home. She and Stephanie had been in a similar situation, but the big difference was that unlike Stephanie, Sophie had nothing to lose by coming out to her friends. The expose would still get published, Sophie’s journalism career would still continue and she’d still have the love and respect of her parents. And as Dr Phillips had pointed out, anybody who rejected her couldn’t call themselves a ‘true’ friend. Though as Sophie considered her options, she realised that she didn’t have many other friends, ‘true’ or otherwise- and she certainly didn’t have another family to fall back on in case her parents rejected her ‘real’ coming out…

The following morning, Sophie and Amy left the house early clad in their smart dresses and heels, ready for another day of hard work in the skies above Europe. Unbeknownst to them, however, their flat mate, who they assumed was still asleep, was already awake and impatiently waiting for the two women to leave so that she could sneak out unnoticed. As she heard the front door close, Hayley let out a long sigh and slid out of bed, heading to the bathroom for a quick shower before returning to her room, opening her wardrobe and sighing again.

The last time Hayley’s father had laid eyes on her, she had been a skinny fourteen year old boy named ‘Harry’ who showed no outward signs of being ‘different’ in any way. Six years later, Hayley was a beautiful young woman, still slender but with fledgling curves following four months of hormone replacement therapy. As she looked at a photo of herself from 2012, Hayley mused on how even her face seemed to change, to the point that she barely recognised herself- and she worried whether or not her father would recognise her either. However, Hayley was determined to meet her father as the person she was, the person she wanted to be, not the boy she was or a mixture of the two genders.

Hayley began by applying a full layer of make-up- dusky pink eye shadow, thick mascara and eyeliner and light red lipstick. After pulling on a soft cotton bra and panties, Hayley opened her wardrobe and sighed. She had countless options, all of which seemed inappropriate somehow. A short skirt would be too provocative. Jeans would be too androgynous. A long skirt would be too old a look...

Realising that she'd need to wear something to the reunion, Hayley picked out a pleated skirt that came to mid-thigh and a lilac t-shirt that didn't show off too much of her figure, complemented by a pair of low-heeled knee-high boots and several of her favourite bangles.

Satisfied with her look- but still nervous about how she’d be received by her father- Hayley left the flat and headed to the nearest tube station, both grinning and grimacing at the level of male attention she got along the way. Before long, she was at Paddington station, ready to board the train that would take her to the reunion she’s dreamed about for so long…

“Hey you two!” The ever-friendly voice of Rachel Lyscombe said as she saw Amy and her mentor walk through the entrance of the locker room at Heathrow Airport. “Long time no see, hehe!”

“What, three days?” Amy teased, giggling as the blonde girl rolled her eyes.

“You know what I mean,” Rachel scoffed. “Gutted I missed ballet AGAIN.”

“You’re off this coming Sunday, right?” Amy asked. “Can dust off your pointe shoes then.”

“Yeah,” Rachel replied, “But I REALLY wanted to see the birthday girl dance in a tutu, hehe!”

“There’s always next year,” Amy teased as Sophie’s cheeks began to redden.

“True,” Rachel giggled. “So… Are we all ready for tomorrow, then?”

“Amy might be, I’m not sure I am,” Sophie replied, smiling as her response earned her a gentle hug from Rachel.

“Aww,” Rachel said. “It should be a cause for celebration, right? You know, first birthday as ‘Sophie’?”

“It’s never always THAT easy,” Amy advised the blonde girl. “And in this particular case, you have kinda struck a nerve.”

“Ah,” Rachel grimaced. “So, umm… Where- where’s everyone off to today?”

“Belgium again,” Amy replied. “Got Sophie as my ‘wing-girl’ today instead of Hayley, heh. You?”

“Dublin,” Rachel replied. “Both got pretty easy ones, then?”

“Ooh, look who’s getting confident all of a sudden,” Amy teased, making Rachel sigh and blush. “Sure you can make it all the way to Ireland without miss mentor here holding your hand?”

“Oh- shut up,” Rachel giggled. “Haven’t even been on the same flight as Sophie in two weeks.”

“Rachel’s really got the hang of it well,” Sophie explained. “So much so that she may be taking on her own trainee next month…”

“You shut up as well!” Rachel chuckled as she checked her make-up, before straightening her skirt pulling on her blue pillbox hat. “Well? Am I ready to fly?”

“Ireland won’t know what’s hit it!” Sophie chuckled.

“And not just ‘cause they’re all drunk!” Amy said with a giggle as the blonde girl left the locker room. “…Getting her own trainee after only just finishing training herself?”

“I did say that management liked her,” Sophie shrugged. “Something for that diary of yours?” Which I’m all but hoping to plagiarise for my expose, Sophie thought to herself.

