"Please stop staring at me like it's some enormously big deal," Pete said, swilling his drink in the bottom of his glass and pointedly not meeting any of their eye-lines. "I mean, come on, given the state of the world today and the number of really important problems that cost people their lives..."
There was a moment's silence in the living room, as the others struggled to process the news Pete had shared so casually with them. Pete sat back and sighed, his composure all the more surprising given his apparent youth. Danny knew that he was really the same age as the rest of them, but being only five foot three and slight with it they all tended to treat him as the baby of the group. He normally accepted that with his usual good humour.
"Pete, you're turning into a woman," Sarah said. "Of course it's a big deal."
"Not definitely. Not for sure. The doc said they're going to put me on these pills and -"
"I'd heard they were only, like, fifty percent effective," Cameron said. He got up off the sofa and headed for the kitchen, then realised it might be politic to get permission from the host before raiding the fridge and looked hopefully at Danny. Danny nodded.
"More than fifty," Pete said.
"You are being, like, freaky calm," Danny said. "If it were me with the Girl Flu, I'd - I don't know what I'd do."
"Typical man," Sarah said with a sigh. "One threat to their manhood and they lose it." There was a noise of agreement from Joanne, sitting next to her.
"Well, what would you do? There is a version of Girl Flu that attacks women, it's called AFPMSAF..." Danny realised the acronym had got away from him.
"APMS. Like APFS, except you swap an M for the F - masculinisation, not feminisation," Joanne said in her usual withering way. "I think the very fact you describe it as an attack is very telling -"
"You think a sudden, involuntary and irrevocable sex change is a good thing," Danny said.
Joanne shrugged. "Nobody's died of it. Not directly."
"Not directly. Right," Danny said. He looked at Pete and smiled. "Well, look on the bright side, mate, you're not in Africa or Iran or the Bible Belt - you're pretty unlikely to get lynched for getting sick."
"Why does everyone assume it's a sickness?" Joanne asked.
Danny rolled his eyes. "Pete, how'd you find out you had this thing?"
"The doctor told me."
"There you go, case answered, I think," Danny said.
Cameron returned from the fridge with a freshened glass. "So how'd you get it, anyway? Are we still okay using the same toilet and stuff?"
"Oh, for God's sake..." The two young women looked at each other, then Joanne put a hand over her eyes and Sarah stared at Cameron. "Cameron, have you not seen any of the literature or documentaries about this?"
The big man shrugged and sat down next to them. "I saw one about Jim Carrey - sorry, Jemma Carrey. I don't think she's as funny as she was when she was a man."
"You don't 'catch' it. It's not like it's an actual virus or anything."
"Oh." Cameron swigged his drink. "So what is it then?"
"I think we're getting off the point a bit," Danny said. He looked at Pete. "How exactly did you find out?"
Pete shrugged. "Woke up a few days ago feeling a bit rough - you know, flu-ey, headaches, stiff joints. What with everything I, ah, don't take chances with my health."
"You mean you're a hypochondriac," Cameron said.
"Very likely." Pete smiled. "Anyway, the net said the symptoms could be APFS, so I bought one of the new self-testing kits. The little tab turned green, which means see a doctor. The doc did a proper blood test and..." He shrugged. "It was confirmed yesterday."
"Who else have you told?" Sarah asked.
"Nobody. You lot are my closest friends, and if these pills work out it won't actually make very much difference to my life..."
There was a moment's silence while they digested that. Then Cameron said, "Have you actually changed at all yet? You know -" He gestured vaguely yet evocatively in front of his own body.
"Jesus, Cameron. Why exactly do we spend time with you?" Joanne said, folding her arms.
Cameron shrugged. "I guess I'm just lovable."
"No," Pete said, answering the initial question. "We caught it early enough, it'd be a few weeks before - things started to happen. Sorry."
"Well," Danny said, "thanks for sharing. I'm not sure I'd have had the balls to - if you'll pardon the expression."
Pete smiled his wide and sunny Pete smile. "I thought you ought to know. In case I seem a bit weird."
"Thanks," Danny said. "Now, are we going to watch this movie or not?" There was general assent and he got up and went over to the entertainment console under the TV.
"Part of me never even thought it was real. I thought it was, I don't know, just an urban legend or something," Sarah said as she and Joanne walked to the bus-stop together. They both had to be up early the next day and had left the others in Danny's flat.
"Somebody where my cousin used to work got it," Joanne said. "Big blokey bloke, apparently, went all voluptuous to listen to Jim tell the tale."
"What happened to him? The guy with the Flu, not your cousin."
"Working as a sex dancer now, apparently." The night air was cool but Joanne's tone was infinitely frostier. "Black Cat Boothroyd or something."
"Well, he - she had the choice..." Sarah said.
"It just shows the kind of stereotypes of women most men have in their heads. That's what they feel they have conform to if they change sex," Joanne said. ""I am a woman with an attractive body so obviously I'm going to use it to make money." It's illuminating, isn't it?"
"I don't think either of us knows what it would be like," Sarah said. "I mean, if you started changing into a man, you'd try to fit in, wouldn't you? Cut your hair, stop wearing skirts."
"Isn't that just reinforcing gender roles, though?" Joanne seemed to relent a little. "I must say I admire the way Pete's dealing with it. He doesn't seem that bothered at all."
"Yeah, well... knowing Pete as I do, I can kind of understand it," Sarah said.
"You've known him a lot longer than me," Joanne said. "I don't know that much about his past."
Sarah shrugged. "His dad walked out on him and his mum when he was two, or something. He's not set eyes on him since. Then when he was thirteen his mum died and he had to go and live with his grandparents. They were pretty elderly even then, and his grandmother passed away last year."
"God, I remember -" Joanne looked at Sarah. "You mean, he doesn't have anyone?"
"Not really - a few cousins down south who he hardly ever sees. He's on his own."
"I never would've guessed," Joanne said. "I mean, you know him, he's always so -"
"Yeah. I know. He's one of the good guys," Sarah said. "Of all the people this could happen to -"
"It's not that bad, remember," Joanne said a little sternly. "Anyway, we should help him. If, you know..."
"You mean, if it turns out to be drug resistant and he has to make the change anyway?" Sarah looked at her friend, with more than faint suspicion. "Help him how, exactly?"
Joanne shrugged. "Help him turn into a normal woman, not some exaggerated cartoon like Black Cat or whatever her name was. Can you imagine what it'll be like if he spends too much time around Cameron while he's changing? He'll end up as the kind of slapper who makes Katie Price look like Andrea Dworkin."
"I think we're supposed to call her Princess Jordan since the wedding," Sarah murmured.
"You know I'm a republican, Sarah."
"Hum. Well, look, he's going onto these pills, and that'll hopefully suspend the whole metamorphosis thing. Unless you're suggesting he should just let nature take its course as some kind of gesture of solidarity?"
Joanne shrugged again. "That's his decision to make."
"Right," Sarah said. "Let's just see what happens. We all want what's best for him, don't we? One way or another things are going to work out fine."
"Al reet, I must be off," Cameron said, getting to his feet. "Thanks for the movie and beers and stuff, Dan."
"No problem," Danny said, showing the big man to the door. "Take it easy getting home."
"No worries. Ta ra, Pete!"
"Seeya," Pete called from the living room.
Danny closed the door behind Cameron and made his way back to where Pete was sitting, sloshing half a can of beer about thoughtfully. "You okay, mate?"
Pete grinned at him. "Yeah, of course. You know me."
"Yeah," Danny said, sitting down again. "Christ, I -"
"You still can't believe I'm not climbing up the walls." Pete smiled. "You know, there's so many much worse things that could happen to me - even if you don't include all the different ways you can die these days, I could still go blind, or get some condition that screws up my nervous system, or EOD, or - as it is, the worst that can happen is I won't be able to have kids."
"Post-APFS - and APMS - you're sterile. The sex cells don't survive the metamorphosis intact, or something, and the -" he cleared his throat "- the plumbing's not quite one hundred percent on the inside."
"Well, I didn't know that," Danny said. He sat back.
"Do you think that'll be a big deal for most people?" Pete too was staring into space.
"Not being able to have kids."
Danny shrugged. "I don't know. I suppose if you really loved the other person it'd be a shame, but you could live with it. Find a way round it. Finding someone special's difficult enough, after all, you couldn't just give them the shove for something beyond their control..."
Pete was grinning, in the apparent belief he had successfully read between the lines. "You're still Mister Lonely Heart, then."
"Bugger off." Danny scowled at him. "Okay, so it's been a while, but that doesn't mean -"
"Dan, I was joking. Don't - look, there'll be someone, all right? You're a top bloke."
"Yeah, well. So are you, so it's not like I don't have competition. Thank God Cameron's there to make me look good."
"Ah, so that's why we hang around with him," Pete said, nodding thoughtfully.
"Actually, if you do turn into a woman three of my best friends will be chicks and Cameron will be the only other bloke people can compare me to -" He broke off. "Sorry, that wasn't funny. I didn't mean to -"
Pete smiled and shook his head. "That's fine. I'm glad you can joke about it. I just hope that if the drugs don't work I turn out as fantastic as a girl as everyone claims I am as a man. I'll have to start worrying about finding a fella..." He finished his can and got up.
"Christ, if you're even half decent, I'll take you on myself," Danny said. He froze and looked at Pete, who was staring at him, eyes wide. "Look, mate, sorry again. I should just -"
"No. No, don't worry about it," Pete said. He put his head on one side and smiled. "Was that a serious offer?"
"Pete, come on." Danny looked at him nervously.
"Cos I don't have to go on the pills..."
Danny stared at Pete, his face a mask of shock and horror, until Pete cracked up and started laughing. "Christ, you're so easy to wind up, Dan!"
"Out!" Danny shouted.
"Would you prefer me in a basque or a camisole?"
"G-string or French knickers?"
Danny grunted and opened the front door. Pete grabbed his jacket and went past, tutting. "This is no way to treat a lady!"
"Good night, Pete." Danny couldn't keep a smile from his face any longer. "Take care, you crazy man."
"You too. Seeya."
"Pete's late tonight," Danny said, glancing up and down the menu. It was a formality as he knew he would have the same as usual. That was the advantage of eating at a big chain, he thought.
"I think he started his medication a couple of days ago," Sarah said. The group, minus Cameron who was working, was supposed to be reconvening for a pizza prior to a trip to the cinema, but only Danny and the two young women had showed up so far.
"Oh, right," Danny said. "I haven't seen him since last weekend."
"I hope he's okay," Joanne said. "Maybe we should call him."
"You know Pete, he can look after himself," Danny said.
"How can you say that, with what he's going through?" Joanne tutted.
"I know we all automatically try to look after the little guy, but I don't actually think he really needs it a lot of the time," Danny said. "If it were me, I wouldn't want people banging on about this all the time."
"Have either of you spoken to him since he started the drugs?"
Danny nearly snapped at Joanne's persistence, but forced himself to be civil. "Not me."
"Nor me," Sarah said. She made it sound like an admission of guilt.
Joanne nodded. "All right then." She pulled out her own phone. "I'm just going to see if he's all right."
They waited as Joanne dialled. After a moment she mouthed "Voicemail" at them. "Hi, Pete, it's Joanne. Just wanted to make sure you were still coming. Speak to you soon..."
"He'll probably walk in the door in a minute's time," Danny said.
But he did not. After they ate without him, Joanne suggested they abandon the planned cinema trip and go to check on Pete at his flat, but Danny and Sarah both felt that would probably constitute overkill in the circumstances. They agreed that if they hadn't heard back from Pete the next morning they'd go around and see him the next day.
