New Account Registration re-enabled - apparently the extension we use for ReCaptcha service had a configuration change and to utilize the more secure form it needed different parameters. We did not notice this when it occurred. Sorry folks!

A Woman Within

From Shifti
Jump to: navigation, search
Author: Bad Guru

One

I shouldn't have come here, he thought, music thumping around him, echoing the thumping behind his eyes. It was only a pub jukebox and not even turned up that loud but there seemed to be some kind of sympathetic vibration between it and his grey cells. Bastards, he thought vaguely, not even sure whom the thought was directed against.

He sighed and sipped at the diet coke he'd bought for himself. Here I am in a pub full of drinks I dare not partake of, listening to terrible music I can't dance to, in the company of people whom I hate for no rational reason and whom I can't risk getting close to. Nice plan, Einstein. He looked around the pub, taking in the little amorphous cliquey knots as they assembled and broke apart, the pulse of life, of society evident within them. Bile churned in his stomach and he fought it back down, checked the dour mask he presented to the world. He thought his face was still unreadable. Have you heard? Amongst this clan, you are called the forgotten man, he thought. Well, there were worse things to be thought of as, he supposed, and allowed himself a grim smile. He took off his glasses - part of his chilly mask to keep the world out - scrubbed at the smeary lenses with his handkerchief.

'Stephen! I'm so glad you could come!' It was the woman of the hour, Catherine, in whose honour this increasingly raucous shindig was being held. She smiled a gleamy smile at him and he returned it, surprised to find it was one of genuine affection. Some part of him still wasn't getting with the programme. But she had been genuinely and unnecessarily kind to him when first he had started with the firm, and somehow the frigid wall he'd erected between himself and the world had no power to keep her out.

'Oh, tut, drinking coke? I thought I was the only one still sober,' Catherine said. As so often at these moments her interlaced hands settled on the bulge of her stomach. 'I don't see what the problem is, everyone says I usually drink for two anyway.'

Stephen forced down the instant, hot thought that some people didn't appreciate just how lucky they were, and ignored what she'd said. 'You've settled on a name yet? For the baby?'

She shook her head, the smile on her face becoming shy, yet proud. 'Not really. We're thinking of something sort of neutral, like Robin or Kim. You know... just in case...'

'Don't believe the scaremongering. It'll never get that common,' Stephen said, knowing it was a stupid thing to say.

'How do you know?' She looked genuinely curious at and surprised by the authoritative tone he'd unconsciously assumed.

Idiot, he thought, why not just tell everyone you're an expert? Then they'll be able to figure out the truth about you for themselves. 'I don't know... read it somewhere, I expect,' he said, looking away, trying to invest his voice with as much wilful vagueness as he could.

'Aha.' Catherine nodded wisely. Before she could speak a swirl of office girls enfolded her, swept her off on a circuit of the room. Maybe two of them spared Stephen a single glance each. Good, he thought, taking a big swallow of cola. Dumbass, this is the reason why you can't let anyone in, they'll start noticing things and put two and two together... At least the other girls got the message. Don't bother talking to Stephen Holmes, it's not worth it, no personality. Who is he? Oh, you know, the cold grey guy in the corner by himself. He's a real nowhere man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody...

Another bloody song lyric. He bought another cola and wondered how soon he could decently go back to the flat. He doubted anyone would miss him even if he left now, but this was a half-decent job and Catherine was well-liked by management. Being seen skipping out of her leaving do prematurely couldn't help his standing much and it wasn't like he could rely on popular acclaim to secure his position.

So he stood and watched as the rest of the office got progressively drunker and more raucous, chatting, backstabbing, playing pool, trying to hid the ciggy burns they inevitably made on the pool table cloth... he stood apart and let it swirl around him, amidst it yet apart from it, discreetly detached from it all. The way he had to live now.

'Stephen, good to see you...' One of the very managers whose favour he needed to retain. Bob Black, fiftyish, baldish, Scottish. 'Nice to see you mixing in for a change.'

'Catherine was... kind to me. When I started, I mean,' Stephen said. He hoped his smile didn't look as insincere as it felt.

'Aye, aye.' Black was clearly regretting speaking to Stephen already, but soldiered on. Stephen groaned inwardly for both their sakes. 'Popular girl, is Catherine. Good worker too. We'll miss her.'

Stephen shrugged. 'It's only maternity leave, she'll be back soon. Before you know it.'

Black smiled thinly. 'If she does come back. New babies are the bane of workforce continuity.'

'We'll see, I suppose.'

'Yes, well. Listen, Stephen, you know Catherine's job pretty well, same section and all that...'

Stephen liked the job he currently had. His 'Yes,' was cautious.

'Well, her replacement starts on Monday, and I was hoping you'd show him the ropes. He's just moved up from London, had some time off work sick, apparently - rather like yourself, eh?'

No, not like me, you stupid Scottish bastard! There's nobody else like me! 'Well, a bit, perhaps,' Stephen said.

'So I was wondering if you'd show him around, teach him the ropes, and all that? It'd be appreciated.'

No no no! No-one allowed in! Nowhere man, forgotten man, no friends no- one nothing allowed! But - a management request was never really just a request. There were always consequences no matter what the response might be. And hopefully the new idiot would learn the job fast and make some other friends even faster.

'Yeah, sure,' said Stephen. 'It'd be a pleasure.'

'Great.' To Stephen's enormous relief Bob buggered off to make more awkward small-talk with some of the warehouse workers who'd decided to come along, leaving him alone with the twisting serpent of bile he kept in his belly. He could feel it, almost like a physical thing, tormenting him as it coiled in his guts, telling him exactly how stupid he was being.

I know, I know, he thought, looking around the pub, barely managing to keep his fury and bitterness in check. A tinny chiming from his wrist was his watch alarm going off. He'd been expecting it, didn't really need the alarm any more. But he had to take precautions, the alternative was too horrible to contemplate. Discreetly he pulled the dispenser from his jacket pocket, clicked the button on the top. A white-and-red plastic pill dropped into his hand and he slipped it into his mouth, between his back teeth. It crunched satisfyingly as he bit down on it and the sour taste of the drugs was all over his tongue.

Safe again. Disaster held at bay for another twelve hours. Stephen washed down the drugs with a swig of coke and put the dispenser away. He already knew exactly how many pills were left in it, exactly when he needed to refill his prescription. It was written into the operating system of his life, non-negotiable. Routine. With it dealt with he could just relax and let himself hate.

Yes, hate. The only genuine emotion that seemed available to him as he currently was. He looked around again, not just seeing the people but the thin web of relationships that shrouded them, rippling and shifting, breaking down and forming new threads. Friends, rivals, lovers. The smile on the face of the receptionist that made her availability to the assistant finance manager oh so very obvious. Friendly piss-taking round the jukebox. Tearful goodbyes to Catherine. The fabric of society, and him cut off from all of it. Blind hatred and jealousy seemed somehow rational in the circumstances.

He remembered a book from school, Nineteen Eighty Four, and the three- minute hate the party prescribed for all good citizens on a regular basis. Three minutes of hate. He let a smile play around his mouth. He'd prescribed himself thirty years of hate, simply because the alternative, an echoey grey numbness, seemed even worse.

'Hello... it's Stephen, isn't it?'

He swung round and saw it was a young woman from HR, shy, looking nervous. Looking for a friend, someone as socially awkward as her, perhaps. Strange, he thought, that she should be so hesitant, she was really quite attractive. But she clearly read from his eyes the presence of the blast-furnace of rage within him and recoiled, smile vanishing, looking pale. 'I'm sorry,' she whispered. 'I thought you were... I'm sorry.'

'My mistake. I shouldn't have come,' Stephen said, harsh edges scraping together in his voice. He finished his drink and left.