“Yep,” Amy replied as she and Sophie began to change into their royal blue uniforms.

“And I’m serious when I say don’t make a fuss of the party,” Sophie said, sighing as Amy giggled.

“Yeah, don’t- well, actually, DO hold your breath, because the party will take it away, hehe!” Amy replied with a devilish grin.

“Even after what you said to Rachel?” Sophie retorted.

“Well- yeah, I guess,” Amy conceded. “But that’s kinda the point, isn’t it? You’ve told me that this’ll be the first birthday you haven’t spent with your parents. If we leave you to yourself, you’ll be moody, depressed… So we need to help take your mind off that and celebrate the fact that yes, it is your birthday, and most importantly, you are worth celebrating, Sophie. The ‘glue in team ASH’, right?”

“I dunno,” Sophie mumbled.

“Well I DO,” Amy said. “Isn’t this what friends are for? Not just people to have fun with, but people who you can always rely on for support?”

“Well- yes, okay, you’re right,” Sophie said with a happy sigh.

“Damn right I am,” Amy said. “And I really do hope that I’ll always be able to call Sophie Connelly my friend.”

“I hope that too,” Sophie whispered, even as she wondered whether or not Amy would say the same thing about ‘James Connolly’…

Hayley checked her phone for the umpteenth time as she sat outside the packed coffee shop, both checking the time and that she had the right location. Her right leg jiggled uncontrollably as she waited for her father’s arrival, wondering whether or not she’d been stood up, or whether her father had met with an accident- or worse yet, she’d run into a group of people who aren’t as accepting of a transgendered woman, especially an older one…

“H- Hayley?” The brown-haired girl heard a voice ask, causing her to freeze. It wasn’t exactly the voice she remembered- it was softer and more feminine, but it was unmistakably the voice of her father.

“D- dad?” Hayley whispered, standing up and looking the newcomer in the face. To anyone looking in from the outside, Denise was just like any other middle-aged woman, dressed in a modest calf-length summer skirt, a short-sleeved blouse and low heeled shoes. Her shoulder-length hair framed her delicately made-up face, and Hayley had to look closely to confirm that yes, this was indeed her father standing in front of her- and much to her surprise, when she looked into Denise’s eyes, Hayley could see that she was just surprised by the change in her appearance.

“Hi…” Denise said awkwardly.

“H- hi,” Hayley replied, a tear forming in the corner of her eye. A quiet, emotional moment passed between the two women as they examined each other, before leaning in for a tight, heartfelt hug.

“I- I can’t believe it’s really you,” Denise sniffed as tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Me either,” Hayley said, crying just as much as the other woman. “Oh my god, I promised myself I’d be cool, heh!”

“Yeah,” Denise mumbled. “I- I think we’re kinda making a scene, heh!”

“Oh my god,” Hayley muttered in embarrassment as she looked around at the other bemused diners, before sitting back down in her chair, her cheeks reddened with embarrassment.

“You know,” Denise sighed, I think that might be the first time you’ve hugged me since you started primary school?

“Wha- no, can’t be?” Hayley replied.

“Well, first time you willingly hugged me,” Denise chuckled. “I- I still can’t believe it’s really you. You look so different to when I last see- and not just in the obvious way- but it is so obviously you.”

“Yeah,” Hayley whispered. “Have- have you spoken to mum, Lucy or Dylan at all? In, like, the last six years, I mean?”

“No,” Denise replied, biting her lip to try to control her emotions. “Your mother made it very clear she never wants to talk to me again, and what’d happen if I tried to call her or your brother.”

“Yeah, she pretty much said the same thing to me,” Hayley sighed. “Threatened me with violence if I ever even set foot in Nottingham again.”

“Ugh, Denise spat. “But- but you’re okay in London, right? You seem happy in your messages, and in your Facebook photos…”

“Yeah,” Hayley replied. “Got a good job, got loads of friends- even a few rich and famous ones, heh.”

“But…?” Denise asked.

“But…” Hayley said with a low moan. “It’s no substitute for family. It’s NEVER a substitute for family.”

“No it isn’t,” Denise sighed, before gently squeezing the younger woman’s hand. “But you don’t need to feel alone anymore.”

“Thanks,” Hayley whispered.

“You know,” Denise said hesitantly, “when I first found your Facebook profile and saw that you’d, well, ‘changed’, I- I was shocked. I genuinely was.”

“Really?” Hayley asked. “You didn’t think, like, ‘like father, like son’?”

“Never,” Denise replied. “Not even while you were growing up did I even suspect. Probably because I was too obsessed with my own ‘change’, heh.”