Which was what duly happened. At one the following afternoon they gathered outside his flat and Danny leaned on the bell at length. There was no immediate response but when he put his ear to the woodwork he could hear vague noises within.
"I think he's coming," Danny reported.
"He must be sick," Joanne said. "Maybe the drugs..."
"Let's not get carried away," Sarah said. "Maybe he's just caught something else. True flu, maybe."
The door cracked open and Pete peered out at them. Danny was shocked despite himself - Pete was virtually chalk-white, except for the bags under his eyes which were a rich purple.
"Oh. Hi guys. Was gonna call you. Sorry..." Pete seemed tranquilised.
"Jesus, you look terrible," Danny said.
Pete nodded and did not reply. He opened the door the rest of the way. "Come on in." He shuffled off up the hallway, wearing pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt, still giving off the same aura of slight detachment from everything around him.
"Pete, are you okay?" Sarah got to the point.
Pete sank onto his sofa, upon which he'd clearly been installed under a duvet. "Honestly, I feel..." He took a deep breath. "Well, like complete shit, to be honest."
"Is it the APFS drugs?" Joanne asked quietly.
"I suppose it must be. Sit down, if you like," Pete said. "This came on, like, an hour after I took the first capsule. They said some people had side effects, but..."
"What exactly's wrong?" Danny asked.
"Oh. Ah... splitting headache, dodgy stomach, constant tiredness..." Pete ticked them off on the fingers of one hand.
"Your body'll get used to the drugs, though. The side effects will reduce with time, won't they?" Sarah asked.
Pete shrugged. "I don't know. Sometimes, apparently, the side effects show the drugs are working - if they start to fade you need to go onto a stronger dose. Though I can't imagine feeling much worse than I do now."
There was an awkward silence in the room. Danny stole a glance at Sarah who made a tiny gesture of uncertainty. Joanne sat down next to Pete on the sofa. "You know we're here for you, Pete. Whatever you decide to do."
Danny frowned at her. "What are you talking about, Jo? I'm really sorry to hear this, mate. I wish there was something we could do."
Joanne looked at Danny. "Well, if this does keep up, Pete's got a choice to make, hasn't he?"
Danny shook his head. "That's not a choice, Jo."
"I think it is," Joanne said, looking back at the smaller young man. "Peter, I know this might sound strange -"
"Do you really think I haven't already thought about that?" Pete smiled wearily at her. "Stay on the pills and lie here like a cripple for the rest of my life, or sacrifice me male ego and live a fulfilling life as a woman?"
"What do you think, Pete?" Sarah was careful to keep her tone light and neutral.
He shook his head. "I don't know. I don't know. I keep hoping the effects will calm down a bit, but it's been three days now and no change..."
"You did say, it's not that big of a deal," Joanne said gently.
"Joanne," Danny said. He shook his head when she looked at him.
"Well, why not? It's stupid to just give up on a proper life, even Pete says it's just his male ego involved..."
"It's Pete's decision," Danny said. "Give it time. Maybe he will get used to the drugs. It may not be that straightforward a choice anyway."
"Please stop arguing," Pete said. His voice was little more than a whisper. He lay back on the sofa and closed his eyes.
"I'll stay with you for a bit," Sarah said, stroking his forehead. The startled look she shot the others indicated Pete was running a fairly severe temperature. She indicated they should go.
"I can't believe you just did that," Danny said as they went outside.
"What?" But Joanne was already defensive.
"You're basically encouraging him to... you know. To change sex."
Joanne shrugged. "I don't understand why he shouldn't, if the alternative is... well, you've seen how he is."
"It's been three days. Maybe they can change his dosage or something. I don't think he needs telling what's involved for him, anyway."
"Well, I think he needs help if he's going to look at this objectively without a load of macho bullshit," Joanne said.
"And I think you're just seeing this as an opportunity to strike a blow for the Sisterhood," Danny said. "Win another recruit, or something. For God's sake, he's our friend -"
"Well, at least we can agree on that," Joanne said.
Danny was aware he might have spoken too harshly to her. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap. I'm just worried about him."
Joanne shrugged. "Me too. I'll call you."
"All right. See you."
Pete showed little sign of improvement, and as his debility continued it began to expose elements of his personality that most of his friends had never seen before: he became withdrawn and uncommunicative and his habitual optimism and good humour slowly faded. After a few days his friends agreed to institute a system where one or more of them would look in on him and make sure he was okay.
Cameron was happy to do his part, although his capacity for thoughtfulness and ability to raise Pete's spirits were not perhaps as accomplished as those of some of the others. He found keeping Pete company slightly boring, to tell the truth, and was rather delighted when his knock at Pete's door was answered by a slim young woman with long black hair wearing a faded t-shirt, short denim skirt, black tights and leather boots.
"Oh. Hiya," Cameron said after a moment spent looking her up and down, and then up again. "Is Pete in?"
"Yeah," the young woman said, putting her head on one side. Her accent was even more northern than his. "You must be Cameron."
"Yeah." Cameron couldn't help grinning.
"You'd better come in, then." She led him through to the main room where Pete lay sprawled in his customary spot.
"Oh, hiya mate," Pete said. "All right?"
"Yeah, fine." Cameron sat down. When the girl's back was turned he jerked his head at her and made a WTF face.
Pete stared at him for a moment until the penny dropped. "Oh, sorry. Cameron, this is Charlie. Charlie, this is Cameron."
Charlie sat down opposite him. "I'd worked that much out," she said.
"I... I mentioned you guys to her," Pete said.
"I think it's great you're looking out for him," Charlie said, smiling at Cameron. He found himself smiling back.
"Well, you know me - well, you don't, obviously, but - as we get to know each other you'll see that's the kind of guy I am." Cameron nodded thoughtfully and tried to look sensitive yet masculine at the same time.
"...right," Charlie said.
The old magic didn't seem to be working and Cameron said, "So, how do you know Pete, Charlie?"
"Well - you know what a tough time Pete's having with his medication," Charlie said. "Lots of people get mild side effects but not usually this bad. Pete's specialist thought it would be useful if I came round and talked through a few things with him. "
"Cool," Cameron said. She didn't look like a medical expert, but then perhaps this was just informal. He imagined what she might look like in a white coat or a nurse's uniform and the next thing he knew several seconds had passed and she was smiling at him again. "Maybe you could, you know, talk to the rest of us about, you know, things we could do to help him. Or you could just tell me and I'll pass it on."
"God, you're a smooth operator," Charlie said, deadpan. Pete smiled, which in itself was remarkable these days. She shrugged. "There's not much else you can do. In any case, I'm not really an expert on the medical side."
"Oh," Cameron said. He frowned. "So - I don't mean to be funny - why are you here, then?"
"Well, to talk about the psychological and social stresses Pete's going to go through if he decides to come off the drugs." Charlie looked at Pete and smiled sympathetically.
"Change into a girl, you mean? Jesus." Cameron blinked. "Why didn't you just ask Sarah or Joanne, mate?"
"Because they haven't done it, Cam," Pete said. "They've always been girls." He looked at Charlie with an apologetic expression.
Charlie smiled brightly at Cameron. "I've had APFS. My name used to be - "
"Jeee-sus! You're a bloke?" Cameron felt momentarily queasy. "I'm really sorry, I'd no idea -"
"I used to be a man." Charlie was clearly used to going through this sort of thing. "Now I'm a woman. I fancy men and everything, Cameron. I just don't advertise the fact I've had a sex change."
"If I'd known, I wouldn't, you know, have -"
"And given that, I wish I'd told you the moment we met," Charlie said. She smiled. "Forget it, anyway. I'm seeing someone."
"Right..." Cameron said. He couldn't help staring at her anew. Christ, he thought, there was no way of telling. This Girl Flu was more of a menace than he'd anticipated. How many of the girls he innocently letched after every day had started their lives with a different anatomy?
"My APFS was drug resistant. My family weren't sympathetic, either." Charlie was looking at Pete and speaking seriously. "I was only in my teens - I had a really rough time of it. As long as you've got friends around you it should be easier for you."
"You had friends?"
Charlie rolled her head. "Not really. I had... I suppose you'd say I had better than a friend. Somebody who - well, he was there for me. He knew what was happening to me and accepted it. You might even say he wanted it. It was complicated."
Pete nodded. "I think I understand."
"I'm buggered if I do," Cameron said. "Pete, you're not seriously considering - well, being a girl?"
"It's better than spending the next thirty or forty years laid out like this, isn't it?" Charlie said.
"But - a girl, Pete?"
Pete shrugged weakly. "I don't know, Cameron. I'm just sick of feeling like shit all the time. What's the point in being a man - in being alive, even - if you can't actually do anything you want to?"
Cameron knew his limitations, and had figured out that this situation was really beyond his limited diplomatic and persuasive skills. He stuck it out for another half an hour, listening to Charlie share more details of her own story, but eventually his own mounting agitation forced him from his seat. (The pop culture references and political overtones Charlie insisted on inserting were also distracting.)
They didn't seem to mind too much when he announced his departure. The first and only thing he could think of to do was to call Danny.
"Hello, Cameron, what's up?"
"Danny, you've got to do something about Pete."
"Why, what's wrong? Is he okay? You sound -"
"He's thinking of turning into a girl. They've sent some ladyboy round to persuade him, she's with him now."
"What?!? Cameron, have you been drinking?"
"I'm serious, mate. He's thinking that he can't hack being on these drugs for the rest of his life, so he's thinking about -"
"All right, all right. I get that part. What's this about a ladyboy?"
"She - she says she used to be a guy before she got Girl Flu herself. She's telling him how the change was for her."
"So she isn't actually a ladyboy."
"Well, no. But mate! You've got to talk to him, before he does something stupid."
"All right, all right. I'll go round straight after work."
To be honest, from what he'd seen of Pete's condition, Danny wasn't at all surprised that Pete was thinking what Cameron evidently considered the utterly unthinkable. Deep as his sympathy for Pete was, privately he knew that they couldn't really commit to keeping him company for decades to come, because he wasn't the old lively outgoing man they'd originally grown so fond of anymore. The drugs had taken that person away. If the feminised Pete that APFS would produce was even vaguely like her male precursor then he thought he might prefer that to the husk-like invalid they were currently spending time with.
So all in all he probably wasn't the best person to talk Pete out of coming off the APFS-inhibitor drugs, which was what Cameron clearly wanted him to do. He went round to the flat anyway, suspecting Pete might want to discuss what Cameron's mysterious "ladyboy" had told him.
She had gone by the time Danny arrived and he had to wait for Pete to stumble to the door as usual.
"All right," Pete said, letting him in.
"All right," Danny said. They went back to the lounge. "I heard from Cameron, he said you'd had a visitor."
"Why didn't MI5 snap him up?" Pete flopped down onto the sofa. "So quick on the uptake. Such a cool head under pressure."
Danny grinned. "He's worried about you, though. Same as we all are." He sat down.
"What did Cameron say exactly?"
"Reading between the bullshit, he said that someone who'd already had APFS and gone through the change came round to discuss what would happen if you decided to come off your medication."
Pete nodded. "That's about right. I asked them to send someone."
"Are you seriously considering it?"
"I don't know, Dan." The eyes that looked at him were suddenly glistening. "This isn't going to get any better. They've basically said as much. If they lower or change the dose it'll just mean I'll change really slowly - over years, maybe. You know me, mate. You know the kind of person I am - was, I should say. The kind of life I wanted."
"I know," Danny said quietly.
"I'm only fucking twenty-two, Danny! I've never been to South America, or New Zealand. I can't even concentrate to read a book the way I am now. This is just turning me into a vegetable. That scares me almost as much as the idea of being a girl. I want to be me again, not this - this lump."