At home, all was as it should be: no waiting messages on the answer machine, no personal letters, no email, just the great antiseptic blankness he had fashioned for himself since his condition had manifested itself. He felt vaguely gassy and irritable, supposed it due to the three glasses of diet cola he'd drunk. But beneath that was the familiar, all-consuming fire of resentment and bitterness.

He sighed and went into his bedroom, took off his shoes, socks, tie and shirt. Time for a shower. He still wasn't quite comfortable with the necessity of spending any length of time at all naked. It confronted him with the fundamental change in his nature, with the real source of all his anger and despair. But still. Some things were essential. He dropped his trousers and started to unstrap the rubbery pouch from where it swung between his legs, closing his eyes as he did so. He might have caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and he wanted to see himself crying even less.

And so the following Monday he fulfilled his agreement with Bob Black, and started showing Catherine's replacement the fundamentals of the job.

The replacement's name was Jack Marsh and to Stephen it seemed there was something strange about him right from the start. He was slightly shorter than average height, with pale skin and longish jet black hair held back in a ponytail. He gave the odd impression of being an athlete slightly gone to seed, as if there was the potential for a muscular athleticism within him that had never quite been realised.

Marsh seemed very friendly and almost wholly lacking in ego, which was obviously suspicious given he was a man in his early thirties just starting a new job. Stephen noted his shoes and suit were both brand new. Well, maybe his illness had caused him to lose a lot of weight, he thought. He didn't enquire about the man's past, grimly suspicious that Marsh would bring it up himself soon enough.

Stephen spent the first couple of hours just giving Marsh an overview of the company's workings and the exact duties of the logistics department, where they'd both be working. As usual it was strange to have to go into the detail of remembering and explaining every tiny step when half of them he did automatically these days. At eleven they paused for a coffee.

'Bob Black said you and I had a thing or two in common,' Jack Marsh said brightly, smiling at Stephen.

'Really?'

'Yeah, he said you were new up here as well, you'd had some time off work with illness and had made a fresh start,' Marsh said. 'Me too.'

'Yeah, well, I wouldn't read too much into it,' Stephen said. 'I was never that ill.'

'What was it? If you don't mind me asking...'

'Glandular fever.' It was his routine cover-story.

'Oh. Well, it's nicer up here than London, isn't it? How did your family like the move?'

'I don't have a family,' Stephen said, fighting to keep the harshness from his voice. 'I was engaged, but we broke it off when I came up here. For the best.'

'I'm sorry.' Marsh's embarrassment and sincerity seemed for real. 'I was married myself. Seven years.'

'It's over now, though,' Stephen surmised.

'Like you say, it was for the best,' Marsh said, but the face he showed was clearly just a brave construction. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, produced a photo. A smiling, round-faced woman with long dark hair, sitting on a beach somewhere. Two young boys sat with her, equally rapt with pleasure. 'My sons,' he said wistfully.

Stephen felt barely a stir of compassion. Good, he thought, I'm learning. 'That your wife - ex-wife?' he corrected himself.

'No.' Marsh's face abruptly turned flinty. 'She's... from my side of the family.'

'Now you mention it, I can see the resemblance,' Stephen said. He finished his coffee. 'Do you see them much?'

'Less than I'd like. My... my ex got custody. I see them every other Saturday. It's not much but I can understand the court's decision.' Marsh sighed again, then took a deep breath, obviously snapping himself out of it. 'Okay, back to work, right?'

Stephen was mildly impressed. 'Right,' he agreed.

Marsh was an attentive student and, surprisingly in Stephen's experience, had no qualms when it came to admitting his ignorance and asking questions about the work. He could sense the amused pity of the rest of the office, that the new guy - and such an amiable new guy at that - should be partnered off with the least pleasant person there on his first day. They made an odd couple for all that Bob Black believed they had things in common.

But he hoped and believed that Marsh was getting the message, his attempts at starting casual conversation growing fewer and further apart. Not that it sank in all at once.

'Do you get out much?' Marsh asked. 'It's just with me being new in town, I don't know any of the pubs and clubs, I wondered if you wanted to -'

'No. Sorry. I don't go out much... I lead a quiet life,' Stephen replied. Because I have no choice, he added silently.

'Oh. Quiet life, that's good. Books, music, that sort of thing, right? I -'

Stephen cranked a smile onto his face. 'Jack. Don't take this the wrong way, but... if you want to make a friend, don't talk to me. Other people here go to the pub, socialise out of the office. I don't. I prefer it that way, that's all. No offence meant.'

Marsh looked quietly stunned. 'None taken,' he mumbled, turning back to his screen.

Stephen could feel the eyes of the rest of the office on him. Cold bastard, that Holmes guy, isn't he, snubbed that new feller Marsh just like that, he was only trying to be friends - that was what they were thinking. He didn't care, couldn't afford to care. He just got on with his job

Thankfully by that point Marsh was able to do his job pretty much unsupervised by Stephen. This was probably just as well as the next morning they got a major request for business information from the top floor and there would've been no-one available to hold Marsh's hand. The section went to work with the usual grumbling and carping about unreasonable demands on their time, but the information started slowly to come together.

Marsh pitched in like a trouper and earned a lot of respect in the process, Stephen thought. For all that, he seemed like a bit of an odd fish himself - something about him just didn't ring true. He was almost trying too hard to be one of the lads, as if he was overacting in a role he'd been rehearsing for ages. But he was amiable and generous and, Stephen decided, not unattractive to the ladies of the office. Although - he'd seen one of the girls, Tracy, talking to Marsh in that way she had when she was expressing interest in a guy in that, you know, special way. (He'd only ever seen it second hand, he thought, with a flash of the old bile.)

Tracy was a good looking girl but Marsh had reddened, gotten all flustered and nervous, like it had come as a total shock to him. Strange guy, Stephen thought. But, thankfully, no longer his problem.

By Thursday evening the data was collated, ready to go to the board the next morning. It was past seven when the section leader declared the job was done, and announced they should all go down the pub to celebrate and complain about how underappreciated they were.

Stephen heard all this from his cubicle. His absence from the pub would be taken as read. His perceived aloofness had caused some friction within the team but his assurances that it was nothing personal, plus his exemplary work, meant he couldn't really be criticise for it. He sat at his desk and tidied up the server meticulously, ready for the next day.

His watch chimed. Time for another pill. Wearily he fished out the black plastic dispenser and plopped another of the little plastic capsules into his palm. Soon be time for a refill, he thought absently, crunching the pill and reaching for a cup of water.

Suddenly he was aware of Jack Marsh standing not two feet away, a curious expression on his face. He was looking at the dispenser. Quickly Stephen shoved it back into his pocket and looked sharply at him. 'I'm on medication, it's nothing illegal,' he said.

'No, of course not.' There was a pensive look on Marsh's face, a flicker of comprehension, almost. 'I knew someone with a similar problem once.'

No you didn't, and mind your own business, Stephen thought. 'Well, perhaps,' he said. 'Was there something?'

'Er, yeah. We're all off down the pub to collapse, I wondered if you wanted to come,' Marsh said. 'I wanted to buy you a drink as a thank- you for showing me the ropes.'

'I don't drink, but thanks for the thought,' Stephen said.

'Oh - the drugs. Right.'

Not exactly, but close, Stephen thought. 'I'll see you tomorrow,' he said.

'Yeah,' Marsh nodded. 'Good night.'

The report they'd assembled hit all the right buttons and they had a lazy Friday generally, compensating for the week of hell. And Stephen spent a typically quiet weekend: laundry, the monthly shop, a couple of hours on the rowing machine, and evenings watching DVDs. Hopefully the office would settle down now, he could slip back into his routine, stop having to think and feel so much.

No such luck. Marsh was strange towards him all day Monday, sort of wary yet solicitously friendly and understanding. It set his teeth on edge. Stop being so bloody nice to me! he thought madly. Nobody else feels the need to try and understand me as a person!