“How- how long had you felt, well, ‘different’?” Hayley asked.

“All my life,” Denise replied. “Earliest I can remember feeling ‘different’ is when I was six. Which was forty-five years ago.”

“Jeez,” Hayley whispered.

“Yeah,” Denise said. “And as you can imagine, 1973 wasn’t exactly a friendly time for transgendered people. Huh, not like 2018 is all that better when you look at some people.”

“Ugh, so true,” Hayley spat.

“I thought hiding the ‘real’ me would get easier as I got older, but in fact, the opposite was true,” Denise said in an increasingly emotional voice. “In a way I’m glad you came out when you were as young as you were, to save you from the years of stress and anxiety.”

“Yeah…” Hayley chuckled. “If I was still ‘Harry’ god knows what state I’d be in at this point.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Denise said, a sad smile spreading across her face. “Because I- I kinda, umm, kinda blamed myself for you being, well, you. When I first found you on Facebook, I- I almost had a panic attack. I mean, you hear about it all the time, children seeking to emulate a disappeared dad…”

“Trust me, you have NOTHING to feel guilty about,” Hayley said softly. “I- I actually felt like it was my fault that you left, I mean, when you did, like maybe you’d seen something inside me, I dunno.”

“Oh- really?” Denise asked. “Why would you ever think that?”

“Because I was fourteen and dumb,” Hayley shrugged. “I dunno.”

“And you’ve been carrying that around all this time?” Denise asked, blinking back tears. “Oh god, Hayley…”

“I know, I know…” Hayley sobbed as tears began to flow from her eyes. “I- I dunno, it’s just-“

“I understand,” Denise said, squeezing Hayley’s hand even tighter. “And I want you to know that I’m here for you, any time you need me, 24/7, because that’s what a parent should do.”

“Thanks-” Hayley sniffled, before giggling. “Umm, do I call you ‘dad’? I mean, is that too-“

“You can call me whatever you want,” Denise said with a smile as she and her daughter began to relax for the first time since seeing each other face to face.

Hayley remained in Bristol until late in the evening, only arriving back at her home in London just after midnight following a tearful farewell with her parent, a promise that they’d meet again- and another promise that together, they would try to rebuild the family fractured by their decisions to come out. As she laid in bed, Hayley felt her mind race as she thought about the possibilities- for so long, she’d effectively been an orphan, but now she not only had a parent, but a parent she could share literally everything with. For the first time in a long while, Hayley found herself looking forward to the future.

The same, however, could not be said of Sophie, who on the morning of her birthday, woke up, got dressed and left the flat before either of her flat mates were even awake. In a way, Sophie felt a sense of disappointment at not being able to celebrate her birthday with her friends, but she also felt relief that she could put off having to tell them the truth about herself- even if she knew she was only delaying the inevitable.

Sure enough, when Sophie opened the front door or her flat after a long day flying back and forth to Ireland, she was greeted by the sight of all of her friends and colleagues clad in their best party dresses and a loud cheer of ‘happy birthday’ that made her shriek with excitement.

“Oh my god, you guys!” Sophie sighed happily as Amy and Hayley draped a sash that read ‘birthday girl’ over her shoulders, thrust a glass of champagne into her hand and led her to the centre of the room, where a large pile of presents- all wrapped in shiny pink paper- and a large pink cake with the number ‘24’ on it in bright red icing.

“You said ‘don’t make a fuss’,” Amy said with a smug grin. “So we decided to completely ignore that request, hehe!”

“Everybody should have a family to celebrate their birthday with,” Hayley said softly. “Even if it isn’t a flesh and blood one, heh.”

“Thanks,” Sophie chuckled as she felt a large pang of guilt gnaw away at her chest.

“Go on then, get opening!” Anna-Jade giggled as she sipped her champagne. With fingers trembling with nerves and anxiety, Sophie obeyed, unwrapping presents including new pairs of shoes, make-up kits, dancewear (from Zoe), candles... All things a 24 year old woman would love to receive as birthday presents. Outwardly, Sophie was extremely grateful for the thought that had been put into the gifts, and inwardly, she was loving it as well- though she also knew that with every second that passed, she’d feel more and more guilty about accepting the gifts under what she considered to be false pretenses.

“Speech!” Paige called from the back of the room, making Sophie sigh- but also making her smile as it presented her with the opportunity to get off her chest what had been weighing on her not just for the previous few days, but for the prior eleven months.

“Okay,” Sophie said, taking a deep breath. “Thank you all for coming, and for the presents, it really means a lot to me.”