Danny sighed. "If you feel that way, mate... then go for it. Come off the pills."
Pete looked at him. "You really mean that?"
"I want you to be you again," Danny said, smiling. "You know us - or I hope you do, anyway. We'll look out for you, do everything we can. Just don't tell Cameron I encouraged you, I'm supposed to be talking you out of the idea..."
"It's still a scary bloody idea. Charlie - that's the woman I spoke to - she said it was easier for her because..." Pete broke off and looked away.
"If you decide to go through with this, then you know I've got your back, right?" Danny squeezed Pete's shoulder in an attempt to reassure him. "Whatever I can do, you know I'll do it."
"You really mean that, Dan?" Pete was looking at him oddly intensely, Danny thought, but he could hardly qualify his position at this point.
"Course I do."
"Thanks, mate." To Danny's surprise Pete got to his feet and threw his arms around him. He had always been an expressive and tactile sort of bloke, Danny thought, but this was unusual even so. He put it down to Pete's slightly addled mental state, a product of the drugs. He was right, of course, but would have been stunned to learn just exactly how significant the conversation they'd just had would turn out to be.
Pete texted them all the next day and told them he'd decided to come off the drugs. Danny received this with regret but not surprise, Sarah was cautiously optimistic, Joanne indulged in some metaphorical rolling up of sleeves and rubbing of palms, and Cameron's howl of horror was audible from the next street. Pete also invited them all round, supposedly to say thank-you for the support they'd given him during his debility.
They were all startled by the change in their friend - the reappearance, to put it more exactly, of the Pete they'd known prior to his APFS being discovered. He was bouncy and positive and very nearly his old self again as he welcomed them into his flat.
"Pete," Cameron said, without any preamble and before anyone else had a chance to speak, "for God's sake think about this. There's still time."
"Cameron!" To say Joanne was looking daggers at him would be a major understatement - looking broadswords at him would be closer to it. "It's Pete's decision to make, isn't it?"
Cameron looked miserable. "Pete, you're still a guy. Think about that, while you can."
Pete grinned. "Thanks, Cam, but I have had a lot of time to think about this. And, you know, nothing's actually physically changed yet, so if I do change my mind I've not lost anything."
"Is that likely?" Sarah asked as they hung up their jackets and made themselves comfortable. "A change of mind, I mean."
Pete sat down. "I don't think so. I'll probably get an attack of the nerves when, you know, stuff starts happening, but it'll be irrevocable by then." He picked up a bottle of beer and grinned, but it looked brittle.
"You're being really brave about this," Joanne said. "That's so great."
"So - how long until you're, ah, done?" Danny asked.
Pete smiled at him in a slightly arch way Danny couldn't quite work out the reason for. "Couple of months. Soon enough."
"Better make the most of things, then," Cameron said, managing to sound glum and cryptic simultaneously as he grabbed a beer for himself.
Pete seemed a little reluctant to talk about his plans in too much detail, and so they spent most of the evening filling him in on what they'd been doing while he'd been under the weather. It was a successful evening, Danny thought, the usual glow of camaraderie and light-hearted piss-taking, very much like the old days. He wondered how much things would change once Pete's metamorphosis was complete, and fervently hoped it would be as little as possible.
Pete surreptitiously asked him to hang on after the others went and he did so - they tended to arrive together and drift off in ones and twos at these kinds of gatherings at people's flats anyway, so it was hardly unusual.
"Great to see you looking better, despite everything," Danny said, when they were alone together.
"It's such a relief," Pete said. He smiled the same slightly odd smile again and got up. "Anyway, i've got something to show you."
"Oh yeah," Danny said, settling back on the sofa.
"Uh-huh." From somewhere Pete produced a print-out of a photo in a clear plastic folder and handed it to Danny before sitting down next to him.
Danny looked at the picture. It was a passport-style photo of a young woman, blonde. Her eyes were wide and blue and the combined effect of her cheekbones and jawline gave her face a slightly feline cast. There was something indefinably familiar about her.
"What do you think?" Pete asked.
Danny shrugged. "Very nice."
"Would you, though?"
"Pete, I'm not the most discerning judge right now. If we got on, then yeah, I probably would." He handed the photo back. "Who is she, anyway?"
"Me," Pete said.
Danny nearly choked on his beer. "What?"
Pete shrugged. "It's this new thing they've got. They scan your face and it predicts what you're going to look like when - when you're a woman. And this is what I'm going to look like, more or less." He looked at the photo thoughtfully.
"Well, if I'd known... yeah, mate," Danny said, finding himself oddly uncomfortable. "Yeah, she's - I mean you're - you're going to be a looker."
Pete nodded. "And you said you would."
Danny stared at him. His friend looked oddly triumphant but for no reason he could discern without severe concern. "I didn't know it was you when I said that. Don't take it the wrong way -"
"How is that the wrong way?" Pete sighed and looked away. "Danny... I told you other day how scary this was for me. How important it was to - to know I had people there for me."
"And you do. As friends." Danny wasn't sure why he felt the need to clarify the situation.
"I know that, but...God, you don't know what it's like. You think it's easy for me to talk to you like this?"
"It's no easier for me, I promise." Danny made to get up. "Look, let's just forget -"
"No, please. Let's get this straight, one way or the other," Pete said. He took a deep breath.
"So - so what? Are you saying you fancy me, or something?" Danny looked away and tried to keep his squirming to a minimum.
"Oh God, I thought you understood... no, I don't. Not yet. Not physically," Pete said.
"Thank Christ for that."
"Seconded," Pete said. "But I know you're a ... you're just a good bloke, you'd look after a girl, treat her properly. I think I might need some looking after, you know, as time goes by."
"Jo and Sarah will do anything you ask of them, I'm sure," Danny said.
"Yeah, I know, but... Charlie talked about how important it was to her, how supportive, to have someone who knew everything and still wanted to be with her. You know. Not just as a friend."
"Pete, you're my best friend, but... I can't just say yes to something like that. Not with things the way they are now. In a few weeks time I might not fancy you, you might not fancy me - Christ knows most girls don't - how can we even be talking about this?"
"I'm not asking you to commit to anything definite," Pete said. "I'm just asking you to keep an open mind when the time comes."
Danny exhaled and raised his eyebrows. "How will we know when that is?"
Pete shrugged. "I think we'll just know."
"All right." Danny finished his beer. "I think I should probably go now."
Danny got up and fetched his coat. When he turned back to Pete the smaller man was holding the photo of his predicted future self out.
"Something to bear in mind," Pete said, smiling a crooked smile.
Danny nodded and took the picture with him when he left.
There was hardly anyone Danny could discuss their conversation with, even if he'd for a moment thought that Pete would have been okay with him sharing it. Cameron and Joanne would both have flayed him alive for even broaching the subject, for rather different reasons of course, and he was reluctant to share it with Sarah. She was sensible enough but... no, the situation was too private.
What was he going to do, anyway? It was probably a mistake for him to have taken the photo, because he did find it preying on his mind somewhat. The woman in it was very attractive in a pixie-ish sort of way and he found himself wondering what the rest of her would be like. He told himself this was his best friend he was fantasising about, but, as every man knows, the black beast of the libido cannot be controlled, only loosed or killed. Danny's had been in captivity for quite some time now and took to this new outlet with alarming aptitude.
And as the weeks went by and Pete began to show the first signs of his change, things just got worse. The structure of his face started to shift so from some angles he almost resembled the woman in the picture. The hair on his arms started to thin out considerably, and while they were all watching a movie on Cameron's TV Danny caught him idly plucking dead hair from his chest through the gaps between his shirt buttons.
Pete had never spoken to him again about their conversation but he thought about it nearly every day and especially when he spent time with his friend. The prospect of what they'd discussed still alarmed him on a very deep level but it was clear that the time was approaching when it might well be back on the agenda.
"Pete, hi." Sarah let him into the flat she shared with Joanne. "How is everything going?"
"Pretty good, thanks." Pete's voice had softened a little but he had grown used to it; to be honest, the loss of most of his body hair and muscle tone was causing him more concern. He'd always been small for his age and now he was beginning to look almost prepubescent.
He followed Sarah through to the kitchen where Joanne was washing up. "Hi."
"Hi." Joanne gave him a hug, which he thought she never would have done prior to his starting to change. She looked him in the face carefully. "I can't believe it doesn't hurt at all."
He shrugged. "No more than - getting older, or growing your hair does." His hair had lightened a little but he was continuing to keep it cropped short, in what he was assured was a hybrid of a mop-top and a dido flip. He supposed that learning to speak Hairdresser was just one of the black arts he would have to master, which was partly why he'd come here this evening.
"Dan and Cameron aren't coming?"
"No, they've gone to the darts," Sarah said. "I'm surprised you didn't go."
Pete smiled at her somewhat sheepishly. "Well... this is going to sound stupid, but... I wanted to come to a proper, you know, girly night. The three of us."
"Of course, that's fine," Joanne said, squeezing his forearm.
"Great," Pete said.
They sat down in the main room with a bottle of wine and some pocky. "What you've got to remember," Joanne said, with the air of someone relieved to be sharing a great universal truth, "is that just because you're a woman you shouldn't feel obliged to look feminine."
Pete blinked. "Right," he said, uncertainly.
Sarah rolled her eyes. "I think what Joanne's trying to say is that you don't have to live up to anyone else's idea of how you should look."
This was all a bit heavier than Pete had been anticipating. He sipped his wine and crunched through a pocky stick nervously. "I had no idea it was so complicated," he said.
"Men never do," Sarah said, exchanging a satisfied look with Joanne. "But at least you understand it now."
"Better late than never," Pete said. "Do I - do I still look like a man?"
They sat and looked at him thoughtfully. Pete was aware he had never been the most imposing of specimens, and the loss of his muscles and the beginnings of the lightening of his bone structure had caused a significant change in his appearance. He was pretty sure he'd lost an inch or two in height as well. "Well... male, maybe. Not really a man, I'm afraid," Sarah said.
"I'd say more androgynous than anything," Joanne said, and Sarah mmed her agreement.
That had been pretty much what he'd expected and he nodded. "Maybe I need to start thinking about that a bit more. My appearance, I mean."
Sarah smiled. "You're fine for the time being, Pete. Nothing to worry about."
"Yeah, but..." Pete shrugged. Part of him wanted to engage with this thing head on rather than just being swept along in the flow of it. "I mean, if I wanted to think about things like make-up, is it too soon? Would I just look stupid, like a drag queen?"
The two of them exchanged looks and Joanne sat up a little straighter in her seat. "Pete, like we said - you don't have to live up to anyone else's expectations of you, just because you're a woman."
"You can look any way you want to," Sarah said, leaning forward reassuringly.
Pete blinked again. "And I want to see what I look like in make-up. Is - is there something wrong with that?"
Joanne went back to the kitchen and clattered and clanged around in there rather ostentatiously, for reasons Pete couldn't quite work out. It was Sarah who sat down with him and took him through the basics of things like foundation, lipstick and eyeshadow.
"I had no idea this was all so involved," Pete said, dabbing off an application of foundation which Sarah had decreed had been put on with all the finesse of a man plastering a wall.
"The things we put ourselves through for you," Sarah murmured. "I mean, for men."
"I'm beginning to see what Joanne was getting at. About not feeling obliged to do this," Pete said.
"Mmm. But you've got such good skin," Sarah said. "Oh, I don't know. If you can get away without it, then fair enough. But I think for a lot of women it's a confidence thing. You won't look good if you're not confident, make-up or not. And if you don't look good..." She trailed off. "Well, you won't be worrying about that, will you? Not for a while."