In the end he resolved to do something about it, and the moment came late that afternoon, after five, as he was beginning to think about leaving. Thanks to the wonders of flexi-time most of the office had already left. Marsh leaned into his cubicle, clearly about to say something.

'Jack, if this is an invite to the pub or whatever, I'm not interested,' Stephen said sharply. 'Look, we can work well together without having to be friends, can't we?'

'Well, yeah,' Marsh said. 'But I thought you could use a friend... given your condition, and everything.'

'My what?' Ice water suddenly seemed to be running down his spine.

Marsh stepped closer, spoke in a low voice. 'All last week something about you seemed familiar, your attitude, the way you behaved towards everyone. But I didn't figure it out until I saw your pillbox. Standard issue, and I've seen those pills before.'

Blood was roaring in Stephen's ears now. He didn't trust himself to speak.

'I think you have the Girl Flu,' Marsh said in little more than a whisper. 'And you're using drugs to keep it under control.'

Stephen managed to swallow. 'If you tell anyone else about this -' he began, but couldn't find an end to the sentence.

'Bob was right,' Marsh said with a wry smile. 'We do have a lot in common.'

'Good old Bob,' Stephen whispered coldly. 'Who knows?'

'Just me. Trust me, I'm aware you don't want this spread about.' His eyes flicked up and down Stephen's seated form, clearly wondering how the metamorphosis had progressed before its chemical interruption. 'Do you -'

'No, I don't want to discuss it. It's not - not important,' Stephen said.

'Really? Oh, all right... look, I'm just trying to help. If you want to ignore this, that's your choice. But if you do need someone to talk to, I'm here...'

'I'll bear that in mind. Now good night,' Stephen said.

He barely slept that night, mind turning over and over with the different possibilities, options, potential consequences. So Marsh had APFS as well. He didn't show it, didn't act like it - except, perhaps, for the incident with Tracy. He didn't seem to be on pills himself - maybe he had implants or injected himself. It made no difference to the fundamental, awful fact, which was this:

Someone Knew.

Nobody had to know. That was the whole reason he'd uprooted himself, come up here, started over from scratch. The secret was too humiliating for anyone to know, so no-one could get close to him. And yet he'd been unlucky enough to betray himself to Marsh within a week of knowing him. Luckily he was not a superstitious man, or he might begin to believe himself cursed. The chances of someone else familiar with the condition starting in the same firm, let alone his own team, must be astronomically small.

Yet that was the hand he'd been dealt, and he had to live with it. He proceeded through the week, riding a wave of nausea and nervous tension whenever he went into the office. Marsh knew. Would he tell anyone else? Would he be able to figure out exactly what the disease had done to him?

Stephen couldn't sleep, lost his appetite. His belly churned whenever he saw Marsh talking to another member of the department, as he imagined exactly what he might be saying. Worst of all, his work suffered - he forgot some duties entirely, made stupid, childish errors in others. His colleagues were clearly amazed at these new-found feet of clay. But it couldn't go on. He was becoming a nervous wreck, just sharing an office with someone who knew the barest details about him. One of them had to go.

He went over to Marsh's workstation that Friday lunchtime. 'We need to talk,' he said in a low voice. 'About... you know what about.'

Marsh looked startled, then nodded and smiled. 'Okay. Where?'

'The Kingfisher.' It was a quiet pub he didn't think anyone else from the office frequented. 'Tonight, straight after work.' It couldn't wait, had to be resolved.

'I'll see you there,' Marsh promised.

Two

One week on and his head was pounding again, this time from tension and lack of sleep. His eye sockets felt like they had a sandpaper lining. His stomach continued with its endless rinse cycle.

'My round,' Marsh said as they queued at the bar. 'What'll it be?'

Stephen shrugged wearily. 'Blackthorn.'

'Didn't think you could drink, I thought it was cos've the pills,' Marsh said, waving a fiver at the landlord.

'I'm lucky, no side effects,' Stephen said, careful to keep his voice down. 'I just can't risk getting drunk. But seeing as I think I need one, and you already know...'

'Gotcha. Cheers,' Marsh said to the publican, and they sat facing each other in a quiet booth.

'So,' Stephen said eventually, putting down his drink. It tasted so good, another pleasure he thought he'd never experience again.

'So,' Marsh said thoughtfully.

'You have it yourself?' Stephen asked. To his surprise Marsh shook his head.

'Have you ever heard of APMS?' Jack Marsh asked.

'You mean APFS. Acquired Progressive Feminisation Syndrome, the Girl Flu,' Stephen said, glancing about. Thankfully the pub was nearly empty this early, with no-one in earshot. A lot of people still thought of it as an urban legend, with stories of men spontaneously changing their sex occasionally circulating. That would probably change if the rate of occurrence continued to increase. It had obviously already preyed on Catherine's mind when choosing what to call her baby.

'Uh-uh. APMS - Masculinisation, not Feminisation. Boy Flu. It's much, much rarer, less than two hundred cases worldwide so far,' Marsh said. He reached into his jacket and fished out the photo of his kids with the woman on the beach. 'That's me with them. Before I... got it.'

Stephen looked from Marsh to the picture and back. 'My God, it is you, isn't it... you used to be a woman?'

Marsh stared off into space. 'Happily married for seven years. My name was Julie Woodbridge,' he said. 'Then I woke up one day with a hairy chest. We thought it was hormonal, so did the GP. Wrong. Before I knew it I'd grown an inch, started bulking up, my boobs were shrivelling away and I'd grown... the meat and two veg.'

It was almost like his own experience in reverse. Stephen took another big drink almost without thinking. 'What did your husband say?'

'We said the usual stupid things, about how it wouldn't change anything. Of course it changed things. I couldn't give him what he wanted from his wife. And I realised I didn't want a husband any more, either.' Marsh looked levelly at him. 'Then he started sleeping with my sister. Next best thing, I suppose.'

'Good God...'

'The marriage was annulled. He got custody, obviously, so the kids would have continuity and a proper environment to grow up in. I didn't handle the transition enormously well, to be honest, which can't have helped my chances. I'm only the fourth APMS case in the UK so the system wasn't really there to help me... I got stuck in the back of APFS counselling groups.'

Stephen couldn't suppress a shudder. He'd been offered that kind of help, flatly refused it.

'So I know how people in APFS-denial behave.' Marsh pulled out a cigarette, lit it. 'Some of them were on suppression drugs as well, the same as you.'

'So you spotted me,' Stephen said. 'Okay. Now, look, nobody here knows -'

'Can I ask you a question?'

'What?' Stephen couldn't help his suspicion.

'What changed? How'd you realise you had it? Your skin, hair, build, it all looks normal. I don't think you're wearing a restrainer to hide breasts, either. Don't tell me you're one of those guys who got diagnosed after a blood test, before any actual changes happened...' Marsh smiled at him.

Stephen felt himself redden. 'There, uh, was a change,' he said tightly. 'It doesn't show but it's serious. The, ah, worst change there could've been.'

Marsh stared at him, then his eyeline slowly slid down Stephen's body to his groin. 'Tough break,' he whispered. 'Full deal? You've got a -'

'Yes,' Stephen said, squirming with embarrassment. He knocked back the rest of his drink nervously, felt it whirling in his veins. 'It felt like ordinary flu at first. Then... it happened. Took only a few days. I wanted to die, I was so ashamed. By the time they calculated my drugs regime it was too late.'

'I'll get us some more,' Marsh murmured. When he returned with the round he picked up the conversation at once. 'It doesn't show.'

'I wear a - an appliance. A disguise.' It was almost obscene, but somehow a relief to be able to finally talk about this with someone. 'No-one can know. No-one can ever know about it.'

'I see your problems,' Marsh said. 'Talk about psychological resonance and fear of castration...'

'What?'