“Come on,” Abbey teased. “You can do better than that…”

“If you insist,” Sophie sighed, before sitting down as her legs started to turn to jelly- an action that brought a look of concern to her friends’ faces. “Though you may not like what I have to say.”

“Why wouldn’t we?” Amy asked, frowning in confusion.

“…Because I’ve not been entirely honest with all of you,” Sophie sighed, scanning the room and nodding as her eyes met with those of Rachel Harrison- the woman who had started Sophie down the path she was on. With a nod from Rachel, Sophie continued. “As you know, I started work for the airline last August. What you don’t know is why I started. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the tutu project, right?”

“Given that everyone in this room is a member, I'd say so," Jessica said, concerned by the sudden serious turn the party had taken.

"I-" Sophie began, before sighing. "I'm not REALLY a flight attendant. Stewardess. Whatever. I studied journalism at university, and I'm an undercover journalist. I'm getting dirt on the company to publish an expose, the idea being that it'll improve working conditions or something, I dunno. And... I- I'm not actually transgendered." Sophie grimaced as this final revelation earned gasps from virtually everyone present in the room. "I- I mean yes, I am biologically male, but I'm pretending to be female- and I actually mean 'pretend' as in 'pretend', not like- well, umm, you know... I- I never even cross-dressed before starting with-"

"What Sophie means," Rachel H said, stepping forward to save the distraught girl's blushes, "is that she never meant to deceive anyone, but is just doing a job- a job I asked her to do."

"You knew about this?" Paige asked. "Well I suppose, as she's your cousin- assuming that's not a lie as well?"

"It is a lie," Rachel whispered. "I needed an outsider's perspective on everything. It was only going to be for six months, but Sophie asked me for another six months this February just gone. Next month will be a year, and we'll review the situation from there."

"And- and the reason I asked for six more months," Sophie mumbled. "Is- is because I- I love this. And I love you guys. The more I was 'Sophie', the more I loved it, not just the clothes and make-up, but the whole, you know, 'sisterhood'..."

"Are you really estranged from your parents?" Hayley asked.

"...No," Sophie whispered, blinking back a tear. "They- they know about 'Sophie', but they only think it's for a job, they don't know the truth."

"And what is the truth?" Amy asked. "The real, honest truth?"

"That- that I don't ever want there to be a time in my life when I can't be 'Sophie'," the birthday girl replied. "That I want to have the chance to be Sophie for as long as I want, even if I'm not working for the airline, or working on a story, or- or hanging out, umm, with all of you..."

"...Well, I think my mind's made up," Amy sighed. "Let's make it a show of hands, shall we? Hands up all those who no longer want to consider Sophie their friend." Sophie felt tears form in her eyes and her cheeks burn as she pointed her face toward the floor, not looking up out of fear of what she might see.

"Hey," Rachel H whispered to the birthday girl after what seemed like an eternity. "Look up." Slowly, Sophie raised her head and looked at the assembled crowd, all of whom had wide grins on their faces... And none of whom had their hands raised.

"Wh- what?" Sophie feebly asked.

"Sophie," Jessica said softly as she sat down next to the trembling girl. "You think you're the only person in this room who came to Soixante-Trois only to find something they didn't expect? I think just about everyone in this room can say the same, genetic girls included. If you were 'just an undercover reporter', you wouldn't have come out to all of us like that, you'd have taken the money and left as soon as you could. The fact that you're still here shows there's a bit more 'Sophie' in you than even you think."

"And when you want to properly come out to your parents," Hayley said, "you'll have an entire ARMY backing you up, right?"

"Yeah!" Everyone in the room cheered, bringing a wide, genuine smile to Sophie's face.

"Coming out is the hardest thing anyone can do," Amy said. "That took guts. Real guts. And know that we will ALWAYS love you, and have your back."

"Or 'James's," Natalie said with a grin.

"Th- thank you," Sophie whispered. "Thank you so much!" As she was smothered in a tight group hug, Sophie felt a truer form of happiness and contentment than she had ever felt in her whole life.

In many ways, her friends were more of a family to her than her 'real' family. They could've rejected Sophie out of hand and gone on with their lives without ever thinking about her again. But they didn't. They all, to a woman, wanted to be Sophie's friend, just as she wanted to be theirs. Neither 'James' nor 'Sophie' ever needed to be alone again. Sure, she still had her parents to worry about, but Sophie wanted to bask in the glow of her victory- and her birthday, which she celebrated harder than she had ever celebrated before. And at the end of the party, Natalie said something that intrigued Sophie greatly.

"Hey," the Mancunian girl said with a grin. "Maybe when you're done with your expose on the airline, you should write another book about discovering how awesome it is to be a girl?"



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