Pete felt a prickle of excitement: in terms of both intimacy and subject matter the conversation was entering a zone he'd never visited before. Not while talking to a woman, anyway. "What do you mean?"
"Men," Sarah said. She put her head on one side. "I mean, you're not actually attracted to guys yet, are you? You will be at some point, I suppose..."
"Chances are," Pete said, browsing through Sarah's collection of lipsticks. "There's like a fourteen percent chance I'll become a lesbian, or something. Actually, I'm not attracted to women at all any more, so I guess my fate is sealed..." The casual way he found himself saying it came as a shock - to her as well, he realised.
He looked up at her and smiled. "Maybe that's the reason for the sudden interest in make-up," he said.
"Pete, can I ask something personal? Are you still, you know -?"
He smiled. "Anatomically correct? Just about, though I'm not the man I was." He shrugged. "I think I'll be leaving the seat permanently down after a few more weeks."
"You're so... I mean, Cameron and Danny would be on suicide watch if this was happening to them," Sarah said.
"Cameron, maybe," Pete said. "Danny's sensible enough, don't you think?"
"Well, maybe," Sarah said with a smile.
"Can I ask you something personal? Were you never tempted to, you know - "
"What, with Danny?" She stared into space thoughtfully. "I suppose I was when we first met, but then it wasn't just the two of us, we were part of the same circle of friends and... I didn't want to commit until I was sure he felt the same way. And I never was, and the moment passed... why?"
"Just wondered," Pete said. "Okay, let's have a go with the eye- shadow..."
A few days later Pete went through a fairly uncomfortable interlude where the most extraordinary internal sensation presaged the retraction up into his body of first one ball then the other. Their former residence remained intact but showed signs of furling itself up against his perineum and repurposing itself. He had avoided all the literature with its useful step-by-step guides to what exactly would happen down there on the grounds that he enjoyed eating occasionally: he would continue to make his regular visits to various specialists and when the gynaecologist declared everything to be in its new position and open for business he would take her word for it and go on his way, quite possibly with a smile on his face.
His manhood certainly was still intact, though rather reduced and permanently inert. His libido had apparently gone into hibernation a few weeks earlier and it was a definite shock when, a day or so later, he experienced a definite jolt of what he could only describe as desire.
He had popped down to the corner shop, wrapped up in loose clothes and a woolly hat, absolutely un-made-up, his only intention to buy some fruit juice and bread rolls. He was queueing for the till, glancing at the newspaper racks - all the tabloids were revelling in Princess Jordan's latest antics - when someone pushed past him, smiling their gratitude as he stepped out of the way to let them through.
And something stirred inside, flickered into life, so familiar and yet almost forgotten... and in a whole new context, because the feeling was one of raw physical attraction and the person who'd triggered it was a man. A big man, six three or four, wearing some kind of labourer's overalls and with a day's growth of stubble on his jaw. Pete felt himself flutter and flush and forced himself to look away.
Oh, boy, he thought weakly. Whole new ball game.
It was not just a one-off, either. While his new libido was rather more measured and discriminating than the old one, it seemed very nearly as insistent. Men on the bus, pictures in magazines, even Bill Turnbull for one slightly bizarre interlude early one morning. He supposed he'd become accustomed to living without one, which was why its sudden reappearance had knocked him for six, and he would eventually get used to it. He would have to, mainly because there wasn't much chance of his being able to satisfy it these days.
After all the craziness of recent weeks, Danny was glad to have one of their routine movie nights to look forward to. Unfortunately it was Cameron's turn to choose the movie, but the big man seemed to be becoming moderately more inclusive in his choices and there seemed little chance of a repeat of the furore that had erupted the night he'd turned up proposing a double bill of Satan's Cheerleaders and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. Now all they need to do was wean Joanne off Julia Roberts's back catalogue and peace might reign eternally.
The others turned up at the usual time bearing takeaway pizza and alcoholic beverages, wrapped up somewhat against the cold and the rain. He put the extra beers in the fridge while they hung their coats up and went back and -
The girl from Pete's photo was in the room. No, he realised, that was an exaggeration, but there was more of her face there than the old Pete's. He realised it had been coming on for some time and only recently passed some indefinable tipping point that had provoked this reaction in Danny. It's Pete, Danny told himself, your friend Pete - but his hair was different, his face had altered and - great Scott! - he seemed to be wearing subtle lipstick and a trace of eye-shadow. Much to Danny's relief he was in one of his old plaid shirts and a pair of jeans. Ah yes, whispered a malevolent interior voice, but what's he wearing underneath? Danny forced the thought away with all the mental violence at his disposal.
Pete's body still looked - well, on the male side of androgynous, but it was hard to tell. None of the others seemed to have an issue with the slight but telling change in Pete's style. Knowing his friends as he did, Danny thought that Joanne wouldn't want to draw attention to it, Sarah was probably indifferent, and Cameron hadn't noticed. He found he was staring at Pete and that Pete was smiling back at him.
"What?" Danny said.
"Nothing," Pete said, sounding amused, his voice softer than ever.
After prefatory drinks and catching up they watched, with a due sense of forbearance and out of loyalty to Cameron, a double bill of Belly of the Beast and Shadow Man. Danny found his attention wandering, which was hardly a surprise in the circumstances, but even so. As Steven Seagal waddled around the screen Danny found himself turning to steal glances at Pete, who was apparently watching the movie raptly.
He was nearly beautiful, Danny thought. The projection had been pretty much on the money so far and Pete indeed seemed to be turning into a woman with a definite pixie-ish quality to her. And, oh God, he was having to fight quite hard to keep reminding himself this was his old friend, his best friend. If only Pete hadn't let on as to what might be on the table between them... but perhaps that had been his intention all along, the same with the photo. No, no, he told himself. That had been ages ago and Pete had no doubt changed his mind, wouldn't thank him for being reminded of it.
Danny turned to steal one more glance at the new Pete and found Pete was already looking at him. Pete smiled an understanding smile and turned back to watch the movie. Danny did the same but found his stomach was suddenly churning.
"...well, it's not impossible to shoot down a helicopter with a hand- gun," Cameron said, putting on his coat.
"Whatever," Joanne said. She handed Cameron his scarf. "I promise you, Cameron, there are going to be reprisals for this."
The big man paled. "Oh God, Jo, no! Not -"
"Yep. Next time it's my choice we're watching Sex in the City 4. What do you think, Sarah?"
"I think the most unbelievable thing about that movie is that they persuaded Imelda Staunton to be in it," Sarah said. "You coming with us, Pete?"
"Think I'll hang on for a bit, got a beer on the go," Pete said from his position on the sofa.
"Okay then. Night, Danny."
"Night," Danny said as the others went, leaving him alone with Pete. He closed the door behind them and went back into the main room. His stomach was still rolling over and over.
"Remember the last time we had one of these here?" Pete said, looking at him and smiling. "I'd just got diagnosed."
"Ah yes," Danny said. "I do remember."
"We had a joke about it," Pete said, finishing his beer and standing up. He smiled. "Doesn't seem quite so funny now, does it?"
Danny shrugged. "No, I suppose it doesn't."
Pete walked up to him and put his head on one side. "Still, the questions still stand. Would you prefer me in a basque or camisole? G- string or French knickers?"
Danny found, to his enormous embarrassment and shame, he had started to get hard. "Pete... please..."
Pete went and sat back down. "I'm only joking. I've hardly got the body for anything like that yet." He sounded amused, indulgent - playful, even. "But I'm going to, fairly soon."
Danny exhaled and re-took his own seat, feeling the need for a beer. "I know. I can see."
"Dan." Pete was looking at him and smiling. "I think the time has come. The time we talked about."
Danny nodded. He could hardly deny it given the way he'd been behaving all night. "All right. What - what are we discussing?"
Pete patted the sofa next to him and Danny reluctantly moved over to it. "I've started fancying men - including you, as you may have guessed," Pete said. "And it's pretty clear you're having certain feelings about me..."
"You look so different - the make-up, the hair..."
"I wanted to do this my way," Pete said. "I suppose on some level I thought it might make things easier for you, as well."
"Easier may not be the right word," Danny said.
Pete smiled his brilliant smile. "We really need to decide what we're going to do about this. The way we feel."
"Pete, you - you're going to be hot, I can tell. But at the same time, you're my friend..."
"Isn't that how it goes sometimes?" Pete took his hand and squeezed it. "We've got two options, haven't we? I don't think the status quo is one of them. We can back off from this and just see less of each other, hope it'll fade away - or we can see what happens."
"Which would you prefer?" Danny asked.
"Sometimes it feels like I've been on my own all my life - my dad going, then what happened to my mum, and then..." Pete took a deep breath. "The people I rely on always seem to leave me when I need them the most. I really hoped it was going to be different this time." He dropped his head.
"Oh, mate..." Danny cupped Pete's jaw in his hand and brought it up. His friend's face was as delicately beautiful as it had seemed all evening. Pete's cheeks were damp but his face had kept much of its composure. He knew in that moment, seeing the vulnerability and essence of the person before him, that he was lost. Not knowing quite what he was doing he jerked his head forward and kissed Pete on the lips.
Pete's hands gripped his biceps lightly as he returned the kiss, then they broke off.
"Oh man," Danny said, feeling giddy. "I just kissed -"
"Your girlfriend," Pete said quickly, pressing his hand to Danny's mouth. "You just had your first kiss with your new girlfriend." He smiled, and this time there was delight in it.
"My new girlfriend," Danny said. It was okay if he thought of it like that and he smiled back. The first kiss had been so agreeable he decided to try for a second, and found that Pete had the same idea.
Very rapidly he ran up against the reality of the situation: that their options were as yet extremely limited, at least as far as Danny was concerned. Eventually he stopped kissing Pete's mouth and neck and sat, holding him lightly.
"Give it time," Pete said. "We'll both grow into this."
"Okay," Danny said. A thought occurred to him - with laggard slowness, he realised. "What are we going to tell the others?"
"Oh - I don't know - nothing," Pete said. "Nothing, for now."
"You're sure that's a good idea?"
"Do you want to be the one to tell Cameron? He'll probably try to set fire to you," Pete said with a giggle. "And as for the others -"
"Point taken," Danny said, smiling. "So what now?"
"I have to go or I'll miss the last bus," Pete said.
"You can always stay -"
"On the sofa, I meant."
Pete acknowledged the innocence of Danny's intent. "Still, better not. I'll call you."
Danny walked him to the door and they kissed one last time before Pete went. It hadn't felt like kissing a guy at all, Danny thought. Then again, it was only a habit of thought that insisted that was what he'd been doing. Amazed and quietly happy he closed the door after his friend - no, he told himself, after his girlfriend. He hoped he got home safely.
They started to see each other more apart from the others in the group, meeting for lunch and occasionally visiting each others" flats - all the things that a couple just beginning a relationship did, in public at least. They went on dates, in other words. It seemed odd to Pete to be going through all this with someone he already knew very well, but that very fact gave them the solidest of foundations to build on, and a great confidence that there was a great potential here if only they could exploit it. When Pete started to slip his hand into Danny's when they were walking together, Danny accepted it - provided that Pete was made up enough to pass as a woman to casual glances.
He called round at Danny's one evening, not calling ahead to inform him. As he'd expected Danny was in and surprised to see him.
"Oh, hi." Danny gave him the automatic kiss he'd grown accustomed to and they went through into the lounge. Pete took off his coat, underneath it he wore a loose denim shirt and baggy jeans. "You didn't tell me you were coming."