'I get psycho-babbly when I drink,' Marsh apologised. 'You don't want anyone to know. I understand. Even though you basically make yourself a social leper.'

'I have no choice. I can't be around anyone who knows,' Stephen insisted. 'Not even you -'

Marsh sighed. 'Stephen, we can be friends. We've been through the same thing, pretty much -'

'No we haven't. You changed. I didn't. I'm not going to.'

'Jesus, I feel sorry for you... having, oh, having one-of-those isn't so terrible, believe me, I had one for thirty years and it never did me any harm.'

'You're a woman, it's different.'

'Only women have them. It's sort of in the job description,' Marsh said.

Stephen felt his flush take on an angry quality. 'You're calling me a woman?'

'You're not anything. You're a mess. But I'm not moving on. If you can't stand being around me, you move on. I only wanted to help you.'

Stephen felt himself sag as the tag-team effect of booze and fatigue hit home. 'Whatever,' he mumbled, taking another mouthful of cider...

And they drank more, avoiding the topic of their shared past and shared differences, and at some point it turned into evening and they were in another pub, no, several other pubs, and suddenly he was slammed, not used to it, Jack Marsh also wobbly, they were in a kebab house, a wine bar, he was looking out for police as Jack had a crafty piss down an alleyway (he was stupidly jealous of this ability suddenly), then the back of a cab, the world around them taking on a brash and senseless aspect... then an unfamiliar housing complex and finally...

'Nice flat,' Stephen said, looking around the dim lounge. Jack (when had he become Jack and not Marsh?) had clearly not been there long, but it looked okay. Friendlier than his home.

Jack nodded his acknowledgement of the compliment and sank carefully down on the sofa. His hair had come loose and hung messily about his head and shoulders. He struggled his shoes off, smiled at the achievement. He was different... the booze seemed to have revived some dormant part of him, he seemed more playful, almost girlish.

'I haven't done it yet,' he mused, sounding almost wistful.

Stephen frowned at him. 'Done what?'

Jack sniggered. 'Y'know. It.'

'Oh.' He couldn't think of an answer to that, then realised with an uncomfortable start that Jack was staring at his crotch.

'You look completely normal. Can I see it?' Jack asked drowsily.

'See it? Oh...' He shook his head to clear it, sky high on cheap cider. Jack already knew, and he was after all a girl, really... Stephen reached down into his waistband, pulled loose the strapping there, finally yanked the appliance out. It dangled from his fist like a mutant jockstrap or some obscene slingshot, moulded rubber clad in fuzzy cotton, carefully sculpted to give the impression of being both phallus and scrotum. Stephen looked down at his groin. He was completely flat there now.

'Cor.' Jack stumbled over, peered at the thing, took it from him. 'Were you really this size?'

'Ha bloody ha...' Stephen leaned back against the wall.

'Anyway...' Jack tossed the thing onto the sofa. 'That wasn't what I wanted to see.'

Stephen sniggered. 'No way...'

Jack shuffled up to him. 'Go on. Let's have a look.'

'No...'

'Let's have a feel then,' Jack said with a chuckle, and slapped his palm against Stephen's crotch. It seemed to come alive, it hadn't been solidly touched since his initial ob-gyn exam. He yelped in surprise and shock, shuddered as Jack ground the heel of his hand against his pubic bone, his fingers tickling and questing down between his legs. Suddenly he was gasping so he couldn't breathe... at the pleasure of it.

He grabbed Jack's wrist with his own hand and... guided it? Shove it away shove him off do it uuurrrgh but no, Jack's other hand was fumbling at his fly and belt and he was too blissed out, too drunk, to do anything about it except spectate... and lend a helping hand.

He helped Jack yank his trousers and shorts down around his knees, pulled his shirt up to reveal... his pussy, with its silky triangle of hair. He wanted to laugh, to shout, to puke. This couldn't be true, couldn't be happening. And then Jack's fingers slid delicately into his sex and the rational world went away.

Both his hands were flung up in a parodic gesture of helpless surrender, knuckles grazing the wall as he panted, eyes boggling. He was dimly aware of Jack roughly dropping his own trousers. That's not right, he's a girl, Stephen thought numbly, as Jack's manhood reared its rounded and pulsing head. And then thrust at him...

He cracked the back of his head against the wall as his back arched and he cried out in pain and fear and excitement and, yes, pleasure, he clung to Jack who was clinging back at him. He was harpooned, transfixed, beetle in a glass case, a rod of fire in his loins... He felt his knees give way and the two of them slumped inelegantly to the floor of the flat.

His pulse returned to normal and his head was really throbbing now. The churning of his belly combined with the sour taste in his mouth, and the feeling tangled clothes around his ankles, and the trickle of warm fluid down his thighs, and the memory... and he knew he was going to be sick. Olympic Vomiting Final sick.

He found the bathroom just in time, stuffed his head down the bowl and let 'er rip. Seven pints of cider, three bags of crisps and a kebab made an unexpected reappearance. Eventually he lay there, wretched, the taste of acid on his tongue, flecks of God-knew-what running down his chin, all the time coldly aware his arse was still hanging out.

He clawed himself upright, hitting the flush on the way - more by luck than design, of course - and pulled his clothes back into some semblance of order. Couldn't change facts though, and he could still feel Jack's fluids drying on his skin. He fought back the gag reflex again.

Jack was waiting out in the passage, clearly sobering up fast himself. 'You all right?' he asked.

'You... bastard,' Stephen muttered. 'You... you practically raped me.'

'Seemed consensual to me,' Jack said, not meeting his gaze. 'Maybe I got carried away at the start. But you didn't push me off. You enjoyed it.'

Stephen wasn't ready to even consider the possibility that that was true. 'Why? I thought you wanted to be friends, why did you...'

'It was a friendly act... sort of. You're crying out for someone to loosen your screws a bit. Jesus, talk about repressed. And... I wanted to see what it's like. To give instead of receive, you know.'

'Oh...' He slid down the wall, sat on the floor, head in hands. 'Tracy would've happily volunteered to help you with that.'

Jack shrugged uneasily. 'I'm not used to having sex with women. Actually, I've never had sex with a woman. And -'

'And so I seemed like a convenient halfway house for you,' Stephen said.

Jack sighed and sat down next to him. 'And I thought we could help each other. You used to be a man. I used to be a woman. We should... I don't know... pool our resources.'

'I still am a man,' Stephen whispered miserably.

'Sure.' Jack slid a consoling arm around Stephen, let his head rest on his shoulder. Stephen found himself weeping, but was uncertain of why. All he could think of was the horrible, unforgettable sensation of Jack inside of him, and the neural pyrotechnics that had rapidly followed it. The single most intense moment of his life since... before. Everything else suddenly seemed so hollow.

Three

With hindsight, he should've walked out of Jack's flat as soon as he'd finished throwing up. Sticking around for the post-coital bonding was a serious error. Or so he thought, on and off for the next few months. After that, of course, there wasn't really a 'he' left to think the thoughts.

He collected his things (including the hated appliance), rang for a taxi and went home. He wasn't sure where he stood with Jack, but was virtually certain the evening's events wouldn't be entering the collective consciousness of office gossip. Jack's past status was as much a secret as his own present condition.

By Monday he felt virtually himself again, the aching inside his sex had faded and the moments of nausea and overwhelming shame were starting to get less frequent. But he was on edge as he went into work. Would it show in any way? Would he and Jack be able to conceal the somewhat twisted turn their relationship had taken? He wasn't sure. Did he even want to talk to Jack any more? He shouldn't. But he couldn't help remembering the desperate catharsis that being able to talk to someone had provoked. Jack had tried to be his friend, to help him. And... what had happened between them... a drunken, silly fumble... well, many other platonic friends had done the same. He couldn't blame Jack when he'd done so little to resist him.

You're rationalising, came the inner voice, strident but brittle. Platonic friends? You're the same gender, remember? Yeah, of course they were. But underlying it all was the powerful physical memory of the... the climax Jack had brought him to. His skin still prickled at the thought of it, if nothing else a reminder of what togetherness could be like. A painful memory because it would never, could never, happen again. Could it?

Things were awkward between them. Thankfully his own reputation as the man with no personality or social skills made it less surprising to rest of the office. But Jack's obvious discomfort around him did raise eyebrows. He felt a strange, awful pity for him, which despite his best efforts he could not ignore. He wanted to tell Jack it was okay, that he didn't blame him. That in retrospect it didn't seem so bad somehow. And it didn't, really... But he couldn't risk even raising the topic in the office, and they didn't see each other outside it.

He found he'd begun to masturbate again. His embarrassment and intense dislike for his new sex seemed to be fading, and in any case touching himself down there seemed so trivial given what had happened so recently. He found himself fantasising wildly and uncontrollably as he kneaded at his own soft flesh. He wasn't doing the screwing now, he was being screwed, helpless to resist the... the man doing it. A man whose face grew more sharply into focus on each occasion, simply because he could only imagine one man doing that to him.

Weeks dragged by and Stephen fought the acceptance that yes, he had submitted to Jack simply because of the pleasure it had brought him. He'd enjoyed it. Enjoyed was a huge understatement, really. Nothing since his change had come close. Even playing with himself came a very poor, very distant second to it. The thought that he might never feel that way again made his daily reality seem even grimmer.

It was on a grey Tuesday afternoon that Jack stopped by his cubicle. Stephen felt a little colour come to his cheeks, a giddy shudder in the pit of his stomach at the thought Jack had come just to see him. But he looked bleak, his smile forced. 'Got a moment?'

'Of course,' Stephen said. 'What's up?'

'Ahh... I'm on a month's probation here, two-way thing. If they don't like me or I don't like the job, I can walk away or they can fire me, no questions asked.'

'Your month must nearly be up.' Stephen felt a sudden alarm. 'Are they letting you go?'

Jack smiled wearily. 'No, they're keen for me to stay. But I think I should go elsewhere, given... you know.'

'Don't go just because of me, please,' Stephen said urgently. 'I don't want to feel responsible...'

'Look, it's just... uncomfortable for me. For us both,' Jack said, careful to keep his voice down. 'Every time I see you I remember... what happened. I feel bad about it. God knows what you must feel when you see me...'

'Don't go,' Stephen whispered. 'Please. I... I...' He couldn't frame words - didn't have words for what he felt. 'I liked it. Or part of me did.'

'You were sick straight afterward.' Jack's face was confused.

'I couldn't handle enjoying it the way I did. And I was very drunk. I'm still not very comfortable with the idea of it... but I wouldn't be sick again, I promise.'

Jack stared at him, clearly incredulous. 'You want to do it again?'

'Oh, God...' Stephen put a hand to his head. Did he? 'Yes. Yes, I think I do.' He looked miserably up at Jack. 'Does that make me a bad person? A freak?'

Jack clasped his shoulder reassuringly. 'No. Of course not. But still...'

Stephen felt his stomach lurch. 'You don't feel the same. You don't want to...'

A surprisingly gentle smile dawned on Jack's face. 'Actually... yes, I do. Part of why I wanted to go was... seeing you every day and thinking you hated me. It was hard.'

'So...?' Stephen stared at him, unsure of where they stood.

'So... what are you doing tonight?'

Forty-five minutes drive up the motorway was a Premier Lodge hotel, and it was there that they went, away from everyone who knew them, neutral territory. They drove up in their own cars, taking different routes, arriving at different times. Stephen used his credit card to book a twin-bedded room over the internet. He was sure no-one would be able to figure out the truth, for all that his hands were shaking as he made the reservation. He was insane to be doing this. There was no other explanation for it.

The need for security made him realise that this was what it must be like to have an affair. Which they were, in a way, he supposed. More than that, he was having a dangerous fling with his potential femininity. Like all people in dangerous affairs, he realised this couldn't last forever, had no idea how it might end. But the danger and anticipation sang their siren song and he was lost.

Jack's rover was in the car park when he arrived. He parked, grabbed his holdall and checked in nervously. Just two businessmen on a trip, sharing a room to cut costs, he told himself, as the receptionist handed him his keycard.

He paused out in the corridor, about to go into the room. You're not drunk, you're not half asleep, you're sober, wide awake, and completely rational, he told himself. (Well, maybe not the last one.) Is this really what you want to do? He found himself unlocking the door and decided that it was no longer in doubt.

Inside, Jack was in his shirtsleeves and was just finishing rearranging the furniture, having pushed the two single beds together to form an ad hoc double. 'Hiya. You weren't followed, were you?' Jack asked with a smile.

Stephen looked at him, appalled. 'Followed? Why? Might I have been?'

Jack grinned, waved a hand apologetically, walked over, close. 'Just kidding with you. Sorry.' He suddenly kissed him experimentally on the lips. Stephen felt his stomach flip with distaste. He was a man being kissed by another man. He was a naturally tolerant man but knew that, either way, he was hetero. He shook off his unease, dropped his bag and gripped Jack's arms lightly.

'Mmmm.' Jack stepped back, glanced at the bag. 'What's in there?'

'Oh, nothing. Just for appearance's sake.' Stephen felt a muscle in his leg start spasming frantically. He needed a drink. No drinks this time, he told himself, do it sober or get out. 'So...'

'So.' Jack smiled. 'What do you want to do?'

'I... I don't know. Nothing fancy, I... I suppose I want to know it wasn't a fluke or the booze last time,' Stephen said. 'That I... that we really did enjoy it.'

'Okay.' Jack shuffled off his shoes, started to take off his tie. 'You'd better get undressed then.'

'Uh... yeah. Right.' Stephen shrugged awkwardly out of his jacket, kicked off his shoes. He was unable to take his eyes off Jack as he stripped, casually, dropping socks and shirt on a chair. He was compactly muscular, chest covered with a light fuzz of dark hair.

Stephen removed his own shirt and tie, watching as Jack unfastened his trousers, dropped and kicked them off. He looked up, saw Stephen watching him, smiled knowingly. His navy blue boxers already had a tentpole in them.

'Come on, hurry up,' Jack said lightly, in mock-irritation. He pulled back the duvet that was doing double-duty on the shoved-together beds.

'Sorry...' Stephen mumbled. He dropped his trousers and shuffled out of them. His loins were tingling now and he could feel himself getting damp. He reached into his shorts and unfastened the stays on his 'disguise', pulled it out and dropped it. Now he was flat and exposed there again, the pretence of manhood one more laid aside.

Smiling, and in one smooth motion, Jack slipped his shorts off and stood there naked, erection aimed at Stephen. He had to look, couldn't bear to look. Found he was smiling nervously. Jack slid easily under the duvet, looked expectantly up at him. Dizzily Stephen wrenched his own shorts off and paused a moment, naked, not trying to hide his odd hybrid status. He slid his glasses off and put them on the side table, then turned the lights down to a dull glow and wriggled under the duvet next to Jack.

He felt Jack roll onto his side, facing him, and then his wrist was lightly taken. He turned to look at Jack, and on impulse reached up to his hair, pulling it loose from its ponytail. He could feel Jack's flesh warm against his all down the length of his body.

Jack kissed him and his free hand slid down his chest and belly, settling on the mound at his crotch. Stephen found himself wriggling helplessly at the touch and then Jack's tip pressed against his thigh. He pressed himself against Jack mindlessly, opened his legs and grabbed Jack's buttock with his own free hand. He shudder-gasped as Jack slid into him easily, as good as before, maybe even better. He clung to his lover as he started to pump, wrapped his legs around him, crying out at each thrust, until finally he came, gasping and squealing with a delight that couldn't be dismissed.