Pete grinned at him. He'd been brimming over with anticipation all day ahead of this, and didn't want to spoil the moment. "I've got a surprise for you," he said, waggling his (immaculately shaped) eyebrows.
"Yeah?" Danny looked uncertain, but pleased: he was catching on.
"Yeah. Come here," Pete said.
Danny walked over to stand in front of Pete. "What -?" He blinked as Pete took his wrists in his hands.
"Now how about this?" Pete whispered, guiding Danny's hands so one palm rested on each side of his chest, finding the tiny hills of flesh that had swelled into being there over the last day or so.
Danny's eyes widened and Pete took his hands from Danny's wrists. As if making sure, Danny shifted his hands, stroking with his thumbs and forefingers. Pete shifted a little as pleasure bubbled through him. "Harder," he said.
"Pete, I can feel them," Danny said, still looking like someone unexpectedly given an extra birthday.
"I know, but you can still stroke harder," Pete said. He clasped his hands behind his head and gasped as Danny kneaded the beginnings of his breasts. In the end he put his arms around Danny's neck and pulled him in to kiss properly.
"Can I?" Danny's hands were on the buttons of Pete's shirt. Pete nodded and Danny unbuttoned the garment. His nascent breasts were much more visible through the fabric of his t-shirt. Danny put his hands on Pete again and they kissed.
"Still having trouble thinking of me as a girl?" Pete asked as they sank onto the sofa, joyously tangled together, hands exploring.
Danny seemed to take a moment to consider that. "Do you think of yourself that way?"
"I - I don't know," Pete said. "Maybe I should. Does it matter?"
"I suppose not. You're not wearing a bra..."
Pete grinned. "I don't exactly need one. Yet. But then we'll be back to the same old question..."
Danny kissed his throat. "Basque, definitely."
"You'll be lucky. And for the lower portion...?"
Danny looked at him in surprise. "I didn't think you'd changed much..."
"Not much, but some," Pete said. He grinned. "Want to see? Nothing indecent, before you get too excited."
"Well, yeah. Whatever," Danny said.
Pete got up, and, looking coyly at Danny, started to unbuckle his belt. With it unzipped his jeans fell around his ankles. He was wearing plain black briefs. He turned his back and pulled his shirt up out of the way so Danny had a better view of his hips, backside and legs.
Pete's legs were almost hairless and his thighs were swelling, taking
on a more womanly shape. He knew his arse and hips were also filling out a bit. He wiggled them from side to side and chuckled at the look on Danny's face.
"You're so cool," Danny said, apparently almost awestruck.
Pete giggled and fell back into his lap, not bothering to pull his jeans up. "What makes you say that?"
"Well - it's like you're almost enjoying this."
"Yeah, but... blokes dream about moments like. Did ever you dream about - I don't know, stripping for your boyfriend?"
"No." Pete kissed him seriously. "But I'll always remember this. It tells me I - I'm making it work as a girl."
"How can you doubt it..." Danny kissed him back.
"And - what's happening to me must be good, if it means we can share this. It's positive, on some level at least," Pete said. "That's why this is so important to me. Why you're so important to me."
"I hope you know what you mean to me, as well," Danny said. "You're so... well, who you are, what you do, the way you look..."
"Just imagine how I'll look when I'm finished. And dressed properly," Pete said as they cuddled.
"I'm trying not to. I'll save that for when... anyway," Danny said, reddening a bit. "You're going to start dressing -well, like a woman? Properly."
Pete shrugged. "Seems silly not to. I'll have the body for it very soon, after all."
"That I'm looking forward to."
"Me too," Pete said, glancing at the clock. "Gotta go, babe." He stood up and started putting his clothes back into some semblance of order.
"See you at the weekend," Danny said, showing him out.
"If not before," Pete said, giving him an arch look that drew entirely the response he was hoping for.
Joanne wasn't very surprised when Pete came round to see them one Saturday morning. Privately she was rather pleased at the obvious ease with which Pete was embracing his burgeoning femininity - much more easily than she could have hoped, in fact. But it was still understandable he should come to them for guidance once in a while.
"Hi," Pete said, coming in. He was bundled up as usual but had not neglected to pile on the eye-shadow, Joanne thought.
"Hi," she said. "You know you can go a bit easier on the -" she indicated her eyelid.
"Yeah, I know." Pete sounded surprised. "I just like the way it looks."
"Oh." They went through into the living room where Sarah was watching TV. "Pete's here," Joanne said redundantly.
"Hi, Pete -" Sarah frowned. "Are you going to keep Pete? When you're completely a girl, I mean."
Pete blinked. "Hadn't really thought about it."
"You could do a straight feminisation and go for Petra," Joanne said.
Pete grimaced. "That sounds like the kind of name you'd call an Alsatian."
"You could have anything you want, then," Sarah said. "It's your choice."
"I don't want a complete change. I don't know, I'll think about it," Pete said. "Anyway, that wasn't why I came here. I want to go shopping and I could use some help with, you know, styles and stuff."
Joanne could understand that. She prided herself on being a sensible yet stylish dresser. "That's fine," she said. She put her head on one side. "Are you sure you don't want to wait a few more weeks? Until, you know?"
Pete grinned and started unbuttoning his coat. "Baggy clothes hide a multitude of things," he said, dropping the coat on the sofa and pulling his jumper off over his head. He clasped his hands behind his head, bent one leg and smiled sheepishly. "See what I mean?"
Joanne struggled not to stare at the pert, firm, near-as-damn-it perfect looking breasts outlined by the taut fabric of Pete's t-shirt. Envious and unworthy thoughts threatened to crowd her head and she attempted to dispel them by looking down to the swell and curve of Pete's hips and behind... oh, damnation! This just wasn't fair!
"Wow," Sarah said, expressing everything both of the long-term women were thinking with impressive brevity. "When did this happen, Pete?"
"Last week or two. Like I say, I've kept it covered up. Most of the time," Pete said, coughing and looking away. It was understandable he should feel embarrassed, Joanne thought. She chided herself for her earlier jealousy and smiled at him understandingly.
"Of course we'll help you. Let us get our coats and we'll be with you in a moment."
"Pete, I understand you want to fully embrace everything," Joanne said carefully, an hour later. "But there's really no need - women don't have to wear skirts these days." She indicated the women's slacks section with a hopeful gesture.
Pete nodded. "I know that," he said. "But, I don't know... I think I've got quite nice legs, so -"
"Doesn't mean you have to show them to everyone," Joanne said. Her resolve to be accommodating, already stretched thin by Pete's attitude, was not helped by Sarah sighing loudly behind her.
"Well, what's the point in having them, then? It's like having a nice face and wearing a bag over your head."
Joanne was almost certain he was doing it to wind her up. "That's not the same thing at all."
"This place is a bit staid, though, Joanne," Sarah said. She looked around the interior of M&S with a look of mild distaste. "I mean, even I don't shop here that much..."
"And I've never bought clothes here. Well, maybe socks and pants," Pete said.
Joanne sighed. "All right. Where do you want to go?"
"Let's just walk around and see," Pete suggested.
So walk around they did, soon leaving the comparatively safety of the high street for some decidedly eccentric places down side-streets. Joanne's carefully-dropped comments about Pete's budget were rendered impotent when he revealed the government's APFS-accommodation budget extended to a healthy new clothing allowance for sufferers.
"I wondered where all my tax went," Sarah said, upon hearing the news.
"I think they just pay for it out of the all money they've saved since they got rid of the nuclear submarines," Pete said vaguely. His eyes lit up. "Aha!"
"Good God," Joanne said as Pete looked with evident glee at a pair of thick leopard-skin tights. "You're not serious."
"Why not?" Pete set off for the cashier.
Well, Joanne thought, even as a man Pete had always ploughed his own furrow fashion-wise. But she did begin to wonder why she had come at all if all Pete was going to do was buy violently-hued crop tops, mini- skirts made from unlikely fabrics, leather pixie-boots and sundry other bizarre items. The new Pete style, if that was the right word for it, was about as different from her own as could be imagined. She consoled herself with the thought that she and Sarah were being quite useful when it came to finding things in the right size - in most of his dimensions Pete was now more petite than either of them - and doubtless providing invaluable moral support.
Eventually they wended their way back onto the high street. Joanne thought they would now be safe, but Pete's gaze alighted on a place that Joanne had long ago promised she would only go near in order to petrol bomb.
"Alexandra's Enigma," Pete said, smiling at the pair of them. "Come on."
"Absolutely not," Joanne said. "It's a sex shop."
"It's not a sex shop," Sarah said, sighing. "But it is a shop that just sells sexy underwear. Pete, why do you want to go in there? I mean, for Christ's sake..."
Pete looked away and shrugged. "I want to be ready for any occasion."
"Pete, are you serious about being a proper woman? A person in your own right?" Joanne asked. "Because that place only caters for women who are willing to degrade themselves just to satisfy the carnal desires of their partners."
Pete thought about that for a moment. "Well, as long as there's a bit of degradation on both sides, where's the harm?"
"Pete." Sarah's tone was flat. "Is there something you're not telling us?"
"I'm not telling you," Pete said. "Come on, it'll be fun."
And so Joanne stood on the pavement on the other side of the street, pacing up and down while Sarah became an accomplice in the wilful self- abasement of her friend. The shame, the shame.
"We need to organise an intervention of some kind," Joanne said as she busied herself over the coffee. Pete had gone home loaded down with bags and Joanne shuddered to think what he would look like once their contents were unleashed.
"An intervention. Jo, he's not an alcoholic, he's just bought a few lacy bras. God knows he's got the tits for it," Sarah said.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Sarah said. "Look, it probably all just went to his head, that's all. Went out to buy a skirt and a blouse and didn't know when to stop. We've all been there."
"Mm. Even so, we need to make him see what'll happen if he goes out actually wearing most of that stuff," Joanne said. "What he'll have to endure. The ugly side of the male population, unleashed."
"And how do you propose we do that?" Sarah asked.
Joanne smiled. "I'll call Cameron. We'll go round to Pete's with him, unannounced, and just mention casually that he's done some shopping -"
"That's a fairly horrible thing to do to a friend, Joanne." Sarah frowned at her.
"Cruel to be kind, Sarah. Pete'll thank us for it in the end."
"So will Cameron, probably... just exactly why are you friends with him, anyway? I've always wondered," Sarah said.
Joanne huffed and did a pretty good impression of how Pete had looked when asked an awkward question outside Alexandra's Enigma earlier that day. "He reminds me of what men can really be like," she eventually said.
"Right..." Sarah said. And against her better judgement she let Joanne put her plan into action.
Come round about 8, the text had said. It was eight now and Danny knocked on Pete's door. He heard light footsteps on their way and smiled to himself.
"Hi," Pete said, answering the door. He was in make-up and was wearing a sleeveless black-and-silver t-shirt under a fuzzy white cardigan, with black leggings and socks. The contours of his figure were barely disguised.
"Hi," Danny said, coming into the flat, still staring at Pete's outfit. Pete drew him down and kissed him languorously on the mouth. "You look amazing. You went shopping, then?"
"Earlier today. This is my first time dressed completely as a girl - every single stitch," Pete said, looking down at himself and twirling. "What do you think?"
"You look fantastic," Danny said. He smiled. "Every stitch?"
"Every last one," Pete said.
"Not sure if I believe that," Danny said, putting his arms around him.
"Well, maybe later I'll show you the proof." Pete did not pull away and Danny felt Pete's hands slip around his waist, enjoyed the feel of his softness against him.
"I wish I could tell somebody about this," Danny said, holding Pete against him. "It just feels like we're lying to all our friends..."