But as the euphoria faded and they lay there side by side on the rented mattress, the inescapable fact that they were really just two men in bed together returned to him. It wasn't the same when he was being screwed, that was different... almost as if he wasn't really a man then. The lying together and cuddling just made him feel queasy. If only you were still a woman, he thought stupidly, looking at Jack. If only I...

He didn't dare complete the thought.

'So,' Jack said, cheerful and sweaty. 'How was that?'

Stephen couldn't help chuckling. 'You couldn't tell?'

'Yeah, but I thought you might have faked it,' Jack said.

Stephen stroked him as tenderly as he could manage. 'No fake. That was great.'

Jack nodded, and they lay close there together. Then they did it again, and this time it was Stephen initiating it, more comfortable with the intensity of the screw than the quieter intimacy of what followed and preceded it. The cycle repeated, a couple more times, until Stephen sensed Jack gently sliding into sleep next to him, one arm still thrown across him.

He couldn't stay the night. That would mean... it would mean going into a whole new area, for all that there'd be more sex in the morning. Gently Stephen extricated himself and went into the bathroom. He took unalloyed pleasure in the hiss of water against his skin as he showered, finally able to process what had happened. 'Fun' seemed like too small a word for it. He felt a sudden rush of affection for Jack, did his best to shrug it off.

He towelled off, went out into the room, dressed quickly in the near- darkness. He hefted his bag... and the light came up. Jack looked quizzically at him, propped up on one elbow. 'Something I said?'

'Sorry - thought you were asleep,' Stephen said. An awkward pause. 'Look - I need to get back, it's not you or anything, I...'

Jack nodded. 'I understand,' he said with a thin smile. 'You can tell me these things, you know.'

'I'm sorry,' he repeated. 'But... it's been good. I'd, uh... do you want to do it again some time?'

'Oh, yes...' Jack grinned at him. 'I'll see you at work, then.'

Stephen smiled. 'Yeah. See you.' He let himself out of the room.

Four

And so, every couple of weeks, they'd check into a hotel within easy driving distance and spend three or four hours having sex. They were careful to leave a good long interval between visits to the same place. It grew to be part of Stephen's routine, something he looked forward to. He got the impression it was the same for Jack, for all that they didn't discuss things like that. They didn't really talk much at all.

That was mostly down to him, Stephen realised. His uneasiness with the idea of a same-sex relationship had not abated in the slightest. It felt so wrong to share a bed, to embrace, someone whose build was so similar to his own. He couldn't get past it for all that he knew it exasperated his partner. Every evening ended with him creeping out of the room, leaving Jack to spend the night there alone. Another song lyric came into his head on one of these occasions - it won't be long, there's gonna be a time I won't feel inclined to leave before sunrise...

He wished it were true, doubted it ever would be. But their relationship was changing him. He was losing the emotional defences he'd so painstakingly erected. Making other friendships in the office. People were amazed when he developed a sense of humour. It made life easier, but also more risky regarding his secret.

And that was another thing. After a month or so of their affair he had refilled his prescription of drugs as per usual, sat down at home to reload the dispenser he always carried. It carried twenty-eight pills, a fortnight's supply. He refilled it every two weeks, just as it ran empty.

But not this time. This time five of the little multicoloured capsules were still inside the gadget. He'd unwittingly skipped five treatments. He felt a sudden alarm. How could he have missed so many? It was an unbreakable routine, he couldn't have forgotten... Unless he'd been with Jack at the time, that might explain one or two. And the rest of the time... he dimly recalled his reminder alarm going off once or twice while he was doing something else, and his thinking he'd take the pill when he'd finished...

That wasn't like him at all. The drugs treatment was one of the cornerstones of his life. Without them he'd... well, change. A sudden vision of himself, feminised and fragile, filled his thoughts. And he felt his stomach start to churn again. Feminised and fragile. Just a bit, he told himself, just enough to rid himself of the conviction that they were two men together. Not so much that anyone would notice. Except his lover, of course.

Missing one pill in six had had no discernible effect upon his body, so he decided to skip one in four over the next fortnight and see what happened. You're crazy, stupid, he heard his inner voice, the sane voice, cry out - but it was a faint voice, and the libidinous voice coming from his loins easily shouted it down.

And so it was done. After a fortnight he looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and could see a faint but definite softening of his features. His body hair was thinning out and his sandy hair had crept a fraction closer to blondeness. He was slighter, slimmer, and had lost over half a stone in weight.

He felt the butterflies in his belly start their dance. He ran a hand through his hair, realised it was getting long, past the point at which he usually had it cut. To hell with it, he thought - let it grow. If he was trying for a new look, why exclude anything?

With that thought in mind he went to an opticians for the first time since before, and got himself contacts. With those in and his new longer hair hanging loose, ungelled, he did look quite different. Almost androgynous. Good enough.

The half-term break meant Jack was away on holiday with his sons, and so it was some time before their next assignation. Stephen arrived in the hotel room second, but did so with his hair loose and his contact lenses in. Jack, who as usual was pushing the beds together, looked up in surprise, clearly not recognising him straight away. Stephen was a little disappointed to see he'd had his hair cut short, no more ponytail. But his disenchantment was short-lived as Jack enfolded him in his arms and kissed him hard.

Stephen felt a delicious tingle of helplessness, suddenly aware he couldn't have fought Jack off even if he'd wanted to. Feminised and fragile, he thought with a wry delight. Jack clearly also sensed the changes in Stephen's body and looked at him, bemused.

'What's happened to you? You feel...'

Stephen slipped free of Jack's embrace and smiled at him. 'Just something to make things less awkward between us.' Without further ado he started to strip, casting his now slightly too big clothing aside with mischievous abandon. Jack copied him with alacrity and they tumbled joyfully into bed.

Afterwards Stephen happily lay there, completely exposed, as Jack looked down at him with a look very close to wonder. 'You're so different.'

'Not that much,' Stephen said, truthfully. But, he thought, just enough to make a real difference in the way it felt to lie with Jack, held in his arms. Jack was the man, and he was... well, he was a woman, when they were together at least.

'You're off the pills,' Jack said.

'Cut my dose for while, just till this happened,' Stephen said with an indifferent shrug. 'I should probably go back up to my full prescription now, stop the change again.'

Jack sighed, lay down next to him. He idly stroked Stephen's chest, which was just beginning to get sensitive. 'I would. These are irreversible changes you're making to yourself, you know. You can't go back to the way you were.'

'I know that. Why would I want to?'

'Well... if I wasn't around, say.'

Stephen felt a jolt of alarm. 'Why'd you say that? Where are you going?'

'Oh, nowhere, love, it's just... I feel responsible for you doing this to yourself.'

Stephen felt himself glow inwardly at the 'love', told himself not to be so silly. 'Don't. I don't feel responsible for your haircut. What brought that on, anyway?'

'It's not the same thing... and the hair, well,' Jack shrugged. 'Felt like I should move on. It was like Julia's hair, not my own. Time to accept who I am now and live with that.'

Stephen squeezed his arm. 'I'm sorry. How were the boys?'

He grinned. 'Fine. Super lads.'

'I wish I could meet them.'

Jack looked at him oddly. 'Why?'

'Oh, you know... I want to know more about you, meet all your family and friends,' Stephen said lightly.

Jack stroked his hair lightly. 'You know that can't happen the way things are,' he said gently. 'All we can have is...'

'I know,' Stephen said, then smiled. 'So give it to me.'

He should've gone back up to his full dose, he knew that, but he was so blissed out at the change in his relationship with Jack it just didn't seem that important. All his queasiness was fading away, leaving only delight and satisfaction. He found himself staying the night, happy to drift off in his lover's arms. He had to accept that a part of him, maybe a big part, lived only for their nights together, loved Jack.

In another week or so his off-duty appearance (contacts, loose hair, casual clothes) was so different from his office persona that they stopped using hotels and just spent the night in each others' flats. It suddenly felt less like an affair, more like a proper, conventional relationship, something not to be ashamed of.

Lying staring at Jack's ceiling one morning he said, 'We should take a holiday together.'

'What?' Jack sounded startled.

'I'm serious.' He rolled over, propped himself up on one elbow. 'We're not spending all that money on hotels any more, we can save up and go away together somewhere.'

'You and me?' Jack looked unenthusiastic. 'I don't know...'

Stephen frowned, a little hurt. 'Why not?'

'Two guys on holiday, sharing a room? They'd think we were gay.'

'So? Who cares?'

'I care,' Jack said, sitting up. 'It's very important for a man, that kind of thing.'

Stephen hooted with laughter. 'You've only been a man what, five months? I was one for thirty years...' He trailed off. He'd been a man? Did he no longer consider himself to be one?

'Anyway, it's a bit hypocritical isn't it? It's okay to have sex with a man, as long as no-one knows?'

'I haven't screwed a guy since I was Julia,' Jack said defensively.

'What about me?'

'Do you really still think you're a man? Look at yourself, Stephen.' He yanked back the duvet, exposed his nude form. It was pale and hairless, tapering slightly at the waist. Slender limbs ended in delicate hands and feet. Flushed nipples crowned tiny cones on Stephen's chest. The slit between his legs settled the matter. 'You should go back up to your full dose of drugs right now. I'm serious. People at work are wondering what's wrong with you.'

Stephen looked down at himself unhappily, felt his eyes stinging. 'I did it for us. For you.'

'Stop blaming it all on me!' Jack caught his breath, spoke more measuredly. 'I really do have feelings for you, Stephen. But... just think about it. Think what you're doing, please.'

Stephen nodded. 'Okay,' he said.

It was their first fight. Afterwards Stephen went home and slumped on the sofa. He didn't want to lose Jack. He was helpless in the thrall of his longing for him. You're acting like a woman. Thinking like a woman, he thought. And... well, androgyny is the best you can hope for now.

He went and looked at his reflection. Fragile and feminised. Maybe he'd gone too far. But, no way back, kiddo, he thought. People at work already wondering. Wondering, but not sure. Jack was clearly very reluctant to be seen with another man in that kind of context. And he was at his happiest affecting to be Jack's lady love.

Crunch point. Back on the pills for good, and stay like this. Or off them for good, and let nature (if that's what APFS really was) run its course. He'd be a woman. But somehow the prospect of holidays with Jack, a whole life with him, out in public, in the open, that didn't seem so bad. Jack was accepting the change in his life. Perhaps it was time he did too.

Stephen fished the pill dispenser out of his jacket, looked hard at it, once at the core of his life. He opened the medicine cabinet and put it at the very back, closed the door and locked it.

Five

The change began to accelerate, as Stephen knew it would. That was scary but also exhilarating, as his chest began to plump up into small but shapely breasts, his backside filled out and his face softened still further.

He bought women's clothing: underwear and blouses to begin with, just for wearing under his male clothes, and around the flat. It felt strange to be wearing knickers with his fake phallus, but he knew it wouldn't be for long. Knew he wouldn't be he for long. He wondered how that would happen, if some switch would suddenly close and he'd be she, or if it would happen gradually and imperceptibly.

Each morning he dressed for work, realising that his disguise was a little less convincing every day, that his days of wearing a suit and tie were numbered. It never failed to bring a little shiver of anticipation. In quieter moments it occurred to him that the excitement and pleasure the prospect of his imminent womanhood brought him were weirdly at odds with the self-disgust and anger he had previously felt... but he shoved the thought away.

Inevitably, he had to tell his APFS counsellor, who was unsurprisingly startled by the news. She was used to a surly and uncommunicative Stephen staying for the minimum period possible every two months, and the sight of him in mid-metamorphosis, and apparently very happy with it, was obviously a surprise. Stephen swatted away all her carefully- phrased enquiries about the cause of his new openness and enthusiasm, chose not to hear.

But her advice regarding his day-to-day living did sink in, and so before very long he found himself sitting in the office of a rather nonplussed-looking Bob Black.

'Well, Stephen,' said Black, rather cautiously. 'I'm glad to see you're making an effort to settle in, finally. Not that there was anything wrong -'

'I was a pain, I know,' Stephen said with a wry smile. His voice had become tremulous and slightly hoarse as it began its slide up the register. 'But things are different now.'

'Eh, yes. You do seem... different,' Black said, obviously trying to be diplomatic.

'Ah... yes. The thing is, Bob, I'd like to take a week off,' Stephen said, smiling.

Bob Black frowned. 'Well, of course, but surely your line manager...?'

'As you can probably tell, I'm undergoing spontaneous gender reversal,' Stephen pressed on smoothly, using a term coined to cover the whole spectrum of conditions that included APFS and APMS. 'When I come back to work I'll be a woman.'

'Oh. I... oh,' Black said, blinking. He looked more closely at Stephen, who smiled and took his glasses off. Black nodded. 'Of course. How stupid of me not to see it,' he said. 'Well... it's your decision, Stephen - will you still be Stephen, after...?'

'No. I'm going to call myself Alison,' Stephen said. The name had no real significance for him, so far as he could remember, but it sounded nice. 'I was hoping you would inform everyone, while I was away. Otherwise it would be... awkward, the last few days. I would feel uncomfortable calling a meeting and just announcing it...'

'Yes. I expect you would,' Bob said. 'Yes, I'll make sure everyone knows.' Inwardly Stephen felt a sudden rush of gratitude - employment laws had been tweaked to make it illegal to discriminate against or otherwise impede people with APFS, but Bob was under no compulsion to do him that sort of favour. 'When will you be... taking your week off?' Bob asked.

'The week after next,' Stephen said with a little flush of excitement.

'I'll sort it all out. Thank you for being so honest with me,' Bob said, obviously still staggered by the news.

'No,' Stephen said. 'Thank-you.'

Six days left at work, then five, four, three, two, one... and he was free, free of the necktie, the sensible shoes, the tyranny of the suit and the rubber genitals. Rather mischievously, he thought, he'd decided not to tell Jack about his impending switchover. Let him hear along with everyone else at the office - Stephen had told him he was just taking a week off to use up his outstanding leave for the financial year, which was partly true. He only regretted not being there to see Jack's face when he heard the news, and watch him hide his surprise and delight.

He lay around the house for most of the next week, wrapped in a robe and his underwear, becoming more and more certain that the change had fully expressed itself. He was female now. Stephen was no more, and now she was Alison. It felt as simple and as natural as that.

And so, late one spring Friday afternoon, Alison parked her car around the corner from Jack's flat. It was the first really fresh and summery day of the year, a fact which was not lost on her as the breeze pressed the soft fabric of her dress against her body. She felt naked under it, which - given the brevity and diaphanousness of the lingerie she'd finally selected - she very nearly was. She locked the car, slipped her handbag over her shoulder and strode off down the pavement, enjoying the caress of the wind on her bare calves.

She felt good, knew she looked good: light, buttoned-up blue dress, cream cardigan, open-toed shoes. Looking sexy for my man, she thought, feeling the excitement frothing up in her like bubbles from an over- shaken drinks can. She twitched the stylish shopping bag hanging from one hand. What's in there? she imagined Jack asking casually as he caressed her body. Oh, just a few things, she'd say coyly, for when I stay the night, or for a weekend. Baby, what a great idea, Jack would reply... you should start moving in straight away!

She sashayed her way up to Jack's front door, leaned on the bell.

'...hello?' He sounded a bit bemused, bless him.

'It's Alison, darling,' she said. 'Alison Holmes.'

'...oh!' She could almost hear the penny dropping. 'Come on up.'