"I know." Pete sounded regretful about that too. "The moment'll come, though. When it'll feel right to tell them."
They went over to the sofa and sat down. "What'll we say? By the way, guys, Pete and I have been going out for weeks, we just didn't tell you?"
"Maybe not," Pete said. "It just sounds weird if you talk about "Danny and Pete" as an item... that doesn't help."
"Can't help it unless you change your name," Danny said.
Pete smiled at him. "Yeah, I've been thinking about that. I've changed everything else, no reason to hang onto a name, is there?"
"If it's what you want. Have you decided?"
Pete smiled again. "Well, I want something that sounds a bit like Pete that isn't a dog's name. Short and starting with a P E."
"Penny," Danny said.
Pete wrinkled his nose. "I want to be a Peri."
"Is that actually a real name?" Danny frowned.
"Yeah, I checked. Some woman off the TV," Pete said. "So I'm going to be Peri now, my sweet. Do you think you can handle that?"
"As long as everyone knows. If it makes you happy..." Danny looked at Pete - no, he corrected himself, Peri, and grinned. "No problem."
"Call me by my name," Peri said, smiling.
Danny was suddenly aware this was another of the first times that his friend - his girlfriend - was saving, treasuring. "Hello, Peri," he said.
"Hello," Peri said.
It seemed to be the moment for some serious kissing and Danny felt Peri's lipstick smear all over his cheek. Then he was being helped off with his jumper and wriggling Peri's cardigan off his shoulders - damn, these pronouns still seemed inappropriate - and then Peri was giggling as he slid his hands up under the fabric of his t-shirt - damn it, it was no good, he could no longer sustain the fiction that this was another male and why should he want to anyway - he reached up, hands drifting over the softness of her skin towards the rich bounty of her breasts...
"Shit," said Peri as there was a pounding at the door. She wriggled out from under Danny. "I'll get rid of whoever it is. Keep the home fires burning."
"Never in doubt," Danny said, turning over onto his back and smiling at the ceiling. He heard Peri pad off to the door and open it and then a kind of strangulated yelp.
"Hi! We just thought we'd pop round and see how you were getting on..."
Crap. That was Joanne's voice and it was getting nearer and... Joanne breezed into the living room with Peri still desperately trying to deflect her, Sarah and Cameron trailing along behind in an even greater state of confusion than usual.
"Oh. Hello," Danny said, wondering which he wished for most: for his clothing to be less dishevelled, for there not to be lipstick all over his face, or for the building to collapse on all of them at that moment.
Peri stepped away from the others and shrugged. "Well, I'd say something, but you'd have to be an idiot not to be able to figure it out for yourself."
"Oh, hi Danny," Cameron said. "Didn't know you were coming."
"Hi, Cameron. Same here," Danny said, swinging his legs off the sofa. He looked at Joanne and Sarah and winced. "There's going to be some shouting now, isn't there?"
At roughly the same time:
"How could you do this to your own friend?" shouted Joanne.
"I don't know what to say," Sarah said, shaking her head in disbelief.
"It really isn't what it looks like!" Danny said, arguably incorrectly.
"Look, we can explain!" Peri cried, trying to raise her voice above the babble.
"I've missed something important here, haven't I?" Cameron said, but was unfortunately drowned out. As a result he looked more carefully at his surroundings, a trick which had served him in good stead in the past. One of several pennies finally clunked into place.
"OH MY GOD!" At full volume the sound of Cameron's stunned disbelief was nearly enough to stun everyone else in the room. As it was they all stared at him. "Pete's got tits!"
"He's turning into a woman - she is a woman - Cameron, you already knew that," Danny said.
"You seem pretty well-acquainted with the fact, too," Joanne said primly.
"Look, it's my body," Peri said, folding her arms and sitting down next to Danny.
"I don't blame you, love," Joanne said. She looked venomously at Danny. "You know how vulnerable he -"
"She," Peri said.
"-she must be at the moment, but you still steam in there, you selfish prick. It could take years for him -"
"Her," said Sarah.
"- her to get over this."
"Am I allowed to say anything here?" Danny looked at Joanne and Sarah intently. "Do you really think I'd do anything to hurt Pe - Pete? You know he - she's my best friend." He looked at Peri and she took his hand and squeezed it.
"Yes, just go on and tell yourself that," Joanne said. "We all know how desperate you've been for a shag, Danny. I even felt sorry for you a few times myself -"
"Not that sorry, thank God," Cameron said.
"Cameron, shut up," Sarah advised.
"-but I'd never have expected you to -"
"This is my place, isn't it?" Peri raised her voice over Joanne's. "Don't speak to Danny that way. You don't know what you're talking about. I invited him here -"
"Yes, I'm sure!"
" - if you're not going to listen to me you can just get out!"
Joanne folded her arms. "I'm not leaving you alone with him."
"Oh, for God's sake..." Peri put her hands over her face.
Danny got up. "It's all right. I'll go."
"But I don't want you to..."
"Just try to explain," Danny said. He reached for his coat.
"I'll come with you," Cameron said, brightening up.
Peri saw them to the door. "See you soon," she said, looking at Danny. Well aware they were still being watched, and probably because of it, she pulled Danny's face down to hers and kissed him hard.
"See you," Danny said when she released him.
"Hey, hang on a minute -" Cameron's face was showing flickers of comprehension.
"I'll explain on the way," Danny sighed, wrestling him out of the door.
Sarah stood back and watched Joanne square off to - well, it hardly seemed right to call this self-assured young woman by a man's name, even if they had been friends for a long time. This was someone new -or a new version of an old person, anyway.
"Are you still calling yourself Pete?" Sarah asked. It was a nice neutral question intended to lower the tension in the room.
She went over to the sofa and pulled her cardigan back on. "I've decided I want to be called Peri."
"Is that a real name?" Sarah said it without thinking. Peri rolled her eyes.
"The name's immaterial," Joanne said. Perhaps realising she had been out of line, she sat down carefully on the sofa herself. "How did it happen?"
Peri still looked defensive, Sarah thought. "I fancied him, he fancied me. That's how it usually happens, isn't it?"
"So I hear," Sarah said. She sat down on one of the other chairs. "I think what Jo's really wondering is - did he force you? Was it his idea?"
"Danny? You know him, Sarah, you know he wouldn't do something like that!"
"All men -" Joanne started to declaim.
"This isn't the time for The Vagina Monologues," Sarah said. "I know, he's Danny. But - this has just been such a shock. Why didn't you tell us?"
"Because I knew you'd react this way. Oh, God, I hope Cameron doesn't hurt Danny..."
"With the kind of reaction times Cameron's shown tonight, Danny's got a week or two before he needs to worry," Sarah said. "This isn't a new thing, is it? What's going on between the two of you."
Peri shook her head.
"How long?" Joanne asked.
"Since the Steven Seagal double bill." Peri seemed subdued but also defiant. "I can't explain it. I just needed someone and Danny was there for me. That's all there is to it."
"You're sure you haven't been conned or forced? That this really is your choice?"
"How can she be?" Joanne asked.
"How can any of us?" Sarah said.
"I think so," Peri said. "I was sure of him, sure he was the right man... sure enough, anyway. I didn't want to wait too long and let the moment pass."
Sarah nodded and smiled. "Point taken," she said. She looked at Joanne and shrugged. "We can be justifiably pissed off at them for keeping us in the dark, but what they do is their decision."
"Mm." Joanne still sounded unpersuaded.
"You know we're still here for you," Sarah said, taking one of Peri's hands. "I'm sorry we made such a fuss. Really, really sorry."
Peri sighed and shrugged. "It's probably best that you know," she said. "We were talking about telling you, I promise."
"That's all right," Sarah suddenly. Apparently on impulse, Peri gave her a quick, fierce hug which she returned.
Peri got up and went over to Joanne. "I'm sorry for not being the kind of woman you want me to be."
Joanne sighed. "I suppose it's all right as long as you're being the kind of woman that you want to be." They hugged as well.
"I think I've got some wine somewhere," Peri said. "May as well try to stop the evening from being a total waste."
"Hang on, you what?"
Danny was starting to regret even launching into this explanation. They trudged on down the street towards the pub. "Pete is... well, you know he's turning into a girl?"
"Yeah, of course," Cameron said.
"Well, he's - she's, I should say - she's sort of my girlfriend."
"No, really," Danny said.
"What, so you, sort of...?" Cameron wheeled out another of his mimes.
"Not like that, not yet anyway - not that it's really any of your
business. Look, you've seen her - she wears girls" clothes, she's started using a girl's name..."
"What is it?"
"She wants to be called Peri."
"That isn't even a real name."
"Well, you can tell her that," Danny said. "So that's what's happening. We were going to tell you, and probably soon, but then you all came round tonight and walked in on us, so..."
Danny looked at the big man with a trace of nervousness. "You're not angry with me?"
Cameron shrugged. "No, not really. I think you could've done better for yourself, but if you could talk Pete into it, fair play to you."
"I didn't talk Pete into anything..." Danny sighed again. "It was - I don't know, she fancied me, I fancied her... you know?"
"Uh." Cameron sounded unconvinced but also not particularly bothered. "It just wouldn't have occurred to me to do it."
Danny almost asked what the "it" was he had apparently done that Cameron wouldn't, but decided to get out while he was marginally ahead. The pub sign came into view: seldom had it been more welcome in the past.
"So," Cameron said. "You and Pete done it yet?"
"Cameron. I'm not going to talk about that kind of thing with you," Danny said.
"Fair play," Cameron said. Danny relaxed and then he said, "I'll just ask Pete. He always fills me in about stuff like that."
Danny phoned Peri late that night. "Hi..."
"Hiya, sweetheart. Cameron left you alive?"
"Physically, but I'm not sure about the rest. How did you get on with the Germaine Greer sisters?"
She giggled. "Sarah's not that bad. Neither is Joanne, really. Once I persuaded them you hadn't bent my innocent young body to your evil will they were okay."
"Did they seem jealous of you, at all?"
"Don't push it." She sighed. "And I had such plans for tonight..."
"Oh, God, don't start - hey, Cameron says you routinely tell him all about your love life."
"Love, this is Cameron. I just say things like "I went on a date" and he imagines the rest."
"You're still using the present tense."
"Everything that passes between us is hereafter sacrosanct, okay?"
"Okay. I can still come round if you like..."
"I'm too exhausted from building bridges with Jo and Sarah."
"Don't be too downhearted. Do you want to hear what I'm wearing?"
"Hmm. Wouldn't mind. Hang on, let me put the phone on hands free..."
"Who says romance is dead?"
"Sorry. Okay. Ready."
"Well, it's a black silk negligee with lace panels down the sides, that reaches just below my hips... it clings to every curve of my body and makes me feel terribly sexy. I'm touching myself right now... Danny, are you still there?"
The friends assembled for a meal at a safely neutral Indian restaurant a few days later. Peri found she was oddly nervous ahead of it and told herself not to be so silly - these were her closest friends, her surrogate family. It wasn't as if she was meeting them for the first time, or anything.
Then again, in a way she was. They were Pete's old friends, Pete's surrogate family, and she knew enough now to realise that she wasn't quite the same person. And she was there in a dual role - there as Danny's new girlfriend, and subject to all the scrutiny that entailed. It was strange to think of it that way but she supposed it was necessary.
She decided not to dress down but to please herself and pulled on a blue crop top and the tights that had so exercised Joanne, wearing a baggy sweater and a denim skirt over them, along with a pair of leather boots.
Danny picked her up and they walked to the restaurant hand in hand. "You're quiet," he said.