She went up to his flat on the second floor, found him waiting at the door. He was clearly nervous and trying to hide it. 'Bob announced it today,' Jack said, passing a hand over his scalp. He'd had his hair cut still further, not much more than a buzz-cut. Alison found she liked how masculine it made him look. 'I wish you'd told me first.'

'Surprise,' Alison said with a smile, walking past him into the flat. She put her handbag and the carrier down, went into the living room.

Jack followed her in. 'You... you're serious about this, then,' he said, sounding weirdly edgy, not how she'd expected at all.

'Can't you tell?' Alison slipped off the cardigan, laid it on a chair. She was as slender as a twig, pale and beautiful, she knew that much. Gold flashed around her neck and at one ankle.

'We should've talked about this, Ste - Alison,' Jack said.

She smiled, undoing the top few buttons of her dress as she did so. 'Later for talk, darling.'

'Seriously. We need to - '

But she had eased the soft fabric off her shoulders and the dress had need no more encouragement to pool around her feet. Alison stepped out of her shoes and advanced coolly on him, certain he would not be able to resist her. He backed up a step, another, hit the edge of the door, trying to form a word all the time. She closed in, and he put up a hand to ward her off. But it met her breast rather than her shoulder, and that was the end of his resistance for quite some time.

Six

And Alison awoke, cradled in his arms, head resting on his shoulder. Blissful, she thought, and was suddenly aware he was already awake. She could feel the tension in his arms and chest.

'Relax, darling,' she murmured, stroking his chest. 'It's all okay now. It's all sorted out.'

'Is it?' The same incomprehensible edginess in his voice.

She sat up, looked at him. 'Of course it is. We can be together now, man and woman... isn't that what you want?'

He looked away, almost guiltily. 'Well, yes, up to a point...'

'Well then. We can spend the whole weekend together and go into work on Monday as Jack and Alison.'

'I...' He took a deep breath. 'I'm not really comfortable with that.'

'Why not?' She was unable to keep a hard, wounded edge from her voice. 'You wouldn't be seen with me socially as a man. Are you telling me you still don't want to be seen with me now I'm a woman?'

'Yes, kind of... but you're intent on going out there and trumpeting the news that we're some kind of rock-solid couple. It'll look like you changed sex just to be with me.'

'Well...' She swallowed hard, hating the quaver in her voice as she spoke. 'Well, I did.'

'Yes, but I never asked you to, we never spoke about... being that kind of a couple. I was just happy with the sex, I never expected you to... to go all the way.'

She took a deep breath, pulled a pillow in front of her, suddenly feeling naked and vulnerable and not in a good way. 'What exactly are you saying, Jack?'

He sat up, let out a tiny groan. 'I... I don't think we're looking for the same things out of this relationship. Not any more.'

'Jack, I love you! All I want is to be with you!' She felt a horrid wetness on her cheeks. Suddenly all her femininity was collapsing in on her, smothering her. There was a sudden lurch of nausea in her belly. 'What else is there?'

'That... I don't want that kind of commitment,' Jack said, spitting the words out in a hurry as if eager to be rid of them. 'I never really thought of this as an exclusive arrangement anyway.'

'Oh, Christ... you've been seeing other women? Screwing around?' Alison, no, she could feel Alison disintegrating and a familiar presence taking her place, it was Stephen who stared at him, appalled.

'My marriage - to someone I loved very much - only ended a few months ago,' Jack said, carefully, almost angrily. What right have you to be angry? Stephen thought wildly. 'I'm not looking for another serious relationship yet. You just took it all for granted.'

'But I thought... what with who we were...' Stephen wished he could stop crying.

'You thought the former man and the former woman would automatically shack up together?' Jack groaned. 'Real life isn't that neat, Alison.'

'Don't call me that, you bastard!' Stephen slithered off the bed, stared for a split second in disgusted horror at the women's' clothes on the floor, then desperately started pulling them on. Anything to be out of here, away from this man.

'But... oh, God, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...' He half-rose, flopped limply back into the bed.

'Too late. Too late, too bloody late!' Stephen finished pulling on his underwear, moved quickly out of the room. The dress - his dress, he thought queasily - was still in the sitting room with his shoes and cardigan. He pulled them on and headed for the front door.

'Ali - Stephen,' Jack said, appearing in the hallway. 'I'm sorry. We need to talk. Call me.'

Stephen gave him a two-second flash of the old hate, the kind that could smelt metal. 'Go to hell, you shit,' he whispered, and slammed the door behind him as he left the flat for the last time.

He made it down to the street corner before his shame and despair overtook him and he was forced to lean against the wall as his body was wracked by sobs. Stupid, stupid, stupid man! he thought numbly. Schoolgirl emotions and you let them destroy everything you had! He looked down at his body, at the breasts and the hips wrapped in the light dress, and felt the urge to vomit. Desire had done this to him. That and getting close to someone. Oh, God, it was all over. He was a woman now, had announced it at work, had put the paperwork in motion. On Monday morning he would officially become Alison Holmes, woman.

He couldn't take it all in, felt sick, dizzy. He ran his hands through his collar-length hair, yet another reminder of the metamorphosis he'd fooled himself into. He had to go home and think it over. No, he couldn't, not like this, his hands were shaking like he had palsy, his nerves were in tatters. He needed a drink. Like that hasn't gotten you into enough trouble already, he thought, but there was a pub round the corner from where he'd parked and he desperately needed it now.

It was still early enough to be quiet and he slid onto a stool at the bar, didn't return the landlord's cheery smile. 'Vodka,' he said, all too aware of the softness of his voice.

The landlord's expression spoke volumes about his prejudice concerning young women who drank spirits alone in pubs. This is what you have given yourself, Stephen thought. You are now a stereotype, slapper or frigid, bitch or whore, in the eyes of the rest of the world. Why didn't you see the signs? Why were you so stupid?

It was a moot point. He needed to worry about how he would cope with the rest of his life. They would all be laughing at him now, that, or trying to exploit his feelings the way Jack had. Bastards. All of them. Keep them out. Rebuild the wall. Hate. Yes, that was it. His old friend and ally, hate.

But a sudden terrible weariness descended upon him as he tried to recapture the old feelings that had sustained him. He was too tired to be so angry any more. The furnace inside him had burned itself out, leaving only ash and clinker in its heart. He sipped his drink miserably, looked at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. A beautiful woman, he thought, a bit messed up, but...

He'd had a choice where his hatred was concerned, before now. And he'd rejected it. The chilly emptiness of his life before Jack nudged its way back into his memory. It had been terrible. No wonder he'd fallen so hard the first time a chance to make such a vital and human connection had come along. The price had seemed so trivial compared to the rewards. And maybe it still did.

Stephen felt his mind coming back under some sort of control. He sipped at his drink again. So Jack had turned out to be a useless tosser with a skipload of baggage and a commitment phobia. He'd got the hang of being a man remarkably quickly, Stephen thought with a smile. That didn't mean they all had to be so worthless. He felt a nervous tingle inside. He had nothing to hide any more. Had already made the only choice that counted - had chosen to be a woman within the world rather than a man outside it.

'Wise choice, babe,' he said to himself, feeling Alison resurgent, battered but not bowed.

'Pardon, miss?' said the barman.

Alison flashed him a smile. 'Nothing. Same again - no,' she corrected herself. 'Southern comfort, please.' She sat back on the barstool and considered the events of the last few hours. Just a hiccough, she thought, best to chalk it up to experience. Certainly she felt more content even now than she had at any time during her masquerade as Stephen. Time to chuck out that terrible rubber willy, she thought with revulsion. Or maybe not - a conversation piece, perhaps?

She raised her glass to her reflection as the landlord departed, and not surprisingly, the gesture was returned. Here's to us, babe, Alison thought. A woman within. And with nothing to be ashamed of. Truly comfortable for the first time in an age, she settled back to enjoy her drink and listen to the jukebox. The music in her head had calmed down, but she found she didn't miss it at all.