"Just a bit nervous, I suppose. Aren't you?"
He shrugged. "Either we can adapt to them or them to us. If we adapt, it'll probably mean breaking up. So that's not going to happen. They can get used to it."
Quiet joy thrilled in her to hear him talk like that. "You're really serious about this."
"I thought we both were. Peri, I -" He looked away.
"What is it? You can say anything to me, you know that."
"I love you," Danny said simply. "You're the most important person in my life right now. I'm sorry if that -"
"Sssh. No, that's great." If only she'd had more warning, she'd have prepared herself so she could recall every detail of the moment when he'd said it for the first time. "I love you too."
They kissed and walked on towards the restaurant. The others were already there waiting for them, with Cameron making heavy inroads into their poppadom ration.
"All right, I give in," Sarah said as they sat down. Her tone was amused. "Look at their faces, it's obviously the real thing."
"Hm," Joanne said, then nodded. "I suppose I owe you -"
"Ranjit! More poppadoms and another lager over here, please!"
"Cameron! Danny, I owe you an apology."
Danny smiled. "That's okay, Joanne. We could probably say the same to you. No hard feelings?"
"Well, no more than usual," Joanne said, sipping from her drink. "Fresh start?"
"Fresh start," Peri said, finally allowing herself to relax.
And after that things were... well, not quite the way they always had been, for how could they be? They were not just the same old five friends, because there was a couple amongst them now... and even beyond that, she was not the same person she had been, and that spun everything away in a new direction as well... But things were relaxed, and friendly, and the others were just as Peri remembered them - except that she saw Pete's memories from her own perspective, which made them feel oddly strange and new, something she'd inherited rather than formed herself... was she really Pete in any sense that meant anything? If not, then who was she? As the evening rolled on, though, she relaxed and began to think it really might not matter after all: she was with people she loved and who showed every sign of reciprocating that, and that was surely what mattered, wasn't it? Wasn't it?
In the end the meal broke up and they went their separate ways: Cameron, Jo, and Sarah in one direction, she and her man in another.
Danny's relief was almost palpable. "Well, that went okay, didn't it?"
"I thought so," Peri said.
"Everything's back to normal." He phewed almost audibly.
"Normal?" She grinned at him. "Does this count as normal for you?"
Danny nodded, grinning back. "Well, maybe not. Be good if it was, though."
"I'm not going anywhere." She cuddled against him as they walked.
"Still, though, the end of a good evening."
"Evening isn't over yet," Peri said. He smiled, clearly not taking her seriously, and she went on. "Saw my specialist yesterday."
"Wow, you should've said," Danny said. "Is everything okay?"
"Seems to be."
"How long until you're - you know - finished?"
"He said I finished the change some time last week. I was pretty sure of that myself, I just wanted him to confirm it," Peri said. "I'm as much a girl as I'm ever going to be." She smiled at him, the special smile that was for him alone.
"You mean - we could...?"
"If you like. If you're ready."
"Is it what you want?"
She shrugged noncommittally. "Let's go back to your place and see how we get on."
"Sounds good to me."
"Hey, I've only got short legs. Slow down."
"Ah, well. I suppose we have to get used to Danny and Pete being a couple," Joanne said as the three of them walked in the other direction.
"Peri, not Pete," Sarah said.
"I'm still not convinced that's a real name," Joanne said.
"I said that," Cameron agreed.
"Guys, that pop-singer what's-her-name called her last baby Roll-top Desk," Sarah reminded them. "Compared to that I don't have a problem with Peri calling herself Peri."
"'S gonna be funny knowing two people in a couple," Cameron said. "Still, they look good together."
"Yeah," Joanne said, a little wistfully.
"I thought we were all going to be single forever."
"Yeah," Joanne said.
"Then again, I used to think you two were lesbians." Cameron chuckled at the memory.
"Yeah - what?" Joanne stared at him.
"Don't worry, Pete - Peri - you know - told me otherwise, ages ago."
"Well thank God for that," Sarah said.
"Yeah, well, it wasn't a big surprise. I always thought you weren't good looking enough to be proper lesbi - that's a joke! That's a joke!" He recoiled as they bore down on him.
"Honestly, Cameron," Sarah sighed.
"Yeah, I know. Thanks," the big man said.
"For what?" Joanne asked.
He shrugged. "I know I can be a massive pain in the arse sometimes -"
"Most of the time," Sarah said.
He didn't argue. "But I like being with you guys. All of you, I mean. You - you're all right."
Joanne patted him on the shoulder. "Cameron, I never thought I'd actually say this, but you're all right too."
"Yeah." Cameron and Joanne looked at each other for a long moment, and suddenly both of them were smiling.
Bugger me if this isn't turning into a Richard Curtis movie, Sarah thought. She cleared her throat. "I've just realised I need to buy some stuff from the all-night shop. You two go on without me."
"What kind of stuff?" Joanne asked.
"Oh!" Realisation finally dawned on Joanne. In some ways, Sarah thought, and despite all outward appearances, perhaps these two were quite well matched after all. "Okay. See you later."
"At some point," Joanne said, watching them walk away. "Sooner or later. In the fullness of time."
They didn't hear her as Joanne was trying to pitch her invitation to come in for a coffee at a level that was, on the one hand, understated enough to be subtle, but, on other hand, obvious enough for Cameron to pick up on. It was only two hundred yards to their door and Sarah hoped Joanne would have enough time to manage it. She smiled to herself and walked off in the other direction. After a while she started to whistle.
Peri pulled her jumper off over her head just inside the door and they proceeded into the bedroom kissing and stroking each other urgently. They flopped onto the bed, Danny kicking off his shoes and Peri taking slightly longer to pull off her boots.
"Love your tights, by the way," Danny whispered.
"Wait till you see what I keep in them," she said, wriggling underneath him. She closed her eyes and virtually purred as he cupped and stroked her breasts through the flimsy layers of fabric she still wore. She tugged him down to her and kissed him, they way they'd done so many times before. There was no reason to hold back any more, she reminded herself. They could do whatever they wanted.
She reached down and unbuttoned the denim skirt, unzipped it and started to wriggle it off, eventually kicking it away into the corner. Danny got the idea and started to unbutton his shirt. Peri paused and curled up her legs, still in tights and top and essentially covered up.
"What do you think it's going to be, love? G-string or French knickers?"
He smiled at the old joke. "I don't care as long as it's you inside them."
"Ooh, good answer." She slipped her hands into the waistband of her tights and slid them smoothly down, then started tugging them off her feet. "For the record, though..." Divested, she lay back so he could get a good look at her.
"Good choice," Danny said, reaching for her.
"Ah ah," Peri said, retreating across the bed. "You too."
"I'm not wearing either," Danny said. He unbelted his trousers and slipped them off.
"Wow, you really do like me," Peri said. She whipped her top off over her head and showed herself to him, with, she thought, justifiable pride. She let her hands drift over the lines of her lingerie, her body. She knew she would always remember the tension and excitement, and even - yes, really - the passion and love in his eyes.
She let him come to her and take her in his arms and they lay back on the bed together, flesh on flesh, skin brushing skin except where the scraps of their underwear intervened. She pulled his out of the way and let him unfasten her bra and slide it off her. A moment later they were both naked.
"I love you," she said again.
"I love you." He said it as if despairing of how limited and inadequate it was, but it was enough for her, it would always be enough as long as it was him saying it, and he said it in just that way. She parted her legs, breathing a little hard herself now, and beckoned and guided him in. Thrust upon thrust, and with each one she loved him a little more fully and knew he was giving of himself in the same way. Thrust upon thrust and she clutched at him and cried out and knew rapture and amazement and mixed in with them was the strangest sense of disappointment because while there was a first time for everything there could only be one and this first time, this most important first time, was inarguably now over...
There would be others, she knew. But never the quite the same. That shouldn't matter, though - should it?
"You know, I'm starting to change my opinion of Cameron," Joanne said. It was a few days later and she had met Peri for lunch.
"Really? For the better, I assume."
"Why do you say that?"
Peri shrugged. "Because I can't imagine how it could possibly get any worse."
"Hum." Joanne stirred her coffee. "He's really not that bad when you get to know him."
"Jo, I do know him, remember? I've known him longer than you."
"Oh yes. I'm sorry." Peri's appearance was now so totally different from her memories of Pete it was easy to forget they were, on some level, the same person. Peri had had her hair bleached and various piercings done in her ears, nose, and bottom lip. "Well, anyway, we talked properly the other night, just the two of us... stop looking at me like that."
Peri shrugged disingenuously. "I didn't say anything!"
"You don't need to."
"Okay. I'm sorry - nothing on the cards there, I understand."
Joanne tried to hide behind her coffee cup. "Well, I wouldn't necessarily say that..."
Peri slapped the tabletop. "Ha! I knew it! Wow, I've started a trend."
"Don't say anything. I'm still bringing him round to the idea," Joanne said.
"Wow. You and Cameron," Peri said. "Are you sure about this?"
Joanne wobbled her head. "Well, if by doing this I can help make him a more thoughtful and reconstructed person -"
"Don't give me that, you're just after some hot action," Peri said, without malice.
"Oh, really!" Joanne reddened, then gave a tiny nod. "Don't think too harshly of me."
"Why should I? Natural enough. You know, it's totally different as a girl, Jo, not at all how I expected it."
"You know, doing it. Rogering. I mean, when I was a guy -"
"I'll take your word for it," Joanne said. She felt the need to change the subject and indicated her earlobe, nose and lip. "I see you've been down the ironmonger."
"What? Oh, yes." Peri touched her lip-stud. "Well, you know, it was just another of those things you can do as a girl that a guy can't get away with so easily. Not in, you know, polite society."
Joanne found herself on the verge of saying that as friends of Cameron their claims to be members of polite society were frankly on dodgy ground, but realised she would have to stop all that sort of thing. "Don't you think - don't you think you might be rushing it? Just a bit?"
Peri looked at her, almost frowning. "How do you mean?"
"Well - I'd imagine that for a lot of people going through what you are, they'd need a lot more encouragement and time to do all the things you have."
"I don't follow..."
"Well, you were so keen to start using make-up, you practically dragged Sarah into Alexandra's Enigma to help you buy your first lingerie... I just wondered why you were plunging into it so readily. Do you think you secretly wanted it all along?"
"I - no." Peri looked away, obviously uncomfortable. "It's just... I wanted to be positive about it. If I wasn't then I could just see myself falling to bits, you know? That was my attitude. That's why... why being with Danny was so important. The more of a girl I could become the closer we could get, and that had to be a good thing for us both."
Joanne nodded. "I think I understand."
"I suppose they were sort of like milestones - stages on the way." Peri was still looking off into space, but smiling now. "First time I wore make-up for him. First kiss. First time I let him touch my body. First time in panties and a bra. First time we -"
"I get the idea," Joanne said. "So what now?"
Peri frowned at her. "I don't follow."
Joanne looked at her for a long moment, then shook her head. "Doesn't matter. Silly question, I expect..."
"Jo's going after Cameron," Peri reported as soon as she arrived at Danny's. She kissed him. "Mmm."
"Mm," Danny said. "You sure?"
"She seems fairly determined," Peri said, settling down on the sofa.
"When worlds collide," Danny said, sitting down next to her. "I'm not sure who to be more sorry for."
"Hey. I think they'd be good for each other," Peri said, wriggling off her boots and sliding her legs into his lap.
"It's what I'd call a high-stakes gamble. Either we'll end up in a new golden age or in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Socially speaking," Danny clarified. "Either way it's the end of the world as we know it."
Peri leaned back and put her arms behind her head. "I thought this was already our golden age."
He smiled at her. "Well, obviously it is. I was speaking more generally."
Peri rubbed the ball of her foot against his crotch and smiled. "Speak less generally."
He grinned and in a sudden movement scooped her up in his arms, started carrying her through to the bedroom. "You're going to wear me out at this rate."
"You love it really - eep!" He dropped her onto the bed and she started pulling off her clothes. He did the same.
"Wait," Peri said. She felt something odd within her, the same drive she'd felt for a long time, yet it was frustrated now, nosing blindly where once the road had seemed clear. Uncertainty swelled within her and she thrust it aside.
"What?" Danny said, startled.
"I want to do something you'll always remember," Peri said. She wriggled her skirt off, stripped down to just her panties while he stood blinking at her, shirt half-on. She smiled and reached for the zip of his trousers.
"What? Oh my," Danny said, his cock springing more fully to life as Peri coaxed it out into the open. He heard her giggle, but there was a tension and a nervousness in it. "Love, you don't have to -"
He gasped as he felt her tongue quickly on him, stroking him. Her hands were unfastening his trouser s and pulling them down along with his underwear. And then he was in her mouth, the faint sensation of her teeth around the base of his cock, her tongue and lips working at him. The power of speech seemed to have deserted him and then all too soon he felt his muscles spasm as he came.
He collapsed onto the bed as Peri went through to the bathroom. He heard the mundane sounds of spitting, rinsing, a tap running, everything the fantasies glided smoothly over. Eventually she returned and crawled onto the bed, straddling him.
"How was that?"
"Oh, Jesus. You didn't have to..."
She rested her hands on his chest. "I told you, I wanted to do something special for you."
"Every time with you is special..." He frowned as she laughed. "It is, I promise."
"Whatever." She curled up next to him. "Let me know when you're ready to go again."
The following night Sarah came round with Peri.
"I just need a break from everything that's going on round at ours," Sarah said. She certainly looked worn out. "It's like a rom-com written by Schroedinger's Cat."
"What?" Danny was a media studies graduate and so only got the first part of the allusion.
"It's like maybe they're a couple and maybe they're not, I don't think even they know for sure."
"You mean Cameron and Joanne," Danny said.
"Of course she does," Peri said. "I told you yesterday Jo was in hot pursuit."
"I wouldn't put it quite that way," Sarah said, frowning.
"I'm not sure we can do anything about that," Danny said. He put his arm round Peri, who rested her head on his shoulder. "Are you okay, Sarah?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"Well - we've gone from being five singletons to one, possibly two couples and you..." Peri said.
"I don't need pity, thanks." Sarah looked amused but there was an edge to her voice. "I always thought that things being the way they were, if coupling up did happen then it'd be one of you or Cameron who ended up on his own. Damn the mutable nature of modern gender, eh?"
"You'll meet someone," Danny said.
Sarah rolled her eyes. "People in relationships say always that to single people. It's easy to say, it's impossible to disprove, it shows they're trying to be sympathetic and it lets them feel good about how sympathetic they are. It doesn't actually achieve anything, though."
"Um," Danny said. "Well, if you do wind up being single forever, you'll always have a couch to sleep on with us."
"That's much more helpful, sweetie. Well done," Peri said, rolling her eyes.
"Us?" Sarah put her head on one side. "Us as in shared living quarters? Are you two already contemplating -"
"Well -" Danny had really only meant it as a figure of speech but Peri's eyes had lit up a little.
"It's something to think about, isn't it, love?"
"Er, yeah." Danny moved the subject on quickly and inexpertly.
While the two women had arrived together, Sarah departed first, leaving Peri and Danny to talk. He was hoping to discuss their plans for the weekend and if possible avoid the topic Sarah had alluded to entirely, but Peri brought it up virtually as soon as the door closed.
"What do you think about what Sarah said?"
"In what way?"
Peri shrugged. "Moving in together."
"Um - I don't know. It's come up a bit suddenly, that's all."
"Just think about it... we'd have our own place, our own bed. We could be together all night, every night."
Judging by recent events, Danny thought, he'd be dead inside a month from exhaustion if that were the case. "Peri, you know how great I think making love with you is... but it's not the most important thing for me."
"I know that," she said. "But we could be together, I mean. Like a real couple."
"We are a real couple. Or at least I thought we were," Danny said. "Are saying we're not?"
Peri sighed. "That's not what I mean, Danny... I mean..."
He moved over to be next her and kissed her. "You've got nothing to prove to me. We've got nothing to prove to the world. We don't have to do anything we don't want to."
She smiled and kissed him back. "Do you want to?"
Danny always found it so difficult to refuse an offer like that, despite the misgivings he still had. He took a quick shower and returned to the bedroom to find Peri naked on the duvet, artfully arranged.
"Let's try something new," she said.
He'd kind of expected that. "What did you have in mind?" He grinned. "More oral?"
"Done that already," Peri said. She rolled onto her front and got up on all fours, wiggled her backside at him. "Care for a little doggy-doggy?"
It had never been a particular favourite of his but it clearly seemed important to her that they try, so he agreed. At the end he got the unsettling impression that she was mentally ticking off things on a list.
"You don't have to keep doing these things for me," Danny said gently as they lay together.
"What do you mean?"
"The piercings. The hair-dye. The oral sex. All the different positions... it's okay. If I wanted any of those things I'd talk to you about them."
"Who says I don't want them?"
"Love, you just seem... I don't know. Like you're trying too hard. I love you for who you are, not what you do."
"I know that," Peri said. But she sounded uncertain.
A few days later Sarah effectively shot Schroedinger's Cat. Long since having grown tired of the unresolved romantic tension around her flat she sent Cameron a text message revealing that Joanne had confessed her feelings to her, and an identical one to Joanne with the key information reversed. (Both revelations were almost entirely fraudulent.) Somewhat to her surprise it did the job and when the friends assembled for their next beer and movie night at the womens" flat, Danny and Peri arrived to find Cameron already ensconced on the sofa, his arm around Joanne.
"Hey," Danny said, very nearly feeling the ground shifting under his feet at this sight.
"Hey," they chorused back.
"I suppose some sort of congratulations are in order," Peri said, hanging up her coat.
"Well, I think Jo's kind of a winner as well," Cameron said.
"Nice to see some things haven't changed," Danny said. "I'll go and put these beers in the fridge."
"So what movies did you go for, Peri?" Joanne asked.
"A couple of Pegg and Frost comedies. Apparently they're supposed to be hysterical," Peri said as Danny went out to the kitchen.
Cameron cleared his throat. "You know, Peri, that's a word that hates women."
Peri looked at him blankly. "What?"
"Hysterical. You know the word derives from the ancient belief that lack of sex caused the uterus to dry up and migrate around the body, causing a number of diseases, and as such it's really directly linked to a patriarchal attempt to use sex as a means of control over women, and your use of it suggests you condone that. Or something." Cameron looked sidelong at Joanne, who nodded and gave him the thumbs up.
"Oh brave new world, that has such people in it." Having returned to catch most of Cameron's lecture, and looking slightly shell-shocked as a result, Danny went over and sat down next to Peri. "Where's Sarah?"
"Drying her hair," Joanne said. She got up. "I'll go and stick the pizzas in the oven."
"So," Peri said to Cameron, "how'd it happen? You and Jo getting together."
"Well, you know how it is," Cameron shrugged expansively. "It's silly, really, but you can be spending time with somebody for years and never actually realise that's you're actually perfectly matched."
"Mm," Danny said. "Sounds like you've been discussing a few ideas with her as well."
"A bit," Cameron agreed. "I've got to say, she's really helped me to appreciate the true complexity of the dynamics of gender relations in the modern world. I feel like I've developed a whole new perspective. And Christ! She makes a bloody fantastic ginger sponge, as well."
"It's fantastic news." Peri said. "The pair of you getting together, not about the pudding," she added as Cameron looked at her in surprise.
"Hello, hello," Sarah said, coming in, hair still visibly damp. "Everyone okay?"
If Sarah felt uncomfortable being the only single person there now, she didn't show it, and the evening went just as Danny had anticipated it would. The films were as funny as they'd heard, the pizzas were just right, and the aura of quiet, if somewhat startled, happiness coming from Cameron and Joanne was actually rather touching.
But Danny knew Peri much too well not to notice that she seemed oddly ill-at-ease as the evening wore on. He couldn't quite work out why, and she hid it well from the others, but there was definitely something wrong. She was subdued on the walk home at the evening's end, to begin with.
"I wonder if Cameron and Jo'll move in together," she said.
Danny had a pretty shrewd idea of where this might be heading, but kept his reply mild. "It's early days for them, Peri. How long have they been together, less than a week?"
"Yeah, but they've known each other for ages. Same as us," Peri said.
"Not quite the same as us," Danny said, almost amused.
"You wouldn't know that from the way people treat us." He was surprised to hear a definite edge of resentment bubbling to the surface in her voice.
"Do you really want to be treated differently by everyone?"
"Well..." Peri shrugged, clearly finding it difficult to articulate her feelings. "I don't know..."
"Love, you're a woman now - no-one seeing you doubts that. They're going to treat you just like anyone else unless you actually tell them you used to be a man. And if you do, you'll just get stared at..."
"Oh, I know..."
They arrived back at Peri's flat and went inside. She sank onto the sofa and sighed, still clearly unhappy about something.
Danny got them both a drink and put his arms around her. Automatically she started to respond but he gently dissuaded her. "This is just cuddle time. We need to talk, not attempt the modified T-square or the bicycle pump or whatever."
She smiled weakly at him. "I only want to make you happy..."
"I know, but there's more, isn't there? You're always wanting to move on, do something new..."
Peri sighed. "I know... but it's just the way I've got used to thinking. Looking ahead to the next thing. When we would kiss, when I would start wear proper womens" clothes... and I've done all of those things now, and I don't know what comes next."
"There doesn't have to be anything special that comes next," Danny said. "Not in that way."
"I suppose that was why I wanted to talk about us moving in together. It would be another sort of milestone for us."
"And then we'd get married, I suppose," Danny said. "And then what? Adopt?"
She shrugged. "I don't know."
"I understand how you feel," Danny said, holding her close. "But you know life isn't like that - it's not a story with a big climax and everything just stopping afterwards. You've got a whole life to lead as a woman now."
"I know," Peri said with a sigh. "You can't just go live from one milestone to the next. Life's what happens in between. The ordinary moments."
"Do you really think of yourself as a woman? Deep down?" She looked at him in surprise and he hurried to explain. "Because... if you do accept that this is who you are, with nothing to prove, with just a normal life to lead... I think it would help."
Peri thought about that for a moment. "I suppose on some level I have been... well, getting a rush out of thinking how much like a real woman I've been acting. I suppose that means you're right and I'm not quite there yet after all. Jesus, Dan, I was a man for so many years..."
"And that's a fact of history," Danny said. "But it's also a fact you're a woman now. Just relax and be that woman."
"I'll try," Peri said. She kissed him. "Want to...?"
"Bicycle pump?" His tone was wary.
"Any way you want," Peri said smiling.
They went through to the bedroom. "Just living like this... I don't know," Peri said, as they undressed. "I'm not sure if I can do that."
"Yes you can," Danny said. "I'm certain of it."
"Why so sure?"
"Because you did it before you changed. I do it. Sarah does it, and Jo, and Cameron -"
"Living," Peri said.
"It's the best way to get through your life," Danny said, reaching for her. "One moment at a time."
"Ordinary moments." She slid into his arms.
"If you want to call this ordinary," he said smiling.
Peri smiled back at him. "I'll let you know in a bit," she said.